Checks, Balances – Ch. 1

Table of Contents

Long lines. The hassle of removing electronic devices from your bags and putting them in separate bins. The faint foot odor that most people are too polite to acknowledge because it comes from strangers, it’s winter (which means thick, ill-ventilating socks), and those strangers have no choice but to take off their boots for this most cumbersome part of the air traveling experience:

Security checks.

Such checks were a routine part of the average airport of the year 2020, and Aria Rush stood in the very center of one such average airport while holding a single black carry-on duffle bag.

Hundreds of people hunted for empty bins and those bins collided and made those dull plastic-colliding sounds. The same hundreds of people took off their snowshoes or sneakers or dress shoes under the flat, pale lights covering most of the ceiling. Add to that the dozens of aidbots, which were quite literally bots that aided, and the area in front of the security check gates ended up being as hectic as a chicken farm focused solely on profit and not at all on food safety or animal welfare.

Most aidbots were androids at least as large as their owners, meaning that they were all taller than Aria, who was smaller and shorter than the human average. But one could never mistake an aidbot as a human just because of their human-comparable sizes and anthropomorphic physical features such as arms, legs, hands with ten fingers, and feet with ten toes. Their “eyes” were a strip of black screen, curved like the visor of a helmet. Their smooth faces lacked a nose, a mouth, and ears. Gaping spaces opened up at their joints whenever they bent their arms or legs; no skin or clothing gave them privacy.

Unless their owner happened to be really very conservative. Then, like those olden-time folks who used to put little socks on the limbs of their pianos, the aidbots might be wearing clothes. But most everyone agreed: that tended to look ridiculous. So it was that mean children everywhere made it their sport and hobby to squeeze foreign material into the gaping gaps of their neighborhood aidbots’ joints. Terrible, what human children were capable of. Aria had often been the one to fix the poor aidbots, who’d been attacked at their weakest points.

Some parents chided or even punished their children for such despicable behavior; many didn’t care. Very clearly, the aidbots were robots rather than humans. So, what was the big deal? Did humans ever punish their children for hitting the TV set? Of course not.

Even the owners liked to keep the aidbots strictly robotic in every sense. The biggest market for aidbots was people whom the marketing gurus called the “hyperelderly” (the ninety to one-hundred-and-twenty age bracket). You didn’t want to pay for a capable, young, more human-seeming creature when you were expiring, was how marketing journals explained the preference for clearly robotic aidbots, instead of for “more human” ones.

At any rate, had the airport not been so crowded, the aidbots might have been quite pleasant to look at. Light that was flattening for humans was flattering to these metallic beings. Their smooth surfaces shimmered. They were usually black, white, silver, or rose-gold. You know, just like the colors of your smartphone. Classic colors, which you won’t easily tire of. Timeless. Quite beautiful, really.

But aidbots never existed independently from their humans. And with their humans so pale and tired-looking under the airport ceiling lights, the aidbots were busy helping the humans—wiping their cold sweat, holding their bags, checking their temperature… And the light didn’t have a chance to make the bots shine.

Back in Aria’s workshop in Dodam, the city that she was about to leave behind, her aidbots used to look beautiful, as they should. There, no crowd. There, no dull plastic collision sounds. There, lighting, designed to flatter humans and bots more or less equally, so that neither felt neglected—although the lighting did slightly favor the humans.

Human beings being the beings of relativity, their perception of their own beauty made them more open to the idea of aidbots. Each aidbot seemed like less of a threat, even without the eyes, nose, and mouth, if a potential human owner thought that they themselves were presentable. Hence, flattering lighting was a proven method to encourage the hyperelderly to purchase a model when they came to a workshop to customize a companion for a lifetime.

You’d think that any logically minded hyperelderly wouldn’t be influenced by such shallow, manipulative tactics. If they need an aidbot, they go get one. If they don’t, they don’t go get one, regardless of lighting, no? But few things in life are purely logical. Aging, especially, isn’t logical. About the only part that is logical about aging is that it is bound to happen. But how a person interprets the process? What that person should do or can do or can’t do? Not so clear-cut.

So, a threat—that was what many hyperelderly thought the aidbots were. Because, any being that could walk, run, jump, fetch, grab, pull, and push, while you couldn’t, was a threat. Didn’t matter if it was an aidbot or another human being. Didn’t matter that you wanted that being to be able to perform those tasks because you couldn’t…

Aria hugged her bulky black duffle bag so that she wouldn’t be in the way of an aidbot that stood just in front of her. The aidbot nodded thanks. Quiet beings, they were, when it came to communication with any human other than their owners, especially in a public place.

This particular one was silver-colored. With Aria out of the way, it knelt on the ground, probably to help its owner with the shoes. It was an older model, from about five years ago, but solidly built, Aria knew. Not much customization. In fact, none that Aria could discern from first look. Probably inexpensive. But well-maintained. No creaking joints, no randomly blinking light anywhere, no scratches, no coolant leaking.

On the other hand, its owner grunted and sighed and moaned. He was an ancient man, probably at the top of the hyperelderly bracket. He could barely stand with the help of the braces around his legs and waist so that he kept his one hand on the silver aidbot’s shoulder. That hand kept slipping because—ironically—he’d taken too good care of his basic-model aidbot. Or, rather, he’d ordered the aidbot to take too good care of itself—and its surface was over-polished.

His technician should have offered to attach a handle on that shoulder.

Bad technicians were worse than none. When you had no technician, you looked for one. When you had a bad one, you tended to keep them. Especially when they talked the good talk. Sweet talk. Useless talk. People liked to hear such talk. They didn’t look for new technicians.

Laziness? Maybe. But if you’re a hundred and twenty years old, maybe it should be called something else. Tiredness, maybe. Or an awareness of the futility of replaceable existences. After the clients replaced a chunk of their activity with an aidbot, they didn’t want to think about replacing the technician with a different person altogether.

Eventually, the ancient man in front of Aria balanced himself on one foot and his arm on his silver aidbot, proving that she’d guessed correctly: the aidbot was about to help the man with his shoes. Slippers, in fact. Slippers that had been halfway covering multiple layers of very thick socks.

His difficulty in standing upright, on two feet or one foot, must have been why the aidbot had recommended the slippers instead of boots or anything else warmer. That was also probably why the aidbot had begun aiding the man now, instead of after fifty more people in front of them had gotten through the check gate.

Aria hoped that the security check agentbots wouldn’t ask the old man to take off his layers of socks.

To give the old man some privacy, she looked around the pre-security-check area with no particular aim. The same hundreds of people who’d taken off their shoes now took off their coats. And the vests. And the scarves. Sometimes with the help of the aidbots, sometimes on their own.

Then people and their aidbots walked through the check gate, a device that looked like a simple rectangular opening. One of the agentbots, painted in light-blue for the torso and black for the legs, told the people and their aidbots to Wave your arms up and down, please, in a perfectly authentic human voice. Then they said Step out, please.

Aria cringed. Bots could do wonderful things for humans. And bots only ended up being what they were because some humans had wanted it so. But those authentic human voices didn’t belong with blue-painted torsos and black-painted legs.

Aidbots, unlike those agentbots, tended to have more robotic voices because that tended to comfort the clients. Aria wondered if the airport had decided to go with human voices for its agentbots precisely to make people uneasy. Because, people did obey the agentbots. They did step in when told and stepped out, also when told.

Then, people and their aidbots waited for their stuff on the other side of the check gates. Picked up the scarves, vests, coats; the dress shoes, sneakers, snowshoes; collected the electronic devices; put them back in their bags; and finally, finally walked off to the gates where the airplanes waited.

The idea of the gates made Aria’s stomach grumble. Between here and there, restaurants lined the innards of the airport. She’d checked the map in the cab on the way here.

Breakfast—that was what she’d been craving since she was done packing late last night (or early this dawn), when no decent place that served bacon and eggs was open, at least not near where she used to live. Back then, she’d been only mildly disappointed. She’d told herself, Might as well get out of this whole area now, not just out of the apartment. Sure, the idea of breakfast had made her mouth water. (Beautiful, greasy, glistening bacon! Butter-basted sunny-side-up eggs, gorged down with a hot, fresh cup of coffee!) But by heavens, she had to get away from him. And the best she could do now was to ignore her empty stomach and try to let the dullness of her surroundings carry her to temporary numbness…

Someone grabbed Aria’s arm from behind so that she almost bumped into the ancient man in front of her. But she managed to stumble sideways instead. She whirled around. The grabber let go.

“I’m sorry, dear,” an old lady with snow-white hair said.

“It’s okay, ma’am,” Aria said. “Go ahead.”

Aria offered her arm, and the old lady grabbed it well before Aria had finished saying “Go ahead.” The lady couldn’t help it; she couldn’t keep her balance.

Seventy, maybe? Eighty? Not so old as to need an aidbot, but old enough to need human help, occasionally.

But Aria wasn’t good with guessing ages. Aria’s parents had never been close to their own parents, which meant that Aria had barely known her grandparents. And when it isn’t your own grandparents, you don’t ask old people their age. In fact, you don’t ask anyone their age, old or young; it’s rude.

“Thank you, that’s very sweet of you,” the old lady said apologetically.

“My pleasure,” Aria said.

The lady slowly took off her loafers with her free hand. The process was drawn out and looked painful. But Aria knew from experience with her clients that it’s better to wait for the other party to ask for help.

Never assume that someone needs help, especially when that someone expects other people to expect that they’ll need help, and still doesn’t ask for help. Just do your job when it’s given to you. Like when the client comes to your shop to customize an aidbot. Do the job. Which that technician who’d sold that silver aidbot to that ancient man hadn’t done by failing to attach a handle on its shoulder…

“You know, when I grabbed you accidentally,” the old lady said, out of breath, crouched, her voice shaking, nevertheless smiling, “I thought, ‘Oops,’ because you look so, I don’t know, so, so stern, a little.” The old lady chuckled nervously. “I mean, no offense, I should be old enough to know not to judge a book by its cover. But all that black.”

“No offense taken,” Aria said. “I hear that a lot.”

She did. She liked black. Her duffle bag was black. Her long hair, tied back in a ponytail, was black. Her jeans were black. The boots were black, too, and her leather gloves sticking out of her black leather jacket were black as well. Even the glass bottle of her perfume was black and smelled of black orchids.

Black, a neutral color.

But of course, she’d left the perfume bottle back in Jack’s apartment, in Dodam. That was another inconvenience with air travel, on top of the security checks: you didn’t get to take the liquids, the breakables, and the flammables with you. And now that Aria thought about it, perfume in a glass bottle was all of that. Liquid, breakable, flammable.

The “No breakables in the cabin” rule was added about a year ago, when some genius had decided to carry a glass vase, completely unprotected, in her carry-on bag—not even a suitcase, but a gym bag.

The vase broke on the airplane, possibly well before takeoff, when people were struggling to secure space in the overhead compartment. Mid-flight, a three-year-old boy wanted to play with a toy that his parents had put in a suitcase in the overhead compartment. Because the parents also had a newborn to struggle with and the boy couldn’t reach the overhead compartment, a flight attendant—a human one—helped.

The luggage with the toy for the boy did get out of the overhead compartment. But in the process, the flight attendant cut himself on the broken glass shards that had pierced through the maddeningly inappropriate gym bag.

Blood was spilled. People panicked.

Any and all breakables were prohibited from carry-on from then forward. As an additional side effect, the airline’s decision to have a human flight attendant had been questioned. Said airline ended up firing all human flight attendants, as so many other humans in other fields had been fired, including the ground staff that had allowed the vase to pass through security.

Hence, now.

No breakables. And also, no liquids, no flammables, no anything, no nothing, why, oh why, humans, do you need an airplane to get from one place to another at all?

Totally inconvenient. Which, though, could be a good thing. Inconvenience forced you to leave some things behind. And sometimes, you were better off that way. Jack had gifted Aria the perfume in the black bottle. Jack, who used to be her boyfriend, and who had become her ex as of last night. Or this dawn, depending on how you defined your nights and dawns.

And once again, Aria dreamed of bacon and eggs, steaming hot coffee, a full stomach and the pleasant drowsiness that inevitably accompanied it…

“Oh, but such a, such a friendly girl you are,” said the lady, out of breath and finally getting out of one loafer.

She proceeded to the other side. Aria patiently held out her arm for any support the lady might need.

During security checks, there was no special treatment for the elderly. (Not that there ever was any special treatment anywhere for the elderly.) Aria was thirty now, and she seriously wondered whether she’d be able to manage air travel when she reached the same age as this lady.

Perhaps, in the several decades that it was going to take Aria to reach the age of seventy, someone in charge of designing security checks would figure out a more efficient method to accomplish the task. But then again, it had already been 106 years since the very first passenger aircraft had taken off on January 1, 1914, and 106 years hadn’t been enough to improve the situation much.

In fact, the situation had worsened. There used to be a time when people didn’t worry about terrorist attacks from mini bombs the size of thumbnails, which were nevertheless capable of blowing off an entire airplane. Back then, things had moved more quickly.

Presently, things moved far from quickly.

“I am so sorry, I just, I can’t…” the old lady said.

“Take your time,” Aria said.

The I’m-very-important-because-I-wear-this-$4,000-suit guy behind Aria cleared his throat in disagreement.

Aria turned around and raised her brows at him. Not in a belligerent way, no. With people like that, you don’t get belligerent. They are people who frown and hold their nose at a person whose feet stink, even though said person knows that his feet stink and is embarrassed about it but has to take off his shoes anyway because this is the security check. These are people who think that no one but they want to get through the security check as soon as possible, as if they had a trademark on the idea of having better things to do.

When dealing with them, you maintain your cool. Wearing black helps, especially when you’re as small and short as Aria. People like the suit guy think that tiny people are easy to deal with. Not so. Ever seen a tiny chihuahua bark like mad at a golden retriever? That. That tiny chihuahua. That could be Aria.

But for now, she chose to be a calm chihuahua. Wearing black, the neutral but strong color, Aria gave the guy the stare: “You got a problem?” but not in a “Let’s fight” way. Just in a “What’s the matter, you can’t handle a situation like this? You call this a problem?” way.

It wasn’t as if they were going to get anywhere faster by making the old lady take off her shoes faster. There was a long line ahead of them.

The self-important suit guy looked away. Once again, Aria was reminded of Jack Tran and the breakfast he’d basically robbed from her.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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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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