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Quality Time

by P L Nunn


Chapter eleven


The reverberating screech of sound clawed its way through the darkness, the first wail of a particularly offensive alarm. Lex obligingly roused at it, thoughts hazed by more than simple sleep. His head was heavy - - his body was, and for the span of a heartbeat or two, he floundered, bereft of where or when or why. Then it hit him, the grim particulars, a moment before the screech barreled closer and the world turned upside down.

The roar was deafening. The train rocked with it - - the boxcar did, impacted from the front and then the back in short succession and sending old straw and dried dung and its single human passenger hurtling towards the back wall, then the side as it groaned and tumbled.

Vision went bright this time, instead of dark, infused with the flare of sparks and pain, then clouded over by the rising fog of dust and dirt that billowed through the slats of the box car's sides as it gouged its way across dry summer earth.

Lex lay there, sprawled like a broken doll in the corner of what had been the top of the car, in the midst of straw and bits of broken timber slats. He was too shocked to feel pain, too stunned to feel anything but amazement that he was alive at all for a few precious moments.

Then his brain kicked in and brought with it a sort of dull panic. It hurt to move - - it hurt a lot - - but he wasn't entirely certain that wasn't the result of a body gone stiff and sore from old wounds. He cursed regardless as he forced himself upright enough to check that everything moved that was supposed to. It didn't feel as if there were broken bones, though there were certainly bright new spots of pain. There was wetness leaking down his face that hadn't been before and he lifted his cuffed hands to gingerly touch his head. There was a gash above his left eyebrow that ran across his temple to his ear. Not deep enough to expose bone, but bleeding profusely nonetheless. Just what he needed, more blood loss.

He cursed again, long and low and inventive. How bad could his luck possibly get that on top of being kidnapped and tortured, he just happened to hop the one train in a thousand that managed to wreck? But then, he didn't believe in luck, did he? You made your own, was the hard learned rule Lionel had driven into him growing up. And though that might be the case with the good variety, Lex was beginning to reconsider the possibility of bad luck being a universal force all its own.

He gathered resolve and hauled himself up enough to lean against the slanted wall - - no, roof - - of the overturned boxcar and stared up dismally at the open doorway overhead and the patch of dark sky it revealed. He wasn't sure he had it in him to climb up there and reach it, but there was a disturbing protuberance of what looked like a section of train track stabbing up through the floor (wall) of the car and a dangling bit of rope attached to the bottom of the sliding door, that was probably used to open and close it from the ground, and with the help of those, and the fact that the car was lying at a slant and the climb wasn't entirely vertical, he made the edge, and pulled himself over.

He perched there for a moment, on the edge, and stared with the awe usually reserved for great catastrophes out over the field of destruction.

The dark shapes of boxcars were tossed like toys, carelessly scattered across a child's miniature set. The wreckage was worse further up the track where the brunt of the collision had occurred, cars crumpled and piled atop each other like so much flotsam.

He dropped down to the ground, rolled on the soft embankment and lay for a moment, catching his breath and categorizing aches and pains.

Something exploded, a distant reverberation of sound, and he flinched, reflexes just shot to hell, before he got his breathing under control and figured it was the engine going up too far up the line to be a threat to him. He pushed himself up and saw the billowing cloud of luminescent smoke, burning oil and dust up ahead. An orange glow that illuminated the worst of the wreckage, cars so mangled that nothing living on board could have survived. If he'd jumped a car further up the line - -

No. Stop that line of thought. He'd survived this, just as he'd survived Rule - -just like he survived every other fucked up bit of ill luck that seemed drawn to him like he was magnetic north for perpetual disaster. He had enough actual's to deal with without going into the what if's.

He got to his feet, took a moment to let a shimmering wave of dizziness pass, and started maneuvering east, along the edge of the wreckage.

The closer he got, the more he was able to see the carnage and figure out what must have happened. A bridge had to have gone out, for it seemed the first half dozen cars and the burning engine were lodged haphazardly in the cleft of a ravine. There were no scurrying survivors, no wail of sirens yet to signal the approach of rescue personal, but they'd be here eventually, to poke through the debris.

If there had been a passenger train - - the loss of life would have been enormous, but there didn't seem to be any car in the mix up ahead that resembled an Amtrak passenger car - - chances were this was a Union Pacific line dedicated solely to freight.

He found himself wading through a field of feathers- - they coated the ground and floated lazily in the air - - and hesitated, a mind that was a little too slow on the uptake from shock and blood loss not quite able to fathom the surrealness of it. There were sacks scattered, hurled from an overturned boxcar, torn and mangled and releasing their contents into the air.

Feathers, everywhere. Floating softness incongruous with twisted metal. He made himself keep walking and his knees almost gave way. The faint headedness wasn't coming in waves anymore, it was just there - - a constant that made his vision tunnel and his limbs shake. He wouldn't be able to make it much further on his own. Find a place, then, to sit/fall down where he'd be seen if he chanced to succumb to the dizziness and passed out.

A bit closer to the point of impact though, because that's where the first responders would gravitate and Lex's own morbid curiosity demanded he get a closer look at the cause of this devastation.

Nearer still and another incongruity struck him. There was no river or overpass ahead, just flat Kansas plain land marred by what seemed a gigantic sinkhole a hundred feet wide - - no hint that the structure of a bridge had ever been there.

Sinkholes just didn't appear in the middle of fertile plains land - - not unless they were created.


Something ignited in the midst of the burning mess of the engine and a smaller, secondary explosion made the ground tremble. Lex recoiled, staggering backwards as a new cloud of dust went up, and small pieces of dirt and rock littered the air. One leg gave out on him, ankle twisting in a rut and he went down on bruised knees.

He blinked his vision clear and saw a figure striding out of the haze. He knew who it was. The sort of optimism that might have lent hope that it was rescue and not damnation had never been a strong point with him. But then again, neither was submission.

Luthor's didn't crumble and quietly give in to fate, even if that was exactly what his body wanted to do. He might not have the strength to push himself up off his knees, but damned if he'd cower.

He saw the glint of metal along the line of a long arm - - the dull sheen of tempered steel, like the durable sort used in railways. He wondered, curiosity waging war with the fear, if Rule had been there, at the brunt of the crash, or even near it. If his altered body had been capable of surviving the devastating impact. He'd evolved since he'd been apprehended, but they'd never tested the limits of his durability to this extent.

The boy certainly would have had to have reaped his havoc from a distance. He'd be somewhere out there in the darkness, waiting, watching while Rule waded through the catastrophe the boy's powers had wrought.

There must have been a service road out there, running alongside the tracks, one that Rule, with his trucker's knowledge of rural back routes would have been familiar with - - It wouldn't have taken much speed to outdistance the lazy pace of a freight engine pulling a hundred plus box cars.

All the boy would have needed was a few minutes to bend the earth to his will and devastation bloomed. The boy wouldn't have cared - - Rule must have been desperate though, to risk such a noisy method of recapture. If recapture was on the agenda at all and not a simple, quick end to a man that would bend heaven and earth, if allowed the chance to see these two neutralized.

If Lex were in Rule's shoes, he'd kill him outright and flee while he had the chance - - but of course, Lex liked to think he was slightly saner than Garrison Rule.

He put on a grim smile, and met the eyes of a madman when they were close enough to see through the darkness.

"All this," Rule waved an arm heavy with metal. His feet sank in to the earth from the weight of his altered body. "Is your fault."

The whites of Rule's eyes weren't quite white anymore, but a faintly lighter steel gray than the dark pits of the irises. His white smile was blunted as well, gone train rail dull.

"Yeah," Lex agreed with that statement. "If I'd had you put down, like any conscionable person would a mad dog - - all of this could have been avoidable. You've taught me a valuable lesson."

"You little fuck," It was a strange sound, when Rule clenched his metal fist. Then he drew it back, and Lex figured the man had decided on the rational route of quick dispatchment, because one hit from that fist would be all it took to crush a skull.

Clark stood in the shadow of a roadside sign and watched police and state troopers scurry around the abandoned state trooper cruiser that had pulled over Lex's Porsche earlier in the day. The Porsche of course, was long gone, abandoned itself it a Super Discount store parking lot, but the investigation into the disappearance of two officers was still in full swing.

Clark himself had gotten this lead from Chloe, who'd in turn called in a favor from sources within state law enforcement to red flag anything with the Luthor scent. The roadside stop had come up immediately and authorities must have contacted LexCorp because a black SUV reminiscent of the one's LexCorp security used was parked beyond the police lines and black suited men with earpieces and stony faces conferred with equally stone faced state trooper brass.

They weren't saying anything useful though - - nothing Clark didn't know already - - which was that Lex was missing, the victim of a possible car-jacking/kidnapping and that there were no leads.

The dogs the state police had brought in to search the area were raising a ruckus and they hadn't even left the scene, concentrated on a spot of ground at the edge of the brush that bordered the roadside. Clark focused his own vision, trying to find whatever it was that had the hounds so agitated - - the moment his vision went x-ray he saw what the dirt concealed. The bony skeletal shape of a hand frozen in the act of clawing towards the surface.

No. No. No.

Clark drew a panicked breath, vision spiraling out of control for a brief moment as fear breached his control. It took everything he had not to rush over there and tear into the earth. He shut his eyes, forced calm and took another look.

The hand was attached to the rest of a skeleton and there was a second one just below, both complete with all the little bits of metal and gear that a state trooper might have about his person. There was no third more familiar figure and for a moment all he felt was relief, before he got a grip and chastised himself for the emotion when there were two dead men stashed in the earth under the very feet of their colleagues.

Aside from strolling up out of the dark and mentioning the fact - - and wouldn't that inspire confidence in a group full of on-edge law enforcement - - he had to leave it to them to follow the instincts of their dogs and figure it out for themselves.

Which still left Clark the same place he'd been before he'd seen the bodies underground - - lost. More than lost because now he knew for a fact that wherever Lex was, he was in deep, deep shit.

Something stirred up the gathered troopers across the interstate more than the agitation of the dogs - - there was a general migration towards cars and various radios blaring out information.

Clark cocked his head and concentrated on picking up the tinny voice of the trooper dispatcher.

" - - Pacific engine 617 eleven miles west of the Smallville junction. Repeat all available personal respond to a major derailment of the Union Pacific freight engine 617, eleven miles west of the Smallville junction off route 33. Injuries unknown - - no radio response from engine personal - -"

He knew where that was. Had watched hundreds of trains chug their way across Kansas farmland, tracks cutting through fields rich with corn or wheat or soybeans. Never once - - at least in his memory, had he heard of a train crash on those long, straight stretches of rail. Something caught in his chest - - some absolute surety that this wasn't coincidence.

He looked east in the direction he knew the railroad lay, and he was there, following the tracks in the air faster than he ever had as a boy stretching his ground bound legs. And there it was, marring the unwavering line of the rail below. The last few dozen cars still stood upright on the tracks, perfectly seated, but rest of the line was dislodged, zigzagged off the track like a snake with a dislocated spine, some overturned, some just forced off the rails by the impact of sudden stop from the front and collision from the rear. It was worse up front, cars crumpled and mashed like they were made of tin foil. There was a great gouge in the earth, a ravine that just shouldn't have been there bisecting the tracks, where the engine and the first few cars had tumbled. Smoke rolled up from the wreckage.

He listened for signs of life and heard the thud of heartbeats. Zeroed in and saw figures on the ground at the side of the wreckage. Pale skin gleamed in the ambient light and he knew it was Lex even before he picked up on the details. Saw the raised fist of a man whose heartbeat didn't sound right - - deep and dull in his chest as if it were heavily shielded.

Clark swooped down, so hard and fast that his heels kicked up dirt at his landing. Between the fist and Lex, who was on his knees and not making the effort to avoid it. He didn't know why and he didn't get the chance to look, because the blow connected with him, as intended and if he'd been prepared for something other than a human backed hit, he might have taken it without staggering backwards a step at the impact.

As it was - - he felt it. Really felt it. He kept himself from tripping backwards over Lex by the grace of Kryptonian born reflexes and caught a glimpse of the man's face that had delivered the blow. The features were certainly human but the flesh was far from it, the dull, brown/gray of weathered steel. The whole of the man was, through and through, the only indication of skeletal structure of separate internal organs denser patches within the whole.

"Clark - -?" he heard Lex gasp behind him and thought of the possible damage done to fragile human flesh and bone had that blow connected with the intended target. It pissed him off.

He drew back his own arm, before the metal man could cock his fist for a second blow and slammed it dead center in the man's chest. It was like punching a man-sized block of solid cast iron. The results were predictable. Cast iron blocks did not stand up to yellow-sun enhanced alien strength. The man went sailing backwards, into the smoking pit where the wreckage of the engine lay.

Clark spun, falling to his knees in the dirt before Lex, drawing Lex into his arms in utter relief before Lex had the chance to draw breath for another attempt at speech. Lex was shirtless and his skin was chill, and wet in places from open cuts or healing ones.

"You're okay. You're okay."

"Clark," Lex's fingers clutched ineffectually at the bottom of Clark's shirt. He was shivering, full body quaking that must have been involuntary because Lex never would have allowed such weakness to show otherwise.

"It's okay," Clark felt the need to reassure.

"Its not," Lex pushed at him, wanting free and Clark let him go just enough to see his face. There were bruises there, marring smooth skin, and exhaustion marred the usual spark in blue-green eyes. There were handcuffs on Lex's wrists, that had bitten into skin and - - god - - almost down to bone. It was hard to tell with all the blood. He reached down and twisted them off while Lex was trying to get the breath to form another sentence.

"Go after him," Lex urged, desperate. "Don't let them get away."

"He's not going anywhere," Clark assured him. He wanted Lex calm. He wanted Lex somewhere safe and quiet where he could gather his wits and tend to his wounds. "He's down."

"He's not down - - not from that." Lex insisted, wild eyed, trying to get to his feet with Clark's shoulder as leverage, staring past him at the place where the man had fallen. "There's a boy who can move the earth - - They need to be contained - - I need to get a team here - -"

"Lex calm down," Clark put his hands on Lex's shoulders and Lex winced, as if it hurt to be touched. It probably did from the look of him, so many welts and cuts and bruises. Clark felt the black anger rising again. Someone had spent time hurting him and someone other than Lex needed to regret that.

"No," Lex pushed past him, staggering a little, like his legs weren't up to supporting his body weight. "Go check on him - - and find the boy. It won't take much to put the boy down, if you come up fast. Do it, Clark."

Arguing with Lex right now, wouldn't do either of them any good, and each minute that ticked by meant the authorities were a minute closer to getting there and if Clark had his rathers, he'd rather he and Lex be long gone to avoid unnecessary questions, by the time they did.

"Okay. Just stay here."

Leaving Lex standing there was no easy thing, but Lex wasn't prone to hysteria and if he was this upset about the metal man - - this certain that one hit hadn't taken him down - - then maybe it hadn't. The man was obviously a meta-human, obviously dangerous and obviously holding a grudge against Lex, so making sure he was past the point of danger was probably a good idea.

Clark reached the edge of the yawning crater. Smoke and dirt still hovered in the air like low-lying fog, concealing scattered debris. He saw a figure at the bottom though, not far from the bulk of the smoldering engine, on hands and knees amidst the rubble of displaced earth and twisted metal. Not unconscious at all, which was surprising, considering the angry force that Clark had put behind the blow.

Clark hopped down into the pit, was a half dozen feet from the slowly rising figure before he felt the twinge. He glanced down at his feet and saw a shimmer of green in amidst the dislodged rock and dirt. A chunk of meteorite no bigger than his fist. He kicked it away, instinct born of self-preservation and it clattered a far enough distance that the nausea churning in his gut should have receded, instead of growing stronger. Which meant there was more, broken loose by whatever- - whoever, according to Lex - - had created this crater in the earth.

He shuddered, feeling that first stab of pain like acid in the veins and saw bits and pieces of more green rock scattered in the loosened earth. To hell with dealing with the metal man here, he thought. What he needed to do - - the smart thing to do, was get out of the crater where he could breath - - get Lex and get out here for the time being. He could track down this man and the boy Lex claimed he worked with later, away from chunks of unearthed kryptonite.

"Not bad, boy. I like a man who can give a decent punch."

Clark was surprised the man had gained his feet without him noticing, but then standing amidst a field of kryptonite debris was a bit of a distraction. The gleaming metal face grinned at him a moment before a fist that had somehow gained the green glimmer of stone amid the grey sheen of steel, slammed into his face.




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