[Part 20] 19:16:23 // 04-JUN-2042


A loud slap jolted Dodge awake, and the left side of his face burned with a sudden throbbing. An intense stabbing joined the throbbing in an expanding cone of pain through his head. He blinked in confusion, and for a moment he didn’t remember where he was, or why he was lying on a hotel room floor with an angry stranger kneeling over him.

“Wake up.” Blair slapped him again, hard. “Where’s Joshua?”

Then it all came screaming back.

“Wha—?” Dodge grabbed his cheek and rolled away, struggling to regain his senses. He had seen Nick. Seen him.

He reached up and touched the enormous lump on the side of his head. His vision bubbled with pain. He had no clue what time it was, but the harsh daylight no longer leached past the drawn curtains. Still, the room remained stifling.

“He’s not here.” Her gun was in her hand. “What did you do with him?”

“Do with him?” Dodge winced as his voice grated his brain. His eyes locked on the gun. “He hit me.

She raised an eyebrow.

The dull metal generator lay near the door, its casing dented. Hopefully it wasn’t broken. Even more than the peace it provided, he wanted it to channel Nick again.

“There,” Dodge said, pointing at the generator. “With that.” He winced as he touched the lump again. It pulsated under his fingers.

“What did you say to him? You must have done something.”

“All I did was ask him how he was, then, bam.” Dodge didn’t feel it necessary to add he had been seeing his dead brother at the time.

He rose carefully and padded into the bathroom, holding his head still. The porcelain was cool under his hands as he steadied himself on the sink and examined his reflection. A lump rose from the right side of his head. A red, hand-shaped welt kissed the left. He sorted through the pile of towels on the floor and found a small wash cloth, waited a moment for the water to run cold, then soaked the cloth and touched it to his head. A spot of blood marked the ivory fabric. What if he had a concussion?

“Can you get me some ice?” Dodge said as he stepped back out into the room.

Blair was still gaping at the generator.

“He shouldn’t have become violent. He’s—” she caught herself “—he knows better. I told him to stay here and listen to you. He shouldn’t have left the room.” Dodge pressed the cloth against his head. Blair caught the movement and focused her fierce attention upon him once again. “Although a stillborn puppy would have done a better job watching him.”

“This is not my fault,” Dodge said as loudly as he could. But it was. He was supposed to have been watching Joshua, not playing with the Godwave.

Blair stood rigid, her eyes searching the room, as though Joshua could be spotted amongst the clutter like a misplaced set of keys. “Do you understand—” she squeezed her eyes shut “—what you’ve done? He could be anywhere.”

“He ambushed me. I didn’t do a damn thing.”

Exactly.” It came out as an accusation.

“You’ll find him,” Dodge said. He obviously wasn’t going to get sympathy from her. His head hurt too much to keep arguing and he wanted to see if the Godwave still worked. “He couldn’t have gotten far.”

“He shouldn’t have left the room, but he managed that pretty well on his own, didn’t he? Do you even know how long he’s been gone?”

It was only dented. It might still be able to make him feel better, clear away the pain.

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

“The worst that could happen? He could be killed.” Dodge cringed. “Or, he could run into one of the billions of people who know his face and think he’s dead and get taken to the ‘proper authorities.’ Or he could just disappear and we’ll never find him again.”

“Then you’d better find him.”

Me? No,” She jabbed a lean finger into his chest. “Us. You’re going to help me.” She moved to leave, obviously expecting him to follow. He remained rooted, cradling his swelling head.

“I’m not going out there. You said yourself that no one would find us here. There’s a hell of a lot better chance the Paradise Mind will find me if I go out in public. I assassinated Klaxon Overdrive, remember. Assassinated him. I’m more hated now than Oswald and Chapman and Franz and the Nazis put together. I’m not going out there. No way.” He plopped down on the bed and cradled his head. “I’m tired and my skull feels like a deflated balloon.”

“Fine.” Blair spun on the balls of her feet and was at the door in two steps.

That was too easy.

“Wait,” he called to her back. “Fine? That’s it? You’re just going to leave me here without a fight?”

“I don’t have time to argue with you. Every second I waste puts Joshua in greater danger.”

He let his arms drop to his lap. He had finally broken through to her, made her accept reason. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She turned and gripped the doorknob. “But I wouldn’t answer the door if I were you. Although, come to think of it, the Burning Spear probably won’t bother to knock, so you can do as you please. Good luck, Mr. Dodgson.”

Dodge leapt up from the bed. “You wouldn’t.”

“You mean nothing to me. And if you’re not going to help—” she spun slowly to face him “—especially after I took the time to save your worthless life, then I might as well let Entropy have you.”

“If Entropy gets me, you’ll never get Joshua’s DNA back. You need me.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

He grabbed his jacket, stalling, then pulled it on and shoved his hands in the pockets. They were empty, the cashcard Blair had given him gone.

“Shit.”

“What now?” Blair asked.

“Joshua took my cashcard.”

Blair’s hands balled into fists.

Leaving was the last thing he wanted to do, but he couldn’t stay here either. He had no choice. 

“Fine, okay. I’m coming.” Dodge hesitated for another second, then followed Blair out and pulled the door shut behind them.

A modern champagne-colored Nissan was parked in front of the room, a small puddle of rainbow-slick water forming on the asphalt underneath. Beside it, the lumpy Suzuki looked like a museum exhibit.

Blair yanked the remote from her pocket and thumbed the starter, unlocking the doors and silently engaging the car’s fuel cell. She didn’t wait long enough for Dodge to close his door before thumbing the car into reverse and squeezing the accelerator. Dodge threw his hands out to brace himself just as she switched into drive, whipping the car into traffic. He supposed it was too much to hope she’d let the pilot drive instead of handling the controls herself.

“Where do we even start?” Dodge asked when he had strapped himself in. His head felt too large for his neck to support.

“If I knew when he left, I might be able to figure out how far away he could be. But since I don’t even know that, we’ll just have to search in an expanding perimeter. If he’s on foot, we should find him. If he got in a Skute …”

“Do you know what he’s wearing?” Dodge asked.

“Long sleeve black shirt, black pants and that black jacket.”

Great. Wearing all black with night approaching. Why couldn’t anything ever be simple?

“Did you arrange for us to get somewhere safe?” 

Blair snorted. “I reserved seats on board a private plane for Joshua and myself. Then maybe into Europe or South America. You can keep the car.”

“The car?” Dodge had been hoping for something a little more concrete in the way of a plan, but under the circumstances he’d take what he could get. “Okay. Thanks.”

It seemed like everyone in the city was out walking, but none of them were Joshua, and they searched for an hour without any luck. With her patience exhausted, Blair directed the car back towards the lake.

“Where are we going now?” If she was going back to the Tunnel she could let him off right here.

She inhaled venomously, but her voice was cool. “He may have gone to the entertainment district. Sometimes he disappears, visits random clubs on his own and loses himself in the crowds. Says it’s his only chance to be anonymous.”

“If he wanted to be anonymous, he shouldn’t have become a superstar.”

Blair ignored him and turned onto Lakeshore, headed downtown.

“How does he not get mobbed when he’s out clubbing? Everyone knows who he is.”

“He usually gets some attention, but like I said before, he just tells them he’s one of the many Klaxon Overdrive impersonators, poorly sings a few lines of whatever song is currently popular, and people believe him.”

“People sure are gullible,” Dodge said.

“Oh yes,” Blair replied, not looking at him, “people will believe anything.”

Rush hour still locked the city streets in an oppressive grip, constricting traffic flow to a trickle. Getting into the city at this time of day was usually easier than getting out, but today, with the unending influx of people making their way to Klaxon’s memorial vigil at the Needle, the roads leading in were just as jammed. Even the pay lanes were congested. Agile electric scooters and motorcycles weaved in and out of the crawling automobiles. The sun was setting behind them, igniting the mirrored sides of bank towers and condominiums with a fiery scarlet glow, stark against the dark purple sky to the east. A red and silver train whisked by in the public transport lane, as if mocking the car-bound.

Alongside the eight-lane roadway, amidst abandoned cars, the lakeside boardwalk churned with pilgrims toting tents, backpacks and coolers to what looked to be shaping up as the most massive party ever. The crowd ran the gamut of socio-economic standings, of races, of religions, yet seemed to be mingling amicably. They had no idea what was really in store for them.

Out in the haze over the lake, vines of smoke twined from the island. Feed-branded drones skittered above the Needle’s twinkling remains like a swarm of hungry deer flies over a wet dog. This event had already become a bigger media circus than any war, natural disaster, or terrorist attack in recent memory. It was a historical earthquake, and Dodge was caught at the epicenter. He sunk down into his seat.

Entropy would do anything to find Klaxon. Their plan for building a devoted following of consumers depended on him. They had already blown up an entire building and the replactors in it. Killed Len. Almost killed him. Killing anyone else between them and Klaxon would be as easy as the decision to take penicillin to kill a bacterial infection. No wonder Blair was so tense. In fact, under the circumstances, her self-possession was remarkable.

Which explained why she treated him with such naked disdain: she was under incalculable pressure, fighting to stay ahead of the Burning Spear, to keep all of them safe, and he was complaining and freaking out and generally making things difficult, in it only for himself. When had he become so self-centered?

A long time ago, probably.

Dodge snuck a glance at her, her white knuckles on the steering wheel, pale cheeks rigid, eyes ablaze. She hadn’t given up. Wouldn’t give up. Dodge guessed she’d sooner die than admit defeat.

He had never met anyone like her, had never believed people like her actually existed. Her passion marked her as brilliantly as a spotlight.

“We’re almost there.” Blair said, as if sensing Dodge was about to make another smart-assed comment.

Lost in his thoughts, Dodge hadn’t noticed the traffic thin. They cut north on Bathurst and approached the entertainment district through the Olympic village. Up and down the street bots waved their glowing arms to signal available parking. Blair pulled the car into an automated multi-story lot just north of Front, and after paying the flat evening rate with a cashcard, they left the garage and stepped into the artificial exuberance of the entertainment district.

Even this early on a spring Thursday night, tourists, conventioneers, and professional partiers roamed the brightly lit walkways. A few years ago the city had closed Peter Street to traffic and covered it with a giant curved display extending all the way from Queen down to the Dome, bisecting the entertainment district. They called it the Walk.

Arterial streets branched off on each side, leading to the themed areas full of hotels, shops, and casinos: the Wild West, the Exotic Orient, the Mythical Past, Ancient Rome, the Decadent 80s.

Under the Walk it was always pleasant: blue sky and sunny or a dazzling sunset or the stars as witnessed from the surface of the moon. Anything except the brown soup that usually hung over the city. In the sunlight-starved winter months, a stroll under the Walk was nearly as good as a tropical vacation.

Dodge hung back as Blair scanned a line of vending machines along the parking garage wall, then strode over to a thin blue chrome box nestled between a pink Zam-Zam Cola machine and the bubbling Labatt’s dispensary. She made a choice from the touchscreen, tapped a cashcard, and bent over to retrieve her purchases. She walked back, handed Dodge one of the two packages and peeled the cellophane from hers. It was a disposable mobile, complete with fifty dollars of data.

Dodge held up the slender device, basically just a thin plastic screen so cheap it would fall apart just about the time the data ran out. “So you can check up on me?”

“So we can split up and search separately while remaining in contact. If you find him, call me,” Blair said.

She pointed her device at Dodge’s, transmitting her number to his mobile’s memory. Dodge accepted the transmission and did the same in return.

“You look west. I’ll look east,” she handed him a cashcard from a stack in her pocket. “Here’s a thousand dollars, more than enough to cover expenses. Just search the clubs, if he’s here, he’ll be in one of them.”

She held his gaze for a second, a second in which her face possessed no anger, no stolid resolve, no unwavering determination. A second where she allowed her vulnerability to show, before she turned and disappeared into the crowd.