Updated: May 24
Dodge pried his hand off the boat’s railing and pressed a finger to his neck. Either his heart had stopped or it was pounding so fast he couldn’t feel it.
He shouldn’t have taken that fourth dose.
Though, what was he supposed to do? Three pills weren’t enough anymore. And if not for the sheer weight of the chemicals stepping on his nerves, he wouldn’t be out there with his face full of lake air at all.
This was it, the moment he’d been dreading. Months of planning ended here. It’d be over in an hour, just an hour. He only had to keep from collapsing into a molten panic attack for the next sixty minutes while he stole a reclusive billionaire philanthropist rock-god’s DNA out from under him—then it would all be over and he’d trade his score for the peace of a brand new brain. One with the replactor chaos and the day at the beach and every other tragedy he’d ever suffered carved clean from his life. He’d never worry about anything ever again.
One way or another, his whole existence was about to change. Which terrified him. Because if he didn’t hold it together and they figured out what he was up to…
Well, misery has no depths and all, he knew that firsthand, but he was close enough to see the jagged spikes rushing up at him. The bottom was coming fast, and this was his last parachute.
If he messed this up, even as excruciating as his life was now—he knew the impact would kill him. It was this or swallow a fist full of pills.
Even still, even knowing what was at stake, his hysterical nervous system screamed at him to jump over the railing, to bail now and swim to safety. His eyes shot to the black water, then to the glowing shore half a click away.
Instead he faced back toward the island and squeezed the railing in a death grip. Too late for that. With his luck he’d drown and the seagulls would eat his remains.
What was he doing? He wasn’t built for this. He should have found someone else to handle this part. How would he ever convince anyone he was a world-famous journalist?
He was spinning, knew he was spinning, and fought to throttle down his ever-revving brain. He’d worked through every step, over and over. There was no other option. It had to be him. Who else was there? Dodge only had one friend, and he was already involved—which meant hiring outside help. A mercenary. A criminal. A talker, someone who considered conning old ladies out of their life savings a viable career path.
As hard as he’d worked to get here, he didn’t trust a criminal not to disappear with the score once it was all over.
No, he knew it had to be him, knew there was no other way, but even absolute certainty and a fist-full of anti-anxiety medication weren’t enough to keep his hyperactive nerves from wringing him out.
Fear crawling up his throat, Dodge plucked his mobile from his jacket, put the bud in his ear, and thumbed redial. It was risky, he knew that, someone might overhear, but he hoped the engine noise would mask his voice. Not that he had a choice—not even off the boat yet and already seconds away from flipping out and abandoning the entire plan. He needed someone to talk him off the ledge.
Len answered instantly, his head on the phone’s screen mostly teeth and bushy ginger hair. Pale blue light leaked from the curve of monitors surrounding him, casting a deathly pallor on his skin.
“And there he is—boom. Now you owe me a thousand more,” Len said, flashing his wide grin.
“What—?” Dodge hissed, trying to keep his voice down. “No, not now, I — No way are you gettin’ a bigger cut. You’re a contractor on this one, this is my score — Fucking Len, I can’t believe I’m two seconds away from this and you’re haggling. Listen to me,” Dodge’s throat constricted, his voice an octave from shattering. “Do I sound like someone who wants to fucking haggle?”
Len rolled his eyes. “Calm down, Laverne, would ya? This ain’t about a bigger cut. The thousand is the price you pay for being as predictable as my morning dump.” He pointed down. “See that little white envelope on the bottom of your screen there? It’s a message. From me. Betting you’d check in to make sure I had everything secure, even though you know perfectly well it is, and if we had a problem, you wouldn’t have to call me to hear about it. You’re about to hit the island, ain’t you, and about to load your drawers with dookie. You think about swimming home already?”
“Something might have happened — How am I supposed to know?” Dodge moaned, skipping right over Len knowing exactly what he’d been considering. “Maybe Entropy’s on to us, maybe they found that dataphage you let loose in their systems and they already know all about us and the reason you didn’t call to warn me I’m about to walk into an ambush is because you’re dead, because Entropy stormed your office and killed you and now I’m walking into an island full of fucking Patriots juiced up and jumping to shoot me until I’m unrecognizable as human. I can’t handle guns Len, I can’t — Those things, they just fuckin’ go off—”
He only stopped when lack of oxygen sent sparks across his vision.
Len’s patient smile jittered, and Dodge had to squeeze his phone to stop his hand from shaking. How would he ever convince anyone he was a world-class reporter? This plan was not going to work.
“Fine, you win,” Dodge finally said, taking a breath. “Please convince me, one more time, that everything will be okay.”
Laughter shook Len’s camera. “You got the shortest memory of any genius I ever met. Come on. Have I ever let you down?”
“No, but we’ve never tried anything this risky before, that’s the difference, and if this gets hashed I’ll be the one breathing recycled air for the rest of my life.” He fixed his eyes on the camera. “I can’t go to jail.”
“Settle down,” Len wheezed, rolling his eyes. “Klaxon’s people are so excited by the content I sent them they’re on perma-clench. They think this doc will win the Pulitzer, and with Klaxon’s upcoming movie in full feed blitz mode, they’re looking for all the juice they can get. They know you’re a little eccentric, which honestly I think helped sell the whole thing. They like you’re weird, works with their brand. I got your cover solid and the rep bumped high enough no one will think twice about you. So just keep yourself punched in to semi-normal, ask the questions like we practiced, and you’ll be fine. I got external security cameras rerouting here, and the internals’ll be scrubbed shiny by the dataphage. As long as your little contraption works, you’ll be in and out and the only evidence will be memory. Besides, who the hell’s gonna remember you? You’re nobody.” Len tapped his head and his finger plunged knuckle-deep into his hair. “Convinced?”
Dodge relaxed a fraction. Good as it would get.
He could do this. He just had to keep telling himself that.
“Did you take your medicine?” Len asked.
Len had no idea he’d been taking his tryptoxetine at triple the recommended dosage since they started planning this job.
“Would I be standing here otherwise?”
“Good, cause once you walk in those doors you got no one to help you but you—which means you’ll need all the help you can get. Now pull yourself together. And mop that head of yours, Pulitzer Prize winners rarely conduct interviews soaking in flop sweat.”
Len’s face winked from the screen. He was not good at pep-talks, but it didn’t matter now, the automated craft was pulling up to the dock. No turning back.
Dodge dragged his sleeve across his forehead, smoothed his collar, bent and picked up his case. He was an anxious, sweaty mess with four days' worth of medication buzzing in his head, and the hard part hadn’t even started. He had to move now before his nerve snapped and flung him home, damn the consequences.
Dodge kept his eyes on his feet as he stepped off the boat and crossed the dock to the polished concrete path. After a three count he forced himself to look up, and his mouth immediately filled with bile. Everything was too perfect, like he’d stepped into a digital simulation. The grass was deep green and impossibly uniform, one smooth texture across the lawn. Glowing orchids lined the path ahead, casting a greasy moonlight sheen all the way up to the immense building in the center of the island: an otherworldly silver spike that seemed to pierce the night sky.
The scale of it left him queasy.
The building had an official name: Entropy Skyreach Tower. But everyone just called it the Needle.
Built on a man-made island off the Toronto shore, the Needle was a hundred and fifty stories tall and impossible to access casually. Tourists couldn’t just walk in for selfies with the kids. Rooms weren’t available at any price. Hell, even the cops needed to make an appointment to get across the single-lane bridge connecting the island to the mainland. No one got close without an invite, and yet here he was, one of the chosen few, trembling in his sweat-soaked underwear and wishing he was anywhere else.
The Needle existed solely for the use of one man—Klaxon Overdrive—the single-most beloved celebrity the world had ever known. Second only to images of the sun in terms of global recognition. But Klaxon wasn’t satisfied with incalculable fame and wealth as an entertainment juggernaut. As a hobby, he’d taken up the challenge of saving the world.
He chaired development groups teaching creaking democracies how to leverage technology to save themselves from crumbling into authoritarianism, helped create economic restructuring programs for inescapably debt-ridden communities, and remotely coordinated global self-sustainment villages in climate-ravaged slums. He’d moved so far past celebrity he was a burnt offering away from divinity, and far, far too important to risk ever going out in public.
But Dodge wasn’t just some low-level mozzy snatching a celebrity blood sample off the street. This was full-blown corporate espionage. The whole complex, the island and everything on it—including Klaxon Overdrive himself—belonged to Entropy Inc., a company that had scientifically perfected the art of making money. Pharma. Biotech. Genetics. Communications. Energy. Retail. Entertainment. Manufacturing. They did everything, and Klaxon was the face of it all.
They owned him outright. Performance rights, likeness, digital and analogue—everything down to his genes—in perpetuity and beyond. Klaxon was their golden goose, and they kept him and his precious genetic code locked safely away in a silver tower, completely protected from all harm and outside influence.
In the world of underground genome trading, Klaxon Overdrive’s g-code was the holy grail, the sample no one had ever sequenced, and Dodge was about to fill his cup. As long as he could keep from imploding under the stress.
At this point he figured his prospects were about fifty/fifty.
Finally, unable to stall any longer, Dodge shuffled up the path toward the building. His already straining nerves spasmed when he reached the end and realized the path didn’t lead anywhere, and dead-ended at a smooth unbroken reflection of the grey night sky and dazzling city lights. Still he kept walking, and as he approached, the blank wall stretched and separated, like vertical lips. He shuddered at the gruesome images that leapt across his mind, then gulped and stepped through anyway.