Table of Contents
Jump to Chapter 1
Surrounded by a hundred Black Suits and Lucious Bold, Aria Rush headed toward the cabin in the deep woods. Her enemies stayed a few feet away from her, thanks to her threats earlier. They didn’t care about Aria’s safety, but they did care about the neon thread network wrapped around her.
Once they left the clearing, the towering conifers blocked most of the starlight. The neon threads were the sole source of light. Only when they reached the cabin did she notice a door without a handle standing ajar.
“After you, Aria,” Bold said.
He opened the door wider for her. As he leaned in, she caught a whiff of a scent. At first she thought that maybe this was the smell of alcohol or a street med; his eyes glistened with such wild zeal, she wondered if anybody sane could look like that without the influence of drugs.
But then she decided this was perfume. Illegal drugs wouldn’t smell this much. If they did, even the people who called them medication instead of drugs wouldn’t want to use them. The police usually didn’t try to catch people using the “lightweight” stuff (too many users, too much of a waste of resources), but still. Smelling all over the place wasn’t smart.
Besides, over time, Aria noticed that this smell was much too nice. This perfume contained something musky, something earthy, something woody. Nothing like some of the disgustingly thick cologne that some men wore. This was something expensive, carefully calculated to enhance the image that Bold wanted to project to the outside world. Perhaps the complex notes of scent were meant to counterbalance his otherwise sheltered lab life. There were animalistic and sexual elements that added reality to his cerebral existence.
Clutching the cube-shaped folded laptop in her hands, Aria walked into the cabin. It was as cold as the outside. There was nothing in here, though the space was as large as two squash courts combined—which she only knew because she’d visited one with Jack. There were no lights here. Only Mr. Wang’s neon threads glowed faintly. Aria would’ve thought the cabin was a pure trap if Bold hadn’t entered right after her.
He walked ahead to the middle of the cabin. There, he leaned forward and down as if to grab something on the floor. When he pulled, a square wood panel lifted up.
Blinding light exuded from the square and filled the cabin. Aria squinted and backed away.
A white staircase led to the basement. The walls were covered in white square tiles, sterile like a hospital and barren like a bathroom designed to drive people mad.
“I’ll give you a minute to get used to the light,” Bold said. “Just follow the hallway.”
He handed the square panel to one of the Black Suits. Without further ado, he walked downstairs.
Aria hesitated. She’d known she was entering enemy territory, but not an underground enemy territory. She’d hoped for windows and glass, not subterranean tunnels. Down there, her escape options were limited. Sure, she could keep threatening her enemies with the thread network, but for how much longer? To put it bluntly, all they needed to do was keep their distance and wait for her to starve to death, whereas the burden of getting the mockup and Vera out of here was on her.
But the Black Suits stood at the door. There was no going back.
Aria climbed downstairs—slowly, one stair at a time, so that she didn’t have to put her weight on her injured leg. At the bottom of the staircase, she examined the hallway in front of her.
It was wide enough for two people to walk side by side without bumping into each other. Flat, pale lamps that reminded her of the airport lined the entire ceiling from here to the other end. At that end, the hallway turned right.
The temperature was slightly warmer here than up there. And definitely less wind. Aria could smell Mr. Wang’s blood on the neon threads. As soon as she realized this, she stumbled ahead.
Best to ignore the smell. Best to move forward. That was the only way to save the Antonius Wang who existed in the shape of a mockup. And that mockup was somewhere there, forward.
Aria turned right at the end of the hallway. After the right turn, the hallway continued, once again going straight until it turned left. Then, again left, then a right, some more turns…
The hallway tunnel seemed to have been dug around natural obstacles, such as tree roots. Either that, or there were rooms that couldn’t be accessed through this hallway. There were no doors, just like there were no windows or glass.
She glanced back. About a dozen Black Suits were following her in two files. They kept their distance.
Eventually, Aria arrived at a steel door. She grabbed the handle and pulled.
Warmth flooded out of the door and relaxed her instantly. But the voice that greeted her was by no means relaxing.
“What did you bring her here for?” Natasha Stravinsky yelled.
She sat on one of the four silver surgery tables. They occupied the center of the room, two by two. On the neighboring surgery table lay Vera. On a third one lay the mockup, tied down with straps so that its writhing couldn’t push it off the table. The fourth one was empty, meant for Mr. Wang—or, to be exact, for the threads that Aria had taken out of him and wrapped around herself.
Stravinsky had taken off her navy shirt, which had been crisply ironed once upon a time, but now had become a dirty, wet heap of cloth from the rough contact with the icy forest ground. Her navy pants, she’d kept on. And she wore a white tank top. She wasn’t hurt gravely. She’d only suffered a few scratches here and there from all the kicking and punching at the Black Suits who had formed a barrier around her at the clearing. The wounds glistened with recently-applied ointment.
Lucious Bold stood right next to Natasha Stravinsky and was just removing an ear thermometer from her. Aria felt sick at the sight of him treating her with the utmost, gentlest, and simultaneously, most efficient care. He’d only had a short head start. Aria must have arrived barely five minutes after he’d arrived here. Yet he’d already applied the ointments on Stravinsky’s scratches. Aria was sure that he’d done it for her instead of her doing it herself, because some of the wounds were on her shoulder blades and the tip of Bold’s fingers glistened with ointment too.
If Aria hadn’t known anything about this middle-aged couple, she would’ve thought that they were cute together. But as it stood, nausea was the primary sensation when Aria looked at them.
Lucious Bold, boyfriend to a psychopath pilot. Natasha Stravinsky, girlfriend to a psychopath scientist.
He’d been the “coroner” who’d stitched up her head wound two weeks ago. As to the “bribable” part—Aria doubted there was any truth to that. The man was many things—deceptive and cruel, for example—but probably not bribable.
To be bribable, a person had to lack standards. This man had too firm of a standard. He had a grandiose idea about himself and his work. In his mind, he was a visionary, a prophet who promoted the greater good when others were too short-sighted to see what “good” was. Even if everything else in his documentaries had been fake, Aria was sure that this core of Lucious Bold prevented him from ever taking bribes. If he ever received money, he’d use a different word for it. Funding, for example. Or donation. But never bribes.
“Is that the network that Wang had inside him?” Stravinsky said.
Bold scribbled something in a chart, not looking at Stravinsky or Aria at the moment.
“Yes, that is the network,” he said. “And she wanted to deliver it right to us. That’s why she’s here.”
“Should have just killed her. She’s sick. She actually pulled the thing out of his body,” said the person who’d called Mr. Wang “cargo” and wanted to remove the network anyway.
Bold put the chart on a silver cart and took a position close to Stravinsky—close enough to imply their romantic relationship without direct touch. He smiled at Aria.
“No reason to decline kindness, Natasha,” he said.
Stravinsky snorted. “Kind? She did this to me.”
“And she won’t ever do it again. Nor will anyone else.”
He put a hand on Vera’s head, just like a cult leader would put a hand on a zealot’s head for a blessing. Vera didn’t react. She’d been shut down by Stravinsky, the captain, the only person who could completely shut down the captain’s aidbot during emergency situations.
With the special power bestowed upon her, the captain was supposed to ensure passenger safety during hijackings, natural disasters, whatever the problem may be. But instead, this captain was using her power over Vera to erase Vera from existence.
How nice it would have been to have Vera awake right now. Aria couldn’t possibly tackle Bold and Stravinsky while dragging the mockup out of here, but Vera? Oh, Vera could do so many things. With Vera in her invincible shell smacking the life out of Bold and Stravinsky, Aria could flee with the mockup, get to the container, and then fetch Vera using the drones.
But Aria couldn’t change Vera’s design. Even with enough time, Aria doubted that she could break through the security measures, circumventing the combination of the airline defense system and Bold’s additions to that system. Aria wasn’t a genius hacker. If anybody and everybody who wasn’t a genius hacker could tinker with Vera’s security system, it wouldn’t be a security system at all.
“What are you staring at?” Stravinsky said with a frown.
“I’m staring at the aidbot who trusted you dearly but was betrayed by you,” Aria said.
Stravinsky snorted. She turned to Bold. “Hear that? She really thinks that bots are her buddies.”
Bold only smiled. “Close the door.”
He’d spoken to those behind Aria. Before she could whirl around, the door shut behind her. The Black Suits locked it from outside.
“So,” Bold said. “You wanted to see Vera and the mockup. Here they are. Now it’s your turn to give me what I want: the network.”
He pointed at the web of neon threads that Aria wore.
Aria clasped her cube laptop. She glanced around.
“You can’t get out of here, kiddo,” Stravinsky said. “Don’t waste our time, don’t waste yours. Just come over here.”
Aria ignored her. This room was about double the size of the cabin, which meant that it equaled four squash courts. Its design wasn’t much different from the hallway: white and sterile. More pale, blindingly bright lights filled the ceiling. More square tiles covered the walls. The only objects filling the place were the surgery tables, the silver cart with the chart… and now, at a closer look, a folded, flat laptop and some surgery instruments on the lower shelves of the cart.
The instruments shimmered in the little light that reached them. Some were meant for human subjects: suction tubes, artery forceps, scissors. Other tools were meant for mechanical subjects: drills, a bottle of lubricating oil, hammers. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe Bold used scissors on the bots and hammers on the humans. You never knew what methods a mad scientist used.
“You won’t get to attack us with those,” Stravinsky said.
She was right. She and Bold stood way too close to the cart.
“You do realize that if you mess with the mockup, it’ll wipe all its data?” Aria said.
Stravinsky chuckled again and rolled her eyes.
“We don’t need Wang’s mind. We want the hardware,” Bold said. “We want the objects that allow the pairing between the human and the machine. The thing that constantly scanned Wang’s brain and all the signals entering his body. The thing that transferred his every recollection, every imagination to that bot and allowed the bot to think it had a past and a future, even though it doesn’t ‘feel’ a thing in its primitive shell.”
And before Aria could respond to that, Bold took out a pistol from his lab gown. He fired without hesitation. Aria jumped. This happened so suddenly, even Stravinsky yelped. The bullet hit the wall right behind the spot where Aria’s ankle had been. It cracked a tile and remained stuck there.
“You see, Aria,” Bold said, aiming his gun at Aria’s ankle again. “You can’t keep doing this forever.”
She jumped out of the way. He didn’t fire, but adjusted his aim, and she jumped again. He still didn’t fire. She jumped, and again, and he kept pointing the gun at her, readjusting again and again.
After several more rounds of her jumping and him adjusting his aim, he laughed.
“I’ll hit you at some point, Aria,” he said. “Outside, your plan of using the network as leverage might have worked, but what were you gonna do here? I’ll just shoot you somewhere painful, watch you cry for a while, and remove the network.”
His grin was so smug and fake, Aria almost told him that taking the network out of Mr. Wang’s body had two purposes: 1) that of making herself one of the precious assets and 2) getting the Black Suits to leave his body the hell alone. So, whatever Bold did to her, she’d achieved at least one of her two goals.
But clearly, this enemy wasn’t going to interpret the protection of Mr. Wang’s body as a “success.” This enemy didn’t think that way. This enemy had less heart than Vera the bot. That was why even Stravinsky didn’t dare interfere right now. Aria had thought that the captain was the head psychopath around here, but it wasn’t so; the captain was afraid of her lover, Lucious Bold, his mock-calm behavior and never-flinching gentle smile.
Bold fired the gun again, aimed some distance from Aria’s shoulder. That distance had been intentional. He didn’t want the network destroyed. He was just playing with the prey.
And he was right. If he kept shooting enough times, Aria was going to be exhausted before he was.
He fired, fired.
She jumped, jumped.
The bullets hit the square tiles behind her, above her, next to her.
He fired faster.
She jumped faster.
She jumped. She landed on her injured leg, tripped—
—she fell. Her laptop rolled off.
She scrambled up to retrieve it, lost balance, slammed into the wall behind. She heard the shattered tile parts come off and rain down on the floor, but didn’t look. They’d probably been broken from one of the many bullets that Bold had fired.
But then she noticed his surprised expression.
She glanced back.
There, where the white tile had been, was a hole now. It didn’t show tree roots or a dark tunnel.
It led to a barren hallway.
“No,” Bold said.
Before he lunged at her, Aria hurled herself at the hole. Slam, Slam she did with her whole weight, not caring about the thread network or about bruises. If Bold wanted to make it clear that dragging on their conflict did her no good, well then, message received; she was going to hurry.
At her third slam, another tile with a bullet in it shattered. He grabbed the thread network and pulled. She almost choked, but held onto the edge of the hole. He pulled harder at the threads around her neck. Pieces of broken tile and wood panel came off. She’d managed to make the hole larger.
She dropped the pieces. She tried to push her fingers into the gap between the threads and her throat. But Bold only pulled harder. She couldn’t breathe. Her eyeballs felt like exploding. They rolled up.
There, Natasha Stravinsky was pointing a gun at the two of them. But the captain kept her distance, couldn’t fire. Bold and Aria were struggling too fiercely.
The Black Suits weren’t interfering either. Those bots weren’t like Vera. They had already failed to make the right judgment calls at the airport. They weren’t allowed to intervene in matters of fine control anymore.
Aria kicked Bold in the shin. His clasp around the threads briefly weakened. She crawled toward the laptop. Bold came after her. He tripped on the trailing threads.
She grabbed the laptop and flung it at him. The thing hit him in the forehead. He fell, clasping where it hurt. When he removed his hands, there was blood.
Great! Aria thought. Well done, little laptop! You made a dent in his head, just like you made a dent on Jack’s floor! And I, Aria Rush, who can be like a tiny but feisty chihuahua in black, shall act like the worthy owner of a worthy laptop such as yourself.
She reached out to pick up the laptop. Reached—
Just a bit more—
Bold lunged at her. She managed to snatch the laptop before she quickly grabbed another tile with her free hand. She yanked it out of its place, revealing more wood. Bold, in turn, yanked at the thread network. Aria fell back, this time not letting go of her laptop. He punched her in the gunshot wound. She groaned.
In one swift motion, she struck his groin with her elbow.
“Lucious!” Stravinsky said.
Aria scrambled to the wall and pulled at the tiles and wood panels like a mad person. Some of them, she smashed with her laptop.
It was amazing how sturdy this electronic device was. The user manual had warned of the usual things: Don’t put the device under direct sunlight for too long. Do not throw. Do not freeze. Do not blah blah blah.
Yet clearly, such warnings had been unnecessary. The smooth charcoal surface of her laptop was still smooth without a single crack. It was built to last and tested to the limits so that the most careless of the customers couldn’t possibly complain, even after dropping the thing for the millionth time.
In contrast, this underground experiment station hadn’t been built to last. The time it had taken to build this place was probably less than the time it had taken Aria and Jack to realize they weren’t meant for each other. Maybe Bold and Stravinsky had thought that since they were the primary users and neither of them was going to start smashing walls, they didn’t need to make them too sturdy at the expense of the extra time investment.
As soon as the jagged hole was big enough to crawl through, Aria did crawl through.
© 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.