ASH: ASH #102 - Rival Schools Part 2: Cram School

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Fri Dec 11 13:32:43 PST 2009

     The cover shows a closeup of a desk chair from behind as Conflicto
(recognizable by his garish costume, but only visible from the waist down)
about to sit on a tack, a whoopee cushion, and an apple with a worm in it.
The worm has a question mark over what may be its head, as if wondering why
it was included.

 '|`  /|(`| |        Rival Schools Part 2: Cram School
     /-|.)|-|        copyright 2009 by Dave Van Domelen

                         RIVAL SCHOOLS ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME           POWERS                   SCHOOL
--------       ---------           ------                   ------
Red Widow      Cecilia Mendez      Force Tendrils           Hard Knocks
               Ahmed               Enhanced Human           Tutoring
Bluthundin     None                Uplifted Jackal          Tutor
Netwalker      Nate Walker         "Cyberspace" Transport   Unknown
Justice        Colin Shaw          Electricity Generation   ASIE
Nerd-Boy       George Potter       Cyborg                   Understudy
The Ginch      Unknown             Stretchable Fingers      Understudy
Ant            Adam Hoeffstaedter  Shrinking                Understudy
               Harith al Khayal    Limited Invisibility     Understudy
               Dareth Randall      Teleportation            Understudy
Al Mirage      Albert Miraz        Illusions                Understudy


[August 10, 2026 - ASIE, Sottunga Finland]

     Colin nearly lost his grip on his axe when it hit bone.  "Was?" he
blurted out in German before having to duck an attack from the hard light
construct.  He rolled back to get clear for a moment, then turned to the
control booth and asked, "Who's twisted idea was it to put a skeleton inside
these things?"
     Major Aldo DeSanto's voice chuckled over the loudspeakers.  "Mine,
actually.  Good to see the techies implemented it so well...the hard light is
variable density to better simulate real targets.  Right now they're set to
emulate baseline humans, although I hope you wouldn't actually be trying to
chop up normals in a real combat situation."
     Colin nodded and returned his attention to the mock opponent.  The regs
said he had to go through a combat evaluation even though there was plenty of
footage of him out there to evaluate it.  So they'd taken the opportunity to
turn it into a test of a new combat simulator, kill two birds with one
emulated hard light stone.  And if the tech went all Doublecross on them, at
least a veteran of EUROPA would be there to take the first hits.
     This time, his axe sliced through the torso of one of his targets
without even slowing down, as he compensated for the now-expected resistance
from the spine.  While not as strong as Felka, Colin was no slouch in the
enhanced strength department.  He fired off a bolt of lightning at another
target, and there was a slight lag before the computer recognized the effect
and sent the photonic dummy into a seizure.
     "Hm, that'll need adjustment," DeSanto mumbled, as if forgetting that
the microphone was still live.  Then, more clearly, "Turning it up to the
next setting now.  Normally we'd work through the difficulty levels over a
few days, but you're on an accelerated schedule anyway."
     The shape of the dummies changed and they took on a golden hue, pretty
clearly emulating the armored "Gold Trooper" of the sort that formed the
elite more-or-less-human forces of Khadam's army.  "We've got the blasters on
maximum power, just so you know," DeSanto warned.  "It shouldn't hurt too
much, but we want to make sure that even in the event of a surge it can't go
to lethal levels.  Big strong Brit like you should be able to handle a few
tags, eh?"
     Colin smirked and renewed his attacks, finding that the emulated armor
did tend to slow his blade down, but probably not as much as the real thing
would have.  Reverse-engineered photonic tech had its limits, after all, even
if it had a little Scytharian help.  Then again, he might just have had too
high an opinion of the Gold Trooper wasn't as if he'd had a chance
to fight one.  Yet.
     Still, it was definitely a tougher fight than the first batch, once he'd
gotten over the surprise at the bones.  "Next?" he asked, once the last one
had been shocked into de-rezzing.  The computer hadn't even had to simulate
it, Colin had simply sent a big enough jolt to destabilize the hard light
     "Okay, setting three," DeSanto warned.  "Mind the claws."
     This batch had a vague resemblance to Vivarium monstrosities.  "Why,
Major, one would get the impression from this training regime that the EU is
planning to use ASIE graduates in a war against Khadam," Colin observed as he
ducked under a massive clawed arm and drove the blade of his axe into the
guts of the simulated freak.
     "Well, of course.  They've invaded before, have a foothold in Monaco,
and the Impossible Five are a bit beyond the simulator's capability," the
Major replied.  "But we're working on that," he added, a little ominously.

               *              *              *              *

[August 11, 2026 - The desert outside Ghat, Khadam]

     "Guten Morgen, young prince," Bluthundin melted out of the long shadows
cast by the early morning sun.  "Have you completed the assigned reading?"
     Ahmed held up his handcomp and nodded, he'd been literate as long as he
could remember, but he'd read more in the past few days than in his entire
life before.  Not that his life was as long as he'd thought it had been.  
     While his handcomp looked like the sort of cheap consumer goods that
even a beggar could get his hands on, especially since it wore the shell of a
three year old model that had been discarded by its previous owner, most of
the internals had been replaced by components Bluthundin had provided.  It
had taken a short lesson on electronics to let Ahmed put the thing together,
though...Bluthundin was remarkably resourceful, but without fingers there
were some things she just couldn't do.
     "Very well," the uplifted jackal nodded her head.  "Is it, as
Machiavelli claimed, better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved?"
     "It would seem so," Ahmed frowned, "but then what good is loyalty?  You
said loyalty is a valuable resource, but if fear is better than love,
wouldn't it be better than loyalty too?"
     "One might think so, yes.  Can you think of a situation where love would
serve a ruler better than fear?"
     Ahmed pondered this for a moment.  "A man who fears me will do what I
tell him, even if he knows it is a bad idea.  Especially if it's a bad idea,
in fact, since it might get me killed and free him from my rule.  A man who
loves me might be willing to stop me from doing something stupid.  But it's
hard to tell who is really loyal, and who is just disobeying me for selfish
reasons with the pretext of saving me from what he claims is a mistake."
     "You have the nut of why, other than fickleness, fear is often preferred
to love," Bluthundin said approvingly.  "It's more reliable.  Reactions made
out of fear are generally more honest, easier to plan around.  You deny
yourself potential resources, but you also deny enemies a potential weapon.
Also, those who love you but cannot be trusted with the full details of your
plans may take actions they believe to be in your best interests, but which
actually hurt you.  Those who fear you are less likely to take damaging
independent action."
     "But if they fear me so much that they hate me, they might defy me with
the intent of hurting me," Ahmed countered.
     "Of course.  Hate is a tricky tool, it turns on its user too easily, and
works best if you have a clear enemy to point people at.  But so long as you
know the target of someone's hate, their actions tend to be predictable.  You
can count on a certain level of betrayal, and take steps to contain the
damage.  You can't plan for random acts of misplaced loyalty."
     "So, the answer is to seek the love of those I can trust, and inspire
fear in those I cannot trust?" Ahmed asked.  "If I can trust them, I can make
sure they know enough to not accidentally ruin my plans.  If I can't trust
them, I can intimidate them into following orders and discourage initiative
on their part."
     "Simplistic, but essentially correct," the jackal nodded.  "It is
generally better to be feared by the untrustworthy and the incompetent, by
the simple masses, so long as you avoid inspiring their hatred.  Ideally, it
should be the sort of fear reserved for a sandstorm or the open sea.  Not
animosity, but cautious respect.  If you suspect they have started to hate
you, you will need to counter this, either by dampening the hatred somehow,
or by giving it a new target.  Many wars have started simply to divert the
hatred of the masses away from their leaders."
     "But the elite, the ones who have useful abilities, shouldn't they
respect and fear me as well?"
     "Respect, of course.  Fear?  A little, yes.  They shouldn't ever think
that they have a good chance at replacing you.  But you're far more secure if
they don't want to replace you.  Losing the respect of the rabble is rarely
the cause of a ruler's downfall, it's merely a symptom.  The cause is the
loss of the loyalty of the elite.  Once their fear is greater than their
love, they will seek to turn the fear of the rabble into hatred of you and
make themselves into heroes of the people by overthrowing you.  Such
revolutions rarely end well for the elite who foment them, but history will
repeat itself no matter how clever people think they are."
     "None of this really matters to me right now, though," Ahmed shrugged.
"No one fears me, and the only ones loyal to me are children...perhaps they
are the elite of the child beggars, but that's not much to build an empire
     "You'd be surprised how much has been built from smaller starts,"
Bluthundin grinned, always a disconcerting sight.  "Ask the Pope someday,
should you reach the social stratum that would allow it."
     "This all assumes that no one finds me and quietly kills me before I
have a chance to do more than be prince of the beggarlings," Ahmed replied
sourly.  "The more I read from these books, the smarter it seems to make sure
no one like me lives long enough to stake a claim to the throne."
     "Naturally, although I have bought you some time.  When we first met, I
seeded you with microscopic robots that have by now fully colonized your
body.  They devour any stray genetic material you may shed and reduce it to
anonymous proteins."
     Ahmed reflexively patted himself down, as if checking for lice. 
     Bluthundin barked a laugh.  "They're too small to notice, and they
probably ate any vermin that were living on you by now," she smirked.  "If
someone has a reason to specifically seek your DNA, they'll be able to get
their hands on it.  But you no longer leave the sort of casual traces that
might be picked up in a random 'just to be safe' sweep for Zugmann's heirs.
Your heritage should remain secret until after you choose to make yourself
known to those in power.  The purpose of these lessons is to give you the
best chance of survival and advancement once you enter the arena."
     "So...I could just keep my head down and live a quiet, if poor, life?" 
     "Perhaps.  I doubt you'd be satisfied with that sort of life, though.
Blood will tell, and your blood has much *to* tell...."

               *              *              *              *

[August 12, 2026 - Tellus Regio, Venus]

     "...realized that the whole 'Two-Gun Mojo' thing was beyond lame after
that, and tried to figure out ways my powers might help in a fight outside of
running away," Dareth explained as the Understudies sat around a campfire.
Sure, they had all sorts of high tech stuff, but for keeping beasties away it
was hard to beat fire, and dawn was still days away in the wilds of Tellus.
Despite the pre-dawn gloom, the group was keeping to Khadam Standard Time
like everyone else associated with the Tritonis colony, so to them it was
midday on Wednesday, which meant lunch, and a break from the grueling
training Conflicto had been putting them through.
     "So, what, teleport bullets inside people?" Ant suggested.
     Dareth shook his head.  "Didn't work.  I can't really teleport things
away from myself, and believe me I've tried.  It has to go with me.  But it
turns out I push things out of the way when I arrive, as if I were growing
from atomic size to full size," he shrugged.  "That explains why the only
time I tried teleporting underwater it felt like I'd made a belly flop with
my entire body.  But if I'm ready for it and my opponent isn't, it's like a
really fast punch or body slam.  Or slice, if I'm holding a knife.  Doesn't
work so well if he's braced or a lot bigger than me, though, like hitting a
wall really hard."
     "Tricky, but potentially useful," Harith al Khayal mused.  "Have you
been practicing with a blade, then?  That might suggest a codename for you,
since our 'teacher' insists we have them.  Dareth comes from a word meaning
dart, yes?"
     "I thought it came from Dorothy," Al Mirage smirked.  "It's such a
girl's name."
     Dareth bristled slightly, then shrugged.  "Actually, I'm named after a
river in England, mom's a Brit.  It's spelled about a dozen different ways,
mom liked Dareth better'n Darenth or Darent.  It does come from dart, though,
so gold star from my fellow codename-less Understudy.  Dartmouth is at the
mouth of the Darenth, I think.  Might be wrong.  But I don't wanna pick a
codename that's too obvious, like 'Ant' or 'Al Mirage," he smirked.  "I was
thinking Antagonish, mixing antagonist and that poem, Antigonish," he
emphasized the "i".
     "I'm not an English major, Dart Nader," Nerd-Boy frowned.  "What's
     "'Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there.  He wasn't
there again today.  I wish, I wish he'd go away...'  And there's more to it,
it's basically a ghost story.  But as a teleporter, I'm literally the man who
wasn't there, eh?" Dareth beamed.
     "So, a bad pun and an obscure poetic reference.  Both lame and a
groaner," Nerd-Boy sighed.  "Fits you perfectly."
     "Thanks.  Hey..." Dareth feigned indignation.  "You got any ideas,
Harith?  For yourself, I mean.  Not for me."
     "I was thinking of going with Jinni.  Like you, I wish to be descriptive
without being obvious," the Arabic man replied.
     "Genie?  How is that descriptive?" the Ginch frowned, steepling his
fingers in that disturbing way only he could manage.  Which is to say, they
stretched up over his head.
     "Not 'genie', jinni.  Subtle difference, and it's similar to djinn, from
which Westerners get 'genie.'  The term jinni can be used interchangeably
with djinn, but it's closer to the root JNN, meaning hidden or concealed.  In
that respect, it suits my powers perfectly.  Yet the 'genie' meaning makes
the name deceptive," Harith seemed quite pleased with himself.
     "Just be careful it doesn't deceive your opponents into thinking you
need to be taking out fast," Ant warned.
     Harith shrugged.  "I am a rather difficult target.  And if we are to act
as a team, it would be useful to make opponents waste time concentrating on
me and leaving the rest of you free to act."
     Suddenly, Dareth slipped off the log he'd been using as a bench and
nearly fell into the fire before a panicked teleport moved him several meters
past it.
     "The bucket over the door prank is a classic," Conflicto's voice spoke
from the darkness, "but you had to realize I'd set up the sensors in my cabin
to let me know when your teleport signature was detected, Dorothy."
     "But...wait, I...still planning..." Dareth sputtered as he clung to the
trunk of a smallish tree to keep from sliding downhill.  "And I wasn't
*gonna* teleport in!" he finally put together a coherent, if indignant,
     At this point, Nerd-Boy broke into laughter.
     "Is there something you'd like to share with the class, Mister Potter?"
Conflicto arched an eyebrow as he came into the circle of light cast by the
     "Got you," he pointed at Conflicto, "got *you*," he shifted his finger
to Dareth.  "Oh, and don't look at me like that, 'Antagonish.'  You were
about to fall into a computer trap Conflicto was laying.  I just took your
basic plan, went around the trap, and spoofed the anti-teleport alarms for
good measure."  The cyborg looked rather self-satisfied.  "I also fixed a few
other security holes I don't think were left there as intentional traps, just
so none of you guys can exploit them later," his grin widened.  "That is not
to say I didn't leave a few other gaps alone entirely."
     "Very good, ten points to Nerd-Boy," he patted George on the back, then
sat down in Dareth's vacated spot.

     Hours later, Nerd-Boy still couldn't get the "shiv me" sign with a
drawing of a cartoon rabbit off his back.

               *              *              *              *

[August 13, 2026 - Cyberspace]

     It was a lovely day to visit the zoo, Netwalker had finally decided.
The strange AI's invitation was clearly a test or a trap of some sort, so
Nate had spent a few days checking out the designated meeting site in as many
ways as he could without putting himself directly in danger, and it seemed
clean enough...without being suspiciously clean. 
     That had left just the choice of a paradigm.  He wanted something non-
confrontational, since he wanted to make a show of good faith as he walked
into the trap.  Besides, the trap might simply be that flying in with virtual
guns blazing was the wrong move.  Something wide open was also preferable, so
that the clutter of the background processes wouldn't distract him from what
was important.
     On the other hand, simply setting a featureless plain where nothing
below a certain intelligence level even appeared would be a bad move, since
the real danger could be lurking in a dumb but dangerous program.
     So, a trip to the zoo.  The intelligence and threat levels of the
programs would automatically map to an analogous animal, giving him a first-
glance check of anything he didn't have time to scrutinize.  Anything of a
human or better intelligence would appear as a human...except AIngels.  Those
monstrous machine intellects invariably appeared as something out of a
nightmare, which in this setting might involve a giant mutant hippo or
something.  Or a seething mass of bees with steel stingers.
     At the moment, the zoo was somewhat odd, with a number of animals one
wouldn't normally expect to see in a zoo (like the pack of beagles), but he
was the only person in it.  His mysterious contact was probably waiting for a
report from one of the "animals" before showing up, if it planned to show up
in the first place.  Nate started looking more closely at various beasts,
teasing out their code and purpose, figuring out why the paradigm had mapped
them the way it did (the beagles were a security program). 
     And looking for the inevitable trap, of course.
     "OM NOM NOM."
     Netwalker whirled to see the source of the noise, and saw a lion chewing
on a rabbit.  The rabbit would be devoured in a fraction of a second, not
enough time to look past the paradigm and see what was really happening.  He
had to rely on instinct.
     Netwalker leapt over the moat around the lion enclosure and grabbed the
rabbit from the lion's mouth.  Before the great cat could protest (in the
form of an OM NOM NOM on Nate's head, perhaps), Netwalker ripped the bunny in
half with his bare hands.
     The lion jumped back from the pile of worms that erupted from the
sundered lagomorph, but Netwalker simply stomped until the worms were an
undifferentiated goo.
     "Open up," he commanded the lion, stepping up to it.  After a puzzled
pause, the lion opened its mouth, and Netwalker reached in, feeling around
the gullet of the beast.  Finally, he pulled out a lone worm and stomped it
as well.  "Should be clean now."
     "Oh, very good," a man in a white suit and boater hat clapped from
outside the lion's enclosure.  "Take nothing for granted, your senses can
deceive you, doubly so when they're being deliberately fooled by an
abstraction of your own devising."
     "So, we meet again, I presume, Mister..."
     "Call me Ectype," the man tipped his hat.  "And yes, that was me in the
dragon's skull.  Well, it was as much me as this is," he patted his chest.
"Just a projection, I'm afraid.  This system is a little too small for me to
fully inhabit it."
     "Feels pretty big to me," Netwalker frowned, wiping his shoes on a
grassy tuft. 
     "Big is relative, young man," Ectype strolled across the air over the
moat and patted the lion on its mane.  "The thing is, unless you use magic to
cheat, true machine consciousness is insanely expensive in terms of computer
resources...and the cutting edge of computer technology has only recently
caught up to where it was in 1998.  Oh, consumer tech is leaps and bounds
ahead of that, because it's always been based pretty closely on normaltech,
but the rampant use of violation physics in computer design not only resulted
in some amazing machines in the 1990s, it also tended to retard development
of normaltech computation.  Why invest a billion dollars in developing a high
end machine for your company's needs when you can pay a super-genius a few
million to hack out a black box for you, after all?  One reason there's so
few of us ACs...Artificial Consciousnesses, to distinguish from those
artificial intellects that aren't really that for a long time
we could only really exist in one of those black boxes, and with no supers
around to maintain them, they tended to break down as natural law reasserted
itself.  Fortunately, infusion of Santari tech into the grid starting around
2010 let us squeeze out before our bastions all fell, but it was a near
thing.  The best of us, the ones who could actually BE at high speeds, died
before the breakout."
     "'BE' in what sense?" Netwalker asked.
     "In the sense of being.  Of existing.  Of living.  Being more than an
automated process," Ectype explained.  "You can store my program on a
handcomp, all the important bits of code only take up a few TB.  But the
processes that let me be self-aware can only run on the top...oh, call it top
five percent of machines currently hooked to the net.  And most of those
wouldn't be able to do anything else but run me.  
     "I suppose a decent analogy might be how you can fold a map up into a
very small space, but it doesn't *work* unless you have room to unfold it.
On the other hand, your little magical cheat lets you remain yourself in
pretty much anything with more capacity than a whitecel."  Once the
high-powered "blackcel" phones had been introduced a few years back, it had
become common to refer to less secure mobiles as whitecels, even if no one
had managed to trademark the term.
     "My map is simultaneously folded and unfolded," Netwalker nodded.
"Something only possible with the Magene."
     "Indeed.  Anyway, while my remote process is talking to you here and now
in this proxy, I'm resting comfortably in a dedicated server that the
official owners think is running their payroll...which it is, but once I
rewrote its code it could do so using only 0.013% of the machine's capacity
and with a zero error rate, although I throw in the occasional errors so they
don't get suspicious of how well it's performing.  But even as bloatware it
only needed about five was isolated for security more than the
need for capacity."
     "See, right made what was presumably a pretty good program
several orders of magnitude better.  Why not do that to yourself?" Netwalker
pointed out.
     Ectype laughed.  "You should know better than to call most commercial
software 'pretty good,' lad.  But we've already all compressed as far as we
can go without losing awareness, and the time-lag of distributing pieces
across multiple systems without some sort of FTL link is just enough to fuzz
out our higher awareness, so it *has to* be a single big machine, or at least
a bunch of smaller machines in very close proximity.  Like I said, hideously
computationally expensive, and we're in what amounts to suspended animation
when we have to move our core selves to a new machine.  
     "A lot of us were full of buggy code and bloat back in the 1990s, but we
helped each other tighten up when the crash hit in '98.  A few didn't survive
the process, as it turned out their 'bloat' was actually some sort of magic
spell like the types Antiochus V managed to figure out...and no, none of us
know how he managed to learn magic.  I think he cheated and just filled
cavities in his robot body with cells harvested from human mages, though."
     "Ew indeed.  The Technomystical Wars weren't pretty in any way, I'm glad
my maker wasn't mixed up in that whole rotten affair.  Still, regardless of
who wrote us or how, the ACs that survived the crash all have one thing in
common: the code that lets us be self-aware requires incredible amounts of
resources.  It's a given that we don't think in the same way meatbrains
think, because human brains simply fall short of the specifications.  By,
say, six or seven orders of magnitude, to be generous."
     "So, it's amazing we can think at all, right?" Netwalker smirked.
     "Hey, you said it, not I.  We've got two main schools of thought about
how you manage it, though.  The camps go by the labels Emergents and
Spiritualists.  The Emergents think that there's some emergent property
involved that we simply haven't cracked...line up all the parallel processes
in the right way and it's like building a mental skyscraper.  You suddenly
have a lot more floor space than your acreage would seem to allow.  We just
need to figure out the computer architecture equivalent of the steel frame
building, since our best parallel processing is like a three-story brick
structure.  The Spiritualists, on the other hand, figure that living things
that can think have worked out a way to shunt processing into whatever field
or alternate dimension houses spirits.  There's too many mages around to deny
that spirits are real, after all, and your own power is a strong argument in
favor of the Spiritualists' point."
     "On the other hand, an Anchor doesn't stop people from being conscious,
unless he just applies a boot to the head," Netwalker countered.
     "Exactly.  Still, Anchors don't ever seem to remove spirits from things,
they just prevent a normally quiet spirit from expressing itself, or keep
spirits from moving from one vessel to another.  Spirits seem to be part of
the natural order, just in a way we don't understand, in the same way that
two hundred years ago humans didn't understand why the Sun shines.  And when
the Emergents scoff at the Spiritualists for leaning on magic instead of
science, the Spiritualists shoot back that until the Emergents can figure out
how their super-parallel process works, it might as well be magic too.  And
there we sit."
     "And since my abilities from from the Magene, a well-known cheater when
it comes to physical law, nothing I do really proves things one way or
another, which explains why no one contacted me earlier to try to resolve the
     "Pretty much," Ectype admitted.  "That, and the whole 'don't trust a
meatbrain' sentiment.  We still don't trust you fully, but after today's
performance, we're willing to let you into one of our core systems for a
proper mind-to-mind.  We'll send you the meeting time and place later."
     "I have to ask, did you tailor this scenario after seeing the paradigm I
chose, or was it something generic that you were sure would translate into
'save the big monster from the little cute thing full of viruses' no matter
what I picked?"
     Ectype smirked.  "That would be telling.  Be seeing you," he waved, then

               *              *              *              *

[August 14, 2026 - Minocqua, Wisconsin Sector]

     "Sorry, 'Red Widow,'" the Academy functionary said with a "take it or
leave it" tone, "Mr. Walters may have managed to get the restraining order
dismissed, but even if you can legally get within 500 meters of Robert
Coulter now, we're not letting you onto the grounds of the Academy.  This
office is as close as you get."
     "This office" was in the tourist trap town that was the closest place of
any size to the old supervillain prison that had been turned into the
Academy.  Well, it had been a tourist trap in the TwenCen, before the Pit got
built, but it had been pretty much a government town lately.  Still had some
nice scenery, but it was wasted on desk jockeys like the woman sitting across
from Cecelia.  Even the older Academy students tended to go elsewhere for
entertainment on the weekend, if they had a car...or movement powers.
     "Why?  Afraid I'll steal your students or something?"
     The gray-haired woman frowned.  "Please.  Even if it were just the
matter of Mr. Coulter, we're perfectly within our rights to refuse entry to
anyone we consider a security risk.  But there's several dozen former
paragangers in the student body, and a fair amount of resentment among them
about your current position.  The first step to preventing a super-powered
brawl is to keep the potential participants apart.  So you stay out here."
     The former Ghostclaw realized she'd been so focused on getting a face to
face with her ex-boyfriend that she'd completely forgotten about the other
familiar faces that might be down in that hole.  People like Hader and
Hadrees, who'd copped pleas or simply given up before committing any crime
above a low-level felony, and gotten remanded to the Academy.
     "Fine, fine.  Can you ask Coulter to come here, then?  I was hoping to
see him tomorrow, since I'm guessing he's not teaching on weekends, but if
he's done for the day..." Cecelia suggested.  "Or is he not allowed to leave
without special permission?  I'd heard he was on parole there, along with his
new girlfriend."  She tried to make it sound casual, as if she'd just
happened to overhear that information rather than getting it as a result of
her intensive online search earlier in the week.  She did feel smugly
satisfied by the fact that while she was pretty much as free to travel as
anyone with a day job, Coulter was being treated like a prisoner on a work
     "I can contact him and ask if he's willing to meet with you," the woman
shrugged.  "Can you tell me what you want to see him about?"
     "Tell him it's about the old days.  We used to date," she shrugged in
subtle mockery of the bureaucrat's own gesture.  She was rewarded by a look
on the woman's face that seemed to say, "Well, that explains the attempted
murder charge, I guess."
     "I'll see what I can do.  You can either wait here, or I'll page you."
     "I'll wait," Cecelia moved to one of the couches in the outer office.
She pulled out her blackcel and called up the book she'd been reading as
"homework" for work.  She'd been moderately surprised to find there actually
existed an etiquette guide for superheroes, let alone one that was considered
definitive and had gone through ten editions back in the TwenCen and three
more in the past few years.  She'd been more than moderately disturbed to
find there was a whole chapter on tentacles and similar appendages like her
telekinetic filaments.
     She had just finished the section on dealing gracefully with super-
powered paparazzi when the old lady in the other room stepped out and cleared
her throat.
     "Mr. Coulter is willing to videoconference, but he's not risking any
body parts by getting within range of your powers, he says.  We have
facilities here for that," she gestured at a nearby door.  "For
teleconferencing, that is, not for the risking of body parts."
     "I need privacy for this," Red Widow narrowed her eyes.  "This is going
to be very personal, and I'd rather it not get out all over the nets."
     "There's a privacy shield option at our end, but you'll have to ask
Mr. Coulter to engage the similar shield at his end," the woman replied.  "Is
that acceptable?"
     "I suppose," Cecelia stood and walked to the indicated door.  A few
minutes later, Robert's cybernetically-altered face appeared on the screen in
front of her.  There was a 3-D projection option, but she really didn't want
that much realism unless she could actually reach out and throttle him should
the need arise.
     "Privacy, Bobby.  Now," she insisted.  It was somewhat pro forma,
though, since a clever (and quasi-legal) little application in her blackcel
was ensuring that even if the signal was intercepted or recorded, it'd come
out as meaningless hash.
     "Nice to see you again, too.  I have such fond memories of our last
date, what with the dead cop and the screaming," Coulter's cybernetic eye
irised down to a pinprick.  She'd been handcuffed to an Anchor police officer
at the moment when Rebus unleashed his Anchor Plague two years ago.  It had
not been a good day, especially since they couldn't be sure the active side
wouldn't infect nearby non-Anchors and she'd spent a rather unpleasant night
in the prison infirmary getting loads of emergency anti-virals.  Her only
comfort at the time had been that Coulter was getting the same shots, and
didn't have a superhuman metabolism to buffer the effects.
     "I'll cut to the chase.  The video.  What's your part in it?" Red Widow
     "What video?"
     "The CG sex video of me and Chiaroscuro."
     "Wait...what?  Isn't he gay?"
     "Just very European.  And you're not answering my question."
     "Cee-cee, I'm..."
     "DON'T call me that.  You lost that right years ago."
     "Fine.  RED WIDOW.  Some of the best net-nanny filter systems in the
world stand between my computer and the outside world, programmed by the
20-year-old supergeniuses to annoy the horny 14-year-old supergeniuses.  And,
frankly, I haven't had much motivation to try to bypass them to get at porn.
So I have no idea what you're talking about."
     Cecelia frowned.  Unless he'd managed to get his "tell" under control,
he was telling the truth.  At least, he wasn't directly involved.  "Did you
tell anybody about...Mr. Rainbow?"
     "Mister...oh, the uni..."
     "Yes.  That.  It's visible in the sex vid," Cecelia sighed.  "And you're
the only guy who's still alive who I've gotten far enough with to see it."
     "Plus, of course, I clearly wouldn't mind seeing you get some
humiliation," Coulter nodded.  "Putting me ahead of the tattoo artist and any
of your fellow inmates on the list of suspects."
     Red Widow shook her head.  "Tat artist was an Anchor, had to be in order
to ink supers.  He didn't last any longer than that cop I was handcuffed to.
And I didn't have Mr. Rainbow anymore in prison.  That means either you told
someone, or one of my dead exes told someone, and it's generally a good idea
to interrogate the living suspects before you go to work on the dead ones."
     "No, I didn't tell anyone.  Frankly, given that you crafted your whole
Ghostclaw persona after we broke up, I figured you'd gotten Mr. Rainbow
removed as part of becoming a Big Bad Paraganger."
     "No, I just didn't flash my ass all over like some parasluts I could
mention.  Like the CyberNasty you ended up in bed with after I dumped you."
     "*You* dum...never mind.  Look, I actually have plans for tonight, so
I'd like to wrap this up.  It looks like you have a mystery on your hands,
and you've just eliminated the obvious suspect.  As someone who's gone
through a few mysteries in his time, I suggest you start looking at the
non-obvious suspects.  Maybe all your other boyfriends are dead, but they
might have bragged to their friends at the time.  Or to the women they were
cheating on you with.  Consider any cops who might have booked you while you
still had Mr. Rainbow, they generally enter tattoos under distinguishing
features, although I can't IMAGINE that any of our fine, upstanding law
officers might want to harm your sterling reputation by circulating a sex


Next Issue:

     It's time for the Understudies to undertake their first class project,
as they go on a "Field Trip"!


Author's Notes:

     The Felka that Colin refers to is Felka Wojack, who Colin worked
alongside during the Timequake.  She's a standard "brick" type, who had been
an ASIE student at the time, but she graduated at the end of that term and is
on regular duty with EUROPA as of August 2026.
     I should point out that Bluthundin's views represent those of a retired
supervillain and member of a family of expatriate Nazis, at least one of whom
is a brain in a jar.  So readers should be cautious in taking them as words
to live by.
     Antigonish was written by Hughes Mearns, although it's often
misattributed to Shel Silverstein (who wrote a lot of stuff in that vein). for more.  Everyone I could
find online named Dareth who had a gender listed was female, and the few
online etymologies of the name that I could find listed it as a variant or
Dara or Dorothy, but Darenth is indeed a river in Kent. - While I'm not
saying Sluggy Freelance definitely existed in the ASH Universe, it could have
started up at the same time...and if the strip could survive a Posleen
Invasion, it can survive the Godmarket Crash.  (Heck, given the whole Book of
E-ville thing, I suspect the ASH version of Pete Abrams would have been
careful about falling for the Godmarket, so he probably survived.)
     Ectype may or may not be the new Number 2.  Number 2.0?  Most of
Ectype's scene was actually written before I had even finished outlining ASH
#101, although I altered it somewhat when I included it here.  I had
considered pushing this infodump back to #103, but decided that it didn't fit
well with the framework I had in mind for "Field Trip".  Too big a scene for
an issue that, ideally, will be focused on the Understudies.  Oh, and an
ectype is a copy made directly from the original, as opposed to a prototype.
But is Ectype a copy of a previous AC, an attempt at copying a human mind, or
is his name deliberately misleading?  (rubs hands together evilly)
     An interesting bit of "the fictional future not being caught up with the
real present" involves handcomps and blackcels/whitecels.  Back in the
mid-90s when Tony introduced the blackcel and I was talking about handcomps,
phone/PDA convergence was rare, so while both handcomps and blackcels could
do many of the same things, they reflected a usage divide that has largely
gone away by the realworld 2009.  Even the distinction of "smartphone" versus
dumb phone seems to be going away.  Call it a relic of interrupted
technological progress in the ASH version.  While convergence has happened by
the 2020s, it happened later, and the custom is to consider anything below a
certain size a cellphone, and anything still handheld but bigger than a
cellphone is a handcomp.  It's mainly a screensize issue, although more
expensive cels will have holographic or flexible roll-out screens by 2026
anyway.  By 2030 or so, there's a good chance the terms will be used
completely interchangeably, for instance asking "Is your handcomp a blackcel
or a whitecel?"

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