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.

Outdoourcing

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Out of the deadly waters of the Samanon river thrust a massive fish, jaws snapping as though piston-driven, twisting in mid-air, its muscles engaging pockets of gas along its tail that propelled it toward the hunters’ riverboat. It ricocheted off the engine block, back into the water, and swept around for a second leaping blow.

Gartruck Killshuck cartwheeled aside the fish’s scythe-like tail, the razor-sharp blades grazing a fold of wrinkled skin along his jaw. Undershooting the side-rails, the fish found itself grounded, flopping menacingly on the floor of the river-boat. With a great bellow, Gartruck withdrew his peppermace and began clubbing at the flopping, fiendish creature with the weapon’s burning, crystallized capsaicin head. In a killing frenzy the fish blew its gas jets and whipped its tail, man and beast suddenly caught in a furious exchange; but each slicing sweep delivered by the fish merely ripped into Gatruck’s flak jacket, while his blows pounded the beast, taking its tail, disfiguring its gills, and finally smashing the pulp out from its chainsaw-like rows of teeth. It twitched in its death throes, issuing acid and noxious bile, before coming to rest upon the deck.

“Lancing Shotfish. One hundred pounds,” said Surly, the digital hunting organizer. “Encounter recorded into memory. KillSlate uploading to Hunt-Tube now.”

Continue reading “Outdoourcing”