[ASH] ASH #73: Metropolis III - Hangmen Also Die

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at haven.eyrie.org
Sun Oct 29 12:26:44 PST 2006

     Cover shows an aerial shot of a somewhat cloudy Manhattan in black and
white.  The shadow of a hangman's noose lies over midtown.

    //||  //^^\\  ||   ||   .|.   COHERENT COMICS UNINCORPORATED PRESENTS
   // ||  \\      ||   ||  --X---------------------------------------------
  //======================= '|`        ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES #73
 //   ||      \\  ||   ||           Metropolis III - Hangmen Also Die
//    ||  \\__//  ||   ||          Copyright 2006 by Dave Van Domelen

                       ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME                POWERS                   STATUS
--------       ---------                ------                   ------
Solar Max      Jonathan Zachary         Spacetime Control        ACTIVE
                 "JakZak" Taylor
Comet          Sarah Grant-Taylor       Superspeed, Ice Body     ACTIVE
Green Knight   Salvatore Napier         Strength, Regeneration   ACTIVE
Contact        Aaron Zander             Psi, Mind-over-Body      ACTIVE
Scorch         Scott Handleman          Pyrokinetic              ACTIVE
Beacon         George Sylvester         Living Light             DETACHED
Essay          Sara Ana Rodriguez       Gadgeteer                DETACHED
Peregryn       Howard Henderson Jr.     Elemental Mage           DETACHED
Lightfoot      Tom Dodson               Velocity Control         ACTIVE
Breaker        Christina Li             Telekinesis              ACTIVE
Fury           Arin Kelsey              Concussion Blasts        ACTIVE

[February 23, 2026 - Manhattan, Autonomous Sector]

     "Did you really think you were in control?" an electronically distorted
voice asked from the shadows.
     Hangman Patrick Knowles whirled and fired a three round burst in one
smooth motion, his onboard sensors having pinpointed the source of the voice
within millimeters, and the cybernetic connection to his pistols ensuring
that the bullets went exactly where he wanted them to go.  The silencing on
the gun itself didn't stop the bullets from making a loud crack as they
bounced off concrete and whined off into the night.
     To his credit, he didn't call out "Who are you?" to the darkness.  If he
was going to die, he figured, he wouldn't do so as a cliche.  Instead he
turned his sensors to the task of trying to defeat whatever stealth system or
distorter the questioner was using.
     "You have forgotten that you are merely the executioner, not judge nor
jury," the voice added, but Knowles held his fire.  Whoever it was seemed
content to toy with him for now, and he'd take whatever data he could so that
the next time he fired would be the last time he'd need to.  "You have
started to step outside your bounds, and that means you no longer have
protection from all of the delicately balanced forces in this city.  Umbrae
will no longer shelter you."
     Knowles's mind raced.  Too many people hated the Hangmen, which was why
they tried to keep their identities secret.  But whoever this was knew Pat's
secret...secrets, to be more accurate.  Maybe it was a bluff, to get him to
blurt out something incriminating, but there was a chance the mysterious
figure knew about Pat's little side deals with the Otazuka.  Or the thing
with Janis.  Still, it wouldn't matter in a few seconds, the Hangman's
onboard systems had just about cracked the voice distortion system.  The next
words the voice from the shadows said would be his or her last.
     "Bang," the voice said.
     Patrick Knowles didn't even have time to twitch his trigger finger
before he was reduced to ash.

               *              *              *              *

[February 24, 2026 - the skies above Venus]

     Soaring high, where the air was thin and cold, Bronzewing spread her
wings to catch the warming rays of the Sun and let her vision defocus.
Unlike mortals, when the gigantic metal ibis did this, it went beyond the
here and now becoming indistinct...the concept of "now" itself became a
little fuzzy.  When the Leviathan had been sundered, the demigoddess's gift
of prophecy had gone with Bronzewing, such little as had been left to the
Leviathan after her humbling at the hands of the Olympians millennia past.
Or future.  The wars of the gods were hard on grammar.
     Glimpses of tomorrow came to Bronzewing.  Fragmentary, hazy, open to
interpretation and subject to change...such was the nature of prophecy.  It
could be maddening at times, but there was an addictive quality to it.  No
matter how unreliable her visions might be, she couldn't resist giving in to
them whenever she felt the spheres aligning.
     A wedding flashed before her eyes.  The mage who had fragmented the
great mother, bound to some little morsel of she-flesh.  It felt more
immediate than most visions, as if Bronzewing was seeing with her oracular
eye that which she would see with her real eyes at some point.
     Then flames.  She often saw flames in her visions.  Was it that she was
doomed to die in fire?  Or simply that this was how her mind interpreted the
shifting dance of time?
     Now the hand of a god reached down from the skies, and Bronzewing
shuddered in a spasm of pain.  Was a god interested in her, or was she merely
seeing someone else's fate?  Many hands were raised against this god, whoever
it was, but before she could see the outcome, the vision dissolved once more
into fire.
     The fire resolved into the shape of a great lion, and she hissed.
Infernion, the guardian.  The enemy she would have to one day face if she
desired to ever do more than endlessly circle this world.  The lion would not
let her conquer, nor depart.  He was her warden, seeing her without sight
wherever she went.  Was he intruding on her visions now?  Did he have that
power?  Whatever the reason, the lion would not leave her second sight.  It
was time to return to the present....

               *              *              *              *

[February 24, 2026 - Manhattan, Autonomous Sector]

     Of all the neighborhood names in Manhattan, Gene reflected, DUMBO was
probably the silliest.  Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass, it literally
sat in the shadow of one of the major entry points to the Autonomous Sector.
One wag had even tried to rechristen it Down Under Manhattan Bridge:
Autonomous Sub-Sector in the wake of Manhattan being cut loose from the
Combine and handed over to Umbrae.
     Still, with the increase in business in Manhattan, the neighborhood had
seen some revitalization and reconstruction as one of the gateways to the
Autonomous Sector.  It was an odd mix of gentrification and what amounted to
squatters living in unreclaimed buildings in order to be close to the new
jobs.  While it had never gotten as bad as some parts of the city, there were
certainly buildings that hadn't seen any real maint work since the 1990s.  Or
earlier, really.
     All of which made it a good place to set up a free clinic.  Especially
if you wanted an excuse to keep a close eye on people coming and going from
the city.  And if anyone liked keeping an eye on others, it had to be Jessa
Dumont, formerly known as the mercenary telepath Scry.  Quite the little
empire-builder she was turning out to be...two clinics now, with plans for
two others to open in a month or so.
     Gene walked up to the clinic's front door and nodded approvingly at the
bustle of activity.  Even as finishing touches were put on the decor, both
interior and exterior, the clinic was in operational mode and people were
coming and going.  A few shot her concerned looks, of the "what's a pretty
young thing like you doing alone in this rough neighborhood?" variety, but
Gene just smiled back at them.  She only LOOKED like she was alone.  And she
wasn't as fragile as she looked...even if someone could get past the five
security personnel shadowing her, it wasn't like Gene couldn't hold her own
against any normal.  Or a good percentage of supernormals.  This city already
knew to fear telepathic martial artists.
     Stepping through the door, Gene just walked past the reception desk and
headed for the back offices.  No one questioned her, or even really noticed
her.  Telepathic invisibility wasn't about not being seen so much as it was
about convincing everyone that they didn't need to pay attention to her.  It
was one of the niftier tricks Gene had mastered in the past few months.
Unfortunately, it also tended to stand out like a beacon to anyone with psi
sensitivity...it might better be called a smokescreen than actual
invisibility.  Jessa would know she was coming.  Which was fine by Gene.
     "You might as well come in," came a voice from the other side of the
door marked "Director".
     "Hello, Jessa," Gene smiled as she opened the door and stepped through.
"Guess I can't put one past you anymore, eh?"  Only practice kept her from
stopping dead as she hit what amounted to a stone tower of mental
resistance.  Dumont wasn't radiating *anything*, for starters.  Most people
are open books to hearing or sight telepaths, because they're always
broadcasting something.  But Jessa had the training to not leak like that.
Training that hadn't gone away when she'd burned out her powers in the act of
sealing her sister Tyra into a single body, ending the menace of the
telepathic parasite Mr. Strings.
     It was more than that, though.  Jessa had active barriers up.  Nothing
Gene couldn't get past if she really wanted to, but she'd have to make enough
effort that it'd be obvious, at which point Jessa would just bolt.  Or shoot
her, Gene supposed.  Better to try to trick her into letting something loose.
     "I've heard some rumors I felt you might want to know," Gene said
conversationally, as if she were just getting together with a girlfriend to
chat about office gossip.
     "Email wouldn't do?" Jessa smirked, as if trying to decide whether to
play the game or cut to the chase.
     "A bit sensitive, I think.  I've heard tell your sister might be in town
for a visit."
     A slight crack opened, but it was gone before Gene could pick up
anything more than the inevitable shock and concern.
     "Tyra's in Manhattan?"
     Gene nodded.  "Or so I hear.  With her roommate, of course," Gene
winked, alluding to Cockatrice, whose body Tyra now shared.  Together they
had become the new Burnout, third to carry the name.  Or first, if you
considered that they'd all been inhabited by Tyra's mind in some way.
"Between her and Hellhound, things are really heating up in town."
     No response at all to mention of Hellhound.  Gene was positive Jessa was
working with the vigilante in some capacity, but clearly Dumont was well-
practiced at covering that particular secret.
     "All we need is for Warden to come back and it'll really be a party,"
Jessa smiled sweetly.  "Although some of my patients claim he already is
back.  In town for the wedding."
     "Ah, yes.  Social event of the year.  I doubt Warden was invited, but
he'd probably just crash it.  He's not very well socialized, after all.  I
blame it on his upbringing."
     Jessa winced.  They both knew that Thomas Malfeas, aka the Warden, had
been "raised" telepathically by a young girl whose vengeance fantasies had
formed a sort of mentor personality for him to tap into.  It was...tacky for
Gene to bring that up, but she had to get Jessa to react somehow, loosen her
defenses enough to let something out.
     "Well, thanks for the news," Jessa replied icily, "but I'm very busy
getting this new branch running.  Maybe I can come over for lunch some time
and talk more...I bet the view from your office is magnificent.  Although it
can't see everything, can it?"
     "Oh, you'd be surprised what you can see from up there," Gene smiled
just as coldly as she stood.  "Later, then.  Ta."
     Gene didn't need her telepathy to know Jessa was thinking, "But you
can't see ME from up there!"

               *              *              *              *

[February 25, 2026 - Mount Olympus, Kingdom of Q'Nos]

     "And so, until affairs of state bring me 'round these hallowed halls
once more, I bid you adieu," Kaliban bowed elaborately in a way that only
someone with his inhuman build could.  Then he stood, turned, and left the
audience hall of Q'Nos's palace, flanked by his honor guard.
     Q'Nos pondered the piece of parchment that sat in his massive hand,
dwarfed by comparison.  After a long moment, he snorted quietly and turned to
Simon Smith, his vizier.  "So, what do you think?"
     "I'm sure Rex Umbrae and Maria Incarnata will make a lovely couple," he
     Q'Nos chuckled at the mental image.  The hulking Umbrae, rumored to be a
product of the genetic processes that had created Herr Zugmann, previous
leader of Khadam.  Well, figurehead.  But that slab of muscle next to the
willowy cyborg right-hand woman of the head of the Cybernostra.  Oh yes,
lovely.  "Not what I meant, and you know it," he chided.
     Simon shrugged.  "Where to start?  I know, the beginning, assume you
know nothing and leave nothing out.  At the very simplest, what we have here
is a political alliance of a somewhat retro-medieval fashion, between a
powerful faction in the Khadamite government and a growing extragovernmental
power.  The Cybernostra isn't just a jumped-up street gang anymore, nor are
they limited to Manhattan.  And while there are no signs Chancellor Radner's
position is in any danger, Umbrae is essentially a prince of the realm.  His
faction survived the purges in better shape than most, and since Khadam's
oligarchy is not yet explicitly dynastic, he could well succeed Radner.  He
may also have his own dynastic ambitions...which would explain the choice of
Maria rather than Sister Christian herself."
     Q'Nos cocked his head.  "I thought Sister took her faux-nun act
seriously enough to consider herself a...what is the phrase...bride of
     Simon shook his head.  "Yes, but my sources don't think that would keep
her from being a bride of shadows if she felt it would improve her position.
But she no longer has reproductive organs, thanks to her extensive cybernetic
replacements.  Some sort of genetic splicing would be possible, of course,
but Maria can provide an heir the old-fashioned way.  And, from all reports,
is far from a celibate nun.  In any case, I don't think Umbrae himself would
agree to a step down like that unless he was serious about the marriage
providing biological benefits.  He'd have simply married Sister Christian for
the political side of things and maintained a mistress."
     "Interesting.  I suppose that when you're not immortal, such plotting is
necessary.  But, on that political side of things, would you advise I accept
the invitation and attend this wedding?"
     Simon shook his head.  "Again, it comes to status.  Umbrae is merely a
prince in stature, and while it is on the rise, the Cybernostra is not a
globaly power to be reckoned with yet.  To attend yourself would have one of
two effects.  Either it would make others see you as a second-tier power as
     "Not something I desire," Q'Nos interrupted.
     "Indeed.  Or it would give the impression that you felt Umbrae or the
Cybernostra or both were first-tier.  This could cause difficulty in our
relations with Khadam, should Radner decide we were supporting a coup."
     "On the other hand, snubbing it entirely would offend factions who could
be useful allies or worrisome enemies in the future," Q'Nos nodded, then
tossed the parchment lightly to Simon.  "Clear your agenda for March 14, o
vizier.  You have a wedding to attend."
     "Such is the life of a veep," Simon smirked.

               *              *              *              *

[February 26, 2026 - Manhattan, Autonomous Sector]

     Maria Incarnata stood in the center of the fitting area, unclothed but
not precisely naked.  The false skin she wore to cover her extensive
cybernetic enhancements on this day bore no cosmetic enhancements to complete
the illusion, being simply a synthetic bodysuit.  It even covered the few
bits of real flesh the woman still had, other than her face.
     Juliana circled the living mannequin, looking her up and down with a
critical eye and making the occasional notes.  "I'm thinking we go without
the synthflesh for the wedding ceremony," she said.  "Could you take that off
so I could get a closer look?" she gestured at the skinsuit.
     Maria stripped down with the ease of long practice, revealing a body
that was almost entirely a mix of chromesteel and synthetics.  Her face was
still real, and her hands looked real thanks to the more sensitive machinery
requiring permanent covering.  Also, much of her lower torso and pelvis was
bare, human flesh, with only a few ripples here and there to betray subdermal
     She looked no more uncomfortable now than she had before, but Juliana
could tell that it was not the common cyborg affliction of being disconnected
from her body.  No, in the short time she'd known Maria, it had become
obvious that this was a woman who would have walked naked into a crowded room
before becoming a cyborg and felt no shame.  Quite unlike her "code sister",
Sister Christian, who never went about without all-covering clothing despite
no longer having most of the parts that society asked a woman to cover.
     "Your cybernetic plating, with a white enamel finish, would look just
right for the part of the white queen.  A few accessories, of course, for
propriety's sake," she winked.  "The loinplate you wear as part of your
combat loadout is a little too bland, however.  Here's a few designs I
sketched up as possibilities," she held her handcomp up for Maria to see.
     "Hmm, I like the one in the lower left.  Very sweeping," she said, with
a hint of a German accent.
     Juliana nodded and noted the choice.  "I can get your armorers to
fabricate it today, and we can try a fitting at your earliest convenience
after that."
     "Fine.  Now to other business.  I want you to design me something for
the wedding *night*.  To go with one of my special skinsuits," she said with
an excited glint in her eye.  The suits she referred to were much more
complicated, designed to blend with her remaining organic surface seamlessly,
and give the illusion of a normal, unenhanced human.  Well, cybernetically
unenhanced.  At least one of the suits had a bustline that no baseline human
could manage without surgical help.  And spinal reinforcement.
     "Not really my specialty," Juliana demurred, "but I think I can come up
with something.  Which skinsuit were you thinking of using?"
     Maria stepped over to a terminal and with a thought brought up an image
on the screen.  "Well, this one is Rex's favorite...."

               *              *              *              *

[February 27, 2026 - Manhattan, Autonomous Sector]

     "Just a little more to the left, Gorilla...perfect!" Nerd-Boy said.  The
gangly cyborg was notable for being just about the only guy in town with
cybernetic enhancement who was neither Cybernostra nor one of the paranormal
Rust Brothers.  Word was he'd actually worked for a Scytharian concern in
some capacity, and was either rewarded with their alien cyberware, or got in
an accident and they had to fix him up.  Nerd-Boy wasn't his name, of course,
but that's what everyone called him.  He just looked and acted the part so
intensely that even the people who knew his real name almost never used it.
     Gorilla stood up and stretched.  Pushing the altar into place hadn't
been tough in terms of raw strength, but it had required a lot more care and
precision than he normally had to use, so his back was feeling all knotted
up.  "Need anyt'ing else, Nerd-Boy?" he asked.
     Nerd-Boy suppressed a sigh.  "No, Gorilla.  You can take five."
     Gorilla nodded and lumbered off the platform, taking a seat in a chair
marked as reserved for the Otakuza.
     He looked around the hall.  Once it had held the old United Nations
General Assembly, now it was being set up to host the wedding of the year.
Instead of various allied and opposing nations seated around the room,
representatives of...okay, some nations, but mostly non-governmental
organizations like the Otakuza or Cybernostra or Manhattan's various
paragangs were going to be behind the carefully repaired wooden desks.
     "Man, it looks like th' startin' gates for one helluva royal rumble,"
Gorilla said to no one in particular.
     "You got that right," Torque replied, being no one in particular as
far as Gorilla was concerned.
     Gorilla turned to face his fellow 'ganger.  A lot of them had hired on
to help with the prep, especially the low-ranking ones who knew they'd be
lucky to see the ceremony from the nosebleed seats.  At least this way they
got to see what the place looked like up close.  "Who's brilliant idea was it
to put the Pranir section next to the Macoute, anyway?"
     Torque chuckled.  "Yeah, those big bad voodoo daddies hates the
snakeowls, dunnay?  And I was just setting up the Haights next to the
Basilisk Blacks...dun't th' Blacks still got that grudge against Fifteen?"
Replicating paranormal Manson Haight had taken to numbering his duplicates.
     "I guess everyone's gonna be tryin' ta be on their best behavior,
though.  It *is* a wedding."
     "And it ain't like y'can completely avoid puttin' haters next ta each
other," Torque nodded.  "Too many grudges."
     Gorilla agreed with the sentiment, but still...he couldn't shake the
feeling that whoever planned this out *wanted* as much drama as possible.

               *              *              *              *

[February 28, 2026 - Manhattan, Autonomous Sector]

     Janis Kaufmann was worried, and for damn good reason.  Knowles was dead,
and that was bad.  Oh, she didn't care about it on a personal level.  The man
was an ass, and she'd only slept with him because it looked like a good way
to keep him from betraying her before she could betray him.  After all, when
you're working together to take over the top spot, you can't both *have* it,
     But that was the problem.  Whoever had killed Pat might have done so at
least indirectly because he'd been found out.  They said he'd been turned to
ash, like Cockatrice was supposed to be able to do nowadays, but there's no
way an exiled ex-gang leader like her could have gotten onto the island to do
that if she didn't have help.  And permission.
     That made doing her job a lot more dangerous.  Even if no one knew of
her part in things, someone who could kill a Hangman was loose in Manhattan,
and might not stop with targets who were known to be guilty.
     "Maybe I'm being paranoid," she muttered to herself, "but not being
paranoid in this job gets you dead."
     "You're right about that," a voice replied from all around her and
nowhere at all.  She froze, biting down a curse that tried to escape her
lips.  All of her combat systems came online, cluttering her vision with
threat assessment icons and tactical options.
     Janis slowly drew her monoblade, a nasty little piece of Santari
hardware that had a blade formed from a single flawless iron crystal grown in
microgravity and stiffened with magnetic fields.
     "Ah, so you want to play it that way?" the voice asked.  Her sensors
couldn't pin it down.  Carets cropped up all over the place indicating places
it *might* be coming from.  "Good, I prefer swordplay to guns.  My first
love, you might say.  But let's make this interesting...."
     Sudddenly, everything went black.  Not in the sense that the lights went
out, but in the sense that Janis's vision simply stopped working.  The threat
assessment symbols vanished along with everything else, leaving her in total
     There was a soft sound of someone jumping to the street level behind
her.  Her acoustics still worked well enough, and the sounds bouncing off the
alley walls gave her a good enough fix on the location to attack.  She swung
the monoblade in an arc intended to intersect her attacker, and nearly
stumbled as it was deflected up and away with a hissing clang.
     "You know, even a monoblade can be parried with normal steel if you know
the trick to it," the voice noted.  It was more localized now, but subtly
distorted, keeping her from being able to tell if it was anyone she'd heard
     "This is a tidy little prison Rex Umbrae has set up," he continued.  At
least, Janis was pretty sure the speaker was male.  "The prisoners don't even
realize they're in prison, but they keep to their place.  The guards know
their place as well, if not in the bigger picture."
     She struck out again, twisting her blade as she struck in hopes of
getting a piece of his sword and cutting through it.  But he simply dodged
away, as if he knew what she planned to do.
     "Even the executioners should know their place.  The hangmen are not
also the wardens," he mocked.
     Then his blade entered Janis's forehead and she heard no more.


Next Issue:

     When you're marrying one of the most powerful men in the world and want
to rub it in, where do you have the bachelorette party?  Why, in Washington
DC, of course!  Not that it's going to happen quietly, in part 4 of
Metropolis, "Clash by Night"!


Author's Notes:

     I can't say more without spoilering it, but I saw "Full Metal Alchemist:
Conqueror of Shamballa" during the month I was writing this issue, and was
amused by one of the character revelations.  :)

     Code brothers/sisters are a recent innovation within the Cybernostra.
It's like the idea of blood brotherhood, but instead of sealing the bond with
blood, they do so by sharing the override codes to each other's cybernetic
enhancements.  In a way, it's a stronger bond than a blood brotherhood,
because each gives the other the means to seriously incapacitate them.  And
while it's always possible to change those codes, the code sibling will
instantly know when that is done, because the pair always maintains a low
level connection.


     For all the back issues, plus additional background information, art,
and more, go to http://www.eyrie.org/~dvandom/ASH !

     To discuss this issue or any others, either just hit "followup" to this
post, or check out our Yahoo discussion group, which can be found at
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ash_stories/ !


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