Shells, Their Cores – Ch. 4

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Thirty minutes.

That was how much time Aria had when the agentbot gave her Mr. Wang’s sunglasses and flight tickets. Quickly, she put the sunglasses on the old man’s nose bridge. The tickets, she stuck in one of her jacket pockets.

But any quickness ended with that step. Between that and her sitting him down on a bench in a corner, she ended up losing ten minutes. Mr. Wang couldn’t walk on his own because of his sickle-shaped back. Aria had to support him, step by step, since the mockup aidbot, which swiveled uncontrollably, was of no use. And despite his bent back, Mr. Wang was considerably taller and heavier than Aria, which meant that she almost fell every time he tottered.

Her own bulky duffel bag, containing all the stuff she owned, didn’t make matters easier. Very slowly, they inched forward. It was a miracle that this man and his old mockup aidbot had successfully purchased flight tickets, grabbed a cab, and arrived at the airport.

During their laggard journey, the wall-screens showing news channels switched from one clip to the other, then to the studio, then back to different clips at least five dozen times. The only easy part about their journey was that Mr. Wang didn’t seem to mind that a stranger dressed in all black was taking him in the opposite direction of the airplane. Also, the mockup rolled after them without protest, although its body continued to jerk left and right while its shower-hose arms flung in rhythm.

And there weren’t many obstacles. Aria asked a few people to step aside, please, but there weren’t any doors to open or stairs to climb. The airport before the security check was just one massive hall with rows of people and the occasional check-in counters.

And the ten minutes eventually passed.

Now, finally, Antonius Wang sat on the bench. Next to him, the mockup swiveled and its pink vinyl cover rustled. There were three holes in the vinyl, one for the bot’s box-shaped head, and two for its arms.

Aria caught her breath. The air here was somewhat fresher, being closer to the automatic doors.

And she had twenty minutes left.

“Mr. Wang?” she said.

The old man didn’t respond. With the sunglasses on, he’d become even more of a wall. He kept his head lowered as if he were dozing off. His lips were firmly sealed and looked so dry, like a fossil, Aria wondered if they’d ever detach again without crumbling apart.

“Mr. Wang, I’m Aria Rush. I don’t know if you heard what the agentbot said back there, but it said that your aidbot needs to lose 200 grams if you want to board with it. You can’t check it anymore because it’s too late for that. Unless it’s okay for you to take the next flight?”

Still no response.

“You know what? I’m going to see if I can detach any of its parts. Then I’ll ask if any of the passengers on your flight are willing to put the 200 grams in their carry-on bag.”

Still nothing from Mr. Wang. Only the aidbot swiveled more ferociously, making its pink vinyl cover rustle more aggressively.

“Asking someone to carry your luggage is forbidden, but I’m sure there’ll be at least one person who saw what happened and is willing to help. Besides, 200 grams is basically nothing.”

Aria waited. Nothing new happened.

“Okay then.”

She knelt on one knee by the bench and opened her duffel bag.

As quietly as she could, she cleared her throat. She doubted that Mr. Wang could hear her, but still, she didn’t want to hint that she was nervous. For a change, she was glad she hadn’t had her usual good old greasy breakfast.

Showcasing her skills as a technician in front of the great Antonius Wang, the engineer who’d created the first aidbot mockup—that hadn’t been one of the events she’d foreseen when she’d come to the airport today. But what a coincidence—no, what a grand manifestation of destiny.

Or, maybe that was all that coincidence was: an element in the manifestation of destiny, only evident to those who kept searching for meaning. In such a case, coincidence and destiny were basically one and the same. This moment right here, in which Aria knelt in the corner of a crowded airport, definitely made her feel that all the scattered life events hitherto had existed to put her at this very juncture.

The object that she took out was shaped like a fist-sized, single-colored Rubik’s cube. It was made of charcoal enhanced plastic. Instead of turning the puzzle around to match different colors on each surface of the cube, she unfolded it.

And unfolded it again.

And again, until it looked like any normal laptop of the 2010s. The folds of the screen gradually straightened out to make up an even surface.

At her touch on the keyboard, the laptop awoke. All the keys on the keyboard were designed to recognize her fingerprints and react to her and her alone. That, too, gave her a sense of control. The dots of her life that had seemed random began connecting into lines, then planes.

Her nervousness faded. She had a reason to be here. At this point in time, she, and only she, could help Antonius Wang and his aidbot.

Aria held up the laptop, lifted the pink vinyl from a distance so that the mockup couldn’t hit her, and aligned the ports. The port on her laptop was located on its side. It was simply a smooth surface, the type that allowed close-range connections and fingerprint recognition, among other things. The port on the aidbot was located at its front. It was old-school and bigger—the sort that usually required an actual cable connection.

For a moment, Aria wondered if the technological difference between her laptop and the mockup ruled out the possibility of a wireless connection. But soon, information traveled through the air and trickled into the laptop.

Light-green zeroes and ones formed rows after rows, blinked, swooshed past, reappeared, only to vanish again. Meanwhile, Aria’s program interpreted this language of bots into human letters that she could comprehend.

Manufacture date… 19860318…

Software updates… 19870311… 19880815… and so on and so forth until the most recent one, 20100322…

2010 was ten years ago. Strange, that Mr. Wang had updated this mockup, a mostly symbolic object, for years since its manufacture date. Stranger, that he’d stopped updating it ten years ago.

But who knew how great minds operated? What Aria needed was a blueprint. Any internal storage of that, please? Show me everything, little box-bot, come on…

There, the blueprint. Literally, a box; plus a smaller box as the head; plus two shower-hose arms; plus four wheels as legs. A solar-powered battery. A bunch of chips. Thick main wires, like arteries. Old-school, old school…

Simple enough. She’d just have to remove one of the wheels or arms. But just to be sure, she wanted to check where exactly the arm or wheel could be detached…

The blueprint blinked. Aria narrowed her eyes.

Was this a glitch? If so, was the glitch in the bot or in Aria’s laptop?

It couldn’t be her laptop. It had functioned perfectly fine earlier today, even after Jack had thrown it across the living room with the zeal that could only be mustered by a person who’d never had a better opportunity to make use of the carefully sculpted muscles of his arm. (She’d been in the process of picking a Bold documentary yet again and the folded laptop had been the nearest object that Jack could throw. After that throw, she’d begun packing.)

There was no reason for the laptop to break now, all of a sudden, five hours after leaving a dent on Jack’s luxurious walnut floor. Meanwhile, the bot had been acting weirdly since she’d first set sight on it, so it had to be the cause of the glitch…

But there was a rule to the blinking. A rhythm. And not all of the blueprint blinked. Only what looked like a very fine web did. The reason Aria hadn’t right away noticed this web as a separate entity from the rest of the mockup was that it was too finely distributed. Too dense. Too universal, with almost no empty space.

Aria enlarged the blueprint and frowned.

The web consisted of hundreds, no, thousands of thin green lines that covered the bot’s insides from top to bottom, including the inner walls of the hose-arms and wheels. And those lines blinked in rhythm with the bot’s swiveling movements.

Aria glanced from her laptop to the bot. Maybe this was just a coincidence. But at this turn of thought, she snorted. What lazy, convenient thinking. Moments earlier, she’d wanted to believe that nothing was a coincidence, then this happens, and she goes right back to believing in coincidence.

Maybe the green lines were just… background patterns; Mr. Wang’s definition of what made a blueprint look prettier. But that didn’t make sense. None at all.

She enlarged the blueprint further.

She gasped.

Now she could see a clear directional pulse that went through the web of lines: from head to wheels, from head to arms—repeatedly, over and over again. One beat per second? No. Faster than that. Maybe eighty beats per minute. As if… like…

The heart rate of a human.

Aria glanced up at the mockup. Then, at Mr. Wang. Gingerly, she approached the old man. He wasn’t moving at all. She couldn’t tell whether he was breathing or not. But he wasn’t keeling over, so he had to be breathing. She held her finger close to his nose.

There. Air. Going in, going out.

She gently pressed her index and middle fingers on his wrist.

A throb. Regular.

She glanced at the laptop.

Mr. Wang’s pulse matched the glow-pulse in the blueprint for the mockup.

Aria held her breath and looked around. No one at the airport had noticed her discovery.

Those who’d been interested earlier now stood too close to the check gates to care anymore. For them, freedom was near.

To the newcomers in the lines, Aria and Mr. Wang were just two more people in this crowded airport. They stared at the wall-screens full of exciting news instead. That juicy scoop about those skeletons that were found a couple of weeks ago, all with damaged skulls—clean-cut, proof of surgeries, perhaps related to a satanic cult, that was pretty interesting. And the statistics on the increase in the number of elderly sons and daughters who died before their hyperelderly parents, how sad. And news about a couple of car insurance companies going bankrupt because there weren’t enough humans to insure anymore. What a chaotic world. So much more interesting than two strangers at an airport.

And as to the mockup—it was quite possible that people thought it was simply an oddly moving luggage covered in pink vinyl.

But Aria’s heart raced. Cold sweat ran down her temples. She cleared her throat, tried to calm her breath.

A man and his aidbot, connected.

Holy… Holy what? Holy Mary and Joseph, holy other religious figures, gosh, holy Artemis and the Fates, and the deities from other parts of the world. Holy all of them, in Olympus and heaven and other-worlds.

The mockup’s shoddy exterior design had fooled everyone. Inside, numerous wires, represented by the green lines in the blueprint, mimicked the neural network of a human. They interwove throughout the aidbot’s body. And, though Aria couldn’t see the blueprint of Mr. Wang, she guessed that somewhere in there, he either had a chip or a similar network of wires that sent signals to the mockup.

And these couldn’t be conventional wires. Nothing metal. Maybe something like synthetic threads. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have attempted to go through the security check. They were in a hopeless state, but aware enough to book flights and come here.

Aria kept examining the blueprint and just how dense the thread network was. It didn’t take long for her to realize that the mockup’s arms and wheels weren’t easily separable. To detach them safely, so that they could be reattached later on without malfunctioning, Aria would have to very carefully untangle the threads. This was an impossible task to accomplish in twenty minutes, or maybe ever; just as impossible as untangling the nervous system of a human so that a hand could be cut off, then reattached without any pain or trauma.

But that was bizarre, to compare a machine to a person. Every part of a machine, at least in the modern world, was replaceable, and easily so. (Humans were also replaceable, yes, but not as easily, not without a fight.) Aria doubted that Antonius Wang had designed his mockup in such a way that if one part broke, everything became unusable with it because no one could figure out a way to replace the broken part.

Nonetheless, the more Aria examined the blueprint, the deeper her frown became because that seemed to be exactly what Mr. Wang had done. This primitive-looking box functioned like an intricate clockwork, one that the clockmaker took pride in because no part could function without the other. Each green line wound around other green lines absolutely intentionally.

That explained why the mockup had gone defective, and why Mr. Wang hadn’t fixed the hardware: there was no way to fix it. Of course, that still didn’t explain why Mr. Wang hadn’t updated the software for ten years, or why he was dragging this bot around at all.

Also, why had no one known about this? A bot and a human, connected. One and the same, possibly. That opened new horizons. That marked the beginning of a whole new era. Aria couldn’t even imagine what would become possible with this type of technology.

Why had Mr. Wang kept this a secret? Obviously, he must have completely changed out the internal parts of the original mockup. He’d replaced them with this interwoven thread system after the mockup had served its initial function as the first machine ambassador for aidbot research. That changeout must have been why he’d refused to donate the mockup to a museum.

But why hide this great achievement? Why make it so impractical? And because of that impracticality, Aria couldn’t stop thinking…

This mockup was the most human of the bots she’d ever seen.

It behaved like a human who was capable of getting sick. Sick, not broken. When a person broke her hip, she couldn’t walk even though the leg bones were intact. Even with something as harmless as the cold, when a person caught it, he couldn’t concentrate and lost his appetite even though the organs themselves were fine.

“Fine,” assuming that one part of the human body could exist blissfully unaware of the rest. But in reality, it was never so—which was what made normal machines with replaceable parts so reliable in contrast. Which was why no sound-minded engineer would want to design a bot that was built to break down if a small part of it collapsed.

“Sound-minded.” A desirable quality. But only one of the many desirable qualities in an engineer. While Aria’s eyes darted between the many light-green threads, she wondered: what were the other desirable qualities?

A certain degree of foolhardiness? An irrational sympathy for beings built to be useful, to be discarded when they ceased to be of use? A fondness for the useless?

Well, the blueprint was useless for the purpose of identifying a detachable part. The thread network was too dense to disassemble. Besides, no time, not much anymore. At this rate, the best Aria could do was to cut off half of the bot’s arm and hope for the best.

She put the laptop on the floor. Carefully avoiding the bot’s flinging arms, she ducked. She needed to search the bot’s bottom for the off switch. Maybe turning it off would reveal the most dispensable part in the blueprint.

As if the bot knew that she was about to find its off switch, it writhed more fiercely.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Aria said.

Ridiculous, that she should address the bot like a kid or a scared animal, but that tended to be her go-to reaction to a bot’s resistance. And this wasn’t because she thought the bot was human, it was because she was human. She couldn’t help but see humanness in everything around her, feel for them, care for them…

Neon-green light shot out of the hologram projector lens attached to the laptop. An ugly static screeched out of the speakers. The light cast a wide net on the dull-gray floor, bench, the walls, and every person or object in the way. People glanced at Aria. The light danced on their faces. They grimaced and stuck their fingers in their ears in a futile attempt to block out the noise.

“Sorry,” Aria said.

Quickly, she covered the lens with one hand and typed the command to turn it off with the other.

That didn’t work. She hammered on random keys. Neon-green kept oozing out between her fingers. What was going on?

Then, abruptly, the laptop screen turned black. The screeching static stopped. The projector turned off on its own. A burst of random letters lit up the screen. Flustered, Aria sat up and watched.

Ns and Os and Fs popped up, then disappeared. N, O, F, F, N, F, O, F, N—

“Slow down,” she said.

The bot abruptly ceased swiveling around and vroomed. Aria interpreted that as the bot scraping up all the concentration that it could.

“One letter at a time,” she said encouragingly.

N

O

Pause.

O

F

F

“No off,” Aria stated.

The bot vroomed harder… and returned to swiveling its limbs.

The bot couldn’t control its body for more than a minute. But this was great. This was encouraging. The bot had been perceiving what was going on around it and had successfully communicated its intent to Aria.

“I see, but I have to remove something,” Aria said. “Otherwise, both you and Mr. Wang won’t get anywhere. Wouldn’t you rather that I remove a dispensable part than an indispensable one? There has to be something that can be removed temporarily. If you can point me to—”

Once again, the bot vroomed fiercely. Then, a rapid red pulse radiated across the blueprint, with the bot’s battery in the core as the center.

It was at that moment that Mr. Wang awoke like a gargoyle would awake at the touch of a magical force—a force strong enough to turn stone into a moving, breathing thing. Mr. Wang’s dry lips parted without crumbling apart, and from the gaping hole uttered a hoarse voice:

“Connection.”

Aria stared at the old man in awe, because despite the bad breath and hoarseness, his voice was definitely the voice that she’d heard in the documentaries. This was the voice that had guided her to her present situation, the one that had told her that there still was a role that humans could play in the world of replaceable existences.

“Mr. Wang,” Aria said, cleared her throat, and continued. “I am already connected—”

“Direct,” he said, this time pointing at the bot’s head and at his pants pocket with each index finger.

Aria found it very awkward to stare at someone’s pants pocket, even when said someone was pointing at it with the express purpose of making her look at it. So, with a doubtful frown, she stood up halfway to first see what was so special about the bot’s head.

And there, on the crown of its head, she saw: a tiny port in the shape of a sickle.

If Mr. Wang hadn’t specifically pointed it out, she would’ve missed it. First of all, the bot’s head didn’t consist of one smooth surface. There were many narrow gaps and holes between the various parts that formed the mockup, like the surface of a Rubik’s cube.

Secondly, even if Aria had noticed this particular hole, she wouldn’t have thought that it was a port. She’d seen all sorts of ports before—USB, Ethernet, HDMI, you name it—but a sickle-shaped port, curved like Mr. Wang’s back? Never. But in there, there they were, the tiny silver and black parts that were characteristic to a port.

Now she couldn’t help but look at the one person who could answer her question: What on earth am I supposed to do with this weirdly-shaped port?

And there Mr. Wang sat, hands on his lap instead of pointing anywhere.

“Mr. Wang? Eh, could you hand me what’s in your pocket, please?”

But Mr. Wang had returned to being an unmoving gargoyle statue. Aria glanced at the mockup. It had returned to swiveling aimlessly. Apparently, it had used up all its concentration for that one rapid red pulse. The magical force had been used up. Mr. Wang’s lips were firmly closed. He stared into the nothing through his sunglasses.

Darn. But at least the red pulse explained how these two had booked the flight and how they’d successfully arrived at the airport. Also, its rarity explained why his jeans had gotten so dirty and why he didn’t wear any coat, gloves, or scarves. These two, the bot and its owner, had prioritized what they absolutely needed. Warmth hadn’t been their priority. Not that they hadn’t considered protection from the elements, but they weren’t worried about comfort. Life and death were more critical. Hence the pink vinyl cover for the bot, which absolutely needed protection from water due to its primitive design, but no coat for Mr. Wang.

Aria looked at Mr. Wang’s pocket again. What had to be done had to be done.

“Excuse me,” she mumbled, and clumsily reached into Mr. Wang’s pocket.

From it, she fished out a cable. Quickly, she backed away so that it didn’t look like she was touching a helpless old man. Back by the laptop, she examined the cable: one end sickle-shaped, the other shaped like a regular USB cable.

She connected the cable to the bot’s head. A few times, the shower-hose arms hit her, but she was too curious about what the cable could do to care.

Immediately upon connecting the other end of the cable to her laptop, the zeroes and ones, the blueprint, and the madly blinking Ns, Os, and Fs vanished. Instead, a clean, black screen showed up.

Then light-green letters appeared:

[For heaven’s sake young lady, what took you so long?]

© 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.


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