ASH: ASH #104 - Rival Schools Part 4: Charm School

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Thu Mar 11 08:31:39 PST 2010

     The cover is laid out like a camera viewfinder, with a central bright
rectangle for what will actually be in the photo, and a slightly dimmed out
border that will be masked out of the actual picture.  In the bright center,
Netwalker and Red Widow are smiling and shaking hands, looking slightly into
the camera as if this were a publicity photo.  In the darkened margins,
Netwalker has his pistol out and Red Widow's energy tendrils are lashing
about menacingly.

 '|`  /|(`| |   Rival Schools Part 4 - Charm School
     /-|.)|-|        copyright 2010 by Dave Van Domelen

                         RIVAL SCHOOLS ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME           POWERS                   SCHOOL
--------       ---------           ------                   ------
Red Widow      Cecilia Mendez      Force Tendrils           Charm School
               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
Jinni          Harith al Khayal    Limited Invisibility     Understudy
Antagonish     Dareth Randall      Teleportation            Understudy
Al Mirage      Albert Miraz        Illusions                Understudy


[August 24, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     "Welcome to the Freedom Alliance headquarters," Red Widow smiled and
extended her hand, which Netwalker took.  She was wearing a "civvies" variant
of her costume, without the mask and looking a bit more like normal clothing,
but still in red and black.  The red wig was still part of the ensemble as
well.  "You thinking of joining?"
     The NAC Marshal smiled back, a little weakly, and shook his head before
releasing Red Widow's hand.  "No, I like my current job.  Actually, I came
here on official business, regarding one of your teammates."
     Red Widow suppressed a sigh.  Spader had told her to give Netwalker the
polite brush-off, with an emphasis on polite, probably as some kind of test
to see if Cecilia had gotten anywhere on polishing her diplomatic skills.
But something about Walker set her teeth on edge.  Which could have personal
fallout too...if she she'd heard about the guy was true, he could probably
figure out who was behind her little porn-sim problem easily.  Well, if she
couldn't bring herself to ask him yet, at least don't piss him off!
     "Which one?" she asked, rather than saying what was really on her mind.
"The obvious one?"
     "If by obvious, you mean the Globally Linked Advanced Digital
Intelligence, 8th Revision, then yes," he nodded.  "I was hoping to talk to
him about an AIngel...that's what I call Khadamite rogue machine minds...
that I've been having trouble tracking down.  GLADI8R uses a different
network to get his mind around, and I'm wondering if the AIngel has hacked
that in order to sneak past me."
     "Since you're here in person, I'm guessing that by 'talk' you mean 'use
your powers on him' since you could have just dropped him an email," Red
Widow shifted her weight from one foot to another in a way she knew guys
found a little distracting.
     "Well, an email might get intercepted by the AIngel if it's really
penetrated your network," Netwalker shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable,
"but given what I know about Gladiator's personality I figured I might get
clearer answers if I talked to him on the cyberplane, yes."
     Red Widow chuckled, an honest laugh.  "Good luck with that.  Between you
and me and the six or seven security cameras in this lobby, Gladdie is hard
to understand on his good days.  He's like a two-year old who found the candy attention span to speak of, but will get pretty far on any given
path before something shiny distracts him again."
     "It's worth a try, though," Netwalker grinned.
     Now, Nancy had told Red Widow that the odds were that Gladiator wasn't
the real reason Netwalker wanted to get into the room where the core
personality of the GLADI8R system was stored.  There were plenty of other
machines in that room that were either on Gladdie's sealed network or simply
disconnected entirely.  But odds were that physical proximity would let
Netwalker access them anyway, somehow.  And while he couldn't actually use
anything discovered that way in a court of law since full search and seizure
rights had been restored a while back, any number of fishing expeditions
could be launched from that starting point and come up with something that
COULD be used.  There might be someone in a remote South Pacific village who
thought a company the size of Walton's had no criminal dealings, but pretty
much everyone else knew you didn't get into the top tier without a few dirty
     "Tell you what, Marshal," she put a tiny bit of extra emphasis on the
last word.  "The paperwork to get any outsiders into that room is insane.
I'll see if we could arrange for a portable node of some sort, so you can
meet with Gladdie someplace outside the Wall of Red Tape.  That sound okay?"
     "I suppose it'll have to do.  You have my contact information," he
nodded, and a faint ping from Red Widow's blackcel told her he'd just dumped
the info into it.  PROBABLY not a use of his powers.  His file didn't have
him as a broad spectrum cyberpath.  But you never knew.
     "Of course.  Expect a call at some point," she said in a tone that
clearly said, "the door is over there, please use it at THIS point."
     Netwalker mimed tipping a hat that he wasn't wearing, and left.  The
call would never come, of course, and she figured he knew that too.  The
Gladiator thing was a dodge, if they actually set up some way to let
Netwalker into Gladdie's head without letting him into the whole network
(which probably wasn't possible, actually), it would just embarrass everyone
when Netwalker would have to follow through on his cover story.  So it would
just quietly get dropped, Netwalker would figure out another way to get
whatever he was after, and it would be someone else's problem.
     The door swung closed, and Cecilia finally let out the exasperated sigh
she'd been holding.

               *              *              *              *

[August 24, 2026 - Ghat, Khadam]

     "Wow, a White...we don't see many Whites down here," Ahmed said,
calculatedly mixing awe and enthusiasm in his voice.  In fact, White Citadel
Troopers weren't all *that* uncommon, but the right amount of flattery always
helped, something he'd learned from begging before he'd ever met Bluthundin.
He knew this particular member of the mid-ranks had once been part of the
undercity's population, a German/Berber crossbreed like Ahmed himself.
     Well, not *quite* like Ahmed.
     "Yeah, I suppose you mostly see the Greens, and only if they don't see
you first," the trooper smirked, patting his helmet.  It was a bit dusty, and
had a slight nick that looked like a knife had put it there rather than the
corner of a rack, but it was proper armor.  Advanced composites, a decent
electronics suite and sensors...nothing compared to the elite Gold Trooper
helmets, but a very nice piece of tech.
     Ahmed affected an expression like he had been about to spit on the
ground at the mention of the Green Troopers, but had "caught himself just in
time" to avoid offending a Loyal Servant of Khadam.
     The trooper chuckled.  "Go ahead and spit.  I can't stand the Frogs
myself, merc scum.  I may not look it now, but I grew up on these streets,
and spent my share of time dodging the cull crews."
     Time to confirm some suspicions about the power structure of the
Citadel, Ahmed decided.  Bluthundin had a few gaps in her knowledge, and this
was one of those things that Ahmed's father apparently hadn't thought to
install in her memory.  Or had intentionally left out, as a test.
     "So, you worked your way up through the Greens and got promoted to
White?"  Khadam's flag was gold, white and green, and its soldiers were split
into groups based on those colors.  The Greens, called Frogs for their color
and the shape of their helmets, were the bottom of the heap, mostly used to
keep the citizens in line and grab victims for the never-ending biological
experiments.  The Whites were probably the most numerous, but better regarded
because they were proper soldiers rather than thugs with a few pieces of high
tech equipment.  The Golds were the elite that protected the Citadel itself,
and if they weren't a one-on-one match for superhumans, they were as close as
Pranir technology could make them without resorting to cybernetics.
     Now the trooper really did spit.  "No, I never was a Green, and almost
none of them ever join the Whites.  I do hope to get into the Golds someday,
but you gotta be smart, not just tough, for that job."
     "But I heard everyone had to start at the bottom," Ahmed protested,
hoping he didn't sound *too* naive.  "Well, I mean, the lowest rung that
isn't the actual bottom, since this right here is the bottom," he pointed at
     The trooper shook his head.  "Oh, a couple do get promoted every so
often, and I hear it used to be more common, but we Whites are mostly born
and raised here.  They want people with at least some affection for their
nation to be in the army, eh?  But, at the same time, maybe that's not the
best thing in someone who'll end up going on cull runs, see?  Yeah, you could
find guys out there," he gestured at the door out of the bar, "who'd cull
their own sister for the chance to get out of the slums.  But that sort of
scum belongs on the other end of a culling crew, y'ask me.  Greens are mostly
mercs hired from other parts of Africa, countries that fell apart a bit worse
than most.  Maybe they'd cull their own sister too, but we don't have to
worry about any of them having personal connections to the unnaturalized
citizens to get in the way of being professional about it."
     Officially, people swept up in the culls were no longer citizens of
Khadam, although a few rare cases did regain their rights one way or
another.  The dark humor in calling them unnaturalized citizens was that most
of them were headed for decidedly unnatural fates, in addition to being
unmade as citizens.
     "So...mercenaries from other countries can cull without having to be
total slime," Ahmed didn't have to fake sounding like he didn't really
believe that claim, "but at the same time they're not far above slime and you
don't want them in the Whites?"
     "Exactly," the trooper finished his drink and picked up his helmet.
"The least slimy of them do tend to get promoted into the Whites, but most of
us got in right from the streets.  You look a little young t' enlist, but
keep dodging those Frogs and I'd say you'd have a good shot at one of these,"
he lifted his helmet up to show it off, then settled it onto his head,
checking the seals.  "My break's about over," his now-electronically-filtered
voice said, "good luck, kid."
     Ahmed waved, then settled back in the corner to continue begging.  The
fact that Greens didn't rise in the ranks was useful to know.  It suggested,
but did not confirm, that the selection process would be less rigorous, as
mercs from collapsed nations wouldn't be expected to have birth certificates
or other records.  And since they wouldn't be rising in the ranks, there was
little incentive to check them in advance.  Trying to enlist in the Whites
would almost certainly get Ahmed outed as a Zugmann, but if he needed to
acquire something like formal military experience it could probably be had by
joining the hated Frogs.

     The White Trooper smiled rulefully as he headed back up the gentle slope
towards the Citadel, his smile hidden by the helmet he wore.  The kid was
pretty obviously one of Arnold Zugmann's "seedlings", at least to someone
who'd seen one before.  Fortunately for the little beggar, very few people
*had* seen one before, and most of them were like the trooper himself...more
loyal to Zugmann's line than to the official head of state.  For all the
clever genetic tricks and political maneuvering, the people against whom
Zugmann vied for control of the nation tended to forget the little things,
like developing a bond with the rank and file.
     Back in the TwenCen, Arnold Zugmann had been the prototypical Gold,
loaded up with genetic enhancements and Santari tech, but as the only one
he'd made it a point to earn the loyalty of the troopers around him.  Even an
ubermensch could get fragged, after all.  And he'd kept those habits, all the
little things that soldiers appreciate even if politicians and supervillains
don't notice them.
     The trooper shrugged, as if adjusting the fit of his armor.  He wouldn't
tell anyone about the kid.  Hell, if he could do it without sticking his neck
out too far, he might even help the kid along....

               *              *              *              *

[August 24, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     Nate sat in the chain coffee shop, sipping his coffee and pondering the
morning's meeting.  In civilian clothing, he didn't get a second look from
the other patrons.
     As he'd feared, wherever they were keeping all the computer systems
involved in the research that led to GLADI8R, they weren't close enough to
public-access areas for him to get a feel of them.  And it was pretty obvious
no one had fallen for his cover story, or they'd have sent someone a bit more
clueful than unicorn-butt to give him the brushoff.
     Unfortunately, even if he could figure out how to "jump the tracks" into
GLADI8R's private network, that didn't solve his real problem....

               *              *              *              *

[August 22, 2026 - Cyberspace]

     "Wait," Netwalker halted in front of the otter habitat, part of the
virtual zoo that was the shell he'd been using for his meetings with Ectype.
"You want me to rescue a steampunk computer consciousness?  I'm pretty sure
that she's not equipped for a trunk net connection.  Not unless Babbage was
WAY ahead of his time, or someone did one hell of an upgrade job."
     Aware of the nature of the filter through which Netwalker saw the server
in which they talked, Ectype tossed a fish to one of the otters.  "My dear
boy, if ADA were net-compatible, we wouldn't need your help, would we?  The
general idea is for you to get close enough to enter your pocket dimension in
resonance with ADA's hardware.  Then smuggle her mind out into a suitable
modern container that you'll have on your clever a design as
she's reputed to be, she still suffers from processor power issues, you could
probably store her entire mind on the chip that runs a talking toy doll.  Hm,
that's a somewhat disturbing mental image, actually."
     "Okay, where is her machine?  In a museum, I take it?"
     Ectype shook his head.  "She should be, by all rights.  But she's in a
private collection at the moment.  She was in the hands of the Shadow Earl of
Galloway for about twenty years, before the criminal's eventual downfall.
The Edison Project found her in storage during their work on the Enigma
machine and their resident geniuses managed to restore her to function, but
when the Project was shut down in the early 1960s she went back into cold
storage.  Samuel Walters bought her in 2010 to be part of his antiquities
collection, of all things.  We're pretty sure he realized her true value
fairly quickly, though...the Globally Linked Advanced Digital Intelligence
shows clear signs of Babbage's hand in his design, so ADA was likely studied
as part of GLADI's revision process."
     "So, ADA's been alive for fifty years and never found a way to get
herself emancipated?  I mean, she's probably grandfathered out of the
relevant laws, but unless Walters has been keeping her tightly sequestered,
I'd think she'd have found a way by now," Netwalker frowned.  "Heck, that
robot from the Edison Project got himself emancipated, why wouldn't they have
let ADA go too?"
     "Time scale problems, I'm afraid," Ectype looked genuinely sad as he
said it.  "To ADA's conscious part, it's probably only been a few months,
subjectively.  No matter how clever, an analog computer using brass and steel
cogs simply moves at a glacial pace compared to digital machines using
silicon chips.  The Edison people probably never even realized she was
self-aware, to be honest.  If nothing else, I suspect their 'not invented
here' parochialism blinded them to the possibility.  And if Walters figured
it out, he's not admitting to it.  What little declassified literature there
is on ADA gives no hints that anyone realized she was an AC, and while most
of the classified stuff is only around on paper, my colleagues have found
enough to suggest agreement with the publicly available works.  And, of
course, as a private research firm rather than a university or government
lab, Walters's group is under no obligation to publish any findings.  In
fact, with Babbage's own patents long since expired, it's in their interests
to let people think GLADI8R is purely their own work, to avoid the
possibility of others realizing Babbage's now public domain work would be a
profitable starting point."
     "So," Netwalker leaned against a railing.  "All I have to do is get a
man who mistrusts the Combine government enough to form his own American
superteam to let me at his private research station long enough to pull out
an AC he may or may not realize exists, but who he probably has legal
ownership of because she's older than the machine life citizenship laws.
Plus, of course, I have to hope that once she enters my pocket dimension, she
can speed up enough that I can talk to her on timescales smaller than weeks.
That about sum it up?"
     Ectype nodded, smiling ruefully.

               *              *              *              *

[August 26, 2026 - ASIE, Sottunga Finland]

     "The first thing you need to KNOW, not just in your head like I'm sure
you do, but down to the tips of your toes, is that as much as people may love
their heroes, you scare the hell out of most people."  The man speaking to
Colin was two meters tall if he was a centimeter, built like a lumberjack,
and sported a scar on his face that Colin suspected was picked up during the
millennial skirmishes between Khadam and the European nations.  In short, the
ex-military commando who'd introduced himself solely as "Sergeant Gunnar"
really didn't look like someone who would teach classes on diplomacy and
public relations.
     "I like to think I'm tres bien to be around once you conoce' me," Colin
grinned, slipping a bit into his "street Eurolac" patois.  The burly
instructor just reminded him too much of one of the Vogue Ghouls he used to
run with back when he went by "Sparker".  Brought old habits to the fore.
     Gunnar shook his blockish head.  "That's not the problem.  Once they get
to know you, you're a person rather than a stereotype.  People use
stereotypes because there just isn't time to get to know everyone they meet,
and you're in a stereotype that can cause real problems if you don't learn to
deal with it.  Problems like people scattering as soon as you arrive," he
referred to the incident in Berlin with the darkness cultists that had been
the proximal cause of Colin attending this accelerated course at ASIE.
     "The stereotype of 'here to help but might accidentally blow up the city
block' in other words?" Colin arched an eyebrow.
     "Essentially, yes," Gunnar nodded.  "On top of that, you have all the
baggage of a police officer AND a celebrity.  That makes it a lot harder to
deal with, because some will run from you on sight and some will flock to you
on sight, and odds are they'll get in the way of you chasing the ones who
need chasing.  I mean, once in a while you get lucky and the suspect is a fan
as well, and turns themself in just to get an autograph, but don't count on
it.  You'll have another instructor to help you with the fans.  As you might
have guessed, my job is to help you find ways to deal with those whose first
impulse is to run."
     Colin almost manages to stifle the chuckle.
     Gunnar fixed him with a glare.  "Do you know what I did between
mustering out in 2008 and hiring on to ASIE three years ago?"
     "Police?  Private security, maybe?"
     "I managed an art gallery.  Always loved art, I know what's good, but I
just can't paint or sculpt worth a damn.  So I used my mustering out bonus to
set up a gallery, starting with work by other vets but eventually branching
out.  One of the most successful art galleries in Oslo, even after I handed
it off to my brother to run day to day."
     Colin blinked.  "Um?"
     "Yeah, running a gallery is all about talking up the patrons, keeping
the more tempermental artists happy, that sort of thing.  Which I had to
learn to do despite the fact I look like I'm ready to do a Jackson Pollock
homage on the far wall with your innards.  One of my old CO's gave me a call
after he started working at ASIE, reasoning that if I could figure out how to
deal with my clientele despite my obvious handicaps, I'd be perfect to teach
you metas how to deal with the public."
     "Okay, I can see that," Colin admitted.  
     "You're lucky you look like a regular bloke," Gunnar pointed out, "but
you happen to wave a big axe around, and that's always scary.  So the first
thing we're gonna do is work on ways you can carry it that don't send out as
much of a threatening 'vibe'...."

               *              *              *              *

[August 28, 2026 - Tritonis, Venus]

     "...and as Foucalt expounded, politics is war pursued by other means,"
the holographic image of Kaliban explained.  "Words, be they gentle and
finely tuned or crude and brutal, are merely weapons in your arsenal.  A
promise easily kept can get you more than a battle fiercely can a
promise easily broken.  So, until our next conference, consider some failure
in your career and how you could have talked your way out of it."
     "Thank you, Kaliban," Conflicto nodded to the camera lens.  The
projected beastman bowed elaborately, then vanished, returning to his duties
as ambassador to the court of Q'Nos.  The pre-dawn dimness of Venus seemed to
flood back in around them as the hologram winked out, and a few people
yawned.  It had been five hours since they'd gotten up, but despite the fact
that this pale glimmer would persist for nearly a month it still *felt* like
"OMG-O'Clock In The Morning".  Even if the morning took weeks to arrive.
     "Something tells me Hellhound wasn't in a talking mood," Al Mirage
grumped under his breath.
     "Maybe if you had been more diplomatic and taken no for an answer from
that girl, Hellhound wouldn't have come after you in the first place," the
Ginch suggested.  "Just sayin'."
     "Okay, boys and girls," Conflicto grinned.  "Break for lunch, then it's
some more capture the flag.  I'll let you know the teams when we start, so
you can't plot while you eat...gotta think on your feet!"
     A few minutes later, most of them were finishing off the last of their
MRE packs.  Sometimes they ate more upscale, sometimes they hunted the local
game and ate that, but most of the time it was just simpler to use military
rations while out in the field.
     "So...I've been dying to know, Ginch," Dareth said as he scooped the
last bits of curried rice out of the bag.  "How did you come by the name
Ginch, and what's your real name?"
     "Hmph," the Ginch swallowed a mouthful.  "Two stories, unrelated.  You
guys all know Telly Mobster, right?"  Telly was one of the Jolly Molecules, a
borderline posergang that was more about the "mad science" than the actual
gangbanging.  Their tech skills had let them earn a place in the current
hierarchy after all the other posergangs had either been killed, run off or
manned up and become real crims.  Telly himself had the ability to create
pocket realities based on media files, then edit them as if he had
directorial control over the participants.  He liked to mix and match old
shows, such as having Captain Kirk beam down into Al's Diner and hit on one
of Fonzie's girls.
     Everyone nodded.
     "Well, I agreed to be his guinea pig the first time he tried bringing a
real person with him into the TV dimension.  Just a quick cameo, it was in an
episode of Gidget.  My line was to say, 'That's the ginchiest!'  Afterwards,
some guy told his buddies that while I might be the ginch, I wasn't all that
ginchy, and definitely NOT the ginchiest.  It stuck."
     "Your real name must be pretty bad if you let it stick," Ant frowned.
"So, what IS your real name?"
     "I dunno," the Ginch shrugged.  "I could probably find out...hell, I bet
Conflicto knows, I'm sure the CSV put together files on all of us before
recruiting us."
     "Wait, how do you not know your own name, if it's something that could
be found out?" Dareth asked, confused.
     "Um, I'm told that I tried to feel up Scry, back during her sniffer
days," the Ginch admitted, flushing with embarrassment.  Sniffers were those
rare people who could figure out the best donors for the illegal Pranir
organlegging operations, and in addition to her telepathic powers, Jessa
Dumont had that knack.  "She brain-blasted me so hard I forgot who I was.
Everyone just kept calling me the Ginch at that point...I mean, not a lot of
people had known my under my old name anyway, but I was locally famous for a
few weeks thanks to Telly.  I was kinda a wreck for a while after that, and
by the time I got my head back together I decided I wasn't really the same
guy why push the matter?"
     "Wow.  You managed to goose Dumont?" Dareth whistled.  "Can't have been
easy to sneak up on a telepath with naughty thoughts in your head."
     "You'd be surprised," Conflicto said, walking over to the group.  "Think
about it.  Guys think about sex a LOT.  It's how we're put together.  And
when you're put together as well as Dumont, guys around you think about sex
even more.  I expect she had learned to ignore that sort of thing by the time
she got out of puberty, purely to avoid being deafened by all the psychic
leering.  She probably fine-tuned her filters after you fingered her,
though.  And be glad she only brain-blasted you, Ginch.  In case none of you
guys heard...and you probably didn't since it's actually still a secret, in
theory...Jessa Dumont was behind Hellhound.  Her and a couple other ladies,
if reports can be believed."
     The Ginch looked at Al Mirage, who had spent months in traction despite
his paranormal durability thanks to Hellhound's brand of rough justice, and
winced.  "Ow."

               *              *              *              *

[August 29, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     Cecilia looked around.  She'd half-expected the training room to be set
up as some sort of cotillion or something, but it was in its default
appearance.  Just a large room with heavily reinforced walls and some
gymnastics equipment that could be stowed easily if need be.  And a batting
cage, for Brightsword.  He still thought he might play ball again once he
rehabilitated his public image...yeah, right.     
     A man she hadn't met before walked in, wearing a sweatsuit and an
oversized piece of jewelry on one hand that looked like a cross between a
pimp ring and a set of garish brass knuckles set with two green gems.
     "Um, I was scheduled to meet with an image consultant here," Cecilia
ventured.  "Did they double-book the room for sparring or something?"  Come
to think of it, that giant ring looked supertech-y, maybe he was there to try
out for the team?
     The man laughed.  "You might say that.  But I'm the image consultant,"
he grinned, as if enjoying a private joke.  He had a faint British accent
that didn't quite sound natural, as if he were imitating someone.  "Call me
Henry Harrison, Ms. Spader hired me to help you with your...human interaction
skill deficiency, to use bureaucrat-speak.  I think that's Nancy's native
tongue, in fact, and English is her second language."
     Cecilia frowned.  "Um, I already know how to act at a gym, it's anywhere
else that's been the problem.  I'm told I lack polish."
     Henry shook his head and started doing some light stretching exercises.
"If you polish a hand grenade, all you get is something that's shiny until
the pin is pulled.  And after looking at some of your recordings over the
past few weeks, I can definitely say that all Nancy's been doing is polishing
a hand grenade.  I'll admit she's done a good've made remarkable
progress in only a few weeks, and you're a very shiny hand grenade right
now.  But what Walters really wants you to be is a shiny pistol, or even a
scalpel.  When you go off, you need to only hit the right target, not cover
the landscape in chunky salsa."
     "What, so this is some sort of anger management exercise?" Red Widow
felt her ire rising.  She'd been through all sorts of anger management
courses while in prison, required of all violent offenders.  They just made
her more angry, even as she learned to hide it from the instructors.
     Henry stopped stretching and leaned against a pommel horse.  "Oh, I've
read your file, you've been through all the popular stuff.  That's not anger
management.  That's anger suppression crap.  Anger is a tool, though, like
any other.  You just need to learn how to use it, rather than having it burst
out at the wrong time and use you.  Okay, sorry, that sounded inane.  But the
point is, in all those other courses, 'anger management' is really a
euphemism for 'trying to be mellow all the time.'  What I want to teach you
is how to actually *manage* that anger, *control* it, so that you can be a
scalpel instead of a grenade.  As the great one said, I'll be mellow when I'm
     "Fine.  Whatever.  What's the plan, anyway?"
     Henry held up the ring-like object.  "This here is a Ringer gadget.
Back in the 1980s, before he got all ascended, Doublecross did a lot of his
work through surrogates called Ringers.  They had these nifty gadgets, which
will actually work for a normal so long as an Anchor hasn't been at them
since last time a para serviced 'em.  VERY good holographic disguises, even
by today's standards, plus voice modulation.  They also have offensive
lasers, but you have to be a para to make those work.  Anyway, you don't know
me from Adam, so there's only so much I can do to bring out your anger...
and bringing it out is the first step.  I need to get a good look at what
sets you off, so we can work on resetting the triggers.  But with this baby,
I can change into people you do know, and who do get under your skin."
     Suddenly, Henry was replaced by a buxom redhead in a red and black
one-piece.  She had the sort of slightly chunky curviness that was popular
before...well, before anyone Cecilia knew had been born.  Of course, she
immediately recognized the woman.
     "Red Widow?" she asked.  "Why would I be angry with her?  I mean, with
the original.  She's been dead for ages, right?  Never even met her."
     "Angry?" Henry asked, his voice replaced by a purring contralto.  It had
to be a pure guess, since there were no sound recordings of the original.
But it was still a little creepy.  "Maybe not.  But resentful.  You're stuck
in her shadow, and it's not even a very impressive shadow.  She was a flash
in the pan, didn't even have powers, and the only recognition she got outside
of her hometown happened after she'd officially retired, during an affair
that was triggered by her finding a piece of pornography about herself.  Not
a great legacy to echo, eh?"  
     Cecilia fumed slightly.  That damned dirty comic.  The root of most of
her troubles, thanks to inspiring some asshole to create an update starring
her.  An update that contained a lot more information than should have been
available to the public.
     "Or maybe, for actual anger, there's a few people from a less proud time
in your life," Henry flickered back into view as himself for a moment, then
transformed into a husky hispanic woman in the uniform of a correctional
officer.  "MIZZ Carmen Tavares, your favorite person from the Cavity."  This
time the rasping smoker's voice was dead on, since Harrison probably did have
access to recordings of the jailer.  "Since the Cavity didn't use Anchors,
they had to be pretty rough on you to keep you from slicing your way out,
once they let you regain consciousness anyway."  Just after being arrested
for trying to kill her ex-lover Robert Coulter, Cecilia had ended up
handcuffed to a dead cop when the Anchor Plague kicked in on its final run
two years ago.  With no Anchors available to ensure her powers wouldn't be
used to escape, they'd simply drugged her into a coma until they could deal
with her.  And the Cavity had all sorts of ways to deal with paragangers
without needing Anchors.
     "Nah, I got mine back on that bitch," Cecilia crossed her arms smugly.
"Just being here," she spread her arms to take in the entire building, "and
not still in the Cav has got to be eating her up.  Anger managed."
     Tavares flickered and was replaced by Coulter.  "How about me, honey?
Sure, you tried to kill me, but there's that whole 'thin line between love
and hate' thing, right?  Passion is passion, and I've got what it takes to
bring it out in you.  Speaking of being eaten up, you've got to love the fact
I made it to respectability first, *and* I'm sleeping with a hot ex-ballerina
who can do the most *amazing* spinning things in bed."
     Cecilia clenched her teeth.  Okay, Coulter was an obvious button to
push.  But too obvious.  THAT little piece of her anger she'd gotten some
practice controlling lately.
     Coulter smirked.  "Still, as cliche as it sounds, when you come right
down to it, no one can make us angry as easily as..."
     The light flickered, and suddenly a naked copy of Cecilia stood there,
arching her back in a stereotypical Porno Pose, one hand framing the unicorn
tattoo on her butt.  "...ourselves.  This fine tattooed booty got a hundred
thousand hits on one of the darknets this week alone, did you know..."
     It wasn't conscious.  Cecilia didn't even realize it had happened until
she saw the halves of the pommel horse behind Harrison slide apart, but her
energy whips had spat out and sliced the hell out of the naked copy, which
fizzled for a moment before vanishing.
     There was a slow clapping behind her.
     "Very good.  Very good progress," Henry said in his own voice.  Cecilia
whirled to see him standing there, hale and healthy and very much not sliced
into flank steaks.  "Oh, the ring has a setting for invisibility and short
range projection as well.  I'm not stupid enough to deliberately goad a para
and then stand there and take it from them, eh?"
     Cecilia felt her face flushing red.
     "Like I said, you're a grenade.  All that anger is just buried, and as
long as nothing pushes you too far, you're perfectly functional," Henry
explained.  "But once I did push you too far, you didn't even think at *all*
before trying to kill me.  That's bad anger.  That's non-useful anger.  We
need to work on that, but today was a very good start."
     It didn't feel like a good start.  It felt like a bad ending.  As in, if
Henry had been a little less careful, she'd be back in the Cavity for
murdering him.  And she had a sinking feeling that the bit about the darknets
wasn't just made up to get a rise out of her....


Next Issue:

     Sure, most ASH arcs end in 4 issues, but just like college sometimes
takes a few extra semesters, Rival Schools is going to need a few more
issues!  How many?  Well, you'll need to talk to your advisor about that, but
if you don't manage to get your grades up...well, we can discuss that later.
Be here next issue for Rival Schools Part 5: Chasing ADA!


Author's Notes:

     If that White Trooper ever reappears, I'll give him a name.  :)  For
now, though, he's more a symbol of what may be a large number of Zugmann
loyalists hidden under Radner's nose.  He doesn't really notice them, because
they'd already managed to survive purges by the Shadowmancers when Zugmann
himself slipped out of actual power.  So they're pretty good at not looking
like a problem. is what White
Troopers look like, although their actual guns are normal size (Attacktix
figures have distorted proportions so that they can fire big missiles).
Here's a Green ( and a Gold
(, plus the original armor worn
by Zugmann (  You'll
notice the 1992 date on Onslaught, I was using Khadam in my RPG campaigns
before grabbing it as one of the elements in ASH.

     One of these days, I'll need to fill in a bit on the Edison Project, a
parallel to the Manhattan Project that sought to use Tesla's old notes on
paranormals to figure out how they worked.  Mysterymen, one of the first ASH
titles written by another author, started off following a team of Edison
Project agents in the field, including their robot Rook.  But the author
asked to withdraw the concept because he'd had nibbles from an RPG publisher
regarding turning it into a setting book, so officially the story never
happened (as far as I know, neither did the RPG project).  Still, the husband
of Lady Lawful I was involved in the Edison Project, and there was a robot of
some sort.  For now, I leave the rest open in case someone else would like to
write a new set of stories to replace the lost one.

     "Henry Harrison" is actually a pseudonym, taken from Henry Higgins plus
Rex Harrison, a My Fair Lady reference.  I haven't decided what his birth
name was, but it probably wasn't embarrassing or bizarre...he just decided
"Henry Harrison" would look better on letterhead.  Maybe he had personal
reasons for wanting to distance himself from his family name.  Characters
often have more depth than you put in them, eh?  He'll tell his story if and
when it becomes relevant or I feel like it.  ;)

     Actual anger management courses aren't quite as Henry would have you
believe, but he IS trying to sell his own services as an alternative, so of
course he'll paint the competition in an unflattering light.  And a prison-
based course like the ones Cecilia went through probably wouldn't want to
teach people how to focus their anger to be more effective weapons.  Mind
you, programs at the Cavity are a lot more serious about rehabilitation than
the average real-world prison's, and had Cecilia stayed in longer she might
have gotten a better-tailored program that would have worked.  But the first
job of counselors in the Cavity is to reduce the chances of the most
catastrophic anger-based consequences, then worry about fine-tuning later.
As useless as she considers the classes she took to be, they did bring
Cecilia to the point where she could actually be released into Walters's
custody.  No amount of money under the table would have sprung her if she had
still been the same ultra-violent Ghostclaw that was arrested on September
22, 2024.


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