Losses, Gains – Ch. 27

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Aria looked around the cold concrete hall of cremators. As the footsteps of her pursuers got closer, the trembling exacerbated. Quickly, she headed toward the second cremator full of the other skulls. There, she carefully placed her skull with the ashes and the threads. For good measure, she also buried it under the other skulls so that no faint glow escaped through the hollow bones.

She wanted her enemies looking for it. She wanted them demanding it, so that she could capture everything on camera. What she needed was context—irrefutable context that would allow the whole world to see her enemies’ greed.

On the wall through which she’d entered, doors opened up.  The wail of the sirens amplified. She had just enough time to snatch the camera from the third cremator before dozens of Black Suits boasting their multi-colored skin and hair stormed in. They didn’t cough or grimace; they didn’t need to breathe the dusty, smelly air. In fact, it was quite possible that they didn’t notice the difference at all. There was no reason Bold should have equipped these bots with the ability to distinguish fresh air from bad air.

While the Black Suits filled the hall, Aria pointed the camera at them. She glanced back, up, and down. Because the ceiling, floor, and the other three walls of the hall were made of concrete, it didn’t seem likely that more doors would open up, letting more Black Suits enter.

They closed in on her. She backed away. Although the Black Suits blocked her only exit route, she wasn’t nervous, not yet. These Black Suits, on their own, meant nothing. They were neutral beings. What she needed was a face that belonged to a human, one who had a birth certificate, employment history, a biological mother and father, therefore a family. And, if possible, two faces were better than one. The two faces of the psychopath couple.

When the panting of people became audible, Aria knew that her targets had arrived. The sea of Black Suits split in half. Lucious Bold and Natasha Stravinsky emerged.

Lucious Bold looked more like a mad scientist than ever, and also, more than ever, like a sixty-year-old man who’d spent most of his life in a lab and not at the gym. As he came to a halt near Aria, he coughed loudly. His lungs had a long history of not being accustomed to running. The blood had flowed down from his forehead wound to his chin. Some of his wild hair stuck to his cheek.

Natasha Stravinsky, the fitter one of the two, was only slightly out of breath. But her madly glistening eyes indicated that she’d been driven to the limits of her patience. In front of Bold, she stopped. She pointed a gun at Aria.

“Foolish girl,” the captain said. “You think recording this will get you anything? You’re not getting out alive and there’s no way you can stream a live feed from here.”

No matter what the captain said, the red light on Aria’s camera-laptop glowed steadily, recording both Bold and the captain. Slowly, the captain approached. She squinted as she got closer to the bright white light of the camera.

“Where is the network?” the captain asked.

Aria didn’t answer.

“Speak, idiot!”

When the captain was only a couple of feet away and the camera had clearly captured a high-resolution clip of her waving the gun threateningly, Aria pushed in the lens with her thumb. The red light turned off. So did the bright white light.

At the sudden, relative darkness, all humans blinked. Aria used this moment to tuck the camera in her jeans, right around her lower back. The thing was quite bulky, but since it wasn’t folded fully, it was flat enough. This would have to do.

In the next few seconds, their eyes adjusted to the new light equilibrium.

Stravinsky reached for Aria’s neck, to pull her down. Aria backed away. But instead of continuing to do so, as Stravinsky might have expected, she ducked. She tackled the captain. The gun flew off.

“No,” Bold told the Black Suits before they intervened. “Search this place, now.”

The Black Suits dispersed.

The captain hammered Aria’s head with her fist. Aria didn’t let go of the captain’s leg. Then Aria crawled up, touching the captain everywhere.

“What the fuck?” the captain said.

Aria wasn’t trying to arouse the captain into defeat. She wanted to find the switch for Vera. And for this part, she wanted no camera witness.

Why? She couldn’t explain. Maybe it was because it seemed rude to reveal to the world how you could “kill” and “resurrect” a being with so much intelligence. Or maybe it was because, as long as very few people knew about the switch, Vera might…

Vera could…

What? Be human? Act human, at the very least?

Aria really didn’t know the answer.

But she did know that the switch had to be on Captain Natasha Stravinsky’s person, possibly inside her. It probably wasn’t a remote control that anybody and everybody could steal. That would defeat its purpose. It had to be somewhere safe yet always reachable by the captain. Otherwise, during emergency situations, how was the captain to have full control over Vera?

So, despite the awkwardness of the situation, Aria had to grope the captain.

“What the fuck!” the captain said again, now sounding very certain that Aria was crazier than herself.

The captain kicked Aria in the leg wound. Aria hit the captain in her head wound. That wound burst. The captain groaned. Aria punched the wound again. But because of the blood, Aria’s fist slipped. The captain punched her in the leg wound once more.

“You. Aren’t. Getting. What you’re. Looking for!” the captain said. “You’ll never think of where it is!”

Natasha Stravinsky hadn’t stayed a pilot without a good reason. She’d figured out what Aria was searching for. There was only one reason an enemy should suddenly spend time groping when such an act inflicted no real damage.

They struggled. They pulled each other’s hair out. They bit and punched. The sirens kept wailing from the far corners of this underground station. The constant howl made Aria dizzy. She really wished the captain would cooperate.

“Don’t you see that your so-called boyfriend doesn’t care if you get hurt?” Aria said.

“We’ve worked on this project for years,” the captain said. “This is bigger than any one of us!”

Again, that stupid “greater good” talk.

“He’s using you as a guinea pig, not because you’re a successful person, but because you’re a not-him. He doesn’t want to take the risk himself!”

“Of course he doesn’t. He can’t, and shouldn’t! He’s the driving force of this project!”

“He doesn’t even care about you as the guinea pig. He’ll just get a new one if he needs to! That’s why he’s not ordering them to help you!”

“He doesn’t need to order them to help me because he knows I’m the strongest specimen he could possibly find!”

“Don’t call yourself a specimen!”

“A strong body carries a strong mind that can see the truth!”

“A body he doesn’t care if it breaks or crushes!”

“Because he’s getting me a new body, an eternal one to match my eternal life!”

There was no talking sense to this woman.

“Mr. Bold,” one of the Black Suits said, in a voice spookily human yet robotic.

He stood next to the second cremator.

In his hands: the threads. All of them. All fished out and dusted clean.

The empty skull and a mound of ashes lay strewn around the floor.

© 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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