Category Archives: 09 – The Dial-Up Demon

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 13: Returns

A jingling of microchips, that airy smell of dust and rust, and I know I’m in Chuck’s Tech Emporium once again.

Chuck, as always, is surprised to see me and runs up to me in overjoyed jubilation.

I’m starting to wonder if he genuinely believes he is my uncle or something.

“Morgan! What brings you back so soon? You usually don’t drop in so often.”

“Actually, this,” I say. I show him the cartridge to Kimi no Wakaranai Densetsu, the Super Nintendo game he gave me for free just a couple weeks ago.

“Ah-ha, you’re done with it already? You’re seeking trade-in credit? Well, I don’t have a credit system really, but I have lots of stuff you can trade me for. You ever wanted a VR TV set? It’s from 1999 though, so, uh, maybe not the best option. I had some newer models a while back, but they got snapped up by some teens looking to do some mods. I couldn’t really follow what they were saying. Then again, I never can with kids. They’re just so rambunctious!”

“Actually, I wanted to return it,” I tell him. “No money or trading or any of that. I just want to give it back.”

“Eh?”

“Here you go.”

He takes it, reluctantly, and adjusts his glasses as if that will help him examine the cartridge more closely. “It’s not broken or anything, right?”

“No, it’s alright. I just couldn’t understand it. It’s too hard to play without knowing Japanese.”

“I see, I see. But it was fun?”

“Not really… I think it’s a story-based game. It frustrated me a lot to play, and it kept reminding me of the fact my best friend isn’t here, and… I just wanted to return it so someone who really wants it can buy it instead.”

“Morgan… I know how you’re feeling right now,” he says. “It’s tough being lonely.”

“Yeah, it is…”

“I moved to Georgia about twenty years ago, just before the war. It was a bright sunny land of opportunity and tech, and I’ll never say I regret it. But I left my friends and family behind, and it’s been tough making new ones since then. Even with a store as famous as mine, a lot of the time I don’t have too many people to talk to when I want. Not since my wife died.”

“You… had a wife?”

Chuck nods. The smile on his face withers, but remains upright. “Hitagi. The light of my life. She was a bit rough around the edges, but always steered me straight. But about ten years ago, cancer got her. Often does with the best of us. I’m still real sad about it. But the nice people around the store have helped a lot. Especially when I do sales. Lots of great people coming by during those.”

“Oh, Chuck…”

“Hey, don’t go feeling bad for me. This is about you. I just wanted you to know that it’s okay to feel sad and lonely. Don’t let people take that away from you. Don’t let you take that away from you. Suppressing your feelings is just gonna make you feel worse in the long run. In fact, I read about a study once that… Oh, but you don’t need to hear it. You just need to relax and pour out your feelings.”

He comes in for the hug. In every instance of this situation I would be stepping back or dashing off or fighting back. But for some reason, I let this sad old man hug this sad young kid.

And I start to cry. “Thanks, Chuck,” I murmur.

“If you ever need a deep discount on any computer accessories, just let me know,” he says, keeping his embrace strong. “I tend to give that to people who cry in my store.”

I shake my head, but for some reason a giggle comes out as well. A sobbing, tear-filled giggle.

終わり

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<== Previous

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 12: Dialed Into the Truth

Holy shit it’s the Dial-Up Demon after all!

And his secret identity! He’s…

Just some random old black guy.

“Get out! Go away!” he screams. His voice immediately confirms that yes, this is the right guy. The very same man whose scratchy radio voice has been my sole source of mystery for over a week now.

“I don’t know who you are, but you’re finished doing criminal stuff. You’ve been captured by none other than… Morgan Harding!”

…I need a secret identity too, don’t I?

Frank and Erin rush over with handcuffs and other bindings, which Erin apparently carries in her purse at all times (I won’t pry further on that one). We capture the man and force him to speak.

“I’ll never talk,” he says. “I’ve done all the talking I need to on the airwaves.”

Junkers the dog looks at him and woofs angrily.

“…Well, maybe I can explain.”

“Please do,” I say. “First, your name.”

“Daniel Damon,” he says with a smirk.

“Please say that’s an alias.”

He doesn’t respond, but the look in his face tells me that it unfortunately is not.

“And why did you do all of this?” Frank asks.

“Yeah, why did you do it?” Erin asks. “You’re doing a lot of bad things to innocent people.”

“Listen, y’all don’t get it,” the man begins. “Y’all are educated kids who are gonna get a good job one day.” (Not true for me but I don’t say anything.) “Me? I’m just an old man who’s got no real skills. Well, except for my lovely voice.”

“It is a pretty good radio voice,” I say. Frank and Erin glare at me.

Daniel Damon continues. “I used to work here, you know. At GSU. I was a janitor right up until the day these damn robots took over everything. Only reason I knew all the transponder locations is because I cleaned the rooms. I ain’t too bitter about this place, but when I got word of some big new project for new STEM jobs? Nuh-uh. No way. I won’t let the rest of the world get replaced by machines so all the rich get free work and all the poor go hungry.”

I want to tell him that that the new project is specifically about educating low-income adults so that they won’t have jobs easily replaced by robots, but I don’t think he’s in the mood for a lecture. And also I think I’m not supposed to talk about the rocket rail yet.

“So you just wanted to sabotage the school until the STEM projects were shut down?” Frank asks.

“That’s what it sounds like,” Erin adds.

Mr. Damon cackles. “No way! I don’t give a shit about that, besides petty revenge. All I care about is money! And boy did I rob this school clean while y’all were running around getting chased by robots. Nobody’s ever gonna find that stuff.”

“But you’ll be in jail so you can’t spend it either,” I say.

“Well, I would have gotten away for it, if it weren’t for you stupid kids.” Junkers barks. “Yeah, and your moron dog, too.” He laughs, almost wistfully. If he weren’t entirely focused on stealing money for greed, I might actually feel sorry for the guy.

“So, uh, how do we get this security door open?” I ask, beckoning over to the President’s office.

He shrugs. “I don’t know nothing about technology. I just came across some plans that ended up on the street. All the best marks that had outdated security. I was bound to be caught eventually. At least it was you.”

…I really hope we get this door open soon…

***

Four hours later, the police have arrived, taken statements, and put Daniel Damon in the back of a patrol car. The security door was reopened after a Blade Runner specialist came and did some fancy techno-magic on it, though all of the disabled robots and PCs seem to be glitched for good. That’ll cost the company a lot.

Mr. Larkins and President Dean Morgan don’t seem too upset about the day’s events, though.

“I think this day ended up quite well,” President Morgan says.

“Yeah. Real productive meeting,” says Mr. Larkins. “All that extra time really let us hash out the details. Who knew extra time was all we needed?”

“So the, uh, ‘project,’ is a-go?” I ask.

“Soon as the lawyers put their smeary claws all over it, yeah,” my boss says. “Everything worked out just perfectly.”

“That’s… really good to hear.”

“And I hear you stopped the Dial-Up Demon somehow! It makes no sense why it wasn’t me who got to sock the guy in the face, but I’m real proud of you, kid. Who knew you had it in you?”

He reaches to pat me on the head, but since I’m taller than him it looks too stupid and I dart away before he can touch me.

Despite all of the idiocy, all of my insecurities, all of the doldrums I’ve been feeling, I actually succeeded at something for once. It isn’t such a bad feeling.

I look at Frank, Erin, and Junkers, and wave them goodbye. “It was nice meeting you,” I say. Nice meeting you despite laying a fake trap intended to ensnare me…

“I think we’ll be seeing each other again soon,” Frank says. “Mystery hunters often collide.”

“He’s right. Mystery hunters meet each other quite often,” Erin adds.

Junkers whimpers at me until I pet it a few times. Good dog.

Well then, I’ll be off. Another day, another adventure for Morgan G. Harding, the superpowered savior of Atlanta.

<== PreviousNext ==>

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 11: Setting the Trap

“You got chased by robots?!” I ask in shock.

We’re finally all back together, me and Frank and Erin and Junkers. But Frank and Erin look like sweaty messes. Beautiful, handsome, sweaty messes.

I’m still a bit unsettled about just how dignified and friendly they are at all times.

“Yes. It was a really big ordeal,” says Frank. “All around the Mathematics building, through all the rooms. They wouldn’t stop chasing us until they all shut down again!”

“That’s crazy. But you’re okay?”

“Of course!” Erin exclaims. “Frank here is a triathelete. He outran them like a quarterback on the way to a touchdown.”

“If I knew what that analogy meant I’d be impressed,” I say. “But you didn’t find any extra clues?”

“Nothing that correlates with what you found,” Frank says. “A boot with some red clay on it. A microphone. It’s probably just leftover litter from the Soli⭐ holo-concert from last Friday. People went wild over that.”

“You mean it’s not always so empty here? There’s literally almost nobody in the whole campus.”

“I find that strange, yeah,” he says. “I have some theories about that one, too. It may be the work of the Demon himself.”

“Or just everyone started skipping classes since it’s later in the term, maybe?”

“I doubt that,” Erin says. “People who take summer classes are the brightest of the bunch. They persevere and don’t fold so quickly.”

The only reason she’s saying that is because she’s taking summer classes…

“But how are we going to catch him?” I ask. “He’s probably still here, but we don’t even know why. We can’t catch him if we don’t discover a motive.”

“Erin’s got a plan,” Frank says.

“I have a plan, like Frank said,” Erin says.

“So you, Erin, have a plan, you say, like Frank said.”

“Precisely. Now, my intricate knowledge of the inner workings of mechanical engineering will not come entirely in handy here, since the wireless signals from the transponders are—”

Erin keeps talking about a master plan of hers, involving a convoluted trap that will capture the Demon, or give us his precise location at least, and it all flies completely over my head. Honestly, I stop listening to most of it.

The gist of it is that Frank and Erin will set up one of the disabled robots with a wire and dance it around like a marionette puppet or something, and they’ll do it right in plain site next to the President’s office so that the Demon will definitely see it. Then I’ll walk in, pretending to be unassuming and cowardly and whatnot, and trick the Demon into trying to take over this robot or something like that. In his overconfidence, he’ll snare the trap and we’ll find out his location immediately. Or, in a better scenario, it’ll catch him directly.

I don’t get it and it seems like an idiotic plan to me. But who am I to say what plans are good or not? I’m definitely not the smartest apple in the barrel. Wait, that expression makes no sense.

***

With Junkers slinking along by my side, I set the trap into motion. Right in front of the President’s office, with the ultra-secure door still in place, I pretend to yawn then stretch out my limbs.

“Hey Mr. Larkins,” I shout through the door. “Are y’all doing okay in there?”

“Wh… Harding, is that you?”

“Yeah, it’ll just be a second. There’s… some robot next to me. Is that… dancing?”

The disabled robot is being dangled from above by literal wires, ones that are clearly visible and extremely easy to spot even from a distance. This is moronic.

“Oh no, the scary robot! I’m petrified!” I exclaim with the most overdramatic performance I’ve ever given in a non-Tracy Silver role.

The robot starts to advance towards me… And Junkers hunkers down and growls at it.

“Junkers, stop,” I say. “It’s not an actual robot.” Wait, but the Demon might have microphones everywhere. “Just kidding, it’s a VERY REAL robot.”

Nothing seems to be happening yet.

But Junkers is now snarling its teeth at the fake robot.

“Oh no, I really hope the scary Dial-Up Demon doesn’t attack me and torment me before this moron dog ruins the plan! That would be really scary!”

And then Junkers lunges and attacks the robot. A few of the wires snap off immediately and the robot begins twirling around in the air. And, naturally, it’s coming straight for me. With my superb reflexes, I dodge it before it slams into my face—

—but I forget to dodge when it comes flying back in the other direction.

There’s a loud crunching sound the moment it collides against my back. I’m going to assume that sound came from the robot as it failed to keep up with my extremely strong I-drank-my-milk bones.

But from the way I collapse onto the floor, chest down, and my entire body throbs in pain, I’m going to have to assume it was my back that made the sound.

“Owwwwwwwww…”

Junkers is still attacking the robot even as it lies motionless on the floor, but Frank and Erin come down from the floor above to check on me. At least, that’s what I think until I’m looking up at them and their hands are on their hips.

“What…”

“We hope you learned your lesson,” Frank says.

“Yeah, your lesson,” adds Erin.

“My… lesson…?”

“There was no Dial-Up Demon, Morgan,” Frank says. “We knew it from the start, and so did you. You just didn’t want to admit it to yourself, so you started making logical leaps and fabricating evidence so you could make it seem more likely.”

“It was a wild goose chase, and you were the goose all along,” Erin says.

“What the hell… I just got injured…”

“Injured in pride, maybe, but you’ll be fine in body.” Frank extends his arm and pulls me back up on my feet. “We solve mysteries all the time, but in every single case, there’s always a twist at the end. They say there’s a phantom haunting the grocery store, but it’s actually just an angry middle-aged woman breaking in at night. They say there’s a bigfoot in a factory? It’s just a holo-projection by the boss to scare off employees. We know there’s a real truth for every case.”

“You think I made all this crap up? But…”

Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re completely right. I was so bored, so immersed in my doldrums that I was practically begging for a stupid adventure to embark on. I went on this trip with Mr. Larkins with the full expectation, and hope, that something would go terribly wrong, and it did.

I really did make up the whole thing, didn’t I? The Dial-Up Demon was never going to attack a university. It makes no sense. He robs banks and restaurants, not schools.

I’m not a hero at all. I’m just a sad little kid who misses their best friend and has too much free time on their hands.

What have I done…

“I’m really sorry about all of this,” I say. “You two… have taught me a very valuable lesson indeed.”

“Well, with that out of the way,” Erin says, “we still need to figure out what’s wrong with these transponders. The school probably put them all in on purpose in case of emergencies, and they’re all going off for some reason.”

“If I can get out of range and get a signal again, I might be able to call an ally who can help us out,” I say. “As long as we get this door open so my boss and President Morgan don’t starve to death, I think we’re fine, but—”

Junkers stops attacking the robot all of a sudden and sniffs in the air. All three of us stop our conversation and take a look in its direction.

“What’s it doing?” I ask.

Frank shakes his head (his ascot flowing alongside it). “I don’t know…”

Junkers sniffs its way around the room until it ends up, yet again, sniffing and growling against a wall. This time, it’s a wall right next to the President’s office.

“Hmmmm…”

The wall has another nearly imperceptible slit in it, just like the one in the cafeteria. So it’s another transponder, surely…

I step up to punch it open like last time. And then with two fists I rip the whole barrier down!

“What the fuck?!” a raspy voice screams.

Holy shit it’s the Dial-Up Demon after all!

And his secret identity! He’s…

<== PreviousNext ==>

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 10: C’mon, Gang!

“Get us out of here!” Larkins shouts through the door.

“It would be a great help if you were to contact the police,” says President Morgan. “Our phone lines are down and our cellulars are scrambled.”

On the other side of the office door, my new companion Frank taps his portable PC and grumbles. “Wireless modem is broken, too.”

All the dozens of robots outside the President’s office are malfunctioning, too. They’re frozen in place like they were all suddenly turned off out of nowhere, sometimes jittering and shaking but other times completely still.

“We’ll save you,” I say. “The Dial-Up Demon is behind this, so we’ll stop him once and for all.”

“Umm… Morgan, what the hell are you talking about?” Larkins asks.

“The Dial-Up Demon is attacking the school!” I shout.

“What? Speak louder!”

“Nevermind, it’s nothing. We’ll get you out soon. I promise!”

I really thought Mr. Larkins would be more enthusiastic about this. But I guess he really can’t hear me through the extremely thick door here. What a strange design flaw.

“It looks like we can’t break the door down,” Erin says. “It’s made with solid steel.”

“I could punch it a few times,” I say, “but I don’t feel like breaking my hand again today so let’s find the demon first.”

“You’re what?” Larkins asks in an overly loud voice. “I can’t hear you!”

“I can definitely hear you,” I say. “You don’t need to speak so loudly.”

“What?!”

“Nevermind. Don’t worry about anything.”

“What?!”

Enough of this. We need to go investigating soon. The Dial-Up Demon himself might be a thousand miles away for all we know, but the evidence of his crimes is right here on campus. We better find it while we can.

We leave the office building and go to a more central part of campus. It’s still an incredibly empty place, and instead of feeling peaceful like it once did, it’s honestly a bit spooky, like Halloween in July or something.

“Okay,” Frank says. “This is a real serious situation in a very big campus. We need to split up and search for clues.”

“Split up? What do you mean?” I ask.

“Erin and I will go south. You and Junkers can go investigate the buildings in the north. Then we’ll meet back up and compare notes.”

Pairing me with a dog..? “Are you sure this is a good idea? Don’t you think it might be better to stick together so we can be more thorough with the places we do check?”

Frank shakes his head. “I got a plan. Don’t worry about that. Just stick with Junkers and you’ll do great.”

“Yeah, stick with Junkers,” Erin says.

“Uh… Okay, then.”

The two humans leave, and now it’s just me and the dog.

It woofs at me.

I’m honestly a little bit relieved that they’re gone. They’re really nice and pretty too, but something about them… It’s a weird atmosphere. And are those two a couple, or…?

At least the dog is okay. It just follows me around as I walk.

One thing that concerns me about all this investigating is just how isolated I’ve become. I can’t call R8PR for help, even if I did have his number, because cellular signals are blocked. There’s barely anyone around in the whole campus, and certainly no sign of the news or police or anything like that.

It almost doesn’t make sense for me to do any detective work anyway when this is all a bunch of computer malarkey. I don’t got the slightest clue about that stuff. And I doubt Junkers does, either… But maybe I’ll figure something out while I’m stumbling around aimlessly looking for—

Grrrrrr…

I look at Junkers. It tilts its head to the side in curiosity.

Oh, that must have been me, then. I guess I am getting kinda hungry.

“Hey dog,” I say to my furry companion. “You know where the cafeteria is?”

It doesn’t respond.

“Ah, well, I’ll find it. Come follow me.”

***

One hour later…

Yeah, yeah, Morgan got lost again, haha so funny, I know. Shut up. I made it to the cafeteria, didn’t I? Isn’t that the whole point? Exactly.

Junkers and I are now in the middle of the… completely empty cafeteria. Where the hell are all the students in this school? Summer terms can’t be THIS slow, can they?

Well, whatever. It looks like the robot lunch ladies are frozen just the same as every other electronic device. So we aren’t going to be getting a good meal out of it anyway.

Ugh, I’m so hungry! I could eat a double decker sandwich and have room for dessert. But the dang robots ain’t even on?!

Oh… Oh!

I can just make a quick meal myself. If every robot that could stop me is disabled, then I bet they won’t mind…

I hop over the countertop and go behind the lunch line. Junkers follows, making a loud thud when its four legs hit the ground behind me.

“C’mon,” I tell it. “Let’s go make ourselves a sandwich.”

I grab a few loaves of bread… maybe four of them, and start piling them with veggies. The cooling systems are off and probably have been for hours, so I’m not taking my chances with the lunch meat. I’ll be vegetarian for this meal.

Gotta get some lettuce, some tomatoes, some cucumbers, maybe a little bit of avocado… Definitely got to put some red onion slices too. Pour some mayo over to help it stick, and woop, there’s me a sandwich.

I’ll just find a coke fountain so I can fix myself a glass of—

CHOMP.

The moment I’m turned around from my sandwich, it disappears… Right into the mouth of Junkers the dog.

It gives a contented look in my direction. Absolutely not a morsel of remorse for what it just did.

Okay, I guess I’ll be making another sandwich. I wasted the last of the avocados for nothing…

Okay, here it is, all or nothing. A double decker with tomatoes, pickles, red onions, and heaps of lettuce. And I fixed the coke ahead of time, so no turning around for me. I pick the sandwich up—

The dog leaps in the air and snatches it from my hands with its massive gaping maw of a mouth.

The whole thing’s gone in one bite.

I… I guess I’ll go hungry today.

Or maybe I can try my luck at yet another—

I hear the sound of a dozen machines powering on at once. The lunch lady robots! They’re back on!

And they’re also looking at Junkers and me with a bit of suspicion.

“Unauthorized access,” the robot says. “Please leave the premises. Employees only.”

A bunch of them at once, all ganging up on me. Crap, I didn’t even think of this situation! I really hope they don’t beat me up…

Except…

A few seconds later, there’s another blackout, and the robots are frozen in place once more.

That was odd. So they turned themselves back on, all by themselves, and then shut off again a second later?

If I knew anything about technology, I feel like this mystery would be a lot easier to solve.

Junkers, the evil sandwich stealing monster, seems very interested in something all of a sudden. It sniffs around at the robots for a second, and then begins following some invisible scent trail all the way to a wall, nestled in between the fridge and a coke fountain.

“What you smelling?” I ask.

It doesn’t respond, but instead sniffs all over the wall and then lets out a small woof.

Something around that wall… No, behind that wall. It looks completely normal at first glance, but I see it. I see the tiny slits.

I press my ear up against it. Yes, I hear a faint buzzing sound at the other end of it. Just the kind of whirring I’d never be able to notice, even with my enhanced abilities, if it weren’t for everything else in the room being quiet.

The next natural step is to punch a hole in the wall. It reveals the thin barrier, the door in disguise, and I rip the whole thing off a second later.

“Junkers, we’ve done it,” I say. “We’ve found our first clue.”

Inside the hole in the wall is some sort of transponder device running at fast speeds and with a loud buzzing. I can’t begin to tell you what it actually does, but it’s obvious what the effect is—it’s using some sort of signal to knock out the electronics or wireless signals around them. And when it needed to take a second to refresh, it allowed all those robots to come back on, but only for a brief second.

That means two things:

One, that there are probably dozens of these hidden all around campus in order to cover every building.

And two, the Demon himself must be here in-person to manage this stuff!

We’re gonna catch this guy for sure!

<== PreviousNext ==>

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 9: Wandering Aimlessly

I’m a hero. I’m a bigtime hero who saves the day all the time. Sure, maybe I haven’t saved the day in over a month and my accomplishments have amounted to little more than “I helped an old lady find her purse,” but I’ve done a lot of stuff that places me firmly in that hero category.

I am a hero, and a very bored one at that. I need adventure. I need excitement the likes of which Atlanta has never seen before. Give me a new case to solve! Throw a villain at me!

Anything but this stupid campus shit… I’m so bored wandering around with nobody around and nothing at all going on worth mentioning.

I’m sure there’s classes in some of these buildings somewhere, but it would take climbing up stairs to see, and that is a bridge (a stair?) too far to justify.

Why did I come to Georgia State University only to do the exact same thing I have been doing for the past month—that is, nothing? Is this a punishment from God? Did the Ascendants plot this out to get revenge on me for crashing their party? The world may never know.

Right now I’m entertaining myself in the only way I can find: I’m reading the fliers on this large bulletin board outside. Did you know they’re scheduling construction next week to build a tunnel underneath the English department building? I sure do now. The charity Save the West is doing a fundraiser on August 1st with a peach pie eating contest. There’s a salacious maid cafe in J-District that’s offering tear-away coupons for 15% off the next visit. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard of.

When a bulletin board is your primary source of mental engagement, that may be a sign that things aren’t going so well in your day. But I refuse to make that assertion for myself. I’m just around the corner from adventure! You bet I’m ready for the Dial-Up Demon himself to pop up at any second.

I walk down the hallway and imagine that heinous villain to be pursuing me. There’s a lot of escape routes, since the building was built to be disaster proof. A clever villain would try to make me escape only to set a trap right outside each of them, so I’d definitely need to pick a less conventional method. Maybe bursting through a glass window or something and hoping I don’t get cut in any of my arteries.

There’s a computer lab, empty and lights off but most of the screens on. Maybe I can just log in (Karina’s username is kk0413 and her password is ValiantCh1ck, don’t ask why I know that because I don’t know either) and browse the internet for a couple hours in my idle time?

I check to see if there’s anyone lurking in there, and then I flip on the lights—

And then the lights go back off on their own.

In fact… Power shuts off in the entire building. Dead silence for a good ten seconds.

Then, when power comes back on, the lights brighten, and the PCs boot up all at once. But they don’t go to the home screen. They go to static.

Almost like TV static.

Is this… No, it couldn’t be.

Just to check and make sure, I take out my walkman and turn the radio on to the latest Demon Cast.

It’s… not broadcasting. The whole station has gone quiet. That can mean only one thing—the Dial-Up Demon is currently making an attack. And if he’s making an attack at the same time as this phenomenon…

I’ve got to investigate this some more.

Is the phenomenon localized to this building? Did it affect nearby ones? Is it just computers that are affected? How long will this effect last? I’ll have to examine each of these questions the best I can.

I go outside and head towards another building on the other side of campus. The best answers will come from going straight to another location and checking out its status.

Along the way, though, I stumble on something very interesting… A young woman, a young man, and a dog all lounging around a table. I passed this place once before and they weren’t here, so they must have just got to this table a few minutes ago. Since they are basically the only people I’ve seen in the past hour, I might as well ask them what they know.

“Excuse me,” I say as I approach. “Could I ask you a couple questions?”

The two of them look up and gaze on at me with mild pleasantness. They look like healthy, well-tanned young Atlanteans with a world ahead of them. It’s a bit intimidating just how nice their looks alone are.

The young woman, a striking redhead, wears a frilly blouse with a miniskirt and has a cute little bow in her hair. The young man compliments his afro with a bright yellow shirt and, uh, an ascot. An ascot in the summer? Kind of weird, but whatever, I guess.

“Hi,” the young man says. “I’m Frank. And this here is Erin.”

“Hi,” says Erin. “And don’t forget about Junkers.” She motions to the large dog resting by her feet.

It looks up and gives a hearty woof.

“Hi, Frank and Erin. Hi Junkers,” I say. “I need to ask something. Did you see anything strange happening in the past few minutes? Like power going out, or computers acting funny?”

Frank rests his chin against his palm. “Huh, I guess I did notice something.”

“Me too,” Erin says. “We just got out of class when all the janitor robots froze up. I thought it was a glitch.”

Junkers woofs.

These two, or these three I guess, are way too pretty and pleasant for me to be around. I feel so inferior.

“So you saw something? Then it really is something serious…”

“Something serious?” they ask in unison. Then, in sync, they stand up from the table to face me. The dog gets up as well.

“Yes. I have the sneaking suspicion that a dangerous criminal is on the loose at this campus, right at this very moment. Have you heard of the Dial-Up Demon?”

“Have I ever!” Erin exclaims. “You think he’s here?”

“That I do,” I say. “And I’m going to solve this mystery once and for all.”

Frank and Erin’s eyes light up in sparkles. “We love mysteries!” they shout in unison. “Let us join you!”

“…Uh, really?”

“We go around to abandoned buildings and capture ghosts and ghouls all the time,” Frank says. “It’s a hobby we do after school sometimes.”

“You… do?”

“Of course,” Erin says. “We’ll help you find your demon. Come on, Junkers, we have a mystery to solve.”

“I… really wasn’t expecting this…”

Okay, so now I’m in a team all of a sudden. The cutesy Erin, the dashing Frank, the dog Junkers, and now me, the person who is very out of place here.

But I guess this means a real mission is starting: Find the Dial-Up Demon. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do!

<== PreviousNext ==>

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 8: Campus Visit

I was accepted to Georgia State when I finished my A-Levels, believe it or not. It wasn’t a full ride or anything, but I had an offer to join the College of Mathematics… And of course I didn’t take it.

Maybe it was the fact that by the end of my A-Levels, all of my closest friends and partners had skipped town or stopped really talking to me or something else, and so my entire social circle fell apart in a two-year period. Maybe it was the fact that my parents moved to Savannah and I had to work 30 hours a week to afford rent for my own place. Maybe it was because I just didn’t care that much for math. But for one reason or another, I didn’t go to GSU or anywhere else.

Larkins and I are riding the sky rail, which goes directly from Peach Towers to a subway station two stops from the GSU campus. I feel like I’m overdressed even with this cool biz polo and khaki pants combo, but at least I’m not sweating like a dog like Larkins over here.

I think he’s just really stressed out about the business deal talk today. We’re meeting with the President of Georgia State, so it’s a pretty big deal at least as far as elites go. If he messes this up, his chances of being promoted to Big Wig at Atlanta Cares Bank are as likely as it is that the top of his head is real hair (that is to say, not likely).

Obviously I’m not worried. I doubt I could care less about a single thing in the world than some random business deal between a bank and a university. It genuinely might be the most dull concept ever thought of by humanity.

Still, my thoughts keep wandering to something else. Something more sinister, something more… Okay, yes, I have my walkman on right now and I’m listening to the newest Demon Cast (that’s what they call the broadcasts on his unofficial forum now).

He is still talking on the radio, so I guess he isn’t ready to do his latest attack. But I have to wonder, what’s it going to be? Where’s it going to be? He’s so mum on the details so often that it honestly makes me suspicious that there’s something bigger going on here.

And he keeps playing these awful pop tunes… Is he truly just trying to torture the people who follow him the most closely? The answer is yes.

Other than the heat outside, it’s a really pleasant sunny morning. The streets below are filled with people walking about and auto-conbinis racing to get their next customers. The greens are green and the grays are gray, if you know what I’m saying.

It’d have been a good morning for a walk. This car itself is as dirty as all get-out. I know the sky rail isn’t the most vital part of Atlanta’s infrastructure, but surely it couldn’t hurt them to clean up all the corn chip bags and bubblegum wrappers scattered on the floor, could it?

We finally arrive at the Georgia State campus after a long while of travelling. For how much time it took, I sort of wonder if the sky rail is even worth the convenience over just going to ground level and taking a bus. Oh well, as long as I can keep from boredom for a few moments longer.

The campus is practically empty. I guess this is what universities are like once school is out for the summer. Don’t they still have classes, though? I know Karina was fretting about whether or not to take some classes during one of the terms, but I dissuaded her with the promise of extra cuddles with the time she’d save by not going.

…And then the Japan stuff came up and we barely got to cuddle but that’s beside the point.

It’s weird to me how few times I’ve been to Georgia State, actually. Every time was to visit Karina and bring her something she left at my apartment, or to see one of her orchestra concerts or piano recitals. For such a big school with all these skyscraper-sized buildings spread out across the whole neighborhood, my experience with it is extremely limited.

To think I almost attended this school and instead I became a superhero… Weird to think.

“What’s with that smirk?” Larkins asks.

“Huh? Oh, nothing, sir,” I say. “Just thinking.”

“Well you ought to be thinking about this deal! We’ve got to get in serious mode now. The President isn’t someone to mess around with. It’s a big moment for me! For us, even!”

Yay, Larkins is going to ascend to the top of the bank and I’ll get some cushy management position, just like I’ve always “dreamed” about…

“Uh, okay, got it,” I respond. “Where’s the meeting place, anyway?”

“His office is right ahead. And we—Ah, shit, there he is.”

A skinny gray-haired man stands in front of an office building with his arms crossed. He’s smiling, but it’s that stern kind of smile where you can’t tell if he’s pleased or if he’s just mad at you. He looks like the years have eaten away at his body but the spirit inside is just as large as it was when he was thirty. Probably runs marathons on weekends.

We meet the man and Mr. Larkins immediately goes for the handshake. “Gheb Larkins! Pleased to meet you.”

“Dean Morgan,” he says.

“Oh, you’re the dean?” Larkins asks. “Do you know where the President is?”

Dean Morgan sighs. “Sorry. My name is President Dean Morgan. Dean is my first name.”

Larkins’s face goes flush. He didn’t know the first name of the man he was supposed to meet with…

“I see. Pleased to meet you, President Dean Morgan.”

“‘President’ alone will suffice,” he says.

“Right you are, President, sir.” Larkins takes a few seconds to recuperate from the moral lambasting he just received. “Well then, I’m here to represent the Atlanta Cares Bank. Shall we get down to business?”

President Morgan, who is not a dean and also not a Morgan, looks at me, Morgan, with curiosity. “What are they doing here?” he asks.

“That’s my assistant,” Larkins says. “They’re here to help me out with anything that needs doing.”

“You need help for a simple business meeting?”

“Well, no… but…” Larkins trails off.

I have never seen my boss humiliated in such petty ways before. I kind of like it.

“Well, if you are ready, let’s go into my office and begin our talk,” President Morgan says.

The three of us enter the main building and head towards his office. Inside is a museum-like level of refinement. Photographs and paintings of Georgia State University’s history line the walls, with potted plants on the floor in the spaces between them. The carpet is plush and every step I take makes me briefly wonder if this is secretly a bouncy house converted into a university building.

As we get closer to the office, the photos on the wall become a line of portraits of old white men—the succession of Presidents of the university all the way up to present-day. They appear to be different people, but they all basically look like the same man with slightly different facial features.

There may not be many people around even in the office, but there’s plenty of robots working today. Janitors, security guards, that kind of thing. It seems like way more than any building of this size would ever need. Does the university just like wasting money on robots?

“I just want to say,” Larkins begins to President Morgan, “I really loved your pitch for this project. I think rocket rail is a viable tech and if we are the brains behind the very first one, history’s gonna look at us real kindly.”

“The rocket rail is not about history or being first. It’s to help young people in low income neighborhoods gain a wider access to higher education,” the President says. “I’m afraid that despite your bank’s protests, I won’t be backing down from that. This won’t be a waste like the sky rail.”

“Ah, I see. We will, um, discuss that in a moment.”

Rocket rail… I’ve heard of the idea before, of using the same gravity propulsion technology that lets rocket boots and rocket bikes travel at great speeds in a large-scale public transit situation, but I had no idea that the technology was feasible yet.

So the project is about something much bigger than I ever thought. Our bank might finance a rocket rail project? That sounds incredibly expensive. And the whole project is designed to help bring low-income students to school faster and cheaper? I… Well, I’m not sure if that’s the main priority to solve when it comes to the disadvantages of being poor, but I guess a whole new form of transportation is a lot flashier.

We get to the front door of the office. There’s a strange security system in front of it, like it could act as a full-on panic room if things got really bad. I don’t know just how powerful a person the President of the biggest university in the city (and the whole republic) is, but I guess he’s a lot more so than I ever would have thought.

“From this point on, our talk should be strictly confidential,” President Morgan says. “The things we discuss are already firmly outlined in our mutual NDA.”

“Of course! I know all about that stuff.” His face suggests he clearly knows nothing about all that stuff.

Then Larkins looks at me. “Oh. Yeah. Morgan, uh, get outta here.”

Wait… What? “Wait… What?”

“You’re still a small fry. You can’t be privy to our talks because it’s all top-secret stuff.”

“You’re serious.”

“Yeah. Scram. Go sit in on some classes. Do whatever it is kids do these days. Come back when we’re done.”

“Very well,” President Morgan says, not even taking the time to glance my way, as if I’m not deemed worthy enough to make eye contact with.

The two step into the office and shut the door behind them.

So I came here with my boss to learn the ins and outs of business deals… And I’m not even allowed into the meeting to learn about the deals in the first place?

This blows. I’m going to wander around campus and sulk.

<== PreviousNext ==>

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 7: Sometimes I Reflect a Little

Kimi no Wakaranai Densetsu. It’s a game I’ve put over seven hours into, according to the in-game clock when I save my progress. But much like you would expect from someone playing a story-based action-RPG in a language they don’t understand, I feel like I’ve played more like, twenty minutes of actual gameplay that I could be engaged with at all.

It’s crazy just how hard I’ve tried to keep up with the game. For all its graphical and sound quality mastery, what with its magical Ultra FX chip and all, the game is just too hard to appreciate with all the barriers in the way.

At this point in the game, and I know I’ve progressed solely because I know that the game is strikingly linear in progression, my player character, this immortal samurai girl, is now protecting her nieces and nephews who are adults involved in a power squabble in the early Meiji Period. If I knew anything about Japanese history this might be neat, but I don’t.

I just fight off the baddies and move on to the next area, hoping this will be the moment when I unlock the secret hidden English translation option.

And the worst part about it all is that I keep playing the damn game anyway. I could have stopped ages ago, but I think… Something about the pixelated anime girl makes me…

Okay, it’s quite obvious to you, and even to me in my clouded state, that I’m only playing this game out of a strange sense of loyalty to Karina, like I’m forging ahead with a game about a cute anime girl because I need to honor the memory of my cute anime girl.

I really miss Karina Kodama.

Now that the game’s saved, I get up from the couch, stumble over a pile of dirty underwear I forgot to put in the hamper, and go over to the computer. Said computer currently sits on a banana crate and I have to plop down criss-cross-applesauce on the floor to use it. So it makes me feel really stupid, but I can still work with this.

I check my emails. One new message!

It’s… a newsletter about all the weekly notifications from a fan fiction I wrote in 2004. I was in high school and I was going through a lot, so it is not my fault at all. I just wish people wouldn’t keep reading it all the time.

Nothing new from Karina, it seems like.

I pull up our conversation history and pore over it for a bit:

Karina:

Thanks for the last email. It’s good to hear Lamar is doing well. Sorry I didn’t see it until now. I was out in the country last week with my Grandma. We were exploring a cave. Have you ever been in a cave before??? It’s so cool! 😀

I’ll try to send some pictures when I have a better connection. I’m typing this right now in an internet cafe so it’s really slow… LOL!

Send me more emails! I feel like I’m being a bad friend because you’re the only one I talk to -_-’ so you have to send me emails for everybody else too lol

IDK when you’ll get this but I hope you have a good morning. Or night?

(P.S. did you know internet cafes are basically cheap hotels in Japan? It’s so weird! And not very comfortable…)

Morgan:

Hey Im glad you sent that email. It means a lot to me. I bet your having a great time wherever you are, it makes me happy.

A couple days ago I hung out with Amy. You know the annoying girl. She and me played a Japanese super nintendo game that we cant understand at all but its really rare so we tried anyway. Maybe that doesnt make sense. Chuck gave it to me as a reward for something dumb. If you were here wed understand it so it makes me miss you a lot……..

But besides that Im doing super well nothing bad and everything is normal. Dont worry about me. No badguys or nothing.

Take care until next time.

Karina:

Awww… You hung out with Amy. That’s sweet. :3 I hope she’s grown up a lot since last time I saw her lol. She was kinda mean to me before but I think that was just a teenager thing. >_>

Hey, can you do me a favor? I want to video chat with you. Since you have a computer and all now, and I think your wireless modem is fast enough to do it. Is Thursday night at 9 PM good with you? I’ll be in the city then so I can make it work. Your Thursday, not mine. Please let me know, or tell me another time that works. I’d like to talk with you about some stuff.

I hope you’re getting better at that video game! 🙂

Morgan:

yeah thursday works with me.

…And then she didn’t respond again since then. And no, she wasn’t online at the time she asked for. I guess something came up… But it’s been more than a week. Not like I’m worrying or anything, since I’m sure if there was anything serious she’d have family to help her out. But I do wish she would tell me what had happened.

I’d send another message, but… I don’t want to be pushy. Karina is the one who told me I was a little clingy. If there is anything I don’t want to be, it’s clingy. So I’ll let her keep relaxing and enjoying her time with her family while she can.

Instead of devoting any more time to something that I shouldn’t, I move to the next phase of my evening—my walkman and the Dial-Up Demon’s latest radio broadcast.

“I’ve got a great big heist planned for tomorrow!” the radio voice shouts. “I dare you to stop me, cops! You’ll never see me coming. I own this town and you just don’t know it yet. And to celebrate my ultimate domination over everyone, I’m going to play Common People by William Shatner!” He cackles and then a truly bizarre song begins to play.

A big heist for tomorrow, huh…

Dang it, I have that stupid business meeting thing with Mr. Larkins tomorrow. I guess I can’t go on any hasty adventures.

Or can I…?

(Probably not.)

<== PreviousNext ==>

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 6: Mixtapes & Salad

I walk up to the cashier robot at the Soup’n ‘n Green’n and place down a couple dollar coins. “Give me the chef’s special,” I say.

“Error,” the robot responds. “‘Chef’s special’ is not a valid menu item. Please select from the menu.”

“I’ll have the caesar salad…”

“One caesar salad, coming right up,” it says with a burst of mechanical joy in its movements.

Even confusing robots doesn’t do it for me anymore… What is this world coming to?

Once the caesar salad is ready, I take the compostable bowl from the cashier and turn back to the rest of the food court. It’s packed today, being a Saturday and all, and I just hope I can find a table somewhere.

It isn’t too hard when it’s just one person. See, I’m looking on the brighter side of things.

It’s not all so bad, sitting alone in a food court while everyone around you laughs about life stories and chats about the latest gossip. It gives you a lot of time to think about things, which is exactly what I need to do to relax.

I’m great at relaxing. I’m Morgan Harding, the notorious slacker who never wants to accomplish anything except when dragged out of bed by some heinous villain or screaming damsel. They say I have the world record for the most loose socks per square inch of an apartment. They say I won a staring contest against a statue out of boredom. They say I ended up coming out as nonbinary out of sheer apathy for being male or female (this is a little offensive but hey, that’s what they say).

All of this is to say that I am Morgan Harding. Relaxing is just what I do.

Which is why I happened to bring this along with me…

What’s this strange gray boxy thing, you ask? Well, after rummaging around my apartment for hours, it turns out I really do have a radio. And one that’s a nice memento, to boot.

Readers, meet my old walkman!

Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re too in awe of this amazing piece of early 2000s technology. It has a tape player, FM radio, AND AM radio. This device here saw more use out of it than any electronic I’ve ever owned, even my Super Nintendo.

In fact, just as I suspected, there’s a tape still in here, with white plastic and a sharpie written over the back reading “Danny’s Mix :).”

Really brings me back to those years where the most important thing in my life was hanging out with my friends and procrastinating on homework and plotting my grandiose future plans. No smartass sentient robots, no broken hearts, no Ascendants…

And so in memory of such a past, I’m going to use this walkman for what it was made for: Listening to the radio and tracking the Dial-Up Demon himself.

It’ll be the first day I hear him directly since the other day when Mr. Larkins showed him to me. The news keeps up with his happenings and the cult following he is growing (as well as all the banks and stores he’s robbing), but the full experience doesn’t come from second-hand reports. I need to do a deep dive.

So here we go.

“—Live right here from sunny Atlanta, Georgia! Stay hot, demon casters!” The raspy voice of the Dial-Up Demon himself is just finishing up one of his signature intros. I tuned in at just the right time. “Aight, this set’s dedicated to y’all lunchtime listeners trying to get a good bite in before you get back to making that dough. These songs are all about one thing: Money! Lunch is a break from making it, and so let’s keep you thinking about all that work you’re missing. Greed is good, and green is great. Here we go!”

The first song is an energetic polka tune by Al Yankovic that flows nicely, but doesn’t really capture my interest. What I care about is the demon himself, not the songs he’s choosing. I’m sure he’s throwing some taunting hints my way through the song titles or lyrics or whatever, but I’m not interested enough to find them.

All I’m interested in is… Who the hell is this guy?

For the rest of my lunch break I nibble at my caesar salad while listening to the Dial-Up Demon gloat about brainwashing the masses with the power of the internet. I come no closer to finding out who exactly this man is. But I’m more intrigued by the second.

***

“Harding! Get in here!” Mr. Larkins shouts from inside his office. I get up from the front desk and walk in there. He’s calling me in here more often these days. I’m getting annoyed by it more often these days, too.

It’s like he’s grooming me or something, treating me like his honorable protege in finance and business deals. He genuinely believes I see a career in Atlanta Cares, and at this point I’d be risking my job to inform him otherwise.

So with great reluctance, I enter and close the door behind me.

Larkins sits up and straightens his posture. “Harding, I got some good news for you.”

“I’m getting a raise?”

“You’re coming with me on a business meeting tomorrow,” he says, completely unfazed by my brazen remark. “We’re going down to Georgia State University for a big secret talk. You’re gonna see firsthand what it means to be a bigshot in the banking world.”

This sounds awful. “What is it we’re going to be doing here?” I ask.

“You’re not going to be doing anything, yourself,” he says. “You’re too much of a small fry. You’ll just be shadowing me and maybe looking out for anything suspicious, like if the other guy’s trying to scam me or something.”

“Why would I know about that…”

“Listen, I know how much this means to you, so don’t worry about pay. I’ll pay you for coming even if it doesn’t qualify as work. That sound good?”

That wasn’t what I was concerned about… But I shrug. “Yeah, sure, whatever,” I say. “Not like I’m doing anything better.”

“Great,” he says. “I’ll meet you first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Uh, okay.”

I turn and start to make a break for the door when he stops me with the least-gruff voice I’ve ever heard on the man—”Harding. You okay?”

I look back at him. He’s standing up now, approaching almost like he’s going to come put a hand on my shoulder. Please, no.

“If you ever need to talk, I’m here,” he says. “I have a daughter, so I know all about that teenage angst stuff.”

I’m 22. And not angsting.

“Uh, no sir, I’m okay, but thanks.”

“I know it’s probably just that Kairi girl dumping you or whatever, but if it’s ever something serious, just let me know.”

“…”

I leave Mr. Larkins’s office as fast as I can.

Why does everyone keep acting like I’m some poor animal to pity? Why does everyone keep asking me if I’m okay? I’m completely fine.

…And Karina didn’t dump me because we aren’t together. So… bam, take that, boss. Can’t get dumped if you’re still single. I’m way cooler than he ever imagined.

But, I guess, from the way I collapse back into my chair at the front desk, it might give off the impression that I’m feeling a little blue. That’s okay. Looks can be deceiving.

<== PreviousNext ==>

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 5: A Nice Check-Up

“You’re doing completely fine. I’m surprised how much better you have things under control. Genuinely very impressed.” R8PR clasps his hands together, leans back in his creaky swivel chair, and gives a nod of affirmation.

“Thanks.” Lamar nods back at him.

I pop open a can of sugary soda I wrestled out of the broken vending machine and take a celebratory swig. “Three cheers for Lamar being better!” I shout.

I’m the only one who’s drinking. The other two just look at me.

…Not my fault I’m a real third wheel here. If not for Lamar relying on me to help him in R8PR-related matters, I wouldn’t even need to be here in the abandoned hospital.

Lamar does look better than ever, even in the dim light of this battered-up operation room. The color’s gone back into his face, metaphorically speaking. He doesn’t stare off into space as much, and he’s not staring down at his hands like they’re covered in the blood of an enemy.

Whatever happened to him in those years since he graduated high school, his memory is clearly still gone. But he’s finally coming into his own again, and it makes me very proud.

Still… He’s not the same as I remember. I know it’s a selfish desire that has no basis in reality, and maybe I’m a terrible person for even thinking it… but I really wish sometimes that the old Lamar would somehow pop up out of nowhere and return to the fold so we could joke and banter all day long with no worries about his mysterious past or a glitched computer embedded into his skull. We could just be normal friends in a normal world.

I wouldn’t dare say such a thing out loud, but… I suspect Lamar himself might wish this sort of thing on himself, too.

“So, checkup’s finished,” R8PR says. “You have a clean bill of health. Er, your AI does. Can’t vouch for the rest of you.”

“I understand what you mean,” Lamar says. “It feels good gaining more control over my life, after so long without any.”

“Don’t you still live with your grandparents?” I ask.

“They’re cool,” he says. “I tried explaining the AI stuff to them, but… Well, they’re trying to understand. They know I’m not always myself, and they can be there to support me when I need.”

His emphasis on his grandparents’ support has an undercurrent of the fact that his parents have not yet come around on him. In fact, they’ve pretty much refused to even see him. Abandoning his family for six years and then suddenly reappearing with no explanation is a good way to create tensions with his family, and even moreso when he can’t explain why he was gone in the first place. I hope they change their ways soon, but… I’m not too hopeful. The Gwinnetts were always pretty strict.

Ah, well. Lamar looks pretty happy right now. Maybe he actually is. I’m gonna go over and pat him on the back to make him feel better, though.

“You’re a great pal,” I tell him. Pat pat pat.

“Uh… Okay.”

“Morgan, how have you been handling yourself?” R8PR asks suddenly.

“What do you mean? I’m just fine. Ain’t nothing wrong with me at all. It’s weird you’d even consider such a thing.”

R8PR digitally blinks at me a few times. Maybe I overspoke.

Now it’s Lamar’s turn to pat me on the back.

“S-so, R8PR, any new info on the Ascendants?” I ask to shift the subject as quickly as I can. “Any new leads or cool supervillains?”

He shakes his head. “Not a one. It’s fascinating to me how well they were able to cover their tracks the moment they were caught. The caverns in Blyth’s base were filled. Anyone arrested refused to confess even a single word. And any peep I’ve found floating around the internet has been a simple red herring.”

“So they got away…”

“Basically, yes,” he says. “We had the upper hand for about five days, but they’ve had the upper hand for years.”

“We didn’t even find out about the sacrifice…” Lamar mutters.

“Oh yeah, that friggin’ thing,” I say. The fact that they were gathered together in order to perform some sort of… ritual… on Jones herself, is horrifying, and it’s worse that we don’t even know what exactly they were going to try. “I just can’t… How can we let these guys continue to do whatever cult shit it is they’re doing?”

“I imagine they were doing it long before you or I were ever involved,” R8PR says, “and they’ll continue for a long time until they’re ready. Stopping them probably isn’t urgent.”

“So the real question to stopping them is: What’s the next step in their master plan?”

“Precisely.”

“And that next step is… The Dial-Up Demon????”

“…No?”

My shoulders sag reflexively. “What do you mean… I had a hunch…”

“Are you interested in the Dial-Up Demon?” he asks me.

“Not really, not yet. I think he’s a little tacky. But… I don’t know. I just had a feeling is all.”

“Ah, well then, I can tell you with all the certainty of my data that the Dial-Up Demon is nothing to worry about. It hasn’t even come up on my radar once.” R8PR stands up from his chair and paces around the operating table. “Morgan, I suggest you go home and keep up your long-deserved vacation. You worked really hard this year, what with the Social Media Killer, Moonslash, the Columbus Trip… all of it. So relax, have some fun with friends, and prepare yourself. Because it’s going to get a lot more hectic soon.”

I hate this advice.

Lamar stands up too. “Want to head out?” he asks me.

“I guess so.”

“Okay, see you two another time,” R8PR says. “I’ll still be in the comic book shop if you need me. But I’m still looking for a permanent hideout. If you ever find somewhere cozy and extremely secret, make sure to let me know.”

“I absolutely will not let you know,” I say.

“I know. See you!”

<== PreviousNext ==>

The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 4: Family…

Walking for leisure has become a new pastime of mine in these early mornings. It’s just six thirty and the morning dew is still fresh, last night’s sprinkles still on the concrete, there’s a refreshing, relaxing atmosphere to a sunrise stroll before work.

Just one month ago, I would have considered something like this to be utterly inconceivable. I can hardly believe it even now, as I go on my third such walk in as many mornings.

Soon it’s going to be blazing hot, as in every day in this infernal city (get it? Infernal?), but for now it’s just fine.

Sometimes I like hearing the birds twittering and the squirrels skittering. Sometimes it’s nice to see people lined up to wait for the first bus of the morning, staring at their portable PCs or reading the newspaper. Sometimes those solitary robots standing at their charging ports are peaceful enough that they almost look like they belong there.

And then sometimes…

All your pleasant feelings go away because a chill forms at the back of your neck.

I know this feeling. This strong intuition telling—no, begging—me to run away as fast as I can.

But I ignore it, because I know that nothing good will come of delaying the inevitable—

“Hi, Morgan.”

“Hi, my dear and wonderful older sister named Marge Eisenhower,” I say.

I turn around, and there she is. She has on a yellow sundress, her usual not-investigating-anything attire. Unusually, she’s sporting a baseball cap to cover her all-too-short hair. (Really, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get over how frivolously she changed her entire look and went that much more butch out of nowhere.)

“Fancy meeting you here,” she says.

“Oh yeah, it’s such a nice coincidence that we just happened to meet on a random sidewalk on my leisurely walk to work. I have no suspicions whatsoever about this nice accident of fate.”

Marge smirks. “I’m not working on a case,” she says.

“You’re not?”

“Nope. I’m out of the detective business. I told you, remember?”

“Yeah, I know you told me, but… It’s not like I actually believed you.”

Forced along this path by my sister, I decide to take us on a side route down a restaurant and bar street. It’s normally lively as all get out once the sun goes down, but this early in the morning it’s completely deserted other than a couple drunks sleeping off a weeknight’s adventure. It’s not an attractive part of town once all the neon lights and holo-booths are powered down, but I kind of like it that way.

“Well, it’s true,” Marge tells me. “No more private eye sister to help you out. No fedora.”

“No hidden motive to every line of dialogue?”

She chuckles. “You’re silly.”

That wasn’t a very reassuring answer.

I step over a turned-over recycle bin and ask, “Then why are you here right now?”

“I was taking a leisurely walk,” she says. “How about you?”

“I was… also taking a leisurely walk.”

She takes a good, long look at me. I can’t tell what she’s thinking, because I can never tell that. Then, in a sudden change of subject, she says, “You know, I’m working on a novel.”

“You can write?”

“Yep,” she says. “I have a knack for spinning tales. A gift of gab.”

“Is it a detective novel……..”

“No! I’m not just some one-dimensional cardboard cutout, Morgan. You should know that I am a rich and complicated human, just like you.”

I lived with Marge for the first thirteen years of my life, and I cannot confirm whether or not anything she just said is true. She once sold me out to my parents when I ran away from home at age ten and led them straight to me using her expert tracker skills. She had a whole middle school rumormongering club where she collected and sold secrets from classmates. To say she has any personality is tenuous at best.

“So what is it then, a thriller? Are you gonna write the next Dogsitter?”

“No,” she says. “It’s a romance.”

“A romance…”

“Yep. It’s called Steam & Neon. It’s about two women who wake up after a one-night stand in a nice hotel, but they both have amnesia. There are robots following them around everywhere acting like one of the women is the owner, and the other has a briefcase whose lock is set to a timer with twelve hours left on it. They have to figure out what’s going on, who they are, and of course fall in love in the process.”

“That really, really sounds like a mystery-thriller to me, Marge,” I say.

“Oh, well the mystery isn’t the important part. It’s all an excuse for cute relationship building with the main characters, and then a lot of angsty drama as they start to figure out who they really are and how they really ended up in bed together.”

“I’ll take your word for it… It doesn’t really sound like my thing, but I bet Karina would like it. You should show it to her when you finish—Wait, no, nevermind. Do not do what I said. You are not allowed to meet her.”

She snickers. “Still too ashamed to introduce me to your girlfriend?” she asks.

We pass to the end of the street, as it merges onto Peach Grove Street and gives a clear shot to Peach Towers a few blocks ahead. There’s more people around now, but mostly just the early morning joggers and those similar salarymen who take a little bit too much pride in arriving to work early.

“The answer is yes, but also we aren’t dating. We’re just friends, and…” I trail off, realizing that anything else I say will just dampen my mood further because it will require introspecting on all those not-nice emotions I’ve been suppressing lately.

Marge notices my expression souring. “Oh, Morgan…” she says with the most condescendingly sweet tone I’ve ever heard. She tips her baseball cap down slightly and crosses her arms. “I’ve heard it so, but now I know it’s true. You’re feeling blue, aren’t you?”

“Wh—How did you hear that? Who even told you?”

“Mom and Dad, on the phone.”

“They told you I’m feeling blue?!”

“Yeah. They’re worried about you. You barely call them, you’re always being vague about the stuff you do. It’s like you have some hidden life you have to keep a secret and it’s pushing you away from enjoying your normal life.”

“Well, they’re wrong,” I lie. “I’m perfectly fine. It’s just those summer doldrums everyone gets.”

“Morgan, what are ‘summer doldrums?’”

“Uh.”

“Listen.” She clears her throat and does a little spin. “I want to tell you something important.”

“You’re getting married,” I say.

“Bad guess,” she says with a smile. “No. I want you to know some juicy information: there’s a man taking over radio stations and TV channels and robbing banks right now known as the Dial-Up Demon. He’s a menace to the whole city.”

If I could glare at my sister harder than I am right now, I would be very surprised. “I’m not dealing with that crap. It’s not relevant enough.”

“A technological mystery? An eccentric villain with mysterious motives? And Morgan isn’t interested?” Marge feigns shock and covers her mouth in a fake gasp.

“I know what you’re trying to do.”

“And what is that?”

“You’re trying to cheer me up by getting me obsessed with some irrelevant detective plot just because nobody will hire you. You want me to be your surrogate.”

“You always jump to these wild conclusions, Morgan. I’m an author now, remember? Marge Eisenhower, the author who doesn’t investigate things.”

“Not that you could get a job anyway.”

“Jones Burrow really did a number on me with that social media killing, didn’t she? And of course my employment by Blyth Industries doesn’t look good on my resume. I’m about toast, aren’t I?”

“Extremely toast,” I say. “It’s almost like you’re intentionally nosediving your own reputation just to smear your own surname.”

“I would never do that!” she exclaims, deadpan. “Just because Holly Eisenhower and I had one of the most toxic, quick-burn relationships in the history of gay marriage doesn’t mean I would ever seek to enact any sort of revenge on her to ruin her socialite status.”

“Did I tell you how much I hated her?” I ask. “She was so rude to me every time we met. Always criticized my fashion sense, too…”

“What a bitch,” she says with a wistful smile.

“Mei’s pretty cool,” I say. “No idea why she chose you, but she’s alright.”

“I love her a lot,” Marge says. “Almost as much as I love my little sibling Morgan.”

“Gross.”

“I like the Eisenhower name because it gets me lots of attention in certain social circles. But… I think I’m pretty fond of being Marge Zheng one day.”

“Write that novel and maybe she’ll marry you for your money.”

Marge smiles at me and then takes a sudden turn down a crosswalk in the opposite direction of Peach Towers. “See you later,” she says from afar. “And good luck with the Dial-Up Demon!”

Urgh… It’s not… I’m not investigating that stupid thing.

….Right?

Whatever.

The closest I’ve come to legitimately bonding with my older sibling in ages and it was all just an excuse to rile me up about this stupid cyber-criminal nobody cares about.

Or… maybe I thought nobody cares about.

Is this actually something relevant?

….Nah.

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