[ASH] ASH #87 - Coming Home Part 4: Escalation

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at haven.eyrie.org
Sun Mar 16 16:46:50 PDT 2008

     The cover shows Solar Max, Jen Kleinvogel and an almost Liefeldian
cyborg being blasted towards the reader by a massive explosion.  Barely
visible behind the explosion is a hulking form, roughly bipedal but seemingly
without a head.

    //||  //^^\\  ||   ||   .|.   COHERENT COMICS UNINCORPORATED PRESENTS
   // ||  \\      ||   ||  --X---------------------------------------------
  //======================= '|`        ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES #87
 //   ||      \\  ||   ||            Coming Home Part 4 - Escalation
//    ||  \\__//  ||   ||          Copyright 2008 by Dave Van Domelen

                       ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME                POWERS                   ASSIGNMENT
--------       ---------                ------                   ----------
Solar Max      Jonathan Zachary         Spacetime Control        MISSING!
                 "JakZak" Taylor
   --          Jen Kleinvogel           Flight, Stealth          MISSING!
Blitzkrieg!    DU-3345                  Cyborg                   GALACTIC
                                                              WARRIOR CORPS


[Somewhere, somewhen]

     Waking from bio-stasis was a disorienting experience, and JakZak decided
that if this was what a hangover felt like to someone without superhuman
resilience, it was a wonder anyone ever got drunk twice.  The combination of
drugs and electromagnetic fields may have slowed the biochemical reactions in
his body to a crawl, making the decades pass in a subjective few hours, but
it still wasn't pleasant to wake up from.
     Less pleasant was the hulking figure standing over Jen's tube.
     "Good morning," the slab of muscle perched on seemingly too-frail legs
said in a scratchy, high tenor voice.  "Sorry to have to wake you up early,
but this whole depot is about to get reduced to debris unless I can find a
way to stop an Ares unit.  I don't suppose you've got super armor-blasting
powers?  Oh, by the way, your file says you're Terran, on Terra I used to go
by the name Blitzkrieg.  How do you do, Miss Swan?"  "Golden Swan" was the
name Jen had given Delta Rose back in 1976 when they pair arranged to be put
in hibernation.
     Solar Max blinked and sat up as rapidly as he could manage.  "An Ares
unit?  What the hell is a planetary assault cyborg doing here?"  While
certainly a highly dangerous technology, the "brain in a jar"-style cyborgs
the Santari used to implement the destruction of an entire world's population
without rendering the world uninhabitable were...well, a genie that was well
and truly out of the bottle.  Not something that the Galactic Warrior Corps
would be keeping hidden in one of its depots.
     "Assaulting the planet, of course," Blitzkrieg replied.  "Well,
asteroid, so it may be a bit of overkill.  It seems this secret installation
isn't as secret as we'd hoped, and someone has decided to make a withdrawal." 
     Carefully easing himself out of the hibernation tube, Solar Max brought
his armor systems back to full operating status and checked the time
readout.  "September 22, 2024," he muttered.  
     "We're early," Jen frowned.  She sounded a little more wobbly than Solar
Max felt.
     "No, you're just in time for the party," Blitzkrieg grinned ferally.  At
least, it seemed like a feral grin...the cyborg's face was somewhat distorted
by his implants, and he might not be capable of anything but a feral-looking
grin.  "Yes, I know you weren't supposed to be waken up for a while yet.
But," he was interrupted as the room rocked again, "as you can tell, this
place may not be here in Earth-year 2026."
     "Fine," Jen looked to be shaking off the hiber-hangover thanks to that
old companion of theirs, adrenaline.  "What do you know, other than the fact
that we're probably going to die in the next few minutes?"
     "Know for sure?" Blitzkrieg shrugged his massive shoulders.  "Not a lot.
There's a Santari stealthship out there, I presume, since Ares units don't
have built-in hyperdrives...thank the Builders for that one, the idea of an
Ares able to go wherever it wanted on its own is pretty scary.  I sent off a
message drone, but they probably shot it down, and our usual standby patrol
ship for the depot is busy on Earth making a delivery."
     "The planetkiller we tried to use on Rebus," Solar Max nodded, phrasing
it as diplomatically as he could while shaking off the brain-cotton feeling.
Saying "the planetkiller you people tried to use to wipe out Earth before
Rebus could become a threat" [as seen in the Capstone miniseries - Ed.] would
have been...impolitic.  "So, whoever's behind this was waiting for your
support team to leave."
     "Or waiting for confirmation that this place existed in the first
place," Blitzkrieg replied.  "If they have an Ares, they can probably deal
with a patrol ship too.  Anyway, since the only way to communicate faster
than light is to send a ship, we're pretty much cut off.  And even if we
could get word to Earth in time, our main strategic resource there, Star
Knight, has his hands full right now."
     The room rocked again.
     "How much time do we have?" Jen looked around nervously.
     "Depends on how you define it," Blitzkrieg frowned.  "Not enough time to
get help, but the outer defenses need to be treated gingerly if they want
there to be anything left inside to steal.  So we have enough time for me to
finish filling you in on the situation and maybe even come up with a plan
other than 'detonate the Hyperbomb and go down with the ship.'"
     "Hyperbomb," Solar Max said flatly.
     "Their likely target," the cyborg smirked.  "With the Coronal Ejection
Driver gone, it's the only immediately super-dangerous item here, although
there's plenty of other stuff here that we confiscated before it could be
finished, and might be what they're after.  The three of us are, long term,
the least dangerous things in this base."
     "What does a hyperbomb do?  I take it that you're not just translating
'really big bomb' from Santari?" Jen asked.
     "The full name is Hyperspace Inversion Device.  It swaps realspace and
hyperspace inside the operational radius, which is a few millimeters.
However, this much volume of hyperspace," he held up a strangely dainty hand
and held thumb and forefinger a short distance apart, "maps onto as much
volume as a solar system or so...hyperspatial mathematics isn't my strong
suit, but the exact numbers don't *really* matter.  Anyway, that much
hyperspace comes into realspace, and the realspace it was mapped to gets
shoved into hyperspace."
     "What happens to the difference?" Jen winced.
     "Reality cavitation," Solar Max answered.  "You've just removed a chunk
of space itself, and the vacuum energy density around it will crash back
together like water around someone doing a cannonball into the pool."
     "It gets better," the cyborg's feral grin was back.  "All of that
realspace stuff gets smashed down to the size of a few millimeters across
too, since that's all the room there is for it in hyperspace.  If there's
enough mass in the radius of effect, it gets compressed down to black hole
density.  Unfortunately, the fact we can survive in hyperspace as long as we
have a ship to keep out all the hot plasma means that physics works pretty
much the same way there as in realspace, so a black hole *will* form,
instantly killing everyone caught in the hyperbomb's blast, and making for a
rather nasty navigation hazard in hyperspace."
     "Um, does this asteroid have enough mass?" Jen asked.
     Blitzkrieg shook his head.  "We're not dummies at the Galactic Warrior
Corps.  This depot is an isolated asteroid a million times too small to form
a black hole, towed out far enough that there's only some interstellar dust
to get caught up with it.  Oh, everything here will get crushed to death, but
just neutron star level, not black hole," he said, as if that would make them
any less dead if they were caught in the effect.  "We plan these depots so
that if we have to scuttle, the side effects will be minimized.  Of course,
being way out in the middle of nowhere also means no way to call help on the
radio.  Unless one of you has some FTL-comm supertech on you?"
     Solar Max shook his head.  "I could theoretically go into hyperspace on
my own, I have roughly the same powers as Star Knight if not as strongly, but
I've never tried.  And, to be honest, me going to Earth right now would be a
really bad idea."
     "Since you're already there, yeah," Blitzkrieg noted.  "What, you didn't
think a blue paint job would hide your identity, did you, 'Blue Scarab'?
'Golden Swan' may not ring any bells for me, but after that little stunt with
the asteroid drop [in ASH #28 - Ed.] you went right on our List.  You know,
the 'dangerous things we may need to deal with some day' List.  It's a good
thing for you I'm running this depot and not one of our more paranoid
types...at least I spent some time on Terra thirty-odd years ago as a
'superhero,' so I was willing to cut you some slack and not just dump your
tube into a nearby star as soon as I recognized the armor from my inventory
     "Fine," Solar Max said flatly.  "So you know who I am and what I can do.
Or, at least, what I could do before we got timelost...but that's enough for
planning purposes.  What are our options?"
     "Well, I should probably officially deputize you, so the computers will
let you in.  But first, we could answer the comm," Blitzkrieg gestured to a
flashing panel on the wall.

               *              *              *              *

[September 22, 2024 - PCS Carcharis]

     "Lord Mactor, the Ares unit confirms it has passed the final element of
the outer defenses.  Its size is limiting it to the larger passageways, which
means facing the stronger inner defenses, but it is still at 95% operating
capacity and its tactical computer estimates no likelihood of the inner
defenses degrading its efficiency by more than another percent."
     Lucus Mactor, head of House Mactor's covert operations, nodded.  At some
point, he had been told the original name and gender of the Santari whose
brain was used as the core of the Ares, but despite his generally excellent
grasp of information, it had slipped his mind as being utterly unimportant.
True, Ares candidates were a rare breed...loyal enough to be trusted with
enough firepower to lay waste to a planetary surface, but having done
something that merited a fate most Santari considered far worse than death.
But it was enough to know that this poor bastard had fallen into that narrow
band, Lucus really didn't need to know the details.  Nor, for that matter,
did the Ares unit.  Not anymore.  It wasn't a he or a she anymore, and it
only retained those memories necessary to its missions.  The *idea* of
loyalty could be retained while erasing all the specific memories that had
led to it, which ironically made that loyalty stronger.  After all, it was no
longer possible to contradict the reasons behind the emotion, as those
reasons no longer existed.
     "I believe it is time to talk to the obsolete hunk of scrap in charge of
this depot," Lucus told the Dectos at the communications station.  "Laser
comm only, and bounce it off one of our decoys.  They shouldn't have any
anti-ship weaponry left at this point, but," he shrugged.  In a way, he was
trying to teach his grandmother to chew baroroot, the Dectos knew his job as
well as Lucus knew his own.  Still, institutionalized paranoia and redundancy
were survival traits in a special operations Hektane such as himself.
     "Link established, awaiting response," the Dectos replied.  If the man
resented being told how to do his job, he was smart enough not to let it
show.  A moment later, he added, "Response coming in."
     "On screen, please, I'd like to see his expression," Lucus smiled.  Of
course, his own face would be replaced with an entirely different image, a
purely fictional visage that the computers would overlay and animate to look
as real as possible.  Just because the person on the other end was likely to
be dead soon didn't give any excuse for carelessness.
     "...are intruding in Restricted Space," the grotesque face on the
viewscreen was saying.  Lucus shuddered.  An antiquated DU-series Scytharian,
the depot's lone defender was practically a parody of everything that all
right-thinking Santari found abhorrent about cybernetics.  An unappealing mix
of obvious mechanical parts and biologically twisted organics, all function
over form.  House Mactor insisted on cyborgs that either could pass as
Santari (save for the legally-required markings) or that were so completely
mechanical that they could be seen as machines and not people.  Abominations
like this DU-3345 made Lucus's skin crawl.
     "You are in no position to be telling us where we can and cannot be,"
Lucus replied, after fighting back his revulsion.  "Our asset on the ground
has destroyed all of your outer defenses and will be at the heart of your
depot in short order.  It is equipped with counters to all Corps weaponry,
you do not stand a chance against it.  But if you surrender, I promise you'll
be allowed to live...albeit with some holes in your memory, and you won't be
working quite so glamorous a job."  There was always a need for more hands
down in the mines of Scutor Mactis, where no one would have to see that...
     "Don't think you know everything there is to know, Crim," the cyborg
sneered.  It stepped back and the view widened to take in two other figures.
"We didn't send our entire reserves away, just in case someone like you was
waiting to play the part of carrion beast.  Recall your Ares unit and you
just might be able to get away before reinforcements arrive.  Or stay, and
we'll have you wrapped up and ready for your very own corrective brain
implants when the patrol boat gets back from its mission."
     Lucus frowned, although he had tapped out a command on his console to
keep the simulated face he was projecting from mimicking the expression.  An
armored figure and a Santari or maybe Terran woman flanked DU-3345.  He
didn't recognize the woman at all, but the other one looked uncomfortably
like one of those Terran freaks, one of the ones who could manipulate
gravity.  Very well, he wasn't a concern, then...the Ares had been prepared
to deal with Star Knight, after all.  But if the woman was also a freak, she
wasn't one who had appeared in the briefings on Terra that Lucus had read,
and that made her an unknown factor.
     Still, the whole plan was a risk, and Lucus had already cast his lots.
"I think you overstate your resources," Lucus smiled, an expression that the
virtual face seen by the defenders *did* convey.  "A pity you didn't choose
to accept our most generous terms, but the Ares has been looking forward to
some live target practice...."

               *              *              *              *

[September 22, 2024 - GWC Depot 8-Crimson-B]

     "Okay, *now* we don't have a lot of time, however you look at it,"
Blitzkrieg said after the communication link was terminated.  "Whoever that
was, he wouldn't be calling unless he was certain the Ares was past all the
heavy stuff."
     "You don't know for sure?" Jen asked, tying her hair back in a bun as
she talked.
     The cyborg shook his head.  "Too many sensor ghosts, not to mention
sensors themselves being hors d'oeurves of combat.  Their countersensor suite
is top of the line stuff...not quite as good as our sensors, but good enough
when paired with lots of good ol'fashioned shooty."
     "So, the deputy thing?" Solar Max suggested.
     "Right.  Feeding your biometrics into the system...and there, you're
deputized.  We can worry about the oaths and stuff later if we survive,"
Blitzkrieg smirked.  "Swan..."
     "Kleinvogel, actually," Jen interjected.
     "A good solid German name, I approve," Blitzkrieg nodded.  "Kleinvogel,
there should be a spare Patrolman uniform in the arms locker that'll fit you.
It might not stop any of the Ares's weapons, but it's also a vac suit, and I
can't guarantee our atmospheric integrity too much longer.  In fact, outside
that door, it's probably vacuum already."
     "Plan?" Solar Max asked as Jen went to the indicated locker and started
to swap her faded STRAFE uniform for a red and white Galactic Warrior Corps
     "You and I go try to slow that thing down.  Beat it if possible, but I
doubt that'll happen.  Jen heads for the Hyperbomb and arms it...now that
she's Corps, it'll let her."
     "What about the Ares being specially protected against Corps weaponry?"
Jen asked, examining a pistol that clearly was meant for the holster of the
uniform she now wore.
     Blitzkrieg shrugged.  "A standard loadout on an Ares is going to shrug
off both standard settings of a Tsaran blaster," an electrical blaster that
could also have its charge sent through a special crystal to emit a beam of
coherent Cerenkov radiation, or Tsaran radiation as the Santari called it,
"and Paxgas isn't too useful against a brain in a jar.  My own sidearm," he
pointed to the bulky cannon currently slung across his back, "is just a big
Tsaran rifle, so the electric shielding and refractory coating of the Ares
will probably do just fine.  My acid vents might do some damage if I can get
close enough, though."
     Solar Max nodded.  "From what Scorch told me about the Ares he helped
fight...will help fight [in ASH #75 - Ed.]...they seem to be less well
defended against melee attacks."
     "Usually nothing gets close enough to an Ares to try.  Wait, there's an
Ares on Earth?" Blitzkrieg blinked.
     "Decommissioned," Jen pointed out.  "Missing most of its main weaponry.
Calling up a base map...this is where I need to go?" she pointed to a spot on
the map.
     "Yes," the cyborg confirmed.  "We don't network any of the arming
systems, too much chance of an outside hack.  So you'll have to go there in
person to do the job.  Let's go...we can talk more on the way, I've got the
comm frequencies for your helmet, Max, and Kleinvogel's helmetcomm is already
in my command net."
     The door opened, and as predicted there was no air in the corridor, but
the burst of wind that followed didn't do more than rock Blitzkrieg on his
heels a little.  Jen went shadowy behind her gravitic sheath and flew off by
creating a gradient in spacetime.
     "How modular are Ares units, anyway?" Solar Max asked as he accompanied
Blitzkrieg towards where the sensors thought the Ares probably was.  "If they
did rig some special surprises for you, how much room would there be for
     "Quite a bit.  Ares units are too rare and expensive to be tied down by
too many unalterable pieces of hardware.  They probably removed all the
orbital re-entry systems and long range weaponry, and clearly packed in as
much anti-detection gear as they could find.  But the re-entry boosters are a
pretty big system, there'd be plenty of room and power reserve left for some
big surprises."
     "Terrific.  Wanna bet this one doesn't have all the open gaps that
Supernaut had?"

               *              *              *              *

     For all its system-destroying power, the Hyperbomb looked like nothing
so much as a piece of laboratory equipment.  That made sense, Jen decided.
The GWC's mandate to protect the Planetary Confederation from dangerous
technology suggested that this sort of thing would never get the chance at a
"production model", so it was really just a bunch of standard lab gear put
together in the right configuration to get the desired effect.  And if
"standard lab gear" meant something else to a Santari scientist compared to a
human one, Jen wasn't enough of a techie to tell the difference.
     "Hey, Blitzkrieg," Jen asked over the comm as she started the arming
sequence.  "Why wasn't this just dismantled and the pieces buried in
inventory?  It doesn't look like something that'd be dangerous to take
apart.  Or even particularly hard to."
     "Above my pay grade, as you Terrans would say," came the reply.  "And
while I hear things, I only trust you two so far, eh?"
     Jen frowned, but nodded.  Deputies or no, they were still outsiders.
And being one of STRAFE's command hierarchy had taught her a lot about
information security.  Still, it wasn't too hard to speculate...the GWC had
fairly small numbers and a big job.  If they always dismantled the stuff they
confiscated, eventually someone would tell them "no, you can't have my
widget" and they wouldn't be able to do anything about it.  But as long as
they had a few weapons of insane destruction hidden around the galaxy, it was
very hard to say no to their requests.
     "I just had a thought," JakZak broke in on the link.  "They've got an
Ares.  They've got a ship that can sneak up on this place and avoid any
anti-ship defenses you might have.  How much do these guys HAVE in resources,
     "Well, it's obviously one of the Great Houses," Blitzkrieg replied.
"Only the PC Fleet is even allowed to have stealth systems that good on their
ships, but a lot of Fleet ships are officially on 'detached duty' to one
House or another."
     "Where 'detached' means 'we gave them a ship,'" Jen muttered.
     "And a crew," Blitzkrieg's tone clearly agreed with Jen's own.  "At
least the Houses pay the crews and cover maint costs, but ship construction
comes out of the Fleet budg...oops, company, gotta go," Blitzkrieg said, and
muted the comm just as the sound of weaponsfire started.
     "Okay, you starkiller thingy, you're armed," Jen said to no one in
particular as she entered the final sequence that Blitzkrieg had sent to the
heads-up display of her helmet.  Not so much a security code as an "are you
really sure you want to do this?" protocol.  Anyone getting physical access
to the device wouldn't be stopped by any code, after all.  But now she could
set it to detonate at will.  AND remotely.
     "What other goodies do we have here?" she mused aloud.  She knew she
wouldn't be much good against the Ares unarmed, but maybe she could find
something here.
     The inventory list scrolled by, but it was mostly in Santari technical
jargon.  Sure, the computer was translating regular words into English for
her benefit, but there *was* no English equivalent for a lot of these cutting
edge science concepts.  A few terms she did understand were pretty clearly
referring to biological agents, and it wasn't likely the Ares would be
bothered by those.  And to judge from the contents of the room, very little
would be portable other than those bioagents.
     "Melliboma Crystal swords."
     As far as she could tell, these were actually Blitzkrieg's own property.
Something he'd stored in the depot's inventory because they constituted
dangerous technology, but he hadn't been wearing them when Jen was waken from
the hibernation tube.  Maybe he didn't consider them any good against an
Ares, but Jen had some first-hand experience in how useful swords could be
against a monster.  Even a techno-monster.
     In a drawer, which fortunately unlocked at her command, were a pair of
strangely shaped swords.  The hilts were sized for a woman's hands, but the
blades were slabs of metal a meter long and a good ten centimeters from blade
to back.  Single-edged, but that edge gleamed with an odd intensity.  "Huh.
This looks like," she picked one up, surprised by the weight.  "Collapsinum!
I guess someone named Melliboma discovered it here.  Blitzy must've gotten
these made on Earth during that superhero career of his.  And monomolecular
edges, unless I miss my guess.  Oh, these will definitely do."

               *              *              *              *

     "Okay, now we know what it did with the extra space!" Solar Max grunted
as he diverted a stream of antimatter grains just enough to miss him and chew
chunks out of the corridor wall, exposing the asteroid rock behind it.  "I
can't do jack to him with my gravity powers."
     "Yeah, I think he's got a starship-level artificial grav generator in
there, it's locking his personal gravity down to a set level.  Must've been
installed to deal with Star Knight," Blitzkrieg replied as he fired another
ineffectual blast from his oversized arm cannon.  "And his secondary weapons
are laying down too much fire for me to get close enough to use my acid
vents."  It was strange hearing Blitzkrieg talk without seeing any movement
of his mouth...a human would have still been "talking" normally even in a
vacuum, but the cyborg just routed his thoughts directly to the comm and
didn't bother with appearances.  "Got any other tricks?"
     "Well, we're too far from a star for me to try pulling my other main
offensive power...and it's not a great idea to use it in close quarters
anyway," Solar Max barely dodged a beam of green energy.  "This one certainly
isn't as chatty as Supernaut."
     "Operational security.  It's probably not even cleared to speak with
us," Blitzkrieg fired a plasma grenade and stepped back to avoid being singed
by his own attack.
     "Hey, are we even slowing this thing down?" Solar Max asked.
     "Given how fast we're walking backwards, probably not," Blitzkrieg
admitted.  "Kleinvogel, you got the Hyperbomb armed?" he asked.
     Suddenly there was a blur and the right arm of the Ares unit was severed
at the elbow, dropping to the corridor floor with a clang that Blitzkrieg
couldn't hear, but felt through his feet.
     "Sorry, was already committed to the run, and any transmission might've
tipped my hand," Jen apologized as her shadowy form hovered for a moment next
to the Galactic Warrior.  "And yes, it's armed, I can give it voice commands
     "Huh, I didn't know it took voice commands.  Not like mad scientists
write operating manuals, though," Blitzkrieg shrugged.  "How'd you get that
arm to fall off...wait, it's reattaching the thing, frag."
     "At least it stopped shooting so much for a second," Solar Max pointed
out.  "I've got an idea, it'll let us get some breathing room.  It may be in
a bubble of artgrav, but...well, you two pull back NOW."
     There was a rumble, and the floor, walls and ceiling slammed together
between them and the Ares as Solar Max created a powerful gravity well in the
middle of the corridor.  
     "Good job!" Blitzkrieg shouted.  "It can't get through the side
corridors, but it won't take long for it to laser through the rubble.  I'm
afraid we're going to have to blow this paco stand!"
     "Did Delta Rose teach you slang?" Jen asked.

               *              *              *              *

[ISS Carcharis]

     "Incoming transmission from the depot," the comm Dectos said.
     Lucus nodded.  "Status of the Ares?" he asked another of his bridge
     "It has analyzed the structural integrity of the surrounding rock and is
97% certain it can clear the rubble with five blasts of its tertiary lasers
without further collapse," was the reply.
     "Very well," Lucus smiled.  "Tell it to wait for my command to break
through.  Let's see what they want to say.  On screen," he commanded.
     "Raider vessel, this is your final warning," DU-3345 said.  It seemed a
bit worse for wear, although Lucus couldn't think of any way for it to get
     "You're in no position to be warning us, abomination," Lucus smiled in a
predatory way.  "Our Ares can get through your barrier with trivial ease, the
only reason it hasn't already is because I felt like letting you speak.  I'm
afraid it's too late to surrender, though.  And don't bother trying to
escape, my other assets have already located and disabled the pods."
     The cyborg frowned, but didn't seem surprised.  "We're not planning to
surrender.  But we *are* planning on detonating the Hyperspatial Inversion
Device.  Oh, yes, it's in working order.  If you start running now, you might
just get far enough away not to get sucked in and destroyed.  But no
guarantees on that count.  Not sure you have enough time to pick up any
'assets' you have on the depot, though...."
     Lucus cut the outgoing transmission with a quick keystroke.  "Is he
bluffing?"  His mission hadn't been specific in terms of what to take, the
plan had been to grab whatever was portable and sort it out later.  
     "Hektane, the inventory list our inside man provided does include such a
weapon.  And sensors are picking up a signature now that's like a hyperdrive,
but not exactly," Lucus's executive officer replied.  "As a cyborg, the
Corpsman down there could have been hardwired with a suicide protocol, so I
think we need to assume he's serious."
     Lucus made a decision.  "Cut comm.  Full speed away from the depot.
Tell the Ares to resume his attack...if it's a bluff, they won't save
themselves with it, and if it's not a bluff, they're probably not bluffing
about our not having time to retrieve the Ares anyway."  Lucus hated the idea
of leaving such an expensive asset behind, but at least the *men* he'd sent
aboard earlier to disable the escape pods had all returned.  In the end, the
Ares was just a tool, and he owed it no loyalty.
     "Hyper signature increasing in strength," the sensors officer added.
     "Engineering, now may be a good time to ignore safety margins," Lucus
said into the intra-ship comm.  "All power to propulsion!"

               *              *              *              *

[GWC Depot 8-Crimson-B]

     "The good news is they're running," Blitzkrieg said, his cybernetic
systems hooked into the few remaining external sensors.  
     "The bad news is they left our pal the warbot behind, and it seems
annoyed," Solar Max pointed out.  
     "And the worse news is it won't matter in a few minutes, since the
Hyperbomb is on final countdown," Jen added.  "Run away anyway?"
     "Sounds like a plan," Solar Max grabbed Blitzkrieg by the left arm and
started thrusting down the corridor, Jen flanking him closely.  The rubble
burst apart behind them, a few bits streaking past but none striking them.  
     "You said...you could enter...hyperspace?" Blitzkrieg grunted, as they
took high-gee turns through the depot's corridors, staying just ahead of
seeker missiles fired by the Ares.  "Star Knight needs...hyperdrive.  Got one
in...your armor?"
     "From what I've read, Ritter uses the hyperdrive in his suit to help
store and bleed off excess energy.  He might be able to enter hyperspace
without it, though, the first Solar Max certainly could," Solar Max replied.
     "We've got about a minute at this point, guys," Jen warned.  "Assuming
the Ares doesn't catch us first."  She raised her borrowed sword and caught a
plasma beam on its flat, deflecting it to one side.
     "Well, now would be a really good time to try," Blitzkrieg suggested.
     "Not yet," Solar Max said.  "If we're in hyperspace when it happens,
we'll just be shunted out into the reality cavitation, which will kill us
just as dead, I expect.  Can I have a countdown to detonation?"
     A series of flashing numbers appeared on his helmet display.
     "Thanks.  Jen, remember Ibiza?"
     "The bachelor party for Radner?  [CSV #24 - Ed.]  Hard to forget...
trapped in a warp bubble, and Challenger hit me with an Emp dart so I could
try to pop it.  The backlash threw me halfway across the planet."
     "Well, this one's gonna throw us a little farther, I expect," Solar Max
said apologetically.  "Three...two...one...NOW!"

               *              *              *              *

     The world turned inside out and caught fire.  At least, that's how it
felt.  Jen's suit may have been good against vacuum, but it wasn't really
meant to be in bare hyperspace, a dimension filled with plasma at over a
thousand degrees Celsius, a baby universe not yet old enough to turn
     Fortunately, or unfortunately, they weren't yet all the way into
hyperspace when the device activated.  
     Halfway in, halfway out, the inversion effect was all too familiar to
Jen.  It was just like Ibiza.
     And like in Ibiza, she blacked out.

               *              *              *              *

[Interstellar Space, date unknown]

     Solar Max was the first to recover, being in the unenviable position of
having the most experience with violent space-time eruptions.  His armor's
navcomputer was churning through astronomical data to determine their
position, but the brightness of the nearest star suggested they'd at least
landed pretty close to it.  Hopefully it was inhabited...he doubted Jen could
last indefinitely in that suit, and it was visibly charred from just a short
stay in hyperspace.
     "Ow," Blitzkrieg remarked, waking from the blast.  "Hey, we're in Delta
Rose's home system!"
     "That was fast," Solar Max blinked behind the insectile lenses of his
helmet.  "My astronav is still chewing on the data."
     "Nah, I just picked up the navigation beacon signals, I'll show you the
frequency," Blitzkrieg replied, and suddenly an extra channel appeared on
Solar Max's display.  "See?  Well, okay, you don't read Santari script, but
trust me.  Not a lot of tourism here, but the Corps recruits enough of
Delta's people that there's always a Corps ship in the area.  I'll just call
for a pickup, they should hear it in...oh, three hours, I guess."
     "Oh, goody," Jen sighed, having groaned back into consciousness.  "So,
what now?  We bum around the galaxy for a couple of years until we can go
home without doubling ourselves?"
     "That...won't be a problem," Blitzkrieg frowned.  "There must've been
some funky time-dilation effects at the Inverter's interface.  We just lost
nearly two years.  In fact, we're past your original wake-up call date."

               *              *              *              *

[June 12, 2026 - Near Earth Orbit]

     The Galactic Warrior Corps prison transport wasn't the most comfortable
of accomodations, but with the doors left unlocked and the restraint systems
offline, the cells were really no worse than the crew's quarters.  Spartan,
sure, but it's not like a lot of luxury spaceliners headed out to a fringe
world like Earth.  And hyperspace was a lot less unpleasant when you weren't
swimming in it, JakZak reflected, as he tugged at his red and white GWC
uniform.  The color scheme was used for the Patrolman rank, bottom of the
totem pole.  And the specific combination of red and white in it was supposed
to indicate the bottom of that rank, too.
     The Corps had decided that paperwork would be a lot simpler if he and
Jen stayed deputized until they could be dropped off at Earth, and while his
armor had been designed for long-term occupancy, that didn't mean he enjoyed
being too bulky to function normally on ship.  Hence the change in clothes.
     "The captain told me we drop out of hyperspace in a few minutes," Jen
poked her head into JakZak's cell.  "We'll still be a few hours from being
able to land, but we can at least send our report, and take any return
calls1."  With that, she walked off down the corridor and climbed the short
ladder into the control room.
     JakZak straightened the jacket of his borrowed uniform and followed,
noting again with wry amusement the pole mounted next to the steep stairs.
The ship's skipper was one of the rare Pranir to join the Corps, a mid-rank
Corpsman with a blue uniform.  If JakZak read the subtleties of Corps rank
insignias correctly, the specific shades of blue meant that "Dispenses
Justice Evenhandedly" was a pretty junior "lieutenant".
     "Good day, captain," JakZak greeted the Pranir coiled at the command
     "This isn't Fleet, Mr. Taylor.  And you're only in my chain of command
as a bureaucratic convenience anyway...you don't need to address me as
captain.  You can call me D.J."
     "You gotta admit, with four arms he could really work the console as
one," Jen smiled, winking at JakZak.  "A D.J., that is," she added when
JakZak gave her a blank look.  "Disc...oh, ha ha," she laughed flatly as she
realized JakZak was pulling her leg.
     "No, what *are* you talking about?" the Pranir asked.  "About all I know
about your planet comes from official briefing materials and whatever I catch
on the Terran News Network 'bytes when the route takes me through here."
     JakZak snorted.  "TNN?  You get your news from Khadam's mouthpiece?"
     "What can I say?" D.J. shrugged, all four arms going up and down in a
complicated rippling motion that probably conveyed a specific meaning in his
race's body language.  "Breaks Stories Dramatically is quite attractive."
     "Oh yeah, Pranir news anchors," Jen chuckled.  "JakZak, I gave Linnard
our report," she gestured to the "redshirt" copilot and communications
officer.  "He'll send it off to ASH HQ once we're clear for comm."
     "Good, good," JakZak nodded.  The really sensitive stuff would have to
wait for an in-person briefing, but he and Jen had decided to write up the
broad outlines and transmit it ahead of their landing.  If nothing else, it'd
speed up getting landing clearance for the ship...although if anything did
delay them, JakZak could always put on his armor and fly down ahead.  He
wasn't going to let red tape keep him away from his wife!
     The viewscreens currently displayed abstractions based on the faint mass
anisotropies of hyperspace, the currents and eddies that could cause small
but significant course deviations.  Actually displaying a visual would have
been pretty useless, as it was a uniform reddish glow outside as far as any
normal human or Pranir eye could tell.  The original Solar Max claimed to
have seen more of a grayness, but that may have been a result of his
sensitivity to gravitational fields unconsciously overriding his effectively
useless eyes.
     "Emergence in three...two...one...entering realspace," D.J. announced.
     JakZak felt a faint surge of nausea as the craft crossed the dimensional
boundaries.  Most people didn't feel a thing, assuming the drive was in good
working order, but his powers made him a little too sensitive.  It beat all
hell out of the wrenching kick in the gut that his jump away from the
Hyperbomb had been though.
     The viewscreens shifted, now showing visual data, including two screens
filled with the image of Earth below.  After a cursory check of his ship's
instrumentation, D.J. called up an inset window and started downloading TNN
     "Message sent," Linnard told Jen.
     Meanwhile, something had caused D.J. to click his beak in what JakZak
was pretty sure was apprehension.
     "Did your foxy newslady lose her job?" JakZak asked, arching an eyebrow.
     "I think you may want to see this 'byte, actually," D.J. put it up on
the main screen.  A human anchor was on the screen, with a "BREAKING NEWS!"
banner underneath him.
     "Chet Carson for Terran News Network, the galaxy's eye on Earth, with
breaking news.  After an absence of nearly two months, since the events
surrounding the Prix Ultime, Chancellor Radner of Khadam has re-emerged!
Broadcasting from a hitherto hidden city deep in the Amazon River Basin, he
had the following greeting for the world...."
     "Oh, lovely," JakZak buried his face in his hands and sighed.


Next Issue:

     "Coming Home" continues in Conclave of Super-Villains Annual #2,
"Revelation"!  Then come back here for the epilogue, "Resolution"!


Author's Notes:

     Blitzkrieg! (the ! is officially part of his name, but I decided to
leave it off in the actual story) is a parody of Liefeldian cyborgs, and was
a PC in the Raiders RPG campaign that helped spawn the ASH Universe.  He had
the disturbing musculature, the one glowing eye, the square-barrelled CHOOM
cannon, the vaguely curly hair with single slender braid out the back, the
teeny hands and feet, etc.  A Scytharian of roughly 1900 AD vintage, he was
active as a superhero for a few years after his reactivation in 1992, then
got recruited into the Galactic Warrior Corps as Delta Rose's lieutenant.
Eventually he got moved to other duties, as seen here.
     If you compressed the Earth down to a 4 millimeter radius, it would
indeed form a black hole.  The Schwarzschild Radius for Earth's mass of
5.98e24 kg is about 4.4 mm.
     The term "podcast" doesn't exist in the ASH Universe, but the general
idea still took hold.  TNN trademarked "Newsbyte", but the generic term is
either "squawk" or "'byte" (which is, obviously, taken from Newsbyte).
Squawks have been around in-setting for over a decade, but since podcasting
didn't exist in 1994 when I started writing, I didn't put 'em in stories
before now.  And if you don't like it, you can 'byte me.  ;)


     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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