Dru-Zod was, mostly, a man of logic and reason, but intuition spoke to him as well. He always paid careful attention to the quiet voice in the back of his brain. So far he had found reasons to obey it after the fact, and he trusted that phantom voice when it did speak. Usually it was no more than a whisper, a suggestion.
For the last few weeks, there had been a steady murmur underneath all of his thoughts: something is not right. Dru-Zod was a calculating man, and he pursued the hunch along multiple avenues, yet it proved frustratingly vague. Everything seemed to be going just according to plan.
One night, as he lay awake staring at the ceiling and chasing his own intuition along the pathways of his mind, the murmur of the under-voice rose to a declarative shout. Of course, of course something was wrong! Everything seemed to be going as expected, and he was wise enough to know such things never happened. Even the Science Council, though they were broken in spine and tooth and will these days, had been giving him less trouble of late.
And what could be the reason for such an unexplainable good fortune? Something was going wrong, somewhere a secret was being kept, and everyone involved was trying not to attract his attention with even the slightest mistake. Dru-Zod smiled to himself in the dark, a ruthless baring of teeth.
Once, on Krypton-that-was, he would have waited for the dawn to go hunting for the discrepancy, but whoever was behind this was intelligent enough to hide their conspiracy very well. Time was of the essence, and he would not have gotten a full night’s rest anyway. Dru-Zod rose from his bed and sent a coded message to his second-in-command before dressing hurriedly.
On his way out, he heard his wife stirring in her own room, and paused in the hall. She did not question him, however, and he moved on without speaking. Volunteering information, even to one he could supposedly trust, was simply not among Dru-Zod’s habits. As for Faora, she was accustomed to him keeping odd hours.
His people were not violent like the humans; even with vocal dissidents among them, he had no need to surround himself with guards. He took the hovercraft to his office and began searching through the intelligence reports of the last month, searching for the discrepancy he knew had to be there.
Ursa arrived moments later, uniform sharply creased and perfectly poised as always, but there was a lambency in her dark eyes that told him she was game for the hunt. “General?” she asked, as always ready for his orders.
“I find our government and society operate too smoothly of late,” he replied. “This suggests to me that a conspiracy is afoot and seeks not to draw my attention by minor disagreements. We must find the conspirators and discover their aims.” Of course there had to be a plot to overthrow him—there had always been such, from the moment he assumed power. The question that absorbed Dru-Zod’s mind was whether such a plot had a chance of succeeding.
“It shall be done, General,” Ursa said. “Shall I bring in the traitor Zor-El for questioning?”
“Not yet,” Dru-Zod replied. “Zor-El still serves as the bait by which I may lure in larger game.”
“A son of the House of El in defiance of you is already quite a prize,” Ursa pointed out. Her tone was controlled, but he knew her well enough to see the frustration seething beneath it. Ursa could not tolerate anyone betraying him; he alone commanded her loyalty, and she was as zealous a devotee as he could wish.
“Patience, my dear,” Dru-Zod told her, laying one hand over hers. She stilled at that gesture, looking up at him silently. “We will strike down Zor-El when the time is right. For now, though, I am more concerned with what hides behind the shield of his obvious rebellion.”
“Very well,” Ursa said. “Should I assume you wish me to continue to hold harmless his and his brother’s families?”
That gave him pause. Could the root of his troubles lie within the House of El? It would not be the first time they meddled in the greater affairs of Krypton. But Dru-Zod saw no threat in Alura and Kara, nor in Lara and Kal-El. Jor-El, he might be an actual threat, but Dru-Zod believed he had the man thoroughly cowed. “For now. I am aware of Kal-El’s participation in this … Benevolent Society, which is a thinly-veiled conglomeration of human sympathizers, but it is no threat. Jhan-Or is its chairman, and I have him under control.”
Ursa nodded. “Still, if there is trouble, it may start among the humans and their hosts. Shall I begin by personally reviewing the Bureau of Human Affairs?”
“Yes, as soon as possible,” he agreed. It would be best to have the eyes of someone he trusted in that establishment; the domestic security personnel that staffed it were lackluster at best.
Ursa inclined her head. “You will is my command, General.” With that she was gone, off to wake the unsuspecting Bureau. Dru-Zod had no doubt that if there were any discrepancies, Ursa would find them.
For himself, he would review all the intelligence communications of the past month, with his current suspicions in mind. Surely something there would spark that little thread of intuition that nagged him.
But instead he found his attention pulled away from the reports by reflections upon Ursa and her undying devotion. Dru-Zod reminded himself that the woman was, in many respects, his own creation. Little wonder, then, that she was perfect in so many respects.
Ursa’s history was checkered; her own family would no longer acknowledge her in any case, but Dru-Zod remembered that it was she who had sundered herself from them first. She had few choices, once separated from her family’s support and resources, and so attempted to enlist in the military. The results of her admittance tests went directly to General Zod for review, for Ursa was an exceptional case. Her intelligence was high, her various aptitude tests well within desirable ranges, and she appeared to have a high capacity for loyalty, but her psychological profile was cause for doubt.
It seemed to hint at disturbing flaws—a rebellious, confrontational attitude, an irrational dislike of men, and a tendency to question authority. Furthermore the simultaneous biofeedback scan indicated she had been anxious, or attempting to lie, during certain questions. That dishonesty was a strong indicator that the flaws uncovered were only the first hint of deeper problems. Perhaps she even harbored an abhorrent tendency toward violence.
Rebellion against authority in the rejection of her family name, a damaged psyche, and dishonesty under questioning—under normal circumstances, someone like Ursa would have been denied a place in the Consulars on the grounds of temperamental instability. But since attaining his rank Dru-Zod had begun to change certain policies. No more was a candidate rejected simply because of personality flaws.
He had argued to the Council that military service, with its insistence on discipline, could bring order to a disorderly mind. Was it not the duty of a progressive society to help its miscreants conform? Was it not better to induct such individuals into the controlled military environment, where their wayward tendencies could be redirected, rather than allowing them to pursue their own inclinations and eventually become criminals? Was it not much simpler to prevent borderline individuals from making such a mistake, rather than rehabilitating them once they had crossed that line?
The Science Council had granted him leeway to review rejected candidates, and his project had been successful several times before her profile came to his attention. Ursa had caught his attention as a personal challenge, seeming at first to be an exceptionally poor fit for service. She detested men, and more than half the military were male. She rejected authority, and the military relied upon obedience to orders. Yet she had applied, and there was that hint of strong personal loyalty—it had only to be earned to be unlocked. If Dru-Zod could redeem her, the Council would never again question his wisdom.
The then-General Zod had dictated certain changes to normal procedure regarding Ursa. Most importantly, he had carefully positioned her within the ranks so that all of her commanding officers were female. She advanced swiftly, and though she was domineering to the men under her command, she was intelligent enough to keep her contempt under control and out of their notice. The structure of military life seemed to appeal to her, and she tolerated its authority because she grew to understand the necessity for it. Under General Zod, it was not the hopeless bureaucracy it had once been, but an efficient organization whose rules and restrictions existed to guide and protect its members.
In a short time for one who had nearly been rejected from service, Ursa reached a level wherein she reported to Dru-Zod directly. Soon he had placed her in charge of the Consulars, whose chief function was enforcing military law amongst its members. As one who had herself defied authority, Ursa was adept at seeking out those who broke the rules, and even the long-constrained violence simmering in her nature became an advantage instead of a curse in her new role. When she arrived to take a traitor into custody – for all transgressions against military authority were by definition betrayals of the Council’s authority with which those rules had been enacted, and thus treasonous – a single glance into her furious dark eyes quelled any idea of resistance or further rebellion.
What Dru-Zod had not expected was the way those eyes turned to him. Ursa knew by the time she assumed command of the Consulars that he had seen the flaws within her, and had positioned her so that she might make use of them for the greater benefit of Krypton. Reporting to him, she saw that cold logic underpinned every order he gave; he was never capricious, never wielded his authority for the mere sake of doing so. Yet he was never over-cautious, striking decisively when circumstances warranted it. As such, he became the first male of their kind to earn her respect.
And he had never betrayed it. Not for the sake of sentiment, though. Ursa’s success contributed greatly to his own, his star rising in the council. The military rejects who statistically tended to end up in rehabilitative facilities now led productive, well-adjusted lives thanks to his intervention, and she was the most visible of all his successes. Only Jor-El expressed caution that General Zod’s ranks were seeded with the potential for destruction, and the rest of the Science Council had waved his concerns aside. In those days Jor-El was still known to be a dreamer, a misfit himself, and the council did not always pay him heed even though his brilliance outshone his eccentricities. Dru-Zod had cultivated him further, deepening the friendship that already existed between them by appearing to take Jor-El’s warning under consideration in spite of the Council’s dismissal.
Of course Dru-Zod did not cease his project; it had always been his intent to have these aberrant members of society within his own sphere, where he could manage them—and use them, if necessary. And Ursa was key among them. He extended his confidence to her, and she repaid him with the ferocious loyalty that had lain untapped within her for so many long years. His trust in her was not feigned, for she would have detected and detested that. Dru-Zod allowed himself to depend on her, and she reached her full potential rising to meet the challenges he set for her.
He had planned to receive her allegiance, but had never expected the level of devotion she showed him. Ursa sometimes looked upon him raptly, like a devotee of Rao gazing at the red sun’s dawn on the solstice morning. It was at that moment that he had realized just how obsessed she had grown; it was possible that she even believed herself in love with him.
Dru-Zod knew he tended to have that effect upon men and women alike, enthralling those with whom he chose to associate closely. So self-contained, composed even in a crisis, always keeping his power and authority coiled tightly around him, never flaunting either, never sharing his thoughts except at necessity, Dru-Zod did not seek out allies, instead drawing them inexorably toward him. Jor-El had once compared him to a black hole, from which not even light was swift enough to escape. And Ursa had fallen victim to his gravity.
He had proceeded cautiously, careful not to damage her devotion; it was too priceless an asset to be handled casually. Doing so had served him well in the revolt. Ah, those days of fierce clarity and constant action—at what a terrible price. The fate of their world was at stake, and the Science Council had chosen to ignore Jor-El’s warnings. He had been ordered to cease discussing the matter, and obeyed reluctantly, seething in silence. The House of El did not suffer such wrongs lightly, though as Dru-Zod saw the situation, its sons lacked the courage to redress them at times.
His fellow scientist Non-Ek had not accepted the Council’s command. Defiant, he had gone among the people to warn them of the danger. Some believed him, some debated him, and most ignored him. Krypton-that-was had become a complacent civilization, unable to believe that the sun they relied on for power could betray and devour them. When at last Non-Ek had incited a riot, the Council called upon its General to deal with him.
Dru-Zod still rued the day he had sent Ursa to arrest Non. He had not believed that soft group of old men calling themselves a Council would do more than chastise the scientist, and perhaps send him to a rehabilitation center where psychotherapy and medication would help realign him with reality. And that had been what happened—at first. The then-General had put the matter aside. Not even the revelation that Non had been repudiated by his house and stripped of his family name had occasioned much concern. He had greater problems to worry about.
Or so he thought. One day Non reappeared outside the city. He had been underweight and filthy from apparently living in a cave. Most of the populace saw that on the news broadcast, and assumed he had gone mad. Unsurprising, really, given the way he had clung to belief in the false apocalypse he and Jor-El had invented. The official word from the Council was that he had escaped from a rehabilitative facility and was clinically insane.
Ursa, however, had noticed that the once-brilliant scientist had sported a new and ugly scar on his forehead. Worse, he seemed incapable of speech. Dru-Zod investigated delicately, and uncovered a repulsive truth.
Non had never renounced his belief, no matter what therapies were tried, and it had become evident that he never would. So the Council had ordered a procedure performed that had fallen out of favor centuries ago, and had authorized surgery on the man’s brain, the seat of his wit and soul. Destructive surgery, at that, with no proven medical value except in the case of severe seizures that, first, Non did not have, and second, were now treated with gene therapy. Even more blasphemous, it had not been enough to cut into his brain. They had also cut out his tongue, so that even if he had retained more than the most basic reason, he would not have been able to speak it.
Ursa and Dru-Zod had discussed the matter only with one another, in conditions of utter secrecy. They had independently come to the same conclusion: the Council would not have done that to a mere madman. Non was therefore right. And if so, then their own lives and the fate of their race were in imminent danger.
Dru-Zod had gone to Jor-El, whom he had been cultivating for some time; the House of El was prestigious, and allies within it were always valuable. Convinced of the General’s sincerity and secrecy, Jor-El had told him everything, including his secret ship with which he planned to save his son by sending him to a distant, primitive planet called Earth.
Together, they had laid plans to overthrow the Science Council. Of course, events had not gone precisely as Jor-El expected; Dru-Zod had known better than to inform him that a certain amount of bloodshed would be necessary. His wife was a historian; Lara would tell him afterward how rarely a bloodless coup had ever been achieved. Jor-El would grieve for the losses, soft-hearted as he was, but his time would be filled by designing the transport ships that would save their people. Only Jor-El had the genius to accomplish that, when space travel had been forbidden study for generations. He was nothing if not an innovator.
There had been those who obeyed only sullenly, even up to the evacuation of Krypton-that-was. At that last moment, the new Supreme Chancellor had offered to allow any who wished to stay behind to remain on the planet—with the caveat that the ships would not return once launched. By then, of course, the imminent doom of the planet had been widely broadcast. A few had taken him up on it, either because they denied the coming disaster or because they refused to accept his rule. Less than a hundred, all told, and Dru-Zod had not mourned them. They were that many fewer to provide for during the journey, and as intractable individuals there were of little use to him anyway. Still, he remembered how they had looked, all standing in the main square in Kryptonopolis as the transport carried him up to the flagship. He would not have admitted it to anyone, not even himself, but it galled him not to have been able to save even those reprobates.
All of those who had remained were gone. The death of Rao had been visible from the ships, even though they had been journeying several months. Dru-Zod had forbidden any contact with the home planet, and so there were no communications with the lost ones in the months before their doom befell them. Better that they were forgotten, except as a cautionary tale on the folly of denying Dru-Zod.
Tensions had of course arisen aboard the ships. It had been then that Ursa’s many fine qualities came to the fore; she had been indispensable. She had moved from ship to ship at need, quelling the worst of the uprising, always being the sole individual whom Dru-Zod could absolutely rely on. When the oxygen converters on one ship had suddenly begun to fail in the middle of the sleep cycle, she had acted of her own volition to get Jor-El and his hand-picked team of engineers aboard that ship to repair it. Further, while they worked, with only Non beside her she had managed to hold back a frenzied mob threatening to overwhelm them and steal the shuttle. Everyone in the crowd would’ve been crushed trying to get to safety, but they had been wild with fear. Ursa had held them back by sheer force of will.
All of them knew she and Non were the Hounds of Zod, the physical extensions of his will; Non’s mind might have been destroyed, but his enormous strength was not, and his loyalty to Zod was as fervent as Ursa. Meanwhile she was even more: his right hand, the one he trusted above all others. The mob that day had known that Ursa would kill them all before she allowed them to usurp the shuttle.
Rarely was she able to be on the same ship with him. The Supreme Chancellor needed her to act in his stead, not in concert with him, and he could spare her little time. Still, even seeing her exploits secondhand, Dru-Zod had sometimes wished that he had not married so young, at the urging of his House. Given the opportunity, he would have granted Ursa a name greater than that of the House she’d been born to…
Those were not thoughts he could entertain, not given the stresses they had all survived aboard the ships or the situation they now found themselves in. The political landscape was perilous, and he could not afford to let his attention wander. Dru-Zod shook himself, and returned his full attention to the reports.
Wherever the traitors hid, it was only a matter of time before he found them and sent his hounds after their trail.