Ackley’s New Lease On Life 6: Chemicals

Ackley hid under her bed sheets and attempted to wait out the Rageditors, who seemed to content to lounge around her hospital room with the Nurse’s tacit approval to photograph her if she ever decided to stick her head out. People came in and out, ignoring the nurse and the strange visitors while delivering to Ackley supplies that she had requested when the Rageditor’s siege on her hospital room began. Her bed expanded from under those few blankets, with ice bags and pillows and boxes. It had grown into a powerful fortification. Not once did she allow the Rageditors to see her – that was their objective and she would deny it. She heard a cacophony of clicking and throbbing around the room as various cell phones and tablets and netbook computers delivered constant reports to Ragedit about the status of their epic meme operation. Every so often a pale little arm would extend from under the sheets and reach out to the machine next to the bed, and then reach back into the blanket fort. But that was all the satisfaction she would give them. This was a battle, and she was making preparations for a meme war of terrible proportion.

The first casualty of the siege, however, was her Nurse’s dignity.

“Ackley, the truth is,” the Nurse sighed, perhaps regretful of her hand in all of this, “the truth is, I’m a memer myself. In fact, I made some of those videos to score Ragedit karma. I’m telling you because I want to be real with you! I might even lose my job. My screen name is McNurse420. I wanted to be famous for memery!”

“You have an excruciating taste in usernames.” Ackley replied.

“Why, thank you! You see, Ackley, ever since I was a young nurse, reading Ragedit while bored on the job, I’ve dreamed of being a memetic success! I’ve been haunting Ragedit, trying to be on the ground floor of the next viral video or photo trend. But I’m just a boring average Ameran nurse, not like you! You’re special!”

“Being emotionally and physically isolated from the world is interesting, to be sure.”

“Yes, it is!” The Nurse sounded ecstatic. “I’m glad you understand.”

“I was being sarcastic.” Ackley murmured.

A drawling male voice grumbled from a corner of the room. Ackley could see its rather large outline even through the blankets of her fort. “McNurse, are we ever gonna get to see epic deadpan girl? The upvotes await! You told us we could score easy meme cred but we’ve been waiting for hours now. And all I’ve got to show for it are pictures of a really intricate pillow fort. Only 50 upvotes! I could have had thousands by now.”

“Just give me a moment, BigPony27,” the Nurse nervously said.

Ackley heard the distinctive shuffling of the Nurse’s shoes, and saw a shadow lean in.

And thus, the battle was joined.

From under one of the blankets she retrieved her secret weapon, a very cold and thick metal jug with a nozzle affixed to the top. She filled a small plastic medicine bottle with some the liquid inside the metal jug. As the hand neared, Ackley sprang from ambush, briefly extending her own arm and throwing out the bottle in retaliation. Her projectile struck the nurse on the shoulder harmlessly and bounced off to the ground. The Nurse sighed and picked it up, underestimating Ackley and believing it to be a childish act of rage. In an instant the bottle burst in the Nurse’s hand with a loud pop, giving off an awful smell and a large cloud of foul gasses. The Nurse screamed – wringing her hand in the air to relieve the pain. The snap from the bursting bottle would have hurt, but Ackley hoped it had not done much more.

“What was that? Ackley I demand to know!” The Nurse screamed. “You hurt my hand!”

“A small liquid nitrogen bomb.” Ackley replied through the shouting.

“Where did you get that?” The Nurse shouted. “Where did you get the nitrogen Ackley!”

Ackley was honestly surprised by the reaction.

“Have you been paying no attention to me at all? My disease, nurse! I produce close to half a gallon of this stuff every day just sitting around here wondering why I’m not dead yet! How could you possibly have been taking care of me for months now and you don’t even know what my disease entails?”

The Nurse grumbled loudly and ignored Ackley’s protest entirely, for the first time her demeanor turning quite foul. She stomped her way to the other side of the bed, examining the liquid nitrogen extractor hooked up to Ackley’s chest. All of the extractor was designed to keep the strange, watered-down and biologically produced liquid nitrogen from Ackley’s body cool enough to avoid danger. Special tubes drew the liquid from Ackley’s body, and pumped it through to a special container. It was currently empty, and it had been consistently emptied for the past few days. Doctors would have assumed it was the Nurse who emptied it diligently, in accordance to the hazardous medical waste disposal guidelines, but it was clear from her inspection the Nurse had no idea what the extractor was or what it really did. She poked it, and her figure crouched near it, and followed the various cables extending from it with her fingers.

“So from this, then? This is where you get that dangerous liquid?”

Her words sent a chill down Ackley’s spine.

“Don’t touch my extractor.” Ackley warned.

From under the pillow fort, Ackley withdrew a bottle, this time a glass bottle, and quickly reacted, filling it from the jug and then corking it. She hastily donned a gas mask and then raised her hand out of the fort and rolled this new bomb off her bed as gently as she could – it landed without shattering and continued to roll blindly out to the back of the room, where the congress of Rageditors was convened. In a few moments its temperature was spiraling out of control. One of the Rageditors then screamed in agony as the liquid nitrogen inside the bottle quickly expanded in a terrible explosion, sending shards of glass flying, showering his party of meme masters with debris and covering them in a cloud of the rapidly expanding gases, odorless and yet unbreathable. From under Fort Ackley it was difficult to acquire visual confirmation, but the thundering boots and the cries for help seemed indicative of the enemy’s retreat. Behind them went the Nurse, crying for them to wait and return, for the memes would be epic, epic with a “le,” if only they gave her a chance.

This was the last time Ackley saw that particular Nurse.

Regardless, Ackley felt a disturbing amount of pleasure having driven back the forces of memery, and crossed a few of the more macabre items from her bucket list, such as “Win A War” and “Unleash Hell.” New nurses came and went with the days and nights, but they were not the Nurse, and they were not a new Nurse. They tore down her pillow fort, though amicably, and removed her Liquid Nitrogen paraphernalia. Despite this they were quite preferable to the Nurse. The new nurses came and went in their little white dresses and aprons and their little white caps, ostensibly some other patients’ nurses who were taking care of necessary tasks for Ackley. They did all the things Nurse used to do, helping her change clothes, bringing her food – and they scarcely made any insensitive small talk or forgot her condition.

Ackley thought she finally had time and space to contemplate the meaning of her life, and what she really wanted out of it, if she could have a future. But she came up blank. She was an incredibly intelligent person, but the concept of a future was still very difficult for her to grasp. In many ways she was a child, and she thought that perhaps children simply, intrinsically, could not comprehend the terrible vastness involved in their future, and the planning of it. Doctors had given her a very short timetable, and she had exceeded it several times. It was difficult to construct a position in such a limited universe – the four walls and the nurses and the extractor offered her little chance of development.

Blissful as it was, this period of quiet meditation was soon over, as Ackley received a new Nurse. At first it seemed like she was just another temporary visitor, but soon she began showing up at all hours of the day. This nurse was young, younger even than Nurse, and fairly blueish and pale, with red eyes, and her very pale hair tied into a ponytail. She had introduced herself in an alarming way, which led Ackley to believe she might be another memer trying to score points.

“I am Asmodeus. I’m not really human, so forgive my mistakes.”

Ackley frowned. She sat up and tried to raise her shoulders and to cross her arms to look tough.

“My name is Ackley Hermes. I’m the enemy of Memes. I will destroy all Memes and Memers.”

This provoked no reaction from the new Nurse. Asmodeus had a blank expression similar to her own, neither frowning, nor smiling, with her eyes not too wide open and not too closed shut, and her brows in a neutral position. Ackley’s declaration of unending war on Memes passed by Asmodeus with as little reaction as if someone had merely told her the date – and as such Ackley decided Asmodeus was not a memer. She was some kind of monster.

Over the course of the next few days, Ackley scrutinized everything Asmodeus did.

She went about her tasks mechanically. Nurse had often hummed or sang crude lyrics while working, but Asmodeus did nothing of the sort, taking to her work with an eerie quiet that suggested either intense focus, or the inhuman and off-hand expertise of a construct. Asmodeus did nothing but the exact things required at a particular moment. Her day was as though plotted out entirely in her mind, down to the microseconds worth of blinking her eyes.

Ackley felt unsettled, but she could not complain. Asmodeus was perfect. Nurse sometimes ate in the room, but Ackley was not even sure Asmodeus breathed, and she certainly never ate in her presence. Asmodeus wore her nurse uniform pristinely and carried herself with precision. Her every step was perfect, as she walked along the room tiles her feet would take the same position in each successive tile. As she picked up different medicine bottles in succession, she would hold all of them at the same, exact angle while pouring their contents for Ackley to drink.

Meal time with Nurse had always been a struggle – Nurse was clumsy and slow when she attempted to feed Ackley, and sometimes even ate some of the food herself while Ackley chewed. Asmodeus was exact, delivering spoonfuls of soup and forks of crisp vegetables, waiting just enough for Ackley to eat, and never missing an opportunity to offer her a drink to wash it down before the next spoon or fork. She did not complain and she did not falter. The food always arrived hot, she made sure of it; and she always managed to acquire the rare buttered cafeteria bread buns that Nurse always forgot, and then blamed on faster nurses and the long lines and the needs of other children.

Whenever Asmodeus helped her change robes Ackley thought she felt a clammy, dead touch, but this was so utterly brief as to be an illusion – that cold touch, in the span it took to register it, would become a warm and comforting embrace that a brief graze of flesh could not possibly have imparted. Yet the endorphins still rushed, as though Asmodeus had cast an enchanting spell over her by doing nothing but briefly brushing her nape with her fingers.

Soon, however, she found she was not the only one paying close attention.

“Inquiry.”

Asmodeus often said this to broach a topic.

“Yes?” Ackley replied.

“I have now observed you for close to a week and analyzed various factors. I believe that you are missing a key component of your corporate hospital experience, which I as a true Nurse-Laborer unit working at this corporate hospital unit, and not as an infiltrator of any kind, must insure to you, customer and corporate medicine client, in order to uphold my appearance as a true Nurse-Laborer unit–”

Ackley sighed. “Yes, you are some kind of spy robot, I understand. Ask your question.”

“What do you do, for leisure?”

“I concentrate on not being in pain.” Ackley replied. “I’m on medications for pain, so it works. I also have a bucket list I fill out. I sometimes play video games. People donate video games to the Hospital a few times a year. But they’re often earmarked for kids besides me who need them more. Sometimes the Hospital doesn’t really have certain medicines, and nobody really donates that, so they give the children video games instead.”

“I see. Anything else?”

“For the last few months I have been constantly harassed by idiots.”

“Would you enjoy reading printed academic literature? I have a vast library at my storage unit.”

“Do you mean your home?” Ackley replied.

“My storage unit, yes.”

“I would be mildly interested in some foreign philosophy works.” Ackley said.

She had little hope that this would happen. After all, Nurse had promised several times to bring her child-safe, ideologically approved literature like Larry Merchant And The Chamber of Profits, but always failed to do so for one reason or another. Nonetheless she wrote a few titles and topics and left it up to Asmodeus, almost entirely forgetting the exchange, which she was sure would evaporate overnight. However, the next day Asmodeus deposited a copy of Revolutionary Ideals of the Poccnan Republics at her bedside before beginning her day’s work; once she had read this book, Asmodeus delivered an extra buttered bun and a copy of The Ultimate Downfall of Capital. Days later, at Ackley’s request, Asmodeus printed several SneakyLeaks pages and stapled them into a hand-made book of state secrets.

It was this final act that seemed to confirm all of Ackley’s suspicions.

“Are you a Communist robot?” Ackley asked. “Are you here so I can defect?”

“I’m more of a fungus.” Asmodeus replied, and ignored the latter question.

Ackley’s New Lease On Life 5: Memes

Ackley had hoped for a few, perhaps final, weeks of peace after being acquitted of her terrorism charges by the Department of Departments. Instead she discovered that children’s hospitals had a domineering attitude toward the terminally ill patients housed within them, and especially so if they had been on television for a high profile investigation.

For a few days, Ackley had come close to stardom. During the investigation of Agent Winchester, various people realized her existence and had come to shine very bright uncomfortable lights on her and stick a hydra-like assortment of microphones and cables very close to her face, forcing her to button up her shirts all the way, redo her messy, long pigtails and keep herself seated upright, a titanic effort after years of slouching. There was a barrage of questions. A Hound News reporter asked her why she hated Amera, and she explained a few facts, such as the prison population as a form of neo-slavery, which were ignored. A GNN reporter wondered how sad and miserable her existence was, to which she responded with indifference. A tabloid reporter who climbed up the side of the hospital and broke through her window with a pair claws asked if Ackley’s disease was real, to which she replied that it was by screaming for help, and in this act, coughing some liquid nitrogen on his face.

“You’re a sensation Ackley!” The Nurse had gleefully told her. She had come in one day with a mischievous expression and passed her smartphone to Ackley, where she discovered various memetic Memetube videos featuring her likeness and sound bites, taken from the news. Many auto-tuned her voice and looped footage of her blank and diffident mannerisms while a plethora of flashing, colorful light filters endangered the epileptics in the audience.

“what the fuq name for a girl is Ackely,” Ackley said, reading the top comment on a video.

“Oh don’t fret, they don’t mean any harm by it.” The Nurse had said.

“Is this what it feels like, to be ‘trolled’.” Ackley asked.

“I suppose so. I have never been trolled. But I am young still, so there will be time.” The Nurse gazed admiringly into space, as though relishing the thought of being trolled, on the internet.

Ackley on the other hand felt very little in the way of stimuli, negative or positive, as she read the various Ragedit threads where she’d been lovingly rendered in Rage comics. It was difficult to feel things when her lungs, and a few other organs, might be freezing over soon. Or at least, that was her perspective on it. However, in her limited emotional range Ackley did manage to hold a bit of contempt for the memetic process, and tried her best to ignore it. Surely, she was not becoming a sensation. Just the source of a few laughs, for a few reprobates. She resolved to pursue her bucket list in peace.

However, over the next few weeks, The Nurse grew ever more motherly toward Ackley.

“Ackley, I fear that you may be growing antisocial.”

The Nurse hovered over Ackley’s bed with a look of most grievous concern.

“That is fine. I’m not altogether sure I like society.” Ackley replied.

“That is exactly what I feared. Our little shining star needs to cheer up.”

Ackley shuddered. “To whom do you refer by ‘our’, and to what do you refer to by ‘star’?”

“Well, the children’s hospital has received a lot of donations and attention from people concerned about you. I believe that it is my duty as your Nurse, and the hospital’s duty to the donors who love and cherish you, to insure you have a fulfilling life here. It would not do for Epic D– I mean, you, Ackley, to be miserable here.”

“What were you about to say there?” Ackley asked sharply.

“Nothing!” The Nurse waved her hands. “Are you sad, Ackley? You are always so blank and pale. I’ve never seen you frown, but I’ve also never seen you smile. You’re always so deadpan.”

“I don’t feel anything right now other than mild annoyance.”

“Do you think maybe some antidepressants would cheer you up?” The Nurse pulled out a tube from her pocket and shook it like a maraca in front of Ackley’s face, smiling pleasantly at the offered temptations. Inside the tube were bright, colored bubblegum orbs laced with children’s antidepressants. “They come in yummy flavors!”

“I have the best antidepressant already, Nurse. Your presence.” Ackley said.

The Nurse’s face turned very red, and she shied away from Ackley. “Oh, Ackley!”

Ackley produced her bucket list from under her pillow and marked off an item.

“That was sarcasm.” She then declared. But the Nurse was too lost in her own elation.

The world seemed to grow ever more interested in her. A Child Psychologist on staff came and asked her questions, such as whether she loved Amera and whether it was okay for this information to be divulged to the Department of Departments. Ackley attempted to explain the failure of austerity politics and the growth of privatization of services as a means to syphon wealth and benefits from lower-income persons to the rich, but the Psychologist told her she was silly and did not have a college degree, so she should not speak about such things. After his departure, a Child Biochemist wandered in the next day and examined the machine cycling the nitrogen out of her body. He drew a sample from its nitrogen pack, examined it, and tasted it, and collapsed, screaming and thrashing, bleeding from his nose, and prompting more staff to invade the room and rush the man to an adult hospital before his throat froze. A Child Calendar Photographer then appeared and took various images of Ackley for a fundraising calendar. Then Ackley hid permanently under her blankets.

“Ackley, you’re being unreasonable now.” The Nurse said.

“I’m not coming out.” Ackley said, covered in her blankets like a ghost. “I can’t even imagine who is next. A Child Economist from the staff will come debate me about my austerity comments? A Child Zoologist will burst from the aether and declare me a new species of homynid before eating some of my pocket lint and dying? I’m done with you all.”

“I apologize about the photographer.” The Nurse said. “I thought that was a little creepy.”

“Your capacity to undertake social analysis is simply monumental.”

“Why, thank you!”

Ackley grit her teeth and clenched her fists. “That, too, was sarcasm.”

“I have some visitors for you, however! They’re friends of mine from the website Ragedit!”

“Oh, please no.”

From inside her blanket and pillow armor, Ackley heard the tramping of boots, and the shifting of body mass into the cramped doorway, and clicking of smartphone cameras. She heard belabored breathing and strange, alien chuckling, barely contained.

“Is that her? Is that Le Epic Deadpan Girl?” They asked.

“Please don’t call her that.” The Nurse pleaded. “Call her Ackley Hermes.”

“I’m issuing a vote of no confidence in you, Nurse.” Ackley said, bundling herself tighter.

The Library And The Ladybird (IV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nellidae pointed to the building in the video.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blech.” Nellidae stuck out her tongue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She poked the antennae on the headset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saw nothing.” Ladybird said.

“Okay. I get that a lot.” He replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello Miss President!” Ladybird said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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