“How’d you do it?” I ask.
“It was pretty easy, but I don’t feel like wasting my time explaining it all to you. You won’t exactly be alive at the end of this to tell anyone, and we both know that.”
Okay, so I might really die.
And I’ll be killed by a dead man. Donald Blyth was shot in the head by a Sakaguchi Knight not two weeks ago. And here he stands right in front of me, as if nothing had ever happened.
If I really do die, please tell everyone about my stories. I don’t want to be forgotten forever. I hope Karina will be okay. And Lamar, and Amy, and Jones, and everyone else.
God, if I could only get these stupid steel ring things off of me…
“I am worth way more to you alive than dead,” I say.
“That’s what the other Ascendants said, but then you and your friends just had to plant those tracking devices. You blew it. You got cocky and tried to attack us out in the open. And now, thanks to that, I am going to find out the truth.”
“Leave everyone else alone. You already have me.”
“No, I don’t think I will,” Blyth says. “We’re still studying that friend of yours with the computer in his brain, but I don’t think he will be worth much. We’ll gun them all down. After we’re done with you, that is.”
Dragon, the loyal strongman and Dr. Gonzales, the mysterious Data Broker himself, stand behind him, not speaking, their body language mostly deferent. Is he really the leader of all of this?
“C’mon, that’s just rude,” I say. “You won’t even tell me how you survived, and you’re going to gut me.”
Blyth laughs with a breathy, hoarse tone. “Oh, fine. I’ll show you.” He snaps, and a guard brings out a chair. Blyth sits down and claps his gloved fingers together. “This part is always fun.”
He removes his gloves to reveal two metallic hands, sparkling with a transparent outer layer that exposes the metal workings underneath. And then he reaches to his face–
Digs his sharpened nails in–
He peels off his skin.
It comes off smoothly, quickly. Half his face is exposed, and underneath is not blood and guts–it’s titanium. There’s a gunshot-sized dent where his skull would be. His right eye is gone, replaced by a bright red orb.
“You’re a fucking cyborg,” I gasp.
“Yes, I’m a fucking cyborg,” Blyth says. “What’s it to you?”
“I mean… Cyborgs are like… ultra illegal–” I stop myself. “Well, I guess rich elites get away with everything, don’t they?”
Blyth gets up from his chair and then kicks the chair away. It flies clear across the warehouse and smashes against the wall. Very unnecessary. “They only get away with everything if they have a plan, and the balls to pull it off.”
“Tell me about it.”
He does. I’ve got him on full-on villain monologue by now. “Thanks to your work during the Social Media Killer investigations, my company was given a great windfall with the assets from Dreamtech that I purchased. Unfortunately, my company has also been under investigation since that time, thanks to that brat Jones Burrow. So I faked my death, and now I’m a hero who can play puppeteer from the shadows. Brilliant, really.”
“And did you like my little trick with John Vann and the robots? It’s got my company cleared and a whole new scapegoat who may not even be alive to get caught. I thought my writing was a bit tin-eared, but it sure got everyone’s attention.”
“It was a good bit of chessmaster theater, but it also got six people killed.”
Blyth rolls his eye. “Still playing with Legos, I see. I won’t bother explaining the rest to you. We’ll end this soon.”
“You and all your Ascendant buddies?”
“No, no,” he says. “The other Ascendants don’t know about this yet. I’ve taken matters into your own hands.”
“So you’re like, the leader or something, then?”
“The Ascendants are equal. We put the cause of humanity before anything else. Which is why I can no longer sit back and spare you just because you’re a person of interest.”
“I’m not very interesting.”
So the Ascendants are equal, like a big secret fraternity? That’s not really what I expected… I want to milk more information out of him, but it seems like he’s already moved on.
Blyth steps to my side, where the giant computer monitors are glowing blue. “There is just one thing for me to settle before I can begin my next endeavor: I must find Jones. Luckily, you tracked her down, and you can bring me straight to her. I always knew you were something special. All my investigators did was spin their wheels uselessly, but you were always someone I could rely on.”
“Just like the movies, the good guys accidentally lead the bad guys to the secret treasure and disable all the traps, huh.”
“You really think this is a matter of morality?”
“Yes,” I say. “Very much so.”
“You think that because you’re just one of the rats on the street begging for scraps. We have nothing in common, you and I.”
“If I’m a rat, then let me go. I don’t want your cheese.”
“Well, that’s where I cannot oblige you. You are very important to me, Morgan Harding. As a victim of circumstance, some happy accidents and fortunate coincidences, you have ended up being the convergence point in a great number of plots and schemes. With your information at my disposal, I’ll solve them all in one fell swoop.”
“Me? There’s nothing special about me.”
Dr. Gonzales steps up to Blyth and whispers something in his ear. And then Blyth smiles and says, “Ah, yes. If you would look to our computer screen…”
The guards rotate me to the side and face me to the large computer monitors, one of which is now displaying my government-issued ID and a list of all my personal information– my birthday, gender, blood type, A-level specialization, online video game usernames, known associates, a resume I uploaded on a job website two years ago… It’s a lot more comprehensive than anything else I’ve seen. Including stuff I myself have filled out for background checks.
“We know everything about you, Morgan Harding,” Blyth says. “You were never in this game of ours, as sad as it may be for you to hear. You were an asset. An asset that–” He looks at the monitor–“went to Booker T. Washington High School. An asset that dated Reina Taki while employed at a local coffee shop near the CNN Center. An asset that mysteriously went missing for two weeks in January of last year, with a missing persons report filed by that asset’s former employer. An asset whose older sister was under my employ, under my thumb, for the duration of an investigation I knew she was botching on purpose. Your life is mine, Morgan. Everything that has happened to you these past few months has been a result of the Ascendants’ wills. What do you have to say about that?”
“Yeah. Are you going to kill me, or is this the torture part still?”
Blyth’s sly grin fades as he realizes how unflappable I really am (I’m actually terrified but this is my coping mechanism). “I’ll kill your fucking family too, now. Wasn’t going to bother sending my men down to Tallahassee just for a no-name peasant, but you’ve officially earned my scorn.”
He balls up one of his metal fists but decides not to start with the violence just yet. Regaining his composure, he says, “This is the part where I would ask you where Jones Burrow is, and where you would say some remark that boils down to, ‘No, I’ll never tell you,’ but phrased more like a poor joke. But we’re going to skip that part.”
My chair topples over and my face lights up with pain before it even has a chance to register the fact that I was indeed punched in the face.
As the guards pick me and the chair back up to set me upright, I hear Dr. Gonzales say, “You have to be careful. Any brain damage could risk–Oh, nevermind. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Yeah. I’m pretty resilient,” I say. “Wanna do that again?”
“No, because I still need to extract some information from you,” Blyth says. He snaps twice and the guards rush away, out of sight. “Do you remember the Dreamtech Helmet?” he asks.
“Well, my company has whipped up a new design of its own,” he says. The guards hand him a new helmet that has the same design as the ones I saw at the tech expo last week. “It’s called the Blyth Dream Weaver. Marketing liked the name. I don’t care. I only care about the special modifications we have given it.”
I feel a sharp pain at my leg, like… a needle.
“These things were never ACTUALLY supposed to be for lucid dreaming or anything, of course. It was for collecting metadata and sending advertising signals. But this new iteration–” He places the helmet on my head. The screen is off, and I can’t see anything–”is designed specifically for extraction. Using the power of dreams, we will discover everything we need from you.”
“I…” I want to speak, but suddenly my body is shutting down. I’m losing consciousness rapidly.
“It won’t be a long dream,” he says. “But it will be your last. Enjoy it while you can.”
I have to fight this.
No, I can…