“The Ascendants are coming for us. They want me, and I don’t know why, I don’t know when. Everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve done these past three months… It’s all led to this. And I need your help.”
Jones Burrow, standing right in front of me and Karina, wearing an oversized T-shirt and long shorts, hands in her pockets, eyes looking downward, refusing to make contact with mine.
After she stops speaking, the room goes silent. R8PR doesn’t have a witty comment. Karina doesn’t have a question. I’ve found that I’ve completely lost my voice.
Jones is safe.
But she’s been hiding at the abandoned church the whole time.
Everything about our search for her, all the trouble Karina and I went to… It was all for nothing?
I step up closer to Jones, stare at her until she makes eye contact. This would normally be the moment where there is a tearful, hugging reunion between old allies. Or a slap across the cheek and some harsh words.
But nothing comes of it.
“I tried to help you,” Jones says. “With the research server I sent you.”
“You did. Thank you.”
“I didn’t want her to do that,” R8PR says. “The more you knew, the less time we would have to find out about the Ascendants. Only now, that doesn’t matter anymore. They know. And we have to strike before they do.”
“To… strike?” Karina asks.
“We’re going to find out who the Ascendants are,” Jones says. “We have blueprints of underground headquarters and secret offices. We just have to find out where they are.”
“And then we can destroy them,” R8PR adds.
“Four strawberry milkshakes for Karen,” the robot cashier says.
Karina groans, and then stands up to to go get the order.
The four of us– Me, Karina, Lamar, and, yes, even Amy–are here together after Donald Blyth’s funeral, getting some milkshakes to celebrate a new mission complete. We’re in Slappy Burger right now, sitting at a booth and thinking about our next move, our next operation.
Well, “thinking about” is a bit loose for a term. It’s more like, we’re waiting as patiently as possible for our leader, the great Sage of Atlanta, to contact us back after sending him all our information via robot courier.
Yeah, R8PR’s getting weirder by the day. First I find out he’s gotten a reputation for helping people on the street, basically stealing my job. Now, he has a contingent of secured delivery robots he can send to pick up items for him without raising suspicion? This is getting out of hand. For all that talk about being a chess piece on a board, but with the players unknown and the positions a mystery, it sure seems like R8PR ain’t just a rook.
He’s betrayed my trust completely, lying to me about Jones for months, keeping entire sectors of his life a secret. And yet I respect him even more. That guy is a man of mystery. Er, a robot of mystery.
Even with Jones safe, nothing is settled. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The Atlanta Annual Tech Expo erupted in a whirlwind of chaos after prototype war robots, the Sakaguchi Knights, were hacked and sent on a murderous rampage, firing off their weapons and kidnapping the rich and powerful attendees. And yet, in all of that attacking, only a single person was killed by those robots– Donald Blyth, the CEO of Blyth Industries. And, more importantly, the man most directly involved with the Dreamtech cover-up that Jones discovered three months ago.
They say the Sakaguchi Knights were hacked by the anti-tech terror gang known as the Earth Group. It’s an irony lost on few that the radical ecologists would utilize computers to achieve their goals. However, “they” are wrong. It wasn’t the Earth Group–it was just meant to look like they did it.
Someone wanted Blyth dead–the Ascendants. that same name that’s been floating around for months, touching just about every mystery I’ve solved, every bad guy I’ve fought. These Ascendants were so willing to have Blyth’s death happen that they went to great lengths to manipulate an entire tech convention just to do it. Six people were trampled to death by the fleeing crowds. All collateral for the most egregious assassination since… Well, assassinations are usually pretty egregious.
The Ascendants had a guiding hand in the hacking of the Sakaguchi Knights, on the death of Donald Blyth. But that’s about all we know, even with everything Jones has given us with her research. Whoever they are, they are starting some sort of big plan, and we have to stop it before the whole city is destroyed. We have to strike.
After a little investigating at Blyth’s funeral, we are pretty sure we have some new leads on people that we suspect of being connected. But where those leads, uh, lead, we have yet to discover.
“How are you doing?” Lamar asks me. He’s sitting across from me on the other side of the booth, looking pensive and calm.
“You’ve been pretty quiet,” he says.
“Oh. Just wondering about things,” I say. “There’s a lot to take in.”
Lamar, my childhood friend, the young man with a computer embedded in his skull. Missing years of memories, with a second soul inside him seemingly battling for control. He’s better than he was in May, when he showed up at my doorstep with hardly an emotion left. And despite everything going on with himself, the fact he’s helping investigate the Ascendants is something I’ll never take for granted.
“Yeah.” Lamar adjusts his glasses and looks away, towards the wall. His eyes glaze over, and then a second later, he regains himself. “If you ever need to talk, or anything.”
“Don’t worry about me.” I realize he’s trying to hide the fact that the AI is taking control more frequently as it analyzes all of the data from Blyth’s funeral, but I do appreciate the concern, even if it’s mostly projecting.
“Nobody ever worries about you,” says Amy, sitting next to me and bumping me in the side with her hip. I make a great effort to keep from audibly growling. “Lamar’s just being nice because he’s the coolest ever. Right, Lamar? Right?”
Lamar gives a nod that is just ambiguous enough that you can’t tell if he agrees, or if he just wants her to shut up.
“I’m so excited to beat up some bad guys,” Amy says. “The other Holos are never gonna believe me when I tell them I was a hero and everything! I’m turning a whole new leaf.”
“You’re turning a new leaf?”
“Yeah, first I was a hardened criminal, the terror of the town. Now I’m gonna be a superhero.”
Karina approaches the table holding not four, but eight milkshakes on a large tray. “Superhero? You mean me?”
“Why do you have eight milkshakes?” I ask.
She sets the tray on the table and sits down next to Lamar. “The robot workers were firmly under the impression that the milkshakes we ordered were all strawberry. I had to argue with them for a couple minutes, then got the manager on the line… It’s apparently been a common glitch at Slappy Burgers recently.”
“There’s always a common glitch,” I say.
“Well, they made us our actual order, at least. So… everyone gets an extra strawberry milkshake I guess.”
“You really are a superhero,” Amy says. “What a good person this Karina is. Too bad I hate strawberries.”
“Of course you do.” Karina takes her milkshake, Groovy Grape flavor, and sticks her paper straw straight in the cup to begin drinking away. Just a second later, she reels back and clutches her forehead. “Ack. Brain freeze.”
“That’s why you always use a spoon, Karina,” Amy says, taking a metal spoon from the container on the table and scooping up a bunch of whip cream from her Rocky Mountain Melter milkshake. Instead of eating it, though, she flicks it onto the strawberry milkshake she refused to take.
I side-eye her. “Why did you…”
“I’m watching my figure,” she says.
Amy, the transgender, homeless teenager. Fourteen years old and on the streets, hanging out with a gang called the Holograms, a group that was indirectly involved in the chaos at the tech expo. She gets on my nerves, but she’s good at what she does, and she’s a valuable lifeline to the underworld areas of Atlanta. It’s a sad life she leads. I don’t pity her, but I do understand what she’s been through, and what she’s going through even at this moment.
But it’s kind of weird to order a milkshake with whip cream and then wipe half the whip cream off just to save a few calories.
Oh well. I take my two milkshakes and bring them closer to my edge of the table. No way I can drink them both, so I’ll just have to hope that a melted milkshake, refrozen in the freezer then thawed the next day will be at least tolerable enough to make it worth it. The strawberry shall be my sacrifice. The Silky Butter Pecan that I actually ordered better be delicious.
I am correct. This milkshake is quite delicious.
Then Lamar takes both of his, strawberry and Slappy Cherry. But instead of choosing between them, he takes out a water cup from the side of the booth and mixes both flavors together. I mean, I guess that might taste good, but…
“So,” Karina says.
“So,” I say. “I guess you’re wondering why I’ve brought you all here today.”
“Not really,” Amy says.
“Get on with it, Morgan,” Karina says. She takes a gulp of her grape milkshake and, predictably, gets brain freeze again.
I roll my eyes and continue. “We’re still waiting for R8PR to call, but… I think we need to discuss the funeral. We saw a lot of people there that look like they’re connected to the Ascendants. And–”
Ring ring ring.
Darn it, I was just getting started.
Karina takes her cellular out of her purse and answers it. “Hello? Yes? Yes. Okay, see you in a second.”
“Was that him?”
She nods. Then she opens up the portable PC on her wrist and logs on to the Slappy Burger’s free wireless modem. She logs into a virtual private network program and then, moments later, her PC itself starts ringing.
“Hey, can we have a look?” Amy asks.
“Oh, sorry.” Karina turns around slightly so all four of us can see the screen.
A grainy, pixelated video image pops up on the portable PC and shows none other than R8PR’s grey face and dotted green eyes.
“Heya,” he says, his robotic voice muffled by the heavy audio compression.
R8PR, the first sentient robot, and the same robot that saved my life over one year ago. He may be a deceitful jerk, but he’s the most trustworthy ally we’ve got. Everything I do for him barely makes a dent in repaying how much I owe him. So no matter what, I’m going to stick with him.
“Hi Sage,” Amy says. “What’s up? How’s my robo-buddy doing?”
“Amy, please…” I whisper.
“I’ve analyzed the data you’ve sent me,” R8PR says. “Nothing conclusive yet. How about Lamar?”
Lamar shakes his head. “Same. Just what I sent you earlier.” He’s now gone through enough of his two milkshakes that he is down to just one cup, with the remains of both combined into one strawberry-cherry slurry.
“Nothing new?” Karina asks R8PR.
“Nothing beyond what we already know. We know they’re about to try to kill Jones and we know they are working on something much bigger. This only helps us name some of the possible players.”
“That’s honestly disappointing,” I say.
“But those GPS trackers have proven to be quite useful, I will admit. You did quite a good job with that, Amy.”
“Aw, thank you, thank you, it was nothing,” Amy says. “Planting seven different trackers on bad guys’ cars is just the tip of the iceberg for my skillset. I’m a real profess–”
“And you, Lamar, are the best thing we’ve got here. I am considering replacing Morgan with you as my official number one lackey. The detail in this report… Geez.”
“Thank you,” Lamar says. “I appreciate it.”
“I’m good at filing reports, too…” I mutter.
“So what’s the status on those GPS trackers?” Karina asks. “Did we get the right people, you think?”
“Most of them, yes,” he says. “Out of the seven vehicles you tagged, three of them went to the same location, an unspecified residential house south of the Beltline. One other went to what appear to be a warehouse. And two went to their own residential neighborhoods… but the trackers disappeared. Either the signal is jammed, or they discovered and destroyed the trackers.”
“That’s pretty scary. What about the seventh one?” I ask.
“It’s still at the cemetery. I think Amy dropped it on the ground.”
“Did not!” Amy shouts.
“Shhh. We’re in public…”
“Well, just wanted to let you know that it’ll be a bit longer before I can give you a firm plan,” R8PR tells us. “Be careful out there. Don’t contact me; let me contact you. Don’t stay out too late, and don’t wander around anywhere you aren’t familiar with. Don’t trust anyone outside of this group, besides any courier robots at my employ.”
“How will we know they’re yours?” Karina asks.
“They’ll make an insulting remark about Morgan’s appearance,” he says.
I’m being attacked.
“That isn’t specific enough,” Karina says. “That’ll cause a lot of false positives.”
“You’re right. We’ll have to insult Morgan’s intelligence instead.”
I’m dead. Karina and R8PR have killed me.
“Oh, Jones wants to speak to you,” the evil robot says. “Here she is.”
The video screen turns into a mess of indecipherable pixels for about ten seconds before it finally fades into what appears to be Jones’s head gazing on at all of us. “Hello?”
“Hey, Jones,” Karina says.
Jones waves. She glances to Lamar and Amy, who she hasn’t met, and gives them curious expressions, before turning her eyes to me. “I wanted to say hello while I have the chance.”
“Thank you for helping me, all of you.”
“Not a problem in the world, missy,” Amy says. “Who is this, again?”
“A… friend,” I say. If Amy knew that the Social Media Killer was at R8PR’s hideout this whole time, that would lead to catastrophic results, because there is not a chance she could keep her trap shut about it.
Jones fidgets for a moment, clearly trying to figure out something to talk about, and then says, “Well, see you on the other side. Bye.”
And the video call ends.
Jones Burrow, the Social Media Killer, and the cause of everything happening today. If she hadn’t uncovered the Ascendants, we would never have known that they were planning something. We would have never caught Mayor Epstein in the middle of a tech conspiracy. For all the pain she caused, I really appreciate what she’s done.
In her honor, I scoop up a giant spoonful of my butter pecan milkshake and gulp it down all at once. Yummy stuff.
Karina shuts down her portable PC and looks to us. “So, this time tomorrow, let’s meet up again.”
“Yeah, let’s,” Lamar says. “I’m going to do more research at home.”
“And do you have somewhere safe to stay tonight?” I ask Amy.
She shakes her head and smiles. “Nope! But don’t worry about me.”
I open my mouth to object, but I see the continued smile and understand that she means what she says. “Alright then.”
Karina gets up from the booth and takes her purse. “Well… Y’all can keep sitting here if you want. It’s Friday, so… I’ve got to go. Sorry.”
“Got a hot date?” Amy asks loudly.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“It’s a hot date, folks.”
I get up and put a hand on Karina’s back. “Let’s not worry about her.”
“Well, bye, Amy and Lamar,” I say.
Karina and I go outside the restaurant and circle around back by the trash can where we can get a moment of peace and quiet.
Karina, my best friend. The strong one. We met a year ago at the Peach Towers food court, but it feels like I’ve known her all my life. I can’t remember anyone I’ve been as close with as her. Not Lamar, not anyone else. She’s the Green Hornet to my Kato, the rope that pulls me up from the cliffs. She’s calm, she’s proactive, and, somehow, she cares about me.
But right now, that’s all changed. She’s supposed to be packing for her trip to Japan next week. Instead, she’s here with us, mired in the middle of a dangerous mission.
Karina hugs me tight, gripping my t-shirt with both hands. “I’m scared, Morgan.”
“Are you going to be… safe tonight?” I ask, not wanting to pry.
“Yeah. It’s not about that. It’s… you know.”
“My Dad almost died last week from those war robots. And my Grandma’s dying in another country. And all of my best friends will die when things go wrong. I don’t want any of this.” She starts to cry.
“Geez, Karina, I thought I was supposed to be the emotional one.”
“Shut up, you adorable jerk.”
“Wait, do you really consider R8PR to be a ‘best friend?’”
“R8PR is great…”
“Shut up and hug me back.”
We hug for a few moments longer.
It’s a dangerous mission we’re on, fighting against the Ascendants to save Jones’s life. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and the pressure’s already cracking Karina. I don’t know how I’m even holding it together, myself.
But I do know that she’s wrong. “We aren’t going to die. I can promise you that.”