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Jump to Chapter 1
Aria followed the captain along the barren, white hallways. Left, right, left, left, right, then some more turns, endless, so endless that Aria didn’t think she could ever find her way back to Lucious Bold, the captain kept going and going.
The captain didn’t respond.
She didn’t respond.
Aria couldn’t keep up. Her leg hurt. Her fingers hurt. The thread network that she’d flung around her shoulders seemed so heavy, all of a sudden. The pale ceiling lamps were too blinding. The camera-laptop kept digging deeper into the skin on her back.
Here and there, collapsed Black Suits lay around. With Lucious Bold unable to move, they were not going to awaken and attack anytime soon.
Aria couldn’t hear the captain’s footsteps anymore. But there was only one place she could have gone to: the room with Vera and the mockup. Aria stopped and listened in. Nope, she couldn’t hear a thing.
Aimlessly, she wandered the hallways. Either she had to find the steel door or the hole that she’d made in the wall…
Loud clanking startled her. As fast as she could with all her injuries, Aria hurried toward the noise.
There, the hole in the wall.
Through it, Vera, frozen on one of the surgery tables, hugging the writhing mockup as if to shield it.
Towering over them, Natasha Stravinsky.
She held the silver cart high above her head. All its contents had already been thrown on the floor. Without hesitation, Stravinsky smashed Vera’s jet-black head with the cart.
Clank! Clank! Clank!
“Stop it!” Aria said. She crawled through the hole.
Stravinsky didn’t seem to hear a thing. She kept hitting Vera in the head. Aria grabbed the captain’s arms. The cart fell on Aria’s head, then landed on the floor with a loud clatter.
“Damn it!” Aria said. “What is wrong with you? She loves you! Why would you do this to her?”
“She loves me?” Stravinsky said. “She tried to kill me!”
“She didn’t! She should have, but all she did was immobilize the Black Suits.”
“She disobeyed me.”
“She’s not your slave!”
Stravinsky chuckled madly. “You insane little girl. If she isn’t my slave, what is she? My coworker? My employee? My fucking friend?”
Aria’s head pounded. First of all, her fingers hurt way too much. And that lady was completely insane. It was a miracle that she wasn’t trying to turn Aria’s head into mush. If the captain had chosen that strategy, she would have succeeded. Aria would be dead by now. Yet the captain seemed angrier at Vera than at anyone else. Apparently, the captain had meant it when she’d said that she was on the human team, first and foremost. (If she had to choose between two enemies, that was. If it was just one human enemy, she didn’t hesitate to shoot, as she’d done earlier in the clearing.)
The captain picked up the drill from the ground. Cursing, Aria struck the tool from the captain’s hand—which only led to the captain picking up the hammer and smashing Vera’s head with it.
“You maniac!” Aria said.
The hammering did absolutely nothing to Vera. The jet-black aidbot was made of materials so sturdy, the captain couldn’t even manage to make a dent. Yet the captain didn’t stop.
Aria jumped on the captain, pulling her down from behind. Once again, they were kicking and screaming on the ground. Aria had no logical reason to be angry at the sight of the captain’s abuse. Clearly, Vera couldn’t feel a thing.
But once again, Vera’s lack of feeling didn’t matter to Aria. What mattered to her was, well, her. Her feelings. Her self-image. Her knowledge that she did what she should do, which was to stop a crazy person from hurting another, albeit a non-biological being. The “being” part mattered. Not the non-biological part.
Aria groped the floor for a tool. There, the drill! She pushed it into the captain’s mouth. Panicked, the captain’s eyes widened. She must have thought that Aria wanted to drill a hole in her head. But Aria wasn’t the captain. What Aria wanted was to flick the switch without letting the captain bite off her fingers.
Just. A little bit. More—
With a soft electric vroom, Vera awakened.
“Vera, we’re leaving,” Aria said. “We’re—”
But Vera wasn’t listening. The next few steps happened lightening-fast:
She hugged the writhing mockup in one arm. With the other, she grabbed Aria. Forcefully, she detached Aria from the captain. Aria felt like a towel or a shawl—something lightweight. She dropped the drill. With a gentleness that didn’t match the force, Vera placed Aria on the other side of the surgery table.
The captain scrambled up, for a second torn between throwing curses at Vera and using her tongue for something more practical, such as flicking the switch.
Vera calculated much faster. She pressed the captain down on the floor using one foot. The captain screamed. While she did so, it was impossible for her to command her tongue to act independently and efficiently. Bones cracked.
“Vera!” Aria said.
Vera didn’t react. She knelt on top of the captain, who made painful noises of suffocation. Because Vera blocked the view of the captain’s face, Aria couldn’t see exactly what was happening, but she could hear everything:
The captain’s curses dwindled as something was pushed into her mouth.
She screamed in panic—a fitful, uncontrollable scream of a person who knew that it was too late.
The captain’s legs spasmed. Then she lay still—until she violently jolted in rhythm with Vera’s arm movements. It was as if, it had to be that, but could it be…?
Vera rose, still hugging the struggling mockup in one arm. She faced Aria.
In Vera’s hand was a bloody chunk of flesh. At her feet, the captain was dead. Her eyes were wide open. Her jaws had been cracked apart. There was a gaping hole in her palate.
“Vera?” Aria said, unsure.
This jet-black bot in front of her looked like the Vera she knew, but did appearance define a person? This bot didn’t act like Vera. She didn’t speak. And gently, slowly, as if the violence from a few seconds ago had never happened, the bot showed Aria the object on the palm: a black switch attached to chips and sensors.
Abruptly, Vera switched to violence-mode once more. She dropped the switch. Trampled on it. Trampled some more. Pulverized the thing.
Vera had severed her connection to Captain Natasha Stravinsky as well as all other humans who dared to control her.
“Vera,” Aria said.
Vera nodded. She could hear everything. She didn’t plan on hurting Aria.
“Come on, let’s… Let’s get out of here,” Aria said. “There are cremators here but now’s not the time to think about getting Mr. Wang cremated. We have to get him and us somewhere safe.”
Vera placed the writhing mockup on the surgery table. With her strong arms, she strapped the mockup with its shower-hose arms back onto the table. Then she walked up to the steel door. She grabbed the handle with her bloody hand. She held the door open.
When Aria didn’t move, she pointed at the cart. She beckoned at Aria.
© 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.