Lois (kalalanekent) wrote,

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Across the Universe :: The Flame of a Fire Abruptly Caught

I wasn't fooling when I said the story was ramping up. It starts now, with this chapter. It can truly go any way with these characters at this point. No one is safe. Period. This is the spark that lights the tinderbox. From here on in, all bets are off. Things are about to start leaving you breathless.

Time had passed. Curiously, though each hour seemed to creep by, the days piled up in drifts. Kal-El threw himself into his work, both with the Resistance and his scholarly studies. He had entered a new field, paying closer attention to engineering and crystal construction. Part of that was for the cover he and Jhan-Or had come up with, the rough drafts of his father’s ship designs. Kal-El applied what he learned, constantly refining the blueprints. The work kept suspicion off him, and thinking of ship design gave him something to do during the nights when he couldn’t sleep.

The Supreme Chancellor had commanded that the military ships ruined by sabotage would be replaced, and their construction would be guarded night and day by Consulars. That meant more salt, which meant more shipments, which was a good thing because everyone involved in the Resistance could feel time running out. They had to all be back on Earth before those ships were ready to take off.

Huang was now Kal-El’s primary contact among the humans, and at least he seemed prepared to trust the Kryptonian’s intentions … yet it wasn’t the same, and not just for the obvious reasons. Kal-El missed the camaraderie he’d had with Lois, the way she could say volumes with a look and read the same from him, the little jokes between them that no one else would have laughed at. The flower his mother had given her now stood by Kal-El’s bedside, its light a comfort when he woke from nightmares.

The Resistance moved along apace, everything going according to plan … but there was more to it than that. The Kryptonian side of things, what Kal-El was coming to think of as the Rebellion, was fractured and at odds with itself. Those who worked with Jhan-Or—and Kal-El knew a few of them, but by no means all—moved incrementally, quiet and patient and very, very careful. There were others, allied with Zor-El, whose contempt of the regime began to be open.

Kal-El had never seen civil unrest. The environment aboard the great transport ships that had brought them here was tense, surely, but he had never known such a degree of mistrust and hostility. More and more of the common people of Krypton seemed to be growing disillusioned with Supreme Chancellor Zod’s regime. The Consulars’ black uniforms no longer got nods of respect from passers-by; now they were viewed with barely-restrained contempt.

He had even overheard seditious conversations, mostly among people his own age, whispers here and there that Dru-Zod would never relinquish power, that things had been better under the Science Council, that the housing shortage was being maintained to keep better surveillance of the populace. And that quite shocked Kal-El. Here he was, being so careful and so studious and so apparently loyal as he devoted his whole heart to his secret cause, and others were maligning the power structure without even bothering to see who was listening! They should have cast suspicious looks at him, been more careful in his presence, seeing as how his father was still a staunch supporter, and how he had never even looked approvingly at anyone who dared make such remarks.

Young as he was, Kal-El still had no idea just how bad it could get.

The news that day had been consumed by one shocking story: another attempt at sabotage, this one unsuccessful, but with terrifying consequences. Two Consulars had been wounded in the attack. Such a thing was unprecedented. Kryptonian society in general did not bear arms, and most people not in the military would not have known how to use a weapon, much less make one.

Someone out there did, and was willing to cause harm to further their goals. All of New Krypton was in an uproar about it. There had not been such violent crime among them for centuries, the signs of inherent instability found in early childhood and remedied before such seeds could blossom into evil. And now this…!

The Science Council released a broadcast universally condemning message, urging those responsible to turn themselves in to the authorities and assuring them they would receive humane treatment to realign them with the goals of civilized society. Most of it was delivered by Jor-El. His son understood that; whatever Jor-El might privately believe, if he was to have any sway with the current ruler, he would need to profess his loyalty. And he needed whatever influence he could get, as the most likely culprit was his own brother.

It still galled Kal-El. He had begun to feel as if everyone knew that Dru-Zod was corrupt and change was necessary, but because none of the influential people would admit to their beliefs, no one knew that they weren’t alone. Except those involved in the Rebellion, but that had even more reason not to speak up.

Throughout the day, Kal-El kept overhearing bits of news and gossip. The Consulars would not suffer such an insult to stand, and were hunting for the perpetrator with every resource they possessed. That turned his stomach, and he could no longer stand to be alone. He decided to visit his parents.

One of Jhan-Or’s associates had worked out how to make the crystal necklaces read a signature off of a certain species of plant, and Kal-El had one of those—though he rarely used it, preferring to keep Lois’ necklace on his person. Since he was going out somewhere he might be seen and remarked on later, Kal-El placed the tracking crystal against the plant’s fleshy leaves, assured the artificially-amplified biometric signature would make it appear as if Lois were at home asleep.

Kal-El did not think to call ahead until he was halfway there, having responded to a blind impulse to be with his family. He popped up the hologram and sent a quick message, apologizing for his unexpected arrival. Oddly, no reply came before he landed the hovercraft at his parents’ home.

Much to his surprise, his father answered the door, looking harried. “Kal-El? What are you…? Never mind. Just come in.” Jor-El caught his son’s arm for a brief second, giving it a warning squeeze.

That was fortunate, as he had no other preparation for what waited in the living area. Ursa herself paced the room, along with two other Consulars standing at parade rest. The shock of seeing them, their stark black uniforms in sharp contrast to the lightness of his parents’ home, stole Kal-El’s breath.

And then Kal-El saw Alura, seated beside his mother. His aunt looked pale and distant, her eyes too wide. He came to a startled halt, taking in the entire scene, and his heart started to beat faster. Don’t be stupid. They’re not here for you. If they wanted you, they’d have gotten you at home. Just breathe. Making himself sound bewildered wasn’t difficult; only keeping the fear out of his voice was. “What is going on?”

“Your family is currently under protective custody. Your uncle is a traitor, and he has threatened your father,” Ursa said smoothly, her dark eyes intent on his.

Kal-El shot a glance at Jor-El, who nodded grimly. Kal-El’s mind raced, trying to get a grip on the situation. He took a seat and so did his father, the atmosphere tense.

“Zor-El confessed. He lead the sabotage attempt,” Lara added. She looked up at Kal-El with worried eyes. There was more than one traitor in the family, after all. And they could not afford for Dru-Zod to learn that.

“Where is your human?” one of the other Consulars asked.

Kal-El had practiced what to do in this situation ever since Lara caught him out with one simple question. Every day, at random times, he quizzed himself on what he would say if someone asked about Lois or any of the other humans, until his responses were facile and held no trace of a lie. Now he managed to sound only distracted when he replied, “At home, asleep.”

To his dismay, the Consular checked that on a mobile computing crystal, and nodded to Ursa. They’re watching us far too closely, Kal-El thought. All it would take would be one mistake, one tiny bit of bad timing, to reveal that three-quarters of the humans were already gone.

Right now was the most precarious moment. If anyone in authority realized what was happened, the conspirators would be arrested, and the remaining humans would be locked up, too. New hostages would be demanded under threat of military attack. The entire enterprise, resistance and rebellion both, could be destroyed by the smallest misstep.

And here he was, sitting in his parents’ front room, under the watchful eyes of three Consulars—including one of the Hounds of Zod. The one whose devotion to her master transcended all Kryptonian notions of decency, from what Jhan-Or had said.

As if she’d heard the thought, Ursa turned to look at him calculatingly. Kal-El knew that to look away abruptly would seem suspicious, so he kept his eyes on her, knowing his expression was worried. That ought to be normal in these circumstances. The stress of maintaining a conspiracy, of watching every word and gesture for what hidden meanings might be transmitted, was being to chafe. Kal-El wanted this whole business over. He wanted his life back.

He wanted Lois back.

Something occurred to him then, and he turned back to his family. “Where is Kara?” he asked.

“Asleep,” Lara replied. “She is very upset by all of this, you know.”

“I gave her a mild sedative,” Jor-El murmured.

The presence of the Consulars truncated any attempt at conversation. It wasn’t as if any of them had much to say, at least not much that could be comforting, but at least the sound of their own voices would have drowned out the creeping silence that was becoming louder than words in its own way.

Every step that Ursa took in her , every tiniest rustle of clothing from one of them, even the faint hum of the crystals themselves was audible. The waiting was intolerable, and Kal-El looked down, letting his mind roam to safer places. The plans for the ship, as usual. He was working on a detachable command module, such that the ship could be flown to Earth, let its cargo of refugees land safely, and then remain airborne. Perhaps it could be piloted back to New Krypton, or perhaps merely landed somewhere else on Earth’s surface.

With all the time and thought he’d put into this project, and the amount of salt Jhan-Or had procured for him, the Supreme Chancellor would certainly believe that it was their true plan if discovered. Hopefully the final transports of human hostages could be completed without that coming to pass….

Inevitably, his thoughts returned to the too-silent room, all of them waiting for news that could not be good. Kal-El wondered why Zor-El had done this. He was not a young man; it was extremely unlikely that he had actually been the one to attack the guards and run away. But he had confessed to the deed. To spare his followers? Or to make himself a martyr? Either way, the cost would be high—and Zor-El would not bear it alone.

Just then, Kal-El noticed that Alura was holding his mother’s hand. Her knuckles were white with the strength of her grip, but Lara did not protest, only held on. That was all any of them could do, hold on and hope against hope that their various secrets would add up to a better future.

He’d become more aware of touch in their society, how it did happen here and there, however fleeting or subdued. At a moment like this, when words were no comfort and dangerous besides due to the listening Consulars, that simple clasp of hands was probably the only thing enabling Alura to endure. Kal-El wished he could go to her, but they were being watched….

A voice sounded from the Consular’s mobile computer, and everyone froze. “Suspect located at Council building,” it buzzed, clearly the report of a security robot.

Kal-El happened to see Ursa’s face at that news, the way her eyes went wide. Stay here,” she snarled to the other two, and then bolted out the door. Hovercraft normally ran silently, but she accelerated so hard they could all hear the engine whine.

Jor-El looked at him, his eyes warning silence. But all of them knew what that report and Ursa’s reaction meant.

Supreme Chancellor Zod was in the Council building. And if Zor-El had gone there….

The fools hadn’t rescinded his access to the Council building. Of course, this might be a trap, but Zor-El thought it more likely that Dru-Zod’s arrogance was simply that immense. To seize power the way he had, and to maintain such a strangling grip on it, took as much inflated conceit as it did strength of will.

But then, his own errand was just as egotistical, was it not? Zor-El laughed silently to himself, his turn of mind fatalistic. At best he would end the day in the Phantom Zone. Thank Rao Alura had repudiated him; this would not touch her if he could help it. Although he wished, one last time, that he might have a few moments alone with her. One embrace, one kiss, might make the knowledge of his fate less bitter.

This was not how things were meant to go. He had sent three of his followers to reconnoiter the new construction. Their orders were only to observe, return, and report.   Two were young men, though, afire with discontent against the regime and eager to do something about it. One of them was a steady, older fellow, whom Zor-El had hoped would rein in the younger pair. Alas, he’d been swayed by them, and the three had actually managed to get into the area where the ships were rising slowly from their seed crystals.

The result was inevitable. They had been spotted, the Consulars had given chase, and in the panic and confusion someone had used one of the weapons Zor-El had secretly been manufacturing. They should not have even brought those on that mission! It would have been better to be caught, and pretend they acted alone.

It would have been better to be caught and expose everyone than to raise a hand in violence. The Consulars were the elite of the military, enforcing its rules on those members of Kryptonian society who were accustomed to weapons and confrontation. They would not tolerate such effrontery.

At least the three had reported back, wide-eyed and half-mad with fear. They knew the consequences, knew that every Consular on New Krypton was hunting them. Perhaps they had expected Zor-El to disavow them, cast them loose before they could drag down the rest of the nascent rebellion.

No. He was no Jhan-Or, to lurk in the safety of the shadows while foolish youths ran his risks for him. Zor-El had taken their weapons and sent them all home, then told his most trusted lieutenant that he had been behind the attempted sabotage. That man had done what they all agreed to do, if one was exposed. Cut off contact, erase all hints of connection, pull back and regroup.

Having taken responsibility for the errors of his underlings did not mean Zor-El would simply sit and wait to be arrested. Oh, no. If he was to be taken, he would sell himself dearly. To begin with, the ship-building facility was lightly guarded after one attempt, and it had been simple for Zor-El to release a few hovering robots that under normal circumstances were delivery couriers. He had modified them … and filled their carriers with salt and a few other chemical compounds. With any luck this group of ships would be utterly ruined as well.

And now all that was left was how he would be caught. Surrender was not an option. There was a slim chance that he might be able to accomplish the ultimate goal; one man working alone with nothing left to lose could often do what many careful plotters could not. And so, with a weapon in hand, Zor-El moved cautiously through the Council building, assassination on his mind.

There. A light under the door of Dru-Zod’s office. Zor-El crept closer, alert to every tiny sound and every moving shadow. This weapon was derived from mining tools; instead of pushing an auger into the earth, it fired short slugs of hardened metal. Rather like what the humans knew as guns, which in fact had given him the idea. The projectiles were quite destructive, especially when fired in a burst, and the accuracy wasn’t bad at close range. And he intended to be very close.

At the door, taking a breath. Wishing all of this could have turned out differently. Wishing Jor-El had confided in him on Krypton-that-was. Wishing his brother had trusted him; wishing he’d been worthy of that trust, wishing all the foolish petty conflicts between them could have been washed away.

Wishing he could have picked Kara up and kissed her blonde curls. His daughter, the most precious thing in all the universe, conceived not in the precisely-measured environment of a birthing matrix but in a moment of passionate love overcoming both societal conditioning and desperation borne of stress.

Wishing he could have apologized to Alura one more time. Wishing a woman like her had not chosen to love a fool like him. She did not deserve this.

Too late for wishes. The door was too strong to batter down, and no one other than the Supreme Chancellor and his Hounds had access here. The walls, however, were more lightly built.

Zor-El raised the weapon in both hands, and aimed for the place where he knew Dru-Zod’s desk stood. If the once-General was in there, that’s where he would be.

Alura, I am so sorry. I cannot let Kara grow up under the thumb of this madman. Please forgive me, love of my heart and my life.

Thinking that, he began to press the switch that would fire the weapon…

…and heard a shriek from further up the corridor. Traitor!” Ursa screamed, running at him, firing the laser weapon all Consulars carried. Firing, firing, her own haste ruining her aim. Thunder of booted feet behind her, more of them, coming fast.

Zor-El’s arm burned, but he managed to pull the trigger switch, the crystal wall before him dissolving into shards. And then, as bolts of laser fire zipped past him, he wheeled on the Hound and brought her into his sights, his hand still on the switch—

The world went white, and Zor-El knew no more.

Tags: across the universe

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