Dodge snapped awake, shivering. Frigid water drizzled down over him in needles.
Jesus, he was cold.
He leaned up and pressed the shower off, and as he scrambled for his towels, he heard a deep voice, muffled through the sheer bathroom wall. He levered himself out of the tub with raisined hands and sat on the porcelain edge as feeling returned to his legs.
Another voice. Joshua maybe? Then the first again.
Someone else was in the room.
Finally able to stand, Dodge grabbed the clean pants and yanked them over his damp legs. Maybe it was the television. Or Joshua had become unhinged again and Blair was choking him out. Or maybe the clerk had come to the door. He didn’t even know how long he’d been asleep. Long enough to run the hot water dry.
Dodge stepped to the door. The first voice sounded again, its tone gentle, unhurried.
He knew that voice.
How had they found him? He braced himself against the bathroom door, palms flat on the mirror, staring back at his sunken eyes. He was trapped.
“Mr. Dodgson,” Mr. Hill called from the room, his voice projecting clearly through the wall. “If you are through with your ablutions, we would enjoy the pleasure of your company.”
Dodge opened the door and slunk out of the bathroom, hands chest high.
“Lovely to see you again, as always.” Mr. Hill said. “I do hope this is a convenient time to call.”
“Not really,” Dodge said. “I was in the bathroom.”
Blair was crumbled at the foot of her bed and Mr. Hill stood over her, taser in hand. Her small gun lay near her on the floor. Mr. Francis glowered from the doorway with his left-eye bandaged. He was touching his face, feeling for blood. A bullet had splintered the wood of the doorjamb next to his head. Blair must have just missed.
Joshua was watching everything from the bed, didn’t seem concerned in the slightest.
Mr. Hill glanced down at Blair. “I regret your associate and I were improperly introduced. I was forced to incapacitate her before we could become formally acquainted. She is quite unlike the normal company you keep, Mr. Dodgson.” He hiked his well-creased pant legs and squatted beside her. “Your reflexes are superb, my dear. I imagine, had we employed a more violent entrance, you would have had the better of us. It goes to show that, as it is written, ‘Vehemence is axiomatic of the Non-Accompli.’
“And therefore doomed to failure,” Mr. Francis finished with a satisfied sneer. Though his point would be better made if he didn’t seem to be enjoying this quite so much.
“Have you ever considered studying with us at the Paradise Mind?” Mr. Hill said as he bent and picked up Blair’s gun, sliding the weapon into his pocket. “I shall send you an information burst at my earliest opportunity.”
He brushed an invisible speck of dust from his lapel and pointed the taser at Dodge. “Now that we are all familiar, Mr. Dodgson, I must admit, I was disheartened by your behavior back at your apartment,” he said, frowning. “I expected a man of science, such as yourself, to act in a more respectable manner. My adept was treated very poorly by your less-than-reputable acquaintance.”
That explained Francis’s bandaged eye. He must have said something Migas didn’t appreciate.
“I stopped being a ‘man of science’ the first time I had a brick thrown at me on the street. Science deserted me.”
“Apology accepted, Mr. Dodgson,” Mr. Hill said, waving the matter away with a roll of his wrist. “’The transgressions of yesterday are memory, let us look instead to the future.’” Mr. Hill stepped over the still-twitching Blair and rested his hand on Klaxon’s shoulder. “How wonderful to find you here, Mr. Overdrive.”
“Get your …” Blair slurred, then lurched to her knees and dragged herself towards Mr. Hill.
“Miss, please, calm yourself,” Mr. Hill said softly, with what seemed to be genuine concern. “It would upset me to see you permanently debilitated.”
She continued to elbow herself across the mangy carpet, inch by hard-fought inch, eyes raging.
Mr. Hill looked at Dodge. “Mr. Dodgson, if you can say anything to dissuade your companion from her current course of action, I would recommend it.”
“Blair, stop,” Dodge said as evenly as he could. He still hadn’t moved from the bathroom door, was still holding his shirt and shoes. “This won’t help.”
Blair continued forward, hauling her useless legs behind her. She seemed to be gaining strength, another few seconds and she’d be close enough to grab Hill’s leg. He’d stun her well before then.
Mr. Hill glared at Dodge, as though Blair’s reaction was his fault. “Please forgive me, Miss Blair.” Twin green beams fluoresced from the neuralizer. Blair jerked backwards into the end table, landing hard on her side. Eyes open but unfocused, she rasped through her slack mouth. Joshua flinched as Blair hit the ground. His first reaction to anything.
Mr. Hill shook his head and sighed. “I do abhor violence. The Paradise Mind teaches that violence is a crutch for the unenlightened,” Mr. Hill said to Dodge. “But there are occasions when there is little other recourse, and one must fight unto death to preserve the truth.”
“The Cerebrate may be forced, by necessity, to act in Manifest with the written Pleophery,’” Francis proclaimed, but Dodge saw right through his piety.
Francis believed he had a duty to go to war with those who had wronged them. Those were the teachings, and who was he to argue with the book? That he enjoyed it was just a perk of the job. A bully with a permission slip.
“Another fine Discernation, Adept. You are, of course, correct. But still, it pains me act in such a manner,” Mr. Hill said. “Now, Mr. Dodgson. Back to the matter at hand. In lieu of the merchandise you had been contracted to deliver, we shall take Mr. Overdrive himself into custody. I am sure you will agree it is a fair exchange.”
Dodge couldn’t just let them take him.
“Actually, I—” Dodge started.
“Just as I thought,” Mr. Hill finished, then extended his hand. “Come along, Mr. Overdrive.”
He eased toward Joshua, a trained handler reaching to grab a frightened snake. Once he was close enough and Joshua hadn’t struck, he gently grasped his arm and led him off the bed
Joshua rose willingly. “Can anyone else hear music?” he asked, blinking. “Am I on soon?”
Dodge couldn’t just stand there and let them take Joshua away.
“Is he injured,” Mr. Hill asked Dodge, his eyes creased with concern.
“No. Yes. He hit his head.”
“Then with us is the best place he could be, the head is our domain. He will receive the utmost of care at the Campus. Someone will be along for you shortly.”
Dodge needed to do something, but didn’t know what. He waited for a flush of panic or inspiration. Neither came.
“Wait—” Dodge called, but had nothing to follow it up with.
Mr. Hill stopped at the door. “Mr. Dodgson, as enjoyable as your company has been, I am afraid I have a pressing engagement in which your presence is not required. We shall have time enough together in the near future, I assure you. I believe you will be surprised by how effective the Paradise Mind will be at quelling your self-destructive impulses. You would make a formidable cerebrate, I see it in you.”
Dodge had already thought hard and long on submitting himself to the Paradise Mind’s call. His head was all over the place, maybe a rigid self-help system was just what he needed. Follow the rules and the pain would go away. It seemed simple enough on the surface, but even he wasn’t that much of an asshole.
“Sure, let’s talk about it,” Dodge lied as he took another step forward. He wasn’t sure what he was about to do, but he was about to do something—
—then the taser yanked his legs out from under him. The beam hit him in the chest and he fell to the carpet in a haze of white, landing on his chin. Sparks whirled across his blurred vision. When the feeling returned to his face, it was going to hurt.
“Goodbye, Mr. Dodgson. Miss Blair.” Mr. Hill’s voice came to Dodge’s ears as if through a swarm of bees, tinny and distorted. “It has been a pleasure. My associate shall remain here to watch over your comfort until the transport team arrives.”
Dodge urged his body to move. To do something. To get up.
Joshua didn’t look back as Mr. Hill led him away.
“I shall see you back at the Campus,” Mr. Hill said, lightly clasping Mr. Francis on the shoulder as he walked past. “Take the neuraliser. I do hope our new friends will accept the invitation and come peacefully.” He handed the taser to the smaller man, who accepted it with reverence.
“I shall act in accordance with the Pleophery,” Mr. Francis said.
“You do your mother proud,” Mr. Hill responded and nudged Joshua out the door and closed it behind them.
Pain oozed into Dodge’s head, collecting in the lower half of his face. Blair managed to roll to her stomach, but didn’t rise.
“Try it,” Mr. Francis said to Blair, his voice suddenly much coarser. “And you’ll get blasted again.”
“Fuck … you,” Blair said, letting her anger burn.
“Keep it up and you just might get to,” Mr. Francis cooed. Hill hadn’t been gone five seconds and he’d already quit with the quotations.
The pink triangle of his tongue flickered over his lips as he appraised Blair, lying helpless on the floor.
Dodge twisted to the side, trying to find a way to get his legs under him.
“And you,” Francis said, turning his attention to Dodge. He reached up and caressed his bandaged eye. “I owe you.”
He kicked Dodge, hard with his pointed shoe. Dodge would have curled into a ball from the pain if he could have felt it. Or was able to curl.
“Ssst …” Words wouldn’t form.
“You want me to stop, you stuttering bastard?” Mr. Francis said and kicked him again. This time the blow almost registered. In anticipation of future pain, silver tendrils of distant sensation snaked out from the impact point to barely reach his brain. Blair still hadn’t moved from her stomach.
“Do you know how much this hurts?” Mr. Francis asked, once again pointing to his eye.
“That pharmo fuck.” Mr. Francis lashed out again. Dodge felt this kick and groaned, nerves finally cooperative enough to allow him to roll up and press his bare back against the foot of the bed. “Won’t be selling drugs.” Pain detonated in Dodge’s stomach as Mr. Francis’s foot struck again. Something snapped in his chest. Probably a rib. He was going to die. “To no more street scum.”
Dodge watched Mr. Francis’s highly-polished shoe pull back, its toe aimed squarely for his head. He wanted to close his eyes but didn’t, because Blair, now on her knees, caught Mr. Francis’s raised foot before he could strike.
Mr. Francis gaped, startled, and tried to swing the taser back at her, but she charged to her feet, her lips pulled into a snarl, and knocked Mr. Francis off-balance. He stumbled and came straight down on Dodge.
The impact pressed Dodge’s face the carpet, then Blair heaved herself onto Mr. Francis’s back, and their combined weight crushed the air from his lungs. He tried to suck in a breath, but couldn’t.
He couldn’t breathe.
The pain was coming fast, but anxiety was right on its heels. He was surprised it had left him alone this long.
Dodge tried to move, to find leverage to crawl free, but he barely had the strength to moan. He opened his eyes, desperate for something to help him. All he could see was the dark “V” of Blair’s crotch, and Mr. Francis’s right arm holding the taser, which was pinned to the ground at an unnatural angle. They shifted and Dodge gasped in a breath, but then Mr. Francis’s knee was digging into Dodge’s chest.
He heard Mr. Francis scream and thrash violently. Then, with a crunching snap and a wet gurgle, the squirming stopped.
Blair rolled off, taking the lifeless body with her.
Dodge wheezed, trying to use the bed to pull himself upright. The tingling panic had already receded, or more likely was shouted down by the pain wracking his entire body. He got a foot under himself, felt something shift in his chest and sunk to the floor, trying not to cry. Agony surrounded him in a pink cloud.
“Peemer fuck,” Blair spat, finally regaining her unsteady feet.
“My …” Dodge tried to inhale. It felt like he had been shot. Don’t scream. “My chest.”
“I’m going after Joshua.” Her knees buckled and she caught herself against the dresser. She was leaving?
He grit his teeth and forced a scorching breath. “How?” Dodge managed to say. “You can … hardly stand.”
Blair just shook her head, grabbed her car key and stumbled to the door. “Be ready to leave when I get back.”
She actually thought she could catch Mr. Hill.
She was already out of the room and a moment later the champagne car flew past the open door, heading across the parking lot toward Lakeshore.
“Shit,” Dodge groaned. The effects of the taser were brief, but even if she did manage to catch Joshua, she was outnumbered. And unarmed. She wouldn’t be able to handle them alone.
He had to help her.
Probably the worst idea he’d ever had, but damned if he wasn’t doing it anyway.
Dodge fought to his knees and nearly passed out from the pain. He took another breath and forced his legs to straighten, using the dresser to brace himself as a surge of nausea swept over him.
Okay, he was standing. Now he had to move.
Left leg. Then right.
He was walking—erratically, but he had momentum. As long as he kept his legs shuffling he’d be fine. He snatched his jacket, managed to pull it over his bare torso, and stumbled out of the room, yanking the door behind him.
He took two steps and crashed into the Suzuki, still unable to control himself. He could barely stand. Even if he caught up with Blair, he wouldn’t be any use. Best to retreat back to the hotel, lay down.
Maybe the Godwave would help him forget the pain.
He looked back toward the safety of the hotel room.
No. He couldn’t just wait and hope Blair made it back on her own. He had to help her.
He clenched his jaw, held his breath and worked his way across the hood, supporting himself with his hands. When he finally made it to the driver’s side he pulled the handle, opened the door, and dropped into the seat.
Driving would be easier. Driving was mostly sitting anyway.
Just twisting the ignition was enough to launch a concussive shockwave of pain through his body, starting in his arm and shearing all the way to his groin, but the starter caught and the engine mewled to life. Dodge dropped the gearshift into reverse, hauled the wheel around, pulled into drive, and ground his foot into the accelerator. The car shot forward and he raked the undercarriage over a speed bump, then swung out of the parking lot onto Lakeshore.
Luckily, it was the one hour a day when traffic eased up. The flood of pilgrims heading to the Needle had slowed, but the pathway along the beach was still dotted with stragglers, hiking in overnight.
Even with his foot pressed to the floor, Dodge hadn’t caught up to Blair—couldn’t even see her anywhere up ahead. And if he hadn’t caught up with her, she couldn’t have caught up with Mr. Hill. She’d follow them all the way to the Paradise Mind Campus doors, he was sure of it. But she was only one person. She wouldn’t be able to take on a whole army of cerebrates by herself. Then they’d have her too.
Dodge still didn’t know how the Paradise Mind had found them. He hadn’t spotted anyone following them—not that he’d been particularly trying, but Blair would have, and she hadn’t said a thing.
It didn’t make sense.
He kept accelerating. The Suzuki’s speedometer topped out at 140. Dodge swerved around a doddering SUV as though it were parked and caught the edge of an unseen pothole. The car bounced hard off the asphalt and he clutched the wheel for support as he rode the wave of pain.
Something under the car broke free, scraped the ground for a shrieking second, then clattered away behind him. He glanced in the rearview mirror as the SUV behind him swerved to avoid the sparking hunk of metal.
The engine made a terrible noise and began shaking.
Shit, so much for catching Blair. There was no point now, the car was about to die. Dodge pressed the brake, ready to ease the vehicle off the road, but his foot sank to the floor and stayed there. When stomping on the pedal didn’t help, he knew he was in trouble. He couldn’t stop.
Worse, even with his foot off the accelerator, the car was still speeding up, the engine straining. Dodge tried to shift down, to use the gears to slow his speed, but he couldn’t apply enough pressure on the stick to budge it.
Dodge heaved on the emergency brake, his wounded shoulder aching under the strain, but the release button wouldn’t give. Hitting the pothole must have jarred loose the last bit of luck that had been holding the car together. It was coming apart around him and hurtling toward a crumpled ending.
All he could do was hold on. He grasped the wheel with two hands, nine o’clock and three o’clock, fighting to keep the car on the road. His head swam from the rising pain as fresh waves tried to drown him with every bump in the road.
Adrenaline surged, sharpening his senses and shaving some of the torment away. He let go of the wheel and reached over to fasten his seatbelt, ribs screaming in protest, then pulled the phone from his jacket pocket and hit redial.
She wasn’t going to answer. Three times. Her phone must still be back in the room.
“This had better be important,” she said, her voice muffled through the tiny speaker.
“I’m behind you in the Suzuki and it won’t stop,” Dodge yelled into the phone, cradling it awkwardly with his shoulder as he again gripped the wheel with both hands and jerked it hard to the right, narrowly avoiding a delivery truck’s erratic lane change.
“—I told you,” he heard a second later, as his vision snapped back into focus. The phone beeped and went silent.
“Fuck!” Dodge yelled at the windshield, then dialed again.
She accepted the call without speaking.
“You can’t catch him on your own,” he said, puffing, unable to catch his breath. Sweet unconsciousness beckoned. “They’re armed. They have a head start. We can get Joshua back but it will take both of us.”
“I told you to stay at the hotel.”
“I’m going to die,” Dodge yelled.
Red lights gleamed ahead. Dodge straightened and the phone bounced to the passenger seat. It took both hands to swerve into the fast lane, where he clipped the Suzuki’s passenger mirror off on the rear of a stopped car, then hurtled through the intersection.
The world concaved, curving up at the sides, disintegrating into particulate shadow. He bit his tongue and jerked alert. He’d bought himself another few seconds, but he didn’t have many left.
Still, he car continued accelerating.
Dodge fumbled for the phone. It seemed miles away, his arm impossibly short. His fingers pinched the thin plastic rectangle and brought it to his ear. Blair was already talking.
“—can see them. If I turn around for you, they’ll get away.”
He wanted to scream, but clenched his teeth. “You’ve been stunned twice. There are probably four men in that truck. You can’t bully your way through this,” he cried, trying not to think about what would happen when he slammed into the back of another car or finally lost control and his body was torn to pieces as he barrel-rolled down the highway. “If you want to get Joshua back, you’re going to need my help. And you won’t get it if I end up melted to the plastic seats.”
“Pull off the road.”
The engine began to shriek. Smoke billowed out from under the hood. Ahead, the right lane was packed with abandoned cars, leaving two lanes to weave through traffic.
“Too many cars,” Dodge said, breathless. “This piece of shit will wrap around me like a tinfoil suit if I hit anything.”
Blair spat something unintelligible. “You’re on Lakeshore now?”
“Yeah. Coming up on—” a cross-street whipped by ”—Jameson.”
“Yell when you see me.”
Dodge whipped past the Jameson decent ramp, its gaping black mouth leading down into the Tunnel. After rounding a curve, he came up on a short, empty straightaway. With no cars ahead, he was able to concentrate on breathing and resisting the ragged static nibbling away at his vision. Heat from the overtaxed engine cooked onto his legs through the flimsy dashboard. The car wasn’t going to last much longer.
The Exhibition grounds winked past. An enormous billboard hovered above, its flashing message bathing the road in scarlet. Another ten seconds and he’d crossed Bathurst and plunged between the thick concrete abutments supporting the still undemolished raised expressway. Blair’s beige Nissan rocketed by on the opposite side of the road.
He watched in the rearview mirror as the Nissan spun, black streaks of rubber marring the asphalt in criss-cross V’s, and came after him.
“Hold on,” Blair’s voice projected from the phone. “I’ll use my car to stop you.”
“You’ll what?” Dodge screamed into the phone. “You’re going to kill us both.”
“You want my help or not?”
Blair pulled alongside, matching Dodge’s speed. The two cars could have been standing still, the earth whipping by under them. Blair glanced over, shook her head and then shot past Dodge and swung in front. She slowed fractionally, inching backwards.
Another stoplight blazed red ahead of them. A line of late-night gamblers working their way home from the lakeside casino poured through the intersection. Blair leaned on her horn and pulsed her high beams.
Dodge prayed at the windshield. “Move. Move. Move.”
A taxi just entering the intersection noticed Blair’s frenetic signaling and lurched to a stop, leaving barely a car-width. Dodge cringed, blinked, and they were through.
The green lights of another intersection glowed in the distance. They wouldn’t survive another intersection. Even in the middle of the night there was too much traffic.
“If you’re going to do something, now would be a good time,” Dodge yelled.
Taillights flared and Dodge’s car plowed into Blair’s. The Suzuki’s engine screamed as it tried to accelerate against the Nissan’s slowing weight. A flame danced out from under the hood, twinkling orange and blue. Black smoke swirled from the air vents. The tang of burning tires flooded Dodge’s senses.
Blair braked harder, and the wheel bucked and tore from Dodge’s grasp. The Suzuki lurched wildly to the left and glanced off a concrete abutment before he could regain control. Even through the adrenaline, pain was now an entity consuming him from the inside.
Blind from smoke, tears streaming, Dodge tried to hold the car straight, to align himself with the crimson flare of Blair’s remaining taillight. The two bumpers nudged together and held. Heat singed his fingers.
Finally the cars slowed and shuddered to a halt. The engine was still screeching as Dodge yanked the thin plastic door handle, trying to escape asphyxiation, but it wouldn’t budge. He pounded his fist on the window, rational thought lost in the frantic need for air. He was suffocating. Drowning.
Then fresh air whooshed around him as Blair pulled the passenger door open. She stepped back as a gush of flame erupted, consuming the new oxygen. Dodge fumbled his seatbelt open, crawled out through the smoke and slumped face-down onto the relative cool of the tarmac. Finally, the engine seized and the car stalled, but the flames were spreading. Soon the whole car would be on fire.
Blair grabbed him under each arm, dragged him away from the wreck, and propped him up against the Nissan’s heat-fins. He was too exhausted and in too much agony to complain about the warmth on his back.
Even wracked with pain he was happy to be alive.
“Wake up,” she said, slapping his cheeks.
He tried to respond but couldn’t make his mouth form words.
“We need to get Joshua.” Blair opened the Nissan’s passenger door and piled him in. Pain quaked through his body, focused on a swollen bulge on his back. He could feel the lump pressing against the seat.
Blair dropped into the car and gunned the Nissan forward, pulling away from the Suzuki and the rising column of black smoke. It wouldn’t take long for a traffic drone to notice and come investigate.
“Wait …” Dodge managed.
“Now we get Joshua.”
“No …” Dodge coughed, a brutal spasm that sent torturous ripples up and down his chest. “… been there …” He took a deep breath and continued. “… security …” He inhaled again. Fresh air helped scrub the fog from his thoughts. “I can get in … but not like this.”
His words seemed to pierce Blair’s sphere of single-minded determination. ”You’re right. This is rash.”
“Yes … rash,” Dodge said, then granted himself permission to surrender to the soothing pull of unconsciousness. Blair pounded the steering wheel, jarring him upright.
“—Ben zonah. We have to go back.”
“The Godwave,” Dodge said.
Blair nodded. “If the Paradise Mind gets it—” She braked and twisted the wheel. “I can’t even imagine what they’d do with it.”
Dodge’s weakened reflexes fired too late to stop him from slamming against his door, and this time, when the urge to pass out presented itself, he gladly accepted.