I should probably stop and explain.
When I said I was just a perfectly normal low-wage worker? Not true. Not even an exaggeration.
In fact, it was a blatant lie.
About a year ago, I met someone. Whether by accident or fortuitous twist of fate, we ended up running for our lives together, fighting back against a force that threatened to destroy the city.
And… I had died.
In every sense of the word, every legal and medical definition I was gone.
Thanks to that someone, I was saved. Saved by an ally who came to me literally crashing out of a window. I am alive today, and over the course of whatever happened, whatever technologies I couldn’t possibly understand, when I came back, I was reborn, in a sense. Enhanced.
And now I have some abilities that exceed a normal human by any measure. I’m faster, stronger, better reflexes, I heal faster– There’s nobody else out there I know of who’s like this. I might be legitimately alone. I’m still human– shoot me in the head and I’ll die like anyone else– but I’m a lot more than my skinny appearance lets on.
That someone, that ally from before, the reason I’m alive today, is who we’re visiting today.
Out in the areas of Atlanta that have fallen into disrepair, there’s one abandoned church on one sparsely-populated street, and that’s where we meet. These are former neighborhoods that were too inconvenient to gentrify or don’t have enough factories left to bring jobs. They’re out in what used to be known as the outskirts of the city limits, where Interstate 285 makes a ring around the Atlanta. You can tell exactly where the area begins as soon as the fences turn brown with rust and intact windows on houses become a rarity. The roads around here are too poor for cars or buses to pass through, and businesses have mostly closed down.
Karina and I enter the church through a warped doorway, the door belonging to it lying on the ground, cracked in half and stripped of metal. This church is a small one, only room for five or six pews on either side. The pews in question lay in various states of disrepair, strewn all across the room; some of them are toppled and laying on their side, others turned upside down. Right in the center is one large chair made from what used to be the pulpit, a chrome-colored robot sitting on it as if it was his throne.
Our ally, R8PR.
Pronounce it like you would R2-D2. All robots beyond service industry level have a unique four-character designation and no two are exactly alike. Well, as far as robots get; they’re all pretty similar.
Except for R8PR, of course.
There’s a reason why we’re meeting way out on the edge of town, and it’s not because rent is cheaper out here. It’s because this is the easiest place to set up anti-surveillance technology that knocks out all advanced technology in a three-hundred foot radius besides the big man himself.
“The Social Media Killer, eh?” he asks, his advanced voice box software nearly sounding like a real human’s voice instead of mechanical chirping. “I didn’t expect you to get involved so soon.” His green LED eyes flash a few times, as if he were actually blinking.
“I agree, but I seem to attract this kind of attention lately,” I say.
“Clearly.” He lays back in his chair and puts his arms behind his head. “Good thing old Sage is here to help.”
“I’m not calling you that,” I say. “Stop giving yourself nicknames.”
“Oh, fine,” he says, a dejected tone coming out of his hard-wired voice box. “I thought Sage was more mysterious than my designation. Makes me sound like an old wizard.”
I have to admit the way we come to see R8PR is not unlike some adventurers travelling out to the mountains to find an old greybeard in a shack to beg him for some special incantations. But on the matter of principle, I refuse to call him anything but R8PR.
“What do you know about the Social Media Killer?” Karina asks him.
“More than you can possibly know,” he says. “In fact, before you arrived I was taking an early morning stroll on the internet doing some research on the subject.” His built-in portable PC pops up out of his left arm with a holographic screen that can be seen from both sides.
“I hope you’re not spending such a beautiful morning trying to violate the First Protocol,” I tell him.
“If it were possible, I’d have done it by now,” R8PR says.
He laughs. Karina and I don’t.
If there was any robot with the intelligence and capabilities to directly interface with the internet, violating the First Protocol of Robotics and dooming the human race to a self-replicating machine with full access to the world’s knowledge, R8PR would be the one. He’s already a fugitive from essentially every single government agency and corporation you can name for his advanced intelligence; with the right motivation I imagine he could be the end of all of us. Luckily for us he seems content to play a smaller role in human history.
As an advanced AI, though, he does enjoy consuming web content as fast as his internet speeds will allow him to. Which is tough out here in this run-down neighborhood, since wireless modem speeds max out at a few kilobits per second.
“The Social Media Killer is such an interesting figure,” R8PR says. “I’m not sure if they’re a symptom of the city’s systematic responses, or some sort of autoimmune defense against the real threats, but it’s not something to take lightly. Atlanta’s changing and the Social Media Killer is the key.”
“Oh boy, here we go again,” I mutter. I’m starting to really hate Atlanta these days, but not as much as I hate his speeches about it.
He stands up and begins mimicking a human stretching their arms. “This city’s been stuck in a rut for a couple decades now, everything staying put as if the past twenty or so years have existed like water being held back by a dam. But that’s not going to last forever. There’s new technology every day, and with that comes more division, more clashes, more chaos. The Social Media Killer’s just a sample of what someone can do with a computer and too much free time. It’s going to get a lot worse than this. It’s all bubbling under the surface now, but we aren’t going to be stuck in the present forever; there’s an onslaught coming, and if you aren’t aware of it, you very well may be washed away when the dam breaks. It’s the future.”
“And what do we do about that?” Karina asks.
“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Just keep it in mind.” R8PR crosses his arms and sits back in his seat. “All I know is the Social Media Killer is important to Atlanta, and probably needs to be stopped unless we want to see the whole place tear itself apart in a matter of weeks.”
Now that… is not what I expected out of this conversation. “Wait wait,” I say. “I don’t care about the Social Media Killer.” I actually resent the notion of even attempting to care about it. “I care about finding the guys who attacked me in my own home and beating the hell out of them until they pay to repair my house.”
Getting that Flash Gordon poster back would be nice too…
“And you don’t think finding more out about the Social Media Killer would help that?” he asks.
“Yeah, Morgan, they were looking for more info on them too,” Karina says. “If you go following the same trail you’ll probably be able to catch them a lot easier.”
“Or I could just… find the thugs by themselves.”
“Oh come on, be fun,” R8PR tells me. “Honestly, I am just curious about this whole deal. It’s become such a media circus that it’s having real impacts on the city. Speaking of deals, did you know the Vice-President of the Atlanta Gamer’s Club just got caught in a scandal this morning? Cheating sex tape. You know how that one leaked?”
“I’d put twenty points on the Social Media Killer.”
“You’d be up twenty points. They wrote their usual manifesto about corruption and wrongdoing, but this time you can really feel the anger in their words. ‘The faithless deserve nothing more than the layer of dirt on the asphalt streets.’ Ha. The E-Sports world is already pretty fragile but this has caused a huge uproar in that community. Whoever is behind all this, they are doing a tremendous service in causing chaos. Businesses, banks, and politicians are freaking out because they don’t want their dirty tactics exposed and power disrupted. Those guys from Blyth who covered up all their tax evasion? They were all very healthy donors to the Labor Party. If I could eat, I’d be munching on popcorn as we speak.”
Ah, that’s the guys ruining my bank’s investment deals.
He continues. “So whoever this person is, they’re either a very active SiPub, or they’re very against Blyth Industries, or they just hate everyone. There’s a couple options, but all of them involve that strange sense of righteous justice you humans sometimes get. It’s going to be your undoing, I know it.”
“But really, what does any of this have to do with me?” I ask.
“You got beat up by people looking for information, and your workplace’s company is connected,” Karina says. “I don’t know much about this but it seems awfully suspicious, doesn’t it?”
“Plus, I’ve already got so much background research done!” R8PR makes a few gestures in the air with his hands, and the screen on his holographic PC screen flips to some large diagram with pages of notes laid out everywhere. Wow, I had no idea you could do stuff like that. Then again, R8PR is light years ahead of any piece of technology consumers can purchase, so it’s not unusual for him to display some rather unusual abilities.
He begins projecting the computer image through his eyes onto a nearby wall, illuminating the room and giving us a bigger view of what his computer is showing.
There’s a flowchart, the kind a crazy conspiracy theorist would pin up to a corkboard, connecting various hacking victims to one another across a timeline of events; it’s so much info I can hardly process any of it, especially when it’s not color-coded or arranged in any manner that would help a human decipher it.
“So I’ve looked into patterns of the various people ‘killed’ on social media, and the most fascinating thing to me is how there is no pattern at all, at least in the beginning. It was like it was intentionally randomized, one day targeting some high school bullies up in Cobb County, the next day outing a homophobic gardener in Wisconsin, the next a big flashy politician. Whoever the Social Media Killer is, they’re covering their tracks the best they can, but even wit that I’m still finding quite a few connections between victims. I have some theories, but of course, I don’t know anything for sure. I only know what I can prove. And as I’ve said before, intuition is a poor substitute for the proof. That’s why– ”
“I’m serious,” I interrupt. “I don’t want to get anymore involved with the Social Media Killer than I already am. I just want to finish this and be done with it, because I genuinely don’t care about the rest of it.”
R8PR “blinks” a few times. Karina gives a suspicious glare.
“That’s fine,” he tells me. “It’s just a hobby of mine. I got worked up is all. Let’s hear about these thugs, then, Morgan.” Finally.
No, Karina, stop giving that look and making me feel bad.
“I didn’t recognize any of them or their voices,” I begin. “But I did notice something very interesting: one of the guys had a metal hand. It was jade-colored and its fingers could shoot out like claws and–” I gesture towards the scratch marks near the stomach area of my ripped shirt. “That’s enough of a rare thing that I think we can find track him down.”
“It means I’ll have to do some database research. Probably hunt down some criminal records. But I can do it,” he says. “Might be a little bit but once I track him down I’ll contact you.”
“And is there anything for… us to do?”
I want to say I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings, but I’m far too past disgruntled to care about something like that. Plus, robots shouldn’t be able to have their feelings hurt anyway.
R8PR adds, “You should just take the rest of the day off and get some rest. And you probably need to put some makeup on that black eye, Morgan.”
I put my hand over my left eye and feel the sore spot. Huh. I didn’t even notice it.
“Thanks, R8PR,” I say.
He turns to Karina. “Take care of Morgan,” he says. “Make sure you two don’t get in any serious trouble too soon.”
“I will,” she says with a dapper grin. “We’re going to go to a movie shoot tonight!”
Ah, damn, I can’t weasel out of this one after all.
“Alright then. I’ll call you from a restricted number when I’m ready,” he says. “Just be careful. Atlanta’s changing. Don’t get caught up in the flood.”
Oh, stop being so ominous.
R8PR’s not a normal ally. He’s constantly hiding out in derelict places and spends all his time obsessing over the news. But he’s really good at what he does, and so when he gives advice, you tend to take it.
For as tough as it is, I’m going to miss helping R8PR out a little bit. He saved my life, and I will owe him forever for that. It’s been kind of fun plunging myself into danger every so often, though even that’s gotten a little dull lately.
I don’t know how right he is that the city’s like a dam about to burst, but things have grown markedly more tense in the year since he and I met, so it’s not nothing. I don’t plan on being there when the bough breaks, though, so it’s probably best to focus what’s going on right at this moment– finding the guys who wrecked my house.