Shells, Their Cores – Ch. 9

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You’d think that an independent, grown-up woman wouldn’t like to be ordered around. But shortly after witnessing a death by gunshot, followed by witnessing a near-death by gunshot at greater proximity, a person wasn’t the same anymore.

Near-death, because Mr. Wang wasn’t dead yet. He wasn’t dead yet. Not yet. He wasn’t dead. Yet. Aria kept reminding herself of that.

In situations like these, it didn’t matter whether you were an independent, grown-up woman, or a man with the same characteristics, or a not so independent, not so grown-up woman or a man, or a boy, or a girl. Such things simply didn’t matter.

What mattered was that you’d never seen deaths or near-deaths by gunshots before. Not in real life.

What also mattered was that the sirens were ear-splitting.

That the cold wind had become fiercer with darkness, but not fierce enough for you to ignore the smell of the fresh blood lingering around you.

That the snow fell on your head and melted, but that the falling happened faster than the melting so that your scalp froze and you could feel your hair roots all crisp and uncomfortable.

And the artificial lights, all around the field—they were blinding. They were supposed to be. The airport didn’t want the dinosaur-airplanes to crash into each other because they’d lacked enough light. But those lights weren’t meant for a human who’d just witnessed a death and a near-death by gunshot.

And in such circumstances, it was nice to be around a person who did know what to do. A captain of an aircraft, for example.

Aria had seen online videos of captains communicating with the tower in dire situations. There were captains who calmly informed the tower that a door had flown off, and with it, a passenger. There were captains who calmly informed the tower that the aircraft had been hijacked. And there were captains who calmly informed the tower that they were about to crash and die.

In all cases, the important point was that the captains had calmly informed the tower.

Those people observed what happened, processed the information, and relayed said information to the relevant parties in an efficient, reliable manner. Especially the captains who’d survived the transition from human-operated aircraft to mostly-bot-and-only-a-little-bit-human-operated aircraft. Those captains knew what to do. They’d kept their jobs based on their exceptional skills.

And so, Aria obeyed the calm instructions of the woman with the rifle. That woman descended the incline from the open cargo hatch.

Listen to me, listen to me, the woman said. Her voice sounded distant, even though she grabbed Aria by the shoulders and shook her slightly, then spoke clearly and slowly: I’m Captain Natasha Stravinsky.

Aria nodded. She’d noticed Captain Stravinsky’s navy uniform and her captain’s cap earlier. It didn’t seem very likely that the airport would allow a person in such an attire to board an airplane unless she was indeed the captain.

Besides, the captain was in her fifties, around the age of Aria’s mother. The thought of her mother, any mother, was soothing, even though Aria’s mother didn’t happen to be a particularly soothing person. They’d shared bacon for breakfast. They’d shared office blunder stories. Aria had wanted to become like her. Those had been the good old days, now gone. Never to return.

But here, Captain Stravinsky stood in front of Aria. Undeniably, the captain was real, so solid, so confident on her feet that Aria wanted to believe that she’d forever stand solidly and confidently on her feet. And thus, Aria accepted Captain Stravinsky’s authority and wisdom without question.

You must pull yourself together. This man needs help. He’s not going to get it here. I am going to have my aidbot carry him into this aircraft. You will go and pick up your bag, then go straight up this incline here, to the cargo area. Do you hear? You will not come back out. Do you hear?

“The aidbot, that box-shaped thing over there, it’s important to Mr. Wang,” Aria said.

Her own voice sounded disproportionately loud and splintery. Any moment, if she continued speaking, it was going to break into pieces like a block of wood that’d been dried in a desert for a full year, then driven over by a semitrailer. Each splinter would be sharp—capable of slitting her throat from the inside.

So, she shut up. Captain Stravinsky continued:

I will have it picked up by my aidbot after it transports Mr. Wang inside.

Aria nodded. Captain Stravinsky nodded back. While her rifle still pointed away from the airplane and toward the Black Suits, she spoke at the dark, cavelike cargo area:

Vera.

A slender woman dressed in a jet-black full-body suit—truly full-body, from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes—descended the steps down the aircraft. Despite what had just happened, Aria couldn’t help but think: what a beautiful sight.

If, in this world in which old men were nearly shot dead by a maniac Black Suit in the middle of a cold snowy night, there was a god, then that god must have blessed that woman with all the physical beauties in existence:

Long legs, a slim waist, breasts that were neither small nor large-beyond-being-practical; an athletic body, capable of movement, not one which existed solely for the pleasurable viewing of others; supple; strong. Presently, the suit covered the woman’s face so thoroughly and tautly that her face looked like a smooth egg rather than a face at all. (Perhaps that part of the suit was made of a different material altogether, for protection; a close-fitting mask or a helmet.) But Aria had no doubt: this woman must be beautiful. Not because of the particulars—the largeness or sharpness or deepness of her eyes, for example—but because, if her face looked even half as harmonious as her body, it simply had to be magnificent.

Then, confusion overtook Aria. Why was there a woman in a jet-black full-body suit? And why was that woman drifting past Aria, like a shadow, toward the scene of violence?

The jet-black of her suit was blacker than anything Aria had ever worn. Blacker than the deepest night—a moonless, starless night. A night where not the slightest hint of a faraway celestial body penetrated the thick layers of clouds. Aria had never seen such an eerily dark material before.

“What are you doing?” someone said.

Aria found herself torn from her musings. Captain Stravinsky was glaring at her.

“Get your bag!” the captain said. “To the aircraft, now!”

“But Mr. Wang and the aidbot—”

“Don’t you see Vera getting them right now?”

The captain pointed at the woman in the full-body suit. Vera, she was called.

It took a few moments for Aria to understand. When Vera picked up Mr. Wang from the ground, everything made sense.

That beyond-perfect body didn’t belong to a human woman. But of course. A human wearing a full-body suit that covered her face wouldn’t be able to see where she was going, but Vera could. It was because she didn’t need human eyes. With a surprised shiver, Aria finally noticed the horizontal strip of visor that minutely protruded from the egg-like, smooth face. There was no nose, no lips.

Vera was the captain’s aidbot.

“Go. Now!” the captain said.

Aria stumbled toward her bag. It felt as if she were walking on clouds, and not in a good way. Her brain kept miscalculating the amount of movement and pressure required for her to lift up her foot and set it in front of her in order to proceed. Every time her brain told her that it was time she should have touched the ground, the ground wasn’t there. As a consequence, with every step, Aria felt as if she were sinking.

Deeper.

And deeper.

But eventually, she reached the bag. Lifted it up. Awkwardly put her arm through the shoulder strap. Returned to the aircraft, ignoring all the noises.

Thoughts kept whirling in her head. Uncontrollable thoughts. Stormy thoughts. Today was the day on which her imagination was being forced to stretch and multiply. First, the connection between Mr. Wang and the mockup. Then, Mr. Wang’s awareness in the mockup. Now, Vera.

With Vera, you didn’t fall into the uncanny valley. Just by looking at her silhouette and her movements, you’d think she was a human woman. Only when you looked closer could you identify the gaps between the plates that made up her arms and legs. And those gaps were so fine, almost imperceptible, that you couldn’t mistake her for a regular aidbot. Some kind of a bot, yes, maybe. But a regular aidbot sold to consumers, absolutely not.

No mean human kid could possibly squeeze any foreign material in the extremely narrow in-between space of Vera’s joints. Something told Aria: not only would that be physically impossible, but also, the human kid would be too scared to approach a being so clearly robotic yet so very oddly, inexplicably… human.

How had these developments been going on without anybody noticing? Or, had people noticed? Was Aria the only one who didn’t know? Had she been lazy with her studies?

She kept focusing on these thoughts and how she should have put more effort into following the latest trends. She blamed herself, scolded herself, hated herself for being lazy, because otherwise, she’d have to blame, scold, and hate herself for a much more painful reason:

She’d dragged Mr. Wang in the direction that she’d thought safe. She’d been wrong. The Black Suit shooter had fired and hit his target.

If she hadn’t put Mr. Wang’s sunglasses on his nose, would he have noticed that someone was trying to shoot him? Would he have shaken off Aria? Probably not.

But if she hadn’t dragged him, would Mr. Wang have had a greater chance of survival? Probably. The Black Suit shooter would’ve hit the old man’s leg or missed entirely. And since Captain Stravinsky had successfully shot down the shooter in the next second, he wouldn’t have gotten a second chance.

Vera overtook Aria. In her arms, Vera carried Mr. Wang, a fallen superhero with two capes. One of the capes, Aria’s leather jacket, remained tied around his neck. The other, the big blue tarp cover, had been wrapped around his entire twitching body.

A few more gunshots fired—faraway.

The siren kept blaring—distantly.

Long after Vera had walked up the incline, Aria followed her.

Near-darkness awaited her there. Only the occasional beams of bright light prevented total blindness. They came from a non-humanoid bot—a white medbot in the shape of a tarantula, but with a lot more arms.

Most light beams were directed at Mr. Wang’s wound. The blue tarp had been unwrapped. Twitching, he lay on the floor. Other beams were directed at the surroundings for indirect lighting. Dozens of identical freight containers filled most of the space and reflected such beams. It was cool in here, but not as cold as out there. The air deeper inside smelled of bland, pressurized airplane atmosphere; the air closer to the hatch smelled of snow. Everywhere, the odor of blood hung as default.

The medbot had removed the sunglasses and Aria’s leather jacket from Mr. Wang. They’d been pushed against a nearby wall. The sickle-shaped cable had fallen out of the pocket.

Something slipped past Aria. Vera, the jet-black aidbot. Vera walked out of the hatch and returned with the mockup aidbot in her arms. The mockup’s shower-hose arms slapped Vera on her head; she didn’t attempt to stop it.

“Please sit,” Vera said in a voice as authoritative as Captain Natasha Stravinsky’s.

In fact, it was the exact same authoritative voice of the captain. Vera had been given her owner’s voice.

Aria put the duffel bag on the ground. Then, first, she picked up her jacket, the sunglasses, and the cable. She put the sunglasses in her duffel bag. She remembered that she’d had the crumpled flight tickets some time ago, but didn’t recall where and when she’d dropped them. It didn’t matter.

She sat down against a freight container, which faced another container instead of Mr. Wang. This way, she didn’t have to directly look at Mr. Wang. But she could see him from the corner of her eye, so she also didn’t have to feel bad about not wanting to look at him at the moment.

She put the jacket over her legs and hugged her knees to her chest. Only now did she notice that her hands felt clammy in her gloves, so she put the cable down, took the gloves off, and placed the gloves on the floor next to her. The whole process required painfully conscious thinking: use your finger muscles, move your eyeballs, don’t forget to breathe. Nothing felt natural anymore.

She grabbed the cable again. The cable was her anchor—something to hold on to, something to prevent her from floating away into the great big nothing where people died and all good intentions led to catastrophes.

Such overdramatic thoughts were silly, of course. The whole desire for an anchor was silly. Aria couldn’t believe that only a few hours ago, she’d thought that having a place to go to was of utmost importance.

Who cared where she was? Or where she was headed to? Or where she’d been before? Nothing lasted. No job. No workshop. No relationship. Not even great engineers or their legacies.

But this cable here. Was it so wrong of her to want to hold on to the cable here?

Vera put the mockup across from Aria. Startled, Aria looked up. Vera nodded. To what? Could aidbots do that now? Nod to make a human feel less bad about herself? Was the captain sure that Vera wasn’t a human pretending to be a robot?

But before Aria could pursue that train of thought, Vera joined the medbot by Mr. Wang. Aria didn’t want to see what the medbot was doing with him—because then, she’d really have no choice but to associate the sound of the scissoring and threads moving through skin with the visual of the scissoring and threads moving through skin.

And there were lots of threads. Aria caught a glimpse of them and regretted it immediately. There were the threads used to keep wounds closed—the black ones, the white ones.

Then there were the threads that formed the connection network between Mr. Wang and the mockup. Those gently glowed in the dark, like decorative lighting that parents installed in their kid’s room because the kid was afraid of ghosts. They were neon-yellow or neon-green or neon-skyblue, colorful and supposed-to-be beautiful. But instead of being beautiful, blood dripped from them, and therefore they hurt and Aria had to shut her eyes.

Now she understood why some people chose to take drugs. Before coming to this airport this morning, she’d thought that under no circumstances, she’d want to alter her mind-state through such drastic and illegal methods. Now she wanted to alter it badly. If there was something that could gift her total oblivion at this moment, she thought she’d gladly take it.

She opened her eyes. The thought of her having changed so much in such a short period of time, that she would take an unknown drug, had scared her despite its lure. She saw the mockup, which continued its nonstop swiveling movement as if nothing had happened, good or bad. Its pink vinyl cover had become pretty much useless. It was torn in so many places.

With the cable still clutched in one hand, Aria pulled off the vinyl from the mockup. She used the sleeves of her sweater to wipe off the molten snow from it. That took a long while because she had to time her movements to avoid its flinging arms, and also because there was too much water. It found the tiny cracks between the bot’s arms and torso, and between its wheels and bottom.

Aria hoped that the mockup could survive this crisis. It didn’t scream, it didn’t ask for help in pain, but if she didn’t act quickly, what was left of Mr. Wang was going to die with the mockup.

To speed up the drying process, she eventually decided to ignore the bot’s attacks. Stubbornly, she kept her hand with the cable on the bot’s shoulder. With the free arm, she quickly wiped off the moisture.

The mockup hit her with its uncontrollable arms. This, sadly, didn’t annoy her at the moment. In fact, this was doubly good: faster drying, less guilt. The mockup had every right to be mad at her. That was why she didn’t dare connect the cable and discuss what had happened. She was scared of what the mockup might say.

If only the medbot managed to keep Mr. Wang alive, the mockup would forgive her. And if only Aria managed to stop any more water from reaching the inner parts of the mockup, its complicated connection network would survive.

Aria could talk to the mockup at that point. But not right now.

The hatch howled a prolonged screech. It was closing.

Captain Stravinsky had walked in. She was panting. Her cheeks were red. It seemed that she’d had to fire a few more shots and yell a lot.

“Is the man all right? The bot?” she said. “What’s going on here?”

Aria cleared her throat. Once again, it felt as if her voice would slit her throat, but she forced herself to speak.

A brief introduction: I am Aria, that’s Antonius Wang, a bot engineer, this is his mockup aidbot.

Then, the story of the initial trouble with the agentbot.

What about? About 200 grams of overweight carry-on luggage.

But the captain wasn’t listening. She stared at the glowing neon threads that the medbot held up with one of its arms while the other arms busily searched for the bullet.

“What…” said the captain, her eyes huge.

Aria gazed down to avoid eye contact with anyone or anything. She explained the connection between the mockup and Mr. Wang. She said she’d recognized Mr. Wang right away because she was a technician, because she was a fan of luminaries in the whole field of robotics, you know, Lucious Bold and such people. But, she explained, she hadn’t expected… hadn’t known… all this. Inside Mr. Wang. And inside the mockup. Then, she talked about Mr. Wang’s suspicion that there were people who wanted to steal his technology at any cost, so they could sell eternal life. The men in the black suits were probably sent by his unknown enemies.

“Be careful with those things,” the captain told the medbot. “Actually, if it helps, can you try lifting the whole thing out of his body? I don’t think having a chunk of stuff in his body at a time like this will help his recovery.”

The medbot turned its head toward the captain. It shook its head.

“Why not?”

The medbot looked at Vera.

“The threads are too tangled up to remove with ease, and they stretch all throughout his body,” Vera spoke in the captain’s voice. “The medbot would have to cut him open completely.”

“Oh,” the captain said. The thought seemed to make her sick. It made Aria sick too. “Well then, just… Just keep everything where it is. And patch him up nicely so we don’t lose any… any parts that might be crucial. Yeah?”

The medbot nodded.

The captain then asked Aria about the mockup’s weird, nonstop swiveling. Aria answered that Mr. Wang had security concerns and thus hadn’t updated his bot for a while. Also, that the bot’s parts couldn’t be replaced. Touch one thing, it’d break the whole thing.

The captain kept nodding throughout Aria’s story. Aria watched from the corner of her eye. Only when she was finally done talking, she looked up at the captain.

To Aria’s surprise, the captain smiled faintly. But it was an icy smile. Aria couldn’t pinpoint what that smile meant. Anger? Toward whom? Aria? Mr. Wang? The delay? This situation?

“All this trouble, because of 200 grams,” the captain said.

Anger toward the agentbots, then.

“Those bots, they know nothing about leeway,” the captain said.

Aria nodded, relaxing somewhat.

“Well, no one is leaving or landing in this airport now, whether they’re over the weight limit or not,” the captain said. “But that medbot there is equipped with exactly the same surgical knowledge as any medbot in the best hospitals. And Vera will help, if need be. That’s one good thing about the bots. They can download any skillset from anywhere.”

Aria nodded again. “Are you going to be all right?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” the captain asked.

“You shot someone and he’s dead.”

Captain Stravinsky snorted bitterly. “Yeah, and that someone tried to shoot someone else dead. I am the captain of this aircraft. You—well, not you, but Mr. Wang and this bot here—have tickets for this flight, which is quite convenient. I am allowed to do what is best for my passengers. That is why I have a rifle, to begin with, and an aidbot too. I would have opened the hatch sooner if the stupid flightbots hadn’t protested. Silly beings. Just mad, completely mad that the captain must convince the flightbots that opening the hatch is the best decision. Mad.”

“About the tickets,” Aria said, “I lost them. Their tickets. And as you said, I never had a ticket for this flight.”

“Oh, honey, don’t worry about it.” The captain chuckled. “If the airline doesn’t like what I do, let them hire a damn bot as the captain. I don’t care.”

© 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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