Third Son

By TagsNOLA <>

Rated PG-13

Submitted August 2006

Summary: Mark Kent is Lois and Clark's "third son," the only one of the three born without super powers. At age 25, he has only just been told that his father is Superman. Clark has asked that Mark go to New Krypton to join his two older brothers in the struggle to bring peace to a society on the brink of a civil war that threatens even Earth.


Approximately thirty years into the future, Lois & Clark have raised three sons, Jonathan Luke, Lane Clark and Matthew Mark to young adulthood. Jon and Lane were born with super powers like their dad's. Mark, he goes by "Mark," not "Matt, was born perfectly healthy, but without any super powers. Clark decided that, for Mark's own protection and wellbeing, he would never be told "the family secret." An ongoing political crisis has necessitated Clark's two oldest sons traveling to New Krypton to serve on their Governing Council as counterweights against hardliners who advocate authoritarian rule and warlike expansionism. But the resulting political stalemate within the council has brought with it the threat of civil war and a bloodletting that could result in final extinction of this remnant of the Kryptonian people. Clark has recently obtained the means of imparting his Kryptonian physiological attributes to his third son, Mark. Mark is a US Naval aviator, assigned to an ultra-secret kamikaze mission to be ready to take out any Kryptonian who threatens Earth. The military establishments of Earth have forgotten neither the brutal Kryptonian murderer, Lord Nor, nor his henchmen, nor their brutal rampage on Earth some thirty years ago. They have faithfully inculcated in their ranks a deep hatred and suspicion of anything or anyone Kryptonian. As a young naval aviator, from his military indoctrination, Mark has assimilated all of this fear and loathing. He has sworn to give his life, if need be, to defend his family, his country and his species against attack by any Kryptonian, including Superman should he ever "go bad." The situation on New Krypton is desperate and violence there could threaten even Earth itself. (When New Krypton sneezes, Earth catches a cold!) Clark has revealed the family secret to Mark and has asked him to allow Kryptonian physiology to be imparted to him so that he can travel to New Krypton to break the political impasse on the Governing Council. Mark is horrified to learn that his father is Kryptonian and that he himself is half-Kryptonian. "Third Son" is the story of how Mark deals with this existential crisis.

This story is based upon the 4-part "Lois and Clark" series known as the "New Krypton Arc." Some of the characters here are from the "Lois and Clark" series. Some are new. Some of the dialogue is paraphrased from these episodes and this entire fanfic is predicated upon those four episodes. But some liberties have been taken with story format. No effort has been made to conform exactly to the Lois & Clark scenario or to the Gold, Silver, or any other "age" among the DC-Superman legends. I have taken what I wanted to make this story work. Hopefully, the reader will at least find consistency within this story.

As an example: In some Superman stories, Kryptonite is harmful to Kryptonians only when they have their powers. In other stories, Kryptonite is lethal to Kryptonians with or without their powers. And, traditionally, Kryptonite was completely harmless to Terrans. But in some scenarios, although less harmful to Terrans than to Kryptonians, Kryptonite radiation is still radiation. Prolonged exposure of Kryptonite to Terrans would be harmful. Such is the case in this story. And, in this story, Kryptonite radiation is harmful to Kryptonians, with or without their powers.

There is one scene in this story, involving Superman when he was a boy, Superboy. It is derived from a scene in a Superboy fanfic by Samuel Hawkins, "Taking Time," Chapter 6, "Superboy Speaks." I have attempted to reach Mr. Hawkins for his permission to utilize this concept in my story, but repeated attempts to contact him via his posted e-mail address were unsuccessful. Although I've written the account of this scene in my own words, some of the phrasing is similar to the original writer's. Failing Mr. Hawkins' express permission to use his concept in my story; I at least wanted to acknowledge him as the source of that scenario. Another concept I borrowed from Mr. Hawking was Martha Kent's supposition of what Lara's (Clark's natural mother) attitude would have been toward her had they ever occasioned to meet. This comes from Mr. Hawkins' work "Martha's story."

I would like to thank Jenni Debbage, my beta reader and Sherry Finkel Murphy, my general editor for their time, their effort, their insight and their encouragement. Thanks also to all whose efforts have made this archive and the chat channels possible.

Some characters are property of "DC Comics." Others are of my own making. No profit has been derived from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

Forest McNeir (TagsNOLA) Gretna, Louisiana 07 February 2005



Tuesday, Mid-September, 0245 local time, onboard USS Nimitz, CVN-68, Southwest Pacific Ocean, 250 nautical miles west northwest of Manila, Republic of the Philippines.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Matthew Mark Kent, his friends called him "Mark," not "Matt," rolled his aircraft wings level, dropping into "the slot" as he aligned his heading for landing aboard the super carrier, USS Nimitz. From the headphones inside his flight helmet, Mark heard the disembodied voice of the shipboard radar approach controller. "NOVEMBER LIMA FIVE FOUR, call the ball."

Mark replied, "Roger Ball, gear, hook and flaps," confirming for the flight controller that he had spotted the "ball," a visual approach and landing aid, and that he had properly deployed his landing gear, arresting hook and flaps. The "ball" (or "meatball") is a mirrored high intensity reddish-amber lamp. This beacon is a component of the carrier's visual approach slope indicator, a precision landing aid, positioned portside aft; just forward of the "ramp," the stern most edge of the flight deck. The "ball" was "dead center" indicating Mark's aircraft lineup for landing was optimal.

The approach controller confirmed this. "NOVEMBER LIMA FIVE FOUR on course, on glide path, one mile from touch down."

There was no moon. There were no stars. There was no visible horizon for aircraft attitude reference. Pitch-black sky and inky sea merged seamlessly into a darkened formless void. But, dead ahead, steamed trusty old Nimitz. As Mark continued his approach, man and machine were as one. Manipulation of flight controls and throttle were second nature, requiring no conscious effort. Mark's brain was in overdrive as myriad readouts from headup display, feedback from flight controls, visual alignment of the "meatball" and "power calls" through his headphones from the landing signal officer (LSO) cascaded directly into his subconscious. Such a flood of information would have overwhelmed an ordinary mind, but Mark's was no ordinary mind. He was a highly trained, carrier-qualified naval aviator, his flying skills honed to a razor's edge.

At the final moment before touchdown, the flight deck leapt up out of the stygian abyss to snatch Mark and his aircraft out of the sky! His Northrop-Grumman-Sukhoi FA-37 "bearcat" tactical jet thundered over the ramp and slammed onto the deck in a routine recovery described by naval aviators, only half jokingly, as a "controlled crash." The "tail hook" snagged the number three wire, one among quadruple-redundant cross deck pendants serving as arresting cables to "trap" the landing jets as they touched down on Nimitz' flight deck. Mark's night carrier landing (one of the trickiest maneuvers in all of aviation) was textbook perfect. He was the youngest "nugget" (neophyte) aviator in his squadron. But, notwithstanding his youth and relative inexperience, he was, all around, the best pilot in his squadron and, arguably, one of the most naturally gifted in Nimitz' entire air wing. He consistently posted the highest landing scores on the "greenie board" in his squadron ready room.

All naval aviators have "call signs." These are nicknames the pilots use among themselves over air tactical radio circuits. Not only was Mark Kent a brilliant aviator; in university, he had been a star gymnast, flying through the air with such ease, agility and heart stopping daring that his team mates had taken to calling him "Supes." "Supes" was well known world wide as Superman's affectionate nickname. During his gymnastic routines, sometimes it seemed as though Mark were almost flying like Superman!

His squadron mates had been tipped off by one of his former university gymnastics teammates, also a pilot posted aboard USS Nimitz in one of Mark's sister squadrons. So his college nickname became his naval aviator call sign. Mark had hated "Supes" as his college nickname and he hated it even worse as his naval aviator call sign. But many aviators do hate their call signs, at least at first. You don't get to choose your own call sign. You're just stuck with it and, eventually, as Mark had resigned himself, you learn to accept it with grudging amiability.

Mark taxied his jet across the foul line, following the flight deck director's light wand signals into parking position on the starboard side, just forward of the island super structure. He shut down the engines and opened the canopy, the fresh ocean breeze instantly soothing his body and soul. His flight suit was drenched with sweat, the sweat of stark, naked terror: A terror that ran far deeper than fear for one's own life. This had been a terror one could only feel believing the survival of your entire species is in question.

During the sortie from which Mark had just recovered aboard USS Nimitz, a flight controller in the crew compartment of a Northrop-Grumman E2-C Hawkeye airborne radar control aircraft had transmitted via an encrypted voice circuit an emergency tactical warning. "NOVEMBER LIMA FIVE FOUR, 'Babylon extreme,' unidentified contact, possible hostile, approaching from your six o'clock level, (his rear, same altitude) closure rate one-six hundred knots, I say again, rate of closure: One-six hundred knots!"

"Babylon" was a unique target designator for Superman, The REAL Superman. Since before Mark had been born, the military establishments of the world had regarded Superman and others of his ilk with deep suspicion and sullen hostility.

Shortly after Superman had begun his career as a super hero as "Superboy," at age 13, the world came very close to a general thermo-nuclear confrontation between the USA and the USSR. The Kremlin leadership had initially presumed that Superboy was some kind of US "ultimate weapon" against which there could be no viable defense. They had concluded that they must use their nuclear arsenal or lose it forever. Unfortunately, the leadership in Washington had done nothing to allay Moscow's suspicions, in fact, hinting that Superboy was indeed part of the US military arsenal. Truth be known, however, realizing they too had no counter weapon, the Pentagon had secretly been as afraid of Superboy as the Kremlin had been. The thermo-nuclear "balloon" was right on the verge of going up.

Superboy had been mortified. He flew to New York and asked a major network for airtime to state his case for peace. He frankly acknowledged his allegiance to the United States, but reassured the peoples of other nations that he had no intention of using his powers to force our way of life on anyone; that his intentions were purely peaceful. That all he wanted to do was to help, to defend the lives of the innocent and the weak. He vowed, in the event hostilities broke out, that he would do everything he could to neutralize any nuclear weapons that might be launched as a result of this crisis. But he admitted that he probably could not manage to intercept them all. And then, with tears streaming down his face, Superboy begged the super powers to stand down. He related the tragedy of the destruction of his native planet, Krypton. He said, "The planet where I came from was destroyed. It exploded. The planet and everything and everyone, all the people, were destroyed, except for me. I couldn't stand it if something like that happened here, especially if it happened because of me." He offered to discontinue his super hero activities if this would allay suspicions and ensure peace. And then at super speed he had simply vanished.

The global consensus, even from the paranoid old men in the Kremlin, had been; "Yes, Superboy, you can stay."

And that was how it remained until some thirty years ago when a series of crises arose in rapid succession. The first was the International Space Station. The maneuvering engines had fired unexpectedly, causing the station's orbit to decay rapidly. Superman had flown to the rescue, boosting the station back into stable low earth orbit. Subsequent investigation had shown that the onboard computer had been hacked. A subroutine had been planted which had commanded the maneuvering engines to fire and then to stymie any correcting inputs from the crew. The astronauts onboard had been helpless. The young Superman had flown to the rescue, barely saving the multi- billion dollar facility and its crew in the nick of time. But, follow up cyber investigators had found that, nested among the list of hacked in computer instructions, were commands to fire the maneuvering rockets at the last possible moment, boosting the space station back into a stable orbit and returning control to the crew. In spite of appearances to the contrary, the space station and crew had never been in any real danger.

Subsequent incidents had given Superman quite a series of scares over the next 24 hours. Initially, these "emergencies" had been false alarms like the space station's predicament. But then things began to happen that genuinely threatened the lives of large numbers of innocent people, including about thirty grammar school children on a field trip to the Metropolis Central Library; nearly killed by a time bomb, hidden under a manhole cover on a sidewalk right in front of the building. And then Clark Kent's friend, Jimmy Olson and his boss Perry White from the Daily Planet, had been threatened and then the entire population of the city of Metropolis! In each instance, Superman had been able to save the day, barely.

By then, it was obvious to Clark that someone was toying with him. Finally, it was Lois Lane who discovered the source. Through sleuthing and snooping as only Lois could have done, she had identified and located the culprit. Hoping for yet another news scoop, she had tried to apprehend the man all by herself. He threw her against a wall like a rag doll, knocking her unconscious.

A short time later, Clark found her, just as she was coming around. In a flash, the Man of Steel was at her side. As she sat on the floor leaning against the wall, still reeling from the blow to her head, Lois related to Clark her encounter. "Clark, when I latched onto him as he tried to get away, he threw me against the wall like I weighed nothing. I'm telling you, I may not be the biggest gal in the world, but the way he manhandled me, well, it just wasn't normal. It was like the weight of my body was nothing to him."

Clark held onto Lois, his love. Guilt haunted him that he had not been there for her. But, rationally he knew that, even he could not keep up with her. In pursuit of a scoop, Lois (Mad Dog) Lane's bulldog tenacity simply would not be denied. Oh how the "Man of Steel" worried that someday he would lose her in some mishap. She just would not stop going out and looking for trouble. Clark held onto her and she let him as she leaned into his phenomenally powerful, yet oh so tender embrace.

After several other provocations, the "culprit" revealed himself to Clark via a holographic recording. He was Lieutenant Ching, an officer in the New Kryptonian military. The New Krypton military had been initially reconstituted from the remnant crew of the lone surviving Kryptonian expeditionary star ship and air, ground and afloat units of the defense and security force of the New Krypton expedition. Ching was the son of one of the ground force officers. He was a junior officer in the second generation of New Krypton's defense force, part of the first generation to be raised from childhood on this new world. Ching had come to Earth aboard the star ship with the Kryptonian noblewoman, the Lady Zara, to whom, unbeknownst to him, Clark had been betrothed at birth. Even then, the star ship loitered just beyond Mars, screened by the red planet from Earth's telescopes. Ching and Zara had traveled from the star ship to earth in a small shuttlecraft, easily concealed near its landing zone here on Earth.

When their home world perished, a remnant of the Kryptonian population, including Ching's parents and the parents of the Lady Zara had been off world with the New Krypton planetary expedition. The small colony of Kryptonians, as well as the crew of the Kryptonian star ship, orbiting the outpost planet had been obliged to start over on this new world they had dubbed "New Krypton."

Life had been harsh for this handful of survivors, but they had managed to establish a foothold on this barren and hostile new world. In many respects, the planet resembled Krypton in its earliest years of human habitation. Like Krypton, it was a heavy gravity world and, like Krypton, it orbited a red sun. Ergo, these refugees lived there much as ordinary men do here on Earth. On New Krypton, their tuned-up genetics did not manifest as "super powers" as they would have in an Earth-like environment, but merely as the minimum essential biological traits necessary for survival in that hellish world. Very soon, this remnant had come to appreciate the heritage that had been bequeathed to them on Krypton. Over the previous ten thousand years, their forbearers had undergone the frightful process of natural selection, a ruthless "weeding out process" that had left the descendents of those who survived with their marvelously enhanced physiologies. And through ten millennia, these descendents had tamed their world, transforming it from hell into a veritable paradise. And now all of that was gone along with the billions of souls who had comprised the population of Planet Krypton.

But the culture of Krypton had been in freefall for the past several generations. After having conquered their planet, the population had yearned for tranquility. And this had, in the end, been their ultimate undoing. After the New Krypton expedition had left on their mission, a mishap costing a substantial number of lives among the Kryptonian astronaut corps led to a general ban against space travel. Surviving Kryptonian astronauts wept as their magnificent starships were sent to the breakers for demolition. A proud, space-faring people had tethered themselves to their home world. Krypton society's former passion for scientific and technological achievement had degenerated to mere lip service. With a few notable exceptions such as those discoveries of the incomparably brilliant young scientist, Jor-El and his two similarly talented brothers, technological progress on Krypton had been reduced to a crawl. And then Jor-El had discovered the planetary dynamics that would soon destroy their world. Krypton's orbital track was shifting substantially "up sun." (That is, closer to their red giant star.) The resulting increase in the tidal effect was grinding and compressing Krypton's gigantic uranium core such that it would soon attain critical mass; turning the entire planet into a colossal nuclear bomb. Jor-El had reported his research and his conclusions to the global Science Council. Although these men were not the planetary political rulers as such, they held nearly as much sway over the political authorities as the mullahs in Iran on earth. There were the trappings of representative government, but subject to benevolent "guidance" of the scientific elite who composed an hereditary aristocracy on Krypton. Although the Krypton society claimed to be a "democratic meritocracy," the truth was that, although absolutely no one lived in poverty or want, the society did have its hidebound social stratifications. Jor-El and his brothers had railed passionately against this self-destructive social ossification. But the brothers "El" were grudging members themselves of the Kryptonian oligarchy. Jor-El had been young and politically inexperienced in the complex, often treacherous workings within the Science Council. He was overruled by the "old heads" of this elitist "board of directors" that was the Science Council, who had decreed, "There must be no panic." There would be no crash program to reconstitute the Kryptonian space program. There would be no fleet of space arcs, at least not sponsored or approved by the Science Council. Although the central authorities had turned a deaf ear to Jor-El's dire warnings, some had listened. The space arc under construction in the capital city of Kandor had been a collaborative venture of private interests and of the municipal government of the City of Kandor. That potential "exit" from the planet had been closed to all once Braniac had stolen the entire metropolitan area and immediately adjacent pastoral region, reducing it to Lilliputian size, imprisoning it inside a large bottle and spiriting it away. Brainiac had stolen Kandor with the intention of placing it on a remote planet over which he would rule, making the citizens of Kandor and cities from other worlds his subjects. And so, the majority within the Krypton Science Council preferred the same abject denial as the leadership of France of the 1930's. During the 1930's politicians in France had opted for national defense on the cheap, a static defense behind the Maginot Line. Lazar Carnot, the great pre- Napoleonic statesman-architect of French military power, must have rolled over in his grave! An adequate national defense had been rejected as "politically infeasible." As a result, representatives of the French General Staff were obliged in June 1940 to meet in a Paris suburb with arguably one of nastiest pieces of work ever spawned by the human race and surrender their country, their homes and their families to the tender mercies of Adolph Hitler for four long years of Nazi occupation. Like France of the 1930's, Krypton society had lost its moral fitness to survive. Jor-El understood this all too well, to his profound chagrin. But, though officially silenced, like the Prophet Jeremiah of ancient Israel, he did not give up his quest to wake up his countrymen until the bitter end. Sadly for the population of Krypton, on their world as here on Earth, "A 'prophet' is never honored in his own country."

Shortly before Krypton exploded, Jor-El transmitted a surreptitious signal to the colonists on New Krypton warning them not to return to Krypton or to allow their star ship to return. The starship would have been impounded and then destroyed and the passengers and crew would then have been marooned on the doomed planet along with the rest of Krypton's population.

Jor-El had transmitted his data and conclusions regarding the fate of Krypton and, fortunately, the leaders of the New Kryptonian expedition had heeded his warnings.

But, like an epidemic bacillus, vestiges of the old Kryptonian social and political system had infected this band of survivors. The social stratification had, if anything, made itself even more pronounced on New Krypton than on their home world. Once the size of the population had begun to increase, a Governing Council composed of male members of the "scientific aristocracy" and of senior officers of the military contingent had been constituted. Unlike old Krypton, this ruling council made no pretense of constitutionality, due process or rule of law. The New Kryptonian society rapidly degenerated to a system (and the term, "system," is a bit of a stretch) of semi- feudalism and "warlord-ism." The attendant factional infighting was a luxury this growing but still pitifully tenuous band of Kryptonian survivors could ill afford.

The star ship had been dispatched to Earth with the Lady Zara and Lieutenant Ching to try to persuade Clark (Kal-El, son of Jor-El, their savior because of his warning) to come to New Krypton to lead the Governing Council and break the political impasse. Lieutenant Ching's "toying" with Clark had been a test, completely unauthorized, but in Ching's mind, quite necessary, to ascertain young Kal-El's worthiness for this role. But Clark would be obliged to abandon his home, Earth, his friends, the love of his life, Lois and everything he'd ever really known as a home world. Lois could not accompany Clark on this one-way journey to rejoin his people. As an infant, a marriage had been arranged between Kal-El and the Lady Zara. As a part of the "bargain," Kal-El would be obliged to marry the Lady Zara in accordance with the betrothal agreement between Zara's parents and his. Moreover, as an ordinary Terran, Lois could not possibly survive in the harsh environment of New Krypton.

Initially, Clark had been reluctant to agree. His emotional ties to earth were strong. And he loved Lois fiercely. It would break his heart to leave her. But Lois, ever the valiant woman, had enjoined her man to go. She had seen what Clark, blinded by love, could not. Lois had insisted, "Human lives are at stake. Our private love is nothing compared to that. You must go."

Ching, overwhelmed by Lois' selflessness, compassion and concern for his people, the people of the race of her love, exclaimed, "Why, Miss Lane! I've underestimated you!"

Clark prepared to go with Zara and Ching. His parting from Lois and from his friends had been painful in the extreme.

On Earth, Clark had developed many of his potential powers, but not all of them. Interestingly, a power the Kryptonians have even under a red sun is telepathy. Once fellow Kryptonians, Zara and Ching, had stoked this latent ability in him, Clark had found he could communicate telepathically even with Terrans. As their shuttlecraft rocketed away from Earth for rendezvous with the Kryptonian star ship, Clark called back to Lois with his mind. "I love you, Lois." Lois had replied both with her mind and with her voice, "I love you too, Clark." He had heard Lois' responses, both of them, mental and verbal. At that moment, he resolved in his own mind that he would find a way to help his kindred on New Krypton and still hold onto Lois, the love of his life.

But just as the Kryptonian star ship had gotten under way on its journey home, another spacecraft from New Krypton arrived in Earth orbit. Lord Nor, one of the "warlords" on the Governing Council, leader of the pro-militarist faction had arrived with about twenty of his henchmen. They transported from their space craft down to Smallville where they immediately took over.

After enslaving the citizens of Smallville, herding them into a barbed-wire compound at night and working them like animals during the day, including Jonathan and Martha Kent, and limiting them to below subsistence rations and water, a small delegation of Smallvillites approached one of Lord Nor's henchmen begging that their rations be increased. Nor's man relayed their petition to his overlord who readily gave his consent saying, "Yes, I agree. Kill the members of the delegation and distribute their rations to the rest."

A television news crew was dispatched to Smallville in hopes of getting some footage of the New Kryptonians. They had not known of the hostile intentions of these aliens. Lord Nor "graciously" agreed to an on camera interview with Metropolis local network affiliate "info babe," Jane Abney, a roving reporter of the regular weekday evening local news broadcast team.

During the interview, the young woman asked Lord Nor about rumors of restrictions on freedom of travel to and from Smallville. Lord Nor replied. "Well, Jane, the citizens of Smallville are free to come and go as they wish but I think they would be safer if they just remained here under my 'protection.'"

"And why is that, Lord Nor?"

"Oh well, Jane," Nor answered in a didactic tone, "because, you see, if they try to leave, I will kill them!"

And then Lord Nor snatched the microphone from Jane's hand and proceeded to lay down his ultimatum to the people of earth: Submission or death. "I don't need you and I don't like you. I will graciously permit you to live to serve me. You may worship me as something of a god. If you puny weaklings try to resist, I will kill you."

The Kryptonian star ship, cruising toward the edge of our solar system, before jumping to trans- light velocity, intercepted the television signals as news of Lord Nor's ultimatum was broadcast worldwide. Clark had no problem persuading the crew of the Kryptonian star ship to come about and return to earth. None of the Kryptonians on that star ship had any intention of leaving the people of earth to the dubious "mercies" of Lord Nor. Indeed, it had been the machinations of this warlord that had motivated them to come to Earth in the first place to ask for Clark's help!

Clark, although born on Krypton, had been rocketed off the planet moments before it exploded. He had left Krypton as a toddler. He had no knowledge of the Byzantine workings of this New Krypton Governing Council. But, as Kal-El, son of Jor-El, he had the right, as a Kryptonian aristocrat, to serve on it. Upon his arrival on New Krypton, he would be elected head of the council, marry the Lady Zara and function as a political counterweight to Lord Nor and his warlord faction. Nor's agenda, should his faction gain ascendancy, would be interplanetary conquest. There were a host of worlds under yellow suns, inhabited by intelligent life, to be conquered and dominated by this tiny remnant from the race of Kryptonian "über mentschen."

But Lord Nor, having discovered the plan to skew the balance of power on the council against his faction, had decided to move forward with his plans of conquest. He and his henchmen had followed the New Kryptonian star ship to earth.

By the time the star ship returned to earth, not only had Nor subjugated the people of Smallville; But because the people of Metropolis had refused to submit to his demand for surrender, he had unleashed his henchmen to wreak havoc on the population. With their heat vision, they blasted away randomly. No one, not even children were exempt from their merciless "pogrom." To amuse themselves, these super men would swoop down, seizing cars, buses and commuter train carriages, hurling them high into the air, allowing them to crash back to Earth killing the occupants. Particularly outrageous was their preference for school buses. Casualties numbered in the thousands.

The Air Forces of the United States and of several other nations had converged on Metropolis, trying to defend the city against the onslaught. Nor's Kryptonian super thugs had swatted them down like nothing more than pesky flies, blasting the defending jets with their heat vision or simply colliding with them with their super hard indestructible bodies. Of particular note was a suicide mission flown by an heroic band of Russian navy pilots. An entire regiment of Russian Navy Sukhoi-33 fighter jets had flown from their base on the Kola Peninsula over the North Pole directly to Metropolis, refueling mid-air en route. They had arrived over Metropolis and immediately entered the melee. All of those heroic Russian aviators had been lost along with several hundred U.S. and Canadian aviators. Carnage on the ground was staggering, both among the civilian population and among military formations that had rushed to defense of the city.

The Kryptonian star ship arrived directly over Metropolis. At first, the people of Earth had presumed they were here to augment Nor's brigands. A young naval aviator, flying his heavily armed FA-18 super hornet fighter jet into the side of the star ship had given his life in a last ditch effort to defend his countrymen in the city below. His aircraft had exploded harmlessly against the super hard hull of the alien star ship. This brave US navy pilot was the last to die in the short-lived but brutal inter-planetary "Battle of Metropolis."

And then it was over. Representatives of the Governing Council aboard the star ship had enjoined Nor and his men to stand down. But, aside from that, there was surprisingly little in the way of sanctions against Lord Nor for his outrages against the people of Smallville and of Metropolis. Truth be known, most the members of the Council, except for Clark, were scared to death of Nor. They had fallen into the same trap as so often we have here on earth of appeasing the implacable. But, in their defense, it should be remembered that these men understood only too well, that an inter Nicene war was a luxury the Kryptonian remnant could ill afford. Nor understood full well the jeopardy to his people of such a conflict, but he couldn't have cared less. He would rule or they could all perish for all he cared.

Clark had met privately with Lady Zara and told her that he had no interest in marrying her, but that he wanted to cooperate with her to break the political impasse in the ruling council. She had enthusiastically agreed. She was in love with Ching and she fully understood that Clark's heart belonged to Lois, not to her. They agreed to collaborate and to keep their romantic interests secret, at least for now.

But, unbeknownst to them both, Nor had his own operatives aboard the star ship, spies who had bugged Clark's and Lady Zara's quarters. Nor presented a recording of Clark's conversation with Lady Zara to the council. Clark was hauled before a "kangaroo court" composed of members of the ruling council and convicted of treason and conspiracy to commit the "crime" of "race mixing" with a non-Kryptonian woman. On Krypton, capital punishment had long since been abolished, but not so on New Krypton. Soon after news came to New Krypton of destruction of their home world, capital punishment had been reinstated. Their reasoning: The emergency situation they faced left no room for such sentimental notions as personal freedoms, rule of law or sanctity of human life. Their lives were harsh and they would live under iron-fisted authoritarian rule, with draconian punishment of any infraction. Clark had been condemned to death and Lord Nor became head of the Governing Council by default. Lord Nor immediately issued his first edicts. Clark's execution would be carried out at once. And then Nor would the become dictator of the New Kryptonian society. All of the New Kryptonians would become his subjects and all non-Kryptonians they came upon, starting with the population of Earth, would be slaves.

Clark had submitted to his sentence without a struggle. He had allowed himself to be led like a sheep to slaughter to a device that would reduce his body to a stream of molecules to be flared off into space. This infernal contraption would destroy even "Superman's" otherwise indestructible body. As the sentence was about to be carried out, Ching approached Councilor Trey, a senior member of the Governing Council with a quirk in the old Kryptonian legal code. An obscure, nearly forgotten, provision in the code stipulated that any Kryptonian accused of a capital offense had the right to "trial by ordeal," mortal combat with his accuser. Since capital punishment had been banned on Krypton, this provision no longer had any meaningful application. But with re- enactment of capital punishment came also this provision, ipso facto.

If Ching had not chosen a military career, he could have made a great lawyer. He argued eloquently for implementation of this provision of the code and prevailed with a majority of the Council. Clark's execution was immediately halted and he was given the equivalent of one Earth day, 24 hours, to prepare for a fight to the death with his accuser, Lord Nor.

Clark had a thoroughgoing knowledge of all of the martial arts here on Earth. And during most of the time allotted to them, Ching had schooled Clark in the finer points of Kryptonian martial arts. Because they could communicate telepathically, and because of Clark's super intelligence and super speed here on Earth, he proved a very quick study. Within a matter of hours, he had assimilated all of Ching's hand-to-hand combat skills, hard earned over a lifetime.

The hour of combat was at hand. Clark and Nor were ordered to rendezvous on the ground in a relatively isolated section of the Metropolis warehouse district. The fate of the populations of two worlds, Earth and New Krypton, hung in the balance. The outcome would mean either freedom for both or slavery for both. Nor gained the initial advantage, but as the struggle continued, Clark gained the upper hand, finally knocking Lord Nor unconscious. New Kryptonian law stipulated that Clark must kill the helpless Nor, but he had sworn to devote his life to protection of life, all life. He could not will himself to administer the coup de grace. Killing was simply repugnant to his nature.

But any notion that Lord Nor had ever intended to abide by the rules of this "engagement" was purely illusory. Nor had no such intention. His henchmen had flashed into view and immediately piled on the super man, pummeling him mercilessly. Even the mighty Superman could not hope to prevail against this mob of Kryptonian super thugs. Unbeknownst to the Kryptonians, US Army Colonel Mitchell Cash had decided not to leave the fate of his world in the hands of these alien interlopers. He had led a small detachment from his command to Star Labs in Metropolis. They had forced their way into the facility and absconded with samples of green Kryptonite known to be stored there for safekeeping. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) was retrofitted with a chemical warhead, laced with Kryptonite dust. Kryptonite is non-lethal to the humans of Earth, provided the exposure is of short duration. But exposure even in relatively small dosages will bring down any Kryptonian immediately and after only a short time, they will die.

Colonel Cash ordered one of his men to fire the weapon into the melee'. The fact that the warhead was as deadly to Superman as to Nor and his henchmen mattered not one iota. The life of one man, even of Superman, was secondary in the Colonel's mind to the fate of mankind here on Earth.

But, as luck would have it, Clark was at the bottom of the pile. The bodies of his assailants had shielded him from the worst of the deadly kryptonite radiation. But Lord Nor and all of his assailants had perished.

The political impasse on New Krypton had been resolved by Lord Nor's death. Clark was free to marry Lois and Ching, notwithstanding his status as a commoner in Kryptonian society, was free to marry his love, the Lady Zara. The Kryptonians agreed that, given the horrors inflicted upon the people of Smallville and of Metropolis that it would be best if they simply left. But the delegation from the Governing Council had demanded that this "rogue" US Army Colonel be tried for murder. They grudgingly agreed to accept the venue of a US Army Court Martial. It was, of course, not a fair trial. Everyone knew that the heroic Colonel Cash would be a "sacrificial lamb" to the demands of the New Krypton Governing Council. Both Clark and Lieutenant Ching had argued passionately before the Court Martial on behalf of the Colonel, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Colonel Cash was cashiered from the Army and sentenced to confinement for life in the Federal Penitentiary at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. He was paroled after serving but one year of his sentence. With the New Kryptonians and their star ship out of the way, it was decided there was no longer any need to hold Colonel Cash in custody. Men of all ranks from militaries around the world, even from such hostile states as North Korea, contributed generously to a fund to replace the Colonel's forfeited Army retirement pension. This had been as much defiance of the New Kryptonians ascharity to Colonel Cash.

The injustice foisted upon this heroic and resourceful army officer, the horrors inflicted upon the people of Smallville and of Metropolis, as well as Lord Nor's threats against all mankind, had fueled a festering resentment and hostility among all of the military establishments of the world. This hatred and suspicion had been faithfully inculcated among raw enlisted recruits and officer cadets and naval midshipmen all over the world. No matter the hostilities among the nations of Earth, the militaries of our world were united around one issue: hatred and suspicion of anyone or anything Kryptonian.

The fact that both Superman and Lieutenant Ching had argued passionately first for the innocence and then for leniency for Colonel Cash did little to allay resentment and suspicion of Superman and of all Kryptonians among military men all over the world. This had hurt Clark to the core of his soul. But, he felt he could not, in all fairness, blame the fighting men of Earth for their suspicion and bitter resentment. He resolved to do his best to adopt the least threatening posture he could with respect to military formations of Earth; approaching them only when absolutely necessary and then in a way that even the most paranoid and trigger happy military commanders would interpret as non-threatening.


Chapter 1 The Third Son

It was into this milieu that young Matthew Mark Kent had been born. He was the third of three boys born to Lois and Clark and the only one among the three not born with super powers. Mark's two older brothers, Jonathan Luke and Lane Clark had been born with all of their father's marvelous abilities. Clark had been obliged to gestate the two older boys in specially constructed artificial wombs. Lois' body could never have delivered the substantial volumes of nutrients needed for proper development of the fetuses. And even if such had been possible, her fragile womb could never have carried these super babies to full term.

But Mark had been different. He was completely normal, with all his fingers and toes; and he had been healthy as a horse, but with no super powers. He had been a beautiful baby, but smaller than either Jon or Lane. Both Jon and Lane had been "long babies," bespeaking their height once they reached maturity. Mark was shorter; more compact, but with the sturdy build of a young bull. Clark had decided to shield young Mark from any knowledge of his or of Jon or Lane's super powers. Neither Jon nor Lane had agreed with their father's decision to blindside Mark. They both adored Mark. How they had longed to take their little brother along with them on their trans-global jaunts as they flew all over the world as easily as any ordinary young boy might've walked around the block.

But they did not violate their father's wishes. They were fiercely loyal to him and unswervingly obedient. Clark had reasoned, with Lois, Jon and Lane that to read Mark in on the "family secret" would place him in needless jeopardy. But, perhaps, closer to the truth was Clark's nagging fear that his son would hate him because he had not been endowed with super powers, as had his two older brothers. Clark could not have withstood that. He loved his youngest son, indeed all three of his sons.

His mom and dad, Jonathan and Martha, although they understood Clark's disappointment, had been thrilled that their super son could father a normal child. Meaning no offense, they had been careful to keep their feelings to themselves. Some of the joys of parenting a normal child had been denied them in young Clark. So now they doted on little Mark. Not that they loved Jon or Lane any less, but for Jonathan and Martha, Mark was unique, special. By his mere existence, Mark had forged a special new link to their own son, Clark, that they had never dreamed could have been possible. Things had come full circle. They had raised a super boy to young adulthood. Now, in turn, their son would raise a normal little boy to carry forward the Kent family name.

Notwithstanding his lack of super powers, Mark's Kryptonian heritage was evident almost from the start. He was as brilliant as his two older brothers, if not moreso. And his strength and agility were phenomenal for a young Terran. The little boy was driven to achievement almost from day one and a little daredevil to boot.

One day, while Lois and Clark had been away, young Mark had climbed a tree in the back yard of the Kent family home. A branch had folded under the child's weight and given way. Before Jon or Lane could get to him, he had fallen to the ground and broken his arm. Jon had called to his dad telepathically and Clark and Lois had rushed home. They took Mark to their family doctor to have his arm set and casted. Through it all, Mark had refused to cry, explaining, "Only sissies cry. And I am not a sissy." But Jon and Lane had slipped away and cried their eyes out for their little brother and his pain.

Throughout middle school, high school and university, Mark had been a star gymnast. Had he chosen to do so, he could've been an Olympic gold medalist. But he had an even greater passion, flying. He had worked part-time evenings and weekends to save his money for flying lessons. He had made his first solo flight on the earliest legal date, his eighteenth birthday. In university, he had enrolled in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and, in his senior year, had been appointed battalion commander. He graduated from university in aerospace engineering Suma Cum Laude. He was commissioned an Ensign in the US Navy and posted immediately to primary flight training at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. Upon completion of primary training, he was assigned to advanced jet training at Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas. Upon graduation from flight training, first in his class, he was given his first choice of fleet assignments, an FA-37 fighter attack squadron on the west coast, part of USS Nimitz' air wing.

Nimitz was by then the oldest carrier in the US Navy Pacific fleet, but having undergone a total refit, she was equipped with all the very latest technology. Her nuclear power plant had been completely replaced with the navy's newest nuclear fusion propulsion system. Trusty old Nimitz had been transformed into virtually a brand new ship! Mark had chosen this assignment mainly as a matter of timing. He would finish his FA-37 Bearcat aircraft "type training" just as Nimitz was ready to leave homeport for a six-month deployment to the Western Pacific (WESTPAC). Mark had wanted to get as much operational flying experience as humanly possible during his first at-sea tour of duty.


Chapter 2 Secret Mission

Shortly before the squadron was ready to leave their home base at Naval Air Station Lemore, California, for embarkation aboard USS Nimitz, young Mark had been summoned to the office of his squadron CO.

"Sir, Lieutenant Junior Grade Kent reporting as ordered."

Commander Riley replied. "At ease Kent. Shut the door and have a seat."

Commander Riley offered the boy coffee from his urn over in the corner. "Just make it yourself. All the fixin's are right there."

"Yes sir. Thanks."

Commander Riley moved around from behind his desk and took a chair alongside Mark and motioned for him to sit.

"Son, what I am about to share with you is a secret so highly classified that only a handful of men in the entire Navy know about it. It involves a potential threat so lethal that the air forces of a number of nations around the world have forged an ad hoc alliance to counter it."

Mark looked down for a moment. Then he looked up at his CO and mumbled, "Superman…"

Commander Riley's jaw fell open. "Well, son, you sure know how to cut right to the chase! You figured that out with almost nothing to go on. I'm impressed!"

"Well, sir. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out what our most lethal threat would be. What is the one single threat on this Earth against which we have absolutely no, zip, zero nada defense? Well, sir, I think the answer to that is fairly obvious. Superman's intentions, so far, have seemed peaceful enough. And I'm willing to concede that appearances are probably genuine. But we're not in the business of second guessing intentions. We base our war plans on capabilities of a potential threat. And, with his bare hands that," Mark paused, "man is capable of precipitating an extinction level event on this planet and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it."

Commander Riley's countenance darkened. He shifted gears slightly as he looked into Mark's eyes. "Son, you're right on with your first point. But your second point is not entirely accurate."

Mark stiffened. "Oh?"

"Mark," the skipper changed to the boy's first name, "what I am about to tell you is the most highly classified secret in all of the US defense establishment or that of any defense establishment on this planet…"

Mark interrupted. "Oh, so you have found a way."

The CO looked hard at Mark. "Son, before I go further, I must warn you. If we think there is even the slightest chance that you might compromise the secret I am about to share with you, you will be killed, no questions asked. You will die in some freak accident, very tragic, end of story. Do I make myself unambiguously clear? Now is your very last chance to back out of this. Once I go on, there's no turning back. Do you understand that clearly?"

Mark looked his commanding officer square in the eye. "Sir, I think I know where this is going. And, Skipper, I want you to know, I am honored that you would even consider me for a mission like this. I will guard this information with my life, I promise you. If it ever came to that, sir, I'd take myself out. But, come hell or high water, I will never betray this mission or my country or my species."

The CO nodded gravely. "I see, Mark, that you appreciate the gravity of all this. And if I didn't trust you and if you weren't such a damn good stick, I would never have come this far with you. But I am gratified no end that you 'get it' concerning just how important this really is. There are no more than five thousand or so men on this planet who know the full scope of this mission. We are an elite brotherhood, sworn to defense of our species. Our number includes pilots and ground crew from most of the major air forces on Earth and even some of the not-so-major air forces. You might be surprised to know that your brethren include aviators from nations as disparate as the NATO nations, Russia, China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Israel, Egypt, Syria, South Korea, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. But also even Iran and North Korea! Politics be-damned. We're all in this together. This goes beyond loyalty to country, Mark. You called it bang on a few moments ago. This is a mission to defend the human species here on Earth. God forbid that Superman or beings like him would ever cop an "attitude" with us. But if they ever do, we will be ready. We've covered all the bases; left nothing to chance. In fact, at this very moment, this room is covered by a "null-silencer." Our voices absolutely cannot be heard outside this room. An electronic device perfectly neutralizes all the sound waves emitted from this room. Even if Superman or any of his kind were to focus 100% of their super hearing on this room right now, they could hear nothing. We've interrogated Lex Luthor. He has no idea what our angle was. But he did tell us that it's the little things that Superman uses to outsmart us. Little things like not shielding conversations like this one."

Mark nodded. He was very impressed.

"I'll do my best sir, my very best."

"I know you will, Mark. Now to explain how all this works. Superman has not given us the slightest reason to suspect any hostile intent on his part. We are not dealing here with perceived intent as you correctly observed. We are dealing with the man's capabilities. And, yes, he most certainly is capable of inducing an extinction level event here on earth, as are others of his kind. And there's a whole planet load of them out there somewhere and, at least some of them are just waiting for a chance to come back here and clobber us. Until recently, we here on earth were totally dependent upon the goodwill of the people of New Krypton to protect us from a handful of their 'bad apples.' But now, we have a little ace of our own up our sleeve. Are you familiar at all with any of the components of the old 'star wars' program from the administration of President Reagan?"

"Sir, yes sir, I am. And I bet I know where this is going. You've built a thermo-nuclear pumped gamma x-ray laser weapon with lasing rods that 'modulate' the gamma x-rays to a frequency at or near the wavelength of 'Kryptonite-Golf' (green Kryptonite). It would be a one-way mission as best I can tell. To detach the weapon from the attacking aircraft, allowing pilot and plane escape to safe distance before detonation would give the target way too much time to escape or counter attack."

Again, Commander Riley was slack jawed. "Mark, you're bang on again! I have to ask you. Has anyone discussed this mission with you before?"

"Sir, no sir. But there are only so many options available, given the technologies we have in hand, at least that I know of. Some of us guys in the wardroom have bandied about ideas on how we could bring off something like this. This is fairly way out stuff, sir, but it seems like the option most likely to give us any chance at success. And, Skipper, I can tell you this. If it ever came to that, there's not a man in this squadron who wouldn't volunteer to go, even knowing it would be a one- way mission. And that's right down to the most junior, wet behind the ears white hat we've got."

"Well, Mark, the important thing is could you fly a suicide mission? It goes against all our naval traditions. We've had pilots fly almost hopeless missions before. Torpedo Eight in World War Two was a prime example. But that was fortunes of war. Those pilots did not launch off their deck on a premeditated 'kamikaze' mission as you would be doing."

Again, Mark looked his commanding officer square in the eye and said, "Sir, if it ever came to that, I want you to understand very clearly, I would not hesitate to do my duty. It would be an honor beyond words to fly that mission. And if it ever fell to me to do it, I would do it and I would not fail!"

Commander Riley nodded. "Your passion is typical of our mission pilots around the world, Mark. But where does yours come from? What is fueling your passion for this mission? I need to know that."

Softly, Mark replied, "Sir, my mom and dad were in Metropolis and my grandparents were in Smallville when 'they' came."

"Well, son, that certainly makes it clear enough," Commander Riley replied. You'll detach from the squadron for training at Naval Air Station, Fallon, Nevada. You'll return to the squadron just before we're ready to get under way. Any questions?"

"Sir, no sir!"

"Very well, Mark, thank you. That'll be all."

Mark rose from his chair, and said, "Sir, yes sir. Good afternoon, sir."

His performance at NAS, Fallon had been a perfect four-oh. There was no question that, should the need arise Mark would be ready.


Chapter 3 The Family Secret

After graduation from high school as class valedictorian, the third of the three Kent sons to do so, Mark had announced to his parents that he intended to apply for a Naval ROTC scholarship at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Lois and Clark, both confirmed pacifists, had been quietly chagrined, but they knew Mark well enough to know there would be no dissuading him, so they gave him their blessing, reluctantly. Mark knew and understood their reservations. He loved his mom and dad dearly and, indeed, deeply admired their idealism. But he saw himself as more of a realist. He left it to folks like his parents to be the visionaries. Somebody needed to see things as they really are and behave accordingly. It was, in large measure, his desire to protect his family that he chose to volunteer for military service. He had always known of the horrors of Smallville and of Metropolis. Everybody did. But it had never been talked about by anyone in his family. It had just always been understood that this was never ever to be discussed. And there was another perennially nagging issue for Mark. Since his childhood, Mark had always sensed something in his father, Clark; something that he had taken as mild disapproval. Mark could never quite put his finger on it, but he felt there was something about him that had caused his dad disappointment.

One Friday night during his junior year in high school, after a gymnastics meet during which he'd turned in the best performance of his life up to that time, taking top honors, he had overheard his father, crying. He could hear his mother, Lois, speaking words of comfort to her husband. He could not understand exactly what they were saying, but, somehow, he had known it was about him. Mark had presumed it had something to do with that disappointment he'd always sensed in his father. He was heart-broken. "What else can I do, Mark pondered? Nothing I try works. Nothing!" Mark steeled himself to what he saw as the inevitable. He loved his dad fiercely. He would have done anything, anything in his power to please him. Mark trusted implicitly in his father's sense of fairness. He concluded, "If it were something Dad thought I could do anything about, he would surely come and tell me. So, it's obviously something over which I have no control." From that time on, grimly, he simply accepted that he could never live up to his father's expectations, whatever they were, so he would simply do his best in whatever he undertook; not for his father's approval, which he had concluded was unattainable, but simply because it was the right thing to do.

Clark would have been mortified had he known this. His love for his son and his pride in him were beyond words. His disappointment was not in his son but for him. The night of Mark's magnificent gymnastics performance, taking top honors in every single event, Clark had wept for what his son had been denied. He was achieving so much with what talents and gifts he had. But Clark wept because he felt his son had been "robbed" of his 'birthright,' to soar like an eagle, to run faster than a locomotive or a speeding bullet, to bend cold steel in his bare hands; and there was nothing, nothing he could do about it. Clark had not understood that he carried a rare rogue gene, a throwback from those earliest generations on Krypton before the merciless weeding out process had nearly eliminated it completely. The odds of two Kryptonians who carried this gene marrying and having children were almost infinitesimal. And, even then, the probability of even two such parents giving birth to a child without the special traits needed for survival on Krypton were exceedingly remote; less than one hundred twenty to one. But Lois was Terran, not Kryptonian. And the odds came to full fruition in their third child. Had Mark's mother been Kryptonian, he would almost certainly have been born a super being. Even Lois had borne two super boys before giving birth to Mark. On Krypton, without aggressive medical intervention, Mark could never have survived pregnancy in the womb of a Kryptonian mother. He would have been stillborn within matter of days or even hours.

But, here on Earth, he had a chance for a happy, healthy, normal life. Clark and Lois had resolved to give him that. And Jon and Lane had gone along, albeit reluctantly. They had never agreed with their dad that Mark should be kept in the dark about the family secret.

They compensated, showering their baby brother with love and attention. They were crazy about Mark. They attended his gymnastics meets faithfully. They were his biggest fans. They were filled with pride that their normal little brother would be such a magnificent achiever, both academically and athletically. For Jon and Lane, Mark had been more than just a beloved little brother. He had also been vicarious validation for them. As super boys, since so many of their achievements came so easily, they seemed not to count for much. But Mark, their baby brother, though marvelously gifted for a Terran, had been obliged to strive for his achievements. That he had been nevertheless, so magnificently accomplished, especially in academics and athletics, was to Jon and Lane some of an indication of what might have been.

And Mark returned his brothers' love and attention in kind, occasionally "ambushing" them with some little gesture or other of his affection for them. But he'd always sensed that Jon and Lane were a pair and that he was somehow different from them; that it would always be Jon and Lane… and Mark, as though his two older brothers were two sides of the same coin while he was something else. This never bothered Mark. It had never occurred to him that there could've been anything wrong with this state of affairs. He just chalked it off to a difference in personalities and interests. But Mark had always seen Jon and Lane as the two coolest older bros a little brother could possibly ask for.

After graduation, Mark had been commissioned an Ensign in the Navy. He applied and was accepted for flight training. It was the only time he and his dad had ever exchanged harsh words. Clark had been beside himself with anguish.

"Mark, he exclaimed, do you have any idea what this news will do to your mom. She and I will be worried sick about you! Please, son, I've never asked you for anything. But, Mark, I'm begging you, please don't do this to your mom and me."

For the life of him, Mark could not understand why his dad would begrudge him his career as a Navy pilot. Clark had risked his life countless times in pursuit of some news story or other. And his mom had been no less daring in pursuit of her career. Mark had retorted. "Dad, you have no right to lay anything like that on me. How many times when we kids were comin' up did you or Mom or both of you go off chasing some story or other while we kids waited home with Ma and Pa, wondering if you'd even make it back alive? Well now, Dad, the worm has turned. Now it's your turn to stay home and bite your nails, worried sick every time the phone or the front door bell rings."

Mark had already assumed that, no matter what he did, his dad would not approve, so he just went ahead and followed his dream. He was sorry for his dad's disapproval, but he decided he would just have to live with that. He'd long since given up hope of ever living up to his dad's expectations, whatever in the heck those were.

Clark had been compelled to capitulate. By hiding the family secret from Mark, he had unwittingly subjected his youngest son to needless worry about his own safety during, were it not for his invulnerability, what would have been hazardous news gathering assignments; worry that both Jon and Lane had been spared because, unlike Mark, they had known of their father's invulnerability. Because he had kept his true nature hidden from Mark, Clark was in no position to protest that he had never been in any real physical danger.

In spite of his fear for his son's safety, Clark was secretly proud of him, especially that he had somehow found his way into the sky, even without super powers. How he had loved flying with his two super sons, Jon and Lane, but oh how he'd longed to fly with Mark! But then, there had been that time when Mark had flown his first solo cross-country. Clark had been there, flying with his son, just aft of his son's aircraft, just barely outside the young pilot's field of view. Now and again, now that Mark was a Navy jet pilot, Superman would streak off to steal a few minutes flying with his son, even though Mark had always been blissfully unaware.

Superman had no inkling of the special mission, the secret mission of the air forces of the world to take him out should the need ever arise. The military establishments of Earth had pulled off the coup of the century putting this one over on the "Man of Steel." It was a manifestation of military discipline and mutual loyalty and trust quite unique in the annals of human history. That such secrecy could be maintained across so many national and cultural barriers, in spite of ethnic and nationalist animosities, was powerful testimony to the resilience and adaptability of the human species here on Earth. The mission had been designated the "Single Element Operational Plan." (SEOP) "Single Element," because the primary attack profile employed only a single aircraft. A swarm of war birds converging on Superman had been dismissed as "too obvious" to have any likelihood of success. A "swarm" would only be employed as a last ditch effort to save the mission in the event of failure of the first attack wherein the element of surprise had been lost. The world had been divided into 360 patrol sectors. At any given moment, 24/7, SEOP missions were being flown in something of a "zone defense." Once the decision had been made and the attacking aircraft designated, the battle shifted from zone to man on man. The attacking aircraft would be vectored to its attack fix. The pilot would aim the weapon and detonate. The nuclear explosion would destroy the aircraft, pilot and weapon, but not before gamma X-rays lased to the frequency of Kryptonite- Golf were beamed at the target. The resultant shock wave would atomize the target, the hostile Kryptonian, be it Superman or someone else, who threatened the security of Earth.

The battle plan was fairly straightforward. If it were determined that the Kryptonian threat was someone other than Superman, and Superman adopted a defensive posture on behalf of Earth, his struggle with the Kryptonian attacker would be allowed to play itself out. Perhaps Superman might prevail over the Kryptonian attacker. If so, and if SEOP were kept under wraps, the secret would not be compromised and the weapon would be ready and available for use in the future, should the need arise.

As a part of the SEOP battle management system, special sensor packages had been retrofitted to a number of communication satellites in geo stationary orbit. The body of a Kryptonian behaves under a yellow sun somewhat like a storage battery, but also as something of a focus lens and amplifier of the sun's radiant energy. But even a Kryptonian can absorb only such much solar energy. And, here on Earth their maximum potential is reached within a fraction of a second after initial exposure to the radiation of the yellow sun. The farther away a Kryptonian travels from a yellow star, the longer it takes for their bodies to attain maximum energy "saturation." But, whatever the distance, once maximum power absorption level has been attained, energy "overflow" occurs; manifest as alpha radiation that can be detected at great distances. The satellite mounted alpha radiation sensors in geo-stationary orbit about the earth were linked in a global network such that Superman's location could be determined at any time, so long as he was in flight above the ground. Superman's position, course and speed would be then "triangulated" by at least three satellite sensors and relayed to every SEOP command center on Earth. There was no way Superman could know he was being tracked since these sensors operated in passive mode only.

It was imperative that the fact and the means of this sensor tracking remain secret. All of Superman's alpha emissions came from his head and his hands. His costume attenuated emissions from the rest of his body. Gloves and a ski mask would have been all Superman needed to defeat the SEOP alpha emission tracking sensors.

SEOP patrol aircraft around the world were continuously apprised of Superman's location in flight and the primary "go-bird" was always clearly designated among the international fleet of patrolling aircraft.

Pilot mission training had been done "zip lip" in ground based flight simulators. No possibility of mission profiling by Superman could be permitted. All SEOP aircraft flew spurious mission profiles in order to avoid detection. Function of the SEOP weapons had been painstakingly disguised. There were no Kryptonite components. The weapon's Kryptonite radiation was to be artificially induced by specially constructed laser aiming rods. Detection of the true purpose of a SEOP weapon by Superman or by any Kryptonian would have been highly improbable.


Chapter 4 Close Encounter

As Mark was flying a night SEOP mission over the southwest Pacific just west of the Philippines, his father had chosen to "steal" a few moments of joy by surreptitiously flying in formation with his son. It was a pitch-dark night; no way his son could possibly detect his presence. But, of course, Mark had known of Superman's presence. The SEOP sensing grid detected Superman's approach to Mark's SEOP patrol jet and flashed a warning to Mark's "home plate," USS Nimitz. Nimitz relayed the warning to an orbiting E2-C radar surveillance plane which had in turn relayed to Mark the warning "Babylon extreme" (approaching SEOP target). All subsequent tactical transmissions would be via encrypted data link direct to his onboard tactical computer. The readouts would be displayed on his cockpit CRT dead center on his instrument panel with redundant readout on his head up display (HUD). Aside from target relative position, altitude and closure rate, the only possible subsequent transmission would be "Babylon mercy," (target has turned away, immediate abort and return to base), "Babylon down" (a command to self-destruct) or "alas Babylon," the order to attack. Mark reflected ruefully, "Three possibilities and two of them are bad."

But Mark was determined to do his duty, come what may, in spite of the mounting terror. The terror was that, perhaps the mission had been compromised and that Superman had come to snuff this threat. Or, perhaps, Superman had finally gone bad and this was the preparatory order before the final order to attack. Mark told himself "Focus! Keep your mind on the mission!"

Mark took immediate evasive action, snap rolling his aircraft and diving for the deck. Two escort chase planes had gone "buster" (i.e. max afterburner) and were streaking to his position.

Superman quickly began to realize that something was wrong. With his distance and X- ray vision, Superman scanned Mark's cockpit. He could not understand the arcane symbols on the display mounted on his instrument panel, but he knew enough to realize there was some emergency afoot. He could hear Mark's heavy breathing and elevated heart rate. His boy was clearly frightened but, nevertheless, he was focused on his flying, and his mission not on his fear. The young aviator was flying through his fear doing his duty, just as he'd vowed to do, "come what may."

Superman sensed the approach of Mark's escort jets, bearing down on him. He quickly scanned Mark's aircraft to make absolutely sure that the emergency, whatever it was, had nothing to do with safety of flight. Engine, control surfaces and all safety of flight systems seemed to be operating in normal range. Superman spotted Mark's SEOP weapon and gave it a cursory scan. With Mark's relief jets' rapid approach, there'd been no time for a more than a quick glance. The device appeared to be an anti-ballistic missile weapon. The design engineers had left nothing to chance. Although, if utilized, the weapon would not be detached from the aircraft, it had been mounted as a warhead on an air-to-air missile with radar and IR sensors and onboard computer guidance system. Weapon and mission profiles conformed to those of an air launched anti-ballistic missile defense system. Indeed, the weapon would have been perfectly serviceable in an anti- ballistic missile defense mission. This directed energy beam weapon could have atomized any target, not just a Kryptonian super man.

Perhaps Superman might've guessed the purpose of the SEOP weapon if he'd had more time for a closer look, but his cursory examination of the weapon led reasonably to the conclusion that this was an anti-ballistic missile defensive weapon and he'd had no reason to suppose otherwise. Any curiosity Superman might've had regarding the weapon had been satisfied with a plausible conclusion. This had been the designers' intent and their ruse had fooled even the incomparably brilliant "Man of Steel." Superman could be excused for having been misled, however. His primary concern and focus of attention had been safe operation of the jet and the safety of his son. And there just hadn't been time for much more before he was obliged to leave due to the rapid approach of Mark's escort jets.

Still, as Superman streaked away, he was puzzled. What was the nature of Mark's emergency? Why had those escort jets gone "buster" to come to his assistance? Why had Mark taken evasive action? And why had his son been so terrified? "Well," he shrugged, "Even I can't expect to have all the answers."

As Superman swerved away from his Son's aircraft, satellite born sensors tracked his course, immediately transmitting the "all clear" throughout the SEOP network, including the USS Nimitz. From Nimitz' Combat Direction Center, the signal was relayed to the loitering E2-C Hawkeye radar plane and from there to Mark's cockpit display, "Babylon mercy, return to base."

From his violently evasive maneuvers, Mark rolled wings level and climbed back to his operational altitude, "angels eighteen," (18,000 feet MSL) and turned toward the ship. Inside, Mark was an emotional wreck. But he had stared death square in the face and come through having done is duty. There had been no doubt, in Mark's mind that he would have followed through with either the command to self-destruct or to attack. Until this sortie, he'd never really known for sure in his own mind, how could he know until he'd faced it for real, whether he would really and truly have the courage to follow through and do his duty. He'd felt fairly confident in himself, but now it was different. Now he knew. If nothing else good had come of this sortie, at least he would be walking away from it certain of his own heart and mind. He had kept the faith and he knew full well that if it ever came to that, he would do it again!

After shutting down his engines, Mark sat in his cockpit collecting himself. Presently, he disconnected his g-suit, inserted the ejection seat safety pins, disconnected the coke fittings of his parachute harness from his ejection seat and clambered down from his aircraft to the flight deck of USS Nimitz.

After removing his flight helmet and gloves, without looking back at his aircraft, he descended the crew ladder down to the platform that led into the bowels of the ship and made his way to "CVIC," the carrier's intelligence center for post flight debrief.

As he left CVIC after his debrief, Mark was handed a note by one of the duty petty officers. It was from his squadron XO (Executive Officer, the squadron 2nd in command). His presence was requested in the XO's stateroom, ASAP.

Wearily, Mark trudged down the passageway, arriving at the XO's stateroom door. He knocked. From inside he heard the voice of Commander Jeff (Pigdog) Barstowe. "Come." (Commander Barstowe didn't like his call sign any better than Mark liked his.)


Chapter 5 Mysterious Recall

Mark had assumed Commander Barstowe wanted a separate debrief on his close call with "target Babylon," but not so. A message had arrived from the Pentagon ordering "that LTJG Kent, M. M., return immediately to CONUS (the continental United States) 'for further transport' to the Naval Personnel Command, 'NPC,' in Washington, DC to await further orders."

Everyone in the squadron had been mystified why a young "nugget" aviator would be ordered home half way through a routine deployment. Some had guessed it might've had something to do with Mark's night mission, but very few among the crew in the embarked air wing or ship's company had been read in on SEOP.

When young LTJG Kent arrived at NPC, he received orders "to go on indefinite leave." There was a cover letter, signed by Major General Henry Vynes, III, USMC, Director of the Joint Staff, "suggesting" that LTJG Kent proceed immediately to his parents' weekend home, a small cabin on a lake in upstate New York. Kent's leave orders bore a code indicating this 'directive' had originated from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This had raised some eyebrows among the staff at NPC, but they had strict orders not to delve into the matter. Mark placed a call to his parents' weekend home and his mom, Lois, answered. "Oh, Mark, your dad and I have been waiting for your call. We're looking forward to seeing you."

"Sure mom. Mind telling me what this is all about?"

"Not at all, Mark, but it'll have to wait till you get here."

"OK, Mom. I've got a flight out of DC leaving for Newark in a couple of hours. I'll connect from there to Rochester and rent a car when I get there. I'll be at the lake by dark. See you then."

When Mark arrived, his parents were waiting for him on the front porch of their lakeside weekend cabin. After the customary greetings, Lois and Clark led their youngest son into the cabin and they sat down for some supper. Lois has never been much of a cook. Clark was by far the better cook between him and Lois, but she had insisted on preparing this meal on her own. She had gone all out, and it was obvious she'd done her "Martha Stewart Cookbook" best to prepare a nice dinner for her son.

After supper, Lois spoke first, "Mark, your dad and I have something to tell you. We called in a couple of favors from senior people at the Pentagon who owed us to get them to order you home."

And then Clark, whose dark, athletic good looks belied his 53 years, rose from the table only to be replaced by a whirling blur, replaced in turn by a well muscled young man who appeared to be no more than 30 years old. He was dressed in blue and red spandex with a red cape. Mark, startled speechless and breathless, jumped out of his chair at the dinner table and sprung between the young super man and his mom. Here he was, "Babylon!" His main enemy, intentions unknown, with his mother in this room and his father vanished… up in a puff of 'smoke!' Mark's verbal response: "Jesusmaryjoseph!!! What in the hell… is this???"

Lois laid her hand on Mark's right shoulder. "It's OK, Mark. This is your father."

At least three octaves above his normal register, Mark bleated, "My what??? What do you mean, 'my father?'"

"Mark… Clark is… your dad… is Superman."

"Whaaat?" Mark sagged back into his chair.

The red-caped super hero spoke up: "That's right, Mark, I am your dad. I am 'Clark Kent.'"

For more than a minute, Mark sat in stunned silence as the truth sank in. When he finally recovered his voice, his quite understandable response was denial.

"Criminie! You look old enough to be… an older brother, maybe! But my dad? No way! And besides, you're an alien!

You cannot possibly be my father!" C'mon Mom, what the hell is this?"

He turned to the "Man of Steel" and demanded, "What have you done with my dad?"

Lois looked at her son. "Mark, honey, I know this is a shock but it's true. This is your dad. The reason he looks so young right now is because he doesn't age like ordinary people do. The only reason Clark looks as old as he does most of the time is because it's a disguise. He has to do that to appear to be aging more or less normally to get along in the world; so he and I can have a normal life."

Mark fixed his gaze on the alien muscleman. "This cannot be happening! This is insane! You are my father? If you're my father, what does that make me? You two are telling me I am some kind of interstellar half-breed freak! If that's true, my God, I'm not even a purebred human being! I'm some kind of inhuman, half-alien mongrel. Right? I mean, how could the two of you… breed?"

Clark reached out to his son who recoiled in revulsion. He pleaded, "Look, Mark, your mom and I have carried this burden since you were born. We never really knew how to handle this with you. There were so many times we've wanted to tell you. But I decided it would be better not to… It was my decision."

Mark pulled himself together. He eyed his father coldly and said. "You have no idea the position you've put me in by blindsiding me like this."

Mark continued. "You are not my father. My father is dead! He never really existed! How could you do this, Mom, with this… this alien freak? What in God's holy name were you thinking?"

"Mark, he's not a freak. He's your dad and he's my husband. I love him and we both love you. Please! This mustn't change anything between us. We don't feel any differently about you."

Mark turned on the Man of Steel. "Look, mister, I'm really freaking out here. I need you to change back to your ordinary human disguise, now. I know now that it's bogus, but I just can't deal with an alien muscle dude in skintight blue and red spandex calling me 'Son!' And, oh, by the way, do me a favor and don't do that 'whirling dervish' thing you did a minute ago. Just go into the other room and change. And please don't just whisk out of the room and whisk right back. Hang back a minute and let my head adjust. I know it won't be real, but I can't deal with this 'wacked-out' reality right now. I really need the illusion, OK?"

"OK, Mark… Be right back."

A few minutes later, Clark reentered the kitchen, still "youngish-looking," but not 30 years young! … buttoning his shirt as he entered the room. He eyed his son nervously.

Mark challenged, "What about Lane and Jon? Why single me out? Have you told them?"

Lois spoke. "Mark… Lane and Jon were born like your father. They have the same powers as your dad."

For the second time in five minutes, Mark's world had been rocked. The boy's head was reeling as he murmured, "Oh, so I'm the only one in this family who's been in the dark about all this."

Clark spoke. "Mark, try to understand. We wanted you to have a normal life. You deserved that. Do you have any idea how many times I've ached to tell you? Oh, God, Son, how many times I've wanted to take you flying with Jon and Lane when you were a little boy. I think I'd have died of happiness to have that just one time."

Mark faced an impossible situation of divided loyalties. In this moment, young Mark saw his choice as being between his loyalty to his family or to his species, to the whole human race. One of his motivations for joining the Navy in the first place had been his wish to protect his family. He had seen his best option for doing that as joining the military to defend the country. And now he was faced with the awful reality that his own father was the greatest potential enemy his country would ever face. True, up until now, his father had made not one single threatening move against the country or against mankind. But Clark had not trusted his son with his secret. Mark reasoned that, right or wrong, his dad's motivation might have been perfectly innocent. There was just no way he could know for sure. But, for whatever reason, his dad hadn't trusted him and now he decided he could not trust his dad. He would not betray his country. Instead, he would betray his family. He regarded his father, potentially, as the enemy. Mark knew very well that his dad could read minds. Most of Superman's various powers were common knowledge. Mark knew that, right then, SEOP was in grave jeopardy. He had to find some way to get out of there. He very badly needed time to think, to sort things out, to figure out what to do. He would keep the conversation going for now to buy time. He most feared his father might try to probe his mind. In a sudden rush of realization, it dawned on him that, when he was a little boy, his dad had tried probing his mind. He hadn't fully understood at the time what was happening, but he knew enough to realize he could shield himself against any attempt by his father to delve into his mind. But his father would know he was hiding something. He had to find some excuse to get away.

Mark spoke to his dad, "Well, to tell you the truth, I wish to God you hadn't told me now. I've been out of your house for almost six years. You were in the clear. You've covered your tracks with me all these years. I think you could've managed it when I came home on leave for the holidays every now and again. Why in God's name bring me in on this now?"

Clark replied, "Believe me, Mark, we have a very good reason to tell you now. We need your help… I need your help."

"Me, help you? How?"

"Lane and Jon have been on New Krypton for almost a year."

Mark muttered, "So that story about them being Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria was bogus! Talk about truth being stranger than fiction! So what're they doing out there on new Krypton?"

Clark answered, "As members of the Kryptonian heredity nobility, male members of our family are eligible for membership on the Governing Council. They replaced two members of the faction friendly to us who died under very suspicious circumstances just over a year ago. They've preserved predominance of our faction. But now another one of our allies on the Council has died. So now there is a stalemate in the council between our faction and the opposing faction led by Lord Nor's son. But with you on that council the stalemate could be broken. If it isn't, civil war could break out on New Krypton and it would be a blood bath."

Mark balked, stalling for time. How in hell was he going to get away?

"Well, I don't see how I could help. I don't have super powers here on Earth and I couldn't survive on New Krypton. The gravity there alone would be lethal. It'd compress me into not much more than a carpet stain in what, a few seconds… couple minutes at most?"

"Son, I wouldn't ask you to go unless I could solve that problem. I have a device that will change you… make you like your brothers… and me. I wish I could have had it when you were younger, but I have it now. It's complicated, but I'll explain all that to you."

This exchange forced Clark to revisit the greatest regret of his life. If only he had told the computer avatars of his Kryptonian father and mother, Jor-El and Lara. If only he had told them about Mark. Just before the end, as their baby Kal-El was rocketed away from Krypton, Jor-El and Lara had linked their minds to the computer on board their son's tiny escape craft. They had uploaded their personalities and their memories, up to the moment of their death into the onboard computer's memory. Clark had placed the rocket inside his Fortress of Solitude on a remote, uninhabited Canadian island, well north of the Arctic Circle. The computer could project interactive holographic images of Jor-El and Lara. It was almost as though Cark could converse with his natural parents. Their personalities and memories had survived intact in the computer's memory. By this marvelous example of Kryptonian technology, Clark had been blessed with the privilege of getting to know his natural parents.

As a young man, Clark had brought his adoptive parents to his Fortress and introduced them to Jor- El and Lara. Jonathan and Martha had been apprehensive about this "meeting," but Clark had begged them and to please him, they had reluctantly agreed. Their meeting had been very emotional. Lara had spoken to Martha and Jonathan. "I have no words to thank you for taking our baby in as your own and raising him to manhood. You've raised him to be everything we could ever have hoped for and more. Bless you both for loving him so much." Martha had replied, "I used to think you would've hated me for being the one lucky enough to raise your son as my own. But one day, I realized that, if something ever happened to me, I would hope for someone to take Clark in and love him as I have. Then I knew that must be how you would've felt, as well." Lara had said, "I could not have hoped for a better mother for our son than you, Martha Kent; or for a better father than you, Jonathan. Jor-El and I owe you both so much. Thank you, Clark, for bringing your parents here on Earth to meet us. Jor-El and I needed this opportunity to express our thanks and our love to them." (Lara had made it her point to address her son as "Clark," not as "Kal-El," out of deference to Jonathan and Martha.)

But Clark had never told Jor-El about Mark. He had been emphatic to Lois, Jon and Lane that they must never tell Jor-El or Lara about Mark. He had feared their disappointment in Mark's lack of super powers would be too much to bear, on top of all the heartbreak they had suffered in life. Then, one day, while Clark had been speaking to Jor-El about something unrelated, he had asked, "Now tell my about your third son, Kal- El. Why have you never told Lara or me anything about your third son?" Clark had wept. It had been several minutes before he'd been able to pull himself together. He looked up at his father. Very gently, Jor-El continued. "I can see this pains you and anything painful to you also hurts me. But now, you must tell me what is wrong. Did you think I could not share your pain? Do you think it would not hurt me even more that you do not trust me to comfort you, my son, even in this, this crippled form, I must make do with? Now, my son, speak to me of your third son, whom I can see very well you love with all your heart and soul. What is it about him that pains you so or that would make you believe you must hide him from your mother and me?"

"Jor-El, my father. I had wanted to spare you and my mother this. Mark, my youngest son was born as an ordinary boy. He is my son, but he has none of the attributes of a Kryptonian. He has no powers. He is perfectly healthy but he is not in any meaningful sense Kryptonian, even though I am his father."

Jor-El retorted. "Kal-El, your third son is every bit as Kryptonian as you or I, notwithstanding his lack of super powers here in Earth. He is your son and he is my grandson. Did you think I would repudiate my own flesh and blood because of this?" "Never!"

"And now, my Son, you must bring your son to me. I will present you both with a gift, my gift to you both. And I will bless this boy, as I have blessed your sons Zor-El (Jon) and Kor-El (Lane). And I claim my right as the boy's paternal grandfather, "the right of naming." He will be 'Jal-El.' ("child of destiny")."

The "Man of Steel" trembled at the prospect of telling his son all he'd hidden from him lo these many years. "But, father, if I tell him, he might not come."

"You were wrong, Kal-El to hide all this from your son and to hide your son from your mother and me, as if there were any shame in his lack of the attributes of a normal Kryptonian. His condition is a rare one, dating back to the earliest human settlers on our home world. The genes of Jal-El's attributes were all but gone from our people. But in those rare instances when a child is conceived with this condition, we have developed a treatment. I will show you how to make young Jal-El as you are and Zor-El and Kor-El. That is, I will do this for you and Jal-El, but only if the boy agrees, although I cannot imagine why he would not accept this gift of love from his grandfather and from you, his father."

Clark had related everything to his son. "So, Mark, I was wrong on all counts. All along you could've had everything Jon and Lane and I have. I am so sorry, Son. But at least now, thanks to Jor-El, I can make it up to you. I can give you your birthright. I can make you the super man you were always meant to be. And that will make you able to go to New Krypton and take your place as a member of the Governing Council."

Mark answered, "Is that what you think I want, to be like you? No sir! Never! I already have a life and nothing in my life has prepared me to live as some kind of interstellar alien life form, thank God! It may be just fine for you, Jon and Lane, but I don't want that. I would rather die!

"Mark!" Lois exclaimed. "You are being needlessly cruel to your father!"

Mark glared at his mother, his voice quavering with barely controlled fury. "You have the gall to call me 'cruel?' Everything you and this man have ever told me abut this family has been a lie!"

Lois retorted, "Maybe we were wrong to hide this from you. But we never meant to hurt you. Think back, Mark. No one could've been a more devoted father than your dad. And, right or wrong, you know very well that he's always put your welfare first. Is he infallible? No! He makes mistakes, just like the rest of us. I've made mistakes with all three of you boys, too. Every parent gets it wrong sometimes. The only way you ever get to be a good parent is by doing. And sometimes, along the way, Mark, we have gotten it wrong, just like any other parents. But we love you. You know that. And even if we were wrong to keep you in the dark about all this, your dad and I just wanted so badly for you to be happy. Clark would move heaven and earth for you, Mark, literally! But now he needs you. The situation out there on New Krypton is desperate and if you don't help us, people, innocent people, are going to die. And the only person alive in any position to head off this catastrophe is you, Mark. So, please…"

Mark saw his chance. Now he could make his excuses and get the hell out of there! His mother had unwittingly given him just the opening he needed.

"No… I've heard what you've both had to say. I've listened. I've considered and decided… I am not gonna get involved. Mom, thanks, for the nice dinner and thank you both for an 'interesting' visit. But I think I've heard enough. I'm just going to leave right now and go back out to the fleet where there's at least some semblance of normality in my life."

"I am willing to protect the family secret. I really don't have much choice. If I didn't, my life wouldn't be worth a plug nickel. Sir, you've made enough enemies as Superman that if any of them got wind of my connection to you, I'd be a sitting duck, not to mention Mom. Of course, Mom, I understand the untenable position you'd find yourself in if I shot my mouth off. So, of course, I won't do that."

Mark addressed his dad. "For one thing, Sir, nobody is going to believe that if I'm your son… well… that I'm really human, for all intents and purposes. Hell, I'm not really sure I believe it myself! Anyway, you can both depend on me to keep my mouth shut."

"But for now, Sir, I need some time to 'process' all this. Meanwhile, I'd appreciate it if you'd honor my 'space.' Don't try to contact me or come around me. When I'm ready to deal with you, I'll be in touch… I understand that you're disappointed in me. If, when I do try to get back in touch with you, you're not ready to deal with me, I'll understand. Then the ball would be in your court to get in touch with me and, of course, I'd honor that."

Mark rose to go but his dad stopped him. In some ways, Mark had always been the most distant of his three sons. There had been so many things Clark had not been able to share with his youngest boy. Mark's not so veiled "suicide-threat" ("I'd rather die first"), hurtful as it was, clearly was the ill-considered outburst of an angry young man, but these "Sirs" instead of "Dad" were devastating. Clark had lost his "baby boy." He'd never wanted to cry so badly in all his life. He struggled with everything he had for control of his emotions.

"Look, Mark, I know you're hurt and confused and angry right now and you've got every right to be angry. Keeping all this from you is probably the worst mistake I've ever made in my life. But, please, don't go. With his left hand, Clark grasped Mark's right arm gently, almost tenderly. But when Mark tried to pull away, Clark's grip, though gentle, was unbreakable.

Momentarily, Mark marveled at the phenomenal strength it took for his dad to maintain such a gentle but unbreakable grip. Mark quickly recovering from his rumination, eyed his dad with a steely glare and said: "You may be my father, Sir, but I am of legal age now and you have no right to hold me against my will… And that is what you are doing… Release me… now!"

Clark didn't release his son. Instead, he pressed in to him and gently placed his right hand on Mark's left shoulder. He started to speak but Mark, still glaring at his father with unconcealed hostility, cut him off, his speech now clipped, slow and precisely enunciated. "This is false imprisonment, Sir. That is a federal offense. And the fact that I am a serving officer in the Navy can only compound your legal difficulties. And, rest-assured, if I ever get out of this, I would press charges against you. Now I know you're not 'sweating the load' on that because there is no jail on earth that could hold you. But, as Superman, you have always cultivated a reputation of being an absolute stickler for law and order. So that is what I am appealing to now. You had best let me go on about my business and I will let you get back to yours."

Lois intervened again, pleading, "Mark! Haven't you heard a word your dad and I have said? Baby, we know this is a shock! We know you've got to be reeling from all this right now. But there is an entire world out there in crisis and you, Mark, you are the only person alive in any position to do anything about it…"

Clark added, "Mark, I know you need some time for all this to sink in and I wish to God we had the time for you to go back to your life as a Navy pilot and come to terms with it. But we just don't have the time. There is a starship en route here from New Krypton right now to pick you up. It is due to arrive in a matter of hours. Lane and Jon are on board and will be with you on the way back to New Krypton. You and I need to leave tonight. Right way. I need to administer the treatment to you immediately so you will be ready to leave when that star ship arrives in Earth orbit."

Until then, Mark had maintained a defiant stance, but he was instantly deflated. "You know, Dad, it's bad enough that you made a commitment like this to your people on my behalf without checking with me first. Flying that "death star" to earth must have represented a considerable allocation of their resources and it wasn't very good headwork to have them lay on a mission like that until you were sure I would go along with your plan. But do you mean to tell me that you've actually agreed to have those monsters come back here to Earth? After what they did to us last time? After what they did to Ma & Pa Kent, not to mention Mom! They were all nearly killed by those creeps! What were you thinking? How could you do this to us?"

"Mark! Everyone on that star ship is a friend. There is nothing to worry about. I would never have invited them to come here if I weren't certain of that."

Mark retorted bitterly. "I am sorry if I am not reassured. You had them come here and you weren't even sure of me, or if you were, your faith in me was woefully misplaced. And those people were supposed to be 'friends' of yours last time they came here. That fellow, Ching, a friend, so called, behaved atrociously to you and to our people. And he's supposed to have been one of their 'good guys!' And that Nazi, Lord Nor, and his gang were directly responsible for upwards of 15,000 deaths and thousands more injured, many maimed for life. Your "assurances" seem to be going from bad to worse and… how many in the crew on that death star?"

"'Star ship'," Mark, not 'death star' but about 5,000, why?"

"So you've brought 5,000 super-beings into Earth proximity, any one of whom could menace our entire species? What makes you so sure that, knowing the powers they could have here on Earth, that not one of them would try to jump ship? USS Nimitz has about the same size complement as your peoples' 'star ship' and it is a microcosm of society at large, the good the bad and the ugly… I shudder to think what would happen if the only thing that some of the dirt bags in Nimitz' crew had to do to get powers like yours was for them to jump ship. And it WOULD be the dirt bags who would do it, not one of our stellar performers. If even one guy from that alien star ship does jump ship, mankind is screwed!"

Mark gazed at Clark with horror and visceral animus. "… Oh… I get it. I know what your game is, now! This is blackmail!"

In a subdued, dejected voice, Mark said to Clark, "OK. You win. I'll go to New Krypton and do what you want… I guess I don't really have any choice."

Lois reached out to her boy. "Mark, this isn't like that at all. You are his son and he loves you! My God, he's your dad. You've known this man all your life! Nothing has changed because of this. He's the same man he's always been. He's strong, and gentle and kind and he loves you dearly. How could you possibly twist your dad's plea for your help to save lives into something as heartless and as cold blooded as blackmail?"

Mark looked back at his mother with the saddest most stricken look she had ever seen. It was the look of a little boy betrayed. Very softly, he answered, "Mom, I can't take anything from you or Dad for granted any more. You know, ya grow up under a man's roof. He raises you up from a pup and ya think ya know 'im. Come to find out, ya don't know squat. Hell, Mom, he's not really even human! And he is supposed to be my father? Jesusmaryjoseph, what in hell does that make me?? Try that head-trip on for size! All bets are off with you two. I can't take anything from either you or," He paused, "that man for granted ever again."

Mark turned back to his dad. "Look, Sir. I've said I'd go, but I will only go on two conditions and they are not negotiable. We both know you can't 'shanghai' me into a mission like this. If you try to force me to go otherwise, I won't cooperate and I'll do my best to sabotage you at every opportunity."

Clark ignored the explicit threat in Mark's ultimatum as he asked gently, "What condition, Son? Just name it."

"Not 'it,' sir, 'them.' First, that death star does not close within distance of earth that any crewmember on board could escape and fly here under his own power. And I want all shuttlecraft or other means of transportation secured under armed guard with 'shoot to kill orders.' I want any possibility that any member of their crew could jump ship… absolutely eliminated. The shuttlecraft that comes here to pick us up must have a minimum crew. No more on board than the minimum essential for safe navigation to Earth and back to their star ship… 'Agreed?'"

"Son, this isn't really necessary, but 'agreed.'"

"Can you communicate with those aliens before they close within minimum safe distance?"

"Yes, Son, but only if we leave right away. And, Son, I won't be coming with you aboard the star ship. I can't. My involvement with them last time they came here precludes my direct involvement with the Governing Council. But you, as my son are eligible. Mark, one day you'll understand the importance of what you're doing. You'll be saving two worlds and no matter what you think now, there's not all that much difference between the people of Earth and of New Krypton. Most Kryptonians are good and decent people. But they desperately need a chance at some political stability if this remnant is going to make a go of survival on their new home world."

"I have another condition, Sir, and I won't negotiate on this one either. I think you'll want to talk this one over with Jon and Lane. You'll need their agreement to make good."

"What is it, Mark? What do you want us to do?"

"First, Sir, this treatment you're going to subject me to, is it reversible?"

"Sure, Son, I guess so. Why?"

"Well, if I ever get back home, I'll want you to restore me to normal. I don't want to be like you the rest of my life. It would kind of put a crimp in my Navy career for one thing. I'd never pass my next annual flight physical! The first time they tried to stick a needle in my arm to take a blood sample, your secret would be blown."

Now that Clark had the means of imparting super powers to his youngest son, he hoped the boy would receive the gift willingly. He resolved then when Mark returned to Earth, he would do his utmost to persuade Mark to keep his powers. But now was not the time. That was a "battle" for another day.

"OK, Mark, if that's the way you want it, I'll change you back, but what's that got to do with Jon and Lane?"

"If they wanted to come home, I'd have to have you change them as well. I couldn't allow them to return here the way they are. They could choose between remaining as they are on New Krypton or, if they wanted to return home, I would insist you change them to ordinary mortals. I won't have three of you super-freak 'loose cannons' here on earth. That's out of the question. You're free to live out your life here on earth as a super being, but no more super beings: Not me, not Jon, Lane or anyone else. This 'Superman' thing ends with you."

Lois exploded. Up until now, she had tried her best to be patient and understanding with her son, but her nerves were raw and she was on tenterhooks. This demand had 'crossed the line.' "Mark!" she exclaimed, "Now who is blackmailing whom?"

Clark turned to his wife, held up his hand and said "Lo-is!" It was very clear to her that this time, he wanted to stand for himself in this exchange with his son.

"Mark, I can't promise you that! I don't have the right to even ask that of Jon and Lane and neither do you! These are their lives you're talking about! How could you think I would even consider putting them in such a 'position' by asking them to agree to a thing like that?"

"Well, Sir, you're playing fairly 'fast and loose' with my life, now aren't you? Look, it makes no difference to me whether you agree or not. I am not negotiating with you… You want my cooperation? You're just going to have to figure out a way to make it happen. Now, I think you said we're working against some kind of deadline, here, so I suggest we shove off so you'll have time to contact that star ship."

"Son, please, don't do this to your brothers… To me!"

"That's it, Sir. Those are my terms. You can make me go, but we both know you can't make me cooperate with you and your people. I will not betray my kind. I only cooperate with you to keep that death star and those monsters away from Earth. Otherwise, I'd laugh in your face. But, unless you deliver the assurances I need, well, there's nothing more for us to talk about. And since we seem to be up against a deadline, I guess I'll need your decision… right now."

"Son, all I can promise is to ask Jon and Lane. It would have to be up to them.

Mark replied, "Well then, I guess we'll just have to leave this whole thing up to them. I guess I'm ready to shove off… whenever you are."

"Son, I have brought a special garment for you to wear. It is typical of the attire worn by young men on New Krypton. I'd appreciate it if you'd change into that before we leave. And I'll need to change back to my 'Superman' persona."

Mark scowled at the black, metallic-blue and silver spandex garment, emblazoned on the front breast with a silver "S" in a black pentagon-shaped field, outlined in silver. He adamantly refused to wear it. "I'm not wearing that fruity leotard! No! No way in hell! Tell ya what. I've got my Navy flight suit and boots. I wore them on the flight from the carrier to the beach. I've got 'em in my duffle bag.

No amount of explaining, cajoling or begging from Clark or Lois would budge Mark. It would be the Navy-issue nomex flight suit and flight boots, his Navy khaki uniform or ordinary civilian clothes, but not… definitely not that alien, "ballet dancer outfit!" Clark exited to another room and donned his blue and red costume. Mark took a little longer to change, but in his olive green "zoom- bag" he cut an impressive figure. In spite of himself and his fear and misgivings over his son's career-choice, and in spite of this tension between Mark and himself, Clark felt a brief, overpowering surge of love and pride in his son. He fixed his gaze on the leather name badge on the left breast of Mark's flight suit… emblazoned with Gold naval aviator's wings, the design a US shield, flanked by eagle's wings and backed by a single vertical fouled anchor.

Underneath the gold-winged naval aviator's emblem, the name badge read:

LTJG Mark Kent, USNR "Supes" VFA-94

Clark, immediately recognizing his Superman persona's affectionate nickname, eyed his son's leather name badge. "Supes?" he queried.

Mark sighed and rolled his eyes. "Long story. Don't ask. Please, don't ask."

Lois looked at her son and her husband. She embraced Mark but her boy neither responded nor resisted. He was wringing wet with sweat and he was emotionally spent. Her heart ached that her son had been wrenched from a fulfilling, challenging, even dangerous but normal life to face the issues that were pressing in on him now; but there was no help for it. She released her son and joined her husband in a loving, passionate embrace. They drew strength from each other, as they had throughout their marriage. Lois was not a young woman anymore, but she looked as good as she ever had. Diet, rigorous exercise and some of her husband's "Kryptonian technology" had allowed her to belie her age. In spite of her fifty years, she didn't look or feel a day over 30!

Lois and Clark broke their embrace and all three; father, mother and son exited the small cabin. The muscular young-looking super-man turned to his son. "Mark, don't worry. You don't have to do a thing. I'm going to hold onto you and fly us to our destination north of the Arctic Circle. As long as we are in physical contact with each other, nothing can harm you. Trust me, son. I won't let go."

"Sir, just do whatever you have to do. Let's just get the hell out of here."


Chapter 6 The Leaving

Clark held his son in his powerful right arm and they ascended without a sound into the sky. They accelerated rapidly to mach 10 and, within seconds, the Man of Steel was dragging a deafening sonic boom in his wake. Clark regretted the discomfort this might have caused anyone on the ground, but they were on a very tight schedule. The air friction would have incinerated Mark, notwithstanding his fire-resistant nomex flight suit, but Superman's protective aura rendered Mark as indestructible as his father. Clark would have died before letting go of his youngest son.

Within minutes the Man of Steel was descending out of the Arctic night over his "Fortress of Solitude," situated on a desolate, uninhabited, frigid island north of the Canadian mainland. The installation was well concealed and at first Mark could not tell it was even there. He wasn't really sure how they had managed to get inside; evidently some kind of alien teleportation device. One moment they were hovering about 50 feet above the ground. The next, they were inside some kind of dimly lit giant "cavern," surrounded by all kinds of alien technological marvels, the functions of which Mark could not even imagine. Clark gently descended to the floor and released his boy.

"Son, I'm going to try to reach the star ship right now. Just wait with me here while I make contact." And then Clark appeared to slip into some kind of trance.

Presently, inside his mind, Mark heard his oldest brother's voice! "Lil' Bro, can you hear me? This is Jon."

Mark clutched the sides of his head with both hands and collapsed to his knees. He was not really in any physical discomfort, but the presence of another's thoughts, another's voice, inside his head, was momentarily terrifying. Clark had made the mistake of forgetting to brief his son on the dynamics of Kryptonian "radio-telepathy." A Terran could shield himself from a Kryptonian's mind probe with relative ease if he wanted to, but he would have to know what was happening in order to mount effective resistance. Mark had been wide open to his brother's mind probe.

Lane piped up, "How ya doin' little brother. Are you OK? I know all this must be a shock to you. We're looking forward to seeing you when you get on board. We'll be waiting for you."

Back on his feet, Mark, adapting quickly to this new communication medium, responded with his mind not to his brothers but to his father, "Sir, we need to bypass all this "chit-chat" and get down to business. I want my terms met… now… or we really don't have any further business here."

Clark responded, "Jon, Lane… Mark hasn't really responded favorably to the situation at all. He's having real problems with all of this. He has named certain conditions or he refuses to cooperate. Now I don't want the two of you to be judgmental of him. Remember, less than three hours ago he had no idea of things you've both lived with all your lives. You both know that. When he gets out there, I'm counting on you to look out for him. He's hurt and he's angry right now so when you see him, you can expect to be dealing with a sullen and very bitter young man. I just need you to be patient and loving with him. He's having to adjust to an awful lot in a very short time." Mark heard this exchange in his mind, but he couldn't understand it. It had been in the Kryptonian language and at a rate of speed no ordinary human could possibly have followed, even with a command of the alien tongue.

With his mind, Clark spoke in English again. "Jon, I need to speak with the star ship Captain, right away." Moments later, again in the Kryptonese language, a new 'voice' broke in. "Kal-El? This is Ching. I am ready to communicate with you."

Ching and Clark had met years ago when the Kryptonian star ship had come to Earth. Initially, they had been adversaries, but they had joined forces against the murderous tyrant Lord Nor who had sought to enslave both the people of New Krypton and of Earth under his brutal, autocratic rule. Ching had married the Kryptonian beauty 'Zara,' a noblewoman to whom Kal-El had been betrothed at birth. Both men, Clark and Ching, breaking tradition, had married the women they loved rather than follow the old Kryptonian feudalistic order. Ching, a soldier, had been contemptuous initially of the "rustic and undisciplined" customs of Earth. But once Terran "mating practices" had given him a chance, notwithstanding that he was a commoner, to be married to the love of his life, "The Lady Zara," he had embraced these quaint "courting rituals" with alacrity.

In English, Clark 'spoke,' "Ching! How are you, friend?" Clark's face lit up momentarily. He was delighted that Ching had come on this mission. Ching responded with equal enthusiasm. "I am fine, Kal-El. And I am at your service."

"Ching, look, I have my son, Mark, here. He has made a demand which I'm counting on you to honor."

"What demand, Kal-El? I should think he would see his duty and agree to help us, unconditionally."

Since this exchange was in English, at normal speed, Mark 'heard' every word. "Look, Mister 'Ching,' or whatever your name is, I want you to stop that death star before you come close enough that any of your crew can jump ship and fly to Earth under their own power. Then I want armed guards posted by each of your shuttlecraft with orders to shoot to kill any crewmembers who try to escape to Earth. Any other mode of transportation you have, like teleport beams or whatever, I want the same thing. None of your people are to get off that ship and come here. Do you understand?"

"I understand what you are saying, young 'Jal-El,' I just don't understand why you feel the need to say it."

Mark turned to his father and spoke aloud, "Jal-El?"

"That is your Kryptonian name son. On New Krypton, you are known as 'Jal-El.' I am 'Kal-El.' Jon is 'Zor-El and Lane is 'Kor-El'"

Mark reverted to mental communication with Ching, "Look Mister, I don't care what you call anyone else, but my name… is 'Matthew Mark Kent, Lieutenant Junior Grade, United States Naval Reserve…'"

Without the slightest trace of ire or irony, Ching replied, "Very well, 'Matthew Mark Kent, Lieutenant Junior Grade, United States Naval Reserve,' I shall try to remember all that."

A little sheepishly, Mark responded, "Well, sir, I guess it's OK if you call me 'Lieutenant, jay-gee Kent.'"

"So, Kal-El, your son is a 'soldier,' eh? You must be very proud that your son is a warrior!"

In spite of himself, there was something about Ching that Mark liked, immediately. He tried to fight it, but, for the life of him, he just couldn't muster the enmity for Ching that he was feeling for his own father and his older brothers. Maybe it was a "kinship" he felt with Ching because of his "military bearing?" Maybe it was just that he hadn't been close to Ching all his life… and so blindsided as he had been by his father and his brothers.

Clark 'spoke,' "He is a military aviator of our nation's 'maritime' forces. He flies tactical jet aircraft from large oceangoing vessels. His duties require a great measure of skill and courage. And I am as proud of him as a father could be, even though I worry about his safety all the time."

"I understand your fear, Kal-El. Living as a super man on Earth, you cannot have expected to deal with vulnerability or mortality of any of your children. My son is a soldier on New Krypton and I have lived with the same nagging fear for him. It has never been easy for me, even though I myself am a warrior and even though on New Krypton, we face death in the same way Terrans do on earth. I expect your youngest son will adapt more quickly to life on New Krypton than did your two older sons. He is not accustomed to the powers they have had all their lives."

To Mark, Ching said: "Young Lieutenant jay-gee Kent, I accept your caution and concern and I salute you for it; even though, I assure you, such measures to protect your people from ourselves are unnecessary… We have screened every member of our star ship crew rigorously and you have nothing to fear from any of them. Nevertheless, I realize now that you do not believe this so, of course, I will honor your request. Our star ship will not close within the minimum safe distance you require and I am ordering armed guards posted at every conceivable point of egress from this vessel. As you have demanded, I have given orders to kill any man who tries to escape but, rest assured, Son, no one will try to escape. All of my crew will do their duty."

"Very well, Captain. I am satisfied."

Mark turned to Clark and spoke audibly, "Sir, we've still got Jon and Lane to deal with."

Clark spoke with his mind in English. "Jon, Lane, can you hear me?"

"Sure, dad, we're still here."

"Boys, listen, Mark is very suspicious of us… All of us. He is afraid of our strength and our powers. Of course, he knows what happened when Lord Nor invaded Earth before any of you were born. You both know Mark is a military man now and no military establishment on earth has forgotten that invasion or, I guess, ever will. He has assimilated their fear and paranoia and has trouble trusting even me."

Jon 'spoke up,' "Sure, Dad, I guess we can understand that. What can we do to help?"

Clark choked, his heart breaking at the circumstances that brought this "choice" on his two older sons. That this awful choice was being forced on them by his youngest boy was almost too painful to bear.

Mark could 'feel' his father's anguish, but, in spite of this, he showed not the slightest pity. He reasoned that he had no 'right' to feel sorry for anyone in this matter. He had decided that preemption was the only permanent solution to the "New Krypton problem." This would be a one- way suicide mission to annihilate, once and for all, this threat to humanity. It would be a fight to the death. Once he arrived on New Krypton, Mark would find a way to kill them all. By this sacrificial act, he would prove, even if only to himself, that even though his body was defiled by the blood of his father's infernal race, he was nevertheless loyal to his country and to the people of Earth.

Family sentiments would most certainly NOT be allowed to stand in his way. All mankind was depending on him and he would do his duty to defend his country as well as all of the nations and people of the world… or he would die trying. The immortal words of the American revolutionary patriot, Nathan Hale, rang in his ears: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose…" He didn't expect his brothers or himself to survive his "visit" to New Krypton. They wouldn't if he had anything to say about it; but, by his demand that his brothers be converted to ordinary humans if they ever returned to Earth, he was hedging his bets…

Mark addressed his two older brothers. "Jon, Lane, here's the deal. Dad has explained everything to me. Frankly, this little political 'glitch' out there is not my problem. For all their superiority over mankind in physiology and technology, these friends of yours have some very primitive political and social structures. I mean, really. Think about it, guys. Here I am, an alien from their point of view. But just because of who my father is, they're willing to allow me to serve as a member of their ruling council. Is that stupid, or what? And here are these Kryptonians, a pathetic remnant of a race of losers, that with the required technology in hand, couldn't muster the political will to evacuate the majority of their population from their doomed home world before it exploded. Now they can't even lay aside their factional in-fighting long enough to save this remnant of their species! Hell, if anything, I'm glad of it. The way I see it, anyone on Earth with the kind of powers Dad has and that you two have had is a potential threat. So if Kryptonians wanna fight and kill each other off, so much the better. Fewer of them to threaten us here on Earth. I've told Dad I'm willing for him live out his life on Earth with his super powers. But the two of you have a choice: Remain on New Krypton or, if you decide to come home, submit to treatment to have your super powers removed and then both of you would have to have vasectomies. I don't want either of you spawning any more super- kids. Keep in mind; I'm not imposing anything on you that won't apply to me as well. This 'Superman' thing here on Earth ends with Dad or there's no deal. I won't cooperate."

There was a long silence, but then, finally, Jon spoke for himself and Lane. His telepathic 'voice' was very subdued. (Amazing how tone and inflection carried through in this telepathic medium!) "Well, OK, Mark. We understand and we both agree."

Mark turned to his father. "I'm ready. Do whatever it is you need to do to me."

Clark broke the connection with the star ship. ETA at their shuttle launch point was some six and one half hours hence. The shuttle would arrive in low earth orbit about ninety minutes after that. Cloaking, super-stealth technology would render the small shuttlecraft invisible to Earth-bound sensors. Clark had a small palm-sized transponder/receiver that would guide him and Mark to rendezvous with the shuttle along its orbital track. By then, Mark would be endowed with super powers enabling him to survive in space for short periods with no space suit, O2 supply or other special protective measures.

Clark led his son to a small, round, metallic platform, elevated about two feet above the floor. The platform resembled a large "wafer," measuring about four feet across. It appeared to be "floating" above the floor with no visible means of support. A large vertical cylindrical lexan (clear plastic) tube was suspended directly overhead. Mark mounted the platform. The lexan cylinder slowly lowered into position enclosing him on the floating platform. Clark stepped over to a small control console. It was a flat, black, highly polished wafer-thin panel, the face of it canted toward Clark at about a forty-five degree angle. He spoke a few words and lights and swirling patterns sprang into existence ABOVE the panel. After a few moments, Clark spoke again and the "machine" responded with a soft hum. Within the lexan cylinder, Mark observed a kaleidacolor display on the inside surface, in the air around him and coursing all over his body. There was a slight, momentary, sensation of "heaviness," followed immediately by an ethereal sense of almost "weightlessness" and then it was over. Clark spoke a few more unintelligible words and the machine answered with a single, momentary soft yellow pulsing glow from the lexan cylinder. And then the cylinder lifted.

Clark walked over to the platform and bid his son step down to the floor.

Momentarily, Clark vanished before Mark's eyes, immediately reappearing. He was holding a metal rod, an inch and a half in diameter, about three feet long. "Mark, the system has verified transfer of your super powers and that they are fully stabilized. But, just to make sure, I want you to try to bend this rod. It's tempered steel. If this device has worked the way it's supposed to, it will be easy for you."

Mark grasped either end of the steel rod with his hands, flexed it easily, folding it completely double! He didn't even have to strain!

Clark's eyes lit up with joy. "Son, you have no idea how happy this makes me! All your life I've hoped and prayed for the day when I would see you do that!"

Mark could feel his father's love and gratification inside himself. These were not his own emotions. He could "observe" them, even while feeling them intensely, inside himself, but with some measure of detachment and objectivity. This took some will power because he could just as easily have surrendered himself to his dad's emotions, joining him in a profoundly intimate sharing of his father's love and joy. Mark reflected, "This is a whole new dimension of sensing which must be related in some way these new 'powers.'" He carefully shielded himself from this, however, hardening his own heart. Mark would not let his dad "in" to share or even sense his own feelings. His father was the "enemy," now and this was "war." Mark understood instinctively that Clark would know he was hiding his feelings. Quickly, he prepared an "explanation," in case his dad should call him on it. He would explain that he was uncomfortable with this new kind of sensing and "needed time to adjust" to this new way of sharing one's feelings. He needn't have worried. Clark detected his son's defensive mental veil immediately but he wasn't about to push him to open up in this way. Not now.

With his empathic abilities, Clark could even share emotions with ordinary Terrans, provided they were willing. Throughout their marriage, he and Lois had shared a level of emotional intimacy that most couples could never have dreamed possible, and this had been… every day! He had similar sharing of emotions with his two older super-sons as well. But his tentative efforts to probe and "share" emotions with Mark had met with resolute, if subconscious, rebuffs. He had long ago given up trying to establish "empathic links" with his youngest boy. Besides, Clark had not dared assert this gift too openly with Mark for fear of revealing the secret of his true nature to his youngest son.

Mark handed the bent rod back to his dad and Clark dropped it to the floor. The clang of steel as it hit the stone floor reverberated throughout the great cavernous "hall."

"Mark, this confirms it. You have all the super powers now that your brothers and I have. Would you like to take some time to try them out before we leave to rendezvous in orbit with the shuttle craft?"

"I don't think so, Sir. No thanks. I think they would probably have something of a "narcotic, addictive" effect and I don't want to take that chance. What I'd rather would be to swing back by the cabin on our way outbound. I left my laptop in my rent-car and I'd like to snag it before I leave. I'd like to have that with me because I want to keep a journal of the trip to New Krypton."

"Well, Mark, that's probably a fairly good idea. Maybe you should document your experiences out there. But you'd have to be very careful how you published that."

"No doubt about it, Sir. Chances are, it'll never see the light of day. But I'd still like the option to document, anyway."

"OK, Mark, whatever you say. I guess we're ready to leave, then. Flying is easy, Son. All you have to do is will yourself into the air, and your body will go wherever you want it to. Just think in your mind where you want to be, or where you want to go, and your body will move in that direction."

"Well, gee… Dad… thanks… for the "pre-flight briefing," but I have no intention of flying under my own "steam" anywhere. Like I said, I don't intend to use any of these powers you've given me. I bent that bar for you to verify that your treatment worked. Well, now you have your verification. But I won't fly the way you do. You'll have to carry me wherever you want me to go, just like when you brought me here."

Clark knew it was hopeless, but he had longed all of Mark's life to fly with him as he had with his two older sons. "Son, I was so wrong to keep all this from you… not to trust you with my secret. I hope someday you'll forgive me. But I didn't want you hurt. How could I tell you that you'd been robbed of your "birth right?" That you could never have powers that Jon and Lane have? If only I'd had this treatment when you were a baby… All your life I've dreamed of someday flying with you… the way I've done so many times with Jon and Lane. It filled me with joy to fly with them… but there was always an ache in my heart that you were not up there with us… Son, when you told me you'd decided on a career as a Navy pilot, your mom and I were terrified for you. I never thought I'd have to deal with living day-to-day in fear that my son could be killed! But, Mark, …even living with the fear… I was so proud of you, that you'd made it into the sky… on your own even without my help!!! Son, if there's anything left in your heart at all of the love you used to feel for me as your dad… that I hope and pray you'll feel for me again someday… please… come fly with me now."

Mark's divided loyalties, to family and to mankind pressed in on him again. He had decided to throw his lot in with his species and to betray his family, his father, his mother and his brothers and the people of New Krypton. Grimly, Mark faced the awful consequences of his decision. "I will lose my soul for this. My name will be no better than Judas Iscariot or Brutus for betraying my family. But I am only one man. This is only one family. I have no right to place myself or even my family or these alien kindred I don't even know ahead of everyone else here on Earth. When I first put on my Navy uniform, I swore an oath to defend my country and my people from "all enemies, foreign and domestic. And, by God, that's what I'm gonna do. A 'Judas' or a 'Brutus' I may be. But I am not a 'Benedict Arnold!'" Ruefully, Mark regarded Mark Twain's sardonic maxim, that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

Mark was fairly confident of his ability to veil the secret of SEOP from any Kryptonian telepathic mind probes. But he was not so confident of his ability to mask his emotions. Not only were there the empathic powers of these aliens to contend with, but simple indicators like tone of voice, body language, facial expressions and other subtle emotional signals. Mark wanted to make sure he allayed any suspicion his father could possibly entertain regarding his intentions. He knew he had to walk a fine line to make his ruse believable. If he made it look "too good," that would never fool a brilliant mind like Superman's. Mark mused grimly, "Now I know how an Indian snake charmer must feel!" Pulling this off would be like trying to charm a cobra! He knew his dad would not be fooled by a seeming complete change of heart. Mark had to assume his dad could read his emotions even if he could veil his thoughts. His 'face' must appear to match his emotions. With his words, Mark had to strike a delicate balance between his genuine anger and bitterness and an apparent intention to give his father his full, albeit reluctant cooperation. "Dad, you made your decision, not to tell me about you and Jon and Lane. And does that hurt? I'm not gonna lie to you. Yes, it does. You didn't trust me so of course that hurts. But I'll hafta grant you, it would've been a tough decision, either way. And I admit I can see the reasoning behind the way you went with your decision. I'm not all that sure that if I'd been in your shoes I might not've gone the same way you did. But I hafta tell you, Dad, I am very angry that you've told me now. You didn't rob me of super powers because I was born an ordinary human being. How could I hold that against you? It just happened. From my point of view, thank God it did happen that way! If you'd gone ahead and brought me in on the family secret, things would probably have worked out differently and maybe I'd feel different about all this. But that's water over the dam. It is what it is…"

"But now, the way things are, I just wish to God you'd never told me about you and Jon and Lane. You've got no right to lay all this mess on me now. It's not my problem. You made your decision to shut me out. That makes this problem with your alien friends not my problem.'

"What I feel robbed of now is the normal life you and mom struggled so hard all these years to give me. I won't deny it, Dad. I do love you and Mom, as much as I ever have. I'm angry, yes. But this isn't about me, or my anger. Who knows? Maybe that will pass. But I will never give in on this 'Superman' thing. All that ends here on earth with you. Period. So don't think you can 'seduce' me with a taste of your powers. I'm not going to let you 'reel me in' with the narcotic effect of your freakazoid alien voodoo. No, sir, I will not fly with you. You and I have got a deal. I'll go out there to NK and do what you want. And when Jon, Lane and I get back home, you are gonna do what I want. You've promised to make the three of us 'Earth-normal' and that's the way it's gonna go down just as soon as we get back.

"All right, Son. But I just had to try. I'll fly you to the cabin to pick up your laptop. We're a little ahead of schedule. So we have some time, yet. We can spend the rest of the time with your mom before we have to leave to rendezvous with the shuttle craft."

"No, Dad. I don't want that. I've already said my 'good-byes' to Mom. I don't want to go through that a second time. That's too much of a head-trip for Mom and for me. Let's just hang out here till it's time to leave. When we go back to the cabin for my laptop, I don't want her to know we're even there. Right now, maybe you could show me around this facility of yours. It looks impressive."

Clark was disappointed that Mark had not agreed to "spread his wings," but he was delighted at the chance to show his son his 'Fortress of Solitude.' Right away, Clark offered to 'introduce' Mark to his natural parents, Jor-El and Lara… at least their computer-generated virtual manifestations. Clark explained all this to his son how, just before Krypton exploded his parents had uploaded their memories and personalities into a tiny but powerful 'hyper-computer' on board Kal-El's mini-star ship "lifeboat." It was as if their personalities had been "cloned" within the memory of this phenomenal machine, to an accuracy of virtually spot on.

"No, Dad, not that. Sorry, but I'm not into communing with the dead. Never been much of a fan of Shirley MacLaine and all that wacko new age stuff."

Clark was stung by Mark's rebuff. But he reasoned that he'd brought this heartache on himself by his decision to blindside his son about the family secret. "Well, Son, this wouldn't exactly work like that, but if you're squeamish about it, I understand. I guess I can show you something else."

A wave of remorse swept over Mark. He was being needlessly callous and flippant with his father. "Look, Dad, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so offhand with you about your natural parents. It's just that Ma and Pa Kent are all the 'grandparents' I feel I need. I'm afraid these 'people' would muddy the waters for me… more than they already are. But, hey, I'm sorry. I can see I hurt your feelings bad with what I said. They were your parents and I had no right to be a wise ass with you."

This was the first time since Clark and Lois and revealed their 'secret' to Mark that he'd shown the slightest hint of compassion or concern for his dad's feelings… This "break" had been about Clark's natural parents. That he would show any concern at all about Clark's feelings for Jor-El and Lara, notwithstanding his simmering rage, hinted that at some level, Mark still honored Lois and Clark as his parents. Clark dared hope that one day he and his son would be reconciled. But he did not dare push it right now.

"Aw, Son, that's OK. I know all this has come down on you like a ton of bricks. It's a lot to take all at once. There really aren't any rules to follow in a thing like this. I don't know that anyone else has ever been through anything like what's been happening to you over the last several hours…"

"But, believe me, Mark, no one could ever take the place in my heart of Ma and Pa Kent. They raised me… They're the only parents I had really ever known until I was grown… And believe you me I was a handful for them. But they were so loving and so strong… and always there for me… and, Son, they loved you more than you will ever know."

"It's hard to explain. I was so devastated when you were born without super powers. I wanted you to have everything Jon and Lane have and, even with all of my powers, I couldn't give them to you… share them with you. I had never felt so utterly powerless before… so vulnerable before… If only I could have, Mark, I would have given up my own powers for you to have them… but when Ma and Pa knew you had been born as a normal little boy, they tried to be disappointed along with me, but I always knew a part of them was overjoyed… that I could father a normal child, not just super boys. As close and as intimate as Ma, Pa and I always were with one another… Oh God! My dear, dear precious little boy… you!… just seemed to cement my connection with them in a whole new and very special way… completing the circle. They had been 'normal' parents, raising me, a super kid, and then there I was, a superman, raising a normal little boy! Sometimes I wonder if, in some strange way, things don't turn out for the best after all."

"You certainly were a handful for all of us!… your mom, me, Ma and Pa and even Jon and Lane… How utterly fearless you were… and into everything! Mark, even without super powers, you were always so much tougher and stronger than your brothers or me. Once when you were just a little boy, you fell out of a tree and broke your arm. Jon and Lane had been nearby but they couldn't reach you before you fell. After bringing you home, they both went off and cried their eyes out over you. But, son, even though you were in such pain, you just refused to cry."

Mark felt a tide of emotion welling up inside of him. All of his childhood memories came crashing in on him. He'd grown up in a happy home, with devoted parents and doting grandparents. And his brothers, Lane and Jon, had showered him with loving attention. Momentarily, without intending for it to, his "veil" collapsed, and Mark knew his dad had "seen" his feelings. Quickly, Mark reinforced his mental "defenses." He told himself, "It's good that Dad picked up on my sentimental 'outburst.' He's less liable to suspect what I'm really going out there to N.K. to do!"

During the time they had remaining before leaving the "Fortress of Solitude," Clark introduced Mark to myriad Kryptonian technologies, customs, history and culture. Because they both had super powers now, with their super speed, they were able to cover a considerable amount of material in a very brief time. Mark went along with this because there was no particular "narcotic rush" operating at "super-speed" as there would have been with flying or some of his other powers. The only sensation resulting from operating at super speed was that the world around him just seemed to slow down, way down! By the time they were ready to leave, among other things, Mark had attained fluency and literacy in the Kryptonian language!

Additionally, among Clark's archives, Mark had discovered documentation on Klurkor, the Kryptonian martial art. He had been an avid student of Tae Kwando since grammar school. Mark insisted that his dad introduce him to this new fighting skill. Once it was time to leave, Mark had mastered the fundamentals fairly handily!

By this time, much of Mark's stiffness and coldness had worn off. He had dropped references to his dad as "sir." Clark was "Dad" again. He doubted his youngest son could utter any sound sweeter to his ears than "Dad." It was almost like old times. Almost, but not quite. Something very bad was going on inside Mark's head. Clark could sense Mark's inner turmoil. Something was wrong and it was more than the obvious issues weighing down on him. There was something else, but Clark just could not put his finger on it.

Mark allowed himself to be held fast in his father's powerful right arm as they ascended about ten feet off the floor. Moments later, how, Mark did not know, they were outside once again, fifteen meters above the ground, ascending into the Arctic night. Within minutes, they were over the Kent's weekend lakeside cabin in upstate New York. Clark set his boy down alongside his rent-car.

Mark started to open the car door to retrieve his laptop when he realized he'd forgotten his car keys! They were where he'd left them on the drain board in the kitchen. He did not want to disturb his mother who was still inside… Where was she inside the cabin? The lights were still on. He made a quick decision and, using his newly acquired x-ray vision, he scanned the house for Lois' location. Good! She was not in the kitchen. She was in the small sitting room, reading. Faster than the human eye, Mark dashed into the kitchen, through the unlocked door, snagged the keys, dashed back outside, unlocked the rental vehicle door, and in a last blinding, but effortless burst of speed, returned the keys to their place on the kitchen drain board. Soundless, he exited the cabin for the final time. He turned around and, using his x-ray vision once more, he gazed at his mother through the solid exterior wall of the cabin. In a sudden, crushing realization, it occurred to Mark that he would probably never see her again.

Through the now open door of his rent-car, he retrieved the carrying case containing his laptop, depressed the lock and gently re-secured the door. "Oh, by the way, Dad, I guess I'll need you to return the rent-car to Hertz at the airport in Rochester. Do you mind?"

"No problem, Son."

"OK, Dad. Ready?"

"Sure, son. Let's go. Sure you don't want to do this on your own?"

Mark hesitated, deliberated momentarily and then turned to his father and heaved a deep sigh… "Sure Dad, why not? What the hell?"

As they rose into the air, in formation, father and son rapidly accelerated to mach 10. Their trajectory was nearly vertical! Tears of joy, streaming from Clark's face, were instantly vaporized by the atmospheric friction as soon as they fell clear of his protective aura. How he'd longed all these years for this moment with his youngest son… to share with young Mark the joy and freedom of flying! Clark smiled to himself, remembering that it had been only the day before yesterday he'd last "shadowed" his son's FA-37 Navy tactical jet.

Mark had been flying his mission off the flight deck of the USS Nimitz in the southwest Pacific. Only a day and a half ago, while 'stealing' that moment with his son in the air over the darkened Pacific, Clark would not have dared indulge the hope that, within less than forty-eight hours, he would be granted one of the fondest desires of his life… that his youngest son would be flying at his side, this time without the aid of an aircraft! Still, something had been wrong. What had been the cause of Mark's terror that night? His son had kept his head. But, super empath that he was, Clark had sensed his son's acute mental anguish. And what was Mark hiding now behind his impenetrable mental "veil?"

Mark told himself he was doing this to lull his father's suspicions. He struggled to resist the euphoria of completely free and unassisted flight, but it was hopeless. Mark had been right. Flying like this was profoundly narcotic and dangerously addictive! He hoped if he survived, unlikely in any event, that he would be able to muster the determination to return to his father's "Fortress of Solitude" and reenter the 'conversion chamber' to have his body restored to normal.

Clark had removed the hand-held transponder/receiver from a pocket in his cape and was studying the readout as they flew out of Earth's atmosphere. Before exiting the atmosphere, he had warned his boy to "take a deep breath." They could sustain themselves quite comfortably, without breathing, for several hours. Mark maneuvered closer in alongside his father and studied the readout on the hand held device. From the look of the display, they must be approaching their target but he couldn't see a thing. With his super vision, Mark scanned the general vicinity of their target's supposed position… There was nothing but empty space… until the shuttlecraft suddenly shimmered into view… out of nothing… dead ahead across their flight path! "Wow!" Mark marveled. "These people's "stealth technology" is really something!" Mark gazed at the spacecraft in frank, unabashed admiration. These guys may be screwed up socially and politically, but they sure had some "sierra hotel" aerospace engineers! He resolved to plunder these aliens' technologies and devise a way to transmit his findings back to Earth! Affectionately, Mark patted the notebook PC safely nestled away in the carrying case tucked under his arm. "Baby," he thought, "the awesome data I'm going to feed into you!"

Clark slowed to a stop and Mark, maintaining his relative position in formation with his dad, did likewise. Momentarily, they found themselves teleported inside the passenger compartment of the shuttlecraft. Captain Ching emerged from the cockpit door. Ching was tall, height about six foot three, taut, lean but well muscled with severe, almost intimidating features. His silver hair was trimmed short, in a military "brush-cut." He and Clark exchanged a gesture similar to a handshake except that rather than clasping hands, they reached past the wrist, gripping one another's forearms. Instinctively, ingrained reflexes from his military training kicking in, Mark sprung to attention. Before he could stop himself, he had rendered Captain Ching a crisp hand salute in spontaneous deference to this formidable soldier, who exuded such authority, self-confidence and commanding presence. Around the world, the exchange of salutes has been a time- honored form of military greeting and token of mutual respect among men in uniform. Ching, an avid student of Terran military history and traditions, recognized Mark's gesture of respect immediately. He was oddly touched by this young American naval aviator's obvious spontaneity in rendering this military courtesy. Ching snapped to attention himself and, with parade-ground precision, returned Mark's salute. "Greetings, young Lieutenant, jay gee Kent. It is an honor to meet you at last. I am Captain Ching." And then he and the young man shook hands in conventional Terran fashion.

Mark replied, "And it is an honor to meet you as well, Sir." As he did this, he scoured the shuttlecraft thoroughly with his newly acquired super vision. Besides Ching, his dad and himself, there was no one else on board. Ching had been as good as his word, at least so far. Ching and Clark picked up on Mark's rapid but thorough examination of the Kryptonian shuttlecraft but neither man mentioned it. Ching, however, made a mental note. At the earliest opportunity he would compliment Kal-El in private on his son's impressive bearing and alertness.

Ching spoke. "Kal-El. We must depart soon to rendezvous with the star ship. In just over two hours, we're due to jump to super-light velocity for the journey home."

Clark spoke to Mark. "Son, this is where we part company. I am so proud of you and so grateful. I wish I were coming with you or even going out there instead of you…"

Clark embraced his youngest son, holding him tightly in his powerful arms. With his super empathic power, with all his might, he pumped his deep feelings of love, pride and joy into Mark. Mark's mental defenses were set to prevent anyone probing his thoughts or emotions for information or impressions. But he was not prepared for this loving super-empathic "assault" from his dad. As it was, for all its awesome potential, Mark's control over power to veil his mind and emotions may not yet have been well developed enough to mount effective resistance, even if he had wanted to. But in any event, his will had been usurped momentarily by his dad.

Mark responded in kind, returning his dad's love, with everything he had. Father and son remained locked in their farewell embrace for nearly a minute. Again, the memories, more vivid than any Mark had ever experienced, came crashing in on him. He doubted he would ever see his father again.

Finally, Clark released his son. Moments later he simply vanished.

Captain Ching led Mark into the cockpit and motioned him into copilot's position, as he took the command pilot's seat. Outside the cockpit window, hovered Clark. He locked eyes with his son, exchanged a final farewell wave with him and transmitted a final telepathic message: "I love you, Son. God speed!" And then he dove for the surface, plummeting Earthward.

Ching re-engaged the shuttle's cloaking device and then set course for rendezvous with the star ship. Hurtling along its orbital track, the tiny shuttle craft, pitched upward and yawed several degrees to starboard, pivoting about its lateral and vertical axes, aligning the nose with its departure heading… and then they were underway, leaping from Earth orbit out into empty space. "Lieutenant jay gee Kent," Ching said, "We will rendezvous with the star ship inside of ninety of your minutes."


"What was that, Son?"

"My name is 'Mark.' Please, Sir, call me "Mark."

Ching grinned, "Very well, Son… 'Mark' it is!"

US Air Force Technical Sergeant Emile Rodrigue, on duty at NORAD, in Colorado detected an unidentified radar contact north bound in low Earth polar orbit. One moment, there had been nothing. Then, dead center on his radar screen, there was an unidentified orbital contact and then, after a few minutes, target had simply vanished! Sergeant Rodrigue entered a report of the anomaly into his watch log. "Probable source of contact, spurious radar-return due to software glitch or malfunction of display or radar. Recommend diagnostic test of display, contact tracking systems and software. Video recording of target track appended."

Minutes later, at a SEOP regional command post in the Ural Mountains near the dividing line between European and Asian Russia, Starshii Leytenant Mikhael Iurevich Sokolov studied his tactical display. An "alpha-contact" alarm had sounded, indicating that "Target Babylon," Superman was in flight over his surveillance sector. Geo-stationary satellite-mounted sensors were tracking not one, but two targets. Leytenant Sokolov posted a routine SEOP system-wide "babylon in flight" detection notice. He assumed the second "contact" must be a spurious shadow of the primary. He continued tracking his targets. Their trajectory was nearly vertical. They had popped up above his sensors' visible horizon only moments before, point of origin, apparently somewhere in North America, near the U.S. eastern seaboard. The alpha/"babylon" contacts, suddenly vanished. Within minutes, a single contact reappeared, headed back over the pole, in a steep descending trajectory, velocity approximately mach ten. Sokolov punched up his system service menu, ran a quick diagnostic test of his tactical display and ordered a series of diagnostic tests of the three satellite-born alpha sensors that had triangulated his two targets.

He punched up another menu, selected his log file and entered a brief narrative, reporting the appearance and disappearance of the "two-target anomaly" and reappearance, moments later of a single babylon target. The log entry had been specifically prioritized and classified to attract the attention of his superiors. He appended his report with a video recording of target tracks.

Leytenant Sokolov and Sergeant Rodrigue's reports were duly passed up their respective chains of command and forwarded for subsequent analysis to the Central Strategic Data Base at "SEOP Global Command Directorate and Data Fusion Center." Within two and a half hours, a SEOP Senior Intelligence Analyst had correlated these two contact reports with several others from various SEOP, national and joint-allied military command posts in the northern hemisphere. These contact reports were reviewed along with appended video recordings from sensor operators' tactical displays.

System diagnostic tests and crosschecks requested by Sergeant Rodrigue and Leytenant Sokolov, indicated all sensor, contact tracking, data processing and display components and supporting software were operating within normal range. "No evidence of component malfunction anywhere in sensor systems."

The SEOP Senior Intelligence Analyst alerted global SEOP command that, "From appearances, at approximately 0245 Zulu (Greenwich Mean Time), this date, two 'alpha contacts,' probable 'babylons,' launched from an undetermined point-of-origin somewhere in the northeastern United States and rendezvoused with an unidentified radar contact in low Earth polar orbit. Thereafter, a single contact, probable babylon, reappeared, departing vicinity of unidentified orbiting radar contact and returned to vicinity of point of origin in northeastern U.S. Shortly thereafter, radar contact with orbital target was lost."

"CONCLUSION: Two unidentified probable babylons, (Kryptonian super beings, or beings of comparable physiology and capabilities) ascended from undetermined point in Northeastern U.S. to low Earth orbital altitude and rendezvoused with spacecraft of probable extra- terrestrial origin. Thereafter, one of two babylons departed spacecraft and returned to Earth surface. Disappearance of spacecraft was sudden and unexplained. Probable cause of sudden contact appearance and subsequent sudden disappearance of radar contact: Deployment, followed by deactivation or momentary malfunction, and subsequent re-deployment of anti-radar (stealth) Electronic Counter Measures (ECM).

"NOTE: Search of electronic and print news media, including all major news wire services worldwide, and polled SEOP and member state national intelligence resources indicate whereabouts of Superman during relevant time window: UNKNOWN."

"IMMEDIATE ACTION: 1. Append this report to SEOP historical database. 2. Notify cognizant-authorities within SEOP HQ and subordinate commands."

"ASSESSMENT OF STRATEGIC AND TACTICAL SITUATIONS: Unmonitored and unsupervised contact between Superman, or other Earth-based alien super being(s), and unknown extra terrestrials: PROBABLE. Presence on Earth of at least one other super being, in addition to Superman: PROBABLE. Unreported presence of additional super beings aside from Superman AND unmonitored contact between alien super beings on Earth and unknown extra-terrestrials POSE POSSIBLE GRAVE STRATEGIC THREAT TO SECURITY OF SEOP-CONSORTIUM MEMBER STATES."

"REQUEST FOR CHANGE OF RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (ROE): In event targets classified as possible 'babylons' detected in contact with spacecraft possibly extra-terrestrial in origin, ENGAGE AND DESTROY all possible 'babylons.' ENGAGE AND DESTROY orbiting spacecraft, whether one or more. SEOP weapons have been determined to be suitable for strike against targets in low earth orbit. In event orbital target employs stealth ECM, extrapolate point of target intercept from datum: Last known geographic position (lat/long) altitude, course and orbital velocity. Unanimous approval of all SEOP member states required for implementation. ROE change approval: PENDING."

As their shuttle hurtled along its trajectory for rendezvous with the Kryptonian star ship, Ching gave Mark a "cockpit-fam." (familiarization) of the shuttlecraft. By the time they 'hove to' about half a klick off the star ship's port bow, Mark was qualified to execute the approach into the hangar bay. With the shuttle craft controls selected to "manual," he prepared to initiate the precision maneuver. By Terran international law, now that he was piloting a true spacecraft, Mark would be entitled to wear on his uniform the wings of an American astronaut. He doubted he would ever live to return to Earth to claim them…

Ching sensed the boy's deep sadness. He tried to console him. "Son, I think I might have some sense of how terribly difficult this must be for you; being wrenched so suddenly from your life on Earth into this whole new situation. But try to look on this as a new adventure and challenge. Our life on New Krypton may be somewhat austere, but there are compensations. And you are a soldier…"

"I'm a sailor," Mark corrected. I'm a navy man, sir. I'm not in the army."

Ching smiled at Mark's correction. "I see, young Mark, that inter-service rivalries are a universal condition among the inter-stellar human family. We Kryptonians have similar rivalries, even though, these days, compared to yours, our military services are very small."

"Human family?" Mark asked.

"Of course, Mark. We Kryptonians are human, just like the people of Earth. And you are no less fully human, just because you are half Kryptonian. Half Kryptonian you may be, but you are fully human, as are your father and your brothers and I. Humans are not all that uncommon in this galaxy. We are all descended from some common ancestor from some world, long forgotten. We truly are brothers, you and I, even if your father had not been Kryptonian. It is profoundly tragic that we humans must even have military establishments. Because when we make war against each other, it truly is brother against brother."

Mark commented, "An interesting point of view for a soldier."

Ching laughed. "I confess I am of two minds, Mark. I am proud to be a soldier in my country's army. Still, as a rational human being, I lament the need for armies. But, like you, Mark, I am a realist. I freely acknowledge the need for soldiers is very real. And, yes, like you, I would willingly sacrifice my life to protect my country and my people."

Mark struggled to maintain his psychological "distance" from this warrior, but he was finding it increasingly difficult. Grimly, he determined that he must maintain his resolve. He would kill these infernal beings, all of them. Never again would any of these monsters come to Earth to kill or enslave the people of Earth. In his own mind, Mark conceded that innocents on New Krypton would die along with any real potential enemies of Earth. But he set his jaw. "I'll kill them all," he thought, "and let God sort out the innocent."


Chapter 7 In the Presence of Mine Enemies

Ching interrupted Mark's reverie. "Mark, we've been cleared into the hangar bay. You've been a remarkably quick study. You would make an excellent pilot in our air and space force. Now you may commence your approach."

Mark nodded and flew a textbook perfect approach into the star ship hangar bay. He mused. "This is a damn sight easier than landing an FA-37 on a pitching carrier deck in a stormy sea at night!"

As Ching and Mark emerged from the shuttlecraft hatch onto the hangar bay, they were flanked by an honor guard of some twenty men. These men were all phenomenally muscular, not one of them less than six feet tall. Jon and Lane were both tall, 6'2", like their dad. But Mark, though he had a superb athletic physique, was smaller, shorter, like the champion gymnast he had been. He had his dad's dark complexion, coal black wavy hair and his mother's deep hazel eyes. But he was only five feet seven inches tall. Every one of these Kryptonian soldiers towered over Mark.

The honor guard snapped to rigid attention and, as one, yelled a rousing cheer. Mark had assumed this was some kind of Kryptonian military salute for Ching. But Ching prompted, "Mark, they're cheering for you. You bring them hope that turmoil and conflict can be averted. Every one of them has pledged to defend you to the death. They're expecting you to say a few words before we move on to meet with your brothers and with others in the embarked delegation of the Governing Council.

Mark hadn't expected anything like this. Why hadn't Ching warned him? Oh well, no problem. Mark was perfectly capable of thinking on his feet. He stood next to Ching as, in fluent Kryptonese, he addressed these formidable young warriors. "Soldiers of New Krypton," he began. "I thank you for your warm welcome and for your service to your country. I pledge to you that I will do my utmost to live up to your expectations. Lord willing, together, we will find our way to peace and prosperity for all the people of New Krypton."

The men responded with another rousing "hurrah!" or at least a close Kryptonian approximation.

As Ching led Mark off the hangar bay, he congratulated him on his little impromptu speech. They moved along to meet privately with his brothers before meeting with other members of the small welcoming delegation from the Governing Council. As they walked, two members of the honor guard peeled off from their formation and followed Ching and Mark. Marked flashed Ching a quizzical glance. "Mark, you must understand, not everyone on New Krypton is pleased at your arrival in our midst. Although most of our people are profoundly happy and relieved that you have agreed to help us, there are some among us who would prefer that our inter-Nicene quarrels be allowed to play themselves out. While I doubt any of them would dare raise a hand against you, we don't intend to take any chances. I pledge to you on my life and on the lives of my men that nothing will be left to chance. We will keep you safe."

Mark hissed, "I can take care of myself, Ching. Get rid of those two lugs. Now."

Ching replied. "No, Mark. You're too important. And I've promised your father that you and your brothers will be safe. I am responsible for your safety and I will not take needless risks with you or your brothers."

To himself Mark seethed, "Those goons aren't "body guards." They're Ching's watchdogs!" He must at least suspect where I'm really coming from. Now, with those two guards on my tail, it's gonna be a 'mother bear' to find a way to off this unholy band of mutant Kryptonian super freaks. But, I will find a way. So help me God! I will find a way!"

Ching led Mark and the two bodyguards to a lift. They boarded, the doors slid closed and, momentarily, they were whisked downward to the main command deck, deep in the bowels of the ship. From the lift, Ching escorted Mark to a small compartment where Jon and Lane were waiting. As the doors slid open, Mark caught sight of his brothers. Their faces lit up with unalloyed joy.

"Mark!" Jon cried as he pulled his brother into a warm embrace. Man! It's been over a year! Longest I've ever gone without seein' my baby bro! Lane was next. He hugged Mark tight. "Welcome aboard, bro! God it's good to see you!" Lane held his brother by his shoulders. "Here! Let me look at you! Man! You look like a million bucks in your Navy flight gear! Wow!"

Mark responded stiffly. After having made the demands of them that he had, he wasn't expecting such a warm welcome. It made him very uncomfortable. He had every intention of finding a way of killing everyone on this planet, including his brothers and himself. So he did not expect his demand that they all enter his father's conversion chamber would be required. They would not live long enough for it ever to be needed. At least, not if Mark had anything to say about it. But at least he had hedged his bets.

"Jon, Lane, I need to speak to you both, privately. Ching, if you and your two," he paused, "'guards' would please excuse us."

Ching nodded and he and the two bodyguards left the room. As they left, Ching turned and addressed Jon. "We will wait just outside, Zor-El."

Jon nodded. "Thanks, Ching"

As the door slid closed, Mark turned to his brothers. "Frankly, I wasn't expecting such a warm welcome from you two after the demand I made earlier. I want you to know I intend to hold your both to your agreement. I wouldn't blame you for being mad at me. I would expect that. I know Dad probably got word to you to play up to me, no matter how you really feel. I can understand why he might've felt the need to do that. But I just want you both to know that I intend to hold up my end of this Faustian bargain. You don't hafta play these games with me. They won't accomplish a thing. I've said to Dad and to you that I'll play along with this thing with this Governing Council and, honest, I will! But I'm not interested in playing games with either of you. I'll never trust either one of you again. You and Dad fooled me. All of my life you've made a total fool out of me. I'm sure you've all had a great laugh at my expense. You are not my brothers and you're not my friends. You are nothing to me except temporary allies of convenience. I'll give you what you want. And you are gonna give me what I want. This is a simple business arrangement. Once this thing is over, that'll wash it between us. Meanwhile, I'm calling an end to this lame little charade, because I did love you. I loved you both. There's nothing I wouldn't have done for either of you. And, now at least I wanted to be honest about where I stand with you two."

Clark had warned Jon and Lane of Mark's anger and bitterness, but nothing he could've said could possibly have prepared them for this. Mark's voice had quavered with barely contained emotion. They stood there, both of them, stung, too wounded to respond. They both loved Mark dearly and it cut them both to the bone to be repudiated by their "baby brother" like this.

Mark saw his brothers' faces and it broke his heart. He was angry and he'd wanted to hurt them. But, seeing the hurt in their faces and feeling it in his own heart with his new empathic sense, he regretted his angry words. He loved Jon and Lane as much as he ever had. And he knew very well that the decision to blindside him had been his dad's not theirs. He had no right to blame them and, in truth, he realized he wasn't being fair to them. But he did not apologize. He had come to New Krypton to kill them, along with everyone else in this "infernal" world. How could he possibly do that unless he built a wall between himself and Jon and Lane? Mark had come very close to tears from the position he'd found himself in. Ruefully, he thought to himself. "Yeah! I was right! I really am losing my soul over this. When this is over, if by some hook or crook I survive, I'll have to off myself. No one could live with this much pain and guilt."

Mark turned on his heel and walked up to the door. The panels slid out of his path and he stepped through the open portal, rejoining Ching and the two Kryptonian military bodyguards. The automatic doors closed behind him. "I'm ready, Ching. Where to now?"

Back inside the room, Jon and Lane just looked at each other. Lane was reeling. Jon laid his hand on his brother's shoulder. "You do realize, don'tcha, bro, that Mark didn't mean that."

Lane nodded. "Yeah, Jon, I do. I felt it, too. Mark didn't mean any of it. It was breaking his heart to tell us what he did as much as it was yours and mine. At least that's something, but, still, the words really hurt, no matter where he's really coming from. He's mad. That was real enough and that I can understand. But there was something else. His words didn't really match his feelings. He's hiding something, trying to throw us off. I don't know what it is or why he came at us like he did. But there's a lot more going on in Mark's head than what he's telling us. I tried to get inside his mind, but he's got that locked down tight. No way I could get in. I tried and it was like coming up against a solid wall."

Jon arched his eyebrows. "Well, Lane, at least now I know it wasn't only me that got those impressions off'a Mark. Think we oughta tell Ching?"

Lane shook his head emphatically. "No, Jon. This is between Mark and us. This is family business and we gotta work this out among ourselves. This doesn't involve Ching or any of these other Kryptonians."

Jon sighed as he nodded. "Yeah, well I guess we'd better catch up to Ching and Mark. The other Council members are waiting."

Mark's meeting with the other members of the small welcoming delegation from the New Krypton Governing Council had been stiff and uncomfortable. He'd been civil and correct, barely, but he had resolutely rebuffed any efforts on the part of his Kryptonian hosts to establish anything remotely approaching a cordial or friendly working relationship. Mark wasn't by nature a priggish jerk. But he knew these Kryptonians were telepaths and empaths, not only under a yellow sun, but also on their own world that orbits a red giant star. He could veil his mind, but he knew that veiling his feelings was much more difficult and his ability to do so, much less reliable. They would surely discern that he had not come willingly. They would sense that he was suspicious of them. They could read that from his emotions. So, he reasoned, they would see through any attempt on his part to appear friendly and open to them. He would endeavor to keep everyone at arm's distance and keep conversations and personal interactions to a minimum. Mark knew this was going to be hard. "I'm gonna hafta be 'on' every moment I'm awake." Playing a dangerous game like this would be tough even back home on Earth. Out here, with these mind reading, empath mutants, it was gonna be well nigh impossible. But he was determined to try his best to trim his sails to allay suspicion of his true intent.

Mark had been shown to his quarters. His sleeping compartment aboard the star ship was surprisingly similar to those for senior officers aboard USS Nimitz, comfortable but austere. He'd asked for some assistance from a member of the crew for 110 volt AC power for his laptop. The ship's engineering department had responded within a matter of minutes and, in short order, a suitable electric outlet had been installed in the bulkhead above the small built-in writing desk in his VIP stateroom. Mark took a seat at the desk, plugged in his power cord and opened and powered up his laptop, laced his fingers, reversed his palms and cracked his knuckles. Then he began his first journal entry.

There came a soft knock at his door. The entry to his stateroom was not one of those Star Trek" automatic sliding doors like the one in that compartment where he'd met with Jon and Lane. This was a conventional hinge and latch affair like any ordinary door he might've seen aboard the Nimitz. "Probably those guard goons," Mark supposed. "Wonder what they want." He opened the door. It was Jon and Lane. Mark scowled.

Jon spoke, "Hey baby bro, we need to talk. Can Lane and I come in?"

"Is this business or 'chit chat,'" Mark asked.

Jon sighed. "It's business, Mark. C'mon, bro, let us in. We gotta talk."

Mark stepped aside and motioned for his brothers to enter. He eyed the two bodyguards posted outside his door. He thought, "I could probably sucker punch one of them, even as big as they are. But two of them. I'll hafta come up with something really creative if I'm gonna get them off my tail."

Jon and Lane stepped into the stateroom. There were two chairs in addition to the one Mark had been sitting in at his desk. Without waiting for an invitation, his brothers sat down. Mark remained standing.

He looked at Jon and asked, "OK, what do you two want?"

"Mark," Jon pleaded, "Please don't do this to Lane and me. We gotta find a way to work this out between us. If you're mad at us for what we've done, well I guess neither of us can really blame you. I am so sorry about all this, Mark. But now we're up against some really serious stuff here and we gotta stick together. We're gonna need each other bad. Ching didn't post those two bruisers outside your door just for grins. This is serious! The opposing faction has been out for blood since they found out you were coming."

Lane added, "Mark, we gotta make peace, bro. I'm sorry about everything. If I could go back and change it, I would. But I can't. One thing was always true, Mark. Mom and dad and Jon and I love you. Please, Mark, don't ever doubt that. We didn't keep you in the dark because we didn't love you. Dad did it because he does love you. He said you'd be safer and better off all around if you didn't know."

Mark snorted. "You didn't trust me. None of you trusted me. And now all of you expect me to just drop everything in my life and come running to help you. Now you tell me about all this; now that you want something from me."

Lane responded, "Mark, I can't go back and change the past. I wish to heaven I could, but I can't. Yeah, little bro, we were wrong. All of us! But, bro, you gotta find a way to get past this with us. We don't have time for you to mope. We gotta depend on each other. We gotta be able to trust each other…"

"Trust you?" Mark challenged. "I don't trust either one of you. I never will again. I said that to you already. I don't trust you. In fact, I hate your guts. Both of you."

"That is a crock!" Lane retorted.

"Yeah," Jon piped up. "C'mon baby bro, I don't know exactly what's going on inside your head. You've got that locked up tight as a drumhead. But you can't hide your feelings from us, so don't even go there cuz we both know better. As long as we're bein' up front with each other, here, which Lane and I both know you're not¸ you might as well know, Mark, we can't read your thoughts if you won't let us into your mind. But your feelings are like an open book; just like ours are to you. Everybody out here wears his heart on his sleeve. We got no choice. We're empaths, all of us. You are too now that Dad's made you like us. So now it's time for you to get your arms around some new realities here. You ain't in "Kansas" any more, baby bro. So you might as well just get used to the new ground rules we got goin' on here. And part of that is, you just gotta know you cannot hide your feelings from anybody. And if you try to lie about it and hide it, yer not fooling anybody, yer just gonna look stupid."

Lane added, "I know you're still mad at us, bro. That's real. But no you don't hate us. And all that stuff you laid on Jon and me back there. That was all bogus and you may as well know from the jump, you didn't fool us one bit. It hurt you as much as it did us for you to say those awful things to us about not being' your brothers or even your friends. So, tell me, bro, why do you want us to believe you hate us when we know you really don't? C'mon Mark, what's really goin' on inside your head?"

Mark heaved a sigh. His brothers could read his emotions. Now there was no doubt in his "military mind" about this. He knew not only because of what Jon and Lane had said, but because he could read their feelings. This was going to be a lot harder than he thought. How was he going to get out of this?

But, unintentionally, Ching had come to Mark's rescue. He knocked on the door to Mark's quarters. Mark answered.

Mark, Zor-El, Kor-El. The other members of the Council delegation have requested your presence in the ship's main conference room. We are about to establish hyperspace communication with the main body of the Council on New Krypton.

As they left Mark's stateroom, Jon laid his palm on Mark's shoulder and spoke softly into his ear. "This isn't over little bro. We're gonna work through this. I think after this meeting you'll have a better 'grid' for why we don't have the "luxury" of catering to your grudges or bad feelings. Lane and I need you, bro. And, like it or not, you need us! Besides, I love yah, little bro. And you can lie and deny all you want, but you don't fool me. You still love us, too. And you're about to get a grid for why that's so important, to all of us."

Ching led Jon, Lane and Mark to the entrance of the conference room where the other members of the delegation from the Governing Council were waiting. The two young military bodyguards followed.

Ching turned around and spoke to Jon. "Wait here. I'll be right back."

Mark asked, "What's going on? What's he doing in there?"

Jon answered, "It's OK, Mark. Ching just wants to look things over to make sure it's safe. He admits he's being ultra cautious, but these people have a lot riding on us and he's not taking any chances."

"Whatever," Marked growled.

As they waited, Mark asked, "Jon, do any of these other folks besides Ching know English?"

"No, Mark, I don't think so. Why?"

"Nothing, Just curious."

Presently, Ching stepped through the open portal and bid the young men to follow.

They were met by the head of the delegation, Tsa-An. He was youngish, no older than his early thirties, as were the other members of the Council delegation embarked aboard the star ship. He spoke to Jon, "Thank you for coming, Zor-El. We are about to establish communication with the rest of the Council back home. We will convene a videoconference session and formally induct Jal- El into the Council as a full voting member. It is just a formality, but, as I'm sure you've guessed, Zon-Nor will probably kick up his customary fuss."

Mark asked, "What's this? Who is this 'Zon-Nor?"

In English, Jon replied, "Mark, this is the guy we brought you here to counter. He's young. Not much older than me. But he's a hot head. He leads the opposing faction. And he's definitely not been a "happy camper" since word got out that you would be coming to New Krypton.

In Kryptonese, Jon apologized to Tsa-An, "I apologize. Jal-El is only just becoming accustomed to the language of our fathers."

Tsa-An smiled. In fluent English, he responded. "Jal-El, you will become more comfortable in Kryptonese as you use it more and more. It is a beautiful language. Thank Rao (their name for God). We were able to preserve at least some of our great literature. As a welcoming gift, I shall give you a printout of some of our best. The great author Man-Dee's works are on a par with those of your William Shakespeare of England, or of Friedrich Schiller of Germany. In our literature as in the great literature of your world, tragedy is not only for entertainment, it is the great social teacher. Your "Hamlet," for instance has applicability to us on New Krypton; and, my young American friend, to you as well. We must talk, you and I; of the things of your world and of ours, which, you must learn to accept, is your home world, too, every bit as much as Earth. You are welcome here, Jal-El. And I thank you for coming here to help us."

Mark nodded but then quickly looked away. Tsa-An's implicit rebuke had been gentle, even kind. His reference to "Hamlet" had been uncomfortably close to spot on! How much of what was going on inside Mark's head did he know?

As they moved to their seats, Mark commented to Lane, "Don't they have any ordinary people in this freakin' place?"

Lane asked, "What do you mean, Mark?"

"Well look around! All the men in here look like they just stepped out of a GQ fashion plate. They all have faces like fashion models or movie stars. And the women all look like Victoria Secret models. Except that everybody here seems to have a bit more muscle than most of us back home. Geez! After awhile, that starts to work on a person. Where the hell are the just plain folks? Don't they have anybody like that out here besides me?"

Lane winked at his brother, "Lil' bro, if we all look GQ, well, you fit right in with the rest of us. You know you always were "cute as a button."

Playfully, Mark gently poked his brother's right arm and Lane "retaliated" with a little love tap to Mark's left shoulder. They giggled like a couple of schoolboys. For just a brief moment, it was almost like old times!

As youngsters, Jon and Lane, with their marvelous agility and super control of their bodies, had devised means of gentle horseplay with their younger brother that would preclude any chance of their harming him inadvertently. And by deftly controlling their actions, they had been able to prevent Mark from discovering their super strength.

The Council members and their entourages took their seats. The conference room aboard the star ship was rectangular, about 20 feet by 40. The entrance was dead center on one of the long sides. Members of the Council delegation and their aides sat side by side in two rows behind a long, built- in desk to the left of the entrance, along one of the two narrower bulkheads, facing the opposite wall on which was mounted a large video screen. On screen was displayed the flag of Krypton (old Krypton). The banner was emblazoned with an image of the long destroyed planet, radiating beams of assorted colors. Underneath the banner appeared the legend, in Kryptonese "Council and People of New Krypton." Mark mused, "SPQR! "Senatus Populusque Romanus." "The Senate and People of Rome!" the legend inscribed on buildings and monuments and battle standards of the ancient Roman Empire back on Earth.

Tsa-An motioned Mark to the seat behind the extreme right hand end of the long desk. Lane and Jon sat to his left. Ching and the two bodyguards sat immediately behind the three brothers. The other members of the Counsel delegation took their seats to Tsa-An's left behind the long desk, their aids seated behind them.

Presently, Tsa-An called the session to order. "My friends. The communications officer has informed me that we will be ready to communicate with our brethren on New Krypton momentarily. The image on the giant video screen segued to the large Council chamber on New Krypton where the rest of the Governing Council had convened for this hyperspace video link Council session. The image on screen was quite conventional; no better than the best video- teleconferencing wide screens back on Earth. Although Krypton technology had perfected holographic video imaging over an earth century before the planet exploded, the requisite bandwidth simply was not available in extremely long-range hyperspace video transmission mode. After brief greetings and a prayer offered up to Rao, Tsa-An, the head of the star ship council delegation addressed Men-Tur, presiding officer of the full Council. Men-Tur was tall and formidable in appearance. He was starkly handsome, athletically built, with a shock of thick silver white hair and incongruously boyish facial features. Mark muttered to Lane. "If it weren't for that guy's silver hair, I'd have guessed he wasn't a day over twenty-five!"

Lane whispered back, "Men-Tur is over eighty of our years old."

Mark whispered back, "Your plastic surgeons do some really great work!"

Lane snickered.

Tsa-An, spoke. "Lord Men-Tur, I present Lord Jal-El, son of Lord Kal-El and brother of Lords Zor- El and Kor-El, as a candidate for membership in the Governing Council."

From the video screen, Men-Tur addressed Mark. "You come here and agree to serve with us on this Council of your own free will without reservation?"

Although it irked him no end to do so, Mark lied, "Yes, Sir. I do."

From his seat, Zon-Nor, son of Lord Nor spoke. "You really intend to install this half-breed primitive weakling from Earth as a member of this august Council? This inferior life form will be allowed to Govern with us? He is not worthy to clean out our latrines! He's just another mongrel like those other two you've brought here from Earth."

Men-Tur turned to Zon-Nor. "Please, Lord Zon-Nor…"

Mark rose from his chair and spoke, his voice oozing unctuous sarcasm. "Lord Men-Tur, Sir, respectfully, if I may direct a question to the 'distinguished Council member from HELL…'"

Zon-Nor replied, "It is very prudent of you, impertinent weakling, to defy me while so much empty space separates us from one another. You would not be so bold if you were here in this Council chamber."

Mark eyed the video screen. He reverted to English. Relishing Zon-Nor's outraged performance, he taunted, "Yeah, well, Bubba, I guess I am a sniveling little weak sister," he turned and patted the shoulder of one of the body guards seated behind him, "but yah see, I got me some really big bad friends up in here."

A universal linguistic translation device interpreted Mark's words for Zon-Nor.

In Kryptonese, Zon shot back, "A typical cowardly Earthling. Hiding behind our soldiers for protection, when you are not even worthy to blacken their boots! Look at him! Dressed in that rustic, primitive tribal costume." (Zon-Nor was referring to Mark's nomex US Navy flight suit. Mark had never taken it off.) "This pathetic weakling does not belong in our midst, deliberating the affairs of Kryptonians. He must not be seated as a member of this Council."

Tsa-An intervened. "Gentlemen, gentlemen! Please! I entreat you both to observe proper decorum."

Men-Tur nodded. "Gentlemen, Tsa-An has spoken truly. There can be honest disagreement among us without personal animus."

In English, Mark muttered under his breath, "Yeah, right."

Again, in Kryptonese, he spoke to Men-Tur. "Sir, I never got to ask this 'gentleman' my question."

Without waiting for permission, Mark turned to Zon's image on the video screen. "Sir, is my membership on the Council a decided issue or not?"

As Zon proceeded to launch into another tirade Mark groaned in exasperation. In English he whined, "Aw man." And then, shifting to fluent Kryptonese, he pressed Zon-Nor. "Just answer my question. Is this or is it not a decided issue? Help me out here. I'm just trying to get a straight answer on where I stand. Because, if I am not welcome here, I am very easy to get rid of. It's not like I didn't have anything going for me before I got shanghaied into this, this fools errand…"

From behind him, in English, Ching muttered, "Careful, Mark!"

Men-Tur answered, "Jal-El, please permit me to clarify. You have been elected to full membership to this Council. And you have accepted your appointment. You are now a full voting member in good standing for as long as you live or until you voluntarily resign or retire."

Mark turned to Zon-Nor's image on screen and glared. He caught his expression. Emotions could not be transmitted via this hyperspace audio-video medium but this was not needed. On Zon-Nor's face was fear and what, for just the briefest moment, seemed like an imploring, pleading expression. Mark immediately dismissed this impression. This mistake was, momentarily, to have grave consequences.

In English, Mark snapped at Zon-Nor, "Then what're we talking about this for, you stupid ignorant 'goober?'"

The linguistic device translated.

From behind, Mark heard Ching as he heaved a heavy sigh. Sure enough, Mark had crossed the line. Jon and Lane both moaned as the other members of the Council, both in the room and on the video screen gasped.

Slowly, Zon rose from his chair. In a mechanical monotone, his eyes looking downward, he intoned. "You have offended my honor, Jal-El. You have left me no choice. I demand the opportunity to defend my good name. I challenge you to combat. Since I have issued the challenge, it is your right to choose the weapons we will employ."

Mark turned to Lane. In English he asked. "Am I hearing right? Did this wacko just challenge me to a duel?"

Sadly, Lane nodded. "Mark, he has no choice. Many of the ancient forms from Krypton have been revived on New Krypton."

Mark nodded, "Fine. I get to choose the weapons? I choose a bare knuckled fist fight, mano a mano."

Lane shook his head. "No, Mark. This fight is to the death! You must choose a lethal weapon."

Zon had sat back down. He rested his elbows on the desk in front of him and hid his face in his hands. From the video screen, he could be heard, moaning softly.

Mark, completely missing Zon's reaction to this new situation was not particularly concerned. He was not sure whether or not he could take Zon. From the look of his image on the video screen, Zon-Nor would be a formidable opponent. He appeared to stand a good six inches taller than Mark. And in this intense gravity environment, no telling how much heavier Zon was than Mark. If they'd been on earth, by Zon's look, if they'd both been ordinary men of earth, he would probably have had at least a 30 pound advantage over Mark, clearly, all of it muscle. But Mark had been perfectly willing to let the chips fall where they may. He was most certainly not intimidated by Zon Nor's apparent physical advantages.

And then Mark caught a glimpse of Zon-Nor. He stared intently at the video screen. To no one in particular, in English, he asked, "What's with that guy? I can't read him at all. Why is he acting like that? He's the one who called me out! Now it looks like he's all broken up about it."

Jon answered. "He's got no choice, Mark. He's the leader of his faction and if he is to remain so, he cannot allow this insult to pass without challenge. And it must be to the death. I really don't think he wanted it to go this far. But now he's got no choice. One of you two is going to die because of this! Oh God, what is happening to us, Ching?"

Ching was devastated. He had done his utmost to ensure Kal-El's three son's physical protection. How could he have known that Mark would've blundered into a fatal gaffe like this so quickly? He had failed to protect Mark. He had failed his friend, Kal-El. And now, because of his failure, one of these two young men was condemned to die.

Ching rose from his chair and addressed Men-Tur. "Lord Leader of the Council, I pray your indulgence."

Men-Tur nodded. "Speak, Captain Ching. I give you leave to address this Council."

Ching nodded. "Lord Leader, distinguished members of the Council, I stand as Jal-El's friend. I beg the permission of this august body to stand in Jal-El's place. I will be his champion. I claim the right to fight in his stead."

Mark sprung out of his chair. "No way! I will not allow this man to fight in my place. I will deal with this myself. As a weapon, since I'm told we cannot do this bare knuckled, I will kill this knave with a blade." To himself, Mark reasoned, "If I can get his knife away from him, the fight goes back to fists. Then I will kick his Kryptonian ass!"

Ching sighed. To Jon he moaned, "Zor-El, Why am I not surprised at this hot headed younger brother of yours?" To Mark he said, "This isn't about your honor, boy. If you die, we lose everything! There will be a bloodbath in New Krypton. Now, to save us, you must kill young Zon- Nor. I had hoped it would not come to this and now my worst fears have been realized."

In English, Mark snapped. "I am not afraid of that thug…"

Ching retorted, "Well, Mark, you should be. I am expert in hand-to-hand combat and I would be very concerned to have to face anyone from Lord Nor's clan compound. There are no better fighters among our people than Lord Nor's men and his son is probably one of their best. I will take charge of your training. We will have about one of your weeks to prepare you. I pray Rao will be with you, Mark. For the sake of our people on New Krypton and for the sake the people of Earth."

The remainder of the interstellar transit to New Krypton had been uneventful. The star ship arrived in New Krypton orbit. Passengers were transported by shuttle to the surface. Ching escorted Mark to his stateroom in the main government complex. His apartments were much like his quarters onboard the star ship only there was quite a bit more room. These accommodations were comfortable but not lavish.

An American standard 110-volt outlet had been positioned conveniently on the wall, just above a writing desk. Mark took out his trusty laptop and proceeded to log his experiences so far, since his last journal entry.

As he typed, he recalled his squadron mates. A stab of "homesickness" pierced his heart. He chuckled ruefully, "'Homesick' for the fleet! Now there's an ironic twist! In his mind, he recalled an ancient prayer among the Jews of Earth. It was from the book of Psalms. "If I forget thee, Oh, Jerusalem, may my right hand WITHER! May my tongue cleave to the roof my MOUTH!" It was not for Jerusalem that Mark pined, but for all of Earth; anyplace on Earth! Oh, how he missed the hauntingly beautiful blue orb that was his home world. He muttered to himself, "I won't forget. I will never forget."

After he'd finished his daily journal entry on his laptop, Mark stepped outside his door. The two guards had been posted just outside in the passageway. He nodded to them and stepped back inside. He moved to the rear of his apartments. There was a balcony. He stepped out onto it. There were more guards standing on the pavement just below. "How am I gonna shake all these goons," Mark, wondered?

Presently, there came a knock at the door. Irritated at the intrusion and in no mood for company, Mark wondered "Now what?"

Mark answered the door. It was Ching. "Let's go, Mark. I'm taking you to the gym to start your combat training."

Mark sighed and nodded. He followed Ching out the door, his bodyguards falling in behind at a discrete distance. The training facility was a large gymnasium. It looked fairly straightforward, pretty much like a good-sized neighborhood recreation gym back home. Wooden floor, cinder block walls, large overhead lights shielded by wire grills, climbing ropes. Inflated game balls, closely resembling soccer balls except for their size and color, a nondescript off white and they were a bit smaller in size.

Ching explained. "They're used in a game similar to dodge ball on Earth, although the rules are a bit more complex. Good for physical conditioning, agility and it's just a lot of fun. I've played since I was a boy. It's a popular game for families. Teams can be composed of players from all ages. My son and I have played together in a league since he was a boy."

There was a weight room annex, separated from the main gym by a clear Plexiglas partition; nothing any more hi-tech than a well-equipped gym back home. Several superbly muscled men and very athletic women were busy lifting. The facility featured free weights and cable, weight and pulley contraptions similar to Universal or Nautilus machines back on Earth. There were treadmills, stair climbers and a couple of other electro-mechanical devices. At one end of the gym just outside the weight room were wrestling mats. This would be Ching and Mark's training area.

"Mark, we will train here. I will communicate with you telepathically so you will assimilate all my fighting knowledge very quickly."

Mark shook his head. "No way, Ching. I'm not letting you or anybody else inside my head. Not that."

Ching was exasperated. "Mark, this is absurd. You have got to get over your paranoia. The time has come for you to decide who your friends are here and whom you can trust. I mean you and your people no harm and you know it. Now let me into your mind so I can give you what you need to know to fight Zon. I promise, I won't try to read your thoughts."

By what he'd just said, Ching had made it abundantly clear he knew why Mark was unwilling to open his mind to telepathic communication. Ching knew Mark had something to hide inside his mind. Mark pondered, "How much does Ching know?" He deliberated momentarily and decided it was less risky to take Ching at his word than it would've been to hold out against this telepathic information transfer of Ching's knowledge and fighting skill. Much of what Ching gave to Mark, he'd already learned from his dad at his Fortress of Solitude, but, reluctantly, he had gone along with Ching's telepathic information transfer.

Mark and Ching squared off. They used flexible simulated fighting blades designed to leave a water-soluble mark on their opponent. Ching charged at Mark, landing a murderous blow in the boy's gut. "Game over!" Ching chided in English.

They squared off again. This time, Mark successfully dodged Ching's attack. He turned and plunged his simulated "blade" into Ching's back, leaving a bright red stain from his marker "knife" on Ching's jersey.

Ching turned and taunted. "Ugly, Jal-El! A stab in the back? Where is the honor in that?"

Mark charged at Ching again and landed a killing blow, a slashing swipe at Ching, leaving yet another red mark, this time on his throat. As he administered the blow, he retorted, "I thought you said this wasn't about my 'honor,' old man. And besides, I told you not to call me 'Jal-El' My name is 'Mark,' not 'Jal-El.'"

In spite of himself, Ching grinned at this plucky young Terran. Momentarily, he thought fondly of his own son, the young Kryptonian warrior, Lieutenant Jing-Chel.

"Old man!" Ching laughed. "Why you insolent young pup!" As he spoke, Ching lunged at Mark, slashing at his chest with his practice blade. Mark dodged, turned and drove his knife into Ching's back, leaving yet another red mark.

Ching turned and laughed. "The back again? Are you completely without scruples, young man?"

Mark grinned. "Completely! No points for second place! I'm gonna beat that Kryptonian 'gentleman' even if it kills us both!"

A wave of anguish for Mark washed over Ching momentarily, but he quickly recovered.

The two men sparred for over an hour, exchanging the advantage and good-natured verbal bantering back and fourth.

When they had concluded their training, Ching exclaimed, "Well, young Mark, that is quite a workout you've given me. You've managed to make me sweat! As the young warriors in my command would attest, that is no mean accomplishment. You'll make a formidable opponent to Zon-Nor."

Mirthlessly, Mark replied, "It's like I said, Ching-Chel, I'm gonna beat that 'gentleman.'"

But the truth was, Mark had no intention whatever of fighting him. By the time they were due to fight, Mark intended that everyone on New Krypton would be dead. He was not about to leave Earth to the "mercies" of the likes of Lord Nor's son. Ching was right. None of this was about Mark's "honor." This was about survival of the human race on Planet Earth.

Back in his quarters, Mark ordered an austere meal from the food replicator and ate it. While filling and nutritious, the taste had been bland and the textures unsatisfying. He mused, "What I wouldn't give for a slider (a very greasy hamburger dressed with lettuce tomato, grated cheese, bacon and a fried egg) and some dog (soft ice cream like from Dairy Queen) from Wardroom One (the informal, working, officer's mess) in USS Nimitz!

As much as the fare from Wardroom One, Mark sorely missed the companionship of his squadron mates aboard ship. The burden of his suicide mission would have been so much easier to bear had he not been obliged to do so alone. Mark doubted that any of these aliens on New Krypton would have a grid for the quality of comradeship of a US Navy wardroom or squadron readyroom.

Mark wrote another entry into his journal in his notebook PC and then turned his attention to the Kryptonian data terminal set into the desk. There was no keyboard. This irked Mark. He liked the keyboard interface with PC's. Verbal instructions would be uncomfortable and, what's worse, they could be easily monitored. He reasoned his rooms might well have been bugged. Mark decided he had no choice but to proceed. (In truth, there were no bugs. Ching's operatives had thoroughly swept the room and removed several monitoring devices that had been planted by spies from Lord Nor's family compound.)

In Kryptonese, Mark addressed his data terminal. "Computer."

"Computer ready."

"Are my requests for information logged anyplace."

"All requests for information are logged in your activity file."

"Who has access to my activity file?"

"You, the data base administrator, main system administrator and three system technicians."

"Anybody else?"

"As a member of the Governing Council, your activity file is classified secret. No one may access your activity file without authorization in writing of the leader of the Governing Council and at least one additional council member. System and data base administrators and technicians are constrained from disclosing contents of your activity file except under circumstances described heretofore."

"Can my activity file be deleted?"



"By your command."

"Do I have an option that my activities not be logged at all?"


"By my command?"


"Until otherwise directed by me, do not log any of my computer activities and delete every activity file entry heretofore."

"Are you SURE?"

Mark chuckled. "Some things never change!" he marveled.

He answered. "Affirmative!"

"This function requires PASSWORD PROTECTION. Select Password."

"Password is 'Chester.'

"Repeat password for verification."


"Password confirmed, Command acknowledgment follows: No computer activity log will be maintained."

"Can anyone monitor my activities in real time?"



"System administrator, data base administrator and three technicians."

"What about the leader of the council?

"Negative. As a Governing Council Member NO ONE aside from those technical personnel named heretofore may monitor your computer activities in real time, nor may those above named divulge information gleaned in real time to anyone for any reason."

What is the penalty for violations?

"The penalty is left to your discretion."

"Any limitations to my discretion?"


"You mean I could sentence them to death?"


Mark shuddered. To no one in particular, he said, "Let's hope it never comes to that!"

The computer responded, "By your command!"

This little exchange with the computer had given Mark all the practice he needed with this verbal interface. For the rest of the evening, he plundered the New Kryptonian computer databases for design and specifications of their technologies. He focused on technologies that he could easily steal and especially on potential points of vulnerability that he might be able to sabotage. He'd hit the mother load! He discovered a solar powered small firearm capable of emitting lethal as well as non-lethal kryptonite directed energy bolts. He queried whether such a device was scalable. The computer answered in the affirmative. He asked if the solar energy component would operate effectively by solar energy from a class-G (yellow) star. Surprisingly, the computer answered, "Effectiveness of weapon INCREASES by one point five orders of magnitude."

"Wow!" Mark marveled. "These weapons work way better back home than they do here! And they can be scaled up! I've gotta find a way to get the specs on this weapon back to Earth! With our SEOP pilots armed with a scaled up version of this weapon, they wouldn't have to off themselves to take out their target!"

With the computer's guidance, Mark jury-rigged an interface between it and his own laptop. The information was rendered into a format suitable for the laptop, encrypted, compressed and the data transferred to the laptop via the infrared interface.

He continued to plunder Kryptonian technologies throughout most of the night. (Despite New Krypton's massive size, its "days" were only slightly longer than those on Earth, 26.7 earth hours.) Among his information booty was what he had been looking for.

The main power generation facility for the entire planet was situated less than five klicks from his quarters! The facility comprised a single anti-matter reactor with four supplemental fusion reactors. The entire installation was somewhat redundant most of the time, kept online mainly to provide for occasional surge energy requirements. As had been the case on Krypton, most of New Krypton's power requirements were supplied by geo-thermal energy, although only an anti-matter reactor was capable of generating the surge energy densities demanded by some of New Krypton's industrial fabrication processes. An explosion powerful enough to breach the reactor containment vessel would initiate a chain reaction that would immolate the entire planet with a blast powerful enough to snuff New Krypton's red giant star! The automated self-maintaining power plant was left completely unattended and unguarded. After all, who could possibly want to do anything to disable or damage the plant? Mark shook his head. He regarded his New Kryptonian "enemies" with contempt. "These pathetic 'children!' How could they be that stupid to think that I couldn't kill them all?'

Mark stoked the fires of his hatred of the people of New Krypton. "I'll do it tomorrow night. I'll find a way to get one of those kryptonite guns. That'll take care of these "body guard" goons. Then I'll be free to take care of business with all of these mutant super freaks."

The day's Governing Council session was much the same as the video teleconference aboard the star ship had been. Zon-Nor's blather had taken up most of the time. At Ching's urging, Mark had held his tongue, even though most of Zon's invective had been directed squarely at him. But in spite of his vituperative language, Zon's tone had seemed rather rote and mechanical, as though his heart weren't really in it. And the emotions Mark sensed from Zon did not seem to add up. Mark dismissed his confusion, chalking it off to his unfamiliarity with this newly acquired sense and his relative inexperience interpreting his new empathic sensory perceptions. If he had shared his confusion with Ching or Jon or Lane, perhaps their attention might've been directed more closely to Zon's emotions. Perhaps they might've confirmed for Mark that this incongruity between Zon's words, his tone and body language and his emotions did indeed appear contradictory; another opportunity missed mainly because Mark was not prepared to trust either Ching or his brothers enough to confide in them. He still regarded even his own brothers and Ching as adversaries, not allies. Mark had believed he was alone, with no one he could trust in this alien world.

During the midday recess, Mark declined Jon and Lane's invitation to join them for a meal. He could not bring himself to "break bread" with these brothers he fully intended to murder.

He hurried to his quarters; his two ever present bodyguards following dutifully behind. The two young men were hardly more than boys; Mark reckoned maybe 19 or 20 years old if they'd been from Earth. They were both tall, superbly leanly muscled, one with light brown hair, the other, flaxen blond. All along, he'd regarded his rotating bodyguard as "goons" and "watchdogs," intent on keeping tabs on Mark's whereabouts and activities. The openness and guilelessness of these two youths thoroughly belied Mark's assessment. But Mark, single-minded as ever, did not question his judgment of their purpose or intent. Instead, he regarded their seeming naiveté as an opportunity to take them out and slip away to accomplish his "mission."

Once inside his apartment, he went straight to his Kryptonian computer terminal.


"Computer ready."

"How can I obtain a solar powered kryptonite directed energy weapon?"

"The replicator in your living quarters."

"I thought that was only for food."


"I can get a kryptonite weapon from the replicator?"


"Will anybody know?"


"Then I'll take two."

"That function is password protected."


"Password accepted, command confirmed."

After a momentary pause, the computer advised.

"Requisition waiting in replicator dispensing tray."

Mark retrieved the weapons and ordered up documentation on their use. They featured three operating modes, "sting," "stun" and "kill." They were quite small, no larger than a typical cell phone. Design was simple and operation straightforward. Aim the weapon and squeeze the trigger. There was a 3-way mode selector toggle lever on the left side of the pistol grip. Squeezing the pistol grip operated the toggle. In "kill" mode, pistol grip vibration was pulsed. In "stun" mode, vibration was steady. In "sting" mode, there was no vibration. After each shot in "kill" mode, the weapon automatically reverted to "stun." "Kill" mode must be reselected for every shot before another lethal energy bolt could be fired. Kill mode could be completely disabled by throwing a tiny dipswitch toggle recessed into the bottom of the pistol grip. Mark ensured that kill mode had been disabled. He double-checked, making absolutely certain that kill mode was disabled in both his weapons. If questioned, he could not have explained why he did this. He intended to annihilate an entire planet and everyone on it and, yet, he lacked the stomach for killing another human being face to face. He scowled at his own squeamishness, but he did not re-enable "kill" mode on his weapons.

Mark ordered a quick ration biscuit from his replicator and munched on it absently. Suddenly, it occurred to him that this might well be his last meal. Sardonically, he mused, "and the condemned man ate a hearty meal."

The afternoon Council session went much like the morning. Zon's incessant haranguing, leading nowhere. After the Council had adjourned for the evening, Ching escorted Mark to the gym for more training. He sensed Mark's dark mood. He questioned him about it.

"Mark. What is wrong, Son? I can read your apprehension. Is it the fight?"

Mark nodded. This at least was half true. But the fight Mark was referring to would come a lot sooner than five days hence.

Ching laid his hand on Mark's shoulder. "Son, this is all my fault. I should have been more thorough in my briefing. How could you have known your words could lead to this? I am so sorry it has come to this. I wish you had allowed me to stand for you as your champion. But you have made your decision to stand for yourself. In my mind I wish it were otherwise, Mark, but I cannot deny that, in spite of the stakes, in my heart, I am very proud of you that you have chosen to do this yourself.

Mark looked up at Ching. "Apology isn't necessary. I should've known better than to shoot my mouth of in an unfamiliar situation like that. Besides, I heard your warning. I just ignored it. I should've bridled my tongue. And, as for standing for myself; not much choice, really. If I'd let you stand for me, what political capital could I have had in all this. Even if you won, I might as well pack up and go back home.

Ching nodded. "You are learning very quickly. But now, Son, it is vital that you find a way to dispel this darkness that is oppressing your soul. You must believe in yourself, Mark, if you're to have any chance of defeating Zon"

The boy looked into Ching's eyes. An unbearable sadness washed over Mark, afflicting him to the very depths of his soul. "Old soldier," He replied, "You have no idea…"

Ching, sensing Mark's sorrow responded, "I think I do, Mark. You're not afraid to fight Zon-Nor. But you don't want to kill him." And I sense from Zon-Nor that, barbarian though he is, he really doesn't want to kill you either. I am just so sorry that things have come to this." Marked looked Ching square in the eye. With grim determination he assured him "Oh I'll kill him alright. I will kill him!" To himself, Mark thought, "I'll kill all of you alien super-freaks, tonight!"

Mark waited until about an hour after sunset. He had hoped the bodyguards posted outside his door might perhaps be a bit less than fully alert. They were not due to be relieved for over seven hours. Daylight would not come for another five hours. He opened his door and asked his two guards to step inside. He had been wrong about their alertness. They had been fully alert and on their toes, but they'd had no suspicion of the man they'd pledged to defend with their lives. The two strapping young men, as Mark had noted of his guards earlier that afternoon, had been little more than boys. Before calling them into the room, Mark had checked and double-checked the settings on his weapons. Both had been set to stun with kill mode disabled. He drew his two kryptonite pistols and felled both of the guards, each with a single shot. From the information gleaned from his Kryptonian computer terminal, he'd ascertained that they should remain unconscious for at least a couple of hours, plenty of time for him to cover the distance to the power plant, place the charge alongside the reactor containment vessel and detonate. In a rush of anticipation Mark exulted, "and then my people will be free from the curse of these miscreants for ever! Every man jack of them will be nothing but wayward atoms, splattered across the void of empty space!"

Mark covered the distance in little more than half an hour. His superb physical conditioning had carried over into his new Kryptonian form. Cautiously, he entered the power plant complex. It was completely deserted. There was no sound aside from the muted whine of the electric dynamos. He made his way to his objective inside the plant. The heavy lead-lined door leading into the reactor chamber was not even secured! He entered cautiously. This was much too easy. Yet, the computer terminal in his quarters had indicated as much: no guards, no operators, facility completely automated and unattended. Mark pressed on. Kneeling, he laid down the satchel he'd slung over his shoulder for the run from quarters to his target. He opened it. Inside was an explosive device synthesized to order by his replicator. It was a semtex plastique explosive shaped charge with simple detonator switch to blasting cap. Mark had imagined far more sophisticated explosive devices could've been devised, given the technologies available here on New Krypton, but, hey, all Mark wanted to do was punch a hole in the side of reactor containment vessel. Once breached, the resulting anti-matter explosion would finish the job. The reactor, Mark, the planet and even its red giant sun would be atomized, "the end."

Mark worked quickly. Within less than a minute, the charge had been set. He double-checked the wire leads. Good to go!

Mark positioned his index finger over the firing switch.


Mark's finger hovered, trembling, just above the "trigger." "What the hell?" Mark pondered. "What is wrong with me? Why can't I do this?"

Mark mustered his resolve.



To his abject horror and dismay, Mark realized he would not, could not bring himself to close the firing circuit. By failure of his will to act, Mark would fail in his mission; his mission that history and circumstance had orchestrated for him to accomplish. He had failed his country. He had failed his species. He had failed himself. Mark slumped against the base of an auxiliary control console, hung his head and wept. After that last harrowing SEOP mission sortie he'd flown just before leaving USS Nimitz, he'd known he could have and would have executed the order either to self- destruct or to attack. Mark had unqualified faith in his commanders, that they would never issue either such command without justification. He had been sure of his own heart and mind as a SEOP pilot. But he had wrongly assumed that, if he could do his duty on a SEOP mission, defending the lives of the people of his home world, that he could bring himself to annihilate the people of this world.


Chapter 8 Response to a Divided Heart

Mark had not known his own heart. He could not leave it to God to "sort out the innocent." And he could think of no way to do it himself." So, the threat to his people would remain. His "mission" to redeem the people of his home world from this perennial "menace" had ended in failure. He simply could not take innocent life. He was for better or worse, Mark Kent, son of Clark and Lois. From his earliest memories, they had inculcated in Mark a love and reverence for life and a conscience that he simply could not overcome. He hefted one of his kryptonite weapons. He realized with self- loathing that he lacked even the intestinal fortitude to do himself in, to spare himself the pain of continued existence.

Mark had been almost relieved when he sensed Ching standing over him. Without looking up, in English, he said, "Just make it quick, Ching. A swift chop to the neck oughta do it. Please, just make it quick. I am such a weenie when it comes to pain.

Ching knelt on one knee and gently laid his arm over Mark's shoulder. I didn't come here to kill you, Son. I'm here to take you home."

Ching paused momentarily. Then he spoke again. In a soft, gentle voice, he said, "You mustn't hate yourself, you know. You've made the right choice!"

Mark looked up. "You knew?"

Ching nodded. "Your father and I both."


"Just before we left Earth orbit. Aboard the shuttlecraft, when you and your father embraced. You'd dropped your mental veil just for a moment. Your father stumbled across the truth and then he flashed it to me in my mind."

"Then why didn't you stop me?"

"Oh, dear Mark, isn't the answer to that obvious?"

"No, Ching. Not really."

Ching laughed. It was not mocking or patronizing laughter. It was just laughter of someone older and wiser. "Because, Son, there was no need. You stopped yourself, you see."

"But, Ching, you didn't know. You could not possibly have known for certain."

"One day, Son, you will understand that there are different kinds of 'knowing.' Your father and I shared the 'knowing' that comes from faith, faith we both had, have, in you."

Mark's bewildered look told Ching he still did not understand.

"The father often knows the son better than he knows himself. And I know your father and I have faith in him. When he asked me to have faith in you, as he does, that is where my faith in you comes from. Faith in the father is faith in the son. But your father's faith and mine were not enough. We needed your faith, too. Your father and I agreed it was important that this be allowed to play itself out so that you would know your own heart as we do. Now that you have liberated yourself from these demonic notions of genocide, you are free to do what you came here to do.

Your father loves you, Mark. And he approves of you. He is proud of you and feels honored and blessed to be your father. It broke his heart to learn that you've always thought he was disappointed in you. Never Mark! Never was your father disappointed in you. In spite of his disappointment that he did not pass on to you the powers he had passed on to your brothers, he was never disappointed in you. He was just so ashamed and disappointed in himself!"

"But that's crazy, Ching! I told him before I left Earth that I didn't hold that against him. Not that."

"Well, Mark, now he knows. And, yes, it was "crazy." But, you know, Son, love can be such a strange thing. Sometimes, isn't it the ones we love the most that, in some ways, we fear the most? But can you honestly tell me that you were not wrong as well? All these years you've believed your father disapproved of you. But did you ever doubt he loves you?"

Mark shook his head. "No," he said. I never doubted that he loves me."

"Then, why in the name of Great Rao didn't you talk to him?"

Mark's breath caught in his throat. The bitter truth crashed into his conscious mind. As tears streamed down his cheeks, in a whisper, Mark answered, "Because I was afraid."

Ching pulled Mark into a fatherly embrace letting the boy cry himself out. Ching had never stopped doing this for his own son. Kryptonians, since they cannot easily hide their emotions from each other in any event, rarely, if ever, try. So, although hardly an everyday occurrence, it was not unheard of for Ching's big strapping warrior son, Jing-Chel to cry in his father's arms, or even for Ching to cry in the arms of his son. Mark couldn't remember ever having allowed himself such a display of emotion in front of another living soul. Such open emotional display would've bewildered most men in English speaking cultures. But it worked for the men and boys of New Krypton, just as it had for those of "old" Krypton. They would've been every bit as bewildered at the relative stoicism of men in the English speaking cultures of Earth.

When Mark was back in some semblance of control, Ching released him, stood and pulled the young man to his feet. Mark shook his head in dismay. "All those years, all those years, I've wasted!" Mark sighed. All because I was too afraid of what Dad would say. If only I'd confronted him. All of this because, when it came to the most important thing in my life, I was too afraid to face up to it, and now this. I couldn't complete my mission. I couldn't do what I came here to do. I am nothing but a coward."

Ching responded, seizing the boy by his shoulders, "Mark you are not a coward! Your decision not to kill us; that was not cowardice. Sometimes brave men, or brave women, for that matter, are called upon to sacrifice their lives for a noble cause. But, Mark, nobody can expect you to sacrifice your soul, not for anything. No 'cause' that demands sacrifice of your soul is noble. The end never justifies the means. You father, bless his soul, taught me that. And when it came down to it, son, you could not kill innocent, human beings. Don't ever let anyone tell you that is cowardice."

"I just hope someday I can make it up to Dad. I hurt him so bad before I left to come out here."

"You will, Son. You will. And he to you!"

"Well, first I've gotta get past Zon-Nor."

"Rao willing, you will do that, too."

You have misunderstood your destiny, Mark. It was never your destiny to come here to kill us. You are the key to deliverance, of the peoples of our two worlds. Your grandfather, Jor-El, has named you well, Mark. You are 'Jal-El,' 'child of destiny!'"

"Come now, young Jal-El, lets go home."


Chapter 9 The One?

Ching took Mark to his home and introduced him to Zara, his wife, and to Jing-Chel, his son. Zara was quite taken with young Mark. "You favor your mother, Jal-El." She smiled warmly. "I see you have her spirit." She and your father must be so proud of you! Thank you for coming to New Krypton to help us!"

Jing-Chel, Ching's warrior son and Mark got on very well indeed. As young military officers, they very easily found common ground. Within an hour, it was as though these two young men had known each other all their lives. Mark found himself wishing he could introduce his new friend to his squadron mates onboard USS Nimitz!

And then, Ching's daughter, Ra-Chel, had returned home from her late shift at the New Krypton research institute where she worked as a junior research fellow. As soon as she entered the room, she and Mark locked eyes with each other. Neither Mark nor Ra-Chel could speak. Both had been struck dumb. It was obvious to Ching, Zara and Jing-Chel that they had been smitten with each other.

Physically, Ra-Chel might've seemed something of a mismatch. At an even six feet tall, like most Kryptonians, she towered over Mark. He was only five foot seven. But they must have known from the start that they were soul mates. Ra-Chel was dark complexioned, with straight coal black hair and blue eyes. Like nearly all the women of New Krypton, she was a "heartbreaker." Her flawlessly symmetrical facial features were angelic. Her lean, well-sculpted figure was an object of sublime beauty. Ra-Chel was equally captivated by Mark's visage. His short, compact, sturdy build bespoke the power of a mini-dynamo. He was handsome, dark complexioned with his father's coal black wavy hair and his mother's hazel eyes.

Surreptitiously, Jing-Chel elbowed his dad and winked. (Interestingly, a wink and a nod mean the same thing to a Kryptonian as it does to us!) Ching smiled broadly at his son but didn't say anything. Ching, Zara and Jing-Chel had known, even before Mark and Ra-Chel, that this was unquestionably "love at first sight." Mark and Ra-Chel were just too lost in each other, drowning in their sudden rush of mutual infatuation to be capable of any rational assessment of their "situation."

It was Zara who had finally broken the pair out of their love struck trance. "Come you two, all of you. Come to supper. Renouncing her rank in the Kryptonian nobility, Zara, from the day of her marriage, had settled amiably, indeed enthusiastically, into her chosen role as Ching's "hausfrau." She had prepared a hardy late supper for her family. She could have ordered food pre-prepared from the food replicator but she hadn't. Zara had prepared everything by hand, including fresh homemade bread! Before they ate, everyone around the table had clasped hands, as Ching blessed their evening meal, thanking Rao for His "bounteous provision." "Not in 'Kansas,' indeed!" Mark had mused. "Sure could'a fooled me!"

Mark was quiet during most of the meal, taking his time getting the lay of the land. Ching's family had gone all out to make him feel comfortable and welcome, but this was a new and alien culture to Mark. He wanted to make sure he did not commit any unintentional gaffes like the one in Council that had gotten him into so much trouble with Zon-Nor. He said as much to his hostess, apologizing in advance for any missteps borne of ignorance of their customs at the table and as a guest in their home. Zara had smiled at Mark. But you are not a guest here, Jal-El. This is your second home! You must always feel comfortable and at home under my husband's roof. In fact, Mark needn't have worried. Most Kryptonian forms and customs are fairly straightforward. And he had been briefed on the few quirks and superstitions of Kryptonian society during his crash course under his father's tutelage in the Fortress of Solitude immediately prior to departure from Earth.

After supper, Mark had offered to help clear the table, but Jing-Chel immediately intervened. "No, Mark, we'll get this." Ra-Chel quickly flashed a telepathic message to her brother, thanking him. He smiled at her as he began to gather dishes and eating utensils off the table.

Ra-Chel led Mark back into the family room and they sat down. She smiled sweetly at him. "You must tell me of your home world and of your life. I want to know everything."

"Nothing much to tell, really. All fairly boring stuff. I doubt there's much in my 'backwater' of a world that could impress a Kryptonian."

She took Mark's hand and gently squeezed. "Oh don't be silly Mark. You come from there, so how could I not be interested?"

Mark swooned. And then, laughing to himself, he thought "I'm a guy for Pete's sake! I'm supposed to be the one making her do this!"

Almost all night long they talked. Mark had tried to hide what he'd come to New Krypton intending to do, but Ra-Chel had probed insistently with her mind, deeply into his. Although he had the means, he could not muster the will to defend against her mental "intrusion." But this had not been intrusive, not in the least. It was gentle and caring, as if she had entered his turbulent thoughts to set things in order and to bring peace to his soul. When she found the truth, Mark had looked away, deeply ashamed. Ra-Chel reached out, gently laying her palm on his cheek and turning his eyes back to hers. "But my father and yours were right. They knew you couldn't. And now I know. You have a beautiful soul, Mark Kent. You are a strong, brave warrior. But you are not a murderer. It simply isn't in you."

Mark had asked Ra-Chel about her life, her work in the lab, her hopes and dreams. She was her mother's daughter. Her most cherished ambition was to marry and raise a family. She had smiled, "I want what your mother has had, Mark, a house full of strong young boys to raise to manhood alongside my husband. My sons will be my gift to our people."

This last had hurt Mark but he quickly veiled his thoughts and even his feelings as best he could. But Ra-Chel had detected a "spike" in Mark's emotions. She'd felt Mark's momentary hurt. "What's wrong, Mark?"

Mark looked at Ra-Chel. "Wrong? Nothing's wrong." She shook her head. "No, Mark. You must remember, here on New Krypton, we can 'feel' each other. We don't just get the externals. Something I said has caused you pain. Not much pain, but a little."

"Oh that," Mark lied. "It was just something that came to mind from back home. Please. It's nothing to worry about, really."

"Was there, is there 'someone else?'"

Mark chuckled. "Oh no! But, you should know, if there had been, I would have lied. Back home, we men don't talk to our ladies about past romantic involvements."

At the words "our ladies," it had been Ra-Chel's turn to swoon.

Somehow, through the evening, it had just come to be understood between them that they belonged to each other.

But this had been where the 'hurt' had come from. Mark had escaped one dilemma only to be ensnared by another! How could he take Ra-Chel and give himself to her and still be free to return home? Mark had never intended to settle on New Krypton permanently. He would do his bit to help them work through this political impasse. But then he would return to Earth and to his squadron aboard USS Nimitz. But what about Ra-Chel? How could he reconcile these conflicting wants and needs?

Mark told himself, "Get a grip! One thing at a time! My next hurdle is Zon-Nor, not Ra- Chel. If I don't manage to kill that boy, this 'issue' between Ra-Chel and home will be entirely moot!"

Mark rose to his feet. "Ra-Chel. I need to go. I have to get back to my quarters. There is a Council session this morning and I need to freshen up a bit or I'll look so ragged they'd probably throw me outta the place like some kind of bum.

"Bum?" Ra-Chel asked. On New Krypton there were no "bums." Every able-bodied adult on the planet was gainfully employed. The concept of a "bum" was completely alien to Ra-Chel.

"Never mind. May I see you this evening?"

Ra-Chel smiled. "I'd be heartbroken if you didn't!"

Mark had wanted to kiss Ra-Chel, but he couldn't screw up the nerve to try. "Do these people even do that?" He wondered. But Ra-Chel came to Mark's rescue. Knowing exactly what and whom she wanted, she took the initiative. She leaned into Mark and kissed him a little tentatively. Mark took it from there with a passionate kiss as, together, they "explored" their newborn love for one another. As they broke their kiss, Ra-Chel held Mark at arms length.

"Rao be with you, Mark. I will see you tonight."

Mark stepped outside. There were two strapping young soldiers posted near Ching's front door. Mark sighed. The bodyguards again! He eyed them a little sheepishly. Having shot two of their comrades with his kryptonite weapon, albeit in non-lethal stun mode, he felt very awkward and ill at ease. They both smiled pleasantly and greeted him warmly, without the remotest trace of rancor or resentment. "Good morning, Lord Jal-El!"

Mark muttered, "Indeed. Any chance I could get you two to just go away?"

They both laughed good-naturedly. One of them answered, "No sir. Not a chance!"

"Look," Mark, said, "I'm sorry what I did to your friends."

"Yes sir, we know that and so do they. They're both just fine. Please, don't worry about them or about us."

They made their way to Mark's quarters. When they arrived, the guards posted themselves in the passageway just outside his apartment door. He invited them into his quarters where they might be a bit more comfortable. But they declined with thanks. "Sir, no sir. We need to keep an eye on things out here. And we've got more men outside on the pavement below your balcony.

Mark had decided to "get with the program" and wear something a little more in keeping with the locale. He wasn't about to dress like his brothers. Skintight spandex with the "S" pentagon insignia emblazoned across the chest and knee boots was out of the question. After he'd showered and shaved, Mark ordered a change of clothes from his replicator. He opted for a very conservative gray tunic with high wing collar, fastened at the throat and down the front with a magnetized "seam" instead of buttons or zipper, matching gray slacks and plain toe low quarter black dress shoes. Mark's Kryptonian outfit looked something like a very smartly tailored version of a "Mao" suit but smooth in front, with no exterior breast pockets.

Mark surveyed his new look in the mirror above his dressing station. This seemed like a fairly good working compromise. He was a bit young to be dressed like this. His attire would've been deemed a bit dour for a Kryptonian man his age. Young Kryptonian men tend to be very "body proud," and they dress accordingly. Skin-tight spandex-like fabrics stretched taught over diamond hard muscle from their brawny, broad shoulders down to the tops of their knee boots.

Mark, on the other hand, notwithstanding his superbly athletic gymnast's physique, unlike Jon and Lane, was very modest. He never allowed himself to be seen shirtless, rarely wore shorts and, when he wore short sleeve shirts, the sleeves lengths extended clear down to the elbow. Even at gymnastic meets, between events, he had always been quick to don his team jacket, keeping public view of his marvelously sculpted upper body to an absolute minimum.

He sat down at his desk and dashed off a brief entry in his journal. As he was wrapping up, there came a knock at the door. It was Ching, Jon and Lane.

Ching greeted Mark jovially. "Good morning, Jal-El, you slept well, last night, I trust." "Yeah, right." Mark answered. Mark, had, of course, not slept a wink. He'd passed the entire night in the sitting room at Ching's house with his daughter as Ching himself knew very well. He had smiled broadly at Mark's chipper response, as did Jon and Lane. On their way there to meet Mark, Ching had briefed them on Mark and Ra-Chel's reaction to one another on the occasion of their first encounter. Mark went along with the good-natured ribbing from his older brothers, playing to a tee his role as embarrassed and bashful younger brother.

"Sooo," Jon had teased, "my baby bro has himself a love interest out here on New K? I gotta hand it to yah, squirt, you sure didn't waste any time."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Mark, mumbled, his eyes firmly glued to the deck."

Lane piped up, "But if yer gonna make points with the little lady, yah can't go around dressed like that. You look like an ole grampa."

Mark smirked. "Oh yeah? Well you don't wanna hear me tell you what you two look like in those spandex rigs y'all are sport'n. Yah got no shame. Either one'a yah. There's not enough Vodka in all of the Tsar's 'Russia' to 'fortify' me enough to go out in public dressed like that. Not much left to imagination, I'll grant yah, that."

Lane, Jon and Ching laughed as Lane rejoined, "Yeah, well, if yah got it, flaunt it!"


Chapter 10 The Face of the Enemy

Presently, they arrived at Government House.

They and the bodyguards entered the Council chamber and took their seats. As they did so, a number of the other Council members greeted Mark, his brothers and Ching.

Men-Tur called the meeting to order. As expected, Zon-Nor asked to be recognized. Mark rolled his eyes at Lane but held his tongue.

Zon launched into his customary tirade. His words were even harsher than usual. He demanded an expedition to Earth. The planet would be colonized and the population enslaved. An occupation garrison would be left behind as the star ship moved on to conquest of other "weakling worlds."

But, it seemed to Mark that Zon's demeanor did not match the venom in his words. One did not need to be an empath to discern that. Zon-Nor's droning and seemingly rote delivery seemed to corroborate Mark's empathetic impression.

On a whim, Mark addressed Zon-Nor telepathically in Kryptonese. In a flash, Zon-Nor responded with two words. "Russkii! Pazhalistah! (Russian! Please!)"

Mark had studied four years' Russian when he was in university at Rice in Houston. He was a fluent Russian linguist. How had Zon-Nor known that? And how in God's name had Zon learned Russian?

Mark replied, "Yes, I know a little Russian."

Again, in Russian, Zon-Nor answered. "I happen to know that you are quite fluent in this language. It took some time and effort, but I found this out. And I myself have done a crash study to master Russian. If you had not contacted me, I would have contacted you. I was just on the verge of doing so. I do not have much time, Jal-El. My thoughts are monitored by Zel-Tor. He was one of my father's senior lieutenants. He took over after the death of my father. It is he who commands my father's Citadel, not I. I did not even know Lord Nor is my father until I was 16 of your years old. My life has been hell ever since. I will tell you everything, but you must pay careful attention, Jal- El. I will not have time for repetition. Zel-Tor and his confederates know I am communicating telepathically. I cannot hide that from them. But, they do not know Russian. And they cannot use a universal translator since it will not work for interpretation of telepathic communication, only verbal speech. But, over time they would adapt to these linguistic sounds. They would begin to mouth them verbally. And then the translator could interpret for them. They could not get everything, but enough to know that it is you I am communicating with. But we have some time before they will be able to react. By then, hopefully, we will have concluded this exchange. They will beat me all night tonight trying to find out from me what I have said and to whom; and I will lie to them. By tomorrow, they will have given up because I will need to be in shape tomorrow to attend to my official duties."

"They have been holding my mother and me as hostages all these years. Zel-Tor is a commoner, not an aristocrat. So he cannot succeed my father as head of his clan. He needed a figurehead to occupy the position as titular head of the clan while he and his confederates rule from the shadows. Lord Nor, my father was a monster. He raped and pillaged for his amusement. He raped my mother. I was the result. She gave me birth and love, even though the circumstances of my conception where nothing but pain for her. She has never spoken to me of it. But it is common knowledge what a sadistic fiend Lord Nor was. Her time with him cannot have been anything but horribly painful."

"When the American Colonel Cash killed my father and his confederates, those who had not died with him, those of his men he had left behind here on NK when he went to Earth, banded together under Zel-Tor's leadership. But for them to continue to control Nor Citadel and his wealth, they needed a legal heir. Any of his illegitimate progeny would do. I am only one of many. Not one of us would have cooperated willingly. Nor had raped all of our mothers. No woman would have married that wicked man or willingly had anything to do with him. To him women are not human beings, but merely "objects" to be used and discarded, no matter that they were not willing. He preferred it that way. I would never have agreed to cooperate with Zel-Tor and his thugs, but they have kidnapped my mother. They've been holding her all these years. If I do not cooperate with them to their complete satisfaction, they bind me, gag me and compel me to watch, helpless as my mother is raped and beaten. So, to prevent this, I spew their venom and hate in Council. We will meet and we will fight. It will be to the death. But I will not kill you. I ask that you grant me a quick death. Maybe with me out of the way, they will let my mother go. She will no longer be any use to them. They are sadistic brutes so, of course, they would prefer to kill her. But I will leave behind evidence that will surface after a time if they do not let her go and I will make sure they know this. If there is to be any hope at all of my mother's safe release, I must give them an out. If she is released unharmed, my evidence will not see the light of day. Once I am gone, Zel-Tor will kidnap another of Lord Nor's illegitimate sons along with someone he cares about to elicit his cooperation. But I cannot go on. I cannot expect my mother to go on. This must end for my mother and me. You are my way out, Jal-El. I am just so sorry all this has fallen to you.

In Russian, telepathically, Mark asked, "Your mother is the only hold they have on you."


"She is being held against her will inside Nor Citadel?"


"You are a member of the Council. Why not report this to the authorities?"

"If I do, Zel-Tor will kill my mother. Government troops may not enter the compound without my permission, which I dare not give. If I do, Zel-Tor would know. He or one of his lieutenants monitors my thoughts almost continually. Zel-Tor has made it abundantly clear to me that he would never allow my mother to be liberated by central government troops. By the time they were able to reach her, Zel-Tor will have made sure she is dead."

Mark replied. "I will discuss this with Ching and my brothers. We will find a way to rescue your mother and you."

Zon-Nor pleaded with Mark. "Please, Jal-El, I beg you. Do not. Zel-Tor's sympathizers will surely find out. I have only told you this so you will know that I will not kill you and in hopes that you would be merciful and kill me as quickly and as painlessly as you can."

"Sorry, Zon-Nor. I cannot oblige you. I don't do 'mercy killings.' And I don't kill innocent people. I am obliged to trust you, Zon-Nor. Now you must trust me and my brothers and my friend, Captain Ching. We will find a way to rescue your mother and you."

"You will know, Zon-Nor, when we are ready to strike. You must have courage and when the time comes, you must join us and fight on our side. Are there any men inside your compound whom you can trust?"

"None that I know of, Jal-El. They are all in the pay of Zel-Tor. They are all his men. None of them are loyal to me. If Zel-Tor even suspected any disloyalty to himself, that man would be killed in short order. He has learned my father's methods well; an infernal blend of terror and bribery."

But, please understand my fear, Jal-El. It is for my mother. I only want to give her a chance to live out the rest of her life in peace."

"That cannot happen, Zon-Nor unless you survive as well. Loss of a parent is devastating to the child. But loss of a child, even if your mother's 'child' is a grown man, is a pain I will do my utmost to spare your mother. From what you have told me, she has suffered far too much already."

"But there is our fight, Jal-El. It cannot be deferred. Zel-Tor and his men would know something is amiss."

"We will strike before then."

"You have asked me for my trust. I am in no position to refuse. I am desperate and I have no one else I can turn to. I pledge my loyalty to you, Jal-El. I am your servant."

"No, Zon-Nor! Not loyalty to me, to your country! We serve each other by serving the nation!"

"Jal-El, I must continue to pretend to be your enemy. Some the things I must say in Council will continue to be especially vicious and offensive. Please know, I do not mean a word of it and please forgive me for everything I have said up until now."

Mark looked across the Council Chamber at Zon-Nor, and, with his mind, replied. "I understand. Please view anything I say in reply in the same light!"

Zon-Nor allowed himself just a glimmer of a smile. "I shall, Jal-El."


Chapter 11 The Idea

Mark had not shared with Zon-Nor the full scope of his intentions. It had come to him in a flash. He did not know whether Jon, Lane and Ching would support him, but he had no one else to turn to. And this he could not possibly bring off on his own. He would propose an all-out revolution. The paralysis of the Governing Council could not be allowed to stand. Mark's presence on New Krypton could do little more than offer momentary respite from the fundamental political instabilities inherent in their tragically flawed system that had degenerated as it had into semi-feudalistic chaos, teetering precariously near the edge of an "abyss" of genocidal bloodletting.

Mark had obtained at least something of a "grid" for these people's thinking. He had found that many of those in the elite seemed to have trouble "thinking outside the box." There had been notable exceptions on "old" Krypton. Mark's biological grandfather, Jor-El and his two brothers had been among them. But they and like-minded men had not been able to persuade their countrymen to muster the political will to save themselves from destruction. He was not sure he would be any more successful than Jor-El had been. But, if Jor-El had been 'a prophet in his own country,' "I, at least am not. Heck," Mark had mused, "I'm not a 'prophet,' And I'm sure as hell not in my own country. What I am is an 'expert.' An 'expert' is any dude with a briefcase who's more than fifty miles from home; so I guess that makes me an expert cuz I got me a briefcase, well, maybe not a briefcase, but at least I brought my LAPTOP, and I am just a skosh more than fifty miles from home!"

After more of Zon's perfunctory bombast, Tsa-An moved for adjournment for the day. Mark asked Ching and Jon and Lane to join him in his quarters. When they arrived, Mark directed that they say nothing. He went to his computer and ordered a "null silencer" from his replicator. It was delivered immediately. He removed it from the dispensing tray and activated it. Now their conversation would not be heard outside the room.'

Mark asked Ching. "Is this room bugged?"

"No, Mark. I had these rooms thoroughly swept before you moved in. I am positive there are no listening devices planted in here."

OK, well, first, I've had a telepathic exchange with Zon-Nor."

You could've heard a pin drop.

Finally, Jon croaked "Whaaaat?"

"Well, I'm sure you've all noticed that his words and his "emotions" didn't seem to add up. I was thinking maybe I was misinterpreting his 'signals.' I'm still new to this 'super-empathy' thing. But, hey, even his 'body-language' didn't seem to jibe. I am right, aren't I?"

Jon spoke. "Well, Zon-Nor's always been kinda tough to read."

"Well, Jon, that's what I thought too."

Mark turned to Ching. "You asked me why I never talked to my dad. Well instead of making the same mistake again, I went head and talked to Zon-Nor, confronted him, telepathically. And, get this: he answered back, in Russian! And he was very fluent."

Lane interrupted, "Russian! Why Russian? How?" "His thoughts are monitored by this guy who is really in charge in Nor Citadel. His name is Zel- Tor."

Ching groaned. "He's one of the most brutal thugs in that whole band of cut throats."

"Well, Ching, he's the 'grand pooh-bah' over there, not Zon-Nor. At least that's what Zon-Nor told me in our telepathic exchange. Zon-Nor chose Russian to defeat Zel-Tor's telepathic monitoring. Zon did a little digging into my background and, somehow, he found out about my Russian. I took Russian as my foreign language all four years in university at Rice in Houston, Texas.

Zon told me your universal translator cannot interpret telepathic communication. Our 'chat' was brief. He was afraid Zel-Tor would begin to learn to verbalize our dialogue and then the device would interpret for him. Zel-Tor knows Zon-Nor was communicating with someone. But he doesn't know he was communicating with me, or what we said to each other. By now Zel-Tor's goons will most likely be interrogating Zon with the help of a rubber hose."

Ching asked. "Zon-Nor is a member of the Council. He has the power of life and death over anyone on New Krypton, just like you and Lane and Jon. He would never have to tolerate that kind of abuse or worry about hiding his communications from a commoner like Zel-Tor."

"Zon-Nor told me they're holding his mother inside Nor Citadel. They routinely beat and rape her while they force him to watch. If he displeases Zel-Tor, he is bound and gagged and compelled to witness this brutality. He cooperates with these monsters to keep his mother alive and unharmed. He said that's the only hold they have on him. He cannot appeal for help from government authorities. If he tries, they're monitoring his thoughts, at least much of the time. If they catch him, they have told him they will kill his mother immediately. Government troops could never get to her in time for an effective rescue."

Mark looked hard at Ching. "Is there any reasonable chance that Zon-Nor made all this up and threw me off on my reading of his emotions?"

Ching shook his head. "No, Mark. Our empathy is fairly straightforward. False emotions are almost impossible to project. The best we can do is to try to hide them. So far, Mark, the best I've ever come across with that is you. I think that may be because your mother, Lois, is Terran. Most people from Earth do not have our telepathic or empathic abilities. But Terrans do have the ability to veil their thoughts and emotions. Some of those among us here on New Krypton can veil our thoughts, but it takes substantial effort and it is almost impossible for any of us to stave off a determined probe. As for emotions, well, those are usually almost impossible to veil. Except for you, Mark. You have sometimes been successful at hiding your emotions; not always, but sometimes. You are stronger at this than anyone else I know. Except of course for the normal people of Earth. If a Terran detects one of us probing for their thoughts or their feelings and resists, we cannot penetrate their mental veil. Nearly all Terrans lack our active telepathic and empathic abilities, but Rao, in His wisdom, has compensated your people with a veil that, if resolutely deployed is virtually impregnable. You probably had a typical Terran's ability to veil until your father changed your physiology into that of a Kryptonian. But, now, with your empathic and telepathic abilities, your capacity to veil has probably been compromised to some degree; very strong for a Kryptonian, to be sure, but probably somewhat less than it was with your Terran physiology."

"By the way, Mark, you should know, also, that now you are most probably as vulnerable to kryptonite as any of the rest of us here on New Krypton. Terrans are susceptible to kryptonite radiation as well, but it takes prolonged exposure in high concentrations to harm them. For any of us, very small doses are lethal in short order."

Mark nodded. "Well, Ching, I'm in no particular hurry to put your theory regarding my susceptibility to kryptonite to the test. I think I'll just take your word for it and avoid it like the plague. But, as for Zon-Nor's emotions and his 'story,' you're fairly sure he's on the level?"

"Oh I don't know whether he's on the level, Mark. That is something you could judge better than I. But, as for Zon's emotions, as you from America might say," Ching paused and switched momentarily from Kryptonese into English. "What you see is what you get." In Kryptonese, he continued, "You can be fairly confident of your impression. And if what Zon says seems to line up with his emotional 'signals,' you can trust your impressions. So, the question is, do you think Zon- Nor is 'on the level?'"

"Yeah, Ching, I really do. I could sense that guy and, it's weird, at least to me, how you can feel another person's emotions the way you guys can. It's really strange because it's given me a new perspective on my own emotions. I never really paid all that much attention to my feelings ever before. I have always believed it's more important what you think than how you feel. But now it's like I'm experiencing my own feelings with a whole new clarity. I guess it's sort of like, when you learn a foreign language, in some ways, it gives you a better grasp of your native tongue. Like, in middle and high school, when I studied Spanish, I finally got a grasp of subjunctive mood. I could never quite get it in English class, but when I learned it in Spanish, I got it right away and found myself wondering what all the confusion was about with subjunctive in English. Well, this thing with emotions has been like that. I am starting to get a better grasp of my own emotions now that I can feel emotions of other people! Anyway, I am almost positive this guy Zon is OK. I could just feel the guy's 'heart' and, as best I can tell, he couldn't hurt a fly. He said he doesn't intend to kill me in our fight. All he wanted was a quick and easy death. I guess I can sorta relate to him on that score." Ching nodded. "Then we'll all have to go with your take on this, Mark."

"Just one thing though, Ching. Why didn't any of you guys pick up on Zon and his feelings?"

Ching shook his head. "Because, at least in my case, it never occurred to me to question Zon's emotions or to try to sense them. It does take some focus to read another's feelings, like it does to focus on what they're saying or their body language. One thing you mustn't do, Mark, is to try to mystify this. It's not 'magic.' Everything about our telepathy and empathy is perfectly lawful and normal; like our super powers in a moderate gravity and class-G (yellow) star environment, or a Terran's phenomenal power to veil his mind and emotions and their relatively greater resistance to kryptonite radiation. All of that is perfectly natural as you know."

Jon and Lane nodded in assent. Jon added, "Yeah, what he said."

Mark responded. "Well, OK. So here's the deal. We need to break into the compound and get to Zon's mother before that creep Zel-Tor kills her. And it has to happen before Zon and I are scheduled to fight. We must strike before then because if we don't, Zel-Tor is tipped off that something is wrong."

Jon asked, "How do you propose we accomplish that?"

Mark shook his head. "Don't know, Jon. Shoot, I'm an air dale (an aviator). I just fly jets. That's Ching's department. You're a Kryptonian Army officer, Ching. Ground assault tactics are your bailiwick. But I do know this, we need a floor plan of every building in the Nor Citadel, all levels, and we need a fix on Zon's mom's location as well as on Zon's whereabouts in there. We cannot afford to get that wrong. Zon-Nor may be able to feed us the intelligence we need. He is with us now and I know he will help us as best he can."

Ching shook his head. "No Mark! We do not dare enter Nor Citadel! It is against the law. No government authority may enter without Zon-Nor's express permission."

Mark rejoined. "Which he dares not give. If he does, they will kill his mom. Zel-Tor has Zon-Nor's thought's monitored virtually round the clock."

Ching retorted. "Well, if the assault plan is my department, Zon's permission to enter is yours. You're just going to have to find a way to make that happen, Mark. My men would flatly refuse an order to enter Nor Citadel without Zon Nor's permission. That could precipitate a civil war and none of us wants that."

Mark snorted. "Yeah, now I get it. 'Peace at any price.'

Jon intervened. "Mark, that's not fair and you know it."

Mark snapped. "It most certainly is and you should realize that. These people out here are appeasing and treating with terrorists. C'mon Jon, you are an American! Or have you forgotten that?"

Jon retorted, "I am a member of the New Krypton Governing Council and my duty and my allegiance are to New Krypton and its people. We don't pretend that we have a 'Utopia' here, Mark. But we do have a system here and we have to do the best we can within the constraints of our system."

Exasperated, Mark countered, "The political and social system out here are nothing but a freakin' train wreck. These supposed super men tremble in their boots at threats from terrorists and murderers. Maybe you've forgotten what those creeps did to us in Metropolis and in Smallville. But I will never forget. They killed thousands of us. And these guys, the decent ones, are scared out of their gourds of offending these jerks. I just told you, Zon and his mom are hostages. And now Jon and Ching, you are telling me your soldiers would refuse to go into Nor's nest to try and rescue them? Well, I don't believe it. I saw Zon's thoughts. I saw what they've done to that poor boy and his mother. And I'm telling you, if those kids in your military formations saw what I've seen inside Zon's head, they'd be lining up in front of us demanding a chance to go in there and take care of business. Those boys don't have any shortage of courage. They'd all know what to do. All they need, Ching, is a leader to ask them to go in there and do it!"

Ching protested, "But, Mark, it is against the law!"

Mark exploded in outrage. "The law is wrong, Ching! That's what I'm trying to tell you people! Your system is broken! What we need in this country is revolution!

Ching, Jon and Lane gasped. Lane spoke. "Whoah, whoah, whoah, little Bro! We could all wind up in an atomization chamber for talking like this!"

"So what, Lane? Washington and Adams and Hamilton and Franklin and Jefferson and all of our American revolutionary war PATRIOTS stuck their necks out and they could've wound up with their necks stretched out at the end of a British rope. But that didn't stop them. And thanks to the risks those men took, we've inherited the greatest nation in the history of the world, at least, our world. So, Lane, now the time has come for us to stick our necks out. How better to keep faith with our founding fathers than to establish a constitutional republic here on New Krypton? And, speaking of 'faith,' Ching, you had a little something to say to me about that. So how about it? Now it's time to see if you have faith in the courage and fundamental decency of your people. Do you believe they know a just cause when they see it? And do you have faith that they have the courage to rally to its banner?"

Jon exclaimed, "Mark, we can't impose our way of life on these people. The traditions here are very different from ours in America."

Mark answered, "Well, in the first place, Jon, I'm not suggesting we force anything on anyone. Not much way we're gonna bring that off, even if we wanted to. But all ideas are not created equal. And the ideas that are running this place are very screwed up."

Jon conceded, "Well, Mark, I can't very well argue against that. But revolution? How in God's name do you suggest we bring off something that radical?"

Mark responded, "We need to recruit some guys to help us. Ching, I'll bet most of the younger guys in your army would come in with us. All we've got to do is convince them that they can do this. This regime is morally bankrupt. Good men here are paralyzed. The system is skewed in favor of the bad guys. They get all the breaks. They kidnap, terrorize and extort innocent citizens and, because everyone is so scared to death of them, decent people who want to mount a rescue are told, 'no!' It's against the law! This government is just a rotten remnant of the government that failed these people on Krypton. The Krypton government could've saved at least a substantial percentage of their population, if not everyone, before their planet exploded. But they chose to stick their heads in the sand. That is unconscionable. And now the Governing Council here on New Krypton is countenancing 'warlordism' that could easily lead to a catastrophic bloodbath that your nation cannot afford! And either I am a liar or crazy or I am telling the truth. And if I'm not lying or crazy, you guys know what Zel-Tor and his thugs are doing right now to that poor boy Zon and his mother. And you're telling me we should just stand by and do nothing? No government that gets in my way to put a stop to that deserves my allegiance."

Jon tried to interrupt but Mark overrode him.

"And what happened to Nor's thugs? After what their cohorts did to us on Earth in Metropolis and Smallville, those gangsters are still in the saddle in his Citadel. I can't believe that the majority of people in this world have so little regard for the people of Earth that over 15,000 of our dead count for nothing to them."

After a very long silence, Ching sighed. "Zor-El, Kor-El, Mark is the only one among us who is making any sense. We need to at least consider his arguments."

"Ching," Jon protested, "this is crazy! We can't go there! This is out and out treason against the Council. We'd all find ourselves in a chamber!" (an atomization chamber)

Mark interrupted. "Jon, if you don't want in on this, I guess I can't really blame you. You're right. We'd be risking everything, our lives included!"

"Mark, you just have no regard for Kryptonian customs and traditions. What you're saying is that we should 'throw out the baby with the bath water.'"

"Right on," Mark exclaimed! "Kryptonian political 'traditions' are reprehensible! They are responsible for leaving an entire global human population in the lurch. And their traditions sure never did much good for our people back home. Yeah, the Kryptonians left Earth last time after that debacle with Lord Nor. But we railroaded Colonel Cash to prison on the insistence of the New Krypton Governing Council, in spite of the fact that all he was doing was defending America from a hostile invasion. Colonel Cash's US Army court martial caved to demands of the New Krypton Governing Council because they really didn't have any other choice. How could they resist an ultimatum from even one super man, much less a whole star ship load of them?"

"So yeah, Jon, you're right. I have no regard for these people's political and social traditions. Like I said before to you guys, hey, I'm an alien to these people and, yet, because of who my father is, they let me come here and join their legislative assembly! But what about what the New Kryptonian people want? Did anyone ever think to ask them?"

Ching nodded. "Jon, Lane, Mark is right. And what is worse, none of us ever even thought to question the system. It is broken, just as Mark has said."

Mark interrupted. "And it's too far gone to try to fix it. It needs to be replaced."

Jon looked hard at Mark and Ching. "Of course you realize if we try to move on this, it could mean civil war!"

Mark replied. "Uh, yeah. So now we turn to our 'resident expert,'" he pointed at Ching, "and figure out how to bring this off with the fewest possible number of casualties and still achieve our objective. This Governing Council has got to go! Individually, most of the men on the Council are good and well intentioned. But collectively, they're so bound and determined to avoid civil war that they're willing to appease thugs like Lord Nor or now his successor, Zel-Tor. So, we need to ease the men in the Council out of power and set up a popularly elected assembly. Kryptonians are super humans. Physically and intellectually, you guys are supposed to be head and shoulders above the average 'garden variety' Terran human. You've got whiz-bang hi-tech out the wazoo. And you don't get all that from a 'Confederacy of Dunces.' And yet you are incapable of governing yourselves? You need some paternalistic bosses to tell you how to run the show? It'd be one thing if these bosses had a decent track record to run on, but their record has been abysmal! The same mindset that condemned the majority of the Kryptonian population to die on their doomed home world is consigning this remnant to live on the edge of an abyss of genocidal civil war, no matter what we do. So, we have two unpleasant but nevertheless distinct alternatives. Either we take matters into our own hands and overthrow the Governing Council, or we wait for Zel-Tor and his thugs to do it."

Jon protested, "What're you talking about, Mark? A coup d'etat? Zel-Tor?"

Mark responded in disgust, "You guys, you guys. It's gotta be something in the water out here. Some kinda stupid drug they laced your water supply with or something. While you're whining and moaning about what's against the law and treason and all such drivel, Zel-Tor and his gang are just waiting for a chance to catch you guys with your pants down. They've got something up their sleeve. You gotta know that. They need Zon-Nor for now, but how long can that last? They'll hafta make their move at some point to overthrow the Governing Council so they can rule out in the open, not behind their hostage front man. These creeps have got an agenda, and as Martha Stewart would say, 'it is NOT a good thing.'"

Ching spoke up. "Zor-El, Kor-El, everything Mark is saying is right. I've been in denial. We've all been deceiving ourselves. I guess it took someone like Mark who can see all this from an outsider's perspective." Ching glanced at Mark. "No offense, Son, you're every bit as Kryptonian' as any of us, but you are still a newcomer to our world."

Mark shook his head. "Oh, no offense taken, Ching and, no, I am not Kryptonian. I am American. No offense."

Ching rejoined, "Well, Mark, actually, you are both."

Mark conceded. "Well, OK, Ching, maybe."

Throughout the late afternoon, they plotted and strategized. First, they would bring Ching's son, Junior Lieutenant Jing-Chel into the plot.

They would assemble the rest of the men in Ching's unit and attempt to recruit them. These men were the corps d'elite of the New Krypton Army. They were superbly trained, battle tested and, to a man, passionately devoted to their leader, Captain Ching. Had they been Terrans, they would have rivaled America's Navy Seals, Britain's SAS or Russia's Spetznaz special operations troops. But as tuned up Kryptonians, these young warriors were arguably among the most formidable commandos in this sector of the galaxy! Mark had stressed to Ching, to Jon, Lane and Jing-Chel the political importance of what would be the first action in their uprising, an unauthorized, at least not officially authorized assault on Nor Citadel. Mark stressed the political and strategic importance of this. "We need to deliver Zon-Nor's mother to him, free and unharmed. We do that, then I can deliver Zon-Nor for the revolution. Then, we move on to Government House, other government installations and critical infrastructure and seize power."

Ching led Mark, Jon and Lane to his men's barracks. First they recruited Jing-Chel into the cabal.

Mark did the honors, briefing Jing-Chel on Zon-Nor's predicament and Mark's proposed rescue, as well has his insistence that they must move to replace the aristocratic Governing Council with a popularly elected constituent assembly. Jing-Chel's initial reaction had been shock and mortification. Until Mark had told him of their plans, plans that his father was now a part of, thoughts of overt revolution had never entered this young soldier's mind. Jing-Chel had realized the political system was fatally flawed. It just never occurred to him that anything could be done about it. And the idea that Jing- Chel, a mere junior officer and a commoner to boot, could become part of the solution, required some persuasion. But Mark had carried the day. It didn't hurt Mark's case at all that he and Jing-Chel had become fast friends and that Ching, his father, was four square behind Mark.

Ching's commandos were lined up in standard parade formation and ordered to "stand at ease."

Briefly, Ching introduced Mark to his men. They'd all known who he was, of course. As the newest member of the Governing Council, and as a Terran, Mark was already well, known throughout all of New Krypton. Among these men, and among most of the decent people of New Krypton, Mark had been regarded as something of a hero and savior for giving up his life on Earth to come to New Krypton to help break the political impasse and bring some peace and tranquility to their society.

Mark addressed the men. "Soldiers of New Krypton. I am an alien, an out-worlder. I am a serving officer in my country's maritime military force, our Navy. Until only a short time ago, I knew almost nothing of your world or its people beyond the mere fact of your existence. Until the day I left my home world to come here, I had no idea my father is a native Kryptonian and that my brothers, not to mention myself, are half Kryptonian. I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of your language and customs, picked up more or less on the fly and even that within mere hours of my departure from Earth for your world." (Mark's disclaimer was over modest. He may not have been in possession of his knowledge of New Krypton and its language for very long, but, given his super speed back on Earth, imparted to him shortly before he left, and his super enhanced ability to assimilate, organize, and retrieve data at a phenomenal rate, his knowledge was thoroughgoing, notwithstanding protestations to the contrary.)

Mark continued. "And, yet, although I am among the least qualified in this world to govern, simply because I am Jal-El, son of Kal-El, I sit as a member of your Governing Council. You men, your families and friends have had no say in this. You and your fellow citizens were not consulted. My brothers and I were imposed on you as your rulers, as were all the other members of the Governing Council, your legislative assembly! Because you are not members of the nobility, none of you may serve as members of this body, even though every one of you has pledged to defend your country with your lives. What is wrong with this picture?"

"In my country, The United States of America on planet Earth, and in many other countries in my world, though, regrettably, not all, the people elect their rulers. And the rulers must account to the people for the results of their governing policies. We call our system in America a Constitutional Republic. Even our rulers are subject to the law and none of them may impose their will on any of the rest of us arbitrarily. We are said to have a government of LAWS, not of MEN! From the mightiest public official, The President of the United States to the lowliest citizen, all are subject to the same laws. All are equal before the law. Are there abuses? Yes. Is our system perfect? Not by a long shot! I readily concede that our system is woefully flawed. It is just that every other alternative is so much worse!"

"There are many here who consider your branch of the human family to be superior to other humans. And this is arguably true in many respects. You are bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than most of us on Earth." Mark allowed himself just a trace of a smile. "And you're all a lot better looking than me or most of us where I come from." Ching's men laughed.

"But if our system is flawed and imperfect, your system is fatally flawed. I was brought here to break a political impasse in your Governing Council. But that is, at best, only a temporary fix of a more or less permanent problem. And, make no mistake, the men in Lord Nor's compound are plotting a coup to take complete control."

The men shifted uneasily on their feet and there was some murmuring in the ranks.

Mark sensed the men's skepticism. "I can see you do not believe the men in Nor Citadel would dare do this. But they would. The outrages their cohorts committed against my people in America on Earth were beyond belief. You all know, for instance, that on Earth, you people can fly with out the need of flying machines and that on Earth, you are endowed with unbelievable physical strength. Nor's super powered thugs swooped down on motor vehicles with helpless passengers inside, hurled them high into the air, allowing them to crash to the ground, killing the occupants, all of whom had to have known, in those last moments before impact, that they were going to die. These terrorists had a particular penchant for school busses filled with defenseless children! Yet, today, men of the same ilk as those monsters are ensconced in Nor Citadel and nothing is done."

There was anguished murmuring in the ranks. Ching's men had known all this. But to have these atrocities recounted for them by a Terran was keenly unsettling. To a man, these soldiers would sooner have died themselves than to permit harm to come to any defenseless civilian of whatever world or race or nation. That anyone from their society could be the cause of such mayhem was heart wrenching to these courageous, chivalrous warriors.

As he ranted, Mark had worked himself into a state of a boiling apoplexy. His voice choked with rage. Ching's men could feel Mark's fury, emanating from his body like angry bolts of lightening. Ching's men had known empathically that Mark was telling the truth, at least as he saw it.

Mark continued, "I am not at liberty to elaborate further on the terror being wreaked even now here on New Krypton by Lord Nor's minions. To do so would endanger the lives of innocents. It should surprise no one that these criminals continue to do here on New Krypton what some thirty of our years ago their cohorts did to my people on Earth. I know that some of you, perhaps most of you, consider my people inferior to yourselves."

Almost as one, Ching's men cried out. "No! No! Never!"

Mark pressed on. "As I have conceded, we are weaker, less intelligent by and large and our technologies are quite primitive by your standards. But as Captain Ching has made abundantly clear to me, your people and mine are all human beings, all of us the progeny of some common ancient ancestor on some long forgotten world. So, if this is true, are you not offended by these outrages against people who are quite literally your kin? Will you allow these murderers to do this again, even to victims among your own kind here on New Krypton?

From the ranks the men cried out in protest. One among them called to Mark, "But, sir, what can we do? We are only soldiers. The men in the Governing Council make all the decisions. We are pledged to follow our orders."

Mark had been waiting for this and he was ready. "You are pledged to defend the nation from all enemies, both external and from within! I know your soldiers' oath. Why? Because it is the exact same oath I swore to defend my country when I put on my uniform for the first time. And if the decisions of the men in the Council run counter to the pledge you have made on your honor and on your lives, then which is more in keeping with the spirit and intent of your oath, defending your families, your neighbors and friends, your homes and your country, or following orders of some, perhaps well-intentioned but woefully misguided men?"

There was dead silence. Mark had spoken directly to these men's worst fears; the nagging certitude, tugging at their consciences; that the Council leadership was incapable of ever bringing the requisite civil order and justice to New Krypton wherein they could live their lives and raise their families in peace and freedom. Mark had broken the "unspoken code" among the New Kryptonians by pointing out the huge "elephant" in the middle of the room they had all sought so diligently to ignore.

"Men of New Krypton this is a time of reckoning in the history of your nation. Not since your great patriot Ryk-Ar have the Kryptonian people been faced with such a crisis and yet such an opportunity. To this day, you men wear your headbands in honor of Ryk-Ar and his rag tag revolutionary army's victory against tyranny and as a symbol of freedom. But the time has come for you to doff your headbands. You men are not free. And it is a mockery of Ryk-Ar's honored memory for you men who are not free to wear your freedom headbands. Instead, you should don the chains of servitude."

This nettled this band of proud and courageous warriors. Mark did not indulge himself the smile he felt inside. This had been his intention all along.

"When one of your leaders, Tsa-An, welcomed me into your midst, shortly after my arrival onboard your starship, he spoke to me of the great literature of your world and of mine. He mentioned in particular, Hamlet one of the most notable tragic heroes in all of my world's great writings. So the story goes, Hamlet was Prince of Denmark. He had proven his valor on the battlefield. He was a man of great physical courage. And yet, he could not muster within himself the moral courage to change. For Hamlet, 'better the evil I know than the evil I don't.' And because Hamlet could not make the changes necessary for survival of his country, his people, his family and himself, he lost everything. Men of New Krypton, this evil you know is transitory. After this, it will only get worse and worse as these murders gorge themselves on your blood and on the blood of my people."

"The Council is afraid to act. They will never move decisively to end, once and for all, this threat to peace that is Lord Nor's band of bullies."

Again the men called out in protest. One of them cried, "But what can we do?"

"Do you really want to know, Mark asked?"

"Yes! Yes! Yes! Tell us!" they demanded.

Mark realized, "Now, finally, they are ready."

"You must rebel! You must take up arms and claim what is rightly yours and your children's; the right to govern yourselves; the right to free elections of those who will rule over you; and the right to require your elected officials to account to you for the end result of their policies.

Someone yelled "But, sir, that is treason!

Mark would've paid that man to say that.

"Treason? Against what? Against whom? How many of you have family that were lost, lost when Planet Krypton exploded?"

It had been clearly understood that this was a rhetorical question. But Mark decided to press. "No, I want to know who among you whose family has been left unscathed by the 'destruction?' (New Krypton's euphemism for the fiery death of Krypton and its people.)'"

"No one? All of you lost family in that global disaster? Not one of you men has family that remained untouched by that tragedy?"

Like a good courtroom lawyer, Mark had not asked his audience a question he had not already known the answer to. Of course, there had not been the remotest chance that a single man could have "rogered up" to having not lost a single member of their family when Krypton exploded.

Most of these young men had been born after Krypton exploded, but from their parents, they had heard all their lives of glory lost and loved ones lost on "old" Krypton. New Krypton was, from top to bottom, a refugee world.

Mark continued. "The same mindset that informed the leaders of Krypton, who failed your families, miserably, prevails today among the leadership of your Governing Council here on New Krypton. Well intentioned though these men may be individually, collectively, they clearly lack the moral fitness to govern. The question is, do you of the Kryptonian remnant possess even the moral fitness to survive?"

Again there was stone silence. Nobody moved, nobody uttered a sound. Nobody dared even take a breath. Mark had determined that he would not be the next man to speak. And, beforehand, he had briefed his brothers, Jon and Lane and Ching and Jing-Chel not to speak either. "Even if it takes all day, nobody moves, nobody says a word. The next word must come from Ching's men."

Finally, a young soldier spoke up from the ranks. "I will join you, Jal-El. I will follow you and fight for our freedom and our survival."

One after another the men took up the chorus until they had all thrown in their lot with Mark, his brothers and Ching and Jing-Chel.

Mark spoke again. "We follow your captain, Ching-Chel, the commander whose courage and battle knowledge will lead us to victory, to freedom! He is our general! Borrowing from American revolutionary history, he dubbed Ching's soldiers, "The CONTINENTAL Army of New Krypton."

Mark proposed a revolutionary standard featuring a white right triangular field with its hypotenuse extending from top to bottom, along the hoist (the edge next to the flag pole), its apex pointing like an arrow from left to right, positioned midway between top and bottom, across the banner, the tip about one third of the way across; a red five pointed star in the center, the star outlined in blue. Two broad horizontal bars of equal height extended across the remainder of the banner, the top royal blue and the bottom blood red. He had also adapted a badge for this first formation of this embryonic revolutionary army, a headband with the new revolutionary banner emblazoned dead center above the forehead.

Mark stressed the critical importance of dispatch. "We don't have much time. You must agitate the population. Most of you younger men are part time students at the New Krypton Institute of higher learning (New Krypton's university.) Talk to your fellow students. Organize them and once you have persuaded them to join with us, train them to fight. And teach them the disciplines and the honor of a soldier. There are traditions here worth saving. I have learned your national Army has a tradition of fighting swift, decisive campaigns leaving as few casualties as possible from all sides on the battlefield and especially among non-combatants. Very soon, we will be ready to strike. I know every man will do his duty."

The men gave a rousing cheer. Mark muttered to Ching's son, Jing-Chel, "We'll see how they cheer when all of this is over."

The young Kryptonian soldier laid his palm on Mark's shoulder and smiled reassuringly. "They'll be cheering, Mark. And it will all be because of you."

Mark nodded. "Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of! That this is all because of me!"

Jing-Chel looked into Mark's eyes. "We have faith in you, my friend. We have since even before you arrived. My father has faith in you and so do his men. And I have faith in you. Have faith in us, and in yourself! Together, we will bring this off and bring peace and freedom to our people. You have been right all along, Mark. This has needed to happen for a very long time."


Chapter 12 Choices

The assembly broke up, each man going his own way to follow Mark's order to organize the population to join the revolution. As Mark had said, they did not have much time. Mark was scheduled to meet Zon for mortal combat in three days. Ching led Mark, Jon, Lane and Ching-Chel to a conference room in his headquarters building. Briefly, they discussed their respective plans to go out and organize. Ching would speak to other middle grade military commanders. Jing-Chel would recruit from among the junior officers. Jon and Lane had a number of contacts, some of them in political circles but most of them in the scientific and intellectual community. As on Krypton, there was substantial overlap between the intelligentsia and the political leadership. Mark noted a comment from one of his friends from his university days at Rice in Houston. "'What the world REALLY needs is a good B-student!' There's your problem, Mark muttered. Too damn many intellectuals too close to pulleys and levers of political power! Instead of smashing those thugs in Nor Citadel, those eggheads are over intellectualizing and over analyzing this thing to the point that now we find ourselves in this unholy mess!" Mark had his own ideas of whom to recruit, but he was not about to share his plan with Ching or his brothers. It was risky, but, Mark reasoned, the alternative with the best chance of achieving success with the fewest number of casualties.

Ching invited Jon and Lane to accompany him, Jing-Chel and Mark to his home for supper, but they begged off. Ching had assumed, rightly, that Mark would be coming.

Ra-Chel had been waiting for them. Mark surmised, correctly as it happened, that Ching had signaled ahead telepathically. "So much for cell phones," he mused.

As Ching, Mark and Jing-Chel entered the house, Ra-Chel dashed up to her father and embraced him, kissing his cheek. She and her father obviously adored one another. Her greeting to Jing-Chel was no less enthusiastic. Mark recalled his own family, so loving and demonstrative in their affection for one another. And yet they, all of them, had shut him out of the single most important aspect of who and what they are. He had been so involved with the doings here on New Krypton that he'd not had much opportunity to think of home and such fleeting thoughts as had crossed his mind had been mostly of his Navy life, not of his mom and dad. Things with them could never be quite the same again. A little ruefully, Mark thought to himself, "Thomas Wolfe was right! 'You Can't Go Home Again!"

Ra-Chel's affections for her father and her brother attended to, she turned her attention to Mark. She regarded Mark with a shy smile. Gamely, Mark returned Ra-Chel's smile with one of his own. But the smile was not reflected in his eyes. She sensed Mark's unease and immediately began gently, tentatively to probe his mind. She ran into a solid wall. Mark's defenses had been deployed. Stung by the rebuff, Ra-Chel quickly withdrew. With her eyes, she tried to signal her apologies to Mark but, behind his mental defenses, he had not even been aware of Ra-Chel's attempt to enter his thoughts. And he had not caught her signal. For Mark, "mental veil deployed" was his "default mode." Ra-Chel resolved to mend things with Mark as soon as she could get him alone.

Mark had wanted with all his heart to take Ra-Chel into his arms and lavish her with tender kisses. But he bridled his emotions and his impulses. He kissed her cheek lightly and quickly looked away. He had no idea how to deal with his dilemma, "home or Ra-Chel," and he was not even certain of her family's approval of him. He was, after all, a Terran, arguably, a lesser being than any Kryptonian. Oddly, Mark had completely lost sight of the fact that he was, himself, half Kryptonian and that now, thanks to his father's conversion chamber, he was genetically now virtually fully Kryptonian. He thought of himself as Terran and, more specifically as American. Although he no longer intended to hold his two brothers to their agreement to submit to conversion to normal Terran physiology, he had every intention of being reconverted himself. He wanted to return to the Navy and retaining Kryptonian physiology in the US Navy would be very problematic. Navy annual physical exams for flight crew are very thorough, including X- rays and the drawing of blood samples. With Kryptonian physiology on Earth, he would be impervious to needles and to normal X-Rays. His family's secret would very quickly be blown. He saw no alternative but to be reconverted and serve at least the six years remaining of his obligation to the Navy, incurred by his Navy pilot training. In any event, he was not at all averse to this since he still wanted to make the Navy his career. But what of Ra-Chel? He could not ask her to leave behind her home world, her parents and brother and everything and everyone she had known all her life to go with him. And, even if she did go with him, what then? On earth, she would become a super being, unless she entered his father's conversion chamber, something Mark would have absolutely forbidden. To cripple the one he loved in this way would be unthinkable. But then what? As a super being, wouldn't she be obligated to use her newly acquired super powers as his father had done? What kind of life would that be for her? And how would she feel about being married to a comparative weakling as Mark would be once he emerged from his father's conversion chamber? Mark sighed, "So many questions; so little time." He wrenched himself from his musings. "If I don't get my mind on what's coming next, none of this about Ra-Chel will matter. I've got another hurdle to deal with first."

The evening meal was tense, at least between Mark and Ra-Chel. Ching, Zara and Jing- Chel picked up on it but were mystified. How could there be this tension between them already? How could these two young people, newly infatuated, in love, even as Mark and Ra-Chel clearly were with one another be at odds so early on? They couldn't have had a fight. They'd not spent one moment together by themselves this evening since Ching, Jing-Chel and Mark had arrived home. What could've transpired between them? Whatever it was, Ching, his wife and son decided to leave Mark and Ra-Chel to their own counsel.

After dinner, Mark had moved to help clear the table. Again Jing-Chel had intervened but, this time, Mark had insisted on helping. He had no desire to be alone with Ra-Chel. After helping with the cleanup, Mark said his "goodbyes" to Ching and hastened to the door. Ra-Chel was not about to be put off so easily. She ran after him and took his hand in hers.

"Mark, what is wrong? What is it that I have done that has upset you so? Please tell me. At least give me a chance to set things right!"

Sadly, Mark looked into Ra-Chel's eyes. He thought to himself, "I should not have come here. What was I thinking?" He could not lead her on. There was no hope for them. He had to face that. She had to face that. The longer this wasput off, the more painful it would be.

"Ra-Chel, it's nothing you've done. It isn't you. It's me. You've done nothing wrong."

"Was it my mind probe earlier? Is that what's done this to you? I'm so sorry, Mark. I just wanted to come into your mind, into your soul to comfort you, to share your burdens and ease them for you. But I should have realized this is all so new for you. Please forgive me. I didn't mean to pry, Mark. Truly."

Mark held Ra-Chel by her shoulders and looked deeply into her eyes. "I'm sorry if I've said or done anything to make you think you're not welcome in my mind Ra-Chel. Your sweet ministrations are like balm for my soul. But this is too intimate a thing for us. This should only be something for you to share with your husband. I had not discerned your mental probe. Ra-Chel. I try to keep my mind shielded most of the time. I certainly would not have been offended at your offer of ministration. But had I known, I could not have presumed to receive that from you. It is too much. I am not your husband. That should be only for your husband."

Ra-Chel shook her head. "Mark, I will try not to come barging into your mind again uninvited. I had no right to presume. But, know this, Matthew Mark Kent. I will wait until you are ready. I would wait for you forever. You have stolen my heart. I know this makes no sense. We barely know each other. But I will not be coy. I have already been inside your mind. I know very well how you feel about me. That you've fallen in love, with me, as you know I have with you. It is too late for us, Mark. We cannot hide from the truth. We are soul mates, you and I. I am yours and you are mine. I do not know what has come over you but you must believe me when I tell you. Together, we can work it out. And, Mark, when you are ready, I will be here, waiting for you."

Mark had been completely disarmed. He capitulated helplessly to her embrace. He kissed her deeply, passionately. He could not help himself. "This is all wrong," Mark lamented to himself, "but what can I do? She's stolen my heart."

The next day in Council Chambers was more of the same. Zon-Nor's harangues were clearly made by rote. He did not even attempt to feign sincerity. In fact the words, fed to him by Zel-Tor made him sick at heart. There were more demands for invasion of Earth and of other home worlds of feeble "lesser beings." Zon-Nor knew that if his mother, Liana, had known the role he was playing, she would have been horrified and ashamed of her son. Zon realized, she would have begged him to stop playing Zel-Tor's "game." She would never willingly have allowed herself to come before an entire intelligent species. She sooner would have died.

Empathetically, Mark sensed the torment in Zon Nor's soul. Telepathically, Mark tried briefly to console his new covert friend. "Zon," he had said. "Hold fast to your faith. Very soon, I promise, you and your mother will be free and this horrible nightmare will be over. When we are ready to strike, Zon, you will know. Rally to us!"

Zon-Nor replied, "I shall, my friend. I shall!"

The meeting adjourned.

Ching led Mark, Jing-Chel, Jon and Lane to his home. Zara and Ra-Chel had a hearty meal waiting for them.

Ching wrapped his wife in a tender embrace and kissed her deeply. And then he turned to his daughter Ra-Chel, his baby girl. He hugged her tight, pressed his lips against her cheek and whispered fatherly endearments to her.

Ching released his daughter. Then Ra-Chel turned to Mark. She greeted him warmly, smiling brightly. Mark took her hands, holding them in his as he just looked at her, drinking in her lovely form with his eyes, burning her image into his brain. Oh how he wanted to be with her, to have a life, a home and children with her. He wanted to have her for his wife, but how could he marry her and still return home? Without Ra-Chel, he could not be complete as a man, as a human being. But here on New Krypton, he would be like a fish out of water. Ra-Chel had said, whatever it was, they could work it out. But how? Why oh why couldn't he have stumbled into love with someone whom he could rationally expect to accept the role of dutiful Navy wife? A little tentatively, he kissed Ra-Chel's cheek. He still was very unsure of himself. How could he resolve this dilemma? Ra-Chel felt Mark's unease. Moments before, she had sensed his deep affection and love. But this had been mixed with deep anguish. Reflexively, she considered another mind probe, thinking she might be able to soothe his anxieties with the "balm" that only she in all of creation could give to Mark. But after last night's abortive attempt, she dismissed the notion. Mark's thoughts were rightly his own and he would share them with Ra-Chel when and if he were ready. Meanwhile, she resolved to let things progress between them at a pace comfortable for Mark. Perhaps Terran's courting rituals required a bit more circumspection than those of New Krypton. She was not about to do anything to scare Mark off. She smiled and said to him, "You came, Mark!"

Mark half smiled, shyly as he blushed lightly. He nodded and said, "Wild horses couldn't keep me away." Although there were no horses on New Krypton, there had been on "old" Krypton, so, even though the expression was unfamiliar, the notion it was intended to convey had been easy enough to grasp. Ra-Chel smiled.

Two other young Kryptonian women had been waiting with Zara and Ra-Chel, Lena and Sila. Jon and Lane introduced these young ladies to Mark as their fiancées. His brothers explained that they intended to marry and to remain on New Krypton.

Mark greeted his future sisters-in-law cordially, pointedly welcoming them to the 'Kent' family. He smiled, "I've always wanted a sister and now, all of a sudden, I've got two!"

After an exchange of pleasantries all around and a brief visit, the young ladies moved off in Zara's wake to help make final preparations for the evening meal. Ching and Jing-Chel excused themselves to wash up for dinner. As he left, Ching pointed to a guest lavatory immediately adjacent the family room for the three brothers' use.

Once the three Kent boys were by themselves, Mark spoke in a low tone to Jon and Lane, "You didn't have to do this, guys. You can come home. I wasn't gonna hold you to your agreement to have your powers taken from you. Or, rather, I was at first, but I've changed my mind. I was wrong to demand that from you and I am sorry how I acted. I was nuthin' but a jerk."

Jon explained. "Aw, Mark we know how it was. You hadda be in a total tailspin when Mom and Dad laid all this on yah. It's OK, honest. But, really, we aren't going back to Earth, except maybe to visit. It's not that we won't sometimes miss home, especially Mom and Dad. And it's got nothing to do with your demand that we give up our powers. It's just that we've found love here. We've made our lives here and our home is here now. And, besides, we can both have a much bigger impact here. New Krypton needs every man it can get and we want to do our part to help this new society make a go of it. But, Mark, what about you? You mean you're not planning to stay here with us? Yah know, when this is over, you're the most likely candidate to run the whole show here. They'll make you, President, for sure!"

Mark looked back at Jon and then at Lane. From his pained expression, they could tell Jon had hit a very tender spot. Lane asked, "What's wrong? C'mon, little bro, yah gotta tell us. What's the matter?"

Mark shook his head. It was the dilemma again. Earth or Ra-Chel? He wanted both but he knew that was impossible. He would have to choose, and soon. Assuming he survived the coming battle. "Not now, Lane," he answered. "One crisis at a time, please. I get my mind off the business at hand, I might get us all killed."

Lane laid his hand on Mark's shoulder. "Well, OK, but yah know we're always here for yah. Yah do know that, don'tcha lil' bro?"

Mark nodded. "Yeah, Lane. You guys are the two best big bros a little bro could ever have. I love you two guys sump'n awful. Y'all know that, don'tcha?'

Jon and Lane smiled. Lane answered, "Yeah, Mark, we never doubted it; Jon or me either one. Not for one minute."

Ra-Chel popped her head into the room from the dining area. Alright, you three, supper is ready. Mark smiled. "We'll be right there. Just let us wash up."

The meal was a somber affair. Zara, Ra-Chel, Lena and Sila had very soon concluded their men had to be facing something very serious. Rumors had been flying about the city all day. The emotional signals from the men crackled through the air like static electricity. But nothing was said about the cabal. The women accepted the need for silence allowing the men to keep their own counsel.

After supper, Mark, Jon, Lane, Ching and Jing-Chel made ready to leave. Mark held Ra-Chel in his arms. She could sense his apprehension. Instead of cross examining him about things he did not wish to share, she just held onto her man, affording him what comfort she could. Finally, Mark gave Ra-Chel a parting kiss and then broke their embrace but continued holding hands. He looked into her eyes but said nothing. In his mind, he thought, "I love you, Ra-Chel."

With her voice, to Mark's mild surprise, Ra-Chel replied. "And I love you, Mark Kent."

He rejoined, his brothers outside and, together, they made their way to Ching's headquarters. The ever-present guards, two for Mark and two each for Jon and Lane followed dutifully behind.

Through much of the night, Ching and his staff continued to put the finishing touches on their plan. The situation was very fluid. There had been no more than a day's time to recruit support for the revolution from within the Army and from among the population. Final plans must be deferred until the depth of support could be ascertained. The element of surprise was sacrificed in exchange for popular support. The old guard had to know by now that something was up. Time was not a friend of the cabal. It could be only a matter of time before the Council would surely haul all of the conspirators up on charges. Justice would be swift and the retribution drastic. Ching finally called an end to the conference and sent everyone to bed. Everyone remained in barracks within the security perimeter of Captain Ching's army base. Fortunately, the Council was in recess the following day.

Early next morning, Mark left Ching's headquarters his two bodyguards in tow. He stopped, turning around to face them. They did not even wait for him to speak. 'Yes, Jal-El, of course we are with you and Captain Ching. We support you. We believe in what you are doing to help us. Maybe someone here on New Krypton should've stepped up to the line before you came to us, but it hasn't happened and it was never going to happen until you arrived. But, thanks to you, sir, we have a chance at peace and freedom for ourselves and for our families. So, yes sir, we are with you and Ching, our captain.

Mark could sense their emotions. The two young men had made no effort to hide them. Their feelings were fully in accord with their words of assurance.

Mark, and his bodyguards made a beeline for Government House. The building housed not only the Council Chamber but also the offices of the Council members and Council Secretariat. Mark and his guards were admitted to the building by the security detail and escorted to Tsa-An's chambers by one of the Government House ushers. As they entered Tsa-An's reception room, a young male aide greeted them cordially.

Tsa-An's office suite was substantially less austere than Mark had expected. Much of the architecture and furnishings on New Krypton, albeit comfortable, were severe, functional and unimposing; nothing like what had been left behind on long lost "old" Krypton. But Tsa-An's official 'precincts' were different. The ceiling was over six and a half meters high and there were tapestries vividly woven with lovely pastoral scenes from 'old' Krypton. The floor was covered in ornately inlaid wood, with area rugs featuring elaborate arabesque designs. The furnishings were vaguely alien, but not futuristic in the least. Their design appeared to reflect a period-style from some bygone era of Krypton's past.

Momentarily, Tsa-An emerged from his private office. He brightened, greeting Mark warmly. "Jal- El! Well, what a pleasant surprise. He clasped Mark's forearm in a traditional Kryptonian style "handshake." Mark asked. "Sir, may I speak with you in private?"

Tsa-An smiled. "Only if you promise not to address me as "Sir." I am not all that many years your senior, and, in spite of my position as First Deputy Chairperson of the Council, strictly speaking, we Council Members are all equals. Please, Jal-El, call me 'Tsa-An.'"

"Very well, 'Tsa-An.'"

Tsa-An ushered Mark into his private office and motioned him to a comfortable overstuffed divan. He seated himself alongside. "May I offer you some hot tea? It is brewed from a native root and is quite flavorful and invigorating."

Mark accepted and, momentarily, a young male servant entered quietly bowed, set the tea service before Tsa-An and Mark, bowed again and quietly withdrew.

As he served them both, Tsa-An spoke. "I have been looking forward to chatting with you privately," he paused, "'Mark,' isn't that what you prefer to be called?"

Mark nodded. "Yes, Tsa-An 'Mark' is just fine, thank you."

"So, Mark, what is it that brings you here today? Are your accommodations satisfactory? Is there anything that you need?"

Mark cut right to the chase. "Sir, I need your support, your influence."

"For what, Mark? What can I do to help you? Please, tell me what it is that you want and I will do whatever I can to help you."

Mark understood full well he was risking everything by revealing the conspiracy to Tsa-An, but he felt he needed allies within the Council itself to bring this whole thing off with a minimum of bloodshed. He knew that a protracted bloodletting would be catastrophic. Now, with all of his being, Mark wanted desperately to rescue these people, his father's people, whom, only two days before, he had intended to annihilate. Grimly, Mark regarded the irony. This was all or nothing.

He sighed. "Tsa-An, with what I am about to tell you, you could have my brothers, my friends and me, all of us, sent to an atomization chamber. I know full well what I am risking by coming to you. But there seems to be no other way. If you do not help us, there is no point in our going forward. Too many would die. And it is precisely this scale of bloodshed I was brought here to help prevent."

Tsa-An regarded Mark quizzically. "I cannot imagine you would be capable of anything that would warrant such drastic retribution."

"We are going to overthrow the Council and replace it with an assembly, elected by the people. We will establish one-man (or woman) one vote and smash the stranglehold of the aristocracy on political power."

Tsa-An sat speechless for over a minute. Then he sighed. "Jal-El, Matthew Mark Kent, you are most certainly not a 'Hamlet.' You are the embodiment of the spirit of Ryk-Ar.

Mark shook his head. "No, Tsa-An. I am neither Hamlet nor Ryk-Ar. I am not a Hamlet, at least not here on New Krypton, because I have not lived under your feudal system for any length of time. I have neither vested interest nor comfort in the status quo. So the changes that are to come about will not be anything that I would dread. And I am no Ryk-Ar. That man was a patriot. But this is not my country." Mark flashed a wry smile. "Maybe I am your 'Marquis de Lafayette.'"

Tsa-An nodded. "Yes, Mark. That is perhaps more apt a comparison, although only partly so. True, you are American, but your father is Kryptonian and thus, Mark, so are you. So New Krypton is your country too. You have confederates?"

"A few. We need more to make this happen. And I have come here to ask you to join us."

"Frankly, Mark, I am a bit taken aback that you trusted me. If you were to fail, that most certainly would land you in an atomization chamber. You do not need to detail for me the reasons you and your companions have chosen this course of action. I have known it. I've known it for a very long time that we cannot go on like this. But we, all of us, have lacked the moral strength we have needed to face the truth and to do what must be done to save ourselves. In so many ways, Mark, we Kryptonians are a marvelous people. But we have our tragic flaws."

Mark sat silent and stone faced. Making concession neither to diplomacy nor to humor, he neither disagreed nor rushed to defense of the Kryptonian people.

A little nonplussed, Tsa-An laughed. "Mark, you're not supposed to just sit there. Silence is assent!"

Mark did not smile back. He was in no mood for mirth or comic relief. He stared hard at Tsa-An. "We will know very soon your people's mettle. A philosopher from my world once noted, 'every society contains the seeds of its own destruction.' Now we are going to find out if your society posses the seeds of your own redemption. On Krypton, your leaders got it wrong! This is your country's last chance, Tsa-An. Your people cannot afford to get it wrong this time."

Tsa-An nodded gravely. "You are right, Mark. And I am with you. Tell me what it is you want me to do. I am at your service."

Mark retorted, "You are, excuse me, at the service of your country and your people. We all are. Our forebears, both American and Kryptonian are watching us. History is watching. But, regardless of the outcome, you have made the right choice, Tsa-An. Win or lose, history will remember that you have done the right thing by your countrymen."

"Now, what I need is for you to identify members of the Council who might support us. When the time comes, the Council, or a substantial number of its members must roll over and cede power to an interim government. And free elections must be held just as soon as possible. It will probably be necessary for those among the Council who join our cause to serve in a care taker government until an elected government can be stood up to take its place."

Tsa-An nodded. "Some will support us, Mark. I know that. But there are those who support Zon- Nor. They will oppose us to the bitter end."

Mark hesitated. Then he decided to trust Tsa-An with everything. The man's thoughts and emotions were easy to read. He was sincere in his commitment to support the revolution. "Tsa-An, what I am about to tell you will get innocent people killed if this gets out."

Tsa-An reached out and placed his hand on Mark's shoulder. "Mark, I will guard your confidence with my life."

Mark could see that Tsa-An meant it.

"Zon-Nor will support us."

Tsa-An was stunned. "Mark, he leads the warlord faction! This is impossible! How could you have possibly co-opted the very man we brought you to New Krypton to counter?"

"Well, the truth is, Zon-Nor leads nothing. He and his mother have been held hostage in Nor Citadel for years. He is only one of many sons Lord Nor has 'sired.' Lord Nor was a brigand and a brute, a monster and a rapist. He took young women forcibly, and used them and discarded them like so much rubbish. Zon-Nor is the product of one such foray among defenseless women in your population. The boy's mother carried her son to term, loved him in spite of the circumstances and raised him to adolescence. And then Zel-Tor, one of Nor's surviving lieutenants took the boy and his mother hostage. Zon-Nor is only one of many among Lord Nor's illegitimate progeny. Any one of them would have sufficed, so long as Zel-Tor had a 'hook.' His 'hook' with Zon-Nor is his mother."

Tsa-An was ashen. He was incredulous and yet he knew Mark was telling the truth. Mark had made no effort to veil his thoughts or emotions from Tsa-An's probe. In a low voice Tsa-An countered, "But Zon-Nor needn't have suffered this. He is a member of the Council! No one would dare raise a hand against a sitting member of the Council!"

Mark knew that Tsa-An did not believe his own feeble protestations so he did not bother to cater them. He continued. "They have threatened Zon-Nor's mother with death if he asks government authorities to intervene. She would be killed before government troops could get to her. The boy is not afraid for himself. He is not afraid to die. But he is terrified for his mother."

Tsa-An shook his head in despair. "And the army dares not enter the Citadel without Zon-Nor's express permission. What are we going to do?"

"Zon-Nor does not know everything. I could not afford to confide in him the full extent of our plans. He knows only that I intend to break into the Citadel with a relief force to rescue his mother. Had I confided everything to him, Zel-Tor might have been able to find out. I could not risk that. But Zon-Nor has no affinity for the New Krypton oligarchy. He has lived much of his life as a member of the lowliest social stratum, a boy without a father and without a name. But I tell you this. He would prefer the stigma of no father to claim him as his own rather than to bear the stain of the 'Nor' surname. He claims it only under duress. But when our plan is revealed to him, can there be any doubt that he will rally to us?"

Tsa-An shook his head. "None whatever, Mark. But how will you affect a rescue? And how can the revolution seize power?"

Mark quickly veiled his mind and then prevaricated. "We have a plan." (Mark fervently hoped Ching would come up with something.) "Captain Ching will serve as our Commanding General. He is expert at special operations and land warfare tactics. Ching and his commandos and members of our revolutionary militia will storm the Citadel. As soon as the objective has been secured and Zon- Nor's mother has been rescued, Zon-Nor will order any survivors among Zel-Tor's men to stand down. Some will obey. Some will not. Those who do not will be guilty of treason, both against Zon-Nor, their titular overlord and against the state. They will be in sufficient disarray that they will not be a factor when we move to seize power. Zel-Tor's bandits will have been effectively neutralized. You must recruit as many members among the Council as you can to stand with us. I doubt you could win over a majority. But, if you could, then the Council could simply vote to surrender power peaceably. We would have, at the very least, your vote, my two brothers', Zon- Nor's and mine."

Tsa-An nodded. "I marvel, Mark, that you number Zon-Nor among your supporters, and yet, I see the truth of it."

"I appreciate your use of my real name in private and among our friends, Tsa-An. But, in front of outsiders, call me 'Jal-El.' And if it is too confusing to switch between my real name and the name I am supposed to use here on New Krypton, then please understand, I will not be offended if you call me 'Jal-El.'"

"Thank you, Mark. 'Jal-El' is, after all, a beautiful name and, in your case, decidedly apropos! Do you know what it means?" Mark nodded. "Child of Destiny."

Tsa-An replied. "Very good, Mark. Yes it does and yes you are!"

Mark stood and then Tsa-An rose to his feet alongside. "I need to return to Captain Ching's headquarters, now, Tsa-An. But, when we are ready, I will contact you. When the time comes for us to take power, I need you to make sure that all the members of the Council have been assembled in the Council Chamber. Zon-Nor, my brothers and I will arrive last. We will have our forces behind us. If you can, try to persuade the commander of Government House security to stand down. We would all prefer to avoid needless bloodshed. But, if required, we will spill blood, theirs and ours to achieve our objective. Between now and then, Tsa-An, I will make sure you are furnished with a weapon for self defense should the need arise."

Tsa-An shook his head emphatically. "No, Mark, I will not spill another man's blood. Not even to save my own life. Never!"

Mark snapped, "We cannot afford to indulge your sentimentalities, Tsa-An. I need you alive to serve our cause. It should be enough for you that we will do all we can to minimize casualties. But, if it comes to that, I expect you to defend your life so you will be available to helps us when the time comes to take power. And your services to the nation will be needed after the fighting is over with. I will see to it that you have a weapon and I expect you to use it if need be. Do you understand?"

Tsa-An looked down, avoiding Mark's eyes. Mark stepped in front of him, seized him by his shoulders and shook him, roughly. "Do you understand?"

The Kryptonian nobleman nodded meekly and replied weakly. Yes, Lord Jal-El, I understand.

Mark nodded, mollified, barely. "If it makes you feel any better, Tsa-An, you can disable kill mode on your weapon. Just fire in stun mode. Your target will go down but he will recover within no more than a couple of hours."

Tsa-An nodded.

Mark moved to go. Tsa-An laid his palms on Mark's shoulders. "Rao be with you, Mark."

In English, Mark replied, "God be with us all, Tsa-An."

Mark and his waiting bodyguards left Government House and returned to Ching's headquarters. He reported to Ching what he had done, recruiting Tsa-An into the cabal. In front of his assembled battle staff, Ching exploded into a fit of apoplexy, a lapse in iron discipline, quite uncharacteristic of this old soldier. "Mark, you've risked everything by going to that man. Are you insane?"

Mark remained unruffled as Ching ranted and raved. Not intimidated in the least by this formidable Kryptonian warrior, calmly, but with a steely glare, Mark retorted. "Ching, when the time comes for us to march, I will fall in line behind you and follow your orders to the letter. But the politics of this 'enterprise' are my department, not yours. You attend to your job and kindly allow me attend to mine."


Chapter 13 Strategy and Tactics

"Speaking of, have you and your staff come up with a plan for takedown of the Nor Citadel and of Government House?"

Ching was strangely comforted by Mark's emerging assertiveness and self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. Here was the alpha male crack Navy combat jet pilot in Mark, coming to the fore, supremely confident and infusing confidence in others. The old Kryptonian "war horse" mused to himself, "This cocky young Terran 'pup' may just pull this whole thing off!" Mark's noble Kryptonian heritage was much in evidence, notwithstanding his rabidly anti-elitist American constitutional-republicanism.

Ching bowed to Mark and then nodded emphatically. "Yes, Lord Jal-El." Mark noted Ching's exaggerated deference and choice of names but he let it pass. The assembled battle staff needed to know who was in charge here and there was no better way to show it than by Ching's studied submission to Mark's seniority in the overall pecking order within the leadership of the cabal. This was Mark's show. Ching was Mark's 'tactics general,' but it was Mark who had assumed the role of political leader and supreme grand strategist.

Ching continued. "With Your Lordship's permission, my adjutant, Senior Lieutenant Nim-Ek, will present the pre-assault operational briefing."

Mark responded with a curt nod.

Nim-Ek began his brief with an assessment of the tactical situation. The Citadel defenses were formidable. Zel-Tor's private army comprised two hundred fifty crack troops; all of them well trained in Kryptonian martial arts and small unit infantry tactics. They were easily on par with Ching's special operations commandos. And their arsenal was formidable. Every man was equipped with an up-rated New Krypton Army issue PR-24 shoulder weapon. These solar powered, battery augmented pulse rifles fired kryptonite-lased directed energy smart bolts that could round corners, seeking their target. Their maximum effective range was just over 1,260 linear meters.

The rooftops and battlements in the Citadel had been fitted with optical, radar and infra-red guided kryptonite laser cannon, well-suited as anti-aircraft, anti-armor and anti-personnel heavy-artillery weapons. The area surrounding had been cleared of buildings and foliage. Interlocking fields of fire covered the approaches to the Citadel from all directions to a range of not less than 1,500 meters. Given the anti-aircraft, anti-armor capabilities of the kryptonite laser cannon, an airborne or armored assault was out of the question. Short-range teleportation into the security perimeter was also precluded given that the entire installation was covered with anti-teleportation disruptor jamming. And given weapons coverage of the avenues of approach from all directions, a frontal assault had no chance whatever of success.

As luck would have it, however, Zel-Tor had ordered a new tactical control battle management computer installed for integration of all Citadel defenses. With installation of this new system the entire Citadel defense could be directed from a central command console. Ching's spies had tipped him off. He had personally hacked into the system before it was delivered and installed. In addition to the hacked in commands nested in the computer's main operating system was an elegantly concealed "back door."

Ching would be able to access Zel-Tor's tactical computer to insert additional commands as well as simply to monitor whatever he wished.

Outside cleaning contractors entered the compound each night to clean and remove refuse. Public works crews maintained the infrastructure, including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, communication and automated information systems.

Commandos, led by Ching's son, Junior Lieutenant Jing-Chel and disguised as cleaning and maintenance crews, would compose the advance assault team. They would secure an avenue of approach for the main assault force astride the main entrance. The gates would be swung open and Ching's troopers would pour into the compound, making for the holding cells near the center of the complex. Ching would have one of his computer technicians operating a tactical data terminal from an army van well clear of the battle area. The technician would relay directly to Ching all intelligence gleaned from Zel-Tor's battle management computer and make remote disruptive inputs into the enemy command system based on Ching's orders and opportunities he discerned from his own vantage point.

The weapons in Ching's force, all of them, would be fitted with specially adapted null silencers. Additional silencers would be aimed at the battle area from tactical aircraft hovering just outside the Citadel. Each man's battle helmet would be fitted with a two- way encrypted radio and video data link transceiver and drop-down goggles with a look-through tactical data display. To the maximum extent possible, the operation would be conducted zip lip (i.e. as little voice or telepathic communication as possible). Commands would be transmitted via secure video data link to the tactical data display goggles, with verbal commands via narrow band secure voice radio net or telepathy only as a backup.

A layout of the Citadel, as well as floor plans of all levels of each of the buildings in the complex, had been incorporated into the tactical database; and the relevant sections based on the troopers' position within the complex would be projected onto their goggle tactical displays.

This would be a night action. Uniforms would be relatively loose fitting ultra light-weight black parachute fabric combat jump suits and combat boots, cut similar to Mark's US Navy flight suit and flight boots. Kryptonian soldiers typically wore skin tight black unitards, but Mark rejected that option out of hand as grossly impractical. Truth be known, the Kryptonian spandex unitards offended Mark's sense of form. "We're goin' to WAR," Mark had muttered, "not to a freakin' ballet!"

On each man's left shoulder was the emblem of the revolution, the battle ensign of the New Krypton Continental Army. And each combat helmet sported a spandex headband emblazoned with Continental Army standard. Mark noted the colors with satisfaction, "Red, white and blue!"

Once the Citadel perimeter was breached, the entire force would punch its way through any resistance directly to the central holding cells where it was believed Zon-Nor's mother was being detained.

The primary objective, the holding cells, would be secured and Zon-Nor and his mother removed to safety under heavily armed escort. An effort would be made to disable the anti-teleportation jammers. If this were successful, they would be transported to a well-guarded safe house. Failing that, plan B was an air-evacuation, provided the anti-aircraft weapons could be disabled. As a last resort, Zon and his mother would be escorted under heavy guard out of the compound and led to safety, well clear of the battle area. From there they would be flown by military air transport to the safe house until time for the assault on Government House. En route to the safe house, Mark would brief Zon-Nor on the uprising and recruit him into the cabal. He, Mark, Lane and Jon would then be taken to Government House where they would rendezvous with elements from Ching's assault force. It was hoped that, by then, Tsa-An would have managed to persuade the commander of Government House security to stand down and to convince the Council to cede power to an ad-hoc Junta. This Junta would include Mark, Ching, Jing-Chel, Zon-Nor, Jon, Lane, Tsa-An and such other members of the Council as could be persuaded to support the uprising.

Ching and Jing-Chel had successfully recruited a number of junior and middle grade army officers to join the cause. They were confident that at least forty percent of the entire Kryptonian military would rally to the cause as soon as the signal was given with at least another twenty to twenty-five percent likely to follow once the uprising was revealed to them. Most other units would be likely to lay down their arms and refuse to defend the regime. Regular army and reserve formations would have defended the society against external attack fiercely and to the death. But support of the Governing Council against a popular uprising was problematic at best. There was at least a hope that hard-core defenders of the existing regime might be few in number.

Jon and Lane had been spectacularly successful among members of the intelligentsia, and Ching's young soldiers had managed to recruit substantial numbers of their comrades in other army units and among students in the university and from the secondary schools. At the first hint of an uprising, it was fervently hoped, popular support of the Governing Council would virtually evaporate. The real battle would be at the Nor Citadel.

Nim-Ek concluded his briefing and fielded a smattering of questions from some of Ching's subordinate commanders. Then he yielded the floor back to Ching who addressed the battle staff. "Gentlemen, we will reassemble here three hours after sunset tomorrow evening. Take this time to recruit additional supporters, review the battle plan and pray: especially to pray. Those of you who can should spend time with your families. Dismissed!"

The meeting broke up and everyone went his separate way.

The following day dragged by. Everyone had known something very big was brewing. The Council was formally in recess for the day, but this did not prevent members from the various factions from caucusing among themselves. Tsa-An had managed to recruit other members of the Council who were only too happy to throw their lot in with the cabal.

Members of the warlord faction, ostensibly lead by Zon-Nor, but in fact lead by Nah-Tsee, an ally of Zel-Tor's, had caucused to counter the impending threat to dominion of New Krypton by the oligarchy. Zon-Nor was not trusted and so was not present. Men-Tur, terrified at the prospect of a bloodbath, had desperately tried to mediate between the opposing factions, but to no avail. Tsa-An had tried to recruit him to the revolution, but it was no use. The man was essentially a decent human being, but either he could not or would not see the hopelessness of future prospects under the social and political status quo.

At dusk, selected units of the regular army deployed to Government House to augment the security detail. But the senior commanders were nervous. They had been hearing rumors all day of defections in the ranks. Indeed, as time wore on, many of the soldiers had slipped away from their formations and into the night.

Ching, had brought Zara, Ra-Chel, Sila and Lena to his base. He had no intention of allowing them to be taken hostage by die-hard supporters of the warlord faction in the Governing Council. A number of Ching's soldiers had also brought their families into the safety of the perimeter of Ching's army base. Others had sent their families into hiding. A contingent of reservists and militia volunteers would remain on base to ensure the safety of the families. It was doubtful that the enemy would be able to mount a force large enough or powerful enough to overwhelm these ad-hoc defenders. They would have their hands full with Ching and Mark's Continental (revolutionary) Army.

The time to mount out was upon them. Ching, Jing-Chel, Jon, Lane and Mark took leave of their women. Ra-Chel had been only mildly surprised at this radical turn of events. She had known all along that the man she loved more than she loved her own life would be fully capable of something as radical and as daring as this. She held onto him. Not wanting to let go. Finally, it was time to go and Mark pulled away. "I have to go now Ra-Chel."

"Promise you'll come back to me safe, Mark."

Mark answered, "I promise I will try, Ra-Chel."

"No Mark! That isn't good enough. Not by half. You must promise me you'll come back to me safe. Promise me."

Mark nodded. "I promise, Ra-Chel."

"What do you promise, Mark. Tell me. What is it you promise me."

"That I will come back to you, Ra-Chel… that I will come back to you safe. I promise you that on my soul, Ra-Chel. I will not fail you."

Ra-Chel looked into Mark's eyes. "I love you Mark. I love you with all of my heart and soul. I will wait for you. And I know you will come back to me safe.

They embraced and kissed and then Mark smiled at her. "I will come back to you, Ra- Chel. I will! I love you. I love you with all that I am. But now, I must go. I will not disappoint you. When I come back to you, this will be a free country."

"Just come back, Mark. Just come back to me. Go and do what you must, but just make sure you come back to me."

I shall, Ra-Chel. I shall!"

Senior Lieutenant Nim-Ek had the men in Ching's unit, from other military units, and young men and boys in the reserves and the ad-hoc militia lined up and ready to move out. Ching addressed the men briefly. "I know everyone is ready. Everyone will do his duty. And now Jal-El, our Commander-in-Chief will speak to us. And then we will go and fight to free our land."

Ching nodded to Mark who nodded back. He stood tall as his five foot seven inch frame allowed, flanked by Ching, Jon, Lane and Nim-Ek. Jing-Chel's assault unit had changed into cleaning and maintenance work clothes and were already en route to Nor Citadel.

Mark began, "Soldiers and militia volunteers. This night we march. On that glorious day of deliverance long ago, when Ryk-Ar led the men of Krypton in their struggle for freedom, he spoke of their "hour of destiny." Well this is your "hour of destiny." From their places in heaven, our forefathers are watching us now. History is watching. Your families and loved ones are waiting for us to deliver them from chronic chaos, turmoil, terror and tyranny into freedom and domestic tranquility. Much is expected of us. We will not fail!"


Chapter 14 The Decision

There was a sustained cheer, lasting several minutes. Mark could see that these men were ready. As the cheer finally died down, giving way to silence, Ching called "Move out!"

With a rousing battle cry, the men turned and ran to their airborne assault vehicles. These vertical takeoff and landing, (VTOL) aircraft resembled Terran army troop transport helicopters, although these machines were somewhat larger than the largest transport helicopters on Earth. The noses of the aircraft bristled with gun barrels. A glazed cockpit was fitted to a somewhat ungainly, boxy hull. Each craft featured a retractable loading ramp under the tail. There were no rotors as with a Terran helicopter. Engines mounted atop the hull provided both forward propulsion and lift, but exactly how the propulsion energy was ducted aft and the lifting energy downward would not have been immediately apparent from cursory examination. Engine noise, although muted, was a distinctly turbine whine. The aircraft lifted off and headed for their landing zone about two klicks north of Nor Citadel.

Jing-Chel and his commando platoon had entered the Nor compound as cleaning and maintenance workers. The cleaning contractors rarely assigned the same crews to this task. Work in this compound was considered "hazardous duty," and the cleaning company and public works bosses spread this particularly onerous assignment around within their work forces. So the presence of unfamiliar faces among the evening cleaning and maintenance crews attracted no untoward attention of Zel-Tor's men. Had they been less complacent, they might have opted not to allow such large numbers of outsiders to enter their security perimeter. But Zel-Tor's arrogant men relished the idea of cleaning up after themselves and routine maintenance work not at all. And these brutal, hard-bitten men were supremely confident that these terrorized "drawers of water and hewers of wood" could not dare raise their hands against them.

Junior Lieutenant Jing-Chel's commando platoon, disguised as menial service workers and technicians, had been furnished with superb, though not exhaustive intelligence. Personal chronometers, in fact little more than over-engineered wristwatches, had been synchronized before force deployment. At the appointed time, the commandos moved to take down the Citadel guards posted outside the buildings. It was to the credit of Jing Chel's commandos that, within no more than a couple of minutes, all over the Nor complex, every one of their victims had gone down without a sound. There was no loss of life on either side nor had the takedown been detected by anyone inside any of the buildings within the Citadel. Computer techs in Ching's special tactical van had successfully hacked into Zel-Tor's battle computer, neutralized the heavy artillery and over-ridden the video, data and communication feeds into the Citadel command center. All battle alarms were silent. Zel-Tor and his thugs inside the buildings within the Nor compound were blissfully unaware that the outside areas were now under Jing-Chel's control.

Ching, not Mark, had promulgated the rules of engagement: "NO loss of life if humanly possible." Privately, Mark had been a little taken aback by Ching's "sentimentality."

But Ching had been adamant. Taking hold of Mark's shoulders and looking into his eyes, he had said to him, "Sentimental I may be, Mark, but there are sound political and strategic reasons for this. If there is no compelling need to kill, we must not and we will not."

Grudgingly, Mark had conceded the validity of Ching's argument. "Alright, Ching, this part of the operation is your baby. We'll do this your way."

With success of Jing-Chel's takedown of the outside guards, the Citadel perimeter was left completely unguarded, wide open to attack by Ching's forces. Jing-Chel transmitted a coded signal to Ching that the battlements and ground level areas outside the buildings were secured. Avenues of approach into the Citadel were now clear. The roof-mounted laser cannon gun crews had been taken out and remote fire control usurped by the battle techs in Ching's tactical van. The laser cannon pivoted about on their gun mounts, aiming into the compound awaiting Ching's targeting and firing commands.

Jing-Chel led elements of his advance party back to the main entrance of the Citadel and ordered the gates swung open to admit Ching's troops. Ching himself led the main assault vanguard. Mark, Jon and Lane were hot on his heels. Ching and Jon had a battle royal over that very issue. Ching had wanted Jon, Lane and Mark to remain safely in the rear. Mark sputtered in apoplectic disbelief that Ching would even think that he and his brothers would remain out of the action. Jon would've preferred that his two brothers remain safely out of harms way. But he knew better than to even ask. If either or both had agreed, it would have weakened Jon's own case for getting in on the action. Jon spoke for all three brothers, demanding that they be allowed to go along.

With a sigh, Ching had capitulated but then set his terms. "You three with me."

They were perfectly happy to comply since this put them in the vanguard. Mark was particularly relieved to be rid of his "watchdogs" for the first time since his arrival on New Krypton. Every man was needed for the assault. No one could be spared for duty as a bodyguard this night.

In Russian, with his mind, Mark called out to Zon-Nor. "We are here, inside the Citadel! Where is your mother and where are you?"

Zon-Nor was beside himself with shock and anguish but also with eager anticipation. He could not believe that, after all these years, the hour of deliverance was finally upon him. He responded immediately, also in Russian. "Mark, my mother and I are being held in adjacent cells in the second level basement beneath the main building at the center of the complex. There is one guard posted outside our cell."

"Is he armed?"

"Yes, but he seems to have NO idea what's going on."

"Can you get to him and get his weapon?"

"No. My mother and I are locked in our cells. The guard is just outside."

"Very well, Zon, keep me apprised of any changes of status down there."

"I will, Mark. And, Mark, thank you for this. Thank you for everything."

"You will have plenty of time to thank me, Zon-Nor. As soon as you and your mother are safely clear of the Citadel, there is something you and I must do. I will explain everything once we have you and your mother safely away."

"I will be ready, Mark."

Mark turned to Ching and described the situation of Zon-Nor's and his mother's confinement.

Ching replied, "This is as I had suspected. The main headquarters building will be our primary objective. We will focus the brunt of our assault there. But we must also secure ourselves from flanking attacks from the other buildings in the complex and we must ensure that our withdrawal is secure. Communication among the buildings, except for telepathy, is being monitored now. As soon as we discern that the men inside the buildings know of our presence we will disrupt their tactical communications. Any counter attacks should be sporadic and uncoordinated."

Mark nodded.

As men continued to emerge from the various buildings, Ching's soldiers took them down. But their luck finally ran out as one of Zel-Tor's men managed to dodge his assailant and duck back into the building. He made for an attack alarm but found it non functional. So he called out to Zel-Tor and his confederates telepathically. The battle was on. Zel-Tor's quarters were immediately adjacent to the Citadel command center. He entered the room and went straight to his command console. It was soon evident that his battle management computer would be useless. He cursed his hubris for allowing this mission critical system to be insinuated into his defenses without a more thorough inspection, but there was no help for it now. With his mind, he alerted all his men that the Citadel was under attack and that all of the outside areas were in the hands of the attackers. He sent a telepathic message to Zon-Nor locked in his cell.

"Zon-Nor, you are to contact Nah-Tsee, our ally in the Council and demand that his men and the army come to our aid. The Citadel is under attack."

At first, Zon-Nor did not respond. Again Zel-Tor called to Zon-Nor with his mind. "This is obviously a rescue attempt. Unless you comply without further delay, I will order the guard outside your cell to kill your mother.

Liana, Zon's mother, heard Zel-Tor's telepathic communication.

She intervened. "Zon, my son. Do not do what he says. If he kills me, he loses his hold on you. With me dead, he would be finished."

Zel-Tor conceded, "Your mother is, of course, right, Zon-Nor. But, as you know, we have measures short of death that we can bring to bear against your little wench of a mother to elicit your cooperation. Unless you do as I say now, Zon-Nor, I will order their immediate implementation. And if I were to conclude that your cooperation is not to be forthcoming after that, well then, your mother will no longer be of any use to me. You do not want me to come to that conclusion, boy."

Liana begged, "Zon, do not give in to Zel-Tor. We have been his slaves for too long. If you give him what he wants, good men will die in the fighting and Zel-Tor will win again. I can endure the pain as I have lo these may years. I can suffer death, but I could not endure the deaths of good men on my account. Please, do not give him what he wants. That would make too many widows and orphans and that I could not bear."

Zon-Nor tried stalling for time. He began to call telepathically to Nah-Tsee, one of his putative political "allies" in the warlord faction of the Council. When Nah-Tsee answered, Zon-Nor began a long-winded narrative of the situation. Zel-Tor interrupted. "Just tell him that we need immediate assistance to stave off this attack and that his men and government troops have your authorization to intervene."

Nah-Tsee communicated directly with Zel-Tor. "Nor Citadel is under attack? Now?"

Zel-Tor answered. "Yes, Lord Nah-Tsee. We need relief forces to come to our assistance and we need it now. Lord Zon-Nor has authorized intervention on our behalf by your men and by central government forces."

"Nah-Tsee offered, "I will summon army troops and I will also send my own men. We will snuff this insolent affront. And when we have done that, we will bring the perpetrators to justice."

Zel-Tor replied. "I thank you and I accept your offer."

Zon-Nor flashed a telepathic warning to Mark. "My friend, Zel-Tor has blackmailed me into calling in reinforcements from Nah-Tsee, another of the Council Members of the warlord faction. I am sorry, Mark. You do not have much time."

Mark responded. "Zon-Nor, if it comes to that, you will have to call them off."

"Mark, if it comes to that, I will do it. I will! But please hurry! If I try to stop them, I am not even sure they will abide by my wishes. The government forces probably would. But what Nah-Tsee and his men might do is anybody's guess. If I ask for government troops to intervene against Nah-Tsee, there could be a blood bath! This is the very thing that must be avoided at all costs. If Nah-Tsee's men do not honor my request to stand down, I beg you and your friends to withdraw. Better that my mother and I should be left to the dubious 'mercies' of Zel-Tor than that good men should die for nothing. My mother and I would be killed in any event and then New Krypton would be thrown into turmoil."

Mark responded, "Just hold on, Zon-Nor. We will be there as quickly as we can."

Mark called with his mind to Tsa-An who answered almost immediately. "Tsa-An, we are inside Nor Citadel, making our way to Zel-Tor's headquarters building where Zon-Nor and his mother are being held against their will. We are trying to get to them for a rescue. Zel-Tor forced Zon-Nor to call to the army and to Lord Nah-Tsee for help to resist our assault. This does not represent Zon- Nor's wishes. He was forced to make this request for assistance under duress."

Tsa-An replied, "I will do all I can, Mark. I can probably stop the army but with Nah-Tsee, I make no guarantees. It will take him some time to mount out reinforcements and to get to Nor Citadel, but I doubt anything could be done to stop him without substantial bloodshed. And even then, the army might not be able to impose its will on Nah-Tsee and his men. His forces are formidable."

"Just do what you can, Tsa-An, and keep me apprised of the army's and Nah-Tsee's troop dispositions."

"That I most certainly can do and I shall."

Mark turned to Ching. "We've got problems. Zel-Tor has called for help from the army and from Lord Nah-Tsee. I've contacted Councilor Tsa-An and he thinks he can stop the army, but he's fairly sure that it's only a matter of time before Nah-Tsee's troops come to relieve Zel-Tor. Zon-Nor does not think Nah-Tsee would back off even if he told him to. He's in fairly tight with Zel-Tor."

Ching nodded grimly. "That would stand to reason. Nah-Tsee would like nothing better than to install Zel-Tor as an "under-Lord" in charge of Lord Nor's estate with him as Zel-Tor's overlord."

"Capo di tutta capi," Mark muttered. "Y'all run this place like the freakin' Mafia."

Ching looked at Mark quizzically. "Never mind. It's stuff about some bad guys from back home. I'll tell yah later."

As they approached the main building, Zel-Tor's troopers began to emerge from the exits at ground level and on the roof. They took aim with their PR-24 pulse rifles and opened fire. Their rifles were not set to stun mode. They were set to kill! Men in Ching's assault formation began dropping like flies.

The assault had bogged down. Mark asked Ching, can't the techies in your tac-van bring those laser cannon to bear on the bad guys?"

"No, Mark. Zel-Tor's men are inside minimum range. The elevation cannot be depressed low enough to engage them as targets."

"We're not gonna make it, Ching. There's too many of them. We've got 'em out-numbered, but not by near enough. They could hold us off all day and all night. This is turning into nothing but a meat grinder. What're we gonna do? Nah-Tsee's men could show up any time. And if we don't get in there and get to Zon and his mom fast, it's gonna be game over for them. Zel-Tor will off them if he sees himself losing control of the situation."

Without consulting Mark, Ching ordered his men to fall back, commanding them to take cover behind the outbuildings away from the central headquarters. "Noooo! Mark screamed. We've gotta press on! We've got no chance if we don't bring this to a head right now. We'll lose everything!"

Kryptonite smart bolts fired from Zel-Tor's defenders were flying all around them. It was a miracle that no one among Ching, Jon, Lane or Mark had been hit. Mark was in a raging frenzy. It took Ching, Jon and Lane to drag him to relative safety behind an outlying blockhouse.

Ching seized Mark by his shoulders and shook him. Presently, Mark came to himself. Ching said to him. "We're not giving up, Mark. We won't abandon your friend and his mother. But this frontal assault isn't working. I won't waste more men's lives when it is obviously hopeless."

"Then what're we gonna do, Ching?

Lane piped up, "What about tunnels? There's always tunnels in places like this aren't there? Maybe we could find our way in that way."

Ching turned to Mark. "Get back in touch with Zon-Nor and ask him. It looks like that's our only shot. Zel-Tor has lost his laser cannon, but he still has shoulder launched anti- aircraft weapons. Landing troops on the roof of the headquarters building is still way too risky."

Within a couple of minutes, Zon-Nor had transmitted telepathically to Mark a layout of the tunnels leading to the headquarters lower basements from the outlying blockhouse. He added, "Mark, my guard has left. Zel-Tor has dragooned every man he has to fight you off. My mother and I are safely under lock and key so he saw no reason not to pull our guard away and into the fighting. Your warriors are obviously wearing down his defenses."

"What about access into the lower basement from the tunnels?"

"I do not know Mark. I do not have a view of that from here."

Liana interjected. She also knew Russian. Over only a few days via telepathy, Zon had conveyed much of his hard earned knowledge of Russian to his mother such that, although she lacked a native's mastery of the language, she was reasonably fluent. "Zon, from my cell, I can just see a tunnel leading into this basement. I can only see part of the entrance, but I've not seen any men there and there do not appear to be any barricades."

Mark answered, "Maybe Zel-Tor thinks that, with the interiors of the out buildings still under his control, he doesn't need to cover the tunnel entrances into his headquarters."

Ching muttered, "He should have pulled everyone back through the tunnels to reinforce the defenders in his headquarters. He's starting to make some mistakes. That is a good sign for us. Mark, Jon, Lane, we're going to enter this out building and secure it. Then, as best we can, we'll slip some reinforcements inside and make our way through the tunnels into the lower basement of Zel- Tor's headquarters to Zon-Nor's confinement cell."

Ching called to the men in a rifle squad who had taken cover behind a low coping alongside the blockhouse. They were returning fire to Zel-Tor's troopers who had them pinned down with suppression fire from their vantage point atop the roof of the headquarters building. The men in the rifle squad dashed from their position to join Ching and his companions behind the blockhouse. Ching briefed them. "We will enter the blockhouse and take out any defenders and make our way to the tunnels below. From there, we will move to the under basement of the main headquarters. This is our prime objective. The young squad leader, Lev, nodded. Sir, we are ready. I will lead the assault. My men will follow. And then you and Lords Zor, Kor and Jal-El. Ching nodded. Mark tried to intervene. "This is MY fight, Ching. I will be first to enter the blockhouse. The young squad leader laid his palm on Mark, shoulder. "Begging your Lordship's pardon, Sir. This is our fight, too. And this is what my men and I have trained for."

Ching added, "Do you not think that I would want to take the lead, Mark? But young squad leader Lev is right. Please, let these men do their jobs."

Grudgingly, Mark conceded. Lev briefed. "You men 'stack' (line up) along the wall to the right. I will shoot the lock, boot open the door and enter. Fire Section Leader Ah-Pom, you will follow and the rest of you men behind. As soon as we are inside, we will form line abreast with at least a three man front, or broader if there is room, and fire our weapons. Make sure your weapons are set to stun, not to kill or sting. We do not know what or whom we will be firing at, if anyone. We do not want to kill any innocents who might be cowering inside, nor can we afford to leave any enemy combatants standing. Keep your eyes open and remember your training. Watch each others' backs. Rao be with us as we fight. Now we are ready to go, Captain Ching."

Ching nodded. Lev shot out the lock, booted open the door and entered. There were two of Zel- Tor's men immediately inside. Lev brought them down. Ah-Pom and another squad member moved in alongside Lev. As they moved down the passageway the remaining squad members, Ching, Mark, Jon and Lane followed behind. Lev called back. "Captain Ching, you and the others will cover the rear as we proceed?"

"Yes, Lev. And I have called more men to secure the entrance to the blockhouse. At least we can be sure none of Zel-Tor's men will approach from behind."

They moved forward. They encountered individual enemy troopers on two more occasions, but felled them both. They moved up to a stairwell door. Lev snapped his fingers. "Ah-Pom take two men with you and clear the stairwell down to second sub level. Report back to me when the way is clear. Watch your corners as you go." Ah-Pom nodded and motioned with his head for two men from his section to follow. As Ah-Pom passed, Lev briefly gripped his shoulder as a gesture of encouragement and comradeship and Ah-Pom nodded in acknowledgement.

There came a muted hissing from the stairwell. There had been an exchange of fire. Ah-Pom reappeared at the stairway entry and grinned. "We ran into a slight 'delay,' but our little 'problem' is fast asleep now. We are 'good to go.'"

Mark registered a double-take and asked, "Ah-Pom, what did you say?"

The young New Krypton Army non-com smiled at Mark, gestured with a thumbs up sign and replied, "'Good to go, sir!' It means,"

Mark interrupted, "I know what it means, Ah-Pom! I just never dreamed that you guys would know those words. And a thumbs-up sign? In the American military, we say "good to go" and signal thumbs up, too, like you just did! I just never expected to see that way the hell out here at the other end of the freakin' galaxy fer cryin' out loud!"

Ah-Pom grinned at Mark, gave him another thumbs up sign and he was off, back down the stairwell. Lev motioned with his head for the men to follow.

There was no resistance the rest of the way through the underground tunnel. They passed through a portal from the tunnel into the lower basement of the headquarters building, and made for the detention cells.

They found Zon-Nor and his mother. The door into the detention area was open. Zon- Nor called to the rescuers from inside his cell. "We are here, Mark!"

Mark approached Zon's cell and ordered him to stand back. "I'm going to shoot the lock." With his pulse rifle, he did so and the door swung open. Next he shot the lock on Liana's cell. For the first time in nearly six years, they were free! Zon-Nor and his mother merged from their cells and embraced. Mark pulled Zon-Nor's shoulder. "There will be time for this later. Right now we have to leave."

As they turned to go, a party of four of Zel-Tor's defenders entered the confinement area and leveled their weapons. It was too late. Mark saw the only thing he could do was to hurl himself between the assailants and Zon-Nor's mother. A lethal Kryptonite energy bolt caught him full in the chest and Mark fell to the floor. Lev and Ah-Pom fired their weapons and dropped all four of the attackers. Zon-Nor, his mother, Jon and Lane knelt beside Mark. An ashen-faced Jon looked up at Ching. "He's breathing, but he is badly wounded. Ching knelt beside Jon. He exclaimed, "He is alive. Mark is alive! He is breathing! Zel-Tor's men have set their weapons to 'kill,' not to 'stun.' He should be dead from that kryptonite energy bolt, but he is alive! Get him up and lets get out of here!"

Jon, Lane, Zon-Nor and Ah-Pom rigged a makeshift stretcher from the bedding in Zon- Nor's cell. They made their way back to the tunnel and back toward the blockhouse at the other end. Ching had called telepathically for an army medical corpsman. The corpsman met them about half way through the tunnel. As the bearers carried Mark, the corpsman kept pace alongside, checking Mark's vital signs as they went. He spoke to Ching. "His vital signs are better than they have any right to be. But we need to get him someplace safe so I can work on him and get him stabilized. And I need another corpsman, now!"

In the New Krypton army, when dealing with wounded, a corpsman's order is law. Not even the most senior commander would dare disregard the directive of a corpsman or of an army field physician.

Ching nodded. Call whomever you need. We need him alive. The Corpsman replied. "Yes sir. How well I know!"

As they arrived at the blockhouse, they were met by a team of combat medics and an army field doctor. After a swift but thorough examination the doctor pronounced. "If we can get him away from here, we can save him. If we can't we won't. I require air medevac if he is to survive."

Ching scowled. "It would be risky."

The doctor retorted. "There is no other hope, Captain Ching. Either we get him to a fully equipped medical facility now or he is lost. Teleportation is out of the question. He could not survive that."

Ching responded by calling to the air transport commander and summoning an assault vehicle into the Citadel. It arrived with two escorts in less than five minutes. Suppressing fire was laid down as the medevac aircraft settled onto the ground and opened its tail ramp to receive passengers. Stretcher-bearers bore Mark aboard. Ching ordered Jon, Lane and Zon-Nor and Liana to board as well. Zon tried to resist. "No, Captain Ching. I must remain. Maybe now that I am free I can persuade Zel-Tor's men to give it up. I will promise them leniency if they surrender."

Ching ordered Lev and Ah-Pom to seize Zon-Nor and drag him aboard the aircraft. He called after them. "I am sorry, Lord Nor, that I must resort to these methods, but I have no time now for debate. You can order these men to lay down their arms from a place of safety, but I cannot risk losing you now."

Lev and Ah-Pom quickly exited the aircraft and it lifted off. Sporadic small arms fire bounced harmlessly off the hull as it flew away with its two escort craft all three blazing return fire at Zel- Tor's defenders.

Ching called out telepathically to his assault force. "Withdraw! Our mission is accomplished. There is no longer any need for us to remain."

An orderly withdrawal proceeded without incident. Sporadic weapons fire was exchanged between Ching and Zel-Tor's men but there were no more casualties on either side.

Ching boarded his aircraft and ordered the pilot to fly him to the New Krypton Army medical facility where Mark, his brothers, Zon-Nor and his mother had been taken. Three more aircraft followed. After a short hop, they touched down on the landing pad atop the medical facility and deplaned. Ching ordered his men to establish a security perimeter about the facility, except for Lev and Ah-Pom. To them, he said "You two, with me."

Ching called telepathically to Jon as he walked across the landing pad to the lift that would take him to the trauma facility at ground level. "How is he?"

Jon answered, "He was badly wounded, but his condition is stable. They're about to place him in a recovery module. The army surgeon has assured me that Mark should realize a full recovery. But he is mystified as to why Mark was not killed. It is obvious he was hit by a lethal, not a stun kryptonite energy bolt. And yet, he has survived."

"Where is Zon-Nor? Ching asked.

Jon replied. "He is with us. He is badly shaken, mostly because Mark has been wounded. But aside from that, he is fine."

"Good! We need him. I will be there momentarily."

Ching entered the anteroom outside Mark's recovery room. He strode up to Jon, Lane, Zon and Liana. Jon spoke. "He's in a recovery module. The doctor expects a full recovery."

Ching laid his hand on Jon's shoulder. "Thank Rao!"

Jon and Lane chimed in "Amen!"

Zon was with his mother in a corner with his face buried in his hands. Jon explained. "He is badly off. He feels terrible that Mark was hurt." Ching stepped over to Zon and Liana. He spoke first to Liana. "Are you alright?"

"Yes, Captain, Ching. Thank you all for coming to rescue us. This day has been a long time in coming. When you first arrived, I honestly could not believe Zon and I were finally free. I cannot thank you and your men enough! And Zor-El and Kor-El and Jal- El. Especially Jal-El! He saved my life! I am so relieved he will recover!"

Ching nodded. "So are we all, Lady Liana!"

She shook her head. "I am not of the nobility, Captain, Ching. I am nothing but a common woman. I am only the mother of a Lord because his father took me by force."

"You are the mother of a Lord, the only surviving parent. By virtue of that, if nothing else, you are a Lady, and, in any event, more of a lady than many among the high born. But how is Zon-Nor?"

Zon-Nor looked up. "Please, Captain Ching. From now on, I am only 'Zon.' I would rather be an unnamed bastard than to claim that blackguard as my father. 'Nor' is not a name of nobility, it is a name of shame. And while I stood by helpless and useless, it was a stranger, not I, who has saved the life of my mother, nearly losing his life in the bargain."

"Do not blame yourself, young man. No one but Jal-El was in any position to do anything. And, providentially, somehow, his life has been spared.

"He is a very big man in a very small frame. I will remain here until he recovers. I must be here when he awakens to thank him for what he has done."

"No Zon. You and Jon and Lane must come with me now. We must go to Government House. From there, we must try to persuade Nah-Tsee to withdraw from your father's Citadel. And then to persuade Zel-Tor's men to surrender. And then, you must support us, Zon-Nor. We are going to overthrow the council, seize power and set up a new republic with one man, one vote. Jal-El has led us to this. Now we must keep faith with his leadership and finish what has been started."

At that moment, Mark, lying in his recovery module regained consciousness. At first, he was disoriented, but, presently, he came to himself. He called out, "Ching! Where am I?"

Ching tapped Zon-Nor on his shoulder, and with his head, motioned to the door leading into Mark's recovery room. Zon-Nor, Liana, Jon and Lane followed Ching into the room.

Mark called to them through the Plexiglas cover of his recovery module. "Get me outta here, Ching! Now! We've got work to do!"

Ching rushed to Mark. "No, young hero. Your work this day is done. We will take it from here. You will remain here where you will recover your strength. You've had a very close call and we are all relieved that you have survived what should have been a fatal shot from a kryptonite pulse rifle!"

Zon-Nor stepped forward. "Jal-El, I have no words adequate to thank you for what you have done for my mother and for me. You've given us our freedom! Something I've never dared hope for has happened. And it was all because of you! And you risked your life to save my mother's."

Mark brushed aside Zon-Nor's heartfelt thanks. "There will be time for all of that later, Zon-Nor. But now is your chance to return the favor. Now I must be freed of this infernal contraption and we must go to Government House. There is something we have to do. I can explain on the way."

Jon moved alongside Zon-Nor. He grinned. "No baby bro. You're not going anywhere. We'll take it from here. You've done your good deed for the day, and given all of us a helluva scare in the bargain. We thought we'd lost yah for minute there, squirt. Don't ever do that again! Yah hear?"

Unmollified Mark demanded. "Jon, Lane, get me outta this thing now! Right now. Get the doc in here to gimme an upper or whatever to get me back on my feet. When this is over I promise I'll come back here and rest and recuperate. But I've gotta be there for the payoff. You've got no right to keep me away."

He attempted to sit up, but was confined by the Plexiglas cover. Mark's pain was bad, but bearable. "C'mon you guys. I'm not playin' around. Get this thing open and lemme outta here!" When no one moved to respond to his bidding, ignoring his pain, Mark began pounding furiously on the Plexiglas from inside.

The duty corpsman heard the commotion and entered the recovery room to investigate. Mark addressed him directly. "Corpsman. As a member of the Governing Council, I demand that you release me from this contraption immediately. I have business of the state to attend to that requires my immediate attention!"

The young army medic was in a quandary. Releasing Mark went against his better judgment, but this was Jal-El! He was a member of the Council. Jon, Lane and Zon-Nor shook their heads. Jon spoke for all three of them. "We are members of the Council as well. He stays here. Leave him where he is. As an army medic, you have the authority to order him to remain confined in his recovery module."

"Sir, even if he were a senior officer, that would be so. But even I cannot override the orders of a member of the Council. If he wants to be released, I have no choice but to let him go. He has invoked matters of state. I have no power to hold him now as all three of you know very well."

Zon-Nor pleaded with the young man. "He will not do anything to you. He is just trying to intimidate you to get what he wants. You know he has no business leaving this medical facility. Please, stand up to the line and protect this raving lunatic from himself."

As Zon-Nor continued his pleading, Mark was raising hell from inside his containment module, banging away at the Plexiglas with his fists and kicking against it with his feet.

The corpsman observed, "Well, frankly, sir, I don't really know what I believe. He doesn't really seem all that badly off to me, from all the fuss he's making. Why don't we just open up the module and have ourselves a look?"

But there was no need, as the corpsman was speaking, Mark had kicked the Plexiglas cover hard and broken the latch. He pushed against it and it swung open. Mark sat up and glared at Ching, his brothers and Zon-Nor. "You guys are dreaming if you think you're leaving me behind. With the Plexiglas cover out of his way, the recovery module amounted to little more than a glorified hospital gurney. He moved his legs over the side. Liana had been silent up until now. But she stepped up to Mark. She curtseyed to him. "My Lord, Jal-El. I understand your desire to go. But you have done enough. You have rescued my son and me. You've held nothing back; not even your life. There is no dishonor in remaining here and allowing your wounds to heal. New Krypton needs your statesmanship and your leadership. But if something happens, if you are injured even more seriously or, please Great Rao forbid, killed, we will be deprived of that. Please, remain here with me. There will be time enough for you to do your duty and we have great need of you."

Mark reached out to the woman. "Lady Liana, I thank you for your concern, but all of my life has been lived to bring me here to this time and place. And I will not remain here, lying on my back while our comrades are fighting. If anything were to happen to me and, rest assured, nothing will, I give you my word. But if it did, you would find a way to carry on."

The corpsman motioned everyone aside and he stepped up to Mark. "Sir, I cannot hold you. You have invoked matters of state, and that overrides even my authority. But I must tell you that, in my professional opinion, it is very inadvisable for you to leave. If you insist upon going, I ask that you allow me to administer some anti-infection medication and some fresh healing balm to your wounds."

Mark acquiesced. As he worked, the corpsman winced and oo'ed and ahh'ed. He commented. "Nasty wound. That will leave an ugly mark. But I will apply a battle dressing to ward off infection and help with the healing. The compress is laced with pain medication. You should be all right as long as you do not go for too long. I recommend you deal with your matters of state and then come back here."

Mark thanked the corpsman and replied. "Once my business at Government House has been attended to, I promise, I will come straight back here."

With his bandages in place, Mark eased himself off his gurney. It was painful at first, but, momentarily, the healing balm, anti-inflammatory agent and painkiller began to do their work. "OK," he asked, "Where's my clothes?"

Lane grinned. "Sorry, lil' bro, they hadda cut off the jump suit. They deep-sixed that. Guess you'll hafta go in your skivvies."

Mark scowled, "Uh huh. And you think I wouldn't if it came to that. But I think my corpsman friend here," Mark patted the shoulder of the medic who'd just administered his bandages, "can fix me up with another one of those jump suits like I had on."

A few minutes later, with some help from the army medic, Mark had been re-outfitted.

Mark exited his recovery room and nodded to Ching. "Give the order to march. Now we go to Government House. It is payday."

The orders were given and the army, reserve and militia units loyal to Ching and to Mark began to converge on Government House. Mark, Ching, Jon, Lane, Jing-Chel, Zon-Nor, Lev and Ah-Pom boarded an Army troop transport aircraft. As they flew to their objective, Mark contacted Tsa-An. "Arrange to convene the council. We are on our way there now. When we arrive, I expect the council to roll over and cede power to our provisional government. You must persuade them this is the only way to avoid a massacre."

Tsa-An replied immediately. "Mark, the diehards have mobilized their own forces and have Government House surrounded by troops loyal to them. Nah-Tsee has diverted his men from Nor Citadel to here and Zel-Tor's troops have joined them. They will arrive here any minute."

Mark answered, "So then, they have abandoned any pretenses. If they are willing to accept Zel-Tor as one of their supporters, there is no longer any pretense of legality. It is simply their faction against ours. You have a weapon?"

"Yes, Mark. And I have it set to stun so I can use it in good conscience. And I have four other members of the Council who have agreed to support us. And, yes, you are right. All members of the council now know what a renegade Zel-Tor is. This is simply the old guard clinging to their power and prerogatives any way they can, no matter what the cost. They have seized control of the building, disarmed the security guards and ejected them."

"What anti-aircraft capabilities do they have, Tsa-An?"

"Only shoulder launched weapons. There is no anti-aircraft battery nor heavy artillery of any kind."

"Can you and your friends make it to the roof?"

"There is no need, Mark. They have told me we are free to leave whenever we wish."

Mark retorted. "Yeah, right. And as you walk away, they'll shoot you in the back. Get your people together and get them to the roof."

Mark reported to Ching and he agreed that an air evacuation was in order. Their aircraft and three escorts would go in. The escort craft would lay down non-lethal suppression fire as the rescue aircraft landed on the roof to take off Tsa-An, his supporters and their staff members. A second rescue aircraft would follow in case of need.

The rescue aircraft settled onto the landing pad on the roof of Government House. There was sporadic small arms fire, but nothing the gunners on board the escort craft couldn't handle. The tail- loading ramp was lowered and Jing-Chel and two squads of commando troopers, one commanded by Lev and the other by Ah-Pom poured out and onto the roof to establish a security perimeter. Tsa-An, four Council members and their staffs emerged onto the roof and, except for Tsa-An, all boarded the aircraft. Mark insisted on remaining behind for the second aircraft as did Tsa-An. There was no time for argument. The ramp tail closed, the first aircraft lifted off. As the second aircraft initiated its approach, a diehard soldier on the ground just outside Government House fired a heat-seeking anti-aircraft weapon. Decoy flares deployed automatically from the rescue aircraft and the lethal energy bolt missed its target. A gunner from one of the escort aircraft felled the enemy soldier who had fired the anti-aircraft weapon. The second rescue aircraft touched down on the landing pad and Mark, Tsa-An, the remainder of their party and Jing-Chel and his commandos boarded. The aircraft took off and departed Government House without further incident.

The aircraft and their escorts returned to Ching's base and landed. In Ching's headquarters, they took stock of the situation. Government House was under control of the enemy faction. Diehard army troops and troopers loyal to Lord Nah-Tsee and to Zel-Tor had ringed the building and stood ready to defend it.

Mark asked, "Ching, what other critical installations are there? The main power installation is one I can think of. What else?"

Ching responded. "Central Army headquarters, including the main armory, Air and Space Command and the Navy yard and central communications facility."

"Then we must have these secured before the diehards get to them. Once we have done that we can surround Government House, cut the power and starve them out. Meanwhile, we will declare the new republic from the central communications facility."

The military installations fell very quickly. Most of the men in these facilities had no particular loyalty to the Governing Council that had done nothing for them and had considered them little more than "cannon fodder." Most of the men, including officers even as high as middle grade, simply, doffed the government flashes from their uniforms and affixed in their stead the red white and blue colors of the revolution. The senior officers, all but one of whom refused to support the revolution, were placed in temporary confinement where they would remain until the position of the revolution had been consolidated. The commander of the Air and Space Command threw his lot in with the revolution and so remained in his post. All aviation and space units immediately joined the revolution.

To Mark's chagrin, the most recalcitrant component of the New Krypton military establishment had been its tiny navy. But it was a very small force. Rebuilding the navy had been the lowest priority of the New Krypton defense force. There had been no hostile maritime forces on New Krypton to contend with, so the navy, barely more than a glorified coast guard, was but a shadow of its mighty Kryptonian predecessor; only a small force of lightly armed flying boats, the largest of which was no larger than a small US Navy frigate. The force commander, Commodore Sen-Lin, was very "old school." His family had belonged to the minor nobility on "old Krypton." Most of the navy men had followed their commander, who, notwithstanding his support for the old regime, had been, nevertheless, a good leader caring for his men and their needs and the needs of their families. More out of loyalty to Commodore Sen-Lin personally than to the Governing Council, virtually every man in the navy supported the old regime, not the revolution. Base security guards and some volunteers from ships' crews had established a security perimeter to hold out the revolutionary forces, but, as a defensive ground force, they were no match for crack New Krypton Army troops. After only token resistance, Commodore Sen-Lin communicated with Captain Ching his wish to avoid further conflict "before some of these kids get killed." Captain Ching gave Commodore Sen- Lin his assurance that, as long as none of his force tried to leave the navy yard, there would be no incursions into their security perimeter by revolutionary forces.

With the navy neutralized, this left only a few die-hard army formations and the warlords and their private armies, hunkered down in Government House.

Ching had tried to persuade Mark to cut a deal with the warlords. He argued that they be allowed to continue to maintain their private armies if they would agree to withhold their support from the old regime. Mark flatly refused. "These men are pirates! No deals! They go down or there is no point to this revolution. Every vestige of the aristocracy's power must be stripped away or we are right back where we started. They will simply bide their time until they are ready and then they will take over. And, frankly, I don't have all that much faith in 'you lot' of Kryptonian forelock-tuggers. Likely as not, you'd cave and let them put you all back in chains."

Ching retorted hotly, "Mark, these men and boys are putting their lives on the line to support this revolution and you!"

Mark shot back, "Yes, Ching, 'and me.' But I would just like to know when was this revolution going to happen if I had never come here? It took an off worlder to get you off your duffs to take what rightly belonged to you all along. So, all in all, I think we'll just make sure that any temptation you people might have to regress is removed now, once and for all!"

Ching persisted, pleading with Mark. "We have a chance at success with no more bloodshed. The warlord's men will have their weapons selected to kill. These boys are willing to die for you, Mark. But please don't squander their lives for your ego. We can have a peaceful transfer of power and then deal with the warlords at our leisure. But to have a chance at that, we must give the warlords an out."

Mark was not nearly as cavalier about the lives that could be lost in case of a full-blown conflict as he would've liked to make Ching believe. He knew Ching could read him like a book and so made no effort to prevaricate. "Ching, I don't like the prospect of more killing and dying any more than you do. But we cannot allow these thugs a chance to withdraw, lick their wounds, regroup and come back at us at a time and place of their choosing. If we do that, we're just postponing the bloodletting. This has to come to a head now. Today. And the warlords, all of them, need to be taken into custody and held in confinement for long prison terms. Their influence must be absolutely crushed if your new republic is to have any chance at all of surviving."

Neither Ching nor Mark were getting anywhere with each other. Finally, Mark suggested, "Well this is supposed to be about establishment of self-government on New Krypton. So, let's put it to a vote."

Ching was taken aback. "We don't vote on such things in our Army, Mark. And I happen to know that you don't in your navy either."

"But in my Navy, we work for civilian authorities elected by the people. Who elected you, Ching, or me? No! We need to run this one by the men. They have to live with the consequences of the decision, either way. So let them get a taste of taking responsibility for governing themselves. That's what this fight is supposed to be all about."

Reluctantly, Ching agreed. The men were assembled. Ching made his case and Mark made his, but offering an "out." "If the warlords agree to surrender peaceably, we will not try them for their crimes against the people. We will permit them to return to their families after a reasonable time of rehabilitation and re-education."

It was Jon and Lane's turn to be taken aback. "'Re-education,' 'rehabilitation? Mark, you're starting to sound like some kind of Stalinist!"

Mark was unmoved. He responded, "Perhaps, but in the words of Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin), 'If we want to bake a cake, we must break some eggs.' I am all for freedom and the will of the people, but I am not a sentimental fool! We cannot afford to coddle our enemies. We must not merely depose these oligarchs. We must crush them; humiliate them. We must neutralize them, totally, both politically and militarily. We'll give them an out. If they surrender peaceably, we will 'de-Nazify' them and release them to go on with their lives. If they do not surrender, we must do whatever it takes to neutralize them and make sure they can never influence the political equation out here on New Krypton ever again. These Kryptonians, all of them, not just the oligarchs, must come to terms with their crimes against our people and understand and accept the horror of what they did to us on Earth thirty years ago. They must acknowledge their obligation to make sure it never ever happens again. If this place is ruled by a small elite, the people can hide behind their rulers and dodge their own responsibility. But if the people rule, then they will have no excuse. They will be compelled to come to grips with what was done to us in Metropolis and Smallville.

Lane, Jon, Ching, Jing-Chel, Zon-Nor, Tsa-An, Lev and Ah-Pom, all of them were stung by the bitterness in Mark's indictment of the people of New Krypton. Gently, Lane suggested, "Mark, you're here helping to lead the people of this world, the people of our father in a revolution to gain their freedom. Don't you think it is time to finally let that go?"

Mark rasped, "Never! I will never forget! Never!" And then he intoned the watch worlds of the Terran world wide SEOP Command. "Nothing will be forgotten. No one will be forgotten."

Sadly, Zon-Nor rested his palm on Mark's shoulder. "As much as has happened, Mark; as well as you've come to know us, how can it be that you are still so afraid of us? Do you not know how you have come to be regarded by most of the people in this world? Do you not realize that, given the chance, we would elect you as our leader? We would never tolerate anyone from among our people raising a hand against the people of Earth. The Terrans are the people of your mother! The mother of you, Mark, our deliverer; The mother of the father of our freedom!"

Mark laid his palm on the back of Zon-Nor's hand. "I am sorry, my friend, if what I have said sounds harsh. But you just don't know what they did to us; how they brutalized and terrorized and humiliated and murdered us."

Zon replied. "But I do Mark. More than even you know. I have lived with their boots on my neck and on the neck of my mother for all these years. Yes, Mark, I know. I know what it means to be a human being who is treated as less than a dog. As a boy with no name and no father to claim me, I lived with that even before Zel-Tor kidnapped my mother and me. And you have my word, no matter how this vote goes with the men. Those warlords and their minions will never be allowed to harm any of your people or ours ever again. You saved the life of my mother, Mark and nearly lost your own life in the bargain. Now I pledge to you on my life, we will never let that happen. We will never forget. We will remember and we will honor and we will mourn your dead as our own. They are yours and you are ours. And so they are our own. We won't let anyone seduce us into regarding the people of Earth as something other than or, Rao forbid, less than ourselves. I hope you believe me when I tell you that, Mark."

Mark looked up at Zon-Nor. "I believe that you believe it. We shall just have to see how this all plays out. I hope for all our sakes that we are successful. I am confident of our military success. We have all but seized power already. The forces of the old regime are too weak to stop us. But the oligarchy has controlled your people for generations. And you have all accepted their dominion with the bovine passivity of Russian peasants. The elites will not give up their power so easily. They have been in control for so long. Your republic will be very fragile, at least in the beginning. There are many opportunities for failure: either a renascence of the oligarchy or a descent into Jacobin terror. Your people, Zon, cannot afford to be small any longer. If you do not embrace your citizenship and assume responsibility to nurture it, you will lose this new republic. And we on Earth will lose everything. I cannot hide my apprehension, Zon-Nor, nor my resentment over what has been done to my people, how brutally we have been violated. Just as I know you must carry your wounds; and your mother's!" Zon-Nor replied, "I will not forget what has been done by the warlords and oligarchs to us, Mark; or to your people. But I won't give in to fear and I won't let go of my faith in the future or in my people or, so help me Rao, in you Mark."

Solemnly, Mark nodded. "That will have to do for now, Zon-Nor."

Ching and Mark had made their cases to the men. There were questions and discussion. The men were, at first, unaccustomed to being consulted on decisions such as this: "Should the warlords be permitted to keep their private armies or should the men fight, if need be, to disarm and neutralize them, even at the risk of more killing and dying." But soon the men embraced their voices and newfound political power with alacrity. Their questions were incisive and the discussion lively but very civil among the differing points of view. Mark had insisted that this be a secret ballot so that the men could be assured of voting their conscience without fear or undue pressure.

The decision, "The warlords would be disarmed. But there would be no 're-education' or 'incarceration' or 'detention' if they surrendered peacefully. Embracing his freedom to voice his views, one bright-eyed young soldier had argued, "Even the oligarchs and warlords will be citizens of our new republic. And, if they are citizens, right or wrong, they have the right to believe as they choose. They even have the right to be wrong!" Mark was overcome with awe as the young lad concluded, "And, even though I disagree with them, I for one am willing to defend their rights with my life."

Profoundly moved by this young man's powerful words, words so familiar to Americans, but brand new in the political discourse of New Krypton, Mark turned to Zon-Nor and, said, "You people might just manage to bring this whole thing off!" Zon-Nor, who, like Tsa-An and Ching, was an avid student of Terran and especially American history just grinned.

Ching and a small detachment escorted Mark, Tsa-An, Jon, Lane and Zon-Nor to the central communications facility. The installation had been left completely unguarded. The staff relinquished control to Mark and his friends with no resistance. They remained at their posts as Mark broadcast to the people: "The Governing Council has fallen! All power to the Continental Army of New Krypton!"

Mark went on to announce that free elections with universal adult suffrage would be held within half a year and that the care taker government would cede power as soon as the newly elected government was ready to take office, right after the election. The Congress would first function as a constitutional convention and then as the legislative body for the new republic.

The public announcement had taken almost no one by surprise. But, nevertheless, popular demonstrations of celebration were quite beyond anyone's anticipation. Crowds of wildly enthusiastic people poured into the streets. Very quickly, song sheets, printed with the words of patriotic and freedom songs from America and other nations of Earth were distributed and sung by the joyous crowds. It was with some bemusement that Mark discovered among the people's favorites was the old socialist anthem, "The Internationale!" but also "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." "An interesting juxtaposition, Mark mused wryly."

There was still Government House to be dealt with. A large contingent from the Continental Army, including regular army, reserves and peoples' militia, converged on Government House, still under firm control of the hard-line faction of the Governing Council, the warlords and their small private armies and diehard formations of the New Krypton Army.

Mark and his comrades in the revolutionary leadership were flown by military air transport to a makeshift landing zone near Government House. They deplaned and strode to the security perimeter that the diehards had established around Government House. A young perimeter guard sprang to attention, bowed to Mark and waited for him to speak. Without preamble, Mark spoke to the young man.

"Tell your leaders, we demand your immediate surrender to the Continental Army of New Krypton. You will lay down your arms and exit the premises with your hands up. You will be well treated and no harm will come to any of you who cooperate. We will wait one hour. Then we will mount an assault. You are too weak to resist and you have no hope of relief from any quarter. The government you support has fallen. The Continental Army of the new Republic is now the government of New Krypton 'by right of arms.' Any further resistance is no longer soldiers fighting in support of the government, but rebels in armed insurrection. Anyone who fails to surrender and submit to the new government will be regarded as a common criminal and anyone who causes harm to come to any of our soldiers as we move to assume our rightful control of these premises will be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law. Tell your leaders you have one hour from now." Mark consulted his New Kryptonian wristwatch. "Then we will attack. Tell this to your leaders."

The young soldier reassumed a position of rigid attention, bowed to Mark and replied, "Yes, Lord Jal-El."

The boy turned to go. Mark took hold of his elbow to stop him. He looked quizzically at Mark who explained, "I am not 'Lord Jal-El.' All hereditary titles of the nobility are abolished. There is no more aristocracy. Thanks to the soldiers and militia of the Continental Army, you need not bow to any man. I am 'Citizen Jal-El or, if you prefer, simply 'Jal-El.'"

By his expression and his emotions, Mark could easily sense that this young warrior was quickly being won over to the revolution. That had been Mark's intent. The government soldier nodded. "Yes, Citizen Jal-El. I will pass your message along to my superiors."

Mark asked him, "And what is your name, soldier?"

Mildly surprised that Mark would even care what his name was, the boy answered, "Sir, I am Trooper Jiang-Li."

Mark nodded and smiled. "Thank you, Citizen Jiang-Li. It is good to meet you! When you are done with your errand, come and join us!"

The boy smiled back "Yes, Citizen Jal-El! I shall."

Within no more than ten minutes, soldiers, including Trooper Jiang-Li, began streaming out of the Government House perimeter with their hands up. Revolutionary Army soldiers quickly searched them for weapons and, finding none, directed them to a processing area where they were given the option of joining the Continental Army or returning to their homes. Many opted to join the revolution. Most of the men who surrendered were non-ranked soldiers or low ranking non- commissioned officers. Now all who remained were the more seniorarmy non-comms, their officers, old guard members of the Governing Council and the warlords and their troopers. None of these had opted to give up.

Mark met with his friends. "We have another decision to make. The diehards remaining inside Government House have refused to surrender. We could leave them there and try to starve them out. If we do, until they give up or starve, they remain an armed and potentially dangerous force in being that other opponents of the Republic might be tempted to rally around. I do not believe we can afford to take the chance of leaving them there. But if we try to go in and root them out, some of these kids are going to die! As you wanted, Ching, our weapons are selected to stun mode, but not theirs… not theirs. I think our best option is simply to obliterate the entire building. They have made their choice. Let them be the ones to die. I do not want any more unnecessary bloodshed on our side. These kids will go in there if we ask them to. But why should we? We have a choice. Not a very attractive choice, to be sure; but, nevertheless a very clear choice. Either our kids die or they do. This is a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned."

Ching answered. "I think this is another question for the men."

Mark retorted. "The men are drunk with their freedom and idealism. They would vote to go in as you know full well. They would do anything you asked them to."

"No, Mark, not anything. The men would not level Government House, even if you or I ordered them to. They would choose to die themselves before permitting you or me to level Government House. Because they would rather die themselves than to kill the adversary when there exists a possibility of overpowering them with less than lethal force. But you are wrong if you think this is some new value they have only just embraced because of this revolution. It is a time-honored tradition of the Krypton Army that lethal force is never used when effective non-lethal force is available instead to achieve our military objectives. How do you think it came to be that our soldiers' weapons were designed so we can disable 'lethal mode?' The men would never permit you to level Government House. We must go in and root out the diehards, one by one. We will give those men, as many as we can, another opportunity to surrender. And, failing that, we will do our utmost to bring down any holdouts without killing or harming them. That is our way, Mark. Deal with it."

Mark snapped. "It was not 'your way' in Metropolis or in Smallville."

Ching sighed. In English he said, "That again, Mark? No, in Metropolis and Smallville, that was not our way. Those men were renegades who in no way represent the combat tactics or traditions of our Army. If you are going to contend with me over this, at least do not be disingenuous. That was a cheap shot and you know it. But just because I know that you know better, that doesn't mean what you said didn't hurt. Zon-Nor spoke for all of us when he told you we would mourn your dead in Metropolis and Smallville, Mark. We will. We will not forget them. We will not permit our children to forget what was done to them by our renegades. Those atrocities are a blot on our national honor and we will never allow anyone from our society to perpetrate such suffering on anyone, ever again. Such brutality violates the values of any human civilization. But if we are to make good on that commitment to the people of Earth and to ourselves, we must start here. If we cannot show mercy and forbearance to our adversaries here at home; if this new republic does not, from the very beginning, value all human life, as your father does, unconditionally; in the long run, Son, Earth is doomed, New Krypton is doomed, and everything is lost for all of us! My men and I are going into Government House and even if it kills some of us, we are going to do everything in our power to bring out alive and unharmed as many of those men holed up in there as we can. I do not expect you to come in with us, Mark. You've done more than anyone in this world has any right to ask. But I stand here and beg you for your understanding."

Thoroughly chastened, Mark put his head down. He mumbled. "Then I will follow you as you lead the assault on Government House."

"No Mark. You will not. You have done too much already. This revolution is already won. And this is our fight now. Not yours. You cannot pretend to care about those men in Government House who represent everything you loathe and distrust here on New Krypton. It is one thing to place your life at risk for something you believe in, but not for this; and you are wounded. You've promised to return to the medical facility to recuperate. The time for that is now."

"Yeah, right, Ching. I think you know me better than that. I promised to go back when this is over, which it isn't. And yes, I will go in there with you, not for those men in Government House, but to be there with our men. I will not allow them to go in harm's way while I remain safely behind."

Ching cocked his head and looked askance at Mark, but he knew very well that there was no chance of dissuading him so he did not even try.

The men who had surrendered, when they were told of Ching's desperate plan to try to avoid further bloodshed, provided the Continental Army battle staff with good solid intelligence. The Government House defenders had no heavy artillery, only small arms. There had been no time for the old guard to marshal stronger defenses on such short notice. Trooper Jiang-Li and some of his comrades offered to go in with Ching's men to try to talk the holdouts into giving up.

Approximately two hours after sunset, Jing-Chel led a small two-squad vanguard to the battlement wall, five meters high, surrounding the Government House grounds. Their approach was covered by null silencers with recorded ambient background noise piped over tiny but powerful directional ultra high-fidelity loud speakers, covering the attendant sound void left by the null silencers. Jing- Chel's men could not hide from night vision goggles or even an ordinary pair of eyeballs adjusted to the low light conditions of the night. The heavy overcast helped some. Fortunately, their approach had been undetected. A member of Jing-Chel's demolition team placed a shaped charge against the exterior wall. Once the charge had been placed, Jing-Chel and his explosive-demolition team withdrew as quietly as they had come.

The assault team was ready. On Ching's signal, the charge was detonated and men of the Continental Army stormed through the breach into the Government House security perimeter. Resistance was light. There was some exchange of fire but there were no casualties on either side. The few defenders remaining outside Government House were quickly overcome or driven inside by the attackers. New Krypton Air Force close air support aircraft hovered over the Government House roof as their door gunners drove defending troopers from their vantage points in the upper floor windows with non-lethal but effective pulse weapon small arms fire.

With the outside perimeter now unguarded, Jing-Chel was able to lead an advance assault party into the Government House compound through the main gate. Ground strafing fire from Ching's close air support aircraft had driven the holdouts into the building. Jing-Chel reported to Ching that the main entrance into the grounds was secure. A heavily armed ground assault vehicle was called forward. Mark observed with mild surprise that it did not appear to be particularly high-tech. Not some kind of floating or flying military conveyance. The vehicle closely resembled a Russian Army BTR armored troop carrier. The Kryptonian counterpart rode on eight large solid rubber tires, four on each side. But the differential gravity field nullification drive, used for steering and propulsion was unlike anything on earth. By neutralizing gravitational attraction from one direction, the vehicle was quite literally pulled by gravity in the opposite direction. It could leap across ditches or even narrow streams, notwithstanding that, strictly speaking, this was not a flying machine. Its main armament was a single large kryptonite-directed energy cannon in a swivel turret mounted atop the vehicle. Four smaller kryptonite armor-piercing directed energy weapons afforded supplemental firepower. The reactive armor plating could neutralize all but the most powerful artillery or air to ground weaponry in the New Krypton arsenal. The vehicle's greatest vulnerability was the wheels. But, in order to immobilize it, no fewer than three of the four wheels on a side must be blown off. Government House defenders had no weaponry at hand even remotely capable of disabling Ching's armored troop carriers. Each vehicle carried twelve soldiers, composing a combat squad, plus two crewmen, a driver and a gunner.

An armored assault vehicle entered the compound. Small arms fire from defenders who had returned to the upper floor windows of Government House bounced harmlessly off the armor plate. Suppressing fire was again laid down, this time, by the armored vehicle's laser cannon. Low hovering Air Force close support aircraft added their firepower, their gunners shooting through windows in the building, forcing defenders to back away and take cover. Presently, the armored vehicle bumped up the front steps and nosed into the heavy bronze doors, knocking them off their hinges. The tail ramp was lowered and a dozen troopers, with Squad Leader Lev in the lead, exited the vehicle and stormed through the entrance. The tail ramp was closed and the vehicle backed down the steps, only to be replaced by another. A second squad, led by Ah-Pom, dismounted and rushed into the building to join Lev and his men. There were no defenders in the main lobby of the building. Ah-Pom's men secured the doorways on the ground floor as Lev and his men ascended the stair to the second floor mezzanine. Within minutes the main lobby was secure. Lev called to Jing-Chel. "Lobby all secure, sir. Ah-Pom's squad has ground floor secured and my men have second level mezzanine secure."

Jing-Chel replied, "Very well, Lev! Good work!"

More armored vehicles entered the compound and, one after the other, they disgorged their troopers into the building. Revolutionary army troopers began a room-by-room search of the building, ferreting out the last of the supporters of the old regime. Some surrendered and were escorted out of the building under guard and taken away to a temporary detention area. Those who did not were felled with non-lethal stun bolts from the troopers' kryptonite pulse rifles.

Mark had his own agenda. He wanted Zel-Tor. He found Jiang-Li with Ah-Pom and his men in a small office not far from the main entrance lobby. The young trooper grinned at Mark, giving him a thumbs up sign. (He had been well briefed by Ah-Pom!) Mark replied with a smile and his own thumbs up. Then Jiang-Li "signed" to Mark with yet another gesture, this one uniquely Kryptonian and among Kryptonians, unique to military men. With the thumb end of his right hand, Jiang-Li, tapped his left breast twice above his heart.

As Ching had been touched by Mark's spontaneous hand salute aboard the shuttle craft just prior to their departure from Earth orbit; so now Mark had been touched by Jiang-Li's gesture of comradeship. As was the custom, Mark returned the gesture to Jiang-Li, who smiled broadly at his response. Mark had observed this gesture among the troops before, several times, and had questioned Ching about it.

Ching smiled as he explained. "I see you've picked up on 'the tap.' In some ways it is like your hand salute, but less formal. And, yet, it is also less casual. This is not a routine greeting like your hand salute back on Earth. 'The tap' is never given as a casual gesture. It is a sign of deep respect to be sure. But, even more, it is a sign of comradeship or friendship and of trust. It has never been formally promulgated by military authority. No one remembers how it got started. But it originated from the rank and file, not from 'the brass.' No Kryptonian military man would ever 'tap' insincerely. As empaths, we would know and that would be received as a very grave personal affront. If a man taps to you, he is saying in effect, 'I've got your back and I know you've got mine.'"

Mark had been momentarily overcome by Jiang-Li's gesture. This was clearly not the sucking up of a junior ranking soldier to one of the higher ups. Mark could sense this young Kryptonian warrior's sincere reaching out in friendship. To himself he mused, "And to think I had myself convinced that these New Kryptonians have no grid for comradeship like we have in my squadron in USS Nimitz! Dad was so right when he said that most of these folks out here are good and decent people. How could I have doubted him?"

Mark snapped out of his reverie. He took Jiang-Li aside and questioned him regarding Zel-Tor's whereabouts in the building. Jiang-Li replied. "Zel-Tor and his men have barricaded themselves in the secretariat wing. I do not believe they will give up without a fight. But I am willing to go in and try to persuade them to come out and surrender." Mark shook his head. "And likely as not, get yourself killed in the bargain. No, I don't think so. But I will need you to make a drawing of the layout of that section of the building if you know it."

The boy answered, "But, sir, Captain Ching would have that layout among his tactical maps."

Mark said nothing. Jiang-Li was very fast on the uptake. "Oh, so you do not wish him to know. There is something in this particular part of the struggle that is personal to you."

Mark did not answer, but neither did he deny. Jiang-Li continued. "Sir, yes sir." And then he proceeded to describe the layout of the secretariat wing for Mark, amplifying his description with a roughly drawn floor plan, scrawled on a scrap of paper he'd appropriated from a nearby clerical desk. "Citizen Jal-El, this drawing may not be exactly to scale, but it is close enough for your needs. I will come with you and squad leader Ah-Pom. He and his men will come too."

Mark shook his head. "No, Citizen Jiang-Li, I will deal with this myself. You remain here with Ah- Pom and his squad. I want no one with me on this particular undertaking. I will handle Zel-Tor myself."

Jiang-Li started to protest, but a withering glare from Mark silenced him. A lifetime of forelock tugging and conditioned submission to aristocrats was too much for the young lad to overcome. But he was also a warrior. Although he could not bring himself to defy Mark directly, he was not above doing so behind his back. He went to Ah-Pom and explained the situation. "He would not let me go with him. But we must follow him from a distance. He means to take on Zel-Tor and all his men alone! He must have a death wish! We cannot let him kill himself like this!"

Ah-Pom laid his palm on Jiang-Li's shoulder. "We will not, Jiang-Li. We will follow Jal-El from a distance. And we will have my friend Lev and his men with us too. I have called to them with my mind and they are coming to join us. Thank you, Jiang-Li for taking the initiative to come to me.!"

Mark scuttled down a deserted corridor, making his way to the secretariat wing where Zel-Tor and his men had barricaded themselves. He turned a corner and saw the barricade! Overturned office furnishings had been stacked across the passageway as a makeshift barrier. A kryptonite directed energy bolt flashed past his right ear. Mark ignored it, firing his own weapon as he walked. He dropped one of two defenders with a single punishing but non-lethal shot. Just as Jiang-Li, Ah- Pom, Lev and their squad mates rounded the corner from the adjoining corridor, the fallen defender's companion returned fire catching Mark square in the chest. He fell yet again, for the second time that day. All three, Jiang-Li, Lev and Ah-Pom fired non-lethal bursts at Mark's assailant who fell to the floor. They rushed forward and knelt alongside Mark's unconscious body. He had been knocked down by the power of the lethal blast, but, miraculously, again, he had not been killed. Momentarily, he revived and soon was fully alert. He staggered a little unsteadily to his feet. Although the power of the kryptonite directed energy bolt had knocked Mark down and momentarily unconscious, the horribly disruptive effects of the kryptonite radiation seemed to have little effect. It was the kinetic force of the energy bolt, not the toxicity of the kryptonite that seemed to be the primary affect this weapon had on him. All three young Kryptonian soldiers were profoundly relieved but very mystified that Mark had survived the second such shot in a single day. Ah-Pom was first to speak. "Jal-El! Are you all right?"

Mark, still a little woozy shook himself out and then nodded. "Yes, Ah-Pom, I think so. I really think so!"

Lev knelt alongside the downed enemy shooter, picked up his pulse rifle and examined it. He verified that the weapon had been set to lethal mode. He stood up. "Sir," he said to Mark, "You realize this man's weapon was selected to kill, not stun. Even if the weapon had been set on stun, you should be unconscious for at least a couple of hours. And, given your wound from earlier today, you really should be in hospital, not here fighting with us. And yet, you are alive and not only alive, but conscious and ambulatory! Apparently, you are not affected by the kryptonite. Or, if you are, perhaps you are affected more like a Terran than like we Kryptonians."

Mark nodded. "You may be right, Ah-Pom. No way to be sure, but it does seem possible. I wonder how a normal Terran would fare against your weapons?"

Mark turned and moved to climb over the barricade. Lev and Ah-Pom reached out and stopped him. Lev asked, "Where do you think you're going, Mark?" (Lev had pointedly used "Mark," not "Jal-El", bespeaking an intimacy and familiarity he would not have dared only hours ago.)

Mark, replied simply, "I have business with these "gentlemen. And I am going to take care of business with these men right now."

Ah-Pom joined in. "Not without us you're not."

Jiang-Li, emboldened and taking his cue from Lev and Ah-Pom agreed. "Right. We go with you."

Telepathically, Lev had called to Jing-Chel. "We need troopers at the entry to the secretariat wing, now! Jal-El is on the move and he's insisting on going into Zel-Tor's lair by himself. Ah-Pom, Jiang-Li and I are with him. But he will not wait for long. If you are not here soon, we will either have to physically restrain him or the three of us will go in with him."

Jing-Chel answered back. "Stall him if you can. Restrain him if you must. I will be right there!"

The three troopers were obliged to restrain him. He had demanded that he be allowed to go in alone and that the three troopers and their squad mates remain behind. Lev, speaking for himself, Ah- Pom and Jiang-Li laid down the law. "You are not going anywhere until Lieutenant Jing-Chel arrives with reinforcements."

Mark had tried to bolt but the three troopers had him under control after a brief scuffle. Jing-Chel arrived and seeing the men struggling with Mark stepped in and pulled them off. He seized Mark and pinned him against the wall. "What is this, Jal-El? Are you insane? Or do you have a death wish? You are not even supposed to be here. You belong in hospital not here, making a fool of yourself and placing my troopers in needless jeopardy."

Lev said to Jing-Chel, "Mark was hit full on in the chest by a lethal kryptonite directed energy bolt."

Impatiently, Jing-Chel snapped, "Yes, yes, I know, in the holding cells at Nor Citadel."

"Sir, no sir. I meant here just now! And I have examined the enemy weapon. I have verified that the mode selector was set to kill, not to stun! We think he may have some resistance to Kryptonite radiation. He is half Terran. Maybe that has something to do with it."

Mark interrupted, "Well, whatever. We can unravel the mystery later. But, evidently there's something about these pulse rifles that has less effect on me than on the rest of you. So, I will take the lead. Lets go find Zel-Tor. I want a piece of his ass!"

Jing-Chel had tried to argue Mark down, but Lev, Ah-Pom and Jiang-Li intervened. Lev offered. "Sir, Mark does not seem any the worse for wear. I know that does not make sense, but there it is. And this time, when that trooper shot him, it had less affect than last time. Yes, the energy bolt knocked him down and knocked him out. But he recovered very quickly and now, it is obvious he seems just fine."

It was Zel-Tor who resolved this "debate."

He and several of his henchmen came strolling toward them down the corridor behind the barricade. They were armed, but their approach was not threatening in any way. Presently Zel-Tor called out. "Jal-El, it is you! You are the man I want. I have a proposition for you if you are willing to listen."

Jing-Chel muttered. "Stay alert. All of you! I do not trust this man."

Mark replied. "Come forward, Zel-Tor. We will not shoot unless you do."

Zel-Tor and his men approached the barricade from their side. He spoke. "Jal-El, I challenge you to the mortal combat which should have taken place between you and that sniveling cowardly traitorous bastard son of Lord Nor's. If he will not defend the honor of House Nor, then I will stand as his champion."

Mark snorted. "Zon-Nor is a 'bastard?' I would have supposed that it is you who was misbegotten! As for being his 'champion,' more like his nemesis. The things you and your thugs have done to that poor lad and his mother. How can you stand to look at yourself the mirror when you shave each morning?"

Zel-Tor laughed heartily. "Quite easily. The boy and his mother are nothing. He is a miserable weakling, unworthy offspring of a great and powerful warrior. His mother is less than nothing. A common wench!"

Mark shot back. "Mind your tongue, commoner. You dare speak ill of a titled aristocrat and his mother?"

Zel-Tor laughed again. "But I heard you and your traitorous lackeys have abolished all titles of nobility."

"Touché', Citizen Zel-Tor" Mark answered sarcastically. "So, you want to go against me, one on one?"

Zel-Tor nodded. "And if you prevail, my men will surrender peaceably and you may do with them as you wish. But, if I prevail, your lackeys will release me, my men, and the other warlords and their men. And we will return peaceably to our compounds."

Mark answered with an emphatic "No!" "You are surrounded. Escape is impossible. And you and your men will, of course not be allowed to regain control of Nor Citadel. All such property now belongs to the state. You and your men, those of you who choose to surrender, will be disarmed and removed from this place. Then you will be free to go on with your lives. But if you continue to resist and any harm comes to any of our men as a result, you will all be accomplices to murder and you will be held accountable as the criminals you and I both know all of you are."

Zel-Tor taunted. "Are you a man of no honor? And are you so afraid of losing that you will not enter into a gentleman's wager with me?"

Mark narrowed his eyes at Zel-Tor. "You speak to me of 'honor?' You do not know the meaning of the word. You are a liar, a kidnapper, a thief, a murderer, a rapist and a traitor; in short, an all around thug, and a common thug, at that. You are incapable of entering into a 'gentleman's wager,' because you are, by no stretch of the imagination a gentleman. But if it is satisfaction you want," Mark shifted from Kryptonese to English, "…sure bubba, let's you an' me git it on!"

A wry smile played across Ah-Pom's lips. In Kryptonese he explained to Zel-Tor. "He means he wants a piece of your ass!"

Jing-Chel intervened. "This insanity has gone far enough! There will be no fight. Zel-Tor, you and your men will surrender quietly. You and they will not be harmed. No, you cannot have control of the Nor Citadel. It was never yours by right anyway. It belonged to Zon-Nor, not to you. Now it is, as Jal-El has said, property of the state. But you will be free to live peaceably in this society. No reprisals will be taken against you if you go forward from now on as peaceful and law abiding citizens."

In Kryptonese Mark replied, "I will fight you, Zel-Tor. And, since you have called me out, we will fight with a blade. One blade. We will fight each other for it. The winner will be the man who wrests control of the blade from the loser. And then the winner may use it on the loser."

Zel-Tor grimaced at Mark. "I have misjudged you, off worlder. You have a diabolical imagination. Under different circumstances, I might even have come to like you."

Mark muttered, "I could imagine no such circumstance."

Zel-Tor laughed. "Enough of this! Let us, as you said "git it on?"

Jing-Chel seized Mark by his shoulders and looked into his eyes. "Mark, please! Don't do this!"

Mark looked back at Jing-Chel. His eyes burned with rage and seething hatred ofZel-Tor. He shoved Jing-Chel out of his way and turned to face Zel-Tor. He drew out his combat knife, hefted it momentarily and cast it down. It landed about half way between himself and Zel-Tor. He smiled menacingly at Zel-Tor who removed his own combat belt, with sheathed combat knife and cast it aside. He motioned to Mark with all four fingers of his right hand to come. Mark lunged not for the knife but straight at Zel-Tor. Zel-Tor dodged and landed a wicked blow to the back of Mark's neck. Mark fell to the floor, face down. Zel-Tor quickly leapt over Mark and retrieved the combat knife. Ah-Pom screamed, "Mark!" Mark remained prone, motionless as Zel-Tor approached a bit too cautiously. Telepathically, Jiang-Li communicated Zel-Tor's approach to Mark. At just the right moment, Jiang-Li called to Mark with his mind, "Now!"

In a single fluid motion, gymnast and martial arts expert that he was, Mark catapulted off the floor from the prone position into a combat stance from whence he launched a murderous kick into the side of Zel-Tor's head. Zel-Tor spun completely around and lost his grip on the knife that went flying across the corridor where it landed at Jiang-Li's feet. With his voice, Jiang-Li called, "Mark!"

Mark glanced at Jiang-Li and, then at the knife, then shook his head. In English, Mark said, "Oh no. I'm not gonna cut him. I am just gonna kick his freakin' ass. Mark dove onto the dazed Zel-Tor, knocking him flat on his back. He unleashed his rage and hatred in a brutal torrent of punches full in the face first from one side and then the other. Finally, Zon-Nor reached down and pulled Mark off Zel-Tor's unconscious body. Jing-Chel had called to him telepathically and he'd just arrived.

Mark was by now physically exhausted, having poured the last measure of his energy into the merciless beating he had given Zel-Tor. He had wanted to beat the life out of him with his bare hands. Zon-Nor was bigger and stronger than Mark and not at the end of his rope as Mark clearly was. With some effort, he managed to subdue Mark and hold him fast. "No, Mark. No more! Leave him alone. He is defeated and, now that you have done this to him, he has lost face in front of his men. He has lost their allegiance. They will not follow him any more. It's over, Mark. All this is finally over."


Chapter 15 Aftermath

Presently, Ching, Jon and Lane drew up alongside Jing-Chel and Zon-Nor.

Mark truly was physically and emotionally spent. He slumped between Zon-Nor and Jing-Chel who steadied him on his feet. A platoon of Contintental Army troopers arrived and took Zel-Tor's men into custody. A team of Army medics laid Zel-Tor on a stretcher and carted him away.

Ching ordered Jing-Chel and Zon-Nor to help Mark outside to an army transport aircraft for the flight back to the military hospital. Ra-Chel, Zara, Lena, Sila and Liana would be waiting there.

Mark was still a physical and emotional wreck. The kryptonite energy bolt had not seriously injured him, but he had been weakened somewhat by the shot and by his physical exertion in his brief fight with Zel-Tor. And, now that the fighting was over, there was something of an emotional letdown for Mark.

There still was much work to be done. It would fall to Mark to organize a caretaker government. He would be expected to serve as its interim leader, something he had no intention whatever of doing. Ching would perform that function. Mark would appoint his brothers, Jon and Lane, Jing-Chel, Zon-Nor, Tsa-An and his allies on the now defunct Governing Council, as well as Lev, Ah-Pom and Jiang-Li as members of the provisional governing junta. He had considered appointing Zara and Liana as members of the junta as well. But this idea he dismissed as too radical. New Krypton was a very patriarchical society. He would leave it to the people to institute any such social reforms as women's equality. He would, however, mandate universal adult suffrage in the upcoming elections. It would be up to the women of New Krypton to take it from there.

Once everything was in place, Mark would ask to be returned to Earth. He saw no reason to remain once the junta had been stood up and assumed control and free elections had been scheduled. He could return to Earth and to USS Nimitz. So far, he had been away no more than three weeks, including the transit time from Earth to New Krypton. The challenge of explaining where he'd been and what he'd been doing should not be all that much of an issue if he could get under way for Earth within the next two or three days.

The military aircraft hovered briefly above the medical facility before touching down on the landing pad. The men made their way inside to rejoin their women folk. By this time, Mark had recovered at least some of his strength. Ra-Chel spied her man, ran to him, throwing herself into his arms. He kissed her tenderly and murmured, "I kept my promise. Ra-Chel. I came back."

Ra-Chel did not answer. She just kissed him and held him tight as she wept her tears of joy. Gently, Mark swept his fingers across Ra-Chel's cheeks. He said nothing, just held her and comforted her in his embrace. She started to speak, but he shushed her. "I know," he said to her. "I know. It's over now, Ra-Chel. And everyone has come back safe. I have to leave you for just a little while. The physicians want to have a look at me. This shouldn't take too long. And I'll come straight back here when they're done with me."

Rachel nodded and smiled. I'll be right here."

Mark was escorted to an examination room for a thorough checkup. The attending physician could find nothing wrong aside from his physical exhaustion and the scar left on his chest by the first kryptonite energy bolt at Nor Citadel. The duty physician ordered a corpsman to redress the wound and left the outpatient treatment clinic.

A few minutes later, a second army physician arrived and performed his own cursory examination. The army surgeon general had been informed that, not one, but two hits from supposedly lethal kryptonite smart bolts had failed to kill Mark. He ordered a battery of tests, and body scans. The examining physician's hand held scanning device rendered a real-time holographic image. Blood and urine samples were taken, as well as a small tissue scraping both from the area of Mark's chest wound and some unaffected healthy tissue. The results came back quickly. Although substantially Kryptonian in physiology, Mark was not entirely so. He retained the vestige of a Terran's resistance to kryptonite radiation. Although not completely harmless, kryptonite was not nearly so harmful to Mark, as to other Kryptonians. The army surgeon general requested tissue samples from Jon and Lane. Perhaps they too were similarly resistant to kryptonite. In short order, tentative results came back. Although not as resistant to kryptonite as Mark, it appeared that their physiology too differed somewhat from that of purebred Kryptonians. For some reason, Terran-Kryptonian hybrid humans, even if endowed with Kryptonian physiology, enjoyed greater resistance to kryptonite than a typical Kryptonian. Not, it was supposed, as great as that of a normal Terran. Somewhere in between Kryptonians and Terrans, perhaps. New Kryptonian genetic "engineers" would focus their research on ways to impart this aspect of Terran physiology to their own people. Kryptonian medical science already had in hand the technology to impart essentially Kryptonian physiology to a normal Terran. Mark had already been a beneficiary of this technology. So why not devise means of impartation of the physiological advantages of Terrans to Kryptonians?

Mark was released from the Army Medical facility with strict orders to get a full night's bed rest. He'd had no intention of complying, but Ching was firm. "Everything will wait until morning. The tactical situation is stabilized. All major pockets of resistance to the revolution have been overcome. Our forces are in control everywhere. And now even the navy has agreed to support the revolution. You can rest assured, Mark, the battle has been won. You've led our people to freedom and overcome those among us who might've risen up against the people of Earth. Tomorrow, we will move forward with our plans for political organization of the new republic. But tonight, you, all of you, will come home with me to eat and rest."

Ching's house was far from the largest or most luxurious in New Krypton's capital city. But it was a substantial upper middle-class home with plenty of room. Mark, Jon and Lane and Zon-Nor sat with Ching and Jing Chel, speaking of their plans for the following day when Ra-Chel called them to supper. After the meal, briefly, the men returned to their deliberations. But it was Ra-Chel who intervened. She entered the room and imperiously, brooking no argument, ordered her man to bed. Meekly, Mark complied, allowing himself to be led to a guest-sleeping chamber where he spent the night in dreamless sleep. The next morning, Ching led Mark, Jon, Lane and Zon-Nor to Government House, where they met with Tsa-An and his political allies from the now defunct Governing Council, and Lev, Ah-Pom and Jiang-Li. Mark had insisted that the three young soldiers who had put their lives on the line to fight for the new republic must participate in the organizational deliberations. Mark argued, "There must be representation from the rank and file. There is no time for an election of ad hoc deputies, so we shall just have to choose. Who better to represent the revolutionary fighters than Lev, Ah- Pom and Jiang-Li?"

These men who would function as an interim governing "junta" met in a moderate sized conference room situated just a few steps down a corridor and across from the entrance to the Governing Council chamber. It was formally agreed among the junta members that free elections for "Congress" and a President would be held within half a year. The Congress would be unicameral. The relatively small size of the New Krypton population was such that a full-blown upper house made very little sense. The President and his cabinet would function as something of an "Upper House," although no legislation could originate in the cabinet. All legislation would originate on the floor of the lower house. There would be no Vice-President. Instead, the number two official in the executive branch of government would be a Prime Minister elected by the Congress from among their number. Although this was something of a compromise of the principle of separation of powers, "checks and balances" remained in place since the executive and legislative branches each had their spoon in the other's "rice bowl." The President would nominate the judges, subject to approval of a majority of the cabinet and confirmation by majority vote of Congress. Although the New Krypton constitutional system was not a carbon copy of the US constitutional model, its construct was guided by the same basic principles. However the US Bill of Rights was decreed verbatim. There had been some question over the provision taken from the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. "There being the need of a well-regulated militia, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed."

Zon-Nor, Tsa-An and Ching argued that an armed population could lead to untoward violence. Zon-Nor complained, "We've had enough of violence and enough of weapons. We must do away with all means of violence."

Tsa-An concurred without reservation. Ching agreed but qualified his agreement insisting that the military and law enforcement must be armed in the interests of national defense and civil order.

Mark countered, "The words in the Second Amendment of my country's Constitution are important; all of them. And every clause speaks directly to your political situation on New Krypton here and now."

He continued, "There needs be 'a well-regulated militia.' That is, as our Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Macciavelli said, 'a well-regulated militia' refers to a population well educated and trained in the art of critical thinking. A population with the will and the means to take up arms against a tyrannical state, brigands or invasion from outside the nation; and the discernment to know when such action is called for and when it is not. You can no longer tolerate monopoly of weapons by the warlords and the state. The Second Amendment has been America's 'hedge' against tyranny and it remains so to this day."

Zon-Nor answered, "But we cannot afford to leave weapons lying around in every home. Some demagogue could stir up the people over some seeming grievance or other when non-violent means are at hand to resolve the dispute. Innocent people could die for nothing."

Tsa-An agreed emphatically. "Jal-El, this provision is a terrible mistake. We cannot allow the people to have these dangerous weapons. Too many innocents might die."

Mark was unmoved and unbending. "This is what is meant by 'a well regulated militia!' Machiavelli and our founding fathers in America understood that an armed civilian population must be well educated. They cannot be like the 'Yahoos' and 'Lilliputians' in 'Gulliver's Travels.' A 'well regulated militia' is NOT a lynch mob.' For any part of the constitutional republican model of governance to work properly, the people must be educated and their culture must inculcate high moral and ethical values. This especially, the intrinsic value of human life, must be paramount. If the population is armed but under-educated, your new republic will devolve into Jacobin terror!"

The provision was allowed to remain over Tsa-An and Zon-Nor's dissent. They resolved to try to organize the people for its repeal.

It had been Mark who had conceived the architecture of the government of New Krypton. But it was clear that all of this was provisional, in order to form the basis of early elections of public officials. When the first New Krypton Congress convened, it would constitute a Constitutional Convention. Then, once the Constitution was enacted by two-thirds vote, Congress would begin its function as the legislature of the New Krypton republic. The Congress, in its role as a Constitutional Convention, would, of course, be free to restructure the government however it wished. Mark's intention was not so much to impose his own view of how the government ought to be organized; but rather, the interim structures had been put into place in order to have something to form the basis of government immediately and free elections within half a year.


Chapter 16 Questions

It was Ching who broached the subject. "You will, of course, run for President, Mark."

Mark's answer was as emphatic as it was immediate. "No! I will not! I have done my duty here. The war is over. Now I want to go home."

There was a very long silence. Very softly, Jiang-Li said, "No. Jal-El, Mark, we are only getting started with all this. We need you to guide us as we learn the art of governing ourselves."

Mark was touched by Jiang-Li and Ching's confidence, but he was not moved to change his mind. "Jiang-Li, you will learn by doing. But now my duty is to my country. I owe the Navy six years for my pilot training."

Jing-Chel retorted, "Mark, serving as an aviator in your navy is an honorable profession. But America has so many young men to serve as fighter pilots. We have only one of you. Surely your navy could spare you. We need you a lot worse than they do."

Ching, Jon, Lane, Ah-Pom, Lev, Jiang-Li, Zon-Nor and Tsa-An all agreed enthusiastically.

"I'm honored by your confidence in me. But, hey, I'm only 25. I'm a jet pilot, not a statesman. Ching, there is no one more qualified than you to run the show here. You will run for President. And all of you must stand ready either to run for Congress or to serve as state ministers in President Ching's cabinet."

Ching looked at Mark. "You're asking us to go forward on our own without the participation of the father of our revolution. It would be like the infant American republic trying to go forward with someone other than George Washington as your first President!"

Mark retorted. "The United States declared independence in July 1776. It really wasn't an accomplished fact until the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781. Washington was not inaugurated as our first President until 1789! Perhaps I might come back to New Krypton one day, after the flush of this revolution is over. And then, if the people still want me, maybe I might agree to serve in some capacity or other. Then I would be older and more mature. But all of you know my weaknesses as well as my strengths. I could not possibly handle the job of chief executive today. It is one thing to broker a revolution. It is quite another to govern fairly and effectively. What New Krypton needs is a man. But * I * am not that man.

Mark looked to Tsa-An. "You must support Ching. And you must use your contacts and your influence to help get him elected as your first President. And you must agree to serve as his senior cabinet secretary, the prime minister. And the rest of you must be prepared to serve either in Congress or in President Ching's cabinet. And you must try to encourage others whom you trust to run for office as well. You will make mistakes. That is part of the process. You will find that self- government is messy, inefficient and very frustrating. In the long run, our revolutionary leader and later President, Thomas Jefferson, was right. People get the kind of government they deserve. And it will be true of you as well. Use your education system to teach more than mere 'facts.' Have your schools train your children as citizens! If you will do that, you and your new republic will do just fine."

Mark continued, "Now, as for me, I am ready to go home. I regard each of you as a dear friend and, even more, as my family. You've all made me very proud of my Kryptonian heritage. And, as you all know very well, I did not feel that way when I first got here. But now I must go back to America and fulfill my service obligation to the Navy. Not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because, if I don't this could cause problems for my parents back home."

Ching spoke for them all. "Mark, we think you're making a mistake. Surely, your father could find a way to get you released from your obligation to the Navy. If need be, perhaps we could help him. If you don't want to serve as President, then you could accept some other post for now. But you could do so much more with us than you could back on Earth, even as the super man you would become once you returned there."

Mark did not share with Ching or with the others that he had no intention of remaining a super man once he returned to Earth. He would hold his father to their bargain and require that he be restored to "normal."

Mark leveled his gaze at Ching. "I just want to go home."

Ching sighed. "I've had my say. I don't agree with your decision, Mark, but I'll honor it and we will lay on a star ship mission to get you back home. We can make that happen fairly quickly. No more than a day will be required to plan for the transit. Can you be ready to leave by tomorrow?"

Mark replied. "I am ready now, Ching. And now, gentlemen, my work here is done. If you will excuse me, I'll let you get back to your deliberations. You have an interim government to run."

Mark rose to go. But before he moved to the door, he was surrounded by his friends, each of whom embraced him in turn. As he felt his emotions welling up inside, he thought to himself. "This is harder than I thought. I'm almost sorry to be leaving. I almost wish I were staying." But he refused to consider the possibility that perhaps he'd had a complete change of heart; that perhaps now, like Jon and Lane, New Krypton was where he belonged, where he'd really found his niche in life.

He had saved Jon and Lane for last. He spoke first. "I'm really gonna miss you guys. Yah sure you don't wanna come back home?"

Jon smiled a little sadly. "We're sure gonna miss you too, lil bro. But, no, this is home for Lane and me now. And at the risk of beating a dead horse, it's home for you, too, Mark. You won't find more love and respect back on Earth than you have with us right here. But, hey, you need to find this out for yourself. I just want you to make Lane and me a promise."

Mark asked. "Well, OK. What?"

Jon looked Mark in the eye. "When, notice I said 'when,' not 'if.' "When, you realize that going back to Earth was a mistake, I want you to promise me that you won't let anything like wounded pride keep you from admitting to yourself that you've made the wrong choice. You're twenty-five. You're not that much younger than Lane or me. But when you're twenty-five, you sometimes don't know your own heart and mind." Jon grinned. "Hell, sometimes you're still learning things about yourself when you're eighty-five! But, Mark, I want you to promise me that, when the time comes, you'll just admit your mistake and come back home."

Mark smiled. "No danger of that, big bro. I know what I'm doing. And there won't be any regrets."

Jon seized his brother by his shoulders. "Mark, I just want you to promise me. Promise me!"

Mark smiled again at his big brother. "OK, Jon. I promise. If I ever come to see my decision to go back," Mark paused, "home, was a mistake, I promise I'll try to find a way to get back out here."

Jon nodded gravely. He didn't smile back. "Just tell Dad. He'll make the arrangements." Lane asked, "You're gonna make Dad change you back, aren't yah, Mark."

Mark nodded. "Yeah, soon as I get home. I'll have him take me straight to the Fortress and change me back first thing."

Lane shook his head. "I wish you'd at least reconsider that. I think Dad could probably use the help. Now that Jon and I have decided to stay out here, I know that, in a way, Dad has got to be disappointed. He always thought Jon and I would be there to assume 'the mantle' for him. But now, hey, Mark, you could be there for him."

Mark shook his head. "I can't do that Lane. In the first place, a big part of the reason I'm going back is the Navy. I'm a lifer. If I had super powers that would all come out at my first annual flight physical. How would I explain to the flight surgeon why the needle he tried to stick into me for vaccines or to draw a sample for a blood test wouldn't go through my super hard skin? And how would I explain why my chest x-rays were just a white 'shadow?' Then Mom and Dad's secret would be blown."

"Believe me, Lane. I've considered all the angles. Going back and just picking up with my normal life is the only viable option for me."

A little ruefully, Lane grasped his brother's shoulders and looked into his eyes. "Whatever you decide, Mark. Yah know Jon and I love you, don'tcha li'l bro."

Mark smiled back. "Sure, Lane. And I love you and Jon too. Luv yah both to pieces!"

Mark excused himself and left the conference room.

He went directly from Government House to his quarters. A couple of hours later, there came a knock at the door. Mark answered. It was Ching.

"Why did you come back here, Mark. I thought you would be coming home. Ra-Chel and Zara have been worried about you. I just came here on the off chance I might find you here, mainly because I wasn't sure where else to look. Why didn't you come home?"

Mark sighed. "I intended to. And I will before I leave. Of course, I wanna say 'goodbye' to Zara and to Ra-Chel."

Ching asked, "'Goodbye?' To Ra-Chel?"

Mark answered, "Well, yes. What else would I say?"

A little exasperated, Ching said, "Mark, my daughter is hopelessly in love with you. And I happen to know for a fact you are just as crazy in love with her. You don't even need to be an empath or a telepath to know that. The signals from you and Ra-Chel are unmistakable. And Zara and I should know. That's how we feel about each other!"

Mark shook his head. "That's not enough, Ching. That's all just emotion. It could never work. How can I ask Ra-Chel to leave the only world she's ever known? How can I ask her to abandon her family? How can you allow your daughter to be taken away from her home world, from you for the rest of her life?"

Ching looked back at Mark. "Not easily, to be sure. I love my little girl so much it hurts. But from the day she was born, I've known this day would come. When * I * would no longer be in first place as the man in her life. I knew that, one day, a young man would come along and steal her heart. Every day of Ra-Chel's life, I've prayed to Rao that when that day came, he would be a good man. Mark, I've prayed for my daughter and for her future man every day. Now, come to find out, that man is you. How do you ask her to go with you? In the name of Rao, boy, you just ask! You and I both know what her answer will be. She would follow you anywhere, Mark, even into the jaws of hell! Will she be sad to leave her mother and me and her brother and her friends? Yes! Of course! But what would become of her if she remained here on New Krypton after you left? I am her father, Mark. Letting Ra-Chel go is probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But keeping her here would be the only thing I could think of that would be harder. I want my daughter to be happy. And, Rao help me, Mark, I want you to be happy. I know it is a very hackneyed saying on your world, but I really do feel that I've not lost my daughter. I've gained a son. I've come to regard you as much my son as Jing-Chel. And I want my 'son' and my daughter to be happy. And that cannot happen, Mark, unless you ask her to go with you!"

Mark looked up at Ching. "I am worthy, neither of your daughter's love, nor of her father's approval…"

Ching cut him off. "Mark, you are in many ways such a strong young man. But, just like the rest of us, you have your weaknesses. One of them is that you've persuaded yourself that you do not deserve to be happy; that, somehow, you've fallen short and that, because of it, happiness can never be your portion. But, come on, Mark! You've never fallen short of your father's expectations or anyone else's but your own. Great Rao, Son, you've just led our revolution here on New Krypton! Your father was always proud of you, Mark. But when he and your mother hear what you've done, they'll both be over the moon, they'll be so proud of you! If anyone has a right to be happy, you do! Don't you think I know something about feeling 'unworthy?' Ra-Chel's mother was an aristocrat! I am a lowly commoner! There was no way she and I could be married and Zara and I had just accepted that. That is, we did until we met Lois and Clark! They persuaded Zara and me to "break the mold" of hidebound Kryptonian class distinctions. And it wasn't just about your dad's wish to marry Lois instead of Zara. Lois told Zara and me that she and Clark could never be completely happy in their marriage unless they knew Zara and I were together too. By then, Clark was so disillusioned and disgusted with Kryptonian society that he had no compunction bucking our traditions. But most important, Mark, your mom and dad just wanted Zara and me to be happy. They made our happiness their personal concern. And now, Mark… now I am going to return the favor! Now gather up all your things and come home with me. You won't be coming back here."

After the evening meal, Mark walked with Ra-Chel to a small neighborhood park nearby and proposed. He was frank. "My world is a backwater compared to what you've been used to and relatively primitive. It is not what you're accustomed to. And there will be long periods of separation. I am a Navy man and intend to remain so. And there would be extended periods of time when you would be alone: no one around whom you know. You would be starting over, Ra-Chel. There would be other Navy wives, of course, in the same situation as you. And, as a Navy dependent you would have some support services. But, by and large, much of the time, you would be on your own. You must consider all this carefully. And there is one more thing. On Earth, you know what would happen to you. Are you sure you would want to live like that?"

Ra-Chel answered. "We'll be in that together, Mark. And, even when we are apart, we will be 'together.' I don't make light of these other issues, but we'll get past all of that. What about those other Navy wives? It would be no worse for me. Do you think I do not understand the implications of being a military wife? My father is a soldier and my brother. My mother is a military wife." Ra- Chel smiled. "You might be surprise at how well I adapt to life as your 'Navy wife.'"

Mark answered. "But we will not be, as you said, 'in it together,' Ra-Chel. Not with the powers you will have on Earth. I was not born like my father or my brothers. I did not have powers like they did. I was born as an ordinary Terran. I've never known any other life. I did not know about my father or my brothers until just before I came here. On Earth, my father has two identities. Until the day I left to come here, I did not know that my father, Clark Kent, was one and the same man as Kal-El, whom we Terrans know as "Superman." Nor did I know that my brothers were also super men. I was never told any of that until just before I left Earth to come here."

Ra-Chel was aghast. "Your father never told you? Oh, Mark. I am so sorry." She paused. "Yes, now I understand. Now I understand why you were so suspicious and so afraid of us when you first came here. Until only shortly before, you'd had no idea you are, in fact, one of us! It must have been very disorienting. I cannot imagine your father meant to hurt you, Mark. But I must say, I believe his decision not to tell you was very wrong."

Mark nodded. "Yes, it was. And, today, he would be the first to agree with you. But, as you said, he meant well, even though he was wrong. I made my mistakes with him as well. But when I return to Earth, Ra-Chel, I will have my father restore me to normal. At least normal for me."

"Can he do this for me as well?"

"I really don't know, Ra-Chel, but he wouldn't. I couldn't allow that. To cripple you and take away from you what is rightfully yours by birth? It is part of who you are."

Emphatically, Ra-Chel shook her head. "Mark, my mother renounced her position in the Kryptonian aristocracy to marry my father. It could have been argued that was part of who she was. But what she chose for herself was to be my father's bride. That was where her happiness and her joy of life lay. And you are where my happiness lies. I want nothing more than to be your wife, Mark. And to be the mother of your children."

Mark smiled and teased. "No career? Do not say that too loudly. Where I come from, that view prevailed at one time. But it is no longer in vogue."

Ra-Chel nuzzled Mark and then kissed him. Then she said. "No career. Only your Navy wife and the mother of your sons."

"No daughters?" Mark mock pouted. "But I want a little girl."

Ra-Chel smiled. "If so, I know she'll turn out to be what you Americans call "a tomboy.'"

"Bite your tongue, lady! She will be my little princess!" Mark laughed.

"But, seriously, Ra-Chel, on Earth, you would have super powers, like my father but I will not. I will be transformed back into a normal Terran as soon as we arrive on Earth. But I cannot allow that to be done to you. It would be up to you where you go from there. But I will not permit you to be artificially crippled by that machine."

"But why must you be changed, Mark? Why not leave things as they are?"

"Because, I owe the Navy at least another six years of my life to pay them back for my pilot training. And I was hoping to make the Navy my career. And Navy flight physicals are very thorough. They would find out about me. And then my secret, as well as my father's would be blown. Mom and Dad have gone to great lengths to protect that secret. And it's not gonna be blown because of me."

Ra-Chel nodded. "I see, Mark. And I understand. Of course I'll abide by your wishes. But your father; he helps people with his powers. Surely you would not expect me to ignore people in distress. I couldn't do that, Mark. I just couldn't. I would have to intervene if I were able."

"You will not hear any complaints from me on that account, Ra-Chel. And I will do all I can to help you. There will be times when you will have to leave suddenly; to slip away. My mother often covers for my dad. Today, in hindsight, I see that she did that many times for my father. Even I was fooled. When we are together and you must get away, just signal to me discretely and I will cover for you just as my mother does for my dad. I am sure my dad can give you some pointers. He's done that since he was in his teens."

Ra-Chel looked at Mark expectantly. Mark wasn't quite sure what she was asking with her eyes. But then, realizing his error of omission, he laughed and said. "Oh, by the way, Ra-Chel, will you marry me?"

As she answered with a passionate kiss, Mark reflected to himself, "Ra-Chel is definitely the romantic between us."

As they broke their prolonged kiss, Mark asked "Well?"

Laughing merrily, Ra-Chel playfully boxed his chest. "Of course, you silly boy! Of course I will marry you and, and go away with you and bear you a house full of strong lusty boys. And we will live happily together, you and I, ever after."

"Now let's go tell Mamma and Pappa." Arm in arm, they walked back to Ching's house.

The next morning, they were married in a small chapel, by a priest of Rao. It was a simple but moving ceremony. In attendance were Ra-Chel's parents and her brother, Jing-Chel, Jon and Lane and their fiancés, Sila and Lena, Zon-Nor and his mother, Liana, Tsa-An, Lev, Ah-Pom and Jiang- Li. The men had drawn lots for the honor to bear the wedding bands and the honor fell to Jiang-Li. When the Priest called for the wedding bands, as Jiang-Li stepped forward, Mark caught his eye and lightly "tapped" his left breast with his right fist. Jiang-Li got all misty eyed, as he grasped the wristbands in his left hand. He grinned at Mark and tapped his left breast with his right fist. Then, solemnly, he bowed low and handed the wristbands to the Priest who responded to Jiang-Li with a smile and a slight nod of the head. The priest turned around, faced the altar, and held up the wristbands. In archaic Kryptonese, he intoned a blessing on this union. Then he turned and faced Mark and Ra-Chel. First, he asked Mark, "Jal-El, Matthew Mark Kent, do you take this woman, forsaking all others, taking her freely and of your own accord as your wife, to be wedded to her according to the mandates of our Lord, Rao, known to you, my son, as The God of Abraham?"

Mark answered, "Yes I do."

Then the priest asked Ra-Chel who also answered that she did.

The priest presented the wedding bands to the couple, placing the groom's band in Ra- Chel's right hand and the bride's in Mark's. Mark placed Ra-Chel's band on her wrist and spoke the ancient wedding vows. "Ra-Chel, with this band, a sign of our bond and our love, I give to you and you alone my heart, my body and my soul, all that I have and all that I am. No longer am I my own. From this day forward, I am yours and yours alone. I am your companion, your partner, your champion, your helpmate, your confidant and your bondservant, in everything, for better or worse. I will never leave you or forsake you. This I promise before you, Ra-Chel, these witnesses here assembled and before God, for as long as I have the breath of life."

As Ra-Chel placed Mark's band on his wrist, she particularly emphasized the phrase, "No longer am I my own! From this day forward, I am yours and yours alone!" She had spoken to Mark, not only with her voice but also with her mind. Through their telepathic link, which she had established between them, she poured her love and devotion into Mark. Ra-Chel had made it abundantly clear to her man that her words were not mere intonations, mandated by ancient tradition. She had spoken from her heart and she had meant every word.

That afternoon, Mark and Ra-Chel were shuttled to the star ship overhead in low planetary orbit. Before boarding the shuttle, there were emotional "goodbyes" between Mark and his brothers and friends and Ra-Chel and her friends and family.

Ching's 'goodbye' to his daughter was emotional and protracted. He whispered fatherly endearments to her as well as words of encouragement before her embarkation for the transit to Earth and a new life in a new world.

As Ching embraced Mark, he said, "I know my daughter is in good hands with you, Mark. I'm so sorry to see you go. A day will not pass that you are not in my thoughts and my prayers. But go you must. Both of you, go with Rao."

Zara was too overcome with emotion to speak, either with her voice or with her mind. She hugged first Mark and then Ra-Chel and then hurried to her husband's side.

Jing-Chel hugged first Mark and then Ra-Chel. He too was a bit weepy and shaky. He had known this day would come, when the family would begin to break apart as he and his sister went their separate ways. For Jing-Chel, the first chapter of his life was now undeniably over. Never again would his father's home be Ra-Chel's home. If ever she slept another night there, it would be as a guest. Smiling through his tears, he said to Ra- Chel and Mark. "This is a lot harder than I thought! But come home at least for a visit, both of you! Never forget, New Krypton is your home too!"

Tsa-An and Zon-Nor embraced first Mark and then Ra-Chel. Tsa-An smiled at Mark. It's not too late, you know. You could still change your mind."

Zon-Nor concurred. "You could make such a wonderful contribution here. You've done so much, but there's so much yet to do. Why not stay and be a part of that with us?"

Mark smiled. "A part of me would rather stay. But it really is imperative that I return to America. I have obligations there that I cannot evade."

Tsa-An sighed and then he said, "Then go, Mark. Go with Rao."

Zon-Nor added. "Yes, Mark, go with Rao!"

Lev, Ah-Pom and Jiang-Li refused to say "good bye" to Mark and Ra-Chel. Instead, they had spoken the traditional Kryptonian farewell, "Zhazdloyitsa puviensham!" ("We will meet again!")

Lev grinned at Mark as he spoke for himself and for his friends, Ah- Pom and Jiang-Li. "Mark, we three disagree with your decision to leave us, as you know very well. And we have agreed among ourselves that you will not stay away from us for long. Soon, you both will come to understand that your place is with us, here on New Krypton, with the people who love you and honor you. America is, we are confident, a lovely country, but your home is here. You will both come to see that soon enough. We three have made bets among us, as to when you will call for the star ship to bring you back home. We do not need to hope for this. We already know it will happen. We know you will call us sooner or later." Lev grinned. "As for what I hope, I only hope I win this little wager with Ah-Pom and Jiang-Li as to how long before you return!"

As Mark laughed, he and Lev embraced and then Mark and Ah-Pom and then Mark and Jiang-Li. And then Mark, Lev, Ah-Pom and Jiang-Li chorused "Zhazdloyitsa puviensham!"

Mark turned to Jon and Lane. Jon spoke. "I wish we could make the transit with you and Ra-Chel, but it's probably best if we remain here. There's much work to be done between now and the election. I just wish you'd change your mind."

Mark sighed. "You know why I must leave. We've been over this."

Jon nodded and said, "Yeah, Mark. Just 'wishes and maybes,' I guess."

Lane said to Mark, "Give Mom and Dad our love. When things settle down here, after the election, we'll come home for a visit. We'll get married there. Mom and Dad missed your wedding to Ra- Chel. Least we can do is let them be a part of ours!"

Mark embraced first Lane and then Jon. Jon and Lane both embraced Ra-Chel in turn. Then Mark and Ra-Chel boarded the shuttle for the short flight to rendezvous with the star ship orbiting overhead.

The transit from New Krypton to Earth's solar system was uneventful. The vessel assumed a position along the Martian orbital track in direct alignment with Earth. The ship uncloaked briefly as the shuttlecraft exited the hangar bay. Once the shuttlecraft was clear, the pilot engaged the shuttle's cloaking device.

As a SEOP mission pilot, Mark knew very well the capabilities of the SEOP sensor system. He had not been privy to the recent change in the rules of engagement. This had happened after his departure from Earth for New Krypton, indeed as a result of that very event. But he would not have been surprised. Fully aware that, once the shuttle uncloaked, it would be visible on radar, and fully aware of the ability of the SEOP sensor grid to track him and Ra-Chel in flight, he had briefed the shuttle pilot. "When you uncloak, Ra-Chel and I must be transported outside immediately. And then, just as soon as we are clear, you must re-engage your cloaking device and leave. The entire evolution from uncloaking to your departure from orbit should take no more than thirty seconds." The pilot nodded as he repeated Mark's instructions.

Mark added. "Make sure that procedure is followed in case anyone from New Krypton comes to Earth."

The pilot replied. "Yes, sir. I will."

Mark handed a holo-disk to the pilot. "These are my verbal instructions on the flight profile that any of you must employ between the shuttle and the surface. You must not deviate from these instructions for any reason. This is a matter of life and death. I've made that clear on the holo-disk, but not the reason for it. That is a military secret of my country. Just follow the flight profile on that disk and you should be fine. If you don't, whoever does not will die, and he or she would also be responsible for the deaths of others."

The pilot nodded emphatically. "Yes sir, Citizen Jal-El! I will relay your instructions!"

A short time later, the pilot entered the passenger cabin from the cockpit. "Sir, we will enter Earth orbit in about five minutes. When you are ready, we will uncloak and transport you outside."

Mark nodded. As soon as you see us from your cockpit window, re-engage cloaking and leave Earth orbit immediately."

"Yes sir!"

Mark turned to Ra-Chel and asked. "Are you ready for this?"

She smiled and squeezed his hand. "Yes, Mark. I am ready. I can't wait to meet your mother and father!"

With his mind, Mark called out to his dad. "We are here, Dad. We've almost entered Earth orbit. May we meet you at the Fortress?"

Clark responded immediately. "Mark! Son! Oh my God! You're home! Yes! Can you make your own way there or do you need me to rendezvous with the shuttle and guide you?"

Mark responded. "No worries, Dad. We'll find it."

Clark shot back, "We?"

"I have a little, um, 'surprise' for you and Mom. And it sure would be nice if you could have her with you at the Fortress."

Clark replied. "We're both at work. We'll take a long lunch."

Mark answered back "A very long lunch."

Again the pilot entered the cabin. "Citizen Jal-El, we have entered Earth orbit. I will disengage cloaking and transport you both outside on your command."

Mark turned to Ra-Chel. "This is it, hon. Take a deep breath and follow me. We'll make our way directly to the surface as rapidly as we can. Just stay with me. When we get to the surface, we'll fly 'nap of the earth' to my Dad's 'Fortress of Solitude.'"

Ra-Chel asked, "But why not just fly direct?"

Mark snapped "Just do it my way, Rachel. I need your cooperation right now, not cross- examination or debate."

Stung by Mark's unexpectedly harsh tone, she hastened to mollify him. "OK, Mark. Whatever you say."

Mark immediately regretted his outburst. "I'm sorry Ra-Chel. I shouldn't have bitten your head off like that. But, please, understand. I'm all keyed up right now. And I really need you stick close to me and be prepared to react very quickly if I tell you to do something. If I do ask you to do something, it will be for a very good reason and I probably wouldn't have the time for explanations. The people of Earth think the world of my dad, as Superman. But no one, especially the militaries of the world, has forgotten Lord Nor's 'visit' some thirty years ago. And they are still paranoid as hell. Discretion is the better part of valor right now. We need to figure out a way to break the news of your arrival on Earth so they don't go freakin' ape-spit and do God knows what."

Rachel squeezed Mark's hand and smiled. "It's all right, my love. I understand."

Mark squeezed back, nodded to the pilot and said. "We are ready. Thanks for the lift."

The pilot nodded and returned to the cockpit.

Mark turned to Ra-Chel. "Take a deep breath."

They found themselves floating in front of the shuttle. They waved to the pilot who waved back. Momentarily, the shuttle dissolved into invisibility. Mark dove for the surface, Ra-Chel following right behind. After a near vertical drop from Earth orbit, followed by a terrain hugging flight to the Fortress, they ascended to the point, fifteen meters above the ground from whence they were automatically teleported inside. They materialized and then descended to the floor.

Lois and Clark were waiting for them.

They were both all over Mark. First Lois. "Mark! Oh Mark!" She hugged him tight and kissed his forehead. "Welcome home, baby."

Mark hugged back. "I missed you, Mom."

Clark pulled his son into a bear hug. My boy is home! Oh, Mark, it's so good to see you home, safe and sound. And who is this lovely young lady?"

Mark smiled at Lois and Clark. "Mom, Dad, I'd like to introduce you to Mrs. 'Rachel' Kent."

Lois exclaimed. "Mark! My baby! Married?"

Clark spoke to Mark's bride. "Hi Rachel, I'm Clark. Welcome to the family!"

Rachel smiled. "I've heard so much about you, Clark. My mom and dad have told my brother Jing- Chel and me about you and Lois since we were kids. I feel like I've known you both all my life."

Clark grinned broadly as the realization came. "Ahhh… Ra-Chel! You're Ching and Zara's daughter!"

She smiled. "Yes!"

Lois said. "Welcome to Earth, Ra-Chel! And welcome to the family!"

Warmly, Lois and Clark embraced Ra-Chel, each in turn.

Mark quickly added. "Jon and Lane both send their love. They were sorry they couldn't make it back here with us this trip. They will be coming back for a visit with us just as soon as possible after the election. They are both engaged to be married and they've both decided to have their weddings here on Earth. They wanted you guys to be included. They'll give us a heads-up when they're coming. Ching, Zara and the future in-laws will be coming too. We'll all be meeting the in- laws for the first time since I never got a chance to meet them when I was out there on NK."

Clark held up his hands and exclaimed "Whoa, whoa, whoa, little man! That's a lot of information you've just thrown at your Mom and me. Elections? Jon and Lane engaged?' Clark sighed. "And my little boy, married!" He grinned, as he clawed at his chest in mock distress with a Redd Foxx/Fred Sanford imitation. "It's the big one, Son. I can feel it comin' on! This is definitely the big one!"

Rachel looked on vacantly as Mark and Lois cracked up. This was obviously some kind of inside joke that she clearly did not get. Mark laughed. I'll explain later, Rachel. It's American humor. Very lame American humor.

Rachel smiled primly. "Of course."

Mark explained. "Dad, a lot's happened while I was out there on New Krypton and I need to bring you and Mom up to speed. That's why I suggested a long lunch. This is gonna take awhile."

Mark briefed his mom and dad on everything, holding nothing back, including his original nefarious intentions for the people of New Krypton.

Of course, Clark had known about that. He rushed to his son's defense. "Mark, no more about that. Ching and I both knew you'd never go through with it."

Mark responded, "Well, I sure didn't know I wouldn't go through with it. I had every intention of doing it."

"Ching and I knew that, too, Son. And we agreed that we had to let things play themselves out. We needed you see for yourself where your heart really is. Until you did that, you couldn't do what you were out there to do."

"Well, Dad, things didn't exactly go according to plan."

"No, Mark, they didn't. But I'd say you 'winged it' pretty well. Better than my fondest hopes. None of us could've dreamed you could just waltz onto New Krypton and lead a democratic revolution!"

"Strictly speaking, Dad, it was a 'republican' revolution, not a 'democratic' revolution; the new regime on NK governs through elected representatives. It's not a not direct democracy," Mark smiled as he corrected his father. It wasn't just me, Dad. It took a lot of other people besides just me to bring that off."

Clark laughed. "Point taken, 'Professor,' But it would never have happened if it weren't for you, Mark. You were the catalyst. And I can see why they were reluctant to allow you to return home."

Mark sighed, nodded gravely and looked back at Clark. "I admit, I had very mixed emotions. But I have my obligations here. And I needed to get back here as quickly as I could. I have got to get back to the fleet right away. I was hoping you and Mom could put Rachel up with you at the townhouse in Metropolis until I get back from deployment. She needs to assimilate into American society and it's just not fair to expect her to do that all by herself. She could stay at my apartment in California, but she'd be all alone out there. There's no way I could throw her into the Navy wife routine without some prep time and I just won't have time to do justice to that until we get back from WESTPAC."

Lois nodded. "Rachel, of course, you'll stay with us. We'll get you oriented and settled in. There'll be plenty of time for you to learn your way around and to learn the ropes as a Navy wife."

Rachel smiled. "Well, I was an army brat back home, so a lot of it will come naturally for me. Thank you, Lois, for taking me in."

Lois replied. "It's the least I could do for my new daughter. And the least I could do for Zara and Ching's daughter, the way they took my son into their home and into their hearts."

Mark spoke to his dad. "Now, Dad, I guess we should be getting under way pretty soon. I need to get back to the fleet. I've already been gone way too long. I'm gonna be doing some plain and fancy 'soft shoe' as it is explaining my absence for this long mid-deployment. Now I need you to change me back to normal."

Clark's face fell as he groaned. "Oh, Mark!"

Mark cut him off. "Now, Dad, you've known this was coming. That was the deal. Now I've lived up to my end of the bargain. Besides, this is the way it has to play out. If I don't get back to the fleet, pronto, they're gonna start asking questions we don't wanna hafta answer. And they won't be fooled by lame excuses. Trust me, Dad. They'll check out whatever I tell them. And you should know how thorough my annual flight physicals are. I can't go back to the Navy with these powers. I try that and it'd be only a matter of time before the family secret is blown."

Clark objected. "Son, I'll find some way to get you out of your obligation to the Navy. What you've done out there on New Krypton has not only been for the benefit of their people. It was every bit as important for Earth as for New Krypton. You've paid your obligation to the Navy in full."

Mark shook his head. "That might be your take on this, Dad. But, right or wrong, we cannot go there. And, no, you can't get me out of the six years I owe them. Some of the specialized tactical missions I fly for the Navy are vital and they would not take kindly to me bailing on them this early on in my tour of duty. Now, Dad, lets not beat this horse to death. The bottom line is that you and I had a deal. And now I'm gonna hafta hold you to it."

Lois appealed to her son. "Mark, please, be reasonable. Your dad has wanted this for you for so long. You can't just throw this gift away now that he's finally been able to do this for you. Please, Mark. At least give your Dad a shot at working things out for you."

Briefly, Mark's eyes blazed. He fought valiantly against the old resentments and a boiling rage that had suddenly ambushed his emotions. Initially, he'd not had the presence of mind to veil his thoughts or feelings. He quickly did so, but it was too late. Rachel and Clark had felt Mark's smoldering fury and deep resentment. Even Lois had picked up on the secondary indications: A tic in his facial expression, his body language and the tremor in his voice.

Mark, struggling mightily to contain his emotions, took a deep breath and spoke softly to Clark. "Just do it, Dad. Please. We had an agreement."

Clark started to speak but Mark cut him off. "No more, Dad. No more."

Thoroughly chastened, Clark sighed. "OK, Mark. I'm sorry. But I just had to try."

Mark knew he'd been "read" by all of them. But he justified himself, rationalizing: "I should've veiled. That I should've done. But it was an honest mistake. And I can't help how I feel."

Mark answered, "No problem, Dad." But he could tell by the wounded look on Clark's face that indeed there was a problem. Mark told himself. "Well, I'm sorry Dad's feelings are hurt. But, hey, my feelings are hurt and I can't help that. Dad wants nothing but super sons. The fact that I was born normal has never set well with him and never will and I understand he can't help the way he feels. But I guess it could've been a lot worse. I don't suppose any father/son relationship is perfect. If it weren't this super powers thing, it'd most likely be something else. Meanwhile, I owe it to myself to be myself. I can't be this super hero like he wants. That's just not who or what I am."

The conversion was done very quickly. Mark verified the success of the operation by attempting to contact his father telepathically. There was no reply. He spied the bent metal rod, still lying on the floor where his father had dropped it no more than thirty days ago when he'd emerged from the conversion chamber. He stooped over, picked it up and tried to straighten it. He was, of course, not able to budge the two ends of the rod that, thirty days before, he had folded with no more effort than would've been needed to bend a pipe cleaner. Mark nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. "It has worked. I'm back to normal. Thanks, Dad."

Rachel spoke. And now, Clark, if you would do the same for me as you have done for Mark."

Mark looked at Rachel. "No, no, no, honey! No! I've done this for very good reasons. But I've made it very clear. I won't have you crippled. I did not bring you here to have that done to you and I won't allow it."

Rachel looked into Mark's eyes. Please, Mark, I only want to be your wife. These powers mean nothing to me. And, if you want us to live as normal people, then that is what I want, too."

"No, Rachel. What's right for me in this is wrong for you."

Rachel shook her head. "No, Mark. No! What's right for me is what you truly want for me. Not what you think you ought to want for me, but what is truly your heart's desire. When we exchanged our marriage vows, we exchanged our bodies and. I am yours now, Mark, and you are mine. So, since I know this is what you really want, it is what I want, too."

Mark said, "No, Rachel. This is not what I want. If I had thought for one minute that you would be converted to normal Terran physiology, I would never have brought you here. I will not have the woman I love intentionally crippled."

Rachel retorted. "But you, Mark…"

Mark interrupted. "With me, it's different. I was born this way. This is my destiny. Your destiny is to remain as you are. You've said you've given yourself to me body and soul? Fine. What I want, Rachel, is for you to remain as you are. I could not live with myself if this transformation were done to you. Please, Rachel. This is part of who you are and I don't want you changed."

"But, Mark. As I told you before, if I kept my powers, I would be obligated. I would have to use them as your father does. I could not allow harm to come to people when it was in my power to help them. I could not just pretend that there was nothing I could do. I just couldn't! Please, Mark. Please don't ask me to do that."

"You know I'm not asking you to do that, Rachel. But would you have a problem with having super powers? Are you telling me you would rather not carry a burden like that?"

"No, Mark, of course not. But what about you? Sometimes I might be obliged to leave you if I sensed some emergency someplace far away. I might have to leave you to help your father with some kind of rescue or other. How would you truly feel about that?"

"It will be inconvenient at times. It might be a real pain in the neck. But, Rachel, I will understand. Just like I expect you to understand when I'm away from home on long Navy deployments overseas. I promise you, Rachel, you will never hear one word from me about your absences when you are obliged to dash off someplace for a rescue or whatever. Even though I never understood the reason for it before, my dad's been slipping away for stuff like that all my life. So, I'm used to it. And when you must slip away, Rachel, I told you before that I will cover for you as now I realize my Mom has done for Dad all these years."

Mark turned to his parents. "Well, I guess we're ready to leave now. Dad, could you and Rachel fly Mom and me back to the townhouse in Metropolis? I appreciate your putting Rachel up and helping her get acclimated to life in America. Rachel, I'm sorry I can't be there for you. But I have got to beat feet back to the fleet."

Clark wrapped his arm around Lois. Rachel wrapped hers around Mark and they ascended into position to be transported outside. From outside they flashed into the sky for the flight back to Metropolis. Within minutes they were at the back door of Lois and Clark's midtown Metropolis townhouse. They went inside. Lois asked. "Is anybody hungry? I haven't been to the store and the refrigerator is almost bare. But I could order pizza if that's OK." Mark smiled at Rachel as he explained. It's supposedly Italian, but really it's as American as apple pie. You'll love it!"

Rachel smiled back. "I am sure I will."

As they ate, Mark spoke to his dad. "We need to get Rachel documented. Social security number, academic credentials work record, family history and all the rest of it. She can't just appear with no history, no personal background. And when my security clearance comes up for renewal in another four years, they'll definitely check her out."

Clark reassured his son. "Don't worry. By then I'll have everything taken care of. One good thing, Rachel, your English is perfect! No accent at all!"

She smiled. "Mark has been teaching me all this time. He is a brutal task master." She winked at Mark.

Lois and Clark looked at each other. It was obvious to both of them that Mark and Rachel were crazy in love with each other.

Lois said to Rachel. "Mark could not possibly have made a better choice for a wife, than you, Rachel. I am his mother. And I've never seen him so happy."

Rachel smiled. "My mother said almost the exact same thing to Mark right after we first met. We fell for each other right away. It was love at first sight, for both of us. Funny thing, though, my mother and father and my brother saw it even before we did. We were just so 'intoxicated' with each other, right from the start, that neither of us had the presence of mind to be aware of anything beyond just each other in the immediate 'then and there.'"

Clark grinned at Rachel, and then winked at Lois. "That is how it was for me the moment I first clapped eyes on Mark's mother. But it took her a little longer to figure things out."

They spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other better. Lois and Clark fell in love with their Kryptonian daughter-in-law and she with them. It was Mark who suggested it was time for bed. "I'll need to go back tomorrow. And I wanna try and get an early flight out of Metropolis International for Washington, Reagan."

Clark sighed. "Aw, Mark! You just got home. Don't you think you could hang out with us just for a couple days until Rachel has gotten settled in a little better? And hey, it's not just Rachel. Your Mom and I have missed you. We want to spend some time with you before you go."

"Well, Dad, I'll be back before you know it. I'd say that, unless we got extended, we'll be back from cruise in maybe another three and a half months or so. I hate to leave so soon, but I've already been gone long enough to raise some eyebrows. Let's not go asking for trouble. I'm gonna book that flight to Washington Reagan right now. Can you give me a lift to the airport tomorrow morning?"

Clark and Lois were disappointed, but they knew that this was a dead issue. Mark's mind was made up. He would be leaving first thing in the morning.

Lois assured Rachel. "You'll be fine with Clark and me, dear. I'll show you around. Before you know it, you'll be well-enough oriented to this place that you'll be able to get around on your own."

"Thank you Lois. I'm looking forward to learning my way around Metropolis. I can't wait. The city is just so big. I couldn't believe how big it was from the air! So many people! New Krypton is so sparsely populated, compared to Earth.

Mark led Rachel to his old room upstairs. Jon, Lane and Mark had each had a room of their own. Lois had kept them just as they'd left them. Mark was especially grateful that he'd had a double bed. As a youngster, after graduating from his baby crib, he'd started out with a single bed. But he had turned out to be a "night thrasher," tossing and turning fitfully in his sleep. And, morning after morning, as she went in to wake him for school, Lois would find Mark sprawled on the floor alongside his bed, wrapped in his sheets and blanket. Finally, she'd gone out and bought him a double bed.

Mark and Rachel made love in his bed that night. One might've thought that such a union between a Terran man and a Kryptonian super woman would've been problematic, but nothing could've been further from the truth. With her telepathic power, Rachel linked their minds as they joined together in a deeply intimate and tender sharing of their bodies and souls.

The next morning Mark dressed for travel in his Navy khaki uniform and windbreaker. After breakfast and tearful farewells, Clark drove his son to Metropolis International Airport. He caught a shuttle flight to Washington Reagan airport. From there he hopped a Navy van to NPC (Navy Personnel Center) in Henderson Hall, overlooking the Pentagon in Alexandria, Virginia.

After checking in with NPC, he rode another Navy van out to the Naval Aviation facility at Andrews Air Force Base. He got lucky. He got "space-A" (space available) aboard a NALO (Naval Air Logistics) C-9 jet to Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. And that is where his luck ran out. As he entered the base operations building adjacent to the transient ramp, he was accosted by two men in dark suits and mirror sunshades.

"Lieutenant JG Kent?"

Mark nodded. "Yes sir."

The suits flashed their DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) badges. "We'll have to ask you to come with us."

"What's this all about, Sir?"

"We'll get to that."

Mark was led out of the building to a waiting windowless Dodge military panel van, standing just outside the front door. He was hustled into the back. The doors were closed and the van pulled away from the curb. Mark was seated between two very large, very unfriendly Marine guards.

Mark asked them. "Where are you taking me?"

One the guards answered. "Just sit back and enjoy the ride, 'sir.' And shaddup!"

About two and a half hours later, the two beefy Marines removed Mark from the panel van, roughing him up in the process. The rough treatment had not been required to physically subdue him. He had offered no resistance. It was clearly intended to intimidate him. He found himself being dragged into an isolated bungalow near a high bluff overlooking the ocean. "Evidently a safe house," Mark surmised. Noting the irony, he mused, "Not very 'safe' for me."

He was taken into a sparsely furnished interior room. There were no windows. The walls were wet- wall plaster, the floor: terrazzo tile. The only furnishings were a couple of folding metal chairs and one sturdy wooden chair with armrests on both sides that widened into something like the writing surface of an old time school house student desk. Attached to these were twin leather wrist straps. Leather ankle straps were attached to the two forward legs of the chair and a leather-restraining belt had been fitted to the seat. Mark was shoved into the chair and strapped in at his wrists and ankles and across his lap.

His two Marine "escorts" stood back against the wall, folded their arms across their chests and glared at him. Presently, a man entered the room, dressed in the khaki working uniform of a US Navy lieutenant commander. The customary plastic nametag was conspicuously absent from his uniform shirt.

Without introduction, the officer addressed Mark. "Lieutenant JG Kent. We're hoping all of this can be cleared up very quickly so you can be on your way to rejoin your squadron."

Mark said nothing in reply.

The naval officer continued. "We just need to know where you've been and what you've been up to."

Mark's worst fears had come true. He was caught between two conflicting obligations: to protect the secret of SEOP and his father's secret identity. He fully expected a thorough working over. He just hoped and prayed he could endure it without betraying either confidence.

Mark's interrogator said, "You see, Kent, you were called away from your squadron aboard USS Nimitz quite suddenly after, let's just say a very 'interesting' SEOP mission. We've done a little checking and those orders recalling you back stateside originated in the office of the Secretary of Defense. So we figured that, whoever was behind the decision to call you away must draw an awful lot of water.

Well, we come to find out it was your parents! One of the 'heavies' in the Pentagon owed your parents a favor and they had called in their marker to get you ordered home and sent off on leave. Your last known location was the Hertz Rental Agency at Rochester Airport. The agent there at Hertz confirmed that you'd told her you'd be paying a visit to your parents at their vacation home in upstate New York. And then, the next day, your father, Clark Kent, returned the rental car and paid your bill with his credit card.

Now you see, Kent, here's the problem we have with all of that. Your mom and dad are known to have special connections with Superman. We've checked over your SEOP induction paper work and, while you did indeed mention that in the "comments" section of your security questionnaire, we really didn't quite appreciate the full extent of this "special relationship" between Superman and your parents. We've since discovered that your father and mother are both in fairly tight with the so-called 'Man of Steel.' That's common knowledge around the city room at the Daily Planet. But, somehow, that little tidbit just fell through the cracks at your vetting for SEOP. If that had come out, you would never have been brought into the program. But, hey, what's done is done. All we can do now is move forward from here.

I'm sure you can appreciate our concern. Your father and mother have a special connection with Superman. They arranged to have you called home from mid-deployment right after your recovery aboard USS Nimitz from that SEOP mission with your midair 'close encounter' with 'target Babylon.' Your last known location was Hertz at Rochester airport and your stated destination was your mom and dad's vacation home a couple hours drive away. And then, next day, the rental vehicle is returned not by you, but by your father. And you have just disappeared off the face of the Earth at about the same time we received some very disturbing indications from our SEOP and NORAD sensor systems.

We've all been so worried about you, Kent! And then, immediately following indications from our SEOP sensor grid, similar to the ones we got right after your mysterious disappearance, now if this doesn't beat all, you suddenly reappear after being out of pocket for well nigh unto thirty days! Tell you the truth, Kent, we're having just a little bit of trouble connecting all the dots, here. And we were just hoping you might be able to help us do that.

So, to start things off, where have you been and what have you been up to? And, before you answer, I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that we will be verifying your story. And, of course, you understand how vital it is to your well being that everything you tell us checks out."

This was way worse than Mark's worst nightmare. This interrogator was asking all the right questions to put him between the proverbial rock and a hard place. These were the very questions Mark would've asked had he been in this man's position. He resolved to say nothing except to tell this interrogator, "Sir, I have not betrayed SEOP. That's all I can say."

The interrogator sighed. "I'm afraid that's just not going to do, young fellah. That is not going to do at all. Now I am going to ask you one more time, where have you been and what have you been up to?"

Mark remained silent.

The interrogator nodded to the Marine guards standing against the opposite wall. One of them nodded back and left the room. No more than three minutes hence, the Marine returned leading an orange jump suit clad prisoner by a leash and dog collar. The prisoner was in his late teens or early twenties, gaunt, dark haired, dark complexioned, hardly more than a boy. He was apparently of middle-eastern origin and it was obvious he was very frightened. In his right hand he held a stainless steel implement about forty centimeters long from end to end. The Marine unhooked the leash from the prisoner's dog collar and ordered him to take one of the folding chairs and seat himself immediately in front of Mark. The stainless steel implement was an elaborate device with four "rings" resembling brass knuckles attached to one end of a foot long mechanical arm. At the other end was a squeeze handle, like that on a pair of vice grips. There was a small selector knob on the mechanical arm just above the rings. The prisoner slipped the rings over the four fingers of Mark's right hand. The interrogation officer explained. This is Amal. We've arranged to have him brought out here from Guantanamo. We've made it abundantly clear to him how important your cooperation is to us, and to him. Rest, assured, young man. He has been well 'incentivized' to elicit your whole-hearted cooperation with us. This little gadget he's just slipped onto your fingers has been designed to break your fingers, one by one. That is what he will do unless you immediately become more forthcoming with us. But, of course, I hope this won't be necessary. Now then, where were we? Oh yes! Where have you been and what have you been up to?"

Mark's reply was stony silence.

"Where have you been and what have you been up to?"

Again Mark was silent.

The interrogator turned to Amal and gave him an almost imperceptible nod of the head. As tears rolled down his cheeks and as his hand trembled, Amal adjusted the selector knob and squeezed the handle grip on his "persuasion device" as Mark's index finger snapped in an explosion of excruciating pain.

Mark sucked air in between his teeth but he did not scream and quickly, he veiled his mind and emotions. He no longer had the power of active telepathy, but any normal Terran can communicate telepathically with a Kryptonian as long as the Kryptonian has established contact. And a Kryptonian can probe the thoughts of any normal Terran unless the Terran veils his mind as Mark had just done. He wanted to be absolutely certain that his thoughts could not be monitored by his dad or by Rachel. He fought back tears from the pain. He did not dare scream. His father or Rachel or both of them might hear his voice. There was virtually nothing on this Earth that they could not hear if they wanted to. They could easily tune out unwanted sounds, but there was every reason to suspect that Mark's screams of agony might very well attract their attention. Clark and Rachel both could single out Mark's voice from all the ambient "background noise" in the entire world. They would come and then the secret of SEOP would be blown.

And, even worse, this might be a trap. These men might very well have kryptonite squirreled away for just such an eventuality. Mark did not know this for certain but he did not dare take the chance. And he could not give this interrogator what he wanted. It would compromise his father's secret identity, which he also felt honor bound to protect. He was on his own. He would just have to suck it up and take his medicine.

"Where have you been and what have you been up to?"


"Where have you been and what have you been up to?"


Again, the almost imperceptible nod and again the pain as Mark's digit finger was snapped in two. Again, Mark suppressed a scream. But he could not choke down a whimper or hold back the tears.

The interrogator asked, "This is what you want? You want more of this?" He asked a little more insistently, "Where have you been? And what have you been up to?"

Again silence and again the slight nod and again the pain as the third finger on Mark's right hand was broken just above the first knuckle.

The interrogator sighed. "We are just getting started. It will only get worse and worse for you. Eventually we'll carve off all of your limbs, one by one until you tell us what we want to know. And, if, by some chance, you should die from the shock, well, we will simply pick up your parents and apply these same methods of 'persuasion' to them."

Grimly, Mark thought to himself, "You're gonna 'pick up' my Dad? Well good luck!"

Back at Lois and Clark's townhouse in Metropolis, Rachel could not shake a strong feeling of dread that had come over her. Somehow, she could sense that Mark was in trouble. Finally, with her mind, she called to Clark at his desk at the Daily Planet. She still was not all that comfortable using the telephone and she could not be sure whether unwelcome ears might be listening in. Clark answered her telepathic 'hail' right away. "Clark, I have this terrible feeling that Mark is in trouble. I don't know what's come over me, but all of a sudden, I am feeling very afraid, not for myself. It's Mark. I'm just so afraid for Mark!"

"Rachel, that's your super intuition. And now I can feel it too. That feeling you have is very real. It is part of the powers we Kryptonians have here on earth. When people you're bonded to are in trouble, you'll know. Now honey, you can home in on that feeling. If you fly in the direction where the feeling is strongest, you're moving closer to Mark. If the feeling starts to get weaker, you're flying away from him. Just keep moving in the direction where the feeling continues to grow stronger. I can do the same. We'll meet over Mark's position, wherever that is."

Rachel stepped through the back door, made sure no one could see her and then leapt into the air in a blinding flash. Within minutes, she was floating above the safe house on the northern California coast were Mark was being detained and interrogated. Clark drew up alongside. With their x-ray vision, they scanned the house, discovering Mark strapped to a chair, just as the weeping and heartsick Amal was breaking his right pinky finger.

The interrogation officer sighed. "We're fresh out of fingers on your right hand, Kent. We'll try the left hand. I hope we'll have more luck with that, because if we don't, we're going to have to start cutting things off of you that just won't ever grow back."

"Where have you been and what have you been up to."

Clark and Rachel looked at each other in abject horror. Grimly, Clark said to Rachel. I'm going in there and get Mark out. Wait here!"

"No, Clark!" Rachel answered. "I'm coming with you! He is my husband!"

"Rachel, this could be a trap. They might be laying for us. If they zap me with kryptonite, I'll be completely helpless and so would you. I need you out of harm's way so you can still help Mark and me if it comes to that. Please Rachel. If we're going to get Mark out, we've got to do this my way."

Reluctantly, Rachel acquiesced.

Clark dove for the deck, landed in front of the house and tried the front door. It was locked. He punched the heavy wooden door with his fist, easily reducing it to cord wood and went inside. There were several armed men, uniformed marines and Defense Intelligence Agency men in civilian clothes in the front room. They were all well aware of Superman's invulnerability and unstoppable super strength. They knew better than to to shoot at him or to try to stop him as he made his way to the interrogation room. Superman opened the door, it was unlocked, and entered the room. The interrogation officer had been, stooped over Mark speaking softly into his ear. He straightened and backed up against the wall. Amal, the middle easterner with the "persuasion device," stood up and moved away from Mark. He began wailing hysterically and pointing and gesticulating in the direction of the interrogator.

Mark glared at Clark and hissed, "What are you doing here?" Clark called to Mark with his mind. Mark had the presence of mind to lower his mental veil. He had expected his dad would try to communicate with him telepathically and he was ready. "Son, Rachel is with me, dead overhead. We've come to get you out of here."

With his mind, Mark shot back, "Dad, you've got to get Rachel out of here, now! If you don't, very quickly, people are going to die."

Clark protested, "Son, if you think Rachel and I are leaving here without you, you're out of your mind. There's no way that's going to happen."

"Dad, there's no time, no time, to explain. You've got to get Rachel and leave, immediately, or we are all dead. And if you take me away with you, I am totally screwed! You didn't trust me with your secret all those years. But if you don't trust me now, Rachel, you, these men here and I, all of us are going to die. You might have a couple minutes, if even that, to get Rachel safely away from here and, Dad, I am begging you to trust me and just leave."

Clark answered, "We're not going far, Mark. If they try to hurt you again, Rachel and I will be back and no more fooling around. You will be coming with us."

Clark eyed the interrogation officer. "This man is the son of a very dear friend of mine. If anything else happens to him, I'll know. And then I will come back here and make everything happen to you."

Clark stepped over to a terrified Amal.

With his mind, Mark called to his dad who was still "linked" to him telepathically. "Dad, leave him alone! He's even more of a victim in this than I am."

Telepathically, Clark answered back. "I know, son. I know."

Very gently, he wrapped his mighty arm around Amal and said to him. "Please, don't be afraid. I'm going to get you out of here." And then, at super speed, he vanished with Amal. Momentarily, there was a sonic boom and then silence.

In no more than another ninety seconds, a SEOP jet roared over the safe house, but it was too late. The Babylon "targets" had fled. As he flew overhead, the pilot was receiving in the headphones of his flight helmet the "Babylon mercy" command to abort mission and return to base. Had Clark and Rachel not left and had the pilot not been called off his targets, he, Clark and Rachel would have been atomized by detonation of the SEOP kryptonite beam weapon. Mark, Amal, the interrogation officer and the other men in the DIA safe house would have died in the collateral damage.

The interrogation officer quickly recovered. To Mark he said, "Your super mutant friend came to your rescue and then he just left. Somehow, I don't know how, he was warned about that SEOP jet we called in to snuff his ass. I am not afraid of his threats. He may be fast as greased lightening, but, if he came after me, he could never get to me before I offed myself. So if that jerk off, freak approaches our SEOP jet and the pilot is obliged to self-destruct, I promise you a very unpleasant death. It won't, unfortunately, be very protracted. That freak would be all over us very quickly. But, trust me, I will make sure before I send us both to Hell, that you will be in a world of hurt during your last few minutes on this earth!"

This fellow naval officer's opprobrium hurt Mark far worse than the torture. Mark wanted so badly to be vindicated. And, yet, he could think of no way to accomplish that except by betrayal of his father, something he might've been persuaded to do before he'd gone to New Krypton, but which now would be unthinkable. "Sir," he said to his tormentor, "I've said it before and I'll say it again, I have not betrayed the program. You can cut my hide off in ribbons if you want to, but torturing me, or killing me won't change a thing. There has got to be a way I can prove to you that I'm telling the truth!'

The interrogator snapped. "Of course there is, Kent. All you need do is tell us. Where have you been and what have you been up to?

Mark looked the interrogator in the eye and told him. "Sir, I protect all my confidences. And I'd tell you if I could but I just can't. You've got to believe me. I am not a traitor. I swore that I'd guard the secret of this mission with my life. But how could you believe that I have if I betrayed another confidence just to get out of this?"

The interrogator retorted, "You're just buying time. That's not gonna work, Kent. I'm not sure how we're gonna deal with you. But you are not just gonna walk away clean."

Mark answered back, "Commander, you and these guys all saw my ticket outta here. He left without me. If I'd wanted him to, he'd have taken me with him, like you all saw him do with that poor kid you and your goons bullied into torturing me. And there's nothing any of you could've done to stop him. Now I'm telling you, I have not betrayed our mission."

The interrogation officer left the room. None of this had been in the plan. He needed guidance from his superiors.

Mark's mind was still wide open. His dad was calling to him. "Mark, son, what in the name of Rao is going on? Why are they doing this to you? And why wouldn't you let me get you out of there?"

Mark answered, "What about that kid, Amal? What have you done with him?"

"He's safe, Mark. Rachel is flying him home to his family in Afghanistan. She will be back here with me momentarily. Now what is going on?"

"I've got everything under control now, Dad. This just needs to play itself out. I can't tell you any more right now. You're just gonna hafta trust me."

Rachel, just back from her round trip to Afghanistan to reunite Amal with his family, broke in. "Mark, love, I need you to trust me. I am your wife. I am your soul mate. Now you've got to let me in. Why did they do those terrible things to you? And how could you ask Clark and me to leave you in the hands of those monsters?"

Mark felt terrible for Rachel, that she was being subjected to this. He berated himself. "I should've let her go into the conversion chamber. She would be a normal Terran now. She wouldn't be going through all this. This is all my fault. What was I thinking? I must've been out of my mind."

But Mark had overlooked his mental veil. His mind was still open to Rachel and to his dad. Rachel pleaded, "Mark, why won't you trust me? Why won't you let your dad and me help you? What is going on? Please, Mark! I am your wife! Don't you think I deserve to know what is going on?"

Mark sighed. With his mind he answered. "Yes, honey, you deserve to know it all; every bit of it. And if there were any way I could tell you, I would, but I can't. Please, Rachel! Please try to understand. There are things about my job that I just can't tell you. Just like there have been things your dad could not share with your mom about his duties as a soldier back home."

Mark realized to his surprise that he had just referred to New Krypton as "home!" Ruefully, he mused, "After all this, and still I don't really know my own heart and mind? What is wrong with me? Have I been that wrong about myself all along? This is supposed to be home! America is where I belong, isn't it? I belong with my shipmates in USS Nimitz, defending my country!" But, to his chagrin, Mark realized this was no longer possible. There was no way he could ever fly another SEOP mission. In the first place, he couldn't very well kill his own father and in the second, he would never again be trusted by SEOP command. And, he realized that now, killing any Kryptonian could be problematic for him. He was no longer able to demonize them as he had before befriending so many of them. Kill men like Zon-Nor, or Tsa-An or Ching or Jing-Chel or Lev or Ah-Pom or Jiang-Li or his brothers, Jon or Lane, or any of those bright-eyed young men who had rallied to his revolutionary cause? And Zara or Sila or Lena or Liana or his beloved Ra- Chel! No way! Maybe he might be able to force himself to 'do it' if he were convinced the threat to Earth were genuine. Perhaps he could muster the will to pull the trigger on the likes of Zel-Tor or Nah-Tsee, but Mark realized that he could no longer be absolutely certain of himself in his role as a SEOP pilot. And he doubted he would really ever fit in again with his squadron mates. Most of them had no inkling of SEOP. None of them would know the specifics of Mark's situation, but rumors would filter out from those in the know and, behind his back, there would be talk in the ready room. His reliability and his loyalty would be in doubt. Without the trust of his wingmen, he could not possibly function as an effective member of the team. Again Mark reflected sadly, "You really can't go 'home' again!"

Rachel retorted, "Mark, there may've been a lot of things that went on in the New Krypton Army with my dad that he couldn't tell us. But I know his fellow soldiers never strapped him into a chair and tortured him. And if you think my mother or my brother or I would have stood by and watched it happen without intervening, well then, you really don't know us. I know you believe what you're doing is right. But what you are doing to your father and to me now is wrong, Mark. There can be no legitimate obligation to allow yourself to be tortured while Clark and I look on helplessly. And there can be no obligation that comes before your commitment to me, to stand by me and to permit me to stand by you. There weren't any qualifications or limitations on our marriage vows, Mark. We've given ourselves to each other with all our hearts and souls. I am yours, Mark, and you are mine! We are together, you and I, in everything. We are one flesh now, just like your mom and dad and like my parents. Now, Mark, I am your wife and I am pleading with you, honey, to open up to me and to trust me. I promise you, no matter what. I won't do anything, I won't say anything if you tell me not to. But we've vowed to share everything. And now, Mark, I'm calling on you, no, I'm begging you to honor your marriage promise to me. What is going on?"

Mark's heart and soul were in turmoil. His conflicting commitments and promises and obligations were pressing in on him mercilessly. "I wish I was dead, he thought to himself."

In his mind, he heard Rachel's "voice" again. "Mark, I'm here to help you, not hurt you. I can feel what you feel, Mark and I can tell that you know this. I can sense how badly you are torn; how badly you want to do your duty and yet how badly you want to open up to me, NEED to open up to me. Well, Mark, your first duty is to me. I am your wife, your helpmate. And, whether you like it or not, I will not allow you to shut me out. I won't let you carry this burden all by yourself. Not this time. Now tell me. What is going on?"

Mark's "capitulation" was by no means an "unconditional surrender." With his mind, he answered, "Rachel, Dad, I can't tell you everything. I shouldn't be telling either of you anything. But first off, I have not betrayed the family secret."

Clark interrupted. "Son, if you think any of that is worth what you've already gone through, much less what else they might have in store for you, then you are just so wrong. I would give up my life to spare you that, much less my secret identity. I've made my mistakes with you, Mark, but I can't believe I've ever done anything that could make you believe I would put my secret identity before you.

Mark, son, I know now that, all these years, you've believed that I've had reservations about you; that somehow, you've thought I regarded you as, in some way, inadequate. I am just so sorry, I've been the one who's made you carry that burden all these years. I only wish you'd confronted me about it. I know it can't be easy for you to overcome a lifetime of conditioning, thinking that you have to earn my love or my respect. But, Mark, I really need you to try. I need you to trust me and to believe that there aren't any conditions on my love. I love you because you're my son, not because of anything you do or because of any powers or lack of powers you might have.

But, son, I have to tell you, I am proud of what you've done. You've accomplished so much in your short life. And what makes you all the more dear to me is that you have no inkling of your own greatness. Son, at your young age, you're already one of the greatest men in all of Krypton's history! You've led our people to recapture the spirit of liberty of the great Kryptonian patriot, Ryk- Ar and the freedom fighters who fought by his side so long ago. And you've led other people on New Krypton, young and old, to claim their own greatness. All of this and yet, you, you have no real sense of your place in the history of the Kryptonian people. How could I not be proud of you, Mark? And how could I not be proud that I have the honor to be your father?

So, please, son, please, stop thinking that you have to justify yourself to me. If anything, it's the other way around. I know that you know I didn't mean to hurt you. But, there it is, I didn't mean to, but I've hurt my son by hiding my secret from him, from you, Mark. And so much pain and heartache has come out of that. I only hope that, someday, Son, you will find it in your heart to forgive me."

For a full minute, Mark pondered over his answer. He wanted his response to bury this 'issue' between himself and his father forever. He was determined to go forward from here without the tension that he'd always felt in connection with his father. Things would be different from now on. They had to be. They just had to.

"Dad, please, don't torture yourself over that anymore. There's enough blame to go around for both of us. I should've come to you. So it's just as much my fault as it was yours. But, I guess I was just so afraid of what you might've said. And I want you to forgive me for my part in all this."

Clark tried to protest but Mark cut him off. "No Dad, no! I want you to forgive me, not only for that: but for all of it. You know what I've done. How I acted when you told me the truth: all of my hatred and cruelty to you and my treacherous scheming against the people out there on New Krypton. I was not a good son. I would've dishonored and betrayed you. I very nearly did. And I would've done so much worse. And, that night when we were together in your fortress just before I left for NK, I dishonored your parents, Jor-El and Lara, like they were nothing. Oh God, Dad, I'm just so sorry for everything."

Clark was silent for a long time. Finally, he answered. "Mark, my son, my dear, dear little boy. I love you. And you are a good son. You've been such a good son to your mom and me. There is nothing you've done for me to forgive. But if it makes you feel better, for what it's worth, then, yes, I forgive you. And now all of that is over. Now, Son, you must trust Rachel and me and tell us what is going on, please son."

Mark, still strapped in the interrogation chair answered with his mind. Dad, Rachel, they think I may've betrayed a vital state secret. I haven't. I'm innocent. But my "disappearance" has made them very suspicious. And some other coincidental occurrences have only made them even more concerned that I might've betrayed them. They are desperate to find out whom I might've told and just what critical classified information I might've compromised. I went into all this knowing that, if they even suspected I might've betrayed them, well then, the repercussions would be drastic. I went into this with my eyes open because I believed in what they were doing. I still do. And, Dad, if I didn't know any more than that interrogation officer does that you tried and failed to intimidate with your threats, I'd have done exactly what he did, only, instead of using that poor terrified soul Amal, to do my dirty work for me, I'd have done it myself!"

"They need to know that I have not betrayed them. And, Dad, I need them to know that I am not a traitor. But I don't know how. I could ask for a lie detector test or truth serum. Maybe that would satisfy them. But they wouldn't just ask if I'd betrayed that state secret. They'd dig and probe and try to get everything out of me. And I'm not sure I could hold them off. I might wind up giving up the whole 'store' and then, there goes your secret identity and along with it, any semblance of a normal life for you and mom. Even if I could satisfy them, there'd always be a shadow of doubt in their minds about me.

If I find some way to get out of this, I'll apply for reassignment as a transport aircraft or logistics helo pilot and, hey, maybe I might get lucky and get it. I wouldn't be a front line aviator anymore. But that is still better than languishing for six years behind a desk somewhere in the Navy bureaucracy. Either way whether I fly logistics missions or just 'fly' a desk, I'd just do the six years I owe them for my pilot training and then resign and get out of the Navy. After that, who knows? There'd be plenty of time for me to figure that out. But the biggest thing on my plate right now is how to convince them I'm not a rat and, Dad, I'm really in a box. I just don't know what I'm gonna do to fix this."

Very gently, Clark replied to his son. "Mark, that is the first concession of weakness you've made to me, ever! I wish you'd let Rachel and me help you. But we can't if you won't tell us more.

"Dad, I can't go into that. And I can't have you or Rachel trying to eavesdrop on us when I try to make my case. This is deep classified info, need to know only, which you don't. I do need you both to make me a promise. And you can't ask me why and you can't try and find out why. But, Dad, Rachel, this is a matter of life and death. I shouldn't even be asking this of either of you, but, if I don't, someone is bound to get hurt, sooner rather than later."

"What is it, son? Tell us."

"Not until you both promise me that you won't ask me or try to find out why."

Clark and Rachel both answered, "All right, Mark, we promise."

Mark sighed. With his mind he said, "Dad, Rachel, you must both promise me that you will never, ever approach any military tactical jet aircraft or AWACS or AEW (radar control) aircraft of any nation for any reason, ever! Even if the aircraft is in distress and the lives of the aircrew are in jeopardy, you cannot go to their assistance unless and until they've ejected or bailed out of their aircraft. Even then, you must not try to approach the aircraft. Both of you, promise me."

Clark and Rachel looked at each other. Clark nodded. Rachel nodded back. "OK, Mark. We promise."

Mark responded. I need to 'hear' it from you too, Rachel."

"All right, Mark. I promise."

Clark said to Mark, "now we've got to get you out of there."

"No Dad. This has got to play itself out. If I run, eventually, they'd catch up to me and then I'd be dead meat. I've got to face this and find some way to allay their suspicions now or my life won't be a plug nickel."

"No, Son, I'll take you back to the Fortress. We'll give your powers back to you. Then they will never hurt you again."

"Dad, if I don't manage to clear my name, your secret identity is lost. Any chance you and Mom have to live any part of your lives in this world as normal human beings is just gone. Bad enough for you, Dad, but what about Mom? You want her to have to live out the rest of her life holed up in your Fortress? I have got to do everything I can to clear my name and at least serve out my obligation in the Navy. And I can't do that if I have super powers. They'd find out. And then the family secret would be blown. If things go south, you or Rachel could always come and pull me out. Yeah, there's some risk, but, hey, we need to try to come up with a way for this to play itself out."

"Son, Rachel and I will be monitoring your situation from here with our super vision and super hearing. We'll do this your way for now. But if they try to hurt you again, that's it. We're coming in and pulling you out, no argument, no discussion, end of story."

"No, Dad. Classified information might be discussed. You and Rachel have no business listening in on us."

"Aw come on, Mark. You think I don't know what's going on? I don't know the details, but I've got the general idea. We both know I grew up as a farm boy but I didn't just fall of the hay wagon yesterday. You guys have managed to weaponize kryptonite as a hedge in case I go bad or in case some New Kryptonians like Lord Nor come back. I can't say I like the idea much but I honestly don't blame the military establishments of Earth for doing that. If they hadn't planned for a worst- case scenario like that, they wouldn't be doing their jobs. But now I can see how my blindsiding you about my powers has put you in this impossible situation. I am so sorry for that, Son. So sorry!"

Mark's mental and emotional veils were "down." Clark could sense his son's abject despair that, for all intents and purposes the military secret he had been trying so desperately to protect had been blown. Clark reassured him.

"Mark, I don't know the details of the military's contingency plans against me. And I promise, I won't try to delve into that. But, now that you've had super powers, even if not for very long, you have to know that, if I wanted to, I could get to the bottom of this whole thing fairly easily. And forewarned is forearmed. Of course, if I were ever to be perceived as a threat and they came after me, I might not know exactly how they planned to do it. But it wouldn't take me very long to come up with a few theories and I would most likely be on the lookout for any threats that came at me from any of those possible means of attack.

Mark, son, we need to come up with something that will allay the fears and suspicions of the militaries here on earth, maybe even in cooperation or at least in consultation with them. And maybe Ching can help us skull this thing out. I've known all these years how military men around the world have regarded me with fear and suspicion. I should've confronted this issue head on long ago. But, frankly, I didn't want to open up a can of worms. Right now I enjoy relatively unrestricted freedom of movement around the world. And, as much as I try to honor the rule of law, if it were between legal formalities at some national border or right and wrong or human life, the letter of the law comes second.

As long as I've let sleeping dogs lie, that hasn't really been too much of a problem for me. I haven't had to face a 'Hobson's choice' between the law and what's right. And now, with this, I'll be opening Pandora's box. The nations of the world might decide to slap all kinds of restrictions on me. But I think it's time to face up to this and come up with some answers that make sense for everyone. In the meantime, nothing good can come from leaving you there. I'm coming back in."

Mark tried to protest. "No Dad! There are consequences to all this that I've got to face up to. Running is no way to handle this!"

But it was too late. By the time Mark had completed his thought, his dad was standing in front of him. The two Marine guards glared at him and at Mark with unbridled hate. One of them elbowed the other and said, "See? I told you that bastard, Kent, was a traitor. I knew it all long."

His companion concurred. "Yeah, the sonofabitch went and ratted us out to the aliens." He eyed Clark. "You won out this time, you freakazoid, but your day will come. And then we're gonna get even with all you bastards. You mutant weirdoes will finally get the message, 'don't f___ with us!'"

A little sadly, Clark responded. "I've never hurt a living soul in my life. I don't know what else I can do to make it clear to all of you that I am on your side. But I won't let you men continue to brutalize and torture people. You call this nightmare 'America?' Well, this is not the 'America' I grew up in! And I won't sit on my hands while you and a handful of paranoid tinhorns turn this country into a garrison police state.

Clark turned to his son, still strapped in the wooden interrogation chair. He stepped over to him, easily snapped the leather straps that held him bound and pulled him up. Mark tried to resist but Clark shook his head. "No, Mark. This has gone on for too long already. I'm taking you out of here now. There is somebody who is going to be very happy and very relieved to see you. We'll get this mess straightened out, I promise. But we're gonna do this my way."

Clark turned back to the two Marines. He could feel their hatred. "This man is not running away. I am taking him against his will. He tried to fend me off but, of course, we know that's impossible, don't we. He is not a traitor and neither am I. Tell your superiors that I will be dealing directly with the President on this little matter. No more games; no more 'plausible deniability.' Someone is going to answer for this torture of a serving officer in the Navy." And then, Clark vanished with Mark.

Presently, with Mark in his arms, Clark rejoined Rachel overhead and then they headed north toward to the fortress. Mark told his dad, "We need to descend to very low altitude. Stay as close to the ground as you can, especially as you approach your fortress. The location is probably blown already. You'll most likely have to find some way to move it."

Clark did as he was told and Rachel, following close behind, did likewise. Their alpha signatures were lost in the ground clutter. Within minutes, they arrived at the fortress, ascending to a hover about fifteen meters above the ground. Presently, they were teleported inside. Clark and Rachel settled gently to the floor as Clark set Mark on his feet. Rachel, now in tears embraced Mark desperately, a little too tightly. He grunted from her powerful, near crushing constriction. She loosened her embrace but she did not let go. She held onto him, weeping, as she laid her head on his shoulder. Mark hugged back as best he could. His right hand was in considerable pain from the broken fingers. Clark intervened. "Rachel. Rachel," he said. "I have to take Mark now. His hand."

Rachel let go of her man and nodded. "Yes, Clark, of course!"

Clark x-rayed Mark's fingers. "They're clean break fractures. I'll reset the bones. Then into the conversion chamber you go. When you emerge, your super healing will fuse the breaks and you'll be as good as new."

"No, dad. I'm not going back in there. Reset the bones and then lets just rig a hand splint. It might take a little longer for me to heal that way, but I'm not going back into your conversion chamber. I'm done with the super powers thing."

"Oh Rachel," Mark moaned. "I should've let you enter the conversion chamber. You wouldn't have had to go through any of this if only I'd let you do that. No one should have to go through what you've had to put up with today on my account. You're free to have your powers removed if that's what you want. I should've let you do it before. I was a fool."

"No, Mark. That was my decision as much as it was yours. You'd have let me if I'd insisted. But now there is no way I would allow myself to be converted. I need you to let your dad convert you back. Is this any way to live, Mark? With men brutalizing you because of their fear and paranoia? I won't stand for it, Mark. I can't have my husband tortured and maimed while I look on helplessly or live in fear because the one I love is a marked man. Please, Mark. I'm begging you. Let your father change you back. This Navy thing is over. You cannot go back now. I won't allow it. How can you ask me to go through that again?"

Mark answered. "Rachel, if I don't, Dad's secret is blown. They'll investigate and they will find out. I know they would. If I were in their shoes, I would! Then any chance Mom and Dad have of living a normal life is out the window. I have got to go back and face this. Somehow, the Navy and the rest of the military services of the world have got to be satisfied that they can defend themselves against a Kryptonian threat. You don't know what it was like Rachel; what they did to us."

Rachel retorted, "But that's not an issue any more, Mark. You saw to that. Those thugs who might've done that are out of power now. Now they can never come to Earth and do those horrible things like Lord Nor and his brutes did."

"Never say 'never,' Rachel. They might not have official New K government sanction but they might well come here as renegades. And, besides, the militaries of Earth don't know about the regime change back home and, even if we told them, they might not believe us. I probably wouldn't if I were in their shoes."

Mark mused, "Oh wow. There I go again, referring to New Krypton as "home! Where the hell is 'home?' I don't even know that anymore."

Clark said, "Well, Mark, if you want to remain normal, that is your choice, but, for now, we need to change you back. Rachel and I both need to know you're safe and the best way to ensure that is by giving your powers back to you. If you want to be reconverted later on, we'll consider all the pros and cons. But your mom, Rachel and I are not nearly as concerned about the family secret as we are about your life!"

With a flash of realization, Mark said, "Speaking of Mom, Dad, you've got to find her before those goons do. Now that you've pulled me out, they're gonna be looking for 'Clark and Lois Kent.' And if they find Mom, whatever they decide to do to her will happen pretty fast. They won't fool around. They're desperate and now they'll be in full panic mode."

Clark nodded. "As soon as I get you taken care of, I'll go and get your Mom and bring her back here."

Mark replied, "Yeah, Dad, whatever. But contact her, now, and tell her to get lost. You can make book those DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) guys will move fast and if you don't hurry, it'll be too late."

Clark ushered Mark and Rachel to a suite of rooms that had been set up as a comfortable "apartment" for Lois. It had been used on only a handful of occasions when Clark had wanted to do extensive research in this hi-tech environment and had wanted Lois nearby when he took occasional breaks. It had not been difficult on those rare occasions to persuade Perry White at the Daily Planet to give them time off. Lois and Clark rarely returned to work from time off empty- handed. They nearly always brought back some juicy feature that Perry was only too happy to publish in the Sunday edition under their joint by-line.

Clark bid his son to sit down alongside a table he and Lois used for their meals. He had Mark lay his mutilated right hand palm up on the table. "Mark, son, you know this is going to be painful, but it will only last for a couple of seconds. I'm so sorry."

Mark nodded to Clark. "No way around it, Dad. Just do it."

Very quickly, as Mark gritted his teeth, Clark reset the four fingers in his right hand. Mark, determined not to cause Rachel or his Dad undue anguish over his pain willed his body to remain motionless and willed his facial features to remain impassive. He veiled his mind and emotions.

When Clark was done, guided by his x-ray vision, he was sweating bullets. Rachel was in tears. Mark, on the other hand was the epitome, of aplomb. Clark looked up at his son. "It's OK to cry out from the pain, Mark. We're your family. You don't have to prove to us how tough you are."

Mark looked back. The color had drained from his face, but he remained stoic. "It's OK, I'm fine. Really. Thanks. Now I'll just wait here while you contact Mom. That's number one priority right now. Tell her to get off the street and away from her customary haunts. She needs to get away from anyone she knows. DIA will know all of the places she might try to hide. Don't let her take her car or try to rent one. They'd be all over her like a duck on a June bug. Just have her slip away to someplace off the beaten path. Then go and get her. Rachel and I can wait here till you come back with her."

Clark called to Lois with his mind. She answered right away. "Honey, where are you right now?" Clark asked.

Lois answered, "Here at work, why?"

As Clark moved into position to be teleported out of the fortress, he explained. "Honey, I'm with Mark and Rachel here at the fortress. I'm on my way to get you right now. I need you to just drop what you're doing and get out of there, now."

Lois balked. "Oh, Clark. I'm wrapping up a story and I'm up against a deadline. I can't break away right now. What's up?"

"Lois, there's no time to explain but this is potentially very serious. Now I need you to get a move on, right now!"

But it was too late. Two men in dark suits approached her desk and flashed their Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) identification. One of them asked, "Lois Kent?"

She answered, "Yes, I'm Lois Kent. How can I help you?"

As Clark emerged from the fortress, he overheard the exchange between Lois and the DIA agent both with his mind and his super hearing. "Lois! Stall them. Do not leave with them. I'm coming straight there to get you."

"Mrs. Kent, we'd appreciate it if you would come along with us for questioning. This is a matter of national security and it involves your son, Lieutenant JG Mark Kent."

Although Lois knew her son's whereabouts, she decided it would be better if these men didn't know that. "This is about Mark? What's this all about? Is he OK?"

One of the DIA agents answered, "We're not really sure, Mrs. Kent. Frankly, we were hoping you might have some idea where we might be able to find him."

"Me? You're telling me the Navy doesn't know where my son is? I need to get in touch with my husband. If the Navy doesn't know where Mark is, your business with me will just have to wait."

"No, Mrs. Kent, I'm afraid this won't wait. We'll have to ask you to come along with us, right now."

"Well, alright, but I'll need to check out with my boss. Can you wait here? I'll be right back."

"Leave him a note, Mrs. Kent. We need you to come along right now."

"You mean you can't let me check out with my boss? It'll only take a minute."

"Look, You have two choices, Ma'am. Either you come along with us right now or we'll lead you away in handcuffs."

With her mind Lois called to Clark through his telepathic mind link. "Honey, they're here. And they are very insistent that I leave with them, now. If I don't leave with them right now, they've threatened to drag me away in handcuffs!"


Chapter 17 Confrontation

Clark answered, "I'm no more than sixty seconds away. And I won't be doing this 'extraction' as Clark. Just play along until I get there. I'll be at your side before you have time to reach the elevator."

And he was! In his Superman persona, Clark flew through an open window of the city room. From a blur, he alighted alongside Lois. He spoke to the DIA agents. "I'll be taking Mrs. Kent along with me, gentlemen."

On of the agents replied. "No, Superman, you won't!"

And, with that, he drew a small, flat cigarette case out of the interior breast pocket of his suit coat and opened it. Inside the lead-lined container was a fragment of kryptonite about the height, top to bottom and half the thickness of a package of cigarettes. Clark immediately doubled over in agony. Momentarily, he collapsed. As he fell to the floor, with his mind, he cried out to Rachel and Mark. "Kryptonite! Daily Planet city room! They're taking Lois!"

The agent returned the empty cigarette case to his coat pocket and then he and his companion drew out their pistols and ordered all of the employees to line up against the wall. One of the agents pulled out a cell phone and called for backup. Within minutes, a contingent of heavily armed black clad commandos poured into the city room of the Daily Planet. The DIA agents ordered the staff to lie face down on the floor with their hands out to their sides in full view. Four of the commandos laid Clark on a stretcher and lifted him off the floor. One of the DIA agents laid the kryptonite fragment on Clark's chest. As they prepared to leave, Perry White stalked into the city room and demanded to know "What is going on here? What is the meaning of this?"

One of the DIA agents pulled the slide back on his pistol, chambered a round and laid the muzzle alongside Perry's temple. "Lie down, asshole, or I will splatter your brains all over this room."

Perry protested. "That's kryptonite on Superman's chest! My God! You're killing him!"

The DIA agent nodded. "You may be just a little slow, but even a moron like you gets it eventually. That, sir, is precisely the idea! We should've snuffed this creep a long time ago! Now lie down and shut up!" He shoved Perry backward, causing him to stumble and fall to the floor. "Face down, hands out to the sides, old man. Now," the DIA agent ordered.

Two of the commandos had wrestled Lois down and securely bound her wrists with a nylon tie. She had fought like a lioness to defend her man but, against these men, she didn't have a prayer.

With her mind she called desperately for help. She did not have the power of active telepathy, but she had hoped that Rachel might be listening for her. She was! She answered right away! "Lois! We know! Mark and I are coming now. We'll be there. We'll be there before they get you out of the building!"

"Careful, Rachel!" They've got kryptonite!

Rachel responded. "Yes, Lois! Don't worry! We know that too. And we will be ready."

Rachel and Mark both had heard Clark's telepathic cry as he was felled by the kryptonite. Mark had said to Rachel, "Honey, I'm gonna need you to run the conversion device. I'll enter the chamber. The process doesn't take long at all."

Rachel nodded and took her position in front of the control panel. She "spoke" to the machine in Kryptonese and the clear Plexiglas cylinder lifted. Mark mounted the "floating wafer" platform. Again Rachel spoke and the cylinder lowered, enclosing Mark on the platform. Within no more than two minutes, the process was complete. The cylinder lifted and Mark stepped down off the platform. He felt a warm tingling as his super healing quickly fused the fractures in the fingers of his right hand.

To verify his powers, he called to Lois with his mind. "Mom! Rachel and I are on our way! We'll be right there!"

"Mark!" Lois cried out with her mind. "How?"

"I'm back, Mom. And Rachel and I are on our way."

"Mark, I've told Rachel. Be careful. They have kryptonite. They've laid a chunk of it on your father's chest. He's dying, Mark. I don't know. I don't know if he's got much time left."

"Hang in there, Mom. We'll be right there!"

Mark and Rachel ascended into position and the teleportation device automatically beamed them outside about fifteen meters above the ground. From a hover they just vanished, dragging an horrific sonic boom in their wake.

As they approached downtown Metropolis, they spied the neo-gothic Daily Planet building. Although far from the tallest building in Metropolis, topped by its signature giant globe, belted by the "Daily Planet" moniker crawling along the equator, it was easy to single out. As they drew alongside the window to the city room, Mark called to Rachel with his mind. Rachel, they don't know about you. May not be any need to tip them off. Hang back and hover right here, outside the window. Keep your eyes and ears open. If I need you, I'll call you. If you see me go down, it will most likely be because of kryptonite, although I don't think it affects me the way it does most Kryptonians. At least, that's how it worked back on New K. But if I go down, just stay away from that stuff. You can't help us if you're down and out, too. They wanna kill us, Rachel. I know where they're coming from because, not all that long ago, I was one of them."

Rachel retorted. "You were never like them, Mark. Now go! Go and save your mom and dad! I will be right here and I will come if you need me."

As Rachel hovered just outside and just out of view, Mark, still dressed in his navy khaki uniform, flew into the Daily Planet city room. The four commando stretcher-bearers were just boarding the elevator with the now unconscious Superman as Mark settled onto the floor. "Gentlemen," he called. "That's far enough. Bring him back."

"As you were," one of the DIA agents answered. "I'll deal with this traitor punk and then we'll just be on our way." From the hip pocket of his suit coat, the agent drew out another lead lined cigarette case. He opened it, exposing another kryptonite fragment. As he slipped the cigarette case back into his side coat pocket, he held the kryptonite out in Mark's direction. Mark approached and gently but firmly removed the kryptonite fragment from then agent's hand. It made him feel dizzy and feverish, but he easily masked the effects. He reached into the agent's coat pocket and drew out the cigarette case. He placed the kryptonite fragment into it, closed the case and slipped it into the side pocket of his navy khaki windbreaker.

Then, in a blinding flash, he dashed to his father's side and removed the kryptonite fragment from his chest. He turned back to the agents. "I need the carrying case." They glared back him but did not answer. In a blur, he streaked across the room, grasped one of the agents by the throat and lifted him off the floor. "I've asked you nicely for the case. Please don't oblige me to not be nice. He spoke through gritted teeth with exaggerated enunciation, punctuating every syllable with a shake of his "prey." He scanned the man's pockets with his x-ray vision. "It must be the other guy," he concluded. He dropped the agent, allowing him to fall to the floor and turned to his companion. "Sir, we both know how this is gonna wind up. I'm gonna get my way. Make it easy on all of us and just give it up." The agent pulled the case out of the interior breast pocket of his suit coat and handed it to Mark. Mark dropped the kryptonite fragment into the case, snapped it closed and put it into the pocket of his windbreaker along with the other one. To the agent he asked, "Do you have any more?" Now, thoroughly intimidated, the agent shook his head.

"Thank you for your cooperation."

One of the commandos leveled his M-16 at Mark and opened fire in automatic mode. Unbidden, his super speed and super reflexes kicked in. From Mark's perspective, everything in the room slowed to a crawl. He easily spotted each of rounds as they spat out of the weapon and hurtled across the room, faster than the normal eye could follow. To Mark, they seemed to "float" across the room in a lazy, leisurely trajectory. Mark realized, "They can't hurt me. They'd bounce off my chest like marshmallows. But who knows where they'd wind up after that! Oh my God! The people! In a blinding flash, Mark intercepted every round with his right hand, palming them into his left. When the commando had emptied his magazine. Mark approached him. He was beside himself with outrage. To himself he thought, "Count to ten, Mark, and get a grip." His hazel eyes burned with barely contained fury. It took all the super human will now at his command not to incinerate the shooter with a lethal burst of his heat vision. He seized the commando's weapon, grasped it at the balance and easily snapped it in two with a swift squeeze of his fist. In a very low voice, that quavered with rage he spoke to the commando. "I know you saw me fly through that window over there. So, unless you live under a rock someplace, it had to have occurred to you that I at least might be impervious to your weapon fire. Where did you think those slugs were gonna wind up after they bounced off of me? This is your lucky day, pal. I've just saved your butt from who knows how many counts of first-degree murder. Now all you're gonna hafta answer for is attempted murder. Now git yer ass up against that wall before * I * wind up on charges for murder!"

Mark spoke to the commandos and to the DIA agents. "You are all involved in a renegade operation. Every one of you has been complicit in attempted murder. You will lay down your weapons and line up over here facing the wall," Mark pointed, "while I summon the police." He turned to Lois and beckoned to her. In a curt, authoritative "take charge" tone he ordered, "Come here." She did. With a flick of his right index finger, Mark easily snapped the nylon tie that had bound his mother's wrists. "Mom, call 911." To the Daily Planet staff, he commanded. "All of you, it's OK now. It's over. Get back on your feet and relax. But none of you leave. The police might need statements from each of you. To Perry, whom he was helping to his feet, he asked, "Are you OK Mr. White?"

Perry was always a journalist first. But he was still reeling from the shock of seeing Mark now with powers like Superman, but also with an apparent immunity to green kryptonite. Perry had known Mark even before he was born. He was at a loss for words. Mark, sensing Perry's confusion, smiled. "I'll explain it all to you, Mr. White. I'll give the Daily Planet the exclusive, but Mom and Dad get the byline. Deal?"

Perry nodded vigorously. "Deal, Mark! Yes, Son, we got a deal. Daily Planet gets the exclusive and Lois and Clark get the byline.

Superman was just coming around. Mark was at his side. He helped him to his feet. "Superman, are you OK?"

"I am now. What about you?"

Mark flexed the fingers of his right hand for Clark and grinned. "Good as new!" Mark turned back to Lois. "You OK Mom?"

She nodded.

"Did you call the cops?"

She nodded again. "They're on their way."

"Well, I hope you told them to come in force. This is a fairly sizeable group of perps they're gonna hafta cart down to city lockup."

Lois assured him. "It's OK Mark. They'll be here any minute."

"Fine. We'll just wait here till they arrive."

To the commandos and DIA agents, Mark called. "Just keep pressing yer noses into that wall in front of you. Anybody so much as moves, I'll break yer freakin' legs!"

Clark's face darkened with worry as he moved to position himself between Mark and the prisoners. With his mind, Mark "spoke" to his dad. "Uh, no, Dad, not really. I was only bluffing. I think I should be able 'corral' these goobers with measures well short of broken bones."

Visibly relieved, Clark relaxed. Mark shook his head and chuckled softly. With his mind he upbraided his father. "Yer such a boy scout, Dad!"

Clark indulged himself a grin as he "thought" to his son. "You too, Mark. You try so hard to be a tough guy. But you're just as big a softie as I ever was!"

A little too hotly, with his mind, Mark shot back, "Am not!"

And Clark retorted grinning ever more broadly, "Are too!"

Wryly, Mark responded. "Oh yeah? Well, if you rat me out, Pops, I'll break your legs!"

Clark could not contain his laughter. Everyone but Mark was mystified as Clark thought back to him "Yeah, son, I love you too!"

The door from the stair well opened and a detail of fifty uniformed Metropolitan police entered the city room and arrested the DIA agents and commandos. As Metropolis PD were snapping handcuffs onto their prisoners' wrists and leading them to the stairwell, Inspector Henderson stepped off the elevator. He approached Clark and Mark. "Superman! I understand it was Clark Kent's son who flew in through that window and did the takedown?"

Clark nodded. "Yes, Clark 'loaned' me his sons and what a super man Mark here has turned out to be!"

Inspector Henderson arched his eyebrows. To Mark, he said, "But you are Clark's son. You have super powers, but you're Clark's son. How?"

Superman answered. "For now, Inspector Henderson, just know that it can be done and that it was done."

"You mean you were born normal but now you have super powers?"

Mark smiled and nodded. "Yes, sir. That's right. Born normal and now I have powers, for now."


Superman smiled. "Let's just leave it at that for now, Inspector. But, the long and the short of it is, as far as I know, any Terran could be given super powers. The physiological differences between Terrans and Kryptonians are not so great as you might imagine."

Mark briefed Inspector Henderson on his run in with the DIA agents and the commandos, including their attempts on his and Clark's life with kryptonite, as well as the gunplay by one of the commandos. Briefly, Inspector Henderson questioned Superman, Lois and Perry White. Then he moved off to interview other Daily Planet staffers.

As Inspector Henderson stepped away, Mark observed, "He's wasting his time. Nothing will happen to any of these guys. All charges will be dropped."

Clark replied. "Come on, Mark. I think we've done all we can here. At least for now."

Mark answered, "Well, I promised Mr. White an exclusive interview. I got him to agree to give Mom and Dad the byline."

"Yes, Mark, but you can come back for that. Right now, I wanna get Lois to the Fortress. Then we can decide where we go from there."

Back at the Fortress, Clark, Lois, Mark and Rachel repaired to the "apartment." There they sat around the table assessing the situation and what was to be done.

Clark spoke. "Mark, what was done to you was an atrocity, an abomination. It was an abject betrayal of everything America stands for. Due process, freedom from forced self-incrimination, even basic human dignity, everything sacred to our freedom was thrown out the window because of this fear and hatred of our kind. I cannot honestly claim that there was no reason for this to happen. But I do insist that the reason is not a legitimate excuse.

We Kryptonians cannot all be painted with the same broad brush. We are not all monsters. When Lord Nor came, I spared no effort to thwart his attacks on the people of Smallville and Metropolis. I couldn't leave them in the lurch and I didn't! They are my people: They are more my people than the people of New Krypton! And what Ching did, once he got to know us. He stood up to the line for all of us as did others among the New Kryptonians. Maybe some of them might've done more to help us. But only Nor and his men truly sought to do harm to the people of Earth. And yet he and his men have come to be defined as who and what all the Kryptonian people are, at least in the eyes of some very influential people.

Well, I won't sit idly by while this fear is translated into a reign of terror that steals America's soul! I'm going to the President, today. I'm going to call her to account for what was done to you, Mark. And the people responsible, all of them are going to be held accountable. You did nothing wrong. And, yet, they brutalized and terrorized and maimed my son!" Clark choked. "My little boy. I am going to intervene as I have never done before and nip this sickness in the bud. And, Mark, it is your duty to help me. You swore an oath when you first put on your uniform, to defend the Constitution. And that, Son, is what you are going to do, with my help."

Mark started to object, but Clark flashed him the look. The look of a father- disciplinarian who brings his son up short. "I am not finished speaking, Mark. You! You share part of the responsibility. You were in with them. You allowed yourself to be seduced by their hatred, their fear and their paranoia. Bless Rao, when the time came, your heart prevented you from committing the ultimate atrocity: Annihilation of an entire world of innocent people, just to get at a handful of scoundrels! I knew your heart, Mark, Ching and I both, even when you didn't! But, even though your heart was pure, you did let them poison your mind." Clark choked again. "And, in the name of this, this." Clark searched his mind for the words. "… paranoid cabal, you allowed yourself to be tortured and mutilated…"

Mark protested again and again his father overrode him. Clark was fighting back his tears. Through sobs, he stammered. "You did, Mark! You sent us away! You would have allowed Rachel and me to look on helpless while they hurt you!" You are steadfast in your devotion to duty, Mark. But they have taken advantage of you, of my son. And you've allowed them to sell you a phony bill of goods. Well, they've broken faith with you and they've broken faith with me. And now I'm going to take my son back. The Navy cannot have you any more, Mark. They cannot have my son!"

Rachel interjected. "And they cannot have my husband!"

And as Lois grasped Rachel's hand she added, "Nor my son."

Mark sighed. "I guess I'm outvoted."


Chapter 18 Premonition

Clark reassured Mark. "We will make it right. I promise you that. But we're going straight to the top with this. No more games. No more pussy footing. Mark, this is the very last time they will ever do what they've done to you today and to your mom and the other staff members in the Daily Planet city room. They're afraid of me and people like me. But I won't let them use that as a pretext for thuggery like what they did today.

They want the means to defend themselves against Kryptonians who might attack them. We will help them find a way. But more important, Mark, I'm going to put a stop to this wanton brutality. That ends today!"

Mark interjected. "I might be able to help with the counter-Kryptonian defense."

Clark asked. "How?"

"Well, first I've got to get my laptop computer back. Last time I saw it was at NAS, Alameda, just before I got intercepted by those DIA goons. It's probably on a MAC flight to NAS Agaña, in Guam by now, along with the rest of my gear. It is unless those DIA guys pulled it off the plane. That MAC bird is probably on the ground refueling, at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii about now."

"So what's up with your laptop, Mark?"

"Well, Dad, now it's time for me to fess up. I helped myself to a whole slew of technology from New Krypton, including a scalable kryptonite rifle. The design can be adapted to any size from a hand held pistol, to a rifle, or field gun. It could even be fitted to aircraft. Oh, and I took the specs of the New Krypton air force anti-gravity drives. Most of the stationary infrastructure out there runs on geo-thermal power. They use anti-matter power for surge demand with an array of supplemental fusion reactors as backups. But for aircraft, and ground movers, mostly, they use micro anti-matter power plants. And I got the specs on their warp drive. Before I'm done, we will have translight space travel. And we will be well equipped to defend ourselves if a gaggle of renegade New Kryptonians come back here."

"Mark!" Clark exclaimed, "If your laptop has fallen into the wrong hands…"

"The data is encrypted, Dad. And the encryption algorithm is actually firmware on a Kryptonian logic chip I retrofitted onto a pc card. Theoretically, it would take decades before our best computer geeks here on Earth could crack the cipher key. So, realistically, I'd say we've got a good six months."

Clark nodded. "So your laptop's most likely either on that plane or at the safe house in California. We'll fly to California first and, if we don't find it there, we'll hop on out to Hawaii."

"C'mon, Mark, let's go. Lois, Rachel. Wait here. We'll be back with that laptop."

Rachel objected. "I want to come too."

Mark shook his head. "No Rachel. I don't wanna leave Mom here alone. Something goes wrong with us, she's stranded up here. Not good!"

Lois tried to reassure Mark. "No, Mark. Rachel can go if she wants. It's OK. I'll be fine."

"No Mom, you won't! If you got stuck up here and had to summon help, the location of the Fortress is blown. And there's stuff here we can't allow to fall into the wrong hands. Stay here, Rachel. We'll be right back."

Rachel said to Mark. "Ok, Dear. We'll wait right here."

The laptop was not at the safe house. Clark and Mark arrived at Hickam Air Force Base just as the MAC flight from Alameda taxied up to the transient ramp alongside the base operations building.

"Dad, that's the bird! My stuff oughta be on board. I've still got my claim tags with me, but my gear is checked through to Guam. It's not supposed to come off here."

"Lets make sure your things are on board first."

With x-ray vision and super speed, Mark thoroughly scanned the baggage onboard the aircraft. He did not see any of his gear or his laptop.

"Are you sure, Mark? If it wasn't at the safe house, it has to be here."

"No it doesn't, Dad. And it isn't. It could've been taken with me to the safe house and then taken from there to someplace else after we left. Or they might've impounded my stuff at NAS, Alameda and taken it who knows where. Dad, I've got to get that laptop back. The information is safe for now, but it'd be only a matter of time before they cracked my cipher key and then, they'd have everything on their terms. I brought all that material back home, intending to share it, but on our terms. I think we'd best get a move on and try to trace down my laptop."

They returned to the MAC terminal at NAS, Alameda. Mark spoke with one of the Navy baggage handlers. "I saw them hustle you into that van, Sir. Frankly I'm surprised to see you here. It didn't look good for you for a while there. I'm glad it's worked out OK for you. But some other guys came right behind the men who took you away in the van. They wanted your gear. They seemed legit: DIA ID and the whole schmear. I'm sorry sir. We'd never have let them have it. But it all seemed so legit."

Mark smiled reassuringly and laid his hand on the young man's shoulder. "And that it was. But I just need to know if you have any idea where they've taken my stuff." Mark smiled again. "I would kinda like to get it back."

The young sailor looked a little uncertain. Mark looked into his eyes. "They won't know I heard it from you."

"Well, Sir, maybe I shouldn't be telling you this. But I overheard them saying they're taking your stuff to the Livermore Lab."

"Thanks so much. And, like I said, no one will know it was you who told me."

Mark left the base operations building and slipped away to a discrete location where his father, in his "Superman" persona, was waiting. He spoke one word to his father, "Livermore!"

They took off.

They found the laptop and the rest of Mark's gear at Livermore. It had been flown there from Alameda and had not yet been unpacked. The transient aircraft line workers were quite surprised to see the Man of Steel, accompanied by an obviously super-powered young naval officer, landing on the parking ramp at the airstrip.

Mark had demanded of the cargo handlers. "Where is the consignment from the NAS, Alameda flight?"

They pointed out a Navy T-39 liaison jet at the end of the ramp. "They're just offloading now, Sir."

Faster than the normal eye, Mark, followed by his dad, flashed alongside the T-39. He spied his duffle and computer bag on a baggage cart alongside the aircraft. "Ah, there's my stuff." Mark scanned the contents. His belongings and his laptop computer were all there. Mark retrieved his laptop and duffel.

"OK, Dad. Good to go. We'd better beat feet."

As they ascended, with his sensitive hearing, Mark heard the SEOP jet bearing down on them. The jet was still well out of targeting range, but it was coming on fast. Forewarned, with his father in tow, Mark could easily have dodged the lethal kryptonite directed energy bolts from the SEOP weapon slung under the belly of the attacking FA-37 jet. But the pilot would be killed when the weapon was detonated. Mark could not allow that. He communicated to Clark telepathically. "We gotta move, Dad." He latched onto his father's arm and, dragging him behind, flashed over the horizon, evading the SEOP interceptor before the pilot could acquire his "Babylon" targets.

Clark asked, "What was that all about, Son?"

"Never mind, Dad. Don't ask. Don't tell."

Mark had been expecting a SEOP interceptor jet would come and he had been ready for it. The SEOP weapon and sensor systems had been developed at the Livermore Labs and this was the site of ongoing SEOP research and development. The presence of 'Target Babylon' at this installation would most certainly elicit a swift SEOP response.

When they arrived back at the Fortress, they returned to the apartment and sat around the table. Although, among the four of them, only Lois needed to eat, Lois and Rachel had cooked a meal. It had been prepared mostly from frozen and concentrated ingredients. There was not much fresh meat or produce available nearby. But it was satisfying. As they sat and ate, they talked.

Clark spoke first. "I have an idea what went on back there as we were leaving Livermore, Mark. I promised I wouldn't ask you or try to delve into it. But I never promised I wouldn't indulge in a little speculation. And we need to get with the President to defuse this situation right away. I think some of the information from your laptop might go a long way toward easing the minds of at least the reasonable men involved in this anti-Krytponian defense network you guys have set up on Earth. I'll want to look over your material and decide what to give up to them and what to hold back."

Mark glanced first at his dad and then at Rachel and Lois. "Well, we're not holding back on the anti-matter translight and sublight drives and inter-stellar navigation designs and specifications. We need that as much as we need those kryptonite weapons. We're gonna want defense in depth. It's not very smart for us to sit here on Earth with our thumbs up our butts waiting until a gaggle of hostile Kryptonian renegades showed up. You guys move so fast, and it might take us too long to react to prevent casualties on our side. The farther out from our Sun we intercept those guys, the closer to level the battlefield will be. The Sun is where most of your powers come from. So, naturally, we'll wanna stop any Kryptonian bad guys before they get close enough to get their 'solar batteries' charged up. And who knows how many other planets there are out there with folks like you guys who might try to come at us? Since you landed on Earth, Dad, the age-old question, 'are we alone?' has been answered definitively. But one thing I've learned from my trip out to NK. Not only are we on Earth not alone. This universe we live in is, potentially, a very dangerous place. We need those weapons, Dad. We need to find a way to co-exist with the New Kryptonians. And, more than likely, we're gonna need some kind of peace treaty with them and, long term, we're gonna need to forge an alliance with them."

Clark nodded. "As things are now, Mark, I think the New Kryptonians would go for that today, just on the strength of the fact that you're from Earth. But getting the nations of Earth to agree would be the real challenge. Getting that to happen would be about as easy as herding cats!"

Rachel nodded and agreed emphatically. "Clark, they would've elected Mark President of the new republic had we stayed on New Krypton!"

Mark remained silent. He was obviously thinking, but he had deployed his mental veil. Finally Clark asked, "A penny for your thoughts, Son."

"What about your machine, Dad? Can we scale up that thing?"

"You mean the conversion chamber? You wanna turn everyone on Earth into super beings?"

"No, Dad. Not really. I think that would just be way too messy, although maybe that might not be such a bad idea after all. But it probably wouldn't work. And that wasn't why I asked."

Lois stopped him. "Hold it, Mark. Before you go any further, I think someone should be taking notes."

Mark leaned over in his chair. Picked up his laptop carrying case, pulled out his laptop out of it and passed it to Lois. "Here, Mom. Knock yourself out." Lois took the laptop and booted up.

Once it had booted up, Lois gazed at it askance and said. "Mark, what's this? Most be something wrong with your system."

Mark replied, "Oops! Sorry, Mom. There's a pc card in the pocket on the side of the bag. Pull it out and stick it into the slot. Lois did so and after a moment, the random waterfall patterns were replace by a login screen.

"Username?" Lois queried.

"'mattmark,' one word, no spaces, all lower case, password 'chester,' all lower case."

Mark grinned at his Mother and Dad. "That PC card is my Krypto-crypto-gizmo. Without that little jewel, you'd get nothing outta my laptop."

Clark chuckled as he shook his head at his son. "Geek." Mark smiled back. "Guilty as charged and damn proud of it!"

As Lois' fingers clattered over the laptop keyboard, Mark presented his idea.

"We build a giant space station. First, we transform a few more people, like you did for me. Uncle Jimmy (Jimmy Olsen) would for sure be on our shortlist. And we could recruit a few others. I've got a couple of buds in my Navy squadron who'd be perfect for this."

Clark interrupted. "Whoa, Mark! We take Jimmy and these guys from your squadron and turn them into super men?"

"Yes I know it sounds radical, Dad. But just hear me out. And, besides, I'm not looking at this as some short-term measure. When we get this mess straightened out here on Earth with these DIA guys who tried to kill us, I think Rachel and I are gonna hafta move back out to NK. We'll be lucky if we can save your secret, Dad. But now everybody knows I am a superman. Even if I had you change me back…"

Clark interrupted. "Which I will not do!"

Mark brushed aside his father's objection. "Whatever, Dad. We'll talk about that later. Just hear me out. As I was about to say, even if you changed me back, I'd be a marked man. It'd be only a matter of time before some wacko did me in. So, bad as I hate to admit it, going back to the fleet is not in the cards. I'll hafta find some way to pay them back for my pilot training, but spending six years with the fleet is just not a viable option. As a normal man, I'd be a sitting duck. As a super man, they'd try to turn me into a living, breathing weapon system. That's definitely not gonna happen."

Clark sighed. "Well, Mark, I'm sure happy you and I don't have to fight that battle!"

Mark reached over and laid his palm on the back of his father's hand and said earnestly as he looked him in the eye, "We're totally cool on that score, Dad. I know the 'rules.'"

Clark smiled at Mark. He didn't say anything. He just indulged himself in the glow of a father's pride and joy in his youngest son.

Mark continued. "You know, we can use that "Daily Planet" exclusive to spin this story any way we want. It's a long shot, but maybe we can save your secret identity. It'd take some orchestration and some fancy footwork, but we might be able to bring it off. Maybe we'll get lucky. What do you think?"

Clark shook his head. "I don't know, Mark. I think it's pretty much out the window but what've you got?"

"Well, what we do is have you tell them exactly what you told Inspector Henderson in the Daily Planet city room; that you 'borrowed' Jon, Lane and me from your 'good friends,' Clark and Lois. You transformed us in your conversion chamber and sent us out to NK as your 'sons,' adopted according to New Kryptonian law. As your 'adopted sons,' according to the law out there on New Krypton, we were entitled to serve on their Governing Council. I know for a fact that, under the old regime, New Krypton law made no distinction between natural offspring and adoptees. That would explain why I suddenly appeared in the 'Daily Planet' city room with these powers after a lifetime of living without them. The biggest snag is having you show up at the same time as both Clark and in your Superman persona. Do you think you could rig up some kind of holographic 'super- spoofer?'"

Clark nodded. "I've done that before. It's kind of tricky and a dual "appearance" of extended duration would be risky. But as long as we kept it short and sweet, I should be able to bring that off.

Mark replied. "I think all we'd need would be for 'Clark' to corroborate that he, Lois and their sons had agreed to this Kryptonian 'adoption' by Superman and that the three sons had gone out to NK to break their political impasse. You did the conversion thing with us so we would be able to survive out there. The side effect being that, back here on Earth, now we have powers like yours. Of course, Jon and Lane have opted to remain out there. Unless you came up with something better, that's what I see as our best shot at preserving your secret identity."

Clark answered. "It's worth a shot. It's no secret that 'Clark' and 'Superman' are close friends. So why wouldn't something like that be believed? Having both of me in one place at the same time should allay any suspicions of all but the most imaginative. Frankly, I think most peoples' attention will be drawn away from my secret identity to the fact of Kryptonian physiology being imparted to normal Terrans."

Mark agreed. "Good point, Dad."

Well, that brings me back to my idea. Like I said, we recruit a handful of guys to help us and we build a giant space station 'wheel' like that big sucker in "2001 A Space Odyssey." The Artificial gravity would come from the centrifugal force of the spinning of the 'wheel.'" Actually, we would build two adjacent wheels, connected by enclosed, pressurized 'crosswalks' at regular intervals. The crosswalks would actually be mass 'conversion chambers.' Enter at one end with Terran physiology. Emerge at the other end with Kryptonian physiology. Going the opposite direction would reverse the process. We'd hafta deploy the thing far enough out from the sun that those with Kryptonian physiology would not be endowed with super powers. The security ramifications would pose a challenge, but, if your conversion device were scalable, this idea would be eminently doable. It would enable regular travel between Earth and New Krypton. And I can see advantages to both sides if we were able to implement a plan like this. Might be a tough sell to some of the players Earth side, but, hey, even if it took awhile to get all the big countries on board, the sooner we made our pitch, the sooner we might be able to sell the plan."

Lois paused in her typing and asked Mark. "But why would anyone on either side actually want to do this?"

Mark agreed. "Good question, Mom. And, you're right. Not every one would. We'd face opposition on both sides. But, if you think about it, the benefits to both sides outweigh the drawbacks. For one thing, Earth is very vulnerable right now. In the past, we were such a backwater that we weren't even on anybody's 'radar screen.' Right now, we're still not much more than just barely a tiny blip. But you've already seen what can happen when a scoundrel like Lord Nor comes here. You get a guy like that who comes from an advanced alien civilization with advanced physiology and we are toast! We didn't have anything remotely capable of defending ourselves and when we tried with the pathetic 'pop-guns' we had in our collective arsenals, Nor and his thugs cleaned our clocks. If it wasn't for Colonel Cash's man getting in that lucky shot with that kryptonite RPG, we'd all be slaves right now or, more likely, dead."

Lois snapped, "Don't talk to me about Colonel Cash, Mark. He almost murdered your father!"

"I agree, Mom. Let's not talk about that. I say we just drop that whole topic. Nobody's gonna change anybody's mind on that and, besides, it's not really relevant to this." "But my point is, advanced Kryptonian weapon technologies would put us here on Earth in a lot better position defensively. Again, we would have some security issues. We couldn't allow any of that advanced Kryptonian weaponry to fall into the wrong hands. But the New Kryptonians and the Kryptonians before them faced the same challenge that we here on Earth would have to face in dealing with those weapons. And, to a lesser degree, so do we, even now with, what is for us, some really hi-tech stuff. In our defense here on Earth, we did manage to get through the cold war without blowing ourselves up. But if we had a mutual defense treaty with New Krypton, and I don't think we'd ever have a better chance to persuade them to agree than we do right now, we could expect to have their support if some other pack of aliens lit into us."

"But the New Kryptonians would benefit as well, substantially! For one thing, their world is very under populated. They are facing a severe demographic crunch. It takes a lotta folks to support the New Kryptonian technologies. A lot more people than they have now. They're playing 'catch up,' in rebuilding their population. And I am almost certain some of their mission critical systems are gonna go belly up before they can grow and train qualified people in sufficient numbers to keep things going. They desperately need an infusion of warm bodies. Well, Earth has got the people. All we need to do is persuade the New Kryptonians to allow Terran settlers to land on their world. The implementation would be a matter to be negotiated. But the advantages to both sides are well worth the effort to arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement."

Lois objected, "But, Mark, that doesn't make any sense. With their super-advanced technologies, wouldn't the New Kryptonians actually need fewer people?"

"You'd think so, Mom. With more advanced technologies, normally, it should take fewer folks to accomplish a specific task than would be the case at a lower level of technology. Well, hey, that's just great for the old tasks. But, with advancing technologies come new tasks that previously never existed. For example, when the automobile came on the scene, demand for blacksmiths and stable boys went into the tank.

But auto assembly line workers were needed, an occupation that had never existed before, not to mention auto-mechanics and," Mark chuckled, "used car salesmen!" And what about the computer revolution: Programmers, web designers, tech support bubbas and all of that. So you see, Mom, for every blacksmith or other low-tech job that gets displaced by the advent of the automobile, or computer or some new fangled machine tool, notionally, ten new jobs pop up in their places.

So, it takes more people to run our society today than it did 100 years ago and more to run the society of 100 years ago than 200 years ago, back to the advent of the industrial revolution, which is what has spurred most of our global population growth since then. The last time that happened was when Earth's population transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. Relative to previous epochs, global population growth rates exploded at the dawn of the agricultural and industrial revolutions."

"So, Mark, are you telling me that this whole litany of 'over population' is all wrong?"

Mark nodded. "Yeah, Mom. Pretty much. It's all bogus, from A-to-Z. Don't believe all that baloney. And, besides, if you think about it, it's really kinda racist. Where are they telling us there's too many white people? Lord Bertrand Russell didn't make any bones about it. In his screed, "The Impact of Science on Society," He lamented the inadequacy of wars and plagues to stem the tide of population growth, 'especially among the darker skinned populations.' Russell went on to prescribe germ warfare as a means of 'culling the human herd.' These 'zero population growth' wackos are nothing but Nazis with a smiley face."

Lois objected. "Mark! Not all of those people are like that. That's not true."

"Oh, sorry, Mom. You're right. The ones who aren't blood thirsty Nazis are the Nazi's dupes. But, the truth is, New Krypton has no monopoly on types like Lord Nor. In his own way, Lord Bertrand Russell was just as bad as Lord Nor!"

"But here's the rub. The Kryptonians have the technologies, but not the folks to keep things running long term. They may not realize it yet, but that stuff is going to start breaking. Some of their stuff self-maintains up to a point, but not all of it. And, long term, self-healing systems are no substitute for a human mind and a human's pair of hands. And it'll take an army of worker bees to get out there and fix it. That's where we come in.

But the clock is ticking. And, if we don't get a move on, we won't have time to get our people converted to Kryptonian physiology, transported out there and trained to work on their systems. The wheels are gonna start comin' off their technological 'engine' before too much longer. And then, their population will spiral into a nosedive and then they could all be lost, or forced to give up their hi-tech gizmos and move here. If we let that happen, everybody loses out! Most of their hi- tech would be lost to both our worlds. So, like I said, it's not like we here on Earth don't bring real value to the table. And, when you get down to it, which would you rather try to sell to the nations of Earth? A measured and well managed emigration of Terrans to NK or a headlong influx of New Kryptonian super being refugees here on Earth? Two problematic but, nevertheless, distinct alternatives."

Clark turned to Rachel. "You're the New Kryptonian here. What do you think?"

She nodded. "It isn't as though Mark's point hasn't been mooted on New Krypton. But just like on Old Krypton where most of our leaders didn't want to face the inevitability of the planet's destruction and they didn't, on New Krypton, they weren't willing to face the inadequacies of our political and social systems until Mark got there. But now, given Mark's record on New Krypton so far, I think any opposition, such of it as might arise, would be fairly muted. I have a sense that opposition from here might be a lot more strident. As for me, well, I wouldn't be a fair judge. Mark is my husband and, as far as I'm concerned, all his ideas are just wonderful." She winked at Mark. "But, I think we should give serious consideration to everything Mark has said."

Lois and Clark both nodded as Clark said, "Agreed! But now we've got to deal with these men who've done this to Mark. And we've got to allay the fears and suspicions of the military men around the world. They have a right to be concerned. I'm concerned. New Krypton is not the only populated red sun planet out there! Earth has a serious vulnerability problem that has to be addressed. Mark, what I think we should do is you and I fly to Washington and ask to speak to the President. You take your laptop and show the President what you have to offer. I say we start out with a soft sell. But if they don't bite, the bottom line is, I'm not planning on giving her a choice. This defense system they have now, I don't know all the ins and outs of it, Mark, but I can just tell it's been giving you fits since you got back home. That has got to change.

"As for the alliance with New Krypton, that space station idea you have as a way station between Earth and New Krypton, and the Earth-to-New Krypton emigration program, I think we can at least introduce those concepts to the President in this first meeting. And, oh, by the way, Mark, as a Naval officer, you serve at the pleasure of the President. I'm gonna tell her that I need you and that I would be very much obliged if she would release you from the remainder of the Naval service obligation you incurred with your flight training."

Mark sighed. "I'm not gonna lie, Dad. I'm not overjoyed by the prospect of leaving the Navy. But I agree. I don't think there's any other choice. I'd live up to my obligation if there were some practical way for me to bring it off, but I don't see how that's possible. But, Dad, I do wanna go back out to the boat and say 'goodbye' to the guys in my squadron. And I wanna touch base with those guys I told you about earlier that I wanna recruit for early conversion to help us build that space station which, now that I think about it, once it's completed ought to be placed near New Krypton. Maybe we could build a backup station on the fringe of our own solar system, but maybe even that might not be such a great idea. Mass conversion chambers in proximity to our solar system, is probably just asking for trouble."

Clark, Lois and Rachel all agreed.

Mark said, "Dad, we do need to set up that interview between you or Mom or both and me for that "Daily Planet" exclusive I promised to Mr. White."

Clark agreed. "We'll wrap things up here and fly to the townhouse in Metropolis. "Lois, Rachel, we'll drop you two off there. Then Mark and I will fly to Washington and ask to speak to the President. We'll make our pitch to her there and then fly on back to Metropolis. Tomorrow morning, Lois, you and I will go on into work, me as 'Clark.' Mark, I'll contact you telepathically when it's time for you to make your appearance. I think it'd be great if you just flew in through the window. That isn't really necessary, but I'd really appreciate it if you'd do that for me. Don't ask me why. It's 'just because.'"

Mark grinned as he rolled his eyes. "Oh no! We're back in that mode again. And I know you never said 'just because' to Jon and Lane."

Clark smiled back at Mark. "That's because with them, I never had to! They were the easy ones! You lived up to the stereotype of the youngest child. You were the holy terror among you three boys. All I can say is, 'Thank God I have super powers!' Because, if I didn't, between you and me, one of us would be dead!"

Mark, Lois and Rachel all got a good laugh out of that one.

After dropping Lois and Rachel off at the townhouse in Metropolis, Clark and Mark flew to the White House in Washington. They landed just outside the main gate and informed a very nonplussed security guard that they wanted to see the President.

Within ten minutes, they were admitted and escorted by two secret service agents to the White House West Wing to meet with the President in the Oval Office. As they entered the room, Mark, still decked out in his Navy khaki uniform, snapped to attention and rendered his Commander-in- Chief a sharp parade ground salute.

The President returned the compliment and then stepped around her desk to greet Superman and Mark. As they shook hands, the President first addressed the Man of Steel. "It's an honor to meet you, Superman. I always assumed this would happen eventually. Well, so today is the day! I'll be frank. I think I might have some idea what brings you here. But, why don't we move over to the sofas and have a seat? Then you can tell me what's on your mind."

As they sat down, the President spoke to Mark. "Lieutenant Kent, you've been very busy these last couple of days. I've got the report on my desk about your little run-in with those DIA Agents in Metropolis."

Clark interrupted. "Does that report mention that an armed band of commandos stormed the Daily Planet city room? Does it tell you that those 'DIA Agents' tried to kill Mark and me? Does that report happen to mention that one of those thugs opened fire on Mark with an automatic rifle filling the room with flying lead which, only by the grace of God, Mark was able to intercept with his bare hands before someone, perhaps even the shooter himself, was injured or killed by a stray bullet? Does that report mention that, before Mark's 'run-in' with those DIA agents, he was kidnapped and hauled off to a safe house and brutalized and tortured to milk him for information without benefit of legal counsel or even the most cursory civilized investigation to ascertain the facts? Madam President, you are the Commander-in-Chief. These men work for you. But, whether you're aware of it or not, your men have trashed the Constitution and engaged in brutal torture of this young man." The Man of Steel paused as he choked. "Ma'am, they broke all of the fingers in his right hand!"

The President looked bewildered. "But, Superman, I don't understand! He has super powers. He is invulnerable. Isn't that true, Lieutenant Kent?"

Superman spoke for Mark. "He is now. And he was when he returned from New Krypton. I'll explain all of that. But, at Mark's insistence, I removed his powers as soon as he returned to Earth. I'll tell you now, what this young man accomplished while he was out there on New Krypton for not even a month is astounding. And what he did has made the people in this world immeasurably safer than we all were before he went out there. He's a hero out there and an unsung hero here on Earth."

Clark explained everything to the President, but using Mark's 'legend' regarding 'Superman's' Kryptonian 'adoption' of the three sons of his close friends, Clark and Lois Kent. Clark smiled as he said, "Madam President, I could not be more proud of this young man if he were my own flesh and blood."

The President looked from Clark to Mark. "That's quite an adventure you had on New Krypton, young man. And I second your adopted father's accolade. I'm as proud as I can be of what you've accomplished out there."

Mark blushed and glanced down at his shoes in an "aw shucks" attitude.

The President looked back at Clark. "Superman, the account I have on my desk does not report any of the details you've just reported to me. I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to share that report with either of you. But, suffice it to say, I will be looking into this. And, if laws have been broken, which would appear to be the case given what you have just told me. I will do all I can to see to it that those who did this will be called to account."

Superman nodded. "That's fair enough, Madam President. But, without compromising any of your classified information, I would appreciate knowing how the investigation is faring. I would like to know that you and your administration intend to put a stop to this mistreatment and degradation of human beings. Ma'am, that isn't what America has ever been about, and I'll sit here and beg you to stand up for the values this country does stand for."

The President was both a canny politician and an adroit diplomat. "Superman, I know you to be an honorable man. And I am sure you would never make unfounded accusations. But, as you said, I have an obligation as Chief Executive to conduct a thorough and fair investigation. I will be happy to share with you as much as I can of what I find out. But I'll need you to tell me how best to inform you of my progress with the investigation and with how this matter is finally dealt with. I'll say right now that it is very possible that none of this will ever be made public by this administration. Perhaps it will, but I cannot promise you that. There may be very sound reasons that we cannot release this information to the public. As for the final disposition of this," the President paused, "this 'incident,' I won't be the one to make the final decision on that. If charges are brought, the decision on that rests with the Attorney General. And I cannot try to influence him unduly. But I won't let anyone from DOD or DIA do that either. I promise that, however this turns out, we are just going to let the chips fall where they may."

Superman nodded. "Yes, Ma'am, Madam President. Thank you. If you would just have the word passed to my friend Clark Kent. He can get word back to me."

Superman broached his request. "Madam President, Mark owes the Navy just shy of six years service obligation for his Navy pilot training. But he is much needed elsewhere. I need him and New Krypton needs him. And Earth needs him as well. But one less Navy pilot is not going to make all that much difference one way or the other. I'd consider it a personal favor if you would excuse Mark from the remainder of his Naval service obligation."

The President hedged. "I have a counter proposal, if you're both willing to listen."

Mark and Clark nodded as Mark spoke. "Ma'am, yes Ma'am."

Well, what we do is we separate Mark from the active Navy. But, if you like Mark, I could have you attached to a special Naval aviation reserve unit that operates out of Andrews Air Force base. "You could drill whenever you got the chance; at least keep your pilot quals current. Don't ask me why, Mark, but I've got a feeling you're going to need those quals before too long. I know that doesn't make sense. You don't need an airplane anymore. You can fly on your own without an airplane! Like I said, I know it doesn't make sense. Doesn't make sense to me either. But * I * would consider it a personal favor from you both if, after we release you from active duty, that you would just do Naval reserve drills often enough to keep your pilot quals current. I fully understand that we cannot expect you to fly combat missions anymore; at least not as long as you are a super- man. I wouldn't do that either if I had powers like yours. And I promise you this: No one will try to pressure you to use your powers as a US military weapon. If anybody tries, you come directly to me. And I'll put the kibosh on that straightaway."

Without even waiting for his dad's OK, Mark rushed to agree. "Madam President, I'd like nothing better than to keep my Navy reserve commission and to continue to fly. Flying on my own like my, uh, 'Dad' here is a thrill all its own. But I gotta tell you, Ma'am, so is flying an FA-37! When the Russians designed that bird, I think they knocked one outta the ballpark. I would've sorely missed my jet stick time."

The President looked to Clark. Are you OK with that arrangement, Superman?"

Clark replied. "You know how I feel about that, Madam President. I hate war and everything that goes into getting ready to fight one. I'd be a naive fool to deny the need for military preparedness but I don't have to like it. But, as long as that is what Mark wants to do, and as long as you stand by your assurances that no one will try to co-opt Mark into some kind of killer weapon with his powers, I won't stand in his way. It's his decision and I know very well how passionately Mark loves the Navy. After all, I am his 'Dad,' at least one of his 'dads.'" Clark winked at the President.

In a sudden flash of understanding, the President realized. "This man, Superman, is Clark Kent!" She didn't speak it out but in her mind she heard Clark's "voice." "And, Madam President, Mark, my wife and I, all three, would very much appreciate it if you would just keep that thought to yourself."

Not in the least bit thrown off balance by the presence of Superman's 'voice' in her mind, the President replied with her mind, "I will never so much as utter the thought."

"Thank you for that, Madam President. It's only by the grace of God that more people haven't figured it out."

Mentally, the President replied yet again. "Don't be so sure it wasn't the by grace of God that * I * did figure it out. I don't know why, Superman. But I've had an awful foreboding for the last several weeks now. I've got this strange premonition that something terrible is going to happen, and soon! And now I cannot shake this premonition that this meeting among the three of us will turn out to be providential"

With his voice, Mark, who had "heard" every word of the mental exchange between his Dad and the President asked, "Have you ever had anything like this happen to you before?"

The President shook her head. "No, Mark. Never. But my parents moved to Harlem from Jamaica just before I was born. My mother was pregnant with me when she and my father first arrived in America. She always told me about my grandmother, who died shortly before they left Jamaica. My grandmother was an 'Obeo woman.' That is kind of a seer. She could sense things that most of us can't. But I'm thinking maybe that's where some of this might be coming from. I was educated as an engineer at MIT. And I've always tried to view the world from a rational and systematic standpoint. But I'm not a dogmatic materialist or naturalist. I know we don't have all the answers. Sometimes things just happen that cannot be explained by science."

Clark agreed. "True, Madam President. But do you have any idea what this might mean?"

The President shook her head. "No, Superman, no inkling. And I don't really understand why I felt it might be important to keep Mark in the Naval reserves. It just came to me all of a sudden, and, somehow, it seemed that this was related in some way to my recurring foreboding. Frankly, you two are the first people I've even spoken to about any of this. If it hadn't come to me that Mark should remain in the Navy, I wouldn't have mentioned it to you. People would think I was crazy."

Clark reassured the President. "Well I don't think you're crazy, Ma'am. I haven't had the feelings of foreboding that you've been experiencing. But when those DIA thugs were working Mark over. I just knew it, somehow. It is part of my powers here on Earth. I just know when people I am close to are in trouble. What you have may work somewhat differently; but, given my own experience, I cannot dismiss your 'foreboding' out of hand. If anything more comes to you, Ma'am, please let me know. And if, by some chance, anything like what you've been getting comes to me, I'll make sure and let you know."

Mark interjected. "In a way, Madam President this might relate to another matter. Superman, I need you to leave. I need to talk to the President in private for just a few minutes and I can't have you listening in on us."

Clark nodded. "I understand." He moved to excuse himself from the Oval Office.

The President stopped him. "I think I know where this is going, Mark. I really do not feel comfortable discussing any of this. I trust you and your father implicitly. But this issue involves not just me. It isn't even just the United States. We have obligations to our allies and I have no right to go any further with this unless I consult with them. So, Superman, there is no need for you to step out. This conversation is not going to happen."

Mark brushed aside the President's objection. "I can give you most of what I hafta say with Dad sitting right here. Mark reached down to his carrying case and drew out his laptop computer. He opened it and booted it up. Ma'am, on my hard drive and duplicated on these DVDs," Mark pulled a DVD container out of his bag, "are specifications for weaponry that can be used as defense against any conceivable threat that might be mounted against us by a gaggle of renegade Kryptonian supermen. These include rifle sized kryptonite high-energy pulse shoulder weapons and even small arms no larger than a cell phone. But the design is scalable. It could be deployed as heavy artillery or even as an air to air or air to ground weapon. I think you and the 'allies' might wanna have a look at some of these designs and specifications. And, Ma'am, all this weaponry is dual use. Because of the kinetic power of these weapons, they're perfectly suited for use against any target, Kryptonian or Terran.

Also, I have design specs for an anti-matter energy reactor as well as for an advanced super efficient fusion energy reactor that's way more advanced than our latest designs. And there are plans for a star ship with trans-light drive as well as a hyperspace communication system. With that comm system, you could have virtually instantaneous contact clear to the Andromeda galaxy!"

Mark handed the DVD container to the President. "It's all here, Ma'am."

The President turned to Superman. "Are you sure we're ready for this?"

"No, Ma'am, not at all sure. But Mark has insisted that the nations of Earth be equipped to defend themselves from the likes of men like me."

Mark explained. "Madam President, now more than ever, the world needs to know that Lord Nor and his henchmen were an aberration. Until I went out to New Krypton and got to know those folks, I feared and hated them. Everyone in all of the military services is indoctrinated the same, not only in our military, but also in the armed services all over the world. Some buy off on it and some don't. Well, Ma'am, I was one of those who did. The truth is, until just before I left Earth to go to New Krypton, I did not even know that Dad is, well, uh, who and what the three of us know he also is, besides my dad."

The President was quite surprised. But she understood the need for discretion. "I don't understand, but maybe it's best we don't go into explanations here and now."

Mark spoke to the President with his mind. "At least not verbally. But the long and short of it is. My two older brothers were born like my dad. I was not. I was born as an ordinary Terran. I never knew the truth about them until just before Dad arranged to have me called back from deployment and sent off to New Krypton. He imparted these powers to me with a Kryptonian device just before I boarded a star ship for the transit to New Krypton. That was just over thirty days ago."

Mentally, the President replied. "So that much is true? Ordinary Terrans can be endowed with powers like Superman?"

Mark answered, again mentally. "That is imperative for anyone like us to travel to NK. We couldn't survive out there otherwise."

The President addressed Clark. "This is none of my business, so I'll frame this as a comment, not as a question. I do not understand why you hid your secret from Mark and why you didn't give him his powers when he was just a boy so he would've been like your other two sons."

Superman answered, "Madam President, I understand you're taking our measure now. And, frankly, I'm glad you broached the question. Under the circumstances, it's a fair question. I wanted to protect my son. I felt he would be safer and better off if he didn't know. But not telling Mark as a youngster is probably one of the worst mistakes I've ever made in my life. I won't lie to you, Ma'am, Mark has suffered because of my blunder and so have I. I did not realize I could do this for Mark, or for anyone else for that matter. And had I been more forthright, I could have done it for Mark. All along I could've done it for him. But, because I was so secretive I didn't find out about the enabling technology until very recently." Mark anticipated the President's next question. "No, Ma'am. The specs for that device are not on those DVDs I've given you. But, if things work out like I'm hoping they will, we'll need that technology as well, although, for reasons which should be obvious, those designs and specs must be very closely guarded."

The President replied, "Mark, I'm not really certain I understand why we would even want such a device lying around. Under Superman's control, I don't have a problem with it. And converting his son, or even an adopted son would be perfectly understandable. But why give the design to any of us here on Earth?" Mark answered simply, "So we can travel to New Krypton. So we can have trade and diplomatic relations and maybe even an alliance with the New Kryptonians. And the device works in reverse as well. So the New Kryptonians could come here without gaining super powers as they otherwise would."

The President laughed and shook her head. Mentally, she answered. "This is quite a can of worms you've opened for me, young man. I can see now that you like to upset the applecart wherever you go. I'm sure the folks out there on New Krypton were not ready for the likes of you when you showed up at their door."

Clark laughed too. "Mark is a real piece of work, Ma'am. And he was always a handful for me, for his mother and two older brothers and for my parents. In one sense, I find myself wondering how things would've turned out if he'd been born with his powers."

Mark rejoined. "Probably more like Jon and Lane. But, bless 'em, I'm just as happy to be me."

The President looked Clark in the eye. "I suspect, with the way you and your wife have raised your sons, the world owes you a debt of gratitude beyond your well known exploits. But I would hasten to add that your parents, I mean your parents here on Earth… I think the people of this world owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, much less even mentioned. But, I would at least like to acknowledge among the three of us what a magnificent job of raising you has been done by Mr. and Mrs. Kent. Please convey my respects to them.

A little sadly, Clark replied. "They're both gone now, Madam President, Dad about seven years ago and Mom a little under five years ago."

The President replied, "I am sorry. It would have been an honor to have met them."

Clark just nodded and answered "Yes, Ma'am. Thank you, Ma'am."

"Well, I think for now, I will go ahead and arrange Mark's separation from active duty Navy and transfer to the selected reserves. I would appreciate it if you would take the time to report in to the Naval aviation reserve unit at Andrews within the next few days. There will be no need for you to return to your squadron."

Mark interrupted. "Madam President, Ma'am could you hold off on my separation from active duty for just a bit? I'd very much appreciate the opportunity to fly back out to my ship to say "goodbye" to my buddies in the squadron. And I'd really appreciate it if you could arrange for me to have Presidential clearance to fly out to the boat on my own, you know, like I can do now, and land on deck. We both know why that would require your personal OK. And I'd just really like it if you could make that happen."

The President nodded and said, "I'll get on that first thing tomorrow morning with the Secretary of Defense. Just give me your contact information and we'll let you know as soon as you've been cleared out to the boat. As you know, I used to be a Navy pilot in my younger days. And I know Nimitz' captain would appreciate notice in advance of your farewell visit. I'd like a chance to give the captain and crew a heads up. I'm sure he'll have his Public Affairs Officer on deck taking pix and vids of your arrival! Assuming that's OK with you, of course."

Mark grinned like a little boy on Christmas day. "Ma'am, yes Ma'am!"

The President continued, "When you get back from the ship, call the White House Chief of Staff." The President paused, scrawled on a notepad, tore the sheet off and handed it to Mark. "This is his direct line. He'll get in touch with with the Secretary of Defense to arrange your transfer to the Naval aviation ready reserve unit out at Andrews."

The President rose from her seat on the divan as did Clark and Mark. "Superman, it has been an honor to meet you and your son. Mark, I will see to it that this material you've entrusted to me gets to the right people. Thank you very much! I think it would be a good idea if we stayed in touch on an occasional basis. And, Superman, I will keep you apprised on the progress of our investigation into the unauthorized and extra-legal 'activities' of the DIA."

Superman replied, "Thank you very much, Madam President. And, as for staying in touch, all you need to do is arrange to have 'Clark Kent' contacted through the Daily Planet."

After shaking hands, the President escorted Clark and Mark to the door. The two Secret Service agents who had escorted them to the Oval Office escorted them back to the front gate. Once outside the gate, Clark and Mark took to the air and flew back to the Kent's townhouse in Metropolis where Lois and Rachel were waiting for them.



On the command deck of a massive star ship the size of Manhattan Island, the commodore of the invasion fleet from Cygni Prime studied his tactical and navigation displays. His mission was clear. Attack and annihilate the human populations on two worlds in this galactic sector.

First, attack the relatively primitive but far more densely populated world. Intelligence probes have reported that the population is a fractious, contentious and disorganized lot, perpetually squabbling among themselves over issues of seemingly little consequence. There are many languages among the denizens of this world and so, many names for it. In the most widely spoken language, it is known as "Earth." The Commodore reflected, "The Earthlings will be easily defeated. Their technology is many solar revolutions behind our own. Their weaponry will be less than useless."

Then, the fleet will move on to attack the sparsely-populated world the inhabitants call "New Krypton." Their technology is more sophisticated than that of Earth, nearly on a par with that of Cygni Prime. But their numbers are relatively few. They too will be an easy target.

The fleet Commodore regarded contrasts and comparisons between Earth and New Krypton as merely academic. They are all humans. Orders from home are clear and unambiguous. "There will be no mercy. All humans are vermin and they are to be exterminated, down to the last man, woman and child. This sector of the Galaxy will be made safe for continued expansion of the Cygnian Empire. It is to be made free of humans."

The star ship command deck senior watch officer addressed the fleet commander. "Sir, we are ready to begin our course correction and deceleration for arrival in the Earth solar system."

The Commodore responded. "Very well, you are authorized to alter course and velocity as required."

The senior watch officer bowed and intoned, "By your command. We are due to arrive in Earth proximity within seven days."

The Commodore acknowledged, "Very well."


In the Kent townhouse in midtown Metropolis, the phone rang. Lois answered, just as Clark and Mark walked into the house from their return flight from Washington. Lois spoke. "Clark! This is the President! She's calling for you!"

Clark accepted the handset from Lois. "Yes, Ma'am, Madam President."

"Mister Kent, it's happened again! Only this time it's not just a feeling. I've just had a full-blown vision! I think I know what's coming. I'd like to see you and Mark in my office as soon as possible!"