The Library And The Ladybird (Part I)

Nellidae Cocci stared into the dark maw of the basement storage room and struggled to swallow a lump in her throat.  What little light crept into the room from the doorway illuminated only the scheming outline of the dozen rows of steel shelving units, each having gathered a collection of dust and grime, rusted objects, dead insects, fossilized mice and evil spirits that would turn away all but the most powerful filfth exorcists – and Nellidae was still only a filth acolyte.

She flipped the light switch and gasped at the state of things. It was worse than she feared. Strings of a greasy film hung from old computer equipment poorly disposed of. Shelves were stacked twenty-high with fungus-ridden old books, decommissioned due to their blithe acceptance of evolution and disregard for “competing theories.” In a corner there was a sphere of dust, cobwebs, an old janitor uniform much like Nellidae’s own, and what she could’ve sworn were bones.

She raised her can of cleanliness-acid, sprayed a spot on a shelf, rubbed a cloth on it.

Instantly the cloth disintegrated, becoming a wisp of black vapor from her hands.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, I don’t believe I have the correct kit to deal with this situation.” She said.

Nellidae raised her little can of cleaning acid and shook it at the doorway. Principal Beadle then entered the room, sighing into a handkerchief she employed to cover her nose, her heels deftly evading the ooze puddles between each shelving unit. She ran an elegant finger down one of the units, and rubbed the grime between two. “We did let it get a bit out of hand.” She admitted. “But you’re the janitor, so this is one of the things you’re expected to take care of.”

“Can I get a flamethrower or like, an assault rifle?” Nellidae asked. “I could shoot all of these things. I am pretty sure they are alive, on some abominable, disgusting level. I’m positive that would work.”

“No guns in High Schools. Newfork City School Code #13-A,” Principal Beadle said, laughing in an elegant and regal manner at herself, “Only allowed in elementary schools; High School students are too malicious.”

“You all have your priorities perfectly straight here.” Nellidae grumbled.

Principal Beadle patted her shoulder, then gripped, and smiled. “Do your job, Miss Cocci.

One by one her fingers let go of Nellidae, and with a flourish of her blonde hair she vanished out the door.

Nellidae kept grumbling under her own breath until the principal was well out of earshot. A bubbling, wrathful froth began to build on her tongue, a drop of which slipped unto the ground and sizzled.

Under her big cabbie hat, Nellidae’s curled antennae brimmed with realization.

“Nothing says I can’t use my cleaning fluids.” She said to herself and grinned.

Rearing back, she took in air and passed her tongue around the inside of her closed mouth, building up fluid. She closed her eyes, and tightened up her fists and stood up almost on her talons, shaking from head to toe. A burning sensation worked its way from her stomach and up into her chest, and her shoulders locked stiff. Her wings, well-hidden beneath the thick janitor jacket, beat unwittingly. Her skin turned from a coffee brown to a chocolate-with-cherries, and her cheeks puffed up to the size of baseballs.

With a sudden and violent sneeze, Nellidae expulsed a green, burning spray of hydro-quinones from her mouth unto the nearest shelf. There was fizzling and loud pops like firecrackers and the screaming of once immortal filth-souls consigned to the cleansing flame, smoke and devastation amidst the grim ranks. Instantly a layer of ages-old grime vanished under the corrosive, burning, freezing, supernatural onslaught. The esoteric flames spread across the entire shelf like a wildfire, breaking down the objects and dirt in smokeless green flashes. Old computers collapsed inward and soon disappeared; outdated books became ash; puddles of filth vaporized; the dirt djinn transcended existence.

When the flames finally sputtered, one shelf sparkled with brutal cleanliness.

Nellidae burped, patting her chest down flat after and smiling. She laid down against the door, took a heartburn pill and removed her cabbie hat to unfurl her long black hair, and give her antennae some breathing room. Sandwich in hand, she ate, rested and waited out her shift. She could milk this basement for a few days at least.

The room grew slightly cold. Knowing what this meant, she stomped her foot down hard.

Don’t you dare haunt me, you dolt.” She said, glancing sidelong at the disapproving perhaps-corpse of the perhaps-former-janitor that was perhaps-interred in the mysterious corner filth sphere. “You’d have done it that way too if you could. I’m not here to show off or anything. Tell you what: I’ll avenge you and put you to rest eventually.”

Air conditioning systems responded in absolutely no way to that delusional blather.

“Hmph.”

Nellidae took this to mean her ghostly precursor had acquiesced to her custodial might.

Thankfully for the air conditioning, and for the perhaps-ghost that was perhaps-haunting, and for the students and faculty of McCarthy High School in Central Newfork, capital of the contiguous Ameran republic, Nellidae was no mere underpaid filth acolyte. She was, actually, the underpaid Ladybird, between real jobs.

Hours later when the school bell rang and the classrooms poured out their content of teenagers stampeding toward home, Nellidae punched out at the front office and turned in her supplies. She’d left the basement storage room locked and had the key on her, so her work (and lack thereof) would not easily come under scrutiny. At the security desk in the front office, Principal Beadle watched the cameras attentively, overseeing the egress of her students. Without warning she suddenly addressed Nellidae, who stood up on end suddenly when called for. “Did you know, Miss Cocci, that the most dangerous time for students is the last period of school? Per capita more misconduct and discord occurs right around bus time.”

Nellidae breathed out in relief and handed her cleaning acid to the guards. “No idea.”

“How’s the basement coming along?” Principal Beadle continued, eyes locked on the screens.

Nellidae gulped suddenly and then broke out in nervous chuckling.

“Oh, the basement! Oh, it’s, it’s coming along– horribly, really bad. It is a trench war of custodial proportions.” She waved her arms as though trying to fly away. “I nearly died.”

Principal Beadle made eye contact and smiled. “Well, if it means anything, I believe in you.”

Nellidae hurried out of the office before any other chestnuts landed on her head.

She took a faculty door out to the side of the school and walked around to the back. She waited in the bus plaza near the parking lot, sitting on the lap of the grimacing Founder McCarthy, who sat in gargoyle-like watch over the benches. He offered an elevated vantage from which she could comfortably pick out heads from the crowd. McCarthy High School had a uniform, consisting of white button-down uniform shirts and ties with a tartan skirt or pants, and a blazer or vest – but only one person she knew wore a sweater-vest over the whole thing, and the sweater-vested high schooler soon approached.

This orderly-looking student beckoned her down silently, adjusting her glasses as she did so.

“Shut up, Libel.” Nellidae said, in a completely irrational reflex. She slid down McCarthy’s legs.

“Hello to you too,” Libel U. Lidae replied, upbeat despite the terse greeting.

“Err. Sorry. I’m just a little too used to it.” Nellidae said, gripping her cabbie hat nervously.

“That’s okay. Here, you can have this.”

Libel ripped up a tiny paper bag to release an individually wrapped sugar cube from the cafeteria, and pressed the sweet with her fingers against Nellidae’s lips. Nellidae placidly savored the sugar, until she found red stains on Libel’s shoulders and along her waist. “What happened to you?” Nellidae asked softly. “Bullies again?”

“I wouldn’t really call it bullying.” Libel said. “It’s the ebbs and flows of high school social life.”

Nellidae looked harder and pulled out a small juice straw from Libel’s red ponytail.

“So you got bullied, huh?” Nellidae pressed on. “You should’ve tazered somebody.”

“Shush,” Libel said, looking around, “It doesn’t really matter, it’s just red juice on clothes.”

The crowd of teens boarding buses around them had grown sparse and seemed to pay them no mind. They were just another conversation happening in an ocean of them. Libel rarely rode the bus on days when Nellidae worked at the school. The two of them crossed the street from the bus plaza and as the sun crept further behind the skyscrapers towering in the distance, they navigated the few blocks from the school to the apartment building. Nellidae said nothing, staring at the thin but constant stream of people on the streets, the traffic growing denser, the video ads on the sides of buses growing more gaudy.

“Look at this,” Libel said, pressing a tablet computer almost up to her face.

There was an article on Dr. Anne-Marie Cruciere, buried under Noodle Technologies Inc. ads, and Nellidae grimaced when met with it. However, the news was good at face value – Cruciere hadn’t been heard of for almost a month now, since the thwarting of her Hurricane Bomb plot. Authorities were no closer to finding her, but the Newfork Times seemed optimistic that at the very least, the presence of the Ladybird was having a chilling effect on Cruciere’s plots.

“They could’ve come to me for comment, and I’d have told them not to be so sure.”

“Shush!” Libel said, “Don’t just say that stuff out loud. But yes, I agree. It’s very fishy.”

They stopped in front of a broad and tall apartment building, like a thick industrial pillar rising out of the field of glass and polished steel in Central Newfork. Libel entered first, smiled at the front desk and took the elevator. Nellidae followed, glaring at the front desk and climbing the stairs. By the time she got to the fifth floor, and to their apartment, Libel had already settled herself in an egg-shaped couch in the living room, the mail chute extended from the kitchen wall for easier access. A collection of letters and envelopes belched out of the tube and unto her lap, along with a small plastic case to deposit the 50 micro-amero mail fee. “Just a bunch of junk mail. I think they cut my subscription to Entomology Monthly.”

“Print’s dead anyway isn’t it?” Nellidae said. “It was where I come from.”

“I liked the scratch and sniff bug stickers.” Libel lamented. “Ebooks can’t scratch and sniff.”

“You like bugs just a little too much for my comfort, quite honestly.”

Nellidae ducked under the mail chute and proceeded into her own room, a little hole in the wall, cramped, dark, fairly cold. It was not much more than a stack of mattresses and two baskets for fresh and old clothes.

She took in the atmosphere and sighed contentedly. There was something inviting about it that open spaces simply lacked for her. Brimming with feeling in the dark, she undressed, dropping her cabbie hat to stretch her antennae and taking off her shirt to spread her elytra, the thick folds of skin on her back. The elytra were perfectly camouflaged when low, but right then they rose up to allow her filmy wings to extend. They were half the length of her arms, but with a light green glow and the help of two belching little jets hidden in her lower back, they’d defy gravity and carry her anywhere.

At this point she was more Ladybird than Nellidae, but still more human than bug. Satisfied with a moment’s freedom, she threw a sweater and some shorts on, burying her wings inside the flesh of her lean upper back.

In the kitchen Libel expressed her own sort of freedom, having dressed down to a tanktop and shorts, giving her a much less orderly appearance as she presided over her secret station. With a voiced password command in Spanish, the decorative, stationary central island of the kitchen opened up into a trio of computer screens, touchpads and a keyboard. The screens all welcomed her as Libel – a name Nellidae knew intimately, but that was most certainly false. A whirring and heavy-sounding mess of fans roared to life, cooling numerous racks of processors, memory and solid-state drives buried within.

A platypus desktop pet began to wander the various screens, making bird-like noises.

“Oh, you’re gonna have some fun now?” Nellidae asked, passing the computers by and opening the refrigerator, pushing the vegetables, vegetable juice, vegetable proteins and vegetable shakes out of her way.

“Nah, this is work.” Libel replied. She unfurled her red ponytail and climbed up on her office chair, sitting with her legs crossed and going through the various screens. “Haven’t been spying enough lately.”

“You know what you also haven’t been doing a lot of lately? BUYING REAL FOOD.”

Nellidae stuck her arms and head into the refrigerator and disorganized the vegetable items inside in a sudden tantrum. Libel ignored the woman’s childish display, and cracked her knuckles before getting to work.

“Trust me Nelly, you’ll thank me for this when you’re older.” She said sagely.

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.