Pretty exhausted this week, but still pushing forward. Starting to look up a tiny bit and I'll take every bit of it. Annnnd you guys even got a longer chapter, thanks to Anissa's muses! Enjoy!
Kal-El spent his days in a variety of activities. Research in his lab, often, as well as meetings of the Science Council, of which his father was a member and which he was therefore entitled to attend. Lately he had been sitting in as a silent observer on as many council meetings as he possibly could, trying to gather information. His attendance was taken as studiousness by his father’s peers, and appreciated by Jor-El himself as a sign of maturity.
Jor-El did not appreciate his son’s many meetings with Jhan-Or, however. Kal-El often found reasons to place himself in the biologist’s company. They talked of many things, but the subject of the Benevolent Society for Kryptonian Cultural Expansion was always discussed carefully. Kal-El had learned not to question Jhan-Or too closely on certain topics, and the older man had been dropping elusive hints for a while.
Today was no exception. “And I thought we might consider forming a committee within the society,” Kal-El was saying as the two men sat at their leisure in Jhan-Or’s solarium. “It may be worthwhile to study how the humans have adapted so far to our planet. Perhaps several of our members with backgrounds in biology and sociology would find that interesting?”
“Perhaps they would,” Jhan-Or said agreeably, but his eyes were distant.
Kal-El paused. For the past week or two, Jhan-Or had often seemed distracted, his attention wandering far afield. Of course any slightest hint that Kal-El had noticed that would bring his full acumen to bear, but the younger man still noticed him wavering. “Jhan-Or, it seems to me that you have much on your mind,” Kal-El finally said. “The humans say that joy shared is joy doubled, and misery shared is misery halved. If you have some such news to share, for good or ill, then please remember that I am your friend.”
Jhan-Or smiled at him. “And you are quite a good friend, to put up with this old man’s scattered thoughts. Perhaps, though, it is time to share a few things with you.”
Excitement flooded Kal-El’s heart, but he controlled his reaction so that his face showed only pleasant interest. Over the past months—it was well nigh a year, as humans reckoned time—he had learned than any unseemly curiosity caused Jhan-Or to veil his thoughts. “I am listening,” he said.
For a long moment, Jhan-Or simply looked at him, evaluating. “You have grown much wiser in a short time, Kal-El. Since the humans arrived, you have taken more and more responsibility upon yourself. You may not yet know this, but there are those on the Science Council who consider you our foremost authority upon them.”
At that, Kal-El had to drop his gaze, feeling a faint tingle of embarrassed warmth across his cheeks and the tips of his ears. He had published several papers on human culture, language, and history, all dryly factual—he could have written far more expansively, but he was conscious of his audience. “I am hardly an authority,” he demurred.
Jhan-Or chuckled. “True, you are far too young to have the proper perspective on an issue to which you are so committed, but you have demonstrated knowledge and the understanding to share it. And I know, Kal-El, where your conviction truly lies.” He took a step nearer, and the humor left his voice and expression. Jhan-Or spoke sternly, with no hint of approval. “You would see them all freed, returned to their own planet. By any means necessary, including espionage or revolution, you would accomplish this goal.”
Kal-El’s breath stuttered to a halt. If he admitted this now, and Jhan-Or didn’t share his conviction, at the best he would be placing himself in a position to be blackmailed. At worst, he could be arrested almost immediately. The only question was whether he trusted Jhan-Or … and in spite of his father’s warnings, he did. Kal-El took a deep breath. “Yes. That is exactly what I propose to do.”
Nodding, Jhan-Or looked him steadily in the eye. “Very well. You have proven yourself capable of discretion, Kal-El, and of courage enough to choose principle over safety—a thing our Council has forgotten how to do. For that I will share with you my intentions, since we find ourselves making common cause.”
The older man paused, studying Kal-El a moment longer. “My goal is quite simple. I mean to dethrone the General-turned-Chancellor and return our people to the democracy of our fathers. I am as dedicated to my dream as you are to yours, and removing the humans from our planet is an integral part of my vision. So let us be allies, Kal-El, and trust one another.”
He’d suspected something like that, but never realized Jhan-Or was so fervent. This was treason they were discussing … but wasn’t it justified? The current system kept Dru-Zod as virtual dictator, with no checks upon his power but the Science Council, which was powerless against him. “I understand, and I will aid you,” Kal-El said, his voice low but unwavering.
“I had hoped so. Now, to business.” Jhan-Or waved him toward a seat, and a robot whirred up with something refreshing to drink. Jhan-Or took a sip before continuing. “Revolution is a difficult and dangerous business, Kal-El. We are fortunate that your uncle is making himself obvious—that will keep Dru-Zod’s attention on him, and away from our efforts.”
“Unless he brings suspicion on me by virtue of our family connection,” Kal-El pointed out. That fact still worried him; he had sent messages to Zor-El, urging temperance, but they had gone unanswered.
“Your father will see to that,” Jhan-Or replied confidently. “In the meantime, you may find it prudent to let your sadness at Zor-El’s mental deterioration be known to a few close friends—preferably those most prone to sharing such news.”
“There is nothing wrong with his mind,” Kal-El said hotly. Implications of insanity were the single worst insult that could be made to a Kryptonian.
Amusement flickered in Jhan-Or’s eyes. “Of course not. Zor-El is the sanest among us, but the least prudent. He expects no less than repudiation, Kal-El. His own wife has quarreled with him in public. Those who do not wish to join him in martyrdom must cast their lots firmly against him. Zor-El knows this. And it would not surprise me if he also knew that his actions serve to cloak those of who choose to act with more discretion.”
“So you do have a plan of action,” Kal-El said quietly, containing his excitement. At last, they might actually be doing something about the problem that nagged at the back of his mind.
Jhan-Or smiled. “Of course not. I have several plans. The first is, of course, ensuring non-interference from the humans. To secure that, we will need to return the hostages. Then once the Chancellor has been deposed, we can open trade talks with Earth, as we already have our equipment in place for mineral mining. The new regime will be seen in a positive light for having returned their sons and daughters even before making our move against Dru-Zod.”
That gave Kal-El pause. To him, getting the humans home was top priority because keeping them captive here was morally repugnant and ethically indefensible. Jhan-Or’s reasoning was more politically expedient, and he began to suspect that the older man was just as ruthless as Jor-El had warned. But for the moment he was willing to overlook that for the sake of the greater good. “And how shall we return them?”
The smile grew broader, a light in Jhan-Or’s eyes that Kal-El had never seen before. “Have you researched the arrangements made for our miners on Earth?”
“I have,” Kal-El replied. When Jhan-Or raised an eyebrow, he elaborated. “Most of the actual mining is done by robots, but a small maintenance crew of five people—selected geologists, engineers, and chemists—plus one Consular are housed on site to supervise the mining. We have facilities built for them that allow them all the comforts of home, and when they must exit the structures, their mechanized suits shield them from Earth’s impure atmosphere.”
“Correct. Also, the team is partially rotated with every fifth shipment, so that none of our people must remain isolated on Earth for too long, and yet each newcomer has an experienced crew to work with.” Jhan-Or leaned back in his seat, looking thoroughly pleased with himself.
“I had heard that as well, yes,” Kal-El replied, tilting his head. He didn’t see the significance of the rotation or why it pleased Jhan-Or so much … and then he did, realization dawning slowly. “I am not the first person taken into your confidence, am I? There are others who know your intentions, and you have used your influence to place them on Earth.”
“Indeed I have, and with the next shipment the crew on Earth will be entirely comprised of individuals sympathetic to the human cause for one reason or another, and will remain so for some time,” Jhan-Or said. “We can do nothing about the Consulars—they can never be trusted, as many of them are personally loyal to Dru-Zod—but they are not directly involved in the shipping process. Their arrogance is our advantage, as their disdain for the work itself makes it simpler to accomplish our goals without their knowledge.”
Kal-El only had one question in mind. “How did you find so many sympathizers?”
Jhan-Or chucked. “Most of them are my former students. Or young idealists like yourself. I have been extremely careful in sounding them out, and in selecting those not involved in the Benevolent Society. But we will need to move quickly once the final member of the team is in place. With the knowledge we’ve recently obtained on the function of the tracking crystals, we can begin moving the humans immediately upon the next exchange of personnel.”
That brought a quick smile to Kal-El’s face. He had been the one to discover the tracking crystals didn’t rely on a human biometric signal. And now, at long last, they were going to put that knowledge to use. “Do you think the Society will all agree to release their humans?” he asked.
“Most will. And those who do not will follow the rest. We have maneuvered the humans into the hands of those who see them as people, and allowed them time and liberty in which to demonstrate thoroughly that they are as sentient as we are. Everything we have done—much of it begun by you, Kal-El—has increased the hosts’ empathy with their guests. The only ones who falter will be those afraid of being caught and punished, and a few courageous examples will shame them into action.”
That made Kal-El smile again, until Jhan-Or added, “You would be an excellent choice to bolster their courage.”
His heart dropped, his mouth going dry. Be among the first to volunteer, and send Lois away so soon? Of course this was the endgame of all his plans, the vow made in his secret heart when he had first fallen in love with her. But he had thought he would have more time with her.
For a moment his throat closed with emotion. When he trusted himself to speak, he said, “I will do that, if necessary. I would like a small favor in return, if possible.”
“And what is that?” Jhan-Or asked.
“Perhaps I might be included among those who travel to Earth. I have long wished to study their culture in person.” His voice was level, almost disinterested.
The older man watched him for a long, long moment, in utter silence. “I see. Kal-El, you are the son of an important Science Councilor, perhaps the last who has any sway whatsoever. Do you honestly think that, no matter what resources I can bring to bear, your father would allow you to go?”
He bowed his head. It was selfish, purely selfish, to want to keep Lois here or to go with her. Trying to make his way to Earth would only attract attention. “I understand. It will be difficult to part from her after all this time.”
“It will be difficult for all of us. These humans … they are an amazing people. They have such inspiring vibrancy. I will certainly miss Huang. But I know that his family and friends already miss him, and he them, more than I do.” Jhan-Or’s voice was low and reassuring.
He didn’t know how much more difficult this was for Kal-El. Lois was not merely a friend, she was his love. And yet the only honorable course of action was to let her go. Kal-El promised himself that, once everything settled down, he would find a way to get to Earth to see her. Surely New Krypton would need ambassadors. In the meantime, he would do what he knew was right, so as to be worthy of her.
And Jhan-Or was not finished yet. “As I mentioned, there are always multiple plans. It is always possible that our efforts could be discovered and disrupted, and that any one of us could be captured. For that reason I do not share more than is necessary, and have provided each of our sympathizers with false leads in case they are captured.”
“Red herrings,” Kal-El said musingly. “The humans call such misleading information a ‘red herring’. And you would provide me with one such as well?”
“Of course,” Jhan-Or said. He motioned for one of his robots, which brought him a small crystal. “Embedded on this crystal are some of your father’s preliminary designs for transport ships. If you are captured, try to keep them from finding this. They will, of course, but if it seems hidden the Consulars will believe we are trying to build ships. I will also provide a believable quantity of salt to enhance the illusion.”
“Salt? But the price of salt and the military restrictions…” Kal-El stammered.
“Are of little consequence when one has connections,” Jhan-Or replied serenely.
His interview with Jhan-Or rounded out with a few more technical details and some plotting of what to say at the next Society meeting. Afterward, Kal-El went directly home, hoping to find Lois. He needed to tell her; though Jhan-Or had counseled against letting any of the humans know ahead of time, Lois was a special case. Besides, she would soon decipher it from the change in his mood, to which she was always attuned.
Lois was not at home. She had gone for a walk, and Kal-El made the rounds of their usual walking destinations, seeking her. He began to grow nervous when he hadn’t found her within an hour. What if the Consulars had brought her in for questioning? But then, they would have expected him to contact them as soon as she was discovered missing from his home. By going searching for her he might have alerted them to the fact that the humans were moving about unescorted.
No black hovercraft appeared to question him, but Kal-El grew steadily more nervous. He moved further afield, retracing his steps on occasion, wondering if perhaps Lois was lost. That seemed impossible, though.
Kal-El became more and more certain that Lois had been taken by the Consulars. He knew he needed to stop searching, calm himself, and try to think logically, but that was extremely difficult to do when his heart was racing. Eventually he managed to force himself to stop and simply breathe, sitting down on a public bench while trying to regain his composure.
It was then, while he was finally still and observing, that Kal-El noticed another unaccompanied human walking by. That in itself was of little consequence, except he thought of asking the young woman if she’d seen Lois. When he rose to address her politely, though, she turned away and picked up her pace.
Kal-El frowned at that. He strolled along in the same direction she’d taken, wondering why a human would act fearful of one of his people. A moment later he was passed by another human, this one a tall dark-skinned man walking purposefully … but in the same direction.
Something seemed strange to Kal-El, and he stepped off the main path, focusing his attention on a crystal sculpture. In the next five minutes he saw two other humans pass by. One of them was Jhan-Or’s Huang.
The sudden preponderance of humans in this specific location seemed anomalous, but Kal-El wasn’t even speculating on why yet. His only thought was that one of them might know where Lois was. So he turned and followed the last, a petite woman with curly dark hair and golden skin. Kal-El did not know her name, only that she was the guest of a crystal architect of some renown.
Some intuition told Kal-El to hang back, following unobtrusively. The woman turned a corner and … simply disappeared. Kal-El froze, blinking in surprise. Were all the humans disappearing one by one in this same fashion? And if so, what was the cause? He walked slowly along the same section of path, doubling back at the next corner. The human couldn’t have reached that point before he turned the corner unless she had broken into a run, and he would’ve heard that.
While Kal-El was puzzling it over, he thought he heard a voice, quickly silenced. It was coming from the gardens off to one side of the path. This particular area was not as extensively landscaped as some others, and still had large rocky outcroppings and tall flowering plants. Kal-El began to pace along the side of the path where he thought he’d heard the voice, and eventually found a few bent stalks slowly springing back into position.
So the human woman had left the path here. He supposed that was not too surprising; hiking through the wilderness was a common pastime among humans. But why indulge here? And had the others he’d seen come the same way?
There was only one way to find out. Kal-El gingerly stepped off the path and onto the wild grass. Trying not to touch anything, he made his way in the direction of that faint voice, finding more signs of recent passage.
A few minutes brought him into earshot of several humans. Apparently an argument was in progress, and Kal-El prudently stopped to listen. He did not want to embarrass anyone, or intrude on anything private, though he would not leave until he’d asked after Lois.
What he heard stole his breath.
“You dared suggest this to your father? After we explicitly told you not to trust them!” a man’s voice thundered.
To Kal-El’s shock it was Lois who answered, and her voice held a hard edge that Kal-El barely recognized. “We have no leaders, remember? All of us are acting on our own recognizance and for the common good!”
Another man snapped, “And you, with all the wisdom of your sixteen years, you think that this is for the common good? Encouraging the Earthside Resistance to make common cause with Kryptonians?”
Kal-El barely managed to stifle a gasp. Had he said Resistance? As in an organized revolt against Kryptonian rule?
Lois retorted, “We can’t do this on our own! We don’t have the resources or the access! What were you thinking, Geoffrey, we’d just steal a ship? Good luck flying it!”
“No, we were thinking of taking hostages of our own,” another man replied, his voice cold and hard.
“No,” Lois shot back. “You’ll just get people killed that way, and they’ll take more hostages. I’m not going to get my mother or my sister trapped here!”
The first man spoke up again. “But you’d approach them for alliance! Lois, I know you feel that this Kal-El is your friend, but you cannot forget that he is the enemy.”
Kal-El, standing just out of sight, bit his lip. Here he was with concrete plans to get them home, and the humans spoke of him by name as their foe. Did they not understand what the Benevolent Society was? Were they not grateful for the freedoms they now enjoyed? That had been his doing and all for their sake—her sake, really—yet his only reward was to hear himself reviled. His temper, rarely roused, began to wake. Lois’ next words did not help at all.
“Kal-El is strategically important. You’ve all seen the information I brought you—he has more access than any of your keepers. His father is the only one of the Councilors that Dru-Zod will listen to. And Kal-El himself is becoming a force to be reckoned with. I can trust him—and if I’m wrong, I can keep him quiet.”
He heard the desperation in her voice and doubted everything. Was this the real reason she shared his bed? For information? Was Lois in fact a spy, and everything he thought she felt for him merely artifice?
Despair made him miss the next few exchanges, but at the bottom of his heart Kal-El found a cold truth harder than crystal. Even if she’d lied to him, even if she didn’t love him, he could not blame her. Lois was a captive on this planet, after all. And even if his love was unfounded, she was still a sentient being who deserved her freedom. He might not be able to do this for love, but he would do it because it was right. No matter the cost.
“We cannot trust Kal-El!” someone said, practically shouting.
At that Kal-El stepped forward, brushing aside the last screen of vegetation that shielded them from his view. “You no longer have a choice,” he said, with heat in his tone.
His gaze landed on Lois as her face went deathly pale and her strange eyes widened.