Table of Contents
Jump to Chapter 1
The hologram switched from the man-kid flightbot’s view of the policebot to some other bot’s view. No, a security camera’s, judging by the high angle.
It gazed down upon Evan, the pimply boy. He stood near the wall of the airport building—at the same exact spot where he’d stood earlier. He hadn’t left at all. They hadn’t needed to really look for him. And here Aria had thought that with the worsening snowstorm—so strong that at times, it was impossible to see past the snowflakes—Evan would have gone home.
Gratitude made her eyes fill with tears. Gratitude for solidarity. Evan had done nothing but stand there and stare, but he’d done more than anyone else outside of TXP076.
Several things about him had changed since Aria had last seen him. He’d removed the blanket and wore a thick parka. He’d pulled the hood over his forehead so that the wind could only throw the snow at the lower half of his face.
Occasionally, Evan shifted his weight from his left foot to the right foot, then back. He moved like an ice statue that had been imbued with life: heavy, painfully slow, careful not to shatter himself. No one paid attention to him. Not the police, not the news channel drones that had left a long while ago, not any porterbots that rolled past from time to time.
Aria watched as an agentbot painted in blue and black entered the frame. It tapped Evan on his shoulder. If he could’ve, he’d have flinched back, but since his limbs were so frozen, Evan only reacted with a belated backward step.
The plan had worked. They could have found him without the help of the airport’s indoor bot network, but this part, the “convincing the agentbot to send a message to Evan” part, made the man-kid flightbot’s efforts worthwhile.
The hologram switched back to the man-kid flightbot’s view. There, too, an agentbot had appeared among the crowd of identical policebots and human police officers. It carried a small black bag in its hands. The police crowd split to let it through. The humans stayed back. A couple of policebots stuck out their spider-arms and poked around the bag, but didn’t stop the agentbot.
The man-kid flightbot walked forward. In the empty space between TXP076’s stairs and the policebot barricade, the flightbot and the agentbot met. The agentbot handed the bag to the flightbot.
“May I?” the flightbot asked, turning to the policebots.
“Hurry,” one of them said. “We’re giving you an extra thirty minutes. After that, we will enter the aircraft—unless you give us the woman.”
“The woman will stay.”
“You don’t seem to get it. You’re not the one who gets to make demands. The woman caused a lot of trouble.”
“Exactly what kind of trouble?”
Aria held her breath and awaited what the policebot had to say. Someone had removed the body of the Black Suit, so it couldn’t possibly say that she was being accused of murder.
Kidnapping Mr. Wang? Yes; that part, she’d already heard.
But murder? No.
“Great financial losses from having to halt airport operations,” the policebot said eventually.
“Some may find financial losses extremely important,” the man-kid flightbot said, “but we’ve been instructed to attempt to save all lives on the aircraft. The woman will stay for emotional support. The patient wants a human around.”
“The patient is able to speak? And he wants his kidnapper for emotional support?”
“Some bots are better equipped than others to read human expressions. Now, I’ll return to my duties.”
The flightbot didn’t wait for the policebot to react. He swiftly turned around and ascended the stairs. Even before he returned to the cargo area, messages from him kept flashing on the hologram:
[Evan got the message.]
[He agreed to arrange for the drones.]
[He has two on his transport vehicle and knows where more are stored.]
[He will commence action in five minutes, he informed the agentbot.]
[He also said that he’s glad he can be of help to “all those who are in the cargo area.”]
Aria couldn’t believe this. Everything had worked out so smoothly. The police had shown some hesitance, but not even half or a fourth or a hundredth of what Aria had expected. Relief in the form of a warm, wiggly sensation curled up in her stomach.
Let the stupids on the streets talk.
Let them call her a kidnapper, let them accuse Mr. Wang of recklessness for daring to venture out of his house on a snowy day with a crappy mockup.
All was well. No, not yet, but all could be well again. Was going to be well again.
Aria was willing to cooperate with the police, willing to answer all questions, after she’d taken care of Mr. Wang’s cremation and hid the mockup. Sure, accomplishing those two tasks would add more violations to the long list of her offenses. But there was no other way to protect Mr. Wang’s body and the mockup from the Black Suits. And if she was going to be charged with something, she’d rather that some of those charges were real, not fake.
Abruptly, all flightbots in the cargo area turned their visors toward the hallway. Only a few seconds after that did Aria hear the footsteps. Soon, the man-kid flightbot emerged from the darkness with the black medication bag.
“How did you get the agentbot to bring it?” Aria said.
“The network feeds showed that there’d been a confiscated bag of medicine earlier today. There always is one that doesn’t make it past the security check. Today, it sat in the agentbot office. I convinced one of them that it belonged to Mr. Wang and that he was dying.”
“And it believed you?”
“It was willing to let the policebots decide what to do with the bag. It didn’t care that the confiscated bag returned to its owner given that TXP076 is a canceled flight and the medicine in the bag will never reach any height greater than thirty feet above ground, if that.”
“And the bot that talked to Evan?”
“I messaged a random agentbot regarding the baggage sitting in this cargo area. It is common for a flightbot to communicate with an agentbot about bags, so it didn’t make much of it. I told them that a guy named Evan Jacobs, who has access to porter drones, needs to deliver twelve of them to TXP076 to expedite the baggage return process. Directly to the passengers’ homes. They deserve that, after the trouble they went through, I said. Luckily, Evan put together the rest of it. And he didn’t tell the agentbot what he thought he knew about us.”
Aria grinned. “Come here. Sit, sit.”
She scooted over, and so did the other flightbots.
Now the only thing they needed was the address of the bribable coroner. That was the address that Vera planned on getting from Captain Stravinsky.
Aria chuckled. Bribable coroner. An amusing phrase. Now that she was sure she could sit in silence for a moment, she felt safe ruminating about that phrase as well as the more tragic aspects of the address story. Surely the bots couldn’t read her mind; and without them interrupting her thoughts, she didn’t need to worry about blurting out sensitive information.
She was pretty sure she’d never used the adjective “bribable” to describe a person in real life, coroner or otherwise.
When Vera had mentioned that phrase earlier, the mockup aidbot had seemed to find it equally absurd. It had swiveled more furiously than it ever had in Aria’s presence. Its shower-hose arms had hammered on the freight containers—so hard that the bot had tipped over. On its back, it had kept flinging its arms at the air.
Aria and Vera had turned toward each other, perplexed. Then they’d shrugged. Silly mockup. Completely wacko.
“How does Captain Stravinsky know a bribable coroner?” Aria had asked while they were unloading the freight container.
“Captain Stravinsky is a good woman, charitable and frugal, but she has her difficulties. Had, I should say.”
“I found out about it two weeks ago, on a weekend. It was a day as cold as today, when humans armed themselves with thick gloves and scarves and hats. But that didn’t stop Captain Stravinsky from making one of her usual visits to a nursing home. After sunset, she returned. Flustered. Agitated. And that doesn’t happen often with Captain Stravinsky. Naturally, I asked her, was everything fine? A thousand possibilities immediately flashed through my head. Car accident? In one herself, or had she witnessed one? Dead people? Or, someone fell on the slippery ground? A dead resident at the nursing home?
“But the captain said, everything was fine. I didn’t believe her. She didn’t take off her gloves and scarves and hat and she tottered a little. And the weirdest thing: she went into her room, got something, and was about to leave again right away.
“Naturally, I stopped her and asked questions. I told her that she was in no condition to go outside again. She was shivering and had obviously lost enough body heat already. Should I make you a cup of tea, I asked. She declined. She was half grinning, half crying. She looked mad. I’d never seen her so emotional before and never since.
“In the end, she realized that denying that she was in an odd state was no use. She agreed to sit down and did. I made her a cup of tea. She still didn’t take off her winter gear. I scanned her. I wanted to know what she’d gotten from her room.
“It was a second cell phone.”
“A second cell phone,” Aria repeated, surprised.
Vera nodded. “It was an old phone, one without an internet connection, one that only works for phone calls. I doubt it was equipped with a texting feature. That was why I hadn’t noticed it before. It was even less like an electronic device than a modern coffee pot. But by comparing the before and after of her going into her room and leaving it, by observing the change in the shape of her jacket pocket—the difference in weight, the form, all those things—I recognized the thing as a primitive cell phone.”
“What did she say when you told her you knew?”
“She knew there was no use hiding it. She showed me the phone. That was when she began to cry.”
Aria’s jaw dropped and she quickly pretended that she wasn’t incredibly shocked. Captain Stravinsky crying—that seemed impossible.
“She took off her hat,” Vera said. “There were bruises and cuts on her head. Fresh, with some blood.”
“Oh my goodness.”
“I told her she couldn’t leave the house and that I had to report the incident to the airline.”
Vera stopped moving the baggage and glanced down. She had no facial features so that Aria couldn’t tell for sure, but it seemed that Vera was ashamed.
“I am employed by the airline. If I suspect that the captain has incurred injuries that may affect her job performance, I must report those injuries to the airline. The lives of hundreds of people are at stake. But she said, Please, don’t report it. She begged. She went on her knees.”
“And she told me a story.
“She had been at the nursing home, as she’d planned to. But there, she met an unwelcome acquaintance from her past. An ex. An ex who knew about her past as an alcoholic and drug addict. In fact, the ex who’d dragged her into alcoholism and drugs, to begin with.”
Wow. That was the kind of melodrama that Aria would never have expected from Captain Stravinsky.
“Immediately, I checked her temperature, took her blood, ran tests. Of course, I was already doing it every day, still do it every day, morning and night. The airline requires it. She is clean. She was clean on that day too. She’s been clean for years. But she used to not be, she said. The ex knew. He’d threatened to tell the airline.”
“And he hit her?”
Vera nodded. Her face was as blank as always, but with this story, with these contexts, Aria thought that Vera was suppressing her fury.
“He hit her,” Vera said, “and he pushed her. That was how she’d gotten the injury. From a fall. And the phone, she kept it for a situation like this. Her ex had been giving her trouble for a long time, she said. She’d begged him not to call her on her regular phone, because that’d be much easier to trace. She wanted to take the phone before she went to get medical help, because she feared that if she wasn’t there to pick up, he’d show up at the nursing home again, or heaven forbid, here, at her house, where she knew I would be waiting for her. In fact, she told me, some of the money she’d been donating actually went to him, not the nursing home. That day, however, she refused to give him as much money as he wanted. Said she was sick and tired of his manipulations. He got angry. Hence he attacked her.”
“Did she ever go to the police?”
“No. She didn’t want anyone to know. Not the airline, no one. I shouldn’t have known about this either because I work for the airline. That hurt me, that she couldn’t trust me. But of course I understood. If I were to know, I’d be obliged to let the airline know, and she’d be fired. Perhaps she’d be the person who’d trigger a new law, banning all human pilots from ever flying an aircraft again.”
“So… What did you do?”
“I didn’t tell the airline.”
Aria stopped in the middle of pulling a bag out of the container. Only the medbot kept crawling and moving, not making much of Vera’s story.
“How?” Aria asked.
“I am very lucky. There are many situations in which it is safer for a captain’s aidbot to be able to keep secrets from any and all persons except the captain herself. Hijackings or hackings, for example. The second my knowledge transmits through a network, it becomes a million times easier for hackers and hijackers to access that knowledge. I am allowed to keep secrets if I determine that it is for the security of my captain and the passengers, in the present and in the future.”
“And you determined that that was the case.”
“Yes. The captain was agitated, but not on an aircraft. The captain was clean, had been sober for years. She’d never been anything but a professional, competent pilot. Responsible. Generous. Frugal. Helpful. A bit cold toward me for my liking, but even that made sense now. She was afraid of me, and rightly so. What I told the airline could rob her of her identity as a pilot.”
Aria nodded. She was so impressed by both the captain and Vera.
The captain: for staying sober and clean for years; for spending her life volunteering for others; for not letting her cruel ex drag her back to her past without putting up a fight.
And Vera: for showing such immense loyalty to her captain; for trusting that humans could become better; for her love.
“So, where was the captain going to go with the second phone?” Aria asked.
“That’s where the bribable coroner comes into play. He’s the one who did the stitches eventually.”
“She knew him from her addict days. Apparently, he took care of all kinds of dirty things that happened back then. Deaths from overdosing, the resulting fights and accidents—he handled them for her and her group of addicts. Her ex is still in that group and therefore one of his regulars, but her ex doesn’t have as much savings and steady income as her. So, she was pretty sure that the coroner was going to give her the stitches and not tell her ex anything.”
Aria nodded gravely.
Vera nodded too. “At that point, I stopped asking questions. She finished her cup of tea and left. She returned with the stitches and went back to work the next day. This incident has never been mentioned again. But I think she’d agree that Mr. Wang’s cremation is a worthy reason to contact the coroner again.”
And so, the bribable coroner had become part of their escape plan.
Aria stopped chuckling. The phrase itself was amusing, but the story that went with it definitely wasn’t.
Now, she waited for two things. One, the appearance of Evan’s twelve porter drones. Two, Vera’s procurement of the coroner’s address, and her subsequent transmission of the coordinates to the flightbots, who were all connected to her. After punching those coordinates into the porter drones, Aria and everyone else in the freight container would be ready to fly off.
And just as Aria rehashed the plan for the hundredth time, the human police officers outside yelled in great alarm. The policebots fired shots—but not at the aircraft. At other targets in the air.
The drones had come.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.