The answer to that question, “Do I really have to go to work…?” is a resounding yes.
The entire city of Atlanta may indeed be at stake, but that’s not something I can just explain to Mr. Larkins and watch as he goes, “Oh, I understand. Yeah, I’ll give you time off.”
He might say that, I guess, but he’d follow it up with a, “In fact, have time off for the rest of the month. And the year. Go ahead.”
So here I sit at the front desk, doing my normal secretary stuff at the Peach Towers branch office of the Atlanta Cares Bank. And, since it’s a Saturday morning, that means sitting there and looking pretty as the hands on the clock behind me move towards that fateful 12 PM ding. It’s pretty easy for me, considering how pretty I already am, but it’s honestly a bit frustrating to sit here knowing how much danger is coming.
I guess a better person would have quit their job to save the day, not caring about the consequences of what happens after they save the day. I’m too poor to do that.
Has there even been a single customer today…
Ugh… And Larkins gets to sit in his office all day and do jack shit on his computer. I wish I had a computer! I mean, I do, but it’s at home and still in its box. Yes, really. I bought a computer almost two weeks ago, and I haven’t even had the time to take it out of its packaging. If Chuck found out, he would die of a heart attack… Well, only after lecturing me for forty-five minutes on how important having a personal computer in the home is and how his friend Elliot went ten years without a computer and then it turned out that people were impersonating him online the whole time and using his identity to do chain mail scams, and he only found out when the police showed up and… You get the idea.
It’s eerie in here.
I never thought I’d say that about the bank where I’ve worked for over a year now, but the mood in here is downright spooky. It’s so quiet. The CRT is on over in the corner, and its static is the only noise in the whole front office. I have to tap a pencil against the desk to make sure I’m not going deaf.
Though I know it’s nothing but nerves making me feel as anxious as I do right now, the atmosphere in here isn’t helping anything. I turn to look at Larkins’s silhouette through the frosted glass window to his office, and then look around to make absolutely sure that there is nobody here.
…Yep. I’m alone. I get up from the desk and leave the bank. Time to take an early lunch.
I desperately need a relaxer, and there isn’t going to be any relaxing there at the front desk. So I’ve decided I’m going out to the balcony by the sky rail stop and I’m just going to stare out at the cityscape until I’ve come to some grand emotional conclusion, like in the movies. It always works.
On the way, all I can think about is, weirdly, Jones.
Not about the fact she’s in grave danger. Not all the stuff she’s uncovered in her hacking expeditions across the city. just Jones Burrow, a young woman taking her A-levels who got swept up in an unimaginable series of scandals and cover-ups. Jones Burrow, my friend.
I remember the last time we spoke. Not the short chat with everyone last night, I mean. It was the last time I went over to R8PR’s place, about five days ago. R8PR was out doing something else that he wouldn’t tell me about. And so it was just me and her standing around in the church kitchen making soup.
The conversation is still so vivid.
“I never cooked much before I came here,” Jones says, chopping up an onion. “It’s been a bit of an adventure.”
“I can imagine,” I say. I lean against the wall opposite the kitchen counter, next to the fridge, and put my foot up to keep myself propped up. “When I first moved out of my parents’ place, I had no idea how to cook. Turns out I’m pretty good at it, but I was just too lazy to find out myself.”
“I guess that was the same for me. Just my mom and Kylia making every meal I ever ate at home. Unless you count the instant oatmeal.” Jones’s tone is calm, almost wistful. She’s been through a lot in these last few months, and from her voice alone, it’s clear to see. Or, clear to hear.
“The ones with the dinosaurs?”
“How’d you know?”
“Because that’s the kind I get too.”
“Silly, isn’t it? I’m turning eighteen in a month, and I’m still attached to everything I liked as a kid.”
“We’re all still kids,” I say. “I’m what, twenty-two? Yeah, I think so. Twenty-two, and I don’t know a single thing about being an adult. I think the secret is that adults are just really tall kids.”
“That’d be a depressing secret.” She turns to look at me, tears in her eyes.
“Jones, are you alright?”
“Huh? Oh– It’s the onions.”
“Morgan, why did you move out? Why didn’t you stay with your parents?”
I chuckle. “Well… I didn’t want to. But right after I graduated my A-levels, my parents moved to Savannah. They said they wanted to retire in style, but they didn’t want to have to move to Florida to do it. So it was either go out on my own, or move in with my–ugh, with my big sister.”
“Your big sister.”
“She’s the worst.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Jones says. “Older siblings are the worst.”
“Oh, that’s not true. Not, uh, necessarily. I mean, my brother Mark is cool…”
“I wish I could see my family.”
“Yeah… Maybe one day, after all of this is over, we can all go back to the way things once were.”
“Morgan.” Jones drops the onions into the pot and then briefly washes her hands before turning around and stepping up to me.
She moves in close, staring me in the eyes. Getting too close for me to remain comfortable. My personal bubble is fully broached.
“Uh, yes?” I ask.
“I want to ask you something.”
“How do you forgive people?”
I want to back up, but I’m already against the wall…
“I, uh, don’t know what you mean.”
“How do you… stop disliking people after you start?”
“I’m still not really sure what you’re trying to ask. Could you… back up a little?”
She doesn’t. “That girl, Courtney Trudeau. I used her to lead you to my research server because I knew you were getting frustrated. I tried being friendly with her, writing her kind messages and asking for her forgiveness. But in my heart, the whole time, I still hated her. I still hate her for everything she did to my family.”
“Am I broken? How do I atone for myself if I can’t forgive people? I want to. I see their point of view and understand why they did these things and how they’ve changed. But I just can’t let go. I don’t understand myself.” Jones isn’t crying or getting emotional, and that might be the most worrisome part.
“I think…” I put my hands on her shoulders and push her back a little bit so she’s out of my personal bubble. She puts her hands on my arms and keeps me from removing them. And the only thing I can think about is how vulnerable this scared girl is, that my hands on her shoulders are giving her enough comfort to keep her from breaking down. “I think you’re just too inside your own head.”
“You’ve spent a lot of time by yourself these last couple months, haven’t you?”
Jones bites her lower lip, and then she nods. “I’ve been with R8PR mostly.”
“Yeah, so basically alone, but with an annoying chirping about wishy-washy philosophy every now and then.”
She laughs. “He talks a lot.”
“He also isn’t very good at human emotional stuff, so… maybe you need some more work in that area.”
“I need to make some friends, you mean.”
“Yep. After all of this Ascendants stuff is over, I’ll help you out. I’ll be your friend.”
“And if I haven’t forgiven you, either?”
“I don’t even care.”
The pot on the stove begins to boil, and Jones lets me take my hands off her shoulders.
And that’s been stuck on my mind a lot recently, that conversation. Jones isn’t some mystical keyboard warrior hacking her way through the galaxy with electric knives in her hands. She’s a seventeen year old who got in over her head and has been mostly isolated from the rest of the world for three months straight.
If I don’t fix this Ascendants thing, it’s going to be all on me to know that this girl will never get to live a normal live ever again. She’s counting on me.
Finally, I reach the balcony. It’s warm, but not hot. The wind’s blowing, but it isn’t a chill. Very atypical for June weather. Nobody else is here. Just me.
I look out at the sunny Saturday morning in the city of Atlanta. A vast landscape of skyscrapers and buildings, parks and forests, all stretching out as far as I can see, past the mountains to the north and onto the horizon to the east.
Just three months ago, I was ready to leave Atlanta behind. I was sick and tired of my stagnant life, but I don’t even know why anymore. I love this city. My home. I love it enough to risk my life protecting it two or three times a week.
God, I hope I can solve this thing before it becomes an actual crisis.
And then there’s a flash of green in the corner of my eye–
A sledgehammer smashes against the concrete where I was just standing and lets out an explosion of electricity. Pieces of tile fly up into the air and one particularly sharp piece goes right across my face, cutting me on the cheek.
The tall man with the mohawk stands before me, holding a large weapon and grinning with his sharp shark-like teeth. Entering the balcony are six other masked men wearing all-black suits of body armor and holding blunt weapons. They block my only escape.
Or, my only one until the next zipline bus comes…
The mohawked man laughs. “Hiya, Morgan.” He lifts the sledgehammer with one hand and sets it on his shoulder.
“Hiya, um, whatever your name is,” I say.
“It’s Dragon,” the man says. “Rude you never asked before.”
“That’s a fake animal. You’re a human. Nobody’s name is Dragon.”
Instead of responding to my quip with anger like most baddies, his just punches me in the face with his non-sledgehammer-holding hand. The impact is strong enough to send me to the ground–
But strong enough that I use the momentum to bounce myself back up. Though… in a lot of pain. Ouch.
I charge to him, with the goal of making him use his weapon at too close a range and getting the goons around him knocked out in the process. As fast as I am, I can do it…
I can’t do it.
He’s already hit me with the sledgehammer. The electricity flowing from his body to his weapon now shocking my body. It doesn’t particularly hurt, but I will admit that being pummeled with a sledgehammer does hurt.
Also, I’m on the ground again.
I hop back up, analyze the scene around me, the circle of baddies closing in on me, and make my plan–
Sledgehammer swing. It misses, and I jump several feet into the air, over the circle of goons and out in freedom. Then, Dragon literally throws the sledgehammer my way, the oversized projectile chucked so fast that I can barely duck to avoid it. It smashes against the wall behind me and its head cracks in half.
My foes continue their advance. The fight was lost from the moment it started. I never stood a chance.
No matter how much I fight, these are trained professionals. Dragon and the others overwhelm me, pin me to the ground, and knock me out.
Of course they were going to knock me out.
Why does this ALWAYS happen?