“Oh, sorry, I wasn’t listening,” R8PR says. “I have the Labor Party debate on in my right-side audio receptors.”
“You get radio on that thing? That’s pretty–wait, you weren’t listening? I just had a whole spiel about Obvious Danger Man and the Obvious Danger Place. This is serious stuff.”
“I was just kidding.” He pauses for one moment. “About the not listening part, that is. I do indeed have radio on ‘that thing,’: if ‘that thing’ is referring to my brain.”
“My robo-DNA.” R8PR stands up from his made-of-pulpit-and-church-chairs throne and walks up the two steps to the choir area, which is empty save for the beam of moonlight coming down from a crack in the ceiling.
“Robo-DNA,” I repeat. “You don’t have ‘Robo-DNA.’”
“And neither do you?”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Okay, I don’t want to get into a whole thing, I just want to know your opinion on our very serious situation.”
Karina, who’s sitting at a pew like usual, is on the verge of cracking up from our exchange; that’d be a good turnaround from her sour mood earlier in the day, except I had every intention not to get into a comedic back-and-forth this time. I won’t let it happen under these circumstances.
Lamar, for his part, is looking as solemn as the situation requires as he leans against the only remaining stained glass window in the whole room. Though, I know that solemness is mostly him being spaced out thinking about, er, Obvious Danger Man, and the fact the man apparently knows who he is (I wish I had caught a name before he kicked us out of the warehouse). So my two friends are basically out-of-commission as far as being serious about a very serious thing. Therefore it’s up to me to pick up the slack.
“I don’t have an opinion,” R8PR says. “Not about your mystery man.”
“What? Why not?”
“Well, it’s a little presumptuous to assume that he even matters at all.”
“He was a giant seven foot tall dude with a mohawk and cat-eyes!”
R8PR taps his fingers against his body, making sharp, impatient clinks. “Don’t forget, I’m the one who called you here.”
Karina adds, “How did you know we were going to be in trouble, anyway?”
“My chemist analyzed the contents of the can you sent her,” he says, pacing around the choir area like he’s about to give a lecture. “Did a real rush job, too, which I appreciated.” R8PR has a chemist he can summon on command…? “What she discovered was… a bit more complicated than a soda.”
“Everything is a bit more complicated than a soda,” I say. “Why can’t it just be simple…”
R8PR’s eyes flicker into a bright blue light, and he projects a computer screen onto the wall behind us. It’s some sort of city map, with blinking orange dots scattered throughout. Some of them are moving, some are standing still, but I can’t figure out any pattern. I don’t quite understand.
“What’s this?” Karina asks.
“Magitek Soda,” he says. “Or, rather, the microbots inside of the soda that enter your bloodstream and emit a GPS signal, tracking you wherever you go. They seem to activate as soon as the soda can is opened, and they fade after a few days when the blood breaks them down. I was able to replicate the signal and track it for myself, but this won’t be as accurate as the satellites are being used to track it by… whoever’s involved with all this.”
“And that cluster over there?” I point to an area in the northwest of the map with dozens of dots in one area. “That’s…?”
“That’s the warehouse you came from. And the exact place I didn’t want you going,” he says. “I’m enough of a Sage to know we aren’t ready to go charging in a place like that without more research. And if you are describing that man accurately, and he DIDN’T kill all three of you… There’s a lot of factors in play. I don’t want to rush into any of this.”
“Looks like they’ve been partaking in their own soda,” I say. “I bet HQ isn’t pleased about that.”
“It’s probably test signals, Morgan,” R8PR says.
“Why would they… I don’t get it.” Karina scratches her head. “What’s the point in all of this test market stuff? A GPS signal? Why is any of this happening?”
“Marketing data,” Lamar says, breaking his long silence. “Their AIs can analyze the exact GPS patterns of the people who drink their sodas. Then they can use that to park their auto-conbinis in better places, or see what stores customers visit, or do whatever they want with it. It’s all just data.”
“Bingo,” says R8PR.
Lamar gives an ironic laugh. “It might only be obvious for us robots.”
“You’re not a…” I stop myself because I don’t want to turn this into a cheer-Lamar-up party. Today was already tough enough as a cheer-Karina-up party. “So this test market thing was actually a test for new technology. And just like the Dreamtech helmet, it’s all about gathering more data.”
“You’re on the right track, Morgan. Keep going.”
“And so the name ‘Magitek Soda’ only existed as a gimmick to cover up its true purpose. If it were already stupid, they could attract far less attention than any other soda. And then with Nathan Nguyen’s auto-conbinis involved, with Blyth Industries involved… Wait, what about those microchips we found on the parking places? Was that just more data collection?”
“I’m going to have to venture to guess that this is all related to the ‘Ascendants’ thing that Jones told me about,” I say. Jones Burrow. Two months and no sign of her…“Which means that there is something positively terrifying going on that we’re just starting to uncover. The fact that that man simply let us go without harm means… We’re chess pieces in this plot, too.”
“But what piece we are, we don’t yet know,” R8PR says.
“I kind of hope we’re Bishops,” Karina says.
“I’d rather be a pawn,” R8PR says. “Because when we reach the end of the board, we can become whatever we want. But enough of the chess metaphors.” Thank you for ending the chess metaphors. I was about to make a very mean-spirited comment. “I’ve learned from this that I can easily replicate the microbot technology if I ever need, but I’d really like to learn more about this situation. I find it quite curious. And unnerving, but mostly curious.”
“I was going to say mostly unnerving, but also curious,” I say. “So finding Jones is more important than ever. Or else…”
“Or else whatever is happening here with Dreamtech, with Magitek Soda, will just be the beginning, yes.”
So, this really was the worst mystery we’ve ever solved. Or, half-solved. As stupid as it was, it turned out to be legitimately important. It fills me with a sense of dread, but I guess the only thing I can do is work harder. And succeed.