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Jump to Chapter 1
The heat and wetness spreading on Aria’s thigh radiated outward. In the center, there was an oval, numb core. There, she felt nothing, at least initially.
But then her brain put the heat, wetness, and numbness together. It came to the conclusion that those three elements usually didn’t occur together in the human body. Something was very wrong. That was when the oval core began throbbing madly.
Aria groaned. Natasha Stravinsky’s bullet had grazed her right thigh in a long tear. And judging by Stravinsky’s last known position (standing and confident) and Aria’s current position (on the forest ground and panicking), Stravinsky could shoot Aria once more and this time, the bullet wouldn’t merely graze a leg.
Aria attempted to get up. Nope, that wasn’t going to work. Call her a wuss, but she couldn’t make herself stand on her one good leg while her head was spinning. It was the idea of losing blood that made her dizzy, not the blood loss itself. And along with her head, the entire world spun.
Natasha Stravinsky fired.
Luckily, Aria slumped farther down a split second early. The bullet missed her. But how many more lucky misses did she need to reach the freight container before she was shot dead? Too many. Realistically, she wasn’t going to make it.
The one second thereafter felt like an eternity. That was what happened when you were in danger, and when it seemed like said one second was going to be your last. Finally, you, the mere human, figured out the secret of making the entire world revolve around you and stretching a single second for long enough to live forever: by solely focusing on the here and now.
No past, no future. No could’ve beens, should’ve beens. No sound. No smell. No taste. No pain. Or maybe, all of the sounds, all of the smells, all of the tastes, all of the pains, and they all cancel each other out. So do light and darkness. They cancel each other out. You see things, but you might as well not. They do not matter.
There is no “they.” There is no “you,” either, at least not in the limiting, finite way you usually perceive yourself.
Only the Eternal You exists in such a moment. One that breathes. One that dearly breathes. That Eternal You is, well, eternal. So, this breathing could last forever if you maintain this state.
Except, it is extremely difficult to maintain this state, because you are bound to notice the surroundings once more.
And then, the miraculously everlasting second is lost forever.
You’re back to the frozen ground in the clearing in a coniferous forest. The Black Suits couldn’t care less about you. Natasha Stravinsky wants you dead because she thinks you’re a disgrace to humanity. The pathetic mockup aidbot is probably still clobbering the floor with its shower-hose arms. Mr. Wang’s dead body is definitely as dead as before—
The pain returned. The bitter taste returned. The sharp smell of blood and snow and trees returned. Even sight. Aria saw the freight container lying on its side. Her goal. But there, she could only see Mr. Wang’s body. The mockup was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, the volume of the world returned to its normal level. And among the noises, Aria heard no whacking, no swiveling, no writhing. Instead, what she heard was an irregular hissing and vrooming: a machine struggling to function.
Quickly, she whipped around to face the source of that sound.
She couldn’t believe her eyes.
Stravinsky’s pistol was directly pointed at her. But between them stood the mockup. It stood upright, vibrating but otherwise controlling its movements.
Stravinsky snickered. She pulled the trigger, sending off the bullet meant for Aria.
At that moment, the mockup’s four wheels pushed its box torso up. Stravinsky’s jaw dropped before the mockup blocked the view.
The bullet hit the mockup with a blunt clank. Instead of bouncing off, the bullet had remained stuck. The mockup landed on the ground.
“Shit!” said Natasha Stravinsky.
The captain looked terrified. For a moment, Aria didn’t understand why.
Then, a sudden and simultaneous rustling sounded from all sides. Aria quickly looked around. The Black Suits, who had hitherto ignored all actions and reactions in the clearing, sprinted toward Stravinsky.
Hurting the mockup was against their directive. Natasha Stravinsky had violated that directive. A whole herd of Black Suits, twenty, thirty of them at the very least, stormed at her. The rest crowded around the mockup.
This context completely changed the picture of prior events in Aria’s mind. After one of the Black Suits had shot Mr. Wang, his comrades had seemed to struggle more desperately against the inspectorbots. Aria had figured they wanted to help their fellow Black Suit or make the most of the advantageous position they were in. But now she thought—maybe they’d wanted to eliminate their rogue friend. He’d done something that he shouldn’t have done. Even without Natasha Stravinsky, that Black Suit would have been “killed” in that field by one of his friends. And then it would have looked really puzzling, really suspicious.
Quickly, Aria grabbed one spider-leg of the closest porter drone. With all her energy, she tried to drag it toward the freight container. Multiple times, she fell on the grass-less, hard forest ground. So, in effect, she wasn’t really pulling the drone in a deliberate, controlled way. It was more like, she held the drone and did her best to keep on holding so that it moved toward the container whenever she fell in that direction. But despite her lack of fine control, the drone approached the freight container little by little.
The mockup vroomed intensely and generated a low pitch and high pitch simultaneously. Aria cringed. Those pitches seemed to have been chosen to create the worst cacophony. Her eardrums trembled and threatened to rupture.
When she glanced at the mockup, she noticed pale fumes emanating from the mound that had been formed around and over it by the Black Suits. The Black Suits didn’t mind the cacophony. To them, it was just another meaningless external stimulus, just like everything Aria was doing right now. The fumes danced in the starlight. The mockup was making the noise due to overheating. It was reaching its limit while trying to control its limbs. Soon, it would return to its usual self, madly swiveling around.
The herd of Black Suits around the mockup lifted it up in the air. They carried it toward the cabin.
Shit shit shit, Aria thought. But she couldn’t go help the mockup now. More Black Suits were flooding out of the cabin and the forest. They were headed for the container with Mr. Wang’s body.
“I’m sorry, I’ll come get you,” Aria said. “I promise, I’ll come get you.”
She had to hurry. Three drones, that was all she needed for the escape later.
One for the mockup, which should fly with its own drone because it moved so wildly. Aria doubted that a drone could manage to cling to the mockup and another passenger.
Then, one for Aria and Mr. Wang. They needed to stay together. If something happened and the drone lost a leg or two, Mr. Wang couldn’t hold onto the drone himself. Since Mr. Wang moved not at all and Aria posed no challenge as a passenger, the drone would have no problem holding both of them.
And the last drone, for Vera. Aria hoped that Vera was in a condition to take care of herself once the drone picked her up.
Aria also hoped that she could pull this stupid drone into the freight container. This drone was the last one she needed.
Bang, bang, bang.
Aria ducked and looked around. Stravinsky had shot more Black Suits. To Aria’s disappointment, the Black Suits hadn’t squashed Stravinsky to death or shot at her; they’d simply surrounded her so that she couldn’t flee.
Of course. That made sense. Natasha Stravinsky was also a precious asset. They were going to use what was inside Mr. Wang and the mockup to do the same thing with Stravinsky and Vera.
“I don’t want to attack the mockup!” Stravinsky was screaming. “It’s her I have to get! You fools, don’t you see she’s getting away?”
They didn’t. Or rather, they saw, but Aria’s movements didn’t matter to them as much as their prime directive: protect assets at all costs. But that didn’t mean that Aria could take her sweet time.
She willed herself to stand on two legs. They didn’t need to support all her weight; all they needed to do was to be there for balance, so that she could pull the damn drone instead of barely dragging it along inch by inch.
Meanwhile, Stravinsky screamed in a fit of fury. “She’s getting away! You fools! Lucious! Lucious, get out here!”
Abruptly, the Black Suits froze. It was only a second, but the shift was substantial enough for it to feel like Aria had been dumped in an aquarium. The sudden, comparative lack of noise was deafening. She tottered as she arrived at the freight container with the third drone.
Then the rustling and struggling resumed—but not exactly the same as before. Half the group of Black Suits that had been running toward Mr. Wang slightly changed direction. For a moment, Aria hoped she wasn’t seeing what she was seeing.
But there was no denying it. They were coming for her.
Ignoring the burning pain in her graze wound, she stumbled toward the freight container wall on the opposite side of the opening. Right now, Aria wanted the container back in an upright position, so that the opening pointed to the sky and that wall could return to being the floor. She pushed.
Stravinsky’s bullet hit the freight container just when Aria successfully toppled it over. Aria’s duffel bag, the open laptop, and Mr. Wang landed on the floor.
Crazy woman, that Natasha Stravinsky. She’d managed to fire the pistol while being surrounded by the Black Suits. A total psychopath. Had nothing on her mind except “standardizing upward” because she thought she was such a “successful specimen” of the human race.
Aria worked with her rage to ignore the pain in her wound. She would have fallen if she’d tried to stand still, but she didn’t try that. She used the momentum to rush toward the wall right in front of her. Once again, with her whole weight, she pushed the freight container. It toppled over. Landed on its side. Only, this time, in the opposite direction, with the opening facing away from Stravinsky and the Black Suits. Everything in the container landed on the newly defined floor.
Now, Aria needed only one more toppling to buy herself time. Clenching her teeth, she jumped. She needed to reach the side of the container, which currently had become the top, and pull it down. She wanted the opening pointing to the ground, with the entire container working like the protective shell of a turtle.
A few times, she jumped without reaching the top. Her shot leg burned and her unscathed leg ached because it was overworking to compensate for the injury of its partner. She had to ignore the pain, and quickly. She grimaced.
Ah, how she wished she’d had something to eat in the last twenty-four hours! Any food would’ve done, even oatmeal, with its bland taste of despair in a bowl. With its help, she would’ve had more energy to—
And once more to—
—jump! And this time, she touched the top with both hands. But now she realized that her fingernails were the problem. She feared they’d be pulled out. She had to drag the container down, but it was a heavy one. Would her fingernails survive the pull?
This was stupid. For her to worry about her fingernails or legs was stupid. Understandable, but stupid.
Aria sighed. Her ponytail was a mess. It had become nearly undone. The hair that had escaped the confines of the hair tie danced with her every inhale and exhale.
She had to pull herself together, get her priorities straight, drag down the top of the container so that the container could shield them from more bullets.
Priority number one: her life, not fingernails.
Aria jumped, grimaced, didn’t care what happened to her fingernails—
Her fingers found purchase. With the full force of both her arms, Aria pulled the top of the container down and forward.
The container toppled over. Complete darkness covered Aria. More bullets came. But Aria was safe.
© 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.