Chapter 4: Like Clockwork
Harry Kramer loved explosives. He loved the danger of working with them and the thrill of watching them go off. A properly made bomb was an amazing piece of engineering, a compact device of wires, springs, and explosives all set up in a very precisely and ordered way. When the bomb went off, all that hard work evaporated in a single transformative moment. It was like taking a piece of fine crystal and hurling it against the side of a brick wall, and how could someone not feel joy at that? How could someone not see that there was something magical that only existed in that single solitary moment when the product of labor and a thoughtful mind became nothing more than garbage? Though there wasn’t anything sexual about it, the best word that Harry had found for it was orgasmic.
A thick letter came in the mail for him. He ran a few simple tests to see whether it might contain a bomb, sniffing at it and hefting it carefully. Letter bombs were tricky to do, because you couldn’t reliably set them on a timer unless you knew for certain when they’d be opened. The letter also had to make it through the postal service without detonating or being discovered, which was a challenge in and of itself. The most common way to make a letter bomb was to fill an envelope with two chemicals that were explosive when mixed, separating them with layers of paper. Another chemical trigger was placed along the top where the paper was going to be ripped. The chemicals would mix when the letter was opened, and the bomb would explode, but that was often messy because people didn’t always open their own mail. It was easier to make a larger package that would explode, because then you didn’t need to worry about the bomb being bent or squeezed, but there was a very clear distinction between a “letter bomb” and a “mail bomb” owing to the restrictions on construction.
Harry had a recurring fantasy about being sent a letter bomb. In the fantasy he would smell the metallic powders and carefully disarm the bomb in his workshop, pulling it apart to expose its secrets. Written inside the letter bomb would be words of congratulations for showing caution, and a coy invitation to begin using his skills in earnest. In the fantasy he and the other bomber would engage in a conversation written across the city in explosive force, needing nothing more than concussive blasts to speak to each other. There was something raw and primal about destroying the ordered world of the city. Eventually Harry would prove himself the superior of the two, and she would reveal herself to him, and declare her undying love for him. It was always a woman, of course. They would exchange hot, hungry kisses on the rooftop of his apartment as Harry’s bombs leveled the city.
The letter he’d received wasn’t a bomb. Instead, there was an offer of employment. Beneath that, the bulk of the envelope containing crisp twenty- dollar bills, enough to pay for his apartment for two full years. The letter was concerning, because it meant that someone knew about him, but it was exciting, because it meant that he was going to get to do something that he loved. It wasn’t some simple job that required only a simple demolition or death, it was finally a chance to be unchained and fully funded. No longer would he have to cobble something together from bits and pieces. He was going to make something beautiful.
“What makes a person do a thing like this?” asked Clark.
Lois rolled her eyes.
Clark was a heavy man, thick without really seeming muscular, though you could tell from a glance that he’d never learned to buy clothes that fit. He had terrible posture, his hair was messy, and he wore glasses so thick you could hardly see his eyes through them. He seemed to get sick constantly, and he was so out of shape that whenever they had to move quickly he could be seen gasping for air afterwards. He had the desk right next to Lois’s, and so she’d had time to examine each and every one of his faults - that was just a small sampling of the physical problems with Clark. Much to her consternation, he was somehow the second best reporter at The Daily Planet. They were often paired together for the big stories, since it allowed Perry to run a companion story to a front-pager. More often than not, Lois found that being around Clark tried her patience. It was made worse by the fact that he’d quite obviously developed an infatuation with her from nearly the day that he started working at the Planet. He’d asked her out during his second week, and she’d politely but firmly told him no, but he was still hung up on her. One of the only good things about Clark was that he was as transparent as glass. His crush was more sad than annoying, most days anyway.
Lois and Clark were standing outside the remains of an apartment building. It had exploded earlier in the day at around noon, sending bricks, wood, and personal belongings in every direction and shattering a number of windows all around the block. Two people had died, and a lot more had been seriously injured. The apartment was still standing, but three of the upper floors were now just a gaping hole, and it was likely that there was enough structural damage that the building was a total loss. Everyone talked about how much worse it could have been. It was front page material for sure.
“Some people are just evil,” said Lois.
“I don’t think a person is born a certain way,” said Clark. “People make choices, for good or evil. Free will is part of God’s design. I just can’t understand why someone would make this choice.”
Lois tried to stop herself from rolling her eyes again. “Some design,” she said, as she spotted a severed arm in the rubble that no one seemed to have picked up yet.
Lois and Clark had done their interviews, talking to the victims, police, firefighters, and neighbors. There was little question that the explosion had been deliberate. The police were already chasing down some promising leads, though Lois knew that half the time they only said that to keep people reassured.
They’d been back at the Daily Planet Building working late when the second bomb had gone off, exactly six hours after the first. This one was at a sales office downtown. Most of the staff had gone home, but the rescue workers had pulled a few corpses from the wreckage. She overheard one of the onlookers say that it was a tragedy that people had died because they’d stayed late to work. She made sure to put that in her article.
The third bomb exploded in Superman’s face. He’d found it in the freezer of a grocery store, and got people out of the way before he’d tried moving it, which was when it had blown up. Lots of people reported seeing a gaping hole torn right in the center of his costume. Superman had spoken directly with the chief of police, giving him as much information as possible. Lois had come back into the office late at night in order to write about it, and found that Clark was already there in a wrinkled shirt, looking for all the world like he’d never stopped working when she’d left at eight. Though he finished his article before her, she came up with the better moniker - the Clockwork Bomber. Perry groused about them being too competitive and wasting effort writing the same story, then decided to run Lois’s article in the morning edition with the headline “Clockwork Bomber Strikes Midnight!”. The long hours were worth it just for the forlorn look on Clark’s face.
Lois set her alarm for five in the morning. The first bomb had been at noon, the second at six, and the third Superman had detonated just before midnight. The pattern was obvious to anyone with half a brain. Ten minutes before six o’clock in the morning she heard a distant rumble from across the city, and she was ready to trek off towards it in her most sensible shoes. Clark was nowhere to be seen, and despite being tired as hell, Lois felt a warm glow of satisfaction that she’d beat him to the punch.
The mayor and the chief of police held a press conference, where they promised that they would find the man or men responsible. No one made any demands, and no one claimed credit. Everyone braced themselves for another bomb at noon, but it didn’t come. Four bombs had claimed the lives of six people, and there didn’t seem to be a point to it. The casualties had been much lower than they could have been, given the time of day that the bombs had gone off and the locations that they’d been placed, but it was anyone’s guess what that said about the bomber.
A few days passed, and eventually things began to settle down again.
Lois was surprised when she found a second letter on her desk, addressed to Miss Lane and requesting to meet her in the same place as before. She was ready this time, and grabbed a sheet of paper with a series of questions from inside her desk. She stopped by Perry’s desk to tell him where she’d be going, just in case something happened. Perry looked ecstatic, but Lois felt her nerves getting the best of her.
She prided herself on being utterly fearless. She’d stood on the spire of the Emperor Building as the first airship came in, strapped in with what amounted to a thick belt. She’d hunted big game with Hemingway over a memorable summer in Kenya. She’d braved storms while sailing the North Atlantic in a yacht, the closest she’d ever come to actually dying. She found these adventures exhilarating instead of terrifying. Yet there was something about Superman that tickled some animal part of her brain. She did her best to ignore it, and made the trek up to the rooftop where the Man of Steel was waiting.
“Hello Lois,” he said as he turned around. His smile was gentle, but it didn’t help her nerves. Luthor had said that Superman moved faster than muscles alone would dictate, but that didn’t make the muscles look any less impressive. It was impossible for her to look at him and not think about the fact that he could cross the distance between them faster than she could blink.
“Hello Superman,” she replied. “I’ve got some questions for you.”
“I know,” he said.
Lois immediately imagined him staring through the walls, looking over the questions she’d prepared for him and composing answers. It felt utterly invasive - she would never allow an interview subject to look over the questions like that, not at this stage in her career. She really should have gotten one of those lead-lined drawers. Of course, maybe he’d just meant that he knew she had questions because everyone had questions. She found herself unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Go on,” said Superman. “But I can’t answer everything.”
“Where is your ship?” she asked.
“It burnt up over the Atlantic on my way in,” Superman replied.
“Could you find the wreckage?” she asked.
“There wouldn’t be anything left,” said Superman. “Even if there were, I wouldn’t hand it over. If humanity were able to work backwards and figure out how it was made, I fear the results would be disastrous. It would be like giving a gun to a baby.”
Lois frowned. “And you’re the final arbiter of what’s good for humanity, what we can and can’t handle?”
“I am the arbiter of myself,” said Superman. “I can only do what I think is best, and hope that humanity gives the same consideration to their own actions.”
“Okay,” said Lois. “But are you really doing the most good? I mean, I’ve seen proposals for what other people would be doing with your powers, digging canals or generating power, searching out veins of ore, the amount of money-”
“I don’t need money,” said Superman. He interrupted her so delicately that she momentarily lost her train of thought.
“You don’t,” she replied slowly. “But the rest of us do. These are lucrative jobs that could bring in millions, and with that you could fund orphanages, women’s shelters, homeless shelters, or whatever charitable organizations you wanted. We could set up a trust. It wouldn’t matter that you were using your powers for a profit, because that profit would be directly translated into good works that would overwhelm positive effects of the crime fighting and general heroism you do now.” Lex Luthor’s words were coming out of her mouth. “And if you embraced the celebrity that you already have you could charge enormous amounts of money for the use of your image. People are already making lunchboxes and trading cards with your emblem, and I’ve heard that they’re making two different movies about you. These things are going to happen whether you’re involved with them or not, and you could at least make some money that you could use for good causes.”
“Saving people from violent crime is an unambiguous good,” said Superman. “Bringing money into it isn’t, and I don’t know that I should be supplying humanity with a brawn that it doesn’t and shouldn’t have yet. I’ve tried my best to confine myself to acting only when there is a clear good to be done. I’m trying not to bend the course of human history, or force my morality on anyone else. I do that by operating within the laws of the country and avoiding controversy as much as possible. I have as few points of interference with a citizen’s daily life as possible.”
“You think that an avoidance of controversy is part of the greater good?” asked Lois. “Do you think that the laws of this country are anywhere close to just?” She pointed across the city to the docks, and the channel where ships were streaming in and out of the harbor. “A hundred years ago there were slaves being sold here. If you’d shown up then would you have stopped slavemasters from beating their slaves? Do the laws of men mean that much to you that you’d actually let such an injustice stand?”
“You’re losing your cool,” said Superman.
Lois looked down at her notebook. She hadn’t asked him a question from it for quite some time. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s just that sometimes I think about what I would do if I had your powers, and in comparison you seem so …”
“Reluctant?” asked Superman.
“Yes,” Lois replied.
“During Prohibition, as part of an effort to stop people from drinking industrial alcohol, it was denatured and methyl alcohol was added, making it toxic. They thought that people would change their behavior. The end result was that the United States government killed ten thousand of its own citizens.”
“I wrote an article about that,” said Lois. “It never made it to print.”
“I know,” said Superman. He looked out towards the city in quiet contemplation. “I believe that the people who poured their poisons into the vats truly believed that they were doing good. They just couldn’t see what the end result would be. Even with the work I’ve been doing, there have been unwanted side effects.” He pursed his lips. “I get the distinct impression that people are less cautious with their lives now that they have me around. People shout for me to save them instead of taking action. There was a fire in an apartment building three days ago, and half the occupants ran up to the roof and screamed for me to come pick them up. If I’d been dealing with some other more serious disaster at the time, those people would have died. These are the things that happen on even a small scale when humanity is saved from their own mistakes and steered away from forging their own path. I’m sure you could think of half a dozen other examples of the unintended consequences.”
She could. The budgets for the police and fire department in Metropolis were up for review, and both looked like they were going to be cut by a large percent, because the city saw no point in paying the same amount for services when Superman had taken up much of their duties. Those elements of the underworld with sufficient mobility were moving to Gotham City, causing a crime wave there the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a decade. The ones that stayed in Metropolis were more organized than before, with a higher propensity towards subterfuge, trickery, and crimes which didn’t make a sound. Superman didn’t speak anything but English, and so there had been an explosion in language learning. That was above and beyond the general insanity that came from having a man that flew through the air, and the world’s first extraterrestrial.
There were many things that Lois wanted to say, but she was worried she’d get too wrapped up in argument again. A good reporter pressed their subject, but didn’t get heated. If she were speaking to him outside of her role as a professional, she might have called a policy of non-intervention the definition of moral laziness. She might have told him that he had the most inconsistent moral system she’d ever had the displeasure of encountering. The truth was, she didn’t like Superman. They’d both read the various proposals and the pleas for aid. There were so many things that he could do, and he simply refused to do them. It might have been one thing if he’d engaged in reasoned debate, but Superman had acted unilaterally, thinking that he knew what was best for humanity. Her thoughts returned again to when he’d scooped her up like a child. Superman was a man - an alien - of presumptions.
But Lois Lane was a good reporter, and so resisted the urge to berate him.
“How long were you on the planet before you began intervening?” asked Lois.
“Two weeks,” said Superman. “I learned English on the way over from your radio signals and spent a good deal of time watching from above and getting a more in-depth understanding of your culture and the ways of your people, as well as the relevant laws.”
“And did you anticipate what followed?” asked Lois.
“For the most part,” said Superman. “Celebrity, shock, awe, analysis - that was predictable. What I hadn’t counted on was the cruelty or organization of the attempts to kill me.”
Lois furrowed her brow. “You’re talking about the people trying to shoot you?”
“No,” replied Superman. “That I expected. The criminal element was bound to try. I let them sometimes, just to prove how useless it is to stand against me, but most of them attack me like it’s going to do some good. I stopped a mugging three weeks ago, and the man kept stabbing my eyes. It didn’t do anything more than dull his knife, and eventually he ran out of steam. Sometimes they shoot me and look at their guns like they’re shocked that it didn’t work. Maybe some people don’t really believe the stories until they see it for themselves. No, all that I expected. I’m talking about the bombs. That’s why I came to speak with you today.”
“The Clockwork Bomber,” said Lois.
“Yes,” said Superman. “All the bombs were meant for me. They were encased in lead and had mechanisms inside to prevent me from doing anything with them. I think someone was making an effort to kill me.”
“It seems obvious that wouldn’t work,” said Lois. “Even on the face of it.”
“The bombs were special,” said Superman. “They used focused blasts and a variety of different materials. I think one was an attempt to blind me. They’re probing for a weakness.”
“But it didn’t work,” said Lois.
“No,” said Superman. “I’ve been looking over the city and trying to connect the dots. Whoever set the bombs up is going to try again. I need you to warn the people of Metropolis. If I’m right, next time it’s going to be worse.”
Ninety-nine percent of the time, ripping a handful of wires out of a bomb will safely defuse it, either by removing the fuse from the detonator or the detonator from the explosive material. Most people who made bombs were unsophisticated, and most bombs were designed not to be found until after they had detonated. There wasn’t much point in making them particularly hard to defuse or move, and there weren’t many people with the technical skill to do it.
The bombs that Harry designed were complex, above and beyond the complexity designed into them by his benefactor. They had to be, because their target was Superman.
Many things could be made fail-safe. The railways used air brakes, in which a piston was held up by compressed air. To apply the brake, some air was let out of the system, causing the piston to lower and the brake to be applied. If any of the components of the system failed, the brake would be engaged by the loss of pressure, stopping the railcar and preventing it from going out of control. Fail-safe design was becoming more and more important as a method of stopping machines from self-destruction.
The bombs Harry made were fail-deadly. The detonator was connected to a timer, but the timer didn’t cause the bomb to explode - it prevented the explosion from happening. Removal of the timer would collapse a circuit and cause the bomb to explode. Removal of the detonator would cause a circuit to collapse and trigger a secondary hidden detonator. Several small glass tubes were filled with beads of mercury which were part of the circuit, and if the bomb was tilted too far in any direction a circuit would complete and cause the bomb to explode. No one would ever be able to see this hard work, not even Superman, because the whole thing was encased in lead shielding. Wires were affixed to the interior of the casing, and if the lead shielding was removed the bomb would detonate.
Most bomb makers didn’t make their bombs this complex. It was more work, and with the work came a higher risk of accidental detonation. With the amount of explosives that Harry was using, it wasn’t really a concern for him. What he feared was a small explosion that left him limbless and bleeding out, but given the number of pounds of cyclonite he was working with, an accident would leave him vaporized. It didn’t seem like such a bad way to go. In truth, Harry liked the heightened sense of reality that came from being one mistake away from utter destruction. The benefactor had designed the bombs to be dangerous things, and Harry had modified them to be nearly reckless.
“Be careful with that,” said Harry as the workmen took the first bomb out of the workshop that had been rented for him. “It’s fragile.”
They hadn’t smiled at his joke, but then they didn’t know what was in the crate they were carrying out. The circuit with the mercury switches was on a separate timer to ensure that the bomb wouldn’t blow up in transit, but there was still more risk than most people would want to take. Harry had no idea where the workmen had come from. Like many things, the benefactor took care of it.
He also had no idea where the bomb was headed, but he couldn’t help smiling as his bomb ventured off into the world. He’d headed back into his shop to make some variations on the theme.
Lex had tried doing things cleanly. The Conference on Extraterrestrial Science had put out a plea to Superman, asking him to attend a meeting of minds so that they might make a cultural bridge between human and Kryptonian science. Superman could have come forward and simply spoken to them about what the true limits of his powers were, but he hadn’t even responded to them. The invitation carried nearly every important name among the scientific elite, and the lack of response couldn’t be seen as anything but an insult. Lex had put forward a mountain of plans and proposals that would allow him to get close to Superman, and almost all of them would allow for an advancement in what most people would consider to be the common good. Superman hadn’t responded to any of it.
The bombing campaign served multiple goals, as any good plan did.
Superman was an extinction level event waiting to happen, and where those were concerned there were no second chances. If Superman ever decided to kill everyone, there would be no stopping him, and so it stood to reason that humanity should take every possible precaution to prevent that from happening. The most direct path would be through killing Superman. Lex had written multiple letters to the editor under various pseudonyms, but none had ever been published, and his point of view seemed entirely unpopular. It was always one that he voiced from a position of anonymity, because in public he was playing the role of Superman’s champion.
People were bad at estimating the risk that an extinction posed, because no one had ever lived through one. People were also quite bad at imagining a catastrophe so large. A woman might weep when you mentioned the possibility of her child dying from consumption, but the total obliteration of Earth- originating life would produce only a shrug. It was too vast for people to think about rationally. Worse, they assumed that “Superman is the greatest threat to humanity” was a shorthand for some decision on Superman’s part, when in truth that was only a part of it.
Many people accepted Superman’s story at face value; the last son of a dying planet, the only one of his kind to exhibit such incredible powers, with little aid from technology save for the ship that had provided him with a trip through the stars. There were many parts of the story that Lex was skeptical of, but he found it most terrifying to think that the story was true, namely because of what it suggested about Kryptonian science.
Huntington’s disease was a hereditary degenerative disease with cognitive and psychiatric symptoms, one of which was psychosis. Huntington’s was seen in perhaps one in eight thousand people, and psychosis was seen in perhaps one in ten of those. If a randomly selected human of Superman’s apparent age were to obtain Superman’s powers, there would be a one in eighty thousand chance that they would both have Huntington’s disease and symptoms of psychosis, the result of which would probably be casualties that would dwarf the Great War by a large margin. If Superman was telling the truth about the culture that he came from, his society wasn’t much further advanced than humanity, and so likely hadn’t grown past degenerative diseases and hereditary defects. Even if Superman were perfectly good in some abstract sense, the onset of a mental disease might be just around the corner.
Worse, if Superman’s powers weren’t the result of engineering and carefully controlled science (a hard pill to swallow) then no one had made sure that they were safe, and perhaps some day something internal to him would simply unravel, unleashing enough energy to destroy an entire hemisphere. If Superman was to be believed, his powers had come from seemingly nowhere, and yet everyone simply trusted them as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Estimates were difficult to make, given Superman’s silence. His second interview with Lois Lane had provided little illumination. Nevertheless, numbers could be pulled from thin air in order to get a sense of things. There was the possibility that something would happen that was completely outside of Superman’s control which would result in Superman destroying the Earth. There was the possibility that Superman could simply have a bad day and decide to kill a large number of people, which many people seemed to think was absurd. There were also failure modes which didn’t involve the destruction of humanity but would nevertheless result in an effective end to humanity as Lex Luthor knew it, the most probable of which seemed to be that Superman would turn into a tyrant. When these probabilities were multiplied together, the final very rough estimate was that Superman had a one in ten chance of bringing about a global scale human catastrophe of some kind in the next thirty years. Even if the odds had been one in a hundred, Lex would have taken a similarly extreme course of action.
The collateral damage caused by the bombs was negligible in comparison to the threat of Superman.
But of course the bombs were unlikely to kill Superman. The first four had been for calibration, built with a small device which gave a series of loud chirps prior to detonation to allow Superman time to get to it before it exploded. The next series of bombs would introduce more exotic methods of harm which hadn’t yet been conclusively ruled out, but the prospects looked grim.
The secondary goal was to probe for a weakness. Lex had it on good authority that Superman had taken the equivalent of a direct hit from navy artillery to his chest when the third bomb exploded. He’d simply looked surprised that he’d set it off. The magnesium and phosphorus compounds had done nothing to blind him, and he’d been talking with the police soon afterwards with no ill effects. Lex had suspected as much, but perhaps something would be found that could harm him but not kill him, or otherwise give Lex an advantage. Lead had been a boon, and allowed Lex a level of freedom that was gratifying until he remembered how free he’d been before Superman’s arrival.
The third objective was testing Superman’s limits. Lex kept a detailed log of Superman’s movements in his study, as well as a large map of Metropolis which was covered in small color-coded labels that corresponded to Superman sightings or activities. Superman’s patterns had been mapped against the general patterns of crime and emergency in Metropolis, and Lex had not been all that surprised to find that the patterns didn’t quite match one another, even taking into account Superman’s preferences for certain crimes and emergencies over others. There were two lulls, one during the daytime that seemed to start around eight in the morning and end around five in the afternoon, and one in the dead of night from three in the morning to five in the morning. Lex had no idea what to make of it, but kept the information safely locked away behind lead walls. Perhaps Superman needed to sleep, or needed to recharge in some other way, but sustained and consistent bombings would allow for information to be gathered.
The fourth objective was to identify the place that Superman retired to when he wasn’t flying around the city, since Superman demonstrably didn’t spend all of his time on heroics. Lex strongly suspected that the ship hadn’t broken up over the Atlantic, and was in fact located somewhere in or near Metropolis. Depending on the size it would be difficult to hide, but Superman could surely lift the craft up and move it at will, which meant that it could be nearly anywhere. All that was under the assumption that Superman was an alien - there was still an outside possibility that there was some other explanation. If the spaceship existed, finding it was of utmost importance. Lex had already hired a team of private investigators to see if they could find some trace of a ruined ship in the Atlantic, though without eyewitness accounts of where the spaceship had burned up it would be impossible. With them it would merely be very, very difficult. Still, it was worth trying.
The next wave of bombs would be planted in two weeks time. Perhaps Lex would get lucky and Superman would prove to have a weakness.
Author’s Note: This chapter was getting too long, so I split it in half. The next half will come at the regularly scheduled time on Sunday night.
Any numbers that Lex or anyone else gives is their own best guess based on what might have been knowable in the 1930s before the age of the internet. I don’t guarantee that these are at all period accurate, and obviously we’re dealing with an alternate universe where a city named Metropolis exists.
A note on geography: I’m writing on the assumption that Metropolis replaces New York City and Gotham City replaces Chicago, though with different city layouts and some changes to small scale geography of the region.
Two historical notes: First, the American eugenics movement was still alive and well at this time, so if you see references to it pop up here and there, just remember that this was an opinion you could voice without anyone really raising an eyebrow. Second, the United States really did denature alcohol, which wound up killing more people than Superman probably saves in a decade. The more you know!
As always, I appreciate any corrections, comments, or general feedback, and thanks for reading.
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