Normally, Dodge avoided the entertainment district with the same zeal he avoided human contact in general. It was too shrill, too hectic, too fake. Nothing was unpleasant. Nothing was real. Which, Dodge supposed, was the key to providing mindless escapism.
The deafening music and epileptic lights radiating from every club, casino, and hotdog cart made Dodge want to run away screaming as though his hair were on fire. But he couldn’t. They had to find Joshua. Besides, if they didn’t he’d never get paid.
Before he dove into the crowd, he stopped under a massive revolving display advertising the revival of Cats, used his mobile to access his data locker, and instructed an agent to search for information on ‘Len Quid,’ ‘Blair,’ and ‘Joshua Warner.’ The agent reported back a few seconds later.
The ‘Blair’ search contained too many results to bother with, and there was no new information on Len. One of the bots would surely have discovered Len’s body when he didn’t come down for his evening drink, so if there was no news, someone must have moved it. Most likely the Burning Spear when they came to claim the wounded soldiers, but either way, the cover-up was in full effect.
The name Joshua Warner produced a few hits belonging to a seven year-old trumpet prodigy in Kentucky and an English football star, but nothing relevant. Sometimes, as useful as the link was, having the combined wealth of human knowledge at his fingertips wasn’t really as helpful as it should have been.
Against his better judgment, he checked the search watching for mentions of his name. References to ‘Montrose Douglas Dodgson’ appeared more than seventy-thousand times, nearly a third having originated within the past day.
He picked one at random: a report from a Patriot support ring hypothesizing Mr. Dodgson’s muscle augmentations had been performed in the Free Republic of Texas, and calling for an immediate retributive invasion. A knot coiled in his gut. He didn’t know why he bothered with news about himself. Like everything else, it only made him feel worse.
Dodge disengaged the mobile with a disgusted swipe just as a blue and while uniformed Patriot soldier collided with him, nearly knocking him over. The soldier stopped and scowled. Her faceplate glowed turquoise as the camera in her helmet scanned and compared Dodge’s face against a database of known, suspected, or profile-matching criminals and returned the results to her.
This was it. He was caught for sure.
Sweat blossomed on his forehead. He glanced around for an escape route, but it was too late. The Patriots were wearing exo suits that enhanced their strength and speed. If he tried to run they’d nab him for sure.
A long second passed as the the Patriot gave him a stern look, but instead of detaining him, she mumbled a warning to watch where he was going and fell back in beside her partner. The search must have come up empty. All that surgery had been worth every excruciating dollar. Still, he figured he’d better put some distance between them, dropped his head, and plunged into the crowd.
As much as he despised being around people, Dodge had always been fascinated by the crowd mentality. When walking in an empty street, people strode confidently, purposefully, conscious not to appear weak. Conversely, when surrounded by like-minded strollers, people let their guard down, surrendering themselves to the sanctuary of the crowd. This probably explained why so many pickpockets worked the area: people didn’t notice they had been robbed until they were alone and once again on guard against the evils of the world. Maybe that explained why Joshua liked it here; he could simply be part of the crowd instead of the reason it had gathered.
Dodge zipped past the casinos and barely glanced at a staged shoot-out as it erupted outside the ‘Casa Nostra.’ Interactive advertisements beckoned to him from storefronts, enticing him with secret bargains, medical miracles, and artificial pleasures. He didn’t have a rep score so the ads were all generalized, but it didn’t stop them from trying. Glittering fast-food franchises pumped their artificially enhanced smells into the air, creating an umbra of scent detectable from blocks away, easily traceable back to the source. His mouth watered at the smell of grilled meat and he realized he hadn’t eaten in a day.
He continued on past a solid block of neon-laced businesses providing access to virtual worlds, promising the ability to live out adventurous lives and erotic fantasies. They didn’t seem like the kinds of places Klaxon Overdrive would hang out.
The crowd thickened ahead of him. Annoyed, Dodge looked up and stopped dead in his tracks. Before him was a three-story club that appeared to have no front wall. The interior of the club was dark, lit only by the otherworldly glow of fluorescent clothing under black light. Patrons circulated on three floors, thrashing to the music, cradling shimmering, multi-hued drinks. They seemed oblivious to the people gazing up at them.
It took another moment of incredulous scrutiny—and the name of the club, ‘Voyeur,’ sliding past along the wall in six-foot high red block-capital letters—before Dodge realized that the outer wall was nothing but a huge depth-generating screen.
Frustrated with how easily he had been fooled, Dodge marched to the bouncer and paid the cover with his cashcard. There were a lot of clubs to search and the ‘Voyeur’ was as good a place to start as any.
As he walked through the doors, Dodge was hit by a startling blast of arctic air. He had been hot for so long he had almost forgotten what cool air felt like. He stopped for a moment and let the chill surround him, drying the beaded sweat from his forehead. Even if Joshua wasn’t here, the refreshment was worth the price of admission.
The inside of the club looked exactly as it had been advertised: full of colorful, drunken gyrating bodies. What couldn’t be seen from outside, however, was the interior of the curved front wall. It showed, in grotesque enormity, the faces of those watching from outside. The spectators’ features bulged, every pore and wrinkle magnified. It was like being inside a massive terrarium, with giants silently observing.
Dodge scanned the dancing faces, but no one seemed to be looking at him suspiciously. In fact, no one was looking at him at all. That was another reason why he hated crowds—even surrounded by people he felt like an outsider, like he didn’t belong.
He made a sweep through the first floor and was ascending the stairs to the second when he realized the earsplitting music was a remix of Heart on My Hand, one of Klaxon’s biggest hits. The tributes had already started. Musicians would be remixing and rerecording Klaxon’s work, flavoring his distinct instrumental style with their own to produce new twists on his songs. They’d all be uploaded and disseminated around the world for his eager fans to devour. Dodge wouldn’t have been surprised if the song playing had been finished just hours ago.
Joshua wasn’t on the second floor. Nor was he on the third, ‘VIP’ floor, which required a short argument punctuated with a bribe before he was granted access to find out. Dodge went back over the floors again, then just to be sure, asked a passing busboy if he had seen a man who looked vaguely like Klaxon Overdrive, wearing a black hooded jacket.
“I seen plenty of black jackets, but the only time I seen Klaxon Overdrive is every time I look at a screen,” he yelled, his bin of empty bottles and glasses shifting on his shoulder. “I’m already sick of seeing that guy’s face everywhere I look.”
Dodge nodded and turned away.
Sure Joshua wasn’t lurking anywhere inside, Dodge returned to the street. After the air-conditioned club, the humidity felt even stronger. A drop of sweat materialized on his temple and ran down his cheek. He took off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder.
He tried ‘Tonic’ and ‘The Croc’ and ‘Infiltrator,’ all older clubs that wouldn’t begin drawing crowds until near midnight. They were all practically empty, populated only by bored bartenders and waitstaff chatting with each other. Dodge asked if anyone had seen a man who looked like Klaxon Overdrive. Not surprisingly, no one had.
He was running out of clubs to search. Hopefully Blair was having better luck. Though if she had found Joshua, she would have called … at least he thought she would. Dodge couldn’t figure her out. He could see Blair defying her bosses and snatching Klaxon away from them, but that didn’t explain why she had risked her life, and the life of Joshua—the man she was trying to protect—by helping him.
She wanted Joshua’s DNA back, that could explain it, but Dodge felt there had to be more to it. Len would have been able to see exactly what was going on. He was so adept at putting things together, he could have assembled a two thousand-piece puzzle of the starless night sky in the dark. But Len was gone. He had no one to rely on now but himself, and figuring people out was not his strong suit.
Dodge continued further west. Clubs this far out, on the edge of the entertainment district, where the glittering screens gave way to garbage-strewn alleys and cracked LED streetlights, had to cater to more specialized clientele. He stopped outside an abandoned-looking building, which, judging by the proliferation of latex, black eye makeup and computer-related body-mods on the patrons in line, was a techno-goth bar. He bypassed the line with a fifty-NAD swipe of his cashcard and slipped inside. As he descended the short flight of steps someone stranded in line yelled at him, threatening to find out who he was and hack his life into non-existence for jumping the queue. Dodge chuckled joylessly as he entered the club. As if a mere hacker could do anything to make his life any worse.
He stepped inside and ghoulish dark enveloped him like a closing fist. Heavy maroon curtains laced with fiber optic weaving lined the walls, devouring the already inadequate light. A grime-coated chrome fan spun lazily on the black ceiling. Scab-colored velour couches hunkered in the dark, with patrons lounging across them like wilted flowers over a casket. The words ‘Castle of Otranto’ hovered in the THC-hazed air above the dance floor, the nauseous green letters designed to look like they were dripping onto the people below.
People emerged from the smoky shadows, faces wan from the drug cocktails coursing through them, looking like the reanimated dead—which was probably the point. They staggered to the music, heads down, explosive hairstyles pulsating, luminous makeup heavy over closed eyes, with glowing ecigs clenched lightly between slender fingers. Those few in street clothes were obviously tourists, there only to ogle the freak-show.
It looked exactly like a place where Klaxon Overdrive would hang out: dark, heavily romanticized, and thick with necromantic overtones. They were even playing his song Inhuman Symphony remixed into a funeral-paced dirge, yearning vocals begging for destruction.
Surveying the crowd, Dodge noticed at least ten black hooded figures. Each resembled Klaxon Overdrive slightly, some with bone-straight black hair or a lithe physique or a gaunt face, but none of them were Joshua.
On his second pass through the club, Dodge glimpsed a slim figure wearing a jacket like Joshua’s wobble into a narrow hallway behind the bar. Dodge snaked after, skirting past the swaying dancers.
The hallway led to a small, well-lit storeroom tucked between the bar and the bathrooms. Empty metal shelves lined the walls. Dodge squinted into the comparatively intense light and saw a dozen ashen-faced patrons slumped on cheap plastic chairs arranged along the walls, passed out or well on their way. A garbage bin sat in the center of the room, congealed vomit splashed on the floor all around it. The figure Dodge had been pursuing clutched the rim, and was heaving her guts out.
It wasn’t Joshua. It was a girl, eyes red-rimmed and hollow with need, no older than fourteen. A white-faced doll—dressed in a matching ribbon-laced white shirt and black platform shoes—lay in vomit next to its owner’s bent knees.
She gazed up at him. Her spit-flecked lips extended in a pout ten years too old for her face as clutched his pant leg. Her grasp barely wrinkled the fabric.
“Hey sexy, you holding? Froot Loops? Q?”
Dodge recoiled. His leg slipped from her fingers.
“No … No, I—”
“How’s the academy?” a deep voice said from behind him.
Dodge spun. Two ‘tude boys—members of an online clan and dressed in emulation of their digital avatars—had followed him into the room. Small, back-mounted holo-projectors beamed red letters above their heads: Ranta and Don’ch, presumably their clan names.
Their outfits were ridiculous: royal blue velveteen jerkins, ruffled golden blouses, and Egyptian-styled facial hair. It made them look like posturing, historically confused, seventeenth century dandies. Anything but dangerous. But the unflinching look in their eyes and the way their muscles twitched under their antiquated clothing made it clear they weren’t playing around.
“Excuse me?” Dodge said, blinking his eyes, looking back and forth between Ranta and the girl on the floor.
Don’ch, towering over his verbal companion, jerked his braided goatee. His regiment of spiked platinum hair conveyed impending aggression.
“Don’t they learn you nerfs ‘bout undercover work, narc-o?” Ranta spat the last word and followed through with a head-fake lunge. As he spoke he jived his hands in a blur, movements that would have meant something had his hands been inside in a feelE airboard—probably directing a large sword or other exotic weapon to swing out in a decapitating blow.
Remaining otherwise still, Don’ch crossed his arms. His biceps writhed under the rich fabric.
Dodge raised his hands, dangling his jacket like a matador suddenly realizing that messing with an incensed bull was an incredibly stupid way to die. “Easy fellas, I don’t want any trouble.”
“I reckon not.” Ranta blurred forward. Surprisingly willowy fingers shoved Dodge backwards. The metal shelves caught him and clattered against the plaster wall. No one else in the room was paying attention.
Up close, Dodge could see Ranta’s pupils constricted to the point of invisibility, the iris an unbroken blue disk. Most likely due to omnipotence, the street drug that increased reaction time, enhanced strength, dulled pain, and amplified the perceptions of moral right and wrong.
He was in trouble. Sweat ran down his back like someone had rammed a garden hose in his shirt and turned on the faucet.
“We don’t like newbs in here. Check?” Ranta’s breath was hot and moist on Dodge’s cheek. It smelled softly of skunk. “We pro-tec ‘dese ro-tan from pervs like you, Alice.”
His pride wanted to fight but, as always, panic prevailed. Maybe Blair could have taken on two juiced-up stim-freaks, but he’d end up shattered in intensive care while doctors grew him another set of internal organs and re-knit his bones.
“Lesson time,” Ranta raised a tight fist, preparing to cave Dodge’s face in with his smooth knuckles, but his associate stepped forward and clasped his arm.
“Detach, Ran. This carb ain’t nothing. He’s horlan. Ain’t you, carb?”
Eyes wide, Dodge nodded madly, not knowing what he was agreeing with.
Ranta unlaced his fingers and wiped them across his lips.
“Scata,” Ranta said, grabbed two handfuls of Dodge’s sweat-dampened shirt and tossed him out into the hallway.
Face flushed, Dodge scrambled away, his soles slipping on the slick tiles. Laughter chased him down the hall.
He streaked through the club, up the steps, shoved his way through the line outside and raced down the street, embracing the clinging humidity as a sign of safety. Heart racing as stress chemicals dashed through his body, he tried to straighten his shirt, tucking the loose tails back into his pants, while getting as far away as possible.
This was exactly why he never left the house.