I stared at the damaged pylons rising high above me, wondering if whoever now owned S.T.A.R. Labs would ever get them fixed. From where I parked in the all but empty lot, they seemed huge, intimidating even in their brokenness. I let the rental car’s engine idle, powering the heater as I sat, still indecisive about the appointment I’d made. My cell phone lay on the passenger’s seat. It vibrated as if to remind me it was there. I huffed, a soft, bitter sound and then picked it up, dropping it into my handbag beside its companion tablet.
“Better get this over with.” I turned off the engine and stepped out into the chilled air.
I parked several rows away from the building, giving myself space to turn back in case I got cold feet. The particle accelerator turned my life upside down in ways I never imagined and now all I wanted was some sort of closure. Hard to get when my heart was torn out and shattered.
The next time I looked up, I stood shivering just a few steps away from the entrance. I stopped, staring at my reflection in the glass for what felt like hours. My makeup, applied so carefully at the hotel, didn’t quite conceal the dark circles under my eyes and try as I might, I couldn’t muster up even a tiny smile.
“Well, it’s now or never.” I pushed forward, pressing a button beside the double doors.
It took a few minutes for any response. I fidgeted, glancing at my watch, then back to the car, trying to figure out how long to wait considering the cold and my desire to be polite. Before I could retreat, the screen above the button flashed with the S.T.A.R. Labs logo, followed by the perky face of a young woman.
“Hello, welcome to S.T.A.R. Labs. How can I help you?”
“Um. I’m Sue. I have an appointment with Dr. Snow.”
The young woman smiled. “Ah, yes. Please come in. I’ll be right there.”
A buzzer sounded. I opened the door and stepped inside. It was warm indoors; someone was paying for lights and heating. The place smelled of, well, nothing much at all. No scent of sweaty humans, or electric motors, or chemicals—not even something flowery to cover such odors. The foyer, with its unmanned reception desk, reeked of sterile disuse. I removed my coat and settled into one of the chairs, sitting on the cushion’s edge. The armrests held a sheen of dust; mute testimony to the near abandonment of the place. Where esteemed physicists and scientific whizzes used to flock, there was no one. Just as I had outside, I wondered just who owned S.T.A.R. Labs now and why the place was still open. Mercury Labs was the current focus of the scientific world.
The sharp click of heels on linoleum heralded the arrival of the young woman I’d seen before. I rose as she entered the foyer and she smiled at me, holding out her hand.
“Mrs. Dibny? I’m Dr. Snow.”
I shook her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Good to meet you, too.” She beckoned to me. “Please, this way.” Over her shoulder, she said, “You’ve come a long way from Opal City.”
“Yes.” The flight seemed to have taken forever. “I have other business here or else I wouldn’t have come.”
“Ah, yes. Getting multiple errands done on one visit. Very smart of you.” She stopped at a doorway not far along and used her ID to open it. “Please, in here.”
As I stepped inside, I was reminded again of the building’s emptiness. There were no signs this had been the office of anyone at all, much less that of the young woman who took the chair behind the desk. No photos, no books, no personal effects whatsoever. The desk, like the chair in the foyer, had a light sheen of dust on its surface. I wasn’t sure she noticed.
“Please, have a seat.” I did so. She cocked her head to one side. “So, how can I help you?”
I clasped the pendant around my neck once, drawing in a deep breath. “Well, I guess I should start at the beginning.”
“Always a good choice.” Dr. Snow’s tone and smile made me think this was a bit of humor shared between us. I decided to ignore it.
“About a year ago, my husband, Ralph, was killed when the particle accelerator came online.”
She paled, a fact I noticed with a certain amount of grim satisfaction. Her lips moved soundlessly, brows furrowed as she parsed out a word or two. Finally, she sighed, shoulders drooping. “Ralph Dibny. Of course. Forgive me for not connecting your name with his. I am so, so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” The response had become almost perfunctory now, even though I said it far less frequently than I did at the beginning. I cleared my throat. “You asked how you could help. I don’t know that you can but–”
I pulled my tablet from my purse. “Approximately six months after Ralph’s death, strangers—especially men—would accost me on the street. They knew my name, even though I’d never met them before. They said things I didn’t understand.” Keying up the first of several videos, I turned the screen towards her. “I didn’t have the presence of mind to film these encounters at first, but did after three or four had happened.”
Dr. Snow picked up the tablet so she could see the screen more clearly. I knew the words by heart.
“Hey, Sue. How about a hot dog? I know you love them with chili and cheese. Wish I could share one with you but I haven’t found a way to come back yet. Here, have one!” A brief pause, then, “Miss! Miss! Do you want a hot dog? I got one right here! Hot dogs! Who wants a hot dog?”
Dr. Snow handed the tablet back to me. “That was odd. What did he mean by ‘come back’?”
I shook my head. “I had no idea at the time.” Queueing up the next one, I passed it back. “Not long after, it was people I knew who began talking to me like this.”
The voice of Jada, my mail carrier, poured out of the tiny speaker. “Hey, Sue. Still getting that women’s magazine, huh? I never understood why you wanted it; you always looked great to me. And here’s a package—looks like it’s from your sister. What did she have to say at the funeral? Probably was happy—” I could see Jada shaking her head and giving me a weak smile. “Sorry about that, Mrs. Dibny. This sun is really doing a number on me.”
“Would you like some cold water?” I asked at the time.
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
Dr. Snow glanced up at me. “So the incidents moved closer to home?”
“Yes.” I paused and drew in a deep breath. “Then this started.” Sliding through the videos, I found the one I wanted and handed the tablet back. I knew what the pictures were; I’d watched this over and over. I was standing in front of the mirror in my nightgown, talking to myself, phone in hand.
“Hey, Sue. Wow, is this weird or what? Looking at you through your own eyes. From what I’ve observed, you won’t remember this in the morning, which is why I’m recording it on your phone. Great idea you had, filming those others. I wish I could get through to you and explain what’s going on but I can’t put it into words myself. I never know how much time I have with each person before they boot me. In fact, this is the longest…” The monologue stopped and the picture tumbled briefly, ending with a brief clatter as the phone hit the floor.
I reached over to retrieve the tablet from Dr. Snow. She tucked a chestnut strand behind one ear. Her pretty face screwed up in a look I’d become familiar with; she wanted to ask me an impertinent and unpleasant question.
“Have you—have you seen someone about this? Your physician, perhaps? A psychiatrist? A counselor?”
I pursed my lips and barely refrained from scowling. “Yes, I have seen my physician. He referred me to a psychiatrist, who heard me out, wrote me a couple of prescriptions, and told me he’d see me in six months.” She opened her mouth to speak but I held up a hand. “Before you ask, no, the phenomena did not stop. As you see by my evidence here, it’s not all in my head.”
Scrolling through the rest of the recordings, I selected the last one. “This is what brings me to you today.”
In the video, I’m standing before my mirror again, this time fully dressed—if you can call baggy sweatpants and a dirty t-shirt as dressed in the first place. I hated the way I looked, strung out, my hair shaggy and uncombed, but at the time, I didn’t care. In the video, I cleared my throat. “Sue…” My voice was raspy and I cleared my throat again. “Sue, I hate to see what these drugs are doing to you. You’ve lost all your verve, all your joie de vivre. I know my death was hard on you; being separated from you has been hard on me, too. I haven’t found a way to get back yet and believe me, I’ve tried.” Whoever had possessed me shook my head. “Listen. I’ve been all over and one place keeps drawing me back: S.T.A.R. Labs in Central City. You’d think that’d be the last place I’d want to go, right? But if the particle accelerator killed me, maybe it could bring me back? I dunno.” A pause. “Anyhoo, there are crazy things happening there now and if nothing else, they could maybe explain to you what’s going on with me. So go, hon. Just go. Ask for Dr. Caitlin Snow.”
As I turned off the recording, Dr. Snow’s lips were pursed and her eyes regarded the desk for a long time. I couldn’t decide if she was going to dismiss me outright, jolly me along, or actually listen. When she looked up at me again, I could tell she was totally serious.
“Do you remember making that recording?”
I shook my head. “I don’t remember making any of the ones of myself.”
“Who do you think it is?”
Shrugging, I sighed. “I could have some kind of multiple personality disorder. That’s what my psychiatrist thought.”
“But that doesn’t answer my question and it doesn’t account for the recordings you made of others. As you said, this is evidence against such a disorder.”
“So? You came here. To me. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a physician; I’m a geneticist—among other things. So, why did you come? What do you think is going on?”
I swallowed, speaking carefully. “I’ve heard that Central City is home to a number of super-powered beings called metahumans and that all of them were spawned by the explosion. What if—what if my husband was among them? What if he is one of those metahumans, too, and somehow, this is his–power?” Slumping back, I gestured toward my tablet. “I can’t think of another explanation.”
Dr. Snow tapped her bottom lip with a manicured fingernail. She leaned forward, folding her hands and putting them on the desk. “Forgive me for asking, but where was your husband when he died?”
I knew the answer to this one; that nice Detective West had shown me where they’d found Ralph’s body. “He was walking from the rental car kiosk to the main terminal at Central City jetport.” A small smile crossed my face. “He preferred to walk if it wouldn’t make him late. ‘Stretch his legs’ is how he put it.” I sighed. “Unfortunately, he was running late—had to take a later flight than he’d planned.”
She took out her phone and took notes as I spoke. “So, he was here when the accelerator exploded?”
“And what did you do with his body? Did you bury him?”
“No.” I grasped my pendant again; the metal was warm beneath my palm. “I had him cremated. It was what he wanted.”
Her head shot up as I said this and she looked so disconsolate I almost wanted to hug her. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I was hoping we could get a sample for DNA testing.”
“DNA? What does that have to do with anything?”
I must have spoken sharper than I realized because she went from sad to closed off in a split second. “Well, you see, metahumans share a particular DNA sequence which was activated by the particle accelerator. If I could have tested your husband’s remains and he had that sequence, then we would know if he was a metahuman.”
Glancing down, I let go of my pendant, unfastening the clasp. “Here. I have some of his ashes in this.”
Interested, she held out her hand and examined the heavy gold heart. “Funerary urn jewelry. I’ve heard of it but have never seen one. This is particularly pretty.” She reached out to hand it back. “Unfortunately, I can’t pull DNA from ashes, not even with the most cutting-edge equipment.”
“There’s a tooth…”
She withdrew her hand. “A tooth? Inside here?”
I nodded. “Ralph lost it a few years ago. It has a gold filling so he didn’t want to just throw it out. I thought it fitting to tuck it inside.”
“I see. I might be able to work with a tooth.” She smiled, looking bright and hopeful. “Mrs. Dibny, how long will you be in town?”
Her question surprised me but I answered all the same. “Uh … I planned on leaving early the day after tomorrow. My business should be completed by then.”
“Perfect!” Now she sounded enthused. “May I ask a colleague to help me? Could I show them the videos? I promise we won’t intrude on your privacy any more than we need to. Also, do you have a photo of your husband?”
I was already digging in my purse for one even as I said, “Uh, yes, of course, you can consult but why do you need a photo? Didn’t the Central City papers—?”
“Oh, of course! You likely provided them with one; I can ask my friend for it.” She slid my tablet closer to her and piled my pendant on top. “I will get to work on this right away and we can discuss the results tomorrow. I’ll return your things then.”
Suddenly, I stopped and asked myself why I was trusting this woman. I must have frowned or scowled because she asked, “Is there something wrong, Mrs. Dibny?”
I opened my mouth to say what was on the tip of my tongue … and the next thing I knew, I found myself seated inside a small infirmary!