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Jump to Chapter 1
Irregular clobbering sounds awoke Aria. She opened her eyes. It felt like forcing open a pair of windows that had been stuck and unused for a decade. But once her eyes did open, they quickly got to work: busily blinking and squinting to get used to the soft morning sunlight. It entered through the row of windows on a long wall across a large space.
Space—there was so much of it here. There were no interior walls that divided up the place. The pipes on the ceiling and the red-brick walls were exposed. This might have been a workshop of some sort. A small-scale factory, maybe, because the ground was made of concrete. There was nothing that indicated that this used to be a place of residence.
In this space, Aria only took up a tiny corner. And the fact that she was in a corner, not in the center, relieved her greatly. She didn’t feel comfortable feeling exposed, after…
Oh, yes, she remembered. After that crazy escape from the mad pilot, Natasha Stravinsky, and the mad scientist, Lucious Bold.
Grunting, Aria sat up. She’d been lying on an extremely comfortable latex mattress, over which a clean white sheet had been placed. She could smell the soap. That cleanliness relieved Aria, too, because she noticed the bandages around her hands. Good. She wasn’t going to die of an infection. Something about such a way of dying felt so wrong, after surviving the attacks of the psycho couple.
Aria lifted the lightweight blanket that covered her lower body. Yup, there were bandages around the gunshot wound on her right thigh as well. And she’d been changed into a pair of shorts and T-shirt that she’d been carrying in her duffel bag, back when…
Gosh, back when she’d thought she was going get breakfast and board an airplane like any normal person did when they wanted to leave a city. That seemed like such a long time ago.
Maybe it was a long time ago. How much time had passed?
Regardless of the answer, someone had taken good care of her. That someone had, in fact, washed her hair—she could smell the shampoo—and ensured that this large room was properly heated. Who was that someone?
As quickly as her stiff neck permitted, she looked around. In another corner on the opposite side of the windows, a swiveling object stood between two brand-new mattresses. It flung its shower-hose arms.
Aria laughed—then choked, coughed, because her throat was so dry. But she couldn’t suppress her amusement. The irregular clobbering sounds that had awoken her had come from that mockup aidbot, staged between the mattresses to muffle the impact of its hits.
She sat around. At the head of her own mattress, there was a cup of water. A brochure had been placed on top of it so that dust couldn’t settle in the water. Aria removed the brochure and drank as she read the title:
CMC: Catalina Mattress Company.
That explained the new mattresses in this non-residential place.
She put the cup down. Next to it was the duffel bag. In it, the neon thread network glowed. The laptop in its cube form sat inside the bag as well. There stood an old coat rack next to it. Her black leather jacket hung there. And Mr. Wang’s sunglasses, on a small night table. Next to it, the sickle-shaped cable.
Everything that had left the burning forest with Aria had managed to come here except…
From somewhere nearby but below, footsteps echoed. Clink, clank, on metal stairs. Regularly. Getting closer. And there, between Aria and the mockup, was a square hole. Aria craned her neck to see who was coming up.
Aria smiled. Without saying a thing, Vera approached. She moved as elegantly and lightly as always. Her jet-black surface was smooth without any scratches. Barely shifting any air, she sat cross-legged on the concrete floor next to Aria.
And before Aria asked any questions, Vera held up her wrist. From it, half a dozen news holograms popped up.
In one, bright-red choppers flew above the burning forest while spraying chemicals to extinguish the fire. In another, the remains in the cremators were swept out by policebots. And outside, people in hazmat suits collected glistening bot parts, skin, and hair from the ashes.
But there were no Black Suits.
Reporters at the scene talked about a hidden underground lab. They linked this lab to the mystery of the satanic cult. It hadn’t been a religious cult at all. Now, they were talking about a science cult, if there was such a thing. An experimental cult of some sort, which had constructed an elaborate network of tunnels so that it was impossible for the police to determine where exactly the leaders had fled to. Such a cult had abused the dead elderly. The families of the victims were going to get prison sentences for willful neglect. Why hadn’t they reported the kidnapping? Had they collected insurance money? Had they sold their elderly family members?
“How much time passed?” Aria asked.
Blue letters blinked amidst the news programs.
“I’ve been out for seven days?”
Vera nodded. [These are old news snippets from seven days ago. I recorded them. These are the newer ones:]
The news programs were fast-forwarded. People moved quickly. Their voices sounded pixie-like.
Scenes of candlelight vigils passed by. People mourned Mr. Wang’s death. They cried. They wept at the fact that the only things the police had been able to identify at the scene of the fire were the remnants of his bones, wrapped in bits of blue tarp. Even the ones who’d never heard of him before felt terrible for him.
Then, interviews with the elderly and hyperelderly followed. Also, interviews with young people. Interviews with middle-aged people. Politicians. Advocates. Philosophers.
In a different clip, hundreds of people demanded the arrest of Aria Rush. The sight of them crying out her name made Aria’s heart race.
There was a misunderstanding. A very grave, very serious, impossible misunderstanding. Did the whole world still think she’d kidnapped and killed Mr. Wang?
But just when Aria was going to ask Vera, a familiar scene showed up:
The recording that Aria had made in the crematory hall. Natasha Stravinsky was there. So was Lucious Bold and the Black Suits. Clearly, the couple owned the cremators. Also clearly, they were aware of the ashes inside and controlled the Black Suits.
“Foolish girl,” the captain said, pointing a gun at Aria. “You think recording this will get you anything? You’re not getting out alive and there’s no way you can stream a live feed from here.”
Slowly, the captain approached, squinting.
“Where is the network?” the captain asked. “Speak, idiot!”
This was when Aria had turned off the camera. She was glad she’d done that. Back then, it had been because of Vera. But now, in hindsight, it was also great that the world hadn’t seen Aria push her hands into the captain’s mouth. Such an act could have been interpreted in a million different ways, and as it stood, probably more in negative directions than positive ones.
[I released this on the third day.] Vera’s blue letters overlapped on the hologram. [I’m sorry I went through your stuff. But something had to be done. There were too many rumors and I was hoping to find something useful to put us in a less dangerous situation.]
“Makes total sense,” Aria whispered.
In the feed, a small group was gathered in front of the Bold Company headquarters—an impressive fifty-five-story skyscraper made of beautiful sea-green glass and majestic pale-gray steel. Some demanded the execution of Lucious Bold, should he ever be found. There was no proof that he was dead or alive. He was “missing,” the company officials said. But these protesters didn’t believe them.
Yet, an opposing, much larger group had gathered right next to that small group. This larger group was… Aria rubbed her eyes. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing:
They worshipped him. They said he was their hero. Finally, someone dared to work for the humans instead of developing bots that no one needed. These people didn’t care if Bold was the leader of a cult. Heck, they were already part of that cult, so of course they didn’t care.
[People need him,] Vera said, [or so they think. We have to admit: he did improve the lives of many people. Some of his supporters doubt the legitimacy of your recording. They want to put everything on you. The burned forest, the skeletons, everything. But at least, now, there are some folks out there who wonder if you’ve been framed from the beginning.]
“I’m glad you found the recording and released it. I could have been out for another week, and then it might have been too late to undo the damage. Parts of it, at least.”
In a different clip, a tiny group of ten or so vowed solidarity with Aria Rush. But next to them, the group of hundreds who’d demanded Aria’s arrest hadn’t dispersed. In fact, they seemed to have multiplied to the thousands.
Strikes for elderly rights followed. Then, strikes against elderly privilege.
Strikes for bot rights. Strikes against bot privilege.
[At least they aren’t united against you.]
Aria nodded numbly. So many people hated her for things she hadn’t even done. The unfairness of that fact was so overwhelming, her heart didn’t race as fast as earlier. Actually, it seemed to want to stop beating at all. This was simply too much.
[The way the captain and Lucious Bold demanded the network from you, a lot of people didn’t like that. They didn’t need to know what sort of “network” the captain and Bold were referring to. And as always, the rational crowd is quieter than the irrational one. We must take that into account. Not get disheartened.]
Aria noticed that she’d been continuing to nod absentmindedly. Now she stopped.
[All this went on until a couple of days ago. Then the authorities stepped in. They wanted to be done with this case as quickly as possible, so they did this:]
The hologram switched to a news feed. The life history of Natasha Stravinsky was covered in every detail: where she’d been born, where she’d gone to school, how many times she’d gotten married, then divorced, how she’d survived the layoffs of human employees.
And most importantly, how slavishly she’d needed to work to feel self-respect. How crazy she’d been. How delusional.
She’d been ruthless in the pursuit of her career, her acquaintances claimed. She’d always wanted more meaning, more of the sense of having done something worthwhile—all intangible, futile concepts, as anybody who’s content with their lives would know. Basically, an ungrateful, they said. No wonder she needed to stage all this.
“Why are they suddenly blaming her?” Aria said. “It certainly can’t be for me.”
Vera nodded slowly. [They don’t want attention falling on Lucious Bold anymore.]
“So he’s alive.” Aria’s throat felt extremely dry once more. “If he weren’t alive, they would’ve thrown him under the bus, too, wouldn’t they have? To be completely done with the rumors and undesirable associations?”
Vera nodded in agreement. Aria’s heart sank.
Why this level of disappointment? She didn’t know. She certainly hadn’t been actively hoping that Lucious Bold would die in that forest fire. There’d been too many Black Suits to help him out. Yet apparently, there’d been a tiny, irrational part of her that’d hoped that by some miracle, Lucious Bold had indeed burned to death.
“And you?” Aria said after a while.
[What do you mean?]
“Did no one try to put this on you? I mean…”
Vera had killed the captain, after all. That part was a fact.
[No one knows I exist the way I do.]
Aria blinked. “How is that possible?”
[For many reasons.
[First of all, I didn’t interact with the passengers. I was the captain’s aidbot. Just as people don’t usually see the captain when they are flying, they didn’t see me.
[Second, there are no records indicating that I am any more special than any other bots. Sure, I look different—more human—but that doesn’t reveal what’s inside me, and it’s what’s inside me that makes me me. I think the only two people who knew just how special I am were Lucious Bold and Natasha Stravinsky. One is on the run and the other one is dead.]
“But that’s great. I mean, that they underestimated you, when they shouldn’t have.”
On the hologram feed, many more protesting groups showed up and then disappeared. All the same claims as before were made, just more split and more furiously:
Aria Rush should be imprisoned. Aria Rush did nothing wrong; just look at that Stravinsky lady and what she’s done.
Lucious Bold should be imprisoned. Lucious Bold did nothing wrong; everything’s that Stravinsky lady’s doing.
But where are Aria Rush and Lucious Bold? Were they kidnapped? Are they dead?
The only two points that seemed to have been settled once and for all were:
Natasha Stravinsky was a crazy criminal.
Antonius Wang was a poor victim.
“So, we’re safe for now,” Aria said.
Vera nodded again.
“Are you all right?”
Vera got up. That, more than any verbal explanation, told Aria that Vera wasn’t all right. Vera approached one of the windows. By now, the sunlight had become stronger, warmer. They were on the third or fourth floor, it seemed. There were no trees in sight, just some delivery drones buzzing by.
Her back turned, Vera continued to communicate in written words. A wall of letters created a barrier between her and Aria. Because of the strong sunlight, Aria had to strain to read the letters. But she couldn’t bring herself to tell Vera to speak out loud. If Aria had the voice of Natasha Stravinsky, she wouldn’t be talking either.
[Captain Stravinsky may not have done all of the things they accuse her of, but she did enough bad things to deserve the misunderstanding. I’d much rather have you safe than… preserve some cherished memory that I shouldn’t be cherishing anyway. It was a logical decision, releasing the footage. And it was logical of our enemies to spread lies that fit everything that’d been revealed up to now, by putting the blame on the captain.
[But even as I know the logic behind my actions and their actions, I just…]
Vera paused. The air between her and Aria went blank for a moment.
[I guess I like not being logical all the time.]
[That’s why I told you so much about Captain Stravinsky in the cargo area. About her alcoholism, drug abuse, and ex-boyfriend. They all turned out to be fake, but back then I figured you’d understand devotion against all reason; attachment that cannot be explained. Some things that we like, we simply don’t know why.]
From the opposite side of the room, the mockup swiveled and flung its arms more loudly. Once upon a time, it had wondered why Vera had revealed so much about her owner. This had been why; this all-too-human desire to share irrational vulnerability.
Sunlight fell on Vera’s face. Its surface absorbed the light as if it meant nothing.
[We will be safe, for now. The second we were out of reach of the fire department choppers, I smashed all location trackers inside me.
[I am free. Completely anchorless. Just like you.] Then Vera glanced at the mockup. [Well, maybe not completely.]
Yes, with the mockup accompanying them, they had baggage to handle.
[Before you woke up, he mentioned something about a jacket you gave Mr. Wang at the airport. He said to thank you, in case his parts didn’t last and he expired.]
The jacket, right. The mockup had told Vera about the time Aria had put the jacket around Mr. Wang’s shoulders, just after Evan had driven them out of the airport. That had been the moment when Aria had shocked the mockup into motionlessness through kindness.
Aria chuckled. It was touching that the mockup remembered it.
Then, in tiny letters, Vera said, [I think he’s afraid of dying. I had to assure him a million times that the bullet he took for you only affected the surface and wasn’t going to kill him.]
“Right!” Aria said.
The mockup had taken a bullet for her! She hurried to crawl out of bed—but then came to a stop with a groan.
[Be careful. You’re still healing.]
Aria nodded, and once the pang of pain faded from her thigh and hands, she said: “Thank you for saving my life.”
She hoped the mockup had heard her across the room, through all the noise it was making while clobbering the mattresses. If only she’d known what to call him—it—she would’ve called its name. Now that Mr. Wang was dead, she wasn’t sure if it would be tactless to call him “Mr. Wang.”
But she one hundred percent shared his fear of dying. Now would be a terrible time to die. They had so many misunderstandings to clear.
Sighing out, Aria stared up at the ceiling. Vera’s message hovered directly above her:
[Aren’t you curious where we are?]
“Oh, yes!” Aria said. She half sat up. “Where are we?”
Vera inadvertently let out a low chuckle—sounding eerily like Captain Stravinsky when she’d laughed at Aria in the forest. Apparently, Vera noticed the similarity too. She abruptly stopped and came to Aria. She lifted Aria up in her arms, which were warm from being in the sunlight. That felt soothing. Although the visible light seemed to vanish whenever in Vera’s proximity, the warmth lingered.
Vera carried Aria to the window. There, Aria put a hand over her eyes. The sun was blinding. But in the distance, she could see buildings, lots of them, high, towering, reaching for the brilliantly blue sky.
The tallest of them all was fifty-five stories high. As Vincent Gabele (the square-shouldered baseball-cap-wearing sweet-spoken producer with the forgettable face) had said in one Lucious Bold documentary, you couldn’t miss it. The building said B.O.L.D. right on the top floor. Anybody who wanted to visit the flagship store full of newly-developed skin and hair could find it easily. Aria could read the letters even from this distance, far enough from the city center to be surrounded by lower-rise buildings.
They were on the outskirts of Onsemiro, about three hours’ flight from Dodam, where they’d met. This was the factory district, perhaps. Aria hadn’t visited the capital frequently enough to be familiar with its geography. But any city was shaped like that, with a crowded center and industrial facilities in its outskirts.
“I don’t like this voice of mine,” Vera said.
Aria glanced up at her. From this proximity, Vera couldn’t put up a barrier of hologram letters for Aria to read. Speaking was the only way to communicate.
“But like you, I choose to wander despite the uncertainty,” Vera said. “I don’t know how things will turn out and I don’t know if I will be happy once I get what I think I want. But I want a new voice. A new skin. And new hair. Things that will allow me to go out there in broad daylight and see what it means to be me. And, preferably, things that don’t bounce off bullets.”
Vera slowly shook her head.
“I never want anyone close to me to have to flee because I bounce off bullets,” she said. “And I’m hoping that you’ll help me, Aria. Make me your new reason to stay here for a while.”
Aria nodded. She’d floated aimlessly for long enough. If helping Vera wasn’t destiny, what was? Besides, Aria was pretty sure that Vera wanted Lucious Bold neutralized as much as she did.
“I’d be glad to help, in whatever way I can,” Aria said.
“And I will help you, in whatever endeavor you choose as your next,” Vera said.
Aria smiled. Vera stared back.
“Just so you know, Vera, when I hear you speak, I listen to what you speak about, not necessarily what voice you use. So, until you get the voice you want—you know, if you want to talk… I’ll listen.”
Vera didn’t react for a long while. Then, she nodded.
“But first, do you know where I can get access to a printer?” Aria said.
“What kind of a printer?”
“Something to print postcards on.”
“We shouldn’t let the enemy know that you’re still alive.”
“Yes, which is why I need very specific postcards that reveal things about me that only the recipient will recognize.”
“There should be a printer downstairs.”
“Does it work?”
“If it’s like with everything else here, it should. This place went bankrupt a month ago but still gets electricity, water, and heat—pretty convenient for us, until the utility companies find out that they won’t ever get paid and cut the supply.”
“Tell me what you need. I’ll print it for you and see if I can catch a mail drone at night.”
“I need one with an apple, a banana, a cherry, and a durian.”
Vera stared down at Aria.
“I know, it’s odd. But my mom will get the message. Maybe draw smiles on the fruits, so she knows that the fruits are happy and well.”
“And on the second postcard, hmm… A man in an airport uniform. You know, the white T-shirt and black pants, and him staring at an airplane in the middle of a snowstorm. Then, below that, in big letters, ‘You’re my hero.’ ”
“I don’t know if I’m that good at drawing.”
“It can be a stick figure. Evan will get the message.”
“Okay. I’m sure I’ll be able to anonymously download a drawing skillset somehow.”
“And I’m hungry.”’
“Understandably. You haven’t had anything to eat for a full week.”
“I wanted to eat bacon and eggs before boarding the plane. Can I have that now?”
“No bacon and eggs.”
“Not until your wounds heal.”
Forlornly, Aria gazed across the room at the mockup. Somehow, its swiveling sounded louder and more energetic, as if it found her predicament amusing. She sighed. They’d all have to get used to their new situations in life.
So it was that she and Vera gazed out of the window once more, at the skyscraper that their enemy had built. It was something to push themselves toward, something to allow themselves to be pulled by.
And the mockup kept swiveling. For now.
© 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.
— The End. —