Shells, Their Cores – Ch. 10

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The captain left the cargo area. The medbot finished the surgery on Mr. Wang. No more scissoring sounds came, and no more thread-through-skin sounds either. Everything that the medbot had taken out of Mr. Wang was returned inside him, except the bullet.

The medbot dimmed its piercing-bright light beams. But the air had ceased to smell of neutral, pressurized airplane atmosphere a long time ago. There was no way Aria could feel comfortable here. The odor of organs filled the entire cargo space without any hint of what it had smelled like in the past.

Vera sat next to Aria, who faced the swiveling mockup. The incredibly human aidbot informed her that the captain was updating the passengers of what was happening. Numerous flightbots were keeping this aircraft safe, and Aria and Mr. Wang and the mockup were in it, so, not to worry.

Strange, very strange to hear Vera speak of the captain in the captain’s voice. When Aria closed her eyes, it might as well have been the captain who spoke.

The medbot kept monitoring Mr. Wang’s vitals. More muffled sirens howled outside. More voices.

After a while, Vera pressed a button on her wrist, at which a series of hologram news snippets popped up in the air directly from that button. Apparently, every news channel was reporting on this inexplicable disaster. All of them had sent their drones here to the airport, and also all around the city of Dodam to interview people on the streets.

“The desperate deeds of a workaholic,” a young man said viciously, rubbing his frozen red nose. “That’s what I think.”

“It’s pathetic, really,” a woman said languidly. “The things people will do to get attention. You know, it’s best to be happy with what you have.”

Aria rolled her eyes. These people’s accusations bothered her, and feeling bothered was preferable to feeling guilty, so she wanted to make the most of it and use it to be in this moment instead of lingering in an earlier moment—for example, in the moment in which Mr. Wang had gotten shot.

But when a familiar face popped up, Aria gasped in unpleasant surprise.

“I knew she’d do something terrible, you know,” a man said.

He had lean muscles. And being very aware and proud of this, he’d chosen to wear a long-sleeved running shirt, which was so tight and so inappropriate for the freezing outdoors that anybody would’ve preferred for him to be naked than so shamelessly pretend that his garment functioned as a proper piece of clothing. He was very conscious of the cameras pointing at him from all angles, and seemed undecided on which one to focus.

This man was introduced as “Jack Tran (30)”.

“Yes, I knew Aria Rush personally. She was always so unhappy,” he was saying. “Always wanted more. Never satisfied with what we’ve been given. It’s really hard to date someone like that, you know? But I never knew that she’d kidnap a man and get him shot and all that.”

“What?” Aria said, incredulous. “What is he saying? What is this?”

“I think they think you kidnapped Mr. Wang,” Vera said.

“And then to threaten the captain to open the hatch,” Jack was saying. “Phew. I’m glad I broke it off with her, otherwise all this could’ve happened to me.”

Aria groaned in frustration. She didn’t know which was worse: that Jack thought he’d broken it off with her, or that the news channels were using someone who absolutely lacked character as a character witness.

And what was this talk about her kidnapping Mr. Wang? And did people really think that Captain Stravinsky could be threatened by Aria? Had these people ever seen Captain Stravinsky, the prime example of the profession of pilots, the amazing people who could calmly inform the tower of the situation during all kinds of disasters?

“I hope she finds happiness,” Jack was saying. “I really do.”

“Asshole,” Aria muttered.

She was so glad that the idiot had thrown her laptop on his own walnut floor and it had suffered a dent.

Then Jack’s fifteen seconds of fame ended. Aria was considerably happier to see the next interviewee: Pimply Boy. He was introduced as “Evan Jacobs (23).”

So, he wasn’t as young as Aria had thought, but still young. His cheeks were flushed in the snowstorm outside. Someone had given him a blanket, but underneath, he still wore that white T-shirt and those black pants. He had to be freezing. He kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other. But he wasn’t doing it consciously. He was too busy being furious and yelling at the interview drones that surrounded him.

“This is ridiculous,” he said.

In the icy cold, his voice sounded clearer and even silverier than earlier—as if someone had put a xylophone in the freezer, then had decided to strike it with a mallet, shattering the sheet of ice that covered its bars.

He said, “All this, because of a carry-on item that was 200 grams overweight? And people really think that she threatened the captain to get into the aircraft? Are they stupid?”

Exactly what Aria was thinking.

An agentbot tugged on his blanket from behind him. It said something.

“No, I’m not going in!” said Evan. “Don’t tell me to go in! I’m going to stay here and watch until I know they’re all right.”

One of the drones asked a question that Aria couldn’t hear.

“What do you mean, who, they?” Evan said. “They, that tiny woman in the black clothes and that old man she was helping. Yes, I am sure that she was helping him, not kidnapping him. She was helping him and his ancient aidbot.”

Evan paused. Another drone was asking another inaudible question.

“Yes, that was an aidbot,” Evan said, paused, listened, then said, “How should I know why some people don’t like to update their aidbots to new models? Maybe they’re attached to their old models. It’s none of my business and it’s none of your business either. What? No, they were being chased. Didn’t anybody see the men in the black suits? Did no one show you the security footage from inside the airport? What do you mean—”

The next question dejected Evan. His shoulders slumped.

“Yeah, they don’t get along very well. But everyone who works here should be cooperating with the police, no?”

That had been a rhetorical question.

“No?” Evan said.

This wasn’t rhetorical—someone had told him that no, they weren’t cooperating with the police.

Evan sighed. He dropped his head. When he looked up, his eyes glowed fiercely, teary from the cold wind, but he’d become much more composed. Cool indignation had replaced burning anger.

“You know what? Those men in the black suits are lunatics. And if anybody believes what the news is telling them, they’re as crazy. You didn’t see how helpless the old man was, and how no one else but her helped him. I suggest that instead of watching stupid ‘news’ like this, you all go play yourselves a nice round of a phone game, cause at least that doesn’t hurt anybody—”

One by one, the news channels switched to different interviewees.

Evan’s moment of fame had passed. But some of the new interviewees were police officers at the airport, so that Aria could still see Evan in the corners of the frames.

There Evan stood, watching the interview drones fly off. Soon, no one paid attention to him anymore. No one told him to go inside.

The police officers stated the usual: Cannot disclose anything yet. Active investigation. Blah blah blah.

Elsewhere on the news, speculations were thrown around in warm, cozy studios. Conspiracy theories were built and destroyed by counter-conspiracy theories. The mind-blowing amount of money that the airport had lost was mentioned multiple times.

Proponents of bot employment voiced their opinions and used Aria as the perfect example of human recklessness. Couldn’t everyone see that her desire to do more than she was capable of led to catastrophes? She, and that old man. Both of them. He was kidnapped, yes, but why? Because he was walking around without a proper aidbot’s help! Who was he to think that as a man aged one-hundred-and-twenty-years, he could do anything without a bot’s help?

Magically, the Black Suits weren’t mentioned at all. They weren’t anywhere in the news. Not even at the edges of the frames. The body that had spilled that unnaturally brilliant red blood had disappeared. Someone had cleaned up the scene.

Aria shivered. Were the police in on this? Were they to be mistrusted? Who should Aria trust then?

Besides, those department heads from the airport—their lack of action was bizarre. If office politics could motivate them to delay the delivery of the security footage, Aria agreed with the bot employment proponents; those people didn’t deserve to have jobs.

Mr. Wang and the mockup had been right to be fearful of their enemies. The Black Suits had been sent by powerful people—people who manipulated the news, the airport, and even the police.

Power. Enough of it to turn this event into a crazy fiasco involving a few irrational humans. That power was what had made the Black Suits think that they could get away with the shooting. This was much bigger than any one person.

Gradually, the interview drones wrapped up the initial news coverage. They circled above the airport to capture all there was left to capture, which wasn’t much.

Vera left the news channels on. “Experts” in the studios discussed the issue, rehashed it, dissected it, took it apart, and rephrased everything to make it sound fresh even though it wasn’t.

A few hours later, the news channels showed the airport again. The airplanes around TXP076 took off, one by one. Then, Aria heard rattling and felt a gentle shaking of TXP076. The news showed the passengers of TXP076 exiting the aircraft. Captain Natasha Stravinsky got off too.

And Evan was still there, close to the airport building. He didn’t want to go in. He didn’t look at his phone. Never once. Angrily and stubbornly, Evan eyed TXP076 and its passengers.

But no one dared open the hatch to the cargo area where Aria was. Neither did anyone open the door connecting this space to the passenger area. The aircraft had been deemed unsafe to enter because the kidnapper—Aria—still had the hostage—Mr. Wang—and the hostage was critically wounded.

Aria snorted. Pretending to care about Mr. Wang’s life was a nice way to hide the fact that the airport and airline feared lawsuits. Aria might be the kidnapper, but she hadn’t killed Mr. Wang yet, and no one wanted to be blamed for making the situation worse. Irrational or not, he was human, and they had to pretend that they wanted him alive.

At 12:35 a.m., the medbot declared Antonius Wang dead.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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