Zod’s plans were unraveling. Kala Kal-El had not remained at her post, as she should have done, and instead had come running to the fight. Fortunately he was able to bias her against her own family, making it appear that he was very much getting the worst of the fight. That worked exactly as planned, for she came to his aid, much to the horror of her father and brother. For a moment, it had seemed as though he would succeed in turning the House of El against itself.
But even when she’d struck at her own brother, he had not raised his hand to hurt her in return. Had it been Zod, attacked by one of his own soldiers in such a fit of apparent madness, he would have used a disabling blow and dealt with the underling later. Jon-El seemed willing to take any amount of abuse, even remove himself from the larger fight entirely, in order not to harm his sister.
Perhaps I should have paid more attention to this supposed bond between twins, he thought. The General had dismissed such anecdotal evidence in his research of the House of El, viewing it as superstitious nonsense equivalent to the endless human blather about the soul.
It was too late for speculation; his initial plan might already be impossible to achieve. Zod had intended for Luthor to slay the male heirs of Jor-El, whereupon he himself would kill Luthor. To that end he had misdirected Kala when he sent her on her mission, meaning only for her to take the life of one or more guards in her futile effort to avenge her mother.
The shock of losing her entire family in a single day – for surely Lois Lane would not survive, especially not with Mercy Graves attending to her – would be terrible. Coupled with the awareness of her own capacity to kill, it would have unhinged Kala’s mind enough to allow him to finish his reprogramming of her. With her will subsumed to his own, his powers returned in full, and both Luthor and the House of El out of his way, nothing would be able to stop Zod. This Justice League of America would fall, especially since Zod would be in control of all of Luthor’s resources.
And then, the world. Now he understood how he had failed before. Half-mad from his imprisonment in the Phantom Zone, and disgusted by the alien culture he saw before him, then Zod had sought only to subjugate and destroy humanity. This time, he knew them a little better, had studied them during his prison term. And with Kala by his side, he would have a perfect interpreter of humanity’s impulses. She had been raised here, surrounded by the savages every moment of her life, and would be able to accurately predict them. She would serve as his guide for the takeover, and best of all, she would be completely trustworthy. After all, he would be her savior as well as her only link to her Kryptonian heritage.
The sole problem with that plan had been the fact that Kala was also an heir to the House of El. Yet it was a simple matter to change that. There came a time in every Kryptonian woman’s life when she must leave the house of her father and take another man’s name, and though she was the daughter of his oppressors, she was also the last of her kind. Even as he would be the last of his. Alliance would be the only hope to continue Krypton’s legacy.
All of that might now have to be abandoned, for Luthor was too slow to respond, and Kala too swift. Zod would not enjoy pretending to be an ally of his foes, working patiently and secretly for years toward their destruction. He could do that if necessary, pretend humility and bend his knee before the son of his jailer, knowing that he had already planted the seeds of dissolution within the family, but he much preferred the swifter, cleaner conclusion.
Still, all was not yet lost. Luthor was already at the weapons locker, and Zod put on a burst of speed. The human would take up his weapon, turn, and fire at the pursuing Kryptonians. If Zod moved past him and was within the locker itself when it fired, he would be partially shielded from the radiation, which would catch Kal-El and Jon-El instead. He would rescue Kala from it – she was running at his side even now – and kill Luthor, who would not expect an attack from the back of the weapons locker, which had been empty seconds ago. All could still go as planned…
Kala saw Luthor at the door to the weapons locker, and her heart rate shot up, adrenaline surging into her veins. He would kill them all, kill every last vestige of Krypton, kill her family… She couldn’t allow that to happen.
A moment ago, when Jason’s life had been in danger, Kala had found a new level of speed, the existence of which she’d never before imagined. She used it now, and the world blurred past, her focus narrowing forward. A similar effect occurred in her mind, as her fear and fury evaporated before the driving need to stop Luthor. That blew like a gust of Arctic wind through her thoughts, sweeping aside all the trauma of the last few days and leaving her a precious few moments in which to act.
But something kept nagging at her, one image and one sound repeating over and over as the seconds stretched like taffy. The way Dru-Zod had lashed out at her father, and Jason’s scream. He tried to kill me when we came looking for you this morning! That shriek was born of desperation, and Jason wasn’t generally given to exaggeration. If Zod had merely cuffed him around for show, to make Luthor think he was still loyal, Jason wouldn’t have said kill.
And there had been no reason to strike her father. Kal-El had been frozen in horror, momentarily forgetting Zod’s existence at the realization of the threat to his son. Zod could have backed off then, showing himself to be their ally, but instead he had struck with all his strength.
The sight of Jason and her father had warmed a part of her heart she hadn’t realized was frozen … and just who was it that told her to close off her love for her family and focus on the here and now? Who had encouraged her when she’d tried to turn herself into unfeeling crystal? Who had been at her side, subtly influencing and complimenting her? But Zod had protected her … from some threats. He had shared his own history with her … and slanted every event in his own favor. The suspicions flickered through Kala’s mind as she darted into the weapons locker.
The kryptonite gun was right there in front of her. Luthor was still at the door, but Kala couldn’t take any risks. She snatched up the weapon, and her ears began ringing immediately as the leaking radiation took effect.
Kal-El had picked himself up out of the wall he’d been thrown through, dazed and disheartened. He hadn’t been watching out for Jason, and his negligence had almost resulted in his son’s death. Never mind that he had been preoccupied with fighting Zod; in Kal-El’s mind there was no excuse for such mistakes. He had to be perfect, all the time, because the slightest lapse in attention could mean the loss of someone’s life. Jason had come too close, just then, and Kal-El hated himself for not being more careful even as relief surged through him that the boy was unharmed.
Worse, Kala wasn’t acting like herself at all; it seemed as though Jor-El was right. Under the pressure of captivity and in Zod’s company, she had become his willing follower instead of a captive. Kal-El’s spirits had never been so low, not even when he’d seen her falling off Luthor’s island ten years ago. Then she was in danger, but it was something he could save her from. This was much worse. How deep did her delusion run? Was she actually dangerous to them, as Jor-El had predicted?
But then she stopped the fight, reminding them all there was another foe to fear. Luthor. Even the name sent ice down Kal-El’s spine, as he realized they had ignored the human and focused on Zod. What was Luthor up to while they were distracted? And how much of this had he planned? Kala insisted Zod wasn’t the enemy – what if she was right, and his sole purpose for being here was to delay himself and Jason? Kal-El immediately rejected that thought. Zod could have surrendered, if he was merely a prisoner. He was a general, he understood the perils of friendly fire, and he would not have provoked a fight with potential allies. Kal-El remembered the man’s chilling voice, the lust for power that burned in Zod’s dark eyes, the recording Jor-El had shown him wherein Zod swore vengeance upon all the heirs of El. No, this was no supporter.
As soon as the words were spoken, Kala and Zod shared a frightened look and dashed off. Kal-El wasn’t sure where they were headed, so he had to hang back a bit and follow Zod’s lead. Meanwhile Jason managed to keep up fairly well, using his strength to take longer leaps combined with what super-speed he did have.
Their destination became clear when he saw Luthor up ahead, opening a door to small room with heavily reinforced walls. The moment the door slid open, Kal-El felt the warning prickle along his skin, and knew there was kryptonite inside. He checked himself at the door, catching Luthor by the back of the shirt and tossing him aside. They couldn’t let him get his hands on the kryptonite inside.
Kala went right in, either ignoring the radiation or not feeling it thanks to her partial immunity. Zod had disappeared from sight while Kal-El dealt with Luthor, but a sweeping glance found him again: inside the room, pressed against the back wall.
As her father watched, Kala lifted something that looked a lot like a gun off a stand in the center of the room. He froze; somehow he knew the radiation was coming from that device. Worse, it was only leaking slightly, just enough kryptonite escaping into the air to make his skin tingle, rather like the sensation of sunburn for humans. And sunburn itself was a symptom of radiation.
But what would be the point of creating a weapon that looked so much like a gun, and had so little effect? No, it was more likely Luthor had found a way to concentrate kryptonite radiation. Kal-El remembered Pa showing him how to start a fire with a magnifying glass, focusing the sun’s rays until they made tinder burst into flame. He could imagine all too easily what it would be like to experience kryptonite radiation the same way, an intense beam of pure green death.
And now the weapon was in Kala’s hands. He didn’t even have time to worry before she did the one thing he would never have suspected.
Jason almost tripped over Luthor when Dad tossed him, and aimed sharp kick at the man. What he wanted to do at that moment was pounce on the sick bastard and beat him into a smear on the concrete, but Dad was right – they didn’t do those kinds of things. No matter how much they wanted to, or how much slime like Luthor deserved it. We’re the good guys.
Even if Kala has forgotten that. He had never been more frightened for his twin than he was at that moment. His worst nightmare had come true – she’d slipped away from him. The moment at their birthday party seemed like an omen now, that instant where he hadn’t recognized her. Now she carried herself differently, spoke differently, acted differently; she wasn’t Kala anymore, she was Krypton’s Princess, and under Zod’s command. It would’ve been easier to find her hurt and acting like her usual self than to see this stranger looking out of his twin’s eyes.
Stifled rage and terrible loss warring in his chest, he sidestepped Luthor to focus on Kala. She was in the little room Luthor had been going for, picking up something. A gun. Jason felt sick at the sight of it, but didn’t realize why. He was too astounded to make the connection between his nausea and the kryptonite radiation.
For a single second, everyone and everything stopped. Kala felt all of it, all of them, resting on her, like she was the knife-edge on which the entire situation balanced. The gun was in her hands, not Luthor’s. The choice was hers. And in spite of recent betrayals, there was really only one choice to make. Taking a deep breath, her eyes already filling with tears, Kala raised the gun.
Aimed straight at Zod.
In the confines of the weapons locker, the kryptonite gun had a tangible presence, its radiation leakage a sinister stinging on his exposed skin. Zod could stand that for a little while, if necessary. But he had never expected Kala to turn on him.
He had seen those mining rays in use, seen them melt crystal and stone with a beam of intense light. And now the most diabolical adaptation of that technology was turned on him. Zod froze for an instant, knowing true terror for the first time since the Phantom Zone descended to swallow him up with its terrible deathless oblivion.
But this was Kala Kal-El, and he had made her in his own image. If he retaliated now, or fled, he would lose her, and all his plans would be for naught. Yet if he could convince her to turn the weapon aside, his hold on her would only be increased. Raising his hands, he took a small step toward her and asked softly, “Kala, what are you doing?” Everything, from the gesture that bespoke harmlessness to the tone of gentle persuasion to the use of her familiar name, was calculated to soothe her.
And none of it worked.
Kal-El didn’t dare move or breathe. Had Kala come to her senses at last? Maybe she could hold Zod off long enough for all of them to escape. But then the older Kryptonian tried to reason with her. Kal-El could have told him it was no use. Like her mother, once roused to fury Kala was immune to sweet reason, and knew only one goal: protecting herself and those she loved at any cost.
“Be silent. You betrayed me,” she snarled, in that too-perfect Kryptonese. How had she developed an accent as good as his own in only a few days?
Zod tried again. “Kala…” Her father ground his teeth, to hear Krypton’s greatest criminal using his daughter’s given name so familiarly, but he still couldn’t intervene. He couldn’t risk distracting Kala at a critical moment.
It was no use. “Silence, Dru-Zod! You said you would not harm my brother, and you have gone back upon your word. I saw you. You would have slain him.” The rage in her voice built as she took a step backward.
Zod paused, choosing his words carefully, taking another cautious step toward her. “He would do the same to me, Kala. And I did not kill him – there he stands.” Jason bristled at that; Kal-El remembered how he’d found his son earlier, how close his timing had been. Still neither of them said a word. If Kala took her attention off Zod for one instant, it would be enough for him to strike.
Kala’s voice was low and wrathful. “Everything you ever told me was a lie.”
“No,” Zod said, quiet and insistent. “Think on all the things we’ve discussed, all the abuses and the cruelties of this world that could be made right if only someone of sufficient courage were to command it be made so. Kal-El will never understand that, nor Jon-El. They cannot see it as you and I do – your father and your brother are both blinded by Jor-El’s arrogance. My old colleague sent his son here as a messiah, and has not your own religion taught you the fate of such saviors? They will burn themselves out in their mission, slaving away for the good of a people who cannot even be bothered to conserve their resources! Is that not folly? Would it not be best for all humanity if they were taken in hand by someone with the wisdom to see the consequences of their actions, and the will to save this planet from the destruction being wreaked upon it?”
Jason drew in breath for a retort, and Kal-El silenced him with a look. Every instinct he had, every intuition born of a thousand struggles against villains of all kinds, told him this was Kala’s fight. They could not intervene to argue or to distract. It tore him apart not to defend her, but he couldn’t protect her from Zod. She had to protect herself, and she knew his arguments had a fatal flaw.
Kal-El hoped Kala was thinking of that flaw as she met Zod’s statement with a long silence. Still, he worried. Zod was a skilled debater, and his life was at stake now, so he would use every ounce of persuasion he could muster. And he had had enough time to learn Kala’s weaknesses.
She lifted her head and stared into Zod’s eyes, her gaze clear and cold. “No, Dru-Zod. You are wrong, and you will always be wrong. It is not possible to command people to be better. The way the House of El has chosen is inspiration. It is slower, true, but it is the right way, for it does not steal the choice from an entire world. If people are only free to do what is right, then they are not free at all. They must be free to make mistakes, to fail, to suffer consequences, and to try again. If that means rescuing them from their folly time and time again, then so be it. It is better than making them slaves, for only with freedom can they learn to be the great people that they wish to be.”
Jason sighed with relief, and Kal-El could have wept with it. She wasn’t entirely lost to them – but her hands were shaking. The radiation had to be getting to her by now, though she was partially protected. Still Kal-El hung back. If Kala triggered the kryptonite gun, they would have to make a quick dash for her, something they couldn’t do if they got hit with the radiation at close range.
Zod hadn’t yet given up, even though it must have been clear than his psychological conditioning was breaking. “Kala, listen to me. That weapon you hold is as deadly to you as it is to me.”
“Good.” Kala smiled a fey and bitter smile, and Kal-El began to worry again. Her expression looked too much like Lois’ when they’d gone into the warehouse.
Zod’s voice betrayed a hint of nervousness, but he didn’t miss a beat. “Deadly to your father and brother as well. And we four are the last of our kind, all that remains of Krypton’s glory. You will not destroy us all, Kala. You are a daughter of the House of El, you dare not extinguish the last of our legacy…”
Kala’s eyes blazed, and she bared her teeth in a snarl of defiance. Her hand went to her neck now, slim fingers reaching for the dainty silver chain there and wrapping around a silver object as if it were an anchor. Clinging to what must be Lois’ locket to ground herself. Though Kal-El couldn’t see it, inside her mind all her dreams of being a grand Kryptonian lady – the Last Daughter of Krypton – were withering like frost before flame. That world was gone forever, and the true folly would be trying to recreate it here. She understood then what Jason seemed to have always known: Earth was home, and the twins were essentially human. Human by half their heritage, human by birth, human by upbringing. Humans with powers, but human, not alien, not in the heart or mind where it truly counted. What was alien in them was a relic, an artifact of a dead world, a legacy that deserved respect, but they could never forget that here and now they lived in a human world, not a Kryptonian one.
Kala switched from Kryptonese to snarl in English, hazel eyes laser-sharp and full of fire, “Liar! Fuck you, fuck Krypton, and fuck your precious legacy! I am the daughter of the House of Lane!”
With that shocking pronouncement, she wheeled, the gun never leaving its target. Her wild eyes swept over Jason and Kal-El. Her brother remembered the promise they’d made aboard Luthor’s yacht, never to turn their backs on each other, the promise that had been strained but not broken on New Year’s. She was his Kala again, terrified but determined, and for the instant their gazes locked Jason’s heart leapt. A ghost of a smile formed on her lips then. She’s still in there. Kal’s still there.
It was all happening in slow motion for them. Her father had a moment to remember the way she’d come running to him in that Chinese restaurant so long ago, when he and Lois weren’t even getting along, the way she’d leaped into his arms. Even then she’d always trusted him to catch her. And even before either knew she was his daughter, the cashier had remarked, “Daddy’s girl?”
In that second, her eyes seemed to speak volumes to both of them. At the same time, the look in them said clearer that words, I love you. I’m sorry. I’m doing this for you.
Before Kal-El or Jason could decipher the meaning of that message, Kala had slapped the panel on the inside of the weapons locker, and the leaded door slammed down between them.
Sealing her inside with Zod and the kryptonite gun.