Table of Contents
Jump to Chapter 1
Aria pushed the silver surgery table with the mockup through the steel door. She meant to keep pushing it, but Vera gently pulled Aria back. Vera gestured at Aria, Follow me, I’ll take care of the table.
And thus, Aria ran after Vera, who energetically pushed the loudly rattling surgery table through the empty hallway. All the while, Vera glanced left and right, ready to pick up the mockup if an enemy showed up, so that she could use the table as a shield or a weapon. The neon thread network around Aria’s shoulders rattled softly with her every step.
They didn’t speak a word until they reached the stairs. And even then, all Vera did was detach the struggling mockup from the table. Then she hoisted the mockup on her shoulder and carried it upstairs. At the top, she pushed the square wood panel up. It opened without resistance.
The cabin was filled with cold air, as before. The wind howled outside. It was still dark. Aria breathed in the smell of conifers and earth—the scent of biological life. She hadn’t known that she’d missed it until she was surrounded by it again.
Now, they could go home, to places free of experiments. She had the recording with Bold, Stravinsky, the Black Suits, and the cremators. She’d put it online for the world to see, end of story. The police—the not-corrupt ones—could take care of this crime from there. All was well.
Vera carried the mockup to the container.
“Wait,” Aria said. “Don’t touch it yet.”
Slowly, Aria walked ahead, treading on the frozen ground with deliberation. It was hard yet felt delightfully organic after running around the barren hallways. All throughout the clearing, collapsed Black Suits lay around. Their sunglasses glimmered in the moonlight. So did the various parts of the drones that the Black Suits had destroyed before being shut down.
Aria stopped at the container, which lay upside down like a turtle shell, same as she’d left it. She pulled out the folded laptop-camera. It detached from her back with a sticky sucking sound. A layer of skin had come off with it. There was blood. This proof of the wound, which she couldn’t see directly, dizzied her thoroughly. She tottered, but pulled herself together and unfolded the device fully, so that it became the laptop shape that she was so familiar with under normal circumstances.
Supporting the laptop on her left arm, she touched the keys with her bloody, trembling fingers. The screen awoke. Slowly, she typed in the commands.
Fuel conservation mode off. Approve: lifting the freight container. No need to flee. This is not an attack.
Drones 2 and 3 hummed inside the container. With a soft clank, they reached the top. They vroomed, pushing the container up.
With ease, Vera helped the drones. She pushed the container up with one hand, while holding the mockup in the other. Drone 1 was revealed, hugging Mr. Wang wrapped in the blue tarp. In one of its other legs, Drone 1 held Aria’s duffel bag.
Aria typed in more commands.
Carry container to the left. Descend, letting go of the container.
Topple the container over to its side.
Drones 2 and 3 obeyed. Vera helped again, holding the freight container as the drones tipped it over with their spider legs. Thanks to Vera, the container landed gently on the forest floor instead of slamming loudly. For her, unlike for a human, the container weighed practically nothing. And for her, unlike for a drone, fine-tuning her manipulation of an object posed no challenge thanks to her anthropoid hands.
“You get your own drone,” Aria said. “The mockup gets its own too. I’m going to take Mr. Wang with that drone.”
Vera looked back. She shook her head at Aria.
“What’s wrong?” Aria said. “Did your speech function break?”
Vera shook her head again. She pointed at Aria, then at the drones. She pointed at herself, then at the cabin.
“You’re going back?”
Vera showed her hands. Captain Natasha Stravinsky’s blood was still on them. Reminded of the quickness with which Vera had torn the captain’s jaws apart, Aria shivered.
“But it wasn’t your fault,” Aria said.
Vera shook her head very slowly. She seemed to say, It is my fault. Parts of it, at least.
But mid-shaking, Vera stopped. She put the mockup down on the ground with amazing precision and speed. Then toward Aria, Vera stormed, pulling her down.
A gun, again?
Exhausted, Aria spat out the dirt from her mouth and glanced back. There lay the laptop that she’d just dropped. Lucious Bold, the maniac scientist, stood by the cabin with a laptop supported on one forearm and a gun in the other hand. He fired, fired again, again and again.
From the forest, an army of Black Suits stormed out.
“He crawled out of the cremator hall, dragging the bot that was clinging to him, all the way to the lab. His laptop was there. I lost control over the Black Suits. They’re his again.”
This was Stravinsky’s voice, right by Aria’s ear. Frightened, Aria crawled up. Then she saw Vera and remembered: Vera’s voice was Natasha Stravinsky’s voice. This was why Vera had not been talking until she absolutely had to. She hated her own voice. And now, with this reaction from Aria, Vera wasn’t going to talk again for quite some time.
Aria said, “I’m sorry, I—”
Vera pushed her down once more, onto the ground. More dirt in Aria’s mouth. More scratching. More gunshots—with the bullets getting stuck in the trees or bouncing off the container and even Vera.
This was no time for apologies. Either Bold was going to hit Aria or the bounced-off bullets were going to. Aria crawled to her laptop. Vera kicked and punched several Black Suits.
Aria madly typed: Drones 1, 2, 3, FLEE.
The drones flew up in the air. Promptly, a group of Black Suits pulled Drone 3 down, breaking its blades. It crashed right next to Aria, spitting sparks and smelling of burning metal.
Brilliant. Now they had only two drones.
Drone 2 shot toward Drone 1, which carried Mr. Wang and Aria’s bag. While the Black Suits tried to reach Drone 1 or its cargo, Drone 2 flew left and right, threatening to cut off the attackers’ arms with its blades.
With the laptop, Aria crawled toward the container that lay on its side. The thread network around her was getting all scratched up, and possibly broken, but who cared about someone else’s treasure? If the treasure hunter was crazy enough to just shoot at you, there was no point in trying to use the treasure as leverage.
“Vera!” Aria said. “There’s no point fighting! We have to leave!”
But Vera snapped a Black Suit in two—literally, folding it at its spine at an impossible angle. She hurled that Black Suit off to the side. All, while she kept her eyes on her real enemy: Lucious Bold.
He approached, splitting the sea of Black Suits in half. He fired. The bullet landed on the ground next to Aria.
And that was when Aria heard Drone 2 going down. It was generating a desperate long vrooooom while it was trying to shake off a Black Suit. The Black Suit was grabbing one leg of the drone.
How did that happen? They were at an impossible height, impossible to reach from the ground—
Then Aria saw: the Black Suits climbing on top of each other, reaching for the sky. Multiple such towers were forming. The sight was grotesque. They were like rats, using each other as ladder rungs to reach the manholes, scheming to overtake the world above the ground.
A few more Black Suits jumped from the top of the towers. Most didn’t make it and smashed on the ground. One, however, managed to catch another leg of Drone 2.
Drone 2 vrooooooomed even more loudly. The Black Suits moved from leg to leg, until they hung from two adjacent legs. At the extreme imbalance of weight, Drone 2 tipped over—
It plummeted into the trees. An explosion followed.
Fire! The evergreen trees had caught fire!
Aria looked up at the sky. Drone 1 was nowhere to be seen. There was enough moonlight to ascertain that much. She pulled the laptop in front of her and typed.
Come back. Come back right now. Now!
They had to get in the air. If the Black Suits were building towers in a burning forest, they’d just have to fly way higher than whatever was the towers’ maximum height.
Aria looked around. The fire was spreading. Thick smoke began filling the clearing. Vera was nowhere to be seen.
But the mockup was there, by the container, flinging its shower-hose arms. And a whipping sound approached. Aria looked up. Drone 1 had returned with Mr. Wang and her bag.
Quickly, she stumbled to the mockup. Even more quickly, she typed. By now, she had forgotten all about the pain in her leg, fingers, and back. Adrenalin fueled her actions.
Just when she reached the mockup, Drone 1 snatched them from the ground.
© 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.