[Part 17] 12:44:41 // 04-JUN-2042

Blair shut the door behind her and twisted the lock.

“That … isn’t true? Is it?” Joshua asked, suddenly terrified, like a child told by a vengeful older sibling that mommy was leaving because he had been a bad boy.

“No, Joshua. No, don’t worry. It’s not true. I told you no one would be hurt. They weren’t people at all. We used replactors.”

Dodge leapt to his feet. The forgotten paper cup fell to the floor and lukewarm coffee splashed his leg. His hands clenched into fists, ready to lash out. “You created replactors?

Blair just stared back at him.

“And you made one of me, didn’t you? That’s why Dodgson looks like me. Where’d you get my DNA?”

“You’re not the only one with the ability to steal genetic material.”

“Wha—? No—” Dodge’s mouth flapped. This whole incident—with the Needle, with Klaxon’s death—it must have taken months of planning. Years. All that time he had spent worrying, he’d been thinking way too small.

“From what I was told,” Blair seemed to find this all very amusing, “you really should lock your windows at night. Someone could slip right in.”

This had all been orchestrated. And Len had died because of it.

Dodge lunged at her. He didn’t think, didn’t plan, just moved, his anger driving him. She intercepted him easily, swung him around and sent him careening back down onto the bed, face-first.

Apoplectic, the muscles in his neck taut, he flipped over, ready to jump again. Her warning squint made clear he wouldn’t end up on the soft bed this time. Instead he rolled to the other side and leapt to his feet, keeping the mattress between them.

“You broke into my apartment and stole my DNA while I slept?”

“No, I sent an intern.”

“Who do you think you are? Stealing my DNA. That’s not right—it’s not right.”

“No, it’s not.” Blair said. “But that hasn’t stopped you from doing it.”

Dodge immediately deflated. The room expanded around him.

“I—I never hurt anyone,” Dodge said. “And we only stole from companies hoarding genetic therapies. Those companies hold people’s lives for ransom.”

“You’re a regular philanthropist. Is that really how you see yourself, stealing from the evil bio-tech multinationals and giving back to the poor common man, like some kind of skinny geek Robin Hood? Please. I guess then the Paradise Mind was paying you to acquire Klaxon’s genetic material so they could use it to create a cure for the ravages of worldwide unpopularity.”

More information he didn’t know how to deal with. She knew about the deal with the Paradise Mind. The dead Klaxon in the Needle had been a printed clone. And worst of all, a computer-controlled automaton with his face was walking around somewhere. His mind lurched.

Throughout their bickering, Joshua had remained sitting splint-straight, his face the color of overripe raspberries. He looked like he had stopped breathing.

“Replactors,” Dodge moaned. At least they were something familiar. Somewhere he could focus his anxiety. He paced up and down in the aisle between the beds. “You know what those things did to me. To my life. And you made one of … of me.

“Actually,” Blair said, appraising him. “He turned out a damn sight better than you. At least your old face had some character. Now it’s a bit like buttered white bread.”

He flung an accusatory finger out at Blair. “No one is even allowed to possess the technology to create a replactor without fifty different kinds of governmental approval that no one ever gets. How the hell did you get them made? And haven’t you heard of the Vienna Convention?”

Blair remained still, her arms crossed over her chest, and waited for Dodge’s righteous indignation to run its course. “How have you managed to remain alive so long, being so naïve?” Before Dodge could answer, Blair shook her head in what looked to be genuine pity. “Entropy has been using replactors for years. Technology like that can’t be legislated out of existence.”

Still flushed after his outburst and trying to think of what to say next, Dodge glanced at Blair, and in the midst of his agitation, it was like seeing her for the first time. She had let her hair down, and even as anxious as he was, Dodge couldn’t help but notice how it crashed over her shoulders in waves. Her jacket was unbuttoned and her shirt open at the throat. His eyes involuntarily trailed down the smooth white skin of her neck to where her elfin breasts curved into the fabric. She held his gaze for just long enough to be noticeable and then walked past him to the sink at the far end of the room. Dodge watched her go by, unable to speak.

His eye caught the screen. Dodgson was confidently stalking through the penthouse, expertly slaughtering everyone he encountered. Nothing surprised him. Nothing caught him off guard. It made him look as if he could tell what was going to happen before it happened, like some kind of homicidal clairvoyance instead of a simple programmed script. Dodge felt a glimmer of jealousy. His DNA hadn’t treated him as well as it had the tall, athletic, muscular figure on screen.

Blair had turned the tap and was waiting for the water to warm. “Remember when John Poliver OD’d just after the filming of Death Specter III? And remember how they said, although his passing was tragic, a light had been extinguished from the world, and he was irreplaceable in the craft, that he had filmed most of his scenes anyway, so the movie could still be released? Remember that?”

“What about it?” Dodge pulled his eyes from the screen.

“Well, for most of that movie, the role of John Poliver was played by a replactor.” She unwrapped a thin bar of soap and turned to wash. Her hands bubbled with gray lather.

Dodge slumped down on the bed. “That was the best one of those movies.”

“Of course it was. Replactors take direction well. And don’t have any of those prima donna fits that real movie stars have. Program it with the actor’s dialogue and facial expressions and blocking and it will perform them exactly, over and over and over.”

“Fucking Hollywood.” After all this time, after replactors had destroyed his life, the same people who had caused the uproar were the ones using them the most.

Joshua looked like he had just swallowed sour milk as he scowled at Blair. “How dare they—how dare you—I told you I wanted nothing to do with this. You can’t just duplicate me in a lab.” He groaned and clutched his head as if trying to keep it from flying apart.

Obviously used to dealing with her unstable charge, Blair became instantly consoling. “Entropy lied to us. I had everything under control, and then they took it away from me. That’s why we had to leave.”

Blair dried her hands, folded the towel, replaced it on the rack and sat on the bed next to Joshua. He seemed on the verge of crying. Dodge was surprised this was all coming as such a revelation. How could he not know what was going on?

Back on the screen, Dodgson had just finished killing the remaining guards in a multi-angled blur of violence. The big finish loomed.

All around the world, Dodge just knew, viewers were enthralled. On wallscreens, through immersive goggles, on mobiles, each viewer hearing Jolene in her own voice in their preferred language, commuters engrossed on the subway or in autonomous vehicles, sharing the experience as a collective. Productivity would trickle off. In a few days someone would trot out a figure in the billions to estimate the loss to business worldwide. There would already be jokes appearing on the link; firsthand accounts and interviews with other celebrities about where they were when they heard about the assassination; T-shirts with Klaxon’s music built-in whisking down manufacturing lines; treatments for the story of Klaxon’s life vibrating the inboxes of every Entropy executive. And this was just the beginning.

Klaxon was about to die for the world, and it was going to be the most-watched event in history.

From a camera perched above Klaxon’s penthouse bed, the world watched as Mr. Dodgson slowly nudged the bedroom door. The weft of the carpet darkened as the door slid open. Marching piano music filled the room. Klaxon sat on the bed, legs crossed, arms raised, conducting a symphony of information with his hands. Dozens of feeds from all over the link hovered in the surrounding air. He reached out and grabbed one, pulled it close, enlarging it to show the German Chancellor shaking hands with the newly elected Iranian President, a peace deal he’d been instrumental in. Klaxon released the window and it snapped back to hover with the others.

“Who authorized this?” Joshua said, barely able to speak. “That—that isn’t me. I’m not …” His words trailed off as he clutched his head.

“I told you Entropy didn’t care about you, Joshua. They only care about their profits. You were right to quit.”

The screen cut to Dodgson standing at the bedroom door. His forehead wrinkled.

The commercial side of the screen flickered wildly, savagely leaping from advert to advert, over-cutting each other, as ruthless bids for eyeball-time went higher and higher.

On screen, Klaxon’s head jerked and then he unlaced his legs, rose and turned to face the door. The two men watched each other, motionless, mute, staring like prize fighters. Then Dodgson moved forward until his gun pressed tenderly against the smooth skin of Klaxon’s chest.

Klaxon wiggled a finger and the music cut. Silence stretched from the TV’s speakers.

“What did you do?” Dodge mumbled.

“Shhh …” Joshua hissed. He was perched on the edge of the bed, straining to hear, as though his life were at stake. Blair seemed bored. She already knew how it was going to end.

“So, you finally got to me,” began the last lines Klaxon’s final, greatest role. “Took you long enough”

“I am good at what I do,” Dodgson replied. “But if it hadn’t been me, it would have been one of the others. You’re too dangerous to be allowed to continue corrupting the world, the people in charge like it the way it is.”

Dodge glowered at Blair. “You turned me into a sellout.”

“Everyone sells out,” Blair said.

The men stared each other down. Mr. Dodgson, draped in black, was a testament to coiled violence and intolerance. Klaxon was resplendent in a shimmering white robe.

“If I am corrupt, then so are millions. Billions, with dreams that don’t involve working themselves into an early grave so the men who hired you can afford to live in paradise.”

Up until then, Dodgson had been the star of this video, but Klaxon had only been on screen for a few seconds and already the assassin was relegated to a co-starring position. Klaxon was radiant, eclipsing everything around him with his natural, effortless charisma.

At that moment, Dodge was struck by the difference between the Klaxon on screen and Joshua sitting beside him. Klaxon was a defiant god, a constantly evolving prophet drawing followers with a glance, with a carefully placed word. Joshua looked identical, but possessed none of the innate magnetism. His eyes seemed duller, the dazzling energy drained away.

“You can kill me today, now, but you can’t kill all of us. Killing me will only serve to release the pent up rage, and you and the men you work for will be washed away in a flood of anger the likes of which the world has never seen. Klaxon Overdrive will live forever.” His voice resonated from the screen, unable to be contained by mere electronics.

Barely acknowledging Klaxon’s final words, Dodgson’s shoulders hunched in a half-hearted shrug. “Maybe, but I’m getting paid enough for this that I can buy a nice cruise ship and float away over your angry flood.”

Klaxon looked directly into the camera, green eyes piercing each viewer, and whispered, “Klaxon can never die.”

Mr. Dodgson stepped back. His finger twitched and the gun sighed. The image of Klaxon rippled, and the projectile exploded from his back in a thunderous crack, spraying the white silk sheets of his bed in dark crimson.

Klaxon jerked backwards, his arms thrown forwards as if reaching for Dodgson. White silk fluttered, the robe wrapping him like a shroud. Triumph surged from Dodgson’s eyes, from his smug grin. He looked exactly like every bully that had ever preyed on someone weaker than him.

Dodge felt the room close in around him. The edges of his sight faded until the screen was everything, the room hushed. Even though he knew the video was a fabrication—planned, manufactured and assembled like a fast food meal—he couldn’t help but believe what he was watching was real. The public would accept it without a moment’s hesitation.

Unsubtle opposites, the killer’s lusterless black jacket appeared to devour the penthouse’s subdued light, while Klaxon’s gossamer garment caught and enhanced the room’s muted blue ambience as he fell, magnifying and reflecting it to a dazzling sheen of near-white brilliance that surrounded him like a full-body halo.

Time slowed. Klaxon fell forever.

It wasn’t until Joshua gasped that Dodge realized he too had been holding his breath.

The tension shattered, Dodge noticed that the speed of the playback had been reduced—the robe fluttered too slowly, the descent towards the bed too languorous. Entropy sure knew how to play an audience. Subsequent showings would progress at normal speed. With the initial astonishment gone, it would be all about the vicarious thrill of carnage.

Klaxon’s body finally landed, bouncing on the bed. Crimson streams pumped from the wound. Dodgson smoothly secreted his guns away and surveyed the room with satisfaction. His work nearly done, he pulled a silver sphere from under his jacket and placed it on one of the side tables. Dodge recognized it instantly as the device that had nearly incinerated him.

The assassin hunched over the ball, presumably setting the destruct sequence. Two muted beeps later, a blinding white flash silhouetted the huge man, engulfing the playback. The recording flickered with a burst of gray static before jumping to an intense blue.

Entropy must have faked the explosion with a flashbang effect for the video. They took the raw footage, edited it into a brilliant documentary of a mass murder, then sat back and waited for the clicks to pour in.

Jolene’s inoffensively pretty face returned to the screen and segued to commercial, but not before promising to footage was already available on-demand for anyone who wanted to rewatch it.

Dodge got up and switched the screen off as if in a trance. Joshua sat, too stunned to move. Only Blair remained unaffected.