[Part 35] 17:02:10 // 05-JUN-2042

“What the fuck is that?” Blair said, over-articulating.

Dodge had directed Joshua south toward the lake and had him stop the truck on the northern border of the Studio Alley exclusion zone. All along the south side of the street, a nearly invisible gossamer curtain encased the concrete wall and stretched high into the sky. Someone had installed a display sheet all along the length of the wall.

He whistled as he squinted up. He couldn’t tell where the curtain stopped and the sky started. “Entropy sure thinks big.”

Blair swiveled her head at Dodge in a lazy dip. “What are you talking about? Entropy didn’t do this, they couldn’t have. I’d have known about it.”

He didn’t know how he knew, but he was sure Entropy was behind this. No way it was a coincidence that after years of neglect, Studio Alley showed fresh signs of life at the same moment they scheduled Klaxon Overdrive’s grand rebirth. 

“Oh yeah? Is that why you can barely walk, because you had such a close eye on everything Entropy had going?” Too late, he bit back the reflexive sarcasm and shook his head in apology. “Sorry, I just thought we’d be able to hide out in there. Now I’m not so sure.”

But he didn’t have any better ideas, so he inhaled through his mouth and started across the street to get a closer look.

Blair grabbed his arm. “We have to stay with the truck. Mobility is vital in eluding capture.”

“That truck has a GPS lowjack. We can’t outrun the link.”

“Has to be safer than whatever’s behind that wall.”

They weren’t the only ones who had noticed the curtain. Others on the sidewalk were running their hands along it and slamming it with their fists, curious about Studio Alley’s new wrapping.

“Anywhere we go, someone is guaranteed to recognize Joshua. You think anyone will look for him in there?” Dodge pulled his arm free and walked over to the shimmering fabric. The distinct image of the concrete barrier and the roofs of the ramshackle houses beyond pixelated, becoming a watercolor mosaic. He reached out and dragged his finger down the material. Its surface felt oily but left no residue on his skin. It was nanotube fabric backed with a display material. A speeding truck would bounce right off it. There was definitely something going on inside.

“We need to find a way in,” Dodge said as he walked along the curtain, dragging his hand against the surface and examining the bottom for a way under. Metal anchors fastened it into the ground.

“No, we need to get the hell away from here,” Blair insisted. “Whoever put this up did it for a reason.”

“Entropy put this up.”

“It wasn’t. I promise you.”

Joshua had followed behind during all this, carrying the duffel bag and staring at the curtain. He pointed to a narrow stretch of lawn extending out from under the fabric. The screen showed there were a few feet of grass before the concrete barrier started, grass that wasn’t level, leaving a few inches of clearance from the bottom of the fabric. “We can dig.”

“Now you’re making sense,” Dodge said. He checked to make sure no one was watching, pried up a piece of cracked sidewalk and started scraping dirt away.

“Stop digging,” Blair said. She turned back to the UAV but didn’t go anywhere. She called over her shoulder, “If you’re in such a hurry to get caught, go turn yourself in and leave us out of it.”

Dodge cleared away a hole big enough to squeeze through, then got down on his back, winked at Blair, and wriggled under the metal base of the curtain.

He emerged into in a three foot span between the fabric wall and the concrete barrier. Inside, the fabric was easier to see. The backing was slate grey and stretched high into the air before curving into an open-aired roof supported by a latticework of thick tubes studded with intense lights, most of which focused somewhere down to the south. They had put Studio Alley in a box in under two days. Entropy could do anything.

This end of the box was fairly dim. There would probably be drones patrolling and bots on the ground, but the immediate vicinity seemed clear. Entropy must have cleaned out the squatters. It was as good a place to hide as they could ask for. For now, at least.

He poked his arm out of the hole and motioned the other two through. Joshua came immediately, pushing the bag ahead of him.

“Wow,” Joshua said, looking up. “E flat.”

Blair came through a moment later, and Dodge extended a hand to help her up. She swatted it aside.

“I think Entropy has moved into the real estate business,” Dodge said.

Blair leaned back against the concrete barrier and stared up at the scaffolding stretched across the sky. “Even I didn’t consider taking it this far,” she said, gawking.

“What’s that mean?”

Blair sighed and shook her head. “You could be right about Entropy. Klaxon Overdrive will need a place to live after he rejoins the living, and the terrorist insurance payout from the Needle will be more than enough to rebuild Studio Alley. I bet the city gave it to them for nothing. Looks like Entropy’s planned on making Klaxon his very own Vatican City.” Blair dropped her head. “I was going to use the money to save lives. They’re using it for a real estate development.”

Blair closed her eyes and seemed to fall asleep against the concrete. Joshua was lost in the dull texture of the fabric. Dodge was barely standing himself. How had they eluded Entropy for this long? And how much longer could they keep it up?

“Let’s find somewhere quiet,” Dodge said. “We all need to rest.”

Blair straightened and Dodge led them across the top edge of the slum until they found a spot to scale the concrete barrier. Once they were on the other side, it seemed like the entire human race had disappeared from the world.

They walked away from the lights for a few more minutes before Dodge chose one of the large abandoned studios to hide out in. The green entrance door screeched as Dodge pulled on it. He cringed and stopped moving, but heard nothing in response. They slipped in and Dodge pulled the door behind them.

The building wasn’t high, but a train could have comfortably spanned its length. The entire space was a warren of abandoned living areas partitioned by feeble plywood walls and draped plastic tarp. It looked like a massive farmer’s market on Wednesday, closed up and waiting for the Sunday customers. Rising above the tumult of sheet metal, scavenged lumber, and plastic barriers, someone had erected a scaffolding that held a cistern made from patched scrap metal, probably designed to catch rain water from the cracked skylights. Pipes sprouting from the bottom snaked to various points on the floor, sinks and wash basins and tubs for communal use.

The studio was a big open space, but there had once been another floor, about four stories up. Only two jagged segments remained, one at each end of the building. A skeletal grid of metal supports stretched in between, and the dirty skylights glowed through the massive hole, submersing the room in yellowed light. They’d have to be crazy to risk going up there.

Which made it the perfect place to hide.

Dodge found a narrow set of stairs behind years of decomposing garbage and organic waste. Joshua went first, scrambling over the refuse, then Dodge and Blair followed, neither willing to accept help from the other.

When they finally reached the top, Dodge was already regretting his suggestion. He was exhausted. Even worse, the few remaining floorboards sagged with every step. They tried to tread only where the beams supported the feeble wood.

He was hoping the floor on the other side of the studio would be firmer—except to get to the other side meant crossing the grid of narrow, pigeon shit-streaked metal beams. Dodge’s head swam as he contemplated walking across, but they had come this far.

“We’ll rest on the other side,” Dodge said.

Blair glanced at Dodge, then down through the gaping hole to the roofless maze below. “You’re going to walk across those beams? In your condition?”

“They’ve got to be at least a foot wide,” Dodge said. “And if anyone else tries to follow us, we’ll see them coming. Blair, we need to rest—”

“It’s safe,” Joshua called from twenty feet away, balanced on a girder. He still carried the awkward duffle bag over his back.

“Get back here,” Blair yelled, too exhausted to hide the panic from her eyes. 

Joshua took two steps backwards, facing them, then twisted on the ball of his foot, like a dancer, and continued towards the solid floor beyond.

“If he can do it, we can do it,” Dodge said.

“I’m not playing acrobat. We’ll just have to find somewhere else.”

Dodge tensed his jaw. “What do you want—easy or safe? If you can think of a less likely place the Paradise Mind or the Burning Spear will come looking for us, let me know. But I’m tired of people showing up unannounced and tasering my ass. No one will follow us here. Now get moving.” 

He finished out of breath, heat rising in his face. Where had that come from?

Blair hesitated, obviously not used to taking orders, and glanced back and forth between the floor and the girders. Finally she took a tentative step, arms outstretched, testing her weight before committing her balance. Once she was a few meters ahead, Dodge followed.

Halfway across, Blair finally looked down and wobbled.

“It’s better if you—”

“Don’t even tell me not to look down.”

“Just trying to help,” Dodge said.

Blair plodded along, pausing after each step to regain her stability. Dodge focused on the beam under his feet, nudging chunks of guano-crusted feathers with the toes of his shoes as he tried not to lift them from the solid metal.

Joshua had strolled across with little apparent concern and was waiting for them when they arrived, beaming. “Laser moonlight and Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto,” he said, raised his hands, and mimed grazing piano keys with twitching fingers.

Dodge couldn’t think of a coherent response. Joshua was becoming increasingly random, blurting out impenetrable non-sequiturs. At least he seemed emotionally stable, which was an improvement over last night.

Blair continued well past the deteriorated edge of the floorboards and only flopped to her knees once the possibility of plummeting to her death had dropped to zero.

Remnants of sodden drywall, the chaff of splintered white paint, and other discarded objects covered the weathered floor. Dodge cleared a patch and kicked the accumulated trash further back against the mouldy brick wall. He retrieved Blair’s bag from where Joshua had dropped it, carried it back to their camp and set it down away from the ledge.

Dodge helped Blair up from where she had collapsed. She allowed him to lead her over to the spot he had cleared, then lay down again and closed her eyes. Joshua wandered the floor, rummaging among the garbage, running his hands over the dingy objects he found, sniffing each one as though selecting fruit from the supermarket. He pounced on a hoary chocolate bar wrapper—the red starburst of a vanished brand barely visible under toxic fuzz—and waved it at Dodge like he’d just discovered treasure. Dodge shook his head but waved back.

He was waving to a replactor Klaxon Overdrive. How absurd had his life become?