I’m trying to sort out this extremely horrible mystery together in my head, but none of it is fitting together like I’d like. Though, sitting in the cramped not-made-for-humans service counter space next to Lamar, Karina, and an offline worker robot, there isn’t much else for me to be doing.
“So this is Magitek Soda, right?” I ask, trying to put my thoughts aloud to see how they sound.
“Yes, this is Magitek Soda,” Karina says. She points to the still-powered refrigerator behind them, where a couple dozen cans still remain, technically, if the robot selling them was still powered on.
“Wait, sorry, I’m just trying to… I don’t get this whole thing,” I say. “Magitek Soda, right? Magitek is a giant technology firm, one of the biggest in the world. And they’re selling a soda brand.”
“It can’t be worse than the time Toshiba tried to make a theme park,” Karina says.
“Toshiba Land,” Lamar says. “From 2001 to 2003, this park operated in Macon, Georgia, offering– Agh, dammit.”
Karina blushed. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“It’s not just the dumbness of it all, though,” I say. “Since Magitek is already the dumbest company ever, I’m not really impressed by the soda move. What I mean is, this whole soda test market thing is so secretive that it spawned internet rumormongering that even got R8PR concerned. And as far as we know, it’s only being sold in this one Street Chaser brand vehicle, which is owned by Nathan Nguyen, a completely unrelated tech entrepreneur. And then the chips we found at the curbside locations, with the Blyth Industries manhole right beside? How is all of this connected? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Am I just an idiot?”
“You’re not an idiot,” Lamar says. “My AI hasn’t made any connection either, or else it’d be chirping out at us, I figure. There is something missing that we don’t know about.”
“And I have a feeling it might be something we can’t figure out.”
Karina gives me a hearty slap on the back. “Cheer up, kid. We’ve got this.”
“You’re stealing my shtick. I’m honored.”
“It’s not stealing if you don’t get caught.”
I almost get into a whole bantering thing with Karina about how dumb what she just said was, but the auto-conbini comes to a complete stop, and the lights outside the window grow much brighter.
Karina’s cellular rings.
“R8PR? What are you– Huh?”
She pauses to listen to the other end of the line, presumably belonging to our mutual ally. At the same time, there’s some taps at the window to the auto-conbini. A flashlight shines in.
A figure holding a Magitek taser wand comes into view. He’s just some scrawny security guard, but from the shaky grip on his weapon, it seems like he’s very ready to use it. Morgan and Lamar hop to our feet and hold our hands in the air. Neither of us would actually be affected by the taser, I guess, but I imagine starting a brawl wherever we are isn’t the best way to go about things.
Karina snaps into focus and says, “Understood, gotta go.” She shoves her cellular in her pocket and stands up with us.
The security guard gulps, like he is completely unprepared for this situation, like he has never done a bit of training in his life for finding some weirdos in an auto-conbini. “Please step out of the vehicle…” His palms are sweaty. His knees look heavy.
Keeping our hands raised, the three of us do indeed step out of the vehicle. Outside, the source of the bright light is revealed– we’re in a big warehouse.
Even as late at night as this is, this place is still operating normally. Robots pace around inspecting the crates and shelves, and there is already a team of four working on this Street Chaser. There’s robots everywhere, toiling as if this were a sunny afternoon.
The only humans in this warehouse that I can see, in fact, are the security guard with the taser pointed at us– and one more man standing a little bit away.
The first thing I notice, before his green-dyed mohawk, before his towering seven foot height, is his narrow, slit eyes that stare at us with curiosity, almost playfulness. The beams of the fluorescent lights at the ceiling reflect off those eyes so bright they almost cause a glare in my vision. His hands are on his hips, and he wears some semblance of a smile.
My silliness vanishes the moment I see this man, because I recognize that we are in immediate, imminent danger. I can’t keep my cool when Karina and Lamar are right next to me. I can keep myself safe, but if it’s all three of us…
It’s the middle of June, but there’s a chill in the air. I try to keep calm. I’m not one to crack under pressure. But this is getting far too tense, far too quickly.
Finally the man speaks. “Don’t I know you?”
“Some people know me,” I respond.
“Not you,” he says. “Your friend. The one with the hat.” He cracks a grin, showing off the silver-colored tooth platings lining his lower teeth.
Lamar says nothing. I glance at him, and he’s keeping a statue-firm grip on a neutral expression. Whatever he’s feeling right now, it isn’t showing. I wish I could say the same about myself.
“Yeah, I know you.” The man folds his arms.
I ball up my fists. The man looks at those fists, looks at my face, smiles again with his teeth nearly glaring in my eyes.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” he says to us.
“Sorry about that,” I say.
He lets out a single chuckle. “Honey, you’ve got a lot to be sorry about.”
“I tend to.”
“You did something real bad today, coming here.”
“It’s funny, usually girls tell me that.”
“You don’t wanna keep it up. That mouth of yours.”
“Again, usually I get that from girls.”
The man with the mohawk legitimately breaks out into laughter, right in the middle of this scene. I’m too tense to even think about it.
Karina’s in panic mode, breathing hard enough you’d think she just did a mile sprint. The security guard is the same way, gripping his taser like it’s a grenade with the pin unhooked. Lamar’s still expressionless, almost robotic. And I’m still gearing myself up for a fight.
Despite the chill, a bead of sweat forms at the top of my forehead and rolls down the side of my face.
The man continues stares at me. And, for just a moment, I think I see something in those slit eyes of his, a flash of black and yellow, something like– Is he…?
“Well, I think y’all should get out of here. What do you say?” When he asks this, he again looks me in the eyes, keeping his grin wide.
I nod, less a nod than a polite bow.
He nods back, mockingly, then folds his arms.
The security guard loosens his grip on his taser and heaves a sigh of relief. He holsters it almost immediately, before pacing off to continue his patrol.
This would be the perfect time to break out in a surprise lunge. But I’m not even going to consider it. Whatever is going on here is beyond my pay grade, not that I’m being paid. And they’re letting us go.
We step away from the auto-conbini and let these two men escort us out of the warehouse. We walk past the security gate, and it locks behind us. With one last look at the closing door behind me, I see the tall man, still staring with those split eyes.
“Seeya around,” he says.
And then he’s gone.
And then we’re safe.
Simultaneously, all three of us let out sighs.
“Fuck,” I say.
“We’re in deep shit,” I say. “Karina, what did R8PR say?”
Karina giggles nervously. “He said he got the Magitek Soda analyzed,” she says. “He said we need to drop the investigation now and go see him immediately.”
“Good to know.”
Lamar looks off at the warehouse. I can imagine why.
“Don’t worry about him,” I tell him.
“He knows me,” Lamar mutters. “He might know…”
“Well, we’re not going back inside to ask him for an interview, if that’s what you mean. Come on, we need to go find R8PR.”
I try to play it off like a joke, but I’m pretty sure I failed to disguise the fear in my voice.