[Part 29] 04:12:58 // 05-JUN-2042


Dodge blinked as he came awake.

Where was he?

Slumped against something firm and padded, neck angled, head resting on cool night, surrounded by pain. He glanced around, not moving anything but his eyes. Ahead, through glass, a blue-black expanse stretched to the horizon. A smog-stained stucco wall on his right. The dopplering lull of passing tires on a street behind him.

It took a moment for his surroundings to coalesce into a picture in his mind, and then another for his memory to offer context.

They were parked beside the lake. Somewhere behind the condo hotel.

Blair had gone back for the Godwave.

Dodge groaned as he heaved himself upright. The pain was intense, but he braced himself and let the worst pass before opening the car door and dragging himself out.

Palm against the wall, he staggered around toward the front of the building, halting before he stepped from the shadows and into the white glare bathing the small parking lot. Their room’s door was closed, but the lights were on inside.

A truck passed, freeze-framing him in its headlights. He was too exposed. He had to move.

Hand pressed against the sharp spike of fire in his side, Dodge walked as fast as he could across the empty parking lot, trying his best to avoid aggravating anything. He gripped the handle, held it for a second, then pressed the latch and pushed. Blair sat on the bed, staring at their discarded clothes, which were now neatly folded on the dresser. The duffel bag was gone.

Blair slowly looked up, her thin face hollow.

“Is it here?” Dodge asked.

She shook her head. “They took everything. This was a ‘no miss,’ and I missed.”

Dodge gripped the doorjamb to steady himself against the attack he knew would be coming, but she didn’t rise.

“Are you okay?” Dodge asked. He didn’t come any closer. He wanted a head start if she came at him—though he knew he wouldn’t get far. 

Blair looked at him and laughed.

“'Am I okay?’  That’s a hell of a question. Let’s see: I lost Joshua, and who knows what the Paradise Mind will do to him, but whatever it is, he won’t be the same man when they’re done. The bag’s gone, which means I can’t pay you for Joshua’s DNA, which means, unless you’ve suddenly decided to just give it to me out of the goodness of your heart, I’m going to have to kill you. I’ve ruined my life and my career for nothing, and now I have a murder to commit. So, no, I’m not okay.”

Dodge blanched, ready to flee, but after a second realized she wouldn’t hurt him. She was frustrated and venting, sounded like she might have given up.

Surprisingly, he hadn’t.

“We need to leave. We’re not safe here.” Dodge glanced over his shoulder and out the open door.

“We’re not important. Joshua was all that mattered. With him gone, what’s the point?”

“It could get a lot worse than this, trust me.”

“Then go. Take the car and go.”

“I’m not leaving you here,” Dodge said. “We’re better off together.”

A spark of anger flickered through her. “I’m not going to sit here and have a special moment with you, Mr. Dodgson. We lost. Go away before I decide killing you will make me feel better.”

Dodge’s couldn’t believe what he was hearing, what had happened to her infuriating confidence? “I didn’t take you for a quitter.”

Her jaw clenched. “The reverse psychology routine isn’t going to work. Nor will helping me find my motherly side or some inner reserve of willpower. Joshua is beyond our reach. We can’t get into the Paradise Mind campus. And even if we could, they’ve cleaned out the room, taken everything but our dirty clothes. It’s over. Thanks to you.” Dodge tried to argue but she wasn’t having it. “Just go.”

“No, we—”

Her voice tightened. “I’m not the kind of person who makes wishes, Mr. Dodgson, but if I were, I would wish to any god or demon who would listen that I had let the Burning Spear take you. At least Joshua would be safe now.”

She was angry, lashing out, but after everything they’d been through, he wasn’t about to let her get to him.

“And here I’d been believing that nothing would ever stop you. Fine, sit here and mope if you want, but I’m not giving up—and you know why? Because I feel responsible for him, and I’m not going to sell his DNA on the black market either, not after what you told me Entropy’s planning—but I will sell it back to him.”

“You—”

“I told you, I think I can get to Joshua, and if I don’t, at least I’ll have tried. I owe him that, anyway.” Dodge straightened, grabbed his side when it flared in pain and strangled a wail, but turned and hobbled out the door anyway.

A moment later he heard the door shut, and then Blair was beside him/

“You’re telling me you have a plan?” she asked.

It hurt too much to turn, but Dodge angled his chin at her and kept walking. “Don’t act so surprised. I’m not completely—”

A thrumming whirr cut through Dodge’s train of thought, then a heavy drone buzzed down over the parking lot and past their heads. Shocked, he stumbled and fell to a knee, hands over his head to protect himself from the plunging aircraft.

Harah,” Blair cursed as the drone circled. Not waiting for Dodge to get up, she took off running towards the car.

“Wait,” Dodge called, climbing to his feet and stumbling after her. Pain pulsated with every step, vibrating through his bones and into his teeth.

The drone kept behind Dodge, following as he rounded the corner and seesawed to the car. It whizzed, gnat-like, lunging so Dodge was forced to duck, and then pulling back until he had taken a few more steps. Whoever was operating the drone didn’t seem terribly concerned Dodge would slip away. They were playing with him.

Blair had already started the car and reversed to meet him, swung it around so it was facing the road, and waited as he fell in the open door. Before he’d settled in she was already pealing out of the parking lot onto Lakeshore. The drone kept above them, floating above them as though it were a black kite tethered to the rear of the car, dragging in the breeze.

Blair craned her neck back and glanced up through the sunroof. “I’m getting sloppy.”

“What, the feeds?”

“No, this is the Burning Spear.” Dodge darted his head about, trying to spot the white-clad commandos. “They must know about your deal with the Paradise Mind. I know, so they must. Entropy would have briefed them fully. The Burning Spear would have been watching them.”

“Shit.”

“We need to lose that tail before an assault team finds us. They’ll be looking for retribution.”

Traffic had thickened, mainly automated cargo trucks timing their passage through the city to beat the morning rush.

“I need to see a doctor. I think my rib is broken,” Dodge said as he prodded his back with his fingers.

“No time for a doctor, my dear. I’ll fix you up as best as I can as soon as we have the time.”

“Your mood has improved,” Dodge said, his mood darkening.

“I guess your sermon worked, you would have made a passing rabbi.” 

Blair whipped the Nissan around a double-length trailer and squeezed the accelerator, making a move to shoot into the fast lane, perhaps hoping to lose the drone in the tall buildings of the downtown core.

Then the drone was ahead of them, bright orange spears flicking from its belly. A pentagram of holes appeared in the windshield between them and the backseat exploded in a flurry of stuffing. This gnat had teeth.

“Shit!” Dodge yelled again, jerking back from the puckered glass. “It’s illegal to arm drones.”

“Not as illegal as killing people,” she said, jerked the brake and wrenched the wheel to the right, skimming the bumper against the rear-guard of a semi and sliding the car down into the Tunnel.

Dodge’s throat tightened. “We’re going back into the Tunnel?”

“I don’t think that thing’s going to follow us, do you?”

Terror replaced pain as the primary sensation in his body. An invisible manacle tightened around his abdomen. “Can’t we go somewhere else…? What about an underground—”  

Water tumbling, defying gravity.

Disoriented. Lungs burning. 

He grips a small hand in his own. 

It squeezes back.

 “—parking garage?”

Blair shot him a side-eyed glance. “That thing would shoot us before we got anywhere near one.”

Breaking the surface with a spluttering gasp. 

His mother in the distance while his father approaches, powerful arms like balsa against the battering waves. 

Don’t let go.

Don’t let him go. 

Grasping claws drag him under again.

The small hand slips from his weakened fingers.

 “Get me out of here,” Dodge hissed through clenched teeth.

“We’ll be out in a few minutes. I’ll take the DVP exit and put plenty of space between us and the drone.”

“No, you don’t—”

Slippery talons tug, and the watery outline of a limp boy drops away.

 “—understand.”

It had looked so inviting, so peaceful. The sun had driven them in. Dodge was supposed to be in charge. Nick had been Dodge’s responsibility, and he had failed. The water had looked so safe.

It had seemed safe.

“Wait,” Dodge mustered as much force as he could. “We have to stop.”

“We can stop when we’re out the other side.”

“No, now,” Dodge insisted.

Blair raised a loose fist. “What is your problem? Ten minutes ago you were ready to go on with or without me. Now you want to turn back?”

“This is a trap.” It was obvious. Why spring the drone on them when it could have followed quietly from the air? It was a hound, driving its prey towards the hunters. The Burning Spear was waiting for them. He was sure of it.

Blair slackened her grip on the accelerator. The car slowed and a passing truck blared its horn as it changed lanes. “What do you mean?”

“The drone could have followed us silently, right? They wanted us to see it. Wanted us to run. And the safest place to run from an aircraft—”

“—is underground,” Blair finished, the realization smoothing her expression. She released the accelerator entirely. “We need to find another way out.”

“I can’t walk,” as bad as it was inside the relative safety of the car, Dodge couldn’t begin to fathom walking in the tunnel.

Blair pulled the car into a breakdown lane and stopped beside an emergency exit. She checked her pockets and exited. A passing car hummed by, its tires hissing on the tunnel’s slick roadway. Dodge counted to three, opened the car door, then gave it everything he had and pulled himself upright. He took one step then crashed against the tunnel wall. He didn’t know how much further he could make it.

Blair had opened the trunk and stood, hands on hips, staring at the car like it was an obstinate farm animal. “There was a time when torching a car was simple. These damned fuel cells and flame resistant interiors are more trouble than they’re worth.”

Another car shushed by.

“Come on.” She turned and jogged up the emergency exit stairs. Dodge took a breath and followed, concentrating on breathing and moving as little as possible while still maintaining forward momentum.

It was only lake water above him, not the crushing depths of an entire ocean. And even if, by some freak accident, the tunnel did collapse, he could probably swim to the surface. Ok, maybe not now, but if he wasn’t a walking column of pain he could.

“We have to hurry,” Blair said, pulling the exit door open. “Keep up.”

Dodge nodded. The steps felt like they were a meter high, but he forced himself up, winding up and around the flights until they hit the brightly lit escape passageway angling up to the surface. Blair was already far ahead. He increased his shuffling speed as much as he could without screaming.

After a few moments at a faltering run, a green door curved into sight, looming at the end of the narrow tunnel. Blair was waiting.

Relief in sight, Dodge lunged ahead to burst through the door, anticipating the sweet lungful of air. Blair snaked her arm out, caught Dodge by the shoulder and pressed him to the wall with her forearm. The impact launched a bright stab of agony up his spine and he groaned. At least the pain was becoming more localized, centered on the right side of his mid-back. The rest of his body had become one giant ache.

“Wait here,” she said, then levered the door open, just a fraction. Orange sky beckoned through the crack. A second later she stole out, then the door thumped shut and he was alone.

Dodge slid down the wall to a sitting position, landed with knees at his chest, closed his eyes and started to count, giving his mind something to do to keep it from forcing his body to sprint through the door.

He’d got to one hundred and thirty-three when he heard a faint thumping. The thumping turned to muffled footsteps. Someone was coming, following them up the escape tunnel. He couldn’t wait for Blair.

He pushed himself off the wall, thrust the door open and teetered out onto a thin stretch of grass next to the lake’s edge. Blair was crossing the bike path, running back from the direction of Lakeshore.

“I said—”

“—someone’s coming down the tunnel,” Dodge said before she could finish scolding him.

“Let’s go, I have a taxi waiting.”

The procession heading to the Needle had slowed for the night but was picking up again. Out on the lake, the floating structures were already nearly to the shore. He had no idea how many hundreds of thousands of people had arrived, but they showed no sign of stopping.

Blair grabbed Dodge’s arm and, shoving through a group of backpackers, led him to the roadside. An automated orange and green taxi sat idling, winking its hazard lights.

She helped Dodge in, slid in beside him, and barked the streets of a nearby intersection. The meter was already running as the cab pulled away from the curb and insinuated itself amongst the early morning commuter traffic.

Through the rear window, Dodge watched two men burst through the Tunnel’s emergency exit and scan the area. He slumped down into the plastic seat. “You think they were Burning Spear?”

She turned to face him and shrugged, as if narrowly escaping a band of deadly mercenaries was just another day in the life of a Klaxon Overdrive brand manager.