I don’t know about this.
I don’t know about this at all.
As the robot courier leads me up the stairs and past the restaurant Le Pecher, I decide firmly in my heart that this is a terrible idea that will end up with disastrous results sometime down the line.
If only he had told me, I would have expressed my disapproval with as strong of words as I could have mustered. Only that would probably have made it worse.
The robot doesn’t speak. I already deem it to be one of the good ones, from that aspect only.
We reach the top of Peach Towers.
Penthouse 1A is right here in front of us. And this right here is a prime example of a terrible idea, staring me right in the face.
Only a slip of paper slid under the front door that reads, “Passcode.”
I write “Fuck that” on the paper and slide it back under.
A moment later, I hear a familiar synthesized chuckle. The door opens.
Welcome to R8PR’s new hideout.
A penthouse on the top of Peach Towers…
And it looks really nice?!
Chandeliers up on the ceiling. A fake wood fireplace. Two pleather sofas in front of a flat-screen TV. The warm glow of wealth that reflects off the polished marble countertops. A long balcony that extends out to a small garden and a magnificent view of the city of Atlanta.
R8PR, wearing a bathrobe, beckons the robot courier and me inside. He has an absolutely delighted expression coming from those LED eyes of his, as if he designed everything here to activate my feelings of jealousy and frustration. He walks over to a cabinet and pours two glasses of red wine.
“Beirut 1998,” he says. “Try a glass.”
I want to say no, but he just opened a wine bottle and I’m the only organic being in the entire penthouse, so I guess I have to oblige.
Bleck. Wine is gross. I prefer grape juice.
But I keep up appearance so that I don’t let R8PR think he’s won this round. “Mmm. Yummy. Wine is great. Too bad robots can’t have it.”
“Can you believe it?” R8PR asks his robot courier friend standing motionlessly beside him. “They’re insulting our very existence, all because we aren’t made from carbon atoms.”
The robot courier shakes its head, then leaves through the front door.
“Do you like it?” R8PR asks. “My new courier pal.”
“We’ve met a couple times,” I say. “It’s not much of a talker, though.”
“It doesn’t even have the capability to speak,” he explains. “No getting any information out of it at all. And any attempt to open up its head will cause a factory reset, so even if someone’s suspicious enough to grab it, they’ll just end up with a mute robot straight out of the box.”
“You really love playing it safe,” I say, continuing to sip on the gross wine. “So then might you want to explain why you are now living in, well, a penthouse?!”
He laughs. “I knew you’d have trouble understanding.” He sits down on one of the sofas and picks up a remote control. “You see, I’ve thought ahead. Far ahead. The security concerns here are almost nonexistent, as long as I keep up my end of things.” He presses some buttons, and instead of the TV turning on, four panels lower down from the ceiling, each of them a live feed display of locations around Peach Towers. “I have four cameras hidden in four very important spots. One is right outside my penthouse, of course. Another is the elevator up, and to supplement that, the third is the stairwell up. The fourth is actually the Peach Towers food court. I imagine that I’ll have some very nice surveillance of anyone who might be attempting to case this house for a robbery if I examine the most crowded part of the building.”
“That’s it? That seems unlike you,” I say.
“Well… Obviously, I have more. But I don’t want to TELL those to you, on the off chance that you’re captured and tortured for information.”
“How thoughtful of you.” I finish the glass of wine and stick out my tongue. The bitterness is too strong. Bleck. R8PR takes a look at my glass and then points back to the counter… where the second glass is waiting. I hate him.
“The killer deal is that I get to pose as an eccentric entrepreneur. I never show my face to anyone, and I only communicate in notes or through my courier. I pay so well that they really think that this Jesus de la Fuente man exists, and that he’s so obsessed with the Earthbound Trading Card Game that he buys a booster box every weekday afternoon.”
“Hey now, don’t insult the Earthbound TCG. Also, if you have any duplicate rares, can you send them over?”
“No can do, Morgan. I sell everything on the online card markets the moment I open the packs. I have to fuel the game’s economy somehow.”
“Are you single-handedly running an entire resale market yourself? Are you that powerful a person?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
I finish up the second glass of red wine and pour myself a third. Might as well, if I’m stuck listening to R8PR the whole evening. “So you’ve got a fancy security system, a mute robot, a ton of money, a billionaire alter ego, and presumably some fancy VPN software that prevents anyone from discovering you’re the one siphoning all the wireless modem around here.”
“Correct on all accounts.”
“Then why even let me up here if you’re taking all these measures?” I ask. “Everything here is telling me that I’m the weak link, and if I get tracked, which I probably am at the moment considering all that stuff with Blyth and the Ascendants, won’t that lead them straight here?”
“Ah, you do not pass a fair judgment to dear Sage,” he says. “You see, I have created an elaborate backstory to solve all of that. You will often be summoned up here to visit your ailing uncle named Lawrence Garfield, who lives in Penthouse 2A. I’ve created fake documentation and even some Netnect leads buried deep into some old news posts Jones hacked for me.”
“That’s… Quite elaborate.”
“It doesn’t end there. I assume someday, someone will uncover that you aren’t actually visiting your uncle, and that this Lawrence Garfield does not actually exist. So I’ve gone ahead and peppered this Garfield name throughout Jesus de la Fuente’s own life as one he loves to use in his work for various odd, eccentric reasons. Digging a bit further will uncover the time that you saved Mr. de la Fuente during your fight against Moonslash, and the subsequent scholarship you were given to attend Georgia State University in the fall semester.”
“The scholarship to, um, what now?”
“Oh, I may have forgotten to tell you about that.”
“Don’t you worry. The classes will all be online, so you can leave it all to me. You will not have to attend in-person except for when you have to go to advisement from your departments’ counselors.”
“By the way, in about six semesters, you will receive a diploma for a Bachelor’s Degree in Gender Studies and in Mechanical Engineering. Please do not attempt to use these diplomas for a job without consulting me beforehand.”
“Ah, yes. Obviously, I can learn almost anything I want as long as I have an internet connection fast enough to load the pages. The Mechanical Engineering degree is mostly so I can keep up with Karina in some of our fascinating conversations. The Gender Studies degree is more so I can discuss with professors in e-mail conversations the scope of identity, expression, and cultural norms. I’ve been quite curious about my own identity as a man lately, and how that fits into the broader context of robotics. Was I simply programmed this way, or was it a combination of factors throughout my young life that have led to this? It’s truly fascinating.”
“Why you are trying to spark this conversation with the one person in your life who abhors the gender binary is beyond me.”
“Oh, right. Well, anyway, please remember that if you go onto Georgia State campus, you should definitely look out for the Gender Studies Department building and try to avoid getting in any conversations with the professors there.”
“I most certainly will.”
“Also, if you ever get a message from Lawrence Garfield, please do heed it as a message from myself. It will appear at the most vital of times.”
“So if this Garfield guy lives in Penthouse 2A, that means you must own that one too, huh…”
“That’s right. Clever one.”
“Then that means…” I prep my most posh South Carolina accent and say, “You sure do find a way to make a large quantity of money. Might I inquire as to the method with which you obtain the currency needed to operate all of this?”
“No, no you may not,” he says with a wink. And that is that.
It was worth a shot, at least.
“Now, what’s the occasion?” R8PR asks. “Why did you want to see me?”
“Did you hear about the big armed robbery last night with that Mighty Slammer person?”
“No, I can’t say I have,” he says. “I’ve been very busy setting up the place here lately, so I haven’t had a chance to peruse the news. Let me check my archives.” He pulls out his portable PC, which like everything else is schnazzy and new, way better than the one I bought him in June. About half a second passes. “Ah, yes, the Mighty Slammer. I see.”
“Her name is just Mighty Slammer. Not ‘the’ Mighty Slammer.”
“So you’ve encountered this character yourself, have you?”
“As I always do.”
“And the verdict?”
“She’s something else,” I say. “A rampaging lunatic in possession of some incredibly high-tech equipment. Clearly there’s something going on here beyond just the robbery last night.”
“As there always is.”
I dig out of my bag my newest prized possession—Mighty Slammer’s portable PC. “And I thought you’d enjoy a look at this.”
“Oh, well, the thought is nice, but I’m not exactly a master decryptor. Unless you have a password or a good few guesses to narrow it down, I doubt I’d be able to even get into this computer, let alone access the sensitive files inside.”
“I… I think you should just try it and see.”
He takes the portable PC and straps it to the wrist opposite his own portable PC. Dual-wielding. “Let’s see here, we—Oh. I’m in.”
“What was the password?”
R8PR’s eyes flash a few times. His expression is now that of bewilderment. “The hell…”
“You okay?” I ask.
“She left her entire computer unsecured! She didn’t even clear out her browser history!”
“Holy shit, what does this mean?”
“Well, she has a ‘not porn’ folder filled with about a hundred schematics and blueprints of all sorts of buildings around Atlanta. Mostly restaurants.”
“So we can narrow down every single place she might target next?”
“No need,” R8PR says. “Come sit down on the sofa and look with me.”
“Alright.” I take my wine glass (fourth drink now, or wait was it the fifth) and sit down next to him. He immediately wraps his arm around my shoulder and scrunches me up close. I hate this.
“Do you see these message logs?” he asks. “She’s been trading text messages and phone calls with several people for the past three months, and every single one is here for us to examine.”
“Several months? So she’s been doing this for a while?”
“Apparently.” He shakes his head. “She had an app to automatically back up all her texts and phone logs, and I doubt she even realized what was happening. It’s just all here in her e-mail account for us to view.”
“How did someone THIS unsavvy with technology get ahold of all of this?”
“And that’s what I’m going to have to find out…”
I finish up my fifth glass of wine and start feeling the effects. “I have work tomorrow…”
“You should probably go home,” he says. He looks me over and adds, “I’ll call a cab.”
“I’m not drunk! Yet!”
“Then if you’re not drunk, I’d like to tell you something: Be happy.”
“What I mean is, this summer could be the last one you have like this. Where solving mysteries and fighting crime is the most of your worries. With the Ascendants lurking in the darkness, with the mire of corruption rearing its head across the city, things are going to be changing around Atlanta soon. I don’t know how long it will last or how much it will matter. But I do know that this time of peace will not last forever.”
“I’m out here trying to stop a maniac with power armor and you’re here waxing poetic about how Atlanta’s a-changin’ again. We really do get in the exact same conversations every single time.”
He takes his hand off my shoulder and gets up from the sofa. “Maybe it’s pointless, trying to stop the inevitable, or even just to mitigate it. Morgan, do you want to run off together and become nomads out in the West together?”
“Only if Karina came with us. And Lamar. Maybe AR73 too.”
“If only. But as a knight and a wizard, we are the vanguard. It’s our responsibility to be here through it all.”
“Knight… Say, you know, I met this weirdo vigilante the other night named the Crusader. He was dressed head to toe in Magitek products, as if he was some sort of medieval warrior except with high-tech devices. He tried to help me fight Mighty Slammer, but he basically let her get away by accident. Do you know anything about him?”
“No, but I fear he may be the reason we have to stay,” R8PR says. “There are other protectors, other fighters. But they do not always fight for the right cause. They do not always have the skill needed to save the day.
“One day I’ll be gone, Morgan, and you’ll be the one picking up the pieces. I hope you’ll be ready when that happens.”
“Maybe I am drunk, because I almost understand a word you’re saying.” I get up and go to pour myself a fifth (sixth?) glass, but the bottle is already empty. Dammit.
R8PR shrugs. “Anyway, the reason I say all this is because I have a new case on my radar that needs investigating. Something unrelated to Mighty Slammer.”
“You have a radar?”
“Morgan, this is serious. I need a report on a woman who has popped up in some underground forums recently. Her name is Lucy de Blasio, and the claim is that she has in her possession not one, but four sentient AI. Fully living, learning, conscious machines, as smart as you or I.”
“‘You or me,’ you mean.”
His eyes narrow, but he ignores me. “I cannot check the validity of these claims myself, and my other contacts have been unable to make contact. So I would like you to check on Ms. de Blasio yourself, after work tomorrow. I’ve made all the arrangements.”
“If it’s that important, I’ll do it.”
What’s gotten into him? Whatever this sentient AI thing is, surely it’s some sort of scam. R8PR’s the first-ever fully sentient robot ever created, and he’s a secret fugitive on the run from every possible force on the planet. Someone having four sentient AI would be beyond incredible. It’d be downright impossible.
But if he’s serious about this, then I’ll go and check.