Pictures of People
[set soon after Element Lad, Tellus, Projectra, etc. returned from the 21st century]
The mission to the past had been a unique experience, but knowing how it ended made it all the more wearying on a spiritual level. Querl had tried to warn him to think of the people he had met, the students he had taught, the Kryptonians he had fought beside as holographs of people long dead, mere snapshots in an old album, whose destinies had long ago been written, but he found it impossible to distance himself in that manner. He envied Tellus, able to conceal himself and limit his interactions with the inhabitants of the 21st century, but then recalled that he had found it necessary to link telepathically with thousands of doomed Kryptonians, sharing his soul with them to coordinate their activities in the war against Brainiac and his machines, while concealing from them the inevitability of their fate and the futility of the fight.
Still, it wasn't the Kryptonians that he had spent weeks of his life interacting with on a daily basis, attempting to teach them the rudiments of scientific thought, using the refreshingly direct teaching methods of the 21st century. He found the direct interaction far more meaningful than the empty mechanical teaching methods preferred in the 31st century, and suspected that it helped socialize the young humans as well, although the fecundity of the 21st century humans resulted in large classes of young students being instructed by a single teacher, unlike the more personal instruction method preferred on Trom. He caught himself wondering how his students in Smallville had turned out, but pushed away the temptation to look up the records, to see if any of them had made a mark on their time, or simply faded into obscurity and left no trace in the sketchy records that remained of that time.
Pushing away the rush of nostalgia for people mere hours in his past, but a thousand years dead, he signaled for Computo to display his messages, slumping in his chair as the titles of documents and files beginning spinning into focus. Computo's dead voice informs him that he has seven hundred and four legitimate communications waiting, and he says to the air, 'List personal, name of sender.' The sea of names condenses down to a mere twelve messages, three of them from Shvaugn, two from Merilise, five from Born, which he promptly deletes, shaking his head, What part of we were awful for each other didn't you get?, one from Nura, which he glances over only to find that it's another one of her matchmaking attempts, and one from Salu, which turns out to be an Imskian government contract referred from a friend as a personal favor. He shuffles the latter into business opportunities.
"Delete all relating to development of Trom." The mechanical voice replies, "Six hundred and eighty six missives remain." When would they realize that he wasn't opening up his homeworld to development? "Move personal messages to personal folder." "Six hundred and seventy four missives remain."
"Start with the highest bidder of the remaining and summarize."
"Terra4m, Inc., in charge of the Eros Habitat construction project, has purchased rights to a 17.6 million ton primarily iron/nickel asteroid in the Ceres belt, and wants it transmuted to titanium. They bid 500,000 credits donated to the charity of your choice. Availability is immediate. Additional bonuses if the asteroid can be moved to the orbit of Venus." Computo reports succinctly, and Jan idly wonders why people send four page messages full of flowery advocate-approved language when nobody bothers to read them anymore…
Tapping his Flight Ring, Jan say, "Mon, are you interested in moving a really big rock?"
It's easy to forget that his teammate is a living thing, his arm a thousand times stronger than steel, his eyes glowing like red suns as he atomizes space debris in front of them as his powers accelerate them through the void of space at hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times the speed of sound. Mon-El seems distracted, an unfeeling indestructible statue of a man hurtling through the void, but Jan knows that if his concentration was off even in the slightest that less than a 10,000th of the acceleration the Daxamite could produce would tear Jan's body apart, no matter the efforts of his Flight Ring to compensate.
Mars is on the other side of the sun from where they are going, and so Jan has no point of reference for his trip from Earth to the Belt. It's all just dark and quiet, and despite the incredible speed, there is no sense of motion, no feeling of acceleration, making it feel like he's just floating in space, with only the impending asteroid growing slowly in the distance.
The asteroid in question is lit up with signal beacons, and small servo-craft hover around the rock in space, which grows larger as they approach, until they are floating before it. Signals and communications are exchanged with the miners and workers who have prepared the asteroid, and Jan releases his grip on his teammates arm and flies down a central shaft prepared for him. Stabilizing thrusters have been bolted into the rock, prepared to accelerate it ever-so-slowly towards Venus, if he hadn't been able to bring Mon-El for the trip, and still needed to keep it in a stable orbit around Venus, while they deplete it to build the Eros Habitat.
As he travels down the mine-shaft to the center of the asteroid, he feels the millions of tons of iron and nickel (and some trace elements, he notes) around him. A small glacier of frozen hydrogen adorns the side facing away from the sun, although he's not sure if that's considered part of the asteroid or just detritus. He flexes his power, laying his hands unnecessarily upon the walls of this central shaft, dug specifically so that he could reach the center of the mass, and imposes his will upon the spinning electrons, pulling and pushing at protons and neutrons to shove them together in the new configuration desired, feeling incomprehensible amounts of energy flow from deep within him, and through him, like a never ending river, washing away everything that is iron and nickel and hydrogen and carbon, and leaving only titanium in its wake, an atomic fire visible only to his eyes spreading across the walls of metal around him, with only a spreading change in coloration notable to those who lack his Tromnian perception.
He's distantly aware of comm.-signals between the Terra4m craft and the mining guild support vehicles, and while he doesn't feel any change from inside the asteroid, he knows from their communications that the many millions of tons of metal are now accelerating towards the orbit of Venus, as Mon-El has silently taken up position on the dark side, pushing the asteroid with relentless and terrifying strength. His elemental perceptions can feel some of the hydrogen glaciers slough off and trail behind them, falling away as the pressures of Mon-El's persistent acceleration dislodges them. It will take hours to reach the orbit of Venus, and at least that long for his transmutation powers to affect the entirety of the asteroid. The trip from Earth was fast, and Mon-El even more taciturn than normal.
To break the silence, which is growing oppressive, Jan speaks on a private frequency through their Flight Rings. "It's been less than a day since I spoke to you, a thousand years ago. It's a bit unsettling. I'm the same, but you're a completely different man…"
"Most wouldn't have noticed." the Daxamite replies, separated by a million tons of metal, but sounding as if he's right next to Jan's ear, in a tone that betrays nothing of what he is feeling. Jan is unsettled by his stoicism, stark and unrelenting even for him, but recognizes that he wouldn't have replied at all if he wasn't willing to talk.
"I don't want to pry, but is something wrong with Tasmia? She seemed so happy to have you back from the Zone, and was so insistent that we find a way to get you out of there, just a week or so ago, and now she's leaving you?"
Mon-El is silent, and Jan fears that he's overstepped whatever fragile friendship he might have with the Daxamite, as much as any of them can truly claim to really know the thousand year old 'ancient astronaut.' Finally, his Flight Ring crackles to life with the synthesized voice of Mon-El's reply. "She got to experience a few weeks without me, and remembered what it was like to be a young woman, full of life and energy and promise, not bound to be a perpetual caregiver to someone who spent a thousand years in isolation. She wanted me back from the Zone, until she had me back, and realized how much being with me had taken out of her. Maybe she wants to be a lover, and a partner, and not a nurse and a counselor to someone who has spent ten centuries among the walking wounded..."
Jan has never heard Mon-El speak so frankly, so revealingly, save perhaps to Shady herself, and feels small and unworthy of hearing such words, even in confidence, as he lacks the language and the wisdom necessary to counsel his teammate. Where he would expect to hear bitterness, the tone is matter-of-fact, as if the Daxamite was reciting a technical diagram, not admitting that his own damaged emotional state may have placed too much of a burden upon the woman he loved and driven her away.
"Maybe she just needs a break…" he says, wincing to hear such trite words coming from his mouth, although he can't think of anything more profound.
"No. I was her first love, and now she's had a taste of the freedom that she gave up to bind herself to an older man. A much, much older man." Mon-El says, pausing for a moment before adding, "If the last thousand years have taught me anything, it's that everything goes away. Whether I'm in the Zone or not, whether I'm crazy or not, you're all going to go away."
Like holographs of people, Jan thinks, remembering Brainy's advice
for dealing with the doomed people of the 21st century. Ten million tons of
titanium suddenly seem like scant protection from the void of space, and the
fire-eyed stone-faced demigod hovering outside, as Jan feels a chill run down