by Starsky Hutch 76
Over the next month, Kobra worked to cement his power as well as Kahndaq’s place in the international community. The problem, though, was that such a thing required a high level of visibility, and assassination attempts were happening in greater and greater frequency.
In three weeks, he had lost three doubles and four food-tasters. Two Kobra robots had also met explosive ends. At first, he had thought that the assassins belonged to forces who had been loyal to General Kuffar, even if the plots had been more inventive than he would have attributed to them. Something soon happened to teach him otherwise.
The sun shone brightly on the dusty Kahndaqi street as the Naja-Naja and his entourage walked along, basking in the cheers of the worshipful throng as they received their tributes. A beautiful girl-child appeared with a handmade necklace of orchids. Kobra smiled and kneeled down for her to put it around his neck.
A seam suddenly appeared down the center of the girl’s face, and the two halves parted to reveal a spout that issued a cloud of lethal gas. The Naja-Naja gasped, grasped his throat, and fell to the ground. Foot-soldiers quickly gathered the fallen leader as the crowd converged upon the robot and tore it to pieces.
“Luthor,” Kobra later said grimly, as he stood over the fallen form of yet another double.
He and the criminal scientist had been playing a game of cat and mouse ever since Kobra had stormed Black Island and Luthor had tried to return the favor by exiling him to the L-Zone. Now, it looked as if Luthor had chosen to up the stakes. Well, Luthor was going to learn what most sensible people already knew — that if you played with snakes, you were probably going to get bitten.
Clark Kent loved his work, and not just the work that no one knew about, though even that was more enjoyable now that it was no longer the career hazard it once was thanks to a more flexible work schedule. He was enjoying the career that actually paid the bills again, thanks to the extra freedom that came with being a freelancer. He hadn’t realized just how stressed his career had made him until the day Morgan Edge had pushed once too often and made him quit.
Now that the pressure was off of him, he was even writing fiction in his spare time, something he hadn’t done since college. Other colleagues he knew that were trying to break into fiction liked to write adventure of the Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy variety. He had more than enough of adventure in his personal life, so he preferred satirical humor. He hoped that some day the name Clark Kent would be regarded in the same light as Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, or even T.C. Boyle.
As he boarded the subway, his super-hearing continuously picked up bits and pieces of conversations about the latest news, particularly Kobra’s actions in Kahndaq, much to his annoyance. People were asking themselves if they hadn’t misjudged Kobra out of cultural bias. It made him sick to hear the leader of the Cobra Cult being given the same air of cautious respect that was given to men like Yassir Arafat. He knew he would have to talk to the Justice League about the situation. The problem was, though, that Kobra had somehow conned the people of Kahndaq into accepting him as their benevolent leader. They truly believed he was guiding them into a new golden age.
As a rule, the League used their powers to protect, not to force their own views upon others, even if they didn’t believe the choices being made were the correct ones. Pa Kent had taught him the importance of this on more than one occasion when Clark wore the uniform of Superboy.
The first time was when he wanted to fly right to Germany and knock down the Berlin Wall, then later when he wanted Superboy to trade in his red and blue for army green and go to Vietnam. Pa Kent had sternly reminded him that his gifts did not set him above the world; it made him responsible to it. These were lessons that he took to his heart, even during the times when his abilities seemed more like a burden than a gift.
One place he knew he wouldn’t be able to escape the talk of Kobra and Kahndaq was at the Daily Planet, not when it was such a hot story, but the company of friends and colleagues was a suitable tradeoff. He stepped off the elevator, opened the door to the bullpen, and expected to be confronted with the buzz of the latest news. Instead, he was surprised to be confronted with the silence of conversations abruptly cut short. All eyes were on him.
“Should my ears be burning?” Clark said, looking around at the expectant faces staring at him.
“Perry said to send you in to his office when you got in,” Jimmy Olsen said nervously.
“Uh, OK,” Clark said. “Any idea what I’m in for?”
“You’d better see for yourself,” Jimmy said.
“Just remember to keep an open mind, Clark,” Lois Lane added.
Clark raised an inquisitive eye at Lois’ cryptic statement but kept on his way toward Perry White’s office. He knocked on the door and heard Perry’s voice, gravelly from years of cigar smoking, say, “Yes?”
“Come on in, Kent. We’ve got business to discuss.”
He had assumed by we that Perry had meant the two of them, so he was startled to see that it included the last person he had expected to find standing in Perry White’s office.
“Edge?!” Clark exclaimed at the sight of Morgan Edge standing by Perry’s desk.
“Hi, Kent!” Morgan Edge said, extending a hand toward him. “Long time no see. You look good. Obviously, family life agrees with you.”
“Thanks,” Clark said, a hint of suspicion in his voice.
“No blue suit,” Morgan Edge said, gesturing with his cigarette holder toward his Dockers, polo shirt, and blazer. “You can always tell when a guy’s found himself a woman by the way his wardrobe improves.” Perry White chuckled in agreement.
Finding a tailor on Rokyn willing to experiment with Earth fashions helped, too, Clark thought to himself. “I know you didn’t come here just to talk about my fashion sense,” Clark said, crossing his legs as he sat down in the seat opposite the desk from Perry.
“You’ve got that right,” Edge said as he leaned against the edge of the desk, reminding Clark with a smile why people used to call Morgan Edge the smiling cobra behind his back. He held up his hand as if to hold off any sudden protests. “Don’t worry. I’m not here to try to get the Planet back. I doubt Perry would sell it after he went through hell and high water to get it back from me.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Superman: Planetary Matters.]
“You’ve got that right,” Perry snorted.
“So why are you here?” Clark asked.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve been watching the news coming out of Kahndaq,” Edge said.
“Of course I have,” Clark said.
“I’m surprised you’re not down there,” Edge said, looking at Kent soberly. “This is what you wanted — to do investigative journalism. That’s why you stopped being my lead anchor, a position a lot of guys would kill for.”
“The Planet already has someone down there — Ron Troupe,” Clark answered.
“That’s what Perry was saying,” Morgan said, looking back at the editor and returning to his glad-handing mood. “But you need to go down there, too.”
“I told you…”
“He’s right, Clark,” Perry interrupted. “You do.”
“Why?” Clark asked. “Ron’s doing a bang-up job. What does this have to do with GBS, anyway?”
“Well, let me tell you, Kent. Last night, GBS received a call. The new leader of Kahndaq wants to do an exclusive, one-on-one interview. But he doesn’t want to do it with Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, or even Barbara Walters. He wants to do it with Clark Kent.”
“Before you say no,” Morgan said, “I’m willing to share this story with the Daily Planet. The paper here will have exclusive rights to the full, unedited transcripts of the conversations with Kobra.”
“But Ron…” Clark started, looking toward Perry.
“Ron’s a pro,” Perry said. “He knows what kind of story this is. He also knows he’s not going to be handed an exclusive interview with a head-of-state at this point in his career.”
Clark frowned thoughtfully. He didn’t like this for a number of reasons. Morgan Edge getting his claws back into the Daily Planet was just one of them. Kobra knew Clark Kent was Superman. This interview was just a pretext to get him there. But for what reason? He knew he couldn’t refuse, though, not without endangering Ron and the other reporters.
“So when do I leave?” Clark sighed.
Clark Kent slumped in his seat in the airplane as he made the long trip toward Kahndaq. Leaving had been very hard. Overnight assignments never used to bother him, but that was before he had a family to come home to. When Jasma had started crying at the airport, he had felt himself getting misty-eyed as well.
He pulled his wallet out of the back pocket of his blue jeans and took out her picture. The grandmotherly woman in the seat next to him leaned over and said, “Is that your little girl?”
“Yes,” Clark smiled. “Well, she’s actually a cousin, but when her mother died, I was given custody.”
The old woman smiled sympathetically. “Well, she’s lucky to have you,” she said. “You seem like a very nice young man.”
He knew she meant to be kind, but her words stung when hearing them while he was looking at Jasma’s picture and seeing how much she looked like Kara. If Jasma was lucky to have him because he was there to take care of her, then what did that make her mother? He would never forgive himself for putting her in that orphanage all those years ago, but at the time it had simply never occurred to him that he could raise a teenage girl. It hadn’t been that long since he had made the change from Superboy himself, so he wasn’t able to picture himself taking on that sort of responsibility.
The irony of Superman being afraid of any kind of responsibility wasn’t lost on him. Because of his hesitation, other people had been there to experience the joys and sorrows of Kara’s path toward adulthood — her first love, her first heartbreak, learning to drive — all those things had been shared with orphanage staff and then the Danvers when it should have been him. That was a loss he could never make up for, and he would not make the same mistake with Jasma.
The jet touched down on the airfield of the Kahndaqi International Airport, and the passengers, made up of mostly news-hungry reporters, opportunistic businessmen, and the simply curious, exited into the terminal. The very fact that there even were international flights to Kahndaq now was a testiment to Kobra’s influence, and this fact was made clear by the enormous banners of the Kobra insignia that were visible from every vantage point.
Clark spotted Ron Troupe through the bustling crowd and made his way toward him with his garment bag slung over one shoulder and a duffelbag over the other.
“Hey, Clark! Great to see you!” Ron said eagerly, extending his hand toward him. From his demeanor, he didn’t appear to think Clark was encroaching on his territory, as he had feared.
“Good to see you, too,” Clark said. “I know Kahndaq is your story…”
“Don’t think anything of it,” Ron said, holding up his hands. “Not only do I get to work with Clark Kent — and I’m planning on learning a lot from you, by the way — but I’ve been told I could also get some screen time — my account of what life is like now for the people in Kahndaq, y’know.”
“That’s great!” Clark said, inwardly musing on what a charmed life Ron Troupe led.
“Here,” Ron said, grabbing Clark’s duffelbag. “Let me help you with that.” Before Clark could warn him, he had the strap over his own shoulder, and he seemed to visibly sag, while his eyes grew wide with shock. “Geez, Clark. What’ve you got in here? Bricks?” he joked.
Clark stifled a laugh as the young man struggled to pretend not to be bothered by the weight as he led him toward where he’d parked his rental car. As he climbed into the passenger seat, he asked, “So, has the climate here been pretty hectic?”
“Just the opposite,” Ron replied. “In fact, it’s been surprisingly peaceful. The last thing Kobra would want to do is give the impression that things are less than perfect.”
“I can see that,” Clark said as they passed a colorful billboard. On it was a Kobra foot-soldier with his arms around the shoulders of an attractive Kahndaqi man and woman who stood on either side of him. Above them, in Kahndaqi, read the slogan, “Together, we are building a brighter tomorrow.”
“Yeah, those things are eerie,” Ron said with a shudder. “That stuff is everywhere. It makes me feel like Big Brother is watching.”
“How about the Kahndaqis?” Clark asked.
“They don’t seem to mind,” Ron shrugged. “I guess they like their new Big Brother better than their old wicked stepfather.”
“So as far as they’re concerned, everything is just peachy,” Clark said grimly.
“Well, there have been some whisperings…”
“Oh?” Clark asked, raising an eyebrow in interest.
“Not that the public is dissatisfied, but someone apparently is. There have been rumors of someone trying to off the snake guy.”
“Yeah. I haven’t been able to get a handle on who it might be, though,” Ron said. “No one around here really liked Kuffar enough to keep from switching loyalites when the balance of power changed. Most folks around here seem to think that Kobra walks on water.”
“We’ll just add that to the list of all his other miracles,” Clark said, rolling his eyes. This drew a startled laugh from Ron.
They drove in silence for a short while until Ron pulled in front of the hotel where Clark’s reservations were. It looked far nicer than the surrounding buildings. “Here we are,” Ron said.
“This place really sticks out,” Clark said, looking around.
“Well, Kuffar really made sure his foreign investors were taken care of,” Ron said. “Supposedly, everything else will now rise to this level now that Kobra is here.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Clark said.
“C’mon,” Ron said. “I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew. “They should be hanging around the lounge.”
“During the middle of the day?” Clark asked.
“During slow news periods, there’s not a lot to do but sit in the lounge and drink,” Ron said. “Kahndaq doesn’t have a lot of what you’d call tourist attractions. Garrison, from the Daily Star, says we should all be getting combat pay for the damage we’re inflicting on our livers.”
Clark chuckled as he pulled his garment bag and duffelbag out of the backseat and followed Ron inside. “If boredom is the biggest danger he’s run into in a nation run by Kobra, he should consider himself lucky.”