Time had come again for the monthly family meal, and Lara spent the hours preceding it in the solarium. The robots were set to the task of preparing the meal, and she herself would need the serenity she found there; Jor-El and Zor-El were contentious at the best of times. In a situation like this, with Zor-El bordering upon treason in his criticism of Chancellor Zod and Jor-El a trusted advisor to the same, the brothers were more volatile than the most dangerous chemical compounds in their laboratories.
But there were compensations for the strife. When the security system announced their arrivals, Lara proceeded to the door with all seemly haste, already smiling. The holographic projections of their guests showed exactly whom she suspected: Zor-El, his wife Alura, and their daughter Kara. Lara welcomed them all into her home with genuine warmth, Jor-El arriving a moment later to add his greetings.
“We will be dining in a short time, and I expect Kal-El to join us as well,” Lara said, guiding Alura and Kara into the sitting room. Jor-El and his brother headed toward the lab as was their custom.
“I will be well-pleased to see him. How have you been?” Alura asked.
“Well enough,” Lara replied, with a slight smile. “And you?”
Alura smiled more broadly, her violet eyes alight. “Quite absorbed, still. Each day we learn more about the humans’ languages. We live in a fascinating time, for a linguist.” Ever since the first transmissions had been recorded, her particular field of study had been at the forefront. It was an exciting change; for millennia Krypton had spoken a single language, and its linguists were mainly concerned with maintaining the purity of the ancestral tongue and recording its etymology. Not until the present could they study a new living language, and to everyone’s surprise the humans turned out to have several thousand languages.
“For a historian, as well,” Lara reminded her. But they spoke no more of that; current events were too immediate to be discussed with proper historical objectivity and both were wise enough to know so. Instead Lara looked to her blonde-haired niece, a golden miniature of Alura. “And how are your studies progressing, Kara?”
The young girl’s sweet voice piped up in reply, “My report on the Clone Wars was rated first in the class by Professor Zol-Tar. He was quite impressed by the information I gathered. Thank you for helping me with the history, Aunt Lara.”
“You are quite welcome.” Even at the age of eight, Kara was showing herself to be very much in the tradition of the House of El in her hunger of knowledge, and it was a point of pride for all.
The small talk between them tended to center on their professions or the accomplishments of their offspring. After a while though, Alura hesitantly asked, “I understood you and Jor-El were hosting one of the humans. Had you planned to introduce her to company?”
Lara sighed. That was quite a complex situation to explain. “The human, Lois Lane, is no longer in our household. Jor-El felt she was … too inquisitive for her own safety. So she was transferred to the custody of my son last week.”
“That must be … interesting,” Alura said, while Kara wrinkled her nose at this talk of humans. “I hope he does not intend to bring her with him? Zor-El has been rather … strident on the subject, of late.”
“Father says we should not have the humans on our planet,” Kara said.
Alura chided her daughter gently. “And perhaps he is correct, but the humans are here and Chancellor Zod has no plans to return them at any time in the near future, so we must make the best of the situation.”
“I must confess that I found her presence unsettling,” Lara admitted. There was little reason to explain specifics of the stir of emotion that their guest had brought about. “At the same time, I could empathize with her. Surely she finds everything about this world foreign and distressing. I do worry for her, and the other humans.”
“I worry for them as well,” Alura said quietly. A look passed between the two women, containing all the things they wouldn’t speak of in front of Kara, who might unknowingly repeat anything she heard. Alura and Lara had been friends for many years and could read volumes in such a glance. They got along better than the brothers they’d married, and both of them knew their friendship was one of the few ties still binding Jor-El and Zor-El together. If not for them, the two men might have stopped speaking entirely after Chancellor Zod’s coup.
Some topics were no longer entirely safe for discussion, particularly not anything critical of Chancellor Zod. That did not stop Zor-El from speaking out, and Lara knew that only Jor-El’s influence had kept his brother out of trouble. As Alura had told her before, Zor-El was aware of the protection as well, and ironically it made him resent his brother more. Yet Zor-El would not rescind his principles and keep silent in the face of what only he had so far dared to call tyranny. Lara privately admired him for that, even though in the same moment she feared for him and his family.
The security system chimed, and Lara smiled in relief at the distraction. “That must be Kal-El. Our meal ought to be nearly ready, as well.”
Soon enough the six of them were seated and served, Kara happily telling her cousin everything she’d learned in class. Lara watched the two of them fondly; Kal-El always made time for his young cousin, and in his patient kindness toward her Lara saw the first inklings of an excellent father. Though that certainly was years in his future, it was good to know that he would make a fine parent someday.
Jor-El and Zor-El were still in the midst of the discussion they’d been having in the laboratory. “Even if you succeed, surely the complicated nature of the process renders it useless for any large-scale application,” Zor-El said.
“Perhaps, but that will not be definitively known until the small-scale prototype is working reliably and to my satisfaction,” his brother replied.
Lara glanced at Alura and sighed; neither of them had any particular desire to listen to yet another debate on theoretical versus practical science. The two brothers had proven many times over that they could carry that particular discussion on for hours at a time. Fortunately Kara distracted them all by asking her cousin the question that was clearly at the forefront of her mind. “Kal-El, what is it like having a human in your home?”
Zor-El harrumphed, and Jor-El paused to see how his son would answer. After a moment’s thought, Kal-El replied, “It is fascinating. Lois Lane is a particularly interesting subject of study. I believe I shall learn much from her.”
Lara did not allow herself to frown, though her eyes narrowed slightly. Her son had always been passionately interested in other cultures, and she sensed the seeds of obsession in his curiosity about the girl.
Kara scowled. “But she is a human. How can one of them possibly teach us anything?”
Seemingly unfazed by her disparaging tone, Kal-El explained, “Her experience of the world is different from ours. That alone is reason enough to study her people. Think of the sea of information we possess about Earth, and yet there is so much we do not yet understand.”
That set Kara to thinking for a moment. Her pale brow furrowed as she spoke. “But humans are thousands of years behind us in development. They are so primitive, and as vicious as the beasts of Old Krypton. What could we possibly learn from them that would justify the risk of keeping one in your home?”
Kal-El only smiled. “A fresh perspective is always valuable, for it highlights the things one takes for granted. As for them being primitive, I would say that they are fairly well adapted to their own planet even if they seem terribly outdated on ours. There is certainly room for improvement, and Kryptonian technology could be extraordinarily useful to them, but her conversation is equal in sophistication to many Kryptonians.”
“A sophisticated human? You may have just voiced a contradiction in terms,” Zor-El interjected, arching an eyebrow.
“Perhaps. Yet the fact remains that I have more direct experience with humans than you have, Uncle, which lends slightly more weight to my conclusion. You could even say that my knowledge is practical, whereas yours is theoretical.”
Jor-El studied his plate carefully to avoid a grin, pleased that his son had turned Zor-El’s own argument against him. Alura admonished Kara to finish her vegetables for much the same reason. Zor-El simply leaned back and regarded his nephew for a moment. “I will grant you that, Kal-El,” he said at last. “However, the sample size for your data is too small to make sweeping generalizations. If your human is intellectually the equal of a Kryptonian, her existence still does not negate the widespread poverty, pollution, and warfare of her home planet. She may be able to become civilized, but her people are far from it.”
“I fear I must disagree,” Alura put in, to the astonishment of her daughter. “My dear Zor-El, the humans have all the characteristics of civilizations. They have government by rule of law; specialization of study and division of labor; concentration of the populace in cities; and most of all, they have a continuing culture expressed in their language and their arts.”
Lara added, “They are a much younger species than we are. We cannot deny them their achievements simply because they have not yet reached our level of refinement. We too were once warlike, as savage as they. It would be terribly hypocritical of us to claim that, because they are presently so primitive, humans are incapable of uplifting themselves as we did. Evolution is, after all, the aim of all life as well as of culture.”
Debate around the dinner table was a common theme in Kryptonian households, this one perhaps more than most. “I suppose I must cede the point to both of you. A wise man knows when he meets superior logic and information,” Zor-El said after a thoughtful moment.
Seeing a chance to drive his point further home, Kal-El added, “We are seeing their world through the lens of our culture, our experience. Of course it seems strange and frighteningly brutal to us. But to Lois, for whom that is simply the way the world works, we are the strange and frightful ones.”
Zor-El scoffed then, his expression skeptical. “We frighten them? We are not the ones with murders occurring daily in every major city. We are not the ones fighting violent wars. We are not the ones broadcasting filth and licentiousness across every possible medium. And do not forget, they are the ones who attacked our ships without provocation. If they are afraid of us, it is only because they now recognize our superior technology and understand that they cannot threaten us as they have cowed their own people.”
“You have a point about technology, Uncle. But have you not seen their films?” Kal-El looked around the table at that.
“The majority of their cinema seems too indecent to pursue,” Jor-El said with a frown of disapproval.
“Well, yes, there is that,” Kal-El said with a quirk of his lips. “But also consider the genre they call science fiction. Most of it is laughable, true, but some of it actually predicted scientific advances years before actual science made the same leaps of innovation. Humans are somewhat accustomed to treating science fiction as future science fact.”
It was Lara that spoke up this time. “Your point, my son?” She knew him well enough to see that he had a purpose to this line of questioning.
Kal-El looked each of them in the eyes. “There are a handful of films in which benign aliens visit the planet Earth. But that does not make for thrilling theater, and the entertainment industry feeds on humanity’s taste for excitement. So there are many hundreds more films in which the aliens are cruel, aggressive conquerors. Since arts and culture shape one another, we should have known that the humans expect sentient beings from another planet to be a dangerous threat. Seen in that light, it is no surprise that they feared us from the first moment our probes reached the surface of their planet. From their perspective, the attacks were simply common sense precautions against an invading force.”
Lara and Jor-El shared a look, comprised of intrigue and foreboding. Neither of them had quite realized how the initial approach had been perceived by the humans. The people of Earth did not utilize crystals to the same extent as the Kryptonians, so of course the alien craft zooming around their planet’s surface would be cause for alarm.
Kal-El continued, “We made a significant error in our approach to the humans. And I cannot help but feel we are compounding instead of rectifying it. If Lois Lane, the daughter of a general, anticipates a threat from us, then what about the rest of the human ambassadors? Lois presumably has military intelligence at her disposal. The rest have only their speculation. We have only increased their fear…”
Jor-El silenced him before he could go any further. “My son, such misunderstandings will pass with time. Lois herself was never ill-treated here, even though she attempted to force entry to the laboratory on more than one occasion. She will come to understand the reasons behind our actions, and perhaps even benefit from her time among us.”
His voice did not have its usual assured timbre, but only Lara noticed that. Kal-El could not know that his father was constrained in what he might say on such subjects. If Chancellor Zod got even a hint of sedition from this branch of the House of El… Lara did not shiver, but she felt a chill wind on the back of her neck nonetheless.
“That is remarkable, brother,” Zor-El said. Alura cut him a sharp look, but it didn’t stop him from continuing once he had Jor-El’s attention. “I see your mouth shaping the syllables, but I hear the words of Dru-Zod.”
“I am one of the Supreme Chancellor’s most trusted advisors,” Jor-El replied stiffly. “And you may be certain, brother, that I shall share my son’s insight with him. It makes little sense, at this point, to dispute events that have already occurred. We must concern ourselves with the way forward. And you cannot deny that we could offer the humans much that would be of benefit to them. Our medical knowledge alone is worth the price of having been startled. Remember, too, that we have caused them no material harm, while they have destroyed one of our manned vessels.”
Zor-El glared at him narrowly, and Alura reached out to take his hand. Such gestures were not common, not even between married couples, but the touch sufficed to stifle his retort, and she released him after a moment.
“Gentlemen, I prefer not to have politics at my table. It does not compliment the sauce,” Lara said gently. All of them smiled at that particular bit of well-worn humor, but it broke the tension and allowed them to return to safer topics.
Only much later, when the guests had gone and Lara was alone with her husband once more, did they speak of it. She knew his mind, knew that he would be brooding, and went to Jor-El where he had retreated into his laboratory. Softly, Lara let her arm brush his, and he turned to her, placing his arm about her shoulders. She leaned her head against his shoulder silently.
This was an intolerable intimacy by the standards of most Kryptonians, but she was a historian and knew from whence their cultural mores came. Centuries of virulent plague had spawned their abhorrence of touch, but superior medicine had routed such things long ago. By then touch had become indecent, Kryptonian society gone cold and sterile. The vibrant sensuality of the human race was shocking, disgusting … but the desire for contact had not yet been completely bred out of the sons and daughters of Krypton. Jor-El’s arm around her shoulders, and the comfort she took from it, was proof of that.
“They are fools,” Jor-El murmured. “Our son, at least, is a well-intentioned fool, who knows not the danger of voicing his opinions freely. And I am to blame for that, I who sheltered him from the realities of life.”
“You were not the only one who sheltered him,” Lara replied.
“And my brother is a fool of the highest order. He cannot see the wisdom in working within the current administration – he does not comprehend what his vision would bring about. If we were to somehow convince Dru-Zod to relinquish his office and return power to the Science Council…”
“Nothing would ever be accomplished,” Lara sighed. It was painful to admit, too painful for a principled man like Jor-El to say aloud, but the democratic rule of the council nearly resulted in the death of all Kryptonians. Only Dru-Zod’s coup had saved them.
But now they found themselves in a new predicament. Dru-Zod’s charisma and leadership provided a clear direction for progress, and he was remarkably efficient at solving all of the problems and diversions that cropped up during their settlement of this world. Yet Jor-El, who was perhaps closest to him, was uneasy, and that boded ill for all.
Jor-El dared not say to her, He will not relinquish power. We needed him during the great crisis. Yet even when the current minor crises pass, Dru-Zod will still find reasons to rule. He is not given to surrender. The very thing we needed most from him when the sun threatened to devour Old Krypton – his determination to succeed, his refusal to accept impossibility or failure – will make him exactly the tyrant Zor-El claims him to be.
No, he could not say that to her, not even in the privacy of their own house, and that fear was the clearest indication of how far they had fallen from the ideals of Kryptonian law and government. Fortunately, as in most things, Lara understood her husband without a word.