The Department of Superhuman Affairs office was a large facility in Washington, DC, a perfectly square, three story fortress of concrete and mirrored glass. I used my SFF ID Card to gain access through the gated entry. The guard gave me a salute with a solemn expression as I passed. I saluted back.
As the sole surviving member of the Super Fem Force, I had been given a lot of similar gestures of respect and condolences. Some, however, had looked at me hatefully. Some blamed me for having not saved their heroes. Unlike most of the civilian populace, everyone at the facility knew I had been the leader of the Stilettos. They didn’t all sympathize too much with my presumed survivor’s guilt. It should have been me, more than any of the SFF, who had died, they whispered to themselves, when they thought I was out of earshot.
Well, sorry to disappoint, but I was the only one who had lived, whether I should have or not. Life is funny that way.
How much of that disappointment was mutual was another matter, one I chose not to dwell on. There was still work to be done, after all, even with the Villain Maker taken care of.
I crossed through several hallways, before finally entering the lower laboratories. There, an older gentleman in a military uniform was talking to a tall, leggy woman who could have been a supermodel if she didn’t dress so frumpily. With big square glasses, a lab coat over tan slacks and a dull green turtleneck, her mouse brown hair sloppily pulled up into bun, Professor Pamela Kismet was the sort of woman who had the cursed blessing of beauty and brains in a single package. She had to heavily underplay the one in order to be respected for the other.
Being the world’s fourth superhuman helped, though. (Well, technically the fifth now, if we included John Lassec, but I had come to think of him as more of a prologue than an official chapter on the superhuman storyline, to make a tortured metaphor.) Unlike James, Lisa, or myself, Pamela had resolutely refused to engage in violence, interested only in the pursuit of science. She had tirelessly attempted to study the nature of superhumanity, using herself and any willing volunteers as test subjects.
She grinned at me in that manic way scientists do when they have just discovered something and want everyone to know it.
The older man saw me and nodded. I saluted him. He just nodded again. “Thank you for coming, Agent Tamara,” he said.
“Well, sir, when the DSA says jump, we say how high,” I said.
“Good to know.” He motioned to Pamela, who was almost giddy. “Professor Kismet has made a remarkable discovery. She can fill you in, while I make a report to my superiors.” He walked off rather stiffly.
“Actually, I have my new assistant to thank for it!” she said. She motioned behind her. Over at one of the tables, clicking away at a computer, was the boy with the lantern, the Bringer of Dawn. The kid was dressed in white robes with a blue sash, not unlike the Earth Mage’s outfit in form. As ever, his lantern hung from a wooden staff propped up on his shoulder.
After he and I had gone through rigorous questioning, the boy, who turned out to be an orphan, had become a ward of the state. Given his superhuman status, he’d undergone psychiatric assessment before being assigned to a couple of DSA agents to look after him. During his time at the facility, however, he’d run into Pamela, and had ended up agreeing to be one of her lab rats.
From the way he blushed at her compliment, I could tell his agreement to her demands was mostly motivated by hormones. Not that I could blame him. I did notice, however, that he was a rather lax assistant, given he was currently using the expensive computer to play Solitaire.
“Hey, Echo,” he said, quickly closing the screen. “Good to see you’re walking again.”
“You and me both,” I said. “Another colleague of mine can de-power superhumans within a short distance. She was able to weaken my durability long enough for Shoggoth to fully heal me.”
He smiled. “Good. How is he? And the others?”
“Shoggoth and Hitchhiker have been pardoned for their past crimes, thanks to helping capture the Villain Maker. Strider is alright. She’s helping with some landslide problems in California right now.”
“Such a shame we had to give away the Villain Maker,” said Pamela, shaking her head. “A real live alien! Can you believe it? Can you imagine the things she could teach us?”
“If we ever wanted to mend relations with Europe and the Pacific, we had to turn her over. She killed most of their popula—”
“Yes, yes, I know, I know,” she cut me off, waving impatiently. “Still, they didn’t have execute her.”
“She’s the greatest butcher in human history,” I pointed out. “She said it herself, she was not going to stop, and she would never share any information we could potentially use to advance ourselves.”
“Well, whatever,” said Pamela. “We got something useful out of her anyway. Check this out!” The lab was large enough to sport three long tables for various experiments, be they dissection, dismantling and reassembling equipment, chemical mixing, and whatever else it was the brainy types got up to. A long counter top, evenly divided between computer equipment, sinks, and cabinets, lined the walls of the room.
Pamela led me to the center table, and the Bringer of Dawn joined us. There, in the center, was a small cylindrical device that looked very familiar. My eyes widened a bit. “Is that one of the memory triggers?”
Dawn nodded. “I was with Cero for months before you joined. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t get affected. I think because she touched the thing to my forehead, even though technically, my consciousness is in my lantern.” He motioned to the dangling white square cage where a soft blue glow hovered instead of a candle flame.
“Very fascinating ability, by the way,” said Pamela. “You can completely atomize his body and it just regenerates.”
Dawn blanched. “Yeah, um, can we not do that ever again?”
I cocked an eyebrow at Pamela. “I did it one time!” she said in an exasperated tone.
“Look, the point is, Cero only had a handful of these things. She was working on them for months, trying to tune and perfect them until she could break the Masters’ control protocols. That’s the reason for the Supervillain Epidemic: everyone she turned crazy was a test subject to keep perfecting the devices.”
I nodded. I already knew that much, but Dawn seemed eager to give his presentation, so I didn’t interrupt.
“All the devices, perfect or imperfect, used a special element that can’t be found on Earth, something she took from her Extinction Wave device. She was only able to make five functioning units, after a few dozen attempts each. I’m thinking that for her, it must have been like trying to build a smart phone out of a calculator and a walkie-talkie.”
I wasn’t sure if that analogy really held up, but admittedly, I couldn’t think of a better one.
“She left two imperfect ones with the SFF in America, and they got destroyed in the bunker explosion. Two were with her army when the Ten Queens wiped them out. I’m guessing that O-Jow guy, or whatever his name was, his power probably destroyed them. The fifth, I assume, got destroyed in your fight with the SFF in India.”
I nodded again. “Glorifica had it. I’m sure it was destroyed when she got teleported into the core.”
“To think she survived that,” said Pamela. “She had to be pushing Class 6, surely, at least in durability.”
“Dragondancer might disagree,” I said. I poked the device. “Either way, with all five accounted for, what is this, then?”
Dawn smiled a bit sheepishly. “I may have pulled a bit of a fast one, and nicked one of her old prototypes, and swapped it for one of the SFF’s. The group we left in America. And then, I may have also swapped that imperfect one with one of the perfected ones that was supposed to go with the army.”
I blinked. “Dawn, it’s been a month since we captured her, and you only just now thought to give this to us?”
He frowned deeply. “Look, I didn’t know if I could trust you guys! Yeah, I knew Cero was bad news, but I’ve had some really bad experiences with cops, and the DSA are just cops for supers, right?”
He wasn’t willing to give me details, and it wasn’t really my business. He motioned to the device. “Look, the point is, maybe you can use this thing.”
Pamela nodded. “I’ve already possessed it and figured out its functions! It’s pretty simple. You just hit a switch and press it to the superhuman’s forehead. It’s already encoded to trigger the memories of the person, and make them loyal to Cero’s mission. I’ve tweaked it so that it will make the target loyal to the person who uses the device on them.”
My eyebrows raised again. “Wow. Color me impressed.” I knew Pamela’s power, the ability to transform into living electricity, with which she could possess any machine. In the case of computerized equipment, she could even read and manipulate raw code. I wouldn’t have expected her to be able to decode an alien system. But then, I guess if she’d been stuck using Earthly equipment, Cero must have been stuck using Earthly computer code as well.
“As well you should be!” she said with a laugh. “Of course, we haven’t been able to actually test the thing, yet. I’d rather not put one of our citizens or soldiers through both the trauma of such memories, and taking away their free will. But I know you’ve been trying to plan an excursion into New Gondwana. Perhaps this will be of assistance to you.”
“Unless it gets stolen and used against you,” said Dawn.
We looked at him, Pamela giving him a dour look, and me a flat expression. But I had to give him credit for being shrewd. “He’s got a point.”
“Well, just don’t be an idiot with it, then!” Pamela shot back. “Jeesh!”
“Alright, alright,” I said. “I appreciate this. Both of you. I think, if nothing else, this could give us an edge.”
Dawn’s grip on his lantern-staff tightened. “Are you sure?” he said. “I mean, you saw what they did.”
I nodded. “Strider has a way inside.” She had confessed to the DSA of being a refugee from the supercontinent, but had not divulged her identity as one of the Queens. I had seen no reason to spill her secret for now. Maybe once the current Ten Queens were defeated, we’d see to settling such matters. It may not have technically been the right thing to do, certainly not the legal thing in my case, but Strider seemed sincere about undoing her past mistakes as best she could. I fully intended to give her the chance, given how far she’d come already. And more to the point, I absolutely needed her for this mission.