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Jump to Chapter 1
The sight of the Black Suit holding the threads in his hands made Aria despair. He’d found it too soon, well before she’d gotten close to the switch.
That hopelessness sent a pang through her head. The pain multiplied with every renewed siren howl. Her grip around Natasha Stravinsky weakened. Using this, the captain pressed her down on the cold concrete floor of the cremator hall. That worked like a wake-up call. Promptly, Aria recovered her purpose.
“Where is the switch?” Aria asked Stravinsky. “Where is it!”
Stravinsky chuckled and pressed Aria harder down as if she wanted her prey buried in the ground. Aria groaned. It felt like her camera-laptop was cutting into the flesh on her back.
“It’s nowhere you can reach, sweetie,” the captain said.
How could the captain be so sure?
The switch couldn’t be on the surface of the captain’s body. Aria had searched everywhere. This meant that it had to be inside her, literally. But which part of the internal organs could be easily reached by its owner, at will?
Presently, Lucious Bold was walking toward the glowing neon network as if he were drawn by a supernatural force. Aria didn’t doubt for one second that Bold was going to treat the network with a lot more care and love than he showed for his so-called girlfriend. When the Black Suit handed over the treasure, Bold accepted it with both hands. He grinned the crazy grin of a zealot, the neon-yellow, -green, and -skyblue illuminating his wide-open mouth—
Aria glanced at Stravinsky. The captain’s mouth was shut tightly in her effort to keep Aria down.
But every human had a muscle inside the mouth. It was a muscle that aidbots didn’t require, yet Aria had found it fascinating enough to read up on it while she was training as a technician.
That muscle was called the tongue.
Some called it the strongest muscle in the human body, which was untrue. But it wasn’t surprising that such a myth had become so popular. The tongue could bend, twist, and suck. It never felt tired; there was no such thing as not being able to eat because the tongue muscle needed to take a break. The tongue was also versatile: equipped with taste buds, used for sexual pleasure, and for pushing food down the throat.
And the tongue was, as far as Aria knew, the only muscle that could be deliberately manipulated to reach the insides of a human, without letting anyone on the outside notice what was going on. It sounded weird when you put it that way, but all Aria was saying was: if you were to lick the insides of your mouth very carefully, no one would notice. Especially if you were to lick the roof of your mouth. That part was hard, unlike the cheeks, which could show a hint of the tongue moving…
Aria forced her fingers into the captain’s mouth.
“Wha—” the captain screamed.
“If you’d just cooperate—” Aria said.
The captain bit her fingers. Blood everywhere. Aria screamed but didn’t let go.
Who was more panicked? Her, at danger of having her fingers bit off, or the captain, at danger of having her jaws torn apart or choking at her enemy’s blood?
It was debatable.
But it was a debate that didn’t interest Lucious Bold. He didn’t look worried that Stravinsky might die or suffer serious trauma. This could mean that the switch wasn’t in her mouth. But it could also just mean that it didn’t matter whether Stravinsky was alive or not to operate the switch; even after her death, someone could retrieve the switch to wake up Vera…
Something hard, protruding, and definitely not organic rubbed against Aria’s pinky, which had been groping for the switch on Stravinsky’s palate.
Aria flicked the thing.
From the look of the captain, Aria knew that she’d flicked the right switch. And from the reaction of Bold, who’d noticed both the captain and Aria’s expressions, Aria was even more certain that she’d awoken Vera.
Driven by the high of this first small success, Aria straddled the captain. With both hands, she pushed apart the captain’s mouth, wider than ever before. The captain screamed. Her tongue wildly writhed in its cage.
Now, if only Aria could sever the connection between the switch and Vera, then the captain could never put Vera to sleep, ever again…
The sirens stopped. The ground shook. Bold fell. The Black Suits tottered. They whipped their heads around at the open doors on the tiled wall. Something was happening there—
All Black Suits took out their guns from their pockets.
They threw the guns on the ground.
They trampled on the guns until the weapons became mere parts.
The Black Suit standing closest to Stravinsky’s gun destroyed that gun too. Then all Black Suits collapsed.
It had happened so quickly and so synchronously, Aria, Stravinsky, and Bold didn’t move for a few seconds, in shock.
Then, one Black Suit rose as if from the dead. It approached Bold, who hugged the thread network. Eyes wide, he seemed unsure whether his own creation was on his side or not. If a human had shown these signs of betrayal, he wouldn’t have been shocked to this extent. Revolting robots, however? Mere tools, rebelling? That numbed him.
The Black Suit reached for Bold. Bold flinched. The bot slipped its hand into the pocket of Bold’s white lab gown. Took out the gun. Smashed the gun into pieces on the ground.
Then it flung its arms around Bold’s torso. With a gasp, Bold dropped the network. The air was being pressed out of his lungs—
The captain bit Aria hard in the fingers. Aria yelped. Watching the strange actions of the Black Suits, she’d allowed herself to lose focus. Instinctively, she pulled her fingers out.
The Black Suit, who held Bold, froze.
Without fear, the captain crawled toward them. As soon as Aria had let go, the captain had flicked Vera’s switch again. But Bold struggled to free himself from the Black Suit’s arms to no avail. Vera had used her ten seconds of clarity for precisely the right actions.
No more guns.
Bold, overpowered by a Black Suit, even with Vera turned off by Stravinsky.
And none of the other Black Suits under his control anymore.
This was great. This meant that Vera was furious at Stravinsky and Bold; which meant that Vera knew what had happened to her; which, in turn, meant that Vera was on Aria’s side, once again.
But Aria needed a lasting method of keeping Vera awake.
Stravinsky tried to remove the Black Suit’s arms by force, to free her lover. Of course it didn’t work. The bot was a bot and wasn’t even noticing that she might break its arm. Besides, it was highly unlikely she could successfully break its arms with her bare hands anyway.
Frustrated, Stravinsky punched the Black Suit in the face. That threw it off balance. As it rolled on the floor, it dragged Bold with it. Both Bold and Stravinsky cursed.
Aria crawled up. Dragging her doubly, triply wounded leg, she approached the glowing thread network on the ground. She picked it up with her bloody, bitten fingers.
Then she reached behind her back to touch the skin against the camera. There was a deep mark where the edge of the camera had cut into her skin. Maybe there was blood, maybe there wasn’t; she couldn’t tell, what with her already-bloody fingers. She briefly considered removing the camera, but thought otherwise. She wanted her wounded hands free, as much as possible.
So, thread network, check.
Now she needed the mockup and Vera.
She looked at the psychopath couple, still struggling with the Black Suit—and she gasped.
The captain’s punch had not only prompted the Black Suit to roll over; it had broken its sunglasses. Now, the “eyes” of that Black Suit were in plain sight: blank, black, without any white, like beads. Machine parts. Mere placeholders. Empty. And sad.
She’d been totally unprepared for this sight. Now, out of all times, hadn’t been the time she’d expected to feel pity for this bot.
But she did. The damn foolish thing that had been designed to obey Bold’s every order had been overtaken by Vera for ten brief seconds. For that breach, it had paid a high price. Its roboticness was completely exposed. Aria, the last person here who hadn’t known whether to call the bot “it” or “he” had stopped doubting its identity. It was an “it.”
Those bead eyes looked less human than simpler, more obviously mechanical parts, such as Vera’s visor. It was because those beads could have resembled human eyes, had they been designed with just a little bit more care. The beads were similar enough, but still too different from the real thing.
Hence the Black Suit was faker than a doll formed after a human.
Hence it was faker even compared to a stuffed animal, designed to give the cuddly impression of a mammal.
Was Bold going to fix it later? And when he did, was it going to forget all about what had happened and start obeying Bold’s orders once more?
No. You couldn’t call that “forgetting.” The bot didn’t experience events, to begin with. Yet the sight of its empty black eyes saddened Aria thoroughly. She did experience. She knew that it didn’t. And the more she pitied the Black Suit that had no idea it was the recipient of pity, the more she despised Bold and Stravinsky. She simply couldn’t leave Vera here with these cruel people.
On the ground, Bold’s mad scientist look had reached its peak. His white lab gown had turned all dusty and bloody. None of his usual calm demeanor remained. The sight of his lover trying to remove the bot’s arms from him, completely oblivious to her own bloody head injury, didn’t make them seem any saner.
“If you remove the switch from your mouth, I promise we’ll leave without attacking you,” Aria said.
Bold screamed curses at her. Stravinsky glared up at Aria.
“You don’t have the power to negotiate,” the captain said. “Vera is mine.”
Then, before Aria could stop her, the captain rushed out of the cremator hall.
© 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.