Clark’s heart hammered rapidly against his ribs as the countdown on the dial ticked its way through the final sixty seconds.
Getting past security had been a breeze – literally – but the missile launch chamber was fitted with motion detectors and heat sensors, so he knew it wouldn’t be long until security came barging through the door. He just hoped it would take them longer than one minute to discover the intrusion, and that they wouldn’t be packing any form of meteor rock, refined or otherwise.
‘Sixty seconds to launch,” an automated female voice droned.
It was now or never. Quickly Clark started to input the code that Chloe had given him, and as he did so, alarm bells shrieked insistently in his ear.
Furiously he typed the complicated code in, swearing as he wrongly entered a digit and had to reinitiate the shutdown. Just then the doors burst open, and a swarm of armed guards flooded in. And of all things, they just happened to be carrying the one thing he feared most…
Of course. Lex had always had his suspicions about the effects of meteor rocks on people and substances, and being that he was in league with Brainiac in this reality as well as his own, it stood to reason that Lex would be reliably informed about its effect on extraterrestrial visitors of the Kryptonian persuasion.
As the soldiers neared him, he automatically began feeling the ill effects of the radiation on his system. His knees weakened, his stomach roiled and pain began to lance through his entire body. Unable to hold himself upright, he sank to the floor, reaching up a hand to the computer’s console to key in the final digits.
“Stop, or I’ll shoot!” yelled a guard as he cocked his gun and took aim.
Clark gritted his teeth and stretched up as far as he could, managing to reach the panels.
The guard made good on his word. A hail of bullets rang out in his direction and several of them struck his outstretched arm. Clark screamed in pain from both the gunshot wounds and the kryptonite radiation, wishing for the sweet release of death but determined to save the lives of Chloe, her baby and the rest of the world.
With a final burst of speed he reached up, keyed in the final letter and pressed Enter.
A deafening roar assaulted his ears as multiple gunshot wounds were fired and bullets tore into his flesh. Excruciating pain began to give way to a brilliant white light, and Clark felt like he was being sucked into a whirling vortex of shimmering cosmic energy.
It didn’t last long. In a flash, he found himself upright, and the brilliant illumination that had surrounded him disappeared as fast as it had come.
“Clark?” he heard Chloe say in front of him. “Clark! Oh, thank God you’re back!”
He held his head and steadied himself. “Chloe?” he said groggily.
“I’m so relieved,” she breathed, flinging her arms around his neck. “One minute I was pressing the octagonal disk into your hands, and the next I was standing in an empty barn. I was terrified I was never going to see you again.”
“Chloe,” he repeated raggedly, staring intently at her. “My Chloe?”
She leaned back and blinked at him. “How many Chloe’s do you have, Clark?” she asked in puzzlement.
“Oh God, it’s you,” he breathed, and yanked her hard against him. “Thank God. I thought I’d lost you.”
“You’d lost me?” she echoed, bewildered. “Clark, you’re not making any sense. I’m the one who was standing here waiting for you while you who disappeared into thin air.”
“Exactly,” he said. “I disappeared and found myself in a world that didn’t have me in it.”
“Whoa, slow down, buddy,” she said, leading him to the old red couch. “Here, sit down. Take a breather, have a rest, and then break it all down for me.”
Chloe listened patiently while he gave her a quick run-down of his experience in the alternate universe, mentioning briefly how he’d needed her help to save billions of lives.
“So, you found me, but I was about to be married?” she said, intrigued.
He nodded. “To a Metropolis crimefighting hero with dark hair and green eyes.”
Her eyed widened. “Clark, are you trying to tell me we hooked up in this other life?” she said with a giggle. “I thought you said you weren’t in that other universe.”
He shook his head. “No, it wasn’t me, it was…” suddenly it hit him. In a world in which he did not exist, Chloe had ended up with the next best thing; a man who, to put it bluntly, was essentially him in every respect.
“Who was he, Clark?” she persisted, interrupting his thoughts.
Just then, there was a glow and a hum from the steamer trunk, and Clark quickly rose and retrieved Dr Swann’s diary.
“Another message?” she asked.
“It’s Kara,” he said as she came to stand beside him. “She’s in trouble. Brainiac’s gained access to Jor-El’s quarters, he’s going to stop me from taking off.”
“Oh, no. You need to get out there now, Clark,” she urged, her eyes filled with worry. “I don’t care what this other world you saw was like, or how happy I was in it; if you aren’t there, then it’s the wrong one.”
“I’ll sort this.” He grabbed the octagonal disk from the table and slipped it in his pocket, then turned to leave.
He turned, and saw Chloe wringing her hands, her eyes alight with unshed tears.
“I just…wanted to say good luck,” she finished lamely. “Good luck, and be safe. I don’t want to lose you again, not after I just got you back.”
Clark’s heart melted as he read between the lines. How had honestly not accepted before today what was right in front of his face?
Quickly he made his way over to her, determination in every stride.
“I’ll be careful,” he promised. “And if I never see you again…” he reached out, took her in his arms and kissed her.
Chloe was startled for a second, then her arms burrowed into the hair at the back of his neck, and then they were locked in an embrace reminiscent of the one they’d shared almost exactly a year ago. He kissed her deeply, moulding her body to his as his tongue stroked hers, and his hand moved possessively over her back.
All too soon he lifted his head and looked into her startled, wondrous eyes.
“I love you,” he said earnestly. “I love you Chloe; with every cell in my body, with every heartbeat. I hope to God I make it back, so that I can show you just how much you mean to me.”
She opened her mouth to talk, but he placed a finger over her lips and shushed her.
“I have to go save the world now,” he said gently. “We’ll talk more when I get back, I promise.”
He turned and hurried down the barn stairs, feeling as though a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Just as he reached the doorway, he heard her voice from the balcony.
“I love you too, Clark,” she said tremulously, a smile on her face even as a tear rolled down her cheek. “I always have.”
He nodded and smiled. “I know.” And then he headed out of the barn with a renewed sense of purpose.
Without a doubt, he knew that this was the way things were supposed to be.
And for the first time in his life, he felt truly complete.