Shells, Their Cores – Ch. 8

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Aria quickly crouched down, lost balance, and fell off the box-head of Mr. Wang’s aidbot mockup. Luckily, the heap of blue tarp cushioned the impact.

Mr. Wang lifted his head and gazed at her through his impenetrable sunglasses. Snowflakes settled on their smooth black surfaces and melted quickly. The arms of Aria’s leather jacket were still tied around his neck. He looked like an old man who’d let his grandchild dress him for Halloween, using materials that lay around the house. A feeble superhero.

His aidbot kept flinging its shower-hose arms at the metal walls of the freight container. By now, the armholes in its pink vinyl cover had doubled in size because all the swiveling and flinging had torn it. If the snow continued, and continued fiercer, and enough of the molten snowflakes reached its complicatedly entangled internal thread network, the aidbot would never swivel or fling anything again.

And there, between Mr. Wang and the mockup, lay Aria’s duffel bag.

None of them could help her. None of them could help themselves.

“I know you can hear me even though I can’t hear you,” she told the mockup.

It didn’t stop or change the speed at which it flung its arms.

“I’m going to distract them. What I need you to do is try to pull yourself together and drag Mr. Wang into the cargo area when the aircraft opens the hatch.”

If, to be exact, not when. But Aria didn’t want to think about what if not.

She stared at the mockup for a moment to allow it to signal to her, Yes, I got it. A miracle will happen and suddenly I’ll be able to stop these uncontrollable movements at will. Go, go, go, we don’t have time.

But it didn’t stop, didn’t accelerate its arm-flinging, didn’t decelerate either.

“I’m going to have to step on you once more.”

She climbed on the mockup’s box-head again. Just when the shouts from Black Suits swelled up once more, she jumped out of the container. She landed on the cold concrete ground.

When she looked up, she saw that several of the Black Suits were just landing too; they’d jumped over the barricade of inspectorbots. They were recovering balance and stumbling toward the plane. A few inspectorbots whirled around on their wheels and grabbed the Black Suits with their pincer-arms.

Some suit jackets were pulled off. Others tore apart. All such jackets or pieces thereof were thrown on the snow-covered ground. Snow began accumulating at a substantial rate around Aria too. She looked up at the sky. It had become significantly darker. The sun was setting, and the clouds were coming. A full-on snowstorm.

She glanced back at the porterbot. It was continuing to knock on the cargo hatch.

She glanced up at the aircraft. Through the many window-eyes of the dinosaur-plane, passengers were watching. Children pressed their foreheads and noses on the glass and pointed. Their parents hugged them and pulled them back as if anything could penetrate those bulletproof windows.

Aria couldn’t see the cockpit from this angle. As far as she knew, the airlines were required to hire a human pilot and a co-pilot who were to work with the computer system—a euphemism for “don’t mess things up by overriding too many automized calculations.” Also, airlines were required to hire several human communication liaisons (as opposed to flight attendants) who were to aid the passengers in their interaction with the flightbots. Even with the replacement captain, such rules wouldn’t have changed. But no human other than the passengers were visible from here. Aria couldn’t tell if any human crew members on TXP076 had registered the porterbot’s knocking.

From the control tower, orders to “Back away, back away” were repeated over and over again, aimed at the agentbots and Black Suits. Beyond the barricade of the first group of inspectorbots, Aria could see an army of additional inspectorbots approaching. She whirled around. There, too, came more inspectorbots.

TXP076 was being surrounded, and with it, Aria and her protectees.

“Hurry,” Aria impatiently murmured at the porterbot, as she glanced back and forth.

She’d said she’d distract them, but who were “them”? There were too many enemies. The inspectorbots were attempting to stop the Black Suits and the agentbots, but none of those pincer-armed bots were on her side. Office politics, of all things, was stalling everyone. And stalling never lasted forever. The Black Suits were all healthy grown men. Aria couldn’t handle them. Not several, not even one.

The porterbot kept knocking on the cargo hatch, clank clank clank.

Maybe Aria should have listened to Jack and sculpted her own muscles instead of watching documentaries about Lucious Bold or Antonius Wang.

Clank clank clank.

If Aria hadn’t watched any documentaries, perhaps she’d be a happier person now. Oblivious, maybe, but happier. And much safer too. And much warmer. Because it was getting cold. Freezing cold.

Clank clank—

The clanking stopped. Aria looked. The porterbot was retreating toward the baggage hall.

“What are you doing?”

But she knew the answer. The control tower. It controlled the bots outside the airport, so it was controlling the porterbot to drive back to the baggage hall.

Well then, there was only one thing she could do. She ran after the porterbot and pressed the same buttons that she and Pimply Boy had pressed to make it tip its container.

It obeyed. Mr. Wang and the mockup aidbot rolled out, along with Aria’s duffel bag. The heaps of blue tarp just remained sitting in the container, so Aria pulled them out. Quickly, she wrapped one of them around Mr. Wang. Now he looked like a senile superhero who’d put on a second cape because he’d forgotten that he’d already put on the first cape.

“What is going on?” Pimply Boy shouted from the baggage hall.

It was too late for him to come help. The inspectorbots, seemingly multiplying by the second, had separated him from Aria a long while ago.

Aria ran back toward the airplane. Then, madly, like a cavewoman hammering on a computer because she didn’t know how to operate it—no, worse, like a cavewoman who knew for sure she couldn’t ever operate the computer but hammered anyway, because hammer she must—Aria hammered on the cargo hatch with both her fists.

“Let us in!” she said.

The porterbot was cruising away, oblivious to her woes. Mr. Wang stood in the shadow of TXP076. He was probably more oblivious to the situation than anyone else here, bot or human.

“Let us in!” Aria shouted at the airplane.

She wildly looked around, never stopping the hammering. Something flashed in the last sunrays of the day. Aria stopped.

The Black Suits had been caught by the inspectorbots, with the exception of one. That special Black Suit at the forefront had come to a halt, dozens of feet away from the plane. He held a gun. That had been what had reflected the sun. He pointed it at Mr. Wang’s leg.

Fear and fury rose in Aria.

Fury won.

How dare that asshole point a gun at the old man? As if the old man could run if that asshole didn’t shoot him in the leg! Shooting someone in the leg when he wasn’t going to run anyway was crueler than shooting a fleeing victim in the leg. There was just completely no point in shooting Mr. Wang anywhere, especially in the leg.

Aria ran toward Mr. Wang.

“Get down!” she said.

Of course, he didn’t react. She pulled him down to the ground with her.

The Black Suit fired. Aria could hear the muffled, panicked screams of the passengers in TXP076.

The bullet hit TXP076. Bounced off its indestructible surface (made of a material which some genius in the decade past had signed off on, because no humans worked in the fields anymore and protecting luggage was that important). Hit the porterbot, on its way home. Bounced off that indestructible surface. Hit an airport window. Radiated out a web of broken, but unshattering bulletproof glass. Remained stuck there.

More screams came from the inside of the building. But no one had gotten hurt, which gave Aria time to think—

“Asshole!” Pimply Boy said, voicing just what Aria thought.

The porterbot, which had minutely swayed off course, returned to its original route. After that, it didn’t stop, didn’t slow down.

An ear-splitting siren sounded in the airplane field.

But the Black Suit shooter didn’t flinch. He, too, wore impenetrable sunglasses just like Mr. Wang. Aria couldn’t tell what kind of a face he was making. He was close enough to be within range but too far to make out individual facial features. But from the calm, deliberate way he aimed the pistol once more, she could tell: that guy was completely heartless.

Instinctively, Aria pulled Mr. Wang away from wherever he was standing.

The heartless Black Suit fired once more and just missed.

The gunshot echoed in the field. Another round of screams from the passengers and people inside the building followed. Behind the heartless shooter, the other Black Suits hit and pushed the inspectorbots to get through.

Just as earlier, those bots were trying to pull the Black Suits back. But by now, pulling them back wasn’t enough. The Black Suits didn’t care if they broke a few bones in the process of destroying their opponents. On the other hand, the inspectorbots only wanted the other side to go away. Those inspectorbots knew how sensitive the human skin was, how easily it bruised and cut. They were required to be gentle. The airport didn’t want a massive PR disaster. No matter how crazy the visitors acted, they were human. And the only beings who ever cared about PR were the humans anyway.

Blind destruction versus rational defense. Destruction was bound to win.

Meanwhile, near the baggage hall, other inspectorbots backed away to create an opening just big enough for the porterbot. Pimply Boy tried to jump through, but an inspectorbot grabbed his uniform. He was flung back and landed on the ground. The porterbot slipped through. The opening in the inspectorbot-barricade closed.

Aria dragged Mr. Wang toward the other side of TXP076. He whimpered and resisted. Damn it, the snowfall was getting heavier. The big, blue, circus-tent tarp on Mr. Wang’s back left a trail on the ground as Aria forcefully pulled him away from the shooter, toward the inspectorbots that encircled them on the other side of the plane. Better the inspectorbots than a maniac shooting at a helpless old man.

Aria’s fury toward the asshole was so immense now, she didn’t feel cold at all in her thin black sweater. Good that she wore the leather gloves. Of all her body parts, the parts she needed to keep warm and nimble were her hands.

With those hands, she grabbed Mr. Wang’s arm and the back of his checkered shirt.

“Will. You. Just. Come. With. Me?!”

He didn’t want to. He whimpered loudly.

Now, more than ever, Aria believed the mockup’s story from earlier. Someone wanted Mr. Wang. To torture him, to dissect him, or what else, she didn’t know, but they wanted Mr. Wang hurt real bad. No wonder that Mr. Wang’s mockup had ended up morbidly contemplating its owner’s end; its end; their end.

But Mr. Wang himself—the human shell that refused to follow Aria—seemed to have forgotten why he’d wanted to keep pieces of himself protected in an ancient aidbot. He seemed to have forgotten that he still existed. His soul wasn’t there, so he didn’t worry about losing its shell. Aria doubted that any intellectual, psychological, or emotional chemical reaction was going on in the old man’s brain.

But that shell of a human had to be dragged to the back of the airplane, by her, Aria, a smaller-than-average woman. Singlehandedly. In a worsening snowstorm. As the dark was setting in. Which might be good. Or bad. She couldn’t tell yet.

The lights in the airplane field went on. Officially, it was nighttime now.

Aria felt like crying.

“Come on, Mr. Wang. Do you want to get hurt? Do you want to die? Is that what you want?”

The old man mewled.

Aria wondered if this was what awaited her at the end of her life. She didn’t mean the Black Suits or a malfunctioning mockup aidbot. What she meant was total and utter oblivion, devoid of all prior motivations.

Flesh and blood had never felt more real to Aria. She’d never felt more vulnerable, more desperate, more human. All those individuals from her species, free to go anywhere with their minds but trapped in the flesh and blood—how depressing. Never had her body felt heavier than now.

But she proceeded.

Inch by inch.

To the other side of TXP076.

With Mr. Wang.

“Look!” Pimply Boy said.

Flustered, Aria looked at him, then at the spot he was pointing.

The cargo hatch had opened.

“Mr. Wang,” she said, gasping, “we have to go back. We have to go back now!”

She dragged him. He slipped. Fell. She grabbed his arms. Pulled him up—

Another gunshot echoed in the field—

—followed by one more gunshot, sounding louder, different, from elsewhere.

Aria didn’t fully register what she did thereafter, and in what order. There must have been a lot of noise—the siren, the shouts of the Black Suits, the screams of the passengers and airport people and Pimply Boy—but she only comprehended these, one at a time:

At first she saw the Black Suit shooter standing there, having fired his gun.

Then she glanced back toward where the louder, different shot had come from. But before she fully turned her head, she realized that it’d come from the hatch, which meant that it’d come from whoever was willing to help her. So she felt safe prioritizing something else besides identifying the mystery helper: see what that person had shot at.

And so, she was looking at the Black Suit shooter once more—this time on the ground. He was bleeding.

A red pool colored the snow around his torso. The pale lights of the airport field made it look unbelievably brilliant, unnatural. But then, nothing was natural about blood spilling out of a person. The red spread and spread, like a flower blooming. It was surreal.

But what was more surreal—or unreal—or unexpected, at the very least, was that the Black Suit didn’t twitch. Didn’t scream. Didn’t even moan, as far as Aria could tell.

So, this was how a person got shot dead. This was how it worked in real life. It wasn’t anything like in the movies. There was no pause, no moment of sudden epiphany, no chance to tell his tale. Just The End.

Aria glanced up at the Black Suits who’d been struggling behind the inspectorbot barricade. They were fighting to cross over, to jump, to reach their dead comrade. In fact, Aria thought they looked more desperate to succeed than ever.

“Shit,” said a woman from the cargo hatch.

Aria glanced at her.

The woman was in her fifties. She wore a pilot’s uniform. Crisply ironed. Navy, top and bottom. Complete with the captain’s cap and all. In her hand, she held a rifle. She wasn’t looking at the Black Suit shooter, whom she’d just shot dead.

She was looking at Aria.

No, not Aria. Something on the ground next to her.

Aria followed that gaze.

There, she found Mr. Wang, moving more vigorously than ever. He’d been shot in the torso, too, but unlike the dead Black Suit, he twitched madly. Aria’s black boots were covered in blood so thick, she couldn’t tell if it was red, even under the burning artificial lights.

© 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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