“What was he thinking?!” Jor-El bellowed, all but blind with rage. He had locked himself in his lab, not wanting Lara to witness this, and turned on the sonic generator in case anyone else was listening. Never had any emotion consumed him like this—except once, when he had beheld his infant son and known he could not let the Science Council doom him along with the rest of their people. Not at any price. Back then he had acted rashly, too, and discovered just how high the price could be.
And now Kal-El had brought that death down upon himself. His ship was flawed, clearly based on one of Jor-El’s own discarded ideas. The design had never been secret, and there were many ways in which Kal-El could’ve gotten access to it. Dru-Zod appeared to accept that Jor-El had not encouraged him in any way. That was no respite, however. It was true, he had committed no treason. He had not helped his son, and now Kal-El was going to die a traitor just as Zor-El had done.
It was enough to drive any man mad. Helpless to save his son, helpless now to save his people from the tyrant he himself had helped to attain power, Jor-El could see no future that did not end in death and ignominy for the entire Kryptonian race. His rage and despair crystallized into a need to do something, anything, and with a frustrated snarl Jor-El swept his hand across the bench before him, sending half a dozen delicate experimental devices crashing to the floor.
The wanton destruction sobered him. Months of work, ruined in a moment of passionate temper. How could he be angry at Kal-El, when the boy’s faults so clearly came from him? Only the son had chosen to sacrifice his entire life—and the lives of however many humans—in a rushed decision based on intense emotion. The father dropped to his knees amid the litter of broken crystal and warped metal, bringing his hands to his face.
Behind him the door opened, and Jor-El nearly fell trying to turn around. Lara came in, putting both hands on his shoulders. Jor-El felt shame first, that she had seen him like this, then a pitiful sort of relief at her soothing touch, and shame again that she was the one to comfort him. “Lara, my love,” he said in a choked voice.
“Our son is not going to die,” she said, with such conviction that Jor-El looked up, fragile hope blossoming. She squeezed his shoulders lightly, her gaze tranquil.
Tornado sirens were loud, and damned eerie too. When the thing started going off, it reminded Lois of a sound effect from a horror movie. And a horror movie was exactly what this was starting to feel like. Despite the fact that she was in labor and her contractions were growing closer together, she and Lana wasted no time getting down to the basement. Fortunately the tornado shelter was already stocked, and had a daybed that probably used to be furniture in a guest room upstairs before it was retired down there. It would be comfortable enough, and as Lois had repeatedly been assured, it was safe. Well underground with a reinforced roof, not even the strongest tornado could touch her there.
She still worried, and hurried. With typical Lane timing, her water broke on the way down. For once Lana didn’t give Lois a discouraging look when she swore pungently. The redhead must’ve known she was on the verge of panic. What else could possibly go wrong at this point? Lois had no sooner thought it than realized she really, really didn’t want to know. Lana just helped her get cleaned up again, and down to the bed, where Lois lay down with a groan as another contraction came on.
The weather radio crackled softly with updates about a tornado on the ground just outside of Smallville, but Lois paid it little attention. She was too focused on the pain that sank in and wrapped around her, making her groan. Her contractions were only a few minutes apart by then. The reality was starting to hit her: this was happening, and it was happening now, while a massive thunderstorm dropped tornadoes across the county the same way Lois tended to casually empty the contents of her pockets across the top of her nightstand. There was no stopping it, either. Now that the birthing process had begun, she had to bear it—without medical assistance, without drugs—until her daughter was born.
At least she didn’t have to do it alone. And at least she and Lana had both done a lot of reading, getting as prepared as they possibly could for this. She’d personally read every pregnancy book in the library, and the search history on Lana’s computer was full of blogs by mothers and midwives. Despite her fears, Lois could spare a moment of pity for the other teen moms she’d seen on the news, some of whom hadn’t even known they were pregnant.
Still … this might not be like any other birth on the planet, and that awareness lurked at the edges of Lois’ mind, just waiting to pounce on her with exactly the anxiety she didn’t need to be feeling.
Lana sat on the bed behind her, and started massaging Lois’ shoulders. She sighed, letting herself sag a bit; the next contraction was easier to ride out. “You’re doing fine,” Lana told her. “Is this comfortable?”
“Yeah, kinda,” Lois said wanly.
The redhead nodded. She’d kept the lights off knowing that they might go out, and the shelter was lit by one emergency electric lantern. Lois felt surprisingly safe in the close dimness. Time passed in its timeless way, narrowing to the waves of contractions, the weather updates, and Lana’s soothing presence.
A particularly vicious pain made Lois’ eyes water. “Not so comfortable,” she muttered, and tried to turn onto her side. Lana had to help her, and she growled angrily, “So damn tired of being so weak! Can’t even turn over by myself.” Tears threatened at those words. Her moods were fluctuating wildly, from fear to anger to impatience, but the Lane stubbornness kept rising through all of it. To hell with her father; once this child was born she’d be safe from him.
“You aren’t weak,” Lana insisted, rubbing her back then. “Lois, you just might be the strongest person I know. What you are right now is awkward, and that’s because you’re carrying around a whole other person. Relax and let me help you. That’s what friends are for.”
At last finding a semi-comfortable position, Lois dropped her head onto Lana’s leg with a weary sigh. The damned siren had stopped wailing, but she could hear hail rattling the roofs and the wind under the eaves. Focus was what she needed now, to get all the obstructions out of her way so she could bring a new life into the world.
The next contraction was easier to bear, but it came with a sense of worry. Lois frowned, waiting for the next one. “I don’t feel like I need to push.”
Lana nodded. “You’re probably not fully dilated yet. Just go easy, Lois. Your body knows what it’s doing better than either of us, so just go with it. Let me know if you start feeling like you have to push hard, though.”
Lois managed a dry chuckle in the moment between contractions. “Not yet. Just feel like I need to … find whoever thought humans and Kryptonians couldn’t … argh … couldn’t interbreed, and … kick ‘em in the balls.” Lana chuckled dutifully.
Merely saying the name of his kind aloud made her think of Kal-El, though, and suddenly Lois wanted to cry. He should’ve been beside her; he would’ve been with her, if they’d met in any other possible way than as reluctant jailor and hostage turned spy. Where are you?
She didn’t realize she’d whimpered that aloud until Lana stroked her hair and told her, “He’d be here if he could, Lois.”
Kal-El’s ship had three main sections. The rearward one held the propulsion system, the design of which would seem like something out of science fiction to humans. He sat in the forward command module, monitoring the systems which were nearly all automated. The only time his input would be needed would be when they landed, and knowing this was not just a large hovercraft such as he had flown most of his life, Kal-El had spent many hours with flight simulators. It was probably inadequate, but what choice did he have? He would not worry the humans by telling them of his inexperience.
Meanwhile the humans had a larger and more protected space in the middle, with bunks to which they could tether for sleep. A narrow corridor connected the midsection to his cabin, and Huang let himself drift up it, pausing at the entrance to the forward module. Like all the humans, he had worn several tracking crystals at once when they boarded the craft, hoping to fool the Consulars into thinking that all the hostages were on this one ship. “The rest are relieved to be gone,” Huang reported. “Are you sure we can outrun the pursuit?”
“Yes, for three reasons. One, I designed this ship for speed over endurance, as I won’t need to use it more than once. The military ships are more rugged but slower. Think of them as heavy cruisers, while this is a speedboat.”
“And you a smuggler. Apt comparison,” Huang chuckled.
“Two, I launched from the most uninhabited side of New Krypton, and placed our trajectory behind the larger of the two moons. With a little luck, we have a head start. Finally, I left an altered copy of the ship’s plans at my home.”
That piqued Huang’s interest. “Altered how?”
Kal-El grinned. “A small but catastrophic flaw in the engine. Anyone with knowledge of interstellar travel will believe this ship is going to implode halfway between New Krypton and Earth.”
“You think they won’t bother to follow?” Huang said doubtfully.
“I am not that much of an optimist. I only hope that they will be less determined.” Kal-El swept a hand across the display before him, changing the view to the stern of the ship. Still, no ships appeared to have launched. Perhaps they might be even luckier than he’d dreamed. In any case, he had chosen his course and would not change now. The only way out was forward.
To Earth. Exhilaration and anxiety twined together in his heart and those words.
All of Lana’s serenity was on the surface. Locked down inside where Lois couldn’t see it, she was terrified. Back when she’d first married Pete and both of them hoped for children, Lana had read avidly about first-time pregnancies, wanting to be prepared. She hadn’t just daydreamed about baby names and which one of them their firstborn would look more like, she’d been researching. But as time passed, the hoped-for event didn’t happen, and Pete’s political career took off so strongly that it seemed poor timing, anyway. Lana had quietly tucked those dreams onto a shelf along with her pregnancy books…
…but she’d never actually gotten rid of them, and she’d never forgotten what she’d learned. Over the last few months with Lois, knowing that this birth might be a little different, Lana had read everything she could get her hands on, and all but interrogated the local midwife. All of the lore, too, the old wives’ tales that were so often true. Despite all that preparation, she had never expected to act as the sole midwife during this birth, not even able to call emergency services and be talked through it. Somewhere in the back of her head a little voice kept whispering, ‘You’re completely unqualified for this.’
Lana squashed it as best she could. If Lois caught wind of her fear, then she’d become terrified too, and Lois had enough to deal with. The pain was clearly agonizing, and Lois seemed almost dazed by it between contractions, just trying to get her breath back before the next one. Over the last few minutes the younger woman had become almost hysterical, crying on Lana’s shoulder that she couldn’t take this, couldn’t do it, would somebody please take it back!
Thankfully, from all her reading Lana recognized that as a symptom of transitional labor—just as she now realized Lois’ obsessive cleaning and organizing the past couple days was a sign that labor would commence soon. Hindsight was twenty-twenty, and at the time she’d just seen a restless teenager frustrated by her long confinement. “You’re almost there, Lois, almost there,” Lana soothed.
She saw the moment when it changed. Right in the midst of the worst pain, when Lois was gripping her hand so hard that Lana’s fingers felt crushed, the girl’s eyes suddenly opened wide for a startled second. She took a deep breath and bore down, muscles locking, every ounce of strength and willpower focused on pushing.
Lana’s last hope—that the tornado warning might expire before the end of early labor—evaporated. That urgent need to push meant one thing: the baby was coming. Now.
“How can you know that?” Jor-El asked hoarsely, wanting to believe and yet afraid to. He could not bear to let himself hope and then be proven wrong. His sanity would not stand it.
Lara smiled and stroked his white hair back off his forehead. “I am his mother. When you feared that he would die on Krypton-that-was with all the rest of us, I never did. I knew then that his destiny was not on that world. And I know now that he did not build a ship that will destroy itself before it reaches its goal.”
Jor-El blinked. Was it possible? Her certainty was absolutely solid, and very convincing, but he could not accept such a proclamation on mere faith. The plans left behind clearly showed…
…his blue eyes widened. “Great Rao,” Jor-El whispered, seeing his son’s ruse. Brilliant boy, as much a genius as his father!
And, he had to admit reluctantly even in the privacy of his own mind, Kal-El had likely acquired some of Jhan-Or’s wiliness. Meanwhile Lara was looking at him curiously. “He fooled them, my love,” Jor-El said, rising to his feet even as excitement rose within him. “No one has seen the ship itself! They only think they have found his design. Kal-El would have destroyed all such records once the construction had commenced. If it was discovered before he needed to use it and he was found in possession of the design, he would surely be convicted of treason.” He laughed aloud at the thought, embracing her.
“A mother’s intuition and a father’s logic lead to the same conclusion,” Lara said proudly, kissing his cheek. “Remember, we must show grief in public, Jor-El.”
“Yes, yes,” he muttered, turning away with mounting urgency. Creativity had begun to course through Jor-El’s brain again, a most welcome rush through channels long stagnated by pervasive dread and seeming helplessness. Now, of all the finished and half-finished and barely-begun projects in his lab, which could best be adapted for his new purpose?
“What are you thinking, my husband?” Lara asked.
He moved quickly about the workspace, setting a hand on a tool here, a gear there, touching each one lightly to re-familiarize himself with the items. He was looking for one device in particular, half-forgotten and stored away somewhere. “The pursuit will be slow; from the last I heard it has not yet been mounted. Dru-Zod will send his men out only to confirm the destruction of the ship, and none will wish to approach too closely. Kal-El gambles that when they pierce his deception, he will have enough of a lead to outpace them. I would better his odds.”
“How so?” Lara asked.
“Something only I can do,” he responded cryptically. Lara waited patiently, knowing her own husband well enough by now not to expect an immediate answer when he was so preoccupied.
There, in a storage area was the machine he wanted, and Jor-El hastily dragged it out and set it atop the closest workbench. Ingenious but impractical, this tiny robot had been one of the many projects Zor-El scoffed at as the fanciful work of a dreamer.
That memory pained him, but Jor-El stroked its smooth metal surface anyway. Made of many interlocking sections, the robot somewhat resembled an Earth centipede, if every third pair of limbs had been used as tools instead of for locomotion. It was tiny and fragile, but very swift and required very little clearance to infiltrate itself into complex structures.
Such as a ship’s propulsion systems. Jor-El smiled, cold and bright with determined purpose, unaware that the expression erased a decade from his age, or that Lara had first fallen in love with him for it. “My brother ruined the construction of more warships for Dru-Zod. With this, I can cripple the fleet we have before he can send it after my son.”
Approaching Earth’s orbit, Kal-El began looking for a place to land. His needs were simple: a large, open, relatively flat space that was uninhabited. He had used nearly all of his ship’s energy in acceleration, reserving enough to slow down, but there would be no graceful hovering touchdown as there was for the transport ships, which flew far more slowly and conserved power. For his passengers, the landing would be more of a controlled crash.
“Huang,” he called, and the human propelled himself up to the command module. All of the humans had been watching the displays in their section, and Kal-El had heard laughter as well as tears at the sight of the blue and green orb growing larger. For himself, it was a breathtaking sight, not a homecoming but the first step of a journey toward discovery.
“Yes, Kal-El?” Huang asked.
He nodded to the landmass on the screen. “That is your nation, is it not? China. Do you have any large rural areas there, where I can land with minimal property damage and risk?”
Huang chuckled. “Yes, we do.” He reached past Kal-El to touch the display, zooming in on an area. “All of this is agricultural. Is there any particular reason you chose my country, Kal-El?”
“Not especially. This will be convenient for you, and as one of the leaders of the Resistance I hope you can see to the other humans. It also happens to line up correctly with our angle of approach.”
The human nodded. “In that case, let me preemptively welcome you to China.”
Kal-El smiled. “I may not be joining you. You see, the passageway between will seal off when we enter the atmosphere, and this command module is designed to separate just before landing. It has its own in-atmosphere propulsion system, much like the hovercraft we use on New Krypton. I would like to fly a survey of Earth. I want to see as much of your planet as I can.”
Huang raised an eyebrow. “We did get a message to the Resistance on Earth that we’re coming, but no one will tell us where she is, Kal-El. I don’t think they know—and if they don’t, the American military being what it is, they won’t admit it.”
His heart dropped a little. Of course he knew there was no possible way he could simply fly around the planet until he spotted Lois. But some little spark of hope had remained. “I understand that, Huang. I would still like to explore, while I may.”
The other man hesitated for a moment, then patted his shoulder twice, lightly. “Good fortune to you, my friend. Wherever you may go, I hope we will meet again.”
On New Krypton, a Consular cringed as he delivered the news to his General. “The entire fleet, you say,” Dru-Zod said, and his voice was flat.
“Yes, sir. After the first two ships stalled and had to turn back under minimal power, we undertook a check of the rest before launching any others. All of our ships are compromised.” The young woman couldn’t help wincing; the news had been met with outrage by every Consular who heard it, and she expected even more wrath from her leader.
Instead he was silent, tipping his head back and looking at the ceiling, his fingers laced together. “Hmm. It appears the traitor Kal and these rebels have won this round.”
The General, admitting defeat? He who had personally broken sieges simply by showing his face, the man who turned up on the battlefield just when morale was lowest and who carried his soldiers to victory against impossible odds? These truly were harrowing times, if he was taking this news so tamely!
Perhaps something in her expression conveyed that, for he glanced at her and smiled knowingly. “But they have not yet won the war. You may go, Consular. I shall convene a general meeting tomorrow evening.”
Lois had never felt anything quite like this. The need to push was so strong, so overwhelming, so utterly irresistible. While she was in its grip the pain was unimportant, almost unnoticed. She had found the least uncomfortable position was sitting up, holding on to the frame of the daybed with one hand and Lana’s arm with the other. It wasn’t at all like the movies; there was no ‘one, two, three, push!’ going on. When the contractions hit, she pushed as long and as hard as she could, stopped for air, and then pushed again. Sometimes it took three or four of those before the urge faded again.
Between pushes she felt almost normal. Well, as normal as a seventeen-year-old first-time mother giving birth in the middle of a freaking tornado warning could feel. Nothing else seemed important, not even the freight train rolling by somewhere close. “I thought they’d reroute trains or something when there’s tornadoes,” she said. It was surreal, to talk easily like this one moment, and know that in another minute or so she was going to be growling and groaning with effort.
“There aren’t any train tracks close enough to hear,” Lana said, raising an auburn brow. “That’s a tornado you’re hearing—don’t worry, we’re safe in here. Lois, if I lose half my roof while you’re having this baby, we’re naming her Stormy.”
“No way,” Lois scoffed. Strangely enough the storm overhead felt unimportant to her now, and her earlier panic was no more than a faint flicker of unease. Her focus was on her baby, for whom she’d already thought of a name. Something that recalled her father’s name, but would pass among humans….
The need to push hit again, and Lois felt something different, a new kind of stretch and pressure. She had never bothered to put underwear back on after her water broke and ruined them, and the sundress she happened to wear that day was long enough for Smallville modesty and short enough for delivery convenience. Lois reached down, and to her amazement she felt her baby’s skull and a shock of impossibly fine hair. Lois gasped audibly.
“She’s crowning,” Lana said. The redhead looked up at her with pure joy, none of the jealousy she’d claimed to feel earlier. “You’re doing great, Lois, we’re almost there. Just keep going.”
Lois managed an exhausted laugh. What else was she going to do?
The heat of reentry began to melt the crystal tips of the craft, but that was expected. Kal-El had not even told Huang that this was the part that made him most nervous. He had never actually landed a craft this size, but then, they were already critically low on power and close enough to be caught by Earth’s gravity. He had no choice but to land the craft now. What else was he going to do?
Friction against the air slowed them, and they dropped through the sky in a graceful spiral. For a moment the display was coated in flames, but it cleared again in time for Kal-El to see a dazzling blue ocean. In the passenger compartment, he could hear cries of amazement and relief despite the sealed-off passageway. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome home!” he called.
Lower and slower but still so fast, and every second counted. Kal-El had to plan this just right, to slow down enough to release the passenger capsule while maintaining enough momentum to keep his module airborne. He used the remaining power judiciously, lining them up on a long series of fields. Closer and closer, the ground flashing by, now able to make out features of terrain. Roads, a few isolated human houses, two people standing on the edge of a field and staring, pointing at the sky.
Kal-El did not think of himself as a hero or an explorer in that moment. He had a job to do, and he was completely focused on it, everything else excluded. The timing had to be exact…
…he triggered the detachment, and the passenger compartment fell away, plowing into a newly-turned field. He had pulled up a rear-view display, and saw it slowing to a safe halt even as his own module picked up speed without the extra weight. “I did it!” Kal-El laughed, hardly able to believe it. The last humans were all home, General Zod no longer had the governments of Earth in a stranglehold.
He could only rejoice for a moment, as a shudder ran through his craft. Frowning, he checked diagnostics, trying to find the problem even as his flight grew more unstable.
Head thrown back, muscles locked, Lois gave a long, drawn-out scream of effort, and suddenly the sensation changed. Instead of the unbearable pressure and the need to push, there was a sliding and a lightness, and Lana laughed in wonder. “That’s it, here she is. You did it, Lois!” She had caught the baby in a warm towel and was already cleaning her off. The newborn made a soft cry, and then a louder one as the redhead wiped away amniotic fluid and blood.
Lois panted, her hair sweaty and in her face. She flung it aside with a toss of her head, and tugged the front of her dress open. “Here, give me my daughter,” she demanded, knowing the baby needed skin-to-skin contact. And milk. Her breasts were heavy with the need to nurse her child.
Lana paused, looking down at the infant still half-hidden in the towel, and then the redhead smiled. “I can’t do that, Lois,” she said softly.
“Why not?!” Lois snapped, pushing herself up.
“But I can hand you your son,” Lana continued, and passed the baby over.
Lois was so stunned that she didn’t even notice the rumble of thunder outside. The baby was red and wrinkled like all newborns, nothing to distinguish him from a fully human infant. The top of his head was covered in fine black hair, and when he opened his eyes they were a brilliant blue. “Ohhh,” Lois whispered, caught between confusion—she’d been so sure of a daughter!—and awe. “Hi, little guy.”
“He’s beautiful,” Lana said, and there were tears in her eyes as she kissed Lois’ sweat-damp forehead.
This was not good, not good at all, he should’ve just landed with the humans. But no, the son of Jor-El could not be less than an explorer, Kal-El had had to see the planet that had birthed his beloved firsthand and right away. Now he was paying the price.
His navigational systems were damaged, and at the moment he did not even know where he was on the planet’s surface. Above water, and Kal-El did not wish to crash there, unknown distances from land. He coaxed the craft into remaining airborne, alternately pleading with and cursing it.
A moment later he was over land, no details he could make out at this speed. Mountains loomed, and Kal-El strove for height, but the controls were sluggish and he lost part of a crystal spire. Panic began to overtake him as he realized just how dangerous his position was. Is this how it ends? Overzealousness and miscalculation?
Strength of will rose up to banish fear. No, it cannot end like this, not until I find Lois again! Putting all his strength to use, Kal-El forced the steering to respond, leveling out the craft’s flight. There, he had steadier flight, though he was still dangerously low. The terrain ahead was broad fields, level and smooth, and he committed to the landing.
Only then did Kal-El check the full-distance viewer. Up ahead, he saw what looked like a black wall, looming impossibly high. Startled, he reacted unthinkingly, trying to cue the craft for height when he was already low enough to clip trees.
The descent could not be called off now, and the only response to his action was to make the ship yaw. One of its crystal points struck something and the whole structure began to tumble helplessly. Kal-El could hear things breaking, insulated though he was at the heart of the command module, and he felt the moment of impact, a brutal jolt that slammed his head against the crystal ceiling above.
After that, he knew nothing.