Shells, Their Cores – Ch. 5

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Aria gazed at the light-green sentence written on her black laptop screen. But before she could read it once more and fully comprehend it, it vanished and a new one popped up:

[What are you staring at? Wake up, young lady. I’m going to tell you exactly what you need to do. There is no part of this bot that you can remove without damaging everything else, so forget about removing anything.]

Aria looked around. At the airport, crowded with people exposing their smelly feet for the security check, no one else had noticed that the laptop—or rather, the ancient mockup aidbot, through the laptop—was chiding her as if she were a little kid.

She focused on the screen again. There, a new sentence awaited her:

[Don’t look away when I’m talking.]

“Okay, I’m sorry—”

[And don’t interrupt me when I’m talking. And don’t you dare try to turn off this thing. It will be the death of me. Literally.]

Aria stared at the swiveling mockup aidbot covered in pink vinyl. “This thing,” it had said. She’d never seen a bot describe itself as “this thing.” It was speaking like people who talked about themselves in the third person.

Once again, when she focused on the screen, another sentence awaited her:

[I said, don’t look away when I’m talking!!!]

“Gosh, sorry.”

The mockup continued the conversation as if one party writing on the screen and the other speaking were the most normal way to do so.

[Since there are no parts you can remove, the only thing you can do is to help me get this thing on the airplane without being noticed by those agentbots. Stack your bag on top of me. Those agentbots are bad at separately analyzing objects that are too close to each other. It’s likely they’ll misattribute several hundred grams to your bag instead of me. Move, move, move, we have ten minutes!!!]

Aidbots weren’t supposed to talk like this to humans. Not that Aria thought bots needed to act all servile or anything, but they were run by artificial intelligence strictly limited by human-bot interaction protocols. Thus they tended to avoid calling humans “young lady.” They also tended to avoid belittling people or using dramatic expressions like “for heaven’s sake.” And calmness was critical when working with the hyperelderly. Therefore, aidbots most definitely didn’t use three exclamation points in a row.

[What? What’s the problem? What is it? What should I say to make you move? Hmm? Oh, for merlin’s sake, stop staring and get moving!]

“Hey, you’re asking me for help. Stop talking to me like that.”

The laptop screen went blank. Then, at a slower tempo than earlier, the letters popped up one by one:

[I apologize.]

Aria wondered if the bot meant to convey sarcasm or a heartfelt apology. Quickly, it went a tempo and said:

[We haven’t had a proper introduction. Pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m Antonius Wang.]

Aria gaped. “No, you’re not.”

At presto: [What do you mean, I’m not?]

“I mean, you’re an aidbot.”

Still at presto: [Are you or aren’t you a technician? Don’t be so unimaginative.]

“Unimaginative? Me?”

[Yes, you. Who’s here but you?]

“Who’s here but you, the aidbot? Mr. Wang is over there.” Aria pointed at Mr. Wang, sitting like a frozen gargoyle on the bench in the corner of the airport.

Very, very lento, turning into grave, turning slowly into larghissimo: [That Mr. Wang stopped being like the old Mr. Wang a long, long time ago.]

Pause.

[Everything that Mr. Wang could keep from vanishing is inside me. I am what remains of him. We are Mr. Wang.]

Aria shivered. She didn’t know why.

Out of fear? Awe? Confusion? But she didn’t believe what this bot was telling her, so why should she fear, be in awe, or be confused? How could Mr. Wang be this bot? Even with the incredible thread-web connection that he’d managed to establish between the two of them, how could they be—the same they? How could they be him? How could he be them? There was no technology that allowed human consciousness to be carried around in chips and wires.

Or was there? Was she really being unimaginative?

Then, at the fastest tempo ever, the bot snapped:

[Anyway, you must do as I said. Put your duffel bag on top of me.]

“The agentbots aren’t stupid. They’re going to ask me to separate all carry-on bags and push them through the check gate one by one.”

[Well, they weren’t smart enough to identify me with their facial recognition software just because I haven’t left my house for twenty years and they don’t have a recent photograph, right? Besides, what other idea do you have to help me get on the plane with that human body of Mr. Wang’s? You have ten seconds to give me an answer, because you wasted another three minutes asking unnecessary questions.]

I wasted another three minutes?”

Now, irritation overtook Aria’s curiosity.

“You know what? You can deal with your problems yourself.”

She put her hand on the laptop cover.

[Nonononono don’t close!]

“Don’t order me around.”

[No don’t!!!]

Aria stopped. “You need to clarify a lot of things. And stop using exclamation points.”

Lines appeared in rapid succession.

[How should I have known that the regulations changed? You can see from the state of me and the state of him that checking the latest regulations wasn’t exactly our priority here. Until this morning, we didn’t even know we wanted to get on a plane. I mean, me with my uncontrollably swiveling arms and him with his uncontrollably foggy brain? I needed to get him to book the flight and get us here. That was the priority, not checking the new regulations.]

“Not that part. How are you, well, you? How are you Mr. Wang?”

Pause.

Based on the way the bot had urged her earlier, Aria interpreted this pause as a clearly sarcastic, impatient sigh.

[Over many, many years, I moved bits and parts of myself. Himself. Myself. I don’t know. Ourselves. I don’t know who he is and I am anymore. We are us, Mr. Wang.]

“That is impossible.”

[How someone so unimaginative like you can call herself a technician is completely beyond me.]

“Hey.”

[Well, it’s the truth, and I can’t keep forever apologizing for pointing out the truth. Aren’t you supposed to create a friend for the hyperelderly?]

“Well, yes, I—”

[If I weren’t Mr. Wang, of course I’d have gotten an update years ago. Ten years ago, to be exact. But I couldn’t, or I’d have risked compromising myself, or him, whichever way you want to look at it. You see, by then, they’d found out. We were worried they might plant a bug in the update and attack us.]

“They? Who— Never mind. This first: why didn’t you make a backup copy?”

[If you haven’t noticed already, the makeup of this bot makes it uniquely impossible to tinker with it. That includes making copies of its data. Someone copies me, and poof, I’ll be gone. It was designed that way from the beginning. I didn’t want anyone to steal what was uniquely mine, then manipulate me. Someone was bound to do that once they found out. A bot that can be the other self—grow together but also separately, exist in parallel but also diverge—that’s new.]

“Yeah,” Aria said, in awe. “Yeah, that’s unheard of.”

[All parts were custom-made. And once they were put together, no one could tear them apart anymore without damaging the whole thing.]

Just like a living, breathing organism. Once made, the body had to stay together. Otherwise, pain, blood, death. Horror along those lines.

[The only reason this direct connection through the curved cable exists is for emergencies like now. That’s why the curve-port is designed to be inconspicuous. And the regular port does exist, but whatever you get through there isn’t the true me, you see? Not all of me. Regular wireless connection is what all aidbots have. Aidbots without any control over themselves, because they’re, well, bots. They take orders from their owners.]

“So you’re okay with connection, as long as it’s direct.”

[Sure, why not. Cable connections, they’re primitive but therefore also more difficult to hack. Security is the top priority.]

“Security from what?”

[They found out about me and Mr. Wang. My enemies.]

“Elaborate.”

[There’s really no time anymore. We have five minutes, to be exact. Will you kindly put your bag on top of me and begin ushering Mr. Wang to the security check? Make a sad face and ask for forgiveness and get him to the damn front of the line, please.]

Aria said nothing. If a bot could convey sarcasm through pause, she could do it ten times better.

[Fine. But you’d better read this quickly. My enemies want eternal life.]

Aria raised her brows—but only for a second, because the bot rapidly said:

[They want my method of putting myself in this bot.

[At first, they wanted to talk. Make me spill the secrets.

[I denied my existence. I refused to talk.

[But they were convinced that I had made me.

[This morning, they tried to kidnap us. We had to flee.

[I had Mr. Wang book the tickets on the way here. They want to sell eternal life, that’s what they want.]

With difficulty, Aria suppressed her first reaction, which was “No way,” because the bot would have called her unimaginative once more. But “sell eternal life”? Was that a thing?

“And… Did you make this bot—yourself—for that purpose? To live forever?”

[Of course not. All I wanted was someone to take care of my funeral exactly the way I want it done. But my original purpose doesn’t matter to them. They want the result, which is this bot, with enough logically intertwined pieces of a specific human’s memory so that it identifies itself as said specific human.]

“And… But… You will technically live forever if you really are in the bot.”

[Of course I really am in the bot. Can’t you see it after talking to me for a while—way too long a while? Hmm? Bots don’t talk like this to humans.]

“They don’t.”

[But I don’t care about eternal life. No, actually, I do care. I know for sure that I do not want it. Do you know what it’s like to have your wife and son die before you?]

“No.”

[Of course you don’t. You’re basically a baby. Thank goodness I will not exist eternally in any form because this bot will not last forever. I mean, look at it. It’s already in the process of breaking. And when it’s done breaking, the version of Mr. Wang who is inside it will die with it, through physical disintegration, just like any organism would. All this bot needs to do is outlive me by several days so that my enemies won’t get to prevent my cremation. Afterward, it can roll into a forest somewhere and wait until it breaks down. It’s a lot easier for a bot to disappear from the face of the earth than for a human to do it, you know.]

“True, but—”

[I’m the ultimate aidbot. Because, the ultimate aid that a single dying person needs from an aidbot is in funeral arrangements. You can see that the old man sitting on that bench cannot think about what he wants, or cremation, or funeral arrangements in general. He needs me, or his former self that I have kept from disintegrating at the same rate as his biological self. But of course, I can’t arrange for the cremation before he dies. You understand?]

“Yeah, but… You did all this to make sure that you get cremated? What do you think your enemies are going to do with his body?” Although she was a person who ruminated a lot about her destiny and coincidences and so on, she hadn’t considered her funeral arrangements yet. And to think that someone could have spent a decade or more contemplating the best way to get the perfect funeral was just so—unexpected, to say the least.

[Please don’t tell me I’m morbid. If you were me and you knew there are people willing to torture your old body out of all secrets, then when you die, dissect every single piece of you against your will to take out the network, or worse, kidnap the bot before I die—then you’d also want to make sure you die the way you want.]

Aria shivered. Out of all that the bot had said, the “dissect every single piece of you against your will” part sounded like the worst to her.

“You seriously think there are people who want to torture and dissect you and kidnap your bot?”

“Yes,” Mr. Wang said.

Aria jumped. She hadn’t expected him to talk again.

She waited for him to say the next word. He didn’t. She looked at the screen.

[Yes, I seriously think so. If I didn’t seriously think so, why do you think I’d be here? I told you, they came for us this morning, to kidnap us. We first fled to the basement, then out through the second door that leads to a forest clearing half a mile from our basement.]

Even though Aria knew she must sound silly repeating what the mockup said, she had to confirm she’d heard correctly: “You have a half-mile-long tunnel that connects your basement to a forest clearing?”

“Yes,” Mr. Wang said again.

This time, Aria only flinched. She waited. He didn’t say another word. She took a deep breath. This was the oddest sort-of-three-way conversation she’d ever had.

[Of course I have one. I knew they’d come for me one day, if they were desperate enough. Today was the day they decided to begin being desperate.]

“They, who, exactly?”

[I don’t know, the enemies! So we had to book the next best flight, taking into account all the time it was going to take to get here, of course. If they capture us, I won’t get my damn peaceful death.]

“Better pulverize myself,” Mr. Wang said.

[than ending up in their hands and letting them do the pulverizing,] the mockup finished.

“Better become dust myself,” Mr. Wang said.

[than ending up in their hands and letting them do the dustifying,] the mockup finished again.

“Better put myself in an impossible-to-reassemble state.”

[than]

“I get it, I get it,” Aria said.

[Oh but do you? Do you really? Because he’ll tell you it’s better to vanish completely]

“—than being buried and being found later,” Mr. Wang finished.

Any lingering doubt that these two weren’t actually connected vanished from Aria’s mind, completely. Such a doubt had been pulverized, dustified, become impossible-to-reassemble. They were finishing each other’s sentences without Mr. Wang needing to glance at the screen.

“Cremation,” Mr. Wang said now.

[Exactly. That is the most socially-accepted, normal way to accomplish what we want. But if not that]

“—grind into pieces. Cut into parts. Chop me up—“

“Okay, okay,” Aria said. “I get how important it is that you become—inaccessible in any shape or form. Unidentifiable, almost. Right?”

Mr. Wang didn’t react.

[Right. Better that than letting others take control over me bit by bit, or worse—letting them know all my secrets. Or letting them plant thoughts in me. Change me up into something I’m not, then dub me ‘Antonius Wang’ and tell the world that the tampered version is me. I want none of that. I want a complete, full, clean release. He wants a complete, full, clean release. Since the electronics in him won’t cease to function just because his biological functions have shut down, under no circumstances can his body get into the hands of the enemies. He needs to be cremated.]

“So if you only booked the tickets to get away as soon as possible, you don’t need to get on that specific plane, right?”

[No, but to get on a different plane, I’d have to buy new tickets. As you might guess, we haven’t been working for a while and our retirement savings have been steadily decreasing despite the basic income because of all the parts it took to make me, and the stealthy ways in which they were obtained. We don’t have much money.]

Pause.

[My only hope is that Mr. Wang, in the physical body over there, won’t outlast me. Then all would be over. Then we’d be exposed. He’d just be standing where he last stood when I was still “there” and they’d come cruising along to pick him up OH NO.]

“What?”

The laptop screen went blank. The mockup vroomed. Bewildered, Aria looked around. At the sudden, prolonged cold draft that entered the airport, she ended up staring at the only possible explanation:

There, at the open automatic doors, stood half a dozen men in black suits and black sunglasses.

© 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.
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