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He was hungry, more hungry than he could bear.

Here, in the cold and deep water, the constant burning of his insides and the crushing and tearing of his body against its own weight was soothed to a point where he could rest, could be at peace. He had been to the surface, and found it a place of noise and pain and madness. Up there, everything hurt, but he could not die. Down in the cold and dark, he could rest, he could be left alone, he could sleep away the rest of his miserable days.

But now, he was hungry.

Not hungry for meat or blood, though he had tried to slake his hunger by attacking the swimming things near the surface. Even the bigger ones were too small to fill his gullet, and some had hard shells with no meat inside, filled instead with tiny two-legged creatures that screamed when they died. There was no food in the world that could satisfy the hunger he felt.

Instead, the hunger was for something else, for more of the burning pain inside his gut. He could sense other sources of it, like a trace of blood in the water, up towards the surface. He wanted to ignore the scent, to retreat back to the depths and return to his sleep. But the hunger was greater even than the burning, crushing pain of the surface.

He was compelled, forced by sheer instinct to hunt for the burning fuel to quench his hunger. There was no room for other thoughts in the simple, primal mind that urged him onward.

He knew going to the surface again would be agony. He knew it was infested with the little two-legged creatures and their sparkling noisy hives, full of things that burn and sting and choke the air. He knew once he reached land, all would be madness and pain again.

He didn't care. He was too hungry to care about anything.

The burning scent and maddening hunger propelled him forward, instinct driving him to follow old paths...... swim towards familiar the territory he had claimed as his own.

"Calm down, Smallville, I'm going to be okay," Lois says as she folds another pair of slacks into her suitcase. "I already checked to make sure I'm safe to fly; Doctor Jurgens says it won't be any danger to the baby until I'm 28 weeks in. There's nothing to worry about, honey."

I lean against the doorway to our bedroom, arms folded, shaking my head.

"I thought you said you were going to take it easy while you're expecting, Lo," I say to her, which she casually waves away with her hand.

"I am taking it easy," she responds. "It's not like I'm digging up dirt on LexCorp or going undercover to expose Intergang again. I'm just flying out to cover a conference where a bunch of dignitaries bluster at each other, get a couple of man-on-the-street interviews, and then I'll be home by next Tuesday."

I nod, conceding her point. She's flying out to cover an international conference regarding a string of mysterious radiation leaks in the Pacific. Ambassadors from the US, China, Russia, Japan, North and South Korea, Madripoor, Singapore, and Australia have all been up in arms, claiming everything from irresponsible dumping of nuclear waste to secret undersea weapons testing. There are rumors that Atlantean officials may arrive as well, but nothing's been confirmed. I'll need to speak to Arthur about the situation and see what he makes of it.

"I still don't like the idea of you traveling alone in your state," I say, meekly.

"Clark, seriously," she says, her patience running a bit thin. "It's Tokyo. Not Gotham City. And I'm not going alone. Jimmy's coming along, too; said he needs to stock up on his manga collection."

She rolls her eyes at that a bit; Jimmy's a great guy and one of the best photographers in the business, but he's drawn to pop-culture and collectibles like flies to--

"I've handled mobsters, terrorist leaders, corrupt CEOs, and invaders from other planets before," she says as she sorts through her travel bag to make sure everything is in its place. "Seriously, why are you so nervous about me covering a meeting?"

"Because I know my wife," I answer, "And I know Lois Lane wouldn't fly halfway around the world to sit in on this kind of meeting unless there was something else going on."

There's a long pause as she considers her response. Lois is the one person on Earth who never ceases to surprise me, but there are some things about her that I can read like a book. The way she purses her lips and shifts her weight to one leg tells me her first instinct is to go on the offensive, maybe accuse me of being paranoid or not trusting her. But she then looks down and away, very slightly shaking her head to dismiss the move. For a few seconds she closes her eyes and furrows her eyebrows, running through a dozen other responses, before she finally shrugs.

"Okay," she says, "No sense in being secretive about it. I've been doing some digging into the radiation leaks, and I think there's a lot more to it than people are letting on. In the past three weeks? Six commercial fishing boats and cargo ships have gone missing in the area. It hasn't hit the major outlets yet, but some of my sources told me a Russian nuclear sub has gone missing, too, which is why they're suddenly calling this meeting. It's not just the water being polluted, Clark; I think people are dying, and there's an effort being made to cover it up."

"This is still you taking it easy?" I say with a raised eyebrow. She gives me a sour look, which shuts me up.

"There's more to it. I've been studying the guest list for this conference, and you know whose name I found on it? General Yuri Malenko. JSDF Minister Rei Yanada. And our old friend Secretary Calvin Swanwick. If this is supposed to be an environmental issue, what the hell is the Secretary of Defense doing there with the Russian and Japanese Defense Ministers?"

"You think there might be something to that weapons-testing theory, then?"

Lo shakes her head.

"I think it's something else," she says. "I started probing the deep end of the web for any and all communications regarding the missing vessels in the area. While there aren't any official stories, I turned up a good bit of anonymous encoded chatter that was intercepted around the time of the radiation leaks. I'm not even going to pretend I can crack the codes that these messages use, but at least one guy out there managed to decipher a key word, being used over and over in these messages: MONARCH."

"Monarch...." I repeat, mulling over the word. That's not a lot to go on, but it definitely suggests either actual royalty or someone of extremely high stature. Then again, a codename could just be misdirecting gibberish. "Lois, if this is as serious as you're implying, please don't stir up trouble. For the baby's sake, at least?"

"I'm not going to go start a world war or get myself shot over a story, Smallville," she says, putting a reassuring hand on my cheek. "Not to mention, I know that at the first sign of trouble, you'll be there in about two seconds. Baby or not, I've still got a job to do just as much as you do. And hey, maybe this whole conspiracy-theory thing turns out to be nothing. That'd actually be a nice change of pace for us, wouldn't it?"

"And if it isn't?"

"Then we do what we always do," she says with a grin. "I set 'em up, and you knock 'em down. Truth and Justice and all that good stuff."

She gives me a quick kiss, just long enough to leave me wanting more, before pulling away and checking her phone.

"My ride to the airport just pulled up," Lois says as she closes her suitcase. "And you've still got to finish that story on the Boardwalk remodeling this afternoon. Don't worry, Clark; we'll be fine. A few days in Tokyo and an international powderkeg isn't anything I can't handle. Now be good, don't run off with any bug-eyed monsters while I'm gone, and I'll bring you back a souvenir."

"Okay," I say, giving her one last kiss before she heads for the door. "Just not another postcard of me lifting up Mount Fuji, okay?"

She laughs, and steps out the door, pulling her suitcase behind her. As soon as she's gone, my smile drops.

Lois is one of the most capable people I've ever met, and I know she knows well enough not to get herself and Jimmy in any serious trouble. But I can't help but be worried. I hate getting involved in politics and international affairs; it's so easy to get swept up by powers that you can't confront by just lifting heavy things or shooting lasers out of your eyes. And while Tokyo is still just a few seconds away if I really open up the throttle, it's still far enough away that seeing and hearing things there is going to be murky at best.

And I don't like the sound of these encoded 'Monarch' messages. Paranoia is usually something people associate with Batman, but given how many powerful and influential people have come after me in the past, you learn not to brush things off too lightly. I might want to talk to Bruce about it and see if he thinks it's worth pursuing.

But like Lois said, I still have my own story to finish writing today. And, barring any unforeseen catastrophes, I might just enjoy a relatively quiet day. These days, that would be a heck of a gift in and of itself.
Your wish is granted.

Fishing Vessel Xingyun Long
121 miles off the coast of Madripoor
Saturday, February 12th, 2017
02:46am ITC

"Damned useless weather app," Zhiao cursed as he wrenched hard on the helm, struggling to keep his footing as the Xingyun Long lurched starboard. "'Calm seas,' my ass."

In fact, the sky was clear, the moon bright and not a single cloud obscuring the glittering stars above. The sea, however, had grown unusually turbulent, swelling and crashing as if in a typhoon. It battered down on the small fishing boat, slamming against the sides and threatening to capsize her more than once. While deckhands scrambled to make sure everything was secure, captain Zhiao Sun Fan fought to keep them all above water. He could not explain why the seas were so rough, so for now, he would settle on blaming the new LexCorp Global Weather app he had installed on his GPS system to tell him what to expect. With the latest and greatest of modern technology failing him, Zhiao had to rely on his instincts and his years at sea to ride out the.....well, he would say 'storm' were there a storm at all.

"Captain!" shouted Hu Shin, his first mate, "The port engine's out!"

"I know, I know," grumbled Zhiao, cursing the half-hearted job his mechanic had done before they set sail. 'Doesn't matter,' he'd said at the time, 'the money we get from this next catch will be enough for a whole new one.' But the fishing had been bad the past few days, nets either coming up empty or full of fish that were strangely already dead. Zhiao was never the type to believe in omens and signs, but between the nets of dead fish and the roiling sea under a calm sign was enough to make even the most skeptical man start to wonder.

Over a hundred miles between the ship and home, only one working engine, and a sea that was determined to bring them down. Still, the old sailor thought as he gripped the helm so hard his knuckles turned white, there was no boat he'd rather be on in the situation. His father's boat, and his father's father's boat before that, and it had survived everything from monsoons to World Wars. This moldy old pile of junk had more than earned the name Xingyun Long-- 'Lucky Dragon.'

"Get everyone below deck," Zhiao shouted over the crashing waves to Hu, "I'm going to get us out of this mess!"

Hu nodded, and began shouting to the deckhands to drop what they were doing and get below to safety. Meanwhile, the old captain gritted his teeth, and turned again hard to starboard, trying to turn the ship back south towards Madripoor.

A large swell rolled over the deck, water splashing into the cabin. Zhiao's concentration broke when he heard the water hissing, steam rising from the floor. In fact, the usual mist of choppy water grew thicker, as more steam churned in the air above the rolling sea.

No.....not rolling, Zhiao thought. Boiling.

On the port side, Zhiao noticed another swell coming, this one far larger than anything they had seen before. There was no crest, no break in the wave, just a rolling rise in the water like an enormous hill. As if something were moving just underneath the surface......a submarine? No, something else....

....something impossibly huge....

From within the watery hill, Zhiao saw a faint blue glow, barely illuminating the dark mass beneath it. The glow became stronger, and Zhiao became aware of a low humming sound in the air, one that grew louder and higher-pitched as the colossal shape beneath the waves approached.

Vaguely, he remembered hearing an old friend of his father telling stories that Zhiao wasn't old enough to hear at the time. A low hum, a blue glow, things that his father's friend had seen Tokyo.....

"No," he heard himself say, the word a kind of powerless denial that utterly disintegrated in the face of an unimaginable reality.

The old fisherman had been in some tight scrapes in his life before, and on more than one occasion he'd confronted the possibility that he would die. Never, though, had it ever been more certain to him. Never before had it been such an immutable, horrible fact that froze his blood and seized every muscle in his body. He could not even bring himself to scream.

The top of the watery mound broke, pierced by what looked like giant crude blades that sliced through the ocean in three uneven rows. The blue light, now searing to Zhiao's eyes, emanated from these jagged fins, and the low hum had become a frantic buzzing, like a thousand high-voltage wires brimming with power.

For a moment, Zhiao could see two points of red. Two monstrous, hateful eyes peering at him from the boiling waves. He knew that no turn of luck, no act of any god, could save him now. The devil had risen to take him.

There was a flash of white light, and for a split-second, everything was heat and pain and terror.....

......and then there was nothing.


Chapter 3

Glenmorgan Square
April 1st, 2016

"Gotta hand it to ya, Spit-curl, you sure are persistent!" the cackling aberration says as he hurls a pulsating purple bubble towards me. "I've literally turned your entire world upside-down and inside-out, and here you are, still thinking there's a way you can strong-arm your way out of this!"

Well, he's not entirely wrong, I say to myself flying downwards towards the bottomless sky-pit to avoid the bubble. It bursts against an office building, causing it to sprout enormous hairy legs and begin to tap-dance, sending clouds of dust and shattered glass and debris tumbling upwards into the crackling ground high above us.

I'd been having such an easy day, too, until Jimmy transformed into a sock puppet and all the air turned green.

The entity calls itself.....well, I can't really pronounce it, but the closest approximation you can make with a humanoid mouth is something like 'Mxyzptlk.' He--I assume it's a "he," anyway, given that he's taken the form of a diminuitive balding man with a purple suit and bowler hat-- claims to be an imp from the Fifth Dimension, a being of pure infinite possibility, who enjoys messing with lower-dimensional beings to keep himself entertained. I faced him once about ten years ago, and his 'pranks' were no less destructive and bizarre than they are now.

"I don't have to out-muscle you, Mxy," I say as I weave my way between bolts of nightmares. "I remember the rules from last time I defeated you, and I can do it again."

"Oh right, right, you 'defeated' me," he mocks, rolling his eyes and making exaggerated air quotes from actual thin air as he gestures with his fingers. "I've been giving this sad little slice of time-space you call a 'universe' a subatomic wedgie from the word go today, and so far you haven't even managed to get me to say a single syllable of my name backwards! All you've done is zig-zag around while I've taken pot-shots at you! Speaking of which, BOOM!"

Mxyzptlk points his finger at me, and a beam of white-hot nothing screams towards me. I put every ounce of energy I have into speed, zipping up and down the streets and avenues, banking hard and looping back on myself to keep out of the way of his attack as it slices through skyscrapers like a hot knife through butter. I really hope everything goes back to normal like last time, or the reconstruction effort is going to take ages.

"What's your game, Mxy?" I call out, rolling to the left to avoid a rift in timespace and the thousand gibbering horrors that pour out. "If you can go anywhere in any universe you want, why come back here?"

"Who says I spend all my time here?" he replies, lazily lobbing nightmares after me as I come close to completing the pattern. "This form, this name 'Mxyztplk?' It's like an avatar, a username for an account in one of your video games--well, not your video games, those are all terrible. Maybe more like one of those internet forums where some fat loser in his thirties thinks he's really clever by breaking the fourth wall like that isn't a total cliché by now. Anyway, I use variations on this gimmick all over the place, and I've messed with a whole bunch of different yous."

I have no idea what he's going on about, but it doesn't matter. I've got to keep him talking, keep him throwing his attacks at me, following the pattern....

"And it's not like I just mess with Supermen," he continues. "Sometimes I got and stir up trouble with a space captain in the future. Sometimes I dress up like a triangle and mess with a kid in Oregon. Every once in a while I go screw with a bunch of cartoon horses. But none of those are ever as fun as messing with Big Blue."

The sky below me turns black, and what looks like a gigantic grapevine made of gnashing mouths comes swirling up to chase after me.

"It still sounds like you're a one-trick pony, Mxy," I say, veering near a row of shops as the mouth monster drags itself across them, ripping up the brick and mortar facades. "It sounds like a pretty dull way to live if everywhere you go, all you can think of doing is messing with other people's lives."

"Oh, come on, Boy Scout," he sneers. "You're talking about an infestation of bags of wet meat, some fuzz on a wet rock, like they're actually people? I mean, you're essentially to them what they are to the bacteria in their stomachs, and you think they're your friends! Get some perspective!"

With that, I fly up directly towards him, stopping inches from his face.

"I think you're the one that needs some perspective today, pal."

"Oh yeah? And what exactly do I need to--"

Casually, I glance downward to the crumbling buildings, the swirling sky-pit and the rings of circling debris.

Slowly but surely, he sees the destruction he's wrought has formed a pattern.

Or rather, a sequence of letters.


By trying to hit me with his most devastating attacks, he wrote it with his own actions into the fabric of the universe itself. In huge flaming letters.


"You know the rules, imp," I say, the game truly over. "Now put everything back the way you found it, and then get the hell out of this dimension."

"But.....that's--....I! HA! He suddenly starts to laugh. "AH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!"

It's not a laugh of triumph, or of a villain whose master plan has just come to fruition. It's the kind of laugh a con man might get when he realizes he's been out-conned.

"Oh! Oh, you are good, Spit-Curl! I gotta say, I'm impressed!" Wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, Mxyzptlk snaps his fingers, and without so much as a 'poof,' the sky and ground are where they should be, the gibbering horrors are banished to the dark places of the multiverse, and none of the people are sock puppets or vegetables or chalk drawings anymore.

"Don't worry yourself, farmboy, I'll stick to my word and make myself scarce," he says, slowly fading away as the laws of probability reassert themselves.


Below me, life goes on like nothing had happened. People are heading to and from their work, popping into stores, trying to catch the cross-town bus or riding the monorail. The LED banners in Glenmorgan Square start playing an advertisement for LexCorp's new 'Net of Tomorrow' software. The Meteors are warming up for the afternoon's game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

And just like the last time, I'm floating above it all with a look of bewilderment and a tinge of horror.

I feel something in my hand that wasn't there a moment before. It's a note, hastily written on a scrap of paper that simply hadn't existed.


Don't think I'm a bad sport. I left you a prize for winning today, but I'm not telling you what it is. You'll find out soon, though, and I can't wait to see how you handle it.


Off across the bay, I hear a fire siren. I find myself blinking a few times before I shake off the surreal daze, and then I crack my knuckles and get back to work. Whatever 'prize' the imp has gifted me, I can deal with it later.

For now, I've got a job to do.
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