Table of Contents
Jump to Chapter 1
There was no flat surface to land on. With a thud, Aria’s shoulder hit the converging top of the cabin’s triangle-shaped gable roof.
But she rolled down without fear. And while doing so, she wielded the tree-branch torch, trying to cover the maximum surface area.
The roof caught fire. She thought she caught whiffs of old snow, vaporizing in the heat; dust that had settled down decades ago, now forced to take flight and join the smoke; bird and squirrel dung being barbecued.
That last part gave her a childish pleasure. Lucious Bold’s treasure, turning into a heap of dust and ashes along with old bird and squirrel dung! That guy deserved nothing more than that. And Aria was going to make sure he didn’t get anything more than that. He especially wasn’t going to get Vera. Vera couldn’t be “gotten” as if she were an object. And contrary to the mockup’s belief, the thing in this forest that shouldn’t be wasn’t Vera, but Lucious Bold.
Aria lost grip of the torch when it burned to the end, nearly charring her blood-covered hand with it. She slammed on the cold ground to the left of the cabin.
Immediately, she scrambled up, dragging her injured leg, which, by now, felt heavy like a ton of lead.
But she had to get up. The cabin was burning down. She limped around the building. Right next to her, the wall collapsed. Wood snapped and splintered and crackled.
From inside, Lucious Bold yelled orders. The Black Suits were reacting to the fire in a way that he didn’t want them to, possibly by trying to evacuate him. That was good.
Aria glanced up. Drone 1 was high up in the air, safe with the mockup and the duffel bag.
Slowly but steadily, she limped toward the front of the cabin. All around her, the air vibrated. Interesting, how heat could influence the air to produce winds that sounded like cacophonous musical tones.
Several Black Suits whipped their heads around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees when they heard her stepping on burning wood parts. Apparently, Bold had allowed the bots to perform such an obviously non-human act if the situation was urgent enough to prioritize speed over non-creepiness.
Those Black Suits stormed toward Aria. But as predicted, they stopped inches away from her. Through their impenetrable sunglasses, they eyed the neon threads around her. Although by now it was evident that the threads were a lot sturdier than they seemed, the Black Suits weren’t allowed to tear them away from Aria.
To protect the precious assets, more and more of their kind came to join the group, splitting from the bigger group that had surrounded Vera—
Sparks went off behind the Black Suits. They whipped their heads around, away from Aria, once again at one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.
Wires snapped where they looked. Metal clanked.
“You’re mad to come back!” Vera shouted in Natasha Stravinsky’s voice.
She’d broken free from the cage of Black Suits. She was coming ever closer—
—then kicked a Black Suit in the head. His neck snapped. He collapsed right in front of Aria.
Before its coworkers could form a defense plan, Vera wrapped an arm around Aria’s waist. Vera meant to jump. Aria could tell from Vera’s bent knees and her visor directed at a nearby tree branch. Above them, Drone 1 was preparing to catch them, ready to time their ascent with its descent.
Sudden, simultaneous machine-buzzes interrupted them. The drone rose again. Vera and Aria glanced at the source of the sound: the core of the cabin.
The wall burst, breaking into a firework of blazing wood. An army of Black Suits emerged.
Lucious Bold stood behind them. And behind Lucious Bold stood the opposite wall of the cabin, nearly burned to the ground.
Through the noise of the collapsing building, Aria couldn’t hear Bold’s command. But she could see him pointing at her and Vera as he shouted.
Vera attempted to go through with the planned jump, with or without the drone. But several Black Suits caught her. They pulled her down. They pulled Aria down. Vera and Aria fell to the ground. The Black Suits closed in, covering the view to the smoky sky.
It was black, all black everywhere. Black suits rustled. Black sunglasses glistened. There were more of them now than ever before. On the ground, Vera flung one arm around Aria’s shoulder and the other over Aria’s head.
“Let go of me,” Aria panted. “Let go of me.”
In the one second in which Vera did let go due to puzzlement—for, what kind of a human preferred being trampled to death over being protected?—Aria crawled out of Vera’s protection.
“Aria!” Vera said, because even though she hated the captain’s voice, she cared for Aria, a near-stranger.
Aria didn’t answer. The Black Suits flinched back from her. They hadn’t expected this action from this human who wore the neon asset.
She spread her arms wide and swung them left and right, drawing as wide a circle as she could draw. The hot air swirled around her. The neon threads danced with her every move. Once the Black Suits had given her sufficient room, she stumbled toward Bold.
Char covered his once-white gown and cheeks. Pitch-black stuff hung on his hair. In fact, some of the hair was black; burned. He smiled, eyes wide.
For the first time, Aria saw nervousness in the man who had been her hero only a day ago. That grin, it was unnatural. His posture, it was stiff and fake like everything else about him.
“Aria,” he said.
He reached out with one hand, palm up, beckoning.
“You are brave.”
Aria didn’t react. She kept approaching him as if he hadn’t said anything. She continued to swing her arms and the neon threads to keep everyone away from her.
“You are exactly the type of person who deserves to be part of greatness, Aria.”
She still didn’t react. His grin faltered. What had he expected? Aria suppressed a snort. Had he thought she’d simply forget about him shooting at her? Besides, what had he thought she was going to make of his total lack of guilt or grief regarding the death of his girlfriend?
If Vera was right—and of course she was right—he’d dragged himself and one of the Black Suits all the way to the lab. There, he’d found his laptop. And he must have seen Natasha Stravinsky with her jaws torn apart. Yet he showed no tears. No shock. No numbness.
Granted, maybe he hadn’t reached the grieving stage yet. When you see someone dead like that, it’s sort of understandable that the death seems too unreal.
But this man didn’t seem changed at all. His plans hadn’t changed at all, and it wasn’t because he was in denial. It was simply because Natasha Stravinsky had never mattered, from the beginning. Thus Lucious Bold’s eyes glistened with purpose: the one that benefited him and him alone, no matter how many “greater good” ideas he attached to his speeches.
Natasha Stravinsky had never really been his “girlfriend” in the way most people used that term. He had simply used her. Maybe she, too, had used him, and Aria actually hoped that she’d done so, because then, at least, the act of using would have been mutual. And you know what? It wasn’t Aria’s job to stop two consenting adults from using each other.
“We could do great things together, Aria,” he said now, “if you’d just see what a historic moment this could be.”
She continued to approach him. He turned his beckoning hand the other way around: now, his palm faced her. He wanted her to stop. Which, of course, she refused to do. She wasn’t one of his Black Suits.
By now, she could smell his cologne: that musky, earthy, woody scent of worldly appeal. It was fake. The suffocating smell of real earth and real wood, burning down, allowed her to perceive that more clearly.
Truly, she’d planned on just rescuing Vera and leaving. She hadn’t wanted revenge or anything fancy like that. You need mental energy to want revenge and to be honest, Aria didn’t have a lot of energy to spare.
But this guy had blocked her one sure escape route that included Vera. The brief moment of division in the crowd of Black Suits had passed. Now, with most Black Suits huddled back there around Vera, Drone 1 wasn’t going to descend to pick her up; Aria had ordered it to only come down when there weren’t this many enemies around the cargo.
Funny, how the lack of options fueled creativity. It forced you to gather up all the mental energy that you thought you didn’t have. Even if you hadn’t considered revenge before, and even if you were pretty sure that you weren’t the type to want revenge, your thoughts explored revenge as an option, because, well, all options had to be explored, otherwise you might die, or worse, become something that you didn’t want to become because a mad scientist wanted it so.
Because, now Aria understood more consciously why Bold wanted her on his side: he saw her as a replacement to Natasha Stravinsky.
If Aria was captured now, Lucious Bold could dissect her.
He could slice her up and implant the threads.
Or he could replace all her joints with plastic ones containing chips, and see if she survived the switch or not.
Her consent or lack thereof wouldn’t matter, practically speaking. All that Mr. Wang had feared could happen to her.
Crazy lunatic! She needed Bold out of the way to flee, and if her actions happened to look like revenge, so be it. All she wanted was a practical result: his demise.
Wasn’t that the only way he’d be moved out of her escape route? Also, wouldn’t that be the only way to guarantee safety from future attacks?
Without him, no one could make the transfer possible. Without him, the Black Suits didn’t know what to do. And to make the condition “without him” very clear and irreversible, Aria needed to do more than just keeping him at bay; she needed to really hurt him, awfully, deeply, terribly.
“Aria,” he said again, like a kid that had just learned that most people liked to hear their name spoken out loud. “We’re working for the greater good. Sometimes, the group must make sacrifices. It’s always been like that. It’s never been not like that—”
Letting out a single cry, Aria stormed toward Bold.
He took a step back. The Black Suits rushed forward to prevent this undesired collision between two assets—Lucious Bold and the thread network.
But Aria got there first. She grabbed Bold by his lab gown. She kept storming forward, dragged him with her. He tried to shake her off. She pulled at the gown, yanking him this way and that way to make him lose balance—which he did. He tripped. With every last ounce of energy she had left in her, she pushed him into the burning heap that used to be the wall behind him.
Bold immediately flinched away from the fire. But his lab gown couldn’t. It had caught fire. He shrieked.
A group of Black Suits came, separating Aria from their boss. But they did so with the utmost care. Careful, the threads are precious, they seemed to say. Boss is writhing there on the ground, but since he’s already in so much pain, we don’t want to add to that pile of stress. Must protect the threads. Must, always.
These fools didn’t see Aria as the perpetrator at all. Perhaps they didn’t see her or anything or anyone, ever. They only noticed what they’d been programmed to notice. As primitive machines, they never judged.
More and more of them appeared. They huddled around their boss.
And finally, Aria could hear the clanking of metal: Vera was making the most of this moment. With the Black Suits split three-ways, between Aria, Bold, and Vera, now was the chance to immobilize as many of them as possible.
And soon, Aria could feel the whirling wind above her head. Drone 1 had returned. Many Black Suits reached for it, jumping, once again climbing on top of each other to form towers.
But on top of them, Vera ran. Lightweight, elegant, she hopped from one head or shoulder to the next. Upon reaching Aria, she kicked several Black Suits back. She picked up Aria. Jumped. Caught a drone leg.
The drone ascended, swaying precariously.
The mockup’s shower-hose arms dangled in the air, sometimes seemingly with purpose, at other times uncontrollably. The thick smoke around them whirled, sometimes throwing dust right at Aria’s face, at other times whipping it away. She coughed. Her eyes watered, and for the first time in a long while, she felt safe enough to blink slowly instead of keeping them wide open.
Between coughs and tears, Aria felt a drone leg tightening around her waist. And she saw…
…Vera bravely climbing to the adjacent leg, then the next one, until she reached the mockup. She hugged it tightly—the big box and both its arms—so that it couldn’t move so vehemently. The drone recovered its balance.
Below them, Lucious Bold kept screaming. Aria caught a glimpse of him as the Black Suits rolled him on the ground. He was still in flames. The Black Suits didn’t give up. Some of them opened the panel to the white, barren hallway. Maybe they were getting water or a fire extinguisher. Whatever their plan was, with Bold Company, its CEO could rest assured: they weren’t going to leave him behind.
And there, in a quieter part of the burning forest, had to be Mr. Wang. The blue tarp wasn’t visible anymore, which was probably good. Just as he’d wished, he’d disappeared without a trace. But Aria wanted to gaze at that spot where she’d last seen him, for as long as possible.
Goodbye, Mr. Wang. I have your mockup. It’s safe. We’re safe…
The higher the drone carried them, the heavier Aria’s eyelids became. And when her hair tie glided down from her disheveled ponytail, she didn’t try to keep it there. Eventually, with enough wind, the tie became completely undone. It dove several dozen feet, into the burning forest. Her long hair whipped in the wind. It felt light. Stravinsky had pulled out too much of it.
There, in the forest below her, Aria had left some of her hair, her hair tie, and her gloves. Oh, she wished she had the gloves! The blood on her fingers had dried. She could feel the wounds numbly throbbing.
Some distance away from the fire, the sky was turning faintly gray-blue. The sun was rising. From faraway, Aria could hear sirens and the sound of choppers.
She hoped that Drone 1 could get them far enough before any of the choppers sighted them. She worried, but only a little. Because, there was Vera. Vera gazed at Aria in that quiet, soothing, jet-black way of hers.
“I’m glad we’re leaving together,” Aria said.
Vera stared back. With what expression, Aria didn’t know. Accusation? Gratitude? Confusion? On Vera’s smooth face, there were no eyes that gave away her thoughts. And she didn’t speak.
That was all right, if Vera didn’t want to speak. Aria smiled. She closed her eyes.
© 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.