Karina and Lamar walk down the flights stairs with me. We tread quietly, like the protagonists of a horror movie. The fluorescent light above gets dimmer as we descend. It flickers a few times, as if it’s threatening to shut itself off completely.
We make our way to the bottom floor and walk down the damp, mildew-filled hallway.
“You’re sure we aren’t heading into a trap?” Lamar asks.
“Seventy-five percent sure we aren’t heading into a trap,” I say.
Through the end of the hallway, past the reinforced door and the two bodyguards…
…And once more, I’m welcomed by the familiar sights of Motokawa’s place of business, a huge, spacious room with a long table in the middle and .
Only, this time, I’m not alone, and this time, there’s a whole lot more people around.
Yuri Motokawa herself stands in front of a row of mercenaries, most of whom are equipped with pistols on their belts and full body armor on their chests and legs and heads. It’s like we’ve walked into a battle preparation here.
Motokawa greets me with little more than a blink. “You’re here quick, Harding.”
“I brought friends.”
“I can see that. I don’t know them.”
From behind me, Lamar and Karina are already entering defensive positions, as if a fight is going to break out any second. I don’t bother trying to calm them down, mostly because I’m not entirely sure myself.
“Don’t worry,” I say.
“Okay.” She walks off like there was never another thought in her head.
Finally, my friends relax.
“What is this place…?” Karina whispers.
“You know all those thugs and armed men we have to fight when rich businessmen are trying to kill us?” I ask. “They usually come from here. This is the Mercenary Prince’s den.”
“And we’re… working with them?”
“We have a common goal.”
“I don’t like this,” Lamar says.
“Dude! This is so cool!” a high-pitched voice shouts from across the room.
Karina groans. “I didn’t know she was…”
“Sorry. We need all the help we can get.”
Amy, followed by some other rambunctious teens of various size and shape, scurries up to us, almost hopping with joy. “We’re gonna pop a cap in some assholes! Can’t wait!”
“Cap… We aren’t getting guns, Amy.”
“Nevermind,” I say. “Who’s these other kids?”
It’s a whole crowd of teenagers, obviously other Holos that have come with Amy to, apparently, help in the fight against Donald Blyth and the Ascendants. The level of bad idea here is so high that I’m not even sure I can quantify it.
“We aren’t kids!” one of the skinny girls in the back of the contingent exclaims. She’s like, five-foot-one.
“Street Rat told me I could take some of my friends with me for this. So, here they are. Let me introduce you to them: Ricky, Antoine, Mel, Kris, Chris, Salali, Jorge, Monique, Anna, Ji-Hye–”
“Nice to meet y’all,” I interrupt. “We’re going to be starting our meeting soon, so I hope everyone’s ready. Amy, can you come with me for a second?”
Amy and I walk away from all the teens, and immediately, several the teenage girls swarm Lamar to talk to him. Karina checks her portable PC for wireless modem, which is fruitless because we’re several stories underground.
Once we’re out of listening distance, I look Amy in the eyes and ask, “Are you insane?”
“Why did you bring all these kids with you?
“You told me there was going to be a dangerous mission and a lot of my Holo friends wanted to help,” she answers.
I feel a headache coming on. “Do you know how dangerous this mission is going to be?”
“Not really. Look around. We’re probably safe.”
There ARE a couple dozen trained mercenaries around us. But that’s beside the point. “You can’t risk the lives of all these random kids because you want to get a thrill ride fighting the bad guys or whatever. Especially when the Holos are not exactly known for their loyalty in these situations…”
“What! You think any of us would betray–Okay, fair. But trust me. We’ll help out.”
“I won’t allow it. Go home.”
“Why did you even call me then, Morgan?”
“Honestly… I didn’t actually expect you to show up.”
Amy scoffs. “And to think I’m always the one defending you against all the people insulting you. I’m the one who’s been double-crossed.”
“Wait, all the people– What?”
“So sad, isn’t it?”
“Fine, whatever,” I say. “Do what you want. Just try not to die.”
“Holograms can’t die.”
I’m not going to respond to a line like that.
Amy and I walk back to the contingent of teens and the horde of them surrounding Lamar. That guy’s holding it together fine, and he should be awarded a medal of valor for that. Once we rejoin that group, there is a loud clapping from the center of the room, drawing everyone’s attention and silencing all conversation.
Yuri Motokawa, now suited up in a collarless dress shirt, an eyepatch over her visionless eye, and a black combat tuxedo–it’s got kevlar fibers woven in, making it effectively bulletproof–is ready to begin our proceedings.
Along the long table at the center of the room, she spreads a poster-sized blueprint and beckons everyone to come up to see it. We circle around and all try to get a good look.
It’s the layout to Blyth’s apparent underground fortress, nestled right under an unassuming processing center in the middle of downtown Atlanta. And, to the best of our knowledge, it’s where Blyth is right now–along with, hopefully, Jones and R8PR.
“This is where we strike. Study this layout carefully,” Motokawa says. “We will be sending three strike teams in to overwhelm the processing center, but we must do so with the utmost of care. They have multiple lockdown procedures to keep us from descending to the lower floors, we must take great care to prevent the civilian employees from triggering them. Do not take any innocent lives.”
One of the mercenaries raises her hand. “Do human security guards count as civilians?”
Motokawa gives a dark chuckle, as do several of her men. Then she looks at me and my very displeased face, and loses it immediately. “Yes. For this mission, security guards will be considered civilian targets.”
Lamar studies the blueprint intently, so intently that I’m worried for a second that his AI has taken over. But then he points to a red X drawn on the blueprint. “And this is where we converge on the first floor?”
“No,” Motokawa says. “Harding?”
I step out in front. “When we capture the first floor, I’m going to go ahead and scout things out,” I say. “I’m the only one who can escape if things get hairy fast, and the only one who Blyth won’t kill in a heartbeat. He wants me for… uh, something. So I’ll report all the information I can. If I give you the go-ahead, you can advance.”
Karina steps up beside me and takes a look at my expression. Clearly, she’s looking for some sort of added justification, some reasoning for my decision, but all I can offer is a smile. She doesn’t say anything, and I don’t say anything back. Without another word, she steps back.
“To everyone here,” I continue. “We’re fighting for the city of Atlanta here. Whatever Donald Blyth has planned, it’s going to wreak havoc if we don’t stop it here, now, today. We’re the protectors of the city, and we’re going to save the say.”
Motokawa coughs loudly, then adds, “To those under my employee, ignore everything that was just said. We are fighting to avenge the betrayal of a corrupt businessman that killed more than a dozen of your colleagues. We have a code we uphold in our world, and when people break that code, we break them.”
The mercenaries cheer.
Well, I thought I’d give the rousing speech a try. I cross my arms and defer to the real leader here.
“Anyone not geared up, get ready and meet me back here in fifteen,” Motokawa says. “The vans are loading as we speak. Get ready to strike.”
I’m starting to feel a bit better about this whole thing. That is, until I take another look at Karina, who is staring at me like there’s nothing else in the universe.
We’ve got to address this.