On July 22 I posted the Prologue to a Superman novel that I started playing with last October for no other reason than I had the idea and needed to get it out of my system. After a lifetime as a commercial writer, it’s unusual for me to work on something featuring someone else’s intellectual property without there being a paycheck waiting for me on the other end, but, as I wrote when I ran the first part of this, it was a creative itch I needed to scratch.

Superman and all related elements © 2008 DC Comics
SUPERMAN: THE END OF TIME © 2008 Paul Kupperberg

Chapter 1/ Smallville

The blinking halo of light swept across the night sky between McClintock’s farm and the woods that billowed from the edge of town south of Maple Street. The glow sailed against the star crusted October darkness like curiosity in a realm of unfamiliar sensations. It made no sound but would hover in the area for a full ten minutes while the first telephone calls were made to the police. No one bothered dialing up the police station; they called straight on to Doug Parker’s house. At this hour, nearly 11:00 p.m., City Center and all its offices would be locked up tight and everyone, including Chief Parker and the town’s three other police officers, would be home, likely asleep.

Well, a mysterious light in the sky, everyone would agree, was ample excuse to disturb the chief at home.

But there, down in the broad field that Mr. McClintock used for grazing, the halo could be heard as a dry papery snap and the muffled laughter of adolescence.

“Give it more string,” Clark Kent said in a loud whisper as they ran, their way lighted by the shimmering glow sailing a hundred feet above their heads.

“Keep it down, willya,” Lex Luthor said with a laugh in his voice. “This is supposed to be a secret mission.”

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Clark said, turning his eyes to the apparition overhead as light danced on the lenses of his horn-rim glasses.

Lex tugged at the lightweight tungsten wire stretching from the spool in his hands, carefully guiding the kite at the other end into a slow loop in the night air. A battery in the spool sent a small current up the wire that activated a phosphorous compound painted on the kite; a touch of a copper strip turned the current on and off. On. Off. On. Off.

“Yeah,” he said with a grin. He had come up with the compound in the small and undersupplied laboratory in the corner of the family’s cramped garage for just this reason. “They’re gonna freak out for sure.”

“Yeah,” Clark agreed, almost breathless, his eyes following the glowing kite with the intensity of someone willing himself to remain earthbound and not follow it into the air.

“Shh, both of you!” Lana Lang whispered. “I don’t think a U.F.O. is supposed to sound like two boys chatting.” Then she erupted in a fresh peal of giggles, clapping her hands over her own mouth to stifle the sound.

“Uh-huh, it’d sound more like that, I’m sure,” Clark said with a roll of his eyes. He looked at his watch. “Seven minutes, Lex.”

“Plenty of time, pal, plenty of time,” Lex said with studied casualness and an easy grin.

Clark grinned back and, shoulder to shoulder with Lana, watched one of his other best friends pull probably the best prank he could ever remember being pulled in Smallville. It was a perfect late October night, crisp, a hint of wood smoke in the air, a week before Halloween because, Lex explained, who expects to be pranked the week before? Clark couldn’t argue with the red head’s logic. He never could, not since the very first day Lex Luthor appeared in the doorway of Smallville Elementary School’s fifth grade class, a glowering mid-term transfer from Metropolis, torn from his rough and tumble urban world and dropped in the middle of a somnambulistic farming community.

Clark had felt sorry for the new kid and made sure to introduce himself during lunch. By the end of afternoon recess, they were fast friends. By that weekend, Lex had joined Clark’s tiny clique, which also included Lana and Pete Ross, and the quartet had been intact since, Lex sliding easily and naturally into the role as leader of the pack. Clark didn’t mind. Lex was smart … actually, Clark was smart. Lex Luthor was a genius, one of those rare kids so scarily smart that educators have to throw away all the definitions and expectations and get out of his way. In a big city like Metropolis, a kid like Lex would be in special classes, skipping over grades and acing advanced placement tests.

In the Smallville school system, the best the teachers could do was let him follow his own interests and inclinations, especially since he had turned in all the homework and mandatory and extra credit assignments for the entire year on the morning of his second day of class. Clark, who could have done the same thing if his parents only allowed him to actually do the things he was capable of doing, knew how smart that made someone like Lex, who was, as far as Clark could tell, different but not in the same way he was. It didn’t take much longer for Clark to see that as smart as he was, and he never forgot anything that he read, saw, or heard, Lex was smarter. Lots. Not because of what he knew, but because of what he could do with what he knew. The best Clark could compare their styles, he took information and filed it away in a neat and orderly fashion in his memory like facts jotted on countless individual, alphabetized index cards. Lex’s brain took all those orderly index cards and flung them in the air, letting them mix and match however they happened to fall while he searched through them for commonalities and patterns, finding truth and inspiration by processing and ordering chaos.

Lana dug her elbow into his ribs. “Hey!” she snapped. “Time?”

He blinked, knowing he had been doing it again, that thing ma called his “thousand yard stare.” He could gaze off, eyes fixed on nothing while his mind wandered and his thoughts became lost. Pa said it was natural enough for a boy of fourteen; ma was worried he’d get so lost he’d cross the street without looking both ways. The thought made Clark shake his head. She wasn’t worried he would be hurt, but that someone else might be and, even worse, when he wasn’t injured, that his secret would come out. The truth was the worst thing his parents could imagine. They thought if anyone knew, “they” would come and take Clark away from them. As if anyone could make him do anything he didn’t want to do. But ma and pa wouldn’t think that way. If someone from the government knocked on the door, he wanted to believe pa would fight them for him, but he wasn’t sure. They didn’t come more law-abiding than Jonathan and Martha Kent. Clark knew for a fact that his father’s general store was an all cash business, yet his father reported every cent on his income taxes and was known to go to the homes of customers whom he had accidentally short-changed to repay the difference when he discovered the error.

Pa had been in the army, too, and Clark was pretty sure it would the military who came to get him. Some colonel or general yelling in his face, pa might just wind up saluting and handing Clark over, even though he knew, though they never said as much, that images of cells and chains and dissection tables flashed through both his parents’ minds whenever they thought of someone learning the truth.

Clark, on the other hand, could imagine only freedom.

“Nine minutes and fifteen seconds,” Clark said.

“Two more minutes,” Lex said. “Then I’ll cut it loose. The direction the wind’s blowing, the kite probably won’t come down until it’s out of the state.”

“The mystery of the Smallville U.F.O.,” Lana intoned in a serious voice. “This time around, everybody’s going to see it.” She punctuated her announcement with a giggle.

“Don’t you mean someone besides your father?” Even as the words left his mouth, Clark regretted them.

But Lana just shrugged. Since a third grade schoolmate had seen a story in the newspaper that mentioned Professor Lang’s sighting, she had grown accustomed to this particular line of ridicule. “You know daddy wasn’t the only one saw it. Bunch of folks in Grady reported it, and there was that pilot who also saw something.”

And ma and pa, Clark thought. And himself, too, although he hadn’t actually seen the U.F.O. He had been inside it. But none of them ever dared report what they knew. That was part of the truth that was the Kent family secret.

“Besides, this isn’t about daddy. This is just for fun.”

Clark and Lex exchanged grins and rolled their eyes. Then Clark checked his watch and announced, “Eleven minutes.”

Lex flicked open a pocket knife and with a smile, said, “Six.”

Clark said, “Five.”

Lana said, “Four.”

“Three. Two. One,” they said in unison and Lex flicked the blade through the tungsten wire. “Blast off!”

The wind holding the glowing kite aloft grabbed the freed chemically treated fabric and hurled it even higher, a vague, luminescence in the night that quickly flickered and died out, leaving the sky empty of any light but that of the stars.

The friends watched it go, smiling, proud of themselves, then Clark said, in an urgent whisper, “The Chief’s coming up the road.”

They didn’t hear a thing, but Lana and Lex didn’t question Clark’s warning. He was always hearing approaching cars and yelling parents before anyone else. Lex joked that his extraordinary hearing was probably nature’s way of compensating for his being half-blind.

“You know the plan,” Lex said, extending his hand out before him. “We split up, sneak home, and never speak of this to anyone!”

Lana stacked her hand on top of his and Clark slapped his atop hers. Then, with giant smiles and barely suppressed giggles, they melted into the night.

By the time Chief Parker’s car rolled slowly by, playing his searchlight across Mr. McClintock’s field, they were, one by one, making their way through the deserted, shadowed streets of town, each to slip back through unlatched window or cellar door and into bed, where their parents, those that cared, had left them hours earlier.

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