Zoners: Part 8
Kara and company were in Captain Vor-Tog's ship, headed back to New Kandor, when the news came through.
Vor-Tog demanded a replay of the news bulletin. He got it, on one of the ship's vidscreens. Then he saved it, called for Kara and her allies, and replayed it for them.
The screen showed police and militia units massed around the reservoir filtration building. A voiceover was telling how four escaped Zoners had just taken over the facility, killed eight, and injured several others. Now they threatened to dump a container of Virus X into the water supply.
If the city managed a remote-control shutoff of the filtration pumps, Jax-Ur and his friends would dump the Virus X into the outflowing water, and the populance of New Kandor would be doomed. So, too, would a good proportion of the rest of the populance living on Rokyn. The Great Plains River flowed through hundreds of miles of territory before it reached the sea.
There was no telling how dilute Virus X had to be to cease being a threat. Perhaps one part in a million was too deadly.
The authorities had walled off the location with a force-field already, but Jax-Ur still held them at a standoff. The field could not be extended to hold back tons of rushing water.
Finally, there was a short interview with the guard to whom Jax-Ur had given his ultimatum. The man was trying to hold himself together, emotionally, but the tension was all too visible.
"They wanted control of the government turned over to them within two hours," the man said. "And the woman wants Kara Zor-El. She wants to fight her. That's what the guy said."
The vidreporter cut in: "How long ago was that?"
There was more of it, just same old same old. But that was enough. Not too many of the party took notice.
They had all turned to look at Kara at the mention of her name.
For a second, the blood seemed to have drained out of her face. She rubbed her fingers in her palms, and was not surprised to feel dampness there. She looked at the vidscreen so that she wouldn't have to face her father and her comrades-in-arms.
Finally, she turned to look at them. Hal-Lorr and Bar-Bann were awestruck. She looked scared. But she also looked as resolute as a battlecruiser captain headed for war.
"I knew it'd come down to this. Better take me to the reservoir, Captain Tog."
Zor-El shouted, "No! Captain Tog, do nothing of the sort! That's my daughter, we can't put her life in danger again!"
Captain Tog turned a sad, grim face to Zor-El. "Tanth El, with all due respect, you are in my ship. Command decisions belong to me. However, I am not in command of Tanthi Zor-El. I must proceed to the reservoir under Emergency Directive 671, but I am required to drop all civilians before entering the zone of conflict. As a government agent, Tanthi Kor-Onn may remain on board. The rest of you may go."
Kara stepped up to within two feet of Captain Tog. "I waive it."
"No!" yelled Zor-El.
"Don't do it, Kara," said Nightwing. "I waive it, also."
"You can't, Kara," added Flamebird. "I'll waive mine, too."
Before Tog could say anything, Hi-Lor waved a hand for attention and struck an attitude-pose that reminded Kara vaguely of James Dean. "Hold it! I wanted to be the first...and you all spoiled it. I waive."
Incongruously, she felt like giggling. Hi wanted so much to be her hero!
Bar-Bann spoke. "Sir, Hal-Lorr and I wanted to know if we could waive--"
"No!" said Kara, Tog, and Nightwing simultaneously.
"Okay," sighed Bar.
Shyla spoke at last. "You don't know what you're getting into, Kara," she said. "This isn't some stupid wrestling match. That woman has killed almost thirty people, most of them with her own hands, and now she wants to kill you. Do you think those four will let you walk out of there alive if you walk in?"
"I know martial arts," said Kara, bluntly.
"Not like she does," said Shyla. "I wouldn't face her with anything less than armor plate and an industrial-strength clearance blaster. She's out of our league, Kara."
Kara sat on the arm of a bridge chair and chose her words carefully.
"Shyla...Dad...all of you. There's nobody else they'll let into that place without dumping that stuff in the water. If they do, five million people are as good as dead. And I've seen what that stuff did to Superman once. I know what it does.
"Like it or not, I can't put my precious backside above the lives of five million. And I can't believe the government is going to give Jax what he wants, no matter what. Most likely, he's just bargaining for a way out of there."
Zor-El said, "Kara, I won't let you."
Kara snapped, "Dad, it's not your choice!"
There was silence for a moment. And in that moment, everybody looking at Kara knew that they were looking at the most heroic person in the room.
Kara looked at the vidscreen and said, "Faora Hu-Ul has been spoiling for a fight with me ever since she first got Out. That little punchout I did with her once hardly even counted. I've risked my life a lot of times when I had powers. Guess I can do it without 'em. Take me to the reservoir, Captain."
Then she turned to her father. "Dad, I want you to know...and I want you to tell Mom..." She couldn't finish the sentence.
Zor-El took her and held her, and both wept silently.
Hal-Lorr was about to, as well. Hi-Lor stepped forward to try and console Kara, but Nightwing restrained him with a hand on his shoulder. Shyla, remembering how she had once hated and fought Kara, felt like the inflow to a sewage treatment plant. Bar-Bann felt like his heart was a piece of crumpled paper inside him.
Captain Tog didn't say anything.
The worst part of it, thought Hal, was that he himself had been responsible for this. All of this. If he only hadn't made that projector. If he only hadn't been as smart as his dad...
"Uh," said Hal, his eyes opening wide to take in the entire scene.
He rushed over to Zor and Kara. "Tanth El, excuse me, but there's something I've got to tell you."
"Sonny, go away," said Zor-El.
"It's important," insisted Hal. "I just thought of something. Something my dad told me. There's not just one way to build anything."
"What are you talking about, boy?" asked Captain Tog.
Bar-Bann looked at his friend and wondered if a Zoner had possessed him again.
"If I tell you, will you get Tanth El to help me with it?" asked Hal, eagerly.
Shyla said, "If you tell us, I'll let you build it out of my bones if we have to...and I'll help do it."
So Hal told them.
Jax-Ur and company were in the great control room overlooking
the filtration system. Tons of water from the Great Plains River
was diverted into a series of force-screens. Fish and large motile
aquatic life were caught by the first screen and diverted back to the main
waters of the river. The other screens strained out finer and finer
solid objects. The water was then sent through a purification system
for chemical treatment, and, from there, was pumped to the New
Kandor water system.
None of these measures was proof against Virus X.
There was a two-way monitor that worked when Jax wanted it to work. Which is to say, when he wanted to talk to the negotiators, he reached into the back of the mechanism, connected a few things, and started it working again. When he wanted to talk to his fellows unobserved, he disabled the monitor. He had done this several times already and the negotiating team was getting tired of it. But they tried not to let it show.
Zod and Jax were arguing, so the monitor was disabled.
"Ur, with all due respect, you must realize these people we are talking with are not dumb," said Zod. "They know we can't keep a man here with this canister of X forever. Bargaining for total governmental control with a biological agent is unrealistic."
Jax's mouth twitched. He turned a venomous look upon Zod, who didn't flinch. "General, what we can and cannot do remains to be seen. As you've noted, this disorganized and unprepared collection of fools they call a 'government' has been totally unable to stop us, or even to impede us for very long. We've been two steps ahead of them at every phase of the game. They are incompetent! They are not prepared for our kind of operation. If this planet were invaded from without, they might be able to mount a counterattack. But give them anything involving a simple breach of security, and they're apes from the Scarlet Jungle. We understand the means of conquest--from within!"
"But you fail to understand how difficult it is to hold territory once conquered," said Zod. "We have no armies, no punitive force. As of yet, we have no loyalists. Can you watch your back for every day of your life from now on, Ur? Every building, every hovercraft that we pass by will be the home of a possible assassin. No, we must give them a second alternative."
"An alternative?" said Jax, incredulously. For the first time during the debate, even Vakox, who had been checking the area for security devices, and Faora, who had been lost in her rapturous thoughts of killing Kara, turned to look at the other two.
"An alternative?" repeated Jax. "Oh, yes, call them in and say, 'Well, we were going to ask for the government, but we'll settle for a billion credits a year and big estates in the mountains,' is that what you ask me to believe, Zod?"
Zod gave Jax a hard look, without making a move. Jax softened his expression of contempt. No matter how good a fighter Jax was, Zod had been an excellent soldier as well as a superb general. And generals do have egos...
Quietly, Zod said, "An alternative, yes. We propose this to them. First, that the population of the Zone be released, except for that insufferable child Mon-El, and both they and we be given unconditional pardons for our convictions. Second, that we be given command of an armed Dreadnought. Third, that we be given rule of Separatist's Alley, with Fhi-Zor to be eliminated. Just as a friendly thing, we can kill him ourselves. New Kandor will be glad to give us those undisciplined wretches in return for their safety. And there is our power base. Much easier to control than New Kandor, and, with our complement of Zoners, much more secure for all concerned."
Vakox said, "The release and pardon was going to be what we did after we took over, Zod. But I see your point."
Jax sat down, holding the canister of virus across his knees. "Actually, Zod, your proposal does have some merit. Forcing their government to recognize us and release our comrades. That adds the aura of legitimacy to our enterprise. If we did it, that'd simply seem an act of further criminality...not that that ever stopped us before, mind you."
"Separatist's Alley would give us what we want," said Zod. "You want political power and wealth. I want an army to command, with which to conquer; give me that and I'll be a happy man, I assure you. We can both get that from the Alley. And you, Vakox?"
They turned to look at the slight man with the unkempt red hair.
"I want to rule through science," he said. "I want an experimentational program that will solve the last mysteries of life. And if I have to take a few ephemeral lives to get it, well, you military men, Zod, understand the need to win a war through sacrifice."
No one said anything. Even Zod put the quiet man down as one he'd have to watch.
The other three looked at Faora.
Leaning against a wall, the woman spoke, calmly and deliberately.
"Give me what I once had on Krypton," she said. "A place far away from civilization. Give me the men I need, and the women. The first for my bed, the second for my laboratory. They both end up the same way, different routes. I am addicted to simple pleasures. I want an unending supply of men and women. I want to grow old burying them."
Her voice was expressionless. Jax wet the inside of his mouth, and had no doubt which of their band was the closest to insanity...and, thus, the deadliest.
Then her face grew stonier, and she clenched her hands tightly. But a light of eager anticipation had entered her eyes.
"But first, give me Kara Zor-El."
Alura awoke and sat up in bed. The sleep-patch that had been given her had worn off. She looked about her bedroom, in mounting terror. The vidscreen, the communicators. Where were they? Had they been stolen? "Oh," she cried out.
Seconds later, the door opened and the light came on. Sylvia Van-Zee entered, a purple robe wrapped about her. "Alura," she said. "Alura, it's okay. It's me, Sylvia. You're over at my house, remember?"
For an instant, Alura paused, recalling how Zor-El had brought her over to Sylvia and Van-Zee's house for safekeeping. "I remember," she said. "Where's Kara?"
Sylvia put on a warm smile and sat down on the bed, taking Alura's hand. "Hey, I've got great news. We've just heard that Kara's been released from jail at Separatists' Alley. She's okay."
"Kara," breathed Alura. "Will she be back home soon? Did they say when?"
"They didn't say when, Alura, but she's on her way back," said Sylvia. "She'll probably have to stay out of sight till this Zoner thing gets wrapped up. She'll be back, though."
Alura said, "What about Zor? Is he all right?"
"Seems to be. I didn't hear anything bad about him."
Alura took her hand from between Sylvia's. "I want the vidscreens back, Sylvia. I want a communicator."
Sylvia sat back. "No vidscreens, Alura. And I've got the only communicator. We have to keep you safe, remember?"
"That's not the real reason. They're still in danger, aren't they?" said Alura, with a penetrating look.
Sylvia gave it back. "We're all in danger until they get those four imbeciles back in the Zone. So far, they're still Out."
"That's not an answer! She's still in danger, isn't she? I want my baby and my husband back!" sobbed Alura.
Sylvia took Alura in her arms and didn't say anything. It was too early to give Alura another sleeping patch. All she could do was sit here and ride it out with her, and try not to get hysterical herself about Van-Zee.
And pray to Rao for strength.
Zor-El and Captain Tog were on a special comlink to the Science Council. Councilman Lar-Har, his vast bulk contained in a large red suit, harrumphed, "Of course we can synthesize it. But it'll take time, gentlemen. Certainly more than Ur has given us."
Zor-El said, "I know, Har, I've used a cyclotron before. How much longer?"
Har paused and nodded to a younger, blonde Councilman three seats over on the curved dais. "Estimate, Ka-Ran?"
Ka-Ran looked at Zor and Tog in the vidscreen. "Hard to predict the running time of the process. But a usable quantity? I'd say twenty to forty minutes after the deadline runs out. And it's already being done."
"Frab," said Zor-El. "We never anticipated. When this is over, we have to keep enough of it synthesized and on hand."
Har replied, "With all due respect, Tanth El, the cure might prove as deadly as the disease. There was good reason for not allowing very much to be created, besides, of course, the cost."
Tog said, "We thank you, Councilman Har. Please keep us posted. Break."
"Thank you as well. Break acknowledged." Their image shrank as Tog punched up another comlink. It was of the negotiators at their table.
Tog said, "Tir-Rol, greeting. Anything more?"
Tir-Rol, one of three on the team, said, "They've been off for awhile, presumably arguing among themselves. That may be a good sign, or it may not. If they start to fight among themselves, there's no telling what they could do with the virus."
Another of the three said to Tir-Rol, "The Zoners are activating the comlink again."
"We have to break, Captain Tog," said Tir-Rol. Neither wanted the Zoners to have contact with those around Kara, for security reasons.
"Understood, Tanth Rol. We thank you. Break acknowledged."
Zor-El looked at Tog and waited a few moments before saying, "So tell me what the plan is."
Tog answered, "We'll wait until a few minutes before deadline before we send Kara in. Our guess is that Ur will extend the deadline under those circumstances."
The Argonian's jaws were tight. "You mean, if they're watching Kara and that woman fight, they'll wait until after it's done before dropping anything in the reservoir."
Coldly, Tog replied, "Yes, Tanth El, that's a scenario we're going with."
"In other words, my daughter is being made a sacrificial lamb to those murderers to buy us time!"
Tog sat up straight, his eyes boring into Zor-El. "Tanth El. No one in this ship has greater regard for Tanthi Zor-El than myself. But I have a directive. That directive is to protect the people of New Kandor and its territories in times of crisis. By whatever means necessary. And that directive clearly states, 'No civilian lives are to be endangered in this execution of duty, except in such case as is needed to protect the greater number.' If I could go in there myself and get them to give us that virus by having that woman kick me to death, sir, I would do so immediately. No questions asked.
"But in this case, sir, the entire population of New Kandor is threatened with death. And they will allow no one in there except your daughter. And no--"
"Shut up, dammit!" yelled Zor, in anguish.
"--No countermeasure can be enacted within the specified time with any guarantee of success," finished Tog, overriding him.
Zor-El said nothing, his hands at his sides, his eyes on the floor.
Tog went on, "I will be forced to justify my actions by a board of review. I will be subjected to extensive examination, and may be relieved of duty at that time. If the board sees fit, I may also face criminal charges, should it be demonstrated that I have placed a civilian in danger without justifiable cause. You, Tanth El, are welcome to come to that examination and testify against me, if that is your wish."
Zor-El shook his head. "No. No. I'd probably have to testify for you. They've put us in a gauntlet, thanks to our stupidity, and we have to run it. But why my daughter?"
Tog spoke to his personal comlink. "Lt. Ran, please come to the bridge and escort Tanth El to the civilians' area." Then he snapped it off.
Zor-El finally looked up at Tog, with wet eyes.
"One thing I will tell you, sir," said Tog. "And though I will deny under oath that I said it, you can regard it as my deepest promise. If your daughter does not come through this alive--not one of those bastards will live to go back to the Zone."
Zor-El gave him a grimace of disgust.
"That's assuming they don't kill you first," he answered.
Shyla was alone with Kara in private quarters that had been made available to them. Kara was sitting on the edge of a bed, not looking at Shyla or anything in particular.
"It doesn't have to be this way, Kara," said Shyla, to break the silence. "I could stun you, show up there myself, and tell them I did it deliberately to come in your place."
"She'd kill you, and it might make the others mad enough to drop the canister," said Kara.
Shala crouched down to talk to Kara face-to-face. "She can kill you, too. And she's going to be trying her damnedest to."
Kara rested her hands on her interlaced fingers. "That's what I've been seeing in my mind, Shala," she said. "I've been seeing visions of her chopping me into dogmeat with those hands of hers. Guess I should be glad she can't do that psychic-bolt trick of hers anywhere but under a yellow sun."
Shyla grabbed Kara's hands. "No, Kara. If you see yourself as failing, you've lost half the battle already. You've got to turn your thinking around."
Kara looked at Shyla and, despite herself, smiled. "Shyla, Shyla. I'm a smart enough woman. I've been in a lot of fights as Supergirl. And I could tell when I was really in danger, despite all those powers I had. And don't think I wasn't scared. Sometimes, after I got through the thing, I had to make for the nearest bathroom at hyperlight." Both giggled for a second, glad for the release of tension.
Kara continued, "But I also knew when I went into those fights that I really didn't have a choice. Sometimes God puts those burdens on you, I think, and you have to run with the load. I know that's cliche. But it's still true. And maybe there's a way through to the goal. Or maybe this is just what I have to do to save my people, and our new world. But you know what?"
Shala looked at her.
"It's different without powers," said Kara. "It took me some time to get used to pain, normal pain just like banging your shin into a table, because I didn't have that on Earth. I'd gotten hurt pretty badly by Kryptonite and other things. And I'd gotten hurt when I was a kid in Argo City, sure, but I'd forgotten about it. When I came to Rokyn to live here, I had to accept the fact that I couldn't fly over the cities, that I couldn't run faster than light, that I couldn't lift mountains. That really got to me a lot of times. And there were a lot of times I wanted to chuck it all, go back to Earth, and put on the blue suit.
"But I couldn't do that. I didn't want to. There, no matter how much power I had, it wasn't the same as being part of society, instead of apart from it. Here, I could get things on my own, with my own abilities, not something I get under a yellow sun. And I don't have to pretend to be two or three different people.
"So if I had to give up the powers for that...well, it's a pretty good trade. And I had more power than most living beings can imagine, for thirteen years. Maybe that's enough. Most people will never see that for an instant in their lives. I'm glad I had it for as long as I did. And I'm glad I wasn't afraid to give it up for something better. And it may just be that I had to be here, so that we could take care of this."
Tears were streaming down Shala's face. "Kara, I feel like bird-dung. Those stupid schemes I made against you, those times I fought you...I'm not good enough to look you in the eyes..." She broke down sobbing.
Kara held Shala very tightly for a moment, then held her at arms length and shook her. "Shala. You're forgiven. Now stop it. I love you, too, and you got us all out of a really bad spot. So if you don't straighten up, I'm gonna give you a taste of what I'm gonna give Faora!"
Shala's emotions were caught somewhere between gears. Then she laughed, and hugged Kara again. "Oh, babe, you are some piece of work. And you can beat up on me anytime you want to, if you want to practice. Just...be careful, okay?"
Kara shook her head, smiling sadly. Then a small chime went off, and a vidscreen showed Hi-Lor standing outside her door. She told the servo-control to let him in.
Hi-Lor stepped inside and stood there, a few paces inside, as the door hissed shut behind him. "Kara," he said. "I, uh, want to know if I can take your place. Y'know, I'm not much, but maybe they'd accept me as something before the main event, and it'd give you more time, y'know, and all...aw, Sheol."
Kara motioned him over. He sat beside her on the bed, Shyla sitting cross-legged on the floor. Kara said, "Still my Perfect Knight, Hi? You've got the guts of a lion. When you get the wisdom of an owl, you'll be a perfect catch for some girl, I promise."
"What's an owl?" said Hi.
"Never mind, it's just an Earth expression. Hi, you're a sweetheart. But I never want you to put yourself in this kind of danger again. Okay? Promise?"
Hi shook his head. "You know I can't promise that. If someone hurts you, or anybody else I care about, I gotta do something."
Shyla said, "Maybe you should consider a career with us, Hi. But I'm not recruiting anybody right now."
The youth took a deep breath. "I want you to, uh, know, Kara, that I'm gonna do anything for you, and you, uh, shouldn't really take that lightly, because--"
"I know. Because you're in love with me," said Kara.
He looked at her with surprise.
Kara grinned. "You silly kid, don't you think women know about that? And I like the hell out of you, too, Hi. You're as brave and good as you are stupid about risking your neck."
"Jeez, you think I'm brave?" said Hi. "You think I'm brave?"
"How many other people would have come after me like you did without getting paid for it? But if you do love me, Hi, and you would do anything for me, do one thing for me. Will you?"
Hi looked at her suspiciously. Shyla shifted on her backside and legs, knowing what was coming. "What's that?" said Hi.
Kara said, "I want you to fall in love with someone else. You're a great guy, and you need to grow up a little more, and get married and have kids. But not with me. I don't know who I'd ever get married to, if I make it through this thing. But I do know this: I haven't met him yet."
She said it gently, and Hi knew she was letting him off easy. At the same time, he felt as though somebody had loaded half a planet onto his heart. After a second, he nodded. "You haven't?"
"No, Hi, I haven't. But you are my friend, and you are one of the kindest, bravest guys I know. So will you make me that promise, Hi? Just for me?"
After another pause, he said, "I promise to try, Kara. But I can't promise more than that."
Kara said, "That'll do for now. Now, Hi, I have a few more things to do with Shyla. Could you excuse us?"
"Sure," said Hi. "I'll be around."
"Just a moment." Kara stood, drew him back on his feet,
and gave him a long hug. Most of Hi's mind was dumbfounded.
Part of his consciousness was amazed at how strong this woman's body seemed.
Another part was hoping he could remember this in sufficient detail
later on. Another part was caught up in love for her.
With all that, he reflected, there was not much left over for a purely sexual reaction.
Kara broke the hug. "Now go. Thanks, Hi. I'll see you later."
Hi stepped away, went to the door, and waited while Kara opened it. Then, just before he went through, he turned to her and spoke four words.
"I hope so, Kara."
Finally, after he had gone, Shyla said, "One more thing, Kara. I don't know if you've ever fought to kill. This time--you're going to have to."
Kara said nothing.
"You have to, Kara. If you just go at her like you're going to knock her out or something, that won't work. She'll be counting on you to hold back. So don't...because she won't be."
Kara said nothing.
Shyla said, "Listen to me, dammit! This isn't Earth, and you're not wearing that little blue costume with the hotpants or the short skirt. All you have to go on here is your body, your skill, and your spirit. So don't hold back. It's your only chance."
Kara finally said, "I think it's about time, Shyla."
Shyla looked at Kara helplessly. "I guess it is, Kara. Look, I'm sorry again about all that I ever did to you."
Kara looked at her calmly. "Well, Shyla, things balance out. Because if you hadn't done them...maybe you wouldn't have had something to repent of. And maybe you wouldn't be with me here today. But I'm very glad you are." She crossed her fingers. The argument was over.
Kara opened the door and stepped into the hall. Shyla followed. They were joined by a couple of soldiers as they went towards the bridge.
Jax-Ur was arguing with the negotiators as the Rangers' ship arrived and took hover position overhead. Vakox saw it on a viewscreen covering the skies outside. "They're here," he said.
"Good," said Jax-Ur. "Excuse me, gentlemen." He pulled up the sight of Captain Tog at the bridge on his comlink. "Welcome, Captain. Fifteen minutes to deadline. Is she ready?"
Tog said, "We're sending her down. We expect this screen to be kept on at all times for monitoring purposes."
"Oh?" Jax-Ur laughed. "Are you worried we'd fight dirty? Rest assured, Captain, if we interfered in Faora's battle, she'd kill us herself."
Faora shoved Jax out of the way and stood before the viewscreen. "Where is she?"
Tog, lasering contempt at her, said, "She should arrive within a few minutes. Irregardless of the outcome of the fight, you should know that I personally intend to hunt each of you down and see to your destruction."
General Zod loomed over Faora's shoulder. "You're out of order, Captain. We still have the virus. And when I take command of Rokyn's military, be assured...I will deal rapidly with any possible insubordinates in my ranks, with extreme prejudice."
Vakox, looking at a vidscreen covering the outer office, said, "She's here."
Jax-Ur drew a deep breath. "Put her through a spy ray."
"Already have," said Vakox. "Nothing metal on her bigger than a belt-buckle, no radiation detected. No plastic explosive seen under her clothes, no hidden weapon, nothing."
Faora began to breathe heavily, her eyes tiger-bright.
"Let her in," said Jax.
Vakox activated a servo. The door whisked open and shut within three seconds' time, admitting the slim figure of Kara Zor-El.
She stood on the platform above them for a second, surveying the scene below her. A metal stairway ran from the platform to the floor below, upon which was the filtration equipment, the large area on which workers usually tended it, the even larger area in which the surging river waters were pumped through, and, finally, the place in which the four Zoners themselves stood.
Kara picked out Faora with her eyes, and began to descend the metal stairway.
"Okay, Faora," she said, loudly enough to be heard. "Let's get started."