ASH: ASH #114 - A Fire Afar Off Part 1: It's A Small World

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Fri Oct 21 10:10:29 PDT 2011

     Because we're reasonably sure the world won't end today, Coherent Comics
Unincorporated presents the start of a new Academy of Super-Heroes arc: A
Fire Afar Off, now with 20% more literary merit!

     [The cover shows Weapons Master crossing blades with Brightsword, waves
of Kirby Energy pouring off the intersection point.  "What is the SECRET of
the SWORD?"]

 '|`  /|(`| |   A Fire Afar Off Part 1 of 4: It's A Small World
     /-|.)|-|        copyright 2011 by Dave Van Domelen

                       ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES ROLL CALL

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

[Somewhere Else]

     The world is small and hot and utterly hostile to life.  All the
universe is a molten mass, under such pressure that normal matter can only
barely exist.
     It wasn't always this way.  Once it was a pleasant world, hollow and lit
by a wan star at its center.  There was no "outside" in any meaningful sense,
the entire universe was rigidly bounded and any attempt to dig beyond the
edge of the world resulted in unpleasant consequences and some very
interesting physics...interesting in the "Oh God we're all going to die"
sense, if you happened to be too close.
     Once the world had been home to a mighty race of mages and scientists,
but they had all fled, taking what they could to another place, as they
realized that the world was shrinking and would one day become inhospitably
     The world is small and hot and utterly hostile to life.
     The world will not exist for much longer.
     But what will happen to the things still in the world, when the world no
longer exists to contain them?

               *              *              *              *

[November 20, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     "So, you think Boss Walters is still fuming over how TerraStar's
interview stole the thunder from Project: Winterlight's announcement?"
Weapons Master danced nimbly aside, letting Brightsword's laser torch sizzle
through empty air.
     "Dunno," the former sports star grunted, spinning to keep his teammate
from flanking him.  "I just wish you'd stop trying to distract me.  I connect
with this, even at low power, and you'll lose some body parts."  He was
pretty uncomfortable with the "live fire" sparring to begin with, but
accepted the logic of training with the real thing.  It was like exhibition
games more than it was like batting practice.  Gotta get into the groove with
the genuine article, or it's all just hitting fungos.
     "Ah, but I need to distract you, Hec," Weapons Master stopped dodging
and simply caught the blazing blade on the hilt of one of his own weapons.
While most of his gear was patterned after Japanese and Chinese weaponry,
this sword was clearly of European design, and it had a way of standing out
from any crowd, much less the company it currently kept.  Deceptively simple-
looking from a distance, but it was like a fractal pattern: no matter how
closely you looked at it there was always more to see.  "And not just because
your opponents will.  You really need to learn the fine art of combat banter,
not just declamations at the start of a fight.  Your banter sucks."
     "Why can't I be the stoic no-nonsense leader type?" Brightsword
disentangled his laser torch.  That magic sword of Weapons Master's was one
of the few things that his own weapon couldn't just slice through, another
element that made their sparring an uncomfortable experience for Hector.  In
his head, he knew he needed to get out of his comfort zone, but that didn't
mean he liked it.
     "Oh, that sort of guy needs good banter even more," Weapons Master
backflipped away.  "Few things rattle an opponent more than hearing Captain
Dull cut loose with a zinger.  It's like a surprise move," suddenly Weapons
Master was inside Brightsword's reach and had knocked the grip of the laser
torch from his hand.  However, it was tethered to the armguard of
Brightsword's suit and quickly snapped back into his hand.  "See?  Last time
I did that, you were disarmed.  Now you're expecting it.  If they're not
expecting you to have good banter, it's a useful weapon in a pinch.  If you
can keep up a steady stream, it's a useful distraction.  But if you can only
manage the occasional bon mot, it's still something that might come in
handy.  The more tools you have, the more tasks you can undertake."
     "Yeah, I got it, old man," Hector circled warily.
     "Well, I'm annoyed TerraStar upstaged me," GLADI8R said from the
sidelines, engaging in the sort of time-shifted conversation that came with
having a mind constantly moving from body to body.  He'd apparently just
checked in on the lightweight "gymnast" body he'd left in the training room,
and was trying to catch up on the conversation.  "I'm one of the stars of
Winterlight, after all!  My bodies will help position the reflectors!  I
think my banter is pretty good, but the list of things I'm not allowed to say
seems to get bigger every day.  I can't help it that the 'net is full of
great one-liners that don't play in Peoria!  And why are you calling him an
old man?  He's only a few years older than you."
     "You done?" Weapons Master asked.
     "Yes, old man!" GLADI8R grinned, a somewhat unsettling look for his
mechanical face.  Some of the early models of GLADI8R's "public relations"
bodies had capable of more human-like expressions, but they were determined
to be far too creepy and they'd dialed back to an almost retro-deco look for
any body that needed to show facial expressions.
     "One," Brightsword replied to the 'bot as he feinted with his laser
blade, "Weapons Master here may only be a few years older than me, but
they're important years.  He was born before 1998, which might as well be
another planet as far as I'm concerned."
     "Never trust anyone over thirty," Weapons Master smirked, ignoring the
feint.  "Or twenty eight, in this case."
     "Two, he reminds me of my old coach from the Paraball league, and that
guy WAS old.  Musta been sixty," Brightsword started a swing in earnest.
     "Positively ancient!" Weapons Master replied in mock horror, ducking
under the slash.  "I bet he even remembers some of the 70s!"
     "I thought anyone who really lived through the 70s didn't remember
them?" GLADI8R asked.
     "No, that was the 60s.  Well, mostly Woodstock.  People just don't want
to ADMIT they..."
     Weapons Master never got to finish the sentence, because as he blocked a
thrust from Brightsword's laser blade his own sword suddenly emitted a savage
pulse of energy that knocked all three members of the Freedom Alliance
against the walls and offlined GLADI8R's lightly-armored body.

               *              *              *              *

[November 20, 2026 - Falcon Bay, Venus]

     The setting Sun made everything look dingy and sallow, an unpleasant
psychological effect that was only enhanced by the fact it had been at about
that angle for several Terran days now.  It was only just entering the stage
that made sunset beautiful rather than depressing, and most of the colonists
were edgy and out of sorts.
     Peregryn sighed inwardly.  He was not going to be making the day any
better for one Daniel Tang, either.
     "I'm sorry, but while you have the required interest and show signs of
being capable of attaining the necessary discipline, I do not think your
mystic talent is sufficiently strong to qualify you for a position as my
apprentice," Peregryn shook his head.  "Additionally, your temperment seems
better suited to a research role, and I assure you that whatever my
preferences for a quiet life might be, any apprentice of mine will likely
become embroiled in life-and-death situations on a shockingly frequent
     Having ASH's only "true" mage marooned on Venus was an uncomfortable
situation at the best of times, and the existence of a disciple of Lord Ebon
meant that times were far from best.  The Academy had been sending candidates
to him for evaluation for several months now, but like Mr. Tang they had been
of minor power at best, and only adequate in a fight.  Certainly useful in
desk jobs (although, given the emergence of the Office, even a desk job might
be too hazardous), but Peregryn didn't want to commit to training a successor
unless he was confident the person could do the job.  Oh, he could probably
make an effective combat mage out of Daniel, but it would take several
years.  Better to keep looking and find someone who could make the transition
in weeks or months.
     "Well, at least I got a trip to another planet out of it," Daniel tried
to put a positive spin on the rejection.
     Peregryn lacked the talent of telepathy, but it wasn't necessary in
order to figure out what Daniel was thinking.  "And no shortcuts," Peregryn
warned.  "You won't find a place as my apprentice by abusing pharmaceuticals
or making deals with demons for greater power.  Only one has ever profited
from the first, and none from the second."  There were far too many who
attempted to replicate the "Bose Transformation" and become the next Tymythy
Twystyd, destroying their minds and bodies with drugs in the process.  And
while only a handful of demoniacs existed that Peregryn knew of, even one was
too many.  Worse yet, such petitioners might attract the attention of the
gods themselves, attention the world was far better off without.
     Once Daniel had been escorted out, Peregryn allowed himself to relax
     "Ain't easy being the Great and Powerful Oz, is it?" Essay asked from
an inner doorway.  The house was small, resources on the colony being
carefully measured, but it was at least big enough to accomodate his family
in some privacy and comfort.  He could have enlarged it with magic easily
enough, but its current size helped reinforce the discipline necessary in one
who influenced power on a planetary scale.
     And it reminded him of the cabin in Wisconsin Sector where he had
stopped being a hermit and started being a husband and father.
     "No, it isn't," he sighed.  "To be honest, Mr. Tang didn't even look
particularly good on paper, but I had hoped there would be some hidden inner
spark that his teachers had missed.  Between Lady Sable and the reborn
TerraStar, Earth has just acquired two adepts whose interests are not aligned
with the greater good, and I actually find myself in the uncomfortable
position of having to rely on Khadam's growing influence in the world to
ensure that Glyph will act in humanity's best interest...if only to be
certain of having a world to rule later."
     Essay nodded, sitting down next to her husband and snuggling up against
him.  "Like L.A. growing up.  Not enough cops, too many gangs, hadda hope the
gangs'd keep each other in check.  Problem with that, it gets ya Manhattan if
you're not careful."
     Peregryn nodded ruefully.  Peace had come to paragang-riddled New York
City, but at the cost of letting the strongest of the gangs take over as
"legitimate" rulers of the city, the Manhattan Autonomous Sector.  The past
generation had seen the world come together into a handful of super-states,
with the hope of a single world government tantalizingly within reach.  But
now it all seemed to be crumbling as superhuman warlords slowly carved out
kingdoms for themselves: Manhattan, Khadam, Q'Nos, even the splintering of
China.  If the Santari or their T!rir backers ever decided to make a serious
effort at exterminating Earth, rather than simply deploying a doomsday device
as they had during Rebus's ascension, would a fractious Earth be able to
unite in time to mount an effective defense?  And the Santari would not be so
sloppy as to leave any alive on Venus, in that event.
     He shook his head.  The long sunset was affecting him as well, sending
his mind down well-worn dark pathways.
     "I suppose we have done all we can to put a thumb on the balance, it may
well be up to the Fates now," Peregryn whispered, and the room got just a
little darker.

               *              *              *              *

[November 21, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     "I'm sorry, Mr. Walters, but all I can say...all any of us can say," the
scientist swept an arm to take in his staff, "is that there's nothing wrong
with the laser sword.  Granted, we don't fully understand the technology that
makes it work," he winced at the frown this generated on his employer's
digitally reproduced face...the opacity of Santari tech was a sore point of
long standing for Samuel Walters, "but we know what kind of energy it can and
cannot generate.  That pulse in the training room could not have come from
the laser sword."
     "That leaves magic," Walters scowled more deeply.  Another sore point
was that he had yet to recruit anyone with magical skill, although he had a
few of his young paranormal techs attempting to study a number of texts he
had bought.  It was slow going, and one had accidentally turned himself into
a newt.  "Are you sure you don't know anything about that sword that you're
not telling us?"
     Weapons Master shrugged, suppressing a wince as the bandages on his
chest shifted.  Whatever sort of energy the pulse had generated, it included
a pretty significant amount of heat, burning through his uniform and some of
the skin underneath.  At least Brightsword's armor had protected him.  The
immortality potion he had consumed while trapped for a decade in China may
have returned Chuck's youth, but it didn't make him invulnerable.  "Nothing
comes to mind.  But I never did go through all of the things I inherited from
dad.  There's some diaries that might be useful, I can go pick those up."
     "Why didn't you mention these before?" Walters demanded.
     "Hey, you hired me as a superhero, not as a historian.  And I've got
little bits and pieces all over the place, you know I was raised a drifter,"
Weapons Master countered.  
     In truth, Weapons Master had been raised in the 1960s, was older than
Walters, and trusted the man about as far as he could throw the building he
stood in.  But he definitely needed answers to this new mystery, he doubted
he could find them behind his boss's back, and Walters could probably bring
resources to bear that would help anyway.  The less of the truth he had to
reveal in order to get that help, though, the better.
     "Fine.  Go get these diaries," Walters ordered.  "The sword stays in a
blast vault for now, in case it sets off another pulse without needing to be
triggered.  Meanwhile, I'm going to see if I can sweeten the pot enough for
any of Peregryn's rejects to get one working for me."
     Weapons Master suppressed a snort.  Young wannabe mages had been quietly
traveling to Venus for months, all trying to be the next big thing as
Peregryn's apprentice, but so far none had made the cut.  And none of them
had taken Freedom Alliance membership as a consolation prize, either.
Peregryn was probably warning them off, or maybe you don't get to be even a
wannabe mage without being perceptive enough to avoid working for someone
like Walters.  Chuck sure has hell wouldn't be taking a dime from the old
plutocrat if he hadn't had other motives for joining the team. 
     "I'll keep in touch," Weapons Master promised, mock-saluting before
turning to go make preparations for the trip.

               *              *              *              *

[November 22, 2026 - Mexico City, Federal Sector]

     Esmeralda Colina considered her options.  Thanks to the Caballero's
influence, she hadn't been "encouraged" to attend the Academy, and had
largely stayed off the radar of the great powers of the world.  That hadn't
stopped a rich American from trying to hire her, but even if his patriotic
idiocy was just a front for political purposes she wasn't going to swear
allegiance to anyone who considered Mexicans to be second-class citizens.
Since the Lysistrata project was effectively finished from her end, Esmeralda
no longer had any long term work at home, either: the mystic viral meme
sufficiently embedded now that any extra scrolls she created for la Dama
would be redundant.
     She'd been at this particular crossroads for a few months, but kept
putting off a decision by finding something new to study.  But books and
private exercises could only take her so far in the Craft.  She needed to
move out of her comfortable nest in the city and expand her horizons if she
was going to grow.
     Perhaps the Academy was the best move for her after all?  She still
didn't care for many things she heard about it, but it had produced la Dama
and el Caballero, hadn't it?  
     Esmeralda sighed and started assembling the ritual objects.  She would
attempt another augury.  It wasn't a particularly reliable talent of hers,
and auguries almost never gave her any results at all, but even a misleading
portent would give her a direction to start moving.  And it had been one such
casting that had led her to el Caballero and away from the gangs, so it was
certainly worth the attempt.

     An hour later, she lay exhausted and dripping with cold sweat from the
exertion required by the spell.  She always managed to forget how physically
unpleasant auguries were, at least the way she'd learned to do them.  But at
least this time she had something, even if it was almost stereotypically
     A distant flame, a sword, a knight in rusted armor.
     She had no idea what any of it meant yet, but she was fairly confident
that the knight was not Sal Napier.  Perhaps the pieces would connect better
after a good night's sleep.
     Too tired to stand, Esmeralda simply fell asleep where she lay.

               *              *              *              *

[November 23, 2026 - Saginaw, Michigan Sector]

     Chuck didn't think about Detroit very often, but he could still remember
vividly the first time he'd been back after things went to hell in '98.  It
had been quiet.  Not the quiet of peace, or the quiet of death.  The quiet of
holding your breath and hoping the serial killer doesn't find you in the
     Things had gotten pretty bad in the final months of the "Godmarket" in
Detroit, as they had in any other place where there had been a shortage of
hope until the gods offered to sell you some.  A lot of power had been
zinging around the decaying metropolis that summer, and while the place
hadn't depopulated as drastically in 1998 as Manhattan had, it was only
because the 90s had already done that job pretty thoroughly through the twin
hammers of industrial collapse and financial dirty dealings.  The Quixanos
had made a noble effort to keep things going, but even they had been forced
to move a lot of Quality Motors' resources out of town to avoid being crushed
by overseas competition.  Even the merger with Magnum only slowed the
process, although it was nicely ironic.  The public never found out, but
Chuck knew that the head of Magnum had been one of the Z-liens...Jotuns,
really...that Don Quixote had died opposing.
     Chuck had never found out if the younger Quixanos had been supernormals
after all, or if they'd made some sort of deal with one or more gods in those
final days, but neither he nor Joaquim Panza had been able to find any trace
of Don Quixote's heirs in the years after 1998.  Eventually, Panza had given
Chuck the magic sword of the Don and signed over the family papers.  The two
had managed to rescue most of the "Quixote Papers" from doomed Detroit and
relocate them to a bank in Saginaw.  Old Joe had died of old age during
Chuck's imprisonment in China, and they'd agreed the younger Panzas didn't
need to stay tied to the legacy.  They knew nothing of their father's career
as a superhero sidekick, and just knew him as a respected businessman who had
a few odd friends.  
     And, honestly, in the 1990s pretty much every prominent business figure
knew a superhero or two, or claimed to.  It wasn't quite the same as
corporate sponsorship (although there were plenty of those too), but it had a
similar cachet.
     Thus, while Chuck had inherited the papers, it hadn't been from his
father.  Nor, really, had it been a bequest so much as it had been salvage.  
     Now Chuck sat in a nice business class hotel room, a couple of
hermetically sealed cases on the luggage rack and a smaller box on the bed.
The surviving diaries of the Quixano line, the tales of the real Don Quixote
and his descendants.  Most of them were too old and fragile to read now, but
Alessandro Quixano's own diaries were a mere half-century old, and certainly
had the potential to hold answers to Chuck's questions about the magic sword
that had been passed down through the centuries....

               *              *              *              *

[The Private Journal of Alessandro Quixano]

December 12, 1971

     It is a cold day.  Father died.  The cancer finally took him, I believe
it was a kindness for him to go now rather than clinging to pain any longer.  
     He could barely speak, towards the end.  Lung cancer is a filthy way to
die.  I gave up smoking the day he got the diagnosis.
     He had a last word for me.  He told me to take up the sword.  I am not
quite sure what he meant by it, but things may become clearer once the will
is read.  Perhaps he simply wanted me to make the company even greater than
he could, felt like he meant something more.

December 14, 1971

     There is much to think upon.

December 18, 1971

     In a sane world, I would assume I had become unhinged with grief at my
father's passing, and concocted a fanciful story to distract myself from it.
But this is a world where men can lift automobiles over their heads, so who
is to say what is sane?
     After the public reading of the will, there was a private addendum.
Even the executor did not know what was in the letter he handed me, only that
I would find any materials associated with it in a vault at the house near
Port Austin, a place father would retire to when the weight of running a
company became too much.  He claimed to like the fine dining in the village,
but I knew he liked even more the isolation.
     In the vault were several musty volumes of my ancestors' journals, as
well as a summary my father had written.
     And a sword.
     When I touched the sword, it was as if fire rippled up my spine for a
moment, only to be quenched instantly.  Everything has seemed more vibrant,
more ALIVE since then.
     And I have begun to see the giants.  Faint images overlaid on mundane
people or even objects, I have seen them on three occasions since returning
to Detroit.  
     But that is not the most insane revelation I have had.  For, if my
father's summaries are to be believed, we are the descendants of the literary
Don Quixote - or at least, of the real man who inspired Cervantes.  And the
windmills truly were giants.

               *              *              *              *

[November 23, 2026 - Saginaw, Michigan Sector]

     Chuck looked through the small case again, but couldn't find Eduardo
Quixano's notes.  Maybe Alessandro decided they were too dangerous to keep,
and destroyed them.  Maybe they were just lost in the shuffle...Don Quixote's
career may have been short, but it was rather intense.  Several years of
fighting a private war against an entire invading reality, with everyone
thinking he was either a lunatic or a fraud.  Probably difficult to stay on
top of that while also running a major corporation, things got misplaced.  He
hadn't known about the Port Austin home, though, might be worth checking out
later, assuming it had stayed in the family.
     Quixote was definitely a paranormal, at least.  Whatever magic powers
the sword had other than durability had never worked for Chuck.  But the
sword definitely *was* magic, it wasn't just Quixano's powers creating the
effects with the sword as a convenient crutch.
     What if the sword was linked to Dimension Z?  Chuck had been there for
the last days of Quixote's life, so he didn't really need to read the final
entries to know the essence of it: it was a pocket reality of some kind,
slowly contracting and threatening to crush its inhabitants.  They'd
concocted a plan to invert the dimension on top of Detroit, plopping what
amounted to a small continent on top of North America with potentially
catastrophic consequences.  The sword had always let Quixote see through the
mystic shapeshifting of the Z-giants, creatures Valkyrie had later revealed
were a lost tribe of Teutonic giants known as Jotuns.  But the magic was very
specific, and non-Z magic could still fool Quixote, as in the case of the
so-called Macromancer, who used illusions to make everyone think he was a
giant, back in 1974.
     But if the sword's magic wasn't just aimed at the Jotuns, but
specifically linked to their home in Dimension Z?  Well, for one thing that'd
explain how Dragonfly's Z-ruptor worked.  He had used mad science to
replicate sympathetic magic, keying off the sword's own tie to Dimension Z.
But it also meant the sword was probably still linked to a reality that would
someday shrink to zero size.
     What would happen to the sword if it stayed connected to a universe full
of stuff that had nowhere to exist?  And what would happen to anyone in the
blast radius?


Next Issue:

     More entries from the journals of Don Quixote!  Esmeralda arrives in
America!  And the mystery of the sword has attracted the attention of mystic
adepts who don't necessarily have the Combine's best interests in mind, all
in A Fire Afar Off Part 2 of 4 - Those Who'll Play With Cats!


Author's Notes:

     TerraStar's announcement mentioned in the second scene took place in CSV
#29, between the end of ASH #113 and the beginning of #114.

     Esmeralda was first (and last) mentioned in ASH #68.  This is her first
appearance on-screen.  In case it's not clear enough from context, "la Dama"
is Arin Kelsey.

     Don Quixote's final adventure was related in Coherent Super Stories #3,
which also explained the nature of Dimension Z and its inhabitants.  In it he
says that it has been his family's sacred trust for over five hundred years
to fight the giants, but that was somewhat sloppy writing on my part, given
that I'd meant for the Don Quixote of Cervantes (1605) to be based on a
nearly-contemporary "real" Quixano, which would mean fewer than four hundred
years passing between the first giant-fighting Quixano and the last.

     Port Austin is a real place on the "thumb" of Michigan's Lower
Peninsula.  I've never been there, but it seemed like a decent place to put a
"get away from it all without getting TOO far away" vacation home for the


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