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LUTHOR'S GIFT


Lois once said she never met a man under sixty who wasn't full of cracker crumbs.  Her language was always more scatological than mine, of course, but rarely more colorful.  I'm a colorful guy.

It took Lex Luthor and me longer than sixty years to reach our wisdom.  Colorful guys have more to deal with than most.  In the process of getting my own act together, though, I figured out human relationships.  No, I'm not going to explain them here.  They are uniformly complicated beyond the ability of a mere superhuman such as myself to express in standard English.  Someday I may come across or perhaps devise a language that adequately deals with the concepts and probability matrices I would have to chart in order to quantify the giving and taking and peculiar emotional conservation laws that determine human interactions.  I will put my analysis into a capsule and toss it through a space warp to some talented scribe on Earth as I have done with this opus you now read, and the person who understands what I explain - and maybe there will be one but certainly not two - will rule humanity and do it well.

Meanwhile, this is a story about the relationships that once inhabited the closed universe containing Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and me and the people who touched our lives.  It is complicated enough for English and the common human sensibility.

I don't think that before she met Lex and me - and she was only twenty-four when she did - Lois ever had a serious relationship with any man less than twice her age.  When, rarely, she mentioned her early male friends they were all people who'd written this or been elected to that or discovered something or other.  As far as I can determine, four Nobel Prize winners - one in economics, one in physics, one in literature and one in both peace and chemistry - as well as three heads of state, the founders of two nations, one "Voice of His Generation," one "Conscience of His Time," one "Father of Modern Philosophy," various idols of millions and I all had Lois in common.  So did Lex.

They're all gone now: Lois, Lex, all the presidents, kings, popes and saints we ever knew.  Even I'm gone, careening through space like a self-sentenced Lucifer in eternal free-fall, looking for whatever made me happy in those days when I frolicked on Earth righting wrongs and stunting sociological development by my very presence.  Now the millions idolize new mortals whose deeds and discoveries no doubt overshadow the meager accomplishments of my Twentieth Century friends.  And certainly somewhere among the human community today there is another brilliant and beautiful young woman or man whose comfort with life in a giant shadow inspires the mortal great to accomplishment.  I hope there is someone like that today, and I send that person my best wishes and my pity: there is no more Superman to take you away from all of that.

The relationship among us, this triangle, was one that had a fourth side.  Also there was Clark.  He was as real as we other three, certainly as real as Superman was.  I have no idea when Lois and Lex finally lost all doubt as to Clark Kent's true nature, but by the time they did it made no difference.  He was more than just a part of who I was.  We were different men with different experiences, different abilities, different knowledge.  Clark was much wiser than Superman was: he needed to be.

When we were kids, neither Lex nor I was an angel.  The difference between us was that my parents were saints and his were monsters.  He was still my hero in those days.  I was Clark one day when I was thirteen and he was seventeen and I found him sitting in an empty corncrib on his father's back lot trying to control the weather.  It was early spring, mud season, and the corncrib seemed to own the only solid ground in town.

"What're you doing, Lex?" I wanted to know.

"What's it look like I'm doing, Squirt?"

"Not sure."

"Picking plums off a chestnut tree."

"No," I said, "looks more like it has something to do with growing the chestnut tree, though."

He peered up at me with one eyebrow raised the way he did when he was suspicious which was almost always.  His raised eyebrow got lost under the bumper crop of curly red hair that lived on his forehead at the time.  "What do you know about what I'm doing?"

I had seen three or four acrylic balloons float off into a high cloud carrying little payloads with them.  Then I had traced the trajectory of one of them back toward this field.  I just figured Lex was doing something interesting.

"I suppose it has something to do with cloud seeding because of the canisters with the 'silver iodide' label that's clamped on those big firecracker-looking gizmos, right?"

"Crude but accurate," Lex said of my observation, and that was high praise.

He was sitting on the ground fiddling with a mess of wires and circuits.  Lex was the kind of guy, even at seventeen, who could sit on the ground in a corncrib and look like he was sitting on a throne.  On one side of him were arrangements of chemicals and little rocket systems and reflector dishes and in front of him was an apparatus of transistors and printed circuit boards.  In his lap he held a console half the size and twice the weight of a desk top.  The console was riddled with switches and dials and a mess of cables came out the bottom of it between Lex's legs.  There was not much in the way of labeling on the switches and dials, but Lex had a memory like mine and he would prefer not to have anyone else figure out what he was up to.

"Trying to work up a late snowfall, are you?" I said and he threw the thing off his lap and stood over me snorting like a bull moose.

"Who've you been talking to?" he wanted to know.

"No one.  What do you mean?"

"I mean I haven't told a living soul what this project is about.  I mean I told my father I was trying to invent an improved milking machine, which is the only way I could get him to give me the money for all this stuff.  You want me to believe some pimply kid like you trots in here and figures it all out just by looking at it?"

Humble, Pa told me.  I had to be humble.  I had these powers, see, and Pa thought it was important that I lead people to believe I was normal.  It was hard to appear to be anything but humble around Lex, but I had to make a better effort at it than figuring out what he had going by sight-reading the chemical and mechanical composition of his gadgetry with my x-ray vision.

"Just a guess," I offered.

"Right," he declined.

Someday I would get better at this cover-up stuff.  Now I tried changing the subject.  "I'm making a Van de Graaf generator for the Westinghouse Science Contest," I tried.

"Yeah.  And?"

"And it's going to generate static electricity and look real cool."

"But what's it going to do?"

"Make little bolts of lightning in the gym. It'll blow everyone away."

"Uh-huh," Lex said and flipped a few switches and jiggled a few dials and pushed a button and the air around us rippled a bit.

And a bolt of lightning tumbled from the empty sky and thunder shuddered the skin of the Earth and I thought the Lords of Karma were stepping down from the heavens to demand my penance for living when the rest of my race had died.

"Something like that?" Lex asked.

"No," I answered.  "Smaller."

What Lex did with his time, and what he eventually did with some success for a living, was come up with ideas: unexpected ways to mix old ingredients and get new results.  This day Lex had what turned out to be a terrific idea.  As it was, all my Van de Graaf generator did was build up electrostatic energy in a little copper ball on a stand - I had recruited an old toilet float for the purpose - until it sent a little bolt of visible static electricity to another copper ball a few inches away.  What Lex suggested was that I use the generator to stimulate plant growth.  In an agricultural community this was an admirable purpose to which to put an otherwise useless curio.

So I rigged up the copper ball to shoot its bolts into a flower pot where I planted a marigold.  I planted another marigold in an identical pot, kept it in an identical setting and didn't periodically shoot this one with little lightning bolts.  The marigold with the electrostatic charges grew more than twice as quickly and Lex's idea prompted the school faculty to send me to the state finals of the Westinghouse science contest that year.  Jules and Arlene Luthor both kvelled; over me at the little ice cream social that Ma threw to celebrate my honorable mention at the state competition.

Meanwhile, Lex built his weather controlling device.  By the end of the spring it had evolved into a big solar dish with chemical sprayers and helium balloon delivery systems.  The balloons also carried gyroscopic navigational equipment and cloud-finders.  Lex designed the system to sit on top of a forty-foot tower in an open field while he controlled it by microwave from anywhere in a fifteen-mile radius.  Notwithstanding what it might do to the ecology of the rest of the midwest, Lex was ready to extend the growing season of the general vicinity of Smallville by several months.  He took the idea to the mayor, who got all excited and called the governor.  The governor called the Army Corps of Engineers who saw no reason not to go ahead with a dry run.  NBC got wind of the teenager who finally did something about the weather and Chet Huntley himself was set to come to town to tape a television documentary on the inauguration of Lex Luthor's sunshine machine.  Then Jules Luthor got wind of what his boy was up to.

Jules was a big man, even bigger than Lex eventually grew.  He worked for a large dairy products wholesaler.  Once upon a time a kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn had told the Luthors that, on the basis of his score on a non-verbal achievement test, their son was a genius.  In fact, many five-year-olds who scored as well on this test turned out not to be geniuses, and many potential geniuses scored well below average.  Such tests were quite good at gauging the more conventional talents of "normal" students but were most inadequate measures of the skills of those either significantly above or below average.  It was only relatively average people who devised the tests, after all.  Unfortunately, in this case, the kindergarten teacher's evaluation of the significance of the score was correct.  The Luthors took the news of their little Alexis' achievement test scores very seriously, and they rejoiced and planned.

Seven years later, believing his son in danger of falling in with a bad crowd in New York, Jules took a pay cut and a new job as his company's wholesale acquisitions manager for Kansas.  Hoping to raise a perfect son who would change the world for the better, Jules transplanted his family to a smaller town with smaller concerns.  The Luthors spent thousands of dollars on a library of books on physics, chemistry, biology, meteorology, behavioral psychology, zoology; every -ology they could think of and none of the -isms.  These were the fabled Nineteen Sixties, as it happened, and no one in this time period seemed to equate "genius" with anything other than scientific prowess.  There was a significant shortage of the social sciences and humanities in Jules and Arlene Luthor's hopes for their son's future.  Maybe they expected to provide the requisite human understanding in Lex's education from their own expertise in the field.  Maybe not.

"Milking machine, is it?" Jules threw a dusty shadow across his son in the corncrib laboratory.

"Oh, hi Dad.  Hand me those pliers, will you?"

Jules picked up the pliers and delivered them with an inexpert curve ball pitch clear through the aluminum facing of Lex's parabolic reflector dish and into a shelf full of chemical bottles.  Those bottles that did not break when the pliers hit, did so when the shelf reached the ground.

"Dad, you idiot!"

And Jules' next move was with the back of his hand across his son's mouth.

"You know where I found out what you've been doing back here with my building and my money?"

"I can only imagine," Lex, on his back, said through the blood seeping from his bottom lip.

"From that mush-mouth Jonathan Kent is where."

Chemicals mingled on the ground and a disconcerting puff of fumes came off the helium tank.

"Love to stay and chat, Dad, but there's a small explosion due here in a moment or two and I've got to make a dentist appointment."

"Hey where're you going?" Jules grabbed Lex by the collar as the boy tried to leave, "I'm not through with you."

"Seriously, Dad, that bottle of hydrochloric that fell on the sulfuric made an awfully nasty stench in here and it's all over the floor and if it eats even a pinhole in the tank of helium it splattered on -"

"So old Kent, who's all het up over this Superboy nonsense anyway says, 'Looks like the networks won't have to make a special trip when they come by to interview Lex, eh Jules?'"

"Dad - "

"So I said, 'Interview Lex?' and Jonathan says, 'Yeah, hear tell CBS and ABC are getting in on it too what with the weather machine you two are putting together.'"

"Dad, if you can let go of my neck and just hold on to my shirt collar I can maybe rip it away and give you an excuse to chase me down the hill so we can be fairly safe when -"

"Lot of foolishness anyway what with Superboy this and Superboy that all over town."

"Superboy what?  What's Superboy?"

"The flying kid.  They gave him a name."

"Flying kid?"

Here, Jules was going to burst into laughter, realizing that his son had been shut away in the corncrib so effectively that he had no idea what was going on in the outside world.  He had no idea that I had made my public debut to a nationwide media frenzy and that for years people would ask one another, "Where were you when you first heard about Superboy?" Now there were two of us, Clark and Superboy.  Soon it would be Clark and Superman, and that was the way I would live for the next hundred years or so.

It was a momentous time in general, and Lex was not even conscious of these great events.  Nor did Lex have any idea, for example, that halfway around the world this week a South African doctor had planted a dead man's heart in a sick man's chest and would keep his patient alive with it for the next year.  Certainly Lex would have found that piece of information of greater interest than my own coming-out.

Jules recognized Lex's cluelessness in that moment and was about to laugh about it, but the realization prompted him to loosen his deathgrip on the nape of his son's neck for just a moment.  Lex bolted from the corncrib, away from the smoldering tank of helium, but not nearly fast or far enough.  Jules followed furiously behind him. That's when I saw them.

I heard it first: the hiss, for just an instant, of helium escaping through a microscopic flap near the base of the tank's lead casing.  It was a sound that did not belong in Smallville.  In the instant it took me to figure out where it was coming from and what it was, the pressure of the escaping gas peeled the flap into a lesion along the underside of the tank.  The tank would explode in less than a second and spatter lead shrapnel for a hundred yards or more and there were Jules and Lex running away no faster than normal mortals can generally run.

I could save only one, and Jules, in pursuit, was the closer to the center of the impending explosion.

I swooped from the sky in a streak of red and blue and scooped my friend's father up in my arms, flying him far enough away from the blast in less than a second that he suffered not so much as a scratch from it.  He did, however, have an instant windburn on all his exposed skin as a result of the friction with the air that I gather when I fly quickly.  I would have to work on that.

Luckily, Lex found a big red rock to jump behind just in time.  The explosion bowled him over but the only shards of lead that came near him bounced off the rock.  A couple of them did leave impressive prints in the hardened clay and I was thankful it was not Lex's skin.

Maybe he didn't see me; maybe he didn't realize his father had been in more trouble than he was; maybe he just wasn't thinking. Maybe not.  What Lex did the moment the blast settled was scoot back up the hill to the demolished corncrib to see what he could salvage from the disaster.

There was more than hydrochloric and sulfuric acid in that mess of chemicals that jumbled together in the explosion. I didn't have time to figure what-all they were, but Lex knew enough to pinch his nose and close his mouth as he ran back into that hell.  By the time I got to him he was feeling his way with one hand through a cloud of noxious fumes looking for who knows what.  His eyes, shut tight, still teared like a waterfall.  I boosted him up by the armpits through the ceiling just before it collapsed on a footprint of ground that included the spot where he had been standing a moment earlier.  He howled something indecipherable and wriggled around in my arms like a squirrel and the damage that would take place that day was already done.

I always found astonishing the variety of responses of people to their first encounter with me in full regalia.  Ma, though she had helped make the costume, started back in surprise.  Pa swelled with pride and grinned and talked effusively for the rest of the week.  Lois snapped at me angrily, then fainted.  The mayor sputtered, then called the governor, which was his response even to mundane surprises.  The governor changed his glasses, peered, grabbed a yellow legal pad, asked lots of questions and took copious notes.  The President squinted, struck that neat-faced, posing-for-a-stamp stance that he affected at press conferences when a question threatened to stump him, then he popped out his contacts, put on a pair of glasses and called in an aide to take copious notes on a yellow legal pad while he asked lots of questions.  Jules Luthor jumped to his feet, spun in the air and ran until he slammed the door of his house behind him.  Lex just demanded that I put him down, broke an elbow hitting me angrily in the chest and jumped up and down with his teeth clenched until he fell on the ground, out of breath.  I think his response to the situation would have been identical even had I not been there, assuming he somehow survived the day in my absence.  He was wholly uninterested in me except as a vent for his anger.

By the time I set him on the ground and he unwisely shattered his elbow, every lash on his eyelids was gone and his thick red eyebrows had a dull, washed-out look.  Something in the fumes in the corncrib had delivered a massive insult to the follicles of his epidermis.  By his twentieth birthday not a single hair grew from the surface of his body.

For a time, he insisted that this premature hair loss was my fault.  Certainly he could have found a means to grow it back, to the benefit of bald men everywhere.  He wasn't interested in hair, though.  What he was interested in was an excuse to hate me.

Here I was, a boy apparently from his own home town, who was the only thing standing in the way of his being the greatest man on Earth.  The greatest scientist, the greatest industrialist, the greatest conqueror, the greatest doctor, the greatest restorer of bald men's hair, it didn't matter what.  There remained the perception on his part and on that of everyone else with whom either of us had even the slightest contact that, whatever he chose to do, I could do it better.  I couldn't help it: I was a strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.  That's what he hated me for.  So he decided to be the world's greatest criminal.

Needing to do something I couldn't do better, however, was not the only reason.

For awhile the hairlessness served Lex well. It made him appear older to the bankers and investors who were the tools he used to turn the minor fortune the insurance company gave him upon his parents' death into a major fortune.  There was a lot of talk all his adult life on Earth, and I expect a significant amount of talk since, that Lex did in his parents for the million-dollar policy he had taken out on them a year earlier.  I have never seen any evidence of Lex's guilt, nor did he ever confess such guilt to me.  He confessed quite a bit in our time together, things he had done that might have been worse, but never that.  In fact, he suffered some hardship to pay those huge insurance premiums for the year before Jules and Arlene careened off an icy cliff on their way back from a holiday in Denver.  He couldn't foresee the future any more than I could, and you can't indict a man for murder just because he wishes his parents dead.

Lex moved to the city the day a buyer closed on the Luthor home in Smallville, less than a month after his parents' death.  When Lex turned twenty-one his personal fortune was within throwing distance of ten million dollars.  By the time he hit thirty Lex was leaving more in tips in the course of a year than he was worth at twenty-one.  That was the year Lois turned up in our lives.  Lex immediately contrived to make her dependent upon him.

By this time, Lex had spent a night in prison a total of twice: once in Smallville when at fifteen he took a shot of whiskey for the first time and found to his horror that he liked it, and once a few days after I first moved to the city.  As Superman, I embarrassed him by turning up evidence that he had negligently - maybe purposely - overlooked safety violations on his yacht the night he staged a harbor party for some local dignitaries including several of his business competitors.  He was more careful after that.

I supposed the same yacht was a safe enough place to be that night when Lex unveiled to the press a painting by Whistler he had just bought from a Japanese corporation.  Clark Kent had been kicking around town in the freelance reporting trade for a few years and the unveiling was my first staff assignment for the Daily Planet.  Lois was almost as new at the Planet as I was, less than a year out of the journalism school at Columbia University and wearing her attitude like a cloud of cheap perfume.

"Y'know, Clark, a lot of people wouldn't have the guts to show up at a do like this wearing a homburg," she let me know.

"Well, I'm a reporter and all."

"And Luthor's an exploiter of the downtrodden and disenfranchised but he probably isn't going to be wearing knee breeches and a ruffled collar."

"Just playing my role."

"Lose the hat, okay, Clark?  And fix your trouser cuffs.  One's up and one's down.  Hasn't anyone ever taught you how to dress?"

"Come on, Lois.  This is a two hundred dollar suit."

"Looks like a two hundred dollar suit wrapped around a hayseed from Iowa."

"Kansas."

"Terrific, Kansas.  Pleased to meet you.  I'm Iowa."

"How do you do, Iowa?"

I loved Lois from the day I met her and I never stopped.  A hundred years to the week after I met her I lost her, the love of my life, and I never returned to Earth.  By then, she was the only reason that I stayed.

The tops of her cheeks shined, just under her lower lashes, with whatever light reflected off her face.  Sometimes I could catch the blue of her eyes bouncing off those cheeks, like the glow from a buttercup a child might hold under her chin.

Super-scent is one of the powers I have always had a lot of trouble turning off.  I am particularly sensitive to people's smells and Lois always smelled wonderful.  Odors do not offend me easily, or else I would never have been able to stay on Earth within a thousand miles of any frightened skunk, but sweet smells delight me.  Wild animals can smell fear and so can I.  Besides being a vestigial reptilian emotion left over from a flaw in the process of natural selection, fear is a pheromone thrown off by the sweat glands.  Lois had all the hardware to produce the pheromone - I checked - but none of the fear.  Not before I met her and not after, not even in the face of encroaching age or the death it finally brought long after it arrived, was she ever afraid of anything.

I am gifted and cursed to remember everything: every nuance, every implication, every tilt of head or limb.  Nearly a century after that day we met, I knelt beside her bed, held her hand and brought her back from the dead three times.  I really believe I did that, and that anyone even without such temporal powers as mine can do it as well.  She was a hundred twenty-four and the only original organs she carried were her brain and her stomach.  Her skin, even though it was soaked in silicon, was sagging and flaccid.  It had no shape of its own over brittle bones. But her eyes still shone, reflecting the light of genetically reproduced optic nerves inside.  She was just used up like the one-hoss shay.  Three times her spirit drifted away and her body approached the pallor of death.  I have seen life leave often, and occasionally I have seen it return.  Each time this happened to her I would take her hand, let my own bend to its shape and contain it gently in mine.  Then I would meditate on her, and love her, and need her.  And life returned.

The first time this happened it was at home, in the penthouse of the Empire Earth Building, and afterward she asked to check in to the hostel.  I took a room adjoining hers and in virtually no time dozens of journalists from all over the settled solar system began to haunt the hallways.  Lois insisted that I treat them politely, though I surely would have done so even without her admonition.  They were our colleagues.

Two days after we arrived she slipped away again and I brought her back again.  We repeated this psychic ballet a third time, four weeks later.

Then she told me she had seen her parents and our first daughter, Kara, and her sister Lucy.  She said that it was all right, that it was time for her to go with them, and that I should not hold her back any more.

"But it will be so long before we are together again," I said.

And she answered, "Only for you, my love.  Please let me do this thing."

So I did.

My hair was still jet black and dropped over my face in a rakish curl.  My skin was still clear and smooth.  My voice was firm and resonant.  I filled my uniform as well as I ever had.  When my union with Lois became common knowledge, the onslaught of young women was hardly bearable.  Beautiful, delicious young women: all colors and conditions of them appeared in my path at my every turn.  Why this began to happen especially after they all knew I belonged to Lois I did not understand at the time.  I do now, of course.

I left Lois' room to tell the folks in the hallway she was gone.  The doctors did not need to tell me; I knew better than they did.  I came out wearing my oblivious mood for them and they cleared me a space anyway, but the questions began before I had a proper chance to speak.  As it happened, I never did speak.

"How is Ms.  Lane today, sir?"

"Have you spoken with her?"

"Has she spoken with you?"

"Has she been conscious?"

"What has she got that I haven't got?"

I winced at that last question and maybe the young hellcat from the CNN national desk who asked it saw the moisture behind one of my lower lids when I glared at her.  Maybe she only stepped back because of the look on my face, but the first whiff of sweat rolling off her skin hit the walls of my lungs like a thunderhead.

In answer, I simply pointed at myself, lifted up through the ceiling and did not set foot on the planet again.

Lois had never feared to lose me, so she never did.


"Miss Lane, is it?" Lex said that night on the yacht.  He had not seen Clark since he left Smallville and certainly he recognized me, but he shoved past me through the crowd as though I were a dozing cow.

"Ms. Lane, actually.  Nice to meet you, Mr. Luthor."

"It's Lex," he told her.  "May I freshen your drink, Lois?"

"As I said, it's Ms.  Lane, and no I'm fine, thank you."

"I can use some more club soda, actually, Lex," I extended my half-filled glass between them toward the bar.

He looked me up and down for a moment in the way he might look over a bug on the windshield of the pace car of human evolution.  He lifted my arm out of his way, casually spilling my drink on a bystander.  "Nice suit, Kent," he said.

"Gee thanks, Lex."

"Ms.  Lane, can I get you anything else?  Pretzels? Hors d'oeuvres?  A villa in the Pyrenees?"

"Perhaps another time," she said.

"A time like Friday?"

"Sorry.  Got a date." Of course everyone nearby was pretending not to listen to the conversation but no one else was making a sound, and everyone out of Lex's line of sight was unabashedly craning his or her neck to hear better.

"With who?  I'll give him a job.  Double his salary.  Station him in Bulgaria."

"I'll convey your offer."

"Triple his salary?"

"So why do you suppose Mr.  Kabayashi resigned so suddenly just before his accident?"

"Mr.  who?"

"Shogiro Kabayashi.  Late CEO of the Yamayagi Hotel Corporation from whom you purchased the Whistler you're unveiling tonight."

"Ah, Mr.  Kabayashi.  Unfortunate business, that."

"And how is it you were able to repurchase the Whistler from Yamayagi for less than half what they paid for it at auction just two years ago?"

"I never released that information.  You have no idea what I paid for -"

"A covenant of the museum sale to the Japanese provided that the work never be insured for less than its market value, Mr.  Luthor.  Lloyd's of London says you paid eight point two five million dollars."

"And other valuable considerations.  It's on the sales contract," he snapped at her before he realized that, so doing, he confirmed her allegation.

Everyone got quiet enough to hear the harbor surf lap the hull for a few moments before Lois said, "So what did you have on Kabayashi, Luthor?"

Soft.  Controlled.  "Eight point two five million dollars, Ms.  Lane," he answered, "and other valuable considerations."

Lois did not betray a grin, did not nod, did not look away from his gaze.

It was Lex who broke the stare, took a breath, smiled and said, "As well as a chronic desire to return an American treasure to America.  Maybe next I'll liberate Whistler's Mother from the Louvre."

There was too much laughter from the company. Lois did not join in.  Neither did I, for that matter, though it would have been more in Clark's character to do so.

"A saucy wench," Lex said.  "I like that.  Come, all, leave us go below deck to cast our countenances upon this masterpiece."

The Whistler was magnificent, and Lex put on a good show.  Everyone got a chance to see the painting up close.  Everyone ate and drank his or her fill.  Everyone wrote a glowing story about the return of an American treasure to America.  No one wrote about the exchange between Luthor and the new girl in town, the latest object of his admiration who would not be had for anything as meager as, say, eight point two five million dollars and other valuable considerations.

Lois had made a strategic error, though.  Lex was now committed to the chase and would never give it up except on his own terms.

Meanwhile, she thought Clark was a zero and Superman was a freak.  In either case, it was probably because of the way I dressed.

I asked her out, or specifically Clark did. She declined and I supposed that if I wanted to be her friend, then I would have to make friends with her.  Guys in the city, however, seemed different from guys in the country with regard to their behavior toward women whom they considered potential companions.  In Smallville, when I asked a young lady to a movie or to go with a bunch of kids to the lake or to a party, she would either say yes and go with me or she would say no and I wouldn't bother her again.  Actually, almost always, she would say yes.  Clark was a popular kid in Smallville.  I don't suppose he would have been nearly as popular if Superboy had ever actually competed in the dating pool: we invariably liked the same girls.  But in the city I heard men saying things like, "I started asking Linda out last night," indicating a customary long, painstaking process of wearing down a woman's resistance to the extent that she would allow a man to buy her a steak and a bottle of wine.  So Clark "started asking Lois out."

I asked her to a movie.  She said she had a dental appointment.  The next day there was a bit less plaque on her teeth.

I asked her to the lakeshore for a concert. She said she had to meet Benigno Aquino for an interview.  The next day the Planet carried her account of the exile leader's hopes for his return to the Philippines.

I asked her to a party.  She said she was already going there with someone.  That evening, there she was on the arm of Lex Luthor, at the charity reception honoring Bruce Wayne.  And there was Clark, nothing on my arm but a notepad as I settled for covering the event for the paper.

That's when Superman "started asking Lois out."

Rather, Superman started behaving in a juvenile, showboating manner in order to impress Lois enough to notice him.  In fact, I expect I did impress her and I do not see how she could have failed to notice me.

She was on assignment in Pakistan the day before the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan.  I discovered the impending crisis because I checked out an unusual concentration of petroleum along the Soviet-Afghan border and I found hundreds of troop carriers and tanks all gassed up and ready to roll.  So I hopped over to Pakistan and advised Lois to grab a seat on the next bus to Kabul.  Before the embarrassed Soviet ambassador could get her repatriated a week later she had the story that would win her first Pulitzer Prize.  She was grateful.

She was covering the conflict in Nicaragua when a company of insurgents of indeterminate ideology misunderstood a translation of written material she had in a briefcase and decided she was a spy.  She spent two hours tied up in the back of a pickup truck bumping over unpaved roads to a secret encampment.  The paper had not heard from her and neither had the American embassy.  I found her, tied up in a chair with a flickering klieg light shining in her face as a lieutenant whose English was worse than Lois' Spanish tried to figure out who she was.  I actually waited until he was about to slap her across the face before I burst in through the wall, caught him by the wrist and flew her back to her hotel.  She was relieved.

She stood in a crowd of reporters at a gate at the John F.  Kennedy Spaceport after millions of people up and down the coast of Florida saw a space shuttle explode in the sky minutes after it lifted off.  I floated out of the sky half an hour later carrying the seven shivering astronauts in a rubber liferaft over my head.  Lois was the one I scooped up out of the crowd for an interview with the crew even before their debriefing.  I had to raise the shuttle commander's body temperature with my heat vision before his blood pressure was high enough to enable him to speak with her.  She was flattered.

It was not long before every broadcast commentator, every magazine writer, every newspaper in the country except for the Daily Planet began routinely referring to Lois Lane as "Superman's Girl Friend," with capital letters as though it were a title conferred by the Queen of England or someone of comparable eminence.  What no one other than our friends at the Planet realized was that she spent all her free time with Lex Luthor.  Lois kept senior centers and children's shelters all over town smelling of flowers with the lavish bouquets from Lex that appeared on her desk every morning she arrived at the office.  She wore elegant clothing and tastefully understated jewelry that, even with a Pulitzer and a couple of book contracts, she could never have afforded on her income.  Clark was friendly with her and once in awhile when we drew an assignment together we would grab a burger or a coke for lunch, but Superman still called her "Ms.  Lane." I could not figure out what had gone wrong, why the most wonderful woman on this mudball Earth was dating that bald, paunchy, arguably crooked rich guy and not colorful, infantile me.

As it turns out, the reason for the situation was not that complicated.  I had never dated in costume before.  I had no idea how to go about it.  There were no rules for falling in love when you were a superman.

Lex knew how to go about it: the customary long, painstaking process of wearing down Lois' resistance to the extent that she would allow him to buy her a steak and a bottle of wine.  And a pair of tickets to the opening of a Coppola film.  And an evening gown.  And a diamond necklace.  And enough flowers to keep every senior center and children's shelter in the city looking like Eden.  And maybe a villa in the Pyrenees, for all I knew.

I was unaware of the private processes that accompanied the transition from "So what did you have on Kabayashi, Luthor?" to the flowers and the clothes and the villa that kept assaulting my attempts at sleep.  For all my efforts to walk among the mortals, to grow an elaborate fiction into the reality of Clark Kent, I was no more capable at this point of living as a man than was a duck decoy of laying eggs.

Lois was looking for the perfect man.  Perhaps I was nothing of the sort, despite my press.  Perhaps she had found him in Lex.

Lex knew what had happened that afternoon that Lois died.  He knew more than I had ever given him credit for.

I was sitting alone on the far side of the Moon around the time night fell over the American east coast when a Lexcorp two-passenger cruiser crested Luna's far horizon.  I remember thinking it came from much further west than it should have been if it had taken off from Armstrong City, which had the only viable skybase on the Moon at the time.  I thought it was lost and in trouble and old reflexes clicked into place.  I got to my feet, ready to rescue whoever had wandered so far from home.  Then I remembered my new status as an exile and sat back down to see whether anyone would really need me.  Somewhat to my surprise, the cruiser landed close enough to kick half a ton of gray surface dust in my face and one of the hatches slid back.  I sat as still as a moon rock.

I could not hear in space, of course.  Even my ears cannot pick up sounds where there is no air to vibrate.  I have become rather good over the years, however, at translating nearby vibrations that I feel through the ground of an airless planet into the sounds they would have made if there had been air.

The sound that this spaceman made against the inside of his helmet, which I picked up through the faintest vibrations of the soles of my boots, was the simple imperative sentence: "Take me to your leader."

"I should take you to the nearest penitentiary, Luthor," I told him when finally I gave the occupant of the pressure suit a once-over with my x-ray vision.  I knew he could read my lips.

"Given the current relative positions of the Earth and Moon," Lex said, "that would be somewhere in Singapore.  Unless you count the brig on the spacecraft carrier parked in the null-gravity pocket where G.E.  is building its industrial colony."

I grunted.  He didn't hear me.

"I'm afraid I wouldn't have much trouble breaking out of either one, old super-stick." He sat down next to me on the dusty rock.

He looked like a prune these days, all withered and frail, but he was unnaturally spry.  He flexed his thighs to take a seat as easily as a twenty-year-old went up for a rebound.  I admired this survival capacity of his and I always had.  By now the company he had founded, Lexcorp, was a publicly owned multinational, on the edge of becoming the first miltiplanetary, corporation.  Lex himself owned quite a bit of stock in it, but he had not been allowed an active hand in managing things since before the end of the Twentieth Century.  He was, after all, the most reviled and celebrated criminal the Earth had at the moment.  He never was much for mincing words, either.

"You look pitiful," the old prune told the superhero at the end of the worst day of my life.

"How would you know?" I snapped.  I did not hate him, had never hated him, no matter how much trouble he caused.  At best, he had been a boyhood friend; at worst, he was a good workout.  He had never, to my knowledge, killed a living soul, and he had done more good for me than he had done harm to Earth.  Maybe he had done some good for Earth as well.  He had spent the better part of the Twenty-First Century, though, using the mere fact that I existed to justify terribly anti-social behavior.  So I responded in kind, at least in conversation, if only out of courtesy.

"You think you're the only one mourning today?" Lex asked me.  "Well here's a large flash for you, Kal-El, Man of Steel, Last Son of Krypton, Mr.  Truth Justice and the American Way, Champion of the World.  I've got something to mourn for too, and I'm an old hand because I started more than ninety years ago."

"What are you talking about?"

"Lois, old Super-duper-man.  Lois."

"That was over practically before it started and it was the lady's choice as I recall."

"Then you recall wrong."

"I remember everything, remember?  That's one of my problems."

"What did she tell you about why she stopped seeing me?"

"What is with you, Lex?  I'm surprised you've already heard she's gone and you're pulling out ancient history."

"Surprised I've heard already?  They're talking state funeral for her, Supes.  Presidents, kings, popes and saints are booking air fare to Iowa.  There are going to be monuments.  Buildings and cities are being renamed for her even as we speak.  Millions of pregnant women with names like Ulrika and Imelda and Yang-Mi are planning on having millions of baby girls named Lois.  And no one knows what really happened.  Not even you."

"What really happened?"

"I fell in love with her, heaven help me."

"Lex, you hate me?  So hate me.  Let me sit here mourning for the loss of the best part of my life and don't give me peace.  But don't expect me to gnash my teeth over the fact that the love of my life was dalliance number twenty or sixty or two hundred eleven in your endless string of dalliances a million years ago."

"I just thought," Lex stood and paced slowly, kicking up gray dust that had not stirred in three billion years, "that now that you've lost her too we finally have something in common."

"You've spent the last ninety years trying to prove you're better than I am," I accused him, "and now you think you can treat me like an equal because I'm in pain?"

"I gave her back to you, Superman.  Back in the old days, I manipulated her into falling in love with you."

"You think I've never been in pain before, Lex?"

"I isolated a pheromone that unlocks the comfort response in the brain.  I found love potion number nine, Supes."

"How about when I lost my parents?  Ever think of that, Lex?  Did you come see me then, or were you off in the city building your empire?"

"I exposed her to it on an automatic stimulus-response program tied to her nervous system."

"How about when I lost my best friend who went off to seek fame and fortune and didn't so much as say goodbye?  Think that didn't hurt?"

"Whenever she was in danger, the love response kicked in.  And there you were to save her."

"You were the only other human being I could talk to on anything like my own level, Lex, and you went sour on me."

"You were so obviously smitten with her for years, and I was so bad for her.  She thought you were like a big puppy dog at first."

"When you started breaking the law just for the fun of it, I almost began to think it was all right to do because you were doing it."

"She started thinking of you as a man.  Then I stopped slipping her the pheromone and she fell in love with you for real."

"What are you telling me?"

"After she left me, I didn't even make much of a show of trying to be respectable any more.  I threw in with costumed criminals, with deluded lunatics, nearly became one myself.  I broke the law because it meant nothing to me.  Nothing meant anything to me."

"Wait.  You're saying that you tricked Lois into falling in love with me?"

"No.  I just made the suggestion to her brain. Chemically."

"Why should I believe you?"

"Go back Earthside and check the lab records. I'll tell you what safe deposit box to look in.  Besides, once you think about it you'll want to believe me."

"Why would you do something like that for me?"

"I did it for her, shithead."

Why would I want to believe him, I wondered.  Because if this is true, I decided, then on the day I have lost a love, I have regained a friend.

It does not generally take me very long to consider the implications of a situation.  The only time I usually need to sit still and think is when I dream and when I brood.  Both are good for my head.  This time, however, it took me nearly half a minute to reconsider the past hundred years of my life in the perspective of what Lex revealed to me.

"I'm not going back to Earth," I told him.

"Neither am I," he said.  "There's nothing there for me any more."

"You aren't going back?" I asked him.  "What do you mean?  Where will you go?"

"The human cardiovascular system is much more efficient in space, Superman.  The skin doesn't tear as easily.  The bones tend not to break.  Space is a good place for an old man to be.  Want some company?"

That was what we decided as dawn broke over the far side of the Moon and a Terran eclipse swept across the sun.  I lifted him under his shoulders and two men ancient beyond belief floated off the northern rim of the Solar System like bottles cast to sea, never to return.

For forty-four more years, as men measure time, he traveled with me, argued with me, discovered with me.  Somewhere in the vast desolation of the far side of the Moon is a two-passenger Lexcorp cruiser.  Maybe humans have discovered it by now, perfectly preserved, untouched since the day we left.  I just hope that among the many monuments erected to the halcyon days of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries that last Earthbound object that Lex ever touched finds a place: a monument to the most reviled and celebrated criminal hero of our time.

 



S!


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words by Elliot S! Maggin
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