Much to her own surprise, Kala didn’t have to fake her frustration and disappointment. Because the crystals Luthor had used to create it were missing a few tiny pieces – the ones that had been used in research, and to create New Krypton – this version of Jor-El created lacked certain features of the fully-functional AI in the Fortress. One of which was apparently the ability to understand a human accent. And that was her problem; she’d quickly stopped trying to purposefully deceive the projected image, trying to enunciate clearly in Kryptonese, but all she kept getting was a reminder to work further on the intricacies of her native tongue.
Damn annoying, actually, considering she’d always prided herself on speaking the language better than Jason. Daddy was more fluent, but he’d had many more years of conversing in Kryptonese in which to practice. It stung her to realize she wasn’t as proficient as she’d thought, even though that was exactly the impression she’d been trying to give.
“Is there a problem, Miss Lane-Kent?” Luthor growled, as one of his technicians reset the crystals.
One good thing about this outcome: she also didn’t have to fake her annoyance and anger. Rolling her eyes toward him, Kala snapped back, “I don’t know. Why don’t you try coaxing him into giving you the weapons information? Oh wait – you can’t, or you wouldn’t need me. It has to be an heir to the House of El.”
He stiffened slightly, staring at her, and Kala crossed her arms with a confidence she didn’t feel. “Apparently the version of Grandpa Giant Floating Head that I know and loathe is a little more adaptable than your half-baked version. He can allow for human mistakes and mispronunciations.”
“Those mistakes wouldn’t be deliberate, would they?” The madman’s voice could be soft and coaxing when he wanted it to be, but Kala knew there was more danger in that honeyed tone than in the snarl a moment ago.
“How stupid do you think I am? I want out of here, the sooner the better, and if I don’t try to help you, you’ll kill me.” It hurt to state that so baldly, but Kala had a lifetime of brazening out confrontations to draw upon. “There’s no contractions and no slang in Kryptonese, Luthor. It’s a highly formal language. And the cadences weren’t meant for a human larynx to reproduce. I’m better than you’ll ever be, thanks to Dad, but I still sound a little too human.” She paused, for effect, and added in a low mutter, “It’s not like I get too many chances to practice Kryptonese, you know. I am in high school, I’ve got tests and homework…”
The reminder of her mundane life was suddenly painful, her throat closing on the memory of slogging through endless algebra equations with Elise brilliant and sharp-edged as a diamond. Had she really hated those times, been bored out of her mind by repetitive problems? It felt like paradise just now.
“Well, aren’t you lucky,” Luthor snarled poisonously. “We just so happen to have a native speaker of Kryptonese on hand to tutor you. But I expect to see some progress, fast. Or else…”
Kala flipped him the bird as she stalked out. She could insult Luthor as long as he needed her for this, and if she got too cooperative he would suspect deceit. This sort of stereotypical adolescent disrespect should convince him that she was doing what he asked, just protesting as much as any teenager would.
Once out of the room, and unnoticed by security, Kala looked down and gripped her elbows tightly, suppressing a shudder. Luthor’s goons scared her, his white-coated scientists creeped her out, and the man himself terrified her. Having to attempt to pry the information he wanted out of a damaged version of her grandfather while under their eyes was awful.
And what she was walking toward was, perhaps, no better. Zod at least had not threatened her, but Kala remained wary of him. He was Zod, after all. And now, thanks to her accent, she was going to be spending more time around him. Luthor wouldn’t accept ‘he’s a creepy bastard who tried to enslave my dad and kill my mom’ as an excuse for lack of progress. “Great,” Kala sighed to herself.
She didn’t want to linger out in the corridors, with security guys and technicians eyeing her. It seemed that Luthor had a sizable presence; she hadn’t explored a tenth of the compound, and couldn’t begin to guess how many people were down here, but both figures looked depressingly high. Or perhaps not so depressing – it was really hard to hide the presence of a lot of people, so maybe it would help Dad find her sooner.
He had to find her. She could only play Luthor and Zod off each other for so long. And Luthor would start to get impatient quickly, especially with how vehement Dad had been on the phone. Everyone knew her time was limited, and Luthor would want results now, knowing she’d be trying to stall. Kala didn’t even want to think what kind of obstacles he could place in her father’s path…
…but she already knew about a big one. Her mother’s deal with Luthor. Kala felt ice creep over her heart at that thought, and she shivered, finding herself in the corridor between her room and Zod’s. She looked at his door apprehensively. Luthor hadn’t quite ordered her to go start language lessons right away, but if she did so, it might make her seem more willing to go along with his plans, and he might back off a little. On the other hand, if she started anticipating his orders he might decide to push her around even more; plenty of kids in school were like that, and Luthor seemed like a bully at heart to Kala. She had always stood up to bullies, always.
While she debated, the door slid open in front of her. Light spilled out, the closest thing to sunlight that could be found here, so far beneath the ground, and it felt as though Kala’s skin cried out for it. Just how long did she have, anyway, before she started losing her speed and strength to the lack of sunlight?
Still, she hesitated; Zod had not spoken, but the open door was a clear invitation. I have to choose; I can’t hold both of them at bay. And he is the lesser of two evils. For now. After a moment, Kala stepped inside, still wary.
Zod had been seated, facing the door, but he rose to acknowledge her. The door slid shut silently, leaving them facing each other. When the silence spun out, Kala unsure of what to say, Zod finally spoke. “Good day, Kala Kal-El.”
Kala spent a moment trying to figure out what she should say to him, and finally settled on a fairly innocuous question. “Do I really have an accent?”
“Slight,” Zod told her in Kryptonese, pulling out a chair for her. “I assume that Luthor insisted you attempt to gain access to the encrypted information?”
“Yes,” Kala said, taking the seat cautiously. She remembered what he’d told her yesterday about Luthor listening in, and fell easily into the language’s cadences after having spoken it all morning. “At first I intentionally held back, but even when I tried to speak correctly, the hologram told me I must continue my studies.”
Zod sat down across from her at the table where she presumed he took his meals; the entire room was so spotless as to be antiseptic, and the light pouring down reflected off the predominantly white surfaces. “Consider this,” the older Kryptonian said after a moment. “Jor-El expected his son to undertake an extensive period of tutelage, perhaps as much as a decade. During that time he would have developed more fluency in our native tongue than you have.”
“I have been taking lessons at the Fortress for ten years,” Kala informed him haughtily.
“Daily?” The question gave her pause, and Zod continued quietly. “It is one thing to learn a language to passable proficiency. It is another entirely to use that language every day, acquire its idioms and linguistic quirks, to come eventually to think in another tongue than the one with which you were raised. That is the level of fluency which the artificial intelligence demands.”
“So Luthor’s screwed,” Kala muttered in English.
Zod tilted his head. “If you mean to say that what he wants of you is virtually impossible to accomplish, particularly in a limited time frame, then yes.”
“But he doesn’t have to know that,” Kala mused. “At least, not for a while.”
“I presume Luthor sent you to me for further lessons in Kryptonese?”
“Not exactly. I came here on my own. I’d rather make my own decisions than let Luthor order me around.” It was better not to let him know she’d been fraught with indecision; Kala didn’t want Zod to know she feared him. Let him, and Luthor, see her bold and unbowed.
“Proactive.” Zod leaned back in the chair, steepling his fingers together, and considered. Kala watched him while trying not to show it, thinking know thine enemy. Besides, she could learn from him; this was supposedly Krypton’s premier strategist, and at the moment he looked every inch the general plotting his next tactic. Only this war would be fought with minds and misdirection instead of weapons and troops, and their opponent already possessed the means to destroy them both.
Yeah, Kala was definitely in over her head here, and she could use his expertise. He knew Luthor better than she did, too. If anyone had a chance of escaping Luthor’s plots, it was Zod. She had to put her hopes somewhere, and Zod was better than Luthor. But Kala reminded herself that part of the reason he could help her was that he could think like Luthor, and that should stay uppermost in her mind. He can think like Luthor because he is like Luthor: amoral, self-serving, willing to sacrifice others. Zod might be able to get me out of here, but I can’t trust him.
“We must appear to comply with Luthor’s plans, while in truth defying him,” Zod murmured. “If he thinks us docile, he will turn his attention elsewhere; that is how I acquired the light bulbs which mimic sunlight. He believes me tamed, and did not think that I might be working to increase my powers.”
The thought of Zod with more power sent a tendril of unease down Kala’s spine, even though he had already told her about the light bulbs. He was quite powerful enough to threaten her now, though he hadn’t done so. She shrugged off the disquieting thought with a reminder that he could be stronger than he seemed. “So, language lessons,” Kala said in English. “Ever taught Advanced Kryptonese?”
Zod’s saturnine features were skeptical, and Kala reminded herself he’d had little exposure to teenage sarcasm. “No. But I presume myself capable of the task. That is well, considering it has already been assigned me.” He considered for a moment further, then continued, “You already have an adequate foundation in our language. I suppose the best way to proceed is to simply use Kryptonese as much as possible.”
Kala sat up a little straighter when she switched to Kryptonese to reply, completely unconscious of the fact that she associated proper posture with proper speech. “In other words, talk. With you, since you are the only source of correct pronunciation other than the hologram itself.”
“A dire fate indeed,” Zod said, raising an eyebrow. Kala gave a wry smile; so he did have a sense of humor. Enough of one not to take offense at her not-precisely-respectful comments. That was good to know. It made him seem less like her family’s oldest nemesis and more like an actual person, someone she could understand.
“Forgive me. I am … under a great deal of stress,” Kala apologized.
Zod inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “As are we all. In any case, I am certain you have some unanswered questions about Krypton. All of your knowledge of your ancestral home comes filtered through the lens of one man’s observations. Perhaps I can enlighten you further.”
And that was the one thing Kala could not have been able to resist. Even before Luthor demanded that she get language lessons from Zod, she’d wanted to talk to him about Krypton, to speak with someone who had actually walked its streets, been inside its buildings. Jor-El was not usually patient with her desire to learn more; he had an agenda to teach his heirs, and nostalgia wasn’t on it. Unless the topic could be related, however indirectly, to the hero’s quest, Jor-El was unlikely to spend much time on it.
But here was Zod, who hadn’t been able to reminisce with one of his own people for over a decade. Non and Ursa had been held in separate facilities ever since their capture. He likely would have been willing to talk even if Luthor hadn’t compelled them into this situation. His perspective on Kryptonian life was probably a bit different than Jor-El’s, too, and Kala had always been taught that to see anything completely, you had to look at it from more than one point of view.
Leaning forward on the table, her hazel eyes alight with curiosity, Kala tried to decide what to ask first.
In a long day filled with bad news and the suspicion of worse to come, Maggie simply wanted to go home, curl up on her sofa, and drink some scotch on the rocks. Tobie, Cat, and Jamie would all be safe in the apartment with her. Very shortly, those who were heading to Smallville would be at Ron and Lucy’s place, where they’d have police protection. And the rest were doubling up, watching each other’s backs. She could relax a little, once everyone was home for the day.
Of course, Lois and Clark were headed right into trouble, but they would have Superman looking after them. You couldn’t ask for better protection than that. He’d already saved Richard’s life and hers in the past twenty-four hours. Maggie still remembered, all too clearly, how she’d felt the instant that Lois had screamed at her to get down. It wasn’t the first time she’d been fired upon, and likely wouldn’t be the last, but Maggie had discovered then that she hated snipers. Some punk with a Saturday Night Special aimed at her, she could handle; she could read body language, make a guess about whether the gunman would really shoot or not, and if he was going to fire, she could often see it before he even began to move his trigger finger. But a sniper was out there somewhere, so far away you couldn’t even see the person trying to kill you, far enough that you had no chance to negotiate or defend yourself.
Maggie gave a little shiver at the turn her thoughts had taken. She cast about for something to break her mood, and when she saw Jason walking toward her, she was at first relieved. “Hey there, Jason,” the policewoman said. “How’re you holding up?”
The boy sighed, his serious blue eyes looking into hers steadily. A lot of kids his age were nervy around cops, but Jason had an utterly clean conscience and it showed in his bearing. So very much his father’s son… “Aunt Maggie, I need a favor from you,” he said quietly.
“And what would that favor be?” Maggie’s voice had gone careful, wondering what he could want. If Jason was being quiet and relatively secretive about it, it couldn’t be something good.
“I want to see Giselle.”
He’d barely gotten the words out when Maggie retorted, “No. Absolutely not.”
Jason looked at her reproachfully, which was comical enough that Maggie let him try and talk her into it. “Aunt Maggie, she was my girlfriend for the last four months. I talked to her every day, had her visiting our apartment almost every week, and I never even guessed she was a spy for Luthor. Or that she was twenty-two. It’s … it’s a serious head trip for me, okay?”
“I imagine it must be,” Maggie replied cautiously. “So why do you want to see her again, Jason?”
“I want…” He paused, looking away for a moment, his hands balling into fists and then relaxing. “I want to see the actress with her mask off. I want to know who she really is, who I’ve been kissing all this time. I want to know if she’s actually a bad person, or just someone who got mixed up in the wrong things.”
Poor boy – poor sweet, noble boy. He would have made a great cop, if he could develop a thick skin over those sensitive feelings. “Jason, even if you were able to see her again, I can’t guarantee you’ll get answers to any of those. She has no reason to tell you the truth.”
“She has no reason to keep lying, either,” he pointed out. “Besides, if I never talk to her again, I can guarantee I won’t get answers. It’s worth a try, at least.”
He was an optimist, too, something Maggie had never claimed to be. “She might just as easily try to hurt you. She knows you well enough to know just where to stick the proverbial knife in. Jason, it’s not worth it.”
The boy shrugged. “She’s in jail, isn’t she? You wouldn’t let me see her without a glass wall between us, anyway. The only way she can hurt me is with words – and sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Jason grinned half-heartedly, as if the old rhyme were actually true.
Maggie knew better than she wanted to that it was false. Some words – ‘unfit mother’ for example – hurt worse than any broken bone she’d ever had, and left scars on the psyche that lingered far longer than scars on the skin. For further proof, she could look no further than Lois, still trying to prove her father wrong after the man had been in his grave almost twenty years. All she said to Jason, however, was, “You’re a smart enough young man to know that isn’t true.”
“I’m smart enough to know I probably won’t get what I want,” Jason countered, “but I’d be a coward not to at least try. Besides, Aunt Maggie, the city jail ought to be safe. It’s controlled-access and full of police and corrections officers, right?”
She crossed her arms and stared at him. The boy had a point, and she found herself considering the request as if it came from an adult, and not a sixteen-year-old boy. Jason had often seemed more mature than his age.
There was one good thing about the situation – he was still young enough that she could fob him off with ‘because I said so, that’s why.’ Maggie sighed. “I’ll think about it, Jason, but no promises, okay?”
“Thank you,” he said gravely, and contented himself with that answer.