[SHC] Matters Of Imagination

 

[This is a Super Headcanon Support “Official Fanfic” as suggested by a $30 Patreon patron and written by the author. As a Fanfic it is canon in our hearts, but perhaps not in the actual story. The prompt: “Karla Schicksal has a fandom argument about pulp stories.”]

* * *

Everything delivered to the Nochtish forces came from the homeland. Equipment, supplies, and basic mail was all packed up in the ports of Tauta and former Lachy territories on the southern side of the Nochtish continent, marginally closest to Ayvarta. Once loaded onto merchant vessels, the mail’s journey south took a little over a week in the best conditions. Then, because Cissea had a limited port capacity, some ships would have to be diverted to Mamlakha, adding one or two more days to the journey. Add a few more days in case of unstable seas.

Now your goods touched the soils of the southern continent, but that was only half the battle. They would then be handled by Oberkommando Suden, who would classify and inspect them. Then they would be set to the front. High priority goods made use of Nocht’s limited motor pool; anything sentimental to a soldier was almost certainly not high priority. Mail from home was packed into horse carts to begin an arduous journey to distribution centers closer to the front, that would sort mail by battalion and send it to finally meet its intended recipients.

In total this process could take weeks, if your package didn’t simply get lost somewhere.

Schicksal had arrived on Ayvarta with the freshest copies of Amazing Stories, Tantalizing Tales, Mysterious Mysteries, and a dozen other delightful magazines for the adventure fiction enthusiast; she had even haggled with the OKH deployment office, delaying her deployment until the very last possible second to secure the most recent issues of all her favorites.

She had already gone through them at least twice each. Had she been any less busy she would have probably worn the issues down even more. She nearly had them in memory now.

Thankfully she renewed her subscriptions for the year and made the necessary arrangements for all of her magazines to be sent to her. It was just a matter of waiting for them.

Over two weeks into the operation, the 8th Panzer Division finally stopped moving.

At the crack of dawn, Schicksal and a small gaggle of panzergrenadiers waited by the dirt road winding through the woods just off the site of their new camp. They heard the horse cart coming, hooves stamping, wheels turning, before they could even see it through the thick ranks of the trees. Once it wound into their sight, the men cheered. Jokes were traded around about worried mothers, about salty spouses, and angry creditors they had joined the army to escape. Schicksal stood apart from them, but she laughed at a few while hoping for a package.

The animals pulling the cart slowed to a halt, and everyone gathered around. A hatch window went down on the side of the cart, and a young woman started calling out names. A few of the soldiers had lists with them — they were platoon officers, collecting the mail for all their men so they wouldn’t have to wake up at dawn and mob the cart all together. Nice of them. Schicksal whistled, and tapped her feet, waiting for the woman to get to her corner of the alphabet.

“Karla Schicksal!” the clerk called out. She held a big cardboard envelope out of the window.

Schicksal approached, smiled and took the package. She offered her thanks, but the clerk wasn’t even looking — she was moving on to the next name and the next bundle of mail.

Under a nearby tree, Schicksal inspected the goods. She cut the tape holding down the envelope flap using her combat knife, unfolded the flap and looked inside. Three paper books were tucked inside, each one about eighty to a hundred pages thick, with flashy covers.

One issue of Savage Sights! with a cover of a man wrestling a drake in the swamp; one issue of Remarkable Reports!, a fairly low quality variety fiction magazine that Schicksal nonetheless had to own every copy of; and finally, the pièce de résistance, a copy of Astonishing Tales! featuring Johannes Jager on the cover, wearing his trademark mask and white uniform, a communist attack blimp soaring overhead and attacking his beloved city.

This particular issue of Astonishing Tales! promised 120 pages of non-stop action.

Schicksal hugged the issue to her chest, exhaling softly. She returned it to the envelope and started the short trek through the woods back to the camp, her treasures under her arm.

The 8th Panzer Division had taken up positions across the wood in an all-around defense known as a “hedgehog.” Its three Panzer Regiments and its newly-added Panzergrenadier Regiment, numbering around 300 tanks and 4000 men in total, were deployed in a reverse triangle, with their individual Panzer companies and Infantry battalions deployed in depth. At the center of the formation was the Division HQ, located in an area of sparse tree growth with enough canopy to provide some cover, but also space for the tanks, trucks, cars and tents.

As she cleared the trip-wire alarms at the edge of the encampment, she found a few dozen soldiers and staff lining up around a mess. A tent had been set up on two poles in one half and its other half over an M4 Sentinel; men and a few women lined up for black bread, sausages and a thin soup constituted in a pot from powdered chicken stock and dried vegetables.

She was not feeling up to standing in a line. Schicksal instead headed past the mess to the center of the camp where the Befelhspanzer M4, her mobile command center, was stationed. Dreschner’s tent was pitched next to the tank, its turret turned so the dummy gun could help hang up the canvas structure. The General was still asleep; Schicksal snuck around the tent opened one of the tank’s storage compartments on the side and withdrew a ration box.

Food and entertainment in hand, and a cool morning breeze blowing through the wood, Schicksal situated herself under a tree and sat down with her back to the trunk.

Schicksal cracked open the ration box, took out all the individual parts, dug a little hole for the hexamine burner, and started cooking up the beef and barley pack using her metal coffee mug as the pot. She emptied a pack of citrus and honey powder into her water canteen and shook it up to have a sweet drink, and munched on a piece of biscuit while waiting for the entree to cook. Once it was ready, she she buried the spent hexamine tablet, and sat the mug on her lap along with the remaining biscuits. She emptied salt and pepper packets into the mug, mixed everything with a spoon and started to eat. Her beef was stringy; but the meal was filling.

Finally, she cracked open the envelope and produced her new copy of Astonishing Tales!

There was no better time to read than right after the dawn, when Dreschner was still asleep, and with a warm meal in her belly. She cracked open the pages, looked down the table of–

She heard a worried voice behind her. “Ah! Excuse me! Please be careful Miss!”

Schicksal turned her head and saw a red-haired woman running to her and waving.

“Miss, please don’t move!” She drew her sidearm and Schicksal shrank back.

Pistol raised, the woman took a shot.

It flew over Schicksal’s head.

She heard a shrill, clicking screech from out of sight.

Everyone in the camp raised their heads in alert and looked her way.

“It’s alright! I got it everyone! It’s ok!” The woman shouted back.

Something fell from the tree and landed beside Schicksal with a soft thump.

Schicksal’s eyes turned slowly to her right.

She stood slowly up, hugged herself, and started to scream.

Dead beside her was a long worm-like creature composed of thick, seemingly rigid segments linked by exposed, fleshy muscle. Its head was like an armored blender full of teeth, and it was easily larger than a dog. On its underside, thousands of little legs helped it creep up on her.

Schicksal screamed and screamed and continued to scream for several minutes.

Everyone who had been staring turned back around and went about their business.

* * *

Once Schicksal stopped screaming, she started kicking around the dead creature (she heard it distantly referred to as a wyrm) and it proved satisfyingly firm and resistant to her boots.

“This place is hell! Hell! How do people live among these monsters!” She wailed.

At her side, the young woman who had shot the creature had long since holstered her weapon, and watched with concern as Schicksal aggressively squashed the passive creature.

“Um, well, I’m glad you’re ok.” She said, once the rage appeared to be subsiding.

Gasping for breath, Schicksal bent down, hands on her knees. “Thank you. You are?”

“I’m Evangeline Heinrich.” She said. “Private, Medic, 7th Panzergrenadier Regiment.”

“I’m Karla Schicksal, Chief Signals Officer, 8th Panzer Division HQ.” Schicksal said.

“Oh my! Chief Signals Officer? You looked so young I thought you’d be a grunt like me.”

“Nope; I ride in the big tank with the fake gun and get personally yelled at by General Dreschner every day, often several times a day.” Schicksal sarcastically replied.

They shook hands. The 7th PzG was the latest asset attached to the 8th Panzer Division, making up for the ongoing losses of tanks. This girl had the coat and the pins to prove it, as well as the blue cross on a white patch symbol of the medical corps. She was willowy, certainly taller than Schicksal herself. Her angular features and long red hair gave her a sort of flashy look that her demeanor and voice quite easily disproved. She had on a pair of wide-rimmed glasses.

“Say, is that a copy of Astonishing Tales?” She asked, looking at Schicksal’s other hand.

Schicksal looked down at her own hand — she had the magazine folded into a tube throughout the whole of her tantrum. She unfolded it and showed the medical officer. Indeed, it was.

“That’s neat! I didn’t subscribe back home, I forgot. Do you mind if we read it together?”

Schicksal stared at her in confusion. She nearly asked if this was a joke. For the longest time she hadn’t met one single other woman who read pulp magazines. Certainly the magazines themselves didn’t do much to attract the readership, and Schicksal had always thought of herself as having boyish tastes in this regard. So she always expected a certain level of ridicule for her hobby from men and a certain level of disgust or disregard from women in addition.

“Well, um, sure, but it’s um, it’s a dorky adventure stories magazine.” Schicksal said.

Evangeline smiled. “Oh, I know what it is! I’m actually a big fan of the magazine.”

“I see! I never thought I’d meet another soul who was interested.” Schicksal said.

“Neither did I, to be honest! I thought people would think I’m childish.” Evangeline said.

Schicksal nonchalantly kicked away the remains of the beast and sat down under the tree again. Evangeline dropped beside her without even wiping the dust or food crumbs and wrappers from the ground. She sidled close to Schicksal, nearly cheek to cheek. She felt warm — it was more than a little awkward, but also nice in an odd way.

Schicksal opened the magazine.

This particular issue had four stories: Secret-Man, Johannes Jager, Dr. Dangerous, Weretaur.

“Oh, Secret-Man! That’s my favorite! I’m not fully caught up on it, sadly.” Evangeline said.

All of the warmth and goodness suddenly seemed to drain. She was a Secret-Man fan? 

Schicksal turned the page from the table of contents, over the editor’s comment and the letters section, and contained the urge to scowl at the ridiculous illustration of Secret-Man in his costume. A black skin-tight suit studded with gold question marks, and a diving helmet featuring a very prominent gold question mark across the face. How did he even see?

What did this girl even see in such a ridiculous hero? Schicksal usually skimmed Secret-Man chapters. The prose was too sparing in detail, nothing more than functional, with no spice to it; and she hated the stories. Secret-Man kept going from crisis to crisis without any chance to stop. In this latest arc he just killed the evil General Von Klaw only to find himself hunted by the government — for murdering Von Klaw! What the heck sense did that make? He stops a coup attempt, saves the President and now the Schwartzkopf is after him? For murder?

She sighed a little, but Evangeline had her head up against her shoulder and was already going down the lines with a zeal. “Turn the page when you’re done,” she said cheerfully.

Schicksal started reading. Periodically Evangeline had a question about the current stories and Schicksal would answer it. In this latest chapter, Secret-Man uncovers a conspiracy in the government to seize his vast inheritance by disappearing him under the pretenses of a murder investigation so that the head of the Schwartzkopf could become rich. It was possibly the dumbest plot that Schicksal had ever read, and she found two typos in the prose! A disgrace, a total disgrace. Evangeline devoured each page — she read much faster than Schicksal did.

“Oh no! Don’t cut it off there!” Evangeline moaned. She sighed into Schicksal’s shoulder. “They promised a lot of action and a huge page count, but they just made the letters big!”

“They make a habit of doing that nowadays.” Schicksal said. She turned the last page on Secret-Man and felt a sense of relief at being done with that dreck. Past the final page was a little insert that had a piece of foil, inside of which was a piece of Secret-Flavored chewing gun.

“Wow. It’s black; they’re really serious about this.” Schicksal said, taking out the candy.

Evangeline snatched it from her. “I’ll take it then! I’d like the coupon for the mask too!”

“Sure. We can cut it out later.” Schicksal said softly. Evangeline really was a fan.

Schicksal turned the page. There was no Johannes Jager illustration, he was on the cover in full color after all. But the title didn’t lie! Time for another action-packed adventure with–

“Hey, um, can we skip this one? I kind of hate Johannes Jager.” Evangeline said.

Schicksal thrust down the magazine and turned her head sharply to stare down the medic.

“What is your problem?” She said. Perhaps not tactful, but it’s what escaped her lips.

“Um. I’m sorry?” Evangeline replied, blinking and crossing her arms, confused.

“How the heck can you put up with 25 pages of Secret-Man and skip Johannes Jager?”

Evangeline frowned and narrowed her eyes. “Are you a fan of Johannes Jager?”

Schicksal grumbled. “As a matter of fact, I am! So we’re not skipping it, for a start!”

Evangeline grumbled inaudibly back. She was suddenly less enthusiastic about reading the magazine, but Schicksal didn’t care. Now she was the one devouring the pages. Half the time Evangeline seemed to gesture for her to turn the page without even having read any of it.

After being ambushed by the communists last chapter, Johannes Jager managed to escape using a flashing light gadget that had become standard issue with the police in Jager’s near-future story setting. However, on the streets, the dreaded KVW were attacking with blimps! Though the technology of the communists was backward, their zeal and corruption and their infiltration of the government allowed them to take over the Nochtish skies! Schicksal was consumed by the plot, and read each line vigorously. Then her reverie screeched to a halt.

“Johannes Jager lacks any of the nuance that Secret-Man has.” Evangeline grumbled.

Schicksal didn’t deign to look at her and acknowledge her childish views on literature.

“Nuance? Secret-Man is a rich jerk who has the ear of the government and a dumb suit! Johannes Jager is an ordinary man who wants to clean up his streets and make his city a better place to live! Secret-Man’s chock full of nothing but vapid teenage fantasies.”

“Hmph! Well Johannes’ Jager’s stories make no sense. If he’s just an ordinary man fighting criminals like you say, then what’s with the silly plot twist about the Ayvartan KVW and the communist airship? Secret-Man stories have more plausible and interesting villains!”

Schicksal turned the pages faster, and Evangeline turned her cheek with another ‘hmph!’

Teeth gritted, the two felt a disdain that can only come from clashing hobby interests.

Such conflict as was fought in the heinous so-called “Solstice War” could not match the sheer unbridled hatred and no-quarter-given savagery that could arise from two enthusiasts at odds with one another. Evangeline and Schicksal had barely met and already the tension was boiling over. Schicksal’s mind filled with black thoughts about the uncultured rogue at her side. She felt it was likely Evangeline was also ripping apart her new companion in her own thoughts.

“Ugh, every time I peek it’s another cringe-worthy one-liner.” Evangeline moaned.

“Then don’t peek! Someone who’s so in love with the lifeless, perfunctory writing of Secret-Man couldn’t possibly understand the clever witticisms of Johannes Jager!” Schicksal replied.

And yet, the tragic gravity of a shared hobby kept them in each other’s orbit, unable to escape, both attracted and repulsed, such that passive-aggressive facial expressions, little shoulder checks, and occasional sighing and grumbling was all they could muster for each other.

Schicksal turned the final page on Johannes Jager, exhaled audibly, and turned to the medic.

“Do you read Doctor Dangerous?” Schicksal said roughly to her acquaintance.

“I don’t have any strong feelings about it, but I’ve nothing better to do.”

Evangeline looked at her from the corner of her eye and turned her cheek around again.

Schicksal could have left it at that, but there was a gnawing feeling she had to clear out.

“Do you seriously prefer Doctor Dangerous to Johannes Jager?” She asked.

“So what if I do? So what?” Evangeline said, crossing her arms and staring daggers at her.

“You have no taste then! Doctor Dangerous is even stupider than Secret-Man!”

“Then why do you read it?” Evangeline shouted back. They were almost nose to nose.

“Because it’s 1/4 the page count in most issues! Why do you read it then?”

Evangeline grinned cruelly. “Because it’s better written than Johannes Jager!”

“Take that back!” Schicksal cried, forehead-to-forehead with Evangeline.

“As a matter of fact even Weretaur is better!” Evangeline shouted, still grinning.

“Well, Weretaur is pretty good, to be quite honest– TAKE THAT BACK!”

Schicksal suddenly seized Evangeline by her collar and tugged her; Evangeline looked shocked at being manhandled for her opinions. She raised her hands in the air rather than escalate.

A shadow stretched suddenly over both. They looked to their side, and up, and they froze.

“Signals Officer Karla Schicksal.” General Dreschner said. He was staring directly forward as if at the tree instead of the women. Black bags had formed under his eyes, and he had a grim expression shaded by his peaked cap and the high collar of his dark grey officer’s coat. His hands hung at his side, fingers twitching periodically. His feet tapped impatiently.

“Yes sir!” Schicksal trembled. She released Evangeline and raised her hands up as well.

Everyone else in the base seemed to be staring their way once again.

“I don’t recall you ever receiving the authority to inflict corporal punishments on your fellow soldiers.” Dreschner said. “Please explain what it is you are doing to this medic.”

Schicksal raised her hands and turned away from Evangeline. “Nothing sir!” She replied.

“It doesn’t look like nothing. Private, what is this altercation about?”

“Nothing sir!” Evangeline replied. “We simply got a little emotional over things!”

Dreschner cocked an eyebrow and seemed unsatisfied with this explanation.

Evangeline stood up from the roots of the tree, and Schicksal followed shortly after. As they stood at attention and saluted the General, the magazine fell on the floor. Schicksal felt a jolt down the spine as she heard the sound of the paper falling to the earth. That magazine subscription cost her 15 marks renewable per quarter, and she hated the thought of–

“Something wrong, Schicksal?” Dreschner asked, leaning forward.

“Nothing sir!” Schicksal said, a nervous, contrived grin on her wide-eyed face.

He sighed audibly. “Is that one of your funny books? Those seem to always spell trouble.”

Evangeline, who perhaps lacked understanding of the General’s overall disposition, leaned down and picked up the magazine. A smile appeared on her face and she flipped the pages back to the illustration of Secret-Man. She held out the magazine as if to show Dreschner.

“Sir! You could help us resolve our pitched literary dispute!” She cheerfully said.

Oh no. Schicksal felt a sudden sense of alarm and gestured for Evangeline to stop.

“A dispute; over those cheap books of yours.” Dreschner said. He sounded mortified.

Evangeline did not pick up on it at all. “Yes sir! What do you think of this character?”

She handed the book to the General, who stared down at the picture of Secret-Man.

“He looks absolutely ridiculous. I feel stupider just looking at him.” Dreschner said.

Evangeline shrank back. Schicksal felt triumphant, and put her hands to her hips. She puffed up her chest and stood tall, soaking in the embarrassment and shame of her rival.

“Well, sir, what about the character on the cover?” Evangeline whimpered.

Dreschner turned back to the cover. “He looks like a jackass.” He replied dryly.

Schicksal winced. Dreschner shot her a look; she put up a fake smile and cringed away.

He extended his hand, returning the magazine to Schicksal. He sighed audibly again.

Then he extended his hand again, took Evangeline’s tag to get her name.

“Evangeline Heinrich, a medic, 7th PzG. I take it you two must have just met?”

“Yes sir!” Evangeline said, rubbing her hands together and avoiding his gaze.

“And it seems you are hitting it off like bosom chums, already having a brawl.”

“Ah, it’s nothing like that sir, really.” Evangeline said, stammering a little.

“Out of curiosity what is the age range for these magazines?” He asked.

“Fifteen through seventeen years old I think.” Schicksal answered quickly.

Dreschner looked at her over his shoulder, while still mostly facing Evangeline.

He turned from them and cleared his throat. “You’re 24, Mauschen; Evangeline is 17. I’m 43 years old. I have some advice for the two of you, as subordinates, and youngsters.”

“Yes sir!” Schicksal and Evangeline replied in unison.

He turned back around, facing the both of them.

First he turned his tired gaze on Evangeline. “Heinrich, if you wish to remain outside the medical tent, smelling something in the air other than antibiotics and gauze, then learn to get along with people whose taste in questionable literature differs from your own.”

Evangeline winced. “Yes sir.” She said in a tiny voice, averting her eyes.

Dreschner then cast a serious look Schicksal’s way. She withered under it.

“Schicksal.”

“Yes sir!” She said.

“Be the adult, for god’s sake.” He added simply. “Get a hold of yourself.”

“Yes sir!” She said again, her hands and knees shaking and her teeth chattering.

“You are antagonizing a teenager. Take the high road. You are better than this.”

“Yes sir!” Schicksal said again, feeling herself sinking into a hole. She hadn’t paid much attention to Evangeline’s age, though this information would have likely changed little.

Dreschner shook his head at her, and pressed a hand against his forehead.

“Return to the Befehlspanzer in one hour. We must go over cipher codes for the rest of the month. We’re in a war zone, in case you forgot while busy shaking up a child.”

Everyone in the camp stopped staring and returned to what they were doing.

General Dreschner turned sharply around and marched back toward the command tank.

Schicksal stood in place, her expression trapped in a strange cocked half-grin.

Evangeline looked almost in tears over being called a child.

They sat back down on the tree, a good meter between them. They stared in opposite directions, the magazine dropped between them. Schicksal took the book.

“Do you want to read Weretaur?” Schicksal idly asked, still looking away.

“Weretaur is pretty good.” Evangeline replied softly, looking the other way.

“Weretaur is indeed pretty good.” Schicksal said. She turned her head slightly.

Evangeline sighed and sidled closer, engaging Schicksal’s gaze.

“I like that Weretaur has supernatural powers. It makes him unique. He isn’t just a man in a suit. However the author takes up too much page space with descriptions.”

“I disagree about the prose but that’s okay.” Schicksal said.

They shoved back together, and Schicksal skipped the pages over to Weretaur.

Quietly and without incident they took in the fantastic adventures of Gehornt Schmidt. By day a seemingly ordinary mortal, but by night a man cursed to fight brutal battles against heinous beasts in the dark corners of Lachy, beset by ancient mysticism in his strange quest keep the light-dwellers, as ordinary citizens were called, safe from paranormal harm.

In their particular issue, Schmidt fought a vampire.

Both the signals officer and the medic managed to agree that vampires were “neat.”

 

THE JUSTICE OF JOHANNES JAGER (I)

 

This side-story contains scenes of violence.

* * *

(side-story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden)

Deep in the seedy back alleys of Rhinea, under a snowfall darker than the devil’s abode, all manner of Bastardry And Terror unfolded unseen, and only one man had the moral conviction to bring justice back to the bad quarter. With his wits about him, his trusty silver Zwitscherer pistol at his side Johannes Jager hurtled down the the dreaded Mort street like a runaway train. For every ordinary man’s step he took three — because He Had To.

He prayed to God almighty that she was still safe, that there was still time.

Mort was a mean, run-down part of the city in the old quarter, where thieves hauled their loot, dames would kiss ya for a buck, and every hand had a gun or a knife. You wouldn’t find a man like Jager, an Upstanding Man, caught dead in this place. Not under normal circumstances. It was not place for a man with a conscience. He looked every which way and saw nothing but obscured hands and grinning faces, looking at him all calculating-like.

In his all-white trenchcoat and fedora and his silver mask he stood out among the Villains, as he intended to. He wanted them to know that he was an invader, an interloper.

He was not one of them — he was a Man With A Mission and they couldn’t stop him.

He wouldn’t let them take her. Not again. He had a Debt to Pay.

In front of the rough-looking Höllemund bar, two gents two meters tall each stood before the doors. Johannes Jager had no time for such Crooked Company.

He circled around the alleyway, climbed atop a garbage can, and reached into his coat for the gas-powered hookgun he had prepared before leaving the precinct. Such things were becoming more common and compact in 2040, especially for police departments. Thank God for his Real Identity as the unassuming beat cop Frederich Freiden — Jager needed only to aim for the roof, and he put a hook right around the television aerial.

He walked up the wall to a second floor window, punched the glass with his Silver Knuckles, and entered a dark room that smelled of hemp! He felt the packages in the dark.

“Disgusting,” Jager thought to himself, “Guess nobody told them…dope’s no joke!”

Johannes Jager withdrew an electric torch and scanned the packages, packed full of grass that would fry your brain the instant you lit up the weed-cigar. All kinds of terrible drugs like these got into Nocht, and ruined innocent young men and women who could have stood a chance otherwise. What monster dealt in these Mind-Altering Monstrosities?

No sooner did he consider this that he found the red seal of the many-headed Hydra on all of the bags. Of course, it could have been no other group of fiends!

(The Hydra was the mark of Elite Communist Terrorists — his old nemesis!)

Pistol in hand, he forced open the door and pounced on the lone guard in front of it, quickly disabling the stout man with a precise strike on the neck from the hard metal of his Zwitscherer. Thundering loud music from below masked their quick scuffle.

It wasn’t his kind of song — but this was His Kind Of Dance.

He picked through the downed man. He took his gun, unloaded all the bullets, and gave it back. This was a Lachy man, he could just tell from his Profiling Training. Lachy gangs were notorious for their cooperation with terrorists. They probably pushed guns and dope for the communists. Feeling a righteous fury in his chest, Jager rushed up the empty hallway toward the staircase to the third floor, where the Leader likely awaited.

He couldn’t let these folks have Sylvie! They would ruin her completely!

Johannes Jager stepped to the third floor and found a long hallway to a door decorated in purple feathers. He threw himself into a roll as a pair of men guarding the door drew their pieces on him! Fully automatic pistols blared across the hall, Illegally Modified.

Bullets boomed and banged and pitted the floor and made holes in his coat! A Storm Of Metal sliced the hemp-smelling air in the hall. Any ordinary man would have been intimidated, but Jager was too quick for them. As he came out of his roll his Zwitscherer screamed with justice, and the knees of his foes exploded, and they fell back in great agony!

He charged past them, kicked the weapons from their hands, and broke through the door to the lair of the villain! On a plush red couch in the center of a luxurious room, a mountain of a man, bald and white as a sheet, laid back on the seat, his arm around Sylvie’s shoulder. She gasped at the sudden Noise And Blood, and she looked like she wanted to bolt. Her blonde hair was perfectly straight, her green eyes staring with burning hatred at the burly neck and head of her captor. Her white dress was pristine and fashionable, and she looked thankfully unharmed. It was plain to see she didn’t belong in this lair of thugs.

“I’m here for the girl and the hemp, Krieg.” Jager said, scowling with rage at the kingpin.

Krieg’s barrel-like head twisted as he smiled. He laughed hoarsely.

“Johannes Jager. We finally meet. I don’t know if you’re a cop or just an idiot, but I got use for both. Join me, Jager! I’ve got work for a man with your skills! I’ll make you rich!”

“Listen pal,” Jager shot him a glance sharp as a steel knife, “I got no time…for crime.”

“You think I care for the girl, Jager? I don’t care about girls. I care about money! I got this girl because I know you’ve been protecting her! I know you’ve been talking to the Lieutenant! Stop what you’re doing for those clowns at the precinct, and be my right-hand man, Jager! I have eyes and ears everywhere. You can’t run from me. If I have you in my gang, I’ll be invincible! Give up this foolishness. Together we can even take out the communists!”

“You’re small time, Krieg. The Reds are playing you like a trumpet!”

To punctuate his foul words Kingpin Krieg pushed Sylvie off the couch and laughed.

“Shut up! I’m playing them, boy! I got it all figured out!” Krieg shouted. Then he drew a pistol!

Johannes nearly shook, more with rage than fear. He remembered all too well the fate of his precious Gerda.

“Join me, Johannes Jager! Put down your gun or I will kill the girl!” Krieg shouted.

“Don’t do it Johannes! I would rather die than see you working for the men you hate most!” Sylvie shouted defiantly, and she spat on Krieg’s boot. She wouldn’t have known him in his Secret Identity, but she knew of him all the same. What a feisty lass, just like her dad; he owed it to the Lieutenant to get her back safe. He couldn’t endanger her.

But a man like Jager would never Compromise His Beliefs and work with a thug like Krieg!

Jager raised his pistol, but when he shot he fired his bullet aside at the wall!

“What was that, Johannes? A shot of surrender? You gonna work for me?”

Krieg let his guard down — he hadn’t even watched the bullet!

In an instant, the ricochet burst through his foul head, deflating it like a balloon!

Sylvie screamed as Krieg fell aside like a rock! Johannes rushed out, and picked her up, carrying her in his arms. She smiled at him and laughed girlishly at their position.

“To think I would be dragged in here in a bag, and come out in the hands of Johannes Jager! Those men kidnapped me from my father’s own home, Jager! They said if I tried to escape they would kill him, so I waited patiently here. They did all of this to lure you out. I’m glad you are safe!”

She reached up to his cheek with her lips, and pressed a red mark just below his mask.

Jager laughed. “Sorry gal, but you’re too innocent for a rough man like me. You need to find a quieter man to dote on, and stay away from these hemp-smoking types, okay? Promise me that.”

Confident in his final victory over his nemesis, Jager started out of the bloody room; but then he heard an explosion, and the wall bursting behind him! Jager ducked out into the hall, and found several figures abseiling down from the roof into the room — several men and, shockingly, women too, their skin brown as a puddle of oil, their hair long and dark, in a stark contrast with their bright red and gold uniforms! It was the communist KVW!

Brandishing submachine guns, the men and women, had come down from a gyrocopter hovering outside! The Communists had even penetrated Rhinea’s air defenses! But how? How had the Communists achieved this level of power and technology in their tyrannical society? Jager felt equal parts fear and fury seeing his True Foes before him! He could have run, run somewhere with Sylvie and been safe, but he knew that they had gotten this far, then they had everything plotted out. Sometimes, Good Men had to Stop Running.

They were really using Krieg all this time — to get to him. And now they Had Him.

“Sylvie, you better run.” Jager said heroically. “I got a score to settle with these spooks.”

Jager set Sylvie down, and despite her protestations, he walked calmly back into the room. Dead-eyed, the thoroughly brainwashed communist troopers stared him down. Then from the roof abseiled their commander — a woman over 2 meters tall, a fierce grin on her face. Was this the Blood-Red Commissar of the dreaded land of Ayvarta herself?

“Oo know tew much, I’m afoo-raid. Eet is tie-em for oo to die, meestur yay-gur.” She said, her Nochtish thickly accented. Did they know of the Red Spy in the Citadel that had Turned?

Whatever they knew or didn’t know didn’t matter. Destiny Called for them all.

Sylvie screamed out his name, and huddled out of sight at the doorway.

Jager showed no fear as the submachine guns wildly sprayed before him.

 

* * *

“Huh? You can’t just cut it off there! That was barely worth a chapter, the type was so big! I’ve been falsely advertised to!” Karla Schicksal shouted, turning the pages rapidly and desperately to find that the story truly ended there, on a cliff-hanger, for the month. She couldn’t believe this! All that build up and the conflict with Krieg was resolved so quickly!

She searched the pages for some kind of an answer. After the last page of story text there was a form one could fill out to get a real Johannes Jager mask in the mail; then a full-page cigarette advertisement seemingly aimed at the younger readers; and the next story in the Astonishing Tales! paperback was not related to Johannes Jager at all, but was instead a new installment of Secret-Man, back from its short hiatus.

Schicksal wistfully returned to the cover, which had advertised the longest and most suspenseful Johannes Jager story yet — and had accomplished this by increasing the size of the typeface and doing nothing more. There was probably even less story than last issue.

She growled a little in anger. Writers and their low word count and awful cliffhangers!

From the cupola of the Befehlspanzer, General Dreschner looked down at his radio officer with disdain. They were waiting in the command tank for orders to advance.

“What on Aer is wrong with you?” He said. “Are you reading those books again?”

Schicksal froze up. She nodded her head stiffly. “Sir! Yes sir! They uh, they help my morale!”

Dreschner grunted, shook his head, and raised himself out of the tank once again.

Once he was well away, Schicksal sighed and flipped the pages. She didn’t like Secret-Man as much. He was not complicated like Johannes Jager. Dreschner was just too much of an old fogey to understand the appeal of a riveting tale of adventure and beautiful dames. She returned to the Johannes Jager chapter, and started filling out the form for her own Jager mask. Maybe someday she would save the day and get a hero’s reward.

The Library And The Ladybird (VII)

President Ableman fished Ladybird out from a ditch created by the earthquake, pulling her by the neck and shouting directly into her ear. “This is all your fault, you worthless bug!” She slapped a pair of handcuffs on her, and dragged the dazed woman by the stumps of her broken antennae. Ladybird’s vision was unfocused, her ears were ringing, and her head was cloudy. She could not immediately identify what was meant by this.

It could have been the utter destruction of the Presidential Plaza. All around her the earth was splintered, fractures of varying sizes stretching across the surface of the park as though it were a cracked glass panel. A long trail of fire and upturned dirt cut across the plaza, from the edge of the park all the way to the Library of Congress, where a massive, burning steel hulk, vaguely in the shape of a saucer, had come to rest after its terrifying crash. Rock and cobblestone and glass littered the walkways and road where street lamps had shattered, paths had broken, and statues had been pulverized. But had any of it really been her fault? Ladybird pondered this momentarily.

She came to a conclusion she found fairly acceptable.

“It’s not my fault!” She shouted.

“I’m blaming this all on you! You thought you could escape retribution by saving my life? You’ve got another thing coming!” President Ableman shouted, ruthlessly pulling on Ladybird’s antennae stumps as she dragged her across the plaza. Her secret service detail watched in bewilderment, while the army forces stood in fearful salute. Cassandra dragged Ladybird across the procession of federal forces both assessing the damage to the park and to their own careers, past the Library of Congress, and to a broken trail leading to the bizarre monument that had risen from the ground during the earthquake. Ladybird merely flopped like a fish behind her.

“Examine your handiwork you vile traitor!” Cassandra shouted. She hefted Ladybird up by the remains of her antennae and climbed the steps to show her the aftermath of her seemingly dreadful crimes.

Earlier in the day when Ladybird had examined the monument she had found it sealed off with massive stone doors that would not budge. Now those doors had been thrown open by the force of the C.S. Hydra crashing into the side of the building. Cassandra entered the room and lifted Ladybird accusingly toward the contents of the building, thrusting her face close every offensive little item that there was to be seen.

There were shelves, roughly hewn from what appeared to be freshly felled trees, moss still growing on the bark unshaven from the wood’s surface. Several lines of shelves occupied the building’s single story, and each of these were crammed with old books, seemingly bound in gold, with shining gold spines and clean white pages. Glass-shielded torches on the walls illuminated the room, and the floor tiles had not even a fleck of dust on them. There must have been hundreds of books on those shelves. The space inside the monument seemed unreal, as though it held its own world regardless of how small it looked from the outside. Those doors were like a wormhole to a strange place.

Ameran and occult symbology dominated the space. There were eagles and wreaths of acacia and world globes across the shelves and shining on the book covers. There were star and banner flags that strangely had only 13 stars. Pentagrams and algebraic symbols entwined across the floor tiles, etched like ritual markings, glowing with a misty light that gave the place a feel of magic. Ladybird felt the strange power and ominous atmosphere of the monument, even in her stupor. She could see it all.

Still held up like a dead fish by Cassandra, Ladybird felt something electric, biological, something inside her that triggered a sudden and inexplicable need. The sensation was similar to when she molted.  She shut her eyes and her limbs went rigid. She began to concentrate on her forehead and antennae, holding her breath and putting active pressure, furrowing her brow and trying to control the muscles of her upper head. Cassandra stared at her, clearly perturbed; she then gasped and let go when new antennae sprouted within her grip with a spurt of yellow hemolymph. Ladybird hit the ground, but now she could see and hear quite clearly, and her vertigo was clearing up.

“You monster!” Cassandra whined. “Now my hand is covered in your filth!”

“That’s your fault for not leaving me in that ditch.” Ladybird said.

“I was trying to help you!” Cassandra shouted.

Ladybird put her hands on her hips, staring pointedly at Cassandra.

“Really?” She said.

Cassandra fidgeted. “Help you – take responsibility for your actions!

“Great. Wonderful.” Ladybird sighed. Cassandra seemed categorically incapable of kindness.

“It doesn’t matter what I did, what matters is what you did, which is horribly endangering me– I mean, Amera. You are putting this country at risk, and I demand, as the President, that you make amends!”

Ladybird glared at her from the floor. “I’m not sure I fully appreciate what’s happening here.”

“What is happening is – I will destroy you if you don’t do something about this, right now.”

“About what?”

Cassandra grit her teeth. She pointed at the shelves. “All of this is classified information, and the purpose of this place is protected as a matter of national security. It is your fault that it is exposed, and you will take it into your hands right now to suppress all of this information. Smash it, burn it, do whatever, but get rid of it!”

“And what if I don’t want to?” Ladybird said, sitting up and crossing her arms.

The President paused and stared at her. Cassandra crossed her own arms, tapped her feet, and fidgeted with her hair, seeming deep in thought for a moment. Her feet tapped faster and faster, while she grew more visibly aggravated, her eyes turning deeper red, and her face with it. She began holding her hands out in front of her as though she wanted to wring Ladybird’s neck, but kept finding herself incapable of it. Ladybird did not want to hurt her, it likely would have been a lopsided match, but if the President punched down, she’d punch up. Cassandra seemed to realize this, because she moved no closer to wringing Ladybird’s neck, and kept wringing the air.

Momentarily she turned to look outside, where the army was.

She shook her head, covering her face with her hands in embarrassment.

“I think she realized that she could sic the army on you, but that it’d be a complete sideshow.” Dragonfly said, again calling Ladybird from their base of operations. She appeared in a corner of Ladybird’s goggle display, blowing on herself with a paper fan, sweaty, her red ponytail looking frizzy – due to the earthquake damage to their apartment, there was no air conditioning to keep her cool. “I guess she really can’t make you do anything.”

Ladybird smiled smugly, emboldened by this realization. Cassandra turned back to her, gritting her teeth and noticing her change of character. Apparently frustrated by her inability to simply will mug and mime at Ladybird to destroy her, she threw a tantrum, pounding on the floor with her feet and fists while making child-like, aggressive noises, growing higher pitched the more her temper degraded. Cracks formed on the pristine tiles whenever she struck, but they quickly repaired themselves whenever her fist rose back up from another strike, so that no permanent damage could be dealt to the structure even by Cassandra’s unrestrained violence.

“Well, she just lost one potential voter with that one.” Ladybird replied, brushing off the paper-like threads of shed skin and the dry flakes of hemolymph from her body as she stood up, her wounds closing. She had fully regenerated her antennae and filled most of the wounds with collagen. It would do for now until she could molt again. Losing her antennae was terribly annoying – it would grievously impair all of her other insect abilities.

Unamused, the President wiped the sweat and tears from her face and stood up to Ladybird once again. “You don’t even vote! You’re here illegally!” Cassandra sniveled. “So shut up!”

“Ladybird, did you see that?” Dragonfly said over Ladybird’s earpiece. Her goggles replayed the moment in a small video window, slowing down the appearance and disappearance of the cracks. “The floor fixed itself. I’m willing to guess the rest of this structure could be fairly hard to be rid of if it can all do that.”

“I guess that’s why it was buried underground, since it couldn’t be smashed.” Ladybird said. “From the looks of things, it’s bad news for the Amerans when this place rises from its hole.”

Absentmindedly, Ladybird snapped the handcuffs, with the same ease as breaking a twig. It appeared that Cassandra was in no condition to answer questions. Her meltdown continued unabated.  Half laughing and half crying, staring at her own hands in front of her face, she would hover about the room, and at random times kicking or otherwise striking one of the shelves and knocking down a book – which would then instantly right itself again. Then, suddenly, she stopped, and slowly turned her head over her shoulder to stare at Ladybird, her eyes glowing red and puffy. Slowly the color of her eyes changed to gold, and the distraught expression on her face vanished, and her drooping wings and limp tail rose up again. She directed herself toward Ladybird, crossing her arms, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, leaning back and cocking a little grin toward her. She looked like the picture of cool collectedness.

Ladybird rubbed her arm and smiled. “Uh– Hi, President?”

“You’re an idiot and I hate you.” Cassandra said, smiling. “In fact you might be the most disgusting and vile creature I have had the displeasure of being forced into contact with. You’re so gross and despicable that it is actually intriguing.”

“Ok.” Ladybird said simply. She blinked with confusion.

“So, how do you feel about that? Does your feeble mind feel attracted by my powerful insults? Well, you might be able to have this,” She gestured across herself, still grinning smugly, “If your stupid self follows my detailed instructions. What do you say to that? Interested? Obsessed, perhaps? Finding me irresistible now?”

“Umm. No. No, not really.” Ladybird said.

Cassandra paused for a moment, rubbing her chin, looking distraught once again. As soon as her self-doubt was again made visible, it also again disappeared. Ladybird caught her mouthing a word to herself: Kino.  She took on a different tack entirely afterwards, standing straight, her expression softening from its previous cool apathy. She approached Ladybird with a gentle demeanor, swinging her hips and slightly puckering her glossy lips.

Ladybird blinked with confusion. What the heck was Kino?

“I think I have treated you all wrong, Ladybird.” Cassandra said, her voice taking on a sudden sultry depth. “Ladybird, such a name. I feel as though I’ve discovered a new dimension of you. Such a strong depth. I feel as though all this time I overlooked something between us.” She took Ladybird’s hand, and pressed it against her own cheek. She teasingly pulled Ladybird’s fingers across her neck, slipping the hand under her suit coat and dress shirt and over the gentle curve of her shoulder. She drew closer, inch by sweltering inch, until Ladybird was overwhelmed with rosy perfume (had she worn it all along?) and the warmth of Cassandra’s breaths, felt almost right over her lips.

Ladybird tried to turn her cheek a little to keep away from a full kiss, but she felt a growing warmth all over, causing her face to flush, fiercely, the reddening visible even across the mid-brown tone of her skin. Her wings vibrated inside her back. Her antennae curled until they made the shape of a heart, matching the shape at the end of Cassandra’s pink tail (had it always been pink?). Cassandra was so soft to touch, and her skin almost shone. Her eyes and lips looked so inviting. Ladybird grew dizzy, and felt her own body swaying closer. Soon she could keep away no longer, and instead locked unblinking eyes with the President. She felt strangely pleasant, face to face with Ableman.

“Ladybird, I feel like we could forge a partnership with great benefits,” Cassandra drawled the pronunciation, and bit her own lip a little after benefits had rolled over her tongue, sending Ladybird shivering with strange delight. She wrapped her free arm around Ladybird’s waist, traveling down her thigh. “Why don’t you smash up this ugly place for me? The sooner we leave here, the sooner I can take you to the Opal Office with me. I can mount you on the Resolute Desk and walk you through a night with the most powerful woman in the world. What do you say?”

“That’s the name of the desk?” Ladybird said, laughing aloud. “It’s called The Resolute Desk? That’s such a stupid name. I thought the iconic presidential desk would have a cool name!”

Suddenly the fantasy collapsed. All the warm feelings and corporeal longings evaporated. Cassandra’s eyes turned red again, and her wings and tail turned black. She grit her sharp fangs together.

“You complete facile oaf!” She shouted, shoving Ladybird away.

Ladybird pointed at her and laughed. “Who even named the desk? Was it you?”

“Shut up! Ugh!” Cassandra shook her fists. “I can’t believe I tried that, and on you of all people! This is all your fault, you grotesque cockroach! You should have just fallen for my negging!”

Dragonfly appeared again on Ladybird’s goggle camera, pulling on the collar of her shirt and fanning herself. “Well, that was, uh, something. Something I hope never to see again. So could you please ask her what’s going on? In a productive way? Clearly she is really distraught by whatever this is, around you.”

Ladybird nodded. She cupped her hands around her mouth.

“Hey, you, you creepy pick-up artist demon–”

“–I said ask her productively!” Dragonfly groaned.

“–What’s the deal with this monument anyway?”

Cassandra grunted. “I can’t tell you, it’s national security! Just smash it already!”

“What makes you so sure I can do that?” Ladybird said, looking skeptical.

“Because you’re an illegal immigrant! There’s no Ladybird in my citizenship rolls, and I’m a legal Ameran so I can’t destroy it, and neither can my forces. Just make with the destroying already!”

“She’s not gonna budge.” Dragonfly sighed.

Seeing Cassandra’s reluctance to cede any sort of information, Ladybird considered simply doing what the President asked. There were several perils involved. Firstly she would be helping Cassandra Ableman. In fact this was really the major peril – Ladybird thought Cassandra arrogant, fickle and opportunistic and a general bad person. However, she was the President of Amera. After all was said and done she might owe her a favor. And what was the use of this monument anyway? Nobody would miss a few old books, especially if they hadn’t even seen them for hundreds of years. Curious about her ability to carry out this plan, Ladybird turned to face one of the shelves, and delivered a kick to its side. She made a deep dent in the wood. It would prove permanent. She pulled a book from the shelf, its cover reading, in etched gold, Compendio Daemonis LIV. Without reading a word, she ripped several of the pages out and threw them about her like confetti. Confetti they remained – unlike when Cassandra struck them, the books did not repair themselves.

The President’s face lit up and she began to clap at the destruction unfolding.

“Yes! Yes! Break more! Finally I can be rid of this damned thing!”

Ladybird threw the desecrated tome over her shoulder and grinned.

“So,” she began, crossing her arms and eyeing Cassandra, “if I destroy your little library here, what will you do for me? I’m going to need an incentive here, since I’m doing you a big favor.”

“I’ll write you a tax break!” Cassandra said.

“You said yourself that I’m illegal, so why do I need a tax break?”

“True. Sorry.” Cassandra stroked her own hair quizzically. “Tax breaks are my bread and butter solution to most problems. Instead, let me offer you something unique. I think I have a proposition you will like.” She raised her hand to swear: “I will veto all Anti-Ladybird laws and give you partial immunity for a year.”

“What about any years after that?” Ladybird asked.

“You’re on your own.” Cassandra said, frowning. “Final offer!”

Ladybird stretched out her hand. “Deal!”

They shook hands, and Ladybird walked between a row of shelves, so that she could see the walls of the monument on both sides and go about the bloody business ahead of her. She set her shoulder, closed her fists, and spread her wings. Holding her breath and closing her eyes, she burst forward on the strength of her green jets, rocketing toward the wall and delivering a brutal punch. The entire monument shook, books began to fall from the shelves, the candles went out. Ladybird’s punch took a 5mm thick sliver of rock from the wall – a small cut, barely a nick.

“This could take a while.” Ladybird said, smiling nervously at Cassandra.

“Better idea!” Cassandra replied. “Just rip all the pages out of the books, rip them into tiny little pieces, and spray them about. It doesn’t matter if the rock stands around if nobody can read the books!”

Ladybird looked out over the book-laden landscape of the library. There were probably hundreds of books, thousands of books– hundreds of thousands of books. She flew up to a high shelf, examining several specimens. All of them had similar titles – Compendio Daemonis, Volvere Ab Luciferum, all with volume numbers stretching into infinity. The more she looked around the shelves, the more books seemed to occupy the place, as though more were spawning from thin air whenever she contemplated destroying them. The higher she flew, the higher the ceiling seemed.

From above, she shouted down, “I demand wages for this!”

From below, Cassandra shouted up, “Minimum wage!”

Ladybird grumbled, both because it was a very bad wage for this work, but also because she was all too ready to accept it over essentially nothing.

The Library And The Ladybird (VI)

“Are you alright, Madame President?” Ladybird innocently asked, standing in the middle of a plaza where the earth was cratered and splintered by catastrophic seismic activity, in the shadow of an enormous flying disc bristling with guns, and surrounded by the severed remains of its razor-tipped tentacles, cut mere seconds into a bloodthirsty charge. She smiled, and patted the shaking president on the ripped shoulder of her suit in a friendly and affirming fashion.

“NO, I’m not alright!” President Cassandra Ableman shouted.

Behind them the floating vehicle raised the open stumps of its tentacles.

“Oh, just a cut along the segment? That’s fixable.” Dr. Cruciere said.

One by one the tentacles stumps extended toward the ground. Ladybird seized President Ableman, who was of thankfully average weight, and leaped over the parked APC, seeking cover on its other side. Behind them the tentacles reached out to their severed heads and connected anew, a series of loud sucking sounds issuing from the act as though sunction cups were being pressed together. Each flexible shaft seamlessly joined as though never cut, and the tentacles rose again like new, snapping their razor-sharp pincers in anticipation. Ladybird spotted them over the APC and leaped away again; she spread her wings and blew a stream of green exhaust from the fleshy rocket spouts on her lower back, propelling her clear away from the attack. The tentacles crashed over and around the APC, ensnaring the vehicle and raising it to the air while the troops inside threw themselves desperately from the doors.

Ladybird landed safely near the mysterious monument, President Ableman still on hand and protesting furiously, but her feet had barely touched the ground when she heard something snapping loudly behind her. She glanced over her shoulder as the Hydra launched the APC toward her like a catapult throwing a boulder, and had precious seconds to react. Ladybird leaped and burst upward with her rockets, barely avoiding the remains of the vehicle as it crashed below her and smashed into the ancient doors. She felt a wave of heat and the pinpricks of shrapnel as the APC ‘s motor exploded, demolishing the chassis and showering the surroundings in metal and flames.

“Find somewhere safe to put me down already!” Cassandra cried.

There was nowhere near that was safe to land now; Ladybird flapped her wings and sustained her rockets, taking off in full flight. One by one the tentacles separated again behind her, having clumped together to throw the APC, and covered the area around the floating machine. It was easy to conflate the actions of the machine with an alien intellect, and Ladybird often erroneously did so – but inside the thing was an even more dangerous adversary, Dr. Anne-Marie Cruciere, and her assistant Asmodeus. It was no simple thing for Ladybird to keep the President safe from them. She knew nothing of what this was machine was capable and was too busy keeping away from it to be able to tell.

She tapped her forehead. “Dragonfly, give me something on this thing!”

In the corner of her eyes she saw Libel, Dragonfly, appear in a little square video feed on her goggles.

“I’m trying to figure out a strategy here, but this machine is really abstract. I think that she designed this specifically to be the same thickness all around so that you can’t easily bifurcate any one place with your claws. From what I can tell the tentacles are at least 20 metres long each. They are segmented, and it appears if you cut along the segments, Cruciere can just attach the tentacles again. Try cutting diagonally. And watch out for the–”

An autocannon round flew suddenly past, slicing off a little tuft from the right side of Ladybird’s long, black hair. Ladybird banked sharply as the guns on the Hydra screamed with renewed purpose.

Cassandra screamed and pressed herself tighter against Ladybird’s chest. The air filled with flak and Ladybird twisted and turned in mid-air, wincing as the withering fire grazed her, exposing trickles of yellow blood and hints of brown skin from under tiny rips on the sides of her suit. Direct impacts bounced harshly off, unable to penetrate the suit and then her well toned back head-on – but she felt the bruises they left, wide areas of throbbing flesh. She hugged Cassandra close to her, trying desperately to keep her guarded from the bullets. For all her strengths Ladybird had not devised any good plan to deal with unguided anti-air fire like flaks, and Cruciere was taking ample advantage of this. Ladybird had never flown a plane in her life – and now she was, more or less, acting like a biological plane in the middle of a killing zone. She tried to bank, to dive, to burn her rockets as fiercely as possible, but the gunfire was everywhere, a storm of metal that try as she might she could not fully avoid. She had only one chance, one thing all flaks suffered from.

She heard it; the tell-tale click. Without looking Ladybird dove straight from the ground while the guns reloaded. She hit the ground, reoriented herself in a second and snapped into action again, charging at full speed toward the monument and taking cover behind it, hoping to put enough stone between herself and Cruciere to be safe. She heard the second set of clicking noises and saw renewed shooting. Bullets whizzed past the monument with the same fury, but it was wholly ineffective and scattershot fire, aiming overhead for where she had been.

“Hey! Where did you go now? Come out now you cowardly insect! Fight like the roach you are!” Cruciere said, pounding her fists on something inside her cockpit to vent her frustration.

“Doctor, roaches do not fight.” Asmodeus said, as though unaware she was on the sound system as well. Cruciere grumbled loudly, broadcast all over the plaza, and the guns clicked to a stop.

“Exactly!” Cruciere shouted.

With her back to the stone and safe from fire, Ladybird caught her breath.

She examined her charge and sighed with relief. Cassandra had dug her fingernails right into her back and neck, and she clung to her like a child to a parent, shaking and gritting her teeth in fear. She appeared wholly unharmed by the hailstorm of bullets they had flown through, and slowly Ladybird coaxed her back to her old self by petting her head. Cassandra opened one eye, and then another. She almost jumped out of Ladybird’s arms in shock.

“Listen, you,” Cassandra pointed accusingly, tapping Ladybird’s nose, her face very red and sweating and her eyes puffy with tears, “You did save me or something, but– whatever! Don’t let it go to your head! Don’t think you’re some kind of big hero now. It was your duty as a citizen of Amera to protect me. That’s all!”

“Sure.” Ladybird grinned. “You’re welcome Madame President.”

“It’s– It’s not like I’m grateful or anything! So don’t get egotistical about it!”

Cassandra huddled behind the monument, hugging herself and mumbling ‘I could have died’ to herself in a faraway voice, while Ladybird stretched her arms and legs, and spread her elytra. She had burnt a lot of exhaust, and felt suddenly tired. Though she did not know exactly how it worked, her body converted calories, and particularly sugar energy, into the strange green effect that carried her aloft and produced her exhaust. It also came handy in other ways – already her oozing yellow wounds had taken a dim green glow and begun to heal, giving off a green mist.

It was all the verdite in her blood – the same junk powering Cruciere’s machine.

“Ladybird!” Cruciere shouted, broadcasting at an even louder volume, “You have exactly ten seconds to come out and fight me, so that I can destroy you; or else, I will be very mad! I may choose to destroy other things instead, like this statue here, or that giant rock fissure there, or that important-looking lamp-post!”

She heard the thundering of Cruciere’s guns, spinning up and stopping in seconds.

“There goes the lamp! This is on you Ladybird! You caused this tragedy!”

Ladybird sighed deeply, rubbing her face against the palms of her hands.

“You’ll need to get up close and under the craft.” Dragonfly said, taking over one of the goggle screens to display a diagram of the craft and tentacles, “While the underside has the same guns, they’ll be at a disadvantage firing on you up close because they might hit the tentacles, and their traverse and angle will be more limited.”

“Alright. Just let me catch my breath a second.” Ladybird said. “I’m down on calories.”

“Oh, that’s right, we never really got to have a decent breakfast.” Dragonfly said.

“And I didn’t bring anything to eat either.” Ladybird replied.

Chunks of stone and burning bits of plaster and rebar flew past the monument.

“There goes the statue, Ladybird!” Cruciere said, following a second burst of gunfire, “Your selfishness is destroying vivid Ameran heritage; this wonderful rock fissure is next! Surrender now to save it!”

Cassandra stood from the ground and dusted herself off.

“Oh for goodness’ sakes! Here!” She shouted.

She extended Ladybird a hand while turning her cheek away. Ladybird stared, incredulous – at arms reach Cassandra offered a high-calorie energy bar, chocolate flavored, for Ladybird to take.

Ladybird stared for a moment.

“It’s a high-stress lifestyle and I have cravings!” Cassandra said.

“That’s honestly not what I’m confused about.” Ladybird said, tentatively taking the bar from Cassandra’s hands as though it were about to go off like a bomb at any second. This would be the first magnanimous thing she had ever seen the President do for anybody.

“Just eat the stupid bar and go stop that maniac!” Cassandra shouted.

Ladybird unwrapped the bar and pushed the whole thing into her mouth unceremoniously. She consumed it with a vicious chewing. It tasted faintly vitamins at first but followed with an overpowering and bitter dark chocolate flavor. She barely noticed the advertised wafer crisp interior filled with very bland caramel, save for a slight contribution to mouthfeel. Nonetheless Ladybird felt the rush of sugar and calories through her body like a wholly palpable sensation, as though her organs were as sensitive to touch and stimulus as her skin. Cassandra watched with horror as she chomped down on it like a beast, swallowing the whole lump in one go. She crumpled the paper and threw it, missing a nearby waste basket.

“This thing sucks. You need to buy a better brand.” She said.

Before Cassandra could protest Ladybird dashed out of cover, propelling herself along the ground with her feet barely touching the earth and her rockets burning green from her lower back. She glided easily across the terrain, her eyes locked on her adversary. Across from her the Hydra spun its body a few degrees to face her, and she made note of the positions of the guns. Cruciere laughed uproariously and the vehicle opened fire, the guns along the bottom of the thick black disc raking the earth with lines of concentrated fire, so thick and fast it that it seemed like invisible blades were cutting up the turf around the Ladybird. She strafed, avoiding the guns and closing in rapidly.

To keep up with Ladybird the guns extended further down from the body, maintaining a suitable angle to fire on a target closing in to point-blank range. This was her chance – as soon as Ladybird entered the shadow of the vehicle she leaped and launched herself to the first gun. A tentacle rose to take a swipe at her, and in an instant she cut through it, her hand melting into the shape of a lone razor-like claw, and reached the underside of the craft. She clung to the gun, the tentacle falling behind her, swiped diagonally and incapable of recovery; she plunged her hand through the gun as though it was paper rather than steel, ripping out its mechanical guts and throwing them away.

Eight other tentacles curled beneath the craft and snapped toward her. She leaped again as the pincers converged uselessly on the bottom of the disc, and threw herself between two other turrets hurriedly turning to target her.  She flew to a suitable midpoint between the guns and extended both her arms. Sudden muscle action sucked her digits and palms into the arm with a sharp crunch, leaving thick, scarified brown spouts in their places, dribbling yellow blood, steaming green mist, the veins across the wrist and forearm glowing an intermittent green. There was no pain and she did not even have to think for a second to perform this seemingly grotesque ritual – transforming an appendage was as natural as moving it. She felt her arms swell slightly; hot green streams of corrosive fluid erupted from where her hands once were, flying several meters and striking both her targets, eating through the barrels as she flew away.

She turned her own guns on the tentacles, shooting two more streams into the mass, but they dispersed too quickly and her range was too short, and the jets of hot acid fell harmlessly away from their targets. She bolted up the side of the craft, and landed atop behind one of the gun turrets. A tentacle rose with her and turned on its side, readying to swat her away; she spread her arms to meet it, and took it to the chest like catching a charging bull. She managed to get a grip, stopping it mid-swing and wrapping her arms around the thick, ridged shaft.

“Let go of that!” Cruciere shouted. “That’s sensitive equipment!”

The tentacles rose around the craft like the arches of a crown. Ladybird held tight to her own struggling tentacle, giving it a little slack so that she move just a bit further down the shaft. One by one, in the same pattern as their previous collective attacks, the tentacles drove down toward her. Ladybird grinned, and squeezed her arms together around the shaft, crushing and sealing it, and she took her captured tentacle as a flail. Taking advantage of the space between the tentacle’s attacks and their positions around the ring of the craft, she swung her own, slicing through the first and hardly losing momentum for the second and third, fluidly bifurcating the appendages and rendering them incapable of repair. Her captured tentacle embedded itself into the fourth tentacle it cut, having lost velocity; Ladybird dropped it and leaped out of the way of the remaining three, which came crashing down unto the gun turret.

From the air Ladybird pushed herself back down into a dive with one last, mighty burst from her rockets. Her arms turned to razors and she twisted herself into a spin, bringing her blade down on all three remaining tentacles and severing them from the heads. The metal pincers fell upon the saucer and the flexible shafts slid uselessly off the top of the vehicle, hanging limply in their neutral positions. All nine of the tentacles were inoperable. Ladybird stood triumphant atop the saucer. She put her fists to her hips, and stuck her tongue out at one of the cameras atop the craft.

There was a sharp click, and a slow twisting of metal; the remaining gun turrets did not find Ladybird very amusing. She grinned. When they opened fire their bullets ricocheted harmlessly off metal. Ladybird kicked one of the fallen pincers into the line of fire, and using it as cover she drew a bead on the guns, her arms turned to spouts once again. Quick shots of acid caught barrels and armor, eating through the guns and rendering them useless. Once the pincer hit ground again the C.S. Hydra was, seemingly, fully disarmed. Ladybird sat on it and crossed her arms, smiling.

“Good work!” Dragonfly cheered. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help!”

“Moral support is fine too.” Ladybird said.

“Really? You think you won?” Cruciere laughed over the speakers. “Last I checked, I was still in here. And if you think I can’t find a way to reattach these tentacles, you’re kidding yourself.”

Quietly, Ladybird stood up atop the craft and picked one of the pincers back up, holding it by a battered length of its impressive segmented tether tubing. Calm and expressionless, she dragged it to the middle of the craft, and turned her back to it. She tugged, suddenly and with all her strength. The pincer soared over her shoulder and fell on the craft; Ladybird repeatedly reeled it in and threw it back, hammering at the exterior of saucer. Metal crunched, supports started spalling, coolant fluid and thin streams of waste gases escaped the craft. Across its surface various plates began to shimmer, turning rapidly invisible and then visible again, malfunctioning from the savage nature of the beating. The saucer tipped and turned with each brutal attack, and gradually lost altitude. Sirens blared.

Over sirens, the speakers blared the sound of a palm repeatedly slapping a face.

“Ok, well, we’ve all learned a lot today.” Doctor Cruciere said, the audio sounding choppy and crackling. “Soon, soon, Newfork city, and Amera! You will kneel to me! But until then, I admit defeat. I am not, however, responsible for the safe landing and disposal of my enormous flying saucer, which will crash any second now.”

Ladybird stopped beating on the craft, and found herself nearly thrown off the top as the exterior of the saucer snapped suddenly open, jagged plates rising in strange angles, releasing a cloud of hot gases and spraying cooling and propellant fluids in their wake. She rolled clumsily off the craft as Cruciere’s escape pod blasted off from it, its exhaust setting aflame the dispersed liquids that preceded the launch. Ladybird hit ground in the shadow of the falling craft, and struggled to stand, feeling dizzy and sick from inhaling god only knows what; she looked blearily to the sky for the escape pod, but it had already become invisible, camouflaged like the craft it had once been a part of.

“Ladybird, forget her, you have to get away from that thing!” Dragonfly said, taking over all of Ladybird’s goggles for a second and pointing her fingers furiously up. When Ladybird looked where she was pointing, her image disappeared and instead she saw the massive craft, accelerating toward the ground as its unknown propulsion systems failed and gravity took hold of it once more. Ladybird dove clumsily out of the way, rocketing herself into a roll, crashing legs over shoulders out of the burning shadow and smashing into a raised chunk of the field that had been upturned by the earthquake. She watched the unfolding madness upside down, her antennae and wings broken.

Descending ever faster, the wreck tore into the earth, taking the remains of fountains and light posts, ripping cobblestone from paths across the plaza, a tidal wave of dirt and turf rising and falling around it as it slid across the ground, threatening the government buildings across the park from it. There seemed to be no stopping the craft, and troops, secret service and curious civilians that had been watching from afar all scattered in a mass panic. When it seemed the craft would bowl over the Library of Congress, it crashed instead into the mysterious monument and came to a complete stop, incapable of breaking through. It settled, burning, plates and tentacle remnants dangling behind it.

For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, there was quiet again in the Presidential Plaza. It was, however, quite short lived. From the monument, a shrill scream issued, and the stamping of high heeled shoes on stone could be heard across the monuments and the plaza field. “No! No! No no no!” President Cassandra Ableman screamed and cried and pounded on the rock. “This can’t be happening! Oh Sacred Hell not under my first term!”

Ladybird heard all of this, but was too dizzy to make any sense of it.

“Ladybird,” Dragonfly said, “I uh– I think that weird monument is open now.”

Ackley’s New Lease On Life Epilogue

As the sun rose leisurely over Hillberry Manor, the curtains in Ackley’s room drew slowly open and the reactive tint over the windows grew slowly clearer. The room was programmed to control the amount of light, gradually and carefully, over the course of the dawn and unto the late morning.  Silent clocks struck some random hour of the morning; she would notice then, as though by accident, the bright world outside her room. In an instant the curtains would snap open the rest of the way, and the dark tint would vanish. With her, the room had awoken. She yawned.

“Good morning, Grover Cleveland.”

She waved to the robotic fixture on the wall opposite her bed. Its bright red central eye lit up, and it waved back with a spindly titanium and aluminium leg, curling the claws at the end like fingers. Grover Cleveland, though, was the house itself. It was Dr. Cruciere’s artificial intelligence, silently alive in every part of the house that it regulated, including Ackley’s room. This was simply a fact, and nothing Ackley had any opinions about it. Much of her life was the same, governed by facts that she did not have much of an opinion on. She reserved those for important things.

Every morning, after a sudden onset of consciousness, Ackley took diligent care of tasks once done by the nurses of Fairway Children’s Hospital. This was not, once, a fact – she had made it so by vehemently insisting she would care for herself, and that she needed only the tools to do so. Those tools had been then been granted. Now it was a fact. She helped herself to the edge of the bed by a safety rail and dangled her legs from the side. She snapped her fingers and the round, metallic white drone sleeping atop her bedposts climbed carefully down to her, following the length of vacuum tube connecting it to Ackley’s chest. Its own red LED eye met hers and blinked with recognition.

“Morning, Nurse.” Ackley said.

Nurse bowed its circular body on its spindly legs. It then reached a leg out to the drawers beside the bed, opening one shelf at a time and retrieving various items. Bandages, disinfectant, a change of clothes, and a little joystick; the Nurse drone set about the morning ritual, helping Ackley remove the bandages around her chest, where the vacuum tube connected to Nurse burrowed into her lungs and sucked out the deadly bile from them. Ackley applied disinfectant to the area around the tube, and a new set of bandages. She changed from her pajamas to a dress shirt, two buttons carefully left undone so her tube could stick out, as well as a little vest, buttoned the same way, and a pair of pants. Nurse picked up the joystick and handed it to Ackley. On its surface, a red button powered the electric wheelchair beside her bed, and with the joystick Ackley drove it closer and turned it around so the seat faced her.

Ackley stood, casually, easily, and she walked; she then sat in the chair and made herself comfortable. Nurse climbed on to the back of the chair, slipping into a mesh bag sewn in for it. It outstretched two of its legs over Ackley’s shoulder, like loose straps. Ackley felt the thrumming of its various systems behind her. She moved her chair to a little door on the side of the room, near the large drone affixed to the wall. Nurse reached over her head to open the door and deposit a red, biohazard labeled tank into it. The tank was immediately sucked down a chute, and a moment later a similar, empty tank took its place. Nurse retrieved and attached this tank to its back.

“That appears to be all.” Ackley said. “Let’s go, Nurse.”

Driving the wheelchair was as easy as moving the joystick. Two large wheels and two smaller ones in the back provided all the support and motion that she required. The turn radius left a little to be desired, but she had become used to it. Out the door, the automatic portion of the staircase slowly brought her to the bottom floor. She drove to the back garden, where surrounded by the brick fence a veritable forest had been cultivated. Tall trees cast a gloom across the backyard where light only intermittently penetrated the treetops in thin beams, shifting with the cloud cover and windblown branches. Everywhere she looked there were plants, across the brick wall, crawling down from balconies, sprouting from the ground. Flowers and fruits brought flecks of color to the display, and snapping flytrap heads and acid-spiting spouts established an animated presence. A little path carved across the garden brought Ackley to a clearing in the center with a gazebo, where the sun shone sharply from overhead, its rays coming down like a spotlight.

Ackley circled the gazebo for the wheelchair access ramp, and climbed it. In the gazebo, she found Amanda in business attire, her hair up in a professional-looking bun, seated at a little table with a stack of papers on one side and a very large calzone split into four parts on a plate. She put down a file folder and greeted Ackley by spreading her arms and smiling ear to ear. Ackley drove the wheelchair closer and leaned out. Amanda’s arms snapped shut around her, and the woman almost pulled Ackley from the wheelchair entirely in a tight, frenzied embrace.

“Ohh you’re so adorable! I’ll never get tired of hugging you!”

“You have a little sauce in your mouth.” Ackley said.

Amanda let Ackley go and quickly brought up her smartphone to look herself over in its handy mirror app. She then dabbed her mouth with a handkerchief to clean the offending stain. “Thanks much! Would you like to share before going to the labs? I feel we’ve made a lot of progress with that chef robot!”

“A calzone is still pizza.” Ackley bluntly said.

“Oh, I guess you’re a pizza half-empty kind of person.” Amanda replied.

They shared the calzone. Amanda was right. While a bit greasy still, the robot had become skilled at taking one’s requests and then making them into some kind of pizza. The calzone was essentially a vegan sandwich ran through the robot’s pizza programming, with gooey avocado, crisp mushrooms and lettuce and carrots wrapped in a crust. While she ate, Amanda regaled her with her latest ideas for Noodle Incorporated, and at the same time reading a plethora of documents on current developments, legal cases, propositions, and earnings reports.

“You are certainly busy.” Ackley said.

“Quite! Anne-Marie helps a bit, but being a CEO can be pretty stressful.” Amanda said. She wiped her hand over her forehead, as though to control a profuse sweat. But her forehead was dry, and the day was fresh. Birds sang in the trees around them. “But it’s very fulfilling work, and Anne-Marie thinks it’s important.”

“I’m sure it’s convenient for her wife to control a huge corporation.”

“It does help with her interesting hobbies from time to time.”

Amanda happily returned to work and Ackley excused herself. She pressed a button on the southern pillar holding the roof of the gazebo and walked down the ramp again. Around the other side of the gazebo the staircase had become inverted and flattened out into a slide, stretching down a dark hole below the garden. Ackley clamped her arms and waist to the chair and inched it slowly forward until her wheels went over the lip, and she sped down the slope, into a metal chute straight through the earth. She closed her eyes; moments later a powerful stream of cold gas slowed her descent. The wheelchair tapped a cushioned wall. Ackley rolled out of the landing area and out to a pristine corridor, white and sterile. Orb-like robots pushed carts of material and chemical drums to and fro; cameras attached to electric stun guns monitored the area, but flashed their red LED eyes in morse code greetings when Ackley passed.

“Where is Dr. Cruciere? And Asmodeus?” She asked aloud, seemingly to no one in particular. A panel on the wall lit up and a holographic display sketched a path for Ackley to follow. She traversed white hall until she found a door, indicated on the map, labeled Workstation 7. A biometric scanner showered her in lights, and the door slid seamlessly into the wall to allow her passage. Unlike the corridors the workstation was unpainted steel, dinged and battered in places where heavy objects had been dropped or weapons tested, smelly and in disarray, screws and wheels and tools rolling across the floor, mounds of metal scrap and puddles of oil cluttering the work space. 

In the center of the room, Doctor Cruciere banged into place a sheet of metal around the thick, stumpy leg of what appeared to be a quadrupedal box, mounting a cannon of ridiculous proportions. It was so large that thick support bars had been added to the front and back of the box-shaped chassis to prevent it from tipping forward or back; the support bars themselves then had slots where Ackley assumed more legs would be added. Atop the monstrosity, Asmodeus looked down with an impassive expression on her face, contemplating the support bars. Whatever it was that went through her mind, she made none of it known, and after Dr. Cruciere had bolted the extra metal around the legs, she stepped back and took in the design, and laughed out loud to herself. She seemed satisfied with it.

“Good afternoon, Doctor.” Ackley called out.

“Hello!” Doctor Cruciere replied. “You have come just in time, to witness my genius!”

From her white coat she took a joystick, similar to Ackley’s, and she pushed on the red button with a demented smile on her face. Asmodeus cried out in shock and quickly clambered off the top of the robot and dove into cover – in the next instant the cannon glowed bright red and burst immediately into pieces, the support bars flying in opposite directions, the chassis compressed into the ground, while the bulk of the cannon itself launched backwards into the wall and burst through to the adjacent work room. There was smoke and fire and screaming metal choking the adjacent room black and red so that nothing in it could be seen from the breached wall. Behind them the doors opened and spindly-legged drones carrying firefighting equipment rushed through the breach, leaping in to contain the flames.

Surprisingly, nobody was harmed by this catastrophe.

Cruciere clapped her hands. “Yes! That’s the kind of power I wanted. Now, I simply have to reinforce everything so that the cannon’s awesome power does not destroy itself and everything around it, and instead, destroys my enemies!” She decisively pounded her fist into her open palm, psyching herself up.

Asmodeus peeked out from behind a heap of scrap, breathing heavily. She was unharmed, and her work suit had not even a scratch on it, but she appeared quite winded from having to make her hasty escape. “Doctor, if you would be so kind, would you please inform me when next you are testing vehicles I am mounted atop?”

“Sorry. I got a bit excited.” Cruciere threw the joystick over her shoulder, into the shattered wreckage of the boxy little legged tank. She kneeled down to Ackley and patted her head. “So how’s my little genius today? Anything particular you’re up to? Want to help me test a few other giant cannons and bombs?”

Ackley sighed. “I was interested in seeing you build something that worked.”

Doctor Cruciere scoffed. “Engineering is a process! Trial and error refines a design from a mere idea into a working implementation! Hmph. Consumers only see the end result, and they think it came into being without any effort, but around here I am dedicated to wringing every last bit out of data out of a design.”

“Consumers, in this case, being the people that your giant gun will terrorize.”

“It’s for their own good, in the end.” Cruciere declared.

“I suppose so.” Ackley said, containing her laughter. She had no opinion on that either, other than the prospect was a little strange and a little fascinating, in the same way as her strange new life.

Dr. Cruciere grumbled. “So then, have you any ideas for making it better, if you’re going to criticize?”

Ackley smiled broadly. “I’ve actually got a few.”

 

Ackley’s New Lease On Life 10: Drones

Dr. Cruciere mumbled.

“Forty-five minutes.”

“She will be here soon, Doctor.” Asmodeus said.

“I told her it was a kidnapping! A kidnapping! She’s the getaway driver and she is not taking any of this seriously! I thought we’d talked about this, she said she would support me!”

“She’s supporting you, Doctor, please calm down.”

She checked her watch again.

“Forty-six minutes!”

At every possible juncture Cruciere reminded everyone of how long they had been waiting for Amanda Gilded to pick them up. Cruciere counted minute by minute and when she forgot a minute she would count it retroactively when next she remembered. She had started to count at twenty, and grew more vehement as minutes passed without a familiar SUV in sight. Amanda had promised them at most twenty or thirty minutes of waiting. Cruciere tapped her feet and seemed undecided as to whether her hips or her pockets were the least suspicious place to have her hands. Few cars passed them, but any that did drew a quick flinch from her as they approached.

“Forty-seven minutes!”

Meanwhile Ackley flipped through her bucket list for potential items that she had not considered, but had now inadvertently completed, such as escaping from a hospital and threatening to drink someone’s blood (a feat accomplished via her tangentially vampiric smiling). She sometimes looked down the road when it appeared that Amanda might have turned up. But she soon did this enough times to grow disinterested in it. She let Cruciere handle the roads, and instead worked against the minimal illumination of a nearby streetlight to read and write.

Asmodeus stood behind Ackley like a statue, periodically massaging the little girl’s shoulders. A stiff, cold breeze blew past them, and Ackley shuddered. Asmodeus knelt behind the wheelchair and pulled a blanket from the undercarriage, draping it over Ackley’s shoulders for added warmth. “You’ll be inside soon.” She said. Ackley nodded and she made a point to smile to her good nurse, but due to Asmodeus’ general lack of response she could not tell whether she had again made a toothy, flesh-hungering smile or a genuine, cheerful little girl smile.

“Forty-eight minutes.”

A disturbing noise then issued from Cruciere’s pocket. Ackley could only describe it as the sound a computer might make if it was alive and could therefore scream existentially about its condition as a wholly immobile box. There was glass cracking and metal smashing and the barest hint of a melody to it.

Cruciere withdrew her cell phone and answered the call.

“You’re late.” She shouted. “My kidnapping plot could be ruined any second now!”

She turned her back on the road. “Lost? You’re lost? Physics’ sakes!”

She started screaming directions into the phone. Several minutes later, a sleek green SUV pulled up to the street in front of them. Inside a well-dressed woman lowered the windows and smiled at them. She raised her hand and pointed cheerfully at her cell phone, before leaning her head into it again. Cruciere was still on the line with her and looked none too amused by her behavior. “Thanks for leading me here sweetie.” Amanda said, explicitly into the phone. This said, she again pointed her finger at the phone, and then at Cruciere, giggling all the while.

Cruciere hung up.

Asmodeus opened the side doors of the SUV, and began arranging the middle and rear seats to fit the wheelchair and trolley. At her behest Amanda stepped out of the car. She cooed with joy, clapping her hands at the sight of Ackley, but she was at first bashful and kept a physical distance, furtively peeking through the corners of her eyes at the little girl in the wheelchair. She approached, but stopped just short of Ackley, her body half-turned and avoiding eye contact. She fussed with her sport coat and strawberry hair, and opened and closed her mouth several times.

“Be careful with my extractor!” Ackley called out to Asmodeus. Beside her Amanda’s reticence seemed to be causing her to puff up, turning red and shaking as though something struggled to exit her.

“My name is Amanda Gilded!” She finally said. “I’m sorry you were kidnapped by my wife, but you know, you have to support your spouse’s hobbies and such, to maintain a good relationship.”

Ackley turned her attention from Asmodeus, and locked eyes with Amanda for a moment, who was ready to gush over her. She grumbled and spread her arms open. “You can hug me,” she groaned.

“OHMIGOSH!” Immediately the woman pounced; she snapped Ackley clear up from the wheelchair and lifted her against her chest. She was tall and plump and warm and it seemed like Ackley would be pushed right into the very core of her, and the little girl idly wondered if this was what filial love truly felt like – a lot of pressure around the waist, neck and back, and a certain slight discomfort from the tube buried into her chest.

“She’s so precious Anne-Marie! Look at her, she’s so adorable!”

From inside the car Asmodeus waved her arms frantically and hastily called out to them. “I would advise that she be manhandled several orders of magnitude less than she is now!”

Amanda deposited Ackley back into her chair.

“Sorry! I was just so excited.” Amanda said. “What is your name?”

“Ackley Hermes.” Ackley said, rubbing the bandages on her chest where the tube burrowed in. For a moment she’d felt a sting around that spot from being smothered so suddenly.

“I’m sorry you were kidnapped by my wife.” Amanda jovially said.

“I’m not.” Ackley replied bluntly.

Amanda flapped her hands eagerly, as though trying to fly. “Ohhh! She’s so witty Anne Marie! I love her so much! I can barely contain the urge to hug her again and again!” She cried.

“Well, contain it harder then.” Cruciere said.

“I know you don’t want me to intrude on your hobbies and all, but why exactly did you kidnap her?” Amanda said. She had a good-natured look and tone, like she was truly a good wife just supporting her spouse’s hobbies from afar. Even if that hobby seemed to involve stealing a small child from a hospital.

Ackley was at a loss for how human beings could operate this way.

Cruciere took to it like an everyday question. “She’s my latest employee.”

“Oh, you are also breaking child labor laws?” Amanda said excitedly.

“I guess?” Cruciere replied. “She’ll set her own hours, though.”

Amanda clapped her hands and made a contented little noise.

Soon the SUV was prepared, and Ackley and her extractor had been loaded into the car. Ackley looked back over her shoulder to make sure her extractor was secure. It was still pumping, operating on an internal battery in case of blackouts. She felt a slight urgency to have it connected to a stable power source. Asmodeus helped fasten her seatbelt and secure her wheelchair, and gave the go-ahead to everyone. Amanda adjusted her mirror, then drove off the curb from Fairway Children’s Hospital and in a clumsy turn circled back to the road.

“It’ll be about twenty back to the estate.” Amanda said.

“That’s what you said last time.” Cruciere replied.

Asmodeus reassured Ackley, rubbing down her chest and shoulders. Despite the gentle treatment, she still grew drowsy and a little sick in the car. She had not been driven anywhere for years now and had lost all sense of what a car trip entailed, the intermittent vibrations, the blurry black landscape scrolling off the side of her field of vision, the jerking starts and stops at traffic lights and stop signs. Her last few meals took on new life inside her stomach, and she developed a fierce headache. Ackley closed her eyes and tried to endure this final tribulation.

Around her everybody seemed to take notice. She felt the car slow down and heard people shift in their eat. “Is something wrong, Ackley?” Amanda said. “If you’re upset, I can pull over.”

“It’s fine,” Ackley stammered. “Asmodeus is taking care of me.”

She opened her eyes a bit and tried to smile. Asmodeus nodded her head.

“Then I’ll try to get back home a little quicker.” Amanda said.

Despite the burning in her stomach and chest, Ackley felt uncharacteristically elated by the response. Someone was genuinely worried about her and asked her how she felt! She almost felt like a real child. This was clearly a sign of changing winds in her life. Despite how utterly baffling these people were, she felt a sense of hope in their little clique. For the first time in years she was out of Fairway Children’s Hospital, and never to return. Would she soon have a real home? Even if among strangers, a place where she was wanted felt like a dream come true.

“Only a few more minutes now.” Amanda called out.

Contrary to Amanda’s promises, it seemed like an hour had gone since they set off, and Cruciere grumbled in her seat. Eventually the car honked its horn and paused. Ackley saw red within her closed eyes, and heard shaking metal and the whining noise of a vehicle scanner. She blearily looked ahead. The SUV passed through the gilded gates of Upward Newfork, where property values skyrocketed by their meter distance from the rest of town and no expense was spared for the wealthy inhabitants. She had only tangentially heard of this part of her city, confined as she was to the less glamorous Central Newfork, and found herself awed by the opulence around her. Well-lit streets flanked a cobblestone road that curved around bright green gardens and vast lawns like personal plazas. Ackley could have sworn that every property had almost a football field’s worth of lawn stretching out along its driveways. Behind the broad fountains, tall statues, tremendous gardens and hedges, were enormous houses like glowing-eyed giants in the distance.

Amanda cheered. “Welcome to Upward Newfork! And soon, Hillberry Manor!”

The SUV drove past several of these massive properties before turning into a road fenced off with bricks and a digital gate. Cruciere pulled down her window and leaned out over her door, raising her eye to a scanner. Only then did the gate unlock. Once they had driven past it locked itself. Inside was a modest lawn, ringed by the driveway, with a fountain that seemed humble at first until the car approached, and it burst into a show with colored lights and soothing sounds and a tiny whirlwind of rainbow-colored water dancing in the middle of the plate.

“I made that!” Amanda said, responding to Ackley’s interest in the fountain. She stuck out her chest with pride. “I put it together from a kit I got from Kitstarter! It was only 2000 Amero too!”

Compared to the glimpses she’d had of other homes in Upward, Amanda Gilded’s Hillberry Manor was a modest place, only three stories tall, and about wide as it was tall. The lawn was restrained in size and decoration, though to Ackley this was only a concession so that it could be easily fenced off with brick. Hillyberry Manor had a smooth facade with arched windows and a pleasantly salmon-pink coat of paint, and the first door was raised off the ground such that a series of steps led up to the landing and the big brown double-door entrance. Everyone stepped out of the SUV, and Asmodeus unloaded Ackley’s wheelchair and the trolley carrying her liquid nitrogen extractor.

“Be careful with it!” Ackley said again. “Don’t rock it too much.”

Cruciere looked at the trolley and its contents with growing disapproval.

“Asmodeus, we can’t keep carrying around that thing.” She said.

Ackley felt a chill down her spine. “What do you mean? I need it to live.”

Cruciere kept staring intently at it. She then snapped her fingers and smiled broadly.

“I’m going to make it portable.”

“Make it portable?” Ackley’s heart raced and she felt a sudden urge to run away. Involuntarily she clutched a hand against her chest, where the vacuum tube had been surgically inserted, and diligently sucked away the liquid nitrogen from her lungs for months now. Whenever anyone handled it she felt a twinge of stress, but now it was rising to a full blown panic – someone intended to take it apart! She clutched at the vacuum tube as though doing so would prevent Cruciere from going near the extractor. But the woman approached it nonetheless, and she clipped her big red ponytail into a bun, and bent near the machine. Ackley breathed heavily as Cruciere laid hands on it.

“Is she alright?” Amanda asked Asmodeus. The latter nodded, and kneeled next to Ackley and tried to calm her down, but she could not stand it. She could not stand anyone being near the extractor, the only thing keeping her alive all of this time. Instinctive fear for her life overwhelmed Ackley’s thoughts and hijacked any coherent thought she could have had – she tried to reach out to stop Cruciere in vain, but the woman was already setting down strange tools from her coat, and putting on a pair of gloves. She completely ignored Ackley, and smiled to herself.

“This will only take a second. You, come over here.”

Cruciere shouted at a bush, and it began to shake. A gleaming white ball rolled out of the bush and toward Cruciere, and stopped beside her feet. From its sides sprouted four spindly steel legs that held it up. Ackley felt herself sweat and cry as Cruciere popped free a series of screws from the machine, and she almost passed out when the extractor’s guts were exposed, rolled out unto the floor. She closed her eyes, weary and sick-feeling with fear. Why was this mad woman doing this? Was she going to die? She felt as though it was her own self broken open on the floor.

“Have some guts, would you?” Cruciere shouted, minutes later. “Here you go.”

Ackley felt something clamp against the back of her wheelchair.

She clutched her chest again, and ran her fingers along the length of tube. It was still sucking. In fact, it was sucking just a little faster than it once was. She looked weakly over her own shoulder and found the little white drone from the bush, now connected to her by the vacuum tube from her extractor. The creature waved its spindly legs and played a cheering noise from its speakers. Cruciere’s modifications had enlarged it, with two red tanks sticking out of its back, and its once fully white surface now interleaved with gray plates taken from the extractor.

“I installed all the extractor functions into this spider drone I had guarding the garden.” Cruciere said. “Now your extractor is not only portable, it is highly resistant to anti-personnel weapons! I’ve also improved some of its functions using parts of the drone. Had I the proper tools and time and a few more spare parts I could have installed a few more things to help you out, maybe binding it to your back instead of making it autonomous–”

“You’re an inconsiderate moron.” Ackley shouted, cutting her off. Spindly steel legs reached out to her with a handkerchief, and gently wiped the tears from her eyes, and helped her time her breaths to regain calm. When she crossed her arms in anger, the spider drone crossed its spindly legs in front of her as well.

“You’re welcome!” Cruciere replied, gritting her teeth.

“Hey now, let’s not fight,” Amanda said, stepping between Cruciere and Ackley, “We should go inside and have the chef make us something fancy to commemorate this successful kidnapping.”

“I replaced the chef too. I replaced him with a robot.” Cruciere said.

Amanda crossed her arms. “Now, I want to support your hobbies, dear, and you know that very well. But you have to agree, you’re replacing a great many things lately with robots. It’s unsettling.”

“He knew too much!” She replied. “It’s not like I hurt him in any way. I just sent him back to his family with a check and a wiped-out memory. The robot can make pizza, Amanda! Pizza!”

“Can it make anything else?” Ackley said critically.

“It can make pizza.” Cruciere replied.

Asmodeus wheeled Ackley up the steps to the front door, while the little drone clung on to the back of her chair. While Amanda fiddled with her keys Ackley felt the drone thrumming behind her, and the tubes sucking the foul poison from inside her, and it was strangely reassuring. At the hospital her extractor had sat beside her bed, and whenever she thought about it she felt helpless to affect it – now it was right behind her, barely bigger than a soccer ball, and it could move on its own. No harm could come to it now, she knew, and she felt freer than ever, as though her life had never been more secure. Though she would not admit it openly, past the initial shock she was feeling thankful for Cruciere’s help – and in general for Cruciere’s abnormal interventions into her confined little life.

“Alright, come in, come in!” Amanda said, opening the doors at last. “Behold! I found the plans for all this stuff on the internet too. Once I had accrued enough funds, I had a team build it all!”

Past the brown double doors was a large and open atrium extending the three stories of the house and up to a slightly arched ceiling of transparent glass, now blackened by night. In the middle of the atrium a gold statue had been erected to honor Amanda, capturing her effervescent smile, long wavy hair and pleasant proportions, while being starkly, completely naked; a point of fact Ackley tried to ignore. Similar effigies had been hung on the walls, posters and photographs of Amanda in various stages of undress, along with a few more recent images of herself accompanied by Cruciere, who apparently wore her lab coat even to the beach, to a wedding chapel, and in outer space.

“Before I was a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist I was a successful model!” Amanda said, posing near her statue. There was a cry of rattling metal guts and a hiss of some kind of engine, and suddenly the golden thing moved to match her. Both Amanda and the statue were now posing with their hips out, bent slightly forward and making a V for victory. “But these days I pose for nobody other than Anne-Marie!”

“Why were you two in space?” Ackley asked, pointing at the pictures.

“Our honeymoon was in space!” Amanda said. “I spare no expense for Anne-Marie!”

Cruciere looked off to one side, face turning a more reddish brown color.

Amanda was eager to begin a grand tour, and she returned to the party and instantly took control of Ackley’s wheelchair, only to be stopped almost as instantly by Asmodeus.

“She needs to rest. We can do this some other time.” Asmodeus said.

“Yes. I’d like to sleep now.” Ackley interjected. She looked around the atrium. Two sets of stairways along the opposing walls led up to hallways that disappeared into the eastern and western wings of the structure, to the various rooms whose impression was not immediately apparent from within the atrium. Hallways along the ground floor trailed off in their own directions. “Do I have my own room, or do I hide in a closet like a fugitive?”

“Of course you have your own room!” Amanda said in shock. “Closets? I would never allow such barbarity! You’re getting a nice room with a view of the garden and your own bathroom!”

“Besides, the people around here don’t check in on us.” Cruciere said.

“Have you threatened them with asbestos too?” Ackley said.

“Oh no,” Amanda said, “In Upward Newfork, we have a camaraderie between us Upwarders, that we should keep out of each other’s business. Whether it be a little tax fraud, or some money laundering, or offshoring, or my wife designing a satellite cannon in the backyard: it’s best for everyone’s peace of mind we ignore it.”

“Ah, I see. So it’s not just you people who are disturbed. It’s the whole town.”

“She’s so witty!” Amanda suddenly pushed herself again unto Ackley, nuzzling up against her and squeezing the little girl against her chest. “She’s the best, Anne-Marie! I love her so much!”

“I’m going to sleep now.” Ackley impassively declared.

Asmodeus took the handles on Ackley’s wheelchair again, and ignoring the thrumming extractor-drone hooked behind it, she led her up to the staircase. Ackley was about to protest having a second-floor room, but after being pushed up the first step, Asmodeus pressed a button on the wall, and the staircase became automatic for the remainder of the trip, sliding them easily to the second story and depositing them safely on the landing.

“Mom went to great lengths to make her home very accessible.” Asmodeus said.

“Do I have to call her mom? I’d rather not if it’s all the same.”

“It would make her very happy, but I am otherwise indifferent.”

They walked a down broad hallway, past over a dozen doors to each side. At the end of the hall, Asmodeus turned around and walked her back, looking over each door in detail. Finally she picked a room seemingly at random, and led Ackley inside. It was a luxuriant space, with massive bed, a large glass window with a clear view of the backyard garden, and on the wall, a hanging oval-shaped device that was almost certainly a robot. There was climate control, so the room was cool and comfortable, and it even exuded a smell like crisp, fresh flowers.

“I’ll stay with you for tonight, so you can get comfortable.”

Asmodeus helped Ackley off her wheelchair, checked the bandages on her chest and then tucked her into the big blankets in the bed. She felt diminutive within the king size, much larger than her hospital bed, but it was soft and comfortable, and she could feel gel or water slosh inside the pillows and mattress. As she laid in bed her extractor drone crawled up the wall and hung from a bedpost, positioning itself just high enough to be out of the way while giving Ackley’s vacuum tube some slack. It had a beady red LED eye that blinked on and off before shutting down for the night. Asmodeus sat beside the bed and waited for Ackley to close her eyes, and they spent the night in this way.

When she woke she hardly noticed how late it was – the windows had automatically tinged black to keep the room in a peaceful gloom. On the wall, the robot displayed the time, almost midday. Asmodeus was already awake, and punctual as always she was doing some chores in the dark, stocking the closet and adjoining bathroom with towels and wet wipes and apparel. Light began to filter in through the window, the glass changing hue; on the wall the drone waved one its appendages cordially at Ackley, and bid her a good afternoon. Asmodeus took notice.

“Good day, Ackley.” Asmodeus said. “I’ve taken the liberty of stocking your room. I took your measurements and ordered some things from the internet. I hope you don’t mind.”

“They arrived this quickly?” Ackley asked.

“Oh no, I did this a few weeks ago, at the hospital.”

Ackley grinned and laid back in bed. “What would have happened if I’d said no? Maybe I wanted to stay in the hospital forever. After all, it’s where I got a new lease on life.”

“Well, I didn’t see that as a possibility, having examined you closely. Cruciere would not have forced you to do anything – she hardly ever does to anyone, unless they’re people in positions of power. From my understanding of you, I felt that you would appreciate being involved with something different.”

“It took me some time to realize myself that I do. I do appreciate it.”

“If I could express elation, I would right now.” Asmodeus said.

“So what work will I be doing for the good doctor then? Building more bombs?”

“Being honest, I feel that was always a secondary concern to simply making Amanda gush. Doctor Cruciere wanted to do something for you after researching the events that eliminated Mr. Fairway; and in turn doing something that would make Amanda even happier. I can build bombs myself, though probably not as well as you” Asmodeus said. “But in time I’m sure the Doctor will come up with something villanous for you to do.”

“Good.” Ackley said decisively. “I’m ready to take the fight to the memes.”

“Excuse me?” Asmodeus tonelessly asked.

“The War On Memes, Asmodeus. It is my calling.”

“I see. Well, if it means that much to you, I’m sure she’ll support it.”

Asmodeus helped Ackley to dress, and wheeled her back downstairs, with the drone hanging behind as usual. It seemed very lively, despite having not plugged into the wall for hours now. Ackley figured all of Cruciere’s robots had an efficient power source, since even the one in the wall had no plugged into anything for power. Downstairs, Asmodeus pushed her to the ground floor dining room, where a tall, cylindrical, many-armed robot was at work arranging slices of pizza around a table that appeared to be made of precariously balancing cubes.

At the table, Cruciere and Amanda welcomed Ackley, beckoning her to sit on one of the cubes, upon which a glass seat and backrest balanced. “We’re having breakfast pizza!” Amanda cheered. “Want to join us, Ackley? You can go on a tour of the labs later, if you like, but you should eat something first!”

“Does it make anything other than pizza?” Ackley said.

“It makes excellent pizza!” Cruciere shouted back.

Ackley burst out laughing. This was all too pleasantly strange. It felt too much like home.

“Alright. I will have some pizza.” Ackley said.