By Pam Jernigan <email@example.com>
Submitted: December, 2001
Summary: In this Elseworlds story, Lieutenant L.J. Lane of the U.S. Army goes undercover at the Metro Club and meets Kal, an amazingly handsome and charming stranger, who turns out to be much more than she expected.
This is another Elseworlds, no doubt about it… it was inspired by a dream, which probably was influenced by one of my favorite books. I just have too much fun playing with universes <g> Our favorite heroes' backstories have changed quite a bit from the norm … but be patient, all will be revealed in time. I've chosen a starting point that will seem familiar — the Metro Club, from the episode "I've Got a Crush On You" — but then I take a hard left into new territory. I've tried to stay fairly close to the relevant events … but if I take a few liberties here and there … well, it is an elseworld ;)
I owe a lot to my beta-readers, Claire Hess, Wendy Richards, Irene Dutch, Jo March, Missy Gallant, and Chris Mulder. Erin Klingler went above and beyond GE duty to help me clean this up for the archive. Thanks also to my husband, Kelley, who responded to bizarre plot questions with very good answers. Last but not least, a big thank you to all the readers who followed along with this on Zoomway's message boards; your comments amused, inspired, and kept me on the right track.
Lois Lane marched into the small family-style restaurant and surveyed the room. The lunch hour had not yet arrived, and the place was nearly deserted. Which made it easier for her to spot her target. The manager took one look at her crisp uniform and faded into the kitchen. She strode across the room to confront the rail-thin man eagerly devouring a plate-full of food. "Bobby Bigmouth?"
He glanced up, his fork suspended in midair. "Who wants to know?"
"I am Lieutenant L.J. Lane, US Army Intelligence," she announced, wondering which of two predictable come-backs this would elicit. Usually they either snorted at the perceived oxymoron, or—
"Lane, huh?" he replied, arching a speculative eyebrow. "First initial L? It's not Lois is it, like in the Superman comics?"
He had been quick to pick up on that; good, that meant he was somewhat intelligent. "I'm afraid I don't read comics," she replied dampeningly. "I'm here today to ask you what you know about a local fire hazard called the Toasters."
West River had erupted into flames in the past few days; several properties had burned down, injuring several people, including one off-duty corporal. The fire chief wasn't commenting, but rumor had it that the arson was gang-related. The brass at Fort Truman had no desire for the fires to spread to nearby army property, or to affect any more personnel. Or at least, that was the official story. Unofficially, her colonel had hinted to her that the origin of the Toaster's technology was troubling; it bore some resemblance to military designs currently in production at LexCorp. If this technology had been leaked, they wanted to know how and by whom. Hence, a military investigation, but very low-key. Lois had no real jurisdiction, but she had no intention of letting the informant know that.
Bobby's face took on a cunning expression as he dipped his fork again for another bite and proceeded to talk around it. "I see my reputation precedes me — so you gotta know, I don't give this stuff away for free." He looked around, rapid calculation in his eyes. "I mean, this place is okay, but what I could really go for is—"
Lois was in no mood to make concessions. Leaning forward, she grabbed his plate and spun it towards the other end of the table. Grabbing his lapels next, she pulled him forward. "I want to know what you know. And if you don't tell me, let's just say you'll spend the next month eating through a straw." She projected as much menace as she could muster, feigning an anger she didn't feel. She needed this information, and all indications were that this lowlife had the answers; threats seemed the most direct method of obtaining them.
His eyes widened as he stared at her. For a long moment he hesitated, and she wondered if he was thinking of calling her bluff. Then he sagged, and raised his hands in a universal gesture of surrender. "Okay, already, I give." Abruptly, she released him, letting him fall back into his seat.
He fussed with his clothing, trying to regain whatever dignity he could muster, and she waited patiently. He glanced up, a spark of resentment in his eyes, and commented, "You know, I love my country, but that was a bit much."
"Yeah, well, I'd feel guilty about it if I thought you ever paid your taxes."
Bobby put on a deeply wounded look and opened his mouth, but Lois spoke first. "Never mind, never mind. That was insensitive of me." She smiled briefly and insincerely. "Now, what do you know about the fires?"
"We're entering the target solar system, m'Lord Ching," Sev reported. "We should make planet-fall in approximately twelve more hours."
"Very good," Lieutenant Ching replied, tired of correcting Sev's inaccurate use of the honorific. New Krypton was such a class-conscious society, especially in the lower orders, that some of the enlisted men tended to call all of their commanding officers Lords. As soon as a real Lord took command of the ship, they could transfer their blind worship to him. Ching would not miss it; being mistaken for higher rank only served to remind him of what he could not have.
Zak, the young tactical officer, looked up from his console. "What's Earth like, sir?"
"I've only been there once, Zak," Ching replied, not unkindly. "Haven't you read the reports?"
Zak blushed. "Um, I've been — well, no, sir, I haven't."
"Well, there's a little time left," Ching allowed. "Look, this is a peaceful system — you're relieved of bridge duty; go back to your quarters and study up before we get there." He supposed the boy had been busy with the universal pastime of young men everywhere … day dreaming about women. Ching could hardly blame him; it had been a long time since they'd left home, and although their previous mission was nearly over, new orders had just arrived, to make this pick-up and deliver a sealed message. There was no telling when they would return to New Krypton.
"I've read the reports," Sev mentioned, glancing slyly at his crewmate. "It's a nice, ripe little world, Earth is. All sorts of amenities. They're kryptonoid there, so we'll blend right in with the natives."
"Sev!" Ching spoke sharply, wanting to nip this thought pattern in the bud. "This will not be shore leave. We are going to make one short stop, to retrieve our local agent. At that point, he will be in command, and since he's been marooned there for three years, I expect he'll be in a hurry to leave." Depending on the contents of the message, of course, but the packet had been marked urgent, so haste was likely whether their destination turned out to be New Krypton or elsewhere. "Besides, the people of this planet have no idea there are other occupied worlds in the universe; until the Lords of New Krypton decide to reveal themselves, we *will* keep our existence a secret. Is that understood?" Ching fixed Sev with a severe glare until the helmsman's smile wilted.
"Yes, sir," he mumbled, then reluctantly added, "M'Lord."
"Good. I will take the helm for the next duty cycle. You are both relieved until the next cycle." The two younger Kryptonians saluted smartly and filed off the bridge, leaving Ching to the solitude of the stars. He leaned back in the captain's chair, taking a deep breath. He had known this part of the mission would be unpleasant, but duty was duty. He would need the next few hours to gather his composure; he would need all his control to once again face the man who would one day marry the woman Ching loved.
First Lieutenant L.J. Lane entered the bar with an appearance of bravado she did not entirely feel. She touched the neckline of her skimpy dress, feeling naked not only at the change from her usual uniform, but also because she had left her pistol behind. She hated feeling vulnerable, but she would be outnumbered and outgunned regardless, so subterfuge was her best chance. She forced herself to relax. Bobby's information had pointed her to the Metro Club, but a change of tactics had seemed appropriate. She knew she looked good in the outfit; if she could sing and dance to the manager's satisfaction as well, she would be in.
She looked around the dimly lit bar and spotted a lone bartender polishing glasses. Attempting a sultry walk, she approached him. "Hey, there."
He looked up, briefly glancing at her face before his gaze drifted lower. "What can I help you with?"
She took a deep breath to calm herself, then immediately regretted it as the movement only called attention to her cleavage. 'Work with it, Lane,' she ordered herself. She smiled. "I was wondering if the club had any openings for a singer?"
The bartender looked up again. "Maybe. Talk to Johnny over there."
"Thanks. See you around."
Slowly, deliberately, she swung around on one heel and walked towards the man the bartender had indicated, who was sitting near the side of the stage. "Hello," she called out as she spotted the manager. "My name is Lola, Lola Dane, and I'm here to be your new singer."
He lifted his head to meet her gaze, then let his eyes wander freely. Lois waited, feigning boredom. Johnny Taylor — owner of the Metro Club, and quite likely, the head of the Metro Gang — smiled. "We've already got a singer, hot cakes, but we could use legs like yours in the chorus."
Lois shrugged as nonchalantly as she could. She was in.
Kal Lewis slouched back in his chair, contemplating his sterile apartment. It was small, and its West River location couldn't be called good, but it had served his purposes for the past three years. He vaguely regretted, now, that he'd never fixed it up — with the powers this world's yellow sun had bestowed upon him, it would not have been difficult — but in the end it made no difference.
He had thought he would want to spend tonight at a party, making the most of his last night on Earth. Now that the moment was upon him, he was suffused with melancholy instead. Only a football game on television kept him company. It wasn't as if he had any true friends, he admitted, not here. There were various friendly acquaintances, of both genders, but he'd never allowed himself to be close to any of them. None of them knew of his alien origin. So none of them would understand that he was going back home.
He had no strong desire to return to New Krypton, but there was no reason to stay. He'd served his three-year tour, living unobtrusively among the humans, learning their cultures, and now it was time to report back. After the isolation of old Krypton, the new colony had a much more proactive approach to interstellar relations — they wanted to know their neighbors, whether openly or through stealthy observation. The physical similarities between Kryptonians and humans had made this one of the easier posts available — some observers were stuck on a small satellite for years at a time, watching a pre-spaceflight world. Kal had been able to blend in. That similarity was the reason he'd given in requesting this assignment. He didn't think the Council would understand the way he'd felt drawn to it from his first glimpse.
Adjusting to Earth's culture had been a shock at first, but once he'd gotten used to it, he'd decided that he liked this world. It was chaotic and over-emotional, true, but the abundant natural resources had granted humans luxuries that New Kryptonians professed not to want. And in the constant din and clatter of Metropolis, the restlessness that had gnawed at Kal ever since he could remember had been easier to bear … though it had not vanished. Perhaps it was just as well that he would be going home. It was time to grow up and stop longing for something he didn't have, and couldn't even name. He had responsibilities to his world, and it was time to stop running away from them.
The transport ship would arrive tonight or tomorrow morning, and his officers would contact him telepathically. He'd already made all the preparations necessary for their landing. The journey home would be short and uneventful, and Zara would be waiting for him. Their wedding would probably follow in short order, assuming she hadn't found a better candidate in his absence. He held out little hope of that; the selection of eligible nobles was, like everything else on New Krypton, limited.
His musings were interrupted by a special bulletin interrupting the game. He frowned as the reporter told of yet another fire, this time only a block away, at the West River Garment Company. A worker was trapped in the burning building, and the local fire fighters lacked the equipment to safely retrieve him.
Kal usually let humans deal with their own problems — the Council had been very strict about him not revealing his presence in any way — but this was happening right in his own neighborhood. He couldn't ignore this. There had to be something he could do.
Moving quickly through back streets, he arrived at the scene of the fire in less than a minute. Using his enhanced vision, he scanned the area. It had been quite startling to him when these abilities had begun manifesting themselves shortly after his arrival on Earth. Nothing in his mission briefing had prepared him for this, but his military training had given him the tools necessary to painstakingly discover the various fantastic things he could now do. Many hours of surreptitious practice had let him master his new skills. And he might need a few of them today, he realized. The trapped man was on the uppermost floor, and the nearest stairwell was blocked by both flames and debris. Kal could probably lead him safely to the roof, but he wasn't sure that would help anything — the fire department still didn't have long enough ladders, and the building was beginning to collapse internally as walls and floors burned. The worker was going to have to jump — with a little invisible help.
Kal slipped around the corner, past an unmanned barricade, searching for an unobserved entrance. He found an emergency exit door propped open, and with a last cautious glance around he slipped into the building.
The air was thick with smoke, and Kal could feel the heat. He worried, for a moment, that his clothing would catch fire, but his T-shirt and jeans both fit rather snugly, so they might be protected. Using all his senses to navigate, he plunged into the gloom, locating a back stairwell that seemed clear, apart from smoke — too bad he wouldn't be able to bring the worker back this way, but the fumes would probably kill him. As he reached the top floor, he wondered why the local firemen hadn't tried this route — until he opened the stairwell door.
A wall of flames roared towards him, bringing heat, light, and crashing noise. He ducked, for a moment overcome by the memory of a childhood accident, feeling once more the sting and the throb of that long-ago burn. He shook himself out of it. In this time and place, he was invulnerable, and someone needed him. Determined, he moved forward again, unharmed. This level was burning merrily, producing a deafening cacophony of roars and hisses. As he crossed the first room, a half-heard groaning sounded, and before he could pinpoint the source, the floor beneath him collapsed. He fell halfway to the next level before his addled brain remembered that he could fly. Careful to avoid dislodging any more of the structure, he floated up again on his own power.
Half walking, half flying, he passed through the worst of the blaze to reach the relatively cool front of the building. The worker was sitting slumped by an open window, his breathing noisy — he had passed out from smoke inhalation, most likely. Kal felt almost guilty with relief; this rescue would be easier if he didn't need worry about being seen or recognized. There was no time to waste.
After a quick scan to verify that there were no broken bones, Kal scooped the man up and headed for the nearby stairs — the stairwell was acting as a chimney to draw smoke upwards, but Kal moved so quickly his passenger had no time for more than a breath or two before they emerged onto the roof with its relatively clear air. A quick glance verified his bearings, and Kal carried his burden to the edge of the roof and walked along it until he was above the deserted alley he'd found earlier. Gripping his passenger securely, Kal stepped off the building. They descended as rapidly as he dared, slowing only at the last moment. The worker began to cough as Kal laid him down across from the partly-open door. Then he walked, at fast but human speed, around to the front of the building. "Help! Some guy just staggered out of the building and collapsed!"
Several firefighters followed him and began attending to the worker, who was coughing more by now. Kal faded into the crowd, hiding a satisfied smirk. It had felt surprisingly good to be able to help — he ought to do it more often.
His elation faded as he remembered that he wouldn't have the chance.
"When you're not on stage, you'll be serving drinks," Tanya informed Lois. "If you hold your tray like this," she demonstrated, bracing one edge against her black-clad hip, "you'll always have a free hand for defense." At Lois's inquiring look, she grimaced. "Eyes aren't the only thing that wander around here." Tanya illustrated her 'defense' move with an alarming amount of enthusiasm.
Lois faked a smile. Lovely. Not only was she wearing a skimpy black body-suit, accessorized with a choker-like bow-tie, but she would be fending off groping hands all night. Well, at least she would blend in. Across the room, she noticed several men heading through an interior door.
Tanya followed her gaze and exclaimed, "Oh, my — I'd better get in there with something to wet their whistles, or I'll be back at the truck stop, slinging hash!"
Lois made a grab for the tray. "Oh, let me. I could use the practice."
Tanya smiled tightly, refusing to let go. "They tip big."
It was on the tip of Lois's tongue to offer a twenty for the opportunity, but reluctantly, she released the tray instead, letting Tanya go about her business. Lois wanted in on that meeting, but not badly enough to risk raising suspicions. Still, there was more than one way to skin a cat.
A little skulking around in the back-stage warrens led her to a storage closet. Shelves full of spare dishes lined the wall that she hoped backed onto the meeting room. Lois got her ear as close to the wall as she could, and concentrated on listening.
The voices were indistinct at first, but then became louder as they were raised in anger. Johnny Taylor claimed that he would take care of the fires. Lois's eyebrows shot up at this — maybe the Metro Gang wasn't behind this wave of arson, after all. A woman's voice cut in at that point, demanding to know *how* Johnny planned to take care of the fires. He angrily told her not to talk in meetings, and Lois wondered who this woman was, and why she was there in the first place. "Pop would be the first one to tell you to get married and have babies," Johnny sneered, answering that question — this must be his sister Toni. Lois felt a moment of sisterly solidarity with her. It wasn't easy for a woman to make a mark on a man's world; and she supposed that organized crime was about as male a world as any, even more so than the military.
A sudden commotion in the next room caught her attention, and then a bullet whizzed over her head. Startled, she dropped flat on the floor as two more shots exploded. Through faintly ringing ears, she heard Toni sneer, "Just what we need. A cool head in charge."
That seemed to bring the meeting to an abrupt end. After a few moments, Lois cautiously picked herself up and inspected the wall. The bullet holes were perfectly placed for a view into the adjoining room. Looking around the room, she found some large metal bowls, which she stacked neatly in front of the newly created peepholes. No sense advertising their presence.
She wasn't entirely happy with her progress — so far, all she'd gathered was negative data: The Metros were *not* coordinating the fires. But considering their status in West River, and the protection racket they ran, they would undoubtedly be putting a lot of effort into discovering the arsonist. And there was also the possibility that someone was using these fires as a form of pressure against Johnny, for whatever reason — the culprit could even be one of Johnny's staff, anxious for a promotion. So this was still a good place to be.
Well, if she wanted to remain here, she'd better get back to work. She checked for dirt smears from her dive to the floor and wiped off a few patches of dust. Satisfied that she was presentable, she quietly slipped out of the storage room.
Kal let himself back into his apartment and realized that he reeked of smoke. He stripped on his way to the bathroom and took a long hot shower, pondering his options for the evening. The football game was nearly over, and while he might be able to find another one, he was too restless to stay in tonight. He'd already packed the few things that he would be taking with him; all that was left was the waiting. He supposed he'd better get himself a good dinner somewhere, and then find some entertainment. He felt more at loose ends than usual, and it reminded him of how lost he'd felt when he'd first arrived.
He had chosen this apartment more or less at random, taking advantage of the area's lower rents. The Council had supplied him with a handful of Kryptonian crystals which closely resembled Earth gems; once he had figured out how best to exchange them for cash he'd not needed to save money on rent anymore. By then, however, he had discovered that the neighborhood suited him. People had learned not to ask too many questions here — they minded their own business and expected him to mind his. He'd kept his head down, made some useful acquaintances and settled down to the serious business of attempting to understand an entire culture in three short years. Kal smiled, thinking of some of the more pleasant lessons he'd learned. Very well then, he could end his tenure where he'd begun it — at the Metro Club.
"A chicken outfit. I can't believe it." Lois stared at the getup in dismay, but business was business and orders were orders, so, grumbling, she began changing. The evening had finally arrived, and at least the bright yellow body suit, amply supplied with feathers, was a change from the waitress get-up.
"Honey, it could be worse," one of the other chorus girls replied in good humor. "At least it's a job in show business. Hi, I'm Brenda."
Lois smiled, offering the black woman a handshake. "Hi Brenda, I'm Lola. And don't get me wrong, I'm happy to have the job … but it's a pretty far cry from a hit musical."
Brenda snorted. "You ain't kidding. But it's a step, see. You get experience here, it can lead you to other things—"
"Don't believe it," an older, blonde woman interrupted while skillfully applying make-up to conceal the lines of age and disappointment on her face. "Brenda's been saying that for months, but she's still here."
The younger woman frowned. "Hey, Francine, at least I have a plan. And it doesn't involve sleeping my way to the top."
Francine snorted. "That must be why you're still on the bottom."
Brenda rolled her eyes and turned back towards Lois. "Like she's got a career we should envy. Never mind. My main point is, it's not so bad working here. And it could lead to better things — you never know." On that incontrovertible point, she cast a smug look at Francine and walked out of the shared dressing room, her head held high.
Lois watched her go, then turned her attention to the other dancer. "So, um … hello, Francine."
"Hello, Lola," Francine replied, still concentrating on her make-up. "Welcome to show business. Did you audition?"
"Actually, Johnny just said he liked my legs," Lois admitted, somewhat uncomfortably. "Does he always do that?"
"You mean hire dancers without knowing whether they can dance?" Francine sighed. "Yeah, that's Johnny all over. It'd ruin him, but he does have a good eye. So, do you dance?"
"I've done some dancing, yeah." Okay, so it was mainly in her high school musical and in base skits, but she knew she was in good shape; she was dedicated to keeping up her martial arts training. "I was kind of hoping to get a gig singing, though," she admitted. "I'm better at that."
"Well, we'll whip you into shape this afternoon — in between making us wait tables they do give us a little time to rehearse. Assuming Melanie ever gets here, that is."
"Our fourth dancer," Francine explained, putting the finishing touches on her costume. "She just started two weeks ago, and she's always late. If Johnny weren't trying to get in her pants, she'd have been fired a week ago. He'll fire her pretty soon anyway, whether he sleeps with her or not."
"But that's sexual harassment," Lois protested.
Francine snorted. "Nope, that's life. At least in this part of town." She stood and moved towards the door. "If you'll excuse me, I've got to check something." Without waiting for a reply, she left.
Alone, Lois blinked at the unexpected undercurrents. Not that any of this back-stage wrangling was likely to be connected to the fires. Making her way in the Army had been difficult, but nothing like this. Never mind, she told herself. This wasn't getting her anywhere. She firmly directed her attention back to figuring out the chicken costume. This case was important to the base commander, and if she was able to crack the case for the local police, it would certainly help her career. There were a number of things she would refuse to do for her job, but singing and dancing in a chicken costume, while undignified, was not one of them.
Kal entered the Metro Club with a faint smile. He'd spent quite a few evenings in this plushly-decorated club, and realized that he would miss the company here. He spotted Toni Taylor across the room, and saw her notice him. With a wide smile, she crossed the room to greet him.
"Toni, how are you?" They exchanged cheek kisses.
"I've had better days, Kal," she admitted with a wry smile. "Do you want your usual table?"
"If it's available, thanks."
Smiling, she led him across the lightly crowded room. Their relationship had briefly been intimate three years ago, but the illusion of closeness had only served to emphasize Kal's loneliness. He'd admired Toni for her drive and directness, and it had been a novelty to begin a relationship with a social equal, but she hadn't touched his soul. With considerable trepidation, then, he'd broken things off. On New Krypton, rejection often had a devastating effect on a concubine. Earth women, though, seemed made of stronger stuff. After some awkwardness, his relationship with Toni had settled into a warm, if superficial, friendship.
He seated himself and gestured for Toni to join him, which she did with a smile. "Bad day, you said? Let me guess, you argued with Johnny again," Kal commented casually. He was fairly certain that Johnny Taylor was the head of the Metros, and that Toni was also connected with the gang, but he had never brought it up; he didn't think it was any of his business. As gangs went, the Metros were fairly tame, running numbers and a protection racket, so it wasn't difficult to obey the Council's prohibition on interference.
Toni's smile tightened. "He's just so stuck in his ways. But I'll get what I want in the end." The determined glint in her eyes left him in no doubt of that.
"I'm sure you will," he replied, tempted to confide in her, at least partly. "Um, Toni … don't spread it around, but this is my last night here — I'm going home."
She just looked at him for a long moment, and Kal thought he saw a flash of pain in her eyes. Then she forced a smile and reached out to touch his hand. "I'll miss you, Kal. I won't ask where home is, either — you haven't told me in three years, so why should you tell me now. You, ah, need a lift to the airport?"
Kal smiled at her, remembering how helpful she'd been to him back when he'd been so confused about local transportation. "No, thanks. I've got some friends giving me a ride. They'll be here later tonight."
"Well, bring them in when they get here, Kal — any friends of yours are welcome here," Toni assured him.
"Ah, thank you, Toni," he replied, mentally discounting the idea. The ship would put down in the early morning dimness, he would board, and they would leave; there would be no time for such frivolities. Besides, if his fellow Kryptonians spent any amount of time on Earth, they would also develop powers; Kal would have to reveal something of that sort to the Council, but he did not want it to become common knowledge, for Earth's protection.
Toni eyed him shrewdly. "I'll leave it up to you, Kal, but they're welcome if you want to bring them. I'll even let them slide on the dress code," she teased, "if they behave themselves."
"No need to worry," he promised ambiguously. "Thanks, Toni."
"Not a problem." With visible reluctance, she stood. "Sorry, Kal, but I'm working; I've got to keep moving."
He nodded, well used to her dedication. "I'll see you around, okay?"
"Sure — and you'd better see me again before you leave — no sneaking out on me, you hear?" She caressed his arm lightly as she left.
"Yes, ma'am." Kal smiled as she left, then let his gaze drift to the rest of the club. It was still early, and the room was only half full. Other acquaintances would probably come in a bit later, but he wouldn't miss them if they didn't. He had no unfinished business, and no future here. He'd end his term as he began, an outsider and observer.
The stage lights dimmed, signaling an imminent live performance, tempting Kal out of his melancholy. Perhaps he should try to appreciate the show — it was valuable if only because of its rarity; there was nothing like *this* on New Krypton. Women there were either cherished daughters, dignified wives, or private concubines … they certainly didn't dance around publicly in skimpy costumes.
That was one of the things that Kal intended to try to change when he returned home. New Krypton couldn't afford to throw resources away on entertainment, of course, but it had occurred to him that they were probably squandering one of the resources they *did* have. Zara, for instance, possessed great managerial talents, which were mostly wasted. There had to be a way to remedy that situation.
The band's flourish announced the new performance, and Kal looked up, determined to enjoy himself. He usually enjoyed Tanya's singing, and although the dance lineup changed frequently, Johnny did have a good eye for talent.
Tanya pranced out on stage first, dressed in a red-and- white checked low-cut blouse, with short blue shorts; from his reading, Kal recognized it as a parody of a farmer's wardrobe. The song was new to him, something about the tension between economic/agricultural necessity and self- indulgent pleasure seeking. It hardly seemed like a dilemma to him; nobles did their duty and commoners followed orders. But Tanya shimmied appealingly, so he set aside his internal critique and resolved to be more shallow.
As if to reward him, the dancers came out to join Tanya on stage. The costumes were new, he noted, and so was one of the dancers.
She was slim and dark, with legs that went from here to there. Her dance moves were somewhat awkward, and out of step with the others, but she was obviously putting all her concentration into the effort, and the end result was strangely charming. She had an appealing face, as well … he couldn't quite pinpoint the attraction, but there was something…
A commotion in the back of the room startled him, and he, along with most of the patrons, turned to see four men in silvery costumes. One of them stepped forward, yelling dramatically, "Johnny! You're dead!"
Kal assessed the situation in a blink; Johnny Taylor was seated near the entrance with several of his cronies, gaping in shock at the intruders. The silver-clad men pulled out some sort of weapons, aiming them at the hapless club owner. Moving before he thought to restrain himself, Kal launched himself across the room, dragging Johnny down to the floor behind a nearby table. A jet of fire streamed overhead, dissipating almost instantly, leaving only a fleeting impression of intense heat. Around him, Johnny's pals were setting the tables on end, using them as cover. Pulling out no-doubt-illegal hand guns, they sprayed the fire-bugs with a different, equally deadly form of fire. The intruders quickly turned and fled.
Johnny stirred beneath him, and Kal quickly moved aside, beginning to regret his actions. None of this was his concern … even if he was fond of the man's sister. If their positions had been reversed, Johnny would certainly not have thought to worry about him. He scooted into a sitting position, surveying the room. For the first time, he was grateful for his imminent departure; this slip would come to nothing.
Johnny looked up. "Kal? Thanks, man! Lemme tell ya, anything you want, it's yours…" He was practically shaking with relief at the close call, and Kal hid a derisive smile. He'd seen Johnny promise people the world before; his generosity generally faded within a few hours.
"Just consider it payback for all the free drinks I've gotten over the years," he replied dryly.
Johnny's brow clouded a little at that, but Kal was distracted by the sudden realization that the room was on fire. He stood in one fluid motion, roughly pulling Johnny to his feet as well. "Get out of here," he ordered, giving the man a helpful push towards the main entrance.
Across the room, he saw Toni also ushering her guests out as quickly as possible without a panic. There were really only a few small fires, and one smoldering wall. If all these people would leave, he could take care of this himself, he realized. He debated the prospect for a moment. The Council was already going to have his head for interfering and endangering his cover as much as he had. So what was one more infraction? He grinned. After all, he owed these people a debt, and he was leaving. They'd accepted him with no questions asked, and taught him quite a lot that he hadn't found in reference books. Very well then.
Toni was just shooing the last of the patrons out and starting across the room for him. "Get out of here, Toni!" he called across the floor. "I'm fine — you go call 911." With one long last look, she turned and scurried out.
Kal turned back toward the stage, breathing in and thinking cold thoughts. Then he saw her.
Her hat had gone missing, but the bright yellow feathers attached to the form-fitting bodysuit made it impossible not to recognize her; she was one of the dancers. And from somewhere, she'd found a fire extinguisher and was coolly putting out a fire that had started licking at the base of the drapes near the stage. In a few strides, he crossed the room to her. Grabbing her shoulder, he pulled her around to face him. "Are you crazy?"
She looked up at him defiantly, a dark soot smear across one cheek. "This whole neighborhood is going up in smoke — you think the fire department is gonna get here in time? We've got to stop this, now."
Kal stared at her, suddenly unable to speak as something deep inside him came alive. When he'd first seen her, he'd thought her moderately attractive … but now, even in her disheveled state, he knew her to be the most beautiful woman on two planets. He gradually became aware that she was scowling at him.
"Don't just stand there! Grab a fire extinguisher, or get out." She turned back to the drapes and gave them one last smothering blast of gas.
The noise broke his strange trance and he regained control of himself. "You get out," he insisted, grabbing her and pushing her towards the door. "I'll handle it."
She resisted, which shouldn't have surprised him, but did. "Don't give me that macho crap; I can do this."
Kal thought frantically. "Not in this get-up you can't," he finally offered, reaching out to flick at the wildly bobbing feathers. "These things could catch fire pretty easily, and then you'd be in trouble." She frowned at him, which he took as a good sign. "One spark and you're a roast chicken."
Her eyes narrowed. "Listen, you—"
He held up his hands, hoping to pacify her. "Look, I'm sure you're capable, but you can't risk yourself. Give me the fire extinguisher. I can handle this, but not if I'm arguing with you!" They were nearly nose to nose, exchanging heated glares, but then she glanced around the room and sighed.
"Okay, fine. You win. Whoever you are. Here." She thrust the metal canister at him, then turned and darted towards the front entrance.
Kal kept a wary eye on her, and this time, he was not surprised when she turned. Her eyes widened as she stared at a back wall, and he followed her gaze. On the wall, in large letters, was the word, "Toasters."
When he turned back towards the entrance, she was gone. Quickly, he scanned the whole building with his special vision and was relieved to see that no one was left inside. He inhaled and then gently blew super-cold air across the room. It wasn't quite as effective as the chemical mixture the dancer had been using, but it served the purpose, and one by one the fires went dead.
He surveyed the room in mingled dismay and satisfaction. The building wouldn't burn, but the room was a horrendous mess. No more shows tonight, and the thought of not seeing the dancer again brought a distinct pang of disappointment.
**My Lord Kal-El.**
Automatically, Kal stiffened to rigid attention, closing his eyes and lifting his face slightly, devoting all his concentration to the telepathic link. **I am here.** Lack of practice made the communication something of a strain.
**Your ship awaits. I am Lieutenant Ching. I am here to retrieve you, and to deliver a message.**
**Very good. I have prepared a landing zone with homing beacon.** Earlier in the day, he'd placed the beacon in the empty parking lot of a warehouse. He didn't own the structure, but he knew it would be undisturbed for the time being. **Wait six hours before landing. Air traffic will be at its lightest.**
There was a tinge of doubt in Ching's reply. **Earth detection systems are primitive.**
**They probably won't detect you,** Kal agreed, **but they might run into you. Wait six hours.**
**It will be as my Lord commands.**
**Very well. I await your coming.**
Kal terminated the connection.
Lois longed for nothing more than to be home, in a comfortable, schlumpy robe, eating chocolate ice cream and watching the Ivory Tower. Instead, she was standing on the street wearing a leotard and feathers, waiting to see if the Metro Club was going to burn down. She hoped the guy who'd so rudely ordered her outside would hurry up. She couldn't go home until she'd gone back inside to change clothes and collect her things.
"Lola, there you are!"
Lois turned to see Melanie approaching her, relief written clearly on her face.
"Are you all right?" Melanie asked anxiously, then relaxed as Lois nodded. "I didn't see you come out at first, and I couldn't find you, and when I tried to go back in to check, Toni *yelled* at me!" she concluded, pouting slightly.
"I should think so!" Lois replied, torn between concern that Melanie would so heedlessly risk her life for her, and wary that she'd blown her cover. "I just saw a fire extinguisher, and, you know, once a Girl Scout…" She smiled brightly. "But then this guy wanted to take over." No doubt he wanted to be the hero, an attitude which normally grated on her last nerve, but tonight, it had probably been a good thing. 'Lola Dane' could not afford to stand out too much. She looked around the few clumps of employees still keeping vigil outside the club. "So, um … where's Brenda and Francine?"
"Brenda's over there." Melanie pointed to a small knot of people surrounding Tanya, who was having loud hysterics. "I don't know about Francine; I can't find her."
"She took a cab home," a new voice said, and Lola looked up to see a professional-looking blonde. "Hi, I'm Toni Taylor," she introduced herself briskly. "You're Melanie and … Lola, right?"
Melanie smiled. "That's us."
Lois raised an eyebrow. "She took a cab dressed like this?" A gesture indicated the garish, skimpy costumes worn by both dancers.
Toni smiled wryly. "Apparently at the first sign of trouble, she headed for the dressing room, collected her things, and went out the back way. I'm glad I spotted her or I'd worry. Anyway, I wanted to let you know, I'm sorry the evening ended like this. I want you ladies to take cabs, too." She offered them both a thin collection of bills. Lois was reluctant to accept, but Melanie had no such qualms, grabbing the proffered cash with alacrity. More slowly, Lois took her share. "Come in tomorrow at the regular time; we'll do our best to get the damage repaired before tomorrow night." She glanced back at the doorway to the club, a slight frown crossing her face.
Lois voiced the unspoken thought. "Assuming the place doesn't burn down."
Melanie shook her head firmly and announced, "It won't. I *know* these kinds of things."
Toni shrugged. "Well, whatever happens, I'll deal with it."
Lois fingered the cab money, wondering what exactly had prompted the offer. And Toni's wording tickled her curiosity. Looking around, she asked, "Where is Johnny, anyway?"
Toni's smile flattened. "He and his cronies have gone to find someplace to recover from their ordeal. But don't worry, ladies," her tone sharpened slightly, "he'll be back tomorrow, no doubt in fine, traditional form. Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." She nodded curtly, then moved away to check on the next group of employees.
"My goodness," Melanie murmured, "you should just *see* her aura right now."
Before Lois could figure out how to respond to that, the club door opened, and the stranger emerged. He looked a little tired, but with no damage, or even dirt that she could see. He sought out Toni in the crowd and headed to her with a grim look. They conferred for a moment in low tones, hugged once, and then he simply walked away.
Toni faced her employees and announced, "The fires are out, people. Go back in to collect your belongings, and then go home. But we need to see you all tomorrow, right on schedule. Good night."
Lois turned to re-enter the club and nearly ran into a dreamy-eyed Melanie. "Oh, sorry!"
"Oh, it was my fault," Melanie said immediately. "I was just watching Kal."
Trying to make the inquiry seem casual, Lois asked, "Kal? Was that the guy who put out the fires?"
Melanie smiled. "Kal Lewis, I think Brenda said his name was. Isn't he dreamy? He has the most marvelous vibrations, you know."
"I'll just bet," Lois answered sourly, feeling unaccountably grouchy.
"He's friendly with Toni," Melanie chattered on as they made their way to the dressing room. "But I've never seen him bring a date, and Brenda said he's never been a pest to the dancers — you know, trying to get in anyone's pants. And *you* talked to him! I wish he'd talk to me…" She sighed, her wistful words in stark contrast to her brisk movements as she stripped out of her costume and quickly dressed.
Lois smiled, her mood considerably lighter. "I'll see if I can introduce you." Grabbing her belongings, she retreated behind a privacy screen to change. Time to put this ridiculous evening into proper perspective. She hadn't made much progress on her case, but neither had she blown her cover. True, Kal Lewis was very attractive, and she counted it in his favor that he hadn't stayed around to soak up any offered adulation. She frowned, however, when she thought of him hugging Toni Taylor. Not that she wanted to see him again — he might ask too many questions — and not that she was interested in dating anyone who would patronize the Metro Club. Of course not. Still, a tingle of anticipation ran through her as she wondered if she was likely to see him again.
In the pre-dawn dimness, Ching used the homing beacon to expertly land the ship. The landing zone was not overly large, requiring some tricky maneuvering between local buildings, but it was perfectly flat and reassuringly solid under his landing gear. He was unsure what to make of the pattern of straight yellow lines covering the black surface, but so far as his instruments could discern, they were harmless.
The camouflage force screen seemed to be functioning; the only way the humans would discover the ship would be for them to run into it, as Lord Kal-El had pithily suggested. Ching devoutly hoped that this area would remain undisturbed. The Council had been most emphatic about avoiding discovery.
When the ship's engine was cut and the systems locked down, Ching leaned back in his chair, and saw his subordinates relax as well. "Good work, men," he praised them, rather perfunctorily. Whatever else they might be, they were a competent team, honing their skills over the past half- cycle in space. **My Lord Kal-El?** he sent telepathically.
**I am here,** came the instant reply.
**We have landed at the appointed place. Are you prepared to board?** Part of Ching hoped that the answer would be no; he had been on duty for the past eight hours already, which had disturbed his rest cycle; and by his calculations Kal-El must have had a short night, also. The lord's mental voice was disappointingly strong and steady.
**I am ready. Open the main hatch.**
At Ching's nod, Sev keyed the appropriate control, which both opened the hatch and made it visible. Ching stood, stepping aside from the command chair, and assumed a review stance. It was mere moments before Lord Kal-El entered the command deck, holding a small bag. Sev and Zak stood and saluted.
"Brother in service, I greet you." Lord Kal-El honored Ching with the most respectful of several traditional noble-to-officer salutations.
Ching bowed. "My lord Kal-El. We are yours to command."
"I accept the burden of command." Formal phrases dispensed with, Kal-El seemed to relax somewhat. "Introduce your crew, Lieutenant Ching."
"They are Helm Officer Sev, and Engineer Zak. We have spent half a cycle charting new territories and were on our way home when a courier intercepted us and redirected us here."
Kal-El tossed his small bag at Zak, who looked startled but managed to catch it against his chest. "Take that to my cabin, please." After Zak bowed and left, Kal looked back at Ching. "Why did they send you? I expected a normal courier ship, but this vessel seems larger than necessary."
Ching remained impassive. "I only obey, my lord. However, you were sent a sealed message. Perhaps that will explain." He picked up the packet from the console and handed it over.
Kal-El frowned at the sealed missive, and sat down in the command chair to open it. The message itself appeared rather short, but Kal-El's face darkened as he read it. The word he muttered was not familiar to Ching, but from stray telepathic leakage he deduced that it was an obscenity.
Kal-El looked up, the message crumpling slightly from the pressure of his hand. "Bad news," he reported succinctly. "And, I think, a change of plans. The Lady Zara has been kidnapped."
Ching instinctively clamped a firm lid on his emotions; this news was horrifying, but he would not allow his reaction to betray him. He kept his voice steady as he asked, "Who would do such a thing?"
"The Lord Nor," Kal-El replied, looking grim. "Or so the council believes. She was last seen five days ago, which, coincidentally, was the same time that Nor's ship departed for an unknown destination. They suggest several possibilities for search."
Ching forced himself to think strategically. "That would be why they wanted our ship, then. This is the fastest in the fleet, with ample quarters and cargo space. We will have the capacity for an extended search." He hated to think of Zara in Nor's power; he didn't know the noble personally but his reputation was not good. Nor had courted Zara's hand for years, not surprisingly as Zara was the last of the royal house, and whoever she married would become the new First Lord of New Krypton, displacing the current council. As long as she had delayed formalizing her birth-marriage to Kal-El, Nor had seemed content to wait and press his suit. Apparently his patience had deserted him.
"I trust our search won't be too extended," Kal-El mused absently. "But we should be prepared. How are we fueled and provisioned?"
"Our fuel storage is full, m'Lord — this ship harvests the atmospheres of gas giants, and this system has supplied us amply. Our food supplies, however, are running low."
"Hmm. Well, there's no help for it; we'll have to remain here another day." Kal-El seemed to come to a decision and looked up abruptly. "When did you and your crew last sleep?"
Ching blinked at the unexpected question, then began mentally calculating.
"If you have to think about it, it's been too long," Kal observed dryly. "We have time, and I'll need to obtain more of the local currency before purchase sufficient supplies. As soon as the ship is secured, you are all relieved of duty — I advise you to get some rest. When I return, I will have your assignments."
The dressing room was abuzz with excitement when Lois entered it early the next afternoon. That suited her; she was excited, too, so she'd fit right in. Her long-standing request for a few weeks' leave had been granted at last. As soon as she wrapped up this case, she could begin packing for a trip to the beach. She didn't even particularly care which beach it was, although she'd asked the travel agent to investigate airfares to Tahiti. It was just as well that planning a vacation would take a few days, though; she couldn't afford to be distracted on the job.
She'd already reported her meager progress to the colonel; he'd been quite encouraging. He'd also cautioned her to take measures to protect herself, just in case. With some reservations, she'd slipped a nine millimeter pistol into her oversized purse. The weight was reassuring on her shoulder, but she was careful to swing the bag under the dressing table and out of sight; she didn't want anyone here to know she had a weapon. She could hardly produce the proper permit as 'Lola Dane.' Not that proper permits would likely be the main concern of any Metro Gang members. She supposed she could always fabricate some story about a harassing ex-boyfriend, if need be. With any luck, however, the subject would not come up. And so far, her luck was holding — none of the men on base had made jokes about chicken costumes, or at least not in her hearing. Things were looking as bright as they could, she supposed. "Hey there," she called out as she slipped into an empty make-up chair.
"Hey, Lola," Brenda greeted, almost bubbling with excitement. "Did you hear that Tanya quit?"
"Yeah, I heard," Lois commented slowly, not really surprised. "She seemed pretty freaked by the fires last night."
Brenda shrugged. "Well, I guess I can't blame her for that — a girl's got a right to her phobias. But she was the singer! Now that she's gone, they've got to get somebody else — this could be my big break!"
Francine snorted derisively, hardly looking up from her newspaper. "You're not the only one here who sings, you know."
"No, but I'm good," Brenda insisted with a spark of determination. "And I've been telling Johnny he should give me a chance."
Lois caught her eye in the mirror. "Good luck," she said softly. "You deserve it." Belatedly, she wondered if she should have said 'break a leg' instead, though Brenda didn't seem to mind. Lois smiled slightly; she wasn't very good at acting the part she'd created for herself. Well, it only had to last another day or so.
The dressing room door opened again, and the fourth dancer breezed in. In her gauzy top and multi-colored skirt, Melanie almost seemed to float, and she bore a wide smile. "Peace and greetings, girls!"
"And where have you been?" Francine demanded grumpily. "You're even later than usual."
"I was meditating with my crystals group," Melanie explained, settling herself into her seat and starting to look through her small costume rack. "We were calling interstellar visitors — to come in peace, of course."
"Of course," Brenda chorused, with only a hint of rolled eyes as she moved into some warm-up type stretches. "So which did you ask for — ET, or the kind from Aliens?"
Melanie smiled serenely. "Neither, silly. We want the real kind. You know there has to be other intelligent life in the universe — somewhere. We just want to get in touch with them — there's so much they could teach us!"
Lois smiled at the young woman's enthusiasm. Had she ever believed in anything that whole-heartedly? She loved her country, of course, and had gladly followed her father's footsteps into the army, but she was not unaware of the flaws in either of them. "So what are we rehearsing today, and what do we have to wear?"
"They haven't said yet," Francine said, obviously unworried.
"They'll need to pick a new singer first," Brenda agreed, moving into leg lunges. "Maybe I should go talk to Johnny."
"I wouldn't," Francine cautioned. "He doesn't like it when women take the initiative."
Brenda scowled. "You're the one sleeping with him, you should know."
Francine snorted. "I'm hardly the only one, but yeah, trust me, I know."
A knock at the door drew all their attentions; after a short pause, perhaps to allow half-clad dancers to cover up, the door opened and Johnny Taylor poked his head in. "You all here? Good." Lois turned back towards her make- up table, keeping an eye on him in the mirror. "You probably heard that Tanya took off … good riddance to bad rubbish, right? Well, we need a new singer…" His gaze wandered the room, touching on each of them briefly, then he smiled. "Lola, here's the sheet music, be ready to sing tonight." He tossed a file folder across the room; startled, she failed to catch it. As the papers fluttered to the ground, Lois looked anxiously at Brenda.
Brenda was standing, staring at Johnny in shock that rapidly turned to rage. "Johnny, why her? Why not me?"
Johnny shrugged. "I like her looks."
That only served to further inflame Brenda's temper. "Damn it, Johnny, is this because I'm black? Is that it? You think the customers won't want to see a black body out there? Because I've got a few names for you — Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin!" She sputtered for a minute, and Melanie helpfully supplied, "Tina Turner."
Brenda picked up on the suggestion with a bare nod in her friend's direction. "Exactly! Those sisters had soul."
"Those sisters could sing," he retorted brutally.
"You never even heard Lola sing!" Brenda fumed.
"I've heard you. No, don't throw anything, girl." Johnny moved his hand towards the inside of his jacket, and Francine and Melanie moved hastily to the sides of the room. Brenda stood still, breathing heavily, staring stormily at her boss. Then, with an obvious effort of will, she put down the hair brush she'd grabbed. "That's a girl," Johnny crooned. "You're a good dancer, Brenda; just concentrate on that." Her eyes narrowed, and he gave up. "After Lola's number, we're doing two dance routines — the details are in the folder. I want to see all of you tonight, you hear?" With one final glance around the room, he retreated, closing the door behind him.
Brenda's shoulder's slumped as he left. Lois tentatively approached her. "Brenda … I'm so sorry."
The black woman glared at her for a moment, then closed her eyes. "I know it's not your fault, Lola. That SOB isn't ever going to give me a chance, and it's time I realized it." An angry glare in Francine's direction defied comment. "I'll dance tonight, and then by God, I'm finding a better job."
Lois watched Brenda storm out of the dressing room and reminded herself to relax. This drama was entirely unrelated to her mission. She made it a rule to never get personally involved in her cases, and she couldn't break that rule for a woman she hardly knew. The important thing, as always, was the mission. After all, she had a reputation to maintain.
When Lois had first discovered that she had been, however inadvertently, named after a character in a comic book, she had been embarrassed — and reluctantly enthralled. Secretly, she'd devoured each weekly chronicle, hiding under the blankets with a flashlight. She'd thrilled to her counterpart's adventures, and sighed dreamily over the relationship that the fictional Lois Lane had enjoyed with Clark Kent, AKA Superman. Theirs had been a true partnership, and Lois had always hoped to one day achieve a similar union.
It had taken several disastrous relationships to extinguish that dream. Since then, she had thrown herself into her work. Perhaps she was destined to go through life alone, without a personal Superman — she certainly wasn't eager to risk her heart again. But she was determined to match her counterpart's successful career. That would have to be enough.
Kal made his way back towards the ship, struggling to concentrate on the tasks of the day. The first task had been to reacquire local currency; he'd discreetly disposed of his remaining cash yesterday, thinking he would no longer need it. Accordingly, he had pawned his two remaining gemstones. The pawnbroker/fence had offered him a ridiculously low price for the gems, had they been real, but it was enough for his purposes. They would need time to re-supply, and the supplies would have to be purchased at several different markets to remain inconspicuous.
Remaining here, however, had a deleterious effect on his concentration. He found his thoughts slipping back to the dancer from last night with dismaying frequency. She had been beautiful and brave, and wholly unlike any woman he'd ever known … the thought of never seeing her again was tearing him apart. He was baffled by it. He'd found women attractive before, both here and at home, but had always been able to keep his feelings under proper control, deciding whether or not it would be prudent to explore the attraction. Perhaps this was merely pique, because she was unavailable — a perverse longing for what he could not have, simply because he could not have it.
If that were true, though, he would be very disappointed in himself. He'd known for some years that physical satisfaction was fleeting, leaving him emptier afterwards than before. What he really wanted was a deeper connection … the last thing he could expect with a professional dancer. And yet, the fascination remained.
Making his way through the busy mid-morning crowds, Kal acknowledged that he wasn't entirely happy to be leaving Earth. He had come to enjoy this bustling Metropolis with its carefree, emotional inhabitants. Very likely his subconscious was using this dancer as a symbol of all he was leaving behind, and his strange feelings were just a manifestation of his deep ambivalence. It made no difference in the end, of course. Duty was duty.
Glancing casually up and down the busy street, Kal slipped into the alley that took him to the ship's landing zone. The parking lot had been empty for weeks, but as a precaution, he'd added a chain and padlock to the already- closed gate. He wasn't happy with this delay, but it was necessary if they were to be prepared for a long search.
As he approached the ship, Kal carefully controlled his thoughts, unhappily reminded of their mission. He was not emotionally attached to his birth-wife, but he did value her as a friend and ally. And if Kal hadn't volunteered for this observation assignment — if he had formalized their birth marriage earlier, instead of following some inchoate restlessness — Zara would not now be so vulnerable. If Nor mistreated her in any way, Kal would make him pay for it, and pay dearly.
**Lieutenant Ching,** he sent as he arrived at the ship's position. There was a slight shimmer visible in the air, betraying an active cloaking field, but the locals wouldn't understand what it meant. If they could see it at all. Kal reminded himself of the need for caution. He felt more comfortable back among his own people … but concealing his strange powers was even more important among the people able to take advantage of it for their own gain. Not that he doubted Lt. Ching's honor, but the crewmen were another matter. For the first time, he wondered if these powers would fade once he was away from Earth. He had assumed it was a local condition, but what if a permanent change had been affected? Resolutely, he shook his head. That was a problem for another day.
In silent answer to his query, the ship's hatch opened, making a startling hole in the apparently empty parking lot. Kal walked inside quickly, checking behind him for witnesses, then closed the door, making the ship disappear once more.
On the flight deck, he found the entire crew waiting, looking more rested. "Greetings." He sorted through the lists in his hand. "Who among you can speak the local language?"
"I have some proficiency," Ching replied gravely.
"M'lord, I learned it too," Sev volunteered in broken but passable English.
Kal raised an eyebrow at this show of initiative. "Good work, crewman." He turned his attention to the last member of the crew, who blushed and hung his head. "Well, you can take Zak with you; perhaps he'll learn on the job." Learning the language should not be difficult; telepathy offered a strong advantage in matching familiar concepts to unfamiliar words. "Crewmen, you are in charge of food stocks. I have listed local merchants and written detailed lists." He passed the list to Sev. "We need enough food for at least six weeks. We do not want to attract undue attention, however — you'll need to spread your purchases out over three or four establishments." Kal handed over a large bundle of bills. "This is the local currency, and it should be sufficient. You will appear to blend in with the locals, and you are to do nothing that would reveal our existence, understood?"
They nodded submissively and Sev began pouring over the long list. Kal switched his attention to Ching. The lieutenant was looking dubious. "Six weeks, m'lord?"
Kal sighed. "I trust this mission will be over quickly, but I would not be caught under-prepared. The Lady Zara is depending on us."
Ching nodded gravely, maintaining his bland image.
"You and I, Ching, have our own mission. I do not know what weaponry you have on board—" Kal paused expectantly. He feared he knew the answer, and he did not look forward to challenging Nor on an unarmed ship. Very few New Kryptonian vessels had weapons, preferring to concentrate on passive defenses, such as the ship's cloak.
"Why, none, other than the ship's mining equipment."
Kal cheered slightly at that. Mining lasers could be used against ships as well as against asteroids — though with unpleasant consequences for the inhabitants of the ship. "Well, we won't use that except as a last resort. But it's something. What we really need are some hand weapons, and I know where we can procure some." He wasn't sure if they could manage to actually practice using the weapons, but if they were careful they might be able to extract some relevant information from the dealer, reading his memories to learn his skills. "We will have to leave the city, so it will take some time. Fortunately, the crew can be purchasing the food stocks while we're gone."
Kal looked up to see that crewman Sev was no longer perusing his long list; he was watching his superiors carefully. Seeing that he had his lord's attention, he lowered his eyes. "Begging your pardon, m'lord … but what, exactly, are … Ho-Ho's?"
"We're taking this organization to the next level. Out of the back room, and into the boardroom."
Eavesdropping from the closet, Lois couldn't help feeling a small surge of admiration for Toni Taylor. She had coolly faced down her brother and taken command of the Metro Gang. Not quite single-handedly, of course; Lois had been able to see some of the men backing Toni, with their guns drawn. Luckily, Johnny had had the sense to surrender peacefully, and two of Toni's new 'associates' had already escorted him out. She supposed the Metro Police would be interested to hear of the gang's ambitions; they would all have to wait and see if it were possible to transform a bunch of petty criminals into legitimate businessmen.
Toni was now receiving updates on the gang's various enterprises, and Lois took desultory notes. The police would like to know this, but it wasn't getting her any closer to the source of the fires. Unless of course, the fires *had* been a weapon against Johnny, in which case they should stop.
There was noise of movement in the meeting room, and Lois returned her eye to the peephole. She saw Toni raise a hand before the first man reached the door. "One more thing, people … what happened in this room is private, at least for now. I don't want wild rumors flying around."
"Word won't leave this club," a beefy man rumbled.
"That's not good enough," Toni snapped. "I don't even want club employees to know. Especially not the girls." She smiled derisively. "They're all either sleeping with Johnny, or want to, and if they knew he was out, who knows what would happen. Let's not screw up tonight's show."
Lois rolled her eyes. Either Toni had an extremely poor opinion of her lower-status sisters, or Johnny's inflated opinion of himself had been catching. Probably both. There was a murmur of agreement from the men in the room as they filed out of the meeting.
Lois relaxed away from the peephole, stretching and rolling her neck to recover from the awkward position. It seemed that she was no closer to discovering the truth behind the fires, or the source of the Toasters' technology, and she was no longer certain that she was spending her time profitably here. Trapped in her "Lola Dane" persona, she could hardly start asking questions around the neighborhood. Of course, she'd already asked around, to no avail. And now that the Metro's little internal quarrel was solved, the next meeting might be more informative, so perhaps it was worth one more day.
She grimaced. Realistically, if she left the club now, she'd be leaving the neighborhood and unable to make any further progress, no matter what name she used. That was unacceptable. The Metro Club might be a slim chance, but it was better than none. And if she were going to stay, she'd better go practice her solo. The glittery white gown she'd be wearing was hardly her typical wardrobe, but she knew she would look good in it. She couldn't help but wonder if Kal Lewis would be in the audience. She refused to entertain the suspicion that he was a factor in her decision to stay.
When the New Kryptonians rendezvoused back at their ship, night was falling, further disguising their vessel. The hatch opened by remote telepathic control, briefly rousing Kal-El's curiosity. The transport pod that had dropped him off three years ago had had permeable walls that opened wherever necessary. Then again, the interior of the pod had been small and open, with nothing dangerous waiting if one chose the wrong section of wall to open. So perhaps a designated entry made sense. Even if the stairs descending from nothingness did look a trifle bizarre.
"Crewmen, report," Kal ordered as they entered the ship and made their way to the command deck.
"Mission accomplished, m'lord," Sev replied proudly. "It took five merchants and more time than it ought, but we purchased everything on the list. We've filled an entire cargo hold, but there's another available if you need it, m'lord."
Kal shook his head. "Our purchases today were not bulky." He and Lieutenant Ching had each acquired a handgun, and he'd even been able to find a gun range where they could practice aiming the weapons. They were unfamiliar to him, but that meant they would be unfamiliar to Nor, as well, and hopefully unexpected.
"Are we ready to depart, m'lord?" Zak asked, almost shyly.
"No, Zak," Kal replied. "We need to wait until the air traffic eases up, another ten hours or so. Do you need another rest period?"
The young navigator blushed and shook his head. "No, m'lord, thank you, m'lord, it's just… well, I was thinking, and Sev and I got to talking, and well…"
Kal arched an eyebrow and glanced at Sev, who was looking embarrassed as well. "Would you care to translate?" he asked sardonically.
"Women, m'lord," Sev said succinctly. "We've been out on this mission for a very long time. Lieutenant Ching said this wasn't to be shore leave, but we expected to be long gone by now."
Kal grinned, suddenly remembering Toni the night before, telling him to bring his friends to the club. The temptation to see his dancer again was too strong to resist. She had freely wandered around his mind all day, and he only hoped that Ching hadn't picked up on her echoes. Perhaps if he saw her again, he could satisfy his curiosity and exorcise her from his thoughts. Besides, they had the time, and the crew had requested it, so this wasn't mere self-indulgence. "We weren't planning this, but…" He turned to his executive officer. "Lieutenant? Have they performed their duties adequately?"
"Yes, sir," Ching replied, his face still as closed as it had been all day. Kal was beginning to wonder what it would take to provoke a reaction from the impassive officer.
"In that case, I know the perfect place to visit. This is entertainment only," Kal stressed, belatedly remembering that the crew were probably thinking of concubines rather than floor shows. "You may look, but not touch or interact. We cannot risk our presence becoming known."
Sev looked at the floor and mumbled, "Yes, m'lord."
"The world will pardon my mush, 'cause … I have got a crush, oh my baby … on you."
As the last note died away, Lois nodded to the bandleader; this last try had worked much better. "I think we've got it. Just keep an eye on me and follow my lead, okay?"
He nodded agreement, then turned back to his band members, critiquing their individual performances. Lois stepped down off the stage, pondering her options. The club would open soon, and she was expected to work as a waitress for a few hours before show time. She didn't mind dancing, and she found that she actually enjoyed the singing, but waitressing seemed too demeaning — especially considering the absurd costume. She reminded herself that it was all for a good cause. Still, there was a little time before the club opened; perhaps she could have another look around.
Wandering through the kitchen and storage rooms gained her nothing; no board meetings to eavesdrop on, and no incriminating evidence left lying about. She was about to give up when she caught a glimpse of Toni heading out a door that led only to a back alley. Her curiosity was definitely roused, but caution held her back. She needed a plausible excuse for going out that door. Looking around, Lois spotted a pack of cigarettes sitting at an unmanned guard station. She grabbed it, pulling one out and using the nearby lighter to ignite it. Trying to act normally, she headed for the door and exited the building.
The back alley was small, and the fading sunlight still illuminated the few flapping newspaper scraps. A few steps away from the door, Toni was speaking on a pay phone, her back to the door. Lois made a show of looking the other way, which both concealed her interest in Toni and hid the fact that her cigarette never actually touched her lips. With any luck, Toni would assume she was merely on a smoke break.
Lois stood very still, waving the cigarette occasionally, and strained to hear what Toni didn't feel she could say in her own office.
"Yes, you've done very well … You screwed up the objective last night, but I managed anyway. No," her voice dripped sarcasm, "why should I blame you? Johnny's out of the picture and the club didn't burn down — no thanks to you, of course, but never mind … you've served your purpose." There was a brief pause, then Toni spoke again, her voice harder. "I need to meet with you — all of you. Midnight tonight. The usual place." Another pause. "Yes, fine … but this will be the final payment. And I don't want any more fires, understand? Good." Toni hung the phone up roughly, and after a moment, Lois could hear her footsteps approaching.
Lois couldn't help flinching, but she tried to make it work for her. "Ms. Taylor!" she squeaked in simulated surprise. "I, um, didn't see you … uh, I was just …" She waved her cigarette around, then threw it down on the ground, crushing it with her shoe. "I've been trying to quit, but sometimes … well, I was nervous about tonight and all, and …" She let her voice trail off guiltily, keeping her eyes downcast.
Toni snorted. "Smoking is a very bad habit for a singer."
"Oh, I know," Lois said, raising rueful eyes. "And mostly I'm fine, honestly, but … I'll do better from now on."
Toni studied her for a moment, clearly trying to work out whether Lois had heard anything, or whether to take her story on face value. "See that you do. I'll be keeping an eye on you."
"Yes, ma'am," Lois nodded humbly, fully aware of the double meaning. She let herself be maneuvered back inside, then left Toni to head for the dressing room. It was empty, and from the main room she could hear the sounds of the dancers rehearsing their routine for the night. She sat down in her chair, glad for the respite.
So, Toni Taylor had been behind the Toasters all along — as part of her plan to take over the Metros, apparently. Lois was pleased that her speculation along those lines had been correct. She considered then rejected the idea of reporting to the Metro Police; if the Toasters were using stolen technology, that needed to be kept quiet. A quick call to the Colonel would set things in motion; he could arrange for a small squad to follow Toni to her midnight meeting — Lois was technically only responsible for intelligence gathering, not arrests. She was tempted to keep it all to herself until she could deliver the whole case tied up with string, but military discipline had taught her to share vital information. Sometimes another player on the team was in a better position to score, so it made sense to pass the ball.
It took only a few minutes to revisit the pay phone in the alley and report in to her Colonel. He had been very pleased at her progress, and she smiled to herself with justifiable pride. She had done a good job under demeaning conditions, and as soon as the loose ends were wrapped up — hopefully at midnight — she would be free to concentrate on her vacation.
It occurred to her that she could leave the club now, as the mission was all but finished. She could still follow Toni later with the tactics squad, properly dressed in uniform. She didn't have to demean herself serving drinks. She didn't have to display herself on stage. She didn't have to see Kal again … She scowled. What was it with that man? Why did she keep thinking of him? He's nothing special, she told herself sternly, and if you saw him again you'd realize that.
She would stay at the club and do her job because she had agreed to do so; it was a matter of honor, nothing more. Besides, her practical side whispered, Toni and the Toasters hadn't been arrested *yet.* Toni had been suspicious of her earlier; if she disappeared, it might spook Toni into rearranging her plans. Okay, so she'd also see Kal Lewis again, but seeing him under such seedy circumstances would show his true character and allow her to dismiss him from her mind once and for all. A patron of the Metro Club was not worth mooning over.
Nodding briskly, she rose and began dressing for the evening.
Kal and Ching sat together, leaving the lower class crewmen to the relative social comfort of a separate table. Kal noted that Sev was enjoying the attention of his waitress, and using his new proficiency in English to attempt a clumsy flirtation.
Ching followed his glance. "I'll keep an eye on him, m'Lord. Zak should not be a problem, but Sev … gets carried away." There was an element of distaste in the Lieutenant's voice, leading Kal to wonder just what Sev had done to annoy his superior — aside perhaps from being too obsequious. Kal had been annoyed by the man's bowing and scraping, but he realized he was far from an objective observer. Three years of being treated as nothing special, of no favor being unearned, had been strangely refreshing, and it felt decidedly odd to return to a system of enforced adulation. Whatever the offense, however, it couldn't have been too serious, and it seemed that Ching had the situation — and his feelings — under control.
Kal glanced around the club. It was strange to return to this place when he thought he'd said goodbye forever. There were hasty repairs and re-decorations to cover the scars of last night's fires, but all in all the club looked the same. The band was playing something soft and jazzy. Kal was disinclined to make conversation, and Ching seemed equally quiet.
It was impossible to avoid thinking about the dancer. He wondered why she had become a dancer; it was not a high status profession, at least not as practiced at the Metro Club. She had the body for it, but she hadn't seemed very comfortable on stage. That awkwardness had stood in stark contrast to her confidence later, coolly putting out those fires. Kal had seen many dancers come and go, and while they were generally decent people, this one was just different somehow.
Kal sighed. If only he had seen her a year ago. He sensed that she would not have been easy to seduce, which would have been a fascinating challenge. Kal had never really had to work at getting a woman into his bed, starting with the concubine who had been a coming-of-age present from his foster-father. Although he had tried to be considerate, he knew that his position in New Kryptonian society had guaranteed him access to the lower classes. But each coupling had meant less than the last, until he'd been nearly celibate. He had hoped that his liaison with Toni Taylor would have been different, made more meaningful by the fact that she was his social equal and a voluntary partner, but it still hadn't been enough. If a business executive had fallen short, he had no reason to suspect that a mere entertainer would be a more fit partner for him … but something within him longed to make the experiment.
The house lights dimmed and the band began a flourish. Very carefully, Kal set down his drink and angled his chair slightly away from Ching, clamping even stricter control over his conscious thoughts. He and Ching had not communicated telepathically since the ship's arrival, but Kal was taking no chances.
The stage was set only with a microphone, and Kal relaxed; he could easily ignore Tanya. But the figure that moved forward, in a glittering white gown, was not Tanya's. "Ladies and Gentlemen," the speaker system announced, "The Metro Club is proud to introduce … Lola Dane!"
Without waiting for a reaction, Lola began her song, crooning huskily about a lover's pursuit and her glad acquiescence. She was smiling as she sang, using subtle body language to express the joys of being in love. Kal was unexpectedly touched. Love had never been a feature in his relationships, and he'd never realized the lack of it before. Lola's gaze moved around the room as she sang, and as she began the first chorus, her eyes locked with his.
Was it his imagination, or did the song falter for a moment? He felt his heart stop, and even as some distant part of his brain told him how ridiculous it all was, he knew that this woman touched something deep inside him, a part of him that no woman had ever before been able to reach.
He watched in rapt fascination as she finished her song. After the first long look, she had broken eye contact with him to scan the room again, but he noticed smugly that her gaze returned to him, over and over. Beneath the facade of portraying a woman happily in love, he thought he saw puzzlement in her eyes. He would have to tell her that he didn't understand, either, but there was clearly a connection between them. Once her song was finished, he would seek her out backstage; he knew the layout well enough, and the bouncers would allow him access, he felt sure. He needed to know everything about her … her background, her training, her views … how her mouth tasted, how her body felt against his … he was consumed with a need to get close to her, and to stay there forever. The song finished, and with one last look in his direction, Lola Dane left the stage. Kal shifted in his seat, ready to follow as soon as the lights came up.
"M'lord?" Ching's voice broke into Kal's thoughts, an unpleasant reminder of reality.
Kal blinked once, trying vainly to clear his head. When he felt he was somewhat under control, he turned to face his subordinate. "Yes, Lieutenant?"
Ching was regarding him carefully, with a hint of censure in his eyes, and Kal fought the stirrings of shame. No doubt his reaction had been clear, telepathically or not. "M'lord," Ching spoke mildly, "we have a mission to prepare for. Perhaps we had best retire to the ship. To plan our strategy for rescuing the Lady Zara."
Part of Kal raged and wept internally at the thought of leaving, but his training and duty were unrelenting. "Of course. Lady Zara is our first priority." He forced a smile. "I'll return to the ship."
Ching smiled back, just as falsely. "I'll accompany you, m'lord — if I may."
Kal nodded, accepting the hint of rebuke. After all, he'd earned it. As he rose, he spotted Zak and Sev, engrossed in the show. Zak wore an expression of almost child-like delight, and even Sev seemed to have toned down his earlier exuberance. Kal was tempted to order them back to the ship, as well — if he couldn't enjoy the show, none of them could — but he restrained himself. "The crewmen may remain for the rest of the show, don't you think?"
Ching shrugged, his attention clearly centered on Kal. "As you say, M'Lord."
Kal sighed, giving in to the inevitable. His duty was clear, and his future was set. And that future most assuredly did not include Lola Dane.
Lois made her way to the dressing room on automatic pilot, still in a daze. She had half expected to see Kal again — almost hoped for it. But she hadn't been prepared for her reaction when she'd spotted him. She'd nearly forgotten the words to the song at the shock of meeting his eyes. There had been such a sense of vulnerability from him, a sense of longing and desire, aimed squarely at her. She had expected, going out in front of such a crowd, to be lusted over somewhat. Part of her had even enjoyed the experience, secure in the knowledge that she remained in control. And she had received her fair share of appreciative looks, but they had all been impersonal. Except for the intensely personal scrutiny by Kal Lewis. Meeting his eyes had been an almost physical sensation every time she glanced his way.
She glanced at the dressing room door, wondering how long it would take him to find his way backstage. She was surprised he hadn't appeared already; his intent to follow her couldn't have been plainer if he'd shouted the words aloud. She had no idea what she would say to him, though. No matter how strongly she reacted to him — and she could no longer deny that there was an attraction there — these were still impossible circumstances. She was not who she appeared, and he was a long-time patron of the Metro Club — hardly the sort of man she'd dreamed of. She needed to be rational about this.
As the minutes ticked past, however, the quiet of the dressing room was undisturbed, and Lois slowly realized that he wasn't coming. Clenched stomach muscles relaxed suddenly, and she laughed softly at herself for over- dramatizing. Obviously, she had read too much into things. With slightly trembling hands she began changing costumes. In a few moments, she was due out on stage again with the other dancers. And this time, she wouldn't be rattled by intense stares from anyone.
Once she was changed and had touched up her face and hair, she made her way to the tiny backstage area, passing the other dancers as they rushed offstage to get into their new costumes in time for the next number. Peeking through the curtain, she ordered her stomach to behave, but it was unnecessary. Kal's table was empty, and was being cleaned. He was gone.
"This is amazing!" Zak enthused in his native Kryptonian, enjoying himself immensely. Never before had he seen so many beautiful women in one place, nor so scantily dressed, and he was busily trying to see and memorize every fascinating sight.
Sev smiled, somewhat condescendingly. "It is, yes. It's a shame we can only enjoy these entertainments for one night, isn't it?"
"I guess," Zak replied, his eyes never leaving the stage, "but what a night! Look at that one — I didn't know women could move like that."
Sev snorted amusement. "And you're not the only one enthralled tonight. Did you see the way Lord Kal-El was watching that singer?"
Zak shrugged. "I know how I was watching her; that's about it."
"You should have seen his face," Sev mused. "It almost gave me an idea."
It finally occurred to Zak that his crewmate had something in mind, and reluctantly, he turned to face him. "What sort of an idea?"
"Oh, just something to make the upcoming voyage more enjoyable. A souvenir, of sorts. But I'll need your help." Sev leaned forward, pinning Zak with an intense gaze. "We have an opportunity to gain favor — if you are brave and resourceful enough —" His look became challenging. "It will benefit all of us, especially Lord Kal-El. Are you in?"
Zak sat up straighter, determined not to disappoint his older colleague. "If you're up for it, I'm with you," he said rashly.
Sev smiled. "Good. Here's what we do…"
"Free at last, free at last," Brenda declared as they entered the dressing room after the final dance number of the evening. "Praise God Almighty, I am free at last!"
Lois couldn't help smiling at her new friend's defiant energy. "So when are you going to give your notice?"
"Already did," Brenda replied from behind the privacy screen, stripping out of her costume with practiced speed. "I wanted to give it to Johnny his damn self, but he wasn't here, so I told Toni." She snorted. "She almost fell over herself paying me off."
"We'll miss you, Brenda," Melanie put in, looking woebegone. Then she brightened. "But when you find a better job, see if they have a place for me, okay?"
Brenda smiled at her. "Sure thing." Emerging from behind the screen in her street clothes, she sat down in front of a mirror to clean off the stage makeup. "I'll keep you posted. You too, Lola, if you want."
Lois smiled, touched by the offer. "Thanks, but I have a feeling my entertainment career is going to be pretty limited." In fact, it was already over. She'd have to hurry if she wanted to meet up with the tactics squad, and then tomorrow she was going on well-deserved leave, and after that, her promotion to Captain would probably entail reassignment. Lois was hoping for duty in Europe, but she wouldn't mind going to the Pentagon, either. Not that she could explain any of that at the moment. "I don't think I have the stamina for it." She glanced over at Francine, whom Brenda had pointedly not mentioned. The older woman was concentrating on her mirror, looking only slightly grimmer than usual.
A knock on the dressing room door startled them all, and Lois turned, wondering if Kal was showing up at last. When Melanie opened the door, however, she saw two young men.
Something about them seemed familiar to Lois, but it took her a second to tease out the connection. They were wearing pseudo-military uniforms, markedly similar to the one Kal's companion had been wearing.
"Greetings." Melanie smiled at them. The younger one smiled back, blushing, but his friend's expression remained remote.
"Good evening," he replied. His speech bore a slight accent, but Lois was unable to place it. "I have a request."
"We're through for the evening, honey," Francine called out, not bothering to look at them.
"Yes," he agreed, "but we have a private party. We will pay you well for your time."
He had caught Brenda's attention with that, and Melanie stopped flirting with the younger man to become businesslike. "What sort of private party? We don't strip."
The younger man looked confused for a moment, then began blushing furiously. "No, no," explained his colleague. "Only dancing, like on stage. And singing." He glanced in Lois's direction, and she shivered, feeling a vague sense of menace. Which was ridiculous. Lois Lane feared no man; she was an expert in martial arts and had a pistol in her purse. She stiffened her spine and stared back coolly. He quickly looked away, choosing instead to speak to Brenda.
"This could lead to new jobs, yes? Our …" he appeared to struggle for a word, "our boss is new in town, and will be opening a new club. We liked what we saw tonight."
Brenda raised her chin. "Great. I'll go."
He ducked his head apologetically. "We would like all of you to come. You dance as a group, after all."
Brenda surveyed her co-workers challengingly. "Well, ladies?"
"I'm not so sure," Melanie said. "I mean, we don't know these guys … even if they are cute." She winked at the younger one, and set him blushing again.
"I am Sev," the leader introduced himself, gesturing towards his silent partner. "This is Zak. He does not speak much English."
"There's safety in numbers," Brenda told Melanie. "And this could be a good chance for us. You guys don't want to stay here forever, do you?"
"Not particularly," Francine admitted, paying attention at last. "But you'd better make sure it's a better deal before you leap."
"It's just an audition. Sort of. Come on, Francine, don't you get in my way here." Brenda turned back to the spokesman, demanding, "How long is this party? We've already worked a full shift."
"You will be home before you know it," Sev promised gravely.
Lois eyed him with growing distrust; something about him had her intuition sending danger warnings. Then again, her intuition had let her down once already this evening; she had been so sure that Kal would follow her backstage, when instead he'd left the club. She hated feeling so unsure.
"I'll go," Melanie declared, with an eye on her blushing admirer. "I think it could be fun."
"All right then, count me in." Francine shrugged. "I can always use extra money."
Brenda turned, searching out Lois. "Lola, are you in? You know you owe me this."
Lois hesitated. She did feel a residual sense of guilt over being chosen to sing, and more than that, she liked Brenda, and wanted to help her. If this were all on the level, she should go along. If it weren't, however … things could get ugly. Even beside her instinctive feeling of distrust in Sev, Lois was uneasy about this "private party." The two men might have some sort of connection to Kal, but a similarity of uniform did not guarantee any other similarities; they could still be dangerous. For all she knew, Kal could be dangerous. But Brenda's reckless mood seemed to have spread to the others, and if they were determined to go, then the least she could do was go along to protect them. Regretfully, she gave up the idea of following Toni. The tactics squad could handle that assignment perfectly well on their own; these dancers might need help. "Okay, fine, if you're all going, I'll go too."
Sev smiled ever so slightly, his eyes glinting. "Excellent. We are most pleased."
Brenda smiled fiercely. "Great. Let's get our stuff and get out of here."
The men were banished from the room while the ladies got out of costume and into their street clothes. Lois held her bag carefully as they all left the club, her handgun reassuringly heavy within. Perhaps this was a normal occurrence — the other dancers seemed to find little amiss — but she paid close attention as they left the club through a back entrance and began walking towards the street. Zak, who still had not said much apart from a few mumbles to Melanie, was leading the way, but Sev seemed to be falling slightly behind them, a positioning that raised Lois's hackles.
"So where's the limousine?" Brenda asked, in determined high spirits.
"The party is only a few blocks away," Sev said. "A short walk."
It was a short walk, and though Brenda and Melanie were chatting, Lois felt her nerves growing tighter with every step. As they turned a corner down an alley, she could no longer keep silent. "Ladies, I'm not so sure this is a good idea."
For the first time, facing an unlit alleyway, Brenda's bravado faltered. "Well, maybe…"
"Keep walking, please," Sev directed in a firm tone.
Feeling a trickle of dread go up her spine, Lois turned and saw that he had drawn a handgun and was pointing it steadily at them. She was almost relieved to have the threat revealed, but with the two men bracketing the women, it was not a good moment to strike back.
"We will not harm you," Sev promised with an oily smile. "But we would like the pleasure of your company for a little while."
Francine rolled her eyes, and Brenda looked disgusted. "Oh, thanks. This is terrific. First I get screwed over by my boss, and now I'm being held at gunpoint. Could this day get any better?"
Lois winced at the defiant tone. She knew the black girl didn't lack for courage, and probably felt she had little to lose, but to maximize their chances, they had to wait for a better opportunity. "Calm down, Brenda," she soothed, moving a little closer to her new friend. "Let's see what they have in mind, okay?"
Brenda looked incredulous, but must have seen something reassuring in Lois's calm face. "Okay, fine, whatever." She threw up her hands and turned back towards the alley. "There's got to be a limit to my bad karma at *some* point…"
With a resentful glance at Sev, Francine followed, muttering something under her breath. Only Melanie stayed put, looking terrified. Lois walked up to her and gave her a brief hug, whispering, "I've got a gun." When she pulled back to study the girl's face, she saw comprehension dawning.
"But then, why…?" Melanie asked quietly, darting a pointed glance at Sev.
"Timing," Lois told her quietly, "is everything."
Melanie still didn't look convinced, but with one more searching look at Lois, she pulled herself together. Lois reached for her hand, and they both entered the alley.
"Very good," Sev said coolly. "Zak, you open the gate."
Lois strained to see as they passed a chain-link fence into what appeared to be a parking lot. There were no streetlights, and between these tall city buildings the darkness was thick. Sev remained close behind them, but tantalizingly out of range of a Tai Kwon Do kick. And she still didn't know if Zak was armed, so Lois forced herself to remain passive. Her opportunity would come, she felt sure.
Suddenly, a set of stairs appeared in front of them, dimly lit only from within. Zak helped Brenda and Francine inside. "Lola," Melanie whispered, a quaver in her voice, "I don't think this is a good idea."
"Be patient," Lois advised softly as they entered and began walking up the broad staircase. The surface of the stairs was unfamiliar under her feet, not quite as rough as concrete, tinted pink by the strangely reddish lighting. And there was a faint hum in the air. At the top of the stairs, Zak ushered them into a large room, remaining outside the doorless entrance. Lois turned as soon as she passed into the room. She finally had her friends on one side and the enemy on the other — this was her opportunity. She took a deep breath and reached into her purse.
Before she could even speak, however, the wall seemed to move, smoothly closing the entrance and shutting them all in. Sev's voice floated through the barrier. "Sleep well, ladies. It will be a long trip."
"I demand to know why you have abducted me." Zara stood tall, her chin held defiantly high. This was the first time she'd seen her captor since being forcibly removed from her own home, and the days in solitary confinement had stretched her nerves to the breaking point. Not that she had any intention of letting her weakness show.
Lord Nor pursed his lips disapprovingly. "Well, you may call it an abduction if you wish; I prefer to think of it as … a romantic elopement. I apologize for neglecting you on the voyage, my dear, but this ship is a trifle short-handed, and I felt it necessary to ensure our safety above all. Besides, we are already well-acquainted, are we not?"
"I believe I know everything I need to know," Zara agreed grimly, trying not to give anything away. She had always forced herself to remain civil to this man, regardless of her personal feelings, because she had a duty to her society to pick their next leader carefully. The closer she had investigated Nor, however, the stronger her conviction had been that he would be a disastrous choice. His estates were in disarray, the result of poor management, and some of the rumors circulating through the lower city hinted at an unsavory personal life.
"So then," Nor concluded with a falsely pleasant smile. "No one will be surprised when you return and announce that you've married me, will they?"
"I can think of a few," Zara commented, thinking of her formidable Aunt Alys.
"Yes, well, Lord Kal-El will have to recover from the shock," Nor said, misunderstanding her. "But I feel sure he will manage. Especially when you assure him that this was your free choice."
Zara raised an eyebrow. "You're expecting a bit much, don't you think?"
Nor moved a half-step closer, stopping his advance when she stiffened. "My dear Lady Zara," he coaxed in a soft tone. "I will allow you time to make your decision, but only consider … Our society is so protective of a woman's honor that the only time she is allowed to be alone with a man … as you are now alone with me … is when that man is a relative or her husband. While I do of course have a great fondness for you, I am not a relative. That, I fear, leaves you little choice. There is really only one honorable path to follow. I am infinitely sorry to have placed you in such a position," he smiled, with incongruous charm, "but time ran short. No, don't reply now. I prefer that you take time to consider your position, and your options — or lack thereof. This crew really does need me, so I must go. Take care, my dear." With a mocking bow, he retreated out the door of her cell, leaving Zara alone once more.
She sat down slowly, retaining only enough control not to fall. After days of anticipation balanced out by functional boredom, the excitement of the confrontation had been a bit much. Nor's comments on society did make her pause. In general terms, of course, he was right. A noble lady simply didn't entertain a man alone, let alone go off on a space ship with him. The fact that she had been given no choice in the matter would be considered irrelevant; she *had* been alone with him — still was, technically — and the damage was done. The only way to retain her honor was to marry him.
Zara rebelled at the thought. This situation was about far more than just her personal reputation. Whoever she married would be the next First Lord of New Krypton, and Zara was not about to succumb to these despicable tactics. Besides, she was pragmatic enough to know that this little misadventure would not seriously damage her marriage prospects. The Council might not like it, but by law she was the only gateway to continued peace. If they stripped her of her position, they would provoke civil war, and they knew it. No one wanted to provoke war if there were any alternative. Nor's elaborate scheme to trap her into marriage only proved the point. Of course, if he gave up hope of marrying her … he might be desperate enough to try anything.
She closed her eyes, feeling a headache build. Realistically, what were her options? She simply couldn't face going through with a marriage to Nor; even a ritualistic consummation would be too sickening to consider, and when she contracted with the birth center to begin an embryo, she wanted *much* higher quality paternal DNA. A flat-out refusal, on the other hand, held risks as well. She would have to stall as best she could.
A rescue attempt was underway, she felt sure. Aunt Alys, although female and technically powerless, held great influence in the capital, and would certainly maneuver some sort of rescue effort. Kal-El had been about to return from his surveillance mission; it was possible that he would be involved. Ching was nearly due home, as well, but would the family that had sent him away in the first place send him after her now? She doubted it. Zara wished she knew more about various types of spacecraft; it had been difficult enough worming economic information out of the Council. The rescue might well fail.
Perhaps she could somehow influence the odds. If only she were allowed out of this room, she might find opportunities for sabotage. Destroying the ship would be too extreme; not that she would shrink from giving her life for a just cause, but with the succession undecided, her death would cause chaos back home. Zara sighed, feeling the heavy weight of responsibility she carried. There had to be a more rational way to rule a planet.
The room they were being held in was dimly lit, with four padded benches that seemed intended to be beds, and a small pile of women's clothing in various sizes. After prowling the edges of the room in vain hopes of finding an escape route, Lois joined the other women sitting on the benches. "I'm sorry. I can't find any way out."
Francine opened weary eyes long enough to say, "Don't apologize, Lola. We all looked. And it isn't your fault we're in this mess."
Lois couldn't accept absolution that easily. Here she was, a trained and competent officer in the United States Army, the world's finest fighting force — in the Intelligence Division for pete's sake! — and she had meekly walked right into a trap. Sev was going to pay for that next time she got close to him. "I should have done something," she muttered glumly.
"Like what?" Brenda demanded. "They had us surrounded. No, it's not your fault." She squeezed her eyes shut. "It's mine — isn't that what you meant, Francine? Yeah, I fell for their line, but I wasn't the only one, honey. You were right there with me — we all fell for it."
"Lola didn't," Melanie said quietly, watching Lois closely.
Brenda glared at Melanie. "Oh thank you so much, that makes me feel so much better. Okay, so I was desperate enough to buy their story, and I wanted you guys to come too, but if you hadn't been so busy making eyes at that Zak guy—"
Lois winced at the rising tone of anger. "Maybe I should make a confession here," she interrupted. "I'm not really Lola Dane."
That got Brenda's puzzled attention, and Francine opened one eye. Melanie continued to study her.
"My name is Lois Lane, and I'm an Army officer investigating the Toasters. There were rumors that they were connected to the Metro Club, so I wanted to get inside. I'm sorry to have deceived you all."
Francine closed her eyes again, seeming to lose interest, while Brenda looked annoyed. "I lost a gig to you and you're not even a pro? Man, that bites. I could just *kill* Johnny."
Melanie nodded. "I knew there was something about you. That explains the gun, too."
"A gun?" Brenda yelped. "Girlfriend, if you were packing, why the hell are we here?"
Lois winced, fighting her own guilt. "I could have taken Sev — probably — but I didn't know if Zak was armed, and I thought I'd get a better chance if I waited. I'm sorry." Of course, so far nothing irrevocable had happened; Sev and Zak undoubtedly had some sort of plan, but if they thought Lois Lane was going to tamely play along, well, they obviously hadn't read enough Superman comics in their misspent young lives. "But it means we're not defenseless. We'll probably be able to get away in the morning. I can't do anything until they come back, but they must have something planned for us, so when they make their move, I'll —" Frowning, she stopped talking in order to listen. The strange distant hum she'd noticed when first entering the stairwell had abruptly intensified, and she was feeling a gentle vibration in the floor.
Brenda was looking around, too, and gently touched the wall. "There's some powerful machinery in this building … are they running the air conditioning?"
The vibration and hum increased again, this time accompanied by a high-pitched whine, and Lois suddenly felt herself pressed against the floor. A quick look told her the others were feeling something, too.
Francine opened her eyes, looking around fearfully. "I don't suppose this is just a really big elevator."
Melanie shook her head solemnly. "I thought something was strange when we came onboard, but I wasn't sure, and—"
"Onboard?" Brenda asked sharply.
"I think we're on a spaceship," Melanie replied simply. Abruptly, the downward pressure ceased. "And we've just achieved lift-off."
"No way," Lois said flatly. Every logical thought she'd ever had rebelled at the idea of spaceships, let alone her presence on one.
Francine echoed the sentiment in blunter language, and went on to say, "You've been to too many crystal parties, girl."
Melanie looked mulish. "You guys have a better explanation? Go ahead, I'd like to hear it."
"Come on, guys," Brenda coaxed. "This is just a cargo elevator, right? I mean, it's kinda big, but…" Her voice trailed off as it became evident that no one, including her, believed this theory.
"There aren't any buttons," Melanie pointed out stubbornly. "And why would you have to go up a flight of stairs to get to an elevator?"
Lois was silent for a moment, ignoring the elevator digression. "There are aircraft that do vertical takeoffs."
Melanie just looked at her in silent challenge.
"But I don't know of any that are this big," Lois admitted. "It's not exactly my field — I'm Army — but we usually hear about them sooner or later, 'cause anything this big would probably be a troop carrier."
"The space program have any breakthroughs lately?" Brenda asked belligerently.
"Not since Space Station Luthor went up." Lois frowned, trying to remember any scraps of insider gossip to come her way. It wasn't really her field of interest, but some of the guys on base were space nuts, and it generally took threats of violence to shut them up when they got excited over something new. Even the slightest rumor of a spacecraft this large would have whipped them into a positive frenzy. "They're still chasing their own tails to figure out what went wrong with the Messenger."
They looked at each other for a moment before Francine asked the obvious question. "Are these guys from outer space or something?"
Brenda looked pained. "They look human enough."
"And Kal's been hanging around the Metro Club for a couple of years, you said, right?" asked Melanie.
Francine frowned at her. "What's Kal got to do with it?"
Lois took another look at Melanie; she hadn't realized the younger woman had made the same connections she had.
"Sev and Zak wore uniforms," Melanie explained. She shot an inquiring glance towards Lois. "I didn't recognize them."
"Me neither." Lois said. "And I'd recognize most of the world's major uniform styles. I just figured they were making up their own."
"But it was the same sort of uniform as Kal's friend was wearing."
"Yeah, I saw them come in together," Brenda reluctantly added. "When I was waitressing earlier. They sat at two tables, but they were all chummy. So are you guys telling me that Sev and Zak are *aliens*? That *Kal Lewis*, who's been a regular at the Metro Club for at least three years, is an alien?"
For a moment, Francine looked inexpressibly sad. "I always liked Kal; he was a gentleman…" she murmured softly.
Lois squeezed her eyes shut. Sometimes she hated logic, and it was far too late at night for world-altering revelations. "Maybe," she replied, firmly postponing the debate for later. "We don't know. Although I don't know of anybody on Earth that could build or fly this ship." With an inner groan, she realized that she'd already accepted the premise that they were on a spaceship. From here it was only a short step to the loony bin. She couldn't quite decide whether that would be better or worse than aliens intruding on her reality. "I guess we'll find out when they come back."
The thought chilled her. If Melanie were at all correct, then this situation was more serious than she had thought. In a building in the West River district, it would be a relatively simple matter to overpower their captors and go blithely home. On an enclosed craft, far, *far* from home, the situation was vastly more complicated.
And how did Kal Lewis fit into this? His intent scrutiny of her earlier began to take on a sinister interpretation. Had he sent those two…? She hated to think so, irrationally sure he was above such tactics. But there was no way to find the truth from here; she would have to wait until someone came to get them.
She kicked herself for ever letting them get into that alley. She had thought she could protect them — it was no less than her duty as an officer. Well, she still would, as much as she could. Spaceship or not, Lois Lane was not going to play by their rules any longer. She watched her companions to see how they were handling themselves; they were silent at the moment but looked scared.
"Well, there's one good thing," she made herself say, keeping her voice as steady as she could.
Brenda laughed, a half-hysterical giggle. She clasped a hand over her mouth to contain the sound, but still looked on the edge.
"What's that, Lola — I mean, Lois?" demanded Francine, wavering between anger and despair.
"Well, it's just, with all of us here…" Lois swallowed, hoping this would distract them. "The Metro Club's not gonna have much of a floor show tomorrow."
Francine stared at her for a moment, then a corner of her mouth began to twitch. "Yeah, Johnny's gonna have a tough time finding four or five new kids in half a day, isn't he?"
Brenda's eyes lost some of their wildness and began to dance. "Hoo-boy, that boy is in trouble."
"Maybe he'll have to fill in, himself," Melanie suggested wickedly.
"He could use my chicken outfit," Lois suggested with a grin. Apparently, the news of Johnny's demotion had been kept secret; Lois would tell them later, but right now they needed the comic relief.
"Oh, no, Lola!" Brenda corrected, "that white dress would be more his style." In a gravelly voice, she imitated Johnny's accent and began singing "I've Got a Crush On You." The other three laughed harder until Brenda was laughing with them, unable to keep singing. If the laughter was a little on the shrill side, no one mentioned it, glad to have temporarily escaped the intolerable tension.
Kal sat in his command chair, watching the cloudy blue globe of Earth in a secondary monitor. The planet was already far behind them, and he was never likely to see it again. He should just put it out of his mind — the mission, as Lt. Ching had so emphatically reminded him, was the important thing.
He was just as glad when Sev entered the control room, shuffling his feet apologetically at the intrusion. After they had safely cleared the planet's airspace, Ching had set the ship to auto-pilot, and Kal had sent the three Kryptonians off to their rest period. Kal had rested too, but as long as the advantages of his stay on Earth lingered, he found he didn't need much sleep. "Yes, crewman?"
"Sir," Sev began, then paused, seeming uncertain of himself. "Well, m'lord, I have a confession to make."
This sounded mildly interesting, and possibly alarming. "What sort of confession?"
"Well, m'lord, I know you gave us lists of supplies — and we obtained everything on the lists — but I thought … well, for a long journey I thought we might need another sort of supplies. For morale purposes."
Kal watched, intrigued by this stumbling explanation. So Crewman Sev was showing initiative, was he? That could be good, but it was more likely disastrous. "So what did you do about this oversight?" he asked, keeping his voice neutral and sent out a tentative mental probe. He was out of practice, of course, but he found himself emphatically blocked. Either Sev had an excellent natural shield, or he'd had some training.
Sev looked up, seeming to gain confidence. "I planned it all carefully, m'lord. Took everything into account. I wasn't sure I'd have a chance to manage it, but fortune favors the bold."
This was surely going to be disastrous, Kal mused, as the other man carefully talked around the subject. "What did you do, Sev?"
Sev faltered at that level question, then looked sly. "Perhaps you'd best see for yourself, m'lord. It's the secondary storage room."
Kal gave him a pained glance, but perhaps a first-hand look would be worth more than a thousand words. He stood and passed Sev on his way out the corridor, leaving the crewman to the difficult task of leading the way while remaining the proscribed foot behind his commanding officer.
As they reached the section of wall where subtle markings betrayed a closed door, Kal stopped, turning with an ironic flourish to allow Sev first access to the opening. Sev flushed and looked flustered, but stepped forward. Faintly, Kal thought he heard voices within the cargo hold. Had Sev brought televisions or something?? He'd have had a difficult time hooking them up to power, if so.
"We needed some recreation," Sev said, as if that explained everything, then opened the door.
It was only due to his enhanced senses that Kal could make sense of the ensuing chaos. As soon as the door opened, a diminutive female figure appeared in the opening. With deliberate movements, the woman swept a kick at Sev that brought the unsuspecting crewman to his knees. From there, he was in easy reach of an overhand blow that crumpled him to the floor. Before Kal could do more than gasp in startlement, he was face to face with the last person he ever expected to see again. And she was now holding a pistol, aimed right at him.
"You!" he gasped, and heard her echo him a half-second later, her brown eyes going wide. Her grasp of the pistol wavered for only a fraction of a second, however, he noted.
"Brenda, tie this guy up," she ordered, kicking Sev lightly. One of the other dancers then approached, makeshift rope in hand, and set to work none too gently.
"I am Lieutenant Lois Lane of the United States Army," his dancer announced crisply, "and you are in big trouble."
"You're in the army?" he asked. He had heard that Earth allowed women into some of their military units. He would not have guessed that his dancer was actually a soldier, but it certainly explained a lot.
She scowled at him. "You have a problem with that?"
Kal gave her his best innocent shrug. "Not at all. Thank you, by the way."
Lois — he savored the name in his mind; it was somehow much nicer than Lola — narrowed her eyes in suspicious puzzlement. "For what?"
"Showing Sev here the error of his ways." As the shock of Lois's presence wore off, the enormity of Sev's crime was starting to make itself known, and Kal sobered. "I must apologize to you — to all of you," he added, peering around Lois to see who else was there. Good God, Sev had grabbed the whole floor show, he realized; there were four of them altogether. Sev must have been trying to be fair — four Kryptonians, four concubines, including the one Kal had been so openly admiring. He flushed in shame. If he had controlled his reactions, Sev might never have gone through with this horrible scheme.
"Forget the apology," Brenda grumbled. "Just put us *back* and we're cool."
"Sev should never have treated you like this," Kal said slowly, "and we will take you back."
"I don't want to go back," the youngest dancer announced, fixing Kal with an entreating stare. He'd never spoken to her, but he was almost certain her name was Melanie. "At least, not yet — you're aliens, aren't you? I mean, you're not from Earth, right?"
Kal stared at her as he frantically tried to calculate how much he could reveal without earning the Council's wrath. How much did they already know? Perhaps he could still hide the full truth … turning, he caught Lois's eye, held cold and steady above the pistol, and something within him rebelled at the thought of keeping any secrets.
"Yes, you will take us back," Lois said, waggling the pistol slightly for emphasis, her accelerated heart rate at odds with her calm appearance. "So turn this spaceship of yours around right now, mister."
Very well then. "You deserve the truth. I am Lord Kal-El, of the house of El, of the planet New Krypton." He bowed to all of them, enjoying the look of delight on Melanie's face. Which stood in stark contrast to the hostility emanating in waves from Lois. "And if you know it's a spaceship," he told her mildly, "you should realize it wouldn't be a good idea to fire that. Projectile weapons and pressurized craft just don't mix."
She just smiled back. "You're assuming I'd miss."
Assessing her familiarity with the weapon in her hand, Kal decided that it was far more likely that she'd hit him, especially at this short range. The impact likely wouldn't hurt him, but with his luck, the bullet would ricochet, possibly hitting one of the women. "Lois," he began, then at her raised eyebrow forced himself to use her stated rank, "Lieutenant. I am not your enemy here. Sev was acting against explicit orders, and he *will* be disciplined. I give you my word that you will be returned to Metropolis in perfect health, unharassed. However, we're in the middle of an urgent mission, and we simply cannot delay—"
She was looking entirely unconvinced.
"About a week ago," he explained rapidly, "the Lady Zara was kidnapped. She's the last of the royal family, and if she is harmed, it's almost certain that our world will slide into civil war. Besides, she and I — " Kal hesitated, unwilling to mention marriage while looking into Lois's eyes. "We are friends. I don't want her to be hurt. I have to go after her and get her back." He ran out of words, and simply let her read the truth from his eyes, holding nothing back.
She stared at him for a moment, then rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine," she snapped, finally lowering the pistol.
"Fine?" protested the older blond dancer. "Hey, I've got to get back to Earth before I lose my job! Without that paycheck I lose my apartment, and my rent is due soon. I don't have time for a joy ride around the galaxy!"
"Um, Kal?" Turning, Kal saw that the younger dancer — Melanie, he thought her name was — was looking at him bashfully. "You won't be too hard on Zak, will you? I mean, he didn't really do much…"
"Melanie!" Brenda scolded, "Just because you think the boy is cute does *not* mean he gets off the hook, here!"
"Oh come on, it was obvious he had no idea what was going on."
"He knew enough to herd us into this room, Mel; how innocent could he be? And quit your caterwauling, Francine; at least you've got a paycheck to go back to!"
"That's what you think — Johnny's not gonna like being left high and dry like this."
"And the high heels will make his feet hurt, so he's bound to be pretty grumpy," Lois murmured, to Kal's complete confusion. The others grinned at the comment. "But actually ladies … I was eavesdropping yesterday, and Toni's taken over the whole Metro Gang — she escorted Johnny out under armed guard, and I don't think he was gonna be coming back."
That statement impressed the women into stunned silence for a moment. Kal let himself smile. Good for Toni.
"She was keeping it under wraps," Lois added at their questioning looks, "but you know he wasn't there last night."
"True enough," Brenda nodded. "Hmm… I guess it doesn't make any difference to me now, but…"
"Serves the bastard right," Francine spat out, looking as if she'd bitten into something nasty. "And forced out by his sister, too. Hah. Good for her."
"So, um, Kal…" Melanie approached him cautiously. "Do we get a tour of your spaceship?"
"So explain this to me again," Lois said to Kal, taking advantage of a relatively quiet moment. Kal had led them all on a tour of the ship, ending up in a room clearly designed for eating. The furnishings were subtly different than the cafeterias Lois was familiar with, but the purpose was plain. Kal had somehow produced food for everyone, then sat at one of the two tables. Brenda, Francine, and Melanie had clustered at the other, speaking in low tones. Lois had seized the opportunity to approach him. Kal looked up. "I thought you'd want to eat with your friends," he said carefully.
Lois took that as tacit permission and sat down across the table from him. "I'm the ranking officer — sort of — and I wanted to clarify a few things. Like, you say you're off to rescue a woman who's been kidnapped … except you seem to be carrying along a few kidnapped women of your own." Despite her resolve to not antagonize him, a note of derision crept into her voice. "Does this happen a lot on your planet?"
Kal winced. "No, definitely not, and I apologize again. Sev was acting against direct orders—"
"What, you felt the need to tell him *not* to kidnap anyone?"
"I told him not to have contact with the locals," Kal explained, a touch of annoyance interfering with his apologetic tone.
"And obviously that worked real well," Lois commented acidly. "For that matter, how do I know he wasn't following orders? I saw the way you were looking at me."
Kal flushed, his eyes narrowing. "Lieutenant, I apologize for the circumstances of your arrival on this ship. And I admit I underestimated Sev's audacity, but I have never—"
Lois held up a hand to ward off his apology, her momentary doubt and anger fading, washed away by the hurt in Kal's eyes. Nothing in his actions had earned him that accusation, and on some level she had known that. "I'm sorry; I'm angry right now and I got carried away. I know this wasn't your fault. It's just that I'm supposed to be on my way to a beach right now." She took a deep breath, calling on years of discipline to reign in her temper. This was not how she had planned to spend her leave time, but at least it was leave time. If they got back to Earth quickly enough, she might yet avoid a court-martial for going AWOL.
Kal took a deep breath as well, composing himself. "Your irritation is understandable. And I sincerely regret not being able to return you immediately, but that would delay us another day, possibly two, and I cannot be sure Lady Zara has that time to spare."
"What do you think her situation is, exactly?" Lois asked, forcing herself to concentrate on tactical analysis rather than spend any time wondering exactly how close Kal was to his 'friend' Zara. Kal didn't strike her as the type to have platonic friendships with women, not after the way he'd been so intensely focused on her during her song. Not that it mattered. At all. "Are they on another ship, a planet, what?"
He shrugged. "We don't exactly know yet. Nor took her away from New Krypton in his personal ship, but we don't know where they went. He owns several installations that we can search."
"And how long will all this take?"
Kal hesitated. "If we find her quickly, only a few days. If Nor is better hidden …" He sighed. "If it takes much longer, I will return you and your friends to Earth."
"You hate the idea of it taking that long, don't you?" Lois asked gently. It was clear that he worried about his friend.
"I won't be satisfied until Zara is free and safe," he admitted, "but that doesn't justify further disrupting your lives. This week, right now … there's an urgency. If we can find her quickly, she should be fine. Lord Nor is an evil man, but in a lazy way, if you see what I mean. He doesn't like to get his hands dirty; he prefers to manipulate and bully others into doing his bidding. He must be hoping he can persuade Zara to marry him."
Lois blinked. "Interesting method he's got."
Kal grinned briefly. "It's a political thing. New Krypton is a very formal society; you'd probably think us terribly constrained. But for hundreds of years, we have maintained peace among us by maintaining certain traditions. One of those is hereditary leadership."
Lois rolled her eyes. "I've heard of that. Whichever son is born first gets the crown, whether he's qualified or not … that's a recipe for disaster."
Kal smiled. "We're not quite that unsophisticated. The leadership passes from father to son-in-law. Zara's father was First Lord of New Krypton, and whoever she marries will be, too. It's her choice."
"That's nearly as bad," she informed him. "What if she falls in love with a jerk?"
"Falls in love?" Kal asked, looking surprised. "It is her duty to choose the best available ruler; she has been brought up knowing that responsibility. Traditionally, her father would help her decide; unfortunately, he went to the stars about four years ago."
By the faint tinge of sadness around that last statement, Lois deduced that going to the stars was a polite term for death. She brushed that aside, annoyed by the idea of political, loveless marriages. It was beginning to look like New Krypton was a pretty cold society. At least there was some concession to merit over birth. Though perhaps not much. "So Zara's had to, um, interview all the men on New Krypton?"
"Oh no," Kal replied easily. "The noble class is not that large, unfortunately, so she's known most of us her entire life."
"Somehow I suspected that." Not only a patriarchy, but an oligarchy, too. She tried to remember instances in Earth history where oligarchies had been successful, but her memory failed her. "And I'll just bet that Zara's not allowed to do the job herself, is she?"
Kal looked faintly scandalized by that idea, and Lois rolled her eyes. "Sexist creeps."
Before she could launch into a diatribe about the evils of sexism, a motion in the corner of her eye distracted her; looking up, she saw that the mess hall door had opened. Kal's companion from the previous night was standing in the opening, staring tight-lipped and disapproving at the occupants.
Kal followed her gaze and startled guiltily. "Lieutenant Ching," he greeted the man, then stood and switched over to another language to continue the conversation.
Ching had difficulty comprehending what he was seeing. The mess hall was filled with colorful, chattering women. Accompanied by Lord Kal-El. For one confused moment, Ching suspected Kal-El of smuggling them aboard, and resentment flared. The Lord Kal-El was promised to the Lady Zara, and the least he owed her was discretion. But then saner counsel emerged; Kal had been with him last night, and had had no opportunity to arrange any of this.
Kal-El turned, alerted by his companion. "Lieutenant Ching," he said in English. Kal rose from the table and crossed the room to Ching. "We have a problem," he spoke softly in Kryptonian. "Although I trust it is manageable. These ladies were brought on board by—"
"Sev," Ching finished, now regretting his decision to let the crewmen stay at the club. Kal-El had been in command, true, but Ching knew better, and it had been his duty to recommend against leaving Sev unsupervised. "I'll kill him," he muttered, shame giving way to anger. In a louder voice, he said, "I apologize, my Lord. I should not have let him out of my sight."
Kal shrugged uncomfortably. "We were both at fault. And what's done is done. The ladies have — reluctantly — agreed to stay with us for a short period, so as not to delay our search."
That worry hadn't even yet occurred to him. "Very good." Still feeling off-balance by their presence, Ching began mental calculations. "We have extra crew quarters they can use if we all double up, and our supplies should be sufficient." He paused as another thought struck him. "Where is Sev?"
Kal's mouth twitched into a grin. "He's confined to his quarters — he was starting to regain consciousness when I left."
Ching blinked. He knew from his own practice sessions that Sev was a capable hand-to-hand fighter. "Did he resist your orders, my Lord?"
"He didn't get the chance," Kal told him, still looking unaccountably amused. "Lieutenant Ching," he said, suddenly switching back to English and turning slightly towards the rest of the room's occupants, "it is my great pleasure to introduce Lieutenant Lois Lane, of the United States Army. She's the one who flattened Sev."
Kal's former dining companion turned, and for the first time, Ching noticed that she had been drifting in this direction all through the conversation. Not that it would have done her any good to overhear it, unless she spoke Kryptonian.
"Lieutenant Ching," she greeted him in a cool voice, and Ching saw her face properly for the first time. She had changed clothes and hair style, but surely…
"Aren't you the singer?" he asked, bewildered not only by her apparent shift in profession, but also by the very idea of a female officer.
She made a hand motion that he assumed was a salute, but he was too confused to return it. He looked at Kal-El for assistance.
Kal-El was watching the singer. "Actually, that's a good question. What were you doing at the Metro Club, Lieutenant Lane?"
"Investigating the Toasters," she replied crisply. "Half of West River was burning down, and from the descriptions of their flame throwers, they could have been using stolen military technology."
Kal frowned at her. "What did you find out?"
"I never did find the Toasters," she admitted. "But I believe they were being directed by Toni Taylor."
The name meant nothing to Ching, but it was obvious it meant something to Kal-El. His face darkened. "Toni was involved? People were getting hurt in those fires! I can't believe that she'd —" He paused, sadness stealing over his face. "Or maybe I just never wanted to believe it. I wasn't supposed to get involved, and it was easier if I didn't."
The singer — no, officer — made an abortive movement towards Kal's hand. "There probably wasn't much you could have done," she offered in a soft voice.
"I could have—" Kal stopped himself, glancing at Ching, then continued in a more controlled tone, "There is always something that can be done."
Ching searched for a way to change the subject, uncomfortable with these careless displays of emotion; Kal- El had obviously been contaminated by his stay on Earth. Ching looked forward to seeing the effect wear off. "My lord, what shall we do about Sev?"
Kal-El turned his attention to Ching once again, his face sobering. "He will need to be tried and punished for his crimes. Possibly Zak, as well, as he seems to have been involved. It's a pity this ship is so short-staffed."
"We have enough for a trial," Ching replied, "and it should be straight-forward." The question of punishment was worrisome; they really couldn't afford to lose both crewmembers in the middle of the mission, but penalties could be delayed for later, if necessary.
Kal-El nodded. "Very well. Sev is confined to his quarters for now, and the ship is already on automatic pilot for this portion of the voyage. We'll convene the trial today."
"Abducted by aliens," Brenda said when they reached the privacy of their makeshift quarters. Francine and Melanie would share another cabin. Lois was just as happy with her assigned roommate; when Brenda wasn't in a state of high dudgeon, she seemed the most reasonable of the three dancers.
"I know," Lois said, still a little in shock when she let herself contemplate the revelations of the past few hours. "Seems unreal, doesn't it?"
The reality of the situation was hard for Lois to grasp. She'd always been skeptical to the point of derision about the possibility of other life in the universe, and especially dismissive of the idea that this other life would be visiting Earth on the sly, observing for their own purposes. And yet that had turned out to be quite literally true, at least in one instance — according to Melanie, Kal had been around for several years. She had known that Kal, no matter how attractive, wasn't right for her, but to find out that he was an alien was mind- boggling.
Why had he been spying on Earth, anyway? Apparently, the New Kryptonians weren't planning an invasion this week, but Lois couldn't feel too certain about the week after. She missed the smug assurance that her planet was alone and unnoticed by any others, and was left feeling small and vulnerable.
That vulnerability, however, provoked feelings of annoyance, and she used that energy. She might not know their intentions yet, but after all, she was a trained Intelligence officer, and she was better placed than anyone else in the Army to gather data on this potential enemy. Some small part of her protested that categorization of Kal … but she savagely shut it down. He might seem like a decent guy in some ways, but she didn't know him well enough to label him a friend. She would have to be on her guard.
She pulled herself together and applied herself to exploring the tiny room. There were two beds, one against each side wall, with a tiny cabinet between them along the back. The bathroom facilities were communal, and located down the hall, but Kal had promised them they would have the area to themselves. "I'll say one thing," Lois commented, opening the grocery bag Kal had given her, "Sev was very thorough about this. We've got a couple of different kinds of shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste … even toothbrushes."
Brenda surveyed the collection. "Those aren't my usual brands, but I guess they're better than nothing. No make- up?" She poked through the bottles for a moment. "Oh well, he wouldn't have gotten it right anyway. At least there's deodorant." She looked up at Lois. "So tell me, what's up with you and Kal?"
Lois flushed, but managed to keep her voice calm. "Absolutely nothing. I'd barely even spoken to him before this morning — and he was pretty rude to me before."
"Uh-huh," Brenda nodded, a wicked gleam in her eye. "So why did you ditch us at breakfast?"
"I was trying to find out more about our situation," Lois replied with as much dignity as she could muster. She was suddenly unsure that Brenda would take the "ranking officer" idea very calmly, as Lois really had no authority over anyone, and civilians might not understand the burden of responsibility that came with the title. "You'll have to ask one of them about their political system; talk about neo-feudalism — not to mention their attitude toward women. This Lady Zara he's trying to rescue is sort of their Crown Princess; whoever wins her hand gets the whole kingdom — or planet, in their case. So they trip all over each other and she's just the pawn in the middle. Sexist creeps."
Brenda sighed. "As what's-his-name says — you know, the guy that Garner beat for President — I feel her pain."
It was very unfair of the universe — aided and abetted by Sev — to dump Lois Lane in his lap, Kal decided. He'd already given her up, had steeled his heart to forget her and had determined to do his duty by his people … and yet, here she was again, tempting him. If he had found her attractive in her role as a dancer it was nothing compared to how her professionalism was affecting him. It was funny, really. She had dropped the exaggerated femininity of her onstage persona, but her body remained as shapely, and she was so poised and self-confident that she exuded a powerful allure all her own. She was also far more intelligent than he'd suspected, which delighted him. He had recently discovered a taste for lively conversation, and Lois was anything but intimidated by him.
The circumstances, of course, were just as bad as before, if not worse. One of the men under his command had kidnapped her, and the flush of shame at the thought almost extinguished his desire. He should have known, should never have left Sev alone … should have controlled himself better. Now her life would be disrupted for at least a week, possibly with longer repercussions, and there was nothing he could do to fix it. Except proceed with the court-martial, of course. He would provide justice for Lois and her friends.
And then, perhaps… the long journey to their first search area suddenly seemed fraught with opportunities. Lois would be on board for at least a week, after all. She had seemed annoyed by what he'd told her about his world, but she just didn't understand; he would have to explain the interlocking duties and privileges, the way the strong were pledged to protect the weak. She was an officer; the concept couldn't be too foreign. Perhaps he could make his way back into her good graces … perhaps even into her bed. It would be difficult, but worth it.
Kal tried to feel guilty at the thought of betraying his birth-wife, but he couldn't manage it. Zara and he were friends, true, but first and foremost they were business associates. Both dedicated to the good of New Krypton, over all. Noble wives were never jealous of concubines. Were they? He'd never really considered the matter before. Suddenly, he was convinced that if he were lucky enough to win Lois, she would be jealous…
If he were lucky enough to win Lois, he told himself, leaving the fantasy behind, it would only be temporary. She had a life to return to, and honor demanded that he take all the women safely back to Earth.
Still, a little voice pointed out, anything could happen in a week.
"This court-martial will come to order," Kal stated clearly, in English, then quickly ran through the formalities of establishing his authority as Lord of the Court, the name of the accused, and the charges. The secondary supply room had been turned into a court, since it was the largest unused space on the ship. Sev and Zak sat on a bench at the side of the room while Kal sat at the front, facing the makeshift courtroom floor. Lois and the dancers were present, as befit their status as victims and witnesses; they sat on the two remaining benches across the room from Sev. Ching stood, ready to perform his duty as prosecutor.
"Crewmen Sev and Zak," Kal addressed them, "you are charged with disobeying direct orders and kidnapping." Sev kept his eyes downcast, hunching his shoulders defensively, while Zak showed signs of bewildered panic. "You are further charged with assaulting an officer."
That startled Sev, and his gaze came up, disbelieving and defiant. "No, m'lord! Lieutenant Ching…" He sputtered to a halt.
Kal smiled maliciously. "I was referring to Lieutenant Lane, over there."
If possible, Sev's eyes got even bigger as he gazed at Lois, who very carefully saluted in Kal's direction, not at Sev.
"Now, let us hear from the witnesses." One by one, he called the four women to stand before him and tell their story. There were minor variations, of the sort that were inevitable in situations like this, but overall their stories were identical. "Thank you ladies, Lieutenant."
"Lieutenant Ching, have you anything to add?"
As planned, Ching came forward to list the extra supplies that Sev had purchased — supplies clearly meant for women and found nowhere on the list Kal had given him. "This establishes forethought, m'lord. His crimes were clearly premeditated."
"Indeed." Kal paused. "Zak, did you take part in any of this planning?"
"No, m'lord, I swear it," Zak answered in Kryptonian, better able to understand English than to speak it. "The first thing I knew Sev had anything in mind was at the club last night, when he started talking about recreation, and about the way you—" Blushing furiously, Zak stopped himself, looking down at the floor. "He said it'd be a good idea, m'lord, and that you'd like it, and well, they were just so pretty…" He trailed off in confusion.
"Your orders," Kal said gently in English, "were to look, but not touch."
"Yes, m'lord," Zak muttered miserably, emanating enough remorse that even the humans might be able to sense it.
Kal sighed, glancing at the humans. They seemed sympathetic, and Melanie was smiling encouragingly. Zak was young, and had been away from home a long time. His main weakness was following too blindly, but Kal was honest enough to know that blind obedience to one's superiors was taught by the class system, and reinforced by the military. "I pronounce you guilty. Your punishment will be fifteen days in solitary confinement. However, punishment will be delayed, and will commence the day you return to New Krypton."
Kal watched Zak's face as it sunk in that his homecoming, reunion with family, and chance to chase girls, had all been postponed, and tainted by disgrace. Perhaps that would make him think just a little harder next time about whose orders to blindly follow.
As Zak sank back against the wall in relief from escaping the spotlight, Sev stirred, looking more hopeful.
"Crewman Sev," Kal said softly. "Do you deny any of this testimony?"
Sev squirmed a little, then lifted his chin. "No, my lord."
"Have you any justification for your actions?" Kal glanced at Lois, who had completely lost her earlier expression of sympathy. Sev seemed to inspire only animosity.
"Well, you see, m'lord, it's like this," Sev began, his body language excessively submissive, even as he attempted to get his own way. "You didn't want any of the locals to know about us … well, no one back on Earth knows a thing. So I didn't really disobey the *spirit* of the orders. And begging your pardon, my lord, but I saw how you were looking at that singer." He glanced slyly across the room, and Kal followed his glance. Lois was looking frostier than ever, and she shot a cold look his way this time, too.
"You kidnapped free individuals," Kal said, ignoring his embarrassment and trying to bring Sev to a realization of what he'd done. "Deprived them of their liberty — permanently, if you had your way. This is simply unacceptable."
Sev blinked up at him, the picture of innocence. "But, my lord — they are only women."
That produced a babble of outraged protest from the other side of the room, and it took a moment for Kal to get the women to settle down enough to continue. He could understand their feelings, though; he was seething. "Sev— " he began, but stopped when Ching stepped forward.
"My lord, if I may speak?" Ching asked.
Kal took a deep breath and decided it would be just as well to give himself time to regain control. "Yes, Lieutenant?"
Ching glanced quickly at the women, then moved forward and began speaking rapidly in Kryptonian. "My lord, I do not condone Sev's actions, but I would remind you that the law is rather … lax on this point. If they had a noble house to speak for them, it would be one thing, but in this case, well … the law requires no more than a stiff fine."
Kal stared at him, unable to believe what he was hearing. In Kryptonian, so Lois wouldn't understand, he hissed back, "In other words, they have no greater status than groceries?" Lois's words from earlier echoed in his head — 'does this happen a lot on your planet?' — and for the first time, he was ashamed of his people. He'd never paid much attention before to what happened at the lowest status rungs of the class ladder, but this was insane. "I am still the captain of this ship, Lieutenant," he finished softly. "And he disobeyed orders, no matter how he maneuvers to deny it."
Ching nodded equably and stepped away. "Indeed, my lord."
Kal glanced at Lois, unsurprised to find her glaring at him. Well, perhaps he could make it up to her. "Crewman Sev, I find you guilty. You deliberately and with forethought kidnapped four people. You recruited a subordinate to assist you, subverting his training. You have endangered this mission. You disobeyed Lieutenant Ching's orders. You disobeyed my orders. Most importantly, you disobeyed the Council's orders."
He paused to let that fact sink in. For the first time, Sev exhibited fear.
"The Council was most specific in not wishing the people of Earth to know of our existence. These four people now know of us, and they will be returning to their planet." Kal took a deep breath. He didn't especially like the conclusion he'd been forced to, but the law was the law. He hoped at least that this would satisfy Lois and the others. "For your crimes, and for the crime of treason, I sentence you to death."
Lois stifled a gasp as the sentence was pronounced. She was no opponent of the death penalty, but she'd never before seen the process in action, never looked a condemned man in the eye. It was unsettling, to say the least. As a trained officer, however, she understood the seriousness of the charges.
Brenda, however, appeared undaunted by such rationalizations. She surged to her feet. "Hey, now wait a minute, here… I'm all for this dude getting what he deserves, but I don't want anybody killed over this."
"The death penalty is immoral," Melanie declared, standing in support of her friend. "Not to mention completely uncreative," she added as an afterthought.
Ching frowned at them. "Please do not disrupt the proceedings."
Kal shook his head. "They're the victims, Ching; they have a right to speak." He regarded Brenda with surprised curiosity. "You disapprove of the death penalty?"
"In this case I do," Brenda replied staunchly. "Think about it — nobody got hurt. I'm not saying I like what he was planning," she shot a glare at the man she was defending, "but he never got the chance to really do anything awful." Brenda looked around her. "Francine, tell me you want this guy to die."
Francine considered the matter. "What's the point?"
"Deterrence?" Kal suggested, with an air of interest. "Dead men don't harass women or disobey orders."
"Probably not," Francine conceded, "but they can't obey many orders, either. And if we killed every man who ever harassed a woman, it'd be a mighty quiet world."
Lois shook her head at that cynical line of reasoning and drew attention to herself.
"Come on, Lois," Brenda challenged. "You tell them!"
Lois winced. "Brenda, this was more than kidnapping; he was under orders — and not just any old orders, either; these came from high up — or at least I'm assuming that's what this Council is—" She glanced at Kal for clarification.
He nodded. "The Council is made up of the heads of all the noble houses, and in the absence of a First Lord of New Krypton, they are the government."
"That'd be like me disobeying the President. I'd be lucky if I weren't shot." She stretched the truth with an only slightly guilty conscience, conscious of a need to defend Kal in particular and military discipline in general, "especially if I'd added a few felonies on the side and corrupted a junior officer. The least I'd get would be a dishonorable discharge, most likely with some serious prison time, too. Besides, this isn't our system — we don't have any right to tell them how to run their courts."
"Actually," Kal said, with a look of enlightenment spreading across his face, "you do. Have a right to determine the sentence, that is. It's an old Kryptonian custom, if I'm remembering it correctly —" He glanced at Ching, who nodded. "Once a criminal is found guilty, the victim of a crime, or the victim's nearest male relative, has the option of modifying the punishment. Subject to the approval of the Lord of the Court, but traditionally the modifications are approved. I propose we take a short break. Ching, please escort the crewmen back to their quarters, where they will remain confined until further notice. Ladies, if you could take a few moments to decide which sentence you prefer to impose? I do want him punished, but if you could see your way clear to letting him continue his duties on board for the time being, it would be appreciated. Court dismissed."
Kal watched the dancers turn towards each other for a low- voiced discussion and allowed himself to relax somewhat. He'd never acted as Lord of the Court before; he'd been trained for it, as every noble was, but the necessity had not arisen before now. At least the case had been straightforward. Still, it had been a difficult experience.
Restless, he decided to stretch his legs a bit. On his way to the door, he glanced at the women and saw Lois watching him. After an endless moment of eye contact, he turned away, resuming his progress towards the hall. Despite the ship's excellent environmental controls, the hallway felt cooler.
When Lois appeared a moment later, he realized he'd subconsciously been expecting her to follow, almost as if they had spoken. She was eyeing him cautiously. "Hey."
"Lieutenant," he greeted her gravely.
"You don't really have to call me that," she offered. "I mean, if you call me by my title then I should call you by your title, except unless you have a military title that I don't know about, then the only thing you've got going is 'my lord' and I've gotta tell you, I'm not about to call *anyone* that."
Kal smiled. "Call me Kal. You really shouldn't say "my lord" anyway; on one level it's a courtesy, but on another, it has a specific legal meaning, which doesn't apply to you."
"Good." As the conversation progressed, she was relaxing. "Because I really don't have any desire to fit into your social structure."
"Are you sure?" he asked, half-teasing. "Because it's not so bad when you come in at the top."
She snorted. "I'll bet it's not, but from what I can tell "Lady" of New Krypton isn't the top; that position is reserved for the Lords. And I'm afraid I'm missing some necessary equipment for that."
Kal swallowed a laugh and let his eyes wander just a little. "From what I can see, you're not missing a thing."
Lois rolled her eyes, tamping down involuntary amusement. "Sexist creep. Anyway, I just wanted to make sure Brenda and the others aren't stepping on your toes too much — I know I'd hate to have my authority challenged like that, and … well, if I were you, I'd be pretty annoyed right now."
"No, it's okay." He waved it off. "It's a good thing, really. The law was pretty plain, so it didn't leave me much choice, but…" He glanced at her, taking in the sympathetic look in her eyes, and felt himself opening up more than he'd planned. "I didn't really want to sentence him to die. I mean, all life is precious, and Sev should have the chance to learn from his mistakes."
Besides, it would have been exceedingly difficult to get any cooperation out of a condemned man, and they were all stuck together on this ship for as long as it took to find and rescue Lady Zara.
"Thanks for backing me up in there— but it's okay."
"Hmm." She eyed him speculatively. "A bunch of women tell you what to do, and you're okay with it. Maybe you're not irretrievable, after all."
He felt strangely cheered by this tepid approval. "I have all sorts of potential," he assured her, almost at random. Anything to encourage her to see him in a new light. Before he could expand along those lines, however, Ching came around the corner, his presence putting a damper on any further intimate conversation.
Lois straightened, re-assuming her professional demeanor. "Well, let's go see how my friends have decided to punish Sev." She winked at him as they re-entered the room. "They were really getting creative. Before they're done with him, he'll probably be wishing for a nice, clean death sentence."
"And I mean *hand* wash them — don't be using any high- tech automatic cleaners or anything," Brenda instructed Sev with malicious glee.
He nodded dourly, not showing the least bit of appreciation for his reprieve. Of course, now instead of looking forward to a nice, peaceful execution, he was obliged to follow all orders that any of the ladies cared to give. And they planned to be very creative in their choices of chores.
Sev nodded his head and mumbled "Yes, m'lady," before bowing his way out of the room, a small clutch of dirty clothing in his arms.
"And have them back here first thing in the morning," Lois yelled after him. She looked down at the lightweight sundress she was wearing and exchanged wry looks with her roommate. "Where the heck did he shop for us, anyway — Wal-Mart?"
Brenda, who had snagged a pair of shorts and a tank top, only laughed. "It could have been worse, girlfriend. Imagine if he'd discovered Victoria's Secret — or worse, Frederick's of Hollywood! We'd have had nothing but lace and feathers to work with." Lois gave an exaggerated shudder. "Don't forget black leather."
Brenda laughed again. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it, hon."
"Well, it'd be better than that chicken outfit, I must admit." They fell into a companionable silence, and Lois felt her mind going back to her earlier conversation with Kal.
When she had seen him get up to leave the courtroom, it had occurred to her to worry about how well he was taking the situation. She could well understand that he might be irked to have his authority challenged so openly — and she imagined it would be especially galling for a man who was used to thinking of women as inferior. She had run into a few men of that type in the US Army; if old Milligan, for instance, had been in Kal's position, he would have proceeded to make their lives miserable in any way he could manage. So she'd watched him, wondering if she should join him in the hallway … when their eyes had met she felt that she'd received her answer. He hadn't appeared angry, only thoughtful.
So she'd slipped away from the dancers gleefully plotting revenge, and met Kal in the hallway. She had been heartened to see how comfortable he was with the notion of leaving Sev's fate in the hands of mere women, but it had seemed safer to maintain a pose of amused indifference. Kal Lewis — Kal-El of New Krypton — was the single most attractive man she'd ever known, but it was clear that they had no future. He was domineering, misogynistic … well, she conceded reluctantly, that was probably a bit strong. He showed signs of being a playboy, but she had no reason to assume that he *hated* women; he merely had some strange notions about their capabilities. In fact, he was probably a decent guy — within his peculiar cultural parameters. It was just that she knew she would never be able to accept those parameters.
There was a soft chime, and Lois swallowed nervously. Which was ridiculous. No doubt this was Melanie or Francine coming to visit. "Come in." There was no reason to think it would be—
The doorway slid back to reveal Kal standing to one side of the entrance, looking appealingly tousled, and Lois felt her heart flip. Oh my, this wasn't going to be easy.
Even as Kal opened the door to her quarters, he wondered rather desperately what he was doing. He knew he should stay away from Lois; it was clear that they had no future. But with their time so short, he couldn't bear the thought of missing any opportunity to be with her. Part of his brain was busy plotting seduction, but his more rational side recognized that as pure fantasy, and condemned it as dishonorable.
He was still feeling oddly off-balance from the court- martial, and needed to assure Lois that he did *not* share Sev's dismissive attitude towards her gender. If, unfortunately, he couldn't describe Sev as much of an aberration, he could at least convince her of his intentions to change things, once he was in a position to do so. Not that he had the least desire to explain his forthcoming marriage, which rather complicated the issue. He smiled helplessly, and only hoped that inspiration would strike before he made a complete fool of himself.
"Lieutenant," he greeted her, stalling for time. He nodded briefly to Brenda, "Ma'am." She looked slightly surprised at his choice of honorific, and he worried that he hadn't been respectful enough, but 'milady' had seemed too formal, besides being legally incorrect. Both the ladies gave him encouraging smiles, and he flushed slightly, determined to maintain better control of himself. "I, uh, I know it's been a long day," Kal said, briefly meeting Lois's eyes. "But I wondered if you'd do me the honor of joining me for a short walk. We could visit the Terrace again, for a view of the stars." He heard the words coming out of his own mouth and winced; he hadn't meant to sound that blatant.
She eyed him suspiciously, and he felt a rush of sympathy for her evident nerves. Thank goodness he wasn't the only one.
"That sounds nice," she agreed, sounding somewhat strained. "What do you think, Brenda?"
Kal raised an eyebrow at that, but then turned to Brenda, bowing slightly. "Ma'am? Will you join us? Your tour this morning was a bit rushed." He hadn't planned on this, but considering the shambles he'd made of things so far, perhaps it would be a good thing.
Brenda watched them both and smirked. "You know what? It's been a rough day, and I didn't sleep much last night, so I think I'll just turn in." She made a big show of getting into her bunk, and her eyes gleamed with mischief. "But don't let me stop you, Lois. You were just saying you were used to getting some exercise before bedtime."
Kal was briefly amused by the dancer's play-acting, but a glance at Lois's face sobered him. She was going to refuse him, and he would be forced to spend the evening alone — he needed to reduce the pressure. "We could visit the training room, if you wish," he offered. "We have different hand weapons and combat styles than you do, but there are similarities."
"Oh, okay, that would be good," Lois accepted the less- romantic substitution with obvious relief. She stepped forward, and he moved back, giving her plenty of room to clear the doorway.
"It's this way," he said, and began walking next to her, comfortably close but carefully not touching.
"I didn't know you had a gym," she commented brightly. "I'm glad you do — I was thinking of giving some self- defense lessons to the other women, you know, just some basic stuff that everyone should know. They're dancers, so I know they've got the physical strength for it; they just need to know the techniques."
Kal nodded. "A good thought. We may have some equipment you can use or adapt. I know we have a life-size dummy to practice on."
Lois's lips twitched. "Oh, I was thinking of using Sev for that."
After a second, Kal met her eyes, and they both broke into wide grins, their mutual tension dissipating. "This, I will have to see."
"Well, my father was in the Army, you know," Lois said as they entered the small gym. Her nerves had receded with that moment of shared glee in the hallway, and somewhat to her surprise she found she was enjoying herself. "I always liked investigating things, but there was no way I was going to be a reporter." A sideways glance told her that he hadn't gotten that reference, which was probably just as well. "Anyway, I figured the Army would be a good substitute."
Kal gave her a speculative look. "You don't strike me as the type to follow orders."
She shrugged, smiling wryly. "I'll admit I'm not that happy about it myself sometimes. But if I can do a good job, pretty soon I'll be the one giving the orders. I like that idea a lot."
Kal murmured something indistinct, but she noted that his eyes were crinkling.
Her eyes narrowed. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing, really." He smiled, opening his hands in a placating motion. "It's just that for a moment there, you reminded me of my Aunt Alys. She rules her house with an iron hand."
Lois couldn't help smiling at the note of obvious affection in his voice. But this didn't quite square with what she'd heard about his home. "Wait a minute, I thought men were in charge on your planet?" She couldn't resist teasing him just a little. "You big strong lords let a woman push you around?"
"Well…" Kal shrugged, amusement glinting in his eyes. "You've gotta know my Aunt Alys."
"Yes, I think I'd like to," she replied, her curiosity fully aroused. It had to be a hopeful sign, for him to be so fond of an obviously strong woman.
"She's sort of my foster aunt — more like a foster mother, really — it's complicated. See, Lord Mak-Ra was the First Lord of New Krypton, so the House of Ra is the most important one right now. At least until Zara makes her choice and selects a new ruling house. Anyway, Mak-Ra's wife, Zara's mother, died years ago, so he needed someone to act as First Lady. His younger brother had died, too, so his brother's widow —Alys — was the highest ranking lady of the house. She was pretty young, but she took over all the household duties and raised Zara and me."
Lois frowned, trying to keep up with this. "Zara's your sister?"
He squirmed. "Sort of. Mak-Ra was my foster father after my own father died."
There was more to this than he was telling her, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. "Your planet must be a dangerous place," she ventured cautiously.
"Oh, no," he said smoothly, more at ease now. "New Krypton is fine — a bit harsh, but manageable. But we're just a colony. The original Krypton … well, it blew up, about thirty years ago."
"What?" It was a difficult thought to process. Lois tried to imagine how she'd feel if she'd survived the destruction of Earth, and briefly, an overwhelming sorrow possessed her. Then, almost as quickly, it receded, and she was back in control. A glance at Kal told her that he was struggling with his own sorrows. "I'm sorry," she said softly.
He shrugged, not meeting her eyes. "I don't remember it, or my original family. No one on Krypton wanted to admit that the planet was in danger, so there was no widespread effort to escape. Lord Mak-Ra spearheaded the effort to colonize a nearby world — he brought all his house servants and as many noble families as he could persuade to join him. It was a last-minute scramble to get everyone off planet in time."
"Wow. So New Krypton really is a small society." It was probably a miracle they had made it, Lois mused, trying to imagine the myriad of essential tasks to be performed by a tiny group. "It's amazing you survived."
"We had excellent leadership," he replied. "And good technology," he added, which seemed rather more to the point.
"We're doing very well now," he said, with a forgivable amount of pride. "We've got several cities, and we're building new ships, for mining or exploration. We're not putting all of our energies into one planet anymore; there are various space habitats or working installations. This ship, actually, was on a survey mission to locate minerals, potential bases, that kind of thing. We need all the resources we can get, and we'll have to manage them carefully. I'll have to have a look at Ching's records, now that I think about it," he added as an afterthought. "I hope he found some diridium sources; it was getting scarce when I left."
Lois blinked, wondering how to react to that. "Um, sounds good. I'm glad you're doing well," she said politely, then realized that she meant it.
He gave her a sharp look, then flushed slightly. "I'm boring you. I apologize."
"No, no—" she protested, searching his face. There was something about his manner when he talked about his home, almost a proprietarial air. Well, he had mentioned a ruling Council, and he was probably part of it, she reasoned, rejecting the obvious conclusion. She'd already known that he took his responsibilities seriously.
"Let's check out the equipment instead, okay?" Kal jumped to his feet and walked over to the side wall. A complex hand movement produced a bin folding out from the wall, and he rummaged around inside it for a moment. "Does any of this look familiar?"
She stood watching him for a moment. She hated to let him think that she didn't care about his world — in fact, it belatedly occurred to her, as an Army Intelligence officer, she really should be learning as much as she could — but his expression was resolutely bland, and the subject seemed firmly closed. Not that she'd ever let that stop her before.
She crossed the room to join him, glancing at the tangle inside the bin. She laid a tentative hand on his arm and felt him go still. "I wasn't bored. It's just a little much to take in at once, you know?" She laughed softly. "I mean, yesterday, I'd have sworn there was no such thing as aliens."
He turned to look at her, a reluctant smile on his face, as his other hand came up to gently cover hers. "You're adapting rather well."
"Yes, I think so too." Lois allowed herself a smirk, if only to lighten the mood. "Although I'm still not entirely sure this isn't some elaborate hallucination. If I wake up in a rubber room with a straightjacket on, though … I admit I'll be disappointed. I mean, if we're going to have aliens, we should definitely have the kind that look—" as good as you do, she almost said, before catching herself. She felt herself blushing. "That look just like humans," she finished, regaining control and pulling her hand away from his. "Even if you are sexist creeps," she added lightly.
Kal laughed, raising one eyebrow. "So glad I meet with at least partial approval."
She gave him a deliberately arch look. Amused indifference, that was the best way to protect herself. "You'll do until something better comes along."
Kal's eyes sparkled at the challenge, and she braced herself. He appeared to think better of whatever he had in mind, however, and firmly closed his mouth. For a moment, he seemed at a loss for words, which on him was amazingly appealing. He looked down at his hands and brightened as he rediscovered the equipment bin. He pulled out a length of rope with subtly textured handles on each end; it looked like a jump rope, but was too short. "How about I show you what we do with this, and you can see if it looks familiar, or if you'd like to learn."
Lois allowed herself to be distracted, more grateful than not for the pause in the sparring between them. She found that she enjoyed their verbal jousts, but they were all the more dangerous for that.
Not that watching a demonstration of New Kryptonian martial arts was any less devastating. Sometimes he held both ends of the rope, sometimes only one; the rope moved with lethal speed and leisurely precision. The moves were unknown to her, but reminded her of Tai Chi; with one position smoothly flowing into another. Kal moved with a practiced grace, and an aura of controlled strength that she appreciated as a soldier, and as a woman. She reminded herself that she had trained with hundreds of men, but the intimacy of the situation refused to disperse. Watching *this* man was different, and she took advantage of his focus on his demonstration. His loose shirt bunched and gaped as he moved, offering brief tantalizing glimpses of his bare chest beneath. Her traitorous mind wondered how it would feel to touch it, and one hand actually lifted halfway up before she regained control of her senses and forced it down.
She startled, realizing that he had stopped moving, and was watching her in mild concern. She smiled brightly. "Oh, sorry, I guess I must be tired, I don't usually zone out like that — I mean, it's handy when the Base Commander is making some incredibly long speech, not that his speeches are boring, exactly, it's just that he doesn't seem to believe in amplification, so you can't hear half of what he says, but you have to pretend to listen anyway … um, sorry, I just … well…"
Kal was smiling, a gleam in his eye. Slowly, he walked towards her; she watched his approach and knew she should move, but couldn't seem to convince her legs to cooperate.
"Perhaps a more … hands-on demonstration would be better?" he suggested softly, circling around her. He took up a stance directly behind her, first one arm and then the other moving forward, gently guiding her arms into defensive positions. "The most important rule is, never let your guard down."
Lois flushed, knowing that she most certainly had let her guard down … worse yet, it was still down, because she couldn't bring herself to break away. Curious and fearful all at once, she turned her head and twisted slightly so that she could see his face. His eyes were lidded, but at her movement, he opened them, staring at her for the longest moment. Lois raised her chin incrementally, maintaining eye contact until it almost seemed that she could see into the depths of his soul. There was all the nobility, courtliness, and decisiveness that she expected, shot through by an unexpected thread of loneliness. Lois let her eyes drift shut then, abandoning herself to the moment. If she regretted it later — which she surely would — she would still have one perfect shining memory.
Instead of soft lips descending on hers, however, she felt herself being released, and she almost staggered from the shock. Her eyes flew open. Kal stood still, facing away from her. After a moment, he said shakily. "I'm sorry. I should never — I didn't mean…" He shook his head. "Do you know how to get back to your quarters from here?"
After a moment of confusion, she managed to nod. "Down the corridor, up one flight and left."
"Good. Good night, milady." Still without looking at her, he disappeared into the hallway.
Lois stared at the empty space where he had been, her body still tingling from contact with his. Gathering her scattered wits, she started back towards her temporary quarters, not quite sure whether to laugh or cry.
It was all supposed to be so simple, Kal thought wryly, lying in bed alone, trying to regain his balance. A romantic stroll, just the two of them, observing the universe from the Terrace. Whispered endearments, soft touches that only seemed innocuous, culminating in a kiss that would overpower her objections and lead them straight to his bed.
He had known it for a fantasy, of course. And in fact, he hadn't been trying to seduce her, he reminded himself. He had tried quite diligently to keep things comfortable, guarding his tongue and not letting himself get too near.
At least, he had managed until he'd seen the look of undisguised desire on her face. He had assumed that with her background, hand-to-hand combat techniques would be a safe, neutral topic. But her interest had gone far beyond the soldierly and all his old instincts had emerged; he had been unable to resist such an obvious opportunity.
Unable, that was, until he'd looked into her eyes. She had been so open, leaning back against him, pliable in his hands. He'd never seen her like that before, and had nearly drowned in her beautiful brown eyes before he'd seen the fear lurking beneath the desire. She might be attracted to him, but she didn't trust him. And, he realized bitterly, she had no reason to.
He had no right to ask anything of her, to impose on her. She was a guest on his ship, and thus deserved the full protection of his house. Even beyond the dictates of honor, though, he hated the idea of causing her pain, and he had nothing else to offer. A woman like Lois deserved nothing less than a man who could dedicate his life to her. Much as he might like things to be otherwise, his life was already spoken for.
He would simply need to keep his distance from now on. He would still speak to her on ship's business, no doubt, and they had previously arranged that the men and women would dine together — waited on by Sev, he thought with a wry smile — but he would control himself. He had to. That decided, he relaxed and turned over, finally seeking sleep.
Sleep was elusive, and he let his mind wander. It had been pleasant to remember Aunt Alys. He hadn't seen her in years, of course. Once he'd reached adolescence, Lord Mak- Ra had removed him from the female sphere of influence, sending him to military school instead. It had been a welcome challenge at the time, a sign of his impending adulthood, but now he could admit that he had missed her. When he returned home, he would have to pay her a visit.
For the first time, he wondered about his redoubtable aunt. She wasn't a large person, but she carried an unmistakable air of authority. She had been a young, childless widow when Mak-Ra had asked her to abandon Krypton to help him set up the colony. Had she been scared? She had run a large household and had set up a school for all the colony's many children. Looking back on it now, Kal felt sure she had influenced Mak-Ra on various issues. Would she have liked a chance to serve directly on the Council?
Three years on Earth had definitely corrupted him, if he were able to think such revolutionary thoughts. He could no longer remember why it had seemed so obvious to him that women were unfit to be part of the government. Perhaps there was something he could do about that, once he returned home. Once he married Zara, he would be the First Lord of New Krypton, after all, and who could better influence society? The thought, however, was depressing. He had been indifferent to the prospect before, but now it was very clear. He had no desire to marry Zara. Nonetheless, his duty was inescapable, and the consequences of failure were huge. Although he was willing to question certain aspects of what he'd been taught, he was not yet ready to consign his homeworld to civil war just to suit his own pleasures.
"Good morning, *my* lady," Lord Nor said with false cheer as he entered the dining area.
Zara dug a spoon into her breakfast and summoned her self- control. "Good morning."
"Ah, that I might always see your lovely face over the breakfast table." Nor sighed dramatically, his languid accents at odds with his efficient acquisition of a tray full of food.
"Well, why don't we head back to New Krypton to announce our engagement?" Zara asked experimentally.
Nor laughed, a harsh, short sound. "Oh, I don't think so, my dear. We will announce our marriage, nothing less."
Zara swept a look at him through her lashes and used her best coquettish voice. "One would think you didn't trust me."
"That's because I don't," he replied, his eyes hard and dangerous for a moment. "No, no, don't take offense, my sweet; I merely cannot stand the thought that you might refuse me. Besides," he continued, the threatening light in his eye dying down, "I find, now that we are here, that I have some work to do on this installation."
Zara concentrated on eating her cooling porridge, wondering if Nor's suspicions were truly roused. With luck, he only thought her naive. She had better cultivate that impression, much as it galled her, before she exhausted his patience. "I miss my home," she murmured softly.
"Yes, of course," he replied, almost kindly. "But soon we shall return to it, and we will be able to claim the full privileges of First Lord and Lady of New Krypton."
Not a word said about duty or responsibility, she noted. No wonder he had found work to do here; he probably neglected any part of his estate that wasn't right under his nose. Which raised a question. "M'lord, if I may ask, where are we?"
He looked briefly surprised, then went back to his breakfast. "Merely a mining operation. It's been inactive for the past few cycles, but there are traces of diridium, and I believe I should like to produce that."
Zara looked up, pleased. "Oh, that would be excellent!" Diridium was essential to building their ships, but lately had become increasingly harder to find. "You should get quite a good price for it."
He smirked. "Indeed, if I were to sell it. No, I think I prefer building my own ships. After all, the ruling house must have some advantages, don't you agree?"
"Oh." Zara struggled to smile. Power-hungry bastard. "Yes, indeed."
"So there is much to do. But don't fret, my dear, it will only occupy me for a few days, and then we may proceed with our … personal relations."
Zara looked at the floor, hiding her feelings in a gesture meant to suggest maidenly modesty. "M'lord, while you are busy … I was wondering… would you mind if I …" She let her voice trail off in artful confusion, then, when she was sure her expression was under control, she lifted her eyes in silent supplication. "May I have freedom of movement around the ship? It gets so quiet in here, and in my quarters." She smiled. "Perhaps I could assist your crew."
Nor laughed at that, clearly amused at the mere idea. "You are far more likely to distract them, my dear. But if it amuses you, I see no harm. Don't worry, I shall instruct the crew to give you every consideration."
No doubt he would also tell them not to touch her, but that suited her. As the only woman on board, she had no wish to become an object of competition. She was unlikely to find any allies among this crew anyway. She would simply have to keep her eyes open for possibilities of sabotage. She swept her lashes shyly downward once more. Softly, she said, "Thank you, m'lord."
"I don't know about you guys," Melanie declared over breakfast, "but I am totally disappointed."
Brenda looked over at her friend's plate. "Well, the toast was a little overdone, and there's no fresh fruit on board, but really, it's not too bad."
"If you don't like how Sev fixed your toast," Francine interjected, "make him do it again. What else have we got a slave for, after all?" With a wicked gleam in her eye, she tapped her fork against her water glass. "Waiter!"
Melanie rolled her eyes. "This is not about breakfast! Although now that you're here," she added in an aside to Sev, "I would like another omelet, a little fluffier this time, and with salsa and just a touch of Mexican cheese. If you have it, that is, but I think I saw some earlier. And don't toast the bread so long this time — Brenda and I both want some more. Lois, do you want anything?"
Lois pulled herself out of her reverie long enough to decline the offer. The truth was, she had very little appetite this morning; she was far too busy trying to figure out what had happened the night before. Everything had been fine — she had been a little nervous, but the conversation had been perfectly neutral. But then she'd found herself admiring Kal's body, and a few moments later, he had noticed her admiration. His earlier reserve had disappeared, and for a few moments he had been a confident, seductive playboy. She had caught glimpses of that before, but this had been the full effect, and she had to admit, it had been very effective. Until suddenly, he'd dropped it again. She supposed she ought to be grateful to him for stopping things before they'd gone too far, but part of her wished she'd at least gotten to try a kiss.
Not that she was going to let him know that. She would be polite to him, but distant. Her hazy fantasy of snubbing him while he groveled had been spoiled when it became clear that he had also decided to be cool and distant. As annoying as that was, however, she supposed it was for the best. It would save a lot of trouble if neither of them made too much out of an incident where, after all, nothing had happened.
It was just that she couldn't figure out why he had stopped. She really couldn't doubt that he wanted her, and she had the feeling that he tended to get whatever he wanted. She hadn't exactly been pushing him away, either. So then, why had she gone off to bed alone? There was some contradiction there, and she was dying to investigate it. Of course, that would be a trifle difficult, given that she wasn't currently speaking to him, but she'd manage somehow.
"What, the spaceship isn't enough for you?" Francine asked sardonically, her voice cutting across Lois's thoughts and bringing her back to the present.
"It's not about the technology, either," Melanie insisted. "It's their society. I mean, aliens are supposed to be *advanced*. Equal rights for all, no discrimination, respect for the environment … stuff like that. They're not supposed to have capital punishment and treat women like dirt!"
"Don't assume too much," Lois felt obliged to say. "We've mainly seen the military here, and the military can have a culture all its own."
"You don't have any idea how they feel about the environment, either," Brenda pointed out, a teasing gleam in her eye.
Lois remembered what Kal had said about the original Krypton blowing up, and kept her mouth resolutely shut. So maybe the old Kryptonians had ignored their environment. That didn't mean the New Kryptonians hadn't improved; even the most hidebound of cultures could learn. Losing a whole planet should be enough to catch anyone's attention.
"Well, I'm not crazy about them either," Francine put in, "but as long as Kal does put us back, what difference does it make?"
"They just should be better than this," Melanie repeated stubbornly. "I expected more enlightenment here — I thought they could *teach* us things!"
"Hey, think of it as an opportunity," Brenda joked. "Maybe you can teach *them* things."
Melanie sat up straighter, her eyes widening. "That's a great idea! I mean, I never thought I'd have to, but here they are, just crying out for enlightenment … I wish I'd brought some of my crystals. I wonder if they have any I could use? But that's great, I could get Sev and Zak, anyway, I don't know about Kal and Ching." She frowned, pondering the logistics.
Brenda watched her, somewhat wide-eyed. "Honey, I wasn't serious…" Melanie looked up, hurt flashing in her eyes, and Brenda backed down. "Not that you won't do a great job with it, I just hadn't thought it through. Um… will Zak understand enough English?"
"He understands some already." Melanie smiled slyly, and Lois suddenly wondered if there had been another couple taking a late night stroll around the ship last night. "And besides, Sev can translate."
Brenda laughed. "You go, girl."
Lois smiled too. If Melanie was half as interested in Zak and vice versa as Lois suspected, then translating for them would no doubt be exquisitely annoying for Sev; a perfect punishment. He had cooked and served them breakfast with appropriate meekness, but she had the impression he was used to playing the part of servitor to his betters. It might have been a mental wrench to reassign them to "lady" status, but once he had reclassified them, it probably hadn't been difficult for him to adopt a subordinate role. Oh well, that wasn't all he would be required for, and at least the service had been good.
Thinking of Sev's schedule jogged her memory. "Well, if we can work it around your seminar, Mel, I was thinking of holding a self-defense class for you guys. Just some basic moves."
Brenda raised an eyebrow. "For the next time someone tries to herd us into a dark alley?"
Lois grinned. "It couldn't hurt."
Ching spent the majority of the day on the bridge; it seemed the best way to avoid the dancers and their activities. He bore them no ill will, but neither did they hold any great interest for him. He preferred to concentrate on the mission. Besides, checking the ship's progress and laying plans was the only defense he had against a paralyzing fear.
It was a new and unpleasant sensation. He had never hesitated to risk his own life, but never before had he been in the position of worrying helplessly for someone else. Visions of Zara in danger tormented him. He told himself that Nor was unlikely to kill her; she was of no use to him dead. And he knew Zara was no fool; she could take care of herself. At least for a while.
Ching ordered himself to focus. They would reach the first of Nor's several space installations tomorrow. It was a small mining station, manned only by a skeleton crew, if that. Lord Kal-El would likely want to take a transport pod to the station and search it himself. Ching meant to go with him. Between the two of them, it wouldn't take long to thoroughly search the place, and he hoped to be able to contact Zara telepathically, if he could get within range.
The problem with that arrangement was that it left Sev and Zak on the ship. Sev had been demoted, which left Zak in charge, but Zak was still young, and Ching hated to rely on him to control his older and more experienced colleague. He could send Zak over to the station with Kal-El, of course, and remain behind to keep an eye on Sev. It was possible that Kal-El shared a telepathic link with Zara, but Ching doubted it. At any rate, it couldn't be as strong as his own.
Two years before, Lieutenant Ching had been injured on duty. His full recovery had taken months, but once he was released from the medical facility, he was deemed fit for guard status, and had been assigned to the Lady Zara's household.
He still didn't know why she had begun talking to him. But one night, after a long meeting with her father, she had seemed restless and had asked his opinion. Taking the question as an order, Ching had answered honestly, offering her a new perspective. She had looked surprised, but after that, she had sought him out more and more frequently. When he'd sufficiently recovered, she had requested that he be permanently assigned to her household. They had discussed history, argued policy, shared gossip, compared family backgrounds … and somewhere along the way, had fallen deeply in love.
Ching knew it was hopeless, of course; they both did. They had tried to keep their relationship as quiet as possible, meeting in secret, honing their telepathy until it was so private that no one else could overhear it. Still, Ching had not been surprised when he'd suddenly — and against Zara's wishes — been assigned off-planet. He suspected that Mak-Ra had gotten wind of his daughter's unsuitable attachment. Her status had protected him even then. She was no ordinary daughter, and gossip about her must not be allowed, so Ching had merely been quietly reassigned. Not that he had cared. Losing her had been bad enough.
And now, he thought with a sense of irony, he had been ordered to find her again. The universe truly worked in unpredictable ways. However, in this case it was a good thing. Their brief, doomed interlude had left Ching with one small advantage — their telepathic link. The only limiting factor was distance, and possibly lack of practice. Ching hadn't spoken with Zara since his ship had left New Krypton orbit, one full cycle before.
It was his hope that if he could get within range of her, he might be able to contact her. He would have to let his guard down, but it would at least let them know if she was near. If she were close enough. If she were conscious.
It would be awkward explaining this to the lady's birth- husband, of course. No matter how many concubines noble lords enjoyed, they were notoriously unable to overlook their lady wives' other interests. Banishment would be the least he could expect. But if this worked, it would be worth whatever other consequences came of it. The main thing was to see Zara safe.
Ching's reverie was broken by the hiss of a door opening. He turned to see Kal-El entering the bridge, and braced to attention.
Kal waved the formality away and sank into the captain's chair. "What's up?"
Ching eyed his superior warily. "I was putting together some preliminary plans for our search tomorrow." Belatedly, it occurred to him that Lord Kal-El might take this as an affront to his authority.
Fortunately, Kal just quirked a smile. "Yeah, I'm avoiding them too."
That was so unexpectedly apt that Ching couldn't restrain a smile. "Just so, my lord."
"So, what have you got?"
"A dilemma," Ching said. As succinctly as he could, he outlined their options, then paused, trying to find a way to justify his presence on the search team without revealing his secret. "I … feel myself obligated to join the search," he said cautiously, choosing a half-truth. "I spent some time between active duty missions as a guard in Lady Zara's household. I owe it to her."
"Hmm." Kal watched him for a moment, revealing nothing of his inner thoughts. "Well, I'll consider it. I really don't trust Sev anywhere, to be honest, which makes things difficult — we still need him."
"Indeed," Ching replied quietly. He had made his request, and that was probably enough for now. He would continue marshalling his arguments, though; one way or another, he had to travel to that station. Careful not to let his mental arguments leak out telepathically, he turned back to his console and ran meaningless simulations until it was time for dinner.
Lois paced the small cabin, from door to locker and back. After her third trip, Brenda opened her eyes with an irritated expression. "Something on your mind, Lois?"
"Oh." Belatedly, Lois realized that Brenda might have been hoping for an afternoon nap. "No. Well, maybe, but … no, not really."
Brenda eyed her for a moment, then sat up. "Okay, I'll play twenty questions. You just let me know if I get close, okay? Are you still thinking about Melanie's seminar?"
Lois rolled her eyes. "Well, it was kind of upsetting; I mean, obviously they don't think much of women, but concubines? That is *so* regressive it's not even funny."
"But you're still pacing. So, maybe this has more to do with our good captain Kal? And what *did* happen on your little late night stroll, hmm?"
Lois sat on her bed, studying her feet. She wasn't used to confiding in women friends; come to think of it, she didn't really have any female friends. But she realized that she liked Brenda … and she was dying to talk this out. "Okay, okay." She looked up and saw sympathetic eyes. "We just talked, really … we checked out the gym, he told me about his society, and he showed me some martial arts moves…"
Brenda grinned at that. "Did he pin you to the deck?"
Lois laughed rather shakily. "No, but he almost kissed me."
"Ooh! Why 'almost'?"
"He started to — but then he stopped. And it's driving me crazy."
Brenda blinked. "Now, I can see that you'd be annoyed if he came all macho male on you … but are you telling me you're annoyed because he didn't?"
"No!" Lois squirmed. "Well, maybe. See, I cannot figure out why he stopped. He wanted me, I know he did." She glanced at her friend, afraid she'd made herself sound conceited, but Brenda just nodded in perfect understanding. "At least I thought he did, until he got up close. Have I suddenly developed bad breath or something?"
Brenda pursed her lips, considering this. "Maybe he's extremely nearsighted, and last night was the first time he noticed your eyebrows."
"My eyebrows?" Dismayed, Lois stared at Brenda, one hand flying to her forehead. "What's wrong with my eyebrows?"
Brenda chuckled. "Nothing, hon. Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood a little."
Lois glared at her, her hand returning to her lap. "You're not taking this very seriously."
"Or maybe you're taking it too seriously," Brenda suggested. "Remember, Lois, this guy is an *alien*! Who knows what he finds attractive?"
Lois calmed down a little. "Well maybe…" Memory stirred. "No, I know he was attracted — *is* attracted. Besides," she added before Brenda's twisted sense of humor emerged again, "even Sev thought so — he thought we were *all* pretty hot stuff, or he wouldn't have pulled that kidnapping stunt."
Brenda shrugged, acknowledging the point, then grinned. "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."
Lois smiled in abstracted response. "It's just that … he started, then he stopped. If he hadn't started, that would have been one thing. If he'd actually kissed me … well, that might have been okay, but it's just killing me to know he changed his mind!" She stared at her roommate in frustration, and finally allowed herself to voice the worry that had preyed on her mind all day. "Did he decide I wasn't even good enough to be a concubine?"
Brenda looked at her for a moment, then commented, "Well, you know you're not in the union."
"What?" Lois stared back, narrowing her eyes as she tried to figure out where this could possibly be going.
"You know," Brenda said, straight-faced. "The harem-girl union, back on New Krypton. He'd probably get his butt hauled into court if he fooled around with an unlicensed concubine."
Lois blinked, processing Brenda's deadpan expression and reasonable tone of voice — then caught sight of a lurking twinkle in her eyes. She let her breath out in helpless laughter. "Oh, Brenda," she gasped. "You are so evil."
"Just part of the service, and I owed you one. I mean, that picture of Johnny in high heels is gonna keep me smiling for a *long* time to come." Brenda grinned, then turned serious. "Trust me, nobody ever got anything but trouble from all this stewing around and second guessing. You want to know what's going on with him? Maybe he didn't like your eyebrows; maybe he decided you were too *good* to be treated like a concubine. Maybe he suddenly remembered he needed to return a video, or something else entirely. Don't ask me; I ain't got a clue. And you've only got half the picture." Brenda fixed her with a stern look. "You need to just talk to the man."
Lois smiled ruefully. "I should have known you'd say that. You're always so open."
"Well, I'm working on figuring out when to shut up," Brenda said with a wry grin. "But it doesn't come natural to me, and that's a fact."
"I'd never have guessed." Lois grinned. "But if you're not going to indulge me in proper girl-talk, I'm going to go back to the gym and try to get a workout. Thank God I brought my comfortable shoes. Maybe I'll run around the corridors or something. See you at dinner."
Brenda lay back down on her bed. "Have fun."
Lois found what she thought was part of a circular corridor and began jogging. She hadn't really resolved anything, but she did feel somewhat better, nonetheless. After all, Brenda was right; what she needed was first-hand evidence. Hearsay and speculation never held up in court, so it would hardly be fair of her to convict him in absentia. The only small problem with that was, in order to hear his side of the story, she'd have to talk to him. Even if he was willing to explain himself, she wasn't quite sure she was ready to approach him again. It would be far more sensible to keep her distance.
As Kal entered the ship's dining room, he automatically looked for Lois. He found her sitting with her friends, just beginning to eat. She seemed happy, and he drank her in for a moment before she noticed him. She gave him a cool nod, her expression losing its animation, and then turned back to the other women.
He sighed. Collecting his dinner from the automated kitchen, he sat at an empty table, his back to Lois. Merely hearing her voice was less satisfying than seeing her, but perhaps this wouldn't disturb her as much.
He tried to concentrate on crew assignments. If the mining station was unstaffed, which was possible, then Ching could take Zak over, no problem. However, if there were a crew onboard, he would have to go, as the representative of the House of El, to satisfy protocol. Anything less would insult the House of Nor. Not that Kal really worried about that, but it would anger the mine personnel, and that was a complication he'd just as soon avoid.
It would be easier if Ching stayed on the ship. However, for some reason, Ching seemed to feel that he needed to join the search personally, and Kal was hesitant to dismiss that, especially since the lieutenant was well aware of the difficulties. Ching had been focused on this rescue mission with the intensity of a laser beam, and Kal didn't think he would do anything to jeopardize it without good reason.
His intensity, in fact, suggested that this mission was in some way personal, and Kal wondered exactly how well the lieutenant had known Zara. He tested the notion that they had been lovers, and waited for a rush of possessive rage. It didn't come. Zara was his friend, no more. He knew her well enough to know how isolated she had sometimes felt, unable to have serious conversations with the noble Lords, nonetheless entrusted with the future of the planet. If she had found a companion while he had been away on Earth, he decided that he was okay with that.
Zara would do her duty, he was sure, just as he would do his; they would marry for the good of New Krypton. But she deserved whatever happiness she could find, as long as she was discreet. He wondered if there were any possible way to communicate as much to Ching, on the off chance that Ching would be tempted to indulge in destructive jealousy. Ching had been extremely difficult to read, but he seemed honorable. And surely Zara would tolerate no less.
Kal shook his head. Either Ching was Zara's lover, in which case he was too honorable to jeopardize the mission, or he wasn't, in which case he had no reason to hate Kal. Unless he had an entirely different motive. No, Kal decided, he had no reason to mistrust his second in command, and mistrust could destroy a small crew. He would trust Ching — and somehow find a way to include him in the search party — until he had solid reason to withdraw that trust.
"Hey, Lois — I know who you are!" Melanie's excited voice breached his concentration. "You're Lois Lane, from the comics!"
He could distinctly hear Lois groan. "Not exactly, Melanie. I promise you, I was never actually in a comic book."
"Yeah, but you know what I mean — Superman comics!" There was a pause, then Melanie continued in a smaller voice. "Didn't you want me to say anything?"
"Oh, it's okay, Mel," Lois assured her. "God knows I should be used to it by now."
"Yeah, I remember," Francine added thoughtfully. "Weren't they going to do a Superman movie once?"
"Yeah, but the copyrights were so tangled up they couldn't do it."
"Wait, wait, wait," Brenda interrupted. "What are you ladies talking about?"
"Haven't you ever read Superman comics, Brenda?" Melanie asked in some disbelief.
"Do I look like a boy to you? No, I never read comics much."
"Oh, you should have," Melanie said with her typical enthusiasm. "Superman was great, and Lois — the one in the comics, I mean — was always right there helping him out."
"They were *partners*, Mel," Lois corrected. "Lois and Clark. And it was a novel first, before it was a comic book."
"Clark?" Brenda asked, sounding equally bewildered and annoyed. "Who's that?"
"Clark is Superman … um," Lois paused. "Maybe I'd better tell the whole story. Do you mind?"
"At this point, I'd mind a lot more if you didn't," Brenda said promptly.
"No, go ahead, Lois," Francine commented. "I sort of remember it, but I'd like to hear it again."
Kal silently urged her on. He'd begun listening mainly for the sound of her voice, but the idea of a fictional Lois had intrigued him … what might he learn about the real one, in her reaction to the character?
"Well, okay then." Lois paused for a moment. "It all started when a mysterious baby landed on earth in a tiny spaceship. The ship came in like a meteor, and a childless farm couple, named Jonathan and Martha Kent, saw the fireball, and knew that something had landed in a field nearby. So they went to check it out, and found the baby in the spaceship."
"Man!" Brenda sounded offended. "Who would put a baby in a spaceship and just send it off like that?"
"No one knows," Lois replied. "There was a suggestion, at one point, that the baby was the sole survivor of a passing ship, sent out in a life pod to escape an explosion or something, but that's not official. And in the 1988 rewrite, they said he had been a genetics experiment, but nobody liked that storyline so they rewrote the whole thing again in 1990."
"Anyway," she paused for a moment, to be sure of her audience, "Jonathan and Martha had always wanted a baby, and this baby looked completely human, so they adopted him and named him Clark."
"Clark grew up perfectly normal for years, but then they started noticing strange things about him. He couldn't get hurt. He could see through things. And then one day he found out he could actually fly."
Kal felt a chill go up his spine. Those powers sounded eerily familiar. How could anyone have known? No, he was imagining things. This could only be a bizarre coincidence.
"Clark went to college, and then he traveled around the world for a while, but finally ended up in Metropolis."
"Our Metropolis?" Brenda asked. "And he's supposed to be famous? I'm surprised they don't have his picture all over everything."
"Copyrights again, I guess."
"The City Council doesn't dare associate itself with Superman," Francine suggested. "They know how bad they'd look in comparison."
Lois laughed at that. "Maybe so. Anyway… Clark had decided he wanted to be a reporter. He loved to interview people, and write, and he liked the idea of exposing corruption and helping people. So he went to get a job at the Daily Planet, and that's where he met Lois Lane."
She paused for a moment, and Kal had to restrain himself from turning around to get a glimpse of her face. Her voice sounded a little strained when she continued. "In the comics, Lois was a reporter, too … a very dedicated one. She'd already won several awards, and that was pretty impressive for a woman — especially when the novel first came out in the late forties!" There was undoubtedly a note of pride in her voice at that.
"Was it love at first sight?" Brenda asked.
"Not exactly." Lois was grinning, he could tell by the tone of her voice. "Clark fell for Lois right away … I mean, she was beautiful, smart, and passionately devoted to making the world a better place — who could resist?" Definitely a note of affectionate mockery there. "But she'd had some bad relationships, and that made her pretty defensive."
"And then Superman just complicated things," Melanie added helpfully.
Lois laughed. "Oh yeah, he sure did. Sorry, Brenda, I'm getting to it! See, Clark wanted to use his powers to help people, but he didn't want them to know who he was, because if the bad guys knew about him, they might go after his parents. So he came up with the idea of a disguise — well, actually, Lois gave him the idea, only she didn't know she was doing it — and his mother made him a blue suit out of Spandex, with a long red cape."
"Okay," said Brenda, trying to piece this together. "So Clark is Superman in a flashy suit, only nobody knows who he really is."
"Nobody except Lois," Lois corrected. "Although it took a little while. At first, she fell for the superhero — total mad crush. But she was also working with Clark, and they became good friends…" Her voice thickened with emotion. "Partners."
She cleared her throat. "And then she figured out that Clark and Superman were one and the same. That's when they really became partners, all the way. He saved her, she saved him, and together they got the bad guys."
"That's how it happened in the novel, anyway." Her voice took on an acerbic quality. "In the comics, it took about fifteen years, with lots of mindless slug-fests in between, but they did get there eventually. Actually, the comics took it a step further and let them get married. Of course, they also rewrite the continuity from time to time, but that's the basic idea."
"Nice," Brenda said softly. "Maybe I should have read some comics growing up."
"Well, it has its frustrating points," Melanie pointed out cheerfully. "The 1988 rewrite, for instance, kind of destroyed some of the minor characters, and I really didn't like the idea that Lex Luthor was Clark's real father, but thank goodness they scrapped that."
"They had to," Lois agreed. "Even *I* stopped buying them at that point."
Brenda chuckled. "Yeah, I can see that would be a bad sign. So what was it like, knowing you were named after a comic-book character?"
Lois was silent for a moment, and Kal strained to hear her answer. "Well, my parents didn't name me after her on purpose; I don't think either of them had ever read the book or the comics. It was … it was weird. I'd get teased sometimes, but after I got over the shock, I was curious, and started reading them. After a while, I figured it was a good thing. Lois in the comics was so strong and smart and determined … I just figured if she could do it, so could I. And I used to…" Her voice trailed off. "Well, I liked the relationship between Lois and Clark. They were equals, you know? I mean, they could do different things, but they helped each other and respected each other … I dunno. Partners. I always wanted a partner like that," she finished in a low voice.
"Don't we all," Melanie murmured softly.
"Well, enough about me," Lois said briskly. "How did your consciousness-raising session with Sev and Zak go after we left, Melanie?"
Kal tuned out, finally remembering to eat, and made a mental note to find out more about this Superman. He wanted to know whether he had, indeed, exhibited the same sort of abilities, and if so, how an Earth novelist could have found out about them. The only possibility that he could think of was that a Kryptonian had visited Earth before, and yet, there were no records of such a visit. The old Kryptonians had hated to leave their home planet for any reason, even in the face of certain death. It must all be a coincidence, surely. He hoped.
It occurred to Kal that he might be able to use his similarity to Superman to impress Lois. He squelched the dishonorable thought immediately. It was absurd to be jealous of a fictional character, but there had been something in Lois's voice as she'd described her superhero that had made Kal wish she would talk about him that way. Of course, Lois had been equally enthusiastic about Clark, who presumably masqueraded as a normal man, so powers were obviously not the whole story.
Once again he saw her face in his mind, at the moment when she had leaned back against him in the gym, open and attracted and waiting for his kiss. He'd spent the day avoiding her and wrestling with his conscience. He had finally achieved a truce of sorts. His long-term plans with Zara and for New Krypton must stay unchanged. And there must be no further attempts to seduce Lois, premeditated or otherwise. He might, however, try to be her friend. Or even, as she might put it, her partner.
Partners. That was not a concept he'd been much exposed to while growing up. Of course, he'd been taught cooperation with his male peers, and a military chain of command, but to Mak-Ra those relationships had always been about power. How to gain it, how to use it. Sharing power had been discouraged on the assumption that any so-called partner would in fact be seeking power to use against him.
The idea of a partner he could trust, working together for a common goal, was dangerously appealing. He glanced over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of gleaming brown hair. If only he and Lois had any goals in common.
Avoiding Kal was definitely the sensible thing to do. Lois had no doubts about that. The trouble was, she was no good at being sensible. She paced the corridors, not really paying attention to where she was going. Brenda had thrown her out of their shared quarters with orders to go jog or something, but pacing was better for thinking, and she really needed to think.
She had encountered masculine admiration before. Within days of her entry into the military, it had become clear to her that she would need to find a way to deal with men; they were everywhere and seemed to be always on the prowl. Lois had managed to forge a "just one of the guys" rapport with some of them, and had handled the rest with strict professionalism and occasionally a dose of humor. Her lines of defense were clearly drawn, and those who tried to breach them were swiftly disposed of. She had invited a very few men inside … but those few had inevitably disappointed her.
So dealing with Kal should be no problem. The question shouldn't be whether he wanted her or not, but whether she wanted him, and as she really didn't care to deal with that question yet, there should be no problem at all. But the contradictions in his manner were eating at her, and Lois had always hated unsolved mysteries with a passion.
A short buzzing sound penetrated her consciousness, and she looked up to realize that her wandering feet had taken her near the ship's bridge. They had glimpsed it briefly on the tour yesterday, but Lois was seized with a desire to see it again.
As she approached the open hatch, she saw that Kal was sitting inside, facing a big display of stars overlaid here and there by patches of what she assumed was Kryptonian writing. Probably the interstellar equivalent of a fuel gauge or speedometer.
He hadn't seen her yet, and she considered trying to slip away as silently as she'd come, but this probably was a good chance to speak to him. She could just imagine what Brenda would say if her friend knew she'd wasted the opportunity. She'd probably never be allowed back into their shared cabin.
Resolutely, she stepped forward, finding a control panel to gently knock on. Not knowing what to say, she fell back on protocol. "Permission to come aboard?"
Kal started slightly, then turned and smiled at her. "Permission granted." His smile faltered uncertainly as he searched her face. "Is there anything you need?"
Lois hesitated, the words 'I wanted to talk to you' on the tip of her tongue. What came out instead was the more cowardly, "Oh, I was just out for a walk, you know, getting a little exercise before—" She stopped just in time to avoid mentioning beds. She cleared her throat, then changed the subject. "What are you doing here so late?"
"Ah, well, I'm working on our plans for tomorrow." He hesitated, then smiled at her. "Maybe you could help me?"
"Oh, um, sure." Moving slightly closer, she asked, "What's happening tomorrow?"
"We'll be reaching the first of Nor's possible hiding places, a small mining station. We'll need to search it to see if Zara's there, or if she had been there. We'll also need to keep an eye out for Nor's ship. If he's kept her on his ship, it will be harder to get to her, but we'll deal with that if we must. Right now, the problem is arranging the search party."
Lois considered this, wondering whether Kal really wanted her help, or just wanted to talk out his options. She hoped he respected her intelligence and training enough to listen to any suggestions she might have. Not that she had any yet. Clearly, she needed to gather more data. "What's the problem? Don't you have enough people?"
He grimaced. "Well, we have them, but … Lieutenant Ching is insisting that he be a part of the search party. He didn't say why, but he seemed to think it was important, so I'm willing to go with that, for now. But I have to go, and with both of us gone—"
"Sev is unsupervised," Lois finished. "Yes, I can see you'd be nervous about that!"
"Exactly." He frowned into his console, then glanced up at her. "I did have one idea…"
"Well, you and Ching could go over in shifts," Lois speculated, "although that would take longer."
He looked struck by that idea. "Yes, that might work. I hadn't thought of that." He smiled at her. "But I hate to waste time. Actually, I had a different plan … would you be willing to help us?"
"Me?" Lois was startled, then tentatively pleased. "How could I help?"
"Well, with Ching and I gone, technically, Zak will be in charge. He may need Sev's help for some ship functions, but if Sev decided to try something, I'm not sure Zak would be able to stop him."
"Whereas Sev is afraid of me?" Lois asked, her eyebrows rising in ironic humor.
"Well, um, yes." Kal grinned. "You have an air of authority about you that even Sev responds to, and you have already knocked him out once."
"Twice, actually," Lois corrected, thinking of the self- defense practice. "Although today was an accident."
"See? With you on the bridge, he wouldn't dare try anything."
Doubt and deep satisfaction warred within her. What a gesture of trust … she only hoped he wasn't overestimating her abilities. "But I don't know what any of these knobs and buttons do, and I don't speak Kryptonian…"
"Zak does," Kal assured her. "He just needs backup."
"Well, if you're sure…" She searched his face and saw only respect. She squared her shoulders. "I'd be honored to help."
Kal let himself relax, smiling broadly. "Thank you, I appreciate it." She smiled back, and Kal was struck once again by her beauty. She was attractive at all times, but at this moment she positively glowed with pride and pleasure. She warmed him soul-deep, and he was very glad he'd thought to ask her help.
Before he could make her uncomfortable with his silence, he turned towards the console. "Let me show you a few basic functions in case of emergency. I doubt Sev will try anything with you and Zak to keep an eye on him, but I've already misjudged him once."
"He is a schemer," Lois agreed, moving next to him so she could see what he was doing. "Though I'm not sure what he thinks he could gain by making trouble at this point. Unless he wants to abandon New Krypton altogether and hide out on Earth."
Kal suppressed a shudder at the thought of a super-powered Sev, and wondered if he should warn Lois of that unexpected danger. But no, she would guard the ship just as fiercely on his behalf as she would on her own, so a warning would not be needed. Besides, it would bring up a topic he wasn't sure how to address. Better to leave that particular revelation for later.
Briefly, he described some of the ship's functions, demonstrating the command sequences. Despite battling with unfamiliar technology and unreadable script, she gained a degree of confidence quickly. "Very good," he said sincerely.
"Well, I wouldn't want to fly the thing myself or anything," she laughed, "but I'll have some idea of what the guys are doing tomorrow. Thank you for teaching me." She turned, smiling, and suddenly he was aware that she was tantalizingly near. He moistened his lips, unable to tear his eyes away from her beautiful face.
Lois watched him closely, then swayed slightly towards him. He jumped up from his seat.
"Okay, what's the deal, here?" she demanded, looking annoyed. "Look, I don't know if it's any of my business, and I suppose if you don't want to kiss me that's fine, but I wish you'd make up your mind about it!" She stood as well, and began marching towards the door. He could feel the embarrassment coming off her in waves and hurried after her.
"Lois, wait…" He touched her on one arm.
She stopped, then glared up at him.
Her scowl deepened. "Sorry for what?"
"Sorry for sending confusing signals. The truth is … I do want to kiss you. And a whole lot more," he added, smiling wryly. "But I have … obligations on New Krypton. I can't offer you what you deserve; I wish I could! It wouldn't be honorable to start what I cannot finish."
She regarded him for a long moment while he held his breath in anticipation of her judgment. Finally, she turned to fully face him. "Did I ever tell you how much I hate it when the hero acts all noble?" While he was trying to figure out the meaning behind that, she kissed him.
It was a brief kiss. He'd barely begun to respond when she pulled back from him, a teasing gleam in her eyes. "Mmm, nice. Too bad your 'obligations' won't let it go any further than that." With a laughing glance over her shoulder, she said, "G'night, Kal," and left, looking altogether too pleased with herself.
Lois walked back to her cabin, so pleased that she was almost giddy. He trusted her! He respected her, and he *did* want to kiss her. All questions answered in the most positive way. She laughed softly, remembering the look of shock on his face after she'd kissed him. She'd surprised herself with that move, so it was little wonder that she'd taken him off guard. But at that moment, she'd been filled with a very womanly self-confidence. He valued her, that was clear … and she'd wanted to show him that she was no delicate New Kryptonian flower that needed to be protected from the world. The world needed protection from her, was more like it!
And my, he did kiss nicely. It had been a short experiment since she'd needed to pull away to make her point, but his lips had been warm and pliant against hers. The brief contact with his upper body had been pretty spectacular, too. She was still tingling where she'd touched him; no man had ever affected her like this before. If only he weren't *quite* so honorable… she laughed at herself at the thought.
Except of course that he was, she reminded herself, calming down slightly. It was one of the things that she admired about him, at least in the abstract, but in practice it was annoyingly inconvenient. They had something here, a connection she could feel … but for some reason he was convinced they had no future. Well, she wasn't convinced she wanted a future either, but that didn't stop them from having today, tomorrow, and probably the day after. She was going to have to talk to him about that, she decided. Tomorrow, after the search party.
Lois almost hoped they didn't find Zara, she realized with some chagrin. Of course she wanted Kal's mission to succeed, but not quite so soon, not before they'd had a chance to work things out. She might only have a few days with him, and she hated to think of that time being cut short.
Kal woke up early the next morning. He spoke telepathically to Zak, giving the crewman the plan for the day and trusting him to communicate the schedule to Ching and Lois. Kal didn't quite feel up to facing Lois this morning. He was still mulling over last night's kiss.
Obviously, she didn't share his attitude, didn't believe that intimacy between them now would make their parting infinitely harder. Perhaps, a small voice whispered, she knows very well, but finds it worth the risk. That thought was seductive, and Kal felt the pull of it, but told himself roughly that she just didn't understand. She probably harbored some hope that they could, in fact, find a way to be together. It would be kinder to disabuse her of that notion. But not this morning. First, selfishly, he would enjoy the sensation of being her partner.
After a quick breakfast, Kal met Ching in the ship's small docking bay. "Good news, Lieutenant — you'll be accompanying me on the search."
Ching relaxed fractionally. "Thank you, m'lord. But if I may ask … what provision have you made to contain Sev?"
Kal hid a smile, pleased by Ching's conscientiousness. "I've recruited Lieutenant Lane to supervise on the bridge. Zak will be in command, but she will be there to, as you say, contain Sev."
"M'lord, is this wise?" Ching asked, but at Kal's gesture, he obediently entered the transport pod.
"Certainly," Kal replied, still rather proud of himself for thinking of it. Not only did it neatly solve today's problem, but it had very obviously pleased Lois. "It allows you to join the search party, as you requested."
"Yes, m'lord," Ching said, still clearly uncomfortable with the notion. Together they ran through the brief pre-flight check and opened the bay doors. "I trust you, m'lord," Ching said stiffly. "But this is most irregular." He didn't quite dare to suggest that Lois might grab the ship and run back to Earth, but his doubt was plain.
"Irregular, true. We do what we must with limited resources." It was practically the slogan for struggling New Krypton. "Would you not trust Lady Zara in a similar circumstance?" Kal asked in his blandest manner.
Ching stiffened. "The Lady Zara is eminently honorable."
Kal smiled. "So is the lady Lois." He offered his second in command a crooked grin. "Their culture is very different than ours, I know. But in their own way, these women are honorable, decent, and trustworthy. Lieutenant Lane most of all."
"Yes, m'lord," Ching said obediently, piloting the pod away from the ship and towards the mining station.
Kal caught the thoughtful look in his eye and was content. He didn't blame Ching for suffering culture shock; Kal himself had a bad case. After being away from New Krypton's strict notions of gender roles for so long, Kal was finding them uncomfortable. A division of labor along gender lines made some sense when only one gender was biologically equipped to bear children. The use of birthing matrices and other technology on New Krypton, however, had equaled the gender roles in reproduction.
On Earth, Kal had been appalled at the number of women and children abandoned by men. No Kryptonian lady would ever fear such abandonment … and yet, as Ching had commented at the court martial, such protection did not necessarily extend to all strata of society.
When he became First Lord of New Krypton, he would do his best to introduce some changes. He felt certain he could count on Zara to help him, and to set a sterling example. Too much change would cause chaos, so they'd have to move slowly, but there were some basic reforms that could make a good start. He would persuade them that they were wasting a valuable resource; waste was a cardinal sin in a society with little margin for error. One step at a time; one man — or woman — *could* change a world.
Lois stepped onto the ship's bridge, her stomach fluttering. She hadn't expected to be nervous about this, but overnight, doubts had begun to seep into her mind. What did she know about running a Kryptonian space ship, for heaven's sake? That wasn't her main function here, of course, but she had been in the military long enough to know that plans were rarely perfect and it was best to be prepared for all contingencies.
Zak was already at his station; he saluted her as she entered. Sev hurried in, fresh from serving a breakfast that Lois had scarcely tasted. He bowed to her, then slid into his seat to look at the controls.
"Good morning, boys." Lois nodded at them both. "Zak, where is our search party?"
"They're preparing to leave the ship now, m'lady," he replied.
She raised an eyebrow. So, Kal was slipping away without talking to her, was he? She grinned. At least he still trusted her to guard his back. Not too bad for a sexist creep. And Lois had never been one to back down from a challenge.
Lois walked closer to where the two men were sitting at the controls. It was almost like a Star Trek bridge, she thought with a grin, if a little more cramped and not as well lit. She moved to Sev's side, leaning down to study his display. He drew in a bit, retreating from her invasion of his personal space. "What are we going to do today, Sev?"
"Hold the ship steady, m'lady," he answered. "We might need to avoid a stray asteroid, but for the most part we simply wait."
That tracked with what Kal had told her last night, and at her glance, Zak nodded agreement. "Keep alert then. And Sev," she leaned a little closer, "don't even think of trying anything."
Sev managed to look offended by the mere suggestion. "M'lady, I assure you I would not dream of it."
Lois gave him a long hard look, which he met with an unwavering expression of aggrieved innocence. She shook her head, then backed off. He was up to something, but wasn't about to give her any clues. She'd talk to Kal about it later.
"The search party is away," Zak announced, and Lois looked up at the main view screen. Sure enough, there was a little dot, tracking away from them and towards the large asteroid that contained the mining station. There were a few other rocks out there, too — none of them were as large as the station, but no doubt they were still capable of creaming the ship in a collision. Sev could probably be depended upon to save his own skin. Well, as long as she could still see the mining station, Lois decided, she wouldn't worry.
This promised to be a long and boring day. At least, so she hoped. "Will we be able to keep in touch with them?" she asked Zak.
He nodded. "Lord Kal-El said that he would report their progress to me."
"Can I contact him?"
"Not directly, no."
He paused for a moment, and Lois wondered if he were searching for the right word in English. His command of the language had improved greatly in the last two days, no doubt due to Melanie's intensive tutoring.
"We Kryptonians can speak mind to mind," Zak explained. "Within certain distances. We have equipment for speaking over longer distances, but for today, we should not need it."
"Oh. Right. Good, then." Just when she thought that New Kryptonians were just like Earthlings, they had to go and spring telepathy on her. She looked around the room, suddenly needing a place to sit. Right in front of her was the captain's chair. Perfect. With a look that dared either of the crewmen to make an issue of it, she settled herself in. She had a good view of the screen, and a psychological advantage over the lower-placed crew. Now all she had to do was wait. She hated waiting.
Ching waited until they exited the mine's main office and he was alone with Kal-El. "M'lord," he said, "I suggest we split up."
Kal-El nodded, contemplating the map-cube given him by the miners. "It is not a large station, but we have no time to waste. Very well then, we'll split up." After a moment's study of the map, he continued. "I'll take these top sections; you cover these others, and we'll meet back at the transport pod. If you find anything suspicious, contact me; I'll do the same."
Nodding briskly, Ching set off towards the nearest access ladder. He'd seen similar stations before; they tended to be even more severely utilitarian than most New Krypton facilities. This one was disused and understaffed, but the station had been built to support nearly a hundred workers at full capacity. Those workers needed support facilities. He expected he would have to search several large bunkrooms, a few more private rooms for the supervisors, along with kitchen and supply areas, while Kal-El was searching the mine tunnels and ore-processing areas.
He resisted the temptation to begin his telepathic sweep until he was somewhat further away from Kal-El. Ching didn't quite know what to think of Zara's birth-husband. The man seemed honorable, and Zara had spoken of him as a friend. He was certainly doing his utmost to find and rescue her. He had been somewhat distracted by Lieutenant Lane, yet he was not treating her as a concubine. He had even gone so far as to compare Lois to the Lady Zara, which had seemed almost blasphemous. Upon reflection, however, Ching could almost understand it. Lady Zara was much more than her public persona allowed — smarter, wittier, more dedicated to the good of New Krypton. If Lady Zara could transcend a role she'd been born to, perhaps Lois — unconstrained by Kryptonian traditions — could also be an honorable ally. It was a radical notion, and Ching was not comfortable with anything that upset the stability of his social order, but logic demanded that he consider it. Perhaps, just perhaps, Kryptonian traditions were less perfect — less logical — than he'd been taught. Yet he couldn't accept the alternative of chaos and war. Kryptonian traditions had kept the peace for centuries. They were too valuable to be thrown away.
Ching reached the first bunkroom and pushed the uncomfortable ideas from his mind. Right now, he needed to concentrate on Zara. Cautiously, after a year of tight control, he opened up his mental senses, closing his eyes in order to listen with his mind. Gradually, he became aware of Lord Kal-El, two levels up and intent on the search. Ching courteously tuned him out, listening for more 'voices.' The station's two crewmen were talking about something, and Ching strained to hear without being detected. They were talking about Lord Nor, and his probable reaction to this invasion by a rival House. There was no hint, however, of whether Nor was nearby or not, so Ching let their mental grumblings fade away.
There seemed to be no other presence on the station. *Zara?* he sent, tentatively, then more firmly. *Zara, I'm on the station, can you hear me?* There was only silence in response.
He walked through his assigned levels, checking every room, and sent telepathic inquiries from time to time, but without hope. Zara was not here. This trip had been a waste of time they did not have.
"Hey, Captain Lois! How's things?"
Lois turned from her hypnotic view of the slowly turning stars, and saw Brenda, Melanie and Francine entering the bridge area. "Hey, guys. Come to be bored with me?"
Brenda grinned. "We were bored separately, so we thought we'd combine resources."
"Hi, Zak," Melanie said, batting her eyelashes at the helmsman. He blushed and stammered a reply. She sat down next to him and began a low-voiced conversation.
"Everything's gone pretty well," Lois reported. "Zak says they're almost done searching the station. They haven't found Zara yet, but at least no one's shooting at anyone."
Brenda winced. "They haven't found her? Man, that sucks."
"For her, or for you?" Francine asked sourly.
"Don't think I'm not enjoying the whole Close Encounter thing," Brenda protested, somewhat half-heartedly. "But sometimes I just want to go home, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," Lois said softly, even though she was increasingly conflicted on the issue.
"In fact, I was kinda wondering," Brenda said, lowering her voice and looking around cautiously. "Do you think Sev or Zak know the way back to Earth from here?"
"Brenda!" Lois stared at her friend.
Francine surprised her by frowning fiercely. "Cut that out, Brenda. We are not going to abandon those two here. Kal said he'd take us back, and I believe he will."
"Yes, he will," Lois agreed. "It'll only be another day or two; even if they haven't found Zara by then they'll take us back. Kal *trusted* me with this. Don't ask me to betray a trust, Brenda; I'm just not made that way."
Brenda shrugged in frustration. "Alright, alright, don't kill me for asking. It was just a thought." She turned away, surveying the stars and the asteroid on the view screen.
Lois caught Francine's eye, and they shared a worried look. Lois had expected trouble from Sev, but not from her new friends. Still, it had been only an idle suggestion, and Brenda was the least likely of them to engage in any sort of plot.
"M'lady?" Zak asked, drawing Lois out of her thoughts.
"Lord Kal-El and Lieutenant Ching have finished their search, with no sign of Lady Zara. They're returning now."
"Thank you, Zak." As an afterthought, she added, "Give him some room, Melanie; he's working here."
In only a few minutes, Kal would be back on board, and her task would be completed. On the whole, it had been a very quiet morning. Sev had made no suspicious moves. Which in itself could be seen as worrisome, considering his record, but there was no help for that but to keep a close eye on him.
She had a terrible sense of time running out, both for her and for Zara. She hated to think what the other woman might be enduring, and hated to think they were making no progress in their rescue mission. And in only a few days, one way or another, if she couldn't find some way around Kal's vague 'obligations,' she would be forced to say goodbye to him forever.
When Kal and Ching returned to the ship, everyone was ready for a late lunch. They had formed a routine of sitting separately — Earth women at one table, New Kryptonian men at another. Today Kal found himself dining with Zak, which didn't surprise him. Ching had been quite upset over the morning's failed search and had retreated to his cabin. Sev was busy serving lunch to the dancers. As soon as the meal was over, Kal excused himself and approached the other table.
"Good afternoon, ladies," he greeted them. Melanie smiled sunnily at him, while Brenda seemed to find the contents of her plate of absorbing interest. Francine's look was coolly assessing, but Kal really only cared about one reaction.
Lois smiled up at him, warm and friendly. "Hey there! I'm sorry your search didn't turn out better."
Kal shrugged, trying to be philosophical. "It was only our first attempt; we have other places to look. It's just the time factor that bothers me."
"You'll find her," Lois reassured him.
"I won't rest until I do," he replied, then added reluctantly, "but I won't delay your return home much longer."
Brenda looked up at that, her dark eyes troubled. "Yeah, well, about that … Lois, I'm sorry about earlier—"
Lois shushed her. "Brenda, it's okay, honestly. It was an understandable temptation." She looked up at Kal, then stood. "Could we take a walk? I think I'd like to see that terrace you mentioned."
"As my lady wishes," Kal responded, curious about the byplay with Brenda. Perhaps Lois would explain, away from the others' inhibiting presence. Privacy suited him, as well; he was tempted to tell Lois things that no one else should hear. "We should compare notes about this morning's venture."
She smiled fleetingly at that, but didn't reply.
It was a short walk to the terrace, a long narrow room along the outer layer of the ship. There were benches and some plants, but the focus of the room was the transparent wall that offered an unparalleled view of the surrounding space. Stars shone by the thousand, and a few large asteroids glinted with reflected sunlight.
Lois stopped short in the doorway. "Wow."
Kal smiled in spite of himself. "That was about my reaction when I first saw a view like this. It's incredible, isn't it? If we were facing this system's primary star, the hull material would polarize to protect us from the glare, but as it is, we have … this." With a deft gesture, he lowered the ambient illumination in the room, making the night outside seem blacker, and the stars even more brilliant.
Lois whispered, "Wow" again, and walked forward until she was almost touching the transparent hull. "It's like being in a glass bubble. I've never seen stars so clearly — it's hard to see them at all from Metropolis." She was silent for another long moment, drinking in the sight. Then she cast him a teasing glance. "Now all we need is a campfire and the sound of crickets."
Kal laughed at that. "Sorry, this is the best I can do."
"Well, I've got to say, this ain't half bad."
Kal watched her watching the stars, enjoying the look of wonder on her face, until she turned and caught him at it.
"What?" she asked, somewhat self-conscious.
"Just thinking," he said, and walked to a nearby bench to sit down. After a moment's hesitation, she followed, and now her attention was firmly fixed on him, not the stars. "It was nothing," he insisted, not wanting to encourage the wrong sort of notions. "Did Sev behave himself today?"
She looked at him for a moment, then appeared to accept his change of subject. "He was as meek as anything, which frankly worries me. But as far as I can tell he didn't try anything."
"The search was a waste of time," Kal confessed. It gnawed at him that he was failing Zara. "The miners were hiding something, I think, but it could be anything. I looked into every room in that station, every tiny cramped storage space, even, but found no signs of her. Not a trace."
Lois blinked. "Well, that was a very thorough search."
Kal looked up, realizing that he'd inadvertently referred to his special vision. Using it had been more of an effort than he'd remembered, which seemed to fit his theory that these abilities would fade, away from Earth. She didn't yet recognize the reference, but it reminded him of his earlier curiosity. And, it dawned on him, he wanted to tell her everything. Not for his own advantage — what he had to tell her about Zara would certainly not win him any points — but just because she was his friend, and he didn't want to keep secrets, to continually guard what he should and should not say.
First, however, he had a few questions. "Yes," he replied belatedly, "It was. Lois, can I ask you something?"
"Sure," she replied, looking only a little wary.
"Well, I…" He flashed a rueful grin. "I have to confess that I was listening in on your conversation last night during dinner. All about Superman."
Lois nodded, looking puzzled.
"And I was wondering… you said he had powers … to what extent? What exactly could he do?"
Lois blinked. "Why do you care?"
Kal flushed slightly, but persisted. "Call it cultural curiosity. I think you said flying, and seeing through things?"
"Yeah, Superman can fly, and he has x-ray vision, which is the seeing through things, although it's not exactly like x-rays, it's just called that. He's invulnerable, so bullets bounce off him, and he never gets injured by ordinary things. He's incredibly strong and can move incredibly fast. He can hear for miles when he wants to, or when something happens. He can blow freezing cold air, or heat things just by staring at them. Even when he was just being Clark, he liked to use the heat vision to cook breakfast," she added with a little laugh.
Kal stared off into space, recognizing every one of the listed abilities. This was too close a match to be a coincidence, so the author must have had contact with a previous Kryptonian visitor, and yet there were no records…
"Are you okay?"
He shook himself slightly, his gaze returning to her face. "Yeah, I'm fine, it's just… has anyone like Superman ever actually existed on your world?"
"No, worse luck," she answered lightly, then sobered. "Not that I ever heard of, anyway."
"And if they kept it a secret," he said, almost to himself, "you might not have, of course. But I don't know why the Council was never informed…" After a short pause, he looked up. "When was this story first told?"
"The novel? I think it came out in 1948 — about 45 years ago."
His expression cleared a little. "So then it could have been in the records on Krypton, and just missed in the evacuation … if it were reported at all."
Lois waved a hand in front of his face. "Hello? Earth to Krypton! Do you mind explaining what you're muttering about?"
"Sorry. I was just trying to figure out how an Earth novelist could know …" he ran out of steam, then nerved himself to continue, "…how he could know what being on Earth would do to a Kryptonian."
Lois felt her jaw drop as she worked through that statement. "You — wait — you mean to tell me that Superman was based on fact?" It was a heretical thought.
He shrugged. "I first landed on Earth three years ago. I was only there to observe — we like to know our neighbors, even when they don't know us. The Council gave me strict orders not to interfere in any significant way, which didn't seem like a difficulty at first. It was all I could do to figure out how to survive in such a vastly different culture." He flushed, briefly glancing away. "Toni Taylor was a great help to me until I became accustomed to your city. But within a few months, I started noticing some very strange things. I could see through things … I could hear sounds from blocks away when no one else could. At first, I tried to suppress them." He smiled wryly at her. "I thought the stress of being in such a strange environment was affecting my brain."
Lois smiled back, just a little, unable to avoid remembering the stories of a young Clark Kent, discovering similar powers.
"But ignoring them didn't make them go away," Kal continued, taking a deep breath. "So I learned to control them. Everything that you mentioned that Superman can do, I can do."
"Uh-huh," Lois said, unable to take all this on faith. "Show me."
Kal smiled faintly, and then gently lifted out of his seat.
Lois's eyes widened. "You're flying?"
"It's more like floating, I think," he replied, clearly enjoying her reaction. "Want to try it with me?"
He straightened and floated to the floor, standing in front of her. Clasping her lightly by the forearms, he gently lifted them both off the floor.
Lois couldn't help herself; she laughed from sheer delight. "I always wanted to know how this felt. It's amazing." They twirled slowly in a circle, then gently landed once more. "Why didn't you tell me you could do this?"
"I haven't told anyone," he answered, sitting down on the bench again. "I don't *think* these powers are permanent; they were caused by something on Earth, and now that I've left, I believe they are diminishing." He looked directly at her for a long moment. "If any other New Kryptonian, say for instance, Sev, were on Earth for a significant period of time, I must assume they would gain similar abilities."
That sobered her, and she sat next to him. "Sev is bad enough without superpowers. So you're saying that a Kryptonian had been on Earth before?"
Kal shrugged. "That's my guess. I've seen no records of such a visit, and the old Kryptonians hated star travel, but how else would your novelist know to describe this particular set of powers?"
"Well, he also wrote a book about time travel," Lois said lightly, to cover her reaction. This whole conversation seemed almost threatening, re-aligning her entire view of the universe and her place in it, yet another shock in a week full of them. "Maybe he had his own time machine."
"Lois, I'm serious here."
"Yeah, I know, sorry. It's just that this is a little much to take in, you know? I mean, I've looked up to Superman since I was a little girl, and…" Her voice trailed off. She was finding this difficult to understand, let alone verbalize. Superman was — had been — real? And yet there was no mention in history of him, or anyone remotely like him. It was a crushing disappointment to think that someone had possessed such enormous powers but had not used them to help others. She looked up at Kal, sharply asking, "You said the Council told you not to interfere. Are you telling me you sat by while people died?"
"Not that I'm aware," he answered slowly. "I admit that I tried to ignore most of what I heard. I told myself that it wasn't my place to interfere, and Toni said it was smarter not to get involved." He looked up at her, clearly uncomfortable with his memories. "I was under orders, you know, and even I have to obey the Council. If they found out that I'd used powers and exposed myself as an alien on Earth, they probably would have ordered the death penalty. And then some of them would start thinking about how *they* might be able to use these powers on such a rich, ripe world. Think of a whole army of super-powered Sevs."
Lois frowned thoughtfully, resenting his logic. It was so cold-blooded, so … Kryptonian. Kal had seemed better than that, somehow. Then again, he'd hardly had any encouragement to change his attitude; Toni Taylor's self- centered advice was a very poor substitute for the moral guidance of the fictional Kents. Sympathy and disappointment warred for supremacy. "So you just ignored people in trouble."
"Not always," he replied softly. "There were a few times … there was a fire the day before we left. A man was trapped near the top floor … I helped him out. I wish I'd done more, though."
That helped tip the balance towards sympathy somewhat, as did the realization that he was now regretting lost opportunities. Kal wasn't exactly Superman, but he could have been far worse. And even the Clark Kent of the novel hadn't been Superman all on his own; he'd been taught by his adoptive parents and inspired by Lois Lane. That sense of teamwork was one of the aspects of the legend that she had always liked best. A stray memory intruded. "Hey, when the Metro Club was on fire and you chased me out, did you…?"
He grinned. "Blow out the fire myself? Yep. It seemed like the least I could do."
Lois laughed shakily, trying to pull herself together. "Right. Only natural." She shook her head and spoke without thinking. "Well, now that I know how much good you can do, I have definitely got to convince you to come back to Earth with me."
Kal looked stricken. "Oh, Lois, I wish I could. But there's something else I need to tell you — something important."
"Idiots. Dimwits. Morons. Men!" Zara paced in her cabin, irrationally furious at the entire galaxy. It had taken her a whole day to first find out that their ship had moved, and then to worm the explanation out of Nor.
As she had expected, someone back on New Krypton had sent a ship out to search for her. But Nor had received forewarning of some sort, and before the search vessel had approached the mining station, his own ship had moved to the opposite side of the system's sun, hiding in the asteroid belt. Now that the so-called rescuers had found no trace of her at the mining station, Nor had gloated, they would move back to their previous position, safe from any further search.
Even at this moment, her allies were blindly moving *away* from her, and she was nearly ready to weep with frustration. She had tried not to pin too much hope on outside intervention, but her early training had always insisted that women were to rely on men to protect them, and this blundering incompetence felt like betrayal.
Rage and fear mixed with a wave of desperate longing for those she loved. **Oh Ching, my love, where are you when I need you?**
Faintly, in a distinctly startled tone, she received an unexpected reply. **Zara?**
Ching's eyes snapped open and for a moment he was disoriented, as if waking from a trance. Maintaining contact with Zara at that distance had been a tremendous effort. That they'd made contact at all was amazing; her strong emotion must have enhanced her range, but if he hadn't been in a receptive state he might not have heard her. Their conversation had been all too brief and he missed her mind's touch already, but there was urgent work to be done.
It seemed an almost impossible effort to open his mind again, but he managed to sense that Kal-El was on the terrace. He abandoned the effort with relief, letting his over-used telepathic centers shut down. It would take some time to recover. He would have to give Lord Kal-El this message in person.
It took only a few moments for him to find his way to the terrace. On the threshold, he paused to allow his eyes to adjust to the relative dimness within. He heard Kal-El before he saw him.
"…there's something else I need to tell you — something important."
As Ching moved slowly closer, he began to make out two shapes on a bench, leaning towards one another. It was with no surprise that he heard Lieutenant Lane's voice replying. "Is this about those obligations you mentioned?"
Ching paused. He hadn't expected Lois to be here. Her presence complicated things, but they could just as easily discuss the matter in Kryptonian. This was internal ship business, despite Lieutenant Lane's previous help. Besides, it seemed that Kal-El was pursuing her, and Ching had no desire to cause awkwardness by mentioning birth- marriages. Before he could overhear anything more compromising, Ching called out, "Lord Kal-El?"
The two figures on the bench jumped apart as if they'd been shot.
"Lieutenant Ching." Kal-El's tone was cool and formal.
"Hey, Ching, what's up?" asked Lois.
"My lord, I beg you will forgive this intrusion," Ching spoke rapidly. "But I have received vital information—"
"In English, please," Kal-El interrupted. "As a courtesy to Lieutenant Lane."
Ching hated to appear insubordinate, but tried to explain. "My lord, this topic may not be—"
Kal-El held up a hand to silence him. Looking oddly resigned, he said, "In English, Ching. I won't keep secrets from my partner."
Ching glanced at Lois, who was looking pleased and wildly curious. He only hoped Kal-El wouldn't blame him for this later.
"My lord," Ching began again, with a small nod to Lieutenant Lane. "I have just been contacted telepathically by Lady Zara."
Lois's eyes grew wide at that, but Kal-El looked skeptical. "How is that possible?" he asked. "There aren't any ships or planets within range."
Ching had thought of an explanation. It seemed unbelievably feeble now, but he had nothing better, so he stumbled into speech. "The Lady Zara and I … well, that is, when I was acting as her guard, we became accustomed — that is, for security purposes — we developed a telepathic affinity. This gives us a longer than normal range, though this contact was at the extreme edge even of that."
Ching came to a stop and watched Kal-El's face. No dawning suspicion, no stirrings of anger or jealousy … if anything, he thought he saw a measure of sympathy there. "You were a most dedicated guard," Kal-El finally said. "I commend you. It was most fortunate for Lady Zara that you had that experience."
Ching felt something within him relax. Noble ladies commonly regarded household guards as so much furniture and would not think of mind-sharing with them, no matter what their security needs. So Kal-El either knew or guessed that he had had a closer than normal relationship with Zara … and he didn't appear to mind. "Thank you, my lord. My only desire is to return Lady Zara to her rightful place."
"I never suspected otherwise," Kal-El replied.
Lois was looking back and forth between the two men, sensing undercurrents but not understanding them. "Okay, whatever … but Ching, what did she *say*?"
Ching brought his attention back to the problem at hand. "It was a brief contact, but the main point is, the Lady Zara is still on board Nor's ship. It moved across system to avoid us today, but is now once again docked at the mining station."
"The one you guys just searched?" Lois asked. At Ching's confirming nod, she commented, "Sneaky. Though I would like to know how he knew when to duck."
Kal-El nodded grimly. "We'll have to make sure to ask him. Ching, we're headed in the wrong direction; I need you to go up to the bridge and de-activate the computer control."
"Indeed, m'lord. Shall I plot a return course?"
"Not quite yet, no. We need a plan. Start thinking of possibilities for boarding Nor's ship. We'll meet again before dinner."
Bowing slightly, Ching backed out of the room. There was much work to do.
Lois watched Ching leave with wildly mixed feelings. She'd been almost glad of the interruption earlier — it had been a pretty intense conversation. But now he'd added a whole new layer of complexity to an already full plate. She was glad they'd located Zara, and part of her responded eagerly to the military challenge involved in rescuing her from a hostile spaceship. But behind that was the certain knowledge that this time with Kal was coming to an end.
She glanced at him. He had sat down again and was staring at the floor. Probably obsessing over rescue options.
Lois quietly moved away from him, going to stare out at the stars. Kal wanted her to some degree; she knew that. What she needed to decide was whether or not she wanted him, and whether she wanted to risk loving a man who might leave her.
There was no doubt he was the product of a sexist system. Apart from a few lapses, though, he had risen above it. He'd been unfailingly polite to his uninvited guests and had — metaphorically anyway — given her the keys to his spaceship. So he knew how to value women as people, not just sex objects.
She made a face at the thought. She'd just bet he'd had his share of experience with sex objects. Very few human cultures had valued male celibacy, and she doubted New Krypton was that different, so it probably would have been hard for him to avoid. He'd grown up as part of the ruling house, he said, and he was really very attractive — unless New Kryptonian women had unusual standards for eyebrows or something, she thought with a reluctant grin. So there was little chance he was a virgin.
Of course, neither was she, and she didn't consider herself disqualified. The important thing was, he had never treated *her* like a concubine. Whatever it was they had between them, Lois was willing to bet it was as new to him as it was to her.
So did she want to pursue it or not? He seemed convinced that they had no long-term future together; at some point she wanted to find out why, and convince him that he was utterly mistaken … but there was always the possibility that she would lose that argument, which terrified her. She hated the idea of losing him, but even more she hated the idea of never knowing what it was like to kiss him, at the very least. She didn't know if she wanted to take things further than that, but surely a kiss or two couldn't hurt?
Then there was the whole superhero thing. The flash of anger she'd felt had surprised her. For years she'd idolized Superman, while trying to convince herself that he wasn't real and that she should set her sights a little lower. So finding that he was real, but wasn't perfect, was a bit of a shock. She didn't know if she could forgive him for not being perfect.
And yet … in the novel and in all the comics revamps, a few things had remained consistent. One of them was that Clark Kent never became Superman before meeting Lois Lane.
So maybe she needed to cut Kal some slack on this; he just hadn't met her soon enough. But now, together, they had the opportunity to create something dazzling.
"Penny for your thoughts."
Kal's soft voice broke into her reverie and she shook herself back to reality. "Oh, I was just thinking … about us." She smiled up at him briefly.
"I wondered," he said quietly. "You looked very serious."
"Well, I had a lot to think about," she replied, unwilling to share her thoughts just yet. "It looked like you were thinking about Zara … did you come up with any ideas?"
He shrugged. "A few. I've had some theoretical training about this, but not much practical experience."
"Yeah, that's about where I am, too," Lois said, gladly shifting into military gear. "Do you want to brainstorm? Not that I have any ideas, really, I mean, I was never into science fiction and the authors probably got it wrong most of the time anyway, but there have got to be some similarities to, say, submarines — not that I ever heard of anyone boarding a hostile sub, so that's probably not a great parallel, but still."
Kal turned toward her, reaching out to hold her hand. "Before we get into any of that, I have to tell you something."
Lois's heart sank. She didn't know what he was about to say, but she had a feeling that she wasn't going to like it. "Drat, I was hoping you'd been distracted. Kal, I don't really want to know all the reasons you think you can't be in a relationship with me. We have this moment, right now …" She gestured around the terrace. "It's a very romantic view, and you know it. Can't we just take advantage of it?" She looked up at him, moving a little closer. "Just a little?"
For a long moment she thought he would be noble and resist her, then suddenly his arms were around her, and his mouth was warm and alive on her own. They broke apart after a moment, then hungrily kissed again, deeper this time. A sense of wonder washed over her, tinged with sadness, and she honestly couldn't tell if she were feeling his emotions or his own.
When she couldn't endure the mingled joy and sorrow anymore, she pulled back. Kal seemed to understand, and shifted them into a hug. Lois closed her eyes, trying to savor every nuance of the embrace, to remember these feelings forever. It was too late to avoid emotional entanglements; in just a few short days she'd fallen hopelessly in love.
And the man she loved was about to tell her why they had no future together. Boy, could she pick 'em.
"Lois, you have to understand." He pulled back from her far enough to see her face. "On New Krypton everything is about honor, and duty, and loyalty to the group. Individual happiness … is not really considered a good reason to do anything."
Lois frowned, not wanting to hear any more. "Can we talk about something else?"
"Lois, you're going to have to know this sooner or later, and I'd rather tell you myself—"
"No, really." She flashed an insincere smile. "I won't hold it against you if you don't. So what was all that going on with you and Ching? You guys were exchanging information, I could tell, but I couldn't figure out what it was."
Kal regarded her with a mixture of exasperation and regret. "Lieutenant Ching was apologizing to me for being involved with … with Lady Zara."
"Yeah, I got part of that — what, he's the lower class, so he's not supposed to fraternize with nobility?"
"That was part of it, yes."
Lois rolled her eyes. That was New Krypton all over, with its stupid class system. "Did he think you were going to punish him for finding out where Zara was?"
"No," Kal answered, tightening his arms around her waist ever so slightly. "He had every right to expect that I would be jealous, because when we get back to New Krypton, I am going to have to marry her."
Lois squeezed her eyes shut. She had suspected it was something like this, but the confirmation set her mind pinwheeling into chaos. She wrenched herself out of his arms and turned away from him, blindly staring at the stars.
Kal's heart ached as he watched Lois. He had wanted to break the news more gently, but she hadn't wanted to cooperate until he'd been forced to be blunt.
He took one step closer to her. "Believe me, Lois, it's nothing personal. Zara and I are friends, no more — if she's found happiness with Ching I'm happy for them both, but it doesn't change things. This marriage is probably the best way to avoid civil war. And we'll become the rulers of New Krypton — I can see now that there's so much that needs to be improved. I can do so much good there, Lois … I can't abandon that." He moved another half step closer. "No matter how much I'd like to."
He could see her swallow, could even dimly sense her confused whirl of emotion. "Obligations, huh?"
"I wish it weren't," he sighed. Cautiously, he tried slipping his arms around her; she tensed for a moment, then relaxed back against him.
"So, you guys are engaged?" she asked in a controlled voice.
"Something like that. Marriages on New Krypton are all about politics and alliances between the noble houses. Even before we were born, Zara and I were paired by our fathers. It's called a birth-marriage."
Lois twisted in his arms far enough to look at his face. "Please tell me you're kidding. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, and I've heard a lot this week!"
Kal shrugged. "It's pretty common. It's not totally binding — if Zara found another noble she preferred, she could marry him instead of me — but the last I heard, she thinks I'm the best available choice."
"Good to know she's got that much sense, anyway," Lois mumbled, turning around to face the stars and leaning back against him. "Although, how she could prefer that stick- in-the-mud Ching I do *not* know."
"That was unexpected," Kal admitted. "Love is a rare thing on our world; our teachers tell us that it's a destructive, chaotic force that breaks down group loyalties. For example, what if Zara had decided that if she couldn't marry Ching, she wouldn't marry anyone?"
"What if she had been able to rule the planet without help from any big strong males?" Lois shot back tartly. "It's not romance that's the problem here, it's the rest of your stupid system."
"Well, yes, I suppose." Kal smiled slightly, amazed at the changes within himself. He didn't quite know when it had happened, but he knew he would never view the sacred traditions with unquestioning acceptance ever again.
"So there's seriously no romance on New Krypton? Not even the tragic Romeo and Juliet kind?"
Kal tried to place the reference; he dimly recalled mention of a play. "We have to work hard for everything; there's not much time for … self-indulgences."
"Huh." She was quiet in his arms for a moment, then muttered under her breath, "Glad I don't live there."
Kal's heart twisted. Then an old memory filtered back to him, from childhood tales told to him and Zara by Aunt Alys. "Love is not encouraged, but … we have stories of a special kind of bond — it's called 'shey-ana.' You know that Kryptonians are telepathic. Well, once in a great while, a couple forms such a deep relationship that their minds become linked just a little bit; they are never far from each other's thoughts, and there is no obstacle that they cannot overcome."
"Hmm, that's nice. Assuming they don't drive each other crazy, I mean; I'd worry about someone being able to read my mind all day long."
"I don't think they hear each others' thoughts unless they want to," he reassured her with a smile. He'd never really considered the idea before, but the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. "It's more like an awareness, I think."
"So what does that word mean? Does it translate?"
"Uh, let me think… 'Shey' is the word for heart, or hearts, in an emotional sense, and 'ana' means working together in unison."
"Hearts united. I like that."
On that note, they fell quiet for a few moments, until Lois suddenly straightened. "Hey! Would this shey-ana give a couple enhanced telepathic range?"
"I suppose so, why?"
"Ching. He loves Zara, you know."
Kal stilled. Ching was so self-contained it was hard to read him, but in retrospect it seemed blindingly obvious. "Yes, I believe you're right." He supposed he should probably reinstate Ching as Zara's bodyguard, and turn a blind eye to whatever they wished to do. He didn't know — didn't want to know — whether their relationship was physical, but with reproductive technology the way it was, there was little danger of diluting the bloodline. Noble wives had been expected to put up with far worse from their husbands.
"Of course I'm right!" She pulled away from him slightly, smiling over her shoulder at him. "I always am; when you get to know me better, you'll see—" She stopped, her smile fading. "But never mind about that. We'll talk more about this later, okay? But right now, we've got to plan a way to rescue the princess."
Kal put on a smile to match her brave face. He could sense her confusion, and didn't begrudge her the time to fully assimilate the bombshell he'd dropped on her. Besides, she was right. Shey-ana or not, duty called.
Lois sat quietly while Kal and Ching debated various strategies for boarding Nor's ship. She appreciated that Kal had invited her along to this meeting, but she found herself unable to concentrate on tactics. She was too busy trying to sort through the information she'd just learned.
It was obvious that Kal wasn't in love with Zara. But he seemed determined to marry her, regardless. Was the chance to rule the planet that important to him? Surely, if he were that power-hungry, she'd have seen it in him by now. Was she that poor a judge of character?
But no, if that were his motive, he'd have stayed on Earth and used super-powers to take whatever he wanted. She told her overactive imagination to take a hike. She needed to think this through, as clearly and as logically as she possibly could.
He had mentioned the possibility of civil war several times now. He clearly believed it would be a disaster for his people if this Lord Nor became the next ruler. It seemed hard to believe that of all the men on New Krypton — okay, all the *noble* men, she amended, with a mental rude gesture towards the class system — that none of them were decent apart from Kal. Kal, of course, was exceptional, but couldn't any honorable man hold their planet together?
Of course, holding the planet together wasn't quite the same thing as improving it. He'd mentioned being able to do good, and after this experience, Lois certainly hoped he'd learned at least some of the evils of sexism. It'd be the first time a feminist movement had been started by a man, but it would surely be better than nothing.
Assuming that was what he had in mind. And even then, Lois thought rebelliously, there was a lot of good he could do on Earth, too. She had to try to make him see that. Zara wasn't rescued yet, and it would take another few days to get back to Earth. She had a little time left to persuade him.
There was also time for other things, if she dared. Their kiss had been magical, but bittersweet. The closer she got to him, the harder it would be to say good-bye, if it came to that. How much pain did she want to risk? She shivered in her seat.
She sat up straighter, pulling herself back to the present. "Yes?"
"Are you well?" Kal asked, looking concerned.
"Oh, yes, I'm fine. I was just thinking…" With grim determination, she turned her attention to the problem at hand. "Um, trying to think of historical precedents. You know, the technology is different, with spaceships and vacuum and all, but it's kind of like assaulting a heavily guarded fortress, isn't it?" She tried to remember her military history courses; a professor had once said that the only ways to conquer a fortified position were by using overwhelming force, long-term siege, subterfuge, or treachery.
Ching regarded her warily. "How so?"
"Well, as I understand it, they're not too likely to let you just walk right in. So that leaves frontal assault—"
"Which we're not very well equipped for," Ching snapped. "As you would know if you had been listening."
Lois glared at him. "Don't take out your inadequacies on me." So overwhelming force wasn't an option, unless… "I heard you say you had a laser — could you bluff?"
Kal looked thoughtful. "We could try."
Ching shook his head. "M'lord, we must do everything we can to protect Lady Zara. I cannot imagine that threats would do anything but make Lord Nor more dangerous."
"Agreed," Kal said slowly, "but we cannot afford to let him rendezvous with any other forces, either. So far he doesn't seem to be preparing for war — as Zara told you, he wants to marry her and present himself as legitimate — but if he loses that option, he just might unleash chaos."
"Okay, so threats are a last resort, then," Lois conceded. It was clear that both Kal and Ching had a terror of civil war that bordered on the irrational. Her own philosophy and training differed on that point, but she could see she'd never convince either of them that force was sometimes necessary. And it was irrelevant at the moment. "Can you wait him out … see if he runs out of supplies?"
"No." They both shook their heads, and Kal explained, "We need to settle this now, before Nor runs out of patience; Zara told Ching that so far she's not been abused but we don't want to give Nor the chance to begin. Even apart from that, if word gets out back home that she's missing … it could be bad."
There was that fear of chaos again. And okay, so maybe leaving Zara vulnerable to an increasingly desperate and cranky man wasn't a good idea. If force and siege were out, that brought them to subterfuge. "Can you sneak on board somehow?"
"Possibly," Kal shrugged, nodding to Ching.
"As I suggested to Lord Kal-El, Lord Nor seems interested in the mining station," Ching explained stiffly. "I believe we could hide on the station, and from there make it to his ship, either when his ship docks — if it docks — or in a transfer pod."
"Yeah, that could work. Getting away again would be a trick, though."
Kal grimaced. "Indeed. However, it's the best alternative we have at the moment."
"Hmm." Lois fell silent for a moment, running the scenario through her mind. As Kal said, it wasn't guaranteed, but once on board, they would at least have a better chance to protect Zara. "I don't suppose you can count on any help from anyone on board Nor's ship?"
Ching thinned his lips. "Nor has effective ways of ensuring his men's loyalty. No, I don't think any of them would betray him."
"What about Zara?"
"What about her?" Ching asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
Lois suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. "Well, she's on board, and she's on our side," she spelled out. "And you'll be able to contact her from the mining station, I assume … so is there anything she could do?"
Ching looked blank.
"I had considered that," Kal admitted, looking troubled. "But I didn't want to risk her — and we don't know how much of the ship she would have access to."
"Well, for goodness' sake think about it," Lois advised. "She's got a lot at stake here, she deserves to have a part in it if she wants."
They were silent for a long moment, then Kal sat up straighter. "Well, if there are no further suggestions we'll take that as our plan of action. Ching, we need to head back to the mining station, and remind the crew that we're running in stealth mode. We should be in place in a few hours. Lois … we may need you to watch the ship again."
"Frankly, I think I'd be more useful on Nor's ship," she stated. "He won't know who I am or what I'm capable of; if he's at all typical of New Kryptonian men he'll underestimate me."
Ching looked sullen, then thoughtful. "You may be right."
Kal said merely, "I'll consider it. Let's meet back here in two hours for final arrangements."
Take Lois with them onto Nor's ship? Kal was instinctively opposed to the notion, but he knew it deserved consideration. Lois was not, after all, a gently bred Kryptonian maiden; she was an officer in the best military force on Earth. And of all of them on board, she was undoubtedly the one with the most experience with handguns; Kal and Ching had practiced with the weapons they'd bought before leaving Earth, but a few hours of target shooting did not compare with years of training.
All the same, he hated to risk her. If their effort was unsuccessful, she might end up at the non-existent mercy of Nor and his crew. Nor had not abused Zara — yet — but Lois lacked political value, and would be seen as fair game. His soul revolted at the idea of exposing her to such risks.
For a moment, he wished her safely back on Earth. Then common sense reasserted itself. Whatever Lois's life was like, "safe" was not likely to be a prominent description. When he'd met her, she'd been undercover, working to expose the city's largest criminal family. After she returned to Earth, she would likely continue to risk herself.
He sympathized with her desire for truth and justice — it resonated strongly with his own concept of honor — but the idea of her running into trouble while he was on another planet, too far away to help, began to prey on his mind. He would never forgive himself if she were killed. He would never even know if she were killed.
Kal could not, in good conscience, stay on Earth with her. But they had two planets to choose from. Perhaps he would be able to persuade her to come with him to New Krypton, to help him with the monumental task he faced. That would satisfy honor, keep her safe, and allow them to be together. Surely, she would be able to see the advantages. If they survived this rescue attempt, Kal decided, he would propose it to her.
Lois picked through the pile of clean laundry provided by Sev and found that he'd included a set of what looked like Kryptonian work-out clothes; the material felt a bit like cotton. The pants legs were too long, but they tucked neatly into her socks, and the shirt was comfortably loose. After the upheavals of the past few hours, she needed to run. Maybe the sound of pounding feet and labored breath would drown out her thoughts for a while, and give her some peace. She always felt better after a run.
She started her run on the same deck as the living quarters, but after nearly colliding with Francine in the corridor, she decided to try the next level down. If she remembered correctly, Kal had said it contained extra crew quarters and was presently unused.
Not that she was thinking about Kal, or his stubborn insistence on marrying Zara, or the possibility that his new-found enlightenment would fall short of actually allowing Lois to be part of the rescue mission.
Lois knew the mission would be risky; they would probably have to fight Nor's men at some point, and they could lose. But that was precisely why Kal needed her; they were sure to underestimate her, which gave her the advantage. The question was whether he'd acknowledge it.
She'd run far enough to tell that she had missed a few workouts. She slowed to a walk, feeling her pulse to check her heart rate. As she turned a corner, Lois began to hear a voice from further down the corridor, though there was no one in sight. That was unusual enough, in this supposedly unused section of the ship, that she instinctively slowed down and made an effort to move silently.
It was a man's voice, speaking Kryptonian, and as Lois crept closer to the voice, she realized with some astonishment that it belonged to Sev. His voice sounded different somehow; it was deeper and less subservient- sounding.
But who was he talking to? Though he paused between short statements, there was no other voice that she could hear. It was possible, she supposed, that he was dictating some kind of ship's log, all Shatner-esque, but it sounded a lot more like someone talking on a telephone. Or some other long-distance communication system. The fact that he'd gone to such lengths to do so in secret did not bode well.
Lois reached the end of the corridor and paused for a moment, debating her options. She would dearly love to have a look at Sev and any equipment he was using but she wasn't sure she wanted to be seen. True, she'd knocked him out twice already, but if he were doing what she thought he was doing, he might put up a more effective fight. In fact, if he were working undercover, as it were, then his previous clumsiness could easily have been faked for effect.
She had no proof of anything underhanded going on, and she wasn't sure what she'd gain by getting closer. She didn't understand what he was saying, and wouldn't recognize a long-range communicator if she saw one. Zak had mentioned them but hadn't pointed one out, and besides there were probably lots of different styles. On the other hand, if she were able to describe it to Kal or Ching, they might recognize it.
But on the *other* other hand, if Sev knew that she'd seen something, he'd probably hide the evidence; if she just snuck away and brought Kal back here, the equipment might still be here.
Just as Lois convinced herself that retreat was the better part of valor, Sev moved. She had just enough warning to assume a stretching pose, artistically turning her head away for a moment.
When she turned back, Sev was standing stock-still, staring at her. She managed a smile. "Hey, you're done — I didn't want to interrupt you; I could tell you were busy, but actually I'm glad I ran into you." Lois turned up her smile a few notches, projecting all the innocence she could muster.
Sev's face was impassive. Lois persevered, automatically calculating strike distances and attack angles at the back of her consciousness. She launched into a stream of distracting, and she hoped harmless, surface thoughts. "See, I have a special request for dinner tonight. I mean, you've been doing a good job with dinner, really, they've been delicious, but a little too delicious, if you see what I mean — that's why I had to go jogging, because otherwise I would gain so much weight that it would probably make the ship list to one side, or whatever it is that spaceships do. So if you could just do a salad for me tonight, that would be greatly appreciated, probably by everyone on ship."
Sev's eyes narrowed as he just looked at her for a moment, and Lois regretted the warning she'd given him on the bridge earlier; it made the airhead routine harder to pull off. She concentrated on thoughts of salad.
"Yes," Sev said finally. "I'm sorry if you had to wait, while I was … busy." He was still watching her closely.
Lois shrugged. "It was only a second, really, because I was jogging and I heard your voice, and I just figured I could get my request in early before Francine requested steak again."
Sev's mouth twitched slightly upward at that, and they shared an almost friendly moment of amusement at Francine's exacting nature.
"Well, I'm sorry if I kept you from your ship duties," Lois said, looking guiltily up and down the corridor. "You won't tell Kal, will you? He'd be upset at me if he thought we were taking too much of your time; he specifically said that we were to leave you free to take care of your normal work."
"No," Sev said, seeming to relax a little. "I won't tell Lord Kal-El."
"Great, it's just our secret then." Lois beamed at him. "I've got to finish my workout now — but I'm looking forward to that salad!"
With one final wave, Lois took off again, keeping herself to a steady jog rather than the panicky run that her backbrain would have preferred.
"Remember, Zak, we need to sneak up through the asteroid field. Surprise is crucial. And let me know as soon as you spot Nor's ship on the sensors; we'll need to know if he moves or shows any signs of seeing us." Kal projected a warm mental glow of reassurance to the nervous crewman. "You're doing fine — just keep your eyes open."
As Kal turned away from Zak, he spotted Lois entering the bridge, looking worried. He entertained the faint hope that she had changed her mind about joining the rescue party.
"Kal," she said quietly with a quick glance at Zak. "I need to talk to you."
It wasn't hard to tell that she wanted privacy for whatever topic she had in mind, which roused his curiosity. He gently steered her to a small, unused room adjacent to the bridge. Almost unconsciously, he reached out telepathically to assess her mental state. She was agitated, but not fearful. "What is it?"
"Kal, I think something is happening that shouldn't be. I mean, I don't understand Kryptonian, so I couldn't tell what Sev was saying, exactly, but if it were above-board, he wouldn't have done it in a deserted section of your ship, would he? Unless that's normal; I mean, if it's normal, that's fine, I wouldn't want to tell you how to run your spaceship or anything, but—"
Kal held up a hand to stop her before she confused him further; somewhat to his surprise, it worked. "Thank you," he began, then had the small satisfaction of seeing her frown in puzzlement for a moment before she worked out the reference. "Um, why don't you just tell me what you saw? Then I can tell you if it's normal."
"Right, okay, well, I was out jogging, and I went down a level to have the corridors to myself, except I didn't — Sev was down there, and I think he was on some kind of radio."
Kal's amusement at her delivery style vanished. "A radio? Are you sure?"
"No, I'm not," she admitted unhappily. "But my gut feeling is that something's wrong … was there anything he should have been doing down there?"
"Not that I know of, no." Kal paused for a moment. He would check with Ching to see if Sev had any legitimate business down there. He would ask Sev, too, but the man possessed a fairly strong mind shield, and it would be difficult to determine if he were lying or not. There was only one possibility Kal could think of to explain such behavior, and he could see that Lois shared his fear.
"Nor did seem forewarned of our last visit," Kal said.
She nodded perfect understanding. "Exactly. Did Sev know we were going back?"
"I don't know, but he could have been on the bridge when Ching gave the orders to change course."
Lois frowned. "I just wish we knew for sure — can you use your telepathy gizmo on him?"
Kal grinned at her terminology, then gazed at her speculatively. "Not easily, not against his will. Lois, do you trust me?"
She looked up at him, her eyes wide, then one corner of her mouth twitched up. "Mostly."
He smiled wryly, understanding that she had reason to be wary. "With your permission," he explained, "I could use my 'telepathy gizmo,' as you call it, on you — to read your recent memories. You didn't understand what Sev said, but the sounds are still in your memory, and I would understand them. And then we'd know."
Lois hesitated. "You'd only look at the Sev-related parts, right?"
"I swear it," he affirmed solemnly, though not without a twinge of regret. She was still such a mystery to him, and he would love to understand her better … but he knew he would never stoop to such bad manners as invading her privacy.
She squared her shoulders. "Okay, what do I do?"
"Just relax, maybe sit down." He found two chairs that could be placed close together, and sat next to her. "I'll hold your hand; physical contact makes mental contact easier. Now, just close your eyes and concentrate on remembering what happened."
Lois nodded and took a deep breath, closing her eyes. Kal closed his eyes, too, to block out the distractions of their present surroundings. Lois probably didn't have the ability to project her thoughts, but unless a person was specifically blocking, it wasn't too difficult to read what was on the surface.
Slowly, a picture came into focus. "I see it," he said softly.
"I can feel you," Lois replied with a soft laugh. "In my head, I mean."
"Okay, let's find Sev," Kal prompted, before her thoughts wandered into territory she'd rather not share. The mental picture in the hallway began moving, and Kal watched the whole encounter. He tried to focus on Sev's words, ignoring the flow of Lois's remembered thoughts. He was glad to see that she did have *some* sense of caution, even if it didn't seem to make any difference in the end. But that was a minor consideration next to the realization that Sev had been betraying them to Nor.
"And then I came to see you," Lois said, pulling her hand away.
Kal opened his eyes and withdrew from her mind. "I've stopped reading you," he said.
"I know," she said, with a sideways glance. "I could feel you; it was weird. Kind of ticklish, only not really. But it's gone now."
"Of course," Kal agreed, although he still felt some sort of connection. He was no longer reading her, but her presence was still faintly there, sparkling invisibly. "You were right about Sev," he reported, returning to the business at hand.
"Yes, I know," she nodded. "I could understand him that time."
Kal looked at her in some surprise. He had known, from previous experience, that he would be able to read her surface thoughts. He hadn't expected her to be able to get anything back from him, but it must have happened; there was no other way for her to understand what Sev had said. The implications were too much to deal with at present, so he pushed the matter to the back of his mind.
Lois hadn't noticed his abstraction. "That little rat fink. Pretending to be oh-so-humble and bowing and scraping all over the place while he sells you out. It's enough to make me wish you had given him a death sentence."
Kal half-smiled at that bloodthirsty pronouncement. "I couldn't have carried out the sentence immediately anyway, so it probably wouldn't have made any difference. But the main point is, Nor knows we're headed back, so we've lost the element of surprise."
Lois looked up at him and easily finished his thought. "We need a new plan."
Lois hurried back towards the women's quarters. She was fairly sure that Kal's new plan would work, assuming he could pull off his part of the preparations. And given the odds, he probably could. So that left her to get the dancers to cooperate.
The sound of voices drew here to a small conference-type room near to her cabin. As she got closer she could hear Brenda calling out a dance beat.
"One — two — three — four. One — two — three — Melanie, get your knees up, and Francine, would it kill you to smile? Two — three — four."
Lois came even with the doorway and paused, just watching. Brenda had the three of them doing a new dance routine. Lois was no expert, but the steps looked different, somehow — more artistic, less openly erotic than the dances she'd seen at the Metro Club. She smiled at the others as they noticed her, but waited until they completed the routine.
"Okay, that's it for now," Brenda said as the set finished. "Thanks, ladies. I think it's coming along really well." She picked up a glass of water and crossed the room. "What did you think, Lois?"
"I didn't recognize it," Lois answered honestly, "but it looked great, and you guys were mostly together."
Brenda laughed. "We're learning."
"It's a new dance," Melanie piped up cheerfully, also moving towards Lois, water in hand. "Brenda arranged it for us."
Brenda smiled dismissively. "Well, we had to do something or we'd go nuts."
"Funny you should mention that," Lois said, grinning. "I've got a proposition for you all."
"Last time someone said that," Francine observed dryly, joining the group, "we ended up on a spaceship."
Lois grinned at her. "But it wasn't all bad, was it?"
Brenda pulled a face at her. "Apart from losing our jobs, no, it's been peachy."
Lois suppressed a flash of guilt. "Hey, Toni Taylor's probably been arrested by now, so I'd be surprised if the Metro Club stayed open. You'd have lost the gig anyway."
"So you're saying that it's not Sev's fault that we lost our jobs, it's yours?" Brenda raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Girlfriend, you're not winning any points with this argument."
Lois felt stirrings of irritation, but squelched them. "It's Toni's fault for hiring the Toasters."
Brenda shrugged. "Yeah, well, I never liked her anyway."
"But to get back to the subject at hand," Lois said pointedly, "Kal needs our help. You know he and Ching been looking for their, ah, friend, Zara." A woman who one of them loved, and the other one was going to marry, but it seemed easier to gloss over that little complexity. "And now they've found her. But they still need to rescue her — and that's where we can help."
Melanie blinked at that, looking alarmed. "Us? Help? What kind of help? Would it be dangerous?"
Lois shifted her weight. "Maybe a little bit, but honestly I think we've got a very good chance of succeeding, or I wouldn't even be asking. All we have to do is—"
"Hold on just a minute," Brenda interrupted. "I'm not so sure we should be helping them at all."
"What? Brenda, if they can't get Zara back, it's probably going to end up in civil war."
"Yeah, well maybe a civil war would be good for them."
Lois felt her mouth sag open at that belligerent pronouncement. Melanie looked shocked, while Francine just looked thoughtful.
"I mean, think about it," Brenda continued. "They say they want to keep the peace, but that just means protecting the current system, and their current system is pretty crappy. Maybe a civil war would shake them out of this stupid class system — I mean, look at the US. Before our Civil War, there was slavery; afterwards, no more slavery! You got to know I think that's a good thing." She stared challengingly around the room.
"We all think that's a good thing, Brenda," Lois retorted.
"And then look at World War II," the black woman continued, clearly on a roll. "That's the war that proved once and for all that women could work in factories and offices and all sorts of places — most of the men were off fighting, so they had to use the women — sounds to me like New Krypton could use that kind of enlightenment."
"I've got to admit I'm not too happy with the whole concubine thing," Melanie put in, her face troubled.
"Slow down here a minute, will ya?" Lois asked, scrambling to come up with coherent arguments. "Yes, sometimes wars have good outcomes, and yes, sometimes they're necessary. I mean, I'm in the army, for pete's sake! I wouldn't be there if I didn't think that armies could be a force for good. And if this came down to a fight between Nor and Kal, I know which side I'd be on, but—"
"Well, I don't," Brenda said bluntly. "They're both part of the same system, so I can't see there's much difference between them. Besides, what do we know about Nor, anyway? Only what Kal's told us, that's what. One kidnapped woman over there, four kidnapped women over here … doesn't sound like there's much to choose between them, to me."
Lois just stared for a moment, amazed at Brenda's attitude. Over the past few days, Lois had come to trust Kal on a deep level, and it was slightly shocking to her to find that her friend couldn't see his obvious trustworthiness and superiority.
"Kal didn't kidnap us," Francine said, drawing everyone's attention. "He hasn't mistreated any of us, and you know it, Brenda."
"Yeah, maybe he was just busy," Brenda shot back defensively.
"Hah. Have you seen the way he looks at Lois?" Francine demanded. She turned towards Lois. "That man wants you in the worst way, but has he pressured you? Harassed you at all?"
"No!" Lois frowned at the thought. "I had a hard time even getting the man to kiss me — and Brenda knows that!"
Francine nodded. "There's your difference, Brenda."
Brenda still looked obstinate.
"Let me put it this way," Lois said. "Imagine if this ship were run by Johnny Taylor. You don't think things would be any worse?"
Brenda shuddered. "Oh, lordy, let's not even think about it. Okay, okay, so maybe Kal's a cut above Nor, but—"
"Brenda, that's what it comes down to," Lois said intensely. "Whichever one of them ends up with Zara gets to rule the whole flippin' planet. It's a stupid system, sure, but it's what they've got, and frankly a war at this point would probably just kill all of them. Kal says he wants to improve things, and I believe him. He'll have a chance to do it, too — but only if we help him out. Are you guys in, or out?"
"I'm in," Francine said promptly, fixing the other two with a steely gaze.
"I'm in," Melanie echoed, "although I don't know what we could possibly do to help."
"We have a plan," Lois assured her, "and you can handle it. Brenda?"
The black woman looked sullen for a moment, then sighed. "Okay, okay, you've convinced me. I'm in. So tell me what this terrific plan is."
"Excellent news, my dear!" Nor swept into the ship's lounge, startling Zara from her perusal of the stars.
"News?" she asked him warily.
He dropped down on the padded bench next to her. Zara stiffened, but retained enough control not to retreat from him. "As I told you, your would-be suitor, Kal-El, is on a ship nearby. As I did *not* tell you, I have an … agent … aboard his ship."
Zara frowned at the possibility. "Kal-El would surely choose crewmen that are loyal to him."
"Ah, perhaps he would if he'd had the chance; the ship he commands was diverted from a different mission."
"But surely the Council would not send one of your men against you," Zara argued, confused and dismayed at the thought that Kal and Ching might be betrayed. After contacting Ching, her spirits had risen, but now she didn't know what to think.
"The Council does not know all of my men," Nor snapped. Then he smiled, regaining control. "This particular crewman has not worked for me before, but he knew of my reputation and apparently he formed some sort of grudge against Kal-El within two days of meeting him." Nor's smile widened slightly. "Your birth-husband does have that effect on some people. There was some unpleasantness over concubines, I believe; it doesn't matter."
Zara swallowed. "What damage could one crewman do?"
"Not much, of course, though he was an excellent early- warning system. However, in discussion with other crew members, he discovered that the ship's lieutenant seemed to be quite devoted to you."
Zara kept her face carefully neutral, and her mental shield tightly closed. "I serve the House of Ra; its members serve me."
"Yes, of course," Nor said, watching her closely. "But I do seem to remember certain rumors circulating a full cycle or more ago. Some of the more low-minded speculated that in Kal-El's absence, you had developed a partiality for one of your guards … a fantastic story, but the rumor gained some credence when your father abruptly arranged to have the man transferred to a deep space survey mission. And by an astonishing coincidence, it is that ship that Kal-El now commands."
"The trouble with rumors," Zara replied evenly, feeling her fingernails dig into her palms, "is that they are so often untrue."
"Hmm." Nor studied her for a moment, then shrugged. "I am sure my lady would do nothing improper. However, it does seem that this lieutenant has either formed or retained some sort of feelings for you … so much so that my agent was very cleverly able to use it against him."
Zara struggled to breathe normally. "What do you mean?"
"It's a dangerous thing, cleverness," Nor mused, inspecting his fingernails. "Naturally, I don't mind when it works to my advantage — but too much initiative is dangerous in a subordinate, and this fellow seems too capable of switching masters. I must remember to dispose of him as soon as I have Kal-El."
She stared at him, unwilling to beg for information; he was obviously enjoying her agitation. There was no need, anyway; Nor never had been able to stop talking about himself.
"Don't you want to know what he did?" Nor asked, his eyes gleaming like a predator watching disabled prey. "Of course you do; after all, you're involved. My agent spoke to the lieutenant, telling him that he was fearful for your continued safety. He hinted that I was becoming dangerously unstable — which is another reason to dispose of him, come to think of it — and that once I realized their ship was heading back to this system, I would kill you in a panic. That upset your lieutenant quite a bit, apparently. So my man told him that the only way to save your life was to relieve Kal-El of command and turn him over to me as a prisoner." Nor smiled broadly. "I do so like that plan, don't you?"
Zara swallowed again, unable to come up with a coherent reply. She knew Ching was an honorable man, and she was sure he was dedicated to the good of New Krypton; there was no way Ching could possibly think that letting Nor win this fight was for the best. And yet … if he believed her life was at stake? He was not normally prone to making decisions based on emotion, but it was possible that the shey-ana bond between them might cloud his thinking. This was probably why the ancients had discouraged romance, came the random thought; it made men illogical and sacrificed the good of the whole.
Kal-El would not be thus distracted. He held her in affection and esteem, as she did him, but that would not prove a disadvantage. Just because a mutiny was planned did not mean it would succeed. "When will they make their attempt?" she finally managed to ask. Perhaps, if she had some solitude, she could reach Ching again and tell him he was being deceived.
Nor glanced at her, seeming irritated by her lack of reaction. "Oh, some time ago. We just received a message from my agent, reporting his success. They will bring Kal- El's ship to dock with this one shortly. Would you like to come with me to greet them?" Now his gaze was coldly mocking.
She lifted her chin. "Certainly." She was tired of being isolated from events, and if she was there, at least she wouldn't have to suffer through Nor's gloating recital at a later date. Besides, she needed to be close to Ching, needed to find out what was in his mind. They had once been able to communicate in absolute privacy, undetected by others nearby. If that bond held true, she would soon be able to speak to him directly.
She held tight to the possibility that this might all be a ruse of some sort. If so, she wanted to be nearby, to help in any way she could. She had not wanted to risk sabotage, not with the ship so far from everything, but if circumstances permitted, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.
Ching adjusted his grip on the unfamiliar hand weapon as the small group waited for the airlock to cycle. In mere moments, they would be entering Nor's ship. Kal-El stood passively ahead of him, his hands tied. Ching regretted that necessity, but couldn't resist a guilty moment of pleasure at this reversal of roles.
Behind him, Sev kept a wary eye on the three women. Ching would much rather not have brought any women along, but Sev had insisted that their presence would help to pacify and distract Nor. Ching supposed he had a point, and left it at that; his consciousness was all taken up with thoughts of Zara.
He hadn't seen her in over a year; their brief telepathic contact had been like water in the desert. She had said Nor wasn't mistreating her. He hoped she hadn't been shading the truth. It would be like her to downplay her own discomforts so as not to distract from what she thought was a larger issue. Ching felt unfamiliar emotions welling up within him at the thought that Zara might have been hurt. If she had been, he would do what he must to make sure Nor suffered much more greatly.
A soft chime announced that the other side of the airlock was now pressurized, and the door smoothly opened. Ching kept an eye on the entire group to make sure they all moved to the new enclosure, but there were no problems. After a much shorter wait, the last door opened, allowing them into Nor's ship.
A burly guard awaited them. He eyed Kal-El's bound hands and grinned. "Welcome aboard, m'lord." He bowed, mocking protocol. Kal-El ignored him. The guard scowled, then turned his attention to the three ladies. "Ah, the concubines." He walked closer, leering at them. Lois glared back, and Brenda looked ready to say something cutting.
Ching stepped between them and the guard, forcing him backwards. "They are not for you," he said firmly.
The guard glowered, but gave ground. "Not yet, anyway," he mumbled.
Ching chose to ignore that, and if the women replied, it was in an undertone. "Where is Lord Nor? We are to meet with him."
The guard nodded and pointed down the corridor. "This way."
"Sev, you cover Kal-El," Ching ordered, then let the procession pass so that he could keep an eye on all of them.
The corridor was fairly short and opened up into a large open room. They fanned out into a ragged line, facing Lord Nor. Nor was standing in the center of the room with another guard behind him and Zara by his side. Ching allowed himself one quick look at her, noting with relief that she seemed unharmed. Her face showed her tension, though, and he could feel her mental probes as she tried to connect with him. Ching wished he could respond, but didn't dare divert his concentration from the very important confrontation to come. Resolutely, he focused on Lord Nor, who was gloating.
"Ah, Lord Kal-El," Nor began, his voice almost a purr. "It's so lovely to see you, especially like this."
Kal-El nodded gravely. "I've been looking forward to seeing you, too."
Nor raised an eyebrow at that, but continued down the line. "Which of you gentlemen is Sev?"
Sev stepped forward half a pace. "I am, my lord."
Nor smiled broadly. "So very nice to meet you at last … I appreciate all your efforts to please me, and believe me, you will be rewarded appropriately."
Sev bowed his head and stepped back, and Ching thought he looked rather sick. It was obvious Sev hadn't fully realized what he was getting into, and perhaps the man was now remembering some of the more unsavory aspects of Nor's reputation. Ching refused to sympathize with him.
"And you must be the loyal Lieutenant Ching," Nor continued, his voice dripping irony.
Ching dipped his head briefly, in the least respectful gesture he dared. "I have that honor." Ching kept his mental shields steady, but Nor appeared to make no efforts to probe him. Perhaps it would be safe to contact Zara after all, if he kept it brief.
"I understand you're quite devoted to the lovely Zara," Nor continued silkily. "I find it touching when servants are so faithful. I trust your loyalties will extend to me, as her husband."
Ching felt Zara's mental inquiries grow more frantic, and he risked a brief transmission. **Wait.** Aloud, he said, "I serve the Lady Zara's best interests." After a brief pause, as Nor stared challengingly at him, he forced himself to add, "My lord."
Nor nodded slowly, undoubtedly planning to dispose of Ching as soon as practical, and moved his attention to the three ladies. Francine was first, and she was looking bored.
"I understand you three are somewhat exotic." Nor smiled, seeming excited by the thought. "Alien, in fact. I look forward to exploring all your strange secrets."
Francine pretended not to notice him, nonchalantly inspecting her fingernails.
Nor smiled thinly, and Ching held his breath, grateful for the language barrier. None of the ladies would understand Nor's remarks, although the body language on each side was clear enough.
"I will capture your attention soon enough," Nor told Francine, then moved down the row to inspect Brenda. "Such skin color!" he marveled, running a finger down her arm. "Beautiful."
Brenda smiled sweetly. "You can kiss my black behind, sugar."
Nor smiled broadly, then narrowed his eyes, clearly unsure of how to take this. "I look forward to exploring you at my leisure," he said, then moved on to gaze at Lois.
She was standing tall, despite the flimsy garments. She stared coolly at Nor.
"Are you a woman of spirit, too, my sweet? You're a trifle skinny for my tastes, but not in all areas…" He reached out lazily towards Lois's chest. She knocked his hand away, and Nor grabbed her arm, scowling. "You will not deny me," Nor ordered.
Kal-El started towards Nor and Lois before Ching grabbed his arm, and the movement distracted Nor. "Oh, Kal-El … was she your favorite, then?"
"Leave her alone," Kal-El demanded.
Nor seemed to recover his cool, raising an eyebrow. "But how wonderful! I had planned to have you witness my marriage to your birth wife, but it should be even more entertaining to have you there as I take your concubine." He turned back towards Lois for a moment. "Were you fond of him, too? I do hope so, it would make things ever so much more enjoyable."
Lois wrenched her arm free. "Don't count on it."
"Later, my sweet. Guards!" Nor snapped his fingers, and the two henchmen stepped forwards. "Take these lovelies to separate quarters … and no sampling!"
Ching suddenly saw a way to get Zara safely out of the line of fire. Risking another short contact, he sent, **Go with them.**
She sent him a startled **What?**
**Trust me,** he sent back. **Go!**
"My lord," Zara spoke up, "I'll go with them."
Nor gazed at her speculatively for a moment, then nodded. "Very well. This business is properly for men at any rate."
Zara nodded, keeping her face calm, and with one last hungry look at Ching, she followed the women and guards out of the room.
Kal-El watched Lois leave the room with a sense of relief. The ladies were safe for the moment, at least — and Nor's guards were out of the room. Now it was time to get down to business. "Lord Nor!"
Nor stiffened at the distinctly non-servile tone. "You dare defy me now?"
"I offer you terms of surrender," Kal replied evenly. "If you surrender yourself and your ship peacefully right now, I swear not to bring capital charges against you in Council."
"You offer terms?" Nor laughed.
"They're the same terms I offered to Sev," Kal said.
Nor frowned. "And why should that impress me?"
"Because he accepted." In a quick motion, Kal twisted his wrists and pulled out of the loose ropes. Beside him, he was aware that Ching was holding his handgun steady, aimed directly at Nor.
Lois allowed herself to be herded out of the room and down the corridor. It had been fascinating to see the enemy at last. She hadn't expected to feel such a rush of adrenaline in facing him. Even knowing that this was all a ruse and that Kal could defend her if necessary, Nor's presence had made her skin crawl. To her surprise, she had been able to understand everything he said — some sort of mental echo through Kal, she supposed. She had certainly felt Kal's rage when Nor had threatened her. She wanted Nor stopped, of course, but now she also wanted someone to hit him hard where it hurt. Maybe later, she thought hopefully.
The guards took them around the first corner. "Okay, ladies," Lois said quietly and casually, turning her head to get a good sense of where her target was. "You two get big-and-hairy up front; I'll take short-and-stinky. One, two, three!"
Lois whirled, ducking and swinging one leg out to knock Shorty off his feet. On his way down, she kicked again, this time connecting with the side of his head. His startled yell cut off abruptly, and he landed hard. Lois jumped back, keeping a wary eye on him. That move should have knocked him out, but she wasn't willing to take chances.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Brenda and Francine were taking the big guy down with no problems. They had picked up quite a lot from just a few sessions of that self-defense class. "Great job!"
Francine smiled, the first honest smile from her that Lois had ever seen. "Believe me, it was a pleasure. I just remembered every jerk I've ever known."
Brenda laughed. "You go, girlfriend. Let's do that to every jerk we meet from now on, too."
"Just don't get yourselves arrested," Lois laughed too, aware that the release of tension was making them all a little giddy. They weren't out of danger yet, but so far, things were going just as planned. Except for one thing. Lois turned to find Zara staring at the scene in the hallway in stunned amazement. Her expression shaded towards fear as she looked from one Earth woman to the next, and she asked a low-voiced question.
Lois winced; away from Kal she couldn't understand Kryptonian anymore. "Lady Zara?" she asked, holding out an empty, hopefully reassuring hand.
Zara nodded slowly, still looking puzzled.
Lois thought hard, wondering how to get the necessary concepts across. She pointed to herself and said, "Lois." Then she gestured to the dancers, pointing to each in turn. "Brenda — Francine." Sweeping her finger over all three of them, she said. "Friends."
Pointing now towards Zara then back up the hallway, she continued, "Zara — Ching — Kal-El. Friends. Lois — Zara — friends?"
Zara nodded again, smiling shyly, then spoke again. "Kal- El — friend. Ching — friend. Lois — friend."
"Great! Oh, and just for the record," Lois made an exaggerated face. "Nor — bleah!"
Zara grinned at that. "Bleah!"
"Yeah, yeah," Brenda interrupted, "me Tarzan, you Jane, but shouldn't we get these guys under wraps?"
"Good thinking." Within a few minutes, with all four women helping, they had stuffed the two unconscious guards into a small room, and Zara had done something to the lock. Lois finally remembered to pull out her concealed handgun. "Now where should we go? Back to Kal-El?"
"I'd just as soon not see Nor again," Brenda said frankly, "but if you think Kal could use the help…"
Zara spoke quickly, trying a few hand gestures, but Lois had no idea what she was trying to get across, and cursed the language barrier. After a moment, Zara gave up, and just started off down the hallway, motioning for the others to follow her.
"Lois?" Francine asked uncertainly.
Lois shrugged. "She's got an idea, and she's on our side. Let's go back her up."
Nor looked at the weapon in Kal's hand and laughed. "Kal- El, my impetuous young friend … do you really imagine you can come onto my ship and demand my surrender?"
Kal shrugged slightly, keeping his aim steady. "I believe I just did."
"Mm, so you did. And a most amusing prank it has been." Nor smiled gently, shaking his head. "Shall I remind you that I have your concubines?"
Kal smiled grimly. "Somehow I don't think you do anymore."
Nor looked surprised, and for a moment his eyes went vague — probably as he tried to contact his guards. Whatever response or lack of one he received, it wiped the smile from his face as his attention snapped back to the immediate situation. His gaze left Kal and settled on Ching. "And you, Ching … I take it you were never planning to serve me at all. A pity, that."
Ching stared at him, much more comfortable now that he could aim his own weapon in the right direction. "I serve Lady Zara," he stated baldly. "And she deserves far better than you."
Nor arched an eyebrow, infuriatingly calm. "Really? How odd, that's not what she said the last few times."
Ching felt his fingers tense and had to consciously restrain himself from firing. He reminded himself that Zara had said she was fine, but Nor's words spoke directly to his worst nightmares.
"Granted," Nor continued with an evil smile, "she was less than impressed at first, but once I taught her to please me—"
A bullet was much too good for this piece of slime. With a tiny smile of his own, Ching engaged the safety and tucked the gun back into his belt. He was aware of Kal's telepathic warnings of caution, but ignored them. Then he lunged forward, eager to get his hands wrapped around Nor's soft, white throat.
Zara hurried towards the bridge, glad to hear that the three strange women were coming along. Even before they'd taken out the guards in the hallway it had been obvious from the way they'd reacted to Nor that they were no ordinary concubines. It had been foolish of Nor not to realize what their lack of fear meant, but then Nor had always underestimated women. Though, to be fair, even Zara hadn't dreamed that three concubines could overpower two guards like that. It was a revelation.
Likewise, it had been almost a shock to see Ching again. He had looked at once very familiar and strangely changed. She hadn't been able to keep any personal images of him; the only likeness she had been able to view was in his personnel file, where he had looked grim and dutiful. She knew and loved his sense of honor and duty, but there was more that she preferred to remember, and that had begun to fade in their year apart. There were his all-too-rare smiles that transformed his face. More frequently, she'd seen his eyes crinkle around the edges, mostly during boring council sessions when he would send her caustic private comments to try to make her laugh. To anyone else, he would look wooden, but Zara knew and cherished his smallest facial expressions.
He had looked grim and dutiful again today, which was hardly surprising. There was something else there, though … a new air of authority. A year ago, he would never have ordered her to do anything. In the circumstances, of course, it was understandable … and Zara found herself liking his new assertiveness. He had spent over a cycle in command of a ship and crew, after all. Even though it had been a small crew, the experience seemed to have been good for him.
She slowed to a stop, recognizing that they were almost to the ship's bridge. The Earth women slowed as well, watching her carefully for clues. Zara opened her mouth to explain, then stopped herself in frustration. There were two, possibly three, of Nor's goons manning the bridge, between them and the panel she needed to reach. If she could only communicate with her new allies, they could try to distract them … or even — revolutionary thought — overpower them. But how to get the idea across when none of the other three understood Kryptonian?
Before she could begin to work through the problem, the situation changed drastically.
"Oh, hell," Kal muttered as Ching took the bait and lunged. All hope of a peaceful resolution was now gone — not that Nor had seemed likely to cooperate anyway. Kal looked around and located Sev watching the fight from a corner. "Sev, stay there!" Kal ordered, with little hope of being obeyed.
He turned back, watching the fistfight that had by now crashed to the deck. Nor was a little taller and heavier than Ching, but didn't seem nearly as well trained, and was presently getting much the worse of the confrontation. Kal couldn't help sharing some of his friend's primitive desire for revenge. Even if his latest innuendo was entirely false, which he was almost certain it was, Nor had still crossed far beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. And yet … they couldn't usurp the law, or they would be no better. Kal sighed. Time to rescue his enemy from his friend.
Keeping a wary eye on Sev, Kal tucked his gun into his waistband and carefully approached the two wrestling on the floor. He'd probably be able to just pick them both up, but that display of strength would give away far more than he wanted either Sev or Nor to know. "Ching … Ching, that's enough!"
Ching paused, mid-punch, a suspicious look on his face. "My lord?"
"Leave him to the Council, Ching. They'll take care of him."
On the floor, with several smears of blood on his face, Nor began to laugh. Kal ignored him, reaching out for Ching's upraised arm. He didn't realize what the pounding sound under the laughter meant until three new guards burst into the room.
"Oh, hell," he swore again as the first one leapt on his back and toppled him to the floor.
Lois watched the corridor where the bridge crew had disappeared, but it was quiet. "Not that I'm complaining," she said, "but does anyone else wonder where they've gone?"
Francine shrugged. "Maybe they're making a run for the life boats, or whatever they call them on a spaceship."
"Yeah, maybe," Lois said, but she didn't believe it for a second. Those thugs had gone off to help their captain — probably summoned telepathically — and she itched to be in that fight, watching Kal's back. She tried to reach out to him mentally, but only received a confused jumble of images, probably all imaginary. She reassured herself that he was still invulnerable, but he wouldn't be able to use his full capabilities. Besides, if she was stuck here, away from the action, she was missing her chance to take a little personal revenge on Nor.
Zara was bent over a control panel, frowning and punching buttons. Lois recognized some of the control stations; Nor's ship was designed the same as Kal's, and she had gotten Kal to teach her some basic functions. The one Zara was working at, though, was unknown to her. Lois hated the unknown.
With a satisfied exclamation Zara straightened up.
"Is it fixed?" Lois asked, before remembering the language barrier.
Zara nodded, her eyes sparkling with pride and perhaps a touch of malicious glee.
"Good." So Zara seemed able to understand her … interesting. Perhaps Kryptonian telepathy acted as a sort of translator, picking up on whatever she was thinking loudest at the time. It was a little scary to think that her thoughts weren't entirely private. But she had managed to fool Sev, she reassured herself; so there were clearly limits to it.
Speaking a little slower than usual and doing her best to project curiosity, Lois asked, "Um, what does it do — or what did it do?" Belatedly it occurred to her to worry that Zara might be one of those death-before-dishonor types who would see suicide as a good way out of a bad situation. Somewhat fearfully, she added, "Boom?"
Zara grinned. "No boom." She spoke a few more incomprehensible words, then gave up the effort with a frustrated grimace.
"Well, if you're done here, maybe you guys should go back towards the shuttle we came over in … Francine, Brenda, you go with her."
"Wait a minute, girlfriend," Brenda spoke up. "I'm not so sure that's a great idea. There's probably still some goons wandering around this ship."
Lois shook her head. "I'm sure they're all busy fighting Kal and Ching."
Brenda stared at her. "So you think we should just sneak out?"
"Well, that would be safest," Lois said, a little taken aback at Brenda's sudden combativeness.
"Huh, the hell with that. No, now that I've got this defense training, I wanna use it to kick some bad guy butt."
Lois still didn't like the idea. "Francine?"
"Don't worry, sweetie. We can handle them. We took down those two earlier, didn't we?"
"Well, yeah, but they weren't expecting—"
"Goons never do, Lois. Not from women like us."
As a last hope, Lois turned to Zara. "Lady Zara," she began, hoping the other woman's telepathy would get the idea across. "We have a shuttle that can take you to Lord Kal-El's ship; you'd be safe there."
Zara smiled serenely. She held up one finger. "Ching." Then she held up a finger on her other hand. "Zara." Then she brought the second finger across towards the first, and hooked them together for emphasis.
Lois gave up, laughing quietly. "Okay, okay, I'm outnumbered. The Lady and Concubine Strike Force is on its way."
Ching felt himself calming down and slowly coming back to rationality. Nor was on the floor beneath him, looking satisfactorily battered, but then he began laughing, and Ching decided hazily that he needed to be punched just one more time. Before he could connect, however, several bodies toppled onto them, and it dawned on Ching that Nor's reinforcements had arrived.
He rolled with the others, then extricated himself and crouched against a wall, evaluating the new enemy. There were three men wearing Nor's livery, and currently they were all ganging up on Kal-El. Kal seemed to be handling himself, but Ching had no intention of letting his lord — and somewhat surprisingly, friend — down. Taking a deep breath and better control of his wayward emotions, Ching charged back into the thick of the fight.
The sounds of fighting were clear long before Lois reached the bridge. No gunfire that she could hear, though, which she supposed was good. She gripped her own weapon, hoping that Kryptonian goons would realize the damage she could do with it. "Let me go first," she hissed to the others.
"Glory hog," Brenda commented, but without conviction.
"I want to try to stop this. But if it doesn't work, I'll need you guys."
"We're here," Francine assured her. She looked much less confident now, but still determined.
"Wish me luck!" With that, Lois rounded the last corner and found herself standing just inside the doorway. It was chaos within the formerly pristine room, but after a moment she was able to recognize the struggling figures within. Kal-El was warding off two guards, and somehow Lois could tell that he was restraining himself, using only enough strength to defend himself. Ching, on the other hand, was exchanging blows with one other guard with every evidence of enthusiasm, grinning and gasping out insults. Nor, Lois noted with approval, was on the floor, albeit propped up against a wall, yelling commands to his men.
Lois took another step forward, aiming her gun at Nor's chest. In an attempt to make her threat clear to goons who might not be familiar with projectile weapons, she filled her mind with images of Nor's splattered corpse. She saw his startled gaze turn towards her, and in the loudest, most forceful voice she could muster, she yelled, "Freeze! Or I blow Nor to atoms!"
For a moment, the struggles stopped, and Lois was peripherally aware of pleased expressions on both Kal and Ching's faces. Then suddenly, an arm wrapped around her neck, and Lois felt a small cold circle of metal against her temple. She went very still. "Drop the gun," Sev ordered hoarsely. "Or I'll blow your head off."
Lois met Kal's eyes across the room. For a moment he looked frantic, then his expression changed. Suddenly, she heard his voice in her head. **It's not loaded,** he told her. **You can handle him.**
Kal took advantage of the other guards' distraction and shoved them across the room, knocking them down. Lois took advantage of Sev's distraction by stamping on his instep, ramming her elbow into his gut, and then bringing her fist up to smack him in the face. He slumped to the floor.
Kal laughed when he saw Sev crumple. He had briefly been terrified, but a quick mental inventory and burst of x-ray vision had assured him that Sev was still using his weapon from the earlier ruse. They had wanted Sev to look like he was in charge, but at no point had he been given actual ammunition. Without the worry about a bullet, Lois had been able to dispose of him handily. It was amazing how much he loved that about her.
After that, it was fairly easy to subdue the remaining guards. Working together as a team, he and Ching herded them into a corner with Sev's limp body. The arrival of Brenda and Francine was almost more of a hindrance than a help, given their tendency to keep hitting the guards even after they'd effectively surrendered.
"Come on, ladies," Lois laughed. "Leave the guys alone, okay? Kal, are these all the goons on board?"
Kal looked around, and tried to listen for any more thudding feet. All was quiet. "You took care of those two from earlier, right?"
She nodded. "They're shoved in a cabin down the way, and Zara did something to the lock; they should be out of commission."
"Well, then," Kal looked at her and grinned. "I think we won."
Nor coughed, a harsh sound in the quiet room. "Not quite yet. I have one last card to play."
Ching glowered at the man who'd been tormenting them all. "You're bluffing."
Nor glared right back. "You wish." With evident difficulty, he fished inside his tunic and pulled out a small device. "This is my last resort, and I hope you won't force me to use it."
Kal narrowed his eyes. "What is it?"
Nor shrugged. "This trinket? Nothing much … but if I push *this* button," he flipped open a protective cover to reveal a red button, "it will set the ship to self- destruct. You cannot stop it. And I would prefer to die here rather than go back to New Krypton in disgrace. Therefore, it is now my turn to dictate terms. I want you to give your weapons to my men. Kal-El, you and Ching will decamp to the nearby mining station, to be retrieved later — if I'm in a good mood, that is. Your lady friends — well, possibly not all of them," he amended, with a baleful glance towards Lois, "will remain with me."
Ching watched him, mentally calculating angles and wondering whether it would be at all possible to knock the device out of Nor's hands. Possibly … not. The alternative was awful but not unthinkable, and at least Zara should be safe.
Instinctively, he turned to watch her. She was gazing at Nor with disgust, but a complete lack of fear. **My love,** he sent, **we may have to accept his terms.**
**What?** She turned to him in surprise, then a look of enlightenment crossed her face. **Oh, no, you won't.**
Before he could guess what she was up to, she strode forward toward Nor, who was still dictating terms.
"Once Zara does me the honor of accepting my humble suit," Nor sneered, "I may send a ship to release you both." He stopped when he realized that Zara was daring to confront him. "Come to beg for mercy, my dear?"
"Do you know what I've always hated about you?" Zara asked conversationally.
He stared at her in blank surprise, clutching his device a bit closer.
"You talk too much. You will kindly cease. Kal-El is now in command of this vessel, and that device of yours is useless."
His face worked with rage and Ching moved closer, ready to protect Zara.
"You think so, do you?" Nor panted. "How will you like it if I do this?" Defiantly, he pressed the button.
Zara made no move to stop him. "Why should I care? All that does is send a message to the control on the bridge, remember? You told me so yourself. And I'm happy to say that the control on the bridge is no longer functional." She turned away from him then, clearly dismissing him from her thoughts, and winked at Lois. "No boom."
Behind her, Nor screamed with rage, and from the sounds of it, hit the button repeatedly. Zara just walked away from him, confident that Ching and Kal could now handle him. **He's all yours, my love,** she sent to Ching, and she felt his savage satisfaction when he took control of the now-babbling Nor. Lois was laughing with delight, but Zara was focused on Kal.
Her steps slowed as she approached him. He had been raised almost as her brother, they had been friends for years, and she would shortly be marrying him. But she hadn't seen him in three cycles, not since before she met and fell in love with Ching. Meeting him again now was proving awkward. "My lord," she greeted him.
He bowed slightly. "My lady, it is good to see you."
"Thank you for … everything." A hand vaguely gestured to Nor's ship and the fallen guards.
Kal grinned crookedly. "I had a lot of help … including from you. Thank you."
She nodded, discounting this as mere politeness. "I do my duty."
"I know that you do — and I know that you are capable of much more," Kal said softly, but with a note of respect that confused her.
Kal liked her, she knew that, but she hadn't thought he'd realized that she was, in her own way, working very hard for the benefit of New Krypton. Perhaps that was her fault though; they hadn't been close in recent years — not at all while he had been away — and she had kept herself largely hidden from him, showing only her docile public persona.
It hadn't always been that way; as children she'd done her best to win every strategy game they'd played. At least until her father and Aunt Alys had scolded her for it. "Women don't need to know strategy," Father had said flatly. "We mustn't trample on their egos," Aunt Alys had added later in private. "There are other ways to get what you want." After a series of confrontations on the issue, Zara had given up playing the games altogether. Looking back now, she thought that Kal had been disappointed to lose his sparring partner, so perhaps she should have given him more credit.
"I couldn't have done as much without help," she said, still minimizing her own contributions out of habit and changing the subject. "Will you introduce me to your new friends?"
"We found some unexpected allies on Earth," Kal explained, reaching out to grasp Lois's hand and pull her closer. "This is Lieutenant Lois Lane, of the Earth military forces."
Zara smiled at her in genuine pleasure. "I'm honored to meet you," she said, mostly for Kal's sake since Lois didn't speak Kryptonian.
Lois smiled. "Believe me, Zara, the honor is mine." Her glance flickered briefly to Kal's face. "Kal's told me a lot about you."
Using telepathy, Zara was able to pick up not only the surface meaning of Lois's strange words, but also some tantalizing emotional undercurrents. The fact that Kal was touching Lois and not her took on new significance. And had Lois merely replied out of politeness, or had she somehow understood what Zara had said? To test it, she asked, "Have you known Kal long?"
"Only a few days," Lois replied a little sadly. "We met on Earth, and then … well, it got complicated."
Zara noted that for future reference, but had to ask, "How is it that you can understand me now, when you couldn't before?"
"Oh, right…" Lois glanced at Kal again, who was looking a little confused himself. "I think Kal is kind of translating for me. Mentally, I mean."
Zara gave Kal a startled look; did he realize what that could mean? He seemed surprised by the realization, but his mind was tightly closed to her. How fascinating. She was hardly in a position to complain, of course, even if Kal didn't realize it yet. Perhaps she ought to tell him, just to be fair, but the risks were too high. She looked forward to some private time where she could discuss it with Ching. "And your other friends?" she asked.
"This is Brenda and Francine," Kal obliged. The supposed concubines both came forward and each shook her hand. "I hadn't planned to bring them along," he explained earnestly. "And none of them is a real concubine. But Sev saw them before we left and thought he'd help himself. I'm fortunate that they forgave me for his sins."
Lois waved an airy hand. "He didn't get a chance to sin much, just trapped us on board the ship before it took off." She winked at Zara, obviously not harboring any grudge. "The next time I saw him, I laid him out like a pastry."
The words were unfamiliar to Zara, but the accompanying mental image made her laugh.
Kal smiled, remembering his stunned amazement when he'd first met Lois. It was strange to think that in a mere four days she had become so essential to his happiness.
"I am pleased that you were unharmed," Zara said, still smiling at Lois.
Ching came back into the room at that point. "My lord," he reported, standing to attention. "The prisoners are secured."
Kal's smile widened. Good old Ching, giving a perfect imitation of the emotionless Kryptonian ideal. It was reassuring to know that he wasn't nearly as repressed as he appeared. "Ching, after what we've been through, I think you can call me Kal."
Ching looked startled, almost disapproving at first, but slowly relaxed. "Thank you, my — Kal."
"Where did you stuff them?" Lois asked.
"There is a series of private cabins just off the main corridor; Sev, Nor, and his guards are the new occupants. It was not difficult to set the door lock systems to keep them inside."
"Let's hope they get claustrophobia," Lois muttered.
Kal nodded absently. "That will do for now. We need to get everyone home as safely as possible. Ching, if you could take the ladies back to the other ship, I'm going to make sure that this ship is functioning properly on auto- control." His mind raced through various options. They had two ships now, which expanded their options, but he was uneasy about keeping seven men onboard as prisoners; they didn't have nearly enough men to guard them properly. "Come back after you've delivered the ladies, Ching. We have a problem to discuss."
Lois frowned. "I'd like to stay with you, if you don't mind."
Kal noted the speculative look on Zara's face, but he ignored it. "I was hoping you could look after Zara for me, Lois." She was looking mulish. His initial decision had been more impulsive than rational, but he was starting to see an underlying logic. "With Ching and I gone, I need you to be in command of the ship." Visions of Nor somehow re-taking his ship and attacking the other one danced in his head. "I need someone there I can trust, in case … in case anything goes wrong."
Lois opened her mouth to argue, then slowly closed it. "Don't worry, I'll take care of her. But you know, if you're worried about Nor's guards, why don't you take his advice?"
Kal frowned, glancing at Ching and Zara to see if they'd followed that. Apparently not. "What advice do you mean, exactly?"
She grinned. "Don't you remember, he was going to strand us on the mining station?"
Kal laughed. "Of course. We have to take Nor back to New Krypton for trial, but his underlings — not to mention Sev — can very well wait here until we can send another ship for them."
Ching showed a ghost of a smile. "Most appropriate. And I can guarantee that there's plenty of room for them."
"But first," Kal reminded him, "we need to move the ladies to safety."
"Yes, my lord," Ching replied, his eyes darting hungrily to Zara's face. "Lady Lois, if you could lead the way?"
Kal watched the small procession exit towards the shuttle, noting that Lois seemed to be keeping the other two dancers away from Ching and Zara. Kal sighed. He would have to do something about those two sooner or later. His marriage to Zara would be a business arrangement, nothing more, so he had no objection if she found happiness with Ching, as long as they were suitably discreet. Telling them so, however, was likely to be awkward at best. He'd almost rather face Nor again.
It was a quiet ride on the shuttle. Brenda and Francine had begun the ride in good spirits, but when none of the other three had responded, they'd retreated toward the back of the small compartment. Lois sat behind Ching, who was piloting, allowing Zara to sit next to him
Lois had never liked being part of a rear guard, preferring to be right in the thick of the action, but she could see the need to be prepared in case Nor got out somehow. Tactically, it might have made more sense for her to stay with Kal while Ching went to command the second ship, but it was too late for that now. She suspected that Kal was still trying to protect her, which was both annoying and sort of sweet, but all the same, she meant to carry out her mission to the best of her ability.
She'd have to confer with Zak and find out exactly what the ship could do. Kal probably expected her to hightail it out of there if anything happened so that she could protect Zara. Kal didn't know her well enough yet. Lois was determined that she wasn't going to abandon her crewmates if she had any other options, and she was sure she could think up some options.
Very likely nothing would happen. Nor had seemed like a broken man when Ching had led him out, and he didn't strike her as the overly energetic type. She doubted he'd be able to threaten anyone anymore, Not without his bully boys to back him up, and she trusted Kal and Ching would deny him the opportunity. But if anything did happen, Lois intended to be prepared.
She glanced toward the pair in the front seats. Ching and Zara had barely spoken two words to each other since coming on board, and they weren't even looking at each other. Lois considered it a waste of a good opportunity, and started to worry that she'd misjudged the situation. Ching was definitely hung up on Zara, and she had seemed attached to him, too — at least until she'd seen Kal again and gone all stiff and formal.
Zara had it tough, Lois supposed, trying to feel sympathy for her. She was a bright woman in a system that considered that an oxymoron, and she had to pick a husband based on political considerations. Even if she had found love — sheyana — with a household guard, there was no way she could publicly express it. It was rather like the non- fraternization rules in the military, enacted to prevent sexual harassment between officers and their troops, but which sometimes interfered with real and healthy relationships. At least military personnel had the option to revert to civilian status, at which point the regulations no longer applied. Zara and Ching were stuck, drafted before birth and unable to opt out.
All the same, Lois was disappointed that they weren't trying harder to finagle the regs, somehow. It wasn't as if Kal would mind. She heard a slight noise and looked up to see that Zara had turned toward Ching, her eyes dancing as if at some secret joke. Ching was still looking straight ahead, but his mouth was twitching, and Lois felt like an idiot. Of course, they were telepathic — they didn't need to talk aloud, and especially not when others could hear them. She turned her head to the side, determined to study the floor and not intrude into their precious moment of privacy.
It was reassuring, in a way, that Ching and Zara weren't blindly conforming to their society's stupid rules. It reaffirmed her faith in human nature, even if these two weren't exactly human. And yet, it still wasn't enough. Lady Zara would not be allowed to marry Lieutenant Ching, so she would go ahead and marry Lord Kal-El.
And Lois Lane would go back to Earth, alone.
"Lieutenant Ching and I have been discussing ideas, and we think we have a workable plan," Kal announced. "We'd like to present it to you ladies," he nodded to Zara and Lois, "and get your reactions before we proceed."
Zara sat up a little straighter. If Kal seriously wanted her opinions, she welcomed the chance to show her intelligence. She just wished she didn't feel so sleepy, but that was probably just a reaction to the tensions of the day.
It had been lovely to spend a little time with Ching in the shuttle on the way to this ship, but when he'd left again, her nerves had returned, full force. It had been difficult to communicate with Lois, but she knew they were both facing the same worry. Thankfully, Lois had seemed to have a plan, and a determination not to abandon Kal or Ching. And in the end, all the worrying and planning turned out to have been for nothing. Nor had ensured loyalty from his men by threats; once the threat evaporated, the loyalty had gone, too. It had been a long laborious process to transfer the lesser prisoners to the mining station one at a time, but now they were safely stowed away, so Kal and Ching had returned to join the ladies.
Melanie and Francine had volunteered to make dinner for them all, which Zara appreciated. Even if she hadn't felt compelled to remain on the bridge, she would have been helpless in a kitchen without servants. And now, after dinner, Kal had invited Ching, Lois, and herself to a conference in the Terrace.
"No problem," Lois replied cheerfully. "I always have an opinion. And I'm sure Zara will, too — right?"
Zara nodded. "I have not always spoken them aloud, but yes — I always have an opinion."
"Great," Kal smiled at her. "I hope you'll trust me enough to share. We have several goals that need to be met. The Lady Zara must be returned to New Krypton as quickly as possible to keep things stable, politically."
Zara sighed, not relishing the prospect. At Kal's inquiring glance she decided to elaborate. "I understand that, and I will do my duty … but it's frustrating to be treated as just a symbol — a lucky token. I'm the closest thing New Krypton has to a leader right now, but all they require of me is public appearances and a pulse. I don't even speak in Council meetings."
"Well, have you tried?" Lois asked reasonably.
Zara was stunned for a moment. "I — the taboo against a woman speaking in Council — it's never even occurred to me," she admitted finally. "It did cause a bit of a stir when I insisted on attending the meetings; I suppose I didn't want them to change their minds and throw me out. And I have spoken to individual councilors at other times to try to influence votes on one or two issues."
"That's great," Lois smiled. "See, you're more than just a symbol. Not that being a symbol is a bad thing, either." Her glance flickered to Kal and back. "As long as you're standing for what's right, and doing what you can to fight for it."
"And you will be able to do more once you're married," Kal added a bit awkwardly. "Things are just a trifle … unsettled right now."
Zara raised an eyebrow. She had thought that marriage would spell the end of her fledgling influence, but perhaps not. Kal-El seemed to be implying that he would allow her to continue working for New Krypton and not insist that she spend all her energy on the household and future offspring. She also noted that Lois had lost some of her smile at the reference to marriage, while Ching was looking particularly stoic. "Yes, well, we can discuss that later. I do need to return home, and I admit I have missed Aunt Alys."
Kal smiled then. "So have I … but that may have to wait a little while longer. I have promised to return Lois and her friends to Earth. They've been ripped away from their lives there, and I owe it to them to get them back home as quickly as possible." His eyes strayed to Lois's face for a moment, and Zara caught a glimpse of longing there before he covered it up. "Luckily for us, we have two ships, so if we split up, we should be able to accomplish both objectives in good order."
"Split up? How, exactly?" Lois demanded anxiously.
Zara tried to do a better job of hiding her own anxiety. "Elaborate, please."
Kal fidgeted in his seat, darting a glance at Ching before facing her once more. "We've inspected Nor's ship and believe that it can return to New Krypton from here on computer control, for the most part, if a pilot is available for any emergencies. Lord Nor is still imprisoned there, and we've reinforced his cell, so he should not have the opportunity to cause trouble. It makes sense to me that you should return on that ship, Zara." Kal took a deep breath, not quite meeting her eyes, "and I believe Ching should accompany you."
Zara stared at him, trying to work this out. It was obvious to her that Kal suspected something between them … and he was condoning it? Or was he simply covering up his own desire to spend more time with Lois, and embarrassed to admit it before his future wife? **Ching, what is he talking about? What does he know?**
**I'm not sure,** Ching sent back in a worried tone.
"That would be acceptable," Zara replied carefully. "Lieutenant Ching has served in my household before—"
Kal met her eyes then and said gently, "I think there was a little bit more to it than that, Zara."
Zara sucked in her breath, feeling waves of heat and chill travel up her body. "I am aware there have been certain rumors," she began, gathering steam as she went, "but I would never dishonor myself or you —"
Kal shook his head. "No, Zara, that's not what I meant … oh, this is so embarrassing." He looked up again. "I'm sorry, I'm saying this badly. During our search for you, I began to suspect that Ching was … attached to you, and after you contacted him at such a distance … well, it seemed clear that you had feelings for him, as well."
Zara closed her eyes, certain that her cheeks were turning bright red. After all this time and all their caution, it was devastating to be caught.
"If there were any way you could marry him, Zara, I'd happily stand aside."
Her eyes popped open; this was unexpected.
"But the best I can do is to promise not to interfere. Your marriage must be political in nature," Kal said earnestly, his eyes once more drawn towards Lois, "but your personal life should be your own."
At last, Zara dared to look at Ching. He was sitting as silently as ever, but his eyes were glowing. **What do you think, my love?**
"Kal," Ching said slowly, "I would never have gone against your wishes, I hope you know that."
Kal nodded. "You are an honorable man."
Ching smiled wryly. "I do my poor best." The smile disappeared as Ching straightened up, very much on his dignity. "You've given us a great gift. Thank you."
"Trust me, it's the least I could do," Kal muttered, seeming very uncomfortable with the whole conversation. "So then, it's settled? Ching and Zara will take Nor back to New Krypton, while Zak and I take a side trip to return our friends to Earth."
Zara turned to look at Lois, who was staring resolutely out at the stars, surrounded by an almost visible aura of sadness.
"Yes," Lois said quietly. "That sounds like a plan."
"That went pretty well, I think," Kal commented, once Zara and Ching had left the Terrace. "I mean, I was pretty nervous about bringing up the whole subject, but Zara seemed to take it well, don't you think?"
"Yeah, she did." Lois stared out at the stars, hardly seeing their brilliant sparkle. The whole conversation had been depressing, hammering home the fact that Kal still planned to marry Zara.
"It would have been pretty embarrassing if I'd guessed wrong about their relationship." Kal laughed softly, evidently working through his nerves after the fact. "I was sure about Ching — well, you were the one who told me, and it was obvious. It's hard to read Zara, though; she has this public face she puts on to keep everyone guessing. Some of the glances going back and forth, though … well, I figured I was on pretty solid ground."
"Yes, you were."
Her soft tone seemed to catch his attention. "Lois, is there anything wrong?"
Lois considered how to answer that. The man she loved was going to marry another woman and move to another planet; did he have to be blindly insensitive on top of that? "Only the obvious."
"Oh, yeah. That." Kal came to stand behind her, hesitantly sliding his arms around her waist. She could see a dim reflection of them in the window, and resisted the impulse to lay her head back against his chest. "I wish it were that easy for us."
"If you call that easy." She knew that now was no time for this sort of discussion; she was tired and wrung out. But she didn't want to let Kal's rosy assumptions stand, and somewhere within her there was a spark of anger. She just wasn't sure what she was angry at — the neo-feudal system that was so hostile to love, or the man who so unthinkingly participated in it. "How much togetherness will they be able to manage, really?"
Kal shifted slightly. "A fair amount, I suppose … Zara has a large household with a number of servants. All we need to do is add Ching on as a household guard again — actually, we should probably promote him to chief security officer for the House of El; he'd do well in that position. Zara can create as much privacy for herself as she wants, really. At least on the private estates. Rumors might spread eventually, but as long as I don't object, nothing will come of it."
"So they'll still be stuck pretending most of the time," Lois concluded grimly. "And you think that's fine?"
"No, it's not fine," Kal said, with an apologetic tone, then added gently, "But it's the best they can do. And it's definitely better than nothing."
There didn't seem to be much of an argument against that. As she stood there, studying their reflection against the stars, a lump formed in Lois's throat at the thought of a lifetime without Kal. It hadn't seemed like such an awful prospect one short week ago. Why was it now so chilling? Why had the universe shown her that this man even existed if it wasn't going to allow her to keep him?
"Actually…" Kal shuffled his feet, turning her around to face him. "That reminds me of something I wanted to ask you. Lois, this last week … it's been amazing. I've never met anyone like you — I never thought I would. You're beautiful and smart, and you have such passion for life."
Lois allowed herself to smile, warmed by his words and by the intensity of his gaze, feeling the chill of depression retreat.
"Maybe there were women like you on New Krypton and I just never noticed, I don't know," he admitted humbly, "but I don't think so. I can talk to you … I can work with you. I've barely met any men I'd trust the way I trust you — and you've got to admit, with my background, that's kinda incredible." He grinned.
Lois grinned back, loving the way his smile lit up his face. "Sexist creep," she teased.
Kal laughed. "Not any more! You've cured me of low expectations, believe me. And I want to cure a lot of other people, too — there are so many changes I want to try back home." He sobered, watching her intently. "But it's going to be awfully hard to do it without my partner."
Lois held his gaze, unable to squelch a flicker of hope. "What are you saying?"
"Lois … I want you to come back with me to New Krypton." The words came out a little rushed, and he watched her closely as he continued. "The atmosphere and gravity aren't that different from Earth's, and I'm sure that we could handle any medical problems with you adapting — we've got some amazing medical technology. I know it would mean leaving your family and your career behind, but … well, I *need* you, Lois. I can't face the idea of a lifetime without you. I love you."
Lois forced herself to breathe, and only by strong self- discipline restrained herself from flinging herself against him. "Are you asking me to marry you?"
A confused look crossed his face. "I thought you understood about that … I have to marry Zara to keep things from falling apart … but you could still be with me!"
Lois felt her mouth drop open. Her mind whirled, and she was utterly incapable of forming a coherent sentence.
"I know it's not ideal," he added, looking increasingly worried. "But Lois, it's better than nothing. Isn't it?"
She took a deep breath and backed away from him, out of his arms. "You want me to be a concubine."
Kal flinched. "Technically, I suppose so," he said defensively, "but you'd be special; everyone would know that — it's part of our traditions…"
"Well, it's sure as hell not part of mine! I cannot *believe* you asked me that!" She began to pace, too keyed up to stay still. Her hands were trembling from the effort it took not to slap him. "You're not quite as cured as you think, Lord Kal-El."
"Lois—" Kal reached out for her, looking alarmed at her agitation, but she swatted at his hands and moved further away. "I'm sorry—"
"You're damn right," she muttered, then threw her hands in the air. She couldn't stay here, couldn't talk to him any more, couldn't *think*… "I'm going to my cabin now. I don't want to see you again until we get to Earth — if then!" Without even looking at him again, she stalked out of the room.
Kal made his way back to his quarters with the sick realization that he'd just made a major mistake. He hadn't meant to insult her. As the treasured companion of the First Lord of New Krypton, Lois would have had relatively high status, nothing at all like the casual bedmates he'd dallied with in the past. In a society where marriages were political, it was not at all uncommon for men to keep company with women other than their wives, and a few had even influenced the course of Krypton's history. Lois would have been among that number, and everyone would have known of their bond, and of the high esteem he had for her.
He should have realized that she wouldn't understand that, but he'd been too desperate to think clearly. It had been very satisfying to arrange things for Zara and Ching, and very tempting to try to arrange something similar for himself and Lois.
He loved her. He knew that now, beyond doubt. He'd begun to suspect it some time ago, and it had been confirmed when she had innocently announced that he was translating Kryptonian for her. Their minds were now, at some level, linked in a shey-ana bond. Though obviously that hadn't stopped him from blundering on and hurting her deeply. Next time — if she allowed a next time — he would listen to that little voice inside his head. He was instinctively blocking her now out of sheer self-preservation, but he could feel waves of her fury and despair, and that ate at him.
Kal longed to explain … to let her release all her frustrations at him, if she so desired. He was still supercharged, and even if he wasn't, he surely deserved whatever punishment she chose to mete out. But either cowardice or prudence stopped him from approaching her again tonight. She deserved time and space to recover herself, and if he could give her nothing else, he was determined to grant her that.
"Hey, Lois," came an annoyingly cheerful voice. "Time for breakfast!"
Lois squeezed her eyes shut and pulled a pillow over her head. "You go, Brenda," she mumbled. "I'm just gonna stay here."
Lois heard footsteps leaving the room but a moment later they returned, and Francine said, "Hey, we're not just eating it, we're making it — you don't want Kal-El to starve, do you?"
"Frankly, yes," Lois retorted, trying to pull the blanket up farther around her ears. It had not been a restful night.
There was a blessedly quiet pause, then Melanie asked softly, "Lois, are you okay?"
"Just peachy. Go away."
The footsteps retreated once more, and Lois tried to recapture sleep. But the interruption had started her mind going again, and the clamor of whirling thoughts was forcing her awake. She'd spent half the night being furious at Kal; now she lacked the energy to do much more than wallow in melancholy. She hated wallowers, but here she was.
She had been perfectly content with her life up until a week ago — a career that was looking good, a tropical vacation planned, a reasonably loving family. It had only taken a few days to vividly illustrate what had been missing, and now the lack of Kal in her life was going to make her miserable. Morbidly, she traced her downfall. If he hadn't tried to kiss her — if she hadn't kissed him — if they hadn't talked and connected and planned and worked together — maybe she could have gone back to Earth heart- whole. But now she knew that part of her heart would always be with Kal, and she didn't know how she was going to survive that.
"Okay, here we are," Brenda's voice intruded. "We brought you cereal and toast, along with a big shot of caffeine."
Lois lifted her head and peered blearily at her friends, who were settling in on Brenda's bunk, each carrying breakfast items. "Did I ask for room service?"
"Nope," Francine replied cheerfully. "You told us to go away, which is how we knew that you needed to talk."
"We're your friends, you know, Lois," Melanie added anxiously. "We want to help you. What happened last night?"
Lois sighed and sat up, leaning back against the wall and accepting the cup of coffee that Brenda offered. "Is there any cream of sugar for this?"
"There's cream and sugar," Brenda said, handing over several small packets. "Nothing light or diet, though."
Lois shrugged as she poured real cream and sugar into her coffee. Today was not the day to worry about her figure.
"So what happened?" Melanie prompted. "You guys all went off to talk, and then I think Ching and Zara left, and that's all we know."
"Well, you'll be pleased to know that we're now headed back to Earth," Lois announced, sipping carefully. "Ching's gone over to the other ship; he'll take Zara back home in that. New Krypton has been saved," she concluded bitterly.
Brenda eyed her shrewdly. "And I thought that was supposed to be a good thing."
"Oh, it is, it is. No civil war, lives saved, yada yada yada. And as soon as Kal gets rid of us uninvited guests, he'll go back home, marry Zara, and —" Some residual honesty prevented her from claiming that he'd live happily ever after. "And lead New Krypton into the new millennium."
"Oh, Lois," Melanie exclaimed softly. "But have you talked to him? I mean, he is *so* in love with you…"
Lois shook her head. "Doesn't make any difference. He's getting married for political reasons — he says there's no way around it."
"Well, he doesn't seem very happy about it," Francine observed. "We saw him just a little while ago, and he looked awful."
"I know he'd rather have you," Melanie added loyally, then deflated a little. "Not that it helps much, of course."
"Oh, he'd like to have his cake and eat it, too," Lois said acidly, not willing to see Kal get any sympathy at that point. "He says I can go as his concubine."
Brenda gasped in outrage. "He said that? Man, what a creep."
"Sexist creep," Lois corrected, her heart constricting painfully as she thought of all the times she'd teased him with those words. For a while there, it really had seemed like he'd learned better — for one shining moment, she had actually allowed herself to hope that he would defy convention for her, but apparently the old attitudes were engrained too deeply in him. She hadn't thought anything could hurt worse than the prospect of living without him, until she'd been offered the chance to stay, and had had to refuse it.
The worst part was, not all of her wanted to turn it down. One small section of her brain was sobbing and pleading for any chance of a life with Kal that she could manage, even if it was less than ideal. Was her pride really worth that much?
"I'll tell ya," Brenda continued, "I've made my fair share of mistakes in this life, but one thing I've always known is that it's a bad idea to sleep with the boss. No offense, Francine."
Francine snorted. "None taken. It's a lousy idea; I just wish I'd been smart enough to … well, never mind."
"But at least he asked," Melanie said in a small voice. "Isn't that … I mean, at least he's interested … maybe it wouldn't be that bad."
"Yeah, right," Brenda said, her voice dripping scorn. "Have you ever dated a married guy? Trust me, it's miserable — whenever they're in public, they're with their wife. On holidays, it's the wife. The mistress gets scraps of time here and there, maybe with some cheesy gifts thrown in."
"But maybe it's different on New Krypton," Melanie persisted. "You know, with all those arranged marriages and everything. Zak's been telling me that there's a whole range of concubines — some of them are almost like second wives."
"Yeah, note the 'almost' there, Mel," Brenda countered remorselessly. "And what is Zak telling you that stuff for, anyway? If that boy thinks he can treat you like that, I'm gonna have me a talk with him!"
Melanie blushed, but kept her head high. "He told me because I asked … I'm just interested in alien cultures, is all. I don't see why it has to be anything personal."
Francine and Brenda's eyes met for a moment, and Lois could almost see them discounting Melanie's explanation and agreeing to protect their younger friend.
Obviously, all this Kryptonian telepathy was making her read far too much into things.
"Honey," Francine said, "if you want to go with him, that's your choice … but don't you dare let him not marry you! Trust me, that piece of paper means something, and you can get in far more trouble without it — especially in that backwards place! Besides, Zak doesn't have Kal's excuse, which, frankly," she continued with a look at Lois, "sounds like a lot of hogwash to me."
Lois shook her head. She had seen a portion of Kal's mind; she knew that he honestly believed that he was acting in the best interests of New Krypton — doing the only honorable thing in marrying Zara. Honor, duty, country … they were all concepts she agreed with, and they wouldn't mean anything if they were tossed out the first time things got difficult … but sometimes they came at a terribly high cost.
"Uh-huh," Brenda said. "Well, Melanie, you let us know if we need to rough up Zak any."
Melanie turned a delicate shade of pink, but tried to keep her dignity. "I'm sure Zak respects me — and if he doesn't, I can beat him up myself, thanks."
Respect, that was the key, Lois thought. Kal's offer had sounded awfully disrespectful to her ears, but knowing what she did about him, she couldn't quite believe that he'd meant it that way. In his own convoluted way, he'd probably thought he was paying her a compliment. Idiot.
"Well, what about you, Lois?" Brenda asked. "Shall we beat up on Kal for ya?"
A sudden vision appeared to Lois, of superpowered Kal cowering before three angry dancers. A smile twitched her lips. "No, I don't think that'll be necessary. But thanks for offering."
"That's what we're here for," Francine stated, finishing off her last pastry. "But if you're not going to beat him up, then maybe you should consider talking to him."
"Yeah, maybe I should," Lois conceded, although she dreaded the prospect. It would be too painful to keep saying no … and too tempting to give in and say yes.
Lois avoided him for most of the day, Kal noted, and he was willing enough to be avoided. There weren't many ship duties to attend to, so he spent the day recording his version of the events aboard Nor's ship for use at the trial. The Council would have to judge this case fairly speedily, but they couldn't begin without him — apart from anything else, as Zara's birth-husband, he qualified as her nearest male relative. She was the main victim in the case, and he would have to speak for her in court. At any rate, he wanted his accounting of events to be as complete and concise as he could manage. The whole narrative reminded him of how much he had come to rely on Lois.
The subterfuge that had gotten them all onto Nor's ship had grown from one of her comments, and between them, they'd worked out the details — trading ideas as if they'd worked together for years. Her insights and ideas would be invaluable to him as he struggled to change New Krypton, although he knew that wasn't the main reason he wanted her to accompany him. He simply needed her, the same way he needed air and water.
By evening, he was becoming twitchy. He had eaten an early dinner alone on the bridge, but he'd been aware of her all day. He knew her friends were protecting her, keeping her busy with self-defense and dance classes, in between bouts of raiding the food supplies. He'd felt flashes of anger from her during the morning, but he hoped she was calming down enough to be rational.
Restless, he left the bridge and began walking. When his supposedly aimless wanderings led him to the Terrace, he was not surprised to see that she was already there. He stood in the doorway for a long moment, studying her. She was once again facing the wall of stars.
Luckily, Zak had provided him with a fairly innocuous way to begin a conversation. Or at least it had seemed so, until he was in her presence; now every possible way he could phrase the request seemed fraught with dangerous double-meanings.
Just as he was growing disgusted with himself for this inability to come up with a simple sentence, Lois turned. "We have to stop meeting like this," she commented, seeming unsurprised to see him.
There was a thread of wry humor in her voice and Kal smiled, grateful she wasn't on the attack. "Lois, I'm so very sorry for upsetting you last night; I didn't mean to insult you."
She sighed, and her voice was oddly sad. "I know. It was just your cultural programming. I should have remembered that."
Her words had such an air of finality about them that Kal couldn't quite bring himself to pursue the topic. "Zak came to me a little while ago," he said instead. "He wanted me to ask you if it was okay for him to ask Melanie to marry him."
Lois blinked. "That's a little … convoluted."
Kal shrugged, feeling a little embarrassed at having to explain the tradition. "Well, I'm his commanding officer … Zak just wants to go through all the proper forms. It's his way of showing respect."
Her mouth thinned, and Kal wondered what he'd said. She was hard to read tonight, even telepathically, now that she wasn't broadcasting strong emotions.
"I guess we used to do things like that on Earth," she finally said. "I must be the closest thing he can get to Melanie's father."
"Something like that, yes," Kal agreed, pleased at her comprehension. Zak had been a little worried about how to proceed; well-brought-up Kryptonians were not expected to pick their own spouses willy-nilly.
"Well, in that case, we have traditions of our own," she said, looking grimly amused in spite of herself. "Are his intentions honorable?"
He frowned, unfamiliar with the phrasing. "Zak is an honorable man," he said cautiously.
"That's not always enough," Lois said acerbically. "Is he really going to marry her?"
"That is his intention," Kal assured her. In fact, once Kal became First Lord of New Krypton, it would be within his power to compel the marriage, but he thought it wiser not to mention that. Besides, he was confident it wouldn't be necessary. "If Melanie accepts him, he'll always treat her with honor and respect."
"Yeah, he'd better. Next question — can he support her in the style to which she'd like to become accustomed?"
Kal blinked. "What?"
She grinned at his confusion. "Sorry, that's just the sort of phrase I've always wanted to say. What kind of money does he make?" she translated. "Will she have lots of food and clothes, a nice big house — that sort of thing."
"Ah, yes. Well, at present he's a junior officer, but I think I can arrange at least one promotion for him. He should be able to take good care of her."
"That's good." Her amusement faded, and she searched his face. "Will she really be okay there? I guess she must be in love, but people in love aren't always thinking clearly, and she's only known him a few days…"
Kal was aware of the irony as he answered, "For some people, a few days is all it takes."
She caught a breath at that, then persevered. "But what about his family? Will they accept her?"
"He believes so," Kal answered slowly, trying to get to the root of this anxiety. "We're not such a closed society as you might think — there are several sentient races that we trade with; Melanie will seem very familiar compared to some of the others." Lois nodded. "Okay, physically, I can see that … but let's face it, Melanie's not gonna blend in culturally. She'll expect to have more freedom … more liberation than most New Kryptonian women have ever thought of. There *will* be a backlash; there always is when someone challenges the status quo."
Kal nodded. Melanie would certainly be a shock to the collective NK system, as would Lois. Maybe this was part of the reason she didn't want to go. "I agree … but I'll protect her, I promise. And remember, I'm going to be shaking up the system, myself — Melanie will be the least of anyone's worries. Besides, I'm sure Zara will appreciate having an ally."
"Sort of a two-pronged cultural attack, from above and below?" Lois asked with a ghost of a smile. "Well, if you're sure…"
"She'll lack for nothing," Kal promised, wishing he were discussing Lois rather than Melanie.
"Well, Zak might want to check with Brenda and Francine, too," Lois said cryptically, "but he's got my permission. Assuming Melanie's interested, of course."
"Thank you, I'll tell him." Hesitantly, he ventured to add, "It will be a different culture for her — we don't always do things the same way as she might be used to on Earth … but just because it's different doesn't make it bad."
Lois looked him straight in the eye. "Are you trying to tell me I don't understand the role of concubine, as played on New Krypton?"
Kal smiled ruefully. "I can't fool you, can I?"
"I understand you better than you think," she replied quietly.
Kal closed his eyes for a moment, focusing on their bond. Before, he'd glimpsed her as a shimmering shower of sparks, lively and passionate. Today's sadness had dimmed her aura, but she remained beautiful in his mind's eye; a glimmering fall of water droplets, still reflecting tiny sparkles of light. **We are one,** he sent telepathically, not sure whether she would hear him or not. He opened his eyes.
She was gazing at him thoughtfully, and he could sense that her emotions were in turmoil. "Okay, Kal. Tell me about concubines on New Krypton."
"Um, okay." He took a moment to gather his thoughts. "It's sort of … well, New Krypton society is very structured. There are nearly one hundred noble Houses — the Houses are ruled by the noble families, the Lords and Ladies. Marriages are a good way to form alliances between the various houses, so they're all arranged — usually at birth — and don't have much to do with personal choice. None of us are supposed to mind that, you know; it's all supposed to be for the greater good. But it does mean that the only true relationships are … less formal."
Lois nodded slowly. "I guess that makes sense, in a warped way. Given the premises, and all. But I'll bet there's one heck of a double standard — Zara expected you to go ballistic when you found out about her and Ching."
Kal winced, wishing his society didn't always sound so awful when Lois described it. "Yes, there is — or at least there was. It was the only way to ensure the bloodline." He found himself blushing slightly, anticipating her reaction to this next part. "Reproduction has been … disassociated with personal contact. We have technology — well, it's similar to your in vitro fertilization clinics, with sperm and egg donations, except that we've taken things a step further. Women are not expected to endure a pregnancy; we have birthing matrices that nurture the fetus until it's mature enough to be born."
Lois's eyebrows arched at that. "Amazing. Unreal." Her gaze sharpened. "So you're saying that you and Zara …"
"Will never need make, um, contact," Kal said, immensely grateful that she'd understood that so quickly.
"Uh-huh. But you could—" She stopped herself, taking a deep breath, and he could feel her anger damp down. "So you're saying that your relationship with Zara would be all for show."
"Fine — so how much 'show' are we talking about?"
He eyed her warily. "What do you mean?"
"Do you make a joint appearance once a year, three times a day, or what?" she clarified, looking entirely too calm for his comfort. "I want to know what your schedule would be."
"Oh — well, I don't know exactly. The previous First Lord was fairly busy with Council meetings — but that was because the colony was new then, and everyone was scrambling to survive and to maintain our traditions."
"But you say you want to change some of those traditions," Lois pointed out. "Won't that take considerable time?"
"Yes, perhaps … but not all in Council meetings."
She shrugged. "I'll have to take your word for it. Do you plan to include Zara in those meetings? She was clearly interested."
"Yes, I'd like to," Kal agreed, more uneasy with every question, but unable to see any trap. "She should be there, for both practical and symbolic reasons. They might protest a bit, but I think we can persuade them — after all, she will be the First Lady of New Krypton."
Lois smiled sweetly. "And how about the First Concubine?"
Kal stared at her. He'd had vague notions of keeping her at his side at all times, working with her and getting her advice, the way she had joined him and Ching in discussing strategy against Nor … but now the mists of fantasy were parting, and he could see that reality would not be remotely like that. "The Lords would not …" He trailed off. There were certain older Lords who would be apoplectic about the idea, and a possibility that if he insisted, they would escalate matters to a civil war. He could not provoke that.
Lois nodded. "They'd have a fit, wouldn't they. So, no council meetings. How about private meetings?"
"Perhaps, eventually — New Krypton is rather hidebound," Kal offered, his defense sounding weak even in his own ears. It would be difficult enough to induce the Lords to value Zara as an equal. "But that's one of the things I want to change! And I would always want your input and advice; it would just have to be in private. At first."
"Right, just the first fifteen years or so." Lois shook her head. "Kal, I can't play that game … always hiding back in the back room, only seeing you for a few hours of the day. What would I do the rest of the time? I'm not the domestic type, and there *are* no other options, are there?"
"You don't know that," Kal shot back, growing frustrated … and a little desperate. "You did intelligence gathering for your country, you could do it for mine — go out and talk to people, to let me know how they really feel about the reforms I'm proposing. I'm going to need support from the lower classes because the Lords won't want to let go of their privileges. And I'm going to need accurate information."
For a moment, she wavered — he could feel the leap of hope. But then it died, and she shook her head. "Kal … I can't live my life undercover. I managed it for a few days, but … not forever. That kind of job would require me to keep my opinions to myself — even to pretend to sympathize with people that revolt me. And that's assuming I could do anything at all, because everyone would know I'm your c—" She stopped herself, then continued, "That I'm on your side."
Kal's heart ached as he saw her shoulders slump. Without a second thought, he reached for her and drew her into a warm embrace. Slowly, he reasoned through what she had said.
She wasn't worried about her social status, he understood that now; she was far more practical than that. She would be made miserable by the restrictions of New Kryptonian society. Logically, he was back to where he'd been a few days ago — she deserved much more than he could offer — but in far worse condition, emotionally. If she were miserable, he would be too — and worse, he would be guilty of creating that misery. "I'm sorry," he murmured into her hair.
Lois sighed against him, refusing, for the moment, to let him go. "I love you."
"I know." Words seemed inadequate, irrelevant. They stayed holding each other for a long time.
"I can't go back to New Krypton without you, Lois — I want to stay with you on Earth…"
Lois woke with a start, disoriented until she realized that she had only dreamed those words. Her sadness returned, but in bearable intensity. It had been difficult talking to Kal, but she was glad she'd done it. It had been hard to watch the hopeful light in his eyes dim as he'd realized how impossible it was for her to go with him, but at least they had come back into harmony. She had needed that long hug, storing up tactile memories against the long, cold years to come. Perhaps today she would be brave enough to ask for a kiss … or perhaps not. It might hurt too much when they had to stop.
Some small part of her brain tempted her with a seductive vision of life on New Krypton … she would be limited as a field intelligence operative, but there was nothing stopping her from running a network of local informants. As a teenager, she had thrilled to stories of spies operating behind enemy lines, collecting information from servants and prostitutes, the lower classes who were practically invisible to those in power, but who had access to all sorts of people and places. In real life, however, it was apt to be considerably less exciting, and she couldn't wish a civil war on a whole planet just to spice up her own existence.
No, the only worthwhile challenges on New Krypton were ones that she was unsuited for. Zara could transform the system from within, and would probably be quite content with a clandestine love. It would be more than her upbringing had ever led her to expect. Melanie would be an inspiration to all the NK women she met, and her enthusiastic sweet nature would buoy her up against occasional barriers. Lois, however, knew that she wouldn't be able to react gracefully to the restrictions she'd face. The necessarily slow pace of change would chafe at her, eating away at her spirit until she had lost herself.
Besides, she had duties of her own. Nothing as world altering as Kal, but she had sworn allegiance to her country, and would not willingly abandon her oath. Earth had no Superman, so ordinary men and women did the best they could to stand in the gap, and Lois was proud to be part of that tradition.
As Kal approached the bridge, he was surprised to see Melanie leaving. She grinned at him, obviously very happy despite yawns, but didn't stop to chat. Kal entered the bridge and found Zak sitting at his station.
"Busy night?" Kal asked, startling the young crewman.
"Oh!" Zak scrambled to his feet and hastily saluted. "Greetings, m'lord, the ship is yours. No, m'lord, things were very quiet all night, no other ships or stellar phenomena at all."
"Thank you, crewman. Your shift is over; you're dismissed." Kal settled into his chair. Even amid his own pain, he was glad to see that someone was happy. "And I've good news for you — Lieutenant Lane gives her permission, so you may ask Melanie to marry you."
Zak had started toward the door, but at that, he turned. With a bit of a guilty look, he confessed, "I've, um, already asked her, m'lord." Then a smile broke through. "She said yes!"
Zak nodded, then slipped out of the room.
Kal stared at the displays, not really seeing them. Zak had been so concerned with following all the proper forms … but then he'd gone ahead and followed his heart anyway. Kal wished he had the boy's nerve.
It was ironic; Zak was of the lower classes, and that usually meant fewer opportunities or options in life, but in this aspect, he was freer than his lord. Marriages among commoners had to be approved by Lord of the house, and by the families of both parties, but there was some freedom of choice involved. Zak's mother might not be too happy to receive her future daughter-in-law, but she would respect her son's decision.
It almost made Kal wish he'd been born a commoner just to avoid the crushing weight of responsibility he bore. He might still have gone into the military — might even have gone to Earth as an observer and met Lois there. If he had chosen not to return to New Krypton, he would hardly have been missed, and he could have stayed with Lois … always knowing that he'd deserted his post. A bleakness settled upon him. His sense of responsibility was too engrained; he couldn't escape it even in fantasy.
Kal squared his shoulders. There was nothing for him to feel guilty about because he fully intended to do his duty. He was in a position to do a lot of good for a lot of people, and he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he abandoned that chance. Lois would expect no less of him.
"Hey guys, guess what?"
Melanie's cheerful voice broke into Lois's reverie, and she gladly abandoned it. "What is it, Mel?" she asked, opening her eyes and stretching. Belatedly, she remembered that she had news to share about Zak and his imminent proposal.
"Zak asked me to marry him!" Melanie announced, practically glowing with joy.
That woke Brenda up; she swung her legs over the edge of her bed and stared at her friend in surprise. "No kidding? Well, way to go, girlfriend!" They exchanged a high-five. "But are you sure you want to go to New Krypton?"
Melanie shrugged. "They're a little feudal, but I think I'll manage — besides, I've always wanted to see alien worlds. And Zak said he'd take good care of me — he's such a great guy, you know? Just incredibly sweet, and he *listens* to me. Do you know how many jerks have tried to get in my pants back home? Zak is just as different from them as can be, and it's wonderful."
Lois smiled wistfully. Maybe there was something worthwhile about New Krypton's society, after all, if it produced men like Kal and Zak. Not that they were perfect, but they both seemed willing to learn, and that was saying a lot.
"Mel, honey," Brenda said, "aren't you going to miss your family? I mean, I don't see mine more than once or twice a year, but I'd hate to lose them forever."
Melanie shook her head. "I don't have much family; my mom's gone, and my step-father … well, I won't miss him." For a moment, her expression hardened, hinting at old pain, before she regained her normal sunny look. "Besides, Zak says we can take vacations on Earth sometimes, so I can see you guys, anyway."
Brenda smiled, and Lois felt touched that Melanie would consider them in the same category as family. "We'll be happy to see you anytime, hon," Brenda said.
"Have you thought about kids, Mel?" Lois asked quietly. She had, at three in the morning during a wakeful spell. For dynastic purposes, Kal would have to have at least one child with Zara, whether or not physical contact was required for procreation. Lois had never particularly thought about kids before, but the idea of seeing Kal have a child with another woman was distinctly unpleasant. And if Kal had children with her, what would their future be? Not that she wanted to raise future Lords and Ladies, exactly, but neither did she want her children to have limited potential, just based on social status. Just another reason not to go. Just another barrier separating her and Kal.
"Zak says he loves kids," Melanie answered, smiling. "And they're trying to build up their population, so mothers are really appreciated by everyone."
"But with their system…" Lois faltered, then started over. "I mean, Zak's a great guy, but he's not exactly in the upper class, either, and that really means something on New Krypton."
Melanie gave her a level look. "Lois, I am — was — a chorus dancer in a gang-run nightclub. You think I was headed for the upper levels of American society? I think, on the whole, I'm trading up." Her smile crept back. "Besides, we'll be associated with the ruling House. I don't know if me and Zara will be friends, exactly, but Zak said Kal promised to look out for us. We could do a whole lot worse. And in another twenty years, who knows where we'll be."
"There you go." Brenda nodded approvingly. "Keep that positive attitude. I think you'll do fine."
Lois envied Melanie her optimism. "I wish you all the best," she said aloud. "Be happy."
"I will be." Melanie gave Brenda and Lois quick hugs. "I just wish you could be too, Lois."
Lois shrugged, pasting on a smile. "I guess we can't all have happy endings."
Kal spent most of the day on the bridge; technically, he was on a twelve-hour shift to split the duty equally with Zak. But mostly he stayed out of Lois's way; he'd seen her earlier, conspiring with Brenda and Francine, and instinct had warned him he ought not to interfere with whatever they were planning. Lois wouldn't let them do anything too destructive. He hoped.
Besides, all of his best conversations with Lois had taken place in the evening, and he was reluctant to jinx that. Of course, all his *worst* conversations with her had also been in the evening, but he dismissed that as irrelevant. Evenings were their time.
When the evening finally came, Kal gave Zak command of the ship and made his way towards the dining area, wondering if anyone would be there. He didn't hear any voices coming from the room, but when he entered, he saw Lois sitting at a table. "Hi."
She looked up and smiled, with only a tinge of sadness. "Hey there. Um, Brenda and Francine are working on some dinner for us." She patted the seat beside her. "It'll just be a minute."
Kal sat next to her, not quite sure whether he should touch her or not. "They didn't want your help?"
"Not when they realized what a rotten cook I was," Lois answered with a self-deprecating grin. "Now that's one thing that might tempt me to go for a feudal society — servants to cook for me."
"Ah," Kal said, thinking it best not to follow that up; the topic was too painful. "So what have you been doing all day?" Now that he was here with her, he was unable to remember why he'd thought it better to stay away.
"We had a very busy day," Lois said, glancing sideways at him with a gleam of humor. "Melanie spent most of the day sleeping — something about being awake all night."
"Yeah, I think she's distracting my crew again tonight," Kal agreed. "It's against regulations, but what the heck."
Lois smiled her approval. "Well, while she slept, Brenda and Francine and I tried our best to organize a bridal shower for her. We didn't have that much to work with, but some of the outfits from that pile that Sev bought weren't entirely horrible." She turned to look at him, her gaze slightly challenging. "We also went through the galley and liberated some small appliances. I was sure you wouldn't mind."
Kal winced. "This is a military ship, you know; all the equipment belongs to the space forces." He sighed. "Lord Mei-An will be annoyed — he's the current Administrator — but I can make it right, somehow." He might have to replace the things out of his personal account, but it would be worth it.
Lois bumped him affectionately with her shoulder. "Thanks, Kal. We just couldn't let her go off to a new planet completely empty handed."
"Don't worry about her," he said, daring to reach for her hand. She twined her fingers with his. "Zak will take good care of her, and I'll keep an eye on her too."
"I know … I think she'll do fine, really. I'm just slightly amazed at how much I'm going to miss her."
Kal squeezed her hand. "You ladies have become good friends, haven't you?"
"Surprisingly so." Lois laughed softly. "I never thought I was a snob, but I wouldn't have imagined I'd have this much in common with night-club dancers … I guess traumatic experiences can really bring people closer together."
Kal looked down at their linked hands and found himself unable to reply. She was probably right; the emotion- charged atmosphere might have brought them close in a hurry, but he was unable to believe that he would not have fallen in love with Lois under any circumstances. She was so beautiful, so vibrant, so challenging … she was his soulmate. "I think desperate circumstances can reveal truths that would otherwise be hidden," he answered slowly, "but it doesn't create anything that wasn't already there. You ladies were all decent people … you just might not have known it about each other."
"Hmm, maybe you're right. I'll have to try harder to see beneath the surface from now on." She laughed. "Actually, it was my *job* to look beneath the surface, so it's a little embarrassing to find out how much I missed."
Kal shrugged. "Nobody's perfect. Besides, as I recall you caught on to Toni Taylor a lot faster than I did. You were there to look for criminals, not friends."
"Yeah, I guess. Thanks, Kal." She turned to look at him, and he realized anew that she was only inches away. Moving quickly, she reached over and kissed him swiftly on the lips, then pulled back, wide-eyed. Kal reached up with his free hand to cup the side of her face, intending to return the kiss in spades, but before he could connect, the door to the food-preparation area banged open, announcing the arrival of dinner.
"Hey, kiddies," Brenda said cheerfully, "food's here!" She and Francine set two platters down on the table and sat down to help themselves. Kal directed a pained look at Brenda, but she just grinned at him. Kal sighed and withdrew both his hands.
Conversation was general for a few moments, until Francine directed a challenging stare at him. "So, Kal — Lois tells us that you have to go back to New Krypton. Something about how all the other people on your planet are too dumb not to kill themselves without your wise guidance."
Kal frowned, darting a look at Lois.
"Francine," Lois hissed, "that's not what I said!"
"That's not exactly correct," Kal answered. "But our system is rather inflexible, and I do have an important role to play."
"Uh-huh," Brenda said, looking distinctly skeptical. "And you're sure that no one else on the entire planet could fill your shoes? I mean, I know you guys like to feel like you're irreplaceable, but sometimes it ain't entirely true, you know?"
Kal sighed. "Believe me, I've thought about this. Zara's father was the last leader of New Krypton, so according to our traditions, her husband will be the next leader. It's supposed to ensure stability while still allowing some element of merit — Zara has a responsibility to pick the best man for the job. Theoretically, Zara could marry someone else, but our fathers arranged a birth-marriage between us." At Francine's raised eyebrow, Kal explained, "It's kind of like an engagement."
"And there's no one else on New Krypton?" Brenda challenged.
Kal shrugged. "There are a few. Normally there would be more, but the period of our childhood was not easy." In fact, to encourage the people to concentrate on building a world before replenishing it with children, the reproduction centers had been closed for a few years. Besides Nor, few of the Lords older than Zara had put off their own marriage alliances in the hope of supplanting Kal-El.
"And they're all rotten people, right?" Francine asked.
"Well, not rotten, exactly … not as bad as Nor, certainly, but …" He hated to sound arrogant, but considering the stakes it would be wrong to be anything less than honest. "None of them, in my opinion, would be good for New Krypton. They're either too selfish or too self-righteous to make good leaders. I have to do what's right for my people, and I think I can do a lot of good."
"Because we think you could do a lot of good on Earth," Francine said pointedly. "I mean, you Kryptonians are positively medieval in some ways, *but* your technology is pretty advanced."
"Now there's an idea," Lois murmured, and he could see that the conversation was beginning to amuse her.
"I don't think your people are ready to meet real aliens," Kal said dismissively. It had been his one fear in the time he'd spent on Earth. He'd seen enough of their popular entertainment to know that the unknown was more feared than loved, and fear could make people do ugly things.
"Don't be so sure," Brenda argued. "I mean, look at Superman! He was an alien, but he helped people out, and everyone thought he was great."
"Well, not everyone," said Lois, "speaking as a long-time fan I have to point out that the bad guys didn't like him much. But she's got the right idea, Kal." Her voice bubbled with suppressed laughter. "I mean, obviously you're not Superman." She grinned, her eyes wandering assessingly up and down his body. "I think you might be too short, for one thing, and your eyes aren't blue — but you could certainly do the benevolent alien act."
"Uh-huh," he replied dryly, grateful that she wasn't revealing his fading powers. It was a tempting picture — he'd always liked the idea of being a hero — if only he could ensure that New Krypton would be safe without him. If there were a way, he sure couldn't see it. "I wish I could, ladies, believe me."
Francine rolled her eyes. "Men."
Lois reached across the table to touch her friend's hand. "Francine, he's doing what he has to." She glanced at him for a second. "I hate that he has to do it … but I'd hate it more if he ditched it all just for me." There was a surprised note in her voice, or in her aura, he wasn't sure which, as if this were something that had just occurred to her. "There are more important things in life."
Kal recaptured her nearest hand. It helped to know that she understood.
Francine looked stubborn for a moment, then nodded in acquiescence. "Okay, honey, if you say so."
"We just wanted to make sure y'all had explored all your options," Brenda explained. "We won't nag anymore."
"I appreciate that you tried," Lois said gently. "But you can't fix this one." She turned to look at Kal, and for an endless moment he was caught in her eyes, unaware of anything else but her beautiful face.
His trance was broken by Brenda's rude snort. "Geez, look at those two, Francine. We thought Mel had it bad. I'm telling you, it has got to be something in the water."
Kal and Lois shared one last rueful look, then returned their attention to their dinners.
Francine shook her head. "It's the Love Boat in space. Simply disgraceful."
"You're telling me," Lois muttered. "If this is a TV show, I demand better writing."
"Lois, will you … walk with me?"
Looking at Kal's anxious face, Lois found herself unable to deny him. Her self-respect might not let her abandon all for love, but she had the next twenty-four hours, and she'd be a fool to waste a minute of it. "Sure," she said quietly, linking her hand with his.
She expected him to lead her to the Terrace, but instead they ended up in a large private room. Lois evaluated the Spartan furnishings, then glanced at Kal. "Your cabin?"
"Such as it is," he admitted, watching her with a hint of unease. "I hope you don't mind, but we'll be more private here."
Lois considered that, then nodded. "Good." At the moment, she wanted nothing more than a refuge from reality; this small, contained moment in time would be close enough.
Hesitantly, Kal gestured towards the bed. "That's really the most comfortable place to sit — I don't want you to think I'm making a move, but—"
"Relax." Lois smiled at him, charmed by his earnestness. "It's fine, and I trust you." Playfully, she pushed him toward the bed, then sat next to him, delighted when he responded by putting an arm around her back.
She had wondered, on and off all day, whether it would be a good idea to seduce him. She had never taken sex casually, and after her previous dismal failures, she'd become even more cautious … but she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this time, she loved and was loved in return. And this would be her only chance. And yet, and yet … her doubts and nerves were unfocused, but they nagged at her and stifled her initiative. For the moment, then, she contented herself with the feel of his body next to hers.
"Tell me about your family," Kal asked.
Lois looked up at him, slightly startled. "What about them?"
"Everything." Briefly, his arm tightened around her. "Where you grew up, what you did together, your best memories. I feel like I've known you forever, but it's only been a few days. I want to know how you became what you are today — I want to know everything."
"It's all pretty boring," she confessed, then saw the real loving interest in his eyes. "But you did ask, so here we go…" Slowly at first, she began to share her childhood with him; he asked insightful questions and never betrayed a hint of boredom. After a while, she began turning the tables, and teased out details of his own early life.
After her third huge yawn, Kal reached toward his bedside table to view his chronometer. The squiggly symbols meant nothing to Lois, but Kal's eyes widened. "Lois, we've been talking for five hours!"
She pressed in closer to him. "And it was a great conversation, so what's your point?"
"Lo-is." He eyed her sternly. "You need your sleep, you know."
"Well, I could always sleep with you." The words popped out before Lois realized what she was saying, and one hand crept up to cover her mouth.
Kal looked at her, his face bland, for a long moment. Then he bent down, gently nudged her hand aside, and kissed her.
It was a leisurely kiss, as his hand came up to cup her cheek, and Lois reached out to encircle his waist. Exhilaration, desire, and fear went through her in waves. He was gentle, almost reverent, as he trailed kisses across her face and back to her mouth. His tongue probed softly, and Lois admitted him with a low moan. She felt herself moving, and forced her eyes open long enough to realize that Kal had laid them down on the bed.
He pulled back, laying a hand on her waist and studying her face. "Are you sure?"
Lois moistened already-wet lips, and forced her voice to be steady. "It's the only chance we'll get." She ignored the clamor of doubts.
Still, he hesitated, struggling for words. "I wish it were more than that, just a desperate only chance — you deserve so much that I won't be able to give you, and it's killing me."
She reached up to stroke his hair. "We make do with what we have — the universe isn't perfect, Kal."
He sighed. "I suppose. But some things should not be rushed. Besides," he caught her eye with an uncertain look, "I don't think you're entirely ready for this."
Lois bridled at that judgment. "I think I'm capable of deciding what I am and am not ready for, thank you."
"Usually, yes." Kal's smile went lopsided. "But remember, I can *feel* your emotions."
She glared at him for this unfair use of their bond, but before she could open her mouth, his smile faded.
"Lois … you're not the only one unsure about this."
"Um … really?"
He nodded, looking slightly embarrassed. "I want to make love to you — believe me. But something about it just doesn't feel right, and I'm not even sure why. I think …" He swallowed, then confessed, "I think I'm afraid."
That was intriguing, and reassuring. "Yeah, me too. But why?"
Kal shrugged, his gaze sliding away from her. "You know I've … had sex before."
"Yeah, me too." And most sexist societies had a distinct double standard. "I hope that's not a problem," she added, with a note of challenge.
His eyes widened as he searched her face. "No, of course not! Well, it might have been when I was younger and stupider," he admitted with a wry smile. "But I was on Earth for three years, and I know you have a different system. I mean, freedom can be abused, but—" He pulled himself up short. "No, it's not that."
Lois studied him, trying to open her senses to see if she could read his emotions, too. If she wasn't imagining it, he was feeling … shame. "Kal, what is it?"
"I was thinking about me," he said quietly, lowering his eyes. "This is the first time — Lois, you are so special to me; I love you! And it's like, all my experience is just *wrong*."
"Kal, that doesn't matter!" To comfort him, and for the sheer pleasure of it, Lois ran a hand slowly down his free arm. "We're finally in the right place, together."
"Maybe." He stirred restlessly, looking at her once more. "But something else scares me, too. It's already going to be incredibly difficult to let you go tomorrow. I'm afraid it's going to get ten thousand times worse if we … if we find out what we're going to be missing."
Lois caught her breath. She hadn't thought of it like that. "You know, I have this horrible feeling that you may be right. Damn." She struggled to right herself and flee. She was embarrassed by his refusal of her offer, but also weirdly grateful that she wouldn't have to face all her fears and inadequacies. And the cowardliness of that gratitude shamed her further.
"Wait," Kal said softly, refusing to release her hand. "Please stay."
Lois stilled, frowning at the floor. "Look, you're the one who said we shouldn't—"
"Yeah, I know, but…" His voice trailed off. "Please look at me, shey-ana."
Lois sighed, unable to resist the pleading note in his voice. "What are you suggesting?"
"Well, we could keep talking, and then, maybe … we could just…" His eyes were half-shy, half-hopeful. "Just sleep?"
Slowly, Lois relaxed. "Just sleep. Here. Together."
"It's not that big a bed," he admitted, "but there's room enough to share."
"Well…" she dragged her answer out playfully. "Okay." More eagerly now, she laid back down next to him, and they arranged themselves until they were comfortable. The residual awkwardness gradually leaked away as their conversation continued until Lois could hardly speak for yawning, and they surrendered to sleep.
It was the first time Kal had ever woken up with a woman in his arms. He had shared his body before, but somehow, sharing sleep had always seemed more of a private thing. He was glad to have experienced it with Lois.
She was lying on her side facing him, and he took the opportunity to try to memorize her face, treasuring every feature. He remembered the first time he'd really seen her face, when she'd been holding a fire extinguisher and wearing that ridiculous chicken costume. Somehow even then, part of him had recognized her as his soul mate. He remembered how she'd looked the next night, crooning a love song … and how she'd looked the morning after being kidnapped. Other women might have fallen apart, but not his Lois; she'd held a gun on him and ordered him around. He smiled tenderly. She was beautiful in any circumstance, not to mention spirited, honorable, and brilliant.
She was still fast asleep — little wonder, considering how late they'd stayed up. It had been a magical evening, seemingly protected from the passage of normal time. He would like to stay here with her forever, but duty called. He leaned over to kiss her. "Wake up, Cinderella."
Lois returned the kiss, then stretched and opened her eyes. "I think you mean Sleeping Beauty."
"Oh, yeah … well, fairy tales weren't my first priority."
"They're not my favorite either, so I forgive you. Where you really messed up was in not reading comic books."
Kal chuckled. "I don't think the Council would have approved."
"Just goes to prove that they're antiquated fossils," Lois retorted with a light tone. He could tell that underneath the facade, she was aching over their imminent parting, just as he was, but she seemed determined not to wallow in misery. He appreciated her resolve; it made things easier.
"Well, I hate to say it, but it's time I go relieve Zak of bridge duty."
Lois nodded understanding. "It's only fair. I've got to go back to my cabin to grab a change of clothes — but how about I join you on the bridge after that? I could bring us both some breakfast."
Kal smiled. "That sounds terrific." He'd been dreading another day of separation, especially since they would probably be landing on Earth within twelve hours.
Time might fly when one was having fun, Lois thought grimly, but it seemed to go even faster when one desperately wanted it to slow down. She'd spent as much time as possible with Kal, trading stories of their respective military training among other things, but far too quickly, it had been dinner time, then time to land. She wanted to kick and scream, but that was far too undignified for an officer and a lady, so she settled for dogged determination. Do your duty, soldier, and then move on. So here she was, back in her original clothing, with all her possessions in her handbag, waiting for the door to open and expel her.
Brenda and Francine had conspired to pack her things for her, which Lois appreciated as she hadn't wanted to leave Kal a second sooner than she had to. They stood nearby, talking to Melanie in low tones and exchanging hugs. Lois had hugged Melanie goodbye already; much as Lois liked the younger woman and wished the best for her, right now her joy was painful to be around. Lois hugged herself and stared at the walls.
Kal and Zak came down the corridor, signaling that the ship was landed and secured. Kal spoke briefly to Brenda and Francine, apparently giving them something. Then he came over to see her while Zak opened the door. The others moved down the stairs as soon as the ramp was down, leaving Lois and Kal alone for a moment.
"I guess this is it," Kal said in a low voice.
Lois nodded, determined not to cry, taking refuge in flippancy. "Send me a postcard sometime."
"Lo-is…" There was a gentle rebuke in his voice.
"I know, I know." She took a deep breath, still unable to look at him. "I love you, Kal. If there were any other way…"
She could feel his pain, twin to her own. That understanding helped, somehow. Gathering her courage, she turned to face him. "Think it's safe to kiss goodbye?"
Kal moved closer, wrapping his arms around her waist. "I think it's required." Slowly, he bent and kissed her. It was intense, but more pure than passionate. When it got to be more than Lois could bear, she pulled back, burying her face in his shoulder. A few tears leaked out before she managed to regain her composure.
When she pulled back, she noted that Kal's eyes were damp, too, which almost set her off again. She could handle her own loss, but knowing the depth of his, too, was killing her. All of a sudden, it was too much.
"Goodbye, Kal." She withdrew from his embrace and made sure she still had her bag. "Always remember that I love you."
"And I love you," he replied softly, making no move to stop her. "Be strong, shey-ana, and make a good life for yourself."
Lois doubted that was possible, but didn't have the strength to argue. Grasping the last tattered shards of her composure, she turned and left the spaceship. Her home awaited her.
"Take us home, Zak." Even those few words were an effort. "The ship is yours. I'll be in my cabin if you need me." Kal pivoted and walked out of the bridge, seeking sanctuary. It wasn't that he objected to Melanie's decision to remain with Zak; he planned to support them in whatever ways they required. But watching them together was painful. They were so obviously in love — and even their quiet sympathy for him grated on his nerves. It should be an uneventful flight back to New Krypton; they could manage it without him. After what he'd sacrificed, he felt entitled to at least a few days' grace.
In his cabin, his eyes were drawn first to the bed, still looking rumpled from last night's occupation, and his heart twisted. He had done the right thing. It had to have been the right thing — he firmly believed that his personal happiness was less important than the security and well- being of an entire planet — and yet already it felt far worse than he had expected. How was he supposed to be an effective leader when his focus was elsewhere?
Eventually, he drifted to sleep. There were a few pleasant dreams where he was with Lois, and they were happy. More frequently, however, he saw her being pushed out of a plane, or tied above an ominously bubbling vat, or trapped in an airless vault — he could see her dying over and over, yet was helpless to prevent it. Once or twice, for variety, he'd also seen New Krypton dissolve into chaos and civil war. The worst of both worlds, as it were. After he woke the fourth time, he abandoned the idea of sleep.
The day passed in a numbed sort of haze. Kal wandered the ship, spending some time in the Terrace, remembering all the conversations he'd had with Lois there. He savored the memory of her face, but those memories led to speculation — how would she have reacted to the first sight of the capitol city? Would she have thought his home too small? — until it became too difficult to remember what he'd lost.
Kal told himself to stop thinking about Lois. Perhaps the Old Kryptonians had been on to something in their denial of emotion; his heart was definitely distracting him. He only hoped that he would adjust in time. No matter what, he would not abandon his homeworld to destruction; he would not be able to live with himself if he did. Lois would expect more from him than that.
**Oh, Lois,** he reached out mentally, knowing that he would be unable to contact her. **What am I to do without you?**
Lois drove into Fort Truman with an unaccustomed heavy feeling in her gut. She'd grown up on Army bases around the world, and she'd loved working here, but this time, she knew that she was probably in trouble. She had vanished exactly one week ago — true, she had accomplished her mission and was about to go on vacation, but still, she should have reported in before leaving. It hadn't been her choice, of course, but she couldn't exactly say that.
'Sorry, sir, I meant to come in, but then I was abducted by aliens…' Yeah, right. She'd be in a rubber room faster than she could say 'Roswell.' Although, come to think of it, she should have asked Kal if he knew anything about that. Now that she knew that aliens really did exist — that Superman was real — Lois might have to rethink quite a few long-held notions. Maybe the conspiracy nuts weren't quite as nuts as she'd always assumed.
Lois parked her Jeep and told herself sternly to stop dithering. She needed to report in, and she would stick as close to the truth as she could; with Brenda and Francine's help she'd come up with a good story, and they would back her up if needed. Shoulders back and head held high, she walked into the main administrative building. She'd chosen to wear her crispest dress uniform; it had always provided her with a sense of security. Today, it itched.
She was informed by Colonel White's secretary that she would be able to see the Colonel in a few minutes. Lois found a chair and managed with great difficulty to not fidget. Something about the regimented atmosphere on the base was getting to her. She'd always found the rules and regulations comforting, a defense against the chaos of outside life, but after an up close and personal look at the class structure on New Krypton, she was beginning to hate fixed hierarchies with a concentrated passion. The US Army wasn't quite that rigid, but even it seemed stifling to her now. She had anticipated climbing the ladder and having subordinates to direct, but what difference would that make? There would always be others in authority over her.
"Lieutenant? The Colonel will see you now."
Lois stood, smoothing her skirt, and nodded her thanks to the secretary. Resolutely, she walked in to face the Colonel.
"Ah, Lieutenant Lane," he drawled. "How good of you to join us."
"Sir." She saluted, then stood at parade rest. "I apologize for my disappearance, sir. It was involuntary."
"At ease." Colonel White leaned back in his chair, studying her intently. She'd always had a good working relationship with this man; he had known her father some years ago, and Lois suspected that he saw her as a protege. "I'm listening."
Lois relaxed her stance fractionally, still standing tall. "Sir, as you know, I was working undercover at the Metro Club. I had overheard a conversation implicating Toni Taylor, and had alerted a squad to tail her to a midnight rendezvous." Lois hoped that the squad had found enough evidence to arrest Toni, but figured that now was not a good time to inquire. "I judged it safest not to abandon my role as a dancer before the night was over; I did not wish to alarm the suspect."
The Colonel nodded, his expression bland. "Fair enough, Lieutenant, but she was arrested that night; where have you been since then?"
Lois took a deep breath. "Sir, I was kidnapped."
His brows drew together in concern. "I wondered … Were you injured? And how did they get you, anyway? I thought I told you to have your weapon with you."
"Yes, sir, I had it, but I was not alone. Two men came into the club and lured away the chorus girls with the promise of a job. I went with them, thinking I could protect them if they needed it, but both the men turned out to have guns. I waited for an opportunity to act without endangering the civilians," she stressed, knowing that this was the tricky part. "But before I could, we were herded into a ship."
"Uh-huh. And then what?"
Lois shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. "The ship set sail that night. By the time the ship's captain discovered our presence and freed us, we were far out to sea. The captain claimed to be carrying urgent cargo of some kind, and said he wouldn't be able to return us until he'd made his delivery, but we were treated well on-board."
Colonel White eyed her for an uncomfortably long moment. "I did some investigating of my own. And I did see that the other three chorus dancers seemed to go missing at the same time you did. There was even a report that they were seen leaving with two young men. Although it was hard to tell, considering that the club was closed down the next day. I assume they've turned up again now?"
"Brenda and Francine have, sir — I have their addresses if you need them." And they'd already discussed this story in detail. "The other dancer, Melanie, fell in love along the way — once the captain freed us, she fell in love with one of the sailors on board. She decided to stay with him."
Colonel White surveyed her blandly. "So this ship had no radio?"
"None that we were offered access to, sir." Lois answered steadily. Sticking as close to the truth as possible seemed easiest, and it was strangely comforting to re-cast her thoroughly alien experiences into more familiar terms. She was still leaving out quite a lot, of course … but there were some things she preferred to keep to herself.
The Colonel studied her for a long moment, then sighed. "Stranger things have happened. Now, I want you to tell me everything you remember about this ship and her crew — nationality if you know it, or just details about ship construction; I can find out which vessels left Metropolis Harbor that night, and we can narrow it down from there."
Lois squirmed. "Sir, there's no need."
He looked up sharply. "No need? Those sons of —" He cut himself off, then started again. "Those low-lifes kidnapped American citizens, and one of *my* officers. They are not going to get away with that."
"They haven't, sir," Lois assured him. "Their captain was appalled when he found out what his crewmen had done — believe me, they are being dealt with by their own system. Which is probably harsher than ours. Justice has been done, sir."
He eyed her shrewdly. "And you don't want to make trouble for this nameless ship captain?"
Lois blushed, her mind involuntarily flashing back to a vision of Kal lounging on his bunk, mere inches away, but kept her head high. "He behaved honorably, and kept us safe." It belatedly occurred to her that if the Colonel thought she was covering for someone else, instead of herself, that at least added a layer of credibility to her story.
"Well, I'd still like to know what sort of cargo he was carrying," White grumbled, shuffling some papers on his desk. "And where he was taking it, for that matter, that he could get there and back in a week."
Lois shrugged, disclaiming all knowledge. "I'm not familiar with ocean shipping, sir, so I couldn't even begin to guess."
The Colonel shrugged. "Be that as it may, I have something more immediately important to discuss with you."
"Something more important?" Lois asked cautiously, hardly able to believe she'd escaped a more thorough cross- examination. Although she would probably still have to face a court martial, and the thought was beginning to scare her. Maybe coming home hadn't been such a good idea, and yet she hated the thought of running away. "I mean, I know how serious it is to go AWOL, and believe me, I never would have done it if I'd had a choice in the matter."
"I know that, Lieutenant." The Colonel paused, his gruff facade slipping a bit. "You weren't officially AWOL. It was right before your scheduled leave, and I was sure that the only reason for you not to report in would be foul play, so … I treated your last phone call as official notification of the beginning of your leave time."
Lois managed, with great effort, not to gape at him. "Sir! Thank you!" The relief was slightly dizzying.
The Colonel waved away her gratitude. "Don't mention it — to anyone. But we've still got a problem here, Lieutenant. As I said, Toni Taylor was arrested that night."
Lois blinked at the non sequitur. "Yes, sir?"
"There was clear evidence that she was behind the Toasters, and they were arrested as well. What is not so well known is that the physical evidence indicated that the weapons' design had come from Luthor Technologies. And according to Ms. Taylor, it was Lex Luthor himself who gave her the blueprints."
Lois sucked in her breath. She had known that the Toasters' weapons were possibly from stolen military technology; it was why she had become involved in the first place. The source, however, shocked her. "Lex Luthor, sir?" Lois asked in a hollow voice. "Isn't that a little comic-bookish?" She had known that the city's biggest philanthropist had shared a name with Superman's fictional arch-enemy; it had been almost a running joke. In a universe with no Superman, it had seemed foolish to attach any particular significance to a mere coincidence of names. But now that she knew Superman existed, all new possibilities were opening up. True, the Lex Luthor of the comics had been a mad scientist, not a businessman — but she had avoided becoming a reporter, to distance herself from her alter-ego. Luthor might well have done the same.
"Yeah, that part's embarrassing," the Colonel admitted, wincing. "I feel like an idiot looking into it. I mean, it would be wrong to assume he's guilty just 'cause of his name. But I can't just assume he's innocent, either. This isn't a full-fledged investigation, by the way — I wouldn't trust Toni Taylor's word on much of anything. But we will certainly be keeping a much closer eye on Mr. Luthor from now on. And we would rather not call his attention to that fact just yet."
"I see, sir. But…"
"How does this concern you?" White grimaced. "Here's the thing. We've turned over Toni and all the evidence to the civilian authorities — the FBI and Department of Justice — and they want to handle it from here. And to be honest, they're a little annoyed that we were involved. From their perspective, it was none of our business."
Lois stiffened. "And what were they doing to stop the Toasters, if I may ask?"
The Colonel shrugged. "They weren't in the mood to tell me that. But it's turned into a jurisdictional fight, and they're starting to ask all sorts of questions about how we came to find Toni Taylor meeting with the Toasters. So far, I've passed it off as an anonymous tip, but they're still not happy."
"So I guess I won't be getting a commendation for this, after all," Lois remarked dryly. She dimly recalled that such things had mattered to her once.
White snorted. "'Fraid not. But you will be getting a transfer — and we'll give you your promotion to Captain before you go. In *my* judgment, you've earned it."
"Thank you, sir," Lois answered automatically, wondering why this long-awaited news was making her so uneasy. "But why a transfer?"
"Well, it's like this … right now, no one knows that we had an undercover agent in the Metro Club."
"But if I stay around Metropolis, someone might figure it out?"
"If they see a chorus dancer in uniform, they will," the Colonel confirmed, then sat forward. "Look, if it were just dealing with some twerps at the DoJ, I'd say to hell with them. But I've looked into Luthor Technologies and Lex Luthor himself, and so far I've learned enough to know that I do *not* want to alert the man that he's under scrutiny. From what I hear, the man has serious connections." He paused, giving Lois a significant look.
"And you don't want to suggest that there might be corruption anywhere in the system," Lois ventured, "but if there were, Lex would be the sort of man to take advantage of it."
White nodded slowly. "That's the sense I'm getting. But I'm not officially on the case, and if he gets wind of one of my officers having been involved, I might not be able to continue."
Lois took a deep breath. This was not the conversation she'd expected, coming in today. Of course, if one of the world's richest men was corrupt — if the real world Lex Luthor had more in common with his comic-book counterpart than his name — she was all in favor of taking him down. In fact, she'd like to be the one leading the charge. But apparently the best thing she could do for the cause was to sneak out of town, which seemed very unfair.
The Colonel apparently took her silence as consent. "So where would you like to be stationed next? I was thinking of recommending you to the brass at the Pentagon, but that might be a little too close. How do you like the idea of Germany?"
She'd once dreamed of working in Europe. But something within her was loudly protesting the thought of leaving Metropolis — if she left, how would Kal ever find her again? And more realistically, if she left Metropolis she would leave Brenda and Francine — all her friends and family — behind. Lois took a deep breath. She hated the thought of any more losses when she'd already lost Kal, but it was time to make a choice, and duty could only take her so far. The Army could survive without her. "You can do this, Lois,' she told herself. 'Think outside the system.'
It was absurd, but she found herself saying, "Sir, I'd prefer to resign my commission."
"Think outside the system." The words seemed to come from nowhere, and Kal regarded them with a distant curiosity, unsure of what they meant. It almost seemed like something Lois would say.
She had been a breath of fresh air in more ways than one, he acknowledged. When he and Ching had been planning their assault on Nor's spaceship, it had been Lois who'd suggested the unexpected approach of subterfuge. Kal had only considered traditional alternatives then, all of them bad. Just as, he realized slowly, he'd seen his relationship with Lois as having only two possible paths — either she would have to sacrifice her dignity and self- respect, or he would have to abandon New Krypton. Neither of those was acceptable … but it finally dawned on him that he shouldn't have stopped looking for solutions. Against all reason and logic, a tiny seed of hope sprouted deep within.
If there were a way to leave New Krypton in good hands, he could go back to Earth, to be with Lois. The thought was seductive, distracting, and wonderful. He had no idea what he would actually *do* on Earth — perhaps he could be a judo instructor — but that was unimportant next to the prospect of spending his life with Lois. Still, he would like to find some way to be useful. All his life, he'd been trained to responsibility, to leadership. Trained to serve, really, even if it was service from the top. Transferring that responsibility would be a great relief, but it would leave a great void.
The thought was stunning, yet glaringly obvious. He could become Superman — with Lois's help, of course. His powers were fading now, but would very likely return to him on Earth, and he would be able to do a lot of good — like that rescue he'd performed a week ago before leaving, or assisting after natural disasters. With a costume and public persona, he would be able to work openly. He would feel strange, filling the shoes — or cape — of an existing character, but from what he'd heard, Superman upheld the same values Kal did.
Kal tamped down the bubble of excitement filling his chest; he was getting ahead of himself, and there were still very real obstacles to overcome.
The key to the matter was finding someone else to marry Zara and rule the planet. If only Ching were a noble, he would be the ideal choice; Kal didn't trust anyone of his own class to do the job properly. Perhaps that was just his pride speaking, but he didn't think so. The Council was fairly well balanced at present, and had been for the past decade, but when Zara married, that balance would shift. If she married poorly, it could easily end in disaster.
As Kal reviewed his possible replacements, all of whom seemed manifestly unfit for the job, he felt tendrils of despair creep back, threatening to overwhelm him again. This time, however, he refused to submit. He would not give up hope prematurely, and he had a lot of thinking to do — outside the system.
"What??" The Colonel scowled at her. "Doggonit, Lieutenant, don't throw away your career!"
"I'm sorry, sir, but I've had a lot of time to think this past week, and … well, I've learned that there are some things more important than a career." She would miss the structure and familiarity of military life, but it was really not a tough choice. Besides the impossible dream of waiting for Kal to return, she wanted to stay in touch with her family and her new friends. Now more than ever, she needed their support.
"I thought you wanted to serve your country," White said darkly.
"I do, sir. But there's more than one way to do that."
The Colonel glared at her for a moment, but when she didn't back down, he sighed. "You have that option." A crafty look spread across his features. "In fact, if I might make a suggestion…"
She nodded permission, curious to see what he might say.
"You've always really enjoyed the investigative side of things. Well, the Army isn't the only place you can do that. I, ah, understand you might not want to be a reporter…"
She narrowed her eyes at that, not in the mood for a comic- book joke.
He snorted. "Think about it, Lieutenant. See that nameplate?"
Confused, she looked down at his desk, where the name "Colonel Percival J. White" was embossed. After a moment, it dawned on her.
"Perry White isn't as well known as Lois Lane," he drawled, "but nonetheless, I know some of what you've gone through."
"Oh," Lois said, feeling stupid, but also curiously comforted by the unexpected connection. "I'd never noticed."
"You weren't supposed to," he replied dryly. "But what I was saying was, you could easily get a private investigator's license."
Lois made a face. "Oh, so I could spy on cheating husbands? What fun."
"There are all sorts of cases out there," White pointed out mildly. "The police don't have time for all of them. Why, you could even investigate Luthor — as a private investigator you wouldn't have to worry about all the formalities that sometimes hamper the police or, um, me. As long as the resulting evidence holds up in court," he added prudently.
The prospect seemed daunting at the moment, but Lois nonetheless felt the stirrings of interest.
"You just think about it, that's all I'm saying. But first, I'm afraid we have some paperwork to fill out."
Lois sighed. Even if the world were ending, the military would want the proper forms filled out first. It was one of many things she wouldn't miss. Of course, she'd just jettisoned her planned future, and had very little idea of what would replace it … but she would manage somehow. Kal would expect no less of her.
Kal visited Zara's residence the morning after he returned to New Krypton. In the three days on board, he had devised a tentative plan. He hadn't worked out all the details, and it was by no means a sure thing. But even if it failed, it shouldn't threaten New Krypton's stability, which was paramount. Kal had a number of stops to make this morning to make his return official, but Zara was first on his list.
When he'd visited here before, Zara had always seen him in the front parlor; this time, the housekeeper led him to a different room. He looked around curiously as he entered. Zara was sitting behind a large desk, with Ching standing next to her. "Greetings, m'lady, Ching," he murmured absently, still studying the room. "Isn't this your father's study?"
"Greetings of my house to you, Lord Kal-El," Zara replied with a touch of formality. "And yes, it was, but it's mine now." She waved him to a seat.
"Good idea." Kal smiled encouragingly, in case she was feeling defensive. Not that she looked defensive or uncomfortable — she looked like a queen in full possession of her kingdom. It suited her.
Ching remained standing by Zara's chair, making Kal wonder if he were here as a bodyguard. He thought of his earlier plan to make Ching head of Zara's household security, so that he could stay nearby at all times. Of course, Kal didn't have that authority yet, but Zara did. "I'm glad to see you here, Ching; I was thinking we should promote you."
Ching glanced at Zara, who was looking distinctly frosty. "I'm afraid Ching is otherwise occupied, Kal. I've appointed him my new chief of security."
"Oh," Kal commented, surprised that she'd anticipated him.
"And it's a good thing she did," Ching commented acerbically. "The old chief was the one who had betrayed her to Nor."
Kal winced; it made sense but had never occurred to him. "I hadn't—"
"And if you have further *suggestions* about my staff," Zara continued, looking distinctly annoyed. "I'd appreciate it if you'd discuss them with me privately."
Kal regarded the pair of them. "You know," he commented mildly. "I remember when neither one of you would even think of arguing with me."
Zara blushed, then looked up with a sly smile. "Oh, trust me, I'd think about it."
Kal laughed. "I never would have believed it then … but I guess we've both grown up."
"We all have," Ching commented softly, his love for Zara plainly evident on his face.
Zara nodded, her smile fading. "I suppose I've lost my taste for pretending submission."
"Honest agreement is much better. Not that you need my approval," Kal added hastily. "But that brings me to the reason I came. You two remember the dancer Melanie, right?"
Zara shrugged uncertainly, but Ching nodded. "Of course. What about her?"
Kal shrugged. "Well, she fell hard for Zak, and vice versa … and, um, she's here."
"Here on New Krypton?" Zara asked, her voice rising in surprise.
"I've got her staying at a hotel for the moment," Kal confessed. Zak had begun the ten days of solitary confinement that he'd been sentenced to for following Sev's lead and kidnapping the dancers. Kal was working on getting Zak a pardon, for subsequent valor, but the paperwork took a little time. "But y'know, I was thinking, you've got lots of room here."
Zara smiled. "I would love to have her stay with me. I didn't get to see her much on the ship, so I'm looking forward to getting to know her better. Ah … does she speak Kryptonian?"
"She's learning quickly. And I know she's eager to get to know you, as well." Lois's earlier quip about a 'two- pronged cultural assault' flashed through his mind and he grinned. "I think you two will definitely shake things up."
Ching laughed, then tried to control his expression when Zara glared at him. "You will be an inspiration to us all, shey-ana," he assured her.
Zara rolled her eyes at his teasing, but didn't seem truly upset. Kal was glad to see them getting along so well; they had spent a year apart, and both had changed in the interim. He had worried that they would find they didn't fit together anymore, but obviously that wasn't the case. It was reassuring to know that a shey-ana bond was that enduring.
"Zara … would you be willing to take Zak and Melanie under your wing, so to speak? They're going to need a friend in high places." Melanie's future was just one of the things he would have to assure, before he could leave in clear conscience, but he didn't want to reveal his motive just yet.
Zara eyed him, then nodded. "They will have the full protection of my House. Who does Zak serve now?"
"The House of An, I believe," Ching supplied.
Zara made a note. "I'll request his transfer to my service. He helped you rescue me, after all."
"Thank you." That was one weight off his mind, so he proceeded to his next concern. "So tell me, Zara, what do you see as priorities for your rule?"
"Stability, of course," she answered promptly. "But we also need to start expanding again; we've been too defensive."
"Expanding off-planet?" Kal asked, rather alarmed at the prospect.
"No, we've barely colonized this world — but that's my point; this isn't a particularly large world, but there are areas we have yet to fully explore."
"Are you looking for more habitable space, or natural resources?"
"Both, of course."
"We also need to take advantage of the resources we have already," Ching added, obviously not a stranger to this discussion. "The House of Nor has untapped reserves of diridium — we'll have to encourage whoever gets that mining station to begin processing and selling the ore."
"Yes, good idea." Kal was distracted by that thought. Lord Nor would surely be found guilty, and it was likely that some of his assets would be confiscated. Which might just spark a feeding frenzy, as every other noble on the planet either put forth claims, or — if they judged it worth the risk — physically moved in to take control. It could be a dangerous situation if Zara didn't maintain firm control. "I suppose you can make that a condition of the grant."
"Yes, we plan to," Zara agreed, a steely glint in her eye.
"Assuming the process goes smoothly," Ching put in darkly.
"That aside, though … Zara, you've met some women from Earth. And you yourself are capable of much more than our traditions assume—"
"Thank you for noticing!"
Kal grinned. "Hey, I'm slow but eventually I catch on. We just need to educate the *rest* of the planet."
Zara sighed. "That will be the difficult part. And it will be a slow process. But with your support, Kal, I believe we can make a change."
"I believe we'll need to. And you, Ching — what do you think?"
Ching met his eyes with an ironic look. "I'm well aware that certain classes of persons are chronically underestimated, my lord."
"Ah, yes. I suppose you would be. Will Zara have your support as she tries to change that?"
"Of course. Why do you ask?"
"I'd rather not say." Kal flashed an apologetic smile. If his plan worked, they would understand. "I guess I just wanted to make sure we're all agreed here."
Lady Alys-Ra watched her foster-nephew give his testimony at Lord Nor's trial. Justice worked swiftly on New Krypton, and once Kal had returned, the process had begun. This first day had mostly been to establish the basic facts of the case. Alys was particularly interested in the role played by the Earth woman, Lois Lane. Judging by his reactions when her name was mentioned, Kal was particularly interested as well. Not that just anyone would realize it, of course; Kal was well trained in hiding his emotions, but to her it was obvious.
Once the proceedings were halted for the day, Alys moved forward, locating Kal in the crowd.
"Aunt Alys!" His face lit up as he saw her. "I've missed you."
"It has been too long, my dear," she replied, reaching out to touch his hand briefly. She would have liked to hug him, but it was far too public for that. "Would you like to come to dinner with me?"
He flashed a smile. "I would love to." Tucking her hand in the crook of his arm, he escorted her out of the courtroom and into a private transport.
"I suppose it's redundant," Alys began as soon as the doors closed, "but thank you for rescuing Zara. I was so worried when I realized what had happened, and the Council was so hesitant to act. The best I could do was persuade them to send you a message." She had also insisted that Lieutenant Ching be the messenger — she had wanted Kal to have a true ally in protecting Zara — but if he hadn't yet discovered Ching's bond with Zara, it wasn't her place to reveal it.
"I'm glad you did," he replied. "It wasn't easy, but we managed it."
"And with style," she added, remembering some of the more delightful details. He wasn't telling all that had happened, of course, but she could guess.
The transport glided to a stop, and Kal helped Alys out. "I'm just profoundly relieved that Zara is back home, and that Nor has been stopped." He glanced down at her, a trifle uncertainly. "She's really come into her own, hasn't she."
"Indeed, yes." Alys nodded approvingly as they entered her home. "I've been so proud of her these last few years. She's educated herself in all sorts of areas, and begun making her presence felt in public life." She ushered Kal into her formal parlor. "Come, sit with me while we wait for dinner. Why, she even spoke in a Council meeting the other day — not on anything controversial, mind you, but she just acted as if it were perfectly natural for her to take part in the debate."
Kal looked up from his chair. "Really? I wish I could have seen it. How did they take it?"
"Uneasily," Alys admitted, "but no one was brave enough to forbid her. I did hear a few of them looking forward to your marriage — they think you'll take control of her quickly enough, so they've no need to do anything."
Kal grimaced. "Yes, well…"
"Oh, Kal, don't imagine you're going to confess something I don't know." She eyed him for a long moment. "I've loved you all your life, but you were never happy here. But now … there's a light been turned on inside you."
He looked startled, then relaxed into a smile. "Her name is —"
"Lois Lane," Alys replied, then grinned at his reaction. "No, I'm not using telepathy! But I did hear you give your testimony, you know, and you had a definite reaction every time you mentioned her." She patted his hand reassuringly. "Not that anyone else would notice, I don't think, but it was obvious to me. She sounds delightful, by the way."
"Thank you," he said slowly, still looking faintly wary. "I asked her to come with me — but she wouldn't have been happy here."
"No, perhaps not." Alys was well aware of the constraints New Kryptonian society placed on women. She had grown up with them, and had managed to transcend the traditional female role in certain ways, but she could see that they would be difficult for a woman like Lois to accept. "It's a shame you couldn't have gone with her," she offered. Long-held memories stirred. "Perhaps that could have been your destiny if we hadn't interfered."
Now he looked confused. "What?"
"I always meant to tell you someday. I suppose now is the best opportunity I'll get." Alys sighed, gathering her thoughts. It had been so long ago, and they had thought it was for the best. "Before old Krypton exploded, Lord Mak- Ra was in charge of the evacuation effort. Half of the population refused to believe that there was any emergency, you know. It was very frustrating to him that he was unable to persuade them, though honestly it was just as well; we ended up having to refuse a few people, because there simply weren't enough ships. But when your father refused to send you, Mak-Ra was livid."
Kal's eyes widened. "My father … refused to send me?"
"Oh, he didn't plan to let you die, dearest," Alys reassured him. "Jor-El disliked the colonization scheme, but he had a plan of his own. He and your mother were building a tiny spacecraft — it took all the diridium they could find to make one large enough to fit you. Lara told me they'd found a world where you would fit in physically … a world, she said, where children were encouraged to love one another and have choices, instead of being stuck in — well, Krypton society. Did you know that your father defied convention to marry your mother? They said they had a shey-ana bond. I wouldn't know about that, but it did cause an awful fuss."
Kal looked as if he were in shock. "Jor-El meant to send me to … Earth? Perhaps that's why…" His voice trailed off.
"Well, I don't know where they planned to send you, only what your mother told me. But Mak-Ra was bound and determined that you would come with him, both to represent your house and to fulfill your birth-marriage. He actually ended up, well," Alys paused guiltily before confessing, "kidnapping you — your nurse smuggled you out when your parents thought you were sleeping. He meant to bring them along, too, honestly he did, but the tremors got worse faster than expected, and it was a great rush to get any of us off-planet in time…" Alys faltered to a stop, worried about how the boy was taking this. She supposed it was rather a shock to him, but she felt obscurely that he needed to know.
He shook himself slightly, focusing on her face once more. "Thank you for telling me."
"I don't suppose it makes much difference at this point," she said nervously. Had she inadvertently destroyed his childhood memories? Mak-Ra had always treated Kal-El like a son, and from what she could see it had been a good relationship. She would hate to think she'd turned Kal against his father figure.
"I suppose not … but in a way, it does." A smile spread across his face, lighting up his features. "Thank you, Aunt Alys, that is a gift."
"You're quite welcome, my dear." Alys beamed at him. "I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if Mak-Ra hadn't interfered … but of course we'll never know, will we?"
"So then I signed the paperwork and slunk out of there with my tail between my legs," Lois concluded gloomily. She was hunched down on her sofa with a bowl of chocolate ice cream — she'd rather have skipped the bowl and attacked the carton directly, but not when she had guests.
"Oh honey," Francine chuckled, "if that's the worst you've ever been fired, you should count your blessings."
"Tell it, sister," Brenda agreed, far too cheerfully for Lois's mood. "They were screaming insults at me, last place I got fired from — of course, that might have been because I told the entire bar they were watering the drinks. I barely got out of there in one piece, lemme tell ya."
Francine nodded wisely. "And it's not much better when the manager kicks you out just so his new girlfriend can have the spot."
"Seriously, Lois," Brenda said, "you didn't do so bad. Actually, I think this Colonel guy had a good idea — you could be a great investigator; you know, fight for truth and justice, that sort of thing."
Lois groaned. "I knew it was a bad idea to lend you my comics." Nonetheless, she was starting to feel a little better.
"We could help," Francine offered. "Between Brenda and me, you've got connections to most of the shady side of Metropolis."
Lois felt herself smiling. "You mean, I know guys who know guys?"
Brenda laughed. "As Big Louie might say — do you know him?"
"I am forced to admit," Lois said with a theatrical sigh, "that I do — I played tennis with his daughter in college."
"Well, see? There you go."
"Okay, maybe — I mean, I'm interested." Plans were starting to bubble up from her subconscious, hampered only by one small difficulty. "But starting my own business would be expensive, to say the least. I've got some savings, but still…"
Francine looked at Brenda. "Should we tell her?"
Brenda returned the look, then glanced at Lois. "Yeah, we probably should. Considering."
Lois looked at them both. "When you're ready to Tell All, just let me know."
"Well, see, it's like this," Brenda began. "The other night … when we left the ship…"
Lois winced at the unexpected reminder, then took another bite of ice cream. "Go on."
"Kal was worried about us," Francine explained. "He knew that we'd pretty much lost our jobs because of the whole thing, and, well, anyway, he gave us something."
"Yeah, I vaguely remember." She hadn't paid much attention to anything at the time. "What did he give you?"
"Money," Brenda replied bluntly. "Well, not American dollars, but in these Kryptonian crystals. He said they were pretty common on his world — but here they're called rubies and diamonds."
Lois let the spoon drop back into the bowl. "Are you saying—?"
"It's not a huge fortune, but it's a decent amount. Brenda and I are planning to open our own small theater — she can be our choreographer, and I'll manage the office. We both know lots of girls who'd drop their current jobs in a red- hot minute. We talked to a business guy that Brenda knows, and we have enough for a down payment on a building and to cover our start-up costs. But there's enough to get you set up, too."
Lois just stared at them both, her mind trying to calculate this unexpected good fortune. It almost seemed like cheating, though she couldn't work out who might be harmed by it. Francine and Brenda might fail in their joint venture, and she might be a flop as a PI, too … but at least they'd have a chance at success. Not bad for a sexist creep. She smiled.
It wasn't what she really wanted most, of course. But while she waited for Kal to return, it would do.
Kal spent the next day in court, listening with one ear while others gave their testimonies. In the few moments that he wasn't thinking about Lois, he marveled at what Aunt Alys had told him. In spite of all his preparations, he had still felt obscurely guilty for trying to escape his destiny. Learning that his parents had never planned for him to be trapped here had given him such a sense of peace that he had slept well for the first time in days. If his plan succeeded, he'd still have some details to work out, but he could leave New Krypton without any regrets.
A portentous silence caught Kal's attention, and he looked up.
"My Lord of the Court, Lord Kal-El, Lady Zara, and guests, we the Council of New Krypton have reached a unanimous verdict." Lord Vor-Van, one of the Council's unofficial spokesmen, read carefully from a prepared script. "Lord Nor, you stand accused of kidnapping, sedition, and attempted murder. We find you guilty on all counts."
Kal sighed in relief. He had expected this — the testimony had been overwhelming — but one never knew what the Council might do. Lord Nor looked enraged, but before he could launch into a full-fledged rant, the guardsmen hauled him out of the courtroom.
As the excited murmur from the crowd of spectators began to die down, Kal took a deep breath and stood.
"If it please the Court and the Council," Kal began, choosing his words carefully. "As the Lady Zara's nearest male relative, I claim the victim's right to recommend punishment."
The Council members exchanged glances, then nodded their approval.
"Thank you, my Lords." Kal stepped forward from the witness bench to the speaker's box, willing his legs to remain steady. "My Lords, it is my assertion that the Lord Nor has, by his conduct, revealed himself unworthy of the title of Lord of New Krypton. We hold ourselves to high standards of honor which he has disgraced." Of course, he was scarcely the only one, but so far, honor was given at least lip service by the majority, so Kal felt fairly confident of his argument. He wasn't breaking any precedents here at any rate. "I recommend, therefore, that he be stripped of his title and rights as a noble."
That caused a stir around the courtroom. Lord Gor-Ma, an ambitious member of the younger generation, leaned forward. "And what should we do with his estates?"
Kal frowned, as if the question had not occurred to him. "That is a concern," he acknowledged, and let the Council think about it for a moment before he began enumerating the hazards. "Splitting it up would be difficult, and Lord Nor unfortunately is the last of his household. Giving all of it to any one Lord, however, would upset our delicate balance of power."
The Council mulled that for a moment, shooting suspicious glances between them — while all of them would no doubt like to increase their holdings, none of them were bold enough to say aloud that they wanted to risk instability. When Kal judged that they were becoming paranoid enough to accept a suggestion, he spoke again.
"Here's a thought, my Lords. I suggest we appoint a new Lord to take over the House of Nor. Such a man would keep the current House in one piece, which would both maintain our current system and take responsibility for all the House's dependents. He must be someone honorable and true, someone who will additionally have the responsibility of keeping the former Lord Nor from causing any further trouble. And to maintain the current balance of power, I propose that this person be someone *not* related by blood to any of the other noble houses."
There were a few gasps at that last statement as people worked out that Kal meant to elevate a commoner to the status of a noble. He pressed on quickly. "I recommend Lieutenant Ching."
Kal glanced briefly at Ching, still seated on the witness bench. He was looking as impassive as he ever had, which suggested to Kal that he was struggling to control equal amounts of hope and fear. Kal wished he could risk a reassuring wink. Neither of the men dared look at Lady Zara.
Lord Gor-Ma spoke again doubtfully. "Lieutenant Ching is no doubt a fine man—"
Kal interrupted without compunction. "A fine man, indeed — a hero, in fact. I could not have defeated Nor without him. I would be honored to call him my brother. He has demonstrated loyal service to the people of New Krypton, and I have every confidence in his ability to continue doing so. After all, my Lords," he bowed slightly, "he will have your excellent counsel should he require it."
A few eyebrows raised at that, and Kal didn't need telepathy to see which Lords were contemplating the possibility of making Ching their puppet, and of effectively increasing their own power.
The elderly Lord Vor-Van asked, "Lieutenant Ching, what have you to say about this?"
Ching stood, keeping his eyes respectfully lowered. "I have always sought to serve my people, my Lord. If given this duty, I would execute it to the best of my humble ability. I thank the Lord Kal-El for honoring me by the suggestion."
"That, then, is my recommendation for punishing Lord Nor," Kal stated smoothly, pulling the Council's attention away from Ching. "Strip him of his rank, and appoint Lieutenant Ching to serve in his place — in fact, to further illustrate our displeasure with Nor's dishonorable conduct, we should rename the House. Lord Ching, then, will have the responsibility to feed, clothe and control the former Lord Nor, just as he would have the responsibility for all other servants and dependents of the new House of Ching. Lord Ching will take his place as one of the Council, he will administer the estates of the House of Ching, and he will undertake all other duties of the noble houses of New Krypton." Kal paused. "He would even be an eligible suitor for Lady Zara's hand," he added, in a joking tone.
The council members chuckled on cue; it was common knowledge that Zara planned to formalize her birth marriage, so they failed to see Ching as a threat in that area. As the council members conferred, Kal-El hid a smile and carefully avoided meeting either Ching or Zara's eyes. As he glanced through the crowd of observers, however, he caught sight of his Aunt Alys. She was smiling warmly at him, a twinkle in her eye.
"Are we agreed, my Lords?" Kal asked formally, his heart beating fast. It was possible for the Council to overrule him on this, but he hoped that he had maneuvered them into accepting. Given their reflexive under-estimation of the lower classes, they would very likely fail to see the threat that Ching posed to their system.
Lord Vor-Van looked up from the hushed conference. "We find your suggestion acceptable, Lord Kal-El. It will be as you say."
Fierce joy shot through Kal, which he struggled to contain. It would not do to show his elation. As he left the speaker's box, he caught a glimpse of Zara. She had her head up, and her face was as regal as he'd ever seen it … but he thought he spied a shimmer of tears in her eyes. When he sat down beside her, her hand reached out for his. "Thank you," she whispered in a soft, choked voice.
Considering that Kal had just effectively given up a chance to rule an entire planet, he felt surprisingly good about himself.
Lois looked around the hotel room and sighed. Booking herself into a hotel for a relaxing weekend had seemed like a good idea, and Brenda and Francine had enthusiastically agreed, even if the only room available was the wildly inappropriate honeymoon suite. Of course, they both thought she was working too hard — but getting a new business up and running took a lot of effort. She was not burying herself in work in order to forget Kal.
She was just *busy*, that was all. Apart from getting all the necessary permits and licenses, setting up a rudimentary office, and digging up all the information on Lex Luthor she could find, she still needed to actually investigate things, and hopefully, get paid. More than once, she had thought wistfully of her comics counterpart, who had a support staff and a regular paycheck … but she was doing okay so far, with a string of small but satisfying cases. Francine and Brenda had helped her locate a runaway teen before the girl had had time to get into real trouble, and had convinced the girl that starting a show business career was a little more complicated than she'd thought. And Lois felt she was slowly gaining a rapport with some of the local cops — in some ways, they were very similar to the military men she'd served with, and the same techniques seemed to work. She hadn't had any major cases yet, but she was confident that her time would come.
No, regardless of what her friends might think, she wasn't using work to avoid her personal life. Lois smiled wryly at herself. She had an entirely different coping strategy, but maybe it was time to give it up — she really should admit to herself that Kal wasn't coming back. To keep herself from falling apart, she had indulged herself in the fantasy that someday, she'd turn around and see him, or there would be a knock on the door, and he'd be standing there with flowers, or …
The shrill ring of the phone interrupted her fantasy and set her adrenaline pumping. She grabbed for it, hoping against hope… "Hello?"
"Hey, girlfriend, you relaxed yet?"
Lois sagged back against the bed. "Yeah, Brenda, I'm relaxing," she lied. "What's up?"
"Box office receipts, I hope. But what I called you about is, the client who was coming to see you tomorrow morning just called to say she can't make it after all. So feel free to sleep in."
Lois smiled, her pulse returning to normal. "Like that ever happens, but thanks."
"No problem," Brenda assured her cheerfully. "Just wanted to make sure you took advantage of the whole relaxation concept while you can."
Lois managed a laugh. "Trust me, I will. After these last few weeks, my feet appreciate the break."
"Okay, then — have a great weekend!"
"Thanks, you too."
Lois replaced the handset and smoothed the front of her robe. She couldn't believe a ringing phone had startled her so much. Honestly, she had to give up this fantasy of Kal coming back. He had duties on New Krypton that were going to take years, decades, maybe even a lifetime to attend to, and she had no right to expect otherwise. He had to marry Zara for political reasons, and she was okay with that. She just wished she'd remembered to tell him not to sleep with her. Not that he would of course, but — she needed to distract herself. Maybe she should see what was on television.
A few minutes later, she clicked the set off in disgust. Nothing but romances and couples, and … well, okay, it *was* the honeymoon suite, but there was no rule that said a person couldn't stay here by herself. Where was a good action/adventure movie when she needed one?
She got up and paced out of the oversized bedroom, moving into the adjoining room. Ah, a huge bathtub, just what she needed to really relax. She didn't know why they'd placed it next to the large plate-glass window, but it wouldn't be dark for at least another hour, which meant no one would be able to see in. She twisted the knobs to produce steaming hot water and added the complimentary scented bubble bath, which foamed up nicely.
She was just about ready to peel off her robe and slip into the bath when she heard a soft knock at the door. She told herself to ignore it — this was her private time, and she distinctly remembered putting out the "do no disturb" sign — but somehow she couldn't, probably due to a lifetime of conditioning in polite behavior. Annoyed at herself for being such a slave to custom, she straightened her robe, and decided that if some maid had chosen this moment to bring extra towels or something, she would certainly be made to regret it.
"Yeah, what is it?" she asked ungraciously, yanking the door open only as far as the safety chain would allow.
Lois could only stare in disbelief. It looked like Kal, and sounded like Kal, but he was light years away, so this couldn't possibly *be* Kal…
He smiled uncertainly. "Brenda told me you were here … Lois, may we talk?"
"Um, talk, right," she replied, still feeling dazed, and it took her a moment to realize why the door refused to open any further. "Gimme a sec," she smiled brightly at the man in the hallway, then slammed the door shut and opened the safety chain. She stared at the door, terrified to open it again and be disappointed. She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her courage. Just as she heard his voice softly asking, "Lois?" she felt the lightest inquisitive touch of his mind, and finally allowed herself to believe that this wasn't a dream.
She flung the door open, and launched herself into his arms. He staggered a bit under the unexpected weight, then swung an arm under her knees to pick her up and carry her back into the suite, kicking the door closed behind him.
At first all she could do was cling to him, running hands across his shoulders just to feel their warm reality. She pulled her head back far enough to study the beloved features that she thought she'd never see again. He glanced around the room, then carried her over to the sofa, settling her on his lap.
"Kal … I can't believe you're here!" Becoming a little self-conscious, she scooted off his lap, sitting next to him instead.
"I know —"
"What happened on New Krypton? What's going on with Zara?" A hideous thought struck her. "How long can you stay? Kal, I need to know everything!"
He regarded her uncertainly for a moment. "I really only need to know one thing. Lois … do you still love me?"
"Well, of course I do!" she snapped, indignant that he'd even dared to ask the question. "Why on earth or any other planet would you think—" She stopped as she saw his gaze drop significantly to the distance she'd created between them. "Okay, so I slammed the door in your face…"
He grinned, his usual self-confidence evidently returning. "Just checking," he said softly before leaning over to kiss her.
It was a long time before they recovered enough to have any sort of rational conversation. They had ended up sprawled across the sofa, and Kal was thoroughly enjoying the feel of her lying on top of him. Just when he'd decided he could stay that way forever, she stirred, propping her head up on one hand. "So you're staying here permanently, right?" she asked in a light tone that didn't quite cover the anxiety underneath.
"For as long as you can stand me," he affirmed.
Lois smiled brilliantly. "I think that'll be a long time."
"Thank goodness for that," Kal said absently, focused on her inviting lips. He leaned up to kiss her, lightly nibbling on her lips before gently pulling her head down. She moaned her approval, withholding nothing, but then abruptly pulled back.
"No more of that, I want information now," she told him sternly, her breath still coming quickly. To emphasize her determination, she pulled up off him to sit on the sofa, decorously adjusting her robe along the way. "Spill it."
Giving in to the inevitable, Kal sat up and began recounting his brief trip back to New Krypton. He loved watching her expressions as he told her about his speech to the Council, and by the time he finished, she was chortling.
"Oh, that's hilarious. They are going to have such a fit when Zara marries him."
Kal shrugged. "Maybe they will in private … but Zara can handle it. It took me a few weeks to wrap up everything else, unfortunately — I pretty much gave my estate to Zara, such as it was, but the paperwork was incredible. And we all decided I should stay long enough to see Zara and Ching become formally engaged so I could give them my official support … but as soon as I could, I came here. I landed early this morning and spent all day wandering around trying to find you. I'd still be looking if I hadn't heard a rumor about Brenda opening her own theater. She told me where to find you — and here I am."
"Right where you ought to be." Lois relaxed again. "So you really don't have anything more to take care of on New Krypton?"
"Not a thing. I am all yours."
She smiled smugly. "I like the sound of that." She leaned towards him for a short kiss, then pulled back with a mischievous grin. "And don't think I won't put you to work. I've opened up my own investigations agency, and I could use a partner."
Kal nodded. When he'd finally found Brenda, she'd mentioned something about Lois's career change, but he'd been far more interested in finding her current location. It suited her, though, and he thought he might enjoy it, too. Then again, he'd probably find coal mining entertaining if Lois were happy at it. "Yes, I heard — it could be interesting … although I was thinking … Lois, what do you know about Superman?"
"Superman?" She looked at him sideways for a moment. "Actually, I have the novel with me." At his bemused glance, she added, "What? It was supposed to be a relaxing weekend, and I brought a couple of books to read. So sue me." After rummaging in a dufflebag, she tossed a hardcover book at him.
Kal caught it. It didn't seem remarkable, just a blue cloth cover with "Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman" embossed on the spine in gold. He flipped through the novel, noting in passing that even one day under Earth's sun had recharged him enough to that he could read it cover to cover in seconds. "Hmm. Nice story."
Lois gaped at him. "I gotta get used to that."
He grinned. "I ran out of power back on New Krypton, but it looks like I'm recovering quickly." The time spent searching today hadn't been totally wasted, if it had recharged him somewhat. "So what's with this author's note?" He opened the book to the first few pages.
Lois frowned. "Um, I haven't read that in a long time. Honestly, it didn't seem to make much sense."
"Well, the writing style's pretty florid, but this guy, what's his name, Wells? He says he's traveled the universes, and that since this one had no Superman, he at least wanted to make sure the idea was planted."
"I think the guy was getting a little bit nuts in his old age," Lois confided. "The novel wasn't found until after his death, and none of his friends or acquaintances even knew he'd been working on it. So who knows what he was thinking."
"I guess we'll never know," Kal agreed, remembering the story his Aunt Alys had told him. Lois Lane existed in this universe, but a baby had never been found by a Kansas farm couple — because the baby had gone to New Krypton instead? A shiver went through him, but then he resolutely dismissed it. "There's no way he could have known anything about me."
Kal realized he'd spoken that last thought aloud. "Um, yeah … Lois, what do you think about me, well, becoming Superman?"
She looked at him for a long moment, before smiling broadly. "I think it's a great idea." Her eyes wandered over his body for a moment. "You are gonna look *good* in spandex."
"I'll bet it's been a fantasy of yours for a long time," Kal teased her, getting more comfortable with the idea of bringing any and all of Lois's fantasies to life.
She sat down next to him, bumping his shoulder with hers. "Yeah, I guess … but what I really wanted was my very own Clark Kent." She looked up at him under her lashes, raising her face for a kiss, which he gladly gave. "Or Kal Lewis, as the case may be," she continued after the kiss. "Calling you 'Clark Kent' would just be asking for trouble."
Lois jumped up off the couch again, pacing the room with enthusiasm. "We'll probably need some kind of ski suit, and extra material for the cape — I'm not very good at sewing, but Francine used to make costumes, maybe she could help us out — if you didn't mind her knowing about you, that is, although frankly I think she'll figure it out pretty quickly anyway."
Kal considered that. "I think we can trust her, don't you?"
"Yeah, her and Brenda both — they've been really good friends to me. So that's the costume taken care of," she continued briskly. "We'll need to decide what to tell the press about you, like whether—" She stopped in the middle of a sentence, staring out the window. "Congressman Harrington?"
Kal turned around, trying to figure out what she was talking about, as she dove for her bag and pulled out a set of mini binoculars. As she focused them, he found what she was looking at — an apparently clandestine meeting in the skyscraper next door. "I can't see what any of those papers say," she muttered, then said more loudly, "X-ray those for me, could ya?"
Kal regarded her for a second. In the middle of an important conversation, she had dropped him from her attention, except to order him around. Was this what his life was going to be like?
She turned around for a moment. "Kal, sweetie? Could you help me out here?"
Kal had to grin, and obediently began to focus on the documents in the other building. Life with Lois would obviously never be dull, but then fighting for 'truth, justice, and the American way' wasn't supposed to be easy. He would have a worthy cause, a wonderful partner, and — finally — a true home. Kal-El of New Krypton had found his destiny.