“You’re doing completely fine. I’m surprised how much better you have things under control. Genuinely very impressed.” R8PR clasps his hands together, leans back in his creaky swivel chair, and gives a nod of affirmation.
“Thanks.” Lamar nods back at him.
I pop open a can of sugary soda I wrestled out of the broken vending machine and take a celebratory swig. “Three cheers for Lamar being better!” I shout.
I’m the only one who’s drinking. The other two just look at me.
…Not my fault I’m a real third wheel here. If not for Lamar relying on me to help him in R8PR-related matters, I wouldn’t even need to be here in the abandoned hospital.
Lamar does look better than ever, even in the dim light of this battered-up operation room. The color’s gone back into his face, metaphorically speaking. He doesn’t stare off into space as much, and he’s not staring down at his hands like they’re covered in the blood of an enemy.
Whatever happened to him in those years since he graduated high school, his memory is clearly still gone. But he’s finally coming into his own again, and it makes me very proud.
Still… He’s not the same as I remember. I know it’s a selfish desire that has no basis in reality, and maybe I’m a terrible person for even thinking it… but I really wish sometimes that the old Lamar would somehow pop up out of nowhere and return to the fold so we could joke and banter all day long with no worries about his mysterious past or a glitched computer embedded into his skull. We could just be normal friends in a normal world.
I wouldn’t dare say such a thing out loud, but… I suspect Lamar himself might wish this sort of thing on himself, too.
“So, checkup’s finished,” R8PR says. “You have a clean bill of health. Er, your AI does. Can’t vouch for the rest of you.”
“I understand what you mean,” Lamar says. “It feels good gaining more control over my life, after so long without any.”
“Don’t you still live with your grandparents?” I ask.
“They’re cool,” he says. “I tried explaining the AI stuff to them, but… Well, they’re trying to understand. They know I’m not always myself, and they can be there to support me when I need.”
His emphasis on his grandparents’ support has an undercurrent of the fact that his parents have not yet come around on him. In fact, they’ve pretty much refused to even see him. Abandoning his family for six years and then suddenly reappearing with no explanation is a good way to create tensions with his family, and even moreso when he can’t explain why he was gone in the first place. I hope they change their ways soon, but… I’m not too hopeful. The Gwinnetts were always pretty strict.
Ah, well. Lamar looks pretty happy right now. Maybe he actually is. I’m gonna go over and pat him on the back to make him feel better, though.
“You’re a great pal,” I tell him. Pat pat pat.
“Morgan, how have you been handling yourself?” R8PR asks suddenly.
“What do you mean? I’m just fine. Ain’t nothing wrong with me at all. It’s weird you’d even consider such a thing.”
R8PR digitally blinks at me a few times. Maybe I overspoke.
Now it’s Lamar’s turn to pat me on the back.
“S-so, R8PR, any new info on the Ascendants?” I ask to shift the subject as quickly as I can. “Any new leads or cool supervillains?”
He shakes his head. “Not a one. It’s fascinating to me how well they were able to cover their tracks the moment they were caught. The caverns in Blyth’s base were filled. Anyone arrested refused to confess even a single word. And any peep I’ve found floating around the internet has been a simple red herring.”
“So they got away…”
“Basically, yes,” he says. “We had the upper hand for about five days, but they’ve had the upper hand for years.”
“We didn’t even find out about the sacrifice…” Lamar mutters.
“Oh yeah, that friggin’ thing,” I say. The fact that they were gathered together in order to perform some sort of… ritual… on Jones herself, is horrifying, and it’s worse that we don’t even know what exactly they were going to try. “I just can’t… How can we let these guys continue to do whatever cult shit it is they’re doing?”
“I imagine they were doing it long before you or I were ever involved,” R8PR says, “and they’ll continue for a long time until they’re ready. Stopping them probably isn’t urgent.”
“So the real question to stopping them is: What’s the next step in their master plan?”
“And that next step is… The Dial-Up Demon????”
My shoulders sag reflexively. “What do you mean… I had a hunch…”
“Are you interested in the Dial-Up Demon?” he asks me.
“Not really, not yet. I think he’s a little tacky. But… I don’t know. I just had a feeling is all.”
“Ah, well then, I can tell you with all the certainty of my data that the Dial-Up Demon is nothing to worry about. It hasn’t even come up on my radar once.” R8PR stands up from his chair and paces around the operating table. “Morgan, I suggest you go home and keep up your long-deserved vacation. You worked really hard this year, what with the Social Media Killer, Moonslash, the Columbus Trip… all of it. So relax, have some fun with friends, and prepare yourself. Because it’s going to get a lot more hectic soon.”
I hate this advice.
Lamar stands up too. “Want to head out?” he asks me.
“I guess so.”
“Okay, see you two another time,” R8PR says. “I’ll still be in the comic book shop if you need me. But I’m still looking for a permanent hideout. If you ever find somewhere cozy and extremely secret, make sure to let me know.”
“I absolutely will not let you know,” I say.
“I know. See you!”