Shells, Their Cores – Ch. 6

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Those open automatic doors at the airport attracted a lot of attention. People buried themselves in their coats and scarves at the prolonged cold draft. And once they’d ensured that they’d taken good protective measures, they glared at the six men in black suits who still stood by the doors and prevented them from closing.

How silly, those men. Coldly, slowly, pretending to mean no harm, they surveyed the airport. But they were poor actors. First of all, their choice of wardrobe exposed their not-so-innocuous intention. Most people simply didn’t wear suits anymore. Especially not black suits, unless they were going to a funeral. But if these people were on the way to a funeral via airplane, they wouldn’t be standing around as if they were looking for the coffin right here. And even if, for some reason, someone had arranged for a funeral at the airport, the guests wouldn’t be wearing sunglasses, especially not on a cold winter day.

Moreover, their identical attire accentuated the differences underneath their clothes: each of the six men boasted a different set of hair/skin color combination. Black hair and dark skin. Black hair and pale skin. Brown hair and middle-tone skin. Brown hair and pale skin. Blond hair and dark skin. Blond hair and pale skin. A delightfully diverse collection, wrapped in a neat package of identical black suits for coherence.

Black, a neutral color, could end up being that conspicuous.

Mr. Wang’s aidbot mockup vroomed while it swiveled its arms madly. Quickly, Aria glanced at the laptop, which was still connected to the bot via the sickle-shaped cable:

[The men who are after me,] said the bot’s message on the laptop screen.

Aria took one second to think.

She disconnected the cable. Rolled it, put it in the pocket of her leather jacket. Closed her laptop. Folded it into a cube. Tossed it in the duffel bag. Put the duffel bag on top of the mockup’s head.

Pulled Mr. Wang up from the bench. Pushed the mockup ahead of her.

She never looked back.

They just needed to reach the crowd in the pre-security-check area. Once they mingled, they’d have a chance. They might fail to get through the check gate, but at least Mr. Wang’s enemies weren’t going to catch them right here, right now.

“Hey!” a man called from behind them.

“You shouldn’t have chosen pink vinyl,” Aria told the mockup.

The mockup vroomed angrily, probably throwing a bunch of invisible sentences at the air. Abruptly, Aria changed directions and ran parallel to the row of security check gates, rather than toward one of them.

Heads turned. People gasped and whispered. The men in the black suits shouted “Stop” and “Get them!”

Aria didn’t stop dragging Mr. Wang and pushing the mockup on its wheels. No one attempted to seize them. The immensely bored airport visitors seemed delighted at this show and wanted it to continue. When they realized that it wasn’t them who were getting shouted at, they laughed and let Aria’s group through.

This was great. Absolutely fabulous. Because, although it made no sense that Aria was helping a man/bot who’d yelled at her (via screen text) and called her unimaginative, she wanted to help it, him, them, whatever they were. They really had enemies. It wasn’t all imagined. The men back there definitely exuded evil intent.

Running from evil! Exciting stuff. Aria had frequently run at this speed at the gym or outdoors as exercise, but not out of necessity. Never. Modern humans didn’t need to flee like this. And modern humans usually didn’t hunt others like the men in the black suits were doing. What an exhilarating purpose the chasing and fleeing gave all of them!

For once in her life, Aria didn’t think about the randomness of her birthplace or birth time; where she should go and live as a human with so much freedom; whether her path was the right one or not; or whether she was on a path at all.

A man and his mockup, who couldn’t care less where they ended up going, and only thought about their peaceful end—they needed her help. This was a rare moment of total clarity. She moved at great speed, but not out of restlessness. Purpose drove her. Extreme, illogical, burning purpose.

But she couldn’t keep fleeing like this. She was out of breath and Mr. Wang was heavy and he refused to walk and his knees gave out and she couldn’t haul him like a bag full of potatoes. He was much heavier than that. And the mockup kept hitting her in the stomach with its shower-hose arms and it vroomed and attempted to roll away and the duffel bag fell off and—

She just couldn’t keep going like this. People had formed a wide, loose circle around her. The shouts grew louder; the enemies were approaching.

Good thing? The crowd that formed the circle seemed to take offense at the enemies’ ruthless pushing and shouting. People refused to make way.

Ah, what would Aria do without the reliable stubbornness of humans?

She slowed down. One hand clasping Mr. Wang’s checkered shirt, the other clasping one of the bot’s arms, she quickly scanned her surroundings:

A pimply, boyish airport worker in black pants and a white T-shirt sat in the driver’s seat of one of those indoor vehicles without a roof or windows—a glorified golf cart. A couple of porter drones were attached to its back. They looked ten times sturdier and heavier than the cart itself. The drones looked like heavy-duty spiders with wings, each complete with a strong rotor and eight legs. This, because the cart was meant for indoor use only, for shuttling people to and from gates, while the porter drones were designed to carry heavy luggage—sometimes, whole freight containers—all over the airport and even beyond its premises for the occasional lost bag.

But on any normal day, the porter drones had nothing to do. People who needed to get on that cart tended to be the hyperelderly who brought very few bags, and only lightweight ones at that. They needed the help of the cart because they couldn’t carry much—including their own selves—and didn’t own aidbots to do the carrying for them.

What such hyperelderly needed more than heavy-duty drones was a human who could interact with them without technological fuss. That was why the airport had put a human in the cart—in this case, that boy with lots of pimples. Possibly in a lot of debt. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be working. Family debt, most likely. A boy barely twenty years old couldn’t have done much to get into debt. Low self-esteem? Maybe. Bad for him, good for Aria in this case. All this context meant that he could be convinced, cajoled, confused.

“Hey!” Aria said.

Pimply Boy didn’t respond. At first, Aria wondered if he’d self-medicated; if he’d used one of those street meds. But he seemed too awake.

Were there blends that allowed the user to be more alert? Probably. Though Aria didn’t have first-hand experience, there was said to be a drug for everything. But for this? For playing a game on his phone while at the same time, he reacted to the audio news coming from his vehicle’s speakers, not just from one channel, but from multiple channels that had been put on auto-rotation mode?

News item one: bots that had occupied the desks at an insurance company were shut down, to be repurposed later.

Pimply Boy snorted, his thumbs hitting various parts of the phone screen. Occasionally, his phone vibrated. He grinned every time. Either he was scoring points or killing off virtual enemies—something along those lines.

News item two: a hyperelderly woman wept because her youngest and last daughter had died before her.

Pimply Boy sighed, never stopping his thumb movements. When his phone vibrated again and again, his grin returned.

News item three: police had identified the skeletons. Surprisingly, the skeletons were all relatively fresh but belonged to hyperelderly people who had been supposedly dead for many years.

Pimply Boy reacted to that news with surprising agility. He sat up. He removed one hand from his phone. He punched a button on his vehicle. The audio news stayed on the same channel without automatically switching to the next.

The man from the news said in an obnoxiously cheerful voice, “Now the police are comparing the DNA of the skeletons with the DNA of the bodies that were buried in those people’s graves years ago. Am I hearing this right, Charlotte? They’re unburying corpses?”

“You’ve heard it right, Charles,” said Charlotte, equally cheerful and obnoxious. “And apparently, some of those graves were empty.”

Charles said, “What?”

Charlotte said, “Yup. The leading theory is that they’ve identified a series of fake deaths.”

Charles said, “Satanic cult indeed?”

Charlotte said, “Maybe. Or—although we might not want to accept this as a reality—elderly children abandoning their hyperelderly parents, then pretending that they’re already dead…”

Pimply Boy slowly slumped in his seat. He pressed the same button as earlier. The audio news returned to auto-rotation mode. Pimply Boy sat there for a while. Then he returned to playing games on his phone while waiting for the next exciting news to arrive.

So, here was a person who was bored to the point of committing pointless multitasking. And he was into macabre things—another piece of advantageous context information for Aria.

She ran toward him, dragging Mr. Wang, pushing the bot. Even after she’d reached the cart and panted heavily at his face, Pimply Boy didn’t react. She wasn’t news about dead bodies. So, she tossed her duffel bag in the back seat.

Pimply Boy finally looked up. His cell phone made an annoying, wheezing, descending-scale noise. He’d lost this round of the game.

“Wait, what are you doing?” he said.

For a second, Aria balked. His voice color had surprised her—pleasantly so. It was silvery, awake. What a surprise, from a boy who couldn’t even hear her the first time around because he was too absorbed in a game.

“Help me with this thing,” Aria said.

“You can’t just—”

“Help me with this thing so I can help this man get in. Don’t you see that he’s completely incapable of walking? He’s going to be late for his flight! Are you going to make it up to him if he misses his own funeral?”


“His own funeral. He’s going to his own funeral. Now get this bot on this cart! Now!”

The “his own funeral” argument was only sort of true, but true enough. Mr. Wang and his bot hadn’t arranged their funeral for a specific time and place yet. But if they missed this particular plane, they’d certainly have no funeral.

Flustered, Pimply Boy looked around. Noticed all the chuckles and grins of the onlookers. Concluded that Aria and the old man and the weird moving box-thing were harmless. Halfway rose from his seat—

Until he noticed the shouts of the Black Suits.

He stopped. While he followed the struggle between the Black Suits and a stubborn group of people who refused to budge out of their way, Aria successfully coaxed Mr. Wang to sit in the back seat.

“Come on, help me with this thing,” Aria said.

Pimply Boy remained in the cart and did pull up the mockup, although his eyes still rested on the Black Suits. Aria pushed the mockup from outside the vehicle.

But when the Black Suits broke through the barrier of the stubborn crowd, Pimply Boy stopped.

Aria’s goal: get the mockup to sit next to her duffel bag and Mr. Wang, who had once more frozen into an unmoving gargoyle, oblivious to his surroundings.

Present state: the mockup was precariously balanced atop the back seat door.

“What’s going on?” Pimply Boy said.

“What’s going on, what?” Aria said.

“Those people, they’re coming after you.”

“Mean people who want to prevent an old man from getting to his own funeral.”

“Why do you keep saying that? He’s alive.”

“Yeah, of course he needs to still be alive to get to his own funeral. You think once he dies, he’ll get anywhere?”

Aria didn’t even know what she was saying anymore. Pimply Boy seemed to be confused as to what his original question had been.

“Look, can you drive this thing or not?” Aria asked.

“Of course I can drive—”

“Can you drive us or not?”

“I can’t, I—”

Pimply Boy didn’t let go of the mockup, but looked around for his superior—one of the dozens of agentbots that were running toward the scene, from all sides.

“You’re going to do what they tell you to do?” Aria asked.

“That’s my boss,” Pimply Boy said.

Aria didn’t know which of the identical agentbots painted in blue and black he meant. She didn’t care.

“Grow a damn backbone,” Aria said. “Your job is to transport the airport visitors who need transportation. We need transportation. Are you telling me that you need the approval of your boss every single time you decide whether or not to transport someone?”

“I need to at least…” Pimply Boy reached for the walkie-talkie on his belt.

With one hand, Aria kept the mockup in place. With the other, she grabbed Pimply Boy’s free hand. Big-eyed, she looked up at him.

Millenia of evolution and history had given the human several traits. Compassion and sympathy were a few of those traits. And those feelings were closely related to other feelings: those governing the sense of power, control, and responsibility.

“This is the moment in your life where you need to make your own decision,” Aria said. “Everything depends on you. Help us. Please.”

Pimply Boy glanced at the Black Suits; at the agentbots rushing toward the cart while blinking their visors red and blue.

Then, Pimply Boy pulled at the mockup—one strong, short pull. Aria let go of both his hand and the bot. The bot landed in the back seat. Evolutionary habits could do wonders, if one knew how to make the most of them.

“This will get me fired,” Pimply Boy muttered as he hopped over to the driver’s seat.

“And you will have fulfilled a dying man’s wish,” Aria said, climbing into the front passenger seat.

“Stop, stop right there!” the Black Suits shouted.

“Do not move, do not move,” the agentbots said.

But another group of the stubborn human crowd refused to make way for the enemies—a great proof of the “safety in numbers” hypothesis. The Black Suits couldn’t simply push everyone out of the way, because there were too many; the agentbots couldn’t even push a single person out of the way, because they weren’t allowed to attack.

And so, Pimply Boy was free to press the “Go” button. The cart proceeded forward—not with a great loud engine roar but instead adopting a slow but sure crawl. It beeped, warning everyone nearby of their approach.

“Where to?” Pimply Boy said.

With a faint, professional smile, he waved at the people who hadn’t noticed them despite the beeping. Please move out of the way, thank you very much, thanks.

Aria was impressed by his quick switch from confusion to calmness. Maybe the habitual multitasking had helped him after all.

“Wherever flight TXP076 is departing from,” she said.

“It should have left already.”

Aria’s heart sank. “Are you sure?”

Pimply Boy spoke into his walkie-talkie. “Did TXP076 leave yet?”

“No,” said a woman. Her response was too instantaneous. She wasn’t human.

Pimply Boy frowned. “Why not?”

“There was a problem with the captain.”

“What problem?”

“He fainted.”

“What?” Pimply Boy said, incredulous. “So now what?”

“They’ve found a replacement captain.”

“A replacement captain,” Pimply Boy repeated, as if the phrase made him uneasy.

Aria shared his sentiment. You didn’t want to think that the captain in control of your aircraft had been a mere “replacement.”

“Okay, well, I need the gate number for flight TXP076.”

“No, not the gate,” Aria whispered. “It’s too late for the gate. You need to get us to the plane itself.”

“What’s that?” the female bot said from the walkie-talkie.

“Never mind, thanks,” Pimply Boy said.

He turned off the walkie-talkie. Then he stared at Aria for as long as he could without driving over anyone.

“This cart is meant for indoor use only,” he said.

“Then you’ll be the first to drive it outdoors.”

He removed his eyes from her and kept them on the road. “This will really get me fired.”

She shrugged, and only now noticed that there was something poking at her butt. Frowning, she reached down and fished out his smartphone.

“Here.” And without any sarcasm, she said with all her heart, “You’re my hero.”

Pimply Boy blushed.

“Thanks,” he said, took the phone from her, and tossed it in his backpack under his seat.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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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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