Okay, kids, you get an extra-long one this time after our plotting session last weekend. My flu is finally starting to back off and inspiration is really coming back. Thank God. Enjoy, all!
Supreme Chancellor Zod had ordered the salt mining operation increased so that it now ran without stopping—twenty-four hours a day, as the humans reckoned time, twenty-eight by Kryptonian measure. That was a boon to the Benevolent Society, as the increased shipping schedule made it easier to send more humans home. At this rate the exodus would be complete in half the time.
And then it would be time for Jhan-Or's plots. Kal-El had learned finally patience in dealing with the older man, and no longer asked things of him even indirectly. So he was thoroughly surprised when, as they were going over a list of humans scheduled to leave the next day, Jhan-Or asked him a blunt, direct question.
The question itself was only a little less shocking. "Tell me, Kal-El. When the time comes for revolution, will you be with us?"
For a moment he could only gape. "I … Jhan-Or, even to speak of such…."
Jhan-Or replied with a touch of heat in his tone, the first Kal-El had heard from him in their entire association. "I do not wish to hear your father's caution, Kal-El, or your uncle's bluster for that matter. The coup may be accomplished quietly, but your mother could tell you such things are rare. If it comes to making a stand, on whose side will you be? Or will you cower at home? To make no choice is a choice of itself."
Kal-El realized his mouth was gaping like an Earth fish, and shut it. He could do no less than to give Jhan-Or the courtesy of serious consideration. If it came to open rebellion, he certainly wouldn't be standing with the Supreme Chancellor and his Consulars. But could he endanger himself and his House by taking the rebels' side? And again, if he chose to simply stay out of it, would that not be cowardice?
His father's remarks about Jhan-Or recalled themselves to mind. The older man was a career politician, and he had never been discredited or fallen out of favor. There was always someone else who took the blame, a younger, more passionate, less cautious individual at the forefront of all Jhan-Or's schemes. Was this the moment when Kal-El was being selected for that same role?
And even if it was, even if the responsibility for the Benevolent Society's actions came to rest on his own shoulders, was it not right that he should do so? To quail now at the thought of possible consequences was simply weakness. Kal-El would have made the same choices, or bolder ones, in Jhan-Or's absence. So he could not shirk his responsibility now. The cause against Dru-Zod was not the one closest to his heart, but he had come to believe they could never have peace with the humans while the Supreme Chancellor remained in power—and therefore he would never see Lois again.
"I can only do what is right for my people," Kal-El finally said, his heart heavy. This choice had been long in coming, but he could no more refuse it than he could have refused to help Lois find her way home. "I will stand with you and the rest if it comes to that, Jhan-Or."
"I hope it will not, but if it must, I will be glad to know you are beside us," the older man said, clasping Kal-El's shoulder briefly.
Kal-El returned the gesture with an ironic smile. "I suppose this means you believe I've developed sufficient discretion to be trusted?"
Jhan-Or chuckled. "Kal-El, I have watched you grow into your maturity this last year with as much pride as a father. But letting me force a statement of commitment from you is not evidence of your discretion."
He could only sigh at that. The amount of denial and deferment and overall disingenuousness that politics required was not at all to Kal-El's taste. Before he could get too disheartened, though, Jhan-Or spoke again. "I do have reason to believe you are more capable of keeping a secret than you once were."
That sounded as if he knew more than Kal-El wished him to, and he looked at the older man warily. But Jhan-Or only motioned for him to follow, and walked into his laboratory.
This place had fascinated Kal-El from the moment he first saw it; unlike his father's quiet, ordered space, Jhan-Or's biological studies and experiments sometimes moved and twittered—and not merely the animals. A bush of the susurrus-flower family grew in a large pot near the door, and the slight draft occasioned by opening it set its bells to chiming sweetly. A number of small creatures native to Old Krypton were also preserved here, brought over in stasis or as embryos. A young quaking quarn hanging from a free-standing perch shuddered when Kal-El looked at it, glow-moths moved their wings lethargically in the annoying light, and a pair of iron beetles busily climbed about their cage.
Those examples of the lost world's flora and fauna existed side by side with specimens from New Krypton. Tiny shoots of the purple grass grew in a tray, and Kal-El saw that Jhan-Or had already bred them into both redder and bluer variations. He also saw some of the small flying pollinators of this planet, which Lois had once claimed reminded her of bats. They hung upside-down from the roof of their cage and huddled together, waiting for the dark.
At the far end of the room was a large tank of water, and Jhan-Or approached it, tapping the glass twice. The creature inside was one Kal-El had never actually seen in the flesh before, but when it poked its vile head out of the rocks, he automatically stepped back. "Is that … is that a fish-snake?" he gasped.
"Schoolchildren call it a fish-snake, but it is neither truly fish nor snake," Jhan-Or remarked. "The more common name is needle-maw eel."
The beast deserved either moniker, and it swam in slow, undulating curves before the glass, looking at the two Kryptonians with what appeared to be cold disdain. Its narrow mouth hung open, unable to close completely because of the long, thin teeth jutting up from the lower jaw. Its body was longer than the width of Kal-El's spread arms, colored a dull mixture of browns and grays, perfect camouflage among rocks or in caves. As it swam it unfurled fins that flashed brilliant red, with black-rimmed white spots. Atop its head was a long feeler of sorts, with a bright pink flap that fluttered when the feeler was raised.
"Tell me, Kal-El, what do you know of this creature?" Jhan-Or asked. He moved his hand slowly outside the glass, and the eel followed it, unblinking eyes fixed.
"They are venomous, bearing a poison so potent it could kill a hundred men," Kal-El answered, watching the hypnotic sway of the fins. "They are also ambush predators that lurk on the seafloor or in holes among rocks, and attract prey with the lure on their heads."
"All true. They are also quite slow, the fins being more of a warning to foolhardy predators and a means of display when competing for mates than a practical swimming aid. Hence the venom. They cannot escape a larger hunter, and cannot chase wounded prey." Jhan-Or was still moving his hand, seeming to have entranced the eel.
"Why do you have such a thing?" Kal-El asked, still feeling an instinctive revulsion. The eel was not pretty despite its colorful fins, its gaunt head bony and its jaw undershot. He had seen the tank before, but never the animal it contained.
"I have raised this one since she was a tiny elver no longer than your hand, Kal-El. I kept her in stasis for the journey here, and she resides in my lab as she always has. I call her Dhokhasha."
The name was clearly taken from the Kryptonian word that meant 'wraith'—or 'demon'. "Why?" Kal-El finally asked.
"She guards my secrets," Jhan-Or said, and smiled. "The needle-maw eel is a creature of fresh water. She will die if salt pollutes her tank. Such pure water is also an ideal environment for storing information crystals."
Kal-El's jaw dropped. "In her cave? But how could you place them and retrieve them? Her venom is lethal, and those jaws penetrate our armor!"
"That, I shall not tell you," Jhan-Or replied. "Only know this. If something happens to me, and you must retrieve the information that will force Dru-Zod to step down, it is contained in a red crystal inside her cave. I am afraid you would have to kill Dhokhasha to obtain it, and she is the last of her kind—no embryos were brought over from Krypton-that-was, and no male still exists. You are the last daughter of your race, are you not, my beauty?" He wiggled his fingers, and the eel mouthed at the glass, evidently eager to attack.
Kal-El swallowed nervously. "This information, what is its nature?"
Jhan-Or turned to look at him shrewdly. "You know that the Kryptonian cultural prohibition is weakening; I spoke of it to you once before. You may perhaps have concluded that some of the children born during the journey to this planet were not conceived in a birthing matrix. A thousand years of isolation is crumbling, but the idea is still abhorrent to the populace at large—though less so to you, I suspect."
His tongue froze in his mouth. Jhan-Or knew. Somehow he knew … or he guessed, and was watching to see if his words startled an admission of guilt. As blandly as he could, Kal-El said, "That is so. I have spent much time studying human culture, Jhan-Or, and as you mentioned then, my mother is a historian."
"Very true," the older man replied, with no hint of revelation or disappointment. "We hold our leaders to higher standards than ourselves, so even those of us who have committed that most final transgression would rebel at the thought of the Supreme Chancellor having done anything that approaches it."
He had thought his jaw dropped before, but that was only a mild startle. This was shock. It was one thing to be told such things had happened—and to have done them himself, though at least he could claim it was natural to Lois. It was another thing entirely to know that their leader had broken conditioning. How could the Supreme Chancellor be so foolish? And for evidence to exist of the act, that was absolute folly. "Dru-Zod and Faora…" Kal-El muttered.
"No," Jhan-Or laughed, his eyes bright—as brightly avid as the eel's. "And therein lies the secret that will break his hold. It was not his wedded wife, Faora, with whom such a thing might be excused under conditions of stress. The crystal recorders on the transport ship's airlock captured him kissing Ursa."
Such scandals happened all the time among humans, Kal-El reminded himself—and even in their world they had caused leaders to fall. To not only be shown as regressive degenerate, but to have committed such a transgression with someone other than his wife … Dru-Zod's credibility would be shattered. "It is done. His rule is over," Kal-El said, stunned.
Jhan-Or nodded. "Once that is revealed he will never again have the support of the people. But the military is fanatically loyal to Dru-Zod, and Ursa herself is the head of the Consulars. Never underestimate the charisma and ruthlessness of either of them. It is possible that, even if this were revealed, the military would yet support them. And only they are armed. That is a concern for another day, however. It is enough that you know now what must be done."
On that sobering thought, Jhan-Or moved a sliding panel and released a couple of small fish into the tank. Kal-El turned away before the eel could find her prey.
The next group of humans were boarding in secret, and Kal-El had volunteered to stand watch. If any Consulars approached, he could hopefully distract them long enough to let the Resistance members bolt to safety. It was risky, terribly risky, but what else could he do? Kal-El would not be able to face Lois again, who had run so many risks for him and for her people, without saying he'd done everything he could in the cause they shared.
Oh, Lois. Every time he thought of her, a pang struck him, like physical pain in the center of his chest. To have no news of her, to have to wonder what was going on, was a wound that did not heal. Kal-El knew that things were proceeding according to plan for the Resistance here on New Krypton and on Earth, but without her, no one trusted him enough to give him details.
That infuriated and depressed him by turns. By Rao, these people were suspicious of him when he had done so much for them! And yet, what else could he expect but wariness? He was the enemy. Nothing could change that. And over it all was the absence of Lois and the weight of her crystal necklace doubled around his arm. Though Jhan-Or had the means to keep them active without being worn, Kal-El preferred to keep Lois' necklace with him. It had been the symbol of her captivity while she was here, but now it was a memento.
The transfer had gone smoothly, and the group he thought of as the leaders of the Resistance—Huang, Geoffrey, Henri, and Gabriela—were about to depart. With thoughts of Lois fresh in his mind, Kal-El caught up to them. "Wait," he said quietly.
The looks on their faces as they turned wounded him. So careful, so closed, so obviously dealing with him because they had to. How he missed Lois' welcoming smile, the brightness of her eyes!
"What is it?" Henri asked, moving slightly in front of Gabriela.
"Have you any word of Lois?" Kal-El asked, doggedly hopeful.
"She has not contacted any of us," Geoffrey said brusquely.
"So you've told me," Kal-El replied, his tone patient. "But you are in contact with the Resistance on Earth. Surely they have some news of her?"
"Kal-El, we have nothing to tell you," Henri said, spreading his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
"That is not the same as knowing nothing," he pointed out.
Henri and Geoffrey looked annoyed at that. Gabriela just looked watchful. Standing his ground, Kal-El met their gazes steadily. Finally Henri took a step forward. "Kal-El, please. We know nothing of Lois except that she made it safely to Earth along with the other escapees."
"Why are you so concerned?" Geoffrey asked suddenly.
Kal-El took a deep breath. Somewhere in the back of his brain a panicked little voice was calling, Don't let them find out! Most of him, however, was striving not to be angry. I love her, you fools, I love her and I miss her and I worry for her. Stop looking at me like I should not care. Still, he managed to keep his voice level and patient as he said slowly, "Perhaps you did not notice this beforehand, so I will inform you now. I consider Lois a personal friend. Her well-being is important to me. I have heard nothing from her in weeks—which we expected, true. But I have heard nothing of her, either. Her father is a highly-placed military advisor, and she was the first of the primary members of the Resistance to return home. I would have thought some word would come to you, if not to me. And because I know that she and her father have not always had a harmonious relationship, because I know that living here was stressful to her, I am concerned for Lois' happiness after this latest upheaval."
Pausing there, he met each of their eyes in turn. Gabriela had softened, Henri looked thoughtful, Geoffrey disapproved, and Huang … Huang lifted one eyebrow just a bit, his eyes full of complicated things. Still, the young man did not speak, and Henri was the one who answered. "I understand, Kal-El. Lois is important to all of us. She—well, she is far more than the mascot of the Resistance, but she has been a symbol as well as a determined reality. All of us have looked to her example these many months, and she has been an inspiration to many. We are all her friends, as well. I promise you, Kal-El, if I knew anything that could help, I would tell you."
"Thank you," Kal-El replied, with a slight bow that Henri returned. "I would hope that you would consider me a friend also."
"After all that you have done?" Gabriela broke in. "Kal-El, you are our ally and our friend, and you will not be forgotten."
He shook his head at that. "Not for my deeds. For the fact that I am a friend to you and your kind. I do not seek to be remembered as someone who helped you in the hour of need, but to be known as someone who would like to see the day when we can all meet in equal partnership and amity."
"A pity no one brought wine," Huang mused. "I could drink to that day."
"I could as well," Gabriela chuckled.
They departed then, with a few last farewells, and Kal-El let them all get out of sight before following the path taken by Huang. He was unsurprised to find the young man walking slowly, waiting for Kal-El to catch up. He did not stop, however, and they strolled together quietly for several minutes.
"You truly care about Lois," Huang finally said.
Now Kal-El was on treacherous ground. He could not afford to have the Resistance mistrust him, not at this late hour, and if they discovered what would surely seem an ulterior motive in his relationship with Lois, they would doubt him. Yet if he didn't show his sincerity, whatever Huang knew would remain a secret. "Yes, I do," he settled for saying.
"I remember she told me once that you wanted to go to Earth," Huang mused. "I thought that strange, for what we knew of your people, but you are something of a strange one, aren't you? An outlier among your own kind?"
He did not like the flavor of this conversation. "I wouldn't say so," Kal-El demurred. Given what he knew about how microscopic organisms of human origin were now found on the skin of almost every Kryptonian, and the further revelations Jhan-Or had made, his own behavior was not as deviant as he'd been led to believe. But if it were made public, it would surely be labeled perverse.
Huang chuckled. "Most of the members of the Benevolent Society like humans well enough. Surely we are all in much better circumstances than we found ourselves at the beginning, and you were integral to all of that."
It would be pleasant, in a way, to take the credit, but Kal-El did not. It was not truly due to him alone, and in fairness he could not claim a larger role. "It would have happened anyway. Kryptonians are not a cruel people, Huang, and you humans are obviously fellow sentient beings. I simply accelerated things."
"You were the first, Kal-El, to treat us as equals. You see Lois as a person first, and as an interesting alien life-form second," Huang insisted.
That stung a little. He remembered at the beginning, when he'd been so excited to meet Lois, and later to bring her home. Back then he'd thought of her primarily as a fascinating object of study. It had taken a little while of living with her to realize just how wrong the situation she'd been thrust into really was, and just how cruel it was to confine her so.
When Kal-El did not immediately reply, Huang went on, "It is because you care for her that they do not tell you what they know. They think you will act rashly, and abandon our cause."
At that, his stomach turned to ice, and Kal-El wheeled to face the young man. "What has happened?" he demanded, his voice harsh. No matter if he was feeding into any suspicions Huang had, he needed to know, and swiftly.
"We do not know for certain," Huang said. "Lois arrived safely and was brought into military custody for debriefing. What happened after that is unclear. At some point she left the facility—without permission and without escort. The American military is now searching frantically for her."
Kal-El's brow furrowed. "Why would she run away?"
Huang held his hands up. "None of us know. The rest of the escapees were already released into witness protection programs. I was rather hoping you knew something that might be helpful. Can you think of any reason she would run away from her own father?"
"They never got along," Kal-El said. Something else was tickling the back of his brain, but he couldn't quite grasp it. "I'm sorry, Huang. I don't know. At least I know now that she arrived safely. And, whatever Lois' reasons for running, I do know she can take care of herself."
Huang nodded. "It was a slim hope at best. She is brilliant, but impetuous. I will see you next week, Kal-El."
"Fare well," he murmured, and set off toward his parked hovercraft with a heavier heart.
The day was not yet done with Kal-El. When he got into his hovercraft, there was a message waiting from his mother, inviting him to visit. As busy as he'd been of late, he hadn't seen either parent in person for some time, though they had talked via holographic message. He sent a reply accepting the invitation and piloted his craft to see her.
As always, spending time with Lara was a relief. His mother's love was a balm to Kal-El's soul, and her gracious poise calmed his worry for Lois. For now, anyway. He knew he would spend many sleepless nights waiting for news of her, but in this moment, drinking Earth tea in his parents' house while his mother spoke to him of ordinary pleasantries, Kal-El felt comforting reassurance and relaxed into it gratefully.
Until Lara put her cup aside and looked at him seriously. "My son, you appear exhausted. Have you not been sleeping well?"
There was no sense in lying to her. As a small child Kal-El had sometimes been able to fool his father, but never Lara. "No, Mother, I have not," he replied with a sigh. "It is a transient thing; I shall soon be set to rights."
Lara smiled gently. "I hope so. A mother does not like to see her child worn thin by care. Whatever it is that troubles you, Kal-El, you know you can speak of it with me. Perhaps I can be of assistance."
Everything seemed to hit him then. He was a member of two conspiracies—at least they more or less overlapped!—at the same time that he was trying to cope with the absence of the woman he loved. His heart rose up in his throat, and to Kal-El's shock he found himself suppressing tears. As a little boy he had sometimes cried to his mother, but that show of emotion was improper for an adult, and he fought for composure. "Thank you, Mother, but these are matters in which I would prefer not to trouble you with involvement."
Awkwardly phrased, but she nodded. Lara touched the back of his hand for a second before picking up her tea again. "I understand. You are ever your father's son, Kal-El, taking responsibility onto yourself. I can only tell you that he felt quite the fool once he began sharing those worries with me, and realized they are poorly dealt with by one person acting alone."
"I appreciate the insight, but for now this burden is mine," Kal-El said. He expected her to ask after his growing association with Jhan-Or, to pursue the idea of political involvement causing his current distress. Kal-El was thinking up explanations for that when Lara asked a completely different question.
"How is Lois?"