Supergirl (Kara of Rokyn):

 Zoners: part 10

 by DarkMark
 
 

 In the tech support room of one of New Kandor's great power plants, Rol-Lorr and his son Hal-Lorr were working alongside five other technicians and practical scientists.  A number of armed guards were also on the premises, as well as a few government observers.

 It was crash work, and it was almost done.  But it was also an untested apparatus, and no one knew if the thing would work as planned.

 Despite the situation, Hal was proud to be laboring alongside his dad and some Famous Names he'd only seen on the Holonews broadcasts.  Then again, he was of use.  Thanks to Jax-Ur, he knew something of what he was working on.

 One of the scientists muttered, "If the damned thing wasn't so power-inefficient, we'd never have to do it this way.  We've got to redesign it once this is over."

 "If it works," said another.

 "If it works," the first agreed.

 A warning light came on.  Everyone  looked up, tensely.

 It signified that the power-element they had given to Kara Zor-El had been taken out of its lead-foil shield.  The photoelectric cells attached to its surface were activated by light hitting it, and a small transmitter broadcast a signal back to their light alarm.

 "Showtime," said Rol-Lorr.  "Power up, now."

 One of the techs connected a last clump of wires and raised his thumb.  Rol-Lorr nodded to Hal.  Hal drew in a deep breath and threw down a knife switch.

 Since he had been responsible for releasing the Zoners, now he could have a hand in subduing them.

 If it worked.

 If everything worked...

 -K-

 Jax-Ur recognized the small disk in Kara's hand.  It was the power-element from a Zone projector.  By itself, of course, it was useless.  But she wouldn't have brought it unless something else was in the offing.

 "Back off, all of you, now!" yelled Jax.  "It's a Zone ray!"

 Vakox and Zod didn't have to be told twice.  They jumped aside, out of the space towards which Kara was holding the disk.  But the battered heroine didn't turn to face any of the three.

 The disk wasn't equipped to send anyone to the Phantom Zone.  That took 25 percent more energy than what they had.

 The lights inside flickered and went out for an instant before generators kicked in.  The power of a significant portion of New Kandor was being sapped by the device Rol-Lorr and company had just created.  It broadcast power to the disk Kara held in her hand, and it heated up so fiercely that after five seconds she had to drop it, and it shattered on the floor.  A Phantom Zone projector is even less power-efficient than a laser, and most Zone projectors only had an
effective range of ten feet or less.

 But it had done its job.

 Four people who had been sent to the Zone, with special hand-held receivers that would catch the beam-frequency emerging from the power-element, had just materialized in the reservoir control room.

 Nightwing, Flamebird, Shyla Kor-Onn, and Captain Tog.

 None of them looked very forgiving, at the moment.

 Jax-Ur sized up the situation, popped the locks on the canister lid, and bolted for the railing separating the platform from the reservoir waters.

 Flamebird snapped a boomerang out of his belt and let fly.  It caught Jax at the back of the knees.  He fell, the canister rolling out of his grasp.

 Zod caught it.  The lid was still on.  He held it shut tight, clasped it to his chest, dropped to the floor and rolled himself to the railing.  A bullet hit the wall where he had been standing a moment before.  Zod popped the lid, held the canister dangling over the reservoir waters.

 "Try it again, Captain," he sneered.  Tog, who held a smoking gun, did nothing.

 Vakox whipped out his gun and used his last shot.  It wasn't aimed at a human target.  He shot into the control mechanism that opened and shut the doors of the chamber.  Sparks flew, a small insignificant fire was ignited, alarms went off, and the monitors went dead.

 The doors would have to be cut or blasted open now.

 Shyla and Tog both had their guns out and trained on the Zoners.  Shyla had interposed herself in front of Kara, whose head was throbbing so hard she had had to sit down against the side of the metal staircase.  "Get the canister," groaned Kara, still focused on the problem.

 "General Dru-Zod, Professor Va-Kox, and Jax-Ur, you are hereby notified of arrest by the New Kandor Justice Department," intoned Tog, formally but with grit.  "We are authorized to use deadly force if met with resistance.  What say you?"

 "I say, frab you," said Zod, disdainfully.  "You have guns, I have the Virus.  And my arm may get tired."

 "To Sheol with that!" snapped Jax-Ur.  "Put a bullet in any one of us, and Zod will drop that in the water.  Now, if you please, we'll take those weapons."

 "Try it," said Shyla, her green eyes as hard as emeralds.  She clicked the gun once.

 Tog didn't say anything for a second.  Nightwing broke his silence.  "There's one way to handle this," he said, clearly and impassively.  "You three have no other weapons besides that canister.  Shyla, Tog, put your guns away."

 "What?" Shyla snapped her head around to look at him for an instant.  "No!  Not for all the Happy Lands!  You're nuts, Nightwing!"

 "No, he's right," said Flamebird.  "Let's make it personal.  Single combat.  You tend to Kara, Shyla, she needs medical help."

 "You're insane," smiled Jax.  "We don't have to do a damnable thing."

 Tog yelled, "General Zod!  Notice is given from Captain Vor-Tog.  Challenge to Personal Combat.  Surrender or death.  Do you accept?"

 "No!" shouted Jax.  "He doesn't have to accept anything!"

 But Zod's mouth was open.  And his hand was on the lid of the canister.

 The Personal Combat Challenge was an archaic tradition dating back to the time when Krypton was a mass of nations, not a world government.  Essentially, it was a David and Goliath thing.  Two soldiers on opposing sides could issue personal challenges, one to the other, and fight it out one-on-one.  No interference was permitted by outsiders.  Period.  Until the agreed-upon conditions were met, the fight had to continue.

 But there was another implication there.  Only military men could issue and accept the Challenge.

 Zod's commission had been stripped of him with his conviction and sentencing to the Zone.  There was nothing that pained him worse than that knowledge.  If anyone called him anything less than "General" in the Zone, the perpetrator would be shoved over as much phantom space as Zod could manage, and be blasted mentally by the foulest imprecations he could muster.

 If Zod was being issued a Personal Combat Challenge, it meant to him that maybe...just maybe...he was being accepted as a military man in fact, by a member of the very society which had taken that away from him.

 "Zod does not accept," said Jax.  "And now, if--"

 "Ur, shut up!" snapped Zod.  "Captain Tog, you understand that a Personal Challenge may not be made to a civilian."

 "I understand that, sir," replied Tog.  "In view of the situation, by the powers issued me through the Emergency Acts, I recomission you in the Defense Corps, should you accept my Challenge."  He paused.  "I've heard you're good, Zod.  Show me."

 For a second, no one spoke, or moved.  Then Nightwing added, "General, on your honor as a military man, I want you to give your word that neither you, Jax, nor Vakox will attempt to unleash the Virus while we are fighting."

 "We?" snapped Jax.  "What is this 'we'?  I agree to nothing!"

 Zod, holding the canister before his chest, stood with full military bearing.  "Do you agree that your men will not attempt to take the canister while we fight, Captain Tog?"

 "I agree, General," said Tog.  "My men are bound by the waiver of their civilian rights."

 "No!" said Jax.

 Shyla snapped, "We don't have time for these little boys' games.  Kara's been hurt.  She may be dying."

 "'M all right," murmured Kara, whose face was a bruised horror.

 Flamebird, snapping a look to Vakox, who was sweating, said, "No, Shyla.  He's right...they've got the canister.  It's the only way we can make this work."  He unbuckled his belt.  Nightwing was doing the same.

 Zod began to smile, tightly.  "Two conditions first.  Vakox is hardly a man of action.  Leave him out of the fight."

 "Agreed," said Tog.  "Flamebird will stay out, too, but he'll keep watch on Vakox."

 "And I get Jax," said Nightwing, smacking one gloved fist in his other palm.

 "Never!" said Jax, at the same instant Zod said, "Agreed."

 Jax looked venomously at Zod.  "I agreed to nothing of this," he snarled.

 Zod retorted to Jax, in a voice that would have scared General Patton, "Ur, you will abide by my decision and you will fight Nightwing.  Or I will personally pour the contents of this canister down your throat and throw you in the reservoir myself!"

 Jax locked eyes with Zod for a second.  He knew the man, knew when he was bluffing and when he wasn't.

 This time, it was the latter.

 The bald Zoner turned back to Nightwing with a sneer.  "I'm not afraid of you," he said.  "In that Museum of Eternity thing, we beat you and your partner like the dogs you are."

 Not varying his expression, Nightwing said, "We needed you then, against a common enemy.  It won't be so easy, this time."

 Captain Tog had laid his gun on the floor near Shyla and Kara, where the two masked men had already left their belts.

  "Second:  I want your word that if we win the fight, Shyla will also surrender," continued Zod.  "I don't want that bitch putting a bullet through my head after I've killed one of you."

 "I do not agree," said Shyla.

 Zod said nothing, but put his hand to the top of the cylinder, as if to unscrew it.

 Tog looked at Shyla.  "Tanthi Kor-Onn, comply with his request or be charged with obstruction of Emergency Procedures," he said.  "I am in charge here."

 Shyla swore, and then said, "Emergency Procedures also authorize independent action when command decisions endanger the greater number of citizens, with a review board to follow.  You know that, Captain.  But I comply.  And I register protest--most strongly."

 She lay her gun on the floor beside the other one.  But it was still in reach.

 Zod drew himself up to full military posture.  "Notice of Personal Combat challenge to Captain Vor-Tog is acknowledged, and accepted.  Surrender or death."  He placed the canister on the floor against the wall, several feet from the railing.  Then he removed his cap and crouched in a fighting stance and was not in the least bit humorous to look upon.  "Don't worry about the first alternative," he said, and he and Tog began to circle.

 Flamebird started to make for Jax, but Nightwing held him back.  "You see to Vakox," said Nightwing.  "I'm pulling rank."

 The redheaded hero said to Jax-Ur, "I'm not military.  If Wing loses, I'll stomp your damned head in."

 "Sheol with you," said Jax.  He and Nightwing began to circle.

 Flamebird walked over to Vakox, who was sitting in a console chair, arms folded, looking at the scene before him.

 "Beaten up any more old men lately?" grated Flamebird.

 Vakox said nothing, staring straight ahead.  Then he put the last one of his shells into his reloaded gun, and whipped it up towards Flamebird.

 Flamebird grabbed his wrist and held the gun towards the ceiling.  His other hand was on Vakox's throat, squeezing.  "Go ahead.  Blow as many holes in the ceiling as you want," said Flamebird.  "Or give me the gun, and I'll put it in the pile.  And if you promise to be a good boy, I won't choke you to death."

 Sputtering, Vakox loosened his grip on the weapon. Flamebird took his hand from the man's neck, pried the gun away, marched Vakox over with him, dropped the gun on the pile made by the two belts, the two stunners, and the other two guns, marched Vakox back to the control
console, pushed him flat face-down on the floor, and sat on him.  Then he settled back to watch the fight.

 Nobody said he had to be a non-participant.

 -K-

 In another of the great laboratories of New Kandor, a cyclotron was finishing up its task.  The Drygur Moliom himself observed it.  An attendant watched the indicators on the process monitors.  "Synthesis almost complete, sir," he reported.

 "How much longer?" said the Moliom.

 "Five minutes, probably."

 "We've already lost the monitor," said Chief Len-Tarr on a comlink.  "Ask Rao what's happening in there."

 The Moliom passed a hand over his mouth, indicating disgust.  "Get him on a comlink and I will.  Five minutes more to synthesize, ten minutes to transport it.  And the stuff might already be in the water."

 "Interesting days, Moliom."

 "Interesting indeed, Tarr.  Keep contact."

 -K-

 One of the more interesting bits about Rokyn's existence was that it was a phaseworld.  The easiest way of explaining this concept was that the planet and the solar system of which it was part slipped at times between two universes.  The philosophers called it a "shift in the Cosmic Axis", but nobody had really explained what a Cosmic Axis was.

 When Rokyn was slipped into one universe, its sister-world of Dakkam took its place in the universe it had vacated.  As far as anyone knew, no Dakkamites had turned up on Rokyn, and no Rokynites had slipped into Dakkam.  That was a good thing, as Dakkam's sun wasn't the most stable in the universe and had threatened to go nova several times in the last thousand years, in the estimation of Dakkam's scientists.  One Dakkamite did turn up on another Earth, in a swamp.  But that has nothing to do with our tale.

 The upshot was that the shifting made visits to Rokyn, even by space-warp, difficult or impossible to accomplish from Superman's Earth during certain times of the year.  It also cut off the newsvid broadcasts that Kal normally received through Warpwave transmission until Rokyn phased into his universe sufficiently again.

 For this reason, Superman was in the Fortress of Solitude today, manning his holoscreen to check conditions on the world of the liberated Kandorians.  After the static cleared up, he saw a view of the exterior of the Great Plains Reservoir with a Ranger ship hovering overhead, and some inset photos near the bottom of the screen.

 Four of the pix were headshots of Jax-Ur, Faora, General Zod, and Vakox.

 The fifth was of Kara.

 "Deadline has passed, but no word has been released concerning the disposition of the Virus X culture, nor of Kara Zor-El, who reportedly was allowed to enter the building at the request of the four Zoners.  No reporters have been allowed on board the Ranger ship which you can see at the top of our screen.  We hope to be bringing word from the Science Council and the
Justice Ministry soon..."

 By that time, Kal-El was racing down the hall at super-speed.  He activated the WarPort, set the coordinates for Rokyn, and jumped through the teleportational warp, all within a fifth of a second.  And that only because of the mechanical delay.

 Kara didn't stand a chance against those murdering fiends.  Especially Faora, who had even outfought Kal in a hand-to-hand encounter.

 Super-powers or not, this was a job for Superman.

 -K-

 Jax-Ur was confident as he closed with Nightwing.   This ersatz Batman might be tough.  But Jax had learned well how to kill a man from some of the nastiest murderers in the Zone, and Nightwing had never taken a life yet.

 Sure, the situation was going to Sheol with lead weights on.  But he could still salvage something, perhaps get himself and the others transportation out of here in return for not dumping the germs in the drink.  He'd probably have to let that blonde bitch Kara live, too, but there was always tomorrow.  And one thing you learned in the Zone was patience, if you learned anything.

 All of that depended on him killing Nightwing.  Well, Zod had to do that stupid military cop, too, but he had confidence in his partner, as much as he was beginning to hate him.  And Jax himself was backing Nightwing away.  The scumsucker acted like he was being cautious, but Jax knew better:  it was fear!

 "Zod and I gave you a taste of our knuckles back then," muttered Jax.  "This time, I'll rip your very guts out."

 Yes!  That was fear he saw in Nightwing's eyes!  Jax charged, hand sweeping for a Klurkor strike.

 Nightwing caught the arm and slammed the hardest elbow strike Jax had ever felt right into the area under his sternum.

 The big Zoner gasped.  He folded one arm over his chest area.  Wide-eyed, he staggered, still managing to keep both legs under him, and sidled away.

 Nightwing had a brief smile on his lips.  "Back then, we were trying to get you to help us against the Preservers.  We were going easy on you.  Thanks for the help, by the way."

 The caped man slammed a terrific uppercut to Jax-Ur's jaw.

 Jax careened into the control console, not far from where Flamebird was sitting on Vakox.  "Blast it, Wing, those guys worked me over last time," said Flamebird.   "Can't I just--"

 "No," said Nightwing, advancing.

 "I, I'd like to surrender," said Jax, putting his hands up.

 "Let me think about it," said Nightwing.  He punched Jax three more times, knocking him about the room.  Then he unleashed a terrific uppercut to the jaw.   Jax fell flat on his back and didn't move. Out like a busted light.

 "I've thought about it," said Nightwing, standing over him.  "Surrender accepted."

 Flamebird, resting his head on his hands, looked on glumly.

 "He never lets me have any fun," he muttered.

 Captain Tog was having a tougher time with General Zod.  So far, Tog had avoided any crippling strokes, but both he and Zod had exchanged terrible Klurkor spin-kicks, smashes, knees, and even a grapple or two.  The bad man was no creampuff, and the blood on Tog's face proved it.

 But Zod had picked up a fat lip and a black eye in addition to the bruises and possible fractures his weathered uniform hid.  It mattered little.  He was getting a chance to fight again, and for the time in which he could do it, it was very heaven.

 Right now, he swept in close and fast, grabbed Tog's right arm, got his shoulder up under Tog's armpit, and stood up, wrenching the limb at just the right angle.  Tog cried out, despite himself.  The arm popped in its shoulder socket.  Dislocated, but not broken.  Zod damned himself for losing his touch.  He released Tog's wrist and stood away from him, panting slightly, savoring the sight of the man bent down in pain.

 "Good soldier, Tog," acknowledged Zod.  "Unfortunately, not my good soldier."  He snapped a leg out and kicked Tog hard in the face.  The Ranger went over backward, hit hard, and didn't move.

 Shyla, sitting with Kara's head in her lap, dropped her jaw and stopped breathing.  Kara, wearing a painkiller patch on her neck from the emergency kit Shyla had brought along, drowsed.  Semi-consciously, she was glad to get the chance to sleep.

 Shyla reached out, grabbed Flamebird's belt, and rummaged amidst the pouches till she found a laser-torch.

 Zod stood over Tog, nudged his head back with a foot, then lifted the foot for a death-stomp to the throat.

 Tog jackknifed his body, brought his own leg swinging up, and smashed it right into Zod's crotch.

 The general's face whitened and his eyes got very large as he fell over backwards.  He was able to start a scream and clutch himself as Tog, one arm dangling at a useless angle, dragged himself on top of Zod's body and delivered punch after punch to Zod's face with his left hand.

 In between the seventh and eighth blows, Zod, through bloody lips, groaned, "Surrender.  Surrender."

 "Yes, sir."  Tog punched him.  "Thank you, sir."  Another punch.  "Surrender is accepted, sir."  Punch.  "You are under arrest."  Punch.  "In conjunction with."  Punch.  "The Emergency Defense Acts of New Kandor."  Punch.  "Sir."  Punch.  "Do you have anything to say."  Punch.  "In your own defense."  Punch.  "Sir?"

 Zod's face looked like raw hamburger and he had nothing to say in his own defense.

 Tog panted for a moment.  Then he smiled and banged his left fist against his chest in salute.

 "Apologize for striking a superior officer.  Sir."

 -K-

 Unseen by the others, even by Flamebird, Faora Hu-Ul stirred.

 She wished that she hadn't.  Agony flooded through her broken arm, and the rest of her was only hurting less by a few degrees.  Some things were probably broken inside.

 DAMN Kara Zor-El!

 Faora bit her lips to keep from groaning.  Control.  Control.  Forget the pain.  Ohhh, too much to forget.  Well, ignore it for a moment, frab it!  Figure out where you are first.

 The surface beneath her felt like the floor of the reservoir building.  She opened her eyes, slightly.  What in Sheol was going on?

 The only things she moved were her eyes.  They were drawn to the violent motion within the chamber.  She picked out the four fighters battling about the room.  Nightwing and some other jerk.  Zod and Jax were getting their asses kicked.  Served them right.  If that little blonde babootch-whelp hadn't gotten lucky, she could have taken out both of those newcomers in two
minutes, tops, without trying.

 Over there.  Some girl with Kara.  Black hair.  But that didn't fool Faora.  She knew that face.  Shyla Kor-Onn, the traitor bitch!  And Kara looked dead to the world.  Probably out cold.

 But not too far away from them was something quite interesting indeed.

 Two guns.  And the two belts that Nightwing and Flamebird wore.  Full of stuff like laser torches and smoke bombs and sleeping gas pellets.  Why everybody had left that pile of stuff behind, Faora had no idea.

 Personally, she hated weapons.  She had never faced the living being she couldn't tear into ribbons with her own two hands.  But, considering her present physical condition, a gun or a torch looked pretty good right about now.

 Had to be done slowly, with great finesse, but could be done, provided Jax and Zor didn't get beaten too quickly.  Lucky that everybody thought she was still out of it.  Faora put her good arm out, moved her body snake-fashion, and choked back nausea as the pain of her bad arm hit her at the move.

 Made no difference.  Crawl behind that staircase.  Get around it.  Get your good hand on those weapons.

 Despite her agony, Faora managed a death's-head grin.

 -K-

 Just after Tog made his final joke to Zod, he fell across his unconscious foe.  The pain of his dislocated arm and all the rest of the blows was too much to laugh off anymore.

 Shyla, concerned, darted a quick look about the room.  She couldn't see Faora, but she wasn't quite sure where that bitch had been lying.  Tog was really hurt.  All right, Kara would keep for a few seconds.  She gently lay her sleeping friend on the floor and rushed to Tog's side.  He twisted his head around to see her.

 "It's Shyla, Captain," she said.  "Here, let me help."

 "Already through," he grinned.  "You can't help.  But thanks."

 Sighing, she took his arm and popped it neatly back into its shoulder socket.  "Ahhh," grunted Tog.  He rubbed his shoulder, rotated the arm a bit to make sure it was still functional.  "Sorry you didn't get more action, Tanth Kor-Onn.  Thanks.  Also trust there's no hard feelings about my earlier remarks."

 "Sir.  You are an officious military tightnut, sir.  But you're also a damned good soldier and a pretty good hand-to-hand man, in my humble estimation, sir.  Earlier remarks forgotten.  Sir."

 Tog smiled as he sat propped against Zod's null-and-void body.  "You're not so bad in a pinch yourself, Kor-Onn.  Ever consider a career in the Rangers?"

 Shyla smiled, still holding the laser torch in one hand, dangling it.  "Thanks, Captain, but I think my current job pays better.  I don't have to wear a uniform, either."

 They looked at each other's eyes for three more seconds and knew that, once this thing was over, they'd be exchanging comlink addresses.

 Nightwing smiled for the first time in days.  He left the prostrate Jax-Ur on the floor, muttering to him, "Told you I was going easy last time," and went over to congratulate Tog.

 Flamebird got up, both fists raised in a victory salute.  "All right!  But next time, I want some action, too."  He started over to join his partner.

 "Look out!" yelled Nightwing.  And, too late, Flamebird looked behind him.

 Vakox had been quiet for some minutes, waiting for his chance.  He sprang up from the floor, legs pumping like a scaled-down Flash, and got his hands on the cylinder of Virus X.  He twisted the top off, spun to the railing.  He was hardly the strongest man in the room, but he was one of the fastest.

 With half-maddened eyes, Vakox faced the four heroes.  His back was to the railing.  One hand hung over the railing, over the water below, and that hand held the virus canister.

 Tog, Nightwing, Flamebird, and Shyla began to close on him.  "Stop!" he warned.  "One more, and I'll do it!  I'll kill them all!"

 The foursome halted.  "It's over, Vakox," said Nightwing.  "There's nothing more you can do.  Drop that in the water, and you won't live sixty seconds more."

 "Maybe I could throw it on all of you, and watch you all go into a panic attack, and know that you'll all grow green mold and die," yelled Vakox.  "How would you like that?"

 "Keep back, boys," said Tog.  "What is it you want, Vakox?"

 The scientist breathed heavily.  "I want out.  I don't give a damn about them.  Let me walk out of here alive, let me get away, keep the cops off my back, and I swear by the Name that I'll leave this and tell you where you can find it.  You get three of us, you get the virus, nobody else gets hurt.  That's it."

 Shyla sneered.  "You swear by the Name.  Stopped being an agnostic, Vakox?"

 "It doesn't matter!  That's the choice.  Now make it.  My arm's getting tired."

 Each of the four were thinking hard and fast.  But nothing mattered except the metal cylinder with the green stuff inside, and Vakox was holding that.

 Finally, Tog spoke.  "I'm in command of this operation.  Suppose we accepted your proposal.  Would you accept the sworn word of a Ranger, turn over the canister without spilling its contents either on us or in the reservoir, and trust that we'd take you to a neutral zone?"

 "I keep the canister all the way," said Vakox.

 And that was all they had time to say before an amplified voice echoed through the building, on a sonic beam from the Ranger ship.
 
 

 "Lt. Ser of the Ranger ship 1147 speaking," the voice rang out.  "We wish to notify Jax-Ur, Dru-Zod, Faora Hu-Ul, or Vakox that your Virus X threat to the community at large has been neutralized.  Repeat:  your threat has been neutralized.

 "A sufficient quantity of Element 202 has been synthesized by cyclotron to destroy any and all Virus X in the reservoir waters.  It has transported here and has just been lowered into the reservoir.  Repeat:  Element 202 has been placed in the reservoir.  It can be filtered out of the waters by normal mechanisms, but it will instantly destroy any Virus X organisms in the waters.

 "We will be making entry into the building within five minutes.  Any of you who do not immediately surrender will be destroyed on sight.  That is all."

 Silence.

 Vakox shuddered.  His arm wavered.  Nothing was left.  They could be bluffing.  It didn't matter.  Everything was over.

 Everything but the payback.  "Eat this," wailed Vakox, half in hatred, half in despair.  His arm swept forward with the canister, away from the waters, but ready to fling the contents at his enemies.

 Flamebird front-flipped over, landed on his hands, and delivered a terrific double-kick to Vakox's face.  The mad little biologist flew back in pain, slamming against the wall.

 The canister was in the air.

 Part of its contents went flying--away from the water.

 Flamebird grabbed the canister.  Nightwing, who had sprung to his side, wrapped its sides up in his own detached cape.  Shyla Kor-Onn, stunner in one hand, picked up the lid from the floor, screwed it back on with one hand.  Flamebird popped the locks back on.  Nightwing held the package gingerly, one hand holding the ends of his wadded-up cape.

 None of the liquid appeared to have slopped onto the sides of the canister, but there was no way yet to be certain.

 "Get any on yourself?" asked Nightwing.

 Flamebird shook his head.

 Vakox screeched.

 There were green splashes on his face, on his hands and on his tunic, which had been permeated by the spilling of Virus X.

 "Get it off meeeeee!" he shrieked, wide-eyed, smearing the stuff on his face with his palms.   "Raaaaaoooo, get it offfff meeeeee!"

 First stage of Virus X contamination:  panic attack.

 Not that he needed much encouragement.

 Shivering and shaking like a scalded dog, then lurching to his feet, Vakox was starting to foam at the mouth.  If he touched any of them...

 Shyla pointed her stunner and fired.  It took three charges to bring him down.  Vakox flopped on his face three feet in front of her, arms outstretched, fingers still reaching for her.  He was out, but his body was still spasmodically twitching.

 Nightwing exhaled.  "Better cut the door open.  It's over," he said.

 There was a skreek of rubber sole on plastic flooring.

 The foursome whipped around to see the ghastliest sight of the entire episode.

 Faora Hu-Ul, looking as though she had been run over by a road-grader, broken bone sticking out through a part of one arm, had gotten to the pile of weapons on the floor.

 She had Shyla's gun in one hand.

 She was aiming it at the sleeping Kara Zor-El.

 She was also looking at the others and grinning, bloody-mouthed.

 "Say goodbye to the bitch," said Faora.

 A weapon discharged.

 It was unlikely the victim knew what the hell had hit her.

 Shyla ran to Kara's side.

 Her friend was unharmed.

 Slumped beside her was Faora Hu-Ul, who would kill no more.  A large section of her cranium had been sliced away and the wound cauterized by great heat.  Faora's face was untouched and her eyes, dead, bore a look of hate and surprise.

 The tip of the laser torch in Shyla's hand was still glowing.

 The stunner was lying not far from Vakox, where she had dropped it.

 Shyla crouched and embraced the sleeping Kara, putting her friend's head against her shoulder.  "On my hands, not yours, Kara.  On mine."
 -K-

 A few seconds after that, a force-ram punched the door open and a contingent of Rangers, carrying some of the heaviest beam-weapons a single soldier could bear even with an exo-skeleton, erupted into the room.  The squad leader told everyone they found in the room to
freeze.  They froze, until Captain Tog told them everything was under control and was recognized.

 Nightwing handed his cape with the canister over to a space-suited guy who had an open chest half-full of liquid nitrogen just waiting for it.  The man thrust it inside, locked the lid shut, and told everybody to get ready for decontam.

 "Vakox here is the only one who's been contaminated," said Flamebird, gesturing to the fallen Zoner.  "We're safe."

 "Like hell," said the guy in the space suit.  And Nightwing, Flamebird, Shyla, and Tog filed out, accompanied by Rangers, to a closed hovervan that took them to a place where they were decontaminated of germs they did not have.

 Vakox was approached carefully by two Rangers, who lined up on either side of him, put two small generators with handles on either side of him, and activated them.  They radiated a field of force that pushed its way under Vakox, then surrounded him on all sides.  The two men grasped the handles of the generators, lifted the field and Vakox, and bore him to another van.  Vakox looked as if he was being carried on air.

 Behind them, other men used cutting tools to tear away the floor on which he had been.  This was encased in another force-field and borne away.  When the lab men had gone over every inch of the room with chemical tests, any part that tested positive for the virus would be cut away, added to the mass of flooring, and irradiated with Element 202.  Then it would probably be lauched into space.

 With Virus X, you took no chances.

 The two other Zoners, Jax-Ur and Zod, were taken out in clamps on stretchers, to another hovervan guarded by a battalion of guards.  When they were shown to be virus-free, they were taken separately to a place where the Master Executioner trained a Zone projector beam on each of them again.

 And Jax-Ur and General Zod returned to the Zone.

 They stood before a large group of Zoners.  Gra-Mo, Ar-Ual, Lura-Ux, Dazor, Erndine Ze-Da, Dr. Xadu, Cha-Mel, Vorb-Un, Roz-Em, Ras-Krom, Tor-An, Tra-Gob, Kur-Dul, and all the rest...all the old familiar faces.

 Kru-El was looking on, with folded arms and a derisive smirk.

 None of the others had anything to say.  They were just staring at Jax and Zod.

 Jax finally telepathed something.  "We were close, my friends.  We were very, very close."

 Mental silence.

 Zod, not looking at Jax, said, "One lost battle, comrades.  But not the end of the war.  We shall review our mistakes, and then we shall begin anew--"

 "We might.  You won't," replied Tor-An.

 Zod shot a hard look at him.

 Roz-Em moved closer to Zod.  "I doubt that you could mount a successful campaign on a dog pound," he snapped.  The general was about to blast him with mind-static.  Kru-El headed it off.

 "Oh, Zod, forget it," he said.  "Don't you understand?  You've blown it again.  Just like you've been blowing it for all these years."

 Jax wheeled, turning to confront his rival.  "Watch your tone, Kru.  I am the acknowledged leader of our little group, and if you don't want big trouble next time we get Out--"

 "To Sheol with that!" piped up Ar-Ual.  "Last time, in one of your big operations, it was Jer-Em, and Az-Rel, and Nadira, and even Quex-Ul.  This time it was Faora.  And Vakox is a walking mold culture.  He'll be dead in weeks.  That's six of us dead, from your crazy campaigns, Jax.  No more.  We've had it with you."

 "You..."  Jax couldn't manage to get more out.

 Zod wasn't doing much better.  "Despite our failure here, I can assure you, we'll do better next time.  You're right about Jax.  But with the proper leader, a man of military and tactical experience, we can make it work.  We just need the right man in charge."

 Kru-El replied, "They've got him, Zod.  The crew has voted me leader, pretty well unanimously.  You can accept that and take another secondary role--if we let you.  Or don't.  It makes little difference to me.  As for you, Jax, I doubt anybody much wants to talk to you again.  Now, if you'll excuse us all..."

 The mass of phantoms turned away from Zod and Jax.

 Zod looked at Jax a moment with undisguised contempt, then followed.

 Jax was apoplectic.  "Come back!  I'm the only one who can keep us together!  I'm your acknowledged leader!  Please, listen to me!  We can still make those imbeciles pay...  Please...won't any of you still talk to me?"

 He felt a presence behind him.

 Mon-El smiled.  "Don't worry, Jax.  You can still talk to me."

 Jax sobbed, smashed his fists together, and cursed for ten minutes straight.

 Mon-El didn't stop smiling.

 -K-

 Superman emerged from the WarPort and raced to an attendant's desk.  The college kid there dropped his jaw.  "Wow!  Kal-El!"

 Grimly, Superman rapped, "Take me to the Zoners.  I've got a score to settle."

 The kid in the blue uniform with the yellow sleeves kept grinning.  "Oh, that's over."

 Superman grabbed the kid's arms tightly.  "What's over?  What do you mean?"

 The attendant said, nervously, "It's over.  They're back in custody.  The virus never got out, except on that Vakox guy, and he's in iso."

 Kal considered it and eased his grip.  Then:  "What about my cousin?  What about Kara?"

 "Oh, she's all right, I think.  She had that big fight with Faora Hu-Ul.  She's in the hospital, but she seems to be doing okay, what I heard."

 Kal raised his fists in Olympian rage.  "Faora!  She beat Kara!  By the Name, I'll..."

 "No, she didn't," said the kid.  "Kara beat her."

 Superman turned to face him.  "She what?"

 "Kara beat her," said the attendant.  "They had a really big fight, and Kara beat her.  Bet you're really proud, Tanth El.  Kara beat the hell out of her!"

 Kal was silent for a few seconds.  "You're sure it was Faora Hu-Ul?" he said.

 "Sure."

 "And you're sure it was Kara that beat her?"

 "Sure.  Somebody else had to kill Faora.  But it was Kara that beat her.  Tanth El, I kinda hate to bother you, but when she gets better, do you think you could get Kara to autograph me a picture?  She sure is somethin'!"

 Superman walked away from the booth, towards the customs desk.  People in the waiting area looked at him, pointed, jostled their neighbors.  He didn't notice them.

 "Kara," he said.  "Kara."

 Sheol.

 -K-

 As for Kara herself, she was taken on another stretcher to another hovervan for decontam.  Her father Zor-El was already inside, in a space suit, and held her hand.  A couple of paramedics worked on her at the same time.  She had taken an awful beating, but her condition was stable.

 Zor-El shed tears.  Partly they were of sorrow.  His daughter's lovely face was bruised, bloodied.  One eye was swollen shut, both were blackened.  Her nose had been broken.  Her lips were bruised.

 As they cut away her jumpsuit and underclothing, they saw more bruises, detected three fractured ribs and one broken one, and came upon other minor injuries.   One hell of a nasty bashing, they judged.  But, luckily, not life-threatening.

 She'd need a lot of face-molding treatments to get her pretty features back in shape.  But it would be done, and she wouldn't even show the scars or bruises afterward.

 Right now, though, there was no escaping them.  It would have been like looking at Saturn and not noticing the rings.

 Kara's eyes fluttered open.  The painkiller's sleep-treatment drug was wearing off.  She recognized the face in the plastic helmet before her.

 "Daddy," she said, and squeezed his hand.

 "Kara," said Zor-El, choked with tears of relief and pride.  "Kara, you look..."

 Kara smiled with her bruised lips.

 "Daddy, you should have seen the other gal."

 -K-

 When the news was told to Allura and Sylvia Van-Zee, both ladies wept with joy.  One thanked Rao, the other thanked the Lord, and both caught a hovercraft for the hospital where Kara was recuperating.  Nightwing had been released, and joined them there as Van-Zee.  Ak-Var, out of his Flamebird guise, arrived minutes later with his wife in tow.

 The usual things were said which are said in these occasions of joy and great relief, and Kara felt well enough to joke with those present about her condition.  However, all visitors had been cautioned not to tell her what had happened to Faora Hu-Ul.

 That lasted until Shyla Kor-Onn, now with the black dye scrubbed out of her hair, appeared in the hospital room.  Allura reacted with ambivalence to her.  True, she was supposed to be reformed now, but she had done a passel of bad things to her daughter in the past.

 "It's all right, Mom," said Kara, lying in the comfortable bed, her sheets supported by a force-field that conformed to her body and shifted with it.  "Shyla is a friend, if there ever was one."

 "Can I talk to you alone, Kara?" said Shyla.

 The occupants of the room, save Kara, exchanged glances.

 "Sure, it's okay," Kara said.  "We'll just be a few minutes, Mom."

 "I'll be right outside," said Allura, and save Shyla a look of warning.  Shyla looked down at the floor.

 After the others had gone, Shyla sat beside Kara and folded her arms nervously over her chest.  "How did you do it, Kara?" she asked.

 "Do what, Shyla?"

 "You know what.  How did you beat Faora?  I saw you on the ship, just before you went in.  Your hands were so wet I could have grown flowers in them.  I was just praying you'd be able to live through fifteen minutes and get us in there to take over.  But you fought her.  And you won.  How?"

 Kara smiled, tiredly.  "You really want to know?"

 "Yeah."

 Kara replied, "It was like this.  For almost every minute from the time I heard that she wanted me, up to the time I went in there, I had these horrible, horrible visions of what was going to take place.  I could see her, and see me, and she was beating me to pieces, just tearing me apart on the floor.  Couldn't see any way out of it.  Thought I was outclassed seven ways to Sunday.  That's a phrase we use on Earth.  Then..."

 A pause.  Shyla prodded, "Then, what?"

 "Then, simple.  I stopped thinking of myself as Kara.  I started thinking of myself in that situation as Faora.  Just on one track of my mind.  The rest of me knew what I was doing, knew who I was and what I was, and I was still nervous.  But in one part of my mind, I was Faora, really kicking serious behind on Kara--who was Faora.  I reversed things.  It didn't mean I didn't get my own behind kicked.  But it did give me a little edge.  And that's what I needed."

 Shyla sighed.  "Did you ever.  But why did you keep on fighting her, instead of just opening the disk up and letting us through?"

 Kara shifted position in the bed.  "Promise not to tell?"

 "Promise."

 "Okay.  Here's the bit.  Part of it was that I couldn't go in there, figure I was just going to fight for fifteen minutes, and then back off somehow and tear open the disk.  That wouldn't have worked.  I might have held back, and she would have cut me apart.  So I had to fight flat out, as hard as I could, and fight all the way to the finish.

 "But there was more to it than that.  Deep down inside, I knew what was making us fight.  Like it or not, and I didn't like it--we really had to find out which of us was the better woman.  That one-punch knockout the last time may have been part of the reason she hated me.  But the real reason was that I was the challenge.  She had to see if she could beat me."  Kara looked up at Shyla and waited.

 "And you had to see if you could beat her," finished Shyla.

 "You said that, Shyla, not me," grinned Kara.  Then she looked more sober.  "But sometimes...you're just in a gauntlet, and you have to run it.  No matter what anyone else thinks.  And nobody can run it for you.  So I ran it.  And I beat her.  And I hope she knows it, because I don't ever want to have to do that again."

 Shyla leaned over and put her hands on the railing around the bed.  "Kara, you won't have to do it again.  Not ever."

 Kara looked at Shyla with suspicion.

 "Why?"

 Shyla looked her in the eyes and said without hesitation, "Faora woke up, dragged herself over to where we'd piled the belts and guns, got a gun, pointed it at your head, and was about to do you.

 "So I did her first."

 Kara was silent.

 "It was with a laser torch," said Shyla.  "There was no other way, believe it.  But she's never going to kill anyone, ever again."

 "Thank you," said Kara, quietly.  "Guess you didn't have your stunner."

 "Oh, I had my stunner.  I just dropped it."

 Kara froze.

 Shyla held out her hand.  "No, Kara.  Shut up.  Don't talk, let me.  Those other three, they're dangerous, but they're sane.  Faora wasn't.  Every time she got out, more and more people got dead.  She's gotten Out before, she'd probably get Out again.  Sooner or later, it'd come down to you and her again.  And if that happened, either you'd be dead, or her blood would be on your hands.  And other people would die before that happened.

 "There's no way I could have let that happen.  They've told me about that character on Earth, what's his name, the one who fights Batman?"

 "The Joker," said Kara.

 "Right.  They say he keeps getting out and out, and he keeps being put back in and in again.  And people die, every time he gets out.  How many people has he killed so far, Kara?"

 "He's working on a hundred," said Kara.  "By conservative estimates."

 Shyla said, "I told them I took that laser torch to cut through the door when I saw a chance.  That's partly true."  She paused.  "I'm just glad it happened like it did.  We can't afford a Joker on Rokyn, Kara.  And that's just what Faora was."

 Kara shifted in her bed, and said nothing.

 "But that's still not all," said Shyla, sitting on her hands now and not looking at Kara.  "I really wanted to kill her...I really wanted to kill her...because of what she'd done to you.  You're so much, Kara.  You are so much.  And you're more than I'll ever be.  No, don't say you're not.  I had to give you something back.  I took the blood, Kara.  The blood's on my hands, now.  I gave you innocence."  She sighed, held up her own well-scrubbed palms to the light.  "No one can give me that, now."

 Kara took one of her hands and held it in both of hers.  "But I can give you thanks.  And I can forgive you.  And I do both."

 Shyla choked back tears with an effort.

 "You did what you had to," said Kara.  "I did what I had to.  You are still my friend, a very, very good friend, and a comrade in arms.  But Shyla?"

 Shyla looked at her, eyes wet and glimmering.

 "Do not kill again.  There's no telling how much blood, good or bad, you can get on your hands before you turn into Faora.  Will you promise me, Shyla?  Please?"

 Shyla drew her hand gently away, not looking at Kara's face.  "I have to go, Kara."

 "Shyla, please promise me that."

 "I have to go," she said.

 She was at the door when Kara called out to her.  "Shyla, all right.  I don't want to lose you as a friend.  What you have to do...make sure it's what you have to do."

 Shyla turned back to her, smiling sadly.  "You are so much, Kara.  You really are so much."

 Then she left.

 Kara expected to see her mother and the others streaming back into the room.  Instead, she heard some raised voices outside the door, but couldn't tell just what Allura and company were saying.  The talk died back to a murmur.

 Hmph, so much for not having super-hearing, thought Kara.  She felt like getting out of bed anyway.  Just as she let down one protective rail and swung her legs over the side, the door opened again.

 A familiar six-foot-two figure with black hair, blue eyes, and a red-blue-and-yellow costume entered, and closed the door behind him.  Kara did a double-take.

 So did her cousin.

 "Um, hi, Kal," said Kara, sitting on the edge of the bed with a sheepish smile.

 "Kara?"  He was gaping at her.  She suddenly flashed on her facial injuries.  Nobody had told Kal.  Now was the first time he had ever seen her as less than a beauty queen.  This girl in the white hospital gown, dangling her bare feet 18 inches off the floor, with a face that looked as if she'd lost an argument with a planet...this was his girl-cousin?

 "Kara, Karaish, what did she do to you?"  His tear-pumps were starting to kick in as he crossed the distance between them.

 "Kal, it's not that bad," lied Kara.  He took her hand, looked at her in sorrow, and held her tightly.  She turned her head so that her temple was pressed against his chest.  Her face was still too tender.

 "She hurt you," said Kal-El.  "It's a good thing she's..."

 "Yes, Kal, I agree," said Kara.  She nestled her head against his stomach, hugging him.  Cousin Kal just felt so good to her.  "On the other hand, if you saw her after the fight, you might be giving her a little sympathy."  She smiled up at him to show it was a joke.

 "Holy sun, Kara," Kal said, stroking her hair with one hand.  "If I had only been here.  If I could only have helped."

 "Thank you, Kal," said Kara, looking up at him, her arms still around his waist.  "I know you would, and that's sweet of you.  But we handled things.  I took care of myself.  Me, Nightwing, Flamebird, Tog, and Shyla."

 Superman looked at her dumbfoundedly.  Nightwing?  Flamebird?  He respected Van and Ak, but secretly wrote them off as copycats of the originals...himself and Olsen.

 "Are you hurting, Karaish?"  Kal looked around, pulled up a chair, sat down facing her.

 "I'm okay, Kal.  I need to use the ladies'.  I'll tell you about everything when I get back."  She eased herself off, touched bare feet to cold floor, and walked to the restroom.  For a moment, she stumbled.  Kal rushed to her side.

 She waved him off, getting back to her feet.  "No, no, Kal, I'm fine," said Kara, and she was.

 When she got back, she climbed back in bed and told him about everything.

 Afterward, Kal sat there with legs akimbo, resting his elbows on his knees, fingers interlaced, one thumb tracing a circular design on his other palm.

 He finally said, "You did good, Karaish."

 "Thanks, Kalian," said Kara.  "I did what I had to.  So did the others.  I really love Shyla, but don't tell anyone else about her.  Even Mom doesn't know she was involved in this, she just thinks she heard about me on the vid."

 Kal couldn't miss the -ian ending.  Instead of the -ior suffix, which was a woman's honorific for a male superior or boss, Kara had used the "equal" ending to his name.  It meant:  I love you, you are my friend / relative, and we are equal.

 Well, at least -ish was an ending Kara liked on her name.

 Kal said, "I wish there was some way to protect you.  At least on Earth, nobody could beat you up in a brawl.  Kara, isn't it time you came back?"

 Silence.  Then:  "No."

 Superman shifted in his seat.  "Kara, don't you know that I'm asking it out of love?  I just can't stand to see you hurt this way anymore."

 "Then stay on Earth, Kal," said Kara.  "On this world, we can get hurt.  I'm not afraid of it."

 "You don't understand.  I'm not afraid of me getting hurt.  I'm afraid of you getting hurt.
Whenever I learn that you're in trouble, it's like they've found a little piece of me that's vulnerable
and sunk an icepick into it."

 Kara hugged her knees.  "Then you're going to have to get over it, Kal.  I can't be what you want me to be anymore.  I'm being who I want to be.  And I'm doing a good job of it."

 His eyes blazed.  "A good job of it?  Have you seen your face lately?  Looks like she did a job on you instead."

 "Kal, that will be enough.  And I beat her, too.  That's more than you ever did."

 His mouth flew open for a second and then closed.  Kara put a hand to her own mouth, then turned her face away from him.  "Oh, frab.  I shouldn't have said that.  I'm sorry, Kal."

 Kal said, "It's okay, Kara.  You're right.  You did beat her.  It was more than I ever did."

 After a pause, she tried to backtrack.  "You've been up against a lot of things I probably couldn't handle either, Kal.  Mordru, Metallo, Super-Menace...you even died once on a JLA case, so I hear."

 He smiled wryly.  "Yeah.  After that, I'm leaving it to The Spectre.  He handles it better than I do."

 Kara said, "Remember that time you fought it out with Luthor on that world where you didn't have any powers?  He gave you a real mean mouse under your eye."  She smiled.  "Bet they thought Clark Kent was turning into a tough guy when you went back to the office."

 Superman laughed.  "I don't even remember what one of my lame excuses I used that time.  It went away faster than a regular guy's would, so I had to use makeup and put it back on so Lois wouldn't be suspicious again."

 She giggled.  "Then there was that time with Muhammad Ali."

 "Oh, yeah!"  He laughed even harder.  "I mean to tell you!  He was holding back, and he still made my face look like steak.  You could've put a baked potato next to my head and served me!"

 After they both got the laughs under control, Kara gasped, "Kal, Kal.  You really ought to come here more often.  Nobody can ever make me laugh more than you."

 "Yeah," he said.  "And nobody's been through as much as we have together.  I miss you, Karaish."

 "Miss you too.  Come over here."  He did.  She planted a kiss on top of her head.  He did the same to her.  Then she said, "There's one other thing about that Muhammad Ali gig.  You know what it is?"

 He picked up on it.  "That I didn't let that beating I took stop me?  Well, yeah, but there was that small matter of the alien invasion fleet.  I did what I had to."

 "Right.  A couple of hours after that jerk beat you up, you got your beautiful bod out of that guerney, punched out a couple of baddies, got into outer space, and wrecked a whole invasion force.  You were the hero there, not Ali.  And you know, I could never stand the sight of that guy after it?  For a long time, I felt like showing up on his doorstep, waiting till he opened
the door, and then planting one right in his kisser.  Then after he picked himself up, I'd've said, 'How do you think I stack up, compared to Joe Frazier?', and flown off."  She laughed again, careful not to touch her face with her hands.

 Superman laughed too.  Then he sobered.  "Ali didn't hate me, Kara.  He was just doing what he had to do.  He's also not doing so well lately.  The last time I saw him, he barely recognized me."

 "Yeah."

 "It could happen to you, too, here."

 "Yeah."

 He sighed, heavily.  "And you're still going to stay here."

 "Oh, yeah.  Got more movies to make.  To-Bin gave me a call, said that since this thing went down, just about every theater in Rokyn wants to book me solid for a month.  It's gonna give him ideas."  She looked up in mock horror.  "Kal, I don't wanna do this every time I make a movie!"

 Both laughed again.

 Then Kara said, "Know what the problem is, Kal?"

 "Tell me, Kara."

 "You're really an Earthman who came from Krypton.  And I'm a Kryptonian who spent some time on Earth.  No, hold on, I'm not putting you down.  But it's true.  You spent three years of your life on Krypton.  I lived fifteen years in Argo City.  It makes a difference, Kal."

 "Oh, come on.  I get along here fine."

 "You do.  You're a hero to everyone on this planet, the Favorite Son.  But I've seen you.  Spend more than a few days in Kandor, and you're twitching to get back.  You'll stay here for a few days, act like you're enjoying yourself, say hi to all the folks and make a speech somewhere.  But when you say 'Time to go home', at the end of it all...I've seen your face then, Kal.  That's when it really lights up.  When you're going back to Earth."

 He said nothing.

 "It's your home.  I love that world, but it can never be mine again.  Not the way Rokyn is.  And, Kal...you could never live without powers.  You could never live without being Superman.  And I don't want you to.  But it's not my way anymore."

 Kal said, "Don't you ever miss it?  Don't you ever want to be able to fly again?"

 "Oh, yeah.  I may put on the old blue suit again someday, warp back to Earth for awhile, take the old powers out for a spin.  I know I'll be back when I can to see Fred and Edna.  But you know how it'll be."

 "Yeah.  In three days...you'll be twitchy to go home."

 "That's it, Kal."

 He stood up.  "Do you need me here?"

 "I'm doing fine, Kal."  She paused.  "There is one thing."

 "Anything.  Name it."

 "Vakox is dying.  We don't have any White Kryptonite here.  You do have some in the Fortress.  Will you go back, get some, and use it on him?  Then he'll be cured, and he can go back to the Zone."

 Kal looked at her.  "You've sure got a heart, Karaish.  Then again, I think I'd do the same thing.  Sure, I'll do it."

 "Don't get me wrong.  He's a rotten little bottom-feeder and I hate him.  But he doesn't have to die.  And I'd feel better if you did that for me."

 Kal bent and kissed her forehead.  She smiled, reached up, and kissed his cheek.  Nothing had to be said.

 Superman stood straight, in the pose in which she'd always admired him most.  The guardian of the cosmos.  "Wish I could stay longer, Kara.  But I've got work.  You're sure you'll be all right?"

 "Kal...that's one thing I'm sure of."

 "I'm very proud of you, Kara."

 She paused.  "Thanks, Kal.  Don't be a stranger, okay?"

 "Goodbye, cousin," he said.  "Later," he said.

 He didn't say, "I won't be."

 He left.

 -K-

 He came back, shortly, returning to the WarPort with the autographed photo of Kara for the kid and a lead box holding a White K meteor.  He was met by a contingent of Health Ministry men, cops, and a couple of politicians who wanted video-ops and got them.  He was also met by Nar-Es, who insisted on going along with him.

 So Kal, outfitted in a protective suit, entered the isolation cell where Vakox was waiting to die.  The Zoner was green and moldy and stank, and had very little sensation in his arms and legs anymore.  He barely recognized the face in the viewplate of the helmet before him.

 Kal popped open the lid of the lead box, held the glowing white meteor out in Vakox's direction, and watched.  In seconds, the green mold turned brown, then black.  It fell off in patches.

 Vakox stared at his hands in astonishment.  He stripped off his clothes.  The virus patches were loosening from his skin.  Feeling was returning to his limbs.  He drew in great breaths and wept with relief.   Kal went over the room with the meteor, making sure every last trace of the virus was destroyed.  Then he closed the box again and locked it.

 Animal life also depends on plant action within the body, and too long an exposure to White K could possibly be fatal.

 Naked, Vakox ran to his savior and embraced him.  "Oh, thank you!  Thank you!  I--I--"

 He recognized the face in the viewplate.

 "You," he said.

 "Right," said Superman.  "You can thank Kara for this."

 "Kara?" said Vakox.  "Kara!!"

 Superman smiled.  Two attendants opened the door, brought Vakox out and gave him a white gown to put on.   Besides themselves and Superman, who was getting out of his protective suit, there was one more figure in the receiving room.

 Nar-Es stepped up, four inches shorter than Vakox.  "You're Vakox, right?"

 "Who are you?" said the scientist.

 Nar whipped up a fist and crashed it into Vakox's jaw.  The Zoner banged up against a wall and slumped unconscious.  The two attendants turned toward Nar, drop-jawed.

 Superman grabbed Nar by the shoulder.  "What was that all about?"

 "He hit my uncle Neb-Es over the head with a gun a couple weeks back," said Nar.  "Neb just got out of the hospital."  He opened and closed his fist, looking at it proudly.  "Been a long time since I've been in the ring.  Glad to know I've still got the touch."

 Nar left.  Superman returned to Earth with the White K.  Vakox was sent back to the Zone.

 He decided that he hated Jax and Zod as much as he hated Kal, Kara, and Shyla, which was quite considerably indeed.

 Kara and Shyla had killed Faora.  He had loved Faora.  Maybe she never knew it, maybe she did, and certainly she'd never acknowledged it.  But he'd loved her.

 And they had killed her.

 So he should be grateful to Kal?

 Oh, yes, he'd be grateful.  And when he got Out the next time, he'd show all three of them how grateful he was.

 He'd show everybody how grateful he was.

 -K-

 There's always more of the story to be told.  But too little space to tell much of it.

 Hal-Lorr and Bar-Bann had to show up in court.  Neither they nor the judicial system wanted it, but it was the procedure.  When it was acknowledged that Hal had been under the control of the Zoners in making the Zone projector, both were let off by the judge.  He did, however, rule that Hal had to undergo hypnotherapy sessions to block him from future telepathic contact.  What had worked once could be tried again.

 Hal became the youngest apprentice tech at the studios.  Bar stayed where he was and learned finance from his father.  Both did well.

 The case had several effects upon New Kandor.  First, security measures, both human and automated, were stepped up by a level of magnitude at certain locations, particularly at the reservoir system.  Anyone who entered the inner building without automatic ID procedures would first be stunned by automatic stunner banks.  If that didn't stop them, motion detectors would activate laser banks five seconds later.  Android testing showed that an intruder would be stopped by that...and left in pieces.

 The government enacted the first death penalty in many years.  Everybody was sick and tired of recidivist Zoners.  A law was proposed declaring that escaped prisoners, when detected outside the Zone, would be either shot on sight or captured and executed.  Since Jax-Ur and company had proven such a threat to the populance of two worlds, the Drygur Moliom commissioned Zor-El to perfect a way of projecting future prisoners into a separate Zone, on a different wavelength from either the Phantom or Survival Zones.  He was also made consultant on a project to see if Zoners could be placed in stasis fields for long periods of time while in the Zone.

 There was much debate in the Council chambers as to whether to put other Zoners into involuntary suspended animation.  In the end, civil libertarians prevailed...for the moment.  The Zoners were warned that, if such occurrences happened in the future, they could look forward to centuries of a mental deep-freeze.

 Whether they behaved, or hatched yet another plot, is a story for another day.

 Kara responded well to the face-molding treatments.  Within four weeks, she was as beautiful as ever, appearing at a second premiere of her movie (which now had some added footage).

 Hi-Lor showed up at the event in a suit, with a girl on his arm.  He shook Kara's hand warmly, and introduced her to Tala, with whom he had been in love for two weeks.  Tala was shy.  Kara beamed, and told Tala that Hi was a bargain she couldn't afford to pass up.  She seemed to agree, and left arm-in-arm with Hi.

 Shyla and Tog were busy people, with their own strange careers.  But they managed to see each other when they could.  Soon, they managed to sleep together when they could.  So it went.

 Before she got out of the hospital, Captain Tog contacted Kara.  He wanted to see if he could talk her into joining the Rangers.

 From the smile on Kara's nearly-healed face, Tog thought that he had her.

 "I'd love it, Captain," said Kara.  "But, well, my life seems to move in phases and stages, like I told a friend of mine recently.  This phase that I'm in isn't over yet.  I still want to be an actress, I've still got a few movies to make.  But after that...if you want me, and you won't mind someone in her mid-thirties...maybe."

 Captain Tog gave her the salute for civilians and said, "Don't worry, Tanthi Zor-El.  When you're ready...we'll want you."

 He left her with a Rangers medal reserved for non-corpsmen who distinguished themselves in attached status.

 Kara held it in her palm and decided she had to buy some more suits that would look good with it.

 But there was more to be done, and she knew it.

 The words of Zor-El came back to her:  "Don't wait forever to fall in love.  Will you promise me that?"

 She hadn't promised.  But she had gotten within a pinky's reach of death this time around.  What if something like this happened again?  Hell, it probably would.  And what if she died without falling in love beforehand?

 Kara admitted that she was so rusty on dating that she wasn't sure she knew how, anymore.  But it was worth a try.

 Once she was out of the hospital, she gave a comlink call to Ghi-Sonn III.  After the customary Great-to-see-you-we-absolutely-love-you-when-the-hell- are-you-gonna-come-back- to-work, Ghi sensed she had something to ask him.  "So I can do for you--what?" he asked.

   "I haven't done any dating for the last few months," she said, smiling.  "Think you can get a few things set up for me?"

 "For you--I can send 'em over in boxes of 12," smiled Ghi.  "Who first?"

 "Ask around and see if Nor is available.  You know, the guy from my movie.  I know he's supposed to be seeing someone, but--"  She let it hang there.

 "If he's seeing someone, he can see you too," said Ghi.  "I'll make sure of it.  Tonight, tomorrow night, when?"

 "Make it a couple days from now," she said.  "Tomorrow I'm going to be out of town.  Tell him I'm really looking forward to it, okay?  And get that light out of your eye, Ghi!  Don't worry, I'll be back at work soonest."

 "Yeah?  You've given us enough for a docudrama already, honey, and you better be there to play yourself!  Later, Karaish."

 "Later, Ghi."  His image winked out.

 Relief.

 She might not fall in love with Nor.  But she'd fall in love with somebody.

 If she only had time enough to find out how to do it.

 -K-

 Kara was indeed out of town the next day.

 She had WarPorted all the way back to Earth.  Kal wasn't in the Fortress.  That was all right.

 She stepped outside, stripped off her jumpsuit, and compressed it into a small ball that fit neatly within the pouch of her cape.

 Kara stood revealed in the familiar blue, red, and yellow of her Supergirl uniform.

 Her muscles throbbed with the old familiar power.  Her eyes tingled with the return of her super-vision.  She took in the chilly Arctic air, expelled it in a visible cloud, and was not in the least discomfited about it.

 She leapt into the air, crying out in pleasure, the white tundra and the big Fortress key growing ever smaller below her.

 Grinning, she vaulted above the atmosphere itself, looking down on Earth, circling the globe.

 It was a guilty pleasure, and it would only be for the day.  But Kal had been right about something.

 It was such a very good thing to fly.
 

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