Kal-El moved about in a stupor for some time after the unexpected kiss. It was only once he realized that he’d read the same passage of his research text five times without an iota of comprehension that it occurred to him that certain precautions ought to be taken.
So far they had not found any dangerous illnesses among the humans, but no one had experienced quite that level of contact. Therefore a cleansing was in order, and he spent extra time in the ultrasonic shower. Redressing in clean clothing, he ordered a cup of tea from his robots—that human beverage was quite pleasing to his palate—and returned to his work. As an extra precaution, he had his robots scan his vital signs.
The rest of that night passed uneventfully, but the next day Kal-El still felt out-of-sorts. He was distracted and restless, and found himself swinging between being terribly embarrassed over what had happened and annoyed with Lois, who was avoiding him while trying to make it seem like she wasn’t. His state of mind, in her idiom, was simply ‘freaked out’. The fear of having contracted some strange human illness resurfaced, and Kal-El left the house to go get a full medical evaluation.
His symptoms were vague: a generalized feeling of malaise, some anxiety, and the aforementioned inability to concentrate. Tenna Zar-Dah, the physician who took those notes, looked mildly interested and had him spend nearly an hour under the diagnostic crystal. “Kal-El, you appear to be in excellent health,” she told him at the end of the scan, looking over his results. “All systems are functioning within normal range—yet I notice that you consistently score in the high end of normal. I suspect that your symptoms may be due to stress.”
“That is a relief to hear,” Kal-El replied. Of course, stress could cause a wide variety of nebulous symptoms, and he should have suspected it earlier. With that news, he decided to attribute the incident the night before to emotional instability, and think no more on it. There was no use pondering that kiss….
Tenna Zar-Dah looked at him piercingly and asked, “Are you by any chance hosting a human?”
Kal-El grew wary. “Yes, I am.” He did not confide his earlier suspicion that he might have contracted an illness from Lois. The last thing he wanted was to attract suspicion.
“Interesting. This week I have treated three stress-related cases, all in individuals hosting humans. One quite severe, in fact. It is unsurprising, given that having a new sentient species in one’s home is something for which no one can prepare. However, it is a pity that those who have the chance to observe humans are so deeply perturbed by them.”
She sounded almost wistful, so Kal-El delved deeper into the topic. “Are you perhaps a host yourself?”
“Sadly, no. I was deeply absorbed in a difficult case when the request for volunteers went out, and so my name was among the last on the list. A missed opportunity.” She shook her head, as if to dismiss the subject.
An idea glimmered in Kal-El’s mind, and he sat forward. “You said that one of your patients was severely stressed. Would it not be wise to remove the source of their stress? You could, as the individual’s physician, recommend that they transfer custody of their human guest. Surely you would be among the first choices for a host.”
That gave the physician pause. “That would be an elegant solution indeed. I am only concerned that the office of human affairs might not allow it.”
“Surely they must. It is the best course for all involved—relief for your patient, a stable situation for the human, and no need for the Office of Human Affairs to search for a willing host,” Kal-El argued. “If you like, I could bring the situation to the attention of Jhan-Or, who is the chairman of the Benevolent Society for Kryptonian Cultural Expansion.”
She smiled warmly at the name. “Jhan-Or? He was one of my instructors. I had no idea he was even involved in such a project. By all means, please do request his assistance.”
Kal-El left with a sense of personal satisfaction, and a challenge. Perhaps if they could make a legitimate medical case for transferring humans to different hosts, he could make some headway toward getting humans into better situations. That one collared man would not leave Kal-El’s mind until he found a means of freeing him. With that in mind, he used the holographic communicator in his hovercraft to arrange a meeting with Jhan-Or.
Jhan-Or turned out to be one step ahead of Kal-El. “I already have a contact within the Office of Human Affairs who can smooth this transaction for us,” he replied when Kal-El laid out the situation. “It is extraordinarily lucky that you have managed to recruit Tenna Zar-Dah to our society.”
“I am not yet certain that she can be considered a recruit,” Kal-El said.
“Ah, but I remember her mind well. She will join our society because it is the most logical course of action. We all have more experience with humans than she does. And I am certain that she will come to support our cause because of its intrinsic merits.”
“Her support will be most useful,” Kal-El mused. “Sound medical reasons for transferring the guardianship of humans would allow us to arrange for all of them to find secure and stable situations.”
Jhan-Or nodded. “Indeed. Incidentally, we could also arrange for all of the humans to be housed by members of the society, which has its own advantages.”
Something about the way he phrased it made Kal-El look at him piercingly. “Why do I suspect you have a subtler motive, Jhan-Or?”
The older Kryptonian cut him a look that silenced him. “I have no idea why you would entertain such notions, Kal-El. I have been open and honest with you from the first.”
“But not with the other members of the society,” Kal-El couldn’t help pointing out.
Jhan-Or sighed. They were walking along a little-used path through a half-finished crystal garden, the location of Jhan-Or’s choosing. “Kal-El, I trust your heart, but not your mind. Do you understand me? I believe that you seek nothing but the most optimal conditions for humans and Kryptonians, and you strive for that goal without the least blemish of ambition.”
“You are correct in that, but why do you not trust my mind?” Kal-El asked.
“Because you have no ambition, no subtlety, no devious cunning. You are an honest and forthright young man.” Jhan-Or stopped suddenly and turned to face Kal-El, his eyes stormy. “We are in agreement on the key issues: that the current treatment of humans on this planet is unsatisfactory, and that it is our duty as men of honor to correct that wherever possible. The deeper issues, I suspect we agree on, but I do not care to discuss them, not even in so private a place.”
A thought came to Kal-El then: Jhan-Or wanted to free the humans and end the war between their peoples. It was a thought that lurked in the back of his mind, one which he had never voiced even to himself. Because freeing the humans and ending the war would mean arguing against Supreme Chancellor Zod. And even his father, with all of his wisdom and political acumen, feared to oppose Dru-Zod.
Jhan-Or nodded slowly. “I see the course of your thought by your expression, Kal-El. You are right to be afraid. We are already treading a dangerous path, and only the utmost circumspection can preserve us. And you, being young and idealistic and sheltered from political realities as all your generation are, I doubt you have the necessary stealth and guile.”
So Jhan-Or did have plans. “You are correct, I have no experience of politics, and no knowledge of subterfuge,” Kal-El said carefully. “But I learn swiftly, Jhan-Or. And this cause is one to which I am deeply committed.”
“Lois Lane,” was all the older Kryptonian said in reply.
Kal-El felt his lip curl slightly with anger. “She is not an unreasoning beast. She is a thinking, feeling, sentient person. In some ways I think her wiser than myself. Any one of us who fails to see that is blinded by prejudice.”
“And you would tear aside the veil that blinds them and let the pitiless rays of truth shine into their withered eyes,” Jhan-Or replied. “A noble sentiment, Kal-El, but a rash one. The key to any political machination is patience. There are times when bold, decisive action is called for, and we have not yet arrived at such a time.”
“I trust you to inform me when that time does arrive,” Kal-El replied.
Jhan-Or touched his shoulder then, just for an instant. “If you trust me, then, understand that there are certain matters of which I will not confide in you. It is not from lack of trust. You lack neither courage nor integrity, and I am glad to have those traits at my side. I simply prefer to keep some matters unspoken, where I know I have only myself to blame if anything should go wrong.”
Kal-El only nodded. Perhaps, just perhaps, if he proved himself discreet and conscientious enough, Jhan-Or would choose to share some of those matters with him. Until then he would be content in his current role.
Kal-El arrived home to a message from his father, requesting to speak to him at his earliest opportunity. He initiated the holographic communicator connection to reply, and Jor-El greeted him with a hint of trepidation. “My son, I had not expected you to be out today.”
“I visited a physician for a routine scan, Father,” Kal-El replied. It would not be wise to let Jor-El even consider the possibility that he could contract an illness from Lois. He would never hear the end of the debate that would cause.
“And you stopped on the way back to your home to converse with Jhan-Or,” Jor-El sighed. “Tell me, my son, in what sort of madness has that wily old politician gotten you involved?”
“Jhan-Or is the chairman of the Benevolent Society for Kryptonian Cultural Advancement, of which I am a member,” Kal-El replied stiffly.
Jor-El looked annoyed. “A founding member. Yes, I am aware of that as well. Jhan-Or also involves himself far more deeply in politics than you can even conceive. I know he often claims to abhor political affairs, and it is true that he has never been the face of any major organization. On the surface, he seems nothing more than an accomplished biologist who won his position on the Science Council by pure scientific achievement.
“Yet Jhan-Or is always at the fringes of any new development. He has been in conversation with your uncle, trying to temper my brother’s outspoken ways. When Dru-Zod was forced to seize command of the Council to save us all, Jhan-Or was one of those who sided with him—not openly as I did, but quietly. I doubt anyone other than Dru-Zod and myself even knew where he stood on the matter.”
“I had noticed his subtlety,” Kal-El said dryly.
Jor-El’s tone was acerbic when he retorted, “You have not yet had the opportunity to notice how, no matter what situation in which Jhan-Or involves himself, he is somehow never to blame for any adverse outcome. That role is always taken by a younger, more volatile person, one who becomes passionately involved in a cause but who lacks Jhan-Or’s caution.”
A chill ran down Kal-El’s spine at that. Was this the reason why Jhan-Or seemed to be cultivating him? To have a scapegoat in case his machinations went sour? And yet, who else had Jhan-Or’s experience and willingness to intervene? “I appreciate the forewarning, Father,” Kal-El said, keeping his voice level.
Jor-El simply nodded, his warning delivered. “In more pleasant news, I originally sought you out to ask you to dinner two nights hence.”
That was earlier than usual; Kal-El normally dined with his family in the latter part of the week. “I would be delighted,” he replied.
Jor-El nearly beamed. “Excellent. Councillor Ler-Ol will be joining us.”
Kal-El felt his lip start to curl in the sardonic smile he’d acquired from associating with Lois, and controlled his expression. “Ah. And Lyla Ler-Ol will be with him, I assume?”
“Indeed she shall. Accordingly, my son, I must ask you not to bring Lois Lane with you on this visit.”
Kal-El had been trying to get Lois back into his father’s house, just for a visit. His mother still asked after her, and Kal-El also wanted to show his father how much differently Lois behaved when she was treated as an equal and an ally. This would not be the time. “Understood, Father,” Kal-El said.
He ended the conversation after a few more pleasantries, and then sat staring at the blank screen, wondering why he was decidedly unenthusiastic at this news. Lyla Ler-Ol was an interesting conversationalist, as was her father. She had aspirations of being a professional actress, a much narrower field on Krypton than it was on Earth, and a more respected if less celebrated one. He was a chemist bemused by his daughter’s artistic leanings. The family had been friends of the House of El for generations.
And it was no secret to Kal-El why his father had been inviting them over so often of late. His research into human cultural customs had shown him some societies in which parents had absolutely no say over whom their children chose to marry, and others in which the parents decided that matter while the children were still very young. Among Kryptonians, a match was most often arranged mutually by the parents and the adult children. No honorable Kryptonian man would conceive of marrying against his father’s wishes, just as no Kryptonian parent would force a child into a marriage against his or her will.
Yet it was a subtle, careful kind of pressure. Jor-El and Lara approved of Lyla, and her father approved of Kal-El. The match could be made at any time; both of them were legal adults, even though they still had some years before their parents’ generation would cease to think of them as wild-eyed youths. The only thing holding them back was—them.
Lyla was far more focused on her desired career than on marriage, and Kal-El found his research more fascinating than potential wedded bliss. It was important, of course, to have a partner, and not only for the continuation of the House of El. Companionship was important for mental health and emotional stability, and every married couple Kal-El knew extolled the virtues and enjoyed the benefits of matrimony.
Still, he did not yet feel as if he particularly required a full-time companion. His home was arranged exactly as he liked it, and his studies were largely uninterrupted. Lois did interject a certain amount of unpredictability and chaos into his life, but Kal-El felt that was healthy. She challenged him in ways few others ever could, and he could almost feel his perception expanding with each new test.
And now that he had thought of Lois, Kal-El knew for certain that he could not get married while he had guardianship of her. He spent much of his time interacting with her, and a wife would not particularly appreciate that, especially not if she did not share his fascination with humans—and Lyla did not. She was not prejudiced as many were, but the humans’ presence here had so far had little impact on her life, and she dismissed them as uninteresting. It was the first serious difference of opinion he had had with her.
The more he thought about it, the more impossible it seemed. Kal-El had grown accustomed to having Lois in his home, and they had adapted their daily routines to each other’s presence. He felt genuine fondness for her, and hoped she felt the same for him. His days had a rhythm now that would be fragmented by the introduction of any other person. There were many things Kal-El wished to change about the world he lived in, but his life was as pleasantly well-ordered now as he could make it.
Besides which, he could not predict Lois’ reaction to Lyla. So far she had a bond of trust with him, and him only. A new person in the house might set her back to the sullen, defensive young woman he’d despaired of ever connecting with. And furthermore, Lyla certainly would not want to live in a house with a human, since she knew next to nothing about them and had no interest in learning.
No, he was safe from needing to make a decision about marriage for some time. With that knowledge secure, Kal-El could look forward to the family dinner and the latest news from the House of Ol.