Finally, after three months, we have gotten it back in gear and are proud to present to you this first chapter of ATU for 2012. Expect the schedule to be back on track, with the next chapter coming in two weeks. Sorry we've been away for so long and we hope that hearing from another quarter this chapter will make up for that just a bit.
Thanks for sticking by us, guys!
“Damned idiots,” General Sam Lane growled under his breath, glaring at the highly classified report on his desk. “Should’ve known better.”
The previous night, guerilla forces had made a sortie against the Kryptonian salt-mining operation at the Dead Sea. No group or government had yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Kryptonians had already retaliated. Not only were the tanks and weaponized vehicles disabled by the same crystal growth that had shut down the entire world’s missile capability, but an electromagnetic pulse had been released that effectively destroyed every piece of electrical equipment for fifty miles. That included parts of Jerusalem’s West Bank and some small cities in Jordan.
Every human-owned commercial mineral extraction plant had been shut down, too, with all of their equipment down after the EMP. The Kryptonians’ crystal-based tech worked just fine after a brief hiatus. All the guerrillas had accomplished was to give the Kryptonians a monopoly on the mineral they needed.
That, and they’d further antagonized the Kryptonians. Nations were holding their collective breath, waiting to see what the aliens would demand in retribution. More hostages? The lives of some of the hostages they already held? Currently military intelligence suggested the latter was unlikely. Kryptonians had no death penalty, and they had not yet employed violence against any human.
Sam was certain of that. He was seeing his daughter regularly via videoconference, and she showed surprisingly few signs of stress. All of her coded messages through that medium also claimed she was fine, and actively working with the resistance on New Krypton.
Most likely there would be no retribution. This Zod character styled himself a superior creature, and he was wisely counseled. He would ignore the attack the way a grown man would ignore the taunt of a child, treating the human aggression as insignificant. Which, in this case, it had proved to be.
Although there were some benefits. Sam and his superiors now had a better idea of how any future hostilities would be met, and they’d seen another demonstration of the crystals’ growth pattern. A few samples had made it back to the labs in time for analysis, and the human scientists had come to a startling conclusion.
The Kryptonians weren’t mining salt for dietary supplements as had first been supposed. It was a key ingredient in their crystal-growing process, and everything in that society ran on crystals. Homes, vehicles, tools, educational devices, all of it was grown from crystal. And those crystals grew fastest in salt water.
Water vapor in the air, or fresh water in rain, could also stimulate crystal growth, but it was slower and more controlled. Two samples of Kryptonian crystal, one placed into fresh water, one into salt, had differing completion times. Extrapolating from the relatively small samples they had, the researchers had theorized that using fresh water instead of saline could slow down construction by more than half. And that, on a new world in which everything had to be built from scratch, must have been well-night intolerable.
Lois had told him how things that seemed wondrous to the hostages were scoffed at by Kryptonians. The improvements they’d made to their new planet were seen as paltry, makeshift, at times crude, and everyone chafed at the slowness of progress. The world they’d come from had been almost completely covered in crystal, a planet whose entire surface had been tamed. Only a few truly natural areas had remained, and those were more like parks than wildernesses. The idea of living as humans lived, with trackless forests and unplumbed seas still a part of their world, was abhorrent to Kryptonians.
That was the real value of the intelligence being gathered—insights into Kryptonian psyche that they couldn’t have gained any other way. And Lois was the best at it. She understood her captors as did no other, and her jailer foolishly tried to be her friend, offering her astounding amounts of information. At first Sam had thought this Kal-El might be trying to feed Lois false information, but she assured him repeatedly that the boy was completely incapable of subterfuge. And all of his information checked out, besides.
Of course all of that hadn’t just been relayed in a few videoconferences. The first pressing need they’d felt had been for a more regular and secure flow of information, and Sam had been integral in designing it.
He was well aware of the black market and its potential. The Kryptonians on New Krypton were curious about Earth culture, and the Kryptonians here longed for home, so it was only natural for trade to develop between them. As to how the Kryptonians manning the mining operation got hold of human artifacts and other things, of course the world’s leading governments had ensured that they would be able to do so. Elite Delta Force operators, disguised as common soldiers, had struck up a sort of friendship with the Kryptonians on Earth, and they gave gifts—in exchange for certain considerations. Among those was the transport of letters from families to their loved ones on New Krypton, and of course the replies came back along the same route.
His first letter to Lois had been a simple missive telling her how proud he was of her, and enclosing a photo of the family. Her reply had been just as innocuous, and neither transaction had been discovered. Now they were working in a previously established multipart code to pass messages within the letters. What looked like a stray dot of ink next to certain letters marked them out as part of a hidden message, and certain whole words and phrases were pre-existing codes.
Other countries and their operatives were doing the same thing, and at the moment they were all cooperating—more or less. The usual political idiots were blustering, but for the most part military men the world over understood the situation. All of humanity was in this together, for better or for worse. They were like siblings who fought each other tooth and nail until an outsider made the mistake of picking on one of them, and then the whole brood turned and fought as one. Sam remembered the phenomenon well from his youth, and saw it in his own daughters. Lois and Lucy might argue, but if anyone even dreamed of threatening the younger girl, Lois would go after them in a flash. She had a good head on her shoulders, his Lois; if only she’d been a boy, she would’ve been perfect. As it was she was as close to perfect as a daughter could hope to get.
A little frost touched Sam’s heart at the thought; Lois was presently playing the most dangerous game known to man: espionage. And she was a green teenager doing it, though he’d seasoned her as well as he could. He knew grown men who couldn’t have kept their heads in her situation, and here she was showing nerve and mettle far beyond her years. Lois was deep in the councils of the resistance; she had more freedom than any other hostage, as her warden was a bit of a soft touch.
It still worried Sam that she’d been given into the keeping of a boy barely older than herself. What were these Kryptonians thinking? He was a civilian, the son of a high-ranking scientist, and by Lois’ accounts he was something of a dreamer. The sort of boy who, had he been human, would’ve benefitted from some sharp discipline in his life to focus him. Sam invariably recommended armed service to such; it made men out of feckless boys. But in this circumstance, the softness of Lois’ captor worked to their advantage, so Sam welcomed it even as he scoffed at the Kryptonians’ lack of military acumen.
In any other circumstance, he’d have more reasons to worry. The notion of a pair of teenagers cohabiting wasn’t one that appealed to his fatherly instincts, but Kryptonians were so touch-phobic that he didn’t need to concern himself with Lois’ warden pressing his advantage. Besides, Sam knew if anyone tried that with his daughter, they’d find themselves very sore and probably short a few teeth once she was done with them.
As for any other untoward familiarity, he’d taken the precaution of giving Lois a four-hour class on Stockholm syndrome before sending her off to New Krypton, so she’d be prepared. Sam was confident that if Lois started feeling any tender emotion toward her captor, she’d remember that he was the enemy, and that her salvation rested in her hands, not his. Toughness, tenacity, stubbornness, those were all traits that would help her keep her identity and mission clear even on a new planet, and they were characteristics that Sam had cultivated in his daughter from her earliest days. He’d never allowed her to take failure gracefully, never accepted anything less than her best, and half the time never accepted her best, either. What would be the point in continuing to strive, if she’d already met her goals?
He and Ella had fought over his treatment of Lois. She wanted him to be softer on her, treat her the way a father should treat his daughter. The way he treated Lucy, the un-looked-for jewel of his life. But if he’d given in over the years, Lois would have been completely unprepared for this. To his mind, it was justified. Lois might not be the son he’d wished for, but she was able to do a son’s work, and serve her country in this most treacherous battle.
There was a price, as for everything. It had been months, and Ella’s hazel eyes were still hard and sharp as diamonds when she looked on her husband. He was still sleeping on the couch, and he knew better than to try making an appeal. The day Ella failed to make up the guest room was the day he’d be allowed back into his own bed, and no sooner. Sam Lane was a hard man, and many thought that Ella, being a Tremaine, was as soft as any socialite, but he had no illusions as to whose will was stronger.
It grieved him to feel her anger, grieved him worse to hear Lucy sniffling at night, missing her sister. That changed nothing. Some things a man couldn’t do for his family, especially a man who wore a uniform and swore to defend his nation. He had needed a son to follow in his footsteps, and since fate hadn’t sent him one, he’d made his daughter worth any two men in a fight.
If they won through this, he would welcome her home with all the approval and affection Ella had wanted him to lavish on him over the years. But then, if they won through this, she wouldn’t need it. She’d be proud enough and certain enough of herself not to need his approval anymore. Sam could think of no greater gift to bestow on a girl her age.
He was thinking too far ahead, however. The problem of the moment was what to do on their end about the attack on the Kryptonian mining facility. No overt action on the part of the United Nations, of course, though certain covert measures were being applied against the presumed aggressors. This was no time for any country to play the maverick; only by cooperation could they all survive. And Sam’s superiors, at least, were willing to ensure that cooperation by any means necessary.
This was war, even the Kryptonians thought the soldiers stationed nearby were quite friendly, and open hostility was absolutely forbidden. It was war, even if they dared not make any threatening move until the hostages were secure. Not the kind of war many soldiers were used to; this was more like the Cold War of Sam’s own youth. Spy and counterspy, strategy and counter-strategy and counter-counter-strategy, nerve and wit and determination, an endless game of heavily-armed chess with the fate of millions in the balance.
This was what Sam lived for, the battle he thrived on. He coordinated the flow of information into and out of New Krypton, he oversaw all of the encoded reports, and at the center of it all was his own daughter. He knew some of his counterparts in Europe had sneered at the thought of a teenage girl taking on so crucial a role, but they’d been shamed into silence. Lois was the best-positioned of any of the hostages; she had unparalleled freedoms and access to all kinds of information. And she was influencing her captor to keep expanding those freedoms for the rest of the hostages.
Yes, Lois was pivotal to the whole enterprise. Fortunately for them all, Sam had controlled for every conceivable variable, and he was certain that nothing could derail their plans. Soon enough Lois and the rest of the resistance would make the breakthrough that would turn the entire situation around.