Luthor watched the surveillance screen, scowling. The girl was up to something, but he couldn’t tell exactly what her game was. She’d seemed sincere in her efforts to convince the hologram, but Luthor could hear the difference between the way the girl spoke Kryptonese and the way Jor-El and Zod sounded. It would take lots of practice for Kala to sound like a true Kryptonian. And Luthor didn’t have that kind of time.
What he did have was Zod. Perhaps the general hadn’t been quite honest with his old enemy; it was possible that he’d been holding out. If the hologram would speak to anyone who approached, how could it tell if Zod wasn’t one of its heirs? Perhaps a little competition would inspire the Kryptonian to his best effort. After all, if it looked like Kala might unlock the information, Zod would become superfluous – and since he hadn’t even tried to ally himself with Luthor, Zod knew what his fate would be.
Right now, Zod and Kala seemed to be circling each other, each uncomfortable in the other’s presence. That was to be expected; they both knew the significance of the other. Her conception had been his destruction, and his brief reign had ultimately led to her father’s absence. Luthor chuckled. The general was too arrogant, too cold-bloodedly aloof, to cultivate an alliance with Kala, and the girl was too temperamental, too young and hot-headed, to think about such things. The possibility of them uniting against him was remote, but even so, Luthor already had plans to address the issue.
Regardless, he had to keep the pressure on. Kal-El would be coming, and though Luthor had hidden his tracks well, even the most obscure trail would eventually be unraveled. It was simply a matter of time, and he had to be ready to spring the trap when the alien did arrive. Hopefully all of his efforts had borne fruit, and the family was now in disarray, mistrusting each other. It would make them much less effective and easier to pick off one by one.
Leaning back in his chair, Luthor pondered the many strategies open to him. One item in particular loomed large in his calculations: the kryptonite gun he’d fashioned, which was locked in a lead vault just outside this office, along with some other samples of kryptonite. It was the ultimate answer to so many problems: Zod’s recalcitrance, Kal-El’s discovery of the facility, Kala’s defiance. If the thing hadn’t leaked radiation at levels Stanford said were unsafe for humans, Luthor would have carried it at his side all the time.
But even if he couldn’t keep the lethal kryptonite gun close to hand, Luthor was never unarmed. In the desk drawer beside him was a .357 magnum Ladysmith revolver, the five-shot model with a rosewood grip. A woman’s gun, his security staff would have scoffed, but Luthor knew it was designed for maximum man-stopping power. The hollow-point bullets in its cylinder would not blow through their target, instead intended to lodge deep in the central body mass and deliver all of their force to internal organs. A gun meant not to threaten, not to impress, but to kill.
Luthor smiled. He would have expected no less from the weapon he’d taken from Lois Lane.
Kala’s head was swimming in history. She’d learned more in the past hour – or was it two? – than she had in a year’s worth of lessons with Jor-El. Not just the events, but a little background on the principal people involved in them, as well as detailed descriptions of the locations where they’d taken place. Zod had a gifted memory, at least for things that interested him, and history certainly interested him.
Jor-El usually wanted her to memorize a list of historical facts, and he would discuss the broad political and cultural importance of some of them. Zod could spin out at least five ramifications of each event, and track the trends in society that had led to each. That was exactly the kind of in-depth information Kala craved.
Along the way Zod would occasionally correct her pronunciation, or suggest a more elegant way of phrasing something, but she’d forgotten about language. This was simply too fascinating for anything else to hold her attention. And Kala hadn’t even gotten through half of the things she wanted to ask; she kept getting sidetracked by some new detail, some seemingly unrelated circumstance that Zod would patiently explain to her.
Zod paused for a sip of water, something he’d been doing frequently, and Kala leaned her head back to ease her stiff neck. She looked slowly from one side to the other, trying to ease her tense muscles, and caught a glimpse of the clock. Which seemed to be wrong – it couldn’t be that late, could it?
Seeing the direction of her gaze, Zod said, “Perhaps we should pause briefly.”
“It’s really that far into the afternoon?” Kala asked.
“Yes. The perception of time is relative, and you have been preoccupied.”
A fancy way of saying ‘time flies’, but accurate. Kala looked back at the clock, and was struck by a sudden wave of homesickness. If she’d been at home, right about now she and Jason would be browsing the fridge, accustomed to snacks after school. Likely as not, they would have been pushing each other, calling names, and generally behaving like a couple of heathens as they squabbled over who got the hummus or the leftover curry. She longed for that little slice of normalcy so much that tears stung her eyes, and she got up hurriedly, trying to hide her sudden weakness from Zod.
He remained seated, and she could feel the weight of his silent regard as she struggled to regain her composure. Kala couldn’t help sniffling a little, arms crossed and hands gripping her own shoulders as if to keep herself from flying apart with the yearning to simply go home…
“You miss your home,” Zod observed quietly. “It is a feeling with which I have considerable acquaintance.”
Kala turned to look at him, wondering how it would feel to know your home was gone, destroyed, and the fragments that were left had turned lethal to you. To truly never be able to go home again, to have to live out the remaining years of your life on an alien world whose inhabitants feared and despised you. And then to have some adolescent half-breed pick through your recollections with all the excitement of an archaeologist, never even recognizing her own callow disregard for the fact that these were your memories of a world that no longer existed. His expression was hard to read, that typically Kryptonian air of cultivated detachment, but she thought she saw the echo of loss in his eyes.
“If you will accept advice…?” He trailed off, and Kala nodded, not trusting her voice. “I have found that, at times, the memory of Krypton gives me strength and courage and comfort. At those times I cherish it, and I am grateful for the clarity of my recollections. Often, though, to think so much on what is lost beyond any hope of recapture brings only despair.”
Another long pause and Kala realized that this was probably one of the latter times. Betrayed and imprisoned by Luthor, reliving the glory of Krypton had to be bittersweet at best. She began to feel guilty for her curiosity, and grateful that Zod had been so patient with her. He continued, “At such times, when memories bring me only pain, it serves no purpose to hold them close. If it wounds you so deeply to think of home, here where you cannot afford to seem vulnerable to Luthor, then I advise you to do as I have done for so many years, and put these reminiscences aside for the present time. If I have learned nothing else from so many years of imprisonment, it is that such memories do not dull with age, becoming clearer the more distant they are. Should you need them, they will always be there, just as I can still clearly recall the sight of Great Rao rising over the Sea of Banzt.”
Kala considered it seriously. Right now, it only hurt to think of Jason laughing tossing a pomegranate at her, his hair falling into his eyes, and maybe Dad sighing in defeat from the living room. Or maybe Mom getting fed up with them both and chasing them out of the kitchen, scolding in mock fury that left the teens snickering helplessly…
The thought of Mom was another blow to Kala’s fragile psyche, bringing back the memory of Luthor’s laughter. Lois had made a deal with him, and for an instant Kala had suspected that maybe the deal was trading her for Jason. After all, the spy in their house had been Giselle, so the logical target was Jason. But at the last minute, Mommy’s favorite had been spared, and Kala found herself trapped here instead.
For most of her sixteen years, Kala had never doubted her mother’s love. Lois was fiercely protective of both of her children, and it had always been plain that she adored them. Only in the last year or two had things begun to sour between mother and daughter. The arguments had grown more frequent and more vicious, escalating from simply trading snide remarks to outright yelling matches. For every sweet moment between them in the last year, there seemed to be two or more uncomfortable ones. And though Kala knew in her heart that she hadn’t exactly been helping things go smoothly, she couldn’t believe it was all her fault. She wasn’t that bad, was she?
Meanwhile, Jason never seemed to put a foot wrong. Even when they were little, he rarely got yelled at. When both twins got into mischief, Kala was usually the one blamed. Jason had perfected an angelic, wounded look that convinced most adults he was utterly innocent, when in fact he’d been just as much of a rascal as Kala was. He had never taunted Kala about getting away with things, and had always tried to make whatever punishment she had to endure more bearable, so she’d never really blamed him for always getting her in trouble. When it counted, Jason was always by her side – until recently. When she and Mom fought, Jason kept trying to intervene, and more and more often he took Mom’s side. That only widened the rift between Lois and Kala, while strengthening the already close bond between mother and son.
If forced to choose which of her children to surrender – and Luthor was damn good at making people choose between two things they didn’t want to do, Kala knew from experience – wouldn’t Mom choose Jason? Kala knew she’d made some kind of choice, and Jason sure wasn’t the one stuck here.
Kala had turned away again, not wanting Zod to see her expression while such painful thoughts burned in her mind. But he read the set of her shoulders accurately. “What troubles you, daughter of the House of El?”
“Nothing,” Kala whispered, and then gave a bitter little chuckle before continuing in English. “I don’t know. I think… I shouldn’t believe Luthor, but … it’s hard not to.”
She heard Zod rise from his seat and approach, but he stopped a few feet behind her. “Luthor is false, and has always been so. Even when he speaks the truth, he shades it to his own advantage. Trust nothing he has told you unless you confirm it yourself.”
“I know, but it makes a sick kind of sense,” Kala said, arguing half-heartedly.
“What poison has he spoken?” Zod asked.
“Well, he said…” Kala broke off, recognizing the absurdity of her situation. Zod was not her friend; her ally, maybe, out of desperation on both their parts, but not someone she could trust so easily. Still, who else could she talk to? Schecter, who seemed nice but willingly worked for Luthor? Some random scientist she’d never met before, who for all she knew might be in charge of determining the fatal dose of kryptonite to a Kryptonian hybrid? One of the security guys, who would probably beat her up and rape her given half a chance? “I can’t believe I’m telling you this.”
Zod heard her scoffing tone and waited without comment. He had to know he was the only person in the compound who’d shown himself to be even slightly trustworthy, and Kala literally had no one else to confide in.
She sighed, figuring that at worst he could confirm her dark suspicions. “Luthor called my father – he wanted to taunt him, frighten him. I wouldn’t beg for rescue. Instead I told Daddy to stay away, that I was fine, that Luthor was trying to force him to walk into a trap.”
“Courageous of you, and most wise,” Zod said. “Few can think so clearly in such circumstances.”
“Yeah, well, then Luthor told my dad that Mom made a deal with him. He never said what the deal was, but he winked at me when he said it.” Kala’s throat seemed to close, choked with tears, and she lifted a hand to rub at her eyes. “I don’t know, but … what if the deal was Luthor took me instead of Jase?”
Zod was silent again, considering, and he took a few more steps to stand at Kala’s shoulder. She found his proximity more comforting than disturbing; Zod was a true Kryptonian, with all of their social taboos about touch, and she was safe with him in a way she wouldn’t be safe around any other man in the compound. Perhaps by approaching, he was trying to offer the same sort of sympathy that a human would express with a hug.
“I do not think your mother would have traded you to Luthor,” he said slowly. “I did not know her well, but she did not strike me as the sort of woman who compromises easily. It would be more in her character to offer herself to Luthor, rather than endanger her children.”
Kala exhaled, the tension in her shoulders easing a little. That did sound like something Mom would do. But doubt lingered. “Jason’s girlfriend and her mom were Luthor’s spies. It sure looked like he was going after Jason, but switched to me at the last minute. What would make Luthor change targets?”
From beside her, Zod asked, “How were you captured?”
She shuddered all over, remembering the stench of the cloth pressed to her face, the world going black. “I … I was in the subway, and they came up behind me. Someone half-smothered me with something, ether or chloroform, and knocked me out. The next thing I knew I was being carried in here.”
“Was the subway part of your normal route, or were you doing something unusual?”
Laughing bitterly, Kala replied, “Well, considering that I’d just run away from home for a dumbass reason, it was pretty unusual.”
He nodded. “And these spies, did they know of it?”
“Probably,” Kala mused. “Jason probably told Giselle as soon as he knew. Actually, Giselle was at the party the night before – she probably knew I was gonna be grounded.” She gasped as realization struck. “Holy shit, Giselle was probably the one spreading the rumors about me! She’s the only one who could’ve known… That bitch probably manipulated me into running away!”
“By ‘ran away’, you mean you left your house without your parents’ knowledge or permission.” When Kala nodded agreement, Zod elaborated, “So these spies had knowledge of your starting location, and may have known what route you would take as you left home. Your mother, on the other hand, could not have known those things. Therefore, your mother could not have given Luthor the information that led to your capture. It seems you were a target of opportunity; they planned to take your brother, but they had too perfect a chance to pass up.”
Kala took a deep, shuddering breath. She hadn’t realized until the weight rolled off her heart just how much she dreaded the possibility that her mother had given her away. Trembling, she fought to hold back tears of relief.
Perhaps Zod misunderstood her reaction. “Your mother did not abandon you to Luthor,” he reassured, and placed his hand lightly on her left shoulder.
With a half-choked sob, Kala let the tears flow. It was bad luck that had landed her here, not a deliberate choice of her mother’s, and whatever deal Luthor was talking about had to be something else entirely. Of course, it would amuse the bald bastard to let Kala think she’d been given away, and her hatred for him flared even brighter.
Anyone else would have embraced her, but Kryptonians didn’t do such things. Zod left his hand on her shoulder while she struggled to regain her composure, a gesture of support that spoke louder than any words. Kala turned her head to look at him, trying to find the words to thank him without sounding too personal or too indebted. She glanced down, biting her lip as she searched for the words.
That was when she noticed his hand was slightly crooked, the fingers stiff. Caught off guard, Kala spoke without considering the implications. “Oh, ouch! What happened to your hand?”
Zod lifted it to the light, and Kala could see that his hand had been badly mangled at some point in the past. Just as she was blushing with embarrassment at her thoughtless question, Zod answered wryly, “Your father.”