Updated: May 24
A royal blue Paradise Mind UAV waited at the curb, just down the street from his front door. Its imposing bulk cast an oppressive gloom over the otherwise glorious spring morning. Nothing good ever happened when a car like that was waiting for you.
The vehicle stalked forward to meet Dodge and the cerebrates. It stopped next to them and the backseat passenger door slid open on its own. A whimper slipped from Dodge’s lips as he recoiled at the sight of the dark interior. If he got in, that would be it, the minuscule amount of control he had over his life would disappear forever. He’d end up as the star attraction in this Klaxon Overdrive media freak-show, and when the public grew bored of tormenting him, he’d be tossed in some prison and abandoned. Locked away with nothing but his broken thoughts.
Dodge felt Mr. Hill’s hand rest on the small of his back and nudge him towards the hearse-like vehicle. Dodge’s throat dried up, and even though the day’s heat had barely begun, his shirt clung to his skin. Given the lack of alternatives, Dodge did the only thing he knew, the one thing he was good at: he panicked.
“Get off,” Dodge yelled, his voice squeaking, and spun around to face Mr. Hill. “I’m not getting in there!”
The yell caught the attention of Migas working the corner.
Mr. Hill prodded Dodge closer to the truck, like a cat-owner trying to get his pet into the bathtub. “That will be quite enough, Mr. Dodgson. You would best be advised to cooperate. I will stun and drag you if I must.”
Dodge resisted, pushing back against Mr. Hill’s insistence, and that’s when he noticed Migas watching them. He glanced at the pharmacist then yelled at the cerebrates, “I don’t want any of your damn drugs! I don’t care how little they cost! Or how pure they—”
The taser shock dropped him, boneless. His head knocked the sidewalk and flopped to the side. Through the whine in his ears, Dodge heard Migas yell something. Mr. Hill angled the taser in Migas’ direction without pointing it directly at him.
The next few seconds were a blur. While the cerebrates did their best to assure Migas they had no intention of undercutting his trade, and their business with Dodge was completely unrelated, feeling was creeping back into Dodge’s extremities. He fought up to his hands and knees. Mr. Hill continued talking calmly and rationally to Migas, who appeared confused and increasingly pissed. No one liked working the morning shift.
Dodge knew he couldn’t run away, not with his legs feeling like wax stumps, and he didn’t trust his hand to pull the gun from his waistband and hold it steady enough get off a meaningful shot. More likely Migas would just shoot him first. Any second the driver would get out and help clear the disgruntled dealer away, then the cerebrates would all cheerfully get into the truck and transport their esteemed guest somewhere he would be never heard from again.
With nowhere else to go, Dodge half-jumped, half-fell through the open back door of the UAV, dragged his legs inside, pulled the door behind him, and clicked the lock with the heel of his hand. At the thump of the closing door, all four men, the three on the street and the one in the driver’s seat, turned to look at Dodge. It took both hands, but he managed to free the gun, press the safety switch and wave it at the driver.
“Drive,” Dodge croaked.
The driver didn’t respond, reached instead to open his door.
The gun stopped whining as the power light turned green, and Dodge squeezed the trigger. A slug bounced off the inside of the bullet-proof windshield, ricochetted, blew a hole through the front passenger seat and clanged somewhere in the back of the truck. Dodge nearly let the gun slip from his fingers as the roar of the shot rang in his ears and yellow stuffing hemorrhaged into the air. Just a few inches to the left and the bullet would have blown his misfiring brains all over the expensive interior detailing.
“Drive,” he repeated in his strongest tough-guy voice, one that, even to his clouded ears, sounded anything but.
Still the driver slammed the accelerator to the floor, swung left around the corner, and swerved into a lane headed north, leaving three bewildered men behind. Dodge crashed to one side as the electric vehicle pulled a heavy-g turn, but managed to keep the gun up, and then they were off and racing through traffic. Dodge knew that the truck’s position would be monitored and the Paradise Mind would have someone on his tail in moments, but at least he was moving.
Somehow the taser shock was actually helping, its numbness quelling the panic. He knew it wouldn’t last, but for now it was a relief.
The driver fidgeted in his seat, watching Dodge in the rear-view mirror, already looking for a chance to make his move.
“Make a left here.” Dodge tapped the driver’s head with the barrel, keeping him distracted.
The driver made a quick turn, tires squealing, and narrowly missed a squirrel-eared, single-wheeled, automated Skute entering the intersection. They sped along for another few minutes and came to a halt at a traffic light, directly beside a subway stop.
The driver angled his head and gave Dodge a side-eyed glare. “My colleagues are already on their way to intercept us. You should surrender.”
They were dangerously close to the Paradise Mind campus. Dodge couldn’t see it, but the hulking black building was just down the street. He needed to get away from here.
Dodge slid over to the passenger-side, keeping his gun pointed at the driver. Hopefully his legs would cooperate.
“Don’t try to follow me,” Dodge said as he heaved himself out of the vehicle, stumbled across the wide sidewalk and into the underground entrance. He stuffed the gun away before anyone could notice, staggered down a short flight of stairs, then ducked into the subway. The station contained a junction of two commuter lines, one heading north/south the other east/west. Hopefully the cerebrates wouldn’t figure out which way he had gone. Without a rep score he couldn’t just walk onto the train, and had to waste precious seconds fumbling a coin from his pocket to buy a token from the dispenser. He was surprised when the heat radiating from his face didn’t trigger the viral scanner, and he headed downstairs and jumped on the next southbound train.
The subway doors shut and Dodge slumped into an empty seat. In the absence of a direct threat, and with the taser effect nearly gone, his whole body was buzzing, reacting to the lack of medication in his system like a low-wattage electric current was coursing through his nerves.
Going through withdrawl was the least of his problems. The first thing he had to do was secure the fortune in his pocket. Klaxon’s g-code was the only possible leverage he could use if the Paradise Mind caught him again.
He thought briefly of stashing it in the bus station, but most public buildings had installed t-ray scanners to detect anything possibly malicious that someone might jam into a locker and left to incinerate a few hundred commuters. Even a few deteriorated bits on the storage device could ruin the pristine sample and knock millions off the price. He needed somewhere it couldn’t be damaged.
The train slowed and stopped. More passengers crowded on, the ones without immune boosters coursing through their systems wearing masks over their mouths and noses. No one gave Dodge a second look.
Dodge’s head was spinning, his thoughts caught in a cyclone of anxiety and confusion. He couldn’t do this on his own—but Len would know what to do. It was as if the old hacker had been made for situations like this. Len would call one of his shady contacts and the containment unit would be dropped into the outgoing mail of a foreign consulate, where it would be sequestered in an undisclosed location until the proper voice identification and deposit of an undetermined amount of cash in an offshore bank account would cause its return.
It would be so easy—but no, he couldn’t go Len with this too. Dodge relied on him too much. He needed to stand on his own for once. Besides, he wouldn’t be able to take another lecture on top of the one he was already going to get when Len found out he had returned to the apartment and nearly been nabbed by Mr. Hill.
He sat as the crowd thickened, stop after stop, until the train finally emptied at Union.
Still unsure what to do, Dodge glanced up to the screens running the early morning transit news—usually traffic reports displaying rush-hour snarled vehicles interspersed with soundbites of infotainment that commuters could listen to through their headphones. Instead of that, the screen currently contained a bullet-point list of the timeline of events at the Needle. His name featured prominently.
The list disappeared and a shot of the exterior of the Needle zoomed forward to occupy the entire screen, a video taken from somewhere across the water. The building was still intact, and the silver span stood out like a beacon against the night sky, its surface reflecting a rippling flurry of lights. Based on the timestamp, at that point Dodge was probably dragging himself out of the elevator shaft.
Then light exploded, like a moment of daylight blazing in through a rip in the night sky. One second the Needle was there, and then it was gone. It wasn’t even a real explosion—no orange fire, black smoke or burning chunks of debris. There was a neon-white burst, a flashbulb pop, and the tall structure became a huge smoldering stump, hunched and blackened as sparkling dust hovered in the air. Finally, the Needle’s top landed straddling the shore. It had been much more impressive the night before, up close.
Somewhere in the car a man was unable to choke back a sob at the sight of the destruction. Dodge suddenly realized that the few people still seated around him were rapt, mobiles ignored, the subway silent save for the screeching brakes.
Behind Dodge, two women sat agape in a mutual state of shock and excitement. The footage of the ruined Needle was replaced by a shot of traffic snarled in the Gardiner Tunnel, and the regular commuter buzz returned.
“That’s terrible. Just terrible,” one woman said to the other beside her, then clucked her tongue.
She must have been near sixty, sporting neat white running shoes over her pantyhose and clutching a gym bag tight against her chest. Silver buds poked from her ears.
“I can’t bear to see that again. That poor man.” Dodge leaned in to hear better. “I never cared for his music or his movies, they were a little too risqué for me, what with the nudity and all, but he did so much for those people in Africa. I know my granddaughter loved him, you know how kids are, what with their rebellion and all. She must be so upset.”
“Shhhh,” the other woman said. “Maybe if we’re lucky they’ll play it again in slow motion. Last night we zoomed in and Harold thought he saw an arm flying in the air.”
Dodge flashed back to the carnage he’d stumbled through, the corpses littered around the Needle. The train rumbled to a stop, and driven by sudden horror, Dodge pushed through the passengers and ran to the nearest garbage bin, gagging. If not for the difference of ten seconds, it could have been his arm flying in the air.
What was wrong with him? Only one missed dose of tryptoxetine and he was falling apart. He hadn’t realized how dependent he was. The inside of his head felt like someone had tried to clean it with a scouring pad.
Dodge wiped his lips, pushed away from the bin, tottered up the stairs and instinctively headed east, walking toward Len’s office.
He still had to stash the g-code somewhere. Where did people go when they needed to get rid of stuff quickly and cheaply, but still be able to get it back if their situations improved?
A red and white sign down the block flickered on and caught his attention: ‘Sherbourne Street Bargain House.’
He crossed the road and walked into the consignment shop. Silver bells over the door announced his arrival. The storefront was nearly empty, the shelves only contained a few old guitars, a keyboard, a couple of slender computer monitors, and for some reason, a chainsaw. A narrow man sat behind a worn display counter bearing fifty years worth of gouges. He looked up from his screen and took a sip from the metal cup resting on the counter.
“Help you?” he asked, impatience already tugging at the edges of his voice. He’d only just opened and already he was crusty.
Dodge pulled the camera unit from over his shoulder and laid it on the counter. “I’d like to—pawn this.”
“You’d like to pawn it?”
Dodge nodded, not sure if he was supposed to say anything else. The clerk picked it up and squinted at it through thin, wire-rimmed glasses while turning it over in his hands.
“What is it?”
“It’s a … holo camera,” Dodge said. Which was true. Kind of.
“Never seen one like it before.”
“It’s custom. Made it myself.”
“You made a holo camera?”
“Well, I upgraded it.”
“Why would you do that?”
“To see if I could.”
“Well good for you ,“ the clerk said, then laid the unit back on the desk and returned to his screen. “Not interested.”
“Wait, it’s really advanced.” Normally Dodge would have backed off and walked away, but he didn’t have a choice.
“What would anyone want with your science experiment?” the clerk said with a scowl. “Besides, we don’t get a lot of call for photography equipment around here. You got a mobile or something a little more in demand, maybe I’ll have a look at that. Otherwise, have a nice day.”
“Look, I really need to sell it. It’s an advanced model. Next generation. From India. You won’t see anything on the market like this for a year at least.”
“That so?” The clerk had rolled up his sleeves and was looking the camera over in his hands. “It hot?”
“No, no. It’s mine. Like I said, custom made.”
The clerk squinted again, looking at Dodge this time, as if he could appraise the value of Dodge’s word like he would an artificial diamond.
“I’ll give you a hundred for it.” He pulled a fat wad of plastic bills from his pocket, licked his thumb and counted out ten. Apparently this store’s customers preferred hard currency over cashcards or crypto. “Deal?”
Dodge reached out to take the cash but the clerk backed away. “Print,” he said, indicating a small black pad on the counter. He must have noticed Dodge wince. “Don’t worry—it’s anonymous. Just a thumb print to identify you, I’m not hooked into any watch lists.”
Dodge pressed his thumb against it and waited. It buzzed for a second then chirped. “How long till it goes on sale?”
“You got five days. You pick it up before then and with 10% a day, you get it back, safe and sound.”
“You’re sure it will be safe?” Dodge asked. Second thoughts crept up on him like a pickpocket.
“Keeping crap safe is my business, guy. But I’m only holding it for five days, then it’s on sale with everything else.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me, my coffee’s getting cold.”
The chimes rang as Dodge walked from the shop. At least that was one less thing to worry about. For five days at least.
Hopefully this would all be over by then.