I once led armies to the mountainous peaks of over twenty-seven planets, in nearly as many solar systems. I held the respect of every leader in the Military Guild, rebuilt wasted villages and cities, organized relief efforts and personally escorted scholars, historians, and archaeologists into war zones for the sake of cultural preservation. I piloted interstellar space craft and won numerous marksmanship competitions with Kryptonian firearms and primitive weaponry. I foresaw my planet’s own demise and was arrested, ridiculed, and condemned for my predictions, and hadn’t the depth of cruelty to revel in my vindication; for I have also been, above much else, terribly alone.
I have held a gasping, dying child in my arms. We were lost in the red desert sands of Streld when the bullet came. I held her and sang soft, insignificant lullabies in a language she’d never know, then heard the gurgle of death strangle her little life away. A single trickle of blood ran down the creased laugh line of her cracked, desiccated lips, and she was gone.
I have lost my soulmate to the pride of my people, and I have given up much of what I once believed for the sake of making my way on this primitive, undeveloped planet.
I have held the title of General, Arclominian of the First Order, Brigadier Commander and Lord Markswoman, then First Captain and Ensign (before I garnered the accolades). Before other titles, like traitor, and rebel, and lunatic were foisted upon me from on high.
There was another side of me that was once loved. Loved with names like sister and aunt and friend, no longer remainder nor anomaly.
I have been called so many things, held so many titles, but this label is one I never anticipated, not with the life’s trajectory I had somewhat plotted out upon my acceptance to the Military Guild:
Small Business Owner.
At least, that is what I pen on my taxation documents, when I compile my calculations each January, months ahead of the humans’ arbitrarily set April deadline. I am a small business owner, but I do not have any dependents, nor do I claim many deductions. The humans of the west utilize the Gregorian calendar, but from what little research I have done, the calendar is predicated upon western tradition that follows a solar cycle—not that the humans would know much about their Time’s historical origins. So why April is regarded as taxation month is, like so many other human inclinations, established by the whims of those in power. Any queries toward the origins of the Earth’s time-keeping inevitably lead to a misinformed deduction about Leap Year’s existence, and then segue to simpler topics.
On Krypton, we had three moons and a lunar calendar, six seasons to the cycle, and as many cycles as our people could sustain before we fueled our own destruction.
Perhaps I am going—what is the human idiom?—off track.
I should start at the beginning. Or, if not the beginning, then at least at my arrival on your planet.
This might take some time.
Please, do get comfortable. Settle in.
Perhaps you will prepare yourself a mug of coffee?
I crash landed in an alien prison eight years ago in the Mojave Desert.
There are several important components to such a declaration. We shall face each component in chronological turn, for I have found humans respond best to linear narratives, as time travel has not yet been achieved on this planet—theorized, yes, but not actualized.
So… I crash landed.
Within that word is ash and char and nothing at all comfortable.
But consider, I have breached the atmosphere of multiple planets before. Kryptonian technologies had been so advanced that I never had to fear anything as precarious or jarring as a crash landing. Your human jumbo jets experience turbulence and destabilization upon descent. That is how I know you are centuries behind us and others; behind, but staggering interminably toward some technological goal. I have never been near a Kryptonian ship that crash landed, whether it was used for domestic, international, or intergalactic transport.
Needless to say, crash landing into Earth’s atmosphere was… painful.
I awoke after what my subordinates measure as two human months, with a sore body and an addled brain. But shortly, mere weeks after stepping into your bright, healthy sun’s light for the first time, I felt energized beyond explanation. It was as if clouds had replaced the liquid in my bloodstream; I was filled with some sort of floating, gaseous vapor that could not bear me down as heavily as the thick, iron-based red of liquefied blood. I was buoyant.
I could fly.
I had strength immeasurable. Hearing unmatched by your most sensitive human devices. Scientists might detect reverberations to measure an earthquake or seismic movement on the Richter scale, but I can hear the disturbances along the shifting tectonic shelves, can feel them ripple down to your planet’s smoldering core. I can stream heat matched only by volcanic magma and synthetic beams from my irises. All of this I found upon waking from a crash landing, after a harrowing stint in a timeless prison.
I was (wrongfully) held in an alien prison, one of which I broke out of via crash landing eight years ago. I will not bore you with the details of my sentencing and imprisonment. Suffice to say it was very much like a crash: unpleasant.
The eight years since, however, have been interesting.
I told you that upon my waking I was surrounded by subordinates. Those I had subdued during my time in a place called the Phantom Zone, a setting in which Time itself does not exist. I might have aged thirty years, but my body bore not one sign of the decades spent in an existential vacuum. My troops looked round me with hollow, sullen eyes that seem welded to the sockets of their skulls. Their skin looked pasty and pale, or pasty and lavender, pasty and pink, where once they gleamed in colors bold—royal purple, blinding magenta. It was as if they hadn’t emerged onto this planet’s surface until I woke to announce the deboardment from the ship—prison—on which we all resided. They stayed in the darkness like creatures in hibernation, lying in wait until some safe signal was given.
I had become the herald of their safety.
Ironic, I suppose, considering my affinity for danger.
I had scraped and clawed my way to the top of their ranks to survive in that hell of a prison and for what? To lead them on some fruitless quest on a new world? A world so handicapped by its own pride and so backward in its thinking that it will surely follow in Krypton’s footsteps. The leaders here deny that climate patterns and changes will cripple the planet, or deem any study to undo or pause the effects too expensive (as their coffers overflow from other frivolous enterprises).
I awoke broken beyond repair, and saw no point in starting a war I might not win, battling an ignorant and angry people.
I had grown weary of fighting for lost causes.
I abandoned those soldiers who stood by my bedside after a month in recovery, and set out to learn all I could about my new… home.
I hesitate to call it that even now; now, after I have found family and space and affection of my own. It is more my own instability that will not allow my lips to speak such a word, despite what good fortune has been heaped upon me by Rao above.
There are mornings when I look over the sharp edge of my tablet and stare at her, knuckles kinked and fingers curled round the handle of her coffee mug, brows pinched together in concentrated study of her files.
She is so beautiful that I lapse into doubt.
Is this another dream from which I will surely wake? As a soldier from a fallible world, I’d resigned myself to the belief that such happiness was never meant for me. I cannot be at ease on Earth in our shared kitchen.
No, I am surely huddled on my cot beneath the arching forcefield, my half circle of safety in a sea of bomb-laden purple sand. I am surely asleep, comatose, feeling precious seconds tick by in a space without time, imagining all the lives taken from me, as well as a life that was never meant to be mine.
She will feel my eyes on her and chastise me for staring, dump her lukewarm leftovers in the sink and press her lips to my forehead as she exits, and I will stew with worry in the same way Alura once worried for me.
I had no frame of reference for this anxiety, for harboring such love for another when he or she ran headfirst into danger.
I do now.
But that ending is a long way from where I started with you, so I hope I have not given away the good parts. Humans like their order.
I will return to the story.
It did not take long (after several instances of running out on meals in small-town desert diners) that I grew to learn and understand the humans’ dependency on currency. I watched their televisions and found that they had many channels, fictional stories, reels and B-roll that reported current events, all interspersed with advertisements that ranged from the practical to the bizarre. I likewise discovered that much business, social, financial, political, etc., was conducted via the Internet.
I stole a tablet.
I created several accounts.
I falsified what documents needed falsifying with the help of technologies taken from Fort Rozz and with my advanced knowledge of sciences not yet studied by humans.
It was so dreadfully easy.
I extrapolated on market patterns after studying Keynesian financial histories, Bulls and Bear markets, housing bubbles, and quickly, with very little initial capital, was able to provide for myself without stealing by exploiting financial investments purely through online interactions. All of it done, I assure you, by adhering to every legal prescription set forth. I also read the legal and tax codes of the United States, Canada, Mexico, the European Union, China, Egypt, Australia, Japan, and a smattering of other countries who had collectively piled their monies into similar systems.
It took a week for me to learn them all, for me to realize how many loopholes existed.
Humans believe their markets are arbitrary.
I believe humans have no concept of foresight. Or perhaps, those that do, have the privilege, the time, and the education to study such patterns; to know such wealth can be accumulated through tax havens and the like. It seems unfair, but I never much concerned myself with petty human trials.
(That quickly changed).
Regardless of my prejudices, I amassed enough money in six months to get by in the desert of the southwestern United States of America. During one of my myriad study sessions in an establishment with free wi-fi, I stumbled upon an article about Superman.
Superman, who wore the royal blue of the house of El.
My sister’s house, after she’d taken Zor-El’s name.
Mine by association.
I sought him out, but it took time.
My fruitless interaction with Kal-El, the son of Lara and Jor-El, left me wanting and frustrated in ways I had not been prior to meeting him. It gave me damnable hope, and just as quickly, snuffed it out like a flame with too-little kindling.
He was seen as a hero, a conqueror for the humans. I could tell from the way he carried himself that he was accustomed to reverence, to praise, but I could also tell, merely by watching the movements on live feeds of his skirmishes, that he was untrained. He relied heavily on powers granted him from the radiating yellow sun, and he had very little knowledge of combat techniques.
I could have fought him.
Likely, would have defeated him.
But I did not desire his defeat, only his aid.
“My mother knew of Krypton’s destruction,” Kal-El said one day, perched in a corner booth of a very loud, very busy eatery in a city called Metropolis.
He wore a white button-up shirt with black-framed glasses perched upon the bridge of his nose. A disguise. At that point, I had studied enough of human culture to blend in with their fashions, but my grasp of their language and interactions was still somewhat tenuous. I allowed Kal-El to do the interacting with the waitress attending our table, nodding at appropriate intervals, but I was more concerned with his information about Krypton. From what I gathered, he had been an infant when the planet exploded, and I had been sealed away for a long, silent time.
“She sent me away in a pod years ago,” he explained carefully. I could tell he was wary of my questions. “I was raised by humans.”
“You have no… no recollection of Krypton?”
Kal-El didn’t bother to hide his suspicions. Maybe he couldn’t. For someone with such little combat training, perhaps he had no need for covert operations. His reticence was palpable when he looked at me, bedraggled, clad in an outfit that passed for substandard humanity when I had met him in the sky two days previously, addressing and calling out to him in Kryptonese (of which he knew very little). For someone who was not raised on Krypton, he had a startling grasp of its history, and could even speak to some of its sciences with an air of understanding. His speech was imperfect, with a weight to the accent that linked to his upbringing on Earth; but the sounds were still there, and the words warmed my heart like homecoming after deployment.
It hurt to hear it from him, someone who knew nothing of their significance.
“I am Kryptonian,” Kal-El said, his brows knitting together in circumspect study of my person. That single afternoon spent interacting with him left so many questions unanswered, so many paths abandoned. He knew more than he let on, and it took a long time before I forgave him.
(Again, I am getting ahead of myself, but I digress.)
“But I have very little knowledge of my home planet. It was there, and it’s not anymore, and there are few, if any of us, left,” he said plainly. Not without sensitivity… just… with a stoic resolution he had always known. I was still growing accustomed to speaking of my home in the past tense.
A woman, with sunshine skin and straight black hair, a large bag and high, pinchy-looking shoes, called after Kal-El.
“I’m sorry, General Astra In-Ze,” he told me, on that day seven years ago. “But I know nothing of Krypton or its survivors, if there are any. Do you have a means of contact if I do discover anything, so that I may alert you?”
We exchanged contact information. I supplied him with my email address, a place where I had registered my online banking for my stocks to deposit their surpluses. I have had as many email addresses as I have had aliases during my years on this planet, but I found myself periodically checking the one I gave Kal-El, Superman, Clark Kent.
He never responded to me.
And yet he knew all along that we were not the only survivors.
It must be testament to my fatigue and disillusionment at the time that I did not initially realize he called me General, when I had never introduced myself as such. I had taken to forgetting that title ever existed, and all of the failures I harbored because of it.
He kept information from me, after a trip to his secluded fortress, after hearing of my history, my sentencing, a false reputation that had been spread across the galaxies. He never contacted me because he feared I would do harm to my sister’s daughter.
He feared I would take revenge on my darling Kara.
Seven years I lost, until her sister walked through my door, and everything changed.
The morning rush at the shop reminds me of battle. But before the rush, I must do the preparation. The warm-up.
I would wake at 5 a.m. without fail and fly. I would watch the myths fade, those connect-the-dot star patterns I have seen in the sky, dissolve and retreat as the dawn’s blinding power tromped over the horizon. I flew for speed and distance and I exerted myself with every ounce of my afforded strength. Zig-zagging through cityscapes, hurtling over mountain ranges, dipping down to brush the tree tops of sequoia forests—I flew fast every morning, honing my new-found powers as I would hone my accuracy with a new weapon.
Humans have a saying. They have several, but this is one I find most appealing: old habits die hard. It means that what was once instilled within you cannot be easily extracted.
Or something of that nature.
I have trained in the early morning for longer than I can recall, decades, scores of years, ages and lightyears ago. I always woke to exertion.
I saw no reason to change, waking on this planet.
So I would wake, and fly, and prepare to open the shop by six a.m. The morning rush did not start until seven, and by then, one of my fellow workers would’ve been there to help me.
Even with someone working at my side, it still reminded me of battle.
Once I returned from flight, I would shower quickly and don my black pants, my black shirt with the white screen print, my maroon apron and a pair of unnecessary glasses, a grey, threadbare hat that I had seen in magazines that seemed to change the proportions of my face—it made me look younger than the seven human decades I have lived. I would walk downstairs and prepare my weapons: air-pump coffee dispensers, paper filters, blenders with seven settings and a Bluetooth speaker, individual pour-over ceramic mugs and electric grinders, manual French presses, larger glass Chemex coffeemakers, plus the standard, industrial brewer with 4 hot plates, two on bottom and two on top; then, a flick of the switch so that the espresso machine would warm up, its steady hum vibrating in my chest like the aftershocks of a plasma blaster charging for use.
I would step out in the back alley and retrieve the bouquet of flowers Mr. Germain brought fresh everyday; then, I would speed through the shop and place the dewy stalks of lavender or hyssop in the clear, ill-assorted vases, reminding myself to slow down so that I would not snap the petals from the budding heads.
The condensed version: I became the proprietor of a shop that sold coffee, a fuel humans need above any other, after six years on this planet.
The expanded version… well, it is expansive.
I could not bear to watch M’gann continue along her treacherous, self-destructive path. She was my friend, and I cared for her deeply, but I could not return to a life that would pit me against others for sport, no matter how lucrative. I have my war wounds and M’gann hers—perhaps that is what compelled her to help me from the outset. No matter what I felt for my roommate, my friend, my savior, in many regards, I could not play the human’s game of chance—Roulette—as M’gann did.
“You’re moving out?” she asked me, one evening when the clouds hung low like a bruise over the moon. We lived in the warehouse district over National City, above a bar unknown to many. When I first came to National City four years previous, M’gann dragged me into the spare room and nursed me back to health until my powers returned; my bones knitted themselves together again and my scratches faded to translucency. It was as if I had never been hurt.
As if I had never hurt myself.
My lowest point was a year after my conversation with Kal-El. He never sought me out, and I checked my email every day.
M’gann was passing through the desert in a dilapidated Jeep Wrangler when she saw my body in the distance, heard my wailing brain and broken heart, she said, with her White Martian capabilities. She gave me the room with the window, but I could rarely see the stars. Too much light over National City, too much dense fog this close to the harbor, the kind of clouds that hang so low and thick you imagine you can reach out and break off a piece of wet, fluffy white, but I never could master the clouds. I could fly through them, but I could never hold them. Such a realization made me feel just a bit more normal, for I could do many impossible things.
Then again, there were many impossible things I couldn’t do. Save my family. Save a planet. Stitch together something irreparable.
Or so I believed.
M’gann and I had been drinking since sundown, having taken our rightfully amassed time off from behind the bar. We made a decent team, she and I; considering we had both traveled far and wide in our histories, we knew a good deal about the random assortments of off-world spirits collected in the place. I had indulged in drink during my earliest years as ensign, when the deaths and casualties of comrades hit me hardest, their crisp, undiluted pain digging into my heart’s flesh without discrimination. Elder. Infant. Soldier. Mother. Son. Specialist. Assassin.
They all died, and I wept for each. I drank toasts to their legacies, and would try my hardest not to forget them with each new mission.
M’gann looked over at me and smiled, then drew the curtain back. A crash from below jarred our peace, and I could tell she was dreading the clean-up that would be left for her the following morning.
Over the past four years, I had settled into the role of barmaid. I found it—well, I had no dignity left to speak of, so I could not allow my pride to handicap me any further than it already had. I believed myself better than slinging drinks and tossing alien drunkards out of the place, but M’gann had helped me, and so I would help her.
So I settled. I had nothing to work for.
Until the pumpkin latte.
“I’ve found an establishment,” I told her, sipping carefully on twice-distilled Bromakaron mead. “…in need of a proprietor. I want to sell coffee.”
“You want to sell coffee?”
“To humans? You hate humans,” M’gann told me.
“I hate most humans,” I qualified, for there had been two or three that had struck me as exceptional in my time on earth. Kal-El’s mate had been one. With one look she laid low Superman, calling him to heel at her side like a trainer with a lapdog. There was an aged Navajo couple I met in a diner in New Mexico who imparted some bits of universal wisdom that I found comforting before I made attempts at ending everything… and I’m sure there has been at least one other human that has held my interest since arriving.
“Humans like it well enough. It is a lucrative enterprise.”
M’gann had taken another sip of whatever her drink of choice had been that night. She was a White Martian gone AWOL, a deserter, a rebel, as I had once been called myself. She defied direct orders. She went against her people. She held fast to her convictions, and paid a dear price for it.
How could I not be drawn to her?
Her secret was hers and mine for the keeping. For all below, M’gann was a green Martian with the viridian skin and the sleek, regal cape, not one of the monstrous Whites who had laid waste to an entire population. She took humanoid form for shifts behind the bar, and was beautiful. She had perfectly round, muddy eyes that glistened with perpetual sadness. She hunched her shoulders uncertainly, fearfully, whenever I raised my voice to her. I did not mean to do so as often as I did, but we worked in a bar—an alien bar—and our patrons would oftentimes reach decibel levels that would deafen human hearing.
Her trigger was sound. Screeches, harsh words, shouts, screams.
She had to excuse herself to the stockroom more than once when nights behind the bar grew busy beyond expectation. I would follow, and hold her collapsing form in my arms. Even when she changed, I would cradle her White Martian head in my lap while she mourned her past deeds, her skin dry and porous against my fingertips. She wanted to be seen as a Green Martian, and so I tried to honor that request. To treat her as such.
I understood how desperately she wanted to be seen as an innocent.
“What’s your real reason?” M’gann asked me, flicking the lamp on by her side. She set her drink on the coaster near the end table and pulled her legs up beneath her. “For the coffee shop, I mean.”
Such queries were a hazard in our friendship. We both considered it our burden of care to probe and question when the other planned something risky; my reservations with the human—Veronica Sinclair—had everything to do with M’gann’s safety. In a way, M’gann’s queries into my business venture with the coffee shop had everything to do with my own. She knows there is not much in this world that can hurt me; but she also knows that I will not hesitate to hurt myself.
To be known intimately was new to me, then.
I am still getting used to it.
“I thought I saw her,” I answered. I then proceeded to chug my mead, to clog my head with drink so that I would not fall prey to what-ifs and hope. “Or heard her. I heard the words Kal-El and keychain, crest and disgrace fall from a female voice and I just…”
“You want it to be her,” M’gann supplied. “But I still don’t understand the coffee part.”
“I was near the university… downtown,” I answered. “Those children flock to coffee houses. Caffeine is the human scholar’s drug of choice.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever been to a college bar,” M’gann teased me.
I smiled at her over the lip of my glass. She had been my savior in so many ways. And here I stood, prepared to part ways, in hopes of finding someone I once thought lost forever.
Truthfully, I felt like I needed a break from M'gann's presence as well. I was afraid of being roped into doing even more destruction than I had already wrought.
“I cannot ask you once again to abandon this treacherous scheme with Miss Sinclair?”
M’gann stared into her rippling liquid.
“It’s twice a year at most,” she shrugged. “I don’t believe it will grow into anything substantial. She would pay you—”
“I have no need of payment,” I answered hotly, and tried not to allow the heat behind my eyes to spill over my cheeks. “Nor do you, if you would accept my help.”
“You know how important it is to feel self-sufficient here,” M’gann answered me. “I hope this isn’t some elaborate means of paying me back. Just because I found you in the desert—”
“You nursed me back to health from my suicidal thoughts,” I corrected her.
I feared then, when I left to start the coffee house, that M’gann was putting her life in serious danger with the human exploiter; willingly so, and I tried to drag her away from it with every ounce of my strength. She would not go, and it was a fight she needed to win—or lose—for herself. I could not impose my philosophy upon her, but I could express my concern.
To be a friend is to become vulnerable. Both M’gann and I have a difficult time of that.
“You know I am… that I owe you more than my life. You will be welcome at any time, M’gann.”
“You say it like you won’t be back here on the weekends to catch the Perlidian karaoke night,” M’gann answered me, her bright brown eyes clouding with sorrow.
“I would never miss the Perlidians making utter fools of themselves,” I answered.
The following morning, I moved out of the apartment we shared above the secret alien bar.
Four weeks later, I opened my coffee house.
Six weeks later, I met Alexandra.