“I have the information you requested, General,” Ursa said, nothing out of the ordinary in her tone or stance. Since he had not, in fact, requested any information from her, Dru-Zod knew it must be a matter of some importance, and not one to be discussed publicly.
“Thank you, Ursa. Allow me to finish this, and we shall discuss it in my office.” Dru-Zod allowed no trace of his piqued interest to show as he finished looking over the charts his lieutenants had drawn up in preparation for the next meeting of the Council.
He proceeded leisurely to his office, where Ursa awaited him, and they both spoke of inconsequential things as a tiny robot scanned the entire room for listening devices. Only once they were certain they were unobserved did Dru-Zod speak. “And what brings you to me today, Ursa?”
“The traitor Zor-El,” she said, her eyes bright with hunting fervor. “He has progressed far beyond mere rabble-rousing. He is openly defying you, General, and inciting others to do the same. I have proof—not merely witnesses, but recordings, of his slanderous lies. I require only your word, and I shall have him brought here in moments.”
“Let him be,” Dru-Zod counseled.
Ursa’s shock was so total that for a moment she could only stare at him. “Let him be? While he vilifies your name and openly incites sedition? General, how can you permit this to continue?”
“I can permit it because Zor-El is harmless. He is known to be hot-tempered, which is flaw enough in his character to cause wise men to listen well to him, and to then adopt diametrically opposing views. Furthermore, he is useful to me.”
“As a goad against his brother,” Ursa said with a trace of sullenness in her voice.
“Indeed, and for that alone I might permit him to run amok. Yet he is useful in other ways.” He had her attention, and patiently enumerated all the various reasons he allowed an unabashed traitor free rein. “First, by allowing him to continue his importuning, I show myself to be a patient and tolerant ruler, which gains me further support and continues to indicate that Zor-El is unbalanced. Second, by allowing him to speak treason, I can monitor who listens to his words and who might be swayed. It is not open dissent that concerns me, Ursa, but secret defiance. An enemy who makes himself plainly noticeable is far easier to deal with than one who remains concealed until the moment he strikes.”
“Very true, and most wise.” The disbelief and anger in Ursa’s eyes had faded, but not vanished. Dru-Zod knew it was difficult for her to tolerate anyone who spoke against him, and if he wished to continue on this course it was best that he explain his stratagem to her fully.
“Third, it is not merely as a goad that I wield him against Jor-El. I need say nothing of him to his brother; indeed, I have said nothing. It is enough that I shall allow Zor-El’s name to be listed upon one of the documents that shall be on my screens when Jor-El pays a visit. He will see, and know, and fear, and I need never presume upon our friendship with anything so crude as a threat. Fourth, if Jor-El’s loyalty is perhaps in doubt, by withholding punishment for all but an egregious offense, I prove myself to be his friend in truth. Far from the tyrant Zor-El claims me to be, I am perhaps too sentimental with the sadly misguided family of my close friend. And last, if Jor-El is distracted by fears for his family, he is more easily led to the conclusions I wish him to make.”
“Indeed. And since you have mentioned his family, General, what of the son?”
“What of him?”
Ursa leaned forward slightly. “By all accounts Kal-El is instrumental in this ridiculous society of theirs. He is obsessed with the humans—he has published two articles on their culture in the last month alone. His household uses more internet bandwidth than any other. And he has purchased many items from the black market trade. Some were from our spies. We have enough information to prosecute him for that alone.”
Dru-Zod shook his head. “He is a mere boy, Ursa.”
“There are men in our ranks his age*,” she pointed out.
He chuckled at that. “Ah, but they are men indeed at their young age. Kal-El is not. Military service has a way of maturing the mind. It is also true that while he is old enough for military service, he could not have attained any rank but the lowest for another year at the least.”
She wasn’t going to drop the point, though. “Still. You do not trust Jor-El, Zor-El is an open traitor, and Kal-El has allied himself to the human cause. Can we afford to see the entire House of El ranked against us?”
“For all his youth, Kal-El is not fool enough to oppose me. In any case he has no memory of anything except my rule. And I do recall, Ursa, instructing you not to concentrate your efforts upon him.”
At that, she looked contrite. “General, I cannot help but be concerned by any potential threat to your authority.”
“And I esteem your loyalty beyond any other,” he replied. “But Kal-El is barely even a potential threat. His actions are those of a dreamer, his decisions are made on a whim. He has a child’s fascination with these humans. Furthermore, I much prefer him occupied with studying human culture than listening to his uncle. Young idealists are too easily swept up in Zor-El’s form of madness, and in numbers they can be dangerous.”
“That is why I fear him. He is the scion of the House of El. That name is trusted by the people, no matter who bears it. Even a callow youth with a touch of charisma could become troublesome.”
Again Dru-Zod shook his head. “Kal-El is safely obsessed with his new bauble. Let him publish his papers. Even let him arrange for custody of the humans to be transferred to his soft-hearted friends—I have not missed that ploy, it merely suited me not to obstruct it. If there is an incident as a result of their machinations, then he and that meddler Jhan-Or will be to blame, not us.”
He could tell Ursa was not yet satisfied. With any other person on the entire planet, Dru-Zod would not have deigned to explain further. She had earned the privilege. “Even if he does become a threat, Kal-El would yet be more useful to me unencumbered. Jor-El is too wise to stand against me or to allow Kal-El to do so. He will remonstrate with his son, more so than with his brother, and out of fear for both of them he will become still more pliable. After all, I do not ask so much of him, and I tolerate a great deal from his wayward family. Thus distracted and overburdened with gratitude, he will not require much persuading in matters before the Council.”
“You are certain, then, that Jor-El will never turn against you?” Ursa asked.
“Never,” he assured her. “It was his timely warning that kept us from falling into the Council’s hands when they sought to arrest us, and his support that won me the acceptance of the people. His was the crucial vote that, finally, made me Supreme Chancellor. He is too invested now to reverse his course. No, he will continue his attempts to persuade me, unaware that he is the one being manipulated.”
The absolute certainty with which Dru-Zod spoke would have pained Jor-El to hear it. Zor-El would have acknowledged it as merely the truth.
“If you are certain, then, I shall put my concerns to rest,” Ursa replied, inclining her head gracefully in acceptance.
Dru-Zod allowed himself to smile. He knew his second in command too well to believe she was content. She would continue to watch the House of El for any signs of treachery. Meanwhile, he could honestly claim that he had ordered no investigation into their activities.
“I appreciate your loyalty,” Dru-Zod told Ursa. “However, Jor-El himself is scheduled to arrive in mere moments, and I do not wish to arouse his suspicions by requiring him to wait.”
“Indeed, you always find time to see him—thus ensuring that he feels he is high in your esteem, no doubt.”
“Of course. I shall call on you before the day is out about the other matter. I am certain I can convince Jor-El to support my requirement of one-third of the mineral allotment, but if not, we shall make other arrangements.” With that, she took her formal leave, and Dru-Zod set about readying his office for his next appointment.
Jor-El was decidedly not in a properly Kryptonian state of equilibrium. Already that morning he had visited Zor-El, and had an extremely unpleasant conversation with him. It should have been simple, but nothing with Zor-El ever was.
If rumors were reaching Jor-El’s ears that his brother had spoken openly of removing the Supreme Chancellor from his post with a Council vote, then they could both be assured that Dru-Zod had heard those selfsame rumors. Zor-El had looked him in the eye with a peculiar glassy calm and replied, “Very well. Perhaps the tyrant will mend his ways if he realizes his subjects are considering their options.”
That had stunned Jor-El. “You cannot be serious,” he’d said.
“Oh, I assure you, brother, I am quite serious.”
Jor-El had looked around again, carefully scanning for anyone who appeared to be listening to their conversation. They had met outdoors, walking casually through the gardens, but no one appeared interested in them. Still, it paid to be cautious. Jor-El kept his voice low when he replied, “Do you honestly believe a mere vote would end his reign? If, indeed, a majority could be made to vote against him? He does have the entire military under his control.”
Zor-El had laughed, low in his throat. “Perhaps you should have thought of that before you gave him your support back on Krypton-that-was.”
“I had no choice,” Jor-El had answered, his voice grinding with the anger he dared not express. “We would have died, all of us, had the Council been permitted to continue debating. I could accept that fate for myself, if need be, but not for Lara and Kal-El. Would you have sentenced Allura to her death? Would you have ended your life and hers before Kara was even born?”
His brother’s stare had been fierce. “And what have we gained, Jor-El? We live in a world where you must look around you before every sentence you speak, where we dare not converse in our own homes for fear that our words are secretly monitored. You yourself have just admitted that Dru-Zod will not step down if ordered by the Council. We have traded life in an admittedly imperfect republic for a despot’s rule, and we do not have the means to remove him from office—not unless we can somehow unite the populace against him. And that, my dear brother, cannot be accomplished by cowering before him. His power lies with the fear of ordinary men, who lack the courage to stand against him.”
“You are mad,” Jor-El had whispered.
Zor-El had shaken his head, slowly and gravely. “No, it is you who are mad. You believe that he can be reasoned with, that somehow your friendship will convince him to step down.”
“Dru-Zod is not insane,” Jor-El had insisted. “I do not believe he willfully clings to power for its own sake. He truly believes that his rule is best for all our people—and I still believe it was best for us, when we remained, stupefied by apathy and arrogance, on a planet doomed to explode. Who else among us but Dru-Zod could have shepherded an entire nation, one that had not breached low orbit, out among the stars toward our salvation?”
At that, Zor-El had stopped abruptly, his eyes ablaze with true fury. “We could have, Jor-El. If it was necessary to suspend the ordinary course of democracy, it should have been one of us who stepped forward to lead. We are the scions of the House of El! Together we had the knowledge and experience to save our people. It was your technology that created the starships, not Dru-Zod’s. All he accomplished was breaking the spine of the Council.”
Jor-El had reeled. He’d never thought of that; the notion of taking power for himself wasn’t one that had ever presented itself to him. He had gone along with the Council, respecting their authority even as they refused to listen to solid evidence, right up until the moment when his friend Dru-Zod had suggested there might be another way. And since he had conceived the idea, and had the military power to carry it through, it seemed only wisest to allow Dru-Zod to lead. It had never occurred to Jor-El to suggest himself or his brother for Supreme Chancellor.
In fact, at the time he had not even been speaking to Zor-El, over some argument he could not now remember. At the time it had been a grievous insult, and both brothers had felt wronged by it. All attempts by their wives to reconcile them had achieved nothing. It was not until they began preparing for the evacuation of Krypton-that-was that the two brothers spoke again, and by then the quarrel had vanished into unimportance. They would never be close, as different in temperament and opinion as they were, but for a brief while they had worked together without dissent. Then again, the fate of their entire race had depended on it.
The elder son of the House of El stepped closer, and murmured, “We would have made better heads of state than Dru-Zod, for neither of us desires the power and responsibility of sole rule, or even co-rule. Instead power rests in the hands of one who, if he did not crave it before, has learned to savor it. And we shall never be free until all our people stand against him.”
“And how would you unite a people who were content to debate the very existence of the danger until our planet was rocked by the earthquakes that presaged its final destruction?” Jor-El had finally answered heatedly, meeting Zor-El’s glare with his own. “It matters not what we should have done, only what we can do now.”
Zor-El had laughed at that, loudly enough to be overheard, and Jor-El had noted with dismay that several other people turned to look. And then they had moved on hastily, as if Zor-El’s outburst might be contagious.
He had taken Jor-El by one shoulder, still chuckling. “Ah, my dear brother, I see the dreamer can be pragmatic at need. It grieves me to see you driven to this. But do not fear. There is a way to cause our people to rise up as one being, and I am in the process of achieving it.”
With that he’d made to walk away, and Jor-El had hurried to catch up to him, bewildered and aggravated. The conversation so far had given him a brief, painful flashback to their shared childhood, when Zor-El had often taunted him with a particular variety of logic puzzle that had required one to look not at the problem it seemed to present, but to focus on the terms of the puzzle itself.** Pursuing logical principles, Jor-El had always failed, unable to see the trick contained in the initial wording. Practical Zor-El had always seen through such things immediately, being unconcerned with perfecting his arguments and more interested in getting at the core truth of a situation. Jor-El had been the best debater of their generation, and yet Zor-El could always make him feel like a fool.
“What in Rao’s name do you speak of?” he snapped, allowing his temper to show briefly. “If you continue as you are, all of my influence will not be sufficient to stop Dru-Zod from arresting you for treason! Do you not understand that, Zor-El?”
“I understand it perfectly,” Zor-El had said in a low, even voice, all traces of inappropriate passion gone. “Yet it must still be done. Good day to you, my brother, and give my regards to Lara.”
With that formal dismissal, Jor-El had stood stock still for a moment, watching his brother leave. If he understood, then…
…he could only intend to martyr himself. “Oh you fool,” Jor-El had whispered under his breath, realizing the import of Zor-El’s choice. It was not inconceivable that Dru-Zod could banish him to the Phantom Zone for treason. But if one of the sons of the House of El were so treated, for saying nothing more damning than that their society ought to return to the republican government that had served it for millennia, then surely the populace would rise against the Supreme Chancellor and offer him no choice but resignation. If the tide of outrage were strong enough, Dru-Zod might also find himself exiled.
And that self-destructive madness was his brother’s ultimate plan.
It was while he was attempting to catch his breath after that stunning realization that Jor-El saw the very last person he expected to come face-to-face with upon this particular path. He blinked in surprise, and spoke her name before registering several essential facts.
Lois of the House of Lane looked up at him, her strange eyes wide with surprise. “Jor-El,” she said, just as startled, but quickly remembered her manners. “May the sun rise upon our meeting.”
He replied and turned to offer the same greeting to his son, but Kal-El was nowhere in sight. Only then did he understand what was wrong with the scene presented to him: Lois was accompanied by two other humans, a male and a female, with whom Jor-El had not made an acquaintance. He knew they were human only by the necklaces they wore. One bore the device of the House of En, the other he did not immediately recognize.
And all of them looked distinctly discomfited. What under the red sun were they doing unaccompanied? No other Kryptonians were in sight. “Forgive me, Lois, I had expected my son to be with you,” he said to cover his long pause.
“I shall bring him your regards, Jor-El,” Lois replied smoothly. Lara had told him her Kryptonese was getting better, and indeed, he would not have known she was from another world by her accent alone. “We are just returning home after our constitutional, and I can extend greetings on your behalf.”
“Please do,” he said, and stepped aside to let them pass. Apparently they were not engaged in illicit behavior, although he would discuss this business of unaccompanied constitutionals with Kal-El.
According to Lara, he was overdue for a serious talk with his son, anyway.
* Okay, so he’s around 18 or 19 in human years. Relax, we are not writing A Special Cross-Species Episode of “To Catch a Predator”.
** Along the lines of the riddle: Which is correct, “The yolk of the egg are white” or “The yolk of the egg is white”? Most people will say the second one is correct. The true answer is, neither one is correct. The yolk of the egg is yellow. Although the Kryptonian version is much more complicated, this is the principle.