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Jump to Chapter 1
In the dark safety of the upside-down freight container, Aria touched around for her laptop with her bare hands. For a while, she only found the cold, frozen ground. She shook back her messy ponytail. The leg with the graze gunshot wound throbbed. Her nose had grown accustomed to the smell of her own blood a long time ago. She welcomed that smell. It was a thousand times better than the freezing cold outside. But her fingers were numb. They couldn’t immediately adjust to the comparative warmth. She hoped that they’d soon awaken to discern the difference between the earth and manufactured objects—
She touched skin, and winced; Mr. Wang’s body had stiffened, and was as cold as the ground.
A dozen more bullets hit the freight container. Natasha Stravinsky, that crazy pilot, wasn’t one to give up easily. Aria could hear Stravinsky trample the ground and groan in frustration. The captain kept yelling at the Black Suits, who didn’t obey her.
Aria grinned bitterly. That was what the captain got for looking down on bots. Bots were loyal. Bots didn’t betray. Bots didn’t cooperate out of fear for their own lives.
Not that the Black Suit Bots would have cooperated if the captain had been nicer to them. They were loyal, didn’t betray, and didn’t cooperate, but didn’t do all those things out of love just like they never operated out of fear. Nevertheless, Aria felt a sort of grim satisfaction that the captain couldn’t manipulate the Black Suits into doing what she wanted. Aria wanted to think that it was karma, wanted to think that people like Natasha Stravinsky didn’t get what they wanted from bots or humans or any other beings that might walk the surface of the earth.
Vera had been loyal to Stravinsky out of love, however. Vera had been a much more developed bot than the Black Suits, and she’d admired her owner. With everything that the captain had revealed just now, Aria was sure that Vera had been tricked just as much as Aria. Vera had been nothing more than a replaceable piece of machinery to Natasha Stravinsky. Aria couldn’t leave without Vera. She was going to get all of her friends out of here.
And there. Finally. Something smooth and whole rather than rough and grainy. Plastic, not dirt. Aria had found the cold surface of her laptop. She pressed whichever key that was the nearest. Promptly, the laptop awoke, recognizing her fingerprints.
An empty screen greeted her. It was black, but brighter than organic darkness because even black glowed when it was electric.
Relying on that glow, Aria crawled to the nearest porter drone inside the container. She held her laptop level with its port. The drone and the laptop promptly established connection.
Madly, Aria typed away.
First check: no location tracker inside the drone. She’d seen the flightbots shatter those things into pieces. And upon checking, she confirmed that she hadn’t imagined it. About that part, no one had lied.
Where to go from here? A crematory?
No time to find one.
Away. That was the goal.
Last coordinates—scratch those. Input new coordinates. Away from here.
South? Would be nice. Would be so nice to get a little bit closer to warmth. But maybe that wasn’t such a good idea with Mr. Wang’s body still being her travel companion.
North, then. Somewhere colder. Far, far north from here.
Aria typed in the coordinates of a random northern spot. The drone beeped softly. It had received her command.
The next drone, then. Quickly, the same steps.
And the third one, the last.
With shaky fingers, she typed additional code on her laptop. In human language, the commands translated as follows:
Drone 1, on. Go grab Mr. Wang with two of your legs. He is Cargo 1.
Cargo. Goodness. Now Aria was using the same vocabulary as Stravinsky. But “cargo” was the word that the porter drones understood, so that couldn’t be helped.
The drone grabbed Mr. Wang in his entirety, complete with the blue tarp blanket around him. Now Mr. Wang looked like an ancient baby carried by a mutant machine stork.
Drone 2 and 3, on.
2, take position at the front of the freight container.
3, take position at the back of the freight container.
Aria zipped her duffel bag closed while Drones 2 and 3 moved. With the bag and laptop in her hands, she approached Drone 1.
Drone 1, grab me with one leg. I am Cargo 2.
Now, grab the bag with one leg. That is Cargo 3.
Make sure you can walk with your other four legs while holding all cargo.
Drone 1 obeyed. It slung its metal leg around Aria’s waist. It slung another metal leg through the handle of her duffel bag. Aria wriggled so that her leather jacket didn’t jam uncomfortably. She still held her laptop in her hands.
But then, Aria stopped.
Sharp clunking, metallic thuds, and buzzing electrical pulses echoed outside. No one said a thing—not even Natasha Stravinsky—so it didn’t sound like humans were making the noises. It was the Black Suits, operating based on a clear order. But what clear order?
Clunk clunk. Thud thud. Buzzz…
The drones. The nine other drones outside the container. The Black Suits were destroying them.
The sharp clunking: them breaking the blades.
The metallic thuds: them throwing the drone bodies on the frozen ground.
The electrical pulses: the drones’ last cries for help.
“Okay. Deep breaths. Okay,” Aria told herself.
That didn’t stop her heart from hammering. Her mouth was dry. Nevertheless, she kept swallowing and licking her lips and that didn’t help either. She hadn’t planned on using the other drones—there were too many to manipulate one by one with her laptop—but still, knowing that they’d be around would have been nice, just in case these three here broke. Now, there were no backup drones anymore.
The Black Suits had taken Stravinsky somewhere safe, most likely, the cabin. The mockup too. Aria couldn’t hear any irregular vrooming, hissing, or swiveling anymore. Neither could she hear shouts and curses. The only noises came from the Black Suits, moving methodically and efficiently as they finished off the drones.
With the precious assets out of the way, the Black Suits could fire random shots at Aria the second she left this container. Mr. Wang’s body might take a few hits, but they wouldn’t care. He was already dead; they cared about the threads in him, not about him.
In hindsight, immediately saying “No” to Natasha Stravinsky’s offer had been unwise. But Aria had never been a calculating person, or even a highly rational one. You get a job offer from a murderous psychopath, how many people could reach the logical conclusion of saying “Yes” for now and thinking about escaping later? And how many people would be great enough actors to sell such a lie? As the mockup had pointed out, Aria wasn’t a great actor.
And now, Aria was totally dispensable.
What to do. What to do. What to do now?
An idea came to Aria. A sickening idea, so horrible that she retched even though she hadn’t uttered a word about it. Just having the thought in her head was enough to make her want to vomit everything inside her so that she wouldn’t have such disturbing thoughts anymore.
Was there another way to make herself indispensable?
Aria gazed at Mr. Wang’s body, wrapped in blue tarp. The man looked so peaceful in his death, protected by Drone 1’s sturdy legs. The medbot had patched him up nicely. Patched him up, using suture threads, after it had cut up the wound area, using scissors. Scissors and surgical sutures. Aria recalled the sound of them moving against the resistance of skin. That sound had filled the entire cargo area. She’d tried to ignore the sound, but had completely failed. She remembered it clearly.
And she remembered the threads, the neon ones. The ones that filled Mr. Wang’s body. The ones that made him a precious asset.
Aria shook her head. Tried to shake off the thought.
But how else was she supposed to make herself a precious asset? With those threads, she could leave the container without immediately being shot dead. In addition, it’d stop the Black Suits from trying to claim Mr. Wang’s body.
The mockup had said that the old man didn’t want people to dissect every single piece of him against his will. So, what if the thread network were removed from him, with as little dissection as possible, to get him and the mockup a funeral away from these people? As long as Aria didn’t let them take away the threads, and as long as she got the mockup back, Mr. Wang would’ve been on board with her idea.
The noise outside quieted down. Eventually, Aria heard nothing anymore. The Black Suits were done destroying the drones. Now they were waiting for their prey to emerge from the container.
Aria had to do something. The longer she hesitated, the longer the enemy had to formulate alternative plans.
Drone 1, let go of Cargo 1 and 2.
The drone obeyed. Mr. Wang landed on the ground. Aria landed next to him. She put the laptop on the ground. She crawled toward Mr. Wang.
“Mr. Wang, I am very sorry.”
She took deep breaths. Reached for one end of the blue tarp that the medbot had so kindly wrapped around the old man.
“I will get your mockup back. I will give you the funeral you deserve. The funeral you want. Far, far away from those people. Somewhere where you don’t have to worry about them getting to you or the mockup. So… So…”
She cleared her throat.
She pulled apart the tarp. There, Mr. Wang’s checkered shirt. There, the hole in the fabric that the medbot had cut. And through that hole, Aria could see the gunshot wound, stitched up.
Again, nausea overwhelmed Aria. She’d seen the medbot pull out the neon threads from that wound. Then it had put them back in. Now, Aria had to pull them back out.
Aria closed her eyes. Deep breaths…
The outside was quiet. She pressed her fingers along the stitches.
Shuddered at the sensation of her warm skin against his cold skin.
Increased the pressure until the cold skin gave in. She could feel the resistance of the inorganic material contained inside a stiffened but organic body. She fished out the end. She pulled.
And she pulled.
As if she were pulling the threads out of a mythical spider bearing a neon web, she continued to pull out the whole network through that single incision.
© 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.