The Library And The Ladybird (VII)

President Ableman fished Ladybird out from a ditch created by the earthquake, pulling her by the neck and shouting directly into her ear. “This is all your fault, you worthless bug!” She slapped a pair of handcuffs on her, and dragged the dazed woman by the stumps of her broken antennae. Ladybird’s vision was unfocused, her ears were ringing, and her head was cloudy. She could not immediately identify what was meant by this.

It could have been the utter destruction of the Presidential Plaza. All around her the earth was splintered, fractures of varying sizes stretching across the surface of the park as though it were a cracked glass panel. A long trail of fire and upturned dirt cut across the plaza, from the edge of the park all the way to the Library of Congress, where a massive, burning steel hulk, vaguely in the shape of a saucer, had come to rest after its terrifying crash. Rock and cobblestone and glass littered the walkways and road where street lamps had shattered, paths had broken, and statues had been pulverized. But had any of it really been her fault? Ladybird pondered this momentarily.

She came to a conclusion she found fairly acceptable.

“It’s not my fault!” She shouted.

“I’m blaming this all on you! You thought you could escape retribution by saving my life? You’ve got another thing coming!” President Ableman shouted, ruthlessly pulling on Ladybird’s antennae stumps as she dragged her across the plaza. Her secret service detail watched in bewilderment, while the army forces stood in fearful salute. Cassandra dragged Ladybird across the procession of federal forces both assessing the damage to the park and to their own careers, past the Library of Congress, and to a broken trail leading to the bizarre monument that had risen from the ground during the earthquake. Ladybird merely flopped like a fish behind her.

“Examine your handiwork you vile traitor!” Cassandra shouted. She hefted Ladybird up by the remains of her antennae and climbed the steps to show her the aftermath of her seemingly dreadful crimes.

Earlier in the day when Ladybird had examined the monument she had found it sealed off with massive stone doors that would not budge. Now those doors had been thrown open by the force of the C.S. Hydra crashing into the side of the building. Cassandra entered the room and lifted Ladybird accusingly toward the contents of the building, thrusting her face close every offensive little item that there was to be seen.

There were shelves, roughly hewn from what appeared to be freshly felled trees, moss still growing on the bark unshaven from the wood’s surface. Several lines of shelves occupied the building’s single story, and each of these were crammed with old books, seemingly bound in gold, with shining gold spines and clean white pages. Glass-shielded torches on the walls illuminated the room, and the floor tiles had not even a fleck of dust on them. There must have been hundreds of books on those shelves. The space inside the monument seemed unreal, as though it held its own world regardless of how small it looked from the outside. Those doors were like a wormhole to a strange place.

Ameran and occult symbology dominated the space. There were eagles and wreaths of acacia and world globes across the shelves and shining on the book covers. There were star and banner flags that strangely had only 13 stars. Pentagrams and algebraic symbols entwined across the floor tiles, etched like ritual markings, glowing with a misty light that gave the place a feel of magic. Ladybird felt the strange power and ominous atmosphere of the monument, even in her stupor. She could see it all.

Still held up like a dead fish by Cassandra, Ladybird felt something electric, biological, something inside her that triggered a sudden and inexplicable need. The sensation was similar to when she molted.  She shut her eyes and her limbs went rigid. She began to concentrate on her forehead and antennae, holding her breath and putting active pressure, furrowing her brow and trying to control the muscles of her upper head. Cassandra stared at her, clearly perturbed; she then gasped and let go when new antennae sprouted within her grip with a spurt of yellow hemolymph. Ladybird hit the ground, but now she could see and hear quite clearly, and her vertigo was clearing up.

“You monster!” Cassandra whined. “Now my hand is covered in your filth!”

“That’s your fault for not leaving me in that ditch.” Ladybird said.

“I was trying to help you!” Cassandra shouted.

Ladybird put her hands on her hips, staring pointedly at Cassandra.

“Really?” She said.

Cassandra fidgeted. “Help you – take responsibility for your actions!

“Great. Wonderful.” Ladybird sighed. Cassandra seemed categorically incapable of kindness.

“It doesn’t matter what I did, what matters is what you did, which is horribly endangering me– I mean, Amera. You are putting this country at risk, and I demand, as the President, that you make amends!”

Ladybird glared at her from the floor. “I’m not sure I fully appreciate what’s happening here.”

“What is happening is – I will destroy you if you don’t do something about this, right now.”

“About what?”

Cassandra grit her teeth. She pointed at the shelves. “All of this is classified information, and the purpose of this place is protected as a matter of national security. It is your fault that it is exposed, and you will take it into your hands right now to suppress all of this information. Smash it, burn it, do whatever, but get rid of it!”

“And what if I don’t want to?” Ladybird said, sitting up and crossing her arms.

The President paused and stared at her. Cassandra crossed her own arms, tapped her feet, and fidgeted with her hair, seeming deep in thought for a moment. Her feet tapped faster and faster, while she grew more visibly aggravated, her eyes turning deeper red, and her face with it. She began holding her hands out in front of her as though she wanted to wring Ladybird’s neck, but kept finding herself incapable of it. Ladybird did not want to hurt her, it likely would have been a lopsided match, but if the President punched down, she’d punch up. Cassandra seemed to realize this, because she moved no closer to wringing Ladybird’s neck, and kept wringing the air.

Momentarily she turned to look outside, where the army was.

She shook her head, covering her face with her hands in embarrassment.

“I think she realized that she could sic the army on you, but that it’d be a complete sideshow.” Dragonfly said, again calling Ladybird from their base of operations. She appeared in a corner of Ladybird’s goggle display, blowing on herself with a paper fan, sweaty, her red ponytail looking frizzy – due to the earthquake damage to their apartment, there was no air conditioning to keep her cool. “I guess she really can’t make you do anything.”

Ladybird smiled smugly, emboldened by this realization. Cassandra turned back to her, gritting her teeth and noticing her change of character. Apparently frustrated by her inability to simply will mug and mime at Ladybird to destroy her, she threw a tantrum, pounding on the floor with her feet and fists while making child-like, aggressive noises, growing higher pitched the more her temper degraded. Cracks formed on the pristine tiles whenever she struck, but they quickly repaired themselves whenever her fist rose back up from another strike, so that no permanent damage could be dealt to the structure even by Cassandra’s unrestrained violence.

“Well, she just lost one potential voter with that one.” Ladybird replied, brushing off the paper-like threads of shed skin and the dry flakes of hemolymph from her body as she stood up, her wounds closing. She had fully regenerated her antennae and filled most of the wounds with collagen. It would do for now until she could molt again. Losing her antennae was terribly annoying – it would grievously impair all of her other insect abilities.

Unamused, the President wiped the sweat and tears from her face and stood up to Ladybird once again. “You don’t even vote! You’re here illegally!” Cassandra sniveled. “So shut up!”

“Ladybird, did you see that?” Dragonfly said over Ladybird’s earpiece. Her goggles replayed the moment in a small video window, slowing down the appearance and disappearance of the cracks. “The floor fixed itself. I’m willing to guess the rest of this structure could be fairly hard to be rid of if it can all do that.”

“I guess that’s why it was buried underground, since it couldn’t be smashed.” Ladybird said. “From the looks of things, it’s bad news for the Amerans when this place rises from its hole.”

Absentmindedly, Ladybird snapped the handcuffs, with the same ease as breaking a twig. It appeared that Cassandra was in no condition to answer questions. Her meltdown continued unabated.  Half laughing and half crying, staring at her own hands in front of her face, she would hover about the room, and at random times kicking or otherwise striking one of the shelves and knocking down a book – which would then instantly right itself again. Then, suddenly, she stopped, and slowly turned her head over her shoulder to stare at Ladybird, her eyes glowing red and puffy. Slowly the color of her eyes changed to gold, and the distraught expression on her face vanished, and her drooping wings and limp tail rose up again. She directed herself toward Ladybird, crossing her arms, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, leaning back and cocking a little grin toward her. She looked like the picture of cool collectedness.

Ladybird rubbed her arm and smiled. “Uh– Hi, President?”

“You’re an idiot and I hate you.” Cassandra said, smiling. “In fact you might be the most disgusting and vile creature I have had the displeasure of being forced into contact with. You’re so gross and despicable that it is actually intriguing.”

“Ok.” Ladybird said simply. She blinked with confusion.

“So, how do you feel about that? Does your feeble mind feel attracted by my powerful insults? Well, you might be able to have this,” She gestured across herself, still grinning smugly, “If your stupid self follows my detailed instructions. What do you say to that? Interested? Obsessed, perhaps? Finding me irresistible now?”

“Umm. No. No, not really.” Ladybird said.

Cassandra paused for a moment, rubbing her chin, looking distraught once again. As soon as her self-doubt was again made visible, it also again disappeared. Ladybird caught her mouthing a word to herself: Kino.  She took on a different tack entirely afterwards, standing straight, her expression softening from its previous cool apathy. She approached Ladybird with a gentle demeanor, swinging her hips and slightly puckering her glossy lips.

Ladybird blinked with confusion. What the heck was Kino?

“I think I have treated you all wrong, Ladybird.” Cassandra said, her voice taking on a sudden sultry depth. “Ladybird, such a name. I feel as though I’ve discovered a new dimension of you. Such a strong depth. I feel as though all this time I overlooked something between us.” She took Ladybird’s hand, and pressed it against her own cheek. She teasingly pulled Ladybird’s fingers across her neck, slipping the hand under her suit coat and dress shirt and over the gentle curve of her shoulder. She drew closer, inch by sweltering inch, until Ladybird was overwhelmed with rosy perfume (had she worn it all along?) and the warmth of Cassandra’s breaths, felt almost right over her lips.

Ladybird tried to turn her cheek a little to keep away from a full kiss, but she felt a growing warmth all over, causing her face to flush, fiercely, the reddening visible even across the mid-brown tone of her skin. Her wings vibrated inside her back. Her antennae curled until they made the shape of a heart, matching the shape at the end of Cassandra’s pink tail (had it always been pink?). Cassandra was so soft to touch, and her skin almost shone. Her eyes and lips looked so inviting. Ladybird grew dizzy, and felt her own body swaying closer. Soon she could keep away no longer, and instead locked unblinking eyes with the President. She felt strangely pleasant, face to face with Ableman.

“Ladybird, I feel like we could forge a partnership with great benefits,” Cassandra drawled the pronunciation, and bit her own lip a little after benefits had rolled over her tongue, sending Ladybird shivering with strange delight. She wrapped her free arm around Ladybird’s waist, traveling down her thigh. “Why don’t you smash up this ugly place for me? The sooner we leave here, the sooner I can take you to the Opal Office with me. I can mount you on the Resolute Desk and walk you through a night with the most powerful woman in the world. What do you say?”

“That’s the name of the desk?” Ladybird said, laughing aloud. “It’s called The Resolute Desk? That’s such a stupid name. I thought the iconic presidential desk would have a cool name!”

Suddenly the fantasy collapsed. All the warm feelings and corporeal longings evaporated. Cassandra’s eyes turned red again, and her wings and tail turned black. She grit her sharp fangs together.

“You complete facile oaf!” She shouted, shoving Ladybird away.

Ladybird pointed at her and laughed. “Who even named the desk? Was it you?”

“Shut up! Ugh!” Cassandra shook her fists. “I can’t believe I tried that, and on you of all people! This is all your fault, you grotesque cockroach! You should have just fallen for my negging!”

Dragonfly appeared again on Ladybird’s goggle camera, pulling on the collar of her shirt and fanning herself. “Well, that was, uh, something. Something I hope never to see again. So could you please ask her what’s going on? In a productive way? Clearly she is really distraught by whatever this is, around you.”

Ladybird nodded. She cupped her hands around her mouth.

“Hey, you, you creepy pick-up artist demon–”

“–I said ask her productively!” Dragonfly groaned.

“–What’s the deal with this monument anyway?”

Cassandra grunted. “I can’t tell you, it’s national security! Just smash it already!”

“What makes you so sure I can do that?” Ladybird said, looking skeptical.

“Because you’re an illegal immigrant! There’s no Ladybird in my citizenship rolls, and I’m a legal Ameran so I can’t destroy it, and neither can my forces. Just make with the destroying already!”

“She’s not gonna budge.” Dragonfly sighed.

Seeing Cassandra’s reluctance to cede any sort of information, Ladybird considered simply doing what the President asked. There were several perils involved. Firstly she would be helping Cassandra Ableman. In fact this was really the major peril – Ladybird thought Cassandra arrogant, fickle and opportunistic and a general bad person. However, she was the President of Amera. After all was said and done she might owe her a favor. And what was the use of this monument anyway? Nobody would miss a few old books, especially if they hadn’t even seen them for hundreds of years. Curious about her ability to carry out this plan, Ladybird turned to face one of the shelves, and delivered a kick to its side. She made a deep dent in the wood. It would prove permanent. She pulled a book from the shelf, its cover reading, in etched gold, Compendio Daemonis LIV. Without reading a word, she ripped several of the pages out and threw them about her like confetti. Confetti they remained – unlike when Cassandra struck them, the books did not repair themselves.

The President’s face lit up and she began to clap at the destruction unfolding.

“Yes! Yes! Break more! Finally I can be rid of this damned thing!”

Ladybird threw the desecrated tome over her shoulder and grinned.

“So,” she began, crossing her arms and eyeing Cassandra, “if I destroy your little library here, what will you do for me? I’m going to need an incentive here, since I’m doing you a big favor.”

“I’ll write you a tax break!” Cassandra said.

“You said yourself that I’m illegal, so why do I need a tax break?”

“True. Sorry.” Cassandra stroked her own hair quizzically. “Tax breaks are my bread and butter solution to most problems. Instead, let me offer you something unique. I think I have a proposition you will like.” She raised her hand to swear: “I will veto all Anti-Ladybird laws and give you partial immunity for a year.”

“What about any years after that?” Ladybird asked.

“You’re on your own.” Cassandra said, frowning. “Final offer!”

Ladybird stretched out her hand. “Deal!”

They shook hands, and Ladybird walked between a row of shelves, so that she could see the walls of the monument on both sides and go about the bloody business ahead of her. She set her shoulder, closed her fists, and spread her wings. Holding her breath and closing her eyes, she burst forward on the strength of her green jets, rocketing toward the wall and delivering a brutal punch. The entire monument shook, books began to fall from the shelves, the candles went out. Ladybird’s punch took a 5mm thick sliver of rock from the wall – a small cut, barely a nick.

“This could take a while.” Ladybird said, smiling nervously at Cassandra.

“Better idea!” Cassandra replied. “Just rip all the pages out of the books, rip them into tiny little pieces, and spray them about. It doesn’t matter if the rock stands around if nobody can read the books!”

Ladybird looked out over the book-laden landscape of the library. There were probably hundreds of books, thousands of books– hundreds of thousands of books. She flew up to a high shelf, examining several specimens. All of them had similar titles – Compendio Daemonis, Volvere Ab Luciferum, all with volume numbers stretching into infinity. The more she looked around the shelves, the more books seemed to occupy the place, as though more were spawning from thin air whenever she contemplated destroying them. The higher she flew, the higher the ceiling seemed.

From above, she shouted down, “I demand wages for this!”

From below, Cassandra shouted up, “Minimum wage!”

Ladybird grumbled, both because it was a very bad wage for this work, but also because she was all too ready to accept it over essentially nothing.

Star Shower, A Twine Story

I just finished up a Twine story, Star Shower. It’s a story about an incoherent, alien influence on a young psychic girl; it’s also supposed to be the introduction of a traditional serial fiction. I took all of chapter 1 of a story I was writing (the drafts of which used to be on this blog) and converted it into this twine story. I did this mostly because I already had all of the prose text, so I could just focus on making it “Twine”-y. Unfortunately for me, the text did not lend itself extremely well to my ideas and I had to do a lot of rewriting.

I also did some things in a really roundabout way, which you’ll notice if you’re familiar with Twine and look at the mess of code in the passages – rather than make new passages I nested a lot of triggers into the same three or four passages and had Players bounce around them, changing things each time.

While it felt impressive to do, the reader doesn’t really get any different effect out of it, I feel, than if I just made new Passages for each “state change” I wanted to introduce, and have the players navigate through them via direct links. I guess doing so loses some of the “nonlinearity” of it, but there wasn’t a ton of that there.

It is a pretty decent game I think, with 9683 words, most of which are content.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun writing it. If you find any dead ends or weirdness (that did not seem intentional) tell me so I can fix it. I spent a long time searching for dead ends, but might have missed some. By the way, there is only one possible ending.

Finally, for people who just like my weird Amera stuff, there’s a lot of info there on Amera that is not in any other source on this blog, so if you’re following the setting it may interest you.

The Library And The Ladybird (VI)

“Are you alright, Madame President?” Ladybird innocently asked, standing in the middle of a plaza where the earth was cratered and splintered by catastrophic seismic activity, in the shadow of an enormous flying disc bristling with guns, and surrounded by the severed remains of its razor-tipped tentacles, cut mere seconds into a bloodthirsty charge. She smiled, and patted the shaking president on the ripped shoulder of her suit in a friendly and affirming fashion.

“NO, I’m not alright!” President Cassandra Ableman shouted.

Behind them the floating vehicle raised the open stumps of its tentacles.

“Oh, just a cut along the segment? That’s fixable.” Dr. Cruciere said.

One by one the tentacles stumps extended toward the ground. Ladybird seized President Ableman, who was of thankfully average weight, and leaped over the parked APC, seeking cover on its other side. Behind them the tentacles reached out to their severed heads and connected anew, a series of loud sucking sounds issuing from the act as though sunction cups were being pressed together. Each flexible shaft seamlessly joined as though never cut, and the tentacles rose again like new, snapping their razor-sharp pincers in anticipation. Ladybird spotted them over the APC and leaped away again; she spread her wings and blew a stream of green exhaust from the fleshy rocket spouts on her lower back, propelling her clear away from the attack. The tentacles crashed over and around the APC, ensnaring the vehicle and raising it to the air while the troops inside threw themselves desperately from the doors.

Ladybird landed safely near the mysterious monument, President Ableman still on hand and protesting furiously, but her feet had barely touched the ground when she heard something snapping loudly behind her. She glanced over her shoulder as the Hydra launched the APC toward her like a catapult throwing a boulder, and had precious seconds to react. Ladybird leaped and burst upward with her rockets, barely avoiding the remains of the vehicle as it crashed below her and smashed into the ancient doors. She felt a wave of heat and the pinpricks of shrapnel as the APC ‘s motor exploded, demolishing the chassis and showering the surroundings in metal and flames.

“Find somewhere safe to put me down already!” Cassandra cried.

There was nowhere near that was safe to land now; Ladybird flapped her wings and sustained her rockets, taking off in full flight. One by one the tentacles separated again behind her, having clumped together to throw the APC, and covered the area around the floating machine. It was easy to conflate the actions of the machine with an alien intellect, and Ladybird often erroneously did so – but inside the thing was an even more dangerous adversary, Dr. Anne-Marie Cruciere, and her assistant Asmodeus. It was no simple thing for Ladybird to keep the President safe from them. She knew nothing of what this was machine was capable and was too busy keeping away from it to be able to tell.

She tapped her forehead. “Dragonfly, give me something on this thing!”

In the corner of her eyes she saw Libel, Dragonfly, appear in a little square video feed on her goggles.

“I’m trying to figure out a strategy here, but this machine is really abstract. I think that she designed this specifically to be the same thickness all around so that you can’t easily bifurcate any one place with your claws. From what I can tell the tentacles are at least 20 metres long each. They are segmented, and it appears if you cut along the segments, Cruciere can just attach the tentacles again. Try cutting diagonally. And watch out for the–”

An autocannon round flew suddenly past, slicing off a little tuft from the right side of Ladybird’s long, black hair. Ladybird banked sharply as the guns on the Hydra screamed with renewed purpose.

Cassandra screamed and pressed herself tighter against Ladybird’s chest. The air filled with flak and Ladybird twisted and turned in mid-air, wincing as the withering fire grazed her, exposing trickles of yellow blood and hints of brown skin from under tiny rips on the sides of her suit. Direct impacts bounced harshly off, unable to penetrate the suit and then her well toned back head-on – but she felt the bruises they left, wide areas of throbbing flesh. She hugged Cassandra close to her, trying desperately to keep her guarded from the bullets. For all her strengths Ladybird had not devised any good plan to deal with unguided anti-air fire like flaks, and Cruciere was taking ample advantage of this. Ladybird had never flown a plane in her life – and now she was, more or less, acting like a biological plane in the middle of a killing zone. She tried to bank, to dive, to burn her rockets as fiercely as possible, but the gunfire was everywhere, a storm of metal that try as she might she could not fully avoid. She had only one chance, one thing all flaks suffered from.

She heard it; the tell-tale click. Without looking Ladybird dove straight from the ground while the guns reloaded. She hit the ground, reoriented herself in a second and snapped into action again, charging at full speed toward the monument and taking cover behind it, hoping to put enough stone between herself and Cruciere to be safe. She heard the second set of clicking noises and saw renewed shooting. Bullets whizzed past the monument with the same fury, but it was wholly ineffective and scattershot fire, aiming overhead for where she had been.

“Hey! Where did you go now? Come out now you cowardly insect! Fight like the roach you are!” Cruciere said, pounding her fists on something inside her cockpit to vent her frustration.

“Doctor, roaches do not fight.” Asmodeus said, as though unaware she was on the sound system as well. Cruciere grumbled loudly, broadcast all over the plaza, and the guns clicked to a stop.

“Exactly!” Cruciere shouted.

With her back to the stone and safe from fire, Ladybird caught her breath.

She examined her charge and sighed with relief. Cassandra had dug her fingernails right into her back and neck, and she clung to her like a child to a parent, shaking and gritting her teeth in fear. She appeared wholly unharmed by the hailstorm of bullets they had flown through, and slowly Ladybird coaxed her back to her old self by petting her head. Cassandra opened one eye, and then another. She almost jumped out of Ladybird’s arms in shock.

“Listen, you,” Cassandra pointed accusingly, tapping Ladybird’s nose, her face very red and sweating and her eyes puffy with tears, “You did save me or something, but– whatever! Don’t let it go to your head! Don’t think you’re some kind of big hero now. It was your duty as a citizen of Amera to protect me. That’s all!”

“Sure.” Ladybird grinned. “You’re welcome Madame President.”

“It’s– It’s not like I’m grateful or anything! So don’t get egotistical about it!”

Cassandra huddled behind the monument, hugging herself and mumbling ‘I could have died’ to herself in a faraway voice, while Ladybird stretched her arms and legs, and spread her elytra. She had burnt a lot of exhaust, and felt suddenly tired. Though she did not know exactly how it worked, her body converted calories, and particularly sugar energy, into the strange green effect that carried her aloft and produced her exhaust. It also came handy in other ways – already her oozing yellow wounds had taken a dim green glow and begun to heal, giving off a green mist.

It was all the verdite in her blood – the same junk powering Cruciere’s machine.

“Ladybird!” Cruciere shouted, broadcasting at an even louder volume, “You have exactly ten seconds to come out and fight me, so that I can destroy you; or else, I will be very mad! I may choose to destroy other things instead, like this statue here, or that giant rock fissure there, or that important-looking lamp-post!”

She heard the thundering of Cruciere’s guns, spinning up and stopping in seconds.

“There goes the lamp! This is on you Ladybird! You caused this tragedy!”

Ladybird sighed deeply, rubbing her face against the palms of her hands.

“You’ll need to get up close and under the craft.” Dragonfly said, taking over one of the goggle screens to display a diagram of the craft and tentacles, “While the underside has the same guns, they’ll be at a disadvantage firing on you up close because they might hit the tentacles, and their traverse and angle will be more limited.”

“Alright. Just let me catch my breath a second.” Ladybird said. “I’m down on calories.”

“Oh, that’s right, we never really got to have a decent breakfast.” Dragonfly said.

“And I didn’t bring anything to eat either.” Ladybird replied.

Chunks of stone and burning bits of plaster and rebar flew past the monument.

“There goes the statue, Ladybird!” Cruciere said, following a second burst of gunfire, “Your selfishness is destroying vivid Ameran heritage; this wonderful rock fissure is next! Surrender now to save it!”

Cassandra stood from the ground and dusted herself off.

“Oh for goodness’ sakes! Here!” She shouted.

She extended Ladybird a hand while turning her cheek away. Ladybird stared, incredulous – at arms reach Cassandra offered a high-calorie energy bar, chocolate flavored, for Ladybird to take.

Ladybird stared for a moment.

“It’s a high-stress lifestyle and I have cravings!” Cassandra said.

“That’s honestly not what I’m confused about.” Ladybird said, tentatively taking the bar from Cassandra’s hands as though it were about to go off like a bomb at any second. This would be the first magnanimous thing she had ever seen the President do for anybody.

“Just eat the stupid bar and go stop that maniac!” Cassandra shouted.

Ladybird unwrapped the bar and pushed the whole thing into her mouth unceremoniously. She consumed it with a vicious chewing. It tasted faintly vitamins at first but followed with an overpowering and bitter dark chocolate flavor. She barely noticed the advertised wafer crisp interior filled with very bland caramel, save for a slight contribution to mouthfeel. Nonetheless Ladybird felt the rush of sugar and calories through her body like a wholly palpable sensation, as though her organs were as sensitive to touch and stimulus as her skin. Cassandra watched with horror as she chomped down on it like a beast, swallowing the whole lump in one go. She crumpled the paper and threw it, missing a nearby waste basket.

“This thing sucks. You need to buy a better brand.” She said.

Before Cassandra could protest Ladybird dashed out of cover, propelling herself along the ground with her feet barely touching the earth and her rockets burning green from her lower back. She glided easily across the terrain, her eyes locked on her adversary. Across from her the Hydra spun its body a few degrees to face her, and she made note of the positions of the guns. Cruciere laughed uproariously and the vehicle opened fire, the guns along the bottom of the thick black disc raking the earth with lines of concentrated fire, so thick and fast it that it seemed like invisible blades were cutting up the turf around the Ladybird. She strafed, avoiding the guns and closing in rapidly.

To keep up with Ladybird the guns extended further down from the body, maintaining a suitable angle to fire on a target closing in to point-blank range. This was her chance – as soon as Ladybird entered the shadow of the vehicle she leaped and launched herself to the first gun. A tentacle rose to take a swipe at her, and in an instant she cut through it, her hand melting into the shape of a lone razor-like claw, and reached the underside of the craft. She clung to the gun, the tentacle falling behind her, swiped diagonally and incapable of recovery; she plunged her hand through the gun as though it was paper rather than steel, ripping out its mechanical guts and throwing them away.

Eight other tentacles curled beneath the craft and snapped toward her. She leaped again as the pincers converged uselessly on the bottom of the disc, and threw herself between two other turrets hurriedly turning to target her.  She flew to a suitable midpoint between the guns and extended both her arms. Sudden muscle action sucked her digits and palms into the arm with a sharp crunch, leaving thick, scarified brown spouts in their places, dribbling yellow blood, steaming green mist, the veins across the wrist and forearm glowing an intermittent green. There was no pain and she did not even have to think for a second to perform this seemingly grotesque ritual – transforming an appendage was as natural as moving it. She felt her arms swell slightly; hot green streams of corrosive fluid erupted from where her hands once were, flying several meters and striking both her targets, eating through the barrels as she flew away.

She turned her own guns on the tentacles, shooting two more streams into the mass, but they dispersed too quickly and her range was too short, and the jets of hot acid fell harmlessly away from their targets. She bolted up the side of the craft, and landed atop behind one of the gun turrets. A tentacle rose with her and turned on its side, readying to swat her away; she spread her arms to meet it, and took it to the chest like catching a charging bull. She managed to get a grip, stopping it mid-swing and wrapping her arms around the thick, ridged shaft.

“Let go of that!” Cruciere shouted. “That’s sensitive equipment!”

The tentacles rose around the craft like the arches of a crown. Ladybird held tight to her own struggling tentacle, giving it a little slack so that she move just a bit further down the shaft. One by one, in the same pattern as their previous collective attacks, the tentacles drove down toward her. Ladybird grinned, and squeezed her arms together around the shaft, crushing and sealing it, and she took her captured tentacle as a flail. Taking advantage of the space between the tentacle’s attacks and their positions around the ring of the craft, she swung her own, slicing through the first and hardly losing momentum for the second and third, fluidly bifurcating the appendages and rendering them incapable of repair. Her captured tentacle embedded itself into the fourth tentacle it cut, having lost velocity; Ladybird dropped it and leaped out of the way of the remaining three, which came crashing down unto the gun turret.

From the air Ladybird pushed herself back down into a dive with one last, mighty burst from her rockets. Her arms turned to razors and she twisted herself into a spin, bringing her blade down on all three remaining tentacles and severing them from the heads. The metal pincers fell upon the saucer and the flexible shafts slid uselessly off the top of the vehicle, hanging limply in their neutral positions. All nine of the tentacles were inoperable. Ladybird stood triumphant atop the saucer. She put her fists to her hips, and stuck her tongue out at one of the cameras atop the craft.

There was a sharp click, and a slow twisting of metal; the remaining gun turrets did not find Ladybird very amusing. She grinned. When they opened fire their bullets ricocheted harmlessly off metal. Ladybird kicked one of the fallen pincers into the line of fire, and using it as cover she drew a bead on the guns, her arms turned to spouts once again. Quick shots of acid caught barrels and armor, eating through the guns and rendering them useless. Once the pincer hit ground again the C.S. Hydra was, seemingly, fully disarmed. Ladybird sat on it and crossed her arms, smiling.

“Good work!” Dragonfly cheered. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help!”

“Moral support is fine too.” Ladybird said.

“Really? You think you won?” Cruciere laughed over the speakers. “Last I checked, I was still in here. And if you think I can’t find a way to reattach these tentacles, you’re kidding yourself.”

Quietly, Ladybird stood up atop the craft and picked one of the pincers back up, holding it by a battered length of its impressive segmented tether tubing. Calm and expressionless, she dragged it to the middle of the craft, and turned her back to it. She tugged, suddenly and with all her strength. The pincer soared over her shoulder and fell on the craft; Ladybird repeatedly reeled it in and threw it back, hammering at the exterior of saucer. Metal crunched, supports started spalling, coolant fluid and thin streams of waste gases escaped the craft. Across its surface various plates began to shimmer, turning rapidly invisible and then visible again, malfunctioning from the savage nature of the beating. The saucer tipped and turned with each brutal attack, and gradually lost altitude. Sirens blared.

Over sirens, the speakers blared the sound of a palm repeatedly slapping a face.

“Ok, well, we’ve all learned a lot today.” Doctor Cruciere said, the audio sounding choppy and crackling. “Soon, soon, Newfork city, and Amera! You will kneel to me! But until then, I admit defeat. I am not, however, responsible for the safe landing and disposal of my enormous flying saucer, which will crash any second now.”

Ladybird stopped beating on the craft, and found herself nearly thrown off the top as the exterior of the saucer snapped suddenly open, jagged plates rising in strange angles, releasing a cloud of hot gases and spraying cooling and propellant fluids in their wake. She rolled clumsily off the craft as Cruciere’s escape pod blasted off from it, its exhaust setting aflame the dispersed liquids that preceded the launch. Ladybird hit ground in the shadow of the falling craft, and struggled to stand, feeling dizzy and sick from inhaling god only knows what; she looked blearily to the sky for the escape pod, but it had already become invisible, camouflaged like the craft it had once been a part of.

“Ladybird, forget her, you have to get away from that thing!” Dragonfly said, taking over all of Ladybird’s goggles for a second and pointing her fingers furiously up. When Ladybird looked where she was pointing, her image disappeared and instead she saw the massive craft, accelerating toward the ground as its unknown propulsion systems failed and gravity took hold of it once more. Ladybird dove clumsily out of the way, rocketing herself into a roll, crashing legs over shoulders out of the burning shadow and smashing into a raised chunk of the field that had been upturned by the earthquake. She watched the unfolding madness upside down, her antennae and wings broken.

Descending ever faster, the wreck tore into the earth, taking the remains of fountains and light posts, ripping cobblestone from paths across the plaza, a tidal wave of dirt and turf rising and falling around it as it slid across the ground, threatening the government buildings across the park from it. There seemed to be no stopping the craft, and troops, secret service and curious civilians that had been watching from afar all scattered in a mass panic. When it seemed the craft would bowl over the Library of Congress, it crashed instead into the mysterious monument and came to a complete stop, incapable of breaking through. It settled, burning, plates and tentacle remnants dangling behind it.

For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, there was quiet again in the Presidential Plaza. It was, however, quite short lived. From the monument, a shrill scream issued, and the stamping of high heeled shoes on stone could be heard across the monuments and the plaza field. “No! No! No no no!” President Cassandra Ableman screamed and cried and pounded on the rock. “This can’t be happening! Oh Sacred Hell not under my first term!”

Ladybird heard all of this, but was too dizzy to make any sense of it.

“Ladybird,” Dragonfly said, “I uh– I think that weird monument is open now.”

Ackley’s New Lease On Life Epilogue

As the sun rose leisurely over Hillberry Manor, the curtains in Ackley’s room drew slowly open and the reactive tint over the windows grew slowly clearer. The room was programmed to control the amount of light, gradually and carefully, over the course of the dawn and unto the late morning.  Silent clocks struck some random hour of the morning; she would notice then, as though by accident, the bright world outside her room. In an instant the curtains would snap open the rest of the way, and the dark tint would vanish. With her, the room had awoken. She yawned.

“Good morning, Grover Cleveland.”

She waved to the robotic fixture on the wall opposite her bed. Its bright red central eye lit up, and it waved back with a spindly titanium and aluminium leg, curling the claws at the end like fingers. Grover Cleveland, though, was the house itself. It was Dr. Cruciere’s artificial intelligence, silently alive in every part of the house that it regulated, including Ackley’s room. This was simply a fact, and nothing Ackley had any opinions about it. Much of her life was the same, governed by facts that she did not have much of an opinion on. She reserved those for important things.

Every morning, after a sudden onset of consciousness, Ackley took diligent care of tasks once done by the nurses of Fairway Children’s Hospital. This was not, once, a fact – she had made it so by vehemently insisting she would care for herself, and that she needed only the tools to do so. Those tools had been then been granted. Now it was a fact. She helped herself to the edge of the bed by a safety rail and dangled her legs from the side. She snapped her fingers and the round, metallic white drone sleeping atop her bedposts climbed carefully down to her, following the length of vacuum tube connecting it to Ackley’s chest. Its own red LED eye met hers and blinked with recognition.

“Morning, Nurse.” Ackley said.

Nurse bowed its circular body on its spindly legs. It then reached a leg out to the drawers beside the bed, opening one shelf at a time and retrieving various items. Bandages, disinfectant, a change of clothes, and a little joystick; the Nurse drone set about the morning ritual, helping Ackley remove the bandages around her chest, where the vacuum tube connected to Nurse burrowed into her lungs and sucked out the deadly bile from them. Ackley applied disinfectant to the area around the tube, and a new set of bandages. She changed from her pajamas to a dress shirt, two buttons carefully left undone so her tube could stick out, as well as a little vest, buttoned the same way, and a pair of pants. Nurse picked up the joystick and handed it to Ackley. On its surface, a red button powered the electric wheelchair beside her bed, and with the joystick Ackley drove it closer and turned it around so the seat faced her.

Ackley stood, casually, easily, and she walked; she then sat in the chair and made herself comfortable. Nurse climbed on to the back of the chair, slipping into a mesh bag sewn in for it. It outstretched two of its legs over Ackley’s shoulder, like loose straps. Ackley felt the thrumming of its various systems behind her. She moved her chair to a little door on the side of the room, near the large drone affixed to the wall. Nurse reached over her head to open the door and deposit a red, biohazard labeled tank into it. The tank was immediately sucked down a chute, and a moment later a similar, empty tank took its place. Nurse retrieved and attached this tank to its back.

“That appears to be all.” Ackley said. “Let’s go, Nurse.”

Driving the wheelchair was as easy as moving the joystick. Two large wheels and two smaller ones in the back provided all the support and motion that she required. The turn radius left a little to be desired, but she had become used to it. Out the door, the automatic portion of the staircase slowly brought her to the bottom floor. She drove to the back garden, where surrounded by the brick fence a veritable forest had been cultivated. Tall trees cast a gloom across the backyard where light only intermittently penetrated the treetops in thin beams, shifting with the cloud cover and windblown branches. Everywhere she looked there were plants, across the brick wall, crawling down from balconies, sprouting from the ground. Flowers and fruits brought flecks of color to the display, and snapping flytrap heads and acid-spiting spouts established an animated presence. A little path carved across the garden brought Ackley to a clearing in the center with a gazebo, where the sun shone sharply from overhead, its rays coming down like a spotlight.

Ackley circled the gazebo for the wheelchair access ramp, and climbed it. In the gazebo, she found Amanda in business attire, her hair up in a professional-looking bun, seated at a little table with a stack of papers on one side and a very large calzone split into four parts on a plate. She put down a file folder and greeted Ackley by spreading her arms and smiling ear to ear. Ackley drove the wheelchair closer and leaned out. Amanda’s arms snapped shut around her, and the woman almost pulled Ackley from the wheelchair entirely in a tight, frenzied embrace.

“Ohh you’re so adorable! I’ll never get tired of hugging you!”

“You have a little sauce in your mouth.” Ackley said.

Amanda let Ackley go and quickly brought up her smartphone to look herself over in its handy mirror app. She then dabbed her mouth with a handkerchief to clean the offending stain. “Thanks much! Would you like to share before going to the labs? I feel we’ve made a lot of progress with that chef robot!”

“A calzone is still pizza.” Ackley bluntly said.

“Oh, I guess you’re a pizza half-empty kind of person.” Amanda replied.

They shared the calzone. Amanda was right. While a bit greasy still, the robot had become skilled at taking one’s requests and then making them into some kind of pizza. The calzone was essentially a vegan sandwich ran through the robot’s pizza programming, with gooey avocado, crisp mushrooms and lettuce and carrots wrapped in a crust. While she ate, Amanda regaled her with her latest ideas for Noodle Incorporated, and at the same time reading a plethora of documents on current developments, legal cases, propositions, and earnings reports.

“You are certainly busy.” Ackley said.

“Quite! Anne-Marie helps a bit, but being a CEO can be pretty stressful.” Amanda said. She wiped her hand over her forehead, as though to control a profuse sweat. But her forehead was dry, and the day was fresh. Birds sang in the trees around them. “But it’s very fulfilling work, and Anne-Marie thinks it’s important.”

“I’m sure it’s convenient for her wife to control a huge corporation.”

“It does help with her interesting hobbies from time to time.”

Amanda happily returned to work and Ackley excused herself. She pressed a button on the southern pillar holding the roof of the gazebo and walked down the ramp again. Around the other side of the gazebo the staircase had become inverted and flattened out into a slide, stretching down a dark hole below the garden. Ackley clamped her arms and waist to the chair and inched it slowly forward until her wheels went over the lip, and she sped down the slope, into a metal chute straight through the earth. She closed her eyes; moments later a powerful stream of cold gas slowed her descent. The wheelchair tapped a cushioned wall. Ackley rolled out of the landing area and out to a pristine corridor, white and sterile. Orb-like robots pushed carts of material and chemical drums to and fro; cameras attached to electric stun guns monitored the area, but flashed their red LED eyes in morse code greetings when Ackley passed.

“Where is Dr. Cruciere? And Asmodeus?” She asked aloud, seemingly to no one in particular. A panel on the wall lit up and a holographic display sketched a path for Ackley to follow. She traversed white hall until she found a door, indicated on the map, labeled Workstation 7. A biometric scanner showered her in lights, and the door slid seamlessly into the wall to allow her passage. Unlike the corridors the workstation was unpainted steel, dinged and battered in places where heavy objects had been dropped or weapons tested, smelly and in disarray, screws and wheels and tools rolling across the floor, mounds of metal scrap and puddles of oil cluttering the work space. 

In the center of the room, Doctor Cruciere banged into place a sheet of metal around the thick, stumpy leg of what appeared to be a quadrupedal box, mounting a cannon of ridiculous proportions. It was so large that thick support bars had been added to the front and back of the box-shaped chassis to prevent it from tipping forward or back; the support bars themselves then had slots where Ackley assumed more legs would be added. Atop the monstrosity, Asmodeus looked down with an impassive expression on her face, contemplating the support bars. Whatever it was that went through her mind, she made none of it known, and after Dr. Cruciere had bolted the extra metal around the legs, she stepped back and took in the design, and laughed out loud to herself. She seemed satisfied with it.

“Good afternoon, Doctor.” Ackley called out.

“Hello!” Doctor Cruciere replied. “You have come just in time, to witness my genius!”

From her white coat she took a joystick, similar to Ackley’s, and she pushed on the red button with a demented smile on her face. Asmodeus cried out in shock and quickly clambered off the top of the robot and dove into cover – in the next instant the cannon glowed bright red and burst immediately into pieces, the support bars flying in opposite directions, the chassis compressed into the ground, while the bulk of the cannon itself launched backwards into the wall and burst through to the adjacent work room. There was smoke and fire and screaming metal choking the adjacent room black and red so that nothing in it could be seen from the breached wall. Behind them the doors opened and spindly-legged drones carrying firefighting equipment rushed through the breach, leaping in to contain the flames.

Surprisingly, nobody was harmed by this catastrophe.

Cruciere clapped her hands. “Yes! That’s the kind of power I wanted. Now, I simply have to reinforce everything so that the cannon’s awesome power does not destroy itself and everything around it, and instead, destroys my enemies!” She decisively pounded her fist into her open palm, psyching herself up.

Asmodeus peeked out from behind a heap of scrap, breathing heavily. She was unharmed, and her work suit had not even a scratch on it, but she appeared quite winded from having to make her hasty escape. “Doctor, if you would be so kind, would you please inform me when next you are testing vehicles I am mounted atop?”

“Sorry. I got a bit excited.” Cruciere threw the joystick over her shoulder, into the shattered wreckage of the boxy little legged tank. She kneeled down to Ackley and patted her head. “So how’s my little genius today? Anything particular you’re up to? Want to help me test a few other giant cannons and bombs?”

Ackley sighed. “I was interested in seeing you build something that worked.”

Doctor Cruciere scoffed. “Engineering is a process! Trial and error refines a design from a mere idea into a working implementation! Hmph. Consumers only see the end result, and they think it came into being without any effort, but around here I am dedicated to wringing every last bit out of data out of a design.”

“Consumers, in this case, being the people that your giant gun will terrorize.”

“It’s for their own good, in the end.” Cruciere declared.

“I suppose so.” Ackley said, containing her laughter. She had no opinion on that either, other than the prospect was a little strange and a little fascinating, in the same way as her strange new life.

Dr. Cruciere grumbled. “So then, have you any ideas for making it better, if you’re going to criticize?”

Ackley smiled broadly. “I’ve actually got a few.”

 

Ackley’s New Lease On Life 10: Drones

Dr. Cruciere mumbled.

“Forty-five minutes.”

“She will be here soon, Doctor.” Asmodeus said.

“I told her it was a kidnapping! A kidnapping! She’s the getaway driver and she is not taking any of this seriously! I thought we’d talked about this, she said she would support me!”

“She’s supporting you, Doctor, please calm down.”

She checked her watch again.

“Forty-six minutes!”

At every possible juncture Cruciere reminded everyone of how long they had been waiting for Amanda Gilded to pick them up. Cruciere counted minute by minute and when she forgot a minute she would count it retroactively when next she remembered. She had started to count at twenty, and grew more vehement as minutes passed without a familiar SUV in sight. Amanda had promised them at most twenty or thirty minutes of waiting. Cruciere tapped her feet and seemed undecided as to whether her hips or her pockets were the least suspicious place to have her hands. Few cars passed them, but any that did drew a quick flinch from her as they approached.

“Forty-seven minutes!”

Meanwhile Ackley flipped through her bucket list for potential items that she had not considered, but had now inadvertently completed, such as escaping from a hospital and threatening to drink someone’s blood (a feat accomplished via her tangentially vampiric smiling). She sometimes looked down the road when it appeared that Amanda might have turned up. But she soon did this enough times to grow disinterested in it. She let Cruciere handle the roads, and instead worked against the minimal illumination of a nearby streetlight to read and write.

Asmodeus stood behind Ackley like a statue, periodically massaging the little girl’s shoulders. A stiff, cold breeze blew past them, and Ackley shuddered. Asmodeus knelt behind the wheelchair and pulled a blanket from the undercarriage, draping it over Ackley’s shoulders for added warmth. “You’ll be inside soon.” She said. Ackley nodded and she made a point to smile to her good nurse, but due to Asmodeus’ general lack of response she could not tell whether she had again made a toothy, flesh-hungering smile or a genuine, cheerful little girl smile.

“Forty-eight minutes.”

A disturbing noise then issued from Cruciere’s pocket. Ackley could only describe it as the sound a computer might make if it was alive and could therefore scream existentially about its condition as a wholly immobile box. There was glass cracking and metal smashing and the barest hint of a melody to it.

Cruciere withdrew her cell phone and answered the call.

“You’re late.” She shouted. “My kidnapping plot could be ruined any second now!”

She turned her back on the road. “Lost? You’re lost? Physics’ sakes!”

She started screaming directions into the phone. Several minutes later, a sleek green SUV pulled up to the street in front of them. Inside a well-dressed woman lowered the windows and smiled at them. She raised her hand and pointed cheerfully at her cell phone, before leaning her head into it again. Cruciere was still on the line with her and looked none too amused by her behavior. “Thanks for leading me here sweetie.” Amanda said, explicitly into the phone. This said, she again pointed her finger at the phone, and then at Cruciere, giggling all the while.

Cruciere hung up.

Asmodeus opened the side doors of the SUV, and began arranging the middle and rear seats to fit the wheelchair and trolley. At her behest Amanda stepped out of the car. She cooed with joy, clapping her hands at the sight of Ackley, but she was at first bashful and kept a physical distance, furtively peeking through the corners of her eyes at the little girl in the wheelchair. She approached, but stopped just short of Ackley, her body half-turned and avoiding eye contact. She fussed with her sport coat and strawberry hair, and opened and closed her mouth several times.

“Be careful with my extractor!” Ackley called out to Asmodeus. Beside her Amanda’s reticence seemed to be causing her to puff up, turning red and shaking as though something struggled to exit her.

“My name is Amanda Gilded!” She finally said. “I’m sorry you were kidnapped by my wife, but you know, you have to support your spouse’s hobbies and such, to maintain a good relationship.”

Ackley turned her attention from Asmodeus, and locked eyes with Amanda for a moment, who was ready to gush over her. She grumbled and spread her arms open. “You can hug me,” she groaned.

“OHMIGOSH!” Immediately the woman pounced; she snapped Ackley clear up from the wheelchair and lifted her against her chest. She was tall and plump and warm and it seemed like Ackley would be pushed right into the very core of her, and the little girl idly wondered if this was what filial love truly felt like – a lot of pressure around the waist, neck and back, and a certain slight discomfort from the tube buried into her chest.

“She’s so precious Anne-Marie! Look at her, she’s so adorable!”

From inside the car Asmodeus waved her arms frantically and hastily called out to them. “I would advise that she be manhandled several orders of magnitude less than she is now!”

Amanda deposited Ackley back into her chair.

“Sorry! I was just so excited.” Amanda said. “What is your name?”

“Ackley Hermes.” Ackley said, rubbing the bandages on her chest where the tube burrowed in. For a moment she’d felt a sting around that spot from being smothered so suddenly.

“I’m sorry you were kidnapped by my wife.” Amanda jovially said.

“I’m not.” Ackley replied bluntly.

Amanda flapped her hands eagerly, as though trying to fly. “Ohhh! She’s so witty Anne Marie! I love her so much! I can barely contain the urge to hug her again and again!” She cried.

“Well, contain it harder then.” Cruciere said.

“I know you don’t want me to intrude on your hobbies and all, but why exactly did you kidnap her?” Amanda said. She had a good-natured look and tone, like she was truly a good wife just supporting her spouse’s hobbies from afar. Even if that hobby seemed to involve stealing a small child from a hospital.

Ackley was at a loss for how human beings could operate this way.

Cruciere took to it like an everyday question. “She’s my latest employee.”

“Oh, you are also breaking child labor laws?” Amanda said excitedly.

“I guess?” Cruciere replied. “She’ll set her own hours, though.”

Amanda clapped her hands and made a contented little noise.

Soon the SUV was prepared, and Ackley and her extractor had been loaded into the car. Ackley looked back over her shoulder to make sure her extractor was secure. It was still pumping, operating on an internal battery in case of blackouts. She felt a slight urgency to have it connected to a stable power source. Asmodeus helped fasten her seatbelt and secure her wheelchair, and gave the go-ahead to everyone. Amanda adjusted her mirror, then drove off the curb from Fairway Children’s Hospital and in a clumsy turn circled back to the road.

“It’ll be about twenty back to the estate.” Amanda said.

“That’s what you said last time.” Cruciere replied.

Asmodeus reassured Ackley, rubbing down her chest and shoulders. Despite the gentle treatment, she still grew drowsy and a little sick in the car. She had not been driven anywhere for years now and had lost all sense of what a car trip entailed, the intermittent vibrations, the blurry black landscape scrolling off the side of her field of vision, the jerking starts and stops at traffic lights and stop signs. Her last few meals took on new life inside her stomach, and she developed a fierce headache. Ackley closed her eyes and tried to endure this final tribulation.

Around her everybody seemed to take notice. She felt the car slow down and heard people shift in their eat. “Is something wrong, Ackley?” Amanda said. “If you’re upset, I can pull over.”

“It’s fine,” Ackley stammered. “Asmodeus is taking care of me.”

She opened her eyes a bit and tried to smile. Asmodeus nodded her head.

“Then I’ll try to get back home a little quicker.” Amanda said.

Despite the burning in her stomach and chest, Ackley felt uncharacteristically elated by the response. Someone was genuinely worried about her and asked her how she felt! She almost felt like a real child. This was clearly a sign of changing winds in her life. Despite how utterly baffling these people were, she felt a sense of hope in their little clique. For the first time in years she was out of Fairway Children’s Hospital, and never to return. Would she soon have a real home? Even if among strangers, a place where she was wanted felt like a dream come true.

“Only a few more minutes now.” Amanda called out.

Contrary to Amanda’s promises, it seemed like an hour had gone since they set off, and Cruciere grumbled in her seat. Eventually the car honked its horn and paused. Ackley saw red within her closed eyes, and heard shaking metal and the whining noise of a vehicle scanner. She blearily looked ahead. The SUV passed through the gilded gates of Upward Newfork, where property values skyrocketed by their meter distance from the rest of town and no expense was spared for the wealthy inhabitants. She had only tangentially heard of this part of her city, confined as she was to the less glamorous Central Newfork, and found herself awed by the opulence around her. Well-lit streets flanked a cobblestone road that curved around bright green gardens and vast lawns like personal plazas. Ackley could have sworn that every property had almost a football field’s worth of lawn stretching out along its driveways. Behind the broad fountains, tall statues, tremendous gardens and hedges, were enormous houses like glowing-eyed giants in the distance.

Amanda cheered. “Welcome to Upward Newfork! And soon, Hillberry Manor!”

The SUV drove past several of these massive properties before turning into a road fenced off with bricks and a digital gate. Cruciere pulled down her window and leaned out over her door, raising her eye to a scanner. Only then did the gate unlock. Once they had driven past it locked itself. Inside was a modest lawn, ringed by the driveway, with a fountain that seemed humble at first until the car approached, and it burst into a show with colored lights and soothing sounds and a tiny whirlwind of rainbow-colored water dancing in the middle of the plate.

“I made that!” Amanda said, responding to Ackley’s interest in the fountain. She stuck out her chest with pride. “I put it together from a kit I got from Kitstarter! It was only 2000 Amero too!”

Compared to the glimpses she’d had of other homes in Upward, Amanda Gilded’s Hillberry Manor was a modest place, only three stories tall, and about wide as it was tall. The lawn was restrained in size and decoration, though to Ackley this was only a concession so that it could be easily fenced off with brick. Hillyberry Manor had a smooth facade with arched windows and a pleasantly salmon-pink coat of paint, and the first door was raised off the ground such that a series of steps led up to the landing and the big brown double-door entrance. Everyone stepped out of the SUV, and Asmodeus unloaded Ackley’s wheelchair and the trolley carrying her liquid nitrogen extractor.

“Be careful with it!” Ackley said again. “Don’t rock it too much.”

Cruciere looked at the trolley and its contents with growing disapproval.

“Asmodeus, we can’t keep carrying around that thing.” She said.

Ackley felt a chill down her spine. “What do you mean? I need it to live.”

Cruciere kept staring intently at it. She then snapped her fingers and smiled broadly.

“I’m going to make it portable.”

“Make it portable?” Ackley’s heart raced and she felt a sudden urge to run away. Involuntarily she clutched a hand against her chest, where the vacuum tube had been surgically inserted, and diligently sucked away the liquid nitrogen from her lungs for months now. Whenever anyone handled it she felt a twinge of stress, but now it was rising to a full blown panic – someone intended to take it apart! She clutched at the vacuum tube as though doing so would prevent Cruciere from going near the extractor. But the woman approached it nonetheless, and she clipped her big red ponytail into a bun, and bent near the machine. Ackley breathed heavily as Cruciere laid hands on it.

“Is she alright?” Amanda asked Asmodeus. The latter nodded, and kneeled next to Ackley and tried to calm her down, but she could not stand it. She could not stand anyone being near the extractor, the only thing keeping her alive all of this time. Instinctive fear for her life overwhelmed Ackley’s thoughts and hijacked any coherent thought she could have had – she tried to reach out to stop Cruciere in vain, but the woman was already setting down strange tools from her coat, and putting on a pair of gloves. She completely ignored Ackley, and smiled to herself.

“This will only take a second. You, come over here.”

Cruciere shouted at a bush, and it began to shake. A gleaming white ball rolled out of the bush and toward Cruciere, and stopped beside her feet. From its sides sprouted four spindly steel legs that held it up. Ackley felt herself sweat and cry as Cruciere popped free a series of screws from the machine, and she almost passed out when the extractor’s guts were exposed, rolled out unto the floor. She closed her eyes, weary and sick-feeling with fear. Why was this mad woman doing this? Was she going to die? She felt as though it was her own self broken open on the floor.

“Have some guts, would you?” Cruciere shouted, minutes later. “Here you go.”

Ackley felt something clamp against the back of her wheelchair.

She clutched her chest again, and ran her fingers along the length of tube. It was still sucking. In fact, it was sucking just a little faster than it once was. She looked weakly over her own shoulder and found the little white drone from the bush, now connected to her by the vacuum tube from her extractor. The creature waved its spindly legs and played a cheering noise from its speakers. Cruciere’s modifications had enlarged it, with two red tanks sticking out of its back, and its once fully white surface now interleaved with gray plates taken from the extractor.

“I installed all the extractor functions into this spider drone I had guarding the garden.” Cruciere said. “Now your extractor is not only portable, it is highly resistant to anti-personnel weapons! I’ve also improved some of its functions using parts of the drone. Had I the proper tools and time and a few more spare parts I could have installed a few more things to help you out, maybe binding it to your back instead of making it autonomous–”

“You’re an inconsiderate moron.” Ackley shouted, cutting her off. Spindly steel legs reached out to her with a handkerchief, and gently wiped the tears from her eyes, and helped her time her breaths to regain calm. When she crossed her arms in anger, the spider drone crossed its spindly legs in front of her as well.

“You’re welcome!” Cruciere replied, gritting her teeth.

“Hey now, let’s not fight,” Amanda said, stepping between Cruciere and Ackley, “We should go inside and have the chef make us something fancy to commemorate this successful kidnapping.”

“I replaced the chef too. I replaced him with a robot.” Cruciere said.

Amanda crossed her arms. “Now, I want to support your hobbies, dear, and you know that very well. But you have to agree, you’re replacing a great many things lately with robots. It’s unsettling.”

“He knew too much!” She replied. “It’s not like I hurt him in any way. I just sent him back to his family with a check and a wiped-out memory. The robot can make pizza, Amanda! Pizza!”

“Can it make anything else?” Ackley said critically.

“It can make pizza.” Cruciere replied.

Asmodeus wheeled Ackley up the steps to the front door, while the little drone clung on to the back of her chair. While Amanda fiddled with her keys Ackley felt the drone thrumming behind her, and the tubes sucking the foul poison from inside her, and it was strangely reassuring. At the hospital her extractor had sat beside her bed, and whenever she thought about it she felt helpless to affect it – now it was right behind her, barely bigger than a soccer ball, and it could move on its own. No harm could come to it now, she knew, and she felt freer than ever, as though her life had never been more secure. Though she would not admit it openly, past the initial shock she was feeling thankful for Cruciere’s help – and in general for Cruciere’s abnormal interventions into her confined little life.

“Alright, come in, come in!” Amanda said, opening the doors at last. “Behold! I found the plans for all this stuff on the internet too. Once I had accrued enough funds, I had a team build it all!”

Past the brown double doors was a large and open atrium extending the three stories of the house and up to a slightly arched ceiling of transparent glass, now blackened by night. In the middle of the atrium a gold statue had been erected to honor Amanda, capturing her effervescent smile, long wavy hair and pleasant proportions, while being starkly, completely naked; a point of fact Ackley tried to ignore. Similar effigies had been hung on the walls, posters and photographs of Amanda in various stages of undress, along with a few more recent images of herself accompanied by Cruciere, who apparently wore her lab coat even to the beach, to a wedding chapel, and in outer space.

“Before I was a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist I was a successful model!” Amanda said, posing near her statue. There was a cry of rattling metal guts and a hiss of some kind of engine, and suddenly the golden thing moved to match her. Both Amanda and the statue were now posing with their hips out, bent slightly forward and making a V for victory. “But these days I pose for nobody other than Anne-Marie!”

“Why were you two in space?” Ackley asked, pointing at the pictures.

“Our honeymoon was in space!” Amanda said. “I spare no expense for Anne-Marie!”

Cruciere looked off to one side, face turning a more reddish brown color.

Amanda was eager to begin a grand tour, and she returned to the party and instantly took control of Ackley’s wheelchair, only to be stopped almost as instantly by Asmodeus.

“She needs to rest. We can do this some other time.” Asmodeus said.

“Yes. I’d like to sleep now.” Ackley interjected. She looked around the atrium. Two sets of stairways along the opposing walls led up to hallways that disappeared into the eastern and western wings of the structure, to the various rooms whose impression was not immediately apparent from within the atrium. Hallways along the ground floor trailed off in their own directions. “Do I have my own room, or do I hide in a closet like a fugitive?”

“Of course you have your own room!” Amanda said in shock. “Closets? I would never allow such barbarity! You’re getting a nice room with a view of the garden and your own bathroom!”

“Besides, the people around here don’t check in on us.” Cruciere said.

“Have you threatened them with asbestos too?” Ackley said.

“Oh no,” Amanda said, “In Upward Newfork, we have a camaraderie between us Upwarders, that we should keep out of each other’s business. Whether it be a little tax fraud, or some money laundering, or offshoring, or my wife designing a satellite cannon in the backyard: it’s best for everyone’s peace of mind we ignore it.”

“Ah, I see. So it’s not just you people who are disturbed. It’s the whole town.”

“She’s so witty!” Amanda suddenly pushed herself again unto Ackley, nuzzling up against her and squeezing the little girl against her chest. “She’s the best, Anne-Marie! I love her so much!”

“I’m going to sleep now.” Ackley impassively declared.

Asmodeus took the handles on Ackley’s wheelchair again, and ignoring the thrumming extractor-drone hooked behind it, she led her up to the staircase. Ackley was about to protest having a second-floor room, but after being pushed up the first step, Asmodeus pressed a button on the wall, and the staircase became automatic for the remainder of the trip, sliding them easily to the second story and depositing them safely on the landing.

“Mom went to great lengths to make her home very accessible.” Asmodeus said.

“Do I have to call her mom? I’d rather not if it’s all the same.”

“It would make her very happy, but I am otherwise indifferent.”

They walked a down broad hallway, past over a dozen doors to each side. At the end of the hall, Asmodeus turned around and walked her back, looking over each door in detail. Finally she picked a room seemingly at random, and led Ackley inside. It was a luxuriant space, with massive bed, a large glass window with a clear view of the backyard garden, and on the wall, a hanging oval-shaped device that was almost certainly a robot. There was climate control, so the room was cool and comfortable, and it even exuded a smell like crisp, fresh flowers.

“I’ll stay with you for tonight, so you can get comfortable.”

Asmodeus helped Ackley off her wheelchair, checked the bandages on her chest and then tucked her into the big blankets in the bed. She felt diminutive within the king size, much larger than her hospital bed, but it was soft and comfortable, and she could feel gel or water slosh inside the pillows and mattress. As she laid in bed her extractor drone crawled up the wall and hung from a bedpost, positioning itself just high enough to be out of the way while giving Ackley’s vacuum tube some slack. It had a beady red LED eye that blinked on and off before shutting down for the night. Asmodeus sat beside the bed and waited for Ackley to close her eyes, and they spent the night in this way.

When she woke she hardly noticed how late it was – the windows had automatically tinged black to keep the room in a peaceful gloom. On the wall, the robot displayed the time, almost midday. Asmodeus was already awake, and punctual as always she was doing some chores in the dark, stocking the closet and adjoining bathroom with towels and wet wipes and apparel. Light began to filter in through the window, the glass changing hue; on the wall the drone waved one its appendages cordially at Ackley, and bid her a good afternoon. Asmodeus took notice.

“Good day, Ackley.” Asmodeus said. “I’ve taken the liberty of stocking your room. I took your measurements and ordered some things from the internet. I hope you don’t mind.”

“They arrived this quickly?” Ackley asked.

“Oh no, I did this a few weeks ago, at the hospital.”

Ackley grinned and laid back in bed. “What would have happened if I’d said no? Maybe I wanted to stay in the hospital forever. After all, it’s where I got a new lease on life.”

“Well, I didn’t see that as a possibility, having examined you closely. Cruciere would not have forced you to do anything – she hardly ever does to anyone, unless they’re people in positions of power. From my understanding of you, I felt that you would appreciate being involved with something different.”

“It took me some time to realize myself that I do. I do appreciate it.”

“If I could express elation, I would right now.” Asmodeus said.

“So what work will I be doing for the good doctor then? Building more bombs?”

“Being honest, I feel that was always a secondary concern to simply making Amanda gush. Doctor Cruciere wanted to do something for you after researching the events that eliminated Mr. Fairway; and in turn doing something that would make Amanda even happier. I can build bombs myself, though probably not as well as you” Asmodeus said. “But in time I’m sure the Doctor will come up with something villanous for you to do.”

“Good.” Ackley said decisively. “I’m ready to take the fight to the memes.”

“Excuse me?” Asmodeus tonelessly asked.

“The War On Memes, Asmodeus. It is my calling.”

“I see. Well, if it means that much to you, I’m sure she’ll support it.”

Asmodeus helped Ackley to dress, and wheeled her back downstairs, with the drone hanging behind as usual. It seemed very lively, despite having not plugged into the wall for hours now. Ackley figured all of Cruciere’s robots had an efficient power source, since even the one in the wall had no plugged into anything for power. Downstairs, Asmodeus pushed her to the ground floor dining room, where a tall, cylindrical, many-armed robot was at work arranging slices of pizza around a table that appeared to be made of precariously balancing cubes.

At the table, Cruciere and Amanda welcomed Ackley, beckoning her to sit on one of the cubes, upon which a glass seat and backrest balanced. “We’re having breakfast pizza!” Amanda cheered. “Want to join us, Ackley? You can go on a tour of the labs later, if you like, but you should eat something first!”

“Does it make anything other than pizza?” Ackley said.

“It makes excellent pizza!” Cruciere shouted back.

Ackley burst out laughing. This was all too pleasantly strange. It felt too much like home.

“Alright. I will have some pizza.” Ackley said.

Ackley’s New Lease On Life 9: Exodus

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

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

Cruciere looked puzzled. “Ready for what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ackley raised an eyebrow at her enthusiasm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unmoved, Ackley settled against her pillows and napped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheerlessly, he addressed them anew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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