Updated: May 24
Fresh panic burst like a brass band in his head.
It wasn’t supposed to work like this. The plan was to go in, fawn sufficiently, conduct a cursory interview while the collector did its work, then get the hell out and deliver the merchandise before anyone realized what had happened. They had not discussed a contingency in the event he ended up stranded in the dark a klick and a half off the ground.
“Lights,” he croaked, barely able to muster enough breath to make a sound.
He fought for a deep breath and yelled, “LIGHTS!”
Where was the emergency power?
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…” Dodge mumbled, his voice consumed by the ravenous darkness. Ten years of cognitive behavior therapy washed away in an instant, leaving nothing but the shreds of the anti-anxiety drug to keep him lucid. Fight or flight kicked in—run, his brain screamed. Sweat showered from his underarms, soaked his back.
Screw the Paradise Mind. He was leaving. They’d have to get Klaxon’s DNA somewhere else. Yeah, Mr. Hill would be emmotic—or whatever it was their crackpot religion called being unhappy—when Dodge didn’t fulfill his side of the contract, but too bad. Extenuating circumstances.
And no way was he returning the advance. He’d already given most of it to Len to work up the Tiberius cover ID and inflate the rep to sell the story he was a respected content creator The Paradise Mind would have to find some other way to get Klaxon’s DNA. Dodge was finding the nearest staircase pointed down. There had to be an emergency exit somewhere.
He’d barely glimpsed the curving hallway before the lights went out, and he turned to face what he thought was the opposite wall. He inched forward, searching for something to guide him.
Where was everyone? Anyone? The guards? The entourage? The lawyers and accountants and political advisors? None of this was right.
He brushed his slick palms against the front of his jacket and felt something hard over his heart.
His mobile. Thank fuck. He had forgotten all about it. Relief suffused him like an anesthetic. He’d call Len. Len would know what to do.
Dodge fumbled the phone out of his pocket but the screen’s feeble illumination did nothing to penetrate the dark. Dodge tapped the screen, but it refused to respond, wouldn’t unlock, wouldn’t even let him access the flashlight. Entropy must have a jammer running, rendering all outside electronics into expensive paperweights.
At least the cold glow gave him something to focus on, something to distract him from the impenetrable black. He stepped forward again, hands out, carpet fibers rasping under his shuffling feet. The air was tainted with a scent he couldn’t identify—something like the showroom aroma of new furniture mixed with the smell of the barely contained terror oozing from his pores. Phosphorus bursts of weakening adrenaline flashed in the dark as his eyes strained to make out anything at all.
He’d be okay. He just had to keep telling himself that. He’d find some stairs, walk down a thousand flights, and he’d be okay.
Before his hands found a wall, his feet found something else, something yielding yet rigid at the same time. Dodge crouched, and it didn’t take much prodding to figure out the something was a body.
He sprang back and bashed his tailbone as he hit the floor. Warm bile rushed into his throat. There was a dead person not two feet away.
The idea of letting go scampered through his mind. Just give in and let the terror take him away. Eternal cognitive disassociation wouldn’t be so bad, not at this point.
The only thing that kept him tethered to reality was the thought someone would discover him, babbling in the dark like an imbecile. He imagined his picture plastered all over the link and the queer pleasure his inchoate image would give to so many people. It would make the feature stories on all the social feeds. The feeds lived off humiliation.
He tried to focus his panic, channel his adrenaline. He had to get up off his trembling ass and find a way out before someone showed up. Save the psychic breakdown for when this was all over.
It was just a body. He had been around plenty of lifeless flesh before. Just because it had once been a living, breathing person instead of cells knitted together in a biological scaffolding didn’t make a difference. Definitely nothing to freak out about. And besides, it might have something useful, like a working mobile. Or an elevator pass.
Dodge prodded the body, phone between his lips, dreading the sticky touch of blood. The corpse was tightly muscled and dressed in what felt like the unyielding silkiness of arakevlar-weave. It had empty pockets and no mobile, but did have the unmistakable shape of a still-holstered pistol tucked under its left arm.
The last thing he wanted to deal with was a gun, but as he crouched there, unsure what to do, the long-buried academic in him finally reasserted itself and tried to logic out a solution.
The corpse was two to six hours old, judging by the relative cool of the flesh; old enough the people who created it probably cleared out already. Which meant, oddly, the body was a good thing: it meant that whatever was going on, whatever reason there was to explain a corpse on the floor, it had nothing to do with him, specifically. He had just picked the absolute worst day to stage a heist. Someone had beaten him to it.
Dodge put the phone back into his pocket. He should probably take the gun, just in case–but what if he had to use it? He hated guns. He knew which end the bullet came out of and that was about it. He tugged at his earlobe until it throbbed before he reached down and drew the corpse’s weapon.
Better to have it and not need it than the other way around.
He stood and stepped over the body, the weapon’s glowing sights held out and trembling in front of him. Another step and muzzle knocked into the wall with a soft thud. He pressed his free hand against the curved surface and felt forward until he found an open doorway, grasped the doorjamb, and poked his head through.
Silence crouched on the other side, tense, waiting. His heart pounded in his head; thudded in the forefinger pressed against the gun’s trigger.
The darkness remained.
He reached up to the inner wall, probing for a manual control. The left side of the door was bare. Dodge switched the gun to his left hand and used his right to search the other wall and found nothing there either.
With forward the only way to go, he stepped through the doorway—and the all the lights seared back on. His finger twitched against the trigger as he flung his arms up to shield his eyes, but the gun didn’t fire.
The room hummed. A bank of wall screens opposite him nictitated and illuminated, glowing a sickly yellow as the penthouse’s computers booted. There was a faint click and music started, blaring from every direction, volume cranked. A barrage of hammering Japanese Taiko drums joined a moment later by a driving electric guitar overlaid with some kind of middle-eastern string instrument.
Dodge wavered in the doorway, giving his vision time to adjust, focusing on the windows ahead as their opacity function faded to transparent. When his eyes finally cleared, it took another moment for his brain to process what they were seeing.
The room was entirely white, floor to ceiling, furniture to décor, and littered with corpses.
One woman still lounged on a milky chair near the center of the room, feet up, a dynamic tablet on her lap, clutching a half-full drink. It looked like she hadn’t even had time to be startled before at least two bullets had exploded through her orange jacket.
Seven—no, eight … nine … ten … he stopped counting—corpses were piled in the room near Dodge. A fine dusting of pinkish organic matter covered the plush white furniture, and a large russet-colored pool in the luxurious frost-colored carpet ended just before his feet.
Dodge staggered backwards, nearly tripping over the corpse in the hallway behind him. He might have believed the man was simply sleeping off a rough night, if it weren’t for the unnatural angle of his head, twisted all the way round to face the floor.
The music pummeled his brain, trundled his thoughts. Another heave of nausea overtook him and he fought it down with a deep breath. No amount of medication or therapy or virtual desensitization could have prepared him for carnage like this.
Knee joints fast turning liquid, Dodge skirted the blood-covered carpet and sunk onto a clean, butter-soft couch. At the other end, another corpse in a Klaxon-branded suit—the subtle KO lapel insignia dappled with burgundy specks—shifted. Its head lolled back and the shredded meat that had once been its neck spilled down its shirt. Dodge dropped the gun, cradled his head in his hands and started rocking. Thundering drums shook the entire floor.
“MUSIC OFF!” he screamed into his palms.
He needed time to think, time to focus. He took a deep breath and held it, concentrating on the rhythmic beat of the music.
He had to get out of there before something else happened, before the police came or the killers returned or he simply couldn’t take it any more and figured out how to use the gun and …
A thought bubbled up through the fear: whatever he’d stumbled into, there was likely nothing standing between him and his target. All he had to do was get up, find Klaxon Overdrive, and get what he came for. Even if Klaxon were dead, the camera would still work. DNA was DNA.
He stopped rocking and looked up. If the computer was back on, that meant, hopefully, the elevator’s sensors would be working again. He could still get his sample, slip out of this designer purgatory, and vanish for good.
Except it still wasn’t that easy. The deal with the Paradise Mind would be utterly void. A massacre at the extraction site would be a clear breach of the ‘Condition of Subtlety’ clause in the contract they’d made him sign.
Whatever. He’d just have to avoid Hill and the other peemer goons until he got out of the city. As long as he stayed away from the Paradise Mind Campus, they’d never find him. It wasn’t like they could track him down. He was just a face and a bank account number, they didn’t really know anything about him.
Len would be able to find plenty of other buyers for Klaxon’s DNA—he knew the market, probably wouldn’t even have to try too hard.
Yeah, Len would know what to do. Len always knew.
Dodge brightened, positive thinking had actually helped. For once. Hopefully, Klaxon hadn’t managed to escape whatever had happened here.
It was the one thing he had going for him.