Charades, Truths – Ch. 26

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Aria closed the door behind her. The sirens still wailed, but more distantly. And with two walls between herself and her pursuers, she couldn’t hear their voices or footsteps anymore.

This allowed her to briefly forget about the urgency of her situation. She even forgot how much her leg hurt. And despite the dusty and smoky air, she opened her eyes and mouth wide to gape at the huge devices that filled this gray rough-concrete hall:

Cremators.

Three of them stood in one row. They were silver. Their gaping openings revealed dark, black holes. None of them were operating right now. The air was chilly.

Aria processed those pieces of information:

Dusty, smoky, cremators.

Earlier, empty bed frames, many of them.

Even earlier, surgery tables meant for the four experiment subjects: Stravinsky, Vera, the mockup, and eventually, the thread network.

Aria closed her mouth. This air—it smelled of burned substances. Paper, plastic, flesh.

She could hear her own heart hammer, it was throbbing so madly. She’d known that Bold and Stravinsky planned on doing something crazy that involved a human subject, Stravinsky herself. But she hadn’t considered the possibility that this wasn’t the first time they were doing something like that. She’d thought that, since there was only one Mr. Wang and only one mockup, Bold and Stravinsky couldn’t have tried to do the “transfer” before.

But all clues told her otherwise.

And it made sense that there’d been previous experiments. Bold and Stravinsky were crazy, but not unintelligent. They wouldn’t have risked public outrage and criminal prosecution without trying more secret methods first, using test subjects who weren’t they themselves in case things went wrong. And using these cremators, they’d burned the evidence.

Aria approached the nearest cremator. Gingerly, she looked in. The inside was too dark to see the deep end. But enough pale light from the ceiling and the neon thread network illuminated her end so she could see what lay in the middle:

The ashes.

They weren’t as fine and clean and polite-seeming as Aria had imagined. They weren’t like fireplace ashes at all. There were bone fragments. And there were heaps of them. So many heaps, forming a larger heap. Also, there was molten plastic, here and there—ID cards, unrecognizable photographs, the likes.

Someone had burned multiple people at the same time, together with plastic stuff and whatever else they hadn’t wanted to be found. But in the middle of the process, they’d had to shut down the cremator. If not that, Aria couldn’t imagine why a device of this size had failed to incinerate all objects inside, totally and irreversibly.

Aria hugged the laptop closer and moved on to the next cremator.

She choked. She would have yelped if she’d been less shocked, but she couldn’t let out any sound. Because, there, instead of a heap of cremated ashes were:

Human skulls.

Some, whole. Others, broken into pieces, but clearly parts of skulls because of the context. In all cases, the rest of the body wasn’t there.

And on the surfaces of the whole skulls, Aria could see clean-cut holes.

Her entire body trembled. The neon thread network trembled with her and made tiny, almost imperceptible rattling noises.

The first conscious thought that crossed her mind was that Natasha Stravinsky and Lucious Bold were a lot crazier than she’d thought. Not just crazy, but—devilish. Satanic. Like those cults in the news—

The news! The clips that she’d glimpsed on the wall-screens when she was at the airport! And when Evan Jacobs, the pimply boy, had pointlessly multitasked, playing phone games while waiting for the next exciting news!

Charles and Charlotte, the obnoxious two, or some other reporter on some other channel, had talked about missing elderly people, clean-cut skulls, illegal surgeries, satanic cults… Elderly people who were supposed to have been dead for many years, but with the found skeletons fresh…

But these skeletons were still here. Then where were the skeletons that the police had found?

Elsewhere. Which meant that there were even more skulls than the ones that were in front of Aria right now.

Something had gone wrong two weeks ago. That was when Stravinsky had suffered the bruises and cuts from her nonexistent ex-boyfriend. Stravinsky must have been attacked. She hadn’t expected the attack, that was why she hadn’t been carrying the second cell phone that let her call the “bribable coroner,” a.k.a. her crazy lover, Lucious Bold.

Perhaps Bold had been in the middle of incinerating this group of evidence here when it’d happened. He’d had to shut down the cremators as he ran to aid his darling lover, who, judging by her need to get her second phone, had to have been attacked elsewhere—somewhere far enough so that going home to get the phone was quicker than directly getting help from Bold.

Maybe Stravinsky had been at the location where the police had found the skeletons.

If not, it meant there were at least three skeleton sites: this underground experiment station, the location where the police had found the other skeletons, and a third place, where Stravinsky had been attacked.

Vera had told Aria that on that day, Stravinsky had looked as if she were mad, grinning and crying at the same time. From the interaction with the captain so far, Aria guessed that the grinning and crying hadn’t happened because the captain had felt sorry for anybody or because she’d panicked. The closest that the captain could feel to an emotion, Aria guessed, seemed to be rage.

Rage at not getting what she wants.

Rage at the lowly humans dragging down her own race with them, potentially forcing people to “standardize downward.”

And maybe, rage at the helpless captives suddenly revolting and hitting her in the head—the body part that she or her boyfriend Lucious Bold cut to perform experiments on.

That rage had made the captain grin and cry. The captain simply couldn’t believe that she’d been attacked. Outrageous! she must have thought. These vermin attacking me, the person who’s working for the greater good of the new human race!

Had some people managed to escape? Where to?

Had their families abandoned them? Or had they been kidnapped? Which was worse?

And frankly, most importantly for Aria: if her enemies were such ridiculously diabolically insane people who, on top of that, were cunning enough to fool an intelligent bot like Vera, and were backed by powerful people (though not all of the police seemed to be on their side), was an escape even possible?

Her breath came in short gasps. Thinking about the existence of the not-corrupt police didn’t calm her. Not-corrupt didn’t necessarily mean that they were good. Neither did it mean that they were capable. Maybe they were, but maybe not. And they didn’t know that Aria was here. There was no location tracker anywhere on her. And the police thought she was the one who had kidnapped Mr. Wang and threatened Natasha Stravinsky.

What did calm Aria a little bit was the knowledge that the higher-ups who backed Stravinsky and Bold were getting impatient. Some of the skulls elsewhere had been found; the not-corrupt police were investigating the case. That was why Stravinsky and Bold had gone through the trouble of getting Mr. Wang and the mockup here, today out of all days.

If things went wrong, those powerful backers weren’t going to side with Stravinsky and Bold. They were going to throw the crazy couple under the bus if it came out that the couple had anything to do with the skulls. The captain had basically said so herself; she’d said it mattered what the public thought.

In that case, Aria had to get out and tell people. She needed proof to turn the public opinion around. That was the only way to save herself.

She unfolded the laptop once, turning the cube into a rectangular box. Then, instead of further unfolding the device, she pushed a part with her thumb. It protruded, revealing a camera lens. She touched a button on the side. Bright white light shot out of a small lamp near the lens. Another, smaller lamp next to it turned on, red, confirming that the recording was working properly.

She pointed the camera at the second cremator with the heap of skulls.

What she could do was record all this. Then, if she got out of here alive, she would have evidence to show the world. If she didn’t get out of here alive, maybe one of the not-corrupt police officers would find this on her and show this to the world before the corrupt ones got to it. That’d clear her name.

That was what she kept telling herself: how very beneficial this act of recording was for her. She wasn’t doing this for the greater good. Something about thinking that you did something for the greater good sickened Aria thoroughly at this point. Unlike Bold and Stravinsky, Aria Rush harbored no grandiose delusions that she knew what was best for everyone else.

All this was just for herself. She couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t tell the world about the cremators. She simply couldn’t. Some people called the desire to tell the truth “working for the greater good,” but for Aria, it was simply motivated by a self-preservation instinct.

Besides, she remembered the conversation with Vera. The conclusion had been something like: action mattered. After all the brooding, action was what the world was going to remember most clearly.

When her thoughts reached this point, Aria noticed that she wasn’t trembling anymore. Her hand holding the laptop-turned-camera was steady. With the other hand, she was unwrapping the thread network from her body. The gunshot wound on her leg felt grimly numb, as if the flesh and blood there had realized that now was not the time to focus on physical pain.

Aria had to do this now.

Once she’d undone the threads completely, she placed the camera on the third cremator, which turned out to be empty.

With the threads, she returned to the second cremator. She crawled in, grimacing. From its depths, she managed to fish out a whole skull. She crammed the threads in there.

Next, she took that skull to the first cremator to fill it some more, this time with the ashes.

Suddenly, the hall trembled.

Someone was approaching. A herd of someones.

© 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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