In the aftermath of the quake, Nellidae and Libel huddled around the remains of their master computer once hidden in the kitchen. Through it they checked everywhere for news and pictures; everywhere except outside their own windows, which they feared would be given the final incentive to shatter to pieces should they dare to approach. Their privacy was their only unbroken possession and they cherished it. Noodle Gatherer helpfully kept them indoors, helping aggregate a mass of information; as well as up to the minute news, videos, quips and fumbls with helpful hashtags such as #DoomsdayInNewfork.
Quipper filled to the brim with pithy 160 character posts about the impending apocalypse, while Fumblr posted .gif moving images of windows shattering, people falling down stairs and cats doing amusing things as the ceiling and walls cracked around them. Memetube’s feed flooded with a stream of short, blurry eyewitness videos.
“Consensus seems to be that everyone in the city has devolved to ludicrous paranoia, but there haven’t been any confirmed deaths and no truly fatal structural collapses,” Libel said, “So basically it’s a miracle.”
“What the heck is #THUMPSQUAD?” Nellidae asked, squinting at the Quipper feed.
“Umm. Please use the word in a sentence.” Libel replied.
Nellidae cleared her throat. “And I quote: ‘EVERYBODY GET THE DUB-HOP AND TRIP-STEP READY CUZ WE GONNA RIDE THE DYIN’ AND ROCK THE AFTERSHOCK #THUMPSQUAD’.”
Libel frowned. “It’s nihilism. Ignore that and look at this.”
Libel tapped on her touchscreen and expanded the size of a video window, drawn from the Noodle memetube feed. The video was an aerial view of the Presidential Plaza as seen from a high-powered RC camera plane, a toy that ever more popular as the arms race of viral memery marched on within the memetube community. The plane circled around the plaza, chasing subjects for the latest trend in viral meme videos, Pleasant Pidgeons. The plane focused on Pigeons in the plaza being uncharacteristically pleasant, lying down and bobbing their heads in hilarious, memetic cluelessness.
The RC plane was an unsteady vehicle, yet the imminent quake was still obvious in the video. The Library of Congress shook visibly, the statue of George Newfork lost its voluminous head and massive muscled arms. Pearl tiles across the plaza floor fissured and sunk into trenches as the ground split across dozens of fractures, as though the nervous system of the earthquake were generating its sinews across the earth. People that were once indifferent and unfocused now struggled to escape, their feet jerking out from under them on the uneven ground as they sprinted toward stable objects, clumsily vaulting over guardrails and slamming into trees. A column of smoke and dust rose just off the edge of the camera’s vision.
When the plane completed a circle around the plaza the event seemed to pass. People stood slowly up, shaken and hurt but alive; the earth stilled and the debris collected; the pigeons remained altogether pleasant.
Nellidae traced the fissures throughout the picture, following the symbolic nervous system up to its brain, and much like the plane soon discovered, she found them all to connect at a black structure a few meters long and wide and twice as many tall, like a mausoleum. It entered the picture in the tail end of the video, the RC plane veering to capture the structure and its ominous stone door, symbols of vintage-looking guns, bells and compasses etched on its surface.
“So that just popped out during the earthquake? How’s that even possible?”
“I don’t know,” Libel said, “It’s right between the Presidential Monument and the Library of Congress. The government had to have known it was there – ground-penetrating radar would catch it.”
“Could something rising out of the ground cause an earthquake?”
Nellidae pointed to the building in the video.
Libel nodded. “Theoretically. Underground nuclear tests have done so. When you generate enough force under the surface it can propagate through the ground and cause an earthquake. But even an underground nuclear bomb test in North Choson only caused at most a 4.9 magnitude quake. Our was quite a bit above that scale.”
“I think it’s too small to have caused that huge quake all by itself.” Nellidae mused. “That thing’s barely larger than this apartment from the looks of it. It wouldn’t be able to generate that much force.”
“We don’t know that’s all there is to the building. It could be connected to something underground.” Libel nodded her head toward the window. “If you could go take a closer look, I could determine more about it.”
Nellidae smiled and cracked her knuckles. “It’s a field trip then! Do the honors.”
Libel pressed a button on the side of the kitchen island and turned to the living room.
The tasteful Elladian column they’d installed in the center of the room had been nearly split in half from the pressure of the roof and floor shaking violently together. Libel had chosen the column for its useful hollow interior and for its subject matter, which in her mind made them blend in more easily as two average women sharing their lives together in the city. On its surface, artistic depictions of large, muscular men, commiserating with intense heterosexuality, had warped into macabre, twisted caricatures, ruining its aesthetic value. At Libel’s command half of the column attempted to open but simply fell apart unto the floor, revealing Ladybird’s black and red-polka-dotted neoprene suit that was hidden inside.
“Oh no!” Libel said, raising her hands up to her cheeks. “That cost me 100 amero!”
“I’m glad it’s broken.” Nellidae smugly said. “It was disgustingly tacky.”
“You’ve no appreciation for art!” Libel said. “It was a symbol of manly camaraderie!”
“Blech.” Nellidae stuck out her tongue.
Nellidae approached the column, stepping on a chunk of rock and splintering it all the more. She undressed quickly, haplessly throwing her clothes around the room wherever they landed, and took the suit from its rack. Running her fingers over it, she appraised the texture and craftsmanship and realized this was a different suit than before – Libel must have replaced it. Her utilitarian transformation into the Ladybird began, spreading open the back of the suit and climbing in, sliding in her legs, then pulling it to her shoulders and slipping her arms in the smooth sleeves. Zipped over her chest and up to her neck, it was modest and colorful, with a wide opening on the back to expose her elytra and wings. From another rack inside the column, Ladybird took a pair of high-tech goggles and an earpiece, putting both on to complete her uniform.
“New suit huh? When did you have the time to get another one?” Ladybird said.
“SENTINEL introduced a new model Light Adaptable Scouting Suit recently, so I went ahead and stole one of those a while back. It just takes a little customizing to make a LASS into a Ladybird suit – just had to cut some holes, essentially, and rewire some of the communications gear. I like to call it the Mark II Ladybird suit.”
“I wonder when it is you make time to do all of these things.”
Back in the kitchen, Libel’s face hovered dangerously close to her screen, trying to capture every tiny detail in a memetube video of the strange structure bursting out of the ground during the quake, set to 10 hours of exciting dubstep music. On her face she’d put on a pair of even thicker glasses that acted as a head-mounted display, along with a wireless headset, with which she could communicate with Ladybird and as well as see the suit’s camera feed. Ever since they met, Libel had fancied herself a superhero who needed her own uniform and fake identity, despite already having both.
“No weird bug-themed uniform for you Dragonfly?” Ladybird joked.
She poked the antennae on the headset.
Dragonfly smiled. “Oh, I’m working on it. It’ll be an even better catsuit than yours.”
She pressed another button on the kitchen island, and the mail chute on the wall struggled to open.
“I don’t think that’s safe.” Ladybird said. “It’s probably like a bendy-straw now.”
“You could try going out the window.” Dragonfly suggested. She helpfully pointed out the kitchen window, which, as though knowing it had been found, suddenly shattered into a jagged maw of glass shards.
Ladybird nodded. Whistling to herself, she inched away from the window and crammed herself desperately into the mail chute, her legs kicking and arms flailing as she pounded from wall to wall all the way down the warped passage. The force of the fall squeezed her out the end of the pipe in a knot of limbs and antennae. She found her predicament oddly therapeutic, like a very intense yoga, until it came time to unravel herself from atop the mail carts in the bottom floor. She unfolded, and the cart collapsed to the side, covering her in a heap of boxes. A small child was attracted by the commotion.
He moved a box from over Ladybird’s head and smiled at her.
“You saw nothing.” Ladybird said.
“Okay. I get that a lot.” He replied.
Ladybird patted his head half-heartedly and bolted out the back door.
Outside, she took flight with a running leap from the tight alleyway between her building and the one adjacent. She bolted up into the sky as fast as possible to avoid notice, rising so quickly into the air that her origin could not have been pinpointed. Ladybird shared some biology with insects, but the way she flew was rather alien. Her elytra split and unfolded her wings, which beat so rapidly behind her back that the naked eye could only see an ephemeral blur, but these were less than half of the equation – the source of her speed and sustainability in the air came from her lower back, where a pair of biological jets sprouted, covered with tough chitin that resisted the green, chemical exhaust that helped propel her body. These little jets and their tongues of hot green flame took her body aloft and converted her biological energy to propulsion.
According to Dragonfly, Ladybird was up to spec with supersonic jet fighters, though the exact chemical composition of the “exhaust” from her body, and how she produced it, defied explanation.
Up in the air, Ladybird could see much more of the Ameran capital than she ever could from the ground. She hesitated to call Newfork her city, but she had flown over it so many times now that she could instinctually head to any location without much thought. Her body took to flying so easily that she could concentrate her thoughts on surveillance and other tasks. From her vantage, the city looked safe enough, but it was a mess nonetheless. Tall skyscrapers had their solemn glass faces broken and splintered; the roads were fractured, with deep and wide cracks from the quake, navigable by sturdy vehicles perhaps, but still dangerous to use; many roadblocks had been set up, some congested with vehicles trying to bug out of Newfork, a sign of the paranoia Dragonfly had referenced and that Amerans were well known for.
She flew a bit closer to the ground in the more urbanized Central Newfork, and people started to point out her presence, some with awe, others with concern. She waved at them in passing. It was all in a day’s PR. Newfork was divided into four quarters – Central, Downward, Upward and Capital Newfork. Upward was a golden pigsty for the wealthy and vain, and she had no reason to ever fly over it. Downward was a forgotten little place with a lot of tenements. Central was where most of her “work,” such as it was, took place. It house the malls, the huge buildings, the schools – so all the education, economy and labor took place there, and as such, most of the events that she took interest in were also there. However, the earthquake’s eccentric origin meant that she now had business to conduct uncommonly far outside Central Newfork. She flew past the crowds and the skyscrapers and the congestion, out where the skyline flattened and the road widened.
When she finally reached Capital Newfork, she found the army’s heavily militarized crisis response in progress, almost to a ridiculous extent. The Bison Troops, Amera’s land army, combed the historic buildings housing the organs of Ameran government, with dozens of squads patrolling and overturning light debris, while the corps of engineers sized up the damage. Light armored vehicles patroled the broken roads with their thick treads and large wheels, delivering squads to and from the various buildings and keeping a paranoid eye with their frightening heavy guns at the ready. Ladybird gained altitude again in response to these displays, wondering if the Bisons were expecting the quake to shoot them, or if they wanted to intimidate the aftershocks with their deployment capability. It would explain the tanks roaming around at least.
Ladybird would find even the skies unbearably active, however, thanks to the Eagle Troops, Amera’s air force. As she rose further into Newfork’s controlled air space, Ladybird saw E-35 stealth multirole jet fighters patrolling the capital, and they in turn saw her. Among the clouds, the jets took interest in Ladybird’s presence but thankfully did nothing about it except fly closer to her, as though to let her know they were aware – a marked improvement to the times when they would take potshots at her with their Equalizer cannons. She waved at one of the pilots half-heartedly, but he or she merely broke off and continued his or her pattern. Normally she saw scout helicopters flying about. Why full-on jet aircraft right now?
“This is a weird response.” Ladybird said, tapping the side of her goggles.
“I wager this is Ableman trying to show off.” Dragonfly responded over her earpiece.
“She already won the election, what else does she have to prove?”
“That she’s tough. Tough on quakes. Like War On Quakes tough.”
“That’s silly, even for her. You think I’ll find her down there?”
“Most assuredly.” Dragonfly chuckled. “You should pay her a visit.”
“I think I’ll do that, actually. It’d save me some trouble getting close to that monument if I ask her permission first. Even if she doesn’t give it, she’ll at least be aware of what I’m doing.”
“Probably won’t stop her from trying to shoot you.” Dragonfly said.
Once over the strange monument, Ladybird dropped altitude, slowing down her jets and wing-beats as easily as she opened and closed her fists. She touched ground on the Presidential Plaza after a gentle, controlled descent. The Plaza was fully evacuated and bereft of human presence. Its monuments showed minor damage, save for one headless statue, but the ground was uneven and hazardous, torn apart by the pressure of the quake. Across the Plaza she spied the strange monument and a host of pressed suits around it, among them one with a very familiar, expensive teal suit.
Ladybird crept up through the broken ground and stopped at the edge of the Plaza, wanting to approach the group as slowly and non-threateningly as possible. She ambled toward them with her hands held out to her sides, open palms facing them, and even still, the Secret Service escort all turned around almost at once. They raised their weapons tentatively, and signalled for her to stand her ground. Ladybird silently complied with them, smiling placidly.
“Hello Miss President!” Ladybird said.
“Greetings Ladybird. Sorry for the rough welcome.” The President insincerely replied.
Among the suits, President Cassandra Ableman scowled for an instant before working up an elegant, bright red smile for Ladybird. Nobody seemed to notice the little bat-like wings beating gently behind her back, or her tail, which ended in a heart shape, nor the cat-like eyes appraising the scene behind her glasses. Most people would describe her as blonde, green-eyed, fair, well-figured, a president they could share a beer and watch reality television with – If anything, the wings and the tail subconsciously seemed to remind people of her father, a former president boasting the same.
“Put those down,” Cassandra said, pushing an Agent’s submachine gun barrel toward the floor. The others nodded and quickly followed in step, lowering their weapons. Cassandra stepped confidently outside the Agent’s protection, ambling forward until she stood eye to eye with Ladybird – and about a head taller.
“It’s alright!” Ladybird replied. She put her hands on her hips, and continued with a wide grin. “I’m used to much worse, in fact. I remember when all of these guys and gals had explicit orders to kill me.”
“Oh, let bygones be bygones Ladybird,” Cassandra fidgeted a bit with her hair. “It was a different time and we both know much better now, don’t we?” The stress of the situation was already frizzing up her big blonde ponytail, yet it still rose and fell in a golden arch, monarchic in comparison to Dragonfly’s droopy ponytail.
“Why are you staring at my hair so intently?” Cassandra suddenly said.
“I wasn’t!” Ladybird said, wringing her hands. “I mean, I kinda like ponytails, and yours is nice, but–”
“You like ponytails?” Dragonfly asked. “Didn’t know you were into that. What do you think of mine?”
“It’s cute. Kind of homely and innocent. Cassandra’s is more mature and regal–”
“Nevermind this nonsense.” Cassandra said, ripping up her golden ribbon to release her hair and hopefully deflect Ladybird’s attention. “Did you come here to offer disaster relief?”
“Not really. The emergency personnel would probably think I’m in the way. I don’t have any rescue training, and I can sometimes overdo things with my ant-like strength.” Ladybird replied.
“That’s true.” Cassandra said, rolling her eyes. “Wouldn’t want you to wreck my city even more.”
“Just ask her about the monument.” Dragonfly chimed in over Ladybird’s earpiece.
Ladybird scowled. “I want to check that thing out more closely to see what it’s got to do with the earthquakes. Will you be purposelessly antagonistic about it, or will you just let me look at it without making a big show?”
Cassandra scoffed and flapped her wings. “What nerve! Everything I do has the divine purpose of furthering Ameran interests. You don’t seem to understand how much of a disruption you’ve been to the status quo. I’ve done my best for you and you just keep backsassing me! You should show some respect to your superiors!”
“You don’t need to write me a biography, just say yes or no.” Ladybird said.
“No!” Cassandra shouted, stomping her high-heeled shoes. “I know exactly what it is, and you don’t need to know. It’s classified Ameran government business, and not Ladybird-business at all.”
“So you mean it’s demon business?” Ladybird said.
At once, the Secret Service agents all tapped their feet and touched the sides of their heads, and mumbled “gurblegurb?” to each other. Ladybird grinned impishly – the confusion was a humorous part of their brainwashing that resulted whenever anyone mentioned certain words they were not meant to know the context for.
Cassandra cleared her throat. “On second thought, maybe we can work something out.”