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He woke to sunlight, bright and golden, bathing his face. The man sat up slowly, wincing as unfamiliar pains made themselves known. His back, his shoulders, his legs, and an ache at the back of his head. That one he touched, gingerly, yanking his hand back with a hiss and a grimace. A large throbbing knot was there, exquisitely tender, and his black hair was wet. When he looked at his fingers, they were red.
Blood. That’s blood. I hit my head when….
The thought trailed off and went away. He looked around, seeing nothing familiar, nothing that jogged his memory. He was lying in a big field full of tall green grass; some of it was pushed down around him. Had he fallen? Been shoved? He couldn’t remember. Lucky the grass had cushioned him.
He got up and started walking, with no direction in mind. The sun felt good on his face so he walked toward it. After a while he left the grass field and crossed a dirt track. For some reason the sight of the tan soil clinging to his boots made him laugh.
The next field had smaller plants in it, little green leaves like spears coming up out of the ground. He bent down and peered at them, fascinated. This plant, he knew its name, it would come to him … well, whenever. It was a kind of food, though. Not now, the young shoots were no good to eat, but later. Later there would be pale yellow things, a taste he’d tried and liked.
Imagine growing food right in the dirt like this! It was amazing. How gloriously simple, how wonderfully strange. He laughed again and walked on, aimless, beginning to feel thirsty. He had nothing with him except the clothes he wore.
Another field of short plants, broad-leaved, all in neat curving rows that followed the contours of the land. He walked carefully between the rows, wondering where the people were. Did people care for these crops? Or was it an automated task, something for robots?
And why did thinking of robots make him laugh again?
He didn’t know how long he’d been wandering, through fields of different crops, some young and recently-planted, some taller and stronger. Eventually he came out of one of them onto a dark, hard surface. Paved, recently wet, and now baking in the sun. He didn’t like it much, and crossed to the other side. Over there, the crop was near to harvest, tawny spires with only a little green left. At the tops there were little golden tails of interlocking seeds, just beginning to nod in the breeze. He stroked his hand over them wonderingly. Wheat. Yes, that was the name, and he smiled gladly.
But the wheat grew too closely together for him to cross this field, so he turned right and walked alongside the road. The ground was soft, though he soon came to a ditch that forced him onto the road itself. He decided to follow the dashed line painted on it, as it gave him a sense of direction, and resumed his journey.
Tired, sore, thirsty, and disoriented, the stranger walked down the center of the country road, not knowing where—or who—he was.
“Thank you for understanding, Jor-El,” General Zod said.
“It must be done, that is clear,” Jor-El replied. He sounded apathetic, filled with an exhaustion that the Consulars—and Dru-Zod himself, if Rao was kind—would believe was grief. His weariness was actually the product of hours of physical and mental activity, to the point of strain, and he would be glad to sleep at last. First the emotional upheaval, then the effort to sabotage the fleet, had simply worn him out.
“I dislike having my hand forced,” the general remarked. “Were it up to me, old friend, you would not be under surveillance. But the Council is close to panic.” For a wonder, he looked genuinely sympathetic, though Jor-El still doubted.
The Science Council was on the verge of panic, that much was true. And suspicion descended on the House of El. Unsurprising, yet it did not disturb Jor-El. His most urgent work was done. Let the Consulars spend their time watching him. He would have to rely on Jhan-Or and the others in the Rebellion for the next move.
All he said aloud was, “All those years when the Council refused to panic, and now they finally do so. It has an edge of humor, my friend. In any case I … despite what he has done, Kal-El is still my son. I do not expect to go abroad anytime soon. I must….” He let himself trail off, covering his face with one hand.
Dru-Zod nodded. “It is not your fault, Jor-El. The Consulars on guard will not disturb you unduly. They are only posted outside. Further, if anyone should take it into their heads to do something rash, my Consulars will serve as protection.”
And have placed listening devices in here while conducting a limited search. I expected that. It means nothing, now. “Thank you, Dru-Zod,” he said, and the general left.
Jor-El did not bother to check on the Consulars posted outside his home. Instead he went into his bedroom, feeling as though he could sleep for days.
Lara was there, curled up in his bed, already asleep. She had played the part of the bereaved mother well, somehow even summoning tears. One look at her glassy-eyed, bereft expression, and General Zod had told her gently that she need not be present. Jor-El had thought she’d gone to her bedroom, but here she was.
Kryptonian couples did not normally share sleeping arrangements. The tight quarters on the transport ships had been a different matter, more a necessity, but even then they had kept separate beds.
Jor-El placed a hand on her shoulder, and Lara did not react, too deeply asleep. He sighed, and changing into sleepwear, joined her there. He was already tainted by treason in his family; why bother to worry about adding deviancy to his stained reputation? Lara’s quiet breathing lulled him to sleep.
Jonathan and Martha Kent had ridden out the tornado warning in their storm cellar, listening to the weather radio by the light of an electric lantern. The most dangerous conditions had lasted so long, they ended up eating peanut butter crackers and washing them down with bottled water, feeling like kids on a backyard camping trip. It was odd how circumstances could make the familiar farm seem strange.
Neither of them were particularly afraid. They had lived through many storm seasons, and knew that Mother Nature was a force to be respected, but they had no more fear of a tornado than cattlemen have of a full-grown bull. The key was acknowledging the potential for destruction, and mitigating it as much as possible.
Although, when they heard the unearthly roar of the tornado, both of them fell silent. Martha reached for Jonathan’s hand, and they sat in silence, even turning down the weather radio. Somewhere above the twister howled, and the sturdy shelter seemed much less comforting. “It’s not that close,” Jonathan finally whispered.
“Shh, don’t tempt fate,” Martha murmured back.
The sound died away, and soon after the weather radio broadcast an all-clear. “For now,” Jonathan muttered. “That line of storms is gonna be rolling through all week. Probably have tornado watches through Thursday.”
“Probably,” Martha agreed, picking up the empty bottles and wrappers.
He went up the steps first, unlatching the door and peering out cautiously. “God Almighty,” Jonathan whispered.
“What is it?” Martha asked, worried.
Shaking his head, he pushed the door open and climbed out, turning to give her a hand. “Must’ve come closer than I thought. I think that’s the Wilsons’ weathervane in our dooryard.”
She climbed out carefully, looking around. Broken branches and a few shingles littered the yard, but at first glance there was no real damage. “It does look like theirs. We’ll get it back to them later.”
The pair cautiously explored the property. Apparently the tornado hadn’t come too close; it was just the surrounding winds that had blown debris toward the house. The Kent farm was much, much larger than just what they could see in a cursory glance, though, and all of it would have to be looked over. The hay would bounce back, but the young corn might’ve been damaged, and luckily they hadn’t planted the sorghum yet. The biggest worry was the wheat and rye crop, both nearing harvest. Heavy rain and hail could’ve flattened them, or the tornado might’ve just ripped them right out of the ground.
After picking up around the house, the Kents checked the weather report again. All clear for a few hours. Martha tried calling a few friends in town, but the land lines were down and the cell networks were busy. It didn’t trouble her much; the younger people got excited by a storm like this, and they were all busily calling and texting and twittering, or whatever you called it. By the time she came back outside, Jonathan had loaded the weathervane into the bed of the pickup and was putting a cooler in between the front seats. Water, pop, and some snacks—this could be a long trip, and they might have to stop and help someone else, too.
As they drove, the damage to their land turned out to be blessedly minor. Some debris, of course, including someone’s washing strung across the length of the cornfield. “Maybe we ought to see if we can figure out who that belongs to,” Martha said, seeing plaid shirts clinging to the fence line.
“I think it can wait. I’m sure whoever had wash hanging out to dry will recognize those faster’n we will,” Jonathan chuckled, and nodded to a pair of bright red and white polka-dotted boxer shorts hanging from the arm of a scarecrow further up the field. They both laughed.
The laughter stopped further on, at the border of their property. Here was the path of the tornado itself, the ground scoured down to bare earth. Crops, fence, even telephone poles just gone. Jonathan could not help thinking that it looked as if the Creator had spotted a flaw in His work and reached down with His thumb like any other artist to rub it away. A blasphemous thought, perhaps. Tornadoes weren’t the wrath of God; they were only another awesome force of His creation, part of the workings of the world like rainbows and waterfalls.
Martha had gone silent too, their already-cautious speed dropping as they observed the damage. The road was covered in debris, mostly torn-up crops and a few shattered fence pickets. “Look at that,” Martha whispered.
Jonathan looked. Someone had left their tractor in the field, and the tornado had picked it up only to dropped it again like a child bored of a toy. The tractor had landed on its nose, rear wheels skyward. Glad I wasn’t out driving in this, Jonathan thought.
He looked a little too long, because the next thing he knew, Martha was grabbing his arm. “Watch out!”
His eyes snapped back to the road just in time to see a body lying on the center line, and Jonathan swerved much harder than necessary, two wheels going off the pavement and into the soft dirt. The back tire ran over a twisted chunk of metal—from the tractor, or from God alone knew where else—and blew out.
They bumped to a halt, and Jonathan swore under his breath, looking in the mirror with a chill running down his spine. Which of their neighbors was lying dead in the road? Mercy, he could’ve run over the man!
And then the body lifted its head to look at them, and Martha gasped. “Thank God, he’s alive!”
By the time they were able to get back upstairs, Lois was more than ready for a long bath. She’d gotten mostly cleaned up from the birth while they were in the shelter, and luckily she hadn’t had too much bleeding. But she ached, and even more, she was completely exhausted. Having babies was hard work.
Lana settled her on the couch for the moment, with her newborn son tucked inside her dress, against her skin. The redhead was off checking the house for damage while Lois dozed, alert to the baby’s needs. For now, though, he was sleeping; perhaps being born was hard work, too. Especially for someone so tiny. She still couldn’t get over how little he was; even Luce hadn’t been this small. That made her think of home and Momma and how she didn’t even know where either of them were.
Before she could let herself get maudlin, Lois caught it and redirected her attention to the situation at hand. There would be time to find them later, but they had to be safe. There was this son of hers to get to know. “That’s a better thing to worry about. What am I gonna name you, huh, little boy?” Lois murmured, gazing fondly at him. One gentle finger ran from the crown of his head to the softness of his warm, rosy cheek. “So far I’ve got nothing and I get this feeling like Bridgette just isn’t an option anymore, don’t you think?” That shock of dark hair was so like his father’s, but the pang in her heart was overwhelmed by adoration. Those blue, blue eyes just made it worse. Imagine, a son of the House of El, here in Smallville, Kansas.
“Well, everything looks all right,” Lana said, walking back into the room. “My garden might be wrecked, but a lot of it will come back, given the chance. How’re you and the little one?”
“Getting to know each other, but he’s not managing to keep up his end of the conversation,” Lois snarked tiredly, but turned to give her a grin over the back of the couch before looking down at the sleeping bundle. “Also dying for that bath. I wanna feel a little more human. God, I can’t believe that I felt like I was carrying around a hyper-active baby rhino and he’s almost microscopic. It’s mind-boggling.”
“He’s not that tiny. And better a bit small than a bit large. One of my cousins had a ten-pound baby for her first child.” Lois looked up at her in horror, and Lana laughed. “His father was six-foot-five. We all blamed him. Luckily the Lang women are tall, for the most part.”
“You know, Kal-El’s not too far off that,” Lois remarked, wondering if her little son would reach his father’s height, or take after her and her mother’s more moderate stature.
“Hmm. Well, he’s perfect, just the size he is,” Lana declared. “Have you thought of a name yet?”
“Thinking about it,” Lois admitted. “I want something that starts with a K, like his father. But he doesn’t look like a Kevin or a Keith or a Kyle.”
Lana nodded thoughtfully. “You could always go for C, for the same sound.”
Lois’ eyes lit up. “Ahh. My grandfather—Dad’s dad—was Connor. I like it. How about that, little one? Are you Connor Lane?” Blue eyes blinked sleepily at her, which Lois took for a yes.
“Connor’s a good Irish name. His mostly-Irish godmother approves.”
Lois smiled up at her. “So is Lane. Kids at school used to pick on me for being named Road. I got it out of my grandfather that the name was originally O’Luain. It means ‘descendant of the warrior’. Pretty good, since my first name is German and that means ‘famous in battle’. Fierce was kinda my destiny.”
“No wonder you’re such a fighter,” Lana chuckled.
Connor burbled happily, and Lois kissed his forehead. Every new sound or movement stunned her all over again, equal parts surprise and joy. This was going to take a lot of getting used to.
“Where is he?” General Lane bellowed. Every soldier in the room stood firm, but there were looks traded when they thought he wasn’t paying attention. At first the news had been good—all the hostages were back on Earth, landing in China of all places but the Chinese government was playing nice. And then someone had told Mad Dog Lane the name of the Kryptonian pilot.
“No one knows, sir,” his aide answered. “According to the hostages, he intended to fly a survey of the planet. Eyewitness accounts corroborate part of the craft continued flying.”
“So where’d he go? We’ve got to have some kind of record!”
“The ship’s flight was tracked across the Atlantic Ocean. By the time he reached American soil, he was too low for reliable radar. Satellite images appear to show a wreck, possibly due to a major storm, somewhere in Eastern Kansas. We’re still scanning for any sign of the ship.”
General Lane froze. Kansas rang a bell for some reason, but he couldn’t immediately identify why. The problem in front of him was more important, and he shook himself to deal with. “The second we find that ship, I want boots on the ground. That alien is America’s Most Wanted right now, do you understand?”
“Sir,” one of the lieutenants began, and Sam cut him off.
“I’m not going to have a goddamned Kryptonian wandering around knocking on people’s doors! This idiot is the scion of an important family over there. I’m not about to let him get himself shot on my watch.” That mollified the doubters, and he dismissed his personnel.
Only then did Sam drop into his chair, his hands locked tight around each other, tension written into every line of his body. Kal-El. The feckless rebel who’d gotten his daughter pregnant. And who, if Lois’ description of him as an idealistic dreamer was accurate, was probably looking for her right now.
I can’t let you get yourself shot, boy, but I’ll make damn sure you know how I feel about you taking advantage of my daughter, General Lane thought.
“Son? Son, are you all right?”
The words came to him dimly, and he opened gritty eyes to see concerned faces looking down at him. The woman was patting his cheek gently, while the man took hold of his shoulders and pulled him into a sitting position. He thought, Not supposed to touch me, but it didn’t bother him, and he needed the help.
His dry throat wouldn’t work, and then he managed to croak, “Thirsty.” The woman hurried away to a … truck, that was the word for it, and came back with something in a bottle. Water. He seized the bottle but could only stare at it, not seeing a way to get at the fluid immediately, and the woman twisted the cap off for him. Then he drank until a cold spike planted itself in his forehead.
“Easy there, son,” the man said, patting his shoulder. “What’s your name?”
He opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. What was his name? The answer wouldn’t surface. Right then only one name leaped into his mind, and he said it even though he knew it wasn’t his own, hoping the sound would jog his memory somehow. “Lois.”
“Hmm. You don’t look much like a Lois to me,” the woman said, smiling.
“Lois is not my name,” he said. “I was walking … looking for her, I think.”
“I don’t know anyone named Lois in town. Does she live around here?”
He shook his head, winced, and his hand flew to the back of his skull, but he did not touch the knot there. “Hmm, blood in your hair. You probably took a nasty knock here, son,” the man said, thankfully not touching it. “How’d that happen?”
“I … do not remember.” He drank more water, imagining he could feel it trickling into all the parched places inside him. He had been walking for a long time, that much he remembered, before he finally fell over.
The man and the woman exchanged a look. “Got any ID on you? In a wallet, maybe?” the man asked.
Neither ID nor wallet rang any bells, and he looked up at them bemusedly until the woman looked into his pants pockets, then the pocket of his shirt. “Nothing, Jonathan. Not even a slip of paper or a nickel. And I’d swear these clothes were brand-new this morning; the shirt collar’s still got the cardboard in it.”
“He’s banged up, doesn’t know who he is, and hasn’t got any ID. Guess we’d better call the sheriff,” the man said. Jonathan, he was called Jonathan, what a strange name.
“Nonsense,” the woman replied. “The sheriff’ll be too busy after the storm—and on a holiday, too—to deal with one confused boy. And I’m not leaving him out here in the road for hours. We’ll bring him home, let him rest, give him a meal, and maybe his memory will come back. If not we can call the sheriff tomorrow.”
“Now Martha, he’s more man than boy,” Jonathan said. “And we have no idea who he is or where he came from. Sure doesn’t talk like a local. Best to just call the sheriff, let him handle it.”
He was following the exchange, looking from one to the other, noting their speech patterns. One word stood out. “Sheriff?” he asked, turning to the woman.
“The police, honey,” she said, touching his shoulder. “Jonathan thinks the police might be able to find out where you came from.”
“No,” he said, and tried to get up, staggering and falling back onto his rump. “No police.”
The man looked at the woman. “See? Now why’s he so concerned about the police? Martha, this isn’t our problem.”
“Nonsense, we’re the ones who found him. Besides, he’s hurt, Jonathan. Confused and upset.” She turned to him solicitously. “It’s all right, son. We haven’t been able to get through on the phone anyway.”
That made little sense to him, but her soothing tone helped. Martha, that was her name, and he looked at her steadily as he tried to stamp it into his untrustworthy memory. All during the hours he’d been walking, he hadn’t really noticed how much he’d forgotten. Only now, trying to talk to people, did he begin to worry about it.
The man, Jonathan, sighed. “I’m changing that tire. Then we’ll see.” He moved over to the vehicle and began taking things out of the compartment in the back.
Meanwhile Martha knelt next to him, stroking his black hair out of his face. “You really don’t remember how you got here, do you, son?”
“No. Not at all.” Everything before waking up in the hayfield was a mystery.
“Do you remember where you’re from?” she asked gently.
Again, he drew a blank, and looked up at the blue sky above as if the answer were there. Martha patted his shoulder again. “That’s all right, dear. Come on over to the truck. Are you hungry? We brought sandwiches.”
He followed her, interested in what Jonathan was doing. He had some sort of device under the truck, turning a crank that made one corner of the vehicle rise up. A glance at the round things on each corner—wheels—showed that one of them was misshapen. On the ground lay another wheel. Ah, so he had to exchange the flattened one for the undamaged one. That made sense to him, and he watched the process interestedly as Martha reached inside the truck. “Ham or turkey?” she asked.
Not wanting to say I don’t know yet again, he replied, “Either one. Please. And thank you.”
Jonathan made a noise that sounded like hmph. He was struggling to remove the bad wheel—there were four little pieces that screwed onto posts and held it together. He had seen the man loosen these before lifting the vehicle, and now one of them appeared stuck. Martha was moving toward him with the sandwich, and Jonathan muttered a word that he didn’t quite understand, but which made her frown.
“Stupid blasted lug nut!” Jonathan snapped, and wrenched at the tool he was using. It was a great effort, and the entire truck rocked with the force of it. In fact there were a metallic creaking noise….
“Jonathan!” Martha shouted, fear blazing in her voice.
He saw it start to happen. The device holding the truck wavered and fell. The heavy vehicle began to fall, too. And Jonathan was kneeling on the ground, far too close to it. The damaged wheel might hit his legs; the metal side of the truck might hit his face. That could not be allowed to happen.
The next few seconds were a blur that left him even more confused than before. But somehow, he was holding Jonathan’s shirt in one hand, having pulled the man clear of the falling truck.
And in the other hand, he’d caught the vehicle itself, which felt as though it weighed no more than a feather.
Both people stared at him, Jonathan finding his feet again. He released the man, and set the truck down gently. How was it so light?
It was Martha who broke the silence. “Well. I guess you really aren’t from around here at all, are you?”