“Say that again,” he tells me.
“You were right.”
“One more time. I forgot to turn on my microphone.”
“You were right.”
“Once more, with feeling.”
“You were right! Holy damn, just let me continue.”
R8PR gives out a hearty robotic laugh. “I just wanted to savor the moment that you truly accepted my superiority over you. Is that too much to ask for?”
Right now, we’re in the abandoned church kitchen, where I’m heating up a fried chicken bento in the microwave. I realized that I forgot to get lunch after all of that stuff at the convention with meeting Coop Yates and finding out that the Blade Runners are in the middle of a big, secretive investigation, so I’m glad there’s a convenience store a few blocks away, even if it’s also a liquor store and all the food is terrible. I’m also glad R8PR and I cleaned this church up a couple months ago, so that we can actually use the rooms in here.
Somehow, there’s electricity here, but I’m not going to question how he pulled that one off.
“Well… Alright then,” he says. “I hear everything you say about the convention, and with the best of my information synthesis, I can tell you that there’s about a one hundred percent chance that something bad is about to happen, and it’s directly related to our search for the Ascendants.”
“One hundred percent?” The microwave beeps. I take my meal out and set it on the countertop next to the sink. There aren’t any chairs or tables, so this will have to do.
“To be precise, it’s 94.784%. But I didn’t think you’d want precision.”
“I wish I didn’t ask,” I say. “But… I am really worried about it. You’ve got some big conspiracy behind the scenes plotting something nefarious, you’ve got eco-terrorists plotting something nefarious, you’ve got the elite police force who seem to know next to nothing…”
“I wouldn’t worry about it.” R8PR turns and presses a button on the kettle next to the stove. “Do you want some tea?”
“No thanks.” Why does he have a kettle, again? “Why wouldn’t you worry about it, though?”
“Because there’s much more important things to deal with first,” he says. “Like the fact you’ve endangered both of us by even coming here.”
R8PR’s LED eyes turn into scowls. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him do it. “If you knew things were so serious, and you knew that the convention center was a hotbed for suspicious activity, then why would you come here, knowing you could be leading others straight to me?”
“I thought it… was urgent,” I say. A pit forms in my stomach. I’m not very hungry anymore, all of a sudden.
“You could have sent me an e-mail. You could have waited until tomorrow morning, at the very least. You didn’t have to just rush down here like a damned fool.”
“I’m a damned fool.”
The kettle starts to heat up and steam lets out, just in time for the tension to ratchet up as if this were a stupid movie scene. “It wouldn’t be that big a deal if this time was a close call and you ended up safe, or something. I’m upset with you because someone DID follow you.”
“Wait, what? Who?”
“I’ll give it about five.”
“Three. Two.” R8PR cuts himself off with a conductor’s wave.
And right at that moment, there’s a thud from outside in the hallway, and then a figure dashes into the kitchen at top speeds, rushing at R8PR so fast I barely have time to react–
But before I know it, I already have them in my arms, dropping to the ground with a thud and holding them down before they had time to reach R8PR.
“Good job, Morgan,” he says. “You can let go now, though.”
I look down at the figure I’m holding down, and realize that this person isn’t even struggling, just waiting for me to release my grip on them.
I do, and they get up. They look at me.
They’re just a kid. They– he?– is scrawny and short, maybe not even five feet tall, and a baby face with not a speck of facial hair. The only thing confirming they are probably a teenager to me are the ear and nose piercings and red mohawk. They are wearing a ragged, oversized camo jacket with some patches covering up larger holes. Whoever they are, they look like they’ve been living it pretty rough.
And then after glaring at me for about ten seconds, they turn to R8PR and say, “Sage, we need your help.”
Turns out there was a kitchen table all along, just in a different room. So now the three of us– me, R8PR, and the kid– are sitting around it. I’m still getting through my bento box, while the kid is enjoying a hot cup of tea.
Now that we’ve established that the kid isn’t a threat, now we can get to the bottom of this situation. This situation of asking “Sage” for help.
“So, why don’t you tell us about yourself?” R8PR asks.
The kid answers, saying, “My name is Amy Hawthorne. I followed your friend here because I need to ask for your help.”
Amy… I look at the kid again.
Ah– oh. I get it now. Her name is Amy.
“I’m not one to dole out my services like a business,” R8PR says. “You’ll have to find someone else to deal with your problem.”
“This is something real serious,” Amy says. “A lot of people are gonna get hurt.”
“And why does that matter to me?” he asks. “Also, how do you like the tea?”
“It’s good, thank you. And… this is important because it involves the Earth Group.” R8PR and I look at each other. Amy continues. “I’m a member of a group called the Holograms. And because of the Earth Group, we’re in big trouble.”
“Ah, the Holograms,” R8PR says. “You could have told me that much. So you’re a gang member.”
“We’re not a gang!” she shouts.
“Not a gang, yes, of course,” he says.
“Who are the Holograms?” I ask. “I haven’t ever heard of them.”
Amy begins her description, though it sounds more like a memorized mantra: “We’re a family of young people who have been cast out and abandoned by the people around us. We’re the invisibles, the untouchables, but we stick together. That’s why we’re called the Holograms. Or, the Holos for short. We help all the people in Atlanta who don’t have a place to call home.”
“But you’re a gang, too?”
“No! We fight against the system because that’s the only way to survive. We are the protectors that save the people nobody else will. We don’t– Whatever. The point is… Sage. We need you.
See, unbeknownst to dear old Morgan ‘till now, it turns out that R8PR’s been getting a bit of a reputation on the streets. He’s been helping people out, beating up criminals, and generally doing what robots do when they’re bored and too sentient to just sit there and charge overnight. And, naturally, he’s been going by the name “Sage” the entire time, something I refuse to accept.
“You need me?” he asks.
“Yeah. The leader of the Holos, Street Rat, sent me here because she heard that you’re the best. You’re our best hope.”
“What kind of name is Street Rat…” I mutter. If R8PR was involved with all of this stuff, to the point that there’s this whole gang of runaway homeless teens roaming around, why hasn’t he been telling me about any of it? I feel hopelessly lost.
Amy ignores me. “The Earth Group attacked us recently and stole a data drive from us. That data drive has a list of all of the Holo safe houses in the city, and if they use it, they could really hurt us. The Earth Group is known for kidnapping and converting children, and some of our houses have young mothers, so… You’ve got to help us. We need someone to negotiate for us.”
“You need a middleman? A medium?” R8PR chuckles digitally. “It’s a good thing my underling Morgan is well trained in that realm. Why don’t you take Morgan and go sort out your Earth Group problem?”
Underling… What gives! “R8PR, are you sure this is a good idea?” I ask. “I mean, we just–”
“Yeah, why don’t you go with the girl and help these kids out? It’ll get you some exercise.”
“Uh, okay, whatever.” I eye him suspiciously. He’s being coy to the point of consternation. “Just point where you want me to go, Amy, and I’ll go obliterate everything with the superb power of my negotiation skills.”
Amy giggles. “You’re funny. We’re just going to a designated meeting spot, then you help us work out the deal, then everyone’s happy. It’s easy.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
She then digs into the pockets of her camo jacket and pulls out a data drive. “Oh, and Street Rat wanted you to have this as a token of gratitude.” She hands it to R8PR.
“Is this the safe house list?” I ask.
“No, this is files on none other than… the Social Media Killer!” She does a little swirl with her arms when she says that. R8PR and I look at each other again. “She thought you’d like this. It has lots of information.” Then she looks at me. “So, are we off now?”
“Is it that urgent?”
“Well, no, but… I’m hungry.”
I look down at my half-finished, yet very unappealing fried chicken bento box. “Yeah, alright. We can stop somewhere for some dinner.” I get up and dump the entire box into the compost bin. A waste of money and agriculture resources, but it was my waste.
Before Amy and I leave, R8PR, still sitting at the kitchen table, says, “Be careful about the Earth Group, Morgan. They’re more dangerous than you realize.”
I give him a strange look. I don’t really get what he means, seeing that I already consider them one of the most dangerous forces in Atlanta.
But… whatever. This entire day has taken some drastic turns from my expectations. First the Blade Runners show up to chat with me, and now I’m apparently going to escort a teenager to a meeting between gangs and negotiate a deal for them. I keep telling myself I’m not a hero, but I guess I’m branching out.
Well, whoever this Amy girl is, she seems alright. Let’s just hope that stays true.