Shells, Their Cores – Ch. 7

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Pimply Boy had been right to point out that their vehicle was meant for indoor use only. As soon as it left the airport onto the snow-covered pedestrian road, its hitherto sheltered wheels skidded uncontrollably. The heavy-duty porter drones attached to the back rattled. One slippery stretch, and those drones could throw the entire cart off balance.

Aria clasped her seat. The mockup aidbot vroomed behind her in the back seat. Even Mr. Wang let out a weak involuntary whimper. Since the cart didn’t have a roof, it was entirely possible for it to fling them out while it turned a sharp curve.

But Pimply Boy acted bravely. He was a young man who’d spent a lifetime playing games on his phone, killing imaginary enemies, but now he was the same man no more; he’d heard this sentence for the first time in real life: You’re my hero, you’re my hero, you’re my hero…

“Not to worry. Everything’s under control,” he said, and did bring the cart back onto its track by madly turning the steering wheel.

Aria suppressed a grin. Praises did wonders for a human.

Little snowflakes fell on her black leather jacket and melted instantly. She could taste the cold air, mixed with cigarette smoke, whenever the wind decided to give her face a break and stop slapping it so madly.

Good that Mr. Wang’s mockup had thought of putting on that vinyl cover. Otherwise, the snow would’ve caused water damage by now. Like a kid in a raincoat, the bot sat next to its owner and alternated between vrooming and hitting the old man on the lap with its shower-hose arm. The old man showed no reaction whatsoever. Which reminded her: he was incapable of shivering.

Quickly, she climbed over her seat and crouched down by Mr. Wang. She took out the leather gloves from her pocket. Nah, these were too tiny to fit him.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if Aria had been average-sized? But alas, she wasn’t, and the old man’s muddy jeans and checkered shirt, which had been wet from the beginning, were absorbing even more moisture from the falling snow. Based on outward appearances, he underwent no physical change as a consequence of the cold environment; but he was human nonetheless and was probably losing body heat quickly.

Aria took off her jacket. Underneath, she only wore a thin black sweater. Shivering, very much capable of generating heat for her own body, she put the jacket around Mr. Wang’s shoulders. For good measure, she tied the arms around his neck so the jacket wouldn’t fall off.

For the first time, the bot ceased to vroom, and also ceased to fling its arms. With an act of kindness, Aria had managed to shock it into temporary stasis.

And then that peaceful second passed, and the bot returned to vrooming and swiveling. Aria chuckled. Maybe the next time they communicated, the bot wasn’t going to yell at her. She put on the gloves and climbed over her seat, to the front, and sat down.

The cart had left the pedestrian roads. Pimply Boy drove around the airport building. And there, once they turned a corner, lay a vast field of airplanes.

A prehistoric prairie with humongous dinosaurs would look like this. Each of the giant machinery generated ground-shaking, low-humming vibrations like grazing beasts that breathed in and out while digesting the prey that they’d just devoured. But other than that, all was quiet here. The beasts didn’t need to communicate verbally.

Occasional grass patches separated the large concrete plots marked with white or yellow lines. Most dinosaur-planes stood in an elegant curve along the likewise curved airport building; others moved along the white or yellow lines, slowly and gently, the way giant creatures did to conserve energy and avoid destroying each other upon collision.

Dozens of windows, each teeny-tiny compared to the planes’ overall body size, lined their sides like eyes with the eyelids open. Their tails were painted in red, green, blue, and more; sometimes striped, at other times solid. Occasionally, the bellies were painted in a different color from the backs. All these distinguishing traits indicated: they belonged to various dinosaur species, originating from different countries, nearby or faraway.

Around the planes, smaller creatures quietly scurried around like rodents or insects:

Box-shaped inspectorbots, scanning the runway with their attentive lens-eyes, ensuring that not a single piece of debris lay around.

Disk-shaped cleaningbots, swarming into this or that airplane to vacuum the seats and wipe the armrests.

And flightbots—the ones that had replaced human flight attendants. They were only as tall as a child, but as strong as a man who’d made it his life’s mission to lift ever heavier weights. Stronger than Jack, probably. Those flightbots carried meal carts, cutlery, and cups in preparation for an impending flight.

All these bots moved quickly, never stopping. Some of their surfaces, painted in fluorescent yellow or orange, shimmered in the sunlight. Those colors were aesthetic relics of times past, when humans had to wear safety vests. Such visual safety measures were unnecessary for these bots. Not a single bot made the mishap of turning in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Meaning: though they looked different, they were interconnected by a web of electronic signals.

Only Pimply Boy’s cart existed truly separately from these outdoor species. And as expected of a creature that finds itself in the wild without a single friend, he drove close around the building instead of right toward the center of the field.

But after a few dozen feet, he slowed down, not by stepping on the brake but by merely removing his foot from the accelerator.

“That’s the plane for flight TXP076,” he said. He pointed at the airplane at the far end of the field. “You’re lucky it hasn’t left yet.” Then, his face fell. “Oh, no.”

The ground near the airplane was minutely shaking. Aria could see the nearby air vibrating from the engine heat.

TXP076 hadn’t left yet, but was ready for takeoff.

“I guess the replacement captain was a quick one,” Pimply Boy said. “It’s too dangerous to get any closer at this point.”

“Thanks for bringing us here,” Aria said. “Stop right here. We’ll be fine from here.”

“What are you going to do?”

“We’re going to try to get on that plane.”

“Didn’t you hear what I just said? It’s too dangerous to get any closer.”

“I told you, his funeral is at stake. He already has his death in mind. He’s not scared of an airplane.”

“But you? Aren’t you scared of getting hurt?”

“I’m…” She considered the question carefully, then said, “I’m not not scared, but I’m not scared either.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

“A truthful answer.”

Pimply Boy looked astounded and moved at the same time. He had that expression of a young man who was willing to interpret anything new and sort-of-interesting as profound, because he hadn’t encountered many new and sort-of-interesting things in his life.

Aria didn’t think that she’d said something profound, or even new or sort-of-interesting. But this was not a convenient moment to tell him why he shouldn’t make much of her statement. For that, she’d have to tell him her life story. How exhilarating the chase had been for her, for example. Or how she loved feeling like she had a reason to exist here, physically, at this precise moment. That she was a restless soul. And that she’d been yearning for something to push herself torward, or to allow herself to be pulled by—an anchor to keep her from floating away into the vacuum.

Mr. Wang’s escape from the Black Suits was as good as any anchor. Escape as an anchor—she liked the paradox of that phrase.

“Those men back there, are they coming after you?” Pimply Boy asked. “Or are they coming after this man?”

“Him,” Aria said. “Aren’t you going to stop?”

Their cart was still drifting forward, without accelerating or decelerating. Pimply Boy didn’t step on the brake.

“Are you his granddaughter?” he asked.

“Nope, never seen him in person until about an hour ago.”

“Then why are you with him?”

“I’m a technician and I was able to convince an agentbot that it qualifies me to try to communicate with that aidbot.”

“You’re a technician?” Pimply Boy gaped at her.

“Yes,” Aria said. Now it was her turn to blush.

“I’ve never met another person with a job before.”

“Yeah, well, nice to meet you.”

“Everyone thinks I’m mental that I want to work here. But you can only play so many video games. Or phone games. Or any games. Heck, I play games all day long even at the job because they don’t need me all that often. Makes me think, why was I even hired? I mean, what am I born for, to play games?”

That confession surprised Aria greatly. Her guesses about Pimply Boy had been entirely wrong. He didn’t have family debt. He wasn’t at the airport because he had to. This boy wanted to do something in a world that asked him to please not delude himself that he could accomplish anything greater than leveling-up in a game that only required two thumbs.

TXP076 began moving.

“Now it’s really too late,” Pimply Boy said. He glanced at Aria. “Does he absolutely have to board that plane?”

“He has tickets for it.”

“And you?”

“I don’t.”

“Then what were you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Hide in the bathroom? Hide in the cargo area?”

“Why wasn’t he already at the gate, to begin with?”

“Because of the bot. It was overweight by 200 grams. New regulations or something. Look, I really appreciate your help, but that plane is moving, and it’s going to start moving very fast very soon—”

“Oh, you were the people who got in trouble for that.” Pimply Boy laughed. “Everything makes sense now. I was wondering why there was a crowd by the security check. And you’re a technician. Got it, got it.”

“Yeah, that was us. Look—”

“Then the flightbots would’ve prevented him from taking his seat anyway.”

“What?”

“They would’ve kicked out both of them, him and his bot.”

“They can’t kick out someone who’s already on a plane.”

“They would’ve turned the plane around.”

Aria let out an outraged snort. “That’s ridiculous.”

Pimply Boy shrugged. He finally stepped on the brake. The cart stopped with a jolt.

“On top of that, he might have needed to pay for the wasted fuel out of his own pocket. Or out of his future government income. Ridiculous as it is, that’s what they would’ve done. Nowadays they check the bag weight when you check in, before the security check, during the security check, at the gate, and even when you’re in your seat.”

“I don’t believe this.”

“Why can’t he just check the bot as cargo?”

“Because they barely function when they’re together, and can’t function at all when they’re separated. And they’re worried they’ll be separated and one or both of them will be kidnapped. And they probably didn’t want to waste time standing in multiple rows.”

“Yeah, well, the bots would’ve found out that the thing is overweight for carry-on and turned around the plane. Then all the passengers would’ve been furious—and happy to feed you to those men back there even though the passengers would get nothing but petty revenge. Because when nothing else is to be gotten, that’s when petty revenge is the sweetest.”

Noises approached. Human voices, footsteps, mixed with metallic clinks.

Aria and Pimply Boy glanced back. Far behind them, human figures blinking red and blue lights approached at great speed: agentbots. Even farther behind the agentbots, the Black Suits followed.

“Oh, good,” Pimply Boy said. He stepped on the accelerator, and the cart began moving forward again.

“Where are you going?” Aria asked. “How is this good?”

“They’re out here, nothing will move for a while.”

As soon as Pimply Boy said this, an authoritative, suave male voice boomed in the entire field:

“Runway unsafe. Runway unsafe. Nothing takes off, nothing lands. Stop all action. Stop all action. Stay back. Stay back.”

TXP076 promptly slowed down, then eventually stopped. All other airplanes stopped too.

“So the control tower isn’t connected to the agentbots?” Aria asked, surprised. “They have to give each other verbal instructions?”

“Yeah, departmental power struggle,” Pimply Boy said. “I’m human, so I’m pretty much immune to what they do, but basically it’s indoors versus outdoors. Those who get to play with the planes versus those who’re stuck dealing with the passengers on the ground. The department heads claim that they need checks and balances.

“Or so I hear. I’ve never seen them. All the human worker I ever see is me in the bathroom mirror when I’m on my break. So much for making use of a college degree. I majored in Political Science only to come here and witness the lack of science in office politics.

“Anyway, the heads think all this has a purpose. Everyone else just thinks it’s super inconvenient. Maybe after this, they’ll consider combining the agentbot signal network with the control tower’s. Or maybe the heads are just trying to keep their jobs. Maybe their power struggle is what keeps them there. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the science: keeping one’s place, wherever that place may be.”

Pimply Boy drove through a gaping, dark opening in the airport building. He took a sharp turn to stay close to the wall, then parked in its shadow.

Significantly warmer, but nevertheless cool air circled inside. A big hall, maybe? It took a moment for Aria’s eyes to adjust to the dark. A constant, rattling noise surrounded her. Soon, she recognized its origin: dozens of conveyor belts. They carried bags in every color imaginable, but mostly black or gray.

Something humongous rolled past Pimply Boy’s vehicle. Aria winced. But it was just a porterbot, a machine that was twice as large as Pimply Boy’s vehicle. Its basic design resembled that of a pallet jack. On it lay a freight container, which was a rectangular metal box with a retractable lid.

That porterbot approached the nearest conveyor belt. There, its two arms picked up the bags and filled the container. The retractable lid protruded. It sealed the container. The porterbot turned around and rolled out through the opening, once more passing right by Pimply Boy’s vehicle.

Upon reaching an airplane outside, the porterbot offloaded the entire container—pushing the box into the cargo area—and returned empty. From a stack inside the building, it picked up a new container, put it on top of itself, and approached the conveyor belt once more. Dozens of such porterbots were coming and going through the opening. They loaded, offloaded, loaded, offloaded.

Yet more porterbots remained inside the building. They fished out individual bags to be put on other conveyor belts that led to the baggage claim area.

“Your best shot is to hide in the cargo area throughout the entire flight,” Pimply Boy said. “Cargo can be heavier than carry-on. And maybe they’ll catch you and decide to ban you from all future flights, but they won’t turn the plane around. The only problem: it’s going to be cold.”

He hopped off the cart. Aria did the same. They hurried to the opening and peeked out.

The agentbots and Black Suits hadn’t progressed much further. They were stuck behind a barricade of box-shaped inspectorbots. So, it turned out that office politics had its benefits. The old-fashioned inspectorbots had only one goal in mind: keep the runways clear of debris. Agentbots that belonged indoors equaled debris. And the Black Suits, a bunch of unknown persons, were definitely undesirables too. The dedication that the inspectorbots showed was amazing. Their little pincer-arms pushed. Their small wheels vroomed to hold their ground.

Although, of course, it was much more impressive to watch the agentbots’ tactics. Replicating the “simple” natural movements of Homo Sapiens had been the most difficult part of creating the current androids. Basic AI wasn’t a novel invention anymore. But hardware as intricate as the human body? That took some work, still.

So it was with renewed amazement that Aria watched the agentbots run, jump, and hit the inspectorbots with precision and purpose. Sure, their movements were still a bit wonky, but much improved from previous generations. If they hadn’t been made of artificial material, they would’ve been nearly indistinguishable from the Black Suits, who, now that Aria thought about it, weren’t the most elegantly moving human beings. Their gaits were awkward. They’d run too much, for too long.

And that was the interesting thing about androids and humans. Both populations existed on a bell curve, with the x-axis describing the ever so vague concept of “humanness.” It used to be that the bell curves didn’t overlap at all. No one could possibly mistake an android for a human or vice versa.

But now? This? The ends of the two curves definitely overlapped. Some humans seemed a bit as robotic as some androids. Some androids seemed a bit as human as humans.

Especially because the airport agentbots couldn’t communicate with the inspectorbots in a robotic way, they looked like real humans. Machines that didn’t understand each other and had to resort to physical means to get what they wanted—that was a rare sight.

Human footprints, human-like footprints, and wheel marks crunched the snow on the ground. Soon, the heat melted all snow in that area. The fresh snow couldn’t catch up with the struggle and simply melted on the skin or metallic surfaces of the strugglers.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wang’s decades-old mockup aidbot sat in the back seat of Pimply Boy’s cart.

“I’ll go look for blankets or something,” Pimply Boy said.

While he collected porterbot covers made of blue tarp because there were no soft blankets in sight, Aria convinced Mr. Wang to awaken and believe her when she said that it was a good idea to climb out of the vehicle.

By the time Pimply Boy returned with heaps of tarp, Mr. Wang stood beside the vehicle. Aria and Pimply Boy halted one of the porterbots. They pressed some buttons which made it tip its empty freight container to the side.

Pimply Boy tossed the bot covers in the container.

Then, together, they pushed Mr. Wang in it. Then the mockup aidbot. Then Aria’s duffel bag. Then Aria walked in. She pushed the bot covers against the inner wall—the floor of the container, had it not been tipped to the side. Tarp wasn’t ideal for keeping warm, but it was better than nothing, and could cushion the impact from potential collisions.

Aria seated Mr. Wang next to the heap of covers. She sat next to him.

“Thank you for all your help,” she told Pimply Boy.

He blushed again. “Don’t mention it. You don’t get to see a lot of people running around with purpose anymore. A technician. Way dope.”

Pimply Boy punched “TXP076” on the keypad attached to the porterbot.

“Was nice meeting you,” he said.

“Nice meeting you too,” she said.

He patted the porterbot on the side. The container tipped back to its original, upright position. Mr. Wang, Aria, the bot, and the duffel bag landed on the heap of blue tarp. The container walls surrounded them on all four sides. They were taller than Aria by a couple of feet.

The porterbot promptly rolled out of the building. Aria stood and squinted up. With the container as a shield, the wind didn’t feel so fierce anymore. And though the days were shorter and colder in winter, the afternoon sun was still exuding its last strong glow.

The shouts of the Black Suits didn’t change in volume or urgency. The clinking of the agentbots and inspectorbots didn’t change either. No one had noticed Aria, Mr. Wang, or the mockup.

She wondered whether anyone else had noticed them. She stood on tiptoes. Over the tip of the container, she could see the second floor of the airport. Because of the strong sunlight, it was impossible to identify detailed features from the other side of the windows. But she definitely couldn’t detect any alarmed, quick movements.

That Pimply Boy, he was a smart one. She should have asked him his name. She felt bad for remembering him as “Pimply Boy.”

Gradually, she couldn’t hear the tumult from the Battle of the Black Suits and Agentbots versus Inspectorbots anymore. First, the mockup’s flailing arms, hitting the container walls, out-noised all other sounds. Then they got close to the giant dinosaur that was TXP076. It hummed and sighed at such a low pitch, she felt the shaking instead of hearing the sound.

The porterbot stopped. Clueless to all circumstances beyond electronic signals, it tapped on the cargo door of the airplane.

Sudden shouts. Yells. Loud enough to be audible despite TXP076’s breathing.

The Black Suits had noticed this rogue porterbot. Aria climbed on the mockup’s shaky, flat box-head to peer out at them.

Outside the protective boundaries of the container walls, the fierce wind slapped her once more. And there, from behind the barricade of inspectorbots, the Black Suits pointed at the porterbot—and shouted louder at each other when they spotted Aria.

© 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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