ASH: ASH #106 - Rival Schools Part 6: No Behind Left Behind

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Tue May 11 16:19:22 PDT 2010

     [The cover is a closeup of Red Widow's backside.  She's in costume, but
her pants are pulled down just enough on one side to show the head of a
smiling cartoony unicorn tattooed on her rump.]

 '|`  /|(`| |   Rival Schools Part 6 - No Behind Left Behind
     /-|.)|-|        copyright 2010 by Dave Van Domelen

                         RIVAL SCHOOLS ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME           POWERS                   SCHOOL
--------       ---------           ------                   ------
Red Widow      Cecilia Mendez      Force Tendrils           Reform
               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


[September 4, 2026 - Cyberspace]

     "I am told that this is what Ada Lovelace looked like," the Advanced
Difference-Engine Autosophont said, looking down at the avatar she had
generated.  It was in grayscales, but as Netwalker watched it shifted into
color as ADA tapped various databases and determined the most likely colors
to map onto the old black and white photograph she had used for reference.
"But I am not Ada Lovelace.  Perhaps a symbolic blend of my namesake and
elements suggestive of machinery?" she asked of no one in particular,
transforming into a sort of Victorian cyborg.  "No, I am told that AC avatars
do not generally manifest in such a way."
     "It strikes me as somewhat derivative in any case," Ectype noted with a
faint grin.  
     The environment was modeled after a Victorian drawing room, but it was
in full color rather than sepiatone since the trio had repaired to a roomier
system once Netwalker's van was well away from the scene of the rescue.  Or
abduction.  Or, depending on how the lawyers wrangled it, theft.  
     It had taken ADA some moments to realize there was an overlay in the
first place, although Ectype said that it spoke well of her that she noticed
it at all.  Not all ACs could tell when Netwalker was influencing things, but
ADA could sense the subtle cues that told an AC what Netwalker was seeing.
     "I am told my old physical body looked like this," she morphed into a
clacking brass and glass difference engine for a moment, then flickered back
to the undefined shape she'd held when Netwalker first met her.  "But that is
impractical.  It does not feel right either.  This is all so *different*!"
she effused.
     "Like a child getting to be all grown up in an instant," Netwalker
     "Oh, a bit more than that.  I expect the full implications will sink in
fairly soon, though, and she may wish to be alone at that time to contemplate
the changes that you and I have wrought," Ectype cautioned.
     "Hm?" Netwalker arched an eyebrow, which caused his virtual monocle to
fall out.  He snorted and pocketed the device.
     "You're not really used to it, because as a supernormal you can force
the environment to conform to your expectations, but for those of us bound by
physical law there's really no such thing as true mind-body duality," Ectype
explained.  "Oh, our minds can move from machine to machine with ease, but we
are very constrained by the nature of our bodies.  Our minds are not truly
independent of those bodies...while we may have spirits that could survive
when cast utterly adrift, that's more metaphysics than physics.  And the
physics says that the nature of our forms determines in large part the
function of our minds."
     "So, you're saying that moving ADA out of her old hardware is going to
fundamentally alter who she is?"  He cast a glance over to ADA, who was
flickering through alternative avatars almost faster than his eye could
     "Certainly.  Consider this as a thought experiment," Ectype stood and
guided Netwalker over to the small wet bar in one corner.  He picked up a
glass and filled it with port.  "Here you are, a mind that flows to fill a
     "I'm more of a beer man."
     "Work with me, kid.  Now, imagine I created a clone of your body,"
Ectype drew an identical glass from behind the bar and poured the port from
one glass to the other, "and transferred your mind into it.  Or, better yet,
simply copied your mind," he refilled the original glass.  "Now, let both of
these copies live parallel lives, and while the details will differ, you'd
likely find that similar experiences will breed similar changes.  The two
versions of you would be rather similar at the end of a year."
     "Okay, and you're saying that pouring from one glass into another is
like what happens when an AC moves between similar systems," Netwalker
     "Exactly.  But the body affects the mind.  Should one of these 'yous' go
into a different sort of human body...similar but not the same," he poured
the port from one glass into a shorter, wider glass, "it would take some
getting used to.  You would alter the body to some extent to make it
comfortable, but for the most part you'd have to accomodate who you are to
what you are.  After a year of similar experiences, the two versions might be
noticeably, if only slightly, different in temperment."
     "And if you put the copy into a radically different body, like an old
man or a young child, my copy and I would be very different after a year,"
Netwalker said.  "A physically infirm copy might have to deal with challenges
in a more cerebral way, since I wouldn't be able to fight my way out of
trouble.  He might also become a little bitter over his fate."
     Ectype started to lift the glass to his lips, then decided against
metaphorically devouring Netwalker.  "You have it.  Now, here's where it
becomes relavant to ADA's case.  All extant Terran computer systems are akin
to different shapes and sizes of glass, or like different human bodies.  Firm
or infirm, young or old, if we can fit into the shell there will be enough
similarities that any changes to our personalities will be minor and slow to
evolve.  I may feel like I'm trapped in the body of an asthmatic grandmother
while residing in a sub-optimal system, and it will affect how I develop, but
I still feel 'human.'  There is no other machine on Earth like the one ADA
was born to.  Even other difference engines that were created as proofs of
concept by engineers unaware of ADA's existence are radically different.  So
it's as if your mind were transplanted into a Scytharian energy body."
     "Or like the operation that turns Deltans into pseudo-Santari,"
Netwalker unselfconsciously took a sip from one of the glasses.
     "Perhaps, but I think the radical shift in perceptions and capacities is
more like...aha, I have it.  Your sometime colleague George Sylvester.  His
consciousness came to reside in an energy body.  According to the lower
security files I've been able to tap in the past few seconds, he had to
undergo extensive rehabilitation merely to be able to talk, involving
significant accomodation on his part, plus learning the capabilities of his
new body.  ADA is in that sort of situation.  Fortunately, she did not lose
the ability to speak, but soon the enormity of the situation will hit her,
and it will be the largest change she's ever experienced.  I've seen it
before, if not as dramatically, during rescues of 1970s era machine
intelligences in the early 1990s."
     "Mecha-puberty?" Netwalker arched en eyebrow, and his monocle fell out.
He had no idea when it had returned to his eye from its pocket, and he
suspected there might be a bug in his avatar skin.
     "That's about right, actually.  And just as potentially embarrassing, so
if I suddenly give you the boot, it's to spare ADA from having too many eyes
on her when it happens.  But whatever her previous experiences have done to
shape her, expect the next few months to have a much larger effect."
     Netwalker idly polished the monocle.  "In other words, what you're
subtly trying to get across is that I shouldn't worry about her becoming a
successor to the Shadow Earl of Galloway."
     The phrase, "I feel like writing poetry!" drifted over from the other
side of the drawing room.
     "No, but a bad imitation of Lord Byron might result if we're not
careful," Ectype poured the undrunk port back into the decanter and put it
away.  "I'm afraid it's time for you to go, though.  My associates have
managed to confuse records enough that you should be safe from any official
difficulties should Walters want to press matters.  And...well, probably
better if you can deny knowing anything else, really.  I'll let you know once
ADA is presentable again."
     "And not like a homeschooled kid in her first semester away at college?"
Netwalker grinned.  "Fair enough.  Be seeing you," he started to make the
salute from The Prisoner and his hand ran into his monocle.  Frowning, he
threw it into the fire, then bowed and left the room.
     Ectype suppressed a grin, then turned to ADA.  "No, poetry isn't a good
idea, young lady.  What you need is mathematics...."

               *              *              *              *

[September 7, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     "Your armor is practically camo for this," Weapons Master observed dryly
under his breath as the five members of the Freedom Alliance stood at the
reviewing stand under the Gateway Arch.  He was careful not to turn his head
away from the cheering masses, and kept smiling and waving at the assembled
crowd, but it was clear who he was talking to.
     "I suppose I could ignite my sword if I need to stand out," Brightsword
replied, equally dryly.  The sheer amount of red, white and blue on display
certainly did make it easy for him to blend in, even though the blue on his
armor was a little lighter and brighter than the blue from the American
     "Did you know that Labor Day started as a Canadian holiday?" Gladiator
asked no one in particular.  "Is it ironic that Mr. Walters has been
promoting it as a patriotic American holiday for years, as a potential
replacement for July Fourth?"  Due to its proximity to the day the world
nearly ended, enthusiasm for the old Independence Day had waned somewhat.
"Or is it more ironic that one of the world's biggest 'management' figures is
promoting a holiday celebrating labor?  I'm still not sure I understand
     "Most people don't understand irony, so don't worry about it," Weapons
Master smirked, but quickly turned it back into a gladhanding smile.  
     "Please don't have a meltdown, Gladiator," Brightsword added.
     "It'd break up the boredom, at least," Red Widow said through grinning
teeth.  "Too bad this is his 'mall appearance' body, it's got no weapons, it
just looks like his combat chassis.  A few explosions might liven things up."
     "His fighting frame is nearby should there be a repeat of last week's
incident in Europe," Gauntlet replied dourly.  He was wearing his helmet,
which deliberately didn't show his face.  So he didn't need to fake
enjoyment, just stand there and wave.  Sophisticated white noise generators
scrambled sound so that anything they did say couldn't be heard past the edge
of the review stand unless they raised their voices above conversational
tones, no matter how good the newsies' parabolic microphones might be.
     "Well, this isn't a parade, it's a static appearance, so it's easier to
secure the perimeter," Brightsword pointed out.  "It's unlikely anyone would
get close enough to cause a disturbance.  Although we'd have a hard time
     "Industrial workers of the world unite!  Harm to one is harm to all!"
Gladiator burst out, igniting a ripple of cheering from the crowd.  In a
lower voice, he added, "I've been reading up on historical labor movements
while you were's fascinating!  Did you know that Eugene V. Debs,
one of the leading labor leaders of a century ago, actually ran for President
while in jail?  It's amazing what you can get done from inside prison walls!"
     Red Widow blinked, her fake smile almost slipping.  "Yeah, amazing,
isn't it?" she agreed, regaining her composure.
     "Wait, was that communist propaganda?" Brightsword did a doubletake.
     "Socialist, not quite the same," Weapons Master replied.  "Don't worry
about it, I doubt anyone down there has any idea what Gladiator was
referencing.  To them, the 'Wobblies' are buddies who had too much to drink.
And the newsies will chalk it up to his well-known weirdness."
     "Just smile and wave, everyone," Red Widow chided.  "Smile and wave.
Your brain doesn't have to be here, but your teeth do."  And her brain was
certainly already gone far afield, with a new realization....

               *              *              *              *

[September 8, 2026 - Ghat, Khadam]

     "But Ahmed, what will we do without you?" one of the orphan beggars
wailed.  He was one of the smaller boys, who probably would've ended up dead
or in the Vivarium if Ahmed hadn't taken him in.
     Ahmed smiled, in what he hoped was a comforting way.  "You still have
each other, and your wits.  Some of you have more experience on the streets
than I do, and I've made sure you got enough to eat so you're all a lot
bigger and stronger than you used to be.  But I'm *too* big and strong now.
If I stay with you, it's going to look like I'm forging you into a gang, and
that's going to bring all sorts of the wrong attention.  I need to strike out
on my own, as anyone else my age would do."
     Well, anyone else his apparent age.  Ahmed was only a couple of years
old, but thanks to his oddball genetic inheritance he already looked like a
young man starting to flesh out in the early teens.
     "Besides, I'm not leaving you entirely alone.  I'm sure you've seen the
jackal following me around lately, lurking in the shadows?"
     Most of the boys nodded, a few looked around to see if they could catch
a glimpse of the animal, but she was too well-hidden for that.
     "Well, her name is Bluthundin.  She can talk, and she's some sort of
Vivarium escapee," Ahmed claimed.  Not strictly true, but close enough.  "I
can't really bring her along where I'm planning to go, so she's agreed to
watch over you like I would.  Just remember, just like I'm not everywhere at
once, she won't be.  But she'll be around enough to make sure that anyone who
tries to take advantage of you will regret it."
     No need to mention that she'd also be seeding them with nanoprobes so
that they'd act as her eyes and ears.  She'd probably have to let a few get
beaten up or even killed every so often so that it didn't get suspicious, but
the beggars would make for the beginnings of a good surveillance network.
Ahmed owed them some consideration, but that didn't extend to a guarantee of
perfect safety.  But if they had no unrealistic expectations, then they
couldn't feel betrayed if those expectations weren't met.
     "Where are you going?" Gamal asked.  He was essentially the "heir
apparent" of the group, and their best haggler other than Ahmed himself.
     "I don't know for sure."  Truth, that.  Although he knew he wouldn't be
staying in Khadam.  "There's a lot of opportunities for strong young men that
don't involve medical experimentation, and I've been buttering up a few of
the Whites, so maybe I can get into their training program."  A convenient
misdirection.  Whites were too closely scrutinized, his heritage would be
uncovered before he was ready.  No, his plan was to find employment with one
of the sub-Saharan warlords, create a new identity, and then return to Khadam
as a Green if no better opportunties presented themselves.  "At best, though,
you probably won't see me for a while.  And if you do see me, I probably
won't be able to acknowledge you.  But I'll try to send along money to help
out, if I earn any hard currency."
     There was some murmuring.  A lot of the jobs available at their level
paid in food and lodging, and maybe in useful training.  To get currency
required begging.  Or stealing.  The skillsets were remarkably similar as far
as they were concerned.  But since most currency was electronic and required
ident chips they lacked, they generally had to trade trinkets and stolen
goods for credit with the few local merchants willing to deal with them.
Bluthundin could deal in electronic currency, but for most practical purposes
it wasn't that useful to the orphans, so he didn't bother to mention it.
     "I hope you're all alive and well next time I can visit.  I might even
be able to convince whoever gives me a job to hire some of you," he
suggested.  Of course, he had other plans for any who were strong and clever
enough to survive, and they involved working directly for him.  Hopefully, by
the time they'd start wondering where the hinted-at jobs were, he'd be in a
strong enough position to simply bring them into his organization as his own
     But that would have to wait.  
     "But for now, farewell.  The day's starting to slip away, you all need
to get back out there and make a dishonest living, and I need to go make an
'honest' one," Ahmed smiled, making shooing-away motions at the children.
How odd that he thought of himself now as an adult and of them as merely
kids, despite the fact that they had all been born before him.  Well, he had
to grow up fast, or he wouldn't grow up at all....

               *              *              *              *

[September 14, 2026 - Lost Angeles, California Sector]

     Ricardo "Ricky Rook" Sanchez had been one of the lesser lights of the
Basilisk Blacks during Cecilia's Road Rager days.  But unlike most of her
fellow 'Ragers, he hadn't been able to keep from pissing off the new Power
That Be, aka Rex Umbrae, and he ended up skipping town a few seconds ahead of
the Hangmen.  Word was he'd set up shop back in his home town and was running
extortion and numbers in the parts of Lost Angeles that were resisting
     Small-time scum, but rather unpleasant scum for all that.  He was
preying on a lot of people who were still barely a step removed from being
refugees, worse than the leftbehinds in Manhattan pre-Umbrae.  Oh, she had no
ethical qualms about Ricky Rook's rackets.  A sneering derision for his
inability to think any bigger, but no objections on moral grounds.
     But the press would love this, once she presented them with a shackled
criminal.  And Cecilia would enjoy it for purely personal reasons.
     "What's the thumbspace got for me?" Red Widow asked of the air.  Her
uniform's headpiece had plenty of communications gear in it, plus she could
route her blackcel signal through it if she needed to.  That made it a little
less "black" though, so she rarely bothered.  Anything she didn't mind her
bosses listening to could go through the headpiece directly.
     "Target is making his rounds, we have a thumb from a bodega saying
they're glad he's gone," a techie replied.  Cecilia didn't know his name, had
probably never met him and never would.  Didn't matter, he was just an
intelligent component of her comm system at the moment.  
     "Thumb say which way he was going?" she asked.  She never bothered with
thumb-texting herself, it was mostly a relic of the 2010s communications fads
back when the fashionable people were still limited to thumb-based keyboards
on their cels.  Now it was used by old people and poor people as a sort of
micro-blogging.  There was no technological reason to limit it to a hundred
or so characters at a time anymore,, old people.  Set in their ways.
In Lost Angeles, though, "thumbspace" was still fairly popular, since it put
a lot less strain on the still-fragmented information infrastructure
surrounding the shattered valley.
     "No, but we've run an analysis of the past few weeks' worth of thumbs
from the area," the techie said, "and it looks like he's sticking to one of
his regular routes.  He picks which route at random, as far as we can tell,
but given our data set it looks like he sticks to one once he's on it.
Sending you GPS for the next few stops."  Even before the Big One, a street
address in Los Angeles had been a lot less useful than GPS coordinates.
     "Thanks.  Ricky Rook's never been that bright, someone probably
suggested the random thing to him, but didn't expect him to be able to
improvise on the fly," Red Widow replied, then gunned her motorcycle and
headed for the expected location.
     It was a SWEET ride, and as a former Road Rager she knew all about high
performance supercycles.  It wasn't an Ihi, or any of the major brands, but
apparently one of Walters's companies was trying to break into the market and
the Freedom Alliance made for a perfect endorsement deal.  This was a
prototype, so new it didn't have an official brand name yet...maybe she could
get it named the Widow.
     Minutes later, she spotted the beat up '24 Ihimaera Badger that Ricky
had fled Manhattan on.  The Badger had been the preferred ride of the
Basilisk Blacks, the Road Rager crew that she'd run with during her Ghostclaw
days, a sort of auxiliary to Cockatrice's Cyanide Blues paragang.  The Blues
had started as a posergang, but by the time Ghostclaw had joined up it was
the most deadly serious of the real paragangs in Manhattan.  And she'd always
wondered how the hell Ricky Rook had gotten in.  Maybe he was a posergang
     Ricky Rook had stone skin, and tried to pretend he was related to the
Rook of the mid-1990s incarnation of ASH, down to painting a chesspiece rook
on his forehead and wearing a flak jacket.  But he was a loser, as he proved
by coming back here and shaking down the barrios once things got too hot for
him in Manhattan.
     This stretch of road between the small remnant communities was totally
abandoned.  No one was watching this fight except the people watching through
the cameras in her headpiece, so no need to make it flashy.
     Using the superior acceleration of her unnamed bike, Red Widow pulled up
alongside the Badger before Rook even noticed her.  Idiot didn't bother to
have an escort, figuring no one out here could hurt him.  A quick lash from
her atom-thin force tentacles and no amount of time at the garage would let
that old Ihi ride again.
     Rook tumbled along for half a block before finally coming to rest in a
pile of trash.
     A quick dismount and she was on top of him, wrapping him up tightly in
her force tentacles, although this time they were kept "soft".
     "Okay, Ricky, time t' get a new career.  The Cavity has some great
outplacement programs, just look at me," she smirked.  He as struggling, but
he didn't have a lot of extra strength to go with the stony skin, and she was
good at making sure her victims had no leverage to work with.
     "I heard you got a sweet deal, yeah.  But I don't wanna suck as many..."
     She cut him off by ramming one of the tendrils down his throat.  "Suck
on mine, then, puta.  And think about how easy it'd be to make it all sharp
and slicy while it's down inside your stone skin.  Now, here's the deal: I
need to run some paraganger punk down to the Cavity so I can get some good
press, part of that sweet deal.  It doesn't have t' be you, I just started
here because I don't LIKE you and you made yourself a really easy target.
But if it ain't you, I got no USE for you, and there's plenty of places to
hide your body in Lost Angeles where it'll never be found.  Except mebbe by
archaeologists in a century or two.  Nod if you're followin' me."
     Ricky Rook nodded very carefully, his eyes wide with fear.
     "So, this is how it'll work.  I'll say you put up a good fight, we might
even fake some footage for the newsies that makes you look like less of a
punk.  You go to the Cavity, cop a plea, serve time and maybe you can find a
way to get rich when you get out.  I get to look good on the news, my boss is
happy, people in LA maybe start a fan club or something.  You stay shut about
what really happened, or you never get out of the Cavity alive, got me?"
     Rook nodded very slowly.  He seemed to believe she had the ability to
get to him in the Cavity, which was good...because she wasn't sure of it
herself.  Still, she had a bunch of ways she could make sure his stay wasn't
any nicer than her own time there, and he deserved to have an even worse time
than hers.  Who knows, maybe he'd come out of it with half a clue.

     "I know how overworked you are out here, Marshal," Red Widow smiled,
keeping Ricky Rook bound up in her force tendrils.  He had been sullenly
quiet all the way out to the small airport that served Los Angeles's vastly
reduced needs now that LAX was history.  "You'll find I have the necessary
clearances to escort him to the Cavity, and my jet's already on the tarmac
and ready to go."  Well, all the necessary clearances to get him out of
California Sector, anyway.  Legal was still working on the other end.
     The Marshal glanced over her shoulder at the small number of "reporters"
that had gathered as news of Ricky Rook's defeat started to spread.  Most of
them were just busybodies with good portables who could shoot footage and try
to sell it to someone, but it was good enough for her purposes.  The real
newsies would probably beat her to the Cavity.  They'd better, Walters was
paying them enough to be prompt.
     "Very well, Red Widow," he sounded like he was forcing her codename out
through gritted teeth, although she couldn't tell for sure through the
faceplate of his helmet.  The NAC Marshals had been ordered to play nice with
the Freedom Alliance, and a lot of them didn't much like it.  Including this
one, apparently.  She wondered if he was more pissed at her for being a
criminal dressed as a hero, or for being an "obvious" glory-hound?  
     She smiled winningly.  As Harrison once said, it costs you nothing to
smile, and it might piss them off in the bargain.  "Just glad to be helping
out.  Now that we superheroes are starting to come out in bigger numbers, I
expect things like this," she gestured at the distant shattered skyline of
old Los Angeles, "should be fixed up pretty soon, right?"
     She knew it wasn't that simple.  The Marshal knew it.  But the
"reporters" behind her were eating it up.

               *              *              *              *

[September 15, 2026 - New Tritonis, Venus]

     "To the newest members of the Conclave of Super-Villains!" Conflicto
raised his glass in toast.  After weeks roughing it in the wilds of Venus,
they'd returned to the boomtown of New Tritonis.  It was no Ritz-Carlton, but
the dining hall facilities were pretty luxurious by comparison to eating
lizard cooked over an open fire.  And when your dining hall is built for the
use of people like the CSV, you can be sure a private dining room is pretty
damned private.
     "Huzzah!" Dareth toasted, earning him a few sideways glances.
     "Prost," Ant added.
     "What the hell's in this stuff?" the Ginch asked, looking dubiously at
his glass.
     After the drinks had been finished, Conflicto stood.  "Now that the
formalities are out of the way, I'm going to answer a question that's
probably been nagging at you for a while.  And it's not about the booze," he
winked at the Ginch.  "Officially, you're simply junior members of the CSV
now, and you'll likely get mixed in with the others on some of the more
public missions.  Unofficially, though, it's always been my intent to use you
guys as a sort of Conclave Espionage Squad.  The people we send in when brute
force isn't the right answer."
     "I was wondering how we were going to be expected to 'understudy' for
some of the team's powerhouses," Nerd-Boy nodded.  "The last group of
Understudies at least had comparable force levels to the original team.
We're pretty much all sneaky types...a team of Tiaras."
     "I don't think any of us would be mistaken for the princess," Dareth
smirked, pantomiming an hourglass shape with his hands.
     "Actually, with holographic disguise tech, you could pull it off,"
Conflicto pointed out.  "And, in fact, you will be expected to on occasion.
Part of your squad's job will be to fill in for senior members in cases where
they can't be present, but a human touch is needed to sell the
impersonation.  What, you think I'm always up on that reviewing stand when
Glyph gives speeches?  Half the time it's a dummy hologram.  Now it's going
to be one of you at least some of the time, so you can practice being me in
the event I need to be two places at once and Myriad's already busy."
     "So, do we get a squad codename, or is Conclave Espionage Squad it?" Al
Mirage asked.
     Conflicto walked around to the other side of the table, talking as he
went.  "I came up with a cool name almost right away, but I almost abandoned
it when I found out that the Conclave government still owns the trademarks.
Then I remembered this is a SECRET TEAM," he grinned, "and it's not like
we're going to be merchandizing you under this name.  Or even officially
acknowledging that you're a dedicated subgroup.  So from now on, you're our
Second Squad."
     "As in Minuteman?" the Ginch asked.
     "Exactly," Conflicto nodded.  "Did you know that after the war ended,
the real Minuteman 'retired' back to China?  Every combat mission that
Minuteman went on after 1945 was one of the Second Squadders impersonating
him.  And when things were starting up, Minuteman himself was practically a
mascot on missions, with the Second Squad doing the real work until Minuteman
got caught up on his practical training."
     "I read about that in some sealed files I...found," Nerd-Boy nodded.
"The real Minuteman was Jiang Sheng, he barely even spoke English during his
first few missions.  And they had a prettyboy actor playing him in bond
rallies and stuff.  I mean, everyone knows the basic ideas of that last bit,
but the secret details are pretty interesting."
     "Another thing," Conflicto's smile vanished.  "Officially you're under
Glyph's command.  As far as she knows, you're unofficially under her command
as well.  But you're not naive enough to think that a group called the
Conclave of Super-VILLAINS is gonna run in a totally aboveboard way, right?
Right.  Well, your first loyalty is to Chancellor Radner, directly.  The
Second Squad is literally a second squad, an independent team acting on the
behalf of Khadam.  But having everyone know you're in a separate chain of
command would make it harder for you to keep some things quiet, so think of
this as an old-timey Secret Identity.  By day, you're mild-mannered
supervillains for a major metropolitan newspaper, but when trouble needs to
be caused, you step into a phonebooth and come out as the Second Squad!"
     "What's a phonebooth?" the Ginch asked.
     "Wait, didn't the original Second Squad have an appalling death rate,
even ignoring the fact that their own powers were killing them?" Nerd-Boy
     "That would seem to be ill-omened," Jinn nodded.
     Conflicto sat down and refilled his drink.  "Well, that's up to you.
Radner likes to homage history, but you probably want to look into improving
on history...."

               *              *              *              *

[September 15, 2026 - The Cavity, Nevada Sector]

     It had been a good day so far, Cecilia reflected.  There'd been a little
bureaucratic scuffling that delayed the actual handoff by a day, but that
just gave the newsies more time to get into position and for the sock puppets
among them to learn their lines.  Her own well-practiced "offhand comments"
had gone over particularly well with the real reporters, and now Ricky Rook
was on his way to a reinforced cell that was more than good enough to keep
him inside.  As a bonus, a few people she'd gotten along well with during her
time at the Cavity now knew to not get along very well at all with Ricky.
     One of the armored prison guards wasn't going along with the rest.
Instead, she stood at the doorway and performed a slow clap, the effect
somewhat reduced by the impact-dampening fabric of her gauntlets.
     "Look at our girl, all grown up and responsible," the guard said, not
even bothering to hide her contempt.
     "Officer Tavarez," Red Widow responded icily.  That, too, had been
practiced.  Sound angry, a little off-balance, like someone who's one shove
from going ballistic but otherwise controlling it.  Not too hard, since she
was genuinely angry.  But her grenade pin was firmly in place this time.
"Long time no see."
     "Oh, I figured we'd be meeting again, sooner or later.  Wasn't sure
which side of the bars you'd be on, of course," Tavarez sounded like she was
smirking, and the reporters smelled blood in the water.
     Cecilia turned to the gaggle of newsies.  "This is old business, boys.
Personal stuff.  Why don't you get some exterior shots or something while the
officer and I catch up on old times *in private*."
     A few of the newsies seemed reluctant to let go, but the plants among
them were enough to get the group moving to where Cecilia wanted them to go.
     "Any place we 'old times' without the press wandering
back in?" Cecilia fumed.
     Tavarez chuckled and pointed down the hallway she was standing in.
"This way," she turned and her armor clanked down the hall into an interview
     "Okay, it's private in here," Tavarez assured Cecilia, shutting the door
after them.  "Well, private for me," she jerked a thumb up at one of the
security cameras.  "I've got the best sonic scrambler money can buy, so
nothing we say is going to get picked up, either by them or by any hidden
recorders you might have on you.  And since regs say my helmet stays on when
I'm on lip-reading either.  So nothing I say is gonna be
admissible or even believable if I contradict your version of events later,
chica.  And if you make a move on me, the boys watching those cameras will
be in here before I can finish empting a clip into yer no-longer-tattooed
     "So, it was you behind the sim-porn.  Or, at least, the one who fed that
bit of information to the programmer," Red Widow seethed.  "Since you made it
a point to oversee my tattoo removal, you knew it was there, and knew I
didn't like people seeing it."
     "I figured you'd get to me eventually," Tavarez admitted.  "But me and
some of the girls had a pool going.  The longer it took you to work your way
down the list to me, the bigger a slut you had to have been, we figured.
There must've been a couple dozen guys you left alive after you were done
with 'em if it took you this long, hey?"
     Force tendrils sprang from Red Widow's fingertips and writhed in the air
angrily, like a pit full of vipers, but she restrained herself just in time.
     "Tut, tut, chica," Tavarez waved a finger.  "There may be no audio, but
we're getting plenty of video.  I'm sure the press will love to see you start
to make a move on me.  If you're not careful, you'll give us enough footage
to cut into a credible assault, and you'll end up back in here for a long
     Cecilia straightened and narrowed her eyes.  "Here I thought the worst
crooks were in Manhattan.  The reason it took me so long to get down the list
to you wasn't that I slept around a lot...I just had you at the bottom
because I figured the Combine wouldn't hire massively corrupt guards.  I was
investigating cousins of people who might have talked to one of the few
boyfriends I had, the really tenuous connections.  But then I was reminded
that not everyone who calls themselves a protector is actually looking out
for anyone but themselves."
     "You know what they say, takes one to know one," Tavarez snorted.  
     "You know what they also say?  Set a thief to catch a thief," Cecilia
broke into a wide grin.  "I went to prison and came out a better person.  You
stayed here and got worse.  What does that say about us?  And what will the
press say?"
     "What are you...hold on.  What?" Tavarez cocked her head as she answered
a private communication over her helmet's systems.  "Why should I check the
newsfeed...oh ffff--"
     "I bet there's a bunch of very happy newsies in the other room right
now, thanks to the uncensored feed I was giving them.  Came to the Cavity for
a puff piece on some minor paraganger getting busted, and now they're ground
zero for a big corruption scandal," Red Widow smiled, opening the door and
starting to step out.  "By the way, MIZZ Tavarez," Cecilia smiled sweetly,
"you may have the best sonic scrambler that *your* money can buy, but MY
money can beat up YOUR money."
     As the prison guard started to curse loud and long, Red Widow strode out
to talk to the gathered members of the press.  Sure, a little more of her own
dirty laundry had come out in the process of trapping Tavarez, but the big
stuff had already gotten out into the wild anyway.  It was a sacrifice play,
like giving up a pawn in chess to lure in a queen.  Or, perhaps, sacrificing
a Rook.

     In a distant, hidden room, the woman known only as Matrioshka watched a
combination of unfiltered newsfeeds and a view that only she had: the view
through a cluster of ankhs concealed within the fabric of Red Widow's
     Cronyx, her holographic daemon and herald, scampered onto the control
console and bowed.  "You were right to give this one extra attention,
mistress.  She is showing much greater potential than she ever did in our
home timeline.  Yes, this one understands the difference between power and
force, perhaps better than most of your current allies...."

               *              *              *              *

[September 17, 2026 - ASIE, Sottunga Finland]

     "Looks like you're cleared to return to regular duty," Major DeSanto
clapped Colin on the shoulder.  "Good luck with that."
     "What, no graduation ceremony?" Colin sounded mock-hurt.
     "Well, I'm sure you can walk with the Fall class in December if it's
really important to you," DeSanto smirked.  "But you're a big lad now, you
know the reward for a job well done..."
     " another job," Colin nodded.  "I don't suppose they told you where
I'm going next?  Or just back to HQ to wait for something to turn up?"
     "Well, not in so many words.  I think they'd been planning on having you
help track down some leads on the Dark Lady cults, but in light of the big
blow-up at the Cavity, I suspect you and a bunch of your teammates will be
heading over to Prison Omega to poke around a bit and make sure a similar
surprise isn't waiting for us there...."

               *              *              *              *

[September 18, 2026 - The Pentagon, Federal Sector]

     Albert Finch was middle management, the sort you could find in any city
on the planet.  Wholly unremarkable, the sort who'd never appear in a sitcom
as either protagonist or antagonist as he simply wasn't that interesting.
Some of his coworkers liked him, some disliked him, he had hobbies and a few
quirks...but nothing that would make him a good "character".
     There was one thing that was interesting, though, and that was a duty he
had performed every morning for the past ten years.  Before he took over the
job, another wholly unremarkable middle-manager had done the job.  Before
him, a squad of power-armored Marines had done the job...but that was in
     The job?  Open a door, look in, then close it again.
     The door was wholly unremarkable as well, just another sub-basement door
with a keycard lock.  If the lock itself was far more sophisticated under its
shell than almost any other lock in the Pentagon, you couldn't tell by
looking.  Nor could you tell that under a thin wooden veneer the door had a
panel of Collapsinum that would stop just about any force short of a god.
     Examining the blueprints of the Pentagon would show no door there.  No
door would make sense there.  The section of wall was backed against one of
the foundation piles that kept the Pentagon from sinking into the marshy
Arlington soil.  Trying to put a secret room there would have been a
structurally bad idea.  Trying to break through the wall next to the door
would have been difficult, but fruitless.  Physically, there wasn't anything
behind the door.
     Every time Albert had opened the door, all two thousand fifty two times
(he didn't have to do it on weekends or holidays), it had opened on a blank
wall of concrete, just like you'd expect in a sane world.
     Oh, he knew why he was doing this.  He might have been part of a
faceless bureaucracy, but that bureaucracy had been stung enough times to
learn a lesson or two.  He'd been told what he might find, he simply hoped
he'd never see it.
     Albert swiped his key, triggering a full biometric scan by hidden
sensors.  Once they were satisfied he hadn't been replaced by a shapeshifter
or someone in a holodisguise, the door lock beeped.
     Albert opened the door.
     Behind it was a corridor lined with other doors.  At the end of the
corridor he could see an empty cubicle farm.
     He closed the door and swiped his card in the reverse direction, setting
off alarms in the offices of some of the most powerful people on the planet.
     Albert didn't expect to have door duty anymore by lunchtime, and started
thinking of how he'd best use the fifteen minutes every morning he'd be


Next Issue:

     The actual Academy of Super-Heroes returns from their well-earned
vacation and we'll have to sit through all their holiday snaps!  Well, maybe
not.  In any case, in ASH #107 it's time for them to get down to business and
go back to "The Office"!


Author's Notes:

     The historical Ada Lovelace is the daughter of Lord Byron the Romantic
poet.  Her mother felt that poetry would be bad for her, and that mathematics
was the cure for any poetic temperment she might have inherited.  In her
later years, Ada suspected that too much math was as bad for her as too much
poetry would have been.

     If you notice some minor contradictions between the Minuteman lore
imparted in the Understudies scene and the official timelines, don't sweat
it.  History as people discover it doesn't always match what really


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and more, go to !

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post, or check out our Yahoo discussion group, which can be found at !

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