Karina and Lamar walk down the flights stairs with me. We tread quietly, like the protagonists of a horror movie. The fluorescent light above gets dimmer as we descend. It flickers a few times, as if it’s threatening to shut itself off completely.
We make our way to the bottom floor and walk down the damp, mildew-filled hallway.
“You’re sure we aren’t heading into a trap?” Lamar asks.
“Seventy-five percent sure we aren’t heading into a trap,” I say.
I can’t believe Blyth and all his men kept my cellular on me the entire time. I can’t believe in all my adventures it has never been broken, not even once. It’s like people just do not care about destroying this plastic brick.
Nineteen missed calls, and fourteen of them from Karina, the last of which was just thirty-nine minutes ago.
Still tied to the chair, still got metal rings constricting my body. Still got Donald Blyth standing next to me, forcing me to watch a large computer monitor broadcasting two attack helicopters flying across southern Atlanta.
I know exactly where they’re going.
“You know, that Mercenary Prince ally of yours is a real professional,” Blyth says. He looks at me and flashes his shiny red eye at me. Is it actually an eye? I’m not sure what it is. “She sends her men, the very best of them, and they get the job done. Nothing but courtesy and action. I expect they’ll extract your friends quite soon.”
My heartbeat accelerates. I’m not even sure how it can be going this fast when I’m sitting still. I think I’m having a panic attack.
“Picking your brain was quite possibly the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done, Morgan,” says the man whose metallic hand is now resting gently on my shoulder. “The others were right not to want you dead. I suspected there was more to your uncanny ability to get mired in every dangerous situation that could possibly happen in Atlanta, but I never knew you were genuinely special. Do you even realize what you’re capable of? I can’t imagine you are, or you wouldn’t be here.”
“You know, Mr. Blyth? Can I call you Donny? You know, if your left eye were a bit brighter, it’d look like you’re wearing 3D glasses. Is that what the red one is for?”
“It’s all thanks to you that I now know Jones is not alone,” he continues, ignoring me completely. “I had heard whispers of the first sentient robot, the great Sage of Atlanta… but to find that he is working directly with you… I must see him for myself.”
“He’s not as cool as he sounds. He’s a bit irritating, to be honest. You’d be better off never meeting him. Trust me on this one, Donny.” I feel like I’m going to explode, I’m so afraid right now. Hopefully when I do, it’ll break these stupid restraints and my ghost can clobber this asshat.
The monitor, its screen split in two vertically, shows feeds from both helicopters, now hovering in the air above a street I instantly recognize, and a musty old two-story building with no signage that fills my stomach with dread.
“You’re going to make me watch this,” I say.
“Of course. I can’t kill you NOW,” Blyth says. “We have so much more to learn about you, Morgan Harding. Isn’t that right, Doctor Gonzales?”
“Very,” I hear in response. I didn’t realize that man was still here, but then again, I still smell the rank odor of cigarette smoke all around the warehouse. That smell’s never coming out of my suit. Also, my suit has all sorts of cuts and holes in it. Also, I’m probably going to die soon, despite what Blyth may say.
“Tell the good doctor he can take his data and shove it where nobody can analyze it.”
“Morgan, enough with the banter. This isn’t one of your fun detective adventures.” He removes the hand from my shoulder and paces in front of me, covering the left half of the computer monitor. “Honestly, you and your robot friend render Jones basically useless. I’m almost considering scrapping this whole operation and letting the poor girl run free. But seeing as my hired soldiers are already at the church… Oh well.”
On the screen, the helicopters land, and a dozen armed men, Motokawa’s men, in combat armor step out and assume formations as they advance towards the church.
“Ready surgical strike,” I hear from a nearby radio, followed by a lot more tactical chatter I can barely make out, it’s so staticy.
The helicopters lift back into the air; one circles around to give a full picture of the action while the other keeps its camera focused on the front door. Either way, we can’t see inside.
The sounds of gunfire over the radio are the first thing I notice. Then, from the screen, I see one of the soldiers being hurtled out of a second-story window and crashing onto the pavement of the empty parking lot.
Dragon, the mohawked man resting creepily behind me all this time, steps up and into my field of vision to take a closer look at the gunfight.
“They set up traps,” he says. “Good for them.”
There’s screaming orders on the radio and I see some bright flashes through the church windows. One of the soldiers is stumbling around, maybe blind from a flashbang, maybe hit on the head too hard, and then collapses a moment later.
Blyth says nothing. He doesn’t smile, or look worried, or anything. He analyzes this like he would a quarterly report.
I see Jones through a first floor window, tackling one man to the ground while fending another off with her magi-knives. Can’t believe she still uses those, but she is destroying these guys.
And on the radio, I make out someone shouting, “The robot! The robot’s got a fuckin’–” and then it cuts off.
The monitor shows a fierce battle raging, but one that Motokawa’s men are clearly losing. The church was well-protected; it always was going to be. And the fact that literal mercenaries can’t penetrate it means that R8PR and Jones really are ready for anything.
I start to smile.
And then Blyth cuts in.
“Oh, just when I thought I could have it all,” he moans. “I didn’t want to risk it, but… It’s a necessary loss. Oh, go ahead. Finish this already.” He types something on the keyboard.
The helicopters stop flying in recording positions and join up together, side by side, a good distance from the church.
Over the radio, one man, more clearly, asks, “Do you really want to do this, sir?”
Blyth does not respond. The helicopters float for a few seconds, with no sounds but the rotating blades.
The helicopters, in unison, fire off a volley of small missiles that hit the church and explode in bright balls of fire with each impact.
I have to look away.
I can’t see this.
I hear more screams on the radio, but they quickly go silent.
When the sounds of explosions from the monitor stop, I open my eyes. The church is completely obliterated, a pile of rubble and ash where a building used to be.
“I should have sent Dragon,” Blyth says. “What a waste of good men.”
“I’m up for anything,” says Dragon.
“Well, I hope you’ll wait a bit longer, because now I’ve got to go meet with the other Ascendants. When I show them the robot, or what’s left of him maybe–” he chuckles as he says this–”I’ll win them over. We’ll finally be able to strike. Dragon, you stay here and… get to know Morgan a little better.”
Dr. Gonzales, still behind me, chimes in. “I won’t be in attendance. There are other pressing matters. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“No worries. You’ve done your part. Anytime you grace us is a worthy moment.” Blyth picks up the radio he had been ignoring this whole time and says, “Strike team. Go down to the ground level for extraction and clean-up. Make sure to find the girl, or her remains, and recover as much of the robot as you can. The robot takes all priority. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” the voice on the other end says.
He turns off the monitor. “Thank you so much, Morgan.”
I don’t say anything this time.
“Take care, you two,” Blyth says. “I’m leaving Dragon in charge, though. Do what he says.”
Most of the guards file out, and Dr. Gonzales and Blyth leave.
“So, if I’m babysitting you… What will I do first?” Dragon asks.
Dragon picks up the back of my chair and tosses me forward, letting me crash on my side. The chair breaks, but I’m still tied up to its legs. I still can’t move.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a while,” he says.
“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 wake up with a pounding headache, in the back of a moving van.
Everything comes flashing back to me, just as my eyes begin to open.
The Ascendants. Their big plan.
Jones. R8PR. The church.
Karina. Lamar. Amy.
Dragon. Dragon holding a damn sledgehammer to hit me with.
Why am I… Why can’t I move?
I can’t move.
I’m restrained. My arms and legs are bound. There’s metal discs encircling me, and if I move, they just squeeze tighter, like a Chinese finger trap around my whole body.
I wrestle my fingers out of the grip so I can move my hands around just a bit, but I can’t reach any of the discs from where my wrists are stuck.
There doesn’t seem to be a way out for me. I’m just plain stuck.
This might actually be the end of things for me. I might actually die this time.
And I didn’t even get to kiss Karina. I didn’t even get to tell you my origin story. What an awful time to get killed.
Speaking of awful times for things to happen, the van has stopped moving. Some people get out of the front and make their way towards the back.
Two people dressed in the same all-black armor as the goons who attacked me open the back of the van. They pick me up, one on each side, and begin carrying me towards some sort of warehouse.
It’s the earliest flickers of dawn. I don’t know how long I was unconscious, or where in Atlanta I am– if I’m even in Atlanta.
Yep, of course it’s a completely empty warehouse, dim and dark, except for those giant computer monitors over by the far side of the building. And of course they’re going to carry me all the way over there wordlessly. This is too stupid for me to make a snarky comment about. Also I don’t want them to hurt me more.
I just know this is far from the first time I’ve been dragged in a warehouse, and I don’t know how that speaks for the way I spend my life, but it’s not a very positive thing in most people’s eyes.
The guards set me down on a chair and tie me to it. I’m still trapped by these stupid metallic discs binding my arms and legs and chest, but I have a feeling that, if I exert pressure in the right way… I may just be able to break them.
That might be my key out, but we’ll see.
There’s eight guards standing around me right now. Eight I can see, at least. Each of them have guns and electric batons. I won’t be able to take all three of them if I just jump and lunge, and I won’t have the ability to use my arms for anything else. I only have one chance to do anything. Dammit. Dragon is here, too, no longer holding a weapon and simply pacing around like he has somewhere more important to be. How is he involved in any of this? I haven’t been able to pinpoint this, and I feel like if I did… Agh, it’s no use right now.
As I look further out past the guards, I see one man off to the side, shrouded by shade, barely more than a silhouette. That is, other than his piercing white eyes. Then, the beaming rays of his bright, crooked teeth.
“Who… Who are you?” I ask, though it comes out as more of a mumble than I wanted it to.
From the shadow, a red dot appears, and then smoke rises. The figure emerges, and I see him. Slicked, greasy hair. Skin as pale as a vampire NEET. Long, black trenchcoat and combat boots, but he’s too skinny, too sickly to be anywhere near a warzone. His fingernails are craggy and chipped, and in one hand is a lighter. In his mouth is a lit cigarette.
Tobacco, in Atlanta… a rolled cigarette, even… Somehow, it surprises me that a criminal will have illicit drugs on him. It’s so rare to see.
“Who am I?” the man asks with a distinct Spanish accent. Then, just as he says it, it hits me: “You may call me Dr. Gonzales.”
“Oh. It’s you.”
Dr. Gonzales, the Data Broker.
The one who’s been collecting information on the Social Media Killer–on me–for months, and selling it all to high-rolling buyers. He’s finally here in front of me, and it took just a look for me to realize it.
And if he’s here, that means that… He’s the one who’s kidnapped me? What’s even going on right now?
I look at Dragon, who stands to the side with his arms crossed. He is just standing there silently. Dr. Gonzales has taken center stage.
“Yeah, it’s me,” the pale-faced man says. “Are you surprised?”
“Uh… yeah. Honestly, yeah.”
Dr. Gonzales laughs a shrill laugh. “You probably think I’m the one who brought you here.”
“Uh… once again, yeah.”
“Oh, no. I don’t harm people. I am only here to pick up a payment.”
“So, uh… who brought me here?”
“Well, my friend Dragon did, of course,” Dr. Gonzales says, beckoning to the giant next to him.
“I still can’t believe his name is actually Dragon.”
“But your gracious host for this afternoon has not arrived yet,” he says. “It will be a moment longer.”
“I’m getting pretty impatient.”
“I can guess,” Dr. Gonzales says. “You and your friends have done a good job so far. Your search for the Ascendants was more fruitful than I would have ever expected. The data you’ve collected… Well, I’d like to see it someday.”
“How much are you willing to pay?”
He lets out a hoarse, whispy laugh. “Let’s focus on the present.”
And no sooner than the moment those words leave his mouth do the warehouse doors behind me open up. All of the guards snap to attention. Dr. Gonzales gives a small bow and backs up a few steps. Dragon unfolds his arms and does the same.
I hear the clacking of metal against concrete. Metal… shoes? What is this person wearing?
And as the person, my gracious host, as the Data Broker referred to them, grows closer, I can’t help but feel a few beads of sweat at my brow. It’s too bad I can’t move my arms to get that off.
The figure enters my eyesight–
It’s Karina Kodama.
No, not really. I can’t see the person yet.
But I already figured out who it is, don’t worry.
It’s pretty obvious.
There’s only one person who could have ever been linked to all of this. I may have been fooled by the events of the Atlanta Annual Tech Expo, but as they say, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, and I won’t get fooled again.
When I see his pale blue eyes, and his clean, black suit and silver tie, when I see his clean-shaven face with nary a scar to be found, I don’t feel an ounce of shock.