Charades, Truths – Ch. 22

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Yesterday, if someone had asked Aria what she thought of Lucious Bold, she would have answered like any loyal fangirl. She would’ve said, “He’s one of the biggest geniuses humanity has ever had the fortune to call its own, a great philanthropist, and might I add, he’s also very tall and handsome.”

But not tonight. If someone had asked her tonight, she would have said, “He’s a madman.”

Because tonight, as Lucious Bold stood in the forest clearing full of a hundred Black Suits, he didn’t scream or threaten or point a gun at Aria. He acted as if this weren’t a highly stressful, unusual situation; as if he hadn’t waited quietly for Aria’s drones to lift the freight container; as if he hadn’t sent his bots in black suits after a hyperelderly who ended up dead because of them.

In fact, Lucious Bold looked as composed as in the documentaries that Aria had wasted so many hours watching. The starlight illuminated his white lab gown, emphasizing its tranquil paleness. Half his silver hair shot up in the air and danced cheerfully in the wind; the other half came down up to his chin, tickling it without getting any sort of reaction from him. His hands were folded politely in front of him.

He smiled at her. That was what completed his mad scientist look.

“You don’t seem glad to see me, Aria.”

“Of course not,” Aria said. How could this man say such a thing?

“I thought you’re my fan,” he said, not losing his smile.

“I was.”

“Not anymore?”

“Not anymore.”

“Well. Be that as it may, you have to work with me here, Aria.”

“Do I?”

“Yes. If you want to leave alive.”

You have to work with me here, if you want these threads.” Aria tugged on the multicolored neon threads.

“Yes, I see that, Aria. I see that you’ve made sure we can’t shoot you dead in one blow.”

“Yes. If you come too close, I will tear them apart. I will chew and trample on them if I must. So, you’d better not. And I want the mockup.”

“You won’t get the mockup.”

“And I want Vera.”

“You won’t get Vera either. The only way for you to get out of here alive is by giving me those threads right now. Peacefully. Without causing any more trouble.”

“You think I’m a fool?”

He shrugged. “You did decline Natasha’s offer to join the team.”

“Your girlfriend is crazy. I’m not joining any team where she’s on. She tried to kill me. And I won’t join any team with you either. You think I believe you when you say you’ll let me go alive if I cooperate?”

“My lover does have a quick temper when the situation permits her to have a quick temper. It’s an adventure to be with her.”

Total psychopaths.

“But you see, Aria,” Bold said, “I sent her inside, didn’t I? You’re talking to me, not her.”

“Doesn’t matter. You ordered all these bots to attack Mr. Wang.”

“Ah, Mr. Wang. Dear Mr. Wang.” Bold shook his head. “It didn’t have to come to this. If he’d just cooperated, things would have gone much smoother.”

“I want to see the mockup and Vera.”

Bold pursed his lips, expressing his utmost regret in the most polite manner possible. “But you see, Aria, you keep saying that you want this, you want that. What do I get out of this?”

“You get to keep a tiny bit of what people call conscience.”

“Conscience? Aria, you’re the one who has no conscience. You’re depriving people of what they deserve. You’re in the way of progress. You and Mr. Wang.”

“You crazy—”

“I am giving people a chance to live to their fullest potential. People worry too much about risking things because there’s no reward from risk. The default state is guaranteed safety, so why bother? People don’t live anymore. They need stronger, replaceable shells to truly live again without relying on bots that do everything for them. And there’s no going back to the Stone Age. Returning to a world without bots would be retrogressing. But this? This is progress. It means a generation of people for whom risk-taking won’t be any more dangerous than complacency. A new age.”

“You mean you’ll use people for yourself and your girlfriend.”

“No, for everyone.”

“Your girlfriend doesn’t think so. She talked about ‘standardizing upward.’ She doesn’t think most people are worthy of your sick procedure.”

“Oh, she’ll come around.”

“You think so?”

“Absolutely. Natasha likes to dabble in elitism, but once she sees that people can act differently under different circumstances, she’ll come around.”

“I think that’s exactly her argument in favor of elitism: that people who need changed circumstances to change don’t deserve those changed circumstances. Because, people like her, the ‘successful specimen,’ didn’t need such circumstances to act bravely—in her opinion.”

“Well. It all depends on how you spin the situation, Aria. But let’s not waste time talking about my relationship woes. Give me those threads. Now.”

“No way.”

“You have to give up something. That’s negotiation 101.”

“This isn’t a negotiation. Some people have values that can’t be negotiated.”

“Like standing in the way of progress?”

“No. Like not letting other people mess with a dead person’s body just because the dead person can’t do anything about it anymore. How is that progress, you maniac?”

“All, for the greater good.”

“Screw the greater good.”

Aria couldn’t help it. She felt hot, and although she worried that the increased heart rate was pumping more blood out of her burning right-thigh wound, she was furious. The thought of someone ignoring other people’s rights in the name of a conveniently elusive “greater good” repulsed her thoroughly.

“I am going in,” Aria said.

She took a step forward. The hundred Black Suits around Lucious Bold promptly took a step forward too. But Aria didn’t flinch. She didn’t wince back. The only hint of her nervousness was that she clutched the cube-shaped laptop in both hands to the point of her fingers getting white. She kept stumbling forward, ignoring the pain in her thigh, even while the Black Suits did the same, coming ever closer.

Finally, Bold raised a hand. The Black Suits halted.

Aria, the only human, and therefore someone who didn’t take Bold’s orders, kept walking, straight past him, toward the wall of Black Suits. They gazed at her through their sunglasses. They had nothing personal against Aria. They didn’t even know why they had to stand in her way.

Aria glanced back at Bold. “Remove them,” she said.

The amused smile had returned on Bold’s face. “Aria, you’re not saying you’re willing to voluntarily enter enemy territory?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Take me to the mockup and Vera.”

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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