Back from vacation that just didn't seem like enough [do they ever?] with a new chapter! Enjoy, all!
If Kal-El had given the matter any thought—which he could not, since maintaining the status quo required that he not think too deeply on it—he would have noticed that he was essentially becoming two people. One, his private self, could spend an hour snuggled up to Lois, kissing her thoroughly and leisurely, and never for an instant think it improper. It was simply too perfect and wonderful to be wrong.
Meanwhile his public face was an earnest and studious young man who observed Kryptonian propriety as strictly as any of his elders could desire. While having dinner with his parents or meeting with the members of the Benevolent Society, he allowed no hints of his other self to show.
Of course, even then he was intelligent and insightful, and few things escaped his notice. His father’s increasing pressure to settle down and marry was too obvious to ignore, even if it threatened the precious balance by which Kal-El reconciled his current situation. Still he resisted. Neither he nor Lyla Ler-Ol was in any haste to wed, and he was embroiled in far more important ventures, anyway.
Daily Jhan-Or took him into deeper confidence. “Come, Kal-El, I would show you something,” he said one day, and brought the younger man into his lab.
It was not what he expected. Jor-El was a physicist, but the scope of his imagination was not limited to that science alone, and his lab contained many types of equipment. So his son had seen biological experiments before, but not on this scale. The delicate dance of microorganisms beneath a powerful microscope had been fascinating in Kal-El’s youth, before he gravitated toward the study of sentient life.
Now Jhan-Or ushered him into a room more devoted to biology, one that hummed with energy. An entire wall was given to growing various seedlings, some of which Kal-El recognized as native to New Krypton, some from Old Krypton, and even some from Earth. Above a workbench were many tanks of liquid, some clear and fresh, others green and stagnant. And on the main bench were a variety of microscopes and other instruments.
“What is it you wished to show me?” he asked, peering at the various experiments.
“This. Look into this microscope, Kal-El, and tell me what you see.” Jhan-Or stood beside one of the larger devices, which Kal-El recognized as one that could show extremely small organisms.
He peered into it, and adjusted the focus until he saw a flock of tiny things moving about. Some were round blobs, others were longer strands. As he watched, one of the blobs enveloped one of the strands. “I see several types of microbes, most unfamiliar to me. Jhan-Or, where did you find this?”
“I wished to demonstrate our imaging technology to Huang, and took a sample from the mucous membrane of his mouth,” Jhan-Or answered. Kal-El immediately sat up and looked at him. “You can imagine my surprise when I discovered he is host to a veritable menagerie of microorganisms. We Kryptonians, of course, have a similar symbiotic relationship with a certain type of bacteria that lives in our digestive systems, but nothing like this diversity of types and species. Humans appear to have several similar symbiotic arrangements, as well as some species that are quasi-parasitic. They appear to be present at all times in healthy humans, but can cause problems if their host becomes ill and the body’s immune system cannot keep them in check.”
“All humans have these?” Kal-El asked.
“All that I have tested. They are present on every inch of skin that has not been recently sterilized.”
A note of alarm rose in Kal-El’s voice. “Are these organisms harmful to Kryptonians?”
“So far they appear not to be.” Jhan-Or cut him a quick, intent look. “I managed to discreetly test several hosts, including myself. It appears that all of us who have a human in our homes quickly acquire our own colonies.”
Kal-El froze. That meant he too had this veritable zoo of single-celled creatures living on his skin. Right now. But the further implications…. “How could such things possibly spread?” he asked warily.
Jhan-Or shrugged. “The organisms transfer easily via shared objects—we have been using the same touch-screens as our guests, after all.”
“Don’t our ultrasonic showers remove such creatures?”
“Most, but not all. Kal-El, regardless of what you have been taught, there is no such thing as perfect sterility. All the cleansing measures available to even a technologically advanced species such as we are can only guarantee a 99.99% reduction in the flora and fauna present. And even 0.01% is still a viable population. You will find no surface in any Kryptonian home that does not have at least a few such creatures living on it, I guarantee. Such things are sometimes even beneficial, as they are for the humans. The microorganisms living on their skin help to keep it clean, and human doctors believe that their presence also helps keep the humans’ immune systems active and healthy.”
Kal-El mulled that over for a moment. All his life, he had assumed that the Kryptonian emphasis on cleanliness had sterility as its goal. He would never have guessed that he shared his home, even his skin, with microorganisms.
Jhan-Or continued, “What truly interests me is this. Here, Kal-El, look at this slide.” Saying so, he swapped the old slide for a new one, and the younger Kryptonian peered into the viewer again.
After a moment, he admitted defeat. “I see no difference, Jhan-Or.”
“Precisely,” the biologist said, his eyes ablaze. “This slide appears very similar to a sample taken from a human, or from one of us who hosts a human. However, it came from a Kryptonian who not only does not have a human in his home, he has had no contact whatsoever with humans. And every other sample from similar circumstances shows the same results.”
“So all of us are now contaminated with these creatures?” Kal-El asked. As uncomfortable as it made him, a small part of his brain was sighing with relief. If everyone on New Krypton had the same microorganisms, all originally acquired from humans, there was no need for him to worry what a sample taken from himself would show. For after all, he had had much more contact with Lois than any other Kryptonians had with their humans.
“Yes. They appear to do no harm, which is fortunate, since we have little hope of exterminating them. Perhaps they will even come to replace the beneficial species we lost during the plague years.” Jhan-Or sighed. “That was a sorrowful and regretful period in our people’s history, Kal-El. The paranoia of the plague era cost us much, not just in biodiversity. We also lost much of our warmth, our spontaneity, as a culture. That cost is harder to count, but it is no less real.”
“Perhaps the humans will bring that back to us,” Kal-El offered, carefully.
“Perhaps they shall, and it will be as quietly pervasive as these microbes,” Jhan-Or replied.
He paused for a moment, looking at Kal-El shrewdly. “Of course, it may be that much of what I called lost may not truly be gone. Perhaps much of what we once were remains to this day, simply hidden within us, awaiting only the proper circumstance to bring it out. Would you agree, Kal-El?”
“Of what, specifically, do you speak?” he asked, and knew he’d gone too far.
Jhan-Or shrugged. “Indeed, what do I mean? Forgive an old man his vague maunderings. Surely such talk bores you.”
Kal-El hastened to recover the moment. “Not at all. If you speak in generalities, it is because your wisdom covers a great breadth of knowledge. Please, enlighten me.”
The older Kryptonian wavered, then gave in. “Very well. What, in your opinion, is the chief difference between our culture and human culture?”
“I am inclined to say our technology, but that is only part of culture,” Kal-El ventured. Jhan-Or nodded encouragingly, and he continued, “Human culture is extremely diverse, so to compare us on a species-to-species basis, I must consider all the varied cultures of Earth, and look to their commonalities.”
“That is as I intended. And what do you see that differentiates them from us?”
Kal-El took a deep breath. This was not a conversation he could imagine having with his father, but then, Jhan-Or was an associate, not a relative. And they had already broached dangerous topics before. “The most obvious difference is in the human’s interpersonal relationships. They are much more intimate—with their loved ones, their friends, even mere acquaintances—than we are.”
Jhan-Or nodded slowly. “Precisely. Emotional intimacy and physical intimacy are an important part of human culture. What interests me is their emphasis on touch.”
“They are quite fond of touch,” Kal-EL said. “All of the humans here embrace one another at every meeting. It is unseemly to us, of course.”
“All things must be taken in their proper context, Kal-El. For the humans, a hug in greeting is not only a fairly common gesture. It also serves as reassurance and acknowledgement of group identity. It reminds them of their common experience here, that they are still human no matter how surrounded they are by our world and all its strangeness.”
“And we are strange to them. It behooves us never to forget that,” Kal-El added.
An interested light flickered in Jhan-Or’s eyes. “So, let us discuss the human obsession with physical contact. If the topic is not too distasteful to you, of course.”
“We are both scientists. I believe we can maintain objectivity.” Kal-El smiled slightly, and Jhan-Or returned it.
Jhan-Or had been a teacher, and during his studies in biology, Kal-El had been required to view some of the holographic recordings of his lectures. So the tone that Jhan-Or slipped into was quite familiar as his ‘lecture’ voice. “I have been reading the human scientific journals, and discovered something fascinating. Touch is so important to them, they believe—and have many studies supporting this belief—that denying touch to an infant or a child results in abnormal development. Not merely social development, either. The lack of loving touch retards emotional maturity and slows the learning process. Human children who are not held or touched by a loved one perform markedly worse in all types of standard aptitude tests.”
“So touch is not merely something humans crave, it is something they actually need.” The conclusion amazed Kal-El, and assuaged the lingering guilt he felt about his behavior with Lois. He was not just crossing an enormous cultural boundary. He was giving her something she needed, the affectionate touch that was a defining characteristic of her species.
Or at least, that was what he told himself. In truth, he had come to crave closeness with her to a degree that would have frightened him, if he let himself think about it. Kal-El did not allow himself to ponder what was going on between them. When he kissed Lois, all that existed was the moment and the two of them. No past, no future, no social taboos, no war. Just the silken feel of her lips against his, the warmth of her skin when he caressed her, the little sighs and whimpers she made that sent delicious shivers down his spine. When he was away from Lois, he never let himself think of it; when he was with her, he thought of nothing else.
Except Jhan-Or seemed determined to breach that wall in his thinking that kept him sane. He spoke in a low, musing tone. “We were like them, once. Before the clone war and the plagues that followed. A thousand years ago, there were no birthing matrices on Krypton-that-was, and we were as affectionate with each other as the humans are.”
No birthing matrices? But then…. Kal-El flushed at the realization. “Surely we have left such behavior far behind us.”
Jhan-Or gave him a stern look, and for a moment Kal-El believed that he somehow knew, and the guilt came roaring back. None of his own people would understand, none of them knew how purely right it felt to kiss Lois, he would be a pariah for the rest of his life….
But Jhan-Or’s next words disproved that hypothesis. “If we have truly abandoned the dependence on touch, Kal-El, then how did the microbes spread so quickly? I suggested the transfer might have taken place via touch screens and other objects, but then how do Kryptonians who do not have a human in their homes acquire microorganisms from Earth? Such things do not spread via the aerosol method. It requires contact of some sort.”
It was put forth as a challenge, and Kal-El answered carefully. “The only conclusion I can make is that one of us must have touched something that was then touched by someone else who did not have a human.”
Shaking his head, Jhan-Or replied, “And what might that something be? How often in a given day do you touch something you do not own, Kal-El? Furthermore, it must be so common an object that everyone on this planet has handled it. So far my random samples show one hundred percent exposure to Earth microbes.”
That stumped him, and the older Kryptonian made an irritated noise. “You are an intelligent young man. The answer is before you. Only your preconceptions blind you to it, and I will not remove the obstruction from your sight when you have the means to do so yourself.”
There was only one more logical conclusion, but it was momentous to a son of Krypton. “Perhaps … perhaps there is a great deal more touch, even casual touch, going on between our own people than anyone suspects?” he offered, flinching.
Jhan-Or studied him for a long moment. “Have you never seen your father take your mother’s hand and look into her eyes, and the two of them smile at each other with perfect understanding that words could only diminish?”
Again, Kal-El’s cheeks warmed with a shameful blush. It was one thing to discuss such things in abstract, another to relate it to his own parents. “It is unseemly,” he muttered.
“A thousand years of cultural conditioning speaks in those three words,” Jhan-Or observed.
“Are we not better for having broken our dependence on primitive means of accomplishing things?” Kal-El asked in desperation.
“Are we? Do you think we are better than the humans, Kal-El?”
“No,” he said automatically. “But we are different.”
“Not so different. We resemble each other sufficiently that, in the absence of certain traits like your Lois’ eye color, it would be impossible to tell one species from the other without sophisticated analysis. We have the same number of chromosomes as well, an unusual feature. It may be that our two peoples are distantly related in some way—it might even be possible to interbreed.”
Kal-El’s brain locked up then. For the first time in his life, he literally could not think. He merely stared at the older man.
Jhan-Or appeared not to notice. “The main differences between us are cultural, and some of our … societal pretensions could benefit from a rational, logical review.”
“Why?” Kal-El managed to ask. “Why not leave things as they are?”
“Because I am a biologist, not a psychologist or even a sociologist. I know that intimacy might become shameful in a generation, but the drive toward it was set by countless millennia of evolution. It cannot be bred out in a thousand years. We are still a social species, and it is those bonds of affection that keep us from drifting apart. I believe that only our stubborn and supposedly shameful craving for contact has kept us from becoming entirely solitary.”
“Surely it would never go so far,” Kal-El protested.
“Why not? With the technology we possessed on Krypton-that-was, there was no reason why any of us needed to cohabit at all. There was no housing shortage and no limit on construction, for we had all the crystal and electrolyte solution we required to terraform the majority of the planet to our use. We could easily have each lived apart from one another, conversing only by hologram, allowing our robots to make the arrangements for the next generation to be conceived within birthing matrices. Why did we still choose to live together then, when we had the choice, if not because we still possess a longing for the kind of emotional intimacy and physical proximity that the humans so exemplify?”
For that, Kal-El had no answer. Jhan-Or chose to abandon sophistry then, and lay out his conclusion. “Culture evolves swiftly, Kal-El. It makes sweeping changes seemingly overnight. Biology can make great leaps in evolution, but it does not wholly cast aside what has worked for it before. There are always remnants, perhaps useless in the current circumstances, merely waiting for the need to arise before they become relevant again. And the history of our people for the past few decades has been filled with turmoil and strife. When else would we find ourselves in need of comfort and reassurance that mere words cannot provide?”
He paused, and took a step nearer to Kal-El, one that broached polite conversational distance. At the same time Jhan-Or lowered his voice. “I will tell you now what is not known by the majority of our people, but your mother as a historian surely knows of it. What seems unthinkable to you now—has happened, and recently. During the journey to this world, we were all confined much more closely than we had been in millennia, and under significant stress. Breaches of conduct that would seemingly destroy the very fabric of Kryptonian society occurred, and were carefully hidden from the public eye. Life has gone on much as before with only the barest of pauses.
“And your generation, Kal-El, grew up in that hothouse atmosphere of desperation. Most of you were never consciously aware of it, our people being too well-trained to conceal displays of strong emotion, but it is most likely that every one of your generation has seen their parents holding hands. Some have even seen a kiss. And despite the terrible shame those couples endured for their transgression, the world has not ended. No one died of plague during the journey, no matter what they did.”
Kal-El’s eyes had gone wide. “Now the humans come among us, and they hug each other openly, and none of them grow ill. By Rao, the most stringent of Kryptonian taboos is being weakened under our very noses, and none of us even suspects!”
Jhan-Or laughed at that. “Oh, no, some of us suspect. The biologists, if they are wise enough to study history, knew it was coming. The doctors who helped conceal—they know it has begun. And the historians always know everything, sometimes before it happens. Be of good cheer, Kal-El. It seems you shall witness a revolution in your lifetime—of one kind or another.”
But on that other topic he would only hint, and never reveal what he meant.