The Great Confrontation:  Chapter 4
By Dannell Lites and DarkMark

The room wasn't supposed to exist.

But then, neither were most of the people there.  Which did, of course, make for some extremely interesting chatter among the residents.  Alan Kent's head began to throb at the thought of it.  At his back, he could feel his father tense.  His uncle George, by contrast, was smiling.  Uncle George. Good old George ... who was always smiling.  The quintessence of a reasonable man; forever pointing out the obvious.  Good old Uncle George ...

Whose bright smiles never quite seemed to reach the icy depths of his startling blue eyes.

"Alan ... Alan ... " George pleaded earnestly.  And the sound of his voice was so affable, so certain ... so damned *reasonable* that it made Alan want to scream and throttle him. "Just how stupid do you think the average man is, boy?"  George leaned forward, his posture demanding an answer.

Governing himself with a will, Alan sighed.

"I don't know, Uncle George," he said, "you tell *me*.  How stupid *do* I think the average man is?"  George frowned, his brows knitting themselves together in a frown before he remembered to school his features to bland amusement.  Since there was no single trace of sarcasm or condescension in his nephew's voice, he was at a loss for a proper weapon.

Alan was, after all, an actor.

"Pretty damn stupid, Alan," George declared mildly, still smiling for all he was worth.  He leaned forward painting earnestness on his face like a portrait.  "For over five hundred years," the older man observed, "there's been a Superman.  Since the Prime Superman of the Twentieth.  Everyone knows that."  Politely he waited for confirmation from the new Superman, the twentieth of his line.

Alan remained still and silent.

Anger briefly flared in his uncle's eyes.  But the smile ... the smile never wavered.  Not even once.

"Don't you imagine," George continued, apparently unabashed, "that the general populace might-- just might, mind you!--have figured out that, by the simplest laws of genetics and mathematics, there *has* to be more than one of us?"

Klar Kent lay a hand on his son and successor's shoulder.  Unspoken, the message passed between them.  This is my fault, Klar's gentle squeeze of Alan's shoulder said.  It's *me" he's striking out at.  Not you.

I know, Alan's almost imperceptible nod acknowledged, I'll handle it.

Klar smiled.and removed his hand.  I know you will, said that small smile.  You're the Superman.

"Of course, they know, Uncle George," Alan returned.  "Most of them.  When they think about it.  Which isn't often." Alan smiled merrily.  He was sure that no warmth reached his eyes, either.  But he resolutely beat down the momentary sorrow that sprang fully alive in his heart at the knowledge.

What next, Alan?, he thought with some tiny spark of despair. Kissing babies?  That smile was a lie and you know it.  And so does he.

Weary and heart sore, Alan looked away from his Uncle.  But not before he spied the gleam of triumph in those hard, bright eyes. Underneath the table, where no one could see it, his hands knotted into fists.

But, like his Uncle, he kept right on smiling.

"Uncle George," Alan let a careful note of pleading creep into his voice, "don't *do* this.  Please.  Listen to me.  As long as we don't rub their faces in it ... as long they see only one of us, a hero, they aren't threatened.  It's easy for them to ignore the fact that there have to be others.  They can even accept the existence of a Superboy.  Or a Supergirl.  But ... Rao's flames!"  He gestured to the huge cavern outside the small room, aswarm with Family activity.  "There are over two hundred of us here!  They'd never accept that!  Never!  You have to think of the Family!"  Alan swallowed hard, closing his eyes in despair.

Damn, damn, damn!, he thought.  That was a mistake.  A bad one.  Anger isn't going to get you anywhere.

It was almost gratifying, though, to see that George was also angry.  With a jerk, the
older man leaned forward and brought his fist down on the stone table between them..

"I *am* thinking of the Family!" he shouted. Lips peeled back from bared teeth.  "We're *all* El's, Alan!  All of us.  The rest of us every bit as much as you.  It's our heritage as well."  Emphatically, he pointed out the single door leading into the room.  "It's easy enough for you to talk, Alan," said George, not even trying to keep the bitterness from his voice, "now that you've been Chosen.  But what about the others of us?

"*You* won't have to spend the rest of your life hiding!  Pretending to be less than you are because of some silly Family tradition.  *You're* The Superman."

Alan fell down heavily again into his chair.  Wide-eyed, George stared at him.

"What about the rest of us Alan?" George repeated, his voice quiet.  Quite and above all
*reasonable*.  "What about the rest of us?"

And Alan had no answer for him.  None.

George straightened his back.  "Not as clear cut as you thought, is it?"  Now it was George who lay a sympathetic hand on his nephew's shoulder.  "For five hundred years this Family has been hiding; cowering in the shadows," he said softly.  "And why?  Because we're afraid; that's why."

He looked at his silent younger brother Klar and smiled wanly.  "Did you ever think that the El's were such cowards?"  Then George shook his head.  "It's got to stop, Klar."

Neither of them answered him.

After a moment, he glanced over at Alan.  Leaning down he took both of the younger man's hands in his.  "You could be the one," he whispered.  "*You* could put an end to five centuries of fear and repression.  Look at what it's doing to us!  For the love of Rao, look at your sister Lori!  Your own sister." His gaze shifted to Klar and bore down on him.  "Your own daughter!  She's not allowed to be who she is and she hasn't the least idea of who or what she wants to be.  So she plays at being a Slug just to have something to do with her life!  She's so afraid of who she is that she hides it under all that insolence and ugliness because she *feels* ugly."

"Do you really think she feels ugly, George?" said Alan, quietly.

"What do you think, Alan?" said George.

"I think...she looks the way she wants to look right now."

"Great Rao," said Klar, breaking his silence disgustedly.  But he said no more.

As if in a daze Alan watched as his Uncle once more pierced him with almost pleading eyes.  "You're The Superman, the leader of this Family, now.  So lead us, Alan, lead us out of the darkness and into the light."

For once, Alan could not tell if George Kent were sincere or not.  He had absolutely no idea.

In silence they stared at one another for many long moments.  Alan's head spun as if he were standing on the edge of a precipice and had no powers.   Was George right?  For an eternal instant he considered his life and its course if he had *not* been chosen The Superman.  Could he have gone on, lived his life in peace, pursuing his acting career, denying, crushing, so much of what he was?  All those powers and abilities he possessed gone to waste ... Did he even have the right to do that?  Or to ask others to do it?  Did he?

Alan paled and hung his head.  And so it was that he did not see George Kent reach out; reach out and lay his super strong hands on a support pillar rising from the floor of the gigantic cave to it's ceiling high overhead.  His first clue that something was dreadfully amiss came when he sensed his father go rigid and tense at this back, then heard Klar's sharp gasp of indrawn breath.  The cave surrounding them shook.

It was only then that Alan glanced up to see his Uncle shake the pillar once more, smiling grimly.

"George. what are you *doing*?" cried Klar Kent.  "Stop it! Stop it!"

George Kent's hot gaze bore into his younger brother's eyes and his smile broadened.  Once more the cave shook itself and small chunks of debris began to fall from the ceiling.  Swiftly Alan flung himself into the air and began batting the rocks aside as they fell.

"What are you going to do, Klar?" George Kent demanded.  "Stop me?  Why don't you stop me, little brother?  Why don't you stop me?"

"George!  For the love of Rao, man!  There are innocent people out there!   Your Family!  We're not all invulnerable!  You yourself are not!  Do you want to kill someone?  Stop!"

"Make me, Moliom Klar," he demanded once more, "make me!"

Above, Alan tuned his heat vision precisely and lashed out.  He sent a low powered beam of it to burn his mad Uncle's hand.  In an automatic reflex, George Kent released the support pillar and moved back.  Gritting his teeth in pain, he cradled his injured hand with the other unburned one, brandishing it like a hard-won prize of war.

"Do you see now, Klar?" he cried.  "Do you see what it feels like to be helpless?  To sit back and be forced to watch tragedy unfold itself and not be able to prevent it?  Do you see?"

Alan landed and fell heavily back into his abandoned chair.  His acting had always been his refuge.  When he could not bear the strain of being Alan Kent, Heir to The
Superman, when his life rose up and threatened to overwhelm him he fled to the stage of his mind where he did not have to be either Alan Kent, or the son of The Superman.  Where he could be someone else entirely.

Yes, every one of the Family, whether they wore a costume or not, had two identities.  But he gave himself many more than that.

He stomped across the stage of "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" as the drunken Brick Pollock, haunted by the death of his friend Skipper and the loss of his sports career.  Crutching his way about, fleeing from the embrace of his wife Maggie.  Maggie The Cat.  Whose independence and determination gave the play its name.  Flora Robinson had been brilliant in the role, he remembered, prowling the stage, spitting and hissing like her namesake.

"Oh Brick!" she'd mourned in Maggie's soft, drawling voice.  "Sometimes I feel just like a cat.  A cat on a hot tin roof!"

"Then jump off the roof, Maggie," he'd advised her, downing Brick's tumbler of bourbon in a single swallow; waiting for 'that click in my head' to take him away.  "Jump off the roof.  What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof, Maggie?  What is the victory?"

Effortlessly he recalled the feel of the touch of 'Maggie's' long red nails as they traced the line of his cheek; the whisper of her lips against his as she kissed him.

"Just holding on long as she can, I guess," Maggie had replied.  "Just holding on long as she can."

"Should I jump off the roof?" Alan wondered to himself.  "Should I?"

"This is madness, George, madness!   Don't do this, please!" Klar pleaded.  And George pounded his fist on the table once more.

"Is it madness to want the best for your Family?" he cried.  "I say, no!  Set us free, Klar! Set us free!  Or *I* will!"

And in the sanctity of his his mind Alan again heard the wavering voice of drunken Brick Pollock.

"What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof, Maggie?"

Only this time the voice was that of his uncle, George Kent.  And when the reply came, "Just holding on long as she can, I guess ... " the voice was his own.


It never ceased to amaze Katherine just how utterly and totally useless most people were in a crisis.

It was appalling, really.  They froze in place and simply waited for fate to take them where it would.  Where that was she did not know.  Nor did she care to guess.

When the huge Martian cave they had borrowed for their Family Reunion shook itself like a great wet dog throwing annoying rainwater from off its sleek coat, it seemed to be left up to her to act.

"Listen everybody!" she called in a loud, strong voice.  "Move quickly to the center of the cave!  Away from the walls and support pillars.  Now!  Those of you with powers to the outside!  Form a shield with your bodies! Protect the non-invulnerable!  Some of you with super strength who can also fly - brace that ceiling! Move, move, move!"

The heir of Supergirl waited just long enough to see that she was being obeyed before she flew to her Aunt Lyra's side and covered her with her body.  Spotting her languishing cousin Lori she snapped, "For Rao's sake, Lori!  *Do* something!  You have powers!  *Use* them!"

The Sluggish girl shrugged with bored indifference.

"What's the point?" she demanded.

"The point is to keep members of your Family alive!" Katherine snarled and thrust a frightened little girl of about ten whose Family ID badge proclaimed her vulnerability into Lori's reluctant arms.

"Point," said Lori, cradling the girl and almost seeming motherly, despite her makeup.  "Don't care about yourself.  But don't let others get hurt.  The Slug Way."

"Just great," snapped Katherine.  But she saw that Lori was moving with the girl towards others, to shield them.

"What's going on?" wondered Lyra Kent in a worried voice.  "Mars is tectonically stable!  Mars Project Corp and Enviro Control sees to that!"  The vulnerable human woman peered determinedly around Katherine's shielding body.  "Where's Klar?  Do you see Adam or Alan?"

"No, Lyraior," replied Katherine. "I don't see them anywhere. I'm sure they're safe, though.  Get back under cover, now," she urged, thrusting the other woman firmly back beneath the shelter of her body.

The mammoth cave trembled again and Katherine used her heat vision to vaporize some large chunks of rock falling from the ceiling overhead, watching with approval as others followed her example.  Good!   The cave trembled and shook itself once more.  The cries and even a few screams of frightened members of her Family reached Katherine's ears.  She found it impossible to ignore them, making it quite difficult for her to concentrate properly.  Impossible to ignore ... or to remain passive.  She should do something!

But Lyraior!, the thought stabbed at her.  What about Lyraior?  You can't just leave her.  She's human.  And vulnerable.  Something might happen to her.  She might be injured; even killed.  You can't be responsible for such a thing.  Alan would never forgive you.

And at that point she wondered why it seemed more important that Alan would never forgive her, than that she would never forgive herself.

Across the crowded cavern she glimpsed Adam Kent.  The tall son of the Superman spread himself over the body of  his Aunt Irinia and that of her daughter Sy; protecting them with his own invulnerable f+orm to save them from harm.  Gritting her teeth grimly, Katherine was almost ashamed of the frown that rose to her full lips at the sight.  Was she merely jealous?  Was that the eventual source of the hot anger scalding her at this moment?

No, she told herself, still writhing in the clutches of her rage, it's not!  Damn him!  He's one of the strongest of us.  He should be up there.

Her eyes flashed to the vision of several members of the Family who were working hard to hold up the sagging ceiling of the huge cavern, bracing it with their hands and the hard muscles of their super strong bodies.

Why is he wasting himself down here ... protecting people?  There are plenty of others for that.  Ones who can't fly, Family members who aren't super strong.  If that ceiling collapses ...   She could not bring herself to think of all the pain and death that might ensue from that.

She watched as Adam used his heat vision in a wide beam to dispose of falling debris and allowed herself to feel a bit mollified.  That was more like it, she decided.  Definitely more to Katherine's liking.  Much more in tune with the heroic image of the one-time Superboy that Adam had been.

But he's not Superboy anymore, is he?, Katherine's inner voice  admitted.  Now he's just like the rest of us.  Even *I* have more freedom that he does, now.  And if we're discussing heroics ... what is Supergirl still doing huddling here on the ground like a wingless flamebird?  Why aren't *you* up there helping with the ceiling?  Rao alone knows you were quick enough to condemn Adam for lurking here in the dirt.  Should he abandon his Aunt and the young girl who's just now caught his fancy anymore than you should abandon Lyraior?

But it's not the same!, she tried to tell herself.  It's not the same!

She was not notably successful in her self-deception, she noted.

Isn't it?, she charged herself.  What makes it any different, then?  The fact that it's
Adam?  And not you?  So your feelings make you exempt from the rules, is that the way of it?  Hypocrite!  But then you always were better at asking questions than answering them, weren't you now, girl?

"What's going on?" cried Lyra Kent, anxiety staining her voice with harsh tones.  Katherine could sympathize.  The famous poet and wife of the Superman was not used to being helpless.  It did not suit her at all, the young woman thought.

"Mars is tectonically stable!" Lyra repeated. "This can't it be happening naturally.  It can't!"

Katherine had to agree.  The Mars Project, nearly half a thousand years old now, would never allow such a thing.  A marsquake would have been detected.  Detected ... and prevented.  Except for the Forbidden Cities, the whole of Mars was carefully monitored and maintained.   Even today the terraforming continued.  Transuits were no longer necessary.  Hadn't been for almost a hundred Terran years.  But the rusty martian soil was stubborn.  Most foodstuffs were still imported from the mother world.  Preserved in their eternal stasis fields the delicate, millennia old Martian cities rose from the arid crimson plains of Mars, their lofty spires reaching gracefully for the blood red skies; mute testimony to life's impermanence.

And harsh reminders that Man, for all his skill and determination, was not the first to set his foot on this world.  Mankind were only the guardians of this haunted place.  Just as Alan was now the guardian of the shield of the Superman and the long El Family tradition behind it.  Unbidden, Katherine's eyes sought out the statue of J'onn J'onzz, the hero called the Martian Manhunter, still standing tall in its brightly lit corner.  And not for the first time she wondered what it must have been like for him.  To know that he was the last of his kind.  To be lost and alone on a world not his own. The brooding brow, the proud aristocratic lines of his features, so poignantly captured by the unknown sculptor gave no hint of what thoughts and feelings lurked beneath.

But that form Katherine knew was not his true one.  A deliberate compromise between his true, more alien Martian form and a human one, J'onn J'onzz's reason for assuming it were ever his own.  When the Martian Manhunter disappeared from the ken of man, almost a hundred years ago now, he had taken all his myriad secrets with him.

The sculptor called his work "The Last Martian" and Katherine made a sudden decision.  "When I get back home," she thought, "I'm going to take this with me."  She smiled.  "And perhaps I'll find some Oreo cookies and a glass of cold milk to share with him sometime ... "  She recalled that he was quite fond of the sweet chocolate confection.  Especially Oreo Double Stuffs.

"I don't know, Lyraior." she answered he Aunt's query at long last.  "My senses tell me that this is a very localized effect.  And you're right.  It can't be natural."  Katherine bit her vulnerable lip.

Recklessly, the determined human woman once more pushed herself from out of the concealing shelter of Katherine's body and gazed about.

"Where's Klar?" she demanded yet again.  "And I don't see Alan, either.  Where could they be?"

Something told Katherine that more lurked behind those simple words than just concern for her husband and son.  Katherine was also worried she found.  It was unlike Klarior, the former Superman (it was going to be hard for Katherine to think of him in that wise, she discovered!) to be absent during a crisis.  And Alan ... why hadn't Alan lent his powers and strength to this struggle?  What else could be occupying him at this moment?  What could be more important than the safety of his Family?

It was only when Katherine realized that she did not see George Kent either that dread
truly settled over her like a heavy restraining blanket.

The absence of all three of them couldn't possibly be an accident.  She was sure of that.  Recalling Klarior's fears, his certainty even, that his elder brother George intended to plunge the Family into chaos, to force the issue of allowing for more than one Superman in the public eye, Katherine shivered.

"Katherine!" cried Rod from the ceiling above her.  "We need your help!"

She spotted Rod,  Galen also, and even young Ben hovering and doing what they could to help.  Her heart swelled with pride in her Family.  So many heroes.  But what should she do?

"I - I -" she began in an awkward voice, not really knowing what else to say and saw Galen frown, shaking his blond head.

To her vast relief, it was Lyraior herself who solved the thorny conundrum for her.  Stepping from around Katherine's shielding body, Lyra Kent pointed at the ceiling,staring at her niece intently.  "Go!" she commanded.  "Help them!  Don't worry about me.  I'll be fine."  Nodding reluctantly, Katherine flew for the ceiling.

"Use your heat vision to fuse the cracks!  Melting the rock will make it stronger!  Hurry!" Adam called in a loud voice, wanting to be heard over the din.  Not everyone here had super hearing, after all.  It was good advice, Katherine knew.

Obeying without thought, Katherine narrowed her eyes and shot out a steady, intense beam, following the lines of a large crack radiating, spiraling out from one of the support pillars.

"It's stopped, now," called Adam from the floor of the cave, cradling a sobbing Sy Kent in the crook of his strong right arm.  "Shhh ... shhhhh ... " he soothed the terrified girl, stroking her hair gently.  "It's over, now, Syaith.  It's over.  See?  Everybody's all right.  Nobody really got hurt.  Thanks be to Rao for granting that miracle."

The girl mumbled thanks and nuzzled her cousins shoulder in unabashed joy, glad of the consolation.  Her mother was apparently made of stronger stuff.  Irinia Kent looked about.  With unconcealed pleasure, her eyes shining, she watched her daughter settle herself more snugly in Adam Kent's comforting embrace.

Katherine looked away in disgust.  But she was just in time to see the missing trio, Klar, Alan and George Kent all enter the carverns main floor.  Tension shouted from their bodies, radiating outward from them in smothering waves.  Katherine knew instantly that it had to do with more than simply the small, localized marsquake that had briefly endangered the Family.  Breathy sighs of relief abounded, released from all sides like a warm soothing breeze.

Rod and Galen led the hovering elements of the Family back down to the floor from their lofty perch above.  Thanks and congratulations were passed to and frough and assurances that all were well.  Only a few minor scrapes and bruises were left to tell the tale of the quakes aftermath.  Like an arrow drawn from a bow Klar Kent headed straight for his wife of almost thirty years and collided with her in a fierce embrace  Katherine began making her way toward Alan as she saw him mount the dais where he had so recently been Chosen.

All eyes turned to him as he held up his hands for attention.

"Cousins!" he announced in his actor's voice that carried the length and breadth of the huge room.  "Kinsmen!  Just a small lapse on the part of  Enviro Control.  No one seems to have been seriously hurt, bless the name of Rao.  But let's not take any chances, shall we?"  His gaze sought that of  Nim-El, the Family physiotech.  "Uncle Nim?  Would you do the honors?"

The healer nodded, shouldered his medkit, and began pressing into service other medically trained Family members.  Soon a small knot of the injured and available healers gathered in one shadowy corner.

"In the meantime," Alan disclaimed, "let's not let this spoil our Reunion!  There's still plenty of good food and drink left to be had and lots of convivial company!  We came here to celebrate and to enjoy ourselves.  So let's do it!"  This sally was greeted with enthusiastic applause and loud cheers.

As he dismounted the dais, Katherine met him with a smile, took his hand in hers and squeezed it in tender affection.

"You were *wonderful*!" she cried.  He smiled and squeezed her hand in silent reply.  For many long moments they were lost together in twin pairs of blue eyes.   It wasn't until some time later that Katherine realized with a start that at some point during the intervening moments not only George Kent, but also his daughter Sy and Adam Kent had all three disappeared.  And, unless she were very much mistaken, a good number of others were gone as well.

"Were you saying something, Alan?" she asked, haltingly.

"I think so," he said.  "But I don't remember what."  He paused.  "Were you?"

"I don't know," she said.  "But I don't think it matters, do you?"

He took three seconds before answering.

"No, Kath," he said.  "I don't think it matters at all."

Nervously, she held Alan's hand and watched the abandoned Irinia Kent mingle for a bit and then fade into the shadows of the gigantic cavern.


George Kent spread his open hands above his head in unconscious imitation of his nephew and addressed the small crowd of supporters gathered there in the until now unused room.  His voice, while not trained as Alan's was, nevertheless resounded, echoing off the stony walls.

"Kinsmen!" He called for their attention and, this time, the likeness of his speech to that of the new Superman was quite deliberate.

Sy Kent's arm tightened around Adam's waist as she saw him frown at the similarity  Her father, she trusted, knew what he was about.

"We all know why we're here,"  George continued, his listeners now enrapt in his oratorical skill.  "We have little hope now of having the wrongs done to us redressed.  The  Shield of the Superman has been passed to a new generation.  And once more *we* have been excluded.  Left to wander in the darkness, cowering and  hiding."

Many grim and pale faces in his audience nodded in agreement.  A buzz of affirmation took hold, flashing around the room in an instant.  George closed his upraised hand into a hard fist.

"Well, no more, I say!" he declared between pursed lips, thinned into a straight, disapproving line.  "No more!"  In the forefront of the crowd the young boy Ben was one of the first raise his fist in volatile agreement.

"*I* am not a coward!" George shouted.  "I will hide no longer!  I *will* be
what I am!  And if others cannot accept that ... cannot accept *me* ... then Sheol take them!  I refuse to waste my life!  Are you with me, brethren?  Are you with me?"

The crowd's roar of affirmation and approval shook the walls of the crowded room and George Kent smiled.


Tensing, Irinia Kent poured her wine and swallowed it quickly, hardly bothering to taste it, it seemed.  Anxious fingers reached for more, grasping the decanter until her knuckles were white.

"You were a fool to come here!" she snapped, her voice lashing out like a weapon.  "It's dangerous!  What if you're discovered?  What then?  Do you want to give the whole thing away?"

The other smiled, his lean features relaxed and at ease.  "If found will say have message from The Batman.  For ears only of The Superman.  Will be believed, not so?"

The tall woman blinked and nodded her head.  "I suppose you will," she conceded.  "You're very clever."

The sardonic smile broadened even more until it filled his angular face, shining with a pure light.  "Trained him, I did.  Guile be way of life for HighRom.  Plan we must, Irinia Kent.  Have much to bespeak ... to accomplish.  Success hard be.  Require thought.  Precision."

Irinia drank her wine more slowly, now, sipping it in contemplation.  She frowned in sudden anger. "Well, we've suffered quite a setback this time, haven't we?  What in Rao's named happened?  You were supposed to use your influence with The Batman to persuade him to support Adam to be The Superman!  Or to have both of them declared Supermen at the very least."

She sniffed.  "I held up *my* end of the bargain," she pointed out.  "Thanks to me George was prepared to compromise on the issue of letting members of the Family reveal themselves if they so chose.  I convinced him that Adam would be more sympathetic, more open to reason on the subject, than Alan.  Which is true.

"Now everything's lost.  All our planning is for naught."  Fear marched briefly across the delicate features of her soft face, invading her sky blue eyes.  "Now George has his back to the wall.  After all the fuss he's made he can't back down, now.  If we're not careful we could easily lose control of this thing."

"Not so," the other assured her, easing himself gently into a chair.  "Will not.  Planned for this.  First Wife, you are.  Control him you must.  Much depending on you.  And child-wealth does well with cousin-sib.  Influence him she will.  Smart.  Cunning we must be.  Much wealth to be had, there is."

Irinia smiled like a sleek, cream-fed cat.  "We've already reaped 'much wealth'," she chuckled.  "And all thanks to *you*.  After all, you were the one who discovered Adam's little illegal time jaunts into the near future, weren't you?  And what he does there.  It's easy to invest profitably in the stock market when you already know which stocks will be up, which will be down.  When and what to buy and when and what to sell.  All dreadfully illegal, of course.  I believe they used to call such advance knowledge 'insider trading'.  And no wonder ContraMat PowerCorps is so successful!  Adam doesn't neglect his own company, now does he?  Bidding against your competitors for lucrative power contracts isn't difficult with advance notice of what contracts will soon be available and what
your enemies are willing to bid for them.  Child's play, really.   I strongly suspect that without his little racket Adam wouldn't be nearly the businessman he seems to be."

Irinia fetched another goblet and began to fill it with rich, dark, blood-red wine.

"Follow his lead, we do," her companion agreed in a placid voice.  "Buy what he buys.  Sell what he sells.  Prosper much, do we.   But all depends on secrecy.  Adam must be The Superman.  Vital, this is.  Only thus is he in control, shielded from discovery; safe.  He ... and we two ... "

Smiling, Irinia Kent handed him the full goblet of wine and, clicking cups, saluted her business partner sharply.

"Here's to us, then, Alfric," she crooned.  "To us ... and free enterprise ... "

  (next chapter) .