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.

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.”

The Library and the Ladybird (V)

The Presidential Plaza in Newfork, before it had several of its statues dislodged from the earth by seismic shockwaves, had served as a monument to the grandness of Amera and its founders. George Newfork had stood guard over the plaza as he had stood guard over the cavalry brigades that proved instrumental to Amera’s freedom in the Freedom Wars– And then there were other statues too, but all of them had been turned to scattered debris and Ladybird honestly could not remember who they were or what they did. She knew George Newfork killed a bunch of folks who were bad and won freedoms and junk.

“I’m honestly having a hard time remembering, myself.” Dragonfly admitted.

“Almost like these people don’t matter anymore except for their statues.” Ladybird said.

“Who are you talking to? And shut your blasphemous trap! They’re extremely important, even now. Be quiet and look at the stupid rock before I have you removed.”

Cassandra grumphed and harrumphed and tapped her shoes. She had agreed to allow Ladybird to more closely inspect the mysterious monument, with the caveat that her secret service detail was allowed to have their guns up and pointing at her the entire time, in case she did anything deemed a threat to national security. Such things included, but were not limited to, opening the stone doors into the monument, and backsassing Cassandra too much.

“Do you know who the other Founders were?” Ladybird asked, taking a polite tone. She had a placid smile on her face and gestured toward Cassandra in gentle fashion.

“Do I look like a teacher?” Cassandra asked. “We barely have jobs for teachers as it is without me taking some by giving you a lecture on history you should know. Look it up on Noodle!”

“Well, with the suit, the small skirt and heels, it’s kind of like a ‘cute professor’ costume–”

“SHUT UP AND STARE AT THE ROCK.”

Satisfied she’d snuck enough sass through, Ladybird continued to examine the monument. She floated gently near it, and flew past it, and looked it over from various angles. For an object that had apparently risen violently from the Earth, its surface was quite polished, showing very little in the way of decay or violence. Ladybird had initially thought of it as a mausoleum, and she felt this impression more strongly the more she looked.

After rising from the earthquake, the part of the mysterious monument visible over the earth had risen to about a story tall and it was about as long and wide as a couple of city buses. The structure had been rendered in a simple but still ornate style – it possessed a strong base with three concentric square steps on each side that led up to the thinner “body” of the building, accessed by two bare, white stone doors, and it was topped with a roof jutting out over the foundation like an inverted version of the original base. It felt ominous enough to be a tomb.

Ladybird landed again in front of the monument, and knelt forward for a moment. This simple movement triggered several clicks and cracks behind her. She turned to face the secret service detail and the president, and in an instant the agents became one huddled mass of guns cocked and shaking in place, with Cassandra in the middle of the armed procession baring her fangs at Ladybird. Ladybird waved them away with her hand.

“Back up a bit, I’m doing something.”

“Doing what?” Cassandra asked, hands on her hips. “I already told you, I know what it is, and you don’t have to. It’s none of your business, so do tell what you plan to do to it.”

“I’m gonna make a weird noise at it.” Ladybird replied, her exasperation beginning to show in her tone of voice. “You’ll feel it and get freaked out. So take a step back, for your health.”

Cassandra crossed her arms and stayed put, but the agents moved back as instructed.

Ladybird faced the monument again, and spread her arms out. She felt a tingling inside her head and closed her eyes. Her antennae shot straight up in the air, solid as a pair of iron bars. Her mind clouded up, and went dark, and she tried not think of anything and to tune out any distractions. Her sensations dulled, and she felt only her breathing and heartbeat. She timed them and thought of their relation to everything. Her mind’s eye found color again.

She pounded her foot, and she felt that. She even saw it.

In her mind it was a circle, a ripple going out, and it had color and meaning.

She breathed out and whispered, and it was all dull to her, but Cassandra and the agents heard a blaring noise coming from the Ladybir’ds body, a banshee-like screech that shook their clothes and kicked up dirt and seemed to travel right through their stomachs. A low rumbling stormed through them starting from their bellies and up into their ribcages, and the agents nearly fell over with surprise, and many doubled over standing.

Ladybird saw color in her mind, color and meaning, and a picture of everything.

Satisfied, she tapped the side of her head to alert Dragonfly on the radio.

“I just blasted the ground.” Ladybird said. “According to my radar there’s nothing under this thing. It just popped up right out of the ground, it didn’t even make a hole, the dirt’s perfectly compact under it.”

“That is just bizarre, but I trust your radar sense.” Dragonfly replied.

“What about your observations, you’ve been taking pictures right?”

“It’s difficult to tell its age without chemically analyzing the stone.” Dragonfly said. Ladybird’s left goggle lens flickered and then began to play back footage of what she saw while inspecting the monument. “The style is completely nondescript. Very little artistry went into it, so you can’t really compare it to many trends.”

“It’s small enough,” she continued, “that I don’t really know what you’d bury in it. It’s big enough for remains, but whose? You’d build a tomb to confine the remains – but make it plain, undecorated?”

“Yeah, I don’t really understand it either.” Ladybird said. “And then, there’s no mechanisms around it, nothing under it, and apparently nothing really even in it so what is this thing?”

Cassandra seemed to have had enough of being left out of the loop and marched right up to the Ladybird, stomping her feet childishly and audibly as she went. She pricked the Ladybird’s shoulder between three fingers, like a school teacher about to roughly scold a teenager. “LISTEN,” She shouted, and then shouted even louder into Ladybird’s ear, “And you too, whatever little nuisance hacker is handling her direction in there. All you two need to know is that this monument, that has nothing to do with anything, is going back into the dirt, permanently!”

Ladybird balled up her fists and grit her teeth, Cassandra’s voice bouncing painfully in her head, when Dragonfly pleaded, “Ladybird, please don’t hurt her, you’d be made the villain.”

Declawed, Ladybird grumbled and crossed her arms while Cassandra continued to berate her.

“The official response, which will be delivered on national, trustworthy media sources in the evening, when you’re back home watching TV, eating snacks and being happy like a good Ameran,” She pinched Ladybird even harder in the shoulder, until she almost winced from pain, “will be that an earthquake happened that miraculously resulted in little to no death, and that insurance paperwork will be done speedily. Is that ENOUGH for you?”

Ladybird nodded begrudgingly. Cassandra released Ladybird and then patted down her hair, dusted off the sides of her suit and straightened her elytra, all with a tender little smile.

“Good. See, no harm done. Now buzz off.” She said sweetly, pinching Ladybird’s cheek.

At that moment, several blocks away, a Cerberus APC roared to life. Its wheels screeched loud enough to catch everyone’s attention. Cassandra looked annoyed by the interruption and watched the vehicle as it pulled violently off the street, wheeled around to face them with its sloped, armored front, and then rushed up the road. The vehicle thundered over the plaza in a straight line toward the monument, and spun suddenly during its approach, swinging its right side around so that its door met Cassandra as it stopped. Modified into a tactical operations center by the addition of satellite receivers, wireless internet and radio equipment, the APC brought news with it – one of the crew inside stepped out in a hurry.

“Ma’am, there’s something big headed this way. We are requesting permission to intercept.”

Cassandra grit her teeth. She glared for Ladybird to stay put where she was, and she approached the vehicle and leaned into its interior from the door to peer at the equipment. Ladybird honored the agreement, raising her hands up so they could be seen, and thrusting her antennae up in the air to mimic them.

“What the Sacred Hell is it?”

“We don’t know ma’am.” The officer replied. “It’s completely unidentified and we only just now spotted it on radar. We have no visual confirmation, but we know it’s flying over Central.”

“How is it that we don’t have pictures of this thing already?”

The officer looked distraught by the question. He raised his hands as though he’d been accused of something, and waved them as though trying to fan the accusation away. “We don’t know, ma’am! We’ve pointed drone cameras and a satellite over it. Thing’s like, invisible; and it’s moving leisurely, but it’ll be here soon.”

Ladybird watched from afar the huddle forming at the door of the APC.  The secret service agents were still fixated on her with their submachine guns, but she had her antennae bent a little at the tips, picking up the conversation from afar with their sensitive, club-like ends. She knew exactly what all of this meant.

In an instant she rattled her wings and blew out a second radar pulse. She closed her eyes and waited for it to bounce back. Then she leaped to the sky, leaving behind a cadre of agents retching on the floor. Cassandra seized the radio from the APC commander and began to shout orders, but it was already too late, and the Ladybird had flown overhead, clearing the Plaza and following her instincts and natural radar to the rolling hills outside the plaza. Something massive was flying over the hilly, unoccupied park space between city and plaza, and heading right for the monument.

Ladybird picked up speed, her wings exuding green sparks and her lower back bursting with green flames and exhaust. She flew higher and faster, and at her flanks the E-35 jets weaved through the air struggling to maintain a formation around her. Finding themselves outflown by Ladybird’s natural ease they dispersed left and right away from her, and she watched them go with a triumphant grin; in the next instant she slammed into something terribly cold and hard, ricocheting off the object and careening back toward the park while the Eagle Troops scattered defensively.

Over the park the invisible object opened fire, ignoring the dazed Ladybird and targeting the Eagle Troops jets scattering away from it. Furious muzzle flashes across its hull marked its position in the sky, and the thing launched its attack while descending ponderously toward the monument. Ameran fighter jets rolled and banked sharply to avoid the raking fire from the autocannons. Bursts of gunfire lashed the sky and barely caught the trailing exhaust from the supersonic jets, each maneuvering such that the guns could not easily acquire the craft nor the formation as a whole.

The E-35s had felt out its attacks, tracked its position in the sky, and were ready to commence their own runs. Each craft broke off on its own from the object’s airspace, and once far enough they turned in tandem and sped toward it anew. While it fired erratically upon them the jets swooped down to threaten it from all sides, returning fire with their own cannons, landing heavy rounds unto the invisible surface near its own cannon mounts, where its invisibility had been betrayed by its muzzle flashes and shots. Encircled, the craft’s fire was even less effective than it had once been. Guided missiles burst from under the jet’s wings and shot toward the object, set to deliver the most punishing impacts.

Reacting to the missiles, several more compartments opened along the top of the mysterious craft. Loud booms issued from each as the missiles closed in. Mere meters away from the object every guided missile fell apart harmlessly and all at once, stricken by the anti-missile defenses. The jets scattered defensively once more–

All around the object the E-35s froze into place, their jet engines burning but unable to accelerate the craft to their defensive maneuvers. Autocannons quieted and the E-35s roared with power, trying to force themselves from their mysterious paralysis at mach speeds. In the center of the frozen formation the object began to stir. Each craft spun suddenly off course as though thrown like children’s toys across a play room, pilots ejecting from every craft as they crashed supersonically into the park hills, the roads and upon the ruins of nearby buildings. A broken jet was hurled just over the command APC, where President Ableman huddled, mouth agape at the unreal disaster speeding across her airspace. It exploded behind her contingent, so close that she could feel the heat sweeping out over the APC. She grit her teeth.

A voice sounded from the machine. “Let’s not do anything we might regret!”

A bright flash blinded the occupants of the park for a second; the object blurred and warped visibly as it threw off its cloak. Inch by inch gunmetal and black colors painted over a thick, saucer-like shape dozens of feet in diameter, from which nine segmented lengths flailed exuberantly, clicking large, gleaming pincer-like heads at their ends. When fully revealed the object showed no particular damage from the assaults upon it, and its five-bladed claws spread open and slowly relaxed, dangling toward the ground. From the bottom, hatches with sound systems opened.

“President Ableman, my name is Doctor Cruciere, and I have DEMANDS.”

Cassandra raised both of her palms to her face.

“By the Dead Mother, not YOU again.” She mumbled.

Around her, the soldiers stared with a mix of confusion and horror at the incredible machine floating before them, while at the same time mumbling “gurblegurb?” involuntarily aloud as their minds sought to understand the demonic forces mentioned in the President’s careless oaths. Cruciere, meanwhile, chuckled.

“Madam President, I’m sorry to say, but I believe you are a primitive moron who must by now realize your inferiority in comparison to me.” Cruciere said. “I have a simple demand, that will greatly improve the world. The Ameran Commercial Empire must immediately surrender fully to me, commit itself to the philosophy of Crucierian Technocracy, rename itself to Crucieristan in the carrying out of this surrender, and render unto me all of the Verdite resources that you have illegally collected from the ocean, all of which belongs to me. There can be no negotiation!”

“Suffice it to say, no, I, and Amera, cannot accept any of that.” Cassandra said.

Cruciere sighed audibly. “Well, that’s unfortunate. I don’t like killing people, but grievous injury is sometimes helpful for changing intractable positions. Asmodeus, crush her. Gently.”

“Hydra Head System launch.” Asmodeus replied, also over the speakers.

Across the machine’s body the segmented steel tethers contracted, twisted and lifted the pincers into the air like a crown around the machine’s body. Cassandra Ableman shrank back and shook in place, her hand over her mouth and her wings and tail extended, fully erect in shock. One by one the machine heads stretched out, tested their boundaries and then twisted back around to the ground before suddenly launching toward the President’s APC like snakes lunging to bite. The steel mass surged toward the President, the blades at the ends gnashing like hungry teeth.

Beneath the shrieking of metal across the air came a sound like a jet exhaust.

Ladybird launched suddenly forward and swept past the tethers. Sharp, glowing green mantid claws at the ends of her arms severed the flexible appendages with ease, cutting clean across the segments. Grinding metallic heads fell useless at the feet of President Ableman and the door to her APC, stopping about a foot away from completely crushing her in an indistinct pile of metal, turf and blood. Ladybird ground to a halt beneath Cruciere’s machine, her feet slicing two scars across the green as she slowed, green smoke trailing where her fiery exhaust had calmed.

“Thanks for bunching up your tentacles where I can cut them all.” Ladybird said.

Ackley’s New Lease On Life 1: Bucket List

For a look at Ackley’s origin in my Amera stories, read Ackley’s Wish. This microfiction series will continue to explore that particular character after those particular events.

Well-laid plans to die tended to become derailed if one inexplicably lived.

Ackley Hermes had always seen her future as building a bomb and then going to sleep for a very, very long time. She had built the bomb, and Mr. Fairway had been put to sleep for a very, very long time in her stead. Now she had to continue to entertain herself and plan out a fresh, unknown amount of new days,  a week after her vulnerable constitution should have given out on the roof of the Fairway Children’s Hospital. That had been the plan, and now there was none.

Her hospital room had been revamped since the death of Mr. Fairway and with him, the death of the restrictive new budget for the hospital. A machine now accompanied her bed, which could more efficiently drain the liquid nitrogen from her lungs through an unintrusive port installed in the middle of chest. The Nurses came every morning, unbuttoned her shirt a little, plugged her into the machine, and then went — and so, she lived. She could not have foreseen that blasting the Fairway Offices would have ultimately saved her life.

Life had a strange way of turning out after chemical missiles became involved.

To this end she had made a bucket list. Ackley was a realistic person, and so was her list. She wrote down only things she could do in the hospital bed she’d surely continued to be confined to.

She tried a new hairstyle, bundling up her ghostly white hair into a ghostly little ponytail; she tried on makeup which the nurses kindly supplied, flushing her nearly gray skin just a bit, and turning the black bags under her eyes a pleasing indigo. She’d recently turned 13, so she tried to play some of the violent online video games donated to the hospital every year, and scream invective into her headset when she lost to players who, clearly, were actually hacking.

“You idiot stupids,” She half-heartedly cooed into the mic, unable to truly scream in her condition, “You slack mothersons. You brick-eating gobsnipes. Vacillate in a postal office.”

After that round she put down the controller, satisfied, and checked off “troll online violent video games” and “say curse words” from her bucket list. Truly they had been trolled, and cursed.

She checked the list again, and next up she found, “Outsmart the Homeland Security man sure to arrive in a few day’s time,” and “stay out of kitty prison while trolling various web forums.”

The Library And The Ladybird (IV)

In the aftermath of the quake, Nellidae and Libel huddled around the remains of their master computer once hidden in the kitchen. Through it they checked everywhere for news and pictures; everywhere except outside their own windows, which they feared would be given the final incentive to shatter to pieces should they dare to approach. Their privacy was their only unbroken possession and they cherished it. Noodle Gatherer helpfully kept them indoors, helping aggregate a mass of information; as well as up to the minute news, videos, quips and fumbls with helpful hashtags such as #DoomsdayInNewfork.

Quipper filled to the brim with pithy 160 character posts about the impending apocalypse, while Fumblr posted .gif moving images of windows shattering, people falling down stairs and cats doing amusing things as the ceiling and walls cracked around them. Memetube’s feed flooded with a stream of short, blurry eyewitness videos.

“Consensus seems to be that everyone in the city has devolved to ludicrous paranoia, but there haven’t been any confirmed deaths and no truly fatal structural collapses,” Libel said, “So basically it’s a miracle.”

“What the heck is #THUMPSQUAD?” Nellidae asked, squinting at the Quipper feed.

“Umm. Please use the word in a sentence.” Libel replied.

Nellidae cleared her throat. “And I quote: ‘EVERYBODY GET THE DUB-HOP AND TRIP-STEP READY CUZ WE GONNA RIDE THE DYIN’ AND ROCK THE AFTERSHOCK #THUMPSQUAD’.”

Libel frowned. “It’s nihilism. Ignore that and look at this.”

Libel tapped on her touchscreen and expanded the size of a video window, drawn from the Noodle memetube feed. The video was an aerial view of the Presidential Plaza as seen from a high-powered RC camera plane, a toy that ever more popular as the arms race of viral memery marched on within the memetube community. The plane circled around the plaza, chasing subjects for the latest trend in viral meme videos, Pleasant Pidgeons. The plane focused on Pigeons in the plaza being uncharacteristically pleasant, lying down and bobbing their heads in hilarious, memetic cluelessness.

The RC plane was an unsteady vehicle, yet the imminent quake was still obvious in the video. The Library of Congress shook visibly, the statue of George Newfork lost its voluminous head and massive muscled arms. Pearl tiles across the plaza floor fissured and sunk into trenches as the ground split across dozens of fractures, as though the nervous system of the earthquake were generating its sinews across the earth. People that were once indifferent and unfocused now struggled to escape, their feet jerking out from under them on the uneven ground as they sprinted toward stable objects, clumsily vaulting over guardrails and slamming into trees. A column of smoke and dust rose just off the edge of the camera’s vision.

When the plane completed a circle around the plaza the event seemed to pass. People stood slowly up, shaken and hurt but alive; the earth stilled and the debris collected; the pigeons remained altogether pleasant.

Nellidae traced the fissures throughout the picture, following the symbolic nervous system up to its brain, and much like the plane soon discovered, she found them all to connect at a black structure a few meters long and wide and twice as many tall, like a mausoleum. It entered the picture in the tail end of the video, the RC plane veering to capture the structure and its ominous stone door, symbols of vintage-looking guns, bells and compasses etched on its surface.

“So that just popped out during the earthquake? How’s that even possible?”

“I don’t know,” Libel said, “It’s right between the Presidential Monument and the Library of Congress. The government had to have known it was there – ground-penetrating radar would catch it.”

“Could something rising out of the ground cause an earthquake?”

Nellidae pointed to the building in the video.

Libel nodded. “Theoretically. Underground nuclear tests have done so. When you generate enough force under the surface it can propagate through the ground and cause an earthquake. But even an underground nuclear bomb test in North Choson only caused at most a 4.9 magnitude quake. Our was quite a bit above that scale.”

“I think it’s too small to have caused that huge quake all by itself.” Nellidae mused. “That thing’s barely larger than this apartment from the looks of it. It wouldn’t be able to generate that much force.”

“We don’t know that’s all there is to the building. It could be connected to something underground.” Libel nodded her head toward the window. “If you could go take a closer look, I could determine more about it.”

Nellidae smiled and cracked her knuckles. “It’s a field trip then! Do the honors.”

Libel pressed a button on the side of the kitchen island and turned to the living room.

The tasteful Elladian column they’d installed in the center of the room had been nearly split in half from the pressure of the roof and floor shaking violently together. Libel had chosen the column for its useful hollow interior and for its subject matter, which in her mind made them blend in more easily as two average women sharing their lives together in the city. On its surface, artistic depictions of large, muscular men, commiserating with intense heterosexuality, had warped into macabre, twisted caricatures, ruining its aesthetic value. At Libel’s command half of the column attempted to open but simply fell apart unto the floor, revealing Ladybird’s black and red-polka-dotted neoprene suit that was hidden inside.

“Oh no!” Libel said, raising her hands up to her cheeks. “That cost me 100 amero!”

“I’m glad it’s broken.” Nellidae smugly said. “It was disgustingly tacky.”

“You’ve no appreciation for art!” Libel said. “It was a symbol of manly camaraderie!”

“Blech.” Nellidae stuck out her tongue.

Nellidae approached the column, stepping on a chunk of rock and splintering it all the more. She undressed quickly, haplessly throwing her clothes around the room wherever they landed, and took the suit from its rack. Running her fingers over it, she appraised the texture and craftsmanship and realized this was a different suit than before – Libel must have replaced it. Her utilitarian transformation into the Ladybird began, spreading open the back of the suit and climbing in, sliding in her legs, then pulling it to her shoulders and slipping her arms in the smooth sleeves. Zipped over her chest and up to her neck, it was modest and colorful, with a wide opening on the back to expose her elytra and wings. From another rack inside the column, Ladybird took a pair of high-tech goggles and an earpiece, putting both on to complete her uniform.

“New suit huh? When did you have the time to get another one?” Ladybird said.

“SENTINEL introduced a new model Light Adaptable Scouting Suit recently, so I went ahead and stole one of those a while back. It just takes a little customizing to make a LASS into a Ladybird suit – just had to cut some holes, essentially, and rewire some of the communications gear. I like to call it the Mark II Ladybird suit.”

“I wonder when it is you make time to do all of these things.”

Back in the kitchen, Libel’s face hovered dangerously close to her screen, trying to capture every tiny detail in a memetube video of the strange structure bursting out of the ground during the quake, set to 10 hours of exciting dubstep music. On her face she’d put on a pair of even thicker glasses that acted as a head-mounted display, along with a wireless headset, with which she could communicate with Ladybird and as well as see the suit’s camera feed. Ever since they met, Libel had fancied herself a superhero who needed her own uniform and fake identity, despite already having both.

“No weird bug-themed uniform for you Dragonfly?” Ladybird joked.

She poked the antennae on the headset.

Dragonfly smiled. “Oh, I’m working on it. It’ll be an even better catsuit than yours.”

She pressed another button on the kitchen island, and the mail chute on the wall struggled to open.

“I don’t think that’s safe.” Ladybird said. “It’s probably like a bendy-straw now.”

“You could try going out the window.” Dragonfly suggested. She helpfully pointed out the kitchen window, which, as though knowing it had been found, suddenly shattered into a jagged maw of glass shards.

Ladybird nodded. Whistling to herself, she inched away from the window and crammed herself desperately into the mail chute, her legs kicking and arms flailing as she pounded from wall to wall all the way down the warped passage. The force of the fall squeezed her out the end of the pipe in a knot of limbs and antennae. She found her predicament oddly therapeutic, like a very intense yoga, until it came time to unravel herself from atop the mail carts in the bottom floor. She unfolded, and the cart collapsed to the side, covering her in a heap of boxes. A small child was attracted by the commotion.

He moved a box from over Ladybird’s head and smiled at her.

“You saw nothing.” Ladybird said.

“Okay. I get that a lot.” He replied.

Ladybird patted his head half-heartedly and bolted out the back door.

Outside, she took flight with a running leap from the tight alleyway between her building and the one adjacent. She bolted up into the sky as fast as possible to avoid notice, rising so quickly into the air that her origin could not have been pinpointed. Ladybird shared some biology with insects, but the way she flew was rather alien. Her elytra split and unfolded her wings, which beat so rapidly behind her back that the naked eye could only see an ephemeral blur, but these were less than half of the equation – the source of her speed and sustainability in the air came from her lower back, where a pair of biological jets sprouted, covered with tough chitin that resisted the green, chemical exhaust that helped propel her body. These little jets and their tongues of hot green flame took her body aloft and converted her biological energy to propulsion.

According to Dragonfly, Ladybird was up to spec with supersonic jet fighters, though the exact chemical composition of the “exhaust” from her body, and how she produced it, defied explanation.

Up in the air, Ladybird could see much more of the Ameran capital than she ever could from the ground. She hesitated to call Newfork her city, but she had flown over it so many times now that she could instinctually head to any location without much thought. Her body took to flying so easily that she could concentrate her thoughts on surveillance and other tasks. From her vantage, the city looked safe enough, but it was a mess nonetheless. Tall skyscrapers had their solemn glass faces broken and splintered; the roads were fractured, with deep and wide cracks from the quake, navigable by sturdy vehicles perhaps, but still dangerous to use; many roadblocks had been set up, some congested with vehicles trying to bug out of Newfork, a sign of the paranoia Dragonfly had referenced and that Amerans were well known for.

She flew a bit closer to the ground in the more urbanized Central Newfork, and people started to point out her presence, some with awe, others with concern. She waved at them in passing. It was all in a day’s PR. Newfork was divided into four quarters – Central, Downward, Upward and Capital Newfork. Upward was a golden pigsty for the wealthy and vain, and she had no reason to ever fly over it. Downward was a forgotten little place with a lot of tenements. Central was where most of her “work,” such as it was, took place. It house the malls, the huge buildings, the schools – so all the education, economy and labor took place there, and as such, most of the events that she took interest in were also there. However, the earthquake’s eccentric origin meant that she now had business to conduct uncommonly far outside Central Newfork. She flew past the crowds and the skyscrapers and the congestion, out where the skyline flattened and the road widened.

When she finally reached Capital Newfork, she found the army’s heavily militarized crisis response in progress, almost to a ridiculous extent. The Bison Troops, Amera’s land army, combed the historic buildings housing the organs of Ameran government, with dozens of squads patrolling and overturning light debris, while the corps of engineers sized up the damage. Light armored vehicles patroled the broken roads with their thick treads and large wheels, delivering squads to and from the various buildings and keeping a paranoid eye with their frightening heavy guns at the ready. Ladybird gained altitude again in response to these displays, wondering if the Bisons were expecting the quake to shoot them, or if they wanted to intimidate the aftershocks with their deployment capability. It would explain the tanks roaming around at least.

Ladybird would find even the skies unbearably active, however, thanks to the Eagle Troops, Amera’s air force. As she rose further into Newfork’s controlled air space, Ladybird saw E-35 stealth multirole jet fighters patrolling the capital, and they in turn saw her. Among the clouds, the jets took interest in Ladybird’s presence but thankfully did nothing about it except fly closer to her, as though to let her know they were aware – a marked improvement to the times when they would take potshots at her with their Equalizer cannons. She waved at one of the pilots half-heartedly, but he or she merely broke off and continued his or her pattern. Normally she saw scout helicopters flying about. Why full-on jet aircraft right now?

“This is a weird response.” Ladybird said, tapping the side of her goggles.

“I wager this is Ableman trying to show off.” Dragonfly responded over her earpiece.

“She already won the election, what else does she have to prove?”

“That she’s tough. Tough on quakes. Like War On Quakes tough.”

“That’s silly, even for her. You think I’ll find her down there?”

“Most assuredly.” Dragonfly chuckled. “You should pay her a visit.”

“I think I’ll do that, actually. It’d save me some trouble getting close to that monument if I ask her permission first. Even if she doesn’t give it, she’ll at least be aware of what I’m doing.”

“Probably won’t stop her from trying to shoot you.” Dragonfly said.

Once over the strange monument, Ladybird dropped altitude, slowing down her jets and wing-beats as easily as she opened and closed her fists. She touched ground on the Presidential Plaza after a gentle, controlled descent. The Plaza was fully evacuated and bereft of human presence. Its monuments showed minor damage, save for one headless statue, but the ground was uneven and hazardous, torn apart by the pressure of the quake. Across the Plaza she spied the strange monument and a host of pressed suits around it, among them one with a very familiar, expensive teal suit.

Ladybird crept up through the broken ground and stopped at the edge of the Plaza, wanting to approach the group as slowly and non-threateningly as possible. She ambled toward them with her hands held out to her sides, open palms facing them, and even still, the Secret Service escort all turned around almost at once. They raised their weapons tentatively, and signalled for her to stand her ground. Ladybird silently complied with them, smiling placidly.

“Hello Miss President!” Ladybird said.

“Greetings Ladybird. Sorry for the rough welcome.” The President insincerely replied.

Among the suits, President Cassandra Ableman scowled for an instant before working up an elegant, bright red smile for Ladybird. Nobody seemed to notice the little bat-like wings beating gently behind her back, or her tail, which ended in a heart shape, nor the cat-like eyes appraising the scene behind her glasses. Most people would describe her as blonde, green-eyed, fair, well-figured, a president they could share a beer and watch reality television with – If anything, the wings and the tail subconsciously seemed to remind people of her father, a former president boasting the same.

“Put those down,” Cassandra said, pushing an Agent’s submachine gun barrel toward the floor. The others nodded and quickly followed in step, lowering their weapons. Cassandra stepped confidently outside the Agent’s protection, ambling forward until she stood eye to eye with Ladybird – and about a head taller.

“It’s alright!” Ladybird replied. She put her hands on her hips, and continued with a wide grin. “I’m used to much worse, in fact. I remember when all of these guys and gals had explicit orders to kill me.”

“Oh, let bygones be bygones Ladybird,” Cassandra fidgeted a bit with her hair. “It was a different time and we both know much better now, don’t we?” The stress of the situation was already frizzing up her big blonde ponytail, yet it still rose and fell in a golden arch, monarchic in comparison to Dragonfly’s droopy ponytail.

“Why are you staring at my hair so intently?” Cassandra suddenly said.

“I wasn’t!” Ladybird said, wringing her hands. “I mean, I kinda like ponytails, and yours is nice, but–”

“You like ponytails?” Dragonfly asked. “Didn’t know you were into that. What do you think of mine?”

“It’s cute. Kind of homely and innocent. Cassandra’s is more mature and regal–”

Nevermind this nonsense.” Cassandra said, ripping up her golden ribbon to release her hair and hopefully deflect Ladybird’s attention. “Did you come here to offer disaster relief?”

“Not really. The emergency personnel would probably think I’m in the way. I don’t have any rescue training, and I can sometimes overdo things with my ant-like strength.” Ladybird replied.

“That’s true.” Cassandra said, rolling her eyes. “Wouldn’t want you to wreck my city even more.”

“Just ask her about the monument.” Dragonfly chimed in over Ladybird’s earpiece.

Ladybird scowled. “I want to check that thing out more closely to see what it’s got to do with the earthquakes. Will you be purposelessly antagonistic about it, or will you just let me look at it without making a big show?”

Cassandra scoffed and flapped her wings. “What nerve! Everything I do has the divine purpose of furthering Ameran interests. You don’t seem to understand how much of a disruption you’ve been to the status quo. I’ve done my best for you and you just keep backsassing me! You should show some respect to your superiors!”

“You don’t need to write me a biography, just say yes or no.” Ladybird said.

“No!” Cassandra shouted, stomping her high-heeled shoes. “I know exactly what it is, and you don’t need to know. It’s classified Ameran government business, and not Ladybird-business at all.”

“So you mean it’s demon business?” Ladybird said.

At once, the Secret Service agents all tapped their feet and touched the sides of their heads, and mumbled “gurblegurb?” to each other. Ladybird grinned impishly – the confusion was a humorous part of their brainwashing that resulted whenever anyone mentioned certain words they were not meant to know the context for.

Cassandra cleared her throat. “On second thought, maybe we can work something out.”

The Library And The Ladybird (Part III)

“YUCK. What did you put in this?”

Libel put down a magazine she was reading and put on a smug face.

“It’s instant oatmeal prepared with water because you forgot to buy milk again.”

Nellidae nearly threw her plate across the living room at Libel’s rather tasteful signed portrait of former plus size model Amanda Gilded; she stopped only because of the terrifying glare she noticed behind Libel’s horn-rimmed glasses. The girl’s soft bronze features were beginning to turn ghastly blood-red. Knowing Libel to be skilled in hurting people, Nellidae put the bowl back in its place and stewed in silence. She decided to release her aggression instead by giving the plate a soft slap. A bit of the oatmeal spilled out of the bowl.

This gesture reduced Libel’s bloodcurdling murder-mask to a simple frown.

“You got some on the couch, you big baby.” Libel shouted.

She raised her health and fitness magazine over her face again to tune out Nellidae’s temper.

Nellidae stuck out her tongue. Resigned to go without breakfast, she gave the same cold shoulder to both Libel and her disastrous oatmeal. With a snap of her fingers, the apartment’s Telekinetitron television screen appeared from behind a sliding wall panel and turned on to a local channel, playing a cacophonous variety show.

“What is this garbage?” Libel said brusquely, unamused by the programming.

“It’s reality TV.” Nellidae replied just as brusquely. “It’s the future.”

“Hah. Of course you’d like it. Turn down the volume, I’m reading.”

Nellidae muttered curses under her breath but ultimately complied.

On the day’s Bawdy show, James Bawdy mediated between dysfunctional couples who constantly tried to kill each other over petty things. Attention seized by the show, Nellidae watched a couple literally come rolling out from opposite sides of the stage, taking cover behind decorative palm trees for tactical advantage, and coughing pistols they’d hidden in their stomachs. The audience gasped and then clapped as the couple aimed laser sights.

“Are you really going to do this right now?” James Bawdy asked, chuckling at the intensely dangerous tactical situation unfolding on stage. The audience cheered: Bawdy, Bawdy, Bawdy.

Laser dot picking out a choice location between her eyes, the lady from stage left cried out. “Bawdy, I’ve been looking for this man for 8 years. He always forgot the milk! And I’m going to kill him!”

The audience roared. The man, laser dot circling tightly in the middle of his forehead, “Bawdy, she’s insane! She demanded that I go on this whacko diet and nearly starved me! I’m gonna kill her!”

“Oh my. Looks like you’ve got a bit of unresolved tension.” James said, winking. “After this commercial break, we’ll take a look at the insignificant event that ruined this couple’s domestic life, forever.”

Nellidae clapped her hands in horror and immediately shut the TV off.

“Okay!” Nellidae shouted. “OKAY!”

She dropped to the ground and nuzzled up against Libel’s leg.

“I’m sorry Libel, okay! I’m sorry! I admit that I overreacted! I have a temper problem. I’m sorry Libel! I am very fond of your companionship!”

Libel peered out from over her magazine and stared at Nellidae. Watching her plead, she dropped the magazine entirely. She had been paying no attention to the TV. “Are you molting again?”

“No.” Despite the quick affirmation Nellidae was suddenly unsure. She casually tugged on one of her antennae, causing her left eye to reflexively raise up almost back into its socket. She found it quite tightly affixed to her forehead and came to a fortunate conclusion. “No, I’m not. I’m just very sorry for offending you! You’re great!”

“Oh, I’m not– you don’t have to– it’s fine.” Libel flushed. “It’s fine, Nelly, you don’t have to–” She turned her head, unable to meet her apartment-mate’s eyes. “Oh gosh, I’m so happy you think so.”

Nellidae smiled. She waved toward her plate. “Now please make me breakfast in a non-revolting fashion.”

Libel, still gushing enough to overlook the coarse wording, took Nellidae’s plate and skipped happily across the living room toward the little kitchen. There was a warmth in her heart and a spring in her step that was somewhat unlike her. She cast the oatmeal into the garbage with ease and set about to work on a new, love-filled breakfast.

As she entered, the computer hidden in the kitchen island quietly raised one of its touch-monitors and displayed a wave graph that grew ever more violent with each second. Libel ignored the graph entirely and with an entranced and placid smile she seized a box of  pancake mix, some dairy creamer, and some mixed fruit. With a renewed flame of blissful domesticity in her heart, she would cook Nellidae her special love-filled fruit pancakes.

Containers and tools on the began to rattle ever so lightly along with the countertop, but Libel pushed them back into position and began to mix the batter. She caught the blueberries and apple chunks before they could bounce off the counter and dropped them in. Soon the bowl gyrated so much on its own that Libel barely had to do any more mixing.

“I’ll be done in a second, Nelly,” Libel said in a pleasant, sing-song tone.

“What’s all this shaking?” Nellidae asked.

Placidly, Libel took a peek at the outstretched monitor. “Oh, just a magnitude 7 earthquake.”

“Oh, well that’s unfortunate, we live on a high floor. We could be hurt.” Nellidae said.

There was tense silence as the two struggled to accept the ever more obvious.

Then Libel’s pancake bowl flew off the countertop, followed by everything else.

The walls warped, and the floor shook, and Nellidae was cast from the sofa and thrown face down unto the living room coffee table, splitting the proud salsawood in half. Libel tried to hang on to her computers, only to snap off the seismograph monitor and fall with it unto the floor. The refrigerator vomited its contents and tipped over; various gewgaws on display shelves launched toward the floor. A most tasteful portrait of Amanda Gilded shattered.

As the earth twisted and jerked under them a stuffed platypus rolled with such ferocity that it smashed the glass sliding doors to the balcony and rolled off the edge to its second demise.

“LIBEL!” Nellidae shouted over the rumbling, struggling to raise herself on all fours, “STATUS?”

A metal rattling noise responded before Libel could. The knife cabinet burst open.

Libel rolled unto her side, flat as she could against the counter structure, watching knives pile over the lip at the edge countertop and only slightly overshoot her. Butter knives bounced off the ground ineffectively, ginzus likewise, meat knives and vegetable cutters fell in deadly piles. A vibromachete hit a crack in the floor dead-on and split it an inch farther, and various throwing stars and kukris leaped from their hidden compartments and gleefully embedded themselves near Libel, several pinning her pleated skirt to the kitchen floor. A butcher knife blunted the elegant tip of her red ponytail.

“I’M NOT OKAY!” Libel shouted back.

Nellidae finally raised herself four-legged and tried to crawl to Libel. She heard a sharp, close cracking of cement. The ceiling ripped and the bronze light fixtures fell in a rain of ore and glass, crashing like bombs around her. Glass shards embedded themselves in her antennae, and her vision grew blurry and senses weak. She struggled out of the living room and toward Libel, but a larger roof fixture split from the ceiling and crashed on her back, pinning her.

“AH! NEITHER AM I!” Nellidae screamed, her wings struggling to open against the weight.

Curiously, she could hear herself now.

Soon as it had come, the earthquake stopped.

Libel gingerly reached behind her back and removed the knives pinning her clothes. Nellidae remained on the ground, a bit exhausted and more than a bit annoyed from the impalement of a chandelier bit into her lower back. She traced the tiny cracks running throughout the walls and floor, and breathed out in relief. Everything seemed to be holding up and the building never seemed to have come close to crumbling despite the violence. The floor, however, was littered with glass and clay and porcelain from all their broken possessions.

“Are you hurt, Nellidae?” Libel asked, her voice quavering.

Nellidae reached a trembling hand to the chandelier and found yellow blood on it.

“Yeah, big sharp thing going through the crest of my ilium. It’ll be fine though.” Nellidae said. “Did you make it out okay? Nothing meaty to replace? My health insurance is kinda abysmal.”

“I’m okay. Remind me to buy less glassware when we redecorate.” Libel said, sighing. She helped herself to stand up to the island countertop, her legs still shaking. Shallow cuts into her legs stung her as she straightened out. Several of the island’s monitors had broken in some way, but a survivor remained, flashing an earthquake alert. The system sound in the operating system had been set to a muted level, so they never heard the proper alert.

Various pop ups had accrued over the course of the quake as her RSS trackers, oblivious to the carnage, worked to keep Libel informed of the situation. She glossed over them mindlessly, her insides still shaking discomfortingly, a feeling nausea and a prickling restlessness brimming just under her skin. Once the shock began to subside, she expanded an RSS pop-up of particular interest, and played its video out. She went back over one section, over and over.

“Nellidae, a structure just burst out of the ground from beside the Library of Congress.”

“Yeah, I know, right. They’re gonna need a whole new Fed to pay for this crap.” Nellidae replied in jest, completely unaware of the magnitude of everything that had just transpired.

* * *

“Oh, I think that was an earthquake. I’m a bit sensitive to those. I even feel micro-quakes sometimes.” Amanda Gilded hugged herself, slightly frightened for the outside world. She silently prayed for those who did not live in millions of dollars worth of earthquake-resistant superconstructions, hoping they would be fine and that repairs could be swift and inexpensive and that their insurance would cover it. She then proceeded with her five star sushi meal.

Dr. Cruciere shared the same table, exquisitely made from the shells of Berlanga Giant Turtles, and scoffed at the notion that there was anything to fear from the shaking. She’d cast a quick glance at her portable holo-processor under the table, and it had only been a magnitude 7, its epicenter only 25 miles away. Who’d be troubled by this?

“I didn’t feel anything.” Dr. Cruciere replied. “You need to relax more. Hillberry Manor is quake-proof anyway. The advanced design of the lower levels can stifle anything below a ground-altering magnitude 9 or 10 quake.” While the sounds of authentic shamisen players, performing over a satellite feed, eased her into the mood of the meal, she carefully picked out a choice lobster roll wrapped in a gold leaf. She dipped it in a gold sauce and ate it in one go.

The chef presiding over the table clapped.  “Good technique! You are a natural Miss Gilded.”

Cruciere nearly corrected him, but recalled that she’d changed her last name to Amanda’s in order to make it slightly less obvious that she was the scientist known widely as “The Enemy Of Civilized Humanity.” She’d even pinned her red hair to the back of her head, using little silver sticks to keep it in a bun. A different hairstyle always threw people off.

“I’m impressed with your food engineering skill Mr. Hayashi.” Cruciere tipped her head toward the Chef. “I’m an engineer myself, but food engineering was the one skill I could never wrap my head around.”

“It’s all mathematics.” Chef Hayashi said proudly. “Everything in the world is.”

“You’re quite right.” Cruciere replied. “Even world domination is all mathematics.”

Amanda laughed politely, and then reached casually across the table to tap on Asmodeus’ plate. “Asmy, you’re not eating.” She said, drumming a little tune on the expensive salsawood board upon which a line-up of sauces and rolls had been arrayed especially for their fake daughter’s enjoyment. Asmodeus, pressed into a bright red and gold dress, appeared slightly more indignant than indifferent, but only just so. She expressed little interest in the food.

“Mr. Hayashi is well-renowned for his artisanal gastro-engineered Sushi!” Amanda added.

“I don’t really have to eat to sustain myself Miss Aman– Mom.” Asmodeus said bluntly.

“Teen diet craze hit her too?” The chef asked. He appeared offended at the refusal.

“Asmodeus, eat.” Cruciere ordered. “We paid incredibly good money for this.”

“Yes, doct– Mom².” Asmodeus replied. She picked a salmon roll and ate it whole.

“Great technique.” Chef Hayashi said. He clapped for Asmodeus, and Amanda joined him with great glee. Asmodeus returned a blank stare that was slightly more disconcerted than her usual blank staring.

“We need to do breakfast like this more often.” Cruciere said, watching the shamisen players break out into a traditional manzai comedy routine over the satellite video feed as an intermission to their exquisite playing. She was so enchanted with high-class domestic bliss that she, too, entirely missed some quite ominous events.