Chocolate Insomnia – Chapter 2: Fifteen Bucks an Hour

It’s draining my friggin’ wallet, but here we are, looking through the private data collection of none other than Dr. Gonzales, the “Data Broker.” The Data Farm is home to petabyte upon petabyte of miscellaneous offline data donated by hoarders and collectors over the long decades of the internet’s existence, but its most lucrative attraction is the files exclusively hosted by special curators, if you’re willing to put up with the price. 

Yeah, it’s mainly a sneaky way to put corporate espionage and political blackmail up on the black market. But Karina and I are here at the Data Farm today to look into files pertaining to one particular individual– Jones Burrow.

It’s been over two months since she disappeared from our grasp, escaping within moments of being caught by the Atlanta police after having given up in her pursuit of assassinating Mayor Epstein. Everything in my heart tells me that she’s still out there, fighting against the same forces she fought against in her crusade as the Social Media Killer.

I still remember it clearly, our conversation in my apartment, still in disarray from when the thugs Mayor Epstein hired broke in and wrecked everything. I remember it with the clarity that one’s mind brings to a love confession, or a death in the family. 

Jones stood before me, tears in her eyes, wishing she had never sought pretty revenge against the people who had hurt her and her family, because of the place it led, the corner she had backed herself into. For she had discovered a term that would keep her mired in the depths of Atlanta’s underworld for good– “Ascendants.”

I don’t know what the Ascendants is– or who the Ascendants are. But Mayor Epstein was connected to it, and Dreamtech was its creation. A whole plot covered up across the city to create a technological device that could bypass the dreaming subconscious, the ultimate privacy of the human mind, and with that generate limitless possibilities– none of them good. Data mining, subliminal advertising, full-on mind control… If the Dreamtech helmet had actually been released, it could have meant the end of the world.

And that’s why I know that, even though Jones had made her ultimate decision not to kill Mayor Epstein, that she surely hasn’t stopped her fight. Not while something like the Ascendants exists, motives unclear and goals unknown. Not while her family is hidden away in protective custody, but probably in danger every moment regardless. If she’s still out there, she’s doing her best.

It’s not without irony that Karina and I are accessing private files taken by Dr. Gonzales, who is alleged to be deeply involved in the same forces that Jones attacked. But data is data, and if there’s anything here that we don’t know and others do, then it’s vital that we learn about it too, so we can keep up on the trail.

I’m not worried that we won’t find her eventually, somewhere. I’m worried that someone else will find her first.

So that’s why I am currently paying fifteen bucks an hour to stand in the chilly halls of the Data Farm (it’s June but I’m wearing a jacket, what’s up), and to look through disorganized swathes of information that Dr. Gonzales has acquired form the internet or certain other means, all relating to the topic of Jones Burrow and the Social Media Killer.

Or, the lowest tier of that information, at least. Accessing the most important files will currently set you back… about a million dollars per day, it looks like. I’m okay with learning the stuff that is deemed unimportant enough to be given away to the commoners.

Karina stares at a computer terminal, eyes narrowed and right hand tightly clutching the mouse as she scrolls through heaps of digital text. This data may be “curated,” but it’s not put up in a tidy report dressed up for readability– it’s still just a bunch of data thrown onto a hard drive. There’s archives of forum threads discussing rumors and sightings, police reports apparently stolen from a precinct, even the metadata from some photos Jones’s sister Kylia had uploaded to her Netnect profile. Unless you know what you’re doing, it’s difficult to get though.

I’m currently taking a mental break from parsing the garbling chatter and focusing on the more important side of things– thinking about exactly what we are trying to find in the first place.

Obviously, we won’t get anywhere trying to look for where Jones may have gone off to. If that kind of information were on this fifteen-bucks-an-hour archive I would imagine there would already be a bullet between her eyes. But seeing as we have a lot more personal experience in dealing with Jones than the typical sleuths or corporate assassins there may be something that others may have overlooked… I’m thinking something about her family. The Burrows.

The Burrows whose house I broke into by pretending to be a magazine writer named Tracy Silver… I really did deserve to have my arm broken for that one. 

“Hey Morgan,” Karina says, still staring at the computer terminal.

“Yeah Karina?” I ask.

“I’m not seeing anything. This is all useless.”

“Not a peep?”

“A forum thread by Epstein_Rules1987 saying that they found a yearbook with Jones from eighth grade and then users spending six pages evaluating her physical attractiveness… Probably doesn’t count as a peep.”

“It does not.”

Karina throws her arms up in the air. “I don’t get it! We’ve looked in every one of these stupid archives, even the curated one, and it’s all a bunch of bupkis!”

“Bupkis…”

“Maybe we’re looking at it all the wrong way. Maybe Jones actually just gave up and ran up to New York City, and now she’s working in the paper mills.”

“Do you really think she would have just given up like that? After all she went through?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Karina says. “Maybe she’s reformed. She went on about hating herself for all the awful stuff she did. She could really be trying to change.”

“Hm.”

“Hmm…”

I let out a sigh. “Eh.”

“Bupkis?”

“Bupkis.”

“Well, I–” Karina’s portable PC, still compacted together in the form of a wristwatch, beeps several times. She looks at it and rubs her forehead. “Oops, it’s about time for me to go.”

“To go? What?”

“I’ve got to go. We can come back here… maybe Sunday? Monday after work? I don’t know what your schedule is.”

“Huh? You– Oh. It’s Friday.”

“Yep. It’s Friday.” Karina pauses, as if she’s about to add something else, but she doesn’t say anything.

I don’t want to pry, especially when she clearly isn’t giving any information about it. But it’s been every single Friday evening since I’ve met her– aside from the Columbus trip which was a disaster in many ways and that was one of them– that she’s left to go somewhere to do something. And I have not a clue what it might be.

“We’re making really good progress, though,” I say.

“No we’re not.”

“Well, I mean, in spirit. We’re about to figure out something really big. I can feel it.”

“No you can’t.”

“Sure I can. I’ve got a hunch, and when I–”

“Morgan, I’m sorry.” Karina smiles. She pushes up her glasses. She doesn’t look happy.

“Yeah. I get it. Let’s get out of here.” I unplug my data drive and put it in my shirt pocket. We can do more investigating later. There’s no rush. I mean, there is, but not like… Okay, there’s a rush but we’re putting it off anyway.

We exit the Data Farm’s endless stretch of servers and hard drive access terminals and come to the entrance, where a familiar face greets us with absolute stoicism– the recently-repaired customer service robot DODF. Moonslash blew up its head when he was attacking me about all that Genesis Crush stuff, but whoever runs the Data Farm got it back in working order, and I was almost moved to tears to see it return in such healthy order.

“Signing out for the day?” it asks.

“Yep, we got some good progress.” If “good progress” is a synonym for “nothing at all.”

“I’m glad,” it says. “The fewer people, the better.”

Geez. I take all my kind words back. What a jerk.

Karina giggles at my reaction to DODF, and then asks, “So, I’ll see you on… Sunday?”

“Yeah, unless you’re free tomorrow evening.”

“We’ll see,” she says. “And, um– Yeah, we’ll see.”

Karina’s smiling that special kind of smile she only wears when she’s facing something she doesn’t like. That kind of smile that says, “I’m making the best of things.” A smile exclusive to herself. For as long as I’ve known her, the only time she ever makes it is when something’s the matter. And whatever it is this time, she isn’t telling me.

I thought Karina’s grumpiness when we went to see AR73 was just a byproduct of annoyance at her dad, and that her bad mood during our search for Magitek Soda was due to the pressure of her first-ever assignment from R8PR. But this has been going on for a couple weeks, now.

What’s going on, Karina?

But that’s not what I say. What I say is, “Can’t wait to see you.”

“Thanks, Morgan,” she replies.

With that, we leave the Data Farm and part ways, giving each other a few waves before walking in opposite directions. The late afternoon sun hits my face and I realize I’ve been up for like thirty-six hours already. I really need to go home and get some rest.

I take a look back at Karina, and for some reason my heart feels weird, as if I just finished sprinting while a bunch of killer robots were chasing me. I don’t like it.

Well, as tired as I am, I know I should hit the grocery store before I get back to my apartment and topple on my sofa. Otherwise, I won’t have any breakfast for tomorrow, and I’ll have to stop by one of those overpriced morning auto-conbinis to get a bagel or something. 

So some eggs, some soy milk, some bacon, and a box of ramen packets will be mine for the buying. I just have to go to… Oh wait, if I want to go to the grocery store close to my house, I should probably take the sky rail instead of walking. Since, if I walk, there is nearly a one hundred percent chance I will get lost, and then I will spend the whole evening accidentally running into ruffians and getting involved in some minor drug ring heist that I have to stop before some innocent family’s life gets ruined in the crossfire, but then I find out that the drugs are caked with microchips or something and I connect it all back to the “Ascendants.” 

I think my imagination got carried away. But the point is, I should take the sky rail back because I don’t trust myself to go to the grocery store and get home otherwise.

Only problem is… I forgot where the nearest sky rail station is. Karina and I took the rocket boot highway over here the first time we came to the Data Farm, and this time we came north from the abandoned church. I’m not very familiar with this part of town. I feel like an idiot, and that’s because I am an idiot.

Well, I see the big skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta in the distance, and I see some mid-air railing in this direction. If I stare in the air and walk over there, I’ll reach it, I’m share, I mean sure. It’s only a matter of being very lucky and not accidentally walking down any dead-end streets. I take off my jacket and walk down the first main street I see that kind of looks like it goes towards the sky rail.

And, as fortune has favored me on this nice, cool day, I discover a stop on a platform right off of the sidewalk. A lot of people are waiting for the next one, but I think they come every ten minutes on Fridays after five, so no big deal if I can’t get on this one.

Then something catches my eye. No, not the yellow-haired Sonichu-looking dude in army camo. A young woman in a pink t-shirt, headphones on, swiping across the screen of her portable PC. The same young woman I just parted from less than thirty minutes ago. She doesn’t notice me, her vision completely fixed on reading something on her screen that I can’t make out.

Karina, what are you doing over here still? I thought she’d have been long gone by now, seeing as she didn’t go halfway in a different direction before deciding to go a different way.

Where the heck do you go on Fridays?

I really know I shouldn’t, but… 

What’s going on, Karina?

I’m very curious.

<== Previous ♠ Next ==>

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mUdWMwz.png


3 comments

  1. Another chapter of exposition! So many callbacks to the Social Media Killer.

    But will the legendary moment finally be revealed…just what does Karina really do kn Fridays?

Leave a Reply