Dr. Cruciere mumbled.
“She will be here soon, Doctor.” Asmodeus said.
“I told her it was a kidnapping! A kidnapping! She’s the getaway driver and she is not taking any of this seriously! I thought we’d talked about this, she said she would support me!”
“She’s supporting you, Doctor, please calm down.”
She checked her watch again.
At every possible juncture Cruciere reminded everyone of how long they had been waiting for Amanda Gilded to pick them up. Cruciere counted minute by minute and when she forgot a minute she would count it retroactively when next she remembered. She had started to count at twenty, and grew more vehement as minutes passed without a familiar SUV in sight. Amanda had promised them at most twenty or thirty minutes of waiting. Cruciere tapped her feet and seemed undecided as to whether her hips or her pockets were the least suspicious place to have her hands. Few cars passed them, but any that did drew a quick flinch from her as they approached.
Meanwhile Ackley flipped through her bucket list for potential items that she had not considered, but had now inadvertently completed, such as escaping from a hospital and threatening to drink someone’s blood (a feat accomplished via her tangentially vampiric smiling). She sometimes looked down the road when it appeared that Amanda might have turned up. But she soon did this enough times to grow disinterested in it. She let Cruciere handle the roads, and instead worked against the minimal illumination of a nearby streetlight to read and write.
Asmodeus stood behind Ackley like a statue, periodically massaging the little girl’s shoulders. A stiff, cold breeze blew past them, and Ackley shuddered. Asmodeus knelt behind the wheelchair and pulled a blanket from the undercarriage, draping it over Ackley’s shoulders for added warmth. “You’ll be inside soon.” She said. Ackley nodded and she made a point to smile to her good nurse, but due to Asmodeus’ general lack of response she could not tell whether she had again made a toothy, flesh-hungering smile or a genuine, cheerful little girl smile.
A disturbing noise then issued from Cruciere’s pocket. Ackley could only describe it as the sound a computer might make if it was alive and could therefore scream existentially about its condition as a wholly immobile box. There was glass cracking and metal smashing and the barest hint of a melody to it.
Cruciere withdrew her cell phone and answered the call.
“You’re late.” She shouted. “My kidnapping plot could be ruined any second now!”
She turned her back on the road. “Lost? You’re lost? Physics’ sakes!”
She started screaming directions into the phone. Several minutes later, a sleek green SUV pulled up to the street in front of them. Inside a well-dressed woman lowered the windows and smiled at them. She raised her hand and pointed cheerfully at her cell phone, before leaning her head into it again. Cruciere was still on the line with her and looked none too amused by her behavior. “Thanks for leading me here sweetie.” Amanda said, explicitly into the phone. This said, she again pointed her finger at the phone, and then at Cruciere, giggling all the while.
Cruciere hung up.
Asmodeus opened the side doors of the SUV, and began arranging the middle and rear seats to fit the wheelchair and trolley. At her behest Amanda stepped out of the car. She cooed with joy, clapping her hands at the sight of Ackley, but she was at first bashful and kept a physical distance, furtively peeking through the corners of her eyes at the little girl in the wheelchair. She approached, but stopped just short of Ackley, her body half-turned and avoiding eye contact. She fussed with her sport coat and strawberry hair, and opened and closed her mouth several times.
“Be careful with my extractor!” Ackley called out to Asmodeus. Beside her Amanda’s reticence seemed to be causing her to puff up, turning red and shaking as though something struggled to exit her.
“My name is Amanda Gilded!” She finally said. “I’m sorry you were kidnapped by my wife, but you know, you have to support your spouse’s hobbies and such, to maintain a good relationship.”
Ackley turned her attention from Asmodeus, and locked eyes with Amanda for a moment, who was ready to gush over her. She grumbled and spread her arms open. “You can hug me,” she groaned.
“OHMIGOSH!” Immediately the woman pounced; she snapped Ackley clear up from the wheelchair and lifted her against her chest. She was tall and plump and warm and it seemed like Ackley would be pushed right into the very core of her, and the little girl idly wondered if this was what filial love truly felt like – a lot of pressure around the waist, neck and back, and a certain slight discomfort from the tube buried into her chest.
“She’s so precious Anne-Marie! Look at her, she’s so adorable!”
From inside the car Asmodeus waved her arms frantically and hastily called out to them. “I would advise that she be manhandled several orders of magnitude less than she is now!”
Amanda deposited Ackley back into her chair.
“Sorry! I was just so excited.” Amanda said. “What is your name?”
“Ackley Hermes.” Ackley said, rubbing the bandages on her chest where the tube burrowed in. For a moment she’d felt a sting around that spot from being smothered so suddenly.
“I’m sorry you were kidnapped by my wife.” Amanda jovially said.
“I’m not.” Ackley replied bluntly.
Amanda flapped her hands eagerly, as though trying to fly. “Ohhh! She’s so witty Anne Marie! I love her so much! I can barely contain the urge to hug her again and again!” She cried.
“Well, contain it harder then.” Cruciere said.
“I know you don’t want me to intrude on your hobbies and all, but why exactly did you kidnap her?” Amanda said. She had a good-natured look and tone, like she was truly a good wife just supporting her spouse’s hobbies from afar. Even if that hobby seemed to involve stealing a small child from a hospital.
Ackley was at a loss for how human beings could operate this way.
Cruciere took to it like an everyday question. “She’s my latest employee.”
“Oh, you are also breaking child labor laws?” Amanda said excitedly.
“I guess?” Cruciere replied. “She’ll set her own hours, though.”
Amanda clapped her hands and made a contented little noise.
Soon the SUV was prepared, and Ackley and her extractor had been loaded into the car. Ackley looked back over her shoulder to make sure her extractor was secure. It was still pumping, operating on an internal battery in case of blackouts. She felt a slight urgency to have it connected to a stable power source. Asmodeus helped fasten her seatbelt and secure her wheelchair, and gave the go-ahead to everyone. Amanda adjusted her mirror, then drove off the curb from Fairway Children’s Hospital and in a clumsy turn circled back to the road.
“It’ll be about twenty back to the estate.” Amanda said.
“That’s what you said last time.” Cruciere replied.
Asmodeus reassured Ackley, rubbing down her chest and shoulders. Despite the gentle treatment, she still grew drowsy and a little sick in the car. She had not been driven anywhere for years now and had lost all sense of what a car trip entailed, the intermittent vibrations, the blurry black landscape scrolling off the side of her field of vision, the jerking starts and stops at traffic lights and stop signs. Her last few meals took on new life inside her stomach, and she developed a fierce headache. Ackley closed her eyes and tried to endure this final tribulation.
Around her everybody seemed to take notice. She felt the car slow down and heard people shift in their eat. “Is something wrong, Ackley?” Amanda said. “If you’re upset, I can pull over.”
“It’s fine,” Ackley stammered. “Asmodeus is taking care of me.”
She opened her eyes a bit and tried to smile. Asmodeus nodded her head.
“Then I’ll try to get back home a little quicker.” Amanda said.
Despite the burning in her stomach and chest, Ackley felt uncharacteristically elated by the response. Someone was genuinely worried about her and asked her how she felt! She almost felt like a real child. This was clearly a sign of changing winds in her life. Despite how utterly baffling these people were, she felt a sense of hope in their little clique. For the first time in years she was out of Fairway Children’s Hospital, and never to return. Would she soon have a real home? Even if among strangers, a place where she was wanted felt like a dream come true.
“Only a few more minutes now.” Amanda called out.
Contrary to Amanda’s promises, it seemed like an hour had gone since they set off, and Cruciere grumbled in her seat. Eventually the car honked its horn and paused. Ackley saw red within her closed eyes, and heard shaking metal and the whining noise of a vehicle scanner. She blearily looked ahead. The SUV passed through the gilded gates of Upward Newfork, where property values skyrocketed by their meter distance from the rest of town and no expense was spared for the wealthy inhabitants. She had only tangentially heard of this part of her city, confined as she was to the less glamorous Central Newfork, and found herself awed by the opulence around her. Well-lit streets flanked a cobblestone road that curved around bright green gardens and vast lawns like personal plazas. Ackley could have sworn that every property had almost a football field’s worth of lawn stretching out along its driveways. Behind the broad fountains, tall statues, tremendous gardens and hedges, were enormous houses like glowing-eyed giants in the distance.
Amanda cheered. “Welcome to Upward Newfork! And soon, Hillberry Manor!”
The SUV drove past several of these massive properties before turning into a road fenced off with bricks and a digital gate. Cruciere pulled down her window and leaned out over her door, raising her eye to a scanner. Only then did the gate unlock. Once they had driven past it locked itself. Inside was a modest lawn, ringed by the driveway, with a fountain that seemed humble at first until the car approached, and it burst into a show with colored lights and soothing sounds and a tiny whirlwind of rainbow-colored water dancing in the middle of the plate.
“I made that!” Amanda said, responding to Ackley’s interest in the fountain. She stuck out her chest with pride. “I put it together from a kit I got from Kitstarter! It was only 2000 Amero too!”
Compared to the glimpses she’d had of other homes in Upward, Amanda Gilded’s Hillberry Manor was a modest place, only three stories tall, and about wide as it was tall. The lawn was restrained in size and decoration, though to Ackley this was only a concession so that it could be easily fenced off with brick. Hillyberry Manor had a smooth facade with arched windows and a pleasantly salmon-pink coat of paint, and the first door was raised off the ground such that a series of steps led up to the landing and the big brown double-door entrance. Everyone stepped out of the SUV, and Asmodeus unloaded Ackley’s wheelchair and the trolley carrying her liquid nitrogen extractor.
“Be careful with it!” Ackley said again. “Don’t rock it too much.”
Cruciere looked at the trolley and its contents with growing disapproval.
“Asmodeus, we can’t keep carrying around that thing.” She said.
Ackley felt a chill down her spine. “What do you mean? I need it to live.”
Cruciere kept staring intently at it. She then snapped her fingers and smiled broadly.
“I’m going to make it portable.”
“Make it portable?” Ackley’s heart raced and she felt a sudden urge to run away. Involuntarily she clutched a hand against her chest, where the vacuum tube had been surgically inserted, and diligently sucked away the liquid nitrogen from her lungs for months now. Whenever anyone handled it she felt a twinge of stress, but now it was rising to a full blown panic – someone intended to take it apart! She clutched at the vacuum tube as though doing so would prevent Cruciere from going near the extractor. But the woman approached it nonetheless, and she clipped her big red ponytail into a bun, and bent near the machine. Ackley breathed heavily as Cruciere laid hands on it.
“Is she alright?” Amanda asked Asmodeus. The latter nodded, and kneeled next to Ackley and tried to calm her down, but she could not stand it. She could not stand anyone being near the extractor, the only thing keeping her alive all of this time. Instinctive fear for her life overwhelmed Ackley’s thoughts and hijacked any coherent thought she could have had – she tried to reach out to stop Cruciere in vain, but the woman was already setting down strange tools from her coat, and putting on a pair of gloves. She completely ignored Ackley, and smiled to herself.
“This will only take a second. You, come over here.”
Cruciere shouted at a bush, and it began to shake. A gleaming white ball rolled out of the bush and toward Cruciere, and stopped beside her feet. From its sides sprouted four spindly steel legs that held it up. Ackley felt herself sweat and cry as Cruciere popped free a series of screws from the machine, and she almost passed out when the extractor’s guts were exposed, rolled out unto the floor. She closed her eyes, weary and sick-feeling with fear. Why was this mad woman doing this? Was she going to die? She felt as though it was her own self broken open on the floor.
“Have some guts, would you?” Cruciere shouted, minutes later. “Here you go.”
Ackley felt something clamp against the back of her wheelchair.
She clutched her chest again, and ran her fingers along the length of tube. It was still sucking. In fact, it was sucking just a little faster than it once was. She looked weakly over her own shoulder and found the little white drone from the bush, now connected to her by the vacuum tube from her extractor. The creature waved its spindly legs and played a cheering noise from its speakers. Cruciere’s modifications had enlarged it, with two red tanks sticking out of its back, and its once fully white surface now interleaved with gray plates taken from the extractor.
“I installed all the extractor functions into this spider drone I had guarding the garden.” Cruciere said. “Now your extractor is not only portable, it is highly resistant to anti-personnel weapons! I’ve also improved some of its functions using parts of the drone. Had I the proper tools and time and a few more spare parts I could have installed a few more things to help you out, maybe binding it to your back instead of making it autonomous–”
“You’re an inconsiderate moron.” Ackley shouted, cutting her off. Spindly steel legs reached out to her with a handkerchief, and gently wiped the tears from her eyes, and helped her time her breaths to regain calm. When she crossed her arms in anger, the spider drone crossed its spindly legs in front of her as well.
“You’re welcome!” Cruciere replied, gritting her teeth.
“Hey now, let’s not fight,” Amanda said, stepping between Cruciere and Ackley, “We should go inside and have the chef make us something fancy to commemorate this successful kidnapping.”
“I replaced the chef too. I replaced him with a robot.” Cruciere said.
Amanda crossed her arms. “Now, I want to support your hobbies, dear, and you know that very well. But you have to agree, you’re replacing a great many things lately with robots. It’s unsettling.”
“He knew too much!” She replied. “It’s not like I hurt him in any way. I just sent him back to his family with a check and a wiped-out memory. The robot can make pizza, Amanda! Pizza!”
“Can it make anything else?” Ackley said critically.
“It can make pizza.” Cruciere replied.
Asmodeus wheeled Ackley up the steps to the front door, while the little drone clung on to the back of her chair. While Amanda fiddled with her keys Ackley felt the drone thrumming behind her, and the tubes sucking the foul poison from inside her, and it was strangely reassuring. At the hospital her extractor had sat beside her bed, and whenever she thought about it she felt helpless to affect it – now it was right behind her, barely bigger than a soccer ball, and it could move on its own. No harm could come to it now, she knew, and she felt freer than ever, as though her life had never been more secure. Though she would not admit it openly, past the initial shock she was feeling thankful for Cruciere’s help – and in general for Cruciere’s abnormal interventions into her confined little life.
“Alright, come in, come in!” Amanda said, opening the doors at last. “Behold! I found the plans for all this stuff on the internet too. Once I had accrued enough funds, I had a team build it all!”
Past the brown double doors was a large and open atrium extending the three stories of the house and up to a slightly arched ceiling of transparent glass, now blackened by night. In the middle of the atrium a gold statue had been erected to honor Amanda, capturing her effervescent smile, long wavy hair and pleasant proportions, while being starkly, completely naked; a point of fact Ackley tried to ignore. Similar effigies had been hung on the walls, posters and photographs of Amanda in various stages of undress, along with a few more recent images of herself accompanied by Cruciere, who apparently wore her lab coat even to the beach, to a wedding chapel, and in outer space.
“Before I was a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist I was a successful model!” Amanda said, posing near her statue. There was a cry of rattling metal guts and a hiss of some kind of engine, and suddenly the golden thing moved to match her. Both Amanda and the statue were now posing with their hips out, bent slightly forward and making a V for victory. “But these days I pose for nobody other than Anne-Marie!”
“Why were you two in space?” Ackley asked, pointing at the pictures.
“Our honeymoon was in space!” Amanda said. “I spare no expense for Anne-Marie!”
Cruciere looked off to one side, face turning a more reddish brown color.
Amanda was eager to begin a grand tour, and she returned to the party and instantly took control of Ackley’s wheelchair, only to be stopped almost as instantly by Asmodeus.
“She needs to rest. We can do this some other time.” Asmodeus said.
“Yes. I’d like to sleep now.” Ackley interjected. She looked around the atrium. Two sets of stairways along the opposing walls led up to hallways that disappeared into the eastern and western wings of the structure, to the various rooms whose impression was not immediately apparent from within the atrium. Hallways along the ground floor trailed off in their own directions. “Do I have my own room, or do I hide in a closet like a fugitive?”
“Of course you have your own room!” Amanda said in shock. “Closets? I would never allow such barbarity! You’re getting a nice room with a view of the garden and your own bathroom!”
“Besides, the people around here don’t check in on us.” Cruciere said.
“Have you threatened them with asbestos too?” Ackley said.
“Oh no,” Amanda said, “In Upward Newfork, we have a camaraderie between us Upwarders, that we should keep out of each other’s business. Whether it be a little tax fraud, or some money laundering, or offshoring, or my wife designing a satellite cannon in the backyard: it’s best for everyone’s peace of mind we ignore it.”
“Ah, I see. So it’s not just you people who are disturbed. It’s the whole town.”
“She’s so witty!” Amanda suddenly pushed herself again unto Ackley, nuzzling up against her and squeezing the little girl against her chest. “She’s the best, Anne-Marie! I love her so much!”
“I’m going to sleep now.” Ackley impassively declared.
Asmodeus took the handles on Ackley’s wheelchair again, and ignoring the thrumming extractor-drone hooked behind it, she led her up to the staircase. Ackley was about to protest having a second-floor room, but after being pushed up the first step, Asmodeus pressed a button on the wall, and the staircase became automatic for the remainder of the trip, sliding them easily to the second story and depositing them safely on the landing.
“Mom went to great lengths to make her home very accessible.” Asmodeus said.
“Do I have to call her mom? I’d rather not if it’s all the same.”
“It would make her very happy, but I am otherwise indifferent.”
They walked a down broad hallway, past over a dozen doors to each side. At the end of the hall, Asmodeus turned around and walked her back, looking over each door in detail. Finally she picked a room seemingly at random, and led Ackley inside. It was a luxuriant space, with massive bed, a large glass window with a clear view of the backyard garden, and on the wall, a hanging oval-shaped device that was almost certainly a robot. There was climate control, so the room was cool and comfortable, and it even exuded a smell like crisp, fresh flowers.
“I’ll stay with you for tonight, so you can get comfortable.”
Asmodeus helped Ackley off her wheelchair, checked the bandages on her chest and then tucked her into the big blankets in the bed. She felt diminutive within the king size, much larger than her hospital bed, but it was soft and comfortable, and she could feel gel or water slosh inside the pillows and mattress. As she laid in bed her extractor drone crawled up the wall and hung from a bedpost, positioning itself just high enough to be out of the way while giving Ackley’s vacuum tube some slack. It had a beady red LED eye that blinked on and off before shutting down for the night. Asmodeus sat beside the bed and waited for Ackley to close her eyes, and they spent the night in this way.
When she woke she hardly noticed how late it was – the windows had automatically tinged black to keep the room in a peaceful gloom. On the wall, the robot displayed the time, almost midday. Asmodeus was already awake, and punctual as always she was doing some chores in the dark, stocking the closet and adjoining bathroom with towels and wet wipes and apparel. Light began to filter in through the window, the glass changing hue; on the wall the drone waved one its appendages cordially at Ackley, and bid her a good afternoon. Asmodeus took notice.
“Good day, Ackley.” Asmodeus said. “I’ve taken the liberty of stocking your room. I took your measurements and ordered some things from the internet. I hope you don’t mind.”
“They arrived this quickly?” Ackley asked.
“Oh no, I did this a few weeks ago, at the hospital.”
Ackley grinned and laid back in bed. “What would have happened if I’d said no? Maybe I wanted to stay in the hospital forever. After all, it’s where I got a new lease on life.”
“Well, I didn’t see that as a possibility, having examined you closely. Cruciere would not have forced you to do anything – she hardly ever does to anyone, unless they’re people in positions of power. From my understanding of you, I felt that you would appreciate being involved with something different.”
“It took me some time to realize myself that I do. I do appreciate it.”
“If I could express elation, I would right now.” Asmodeus said.
“So what work will I be doing for the good doctor then? Building more bombs?”
“Being honest, I feel that was always a secondary concern to simply making Amanda gush. Doctor Cruciere wanted to do something for you after researching the events that eliminated Mr. Fairway; and in turn doing something that would make Amanda even happier. I can build bombs myself, though probably not as well as you” Asmodeus said. “But in time I’m sure the Doctor will come up with something villanous for you to do.”
“Good.” Ackley said decisively. “I’m ready to take the fight to the memes.”
“Excuse me?” Asmodeus tonelessly asked.
“The War On Memes, Asmodeus. It is my calling.”
“I see. Well, if it means that much to you, I’m sure she’ll support it.”
Asmodeus helped Ackley to dress, and wheeled her back downstairs, with the drone hanging behind as usual. It seemed very lively, despite having not plugged into the wall for hours now. Ackley figured all of Cruciere’s robots had an efficient power source, since even the one in the wall had no plugged into anything for power. Downstairs, Asmodeus pushed her to the ground floor dining room, where a tall, cylindrical, many-armed robot was at work arranging slices of pizza around a table that appeared to be made of precariously balancing cubes.
At the table, Cruciere and Amanda welcomed Ackley, beckoning her to sit on one of the cubes, upon which a glass seat and backrest balanced. “We’re having breakfast pizza!” Amanda cheered. “Want to join us, Ackley? You can go on a tour of the labs later, if you like, but you should eat something first!”
“Does it make anything other than pizza?” Ackley said.
“It makes excellent pizza!” Cruciere shouted back.
Ackley burst out laughing. This was all too pleasantly strange. It felt too much like home.
“Alright. I will have some pizza.” Ackley said.