The Benevolent Society for Kryptonian Cultural Expansion was meeting in full—one hundred Kryptonians from a variety of occupations and backgrounds, all gathered into one space. Strangely, this particular meeting was being held outdoors, in one of the spaces that had been cleared for construction that had not yet begun. A few of the assembled people grumbled about that, but most let it go. It was a pleasant enough day, and there were few indoor spaces where all of them could meet without feeling cramped.
Kal-El was only giving part of his attention to the current speaker, a nutritionist who was presenting her findings on optimal human diets. Apparently some of the humans had been developing nutritional deficiencies of late. Lois didn’t have that problem, but then, he was able to keep her reasonably well-supplied with food from Earth.
The rest of his attention was absorbed by the transport ship designs Jhan-Or had given him. They were his father’s work, rough drafts from before the finalized designs which had saved their people. And yet they fascinated Kal-El. He had pored over the notes, making the occasional adjustment—if he needed to use those designs to lead the Consulars astray, they would have to be convincing. He doubted they would believe he had simply borrowed unfinished schematics from his father, so he worked on them as if he actually meant to build them.
One design in particular held his attention, and he had been gradually refining it. Even when he didn’t have the plans with him, Kal-El had that particular ship structure embossed on his mind’s eye. In moments of inattention he returned to it, imagining the effect of a change here or there. It was almost a pity that he wouldn’t be able to actually construct the ship he had in mind….
Abruptly, his focused shifted back to the society. A debate had sprung up, and Nira Kor-En had just stepped forward. When Jhan-Or acknowledged her, she turned and spoke to the assembled group. “We can discuss the ethics of importing black-market human foodstuffs for days. There is a deeper issue here, one that we have been overlooking. All of us are aware of it, yet we are willfully blind.”
Kal-El caught his breath. Was this the moment? It certainly seemed to be. Nira met the eyes of those nearest her with a penetrating gaze. “The humans do not belong here,” she stated flatly.
“That is obvious,” someone said, and Jhan-Or called the meeting sharply to order, reminding them that Nira alone had the right to speak.
“Yes, it is obvious,” she countered. “And yet we have kept them here for months. We tell ourselves we wish the best for them, and that our efforts to obtain proper food and housing are exemplary, when in fact this is the bare minimum expected of us as wardens. We offer them the company of their own kind and a modicum of liberty, and tell ourselves that we are daring to give them what they have always known on their own planet. We know that they are sentient, intelligent beings like ourselves, and yet we believe that they can be controlled by this barbaric practice of keeping some of their number hostage.”
That was strongly worded; no one had yet dared to call the humans’ situation what it was in public, and Kal-El heard a few murmurs from the crowd. Nira was not dissuaded. “Do not delude yourselves that your humans are guests, that they reside here as part of some goodwill effort. Their families on Earth know why they are here: to prevent any attempt at aggression with the threat of revenge upon these humans we have taken captive. Humans, let us not forget, who were carefully selected as the spouses and children of important military and civilian leaders from Earth’s most prominent nations. None of them are fooled by the pretense of guests and hosts, and we should not forget it. For all our best intentions, my friends, we are participating in this travesty. We are the jailers, and no matter how humane we try to be, the fact remains that we are holding these people captive.”
Kal-El had to admire her calculated eloquence, in which he saw Jhan-Or’s hand at work. She had called them humans up until the very last line, and then referred to them as ‘people’ with the specific noun that Kryptonians used to refer to one another.
The murmuring began almost immediately, and Jhan-Or let it go on for a moment before again calling for order. Sar-Ves stepped forward to speak, and was acknowledged. “What you say is true, Nira Kor-En. However, I see no alternative. None of us chose to bring the humans here; that was accomplished by decree. By taking care of them ourselves, we are doing the best we can for them.”
“Only if we are cowards,” Nira replied, and Sar-Ves’ eyes widened in shock. Kal-El was riveted on the debate by then; he wouldn’t be surprised if the roles he was seeing were carefully scripted by Jhan-Or. In fact, he would be even less surprised to learn that Jhan-Or had not coached either of them, merely positioned them both so that they would do what came naturally to them—and serve his goals in the process. That, of course, made him wonder what his role was supposed to be in the unfolding drama.
“Explain,” Sar-Ves said, rather clipped.
“Do you honestly believe that we, as Kryptonians, can do nothing more than apologize to our human guests for their captivity?” Nira countered. “We are teachers, scientists, doctors, architects, even a few politicians. We are capable of swift and decisive action—we all escaped the doom of Krypton-that-was, and only by working together toward a shared goal. Can we do nothing save bemoan injustice?”
Only then did Jhan-Or speak up. “We escaped by the foresight and leadership of General Zod, not by our own efforts. Most of us discounted what we chose not to believe. I was there when the Science Council forbade Jor-El to even speak of the coming disaster.”
Nira turned to him, her chin lifted. “And have we learned nothing from that mistake? Because we preferred the safety of blindness, we had to lose the right to democratic rule in order to survive. Surely we have learned that we must act of our will to do what is right, not what is comfortable, nor allow ourselves to be driven.”
Jhan-Or looked thoughtful. Sar-Ves, however, shook his head. “You sound like Zor-El.”
That brought a wave of silence, and everyone near Kal-El pointedly looked anywhere but at him. Nira, however, only smiled. “I expected to hear that name sooner or later. Is there anyone among you brave enough to speak what we all know to be true?”
That might be his cue, but before he could move forward, someone else did. “Zor-El is not mad,” a young man said. Kal-El didn’t know his name; he was one of those who recently joined the society. A murmur of agreement met those words, as more people were emboldened by the one’s decision to stand forward.
“No, he is not,” Nira agreed. “We have surrendered our right to govern ourselves, and because of that we are made to participate in the imprisonment of other sentient races. We ought to be shamed by how far we have fallen from what we once were. Our own forefathers would not recognize the choices we’ve made.”
That was when Tar-Kon stepped forward, not waiting for acknowledgement, and spoke hotly. “You forget that those humans fired on the Rozz IV unprovoked, killing the crew. That can be no less than a declaration of war. Supreme Chancellor Zod is a military leader. Who better to assume control during such events?”
“Indeed, who better?” Jhan-Or said. “If not for that attack, surely the Science Council would have required that Dru-Zod make good on his promise to step down once he was no longer needed. If we are at war, however, clearly we need him.” His voice was flat, suggesting nothing, but the implication was still there.
The silence lay heavily on the crowd as each of them digested that. Kal-El felt a chill down his spine. Almost before he knew it, he was moving forward, but Jhan-Or did not acknowledge him. Instead, Nira spoke again. “The humans’ attack on our ship came from one nation; we have chosen to hold an entire planet hostage. Further, we cannot say the attack was unprovoked. Look at the recent history of human culture, and how first contact with a technologically superior race has generally been portrayed in their literature and cinema. These were the very sources we studied as we investigated Earth. I cannot believe that a military strategist of Dru-Zod’s caliber was completely unaware of the panic our scanning probes would cause.”
Tar-Kon stared at her, aghast. “You mean to say this war was manufactured?”
“It is possible,” Jhan-Or mused. “We may never know. The fact remains, we are in a precarious position now. The humans cannot accept this situation tamely. They must be terrified for their people here; no matter how positive their communications sound, no matter how many messages are smuggled via the black market, this state of affairs is not one that they can allow to stand. They will retaliate eventually. For the good of all of our people, we must do anything in our power to prevent all-out war.”
“Wait,” Tar-Kon said. “Be cautious, Jhan-Or. You delve too close to inciting treason. And I am bound by my duty to report the same.”
“Oh? Have you decided to don Consular black then?” the young man challenged.
Kal-El was close enough to see Tar-Kon’s skin flush with anger. Domestic security personnel such as he, who had largely been drafted into the Bureau of Human Affairs, were not given the same respect and authority as the Consulars.
Jhan-Or waved them all to silence. “Tar-Kon, there can be no treason in acting in the best interests of all Kryptonians. If our leader cannot see the danger his decisions have put us in, it is our duty to rectify the situation as best we can.”
Tar-Kon’s temper was up, and he was in no mood to be mollified. “You are the wiliest of all politicians, Jhan-Or. Do not think that all of us here are fooled. I would not hesitate to turn you over to the authorities.”
For a long moment the older man simply looked at him, and then Jhan-Or smiled. “You should reconsider that, Tar-Kon. Hesitation would be a start. Forgetting entirely any plans you had of reporting this meeting would be a much better idea. For as you say, I am a politician. Do you honestly believe I would allow even a hint of treason to be spoken in my meeting, if I did not have the means to ensure the discussion would never leave this group?”
Much to Kal-El’s surprise, Tar-Kon paled at that. He wondered what secrets the other man had to hide—and if Jhan-Or was bluffing. Somehow he doubted it. It wouldn’t have surprised Kal-El to learn that Jhan-Or had blackmail material on every possible dissenter.
That was quite disturbing. Kal-El had considered Jhan-Or a friend and mentor. Now he was using intimidation tactics to get his way. Kal-El remembered the day they had formed the society and elected Jhan-Or its chairman. He had informed that they had no means of removing him from his post—and in fact, part of the reason he’d been chosen for this duty was because he professed not to desire it. Was he canny enough to have feigned disinterest in order to attain the post? Kal-El thought so.
Perhaps his father was right. Perhaps Jhan-Or was simply too much a politician to be completely trusted. He was perfectly willing to use unethical means toward an ethical end—at least, Kal-El hoped it was an ethical end. He was beginning to doubt far more than was comfortable.
Tar-Kon had stammered a few words to the effect of being loyal to Krypton’s best interest and not its current leader, which seemed to mollify Jhan-Or. The discussion had become fractured, the various members of the society talking amongst themselves in a disorganized fashion. Nira’s speech had certainly gotten them thinking, and Kal-El was heartened by the murmurs he heard. Most of them recognized the injustice of the situation, and he had hope that this could be the nucleus of a resolution that would benefit his people … and Lois’.
Sar-Ves spoke, cutting across the general mutters. “It does not matter. Regardless of what you suggest, Nira Kor-En, we are in no position to effect a change in the humans’ circumstances. We have done the best we can for them. What more would you have us do?”
And that was it, Kal-El’s cue, his moment to enter this debate. It was as perfectly timed as if it had all been scripted for the start, and yet he didn’t mind that. This was right. He stepped forward and fixed Sar-Ves with his intense gaze, only peripherally noticing Jhan-Or’s acknowledgement. “The only thing we can do, if we are true to our ethics. We must free the humans.”
Silence dropped again, shocked stares centering on him, but no objections yet. And he meant for there to be none. Kal-El stood tall, his voice level and firm. “Surely within this group we have the intelligence and the resources to accomplish it. Yes, if we free the humans, we will prevent the war which their families would surely seek in retribution. But we should not undertake this simply because we can, or because it benefits us, or even because we have come to respect our human guests. We should do this because it is right. Keeping hostages is against everything our society has stood for in the past millennium. It goes against every honest heart, to keep these people trapped here as prisoners when they have done no wrong against us.”
For once, he had their complete attention, and he warmed to it. “The decision to bring them here may have been sound military strategy, but we are not a nation of warlords. Our history, our strength, is in democracy, negotiation, and amity. We cannot stand by and allow the humans to be held captive; we cannot participate in their imprisonment, even if we do so only to better their condition. The only true improvement is to free them, to return them to their homes and families. It is what we would hope for, had the situation been reversed—that some humans would see the barbarity of taking hostages, and free our fellows in defiance of the government that sees only strategy. This task is placed before us. We must act on what we know to be right, or we shall know ourselves for cowards.”
After a pause, Jhan-Or spoke slowly. “It could indeed be done, and I do agree with Kal-El that this is the wisest course of action. Surely it will take time and effort, and the humans must be moved only a few at time to reduce suspicion.”
And this, finally, was the moment Kal-El had dreaded. “Then let my Lois be among the first. For as most of you know, I consider her a true friend. She is not a primitive, inferior species; she is the equal of any of us in determination, and exceeds us all in courage. Among her people she is yet a child, not having attained the age of majority, and yet Lois volunteered for this duty to spare her ailing mother and her even younger sister the burden. Let her valor be rewarded.”
He felt an unaccustomed tightness in his chest at saying that; perhaps this was what was meant by the human expression about hearts breaking. She was more than his friend, she was his lover, his ally, his partner—and to spare her people he had to send her away. Yet despite the pain, Kal-El knew he was following the only righteous course available to him. Someday I will find her again, he told himself.
Even Tar-Kon nodded at that, and Nira and Sar-Ves both smiled at him. Jhan-Or was the one who spoke, however. “Kal-El, you are an example to us all,” he said, and his eyes shone with pride that could not have been falsified.
Now if only Kal-El could use that pride and acceptance and knowledge of following the right course to warm the icy spot in the pit of his stomach, the place that knew only that Lois was leaving, and soon.