Losses, Gains – Ch. 31

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Freely flying against gravity gave Aria the distinctive tickling sensation that she had hitherto only experienced at theme parks. The hair on her arms stood on end. She could feel it, though it was sheltered by her jacket.

The wind whipped her wild ponytail into her face. She coughed because the smoke was rising, which led to panic, because she was afraid she’d drop the laptop, which made her inhale, which made her cough more. She thought her fingers would all break, she was holding the laptop so dearly. But she couldn’t close it, couldn’t fold it and put it in the bag just yet.

The forest fire that had been triggered by Drone 2’s explosion was spreading. The red and orange flames were so bright, the moon seemed to lose its luminance. Even the sky was a turbid gray-yellow. Aria didn’t have to worry that the Black Suits might see the neon glow of the threads wrapped around her and come after her.

But the worst of it was the sound: the parching, scorching, and exsiccating of organic material that had managed to survive many winters and many summers wearing the same, reliable, evergreen coat.

Above all that, Aria was soaring with Drone 1. So did the mockup, Mr. Wang, and the duffel bag. Because of the amount of cargo—as well as the type of cargo, which included a certain shower-hose-arm-flinging ancient aidbot—Drone 1 swayed side to side, recalibrating.

It was this movement that caught the attention of the Black Suits. Several of them turned their heads toward the drone. They gathered, forming another tower by climbing on top of each other. The suits covering their arms and legs tore; they plucked each other’s hair out; sunglasses flew off, revealing those empty, pure-black bead eyes. But they didn’t stop.

Drone 1 kept swaying. Hands of every known human skin color shot up in the air, reaching for it. The drone shot up higher, even as it swayed. Higher, even higher…

Aria typed with her index finger because it was the steadiest finger right now:

Not too high. Maintain altitude.

Because they had to look for Vera. But could they all flee with this one drone? For now, the drone managed to hover several feet over the towers of Black Suits and the burning forest, but its battery level was probably…

Battery check.

Battery level: 50%

Not bad. Not bad at all. Aria just had to find Vera, then they could get the hell out of here. But the smoke, it blinded her with little dusty particles, at which her eyes produced tears, which didn’t help—

There! Through the smoke, Aria could see a white patch surrounded by a group of black. That was Lucious Bold in his mad scientist gown, shielded by the Black Suits. They were headed to the cabin.

Behind that group was another. This group was moving more slowly, probably because of the curiously dark, writhing silhouette that they carried above their heads. That silhouette was so dark, jet-black, in fact, that even the brightest of the flames nearby looked dull. That jet-black surface reflected nearly nothing. It absorbed light, almost completely.

That was Vera. The Black Suits had grabbed her and were carrying her to the cabin.

Did Bold plan on staying at the cabin until the fire died down?

No, this fire wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The police would arrive first before the fire somehow spontaneously extinguished itself. And the police meant danger for both Aria and Bold right now. They thought that Aria had kidnapped and killed Mr. Wang. And once they found the skulls and these Black Suits here, even the most corrupt police would realize that Lucious Bold couldn’t be protected anymore.

So, Bold couldn’t be planning on staying here, just waiting. Also, for the transfer, he needed more than Vera. A human subject. And the mockup. And the thread network.

Then, was he trying to hide Vera somewhere unreachable while he could make another attempt at getting the other assets?

Maybe the cabin had a different entry/exit point. Mr. Wang had said that his own house had a half-mile-long tunnel that connected his basement to a forest clearing. If Mr. Wang could think of such a thing, Lucious Bold could. And if Bold were to take Vera away, taking an unknown route, Aria would never find Vera again.

Vera, who didn’t want to join me anyway, said a small voice in Aria’s head.

She shook her head, trying to shake off that thought. Vera was traumatized. Vera, who had helped Aria so much. Vera, who had been always loyal to her owner until that owner had abandoned her. Vera, who had loved Natasha Stravinsky.

Battery level: 49%

Oh, shit. Carrying this much cargo by itself, and struggling to maintain balance, Drone 1 was using up its battery quickly. To add Vera was to jeopardize Aria’s own safety, as well as the likelihood of fulfilling Mr. Wang’s last wish.

But still!

Aria reached into her jacket pocket. She fished out the sickle-shaped cable. She connected it to the laptop and tried to connect the other end to the mockup.

The flames danced below her dangling feet. The light and heat hurt her eyes. If she fell from this height, into that fire, she’d die. And if she were to drop the laptop, she could forget about fleeing; the drone wasn’t going to understand a word of human language that she screamed at it.

Still, she wanted to talk to the mockup, to ask it the two most important questions that she should have asked it a long while ago so that she wouldn’t have to ask them in a situation like this.

Finally, she got hold of the drone leg that held the writhing mockup. She pulled it closer and stuck the cable in its head.

[What the hell!]

“Yeah, quick question.”

[We have to go now!]

“I know. But we’re getting Vera first.”

[You’re insane. She didn’t want to come with us. She killed her owner. Did you see it?]

“Did you see what her owner did before Vera killed her? Did you see how much Vera helped us while the two humans down there, one dead and the other one alive, did nothing but try to take advantage of us? And might I add, it was a human who strapped you to a surgery table with the purpose of erasing you from existence and using your hardware.”

[A dog owner can be the biggest serial killer of all time and still when the dog kills its owner, people]

“You listen to me,” she said. She didn’t bother reading the rest of what the mockup had to say. “Vera isn’t a dog. And even if she were a dog, I dream of dogs killing their serial killer owners, okay? So, I’m going to ask you…”

Aria stopped. She was angry at the mockup for talking about Vera as if she had no rights whatsoever. When a person created something with intelligence, shouldn’t he think about the consequences? Was the mockup denying the existence of sensitive issues? Or was it very much aware of them, and angry because Mr. Wang hadn’t considered those problems when he had made it?

Either way, Aria knew that the question she was about to ask was crass. So, she knew that she was in no position to tell the mockup to stop being so very insensitive.

She took a deep breath and continued:

“I have two questions and I hope you will answer them honestly and quickly, because we don’t have much time. Do you think if the drone were to gently place Mr. Wang in a quiet corner of the burning forest, he would accept that as a proper cremation? And, would you be satisfied with such a process?”

[Excuse me?!]

Aria had expected that reaction. And in this case, the combination of a question mark and an exclamation point was justified.

“I’m sorry I am asking this. But… Are we really going to leave Vera behind? Because you think she’s lesser than a human? Or lesser than a dog? Or lesser than whatever you think deserves a modicum of, I don’t know, compassion?”

The mockup didn’t answer.

“Vera aside, bot or human side, I’m asking about your opinion and Mr. Wang’s opinion regarding your original goal: having the freedom to have a funeral where no one tries to tear Mr. Wang apart. Please answer me honestly, based on everything you know about him.”

The laptop screen was blank, except for:

Battery level: 46%

“I know Mr. Wang is important to you. And his wishes are important to me too. I hope you believe me. I didn’t come this far because I was bored. I think it’s important that people don’t get to abuse you simply because you’re dead or because, well, because you’re a bot.”

Nothing from the mockup.

“Answer me. We don’t have much time.”

[You’re going to abandon Mr. Wang’s body to save a bot?]

“If you haven’t realized it yet, you’re a bot, yet I’m asking for your approval. Also, I’m not ‘abandoning’ him. I’m asking you.”

The screen went blank again.

Aria glanced down. The Black Suits with Bold had already disappeared into the cabin. Only the Black Suits carrying Vera were still struggling due to her resistance. But they, too, would eventually reach the cabin. Aria really wanted to save herself the trouble of having to choose between entering the underground enemy territory yet again versus leaving behind a friend. She wanted to reach a decision now, while the options she faced seemed less dangerous and less complicated, because they could be framed as: To switch cargo or not?

The mockup vroomed. Aria glanced at the laptop.

[Mr. Wang would be fine with it. He would have liked it. He wanted nothing more than the clean end. You heard him yourself. “Better pulverized. Better become dust. Better put myself in an impossible-to-reassemble state” than ending up in their hands. The man dreamed of utter nothingness at the end of his life. Also, not many get to be burned on a heap of conifers. Some, including Mr. Wang, would think that it’s poetic. But I’m not fine with it. I don’t like it.]

“Well, according to you, bot opinion doesn’t really count. And you’re a bot.”

[But because bot opinions don’t count, you can discount my opinion that they don’t count.]

“Very ironic.”

Battery level: 45%

Aria gave the bot a few seconds for a retort. It said nothing. She unplugged the cable from both the laptop and the mockup. As fast as she could with her injured fingers, she rolled the cable and put it in her jacket.

Then she typed the next commands for the drone.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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