Adrift, Anchored – Ch. 13

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Step one of the escape plan:

Vera carried Mr. Wang’s body to a corner. She wrapped the blue tarp around his torso and legs so that Aria didn’t have to see the bloody details of how the medbot had patched him up. Only his face was exposed to the cool air in the cargo area.

The medbot used its strong tarantula arms to carry the mockup aidbot to the opposite corner. That way, the mockup’s uncontrollably swinging arms couldn’t topple anything over.

Step two of the escape plan:

Aria, Vera, and the medbot emptied out one of the freight containers. All the heavy bags were put aside. The medbot’s dim lights danced as its legs and arms busily crawled and labored. Aria squinted as her eyes strained to adjust to the alternating shortage and surplus of light. Vera’s jet-black surface absorbed the flashes and glares. She looked like a thief with a particularly kinky taste in work outfits.

Hot breath clouds escaped Aria’s mouth. But she didn’t take off her jacket and gloves. She didn’t plan on staying here for much longer, and outside, the snowstorm awaited. Even though the human body was incapable of “charging” energy the way electronic parts could, overheating her body now would later save her a lot of regrets along the lines of: why didn’t I make the most of the warmth earlier?

She inhaled her breath clouds right back through her mouth instead of her nose because she didn’t want to smell the blood. It seemed that the odor was getting worse; otherwise, by now, her nose should have gotten used to it. But it hadn’t.

Just outside the door leading to the passenger area, metal parts clinked and clanked softly, tentatively.

“The flightbots,” Vera said. “They’re curious. They won’t tell anyone, but it’s their duty to collect information.”

Step three of the escape plan followed.

The medbot lifted Aria, then put her back down. It lifted Mr. Wang’s body, put him down. And it repeated the same steps with the empty freight container, and then the mockup. Weight measurements blinked on the medbot’s little screen. Vera added up those numbers. She calculated how many standard airport porter drones would be required to carry that total weight for a stretch of three hours, which, they all agreed, was about as long as it’d be safe to stay in the air. Once the Black Suits saw them fly off, they’d definitely figure out a way to attack them in the sky within three hours. They had to arrive at their destination in much less time than that.

“Porter drones are always fully fueled when on stand-by,” Vera said. “Considering their average fuel efficiency, the maximum wind strength in a typical snowstorm at this time of the year in this part of the country, and potential malfunctions, you’ll need at least twelve drones to fly for three hours with 99% probability of safety.”

“Is there a way to make it 100%?” Aria asked.

“There are no such guarantees in life, on the ground or in the air.”

“99% it is, then. And you’re sure they’ll let you see Captain Stravinsky?”

“Oh, I’m positive. They’ll put me in a seat right across from her. They don’t think that I can think for myself. I might as well be a coffee machine or a dryer. To be honest, I try to make the most of that bias. I’ve never talked to someone so openly as to you or the captain.”

“I’m flattered,” Aria said. She felt real affection for this bot. Also, relief. The ease she’d felt during their long conversation hadn’t been one-directional.

“People who’re unfamiliar with technology tend to get scared of me,” Vera said. “And you never know who’s truly scared and who isn’t. But you’re a technician. You must have known that bots know a lot more than they let on.”

Part of Aria’s relief transformed into embarrassment. Yeah, Aria should have known, but hadn’t.

“It’s standard police procedure to compare what a bot has recorded to a witness’s statement,” Vera said, “and to observe the witness’s reactions to the bot’s recordings, and whether she tries to influence the bot or not. They’ll want to do that with the captain and me.”

Having said that, Vera walked toward the door leading to the hallway.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Ready,” Aria said.

She offered her hand. Vera took it and they shook.

“Good luck, Vera.”

“Good luck, Aria. I’ll see you later.”

With that, Vera swiped her wrist on a panel next to the door. At once, the door opened. A swarm of little flightbots that had been blocking the long, dark hallway dispersed. Each flightbot was the size of a human child. As they hurriedly ran off to press themselves to the walls, they looked like kindergarteners playing a variation of Red Light, Green Light.

Vera was the “it” person. But she didn’t tell the few flightbots, which were still fidgeting, that they were out of the game because they hadn’t stood still. She didn’t tell them to return to the starting line either. Vera simply strode from this end of the hallway to the other, utterly confident in her ability to keep the flightbots under control. No human adult could ever hope to muster anything close to that confidence when faced with dozens of human children.

Aria watched as the shadow eventually swallowed Vera. For the rest of the escape plan, Aria was on her own. The pressure made her nervous. And when the flightbots stopped watching Vera and all their visors turned toward Aria, her nervousness intensified.

“Hello,” she said.

The flightbots tilted their heads as if questioning Aria’s statement.

“I’m sure that Vera already told you”—electronically and soundlessly, without the need to shout through the door—“that one of you needs to go look for a person named Evan Jacobs. He’s one of the few humans working at the airport, so it won’t be hard to find him. Maybe you already know him?”

The flightbots tilted their heads in the opposite direction. Because they did this in unison, they looked both eerie and funny at the same time.

“Did she specify which one of you will go?”

One of the childlike flightbots raised its hands. “Me,” it said, in a suave grown-up male voice.

Aria winced at the incongruity between his voice and his size. This airline really needed to reconsider its bot design. A man-kid, what were they thinking?

Although, of course, it was equally uncomfortable to order around flightbots with children’s voices. A total dilemma. Airlines wanted to keep the bots cost-effective by making them smaller, and also wanted them to communicate with passengers in as human a way as possible—so, to give them grown-up voices or children’s voices? Which one was better? Apparently, the airlines had concluded that grown-up bots would result in less bad press than bots that seemed like child laborers.

“Good,” Aria said. “Vera said to wait for about half an hour after she leaves before you go look for him. That way, we can time Vera’s message to you with our getting the drones. We don’t want to get the drones too early, and potentially alert the airport authorities of our escape plan, and have the police delay or cancel their questioning with Vera and Captain Stravinsky. We need Vera to get the address as soon as possible, and only the captain knows that address.”

Aria wondered if she had to elaborate on what address she was referring to. All steps of the plan had been discussed with Vera, but how many of those steps had Vera relayed to the flightbots?

She said, “By address, I mean…”

“We have all the instructions,” the man-kid flightbot said.

“Oh. Okay.”

Aria was relieved. She preferred to ruminate about the amusing or tragic aspects of that whole address story later, when she didn’t have to be communicating with the flightbots. What if she said too much of something wrong? Better minimize talk with these little bots. For now, all she wanted to confirm was:

“And once the drones are ready, the rest of you will carry us out of the cargo hatch, correct? After we get into that freight container?” She pointed at the container they’d just emptied.

“Those have been the instructions,” the little flightbots said in unison, all sounding like young men and women.

Aria cringed. “Okay,” she said. “While we wait, can you help me move Mr. Wang and that aidbot into the container?”

“That thing isn’t an aidbot,” a flightbot with a female voice pointed out. “Vera told us not to expect anything standard, but that’s not just nonstandard, that’s primitive. A madly dancing box.”

Aria sadly considered the mockup. “Yeah. It’s not very practical, but well, can you help me move this box?”

The flightbot shrugged. She and the other flightbots swarmed in. The freight container had already been tipped over for the removal of the bags, so moving Mr. Wang into it only took a few seconds. Moving the mockup was a bit trickier, with its resisting and hitting the flightbots—but within two minutes, it was inside the container too.

Aria slumped down on the floor. Seeing that, the flightbots sat down on the floor too. Now, that was a good design choice. The flightbots didn’t “take a break” any better in a seated position than in a standing position, but having them sit rather than stand did feel more comfortable for Aria.

What wasn’t as comfortable was them facing her. All of them. Their visors shimmered in the medbot’s dim light.

And as soon as twenty-eight more minutes passed, the man-kid flightbot stood up.

“I’m leaving,” he declared.

Not a single flightbot turned around to acknowledge his departure. All the remaining bots simply remained still and stared at Aria, with the exception of a single flightbot: one that came too close to her, too quickly, so that she flinched back.

“What?” Aria said.

“Here,” the flightbot said, a female one.

She might have been the same female flightbot from earlier; Aria couldn’t tell which was which, they all looked identical and there were only two types of voices, male and female.

The flightbot held up her wrist at Aria. A hologram popped up: a shaky one, moving, first following a dark hallway, then looking out of the aircraft’s passenger exit, into the snowstorm.

The man-kid flightbot’s view.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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