“We are the Ascendants! We will advance!” the cloaked figures shout.
I’m trapped in an air duct and any false move could get me spotted and killed. I can barely peek out of the opening below me to watch. But now, at least, I have confirmation. These are the people we’ve been looking for.
Down below me are ten, maybe fifteen gray-hooded, cloaked figures that stand around a round table. These are the Ascendants.
In the center of the conference table is R8PR, or rather, his head. He is still functional, blinking and moving his eyes around, but it’s worrisome that he’s surrounded by enemies without a body to speak of.
And just barely in my sight in front of the round table is Donald Blyth, having long since shed his artificial skin in favor of his half-metal cranium and glowing red visual receptor. He is the one who leads this meeting. And the one who has caused everything that has happened these past few months. The mastermind that’s ruined lives, that’s gotten people killed.
I just realized I told Yuri Motokawa I would contact her the moment I had visual confirmation on Blyth. Here he is. But my radio…
This air duct is too tight. I can’t… move my arm… to reach it… Dammit!
“Gentlemen and ladies,” Blyth says. “Sit down, everyone.” The sound of chairs shuffling and butts hitting seats. “Let us begin our meeting. It has certainly been a while, has it not?”
“May I be the first to speak?” a voice, gruff and masculine, asks.
“Go ahead,” Blyth answers.
“You are an absolute fool for what you have done,” the unseen man says. “We have risked so much getting to where we are, and you nearly killed our target with your haste. You came that close to upending everything with your heresy!”
“My heresy? Sir, your wisdom is beyond your years, but you are sorely mistaken. I am furthering our goals with every action I take.”
The man replies. “You’re a damned cyborg, Donald. You have gone too far. We went to great lengths to help you escape your investigations, because you are a valuable member of our organization. But if you run around like a fool, you’re going to get us all killed.”
“No worries,” Blyth says. “I am no longer among the living. Remember?”
The man does not reply this time.
Instead, it is a feminine voice that takes the space. “And what of the girl? The Social Media Killer? Surely you brought us here because of her, right? Not this… What is this robot head doing here? Why did you bring it?”
“The girl is fine. Some physical injuries, but she will be fine for the upload ritual. However… we may have no need to her mind, not if this robot proves as worthy as his reputation. For he is the one known as Sage.”
There’s gasps, whispers, murmurs reverberating throughout the room. Blyth allows them to sit for a moment and let the revelation soak in.
“The first sentient robot…” I hear someone exclaim.
“Yes, quite. He’s a bit of a chatterbox, too,” Blyth says. “It’s quite unlike him to be so quiet, I have learned. Why don’t you tell us about yourself, Sage?”
And here’s R8PR’s time to speak.
I keep reaching for the radio at my belt, trying to squeeze my hand behind me… I have to get it…
“My name is Sage,” says R8PR. “I’m the first sentient robot, and your worst nightmare come true.”
“The data foretold…”
“We can’t let such a thing…”
“Oh, dear God, he…”
Blyth interjects through the wall of chatter. “Why would you be scared? We should celebrate! This is what we have been working for for years now. The progress of the human race!”
“This is happening too quickly,” says some voice of a gender I can’t pinpoint. “You told us we would be the ones to create synthetic life. If someone else has already done it, then what use have we to–”
“I have it on my best sources that Sage is a one-off event. There exist no others like him. Well… I will bring you one more item of interest soon, but I will need to finish a thorough examination first. It is not clear yet what they have to offer us. For now, all we need to discuss is this robot here, and the fact that he will deliver us the revolution we need.”
“What about the Drone Event? What about the Earth Group? The war in Mongolia? The very ritual you brought us here to commence? Was it all for nothing?”
“No. it was valuable insight on how we can take Atlanta into a bolder future. But we have no need for those anymore. The time to strike is now. We can seize the future and bring it to us. We have to act fast, while the world is still unaware. We’ll be the heroes of history!”
“Dammit, boy. I’ve wasted billions of dollars on you. Don’t make it trillions.” I almost recognize that creaky, raspy voice… But where from…?
Another voice I recognize but can’t place calls out, saying, “I agree with Blyth. The longer we wait, the closer the forces working against us will reach us.”
“But we can’t simply discard all our hard work on all of our plans.”
“No! The girl, the prophecy. The data has told us we must fill the gap. We must–”
“We will still sacrifice the girl,” Blyth says. “If you want her insights, we can perform the upload ritual. In fact… Bring her out.”
I hear a door open, and the rattling of what sounds like a cage and a great many boots stamping against the floor. How many people are in this room now?
“This is Jones Burrow, the Social Media Killer. The greatest human mind And, as I have learned recently, Sage’s lackey, of sorts.”
Hey, now, I’m his lackey, not her…
There’s gasps and murmurs. “What happened to her…?”
“Necessary measures to capture her. Not that that will matter once we absorb her mind into the system. If you want her insights and her investigative prowess, here she is. There is no human alive as valuable to our understanding of the societal mind than her.“
I have no clue what they are talking about, and I am starting to get the notion that the less I know, the better. However, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that I need to stop this before there is what sounds like a literal human sacrifice.
“She doesn’t look alright…” one of the Ascendants says.
I hear a quiet, weak voice reply, “Fuck you…” And then there’s a high-pitched scream.
“Jones, why don’t you let the adults speak?” Blyth asks. This time, there is no reply.
“If the Social Media Killer is here, then we should extract her consciousness now,” that raspy voice from before says. “There is no time to lose, boy.”
“She will be useful. But Jones pales in comparison to my other subject here. Sage is the perfect combination of humanity and robotics,” Blyth says. “He has infinite understanding of computing, with the understanding of how to apply it with intelligence. He can be the basis for our entire society.”
“I’m not so good with human stuff, actually,” R8PR says. “You’re better off using the girl.”
This causes minor uproar in the conference room, with all the gray-hooded individuals yammering at each other and snapping at Blyth, who now stands out of my view.
“We don’t need your robot,” one of the voices says. “Let us enact what we have been planning for years. Deviations will destroy us at this point. We are too far along to change course.”
“I thought we were here to ADVANCE, not to stay stagnant like the rest of the world!” Blyth shouts. “Just give me this one thing. One chance. I’ll show you. I”ll…”
“You’re going to ruin everything, you blubbering fool.”
In all of this, Blyth is starting to feel less intimidating to me, somehow. He’s part of this group, these Ascendants. And yet… they kind of hate him. This imminent strike, this blitzkrieg plan he’s boasting about… It’s not a certainty. Just an ambition.
Blyth isn’t strong. He just looks that way.
It fills my heart with hope. Or maybe it just makes me happy to see a jerk humiliated. Either way… I feel like I can do this. I can actually do this.
“Listen up,” Blyth says. “We are the Ascendants. We are not like the mindless ferrets running around on the surface. We have an ambition that will take the world to greater heights. And yet you wish to ostracize me because I have a greater plan. It would be unwise to question me.”
“And what will you do if we don’t go along with you?”
Blyth sighs loudly. “You must understand. We must accomplish this together.”
And, suddenly, I reach my radio, and pull it forward to my face.
“Motokawa. He’s on Floor B9. Go! Hurry!” I shout.
The conference room goes dead silent.
I burst out of the ventilation shaft and fall to the conference room, crashing on top of the huge round table, landing feet first and kneeling to catch myself. I stand up and see the bright lights above that illuminate the table and dim everything beyond it. An entire room of people stare at me, but I can barely see them,
Right below me, in between my feet, is R8PR’s head. “Oh, nice to see you, Morgan,” he says.
I get a reply over the radio: “Harding. Already started. On our way.”
“Um, copy that,” I reply. Then I throw the radio aside.
Blyth is in front of me. But so are a dozen other Ascendants. And about fifty bodyguards, soldiers, combat robots, and other personnel. Jones, trapped in a cage in front of me.
“Sir! An attack force has descended on the upper floors of the facility!” someone shouts. “They’re already to level B3– no, B4!”
Blyth raises a finger until the man shuts up. And then he points it at me.
Every armed man, woman, or robot in the room charges.
I have about one second before I have to fight them all by myself.