In the parking lot outside the courthouse, a standoff of sorts had been going on.
Ten armed guards had surrounded the van in which Zor-El and Hi-Lor sat. Since Zor-El still had his Zone projector, nobody was coming any closer.
They could have shot the van full of holes. But Fhi-Zor had given them an order to wait it out, and they did.
"So how long we gotta stand out here?" asked one of the guards.
"You gotta take a leak, go take one," retorted another. "We pull the same money standing around as when we're doin' somethin'."
The guard sat down on the paved surface and rested his arms on his knees. "I pull the same money sittin' around as standin'," he said.
"What're they doin' in there?" asked another.
A guard who had the windscreen of the van in view said, "Eatin', talkin', listenin' to the news, an' usin' the onboard jakes."
"Think they're gonna come out?"
"Think I give a damn? Run go get me a drink, I'll pay you on Friday."
So one of them ran to get everybody some drinks from the commissary. And they sat in the sun and watched the van.
And Zor-El and Hi-Lor sat in the van, the Zone projector in Zor-El's lap, and waited.
But before they'd waited ten minutes longer, one of the guards caught sight of something on the horizon. Before long, it wasn't on the horizon, and it wasn't alone.
Five big, big ships, Dreadnought class, hustling in at top speed, hovering half a mile above the ground and descending. They were massive and black and menacing. They all had the insignia of Kandor's crack strike force on their undersides.
The ten guards snapped to attention and let their jaws hang. One of them muttered, "Oh, Rao," and opened his communicator.
Before they could say much, an amplified voice rang out.
"This is Captain Tor-Vog of the Rangers speaking. Repeat, this is Captain Tor-Vog. We have proof that you are holding a citizen of Kandor illegally. You are instructed not to interfere in our operations, on penalty of execution. Stand at attention, and hold your fire."
One of the guards had a bright idea.
If he could storm the van and take the two inside by surprise, he might be able to hold them hostage and force a standoff.
He ran for the van.
A small area of the underside of the lead Rangers ship opened.
A pinpoint beam caught the guard in his tracks and dropped him dead.
The rest of the guards dropped their weapons.
Zor-El looked out, saw what was happening, and nudged Hi-Lor. Zor had watched some American television when he was first released from the Survival Zone into Earth. He knew what was happening.
"Here comes the cavalry," he said.
Inside, Kara Zor-El, Hal-Lorr, Bar-Bann, Shyla Kor-Onn, Nightwing, and Flamebird were wedged into the office of Fhi-Zor. The desk monitor was on and both Chief Justice Len-Tarr and the Drygur Moliom were visible on it. A single guard stood on duty in the room. He wasn't in any hurry to go against the headbanders there.
"One of my boys just told me the Rangers have arrived," said Fhi-Zor. "I expected such. Tell them to rein it in, Len, I think we're together on this."
"Oh, yes," said Tarr, sarcastically. "You harbor Zone fugitives, you illegally imprison Tanth Zor-El, and you let them grow a Virus X culture. If we were any closer, we'd be bunkmates."
Kara broke in. "Chief, there isn't time for that. Fhi-Zor says he didn't have any idea the Zoners were brewing Virus X. I believe him."
"So do I," said Shyla. "And I've been working here for the past year-and-a-half. These guys are mean, but they're not genocidal."
Nightwing added, "Unfortunately, I don't think we can say the same for Jax-Ur and his bunch. They'd kill 90 per cent of the populance just to rule the remaining 10 per cent."
"With Virus X, how do you protect 10 per cent?" muttered Flamebird.
Point well taken, thought Kara. Virus X had almost been the death of Superman, and, for a week, she and most of the people of Earth thought he had perished.
The facts in the case of Virus X were these: it was a form of leprosy, it killed within four weeks, and if anyone but Superman and herself had lived through a case of it, they were not known.
Three centuries ago, a starship from the planet Uger had made an emergency landing at the airport near Stuvar, a Kryptonian city. The lone occupant still living, a cook who had brought the ship in via autopilot, had staggered out of the craft, green mold coating his skin, pain and fathomless terror in his eyes. He had walked fifteen paces and then died.
Three men of the ground crew were stupid enough to touch him.
Within hours, the whole airport was quarantined, as Krypton's government learned just what a Virus X infection would do to the human body.
First, there was an uncontrollable panic attack. Some were lucky enough to die of heart failure. Most survived this stage.
Second, the extremities--feet and hands--turned green. Within 48 hours, the entire body of the victim was covered in greenish mold. What the victim had touched was contaminated. Those objects could usually be disinfected by an acid bath. Inside a living creature, however, nothing could seem to abate it. Not acid, not Rondor horns, not radiation.
Finally, within a period of from three to four weeks, the victims died. But the virus remained active and deadly for an undetermined time.
The airport victims were taken to a remote facility called Pestilence Valley and sealed away until they died. Medical teams in protective suits studied them, took samples, tried to kill the virus. Nothing worked. They dissolved the bodies in acid, then poured the residue into a concrete-and-metal container buried two miles underground.
That was the last known outbreak of Virus X on Krypton. No ship from Uger was ever allowed to land on the planet again. It was rumored the neofascist subversive, Kil-Lor, had tried to culture it as part of his plan to take over Krypton. But Jor-El, working undercover as part of Krypton's counterintelligence operatives, had helped defeat Kil-Lor. And the would-be dictator's death in that episode frustrated any attempts by the government to learn whether he had succeeded or failed in his germ warfare tactic.
The secrets of Virus X were known to a few. The principles of the disease were known to more. Thankfully, none had used them in the three centuries before Krypton's doom. But the government allowed a few, including the great scientist Tharb-El, to experiment on the culture and try and discover an antidote. Tharb-El synthesized a radioactive element that would kill the disease, but it would also kill the person carrying it. And it could not be created in sufficient quantities.
Once, it was thought that Superman himself was suffering from Virus X.
A green-glowing box from Krypton had emerged from a space-warp, fallen to Earth, and been discovered by Superman and Jimmy Olsen. When Superman read the Kryptonese writing on its surface, he learned that it was a repository for vials of Virus X used by Tharb-El in his experiments. He took a boulder and drove the box over a mile into the Earth.
But Superman sickened, and was certain that he had contracted the deadly disease. He put his affairs in order, isolated himself in a glass booth, and summoned Kara to join with his heroic friends in performing some last important tasks for the Earth. This was not long after Supergirl's existence had been revealed to the world.
In an instant, she had felt like Atlas, with an entire universe on her shoulders.
Choking back tears, she summoned the Legion of Super-Heroes from the future. Since she was one of their number, she felt more capable of working with them than with the Justice League of America, a group that somewhat daunted her. The great deeds were done.
They awaited Superman's death.
Then it was found that his disease was misdiagnosed.
A nugget of Kryptonite had been chipped from the Virus X casket. It had lodged in Jimmy Olsen's camera. His close proximity to Superman, his great friend, was responsible for weakening the hero almost unto death. The Kryptonite was taken away, Superman recovered, and Supergirl hugged her cousin long and hard when he emerged from his isolation cell.
Then, years later, Superman caught the disease for real.
Lex Luthor had somehow managed to unearth the box from Krypton.
He disregarded the Kryptonite; he had enough of that, if he wanted to kill
Superman that way. What he was interested in was the vials
of dead virus culture within the box. Using them as a study guide,
he recreated Virus X.
Through a complicated plot, Luthor had managed to expose Superman to the disease. This time, everyone--including Superman--knew that it wasn't a ruse or a mistake. He really had the disease, he was turning green and moldy, and, very soon, he would die.
Tearfully, Kara had brought his three great loves, Lois, Lana,
and Lori, to see his spaceship-coffin off for a final farewell. Then
she took them home. She mustered her courage, summoned the Justice
League, and organized them in a stop-gap plan. Each of them would
imitate Superman, using their great powers to simulate his deeds, until the Kandorians could choose a successor to the Man of Steel.
Before the decision could be made, Superman returned to Earth. He had been cured, accidentally, by White Kryptonite, whose radiations are deadly to all plant life...including the mold-culture that is Virus X.
A cure had been found for the disease. But White K was extremely rare. It was the product of a flock of Green K meteors that had passed through a "cosmic cloud" like the one which had created Red K. If Green K was as common as iron, White K was as rare as radium.
As it turned out, that was a stroke of luck for Luthor. Kara had learned, through various sources, that the government had a contract out on Luthor for the deed. It was planning on carrying it out a month after Superman's death.
She hadn't intended to interfere with it.
But the month of hell had ended, and Supergirl had welcomed Superman back.
Years after that, a member of the Superman Revenge Squad had infected her with Virus X, as a mask for another effect he was entering into her mind to turn her against Superman. He had figured, correctly, that Superman would cure her with White Kryptonite, but that the mind-control factor he had slipped in under Kara's defenses would goad her to destroy her cousin. Kal had survived and restored her to normal. But she didn't know what was more terrifying, in retrospect: seeing the horrid green patches break out on her skin and soaring into the upper atmosphere to spare the Earth the effect of her panic attack, then dropping back to its surface in a faint, knowing she was probably doomed to die, or her attempt later to kill Superman under another's mental direction. Regardless, they were both relieved when the episode of hell was over.
Now, it was about to begin again.
She snapped her attention back to the present. Fhi-Zor was speaking to all of them, including the two "visitors" on his communicator screen.
"I thought Jax-Ur was just out to devise some kind of defensive weapon we could use in case of invasion," said the Separatist. "You know damn well you guys with all your weapons and all your soldiers make us a little nervous at times."
"Well, he gave you the weapon," said the Moliom.
"Wrong, Drygur," said Fhi-Zor, pointing both of his index fingers at the screen to emphasize his points. "First of all, he didn't give me anything. What Vakox created, he took with them, and they're Sheol-and-gone right now. Don't ask me where, I don't know."
"You do," said Len-Tarr, his face stony.
"I don't," said Fhi-Zor, and Kara said, "I don't think he does," almost at the same time. They looked at each other, surprisedly.
Shyla, sitting on the edge of Fhi-Zor's desk, put in, "I don't think he does, either. And I've seen him kill a man."
"Thank you, Shyla," said Fhi-Zor, with sincerity.
Flamebird said, "So you've seen him kill a man. What makes you think he wouldn't kill a lot of other men?"
Fhi-Zor snapped a chilly gaze at the masked man. "Listen, skytop. I've got nine coins in this hatband. I'm going to have more than that by the time somebody collects one for doing me. And I've killed guys for being only a little more smart-ass than you."
Firebird was about to say something. Nightwing waved him silent.
"But Virus X is a genocide weapon," continued Fhi-Zor. "Do you think I want to wipe out the whole population of Rokyn? Do you think I want to kill...my own people?" He looked around at the men and women in the room, and at the two faces in his monitor screen. To the latter, he said, "You guys could crush us like bugs. Why haven't you? Tell me why."
Len-Tarr took a deep breath and sighed it out. "You know why. Because you're Kandorian."
And for once, everyone in the room, even Shyla, and both of the men on the communicator screen, seemed united in a common feeling.
After having been pent in the same bottle-city for so many years, having shared a common life experience for so long, the people of Kandor were loath to make war on each other.
Perhaps in a generation or two, that would change. When the tribes of Krypton scattered over the face of the great planet that was Rokyn, and when children who had never been born in the Bottle grew to maturity, conflicts probably would lead to impasses and then to bloodshed.
But for this moment, no matter how many killings were made in the streets of Separatists' Alley, even they did not want to kill the people of New Kandor. The Separatists were black sheep, but still part of the fold.
Kara spoke up.
"I hate you, Fhi-Zor," she said. "But I believe you."
Before else could be said, Fhi-Zor's pocketcom went off. "Excuse me, tanthi and tyntho," he said, and shook it open. "Captain Tog? Oh, greetings. Yes, come up and bring those two with you." He closed the device. "We're going to have visitors in a minute. Let's get things done."
Shyla smiled, smugly. "As if you were in control."
"We want his cooperation, Shyla," said the Moliom. "Officially, he is in control. Mind you, things could get unofficial very rapidly."
Kara leaned against a wall, crossing her arms. "Shyla, I know we've been foes in the past. But I thank you for that plate."
Shyla said, "I was hoping you'd recognize me when I shoved my face right up to the bars, even though I have my hair dyed. You didn't quite. But that was why I put that red hair under your dinner."
"That jogged my memory," said Kara. "What about the plate? And what about your change of heart?"
The sleeper agent looked her right in the eyes. "The plate is the easy thing to explain. I had a hand in designing it. Basically, it's a prism that converts normal light into a weak form of yellow solar energy. It won't give you strength powers, but it will give you vision powers for a short time, till the plate melts. It's very unstable. I was counting on you being smart enough to use the heat-vision well enough, and I was right.
"The other part's not so easy. We had our run-ins, in the past. I even got you sent to the Zone, in that one caper. But that was when I was just out of the Zone, and when I was first in Kandor. I--look, you and Superman, you were the ones to free all these people, to enlarge 'em, to give us Rokyn. We were a lot larger then...but...you made me feel really small. You and Kal were heroes. Even I knew it. It started me thinking."
Kara nodded. She had met Shyla, after the redhead's reform,
in one of her earliest visits to
Rokyn, when she and Kal came to research the history of the El family.
"What can I say? It got me back on track, in a lot of ways. The government gave me a pardon. And after that meeting with you and Kal, I decided to try the hero bit myself. Only in my own way. That's why I'm here. That's it, Kara."
A beat of silence followed. Then Kara said, "Thank you, Shyla."
"Yeah." Shyla laughed shortly. "Only this is the end of Xyla the Caterer. Got a new cover for me yet, chief?"
"We'll see," said Len-Tarr from the screen.
The door whisked open. Captain Vor-Tog of Kandor's Rangers was there, in a helmet and uniform that made him look to Kara like that Earth comic book hero, Judge Dredd. "Miss Zor-El, gentlemen," he said, by way of greeting. Two of Fhi-Zor's guards were with him, one looking nervous.
But they didn't matter to Kara. The two others with him did. One of them was, of course, Hi-Lor, who was grinning at Kara.
The other was the one she ran to in joy and surprise and grabbed in her arms. "Daddy!" she yelled, in delight.
"Baby," he said. "Kara," he said. Zor-El had removed his disguise some time ago. And he held her tightly and neither said anything for a long while.
Then Vor-Tog said, "I hate to break in here, but we've got the little matter of Virus X to deal with."
"Exactly, Captain," seconded Nightwing.
Zor-El broke the clinch with Kara and faced Nightwing. "X? Who's got it?"
"The Zoners have it, and they've escaped," said Flamebird.
"Par for the course, looks like," said Hi-Lor. "Karaish, it's great to see you."
She smiled and shook her head at him. "Kid, what won't you get yourself into," she said. "You're as sweet as you are dumb." She pecked his cheek. Hi beamed. "Don't let it go to your head," she added.
For the first time, Bar-Bann stepped up. "Tanth Kara, how's about one for me?"
"Don't press your luck, kid," said Shyla.
Zor-El strode to the desk, and even Fhi-Zor got out of his way. He gave the two faces in the viewer a meltdown of wrath. "You! You R**damned fumbleheaded, disorganed incompetents! My daughter was kidnapped! Several people were killed! Others were terrorized! And now, the ones responsible have gotten away free as firelizards, with the deadliest biological agent anybody's ever heard of, and you sit there on your asses negotiating with this...this..."
"Fhi-Zor," said the Chief, sticking his hand out. "Nice to meet you."
Zor-El gave him a look that would have withered grapes on the vine. Then he turned back to the nonplussed pair on the viewer and said, "Don't try to alibi yourselves! We elected you and we paid you to protect us, and my daughter was abducted, and our people are threatened..."
"Yes, Tanth El, and our sleeper agent Shyla over there got her out with our experimental plate-prism," Len-Tarr broke in. "And our Ranger fleet is standing ready to raze this city to the ground, if need be. Don't forget that, sir."
The Moliom added, "But you're right, El. We have been caught napping. So far, the crime rate has been so low in New Kandor that we've relaxed our vigilance too much. This is an object lesson to us all, one you can be assured we will learn from. I apologize for our poor showing. Now, we have another matter at hand, sir. But we thank you for your valiance, and we'll publicly acknowledge your contribution."
Zor-El swore under his breath. But there wasn't much more he could say.
Captain Tog said, "We can get these people out of here now. But that's not our primary objective. The Zoners and that can of virus are. I doubt we can trace that vehicle of theirs, either, if it came from here."
"You can't," confirmed Fhi-Zor. "You might pick it up on satellite surveillance, but there's nothing special about it. Looks like all the other plain hoverers we have."
Kara was tired as hell. She had been up since early morning. It was past midnight. All she wanted to do was sack out for the next twelve hours. But she'd fought the Zoners many times on Earth, and she felt it her duty to see this through. At least to try and figure out where they were headed.
She started thinking out loud. "They couldn't be headed that far away," she said. "A long flight, where craft don't usually go, and they'd be picked up on satellite. And this has to be on a tight schedule. They have to be ready to use this right now."
"They're headed for New Kandor," said Captain Tog. He flipped open a communicator. "Tog to bridge. We're lifting for hometown in five minutes. We have passengers."
Shyla was in front of Kara, both of them cogitating like mad. "It'd have to be someplace where they could threaten a lot of people, like a public gathering place," said Shyla. "Or government officials, like the Great Hall."
Then Kara's eyes went wide.
"Not there," she said. "The one place where they could endanger the whole city. The reservoir. Great Rao, they're going to hit the reservoir!"
There are some things consistent about cities, no matter where they are, no matter who builds them. One of these things is that they have to have a water supply.
The New Kandor Reservoir was large enough to accomodate the entire city and pump purified water to the surrounding communities. It was fed by the River of the Great Plains, and most adults and all the kids of the city had been through it on a tour at one time or another.
Jax-Ur landed the hovercraft right in front of the entrance, not even bothering with the parking area. "We don't have time for finesse," he said to his partners. "Just kill them."
A group of guards emerged from the building, eight in number, all with stunners. Jax and company were ready for them, ready with real guns and Faora's deadly skills. They murdered four of them. When the others looked ready to try their luck, Jax popped the lid on the metal container in his hands.
"Put the stunners down and we'll let you leave," he said. "Don't, and we'll see how many people die from the plague when I drop this."
Zod, smiling tightly, said, "We're not bluffing, gentlemen. We also don't have time for a standoff. Ten seconds and counting..."
"No," said one of the guards. He threw down his stunner. The other three followed suit. The danger was not in the four of them dying. The danger was in how fast the virus would spread, and how many thousands would die after that.
"Wise," said Jax, and let the foursome back away.
When they had backed enough paces from where their stunners lay on the ground, Zod brought his pistol up and shot all four of them dead.
Faora pouted. "You didn't even leave me one," she said to Zod.
"You got two already tonight," said Zod, as the four of them entered the building. "Holy sun, Faora...there's just no pleasing some people."
Behind him, Faora considered a nerve blow that would leave his side paralyzed for hours. Then she shrugged it off. Better to wait till the operation was over.
Vakox muttered, "Jax, you should let me handle that stuff. I was the one who made it."
Jax-Ur, disregarding the frightened night crew who shrank against the walls of the front office as he entered, said, "You're too fumblefingered, Vakox. You, by the desk. Open the doors to the reservoir or I might drop this and make you turn green all over."
The attendant was a young man with great idealism, some guts, and not enough experience with life. "You won't drop it here, and kill yourselves too."
Jax shifted his eyes to Faora. She did a quick hand-flip, landed with both feet on the attendant's desk, pulled him up by his collar, did the nerve-strike on him that she wanted to do on Zod, and then took two of his fingers on the paralyzed side, bent them back, and broke them. He screamed.
"Now, if you please, the doors," said Jax.
He opened them with a few hastily typed commands and a handprint identifier. Faora hung onto his arm and neck for the entire operation. There was a feral look in her eyes that even Zod didn't like to see.
A side door opened, and guards within stood at the ready. Jax explained to them about the virus, showed them the attendant who still shook with pain in Faora's hands, and pointed out that the other two men in the chamber had already been disarmed and had guns trained on them by Vakox and Zod. Swearing, they let the foursome in.
Before she let go of her victim, Faora kicked him where it hurt, and smiled wickedly as he rolled on the floor and clutched himself with one hand.
Jax-Ur took a pocket communicator from the last guard to file out, and stopped him long enough for a moment's talk.
"Get us coverage on this," he said. "Get this thing hooked up to the Great Hall. And be sure and tell the Drygur Moliom that we'll dump enough Virus X into the water supply to kill everyone in New Kandor five times over.
"He has two hours from now to turn over control of the government to us, and to release our brethren from the Zone. Oh, and one more thing: Faora demands Kara Zor-El. She'll give her a fair fight, and then kill her."
Then Jax-Ur shoved him out and locked the door behind him.