“You’re going to be safe? You promise?” Karina asks.
“I pinky promise with a cherry on top,” I say.
“I can’t see the pinky, but you better be holding it up.”
“I am, I am.” I actually am, I swear. My pinky is in the air as we speak.
“I was worried sick about you all night, you know! If anything had happened to you…”
“Well, nothing did happen, and nothing will happen. I promise.”
“Okay then, I’ll accept that,” she says. “I have to go to that big press conference this afternoon so I can’t help you if anything comes up. You’re on your own, buster.”
“..Like I said, be safe.”
“My pinky is still in the air, Karina.”
“Okay, goodbye. I– Yeah.”
“Yeah. Do a good job today. See you after the press conference.”
And that was me getting off the phone with Karina, who was a lot more calm about all this than I expected. It makes sense; if she wears the pants in our relationship, she has to be the one who can actually take tough news standing up. I wonder if I should have told her about this whole Ascendants mission before I even started.
No, still, I didn’t want to worry her, and I don’t want to worry her any further now if I can help it. I’m just worried I might not have a choice.
“Who was that?” Amy asks.
“I’ll tell you later.”
“Tell me now.”
“It’s just a friend.”
“A friend, hmm…” Amy snickers. “A boyfriend, perhaps?”
“We need to get focused,” I say. “What’s our plan here?”
The two of us are right in front of the Georgia World Congress Center, where the Atlanta Annual Tech Expo is entering its third day. This one is most notable because there are three separate press conferences today by the major tech companies. The first, from Magitek Corporation, is going on right now and, at least from the investigating I did on the first day, they aren’t exactly the most suspect, so missing that will be okay. Then in the afternoon is Sakaguchi Automations, where Karina and Karina’s dad’s hard preparation work will finally be shown off to the whole world. Then in the evening… it’s Blyth Industries. That will be one to watch, for sure.
We know that big and bad things are about to go down. We just don’t know exactly what.
“I think we should split up and do some searching on our own,” Amy says. “I’ve got some Holo friends I can talk to, but if you’re there, you’ll just scare them off.”
“I’m not THAT ugly.”
She doesn’t laugh at my joke. “Of course, I guess you’ll just wander around like a blind person the whole time like the last couple days and solve nothing.”
“Hey, how do you know– Oh, you were following me.”
“It was really annoying.”
“Wait, how do you even get into the convention? Surely you don’t have a press pass or anything…”
“Oh, I just sneak in. There ain’t many guards inside, so I just gotta pretend I’m some intern for a camera company.”
“And that… works?”
Amy nods. “And that’s what I’m doing now. Seeya.”
She turns around and scampers off towards– I have no idea. I never do with that girl.
As for me, I enter the tech expo the normal way, flashing my (fake) press pass and entering the main hall. It’s a lot less crowded than the past few days, likely on account of the ongoing Magitek event in the conference hall ahead. Seeing as my interest in that press conference is very low, this is only a good thing for me, because it means I can scope things out a lot faster.
All of the possibilities for what could happen are mind bogglingly diverse. A giant convention center with lax security, hundreds of thousands of people, and a lot of ill-meaning companies… Now that I’m absolutely certain something bad is in the works, it seems like I’ve entered a much harder puzzle in figuring out what, exactly, the bad thing is going to be. And if I can’t do that, then there’s going to be a major problem in actually stopping it.
I know Blyth is going to be involved, that much I can feel. I know the Holos are doing something, but I don’t know if it’s connected. I know the Earth Group has come up in enough of this to make me worry they will make an appearance, too. I know that, somewhere, the Ascendants are going to pop up. But knowing who may be here is a far cry from knowing what.
Figuring out exactly what might go disastrously wrong is the first goal, but there’s so many possibilities that it really might just turn into me wandering around aimlessly again if I’m not careful. I have to think of the most likely prospects.
(If these monsters use that prototype mecha for anything nefarious, I will personally destroy every last one of them for ruining my dreams of a future where everyone drives mechas to work and all sports are conducted in robotic mega-suits. Don’t even go there.)
Of course, whatever the Holos are planning, that’s probably just as important as any other potential disaster. So, at least while I wait for Amy to sneak in through a back room or whatever method and then talk to other Holos hidden in this giant building, I ought to–
I accidentally bump shoulders with someone. I turn around to apologize, and– Oh. For about the fiftieth time this week, I’ve ran into someone I know by seeming accident.
I groan. “You.”
“Oh, Morgan, how nice to see you,” Marge says. Only this time, more than usual, her smile feels particularly fake. She doesn’t even attempt to make it seem like this meeting is a coincidence, either. She immediately takes a serious tone as she says, “Hey, listen. I want to tell you that I’m out.”
“Oh, um, that’s cool Marge. I really care a lot about– Wait, what?”
“I’m out,” she repeats. “I resigned from the Social Media Killer investigation. No more for me.”
“You’re quitting? Really?”
“For this one, yeah,” she says. she puts her hands in her jacket pockets and lowers her head. She looks downtrodden, as sad as I’ve ever seen her. I very nearly feel bad for her.
I glance over at an empty table by one of the food court booths. “Do you want to sit down so we can talk about this?”
“No, I don’t plan on sticking around,” she says. “Mei’s coming into town today, and I want to get everything ready for her.”
“Oh, so this is about girl problems?”
“No. Morgan… All this Social Media Killer stuff, all this Blyth stuff… I’m in over my head. Money doesn’t matter if it means getting into this. And you shouldn’t either.”
“You are not at all the first person to tell me that this week,” I say. “I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m not supposed to keep investigating this case.”
“Please, Morgan. This isn’t the time for jokes,” Marge says. “Well… I’ll leave you on one joke I heard recently.”
“It goes like this, ‘What’s the only thing worse than an unsolved murder?’”
“Uh… what is it?”
“Morgan!” a voice calls out.
I turn around and Amy’s rushing my way. I didn’t expect her here so soon, especially since she had no idea where I’d be. Huh, weird. I turn back to face Marge– except she’s already gone.
Well, good luck to her, I guess. You know, if Marge is scared, then…
I get goosebumps.
“Morgan, listen up!” Amy shouts again.
“Why are you yelling so loud? People are going to–”
“I found out what the Holos are doing!” she exclaims.
“Alright, alright.” I put my hands on her shoulders and say, “Tell me about it, just at a reasonable volume level.”
She shakes my hands off her. “Okay. The big Holo plan is, they’re gonna disrupt the whole convention during the Blyth press conference and do this big fake Labor Party protest that turns into a riot,” she says.
“The Labor Party? Gosh, I haven’t heard of them being involved until now. It’s almost nostalgic to hear it.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but there’s more. Word is from some of my friends that the Blyth press conference is gonna do some big secret giveaway to every single attendee. Some helmet or another, she told me.”
“Shit. The Dream Weaver…”
Amy tilts her head to the side. “The dream whatsit?”
“Do you remember the Dreamtech Helmet?” I ask.
“Not really,” Amy says. “Didn’t the Social Media Killer blow their factory up or something?”
“It’s… kind of complicated. I’ll tell you about it later.”
“Why not now?”
“It is that important?”
“What the hell else are we doing?” Amy asks.
“Well, you were just telling me about the Holo stuff,” I say. “That’s more pressing, right?”
“Oh yeah. They ditched the Earth Group plan because you didn’t rile them up enough. You suck, Morgan.”
“I knocked them all unconscious!”
“If you had gotten kidnapped, it would have been way better.”
“I’m a better hostage than a hero…”
“Yeah, pretty much. But you’re not very good at either.” Amy has to suppress a giggle at her own insults.
“What’s the new plan, Amy? What are they doing?”
“Oh, that.” She looks up as if she’s trying to recall a date for a history test. “It’s just your standard false flag riot operation.”
“Standard… false flag riot…”
“It’s gonna be really cool and lots of people will get hurt.”
“This sounds really anti-climactic, despite all of the implied danger,” I say. “And I feel like the news about the Dream Weaver is way more distressing than anything you’re telling me.”
“The Holos are way better than some stupid toy.”
If she only knew the truth about the Dreamtech Helmet and its insidious properties designed basically to take over the city, one plunge of data at a time. I don’t have time to go into all that backstory to her and inevitably get into a back-and-forth about semantics, but it’s enough to put me even further on edge. Giving out a bunch of them for free to cover up all of the illegal stuff on the inside is a perfect plan…
With that, and this apparent incoming riot, and the fact my own sister has given up on her pursuit of money… Yeah, I’m gonna need Karina’s help on this.
Luckily, the Sakauchi Automations press conference is in an hour. “Hey, Amy, have you ever watched any of those big splashy tech company shows they have on at the convention?”
“Well, you’re about to see your first one in a little bit.”
“Uh, okay? I guess I can’t hate you any MORE, after all.”
“Ouch. Let’s, uh, let’s head to the conference hall.”
I don’t know what’s gonna kill me first–all the tension and anxiety building up inside me, or a fourteen year old girl saying really mean things to me.