[Part 23] 22:56:26 // 04-JUN-2042


Joshua rose to his haunches, ready to pounce.

Dodge was no psychologist, but he knew about mental illness, and it was clear Klaxon Overdrive in the midst of a psychotic breakdown. He was losing it, right in front of them. But this hadn’t just started today. Blair said he’d been sick for a while. How had Entropy managed to cover it up for so long?

Dodge extended his hand and inched closer. “Easy Joshua—Klaxon—whatever. I just want to help you.” 

Joshua blinked once, then his face writhed like insects were trying to chew their way out from under his skin.

“I’m not me,” he wailed, despair suddenly shattering his face. He took a step forward, arms outstretched as though pleading, like he was about to grab Dodge up in a desperate hug. “I remember. Rusted tight. I’m wrong. Wrrrrrong.

Jennifer whimpered in the far corner, catching Joshua’s attention, and just as fast as it came, his anguish vanished. He spun to face her, dropped his hands on the dark-stained wooden table, and peered at her like he was playing a sadistic game of hide and go seek.

“Boo,” he said. “I found you.” His strained voice solidified, become instantly beguiling. Nearer to the voice Dodge recognized as Klaxon Overdrive’s. Tense energy rearranged his face into a seductive mask.

Jennifer’s swollen eyes widened.

“Don’t be afraid of us, pet,” he purred. “We know who you’ve been waiting to see.”

Dodge took another step forward. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but if Klaxon had snapped his hold on reality, there was a good chance he could hurt someone. 

The manager kept pounding on the door, demanding to be let in. Dodge had only a few seconds to get Joshua together before the lock burst and—well, he didn’t want to think about what would happen then. Hopefully Blair would get there in time to figure it out.

“Jennifer, please. Help me,” Joshua said, his voice undergoing another tonal shift. The rage turned to dust and his face settled. “I’m not myself. I need you to help me.” 

She hesitated, her back pressed against the scuffed beige wall bookshelf, but then raised her hand tentatively, as if she was about to pet a tiger. 

“I can make this better,” Joshua leaned forward, focused completely on Jennifer, like nothing else in the world existed but the two of them. He smiled and reached out to the terrified girl.

Tears welled in Jennifer’s eyes. Relief cleansed her weary features. “Where have you been?” She rushed forward, bending over the desk separating them, fingers moving to touch his face.

Just as she got close Joshua jerked away from her outstretched hand, and his lips parted in a sneer. “You think you deserve us, whore? We’re more than just a man. How could one person ever compare to the love of billions.”

Jennifer lifted her arm as if preparing to ward off a blow. Fresh tears created dark splotches on her blouse. “Joshua what’s wrong with you?”

“Don’t call us that,” he spat.

Dodge took another step. One more and he’d be able to grab Joshua and—and then what?

Joshua inclined his head and laughed. “Look at you. We could have anyone we want. Why would we want a bleating cow?”

Jennifer’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re not Joshua. Get out. Get out. Get OUT!” Her voice rose, drawing the last word into a scream.

He wiggled his fingers at Jennifer and cackled. “Come on baby. Don’t you want us anymore?”

Dodge was close enough to touch Joshua’s back. “Joshua, buddy, ease up. You’re sick.”

Joshua twirled, knocking Dodge’s hand away, and punched him hard in the stomach. Dodge staggered backwards, bent double.

“I’m just … trying to help,” Dodge mumbled, clutching his gut. He shook his head in pain and disbelief. He’d been punched more times in the past twenty-four hours than he had his entire life.

“You can’t help us, thief,” Joshua said, sneering. “Ain’t no one can understand what it’s like to be us. Can’t understand what it means to be special.”

Dodge took a deep breath and extended his hand to Joshua. “You need help.”

“You don’t have any idea what we need,” Joshua said, slapping Dodge’s hand away again.

The pounding on the door stopped. Probably went to get the key. Blair had better hurry.

Jennifer’s tears continued to flow. She had crumpled to the floor and was hugging her knees. Dodge needed to distract Joshua for a few more minutes, give Blair enough time to arrive and deal with the situation. She’d be able to handle it.

At least he hoped she would.

Dodge took a deep breath and fought through the pain in his gut. “I know I know, I don’t understand. But still …”

The sneer melted from Joshua’s face. His brow smoothed, his posture straightened. “I’m sorry, I don’t know … why … I’m like this. But I—” Joshua looked around the room as though a spell had just worn off and he was no longer a toad, once again a man. “You—you were in that hotel with Arella. Where is she? What’s going on?”

Arella? Who was Arella?

“You mean Blair?”

“We … we watched … the white spikes …” Joshua covered his mouth with his hand.

“We watched the Klaxon assassination,” Dodge urged.

“No.”

Why didn’t he remember?

“Yes. At the Needle.”

Joshua looked like he had just been told he had inoperable brain cancer and less than a month to live. He lunged, grabbed the lapels of Dodge’s coat. His eyes were manic. “I’m too tight.

Dodge jerked back, but tried not to let his fear get the best of him. “What do you mean ‘too tight?’”

“It was Entropy. Blair. Rust. I’m not—”

Behind them the dead bolt slid aside and office door flew open hard enough the handle buried itself in the drywall. The manager and another giant man who looked like he might be a bouncer rushed through. The bouncer clutched a baseball bat, the manager a huge kitchen knife.

Dodge raised his hands in surrender for the second time in an hour.

“Look guys—” he started, then dropped to a knee as the metal bat whooshed over his head. Not wanting to give the large man another chance to hit a triple with his skull, Dodge scrambled back on his hands, dragging his ass on the floor. The bouncer took another wild swing that just missed, but then Dodge ran out of room as his back hit the desk. 

The bouncer grinned. His next swing wouldn’t miss. And even if he did, the manager was blocking the door, his knife raised. There was nowhere for Dodge to run.

Joshua remained still, standing next to the wall, studying the flow of events as if preparing to report the results to a scientific journal.

Dodge was staring at the bouncer, waiting for the blow that would cave in his skull, and was the first to notice Blair appear in the doorway. 

Jennifer spotted her next. “You—”

The manager jerked his head toward the door, and was almost quick enough to swing his knife around too, but Blair pivoted on the ball of her foot and lashed out with a precise kick that numbed the manager’s knife arm. He groaned as the weapon fell from his hand and embedded itself in the floor. The bouncer jerked his head around at the sound, saw Blair standing behind him, then twisted and swung the bat in one smooth motion, hard enough it would have caved her face in. She sidestepped, ducked, then smashed her fist into his groin, and rose in one smooth motion, like a dance move. The bouncer shrieked, dropped the bat and slumped to the ground.

“Everybody okay?” She looked pleased with herself until the bartender scrambled in behind her, a small gun quivering in his hand. Even she wasn’t fast enough to get to him if he decided to pull the trigger.

Enough,” Joshua said. Although his voice was commanding, he hadn’t raised it. “You’re all gonna knock it off. Right now.”

“Fuck that,” the bouncer growled, struggling to rise.

Joshua raised an eyebrow, his slight frame seeming to expand and occupy three times its volume. “You do not want to challenge me. Square yourself.” His eyes went hard and his voice became impossible to ignore. “You want to put that weapon down. Now.”

This was the voice of a man who got governments to forgive third world debt.

The bartender lowered both the barrel of the gun and his eyes to the floor.

“Good, that’s bluer. Now—”

Joshua collapsed, shrieking, throttling his head with his fists. Dodge cringed, unable to stand the sound, until an agonizing second later, Joshua passed out.

Blair gasped, shredding the silence, and Jennifer followed with a fresh round of wet sobbing.

As if on cue, the bartender raised the gun again, aiming it at the center of the room. The bouncer rubbed his crotch, seething, eyes zeroed-in on Blair. Even the manager had picked up his knife and was rubbing life back into his arm.

Blair rushed over to Joshua, dropped to the floor and cradled his head. She wasn’t fighting her way out of this, especially not with Joshua unconscious. Dodge needed to do something. It was up to him.

But what was he supposed to do?

He thought for a moment, then another, and when nothing came to him, he did the only thing he could—he pretended he was someone else. Someone who wasn’t terrified.