Tuesday, November 9, 2410
Zeta Cygni Penitentiary
Terminal Island, Avalon County
At the time, Block D at the Zeta Cygni Penitentiary was the newest part of the facility. Built in the wake of the great Big Fire prison break of the year before, when a strike force of Magnificent Ten members and Kempu Clan ninja had nearly leveled the south wing breaking out the renegade Sith Lord called Darth Venger, it was specifically designed to both contain and keep out the hardest of cases, inmates and potential attackers with powers well beyond those of most ordinary sentient beings.
Not that all the prisoners incarcerated in Block D were great threats to galactic civilization, as such. Prisoner 10-293, for instance, was in all respects a model inmate. Since her arrival on Terminal Island in the first week of May, she'd kept out of trouble, not even associating with the other defendants in the case that had laned her here. She never offered the guards the slightest attitude, never showed any interest in escaping, and displayed only a sort of academic curiosity about the mechanisms that kept her superhuman abilities in check. 10-293 just went about her daily routine, followed the rules, and didn't rock the boat. As such, she was something of a favorite with the Block D staff, to say nothing of the prison's administration. If only some of the normal prisoners were so well-behaved.
Just now she was in her cell, a twelve-by-twelve room built a bit like a bank vault, reading a book. She had quite a few of those, some scattered on her basic prison-issue desk, others shelved along one wall. Both the books, most of them having to do with galactic sociology and the rule of law, and the bookshelf itself were privileges awarded for her continued good behavior. Today she was about halfway through an introductory college textbook on the sovereignty of nations when she noticed the guard standing outside.
"Strange time for you to stop by, Vinson," she observed, marking her place and putting the book aside.
"You have a visitor," Vinson replied.
10-293 looked surprised. "Nobody ever visits me. Can you give me a hint? If it's that guy from the embassy again, you can just tell him I'm still not interested."
Vinson shook his head, a slight grin showing beneath the visor of his helmet. "It's a surprise," he said.
The prisoner gave him a confused look, then shrugged and got up from her bunk. "Well, as it happens, my schedule is clear this afternoon," she said. "Lead on."
To her continuing surprise, Vinson conducted her not to one of Block D's special visiting rooms (which were built, like everything else in the block, with the possibility of trouble from both inmate and visitor in mind), but instead to one of the conventional police interrogation rooms in Block A. For a prisoner of 10-293's status, just getting out of D for a little while made it a red-letter day, but at the same time, she remained baffled as to what was going on as Vinson let her into the room.
"There's going to be a heavy weapons team just the other side of this door," Vinson informed her. "Not that I expect you to pull anything, but for form's sake, I have to tell you it'll be a very big mistake if you do."
Then he was gone, and for a few moments, the prisoner was alone - until the door at the far end of the room opened and another person entered. This was a tall, ruggedly built man dressed like the popular conception of a police detective - blue suit, blue trenchcoat, fedora. The only really remarkable thing about him was that he had no face.
"Prisoner number 10-293," he said in a quiet voice. "Zira Cho-Zar. Nineteen Standard years old. Neo-Kryptonian citizen, former member of the New Krypton National Police. Please sit down."
Zira sat. "You're The Question," she said. "I saw your picture in a briefing file before we came to New Avalon."
The Question sat down at the opposite end of the table and inclined his head. "I am," he acknowledged. Reaching into his inside coat pocket, he produced a small holographic PDA and thumbed it to life, pulling up a copy of Zira's file. "You were convicted in New Avalon Superior Court on May 3 of... let's see. Assault on an International Police officer... criminal mischief, to wit: throwing a bus through the front doors of the Neo-Kryptonian embassy on April 26... destruction of city property, to wit: the aforementioned bus; conspiracy to abduct a Zetan citizen; and reckless flying within the city's aerospace control zone." The Question chuckled. "Nice touch. That's how you know the prosecutor's really out to get you."
"They threw the book at all of us," Zira replied.
"Mm, yes." The Question put away the PDA, steepled his gloved hands in front of him, and regarded her for a long moment with his eerily blank face. "I came here to ask you something."
Well, that's apropos, thought Zira irreverently, but what she said out loud was, "Go ahead."
"Alone among the members of General Zod's strike force, you offered no defense," The Question observed. "You didn't try to involve anyone from the Neo-Kryptonian government; you didn't claim, as some of your fellows did, that you were only following the general's orders; you didn't even hire a lawyer. You pleaded guilty to all the charges laid against you and accepted a five-to-ten-year sentence without demur." The Question folded his hands on the table in front of him. "Why?"
Zira blinked. "Why?"
The Question nodded. "None of the others accepted any responsibility for their actions that day. What makes you different?"
"I'm not really sure," said Zira after a while. "I think part of it was just that I got beaten. I was trained to believe that that could never happen, and... it did."
"Damaging the central theme of General Zod's indoctrination: the invincibility of the Kryptonian," The Question mused.
"Something like that. I didn't think of it in those terms at the time, but yeah... if he was wrong about that, what else might he be wrong about? And then there was the news report about the general's fight with Kara Zor-El and your chief. I mean... I knew he could be cruel. You can't be in General Zod's position without having that element of ruthlessness in you somewhere. But watching the footage of that fight... realizing that she wasn't any kind of credible threat, that the general just wanted to kill her because, well, he wanted to... " Zira shook her head. "That was a shock. And from there, it was easy to follow the chain of logic and realize that he must have been responsible for what happened to Science Councilor Jor-El and his wife...
"You have to understand, Zod was more than just a leader to us. He represented... " She sighed. "I'm not sure I can make you understand. You're not Kryptonian. Imagine if there were a common environment that would give you the kind of power we have in an Earthlike place. Imagine if someone told you that the only reason you didn't have that power was because of fearful politicians and manipulative aliens. Do you think that might make you angry?"
"It might," The Question allowed, but then he immediately followed it with, "If I were so hopelessly na´ve as to believe that in the first place."
Zira didn't rile, if he'd been expecting her to. "But that's just it," she said. "I was hopelessly na´ve. I understand now that the general only recruited two kinds of people. Those he had some kind of personal hold over, like Ursa and Non... and impressionable idiots like Faora and me."
"The kind of power he preached the use of can be very seductive," The Question noted.
Zira nodded. "He really made us believe that we had this power for a reason... that our people were destined to rule the stars, and that he was the best chance to make that happen."
The Question's voice was completely impassive as he said, "The master race."
Zira shrugged slightly. "Not so much. I still think we have the power we have for a reason, but... I think Zod was wrong about what that reason is." She looked ruefully around the room. "Not that my life choices to date have left me in a position to do anything useful with this newfound wisdom, but... " She trailed off and looked across the table, managing to ask with a straight face, "Does that answer your question?"
The Question regarded her with his unnervingly blank visage for a few moments. Then he rose to his feet and said abruptly, "Yes. Come with me."
"I can't," Zira replied, looking at him strangely. "I'm a prisoner. It'll be at least three years before I'm even up for parole."
"Before I came here, I met with Judge Kemp," The Question told her. "We had a long conversation about... potential." Putting his hands in his coat pockets, he went on flatly, "You have it. Your former colleagues don't. I don't believe in wasting it. Neither does the judge. Come and work for me, and your sentence will be commuted to time served for as long as you do."
Zira blinked, then looked slightly skeptical and asked, "Work for you doing what, exactly?"
With complete impassivity, The Question replied, "Whatever I ask."
"Trade blind loyalty to one man for blind loyalty to another?" Zira's look of skepticism deepened. "Even from a Lensman, that's a strange proposition for someone in my position."
"If you decide you've made a bad bargain, you can always come back here and finish serving your sentence the old-fashioned way," The Question pointed out; then, removing his hands from his pockets, he spread them and added with just a hint of wryness, "My way will almost certainly be more interesting, but I can see why you'd be hesitant to give up all this."
Zira looked around the shabby interrogation room and had to admit he had a point.
"Okay," she said, smiling. "I'm in."
"Proposition" - A Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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