By Jenni Debbage < firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: November 2001
Summary: In the conclusion of Book 3, when news reaches Krypton that the evil Rad-Nor has attacked Earth, Lois and Kal must devise a plan to stop him — a matter complicated by Lois' pregnancy and a traitor within the palace.
Chapter Eleven: Destination Earth
Throughout the long bright days of summer Lord Kal-El and Lady Lois' popularity blossomed as the season's flowering. Without the malicious Rad-Nor to incite unrest, the community of nobles came to accept, more readily, the rule of the First Lord and his unique Lady. And when Lois' pregnancy was announced the population of Krypton was overjoyed.
This situation didn't wholly please the lady herself as she waited to see if her position of consort should degenerate into that of mother of the heir. However, it did seem that her fears might be groundless as there was little change in the way she was viewed by the people she had come to regard as her family and friends. Of course, they had all, and this included her husband, become slightly more protective of her but, given her previous history, this was understandable, and the concern was not overly stifling.
And she had one sure sign that the groundswell of appreciation might be for herself alone. The invitation to attend the Council sessions was issued before the knowledge of the coming child was made known. And, though she was not yet a full member of the Council with the right to vote, it was gratifying to be asked on occasion how a Kryptonian problem might be tackled on her native planet. It was even more satisfying when her opinion seemed to be taken into account, as in the case of Krypton's sponsorship of the planet of Moy into the Federation.
A deputation from the said planet was invited to attend the autumn open Council meetings, along with various other members of the planetary group, in the hope that a more informal setting would allow the representatives to get to know each other.
It had been many years since Krypton had formally opened its doors to so many important visitors. Most of the Federation's business was conducted through 'conference space communiques' or, on matters of extreme importance, the members would rendezvous at a central point in space and hold a meeting on one of the greater spacecruisers. So this 'actual' conclave was something of an event for the member worlds and for their hosts, and as this was the first interplanetary gathering of Kal-El's reign, it soon developed into something of a state occasion with all members of the United Planets accepting Krypton's invitation.
This was a situation which in itself became a problem. Pomp and circumstance would hardly generate a relaxed atmosphere in which the new member could meet with its allies. Moy's state of technical expertise was somewhat less advanced than the other worlds, and Kal and his Council were concerned that the Moyan ambassadors would feel intimidated or placed in the position of supplicant.
During a meeting, held to discuss the coming 'State Visit,' Lord Trey was quick to suggest to his fellow Councillors that they were perhaps not the best people to plan this event, given their and the noble classes' narrow-minded and judgmental treatment to one strange visitor who had come amongst them. A somewhat embarrassed Council conceded that there was some truth in the Prime Councillor's statement and, though the resulting meeting didn't actually place Lady Lois in charge of the arrangements, she was given the position of 'special advisor' and all decisions had to pass her scrutiny before being adopted by the Council.
It wasn't perfect but it was more than Lois could ever have hoped for in such a short time and she was soon immersed in the complicated details of entertaining a vastly diverse set of visitors. Lois was also aware of the fact that, while the coming occasion might be ceremonial, it had very serious and political implications, and she had been asked to assist in the task of plotting the Moyans' course into full Federation membership. It was not totally outside the realms of possibility that one day she might be asked to do the same for her home planet.
The realisation astounded her and caused her a few sleepless nights. But Lois wasn't a quitter and she threw herself, despite the small debilities of her advancing pregnancy, into her given role with enthusiasm and determination. After all, she knew better than anyone just how it felt to be a stranger in a strange world.
It was in late summer when preparations were at their most frantic and the city of Elvar was being duly dusted down, deodorised and decorated for the coming celebrations; when frequent wrangles were breaking out amongst the Council and workforce employed to bring the ambitious plans to fruition, that a message was received from Commander Medi.
The high-ranking policeman had insisted on leading an undercover task force out into space in an attempt to find Rad-Nor. Immediately following the discovery of Nor's flight, a formal search by the Kryptonian spaceforce had taken place. However, since the most likely destinations were situated in areas prohibited to Federation forces, these sorties had produced no results. Even the deputation sent to Space Station Caytan had yielded up only the information that Nor and his followers had stopped by to meet up with the remnants of the space pirates, before flying off to an unknown destination.
The First Couple had little difficulty in persuading the Council that Krypton had not seen the last of the menace of Nor; in fact, Lords Trey and Remy were already in agreement that Rad-Nor at large in space might be an even greater danger to the planet and thus the Federation. With these two senior Lords' endorsement, the rest of the Council had readily agreed to Commander Medi's request. He had been placed at the head of a special squad to investigate the whereabouts of the rebel Lord and to expose any plot against Krypton and the alliance. The small detachment had been gone sometime now but, unfortunately, no enlightening news had, as yet, been sent back. All of which made the thought request received by Lady Lois something of a shock.
The First Lady, in her role of special advisor and with the support of Trey and Remy, was visiting the outskirts of Elvar where a temporary village was coming into being.
<Lois, we have to talk! Medi has sent information that's important for the family. Meet me as soon as you can at Ro- Ellion.>
The urgency in the bald statement gave Lois pause. And why did Kal mention the family and not the Council? <Kal, what's happened and why Ro-Ellion?>
<Sweetheart, this is personal. Medi reported to Jace on the secure channel, and I'd rather keep it that way for the moment. But if you're with Lord Trey and Uncle Remy then bring them along.>
<Sure, Kal, I can wait, I think.> A small smirk quirked Lois' lips at the thought that she'd at last learned patience. <But unfortunately this business might take sometime.>
The smirk turned to a grimace as she watched the little altercation between the designers and the builders become more heated. Lois' hand eased over her aching back. She was now in the second trimester of her pregnancy and had already grown larger than she'd ever thought possible. Under the blaze of the noonday sun, her head had started throbbing and if it hadn't been for the cooling breeze from the river, she would already have succumbed to the heat. The 'village' stretched out from the existing boundaries of the city along the verdant banks of the River El and was indeed a sight to behold. Domed buildings — of the kind in which she and Kal had exchanged their marriage vows — had descended on this spot and were the centre points of the smaller living quarters. Whilst the large airy structures might be completely adequate for assemblage and dinning areas, these respected guests — heads of state and government representatives — could hardly be expected to live in glorified tents.
Tidy compounds surrounded by newly created gardens would house the planetary delegations, and every small detail was being attended to in order that the visitors would feel completely at home. The First Lady had been happy to note from the existing holotapes of previous conferences that the races were mostly humanoid. At least, in the sense that they seemingly possessed all the normal parts of a homo sapien. Lois had a picture of a 'Star Wars' universe within her head, where she was entertaining giant hairy animals, women with two heads and lizard people… Or little cuddly teddy bear types… she wouldn't mind the teddy bears. Kal had told her that many weird forms of life existed in the vast expanse of space — take the Taureans for example. Well, truthfully, she'd rather not take them but even they had resembled humans… with just very unattractive hog- like features. Lois did not hate their physical forms though. They could be as ugly as sin and she could find them acceptable. It was their cold, murderous hearts that she loathed.
Besides, according to all she'd been told of these delegates, the Federation mainly consisted of congenial races who believed in the strength of alliances. Certainly, she had done a great deal of homework, reading up on the different habits and lifestyles of the visiting dignitaries, and listening avidly to accounts from Kal, his Council and anyone else who'd had dealings with these peoples.
Then, using that information to ensure that some well- meaning but dumb-witted designer didn't insult her guests by placing the door and the main windows of a dwelling directly into the rising sun. It appeared that Capulans didn't much care for bright sunlight and didn't really like having windows at all. Actually, it appeared that Capulans didn't like any number of things and they had requested that their habitat be set well away from the others. But the most astounding thing was that they'd agreed to attend the gathering at all. So, it was up to Lady Lois to see that their comforts and bizarre requests were taken care of.
And that was where she and her entourage were standing now — in front of the Capulan enclosure. And she was shocked to see the prefabricated building being erected in the totally wrong direction. Thankfully, the workforce had just begun to put the structure together and it wouldn't take so very much extra work to rectify the mistake but it wasn't surprising that a clash of opinions was about to ensue. Surprisingly, since Lois had taken over the role of 'special advisor' she'd discovered in herself an art for mediation. Perhaps, because in many cases she understood the point of view of the common man, or perhaps a little of her husband's sensitivity was rubbing off on Lois. Whatever the reason, she had found her presence much in demand by the Council, the professionals and the labourers. Evidently, everyone else had uncovered her talent for arbitration and she frequently found herself the confidant of many of these troubled artisans. With renewed energy, Lois plunged into the present dispute, hopeful that she could quickly sooth crabby and indignant temperaments, and could join Kal-El at Ro-Ellion as soon as possible.
"Gentlemen, please! Please, don't all talk at once!" Lois' voice was strident and stern but once she'd caught their attention she lowered and softened her approach. "I know it's a nuisance and I don't know how the mistake arose." Lois sent a pointed glance in the direction of the architect. Back on Earth, the 'old' Lois would have been raving at the 'stupid fool' with the intent of completely demoralising him, but Lady Lois recognised that ranting was very unproductive and the work needed to progress smoothly, if the 'village' was to be ready in time for its occupants. Then too, the man had a large and complicated task to perform in designing the various accommodations, so it wasn't totally surprising that some things should go amiss. Lois decided to be magnanimous. "But that's not important any more and it surely won't take too much time and trouble to turn the building round?" Her eyebrows rose in question at the men before her, who shuffled their feet and scowled somewhat peevishly but, nevertheless, nodded in reluctant agreement. "That's settled then. And as to the question of the windows — would it be possible to cover them with thick shutters?"
"Yes, My Lady," came the quick answer from the building overseer. "That should work out well and if the 'Professor' here will give me the measurements I can order them directly." The well-built, middle-aged foreman bobbed his head in the direction of the 'Professor.' He was still feeling slightly aggrieved at the extra work and he wasn't about to give the man who was responsible his proper name.
"That won't be a problem, Lady Lois-El." The architect, realising he'd got off lightly, spoke apologetically. "I think you can safely leave things to me and Brynn here. We'll have everything put to rights in no time."
"Thank you, gentlemen, for your cooperation," she smiled as she addressed them. "As a matter of fact, I do have to be somewhere else rather urgently. I leave the problem in your capable hands. I'll return tomorrow to see to the contents of the building. I know that we programmed them into the matrix but viewing them on a holoscreen just isn't the same as seeing them in reality." There were certain aspects of Kryptonian technology that Lois still wasn't confident with. "Till tomorrow, gentlemen. Have a nice day."
As she turned to head for her transporter, Lois couldn't resist throwing the Earth saying over her shoulder. However, putting aside architectural and building problems, she concentrated her thoughts. This new skill still took a great deal of her strength to accomplish, especially when she was not communicating with Kal. <Uncle Remy, Trey, we're heading for Ro-Ellion. There's been some sort of crisis.>
From the moment that Lois hurried into the garden room of Ro-Ellion followed by her equally curious escorts, she realised that the news wasn't good. The family were huddled together in the leafiest part of the large atrium, taking advantage of the trees' shade while enjoying the small river breeze through the now open glass walls. Yet, for all the outward appearance of a family enjoying their own company on a pleasant summer day, there was tension in the air. Lois set her little chin aloft and walked into the cauldron of worried emotions, her heart lifting as Kal rose to meet her.
"What is it? What has happened?" She took the hand that Kal offered her and allowed herself to be drawn into the close circle. "What has Medi discovered?"
"He found out where Nor stayed on Caytan and why he stayed…"
"But I thought that he just made a quick call and left with Ballen2 and company."
"That's what we all thought but it turns out not to be quite true," Kal commented as he seated Lois and himself on a comfortable couch and waited until the two elder Lords found chairs before continuing. "Nor's party spent a few days in hiding on Caytan while Keira gave birth."
"Keira has had her baby!" Lois exclaimed. "What am I saying?! Of course, Keira has given birth, because I know that Kryptonian pregnancies are very similar to Earth ones and she had to have had her baby months ago… I mean, I have this right, don't I? Kryptonian pregnancy doesn't last for a year or something?"
A reluctant smile burst through Kal's concern. "Lois, you're babbling! And yes, having a baby here is pretty similar to back on Earth. We would have told you otherwise and I know that Tamar has explained it all to you. And we know he's very happy with how your pregnancy is progressing, so you really shouldn't worry." Recognising that his pregnant wife was rather more paranoid than normal, Kal was happy to offer her the reassurance that she frequently needed. But he was also pleased when he saw her smile rather sheepishly and return to the matter at hand.
"Sorry! You were saying… about Keira!" Lois was well aware that the whole family had been anxious about the girl's fate.
"Keira gave birth to twins… a boy and a girl."
Lois' eyes widened. "Twins! Two babies!" Oh, twice the pain, Lois surmised, and… "Don't twins run in families?"
"Yes, but not this family!" Lara came to sit beside her children and quietly appropriated Lois' hand and stroked it comfortingly.
"Lois, you're not having twins. Tamar would have told us." Kal reminded her with just a slight edge of exasperation in his voice. Keira was his sister and she was so far away from his protection.
"Sorry! Again! I don't know what possessed me to act so selfishly when I should be worrying for poor Keira."
"Lois, I think we know what got into you," Lara said with some amusement while her eyes slid down to Lois' protruding middle. "And we understand perfectly. Pregnant women are allowed to be a little eccentric. It's the fault of those raging hormones…"
"And we're all perfectly aware that you're concerned for our daughter too." As always, Jor-El offered Lois his understanding. Since first she'd arrived on this planet, Jor had been there with his common sense and his shy, yet friendly smiles. Of all the El family, Jor-El was the most self-effacing and yet Lois often wondered if his quiet empathy was the foundation for this close-knit family's strength.
"Oh I am! Was Medi able to find out how Keira and the babies fared?"
Kal leaned his elbows onto his knees and his hands wrung nervously together. "He managed to search out the physician who attended the birth… Physician! Hmph! Some charlatan who ran rather than face a mass-manslaughter charge on his own world!"
Lois' hand stole to her lips. "Oh, Kal!"
"Still, he was willing to offer up information when Medi bribed him." Kal raised his eyes to find his wife's warm sympathetic gaze envelope him. "It seems that it was a hard birth… but both mother and children survived it. He was paid to stay with them for a day and they were all alive when he left. That's all he knows."
"But Medi was also able to find out that Keira and the children were taken aboard a Taurean craft with Nor and his troopers the day after the physician left them. No flight plan was logged, but that's not surprising. Ships come and go at Caytan without any regulations. Though it's a pretty fair bet that the ship was bound for Taurus or one of its moons." Major Ching added the information, flexing his shoulder muscles subconsciously as he spoke.
Ching's injuries had healed well but there was still a residual stiffness in the muscles of his upper body. When first he'd been discharged from the military medical- centre, he'd spent a few days at home with his family but he'd eagerly accepted Kal-El's invitation to continue his recuperation in the palace. There, he'd been able to work out and train with the rest of the guards and even Kal joined in when he found time out of his busy schedule to keep fit. No one had reason to remark on this move to the palace as Ching had been a member of the El household since boyhood, and so no ulterior motive was sought. But it had enabled Zara and Ching to spend some time together, albeit only as friends, and always in the company of another member of the family — to do otherwise was just too risky. Needless to say, the couple most preferred to have Lois as their chaperone as she always managed to create some way for them to share a private moment.
Shortly after Ching's arrival at the palace, when he was still feeling very bruised and battered, Lois had asked him to attend her in the apartment under the pretext of presenting him with a small gift to acknowledge the anniversary of his birthdate. This was an Earth tradition and one which Lois was not about to abandon. But the greatest gift of all was when the lady had disappeared into the bedchamber and Zara had taken her place. In one graceful motion, Ching found himself cradling the body of his love and he was smothered, very delightfully, in kisses from her soft lips. All thought of caution fled as he revelled in the touch of the woman he loved. The spectre of death which had so recently brushed him, lent Ching a greater appreciation of life. No one could know how long they had to live and so it was the moments that mattered. Both Zara and Ching had made the most of that moment and every other which their dearest Lady Lois managed to carve out for them in the sanctuary of her apartment.
And at least, one good thing had come out of the pirates' insurrection, Ching had been speedily promoted to Major and had also received a commendation for his bravery. Major Ching's star was in ascendancy which augured well for the lovers' secret liaison.
Only some days previously, the newly created Major had returned to full active duty as Kal's personal bodyguard; a role that had been adequately filled by the willing Poli — the unfailingly optimistic Poli, who now found himself assigned to the task of taking care of the First Lady. And was Lois the only one to have noticed a demoralised and jealous pout on Poli's handsome face when told the news? A querulous look that had disappeared so instantaneously that she doubted that it had ever existed. Lois instinctively looked behind at her Lieutenant to see how he would react to Ching's obvious knowledge of the situation, but Poli's expression showed only solicitous interest, and immediately her attention was drawn back to her husband.
"And Keira and her babies are now well out of our jurisdiction." Once again Kal-El's compassionate nature prompting concern for the safety of his sister and not for the capturing of her rebel Lord.
"I think that we're all forgetting one thing. Nor now has a son, born into the house of Nor and out of the house of El." Trey's solemn words dropped into the hush of the garden room. "If things go wrong here," and at that the elderly Lord had the grace to blush, "Nor has a legitimate alternative claim to the throne."
An angry and aggrieved First Lord and soon to be father sprung from his chair. "But things aren't going to go wrong. And even if Lois did have a girl… well there's nothing wrong with that. I would still love her and take care of her and, if she's anything like her mother, then she'd make an excellent ruler for Krypton."
"Nephew, dear boy! Don't take on so! A baby girl will be very welcome. After all, your mother had a daughter first before giving birth to you. Besides, as your father will assure you, science can work wonders these days. I'm sure that both you and Lois will produce an heir… If not this time, then…eventually."
Thankfully, everyone's attention was drawn to Kal and no one noticed Lois' slight grimace at that thought. It wasn't that she didn't want more children; she just wanted to get over this pregnancy and birth first before contemplating another. And if the science was available to help her conceive a boy, she intended to make full use of it. There was no way that Lois planned on turning out babies with the regularity of a conveyor-belt.
"I didn't mean to offend, sire, and I wish Lady Lois a safe delivery," Lord Trey put in, his manner conciliatory. "But you must know that a female on the throne would not be acceptable on Krypton."
"But a traitorous Lord like Nor would be acceptable as regent?!" Kal's eyes blazed.
"No! Never! Yet I doubt that Nor would take that into consideration. I'm very much afraid that he's more likely to arrive here at the head of a Taurean attack force to take the throne by force. And the one thing that we've all worked so hard to prevent would occur…"
The anger quickly drained from Kal-El and his final word was almost a sigh. "War!"
The weeks passed quickly and it appeared that their worst fears were unfounded, at least for the present. Yet the Kryptonian military force remained vigilant and Jace's communication section constantly scanned the galaxy to give warning of an impending invasion. While out in space, Commander Medi and his men continued in their search.
But all remained quiet. The space surrounding Krypton was devoid of any menacing craft, and in Elvar the summer mellowed gently into autumn under clear skies and the fading warmth of a kindly sun. No further news was received from Medi's team. If Rad-Nor had taken up residence with the Taureans it seemed as if it might be a long-term arrangement. Mayhap too, the man had abandoned his obsession with seizing the rule of Krypton.
'And pigs can fly,' Lois would state sourly whenever that notion was suggested. And at that Lois, Kal and the two bodyguards would share an enigmatic glance. Only they knew that in one place that wasn't such a far out concept. Meanwhile, the little group could only hope that Nor had indeed forgotten his ambitious plans and pray that Keira and her children were safe.
Kal-El and his Council were seriously considering calling the Security Chief back home as the arrival of the delegations for the Federation Summit was looming near, and Medi was simply the most able officer to organise the security arrangements for the visitors. And so, the message went out to cease his current investigation and return to Krypton.
Within a couple of days, Medi was home and very thankful to be so. He had thrown all his energy into his fruitless search, and now he just wanted to be in Elvar, to return to the comfort of things familiar. As a boy he had implored his family to enroll him in the Military Academy; he had dreamed of voyages of discovery and of adventure in distant galaxies, and he had applied all his energies into fulfilling most of these long ago wishes. Only now, space- travel didn't hold the same appeal. It was the reason he had requested a transfer to the home-based security forces where he had proved to be a valuable asset and had soon found himself at the head of Elvar's force. Nevertheless, his disinclination to space-travel had been set aside in the desire to fulfil his duty and he had stoically journeyed off Krypton to trace the lordly terrorist. Regrettably, he hadn't been able to apprehend his quarry but he was glad to be home.
And he had been given a new job. One which seemed to be less fraught than his last assignment and would most certainly require his continued presence in Elvar. With renewed enthusiasm and with his customary attention to detail, he had immersed himself in planning the protection for the visiting dignitaries, his role reacquainting him with his fellow-conspirators of spring.
Commander Medi was in his laconic way delighted, though not totally surprised, to discover that he was to report not only to the Council but to the 'special advisor' of the project, the now heavily pregnant Lady of El. The wily policeman had been quick to appreciate the young woman's potential and it pleased him that others were beginning to stray from their preconceived ideas on women. To tell the truth, Medi reflected that it was probably an aristocratic- orientated view. As a member of the forces, both military and security, he had worked with women troopers and, though they very infrequently made it into high-ranking positions and then mainly in administrative posts, he had found them just as worthy as their male counterparts. And in the case of this First Lady, he believed that she far outstripped many of the Council and heads of houses in intellect, initiative and sheer guts. Having reached this conclusion, it wasn't a huge step to wonder just how many Kryptonian women were being held back by the traditional beliefs of this patriarchal society. It seemed, to his dispassionate view, that the females of his race just couldn't be less intelligent than those on Earth. Oh, there was that female, Lady-Mai! Now she was a really crazy person! But even she'd had a certain cunning, and she'd escaped arrest, unlike her husband. And the dowager Lady El was a wise old 'bird'… ah… lady.
So Medi mused as he paced back and forth before his men at the gates of the 'Federation Village' as it had come to be known, awaiting the arrival of the First Lord and Lady and their High Council. This was the final inspection before the arrival of the Planetary Representatives. These Delegations would be landing on Krypton over a period of days and the official opening ceremony was due to take place at the start of next week. Everyone seemed to be looking forward to the event with a mixture of emotions, excitement, pleasant anticipation and wary anxiety.
A small line of transporters appeared coming out from the direction of the city and as they drew near, Medi called his men to attention, bowing along with them as the First Lord and Lady stepped to the ground. A smiling Kal and Lois approached their Security Chief, Kal beckoning Medi and the troop to rise. All his growing life Kal had been accustomed to this greeting yet, since he had met Lois, his own natural aversion to this sign of deference was increasing. Nonetheless, regardless of his disenchantment with certain traditions, he was quite aware that his people weren't ready to throw all of their customs into the trash- disintegrators so he smiled graciously at the squad and their officers before him.
Gratefully, he noticed that Lois was doing likewise. He was never quite sure of Lois' reactions. She was just as likely to rush up to Medi, who she now considered a friend, and shake his hand. The two not only had a shared history in working towards the destruction of Rad-Nor but, since Medi's return, they'd worked closely on the security precautions for the conference. However, his astute young wife clearly realised that whatever was the state of her relationship with Medi, here she was on public display and she would play her part as the gracious First Lady to the hilt. Kal's lips turned up in a tiny smirk knowing just how irksome Lois found these traditional restraints. Yet she seldom let her inner irritation show — Lady Lois-El was becoming the epitome of Krypton's idea of the perfect consort.
Of course, in private it was a totally different matter. With her family and her small circle of friends, Lois could relax and just be herself. But Kal was afraid that it was almost as if Lois was developing two different personalities… the dignified First Lady she showed to the public and the effervescent Earth girl she returned to in private. It was Kal's earnest hope that one day the two could be reconciled and everyone would know the whole wonderful woman whom he had come to love with all of his being. But, sadly, Krypton society had some way to go before that would be possible and, even more sadly, Kal-El was soon to discover that he too was not so liberated as he had supposed.
That, however, was for the future; in the present, the First Lord and Lady with their entourage spent a pleasant hour inspecting the finished encampment. Lois had to admit that Kryptonian know-how had certainly been invaluable in constructing this lovely city in miniature. It certainly did not have the look of a temporary place, except perhaps for the two large domed edifices in the central park area, and that was only because she had witnessed them flying in. Now with the climbing plants around their entrances and the generous surrounding lawns they looked like they'd been there forever.
So too with the domiciles. Each one was tailored to its visiting occupants and hopefully would have the desired effect of making their guests feel at home. The architects, planners and builders had done their work well, despite the few disagreements that had arisen, and Lois made a mental note to thank them all with a personal message and one that was written on paper. There were certain things that she preferred from her old home and paper and ink were certainly included in the list. There was something more tangible and durable in the ability to run your fingers over the paper and the words. Techno-messaging was just more impersonal than a handwritten note and she just hadn't taken to it with the same verve as she had some of the other 'adaptations' she'd found on her new world.
<Quite right, honey, and even we Kryptonians still use paper and pen for more important documents.> Lois shot a glance towards her husband and blushed rosily at the amusement she saw twinkling in his eyes. She hadn't quite mastered this thought transmitting yet and sometimes stray thoughts got away. Anxiously she glanced at the others. <Don't worry, honey, I think I'm the only one who picks up on your wavelength. But I think we should concentrate on our inspection.> His smile lit up his face as he offered her his arm and led her in the wake of Medi and his guard.
Medi had also excelled, and the security forces, although comfortingly present, were not obvious. Using a meld of manpower, holo-cameras and force-fields, his guards would be able to keep an unobtrusive watch over the village and be on hand to swiftly assist in any imbroglio which might evolve. Lady Lois had been somewhat shocked to hear that Federation members might take part in a squabble where security forces would be needed to restore the peace and had voiced her surprise to Kal in private. To which he had answered dryly that though these civilisations might have advanced technologically and in the main had embraced the concept of a peaceful galaxy, not all had yet reached the saintly stage of 'loving' all of their neighbours.
The First Lord and Lady with their Council in attendance continued with their tour of the site, offering the workforce their thanks and appreciation for their stalwart labours in creating this lovely haven and in such a short space of time. Yet, when only halfway through their inspection, Kal noticed his Lois start to flag visibly and he directed the party's steps back towards their transporters. It was typical of Lois to brush aside the discomforts of her condition and insist on accompanying the group on this the final visit to the village before it welcomed its off-world inhabitants. Kal, just as typically, had been concerned that in this latter stages of pregnancy, Lois shouldn't be spending so long on her feet, but, when voicing his worries, his indignant wife had pooh-poohed this worry-wart attitude. Now, however, she seemed disinclined to ignore his ministrations and gratefully allowed him to hijack her back to the palace. Lois even went so far as to moan in pleasurable relief when, once inside the transporter, Kal lifted his wife's feet onto his lap and gently massaged her cramped muscles.
"Thank you, sweetheart. I can't tell you how good that feels," Lois sighed as she stretched back into the form- hugging chair, laying her head on the cushioned headrest and closing her eyes.
"Don't mention it, milady. I'm here to do your bidding." Kal teased in a quasi-servile voice.
"Hmph!" Lois snorted without opening her eyes. "Have you forgotten you're top dog around here?!" But her smile belayed her sarcasm. "And thank you for not saying 'I told you so'!"
"Wouldn't dream of it!" Kal smiled beatifically, then fell silent, continuing to rub Lois' swollen feet and ankles while she drifted happily off into the realms of semi- sleep.
So it was that Lois jumped slightly when Kal gently shook her shoulder to warn her that they'd reached their destination. Rousing herself from her pleasant haze, she alighted as nimbly as her burgeoning body would allow, and crashed directly into the solid, stiffened back of her husband, his head cocked slightly to one side as he listened to a telepathic message that only he could hear. But whatever it was, the news was dire. Lois was sure she'd never seen such a thunderstruck look on that handsome face.
"Hurry, Lois!" Kal's hand grabbed for Lois as he shepherded her through the doors, heading with all speed to the elevators.
Lois allowed herself to be so led. Perhaps there was a need for secrecy. But the moment the elevator doors closed and they were alone, she turned impatiently towards her spouse, almost dragging her arm from his urgent clasp but not quite… something had badly upset him.
"Kal!? What's going on!?" Her tone was peremptory. She would brook no holding things back for her own good. "Tell me!" she commanded as he bit at his lower lip and seemed to be involved in some inner turmoil. "Don't you dare try to protect me from bad news."
Kal looked a trifle hurt at this accusation. Truthfully, he never intended to hold this news from Lois… He couldn't! His travail was in wondering how best to tell her. In the end, he told her flatly. "Jace has found Rad-Nor…"
"And?" Lois took Kal's hands and shook them impatiently.
"He's at the head of a huge Taurean fleet…"
"They're on their way here? Kal, this is terrible! You have to alert the forces! Call a Council meeting or something! Can you place a force-field round the whole planet?"
"Lois!" Kal caught her rambling attention and returned the squeeze of her hands. He stared determinedly yet sympathetically into her troubled eyes. "Lois, Nor isn't coming to Krypton… He's on his way to Earth! He and the Taurean war-fleet plan on attacking Earth!"
The shock held Lois silent for a few seconds. "Earth! Oh my, god! Kal! Do you think Nor knows?!" It was one of Lois' most admirable traits and one that Kal loved… the ability to cut right to the heart of the matter… no hysterical screams or faints.
And it deserved the truth. "I'm not sure, sweetheart, but it has to be a possibility!"
The one great advantage of being friends with your bodyguards was the fact that you didn't have to stand on ceremony in their company. Throughout the ride back to the palace, Ching and Poli had remained unassumingly in the background and had hurried to keep up with their charges in the mad dash to the elevators. Now Poli could no longer keep quiet; he also understood exactly what was being discussed.
"But how could that be?! We four are the only ones who know about the po… about that!" Even with the evidence that their special secret might be blown, Poli's trustworthiness and professionalism wouldn't let him speak the confidential words.
"Unfortunately, that might not be true, Poli." The Lord of Krypton held hard to his wife's hands while the muscle along his jaw twitched spasmodically and his full lips compressed into a tight line. "Anyone onboard the mothership could have been spying and discovered the truth. And there were the foraging parties…"
"Excuse me! Foraging parties!?"
"Yes, Lois! I sent out groups to check out the facilities in Metropolis and the US. They visited shopping malls, museums, libraries, cinemas, government buildings… the Senate… even the White House. Everywhere we thought we could get a true picture of life in your world. Anything of significance we scanned into our computers. How else do you think we were able to duplicate so much here on Krypton?"
Lois shrugged her shoulders, unwilling to admit to the unwelcome notion that her investigative powers had clearly deserted her on this occasion. Well, at least in her defence, she had been rather preoccupied with trying to adapt to life on Krypton, not to mention a few attempts on her life. "Spy satellites?!"
"Well, we have these too," Kal admitted with a sheepish grin, a little amazed that he could find the energy to smile in this time of crisis.
"But, Kal, you made sure that these groups only spent a few hours on the surface of Earth and you rotated the men in case the… 'thing' was cumulative," Ching reminded reasonably. "We three were the only ones who spent time continually on Earth and it took a few days for us to develop… you know what."
"Then perhaps some of the others were longer down on the surface before you realised anything strange would happen." Lois searched her mind for any suggestion that seemed a possibility.
"No, honey, we're always very careful when going into an alien environment." Kal reddened apologetically at his choice of words. "We do lots of checks from the mothership before we land, and there was all the information we'd gleaned from the spy satellites which meant we were pretty sure it would be safe but we still don't rule out any unexpected occurrences. It's a safeguard for both ourselves and the people whose world we're visiting. I mean, it's not impossible that our presence could have an untoward effect on the indigenous population, so we're always very wary. I made the decision that only myself, Ching and Poli would crew the orbship that we took down to Metropolis and I can tell you, the officers onboard the mothership were not amused… but, in this case, I pulled rank. We kept in close contact but no other Kryptonian was allowed to land until I gave the word… And by that time we'd already started to notice changes…"
"I suppose it's not totally impossible that someone else went down without permission," Poli surmised hesitantly, unwilling to contemplate that a member of the Kryptonian military would disregard orders.
"Or kept us under close surveillance," Ching added.
"Or maybe Nor doesn't know and just chose Earth out of revenge on me." Kal nodded thoughtfully. "Any one of those is a possibility and we certainly won't get any answers standing around in elevators." While they were talking, they'd reached the bottom level. "Come on. Jace is waiting for us… He might have more news."
Chapter Twelve: Mr President
A hastily convened Council of War met in the palace, and alongside the Councillors, Commanders Jace and Medi awaited the presence of the First Lord and Lady. Jace had indeed had more information for the First Lord's party on the planned assault on Earth. Apart from the fact that he'd plotted the position of the armada on its course for Earth, there were the substantiating rumours which had reached his communications centre to be passed on to his friend and colleague. The undercover policemen that Medi had left behind on Caytan had reported in. It appeared that the talk on the space-station was all about a massive attack-fleet which was on its way to Earth where, it was reported, the Kryptonians would be as powerful as Gods and the population wouldn't stand a chance against them.
There could no longer be any doubt — Rad-Nor knew! And he and his troops would use their powers to conquer Earth. The shocking news had finally penetrated Lois' numbed senses and for the first time in her young life she fainted clean away. A combination of fear for her family and people had merged with the weariness of pregnancy and Lois had for once sought refuge in the strange twilight world of unconsciousness.
Lois awoke to the quiet of her bedchamber. The room was completely still but was there the faint breathing of one other close at hand?
"Kal?" Even to her own ears her voice sounded shaky and thin.
"Lois?!" Kal's strong arm slipped behind her swollen body and aided her in her quest to sit up while his other hand brought a small glass of some elixir to her lips. "Drink this! Tamar says it will clear your head and make you feel better."
"Tamar was here?"
"He just left a moment or so ago. He scanned you and said that everything was fine and that you were just shocked… which is hardly surprising." Kal slipped closer to Lois on the bed and supported her with his body. "Now drink!" And he brought the glass to her lips.
Lois surveyed the amber liquid suspiciously. "Well, it might chase the fog away from my brain… and that would be a good thing, but I doubt it'll make me feel any better. What are we going to do, Kal?" There was the hint of tears behind those dark lovely eyes and they went straight to Kal's heart.
"I've called an emergency Council meeting to work out our strategy. Don't worry, Lois, I don't intend to let your home face the threat of Nor and the Taureans alone."
"A Council meeting?! Do you think they'll agree to help Earth? And when is it?" The questions tumbled one after the other in their rush to be aired.
"About an hour from now. I had to give the Councillors time to get here and to organise a holo-communication for Dax- Ver and some other heads of houses who might be involved."
"Good! Then help me up! I can't lie around all day while my planet is under attack."
"Lois! Drink! Then we'll talk about the meeting."
At last Lois did his bidding but with a certain amount of aggravation. Was this potion really what Kal said or would it send her into a dreamless sleep for the good of her health and the baby? After a few moments, however, she did feel a little calmer… sharper too… the room was coming into focus.
"See!" Kal exclaimed. "It did exactly what I said."
"Hmph!" The First Lady gave a very unladylike grunt but she sat up straighter on the bed.
"Admit it Lois… You thought it was a sedative."
"Well, Tamar might have just persuaded you that I needed the rest."
"Oh, he knows you need the rest! But he also knows you, Lois, and he thought the best thing for you was to be in the thick of things. Otherwise you'd just fret and that wouldn't be good for either you or the baby."
"He's a very wise man, that Tamar." Lois smiled smugly but slowly swung her legs over the side of the bed, never letting go of her hold on Kal's arm. Tentatively she stood… but the room very kindly stayed in place and it was only a little difficult to place one foot experimentally in front of the other. With Kal by her side she made it all the way over the room to the window and back, then to the chair by the fire which she sank bonelessly into. Lois' solemn gaze rose to meet her husband's concerned stare. "Don't hover, Kal, I'm fine!" And with a lightning change of direction she asked the question that had been hovering, for some time, like a spectre in the shadows of her mind. "Do you think Poli could have told Nor?"
"Poli! Lois, whatever are you talking about?"
"Does Poli work for Nor?" The words echoed like a tolling bell in the silence of the room.
"No! Of course not! Poli?! Why would you think that?"
"Someone had to have told Nor. And it wasn't you or me! And I don't believe it was Ching… so that only leaves Poli."
"Lois, no! We talked about this, remember. In fact, Poli was the one who brought it up. It could have been anyone on board the ship. Why would you suspect Poli? I can't believe you suspect Poli." Kal marched off across the room his head shaking in puzzlement.
Lois shrugged. "I don't really know why… And, yes, Poli did mention it but that doesn't prove a thing… It's just something that's been buzzing around in my head lately. I just don't think he's very happy inside or that he's everything he appears to be."
The worried pacing stopped and Kal turned to Lois incredulously. "Wait a minute… Are you saying what I think you're saying? That Poli has been working for Nor the whole time… But that would mean that Poli is the… assassin?"
"No… Yes… I don't know! I just think that perhaps you don't know him as well as you think." Lois sighed into the heated atmosphere of the room. "And no, I don't really think that he's a murderer… but I think he might be a little jealous of your friendship with Ching."
"And you think that would be enough for him to break his oath to me… to betray me?!"
"It might! People can do very weird things when they're consumed with jealousy."
"But Poli is my friend! I'd trust him with my life! I already have!" Kal squatted down and made himself comfortable by Lois' chair, taking her hands into his clasp. "You couldn't know because it happened before I came to get you and Poli doesn't like to talk about it… says it embarrasses him… so we don't… talk about it; though I did want to reward him somehow but he wouldn't have that either… just said he was doing his job." For some moments Kal's eyes glazed over in reminiscence while Lois sat quietly waiting. "Poli had just been assigned as my second bodyguard for my proposed visit to Earth. At that time it hadn't been sanctioned wholeheartedly and Zor sent me with Ching and Poli to Scheih-Ellion while he tried to persuade the Council to grant me permission to woo you. It was almost the end of autumn but the weather had been unusually mild and like any normal energetic men we didn't like to spend much time in doors. I remember there were a number of young unicorns waiting to be broken to the saddle so we offered our services to the head groom and he was quite happy to put us to work. It seemed that one particular mare had proved to be a little feisty and had tossed a couple of riders and broken a few of their bones which left him short handed. She was a beautiful animal though… a chestnut, fine-boned but with a promise of developing strength and a coat that gleamed with warmth and colour… and she had fire in her eyes…"
"Sounds like she made a deep impression on you. This wouldn't be Firefly we're talking about?" Lois smiled. She'd seen the lovely unicorn in the stables at Scheih- Ellion. Firefly was Kal's chosen mount while there and no one else could master her.
Sitting on the floor, Kal smiled up at his wife. "She's mellowed quite a lot since that day."
"We worked hard on the training and finally, the time came to take them for their first ride. I remember, it was a lovely day… a little cold but the sun was shining. Anyway, we went a little further than we intended and into rougher pathways than we ought to have gone. Firefly put a front leg into a snake hole and was bitten. Being so inexperienced and skittish she threw me… hard. She was terrified and though the bite wasn't deadly it must have been excruciatingly painful. She kicked out at the nearest thing around her which happened to be me. The first kick connected and with that and the fall I was totally winded… I couldn't move. I lay frozen on the ground and saw her lower her head. I waited for the attack, thinking that it could be my last moment on Krypton and that I'd never get to meet you. Then she charged; it all happened so fast and Poli was there… throwing himself over my body. He took the horn thrust that was meant for me. He saved my life."
"Was he hurt badly?"
"He was gored in the shoulder… it was bad enough. Ching caught Firefly and managed to calm her down and we brought Poli back to Scheih-Ellion where he was taken care of. But the important thing is that he didn't take time to think of his own safety. He put his own life in danger to save me. Does that sound like someone who would go over to the enemy whenever the going got tough?"
Lois studied the clasped hands in her lap. "No," she volunteered on a whisper. "You're right… It was a crazy idea."
Disengaging one of his hands, Kal tilted Lois' face towards him till he could look into her hauntingly troubled eyes. "But you're right about one thing. I have been so preoccupied with other things that I've totally forgotten about Poli's career. He has a right to be upset; after all Ching's a Major now, though he does have more years in service. The least I can do is ask the military to give him his captaincy. Poli's now in charge of your safety and so he's entitled to the promotion… Unless, of course, you're still uncomfortable with Poli as your personal guard. I could find another post for him… somewhere where he wouldn't feel dismissed."
"No!" Lois could see the uncertainty and the dismay hidden in the depth of Kal's gaze. Clearly he trusted Poli and it seemed he was right to do so… The Lieutenant had quite probably saved her husband's life and that meant a great deal to her. Lois buried her niggling suspicions for the present and hurried to make amends for the doubts and added anxieties she'd placed in his soul. "No, Kal. I don't know what got into me… I'm just clutching at straws. I like Poli and he's almost as much of a worry-wort as you when it comes to taking care of my health. Leave things as they are and make sure you promote Poli, though, no doubt he'll be as proud as a peacock with his new rank… there'll be no living with him." The thought made her laugh and Kal was quick to join her. For a second or two both forgot the terrible news… But only for a second. "What will happen to Earth, Kal?" Her laughter ended on a choked sob. "My family…"
"Lois, they're not alone. Just as soon as we can organise the fleet we'll be going to their aid. Meanwhile, though, there's something that you can do."
"Me!" Lois sat up eagerly, pleased that there was something she could do to help. "What?!"
It was a very pale First Lady who was escorted by her husband into the crowded Council chamber. The edgy whorls of conversation ceased at the opening of the door and hung heavily in the air as all eyes regarded the rounded, tired figure of their young consort with, it had to be said, a great deal of sympathy. Lady Lois had made her home with them here on Krypton but that didn't mean that she shouldn't feel anguished for her home planet which found itself in imminent jeopardy.
Lord Kal-El settled Lois into her chair as comfortably as he could, then turned to address his Councillors and staff. "Gentlemen, please be seated!" He waited with as much patience as he could muster while his request was obeyed and a hurried shuffling and scraping of chairs filled the room as everyone hurried to comply. "As you know this is a dire emergency and so I will dispense with any time-wasting protocol and get straight to the point. The outlaw Rad- Nor," he would not dignify the man's position by giving him his title, "has persuaded the Taureans and some of their more predatory allies to assist himself and a number of Kryptonians who remain loyal to his lordship, to attack my wife's home, the planet Earth."
"And this news has been verified?" From the darkened part of the room at the end of the long Council table came a disembodied voice, the forerunner of a hologram which scintillated into life with Dax-Ver striding to the forefront of a similar, though far-off gathering.
Kal looked up and addressed the figure which slowly took on a more substantial shape before him. "Glad to see you could join us, Lord Dax-Ver. I think that Krypton will be in need of your expertise once more and we'd be glad of your input into this meeting on strategic planning."
The holo-figure clasped his hand and bowed his head in greeting. "It is my pleasure to serve you, sire, and Krypton. As you see," and at that he turned and gestured to the noblemen seated around his table, "I have taken the liberty of bringing together the family leaders in this quadrant in order that we can address this situation with as much urgency as it demands."
"Thank you, Dax. It is good to have you with us and my thanks to all of your guests." Kal let his eyes trail over the gentlemen in the hologram with a faint smile of gratitude, yet his mind never strayed from the gravity of the crisis. "As to your first question… there can be no doubt of Rad-Nor's intentions. Commander Jace has tracked the flotilla heading towards Earth's solar-system and, as Earth is the only habitable world there, it would seem the most likely destination. Even as we speak, he has probably entered that solar-system… So we don't have much time."
"But why would Nor attack Earth?" asked a curious Councillor seated near the end of the table, voicing the thought that was concerning most of his peers.
"I would assume that being forced to abandon his claim on Krypton, Nor has substituted Earth for his plans for world domination." Kal allowed a few moments for this piece of information to sink in. "Earth is a fair planet, with rich mineral deposits and natural bounty; its atmosphere is conducive to our physiology and would make an excellent home for exiled Kryptonians. But it already has an indigenous population, and one whom I'm certain Nor hopes to enslave. Unfortunately, while Earth's fields of technology and science do have a great deal of potential, they are still fairly primitive when compared to the weaponry of the Kryptonians and Taureans and the people of Earth will be subjugated if we do not put a stop to Nor."
"But should we interfere with a world so far away?" That came from the newly appointed Second Councillor.
Beside him, Kal could feel Lois bristle. He didn't blame her but he prayed that she would restrain herself… an argument at this point wouldn't help persuade his Council that aiding Earth was the best procedure. He also hoped that the Second Councillor's opinions weren't endemic throughout his Council. Kal hurried to cut in before Lois had a chance to speak… Only to find that another voice had beaten him to it.
"I find that question rather unsavoury, Lord Dinzi," said Trey as he rose to his feet, hoping against hope that he hadn't been saddled with another Mai as his deputy. "Earth is a totally innocent planet which is completely unaware of its vulnerability. If it hadn't been for the laws of our world demanding that the heir be married to an off-worlder and our subsequent invitation to Lady Lois to be our First Lady, the planet Earth would probably never have been brought to Nor's attention. Inadvertently perhaps, but nevertheless Krypton is responsible for the attack by our renegade Lord on this blameless world. And I wholeheartedly agree with the First Lord that it is our duty to deal with the consequences."
"I second the motion!" Remy rose to all of his inconsiderable height.
"I also," floated Dax's voice from the holoscreen.
Around the table both in Elvar and Veren Lords were standing or nodding their heads vigorously in agreement. The Second Councillor looked a trifle shaken at the force of the response and he gulped nervously before adding an amendment to his earlier statement.
"I didn't mean to suggest that we as Kryptonians shouldn't bear responsibility; I was just wondering what Lord Kal- El's plans were." The man almost trembled with nervousness. He was making such a mess in this his first important Council meeting. Dinzi was also aware of what the others were thinking… After all, he'd stepped straight into the shoes of a man who'd proved to be a spy and a traitor. He needed to gain his First Lord's trust and that of his senior. "If we intend to help Earth then this is a very big undertaking and, as Nor and his allies are already approaching their target, shouldn't we formulate our attack plan as soon as possible." Phew! Heads were nodding again and Trey and the old nobleman settled back into their places. "Sire, you wish to continue?!"
"Yes, indeed!" The Lord of El regarded Dinzi with puzzlement, his thoughts very similar to Trey's. Surely, they couldn't have been landed with another mole? As a Councillor, Dinzi had always seemed to be serious-minded yet unbiased; he had been an acceptable candidate for all Councillors as Mai's replacement… and until today, Kal had been quite satisfied with the man's performance of his duty. But there was no time for worrying speculation. In that, Dinzi was correct… the question of Earth's fate was paramount. "I propose that a rescue fleet should be sent to Earth, forthwith; I intend to personally take charge of the mission with Dax-Ver as my advisor and in actual command of the fleet. If, of course, he will agree." Kal looked towards the holoscreen and was relieved to see Lord Ver smiling.
"I do, my Lord!"
His attention fixed on Dax, Kal didn't immediately see the shocked faces around the table.
"My Lord?" Trey queried. "Do you think that's wise?" "Excuse me?!" Kal's wandering attention returned to those nearest him.
"For you to go with the fleet? I mean, it's a battle fleet and there will no doubt be fighting. Should you place yourself in danger?"
Taking a deep breath, Kal prepared to fight the objections… objections that he had known would arise. "Trey, gentlemen and my Lady… I chose Lois. I asked her to come here and for me, she agreed to travel the length of the galaxy to become my bride." Kal appropriated his wife's hand and absentmindedly drew soft circles on her smooth skin. "For that she became the target of an evil villain and now her home world has been drawn into the net of this vile monster… And so, I feel, in some way, personally accountable for Earth's plight. I couldn't equate it with my conscience if I sent my soldiers… to ask them to put themselves in jeopardy, to do what I believe is my duty. I would have no right to be First Lord if I stayed safe at home while my people fought a battle which I unwittingly caused. And as my High Council, I would expect no less than that you support me in the fulfilment of my coronation vows."
At some point during the speech, Kal had risen to his feet and now all eyes were fixed on his person. There could be no doubt in anyone's mind that they had indeed chosen well when they had anointed this young man as their ruler. They were afraid for him; sending him to a war zone was an onerous undertaking, but somehow no one in either Council chamber had the heart to deny him his rightful place at the head of his armed forces. With heavy hearts each voiced their acquiescence.
The rest of the meeting was made up of discussing strategic plans and configurations of the fleet which would chase after Nor's invading force. Thankfully, because of the volatile nature of the worlds that made up this galaxy and all the ones beyond, a large spaceforce was always on standby and it wouldn't take much time and trouble for them to be mobilized for the mission. Kal gave the floor over to Dax-Ver, who was obviously the most experienced in military manoeuvres of all the Councilmen and very deftly a plan began to take shape.
Within the hour the meeting was about to be brought to a close with everyone who had been given a specific task hurrying to do their duty. However, before the lords had a chance to go, Kal stopped them with a word… There was something else that needed to be said… two things, actually.
"As I'm sure you all appreciate, Nor and his men have a head start on us and I doubt that he'll be so accommodating as to wait around for us to show up before he begins his colonization of Earth. With that in mind I've asked Jace to open a transmission with Earth and I intend that Lady Lois should warn them of the danger they face and that help is on the way. And that meanwhile, they should stall for time and do nothing to antagonise their attackers."
"I think that would be good." Once more Trey sought to support his leader but he couldn't hide his scepticism and his next question was directed at the First Lady "But do you think that you can persuade them not to fight back. Given Earth's history, I doubt that they'll take being conquered lying down."
"I very much doubt that also, Trey… but knowing what Kal and I know… I'm afraid resistance will be useless…" Lois faltered to a halt, unsure of whether Kal intended to reveal the 'secret' or not. Surely, if the Kryptonians — good or bad — landed on Earth that would no longer be a secret. Lois' eyebrows lifted at Kal in a silent question and in return she received a small, yielding smile. Lois was right.
"What my wife has quite correctly refrained from telling you is that certain things happen to Kryptonians on Earth. I've known about this since living there myself but swore Lois and my bodyguards to secrecy because of the dangerous temptation it might present to less scrupulous members of our society. On Earth our race develops certain powers… certain super powers. I'm not clear about the reason for this but Ching, Poli and I did surmise that it had something to do with Earth's weaker gravity and the fact that their sun is yellow and not red like our own… perhaps it gives off some other kind of radiation. But all that is for the scientists to discover. I only know that in Earth's atmosphere, we can fly, are very strong and fast and all our senses become acute… hearing, seeing, touch and smell. And then there's heat and x-ray vision… Oh, and our bodies become invulnerable to injury. With all these attributes, Kryptonians don't need weapons to take over Earth, they can easily kill with a glance or a blow. The people of Earth have no defence against such things and they should be told what to expect." An awed silence had filled the room and Kal slowly realised that he was being regarded with some incredulity. "I know that all this is hard to believe, but it is the truth. It took my bodyguards and me a little by surprise when we found ourselves floating and hearing distant conversations." Still, his lords were watching him with eyes widened in shock. "I made the decision back then that only the three of us should spend anytime on Earth so that no one else should be affected, and that the knowledge should be kept in strict confidence. I'm sorry if you should disagree with my choice of actions but I still believe I was right to say nothing and I would've continued to keep this secret had not Nor forced my hand."
"I agreed with my husband," Lois' clear young voice rang out in the charged air and it was her turn to seek Kal's hand. "I believed that my people should be better protected if no one knew of this strange phenomenon."
"As has been proved by the detestable actions of one of Krypton's most noble lords, Lady Lois." The wise words of Remy sank like a blanket over the seated men as each acknowledged with some feelings of guilt that their 'noble' society was less altruistic than they had believed.
Yet feelings of guilt wouldn't save the planet Earth and Dax-Ver, being a man more prone to action than introspection, quickly reminded the gatherings that speed was of the essence and everyone hurried away to do their respective tasks. Apart from preparing and provisioning a large battle fleet in a very short space of time, there were a great many other jobs to be taken care of. Medical facilities and support ships for the fleet had to be organised; communication channels had to be opened and the news had to be broken to the populace of Krypton… both the word of Nor's dastardly declaration of war on the planet Earth and Lord Kal-El's subsequent rescue mission.
And there was also the imminent assembly of the Federation of Planets. Trey had been elected to contact all members and give them the unwelcome news that the conference had to be postponed. It was very regrettable but unavoidable under the circumstances. The trouble was that some of the representatives were already on their way and a number of governments chose to come regardless… deeming that if one member of the Federation were involved in an armed conflict then technically they were too. Perhaps, as allies, they could aid Krypton in its struggle. It was good to see that the concept of the United Planets actually worked when faced with a real-life situation. Kryptonians faced the future with grim yet stoical determination as they prepared to lose the one thing which had been theirs for so long and which they now realised they had come to take for granted… the state of peace.
Far across the galaxy in a king-sized bed a lone man lay slumbering in a deep and peaceful sleep. It was a quiet summer night and a tiny breeze lifted the edges of the gossamer white curtains that covered the open window. The open window that so annoyed and frustrated the Secret Service. But regardless of the breach in security which the agents maintained it presented, President Owen West was not about to give up a habit he had acquired during his boyhood spent in the wide countryside of Montana, where he roamed wild as a young boy and questions of security and bodyguards were a hypothetical thing of the future.
The President of the United States was justly tired, having returned earlier that day from a meeting with the world's heads of government regarding the economic crisis facing the Third World. It had been a long hard slog but eventually a consensus had been reached by the leading countries on a policy to aid these struggling nations which hopefully would not beggar the developed world… The problem for the future would be how well these countries obeyed the letter of the treaty. Getting agreement was less difficult than making sure that those involved lived up to that agreement and so often the US was expected to police these treaties… with, it must be added, a few of its allies. The United Nations had been formed for just this purpose but it relied on the strength of its more important members to give its resolutions teeth.
But President West had put all 'work-related' problems behind him for a few hours as he spent the early evening having dinner with his family. It was a pity that his wife had to fly off to Metropolis to preside over a charity auction on the next day but it was for disadvantage and disabled children and that was his wife's favourite hobby horse; she couldn't leave the last-minute preparations to her assistants even for a husband who had just returned home. And besides, she wanted to catch up with her old friend Lex Luthor, who was the co-organizer of this bash. For some moments as he'd said goodbye, West had wondered if he should be jealous of the guy. Luthor was certainly good- looking, charming and very, very rich… But no, Lex was an old friend and, even if his wife was still an attractive woman, she was a little too mature. Owen West had noticed with a feeling of vague disapproval that Lex's tastes ran to something a little younger.
As his wife had left some hours previously, West had chosen to retire early and was now sleeping the sleep of the just. The clock by his bedside glowed redly in the darkness, showing that the midnight hour had passed a few moments ago.
"Mr President! Mr President!" The anxious and slightly timorous voice was accompanied by a stealthy knocking. "Are you awake, sir?"
The hushed voice was replaced by a deeper and more urgent one. "Get out of the way, Jenny. I hardly think that tiny falsetto of yours could be heard behind a sheet of paper let alone a thick door and this could be urgent." A heavier knock fell on the door. "Mr President!"
"Urgent! Hah! I hardly think so," the female whispered. It was a very good thing that she'd decided to stay over to get a jump on compiling the minutes for the tax-cut meetings. Jenny Fisher had been with the President for a very long time, much longer than he'd been president, and, when Mrs West was out of town, she always stepped into the breach to defend the poor man from young, overeager whippersnappers like this boy. "You're waking the President up for someone's sick joke!"
"We don't know that! And if it's authentic…"
The noise of the hushed quarrel had penetrated Owen West's sleep and he dazedly pushed himself upright, rubbing the sleep from his tired eyes as he did so. "Harry! Jenny! Get in here! And this better be good!" West glanced at the clock… "It's just gone twelve, I've only been asleep for just over an hour!"
The door opened a crack and two white faces peered around the edge, ghostly in the moonshine sifting through the window. "Sir," said Harry as he insinuated his way into the room past the thick and dressing-robed body of the president's secretary. "Something very strange is happening and I thought it should be brought to your attention…" But the young aid seemed unable to continue under the sharpening stare of his president.
"What?! Has war broken out or something… Has there been some sort of disaster… My wife?! Has something happened to my wife?!"
"Oh no, sir!" Jenny bustled into the room, cinching her belt tighter round her fleecy robe, which was probably a bit warm for this time of year but the elderly secretary chose modesty above comfort or fashion. "You mustn't think that. It seems you have a phone call and I don't see why you have to be disturbed when you've just gone to bed but this fool of a boy here thinks that it might be urgent."
"But it could!" A fully dressed fool of a boy came further into the room and his indignation leant him courage. "You do have a phone call, sir, and we felt that you should take it, sir."
"Who thought I should take it?"
"Johnstone… the National Security advisor," Harry added.
"I know who Bert Johnstone is, Harry!" "Yes, sir… And the caller said it was an international emergency… And we're still trying to get hold of the Secretary of Defence, sir."
"The Secretary of Defence! You think he's needed here?" The President regarded his aid with something akin to awe. "You took it on yourself to call the Secretary? Harry, you have hidden depths."
"Not personally, no sir! Please sir, the phone call." And Harry pointed to the phone on the President's bedside cabinet.
"Ah, yes, the mysterious caller." West wriggled across the bed and dropped his feet to the floor, eyeing the phone like it was a predatory insect. "Is he some illusive bomber or a terrorist holding hostages who will only speak to the President?"
"No, sir!" For the first time Harry's eyes wouldn't meet his president's. He dug his hands deeper into his pockets in an effort to keep them still… What if he was wrong and this was a hoax? "It's not a he… it's a she and she says she's Lois Lane!"
"Lois Lane!" Now it was Harry's turn to feel like an insect under Owen West's stare. "Who is Lois Lane and what does she want?"
"She says she used to live in Metropolis but that she now lives on Krypton!"
"Krypton!" West reviewed his school-day geography for a moment and his more present-day international briefings. His head shook from side to side as he came up empty. "Never heard of it! Remind me! Which country is that in?!"
Harry's teeth ground together… he'd reached the hard part. "Huh, it isn't actually a country…"
"Then what is it?" His chief's head was making even wider movements.
"It's a planet," the thoroughly uncomfortable aide rushed out.
"Yes! And it is in our galaxy but way cross the other side!"
The President's gaze was like a microscope with Harry on a slide under its baleful eye. "Harry, have you been drinking?"
"No, sir! And I'm not on any medication. I'm just repeating what this Lane woman told me and if you'd just pick up the phone then she'd tell you too!"
"Harry, maybe she's been drinking or on medication! The woman is clearly a nut! How could you let her get through this far?"
"My sentiments exactly, Mr President!" Jenny huffed.
"Sir, I haven't completely taken leave of my senses. The FBI is trying to track down this Lois Lane even as we speak and we have put a trace on the call!" Harry announced slightly piqued. "And that's where it starts to get really weird."
"Can it get any more weird?!" But at the crestfallen look from Harry, Owen West, mellowed a little. After all, the young man had never shown any signs of insanity in the past. "Go on! What have you got?" He rose from the bed and, slipping on a robe for the sake of Jenny's sensibilities, crossed to seat himself on a more comfortable sofa. Somehow he just knew this was going to be a long night.
Harry, appearing somewhat mollified, came to stand before his leader. "Like I said, we requested a trace to be put on the call and we couldn't exactly pinpoint it as being from anywhere on Earth. The technicians at the listening station at St. Salvador's say that it's coming in via one of our military satellites but that its origins are somewhere out there." Harry's hands gestured airily towards the window and the sky beyond. "They've checked and double checked and they say there's no doubt… this message is from outer space!"
"Could this be some elaborate hoax?" This was certainly looking more interesting and Owen edged forward in his seat. "Could this be the result of some computer hackers?"
"I suppose it's possible but the communication experts don't think so."
West changed course. "Did this woman say why she was calling?"
"I'm afraid so, sir." Harry's head and voice dropped. "According to her we're about to be attacked by aliens."
"What! You have to be kidding me!"
"Maybe you should talk to her, Mr President! She did say she wanted to talk to you!"
Mr President jumped up from his seat and took a quick march about the room. He threw a beseeching look at his aid and his secretary and heaved a giant sigh. "Okay! But I have a very bad feeling about this!"
Crossing to the phone, he picked it up gingerly, almost afraid that it might burn him. "Miss Lane, this is the President of the United States speaking, what is it that you want to tell me? But I warn you, if this is some kind of sick joke, you will be dealt with very severely."
"Huh! You'd have to catch me first," came the distant voice of the caller.
Light years away in Jace's communication basement, an impatient elbow was dug gently into Lois' side and she sent an apologetic glance at Kal. "Sorry, Mr President! This really isn't the time for humour. I've been trying to get through to you for ages and every second counts… Nor could get there at anytime now."
"Nor? Is that a name? What or who is Nor?"
"Well, his full name is Rad-Nor, Lord Rad-Nor, actually, and he's an enemy of my husband, who is the ruler of Krypton, and he was exiled because he tried to take over the throne… but you don't need to know that… so I'll just tell you that he's now on his way to Earth with an invasion force and you have to warn everyone that he's a ruthless killer and that he means to make all of you his slaves and that on no account should you try to fight him!"
"Miss Lane, if what you say is true and Earth is under attack from some alien entity then you can hardly expect us to just sit around and do nothing. Not unless you're in cahoots with these 'aliens' and don't want us to defend ourselves."
"I am not!" Lois' indignation threatened to choke her but she swallowed hard and continued. She had to get through to him, otherwise the consequences were unthinkable. "Mr West, sir, these entities as you call them are incredibly strong and powerful… they can even fly…."
"Fly! Like a bird, you mean?! This is some kind of joke!" West was tempted to slam down the phone. This woman could not be for real! Yet, members of his security team were filing into the room and gesturing that he should keep on talking.
"I only wish it were, Mr President. But the good thing is that we doubt that all the invasion forces will have these powers… only the Kryptonians. The Taureans will have to rely on weapons but their weapons are vastly superior to your own and we just want you to stall for time until help arrives."
"Taureans! Don't tell me… they're the bull people!"
"Funny, that's just what I thought when I heard about them… but, in my opinion, they look more like pigs… Though they are human… in a manner of speaking."
"Lo-is!" Kal's voice was rising in desperation. The man on the other end of this communication must be totally confused by now, given the fact that he wasn't used to Lois' tendency to babble.
"Sorry! My husband's just reminded me that I tend to ramble on a bit when I'm nervous." Lois offered Kal an apologetic shrug. "So, I'll get right to the point. I know that you find this very hard to believe but Earth is in great danger… the greatest danger it's ever known. Very soon now a flotilla of spacecraft will enter Earth's orbit and you'll be faced with an enemy that you have little chance of defending yourselves against…"
Into the president's quickly filling bedroom came a tall, craggy-faced man whose pale blue eyes held the shades of experiences which most ordinary mortals would rather be without. "Owen, Mr President," Bert Johnstone had known the president for many years and his familiarity was not only tolerated but welcomed. "We've found Lois Lane!"
The president's expressive eyebrows shot up and he injected a conciliatory note into his voice. If this poor woman was crazy then it was probably best for the moment to play along with her. "Excuse me for a minute, miss, I have to confer with one of my advisors."
"He put me on hold!" Lois' shoulders lifted and her hands turned palm-wards to the heavens as strains of the Battle Hymn of the Republic drifted ethereally through the eons of space. "Can you believe that guy?!"
President West beckoned Johnstone further into the room. "So if you've found Lane then this woman is an imposter!"
"Not necessarily, sir. We haven't actually, physically found Lane." The Security Chief watched as his friend and boss dropped back into the sofa. "We know that a Lois Lane lived in Metropolis and was a student at Metro U's school of journalism… seems she was a really bright kid… Won Lex Luthor's award for excellence. Then one day, around two years ago, she just packed up a few things and vanished."
"Yeah! Her family filed a missing person's report and the police looked into it but found nothing suspicious. Her roommate said she'd been dating Luthor, so the police checked in with him, very discreetly, of course, and he told them that he had taken her out to dinner, in the role of mentor, as it was. It appears the last he saw of Ms Lane was when he'd dropped her off on campus and she'd walked of with this young guy. The next day she packed a bag and left a note for her friend saying goodbye and that she wasn't to worry. The sergeant in charge of the case put her down as a runaway and it turned out to be so, as both the mother and sister reported that she'd phoned them sometime later… Only thing was, Lane never revealed her whereabouts."
"You're not suggesting she could be in outer space?"
"Normally, I wouldn't suggest anything so incredulous."
The president's sigh was heartfelt. "What do you want me to do?"
"Keep her talking. They're rerunning the trace on the call."
"Is that really necessary? I mean, this can't be for real!"
The craggy-eyebrows drew into a frown. "Mr West, sir, are you willing to take the chance if it is?"
"You have a point, Bert. Okay, but tell them to be quick. I really want to get back to bed. This has been one helluva day!" West composed himself and returned his attention to the phone call. "Miss Lane, it seems that my people confirm that you lived in Metropolis until a couple of years ago and that you were last seen in the company of a young man."
"You're back at last!" Lois' exclamation was a mixture of thankfulness and frustration. "Yes, that would be Kal-El, my husband." "And the two of you were abducted by aliens?"
"No! Kal-El is an alien," Lois mouthed the word 'sorry' to Kal. "And, before you ask, no, he didn't abduct me. I went of my own free will."
"Well, each to his own, I suppose." The president was clearly mystified why anyone would want to leave Earth. Oh, my god! He was starting to act as if this woman was telling the truth. She was talking again and it was only common courtesy to listen to her.
"I've been on Krypton for most of these two years and I'm married to their leader."
"Is he like a president or something?" Visions of himself saying 'take me to your leader' to some tinny looking robots flashed through his mind and he suppressed a slightly hysterical laugh.
"Actually, he's more like a king. Kryptonians have hereditary rulers…"
"Oh, a dictatorship?"
"Indeed it is not! Kal has a Council and he must rule within the strict confines of the law. Besides, he wouldn't ever do anything that wasn't in the best interests of his people. Kryptonians aren't like that."
"And yet, the purpose of your communication is to warn me that a Kryptonian is about to attack Earth." President West's voice cut like a razor. "Unless that is in Krypton's best interests."
"No, sir, I can assure you that it is not." A new deeper- timbered voice could be heard in the president's bedroom. A voice soft, yet anchored with power. "As my Lady has just explained, the Kryptonian who is on his way to Earth is an exile. Believe me, my people mean you and yours no harm."
"And you, I take it, are this Kalel person?" demanded the president.
"I am. I'm also aware how sceptical you are but my wife and I are telling the truth which regrettably you'll find out all too soon." While Kal was speaking, Jace began furiously signalling his leader. "Excuse me, Mr President, but it's my turn to ask you to hold. Please, I beg you, do not hang up!"
The words might have been a request but the tone was commanding and, strangely, West found himself waiting while back in the communications room Kal redirected his attention.
"What is it, Jace?"
"Sire, I think that I can project a holo-image along the communication's beam. I'm not completely sure that it would work. Earth technology might not be up to it… but it's just possible that I can boost it from here."
"And they would see the image in the White House?" Lois asked in wonder and as Jace nodded in agreement. "Geese! That should give them something to think about!"
"Go ahead, Jace! And Lois, not a word to anyone on the other end for now. No use telling them that they're about to see something that might not happen."
Lois laughed. "No point in making them think we're bigger kooks than they already do, huh?"
"Exactly!" Nevertheless, Kal found himself standing taller and taking Lois' hand into his own. If this did get through then they might as well give something of a show. "President West, my purpose and my lady's was to try to persuade you not to antagonise your attackers but to wait until I and my fleet can come to your aid. Then I'd be extremely grateful for any help that you and the forces of Earth can provide."
"Hey, wait a minute, you're intending to come here? Who's to say that you're not the invader and that this Nor guy is just a myth?"
A hazy transparent cloud started to form in the busy bedroom and people started falling back, struggling to get out of its way. Within seconds the cloud started to form shapes, shimmering, slightly translucent yet very recognisable shapes. Two people, two young people. A man and a woman with others around them in a dimly lit room.
"That's Lois Lane, Owen," Johnstone gestured toward the female image.
"My god! Where is that coming from? Who is doing this?" The leader of the free world looked round in some sort of shock at his staff. "Is that a hologram? Whoever is doing this step forward!"
The deep voice was speaking again, only this time it was issuing from the dark-haired man in the apparition. "I'm afraid that's our technology. We would have warned you but we weren't totally certain that we could project so far." The couple stepped further into the president's bedroom. "My name is Lord Kal-El and this is my wife Lady Lois-El. We greet you."
"Hallo, Mr President, nice to meet you," said the lady with a tiny twinkle in her eye. "I can't see you, but I just bet you're tongue-tied. I know I've been that way myself a time or two since coming here."
Lois was right. The president was speechless as was everyone else. There was total silence in the room which suddenly ended when the presidential staff began versing their concerns all at once. On Krypton the background babble sounded almost hysterical. This was not going well.
"President West," Lois called. "Mr President, we didn't mean to startle you, we just want to warn you."
The heavily pregnant young woman in the hologram leaned forward anxiously. "You have to believe us. We mean you no harm but we are from a planet far away."
West's dropped jaw closed. "Yes, I think I'm beginning to believe that you are a little… unusual."
"Mr President, I think we have to believe them." The Secretary of Defence burst into the already crowded room followed closely by a heavily decorated General, the appointed chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "There are reports coming in from various points of the world. UFOs have been sighted over Beijing, Paris, Sydney and New York. The world is under global assault, sir."
"And this has been confirmed?"
"We don't really need confirmation; just switch on the TV."
Harry sidled forward, passing through the airy hologram on his way. He felt a slight tingle sweep through him, though he couldn't be certain whether it was from his touching the vision or just plain nervousness. Quickly he reached down and turned on the TV. Everyone watched as the international broadcasters and cameramen told of the plight of their citizens in word and picture, leaving no doubt that their holographic visitors had spoken the truth.
"What's being done about this?" President West demanded as the broadcast cut to familiar scenes of a busy night in New York; only this time the crowds had received much more than they could ever have expected. "Our forces are fighting back?" His voice tailed away as he watched a beam of fiery red light emanate from an alien craft and take out a whole building. In the streets below people ran screaming as they tried to avoid the flying debris. Many were unsuccessful and they perished under the flaming rubble. "Dear God! Where are our defence forces?"
"We're doing our best, sir, but they took us completely by surprise. We immediately answered with a full-scale attack but we're losing fighters quicker than we can get them in the air." This time the General replied. "As you can see, these aliens have superior firepower."
A sudden thought hit West. "Can they fly?"
"Fly, sir? Who can fly?"
The Defence Secretary shot his companion a surprised look. "I don't believe that's been reported, sir."
"Huh!" West exclaimed in some satisfaction. He really hadn't swallowed the super powers thing. "No beings who can fly!"
"If I might speak?" Kal-El raised his hand to gain the alarmed Earthlings' attention. "That would be correct. The powers take a short time to develop but after that the Kryptonians amongst the attackers will become invincible."
"How long do these powers take to manifest themselves?" West wasn't quite ready to accept all that this young couple implied yet it was best to learn as much as possible about the enemy.
"Around three days or so." The First Lord of Krypton was just as determined to prove his point. "Then we have to stop them before that can happen."
"President West, I sincerely wish that you could do so but Earth just doesn't have the capability. And the reason your radar didn't pick up the space fleet is because of the cloaking devices. I'm sorry but Earth doesn't have the technology to fight these people." Kal softened his voice to show that he meant no disrespect.
"Sir, I don't know anything about super powers," the Secretary of Defence added, "but this young man is correct. These space invaders don't need any more powers. They're swatting our fighters like flies." His eyes darted to the TV screen as the one-sided battle was depicted from all over the world.
"What about our missile-systems?"
Again Kal answered. "Exploding harmlessly against the force-fields. There's no way your weapons can penetrate the invaders' shields. Even a concerted strike couldn't dent the Taurean defences."
"A nuclear strike?"
"Mr President, these spaceships are in your atmosphere," Kal sounded slightly horrified. "Are you prepared to expose your own population to the fallout from such explosions. And I very much doubt that it would have much impact on your enemy. Your own people would be the losers."
A very subdued and troubled President watched the graphic scenes unfold on the television screen when unexpectedly the picture blinked then disappeared leaving behind a flicker of snow. Slowly he raised his stricken eyes to meet the compassionate gaze of the dark-haired handsome youth before him.
"What was it you wanted me to do, Lord Kal-El?"
"Persuade the rest of Earth's governments to parley with the invaders until we can get there to rescue you. In Rad- Nor you're dealing with a power-crazed megalomaniac. Stall for time and do nothing to antagonise him into destroying you. My forces will make all speed. May your God be with you."
The hologram began to pulsate gently and it was clear the transmission was ending.
"Lord Kal-El," West called into the dimming glow. "Are your forces more powerful than his?"
"I certainly hope so, Mr President."
"So do I, son, so do I!"
The stunned occupants of the room still stared at the now empty space till, finally, the General shook himself from his stupor. "What happens now? We can't just sit around and do nothing? Our people are being slaughtered!"
West walked over to his open window, raising his eyes to the night sky, fearful that one of the great spacecraft would be hanging in the darkness, ready to wreak death and destruction on his beautiful capital city. Yet, thankfully, all was quiet and only the night stars twinkled unconcernedly back at him. His shoulders slumped as he relived the scenes he'd witnessed on the TV screens. "What do you suggest, General Broderick? Have we any way of defeating these aliens?"
For some seconds it seemed as if the General would bluster with some ill-conceived jingoistic nonsense but commonsense won out. "No, sir, not at this present time."
"Then we do what this Lord Kal-El suggests… we stall." Owen West turned back to his people. There was a grim but strongly determined set to his features. "These aliens might have us out-gunned but that's not the only weapon in our arsenal. The boy said that this Nor was a megalomaniac and usually these people are fairly susceptible to a little flattery. See if you can open a channel to these invaders and get me the heads of government for the countries under attack and our allies. If we can't out-gun him let's see if we can outwit him."
A whole different atmosphere pervaded the room as people hurried to carry out the President's requests. The world might be in greater danger than they'd ever faced but they weren't dead-in-the-water yet… And, if the hologram thing was for real, they'd just acquired a pretty powerful ally. This Nor guy had better watch out.
Chapter Thirteen: Forgotten Promises
As soon as the connection with Earth had been closed, Kal made his apologies to Lois and, with Ching at his side, had hurried off to Elvar's spaceport to oversee the arrangements for mustering the fleet. It had been agreed that the two main exit points would be from Elvar and Veren, and that the two battle squadrons would rendezvous once they'd cleared Krypton's atmosphere. From there, they would travel at the fastest speeds possible to reach Earth, hoping that Nor and his forces would not wreak too much destruction on Lois' home planet in the interim.
Watching her husband go, Lois had felt somewhat left out of the loop. However, she did appreciate that her condition made her cumbersome, and a busy space terminal, where technicians were readying ships for flight and where troops were massing to embark for war, was not the best place for her to be. Besides, she had preparations of her own to make, but in that too, she was frustrated. Trey had asked for her assistance in updating the Federation members on the current state of the invasion. She had been flattered but she'd also been a little put out and, if she was honest with herself, she was feeling very weary. A short nap wouldn't go amiss and Lois found herself more than a little exasperated with her pregnant state. There was no time to be tired. Kal would return soon and she didn't want to be a hindrance.
This, however, proved to be a slight miscalculation on her part. Lois had time for a long nap, and dined with her lady-in-waiting, bodyguard and the rest of the family, all without the company of her husband. He had sent a message, shortly before the dining hour, to warn her that he would eat at the spaceport while he and his commanders attempted to add details to the bare skeletal plan of the rescue mission.
Lois tried hard not to feel excluded but it just wasn't working. At the dining table she'd made an attempt to join in the conversation without success. Small talk just didn't interest her while her head was filled with horrifying pictures of death and destruction. She understood that the El family were doing their best to distract her but, truthfully, Lois didn't want to be diverted. Her home planet was under attack and all she wanted was to be there with them.
Even before the last course was served, Lois excused herself and, telling Gellis to stay behind, she sped to the solitude of her bedchamber. Once in the corridors, she sensed another presence and glancing behind she caught sight of her familiar shadow. In the shaded light of the passageway her bodyguard's face looked strangely blank and enigmatic. Part of her mind recognised that Poli probably felt as excluded as she but, at present, she just didn't have the energy to give it much thought. Gratefully, Lois reached the sanctuary of her room and throwing herself across the bed, she indulged in a much needed bout of weeping. She'd never cried so much when she hadn't been pregnant and, normally, she didn't approve of wallowing in tears but tonight, somehow, the sobs wouldn't stop.
<Get a grip, Lois> she remonstrated with herself. Herself, though, just wasn't cooperating. Dashing a hand across her wet cheeks, she climbed clumsily off the bed and, ignoring her snivelling, she hurried, as best as her pregnant body would allow, into her closet. There was a trunk in here, somewhere, and after a haphazard search she finally found it.
It wasn't easy, due to her bulk, to drag the thing from its hiding place into the bedroom and onto the platform at the foot of the bed. If only she knew how to work that matrix thingy! But then again, perhaps trunks, not being permanent pieces of furniture, weren't programmed into the castle's matrix. Now that she came to think about it, perhaps nothing in the castle was incorporated into matrixes. She certainly couldn't remember seeing things appearing and disappearing here. So maybe that meant that only occurred in newer or temporary structures.
Having managed to open the heavy lid, Lois hastened back into her closet and began selecting suitable attire for visiting a planet that was engaged in a struggle for its very existence. Her sobs had subsided to sporadic gulps and sniffs which she ignored stoically and, so intent was she on her task, she didn't notice the door opening or see a discomfited Kal come into the room.
"Lois, what are you doing?" Kal's gaze took in the piles of clothing that lay strewn over the bed and on various pieces of furniture.
Lois halted mid-stride on her way to the trunk with yet some more clothes. She smiled sadly through her messy tears. "Oh there you are, Kal. I didn't see you come in," she whispered huskily and hiccuped.
Kal walked forward slowly, taking in the clutter around him. "Lois, what's all this?" His hands lifted wearily at the jumble. It had been a gruelling day and his tired mind couldn't assimilate why his chamber should look like the garage-sales he'd heard about on Earth. It might be that Lois had attempted to take her mind off Earth's plight by clearing out her wardrobe. Or, maybe, it was that nesting thing that seemingly happened to women in their latter stages of pregnancy. If that was the case, his baby would be nestled in very expensive and totally unsuitable swaddling clothes. Yet, his weary brain refused to tackle that particular, if somewhat puzzling, subject. He tried a different tack. "What are you doing here, honey? I thought I'd find you at the apartment."
"Well, I did think of it," Lois stated earnestly, her earlier depression superceded by her galvanisation into action. "But the clothes I keep there are mostly casual and I figured, if I'm going to Earth as the First Lady of Krypton, the Council will expect me to dress accordingly, though I shall probably put in a couple of Earth outfits."
"Excuse me?!" Kal's brows drew together in a frown.
"Close your mouth, Kal, and don't look so dumbfounded," Lois advised, starting to go through her latest acquisitions from her cupboard. "You're not usually so slow, Kal. I'm packing!"
"Yes! And you shouldn't hang about either… or has your valet already packed for you? I must admit I haven't seen him but then he might have packed while I was at dinner… and I haven't checked your closet. I've been too busy deciding what to take… I mean, I know I have to look like a First Lady but I don't want to put the people of Earth off… What do you think?" Lois held up a silk dress before her. "Too grand?! What am I saying?! You've got much more important things to think about than my outfits! I have much more important things to think about than what I'm going to wear!" Lois sank onto the bed amid the silks and satins. "Is there any news?"
"Jace is monitoring the situation, and it seems that President West has taken our advice. He's asked for a meeting with Nor but so far he's had no reply. I would imagine that Nor is displaying his power before he comes to the Council table." Kal sat down beside Lois and gently removed the garment that she was pleating between agitated fingers. It was one of her favourite dresses and she'd be upset if it was ruined… Strange how these silly inconsequential thoughts overtook his befuddled brain in moments of stress. He just didn't want to face up to what he had to do next. "I'm so sorry, Lois."
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Lois quickly assured, her hand curling round Kal's. "All that stuff you mentioned in the Council chamber… about being responsible for Nor's attack on Earth because you asked me to marry you, is just not so. You couldn't have known what Nor would do."
"Well, that's not what I was apologising for, but I do feel responsible."
"That's because you're a kind and caring individual and I love you so much for that. But now we must hurry! We don't want to keep the fleet from flying. The sooner we leave, the sooner we can deal with Nor." Lois attempted to rise but found that she was detained by Kal, who was still clinging to her hands. "Kal!" Her tone was becoming impatient. "We don't have time to indulge your obsessing!"
"Lois! I'm not obsessing… well, maybe a little." Once more she tried to stand and again he stopped her. "Lois, please listen to me!" His intensity gained her attention and she turned to watch his lovely, yet unusually guarded, eyes. "Sweetheart, you're not going!"
"Lois, you must understand! You're about to give birth! It's just too risky!"
Lois' blank stare reflected Kal's worried one. A few words… with just a few little words, Lois' dream of partnership came tumbling down. "I'm not going? To Earth, you mean?"
"Yes! And no! We decided that it would be safer for you to stay on Krypton."
"We! Who is we?"
"Well, me… and the Council."
Lois jumped up as quickly as her swollen body would allow and this time Kal let her go. "But this is my home that's under attack… I should be there!"
"I know how you feel, honey, and under different circumstances I might agree to take you with me. But we're going into a battle zone and I just couldn't focus on my job if I were constantly worrying about how you were doing. You must see that, Lois. I couldn't bear it if I lost you or the baby."
Lois rounded on him, a little whirlwind in action. "No, you don't know how I feel! These are my people who are being killed!" She stood in the centre of the room, her hands clenched, and never had he seen her so defiant. "And you expect me to stay here in comfort and luxury while on Earth my people are suffering. You can't expect that of me!"
"But I do, Lois… for the sake of our baby." Kal softened his tone, hoping to reach her with thoughts of the child who would very soon join them.
"The baby! The precious heir! That's what this is all about! Never mind how I feel! Let's just be certain that our next First Lord is safe!"
"Lois! That's not true!" Kal too bounded to his feet. "You know that you're just as important to me as any child we might have. But yes, I am concerned about the safety of our baby… I don't see what's wrong in that! I don't see what's wrong about wishing to keep you and our child out of a war. But even if I did agree to your going, the Council would never sanction it!"
"Oh, don't pass the buck! You could overrule the Council!" Lois took a couple of steps towards him. "In fact, that's just what you should do! Tell them you want me with you!"
"I can't, Lois!"
"Overrule the Council!" Desperation was creeping through Kal's soul.
"Now I know that's not so!" Lois crossed her arms and rested them with some difficulty on top of her protruding bump. "I've been reading up on Kryptonian law and it seems that the First Lord can overrule his Council in personal matters."
"Under certain circumstances, yes!"
"Under these circumstances!"
"No! This situation doesn't apply! That was only put in to make sure that the First Lord could have the final word on his domestic situation. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with some long-ago ancestor of mine wishing to divorce a lady of high rank. It was even before the civil war, when the ruler married into the aristocracy. The lady in question came from an important family and the Council didn't approve of the divorce. It seemed, though, that the First Lord's passion for a much younger lady was stronger, and he forced through the legislation. First Lords were more absolute rulers back then. It's one of these old laws that people have almost forgotten but, as you see, there are no similarities." Kal had rushed through the explanation almost frantically. But he wouldn't hide behind a lie. "Though I expect I could use it if I thought fit." Lois held her breath as Kal watched her; his dark gaze beseeching her to understand. "Only, in this case, I agree with their decision. I can't condone your journey to Earth."
"Kal!" Lois' hands fell to her sides.
"Lois! You're only three weeks away from giving birth. You can't want to give birth in the middle of a battle!"
"But it wouldn't come to that! I could stay on your spacecruiser… well back from the fighting."
"Lois, there's no place that can be guaranteed safe in a battle zone!"
"Kal, this is something I need to do! Just as you told the Council that you needed to be there with your troops. Surely you understand!"
Kal remained implacable, his face taking on a shuttered look. "No, Lois! What I understand is that I have a job to do… just as you have your own job to fulfil… giving birth to our child in safety."
The two combatants stared at each other across a wider space than the physical one between them. However could it have come to this? Each isolated in their own unswerving opinions. Lois was the first to break the silence but not the deadlock.
"Fine! Fine! You go off and do whatever your testosterone- induced state of mind tells you to, and I'll just stay here at home and play the part of the little woman to the hilt!"
"Lois! It's not like that!"
"Well, that's the way it appears to me, and you are an 'absolute' ruler… you can do whatever you think is best and I'll just have to go along with it. But get this, Kal, I don't have to like it! Now go! And let me put all this stuff back in the cupboard because, obviously, I won't be needing it!"
Lois grabbed blindly for the pile of dresses on the bed and stumped off towards the closet once more. Only this time she slammed the door and hurried through the adjoining portal to the bathroom, thinking the locks shut as she went. The tears from earlier returned in full force and this time were accompanied by her heart breaking.
Outside, Kal debated unlocking the doors and following his wife. He hated seeing her in such a sad state but would his presence help her? There was no way that he could agree to her request and he understood his Lois well enough to know that only a complete about turn by him would appease her, and he just wasn't prepared to do that. This time, he was in the right and no amount of arguing or tears would change his mind. From the beginning, he had known that Lois wouldn't be happy with his stipulation, but he had hoped that she would come to see the wisdom of his decision. Perhaps, if he gave her time to reflect… Kal left the room with a heavy heart. One thing Lois was right about… he did need to pack!
How could a very short time seem so long? From the moment of his leaving the bedroom to the moment when he would leave the environs of her life, mayhap, forever, each drawn-out minute was indelibly etched into Lois' consciousness.
Exhausted and cried-out, Lois had finally quit the tiled bathroom, which had increasingly taken on the aspects of a sterile cell rather than the haven she needed. Ignoring the cluttered mess of the room, she sought refuge in the place where she felt closest to home, the apartment which Kal had fashioned for her when her well being had been his paramount concern. Sadly, she reflected, all things change and even the strongest commitment could fade. She had grown up with the example of her parent's disastrous marriage always before her, yet she had foolishly assumed that her relationship with Kal would be different, more enduring. Now the suddenness and swiftness of the estrangement shook her to the core. She didn't doubt that Kal still cared for her but that wasn't enough for Lois; she needed his respect. In the deepest corner of her soul, Lois realised that she had that respect but her hurt feelings of abandonment and isolation robbed her of her balance, and thus, she resorted to her old tried and trusted remedy; retire behind the barricades and repulse any attempt at reconciliation.
Early in the morning, Kal had shown up at her door, hoping against hope to find Lois more tolerant of the position he felt he had to adopt. Hesitantly, he knocked and waited for permission to answer, giving her some control over the situation. But, as the minutes passed, he began to doubt that Lois was prepared to speak with him.
<Lois, please let me in.> Kal sent his supplication in thought through the door. Yet all was still and quiet. Obviously, his wife remained in a huff. Dejectedly, he stared at the unyielding door as if by prayer alone the barrier would disappear. Unfortunately, the inanimate object wouldn't cooperate. Slowly he turned to walk away.
In the estimation of his wife's state of mind, however, he had done Lois a disservice. Throughout the night, she had alternated between pacing the floor and staring at the dark velvet sky until, as dawn approached, her exhausted body had given way to sleep. Kal's wake-up call had surprised her from the realms of an uneasy, nightmarish sleep where she had watched helplessly as Nor had brutally attacked Metropolis and single-handedly killed her family and friends. It had taken some moments before her sleep-fogged brain had recalled last night's disastrous quarrel and that Kal was not actually inside the apartment
As fast as her legs would carry her, Lois dragged herself from her bed and scurried across the living room. Kal had come to apologise; to tell her that it was alright for her to travel to Earth. Despite her lack of sleep, her step and her spirits lightened as she made her way to the door.
In the passageway, Kal halted in mid-stride at the sound of the heavy door opening. Guardedly, he took in the sight of Lois' wan face and the darkened shadows beneath her eyes. Hurting her was the last thing that Kal wanted to do, yet Lois had to understand that his decision had been made for her own good and for their baby's too. Squaring his shoulders he faced up to his wife. "Thank you, Lois. May I come in?" he asked formally. "We need to talk."
With a sinking heart the Lady of El appraised her husband. This was no supplicant lover. There might have been the glimmer of entreaty hidden in the depths of his eyes, but his features were set in harsher lines than Lois had ever witnessed when turned upon herself. This was the face of the ruler of all Krypton… stern and immovable.
Well, Kal was about to realise that Earthlings were not so accommodating as his own people. Lois Lane was not for turning. Carefully, she watched him pass her and move to the centre of the room.
"What do you want, Kal?"
"To talk, Lois, just to talk! I can't stand this… impasse! And it's so unreasonable!"
"Hmph!" Lois exclaimed with force. "Why is it, when I differ from your point of view, that I should be considered unreasonable?!"
Kal raised his eyes to the ceiling in exasperation. "That's not what I meant, Lois, and you know it!"
"No, Kal, I don't know anything anymore." Lois hugged her arms around her, closing in her body stance. "I thought that our marriage was a partnership! But now I've discovered that it's a very unequal partnership and I'm certainly not on top!"
Kal-El felt his vexation building. "Is that what you want, My Lady? To be on top?! Is this what all this is about? Getting your own way?"
"No!" Lois studied Kal's face. How could someone, who professed to love her, have made such a wounding and inaccurate accusation? "You make me sound like a spoiled brat! And it isn't that at all! I just wanted to be your equal." Her voice almost broke on her last statement.
"Lois, you are… in every way that matters!" Kal tentatively stepped closer to his angry wife but stopped when she backed off. Yet he did reach out a hand to her, hoping to touch her somehow. "I don't mean to downgrade you by asking you to stay home. I believe that giving birth to our baby is the most important thing there is, and I'm so sorry that I won't be right here with you." Kal's voice betrayed his deep disappointment that he'd miss out on the miracle of welcoming their child into the world, yet Lois was so entrenched in her own aggrieved feelings that she failed to recognise her husband's sincerity. "But I would feel that way whether you were giving birth to the heir to the throne or to an ordinary baby. You have to believe that, Lois."
"But that's just it, Kal! How can I believe that?! You've never known what being ordinary means! Since you were a small child you've been raised in the knowledge that your duty to this world came before anything else, and I was foolish to think that our love could change things… But, now I'm quite clear on my position in your life. You've taught me that lesson well and I won't make the same mistake twice." Lois' voice was resigned yet unyielding.
"'Put me first!' Is that what you're asking, Lois? You can't mean that! Sometimes, duty to others must come before our own needs… And this involves your world too!"
"No! You're twisting my motives! I would never…" But Lois couldn't go on. Somehow, she'd been made to sound silly and selfish again, when all she'd wanted was to help her people. But Kal still refused to acknowledge that. There was no way through this morass of misunderstanding that had opened up between them. Instead, she resorted to steely silence.
A light went out behind Kal's eyes and Lois felt herself shiver involuntarily at the ice that formed there in its stead. "Clearly, My Lady, you've made up your mind about my motives and there's nothing more I can say to make you understand my position. You will, however, remain here while I and my troops deal with Nor. And you have my word that I will do my utmost to ensure that your people suffer as little as possible at that madman's hands."
The coldly courteous timbre which had replaced his normal warm, husky tone chilled Lois to her very core, but pride forbade her from allowing her distress to show. Nevertheless, she couldn't be sure that her voice wouldn't tremble, so she briefly inclined her head.
Oh, zor! Had it come to this, when Lois couldn't even bear to speak with him?! Kal cleared his throat of the lump that had formed there. "Then if you've nothing further to say, My Lady, I'll alleviate you of my presence. I have much to do before our departure tonight. There will be a ceremonial leave-taking at the spaceport… I'll send Poli to fetch you," Lois was informed somewhat imperialistically. "I see no reason to upset others with the knowledge of our estrangement."
A curt nod of the head and he was gone, the door left ajar behind him. Then again, Lois Lane refused to be subjugated and her voice followed him down the corridor.
"Don't look for me, My Lord. I have a premonition that I'll have the world's worst headache this evening!"
But for all her bravado, Lois felt totally depressed and she wandered back to her bedroom where she indulged in yet another bout of weeping… Only this time she was all cried out and managed just a few snorts and sniffles, resorting instead to pummelling a convenient pillow. Perhaps, had she been able to see her husband's expression as he strode off, she might have derived a small measure of comfort. Despite his ferocious demeanour, at her words, Kal had found his stiff lips curling, of their own violation, into a tiny grin. That was his Lois!
In a different part of the castle, another young lady had no ambivalent feelings about how she would take farewell of her loved one. Zara paced back and forward in the empty atrium, awaiting her fianc‚ to answer her summons. In some way, Zara was a little surprised at her enterprise and her daring. Evidently, close contact with Lady Lois had taught the youngest and, customarily, well-behaved daughter of the house of El just how subterfuge could be used to one's own advantage.
She had sent for Ching in the name of the First Lady and no one had sought to doubt her. Either everyone was too preoccupied with the coming expedition or Zara was becoming quite adept at deception. Whatever was the reason, Zara didn't care overmuch. She had almost lost Ching once and she wasn't about to let him go back into battle without sharing one last moment of love together.
The sliding of the doors interrupted her thoughts as Ching, handsomely attired in the finery of his new rank, trod into the spacious greenhouse. It only took a moment for Zara to catch his hand and lead him into the cover of the densest bushes where she proceeded to show him wordlessly how much he would be missed. The shock of it overwhelmed the Major for but a moment, then he was eagerly returning her kisses, his hands pulling her closer and entangling in her long silken hair. These interludes were few and precious, therefore they clung to each other hungrily. After many protracted minutes of blissful desire, reluctantly, the couple parted, yet their lips strayed not far from the other's.
"Zara, you know this is dangerous." Yet, though his words were of censure, their tone was gentle. "We shouldn't meet like this in a public place."
"No one is here, Ching. I checked earlier and everybody is too busy to take time out to visit the gardens and the surveillance camera was taken down months ago." Zara leaned back against her dearest's encircling arms. "Besides, I don't really care if we are found out. I couldn't let you go without saying goodbye or wishing you well. You almost died last time, and I never would have had the chance to tell you goodbye, or let you know that I would always hold you in my heart. I remember how terribly it hurt, standing in that control room, listening to Dax-Ver inform us you'd been badly injured, and trying to pretend that it only mattered a very little. I think my heart broke that day and it only mended when you came back to me."
"Oh, Zara, I'm sorry you were frightened so." Ching's fingers softly traced the tears that slipped slowly from Zara's overbright eyes. "But, as you see, you can't get rid of me so easily. I intend to be in your life for a very long time to come."
A tender smile lit up Zara's pale face and she pulled Ching in the direction of the chaise-longue by the fishpond where she, Lois and Gellis had begun the plan to fool the Mais into betraying their crimes. The first act of the plot that would finally send her sweetheart, her brother and the whole Kryptonian armed forces off into the far reaches of space to protect an alien planet from the ravages of a mad man. Zara settled into the cushioned seat and drew Ching beside her, holding fast to his hands.
"Just make sure that you keep that intention, my love. And please don't be too brave." She sent him a shy smile. "I know that we're hoping to have you created a peer but I think I'd rather have you live as a friend than lose you in an attempt to become my husband."
"I'll remember, Zara." His fingers intertwined with hers as he spoke. "And if fate is kind, then perhaps we can have both." A soft, wondering laugh escaped his lips. "You know, I never thought we'd be together… talking like this… about the possibility of marriage. And it's all thanks to Lois and Kal."
A heavy sigh burst from Zara at the mention of her brother and his wife. Contrary to Kal's directive that the rest of the family and castle household should remain in ignorance of the rift between the two, the knowledge of the continuing quarrel had spread like a wildfire. The fact that the First Lord and Lady were, normally, never far from each other's company and were very tactile in their relationship, meant that it wasn't difficult for onlookers to guess the current state of affairs between the two. And it certainly was no secret from Zara or Ching.
"How is Kal?" Zara hadn't seen her brother since morning when he'd made himself scarce by heading directly for the space port, immediately after his visit with Lois.
"Busy! Pretending nothing's amiss! Then acting like someone who's just lost everything he holds dear and making life difficult for anyone who comes in contact with him."
"Oh, dear, that's not at all like Kal… He's usually such a mild-mannered person."
Ching laughed derisively. "You're right! It's taken quite a few of the subordinates by surprise, I can tell you, and a number of the commanders too. Anyone whose work isn't up to scratch is being taken to task by a stricter First Lord than I've ever known. He's even sniped at me a couple of times…"
"Oh, Ching, I'm sure he doesn't mean it. It's just that this argument has made him so unhappy."
"I know that, Zara, and so does everyone else. Or they're putting it down to his worries over what havoc Nor is wreaking on Earth. No one's taking offence. Kal-El might be their First Lord but to the military he's still a brother officer and a very well thought of one at that." Ching lifted Zara's hand and placed a reassuring kiss on her fingertips. Then he hesitated a moment, being less sure of his ground when it came to feisty, pregnant Earth women. "How are things with Lady Lois?"
"Not good either! She's locked in the apartment feigning a headache. And she never gets these. She wouldn't speak to anyone, until Mother threatened to send for Physician Tamar and then she let us in. Much good it did us though… she's just not talking." An anxious look suffused Zara's face. "Is there anything we can do to help?"
"You mean, apart from knocking their heads together?!"
"Ching!" The younger lady of El was astounded by Ching's lese-majesty, yet she found herself smiling despite herself.
"If you have a better idea, I'm open to suggestion!"
"Isn't it awful… for them to be fighting like that… and it came out of nowhere!"
"And both of them are too stubborn to say they're sorry! Except, that in this case, I can see Kal's point of view!"
"But surely, Ching, you can understand why Lois feels that she has to be with her people! Her family are in danger! And I know that if the situations were reversed, Kal would insist on going home!"
"But Kal wouldn't be about to give birth… so it's not the same thing at all!"
Wide-eyed, Zara regarded the man she hopefully had chosen to be her husband. All her life she had accepted the rule of her male relatives and fortunately their rule had always been kindly. Yet, even when the question of her betrothal to the inept Rol-Fre had arisen, she had never sought to question their authority but agreed to do her duty as a member of the royal house. So why was she now looking askance at the man she loved with all her heart? Was Lois' independent nature nurturing a similar characteristic in her own personality which, until now, had remained dormant? Zara heard herself say accusingly… "And that's a very sexist remark, Ching, and not one I'd thought to hear from you!"
"Zara! This isn't man versus woman! We have females in our military, which you well know!"
"But not in the front line!"
"No, I'll give you that… but there will be women along with the fleet. I'm quite sure that if Lois wasn't pregnant, Kal would want her with him. He's only trying to protect his wife and child here!"
"Only Lois doesn't think she needs protection!"
"Exactly." Ching shrugged dejectedly. "A stalemate!"
Zara found herself mimicking Ching's dejected shrug. "Isn't there anything we can do?"
"You could persuade Lois into coming to say goodbye to Kal. I think he's afraid that she won't turn up."
At this suggestion the young girl's chin firmed determinedly. "Yes, I can do that! Lois should be there. If anything bad were to happen to Kal, she'd never forgive herself…"
"Sweetheart, nothing bad will happen to Kal… or me. Everything will be fine, I promise." Strangely, Zara seemed to accept his assurances without question. Her complete faith in him filled him with a quiet strength and he found himself believing his risky promises. "Now enough about Lois and Kal." Ching pulled her against his hard body and covered her upturned face with hungry kisses. "We don't have much time and I'm selfish enough to want to say goodbye to my fianc‚e without thoughts of our warring friends distracting me."
True to her intention, Zara had, finally, talked Lois into accompanying the family to Elvar's space port to wish the departing fleet well. It hadn't been an easy task, as Lois had remained adamant about her decision to stay in the castle, for most of the afternoon. Yet, whenever Zara touched on the subject that soldiers were very often hurt or killed in battle, she could feel her sister-in-law relent. Of course, Lois refused to admit she'd been persuaded by this thought, preferring to excuse her change of heart for considerations of 'keeping up appearances'. Zara, however, wasn't fooled. She knew that the First Lady wouldn't give a hoot for 'appearances' if Lois felt herself to be completely in the right.
This much was true, but Lois still considered herself to be the 'much maligned victim' in her wrangle with Kal and in some degree with the Council that had backed his decree. Therefore, it was a steely-eyed, stiff and silent lady who emerged from the royal transporter as dusk fell early in the autumn evening.
Since his angry exit, she had not seen Kal again during this eternally long day. From all accounts, Kal had left the castle soon after his visit to the apartment and had remained with his troops for the rest of the day. He had not even tried to reach her with his thoughts and, though she kidded herself that she would have ignored any such attempts, this too had hurt more than she ever thought possible.
So this was the other side of the coin to love… this empty, aching feeling… this knowledge that everything in her life was less clear, less comforting and, most of all, so dreadfully lonely. Where was her friend to share a tantalising tease, or to brighten her day with a word of encouragement… or even to chivvy her with a barbed and witty remark? She would give anything for the return of his camaraderie. And more; she would give her soul to feel the strength of his arms around her, caring for her… loving her. To lose herself in the depths of his solicitous gaze and receive the complete understanding that she had found no where else in this universe.
And yet, the Kal she thought she knew didn't exist in this distant, courtly leader that stood on the dias of the space port, awaiting the delegation from Elvar who had come to say goodbye. This Kal had certainly not understood her need to travel to Earth. How could she have been so wrong about someone? She'd believed that she'd learnt everything there was to know about her husband and yet this stranger was an enigma to her. Had love blinded her to his faults?
Yet the greatest problem was that she still loved him. Despite her anger and her pain, she couldn't stop her traitorous heart from leaping at the sight of him; or rein in the desire to cast herself into his arms and plead with him to forget all that had happened during this last disastrous day.
So spake her heart… but her head refused to yield, and so she would do none of these things. Lois would play her part to the hilt. The First Lady of Krypton would be the epitome of a regal consort, and no one would recognise the struggle that was taking place deep within her soul.
Except, mayhap, Kal, who felt the echo of her torment. Yet, just as his wife, he saw no way through this maze of misunderstanding. As he watched Lois come towards him in this vast tomblike place, he too longed to take her in his arms and kiss away the hurt that was held frozen in her beautiful face, to banish the tears that no longer flowed from her eyes but were hidden in the secret places of her heart. Kal knew all those things because he felt them too.
But to soothe away her doubts and cares, Kal would have to renounce his decision to leave her behind, safe and well on Krypton, and he just wasn't prepared to do that. Where he was going was a place of danger and, perhaps, death. Even though he understood, and was proud that Lois would wish to journey to be with her people in their hour of need, he couldn't sanction her request. Hopefully, given time, Lois would see that he'd been right. If only it didn't hurt so much to say goodbye in this public and impersonal way.
He'd been a fool, he should have abandoned his pride and visited Lois to take his leave, whether she would have listened or not. But there was no time for regrets, heartfelt though they were. Lois and his family were mounting the dias to stand before him.
"My Lady," Kal offered his clasped hands to Lois and was thankful that she didn't seek to ignore them. Did her hands tremble in his? Kal held on a little tighter to still her shaking grasp and was thankful that she didn't pull away. He found he had to steady his breathing before he could speak. "Lois, please trust me. I will do all that I can to save your world. Rad-Nor will not be allowed to destroy Earth. You have my promise!"
Lois had been looking at some point on Kal's chest; at the rise and fall of the bold shield that emblazoned his uniform. Was his heart beating too quickly? She was aware of the tumultuous racing of her own. Afraid that, if she looked into his eyes, her hard won composure would crumble, Lois kept her gaze level. "I'm sure that you'll do everything in your power to bring Nor to justice." Her voice was little more than a whispered monotone and it cut her husband to the quick.
<Please look at me, Lois> Kal willed her.
Of their own violation, Lois' eyes flew to his and their gazes locked. Wounded pride warred with fear and loneliness and abject longing. Kal's large hand lifted to cup Lois' cheek and the pad of his thumb brushed a sole tear that had escaped from the damn of her determined will. For a moment neither trusted their voices. Kal was the first to regain the power of speech and the sense that they were being watched closely by all those around them.
"I love you, Lois." His voice was husky with suppressed desire and his ardent gaze echoed his words. She had to believe him!
"I know!" came the quietly spoken reply, yet the thought that followed reached him. <But maybe love isn't enough.>
A quick intake of breath and a tightening of the lips was the only indication that the First Lord gave that she had wounded him. Even now, when they could possibly be taking leave of each other for all time… even now, she could not leave her slights alone. <Oh, Lois…>
Then the cool, remote ruler returned and his hands loosened about her own. "Take care, My Lady… And take care of our little one." At that, Kal surprised himself by letting his hand stray to caress the child, cradled within Lois' body. It was a familiar gesture to both of them, but one that at the moment felt very daring. And yet again, she didn't move away. Her voice too was more friendly when she answered.
"You know I will! I love him too!" Lightly her hand covered his on her stomach… but the touch burned and both quickly drew away. "Take care, Kal, and come back safely."
Lois stood achingly still as a chaste kiss was dropped on her lips, then with some relief, she stepped aside to allow his family and friends to say goodbye. When the First Couple broke apart, the cue was given to the rest of the visitors to say farewell to their own loved ones. This mobilisation for battle was a new, albeit an unwished for, experience for this younger generation of Kryptonians and there were many tears shed in the great space port. As Lady Lois-El, standing in solitude in this sea of people, gazed around her, she recognised that even in this supposedly formal society, emotions were running deep. War had a way of freeing pent-up sentiments… Only why couldn't it do that for her and Kal?
Absentmindedly, Lois watched as Zara hugged her brother. There was one case in point. Both siblings were much more open with their feelings, and it warmed Lois' frozen heart, at least a little, to know that she had some influence over their interaction. Zara was whispering into Kal's ear and the lost First Lady was intrigued, despite her preoccupation with her own pain. She walked closer to eavesdrop.
"Come back safely, Kal."
"I will try, Zara," Kal's voice broke on a weak laugh, then he lowered his voice. "And don't worry about Ching. I'll make sure he's kept out of the firing line. Once injured is enough."
The fact that Ching was Kal's bodyguard meant that this promise would be a difficult one to keep. Zara, knew enough about her brother to realise that he would not send his men into battle while he remained in the background. And wherever Kal went, Ching would be close by to protect him. Zara didn't doubt that for a moment.
"Ching, I'm sure, will have something to say about that, Kal. Just look out for each other and come back to us." Zara smiled mistily through her tears. "And try not to worry about Lois and the baby. We'll all take good care of them." Zara stretched on her tiptoes to reach his ear; this was for Kal alone. "She loves you still… she's just a little mixed up and a lot hurt. This whole thing with Nor attacking Earth is very hard for her."
"I know, Zara!" Kal pressed a kiss to his sister's cheek, extremely grateful for her loving assurances. "I know!"
Then Kal turned to his parents. Once more he offered his mother his clasped hands, only this time she used them to pull him to her and hugged him hard. On this occasion, neither was Lara concerned by stuffy protocol. This was her son, and he was going to war… She would not let him go without one last touch of his mother's love. Lara spoke no words, but her thoughts carried to Kal and he returned them with a hushed admission. "Oh Mama, I've made such a mess of things…"
He hadn't spoken in quite that tone of voice for many a long year and Lara didn't need to ask which things he meant. "No, my son, you did what you thought was best… what we all thought was best. Lois will come to see that. I'll talk to her… This can be mended." And she stepped back and smiled encouragingly upon him, as her hand strayed to push back his errant lock of hair… just as she had done when he was a little boy and in need of her comfort. "Be well, Kal."
The moment was over and she gave way to Jor, who was standing by her elbow. The slender, quiet Jor-El gazed at his strong son through a haze of tears, but he wouldn't let them fall. Jor refused to contemplate that Kal would not return. Raising his hands to Kal's broad shoulders, he spoke with his usual calming kindness. "I'm so very proud of you, my boy… Soon you'll be a father and you'll know how good it feels to be proud of your son." The elderly man gave one of his rare, beaming smiles which faded as the realisation came to him that there was a faint chance that Kal would never see his child, but he wouldn't think of that. This was a time for positive thinking and Jor steadied himself. "You're the best son I could ever have. The futures of Krypton and Earth are safe in your hands. Come home to us whenever you can, and know that your family will be safe here waiting for you."
"Thank you, Father. Take care of my child until I get back… and Lois…" But here words failed Kal and, understanding, Jor nodded silently. With a last squeeze of Kal's shoulders, he went to be with his wife.
The line of solemn-faced Councillors waited and Kal went to take his leave of them, though his torn heart wasn't really in this, but with the forlorn girl who stood alone in the centre of the dias. Only with a sense of great relief, Kal realised that Lois was no longer on her own. His parents had taken station on either side of her and the ever faithful Gellis had found her way to her friend and mistress. The young lady-in-waiting had said goodbye to her father and brother in a hololink earlier in the day and now hovered, like a mother hen with her chick, in the background. Lois was with people who cared for her.
This goodbye ceremony was growing tedious… but he could do this. Kal forced his concentration away from his ambivalent and troubled thoughts of his wife, focussing on the men before him. Many of these lords had become his supporters and a few had, indeed, become his true friends. They deserved his full attention.
The farewells continued and Zara, with great daring, went to Ching, who was standing at the foot of the steps leading to the platform. She remembered him telling her that he was bound for his home, directly after he left her in the castle, to say goodbye to his widowed mother and elder brother. Strange how she knew very little of Ching's family; she had met them on a couple of military occasions but they didn't move in the same circles as the court.
His father had been a high-ranking officer who had been killed while on active duty, commander of a reconnaissance mission to a neighbouring galaxy which had unfortunately run into a great solar storm and tragically perished. It had been partly due to this circumstance that Ching had been picked as Kal's companion and future bodyguard; to show the First Lord's and his Council's appreciation of the family's sacrifice and to remove the financial responsibility for the boy's care and tuition from the grieving widow. But, although, the youngest son of the family became a member of the royal household, that didn't give the others an entry into the hallowed precincts of the castle and the community of nobles. For the first time in her life, Zara began to really appreciate the unfairness of the Kryptonian class-bound society and, also for the first time, she pledged herself to actively helping Lois and Kal to change Krypton's ancient ways.
And, in one small way, she would start right now. Coming to stand in front of Ching, she raised her clasped hands while giving him a secret smile. "Major Ching, I couldn't allow you to leave on such dangerous a mission without wishing you zorspeed."
Her clear young voice echoed loudly in Ching's ears… too loudly, as in a daze he took the proffered hands. "Thank you, Lady Zara-El," the flustered young man replied just as loudly, while his eyes asked plaintively what she thought she was doing.
"Don't worry so!" Zara's voice dropped to a whisper. "Everyone is too busy to pay us much heed." But she was not foolish enough to put their fragile connection in jeopardy, and, when she spoke again, it was in normal tones. "I trust you with my brother's life. Take good care of him for us…" And yourself, said her eyes. Zara couldn't trust herself with more and, spritely ascending the steps, she joined her family.
Finally, the last dutiful goodbye was made. Without any formal announcement, those who had come to witness the fleet's departure and had spread out amongst the ranks of gleaming craft to say private farewells, began filtering back to the lobby of the spaceport. The general movement went slowly at first, but in ever increasing numbers the citizens left their relatives while the uniformed troops began to make their way to their various ships. Most were young, and eager to be off to do their duty in this 'great adventure.' They were Kryptonians; proud to carry their code of honour, truth and justice to the far reaches of their galaxy. Only the older soldiers amongst them recognised that the rightness of their cause wouldn't save all of them from injury and death. War was an evil state, and one which, thankfully, Krypton had been free of for many generations. Hopefully, the mission to save Earth would be carried out with speed and efficiency, and, with the more poignant hope, that few of these young lives would be lost.
The appointed time had arrived and Lord Kal-El placed himself at the head of his officers, who had gathered by the platform, and began the march to his battleship. At the ramp, he ushered his group inside and turned to survey those he'd left behind… Lois! She stood as tall and proud as her swollen body would allow and never had she looked more beautiful to him. She was trying so hard to be the brave First Lady that she believed her adopted people wanted her to be, and he wouldn't burden her with his thoughts. And yet, one sentence escaped and went winging its way down the path to the podium, to the keeper of all his dreams.
<I have loved you from the moment I saw you… and I will love you till the end>"
Then he disappeared inside and without a sound the ramp closed. One-by-one the serried spacecraft lifted into the air, the faint hum of engine noise becoming a well-honed chorus. In a line they hovered towards the open end of the great hanger and took off, vertically, into the descending darkness of the Kryptonian night. The great flagship… Kal's ship, was the last to depart. A dreary sadness reigned over the onlookers in the now empty port, until, with nothing left to stay for, the people turned to go.
"It's over!" Lois gasped as she felt her heart falter and her knees began to shudder, but a comforting arm came round her shoulders, keeping her upright, and yet another's hand covered her shaking ones. Kal's parents were with her.
"Courage, Lois!" Jor said in her ear while Lara's thought echoed inside her head.
<My son will come back to you, Lois…>
<But what if he's killed?> Lois could no longer ignore the terror that had been hovering on the edge of her conscious thoughts but, which, until now, she'd been stubbornly ignoring.
<Then he has left you with the greatest gift a man can ever give the woman he loves… a part of himself and a part of you… merged forever in this precious child.>
There it was again… <The heir!> Lois couldn't keep the vexation from her thoughts.
<No, Lois! Your baby! My grandchild! A part of Kal that will always be with us, no matter what befalls on Earth.>
"Oh, Lara, what have I done? Letting Kal leave without telling him how much I love him." Lois was so distressed that she reverted to speech and Lara answered her in the same way.
"Kal knows, Lois! He knows!"
Chapter Fourteen: Who Pays the Piper?
And, indeed, it appeared that Kal did know. The couple had exchanged a few thought transferences and even one or two hololink-ups while the fleet was in transit to Earth. The conversations didn't rank amongst the most comfortable they'd shared but they had, at least, been polite… in an impersonal sort of way.
They had a lot to talk about, but now was not the time. Now, they had to rescue Earth from the forces of Nor and nothing should be allowed to get in the way of that. Besides, neither Lois nor Kal could be sure that their fragile peace would not be broken if they opened up that can of worms again, and so, they carefully avoided any references to the misunderstandings and hurts that lay between them. It was hardly an ideal situation but it was the best they could do meantime, skate cautiously on thin ice and hope that their differences could be resolved in the future.
Meanwhile, the situation on Earth gave much cause for concern. Commander Jace had continued to monitor the situation, but it had been decided that no further communication would take place. Kal and his war cabinet had reached the conclusion that surprise would be a large factor in their success in defeating Nor and the Taureans, and, as the distance from Earth diminished, so the fleet remained cloaked, only taking the shields down behind them for short periods to update those at home.
In truth, Kal and Dax-Ver were of the opinion that Nor would expect the Kryptonians to interfere in his plans. After all, Rad-Nor was completely aware that this attack on an innocent planet was a crime in the eyes of his home world, and that they would probably take steps to put an end to his nefarious deeds. Nor would be scanning the heavens, waiting for his enemy to show up, but stealth tactics could give the rescuers an edge on the exact where and when.
There was, however, one fly in this ointment… Nor's hidden spy. Was he a member of the battle-fleet or was he back on Krypton, sending information to his master? Jace was keeping a check on unidentified transmissions but, so far, had picked up nothing incriminating. There had been a spate of messages sent out when the fleet had first departed, official contacts with the Federation and more private ones with Kryptonians who had relatives or business contacts throughout the galaxy, and a warning might have found its way to Nor amongst the busy traffic. No one could be sure, and the fleet would just have to take its chances.
One thing Jace had discovered in his coverage of Earth, President West had finally convinced the other governments that conversation with these advanced aliens was better than confrontation. It hadn't been an easy task, and some countries had tried to fight off their attackers with horrifying but inevitable consequences. Now, an uneasy truce followed… a truce that was frequently broken by ruthless incursions by the invaders. The people of Earth couldn't be sure which was worse… a visit by the rough, uncouth Taureans or the arrogant, calculating Kryptonians. One thing was certain; wherever the occupying forces landed, they left a trail of death and destruction. The collective mood of the citizens of Earth became one of a seething hatred for these aliens, barely held in check. And yet, if the covert word that spread from country to country was to be believed, all space people were not evil. Somewhere out there, the good guys were hurrying to assist them in their hour of need.
All these things and many more played out, over and over again, inside Lois' head as she tossed and turned in this lumpy, lonely bed. If, of course, you could call the ponderous rolling, which was the only movement she was capable of in her present state, tossing and turning. She just couldn't find a comfortable spot, though, honesty compelled her to admit, the cause of her discomfort was more likely her troubled state of mind, and not the fault of the mattress.
In the semi-darkness, Lois gazed around her at the less- than-familiar bedroom. On their way back from the spaceport, Lois had found herself timidly asking Lara and Jor if she could come stay with them at Ro-Ellion. The prospect of the great castle at Elvar, without the presence of Kal, had seemed too daunting, and even her snug little apartment was not a home without her husband. Her parents- in-law had been only too happy to oblige and Lois was quickly packed and moved into Ro-Ellion within the day, accompanied by her lady-in-waiting and her principal bodyguard.
There had been a number of visits to the castle to liaise with Trey and the Council, and she liked to check in with Jace every day for an update on the current situation on Earth. But, mostly, her time spent in the empty halls and corridors of the ancient fortress depressed her. She suspected, too, that the Councillor and communications officer dreaded the visits from the remote and disconsolate First Lady. After all, both these men had knowledge of her quarrel with Kal-El and would, very probably, consider her the guilty party. So, not wishing to go where she wasn't wanted, in these past few days, she'd contented herself with a hologram connection to the palace.
To tell the truth, she wasn't very happy at Ro-Ellion either. In fact, Lois was becoming a bit of a recluse, spending most of her hours in her room or the glasshouse of her current abode, and sharing her company only with Gellis, who was proving to be a very empathetic friend. The presence of Lara or Jor-El brought on unbidden feelings of blame for the way she had sent their only son off to war in a state of torment, and the fact that they'd both made it clear that she had been forgiven for this trespass did little to assuage her conscience. Thus it was, that Lois tended to spend as little time as possible with the kindly couple. Even Lieutenant Poli's false cheer grated on her nerves, and she found herself, also, avoiding his company. For the first time since the early days, Lois regarded Krypton as an alien world, and she longed to be back on Earth. Or, at least, on her way to Earth, with a certain dark-eyed, dark-haired man who had the power to make any place where he was her home.
One thing she had discovered, lately, was that the distance between Earth and Krypton could be accomplished in a much shorter space of time than the journey that had brought her here to Krypton. Back then, Kal had obviously commanded the ship to slower speeds, allowing her time to become accustomed to some of his way of life, before she ever embarked on Krypton's soil. Which, if you thought about it, was just another sign of Kal's kindness and consideration, and she began to wonder if she'd been stricken with some kind of insanity, to have ever considered that her husband had acted sanctimoniously.
Now, his current journey was coming to an end. Soon, Kal and his troops would be embroiled in a war… a fight, very probably, to the death. There could be no doubt in anyone's mind that Nor and his Taureans would not surrender without a battle. Kal could be injured! Ching had been hurt in the last fight. Perhaps, Kal could even be killed. No! Oh, Please no! Her heart cried out against such an injustice, but the spectre of his death would not be banished
The enormity of the horror robbed Lois of sleep. No matter how she tried, her poor, overloaded brain would not let her rest. The baby too, sensing its mother's disquiet, moved and pushed in tandem with its parent. Maybe, Lois had been wrong to turn down Gellis' suggestion that a bed be made up for her on the large couch. Maybe the lady-in-waiting's blithe prattle would be preferable to the nightmare scenarios that chased through her mind. But Lois had felt the need for solitude. The desire to open her mind to Kal… the channel which she had only allowed him access to in a brief and censored manner. Now, as he approached the close vicinity of Earth, Lois learned the hardest lesson of all… Love was all that mattered. Love was the strongest life force of all.
But no messages came from the silence of space, and that was hardly surprising, since stealth tactics were now of the essence. And yet, in the depths of the night, a quiet peace came upon Lois. Kal would be with her always. No matter what befell in that far off place, Kal would never leave her. Her hand came to rest on the swell of her stomach, stilling the baby within, the baby that was part of Kal.
But it was more than Lara had said… Lois could almost sense Kal's presence, as if he were somewhere very near… Oh, my god! If Kal was with her in spirit… did that mean that he no longer was… alive?! Lois sat bolt upright in bed, pushing against the pillows which supported her. Had the battle already taken place? Had Kal been killed? She had no opinions on an afterlife. She'd never really given it much thought. But one thing she was quite clear about… she didn't want Kal in the afterlife. She wanted him with her, in the here and now.
So intent was she on her fearful thoughts, that Lois didn't, at first, recognise the soft tapping at the door. It came again and the insistency of the scratching reached her, followed by the sound of a familiar voice.
"My Lady… Lady Lois, please, you must let me in. I have urgent news!"
Lois directed a surprised look at the heavy wooden door, while her mind struggled to return to the present.
"Please, My Lady, you have to wake up!"
With a speed that moments ago Lois would have considered impossible, she was at the door, pulling it open to reveal a white-faced and slightly awkward Poli. Lois reached out to drag him inside and the door swung shut behind her.
"Lady Lois…" was all Poli could articulate, while watery, hard-checked tears filled his eyes.
Lois stepped backwards and her hand flew to her mouth. She'd been right in her assumption. She had felt his ghost. "Kal's dead…"
"No!" The horrified Lieutenant followed her into the centre of the room. "Not yet! But there's been a huge battle and Kal's been hurt… very badly. He's calling for you, My Lady. I've been asked to bring you to him before… before he…" But, once again, Poli couldn't say the word
"… dies." Lois finished his sentence on the merest whisper. She stood alone in a void, her eyes wide and unfocused, while around her a whirlwind of emotions threatened to hurl her into the dark. Even Kal's shade had left her.
"Lady Lois, I know how upsetting this must be for you, but My Lord needs you now. Please, we must hurry!" Poli tried to reach her with desperate words. "I have an orbship outside, waiting to take us to a fast cruiser, but time is short."
The sense of urgency did reach her and Lois forced herself to react. "Yes, oh yes! But I must get dressed…"
"Lois," in such a terrible situation, Poli felt able to drop the formal title to comfort the woman who had become his friend. "There's no need and no time. You're modestly dressed." His hand waved vaguely over her night attire. "Perhaps a cloak to cover your robe." The suggestion was kindly but eager.
"Yes, that would do, wouldn't it." In a daze, Lois rushed to her closet and stood before the crowded rails. She needed a cloak, a dark cloak. Her hand ran along the surface of the clothes, stopping on something black. Black, the colour of mourning! But her mind rebelled at the idea; Kal was still alive. At least, he was when Poli had been contacted, and yet, how was Poli contacted, and by whom? A concentrated frown creased Lois' clear brow, as her arms dragged at a heavy burgundy wrap. It was thick and warm, one part of her mind acknowledged inconsequently, it would keep out the cold. But how could that be? The cold was already inside her.
In the bedroom, Poli took advantage of his few seconds alone and sidled over to a small desk by the fireside wall, all the while, keeping his stare on the door through which Lois had disappeared. With a competent slight of hand, and careful to touch it with only the 'kerchief in which it was wrapped, the bodyguard drew a small vidpad from his uniform pocket, a vidpad that had previously belonged to Lois. Placing it on the desk, he hurried back to stand by the entrance to the dressing room.
"Lois, My Lady, I'm sorry to rush you but…"
His speech was halted by Lois hastening back into the room, a more determined look upon her lovely face. "Poli, how did you find out about Kal and the battle?" Lois' instincts were beginning to kick back in.
"Dax-Ver contacted Jace and the Prime Councillor. They're holding an emergency meeting in the castle, right now." Poli took the cloak from Lois' nervous hands to drape it around her shoulders. "I'm afraid the news has them in a bit of a panic and I think they might be a bit unsure of how to break the word to the population. Kal was a very popular First Lord. His death will be taken very hard."
"Poli!" Lois remonstrated quickly. "Kal isn't dead yet!"
"No, indeed not… Not yet, anyway." The young trooper's eyes were filled with shared pain. "I don't like to hurt you, Lois, but the physicians say it's just a matter of time. That's why we must be quick. Kal so much wants to see you to say goodbye… He feels very badly about the way you parted."
"Me too, Poli!" Lois gulped on a sob. "We were both so stupid! So full of foolish pride!"
"But there's time to make amends, Lois… If we hurry."
Nodding forcefully, the First Lady let her bodyguard lead her down the dimly-lit staircase and on through the conservatory. The house was silent and eerily dark. No one else seemed to be awake.
"Wait, Poli!" Lois pulled back on the hand that held fast to her. "Kal's parents! Shouldn't we tell them what's happening?"
An exasperated oath almost exploded from Poli's mouth as he was brought to a sudden halt. Yet, by the time he'd turned to face Lois he was, once again, the sympathetic bodyguard. "Lord Trey has volunteered to inform Lord Jor-El and his wife. He is, after all, their friend, and, besides, I believe he intends to ask for their help in informing the Council and the people. He instructed me to take you to Lord Kal-El, without delay, and that's exactly what I'm trying to do, only you're making it very difficult." Poli's words were robbed of censure by their understanding tone.
Lois chewed at her bottom lip and a guilty blush suffused her cheeks. When would she ever stop acting like everything and everyone had an ulterior motive? "I'm sorry, Poli. I don't seem to be able to think straight. Go on, and I promise not to hinder you again." The hand that held her own gave a gentle squeeze and started to pull her inexorably forward.
Whenever they reached the garden, the chilly air hit Lois and she shivered involuntarily as she hurried along behind her guide, her feet squelching on the damp lawn. The light slippers she wore were hardly suitable for the weather conditions, but she would not falter. Kal was waiting for her. She didn't even know how he'd been injured. Poli hadn't given her details and she hadn't taken time to ask. Was he in pain? The fact that he was asking for her must mean that he was conscious. Her heart broke anew at the thought of her dear love's suffering. If only he could hold on until she reached him. Perhaps the doctors were wrong… sometimes critically ill patients survived against all odds. The minute they were under way she would contact Dax- Ver and ask how he was faring.
With those fears giving her strength, Lois responded to Poli's quickening of the pace. The night sky was cloudy and there was no friendly moon or stars to light their path. Thankfully, Poli was sure-footed and seemed to know the way or Lois was certain that she would have stumbled.
Nearing the bottom of the garden, a strangely subdued glow threw a little light on the grass before them. It was the orbship, sitting on the river bank and Poli stood back to allow his charge to proceed him down a small flight of stone steps. A very breathless First Lady cast one last glance behind her at the lovely house that had sheltered Kal as he grew to manhood. Her gaze continued onwards to the city beyond with its sentinel castle on the high rock. All was dark and quiet, as if the night and the city were both in mourning for their favourite son.
But that couldn't be right! Shouldn't there have been some sort of turmoil at the horrifying news? There should, at least, be lights in the castle where Trey and Jace had received word of the battle from Dax-Ver. Poli had told her he'd been contacted by Trey and that the Prime Councillor would also tell Lara and Jor the sad news. So why wasn't there any movement and noise from inside Ro-Ellion? And in front of her where the orbship was parked, shouldn't there be some other troopers awaiting her? Something was very wrong about the situation.
Lois halted abruptly and swung towards her companion, a stark questioning look written clearly on her face. All her suspicions about this man came rushing to the fore. "Poli! Why is everything so quiet? Just what is going on here?!"
But there were no answers forthcoming, and the First Lady wouldn't have heard them if they had been uttered. Instead, Lois felt the cold metal of an injection gun against her skin and the freezing blast of the chemicals as they permeated her skin. Within a nanosecond, Lois was unconscious.
"You are such an inconvenient woman, Lois!" Lieutenant Poli exclaimed as he shoved his toe into the fallen girl's side. "Why couldn't you have behaved like any other meek Kryptonian female and boarded the ship like I asked. Now I'll have to carry you, and in your state you're hardly going to be a lightweight." Regarding the prone figure with distaste, Poli debated how best to carry the very pregnant Lois. He threw the bothersome injection gun into the deep foliage by the river's edge and grinned as he heard a satisfactory plop. No doubt the outgoing tide would carry it away. He flexed his muscles. "Earth women! Why did Kal ever want to marry an Earthling?!"
Pushing aside his annoyance—he had, after all a job to do — Poli hefted Lois up into his arms, yanking at her cloak impatiently, as it caught on a bush. He staggered down the last few steps and carried her, none too gently, through the skin of the ship. Unceremoniously, Lois was dumped on a bare narrow cot on the far wall of the little craft, and minutes later Poli fired the engines. Deftly, the Lieutenant guided the glowing ball swiftly through the clouds to a point outside Krypton's stratosphere where waited a wickedly armoured Taurean destroyer. Lois' wish was being granted… she was on her way to Earth.
Unknown to Poli, his kidnap of Lady Lois had not gone totally unheeded. From her vantage point by the staircase window, Gellis watched, as her mistress was harried across the lawn. Only minutes ago, the lady-in-waiting's light, uneasy sleep had been interrupted by the closing of a door in the hallway, and she had heard the sound of whispered voices, moving past her room. Gellis had listened for some moments, and when all had fallen still, her first impulse had been to turn over and try to return to sleep. But a nagging worry wouldn't let her rest. Lady Lois was very near her birthing date and perhaps she'd gone into labour. However, that idea had quickly been discarded, as Gellis was fairly certain that Lois would have called for her or Lady Lara and would not have been whispering in the dark. Nevertheless, something odd had awakened her which ought to be checked out. Gellis had climbed from her bed and, donning a robe, she'd headed for her mistress's chamber.
Only to find that the room was empty. She'd very probably heard the sound of Lois heading downstairs in search of some tempting tidbit to eat. A smug smile beamed on Gellis' face as she'd sped downstairs to catch up with her mistress; Lois quite often fancied a midnight snack… probably something chocolate.
But a movement from the garden had halted her progress. Her curiosity pricked, Gellis had drawn closer to the great window on the landing, pressing her face to the glass and squinting into the murky night.
At the boundary of the garden, a dull light shimmered and a strange shape, silhouetted against the glow, moved across the lawn. Gellis frowned in concentration. The silhouette broke into separate figures. Two people were crossing the expanse of grass, and one seemed to be shepherding the other. Watching them progress towards the eerie light by the river, Gellis saw the smaller, cloaked figure turn, and a shocked gasp escaped her lips. She might be quite a distance away, but Gellis would recognise the beautiful face and the dark fall of hair anywhere. Lady Lois-El was outside and heading for the light which could only be coming from an orbship. Gellis was the daughter of a famous commander and she'd been brought up around spacecraft. There was no doubt in her mind that a ship awaited by the river.
Something very weird was happening. Lady Lois was pulling back but very quickly the other person moved into Gellis' line of vision. She could never be sure of what happened next, yet she'd stake her life that Lois had been carried into the ship. The lady-in-waiting cried out in protest and she pounded on the glass with her fist. Yet there was nothing she could do… she was too far away. Gellis could only stand and watch helplessly as the ship ascended into the sky. The youngest daughter of the house of Ver swallowed back the tears that threatened to fall and went to do her duty; to warn the others that Lady Lois, First Lady of Krypton, had gone.
The large bedchamber was no longer devoid of life. Indeed, it was now something approaching overcrowded. Hotfoot on Jor-El's communique with the castle, a deputation of Councillors and top security officials had, not surprisingly, turned up at the door of Ro-Ellion. The group, including the First and Second Ministers and Lord Remy, demanded an accounting of what the young lady-in- waiting had witnessed, and all had finally ended up in Lois' bedroom to see if the actual scene would throw any clues on what appeared to be a mystery. And there, they had found the small techno-pad with its message from Lady Lois- El… Its very incriminating message.
According to the Lady's own words, Lois was not a happy woman. She had always had her doubts about her decision to come to Krypton and had found it very difficult to adjust to life on this highly sophisticated and moral planet. And, if her readers would only be honest with themselves, they would admit that they'd made life very hard for her, on occasion. Lois was tired of trying to live up to unbearably high standards, and this final straw, this invasion of Earth and Kal's subsequent betrayal of her wishes, had been too much for her to bear. She had been surprised to find an ally in her hour of need; she'd never suspected that Poli had any warm feelings for her and yet, when the dear man had confessed his love, she'd seen a way out of all her troubles. Lois was so sorry for all the angst she would cause to Kal and his family and Council, but she could no longer deny her heart. She and Lieutenant Poli had decided to run away with each other and to spend the rest of their lives together. She'd signed herself, simply… Lois Lane.
"I don't believe it!" Gellis cried. "And surely, none of you can think that's the truth!"
"Well, I have to admit I find it pretty incredible but the words speak for themselves," Trey's faded blue eyes surveyed the others in the room. Each one looking just as mystified and incredulous as himself. "Lois has run off with Lieutenant Poli!"
"No! She wouldn't! She loves Kal!"
"Gellis, I know she's your friend and you want to think the best of her… but Lois and Kal were rather… estranged before he left."
"I know," Gellis admitted reluctantly. "But they have talked to each other since by hololink-up."
"Twice, I believe," Trey conceded. "And I've witnessed both occasions and each conversation has been decidedly strained." Unfortunately, neither the First Councillor nor anyone else in the room had been privy to the couple's few thought transferences, and even if they had, it would have made little difference to their verdict. None of Lois and Kal's contacts had been particularly warm.
Nevertheless, Gellis stalwartly returned to the defence of her friend. "But even if they were fighting, it wouldn't change how she felt about him. They love each other! Now she might have gone off somewhere… but not without taking me and definitely not with Poli!!"
"What makes you so sure she wouldn't go with Poli?" Lara asked hesitantly. The elderly woman had listened in silence to Trey's reading of the letter with a heavy heart. Her mother's love was torn between outrage and heartbreak at the supposed insult to her son and the desperate desire to believe that her daughter-in-law was not the 'scarlet woman' this letter purported her to be. "I'd have sworn that Lois was a woman of integrity, and you all must be aware how very fond of her I've grown, but even I have to admit that she's been acting very strangely, of late… so withdrawn, and she did quarrel with Kal."
"Lady Lara, I doubt we have to ask that question! Only an Earth girl would settle for a Lieutenant when she has the First Lord as her husband! Earthlings haven't the same respect for duty as we Kryptonians." This highly biased statement came from the recently appointed Second Councillor, who had tagged along with his superior when Trey had made it known he was required urgently at Ro- Ellion. Lara felt herself bridling at his remarks.
"But my daughter-in-law isn't irresponsible!" Jor-El's soft voice pointed out with some force and pride. "And I'm inclined to agree with Gellis. I think we should listen to what she has to say. Please, my dear, won't you tell us all you know."
The pretty, curled head bobbed in accord. At least she had one person who supported her theory and very possibly two, as the Dowager seemed to hang on her every word. "I know that Lady Lois cried herself to sleep each night since My Lord's been gone and I doubt she'd do that if she didn't love him."
"That might have been pique — that she didn't get her own way and was left behind!" The Second Councillor lamented again.
"Oh, do be quiet! You obviously don't know Lady Lois well or you would understand that she doesn't hold a grudge!" This time it was Lord Remy who sped to the support of his favourite niece.
"I wouldn't necessarily say that, Remy!" Trey cut in wearily, reviewing the sullen demeanour of the said Lady since the fleet had flown off. "As Lady Lara mentioned, Lois has hardly been acting like herself."
"Well I should think not!" Remy's irritation catapulted him from his chair where he'd been resting his old, tired bones. "Poor Lois has been sick with worry over Kal and the fate of her home planet… not to mention the fact that she's in her last month of pregnancy."
"Yes, it does seem like a strange time to run off with your paramour," Trey acquiesced, slowly rubbing his chin, and his puzzlement causing him to sink into the chair Remy had just abandoned.
"Lieutenant Poli is not Lois' paramour," snarled Gellis once more. "He's just a friend… at least, I thought he was a friend, and besides, Poli doesn't fancy Lady Lois."
"What makes you say that?" The dowager Lady took an eager step towards the young lady-in-waiting, wanting so much to believe in anything that would absolve the girl she'd come to love as one of her own. In her heart, she did trust Lois, but her inbuilt Kryptonian pragmatism was getting in her way, and she needed some proofs to align her head with her heart.
"Because, he said he cared for me." Gellis dipped her head sheepishly as she revealed that piece of information. "It was sometime ago when we were at Schieh-Ellion; before the attacks on the convoys started. Poli started singling me out and eventually he told me that he had feelings for me. But somehow, I couldn't quite believe him. I'm fairly sure that Poli says such things to lots of pretty girls and, apart from that, I was certain he held a candle for Lady Lois, and I told him so. But he refuted that idea point blank! Said she wasn't at all his type, and that she was just too independent for his tastes… It was weird, but I did believe him then. It almost sounded as if he didn't like Lady Lois… but I knew that wasn't really true, so I put the notion out of my mind and forgot about it."
"So we've established that Poli is a womaniser and that Gellis first thought he had amorous designs on the First Lady, which he understandably denied when questioned about it. I wouldn't necessarily say that any of these things controvert the evidence that we have before us, the message from Lady Lois herself." The Second Councillor ended on rather less abusive tones, recognising that most of the people in this room had a fondness for the Earth woman. Indeed, he hadn't known Lady Lois very long or very intimately but even he was surprised by her running off with another man. Which only went to prove that women weren't to be trusted and that Krypton was right in its affirmation of a male-dominated society.
"But that's it!" Gellis' cry this time was one of triumph. "That message isn't from Lois!"
"I hate to contradict you, but the techno-pad confirms Lois' print," Trey rubbed a tired hand back and forth across his chin. "No matter how much we all want there to be another reason for Lois' flight, she states clearly that she's sorry but she made a mistake in marrying Kal and that she's decided to follow her heart…"
"They must have forced her to write it… but it just isn't true! Most of you here know Lois and you've all received messages from her. The business ones she writes on techno- pads but the personal missives she prefers to write in longhand on paper. She even keeps a supply of paper and pens on her desk."
"Gellis, you're correct!" Lara had reached the younger woman and taken hold of her hands which she proceeded to ring with her own. "Lois would never have written such an important confession on anything but paper. Her techno- notes are brief… one or two lines!"
At last Medi joined the conversation, clearing his throat apologetically as he stepped forward. "I think you might be on to something. Lady Lois does have an abhorrence for that particular technology… her preference will always be for pen and ink. And, I think if we all took a moment to calm down, we would realise that our Lady never had a romantic notion for Poli in all her time on Krypton. In fact, she actually suspected that it might be Poli who had alerted Nor to Kryptonians acquiring superpowers in the atmosphere of Earth."
"And did he?" Remy asked, not relishing the direction in which this supposition was going.
"I don't know. Lord Kal-El didn't believe it and told Lady Lois so. She still wasn't completely satisfied because she confided her suspicions to me and asked me to check it out, but we never did find out who'd leaked that information."
"But if it was Poli, and he certainly would know of it because he was one of only three people who experienced the phenomenon first hand…" Lady Lara couldn't finish her train of thought.
"… And if it was Poli then he's a creature of Nor and Lois didn't go voluntarily!" The same horror which had choked off Lara's speech now suffused Jor.
"But if that were the case, then surely there would be some sign of a struggle?" Trey chose to play devil's advocate.
"Maybe so! But by the same token, if this were a planned runaway, then wouldn't Lady Lois have taken some baggage with her? She hasn't even packed her tooth-laser!" It was the first thing the methodical policeman had checked when he'd been called to Ro-Ellion.
"She might have been tricked into going!" An increasingly frightened uncle suggested another scenario, unwittingly coming nearer the truth than he knew.
"That's a possibility." Commander Medi decided to take control of the situation, since it seemed that the family were too confused and distraught with the disappearance to act decisively. Besides, he had one other disquieting suggestion to put forward. "Unfortunately, there is another… we never did discover the identity of the mysterious assassin."
"No! I refuse to contemplate that possibility!" The normally composed dowager Lady's voice rose to unnatural heights. "If this assassin planned to kill Lois then why isn't there a body? What would be the point of taking the body away with him?"
"Forgive me, Milady, I didn't mean to scare you. I agree! I doubt that the aim was murder."
"But you do have a theory?" Now that the shock was wearing off, Trey was once again assuming the mantle of Prime Councillor and in the absence of Lord Kal-El the voice of authority on Krypton.
"Yes, I think it might be the case that Lady Lois-El was drugged and carried off."
"But why?" Jor-El was devastated at the thought of the girl he'd learned to love in the hands of the enemy once more.
"Rad-Nor is about to take part in a battle against Kryptonian forces supported by a fair number of her allies. He must have some doubts about the outcome…"
"So he's acquired a little insurance… his life for the life of the First Lady and the heir." Lord Trey's senatorial tones struck dread amongst his listeners and into the silence that followed his words came a soft knocking at the door.
Seeing that no other was in a fit state to answer the caller, Medi stepped outside where he found one of his captains. When he'd first heard of Lady Lois' disappearance he had set his men to search the house and grounds and now he had his answer. With a heavy heart he turned back into the room to relay his confirmation.
"Hmm! Excuse me, my lords and ladies," Medi coughed to attract the dissembling attention of the occupants of the room. "I hope you don't mind, but when first I arrived, I ordered my men to search for any clues which might explain what happened here and, I'm afraid, they've found something. It was caught up in the reeds by the river."
"Not Lois! Pray not that!" And the Lady was thankful for the strong arms of her husband that came around her.
"No! Oh, No!" Medi was swift to reassure, as he pulled a shiny metallic and glass object from behind his back. The item was not large and it fit comfortably into his hand. He held it out for the groups' inspection. "An injection gun."
A choked scream sifted off into the dark of night, while Lara sagged into Jor-El's grasp. "It's the murder weapon," she gasped, her eyes staring at the innocuous object.
"Very probably, but not thankfully in this case," Medi's voice was quiet but firm. Hysterics wouldn't find Lady Lois. "Before bringing this to me, my captain scanned the medi-gun and the substance it contained was a strong sedative — not poison. It's a bit muddy but it still showed some body-traces this time, which my men immediately checked with the central intelligence database, and the holder of the gun was Lieutenant Poli. Now, either he's grown careless, or he no longer cares to keep his true colours a secret, but there's no doubt that he has Lady Lois. There must have been some sort of struggle because there was a scrap of fabric snagged on a bush near where the medi-gun was recovered… but no blood," Medi countered at the shocked look on all the faces regarding him. "I'm sure we'll discover it came from Lady Lois' clothes and there were also signs that an orbship had been parked by the river. I've sent word to Commander Jace, and he's scanning the airways for signs of an unidentified craft but, if it were cloaked, I'm not sure that we'll discover where it's gone."
"What do we do now?" Trey asked, his voice mirrored his anguished thoughts.
"I'm not sure, but two things I know…" Remy was no longer the joker, "we apologise to poor Lois for every doubting her honour. And once and for all we acknowledge that we Kryptonians are not the sole possessors of virtue."
"Well said, Remy," Jor was quick to endorse his elderly relative's words. "I for one, firmly believe that Lois has more morality and spirit in her little finger than a whole host of our people, and it's about time that we gave her credit for it."
The others in the room were all looking, quite justifiably, chastised and for some moments no one uttered a word. Then Lady Lara's hand tightened on her husband and her eyes glazed over with inner turmoil.
"Oh, my zor! How are we ever going to tell Kal?!"
Lois woke to semi-darkness. Far off, an almost imperceptible hum worried at the edges of her consciousness. She had heard that steady throb of noise on other occasions but, as yet, her befuddled brain couldn't quite place it.
Her head ached so, and there was a gaping hole in her short-term memory, yet all her instincts were warning her that she was in danger. Carefully, she opened her eyelids a crack to review her situation. The space she was in wasn't very large and the smooth walls gave off a faint gleam. On first awakening, she had thought she was alone, but someone else was in the room. Another person was sitting in front of a control panel, and above the bank of instruments, a long window showed a vista of spangled darkness.
This was an orbship, and the person was Poli! Poli, who had come to her in the dead of night with news that Kal was fatally injured and waiting to say goodbye to her! Clever Poli, who had known that she wouldn't ask questions, but would hurry to reach her husband's side to make amends for the foolish quarrel she'd instigated. Treacherous Poli, who'd played on her tormented guilt, certain that she'd want to say one last goodbye, before Kal left her forever.
How could she have been so stupidly trusting? It wasn't as if she hadn't had any misgivings about Poli. And yet, in her fear and anguish at the thought of losing her dearest love, she'd allowed herself to be tricked. But she had asked questions! In the end, her gut instincts about this man had won out. Poli, however, had been ready for that and he'd sedated her for her pains. Lois had the mother and father of all headaches, but she wasn't about to surrender to the haven of unconsciousness again. She had to figure this out and find a way of escaping. With intense concentration, she pushed herself erect.
"Ah, the sleeping beauty is awake, I see," said the Lieutenant smugly, swinging his seat to face her.
Lois grunted and looked around. This must be one of the smaller orbships, and its furnishings were sparse, only the bed on which she lay and a couple of spare chairs. A small metal chest stood opposite her.
"Not exactly very plush surroundings, Poli." She turned a scornful stare on her jailor. "What's wrong, the man who pays the piper didn't think you were worth very much?"
"This is only a temporary situation. But, you know, that's not very bright, My Lady." The title was snapped out sneeringly. "People who've been abducted should show their kidnappers some respect… if they know what's good for them…" Poli let the threat hang in the air.
"Respect!" Lois mocked. "When did lying, devious turncoats deserve respect?" Nonetheless, due to the glittering hatred that hovered behind Poli's stare, Lois decided to change tactics; there really was no point in antagonising the opposition. "Why am I here?" Poli said nothing but continued with his baleful stare. "Let me guess! We're on our way to Earth, but not to see my dying husband because there has been no battle and Kal-El isn't injured."
"Bravo, Lois! You always were a smart little thing. There has been no battle, yet… but one is certainly coming and Rad-Nor thought it might be expedient to have a little insurance on hand. It really was very considerate of Kal to leave you behind where I could so easily snatch you."
For a long moment, Lois gazed at this man. She had thought she'd known Poli, thought that he was a trusted member of Kal's inner circle. It was only very recently that she'd started to have doubts and she'd allowed her suspicions to be soothed by her husband's belief in his bodyguard. "Why, Poli? Why are you doing this? Kal is your friend."
"Friend! I don't think so!" The tone was scathing, as Poli at last let his true feelings out. "Ching is his friend… his brother-in-arms! It was always Ching! And I was just an afterthought." The trooper was on his feet now and prowling around like a caged animal. "Haven't you noticed? Ching is a major while I am still a lieutenant!"
"Ching has been with Kal since they were boys, so that's only to be expected!" Lois was about to mention that Kal regarded Ching as a brother, but quickly decided not to highlight the difference between Poli's and Ching's status. "And Ching has more experience. But that doesn't mean that Kal-El doesn't care for you… appreciate you." Lois struggled to put her feet to the floor, her extra bulk hindering her progress, and the traces of the drug still in her system making her dizzy. Poli never sought to help her, and for that she was grateful; she would have pushed away his hands. "I happen to know that he was about to promote you to captain. We've discussed it, only this war got in the way."
"A very sorry state of affairs, indeed, when the First Lord of Krypton has to check up with his wife about what he intends to do." Keeping a close eye on the lieutenant as he stalked, Lois wondered how he had ever managed to hide his, now, very obvious misogyny. "And captain! I deserve more than that! I saved his life!"
"Yes, I know. He told me." Lois searched the face of her captor, hoping to find a way through to him, but the over bright eyes suggested a paranoia that neither she nor Kal had ever noticed before. Certainly, her suspicions had never included insanity, but, for all that, she had to try. "No matter what happens, Kal will never forget that he owes his life to you, and I will always be grateful."
"Don't patronise me, Lois! I don't care for your gratitude and I'm quite aware of my standing with your husband. I was his bodyguard when Ching marched off to war. Huh, his dear friend didn't care about leaving him in the lurch to go off glory-hunting." Lois swallowed hard at this remark, but kept silent. This crazy man couldn't know the true reason for what he considered Ching's abandonment. "And what happened when the precious Major returned to duty? I was relegated to the task of caring for the First Lady."
"Kal never considered that relegation," Lois was stung into remarking, much hurt. "Kal would only place my safety in the hands of someone he trusted implicitly."
"And that's another thing! Trust! Look how much he trusted me with the plot to bring down Jen-Mai! While you all put your heads together, I was left out in the cold." Poli's hands balled into fists and his rant had all the characteristics of a childhood tantrum.
"But that was for your own protection," Lois remonstrated, then she pinpointed him with an enlightened glance. "Mind you, it's a very good thing that you didn't know anything, or we never would've been able to bring down Mai or Nor." An ironic smirk curled Lois' mouth. "I bet Nor wasn't too pleased with you for that."
A red blush spread over Poli's face, though the skin around his lips remained white, and Lois had the satisfaction of knowing she'd rattled her kidnapper. She'd liked to have been a fly on the wall at that particular meeting between the Lieutenant and his master. Poli grimaced at the memory. "Not really! But wasn't it lucky that I had a bargaining chip."
"You told Nor about the effect of Earth's yellow sun on Kryptonians!"
"Yes! So you see, if Kal had treated me better, your planet wouldn't now be under attack."
"Don't try to blame Kal for any of this. The only thing he did wrong was to trust someone who pretended to be his friend. And, besides, you tried to kill me when I'd only been on Krypton for a few days. You've been Nor's henchman from the very beginning."
"No, Lois, not quite. Rad-Nor was waiting for me when I got back from Earth. He made me a proposition; the standing I deserved in return for helping him to the throne."
"And you believed him? He's made that same promise a number of times over!"
Poli seemed to study the question for a moment. "Well, let's just say that I was willing to hedge my bets, as you would say on Earth. You see, I understand Nor. He's willing to do anything to get what he wants."
"Something like yourself!" Lois snorted, unable to hold back her disgust. "So, you decided to keep a foot in both camps? By the way, how did you keep in contact with Nor, with all the techno-surveillance on this world? The old- fashioned way… a go-between?"
"Yes, one of Nor's men… a messenger! It was quite easy to sneak away in my off-duty time; no one checks up on what we do. Krypton has become so immersed in its scientific expertise, it's forgotten the basics. But you're so quick on the uptake, Lois."
"Thanks, but I don't need your approval! And you were in a position of trust, that's why you were never followed!" Lois, however, could see that such a concept was well outside Poli's understanding. She returned to her original tack. "So you told Nor about Earth?"
"Oh yes! You see, I never really agreed with Kal's decision that we should leave Earth alone. I liked the marvellous things that we could do on your planet. We should've taken your people under our wardship."
"Make them your slaves, you mean. I'm surprised you didn't tell Nor immediately."
"Oh, I didn't trust him that much. I thought I'd keep that to myself until after Nor was enthroned and I was promoted to commander-in-chief. Meantime, he offered me a lot of money to do away with you… I just couldn't refuse."
"I'm so glad it wasn't personal!"
An evil grin appeared on Poli's face and he closed the distance between himself and Lois. "Definitely not, Lois! On the contrary, I found you an attractive woman back then. I certainly wouldn't have turned down a night of passion with you. Since then, however, I've discovered that you're a little too independent for my Kryptonian tastes… Still, I could be willing to make allowances… if the price were right."
Poli's hand snaked out to cup Lois' cheek in a gesture that was so like Kal's and yet elicited a totally different response.
"Don't touch me!" snarled Lois, backing away from the outstretched hand and, sadly, finding her way blocked by the edge of the bed. Just what was this madman proposing? That for services rendered and, no doubt, a large sum of money, he'd be willing to change his allegiance back to the House of El. She wasn't such a fool as to believe in anything this traitor suggested. She shoved with all her strength at the body that crowded her.
A retaliatory slap knocked Lois back onto the narrow bunk. "And don't flatter yourself, Lois. Believe me, I find you totally resistible at the moment." His eyes roved over her protruding stomach. "Yet, you won't always be pregnant…" His hand slid around her neck and she felt the pressure of his fingers as he loomed over her. "You're due to give birth any day now and afterwards I could be persuaded to let you into my bed…"
Lois did the only thing she could; from the depth of her loathing, she spat into his face.
"Don't, Lois!" Poli's eyes bulged as his fingers tightened around her throat. "Don't you understand the danger you're in? I could kill you so easily."
Inside, Lois was shaking. Perhaps, it wasn't wise to further inflame this man who seemed to hold the whole female sex in contempt and, particularly, Earth women. Yet, she had her own pride and she would have the last word. "I don't think so, Poli. You haven't gone to all the trouble of abducting me for nothing, and I'm sure that Nor wouldn't appreciate a dead hostage." To her relief, Lois felt the hands round her neck slacken. "Isn't that what I am… a bargaining piece? Nor threatens to kill me, unless Kal and his forces back off. Or perhaps, like you mentioned, I'm insurance. Nor must have some concerns about the outcome of this battle. So, if he's defeated, he'll trade my life and my child's life for his own freedom." The recognition in Poli's eyes told Lois that her words had hit on the truth and she pressed home her small advantage. "And don't you flatter yourself, Poli, that you'll be included in the deal. You're like every other one of Nor's tools — dispensable." Poli blanched. "Now leave me alone. Your presence is making me nauseous."
It was clear that the man would love to take his frustrations out on this far too feisty Earth woman, but he had been warned that the Lady of El was not to be harmed for the present. He stood back and regarded her coldly. "Don't be so cocky, My Lady. Once your darling husband is destroyed, you might be grateful for my protection."
Turning sharply on his heel, Poli marched back to his post by the console but Lois' mocking voce followed him.
"I'd rather be dead, first!"
Lord Kal-El sat alone in his cabin on the Kryptonian flagship, staring out the window at the softly blue-ringed planet of Earth. Lois should be with him, he thought absent-mindedly as his fingers slid over the small holo- cube of his wife. He had promised her that he would bring her home someday; just another promise that he'd so thoughtlessly broken. The promise that they'd both made to his grandmother — the promise that they'd always be together, because together they were stronger than each alone — had completely slipped his mind. How could he have forgotten such important advice, and from his grandmother who'd successfully predicted so many happenings?
Well, now he was paying the price, or, an even more terrifying realisation, his beloved Lois was paying the price, and all because of his stubborn stupidity. Lois had hated being left behind on Krypton, but, obstinate fool that he was, he had decided that she should stay at home in safety. He had even taken comfort from the fact that his Council had supported his edict and had told her so in no uncertain terms. Even the few conversations he'd had with her since the quarrel had remained stilted, neither willing to admit that they'd been at fault. Oh, he'd confessed to missing her, but he hadn't apologised for being inconsiderate of her feelings, or for believing himself to be completely in the right, when, all the time, he'd been so wrong.
Now it was too late. Lois had been kidnapped by Poli and been carried off to zor knew where; though it was a sure bet that she was now in the hands of Rad-Nor… And Poli, that was another thing he'd been wrong about. Even though Lois had voiced her suspicions about the man, he'd completely ignored them, had even persuaded her that she was mistaken and had placed her under the care of the damned recreant. How could he have been so mistaken about everything? Clearly he had a lot to learn about his judgement of people. He just hoped, with everything that was in him, that he wouldn't pay too high a price for the lesson. He had to find Lois and bring her back.
Yet, he had another job to do. Earth had to be saved and he was well aware that Lois would never forgive him if he abandoned her home world to go in search of one person… even if that person were the dearest thing in all the galaxy to him. Another scary thought struck him. There could now be two dear people who needed rescuing from wherever Poli had taken them. This trauma could easily have brought on Lois' labour, and if it was so, had she or the baby survived? Kal closed his mind to his surroundings and was comforted to feel the link that bound them still in place, which probably meant that Lois was alive. It didn't, however, bring him any closer to finding her.
He had to think this through. It wasn't too hard to understand Nor's reasoning in Lois' abduction. The man no doubt wanted a hostage, someone whose safety Kal would be willing to do almost anything for. But neither did that knowledge bring him any closer to discovering her whereabouts. The Space-station Caytan? No, somehow Kal doubted that the company who owned the place would put their continued existence at risk by blatantly holding the First Lady of Krypton prisoner… at least, not openly. She could've been taken to Taurus, but yet again, Kal didn't think so. The planet was just too far away, and Kal suspected that Nor would want Lois closer at hand, able to produce her if the going got tough.
An annoying buzz on his doorpad interrupted his deliberations and impatiently he opened his thoughts to whoever was outside his cabin. <Yes, what is it?> Kal snapped, sounding fiercer than he'd meant.
<Sire, I'm sorry to disturb you, but Lord Dax-Ver requests your attendance at the final battle-plan meeting.> The intimidated voice-thought of Dax's equerry came through the door.
Earth's quadrants were very close now and the fleet was expecting to engage with the enemy very soon. This mission had to succeed. He'd never be able to face Lois again if Kryptonians let down the people of Earth, assuming that he would be with Lois again…
<Tell Lord Ver that I'll be with him directly.> Kal softened his tone; it really wasn't this poor trooper's fault. With a final caressing touch of his fingers across Lois' image, Kal stood up and, squaring his shoulders he walked to the door. He would defeat Rad-Nor and rescue Lois… He had to, because no other option was acceptable.
Chapter Fifteen: My Lady of Nor
Lois was frogmarched through the dark metallic corridors of this unfamiliar vessel, yet there was no doubt in her mind as to the origins of this ship. The bulky black-armoured soldiers who had met her and her jailer in the docking bay had been easily recognisable… they were Taureans. She had been delivered straight into the hands of the enemy.
Poli had disappeared soon after they'd landed and, strangely, even knowing he was traitor, she felt some regret at his leaving. At least she'd been accustomed to his ways, while these silent, blank-faced creatures gave her few clues as to their temperament, except she knew from experience that they were brutal, thoughtless killers. Lois hated feeling so useless, but even she had to admit that she was in no fit state to tackle such formidable foes with any hope of success. Any physical assault on these aliens would probably lead to her or her baby being hurt, and Lois had every intention of keeping her child safe. Which meant that, for the moment, she had to play the docile captive and hope that her deception would lull her captors into a false sense of security. After all, one thing she had learnt about this race was that they weren't over-bright in the thinking department, which was why they made such perfect allies for an insane, criminal genius like Rad-Nor. Of course, there was Poli who had to be taken into account, and, though Lois hated to give the man any credit, Poli was nobody's fool. He would be watching closely for any escape attempt.
Lois and her guards traversed along drearily lit passageways, strewn with various pieces of metal gadgets, some large and others small, which had to be dodged around. It seemed that once something was no longer useful on this ship it was discarded haphazardly… pretty much in the same condition as the little farm on the mountain top where she and Etta had been imprisoned. Ballen and his squad hadn't been there very long but they'd left their trash scattered around the place, and, judging by the state of this spacecraft, Lois concluded that Taureans were also a mucky race — one more black mark to lay at their door.
The corridor snaked its way through the ship and the group ascended a couple of levels, then followed another winding passageway until Lois was totally confused as to her whereabouts on this vast craft. This didn't auger well for her escape plans. How would she find her way back to the docking bay where Poli's little orbship had landed? She had no idea how to fly the little thing, a situation which she planned on remedying just as soon as things were back to normal; who knew when she might be kidnapped again and next time she wanted to be better prepared. But, for now, if she could just get onboard the Kryptonian orbship she might find some way to contact Kal.
Finally the guards halted at an old, rusting metal door which appeared to have a shining sliver console attached to the older structure. The leading soldier punched a few touchpads on the gadget's surface. Lois studied the obvious addition to the Taurean ship and had no doubts in attributing the gizmo to Kryptonian technology. Great! Not only would she have to break out of an old Taurean tin can, but she'd have to deactivate a Kryptonian locking device. She just hoped she was up to the task! What was she talking about? She had to be! Kal and her baby were depending on her. No other option was acceptable!
Lois was manhandled into the room and the door clanged shut behind her. The noise startled her and, fleetingly, she contemplated throwing herself melodramatically at the door and clawing frantically at the lock. She knew, however, that such an attempt would be futile and Lois, having little use for melodrama, resolved to conserve her energy for a more productive plan; she just had to think one up.
Turning back into the room, she looked around her. Well, this prison was certainly more luxurious than she'd expected. The furniture was large and old, but it looked comfortable enough. Two beds stood side by side on the far wall, while in the corner a little alcove was curtained off from the main space, which quite probably concealed a bathroom. Strange shadowed lighting glinted down on the room and Lois' eyes were drawn upwards to a small domed skylight window. Well, there would be no escaping out of that window, even if she could climb up and fit herself through it. What happened to an unprotected body in the voids of space, did it explode or implode?
A rustle of noise brought Lois' attention back to the room and she walked forward to a high-backed chair which faced a small littered table. Someone had obviously just finished dinner. Lois' gaze flew to the person cocooned in the chair.
"You!!" The First Lady's voice was strident with surprise. "What are you doing on a Taurean ship?"
The figure met the indignant stare of the Lady of El with a look both enigmatic and still. "Where else would you expect me to be but with my husband's friends?"
This unforseen circumstance caused Lois some problems to equate and she sank heavily into the opposite chair. "But… This isn't right! Kal thinks… well, everyone in the family thinks that you are only with Nor under duress."
"Now why should they think that? Evidently they considered Rad-Nor a suitable husband when they married me off to him!" The Lady of Nor's snappy answer was full of accusation.
"But you were just babies when the contract was made. Your parents couldn't know how Rad-Nor would turn out." Lois couldn't condone her sister-in-law's obvious cooperation in Nor's plotting, but she did have a great deal of sympathy about the way in which her marriage was arranged. "Mind you, that's exactly why I'm so against these birth marriages and Kal doesn't favour them much either."
"You're against them!" Keira's eyebrows drew together with scathing scepticism. "Well, good for you! But you can't seriously believe that anything you think will change the traditions of Krypton."
"Well, not alone, no," Lois admitted grudgingly. "But Kal is determined to end the practise eventually." She sent the sullen woman an appraising glance. "You do know, that Kal would have stopped your marriage if he could, but no one would listen to a boy… even one who would be king. If only you'd come to him in the meantime, he would've protected you."
"Huh! There is no protection from Rad-Nor! Everyone who crosses him ends up dead."
"Kal would have kept you safe!"
"Did he save Aunt Rochelle, or the Fres, or Jun-Li?! He couldn't even keep his own bride safe!"
"But I'm still alive." Lois' voice betrayed her desperation; there was some truth in Keira's accusations.
"Thanks to Physician Tamar's expertise. Kal had no bearing on saving your life."
Lois looked askance at the woman who spoke with such bitterness. She certainly wouldn't agree that Kal hadn't played a part in pulling her back from the brink of death, but somehow she suspected that Keira would have great difficulty in believing in the power of love. A wealth of sympathy opened up in her heart for this poor tormented woman. If only she could get through to Keira, she was sure that she would find an ally.
"Well, yes I suppose Tamar's medication did save me… But that was when I first arrived on Krypton and we hadn't realised what Nor was capable of…"
"Your kidnap by the Taureans was long after your arrival! By that time my husband had blown up Rochelle and the Fres and yet he still managed to have you abducted! Kal couldn't stop him!" The derision in Keira's voice could not be ignored and Lois acknowledged that the task of winning her sister-in-law's support would not be an easy one.
"You're right! By then, we knew what sort of lengths Nor would go to! Only, I didn't think… I jumped right in at the deep end… So I'm afraid that I have to take some responsibility for what happened to me and Etta." As always, at the memory of her friend, Lois felt the knife turn in that particular wound. "Regardless of what came out at my trial, Kal didn't expect me to go wandering around the streets of Veren and he certainly didn't approve of my going unescorted. My only excuse is that, at the time, I didn't appreciate my position on Krypton, and yes, *I* underestimated Nor. Believe me, I learned my lesson in a very difficult way… I'll always feel a little to blame for Etta's death…" Lois' voice tailed away as memories overtook her.
"She was nice, wasn't she? We sort of grew up together. Of course, young ladies couldn't really have close contact with their servants, but I liked her."
Lois breathed a secret sigh of relief. She had, at least, made a small dent in Keira's brittle shell. "So did I. She was the first real friend I ever made on Krypton, apart from the family." At the word family, Keira's shutters slammed down once more and Lois almost kicked herself. This embittered woman wasn't about to forgive any of her kin whom she held responsible for the destruction of her happiness. That she was deeply unhappy was quite apparent. The Lady of Nor might pretend that she supported her husband but it was obvious to Lois that she did so only under coercion. Lois just needed time to work on that and she was fairly certain that Keira would aid her in her attempt at escape. If only she was given that time. Regrettably, she was just too tired to embark on a full- scale persuasion right at this moment
She'd slept very badly since Kal had been gone and the trauma of this night's happenings was catching up on her weary body. A strange lassitude was stealing over her, as Lois felt the residual traces of the drug Poli had administered taking over her senses once more. She rose from her chair, hoping that a few turns about the room would chase the cobwebs away from her mind, only to find that her limbs were starting to tremble shockingly. Lois was afraid that very soon they would not hold her upright. She crossed to the nearest bed and lowered herself wearily onto the surface. If she could just close her eyes for a minute or two, she might feel more able to pursue her conversion of Keira.
<Oh, Kal> Lois thought into the dark recesses of space. Immediately her mind snapped into gear. Was her brain wool- gathering? She wasn't very good at this long distance telepathy but she and Kal did share a special link. Without giving herself away by any outward movement, Lois started to concentrate…
<It's no use, Lois!> An unfamiliar thought pattern broke into her focus and Lois' eyes veered round to her companion, who she found regarding her impassively. For long seconds their gazes held. Then Keira's voice broke the silence. "You can't reach him. You can't reach anyone. The room is thought shielded." Her hand strayed around the contours of the cabin. "Rad-Nor lays his plans well. This chamber has a few modifications. The metal is of double thickness and there are force and thought shields around us, in addition to the larger field that is covering the ship. Neither you nor any messages can get in or out."
Exasperation was written clear across Lois' face. "But you can deactivate the thought shield from in here?" Truthfully, Lois' question was a last desperate throw of the dice. She didn't really expect an answer or that the answer would be in the affirmative, but Keira's frightened mien, which was quickly hidden, answered more loudly than any words. Lois, however, purposely chose not to pursue that subject for the present. Given her captor's present mood, it would be a useless quest and exhaustion was seeping through her every sinew and bone; the knowledge was filed away for later.
"You look exhausted," came Keira's quiet voice from the other side of the room. "Why don't you try to sleep? I remember how tiring being pregnant can be…"
Lois rallied her fading strength and listless thoughts. She was onto something. "Speaking of children, Keira, where are yours?"
If Lois' last question had disconcerted Keira, this one positively terrified her. The look of a hunted animal caught in a trap, descended over the Lady of Nor and she bit firmly down on her bottom lip to stop an anguished moan.
"You don't know, do you?" Shock was written clearly on the First Lady's tired face as the realisation grew within her.
"They're with their father." Keira's reply came in a deadly monotone.
"He's taken them into a war-zone?!" The tone was aghast, yet the irony of that statement wasn't lost on Lois. Hadn't she asked the same of Kal, if in a slightly different set of circumstances?
"To tell the truth, I don't really know where they are." The admission came with some reluctance, a measure of guilt and a great deal of foreboding. "It's the price of my cooperation, you see. I'll get them back if I do my husband's bidding." The whispered words drifted soft as feathers in the silence of the room, yet their meaning struck like a dagger into each mother's heart.
"Oh, Keira!" Was all that Lois found it in her power to say, as her own hands instinctively covered her unborn child. She'd thought that she had plumbed the depths of Nor's depravity! But to use his own children's lives as a tool against their mother was something that she found hard to contemplate. Lois was not naive. She understood that often in divorce cases, offspring were used to get back at the other partner; hadn't she and her sister been manipulated in this way by both her parents? But to threaten these poor babies' lives in this way, was something else entirely. Even Rad-Nor couldn't be so inhumane… "But Keira, you must be mistaken. Surely Nor wouldn't harm his own flesh and blood."
"You think not?!" There was ice and steel in every word but underneath it all was an insidious acceptance. "Did no one suspect that his father's death was suspicious?!"
"Wait a minute! You're implying that he murdered his father?!" This new revelation chased away some of her fatigue and Lois found herself rising from the bed.
"Not exactly! I wasn't there when the old man fell down the stairs. He was drunk, you see… he often was. I think he was scared of the ogre he'd sired, especially since he had long since lost control of Rad and his fiefdom." Now it was Keira's turn to delve into a painful episode of the past and her face turned even whiter. "I heard him scream, and I was naive enough and brave enough then to answer a cry of help. When I came into the passageway, I saw Rad-Nor at the top of the stairs, watching as his father lay broken and bloody at the bottom. It was clear that the old lord was sorely hurt and in a great deal of pain. I went to call for aid… only Rad stopped me and held me fast as we waited for the poor man to die… It took some time, and he begged his son to save him. He was pompous and cantankerous and a selfish old drunkard and I hated him. But he didn't deserve to die that way. So I tried to struggle… to get away and find some help. I didn't realise, back then, that no one interferes in Rad-Nor's schemes."
"Oh, Keira, what has Krypton done to you?" For a long moment, Lois could only offer silent commiserations for all the torments that this woman, who was not so much older than herself, had lived through. But introspection wouldn't get them out of here and Lois had made the decision that when she was leaving, Keira would be going with her. "To be tied to a maniac like Rad-Nor must have been terrifying, but Nor is not typical of all Kryptonians. Regardless of the marriage laws on Krypton no one would expect you to stay with a murderer. Kal and his Council will help you to be free of him."
"And what of my children? Will Kal and his Council bring them back safely to me, or will I be left to mourn for their loss?"
"Of course, Kal would hope to rescue your children…" Lois was not, however, foolish enough to offer guarantees, and Keira was much too astute to believe in platitudes. "But, Keira, even if Rad did collude in the death of his father, perhaps even pushed him down the stairs, I still cannot believe that he would murder his own babies! He couldn't be so lacking in humanity."
"You don't know him like I do!" The answer was snapped back. "But you're right. I doubt that he would kill his son. The heir who will one day inherit the dynasty of Earth and Krypton…" At the widening of her listener's eyes, Keira laughed, but without pleasure. "Did you think that Rad-Nor would so easily give up his ambitions to rule Krypton? First he intends to subjugate the people of Earth and to plunder its riches. Then, when he's attracted every mercenary race that inhabits this galaxy, he'll return to conquer Krypton."
"All the more reason to stop him now. You're not venal, Keira. You can't wish to see my people or yours destroyed by Nor And you can't want your children brought up by such a monster." Then it registered. Only the boy had been mentioned. Cold fingers closed round Lois' heart. "What would happen to your daughter?"
An almost unfeeling shrug lifted the Lady of Nor's weary shoulders, but Lois could see beyond the exterior to the depth of the lady's pain. "Nor doesn't care much for females, except to use them to gain his own ends. Who knows what he might decide to do with Zeta? Keep her prisoner as long as he has a use for her? Pretty much what he'll do with you and your child… and me."
"So when our usefulness is done he'll have us killed?" Keira nodded spiritlessly in affirmation. "That's what I thought." But Lois wasn't given to accepting life's misfortunes and she wasn't about to let Keira give up without a fight either. Lois forced her tired body across the room, hoping that closer physical contact would aid her endeavours. "Keira, we have to get out of here and let Kal know where we are. If we're going to be killed anyway, then we have nothing to lose by attempting to escape. But I can't do it alone. I need your help."
Lois stretched a hand out to this sister-in-law she knew so little of, only to be saddened by its rejection. The Lady of Nor stood with studied calm, her haunted eyes the only betrayal of her tormented soul. For long moments the two women stood face to face, then brushing past the reaching hand of friendship, Keira swept to the door where she addressed her prisoner. "We have some way to go before reaching Earth, I suggest you take the opportunity to rest. I will have them send you some food." Keira turned quickly to go but just as swiftly changed her mind. "I'm sorry, I cannot help you… I dare not!" Then she was gone.
While The First Lady's prison transporter traversed the spaceways, with a great deal more speed than would have been expected from an old rust-bucket, Lois was dragged by exhaustion into a troubled sleep. Her slumber was filled with images of a satanic Nor menacing three tiny infants and did little to give her physical rest. Many hours later she awoke from her nightmares, with a heavy heart and an aching head.
Sometime during her sleep, Keira had returned to the cell and at Lois' waking, the promised meal was delivered by the guard who stood outside the cell door. Obviously, these Taureans had heard of her escape from Ballen's mountaintop prison and they weren't taking any chances. Truthfully, she didn't feel like eating, but Lois hadn't given up on her plans of escape and to accomplish that, she would need all of her strength. So the two women sat silently at the table and forced themselves to eat the unpalatable Taurean food.
And so followed the pattern of the journey as they headed towards their destination. Lois would seek to win Keira to her side while the Lady of Nor resisted her every blandishment. On occasion, Lois would lose her patience and harsh words filled the little chamber which usually ceased when the Kryptonian woman would slam out of the door. Once, after a particularly noisy exchange, as Lois left in solitude gave vent to her anger and frustration in a torrent of sobbing, the door opened on a smirking Poli, come to gloat.
"Why don't you give in, Lois? You'll never win against Nor! Keira doesn't have your foolhardy courage." The handsome, faithless Poli, who would never understand Lois' dogged persistence, regarded her with a look that suggested she was some sort of freak in a bizarre sideshow. "Mind you, perhaps it is a genetic failing, this inability to accept the inevitable, for it seems that your fellow Earthlings are having difficulty adjusting to the reality of Kryptonian domination."
The words were like music to her ears and Lois, pushing herself into a sitting position on her bed, gulped back her tears. "Huh! Fighting back are they? I don't expect that pleases your master much!"
"Their puny efforts will be fruitless, but it seems they've gained some courage from your husband's arrival on the scene."
"Then Kal is there with his forces!" For the first time since her kidnap, Lois felt a surge of hope and it stained her face in a rosy glow, while her voice grew more animated. "Now we'll discover just who is the better man and I very much doubt it will be Rad-Nor!"
A dismissive shrug lifted the shoulder's of her black- uniformed tormentor. "Who can tell?" Poli sounded unconcerned. "But you forget, Lois, that's where you come in… If Kal wants to see you and his child alive, then he better do as he's told."
With an innate dignity, Lois rose to her inconsiderable height, yet somehow she dwarfed the sneering Poli. Her voice was calm and filled with all that was admirable. She said, "Kal-El will know what to do. What are two lives when measured against the peoples of two worlds? Even lives that mean everything to him. And no matter what you do to me… I will never leave my husband. I will be with him always… in his heart and soul. But what would you know about love and loyalty? You haven't even a passing acquaintance with these qualities. I pity you, Poli!"
Minutes froze in time as the two protagonists faced each other, the slim, fine-boned girl and the good-looking, athletic warrior. Yet, strangely, it was the man who gave way before the resolute stare of the girl's beautiful brown eyes. "Enjoy your moment of triumph, Lois-El," he murmured almost inaudibly and with a faint trace of admiration. "But will you face death so bravely?!" He swung round on his heel and with a soldier's tread he left the room.
Lois collapsed back onto the bed. She had no intention of dying. But she still had no idea of what she could do to prevent such a fate. <Oh, Kal, if only I could reach you.>
Chapter Sixteen: Final Conflict
Poli's words were true. The people of Earth had taken courage from the arrival of another host of spacecraft that had shown up in the skies above their besieged world, and they had begun to fight back. Not openly, for they could hardly succeed against such super-powered foes, but covertly, stealthily. Just as their predecessors had done in many conflicts in history, they started to resist. The billets of the occupying forces mysteriously caught fire, or food shipments turned up contaminated and enemy arsenals self-combusted. Of course, they paid dearly for their shows of defiance, but no one on Earth was prepared to back off. Even when their rescuers beseeched them to leave the fighting to their better equipped forces, the people of Earth refused to stay docile. They had taken enough punishment. And, indeed, Kal and his commanders could well understand the Earthlings' right and desire to fight back. Thus, their request to the population was not pressed home; they had come to save these people, not to bully them.
Besides, destroying Nor and the Taurean forces was proving more difficult than had been expected. An all-out battle in the upper atmosphere of the planet was just too risky. Who could be sure of what the outcome might be of unleashing such powerful weapons in an atmosphere which was already showing signs of decay? And if the rescuers descended to the surface and fought on the ground what would be the fate of the Earthlings caught in the crossfire? Kal and his war cabinet were also rather dubious about the consequences of allowing their troops to spend long periods on Earth under the influences of the bright yellow sun and the weaker atmosphere. There were enough super-beings already on the planet's surface.
However, there was also no doubt that those enhanced Kryptonians would have to be tackled. Thankfully, the Taurean soldiers had not developed such powers and could be attacked in the normal manner, but Nor's followers had become invulnerable… although hopefully, not invincible. Kal and Dax-Ver were hoping that the modern weapons that their fleet possessed would eventually prevail against these enhanced renegades, but they couldn't rule out the possibility that a handpicked battalion might have to also acquire similar abilities to enable them to finally vanquish Nor.
It was certainly an advantage to the liberating forces that Rad-Nor's followers were few, and that for some reason, known only to himself, he had restricted the numbers henchmen who had joined him on the planet's surface. As far as Kal's surveillance staff had been able to ascertain, the majority of his Kryptonian troops had been distributed amongst the Taurean spacecraft where they would gain powers to a much lesser degree. Neither Kal nor his commanders could quite figure out whether this was a ploy to jealously guard the superpowers from all but his intimate cronies, or whether it was a vain attempt to keep control of his hotheaded allies. After all, as Lois had often pointed out, there was no honour among thieves, and Rad-Nor might well fear a bid for his leadership from amongst his own supercharged men, not to mention the grisly, argumentative Taureans.
Meanwhile, a game of cat and mouse was being played out in the stratosphere of Earth. Kal's squadrons would strike with lightning speed any craft which dared to orbit Earth, creating as much damage as they could with limited firepower, before withdrawing into the darkness of space. Their scheme was to provoke the war-hungry Taureans into following their troublesome attackers where they could then be annihilated without threatening the ecology of Earth. In the first days of their arrival, this plan seemed to be having some success and a number of enemy ships were taken out. Recently, however, the Taureans were not rising to the bait, and Kal's war cabinet had deduced that Rad-Nor had persuaded them that they were being drawn into an ambush.
Now a state of stalemate had been reached in the blue skies above the planet Earth, while the opposing forces tested each other's mettle without indulging in a full-scale battle. To synchronise their sorties and to better equip some of the terran resistance fighters, Lord Kal-El had decided to risk a meeting with the leaders of Earth. His commanders had been very reluctant to agree to his landing on the surface, as he would be, for some considerable time, completely defenceless to an assault by the already enhanced forces of Nor. The meeting would have to remain strictly secret, and to that end Kal had convinced his war cabinet that he should land with only a small band of guards. Ching would certainly lead this platoon, which would be made up of experienced and trusted soldiers. The First Lord of Krypton was amused to see these normally battle-honed men acting like broody mother-hens over the question of his continued safety. Nevertheless, he was warmed by their concern and promised faithfully not to dangle above the jaws of death if he could possibly avoid them.
The day of the appointed meeting arrived, and Kal-El and his elite band elected to beam down to the surface in the metal-grill contraptions which would dematerialize and reintegrate their molecules upon arrival. It was felt that this method of transport would be considerably safer and more easily hidden than an orbship, even one that was cloaked, as it would allow the travellers to arrive directly at their destination. The fact that they could be retrieved almost immediately, should the need arise, was also preferable.
The members of the surface party were armed with the latest in high-density laser weapons and wore reinforced personal body shields, both the latest inventions of Major Klei. The scientific officer hoped that these modified weapons and shields would stand up to superpowers, but all was supposition as neither had been tested in the field.
Dax-Ver and one technician, to operate the transportation controls, watched as Krypton's leader, with his guard in attendance, entered the metal-grid cocoons and disappeared from their view in a flurry of sparkling molecules. Both held their breaths until, moments later, they heard the First Lord's thought transference echo in the metallic chamber.
<We're down safely. Everyone is accounted for. And our welcome party is here. Stay alert and I'll contact you when we want to return.>
The Commander sighed audibly with relief; he was getting too old for fighting and he was worried sick about the safety of his young friend. The boy was too brave for his own good, but, at least, Dax could content himself with the knowledge that Kal was not foolhardy.
"You heard the First Lord. Stay at your post and bring them back onboard immediately, at the first hint of trouble!" Dax allowed his concerns to colour his words and he at once regretted his harshness. As an experienced commander, he believed in discipline but he also believed that one lead by example and not fear. "And remember, the fate of the First Lord relies on your actions. Thank you, trooper." This was said in a softer tone and he bowed his head slightly before striding from the room
Down on the surface the First Lord of Krypton was accustoming himself to the gloom, while he cautiously stepped from his metal cage. Behind him, his men fell into a bristling phalanx with Ching at their head, weapons poised for a surprise attack. Kal was painfully aware that these soldiers were prepared to defend him with their lives and he felt both gratified and humble. Yet, though they could hear the distinct movement of a number of bodies, no one menaced them from out of the shadows.
Kal-El was back on Earth, and, for a fleeting moment, a wave of nostalgia swept over him. This was where he had met Lois. Where he had first laid eyes on her in the flesh. And she had been even more beautiful than he'd ever dreamed…
Oh zor, where was she?! He had had to resist the temptation to abandon his battle fleet and run off to search the galaxy for his lost wife. Both Lord Trey and Medi had assured him that everything was being done from their end to follow the path of the ship that had spirited away the Lady of El. But it was a huge galaxy, and if the ship had a cloaking device, which was highly probable, then that was surely an impossible task. Lois' babble gene was rubbing off on him and he had a job to do. Wasn't that what he'd told Lois during their quarrel? Well, now he'd best get on with it. Sort out the bad guys and then go look for his wife.
In the dimness of the tunnel, shadowy figures were emerging as his Earth counterparts came to meet him. Striding forward was a middle-aged man of average build, his sandy brown hair barely concealing its shades of grey and his pleasant face showing recent signs of intense stress.
"Lord Kal-El, I presume!" The newcomer's greeting sounded hollowly in the concrete burrow. "I am President Owen West of the United States of America and these are my aides, Bert Johnstone, national security, and General Broderick, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The tall distinguished guy, at the back here, is Lord Drummond- Hayes, ambassador from the court of St. James… representative of the UK government that is," West added the explanation, though it seemed that his youthful guest didn't need one. The steady intelligent gaze that met his own showed quick comprehension.
Stepping forward the strange visitor accepted the president's hand and shook it firmly. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr President, though I wish it were not under a state of war." It seemed that this alien was conversant in Earth protocol too, for he waved one of his troop to his side. A similarly uniformed young man stepped forward and gave a smartly executed bow, while his superior went on. "May I introduce my friend and chief bodyguard Major Ching, and these men are my personal guard. If we can be of assistance to you in anyway then please speak up… we are here to help." "Glad to hear that, Lord Kal-El." Not for the first time since the telephone exchange, West was astounded by these aliens' fluency in his own language. He allowed his gaze to stray over the black-clad group and was struck by the singular notion that, if he had met this lot first, he might have assumed that all Kryptonians were dark of eye and hair and were athletically good looking. A second thought followed closely on the heels of the first; there was no doubt in his mind who was the leader. Despite his youth, the man at the head of the apex had a certain presence… an aura…
"President West!" The young man's distinctive voice cut in. "We don't have much time. If Nor's surveillance operatives have intercepted our transfer then they could already be on their way here!"
That was a frightening thought. "Could that have happened?"
"Hopefully not! My technical staff has done their best to cloak our arrival and they are monitoring the area and will warn us if Nor's troops come snooping."
"Good! Because we have a lot to talk about, and especially about what practical help you can supply us with. If you could just step this way, we do have a more comfortable place than this cold cavern in which to conduct our discussions." The president shivered pointedly as he ushered the way down the slightly sloping corridor. "I'd hoped to be able to meet you in the staterooms of the White House but, unfortunately, your rebel Nor has commandeered the place as his headquarters."
The presidential guard fell in alongside the alien force, as their respective leaders led the way, each eyeing the other warily. A strong measure of relief filled the Earth soldiers when the strangers sheathed the futuristic weapons. Human courage was not any less than that of the extraterrestrials, but these men had fought against the invaders and considered themselves lucky to have escaped with their lives.
"Believe me, President West, I'm ashamed to claim Nor as one of my own." Kal admitted, his guilty blush going unnoticed in the dim light.
"Well, Lord Kal, you can hardly be held responsible for every member of your planet. I might be the leader of my country but I can't control the actions of all of its population. And, take my word, there are some of my fellow countrymen and women whose actions would scare the pants off you!"
Kal's brow wrinkled at the unfamiliar phrase — he'd not heard Lois use that one. He replied to West's sentiment with a solemn acceptance. "Nevertheless, as leader of Krypton, I would expect my people, and in particular one of my noble lords, to conduct themselves in a lawful and honourable manner. Clearly Nor has broken all Kryptonian codes of ethics and it is up to me and mine to bring him to justice."
This time it was the president's brow that wrinkled, though in surprise and muted amusement. Evidently, this young man took his responsibilities very seriously. "No organised crime or terrorism on Krypton?"
"Indeed not! We do have some petty criminals but until Rad- Nor began his reign of terror, our existence was fairly peaceful and orderly."
A low whistle of amazement escaped West's lips. If this Kal-El spoke truthfully, and he saw no reason to doubt him, then Krypton must be a fairly admirable place to live. "No crime, huh? You know I think that I might like to visit your home sometime."
"President West, I think that might be arranged in the future." Pleasure brightened Kal's earnest demeanour and his smile lit up the darkness, betraying to his host that this was a much more boyish and lighthearted leader than his mein had first suggested. "We must talk of this, once Nor and the Taureans have been dealt with. I know that my wife would be very happy to have some of her own people on Krypton." But at the thought of Lois' plight and the awareness of the huge task that awaited, Kal's visage settled back into stern lines.
The long moulded passageway came to an end at a steeply circular staircase from where a sultry summer draught drifted downwards, cooling quickly in the depths of the concrete well. High above, silvery traces of moonlight bathed the top flight of steps, but none of the glow reached them. West dipped below a large pipe that barred the way to the staircase.
"This way, and careful not to bang your head. This place is riddled with pipes and stopcocks, large and small. I've collected a few bruises myself since we've been here, but it does appear to be safe and that's the important thing. When our forces formed a resistance movement, it was imperative that we set up a headquarters. We tried abandoned military establishments, but that was the first place the enemy looked. We even tried some old fallout shelters though considering the bigger ones are all charted on some map or other, it was only a matter of time till they were discovered. We had to keep on the move and eventually we found our way here. We've been here for some time now and for some unknown reason, they haven't located us."
Kal heeded the president's warning and scrambled underneath the pipe, tapping the rusty-red surface lightly as he went. "One good thing, with this colour they're hard to miss."
"Lead-based paint to stop corrosion," West informed as he began the descent. "Though, it's not very effective anymore."
"Just where is this?" Kal raised his voice over the steady drip of water and his hand felt traces of damp on the metal rail of the stair.
"It's an old hydro-power damn in Montana, one of the first of its kind. It was decommissioned in favour of a gas- turbine station. Big business won out over ecology, something that I hope someday to redirect. But that's for another day." The president was puffing as he descended ever lower into the depths of the dam and he stopped talking while he concentrated his energies on his physical exertions. Finally, he reached the bottom and he stood aside, waiting for the others to join him, grinning with self-derision as he noticed that these younger guys hadn't broken sweat. "Okay, so you think coming down wasn't so bad, just wait till you go back up! Unfortunately, this place doesn't have an elevator."
Kal returned this sally with a gentle smile. "Maybe we could do something about that. Would you like us to leave one of our transporters behind? We could program it to act like an elevator. You could even use it as an escape pod up to our mothership, if the need arose."
"You could do all that?" Owen West was beginning to think that an alliance with these people might not be a bad thing for Earth. But first, they had to destroy this Nor and his bunch of goons and then there was the question of superpowers… Were they just too much of a temptation for even the good Kryptonians to resist?
"That is the big question, President West. And one that would have to be addressed before it could ever be agreed that Kryptonians could live on Earth."
Owen West, whirled on this First Lord of Krypton. "How did you do that?"
The eyes that locked with his were full of quiet reassurance and the answering voice was gentle. Where had this boy learnt his statesmanship? "My race is telepathic and, I believe, Earthlings can also acquire this skill with a little practise. I know it has been so for my Lois. But no, I didn't invade your privacy; that would be completely ill-mannered of me. But," and the teasing grin was back, "I don't think you'd make a very good poker player, Mr President… your thoughts were clearly written on your face."
The laugh was returned in spades. "Hey, my boy, I'll have you know that I play a mean game of poker, when I set my mind to it. I might even take you on someday."
"I look forward to it, but I have to warn you, I was taught by the best…"
"Lois, eh?" West couldn't help but notice that whenever his visitor's mind drifted to this Lois, a sadness, deep as the ocean, crept into his eyes. "I can't help but wonder why you haven't brought her with you."
"I've wondered that myself a few times lately!" And the statement was filled with self castigation. "I left her behind on Krypton. I thought she'd be safe, you see… and now I've lost her. She's been kidnapped and I don't know where she is!"
"I'm truly sorry to hear that, my boy!" West's sincerity was heartfelt. He'd been separated from his own family since this conflict had begun and, although they'd been able to exchange the occasional messages, he did worry about them. Casting an appraising glance over the young fellow, West decided that, if anything were to be accomplished here tonight, Kal-El needed to be brought back on track. With that in mind, Owen spoke up more heartily than he felt. "But you know, the FBI has looked into Lois Lane's background and from what I saw myself in that holo- thing, she seemed like one spunky lady. I doubt that you need to worry too much. These new 'modern females' can take care of themselves."
"That's what Lois keeps telling me!" With a huge effort, Kal suppressed his worries. He sensed exactly what this Earthman was up to and he was absolutely right. All his concentration had to focus on helping these people get rid of Nor. "Okay, President West, if you could tell me just what forces you have left and what the status is in the rest of the world then we'll see if we can co-ordinate our plans to destroy our enemies."
Lois emerged from yet another dream-haunted sleep. The tracking of time had eluded her; Lois only knew that she'd been cooped up in this room for far too long. Her surly roommate had proved to be no help in her escape bid, or even in passing a message of her whereabouts to Kal, and Lois, uncharacteristically, was about to admit failure.
But something was different. It was just a subtle change, but Lois could feel it all around her. The tone of the engines had changed… the vibrations in the creaky metal bulwark of the ship. Looking upwards through the glass dome, Lois noted that the view had settled into place. No longer did the hazy streaks of colour flow past the viewport. Now, single stars and planets came into focus. The spacecraft had dropped out of high velocity. Lois struggled to rise and went to stand beneath the glass portal. Creeping into the edge of her vision came a brightening, a yellow glow… the familiar sun of Earth. Such knowledge should have comforted her. She was home at last. Instead, a hollow dread overtook her as she considered her immediate future. Lois had run out of time.
"You're awake!" Keira's voice came from the open door, and turning, Lois could make out the huge bulk of the ever- present guard in the corridor behind her unwanted companion. "I've brought breakfast." And so saying, Keira laid the tray on the small table.
"Thank you, but I'm not hungry!" Lois said snappily. That wasn't exactly the truth, but the food was so unpalatable that it almost turned Lois' stomach.
The look she received was sulky. "Please yourself." Keira sat heavily in her chair and continued to eat without, however, much enthusiasm. "You might have noticed that we've dropped into orbit just outside Earth's atmosphere. Poli's about to contact Rad-Nor, so things should start to happen pretty soon. You might even be going on a trip to the surface. Don't you think you ought to eat something to keep your strength up?" The last suggestion was framed in kinder tones.
Lois shot a sidelong glance at the other woman. Throughout the journey, she had tried hard to find something about Keira to like. For Kal's sake, if not her own. But there had been no meeting of minds, no shared preferences. Apart from that one reference to Etta, the Lady of Nor had refused to be drawn on the subject of her girlhood and her family.
"Do you know what Nor has planned for me?"
"Me?!" The Lady gave a very unladylike grunt. "Rad-Nor never tells me anything! Just issues orders, which, I've learned to my cost, are best to obey." Keira fingered her marriage bracelet. It was forged from an opaque-green crystal and heavily carved. Lois assumed it was made from the Kryptonite that Kal had told her of and was very old, possibly a family heirloom. Momentarily distracted, she compared it with her own delicate golden wristband. She had worn it for two years now and had become very comfortable with its presence. Yet Keira frequently toyed with her bracelet, an unconscious nervous gesture, whenever she mentioned her life with Nor. "You might be lucky enough to share your husband's confidences, but not all marriages are like that. If anyone knows his plans, it's probably Lieutenant Poli. Maybe you should ask him."
"I have! Only it didn't get me very far! The man's a creep!" Immediately, Lois noted a flash of accord on Keira's usually closed face. So, it seemed they'd found another point of agreement, and she shouldn't give up on Keira just yet.
"I'm pretty certain that the Taurean High Command have an idea of what Nor's up to, but I wouldn't dare to suggest you approach them. They only have one use for women and, if we weren't under Nor's protection, believe me, our journey would've been even more unpleasant."
Remembering what Ballen and his thugs had done to her dear friend, Lois wasn't about to dwell on those possibilities… However… "Taurean High Command?"
"The Generals that rule Taurus! This is their ship and two of them are aboard. I expect they're here to find out which piece of Earth Nor is planning on giving to them, but I haven't asked. I keep well out of their way and I'd strongly recommend that you do the same!"
If Lois was totally surprised that members of the Taurean oligarchy were consigned to travel in such an antiquated craft, she forbore to comment, reminding Keira huffily, instead, "It might have slipped your notice, but I don't have much choice — I've been imprisoned in this room since I got here."
All in all, though, she did accept that Keira was correct. Now they'd reached Earth, something was bound to happen, and she really should face it — whatever 'it' was — on a full stomach. In silence, she sat at the table and halfheartedly began spooning the 'stuff' into her mouth. The runny, tasteless concoction reminded her, from her college reading material, of Oliver Twist's gruel. Well, she most definitely wouldn't be asking for more. In fact, she hoped she didn't throw up; that would make this a really 'great' start to a day she was already beginning to dread.
"So, let me get this straight," said President West eagerly. "You're willing to supply these weapons and body- shields to my forces?"
The summit between the ruler of all Krypton and the representative leader of the free world was taking place in a workroom carved out of the rock into which the dam was built and, hopefully, well away from any scouting parties of rogue Kryptonians or Taureans. The hum of a long-unused generator, which had been cranked up again to produce enough light and heat to sustain this small band of partisans, underscored the conversation.
Kal leaned his elbows on the long metal table and clasped his hands. He was well aware of his tendency to 'talk' with his hands, but, in this case, he wanted no distractions. "Well, yes. But not to all your soldiers… we just don't have enough to go round. And Lord Drummond-Hayes, if you could give us a contact point for your UK and European fighters we'd make drops there too. Ideally, we'd like to arm as many units round the world as we can. We feel that a concentrated attack on a global scale, supported by Kryptonian assault squadrons would be the most effective way of taking out the occupying forces. But, this is your planet and we need your agreement before we go ahead."
West sat back in his chair and regarded his people, all of whom were nodding in various degrees of concordance. "The way I see it, we don't have much choice. Our armaments just aren't in your league. Oh, we've managed to take out a few enemy bases, the ones that don't have these invisible shields… even managed to kill a number of careless Taureans, but not enough to make one shred of difference. And anyone who goes up against Nor's men ends up dead."
General Broderick moved into the singular beam of light shed by the one bare lamp hanging above the table. "And these weapons of yours are effective against the opposition?" It was the question that was on everyone's mind.
"Don't worry about the shields; they can be taken down. Besides, the Taureans will most likely ditch these in favour of fighting and there's no doubt about their vulnerability. We've gone up against them before in minor skirmishes and beaten them. I wish I could tell you the same thing about Nor's men, General, but, truthfully, we don't know the answer to that one. My scientific officer hopes these new weapons can breach super powers but, never having encountered them before, he has no frame of reference."
"How come Kryptonians developed superpowers and the Taureans didn't?" Bert Johnstone jumped in with a puzzle which had been nagging him for sometime. "Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful that they didn't; Nor's troop of cyborgs is enough to handle, but I couldn't help but wonder."
Kal pushed back his chair and rose impatiently. It was obvious that these people would have a lot of questions; he just didn't have a lot of time to give the answers. But this was one that they deserved to know and it was just a pity that he had no definitive reason. "That's another point we can't be sure of, but these men are not machines. Something happens to Kryptonian physiology when we live on Earth, something we could never have expected. Believe me, I was taken completely by surprise when I and my two companions found ourselves able to do amazing things when we visited your world two years ago…"
"That would be when you took Lois Lane away?" West interrupted.
"Yes! But you have to know that she came with us willingly." Kal felt it important that these Earthlings understood that his people… his law-abiding people would never coerce any one of their race.
West couldn't hide a smile. "Yes, I think she made that abundantly clear when we talked!"
"Good! Because you have to know that we… my people… are here to help, in any way we can."
"I think we get the picture, Kal. That's if you don't mind me calling you Kal? Or should it be Lord Kal-El or First Lord or something?"
"Kal will do fine… if I may call you… Mr President?" Kal's eyebrows crept upwards, questioningly. Here on Earth, he was very aware of his youth. In this society, people in authority were mostly a little older.
"I believe we've got past the title stage. Owen will do very nicely… But you were explaining the superpowers…"
"I'm afraid I only have a few theories to offer. My scientific researchers haven't had too much time to look into the phenomena as yet…"
"Two years isn't enough time?!" General Broderick sounded sceptical.
"It might have been, but try a few weeks." Kal found himself the object of a few incredulous stares. The faces round the table were cast into strange angular shadows by the bare glow of the solitary lamp. "I… we, that is, Major Ching and my other guard, decided it would be best if no other Kryptonian was aware of the power we could have on your planet. We decided to keep the secret for the people of Earth's protection."
"Major Ching is here, so I'm assuming that this other guy thought differently?" That from Bert Johnstone, his well- honed gut instincts which made him so good at his job quickly leading him to this assumption.
"Unfortunately, yes! Lieutenant Poli went over to Rad-Nor, and I have to apologise for not foreseeing his desertion." Kal's eyes dropped to study his well-polished boots. This admission was difficult for him. "If I'd realised what Poli was up to, what his true character really was… your world would not be in the state that it is today." And Lois would not be in terrible danger, the unbidden thought came quickly to the forefront of his mind. But the First Lord of Krypton would not shirk his responsibilities and he raised his head and faced, at least, some of the people he felt he'd let down badly. "I know that my saying sorry can never compensate for what your people have been subjected to… but I do apologise sincerely and I mean to make amends in anyway that I can…"
"Son, you won't be the first leader to have placed his trust in someone who didn't deserve the honour, and I'm pretty certain you won't be the last." Clearly this young man was suffering pangs of guilt and Owen was quick to offer his understanding and support. "I'm sure you did everything in your power to stop the secret from getting out. Only, now that it has, our main concern is to stop these supercharged monsters from continuing with their reign of terror, and we might accomplish that better if we understood where these powers came from. Come on, come back to the table. I've a feeling this could be another long night."
Sheepishly, Kal did as he was told, his demeanour of First Lord fading under the solicitude of the older politician. "I have only a few theories to offer you. Our scientists have been busily studying the three worlds, Krypton, Taurus and Earth and they've made a few discoveries…" Kal was warming to his subject and his face had lost its haunted mein once more. "Of the three, Krypton has the densest gravity and Earth the lightest, with Taurus somewhere in between. Our physiologists believe that we as a race, have subsequently developed a denser molecular structure and that affects some of the things we can do on Earth."
West steepled his fingers as he contemplated the information. "Kinda like our astronauts on the moon; with hardly any gravity at all, each step they made was a giant leap."
"So Kryptonians can fly on Taurus too?!" The gravelly voice of General Broderick probed.
"I really wouldn't know. Kryptonians aren't welcome on Taurus and we would never break their exclusion zone. To do so would be considered an act of war. We might not like the Taureans and over the years we've had a few altercations with their junta, but our battles have mostly been with their mercenaries who prey on weaker and less well armed worlds."
Again President West was struck by the intrinsic law- abiding nature of this particular extraterrestrial. For years now, the people of Earth had debated the question of life on other planets; everything from insidious viruses to flesh-eating monsters and all-powerful killers. Somehow, very few speculations had covered the likelihood of a people, pretty much like his own, just wanting to coexist in peace and harmony with its neighbours. That being so, the diplomat in him recognised that the possibilities of a treaty with this Krypton were endless… Nevertheless, the conversation was getting away from him and he returned his attention to the talk that flowed around the table.
"Mind you, our scientists believe that the gravitational aspect is only part of the equation." Kal was continuing to the rapt attention of his listeners. "The other powers — the enhanced senses — might be explained by the fact that your planet has a yellow sun while Krypton has a red one. According to the findings, yellow and red suns give off slightly different forms of radiation… not enough to harm anyone but enough to make a difference."
"Do the people of Earth have these kind of powers on Krypton?" The cultured tones of Lord Drummond-Hayes queried politely.
That provoked a hearty laugh from the two leaders of the visiting group as they contemplated a supercharged First Lady. "I'm sure Lois would have loved that! Just think what mischief she could have gotten up to!"
"One thing's for sure; she'd have been even more unbeatable at card games!" Ching had finally been surprised into talking, yet he very quickly subsided into his customary silence as his mind reviewed other less humorous scenarios where a Lois with superpowers would have made a great deal of difference to some tragic outcomes.
"But that wouldn't make sense," Johnstone put in his two- centsworth. "Humans… sorry, Earth humans… would be weaker on Krypton, wouldn't they?"
"Yes they are! But not enough to put their lives at risk. We have medication that strengthens the body until it becomes accustomed to our denser atmosphere and different sun. Believe me, I wouldn't have taken Lois to Krypton if it were dangerous for her." It was encouraging that his explanations were being followed so intelligently and with a great deal of sympathy. Yet Kal was hardly surprised, his dealings with Lois had taught him that the people of Earth were quick witted and intuitive. Perhaps, there was some truth in the ancient legend that Earthlings and Kryptonians came from the same seed. He certainly shared some sort of rapport with these people. "Also, Taurus has a yellow sun which would support the scientific theory. But it's a dying sun. Life on Taurus must be growing very hazardous and it's why the Taureans are so anxious to find themselves another home. If they weren't so combative about the whole thing, the Federation would be happy to help them, but unfortunately, the Taureans' creed is to take what they need by force. "
"As we've discovered to our cost!"
The President stretched his spine and flexed his muscles. This old metal furniture and the damp air in this leaky dam were playing havoc with his aching back and not for the first time he wished himself back in the comforts of the White House. He just hadn't appreciated its stately charm or, for that matter, the ultimate accountability of his role as President. So many peoples' lives relied on the judgments he would make and not just in his own country. He supposed that he'd always been aware of that altruistic concept but only in an idealistic sense. Watching those around you die and having to fight for your own life certainly brought home the fact that 'doing' was much more important than 'talking.' Once things were back to normal, he was through with attending these lofty summit meetings between governments where agreements were reached over the conference table, only to be totally ignored by the same governments' business communities if it meant a reduction in their multibillion dollar profits. Of course, the world needed prosperity, but not at the expense of ruining the planet for future generations…
"Owen! Mr President!" The soft voice of the First Lord of Krypton cut into his deliberations. "We don't have much time and there's still a lot to discuss!"
"Sorry! Woolgathering!" West shook away the cobwebs and concentrated on the immediate plans. After all, if they didn't get rid of the invaders, his resolution for the future would be purely academic. "So, let me get this straight. We can destroy the Taureans but we don't have any means of defeating the Kry… the other Kryptonians?"
"That's correct. Major Klei is working on a number of projects with the help of our scientists back on Krypton, but so far, nothing seems effective against superpowers."
"Seems to me that getting rid of the Taureans would at least halve our problems, though."
"You're right, Bert!" Now that a plan of action was being put together, West felt his aches and pains relegated to the background of his subconscious. They didn't exactly go away but for now they could be forgotten in the need to correlate a battle plan. "So we target the Taureans and try to stay out of the way of Nor's men."
"That won't be easy!" The General disliked playing devil's advocate. He wanted action just as much as the next man, possibly even more, but he hated the idea of throwing his soldiers into a no-win situation. It just wasn't good tactics. "With that enhanced super-hearing they're gonna know for sure if there's a fight going on… and the minute the Taureans know they're under attack they're gonna call for backup."
"Not necessarily! I know these Taureans. They're proud and pig-headed, and they don't like to admit that they need anyone other than themselves, especially when it comes to fighting."
From out of the shadowy corners of the room, Kal noticed combat-clad figures appear unobtrusively with steaming mugs which were placed in front of all those around the table. From the heavy aroma, Kal guessed it was coffee and he hoped that his senses were not already sharpening. Super powers weren't something he wished to deal with quite yet, and it would mean that his body was evolving at a much faster rate than on his first visit. Did that mean the effect was cumulative? Had his body retained some hidden traces of the powers and so were assimilating them much faster now?
Kal took an explorative sip, this talking was thirsty work, and ah! That hurt… thank goodness! He never thought he'd be pleased to have hot liquid scald his mouth. A fit of coughing overtook him and Ching helpfully, though not very gently, patted his back. After a moment of this draconian treatment, Kal held his hand up in surrender. "Th…" Another splutter. "Thanks… Ching… I think I'm… fine." Ching sank back into his chair, aping his leader by drinking his coffee, but not before blowing sensibly on the surface first.
"Now, what was I saying?" Ignoring the slight discomfort from his tender mouth Kal hurried on. "Oh yes! I doubt the Taureans will look to Nor to save them. They might be allies but I'm fairly certain that it's only a merger of expediency. Nor knew that even with the added advantage of superpowers, he couldn't annex this planet alone. He doesn't have enough followers, especially since he must have had a fairly good idea that I would come after him, and that my soldiers would develop the same powers. No, he needed the Taureans to do most of the dirty work for him…"
"And the Taureans saw this as their new home? Damn them!" West would've liked to use a more colourful expletive, but he was conscious that these visitors were possibly of a more moral bent than their disreputable counterparts.
"That would be my take on the situation. And I'd say that they've agreed to a noninterference policy. There certainly won't be much trust between them. And Nor might not actually mind if part of the Taurean army is destroyed; less competition for who actually controls the planet."
"That would certainly concur with the intelligence we've been able to pick up from our contacts around the world…" Johnstone shifted edgily in his seat. He too was anxious to be out and doing something to rid his land of this blight which had come so unexpectedly and so devastatingly from out of the emptiness of space. "They don't appear to be cooperating very closely with each other. Nor has stationed his men in small conclaves in the larger capitals of the world… here… Beijing, Moscow…"
"Istanbul, Paris, London," Drummond-Hayes took up the tale. "They seem to have a penchant for stately homes and castles. Would you believe the swine have taken over Buckingham Palace?!"
"It's what they're used to." Ching decided to explain, helpfully, thinking of the grand castles and palaces of Krypton. But even if Lord Rad-Nor was used to luxurious living; Ching very much doubted that his soldiers would have lived a comfortable life, apart from his immediate subordinates, of course. Which was probably why these men were enjoying acting like masters of the universe. Uncomfortably, the Major found himself under the Earthlings' scrutiny and he retired, once more, behind his stoic attitude.
"Whatever their reasons, it's true," West hurried to fill the awkward breach in conversation. "The Taureans on the other hand have settled into abandoned army camps. From what we can see, they're not particularly bothered about comfort…"
"Or cleanliness! Have you seen the state of their billets? They're nigh on pigsties!" It was clear that the dapperly dressed ambassador was horrified by these invaders' habits. "Mind you, it's served our purposes admirably! I had my partisans infect them with a nasty virus. To this day, they don't know what hit them; went down like ninepins until they developed some immunity, which I have to admit was rather quicker than I would have liked."
The courtly gentleman receded into silent regret, not realising that he had thoroughly shaken his alien guests to their very core. From the moment of stepping from the transporter, Kal-El had been measuring up his newly acquired confederates, trying to gauge their strengths and weakness. His first impression had been to confine this particular accomplice to the ineffectual; there only as a representative of his government. Now, however, he quickly reassessed his verdict; this man could be deadly and the fact that it was concealed behind an almost foppish exterior, was somehow more unnerving. For the first time, Kal actually felt a tiny shred of sympathy for the Taureans who had been struck down so insidiously. But there was something else that had been remarked upon that was important…
"Your contacts? So you're still able to contact each other? But how? The Taureans and Kryptonians must be monitoring the airwaves!"
"Exactly!" West's anxiety to prove his peoples' resourcefulness sharpened his voice. "We realised that very quickly. They either traced our satellite systems or they destroyed them and when we tried to use the old telephone cables they cut the connections. But we're not totally helpless and we've been able to tap into the network. However, we can't leave the lines open. We break in, make temporary contact for a limited time and then fade into the night. And, of course, that doesn't allow us to keep in touch worldwide."
"So we've resorted to a very old system… not quite tomtoms but just as effective!" Again the Englishman spoke up. "Do you have pigeons on Krypton?"
"Pigeons?! Aren't they birds?"
"Yes… of the homing variety."
The type of grin that Kal was accustomed to seeing from his Uncle Remy lit up the courtly face and the unbidden notion that these two old gentlemen might deal extremely well together flashed through his mind.
"We haven't yet had time to set up a full-scale system of carrier-pigeons, but we are getting there." The elderly peer explained politely, as if conducting a conversation in a fine audience chamber and not in a dark, leaky cellar in the bowels of the earth. "The racing of pigeons is very popular throughout the world, though the carrier system has died out in favour of technology. Fortunately, I remembered my time in the Secret Service during the war…"
<Lord Kal-El! Lord Kal-El! Please acknowledge that you're receiving my thought waves!>
The Earth-born members of the little conclave noticed with some surprise that Lord Kal-El's head tilted swiftly upwards, as if he were listening to something…
<Go ahead, Lord Dax-Ver.>
<First Lord, we've had an urgent communique from Commander Kinnon; he's reported the arrival of a Taurean destroyer in his quadrant. It seems that when it came out of hyper-drive its cloaking shield failed and our surveillance team were able to get a fix on it. According to Kinnon, it's an older vehicle but its markings suggest that it belongs to the ruling Junta of Taurus.>
<Dax, I'm going vocal for the benefit of our allies but please keep tuned in.>
"I've just been informed of the new arrival of a spacecraft, orbiting just outside your atmosphere… a ship belonging to the Generals who rule Taurus. We've been expecting something like this ever since our intelligence staff picked up the presence of Nor's henchmen amongst the Taurean troops. The Taureans obviously feel that. Nor is breaking the agreement by trying to control their men, and they don't like it, so some of their ruling-body has turned up to take charge of the situation."
"Just what we need… enemy reinforcements!" Broderick snarled.
"Can you prevent them from landing?" A very disconcerted President asked. "I somehow doubt that an impending power struggle between these Taurean Generals and Nor would be too healthy for our people."
"I hate to agree with you on this Owen, but I wouldn't give much chance to anyone who got caught in between these two forces, either. But hopefully that won't happen. Our policy is to attack outside Earth's atmosphere if we can. I'm not sure if you're aware but your atmosphere isn't in a very healthy state — we could help you out with that later, if you like — but, for the moment, it means that we'd rather not have a big firepower battle in your skies."
"You mean the global warming?"
"Yes! Our scientific communities can discuss this later. Krypton had a similar problem a century or so ago which we managed to put right before things got too out of hand. So maybe your world can learn from our past mistakes. But getting back to the more immediate problem… the Taurean ship is being attacked even as we speak."
"You're correct in your assumption, Sire." Lord Dax's disembodied voice reverberated around the little cave like room. The commander was taking his lead from Kal-El and using voice communications, trusting in his technical staff to keep his signal covert. "Kinnon's ship has engaged with the enemy and the destroyer 'Iola' is closing in to back him up. I'd say we have the old craft outgunned. And maybe, if we can take out the Generals, it might throw the Taureans on the surface into confusion."
"Thank you, Dax. I still need a little more time down here to formalise our plans, but stand by to take us back onboard at our signal. Oh, and we'll be doubling up in the cages. I've agreed to leave one down here for the use of our friends and I'd also like to invite President West to join us for a look over the 'Gellis-Ver'." A slight grin curled Kal's mouth at the thought of the hard-bitten commander-in-chief naming his newly commissioned mothership for his youngest daughter.
But the smile swiftly died! What was he hearing? Like a faint echo from the past on a dark mountainside… a voice. No! The voice!
<Kal! Help me!>
Chapter Seventeen: To Face the World Alone
The awareness of danger had come stealing slowly, scarily over the two women locked and mainly forgotten in the shielded room of the Taurean ship. No one thought to inform them of the peril that was approaching in the shape of two powerful Kryptonian destroyers; the Taureans were too busy preparing to tackle these insolent assailants.
On the disorderly bridge no sense of panic ensued. Instead, the Generals Horren1 & 2 and their crew were enthused with a barely suppressed excitement at the approach of the enemy craft. The will to fight was ingrained into the very psyche of this warrior race and it mattered not a whit that they might be facing a more powerful foe; submission was not an option. In fact, they welcomed the challenge and no Taurean would ever envisage defeat. Their sense of superiority equalled their love of battle. And if all was lost, death was preferable to the dishonour of surrender.
When the cloaking device had first started to fail as the ship dropped into Earth's orbit, there had been a flurry of activity to repair it. And yet, the moment it was clear that the enemy had them in their sites, all stealth tactics were ditched in favour of all available power being diverted to the heavy artillery and protection shields, with the emphasis on the armaments. Taurean philosophy believed wholeheartedly that attack was the best form of defence.
Which almost immediately proved to be not the wisest of decisions. Two lightning laser bolts hit the Taurean craft simultaneously with the bridge being caught on the edge of one of the explosions. The stressed metal of the ship shuddered and ripped like silk under the violent onslaught, yet somehow it held tenuously together. Death, though, had come to many of the ship's company. The Generals still sat in their chairs amid the ruination of the bridge but only one was still alive. And yet, they had managed to fire a few of their own fusion torpedoes which must have damaged their opponents, but as the smoke and heated gases dissipated a little, the sleek Kryptonian battlecruiser could be seen still floating in the centre of the amazingly undamaged viewscreen.
"Damn the arrogant bastards! Their shields held!" General Horran1 spat as he cleared a steady flow of blood from his left eye. There was a jagged cut in the thick skin of his creased brow; a trivial wound which troubled him no more than a tiny insect sting. It was a great pity that the purloined Kryptonian laser-cannon had been destroyed before their gunners had managed to replicate it, but these heavy missiles were just as effective. "Reload the torpedoes! Give the Kryptonian swine another round of our guns! See if he's still in one piece after a full assault!"
"General! Is that wise?" A voice which was neither comfortable nor fluent in the guttural language of Taurus asked the loaded question.
The frowning hulking figure, dressed in its ancient and tattered finery of a Taurean warlord, turned towards the sound, his one good eye searching through the charred air. Finally, the General's attention settled with undisguised distaste on the more delicately built Kryptonian and his irate bellow reached dangerous proportions. "Wise! Who are you to dare to ask me that?! You are here only as an observer. We've done Nor's bidding for far too long and it's got my brood-brother killed." Surprisingly, a single large tear slipped down Horran1's hog-like features, which he quickly dashed away. "Well, now we're in command. Neither you nor your master gives orders on board this ship."
Poli limped slowly from his post in the far corner of the control room. His lowly position, behind a bank of defunct tracking devices, had quite literally saved his life. Clearly there were many others who had not been quite so lucky, he noted as he picked his way painfully over the dead and injured to confront the raging giant. But Poli was not without courage; he had his master's cause to promote, and being blown to smithereens was not the fate he had foreseen for himself, either. "I only suggest that as we are outgunned and outnumbered," Poli tried to direct Horren1's attention to the viewscreens where another vessel had shown up, "that we should direct all our remaining power to the protection shields and getting out of here!"
"Coward! We do not run from a fight no matter how great the odds are stacked against us!" But, at least, the General had turned to view the new threat. "Are Kryptonians lily- livered as well as stuck-up?! That's it, isn't it?!" Horren1's fist smashed down on what remained of his console. "You're trying to stop our attack; to protect your own kind?! Well, it won't work! I'm up to your little tricks!"
That the Taurean should have so mistaken his intentions struck Poli as amusing, but realising that his tendency to laughter might further enrage this deranged brute, he quelled his unruly emotions. Nevertheless, he couldn't wholly conceal his contemptuous humour. "You might remember Horren1, that these are not my Kryptonians… I'm with the other side."
The uneasy perception that perhaps he had chosen the wrong side implanted itself in his brain. But it was too late… it was much too late. Lieutenant Poli was fully aware of the procedures on board a Kryptonian battleship. He'd never actually been in combat before but his training at the Military Academy had been very thorough and explicit Now they would be preparing for another strike and this time the Taurean ship would be caught in a crossfire.
Horren1 had other ideas, though! He would go down with all guns blazing! And there had been enough of his crew left alive to carry out his orders. "Fire!" He growled. "Let's take as many of the high-and-mighty Kryptos with us into oblivion!"
"No!" yelled Poli, flinging himself at the General and the bank of instruments, his hand reaching for the button that would activate the shields…
At the first hint of trouble, Lois and Keira had craned their heads to see if they could spot the reason for the instant commotion that seemed to be taking place outside their door. It wasn't a very large skylight and its position made it awkward to actually see anything more than a few passing stars. However, when the sound of the battle- claxon had sounded loudly throughout the ship, with one mind the women had dragged a bed across the floor to use as a platform beneath their only window.
It had been Keira who had spotted the Kryptonian ship, but it had been Lois who had recognised the danger. There was a war going on and she and Keira were in the wrong ship at the wrong time and no one on the other side knew of their presence!
"Keira, you have to deactivate the thought shield." But the Lady of Nor remained entrenched in her silent denial. "Keira, that's a Kryptonian ship… one of Kal's and this is a Taurean vessel… you know, the enemy! So it's a pretty fair assumption that they're about to attack. We have to let Kal know where we are!"
"That could be one of Nor's ships!"
"No!" Lois was finding balancing on the narrow cot a little difficult, so she took hold of Keira's arm. "Can you read the name?" Using her sister-in-law as a crutch, she rose onto her tiptoes and twisting her neck she peered at the shadowing craft. "It's the Kinvalla! I watched that ship leave Elvar with Kal! You have to believe me, Keira!"
Now it was Keira's turn to struggle to look out their window. For some moments she gazed at the familiar spacecraft and the endless backdrop of space. Almost angrily Keira cast Lois' hand aside and jumped down to the ground, moving restlessly to the chair by the table but not sitting. Her tumultuous thoughts would not let her sit down to die. Lois was right. The Taureans were preparing for battle… for glory or for death. She knew enough about this species to know that they would never surrender, but there might still be a chance… "The Taureans might win!"
"Do you honestly believe that, Keira?" The woman gave a surly shrug. "Keira! Time is running out here! Can you take that chance? What will happen to your children if you're not here to fight for them?!"
That touched a nerve! Keira's careworn face paled.
Then the world rocked and Lois was flung from her perch on the bed. Noise like she'd never experienced punched at her eardrums until she thought they would burst and the ground came rising up to meet her. All thought of Keira faded from her mind as she tried to twist to prevent her stomach and the baby within from hitting the floor. And she was down in a welter of blankets and mattress… the bunk had tipped with her and had cushioned her fall.
There was sudden silence. Or was it that she was deaf?! Looking around her, Lois was amazed that the room seemed, remarkably, to be in one piece. The furniture was a little turned around and small objects were scattered over the floor. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the curtain that blanked off the restroom had fallen askew and somewhere a pipe must be leaking because a trickle of water was seeping into the trailing material.
"Keira?" Lois whispered and was relieved that she could hear her own voice. "Keira, are you all right?!"
From beneath a providential shelter of tumbled table and chairs, Keira crawled gingerly. "I'm okay! What happened?"
"I think we were hit!"
"Probably the newest version!" Lois was reminded of Major Klei's conversation about the prototype weapon. "So that's what that feels like!" She tilted her head to listen. The silence wasn't total and as her ears adjusted to the results of the shockwave, she could hear faint sounds of turmoil filtering through the thick metal door. The weakened girders of the ship creaked ominously and Lois let out a startled shriek. "I'm surprised we're still in one piece, though not for long I'm sure…" Another juddering groan accompanied her words, while an unpleasant whiff of burning sifted into the cell. "Keira, the fact that this cabin is protected probably saved us from the worst of the blasts, but we can't rely on that for a second attack. You have to take the thought-shield down now and let me try to warn Kal! It's our only chance!"
Finally, the Lady of Nor gave in to Lois' entreaties. Keira pulled herself from the floor and rushed to the side of the door where she opened a small recess. Why had she refused for so long?! She'd allowed her bitterness and her very real fear for her children to cloud her judgment. Had she waited too long? If she died here on this ship, which was highly likely, her babies would be left to the tender mercies of her iniquitous husband. Nor wouldn't care whether she lived or died. In fact, Keira had the unpalatable notion that he would view her demise as a welcome escape from a tedious union. She'd already provided him with an heir who had a claim on both the houses of Nor and El and thus had outlived her usefulness.
So Lois-El's advice was sound! She had to put her trust in someone and it appeared that the First Lord was now her only hope of being reunited with her children. Punching buttons with trembling fingers was difficult, but she made it on her second attempt.
"It's down!" Keira almost shouted above the swelling noises of a ship in its death-throes.
Lois closed her eyes to shut out all the distractions around her. She was fairly certain she'd only get one chance at this. A picture of Kal standing on the walkway of the battleship floated into her mind — the last time she had seen him in the flesh. Now, however, she didn't close her mind to him but opened the channel with all the love and yearning that she bore him.
<Kal! Help me!>
Almost immediately came the reply. <Lois! Where are you?!> Relief vied with desperation in his voice.
<On the Taurean ship that the Kinvalla is attacking! You have to stop them! There's no time for explanations! This rust-bucket is about to give up on us and we need help now!>
<Lois, I hear you! Are you all right? I'll call off the attack! Please hang on until my men can get to you. Can you do that, sweetheart?> His thoughts rushed one after the other in his fears for her safety.
<I can, Kal, but it's not me you have to worry about. I'm fine, but this ship is falling apart at the seams… You have to get us out of here…>
With her eyes closed and her concentration locked solely on Kal-El, the mind-blowing, shattering cracks took Lois completely by surprise and she found herself flung like a rag-doll to the floor. Which was a very strange occurrence, because she was fairly certain she'd already been sitting on the floor? The room tipped over and over, and Lois' fingers dug deeply into the thin mattress as she cartwheeled, clinging to it as if it were some sort of life-raft. Something hard and sharp struck her temple as furniture flew about the spinning room. Pain blossomed momentarily, then Lois lost contact with her dearest Kal and the rest of the universe…
Wreathed by the smoke that filled bridge, the uneven fight between the massive Taurean and the slender Kryptonian had reached its obvious conclusion and, as the fingers of death reached to steal the slighter man's vision, Poli saw his killer fire the final volley. Swaddled in a cocoon of numbness and only mild interest, the treacherous Lieutenant was aware of the ship bucking beneath him in a welter of explosions. His people had delivered their final verdict on his conduct, and as the ship went swiftly hurtling towards the barrier of Earth's atmosphere, Poli's last breath drifted unnotched in the maelstrom.
<Lois! Lois, sweetheart! Talk to me!>
Kal leapt from his seat as though the thing had suddenly become electrified.
<Lois! Answer me! What happened?>
An ominous silence assailed his senses. There was no one there…
This couldn't be happening! They had promised to share a wonderful, long life together… It couldn't be over so soon! He wasn't ready for this… to face the world alone… without the other half of his soul! He would never be ready for that! And it was all his fault! He had sought to keep her safe and had only left her in the path of such deadly jeopardy.
His mind sheered away from accepting such an overwhelming loss. In desperation he strove to find that one link that he shared only with Lois. Wait! Was there a faint stirring? An almost imperceptible tremor in a gossamer thread, or was it only the echoes of his wishful heart?
"Sire! What's going on?" Ching had watched without interruption as his leader had convened with someone out there. The joyful look on Kal's face had led him to believe that, at last, Lois had contacted him. But joy had turned to fear and dread within a very few moments, sending chills along the Major's erect spine. "Is it Lois?" Kal remained ramrod straight, staring at some point in the high ceiling of the dimly lit room. Ching closed the distance between him and Kal, and taking hold of his friend's arm shook it with some insistence, the intensity of the moment prompting him to drop the customary protocol. "Come on, Kal, what are you hearing?"
"Nothing!" Came the shocked reply. "Nothing… I'm hearing nothing now! She was there… for a few seconds I could talk to her. Then she just disappeared… and she won't answer me." Stricken eyes turned to Ching. "And I'm not even sure that I can feel her anymore. She was on that ship you see… the Taurean one we've just attacked…"
"Oh zor! Of all the blasted…" But this wasn't a time for woeful recriminations or wringing of hands, they had to discover what had happened. Ching directed his thoughts to the Kinvalla but kept them vocal. "Commander Kinnon, did you destroy the ship?"
"No! Major Ching, isn't it?" At the swift acknowledgement Kinnon went on, taking his cue from the Major and voicing his thoughts. "Not exactly!" Just a few little words and Kal felt a glimmer of hope stir in the depths of his soul. It gave him back his control. "Not exactly?! What do you mean, Commander?"
"We didn't destroy the Taurean craft." That chimera of hope grew, only to be dashed at the next words. "We didn't have to. They managed that all by themselves. The fools fired off a full round of their guns… fusion artillery, in a ship that was barely holding itself together…" In the bowels of the Earth the little intergalactic group waited with bated breath. "It just couldn't take it. There were a few small explosions and…"
"Commander, did the ship blow up?!" Kal's voice broke through the man's rambling report.
"Not completely… no, sire! Did I do wrong?" A note of puzzlement crept into the Commander's voice. "I understood Lord Dax-Ver instructed me to attack."
"You understood correctly, Commander Kinnon." On the Gellis-Ver, its captain, who had been following the proceedings closely, was also rather confused. "First Lord, has something changed?"
"Lois was onboard!" Kal ground out, his composure slipping in the effort to find out what had happened to his wife. "Where is that ship and could anyone have survived the attack?" Understanding struck both commanders on their respective bridges rendering them both speechless. "I need answers, now!"
"Huh, I'm not sure if anyone could have survived, sire." Kinnon's voice now held a distinct note of trepidation, watching the remnants of the Taurean ship flare into bright fireballs as it entered the atmosphere of Earth. The idea that his actions had in some way led to the death of the First Lady weighed heavily on his conscience. "The ship broke up under the stress. It's entering Earth's atmosphere now, but even if there were sections large enough and complete enough to harbour life, they're burning up on entry."
"No, sir!" A new voice attempted to enter the discussion. "Excuse me, commander, but it appears that a small module might have enough protection to make it through."
"Lord Kal-El, did you hear?" Kinnon was ready to latch onto any morsel of optimism and he hurried over to the vidscreen which plotted the course of a mysterious object. "My men have picked up the track of what might be an escape- pod…"
"Can you scan it for life forms?"
The communications officer shook his head, feeling very self-conscious in daring to answer Lord Kal-El. "Not during entry and perhaps not at all. It has to be well shielded to have survived thus far. Given the short space of time we have till it hits the surface, I doubt that we can break through the shields, and…" The young man gulped at his temerity; he'd been about to offer instructions to the First Lord of Krypton.
Kal, however, was completely oblivious to the incongruity of the situation. "And, officer?!"
"And it might not be the wisest of moves. Those shields are the only protection it has. If there are any survivors alive inside, the shields are their only hope of staying that way."
"So transportation is out of the question? What am I talking about, if Lois is inside, there's no metal cocoon to transport her?" This time, though, Kal refused to sink into melancholy. If Lois was in that escape-pod, he was going to rescue her. Invigorated by that thought, he sent a heartening look to Ching, then rapped out his orders. "Commander Kinnon, I want that pod tracked. I want to know the exact location of its landing. And Dax-Ver, I want an orbship down on the surface now… better make that two…"
"You're going after her?" Dax asked, not completely sure he approved of his leader going off on what might be a hopeless quest. "You know we have no way of knowing if she's in that module. It could be the Taurean Generals."
"Perhaps you're correct, Dax, in which case you'd best send a fully armed platoon with the ships. I'll be careful, but I have to go."
"I know, my boy, I know." Since it was the thing that Dax so admired above all Kal's qualities… his loyalty and his great capacity for love, the Commander-in-Chief just didn't have the heart to gainsay his young leader. "I'll dispatch the men and ships immediately, but pull out at the first sign of trouble. Nor would like nothing better than to get his hands on you, and we don't know if super-senses can penetrate our cloaking shields."
"We've come this far without any interference from the enemy, so I'll just have to trust that my luck holds. We'll keep in close contact and, Dax, go ahead with the arrangements for arming these people; this war isn't going to wait while I sort out my personal problems…"
"Sire, we have information," Kinnon interrupted sharply, aware that the urgency of his message would excuse his presumption. "The module has crash-landed in the country you're already in — the United States of America, sir, at a place called Kansas. Do you know where that is?"
"I do, Kal, if you wouldn't mind me tagging along." President West had remained in the background, listening to the alien conversations with mounting distress for this new acquaintance. Now he stepped forward. "I'd like to help and my soldiers could back your own."
A long glance of empathy passed between these two men, both understanding how difficult it was to balance duty to a nation with love and responsibility to a family. "Thank you, Owen. I'd appreciate the help. The orbships will have maps and co-ordinates for all the countries of Earth, but first-hand knowledge is always the best."
"Good! That's settled then." Owen traded a handshake with the young Kryptonian, then addressed his staff. "General Broderick, I'll leave you in charge here to arrange the weapons' shipment and take only my immediate bodyguards. Bert, will you come with me?" At the Security Chief's firm nod of affirmation, the President smiled; he felt more comfortable with his old friend to cover his back. "Right, that's it! Let's go then, and I think I'm probably right in my assumption that these orbships will be landing on the surface?"
"I'm afraid so." Kal let a small smile hover around his mouth when the older man grimaced at the thought of the long climb ahead. "However…" Quickly punching a few buttons on the control-band he wore around his wrist, Kal held out a hand expectantly. A strange pulsating glow began in the hallway outside the room and when the air settled, one of the cage-like transporters had appeared. "Your elevator, as promised. Are you ready for this, Owen? However, I have to warn you… it isn't the most pleasant way to travel."
The President quivered with nervous expectancy as he allowed himself to be shepherded inside the contraption. Kal-El and Ching followed quickly.
"This is a tight squeeze… ohhhh!" Owen's words were cut off by a feeling of nothingness, overtaken almost instantaneously by a disembodied tingling and, finally, by that wobbly-legged, stomach-in-the mouth sensation one experiences after stepping from the biggest and scariest white-knuckle ride. Only no ride on Earth could've prepared him for that. "Oh boy! If I hadn't lived through that myself, I never would've believed it."
Kal allowed his grip to drop from Owen's arm just as soon as he was satisfied that the Earthman had regained his equilibrium. "I can imagine how strange all this must be for you, and it does take some getting used to… that kind of transportation." A sympathetic smile touched the handsome face. "We don't use it often for just these reasons, and there are certain risks. It would seem that human molecules do better when held within their own matrix and our physicians have recommended that we only use this in emergencies."
An almost jittery laugh escaped the President. "I can understand that! And you know, somehow the stairs don't seem quite so bad anymore!"
Around him, other cages were arriving as his men were escorted to the surface by the Kryptonian guards, and some of the transporters were disappearing just as swiftly as they ferried everyone to the top of the damn. Bert Johnstone was amongst the last to emerge and Owen was a little relieved to see that his Chief of Security looked as green as he himself felt, and even some of the younger agents were showing signs of extreme discomfort. At least, it wasn't due to either his age or his lack of fitness, but he made a promise to himself that whenever this thing was over, he'd make a point of visiting the gym regularly.
Suddenly, silently from out of the moon-bright night, two large shining globes settled on the wide driveway to the damn. Even though he'd expected the arrival of some type of spaceships, Owen's breath caught in his throat. Somehow he'd anticipated a helicopter type landing and this almost ghostly emergence shocked him once again.
"Wow! Where did they come from?!" Came a startled voice from behind him. Evidently one of his security contingent was just as surprised as he by this new and awesome technology
"From our space craft," again Kal explained patiently. "They did fly down here but they were cloaked… it gives them the appearance of invisibility, if you know what I mean."
"Hey, if only our scientists had that type of stealth technology…" Another of the US servicemen was heard to utter. A thought quickly cut off as he realised he was in the company of aliens… even though these aliens seemed disposed to friendliness.
Lord Kal-El cleared his throat loudly. "We should board! I'd like to get to Kansas as quickly as possible," he remarked in his commanding First Lord voice. Then, satisfied that his men were ready to escort the Earthlings, Kal led the way, walking, without thought, through the skin on the ship.
"Oh boy," said Owen West once again, as he followed hard on his new friend's heels.
The trip to Kansas was accomplished with what was to the Americans, unbelievable speed. This whole episode had left most of them with the uncomfortable realisation that Earth was a fairly backward planet when compared to the evolution of this species of alien. Yet in the physical sense, it would be hard to tell either race apart. These extraterrestrials were men, just as they were men. So, okay, Kryptonians had a few accomplishments that Earthlings were lacking but, according to what had been revealed this night, with training they too, could learn some of these aliens' little tricks. And they certainly could catch up with the technology if given the chance.
Of course, that didn't take into account the flying and the superpowers, but this Lord Kal-El didn't appear too keen on letting his soldiers develop these advantages, which had to be a good thing. And once they had broken through the innate reserve of these black-suited, stern-faced troopers, the servicemen of Earth found they had a lot in common with the strange visitors.
Ensconced in the lead ship, Kal-El and Owen West watched with satisfaction and relief as their two forces talked together, tentatively sharing, if not quite with consummate ease, a bond of common experience. It appeared that a soldier was a soldier no matter in which solar system he originated. The aliens who'd arrived with the ships had brought along some extra weapons and they were now deployed in demonstrating the use of these futuristic guns to their Earth counterparts. A quiet hum of conversation resulted with a hint of muffled laughter breaking out now and again.
Gratified that his soldiers were being well taken care of, Owen turned his attention to the young man by his side. It was obvious that the boy was troubled. Kal's anxiety over the fate of his wife showed clearly in his creased brow and clenched jaw, but Owen was also certain that from somewhere, unknown to himself, the Kryptonian leader had found some sort of comfort and the strength to go on.
"We'll find her, Kal." Owen surprised himself by offering assurances of which he wasn't totally convinced himself. Yet, instinctively, he wanted to support this young man, and he didn't quite understand why that should be so, either. This was an alien entity and one who belonged to a race that was literally trying to enslave the people of Earth. But looking at the white-faced youngster, Owen was quite ready to bet his life that this particular alien would never seek to enslave anyone.
"Thank you, Owen. I believe we will." Kal's small smile was wistful and his eyes glittered suspiciously with unshed tears. "I just hope that she's still alive when we do." With a silent apology, Kal turned his back on his friends, both old and new, and went to stand by the viewport. He could barely make out the countryside far below him as the craft sped onwards — with no one to see them, Kal allowed the tears to flow. The link he shared with Lois had dwindled to a single diaphanous strand, and never before in his life had he felt so terribly alone.
The cranky truck bounced over the deeply furrowed track as the portly man wrestled with the steering-wheel to keep his ancient 'workhorse' on the road. His wife and companion of thirty-odd years jiggled in her seat as the broken springs of the vehicle failed to take the strain.
"Jonathan Kent, it's no good! I can't take this rocking and rolling anymore! You just have to get us a new truck!"
"Now, Martha, you know we can't afford one at the moment. If we get a good crop this year and the price is right, then maybe we can think about it. But with things the way they are… I doubt that will happen, and there is your car," her reasonable and cautious spouse replied.
"Which happens to be in the repair shop at the moment, which is why we had to go to the Council meeting in this old thing!"
She batted her hand against the door in disgust, but she wasn't really angry; she too understood that their finances were not exactly buoyant. Martha let out an amused chuckle; she'd waved goodbye to any chance of riches when she'd married her dearest farmer so very long ago and she'd never regretted her choice. Well, only on very small occasions when Jonathan was proving to be as stubborn a man as she'd ever met.
But through the good times and the bad, he'd been a tower of strength. Even when they'd discovered that she couldn't have children, he'd never faltered in his support and his love for her. And through the years they'd come to terms with their loss, and built a life for themselves with their friends and the close-knit community of Smallville. Jonathan Kent had become the fair yet diligent spokesperson for the local farmers' association, while Martha had taken on one of the most important and busiest roles in the county — that of the local midwife. She couldn't have babies of her own, so she'd channelled her incredible kindness into attending the births of generations of Smallville children and caring for them as they grew. Martha was, quite simply, the best loved woman in the district.
The hour was very late, or early, depending on how you viewed it, for the couple to be out and about. A Saturday night open-Council meeting was rather unusual but had been called to discuss the emergency situation which was currently threatening the world, the invasion from outer- space. Throughout the past weeks the broadcasts by the alien Rad-Nor had increased, informing the people of Earth that their world was now an annex of Krypton and that the population should obey their new masters' wishes or suffer the consequences. Speculation in the small county was rife, even though none of these supposed 'supermen' had actually turned up here as yet. But that was no reason to be complacent. The local administrators had decided that a few guidelines should be offered to the people in case of an attack and had called an open forum to thrash out a plan of action and to seek to calm the more nervous inhabitants. It had even been mooted that small bands of partisans had been formed throughout the world to combat these aggressors, raising the question of whether an attempt should be made to contact these 'freedom fighters'. Yet somehow the whole situation seemed vaguely surreal — life here in Smallville, Kansas continued as it always had with just the echoes of the conflict reaching them through rumours and TV images.
Most of the surrounding community had turned up and the meeting had, surprisingly, morphed into a social gathering with a quickly assembled country-music band, and with Maisie, the owner of the local eaterie, supplying the snacks and drinks. People were tired of living in a constant state of panic and so, had decided to let their hair down in an impromptu party, enjoying themselves for what could be the last time… who could tell? And, since the next day was Sunday, which meant that neither Jonathan nor Martha would rise quite so early, and the company agreeable, the couple had stayed longer than intended and were now travelling home in the dark of the night.
The old truck continued its way down the dusty dry-rutted road, typical of a farm track in the height of a Kansas' summer. To take her mind off the uncomfortable journey and the lingering sense of anxiety that the earlier part of the meeting had evoked, Martha surveyed the countryside of her much loved home. They didn't have far to go to reach their farmhouse. They'd taken a local shortcut and were just passing Schuster's Field. The green grasses in the fallow field and the stand of trees in the far corner were rimmed with silver from the brightly shining moon. Martha's eyes drifted appreciatively skywards. Way overhead the night canopy was clear of clouds and dotted with millions of sparkling stars, like diamonds scattered on black velvet.
You didn't get skies like this in the city, Martha reflected as she thought of her and Jonathan's visit to Metropolis in the early spring to visit her old Aunt, well before the troubles had started. The city was okay for a short time, but all those city folks who scurried around taking care of business just didn't know what they were missing. They really should learn to take time out to smell the roses, then maybe their high-blood pressure wouldn't trouble them so much. Besides, cities had been the first places to be targeted and, though she was sorry for the people, she was glad that her home had, so far, been passed by. A contented sigh escaped her.
"What are you thinking?" Jonathan's soft inquisitive voice intruded pleasantly.
"I'm just thinking how lucky we are to be here. Just look at that sky! You know, maybe we should park for a little and not let this lovely starlit night go to waste."
It was Jonathan's turn to chuckle and, allowing the calm of the night to soothe his concerns, he quickly did as he was bid. Like his wife, he stretched back in his seat to better take in the view, his arm snaking round Martha's still slim shoulders.
That action elicited another giggle from his wife as she leaned into his side and laid her head on his shoulder. "We haven't done this in years! What would they think of us? An old married couple like us parking for a cuddle."
"To tell the truth, Martha, I don't much care what they think. I don't need anyone's approval to enjoy the view… and my wife." The elderly suitor dropped a kiss on his wife's upturned lips… which, unexpectedly didn't evoke the response he'd been looking for.
Martha placed her hands on Jon's shoulders and pushed strongly, bending forward to crane out the window. "What is that?!" Her hand pointed to something in the sky which had attracted her.
Following the line of her outstretched hand, Jonathan gave the object in question a quick study before dismissing it. "It's a falling star, Martha. We've seen lots of those before. Now quit distracting me!" His teasing smile robbed his words of their sting and he leaned nearer his wife to kiss her again. "I'm just remembering how this whole scenario goes."
But Martha was not to be put off and she batted at his hands once more. "Jonathan, that's like no other falling star that I've ever seen." Her eyes never left the mysterious thing. "It could be a plane… and it's on fire!" The sense of concern in her voice got through to Jonathan and he returned his attention to the sky.
"Nope! That's not a plane! Not the right shape! But you're right, it is on fire. Maybe it's a meteorite!"
"I don't think so!" By now both their gazes were fixed on the strange object as it came ever nearer. It glowed with intense heat and bright flames spiralled in its wake. "It could be part of a plane," Martha surmised.
And, indeed, this hypothesis seemed fairly likely as all around the object flares flashed with white-heat and burned themselves out in the backdrop of sky, leaving behind ghostly vapour trails. The unidentified item hurtled on its way towards the ground and now it became clearer in the watchers' vision. It was almost square and an eerie halo surrounded it, holding the greedy flames that sought to consume it at bay.
Realisation came quickly to Jonathan. "Martha, it could be one of those space ships we've just had the meeting about! Let's get out of here and go warn the sheriff."
"It doesn't look very threatening," Martha countered, ignoring the suggestion of escape. "And, Jonathan Kent, don't you dare go talking things up! We've been lucky enough up till now not to have been visited by these monsters and we shouldn't get people all fired up until we know what we're facing. Maisie was telling me tonight about her cousin in Chicago who's been terrorised by these Taureans… you know the other aliens… According to Maisie, the population panicked which just gave these 'creatures' an excuse to steal and maim… and even kill some folks for no other reason than they got them annoyed… Maisie's cousin was lucky to get out of there alive. He told Maisie, when he stopped by on his way to visit with his parents, that it was best just to keep calm and do what the aliens said."
"I know, Martha. It must be terrible for all these people who live near where these monsters have set up camps." The Kansas farmer's soft heart was sorely troubled by the scenes he'd witnessed on the news bulletins and the information that had passed from community to community by word of mouth, brought in by frightened refugees from the occupied zones. "It's just that we don't do much head- bowing around these parts, so I just pray that they haven't decided to visit Smallville." Jonathan's searching gaze took in the quiet country, slumbering in the balmy night — apart from that thing in the sky everything was as it should be. "And it's kinda hard to imagine all that horror when life seems so normal here!"
The object had almost reached its destined meeting with the ground and Martha found herself bracing for the impact. "Well, life is going to become very abnormal here any second now!"
Jonathan copied his wife, holding onto the wheel with a tense grip, while the pair watched and waited, mesmerised, for the collision, which was… remarkably small. The bits and pieces of burnt-out debris were creating a heavier effect as they ploughed their way into the ground, leaving great gouges in the grassy carpet. Martha was out and running towards the crash site.
"Martha, come back! You don't know what's inside that thing!" Yet, so intent was Martha on her quarry, she didn't hear the shouted warning, leaving her husband with no other option but to follow. "Martha, be careful! This could be the start of the invasion."
The two scrambled across the terrain, the lush grass tugging at their heels, and when Jonathan finally reached Martha's side he was breathing heavily. The woman was more slightly built than he, and was fleeter of foot than she had any right to be in her middle years; not to mention, far too inquisitive for her own good. "Martha!" Jonathan puffed, leaning over and placing his hands on his thighs, taking a moment to recover. "Martha, this could be dangerous!"
"I don't think so, Jonathan." Together they stood and surveyed the scene before them. The thing that had landed from the heavens was just about the size of the farm's guest bedroom. It was almost square but it had settled in the ground at a fairly precarious angle. "That little thing has crashed."
All around them the charred remnants of the Taurean ship lay smouldering, lighting tiny fires in a few drier patches of grass. The couple spent an anxious time stamping on the most threatening of these conflagrations till, thankfully, the flames died away. When all looked safe and an eerie stillness had settled on the moon-bathed landscape, Jonathan turned to view the object that had come so unexpectedly to Schuster's Field.
"It's certainly smaller than the spaceships we've seen on television." His eyes shifted to the great expanse of sky, where he expected to see a whole squadron of these flying saucers — except it wasn't saucer shaped and it certainly seemed to be alone. Only the enigmatic stars twinkled back at him. "Doesn't appear to be any more of them about… Martha?" The farmer had looked back at his wife just in time to spot her walking closer to the strange entity. "Martha!" he called out in warning, but it was too late. The ever stouthearted lady placed her hand tentatively on the surface of the object.
"That's strange, Jonathan, it's not as hot as I would've imagined it to be… and there's a sort of glimmer around it. You can't see it from over there. And my hand feels kinda funny, like I was pushing through tiny needles. It doesn't hurt though, just a bit tingly!" Martha spoke in a wondering whisper. "Come over here, Jonathan. Tell me what you think!"
His curiosity pricked, and his heart rate settling back to almost normal rhythm now that Martha appeared completely unharmed by her actions, Jonathan crept nearer and joined his wife in stroking the craft. "You're right, Martha. There's actually something stopping us from touching the side of the ship… something like an invisible shield." Jonathan found himself mimicking his wife and talking in whispers. "And if this thing came through the atmosphere as we think it did, then it ought to be real hot."
"Like all the other bits of this stuff." Martha's hand swept over the charcoal briquettes that were strewn around. "What you said about a shield, Jonathan, is probably true. This little ship is in one piece because it was shielded," the Kansas farm wife finished on a note of amazement. "And that means there's probably someone alive inside…"
"Martha!" Jonathan's tone rose on another note of helpless warning. He knew his wife, and he knew there was no way of stopping her from trying to rescue someone who might be in distress.
"… and we just have to find a door and get it open." Her actions suiting her words, Martha began to walk round the vessel, studying it intently as she went.
"Martha," said her long-suffering husband who had witnessed and even supported many of Martha Kent's crusades to help the needy, "maybe this isn't such a good idea… and we probably couldn't get in there anyway."
That, however, proved not to be their problem as with a quiet swish and almost without their noticing, two things happened — the nearly imperceptible shimmer died away and an awkwardly angled portal opened high in the side of the craft.
"Oh my!" murmured Martha in surprised anticipation.
Every bone and muscle that Lois was aware of in her body, and even some that she'd never known existed, were aching. This really had to stop — pregnant women were supposed to be taken care of, and lately she'd been kidnapped, punched, almost strangled and imprisoned. It was treatment that wouldn't figure highly in the manual of 'How to nurture and care for the expectant mother'. Lois was going to have to talk seriously to Kal about that. If this was Krypton's idea of antenatal care then she'd have a few complaints to make. A cranky groan escaped her lips. Now someone was shaking her shoulder!
"Go away!" Lois told the peremptory hand.
"Lois," the accompanying voice hissed. "Come on Lois!" Another stronger shake was delivered. "Lois, you have to wake up!"
"Don't want to!" Lois cantankerously demurred, snuggling down into the mattress, the one thing that had stayed to comfort her in her time of need.
"Lois! Lady Lois-El!"
This time there were two hands at her shoulders, pulling her up and around to face the owner of the voice. Lois tried harder to ignore her tormentor, wishing that Lady Lois-El, whoever that might be, would answer this urgent summons so she could be left alone to sleep.
Keira was beginning to be afraid as she searched her inadequate memory banks for information on head trauma. There were no obvious signs that Lois had sustained a head injury but there was such a thing as concussion and that wasn't necessarily visible. And if it was concussion, then shouldn't the patient be kept awake? Other more serious injuries presented themselves to Keira's mind but she pushed them aside to concentrate on a more pressing problem… how to get out of the crashed ship.
There was a more menacing danger… If Nor or his followers had spotted the crash-landing, wouldn't they come to investigate? They could be on their way here now, and since Keira had already chosen which side to support, she had no wish to land back in her husband's dreaded arms.
Of course, she was fairly certain from the look of relief and joy on her companion's face that Lois had been communing with Kal at the time of the attack, and Keira was praying that if any Kryptonians were to arrive on the scene they would be her brother's troops. But truthfully, Keira couldn't be sure of anything and she really needed to confer with Lois. So, carefully, she tried once more to revive the semiconscious First Lady.
"Lois, Lois!" Keira leaned closer to talk directly into Lois' ear. "I really could do with some help here! If Nor shows up we're in dire straits!"
The fog in Lois' brain was receding and the name Nor sent a frisson of familiar alarm coursing through her body. She forced her heavy eyelids open. "Nor!? Why would Nor be coming here?" "To recapture us!"
Recapture! Now that word suggested she was free, but Lois certainly didn't feel free. Something was sticking uncomfortably into her back and these ropes were restraining her. Glancing down groggily, Lois discovered that 'these ropes' were bedcovers… Okay, so they weren't very clean or very attractive covers… but they were just the sort of bed linen you'd expect on a Taurean ship… She remembered! She'd been on a Taurean ship… the one that had exploded!
"Lois!" This time Keira's summons was gentler as she watched comprehension dawn on the face below her. "It's Keira! Can you hear me?"
Blinking away the mist that still drifted round the edge of her vision, Lois tried to concentrate on the source of the voice. A worried, semi-familiar face swam into focus. It was Kal's sister. If you discounted the fairer hair, the similarities were all there.
"Keira!" Things were definitely coming back to Lois. "What the hell was that?!"
"The ship blew up!"
"I think I'd worked that one out for myself!" Lois proceeded to try to disentangle herself from the stupid sheets, noticing with gratitude that the other woman was lending a hand. "But how come we're still in one piece?"
Keira continued to drag at the stubborn linen, the task being made more difficult by the fact that it was actually trapped under Lois. Still, between them they'd managed to free Lois' hands.
"Remember how I told you this room was reinforced metal and its shields were independent of those of the ship?" Keira halted in her actions to check that her companion was following the explanation and was satisfied to see that Lois' gaze was clearing, and now filled with sharp intelligence. "Well, I managed to reactivate the shields before I was flung about this room like a feather. I think we must have spun a few times over, but fortunately the shields protected us when we crash-landed. I don't know about the rest of the ship or have any idea where we are."
"Probably someplace on Earth." A picture of Keira standing by the control panel was the last memory that Lois had before catastrophe struck. She reached a free hand out to pat her sister-in-law's arm. "Thank you, Keira. You did great! You saved our lives!"
Keira-Nor shrugged in self-disparagement. She was more accustomed to criticism than high praise. "We're not out of the woods yet. If Nor's soldiers have been watching what happened they could already be on their way. We have to get out of here!"
This warning, however, reminded Lois of her mind connection with Kal. Through all the travail, they had found each other, if only for a moment. "And so could Kal! Keira, I was talking to him — he knows we were on that ship. I'm sure he'll be coming to rescue us. We just have to wait for him."
"Let's hope you're correct, Lois, but I don't think that it's a good idea to hang around here. We should find somewhere to hide and then you can contact him again."
"I agree, girlfriend. Playing the role of a sitting duck never appealed to me." Lois tried to push against whatever was jutting into her back, trying to gain herself some leverage to stand. From the feel of things it was one of the heavy wooden chairs and Lois could only be thankful that she'd not been impaled on one of its legs. "Can you help me up?"
Keira fixed a quizzical stare on Krypton's First Lady. This Earth woman did have a very strange turn of phrase… and she had called her girlfriend! Was that just another idiosyncrasy due to Lois' origins or did she really consider Keira a friend? Friendship was a very unfamiliar concept to the Lady of Nor; it brought back memories of happier days… There was no time to explore its implications, yet the lonely woman felt the ice that had held her heart in bondage for so very long, give a perceptible crack. Sending Lois a ghost of a smile, Keira placed her hand under her sister-in-law's elbows to aid her to rise.
Which was not so simple a task, Lois was finding, given her legs had cramped beneath her, and there was a definite ache in her lower back — damn that chair! She'd bet her last dollar she'd have a bruise the size of Cleveland in that spot! And yet, with her arms now free she could push up against the floor… or perhaps that was the ceiling. She wasn't quite sure which was the right way up! With Keira's help she made it to a standing position, if you could describe her bent over posture in quite that manner. Her eyes shut tight in an effort to halt the swaying motion that assailed her, until she realised that the movement resulted from the room and not her dizzy head. Their little 'lifeboat' was rocking almost infinitesimally back and forth.
A startled moan of pain came from the woman at her side and Lois turned her attention to Keira. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?" Somehow that fact wouldn't surprise Lois. They'd both been lucky to escape with their lives.
"I think I might have broken a couple of ribs." Keira panted, her voice sounding breathy and harsh. Now that Lois was standing, Keira removed her helping hand and wrapped her arms tightly round her own midriff. "But we can see to that after we get out of here! I've a very funny feeling that this thing won't stay this way up for long."
"Okay!" Lois nodded but swiftly decided that wasn't such a good idea as her woozy senses evidently hated the motion. "Where's the door?"
Keira, unsure that she could lift her arms without experiencing another jolt of pain, gestured upwards with her eyes. Some way above their heads on the lopsided wall, the door awaited them.
"And that would be the only way out?" Lois asked, hoping that there would be another alternative and that she wouldn't have to climb a small Mt Everest.
"Just the window," this time Keira used her chin to point, "and, thankfully, that stayed in one piece."
The curtain from the recess had somehow hooked itself to the round porthole, but the window no longer pointed to the stars, and Lois could make out the shadows of trees from beyond the toughened glass. Freedom beckoned, and Lois, never a shirker, began to inch her way towards the practically inaccessible door. Keira followed ponderously behind. Over stacked furniture and slippery metal surfaces the two women crawled crab-like onwards, trying bravely to ignore the aches and pains that assailed them. It was their good fortune that one of the beds had lodged itself against the wall, and using it as a ladder, they crept to their destination. But here they encountered a problem — the control panel was out of reach and if they tried to stand they were in danger of falling back down to the opposite corner.
"Oh, to be a fly on the wall at this moment!" Lois lamented.
"A fly might have a better chance of getting out of here! Oh, ignore me! Just my silly Earth sense of humour," Lois countered, but found that it was unnecessary as Keira's mouth was curling in a little grin.
"It would be an advantage! But, if you think you can hold onto me, I might just manage to reach that thing."
"Keira, you can't! With your broken ribs, you could puncture a lung or something if you move about too much."
"We don't know if they're broken," Keira reminded her 'friend.' "And I'm taller than you and I know the combination!" Without any more preamble, the Kryptonian started edging on her way.
It was too late to argue and, besides, Lois' back pain was shifting into a higher gear. Nevertheless, she gripped hold of Keira's legs and hung on for dear life, but whether she could actually hold the girl if she slipped was something Lois wasn't prepared to contemplate. "Just be careful!"
Keira threw a dismissive look in Lois' direction, but then sincerely wished she hadn't. Looking down had shown her just how precarious was her position. She flattened herself against the wall as closely as possible, Lois' clinging hands and the headboard of the bed being her only means of support. Gently she eased up towards the control panel, but her aching chest protested at every movement. She was almost there… just a couple of more inches. She drew in a deep breath to steel herself… and was hit by a fresh wave of pain. Her head swam, tilting the room even further. Keira stilled, telling herself that it was only in her imagination, though that wasn't a complete certainty. Their capsule was surely resting at a very perilous angle.
"Keira, did you feel that? Or am I just imagining that this thing is swaying?" Lois' voice came from somewhere near Keira's feet.
"You felt it too!" That knowledge spurred Keira on. "I've got it!" Her fingers had reached the indentation round the tiny inset. With a sense of urgency she prised it open and carefully hit the right buttons… she had no wish to have to try again.
Both women waited in anticipation, praying that the locking mechanism had not been damaged in the crash. Did it always take that long for the door to open? Then, with no more than a surrendering sigh, the metal slipped back, allowing the welcoming moon to shed its light into the darkened room. Keira clung to the open door as a warm wind touched her face in a gentle caress. She looked up at the heavens from whence they'd come. It was strange, but the sky didn't look so much different here, except that it was of a darker bluish tinge…
"Keira!" Lois called, "I don't want to press you, but I'm kind of uncomfortable here… I could really do with a help up."
"Sorry!" Keira went to help her friend but a whispered 'Oh My!' attracted her attention. Instead, she leant out into the darkness and found two startled gazes returning her inspection.
"Come on, Keira!"
The voice from inside the ship was growing desperate as Lois sought to retain her position on the slanting bed and indeed, when Keira checked, she was worried by Lois' ashen pallor. Could Lois be more injured than they'd first thought? It was quite possible she had some internal injuries and then, too, she was pregnant.
"Excuse me!" Keira called to the couple who stood directly beneath the portal, the Earth language sounding strange in her own ears. Although, like all Kryptonians, Keira's grasp of languages was extensive, there wasn't much call for speaking this particular one in Norden. Still, she'd been talking in English fairly extensively on this journey with Lois and hadn't made such a bad job of it, so perhaps they understood. "I'll be right back! I might need your help!"
Back inside, Keira held on to the door frame with one hand while she tried to pull Lois up with the other. It was so hard and her aching ribs were making things very difficult. Nonetheless, Lois was doing a lot of the work herself by pushing against their makeshift ladder. Within minutes, Lois' fingers had reached the bottom edge of the doorway which she grabbed and held onto for dear life. Beneath her feet, Lois could feel the bed begin to slide away and with one last gigantic effort she pushed upwards and managed to scramble into the open space. Gratefully, she gulped in the pleasant fresh air of Earth. Kal had promised her that one day she would come back, but this situation wasn't exactly what either of them had in mind.
The growl of an engine, a gas engine, near at hand recalled Lois to the present. Surveying the moonlit landscape, Lois wasn't wholly surprised to see a figure on the ground beneath her. After all, it would probably be more amazing if none of the locals had witnessed their spectacular landing. The middle-aged lady regarded the two women with an anxious yet amicable mein while from the edge of the field the glow of headlights was drawing closer.
"Hello," called the strange woman. "My husband is bringing the truck over. We thought it might be better if you climbed down to the bed of the truck… You might hurt yourselves if you dropped all the way to the ground."
Lois could only be thankful for the stranger's thoughtful inventiveness. The longish fall to the earth would hardly be propitious for either Keira's or her own state of health. Ever since she'd regained consciousness, Lois had been trying to ignore the ache in her back… but the pain was shifting position and she had the regrettable notion of exactly what was happening to her body. Giving birth in the middle of a field wasn't high on Lois' priority list… and without Kal… and with danger threatening. A shocking cramp of pain twisted her stomach and Lois bit down hard on her lip to stop a cry from escaping. There was no point in panicking… at least, not at this moment. She could panic later when she was safe. Unfortunately, she didn't know when that would be, and to be truthful she wouldn't feel completely safe until she was in Kal's arms.
The truck arrived beneath her and very competently the driver manoeuvred into position below the doorway. Very quickly both the man and woman had climbed up onto the back of the pickup and were offering a helping hand to Lois and Keira. Thankfully, in this stage of the rescue gravity was on their side and without too much trouble or additional hurts, the women arrived safely on the makeshift platform where they sank in relief and exhaustion to the dirty wooden boards.
"It's very nice to meet you," smiled the stranger. "I'm Martha Kent and this is my husband Jonathan." Martha's practised and solicitous eye took in the pale strained faces of the two escapees. Both young women were clearly in a lot of pain, and one was heavily pregnant. What they needed was care and attention and Martha was about to see that they got it. "You've both had a very lucky escape, but you're safe now and you mustn't worry anymore." The furtive looks that these women were throwing around the countryside led her to suspect that they were searching for something. Something of which they were afraid. "Jonathan, I think you should drive us back to the farmhouse. Our guests look like they could do with some rest."
"That's very kind of you, Mrs Kent, but I think you should know that we might be followed." It was the pregnant girl who spoke. "I'm Lois-El and this is Keira-Nor, and harbouring us might land you in serious danger."
The two farmers searched the sky and the landscape without finding anything at all unusual. "Nonsense, my dears, there's nothing untoward here, and even if there were, it still doesn't change the fact that you need a place to stay and that you both need medical attention."
"Martha," whispered the more cautious Jonathan, "maybe we should take them back into town… to the sheriff's office."
But the tensing of Lois' body and her sorely-bitten lip were not lost on Martha. Years of experience warned Smallville's midwife that her services would probably be required very shortly. However, not being acquainted with this Lois-El, Martha couldn't be certain whether the girl was aware of her own predicament, so she said nothing of that for the moment. "Nonsense, Jonathan!" Martha sent him a warning glance as she spoke. "The farm is much nearer and these girls need to rest now."
The slight emphasis on the word 'now' spoke volumes to Jonathan. "Okay, Martha, if you think that's best. I can always go fetch the sheriff later. Funny, I was just beginning to think that life without phones wasn't too bad, but they sure would come in handy now!" Striving to ignore the warning bells that were sounding in his head, Jonathan marched to the cab and started up the engine once more, wrestling with the gearshift to find that illusive first- gear. This damned old truck better not start acting up now! The damned old truck lurched forward.
In the back, all three women clung to the metal sides at the vehicle's unexpected pitching, Martha placing herself between the two young strangers, ready to help if either needed assistance.
"What happened to the phone system?" asked Lois-El.
"The aliens shut it down!" Martha raised her voice above the noisy engine which was settling into its raspy rhythm. "They only allow their own broadcasts!" A blush spread over her face as she realised her ill-mannered mistake in using the word alien to these women. "Sorry!"
"Don't apologise! Those Kryptonians are aliens!" The dark- haired girl expostulated. "And the Taureans are even worse! But actually, I'm originally from Earth!"
"Really!" Martha squeaked. "That's very interesting."
Not privy to the conversation that was taking place in the bed of his truck, Jonathan speculated on the origins of the two females who had literally dropped into their lives. That their 'guests' were aliens was an obvious fact, and yet none of the reports and rumours had mentioned anything about the invaders being lovely young women. Besides, these women hardly looked threatening. And yet, the quiet-spoken farmer was quite sure that the name, Lois-El, should mean something… something about there being two sets of Kryptonians. There had been a radio message by President West — a last minute newscast before all Terran communications had been shut down by the invaders, telling the people that help was on the way… that they must hold out until a young man named Kal-El came to save them. Was it possible that this lady was related?
A jarring bump from a hidden pothole recalled Jonathan to his immediate task of driving safely out of Schuster's Field. It really was a rough ride and his sympathies lay with the women in the back of the truck; they were probably being thrown about like sacks of grain. Concentrating on the ground ahead to find the more even terrain, Jonathan almost didn't spot the glowing obstructions in his path. There was no warning noise… no landing thump… just the unearthly white glow reflecting on his route ahead. Eyes widening in shock at the sight, the farmer jammed on his brakes as his vehicle sloughed to a stop, only a few feet away from two very large golf-balls.
What the blazes were they?! They hadn't been there a moment ago! Didn't they know that it was extremely hazardous to appear in front of a moving vehicle?! Jonathan's hard to awaken ire rose at the awareness of the narrow escape, and completely forgetful of how weird a situation this truly was, he stomped down from his cab and stalked towards the figures that were emerging from the strange objects.
"Now look here, you crazy… you stupid…" Jonathan's brain was catching up with his angry mouth. It was beginning to dawn on him that this might be the enemy and calling them rude names was not the wisest of actions. Nevertheless, it wasn't easy to back down when he knew he had the right of it. Mind you, if rumour was true, his being in the right wouldn't much matter to these super- powered killers.
The handsome young man at their head, however, did look rather crestfallen. "I apologise, sir, if we startled you."
Well, that didn't sound too menacing!
"I forgot that Earth transporters need some stopping distance. Please, forgive us, we didn't mean to cause you any anxiety. I'm searching for my wife, you see… and I had the distinct feeling that she was nearby…"
"Kal!" Lois was attempting to scurry down from the truck, yet her silly body wasn't complying. "Kal, you came!"
Jonathan soon discovered he was addressing an empty space as the newcomer hurried past him. Indeed, the Lord of El forgot about this discomfited Earthman, about his manners and his men… forgot everything in his rush to reach his wife.
Kal vaulted up onto the wooden bed, without the use of superpowers which he neither had access to nor need of, his desire bringing him in seconds to Lois' side, where he halted without touching her. His loving gaze covered her from head to toe. She was here… she was safe and she was smiling at him. His hand reached out to cup her face and instantaneously Lois' hand covered Kal's where it lay against her cheek. A tear slipped beneath his fingers but they were tears of joy.
"I will always come for you, Lois!" But love and desire would no longer be held at bay and he swept her into his arms as she clung to him with all the strength she had. "I missed you so, Lois," he whispered into her silky hair.
"And I you!" Then her tears and words were stopped by her husband's hungry mouth as he sought to take his fill of her. "Never leave me again!"
"Never, Lois!" Another kiss silenced the two lovers. "I promise!"
Lois opened her mouth to welcome Kal's lips yet again but instead a piercing scream broke free.
"Lois! Lois, what's happening?" Kal had felt Lois tense in his arms, her stomach muscles against his body becoming hard. Her cry terrified him. "Lois, talk to me!"
But Lois was too preoccupied, dealing with the onslaught of pain to answer. A gentle hand touched Kal's shoulder and a kindly, matter-of-fact voice spoke in his ear.
"I think I might be able to answer your question." Kal's eyes followed the line of hand and arm till he reached a concerned face. "We've never met, but I'm Martha and I'm going to ask you to trust me. You're about to become a father."
Chapter Eighteen: Nor Will You Have…
The bright lights were somewhat unusual for this time of night. During President West's tenure, the White House had been a fairly quiet place at this late hour, which was not so with the current occupants. Loud music and flashy discotheque lights exuded from the stately building, while empty wine bottles and the remnants of gourmet food littered many of the rooms. Earth women, either voluntary or coerced, were brought at night to entertain these super- powered aliens who greedily took their enjoyment of all they had plundered of this world.
In the Oval Office sat the lord of all this disarray, watching with dour frustration as his minions caroused the night away. The Lord of Nor was bored. He'd expected to be treated like a god in this world. After all, he could do many godlike things; soaring through the skies, for one thing. In the beginning that had been quite thrilling, but it was such an effort and he'd been to the most exciting places this world had to offer. Lifting large objects and competing with his men on how far one could throw them had also paled, after he'd won most contests. Clearly he was the strongest and he had nothing more to prove. It never occurred to Rad-Nor that his men were too terrified to do other than let him win. Smiting people down with a shaft of heat vision or a blast of freezing air still held a little allure, but these Earthlings were just no contest to a being as superior as himself.
But no matter how defeated these foolish Earthlings were, they would not lie down. Oh, in the beginning they had come to the peace table. They'd had little choice after his and the Taureans' first great show of power. The Terran leaders had talked and talked… and prevaricated on all his demands, then had melted away as it became clear that his patience was growing dangerously thin.
Now they skulked in the hinterland and deserts of this world and made ridiculous sorties against their invaders. Of course, there was little harm they could do to his own troops, but he'd heard that the Taureans had suffered some reverses. Nor's lip curled in an ugly grin at that thought. Serve the creatures right for all their pontificating! He really was beginning to find their bombastic attitude exceedingly tiresome. It had been a fairly gargantuan faux- pas to ally himself to these cretins. The thing was… he'd never wholly believed in Poli's claim that Kryptonians could attain such powers on this world. His number of followers being somewhat small, he'd surmised that some added assistance would be necessary to subdue the planet and the Taureans seemed to fit the bill. How blind could he have been?! He could've taken over the Earth singlehandedly!
His miscalculation meant that he now had to deal with the dull-witted and rapacious representatives of the junta that ruled Taurus. They would be arriving presently and he would have to listen to their greedy demands and complaints. Then again, he had changed their unwanted visit into a mission that at least suited his purpose. The Generals were bringing his insurance policy. Let's see how Lord-'do no evil'-Kal-El would handle knowing that his precious wife was in the hands of the enemy.
Rad-Nor had always known that Kal-El would follow him to Earth. The righteous fool would never allow an innocent world to suffer. Nor had warned his men not to be complacent. They might for the moment rule all they surveyed, but once El arrived with his superior numbers, the men of Nor would face an equal foe. Thus, he'd been more than a little surprised, when the Kryptonian flotilla had arrived as expected, not to be confronted with an army of super-beings. Had 'Lord of the ethical' decreed that the gaining of these abilities was somehow wrong, or had he already been warned that his lovely wife was in the hands of the enemy? No matter what the cause, Kal-El was playing into his own masterful hands. The Kryptonian ships were attacking only Taureans and, for some unknown, though no doubt lofty reason, were doing so outside the atmosphere of Earth. But whatever had possessed him to warn the Taureans not to be led into an ambush, when it suited his purposes to see them taken out? Oh yes, it had been early days then, and he'd been bewitched by his successes into magnanimity — the thick-skulled barbarians had not yet begun to annoy him.
But Rad-Nor was not foolish enough to underestimate his allies or his enemies. A battle was pending, the question was with whom? Perhaps he should not yet dismiss his 'partners' so readily; they would, at least, keep El's forces busy while he continued to enjoy himself!
Enjoy himself!? Now that was the rub! Was he having fun? Rad-Nor looked around the Oval Office, the room that purported to be the hub of government of this nation. It was really far too small for his tastes. And the White House?! Really, such an uninspiring name! He'd been tempted to change the pasty colour. White on this world portrayed purity… but then again, the Lord of Nor was pure… purely evil. And so he'd allowed it to remain the ghastly white.
The woman at his elbow cooed into his ear and ran a hand through his oily locks, while her other hand meandered in quite the other direction. Nor cast an appraising stare over her ample and barely covered bosom. She was very accommodating, and Rad didn't really like compliance in a woman. He preferred to see a little fear in the eyes of his paramours. Oh well, terrorising this pitiful example of an Earth woman would be a fairly simple task, and it might dispel his ennui for a moment or two. The thing was, it was all too easy… Where was the challenge anymore?
"My Lord, there's been a development!"
Rad-Nor gave an impatient groan and turned to his bulky, blonde-haired lieutenant who'd strode into the room. "What is it now, Gaylen?" The man was tiresomely solemn, he really needed to lighten up… enjoy a bit of rape and pillage. "My mind balks at describing myself as busy… but I am dallying here…"
"Forgive my intrusion, Lord Nor, but I bring news of the Taurean Generals!"
"Oh don't tell me, they've arrived? How bothersome! And no doubt they're expecting a reception committee." Rad began dragging himself from his companion's clutches and straightening his clothes.
"That's not exactly correct, sire!" And as Rad-Nor's mobile eyebrows rose in annoyance, Gaylen hurried on. "Their mothership was attacked by El's forces and was destroyed."
Both Nor's eyebrows almost met with his hairline. "Oh, how terribly sad! Whatever shall we do without their advice and assistance in the running of this planet?! More to the point, what will their troops do now? They've been so looking forward to having two of their commanders with them."
Rising from the chaise-lounge on which he'd been reclining, Nor crossed to gaze out the window, leaving the call-girl to wonder whether she should be disappointed or to thank her lucky stars that, for the moment, she seemed to be forgotten. The scene Nor surveyed filled him with satisfaction. The sweep of lawn was gouged with mangled cars and buses, evidence of their super-powered shot- putting games, while in the famous rose garden the blooms remained frozen for all time by blasts of icy breath — a sorry reminder that once these bushes had been vibrant and sweet-smelling and filled with life. All these things were a testament to the power that he and his followers wielded on this planet. And now, it seemed there would be no interference from the Generals… life was sometimes so sweet. Of course, it also meant that he'd lost his pawn, which wasn't good… but then that idiot, El, didn't have to know that. Nor pushed the thought aside, preferring to dwell on the positive aspect.
"Tell me, Gaylen, does the thought of all those Taureans running around like headless chickens excite you as much as it does me? Leaderless, they'll be much more manageable!"
The blonde acolyte, covered his mouth with his hand, while he cleared his throat nervously. "Lord Nor, have you forgotten that your wife was also on that craft?"
Nor swung round threateningly. Why had the fool brought up that detail so quickly? Sometimes Gaylen's ponderous thinking irritated him beyond measure; he just couldn't see the big picture; couldn't understand that the demise of the Taurean leaders far outweighed the loss of one puny, hated Earth girl. After all, there was really no need for a hostage — he, Rad-Nor, was the superior being and he could defeat his sickeningly incorruptible adversary with both hands tied behind his back.
Watching like some predatory beast, Nor gloated inwardly as the Lieutenant tensed with apprehension, while the ominous pause lingered. Gaylen was afraid of the mercurial temper, and, no doubt, was waiting for the destructive tantrum that was sure to follow. Well, that was good — fear was an extremely useful tool to keep his soldiers on their toes. But sometimes the menace was more effective when hidden beneath a silken exterior.
"Indeed she was, Gaylen… and, as you see, I'm… devastated… heartbroken." Rad-Nor spoke conversationally as his imperious hands swept over his person. "However, I feel that I might surmount my grief, in time. We world leaders have to get used to personal sacrifices… 'for the greater good' as it were. But, as you have brought to mind, the First Lady of Krypton was also in that ship… I wonder if her dear husband will take the news so philosophically. I fear he will be quite demented… which only goes to prove that he's much too emotional for his role as First Lord."
"There is a slight chance that some people might have survived, sire!"
"What?!" Now the thunderbolt struck as Rad-Nor's fist hammered the desk by his side, and the desk that had once been a treasured artifact, lovingly tended by many a president, splintered under the onslaught. "How could they have lived? Didn't you tell me the ship was destroyed?"
"Not all of the ship, my lord. It's been reported that a module escaped destruction and landed safely near the town of Smallville in a state called Kansas!" Gaylen wasn't at all pleased to report such news. It wasn't the first time that Nor had taken his anger out on the hapless messenger.
"Were the Generals on board?"
"We don't know, my lord. Perhaps your wife…"
"No, wait! The prison-cell was protected!" Nor's interruption came like a rapier strike; he hated to be beaten to the punch line by his minions. "Which means that the annoyingly resilient First Lady and my errant wife are still very much alive. Oh, things just get better and better, Gaylen! The Generals are gone, but we still have our insurance policy." Nor clasped his hands behind his back as he wheeled to face the window again. "I wonder why dear Keira hasn't contacted me?" he asked of the littered landscape.
"She might be injured and unable to do so," an increasingly nervous Gaylen dared to suggest.
"She might, but I believe that it's much more likely that my precious wife has returned her allegiance to her own family."
"Then you should contact her," the lieutenant advised, his haste to impress making him bold. In most circumstances, Nor hated to be told what to do, but surely this was the best course of action in this case. "Remind her of her wifely duties and that her children's continuing welfare is in your hands."
"Yes, that is the most obvious option," Nor replied, thoughtfully, "but, while I find frightening my whey-faced spouse exceedingly exhilarating, I believe I shall forgo my pleasure this time. You see," the mighty lord explained with just a hint of exasperation, "if we've tracked the capsule, then it's highly likely that El's technicians have too, and, if my wife has changed sides, then no doubt Kal- El already has a squad on its way to rescue the two damsels in distress. That being so, I shouldn't like to alert them to our impending arrival."
"There's no record of any Kryptonian craft, other than our own, entering Earth's atmosphere or landing on the surface."
"You imbecile!" Nor bellowed. "Haven't you heard of cloaking shields?!"
"But, surely, Lord Nor, our men can penetrate any such devices."
"Not necessarily! My arms dealer on Caytan informs me that the Kryptonian strategic test-centre has developed a totally new system — one which is extremely difficult to decode. I was in the middle of brokering a deal to acquire the blueprints when this whole debacle with the Mais began. I was told it was only in the testing stages but we can't be sure of that. So we must assume that Kal-El might already be in Kansas."
"What should we do, my Lord?"
Stalking with deceptive calm up to his large lieutenant, Nor stuck a pointed finger into the man's expansive chest. "Do, Gaylen?! Why, we prepare our own welcome for my sweet wife and her family. We too visit this town of Smallville and I do hope that it's not so parochial as the name suggests… I do so hate anything bucolic."
"But what if the First Lord…" Gaylen's words died at the black scowl that settled on his master's face. "Sorry, the Lord of El, I mean… what if he's there before us?"
With a lightning change of mood, Nor grinned rapaciously. "Oh, I do hope so, Gaylen, I really do. It's time for the final conflict, when I must face my enemy man-to-man. Only I expect this to be a very one-sided contest, because I'm certain that only one of us is a superman!"
"Then we leave immediately?"
"That would seem the obvious course of action, however…" The panther-like eyes strayed to the woman he'd left languishing on the couch. She was attractive enough in a brassy, world-weary way, and thoughts of his wife had reminded him of how unsatisfactory he had found his marriage bed. These care-givers were a lot more to his taste than his frigid, patrician wife had ever been and, right at this moment, he felt the need to intimidate someone while taking care of his baser requirements; the anticipation of battle always sharpened his libido. There would be time enough to gratify all his obsessions. "I think that I should allow my sweet Keira to become reacquainted with her family — let Kal-El believe that he has rescued his women. After all, it will be so much more convenient to have them all in the one place for us to apprehend, and so much more satisfying to me to destroy them just when they think they are safe. Run along, Gaylen. Pick a few of your men, preferably ones who have sobered up. Oh, and have them fetch my mewling brats; they might come in handy as hostages. We assemble at dawn! My ultimate triumph awaits me in Smallville!"
The echo of an evil laugh hung in the Oval Office as Rad- Nor grabbed hold of the unwitting female on his way to the nearest bedchamber. Gaylen frowned disapprovingly; sometimes his master allowed his physical needs to overrule his brain, yet he wasn't about to voice his objections. The lieutenant was only too aware of what could happen to those who spoke out of turn to the Lord of Nor. Commandeering the two nearest troopers who seemed to have followed the proceedings with at least some form of cognisance, Gaylen left to prepare the platoon exactly as ordered. If things went amiss, then he couldn't be held responsible. A wry grimace settled on the large lieutenant's face — when did that ever stop Rad-Nor from venting his spleen? Not for the first time, Gaylen wondered how he had managed to survive thus far in his feudal duty to the house of Nor and just when the fates would choose to abandon him.
It had been a very long night but finally the sun had edged over the flat Kansas landscape and now rimmed the tops of the trees in the orchard behind the barn. The roosters had crowed sometime ago and the burly farmer had apologetically left his unexpected guests to see to his morning chores. The farm animals were completely oblivious to the miracle of birth which was taking place in the Kents' guest bedroom and needed to be tended. Besides, there wasn't much that Jonathan could do to help in the process. That was Martha's department and that young woman couldn't be in any better hands. Why, Martha had brought into the world more than half the babies of the county and almost every child and mother was as healthy and happy as could be, and so he had told the serious-faced major from Krypton who was threatening to wear a trench in the living room floor from the amount of pacing he was doing. Jon wasn't sure if his assurances had been accepted though, and he'd been relieved to have President West attest to the excellence of the American health care system. And that was another mind- numbing thing… the President of these United States was here in his yard, helping him bring in the cows for milking. Not that Jon had a big herd, just a few old milk cows, but Mr West sure seemed to know his way around cows and a farm. The sun was climbing like a golden ball into the clear cloudless sky, promising hot temperatures for the rest of the day.
"Looks like it's gonna be another sweltering day, Jon," West remarked as he shielded his eyes with his hand against the early morning glare and squinted into the skies out towards the horizon.
Jonathan Kent followed his president's gaze, noting the man's intense stare. "You expecting visitors, President West?" The farmer too let his gaze stray round the countryside, his anxieties breaking through his customary placid demeanor. "Maybe you're thinking that Rad-Nor and his thugs are gonna show up here."
"It's what Lord Kal and Major Ching expect." Owen nodded his head in the affirmative but tried to keep his voice untroubled. "But don't you worry. We've posted guards around the perimeter. No-one is going to get in here without our knowing."
"Begging your pardon, Mr President, I don't like to question your judgment, but it seems to me that our troops haven't been doing so well up against these invaders."
"Not in the past, no, but we do have the good Kryptonians on our side now and they make up most of this squad."
"And they have these superpowers too?" Jonathan persisted, wanting to get it straight in his mind just what to expect of the coming day. It seemed to him that there was a good chance that his farm might be a battleground for two overpowered armies.
"No, at least, not at the moment." The two men herded the cows into the milking byre and, as they walked inside, they peered myopically into the gloom, both pairs of eyes taking a moment to adjust to the change in light. "From what I've been told, superpowers don't develop until these aliens have spent three or four days continuously on Earth and, unfortunately, Kal and his men only arrived last evening. So no, they're not the equal of Nor and his soldiers."
"Well, I can't say that I'm disappointed at that… seems to me that a person shouldn't have these abilities if they can only do bad things with them," Jonathan griped, all the while working to shepherd his animals into the stalls. "Not that I'm saying that these particular aliens are out to harm us, but it could be a pretty big temptation not to use powers like that to get what you want."
"I believe Kal is aware of the problem. It's why he tried to keep the phenomenon from his people and why he'll only let his most trusted men down onto the surface." The last heavy bovine lumbered into place, barely missing the toes of its President. "You know, Jonathan, I trust that young man. I'm certain that he's here to help."
"I'll admit that he seems a pretty wholesome young man who cares very much for his wife, and Martha sets a lot of store by that. My Martha's a pretty good judge of character too, you know." The farmer went about the preparations for milking. "And it's pretty clear that the Earth could do with the help in fighting this Rad-Nor maniac, so you're saying we should put our fate in the hands of that young… stripling in there?" That was the thing… Jonathan wasn't against young people. In fact, he'd found them fairly reliable and likeable if you gave them half a chance, but did this youngster have the experience to take on the role of Commander-in-Chief of a world at war?
"That young stripling is the ruler of a very advanced civilisation… but yes, that's what I'm saying."
"Good! That's what I think too." Jon Kent was a man of few words but he was a sharp as a tack and he'd been instinctively drawn to Kal-El, but it was nice to know that the President seconded his opinion of the stranger. "Besides, the way I see it, we don't have many options. Let's just hope we're right and that the boy knows what he's doing!"
"Amen to that!"
Ching took yet another turn around the room in the Kents' farmhouse. He was alone, Keira having been commandeered by the Earth woman to assist with the birth. Another loud moan reached him and his eyes strayed ceiling-wards. Was it his imagination or were the noises reaching some sort of crescendo? They were certainly becoming more frequent. Ching tried with all his Kryptonian stoicism to remain calm while wondering how his friend was managing to cope with the process of birth. If he — and he considered himself a very self-controlled being — was having difficulty maintaining his composure only listening to the noises which emanated from the upstairs chamber, how much harder it must be for Kal, who was actually witnessing the event.
In fact, outwardly Kal was dealing very well with the situation, while inside his fears battled with his exhilarating emotions as he watched Lois struggle to bring their child into the world. Lois was the one who was suffering the pain and the trauma and Kal vowed to be with her every step of the way. He would not abandon her again.
So adamant was he, that he'd been prepared to challenge the seemingly kind and competent Martha, should she have barred him from the room, but that hadn't happened. At first he'd been surprised by the fact that she'd not only acquiesced to his request to stay, but actually was encouraging him to aid and support his wife through the difficult process. Then Kal remembered that while discussing the birth with Lois, she'd been shocked to discover that husbands were not expected to be with their wives during childbirth. It seemed that on Earth it was, at least, in Lois' culture the accepted thing. And now that it was happening to Lois and him, he most definitely advocated the custom. It was acutely scary but it was, also, the most wonderful experience of his life, rivalled only by that first moment when Lois had placed her hand into his as he helped her from Luthor's limousine. Then too, he had felt as if he were starting on an amazing journey — the beginning of a new life. Kal made a mental note that when they returned home, he would recommend the practice to all his friends. Meanwhile, Lois was clinging to his hands with a fearsome grasp and he returned all his attention to Martha's instructions in how to help his wife.
Yet, Major Ching had no personal experience with the miracle that was taking place in the room above and so could only understand the worrying part. And, of course, that wasn't his only concern. He was preoccupied with Rad- Nor's whereabouts. It seemed fairly reasonable to assume that if they'd tracked the position of the crashed ship, then Nor's men had done so too. So why wasn't he here? Was he lying out there in wait; lulling them into a false sense of security? Knowing Nor's cruel perversity this was the most likely scenario.
The Major had taken every precaution he could. A tight guard had been thrown around the farmyard with four of the most experienced campaigners stationed at the front and rear doors of the house itself, while President West was protected by his head Secret Service agent with a couple of his own men equipped with the new weapons. Overhead in the stratosphere a single battlecruiser hovered, ready to answer any emergency call, but on this point Ching did have a definite concern. Dax-Ver had reported that the Taureans, now aware of the fate of their Generals, had launched a full scale attack at the Kryptonian fleet and it was all the good commander could do to spare that one solitary craft. Even the troops on the surface, involved in the arming of the Terran soldiers, had to be left to their own devices for the present, while Dax and his ships fought off the enemy. The only encouraging information was that, so far, the super-powered renegades had not joined in the fight… yet even that piece of news was unsettling. Where in Zor's name were they? Was their plan to allow the Taureans to do whatever damage they could and then move in for the kill?
A series of loud, agonised groans wafted from the room above, while the voice of the woman named Martha rose above the noise, authoritatively yet calmly issuing directions and, below it all, Ching heard the cadence of Kal's empathetic tone, indistinct and only recognisable because of his long association with his leader. The painful, strident sounds seemed to go on indefinitely and the listener found himself holding his breath… when into the clamour came a new sound… a baby's cry. The noise was, in the beginning, weak but grew quickly in timbre as the infant found its voice. Upstairs, there was laughter amid the tears as the four adults all acknowledged a job well done; a child was born.
Major Ching found himself smiling along with the nervous, almost wondrous joy emanating from that small room. The child all Krypton had been waiting for had taken its first breath, made its first sound and had seen its first view of the world, albeit a different world to the land of its fathers. Krypton could rejoice, Ching surmised, if it was a boy, of course. But knowing Lois, she'd make them celebrate no matter what… and, also, knowing just how persuasive Lois could be, they probably would do so gladly. Meanwhile, he had the safety of his ruler and his family to attend to — no-one would have cause for exultation if Rad-Nor was a spectre at this feast.
The upstairs room was shaded from the rising sun and its hush was almost reverential when compared to the ordered bustle of some moments previously. In the centre of the room, Lois-El sank gratefully into the feather pillow and eased her bottom gently down into the soft mattress. She was decidedly tender, much more than a little tired and happier than she'd ever been before in her life. Not that labour had been a walk in the park, but, at least, it had been shorter than she'd feared, and the outcome had been worth all of her efforts.
A movement by her bed recalled her to her surroundings and Lois stretched a hand to the somewhat stunned Kal, who was standing by the bedhead.
"Come sit here," Lois invited contentedly and patted the coverlet by her side.
Almost like a sleepwalker Kal came to do her bidding, lowering himself gingerly to the bed and swiftly shifting his position at a pained grimace from his wife.
"No, Kal, don't get up!" Lois caught his arm and drew him back down. "I'm just a bit sore… which is only to be expected. There's nothing for you to worry about."
An apologetic smile lifted Kal's lip lopsidedly. "Lois, I'm so sorry! I had no idea it would hurt so much." He'd heard the tales, of course, and while Lois was pregnant he'd read many textbooks on the subject, but nothing could have quite prepared him for the way he would feel as he watched his child being born.
"Well, I can't deny that is wasn't easy, but I think you'll find that we got off lightly compared to some others. You'll have to ask Martha. She seems to be the expert around here."
"Wasn't she great? I'm just so relieved that if you had to crash-land, you picked the field of the local midwife!"
"Kal! I didn't choose to crash…"
"No! That was my fault! I ordered Dax to attack that ship. It never occurred to me that you were on board…"
"There was no way you could have known…" Lois soothingly took the hand that was rumpling the covers in agitation.
"And while we're laying blame, then it's all my fault that you were on that ship in the first place. If I hadn't left you behind! I trusted Poli!"
Martha's bedspread was now in serious danger from Kal's nervous fingers and Lois deemed it sensible to appropriate both of his offending hands. "Kal, stop it, please," she insisted, squeezing tightly on his now imprisoned hands. "Maybe we do need to talk this over sometime but now isn't the time. Besides, I trusted Poli too…"
"No you didn't! You told me…"
"Well, I might have had a flash of women's intuition or something but it couldn't have been very conclusive because you easily persuaded me that I was wrong."
"I know! See! I was wrong about that too!" Now Kal gesticulated wildly with both their clasped hands.
Thankfully the door opened and a much-needed diversion strode into the room in the shape of Martha, followed by an even more sullen and silent Keira. The elderly woman carried a small and eminently precious bundle which squirmed slightly in her careful arms.
Lois welcomed the arrival in more ways than one. Kal was well down the path of an obsessive guilt trip, and she wasn't quite feeling up to dealing with her husband's insecurities, but mostly she just wanted to hold and admire her baby.
"Here she is," Martha announced brightly, though she couldn't help but notice the tension that had developed in the small room. There was clearly some history between this young couple which they would have to address, but the lady in the bed was far too exhausted for much soul-searching and, indeed, her very handsome husband looked just as careworn. But Martha certainly had an answer for that and, crossing to the new parents, she gently placed the baby into the outstretched arms of its waiting mother. "She's a beautiful little princess." Martha couldn't know that the title she bestowed upon the infant was very close to the truth; to her, all the children she brought into the world were little princes and princesses. "Quite the most lovely little girl I've ever laid eyes on and, believe me, I've seen quite a few."
For a few moments, Martha fussed with the bed clothes in an attempt to hide just how much she'd been affected by the happenings of the night, straightening the counterpane which her grandmother had sewn so many years ago. She also couldn't know the true significance of the birth but she sensed that she'd been part of something momentous and she'd felt a strange connection to these lovely, tired young people. What was she thinking about?! All three needed to rest!
"We'll leave you to enjoy your baby for a few minutes, while Keira and I fetch a crib from up in the loft. We'll be a few minutes, so why don't you take the time to get acquainted."
Bestowing a warm smile on the little tableau on the bed, Martha snagged the arm of her companion to draw her from the room, causing Keira to jump at the unexpected contact. However, the Lady of Nor didn't break her silence. Keira threw a searching look at her brother, then turned and left the room in Martha's wake.
Lois was entranced as she gazed down at her baby. Intently, she stared into the tiny face, seeking some recognisable feature. Often, she'd heard people say that a newborn infant looked so like either one of its parents but she'd never been able to discern any such similarity. A baby was a baby… creased and red-faced from the trauma of birth. Yet, surely that was her nose and those were definitely Kal's high cheekbones hidden beneath the slightly puffy skin… a beautiful amalgam of both their features.
A large finger entered her concentrated field of vision and traced a line lightly across the baby's cheek. Lois looked up into her husband's weary, red-rimmed eyes to share this moment of wonder, but he wasn't conscious of her scrutiny, so absorbed was he in the dear little person resting in her arms. And were there tears glistening in his eyes? That would hardly be a surprise — she felt rather weepy herself, filled with such joy and awe.
But wait! Perhaps these weren't tears of happiness she was witnessing. Perhaps Kal was dissatisfied that his firstborn was a girl. This was what Lois had most feared. All he had said during her pregnancy had been merely platitudes to keep her calm and amenable. He had wanted an heir.
"I'm sorry," Lois mumbled. She should be angry, but she was just too exhausted to indulge in such a heated emotion; no doubt that would come later. For now, her heart broke anew as she contemplated the painful possibility that history was repeating itself, and that her daughter too had been rejected simply because she was the wrong sex.
"I mean, you must be disappointed."
"Disappointed?!" Kal's head shot up and he frowned in puzzlement at his wife's halting words.
"She's a girl." The dead tone continued.
At those words he smiled, the timbre lost on him for the moment. "Yes, and isn't she beautiful. Okay, I'll admit to being biased, but even Martha agreed that she's gorgeous."
"But maybe we should have employed Tamar's skills at gender-manipulation? After all, you were hoping for a boy."
At last he understood the bleakness that had overtaken her. "No, Lois! It's not like that!"
"Then why are you looking so shocked?" she demanded accusingly.
For a few seconds Kal could only return his wife's troubled stare and Lois waited for the knife to be driven into her heart. "Oh, Lois, I feel so many things… and all at once… I feel so very happy, yet scared too; being a parent is a big responsibility and I want to get it right. But most of all I feel relieved." He dropped his eyes once more to the tiny girl sheltered in Lois' arms and his finger continued to caress the baby-soft skin. "I almost lost you… both of you. I thought that I was doing what was best for you and our daughter. And because I was too stubborn and pig-headed to listen to you, I put the two people I care most about at risk!"
Solace swept through Lois and she hurried to offer some of her own. "But I was just the same! I was so sure I was in the right…"
"Lois, you were right!"
"Of course, sweetheart, haven't you realised I'm always right?" Lois teased gently. "But I shouldn't have thrown up all my old defences." She shook her head in self-derision and the baby stirred restlessly in her arms. "I wouldn't lower the drawbridge until I got my own way! I should've realised that you were only doing what you thought was right and tried to persuade you to change your mind. Instead, I refused to talk to you, and I sent you away to fight Nor without telling you how very much I love you…"
"We made a mess of things…"
"And all because we wouldn't talk to each other…"
"Lois, I can't promise never to mess up again, but I do promise that I'll never treat your suggestions so cavalierly again…"
"And I'll always try to keep a channel open; to remember that together we're stronger…"
"… than each alone!"
"You remembered your grandmother's prophecy."
"I'll never forget it again," Kal vowed with all his heart, while his gaze traced every feature of her beloved face, imprinting again every facet into his memory. "I love you, Lois-El."
Lois was lost in her husband's doting stare. She had been afraid that she'd never see that look again… never bask in the warmth of his bounteous love ever again. He had such expressive eyes; from serious and controlled as he sat in Council, to teasing and whimsical as he vied to outdo her in some silly game, to warm understanding when he would comfort her in her occasional bouts of sadness or when his eyes darkened with the power of his passion for her, and Lois loved every nuance.
Neither noticed that their powerful emotions were communicating to their baby until the little girl began to whimper and squirm uncomfortably. Both parents were immediately concerned and Lois began to rock the baby gently as Kal placed his finger into one tiny waving fist.
"Hush, little one, there's nothing to be afraid of. Mommy and Daddy are here to look after you," Lois crooned over the small screwed-up face.
"And we love you with all our hearts and we'll always take care of you."
But the baby would not be soothed and her cries swelled into full-blown yells. How could such a tiny being make such a loud noise? Lois and Kal exchanged worried glances… was something wrong with their lovely daughter?
Fortunately for the parents' peace of mind, Martha and Keira returned to the room, carrying between them an exquisitely fashioned wooden crib which they sat down near to the bed. Martha's experienced eye took in the distressed and bemused stare of the first-time parents and she quickly hid a gently, teasing smile. It always amused her to see how two grown-up people should be so afraid of such a little person, and it seemed that Kryptonian mothers and fathers were no different. But they would learn, as everyone did. Some took better care than others of their precious gifts and some didn't deserve the children that were born to them. Yet, Martha sensed that these two would be good parents, surrounding their child with the love they already shared with each other. For the first time in many years, Martha felt a sadness for the lack of her own children; Jonathan would have made a wonderful father and she would've promised to be the best mom in the world…
The baby's now angry screams jolted Martha from her musings and Lois' worried voice quickly brought the midwife back to the present. "What's wrong?! Is she in pain?!"
"Oh no, my dear," Martha reassured, hurrying over to the bedside. "She's hungry. This little princess has been through a difficult time and she needs a little snack before she goes to sleep."
"Oh! You mean… me!" Lois gestured with her free hand towards the region of her chest."I can do that, I think." But her wide-eyed stare belied her assurance.
"It's just a little tricky until you get the knack… but it's nothing to be afraid of. You'll see, you'll do just fine!"
Kal rose, somewhat in the manner of a startled rabbit, and stood back, allowing Martha to help his wife in her newest task. A look of infinite tenderness settled on his face as he watched Lois follow Martha's instructions with studied determination and after only one failed attempt the baby found what she was craving and tiny satisfied, suckling noises replaced the irate shrieks.
Peace descended with a healing balm on the Kansas farmhouse bedroom. Martha had taken Keira away and left the little family alone to bond. With some surprise, Lois found she was overwhelmed by such maternal feelings of love and nurture as she watched her daughter suckle at her breast. Who would've believed she'd be so content to be a mother… she'd run a million miles away from her own family and not just metaphorically speaking. Once again, she found herself missing them. Now, though, she had the chance to do something about that. She'd have to talk to Kal later, she thought, glancing up at his tall figure and smiling warmly at his mesmerised countenance. The future was unsure, but for the moment, the family of three were together again and all was right with Lois' world.
When Kal eventually tore himself from the side of his wife and daughter and descended the stairs, the lower house was deserted. Ching had left to check on the guard as soon as he'd been assured by Martha that everything had gone well and mother, baby and father were doing fine.
Martha, herself, had made a large pitcher of iced-tea and taken a few pieces of her renowned apple-pie out to her husband and his temporary farmhand. The redoubtable lady was used to working on 'all-nighters' … babies just didn't have any consideration for others when it came time to make their appearance in the world. But this last night had been so strange that Martha almost felt like pinching herself; was the President really out in her barn helping Jonathan with the morning chores? Were these other visitors really aliens from a far-distant planet? They seemed so much like humans. Well, of course they were humans. She'd just brought a hybrid baby into the world and it had all the correct amount of fingers and toes, all the parts of any other baby she'd ever delivered, and all were put together in such a lovely little package. Also, Martha knew a thing or two about breeding and she was very nearly sure that if Earthlings and Kryptonians had been different species, that little girl upstairs would very likely not have been conceived. So, with energy still bubbling through her body, with a hundred questions mulling around in her brain and worry for what was about to happen in the near future, Martha, bearing a tray of comfort food, had gone to find the support and strength of her husband.
A noise from the front room alerted Kal to the fact that the house wasn't as empty as he had first supposed. Following the sound he walked cautiously into the dimly lit room. His eyes took in the blinds, still shielding the room from the brightness of the morning sun, and strayed slowly round the room, seeking the source of the muffled sounds of distress. There, huddled in a chair by the large fireplace, sat his sister.
"Keira, what are you doing here?" And when no answer was forthcoming, Kal crossed to her side, crouching down to look into her averted face. "What's wrong? Are you in pain? Martha said something about you having broken ribs." The silence in the room grew deeper. "Please, Keira, talk to me. Should I call for a physician?"
The offer startled Keira into speech. "No! I'm fine… really! Mrs Kent gave me something for the pain. She wasn't sure it would work on Kryptonians, but it seems to. At least, now I just have a dull ache in my side." She unfolded her self from the chair and sat up as straight as she could, allowing Kal to glimpse the damp trace of tears on her cheek.
Those tears and the abject loss of hope which coloured her whole being, touched her younger brother's heart. "Oh Keira, what have we done to you?" Kal's hand reached out to brush away the tears. The wretched lady flinched, and his hand dropped. "Is it your children? You must be so worried about them…"
"Why should you care — you never have before." This was said in a monotone with just the echo of an accusation, as if all Keira's emotions were held frozen in an icy grip.
"No, Keira, that's not true. I… we have always cared… Mother and Father, Zara and Lois! We all want to help you!"
"It's too late… much too late." Her posture drooped despondently.
"No, it isn't! Don't say that! Your marriage will be dissolved. Even the Council wouldn't expect you to remain married to a such a monstrous traitor, and I'd overrule them if they did."
At this latter statement, Keira's head shot up and she threw her brother a long, probing look. "And what if I don't want my marriage annulled?"
Kal gulped visibly, the shock of the question causing him to rock back on his heels. He'd never considered that possibility. After a few seconds of painful deliberation he answered steadily. "Then your marriage would stand," pronounced the First Lord of Krypton, but the caring, sensitive man behind the title broke through. "But you can't mean that Keira… You don't love him, do you?"
The shutters tried to remain closed but those earnest eyes reminded her too much of a happier time when brother and sister had been firm friends. "No, I don't love him." The voice was so soft, Kal had to concentrate to hear. "I doubt anyone could love Rad-Nor but himself. He's not entirely sane, you know."
"I know… I know!" Kal's hands stilled the long, feminine fingers that pleated and re-pleated the tattered material of her dress and this time Keira didn't shrink away. Kal kept his voice low, unwilling to break the fragile accord. "Keira, I can't begin to understand what you've had to go through these past years, but, please believe me, it isn't too late."
"He has my children." Keira's forlorn voice cried out with all the crushing fear of one who fully understood the terrible danger that beset her infants.
"But surely, Keira, he wouldn't hurt his own children!" Having just become a father and been completely overwhelmed by the need to protect his tiny offspring at all costs, Kal found this concept very difficult to accept.
The bleakness that had receded for a few short seconds, once more claimed Keira and she shivered involuntarily. "Who knows?! I'm sure my son is probably safe but I wouldn't trust him with my daughter. Besides, what sort of a life will they have being brought up by that fiend?!"
"That's not going to happen, Keira. We're going to defeat Nor and rescue your children and then we're all going to go home. Home to Krypton, Keira, to Ro-Ellion." The eager note in Kal's tone wasn't lost on his sister but it was hardly shared by her.
The barely veiled sarcasm hit Kal like a slap in the face. "Don't you want to go home, Keira? You have my word that Nor will never trouble you again. Mother and Father… everyone will be so happy to have you back with us. Doesn't the thought of Elvar make you happy, Keira?"
"Elvar's no longer my home." She pulled her hands from the beckoning yet treacherous comfort of Kal-El's clasp. "It's just a stopgap. Somewhere to hide, until you and your Council need to make another political alliance and I'm part of the bargain."
"Keira, no! You won't ever be a bargaining piece again. On my oath, you'll never be forced into another marriage against your choice. If you ever decide to marry again, it will be to someone you…" Kal was tempted to mention love but he had a fairly clear notion that Keira would view that emotion with a great deal of scepticism, "someone you want to marry," he ended lamely.
"The Council won't be very pleased about that." The sneer that twisted her lips broke Kal's heart. "And have you forgotten your own daughter? The minute your Lords hear the news, they'll be busy seeking out a birth-husband for her, unless, of course, you've already done so."
"No!" The ferocity of that barked word surprised both occupants of the room. The First Lord calmed himself and began again. "No! Birth-marriages are an ancient tradition that should've been dispensed with long since! Lois and I are determined that our daughter, and every other girl nobly born on Krypton, will no longer be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. It's a foolish custom, fraught with danger and it ends now! Look what happened to you! We hope the Council will understand, but we will prevail."
Keira stared at her brother in stunned amazement. Gone forever was the carefree, likeable youth of her childhood, replaced by this determined, stalwart leader. She couldn't doubt his sincerity or his resolve, and she couldn't ignore the fact that he'd spoken of Lois — used the term 'we' — as if he regarded Lois as his equal. It was what Lois-El had tried to explain on the journey and what she had refused to contemplate. Nevertheless, Keira's hard-learned cynicism forced the wounding retort that sprang to her lips. "A girl! You must have been pretty disappointed that your dear wife didn't give you the son everyone was hoping for."
"Keira, Lois and I have a beautiful baby girl, who you helped to bring into the world, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that. I can't tell you how much I feel about her — I haven't the words, but I make this promise to you now, I will love her and protect her for all of her life, and neither she nor you will ever be handed over to a husband like Nor, not while I have breath in my body."
"But that might not be for so very much longer!" An amused and deadly voice entered the room, heralding the arrival of the Lord of Nor in a welter of wood and plaster as he burst through the ceiling.
A startled Kal flailed at the dust and debris that peppered the air in the confined space, clouding his vision and threatening to choke him. Cursing inwardly at his folly in allowing himself to be taken unawares, Kal played for time… time to assemble a plan in his head and to call for backup. "Don't you use the door anymore?!" His words ended in a racking cough as his lungs attempted to rid themselves of the floating grime.
Drifting to the floor with consummate ease, the intruder regarded the two dust-covered figures condescendingly. "On occasion, but don't you think the roof makes for a much more dramatic entrance?"
"You could have killed someone!" Kal's immediate concern was for Lois, though, gratefully, he found her thoughts linked with his own; she might be frightened and demanding an explanation but she was unharmed. Sending her a heartfelt plea to keep out of the way and take care of the baby, Kal faced down his nemesis.
"Yes I could," chortled Rad-Nor. "But please tell me, you're not still operating under the mistaken apprehension that I could care less about that."
"I think you've made your contempt for any other life but your own abundantly clear." Concluding that his uniform was as grit-free as he could make it, Kal ceased brushing at his clothes and hair and squared his shoulders. He was aware that the formal statement he was about to make was completely pointless, but proper procedure was necessary, nonetheless.
"Rad-Nor, as First Lord of Krypton I charge you, in the name of my people and the High Council of Krypton, of high treason; of the crime of murdering Lady Rochelle and the noble family of Fre, of conspiring to kidnap the First Lady, not once but twice, and turning her over to the enemy, of collusion with the Taureans in piracy and mass homicide in space, of declaring war on an innocent planet and committing genocide on the people of Earth. I and my men are here to return you to Krypton where you will be called to answer for all of your crimes."
A slow handclap was Nor's first response. "Oh, very good, Lord Kal-El! You didn't make one mistake in that long list! I especially liked your stern visage! Did you practise that speech before a mirror? But surely, even you can't expect me to comply with your silly demand to return to Krypton. I am master here!" The nonchalant pose was discarded, as Nor sent a beam of heat vision into the floor by Kal's feet, inducing Kal to scramble backwards, away from the smoking black-edged hole that appeared in the wooden flooring.
Only the First Lord's athletic prowess kept him from ending in an undignified heap at the feet of his antagonist. This was promising to be a catastrophic encounter, which didn't truly surprise Kal, yet he felt a pang of guilty distress at the destruction that had already been done to the homey farmhouse.
"I see you're bent on violence, Nor, but it's me you want, and I'm prepared to meet you in single combat." Kal kept his face as blank as he could while inside his emotions churned. Like all the troops in this little squadron, he was wearing Major Klei's latest inventions in a toughened, lightweight bodysuit and high-density force-shield, but would either contraption withstand the assault by superpowers. It seemed he was about to find out. Kal continued in a confident air. "So why don't we take this outside where we'll have more space for the contest."
"We might! Later!" snapped Nor, "but it'll be at my instigation! Meanwhile, I'm about to become reacquainted with my wife."
As Nor turned menacingly towards the terrified Keira, she cowered behind the reclining chair, where she had taken refuge at Nor's first arrival. No sound came from her but an aura of pitiable alarm pervaded her whole being.
"Stay away from her!" Kal's command cracked like the rapport of a rifle. "She has done you no wrong!"
Strangely, Nor stopped his advance. Dear Zor! He hated to invoke that name, but did he despise that mewling woman so much that her close proximity physically turned his stomach? Immediately he complied with Kal's request and as he moved away he felt, incredibly, so much better — the bitch really did sicken him — but he'd be damned if he'd show his cringing wife and her sanctimonious brother his moment of weakness.
"Did I say she had or that I would harm her?" Nor turned away from the large chair which sheltered Keira, his assumed casualness heightening the charged atmosphere in the room. "I merely wished to join in the cosy family reunion. Such a nice little chat between brother and sister, but one which, I fear, was a trifle premature and unlawful to boot. To incite a wife to leave her husband, not to mention discussing said wife's further marriage while her first is still on the statute books, is not exactly good form. What would the High Council have to say about that?!"
"The Council would back the annulment of any marriage if one of the parties was found guilty of treason, and well you know that! But, if you were eavesdropping, then you'll also know that Keira was not going along with my suggestions."
Kal was desperately trying to keep the attention of his foe while his mind covertly reached out to Ching with the information that Rad-Nor and his cohorts had arrived. Nor's men must be outside, because Kal was fairly certain that, even super-powered as Nor was, the man would not have risked coming alone.
<My Lord, I understand.> A feeling of security and budding confidence infused Kal at Ching's swift response to his warning. <Can you keep him talking while I deploy the men?>
<That's my plan, Ching, but be quick. Nor is unstable… there's no telling what he intends or whom he'll hurt in the process. Lois, the baby and Keira are here and I don't want any of them injured. I'll try to draw his fire, but they must be your first priority. Do you understand me, Ching?>
This last instruction was contrary to all Ching's duties or code of honour, but he accepted that his Lord and friend meant every word, and he had no intention of letting Kal down at this crucial moment. <Understood! But I intend to get you all out safely! Just keep his attention and let me do my job!> As always, in circumstances fraught with danger, the gulf of rank between the two slipped away.
Like a well-oiled machine, at Ching's command the Kryptonian platoon closed in around the farmyard, while their Earth partners followed suit. Slowly and stealthily they formed a cordon of steel around the yard, though only Ching could truly understand that no form of stealth tactics would be sufficient against their opponents' super- hearing. The Major was fairly certain that every move his troops made was charted by the enemy.
The strange part of the equation was that only three black- clad soldiers lounged outside on the stoop and two of these were carrying small children. Did this mean that Nor and his forces were overconfident, believing that their high- powered abilities would more than make up for being outnumbered? Overconfidence was something that he could use to good effect but the latter fact was not a premise that Ching chose to dwell on. Once, he'd attained these powers and, though Kal, Poli and he had never fully experimented with them, he hadn't forgotten how invincible he'd felt. Now, Ching was praying that these enhanced soldiers weren't completely au fait with the powers also.
But it seemed that some of his men had already found out the nature of a supercharged enemy. In the dirt by the stairs lay the four guards he had left at the house, and at this distance Ching couldn't be sure whether they were alive or dead; they surely weren't responding to his thought-messages. Studying the scene, Ching recognised the blond officer as one of Nor's chief aides. He thought his name was Gaylen and that they'd attended the military academy at the same time, though Gaylen had been a number of years ahead of himself and the man had returned to Nor's service before Ching had had many dealings with him. However, Ching remembered him as a competent though reclusive student… but had Gaylen had the propensity for villainy even then, just waiting for his evil liege-lord to hone him into a cold-hearted killing machine? The unwelcome notion that they were about to discover the answer to this question, insinuated itself in Major Ching's mind.
Alerted by the first earsplitting, crashing sounds, the three occupants of the barn had rushed to investigate the source of the commotion, but both Owen West and Jonathan Kent had fought in past wars and their experience in a hard school brought them up short before showing themselves in the open. Martha had found herself grabbed on both sides and pulled into the shadow of the great barn doors by her escorts, while Jon's large work-worn hands signalled for silence.
Three pairs of eyes scanned the surrounding area through the crack of the door, spying, at once, the intruders by the house. Martha's tender heart rose into her mouth at the infants held carelessly in the grip of their unsuitable minders. Who were these children and why would anyone want to bring them into a danger zone?
Her escorts also were swamped with impotent anger and dismay but the cause was more the sight of the already incapacitated guards. Both men turned their attention outwards over the fields and orchards. There were almost imperceptible but definite signs of movement amongst the trees and grasses, meaning that their protectors had been alerted to the opposition's appearance. Owen was thankful he'd decreed a radio silence over his own troops, preferring to rely on the Kryptonian thought process and visual instructions to their allies. The President was just as aware as Ching that the enemies' advanced hearing would make it difficult, if not, impossible, for them to be taken by surprise, but he'd be damned if he made things any easier for these morons!
Within the ruins of the Kents' once comfortable parlour, the hostile emotions were palpable. Rad-Nor was like a loaded gun and the only thing Kal could do was to make sure that he was the one in the psychopath's sights. The young First Lord didn't want to die, but he would give his life without a second thought to protect his family.
For the first time, Kal partially regretted his decision to forgo the acquisition of superpowers — at least, he would be meeting his rival on an even playing field. Yet, Kal couldn't rid himself of the notion that this would somehow be wrong. He wanted to prove to Nor's followers, and perhaps his own, that power alone wouldn't win the day — that truth and justice would always triumph over brute strength. It was the only way he could appeal to Nor's 'cyborg' soldiers to surrender, once Nor was defeated; to convince them, and any others who were tempted, that being 'super' would not put them above the law.
If only he didn't feel so small and puny when pitted against this maniac. A picture of the old Earth story of David facing Goliath sprang to his mind, while the voice of his Uncle Jor reading to a youthful, enthralled boy from a book that Earthlings called the Bible echoed in his head. He had loved that story and back then he'd wished to be David… somehow the reality didn't seem so appealing. What he needed was a sling and stone and at the moment he didn't have a clue where to find them.
<Kal!> came the whispered thought.
Lois! He might have known that she wouldn't be still. <Lois, please, stay away. Nor is here! His men must be outside. Please, let me deal with him… protect our daughter!>
<He'll kill you!> Lois had crept from the dust-encrusted room and down the stairs, bringing her baby with her. She had no thought of leaving the child behind to suffocate in the thick smog of the bedroom.
<That's what I'm hoping to avoid! At the moment, he seems prepared to show off and I don't want you distracting him… so, please, my love, don't do anything to antagonise him!>
<I'll try… but don't expect me just to stand by and let him murder you!>
Realistically, it was the most he could hope from Lois. After all, if the situations were reversed, he couldn't watch her die without attempting to save her. Still… <Just try to keep out of sight!>
But it was already too late to keep out of Nor's sight!
"Is that the lovely First Lady skulking around on the stairs? Do come in, Lady Lois and renew our acquaintance." Rad swaggered across to the doorway to offer a helping hand, which Lois ignored with pointed disdain. Cradling her child closer to her body and throwing Kal a desperate look of apology, she marched into the room. Lois received a comforting smile from her husband but was rudely brought back to the present by Nor's hand on her shoulder and his voice cooing with what passed for him as seduction. "I was always so very disappointed that we couldn't spend as much time as I would've liked in getting to know each other. A sad omission that I'm looking forward to rectifying in the very near future."
Kal strode tenaciously forward, intent on removing Lois from Nor's close vicinity, however, his wife's voice pre- empted him. "I'd rather make the acquaintance of an anaconda!" Even in this hazardous situation, the Lord of El couldn't hide his admiring grin as Lois wrenched herself from the slimy man's grip. Lois would never submit easily.
"Quite the little firebrand, isn't she?" Nor directed his insolent remarks at Kal-El. "Just the sort of woman I enjoy taming — unlike your timorous sister. I'd find more spirit in a mouse than in my sorry excuse for a spouse! Lois and I will have lots of fun and frolics when I've finished with you!"
Kal's shout reverberated around the farmyard. At the nightmarish thoughts of what Nor had planned for Lois, Kal's control snapped. Forgotten was the plan to placate Nor until backup could arrive, as the age-old instinct for the male of the species to protect its mate and offspring took over completely.
He lunged at his enemy but, before Kal ever reached his target, a blast of laser-vision of such intensity hit him full in the chest. The impetus hurled him through the air to hit the wall behind him with such force that an imprint of his body was left in the plaster. Searing pain burnt through Kal's prone form as he slid like a rag-doll to the floor, while twin sudden and tormented female screams assaulted his eardrums. For a few short seconds he turned in on himself as he fought the thundering waves of giddiness and agony. Why did everything hurt so much? But, at least pain meant that he was still in the land of the living.
Momentarily, Lois and Keira could only stare in horror, but, while Keira remained helpless with shock, Lois was galvanised into action. Totally forgetting about Kal's earlier advice, Lois steadied her hold on the baby and rushed to sink to her knees by his side. Her dearest love was in trouble and her first instinct was to be near him; to offer him the comfort only her presence could bring.
But their torturer wasn't far behind. Rad-Nor stood assured and celebratory above the man he had envied and loathed for all of his cognizant life. Now the tables were turned; he Lord of Nor was in the ascendancy and he would take a moment to savour his triumph.
Through the red mist that threatened to seal Kal's vision, he could just make out Lois' worried face leaning over him. "Lois, go back!" His urgent plea was gasped out between wracking breaths.
It was the sensible… the right thing to do. Nor loomed menacingly behind them, and she had a child to protect… but she couldn't tear herself away. With a sob, Lois stretched out a tentative hand towards her husband. The black uniform had simply disintegrated and amidst the charred remnants the reddened skin of his chest lay exposed, the surface blistering before her eyes. Lois' hand hovered above the injured flesh; she was no doctor but from her long-ago first-aid courses of college, she vaguely recalled that infection was one of the prime worries of burns cases and being touched by her grime-covered hands would not be a good thing. Frenziedly she tried to review her scant information as she studied her husband's injuries; this was certainly a great deal more than a severe sunburn but she believed and hoped that these weren't third degree burns. Somehow, Kal had been protected. Or was it more likely that Rad-Nor had just been playing with his victim and hadn't used his full capability? It seemed that both her conjectures might be true, as Nor's oily, malevolent presence floated over them like a dreaded miasma.
"Ah, I see you've had the benefit of more powerful body armour; shielding too no doubt. Don't tell me… the genius of Major Klei at work, or perhaps even your father? He's an old man but Jor-El did have his uses at one time. Will it interest you to know that after you've gone they will now work for me?"
"Never! They'd rather die first!" Kal affirmed through gritted teeth.
"Oh, that will be their only option, never fear. What do you think, Kal-El? Will your family rather die than support me? You know, I'm rather hoping that they'll take the first alternative. I don't relish looking over my shoulder for a knife planted firmly in my back, for the rest of my life. And did I forget to mention that I do so enjoy killing?"
"You bloody monster!" Dragging all his receding strength into one last daring effort, Kal grabbed for his enemy's foot and yanked for all he was worth. Taken completely by surprise during his gloating rant, Nor landed with a solid bump upon the floor. Yet faster than the eye could see, in a burst of super-speed he was once more hovering inches above the fallen couple.
"Enough!" The feral sneer pared back the thin lips from Nor's teeth in an evil caricature of a grin. "The games are over and it is your time to die! How does it feel, dying with the knowledge that Earth and Krypton will fall beneath my rule? I will be First Lord of Krypton, as is my right, and believe me, I intend to make a few changes."
"You'll never be First Lord!" Lois couldn't repress her indignation and revulsion. "The Council will never yield to you and the people of Earth aren't beaten yet!"
"Lois!" Kal's voice was little more than a whisper, his last effort having robbed him of his remaining strength. "Don't! He'll kill you!"
Nor's thin eyebrows raised. "But I wouldn't dream of exterminating such a desirable woman… at least, not yet!" A wicked laugh accompanied his words. "Poor Kal-El! Nor will you have the comforting images of a happy wife and child to take with you into the afterlife. I will make the Lady of El my concubine… until she bores me enough to send her to join you. And your daughter will become my plaything…"
Again came the two petrified shrieks, but this time the source of the second cry came barrelling across the floor to launch herself at the abominable figure of her husband. Keira threw herself onto the man who had tortured and tormented her both mentally and physically for far too long. Locking her arms in a deathly grip around his neck, she swore to herself that she would not allow him to kill the one remaining decent part of her life… her family. In her driving desire to make him pay for all the injuries he had perpetrated on her and others, Keira too forgot about the superpowers. She would hold on for as long as she could or die in the attempt.
Surprisingly, Keira not only found that she had the upper hand in the struggle but that the man whose back she clung to was falling to the floor. Old, never-forgotten hurts gave strength to the Lady of Nor and her arm-lock tightened reflexively, causing Nor to writhe in agony. Keira was too lost in the desperation of the moment to wonder why this was possible; this was not so with Kal and Lois who watched in perplexed amazement… or, indeed, with Major Ching and his troopers, who were now peering stealthily round the doorjamb.
Ching had circumvented Nor's troopers, creeping round the yard and in through the back door. And if the Major was somewhat puzzled at the incompetence of the soldiers who had allowed him to do so, he wasn't about to look a gift- horse in the mouth. Of course, Ching didn't know of Nor's stricture that his men should wait outside until he had dealt with the upstart Kal-El, and the good Major certainly had no way of comprehending Nor's treatment of a soldier who disobeyed orders.
The sight of his friend and First Lord lying injured on the ground distracted all Ching's thoughts as he moved swiftly across the floor to join Lois by Kal's side, his subordinates taking station by the door.
Sending Lois an encouraging glance, Ching laid a gentle hand on Kal's shoulder. "Kal, what hit you? Was it a laser bolt?"
The attempt to shake his head sent needles drilling into Kal's head and neck, yet the ability to speak was beyond him. Lois answered for him.
"In a manner of speaking, but it wasn't a gun… he used his eyes." Lois had witnessed a few of the superpowers when Kal had come for her, but she had never seen this. "It was terrible!"
"I remember! It was a huge shock when we discovered we could burn things with just a look!" But Ching quickly turned to the business of getting help for his leader. <Get a medic in here immediately! The First Lord is down! He needs help now!>
"He's going to be all right, Major Ching, isn't he?" A stunned voice asked from behind the little group on the ground, reminding them of the presence of their unexpected saviour.
"I believe so, Lady Keira, thanks to your brave actions. How did you do it?"
All eyes in the room turned towards the fallen Rad-Nor; there no longer seemed anything superhuman in the supine figure.
Keira stood mesmerised by the sight of her all-powerful husband, who now lay humbled at her feet. "I have no idea," came the thready, quivering reply.
Actually, that thought too was busily coursing through Nor's brain. What had happened to him? Beneath his closed eyelids his eyes flickered in consternation and pain. This couldn't be happening — he was invulnerable! Nor sought desperately for a burst of super strength but found no response. It was as if his powers had drained away, leaving him weak and dizzy — his body a mass of screaming nerve- ends. His slyness, however, remained.
Nor watched with deadly interest as, at a groaning attempt from Kal-El to sit up, his audience ceased to survey him and turned back to their injured Lord. Even the troopers by the door were distracted as a medic hurried into the room to tend to the First Lord. They would have done better to heed him. Like a wounded animal, the Lord of Nor was just as dangerous in his peril.
<Gaylen! You useless idiot! Where are you when I need you?!> Even in thought, Nor snarled. <Get in here, now! And bring the children! I'm hurt and I need a lever!>
To accuse the Lieutenant of ineptitude had been a great disservice to the soldier. Gaylen had been closely keeping an eye on his fellow Kryptonians as they'd surrounded the farmyard. He was even aware of the three Earthlings hiding in the barn and dismissed them imperiously — they could easily be taken care of later. He'd noted the troop commander's encircling movement and the covert entry into the farmhouse. At that point he'd even considered joining his master, but Gaylen had learned from experience that using his own initiative was not necessarily appreciated by Nor. Besides, being outnumbered wouldn't be a problem for a superman. So, Gaylen ignored the happenings inside the house and continued to obey his instructions, to keep account of the actions of the other soldiers.
According to Rad-Nor, these Kryptonians hadn't spent enough time on Earth to develop superpowers, but what if that assumption was wrong? If they were facing a foe of equal strength then they were definitely in trouble. But then, that was the whole reason for the presence of the children — to use as pawns. The Lieutenant studied the infants. He didn't much care for babies; they were noisy, messy little creatures and they made him uncomfortable. Yet, he wasn't totally sure that he could harm them without compunction, and even he felt it somehow immoral that Rad-Nor could use his own flesh-and-blood so. If they had to be killed, he'd leave it up to Nor or the two mindless squaddies in whose arms the babies were held.
Gaylen had reached this point in his deliberation when Nor's growling thoughts penetrated his head, and he immediately and instinctively sprang into action… but wait! He'd almost super-sped into the room when the last, worrying detail clarified in his brain, halting him in his tracks. Rad-Nor was hurt; he had said so. But that was impossible. All of them had been impervious to injuries almost since they'd arrived here, which must mean that either the enemy had weapons that could destroy their invincibility, or Nor had been wrong about the other side's lack of superpowers. Whatever the reason, the situation called for caution. Ordering the two men to keep an eye on the opposing forces, the Lieutenant levitated a few inches above the floor and glided inside.
Rad-Nor seethed! Where the hell was his backup?! That question tormented him almost as much as the wracking pains, and he needed the hostages to get himself out of here in one piece. El and his followers were so mawkish they'd do almost anything to save the lives of the children, and he could certainly rely on his hysterical wife to up the ante. With Keira weeping all over the place, they'd be glad to give into his demands. He'd been tempted to kill her any number of times in the past just to shut her up. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option for him at this time, but if she ever fell beneath his influence again, he'd finish her off without a second thought. Nor didn't understand why he'd lost his powers, but he habitually lay the blame for all his troubles on his silly wife and this time was certainly no different.
He twisted slightly on the floor to ease his throbbing limbs, then quickly stilled, not wishing to draw attention back to himself. His enemies were still intent on their fallen idol and that suited his purpose. If he could only manage to summon one burst of super-speed, he might escape out of the window to where his dolts of soldiers should be waiting.
Ah! What the hell was that?! Something small and oddly shaped dug into Nor's shoulder and, stifling a groan, he moved his head to study the object. It was El's laser- weapon! The blockhead must have dropped it in the attack. That was very convenient of El, to supply me with his own gun to finish what I started, Nor surmised, grinning like a jackal despite his agony.
<Lord Nor, what's happening?> Gaylen's thought was whispered, as if he was afraid that even his telepathic question would be overheard.
<Keep silent and stand by! Be ready to rush the enemy at my call!> Nor kept his instructions curt; he had no wish to give away his plan of action.
With a burst of adrenaline triggered by his fanatical enmity, Nor almost achieved super-strength. He reeled to his knees and held the gun outstretched towards the man whose very existence he abhorred.
"Gaylen! Now!" Nor screamed as he depressed the trigger and a bolt of lightening shot to its target.
But the proficient Ching hadn't been totally oblivious to the danger and, freeing his weapon as he swung round, he too fired. Both laser-shafts hit home, but only one fulfilled its desired mission. On the floor a black-clad figure lay hunched and lifeless as thin tendrils of white smoke arose from around the motionless body.
After a second or two of stunned stillness, Lois raised her head and shakily took stock of the situation. When she'd sensed the movement in the centre of the room, without thinking, she'd thrown herself over Kal. Now, beneath her sheltering body lay the two people she loved with all of her heart and strength… what would she do if they left her? But that wasn't going to happen, at least, not this time. The baby was beginning to stir and protest the extreme treatment that had buried her between two larger bodies, and, though Kal had passed out, he was still breathing.
Into this charged atmosphere flew the large, blonde-haired avenger, bypassing the two guards at the doorway. They too had fired on the would-be assassin and were ready to do battle with any intruders, yet all they saw was a blur and all they felt was the wind of his passing. Gaylen halted in the air above his master, stupefied by the boneless, pitiful heap. Just the other day, the man had bounced bullets of his chest and sent buses into orbit, but there could be no doubting the evidence of his eyes… Rad-Nor was dead.
Amidst the shock, Gaylen's brain struggled to assimilate the consequences of what had happened here. What did this mean for him and the rest of Nor's small, super-powered army? They could continue to subdue this world; the advantages of superpowers would guarantee their authority, and there were still their allies the Taureans. But to rule here, they would have to take on and defeat their fellow Kryptonians. And warring with his bullish thoughts came the uneasy realisation that, if Nor had lost his powers so suddenly and incomprehensibly, then it was highly probable that the same could happen to them all. Perhaps the powers were only temporary? As if the very thought had summoned up his worst conclusion, Gaylen dropped to the floor with a heavy thump. His head hurt. He felt nauseous. With an effort, the fair head turned to discover what might have caused this sharp discomfort, but all he could see was his Lady, the Lady of Nor, surveying, unemotionally, what remained of her husband. That was it! Gaylen might feel ill, but he had reached a decision and that steadied him; the age-old traditions of Krypton had come to comfort him. His master was dead — his allegiance must now fall to his Lady and the heir to the house of Nor. No wait, that wasn't right! There was a new Lord of Nor! Rey-Nor, that tiny baby who waited with its guards outside, was the master of the House of Nor, and it was Lieutenant Gaylen's duty to protect the child and its guardian. Only, for the moment he wasn't quite sure how to do that. As Lady Keira shifted to stand by his side, his body fought with unbearable pain and giving up the battle, Gaylen fainted clean away.
In the corner, Lois sat hushing her baby and watching closely as the medic sought to bring the First Lord back to consciousness. An injection-gun had been used to apply a healing and resuscitating drug to Kal-El, while a soothing- ray had continued to be focussed on the injured skin of his chest. Soon the medic would cover the wounds with an antiseptic-dressing, and allow the First Lord to be transported back to the waiting ship for further treatment.
Two confusing problems gnawed at the edges of Lois' mind. The first was easily explained with a little reflection. Lois was happy that her exploits to shield both Kal and the baby had been successful, but that in itself wouldn't have saved them — at worst, she herself should've been killed. The large hole in the wall and floor by her side, where she and Kal had been positioned earlier, attested to that. Something else had intervened, and a quick review of the action recalled a booted-foot planted hard and fast on Lois' lower back, which had sent herself, Kal and the baby out of harm's way.
Major Ching, while confronting Nor, had not forgotten his principal duty, the protection of his Lord and family, albeit his blunt action had bordered on lese-majesty. Kicking the First Lady's derriere would not be considered ethical behaviour, though it had been most effective. The Major's melted boot and ripped pants' leg was evidence that Klei's new laser-gun was powerful enough to penetrate both shield and armour and disintegrate a large patch of Martha's best room. Thankfully, though, they had protected Ching and only a large bruise could be discerned between the edges of his torn uniform. Lois smiled tremulously on the Major, expressing her heartfelt gratitude, then quickly returned to the second and more baffling question.
Lois hated mysteries, and something very weird had happened here. Both Nor and his acolyte had been super-powered; there could be no doubt of that — Nor had drilled through the roof and upper floor of the house, and a small tornado had heralded the bulky Lieutenant's entrance. Yet, somehow both men had lost all their abilities… and more… both had become quite ill and helpless when in this room. Maybe something about this room was different from any other place they'd been… there could actually be other places around the world that had the same effect, who knew? Or, maybe, the powers just faded away after a time. Then again, that hadn't been the case with Kal and company when they'd visited Earth before. She remembered him saying that the levels of their power seemed to increase the longer they were on Earth, so a natural evanescence didn't seem a likely scenario.
So, if both men were still 'super' when they arrived, what was it about this particular spot that had caused the sudden degeneration? Lois' investigative skills were in full flight… there was something just drifting on the edges of her comprehension… something she should have noticed.
Another groan from Kal instantly dragged her concentration back to the issue of her husband's state of health. With an immense feeling of relief she saw his eyelids flutter open and after a few worrying moments the glazed haze faded from his sherry brown eyes.
That one huskily uttered word lifted her spirits. "I'm right here, sweetheart." Lois slipped her hand into Kal's own as it lay loosely on the ground beside her, and the world seemed so much brighter as he squeezed weakly.
"Lois, the baby?! Is she safe?!" Lois was warmed that this should be Kal's first concern. How could she ever have doubted his feelings for his daughter?
The anxious question directed Lois' care to the tiny infant cuddling in the crook of her arm, a tender smile spreading across her face as she noticed that her soothing rocking had had the desired effect and the baby was soundly sleeping. "She's fine, Kal. I think she was frightened at first, but now you can see she's sleeping." Lois lifted her arm gently so that Kal could look into his daughter's face, but mindful not to wake her.
A matching but weary smile dawned on Kal's drawn countenance as he gazed on the finely etched brows and the puckered rosebud lips, barely quivering in tune with the infant's breathing. "Poor little sweetheart, she's had a very hard day." His voice almost died on the last word.
"And so has her Daddy!" Lois' anxiety levels were rising again at the evidence of Kal's weakness. "You should try to get some sleep too."
"Don't fuss, Lois! I'll be fine!"
But he didn't seem averse to taking her advice. The pain- medication was kicking in, freeing him of discomfort and his eyes closed once more as the medic switched off the ray-lamp and proceeded to dress the injuries.
Meanwhile, Ching was telecommunicating with the support ship, calling up a transporter to beam Lord Kal-El and his family to the safety of the medi-unit. Provided, of course, that the proficient medic would approve of the reintegration method of transport for his patient. The use of the orbships might prove more problematic. This skirmish wasn't over; there was the detail of Nor's troopers on the stoop outside, who might still be super-powered, and who might have had the sense to call for reinforcements. And, unfortunately, Lady Keira's twins were still in the hands of the enemy.
Ching leaned forward to query the medic on the predicament. The man blanched, somewhat over-awed to be asked to make a judgment which might have important repercussions, but he wouldn't shirk his duty. His first responsibility was the health of the First Lord.
"I'm sorry, Major Ching, but I couldn't recommend the First Lord's travelling by the metal-cocoons. Dematerializing his molecules in his present situation would not be good for his injuries. Lord Kal-El, is in fact, very fortunate to have come off so lightly, having been hit point blank by Nor's laser-bolt. I wouldn't like to worsen the situation. And besides, the little Lady is far too young for such a shock to her system." The medic's head nodded in the direction of the sleeping baby.
"Zor's teeth! I was hoping you weren't going to say that!" Ching's expletive displayed the extent of his chagrin. "If we have to use the orbships then that means we have to get past those soldiers out there and they've likely called in reinforcements. I was hoping to get Lord Kal and the women out of here before a battle started."
At those words, Keira seemed to rouse from the trance she'd been in, ever since the sudden demise of her husband. "But you can't fight them! They have my children! I have to find my children!" And with an angry backwards glance, she hurried towards the door.
"Lady Keira, wait!" Ching commanded, hoping to stop her from rushing outside to confront the men. "Your children are outside! The troopers have them. I believe Nor had them brought here as hostages!"
Keira stopped abruptly; she needed time to think. Then she squared her shoulders and faced the Major. "All the more reason for me to talk to them. My husband is dead, which makes my son the head of his house, and, until the High Council appoints a guardian, that means they answer to me!"
From his position on the floor, Kal smiled in satisfaction as his clever sister from long ago emerged from the remote, lethargic disposition of the Lady of Nor.
"That might just work," Ching conceded reluctantly. "But these men have a lot to answer for; they might not give in willingly."
"What's it to be, Major? I don't have much time here, if you're right about their sending for backup." Keira's hand worried impatiently at her wedding-bracelet, as Lois' eyes focussed on the habitual action.
"All right! But if we have to parley, then it should be in here." Ching flicked his head at the two bodies lying intertwined on the floor. "Superpowers don't seem so super in here. We should try to lure them inside."
Keira was halted mid-stride once more, but this time by Lois. "It isn't the room!" The medic's phrase — 'hit point blank' — had been running and rerunning through Lois' mind. Nor had used superpowers to disable Kal; he'd even been in the room a period of time when he'd done so, and Gaylen had stayed aloft until… "It's Keira!"
"What?!" The lady by the door cried somewhat hysterically.
"That's crazy! How could anyone have that effect on others?!"
"I don't know, Ching, but I'd listen to Lois if I were you. Her leaps of logic are usually right!" The pain-induced fog was clearing from Kal's brain as he eased himself back into the proceedings. He gestured towards his fussy attendant. "Please, can you help me sit up here?" The man sent him a reproachful look but, nevertheless, slid an arm under the First Lord's shoulders and eased him into a sitting position. "What makes you say that, sweetheart?"
"I'm not exactly sure," she admitted, "but I do have a theory, and I think I can prove it." As Kal opened his hands in an encouraging movement, Lois cleared her throat and continued. "Take a look at Gaylen; he's been recovering ever since Keira left his side." Indeed, the large Lieutenant's body was stirring and faint groans could be heard from his recumbent frame. "And Nor didn't lose his superpowers until Keira jumped on this back…"
"Then he went down easily…"
"Which means that he lost his powers at the moment Keira touched him?!"
Lois reluctantly handed over her baby to the care of the surprised medic; he might not have many dealings with babies but he was a medical man, and her daughter should be safe in his care. She stood up rather stiffly (she had just given birth, after all), the better to purport her theory. "Keira, could you come back to stand next to Gaylen?" The sullen look was back on Lady Nor's face. "Please, Keira, just go with me on this."
A disgruntled frown drew the Lady's brows downwards; she had more important things to do, but with a loud sigh, she stomped back to the centre of the room. Immediately, Gaylen's body tensed, his groans grew louder and within seconds of being in Keira's close proximity he relapsed into a stupor.
"Good Zor! Who would've believed that?" Ching's amazement was shared with everyone in the room, including Lois. She'd had faith in her supposition, but it was still an astonishing thing to see.
"It's not possible!" Keira protested as she backed away from the two unmoving shapes on the floor, and at once the Lieutenant could be seen to move… only a small movement, but a movement nonetheless. She unwittingly backed into the guards who were still stationed at the door and jumped in fright. Keira hated the close attention she was receiving, feeling like some frog about to be dissected.
"What is it about Lady Keira that could have that effect?" The Major had passed on to the next obvious question.
"Lois?!" Kal regarded his wife questioningly. He knew his Lois and he sensed her excitement… she had the answer.
"Well, I'm fairly confident I do," she answered his unspoken thought, "but, mind you, it's only circumstantial. I'm not a scientist and I have no idea why… but I think I know how."
"Lois, you're babbling!"
"Okay, here goes! I've been studying everyone in this room since this idea came into my head, and the only thing I can see that's different from Keira… apart from the obvious fact that she's a woman, and I am too and I made no difference, so that rules that one out…" Kal's eyebrows were raised and he was having difficulty in suppressing his mirth; for a time there, he'd feared never to see Lois in full investigative ramble again, and, regardless of the seriousness of their situation, he couldn't help but be glad. "No, the only clear difference is the wedding bracelet she's wearing. It's kryptonite, isn't it?!"
All eyes became rivetted on the obtrusive piece of traditional jewellery. It certainly glowed a more sickly green than it ever had back on Krypton.
"Yes it's kryptonite," Kal confirmed. "But why should a piece of rock from home cause such an adverse reaction?"
"I don't know," protested Lois, feeling just a little aggrieved. Hadn't she done her bit by homing in on the bangle? "You'll have to ask Klei or your father that question."
"It can't be that! Ching announced with decision, his gaze still glued to the green circle, until, tired of the scrutiny, Keira pulled her hand behind her back. "All of our spacecraft are powered by green kryptonite, so surely that would've caused havoc amongst Nor's men long before this."
"Not necessarily, Ching!" Kal's teeth worried at his bottom lip as they often did when he concentrated, then he shook his head slowly. He felt better, but was trying to keep his movements minimal. "As far as we can tell, no Kryptonian motherships have entered Earth's atmosphere — only shuttle craft, and they aren't fuelled by kryptonite. Besides, the hyper-drives are shielded to hold in the radiation." But one other matter did occur to Kal. "Is anyone else here feeling ill, or is it just supercharged Kryptonians who are affected?"
Everyone was quick to affirm that they felt fine.
"Good, so if it is the bracelet, then we can assume that it will only disable the bad guys!" Lois couldn't help but crow… just a tiny bit.
"We might as well put your theory to the test, Lois! Ching, take the bracelet and one of the guards and go outside, but be careful. We can't be sure about this and I don't want to lose either of you."
The First Lady's head snapped up. There was something wrong about that statement… something she'd learned long ago. "Wait a minute! That won't work! You told me that these wedding things could only be removed by the person who put them there… I remember because it made me feel like I'd been branded or something," Lois accused indignantly, fingering her own band. She'd become accustomed to wearing it and would, if she were honest, miss its presence if it were to suddenly disappear. Despite that fact, she'd never been able to completely rid herself of the knowledge that is was a symbol of a woman's possession by her husband.
"And that's true, Lois, as long as the marriage stands. But Nor is dead and the physical bond is broken; anyone can break the seal now… even Keira!"
"Amazing!" Lois shrugged, but it was evident that she was still unhappy about the whole symbolic issue and Kal felt that sometime in the near future his wife would reopen the touchy subject. He just hoped that she'd let it lie until he felt more able to deal with her arguments.
However, the truth of his statement was soon proved as Keira removed the showy object and, handling it with some revulsion, placed it on Ching's open palm. A feeling of well-being overtook her as, with that one gesture, she shed her long years of oppression. She was finally in control of her own destiny, at least until they found another husband to shackle her to. Keira couldn't quite believe her brother's assertion that she wouldn't be coerced into another marriage. So for the time being, she would take responsibility for her own actions, and Keira knew exactly where her responsibilities lay. Determinedly, she swung about and, before anyone could stop her, hurried outside.
"Keira!" Kal's plaintive cry followed swiftly on her heels, as did the Major.
Outside, the two soldiers were beginning to be alarmed. They had been ordered to watch the enemy who encircled the yard and to take anyone out who approached them. But that hadn't happened. The opposing soldiers were showing a great deal of caution, or, maybe, they were awaiting orders too. And then there were these pesky children… the troopers had deposited the infants on the wicker swing, almost as soon as Gaylen had left; they were fighting men, not nannies! Now, despite the sleeping draughts the children had been given, they were growing restive. What were soldiers meant to do with two weepy kids?
Sometime ago, Lord Rad-Nor had disappeared inside the house and then Lieutenant Gaylen, and nothing had been heard from them since. Neither of the troopers was rocket-scientists, but even they were able to deduce that something might be wrong. Just what that might be eluded them, after all; they were super-beings — surely nothing could harm them. The question was, what did they do now? After some moments of terse deliberation they'd agreed to contact Gaylen for instructions. The Lieutenant might chew them out for breaking the rules but he wouldn't harm them physically, unlike the Master. You didn't want to go against him, if you knew what was good for you.
Having come to a decision, the more superior of the two men-at-arms had tried to make the connection with his officer… only Gaylen wasn't responding. The problem was worsening. Did they dare make contact with Lord Rad-Nor? Or should they call on another officer back at the White House? They were busily debating the options when a figure appeared in the doorway.
Keira stepped out onto the porch and surveyed the two men who seemed to be having some form of animated discussion. "I've come for my children!" the Lady demanded imperiously. They clearly weren't expecting to see her, and realising she'd rattled the soldiers, she pushed home her slight advantage. "Please, give them to me!"
"I'm sorry, Milady," said the elder soldier, taking charge of the situation and moving to bar the Lady's way to the children. "But we can't do that! We were ordered, by the Master, that is, that we weren't to hand over these here children to no-one but himself… or the Lieutenant," he added as a helpful afterthought.
"But Nor is dead and Lieutenant Gaylen is indisposed!"
"Oh no, Ma'am, that can't be so!" stated the soldier again, with emphasis. "We've got superpowers, you see, and that means we can't be killed!"
"Then use these superpowers to see that I'm speaking the truth." Keira signalled with her eyes as she employed the tone of voice that a teacher might use to a backward pupil, while in the shadowy hallway behind her, she could sense Ching vigilantly waiting.
The Major's first thought had been to drag Lady Keira back inside and out of harm's way, until he could deal with these men, but he grudgingly admitted that she was handling the situation quite competently. And he was ready with the kryptonite, to step in if the situation turned nasty. One fact seemed to be emerging, Lady Lois had been correct in her assumption that it wasn't Keira herself who'd robbed Nor and Gaylen of their abilities. Kal had spoken truly… Lois' powers of deduction were awesome.
The soldiers concentrated, they hadn't become so adept at using all of these skills as some of the officers, yet slowly the wooden walls of the farmhouse peeled away, and the wallpaper and curtains… Oh, Zor's teeth! Lady Nor was right! Gaylen was lying over the top of the Master! Gaylen, mind you, was still breathing but the Master wasn't! He was as dead as you could get!
"He's dead!" the second trooper exclaimed.
"Yes, he is!" agreed their Lady. "Gaylen too is out of commission, which means, with no other able-bodied officer present, I'm now in charge!"
"Begging your pardon, Ma'am, but you don't know anything about soldiering and maybe, it'd be best if we just called for reinforcements. We've still got the enemy out there to deal with."
The Lady of Nor shook her head disapprovingly. "Oh, bad choice, troopers! Ching, I believe your services are required!" And she stepped adroitly aside to allow the Major to confront the troopers.
The following action would have been somewhat comical had the stakes not been so high. Two desperate gazes tried to change mode from x-ray to laser-vision but, by the time they'd achieved the desired effect, the kryptonite that Ching brandished had begun to do its work. The men shook their heads to rid themselves of the buzzing, sickly feelings that threatened to steal away their senses. But to give them their due, they weren't about to give up easily. Once more, they tried to hit the advancing enemy officer with a deadly bolt of fire from their eyes. Yesterday they'd been congratulating themselves that they'd hit most of their targets in the practice-range — the tall pillars that had held up the portico of the Capitol building — but now they couldn't find enough fire to light a candle. The more inventive trooper attempted to switch to freezing breath, as that had proved very effective in the past, but he could only manage a weak puff, and his breath seemed to be failing him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mate go down and, in a last-ditch effort, he clawed at his side for his weapon… but his hands found only an empty space. Who needed a gun when they had superpowers? Foolish idea, he thought, as all thought flickered into nothingness.
Ching heaved a relieved sigh, as he tossed the newest 'weapon' casually in the air then deposited it in his pocket. Best to keep that handy as it would very probably be needed again. Meanwhile, Keira had rushed to her twins and was depositing delirious kisses over their sleepy faces. The Major watched with more indulgence than he'd believed he possessed. It seemed, now that his marriage to Zara was becoming a more likely prospect, that he wasn't as uninterested in the topic of children as he'd been previously. Besides, these infants were very nearly his niece and nephew.
<Major Ching!> Kal's anxious thoughts interrupted. <What's going on?>
<Everything's fine! The soldiers have been dealt with and it seems the children haven't been harmed. They're with their mother.> Ching's smile was transmitted with his thoughts. <Oh, and you can tell Lady Lois that her theory's been proven. The kryptonite worked like a charm, and I'm sorry I ever doubted her!>
<You should've known better, Ching!> Kal chuckled along with his aide, then returned to business. <Major, call the men in and have them clear up this mess. Martha and Jonathan's house will have to be rebuilt later, but I don't want it left in this state. And get the shuttles here.> Kal smoothly changed to voice mode as his Major stuck his head around the parlour door. "We have to transport the prisoners… and the dead back to the battlecruiser. I need to know what's going on with the battle. I have to contact Dax-Ver…"
"No my Lord, you don't!" Lois butted in. "You don't have to do anything but get back to the sickbay and rest!"
"Don't get carried away with your own brilliance, my dear." Yet Kal's smile robbed the sting from his stricture. "Besides, isn't that 'the pot calling the kettle black'? You could do with some rest yourself."
Pushing himself feebly from the floor, Kal was grateful for both Lois' and the medic's support as they grabbed hold of his arms and aided him to stand. He only managed it halfway and stood like a half-shut knife while every nerve and muscle in his chest and stomach protested the action, while his legs reacted like some bendy-rubber toy.
"See, you're not fit for anything! You need to lie down." Lois' protest, however, sounded more anxious than cross.
"Hmm!" The medic cleared his throat apologetically. "I'd have to second Lady El's recommendation, Sire. It's only the influence of the medication that's keeping you upright and pretty soon that's going to wear off and you'll probably crash."
"I know! I know! And I'm not being a stubborn fool here. I'll do exactly what you tell me… only, first I have to talk to Dax. I have to find out what the status is with the Taureans and I'd be interested to know if he can spare us any kryptonite; the ships carry crystals for refuelling in case the hyper-drive system fails. We don't know where all these supercharged soldiers are and I'd rather have more than one piece when we confront them."
"But isn't that dangerous? You mentioned something about the drives being shielded because of radiation?" Lois' brow furrowed. She wasn't especially keen on science and technology but she hated to be out of the loop on anything.
"Well, this time I'm going to plead ignorance, Lois. Don't ask me to explain the technology behind it, but I do know that to make the thing work they bombard the kryptonite pellets with some kind of lasers and it becomes radioactive. Until then it's perfectly safe… unless you're super that is."
Kal's chin pointed in the direction of the fallen foe and it was only then he discovered that Lieutenant Gaylen had recovered some of his senses and was regarding him with a subdued, yet slightly calculating look. Clearly there was something on the man's mind, and as he caught Kal-El's eye, Gaylen decided to speak up.
"Perhaps I could help with the location of my troops," Gaylen offered with pragmatic submission. There wasn't much he could do without the superpowers and it seemed that for some strange reason they'd completely deserted him. Even if they returned, El's supporters too would acquire the same strengths and his army was totally outnumbered; they could never win in a contest of equals. Also, the malevolent driving force was dead.
Gaylen had followed his master because that was the way it always was. His family had been in military service with the House of Nor for centuries and had never once wavered in their loyalty. His ancestors had fought at the side of a Lord Nor in the civil-war of long ago and had been proud to do so — they'd believed that they served the legitimate royal house of Krypton. They had shared in the humiliating defeat and the long years of exile and had been happy when, finally, the House of Nor had been invited back into the fold and its Lord had retaken his rightful place in the High Council
It wasn't the place of a soldier to question the motives or actions of his liege lord, only to carry out his commands and, while Gaylen hadn't taken part in the wildest atrocities, he had obeyed orders. He'd allowed his conscience to become rather elastic in the heady enjoyment of his great powers, and now he realised he had a price to pay for his blind allegiance to an insane master. For Rad- Nor had been insane… Gaylen had known that all along, even if he'd chosen not to recognise the fact.
"I could talk to my soldiers… maybe even get them to surrender without a fight." Again Gaylen placed himself at this First Lord's disposal. Kal-El was the victor and mayhap he was the true and rightful ruler. Grudgingly, the Lieutenant admitted that he did seem more fitted for the role.
Kal's eyes narrowed in concentration. Could he trust this man who had so wilfully followed an evil entity? Even though Kal had once told Lois that no-one was a slave on Krypton, he understood that his world's historic traditions yielded little scope for someone to break out of his respective position in life. There was much that needed reforming on Krypton, but for now he'd settle for sorting out the problems that his people had brought to Earth. And he could keep close watch on Gaylen; be prepared to curtail his activities if he broke his word. Leaning more heavily on his wife and attendant than he would like, Kal tried to straighten his spine to walk the few feet to confront the Lieutenant.
"You do know that I couldn't give you immunity from prosecution… but I can promise that you won't end up as floating molecules in a containment chamber. But for taking part in the unprovoked invasion; for the crimes you perpetrated on the people of Earth, you will stand trial… here, on this world, and you will be subject to whatever penalty they decree. However, if you help us end this conflict, I will ask their leaders to show you some consideration." And as Gaylen remained silent, Kal spoke again. "That's my final offer, the rest is up to you." The Lieutenant's massive shoulders sunk even lower and his head dropped forward, but his voice was clear. "I will do your bidding, First Lord!"
"Good! Then perhaps we can end this without the all-out war I feared!" Kal felt his energy and his focus begin to slip. The 'crash' that his medic had predicted was very near. "Ching, take charge here — liaise with Bert Johnstone as to the deployment of the Earth troops." Kal couldn't repress a grimace; he really was beginning to hurt again. "You know what needs to be done, Ching, and you have my full authority." In an aside to Lois, Kal admitted with a penitent smile. "You were right, of course — I doubt I can keep upright for very much longer. Let's go fetch the President and Martha and Jonathan and get back to the ship. They must be wondering what's been happening in here."
Actually, that wasn't quite true. The three occupants of the barn had crept nervously into the yard after witnessing the collapse of the two enemy troopers and had been sharing in the joy of Keira's reuniting with her twins. Between hugging and kissing her babies, Keira had managed to relate most of the important details. The soldiers, too, were beginning to venture from their positions in increasing numbers as Ching's thought commands reached them. There was still a chance that some more of Nor's army might show up to discover their commander's fate but, hopefully, they would have no reason to doubt Nor's supremacy and would simply await his return. However, it didn't pay to be incautious and these crack troops, a coalition of Earth and Krypton's finest, went about their subsequent duties with a watchful eye on the horizon.
Within good time, a shuttle landed in the yard to carry the First Lord, his family and friends back to the safety of his spacecraft. Once there, they were informed that the Taurean fleet had suffered severe casualties and the remnants were fleeing into deep space. A small squadron of Kryptonian fighter-craft had been sent after them to make sure they didn't return.
This craven rout had left much of the Taurean forces stranded on Earth without a support system and, although it was ingrained in their foot-soldiers' psyche to fight to the bitter end, it was felt that before too long the allied army would prevail.
A special task force with Major Ching at its head and with Johnstone to advise, escorted Gaylen, who'd been tagged with a sliver of kryptonite, to seek out and negotiate a surrender with all the remaining 'supermen'. Hopefully, in this too, the coalition of Earth and Krypton would be successful. And if all else failed, they held the trump- card — the green, green glow of home.
That night, while Lois sat watching over her sleeping husband and child, she deliberated over all that had happened to her since she'd left this world. She'd been an overeager and impetuous green-girl, thinking she was embarking on an exciting and crusading adventure to change an ancient civilisation. Only now she realised that it takes time to change a world, perhaps even a lifetime… or more. But it had been an adventure. One that had brought her as much sadness and soul-searching as it had brought her happiness.
Yet looking on the dear face of Kal, as he slept in his revitalising cocoon, and on the ever precious baby in the crib by his bed, she realised that wasn't exactly true — the good far outweighed the bad. She had been blessed by a great love and, regardless of what the future would bring to them, she would never regret the decision that had carried her to the other side of the galaxy and back again.
She looked forward to renewing the acquaintances of old and new friends. Even more, she happily anticipated the chance to rebuild the relationship with her family… something Lois would never have believed a few years ago. Well, her mother would certainly be pleased; her eldest daughter had married into royalty… that was something to crow about at the bridge club — provided, of course, she could overlook the fact that her son-in-law was an alien.
Lois smiled into the darkness. The room was lit softly so as not to disturb the patient — her dearest, dearest alien! Lois' hand reached to stroke the glass face of the healing-chamber, but instead it encountered the warm flesh of an outstretched hand. The surface had vanished at the first signs of Kal's waking.
"Hi, sweetheart," came Kal's soft salute.
"How's the baby?"
"She's lovely!" Lois found herself grinning uncontrollably, while tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. "She's been fed, burped and diapered and is fast asleep. She's such a considerate little soul, allowing her mommy and daddy to share some quality time together."
Kal twisted his head to see his daughter. "She is beautiful… a lot like her mother," he whispered, but whether this was due to not wanting to disturb the baby or because he was still weak, Lois couldn't really tell. Thankfully she'd had Physician Tamar's reassurance that Kal was well on the way to recovery. "You know, she still doesn't have a name," he said with some remorse.
"I know, but I have a name in mind. I was just waiting to see if you approved." Lois straightened in her seat and regarded him with eyes wide open. "I'd like to call her Marta, after Martha who helped to bring her into the world."
"Lois that's perfect. Marta-El… I like that!" For long moments both parents stared at their child with silly, sentimental smiles on both their faces. The tiny child, as if aware of their scrutiny, stretched out its arms and legs, but feeling loved and secure, Marta soon settled back into sleep. Satisfied that his daughter was well, Kal allowed his attention to stray to other matters. "By the way, how are our visitors doing?"
This too made Lois smile. "I think they might be feeling a little overawed… well, Jonathan anyway. Martha seems to be the indomitable type; she's taking the idea of space travel well in stride. And President West is already talking about an alliance with Krypton."
"It seems we've a busy time ahead of us here on Earth, rebuilding all that was destroyed and trying to make amends to the people… to convince them that we're not all evil aliens out to gain world domination."
"Yes…" Lois' smile turned misty.
"What's wrong, sweetheart?" Kal's hand reached to cup Lois' cheek in his familiar way.
"Nothing… It's just that I miss home."
"Lois, this is your home!"
A little forlornly, Lois shook her head. "No, not anymore. Oh, I'm not saying I won't enjoy visiting… and I'm looking forward to seeing my family and friends again. But my place is on Krypton… with you." Lois leaned closer and took both his hands into her own. "Right now, I think I'd like for us to take Marta and be in Schie-Ellion."
When had the metamorphosis occurred; when had the slick, city-loving girl given way to the woman who found contentment in a mountain stronghold? Lois understood that the feeling wouldn't last, that very soon she'd feel the almost compulsive desire to return to the fast pace and intrigue of Krypton's political cauldron. But for now, she just wanted to enjoy some tender loving care in the company of those she loved.
"It'll be winter in the mountains…"
Kal's voice tailed off as his thoughts carried him to a land far away — a land of sparkling, snow filled passages and ice-covered lakes, of tall fir trees straining towards a clear sky, their branches touching the ground under their mantle of white.
And soon Lois' thoughts joined him on the journey. Together their minds traversed the vast vista of space to visit the mountainous land which had become their refuge… the place where they'd discovered the beauty of physical love; where they'd forged an unexpected friendship with a young Kryptonian woman, only to have it snatched cruelly away, later, on a different mountainside and where Lois had encountered her first unicorn. It had been on that mystical day when they'd gone to meet Kal's gypsy grandmother, and had promised never to be parted, a promise which had been forgotten.
Yet, they had found each other again, and their love had grown stronger through its passage of fire. Lois laid her head next to Kal's on the pillow and both drifted into sleep. In dreams they returned to Krypton, a world of great strengths and even greater weaknesses. A world waiting to be reshaped by the dedication and aspirations of these two young people; where one day in the far future, the lives of this First Lord and his Lady would be told in legend.
The great hall in the castle at Elvar was filled to capacity. Every lord and lady and personage of rank had gathered to witness the ceremonial welcome of the delegation from Earth. A year had passed since Kal and his troops had delivered Earth from the evil yoke of Rad-Nor and the Taureans. A year in which to start repairing the physical and structural damage done to Earth, and to build political and social bridges.
There had been a very public, but very necessary, trial of the 'super' warriors who'd terrorised the people of Earth — at least, the ones who'd allowed themselves to be persuaded by Gaylen to surrender. Some had chosen to fight, preferring not to believe in the Lieutenant's warning that they could be robbed of their invulnerability, and most of these had died. But perhaps that had been their true choice, preferring death to long-term imprisonment.
Gaylen and his cohorts were now locked up on a penal planet, the Earthlings being quite happy to leave the responsibility for these terrorists' continued incarceration to the 'friendly' Kryptonians. In truth, the Earthlings weren't too comfortable to allow any Kryptonians to remain on their planet. Clearly, they were fearful that beings with superpowers were too hard to control and they were extremely sceptical of the idea that a 'superman' might wish only to do good. Neither Kal nor Lois could blame them, given the examples to which they'd been subjected.
Very slowly, the people of Earth had come to accept that, in some cases, the use of such powers was highly advantageous when rebuilding the superstructure of their world. The fact that Kal had voluntarily handed over kryptonite, the one thing that could combat the powers, to President West and the United Nations had gone a long way to reassuring the populous that they had nothing to fear from the remaining Kryptonians. Indeed, there were many avenues of life on Earth that would benefit from interaction with these technological wizards.
The Federation of Planets, encouraged by its founder- member, had also offered closer ties with this young planet — not yet a fully equal membership, but a definite affiliation.
Thus it was, on this momentous day, that the royal couple with their family and High Council waited on the dias for the ambassador and his delegation to enter. The spacecraft had actually arrived late the night before and Lois and Kal had already met up with the Lanes, who'd been invited to visit. Kal had insisted that Lois should have the opportunity to show her family her new home, and to introduce Marta to her maternal grandparents.
There had been an especially warm welcome for Martha and Jonathan Kent. It had delighted Lois and Kal when Martha had agreed to their request to come and take charge of Lady Marta-El. Both parents were anxious that the little girl be brought up under the influence of both sides of her genetic heritage and they could think of no better example than this kind and loving couple. Of course, it was understood that the Kents might one day wish to return to their home, but the baby's informative years would be spent in the tender care of Martha and Jonathan.
The royal household had made some other adjustments over the past year, besides establishing a nursery. Lara and Jor had been over the moon to welcome their oldest daughter back into the shelter of their family and they were thrilled that they now had three grandchildren to love and spoil. Sadly, though, Keira's reunion hadn't been totally without difficulty. Her family had tried very hard to understand her dark moods and bitter thoughts, and to make allowances, but Keira had remained unapproachable and often accusatory. Finally, at Keira's request, a small residence had been procured for her and she had taken her children and moved out of Ro-Ellion. Since then, a truce had developed between parents and daughter, allowing a warmer relationship to develop, if somewhat slowly.
Lois, surprisingly, found that a reluctant friendship was growing between herself and Keira, forged perhaps during their traumatic crashlanding on Earth. The tragedy was that the young dowager Lady of Nor was not prepared to allow Kal into the small circle of those she was beginning to trust. It seemed that Keira was extremely suspicious of authority and those feelings suffused all her dealings with her brother. Yet, Kal refused to give up. In his estimation, Keira had been wounded beyond measure, but with patience and undemanding care, Kal hoped to restore the close companionship they had once shared.
But if Kal's relationship with his elder sister was troubled, this was certainly not the case with his younger one. Zara held Kal in high esteem. In fact, Zara was regarding the whole world through rose-coloured spectacles. Her hero had come home to her. And Ching was indeed a hero. Major Ching had saved the life of the First Lord and Lady and had killed the traitor Nor — with some assistance from Keira, but that information wasn't widely known. It was what Keira herself had wanted. Later, Ching had taken charge of rounding up and disabling Nor's supercharged troops, and the High Council had recognised his bravery and proficiency by awarding the Major their highest honour — raising him to the peerage. The populace had been thrilled at the elevation of one of their own. Since then, Krypton's newest Lord had been courting the youngest daughter of the House of El and everyone was confident that soon a betrothal would be announced. And, if anyone suspected that the liaison was of longer-standing, they did not cavil — such was Lord Ching's popularity with both the nobility and the common man.
Certainly, Ching and Zara stood as a couple on the crowded platform behind the First Lord and Lady, waiting to welcome the respected guests. Even Keira had chosen to attend the ceremony. She'd spent only a short time on Earth but she'd been intrigued by what she'd learnt of the role of women on that far planet. Clearly, the one Earth woman she knew well considered herself the equal of any man, and Keira was interested to study more examples of a race who seemed to believe in equality of the sexes.
The heat and noise in the crowded hall built apace with its occupants' curiosity. But, at last, the moment arrived when the great doors at the end of the hall were thrown open and the Earthlings strode into the room. The official visitors were very conscious that they were the centre of everyone's conjecture, but they'd been warned that they were coming to a very ceremonial and stylised civilisation and were prepared for surprises. The ambassador himself had been at the Court of St. James — the official title of the royal court of Great Britain — and didn't feel in anyway overawed. It seemed that royalty was very similar no matter which world it hailed from.
He and his delegation marched with immaculate pomp and circumstance between the serried ranks of the courtiers until they reached the dias, bowing, as was the custom, to their royal hosts. Greetings were exchanged and the formal introductions began, each member of the delegation being welcomed personally by the First Couple, then being escorted aside by a Lord of the Council who would be their particular guide and sponsor on this alien world.
The ambassador was congratulating himself on the success of the ceremony and was looking forward to the less formal luncheon which was to follow, when he noticed an almost imperceptible change in the demeanour of the couple seated on the thrones. Surreptitiously, he looked behind him to see if he could discover the cause. The man waiting in line was the Consul for Trade. There had been a slight problem with the appointment of that particular delegate, but surely that couldn't be the cause of the cooling of the atmosphere.
The ambassador bowed a little lower than normal and began his speech. "Lord and Lady El, may I introduce the Consul for Trade, Mr Lex Luthor. I'm afraid his name doesn't appear on our earlier list, but the appointed delegate was sadly and very suddenly taken ill just before we embarked on our journey." The elderly statesman was watching closely to see how his words were being received. It appeared that the First Lady had pulled herself a little under control, though she was still a trifle pale, but the First Lord was looking decidedly frosty and a muscle jerked in his jaw. Whatever could have caused such a reaction? Surely, there could be no objection to Mr Luthor? However, it was his job to smooth over any diplomatic cracks that might appear and to that end he continued. "We were very fortunate to have the eminent Mr Luthor step into the breach. Mr Luthor is a well-respected, competent and honourable entrepreneur on Earth and will, I'm sure, be a great asset to any future business dealings between our two worlds."
The greetings droned on around the little tableau and only the very attentive noticed the intrusion of tension. Lex Luthor, the man who would have raped Lois had it not been for Kal's timely intervention, was standing before them, smiling expansively. Lois felt Kal's hand grip her own tightly and took comfort from his touch. Only they knew that Lex Luthor was not honourable, though he was well- respected and certainly competent. And he was here on Krypton and, no doubt, ready to make whatever mischief he chose. The man was a consummate rogue and an accomplished actor to boot. Lex bowed with a charming flourish and, rising, he didn't wait to be addressed as protocol demanded — such things were for lesser mortals. Instead, he pitched his voice just loud enough for those nearest him on the dias to hear.
"Mr Ambassador, I thank you for your glowing testimonial and let me assure the government of Krypton that I hope my presence here will be to both our worlds' advantage. But the introductions were quite unnecessary. Lady Lois and I are old friends, and I've even met the First Lord… very briefly; he didn't have time to talk. Dear, Lady Lois, so nice to meet you again… and you my Lord," he added almost as an afterthought, though he never removed his eyes from the Lady. "May I say you're looking exceedingly fine, my Lady, and I'm so looking forward to renewing our acquaintance… with both of you, of course."
… or to be continued in book 4