When Lois had been about four or five, she’d seen a sidewalk entertainer spinning plates on the ends of dowels. It had seemed like magic to her then, as the man somehow balanced a plate and dowel in each hand, then two in each hand, then one gripped between his teeth. Finally he’d slipped one foot out of his shoe and, with an assistant’s help, clutched a sixth dowel between his toes. Six fragile plates, all spinning at once, and the man balancing on one foot besides!
She’d wondered what it was like, staring at the man in amazement until her father tugged her away. And now, Lois began to feel like she knew, just a little bit, how it had felt to split her concentration so many different ways, how it felt to be responsible for so many fragile things spinning so swiftly toward disaster.
The co-conspirators kept in touch on a near-daily basis, passing information back and forth during their casual strolls—the Benevolent Society for Kryptonian Cultural Expansion held the opinion that two or three short walks per day were ideal for maintaining the humans’ physical and mental health, which played neatly into the resistance’s plans.
All the various bits and pieces of information they collected sometimes added up to nothing more than confusion, but there were some huge leads. And just recently, they’d been able to deliver some crucial intel to the resistance on Earth. The message had been carried by three different letters from three different members of the resistance, in three completely different codes, and General Lane’s reply to Lois was the first to confirm receipt of it.
Lois’ heart had soared when she read that letter from him. Now Earth’s military knew what the spies on New Krypton knew: that the Kryptonian military fleet was limited only to those ships they’d already seen. There were no more waiting to be deployed, and no more could be deployed in the near future.
It had started innocuously, as many game-changing events did. Strolling through a garden, Henri had overheard a conversation between two Kryptonians, who either hadn’t realized he was human or hadn’t realized how well he understood them. They had been debating a proposal by the Supreme Chancellor to build more warships. Henri had listened intently while appearing to be absorbed in the color-changing flowers he’d been looking at, and learned that the motion was being stalled.
Geoffrey had followed up the thread, asking Nira Kor-En about the crystal building process. She had enlightened him considerably; the crystals not only required salt water to grow quickly, they also needed more time based on the complexity and intricacy of the design. A simple building—walls, roof, energy collection, climate control, and lighting systems—could be raised in a week or so with pure water. The randomized crystal growth that had shut down Earth’s aircraft took mere hours, as its structure was extremely simple. But a complex building, with multiple interior spaces and viewing panels and other amenities, presently took three weeks or more to build. And a ship, will all of its controls and processes, took months. The ships sent to collect the human hostages turned out to be among the same ones that had transported the Kryptonians from their lost planet to this new one.
Huang had asked Jhan-Or about the importance of salt. It turned out that the Kryptonians had a limited supply of salt, but it went first to dietary needs, as they required it just as much as humans did. Huang had smiled when he told Lois of the conversation; he’d learned more about the terrible side effects of dehydration and the potential dangers of salt-potassium imbalance than he ever wanted to know. The pertinent part was that the Kryptonians’ current supply of salt was barely sufficient to their biological requirements, and it was too scarce on this planet to be useful. They had to mine it on Earth and import it.
Lois was left to ask the dangerous questions, as she had the best rapport with her warden. She managed to get Kal-El on the topic of the Council, and asked him in all innocence how things were decided. Of course the current bone of contention had been his example of choice—if it hadn’t been, she would’ve figured out a way to lead him onto it.
“The Supreme Chancellor has veto power over the entire Council,” Kal-El had told her. “But they have wills of their own. Once, when the fate of our entire race was at stake, he did make demands of them, and forced them to obey him. Since then he has ruled with consent, as final arbiter of their decisions.”
Lois had nodded; she knew perfectly well that Zod was the absolute ruler of the planet, and that the Council did not defy him if they could help it. But like any dictator, his grip on power was difficult to maintain. If he continuously thwarted the Council, his people would agitate against him. So he played a delicate game, trying to ensure the Council voted the way he wanted it to, without ever showing his hand blatantly in the machinations.
Kal-El had continued, “This particular issue is hotly contested. It concerns a valuable mineral resource which is scarce upon this planet, and which is vital to several different aspects of our lives. It so happens that your planet has this mineral in abundance, which is what our scientists are attempting to extract from certain locales on Earth where it is particularly abundant.”
Lois had already known they were talking about salt, but she’d let him think he was being cagey—and she’d filed away the plural ‘locales’ for further exploration. So far as she knew, thanks to her father’s letters, the Kryptonians were only mining salt at the Dead Sea. If there was more than one location, then she really needed to find out about it. Fast.
“Mother says that my children’s children will study this debate as a classic example of multiple interests competing for limited critical-use resources. The mineral in question is crucial to our health, so no one disputes that our supply of it must first go to dietary supplementation. What is being debated is how much should we reserve for that usage. Some say just enough to last until the next shipment from Earth; some say twice that; some say that our supply from Earth is tenuous given the political situation there, and that our best interests lie in stockpiling at least a year’s worth.”
“You said multiple uses,” Lois prompted.
He nodded. “Indeed. This same mineral is vital to crystal growth, which creates a demand for it in every area of construction. Homes, public buildings, transportation, data storage: nearly everything in our culture is made of crystal. One of the things I suspect we could learn from your people is how to exploit a wider variety of technologies so that a shortage like this doesn’t cripple progress.”
“So people want this stuff for construction, too, right?” Lois said, seeing how the debate was shaping up and wanting to nudge him back on topic.
“Indeed. And the Council is deadlocked. Some prefer that the shipments from Earth go directly to domestic construction. Our family is fortunate to be both affluent and represented on the Council, so we have our own homes as has been Kryptonian tradition for millennia. Others are still residing in group homes, several families sharing one building, and this arrangement is forced and unnatural to us. The homes of even the highest-ranked Councilors lack the amenities to which we were accustomed. And all of those want the mineral devoted to building. Father tells me that it has been said in Council that a single shipment from Earth could, if devoted entirely to construction, reduce our housing shortage by a third in the space of a week. Without the mineral, our construction progresses slowly, and it will take months to alleviate the shortfall.”
He didn’t mention defense, and Lois didn’t ask. Based on Henri’s report, it was reasonable to infer that the military wanted salt too, to build its ships. But the competing interests had locked the supply up for now, and no one could use it. Which meant that there would be no new fleet. Cripple the existing warships, and the war was effectively over. Of course, there were still the hostages to consider, but Lois figured she and her fellow conspirators could work out a way to keep their captors at bay. As Kal-El often said, the humans were far more creative than his own people.
While Lois was proud to have delivered the information and glad that they were making progress, it still left her with uncomfortable questions. What would she do when the time came? How could she betray Kal-El, this earnest and rather sweet young man who’d tried so hard to win her friendship and now strove to maintain it?
Keeping her distance had failed utterly. Ever since the kiss—which they never discussed—she’d been unable to think of him as her alien jailer. They were too close, too much in each other’s confidence, for that.
Sometime in the last few weeks, the enormous personal space bubble that all Kryptonians maintained had somehow shrunk. Lois hadn’t noticed it until she was studying a holographic display of Old Krypton, and suddenly became aware of a presence hovering right behind her. She whirled around to see Kal-El looking abashed; he had been peering over her shoulder. Before he could properly make his apology, she laughed at the silliness of it, and after a moment he laughed too.
After that, Lois paid attention. She realized right away that Kal-El stood closer to her when they spoke, that he gestured more, that they walked closer. And it wasn’t just him; when she walked up to him, she automatically closed to ordinary human conversational distance, rather than the extra space Kryptonian etiquette required.
At first she thought that spending so much time with her had simply reset Kal-El’s subconscious definition of normal, but he didn’t do it with Kryptonians, or with other humans. Then again, he also didn’t give humans the extra few inches beyond normal Kryptonian distance that most Kryptonians added to their personal space in the presence of an alien.
It was only with her, and Lois could guess why: the same reason she tended to smile at the sight—or even just the thought—of him. He was comfortable with her, he genuinely liked her, and God help her, Lois felt the same about him. If only he’d been human, he would’ve been the perfect ally and friend!
Lois chuckled under her breath; she was lying to herself. The warmth that suffused her when he smiled at her had nothing to do with friendship. Like it or not, she was attracted to Kal-El. She enjoyed being around him, and the feeling was clearly mutual. When he left, she missed him; there was no denying that.
Lately he’d been out of the house more and more often. The weekly family dinner at his parents’ place was now two or three times a week. That had started right after Kal-El brought his mother over for dinner at his place. He’d obviously been showing Lois off; she could read the message in his bright smile even without words. Look how much happier she is, look how comfortable she is—sending Lois to me was the best choice. And Lara, for her part, had been glad to see Lois behaving less like a surly alien and more like a young lady.
Jor-El had been at some important Council function, and Lara had enjoyed the meal and conversation. For Lois it had been a nostalgic echo of home. The more time she spent around Lara, the more the poised and gracious Kryptonian reminded her of her own mother. Lois appreciated Lara’s fondness for her as well as that extra touch of comfort, but she was beginning to suspect that their dinner had had more repercussions than even Kal-El guessed.
For one thing, there were his more frequent family dinners, which even Kal-El had remarked on. He seemed to take it as a source of pride, that his father was paying more attention to his daily endeavors instead of dismissing his fascination with humanity as childish. Lois had other ideas. Maybe they were keeping him away from her for a reason. Did they fear her influence? She couldn’t blame them. In just this brief time, she’d corrupted his Kryptonian sensibilities enough so that he could kiss her and not be utterly traumatized by it.
So Jor-El was trying to mitigate her insidious influence by getting his son home for more exposure to polite Kryptonian society. Lois resented that, since it left her alone—she didn’t want to leave the house when he wasn’t there, just in case she was stopped. Lois used the time for doing schoolwork and studying Kryptonian culture. Kal-El had left her with free access to all of the teaching holograms he had, plus the ones he could access from the New-Krypton-wide online library. She was still bored and lonely, though. The resistance members were her co-conspirators, but she didn’t think of any of them as friends. Kal-El was the closest thing she had to a friend here, and she missed him when he was gone.
On an otherwise ordinary day, Lois was muttering curses at her math homework when Kal-El arrived home. Schoolwork was another great way to sneak messages to and from home, but the codes had to be buried between legitimate questions, and the extra work was annoying. Luckily, his arrival spared her the tedium of another thirty algebra questions. Lois replied to his greeting with, “So how was dinner with the family?”
“Quite well,” he replied. “Please pardon my tardiness. I became involved in a discussion with Lyla Ler-Ol, and lost track of the time.”
“It’s all right. I was just beating my head against these math problems,” Lois told him.
“Then take a break from it, and let us go for a walk,” Kal-El suggested. “It will refresh your mind.”
Lois leapt at the idea. A few minutes later they were outside. The sunsets on this planet were incredible, the sky turning shades of orange and pink that wouldn’t be believed on a Florida postcard. New Krypton had two moons, one much smaller that orbited more than once per day, and a larger one with an immense crater on its face. Both were visible at the moment, silvery ghosts against the brilliant sunset.
For a while they walked in silence, but something kept nagging Lois. She’d been hearing that name, Lyla Ler-Ol, quite a lot lately. Most of Kal-El’s associates were involved with the B.S.K.C.E., but this Lyla wasn’t.
No spy liked an unknown entity wandering about, so Lois decided to open with a fairly innocuous question, and see where it led. “You seem to see the Ler-Ols quite frequently. Are they relatives of some sort?”
“Perhaps distantly. Like my father, Ler-Ol is a member of the Science Council. The two have long been associates, and Ler-Ol has lent his expertise in chemistry to some of my father’s experiments. His daughter Lyla is an actress.”
“An actress?” Lois said, surprised. “I had no idea you had such a thing.”
Kal-El smiled. “Our entertainment industry is nowhere near as extensive as yours, but it exists. I must remember to acquaint you with her work. Lyla is quite accomplished and will go far in her field, if I am any judge.”
That was the second time he’d omitted the woman’s surname, which was a sign of intimacy among Kryptonians. “So you and Lyla are friends, too?” Lois asked casually.
He gave a low, ironic chuckle. “You could say that.” His tone made it clear that he was laughing at some in-joke Lois just didn’t get, and that sparked her temper.
Her keen curiosity was piqued, too, and she stopped, causing him to turn and face her. “Kal-El, what is she to you?” The question was blunt, rude by Kryptonian standards, but he was accustomed to Lois’ directness by now.
Kal-El tilted his head and looked at her seriously, all traces of mirth gone. “Lyla Ler-Ol is the woman whom my parents wish me to marry,” Kal-El said.
Oh, shit. Lois’ stomach felt like it had sunk down to her toes, and she tried to keep her eyes from widening in shock. Meanwhile her mind raced. This could be bad. This could be so bad. If he gets married, that’s another person in the house, someone else I have to win over or work around. A wife might change his views on humanity—or just distract him enough to neglect me—and I could lose all the little perks that mean so much to the resistance. Or worse, if he decides as a newlywed that he doesn’t have time to take care of me, he might send me back to Jor-El.
Those thoughts flickered through her mind in a split second, reacting to the news and rationalizing away that first, instinctive burst of dismay. However, all she said was, “So, how does the future wife feel about humans?” Lois strove to maintain a casual tone, aware that she sounded like a jealous girlfriend. Which she wasn’t. At all.
Kal-El didn’t laugh, though there was a hint of humor in his eyes. Instead he took Lois’ hand—in public, where anyone might see, he folded her fingers into his and squeezed them reassuringly. “Lyla has no interest in humans; the main focus of her life is her career, even as mine is my studies, and for that reason it is premature to refer to her as my future wife. Our parents hope we will marry, the match is advantageous to both families, but our lives are our own and no one may be compelled into marriage.”
That was a relief, and Lois smiled with a touch of chagrin, returning the squeeze. It was so natural a gesture that it would take her hours to realize that she and Kal-El had been behaving with a level of intimacy that would suggest a married couple to any Kryptonian—and an indiscreet couple, at that, one given to unseemly public displays of affection.
At the moment, all she saw was the warmth in Kal-El’s eyes as he continued, “While I do plan to marry someday, and Lyla would be a delightful companion, I am in no hurry to wed. You need not fear dealing with disinterest or disdain while you live in my house, Lois. I promise you that.”