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23 February 2015 @ 06:20 am
Across the Universe :: Lingering Presence of Spirit (Chapter Fifty-Four)  
Sorry this is late, all, but the weekend was just hellish. Enjoy!

As she did in the small hours of every morning, Lara woke before her husband. They shared a bed nightly, more for comfort than deviancy. His warm presence was a balm to her worried mind and conflicted heart, and his arm thrown about her waist in the depths of sleep was an anchor against the winds of fate that seemed poised to sweep her away. Jor-El was often the only reason she could find her way to slumber—despite the fact that he sometimes snored. Even that noise was a reassurance, disagreeable though it might be. It meant she was not alone, she did not have to face the somber darkness of night or the pitiless light of day by herself. There was always Jor-El, at her side through even this nightmare.

And when they could not sleep, when they both feared at any moment to open their doors to Consulars bent on their arrest, when Lara and Jor-El both looked at a recent hologram of Kal-El and felt his absence like a blade, then they found a more physical comfort in one another. It was madness, but divine madness, and Lara could not help feeling that their ancestors had been wiser than the present generation. This love was dangerous, it ran hotter than the heart of a star and impelled lovers to defy all sense and custom, but it cemented the pair of them as a couple in ways that formal marriage never had. Jor-El was more than her partner in life, he was her beloved, her husband, the father of her adored son.

Her son who was, even now, facing unknown trials on Earth. On that thought, Lara slipped silently from the bed, bending to kiss Jor-El’s forehead. He mumbled sleepily—something about titration rates, ever the scientist even in his dreams—and she donned a robe over her sleeping garments. Padding barefooted through the house, Lara made her way to the greenhouse, where an enormous pane of clear crystal would let the morning’s first light shine in. She stood in the gloom, looking eastward, waiting for the tell-tale brightening at the horizon that would signal the new day.

Like most Kryptonians, Lara was agnostic at best. She viewed the religious beliefs of past generations as quaint superstition. If there were such things as gods, they were beyond the comprehension of mortals, whose understanding encompassed the physical, rational world. Rao was only a star, not a god, but the veneration her ancestors had given their sun was far from inappropriate. The light of that sun had warmed Krypton-that-was, a blessing of energy that allowed life to flourish, and even a thoroughly scientific mind could appreciate that.

And yet, even for a rational people, those old beliefs held a certain charm that would not allow them to be extinguished. Even on this New Krypton where the sun was a stranger, prayers to Rao were still spoken, and according to custom the best time to seek intercession was at dawn. It was foolish, perhaps, to pray to a sun that had gone supernova by now, but she could do little else.

There, a thin line of brightness that swiftly grew, turning the night’s ebony to a deep blue. Lara let her breath out in a sigh. She knew that the dawn was merely an accident of perspective, that it was the planet that turned its face toward the star, but it looked as though the sun were rising, climbing from dark depths into the heights of the sky. Her heart responded to the ancient wonder of it, despite what her mind knew.

“Great Rao, life-giver, light-bringer, hear my plea,” Lara whispered. “Keep safe my son Kal-El. Let your light shine on his every step, let your warmth suffuse him, let your rays guide him along the straight path of honor and virtue. Let no shadow fall upon his face nor any darkness cloud his path. Hold him in the red light of your regard, Father Rao, for he is dearer to me than my own life.”

Kal-El was not the only one who needed a prayer, however, and Lara continued softly, “Keep safe his love, Lois Lane, and shine on her as you shine on him. Bless her with your radiance and guide her back to him. Let your warmth radiate through their union and keep them both in your regard, Great Rao. I beg this of you, Father Sun, as a mother who pleads for her children.”

Strangely enough, Lara felt better for having asked those blessings. If somehow her hope could affect the real world, if on some quantum level the universe responded to will, then she had made an effort to protect her son and the young woman she regarded as her daughter-in-law.

There were more concrete efforts to be made, however, and all of them carried risk. So far Jor-El’s sabotage had not been discovered, but she could not believe they were entirely unsuspected. Then there were Allura and Kara to worry about—her sister-in-law had been increasingly distant since Zor-El’s death. Perhaps she was withdrawing from a world that no longer made sense to her, but Lara feared it was more than that. Allura might be under some direct threat too dire to speak of. Worse, the threat might be hanging over Kara’s head instead of hers. Only by that measure could Lara be glad that her child was not on New Krypton, even if his status on Earth was still unknown to her.

And it was in that frame of mind, where her thoughts were turning toward doubts of her instinctive belief that Kal-El lived and prospered beneath the sheltering rays of another sun than the one she’d prayed to, that a hand fell on Lara’s shoulder. She startled, and nearly screamed, only to be shushed by the one voice in the entire planet that she trusted completely.

“Forgive me, my love,” Jor-El said, and she turned to him blindly, burying her face in his neck. His arms slipped around her waist, holding her tight as if he feared she would be torn from him. Perhaps he did—they both had similar nightmares. Jor-El had already lost a brother, and his son was far away and branded a traitor. Surely he feared losing her as well, though as yet Lara had committed no treason … except in thought.

Lara’s racing heart calmed, and she leaned against his strength, grateful that they had each other. And hoping beyond hope that Kal-El had his Lois to rely on as well.

Kryptonians did not indulge in intoxicating substances, as a rule, and it was something of an oddity for Commander Ursa to arrive in General Zod’s study only to discover him contemplating a bottle of the Earth beverage known as ‘scotch’. She raised a dark eyebrow curiously, and he waved her to the seat across from him. “Confiscated contraband. I confess to trying it out of simple curiosity, but I find it useful in these taxing days. Would you care for a glass?”

Privately, she wanted nothing to do with something of Earth, but if her General found it useful then it surely had some virtue. “By your leave, General.”

He poured a small amount of amber liquid into a drinking cup made of pure, clear crystal, the same as his own. Ursa found its odor disagreeable, but tried a sip—and curled her lips in distaste as it burned her throat and palate.

“It is brutish and simple, like the people who created it,” General Zod told her, then sipped from his own glass. “Yet it warms the stomach and produces a welcome mellowing effect. A brief respite from what we face.”

“Forgive me, General, but I prefer not to be mellowed just now,” Ursa declined, setting the cup down a little distance away.

He favored her with a rare smile. “You are ever my sword, Commander Ursa, and it is wise of you to spurn anything that blunts your edge. In any case, I do not indulge more than what is required to give me clarity and peace.”

“I expect no less from a leader of your quality,” she said honestly. “I fear that peace is not to be your fate this day, Dru-Zod.”

“Ah. You bring news of the fleet.” He took another long sip. “How dreadful is it?”

“It will be another month before we can send a force to rendezvous with our ship in stationary orbit around Earth’s moon. However, the salt mines remain dormant, and the humans have made no attempt to take the facility.”

“They are thinking of it,” he cautioned. “They would be fools not to. They would like us to think they are fools, but I doubt we are so lucky in our enemies.”

“Surely they realize the facility still has its automatic security system?” Ursa asked. To her, it seemed idiocy to oppose the will of the Supreme Chancellor, whether on Earth or on New Krypton.

He chuckled. “Just as surely they will try to disable it. They are still unfamiliar with our methods, and I can hope that they will be discouraged by their losses, yet it is only a hope. I fear that they will show the same stubbornness and duplicity that their hostages have, in escaping our grasp.”

“Their hostages had assistance from our own,” Ursa spat. She would have liked to round up the entire Benevolent Society for Kryptonian Cultural Advancement and throw them in jail, just to quell their bleating of innocence. It was simply not possible that none of them would have known an escape attempt was being planned, even if they had been so foolish as to let their humans run about unsupervised. Some or all of them were traitors, and it mattered not to her what the percentage was. Damn them all to the Phantom Zone and let them sort it out there; even the truly innocent were guilty of poor choices in their allies.

“Perhaps the rebellion on Earth will have such assistance as well,” Dru-Zod said cryptically, and took a deeper draft of scotch.

For the first time, Ursa was unnerved. She suddenly wanted the calming effect that Dru-Zod described, and reached for her glass again. The liquor was just as unpleasant as the first taste, though the warmth that blossomed in her throat was milder and more relaxing. “We are closely monitoring the connections to Earth’s internet for any possibility of such treasonous communication. How could they slip past our guard?”

“And well I know it, for the sale of this bottle was among the illegal transactions uncovered by that surveillance,” he replied. “No, I suspect that one of ours on Earth will provide the humans with the aid they seek.”

She scoffed. “The boy Kal-El? He is a child, a feckless dreamer. I investigated him despite your orders to ignore the House of El—”

“I assumed you would,” he interjected with a slight smile.

“—and he is harmless. A student of languages and cultures, enamored of all things Earthly. He is less a scientist that his mother the historian. He has neither the wit nor the will to be a rebel in any cause but this romantic, doomed journey to return the hostages to Earth. Not to mention, no human will trust him, perhaps not even those he saved! If he survived the wreck of his craft, he is likely in some laboratory being dissected in hopes of discovering some weakness that will allow them to overcome us.”

“Even in that dire circumstance, he might be useful to them and detrimental to us,” he reminded her, but Ursa was unwilling to concede the point.

“What weakness could they discover?” she challenged.

“Some ecological factor to which they are adapted, and we are not. The biologist Jhan-Or, after some persuasion, disclosed to me the fact that these humans are crawling with microbes which might be beneficial or harmful to us. Not only that, Earth’s biodiversity is vastly greater than our own. The atmosphere of their planet is so poisoned by their industrial processes that we have not dared exposure our scientists to it. Their sun is younger than ours, and shines more intensely. The three factors mean that mutation rates are high, and if they should happen to discover or engineer some microscopic parasite that would cause disease and death to our people, they would not hesitate to employ it.”

He took another slow sip of the scotch, and regarded her frankly. “I fear a more direct aid. Ursa, I would like to believe that the son of Jor-El is dead. It would make the task ahead of us so much simpler if he had perished in the wreck of his ship. It even makes sense; the boy is the son of a great scientist, engineer, and architect, but he has not shown himself to be the equal of Jor-El’s genius yet. And yet I dare not let myself believe Kal-El is no longer a factor in this equation. I must plan as if he survives, and will do everything he can against us, for he is an avowed traitor by his actions.”

Ursa shook her head slightly. “A child. One entirely besotted by the human race and by his human in particular. He spoke to her as if to an equal; this Lois Lane was fawned over like a favored pet. I cannot imagine Kal-EL being any more than an idealist rabble-rouser.”

“Like his uncle? Zor-El was a long-winded old fool, but in the end he had courage to bring a weapon to bear upon me. I do not doubt that the boy can be as dangerous, if pushed to it. We cannot ignore the House of El.”

“Then why do we ignore Jor-El?” It came out as a plea; Ursa had long wished to take custody of Jor-El and Lara. Allura too. There were ways of getting the truth from them. Yet every time she championed it, General Zod denied her.

This was to be no exception. “Let them be. We are not ignoring them by permitting them to run free. I do not wish to press Jor-El into the same suicidal courage as his brother. He is yet useful to me, while he is torn between fear and loyalty.”

“And he was your friend once,” Ursa pointed out. She blinked, looking at the glass in her hand. Perhaps part of this beverage’s effects included a loosening of the tongue, as she would not normally have implied Dru-Zod’s favoritism so bluntly.

“That he was. Together he and I overruled the Council and saved our race. With my leadership, his genius, and your loyalty, Ursa my dear, we could have ruled the known galaxies. But Jor-El has a soft-hearted attachment to the past, to the failed Council and its supposed freedoms. He has chosen not to choose, and for now he is safe enough.” Dru-Zod finished the glass and set it aside, regarding her. “Be at peace. I will loose you soon enough on deserving targets. Tell me, when you investigated the state of the fleet, did the workman also report on the progress of my flagship?”

“They did. It will be complete in ten days. But without the fleet…”

Dru-Zod cut her off with a smile that had nothing of gentleness in it. “Without the fleet, I can still pack that ship full of Consulars and seek Kal-El on Earth. If nothing else, we cannot be seen to let a traitor go unpunished.”

“You will take me with you?” Again, the question was not asked in tones of a soldier addressing her officer, and Ursa privately vowed never to touch this ‘scotch’ again.

“Of course, my most loyal and cherished Commander,” he told her. “There is no other I could trust at my side for such a mission. And when we return triumphant, bearing the salt needed for further construction, we will be hailed as heroes once again.”

While the Supreme Chancellor plotted, elsewhere in the capitol building a coded message went out along secure channels. Disguised as a simple diagnostic of the computers remaining in the salt mining facility on Earth, it carried a message that blazed on every screen and printed on every readout.

GENERAL LANE, REPORT. URGENT INTEL FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. GENERAL LANE, PLEASE REPORT IMMEDIATELY.