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Chapter 4

Always there have been the heroes.

Achilles single-handedly drove the army of Troy back behind their walls under a sun that was carried across the sky in Apollo's chariot.

Young David killed the giant Goliath with the spin of a smooth rock in a land where walls fell at the sound of trumpets and the Creator of Heaven and Earth spoke through the mouths of men in rags whose eyes burned with the lights of Eternity.

John Henry laid hundreds of miles of railroad tracks over trails blazed by Davy Crockett, who could wring the tail off a comet by smiling at it.

John Kennedy, with intellect and force of will, averted the annihilation of a civilization whose athletes could run a mile in less than four minutes, whose pilots could orbit the planet in less than an hour and a half and whose humblest born could grow up to be president.

And Superman . . .

Real or imagined, the heroes lived; they lived in the world not as it was, but as it should have been.  Real or imagined, the heroes lived under the responsibility that came with the good wishes of those who aspired to what they stood for; lived in a realm decorated with fancies not available to mortal men and women; lived with conceptions of reality more idealistic than those that were practical for their contemporaries; lived by values far beyond the reach of those who walked with feet and lines of sight against the ground.

It was in a Universe where there was a right and a wrong and where that distinction was not very difficult to make that Superman calmed a tidal wave before it washed fury over the city of Metropolis.

It was a frigid day toward the beginning of February.  About a week ago there was a minor earthquake off the western coast of Greenland.  No one was hurt.  In fact, no one particularly noticed it other than a few seismologists who reported the event to whoever it is to whom seismologists report such things.  This information found its way from whoever it is to the news media whose job it was to decide what was important enough for the world to know about.

Clark Kent, the anchorman and associate producer of the WGBS Six O'clock Evening News, reported the quake to his assigned portion of the world in seventeen words during the seventh and next-to-last segment of his daily report.  The Daily Planet told its share of the world about it in thirty lines on the left-hand column of page sixty-four.  The bulk of the world—those who did not watch Clark Kent or read the Daily Planet—found out about the quake similarly from various sources, and the world promptly forgot it.  It seemed a very forgettable occurance, although indirectly it nearly destroyed Metropolis.

Most of Greenland, including the portion mildly shaken by the earthquake, was covered by a glacier several kilometers thick.  The major effect of the earthquake was to prompt a fairly insignificant mass of the western edge of this glacier to shatter into hundreds of pieces, many of which were about the size of a sperm whale.  The whale-sized chunks of ice bobbed in the water a bit, then they floated out to sea.

A hundred or so kilometers east of northern New England there was a nuclear power plant.  The plant contained a fission reactor which supplied power to most of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.  The plant was originally built because of a political compromise.  For several years a group of concerned but politically naive people who called themselves the Oysterbed Alliance—taking their name from the town of Oysterbed, Maine, where their organization was born - demonstrated against the proposed building of the reactor in a certain coastal city.  If not for the intransigence of the governor, the plant would certainly have been moved to another site when surveyors discovered that the proposed town was directly over a minor geological fault.  Instead, this basically swinish governor chose to take an unshakable stand against the Oysterbed Alliance, making them a scapegoat for all the ills of the state in his reelection campaign.  New Englanders tend to be uncommonly astute in detecting swinishness among their political leaders.  He was defeated for reelection by a man who, as it turned out, did not want the reactor in his state at all.  Neither did the governors of the other two states whose power companies would benefit by it.  As a result, the plant was built on a massive platform, floating on tremendous pontoons over the virgin sea.

Six months after the pontoon reactor began its operations, there was a tremor in the town that had been its originally planned site.  Authorities called the tremor an icequake because it was caused not by the fault in the ground, they said, but by a sudden thaw that followed eighteen consecutive days of weather in which the temperature did not rise above seven degress Fahrenheit.  On the nineteenth day, the ground shook suddenly and violently free of the ice.

The marine equivalent of an icequake happened when the icebergs that were loosened by the Greenland quake floated a few kilometers south.  A reactor of this sort, it seems, wastes more heat than it directs into electrical power.  Hence, this reactor spread more energy across its immediate area of no-longer virginal ocean than it generated to provide power for the three northern New England states.  So when a few score icebergs, lately dismembered from the glacier, floated from the frigid waters that dominated the North Atlantic, into the vicinity of the white-hot breeder reactor and the nearly boiling seawater that cooled it, the bergs hissed into water and steam within minutes.

Because of this the sea suffered a trauma, a physical concussion.  The sudden clash of radically differing temperatures in a fairly large area caused the ocean to leap like a cat off a hot iron.

The ocean, as much as air, rivers and mountain ranges, has currents and textures.  One such current, part of the backwash of the Gulf Stream, flows southwest from the vicinity of Greenland to the area of Metropolis.  Generally this current is rather insignificant and had been unnoticed by mapmakers until 1976 or thereabouts.  The advent of the nuclear reactor in the path of this current, in fact, generally had the effect of raising Metropolis's temperature by a degree or two.  This day, however, the frigid sea grew and hissed with an unnatural terror.  The water off the coast of New England was expelling its shock southward through the current.

With no precedent and less apparent reason, a wall of water two hundred meters high and twice as deep, rode the ocean surface to the edge of Metropolis harbor.

Water of that mass and at that height would hit the ground and buildings with the force of a monstrous sledgehammer wielded by an arm as big as the city itself.  Dockworkers, tourists, businessmen and women crouching under biting wind on their ways back to work after a late lunch looked up into the sky.

From the east came a looming elemental monster, a wave times a thousand.

From the west, over the city, streaked a familiar red-and-blue figure, grim, determined, dwarfed by the adversary that threatened to deal the city a crushing blow.

They had no hope of survival, these people within sight of the great wave, no hope other than this man who flew.  Some of them saw the tiny figure accelerate in the direction of the wave, heard the whistle of his flight under the thunder of the oncoming juggernaut.  They saw him, if they saw him, for only a moment, because by the time he reached the harbor he was flying faster than any mortal eye could follow, into the cresting mountain of sea.

As Superman crossed the sound barrier, he lifted his eyes and mind from the city he was determined to save, and he focused all his considerable being on the sea-spawned monster before him.  At a velocity of three to four hundred meters per second he would reach the wave within three quarters of a second; during this time he would be able to shoot thirty or so blasts of heat vision at the wave's front, steaming out holes half a meter in diameter and several meters deep.

By the time he reached the wave Superman was flying chest-first, his body spread-eagled.  The water's downward motion in order to fill the holes burned out of the body of the wave had subtly slowed its progress.  Superman crashed his bulk through the face of the wave at a speed of Mach one and, for an instant that was longer than the instant it took for him to fly from shore to wave, there was a Superman-shaped hole from the front to the back of the wave.  A fraction of a second later the sonic boom from Superman's flight hit the wave in the face.

The body of the wave was rippled with shock.  It could not support its own mass from the distance to the shore.  It was less than three seconds since people in the crowd near the piers had spotted Superman streaking toward the harbor.  They were still looking up at the point in the sky where Superman flew by three seconds ago, and the hero's job had just begun.

Instead of a mountain of water swatting down the financial district, there would be a huge slab of water clapping down on the outer harbor, sending hundreds of smaller angry chunks of water to slice apart the coast.

Superman was underwater looking up.  He saw the wave moving nowhere, standing for an instant before it yielded to gravity, like a mortally wounded dinosaur who did not yet realize that its next move was to fall down.

Now Superman had to begin to move really quickly.

He circled underwater counterclockwise because if he went clockwise he would very likely have created a waterspout.  He circled slowly for the first few milliseconds, nearly as slowly as sound travels.  Then, once he astablished his own internal rythm, he went faster.  Then faster.  And faster.

In a circle whose diameter was that of the dying wave he spun faster.

Upward he moved in a corkscrew through the water.  Faster.

As he cracked the surface, the harbor swelled around him.  Faster.

The mountain of water flattened and spread into the shape of a dish.  Faster.

Its edges rose with his motion like clay spinning against the hands of a potter.  Faster, faster, faster.

By the time the faces of souls lately doomed to drown turned from the fading form of their hero above to the looming force of doom from the east, there was a giant swirling cylinder of water heading into the sky over the harbor.  And the sea was as crisp and calm as the sea could properly be on a frigid February afternoon.

Up, up and away the last son of Krypton corkscrewed above the tallest buildings, above the sparsest clouds, over the realms of the strongest birds.

Then, suddenly, like a ski racer missing a gate, he spun out into the open sky.  He whirled his body back to face the dispersing mass of seawater in the lower stratosphere, focused his narrowest line of sight on the lower part of the mass, and a pair of optic nerves like none described in any medical text on Earth kicked into operation to reflect intense heat off the front of Superman's lenses, searing straight through his indestructible corneas and out his eyes.

At the speed of light, twin beams of infrared radiation—pure heat energy—bored out of the man's eyes at the falling mass that, less than a minute ago, was a tidal wave born of glacial earthquake and nuclear excess.  In the time it took for the water to drop through the radiant beams of heat vision, a great cloud of steam swelled through the stratosphere above the city of Metropolis.

Sometime during the coming eighteen hours, that great steam cloud would freeze and crystalize in the February air.  Countless tiny six-sided crystals of former tidal wave would ride the air and gravity to the ground, and Metropolis would wake up the next morning swathed in a blanket of snow sixteen inches thick.

Like matter and energy, forces of nature cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed and diverted.  A blizzard, the Man of Steel had reasoned as he spun his circles, was something with which the city was equipped to deal.  A killer wave was not.

The streets were paved with slush.  The bus he had to drive this morning was twelve years old if it was a day.  The guy getting on was smiling and saying good morning as though he were someone running for office; instantly the driver disliked him.  Most people in this town actually liked this man with the silly grin and the inoffensive good looks who broadcast the news over WGBS every evening.  As Clark Kent gained his footing on the slippery floor of the crowded bus the driver lurched the vehicle, hoping to trip up and embarrass the reporter whose face unnerved him the way a peaceful afternoon bothers the leader of a marching band.  Instead of tripping Kent, the driver found that his bus was stuck.

Clark folded himself over a seat and waited patiently for the bus driver to conclude that he had another reason to be angry today.  There was another bus, of course, plowing through the snow a few blocks behind.  Nobody on this bus would mind transferring to that one and the city looked rather attractive in white anyway.

Clark Kent would be a few minutes late for work today, but he didn't think he'd mind that either.


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words by Elliot S! Maggin
Made possible by The Church of the Apocalyptic Circumstance