Lois (kalalanekent) wrote,

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Across The Universe: Restless Wind Inside A Letterbox [Chapter Five]

          Sorry it's late guys! Furniture buying this morning and I need to add a little more detail to a scene just so it felt richer. I hope you all really enjoy this one. :D


Maybe Lois had overestimated the potential threat she had suspected in Kal-El. For all of his proclaimed 'studies', he had no real context for any of it. Lois drew that conclusion within her first day with him. He had access to tremendous amounts of information about Earth – and she needed to let her father know that as soon as possible – but it seemed haphazardly organized at best. He tended to mix up traditions from different cultures, with amusing results.


            Their first meal together was a prime example and she'd been hard-put not to raise an eyebrow at him. What the hell is he up to? Is this some kind of test or something? Somehow Kal-El had gotten hold of knives, forks, and spoons, but the fork was narrow and three-pronged, the type usually used with crab. He'd also included a set of chopsticks even though none of the dishes were remotely Asian. That made her wonder how he had gotten his hands on what had to be authentic Earth utensils. Lois amused herself by using the chopsticks to eat his best approximation of fettuccine alfredo. The typical Kryptonian eating utensils she'd seen at his father's house were rather like chopsticks, so he had an advantage. She'd lived in Japan during one of her father's assignments and had acquired the knack there. Kal-El attempted to follow her example, with reasonable success, making it impossible to hide the way her lips quirked up. Oookay, then, that's it. He hasn't a clue this isn't the way we normally eat it. Makes me wonder what else he has the wrong info on.

            Over the meal, which was pretty good in spite of not having that real parmesan cheese flavor and maybe a couple of herbs she couldn't place, he asked her question after question. As she chewed the first bite, it was, "Is the sauce acceptable?"

            "It's good," Lois said, wondering if the robots had made this, or if he had. Most likely the robots. Kryptonians probably didn't prepare food for fear of contracting germs.

            A moment later he asked, "How closely did I approximate the proper consistency of the noodles?"


            His serious intensity gave her pause; Kal-El treated this like it was extraordinarily important. And the idea of him asking her for these things was just a little absurd. I'm giving cooking advice to an alien. Good thing he doesn't know I can't cook. "It should be just a little firmer. But it's still good." And I've never seen anything like noodles on his father's table. How the heck did he come up with noodles?

            Kal-El nodded. "Ah. I will improve it the next time I attempt this dish. Incidentally, I understand this dish is sometimes accompanied by meat. The flesh of poultry seems popular. I regret I cannot currently offer you an authentic serving, but perhaps we can approximate something with synthesized proteins. Would that be acceptable?"

            Lois wondered for a moment how the dish would taste with tofu, and decided it didn't need any interference. "Actually it's fine as it is," she told him. Brief confusion flickered across Kal-El's features until he caught up to the slang, and then he smiled.

            He smiled more than any Kryptonian Lois had seen, and sadly, he had a really nice smile, the kind that made it hard to resist smiling back. Lois fought down the instinct to reciprocate his kindness. He just seemed to be making such an intense effort to please her that she couldn't help wondering what his motives were. Never mind what her instincts said, she knew too much to act as if he were her best friend.

            Even if that was what he was trying to be. As the robots cleared away their plates, Kal-El changed the course of their conversation. "Miss Lane, are you content so far with my hospitality?" he asked earnestly.

            Something about him reminded her of the way a lot of boys back home had behaved toward her the last couple of years, the way their eyes seemed to say 'please like me' every time they looked at her. That puppyish air thawed her a little bit. She'd always had a soft spot for the slightly oddball ones. It was endearing, within reason. It wouldn't hurt, after all, to let them think they'd charmed her. But not too much, not yet. Unable to resist this time, Lois gave him a half-smile and said, "Maybe. We'll see."

            His broad grin in response was either evidence of a genuine desire to make her comfortable here, or Oscar-worthy acting on his part. "I am glad to hear that. Miss Lane, as I said earlier, I have no plans for this day, so I shall leave you to your own devices. If you require anything, please make me aware of it. I am at your disposal." With that he rose from the table, and when she stood up he bowed to her again.

            She once again hid her smile and bowed back before taking her leave. Wrong culture, but the sentiment was clear enough, and it was nice to be treated with respect. Lara had been kind, but their every interaction seemed tinged with worry. And Jor-El had been standoffish and nervous. At least Kal-El was, by all indications, unafraid and interested…


            That train of thought bordered on treason, and Lois checked it sharply. She was going to have to watch herself around this one. He was so disarmingly earnest that she kept forgetting he wasn't human. He is the enemy, Lo. For all you know all of this is an elaborate charade to see if you have any military secrets. Which, in fact, you do. So keep your mouth shut and remember no one here is your friend. Least of all him. His father is on their council, so he must be fairly close to the ruler.

            The mere thought of Chancellor Zod sent chills down her spine. She remembered those icy eyes from the message, the utter contempt she'd sensed behind every word. There was a man who would grind all of humanity beneath his boot heel, given the slightest provocation, and feel no more remorse than someone squishing a bug. If Jor-El was a friend of his … if his secret projects were weapons of war… Lois shivered. No, she couldn't trust anything or anyone here.

            Though it would have been nice to have one friend, one person to rely on, she had to accept that it just wasn't an option.

            Kal-El had not attended the evening meal. He'd left a message by hologram that he had been called away to a meeting, and hoped that she would find the dinner acceptable. This time, the meal was Asian. Lois was served a very passable stir-fry by silent robots, but she would've preferred her host's presence. There was nothing incriminating in his house, nothing for her to investigate, and the only real benefit she could derive was in learning about him. Maybe he knew something that would be valuable to her father, when she was finally allowed to contact her home planet again. And God, she'd just used the phrase 'home planet' inside her own head without referencing a sci-fi movie. How weird was that?

            The next morning he was back, and over breakfast – which was something akin to huevos rancheros, yet another culture making its appearance – he had a suggestion for her. "I would very much like to discuss Earth culture with you," Kal-El told her. "However, if you require more time to get settled, I will not trouble you further. I do understand that you have much to consider, and many things to which you need adjust."

            Lois hesitated. She couldn't help reading his request as information-gathering, and she didn't want to help the Kryptonians understand Earth. If they were ignorant, then the military had the slim advantage of being able to surprise them. But if she refused to speak, he might start to wonder what secrets she was keeping. It was all too easy to imagine less pleasant methods of interrogation.

            When she didn't respond immediately, Kal-El hastened to add, "If you like we could combine our discussion with a tour of the city. I would like to hear your impressions of it as well."

            Lois had been trying to manufacture a way to go about this while she'd been staying with his parents, to not avail, and here he was offering it to her. And even if she wasn't plainly curious in her own right, this was the kind of strategic advantage she couldn't pass up. Who knew whether any of the other hostages were even allowed outside their hosts' homes? She nodded gravely, trying not to let her excitement show. "That will be fine," she replied, unconsciously picking up a hint of his precise diction.

            Kal-El had the most infectious smile Lois had ever seen, and he hurried to arrange the trip as if worried that she would change her mind. As if she'd let a prime chance like this slip through her fingers! She again held back a chuckle as she watched him. He was the only Kryptonian she had met so far that moved at anything faster than a solemn pace. Soon enough they were in his hovercraft, and he sent it skyward for an aerial view. "So far we have only two cities established," he told her. "This is New Kryptonopolis, the capital."

            Below, the red grass plain was dotted with crystal structures. There were no roads, as Kryptonians used hovercraft exclusively. There were pathways in some places, carefully paved sinuous curves. Lois peered closely; that surface seemed to be crystal also. In fact nearly everything she'd seen on this planet was built from crystals.

            The paths seemed ornamental and meandering, so Lois shifted her attention to the buildings. At first glance they seemed like disorganized heaps of crystals, but she noticed a certain similarity after a moment. All of them had several large crystals facing the same direction and angle. Some buildings were larger than others, and there the crystals were correspondingly sized, but every single building had the same pattern.

            A question couldn't hurt. "How come all of the buildings have that same set of crystals?"

            The improper speech looked as though it threw him for a minute, but then he peered down, and smiled. "Each building is grown from seed crystals programmed to take maximum advantage of the location. The pattern you're seeing faces southeast, so those crystals must be the ones collecting and storing solar energy. At that angle they receive sunlight almost the entire day."

            That answered her question but prompted more. "What do you mean, the crystals are programmed to take advantage?"

            Kal-El wound up using a lot of jargon about resonances and matrices that Lois couldn't quite follow, but summed it up neatly. "Essentially, the crystals customize each home to fit its site exactly. While growing, the structure analyzes the amount of sunlight, the stability of the ground, and adapts to it automatically."

            "So you never know quite what your house is going to look like until it's finished growing," Lois mused. Seemed like a weird way of doing things to her.

            "On Old Krypton it was otherwise," he informed her. "Most of the planet's surface was uniformly covered in crystal, so homes could be built to plan. Here, we do not have time to minutely survey each site, so it is easier and more efficient to use the optimization programming in the crystals. How is it done on Earth?"

            Lois had a general idea, but she quickly weighed the benefits of answering against the potential amount of intel she'd be giving away. "Hmm. Well, I guess you have a point. It's not like I've ever built a house. We've almost always lived on base or nearby, in housing set aside for military families. I think we pretty much survey the site, plan out the house, and then build it."

            "And you seem not to use crystals except in very small-scale applications," Kal-El mused. "Do you perhaps know why so many different materials are used in building homes?"

            "Some of it has to do with what's available or traditional for each region," Lois replied warily.

            Kal-El nodded. When he spoke again, he was hesitant. "I had noticed that some designs seem … incongruous. Very few take advantage of solar power or reclaim rainwater. Is there some proscription against it?"

            "Not really," Lois replied. "For most people, it's not something they really think about. The system they have works, and it's expensive and frustrating to upgrade." That she could safely tell him; it seemed innocuous enough.

            "But even new construction often fails to use the most advanced technology available," Kal-El countered.

            Caught up in a knot of wondering how much to tell him, what the ramifications of each revelation would be, Lois found it hard to explain. She picked her way through her explanation delicately. "Well … the older technology is cheaper and needs less maintenance. It's proven its effectiveness. Getting power from the city's power lines instead of solar panels means you don't have to worry about shade or storms or damage to the panels. You just flip a switch, and the power's there."

            He frowned. "But many risky means are used to acquire that power. Many places we have seen huge factories burning coal, solely to provide energy. The smoke of that conflagration surely affects your air quality. Do people not know this?"

            From the sounds of it, he suspected a conspiracy of misinformation, and Lois just laughed. "People know, but the old way is easier." She put a trace of bitterness in her voice at that. Lois was well aware that the energy crisis wasn't as simple as she made it sound, but she didn't need to expand on it. Let him think that humans were just old-fashioned and lazy. If he reported that, the Kryptonians might be unprepared for the cutting-edge technology the military could bring to bear.

            But he'd asked enough questions for now, and she wanted to ask a few of her own. "How do you know so much about us?" Lois kept her tone light, as if she was just curious.

            Kal-El grinned. "My father is on the Science Council. He was one of the first to notice the large number of radio waves emanating from your planet. They reach even here, did you know? We monitor such things, and my father was the first to suspect that radio waves coming from Earth had meaning. There were repeating patterns and other indicators that it was not merely cosmic noise, but information."

            Lois remembered hearing about that somewhere, that all of the old television broadcasts were beaming off into space. Along with radio shows, and God only knew what else. Tons and tons of information scattered among the stars.

            "My father was part of the committee to study your world. We soon learned that you have in abundance certain resources which this world lacks, and that prompted the Council's decision to explore your planet further. Our crystal computers were soon able to decrypt the radio signals, and then we could follow your broadcasts: music radio, television, and the internet."

            "The internet?" Lois said, scowling. If they were browsing the internet, they could find out damn near anything they wanted to about Earth. "Who the hell is using radio for internet access?"

            He looked at her bemusedly. "I believe you refer to the technology as 'wifi'. It is of a shorter wavelength, and we did not know of it until we sent the exploratory drones. Once the Council realized how much data was transmitted via that method, decoding it became high priority."

            That explained a lot. Everything they knew about humans came from TV, radio, and internet. No wonder Kal-El's knowledge was so broad yet so shallow. He might have been using Wikipedia or a similar resource, something that held vast amounts of information but didn't always make the connections between them perfectly clear. After all, from what he'd shown her Krypton was a monoculture. If they weren't expecting strong cultural differences between humans on different continents, they wouldn't have looked for them, couldn't begin to comprehend the dizzying breadth of human diversity.

            They knew each region had its own bureaucracy, and they'd noticed different languages, but Kal-El at least had not yet figured out how to align the languages and cultures with governments and nations. It had to be confusing to them, especially if they were using the internet for information.

            While Lois tried to figure out how that could be used to her advantage, Kal-El continued, "I am fortunate in that my father's position allows me to use our current connections to research human culture. Much of the information we are gathering is being examined and collated by computer, but I am able to search through the data stream as well. I find your people … fascinating, Miss Lane."

            That last had the flavor of an admission, and she turned keen eyes on him. "Why?" Lois asked. If there was any dark intent behind his obsession, she needed to know it now. For the thousandth time she reminded herself that he was the enemy.

            He took a long time to answer. "You are unlike us, though you look alike enough. Your ways are different enough to be almost incomprehensible, though there is some deep similarity between our peoples that makes it 'almost' instead of 'utterly'. I think … there is much about you to be admired." For a moment he looked as though he'd say more, but then he shook his head and the tone of his voice changed slightly, as if he was changing the topic. "None of us have ever had an opportunity like this. Neither your people nor mine have ever come in contact with another sentient race from a different world. How could I fail to be fascinated?"


Tags: across the universe

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