The three Kryptonians moved themselves about on the reddish sands of Mars, their stiffened muscles protesting. Despite their great power, they had to work the kinks out.
The small planet they stood upon was a little more than half the size of Earth. The decreased gravity might have boosted their strength powers a bit more than what they would have gained on Earth, perhaps less than what they would have in space, but the degree was small enough not to be perceptible to them if it existed.
The atmosphere was not like that of Earth or Krypton. It was mainly carbon dioxide, at a pressure of about .15 psi, as opposed to 14.7 psi on Terra and a slightly greater density on their homeworld. Their voices sounded strange to themselves when they spoke. But the air's differing composition meant nothing to them. They could breathe almost anything, or nothing at all.
As Mala, Kizo, and U-Ban walked and stretched, they assessed the scene about them, and the woman before them. She was tall, almost 6 feet in height, and vaguely stirred their carnality. None of them had ever seen her before.
And it had been ages since any of them had been with a woman.
U-Ban, the redheaded one, was younger than his twin brothers and more impulsive. "We'll talk afterward," he said, with an leer. He started for Badra.
Mala, who was a near-double for the late Superman, said, "U-Ban," in a warning tone. But Kizo blocked Mala's path.
Kizo wanted to know something of the woman who had freed them. If she had power to release them from the Kryptonite globe, she probably had power enough to resist U-Ban's advances. "Let's see what she's got," he said, quietly.
Badra gave U-Ban a warning look. He did not heed it. He stepped closer to her.
She let him get close enough for her to deliver a blow with pointed fingers to a certain area of his chest.
U-Ban's eyes widened as his mouth opened and his lungs drew in the alien Martian air. Its content could not harm him. Badra's blow could, and had.
The black-haired woman in the green dress pressed her advantage, coolly. She picked up U-Ban by his neck and crotch and threw him at his brothers, bowling all three of them over. Before the Kryptonians could pick themselves up again, she snapped, "Do you think I could have freed you from Superman's globe, if I did not have the strength to defend myself? You disappoint me, gentlemen. Perhaps I should seek better allies."
Mala got up first and dusted off his trousers. "Hold, woman. My younger brother is often too quick to action. We know nothing of you, or your purposes. I offer my apologies for his rashness. Now--tell us who you are, and why you have freed us."
"And why we shouldn't tear you apart," rasped U-Ban, rubbing his chest.
"Shut up, U-Ban," said Kizo, lifting an arm to keep his brother back.
Badra folded her arms and regarded the trio. After a short pause, she spoke.
"You have been imprisoned for thirty-one years," she said. "In that time, a new generation of heroes has arisen on Earth. Many of the older generation have become active again. I have knowledge of these, and of other things besides. I also have a plan. Your powers, and your scientific knowledge, could facilitate it. But if you attempt such action as you have shown me again...I'll turn my back on you, and leave you to be trapped again, and be damned to you. Make your decision."
The three looked at each other. Then Mala spoke.
"For the moment, we will agree to hear more."
Badra relaxed a bit, but only by that much, and said, "Very well, then. Let me tell you who I am, and what I propose to do."
There was a woman whose name was Karen Starr and, in reality, she didn't exist.
She was a cover identity for Power Girl, who wore her hair a bit differently and shaped her face a tad more plainly and wore glasses and walked a bit differently as Karen Starr than she did as Power Girl. Karen spoke with a broad Americanese accent, more Californian than anything else, and wore medium-length skirts and sensible shoes and didn't swing her hips too much when she walked.
Sometimes, she wondered who she was fooling. But it seemed to work, so far.
Karen Starr worked at United Computer Corporation, the big software company in Gotham. The city was just across the river from Metropolis. She worked in Gotham and fought crime in the Met. Well, most of the time, anyway. Sometimes she helped out on the Huntress's cases in Gotham, but they were a far cry from being a Superman-Batman team with a sex change.
Power Girl had made her public debut some years back, when she joined Robin and the Star-Spangled Kid to help the JSA fight the Brain Wave. But Karen Starr had been born some months after that, when Andrew Vinson had pointed out to her that she needed a secret i.d. just like Superman and all the other Justice Society types. Vinson was a reporter for a Gotham TV station who had become her friend after a bizarre case in which he, then Power Girl herself, had been attacked by the symbioship which brought her to Earth and had tried to reclaim her. That had been wrapped up only a few days before.
Kara admitted that he had a point. She couldn't, after all, expect to spend her life sleeping in the JSA's brownstone or in the spare bedroom at Clark's place.
"What can you do?" he asked. "What are you suited for?"
She had hugged her knees and fidgeted at that one. "In my dreams, I studied a lot of things. I studied what my daddy put out for me, I guess. Kryptonian history and literature and some general science and--"
Andrew, 25 years old, black-haired, mustached, and bearded said, "Do you think you could read the news on TV?"
"Um," she said. "I don't know."
"Could you write the news for a newspaper?"
Andrew sighed, paced the floor of his flat. "Well, what do you know, besides beating up on crooks?"
She stood up and stamped her boots on the floor. She glared at him. "I'm tempted to give you a lesson in that right now, Andrew. Want to play the part of crook?"
He held up his hands. "Hold on, Kara, hold on. I'm just trying to figure out what you're suited for. America is a pretty demanding country, in terms of education and achievement. Want to try modelling? You've got the looks for it, believe it."
Power Girl had given him a yeah-right look with the corner of her mouth. Then she eyed an item on Andrew's desk. She pointed to it with her blue-gloved hand. "That computer, there."
"My 286?" Andrew looked at it, then at her. "You know about computers? There's money you can make, if you can fix ‘em or put ‘em together."
She walked over and lifted a 5 ½ inch floppy. It was in a paper sleeve with the legend, TIMOTHY LEARY'S MIND MIRROR, on it. She looked at him. "I've seen Earth comps at the JSA headquarters, but these little ones are really coming into style, aren't they?"
"Yeah, you bet," said Andrew. "It's the biggest growth industry today. Everybody's going to have one of these in their house within ten years, and you can mark that down."
She tapped the disc against her cheek, then took it out of the sleeve. "You put it in here?" she asked, sliding it into the slot.
"I think you've got the idea," said Andrew. He turned the machine on and it booted up, activating the Mind Mirror disc. The multicolored display came on. Power Girl had an intent look in her eyes, as her fingers found the keys on the board.
"Don't press too hard," he warned. "Keyboards cost, y'know."
Within five minutes, Kara had completed the personality test, played one of the role-games on the disk, and exited. She turned to Andrew with a look that was half child-delight, half-wonk. "I want to figure out how to create things like these. Is there a big market for them?"
"Not half as big as it's going to be," murmured Andrew, standing beside her with one hand on her chair. "There's colleges that teach that kind of thing in town. You can get a degree in a couple of years."
"Too slow." Power Girl stood up. "I'll be back, Andrew. When I am, find me the best computer company in town. I want to go to work for them."
And she had opened his window and up-up-and-awayed into the sky.
She had met Wonder Woman already at a Justice Society soiree and got along well enough with her, though Kara was a little more abrasive than Diana would have liked. As an orientation thing, the Amazon Princess had taken her to Paradise Island for a tour. She liked that, since the male JSA'ers couldn't be permitted to touch ground there, thanks to Aphrodite's Law, and some had never even been there in a don't-touch-the-ground capacity. Diana had introduced her to Queen Hippolyte and the others--she got the feeling that, thirty years ago, Diana had been closer in personality to what Kara was today--and she learned of an Amazon learning machine that could install volumes of knowledge in a human brain in a matter of hours.
So she went to the island once again and asked Mala, one of the Amazons, to program the machine with knowledge of how to create computer software. Then she sat in the chair and had the wire leads with the gooey stuff on the pad-ends stuck all over her blonde cranium. Within six hours' time, Kara learned all she needed to know about making a computer disk bark, roll over, and leap for a stick at her command.
Power Girl soared back into Andrew's apartment the next night, motioned him away from the computer, turned it on, and proceeded to write a program for a clever mouse-maze game off the top of her head. Then she got up from the seat and waved him over to it. "Play it," she said.
He did, guiding a mouse-shaped blob of light through a danger-filled maze. It was something like Pac-Man. There were a few glitches, but, hell, it was her first time out.
She was hovering behind him, a little closer than he liked.
"Well?" she asked, bright-eyed. "How'd I do?"
He nodded, casually as he could. "For a first-timer, you did good, kid."
"Good?" She frowned. "That's all?"
Oh, hell, he thought. Lord, please don't let her bust up my furniture. Holding his hands up to halt her, Andrew said, "Cool down, Kara. You have to learn to play scales before you can write symphonies. In musical terms, this might be a passing-fair kids' pop song. But--it shows promise. Think you can cook up some other stuff to show ‘em?"
She put both hands on her hips. "Okay," she said. "Let's see if I can learn how to do symphonies."
It took time to discipline her attention, stick-to-it-iveness, and imagination. Kara had a nasty tendency to lose it when things didn't go right, especially after fourteen or fifteen tries. But she realized she was in Andrew's house, so the only real casualty of her temper was a metal wastebasket she pounded flat as a manhole cover. She blushed afterwards, apologized, and flew out to buy him a new one. He stood over the two-dimensional basket and shook his head.
But she was getting better.
Within a week she had cooked up an accounting program and, with some help from the Flash, a bit of new software for chemists. Finally, Vinson got a lunch invite on the phone from Power Girl, and wondered if she was going to show up at the Thai place in her white suit and blue boots.
But shortly after he was seated, the waiter escorted a woman to his table who looked only a small percentage like Kara Zor-L. She was wearing a grey vest and knee-length skirt and a white blouse, and affected white high-heeled shoes.
Except for the height and hair, he couldn't have definitely matched her to Power Girl.
"Hello, Andrew," said the lady, sitting down and smoothing her skirt. "Like my new look?"
"Um, it is you, isn't it?" he said. "I mean, you're really..."
"I'm really Karen Starr," she said. "That's the name I settled on. You like?"
"Oh, sure," said Andrew, studying her over his menu. "But you look a lot different from...her. Your nose is a bit longer, your cheekbones a little different..."
She held the menu in a way that shielded her face from others in the restaurant. As Andrew looked on, almost in horror, she ran her hand over her nose and cheeks and the rest of her face, as if she were working clay on a wire frame. Within seconds, he was looking at the face of Power Girl.
"Don't say anything till I change back," she said, and then swept her hand over her face again. Power Girl's face was replaced by that of the girl who called herself Karen Starr.
He couldn't speak for several seconds.
The arrival of the waiter with their drinks brought him back to reality. They ordered their meals and, after the man had left, Andrew said, "I--well, that's incredible, Kar...uh, Karen. I never knew that, uh, super-people had that power."
Karen said, "Kal and I don't advertise it much, but we do have some limited chameleon power under a yellow sun. He changes his face a little when he's in his secret identity. That's what I've done. Think it'll work?"
"So that's why nobody's ever figured out who Su--"
"Sorry. Who he is. Even if they compared photos of the two, some features would still be off."
She nodded. "I don't think the Kal from Earth-1 can do that, from what Kal tells me. On the other hand, his invulnerability is a lot greater than ours. What the hell. I've got good news."
"Like job good news?"
"Like job interview good news. I left the sample disks with the company two days ago. Today they gave me a buzz and told me to show up for an interview at 2:00 with a guy from product development. I'm hyper enough to skip up the side of a building."
Andrew said, "Oh, c'mon. Don't be nervous."
"Who's nervous? I'm excited. Doing what I do is a thrill and a half, sure, but holding down a job is something that I don't think Kal thinks I can do. I want to stick it to him! Wave that old paycheck under his nose and say, ‘Here's what your little cousin just picked up this week.'" She smiled. "Am I being vindictive, Andrew?"
He gulped tea before answering. "Nah, but you haven't cinched that job yet. Do not come off as Miss Know-It-All with the r & d guy. Do not play Gloria Steinem From Outer Space. Remember, he's got something you want, and you've gotta show him you've got something he needs. In the brains department, I mean."
"Oh, thank you. As opposed to what men usually want." She smiled and waited for him to pick up the line. When he didn't, she went on, "I'm going to show Kal that I can do the civilian bit just as well as he can. But it won't be easy."
"What about college credits?" asked Andrew. "Won't they run a check on that?"
She nodded. "One of us is a college prof. He's getting things set up to give me the needed records. A few people in government owed Kal a favor. They're paying up by helping us with the backstory on the new me." She looked thoughtful. "Another me I never was. Feels almost like I was back in the ship."
Karen Starr sighed. "I'll try not to, Andrew. But I've read a few works of Earth lit from lots of countries. One of ‘em I really related to. The story about the guy who was dreaming he was a butterfly. Then he woke up, and wondered if he was really a butterfly dreaming of being a man." She stirred the sugar in her tea, idly. "Me, all over. Well, hell. Makes no difference. Butterfly, caterpillar, or woman, I'll play it the best I can."
"Prettiest caterpillar I ever saw. At least, for one that isn't green."
"Keep dreaming, Andrew," she said, and their food arrived shortly after.
Before they parted, she promised to give him a call after the interview. But he didn't hear from her that afternoon or that night, and wasn't about to ring up JSA Headquarters to find out. Another two days went by, and no word from her at all.
Andrew was miffed, and didn't know if he was entitled to feel that way. After all, they weren't exactly living together. And she was a super-heroine.
On the third night, he heard a tapping on his windowpane. When he opened the curtains and Venetian blinds, he saw no one.
Andrew shut the slats and curtains and turned away. The tapping came back.
Letting loose of a choice four-letter word, he yanked open the curtains, pulled up the blinds, unlatched the window, and stuck his head out. He still didn't see anyone. "Kara, if this is you--" he said. "And it better be you."
She swooped down from just above his window, grabbed him under the armpits, and was off with him through the night sky before he could unleash a half-decent scream.
Power Girl beamed at Andrew, who was as wide-eyed as a gangster hearing of an IRS audit. "I got a call back. Turns out I aced the interview. Dr. Ginsberg at UCC hired me. Isn't that fabulous?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, gulping.
"I was out with Superman the last couple of days. Luthor busted jail for the 4894th time, and I got to come along and help kick his butt. I think he'll stick to just Kal after his bruises heal!" She giggled.
"Swell," he said, swallowing hard.
"I'm so glad you reccommended me to Ginsberg, you little poop. Wanna walk me to work tomorrow?"
"If I can," he said.
Then he let go of his lunch and it spattered the roof of a Jamaican taxi driver's cab some 30 stories below.
The guy didn't know how it got on his car, but he hoped he never run into that big a bird, ever.
As things turned out, Karen Starr worked out fine at the company. Power Girl didn't quite rub his nose in it, but she was proud of her paycheck, and did make a point of showing it to Superman when they had their next rezendevous. The aging Man of Steel smiled, congratulated her, and told her she should be proud of learning what it was like to earn a living as a responsible citizen of Earth.
She was a bit deflated. She was trying to get a rise out of him, and there he was telling her how glad he was that she'd made good.
After Kal had gone in the next room to get some drinks, Lois Lane stepped a bit closer to Kara and said, "Nice try, dear. But I think he's wise to your tricks by now."
"How'd he figure me out?" she said, still holding her pay envelope.
Lois smiled slyly. "I think he had a little help," she said.
But that was all in the past.
As was Superman.
Karen Starr, in her cubicle at work, let out such a big sigh that Larry Morton in the next unit poked his head over the divided. "Whassamatter, Kare? Sound like you were bettin' on the Cowboys last weekend."
"Hey, Lar, even I'm not that dumb." She tried a smile. "I'm just a little tired, kinda. You doing all right?"
"Yeah," he said. "It's not that time, is it?"
"Oh, Lar, knock it off. If a woman got run over by an eighteen-wheeler, you men would be out there asking her, ‘You got cramps or something?'" He laughed. "I'll be fine, Lar. Busy morning. I'll see you at coffee break. ‘Kay?"
"Sure, Kare." He retracted his head behind the partition and went back to work. He was a nice guy, but not quite good enough to be a passable Office Clown.
Karen Starr returned to her own project. Part of her mind was still locked on that terrible night of the Crisis, in which she and Kal had helped the Supergirls and several others destroy the Anti-Monitor, and in which she had seen her cousin die. She wondered if she would ever fully get over that.
She wondered if Kal ever forgave her for never telling him she had loved him, despite it all, like a second father. She wondered if she would ever forgive herself for not doing that.
And she wondered about something else.
In the weeks since the Crisis, super-villain activity had dropped to an all-time low. Only a few raggedy independents had turned up, newbies who got slapped down almost as soon as they showed. The big guns, like Luthor, Ultra-Humanite, the Injustice Society, and all of the others seemed to have skipped town. Maybe even skipped Earth.
But even Dr. Fate couldn't find them. That was enough to put everyone on edge, a bit.
Still, there was work to be done, and super-heroing was, at best, a part-time profession. Even for those who really didn't need the money, a job was a satisfying thing.
Karen Starr bent herself to her task, and tried to shunt what premonitions of an uneasy future she had to the back of her mind.
Whatever happened, Power Girl could probably cope with it. She hoped.
Badra was speaking to the three Kryptonians. If she was impressed by them, she gave little sign of it.
"In a way, I am not unlike yourselves," she said. "I, too, am the sole survivor of a world which no longer exists. My world was Hator. It was a stronger world than Krypton, far stronger than Earth. Our strength was honed in war, and I was a young princess of that world's greatest nation, which had never known anything but war. Unfortunately, our enemies knew a secret of war we did not, and used it to explode our planet. I survived, in an emergency chamber. I was evidently catapulted through a space-warp to the vicinity of Earth. On that world, I grew to maturity. On that world, like yourselves, I had the powers of great strength, speed, flight, and imperviousness to most weapons of that world. The Hitler made his war sometime after my arrival, but I kept my powers to myself, and waited till three years after that conflict, when my own might grew to its fullest. Then I struck.
"But I was opposed by the Wonder Woman, and, after a great struggle, captured, belted with one of those will-sapping Venus girdles, and sent to live on an isle they called Transformation, where the Wonder Woman's tribe sought to reform me. The girdle dampened my powers and my will, but could not quench them. Their queen, the Hippolyte, knew this. After several years, they took me in hand, froze my mind and body in suspension, placed me in a spacecraft, and sent me into exile in a dimension beyond this one."
"And thus you remained," guessed Mala. "For all those years."
She turned on him with a cutting gaze. "Not for all of them. Five turns of the Earthworld round its star ago, I found myself aware again, my body and mind free of suspension, the craft which bore me crashed on this very planet. When I learned where I was, and where the Earthworld was in relation to me, I vowed vengeance. But the heroes of Earth were many, and I needed allies. In the meantime, I studied the Earthworld covertly, learned much about their heroic ones, and learned of your existence. Not being of the Earth, you have no sentimental attachments to it that the morons who call themselves ‘villains' on Earth might have. You are more suitable as allies. Far more suitable than Earthers."
"Well, then, milady, in your learning," said U-Ban, mocking the last word in that phrase by his pronunciation, "did you, by any chance, learn something that might help us against our enemy, Superman, also late of Krypton? We've crossed paths with him twice, and come up short both times. I've no wish to spend 30 more years in a ball of Kryptonite."
She said, simply, "The Superman is dead."
The look of shock on their faces pleased her quite satisfyingly.
"He is survived by a cousin," she said. "A woman named the Power Girl. You may have a kind of vengeance upon her. But we have many more to deal with, all the ones they name the Justice Society and Infinity. And we have the means to deal with them.
"And then to destroy the Earth."