Ackley’s New Lease On Life 1: Bucket List

For a look at Ackley’s origin in my Amera stories, read Ackley’s Wish. This microfiction series will continue to explore that particular character after those particular events.

Well-laid plans to die tended to become derailed if one inexplicably lived.

Ackley Hermes had always seen her future as building a bomb and then going to sleep for a very, very long time. She had built the bomb, and Mr. Fairway had been put to sleep for a very, very long time in her stead. Now she had to continue to entertain herself and plan out a fresh, unknown amount of new days,  a week after her vulnerable constitution should have given out on the roof of the Fairway Children’s Hospital. That had been the plan, and now there was none.

Her hospital room had been revamped since the death of Mr. Fairway and with him, the death of the restrictive new budget for the hospital. A machine now accompanied her bed, which could more efficiently drain the liquid nitrogen from her lungs through an unintrusive port installed in the middle of chest. The Nurses came every morning, unbuttoned her shirt a little, plugged her into the machine, and then went — and so, she lived. She could not have foreseen that blasting the Fairway Offices would have ultimately saved her life.

Life had a strange way of turning out after chemical missiles became involved.

To this end she had made a bucket list. Ackley was a realistic person, and so was her list. She wrote down only things she could do in the hospital bed she’d surely continued to be confined to.

She tried a new hairstyle, bundling up her ghostly white hair into a ghostly little ponytail; she tried on makeup which the nurses kindly supplied, flushing her nearly gray skin just a bit, and turning the black bags under her eyes a pleasing indigo. She’d recently turned 13, so she tried to play some of the violent online video games donated to the hospital every year, and scream invective into her headset when she lost to players who, clearly, were actually hacking.

“You idiot stupids,” She half-heartedly cooed into the mic, unable to truly scream in her condition, “You slack mothersons. You brick-eating gobsnipes. Vacillate in a postal office.”

After that round she put down the controller, satisfied, and checked off “troll online violent video games” and “say curse words” from her bucket list. Truly they had been trolled, and cursed.

She checked the list again, and next up she found, “Outsmart the Homeland Security man sure to arrive in a few day’s time,” and “stay out of kitty prison while trolling various web forums.”

The Library And The Ladybird (IV)

In the aftermath of the quake, Nellidae and Libel huddled around the remains of their master computer once hidden in the kitchen. Through it they checked everywhere for news and pictures; everywhere except outside their own windows, which they feared would be given the final incentive to shatter to pieces should they dare to approach. Their privacy was their only unbroken possession and they cherished it. Noodle Gatherer helpfully kept them indoors, helping aggregate a mass of information; as well as up to the minute news, videos, quips and fumbls with helpful hashtags such as #DoomsdayInNewfork.

Quipper filled to the brim with pithy 160 character posts about the impending apocalypse, while Fumblr posted .gif moving images of windows shattering, people falling down stairs and cats doing amusing things as the ceiling and walls cracked around them. Memetube’s feed flooded with a stream of short, blurry eyewitness videos.

“Consensus seems to be that everyone in the city has devolved to ludicrous paranoia, but there haven’t been any confirmed deaths and no truly fatal structural collapses,” Libel said, “So basically it’s a miracle.”

“What the heck is #THUMPSQUAD?” Nellidae asked, squinting at the Quipper feed.

“Umm. Please use the word in a sentence.” Libel replied.

Nellidae cleared her throat. “And I quote: ‘EVERYBODY GET THE DUB-HOP AND TRIP-STEP READY CUZ WE GONNA RIDE THE DYIN’ AND ROCK THE AFTERSHOCK #THUMPSQUAD’.”

Libel frowned. “It’s nihilism. Ignore that and look at this.”

Libel tapped on her touchscreen and expanded the size of a video window, drawn from the Noodle memetube feed. The video was an aerial view of the Presidential Plaza as seen from a high-powered RC camera plane, a toy that ever more popular as the arms race of viral memery marched on within the memetube community. The plane circled around the plaza, chasing subjects for the latest trend in viral meme videos, Pleasant Pidgeons. The plane focused on Pigeons in the plaza being uncharacteristically pleasant, lying down and bobbing their heads in hilarious, memetic cluelessness.

The RC plane was an unsteady vehicle, yet the imminent quake was still obvious in the video. The Library of Congress shook visibly, the statue of George Newfork lost its voluminous head and massive muscled arms. Pearl tiles across the plaza floor fissured and sunk into trenches as the ground split across dozens of fractures, as though the nervous system of the earthquake were generating its sinews across the earth. People that were once indifferent and unfocused now struggled to escape, their feet jerking out from under them on the uneven ground as they sprinted toward stable objects, clumsily vaulting over guardrails and slamming into trees. A column of smoke and dust rose just off the edge of the camera’s vision.

When the plane completed a circle around the plaza the event seemed to pass. People stood slowly up, shaken and hurt but alive; the earth stilled and the debris collected; the pigeons remained altogether pleasant.

Nellidae traced the fissures throughout the picture, following the symbolic nervous system up to its brain, and much like the plane soon discovered, she found them all to connect at a black structure a few meters long and wide and twice as many tall, like a mausoleum. It entered the picture in the tail end of the video, the RC plane veering to capture the structure and its ominous stone door, symbols of vintage-looking guns, bells and compasses etched on its surface.

“So that just popped out during the earthquake? How’s that even possible?”

“I don’t know,” Libel said, “It’s right between the Presidential Monument and the Library of Congress. The government had to have known it was there – ground-penetrating radar would catch it.”

“Could something rising out of the ground cause an earthquake?”

Nellidae pointed to the building in the video.

Libel nodded. “Theoretically. Underground nuclear tests have done so. When you generate enough force under the surface it can propagate through the ground and cause an earthquake. But even an underground nuclear bomb test in North Choson only caused at most a 4.9 magnitude quake. Our was quite a bit above that scale.”

“I think it’s too small to have caused that huge quake all by itself.” Nellidae mused. “That thing’s barely larger than this apartment from the looks of it. It wouldn’t be able to generate that much force.”

“We don’t know that’s all there is to the building. It could be connected to something underground.” Libel nodded her head toward the window. “If you could go take a closer look, I could determine more about it.”

Nellidae smiled and cracked her knuckles. “It’s a field trip then! Do the honors.”

Libel pressed a button on the side of the kitchen island and turned to the living room.

The tasteful Elladian column they’d installed in the center of the room had been nearly split in half from the pressure of the roof and floor shaking violently together. Libel had chosen the column for its useful hollow interior and for its subject matter, which in her mind made them blend in more easily as two average women sharing their lives together in the city. On its surface, artistic depictions of large, muscular men, commiserating with intense heterosexuality, had warped into macabre, twisted caricatures, ruining its aesthetic value. At Libel’s command half of the column attempted to open but simply fell apart unto the floor, revealing Ladybird’s black and red-polka-dotted neoprene suit that was hidden inside.

“Oh no!” Libel said, raising her hands up to her cheeks. “That cost me 100 amero!”

“I’m glad it’s broken.” Nellidae smugly said. “It was disgustingly tacky.”

“You’ve no appreciation for art!” Libel said. “It was a symbol of manly camaraderie!”

“Blech.” Nellidae stuck out her tongue.

Nellidae approached the column, stepping on a chunk of rock and splintering it all the more. She undressed quickly, haplessly throwing her clothes around the room wherever they landed, and took the suit from its rack. Running her fingers over it, she appraised the texture and craftsmanship and realized this was a different suit than before – Libel must have replaced it. Her utilitarian transformation into the Ladybird began, spreading open the back of the suit and climbing in, sliding in her legs, then pulling it to her shoulders and slipping her arms in the smooth sleeves. Zipped over her chest and up to her neck, it was modest and colorful, with a wide opening on the back to expose her elytra and wings. From another rack inside the column, Ladybird took a pair of high-tech goggles and an earpiece, putting both on to complete her uniform.

“New suit huh? When did you have the time to get another one?” Ladybird said.

“SENTINEL introduced a new model Light Adaptable Scouting Suit recently, so I went ahead and stole one of those a while back. It just takes a little customizing to make a LASS into a Ladybird suit – just had to cut some holes, essentially, and rewire some of the communications gear. I like to call it the Mark II Ladybird suit.”

“I wonder when it is you make time to do all of these things.”

Back in the kitchen, Libel’s face hovered dangerously close to her screen, trying to capture every tiny detail in a memetube video of the strange structure bursting out of the ground during the quake, set to 10 hours of exciting dubstep music. On her face she’d put on a pair of even thicker glasses that acted as a head-mounted display, along with a wireless headset, with which she could communicate with Ladybird and as well as see the suit’s camera feed. Ever since they met, Libel had fancied herself a superhero who needed her own uniform and fake identity, despite already having both.

“No weird bug-themed uniform for you Dragonfly?” Ladybird joked.

She poked the antennae on the headset.

Dragonfly smiled. “Oh, I’m working on it. It’ll be an even better catsuit than yours.”

She pressed another button on the kitchen island, and the mail chute on the wall struggled to open.

“I don’t think that’s safe.” Ladybird said. “It’s probably like a bendy-straw now.”

“You could try going out the window.” Dragonfly suggested. She helpfully pointed out the kitchen window, which, as though knowing it had been found, suddenly shattered into a jagged maw of glass shards.

Ladybird nodded. Whistling to herself, she inched away from the window and crammed herself desperately into the mail chute, her legs kicking and arms flailing as she pounded from wall to wall all the way down the warped passage. The force of the fall squeezed her out the end of the pipe in a knot of limbs and antennae. She found her predicament oddly therapeutic, like a very intense yoga, until it came time to unravel herself from atop the mail carts in the bottom floor. She unfolded, and the cart collapsed to the side, covering her in a heap of boxes. A small child was attracted by the commotion.

He moved a box from over Ladybird’s head and smiled at her.

“You saw nothing.” Ladybird said.

“Okay. I get that a lot.” He replied.

Ladybird patted his head half-heartedly and bolted out the back door.

Outside, she took flight with a running leap from the tight alleyway between her building and the one adjacent. She bolted up into the sky as fast as possible to avoid notice, rising so quickly into the air that her origin could not have been pinpointed. Ladybird shared some biology with insects, but the way she flew was rather alien. Her elytra split and unfolded her wings, which beat so rapidly behind her back that the naked eye could only see an ephemeral blur, but these were less than half of the equation – the source of her speed and sustainability in the air came from her lower back, where a pair of biological jets sprouted, covered with tough chitin that resisted the green, chemical exhaust that helped propel her body. These little jets and their tongues of hot green flame took her body aloft and converted her biological energy to propulsion.

According to Dragonfly, Ladybird was up to spec with supersonic jet fighters, though the exact chemical composition of the “exhaust” from her body, and how she produced it, defied explanation.

Up in the air, Ladybird could see much more of the Ameran capital than she ever could from the ground. She hesitated to call Newfork her city, but she had flown over it so many times now that she could instinctually head to any location without much thought. Her body took to flying so easily that she could concentrate her thoughts on surveillance and other tasks. From her vantage, the city looked safe enough, but it was a mess nonetheless. Tall skyscrapers had their solemn glass faces broken and splintered; the roads were fractured, with deep and wide cracks from the quake, navigable by sturdy vehicles perhaps, but still dangerous to use; many roadblocks had been set up, some congested with vehicles trying to bug out of Newfork, a sign of the paranoia Dragonfly had referenced and that Amerans were well known for.

She flew a bit closer to the ground in the more urbanized Central Newfork, and people started to point out her presence, some with awe, others with concern. She waved at them in passing. It was all in a day’s PR. Newfork was divided into four quarters – Central, Downward, Upward and Capital Newfork. Upward was a golden pigsty for the wealthy and vain, and she had no reason to ever fly over it. Downward was a forgotten little place with a lot of tenements. Central was where most of her “work,” such as it was, took place. It house the malls, the huge buildings, the schools – so all the education, economy and labor took place there, and as such, most of the events that she took interest in were also there. However, the earthquake’s eccentric origin meant that she now had business to conduct uncommonly far outside Central Newfork. She flew past the crowds and the skyscrapers and the congestion, out where the skyline flattened and the road widened.

When she finally reached Capital Newfork, she found the army’s heavily militarized crisis response in progress, almost to a ridiculous extent. The Bison Troops, Amera’s land army, combed the historic buildings housing the organs of Ameran government, with dozens of squads patrolling and overturning light debris, while the corps of engineers sized up the damage. Light armored vehicles patroled the broken roads with their thick treads and large wheels, delivering squads to and from the various buildings and keeping a paranoid eye with their frightening heavy guns at the ready. Ladybird gained altitude again in response to these displays, wondering if the Bisons were expecting the quake to shoot them, or if they wanted to intimidate the aftershocks with their deployment capability. It would explain the tanks roaming around at least.

Ladybird would find even the skies unbearably active, however, thanks to the Eagle Troops, Amera’s air force. As she rose further into Newfork’s controlled air space, Ladybird saw E-35 stealth multirole jet fighters patrolling the capital, and they in turn saw her. Among the clouds, the jets took interest in Ladybird’s presence but thankfully did nothing about it except fly closer to her, as though to let her know they were aware – a marked improvement to the times when they would take potshots at her with their Equalizer cannons. She waved at one of the pilots half-heartedly, but he or she merely broke off and continued his or her pattern. Normally she saw scout helicopters flying about. Why full-on jet aircraft right now?

“This is a weird response.” Ladybird said, tapping the side of her goggles.

“I wager this is Ableman trying to show off.” Dragonfly responded over her earpiece.

“She already won the election, what else does she have to prove?”

“That she’s tough. Tough on quakes. Like War On Quakes tough.”

“That’s silly, even for her. You think I’ll find her down there?”

“Most assuredly.” Dragonfly chuckled. “You should pay her a visit.”

“I think I’ll do that, actually. It’d save me some trouble getting close to that monument if I ask her permission first. Even if she doesn’t give it, she’ll at least be aware of what I’m doing.”

“Probably won’t stop her from trying to shoot you.” Dragonfly said.

Once over the strange monument, Ladybird dropped altitude, slowing down her jets and wing-beats as easily as she opened and closed her fists. She touched ground on the Presidential Plaza after a gentle, controlled descent. The Plaza was fully evacuated and bereft of human presence. Its monuments showed minor damage, save for one headless statue, but the ground was uneven and hazardous, torn apart by the pressure of the quake. Across the Plaza she spied the strange monument and a host of pressed suits around it, among them one with a very familiar, expensive teal suit.

Ladybird crept up through the broken ground and stopped at the edge of the Plaza, wanting to approach the group as slowly and non-threateningly as possible. She ambled toward them with her hands held out to her sides, open palms facing them, and even still, the Secret Service escort all turned around almost at once. They raised their weapons tentatively, and signalled for her to stand her ground. Ladybird silently complied with them, smiling placidly.

“Hello Miss President!” Ladybird said.

“Greetings Ladybird. Sorry for the rough welcome.” The President insincerely replied.

Among the suits, President Cassandra Ableman scowled for an instant before working up an elegant, bright red smile for Ladybird. Nobody seemed to notice the little bat-like wings beating gently behind her back, or her tail, which ended in a heart shape, nor the cat-like eyes appraising the scene behind her glasses. Most people would describe her as blonde, green-eyed, fair, well-figured, a president they could share a beer and watch reality television with – If anything, the wings and the tail subconsciously seemed to remind people of her father, a former president boasting the same.

“Put those down,” Cassandra said, pushing an Agent’s submachine gun barrel toward the floor. The others nodded and quickly followed in step, lowering their weapons. Cassandra stepped confidently outside the Agent’s protection, ambling forward until she stood eye to eye with Ladybird – and about a head taller.

“It’s alright!” Ladybird replied. She put her hands on her hips, and continued with a wide grin. “I’m used to much worse, in fact. I remember when all of these guys and gals had explicit orders to kill me.”

“Oh, let bygones be bygones Ladybird,” Cassandra fidgeted a bit with her hair. “It was a different time and we both know much better now, don’t we?” The stress of the situation was already frizzing up her big blonde ponytail, yet it still rose and fell in a golden arch, monarchic in comparison to Dragonfly’s droopy ponytail.

“Why are you staring at my hair so intently?” Cassandra suddenly said.

“I wasn’t!” Ladybird said, wringing her hands. “I mean, I kinda like ponytails, and yours is nice, but–”

“You like ponytails?” Dragonfly asked. “Didn’t know you were into that. What do you think of mine?”

“It’s cute. Kind of homely and innocent. Cassandra’s is more mature and regal–”

Nevermind this nonsense.” Cassandra said, ripping up her golden ribbon to release her hair and hopefully deflect Ladybird’s attention. “Did you come here to offer disaster relief?”

“Not really. The emergency personnel would probably think I’m in the way. I don’t have any rescue training, and I can sometimes overdo things with my ant-like strength.” Ladybird replied.

“That’s true.” Cassandra said, rolling her eyes. “Wouldn’t want you to wreck my city even more.”

“Just ask her about the monument.” Dragonfly chimed in over Ladybird’s earpiece.

Ladybird scowled. “I want to check that thing out more closely to see what it’s got to do with the earthquakes. Will you be purposelessly antagonistic about it, or will you just let me look at it without making a big show?”

Cassandra scoffed and flapped her wings. “What nerve! Everything I do has the divine purpose of furthering Ameran interests. You don’t seem to understand how much of a disruption you’ve been to the status quo. I’ve done my best for you and you just keep backsassing me! You should show some respect to your superiors!”

“You don’t need to write me a biography, just say yes or no.” Ladybird said.

“No!” Cassandra shouted, stomping her high-heeled shoes. “I know exactly what it is, and you don’t need to know. It’s classified Ameran government business, and not Ladybird-business at all.”

“So you mean it’s demon business?” Ladybird said.

At once, the Secret Service agents all tapped their feet and touched the sides of their heads, and mumbled “gurblegurb?” to each other. Ladybird grinned impishly – the confusion was a humorous part of their brainwashing that resulted whenever anyone mentioned certain words they were not meant to know the context for.

Cassandra cleared her throat. “On second thought, maybe we can work something out.”

The Library And The Ladybird (Part III)

“YUCK. What did you put in this?”

Libel put down a magazine she was reading and put on a smug face.

“It’s instant oatmeal prepared with water because you forgot to buy milk again.”

Nellidae nearly threw her plate across the living room at Libel’s rather tasteful signed portrait of former plus size model Amanda Gilded; she stopped only because of the terrifying glare she noticed behind Libel’s horn-rimmed glasses. The girl’s soft bronze features were beginning to turn ghastly blood-red. Knowing Libel to be skilled in hurting people, Nellidae put the bowl back in its place and stewed in silence. She decided to release her aggression instead by giving the plate a soft slap. A bit of the oatmeal spilled out of the bowl.

This gesture reduced Libel’s bloodcurdling murder-mask to a simple frown.

“You got some on the couch, you big baby.” Libel shouted.

She raised her health and fitness magazine over her face again to tune out Nellidae’s temper.

Nellidae stuck out her tongue. Resigned to go without breakfast, she gave the same cold shoulder to both Libel and her disastrous oatmeal. With a snap of her fingers, the apartment’s Telekinetitron television screen appeared from behind a sliding wall panel and turned on to a local channel, playing a cacophonous variety show.

“What is this garbage?” Libel said brusquely, unamused by the programming.

“It’s reality TV.” Nellidae replied just as brusquely. “It’s the future.”

“Hah. Of course you’d like it. Turn down the volume, I’m reading.”

Nellidae muttered curses under her breath but ultimately complied.

On the day’s Bawdy show, James Bawdy mediated between dysfunctional couples who constantly tried to kill each other over petty things. Attention seized by the show, Nellidae watched a couple literally come rolling out from opposite sides of the stage, taking cover behind decorative palm trees for tactical advantage, and coughing pistols they’d hidden in their stomachs. The audience gasped and then clapped as the couple aimed laser sights.

“Are you really going to do this right now?” James Bawdy asked, chuckling at the intensely dangerous tactical situation unfolding on stage. The audience cheered: Bawdy, Bawdy, Bawdy.

Laser dot picking out a choice location between her eyes, the lady from stage left cried out. “Bawdy, I’ve been looking for this man for 8 years. He always forgot the milk! And I’m going to kill him!”

The audience roared. The man, laser dot circling tightly in the middle of his forehead, “Bawdy, she’s insane! She demanded that I go on this whacko diet and nearly starved me! I’m gonna kill her!”

“Oh my. Looks like you’ve got a bit of unresolved tension.” James said, winking. “After this commercial break, we’ll take a look at the insignificant event that ruined this couple’s domestic life, forever.”

Nellidae clapped her hands in horror and immediately shut the TV off.

“Okay!” Nellidae shouted. “OKAY!”

She dropped to the ground and nuzzled up against Libel’s leg.

“I’m sorry Libel, okay! I’m sorry! I admit that I overreacted! I have a temper problem. I’m sorry Libel! I am very fond of your companionship!”

Libel peered out from over her magazine and stared at Nellidae. Watching her plead, she dropped the magazine entirely. She had been paying no attention to the TV. “Are you molting again?”

“No.” Despite the quick affirmation Nellidae was suddenly unsure. She casually tugged on one of her antennae, causing her left eye to reflexively raise up almost back into its socket. She found it quite tightly affixed to her forehead and came to a fortunate conclusion. “No, I’m not. I’m just very sorry for offending you! You’re great!”

“Oh, I’m not– you don’t have to– it’s fine.” Libel flushed. “It’s fine, Nelly, you don’t have to–” She turned her head, unable to meet her apartment-mate’s eyes. “Oh gosh, I’m so happy you think so.”

Nellidae smiled. She waved toward her plate. “Now please make me breakfast in a non-revolting fashion.”

Libel, still gushing enough to overlook the coarse wording, took Nellidae’s plate and skipped happily across the living room toward the little kitchen. There was a warmth in her heart and a spring in her step that was somewhat unlike her. She cast the oatmeal into the garbage with ease and set about to work on a new, love-filled breakfast.

As she entered, the computer hidden in the kitchen island quietly raised one of its touch-monitors and displayed a wave graph that grew ever more violent with each second. Libel ignored the graph entirely and with an entranced and placid smile she seized a box of  pancake mix, some dairy creamer, and some mixed fruit. With a renewed flame of blissful domesticity in her heart, she would cook Nellidae her special love-filled fruit pancakes.

Containers and tools on the began to rattle ever so lightly along with the countertop, but Libel pushed them back into position and began to mix the batter. She caught the blueberries and apple chunks before they could bounce off the counter and dropped them in. Soon the bowl gyrated so much on its own that Libel barely had to do any more mixing.

“I’ll be done in a second, Nelly,” Libel said in a pleasant, sing-song tone.

“What’s all this shaking?” Nellidae asked.

Placidly, Libel took a peek at the outstretched monitor. “Oh, just a magnitude 7 earthquake.”

“Oh, well that’s unfortunate, we live on a high floor. We could be hurt.” Nellidae said.

There was tense silence as the two struggled to accept the ever more obvious.

Then Libel’s pancake bowl flew off the countertop, followed by everything else.

The walls warped, and the floor shook, and Nellidae was cast from the sofa and thrown face down unto the living room coffee table, splitting the proud salsawood in half. Libel tried to hang on to her computers, only to snap off the seismograph monitor and fall with it unto the floor. The refrigerator vomited its contents and tipped over; various gewgaws on display shelves launched toward the floor. A most tasteful portrait of Amanda Gilded shattered.

As the earth twisted and jerked under them a stuffed platypus rolled with such ferocity that it smashed the glass sliding doors to the balcony and rolled off the edge to its second demise.

“LIBEL!” Nellidae shouted over the rumbling, struggling to raise herself on all fours, “STATUS?”

A metal rattling noise responded before Libel could. The knife cabinet burst open.

Libel rolled unto her side, flat as she could against the counter structure, watching knives pile over the lip at the edge countertop and only slightly overshoot her. Butter knives bounced off the ground ineffectively, ginzus likewise, meat knives and vegetable cutters fell in deadly piles. A vibromachete hit a crack in the floor dead-on and split it an inch farther, and various throwing stars and kukris leaped from their hidden compartments and gleefully embedded themselves near Libel, several pinning her pleated skirt to the kitchen floor. A butcher knife blunted the elegant tip of her red ponytail.

“I’M NOT OKAY!” Libel shouted back.

Nellidae finally raised herself four-legged and tried to crawl to Libel. She heard a sharp, close cracking of cement. The ceiling ripped and the bronze light fixtures fell in a rain of ore and glass, crashing like bombs around her. Glass shards embedded themselves in her antennae, and her vision grew blurry and senses weak. She struggled out of the living room and toward Libel, but a larger roof fixture split from the ceiling and crashed on her back, pinning her.

“AH! NEITHER AM I!” Nellidae screamed, her wings struggling to open against the weight.

Curiously, she could hear herself now.

Soon as it had come, the earthquake stopped.

Libel gingerly reached behind her back and removed the knives pinning her clothes. Nellidae remained on the ground, a bit exhausted and more than a bit annoyed from the impalement of a chandelier bit into her lower back. She traced the tiny cracks running throughout the walls and floor, and breathed out in relief. Everything seemed to be holding up and the building never seemed to have come close to crumbling despite the violence. The floor, however, was littered with glass and clay and porcelain from all their broken possessions.

“Are you hurt, Nellidae?” Libel asked, her voice quavering.

Nellidae reached a trembling hand to the chandelier and found yellow blood on it.

“Yeah, big sharp thing going through the crest of my ilium. It’ll be fine though.” Nellidae said. “Did you make it out okay? Nothing meaty to replace? My health insurance is kinda abysmal.”

“I’m okay. Remind me to buy less glassware when we redecorate.” Libel said, sighing. She helped herself to stand up to the island countertop, her legs still shaking. Shallow cuts into her legs stung her as she straightened out. Several of the island’s monitors had broken in some way, but a survivor remained, flashing an earthquake alert. The system sound in the operating system had been set to a muted level, so they never heard the proper alert.

Various pop ups had accrued over the course of the quake as her RSS trackers, oblivious to the carnage, worked to keep Libel informed of the situation. She glossed over them mindlessly, her insides still shaking discomfortingly, a feeling nausea and a prickling restlessness brimming just under her skin. Once the shock began to subside, she expanded an RSS pop-up of particular interest, and played its video out. She went back over one section, over and over.

“Nellidae, a structure just burst out of the ground from beside the Library of Congress.”

“Yeah, I know, right. They’re gonna need a whole new Fed to pay for this crap.” Nellidae replied in jest, completely unaware of the magnitude of everything that had just transpired.

* * *

“Oh, I think that was an earthquake. I’m a bit sensitive to those. I even feel micro-quakes sometimes.” Amanda Gilded hugged herself, slightly frightened for the outside world. She silently prayed for those who did not live in millions of dollars worth of earthquake-resistant superconstructions, hoping they would be fine and that repairs could be swift and inexpensive and that their insurance would cover it. She then proceeded with her five star sushi meal.

Dr. Cruciere shared the same table, exquisitely made from the shells of Berlanga Giant Turtles, and scoffed at the notion that there was anything to fear from the shaking. She’d cast a quick glance at her portable holo-processor under the table, and it had only been a magnitude 7, its epicenter only 25 miles away. Who’d be troubled by this?

“I didn’t feel anything.” Dr. Cruciere replied. “You need to relax more. Hillberry Manor is quake-proof anyway. The advanced design of the lower levels can stifle anything below a ground-altering magnitude 9 or 10 quake.” While the sounds of authentic shamisen players, performing over a satellite feed, eased her into the mood of the meal, she carefully picked out a choice lobster roll wrapped in a gold leaf. She dipped it in a gold sauce and ate it in one go.

The chef presiding over the table clapped.  “Good technique! You are a natural Miss Gilded.”

Cruciere nearly corrected him, but recalled that she’d changed her last name to Amanda’s in order to make it slightly less obvious that she was the scientist known widely as “The Enemy Of Civilized Humanity.” She’d even pinned her red hair to the back of her head, using little silver sticks to keep it in a bun. A different hairstyle always threw people off.

“I’m impressed with your food engineering skill Mr. Hayashi.” Cruciere tipped her head toward the Chef. “I’m an engineer myself, but food engineering was the one skill I could never wrap my head around.”

“It’s all mathematics.” Chef Hayashi said proudly. “Everything in the world is.”

“You’re quite right.” Cruciere replied. “Even world domination is all mathematics.”

Amanda laughed politely, and then reached casually across the table to tap on Asmodeus’ plate. “Asmy, you’re not eating.” She said, drumming a little tune on the expensive salsawood board upon which a line-up of sauces and rolls had been arrayed especially for their fake daughter’s enjoyment. Asmodeus, pressed into a bright red and gold dress, appeared slightly more indignant than indifferent, but only just so. She expressed little interest in the food.

“Mr. Hayashi is well-renowned for his artisanal gastro-engineered Sushi!” Amanda added.

“I don’t really have to eat to sustain myself Miss Aman– Mom.” Asmodeus said bluntly.

“Teen diet craze hit her too?” The chef asked. He appeared offended at the refusal.

“Asmodeus, eat.” Cruciere ordered. “We paid incredibly good money for this.”

“Yes, doct– Mom².” Asmodeus replied. She picked a salmon roll and ate it whole.

“Great technique.” Chef Hayashi said. He clapped for Asmodeus, and Amanda joined him with great glee. Asmodeus returned a blank stare that was slightly more disconcerted than her usual blank staring.

“We need to do breakfast like this more often.” Cruciere said, watching the shamisen players break out into a traditional manzai comedy routine over the satellite video feed as an intermission to their exquisite playing. She was so enchanted with high-class domestic bliss that she, too, entirely missed some quite ominous events.

The Library And The Ladybird (Part II)

“Doctor Cruciere, after careful analysis of the prototype hull of the C.S. Hydra, I have deduced that its performance could be improved by several orders of magnitude were it not in the shape of a donut.”

The assistant nodded her head toward the craft, hanging from several cables and attended to by various black and red robotic arms, screwing and unscrewing bolts, painting and unpainting plates, removing and reinstalling sheets of layered depleted uranium armor, in a general confusion of industrial assembly. The disorder of the robot arms mirrored that of their commander, who grit her teeth and grumbled lightly while inspecting the unfinished vehicle after each minor change.

“Argh. Well alright, fine. Fine Asmodeus! Let me see your data.”

Asmodeus raised her clipboard sheepishly, or as sheepishly as an artificial human with no capability to show emotions on her face could raise a clipboard. Her superior, standing a head taller than her favored assistant, swiped the clipboard from her hands and pored over the results. The data spoke for itself – on every performance diagnostic, the Ladybird simulation would use the central hole to help her bifurcate an area of the craft with her arm-blade. Constructing a craft with equal density on all sides and no obviously thinner or exposed areas would help protect against such an attack. There were several proposed new designs, all of which abandoned the whimsical donut shape for standard vehicle chassis.

Cruciere threw the clipboard over her shoulder, hitting the wall of the cubic assembly lab.

“Naaaah.” Cruciere said, patting down Asmodeus’ long indigo pigtails. “That’d be boring.”

“As you say, Doctor Cruciere.” Asmodeus replied. “I would advise that if we are keeping the donut aesthetic, we should perhaps make sure that the four segments of the donut are equally weighted–”

A fiber cable suddenly snapped. One rounded edge of the donut-shaped craft crashed into the laboratory floor and broke through the metal and concrete. It shattered a pipe beneath it. Silver gas streamed into the lab.

“–Because right now that side is far heavier than the rest.” Asmodeus finished.

Dr. Cruciere snapped; she thrust her hands overhead and stomped repeatedly in frustration, spinning a slow 360º as she did so. The repeated stomping left deep dents and dings on the solid steel, and her high heels shattered under the assault, causing her to slip and fall. She crashed with gargantuan force and shattered another pipe.

Such was the lot of Dr. Anne-Marie Cruciere, the world’s foremost everything, by her own accord.

She contemplated her failings while recovering her breath, but it soon turned out that she was recovering a toxic byproduct gas, judging by the burning in her throat and the collapse of her lungs. As her organs struggled to keep from becoming mush, she struggled to her feet and turned to the doorway. Alerts and biohazard sirens blared all around. She made toward the door with a weary gait, sighing blood, eyes tearing up, feet dragging, exhausted from the cellular and psychic agony of the day. All the while she thought of how little progress she had to show for this gas accident.

The doctor and her assistant exited out to one of the adjacent office modules, Asmodeus having to carry the doctor for the last few feet over the door and unto an office chair. Asmodeus dutifully sealed the door behind them and activated the vents. Following procedure she put a sticker on the door: “Toxic Gas.” She then marked an X on a checkerboard paper on the wall – another assembly unit lost to contamination. Protocol thus thoroughly followed, she took in a deep breath while her pale, smooth features slowly melted away into a puddle of white fungoid goo and soft indigo foam.

“I apologize for my failure to prevent this lab accident,” bubbled the goo, inexplicably retaining speech. “Doctor, if you would be so gracious, may I request my next form also have indigo pigtails?”

“You always have the same form.” Cruciere replied calmly, croaking as her lungs and voice box degenerated. “Amanda likes that one too much. Our pleasant family life would break down if I changed you.”

Cruciere’s red hair started to turn gray from the gas damage, and her brown skin grew an ever more sickly gray with each passing minute. Her lips started to crack, their bright red color becoming more blood than lipstick. She raised her hands over to her face expecting some unforeseen horror and felt her elegant jawline and nose– completely unchanged.

She smiled pleasantly, hugging herself with elation and bobbing on her seat.

“My bone structure and skin were always the best part of me. It’s both flattering but also annoying, because I didn’t make those. Still, a testament to the heightened genetic craftmanship in 2113.” She grabbed hold of the long tuft of red-turning-gray hair covering her right eye. “Now this though, this is annoying, because I did make this, and it SHOULD be better. What was that gas?” Cruciere grumbled. She hit a button on her desk that made the room whirr.

Asmodeus’ puddle bubbled and spurted. “I believe it is perhaps the byproduct of our unwise decision to use mercury-based ion engines to provide kinetic power for some of the lab modules. If I recall, Doctor, and not to mean any disrespect, but you believed that mercury was ‘cooler’ than Xenon, and ‘less boring’ than alternatives.”

Cruciere frowned. “Well, it’s also cheaper than alternatives and easier to find.”

Robotic manipulators stretched from a nearby wall and removed Cruciere’s contaminated lab coat, sweater and pants, providing fresh alternatives and sending the rest to the burning room. They also provided a helpful cup for Cruciere to spit her mercury-contaminated blood into. Thankfully her brain was insulated from it.

“Alright, where is the thing? Do you have it?” Cruciere turned a critical eye to the robot arms and asked them. The robot arms shook in response before retreating through the wall. “I guess it’s in the desk then.”

She searched through the desk drawers, already feeling the contaminants trying to stream their way toward her highly guarded and enhanced brain-case. Pulling out drawers she found levels, rulers, bottled fetii and other everyday necessities for the lab, as befitting generic, mass-produced Cruciere Offices. Finally she found the strange purple device she required; a handle on one end, a needle at the other, and a miniature circular centrifuge with three very thin tubes in the center. One contained a white goo, the other blood, and the center a clear fluid. A pair of miniscule glass bridges connected the outer tubes to the one in the center. Cruciere pulled the trigger on the device, revving up the centrifuge. When she held it, the device spun so quickly that its center became a blur, and were it anyone but Cruciere holding it, their wrists would have probably flown off with it. Instead, the blood and goo coalesced, passing bit by bit through to the connected center until they became a black liquid.

Cruciere happily injected the substance. Within seconds she could already feel the cellular repair at work. Her hair and skin had a very slight glow, and soon the lush brown pigment returned to her body. She scooped up all her waist-length hair, hugged it against her chest and smelled it, and took in the bright red. Perfect.

She threw the centrifuge needle over her shoulder and it shattered against the wall.

“What is building in lab 12? That’s what we’re up to right? Twelve, right now?”

“The C.S. Pillbug ‘Heavily Armed Excavation Vehicle’ or HAEV.” Asmodeus bubbled.

“Ew. No. I really want to finish the Hydra.” Cruciere lamented.

“Room decontamination will take a few more hours. Perhaps you should visit your partner.”

The doctor suddenly felt very uncomfortable with that cold phrasing.

“Hey, um, I know this is weird, but uh, you have to call her Mom, okay?” Cruciere scratched her head, perplexed at how necessary she found it to correct Asmodeus’ altogether correct statement.

“I am an artificial humanoid that is mostly fungoid in nature.” Asmodeus replied.

“Yeah, but uh, you know, that doesn’t mean you can’t have two moms. Call her mom.”

Asmodeus foamed.  “Rewriting social protocols to retain Mom-based information.”

Cruciere sighed deeply. “Don’t tell her we wrecked another lab too.”

“Rewriting ‘Lie To [Mom]’ protocols to add additional lies.”

Cruciere sighed ever more deeply, until she felt she had sighed out all the remaining mercury.

* * *

Far upstairs from Cruciere’s laboratories was the mansion at 42-A Hillberry Manor in the very upscale Upward Newfork. Things had gradually ceased falling out of the sky at Upward Newfork, and the world changed. People knew now of Ladybirds and Crucieres and other things, and many of the neighbors had grown more skeptical of each other. But they retained their code of never talking about other’s Rich People Business. Not even about Amanda Gilded’s R-P-B’s; the one person in Upward Newfork who still had things falling out of the sky to her mansion, every so often.

Today was her first corporate teleconference, and Amanda had dressed up professionally, with a blazer, a long skirt, and even a hot pink tie. She’d pinned up her strawberry pink hair to her head with a pair of decorative chopsticks, and decided to wear her glasses instead of her contacts for that added extra layer of techie, Tungsten Valley smarts. Across from her on the 80 inch plasma screen, appeared a disheveled, square-jawed blonde man in his pajamas.

“Amanda, can we just not do this at 6:30 AM, please?” He begged.

“Early to bed, early to rise, Michael,” Amanda chirped, “As the new owner of Noodle Technologies Inc., I want this to be the work ethic that drives our company from now on, from the top to the bottom.”

“Yeah, well, you know, that whole trick you pulled with the stocks, the fellas don’t really appreciate that kind of big money power playing. We liked our old boss plenty, Josh was a good dude.”

“Who are ‘the fellas’?” Amanda asked politely, “Because the shareholders gave me the company.”

“The shareholders that don’t actually work on anything!” Michael protested.

“Josh should’ve read on Neutralpedia about how stocks work.” Amanda said, in a cheerful but subtly sharp tone. “And about how shareholders work, too! Then maybe he’d still be in charge.”

“Yeah, well, I know the real reason you got the company.”

“Oh, why is that?” Amanda asked, her cheerful face never once waning. “I hope you don’t say it’s because I’m pretty. I’d be flattered, but I’ve also been a majority shareholder and business executive for ten years, and I think that was a big part of it! But I want honesty to be a big part of the company, so please, do go ahead.”

“Because–” Michael suddenly stopped, looked over Amanda and cowered.

“HELLO, DOCTOR. GOOD DAY, HUH?” He continued, waving his hands.

Amanda looked over her shoulder at Cruciere, who bared her teeth from the doorway to the conference room.

She pointed behind Michael, where a small spider-legged white drone entertained itself crawling up on the walls, finding different vantages by which its personnel railgun could perforate Michael’s brain and cause a variety of interesting blood spatters on his desk, the conspicuously very white walls, and other features of his office.

“Just a heads-up, it doesn’t sleep, but you do.” Cruciere said, an edge to her voice.

A blue laser dot appeared on Michael’s forehead. The drone waved a leg at Cruciere.

“Anne-Marie!” Amanda clapped. “We were just getting some of the post-hostile-take-over angst out of the way. I’m sure Michael and his ‘fellas’ will be happy to work on wonderful new Noodle tech soon.”

“Hopefully real soon.” Cruciere said. “Because I think all of Tungsten Valley would explode with joy if a bunch of Noodle Inc. positions suddenly opened up for a new generation of code kids.”

“No need for that, definitely!” Michael replied nervously.

“I’ve got many new ideas for exciting new cloud-based products.” Amanda said.

“Yeah, sure, the cloud,” Michael said, “That whole cloud thing. We’ll totally do that.”

“Listen to her,” Cruciere said, “She’s got some really good ideas. I do too. But I’d rather do my ideas myself. You and your buddies would just screw them all up. Amanda’s though, they’re simple enough.”

“Sure thing.” Michael said, looking behind himself and waving at the spider, who waved back.

After the conference room screen went dim, Amanda retrieved a small tablet computer and ecstatically pushed it toward Cruciere. “Look, stock prices are up to 900 Amero a share.”

“That’s because you’re a visionary, honey.” Cruciere said.

Amanda seized Cruciere and kissed her. “I love you! Ahhh I’m so happy. It almost feels as though this is what I’m destined to do. As though you’d really come from the future to show me my rightful place.”

“No, I told you I came from the future to take over the world.” Cruciere said. “And to stop nuclear proliferation that will leave the future a barren wasteland and humankind ill prepared for an alien invasion. Everything else is just because you’re a visionary. And because I love you too.” Cruciere said, turning fiercely red in the face.

“Of course.” Amanda replied, nuzzling up against her.

The Library And The Ladybird (Part I)

Nellidae Cocci stared into the dark maw of the basement storage room and struggled to swallow a lump in her throat.  What little light crept into the room from the doorway illuminated only the scheming outline of the dozen rows of steel shelving units, each having gathered a collection of dust and grime, rusted objects, dead insects, fossilized mice and evil spirits that would turn away all but the most powerful filfth exorcists – and Nellidae was still only a filth acolyte.

She flipped the light switch and gasped at the state of things. It was worse than she feared. Strings of a greasy film hung from old computer equipment poorly disposed of. Shelves were stacked twenty-high with fungus-ridden old books, decommissioned due to their blithe acceptance of evolution and disregard for “competing theories.” In a corner there was a sphere of dust, cobwebs, an old janitor uniform much like Nellidae’s own, and what she could’ve sworn were bones.

She raised her can of cleanliness-acid, sprayed a spot on a shelf, rubbed a cloth on it.

Instantly the cloth disintegrated, becoming a wisp of black vapor from her hands.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, I don’t believe I have the correct kit to deal with this situation.” She said.

Nellidae raised her little can of cleaning acid and shook it at the doorway. Principal Beadle then entered the room, sighing into a handkerchief she employed to cover her nose, her heels deftly evading the ooze puddles between each shelving unit. She ran an elegant finger down one of the units, and rubbed the grime between two. “We did let it get a bit out of hand.” She admitted. “But you’re the janitor, so this is one of the things you’re expected to take care of.”

“Can I get a flamethrower or like, an assault rifle?” Nellidae asked. “I could shoot all of these things. I am pretty sure they are alive, on some abominable, disgusting level. I’m positive that would work.”

“No guns in High Schools. Newfork City School Code #13-A,” Principal Beadle said, laughing in an elegant and regal manner at herself, “Only allowed in elementary schools; High School students are too malicious.”

“You all have your priorities perfectly straight here.” Nellidae grumbled.

Principal Beadle patted her shoulder, then gripped, and smiled. “Do your job, Miss Cocci.

One by one her fingers let go of Nellidae, and with a flourish of her blonde hair she vanished out the door.

Nellidae kept grumbling under her own breath until the principal was well out of earshot. A bubbling, wrathful froth began to build on her tongue, a drop of which slipped unto the ground and sizzled.

Under her big cabbie hat, Nellidae’s curled antennae brimmed with realization.

“Nothing says I can’t use my cleaning fluids.” She said to herself and grinned.

Rearing back, she took in air and passed her tongue around the inside of her closed mouth, building up fluid. She closed her eyes, and tightened up her fists and stood up almost on her talons, shaking from head to toe. A burning sensation worked its way from her stomach and up into her chest, and her shoulders locked stiff. Her wings, well-hidden beneath the thick janitor jacket, beat unwittingly. Her skin turned from a coffee brown to a chocolate-with-cherries, and her cheeks puffed up to the size of baseballs.

With a sudden and violent sneeze, Nellidae expulsed a green, burning spray of hydro-quinones from her mouth unto the nearest shelf. There was fizzling and loud pops like firecrackers and the screaming of once immortal filth-souls consigned to the cleansing flame, smoke and devastation amidst the grim ranks. Instantly a layer of ages-old grime vanished under the corrosive, burning, freezing, supernatural onslaught. The esoteric flames spread across the entire shelf like a wildfire, breaking down the objects and dirt in smokeless green flashes. Old computers collapsed inward and soon disappeared; outdated books became ash; puddles of filth vaporized; the dirt djinn transcended existence.

When the flames finally sputtered, one shelf sparkled with brutal cleanliness.

Nellidae burped, patting her chest down flat after and smiling. She laid down against the door, took a heartburn pill and removed her cabbie hat to unfurl her long black hair, and give her antennae some breathing room. Sandwich in hand, she ate, rested and waited out her shift. She could milk this basement for a few days at least.

The room grew slightly cold. Knowing what this meant, she stomped her foot down hard.

Don’t you dare haunt me, you dolt.” She said, glancing sidelong at the disapproving perhaps-corpse of the perhaps-former-janitor that was perhaps-interred in the mysterious corner filth sphere. “You’d have done it that way too if you could. I’m not here to show off or anything. Tell you what: I’ll avenge you and put you to rest eventually.”

Air conditioning systems responded in absolutely no way to that delusional blather.

“Hmph.”

Nellidae took this to mean her ghostly precursor had acquiesced to her custodial might.

Thankfully for the air conditioning, and for the perhaps-ghost that was perhaps-haunting, and for the students and faculty of McCarthy High School in Central Newfork, capital of the contiguous Ameran republic, Nellidae was no mere underpaid filth acolyte. She was, actually, the underpaid Ladybird, between real jobs.

Hours later when the school bell rang and the classrooms poured out their content of teenagers stampeding toward home, Nellidae punched out at the front office and turned in her supplies. She’d left the basement storage room locked and had the key on her, so her work (and lack thereof) would not easily come under scrutiny. At the security desk in the front office, Principal Beadle watched the cameras attentively, overseeing the egress of her students. Without warning she suddenly addressed Nellidae, who stood up on end suddenly when called for. “Did you know, Miss Cocci, that the most dangerous time for students is the last period of school? Per capita more misconduct and discord occurs right around bus time.”

Nellidae breathed out in relief and handed her cleaning acid to the guards. “No idea.”

“How’s the basement coming along?” Principal Beadle continued, eyes locked on the screens.

Nellidae gulped suddenly and then broke out in nervous chuckling.

“Oh, the basement! Oh, it’s, it’s coming along– horribly, really bad. It is a trench war of custodial proportions.” She waved her arms as though trying to fly away. “I nearly died.”

Principal Beadle made eye contact and smiled. “Well, if it means anything, I believe in you.”

Nellidae hurried out of the office before any other chestnuts landed on her head.

She took a faculty door out to the side of the school and walked around to the back. She waited in the bus plaza near the parking lot, sitting on the lap of the grimacing Founder McCarthy, who sat in gargoyle-like watch over the benches. He offered an elevated vantage from which she could comfortably pick out heads from the crowd. McCarthy High School had a uniform, consisting of white button-down uniform shirts and ties with a tartan skirt or pants, and a blazer or vest – but only one person she knew wore a sweater-vest over the whole thing, and the sweater-vested high schooler soon approached.

This orderly-looking student beckoned her down silently, adjusting her glasses as she did so.

“Shut up, Libel.” Nellidae said, in a completely irrational reflex. She slid down McCarthy’s legs.

“Hello to you too,” Libel U. Lidae replied, upbeat despite the terse greeting.

“Err. Sorry. I’m just a little too used to it.” Nellidae said, gripping her cabbie hat nervously.

“That’s okay. Here, you can have this.”

Libel ripped up a tiny paper bag to release an individually wrapped sugar cube from the cafeteria, and pressed the sweet with her fingers against Nellidae’s lips. Nellidae placidly savored the sugar, until she found red stains on Libel’s shoulders and along her waist. “What happened to you?” Nellidae asked softly. “Bullies again?”

“I wouldn’t really call it bullying.” Libel said. “It’s the ebbs and flows of high school social life.”

Nellidae looked harder and pulled out a small juice straw from Libel’s red ponytail.

“So you got bullied, huh?” Nellidae pressed on. “You should’ve tazered somebody.”

“Shush,” Libel said, looking around, “It doesn’t really matter, it’s just red juice on clothes.”

The crowd of teens boarding buses around them had grown sparse and seemed to pay them no mind. They were just another conversation happening in an ocean of them. Libel rarely rode the bus on days when Nellidae worked at the school. The two of them crossed the street from the bus plaza and as the sun crept further behind the skyscrapers towering in the distance, they navigated the few blocks from the school to the apartment building. Nellidae said nothing, staring at the thin but constant stream of people on the streets, the traffic growing denser, the video ads on the sides of buses growing more gaudy.

“Look at this,” Libel said, pressing a tablet computer almost up to her face.

There was an article on Dr. Anne-Marie Cruciere, buried under Noodle Technologies Inc. ads, and Nellidae grimaced when met with it. However, the news was good at face value – Cruciere hadn’t been heard of for almost a month now, since the thwarting of her Hurricane Bomb plot. Authorities were no closer to finding her, but the Newfork Times seemed optimistic that at the very least, the presence of the Ladybird was having a chilling effect on Cruciere’s plots.

“They could’ve come to me for comment, and I’d have told them not to be so sure.”

“Shush!” Libel said, “Don’t just say that stuff out loud. But yes, I agree. It’s very fishy.”

They stopped in front of a broad and tall apartment building, like a thick industrial pillar rising out of the field of glass and polished steel in Central Newfork. Libel entered first, smiled at the front desk and took the elevator. Nellidae followed, glaring at the front desk and climbing the stairs. By the time she got to the fifth floor, and to their apartment, Libel had already settled herself in an egg-shaped couch in the living room, the mail chute extended from the kitchen wall for easier access. A collection of letters and envelopes belched out of the tube and unto her lap, along with a small plastic case to deposit the 50 micro-amero mail fee. “Just a bunch of junk mail. I think they cut my subscription to Entomology Monthly.”

“Print’s dead anyway isn’t it?” Nellidae said. “It was where I come from.”

“I liked the scratch and sniff bug stickers.” Libel lamented. “Ebooks can’t scratch and sniff.”

“You like bugs just a little too much for my comfort, quite honestly.”

Nellidae ducked under the mail chute and proceeded into her own room, a little hole in the wall, cramped, dark, fairly cold. It was not much more than a stack of mattresses and two baskets for fresh and old clothes.

She took in the atmosphere and sighed contentedly. There was something inviting about it that open spaces simply lacked for her. Brimming with feeling in the dark, she undressed, dropping her cabbie hat to stretch her antennae and taking off her shirt to spread her elytra, the thick folds of skin on her back. The elytra were perfectly camouflaged when low, but right then they rose up to allow her filmy wings to extend. They were half the length of her arms, but with a light green glow and the help of two belching little jets hidden in her lower back, they’d defy gravity and carry her anywhere.

At this point she was more Ladybird than Nellidae, but still more human than bug. Satisfied with a moment’s freedom, she threw a sweater and some shorts on, burying her wings inside the flesh of her lean upper back.

In the kitchen Libel expressed her own sort of freedom, having dressed down to a tanktop and shorts, giving her a much less orderly appearance as she presided over her secret station. With a voiced password command in Spanish, the decorative, stationary central island of the kitchen opened up into a trio of computer screens, touchpads and a keyboard. The screens all welcomed her as Libel – a name Nellidae knew intimately, but that was most certainly false. A whirring and heavy-sounding mess of fans roared to life, cooling numerous racks of processors, memory and solid-state drives buried within.

A platypus desktop pet began to wander the various screens, making bird-like noises.

“Oh, you’re gonna have some fun now?” Nellidae asked, passing the computers by and opening the refrigerator, pushing the vegetables, vegetable juice, vegetable proteins and vegetable shakes out of her way.

“Nah, this is work.” Libel replied. She unfurled her red ponytail and climbed up on her office chair, sitting with her legs crossed and going through the various screens. “Haven’t been spying enough lately.”

“You know what you also haven’t been doing a lot of lately? BUYING REAL FOOD.”

Nellidae stuck her arms and head into the refrigerator and disorganized the vegetable items inside in a sudden tantrum. Libel ignored the woman’s childish display, and cracked her knuckles before getting to work.

“Trust me Nelly, you’ll thank me for this when you’re older.” She said sagely.

Let’s Not Forget Senator Gainesley

Senator Gainesley played Russian Roulette every morning and always lost.

Losing was expected, and it was okay. It was ritual. Ritual was necessary.

He’d fix breakfast first; cracking eggs, buttering a pan, picking through the bread box for good slices to toast. Everything should end how it started, he felt. Everything should end with his famous El Dorado Scrambles. He’d eaten them when he thought of running for Senate and by gun he’d eat them before a .357 round scattered all his ideas for bills across the kitchen walls. The solitary round in the cylinder had lain, awaiting its chance, for one year now, though not to the day.

Paul Gainesley spun the cylinder and in a swift, practiced action he closed it and raised the gun. He pulled the trigger, without thinking, and there was an audible click. In seconds the action was resolved, and Gainesley returned the revolver to its prominent place on his wall, below a small plaque reading “The Power of Positive Thinking.” He nodded sagely at the plaque, picked up his blazer and headed out to work. Outside his house, two Secret Service agents, faces frozen in a disciplined military rictus, smiled at him in spirit, though not physically, and ushered him into his armored car.

Life was a long series of rituals. On his drive to Capital Newfork, Senator Gainesley pulled curtains over the tinted, armored windows of the car and shut himself from the world, gathering up his binder full of plans for future legislation. He would raise his left leg over his right and hold his phone with his left hand, resting on a cushion, unnecessarily so as he listened and spoke through a headset. He would order his driver with his right hand, conducting him through the winding streets and demanding he yield to every large crossing crowd and civilian vehicle. The driver hardly required such instruction but Senator Gainesley was used to giving it. His was an ordered world, a world bettered under his command.

The more pathologically-minded would call it “coping,” for control he otherwise lacked.

At the Capital Mound, Senator Gainesley exited his armored car through the right side, unto the road. He avoided incoming cars screaming obscenities at him and circled around his own, the secret service agents doing the hardened military rictus equivalent of expressing dismay. Soon he was climbing the steps, skipping every 13th step, to the high capitol building where every day, the fates of millions of Amerans were blocked by filibusters. He would enter between the 7th and 8th pillars, and make his way to his office on the third elevator from the left. Finally, at his office, he would smile to his aides, sit down behind his desk, and smash his face an erratic number of times against the wooden desk. Sometimes he would smash it once for each letter at his desk. Other times he would smash it 13 times to get to work quickly. Most of the times, he smashed without thought.

“Sir, you are bleeding.” He’d be told. Things were still under control. He heard that every day without fail.

“I know.” He’d reply, commandingly. Reality was still his to manipulate. “I know.”

“You have a meeting in an hour with Senator Frumious.”

Senator Gainesley attempted to flip over his desk, but the allure of its fine Zamanon pulp-fiber body and smoothed edges, along with its 700 lb weight, prevented him from doing so. Instead he half-stood, holding unto the desk by its sides, legs bent, shoulders hunched, breathing irregular, his aide staring at him from over a clipboard. He sat again. Things were spiraling out of control. Seizing a small paperweight statue of legendary sports star Bryan Bryan from his desk, he contemplated it, and he threw that instead. It struck the copy machine on the far side of the room, who silently disapproved.

His face sank into his hands.

“Ok.” He mumbled. “Tell him I will be glad to meet him to discuss things in a bipartisan way.”

A semblance of control returned – he said that every day. And he never meant it.

The aide nodded and retreated carefully out the door.

“I’m sorry, Bryan Bryan.” Senator Gainesley muttered. Sensing a need to weep, he had his 2 P.M. cry early that day, along with an exquisite glass of Black Bourbon. While he wept and sobbed the hour away, he realized it was all okay. He had decided to do it! Rescheduling was still control. Bryan Bryan’s pitching record deserved it. And Black Bourbon took on an unearthly, decadent character when accentuated by his tears. Everything about his 11 A.M. cry was okay.

Five minutes before the meeting he cleaned himself up and entered the bargaining hall. The subject of discussion would be his first personally authored bill to ever make it to the bargaining hall without being struck down in some other way, and he had a good feeling about it. Good feelings elicited control, and exuded confidence. He took his seat in the long hall, put down his binder, stared down his opponent, and then looked away, mildly intimidated.

The conservative party had swept the congressional elections, leaving Senator Gainesley as a freshman minority liberal senator from New Coatl – the least listened-to person in the higher chamber. Across from him on that long, black table in that long, dark room, was Senator Frumious of Theftha. He had a head like a brick and a torso like a barrel, and his hardened military rictus of a face betrayed his past of elite training and successful classified missions. The most listened-to Senator in the higher chamber, whose state controlled the textbook industry, drilled all the oil, fundamentalized all of the religion, and sold all the cowboy hats. There was nothing more Ameran than Theftha, and nothing less Ameran than New Coatl.

“Gainesley.” Frumious said simply.

“Frumious.” Gainesley replied. Was mimicry control? He was feeling an acute loss of control.

“Let’s not mince words,” Frumious said, “This bill you wrote is the most vile sociocommunist bulgarofascist bumloving thing I have ever seen since the Bum Lover’s Act of 2002 by Senator Bumlover. It’s a disgrace to Amera and a clear redistribution of wealth in the Aminostalonist fashion, and I will not stand for it as written, Gainesley!”

Gainesley shuddered, unable to tell if it was bigotry against homosexuals or the homeless at play. It could be both, judging by the conservative agenda and looking at the amendments proposed on Gainesley’s bill.

“With all due respect Frumious, it’s just a minimum wage increase of 50 micro-ameros.” Gainesley retorted. “Increasing the minimum wage by 50 micro-amero will make an incredible difference for millions of families and little difference for the margins of the most fortunate Amerans.” He said the last phrase smoothly, having practiced it very often. It’d be a mistake to call them anything explicit, like the Corporations or the Bourgeoise. That’d be ad hominem.

“It’ll also bankrupt all our jerb creatums!” Frumious said, his speech becoming garbled with rage. He pounded his fist on the table. “All of the Fortunate 500 will see this bill and flee to the SENTINEL countries or Chung Kuoh!”

“SENTINEL and Chung Kuoh have an even higher minimum wage now than we would with this bill!” Gainesley said. “It’s only 50 micro-amero more, we’ve done extensive testing on this, it won’t hurt anyone.”

“Right, testing! Using all your leftist feminomarxist think thanks, running them round-the-clock to look for ways to dismantle capitalism. The market cries out in agony, and you just want the JACKDAT to sink further! We closed down 5 points yesterday Gainesley, five whole points! Do you even know that you’re destroying Amera?”

Gainesley sighed and gripped his binder like an eagle crushing a mouse’s neck.

“Frumious that’s disingenuous, most of those companies are not only showing record profits, and many don’t even play host to any minimum wage Ameran jobs that would be affected by this legislation.”

Frumious stood up and pointed his finger right between Gainesley’s eyes.

“You’re delusional! What you’re proposing here is that we pay every desk warmer and paper pusher in the world 8.50 Amero for the privilege? Bah! You’re gonna bankrupt every industry in the world! Soon you’ll be asking for them to earn the same wages as esteemed bankers and CEOs! Soon you’ll be asking for everyone to earn the same!”

“None of those are minimum wage jobs!” Gainesley shouted back. “They already get paid more than 8.50!”

“Every lemonade stand and shoe-shining boy gets to own a limo now, is that your big dream Gainesley?” Frumious ranted, slobbering over the table, “Redistributing our limos by bankrupting high industry?”

Gainesley stood bolt upright and slammed the table himself.

“This is for service work and janitors, it’s not going to bankrupt anybody you fucking idiot!”

There was silence in the room suddenly. Gainesley covered his mouth.

“OH.” Frumious said. “He called me a– OH.”

His jaw dropped and his hands shook.

“OH. OH. He called me– he called me a fucking idiot! Did you get that?” He stared up at the camera in the ceiling and the camera nodded. “You got that? Good. Good. Then I win Gainesley. Ad hominem. I win.”

Senator Gainesley’s face sank into his hand.

“God damn it I’ll add your stupid oil company tax loophole in it! Okay! I relent!”

Frumious smiled. “I’m glad you see sense now Gainesley. Glad my talk got through to you. You’re a good man at heart. A sensible politician. Never made a bill I didn’t agree with on some level.” He extended his hand.

Senator Gainesley tried to flip the table, but the strength to do so again eluded him.

After the hand shake, and applying copious amounts of molecularly-corrosive medical acid cream to cleanse his hand afterward, Senator Gainesley returned to his office, sat on his desk, and banged his head on it. But only once. This part was controlled and properly planned. He was easing back into life now, and life was rituals and control.

“How did the meeting go?” The aide asked, seeming ready to avoid an incoming throw.

“Bill’s gonna pass.” Gainesley replied. “Frumious likes it now.”

“How did that happen?”

“I let him have his oil loophole.”

“The one that’ll quadruple Oil profits while reducing accountability?”

Senator Gainesley stood quietly, picked up his statue of Bryan Bryan, and threw it past his aide such that it struck his desk, broke in half and landed gracefully in a garbage can. He nodded with satisfaction at the result.

“Yes, that one.”

“Oh. Congratulations.” The aide said, clapping joyfully.

Severla hours later, his work accomplished, Senator Gainesley returned home. He entered his armored car through the right side, ignoring the rushing traffic. He closed all his curtains, straightened out his lefts and rights and conducted his driver through the night traffic. His agents stood before his house like dutiful gargoyles. He had an unscheduled cry and stared upon his Power of Positive Thinking plaque. Beneath it was the revolver, with its one bullet, all ritual and superstition.

It had been almost a year, but not to the day, since he’d begun playing Russian Roulette every morning. He played it over his famous El Dorado scrambled eggs and not once had he won. He had never played it at night though – it did not seem as appropriate before, as it did right then. Perhaps this night would be a mix of ritual and innovation, he thought happily. Drinking a cup of black extra caffeinated coffee made all the more decadent with the addition of tears, as he usually did most nights, Senator Gainesley picked up the revolver, opened the cylinder to see that one bullet as old as his young political career. He’d not introduced many bills, and most of them had not made it far. He’d got one though. He’d got one today.

Senator Gainesley spun the cylinder and with incredible control he let fate sort everything out.