[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 (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.

Ackley’s New Lease On Life 9: Exodus

Ackley assumed that there was a clever plan in place for her extraction. In the Children’s Hospital she had watched several very violent movies, unsupervised, as part of her bucket list. Many of these pertained to the actions of loose cannon Ameran agents who would escape confinement through seemingly any kind of ductwork, building opening (however high up) and elevator system, however guarded and improbable. Ackley envisioned a bold and extremely violent plan to escape from the roof; first fighting their way through several crowds of heavily armed security and even vindictive doctors and nurses, swinging poisonous scalpels and firing needle-guns, to reach the peak of the building; then evacuating in a terrifying helicopter chase, where through a veritable storm of rockets they would finally find freedom.

“I am ready for action.” Ackley said aloud, visibly excited.

Cruciere looked puzzled. “Ready for what?”

“I imagine our escape will be horrific.” Ackley calmly said. “Millions will die and much of the city will be destroyed. I have steeled myself for the consequences. My actions may rock Amera’s core for eternity. I will be remembered as an enemy of Amera and of Memes. But I am ready to face this inevitability.”

“Umm, no.” Cruciere quickly said. “No, I’m afraid we won’t be doing any of that. Whatever all of that is. My wife owns these buildings now, for physics’ sakes, I’m not going to destroy them.”

“Your wife owns Fairway Children’s Hospital now?”

“Amanda Gilded.” Cruciere said. “She bought Fairway Children’s Corporation when Fairway died and his kin squabbled over the assets. So, no horrible violence. I promised her. Besides, is that how you want to thank her for the extractor you received, and various other treatment improvements?”

“Oh.” Ackley sighed with disappointment. Nothing in her life could ever be fast-paced, daring and ultraviolent, even when she explicitly desired it. “Then why did you have to infiltrate like this?”

Cruciere shrugged and smiled, acting as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Well, obviously we can’t just make Asmodeus a nurse overnight. That’d be nepotism.”

Ackley blinked. “Of course, nepotism, that most hideous of crimes. You attempt to destroy the government of Amera every few weeks, but you won’t commit an act of nepotism. That is beneath you.”

“You are completely correct.” Cruciere said. “I have standards. And if I did my usual thing and made a giant vehicle to attack the Hospital it would’ve tanked the asset valuation.”

“Well, you could’ve done that to get the Hospital for cheaper.” Ackley pointed out.

Cruciere frowned. “We’re playing the long game, okay? Look, here’s how it works. Precious wifey buys a wonderful children’s hospital on a whim, fulfilling one of her lifelong dreams, because she is great and wonderful and lovely and of course she deserves a children’s hospital if she wants one–”

Ackley almost laughed. “Oh god, you coddling idiot–”

“–and then I incidentally use it one for my evil schemes, and finally we continue to run the Hospital to provide efficient care and take advantage of several government programs–”

“I hate to break it to you but this Hospital is garbage.” Ackley interrupted. “It has precisely one good nurse,” she nodded toward Asmodeus, who tried to smile again, and failed, “The only donations it ever receives are video games. Nurses have too much power over children. Internet memers are allowed in too easily. In fact everyone is allowed in too easily. There is no patient confidentiality whatsoever. Your wife should look into this.”

“My wife is a venture capitalist, not a saint.” Cruciere said.

“I will forward these issues to Mrs. Gilded.” Asmodeus said.

Cruciere winced. She corrected Asmodeus. “Call her Mom.”

“I will tell Mom to launch inquiries into Ackley’s concerns.”

Ackley now definitively burst into laughter, pointing an accusing finger at Cruciere. What the accusation was, nobody found out, because Ackley could not speak over her raucous cackling.

Despite the disappointingly benign nature of her captors, and their general lack of a penchant for sensational destruction, Ackley was happy to find that Cruciere had still crafted a thorough plan for absconding with her in tow, which she shared and which was agreed upon. Preparations then began for the nightfall exodus. Asmodeus left the room and returned with a little trolley and a wheelchair – one for Ackley’s equipment and the other for Ackley herself. Cruciere easily heaved the extractor unto the trolley with one hand, and set it near the bed. This done, they waited.

“Alright, there is only one final item to take care of.” Cruciere said. She produced a cell phone from her pocket and dialed a number quite familiar to Ackley, but paused before hitting the Call button.

“No.” Ackley said. “I think they would be relieved to simply see me vanish.”

“It may be more effective to scare them.” Cruciere said. “I can send them a threat or something. I could deploy a robot to their house that would spray asbestos everywhere and make a nuisance of itself. I can rig their coffee machine and make it rude. I could rig it to make it lewd, even!”

Ackley raised an eyebrow at her enthusiasm.

“My parents don’t really care; they won’t, whatever you do.”

“I can corroborate Ackley’s statements, Doctor. I have never seen them or talked to them. I believe she is correct that they will take no action to recover her.” Asmodeus said. “When I was assigned as her Nurse I was told that they preferred not to be contacted unless there is a life-threatening emergency.”

“I speak to them over the phone once a month, if I’m unlucky. When we speak they will usually just ask me if the doctors told me anything that they themselves had not already been told. Most of the time I don’t hear from them and I see them even more rarely. They have nothing to say to me – I am not really much of a child to them anymore. I think am already an adult to them and they’ve let go of me, perhaps for another child.”

Cruciere sobbed. “Oh my Physics. That is so sad.”

Asmodeus put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. “Please refrain from crying so openly, Doctor. It could be emotionally distressing for Ackley to see you in this state.”

“But this is a tragedy. A tragedy! You cold fungus!” Cruciere cried.

“I’m quite past done crying about my parents.” Ackley said. “She can cry if she wants.”

That is so sad.” Cruciere shouted. She shut her eyes, tears streaming down her face.

“Doctor, please.” Asmodeus pleaded. “Look at Ackley. You are ruining her life.”

Unmoved, Ackley settled against her pillows and napped.

As night fell and Cruciere pieced her broken heart back together, the hospital staff gradually departed. A skeleton crew took over the wing past midnight. Lights went out across the corridors. Soft, soothing music played at a low volume over the intercomm. This was the signal they waited for. Cruciere helped Ackley into her wheelchair, and Asmodeus pushed the trolley. Together they crossed the empty halls, past rooms of sleeping children and the occasional wandering nurse. No one so much as glanced their way. After all, there was a doctor and a nurse in tow.

They packed into the elevator, thankful that nobody else had joined them this late at night. As it was they barely fit the trolley and wheelchair. Cruciere had to squish into a corner and Asmodeus stood on the trolley, sitting atop the extractor while Ackley leered, wary of anyone mishandling her only lifeline. When the elevator stopped at the bottom floor there was much banging of flesh on metal as they extricated themselves.

Still rubbing down a few sore spots, they approached the front desk, where a downcast man in a blue garb drew exquisitely realistic, powerfully dripping needles on the back of a health insurance form.  Mounds of several other official forms, similarly garnished with needles, buried the rest of his desk. Steeped in his work, the man made no visible effort to acknowledge the outside world. He was viciously crosshatching detailed shadows on the lengths of the needles when Cruciere tapped on the desk, drawing his attention. His face suddenly brightened.

“Wait, wait. I know what you want.” He said. “Sedation! You need sedation don’t you? All the nurses are busy but it just so happens I’m qualified to inject patients as well now!”

Unasked for, he frantically searched through his desk, casting about patient records and surveys and tossing aside towers of reception forms. Within the pile he found a needle in its hermetically sealed packaging, and he lifted it up to Cruciere’s sight as though he had struck gold. He ripped it open, smiled, and rustled again through the mess. “I’ve got a sedative bottle right here Doctor, somewhere, you don’t have to call a nurse–”

Ackley shrank back against her wheelchair and Cruciere raised her hand to stop him.

“We don’t need sedation, you can throw that away now.” She said.

He brought his eyes up from the desk and glared, at first as though he heard an alien tongue. Recognition dawned upon him soon and he slumped pitifully on his desk. He crosshatched some more shadows over the needle, and drew a big glistening drop of fluid from the end of the sharpest one he had drawn.

Cheerlessly, he addressed them anew.

“Well, what do you want then, Doctor? It’s kinda late y’know.”

“I need a temporary release for this patient, Ackley Hermes. We’re going for a walk.”

“Doctor, you realize it is nearly two in the morning?” The receptionist said.

Ackley grumbled to herself. This was her plan? Just to walk her out?

“I have good reasons that may be above your paygrade.” Cruciere said.

The receptionist tapped his pen on the desk. “That’s for me to decide.”

Cruciere cleared her throat, and she and Asmodeus gestured toward Ackley, their faces suddenly fearful of something. “This patient suffers from the rare disease Vampyrus Exsanguinae, rendering her incapable of walking in the light. When she gets restless she also hungers for the warm flesh of the still-living. So it is necessary to physically stimulate her with long walks, to tire her out and satisfy her so she does not prey on us!”

Incredulous, the receptionist pulled himself forward over his desk to stare at the little grayish girl in the wheelchair. Ackley suppressed a sigh and instead tried to smile spontaneously. Her cheeks rose, her teeth bared, her brows arched and her eyes spread wide open. Ackley’s lack of cheer worked to her advantage this time, because her contrived grinning looked to all of the world like a monster’s lust for flesh, mad eyes searching for arteries to sup from, chalk-white maw ready to chew bone. The receptionist recoiled from her and embraced himself.

“Apostles defend us,” he mumbled, “take her, take her!”

He practically threw the release form at Cruciere and made the sign of the cross.

Cruciere signed, Ackley signed, and the child tried to smile again, but this time the receptionist turned his back entirely and cowered. With a renewed disinterest in cheer, Ackley was wheeled out. Outside the hospital doors she scarcely cared about the world which she had not seen in so long. It was a disappointing denouement to her experience. In the dark the garden outside the hospital was just an expanse of dark color, and the statue of Fairway was poorly lit and she could not read the commemorative plaque; down the driveway the fresh air was tinged with smoke and plastic; and then Cruciere stopped by the side of the road and took out her cell phone rather than walk further.

“Honey? It’s me, Anne-Marie. Can you swing by with the SUV and pick us up? We’re carrying some heavy stuff, and I just kidnapped a child.” She paused. “Yes, I’m impressed with how evil I am too.” Ackley heard the clamor on the other side of the phone, the loud ecstatic giggling and shouting. Cruciere grunted. “Could you calm down? Yes we’re keeping the kid, what do you think? You’re too excited about this, quite honestly.”

She hung up. “Amanda’s coming in thirty or so.”

Asmodeus laid hands on Ackley’s shoulders. “How do you feel?”

“Startlingly indifferent. Mildly disappointed. Mysteriously vampiric.” Ackley said.

From the pocket of her hospital pajamas, Ackley withdrew her notepad and flipped the pages to one quite near the last. She wrote “Pretend to be a Vampire” on her bucket list, then crossed it out. As the SUV pulled up near them several minutes later, she was still diligently crossing out the various actions which she had completed from her list. Hopefully for the better, she was now out of Fairway Children’s Hospital, but nothing felt too out of the ordinary about it. It was all just another thing that had happened, and Ackley took it as such, moment to moment.