Scornful Steel (Apocalypse 2030)

THIS STORY CONTAINS SCENES OF VIOLENCE, GRAPHIC INJURY AND DEATH.


12th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Slowly the object of her hate came together before her eyes once more.

As she slid the plate into place, and her coworkers began to weld the side-panel armor covering the ammunition rack on the side, the vehicle began to take its shape. Its rounded body seemed almost friendly when she first saw it. People jokingly referred to the turrets as melons because of how round they were; this was funny for the first shift of her first day, before the downward-sloping rear armor had to be welded on and the bogeys bolted into place and the tracks, welded closed and tight around the drive wheels. Before the turret had to be dropped onto the ring, and the interior hydraulics and controls had to be wired and prepared by a specialized technician. Before all that, sure, it was amusing.

Once every bit of the machine was affixed, however, it had a shape only for killing.

She worked nervously on it, with shaking hands. They were held to an exacting standard, and the factory was run like a military base in a lot of ways. Certainly in its discipline.

On her first day the track had gone on too slack, and earned her a slap across the face.

“You’re not building a toy! Work to specification or get out!” shouted the Overseer.

She still heard his shrill voice in her head, every day she worked at the plant.

A lot had changed since then.

Her hands had grown used to the work and its precision; only the product was the same.

It was an M4 Sentinel, and its kin had killed more people than she had ever known.

One of the casualties was the very land under Marit Hale’s oil-stained shoes.


Iron Isle used to have a name, a beautiful, melodic name, but it was taken from it, and could not be spoken of again; and with it went the oil trees and the sweet tree plantations, and the clear skies and the fragrance of the wilds. Those could not be spoken of again as well. Smokestacks went up, blacktops spread out. Iron Isle was closer to the Nochtish war zones than all of its other territories. Once a minuscule line item in the agricultural department’s accounting of Pelagis province, once it became clear that Nocht would prosecute war across the vastness of the sea, Iron Isle transformed overnight to suit the needs of battles that could not be won with sugar and flowers and vacation homes.

At Plant #13 on the broad side of Iron Isle mostly older women worked, and there was only one exception. This was Marit, the tomboy of the Hale family whose many sons were taken for the war. She was an islander girl through and through; messy black hair, a complexion the color of baked clay, and a round, soft face unlike that of the sharp and pale featured Nochtish secretaries and overseers. She was an islander girl; she was not thought of as a woman. Only recently had she exchanged mud and sand in her sandals and fingers with soot and grease. She was thrust through the threshold of adulthood and went from school days and beach nights to four marks an hour for ten hours a day, six days a week.

Ten hours a day; and there was a promised commission for every tenth tank produced.

She had never seen that commission, and many tenth tanks had come and gone.

As the only healthy member of her family left on the island, Marit worked, alongside the mothers and grandmothers and the widows and wives. She showed up at the Plant campus every morning, striding past a half-dozen buildings on a square blacktop amid what was once farmland to reach a tin-walled and tin-roofed assembly building, baking under a hot, cloudless sky. A cool breeze blew in over the open plain beyond the blacktop, in certain places, at certain times in her morning walk, Marit heard the sound of rushing water from the nearby river as it turned the plant’s old water wheel, a holdover from the old farm.

“Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”

Though less than enthusiastic about work, Marit kept a bright face and a broad smile and made herself good company. She walked out in front of the warehouse, where a chow line formed every morning for a free breakfast of hot oatmeal porridge and coffee. She slid into the line of women and seemed to slot seamlessly into conversations about news, food, weather, and work, greeting everyone around her as she waited for a tray of sweet slop.

“How’s your mother doing, Marit?”

“She’s recovering. Thank you for your concern.”

“Messiah bless her.”

“What about you Marit? Taking care of yourself? You look thin.”

“Oh, I always look thin to the lot of you!”

Marit had a flat, spindly sort of form factor, thin, long-limbed. Though she ate well she always looked partially starved. It was almost vexing. Her attire was shabby. She wore pants handed down from her brothers and a shirt and vest of the same origin. They had stitched holes and mismatched colors where other clothing was cannibalized to fix them.

Unimpressive, but it was all getting covered in grease and smoke anyway.

“Hey, you old bags quit chatting and eat!”

From behind the line, the factory Overseer appeared with a rolled up newspaper.

He struck a woman in the back of the line, for seemingly no reason.

All around him, people started to move faster. There was no longer gossip and loitering.

A line that had moved maybe one person every other minute was now going quickly.

“Nobody pays you to chat and eat!” He shouted. “Get your gruel and get moving!”

After this display, he left their side, and the women collectively comforted the one poor old woman struck by the beastly Overseer, and assured her that there was no reason for it and that she would be fine, that they would help her. Marit saw all of this from afar and didn’t really think much of it. It happened frequently. She wondered if real soldiers got beat around by their officers as much as the workers in this military factory got beaten.

There was grumbling and resentment, but everyone ate and made for their stations.

Marit, however, took a little bit of time to go somewhere more pleasant.

After grabbing her oatmeal and coffee, Marit sat down on a concrete speed bump along the edge of the factory, in the executive parking lot, her back to the chain link fence. There were no cars, because there were no executives present. There almost never were.

It was a place where she could eat in peace, listening to the lonely winds whistling over the blacktop. Almost like the old forest, where she would spend endless hours just sitting around and listening to all the sounds. Only the wind was left, but even it alone helped her to prepare herself mentally for the long hours with the sizzling welding torch, the click-clacking torque wrenches, the crashing hammers, the grinding of the lathes.

As she drank the last of her coffee she heard a clinking noise more than she did the wind.

Behind her, someone was climbing over the fence.

It was a woman (maybe more a girl like her), Marit was certain of that. She made it up to the top of the fence with anxious hand-holds, and produced a tool from her pocket that she used to cut the barbed wire, and to pull the sliced halves to either side to open a gap. She leaned back, and then threw herself up in one sudden effort, making it up and over.

It was there that she lost her footing and her fingers slipped.

Marit bolted upright and threw herself forward.

She caught the girl in her arms and together they crashed onto the blacktop.

Marit hit the ground on her left arm, with a lot of the girl’s weight on falling on her.

She flinched, and shut her eyes tight and grit her teeth.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” said the girl. Marit felt warm hands rubbing against her arm.

She found herself responding in Nochtish. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”

Her command of the language of her tormentors was almost impeccable.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a soft pink face looking down at her with blue eyes, and framed by lengths of wavy, luxurious blond hair. A dab of pink colored pursed lips, and a pair of hands held her own. Now that they were touching skin instead of cloth, the hands felt a little rough, calloused, almost incongruent to the angelic picture formed by the rest.

Marit pulled back her hand and crawled out from under the Nochtish girl.

“I’m fine!” She cried out. “But what are you doing? This is private property!”

She bolted onto her feet; was this an industrial spy? She had overhead the Overseer once talking about people paid to infiltrate factories and steal secrets and sabotage production.

Marit had been taught by some of the older women that in Nocht, there were a few big companies always competing to make new products for the army. Those who could make the most acceptable products for the cheapest price won the contracts. Companies like General Auto, who owned this factory, made money by spending the least they could on workers and production. Setbacks like the ones spies cost could dig deep into profits.

And that would mean they would have to dig deep into the workers to make up the rest.

However, the friendly smile put on by this girl did not seem like it could come from a spy.

“I’m Alicia Kolt.” She said, stretching out a hand. “I’m an engineer.”

She was dressed in an almost workmanlike garb, with a big leather apron over a button-down shirt, and a leather cap over her blond hair. She had toolbelts over her waist with numerous pouches and multiple little cutters and drivers and other knickknacks hanging.

Judging by her hands, she must have been doing some work, but her body did not appear affected as much. Marit was skinny and lean from all the back-breaking torture of factory work; but this girl was rounder and softer everywhere that Marit was flat and angular.

And of course, Marit had never heard of a female engineer. Their factory was mostly women, but all they did was put fabricated parts together. When it came time to wire radios and install hydraulics, they had technicians there from the Rescholdt-Kolt firm, men who knew machines. She had no idea what they would let a girl like this do in an engineering firm other than answer the phone and file papers and reply to letters.

Not that she thought it was impossible, she just knew rich men were bastards like that.

Nevertheless, Marit kept her doubts to herself and returned the handshake.

“I’m Marit Hale. So could you please tell me what you are up to?”

Alicia smiled brightly. “You work here, don’t you?”

Marit averted her eyes slightly. This girl had a very fetching smile.

“I do.” Marit said. “I’m in primary, intermediate and final assembly.”

“Goodness! How do you know which one you’re doing on any day then?”

“I don’t. They treat me like a kid and just have me fill in whatever’s needed.”

“I can relate!” Alicia said. “How old are you? Around eighteen I guess? I’m twenty years old and everybody treats me like I learned to walk yesterday. It’s very frustrating!”

“I’m nineteen. And yes, that is all pretty relatable.”

Marit found herself conversing and almost forgot to suspect Alicia of industrial espionage.

“But hey; Hey! Tell me what you’re up to already. I don’t want to get into trouble.”

Looking over her shoulder guardedly, Marit was relieved to find nobody coming in from the main factory grounds or from the office nearby, and the gate guard was in his booth and not paying any attention to his surroundings now that the workers had all checked in. So at least, the danger of being discovered accidentally was lessened, but she still worried.

Alicia flashed her that heart-stirring smile of hers, and winked one bright blue eye.

“I just want to take a tiny peek at something. And besides, look at this, it’ll be fine.”

She opened one of her pouched and produced a company-issued ID card.

It had the large, golden block letters R-K, for Rescholdt-Kolt, the engineering firm responsible for a lot of the complicated technology behind the factory’s products. General Auto had the raw industrial muscle, but the brains that came up with the blueprints and that put the finishing touches on the tanks, all of that came from Rescholdt-Kolt.

And wait; had she not said her name was Alicia Kolt?

Marit looked up from the card and at Alicia’s self-satisfied little grin.

“You’re getting it now huh?” She raised a hand to her chest and patted over her breast. “I’m the younger sister of Maximillian Kolt, the second partner in Rescholdt-Kolt.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so? You don’t have to sneak around then!” Marit replied.

She was less impressed with the connection, and more relieved there wouldn’t be trouble.

Alicia did not seem convinced.

Stepping forward, the young engineer put her warm, soft hands on Marit’s shoulders.

Her big blue eyes and invitingly painted lips were only the length of their noses away.

“Marit, I need your help.” She said.

“You really don’t!” Marit replied, suddenly nervous, excited, aroused(?) far too suddenly.

Alicia sighed. Marit smelled a sweet scent from her and averted her eyes again.

She felt the engineer’s hands squeeze gently with determination.

“Marit, If I just show up, they’ll give me a boring tour of the facilities and use me like a piece of decoration! Listen: there’s something I want to take a quick peek at. I searched around the exterior of the factory, but I can’t tell where to go. When I saw you, I knew that luck was on my side! I just need your help for a teeny-tiny moment, okay? then I’ll be out of your hair for good. Nobody will get in trouble. Trust me; I’m really good at this stuff.”

Marit felt a sudden thrill in her chest, followed by a sinking feeling.

“Pretty please?” Alicia asked again.

She could send her off on her own, go work, and go about her day like any other.

However, Alicia’s presence had suddenly reawakened a fire in Marit’s heart that she thought long since put out. That childish feeling of adventure, of making every day a truly different one, of doing more with oneself than one’s lot allowed. That feeling of defiance, of a child who saw rules and flaunted them, who saw challenges and conquered them, who felt that anything could be possible. That child who wanted to be her own person.

Marit felt suddenly that she had been conforming too much.

After all, what was in it for her if she obeyed the factory boss?

She would still get beaten if she made a mistake. She would still get paid poorly.

Alicia, however, was the promise of something a little different. Even if only for a day.

Besides, she was curious what kind of thing an Alicia Kolt could want with this place.

“I’ll help you.” Marit said. “But we have to be quick. I’ll be yelled at for being late.”

“Oh thank you! Thank you!”

Alicia pulled her into an embrace and kissed her suddenly on the cheek.

Marit felt her head would explode if a pressure valve wasn’t released soon.


“Is there any place where something important might be kept?”

That was Alicia’s only interest and clue, and Marit only really had one answer. There was a specialty workshop on the other side of the factory grounds that was padlocked. She had asked some of the other women if they ever worked there and none of them ever had, so it was not a place for regular assembly. One morning, she was feeling sick, and gave away her coffee to an engineer she found who was driving a crane-pulley tractor in the cold.

“Thanks, kid!” He’d said, “Hey, let me tell you something fun in exchange eh? Sit down.”

Marit had sat in the tractor with him, and heard him brag about how he was part of a team working on new ultra-dense heat-treated steel. There was no facility in the factory Marit had ever seen that could do something like that, so she figured that such things were going on behind the padlock in that specialty workshop. Experimental stuff. That was probably what Alicia wanted to see. If she was treated like a toy at the R-K firm, then maybe she was not allowed to see experimental projects, and it must have vexed her.

“Follow me very closely and keep your head down, okay?” Marit said.

Alicia nodded cheerfully. “Don’t worry, I’m an expert at sneaking.”

As she said this, Alicia carelessly kicked a discarded bolt and sent it rattling around.

Marit snapped her head toward her; Alicia held up her hands defensively, smiling.

“Sorry!”

“Shut up!”

Marit grabbed hold of Alicia’s hand and together they ran across the outer edge of the factory, along the fence, for several dozen meters, and hid behind a stack of discarded wooden pallets. From afar, they watched as a guard with a rifle and a cruel-looking bayonet came from around the corner, to where the bolt had hit a factory wall.

He looked down at the bolt, looked around himself, and kept on patrolling.

“Phew,” Marit sighed, “be careful.”

“Marit! That was a Panzergrenadier! Look at his helmet and coat!”

Marit blinked. She had no idea what Alicia was talking about. He looked like any other soldier to Marit. He had a grey coat, and a gun, and a helmet. Just another Nochtish man.

“To have Panzergrenadiers here– and oh my god, I think that insignia on his shoulder is for the Leibgarde Achim Lehner regiment, elite Presidential guard!” Alicia said.

She covered her mouth and seemed like she wanted to yell with excitement.

“Please calm down. You’ll get us caught.” Marit said.

They stole away around the factory ground, avoiding the guards, with Marit having to gently calm Alicia’s enthusiastic gasps whenever she saw something or other that piqued her interest, whether a model of tractor, or a brief glimpse of a tank being worked on inside one of the warehouses, or more of those soldiers with their strange insignia. Soon they made it to the side wall of the specialty workshop. Unlike the tin buildings around it, this one was concrete and closed. Only the specialty workshop and offices were concrete.

“How do we sneak in?” Alicia asked.

“From the top. There’s a ventilation system connected to the air conditioning.”

“Good! I’m an excellent climber!” Alicia said.

Marit looked at her skeptically and then smiled.

Once more they snuck away around the wall of the workshop and found a garbage bin at the back. Marit gave Alicia a boost onto it, and Alicia helped her climb up. In this way, they also made it from atop the garbage can and onto the roof. There, a series of ventilation grates led down into the workshop itself. Marit kneeled beside one of them and tried to pull it open, but she found it quite stubborn. After a second attempt, she saw the screws.

“Alicia, could you unscrew this for me?”

“I’m extremely good at that. One moment.”

With an inordinately proud look in her eyes, Alicia withdrew a screwdriver of the correct size from her belt and undid the screws locking the vent cover in place. Marit crawled headfirst down the vent, Alicia holding her legs for support, and she found herself at the bottom of the vent shaft quite quickly. Alicia threw down the screwdriver, and Marit opened another vent cover, and squeezed slowly out of the aluminum shafts.

And into open air, with little in the way of support.

Coming out of the vent, Marit fell a few meters down to a stack of asbestos sheets.

“Are you alright?” Alicia called down.

Marit took a few seconds to regain her senses. “Yes! Be careful coming down!”

She had hardly given the warning when Alicia came tumbling down out of the vent and crashed onto the stack of Asbestos sheets as well. She raised her arms and gave a little cheer before standing, and seemed more energized than hurt by the drop. Marit sighed.

“Where are we?”

Marit looked around. They were in a gloomy room, a small section of the shop compared to the exterior size. They were surrounded by stacks of materials along the walls. There were metal plates and the asbestos sheets and a stack of metal tubes. There was something large and covered up in the center of the room. One door led out of the room, and in the back there were a set of double doors that emanated a gentle heat. That was probably the furnace room, and the double doors were probably strongly insulated. No going there.

Alicia produced an electric torch from her belt and pointed the beam at the covered object.

“Marit, help me pull this tarp off it!”

Together, the girls grabbed opposite corners of the tarp and tugged on it several times.

Once the tarp was off, they found a tank under it.

“It’s just an M4 Sentinel.” Marit said. She felt a measure of scorn for the thing.

Alicia’s face lit up.

“It’s not just any old M4!”

She started going over all the things different. She pointed out the tracks, which were separated further for rough terrain coverage necessary for combat in the Ayvartan forests and hills and in the red desert of Solstice; and the circular armor extensions on the sides of the turret, which, in Alicia’s words, could defeat “delayed-action AP-HE.” She showed Marit the gun barrel, which was longer and of a wider bore than normal. She claimed it was a “75mm KwK 31” instead of the “typical” gun, the “50mm KwK 28.” Compared to the smooth, rounded bodies of other M4s, this one was a bit more angular and robust.

“I think the armor thickness has increased from 50 mm to 62 or even 70 mm!”

Alicia climbed up on the track, stepping on the bogeys, and then onto the tank itself.

“It’s amazing! Look at it! So much power! Isn’t it scary, Marit? It’s so scary!”

While she rooted around the top of the tank like a mouse searching for crumbs, Marit moved closer to the side of the tank and read aloud the block text painted on the side.

“M4A4 ‘Rick Sentinel’ Prototype GA-31.” She said.

“It’s not ‘Rick’ Sentinel, you’re verbalizing the R-K. That’s just the R-K mark.”

Alicia bent down from atop the tank to make eye contact with Marit while explaining.

“Rick Sentinel sounds like it has more personality.” Marit said.

“Hmm. I suppose so! It has plenty of personality already though!”

“So this is what you wanted to see?”

Marit looked up at Alicia, who was acting as if she was standing atop the world and not just a tank. She was inordinately pleased with her discovery, jumping up and down, clapping her hands and laughing as she surveyed the metal monster she had unshackled here.

“Yes, it was! I knew my brother was coming up with a big new project, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. All of these changes are completely elementary: judging by designs coming out of Helvetia and Lubon, the 75mm cannons widely deployed in light artillery units are the natural evolution of the comparatively smaller guns on tanks. To defeat the problem of recoil, the counterweight on the back of the turret was added! Ingenious!”

Alicia sat on said counterweight, stretching from the back of the turret, which was otherwise the round, “melon” turret that Marit was used to. She kicked her legs.

Her unrestrained cheer and the way she spoke about it gave Marit discomforting chills.

“So this is what you wanted to see? Just this?” She asked again.

“Yes it was! Thank you for giving me the opportunity Marit–”

“And what will you do now?” Marit asked. “What is your goal here?”

Alicia smiled. “I’m going to draw up something even more visionary. Knowing that this is possible, that counterweights potentially solve the recoil problem, that we can go above 25 tons, and so on; I can write a spec that will blow this one out of the water. Then they will have to acknowledge my abilities at the firm. Even if it’s not accepted, just the design–”

Marit clenched her fist at her side. “So you want to make a tank that can kill even better?”

“Um.” Alicia seemed taken aback suddenly. She stopped rocking her legs.

That savage hatred that Marit felt for the M4 was crashing over her like a cold wave.

“The M4 Sentinels that we make here are already so fearsome and murderous, and you want them to be bigger? To have bigger guns? To shoot more and faster? To be even harder to stop? You see this thing and you want to make one even more frightening than that?”

“Um, hey, Marit, I’m–”

“These things are the reason the island changed! The reason we can’t be free!”

“Marit–”

Alicia tried to speak but Marit staring at her so intensely that she could not continue.

“You asked me if it looks scary? It looks scary. But you’re scarier, Alicia! You’re an even bigger monster than that thing is! You look at it and laugh and want to make it worse!”

Marit’s tone of voice rose to shouting, and she raised her clenched fists in anger.

Alicia shouted back, weeping. “Marit, please, you’re scaring me–”

“No more than you’re scaring me–!”

In the middle of the shouting match, the doors behind them swung open.

Light entered the room suddenly, framing a pair of figures in a white glare.

Both of the shadows darted forward.

Marit felt something hard strike her in the forehead and knock her down.

“Please stop! She didn’t do anything wrong!”

Alicia’s voice protested, but immediately grew muffled and desperate.

She was already wavering, but when a kick to her stomach knocked all the air out of her, Marit felt like something had unplugged her brain. She went out, and the world with her.


13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Night had fallen, and Marit was still working. She was working under guard.

Outside the assembly building were two men with guns, smoking.

Inside it was the Overseer, tormenting her.

At first some of the women had stayed with her and tried to help her, but eventually everyone was thrown out, until there was only Marit, the guards and the Overseer.

Though they cursed the man and his cruelty, all her coworkers could do was to leave.

And all she could do was to keep working.

Marit felt the heavy throb of her wound on her forehead. Every little movement she made seemed to exacerbate the pain. And yet, here she was. Kneeling on the cold floor of the workshop, slick with grease and oil and sweat, her arms shaking, her teeth chattering. She moved mechanically. Her humanity had slipped away from her somewhere after the fifth hour of forced overtime labor and the second time the Overseer shouted in her ear.

She was a machine; she was truly doing first, intermediate and final assembly now.

All at once.

“We’re going to break a record here, Hale!” Shouted the overseer. “You’ll put together an entire tank by yourself! That’ll teach you to snoop around where you’re not wanted!”

Marit’s eyes welled up with tears involuntarily, her fingers looked like gnarled claws, bruised and spent and curled roughly as she struggled to get her shaking hands to stretch the track around the front and back gears, the rollers and under the bogeys. She stood, unsteadily, nearly falling, walked to the other end of the workshop. Grasping in the dark, she found the welding torch and came back to seal the track. With that accomplished she had only one more job to do — she had to lower the turret onto the turret ring.

Behind her, like a mocking imp, the Overseer watched from a folding chair.

“Obviously I don’t expect a moron like you to install the hydraulics and electric system. Just set the turret down on the ring, we’ll pretend it was finished, and you’ll be done. Free to go. Doesn’t it feel great to make amends? To work off your debt like a real citizen?”

Marit did not respond. She was not capable of response. Her mind was obliterated by exhaustion and pain. She shambled toward the chains attached to the crane pulley and tugged the crane along its supports on the roof, feeling like she would fall over dead with every effort. Once the crane was close enough, she attached the chain to the turret, and revved up a generator to start the lifting motor. She lifted the heavy turret, welded all by herself, every last part of it from the cheek to the hatch to the gun assembly.

Finally, the turret dropped onto the ring, a little unsteadily, but in its place.

“Congratulations Hale! You’ve made idiot history. Now get the fuck out of my face.”

The Overseer pointed her out the workshop door.

Marit, dirty, exhausted, wounded everywhere, with big empty eyes, shambled out of the shop, almost without recognizing what she was doing or what time it even was.

She was escorted by the guards outside the factory grounds and turned out onto the road.

Staring at the moon like a lost calf in the forest, Marit got walking home.

“Marit! Marit!”

There was a long light coming from the edge of the pavement.

Marit flinched when she heard the chugging noise coming closer.

At her side, a motorized bike stopped, cut engine, and someone left it.

“Marit, oh my god!”

She felt someone take her in arms. Sweet scent, golden hair.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! This was all my fault!”

Marit barely recognized Alicia’s voice.

“What time is it?” She asked.

Alicia pulled back from her, to look her in the eyes, still holding her by the shoulder.

“It’s past midnight, Marit.” She said.

“I have to sleep.” Marit said. “I can sleep maybe three hours if I get home in one.”

“I can get you home.” Alicia said. “But you shouldn’t work tomorrow! You’re hurt!”

“I have to.” Marit said. “If I’m absent now after all this, I’ll be beaten and thrown out the next time I show my face. I can’t stop working. My family needs me.”

She couldn’t muster any emotion, love or hate, for Alicia. She couldn’t muster anything.

Her unsteady legs started to shake. Marit felt like her feet would slip out from under her.

They almost did; Marit nearly fell, but Alicia caught her.

“I’ll give you money. It’s the least I can do.” Alicia said.

“Can you keep giving me money?” Marit mumbled. “If I lose my job–”

Alicia hung her head. Her bright and shining smile was nowhere to be found.

“I’ll drive you home. I’m sorry Marit. I’m sorry about everything. I’ve been stupid and preumptuous and naive and I hurt you so much with my foolishness. I’m so sorry.”

Without response, Marit stumbled onto the passenger car on the motorbike.

Visibly weeping, Alicia put on a helmet, and got on the bike herself.

Marit felt the earth start to move, and the surroundings blur in twilight.


Though she had hoped that a few hours of sleep would undo all the damage, it hardly seemed to change things, save to allow her mind to more fully understand her predicament. When she next woke, it was sunset, and Marit was hurting all over, her bandaged forehead feeling as if freshly broken over by a rifle butt. Alicia was sleeping in a chair next to her bed. Her father was passed out drunk in the kitchen. Her mother was still gone, god knows where in town, doing god knows what. It was all the usual.

“Alicia, wake up!”

Marit shoved the blond girl’s shoulder, and prodded her from sleep.

“Marit? Are you feeling better?” She asked.

“No. I need a ride to work.”

Alicia looked like she would cry again. “You shouldn’t.”

“I have to.”

There was no more protesting. Alicia must have learned would get her nowhere.

Marit changed into fresher clothes, also shabby hand-me-downs from her brothers, and she took a loaf of bread from the pantry, the last one they had. She practically shoved it into her mouth along with a glass of milk and honey. She would not make it in time to stand in line for breakfast today. Even with Alicia’s bike it would probably take a while.

Outside, Marit took one last look at her family’s decaying, shabby A-frame cabin as she mounted Alicia’s bike. It looked ever more empty and forlorn on a hurting head.

“Drive.” Marit said.

“Marit, I’m sorry–”

“You’re forgiven, drive.”

She said it brusquely enough that Alicia seemed to get the hint.

It took them thirty minutes to drive from Marit’s house down to the factory around the other side of the island. Marit normally caught a bus for workers, but to catch it, she had to get on before the sun, and she had not today. Alicia probably did not know the significance of the bus and did not wake her for it. Or maybe Alicia was as tired and asleep and also slept through it. Marit did not know if Alicia had been punished for what happened.

Certainly it can’t have been as severe as what Marit faced.

Once they got to the factory, Marit practically jumped off the sidecar, and she ignored Alicia’s protests as she ran through the front gate. Already the chow line had dissolved and people were at their stations. Marit ran through the factory grounds, and stopped at the assembly building. She turned about face, took a deep breath, and tried to walk as casually as she could into the tin building, hoping to not attract any attention–

“You’re late, Hale!”

Immediately she was pounced on by the Overseer.

Without regard for her wound, he rolled his newspaper and struck her in the head.

“That tank you made yesterday was shabby work! And now you’re late too? Get over there and start tightening drive wheels. You’ll be doing every assembly at least once today!”

Marit turned from him to go where assigned, but she stumbled and fell.

No sooner had she hit the floor that she felt the Overseer kick her in the hip.

“Get up, Hale! You’re not feigning sick with me again! I know that trick too well!”

She could hardly believe his words. He was the same man who had yesterday overseen her as she nearly killed herself putting together a whole tank all day and all night, with a head wound. Did he think her a monster, with unlimited power in her limbs? Did he think her darker skin and darker hair conferred him some natural savagery that could withstand this? She could not even move from the floor. Collapsed face-first, she struggled terribly.

“Stop that!”

From inside the assembly building there was a general murmur.

All of the women working on the tanks had stopped and were staring at the Overseer and at Marit. Many of them had stood up from their stations, and started to shout.

“This is monstrous! Leave that girl alone!”

“Can’t you see she’s hurt?”

“You’ve worked her to the bone, you animal! Leave her alone!”

As more people shouted, more people felt emboldened to shout and to shout louder. People started to refer to their own grievances with the Overseer, rather than just what he had done to Marit. Women started to leave their stations and to gather and walk over to the man and to mob. The Overseer swatted in front of him with his newspaper.

“Get back to work! All of you! If you don’t I’m calling the guards!”

Marit turned over on her side, trying to get up.

“And you, I said, up! Now!”

He delivered another kick to her, this time in the stomach, and she cried out.

It was this that triggered the mob of women to stampede.

Marit could not understand how he had gotten the confidence to do what he did. How in the face of everything, he kept attacking her, he kept provoking them. Did he not see them? Did he not see a hundred women, old and tall and tough with skin like baked leather and big meaty arms and fingers and bellies that had borne a half dozen children each?

He started to understand, perhaps, when the first thrown wheels struck him, when the first hurled cans of pain and oil spilled over him, when the first wrench blows knocked him to the ground. When the women kicked him as he had kicked Marit and when they found it in themselves not to stop kicking, when they found bigger things to kick him with, when they found things to stab with and things to crush with and maybe, as the light left him, he understood when they ruined and defaced his body in every achievable way.

After minutes of escalating violence the Overseer was barely recognizable as human.

Then the women took their bloodied weapons and charged the two guards who appeared, alerted by the cries and the commotion, and they beat them down, but they did not murder them as they had the Overseer. They struck them and pushed them and disarmed them and sent them scurrying away from the factory. Marit had barely managed to get back up on her feet, when the women started to chant, and to roar. They called out Marit’s name.

Blinking, incredulous of the events around her, Marit watched as the women charged toward the office, and the specialty workshop, and as more women from the other assembly buildings came out as well, and they shouted and cried and made commotion. Every woman seemed to shout her grievances aloud at once. There were chants for peace, to bring the boys back home; chants to work less hours, to work for more pay, to have the commissions they were promised for good work, to have new bosses or no bosses.

Soon the entire population of the factory was out on the grounds making mess.

Marit had hardly shambled out of the assembly building, when a siren went off.

In front of the specialty workshop, a metal shutter door started going up.

Marit’s heart sank, and she tried to shout, knowing what was coming.

From the workshop, something flew out with thunderous violence.

Over the heads of the women a projectile detonated and cast fire and metal down.

At once the spontaneous crowd started to break apart and disperse.

The M4A4 “R-K Sentinel” emerged from the building, and people scrambled away from it to avoid being crushed. From its front plate, sporadic machine gun fire sailed out over the crowds, flying between the assembled women, grazing many, striking some, hitting pavement and tin walls and causing a panic to unfold suddenly. Atop the turret, the guard commander for the factory stood half out of the cupola with a pistol in hand, screaming.

“All of you will cease this demonstration at once, or you will be hung as traitors to the Federation of Northern States!” He shouted, firing his pistol off into the air. “We hold fire only because of a sense of decency you all lack! Your ransacking of a military installation is high treason! But we will show mercy if you disarm and disperse immediately!”

His own voice made him sound nervous, though he put up a strong front. Clearly he was in a panic too, his every action and word belied that panic, and he had done something extreme that could not be taken back now, in the hopes of disarming a situation likely to kill him. One tank against hundreds of workers at very close range, even older women, would not end well for him either. Like Alicia had before, they could climb onto the tank, and maybe force the hatch. He was trying to scare them off. It was all going crazy.

Many women retreated, collapsed, wounded or unwounded; but a core was forming around the assembly building that continued to show some defiance, and they gathered together.

Callously, hungry for blood, the Sentinel’s turret descended its gun toward them.

Marit ran out of the building.

With one first and final burst of manic energy, she stood between the crowd and gun.

She spread her arms, shaking all over.

“It was my fault! I’ll take responsibility! Please stop this!” She shouted.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her entire being hurt. Her body, her mind, her soul.

Everything was out of control and she couldn’t help but think it was all her fault.

Had she been better, worked harder–

Had she not lost control around Alicia and berated her–

Had anything gone different, had her parents not broken down, had everything–

Her mind was choppy, thoughts cutting each other off, sensations twisted.

She was shaking, shaking violently in front of the women she sought to defend.

“Get out of the way brat! This is not about you! Disperse now! All of you!”

She heard a clicking from inside the barrel. She was so close to the gun.

It must have been the breech. She had done breech assembly before.

Someone inside had loaded a shell that would go right through her.

Marit swallowed hard. Even if she wanted to move, she could not have. She was out of strength. Everything was lost to her. She had given the last of her to stand with these women and to stand before them, to try to protect them, to try to make amends.

Now she was spent. She couldn’t obey the guard commander.

“I warned you!” He shouted. His own voice sounded as desperate as hers.

Marit closed her eyes.

“Fire–HOLD FIRE. HOLD FIRE!”

Marit reopened her eyes in disbelief.

Standing in front of her, even closer to the gun barrel, was Alicia.

“You can shoot her if you want! But you’ll also kill Alicia Kolt if you do! And I’m not moving no matter what! If you really want to end this, call the Governor instead!”

She was shaking too. Her voice quavered perhaps even worse than Marit’s had.

But she was standing, and she was not moving.

Marit felt herself going forward, and falling onto Alicia’s back.

She held on to her waist, resting her head on Alicia’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” Alicia whimpered.

“You’re forgiven.” Marit said, this time much more sincerely.

Behind them, the crowd of women took steps forward, and joined Marit and Alicia.

In response, the R-K Sentinel backed down. It reversed into the specialty workshop, shut itself inside again, and made no more noise and caused no more damage until the police arrived, and the governor arrived, and cooler heads seemed more willing to talk.


18th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Ever since the factory closed down, Marit’s mother and father seemed to have disappeared entirely. As a result of their vanishing near-completely into drink and dance, perhaps too distraught at the loss of the income from their sons and now the income from their daughter too, Marit got to keep her final paycheck. It was a pretty fat sum too — she had finally been given all her unpaid commissions for her good work. Despite this, she could not live very large. Had anything in her been broken it would have obliterated even this precious lifeline. But things had worked out well enough, she was healthy and she was free, and now she could use this last bit of money to leave behind her fallen home.

She would move to the Nochtish mainland and seek opportunity there.

It hurt her heart, but it was all she could do now. She had nothing left on Iron Isle.

Nocht, and Nocht’s war, had destroyed her family, her homeland.

With a hundred and fifty marks in hand, all she could do was to go on, to survive.

She packed up a few things, put the money in with her bag, and left the house.

She hoped to catch the bus, and then a ferry to Pelago, and then maybe a plane or a bigger boat to Nocht. She had never had to think about this, so she had no concrete plans.

Outside, however, she heard a distinctive chugging on the road.

“Marit! Hey, Marit!”

On her motor bike again was Alicia Kolt.

“Where are you going, Marit?” She asked, smiling.

Marit felt a strange softness in her heart and averted her eyes a little from the road.

“I don’t know! Anywhere but here, to be honest!” Marit said.

“Coincidentally, I’m headed the same way.” Alicia replied.

She patted her hand on her sidecar.

Sighing, Marit headed for it, and climbed in.

“Why are you helping me?” Marit asked.

“Why did you help me that day?” Alicia asked in turn.

She thought back to it. It seemed petty. There was no life-changing revelation to be had. She had seen a pretty girl who had made her swoon a little and who needed help, and she wanted the sense of adventure, she wanted to do something interest. She did not think it over too much. Her actions could not truly be justified. It was almost completely random.

Unwilling to answer that maybe she had wanted a kiss, Marit instead shrugged.

“Because it was different.” She said.

“Would you accept that as my answer too?” Alicia said.

“Absolutely not. You can do better than that.” Marit said, grinning in jest.

“You’re right. Let me come up with something better.”

Alicia leaned in from the driver’s seat and kissed Marit in the cheek.

Marit flinched and rubbed her own cheek and felt her heart jumping in her chest.

“How’s that? If you want it verbally: it’s because you’re so different.”

“I don’t think I am, but okay.” Marit replied, still rubbing her cheek.

“Trust me, I’m extremely good at these things. You made think a lot, you know.”

Alicia looked out over the road and down the hilly way from Marit’s house.

“I want to do something that a person like you would admire, not despise. If someone as brave and strong and selfless as you thinks it’s wrong– I can’t carry on with it.”

“Hey,” Marit said, suddenly alarmed, “I’m sorry about what I said to you. It was nasty and you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t just do whatever I say, who am I to dictate your life?”

Alicia smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve made up my mind. I might still make weapons, you know. But if I do, it wont be for Rescholdt-Kolt. It wont be so they can be used against you.”

She reached out and held Marit’s hand.

“Marit, I don’t know what to do right now, but I know I don’t want to leave you behind, whatever it is that happens. I know this sounds silly, because we just met a while ago, and because I was doing things to assuage my guilt. But I really want to stay with you.”

Marit smiled back. She laid her other hand on Alicia’s too. She liked the feeling of both their worn, callused hands, a little rough and spent, holding each other so closely.

“Whatever happened to wanting to one-up your brother’s designs, huh?” Marit asked.

“Oh, I’ll beat him. I’ll become a better person than him in every way. I’ll build things that will save people and protect people. Things you can be proud of and love, Marit.” Alicia said. “I’ll trample his scornful steel with the power of love. You can count on that.”

Marit burst out laughing. “Oh my god; what a queer bunch of ideas.”

Alicia worked the bike’s ignition and revved up the engine.

“I’m extremely good at this, remember? Anyway, where do you want to go?”

Marit leaned against the backrest, and breathed out. For once, she felt relaxed.

“I want to go with you, Alicia.” She said.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

[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.”

 

Ackley’s New Lease On Life 8: Recruitment

“Fine. I admit it. You are quite astute. I am the super genius Dr. Cruciere!”

The Doctor patted herself on the chest, and for extra authenticity she burst into laughter. Asmodeus began to bob her upper body left and right while signaling toward the doctor with her index fingers, as though they were all practicing a very stiff and strange choreography. Ackley silently beheld the spectacle, wondering if the other children had their rooms intruded upon by poorly socialized people on as regular a basis as she.

“So,” Ackley sat up on her bed, against the pillows and the backrest, “You’re the Doctor Cruciere they talk about on TV? Who fights with the Ladybird and attacks the city every so often? ”

“Do not believe any of that! That is character assassination.” Dr. Cruciere said. “Hmph! Ladybird. Pah! Ladybird is just an ignoramus who persecutes me for my political beliefs.”

“What are your political beliefs?” Ackley said.

Dr. Cruciere crossed her arms, and cocked a little grin. “I’m glad you asked. I desire to bring the entire world under a single technocratic government, fully planned according to my scientific principles, that can more efficiently create and distribute the needed resources to plan for a full mobilization of the Earth’s entire population in a war of extermination against an alien race that will invade in 2093. I came from the future to do this.”

Ackley smiled sweetly while surreptitiously reaching behind her bed, where her patient panic button was hidden against the bed’s frame. She had never required the panic button before, even against Agent Winchester and during the Rageditor siege and other such troubles. Her motto was to keep herself calm, betray no emotion, and try to outwit her often idiotic and incoherent opponents. Poorly trained Security brutes were probably just as likely to throw her out of a window as they were to remove Dr. Cruciere, but she had no other choice now. Never had Ackley faced a foe like Dr. Cruciere: the doctor was absolutely rambling insane. Ackley could not outsmart someone whose mind existed on entirely alternate dimensions than that which ordinary people inhabited. She had outwitted Fulton Handler, bombed Charles Fairway into biochemical ash, escape the wrath of the Department of Departments and gotten fast food in compensation, and declared war on Memes; but Dr. Cruciere was on a whole new level above these dangers.

In response to her cagey movements, Asmodeus lifted a pair of scissors.

“I disabled the room security while fluffing your pillows.” She said.

“You are the worst nurse! Even worse than my old Nurse!” Ackley shouted.

Asmodeus’ eyes drew wide open. She gasped with shock, and hugged herself, shaking. Though her expression only slightly changed, her whole body language indicated a deep regret and discomfort, for once betraying emotion. Ackley could almost see the good times that they shared flashing in those cold, dead-looking eyes of hers, and the sweat building on her clammy, ghost-white skin. Finally she had found an insult that cut deep.

“But that old Nurse treated you so poorly. She used you without care and betrayed the Nurse handbook so many times.” Asmodeus mumbled. “I can’t be worse– can I? I read the manual and passed the courses. The Doctor said I was a good nurse. I’m sorry, Doctor, I need a moment alone to consider this.”

Asmodeus stiffly turned around and stumbled away from them. Ackley almost felt regret, staring at the extent of the discomfiture she had wrought upon Asmodeus; but she hardened her heart. She crossed her arms over her chest and turned her cheek on Asmodeus, refusing her any ounce of pity.

Dr. Cruciere grew livid as she watched Asmodeus go, dragging herself into a corner of the room with her head against the wall, every so often giving it a swift bash on the concrete. “Asmodeus has been working so hard to become an exemplary nurse in order to pull off this scheme without suspicion. Even if she did ultimately conspire to sneak me in here, I feel like the weeks of wonderful service she gave you should be applauded!”

“Thank you, Doctor.” Asmodeus said feebly from the corner. She removed a handkerchief from one of the pockets of her nurse uniform, brushing it against her completely dry eyes to wipe her symbolic tears. There was only so much a humanoid construct made mostly of fungus could do when distraught.

Ackley buried her face in her hands with a deep sigh. When she recovered her composure, and her characteristic deadpan expression with it, she lay back in bed and tried to relax.

“So you came to kidnap me?” Ackley asked. “Why did you wait this long?”

Cruciere frowned, and avoided eye contact with the little girl. “We were waiting for Asmodeus’ first paycheck before bolting. On the probation period she only gets paid on a monthly basis.”

“Wow.” Ackley said. “That is embarrassingly petty.”

“Well, you know, in this economy you have to take money where you can get it.”

“But why did you come for me specifically? I don’t get it.” Ackley said.

“Oh ho!” Cruciere drew in close and rubbed Ackley’s chin. “It is because I am a fan of your work!”

Ackley felt a chill throughout her body. “You are what?”

Cruciere skirted the edge of the bed, and with a dramatic flourish drew Ackley’s attention to the renovated Fairway Building visible out the window. Once blown-out, its main office had now been converted into a child daycare for company workers, under the guidance of its new owner. What was her name? Ackley faintly recalled “Gilded” being the new owner’s surname, but all the hospitals and assets were still named after the late Mr. Fairway. Nonetheless, Cruciere stood in attention at the window, smiling at the building as though examining a work of art.

“You blew up that office with an improvised chemical weapon, thereby horrifically murdering some old rich man and opening up the budget for the extractor that would save your life!” Cruciere said, staring at the extractor with admiration. “You have so much initiative and drive! I can’t really stomach killing all that much – assorted maimings, maybe some lasting illness, but not killing. But you, my dear, you’re just what I need in my new world!”

Ackley tried to interject at several points in this speech to point out that she had intended to die after getting revenge on Mr. Fairway for cutting the budget down so much that she could only sit in a hospital and slowly wither away without care – she had never actually planned on surviving, and the attack was not intended to save her at all. Cruciere gushed so much that Ackley could not get a word in edgewise. In fact she almost believed herself to be a terrorist mastermind, listening to Cruciere: and not instead a small child who read hard books at 2, grew very sick at 4 and whose parents and the world began ignoring her at 6. A lot of things Ackley strove to forgot grew closer as Cruciere spoke.

Finally, Cruciere’s speech wound down. She drew in a deep breath, skipped up and down, and with her face turning red, asked, “Would you like to come live in my underground base?”

From the corner, Asmodeus quickly added, “We also have a mansion.”

Ackley made a loud noise as though she were deflating like a balloon.

“Could you please be quiet?” Ackley shouted, downcast. “Please?”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Cruciere said. “I made this weird, didn’t I?”

“Look, I’m not sure what I want to do or what I should do, okay? I made this bucket list and it’s not even partway complete. It’s literally my only goal in life right now!  Everyone’s forgotten about me, and when they remember, it is all scandals or a preoccupation toward my value as a meme. I’m really sick, this hospital is all I’ve known for years. And now everyone and their pets is marching through the door, acting crazy at me!”

Ackley shouted, loud as she could, straining her vocal cords to their limits. Her throat felt like it would burst and she was almost on the verge of tears. Her skin was flush with more color than it had boasted in years. She hated this, all of this! She would have preferred lounging in bed, doing nothing and feeling no emotion, to this sideshow going on. Cruciere took a few tentative steps back, avoiding eye contact with the furious little girl.

“I just think you are very intelligent, and I admire you, and I would like to take you out of this awful place.” Cruciere continued, growing ever more skittish. “You ill deserve this treatment!”

Ackley paused suddenly. Her pigtails rose a little as if they were antennae.

“Say that again? About me. Say what you just said to describe me.”

“I think you are very gifted. You remind me of myself!” Cruciere said.

“I’m gifted?” Ackley asked. “I’m just another kid who can’t amount to anything.”

“I don’t believe that at all.” Cruciere said. “You are a genius!” She neared Ackley once more, and delivered upon her head an alien gesture – it was a pat, a soft stroke of Cruciere’s palm over Ackley’s hair. Ackley felt lightning coursing under her skin, jolts of eerie sensation. She was being patted on the head?

“I have barely gone to school. I’ve been sick in a hospital forever. I’m not a genius.” Ackley said, scarcely able to blurt it out under the stunning, relaxing feeling of a genuine pat on the head.

“Who cares about school? I’m not going to rate your intellect on an A to F scale.'” Cruciere cheerfully said. “The amount of technical know-how and practical intellect you possess cannot be taught in schools! Especially not Ameran ones! Making a bomb out of junk might not be the noblest thing, but it shows potential!”

From the corner, Asmodeus clapped. It was not very cheerful.

For the first time in a long time, Ackley felt a great warmth spreading its way through the numb recesses of her body. Even after Dr. Cruciere had retracted her uncharacteristically kind hands from her head, Ackley could feel them playing with her hair. She lay back in bed, her eyes open wide and her mouth hanging slightly open, as she considered everything that had happened. A grown-up had praised her. An adult had patted her on the head and genuinely told her she was smart! It had even sounded kind and sweet and real! She had come to her hospital room and paid a visit, an unorthodox visit, but a visit nonetheless, and she offered praise, for her intelligence no less.

“Asmodeus, I take it back,” Ackley said, “you are a very good nurse.”

Asmodeus clapped again. It was still not very cheerful. She turned her back to the corner and walked back to the center of the room with renewed determination. She dusted off her maid uniform, adjusted her cap, and stood straight as a bolt again. “Though I am mostly unable to express it, I am elated to hear this, Ackley. I will now attempt to smile in order to prove this.” Asmodeus’ face then remained completely unchanged.

“She is a work in progress.” Dr. Cruciere said, patting Asmodeus on the head.

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.

Let’s Not Forget Senator Gainesley

Senator Gainesley played Russian Roulette every morning and always lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His face sank into his hands.

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

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

The aide nodded and retreated carefully out the door.

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

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

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

“Gainesley.” Frumious said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gainesley stood bolt upright and slammed the table himself.

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

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

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

His jaw dropped and his hands shook.

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

Senator Gainesley’s face sank into his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did that happen?”

“I let him have his oil loophole.”

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

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

“Yes, that one.”

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

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

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

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

Ackley’s Wish

A bell rang and the elevator doors closed. The people inside tried not to sweat on each other much. Ladybird particularly hated sweat, or at least her dossier said so. Her dark chitin-colored skin found it particularly difficult to sweat, and she hated many things, and both were strong signs that she would hate sweat, and would probably hate people who sweated near her. She was an x-factor. The nurse with them was also an x-factor, but there was no controlling that ahead of time, and it would be minimal compared to Ladybird. The most controlled element of this operation was Fulton Handler, and he was sweating the most. He sweated so much that Ladybird crammed herself in a corner away from him.

Being a Wish-A-Wish sponsor was difficult. Every kid had wishes and nobody would ever be granted exactly the wish they wanted. Fulton tried his best to keep up with the names. So many kids. What’s worse is all the collaboration required to make the wishes come true. He was anxious because this was an industry where you had to have done things before and my god he was with someone who hadn’t ever done this before. Seizing his tie he eyed her up and down, knowing that somehow everything was going to go wrong and everyone was going to be mad. Everyone.

Especially Mr. Fairway. He would have a fit if he saw how much Fulton spent booking the Ladybird, while he was out working hard trying to campaign for healthcare funding cuts that were valuable to the Wish industry. He would be in his office all day, answering calls and preparing the perfect ways to berate Fulton for his excesses.

“Is something the matter?” Ladybird asked, her antennae scraping the ceiling of the cramped little elevator whenever she so much as moved an inch. She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at Fulton for staring.

“No! Nothing. Everyting is fine.” Fulton replied. “So, are those real?”

“No.” Ladybird said. “I’m just an actor whose forehead managed to sprout antennae just like Ladybird’s.”

She glared at him. Fulton knew off-hand that Ladybird had punched some robots and done some things. She was the city’s resident super heroine, and the red and black polkadot neoprene suit, the goggles, the antennae and translucent wings hidden under fleshy folds in her open back, all seemed to suggest it. But Fulton was so busy! Kids were always in the hospital and always wishing things and by god, he had to make all the wishes come true. He couldn’t keep up with the news. He had also read in Ladybird’s dossieur that she might hate aggrandizement, on account of also hating many things.

When the elevator bell rang again, and the others opened, Fulton rushed out ahead, feeling like he would tip over and faint from the heat. Ladybird ambled behind him, and the nurse smiled and led them to the room.

It was a little private room high up in the hospital, with a breath-taking view of Central Newfork. Crowds marched below them like motes of dust carried by a fickle wind, and cars were like colored chiclets and trails of light rushing across pretedermined paths. There was a little child in the room, made all the littler by the bundle of pillows and blankets she was cocooned in, pale as a ghost. She cast a silent, wan look at the doorway.

Ladybird failed to smile, and Fulton failed with her, too anxious to start the wish-granting process.

The nurse succeeded in smiling in their stead. “Ackley, these are Mr. Fulton, and the Ladybird, from Wish-A-Wish!” She said cheerfully. “They’re here about your wish. You wanted to meet the Ladybird, right?”

“Correction,” Ackley said, poking her head from out of the blankets, “My wish was phrased thus: ‘I wish that the Ladybird perform some favors for me.'” Satisfied with her correction, she started to twist one of her long and thin pigtails around her index finger, waiting blankly for a response from the doorway. The nurse smiled like a champion.

“Ooookay.” Ladybird said. “Well, um,” She rubbed her chin, “what’re you sick with?”

Something buzzed loudly from Ladybird’s ear. “FOR GOD’S SAKES DON’T ASK HER THAT!”

Shut up Dragonfly,” Ladybird said, tapping against her earpiece.

“She’s right, don’t ask her that! You’re already ruining everything!” Fulton said, near to tears with despair.

“I have Stilton’s Syndrome.” Ackley replied matter-of-factly. “It makes liquid nitrogen bubbles in my lungs sometimes.”

“Oh my god.” Ladybird replied, hands gripping her own chest. “How does that even happen?”

“Don’t reply like that.” Dragonfly urged. Ladybird reflexively tuned her out.

“My chances of survival are minimal.” Ackley said. “But I have made peace with this reality.”

“That’s so frickin’ sad.” Ladybird said, sobbing.

“This is awkward for all of us!” The nurse chimed in merrily. “Don’t worry, I remember the first time Captain Captain did a Wish-A-Wish grant here. He was also very nervous with the children.”

“Captain Captain isn’t a real superhero though.” Ladybird said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“DON’T SAY THAT.” Fulton and Dragonfly shouted, both right in Ladybird’s ear.

“Can I have my favors now?” Ackley asked, raising her hand from the bed bundle.

Fulton collected himself. “Why yes, of course Ackley. Ladybird will do anything you want!” He was in the zone now. He thought of kids and the things kids liked. His imagination soared as he recalled his extensive child psychology classes. He thought of blues and blues things and then fixed himself and thought of pinks and pink things because Ackley was actually a girl. He fell out of the zone for a moment because that was stereotyping and he shouldn’t do that but then he climbed back into the zone. He was in the zone. Again. “Ladybird could fly you around Newfork, like she does all the time!”

“I could.” Ladybird added. “I could also bifurcate one of Dr. Cruciere’s stupid robots while you watch. You could have the chunk that has her stupid logo on it as a present, if it’s not radioactive or booby trapped.”

“Yes! I mean, no!” Fulton said, stomping the ground. “She can have safe things!”

“Okay!” Ladybird said, “I can take her to a baseball game. Or take her to the museum.”

“You could make her a princess for a day!” Fulton said, trying to grasp a girlish thing to suggest.

“I want PVC pipe.” Ackley said.

The room fell silent. Even the nurse had failed to smile now.

“You want what?” Fulton said, scrabbling at his own mouth as he said it.

“PVC Pipe, this list of industrial fertilizers and chemicals, and some spare computer parts.” Ackley reached down the neck of her pajamas and produced a small list of items that she wanted Ladybird to procure.

Ladybird took the list. She reviewed it. “Well. She wants PVC pipe all right.”

Fulton wanted to cry. This was very much not like the business. This was not in the same Venn diagram sector as the business, in absolutely any way. The Business had left the building. But this was a wish. And you had to grant kid’s wishes – or else you made no money and the bank foreclosed your house. Kids needed wishes and so did Fulton.

“Um, I’m a bit worried, about this. Because you know, we got the Ladybird to come, and that was kinda expensive–”

“I wasn’t paid anything actually.” Ladybird said.

“The bookers who approached you were kind of expensive.” Fulton corrected. “And Mr. Fairway, our CEO, you know, he wants every kid to have a wish granted, but, you know, in a budget conscious way and all.”

“I’m afraid if I don’t have my wish I will have to make this a media scandal.” Ackley replied. “I believe the headlines might go ‘Genius Girl Denied Wish By Sad, Scared Man.’ I’m very well versed in Mr. Fairway’s current lobbying against child healthcare and other aspects of your organization you’d rather not make the news cycle for the day.”

Fulton turned stark white and grabbed hold of the door for support. “DO IT LADYBIRD, DO IT.”

Ladybird nodded. “I’ll be back in a bit with that PVC pipe and junk. And uh, power tools?”

“Yes, I need power tools.” Ackley said. “They needn’t be child-safe. You’ll supervise me.”

“Roger.” Ladybird said, giving a thumbs up. She opened the window, spread her elytra and translucent wings, and dove out the side of the hospital and toward the nearest House Shack.

* * *

“You know,” Dragonfly said, “this reminds me of something.”

Ladybird muted her earpiece again.

A chilling wind blew over the roof of the Fairway Children’s Hospital as the Wish-A-Wish representatives, Fulton, Ladybird and the beaming nurse gathered to supervise Ackley. Wrapped in a bundle of blankets with a pillow over he head, she twisted nuts, mixed chemicals, and soldered silicon chips on the roof of the building, while the puzzled onlookers tried to determine what the child’s perhaps final building project would be.

“Unmute her, she was saying something important!” Fulton demanded.

Ladybird growled and unmuted her earpiece, turning the volume up for Fulton to hear. Dragonfly was in the middle of counting off all the things Ladybird had gone to buy and acquire for Ackley’s wish.

“–Amonia tablets, fertilizer, a GPS module, an old miniature ASAN rocket engine, hmm.”

“How did you even get that?” Fulton asked, looking at the rocket engine as Ackley affixed it.

“I stole it from an ASAN facility.” Ladybird shrugged. “It’s the kid’s last goddamn wish.”

“Well, you know, this is irregular. Mr. Fairway won’t be happy with this at all.” Fulton said.

Ackley smiled. “That may soon cease to be a problem.”

She flipped a switch, and her construction came to life. The rocket lit and burnt and blasted the PVC edifice and its chemical payload into the night sky, leaving behind a heavy stench of fertilizer. It arced and twisted in the sky, circling around a nearby skyscraper, dodging under a pair of streetlights far below, rising anew. It sputtered once, then suddenly thrust sharply into the peak of an adjacent building and erupted. A single office upon the face of the building was reduced to a cloud of green biohazardous ash. There were screams, and sirens, and people on the ground growing terribly erratic. There was a second explosion and people flying out of the office. Smoke trailed into the sky and flashing lights piled up below.

“Oh!” Dragonfly said, “A home-made explosive chemical missile! That’s what I’m reminded of!”

Ladybird tapped her earpiece. “That just kinda happened, right now.”

“I knew it!” Dragonfly said. “It hit the Fairway building right? Right next to Fairway Hospital?”

“Uh huh.” Ladybird said.

“I’ve figured everything out Ladybird.” Dragonfly said. “Signed, sealed, delivered.”

“Yeah. Delivered. Quite.” Ladybird said, staring blankly at the devastated office.

Ackley lay down atop her blankets, sighing. “And that’s my wish. Thank you Ladybird.”

“No problem.” Ladybird said, scratching her hair nervously.

The Nurse fainted. Fulton choked.

This is what happened when you worked with people who hadn’t done things before.