With Blair asleep and Joshua busy poking around in the trash, Dodge found himself with nothing to do, nowhere to run. He also realized that he was starving and so tired that even the idea of sleep was too exhausting to contemplate. He sat down beside Blair’s bag, fished out two instameals, pulled the tabs on both, and set them down to warm. Dodge snuck a look at Blair and, satisfied she was unconscious, fished the black cube from the depths of her bag. He ran his fingers over the rounded edges.
Now that he knew the truth about Joshua, Blair’s possession of an enormous memory cube made sense. And he suspected Mr. Hill had known what it was too. It held a copy of Joshua’s mind, he knew it. Klaxon Overdrive in a box. No wonder Blair wanted to go back to the hotel for it. She hadn’t really cared about the Godwave generator at all. He wondered if the digital Joshua inside was conscious, trapped in his own mind, slowly going insane.
Dodge placed the cube back in the bag and picked up an instameal. He juggled the hot plastic container from hand to hand as he carried it across the room to where Joshua was sitting next to piles of scrap, each arranged according to some enigmatic categorization.
Dodge offered the tray to Joshua. “Hungry?”
“No,” Joshua said. But he took the meal and considered it for a moment, sniffing the brown mash and running his fingers over the smooth exterior. Decision made, he finally placed it into a pile already containing a bent metal fork, a plastic glow-in-the-dark star, and the severed antenna from an old radio.
Dodge crouched down in front of Joshua and his piles. “What are you doing?”
“Putting everything in order.”
Dodge studied the separate piles. “I give up, what’s the order?”
“Pitch,” Joshua said. He broke the spoon off the top of the instameal, peeled back the top and began eating.
Pitch? “I don’t hear anything.”
“I do,” Joshua said and ate another brown spoonful. He pointed to the pile containing the instameal container. “Those are all G sharp.”
“Because they are,” Joshua said. “Why is that food brown? Why is water wet? Salt salty? They just are.”
“Salt is salty because it’s … it’s salty. Because our tastebuds react to its molecular structure. It doesn’t have a pitch.”
“Salt is a B. And it tastes silver. There’s enough of it in that instameal.”
Dodge stared at Joshua as though he had just grown a third form of limb.
“I know, I know. Weird, right?” Joshua said, the hope clear in his eyes.
“Completely unhinged bonkers is more like it,” Dodge said, then immediately wished he could reel the words back into his mouth. Joshua sagged. “I mean—”
“No, it’s okay. I’ve been thinking the same thing.” Joshua swept his hand across the piles, scattering them across the floor. The torso of a toy robot whirled away, coming to a stop near the edge of the withered floorboards. Joshua stood and walked over to the plastic body, bent and picked it up. “I woke up a few days ago in a hospital bed. At least I thought it was a hospital.” He gestured to Blair. “Arella was there. She took me to her car, and we drove down into the city from somewhere up north. Then we met you in that building and there were … some other people …” he trailed off and then suddenly asked, “Why is it so hot here?”
Dodge wasn’t sure how to answer, if this was another non-sequitur or if he was truly asking. “Because it’s almost summer?”
Joshua lost focus and then snapped back to attention. “Yes, exactly. Before I woke up, it was … autumn. Then it was orange and jagged. And then it was hot. I can’t remember much else.” He spoke calmly, as though talking about a dream. “Fleeting orange fragments.”
“It’s a feeling, a memory without detail, like a hallucinated déjà vu. I don’t know how the hell to describe it. How do you describe sight to someone without eyes?” He rubbed his face and took a breath. “I remember orange and jagged mirror and the taste of tinfoil and then purple and expanding black lines and then I woke up and it was hot.”
Maybe what he was remembering was the time between. Between when he had been Joshua Warner and whatever he was now.
“So what happened?” Dodge shuffled closer to Joshua. The floorboards creaked under him.
“I can’t remember. At first, I thought maybe I had been in an accident, but …”
Dodge knew what Joshua was thinking.
Joshua continued. “I remember the cold, somewhere white. Arella was there, too.” He stopped speaking and a look of horror gripped his face. He grasped at the air as if trying to claw the proper words into his mouth. “I was underwater, trying to swim, to get above the surface, and sometimes I could, but the light was too bright, and then I was under again.”
Dodge shuddered. He didn’t have to imagine what that was like. He balled his hands into fists and squeezed his fingernails into the soft flesh of his palms.
“It was like a dream, sometimes I was me and sometimes I was someone else, but the world was different. I could taste sound and hear color and I was losing my mind, everything was so distant. Then I woke up. I was out of the water and I was me. Me. I could feel it. The world was calm and blue, but clear. And Jennifer—” he lurched forward, grabbing handfuls of Dodge’s shirt, “—where’s Jennifer? I have to get to her.”
Dodge clasped Joshua’s wrists, gently pulling them free. Joshua’s skin was hot and dry. “Jennifer is fine. We’ll call her as soon as we’re safe.”
“It’s too dangerous for her now.” Joshua tried to pull away, but Dodge held firmly. “Too many people are trying to find you. She could get hurt. As soon as we’re out of the city, we’ll contact her.”
Joshua scowled as he studied Dodge’s face. “Promise?” he said after a moment.
“I promise,” Dodge said, and released his grip.
Joshua slumped to the floor and scrunched into a tight ball. Dodge sat next to him and waited, watching him stare through the floor.
Finally, Joshua spoke. “That man in the suit, Mr. Hill—he was right. I’m me, but I’m not.”
“You’re probably lucky you can’t remember what happened.”
“But if I can’t remember, then who did it happen to? And who am I?” The corners of his mouth quivered.
“You’re Joshua Warner. Klaxon Overdrive.”
“They’re two distinct people. Klaxon Overdrive is mostly Blair’s creation. And I’ve forgotten who Joshua Warner is. But neither of them could hear color.” He was quiet for a moment. “You know, when I was walking across the girders, I didn’t even need to look where I was going. I saw the path once and could have followed it with my eyes closed.”
“Is that what the ‘Rachmaninov’ was about?”
Joshua sat up. “Have you heard his second piano concerto?”
“Nah. Too analogue for me.”
“You have to hear it,” he leaned forward. “If you close your eyes, you can see the music. The piano starts quietly, left and right, up and down, growing in volume, expanding in space. And then the strings, swirling, merging with, but contrasting the piano, which is now swirling too, except in the opposite direction. All the time, even through the movement, the music follows a pattern. That’s what it feels like, in my head, everything swirling but perfectly mapped out. That’s how I know I’m not me. I can hear the room in my head as music. That,” Joshua said, showing Dodge the back of his left hand, “and the scar.”
“What scar?” Dodge asked. Joshua’s hand, while dirty, was perfectly smooth.
“When I was a kid, maybe twelve or something, I caught the back of my hand on a rusty fence, tore off a chunk of skin. I never thought it would stop bleeding, and no one was around to take me to the hospital. It ended up getting all infected and when it finally healed, the scar looked like a heart—a proper one, with the ventricles and aorta and everything. That’s what my song is about, ‘Heart On My Hand.’ Everyone thought it was about some lost love, but it was just the scar.” He stared at his hand. “Now the scar isn’t there anymore and if I don’t have it, then how can I be the same person?” Joshua’s nose wrinkled and his eyes shimmered under welling tears.
Someone had done a hell of a job—programming a replactor to question the validity of its own existence. Almost an act of torture: making it authentic enough to know that it wasn’t actually real.
Dodge put his hand on Joshua’s trembling shoulder. “We’re all the total of our experiences. If we replace an arm or a leg, or get a new body and a plastic brain. We’re still the same person if we can remember ourselves.”
“But nothing is the same.”
“You still remember getting that scar, right?”
“Yes,” Joshua agreed cautiously.
“If you remember it, then it happened. It wouldn’t make any difference if you’d lost your hand and replaced it with a prosthetic. Look at me, I’ve done everything I can to change my exterior, but I haven’t been able to escape myself. I am who I am,” Dodge tapped his head, “up here.”
“I know what I am. I’m a replactor. An echo. And somewhere the real me is living the life I remember.”
“Trust me, a replactor couldn’t have this conversation.”
Joshua didn’t answer. He stared at the ragged edge of the flooring. At the toy robot. At the yawning hole beyond.
“Try to rest,” Dodge said as he rose. He patted Joshua’s head, then immediately pulled away, self-conscious. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning. I’m sure Blair has it all planned out.”
Dodge left Joshua hugging his knees and returned to his instameal. The warming chemical reaction had dissipated, as had most of the heat. He put a spoonful of the brown mush in his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The box read ‘Salisbury Steak’ but it tasted more like recycled newsprint sprinkled with beef-flavored powder. Despite the taste, his mouth flooded with saliva and his stomach rumbled. Ignoring the urge to retch, Dodge quickly finished the sludge, swallowing each bite without bothering to chew, and tossed the empty container onto the dim floor. Overhead, the skylights glowed like incandescent bulbs as they caught what little of the sunset leaked in over the curtain.
His stomach full, Dodge stretched out next to Blair, facing the curve of her back. The skin of her slender arm was so white it seemed to shine from the inside. Suddenly gripped by the urge to touch her, he slowly extended his hand.
“You’re right,” Blair said, not raising her head, “he isn’t a replactor. But he isn’t the original Joshua Warner either.”
Startled, Dodge yanked his arm back.
“Where is he then?” Dodge asked, as he sat back up, hoping the sunset would hide his reddening cheeks.
Blair rolled onto her back and raised her eyelids, showing the dark brown half moons of her irises. “He’s dead. Entropy had to kill him to create—” she flicked her eyes towards Joshua.
Dodge dropped his voice to a whisper. “Why kill the original and then go to all the trouble of creating a copy?”
“Joshua wanted out. He had met that Jennifer girl and he wanted to retire. Entropy had other plans.”
“I’ve never heard anything beyond theories on how a mind could be scanned so precisely. How did they manage it?”
Blair winced as she pushed herself up to a sitting position. She removed the remaining instameal from her bag, activated the heater, and sat in silence as they watched color trickle into the temperature display. When the food was heated, Blair pulled the spoon from the package, removed the plastic pan from the packaging, and peeled back the film. Steam surged from the beige food and disappeared in the humid air.
“You’ve been lying to me from the start,” Dodge said, tired of her stalling. “About who you are—about what Joshua is.”
Blair closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. Finally she moved her hand up and over her head, brushing the hair back from her face and tucking the chestnut strands behind her ears.
“You’re right, I haven’t been entirely truthful with you. But look at it from my point of view. You stole Joshua’s genetic code to sell to the highest bidder. You’re not exactly a trustworthy figure yourself.”
Dodge slumped. She was right. In her place, he wouldn’t have trusted him either. When the first DNA thefts had begun, the gruesome images impossible to avoid, images of severed limbs plastered over the feeds, he had felt sick. Sick that he was even remotely responsible for creating an entirely novel form of crime. But as public opinion had turned against him, destroying his life, taking away everything that mattered to him—his work, his friends, his anonymity—he had changed. If his ideals could lead to public vilification, then what was the point of holding on to them?
“I never hurt anyone,” Dodge said.
“That hardly makes it right.”
“I know.” He had never seen himself as a criminal, definitely not a villain. Even when stealing DNA and auctioning it off, he hadn’t believed he was doing anything wrong. Who got hurt? People shed DNA all day. How could it matter if he gathered a little up and sold it? “I guess you need to look at yourself from the outside once in a while, to make sure you look the same as you do from the inside.”
Blair managed a smile. “Entropy flooded Joshua’s brain with an electromagnetic sensor wash, triggered his neurons to fire, scanned the responses with a high-resolution MRI, and transferred the results to an adaptive neural framework. It’s a destructive process, but the output mimics his personality almost perfectly. The rest was easy. Genetically duplicate cells and print them into a new body, grow the artificial brain into the nervous system. You should know, you invented the technique.” She scooped up a spoonful of food and let it drop back to the container. It landed with a sodden plop.
“The synthetic we made was hardly autonomous. We had to tend to it all the time. An automated vacuum cleaner has a higher sense of awareness than a replactor does.”
“Not anymore,” Blair said. “Progress makes children of us all.” She lifted the spoon and ate a mouthful of the mush.
“This plan is worth so much to your bosses they’d kill its entire focus to make it happen?”
“A copied Klaxon Overdrive is better than no Klaxon Overdrive. He wanted out and there was nothing Entropy could do to stop him. Not legally anyway. And creating a replactor allowed for his public assassination. It opened up endless possibilities. In fact, they made a bunch of them. Used one in the Needle. The Joshua sitting over there is just one of the three extras they had left.”
“And the other two?”
She took another bite, swallowed and discarded the spoon back into the still-full container. “They went up with the lab.”
They were silent for a moment. Dodge didn’t want to think about the other two replactors Blair had destroyed, each as sentient as the one sitting across the room. Was it murder or just vandalism?
“So you think he can lead a normal life? That you’ll just take him away and everything will be fine?”
Her voice, casual until now, hardened. “Either I take him away or Entropy becomes a new religious power with an endlessly reproducible messiah.”
“Why not use someone else? There are plenty of celebrities kicking around.”
“You must know the effect Klaxon Overdrive has. His appeal crosses race, religion, wealth. I’ve seen children—” her voice caught, tripped by obviously unexpected emotion. When she resumed, the words fell from her mouth, as if too substantial to hang in the air. “Boys, who loathe everything about the west, conditioned to hate, look up from the dull cases of their homemade bombs when Klaxon came on the communal TV. No one else but Klaxon Overdrive could unite this many people. He speaks to them.”
Blair looked away, up to the fading light, lost in the past. They sat together quietly, dust motes hanging in the caramel air. He knew he would never get the entire truth from her. Her motives were far more complex than just thwarting Entropy or attempting to save Joshua from a life of corporate slavery. She was being driven by whatever it was she saw in the dying sunlight.
“Killing Joshua was a brilliant move, actually,” Blair finally said, returning from the world inside her head. “Not only did they get a puppet, they got a puppet with an off switch.”
Dodge felt his mouth drop open. “He’s got an off switch?”
Blair shook her head.
“Then tell me this,” Dodge said. “If Joshua is dead, the real Joshua, why do you care so much? Why go to all this trouble for a robot? I mean, look at you. You look like shit.”
She scrunched up her face in mock amusement. “Because he’s not a robot. He’s Joshua. The hardware may be different, even the software, but the program is the same.”
“Except he’s not Joshua,” Dodge said. “Even he knows it. His brain is working in ways it never has before. He wasn’t programmed to deal with hearing color.”
“He just needs time. He’s experiencing a heightened form of synesthesia. His simulated neurons are making new connections and talking to each other for the first time. He’s overwhelmed, but he’ll adjust. He’s getting better all the time, even you can see that. The original synths—the first test subjects Entropy converted to digital—all went through the same thing.”
Original synths? How many more of these things were there?
“Were the others terrified by the color orange too?”
“I don’t know what that is,” Blair said. “The unexpected ferocity and mood swings were unexpected, might have been a glitch in the transfer. Which was why I needed your help. This was all sprung on me at the last minute, and I wasn’t planning on hauling an unstable man across the country. But he’s getting better. Joshua and I will leave tomorrow and you’ll be free of us.”
“Which leaves me where?”
“Rich.” She let the word sink in. “You bring me Joshua’s DNA and you’ll get your money, as promised. You’ve earned it. Once its destroyed, there’ll be no chance Entropy can ever make another version.”
And wasn’t that what he had wanted all along, what he had gotten into this for? To rid himself of his past once and for all, carve the pain from his head. Purchase a fully integrated identity. Rejoin the living.
Except he already felt like a new man. For the first time in years his brain was working without the murk of constant anxiety or the muffling blanket of drugs.
“Or maybe you’d like to come with us?” Blair said, looking off towards where Joshua sat in the near darkness. Dodge felt her hand rest lightly on his knee, pausing there for only a moment before retreating, like mist over a lake dissipated by the rising sun.
“I think I’d like that,” Dodge said. He felt a sudden swelling in his chest and a lightness in his head, but it wasn’t anxiety. Withdrawn from society for so long, with Len as his only genuine source of human interaction, he had forgotten what it felt like to matter to other people. And for other people to matter to him.
Blair pulled the gun and the taser from the bag, placing them within easy reach and laid back down, disappearing into the murky shadows that had overrun the loft. Joshua was quiet in the darkness, lost in his own swirling world of singing color.
It was almost over. In the morning they’d get out of there, he’d pick up Joshua’s DNA, and they’d be safely away.
He lay down again next to Blair, this time stroking her bare skin when he extended his hand. She pressed back into him, cradled small and tight in the shell of his embrace, until they both drifted off.