Charades, Truths – Ch. 17

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Aria awoke when someone slapped her face repeatedly.

“What?” she said, sitting up. “What is it, what?”

It was the mockup aidbot, writhing right next to her. She almost groaned, but that one syllable of urgghhh barely left her throat when she noticed how cold it was. Her body instinctively shrunk. It thought it wiser to preserve all the warmth she had. Hugging her arms, she looked left and right. There was nothing to see here. The freight container walls blocked her view. So, she looked up.

Despite her irritation at the mockup, she let out a sigh of pleasant surprise. The snowing had stopped. The sky was still dark, but free of clouds. The moon was so close and so large that it filled nearly half of Aria’s view out of the rectangular frame. The rest of the view was filled with stars. None of the porter drones had turned on their lights. No artificial creation prevented the natural light of night from reaching Aria. She could see each star, and a group of them forming an elaborately dotted patch, and those patches grouping together to form a whole field of glowing blossoms.

Smiling, she glanced at the mockup. And stopped smiling right away. It kept hitting her madly. But Aria wasn’t irritated anymore.

She was sorry. The mockup wanted to talk. It had wanted to talk to her since Mr. Wang had died. That was why it had seemed so desperate and excited; because it had wanted to talk but couldn’t figure out a way to communicate. And because she’d ignored it so far, it had gathered all its energy to struggle toward her, across the freight container, to slap her face.

The moment that she’d been putting off had arrived. Mr. Wang was dead beyond denial—had been so for a while now. Only she and the mockup had made it out “alive.” Now was the time to talk. Apologize. Explain. Say that she was very sorry that its owner had died like that.

Aria took out the sickle-shaped cable from her jacket pocket. She fished out the laptop from the duffel bag and unfolded it. She pushed in the regular USB end of the cable into the laptop port. Before she looked for the sickle-shaped port on the mockup’s head, she took deep breaths.

Gently, she touched the mockup. No forceful red pulse could compel Mr. Wang to ever breathe again. This technology wasn’t designed to bring back the dead. In fact, Mr. Wang had specifically said that he wanted to die when the time came. Just not like this. Never like this.

To lose someone with such a literal connection—that must be tough for the mockup. Must feel like maintaining consciousness after the heart has stopped beating. Sort of like knowing that you were supposed to be dead but you weren’t. Actually, that was exactly what had happened to the bot and Mr. Wang. The human body had died, and with it, Mr. Wang’s soul would have died, had he not kept pieces of it inside this bot—the one that was still moving.

A few more deep breaths…

Okay, ready.

Aria connected the cable.

[What do you think you’re doing?!!!] was the first thing the mockup said on the screen.

“I’m really sorry. I really am. I thought the sooner I got him on the airplane, the better. I didn’t know that the shooter was going to fire at that moment—”

[I’m not talking about that, silly! I’m talking about you bringing us here! And you have the audacity to FALL ASLEEP?!!!]

“Gosh, it can’t have been that long.”

[Two hours. TWO hours, you slept!]

Wow, that was a lot longer than what it had felt like. Aria had thought she’d only napped for fifteen minutes or so.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re going to a coroner. A bribable coroner. Captain Stravinsky is taking care of the money end.”

[I can’t speak but I can hear everything, thank you very much.]

“So you know the bribable coroner is going to get us all the paperwork required to cremate Mr. Wang—”

[I heard your talk with that Vera thing.]

That Vera thing? Nice way to call a fellow bot.”

[And I heard you two talk about that Captain Stravinsky lady, and you have once and for all proven that you lack not only imagination, but also that most virtuous of all virtues: reasonable doubt.]

“What are you talking about?”

The words coming out of Aria’s mouth all sounded more agitated than she’d intended them to be. Yes, she’d expected some yelling, but also some shock or sadness. Maybe some grief-triggered lethargy, for a change. Definitely not “?!!!” and “silly” and all-cap words and the accusation that she lacked not just imagination, but also the virtue of reasonable doubt.

[Here I am, and there I was, there I have been for hours trying to get you to pay attention, hitting everything that I could with these stupid arms of mine]

“You’ve been doing that since we met. You thought that was going to get my attention?”

[and you were just way too happy that someone came along and swept you off your feet]

“I wasn’t swept off my feet. What are you even—”

[and too blind to notice that we have been trapped!! We are in DANGER!!!]

“We aren’t anymore! Calm down. Vera and Captain Stravinsky helped us. Evan helped us.”

[I don’t know about that Evan boy, he seems too stubborn to be able to betray anybody, and that’s not a compliment, but that Vera thing and the captain lady were definitely not helping us.]

“What do you—”

[Have you seen her look at me?]

“Not really.”

[Not me me, but him me.]

“O…kay?”

[When the medbot took out the threads!]

Aria did remember. “Anybody who sees glowing neon threads coming out of a dying man’s body would look at them the way she looked at them.”

[No. Nope. Never. No normal person. I saw her eyes. You should have seen her eyes. They were mad eyes. Fascinated eyes.]

“Of course it was fascinating. Morbidly fascinating, but fascinating nonetheless.”

[And you thought it was normal for us to just be allowed to leave the airport like that? And for the Evan boy to be able to steal these drones?]

“Why can’t you just call people by their names? For example, Vera is Vera, not ‘that Vera thing.’ Similarly, my dear Mr. Wang’s aidbot, Captain Natasha Stravinsky is Captain Natasha Stravinsky, not ‘that captain lady.’ Lastly, Evan Jacobs is either Evan Jacobs, or Evan, or maybe even Jacobs, or Mr. Jacobs, but not ‘the Evan boy.’ ”

Although, Aria did remember secretly thinking of him as Pimply Boy. But that had been before she’d learned his name. There was a difference.

[Fine. Evan, the stubborn one, which is, again, not a compliment. You thought he was going to give us twelve drones just like that? Not just a few, but twelve? Twelve of them? Twelve? Twelve?!!!]

“Okay, okay, okay.”

[Not okay! Absolutely not okay!]

This annoying mockup thing!

Sure, it had been surprisingly easy to flee. Too easy, maybe. But that was what luck was: easily accomplishing things that should have been difficult or impossible. Luck existed. Luck was real. It wasn’t imaginary. One didn’t need imagination to accept the existence of luck.

And if luck existed, someone had to actually experience it. Otherwise, it’d be imaginary, not real. And why couldn’t that someone, who experienced luck, be multiple someones? Why couldn’t those multiple someones consist of everyone in this group, for a change?

“I don’t understand why you’re so upset about that part. I thought you’d be upset about Mr. Wang.”

[Mr. Wang is dead and it wasn’t your fault.]

Well, that was nice to know that the mockup thought that way.

[What is your fault is that you put us in the hands of twelve drones that we don’t control!]

“We don’t need to. They have the coordinates.”

[Which Vera also has. And Stravinsky has. And who knows who else has.]

“Why do you suspect them? They tried to save Mr. Wang. They ordered the medbot to remove the bullet.”

And they’d been nice to Aria, unlike the mockup. Vera, especially, had been kind.

[I’ve been thinking about that part. Why do they help us? Why is that Vera thing so sure that everything will go according to plan?]

“Some people are optimistic, you know.”

[“People”?]

“Fine, bots, then. Some bots are optimistic.”

[Bot. Bot, you call her.]

“Well, what do you want me to call her? Not people, not bot, then what?”

[Nothing! She’s]

The mockup stopped. Aria raised her brows, crossed her arms, and waited.

[She’s]

Aria cleared her throat, waited. Didn’t give the mockup a chance to change the topic.

[She’s something that shouldn’t be.]

“Oh, that’s very eloquent.”

[It’s as eloquent as anyone can get regarding this topic. How do you describe something that shouldn’t be in any clearer terms?]

“What does it even mean, ‘something that shouldn’t be’? Obviously she is.”

[She’s definitely not human. I hope we agree on that. Otherwise you’re getting way too imaginative on me.]

“Agreed.”

[But she isn’t bot either. You actually believe that a bot can function the way Vera does?]

“You were there. She explained the rules. She has special leeway. Double leeway, in fact. From the airline, because they want the captain’s aidbot to be able to keep secrets in case something terrible happens on the aircraft. And from the captain, because she doesn’t like ordering people around. And maybe because she didn’t think she was qualified to give Vera detailed instructions. You know, with her past and all.”

[No, I don’t know. That’s the thing. I’ve never heard of such a setup before. A horizontal relationship between the bot and a human? Ha! Ha. Ha. Ha.]

“Very funny.”

[People say they want a friend in a bot but they don’t. The minute they realize that the bot is too smart, too sexy, too athletic, and can go against them, they will have it terminated. It’s like that with everything for humans. Human and dog. You think people really think their dog is a friend? A friend, an equal friend? You think they’ll keep their dogs as friends once they start barking back? And having their opinions? And refusing to come back home after walks, or refuse to do the opposite and refuse to go out on a walk? The whole reason dogs are called the man’s best “friend” is because dogs never abandon their masters, while humans can and have been known to abandon their dogs. It’s an unequal relationship. Some people call that friendship. I say, it’s not. Human friends can do all sorts of crappy things and still be called friends. But dogs? Nope. Bots? Never. Human friends abandon their friends and stab them in the back and lie and have affairs with their friend’s spou]

“Okay, I get it, I get it.”

The mockup didn’t feel the need to finish the last word. It began a new sentence:

[No, you don’t. You don’t get it that humans are a uniquely arrogant species. They put up with shit when it comes from their likes. I believe theoretically, bots like Vera have been able to exist for ages by now. But what I don’t believe is that humans will allow that. And I doubt that we have accidentally run into the one and only such pair currently in existence at the most opportune moment.]

“You’re so paranoid.”

[Paranoid? Me? After what happened? You’re a fool.]

Aria shook her head. She wanted to say so many things to the mockup—including some nasty words—but still felt way too responsible for getting Mr. Wang killed, even though, yes, the mockup was right, it hadn’t been her fault. When person A gets shot dead by person B because B very much intended to kill A, then it’s really not person C’s fault. But still, C should be allowed to feel bad for not being able to save A. No one could take that away from C.

“But you’re like a human,” Aria said. “Sort of. You’re Mr. Wang. And yet you aren’t.”

[That’s because I am Mr. Wang. Was. Now I am]

The mockup stopped. [Now I am] remained on the laptop screen for a long time.

“See, you don’t know what you’re either, and yet you exist. Don’t get jealous of other bots.”

[And the whole “bribable coroner” talk.]

“And don’t just change the subject when you think you won’t win an argument.”

[That was a ridiculous story, the whole thing about the ex and the alcoholism and the drugs.]

“You know what? I don’t want to argue anymore. This is pointless. The drones are going to the coordinates that Vera gave us.”

Aria gestured at the many drones that were carrying them.

“We are going. It’s done.”

To her surprise, the mockup said nothing. Aria gave it a chance to respond for one second, two seconds, three seconds.

“I’m unplugging. I’m tired. I have a human body. I need rest. And I’m hungry. Do you realize I haven’t eaten anything for more than twenty-four hours now?”

Suddenly, tears came to her. The thought of the bacon and eggs she should’ve eaten at one of the overpriced airport restaurants now overwhelmed her. Yes, she’d failed to protect Mr. Wang, but did it mean she had to be so cold, so hungry, tired, and miserable? All, while being yelled at by an ancient mockup?

[Wait.]

Of course it wanted to keep talking.

[You have to be a lot more careful about trusting people, young lady.]

Aria groaned. “Don’t ‘young lady’ me. Not even my parents do that to me. I’m not that young. I’m thirty.”

[A bot that can be that un-bot-like is suspicious.]

“Are you talking about yourself or Vera?”

[Both, if that makes it easier for you to understand. I might be a trap. She might be a trap. I might be a trap to get you here. She might be a trap to make us think that she’s on our side. Maybe they’re using the fact that I am me. As in, anyone else who doesn’t know about my existence would have freaked out at their interaction with Vera, but you didn’t, after having met me.]

“True. I feel like my surprise threshold has been raised so high, few things could surprise me anymore.”

[Most importantly, why would Vera, the thinking bot, reveal Stravinsky’s top secret to us, of all people? We’re strangers.]

“I don’t know. Why does anybody reveal anything to anybody? Sometimes people—and bots—want to talk. I did, when I talked to her.”

[Bots have a reason for doing everything they do.]

“You really want to go back to the free will talk?”

[Absolutely not. All I’m saying is, don’t trust people or bots so easily.]

Aria rubbed her eyes. Maybe it was the bright, light-green letters on the dark screen in the middle of the night; maybe it was because the mockup was such a pain in the ass. Either way, her eyes hurt.

“Why did you trust me with information about your identity? You were running from the Black Suits. How did you know I wasn’t on their side? I’m wearing all black, for heaven’s sake.”

[Gut instinct. That’s how I knew you weren’t on their side.]

Aria laughed. “Oh, so you get to use that excuse, but not Vera.”

[It seemed so easy for you to put everything aside and delay your flight even though clearly, you hesitated before you intervened. People with clear orders don’t waver between hesitation and determination. You’d have to be a hell of a great actor to sell that, and something told me that you couldn’t be that.]

Aria shook her head. Of course the bot ended with a statement that offended her just slightly, even though she’d never wished to be a great actor.

She looked up at the sky once more. She frowned.

“Is it just me, or did we descend at some point?”

[How should I know? You yielded control over the drones.]

“Bear with me,” Aria said.

She pulled out the sickle-shaped cable from the mockup’s head. The mockup helplessly flailed its arms. Ignoring that, she carefully rolled the cable and put it in her jacket pocket.

This cable was the one thing that allowed her to establish a connection with the mockup. She couldn’t risk damaging it by keeping it connected while she moved the mockup. She pushed the mockup against a wall and climbed on top of its box-head. Cautiously balancing herself, she peered out of the freight container.

The cold wind whipped her long ponytail at her face and made breathing difficult. But with relief, Aria surveyed the dark coniferous forest that stretched below her. They had indeed descended. She could smell the trees and discern their white, snow-covered tops whenever the porter drones reflected the starlight.

Everything was way too quiet to raise alarm. If Vera or Captain Stravinsky had betrayed them, they would have attacked. If the Black Suits were here, they would’ve attacked too. Currently, there was nothing to indicate such activities. No trap either. The forest was too still. A forest of this size was bound to have animals that made noises. But Aria could hear no alarmed hooting or twittering or screeching. People lied, animals couldn’t.

And none of the treetops shook. Any movement down there wasn’t substantial enough to affect what was up here.

The treetops got closer. The porter drones were descending further, and with them, the freight container. At this rate, they’d reach the ground within minutes.

It was then that a forest clearing came into view. The drones plummeted rapidly.

And Aria saw something she didn’t want to see.

“Hey,” she said, eyes fixed on the clearing.

She wasn’t sure why she spoke, what she expected—that the mockup would miraculously pull itself together and respond verbally?

No. Of course not. But people dressed in black suits moved in the clearing. She had to say something, at least warn the mockup:

“I think you might be right.”

© 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.
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