[ASH] ASH #95 - Billions Served Part III: Test For Echo

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at eyrie.org
Wed Dec 24 12:35:14 PST 2008

     [The cover is assembled from five different team photos, torn vertically
and pasted together so there's one member of each team, plus bits and pieces
of other people.  The mostly complete figures, from left to right, are Chain
Lightning, the Yellow Windsnake Senshi, Solar Max, Whiteout and Red Widow.]

    //||  //^^\\  ||   ||   .|.   COHERENT COMICS UNINCORPORATED PRESENTS
   // ||  \\      ||   ||  --X---------------------------------------------
  //======================= '|`        ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES #95
 //   ||      \\  ||   ||        Billions Served Part 3 - Test for Echo
//    ||  \\__//  ||   ||          Copyright 2008 by Dave Van Domelen

                       ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME                POWERS                   ASSIGNMENT
--------       ---------                ------                   ----------
Solar Max      Jonathan Zachary         Spacetime Control        AMERICA
                 "JakZak" Taylor
Meteor         Sarah Grant-Taylor       Superspeed               AMERICA
Scorch         Scott Handleman          Pyrokinetic              CANADA
Green Knight   Salvatore Napier         Strength, Regeneration   MEXICO
Fury           Arin Kelsey              Concussion Blasts        MEXICO
Contact        Aaron Zander             Psi, Mind-over-Body      DIPLOMATIC
Breaker        Christina Li             Telekinesis              DIPLOMATIC
Essay          Sara Ana Henderson       Gadgeteer                VENUS
Peregryn       Howard Henderson Jr.     Elemental Mage           VENUS
Beacon         George Sylvester         Living Light             VENUS
Geode          Unknown                  Living Crystal           VENUS
Lightfoot      Tom Dodson               Velocity Control         TRANSIT

[July 13, 2026 - Greensboro, North Carolina Sector]

     "Hey, why're ya still fratzin' around with Mongo?" Chain Lightning
asked.  "I thought you got his teleporter out already," he jerked his thumb
at a small box containing the five-ankhs sigils that Superconductor had spent
the morning removing.
     "I did," the current leader of the Rush nodded, carefully worrying at a
component in his hulking comrade's back.  "But while I was in there I
remembered something I installed in Mongo back in '08, and decided to yank it
     "Oh?" Chain Lightning picked up a piece of cold pizza and nibbled on
it.  "That was before my time.  What's the thingy?"
     "Well," Superconductor paused in order to concentrate on carefully
opening a port, "Presto got the idea that maybe we could smarten Mongo up a
bit by remedying his woeful education.  So I added a memory cube to his
backup systems and uploaded a copy of the Omnipedia.  Then I tried to
interface it with his brain."
     "Did it work?" Chain Lightning asked.
     "Did what..." Hand asked, entering the room.
     "...work?" Fist finished.
     "I got real smart!" Mongo beamed.
     Superconductor sighed.  "No, Mongo, you did not get smart.  You recited
random passages from the Omnipedia every few minutes.  Without professionally
installed brain boosts, it was worse than useless, and I'm nowhere near
qualified to hack something like a brain boost together.  Presto told me to
either disconnect the memcube I'd installed," he directed this at Hand and
Fist, "or disconnect your vocal circuits.  The others wanted to vote, but I
just disconnected the memcube and forgot about it."
     "I see," Hand nodded.  "You're pulling out the future encyclopedia..."
     "...so we can use its information to manipulate the stock market or
something?" Fist finished, as was his habit.  The two cyborgs had tried at
one point to become Cybernostra-style "code brothers" and it had linked their
systems a little too well.
     "Ah, got it!" Superconductor pulled out a small module.  It wasn't, in
fact, cube-shaped, but more of an ellipsoid with a plug at one end.  "Well,
maybe," he addressed the former Rust Brothers.  "And there's sure to be some
information in here we can leverage, but the butterfly effect's probably
killed any chance of playing the market with the Omnipedia info."
     "Oooh, I like butterflies!" Mongo grinned.
     Superconductor just ignored Mongo with the seamlessness of long
practice.  "Right now, what I want to do is get some more information on our
'benefactors,' the Impossible Five.  When they made their first offer to us
[in ASH #83 - Ed.] they used Jesterling of the CSV as a reference point to
see if we were from the same timeline as they were, but they definitely
weren't from our time.  My guess is that they're a part of the 2050s Conclave
of Super-Villains, but my history-fu is weak.  But not anymore," he plugged
the memcube into a port on his arm.  "All I have to do is go through the
historical records on the CSV in the middle part of this century and...got
it!  Matrioshka, the one who broke us out of the prison transport, is the
reclusive gadget-girl for the CSV.  And it looks like the other members of
the Impossible Five we've seen in the news here are also CSVers: Chiaroscuro,
Talos and Anhydra.  I've even got a few hundred words on each here, although
apparently in the original timeline none of them was considered that
influential.  Powerful, yeah, but they just screwed around a lot and didn't
make much of their lives.  I suppose they've had a Life Altering Moment."
     "Who's the fifth?  I mean, Impossible *5* and all that," Chain Lightning
     Superconductor frowned.  "It might be Cronyx, that little hologram
sidekick of Matrioshka's.  Maybe it's someone native to this time who gave
them the idea to stick around.  Or, more likely, someone else from the 2050s
CSV who's keeping their ID secret for some reason.  Gentlemen, and Mongo, I
think we might be able to leverage this information into a superior
     "What, you wanna blackmail..." Hand raised his left eyebrow.
     "...the Impossible Five?" Fist raised his right eyebrow.
     Superconductor shook his head.  "That would probably be suicide.  No, I
was just thinking about some of the things you've been saying about the 'fun'
faction of the Cybernostra, Hand.  We might want to take a trip up the coast
to Manhattan...."

               *              *              *              *

[July 14, 2026 - Dogo Island, Shimane Prefecture, Japan]

     The Red Firebird Senshi posed dramatically despite the nicks on her
armor and the blood seeping from a wound in her left arm.  "It's over,
Akuryu.  Hyper Senshi Team Atavarangers has put an end to your evil!  Your
fleet is at the bottom of the sea where it belongs, your evil minion Clive is
dead, and your magic has failed you.  Now you will face the penalty for your
crimes against Japan!"
     "Wow, the boss-lady's really getting into this whole hero thing!" the
Green Treefrog Senshi commented as she put one last kick into the face of a
demonic soldier who was too stupid to realize yet that he was dead.  "Think
we might go legit after this?"
     "Hey, I'm all for soaking up the adulation of the grateful Japanese
citizenry," the Yellow Windsnake Senshi replied, "but let's not go
overboard.  We're Otakuza, not some lapdogs of Parliament."
     "Just because we're criminals doesn't mean we can't enjoy being the good
guys," the Blue Steelshark Senshi noted.  
     For his part, the Violet Earthpig Senshi just stood over the prone
wizard Akuryu and growled menacingly.
     "No!  It cannot end this way," Akuryu snarled, his eyes darting about
like those of a cornered rat.  "Not until I have stolen enough souls to buy
my way out of Tiang Li's Hell of Seven Thousand Blades!"
     Firebird drew her blazing sword.  "It's only one blade, but it'll do
well enough, sor...what's that?!" she suddenly pointed at a glint in the sky.
     "No trick of mine," Akuryu gasped as a rainbow lanced down from the
heavens and interposed itself between him and the Atavarangers.  He seemed to
shrink back from the brilliant light, as if it was painful to a creature of
darkness such as himself.
     Five figures resolved out of the colors of the rainbow, clad in
skintight uniforms of red, blue, yellow, black and pink.  Each had a number
superimposed on a pentagon as a badge on their chest.
     "New Hyper Senshi?" Treefrog gasped, drawing her energy pistol and
stepping back.
     "A bit late to the party, aren't you?" Windsnake asked the woman dressed
in yellow, who had just happened to end up standing closest to him.
     "Careful, everyone," Firebird warned.  "Sensei didn't tell me about any
new Hyper Senshi, this could still be a trick of Akuryu's.  An illusion."
     "We're no illusion, Atavaranger fools!" the red senshi pointed an
accusing finger.  "We're Paradox Warriors Pentaranger, and Akuryu's coming
with us!  Chiaroscuro of the Impossible Five has offered us a great deal in
exchange for this sorceror's rescue!"
     "It can't be..." Windsnake muttered.  Then, louder, he asked, "Kenjiro,
is that you?"
     The red Pentaranger 1 doffed his helmet, revealing a smiling face with
handsome features marred by a scar along the left cheek.  "Hello, Toshio.
Such a pity to see you playing the good citizen...what ever happened to that
hell on wheels I recruited to the Otakuza?"
     "Who is that guy?" Treefrog asked.  "And is he single?"
     "Ah, no sense of institutional history among the Otakuza, is there?"
Kenjiro shook his head in mock sorrow.  "I was once the Red Salamander
Senshi, the original leader of Hyper Senshi Team Atavaranger.  Sensei threw
me out, but as you can see, I have my own team now, thanks to a 'down
payment' from Chiaroscuro.  Now, if you'll excuse me," he put his helmet back
on, "we have business to conclude."
     "You're not going anywhere!" Firebird declared, pointing her sword at
Pentaranger 1.
     "You can't stop us, little birdie," Pentaranger 1 cocked his head with
an implied sneer.  "Three, beam us!"
     The Atavarangers surged forward as one, but the Pentarangers and Akuryu
vanished in another burst of rainbow light.
     "Sh'matta," Steelshark spat.

               *              *              *              *

[July 14, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     Eighty-odd years ago, the Freedom Alliance had been a useful tactical
resource, but their main benefit to the war effort had been on the propaganda
side.  Both the Axis and the Allies had about the same level of supernatural
resources, and they tended to cancel each other out most of the time, leaving
the real war to be fought by normal men and machines.
     But, as Solar Max waited for the new Freedom Alliance to finish settling
into their seats at the DSHA building's conference room, he reflected on the
fact that if the people in this room were to travel back to 1942, the ten
superhumans could easily end World War II within weeks, even without their
historical knowledge.  
     Of course, he knew better than to try that sort of thing.  Again.
     On one side of the table, flanking Solar Max, were Meteor, Scorch, Green
Knight and Fury.  Between them they represented the official ASH presence in
North America.  Contact and Breaker were available, but since their official
portfolio was currently "Diplomatic" it had been decided to leave them out of
this meeting.  After all, the new Freedom Alliance was a domestic group, not
a foreign power.  And bringing in the non-domestic members of ASH could be
seen as an attempt to threaten the new team by weight of numbers.
     Of course, if it came down to a fight, Solar Max was pretty confident of
the outcome.
     The new Brightsword had decent power levels, but his Academy combat
training was a couple of years out of date.  While he was the public leader
of the team, Solar Max seriously doubted he really ran things in a fight.  He
was a decent paraball player, but not a tactical genius.
     Red Widow could be dangerous if cornered, though.  She'd been a
paraganger, arrested for trying to kill Robert Coulter.  Solar Max could
sympathize, he sometimes found the reporter-cum-instructor a bit grating on
the nerves, but still...he doubted she was even close to fully
rehabilitated.  And her powers could be very deadly if she took the gloves
off and made her force tentacles into molecule-thick ribbon blades.
     Weapons Master and Gladiator were unknown quantities, although some
recent conversations with Jen Kleinvogel led him to wonder about the first's
claim to be the bastard son of Chuck Morse.  Gladiator, at least, was
"wearing" a civilian body today, so there was no chance of him going missile-
happy as he had during the widely-broadcast capture of the Rush.
     Gauntlet, however, was the one everyone had orders to take down first,
should things drop in the pot.  Supposedly Joshua Jeremiah Cole was no longer
delusional, as his armor drained off the excess electricity his body
generated before it could affect his brain.  But ASH had chased Cole across a
continent after the man had kidnapped and raped Fury [in ASH #17-22]....
     He really wanted to look over at Arin, make sure she was okay, but she'd
made him agree to let her deal with it herself.  At least Cole wasn't sitting
directly across from the unwilling mother of his child.
     Finally, there was the money behind the operation, and possibly the most
dangerous person involved in the Freedom Alliance, for all that he lacked
superhuman powers.  He did well enough with his purely human powers of money
and influence.  Samuel Walters, the sixth richest man in the Combine
according to unofficial estimates.  And Walters was the one to break the
uncomfortable silence that had settled over the room once everyone was
     "Thank you for sending such an impressive delegation," Walters smiled, a
businessman's shark-smile.  "Especially since you must all be very busy
working to track down the cyborg criminals we captured for you."
     "Mister Walters," Scorch replied, and Solar Max tensed up internally.
"If you'd read the reports from when the Marshals captured those same
cyborgs, you'd have known they have some sort of teleportation technology.
Technology you made no effort to remove before handing them over to the
Savannah Police Department, a group you had to know was not equipped to
perform cybernetic nullification procedures."
     Fury coughed, clearly stifling a chuckle at the term "cybernetic
nullification procedures."
     "You'd think the Freedom Alliance was deliberately setting the SPD up
for a fall," Scorch concluded.  
     "But let's put that aside for the moment," Solar Max interjected.
Scorch had been pretty calm and collected so far, but he seemed to be working
up a bit of a head of steam, and hitting the release valve seemed like the
best course of action.  "The point is, we're all on the same side.  Your
Freedom Alliance does have official government sanction," no need to
speculate on how many arms had to be twisted to manage THAT, "which means we
should be scoring points against the bad guys, not each other."
     "Aw, no traditional hero-fights-hero misunderstanding?" Weapons Master
smirked.  "Where's your sense of history, man?"
     Solar Max arched an eyebrow.  If this was the son of the man he'd known
back in the 1970s, the apple hadn't fallen very far from the tree.
     "No, I agree with Solar Max," Brightsword said, somewhat stiffly, like
he was trying desperately not to stammer.  Apparently the glare of the press
hadn't really prepared him for this sort of Big Leagues.  "We made a lot of
rookie mistakes," he shot a glance at Gladiator, who was trying to look
innocent despite a plastic-mask face that had trouble showing any expression
at all.  "Fortunately, the fact that the Rush were so easily beaten by both
us and the Marshals shows that they're not THAT big of a threat, right?  An
embarrassment, sure, but how much damage can they really do, especially with
everyone looking for them right now?"
     "I suppose that depends on whether they keep running, turn and fight, or
actually figure out something clever," the Green Knight noted.  "And they may
just be gangers, but that doesn't mean they can't be clever," he nodded to
Red Widow.
     "Not to mention, anyone from the future can throw an awfully big wrench
into the works," Fury added, pointedly not looking at Gauntlet.  Their son,
or a version of him, had come back to the present time last December [in ASH
#61 - Ed.], and the world had almost been destroyed a few times as a result
of the unintended consequences.
     "Then I suppose we'll have to work together to catch them before they
get any smart ideas," Walters smiled.

               *              *              *              *

[July 15, 2026 - Manhattan, Autonomous Sector]

     "Why did you think this was a smart idea, again?" Chain Lightning asked
over the encrypted communications link that the three cyborgs from the future
shared.  Mainly they used it to keep things from Hand and Fist, their "junior
partners", but now they had a more pressing reason for privacy.
     Namely, the dozen heavily armed Cybernostra enforcers that encircled
     "Patience," Superconductor counseled.  "I know that's not something
you're good at, but remember the time we got to meet with Working Man?  Same
deal.  Big chart-toppers need security.  But let's stop using this channel
before Mongo forgets we're not talking out loud."
     "What?" Mongo asked, aloud, gaining some narrowed eyes from the
     "Nothing, big guy," Superconductor reassured the hulking cyborg.
     Before things could get too awkward, though, a doorway opened at the
near side of the receiving dock they were waiting in, and a vision in
glittering armor and flashing lights stepped through.
     "Wow," Hand commented.
     "Wow," Fist added.
     "Welcome to Manhattan," Maria Incarnata smiled, clearly enjoying the
chance to make a Big Entrance, even if the audience was only five people.
"Well, welcome *back* in some cases," she cast an amused glance at Hand and
Fist.  Rust Brothers were generally seen as "wannabes", getting second-rate
cybernetic upgrades from the shadier Pranir traders in an attempt to be like
the Cybernostra.  And there was some truth to that, although many Rust
Brothers went in for upgrades solely because of the fact it could help them
get in touch with the music.  If it literally cost them an arm and a leg to
the organleggers to pay for a sensorium implant, replacement limbs themselves
could be had pretty cheaply as part of the bargain.
     "Thank you for agreeing to meet with us..." Superconductor paused.  "How
do you prefer to be addressed?  I still haven't got the hang of old-fashioned
naming conventions."
     She giggled, and it almost sounded genuine rather than a rehearsed act.
"I'm afraid I even give people from around here problems with that.
'Mrs. Umbrae' doesn't sound right to me.  Regina Umbrae's been suggested,
but...well, the snickering level on that one's pretty high.  I like the sound
of 'Duchess of New York,' but just call me Maria for now.  I'm sure I'll earn
some sort of title soon enough," she smiled coolly.  Apparently she'd decided
that "friendly boss" was the scariest face she could put on things without
going for one of the "psycho" options.
     "Well, yes.  Maria," Superconductor nodded.  "As you probably know, we
didn't end up in this time on purpose.  Well, the three of us," he gestured
to Mongo and Chain Lightning, "at any rate.  And we've unfortunately gotten
onto ASH's radar, meaning we're headed for lockup pretty quickly even if we
don't commit any crimes."
     "And you've committed plenty, but go on," Maria nodded.
     "Soon after our arrival, we were offered a 'franchise' from the
Impossible Five, fellow time-exiles."
     Maria arched an eyebrow.  Her face was one of the few genuine bits of
flesh and blood left on her body, although she wore a convincing skinsuit
that made her look mostly human.
     "Oh, you didn't know they were from the future?" Superconductor found
that hard to believe, but perhaps it was manufactured shock, to keep the
Cybernostra princess's cards close to the vest.  "Well, they're from a
version of 2050 or thereabouts, a version that no longer exists.  Or so they
claim.  They also claim that the 2112 that my companions and I are from has
been erased as well, but I've read enough about the Third Heroic Age in
recent weeks to doubt that very much.  We're just on an alternate timeline,
it's merely a matter of finding a way to jump sideways before heading back
into the future.  Or maybe go to 2112 first and use the higher tech levels
available there to jump sideways.  But pardon my rambling, it's not really
the point."
     "And the point is...?" Incarnata prompted.
     "The Impossible Five skracked us around," Chain Lightning spat.
     "What my companion is so incoherently trying to say," Superconductor
frowned, "is that for some reason, the Impossible Five decided to use us as
fall guys.  They set us up to be defeated by the Freedom Alliance, probably
to puff up that group's reputation and use them as a tool against ASH.
Something byzantine, in any case.  So here's a free piece of warning: any
deal offered by the Impossible Five is going to be a bad one.  They're
playing some game to try to take over the world, having decided they can't
get back to their own world, and they're not above throwing allies to the
sharks if it looks like it'll further their aims."
     "Maybe they just *jerked* you around," Maria cast an amused glance at
Chain Lightning, "because they knew you were disconnected, cut off from
support, and easy pawns.  They might deal more honestly with someone in an
actual position of power."
     "That's not what history tells us," Superconductor allowed himself a
slight smirk.  "Yeah, I'm a fool for not checking this earlier, but I looked
the four known members of the Five up in our Omnipedia after we got 'jerked
around' the second time.  They're not the worst of their lot, but they're bad
enough, and trusting them was probably the biggest mistake I ever made."
     "And now you propose to trust *me*?" Maria asked, putting on her best
innocent expression.  "What's to say we don't hack you up and steal your
secrets, then sell your remains back to the I-five?"
     Superconductor shrugged.  "At least it'd be quicker than spending the
rest of my life in some Combine prison.  But I think you know better than
that.  I mean, if you sent some ordinary guy back to 1935 with a palmtop
computer, how far do you think anyone could get trying to reverse-engineer
it?  They didn't even have the right theories to understand 2026 tech back
then, much less the tools to properly analyze it."  He was shading the truth
a bit, of course.  His cybernetics were more advanced than anything available
in 2026, true.  But they weren't revolutionarily different than what the
Scytharian Corporation was putting out in 2026, and there might be some
profit in just stripping the three future cyborgs for parts.  But it was the
best bluff he could think of.
     There was a long pause, as Maria looked like she was pondering what he'd
said.  In reality, she'd probably made her decision before entering the room,
but it was always possible to screw up and make her reconsider her options
     "Fine.  We'd certainly like to see this Omnipedia of yours, and I
suspect it'd be easier to get at it if you were on the inside, rather than
trying to force it.  After all, there's plenty of ways to booby trap data
files to self-wipe.  But don't expect to get fat wads of cash or high
position right away," she warned.  "You'll get a chance to prove your worth,
which is more than most get.  The rest is up to you.  Welcome to the
     "Wish You..." Hand smiled.
     "...Were Here," Fist finished.
     "It's not Rush, but it'll do," Superconductor nodded.

               *              *              *              *

[July 16, 2026 - Somewhere on Venus]

     "Are they ready?" Irrlicht asked.
     The crystal sphere holding the photonic brain of Goldmind throbbed in
the way the others had come to recognize as a nod.  "The programming is
complete.  They will do as we wish," the bodiless brain added.
     "They" were a number of moths constructed of hard light, fluttering
about Mothflame.  It was hard to discern their exact numbers, so frenzied
was their activity...almost like a mating flight.
     "And now, both you and they must depart," Irrlicht commanded.  "We have
hidden well enough so far, but as soon as our plan goes into effect it won't
take long for Peregryn to find us.  He's already made a few attempts because
of Mothflame's suborning of the stone beetles, but they were only casual
inquiries.  Go, fly!"
     At Irrlicht's gesture, the swarm of moths took to the sky, rapidly
vanishing from sight.  
     Goldmind's crystal containment peeled open as well.  "Please do not lose
my shell," he asked Whiteout.  "It is very difficult to hold myself together
in an atmosphere without it."  And with no further farewells, the lambent
sphere of light vanished, heading for space at millions of meters per
     Whiteout folded the now-pliable shell into quarters and absorbed it into
his photonic body.  "So, what now, fearless leader?" he asked Irrlicht.
     "Now we watch and wait.  Soon the Sun will be OURS...."


Next Issue: 

     "Billions Served" ends in ASH #96 with the Light Brigade's plan bearing
fruit, overshadowing the puny efforts of other I5 franchises!  But first,
some of those puny efforts bear fruit in part 4, "Different Stages"!


Author's Notes:

     Cover design inspired by comment from John Scheibeler.
     My original plan for this arc was to have a different I5 franchise in
the spotlight each issue, with the Rush getting quickly stomped and shuffled
off in favor of the next franchise.  Little teams posing a threat to maybe 2
or 3 ASH members at a go.  But plans change, and the Rush wanted more screen
time.  :)  However, I still wanted to at least cameo a few other franchises,
hence the Pentaranger scene.
     The Atavarangers had their big scenes in ASH #79, with a few scattered
appearances before that.  Between that issue and this, you've essentially
seen the beginning of a "series" and somewhere either at the midpoint or near
the end, depending on how the pacing goes (i.e. do the Pentarangers end up
displacing Akuryu as the main villain, do they team up with him, or does this
just buy Akuryu time for one last-ditch apotheosis scheme and the
Atavarangers don't face the Pentarangers again?).
     The "SPD" abbreviation is not an intentional Power Rangers reference.
I'd decided to have the Rush get taken down in Savannah before I added the
Atavarangers scene.  Purely coincidental.
     Speaking of unintentional references, Maria Incarnata probably wasn't
deliberately quoting Pink Floyd, "the machine" is a common demi-deific
referent for the Cybernostra.  Maria's musical tastes are largely unrevealed,
although Sister Christian is a Night Ranger fan (and has quoted their lyrics
in Warden #10 and STRAFE #12).
     Finally, I've been slipping and calling Mothflame by her old codename
every so often.  Maybe she'll officially go back to it at some point,
"Daggermoth" seems to fit her more vicious personality better.  This, of
course, assumes she survives past ASH #100....


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