A pleasant surprise awaited Clark Kent when he arrived at school. Lana finally returned to class! She sat on the opposite side of the one-roomed schoolhouse from where he sat, she at the front and Clark near the back despite his “poor vision”. Mrs. Peters kept the troublemaking boys at the front of the room on her right side so she could watch them.
The day seemed to creep by until lunch. Clark hurried outside to catch up with Lana. “Hey Lan! Wait up!” he called after her.
Lana had a good head start but stopped and waited for him to catch up. He enjoyed their talks on the way to and from lunch. It’s how they became such good friends over the years. She surprised him by taking a seat at one of the wooden picnic tables beneath the oak trees out front.
“Huh? What are you doing?” Clark asked. “You never eat at school!”
Lana removed a brown paper bag from her purse and spread its contents before her. “That was before I started living the high life at the Motor Lodge over on 49,” she replied.
Clark looked at her lunch – a sandwich and an apple. That wouldn’t do. “You’re coming home with me for lunch!”
Lana shook her head. “I can’t impose on your mother like that!”
“Well technically we’re staying with Mrs. Jefferson until we build our new house,” Clark answered.
Lana cocked her head and gave him that look then shook her head.
“What?” Clark asked.
“You can’t invite me to someone else’s house where you’re a guest!” Lana volleyed with a roll of her brown eyes. “It ain’t right, Clark!”
“You know Mrs. Jefferson won’t mind,” Clark replied. “She thinks the world of you and your folks.”
Lana dropped her head at the mention of her parents.
Clark felt like an idiot. Lana’s first day back and he had to remind her of her loss. “I’m sorry, Lan. I didn’t mean to…”
Lana sighed. “It’s okay Clark. I know my parents are gone. You don’t have to walk on eggshells around me. I just have to… get used to it.”
The assurance was welcome but Clark still felt like a heel as he sat beside her. “How are you doing?”
“What are you doing, Clark Kent?” Lana asked. “You can’t sit here flapping your gums at me! You’d better get to Mrs. Jefferson’s house or you’ll miss lunch yourself!”
Clark shrugged. “If I was Superboy I could get there in less than a minute and be back in plenty of time.”
“If you were Superboy I wouldn’t let you out of my sight,” Lana giggled.
Clark wasn’t sure whether to broach the subject or not but continued. “You aren’t upset with him that he couldn’t save your folks?”
Lana shook her head. “He nearly died trying to save us, Clark. It was those glowing rocks! I don’t know what they do to him but one minute he was giving the Klan what for and the next he was helpless as a newborn pup. Maybe it has something to do with him being an alien.”
“Like an allergy?” Clark asked.
Lana nodded. “Something like that. How can I fault him for doing his best? Besides, he saved Lex and me from a couple of Klan goons once. It’s hard to hate on someone who makes a habit of going around saving me.”
Clark never considered how suspicious it might look playing Lana’s guardian angel. He could easily give away his secret identity if he wasn’t careful.
“Are you really going to sit here through your whole lunch talking to me?” Lana asked.
“Then at least take half my apple and sandwich!” Lana insisted.
Clark shook his head. “I had a big breakfast. I’m not really hungry anyway. I’m just happy you’re back.”
Lana smiled. “Me too, Clark. Normal is good.”
The two friends made small talk until the bell rung once more announcing lunch was over.
The other kids were buzzing over something when they arrived back in class. Clark wasn’t sure what had them so exuberant but the way they were making swooshing noises and gesturing with their hands he had a pretty good idea.
Clark walked over to a group of boys. “What’s up fellas?”
“Luthor,” Lewis Thomas replied. He was an excitable boy whose family moved to Smallville from Biloxi over the summer after his dad was released from the Army. “We saw him flying over the treetops toward town! We shouted to him to ask what was going on and he only answered that it was something big and told us to hide wherever we could!”
Clark didn’t like the sound of that. What could be so big Luthor would issue such a dire warning? “Headed toward town, huh?”
Lewis nodded. “In that general direction anyway. I wonder if he’s ever going to team up with Superboy again? Wouldn’t that be cool? Like back in the old days of the World War Two heroes!”
A team-up sounded great to Clark too but was much easier when your partner hadn’t vowed to slay you while the world looked on.
“Kent, you look ashen. Are you okay?” Lewis asked. “Mrs. Peters, I think Clark’s sick or something!”
Mrs. Peters looked up and came running when she realized what was happening. She was at Clark’s side at once with her hand on his forehead. “You’re clammy as you can be, Clark. You okay?”
Clark held his stomach. It felt funny, kind of like the time when he almost kissed Lana. “I’m not sure.”
Mrs. Peters practically pushed him out the door. “You’d better get home and have your Momma check you out! Run along now. Such a sickly boy!”
For a little lady, Mrs. Peters sure was strong! Clark could bench press a mountain and she was bulldozing him out of the classroom like a mound of loose chirt. He looked over his shoulder and saw the concern on Lana’s face.
“You should have listened to me, Clark!” Lana shouted after him. “Maybe you’ll eat next time!”
And just like that, Clark’s school day ended. He walked along slowly until he was out of sight and then made like a locomotive toward Mrs. Jefferson’s house. His folks were surprised to see him when he shot through the door.
“Clark?” His mother asked. “Why are you home so early? Is something wrong?”
Clark shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
“Something bothering you son?” his father asked as he stood from a recliner by the window. “You look worried.”
“Where’s Mrs. Jefferson?” Clark asked.
His mother pointed to the door. “She ran to the pharmacy. What’s this all about, son?”
“Some of the kids said they saw Luthor flying toward downtown,” Clark replied.
His mother crossed her arms and furrowed her brow. “So?”
“He told them to hide,” Clark answered. “I think I should head that direction too.”
His mother shook her head furiously. “No sir! I won’t allow it! You can’t go running off half-cocked every time that spoiled brat takes that armored suit of his out for a joyride!”
Clark’s father flipped on the radio in the corner of the room. “Let’s see what WLWL has to say.”
The radio static blared to life and his father soon dialed in the local station.
“… an incredible scene where the sun was blotted out fifteen minutes ago by what this observer can only describe as a gigantic, floating head! And what a spectacular sight it is! The entire downtown is blanketed beneath the menace of its imposing shadow while it hovers one-hundred feet above the courthouse. The underside of the craft resembles a giant jellyfish, with a network of foreboding tentacles reaching to the ground. Some sort of energy matrix is forming between the tentacles as we speak! Who knows what will happen once it is fully formed around the town! Even the big-city reporters on hand to monitor the civil unrest in our area are stunned by what they are witnessing! Pandemonium is the order of the day on the downtown square! The police band reports numerous fender benders with panicked drivers trying to evacuate the area but they’re unable to make it past the glow of the matrix! The Luthor boy arrived on the scene in that fancy armor of his but was met by a strange beam from the craft’s belly that slammed him to the pavement below. He’s just now pushing himself up but he’s staggered! If you don’t have to be in the downtown area, please stay home! Repeat! Avoid Smallville at any cost and pray for those of us trapped in this hellish nightmare! This is Arnell Ledbetter reporting for WLWL news!”
Clark’s father flipped the radio off and turned to his son. “Get down there, now!”
Superboy was halfway to Smallville before his father finished his sentence. His first glimpse of the mysterious craft came from about a quarter of a mile away but the trees prevented him from getting a good view and still fly low enough to escape detection. Once it came fully into view, the unsettling craft glared over the landscape from a pair of large, dark “eyes” Clark guessed were windows of some sort. The pale-blue energy matrix WLWL reported was almost fully formed. Superboy poured on the speed and barely made it through before the energy web closed shut behind him.
Though he heard the graphic description on the radio moments before, Superboy’s senses were ill-prepared for the utter chaos and devastation visited upon his hometown. Large chunks of asphalt littered the street in irregular intervals and resembled sinkholes or craters. The town’s recently-repaired water main spewed a geyser twenty feet into the air. Despite the danger, members of the volunteer fire department were doing what they could to shut off the pressure. Half a dozen cars lay overturned and flames from two vehicles shot into the air. Steadham’s Frame Shop was a heap of collapsed rubble feeding the maw of the largest crater. Fires raged on the east end of the square with no water to put them out. None of the businesses had glass remaining in their display windows. An approaching helicopter slammed into the glowing matrix between the craft’s tentacles and exploded while trying to enter the air space above Smallville. Lex Luthor was face down in the street and not moving.
In contrast to the madness below, the alien craft shimmered peacefully in the sun in evil, hair-raising glory. The strange vessel was everything the WLWL reporter gushed about and more – the Jolly Roger and Skull Island rolled into one malevolent carnival ride.
Superboy was relieved to see Lex push himself up from the pavement. His armor saved him but he lacked the common sense to get away with his life intact. He fingered a button on his wrist and launched a rocket from somewhere underneath. The missile whistled toward the craft but exploded against nothingness before it arrived.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Lex spat. “A force field too?”
“BRING THE KRYPTONIAN TO ME!” a voice bellowed from within the craft.
Lex shook his head. “What the hell is a Kyrptonian?”
A sick knot formed in Superboy’s stomach.
Lex shot toward the craft. Was he trying to get himself killed?
Superboy rushed to his side. “Lex wait!”
Lex slowed down and hovered over the town below. “Well look who finally decided to make an appearance! This thing keeps demanding something called a Kryptonian. Any idea what that is?”
Superboy gulped. “I think… it may be me. I am an alien after all.”
Lex drove a finger into the shield on Superboy’s chest. “And don’t you forget it! If I didn’t want to kill you myself I’d turn you over to whoever is in that ship but no little green men will deny me the satisfaction of one day breaking you with my bare hands!”
A blast erupted from the craft’s underside. Superboy shoved Lex from harm’s way and it slammed into a firetruck below. It burst into flames and tumbled over the traffic behind it before crashing into the front window of the Five and Dime. When the smoke cleared another crater, this one the size of half a football field, gutted the street.
“The blasts are getting more intense!” Lex yelled.
“We have to work together or Smallville’s had it!” said Superboy.
Lex shrugged his shoulders. “Why should I help you?”
“Because neither of us can handle it alone,” Superboy replied.
Luthor glanced back and forth between the alien vessel and Superboy, weighing the lesser of the two evils. At last he turned back to Superboy. “Alright, alien. Let’s do this.”
Superboy nodded in reply but the alliance made him uneasy.
“We could both rush it at the same time,” Lex suggested.
Superboy shook his head. “You’ve had your shot! Now let me take mine!”
He didn’t wait for Lex’s protest. He shot toward the craft with his fists extended. He hoped to rip through the hull and force the pilot to flee Earth and never return. That was the plan anyway. Like Lex’s rockets, he slammed into the invisible shield that protected the strange craft and careened into the roof of Harold’s Diner below. He picked himself up from the floor of the meat freezer and flew back into the fray through the hole he made in the roof. The impact with the force field actually hurt! It wasn’t a “glowing rocks” kind of hurt but more of a jarring sensation.
Lex was at it again, peppering the force field with small ammo fire. It proved ineffective but at least he was fighting! Superboy had to admit Lex’s confidence was inspirational. What great allies they could be with Lex’s fortune, intelligence, and stubborn will. But his heart was tainted by the blood that pumped through his veins. Barring an unforeseen event, his heart would likely get darker with the passing of the years. Another blast from the ship sent Lex through the wall of the bank he saved the day before.
“Must have bats in my belfry to get caught up in a daydream,” said Superboy. Once more he rushed toward the craft but was ready for the force field this time. He was accustomed to holding back in a fight but his only hope was to unleash his full power against the remarkable craft. He slammed into the force field with all his might and rocked the vessel.
“EXCELLENT!” said the voice from inside the ship. “THE KRYPTONIAN AT LAST!”
“What do you want with me?” Superboy yelled to no one in particular. “Whatever it is, take me and don’t hurt anyone else!”
What Superboy could only describe as laughter gurgled from the metallic bowels of the tentacle-beast . “BARGAIN WHEN THE LEVERAGE IS MINE? I HAVE THIS LOCALITY ON ITS KNEES! SURRENDER OR I WILL DESTROY IT!”
The tentacles released from the ground below and inched back toward the vessel. Superboy couldn’t believe how deeply they burrowed beneath Smallville. They seemed to retract forever before disappearing into the belly of the mechanical wonder. The fully-formed matrix it created crackled with a frightening sound. It was as if the town was trapped like a ship in a bottle.
Luthor finally rejoined the battle and lifted a burning car. His exo-skeleton really was a marvelous creation! “We have a saying on this planet! He who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones! But no one said anything about cars!”
He hurled the automobile toward the delicate-looking matrix but brute force was no match for the alien technology. The car twisted and crumpled against it before coming to rest violently against the smooth, flickering boundary. Whatever the energy matrix was, nothing was getting in or out. “We’re trapped like rats in a cage!” said Luthor to Superboy. He seemed genuinely concerned.
Superboy shook his head. “Not on my watch!” He shot like a missile toward the crackling blue energy and slammed into it. He couldn’t break through it but his interference caused it to sputter.
Luthor followed his lead and punched the wall of energy but he had little effect.
“EXCELLENT,” crowed the voice from within the ship. “YOU ARE EVEN MORE POWERFUL THAN I IMAGINED! BUT IT APPEARS YOUR FONDNESS FOR THESE INFERIOR CREATURES IS A WEAKNESS THAT WILL PROVE YOUR UNDOING!”
A nearly-invisible ray rippled from the ship and froze Lex where he stood.
“YOU FIGHT ALONGSIDE THIS ONE! PERHAPS YOUR FONDNESS FOR HIM IS GREATER THAN FOR THE OTHERS?”
Superboy hated to disappoint the alien within the spaceship but Lex was far from his favorite person.
“SURRENDER KRYPTONIAN OR THIS INSECT DIES!”
Lex began to fade away into nothingness, his body losing its corporeal form.
“You don’t have to do this!” Superboy replied. “Surely we can compromise?”
Even while frozen, Lex couldn’t hide the look of sheer terror in his eyes as he began to vanish from sight. It took only a moment before he dematerialized altogether and was gone.
“What have you done with him, monster?” Superboy demanded.
For several tense minutes, the craft remained silent. “HE IS SAFE FOR NOW! BUT YOU HAVE FIVE SECONDS TO SURRENDER OR HIS BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS, KAL-EL!”
What was a Kal-El? Was it an insult, a political movement, a people, or perhaps even a title? Superboy wasn’t sure but something about it felt like right.
“… TWO, ONE….”
The countdown snapped Supeboy to his senses. “Okay, I surrender! Just don’t hurt Lex!”
“YOU HAVE CHOSEN WISELY, KAL-EL!” the ship boomed.
The same beam that struck Lex moments before bathed Superboy in its eerie glow. A tingling sensation washed over him and he realized he couldn’t move. The Earth below faded from view and a moment later he materialized in a cell within the massive spacecraft. “Where am I?”
“Tell me and we’ll both know Kryptonian!” Lex spat from behind him.
Something about the way Lex emphasized the word “Kryptonian” made Superboy feel less than human for the first time in his young life. Sure, Lex had called him an alien before, and with an equally nasty tone, but the taunts never bothered him. After all, his people were used to being called much worse. Besides, as Clark Kent Superboy was anchored to those he knew and loved. But trapped alongside Lex within the alien vessel, he never felt so removed from his humanity.
“Not feeling so super now are we?” Lex smirked.
Superboy whipped around and slammed Lex into the outer wall of their shared cell. “Shut up, Luthor!”
“Or what?” Luthor asked. “You’ll kill me? You lack the stomach for it, Super-Ape but me? I’d slay you where you stand.”
“What have I ever done to you?” Superboy asked. “I saved your life and tried to save your father’s too.”
Lex laughed. “Shall we hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah?”
Verbal sparring would do nothing to free them from their cell. It was surprisingly large, nothing like the tiny jail cells beneath the courthouse in Smallville. It was at least twenty-five by thirty-five feet with the outer wall contoured to match the shape of the craft. It was equipped with two cots for sleeping and a sink with a glass. A soft red glow radiated from an energy grid on the ceiling and illuminated the entire room. Even the walls and floors were covered by the crosshatch pattern of crimson lights. A matrix similar to the one that trapped Smallville ran from floor to ceiling across the front of their cell. They could see out but when Superboy attempted to pass his arm through it, the feedback slammed him into the outer wall.
“Another force field,” Lex explained. “I tried it already.”
Superboy picked himself up and straightened his cape. “You couldn’t have warned me?”
“And miss seeing you get knocked for a loop?” Lex asked. “Please!”
Superboy searched the cell.
“What are you looking for?” Lex asked.
“A way out of here,” Superboy replied. “A control panel or something.”
Lex pushed one of the cots away from the wall with his foot. It hid a small panel. “Like this one?”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Superboy asked.
Lex shrugged. “I found it before you arrived. I’m not sure what holds the cover in place. There are no screws or anything.”
Superboy dug his fingernails beneath the metal lip and tugged. “Perhaps I can…”
“But you cannot,” mocked the same hollow, metallic voice they heard earlier outside the ship. Though not booming as it was before, it was no less ruthless. A door beyond their cell whisked open and a humanoid figure entered the room. His skin was light green and he wore a bright magenta shirt. Black trunks stretched over green pants that matched his skin tone. A white raised collar, shirt cuffs, and matching boots completed the ensemble. Three red discs glowed on his forehead. His empty, soulless eyes betrayed no more emotion than the windows visible from outside the craft, save for a tiny red pupil floating around within each hollow socket. “The cell which holds you captive is equipped with a lighting grid that simulates the rays of a red sun. It will negate your super-strength.”
Superboy tried the access panel once more but it wouldn’t budge. He turned to their host. “Who are you?”
“I am Brainiac, the ultimate amalgam of man and machine,” boasted the strange being, his voice as cold and metallic as his cadence. “And at long last you are mine, Kal-El!”
“Man and machine?” Lex asked. “An android?”
Brainiac nodded. “Aye, human.”
“I don’t know this Kal-El of whom you speak,” Superboy replied, though once again he suspected the truth.
“Do not play coy with me, Kal-El of Krypton,” Brainiac replied. “I have come for you.”
Lex patted Superboy on the back. “Yet another misfortunate you’ve visited upon the fine folks of Smallville, alien! Looks like Chief Parker was right! You are nothing but trouble!”
“Silence!” Brainiac demanded, pointing an index finger at Lex. “You were brought aboard this vessel to ensnare the Kyrptonian, human! You are of no value to me and thus expendable! Kal-El is the prize!”
Lex shoved Superboy aside. “You dare speak to me in such a manner, android scum? I am a human being! Do you hear me? A human being! The pinnacle of all creation! The apex of evolution and a Luthor to boot! You are but a poorly-designed copy of humanity slapped together from nuts and bolts on some far-off world! You will address me as your superior!”
Superboy jerked Lex back. “Lex please! Don’t antagonize him!”
Braniac’s laughter echoed from the metallic hull of his ship. “You amuse me, hairless ape! Perhaps I will let you live!”
“What do you want with us?” Superboy asked.
“I care not what happens to the base primate,” Brainiac replied, pointing to Lex. “It is you that brought me to this backward globe, Kal-El.”
Superboy wondered how Lex felt being on the receiving end of the evolutionary insults for a change! But Schadenfreude was a luxury he could ill afford. He listened intently to the android. “Why me?”
Brainiac crossed his arms and smiled. He enjoyed their game. “You have no idea who you are, do you son of Jor-El?”
Son of Jor-El? Despite their dire circumstances, Superboy longed to hear more. Since he was a child barely old enough to walk, he wondered who he was and where he came from. Many nights he sprawled on his back in a field next to Lana with a twig between his lips and marveled at the night sky. Did he hail from somewhere in the wondrous ribbon of stars known as the Milky Way or from beyond? He often pushed his telescopic vision to its limits searching for even a hint of his origins. He knew his methodology was haphazard and unlikely to yield fruit but he couldn’t stop looking. What was his world like? Its people? Their customs? Who were his parents? Perhaps the one called Brainiac had some long overdue answers. “Jor-El?”
“He was your father and my…” Brainiac paced the room and then turned and pointed at Superboy. A smug grin crossed his lips. “How does it feel Kal-El?”
“How does what feel?” Superboy replied.
Brainiac placed his hands on his hips and rocked on his heels. Was it possible for an android to gloat? “Knowing the truth about who you are is locked away inside the head of your greatest enemy!”
“Torture? Psychological warfare?” Lex asked interrupting. “I approve!”
A shimmering burst of bright orange shot from Brainiac’s eyes and struck Lex in the chest. He stumbled into the cot behind him and flipped over it.
“Lex!” Superboy shouted. He turned to Brainiac. “If you’ve hurt him…”
“Curious,” Brainiac replied. “This human displays nothing but animosity toward you and yet you demonstrate genuine concern for him. Is this compassion a human weakness you’ve learned?
“Compassion is strength,” Superboy countered.
Brainiac wagged a defiant finger. “Strength is power! Power is strength! The two are synonymous!”
Superboy shook his head. “Only to power-hungry despots and tyrants!”
Lex shook the cobwebs from his head and stood. He kicked the cot aside. “I’ve had enough of you!” he shouted to Brainiac. “You will release us at once and depart Smallville!”
“Or what?” Brainiac asked. He gestured and the force field that held Superboy and Lex prisoner vanished. “You will attack me?”
Lex grinned wildly at the sight of the lowered force field. “You just signed your death warrant, pal! Let’s see how you handle a little alien pest control, Lex Luthor style!”
A burst of verdant energy erupted from Lex’s wrist-mounts and struck Brainiac in the chest. The glowing beam didn’t seem to bother him but its very presence dropped Superboy to his knees immediately. His body felt like it was on fire as his lungs heaved for air. The familiar pain was more unbearable than ever without his powers. “Lex! Stop it! You’re going to kill me and I’m our best hope for escape!”
“Shut up, you miserable alien!” Lex spat. “Can’t you see? The red sun rays have stripped your powers! My armor is my best shot at getting out of here alive! And if you must perish to win my freedom and be Smallville’s hero, I won’t lose any sleep over it!”
Brainiac made a show of basking in the emerald glow emanating from Lex’s armor. Finally the gloating display of his superiority complete, he backhanded his human foe across the jaw. “Your toy means nothing to me, but it is improper for you to address a superior in such a manner. Do not let it happen again.”
The emerald beam dissipated as Lex nursed his jaw. “You have the audacity to refer to yourself as my superior?”
Brainiac pointed to Superboy who was still cowering from exposure to the deadly rays from Lex’s armor. “I refer to the Kryptonian! There is a natural order to this universe and your species is little more than primordial soup at this point compared to the Kryptonian!”
Superboy finally made it to his knees but wasn’t yet strong enough to stand. He enjoyed seeing Lex fume but rejected Brainiac’s dismissive assessment of the human race. “Our people fought a war not long ago against those who championed a master race, Brainiac. Genetics doesn’t make one being superior to another; character does.”
“Oh Kal-El, so tainted by the ways of this primitive orb,” said Brainiac.
“For once I agree with Superboy,” said Lex. “You would do well to not underestimate our humanity.”
Despite their dire circumstances, Superboy couldn’t fight back the tiny smile that pushed his dimples apart. “Our” humanity? Did Lex just call him human?
“This useless posturing grows wearisome!” Brainiac announced as he turned to leave the room. “I must attend to repairs of the matrix dome before securing the small town below for my collection. Your interference with the dome’s collection cycle below will force a delay of three revolutions of this planet upon its axis. I will return in half a cycle to slay the hairless one!”
The doors whooshed open and Brainiac left Superboy and Lex alone beneath the haze of the crimson glow.
“What now?” Lex asked. “We have to get out of here and save Smallville!”
Superboy nodded. “And we have twelve hours to figure out how to do it and save your life!”