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.”
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.