by Dan Swanson
Xenon, 1969 — seventeen Earth years later:
Zoll Orr rocketed to his feet from the seat in front of his computer console, letting out a shout that startled the rest of his worried team in their tense, crowded computer lab.
“Eureka! I’ve finally computed the complete reaction, and our worries are needless!” Everyone in the room turned to face the elderly scientist, who was widely acknowledged as the greatest physicist on the planet Xenon. “A previously undiscovered exotic particle, emitted by kryptonite decay, is itself causing the uranium in our planet’s core to decay into non-radioactive lead, with virtually no energy release. This explains why Xenon hasn’t already exploded and confirms that the remaining amount of kryptonite still existing in the core is more than adequate.”
Years ago, Superman had saved Xenon from a fate similar to the destruction of his own home planet, Krypton. A runaway nuclear reaction in Krypton’s core had caused a tremendous atomic explosion, leaving nothing behind of the crowded planet and its advanced civilization but some radioactive rubble called kryptonite and a few lucky survivors. The Man of Steel had discovered that kryptonite would dampen the similar chain reaction that was just starting in Xenon’s core. Assisted by Kell Orr, the son of Zoll Orr, Superman had risked his life to collect the many tons of the deadly green rocks necessary to save the giant planet.
“As you know,” began the old man, a long time educator, slipping unconsciously into lecture mode, “kryptonite is an example of what we call ‘exotic matter,’ which is made up of not only the electrons, protons, and neutrons found in normal matter, but also one or more species of exotic particles such as hadrons, bosons, or quarks. Such exotic matter can only be created in an extremely energetic ambient environment such as the core of a star. Or–” He paused an instant. “–in an atomic explosion large enough to destroy a giant rocky planet such as Krypton or Xenon.”
In the back of the lab, Juna Dondwar, one of the younger physicists, jabbed another with her elbow and whispered, “‘As you know,’ he said. So if we already know, and he knows we know, why is he telling us this again?”
“Maybe if you shut up and let me listen, I’ll learn something new, and later on I’ll break it down into pieces you can understand,” he whispered back. They both became silent as Zoll Orr continued.
“As a result of the exotic particles in the makeup of kryptonite, it emits what can only be classified as an exotic type of radiation, which can have dangerous effects on living things from Krypton. Another of the exotic properties of kryptonite is that it strongly dampens the fission reaction of uranium, which is why Superman could use it to stop the fission reaction in Xenon’s core. What he apparently didn’t know was that prolonged exposure to uranium causes kryptonite to decay into normal matter, with a half life of about five years. So of all the kryptonite Superman originally gathered to save us, less than twenty-five percent still remains active today. According to our best theories before today, that wasn’t enough kryptonite to keep the fission reaction from occurring. So why are we still here? We needed a new theory.”
“You are correct, learned Orr,” Juna Dondwar in the back spoke up impatiently, “we all do already know this. It’s the problem you gathered us to solve.” Everyone in the room quickly moved to get away from the lightning bolt that was sure to strike her now. But she continued to speak. “We know two new things about the decay process today. First, during the decay process, a very small fraction of kryptonite temporarily changes to another exotic state, glowing white instead of green, before it decays to normal matter. We are unable to measure the properties of this transitional state, as its existence under the neutron bombardment is very brief. Second, and vastly more important to our survival, the kryptonite decay process releases a previously unknown exotic particle that causes the uranium to decay into non-radioactive lead.”
“Thank you for that elegant summary, Miss Dondwar. Nicely done.” Zoll wasn’t angry at Juna Dondwar’s impatience; he knew he often talked too much. Besides, she deserved a chance to crow. “Recently, Miss Dondwar discovered the new exotic particle she just described,” he told the gathered team. “As leader of this project, I was honored to name it the kryptonite dondron, or the k-dondron for short. And between us, we’ve just finished modeling the k-dondron’s behavior.”
There was a pleased murmur in the room and a smattering of applause. Earlier in his career, before he himself had become a project leader, Zoll Orr himself had discovered several new particles, but none had been named after him. Project leaders traditionally named after themselves any new particles discovered by their teams. Giving such recognition to a subordinate was almost unheard of, yet Zoll did things like this often. As a result, he led the most dedicated research team on Xenon.
“When a single atom of kryptonite decays, it releases enough k-dondrons to cause the decay of over a hundred uranium atoms,” he continued. “By now, enough of the uranium in Xenon’s core has been rendered inert that the reaction is no longer self-sustaining. We remain safe from a runaway reaction such as that which destroyed our twin planet, Krypton.”
After the cheering stopped, Zoll’s son Kell Orr spoke excitedly about an aspect of the discovery he felt his father had overlooked. Kell was not a physicist, but Zoll had mysteriously invited him to the lab today. Now he knew why. “In addition to restoring our confidence in living to see the future, you’ve discovered a way to neutralize kryptonite. Put a pile of kryptonite next to a pile of uranium, and the kryptonite will turn into normal matter. Superman needs to know about this.”
Kell Orr thought of the Kryptonian hero as almost a twin brother. They looked more alike than most twins, and Kell had once visited Earth, where he gained powers similar to (but lesser than) those of the Man of Steel, using his appearance and powers to successfully substitute for Kal-L in both his Clark Kent and Superman identities.
“Remember, the half-life of the kryptonite decay is about five years,” his father cautioned him. “This discovery won’t provide Superman with an instantaneous kryptonite disintegrator.”
Kell replied, “Still, Superman might find this information useful. I’ll call esCube to make sure that the Zavoy is ready to fly, and then I’ll go to Earth and personally deliver the news.”
Xenon civilization in general didn’t utilize star flight. Though their technology was advanced enough, the interest among the people just didn’t exist. Superman had built a starship that he and Kell Orr had used to gather kryptonite, and Zoll Orr had since built a similar ship based on the design of Superman’s ship — but after an initial test flight, it had sat unused, and he had long since given it to Kell Orr, who also never used it. Kell employed the services of esCube, a small engineering firm, to maintain the ship in ready condition.
“I’m sorry, Kell, but I can’t go with you,” his wife Vana announced regretfully that evening after hearing the story. “The Worldwide Telestereo News Syndicate would fall apart if I missed even two days running for a holiday.”
Vana Vair Orr was the driving force behind the WTNS, a recently announced alliance among the major news organizations in over a hundred nations around the world of Xenon. She’d used her status as the world’s most recognizable woman to build partnerships and coalitions, and it was the sheer force of her vision and personality that held these new organizations together. Once WTNS was established, she could step back and let someone else take the lead, but she estimated that that time was still several years in the future. Kell was aware of this as well.
“Here’s an idea, though,” she continued thoughtfully. “Why don’t you consider taking the twins? It would be a good experience for them.”
“Umm… er…” Kell sputtered in surprise. He had planned to suggest that himself but had been sure she would argue against it. He thought she was over-protective of their thirteen-year-old son Larre and daughter Karre, and she thought he over-indulged them. “Well, I suppose that would be OK. Let’s ask them, and if they are interested, I’ll get Sherr-L and Sylvi to make sure the Zavoy is set up for a pair of kids.” Sherr-L and his wife Sylvi Kar-L owned esCube.
Larre and Karre were thrilled, although their enthusiasm was slightly dampened when they discovered that scholastic learning machines had been installed on the Zavoy, and they would be expected to continue their normal studies while on board. EsCube did an efficient job of prepping the ship, and the Zavoy lifted for Earth a few days later.