Ackley’s New Lease On Life 6: Chemicals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was being sarcastic.” Ackley murmured.

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

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

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

And thus, the battle was joined.

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

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

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

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

Ackley was honestly surprised by the reaction.

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

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

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

Her words sent a chill down Ackley’s spine.

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

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

This was the last time Ackley saw that particular Nurse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Inquiry.”

Asmodeus often said this to broach a topic.

“Yes?” Ackley replied.

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

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

“What do you do, for leisure?”

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

“I see. Anything else?”

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

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

“Do you mean your home?” Ackley replied.

“My storage unit, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

The Library And The Ladybird (Part II)

“Doctor Cruciere, after careful analysis of the prototype hull of the C.S. Hydra, I have deduced that its performance could be improved by several orders of magnitude were it not in the shape of a donut.”

The assistant nodded her head toward the craft, hanging from several cables and attended to by various black and red robotic arms, screwing and unscrewing bolts, painting and unpainting plates, removing and reinstalling sheets of layered depleted uranium armor, in a general confusion of industrial assembly. The disorder of the robot arms mirrored that of their commander, who grit her teeth and grumbled lightly while inspecting the unfinished vehicle after each minor change.

“Argh. Well alright, fine. Fine Asmodeus! Let me see your data.”

Asmodeus raised her clipboard sheepishly, or as sheepishly as an artificial human with no capability to show emotions on her face could raise a clipboard. Her superior, standing a head taller than her favored assistant, swiped the clipboard from her hands and pored over the results. The data spoke for itself – on every performance diagnostic, the Ladybird simulation would use the central hole to help her bifurcate an area of the craft with her arm-blade. Constructing a craft with equal density on all sides and no obviously thinner or exposed areas would help protect against such an attack. There were several proposed new designs, all of which abandoned the whimsical donut shape for standard vehicle chassis.

Cruciere threw the clipboard over her shoulder, hitting the wall of the cubic assembly lab.

“Naaaah.” Cruciere said, patting down Asmodeus’ long indigo pigtails. “That’d be boring.”

“As you say, Doctor Cruciere.” Asmodeus replied. “I would advise that if we are keeping the donut aesthetic, we should perhaps make sure that the four segments of the donut are equally weighted–”

A fiber cable suddenly snapped. One rounded edge of the donut-shaped craft crashed into the laboratory floor and broke through the metal and concrete. It shattered a pipe beneath it. Silver gas streamed into the lab.

“–Because right now that side is far heavier than the rest.” Asmodeus finished.

Dr. Cruciere snapped; she thrust her hands overhead and stomped repeatedly in frustration, spinning a slow 360º as she did so. The repeated stomping left deep dents and dings on the solid steel, and her high heels shattered under the assault, causing her to slip and fall. She crashed with gargantuan force and shattered another pipe.

Such was the lot of Dr. Anne-Marie Cruciere, the world’s foremost everything, by her own accord.

She contemplated her failings while recovering her breath, but it soon turned out that she was recovering a toxic byproduct gas, judging by the burning in her throat and the collapse of her lungs. As her organs struggled to keep from becoming mush, she struggled to her feet and turned to the doorway. Alerts and biohazard sirens blared all around. She made toward the door with a weary gait, sighing blood, eyes tearing up, feet dragging, exhausted from the cellular and psychic agony of the day. All the while she thought of how little progress she had to show for this gas accident.

The doctor and her assistant exited out to one of the adjacent office modules, Asmodeus having to carry the doctor for the last few feet over the door and unto an office chair. Asmodeus dutifully sealed the door behind them and activated the vents. Following procedure she put a sticker on the door: “Toxic Gas.” She then marked an X on a checkerboard paper on the wall – another assembly unit lost to contamination. Protocol thus thoroughly followed, she took in a deep breath while her pale, smooth features slowly melted away into a puddle of white fungoid goo and soft indigo foam.

“I apologize for my failure to prevent this lab accident,” bubbled the goo, inexplicably retaining speech. “Doctor, if you would be so gracious, may I request my next form also have indigo pigtails?”

“You always have the same form.” Cruciere replied calmly, croaking as her lungs and voice box degenerated. “Amanda likes that one too much. Our pleasant family life would break down if I changed you.”

Cruciere’s red hair started to turn gray from the gas damage, and her brown skin grew an ever more sickly gray with each passing minute. Her lips started to crack, their bright red color becoming more blood than lipstick. She raised her hands over to her face expecting some unforeseen horror and felt her elegant jawline and nose– completely unchanged.

She smiled pleasantly, hugging herself with elation and bobbing on her seat.

“My bone structure and skin were always the best part of me. It’s both flattering but also annoying, because I didn’t make those. Still, a testament to the heightened genetic craftmanship in 2113.” She grabbed hold of the long tuft of red-turning-gray hair covering her right eye. “Now this though, this is annoying, because I did make this, and it SHOULD be better. What was that gas?” Cruciere grumbled. She hit a button on her desk that made the room whirr.

Asmodeus’ puddle bubbled and spurted. “I believe it is perhaps the byproduct of our unwise decision to use mercury-based ion engines to provide kinetic power for some of the lab modules. If I recall, Doctor, and not to mean any disrespect, but you believed that mercury was ‘cooler’ than Xenon, and ‘less boring’ than alternatives.”

Cruciere frowned. “Well, it’s also cheaper than alternatives and easier to find.”

Robotic manipulators stretched from a nearby wall and removed Cruciere’s contaminated lab coat, sweater and pants, providing fresh alternatives and sending the rest to the burning room. They also provided a helpful cup for Cruciere to spit her mercury-contaminated blood into. Thankfully her brain was insulated from it.

“Alright, where is the thing? Do you have it?” Cruciere turned a critical eye to the robot arms and asked them. The robot arms shook in response before retreating through the wall. “I guess it’s in the desk then.”

She searched through the desk drawers, already feeling the contaminants trying to stream their way toward her highly guarded and enhanced brain-case. Pulling out drawers she found levels, rulers, bottled fetii and other everyday necessities for the lab, as befitting generic, mass-produced Cruciere Offices. Finally she found the strange purple device she required; a handle on one end, a needle at the other, and a miniature circular centrifuge with three very thin tubes in the center. One contained a white goo, the other blood, and the center a clear fluid. A pair of miniscule glass bridges connected the outer tubes to the one in the center. Cruciere pulled the trigger on the device, revving up the centrifuge. When she held it, the device spun so quickly that its center became a blur, and were it anyone but Cruciere holding it, their wrists would have probably flown off with it. Instead, the blood and goo coalesced, passing bit by bit through to the connected center until they became a black liquid.

Cruciere happily injected the substance. Within seconds she could already feel the cellular repair at work. Her hair and skin had a very slight glow, and soon the lush brown pigment returned to her body. She scooped up all her waist-length hair, hugged it against her chest and smelled it, and took in the bright red. Perfect.

She threw the centrifuge needle over her shoulder and it shattered against the wall.

“What is building in lab 12? That’s what we’re up to right? Twelve, right now?”

“The C.S. Pillbug ‘Heavily Armed Excavation Vehicle’ or HAEV.” Asmodeus bubbled.

“Ew. No. I really want to finish the Hydra.” Cruciere lamented.

“Room decontamination will take a few more hours. Perhaps you should visit your partner.”

The doctor suddenly felt very uncomfortable with that cold phrasing.

“Hey, um, I know this is weird, but uh, you have to call her Mom, okay?” Cruciere scratched her head, perplexed at how necessary she found it to correct Asmodeus’ altogether correct statement.

“I am an artificial humanoid that is mostly fungoid in nature.” Asmodeus replied.

“Yeah, but uh, you know, that doesn’t mean you can’t have two moms. Call her mom.”

Asmodeus foamed.  “Rewriting social protocols to retain Mom-based information.”

Cruciere sighed deeply. “Don’t tell her we wrecked another lab too.”

“Rewriting ‘Lie To [Mom]’ protocols to add additional lies.”

Cruciere sighed ever more deeply, until she felt she had sighed out all the remaining mercury.

* * *

Far upstairs from Cruciere’s laboratories was the mansion at 42-A Hillberry Manor in the very upscale Upward Newfork. Things had gradually ceased falling out of the sky at Upward Newfork, and the world changed. People knew now of Ladybirds and Crucieres and other things, and many of the neighbors had grown more skeptical of each other. But they retained their code of never talking about other’s Rich People Business. Not even about Amanda Gilded’s R-P-B’s; the one person in Upward Newfork who still had things falling out of the sky to her mansion, every so often.

Today was her first corporate teleconference, and Amanda had dressed up professionally, with a blazer, a long skirt, and even a hot pink tie. She’d pinned up her strawberry pink hair to her head with a pair of decorative chopsticks, and decided to wear her glasses instead of her contacts for that added extra layer of techie, Tungsten Valley smarts. Across from her on the 80 inch plasma screen, appeared a disheveled, square-jawed blonde man in his pajamas.

“Amanda, can we just not do this at 6:30 AM, please?” He begged.

“Early to bed, early to rise, Michael,” Amanda chirped, “As the new owner of Noodle Technologies Inc., I want this to be the work ethic that drives our company from now on, from the top to the bottom.”

“Yeah, well, you know, that whole trick you pulled with the stocks, the fellas don’t really appreciate that kind of big money power playing. We liked our old boss plenty, Josh was a good dude.”

“Who are ‘the fellas’?” Amanda asked politely, “Because the shareholders gave me the company.”

“The shareholders that don’t actually work on anything!” Michael protested.

“Josh should’ve read on Neutralpedia about how stocks work.” Amanda said, in a cheerful but subtly sharp tone. “And about how shareholders work, too! Then maybe he’d still be in charge.”

“Yeah, well, I know the real reason you got the company.”

“Oh, why is that?” Amanda asked, her cheerful face never once waning. “I hope you don’t say it’s because I’m pretty. I’d be flattered, but I’ve also been a majority shareholder and business executive for ten years, and I think that was a big part of it! But I want honesty to be a big part of the company, so please, do go ahead.”

“Because–” Michael suddenly stopped, looked over Amanda and cowered.

“HELLO, DOCTOR. GOOD DAY, HUH?” He continued, waving his hands.

Amanda looked over her shoulder at Cruciere, who bared her teeth from the doorway to the conference room.

She pointed behind Michael, where a small spider-legged white drone entertained itself crawling up on the walls, finding different vantages by which its personnel railgun could perforate Michael’s brain and cause a variety of interesting blood spatters on his desk, the conspicuously very white walls, and other features of his office.

“Just a heads-up, it doesn’t sleep, but you do.” Cruciere said, an edge to her voice.

A blue laser dot appeared on Michael’s forehead. The drone waved a leg at Cruciere.

“Anne-Marie!” Amanda clapped. “We were just getting some of the post-hostile-take-over angst out of the way. I’m sure Michael and his ‘fellas’ will be happy to work on wonderful new Noodle tech soon.”

“Hopefully real soon.” Cruciere said. “Because I think all of Tungsten Valley would explode with joy if a bunch of Noodle Inc. positions suddenly opened up for a new generation of code kids.”

“No need for that, definitely!” Michael replied nervously.

“I’ve got many new ideas for exciting new cloud-based products.” Amanda said.

“Yeah, sure, the cloud,” Michael said, “That whole cloud thing. We’ll totally do that.”

“Listen to her,” Cruciere said, “She’s got some really good ideas. I do too. But I’d rather do my ideas myself. You and your buddies would just screw them all up. Amanda’s though, they’re simple enough.”

“Sure thing.” Michael said, looking behind himself and waving at the spider, who waved back.

After the conference room screen went dim, Amanda retrieved a small tablet computer and ecstatically pushed it toward Cruciere. “Look, stock prices are up to 900 Amero a share.”

“That’s because you’re a visionary, honey.” Cruciere said.

Amanda seized Cruciere and kissed her. “I love you! Ahhh I’m so happy. It almost feels as though this is what I’m destined to do. As though you’d really come from the future to show me my rightful place.”

“No, I told you I came from the future to take over the world.” Cruciere said. “And to stop nuclear proliferation that will leave the future a barren wasteland and humankind ill prepared for an alien invasion. Everything else is just because you’re a visionary. And because I love you too.” Cruciere said, turning fiercely red in the face.

“Of course.” Amanda replied, nuzzling up against her.

Ackley’s Wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want PVC pipe.” Ackley said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Ladybird muted her earpiece again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh huh.” Ladybird said.

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

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

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

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

The Nurse fainted. Fulton choked.

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