Superman Grown Old
With time, the Man of Steel grew old. His aging was slow, much slower than the aging of an ordinary man, but he aged nonetheless. 40 years on from his first appearance, 60 from his first coming to Earth as an orphaned child, a refugee from the wreck of Krypton, he was almost unchanged. Perhaps there was a greater deliberation in his movements, a greater depth of character than before, and along with it a sense of sadness, but in all essentials he appeared unchanged. His massive physical strength and resilience were as before, his skill in the application of his wonderful powers was if anything greater. 80 years on a few changes were apparent, particularly by comparison with the very first photographs of the young adult Superman. The features were a little thicker, the eyes, always questioning, now undoubtedly a little sad and a little deeper set. Without doubt too the hair was now greying at the temples. By 120 years all these changes were more marked. Those who took the trouble to look, but few did, might perceive that the deep set eyes were now clouded by almost unrelieved melancholy. As more years passed there came a slowness in some of his movements which was no longer merely the confident relaxation of maturity. His reactions were slower too, still so much faster than those of an ordinary man that this was scarcely noticeable, but he noticed it himself.
His friends amongst the earth people aged at the ordinary rate, outpaced him on the road of life so that one by one he lost them, and this was the cause of much of his sadness of latter years, but not its root. Perry, his old editor in his alter ego as Clarke Kent on The Daily Planet was the first, 'Uncle' Perry, irritable, good-humoured, always one step ahead of the game, he died a few years into his retirement, of a sudden coronary on a golf course at the end of a winning round. It was the way he might have wanted to go. Nominally at least, Superman was 45. By that time Jimmy, the photographer then cub reporter and indispensable odd-job lad of the early days had worked his way steadily through the newspaper world until, shortly before Perry's death, he had rejoined the Planet as editor. Lois, his one-time partner as Clarke Kent and almost but never quite his lover as either Kent or Superman, was a housewife and mother, married to a successful engineering executive in Baltimore, grown plump and comfortable, far removed from her old driven, workaholic self. There were 2 children, sons now almost grown-up, Donald Steel, for his father and for the Man of Steel respectively, and Lloyd Kent, Lloyd being the nearest boys name to Lois that anyone could come up with when the confidently expected daughter turned out to be a second son after all. Donald was an easy going man, not one to object to having his boys named, in part, for his dearly beloved wife's old flames.
The break with Lois had been very hard for both of them, yet in some sense a relief. Of course she had realised at last that Clarke, her bumbling, somehow effective colleague and Superman were one and the same, as a child of 7 or 8 finally realises that Santa Claus is just his father, arranging the presents around the tree, filling the stockings and finally consuming the sherry and mince pie and taking a ceremonial bite out of the carrot left for the reindeer. But Clarke and Superman were both equally real, as though Santa was indeed father but father was Santa too, and his reindeer and sleighful of toys truly existed. She continued her sometimes playfully sometimes genuinely exasperated relationship with Kent and if he had been no more than Kent they might perhaps, one day, have made that rare and wonderful thing, a genuinely good marriage, even if they had had to wait until leap year for Lois to propose. Superman seemed almost a figure of fantasy, an idealisation, what Clarke the real, fallible, lovable man might have been, save that he was no fantasy. He did indeed come to the balcony of her 14th floor apartment bringing flowers freshly picked half the world away. He did indeed take her flying, even once to his Ice Palace in the far north of Alaska, the better to explain himself and his origins. More than any of that he befriended her, for she was at first a lonely young woman, spent time with her, talked to her, opened his heart to her, listened while she opened hers to him, gave her wise counsel, made her laugh, laughed with her.
At first she was enormously and overwhelmingly flattered, as what woman of any age would not be, but particularly an ambitious girl of 24, to have sitting on her settee, passing the time of day, eating a meal she had cooked, helping with his keen vision to thread a difficult needle as she sewed on a button, the most attractive, talked-about creature beyond all question in the whole world. If that was not enough, that he should tell her so much about himself and his doings was enormously helpful to her professionally. This was in the early days before Superman became a more familiar, more comfortable phenomenon and he told her all he did not to flatter her but to inform the world at large. A competent, ambitious newspaper reporter was obviously an ideal channel whereby to make such information as needed to be known public, without declaring himself too openly. Soon she had a string of exclusive stories to her credit and as it became apparent that she had uniquely privileged access to Superman she became a celebrity in her own right. Inevitably from time to time and in various ways others tried to manipulate this relationship to their own advantage. She was wise enough to recognise most such attempts for what they were and she never knowingly, of herself, abused her position of trust.
It was not surprising that she was swept off her feet for a while but she was a sensible, hard-headed girl and she soon enough came to appreciate the realities of the situation. She saw that 'S' as she called him to herself needed and valued her company, that for all his prowess he was isolated. She saw that he was doomed no matter what efforts he should make or others should make on his behalf to remain a stranger to the race of men amongst whom he lived; valued, loved, worshipped even by most, hated, feared, manipulated, conspired against by a few, but always different, always apart. There could be no ordinary relationship with him, no settling down to the comfortable family life which above all, after the traumas of her own childhood and her parents' eventual divorce, she craved. There was no telling whether the physical side of things would be possible, or of it was whether there could be children and what they might be like. Inevitably the tabloid press speculated endlessly and without inhibition on all these points. The consensus came to be that unless Superman kept himself strictly under control he would kill any woman he went with. It was also generally thought that any union he made must be sterile. She never raised these questions with 'S' nor he with her, perhaps he did not know the answers himself, perhaps they were too painful. She could guess at least that even if it were possible he would not wish to father a line of creatures like himself, of the Earth and yet not of it, outsiders, different, homeless, or through whom his powers might one day be transmitted to some descendant unworthy to possess them. Their physical intimacy never went beyond a light kiss on the lips.
There came a day when another reporter took sick and she had to fly to Chicago to cover an engineering congress for The Planet. She was now 27. It promised to be deadly dull but the press officer had done her job well and put Lois in the hands of Donald, a capable young structural engineer, who carefully explained to her as the convention proceeded enough engineering, but also enough of the issues under discussion and of the issues behind the issues, for her to turn in an impressively well-informed report at the end of the week. Because of her celebrity, or notoriety, as The Superman Reporter she was able to raise a laugh at question time one day by suggesting that one answer to a particularly knotty civil engineering problem which had exercised one of the speakers would be to ask Superman for help. The Chairman raised a much bigger laugh when he replied drily that perhaps Ms. Lane would like to do the asking.
Donald invited her to the closing dinner-dance and was visibly put out when she told him, kindly enough, that she had her story now and needed to get back to Metropolis. She suddenly realised that this was a personal invitation not just a matter of duty and how much she had enjoyed Donald's company through the week. She accepted after all and they spent a happy evening together. As had already become clear, Donald was a capable, popular man with a high reputation and she found herself being greeted, valued and accepted as his partner, not for her reputation as a reporter and columnist, not above all on account of Superman. All of a sudden it was very blessed to be out of the pressure cooker of Metropolis, way away from The Planet, Perry, Jimmy, Clarke even, yes, even from 'S'. At the end of the evening when it was time to say goodbye Donald did not make the suggestion she had half expected, that she should spend the night with him, and she knew him well enough now to know that he would have made it and had wanted to make it but had held back for fear of being misunderstood. Donald wanted her badly but he wanted her for keeps. He feared terribly that if she thought he was merely looking for a one night stand, as a fitting conclusion to a pleasant week together, she might well accept him at that level but that he would then lose her forever. Lois realised that she loved him very much and she kissed him on the lips and told him so. It came to her that this was the first time she had said that to anyone that way or meant it as she did that night.
They met again at Donald's parents home in Baltimore, then again. Soon they were part of each other's lives and spending nights together was a natural thing to do, but none the less wonderful for that. Metropolis seemed stale and tired now when Lois returned from her weekends with Donald, no longer vibrant and exciting. Her job no longer gave her the old thrill, the rush, the pressure were exhausting, no longer stimulating. Her friends were still her friends but the style of the friendship began to change. It was time to move on. She only once let Donald meet her in Metropolis and the meeting was a qualified failure. Both of them were wise enough to see why and not to resent it. Lois was taken up by her job, preoccupied, irritable, Donald by his, he was seeing an important client and but for Lois would have flown home the same evening. He disliked the big city and would always avoid spending any more time there than he could help. They were like strangers over dinner in Lois's apartment and Donald went to bed with a migraine soon after. Lois had long since told 'S' about Donald. They had seen less of each other after that and their meetings, though friendly had been businesslike, largely confined to discussions of Superman's doings which Lois could write up for the Planet. Tonight she stood out on her balcony in the darkness for a while wondering whether 'S' would come as he had so many times before and half hoping that he would, but the night was empty and eventually she went in to bed, to cuddle Donald and to hope his poor head would be better for the flight back to Baltimore in the morning.
A few months later on a Saturday in mid-September they were married. Donald was a churchgoer, Lois was not. Given Donald's dislike of Metropolis and Lois's lack of any real roots there it did not take them long to decide that the wedding should take place at his church in Baltimore. Everyone from the Planet was there of course. Lois's father was no longer part of her life and Perry gave her away. It poured with rain and the photographs all had to be taken indoors. Donald and Lois instantly agreed that the photographer's offer to re-shoot some pictures of themselves another day was absurd. Their wedding day was their wedding day and that was that. Like life itself, for all that might go amiss, it was not something to be touched up artificially afterwards to produce a false, bland image of perfection. Donald and his best man insisted on having their pictures taken outside in the rain standing in a puddle so that the photographer had to go out too. All three returned indoors to the reception well soaked. Clarke took charge of Donald and the best man and despite a show of fluster and muddle got them quickly out of their suits and wrapped in towels. A few minutes later the suits were somehow dry, warm and pressed and even the battered carnations in the button holes were crisp and fresh once more. By that time too much champagne had flowed for the pair to ask questions. The photographer stayed wet. Later Clarke managed to soak himself in champagne opening a bottle in such a clownish piece of clumsiness that even those who knew him wondered whether it was a genuine accident or whether he was taking himself off.
Superman stayed away. He and Lois had agreed that this was best, lest his presence should attract too much attention and destroy the intimacy of the occasion. During the months of Lois and Donald's courtship he had been out of Metropolis a lot and perhaps, learning what was afoot, he had arranged it so. Clarke too had a series of independent assignments out of town. Three days before the wedding, on a warm late summer evening a little after sunset, Superman landed softly on Lois's balcony and came into her sitting room as she sat making up her veil, one preparation which despite her uncertain skills as a needlewoman she had insisted on making herself. They talked for a while of times past and times to come, a little awkwardly, wanting yet not wanting to recreate the old intimacy, wanting to be close again but differently and not sure how. The conversation faltered and it was more than ever obvious that the awkwardness and lack of self-confidence which Superman gave to Clarke was so convincing not through cleverness but because it reflected something of himself. Lois realised that for all his considerable wisdom 'S' did not know what to say, or perhaps he knew and did not know how to say it.
She took his hands then and told him that she loved him, would always love him, that if she had let herself she could have loved him to the exclusion of all others, and why she had not let herself. It was desperately hard to put those reasons in a way which sounded warm and thoughtful, not calculating and cowardly but he understood, had understood even before she spoke, and set free to speak himself at last he replied in almost the same words. For a while they were both silent, still holding hands, and a great space of loneliness and sadness seemed to grow between them which was all the sadder because neither of them had had the making of it. It existed despite them, because of what they were not who they were, and if it had been at all in their power they would have willed it away. Yet even as it separated so it united them for it was uniquely theirs, their sadness, their emptiness.
At last Superman broke the silence, asking her with a smile what she would like as a wedding present and knowing that she could have had anything, literally anything, even to the moon, Lois was wise enough to insist on nothing at all save what she knew was hers without the asking, his continuing friendship. Then she asked, a little uncertainly, if there was anything she might do for him now that their ways must part, for of course she was resigning her post at the Planet. He asked her to promise that he should be introduced to Donald some time, something which all 3 had almost subconsciously avoided so far, and that one day, if they had any, that he should meet their children. She went one better and promised that he should be a god-parent. She turned to her sewing and for the tenth time that evening managed to unthread her needle. In an instant he was at her side, threading it again. Their lips met, and he was gone.
His parting from Lois marked the end of the only really close relationship Superman had with anyone, as Superman, save with his Earth parents the Kents. James and Martha Kent a farmer and his wife, childless and she almost beyond child bearing years, brought him up after finding him as a baby when his escape capsule from Krypton crashed in their fields in Smallville. In the capsule with him was a pale, hard crystal the size of a man's fist, strangely cold, which Martha Kent hid away for safekeeping at the bottom of her linen drawer. From time to time as he grew older she let the child play with it, but not often because she sensed that it was very precious, it had a wonderful power to calm him when he was upset or angry. She noticed too that when he held it close it glowed with a faint inner light. The Kents rigorously concealed their boy's origins and uniquely of all mankind knew him equally as Clarke Kent, the name they gave him themselves, and for what he was. They did not coin the name Superman, that was what the world called him when at last he made himself known. James Kent his Earth father, a dour decent man, fiercely proud of his adopted son, fiercely angry when he misbehaved, died in the 19th year following the descent of the capsule when Clarke was 18. Shortly afterwards Clarke set out from Smallville with the Crystal, following its then mysterious urgings, eventually to build with it his Palace of Ice deep in the permafrost in the arctic wastes of northern Alaska. There, over 3 years, assisted by the advice of his true Krypton parents and by the immense stores of knowledge encoded in the Crystal, he grew to full maturity until he was ready to reveal himself. But even then, for him as much as for any ordinary man, there remained more unanswered questions than answered about himself, his nature and his place in the world and in the universe.
His mother lived on into her 80's, a bright, determined little lady, always ready with help, advice and a meal, never idle, always full of the Smallville gossip and censorious of local goings on. She preserved throughout her iron resolve never by hint or word or deed to reveal to anyone anything of her unique relationship with Superman. This was for her own sake as much as for his, she saw the risks of disclosure very clearly. She would be endlessly exploited in attempts to influence her son in every way from the petty to the criminal. Leave aside the dangers to herself his position would be compromised, she forever his Achilles heel. She would become forever a focus of attention for every idle, prying newspaper or TV or radio reporter who breathed. She hated the thought of it. She would have no peace, her life would be destroyed. Towards the end she had a small stroke and became confused, rambling sometimes about her son, Superman, so that her nurses imagined her more confused than perhaps she was. She saw one last birthday, then she was gone, peacefully in her sleep one night in early March, her birthday cards still around her, her duty done, her life lived out on her own terms, her great secret safe to the last.
The little Smallville chapel was packed for the funeral with young and old, despite her occasionally sharp tongue her good works had been many and she had many friends. Clarke as her only son, her only child, stood by the grave and cast the first handful of soil on the coffin. Then if ever was the temptation to break his vow, imposed by his dead Krypton parents through the Crystal, supported by a hundred compelling arguments all of which his reason fully accepted, never to interfere in the progress of time, in the processes of natural aging and death. Then was the moment to howl his grief in a voice which would split the skies, to use all his powers without regard to vow or reason, to bring his mother back to life, to health, to youth even, save that she would no longer be his mother, nor the friend and critic whom the congregation mourned. Her old age, her final illness and her death were part of her now, as much as her iron grey hair, her steady eyes, her fund of homely wisdom, her ability to prepare a meal or knit without any appearance of conscious thought whilst briefing visitors on the latest local scandal. Without those things she would not have been Martha Kent. Her death now defined her more clearly than any of them. With death her life became complete.
If she were resurrected by her son's efforts, she would be someone else, a freak, a phenomenon. She could not pick up again where she had left off. The anonymity, the shelter from that Superman business, as she sometimes disparagingly called it, would be gone. Worse than anything would be the realisation that he had utterly betrayed himself, and her also. She and her husband were no fools. They had half-perceived Clarke's destiny and they had done their best to prepare him for it. As he grew older they had given him many thoughtful warnings and more than that from the earliest days, with little thought because it was a natural part of themselves, they had instilled in him a powerful sense of duty. It was in Clarke Kent far more than in Superman that his character had its roots. It was as Kent, long before he was Superman, that he first formulated his Vow, his inner commitment, a simple boyhood promise but with immense implications which even he could scarcely guess, always to use his powers to do good, never harm, at whatever personal expense. Later with experience came a qualifying commitment, never to interfere, never to take action against the wishes of those he sought to help, where he was not wanted. Later still, during his formative years in the Ice Palace when he finally came to realise the full extent of his powers, came an undertaking not to use them to travel in time and to alter the course of history. Even without those 3 years of Arctic solitude, soaking up knowledge, acquiring skills and growing to maturity Superman could still have been an effective force for good in the world from his upbringing by the Kents alone. Without that sound upbringing the Ice Palace years would have been of far less value, might even have been dangerous in giving him knowledge which he lacked the moral strength to use well.
For a moment by the graveside everything hung in the balance, then the moment was gone. He stood by while others paid their last respects then went on with them to the funeral reception in a local hall, a surprisingly jolly affair, or perhaps not so surprisingly, where he renewed acquaintances with a lot of old Smallville friends. Eventually he slipped away back to the grave. It was evening now and the graveyard was empty, the grave had been filled in and the mass of wreaths neatly arranged over the raw earth. It had been a fine, calm March day, warm and sunny with a hint of spring in the air but now the sky was clouding over, a wind was beginning to fret around the graves and there would be rain before morning. He stood for a long time, thinking. His mother was dead, as dead as his father beside whom she now lay, as dead as the earliest people of Smallville in their old graves in the long grass on the other side of the church, as dead as his true parents whom he had never known in the flesh. torn apart in the wreck of Krypton long years ago and light years away, as dead as the earliest creature that ever lived and died and as dead as the last creature ever to exist would be at last, as dead as he himself would one day be, although he could not know when, or how. Life was complicated, difficult, infinitely various, death was uniform, all and always one and the same. That was somehow comforting. He walked away through the gathering evening over the fields that had once been his father's to the little hollow where his capsule had landed so long ago. There he slipped into his Superman kit then flew swiftly and silently back to Metropolis.
After Lois and Donald's wedding Superman continued to keep well clear of them, as did Clarke also and most of their old friends who had any sense. Like all newly-weds they needed time to get used to each other and they could do without intruders. Eventually he invited himself to see them both, and finally to be introduced to Donald, shortly before their first anniversary when Lois was expecting Donald junior, a few weeks before she was due. The meeting, which they had all worried about for different reasons, was surprisingly relaxed, Donald and Superman liked each other immediately and they all laughed at Lois's enormous belly. She never did altogether recover her figure. Superman had feared some strangeness, some tension between himself as Lois's one-time almost lover and Donald, but Lois had blossomed wonderfully in her marriage and still more in her pregnancy. She was very much in love with Donald in a way which was at once motherly and concerned and also deeply sexual, so that he too was relaxed and confident in their relationship, but she was also deeply in love with life as never before and her contentment embraced the two men, as it did later her sons also, drowning deep any doubts or suspicions which might have come between them and brought them together as friends.
Superman dropped by again a few weeks later to see the new baby then stayed away for several months until Lois was pregnant again with Lloyd. After Lloyd's birth he began to visit a little more often. He kept his promise to stand godfather to the boys but sent Clarke, with whom he was still known to maintain a close relationship, to church to their christenings as his proxy. His visits in person he kept private, almost secretive. There were good reasons for this caution. Even the knowledge that Superman was the boys' godfather caused more than enough excitement, excitement which if it were perpetuated by his maintaining too public an interest in them would do no good at all, as he Lois and Donald all agreed. Despite their care there was speculation after Donald junior's christening, renewed with more intensity after Lloyd's that Superman might in fact be the boys' father. On the first occasion a furious private denial by Lois, who still had plenty of friends in the media, was sufficient to quieten things down. On the second, Donald himself took a hand, threatening one especially persistent scandal sheet with a lawsuit if it did not withdraw and apologise. This the paper eventually did with the journalistic equivalent of a smirk and paid into a charity of Donald and Lois's choice a large sum of money about which it then bragged in a banner headline over a somewhat equivocal apology. Despite what might be assumed from its usual semi-literate style, someone on the paper certainly understood how to craft a paragraph of legally unchallengeable dumb insolence. As with anyone with whom Superman was seen to associate, as with Lois in the old days and even now, though mercifully to a much lesser extent, it was all too obvious that media interest could ruin the boys lives. If reporters and photographers were always buzzing around them they could all to easily grow up as spoiled brats like the children of film stars or minor royalty for all the efforts Donald and Lois might make to the contrary.
A grimmer possibility was that the family might become a target for kidnapping or worse as a means to put pressure on Superman. There had been a spate of that sort of thing in the early days, Lois herself had been a target more than once, so too had Jimmy and Perry. He had put a stop to it by relentlessly, infallibly tracking down those responsible so that to hurt Superman's friends became absolutely synonymous with detection and punishment. He pursued those cases with an intense, cold anger which surprised some who had imagined the Man of Steel as no more than a kindly super boy-scout and when the power of that cold, quiet anger became known, the power utterly to daunt and unnerve, the fear of it did more than anything else to discourage those who imagined his human friendships his Achilles heel.
He knew though that this was a game at which ultimately, given a clever enough, ruthless enough opponent, he could be outplayed. It would be supremely difficult, his speed and power of thought and action would see to that, but it might be done. One day he might be checkmated, put in a position where he must choose between a friend's life and acceding to some crazy, wicked or dangerous demand with no way out, with all means of escape or negotiation blocked. The choice would be obvious, he must put the greater good of the greater number first and friendship second, but it would be agonisingly hard. He never wanted to be in that position nor to put his friends at such risk. For that reason there could be no more friendships like that with Lois and a few of his other early friends, both close and open, and the fewer close friendships he established the better for all concerned. He persisted in his friendship with Donald and Lois and with his godfatherhood despite all the difficulties. If they had ever asked him to keep away he would have respected their wishes, albeit in great sorrow, but they loved him dearly and it never even occurred to them to do so.
Superman's early clandestine visits to the young family were unsettling all round. He had to fly in at low level late at night, landing in the garden and sneaking in through the patio doors to avoid detection, which was bothersome and he had always to worry about the risk of discovery whilst he was in the house. There was no possibility of his meeting more than a few of Donald and Lois's most trusted friends still less of Donald and Lloyd's playmates. Rumours might all too easily start to fly. The boys themselves, when they were out of babyhood, had to be sworn to silence about this strange and remarkable being who occasionally came to visit. So many of the world's youngsters had Superman fantasies by now that the occasional slip was easily enough overlooked and within reason it did not matter if the truth was known so long as no great public fuss was made, but this was always the worry. Sometimes he wondered if it was all worth the trouble, but against that was his continuing regard and fondness for Lois and her family and his need for human companionship. Also he knew that in order to continue truly useful to the people of Earth he had to truly know some of them and be known to them intimately as a person more like themselves than unlike, as indeed he was, not merely as a flying demigod, a wandering spirit to be conjured up at need and dismissed back to limbo when the need had passed.
On one occasion to reduce some of the difficulties he tried changing out of his Superman kit into some ordinary clothes. He soon realised that this was a mistake. First and worst was the risk it brought that however carefully he chose his mufti he would at last be identified with Clarke Kent, a persona which he was desperately anxious to preserve unchallenged so as to keep a toe-hold in ordinary human life. Lois would keep the secret no matter what, others might not. Another difficulty when he appeared out of his kit was that rather than making him appear more ordinary it added to his strangeness. At close quarters his presence was always unsettling. Perhaps it was something about the way he moved or more likely his lack of movement, his stillness, or perhaps there was some subliminal aura radiating from him, for whatever reason his non-humanness became far more obvious. In ordinary clothes he was somehow even more unsettling than in his odd, not altogether practical uniform of robe, blue tights and so on, derived from the formal wear of Krypton as worn by his father and his father's colleagues at the time of the planet's destruction. That uniform, mocked a little at first, now stood for him. He had quickly become an icon and the uniform was as much part of his image as the armour was part of an image of St. George or the gridiron of St. Lawrence. Without it he was not merely unrecognisable, in an important way he was no longer himself. To see him in a suit and tie, still worse in jeans, tee-shirt and baseball cap was deeply strange. Dressed as Superman he could be expected to behave as Superman, dressed otherwise there was no telling what to expect. On one occasion wearing shirt and trousers he tried to amuse the boys by floating up out of his chair. In his Superman kit this would have seemed exciting, or funny, in the event it was frightening, even Lois found it so. Lloyd who was too young to worry about such things for himself but like all small children could sense instantly when his mother was less than happy, immediately burst into tears. Donald junior clutched Lois with a scream and hid his head in her bosom. Later, with Lois's approval Superman cautiously tried the same trick is his normal kit, this time the boys were delighted.
After the christenings, by unspoken agreement, Clarke did not visit Lois and Donald and as it turned out they never met again. Clarke sent them vacation postcards and birthday and Christmas cards, usually muddling names and dates and sometimes their address too. It was important to keep in character in all respects and to continue to play Clarke out to his logical conclusion. Whatever that was, he was not yet sure. To some who had known them well at the Planet, this distancing seemed strange and led to speculation that, yes, perhaps they had been lovers after all, a curious inverted relationship in which Lois certainly wore the trousers, and where her undoubted relationship with Superman fitted in was anyone's guess. Certainly if it was a triangle it was the strangest imaginable. It would have taken better knowledge of Superman's private nature, with better insight into the human condition than was likely to be found in a newspaper office, even at the Planet to discern that Clarke's character and Superman's, seemingly so utterly different, matched as closely as the opposite sides of the same coin.
Others blamed the distancing simply on Clarke's natural shyness but certainly it was noted that after Lois, although he continued to get on well with everyone in his usual, slightly bemused fashion, he never again had anything remotely resembling a girlfriend. Nor, despite his continuing friendship with Jimmy did he appear to have a boyfriend and certainly he gave no impression of being gay. In fact apart from his time working with Lois and to no very marked extent even then he scarcely gave the impression of being a sexual being at all. For him, even more than for ordinary mankind, it was the least troublesome option, although not necessarily the easiest. As the years went by he came to be laughed at a little as an old maid, but he retained his good looks, never entirely concealed by the owlish glasses, and he continued to turn in devastatingly good work, reportage, reviews, background pieces, science, occasionally politics when the issues were important, obituaries even, sharp, spare accurate prose, fulsome poetic phrases or whatever else the occasion demanded.
Naturally enough he took over from Lois as the Planet's Superman reporter so that he became the voice of Superman in print, which meant that with only the lightest concealment he could at last speak to the world for and about himself. He covered the Man of Steel's doings in a way which made it clear, without being blatant, that he still had privileged access. Some of what he had to say was disturbing, deliberately so, at least to those wise enough to understand. He always did an anniversary piece, taking as Superman's anniversary his first amazing appearance in the skies above Metropolis. At first these were no more than retrospectives, summarising Superman's known history and detailing his achievements of the past year. With the passage of time he began to pose questions about the future, would Superman always remain on Earth, would he leave, where would he go, would he grow old, die even, when and how. These were unsettling questions, they unsettled him too, because neither as Kent nor as Superman did he know the answers.
He had no particular style because he could turn his hand to any. He always met deadlines, he never misspelt a word and he gave the sub-editors virtually nothing to do. He could easily have fabricated muddles had he chosen, but despite long practice he never liked making a fool of himself and only ever did so to a purpose. Good writing was important to him and he enjoyed it, and of all his achievements, as Kent or as Superman it was his writing which he felt was likely to endure longest and which clearest expressed his personal voice and view.
There came a time when the Planet published a collection of his pieces, despite some mild protestations on his part, and then in quick succession he was offered 3 contracts to write books, a history of the Daily Planet itself, a review of recent scientific advances for the popular market with plenty of illustrations and a companion CD-ROM and, most important, a biography, 'Superman, the First 20 Years'. He thought long and hard about all of this, reluctant to put himself in a position where his shy other self might attract so much publicity in his own right as to interfere with the fulfilment of his many duties as Superman. It would certainly be a strange reversal of fortune, in the past the boot had so often been on the other foot. In the end common sense decided him. In ordinary human terms he had been at the Planet more than long enough. He had become, largely by accident, a well-respected writer. It would seem ridiculous not to follow through the logic of the position he had created for himself. There would certainly be risks but without daily deadlines to meet it would be a lot easier to get away on Superman business at need. What would suffer most would be his social life, such as it was and his remaining friendships, which were almost all bound up with his job. It could not be helped.
It was at this point that Jimmy rejoined the Planet as editor. Jimmy had always hero-worshipped Clarke, he recognised well enough that while he was self-assertive, quick-witted and hard working it was Clarke who had the real talent. He was a born worshipper, he had worshipped Perry too, and Lois, but as if she had been his older sister, there was nothing sexual in their relationship. Jimmy had always been a ladies' man, notoriously so, by the time of his Editorship he was in his third marriage, at least his third as he sometimes wryly put it. Perhaps his own subconscious had told him Lois was already spoken for, perhaps some subliminal, unintended message from Superman warned him off, for whatever reason he never felt more for her than an intense brotherly regard.
He encouraged Clarke, could not understand his reluctance, and offered him the continued use of an office in the building for as long as he liked if he should resign in return for an occasional short article on anything he fancied. That decided it. Clarke Kent, a part of the Daily Planet for over 20 years, as long as most of its people could remember, a part of the furniture almost and some would say about as interesting, save in print, handed in his notice and began a new career as a popular author. It was an ideal arrangement, he had the fresh start which he had so much wanted but he did not have to make an entirely new life for himself and he could easily keep up all his old friendships. Jimmy even offered him a bright new office suite, recently refurbished, high up at the front of the building with a magnificent view over the city but he preferred to keep his poky old room, 'Clarke's Cupboard' as it had come to be known, in an odd corner at the back. It might have been nostalgia. In reality it was because the old room overlooked a quiet back alley and was not itself overlooked and because the window would open, it was not a sealed unit, so that he could easily slip out on urgent Superman business unobserved.
He had considerable success in his new life, which he was careful to moderate, and one of the few criticisms which was ever levelled at him was that in his scientific writings his speculations as to future developments, all of which were soundly based on Kryptonian technology as recorded in the archives of the Ice Palace, were too fanciful.
When Perry died Superman was nominally 45, at least in the sense that it was 45 years since he came to Earth and that his alter ego Clarke Kent gave his age as 45. In reality his neonatal flight across the universe from Krypton in the capsule at near-light velocity had taken about 100 Earth years but because of the distortion of space-time at that velocity only 5 years of local time within the capsule, but that was a largely meaningless figure because the baby Superman had been in a state close to suspended animation throughout. The dying expansion of the red Krypton star which had engulfed all the inner members of its planetary system including Krypton itself might have been noticed by Earth astronomers had they been closely observing the appropriate section of the night sky 5 years before the arrival of the capsule. The Krypton star being small, seemingly insignificant, partially obscured by interstellar dust clouds and about 90 light-years distant and the fatal expansion, in absolute astrophysical terms, trivial it was not noticed. Although careful detective work later eventually suggested the Krypton system as Superman's origin to a fair degree of likelihood there was never any certainty and Superman himself, although of course he knew well enough, remained silent.
His mother died when he was nominally 50. For 13 years after that his personal life brought no great upsets and a fair measure of real happiness. He watched Lois and Donald's boys grow up and played a part in their upbringing, as Clarke Kent he succeeded well in his new rôle as an author. He continued to render useful service to the world as Superman but he was careful to pace himself now, to choose what he would and would not do. He had realised very early that there was no point in attempting what was impossible, even for him, to be everywhere and to do everything, despite demands from the public, sometimes strident and ill-tempered, that he should do exactly that. At first this anger and criticism surprised and deeply upset him. He quickly came to realise that assistance once provided, from whatever quarter, however unexpectedly and however wonderful, miraculous, it seemed to begin with, rapidly came to be expected as the norm, even as a right. The resentment when it did not materialise would often then outweigh the gratitude when it did. Once the novelty of his first amazing achievements wore off, which happened very quickly, he was bombarded with demands for assistance, many of numbing triviality.
After the early years when he was keen to test himself as often and in as many situations as possible he concentrated more and more on strategic scientific and civil engineering tasks and on preventing and relieving natural disasters and less and less on crime, save by special request. Donald was now a senior and respected figure in the engineering world and he and Superman often found themselves collaborating professionally. Now and again he would collar a wrongdoer whom he happened upon by accident or help to prevent or investigate some major crime but no longer did he go out on patrol above the streets of Metropolis like some airborne beat policeman.
By the time Superman was 64 Donald junior was an engineer like his father, married with 2 delightful small daughters. Lloyd was less conformist, less balanced, more original, there was more of Lois in him. As the younger brother by only a little he had always been in direct competition with Donald but he had always been at a disadvantage, he had always had to run to keep up, and it showed. His father recognised his quality but easy-going as he was, as Lloyd grew older he had found it harder and harder to tolerate his fierce determination to have his own way. For a long time they were not the best of friends. Everyone wrestled life differently, Lloyd's way was very much his own, several times his grip slipped and he took some heavy falls. After a miserable spell in his 20's when through bad luck and his own cross-grained character combined everything possible went wrong for him, including a leg badly broken in a motor-cycle accident, he was now settling down as a freelance artist and designer. His talents, when he applied himself productively, were considerable. Despite a series of relationships, some disastrous, he remained determinedly unmarried but his latest girlfriend had been with him for nearly 2 years now and seemed to have the measure of him. She reminded Superman very much of Lois as he had first known her, calmer and quieter but with similar good looks, the same steady gaze and the same ability first to charm then unobtrusively to organise the men in her life.
Superman retained an interest in the boys but increasingly it became an interest at a distance. As with any godparent or favourite uncle, by degrees they grew out of him and he allowed this to happen. He felt the same old familiar reluctance to make those associated with him celebrities, martyrs to the media, to the prying public, for his sake, their private lives twisted and ruined. There was the same old familiar fear too, that they might be kidnapped, manipulated, exploited, harmed for his sake. The world remained in many of its aspects an ugly vicious place, it would remain so forever, as it would remain also in as many other ways kindly and beautiful. The two aspects were inseparable. The old lesson which he had taught in the early days, that those who sought to injure his friends or him through them would never, ever be allowed to get away with it, was now firmly part of the Superman myth. There remained the risk though, always, that sooner or later someone, greedy, stupid, desperate, mentally unbalanced, any or all of those, would be tempted to try the strength of that myth. It was a risk he must do his best to minimise. It was something which his close friends, Lois, Donald and a few others accepted in continuing their friendship. It was not something which he should impose unasked on his godsons, still less on their families. Accordingly, sadly, for he loved the boys and longed to renew with their children the relationship he had once had with them, he held off.
He hated those who deliberately spoilt the world for their own ends and especially those who deliberately or by selfish carelessness hurt their fellow human beings. It was that much worse if it was something into which he had put effort of his own that was spoilt or a friend of his who was hurt. To him as to any ordinary man these seemed the worst of crimes. He was never unjust in his hatred, never cruel to those who excited it but so far as the laws of the world which he was committed to uphold allowed he pursued them nonetheless. He was never cruel, he never injured unless it was absolutely unavoidable and then never more than was avoidable. He never killed, ever. It was not in his nature, his upbringing by the Kents had ensured that, besides not to kill was part of his fundamental vow to humanity, stipulated by his Krypton parents. He went to extraordinary lengths to prevent deaths, as much of the wrongdoers whom he occasionally pursued as of their victims, or the victims of accidents to which he was called. With his speed, his power and his rapid thinking he almost always succeeded and when, rarely, he failed it was an occasion for much heart-searching and regret. He would analyse and re-analyse how he might have handled the situation better, even after his logic and his common sense alike told him that he had done as well as he could.
The world often wondered why he so much regretted and tried to avoid injuring or killing the dangerous criminals, terrorists and hostage-takers whom from time to time he was called upon to tackle. They were useless were they not, worse than useless, unfit to share the planet's resources, unfit to breed, to seed their defective genes down the years to trouble later generations. Did they not deserve to suffer and to die, doing so to know that they had failed, as an example and a warning to others. A man who would plant a bomb to explode in a crowded street, who could shell or order the shelling of a busy market place, who could run a factory with such self-serving negligence that it leaked deadly poison did not deserve to be regarded as a man any longer. He was merely a thing, a filthy, defective thing which deserved to be obliterated. There were some who said more, that this thing still represented a heart, lungs, kidneys, a liver, corneas and various other bits and pieces which could be taken and transplanted into proper human beings who needed them and some good done thereby to redress the harm the thing had done. It was an attractive notion. Superman's answer was always the same. Punish, yes, but never cruelly. Restrain and prevent, yes, even to the extent of imprisonment in solitary confinement for the remainder of the offender's entire life, but always leave open the opportunity for individual, inner reform, for a change of mind and heart, for sorrow, apology, forgiveness. They may never come, in many instances they will never come, but to reply to the wrongdoer in the same language of callous cruelty as he himself uses is to confirm the legitimacy of that language. It was a language which the world must try to unlearn. It was not a language which Superman chose to speak.
The years of comparative happiness came to and end. Superman, Kent at least, was nearing 65. On one of his visits to Lois and Donald he saw that Lois was no longer her usual healthy self, she looked drawn and tired and she had lost weight. Questioned gently she admitted to a growing sense of lassitude, to aches and pains, to feeling suddenly old, although she was only 63. He perceived that she had a cancer. He perceived also that it could not be cured. He advised her to seek medical advice of course, not voicing his fears, his knowledge. She knew him well enough to guess the truth, which she had half guessed already, and for a little while longer she did nothing, but eventually when Donald also pressed her she resisted no longer. Surgery and chemotherapy brought a few wonderful months of remission, then she went quickly downhill again and although she was offered further treatment she declined. There was a point beyond which to cling to life artificially ceased to be strong and brave and became undignified, weak and futile, when the personal cost of attempting to hang on became greater than that of letting oneself slip quietly away. As with his mother before, Superman knew well enough that by using all his resources and breaking his vows he might save her and this added to his agony of mind. Once saved she would live forever, or at least for a very long time, and she would face the same bleak future that he clearly foresaw for himself, of carrying on and on while her family and friends aged and died around her, unless he saved them too, and then where would it end. A time might come when she would wish to die indeed, and she would only be able to do so by his leave. He had faced up to all of this in thought a thousand times over the years but it scarcely helped.
At last it was Lois herself, seeing his distress and its cause, who consoled him. Lying in her hospice bed 2 nights before she died, pale and wasted, her hair ruined by the chemotherapy her eyes staring now from the gaunt wreckage of her once lovely face but still undeniably Lois, she gripped his hand with sudden surprising strength and made him look at her. She told him, choosing her words with infinite care and speaking slowly and quietly because of her exhaustion, that she knew he could have saved her, that she knew why he had not, that she utterly and to the end accepted his reasons and his decision because she understood, because she shared his thoughts, his hopes, his fears, his uncertainties, always had since their very first meeting and all down the years ever since, because she loved him. Then she kissed him and then with a very straight look and a little smile called him Clarke and kissed him again. He could think of nothing at all to say, there was no need, only looked at her. Then she sent him away and with a last goodbye he floated away silently through her open window into the night. No-one knew he had been with her. He did not see her alive again.
Donald was inconsolable at first and he and Superman spent a lot of time together grieving, talking of Lois and of old times, supporting each other. During those weeks, more than at any time since his childhood, Superman felt almost entirely human. His superior powers meant nothing. His grief and Donald's were as one. In time their wounds healed, the strength of their relationship with Lois saw to that, but Superman who had less to fall back on, less people less friendships, was left with a great sense of emptiness.
He began to dream a lot, strange disturbing dreams. It was always half dark, at first there were people but they were strangers who paid him little attention, after a while they went away and left him alone and it grew darker. Mostly he was in some unknown place, occasionally somewhere he thought he recognised, but it was always the wrong place. He knew that he should be somewhere else, but why and where that was and how to get there he never knew. As the light faded he grew more and more anxious, eventually frightened. Time was running out. He must get away, must get to where he was meant to be. It became utterly dark. Then he awoke. Even awake the atmosphere of the dream would stay with him for a while, the lostness, the urgency, the fear, the utter loneliness. Sometimes the dream would return a second time in the same night, it was always different and always dreadfully the same. Then the dreams stopped, suddenly, and he slept peacefully again but they left something in his waking mind, a recollection of that disquieting atmosphere which he would stumble across accidentally from time to time in the course of his thoughts.
Donald was 67 and retired now, a pillar of the local community, capable and self-sufficient but companionable and outgoing too. It came as no great surprise and seemed no insult to Lois's memory when 18 months after her death he remarried a comfortable widow 2 years his junior. Save that she too was a kindly, good-humoured woman she was as unlike Lois as it was reasonably possible to be but she and Donald were very contented together. They sold the big house in which Donald and Lois had lived ever since their marriage and which held so many memories and moved to a smaller place, a bungalow with a large garden where Donald set about constructing a magnificent model railway with scale models of all the many bridges and other structures he had built during his career, many with Superman's help. Superman occasionally visited him there and gave him some assistance with the heavier aspects of his construction works so that the neighbours wondered that they had come on so quickly but without Lois things were no longer the same. For all her many good qualities and although she was friendly enough, Donald's second wife felt uncomfortable with Superman and did not altogether welcome his visits so that he made them less and less often. Clarke still sent Christmas cards, still wrongly addressed as often as not and often too late to arrive by Christmas, but the connection with Lois and the old days was now almost at an end.
Over the next few years Superman busied himself about the world and Clarke Kent was seen less and less in the old Planet building although he still turned in an effective piece of writing to the Planet itself or to one of the weeklies from time to time. Jimmy retired from his editorship in his 60's when Kent was just short of 70. The time had come for major changes, a new editor and a major refurbishment if not an entirely new building. It was time at last for Clarke to leave his grace and favour office, the office in which he had spent nearly 50 years now and from whose window he still occasionally slipped out as Superman, although if he wanted to return that way he had to jam the catch so that the window could not be closed from the inside. Even Superman could not open a closed window from the outside without doing obvious damage. It was time to retire.
For appearances' sake, because he very seldom used it, he had kept up a little apartment in downtown Metropolis but a few years earlier, before Lois's illness and death, he had taken a long lease on a comfortable, rather battered old timber dwelling, single storey, more cabin than house, deep in the woods in a national park. This was wilderness indeed, remote, unspoilt country with forests and lakes and rivers and mountains and splendid fishing, although Kent himself was not a fisherman, and more wildlife than people, about as far from the rush and pressure of Metropolis as it was possible to get. In a place like this one might well feel alone, but never lonely. Loneliness only happened when there were people around from whom something held one apart. He had hoped that Lois and Donald might sometimes join him for holidays, Donald was an obsessionally keen fisherman and Lois loved the wilds, but that was not to be.
Close by the house, half buried in undergrowth, were the remains of an older dwelling, a true log cabin which had stood here long before. Exploring in and around these ruins he found a few coins, a belt buckle, a broken iron cooking pot, a log saw and some other tools half eaten away with rust, the remains of a child's cradle, and two graves. The wooden crosses which still marked them were so decayed that the names could no longer be read. He hoped they had been happy, these unknown pioneers. It was good to know that people could live complete, self-contained lives in a place like this, could even be born and die here. He had no superstitions and it did not worry him to live so close to the ruins and the graves. There was even a comfort in the closeness, a sense of continuity which he could feel himself part of and which made it a little less difficult to grapple with the knowledge, present from the first, that he could not continue here forever. The people who built the cabin had come first, after them had come the people who built the house and after those people himself, after him would come someone else again. It was inevitable, frightening even for what would become of him, the old, anxious question presented itself yet again in a fresh context, but here there was a fresh answer, it did not matter. The process of which he had made himself part would continue although the individuals through whom it continued fell away some day to be replaced by others. That this was so gave his existence a fresh dimension outside itself.
The staff at the Planet arranged what they described in advance as a small party and presentation for his last day. He was touched and genuinely surprised when this turned out to be an elaborate and carefully orchestrated celebration of his years there to which everyone who had ever worked alongside him and was still alive seemed to have been invited, from editors and reporters to tea ladies and print-room operators and janitors, many now retired and some amazingly old. It went on into the small hours and despite all that computerised type-setting and spell-checking could do, next day's edition was rather strangely set out and had more than its share of typos. He was relieved when no-one commented on the absence of Superman. He had not been seen in Metropolis for some months now nor more than a few times in several years, no-one really expected him any more. Eventually Clarke slipped away. Early the next day he flew to San Francisco, by scheduled airline not as Superman, it still felt important to preserve the alter ego, and picked up the old second-hand Jeep station wagon he had bought a few weeks earlier from the garage which was keeping it for him. His journey up the coast, driving without any hurry, took him 3 days. At night he stopped and camped under the stars. It was September, a good time for new beginnings, he had thought so ever since he had got used to starting a new school year in September as a boy. At last, late on the third afternoon after a final 30 mile drive along a forestry track he arrived. He unloaded his belongings, lit a fire and cooked a meal. It might have seemed artificial, there was no need to do things this way, but it did not. This was home now and this was how he was going to live. He was not going to let Superman get in the way.
He did not yet know what he would do when Clarke became so old that he must surely die. He could perhaps make himself another identity as a younger man because he could still pass for 45 unless he took pains to make himself appear older. Perhaps though, given the trouble of maintaining a human identity and the continuing pain it must bring it would one day be time to become only Superman. He had learnt much as Clarke Kent, perhaps as much as there was to be known, of the ordinary ways of humankind. Their range of behaviour was vast, but not limitless. For his own sake at least the lesson might have gone on long enough. For the time being there were still things he could do, services he could render, as Kent which would not be easy as Superman, a few which would be impossible, but chiefly for old friends. As he lost these one by one there would be less and less reason to continue.
As Clarke he went on writing, but differently, he started a personal and loving account of his coming to new home his doings there and its surroundings. It was interesting enough and well enough written that it would certainly be publishable but he did not mind about that. He was writing it for his own sake. As Superman there were still many calls on his time and in the main he attended to these as diligently as ever but he found that some of the driving sense of obligation had gone. He had always had to ration his availability but increasingly now when his assistance did not seem absolutely vital he made an excuse. There was no shame in this, it was as important as always that mankind should not lose its self-reliance for his sake, but he was a little more particular in applying the principle than before. It was as though with Clarke, a little of Superman had retired too. When his time was his own he spent days, sometimes several days together, walking deep into the wilderness, avoiding tracks, such as there were, utterly solitary, carrying a small tent and some cooking gear, sleeping under the stars, like an early pioneer. Occasionally on these wanderings he came across a kindred spirit, another man, sometimes a woman, alone in the wild. Some of these welcomed his company for a while, some resented the intrusion on their own solitude. Always it was wonderfully liberating to find himself regarded, as he usually was at these encounters, as something elemental, not even as Clarke Kent, simply as another nameless human creature. He never flew, not so much because it would have seemed like cheating, nor even because it would quickly have shrunk this wonderful new world to pitiful dimensions but because it would have been boring. Flying as Superman could be just as tedious as flying in a commercial jet. Down at ground level there was so much more to see, countless details of natural life and landscape, of weather and flowing water, so that even he with his immense, retentive memory could never tire of it, was always finding something new.
There was always a chance that he would receive an emergency call on the high-frequency satellite waveband set aside for the purpose and which his senses could detect unaided. He had lived with this constant availability for 50 years now. It had been a great strain at first, especially before the advent of satellite technology when the call system had depended on unreliable terrestrial radio links so that to the anxiety that he might be called was added the anxiety when he was not that something might have gone wrong with the system. Eventually he had grown used to it. It was good to feel wanted, to have something valuable to contribute, against which it was irritating and fatiguing never to be entirely free. He scarcely thought about it now, it was part of life, something he had to accept if he was to justify his existence. After a succession of hectic muddles early on urgent calls for his assistance had been strictly filtered by a small technical committee set up on his advice by the United Nations and most were directed elsewhere. Those few which did come through to him were virtually guaranteed worthwhile. In the early days he handled routine requests other than those passed on by personal contacts using a telephone answering device, itself a seeming miracle in the earliest days of all before such things became commonplace. Later on the Internet served his purpose better. He arranged a secure E-mail address for use by officialdom, which was regularly discovered by hackers, regularly changed and regularly rediscovered, and an open bulletin board for the world at large where messages and petitions for help could be posted for him like so many electronic prayers. He logged in regularly to scan all the requests, to respond to those he chose and to arrange an itinerary. So long as he avoided using land lines it was simple enough to conceal the origin of his calls. He always tried to find time for a few small, kindly items from the bulletin board to set against the larger tasks, a school to be visited, a well to be cleared and re-dug for a third world village. Alike in small matters and in great he was careful always to devote his energies to those who could not help themselves rather than those who would not and he always tried to ensure that the recipients of his help contributed something to the task in hand themselves, however little.
In case of emergency he always carried his Superman kit with him on his expeditions at the bottom of his pack. Whether by good luck or by good judgement he only needed it twice in half a dozen years, there were other calls of course but they came through when he was at home at the cabin or already occupied as Superman elsewhere. On the first occasion he was only a few miles out from home and he made a point of walking back, albeit at a pace few men could have matched, driving the Jeep as far as the end of the nearest metalled road and parking it out of harm's way in a clearing before taking off to render assistance. On the second he was two days journey into the mountains and the call was very urgent. He slipped into his kit where he stood, tucked his pack behind a rock, closed his eyes and flew straight up through the high clouds into the jet stream before opening them again and setting off for his destination, still careful even from that height not to look down at the wild places he had left far below. Not for anything would he compromise the mental perspective of his home territory that he had worked so hard to acquire and to preserve, an ordinary man's perspective so far as it could possibly be. On his return several days later he flew in high and dropped from the sky with his eyes closed once more, using his perfect position sense to land neatly back where he had started. He changed back into his outdoor gear, shouldered his pack again and carried on with his walk.
The years went by, Jimmy died of a stroke within 5 years of his retirement. Ex-editors seemed fated to die young, it was all the adrenaline they put into the job. Donald lived on into his 80's, well cared for and well loved by his second wife, his children and his grandchildren. There was a first great-grandchild on the way when he too died, quite suddenly. One day he was pottering happily in his garden, the next he was gone. Lloyd and his lovely girlfriend who had reminded Superman so much of Lois had 3 daughters and a son. By a quirk of genetics, despite their mother's coincident resemblance and a quarter share each of Lois's genes none of the daughters resembled her in the least, either in looks or in character. Their brother, the youngest, was as like her as it was possible for a boy to be. From a distance, undetected, Superman watched him grow, not daring to come too close, full of love, of concern, of heartache.
Time passed, Kent was 96, still dauntingly well-preserved despite all the expedients Superman used to make it appear otherwise. The world had left him largely to himself but he had the occasional visitor, an old friend from the Planet, a park ranger, an admirer attracted by his reputation as a writer, and he could not live entirely solitary, he had to drive into town now and again to collect supplies. He replaced the Jeeps when they threatened to fall apart, he was careful not to seem to clever at repairing them, he was on his third now. Inevitably he began to seem a phenomenon and he foresaw a time not too far distant when people would begin to pester him on account of his longevity. Already there were those who wondered whether Superman had bestowed on his old friend some power, some drug, something which explained his wonderful preservation. Before long these speculations would become more vocal. Those few who understood the nature of Superman's vows, the limitations he had set upon himself, would accuse him of breaking them for his friend's sake. Many others, less reflective, would begin to demand that he make the same exception for them also, for their friends, their families, their political leaders, no doubt even for their children's pets. He had known this for years and had turned his face away from the knowledge, he had loved his years as a backwoodsman more than any other period of his adult life but it was no good, he could not ignore reality forever, it was time to go.
The manner of his disappearance and presumed death troubled him for a while, clearly there could be no body. Eventually the answer was simple. One autumn night driving back from a trip into town, his affairs settled but not too obviously, he crashed the Jeep off the track into a deep gorge at the bottom of which flowed a mountain stream in autumn spate. He had thought it might be weeks before he was missed but as it happened a forestry patrol came across the tyre marks and found the wrecked Jeep the next morning. It made no difference. The stream and its banks were searched for 3 miles down to the lake into which it flowed but nothing was found aside from his old weatherproof jacket containing some of his papers as a means of identification which he had been careful to drop into the rushing water. The stream bed was full of huge boulders under any one of which the old man's body might have been trapped, to be fretted and pounded by the torrent until it fell to bits. Maybe some bones would be found one day, maybe not, they never were.
After a while when Clarke Kent was officially declared dead and his will read he was found to have left surprisingly generous bequests to people he seemed scarcely to have known, to Lois and Donald's grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in memory as the will put it of a very old friendship. The bulk of his estate, which was large with all the royalties from his books, went to an animal charity. It seemed a last action in character for Kent the wilderness man, the recluse, and there was more, he had devoted so much of his life to the human inhabitants of the globe both as Clarke Kent the writer and as Superman. For once he would do something for the rest. He had often wondered about the animal kingdom, almost all his knowledge of it was of the Earth, the Krypton Crystal added almost nothing. There were no higher animals on Krypton in the last millennium before its destruction, none at all, only lower forms of life which could withstand its steadily deteriorating environment and the Krypton people themselves who with ever increasing difficulty created their own. At first they preserved as many as they could in zoos in their air-conditioned cities but as the Krypton star grew inexorably larger and duller and their situation steadily more precarious there were fewer and fewer resources to spare and at last the animals had to go. Their bodies were preserved and there were all manner of records of what they had been but they were as dead now as the fossils alongside them in the museums, fossils of the planet's first age two-thousand million years older.
As a child on his father's farm in Smallville Superman had loved the animals, the dogs and the horses of course, they were the best, but the pigs too, even the chickens. He tried not to mind when chickens regularly disappeared, their necks wrung by his father, to reappear neatly plucked and trussed for his mother to roast for Sunday dinner. After a while he would deal with the carcasses himself to help his father out, although it was not a job he enjoyed, but he would never do the killing. It was harder with the pigs, chickens had no real personality, pigs were individuals. He tried to share his father's satisfaction at a fine fat hog, reared from a piglet, an animated repository for all the organic refuse on the farm, even to the chicken heads, finally slain in the autumn with no little celebration and every last scrap of its carcass put to good use. He never could. Pigs were still killed on the farm, it was one of the ordinary skills of small-time husbandry. As a child he used to hide indoors when his father's neighbour came to help with the killings, his mother sympathised, Martha Kent had a soft spot for her pigs too. Later, as an older boy and as a young man he used to find something to busy himself with elsewhere, not heeding his father's grumbles, but he could never get far enough away to be out of earshot when the pigs started screaming as they realised what was afoot.
It touched him that of all the great knowledge he later acquired during his years in the Ice Palace his knowledge of animals remained almost entirely human and of the Earth. Uniquely of all he learnt save of parental love his Earth experience illuminated and expanded what little the Crystal could tell him rather than the reverse. The Crystal could tell him about animals' appearance, their bodies, their physiology their behaviour even, as animals. What it did not tell him, because on Krypton the memory of it was lost, what he discovered for himself, was that the things animals had in common with humankind could reflect humanness, that from contact with human beings they could sometimes develop, for better or for worse, identifiably human characters. It worked the other way around too. Because of what they had in common with animals, again for better or for worse, humans who had to do with animals would sometimes reflect some of their animalness. It always distressed him that because of the life he had to lead he could never keep a pet. By the time he retired to the wilderness it was too late, besides he knew that a dog, the only realistic possibility, was bound to scare away the wild animals, and contact with them was equally welcome. Lois and Donald had had golden retrievers whom he adored and who adored him in turn, wondering at his absence of scent but otherwise oblivious to his strange and separate nature.
The Daily Planet published a fulsome obituary of its one-time star reporter, the man who with Lois Lane had first broken the Superman story to the world but otherwise his passing was little noted. He had finally arranged for the publication of the journal of his 25 wilderness years a little while before his death and 'Kent's Wilderness' appeared posthumously. It was well received and its gentle style, its wonderful depictions of the natural world and its wistful philosophy, all somehow united with a striking firmness of purpose, appealed greatly to those who sought the solitude he had found. Unlike many of his earlier volumes it did not quickly become a best seller but as time passed it became a classic, one of those books which never go out of print and can eventually be found, if only in some book club bargain edition, on every book shelf.
From now on he was only Superman and it seemed like what in a sense it was, a bereavement. As with a bereavement the pain settled in time but it left behind a permanent sense of loss. He had told himself that he could still walk the wilds if he chose as he had before, as if nothing had changed, there was little enough risk of detection. It was no good, it was not the same. He tried it once and it felt as though this was somewhere he had once been with a great friend, now dead, so that every step reminded him of that lost friend and he was utterly desolate. Everything had changed, the door had closed on that part of his life, he had closed it himself and there was no going back.
As Superman he continued much as before, save that with no parallel existence to occupy him any longer he was seen about the world more often. He responded to more of the lesser requests for his help and to many more of the minor ones on his open bulletin board. Often enough in the past he had found these irritating for their triviality but now he began to welcome them again for the direct face to face contact they brought with ordinary people. It helped to keep busy, to try to lose his loneliness in hard work for without the outlet to the human world which Clarke had given him, even Clarke the backwoodsman the recluse, he was sometimes very lonely. Even on the evening of Clarke's final disappearance he had logged in to the bulletin board on an impulse using an ordinary hand-held personal communicator which he always carried with him, sitting on a rock in the forest close by where he had crashed the Jeep. He had to do something to fill the void, the immense space of emptiness he had suddenly created around himself. Amongst hundreds of recent requests one caught his eye, a small girl in San Francisco wanted him to come to her birthday party that day. It was a bit late for the party but he could be there before her bedtime and so he was, to her and her mothers' amazement and delight. He stayed long enough to marvel at her presents, to help her blow out her birthday candles once more, which of course he found he could not do so that she must be much stronger than him, to accept a piece of her birthday cake and to read her bedtime story. There was no sign of a father, few fathers stayed with their families in this part of town, just the girl herself, her mother and her baby brother. He longed to stay with them in the poor, untidy little apartment, to fill the gap in their lives, and his own.
Even Superman still needed somewhere to rest and recuperate, to sleep, somewhere to be between the tasks he undertook, however nominally, a home. He made no secret of it, it was a rule of his never to keep any unnecessary secrets about himself, but some people were still surprised. Sometimes it was just that they had been overwhelmed by his strangeness, his difference, so that they saw only that he was Super, failing to see that he was a man too in all essentials very like themselves. Sometimes though they seemed to have no proper conception that he existed of himself and for himself and not merely for what he did for them. Logically they must then have imagined that between his appearances he somehow dematerialised, or went into suspended animation hidden away somewhere, to be summoned up again at need like an Arabian Nights genie, but there was no logic at work here, only a defect of imagination. Nor was it a defect unique to humankind's relationships with Superman, it was often manifest in their ordinary dealings with each other. One of his more general duties perhaps was to combat this unreflective self-centredness by example.
There was nowhere left for him now save the Ice Palace. Perhaps he might have constructed an alternative elsewhere but this would have been a major undertaking, even for him, and his effort might all too easily have been wasted. The arctic wastes were bleak and unfriendly but security was as much an issue as ever and with satellite surveillance technology what it now was, partly thanks to his own intervention, any attempt to move would have run a serious risk of detection. He had sometimes ruefully reflected that a coral atoll would have been pleasanter and no less private and had wished that the Crystal had led him south and west from his parents' farm, across America to the Pacific coast and beyond, not due north. It was no more than a light-minded daydream. He very well knew that the frozen austerity of the arctic and of the complex but entirely functional habitation the Crystal had grown from its snows was infinitely more apt to the purpose of turning the young Clarke Kent into Superman, and of sustaining him through all the difficulties of his life thereafter, than any south seas paradise.
He had gone north all those years ago as a diffident farm boy with remarkable powers he less than half understood, appreciated or knew how he should use. He had become increasingly isolated from the familiar world of his childhood and adolescence by his growing realisation of those powers and their implications. Then had come his father's death, casting him entirely adrift. At last the Crystal had made its influence felt, exciting but infinitely strange. He had been uncertain, alone and not a little afraid. For the 3 solitary, formative years that followed the Palace had been a kind of cocoon in which he pupated from youth to Superman, finally to emerge glowing, marvellous, complete, a retreat, a university, the place in which he had finally discovered his destiny. It remained thereafter a massive library, a laboratory, a workshop, a place of shelter, a place to conceal himself when it was expedient to do so. He made no secret that somewhere something of the sort existed for him but he never revealed where and its location was never discovered. It was a place to go when he was troubled beyond the power of his human friends to help, when he needed to seek the perspective on his existence which only the voices of dead Krypton encoded in the Crystal, those of his true father and mother amongst them, could provide. It was a place in which to be solitary, to explore his inner self, to ask himself hard questions when he found himself in danger of going astray. Once and once only he took Lois there, and then gently wiped the memory from her mind, and very soon after he went again, alone, to make himself face his own insistent questions about their relationship and where it was leading and to make himself accept the answers, the answers he already knew and had been unable to face. It was very many things to him, all of them valuable and valued, but it never seemed a home.
He spent a lot of time there now when he was not busy about the world, often watching the old holographic sequences from Krypton. They were an amalgam of countless fragments, of momentary images and clips of sound, many of his parents but many more of every conceivable aspect of the planet's life, past and present, recombined by the viewing system as occasion demanded to give an illusion of spontaneity and of personality. After so many years and so many viewings though, many of the clips, many of the standard responses, had become too familiar. When he had first consulted this archive it seemed a miracle, as though his parents and a host of other vanished Kryptonians were truly there to guide him, their last survivor, as though he was not indeed their last survivor but the emissary of a still-living people, alone but not unsupported. He quickly learnt how the illusion was achieved but for many years it persisted. Now it had faded. It was comforting to view again the old sights, to hear the voices, but they seemed increasingly remote. The archive still had a personality and endowed the images it contained with personalities not very far from those they might have possessed in life, but these were now the personalities of old men and women who had ceased to add anything new to themselves. They were set in their ways, their turns of phrase, their attitudes, their responses, fixed, predictable, laughable even sometimes for their knee-jerk repetition. There were plenty of other things to occupy him besides if he chose, projects he set himself, tasks or preparations for tasks he undertook for mankind, he was never idle, but he no longer worked with very much pleasure or spontaneity. Ever and again he returned to the archive and the dead voices, remembering, reliving, and searching too, for answers he could never find. The archive had told him where he came from, how to begin, how to continue, it could not tell him where he was at last to go to, how to end. Yet he felt a growing certainty now that an end must come, that he was not meant to, could not, continue forever.
Still he kept himself busy by every means he could devise and mostly that was enough to keep him from too much introspection, it was a cure he had learned long ago and it still worked, but it was a strange, plain, grey existence for all that. He lived for the outside, for the world, there was nothing within, or not enough, nothing personal, nothing new. Images of better times gone by shone in his memory like small bright jewels, like stars, ever present, endlessly remote. Once or twice to escape from himself he tried to rediscover Clarke and his skill at writing but it was not a success. Clarke was dead and would not be resurrected. The technical skill was still there but not the inspiration, there was no-one to write for and nothing to write about. He tried poetry and that went a little better but when he read the poems back as often as not they meant nothing to him or they turned out to be merely endless, circular, convoluted reformulations of the unanswered questions which troubled him. They never contained an answer.
He seldom went into the surrounding wastes, the permanent snows were bleak and featureless and for many months in the winter they were sunk in the darkness of the arctic night. This was not his wilderness home. There his solitude even in winter, especially then, had been full of the alter ego he had created for himself almost as if of a companion, a separate being, but Clarke Kent was no more and here the solitude was different, empty. When he went about the world he took off steeply from the Palace's portal, flying far up and away without looking back. On his return he descended direct to the portal once more and went straight inside. Now and again he would sit there to watch the sun on the horizon in late autumn or early spring reflecting redly off the snows, throwing long shadows towards him and into the night behind, sometimes for the whole of a short Arctic day as it rose then set again in the space of a few hours, scarcely breaking free of the horizon. Once when the inner questions became unbearable he went out into a blizzard and at last the whirling, roaring greyness filled his mind, emptying it of everything else, and gave him for a while a kind of peace.
Years passed, 2 decades, he continued to have dealings, professional dealings they might be called, with universities and hospitals, with police and fire departments, with business people and politicians, with engineers and scientists up and down the world and with an enormous number and variety of ordinary people. His life was as busy as he liked to make it, sometimes busier, he needed to keep busy to justify his existence, to compensate for his loneliness, to put aside those still unanswered questions, and in all of this he partly succeeded. 120 years approached, the 100th anniversary of his first appearance. He had never given Superman an age, still less a birthday, and he had always kept all knowledge of his descent to Earth in the capsule and his upbringing a close secret so that his true centenary passed unmarked. Now there were great celebrations, retrospectives in the media, speeches, presentations, books, videos, exhibitions, stamps, coins, medals, computer games, endless toys. He was polite, warm, friendly and cooperative, he involved himself in all the fun as deeply as he could. He even let himself be persuaded to do a few spectacular stunts, to demonstrate his amazing powers simply for the sake of demonstrating them, something which he had scarcely done save on a small domestic scale to entertain children in all those 100 years. It was wonderful to feel the full warmth of his popularity and he enjoyed himself tremendously. For a while even the Ice Palace seemed a welcome haven from the hustle and bustle and not as it so often did a cold and lonely retreat. In his heart though was still an emptiness, and the old questions which would not go away. Why? What was it all for? Where would it lead? When and how would it end?
130 years, 140, he began at last to notice changes in himself. His immense strength remained unaltered but he was less supple, less quick in his movements. He began to realise that he was less quick in his thoughts and particularly in his reactions. For a long time it did not matter, his powers were still so great that he usually had plenty in reserve but so too sometimes were the demands upon them. At first he could still think ahead and plan as well as ever but he began to find himself in difficulties if something unexpected happened in the course of a job. He would be briefly flustered, confused, the automatic reflex knowledge of how to react in almost every conceivable situation, built up over more than a century, would suddenly, terrifyingly, not be there. Sometimes this sudden emptiness would flood full of hot, blind, mindless anger and it was all he could do to keep control, not to fling away whatever he was working with, often some great mass of concrete and steel, to the devastation of the job in hand and of his reputation. He would come to himself again almost at once, choking down the anger and the fear, but in that brief instant he had a whirling, dizzying glimpse of utter chaos. Sometimes an instant was a long time. He was as much subject to the basic laws of mechanics, of inertia and balance, as any other component of the universe. If he lost concentration and made an error in the course of a task involving some heavy or fast moving object he could find himself in a situation from which even he was hard put to recover. His mathematical and spatial reasoning, his ability to deal with those physical constraints in the abstract, remained as sharp as ever, his capacity to turn thought into action began to falter. Of course there had been accidents before, mistakes, failures even, but not many. He was Super, superior, immensely so, but not perfect, not infallible. It was not so much that he began to make mistakes but the manner of their making, that he lost the initiative, his sense of being in control, his temper; that he lost himself.
He began to be aware of near misses, jobs which almost went wrong, sometimes badly wrong, although no-one else was aware of it. He made excuses for himself, and after all he had saved the situation had he not, but at root dishonesty was utterly alien to him and he could not hide from the truth. He undertook a little less, planned his tasks even more meticulously than before and worried increasingly about unexpected difficulties so that the worry itself began to trigger incidents of the type he feared. For a while he put these problems down to tiredness or misfortune, factors which could affect even him although previously it had been rare indeed for him to make mistakes through fatigue or failure to anticipate. He began to wonder if some Kryptonite, material from his old home planet which sometimes came to Earth as a meteor, might have got into his system. Kryptonite sapped his strength and could have other unpredictable effects, but this did not feel like Kryptonite poisoning. He carried on, trusting to luck, unable to understand why things were going wrong, telling himself that it would go better next time. The errors, the near misses, became more frequent.
He started to dream again and as in those dreams long ago after Lois's death he was lost and searching, but the world of these new dreams was no longer quiet and dark, it was full of terrible, meaningless activity. Solid objects dissolved, the ground gave way, flames leapt up, the sky fell to crush him. Worst of all were the faces, sudden faces which whirled together and vanished again, faces he recognised, his parents, Lois, faces unknown, stern, tearful, compassionate, ecstatic, sometimes all of those things together, always looking at him, wanting something of him, he never knew what. The faces grew ever larger and slid into one another and the dream world filled with a great shuddering, roaring noise. He screamed, but could not hear himself, then he awoke.
There came at last a day when he was about 150 when the risks posed by his deterioration had finally to be faced. He had been asked to assist in the demolition of an old chemical plant. It had been allowed to run down over the years and eventually abandoned. There was poison of every description in corroding drums, leaking tanks and dried up settling ponds all over the place, it was a major hazard, an environmental nightmare. The plant was up a narrow valley on the outskirts of a one-time industrial town now resurrecting itself with a new shopping mall, business centre and residential areas. The road up the valley was no longer capable of bearing heavy traffic; besides, anything brought down by road would have to pass right through the bright new town centre and the residential areas with their schools and playgrounds. The volume of material was immense, the risk of spillage substantial. It was not a happy thought.
It was agreed that Superman should take the big old chemical tanks with all they still contained, ensure they were sealed, lift them straight out and fly them by a roundabout route over open country to an industrial site 20 miles away where they could be safely drained and broken up for scrap. Some of the other debris could reasonably go by road, some could be helicoptered out. Several thousand tonnes of contaminated soil would be cleaned on site using machinery which Superman would fly in. Eventually a few tonnes of highly toxic material, securely contained, would be disposed of in space, taken there by Superman and set on an orbit to spiral into the Sun a few hours later. It was all thoroughly routine, he had been involved in similar projects hundreds of times before and all the individual tasks which would fall to him were familiar, he faced it without too many qualms. His chief worry concerned the tanks, massive though they were they were likely to be corroded and fragile, they would need to be lifted from below and they would be awkward to balance.
On the day the tanks were to be moved Superman felt troubled and preoccupied. He had gone over what he had to do a hundred times but he found himself repeatedly uncertain how many tanks there were, what was supposed to be in them, whether it was for him or for the demolition team to ensure they were sealed, in which direction he was supposed to fly them out. There was confusion and difficulty on the ground too and the job started late. In fact there were 7 tanks. The first 4 went easily enough but the wind was unexpectedly high and gusting and Superman found them peculiarly difficult to balance. He had meant to check the weather in advance because high winds, or in case of a spillage a wind blowing in the direction of the town, represented potential hazards easily avoided by postponing the move until a better day. Despite his habit of careful planning, and of increased care over recent years, he entirely forgot to do so.
With the 5th tank disaster struck. Superman was tired and irritable. Why did these Earth people for whom he had attempted so much persist in making such a filthy mess of their planet? It was not a new thought nor was it new for him feel angry about the issue, the Earth was his home as well and he loved its natural, unspoilt beauties more than any of mankind's achievements, or his own. He caught at the tank, it was particularly heavy and awkward and he found he did not have it in a stable grip, he was lifting it from one side, not from directly below putting an enormous strain on its weakened structure. As he lifted up and away it began to twist and topple. A moment's clear thought and decisive action would have saved the situation but he panicked, lost himself in the whirling mental chaos which was now so dreadfully familiar yet in which everything was so dreadfully unfamiliar. He had the strength to save the situation but no longer the skill. He should have moved swiftly to rebalance the tank then lifted again smoothly, instead he grabbed desperately, pushing it further out of balance, then as he lifted powerfully away trying to pull it clear it ruptured, deluging the ground below with thousands of gallons of noxious, oily fluid.
It was not really such a great disaster. The site was horribly contaminated anyway, a little more made no difference. The clean-up proceeded and was set down as another job well done, the minor mishap with one tank of no significance. The demolition team laughed about the incident and Superman laughed with them but he knew well enough that it should not have happened. During the years of busy activity since Clarke Kent's death, activity to banish his loneliness, to silence the insistent, unanswerable questions about himself and his fate, he had lost some of his habit of introspection. Much of that habit he had wished on Kent and there was a sense in which it had died with him, or at least fallen into a deep sleep, now it awoke once more. What was wrong with him? What was the explanation of the blank moments, the forgetfulness, the loss of concentration, the irritability? He could not avoid the question any longer, and no-one else could tell him, even if he could have risked making the problem known. He must find out for himself.
He went to the Ice Palace, scanned its archives, tested himself. The answer became obvious and would not be denied, his brain and with it his mind had begun to deteriorate, it was subject to the normal earthly processes of age and decay however slowly those processes might run. The deterioration would continue, could not be halted. It might take many years, centuries even, before he was very seriously impaired but from now on he must be ever vigilant. He must pace himself, learn to recognise the onset of fatigue which might lead to further accidents. No longer could he entirely trust himself or his powers, not was it right to let other do so. He knew now that he could no longer go on as he had, risking failure and with it catastrophe. It was not just that one particular mistake might be disastrous it was that the world would lose confidence in him, and then he would have nothing left to offer, no place, no purpose. If humankind came to fear the consequences of his interventions in its affairs more than it feared the consequences of his not intervening that would be the end. He was not ready for that, not yet.
Little by little now he moderated his activities, did a little less and a little less, picked lighter tasks, stuck to the familiar. To some this seemed almost a rejuvenation, a new beginning. No longer was he always off around the globe or away from it, assisting with engineering projects, repositioning satellites, damming and draining floods, controlling volcanic eruptions. Once again he was seen around towns and cities, once again he visited schools, helped apprehend petty criminals, even rescued cats from trees, it was like the old days, it was fun, he found himself laughing again, happy spontaneous laughter, and he realised that he had not laughed like that for years. He was welcomed back by a new generation as a long lost friend, this after all was the old Superman of their grandparents' and their great-grandparents' time. It was pathetic in a way, given what he had once been capable of, but he found himself relaxing into his new rôle, into the old rôle again, happy as always to be of assistance, happy to know that even his waning powers, although few save Superman perceived that they were indeed waning, were of value.
From time to time he was asked at his public appearances what it was like to be 150 and whether he felt he was growing old, certainly he was looking older now, his hair was iron grey and his face although still largely unlined had the repose of maturity, he always turned the questions aside with a smile. Children sometimes asked him whether one day he would die, few but children were ever direct or perceptive enough to ask questions of that type. He always answered what was the truth, that he did not know. When he was asked the question in private by those few people who he felt were entitled to know what there was to be known about him he would add only that whatever his fate he would always ensure the fulfilment of his Vow, to serve humankind without interfering unduly in their ordinary existence and above all to do no harm.
For a while he tried to spread himself about, not to favour one city, one state, one country, above another but he found this increasingly difficult. It became harder and harder to adjust to a new location, new people, different ways. Little by little he reduced his range and at last, inevitably, he returned to Metropolis where he had first revealed himself the better part of 200 years earlier, patrolling its skies, trouble-shooting its problems and seldom if ever, and then only at great need, operating beyond its city limits. Metropolis had changed greatly of course, those few of the old landmarks which still remained were now set in a very different environment. The old Daily Planet building had long gone, but the Planet was still published, from an efficient, characterless office and industrial complex down river. The great cast concrete globe which once stood out so proudly above the portico of the old building had been preserved, cracked and brutal, held together with steel staples, and was now the incongruous centre piece of a pretty ornamental pool in the lobby of the new one. The proud, brash flashing neon signs were history. The city was cleaner and quieter, there were parks and playgrounds where once there had been factories, office buildings and comfortable dwellings where once there had been slums and ghettoes and inevitably slums and ghettoes in the old broken down areas on what had once been the good side of town. The people were more relaxed, less pushing, they had lost some of the old hectic extroversion and with it some of the air of instant friendliness, they were certainly healthier. The street plan was much the same and the bridges over the great river, some of which he himself had helped to repair or renew and all in all it felt more like home than anywhere else on Earth.
Smallville no longer felt like anywhere, but that had been so for many years. It had grown a lot and a new highway had cut through what had once been his father's fields but it was not just that. It was more that he had known it as a child and his mental image of it was not so much the image of the physical Smallville as a rich composite of his childhood experiences and memories there. As he grew up and grew older this inner childhood Smallville had bit by bit lost its contiguity with Smallville as it was and became. It remained with him always as a bright memory and the setting for many other bright memories but the real Smallville slowly ceased to have any hold on him. The final tie was severed when his mother died, as Clarke Kent he visited her grave twice a year to lay flowers, on her birthday and on the anniversary of her death, and those visits always moved him, but they were visits not so much to Smallville as into the past.
Although he accomplished his reduction of activity slowly enough that it aroused no great comment he felt there had to be some public explanation. Over the years he had not seldom explained himself directly, he had preferred to rely on informed speculation, informing much of it himself through Clarke. After Clarke's retirement he established a pattern of brief, occasional press statements which for old time's sake he always made first to the Daily Planet on the understanding that they should be generally distributed. The Planet always returned the compliment by featuring these statements prominently, the rest of the press, now that he had long since lost his novelty value, often relegated them to an inside page or ignored them altogether. From the earliest days of course thoughtful commentators had speculated what might eventually become of him, he never admitted as much, even through Clarke, but their guess was as good as his. He simply did not know. Some had sketched out a chain of events not so very dissimilar from what now seemed to be coming to pass. There were various predictions as to his end, some wise, most otherwise. For a while one hysterical school of thought which gained wide credence held that his body would eventually explode like a massive nuclear bomb, bringing the apocalypse. There were always some who were willing to believe that despite all evidence to the contrary his presence on Earth did or risked more harm than good. The hysteria grew so intense that eventually he made a direct statement. He knew enough of his unique physiology, although he did not know everything, to be certain that there was no risk of his exploding. Quietly he reassured the world and was deeply disappointed, although not greatly surprised, when he was not universally believed.
He could have given chapter and verse in a form understandable and verifiable by Earth scientists but he preferred not to have to much to do with scientists and in particular not to divulge to much of himself and his workings. He knew that it was beyond the reach of Earth's technology unassisted by himself, and always would be, to replicate him, ever to produce another sentient being with similar powers or even a fraction of his powers. He knew too though that given sufficiently close analysis of his functioning some of the physical mechanisms which drove him might be recreated, albeit not fully understood, and used, probably not for the good.
At last the Superman-as-Doomsday commotion died down. There were a few more such incidents over the years but learning from experience he ignored them, anxieties about him flared up and spread now and again like epidemics but, like epidemics, left to themselves they eventually burnt themselves out and faded away. So it was with some doubt that he wired in to the Daily Planet's news desk one evening a brief statement that Superman was getting old and that the reduction in his range and scale of activities over recent years was to be regarded as a semi-retirement. He said nothing of the future. Messages from him were always given in an agreed format and included unique codes so that there was no possibility of this being taken for a hoax. The Planet of course, mindful of its long and fruitful relationship with him ran the story under a front page banner headline but it was a reflection of the place he now occupied in most people's scheme of things that by no means every other paper followed suite. There was a flurry of comment in the Sundays and on TV, but much of it warmed over from previous articles and programmes. The major TV channels put out repeats of a variety of documentaries and films made about him down the years, they were mostly put out late in the evening and the ratings were generally poor. Interest outside the United States was commensurately less. On the whole this low-key almost bored reaction pleased him. He knew now that he must gradually withdraw from the world and he suspected that he must one day leave it, although he did not yet know when or how. He knew that this would not be easy for him, if it were to be a source of great sorrow to humankind it would be that much harder. It was a relief to have this indication that he and his influence on the world might eventually be able to fade away without a fuss.
For the next few years he followed a regular pattern. He lived in the Ice Palace and generally commuted down to Metropolis by night 2 or 3 times a week. Very occasionally he took a short working holiday in one or other corner of the globe but mostly now, outside Metropolis, he merely observed the Earth's people from a distance, largely unobserved himself. He no longer interacted with them, did not intervene in their affairs. When his intervention seemed essential he took care to conceal it, a child saved from drowning was washed ashore by what seemed lucky chance, a forest fire was quenched by what seemed a natural rainstorm. There was no ready natural explanation of the sudden disappearance of a swarm of locusts but the villagers whose crops were saved sought none, they were happy enough to accept a simple miracle. He had no more dreams, save once after a day of modest achievement. He dreamed he was in a garden, which he knew but could not recognise. It was a dull, damp day in late fall and he was picking apples, blighted yellow apples from a broken tree.
Slowly he felt himself failing. He had less energy, but more important far less grasp of how to apply himself without risking harm. His less and less frequent initiatives required more and more careful forethought, even the simple business of flying safely ceased to be entirely automatic. He took the greatest care to avoid situations where he might have to make a quick decision. At that level he pottered on happily enough, his 200th anniversary approached and he began to think it might be possible to make a celebration. Perhaps then, perhaps, he might find a way to bring matters to a close, perhaps, perhaps, but how? As his mind slowly clouded so a decision became more urgent, and so it became harder and harder to decide.
The crisis when it came, came suddenly. It was a fine, clear day in late autumn, he was patrolling a suburban area of Metropolis. For a week the weather had been miserable, wet cold and blustery, but today it was marvellously better, there had been a sharp morning frost but now, about mid-afternoon, it was almost as warm as late summer. The few autumn leaves remaining on the trees glowed in the sunshine, the streets and the atmosphere had been washed clean by the past week's rain, there were a few, high, fair weather clouds but otherwise the sky was a deep and glorious blue. Superman cruised slowly above the streets, about 120 feet up, level with the tops of the office and apartment blocks in this part of town. Girls at office windows waved, one blew him a kiss, pedestrians looked up, shading their eyes, a class of schoolchildren out in a playground jumped up and down and cheered, and he saluted. He felt happy and contented, it was just like the old days.
As he passed over a gas station a commotion caught his attention and he swooped down to take a closer look. The cashier was being held up by a pale, trembling, moist-eyed boy with an old gun, all too obviously a junky seeking the means to pay for his next fix, he looked no more than 15. Superman had not rid the world of any of its traditional evils, not drugs, not war, not cruelty, not greed. Insofar as any of these things had cures they must be found in the hearts and minds of mankind, they could not be imposed from without. All Superman could do was to ameliorate individual instances, to hold aloof when his intervention would have made matters worse and to set an example of strength used wisely, of power used gently and of influence used with restraint. It was a salutary example despite the partial eclipse of his latter years but it had not brought, would never bring, universal peace and contentment.
Superman landed a dozen yards from the boy who swung round to face him with a curse and a jeer. As Superman raised his right hand, palm outwards, in the old firm gesture of peace he always used in angry confrontations the boy seized the cashier and held her in front of him, gun to her neck, as a shield. This was a familiar enough situation, Superman must have faced it a thousand times before, the issue was simple enough, there was no way, not even using all his strength and speed, that he could safely disarm the gunman by direct means. There was a risk, small but real, that whatever move he made, however swift, however skilled, however subtle, the gun would be discharged and the hostage injured, or killed. He had to back off, declare himself beaten. Usually that was enough and he could apprehend the wrongdoer later, usually not much later, when it was safe to do so. Sometimes cleverer, more determined hostage-takers with more to gain and more to lose could achieve a longer stand off and a clean escape. There were some instances where it had taken a long time then to find them and bring them in but he had always succeeded eventually, save in a few cases where his quarry had met their deaths first. There were no such difficulties here, but there was danger. The boy was desperate, unpredictable, crazed, he might do anything, he might shoot the cashier in rage and frustration at any moment even if Superman backed off, but that risk was unavoidable. Back off he must, according to his own iron rule, the money, letting the boy get away with it, saving his own face, all must come after the cashier's safety.
He did not back off, he could not. The boy kept up a constant, desperate stream of taunts, at the old man, not so super, the man in tights. Superman was suddenly full of fury, at the boy, at the world that could still produce boys like this despite all his efforts for its betterment, at the ruination of his happy afternoon. He strode forward fiercely, reaching out his hand for the gun and fixing the boy's wild eyes with a sudden half-involuntary blast of heat vision, the intense radiation which he could project from his own. In a moment the boy was blind, irrevocably blind, his retinae destroyed, the whole substance of his eyes at boiling point. He screamed and, mercifully, swung away from the cashier and shot wildly into one of the gas pumps which exploded in an upwards gush of flame. They were indeed gas stations now that all the oil wells had finally run dry. Superman seized the cashier and rushed her skywards away from the fireball, she was far too hysterical to appreciate that he was shaking as much as she was, he set her down unharmed at the end of the block and sped back to tackle the blaze. The pump was spouting flame like a fiery geyser but by a miracle the fire had not spread to the tank beneath, if that had gone up the damage and risk of injuries would have been enormous. It was the work of a moment to extinguish the flames and to make everything safe.
The boy still lay by the pump. He had been caught in the explosion and fire and his whole body was burnt save his upper torso and head, it was a nightmare sight, this body so dreadfully destroyed yet still recognisably human. He must surely be dead. As Superman approached and knelt beside him the boy lifted his head a little and turned sightless eyes towards him. Superman asked how he was doing, a meaningless question, he was in agony, dying, would be dead in a few moments. The boy recognised his voice, mumbled something incoherent then asked him, very clearly and with immense scorn why the fuck he had interfered. Then he died.
No-one minded in the least what had happened. The good citizens of Metropolis were delighted with Superman for ridding them of a young parasite who had made trouble all round ever since he came out of nappies and for whom his own mother would have been unable to find a good word, although she soon found a few for the sake of the reporters who came swarming around, outbidding each other for her story. The cashier, once she had recovered from her shock, became a minor celebrity for a little while and appeared on all the chat shows, where she was fulsome in her praise of Superman who, she declared, had saved her life. But Superman knew the truth, that in the weakness of his bewilderment and anger he had grievously and unnecessarily injured a human being and brought about his death, and that he had risked a far greater disaster. Anger and bewilderment, those Achilles heels of his failing nature, they were damaging, dangerous, even in an ordinary man, in him they were disastrous, any weakness was disastrous. He knew that, had known it would be so from the first, had known it from experience for decades, knew now at last that the disaster was upon him, the end had come. Nothing he now did or attempted was without risk, real, present, serious risk which he could no longer skirt around, guard against or ignore. It was time to go.
He still did not know how. Suicide might be possible, using some of the Kryptonite which had come to Earth after the destruction of his home planet and was still preserved behind tons of lead shielding in a few secure hiding places. There was a problem of access because although he might reach it, because of its properties he would be unable to carry it away. There was the problem that as he knew from past experience its effects were very painful and distressing but by no means guaranteed fatal. As was obvious, none of his previous exposures had killed him. There was the problem that even if he succeeded in destroying himself he could not destroy his body and it would be impossible to reliably conceal it or what he had done. It would be a dreadful final example to leave the people of Earth that in the face of difficulties he had finally given in to despair and done away with himself. It would undo all he had achieved. Finally, suicide by this means would certainly leave his body intact and even if he did manage to conceal himself for the time being it might some day be discovered. He knew that it would not decay on Earth, it might eventually start to disintegrate but that was likely to be over a geological span of time. For as long as it remained intact it would retain within itself the physical mechanism underlying his super powers and that mechanism would be open to the investigation he had always shunned. It might eventually be partially understood, replicated and misused. There was no question, he must utterly vanish.
He though long and hard about this. He might cast himself into the Sun, at least in its central core it had the heat to vaporise him and it was probably massive enough to engulf him, despite the cataclysmic release of energy that must ensue, without suffering significant harm. If the possibility of such harm was a worry, as it was because damage to the Sun would certainly damage the Earth in turn, he could take himself to another star. Then it came to him. He would go back to the Krypton system, not to Krypton itself of course, it had been utterly destroyed, but to the system of planets which still travelled in orbit around the Krypton star. All of a sudden he was exultant, even though he was planning his own destruction. He would not have to plunge into the star, its rays alone would strip him of his powers. Those powers had been created in his ordinary Kryptonian body by the different, stronger radiation of Earth's sun, exposure to the radiation of the Krypton star would take them away again. He would die in the vacuum of space, an ordinary Kryptonian once more, just as his parents, his people, had died when their planet exploded under the gravitational influence of the star as it expanded to become a red giant. It would be a fitting end, and he found he did not fear it. At last, at long last, he would truly be going home.
He laid his plans carefully but in fact little planning was required. The archives in the Ice Palace told him all he needed to know about the position of the Krypton System relative the Solar System and how he might get there. He did not anticipate any great difficulty, it would be a long journey but his brain was still clear enough when it came to navigation, he could still read the stars, plot and adjust his course. The decision he was taking was a simple one, albeit with enormous consequences, which he would be able to stick to. It was rapid decisions, dynamic situations, dilemmas, conflicts, which threw him, one straightforward idea at a time he could still handle.
In late January, 2 months after the gas station disaster and a few months before his 200th anniversary, before there had been any general realisation that it was due, he went for the last time to the Ice Palace. He transmitted a short farewell message to the Daily Planet, stating at the last no reason for his departure, only that it was time he must leave and bidding the Earth and humankind Hail and Farewell. He repeated this final salutation in every known language. Then, using a facility built into the Palace's structure by his thoughtful Krypton parents long before, he destroyed it. There was nothing much to it, he set the process going towards the end of a short Arctic day and a few minutes later the Palace with all its contents was no more. There was no drama, no shattering explosion, not even a rumble of destruction. It simply evaporated, fell apart once more into its constituent molecules which were mostly molecules of water, all structure lost. A light, cold mist hung for a little while over its former site, then dispersed in the Arctic winds, and night fell.
Next he headed for Baltimore and for the garden of rest where Lois's ashes had been scattered. Deliberately, he arrived after dark, it was deep winter and the ground was covered with snow. In the centre of the garden he laid a great bunch of hibiscus, gathered earlier in some tropical land; they were Lois's favourite flower. Over them he placed invisibly a transparent membrane, the thickness of an atom but a strong as steel. It would last for a few hours, long enough for the flowers to be seen and wondered at, then it would disintegrate and they would wither. Seldom had he allowed himself self-indulgent demonstrations of this type but he felt that now, if ever, one might be permitted.
Finally he flew to Smallville, to his parent's grave. It was very late now and the stars shone down on the little graveyard, cold and bright and endlessly remote. Somewhere amongst them was Krypton, his destiny and his nemesis, but so faint and far away that through the veil of Earth's atmosphere even he, even on that clear night, could not see it. Here he left no flowers, but stood for a long time still and silent, his cloak floating about him in the cold night wind. He thought about his life, all of it, considered it year by year, step by step, from first to last, from his earliest memories, through his childhood and adolescence, his early years at the Planet, on and on, onwards and upwards, Clarke Kent's retirement in Ohio, his later years, then at last downwards again until he here stood at last, at the end. It was not the very end but it was certainly the end of his life on Earth amongst humankind, of whom he had so nearly been one, and yet not one, whom he had helped and liked and loved and who had helped and liked and loved him in return, so that any debt was repaid, and whom he must now leave.
People, even otherwise quite intelligent people, seemed to imagine that because of his powers, because he was Superman, he must know all about God and the afterlife, whether they existed and what they were like, even that he could fly to heaven to see for himself. Ministers of religion of all creeds, but particularly Christian, struggling to engage with the implications of their professed beliefs, were sometimes particularly insistent that it must be so. It was not. In this at least he was no different from ordinary mankind although when he said as much he was often disbelieved. The committed, to one view or another, would nonetheless convince themselves that he was dissembling because he thought it in some wise wrong to state what he knew.
The Kents were conventionally devout, after the fashion of small town America in his childhood, and had brought him up to three-quarters believe the Christian myths in all their benign absurdity, and with a strong sense of duty which they took to be especially and uniquely Christian, but which was in reality a universal quality of all decent cultures, human or otherwise. As a young man he had faced the usual young man's difficulties in distancing himself from the myths so as to search for a deeper reality. In the Ice Palace he had learnt much of the matching beliefs of Krypton and of other planetary civilisations and of the other Earthly religions. He knew and understood more about religions than did anyone else on Earth, as he did about every other subject, but the Crystal did not, could not, tell him whether any of the myths were true and his common sense told him that they were not, much as he sometimes wished it otherwise.
The Kents and later his Krypton parents through the Crystal had taught him much about duty, duty to family, duty to friends, duty even to enemies, duty to others in general, duty to self. He was driven by duty from the beginning and by other things besides, ambition, love, but as the years passed, more and more by duty alone. Without it he would have been nothing. With his powers he could have had everything for nothing but it would have meant nothing. He saw that it was so and how the sense of duty before all else had been driven into him. He could never see whether there was anything more, anything deeper from which those acknowledged duties sprang. If there was then perhaps it could be called God and it must by definition be universal and eternal but even that did not necessarily imply that those who followed its promptings must be equally eternal. He did not understand the concept of personal eternity. To continue forever after bodily death in some similar mode of life must be the ultimate Hell. To lose one's vices, one's pains, sorrows, ambitions, must be to lose the very basis of one's individuality, to become no more than a symbol on a cosmic tally identical with a myriad others, no longer a life, a mark where a life had once been, a nothing. If there was, against reason, a heaven where one kept one's personality and memories and where others went also and remained recognisable as themselves, one must surely spend most of one's eternity there seeking out remembered individuals, apologising for harm done to them, directly or indirectly, deliberately or inadvertently, in one's earthly existence and seeking forgiveness, and being apologised to and forgiving in turn. When he was young he sometimes worried deeply about such questions but as he grew older the practical business of life provided more and more distractions so that after a while he learnt to live it for its own sake, no longer trying to see beyond its limits. Yet those limits were still there, clearly visible.
For a moment he hated Krypton and wished with all his heart that he might have been an ordinary man and nothing more, and that he now he might go down into the grave beside his mother and father, to lie beside them dead at last and beyond all care, but it could not be. Eventually he lifted his arms skywards and rose towards the stars.
The journey to Krypton, 90 light years away in Earth terms took him as a physical body travelling at near light velocity about 100 but he so slowed his thought processes during the long, empty years that it seemed no more than a few weeks. There came a time when the Krypton star was no longer merely a dull red point against the black background of space but a tiny dull red disc. Now Superman began to wonder because by this stage of his journey he had expected to begin to feel the first inklings of its influence, sapping his strength, but he felt none. As he drew closer day by day he saw that the star had changed. It had expanded yet again and was now a red giant indeed, as large as it would ever grow. Very soon, within years, it would begin its collapse to become a white dwarf. As it expanded its spectral signature had changed and it no longer had any power to harm him. He found himself smiling ruefully there in the lonely vastness of space, even the means of his intended self-destruction had failed him. It seemed that the universe would not easily be rid of him, that he could not easily be rid of himself. What was he to do?
As he continued on his trajectory towards the failing star he realised that there was more. It had not merely expanded, it was pulsing, heaving, trembling in space in the grip of vast, violent stellar tides, he could hear, or at least sense, the electromagnetic radiation thrown off by this turmoil filling the void with a huge irregular thunder. This was not the orderly variability which sometimes occurred in old red stars of its type. As he drew closer he understood, all the inner planets of the system had long since gone, exploded like Krypton or engulfed by the expanding star, but the outermost remained, two immense rocky spheres, larger even than Jupiter in the Solar System he had left behind and many times more massive. Under the influence of the matter flung out by the star their orbits had decayed and they were now racing around it in synchronous but highly unstable orbits, tearing at it with their powerful gravity as it also tore at them so that they were being shattered by seismic activity. They glowed red not merely in the reflected light of the star but from the heat generated by this gravitationally induced inner chaos.
Superman paused in space to survey the unfolding disaster, it was clear enough what must happen. Between them the planets already possessed nearly a tenth of the star's mass, a staggering figure, and metre by metre they were spiraling in towards it. The star would not after all collapse in an orderly fashion to form a white dwarf. Soon now under the gravitational influence of those 2 giant planets it would be torn apart, the planets too would fly apart and the debris, billions upon countless billions of tons of it would fly off into the depths of space. It was even possible to calculate in which direction most of it would go, he worked the calculation. With a great shock he realised that it would be towards the Solar System, along much the same trajectory as he had travelled in his capsule after the explosion of Krypton. That too had been a ballistic trajectory, the capsule had no motive power. 500 years hence he calculated, Krypton debris would hit the Solar System like the blast from some unimaginable shotgun. There was no telling what it would hit, but the fragments would be so numerous, millions of them, and some so enormous, that it was almost beyond hope that the Earth would not be struck and utterly wrecked if not absolutely destroyed. Even if there was no significant impact on Earth's surface, some of the debris would be so massive that planetary and lunar orbits must be altered and damage done which if not immediately fatal would reverberate throughout the System ever afterwards, so that disaster was only deferred. Humankind would be at an end. For sure that must come about one day, the human species had no more claim to immortality than any other, but 500 years. That was far too soon, it must be prevented.
What was to be done? Steadily he calculated, there was need for haste but he must not rush, it was desperately important to get things right, there would be no second chance. In the end he was left with uncertainty, even his most precise measurements and his most rigorous calculations could tell him only the degree of instability in the system, they could never predict precisely how it would behave if he set about to interfere with it. None the less he devised a plan. The balance of gravitational forces was on a knife edge, so much so that even the outward pressure of the Krypton star's waning radiation was a significant factor which must be taken into account, it was within his power so to alter that balance that the system collapsed after all and did not fly apart. There would be no explosion, no debris, and Earth would be safe. He could not directly influence the orbits of the 2 giant planets, still less the behaviour of the Krypton star, that was way beyond his powers. What he could do was to nudge a small moon out of its orbit around the lesser of the giants and send it crashing into the star, even that tiny shift of mass would be sufficient to upset the fragile equilibrium. The planet's orbit would destabilise so that within hours it too would crash into the star, closely followed by its synchronously orbiting twin. Briefly there would be turmoil but with the planets safely engulfed and relieved of the influence of their orbiting mass the star would then collapse peacefully over the next few thousand millennia to become a white dwarf in the standard fashion.
Hanging there in space, in orbit around the star himself, he calculated and recalculated. Eventually it was time to act. With sudden relief he realised that there was nothing to be lost, he could not possibly make matters worse than they must otherwise be. He flew towards the moon, it was irregular, more likely an asteroid trapped by the planet's gravity than a native moon. As he approached it closer he noticed on one of its surfaces traces of structures which could not possibly be natural. With a shock he realised that this was a fragment of old Krypton, a great chunk of its shattered surface with the remains of a city still upon it. Here was an irony indeed, that the missile he was about to try to cast into the star in order to save the Earth from destruction was part of his long lost home, might even contain within itself his very birthplace.
There was no time to dwell on those thoughts, at his chosen moment he began to nudge the fragment out of orbit, he must move it just far enough that it broke free, a few kilometres would do, then he must recalculate. His strength was not limitless and the effort cost him all of it, yet metre by metre the fragment moved. It quaked internally and threatened to shatter, the planet seethed a million miles below, the Krypton star, pulsing and trembling, filled half the sky. Its radiation roared and rumbled. The gravitational forces were immense and the difficulties of keeping on course greater than any he had know. He became so exhausted that he sometimes forgot why he was doing what he was doing, remembered only that he must do it, but he carried on. Despite the immense numbing physical effort he felt no confusion, no uncertainty, no anger, only an overwhelming need to succeed. Hour by hour, he forced the reluctant fragment out of its tight orbit, 200 metres more to go, 100, the balance was that close, then gravity would take over, the pebble so to speak would be over the edge and would fall on its own, and he would let himself fall with it.
At last he was there, a final shudder and the fragment was free of the planet. He reordered his exhausted thoughts, recalculated and knew what he must do now, he must slow it down, otherwise it would graze past the star in a steep parabolic orbit, break free of the system entirely and be lost. It might not matter, he might have done enough already but he could not be sure, every metre per second by which he could reduce its velocity increased the likelihood that it would fall into the star, that the collapse he intended would follow and that Earth would be safe.
There was no skill required now, only effort, and he gave all he had, drained himself utterly, until eventually he saw that he had succeeded. There was no air here in space, his lungs did not need it, had there been he would have shouted aloud, a long cry of triumph. He had no strength left to escape the cataclysm he had created nor any wish to do so. He rode the fragment the final few thousand kilometres into the star, a dead shot, molten now, blazing, plunging inwards, pushing and guiding it to the last. He had intended to stay with it right down into the star's inner core, there to perish, but at that last moment some reflex instinct for self-preservation along with a sudden intense anxiety to be certain that he had truly succeeded took over. He broke away and as he looked back through the diffuse, glowing veil of the star's outer mantle, even as the fragment tumbled onwards and inwards and began to disintegrate, he detected the infinitesimal alteration in the orbit of the planet from which he had torn it which must beyond doubt lead on to the conclusion he had planned.
Even now as he hung there in the mantle he still did not know what might become of him. He realised to his surprise that he survived, beyond that there was scarcely anything of himself left, no strength, no will, no anxiety, no fear. He watched as first one of the giant planets then the other staggered in space and began to topple towards its destruction. He saw that the great cosmic explosion he had foreseen had been prevented and the Earth saved from destruction. He had saved it. He felt a sudden immense joy. Leaving the Earth had seemed negative, a defeat, as though he was sneaking away from his self-imposed responsibilities, no matter that his logic clearly told him that his continued presence there was a growing risk and that it was his duty to go. What he had achieved now was supremely positive, it was a justification of all he was and all he had ever been, of the uncertain boy, the isolated super-hero, the lonely pilgrim searching all his days for his destiny. It wiped away all the self-doubt and all the demeaning, shuffling uncertainty of his later years. He had kept his Vow. He felt no pride but, at last, a wonderful sense of fulfilment and peace. He had done, and it was good.
As the planets spiralled ever inwards gravitational changes caused the star's dying nuclear fires to blaze up and it regained once more for an instant its former spectral signature of the years before the destruction of Krypton, the spectrum in the light of which Superman was super no longer. In that instant, without time for thought, or pain, or surprise, his body vaporised and he was gone.
Eric Webb 1995