Dodge leaned back against the wall and stretched out his legs, relaxing for the first time in days. Cool air caressed his exposed skin. Immense birch and maple trees in the park across the street provided green-tinged shade, and the city was nearly silent as the rustling leaves absorbed the rumbling traffic noise.
He could have stayed there forever. Happiness had taken complete hold, and he was riding it, drifting like a bird on a thermal current. The prospect of a future with Blair was dizzying. Sure, she kept up a thick protective shell, but he had seen beneath it, caught sight of the tender creature beneath. She only had to let him in. They could make this work. And together they’d help Joshua adjust to his new life.
His only regret was that Len wouldn’t be around to enjoy it. If it weren’t for him, Dodge was sure he wouldn’t have survived the past few years. Len had saved him, made the future possible. And now he’d never be able to repay him.
The shop’s shadow had barely moved when someone kicked Dodge’s outstretched legs.
“Get the hell off my doorstep,” a rough voice said. “Go come down somewheres else.”
Dodge bounced up, unwilling to release his mood for anyone. “I’m here to collect an item I have inside.”
The clerk pulled on a long earlobe. “Oh yeah. You,” he muttered. “You. The photography buff. Had a bunch of suits in here asking about you a day or so ago.”
He turned and entered a complicated entrance code into the lock, angling his body so Dodge couldn’t watch.
“Suits?” Dodge asked as he followed the man into the store. The lights came on automatically and the clerk waddled over and squeezed behind the counter.
“Didn’t like the look of them. Figured they were Peemers.” The clerk turned and fixed his squinting appraiser’s eye on Dodge. “You ain’t one of those Paradise Mind fucks, are ya?”
“Not even close.”
“Good. They’re trouble. My sister got caught up with them and the next thing you know she left her kids and husband to go study in some freak school.” He pushed the scanner across the counter. “Anyway, I told them I never saw you and to get the hell out of my shop.”
“I appreciate it,” Dodge said and pressed his thumb against the pad.
The clerk picked up the storage device from the display and laid it on the counter, covering it with his enormous hand. He extended the other, palm up. Dodge pulled a cashcard from his pocket and handed it to the clerk. Without removing his hand from the storage unit, the clerk swiped the card. His eyebrows shot up when he read the beaming blue numbers of the total.
“Been busy.” The clerk narrowed his eye at Dodge, but took his hand off the collector.
“Very,” Dodge said and picked up the unit. “Keep the card.”
The clerk’s eyebrows lifted again, but this time the corners of his mouth moved up with them, revealing bleached teeth. “‘There are only two classes of people, the magnanimous, and the rest.’ Pleasure doing business with you.”
Dodge left the shop and could barely keep from running as he headed south, all the way past Lakeshore to the ferry terminal.
He cut away from the path leading to the corroded ferry terminal gates and crossed over the grass separating the shelter from the condos on the other side. The lawn rose to a crest and then sloped down to the pedestrian boardwalk bordering the water. He paused at the peak. Below, tied to the bulwark, bobbed a blue and white pleasure craft. Blair was in the cockpit, hovering over the instrument panel, readying for the trip across the lake. Joshua appeared to be relaxing on the boat’s rear bench, gazing across the water, past the old airport, to the Needle’s remains. Drones and helicopters swirled above it, relaying images of the massive gathering around the world.
Three giant screens erected around the Needle’s circumference were running a Klaxon Overdrive documentary from a few years back. Entropy seemed to be going ahead with their plans whether they had a new messiah to trot out for the resurrection or not.
Dodge skipped down the slope, his soles skidding on the slick grass. As he reached the boardwalk, Blair looked up from the controls. Her hand leapt to the gun handle projecting from her waistband. He smiled and waved the storage unit in the air. Only moments now. Soon they’d be skimming over the water, spray misting from the boat’s hull as they hurtled towards their future together, with Joshua free from Entropy.
But she didn’t smile back. Instead, she clasped the dull black grip, freed the weapon, and pointed it at him. Joshua turned away from the Needle to watch.
“Stay there, Mr. Dodgson,” Blair said. “And toss me the unit.”
His thoughts went numb. “I don’t—”
“Arella, what are you doing?” Joshua said, rising. The boat thudded against the dock.
“Sit back down and be quiet,” Blair said, then turned back to Dodge. “Did you really think I’d waste any more time on a fuck-up like you?” She wiggled the fingers of her free hand. “Toss it over.”
His happiness imploded. Spinning fragments of raw emotion inflicted thousands of tiny slashes as it disintegrated. Its passing left a hollowness that rung in his ears.
“If I don’t?” Dodge said. He could barely hear his own voice.
She cocked the gun’s hammer with her thumb.
“Arella!” Joshua yelled.
“You’d—you’d shoot me?”
“Have you ever killed someone, Mr. Dodgson?”
“What? No. I could never—”
“How many people do you think you’d have to kill before watching the life fade from someone’s eyes became easy? How many screams until you stopped caring they were the sounds of agony? How many tearful, wretched pleas for mercy could you endure? You’d be surprised at how simple it becomes. Now, hand it over.”
She wasn’t bluffing. He flung the collector into the boat. It landed on the rear bench next to the duffle bag.
“Excellent choice,” Blair said as she leaned over and picked up the unit. Apparently satisfied, she cocked her arm and flung it out into the water. The camera disappeared with barely a splash. His stomach sank along with his fortune.
“Now, Joshua and I have work to do. But don’t think I won’t leave without giving you your reward. Close your eyes and you won’t have to think about the past ever again.”
“What work—?” Joshua cut himself off. His face contorted, and a moan surged from deep within his chest. “No—I told you—that night in the desert. I remember. I was done. I wouldn’t be Entropy’s puppet. Or yours. And you. You—”
“Killed you,” Blair finished with a roll of her eyes.
“Yes,” Blair said, her face etched in resignation. “I had to. You never understood, Joshua. Could never comprehend the power you have. Without war, peace is impossible, and there’s no such thing as a war without casualties. It all comes down to numbers. I’d kill any one person if it meant two would live. No matter what it means, to me or anyone else. I’d be a hypocrite if I couldn’t sacrifice my own feelings. I loved you, Joshua. And yes, I killed you. Killed you to make you what you are so that millions could live.” She took a deep breath, but her gun never wavered. “Now sit down or I’ll do it again. And this time I’ll edit your memories more completely. You and I will do monumental things for the world—whether you know they’re happening is up to you.”
Joshua closed his eyes and hung his head, like an innocent man hearing a judge order the death sentence.
“Why are you doing this?” Dodge called, his eyes fixed on the small black hole at the end of the gun barrel.
“Are you expecting me to wrap everything up in a neat expositional package for you?” Blair sneered. “Life isn’t like that. We don’t always get to know why.”
The boat rocked, and the small black circle swung up in an arc.
“I won’t let you kill anyone else,” Joshua said. He had plucked a taser from the bag next to him. The twin diodes flushed green, charged and ready to fire.
Blair turned and then hesitated, keeping the gun on Dodge. Her voice deepened. “Little boy’s got a pair now, does he? We had this same conversation six months ago. Remember how that ended?” Joshua didn’t respond. “Oh no, you don’t, do you? Because I had your memory erased.”
“You won’t hurt me. You can’t save the world without Klaxon Overdrive.”
“You think you’re indispensable,” Blair spat. Her eyes flicked between Dodge and Joshua. “You’re a commodity.”
“I may not remember, but I’m sure I told you then I’d rather be dead than a puppet. I’m already dead. I have nothing else to lose.”
Blair’s eyes flicked again. Judging. Preparing. The gun dropped slightly as she flexed her knees, altering her center of gravity.
Dodge tensed. He jumped aside the instant before Blair fired, and the bullet cracked off the concrete. She didn’t have time for another shot, and spun her gun arm out to knock Joshua’s taser away—except Joshua was too quick for her. He dodged and Blair’s right hand missed the taser. The diodes flared, catching Blair in the beams as she twirled. Her muscles locked, disabling her, but her momentum carried her forward into Joshua, conducting the charge into him, convulsing his muscles as well. The boat heaved under their shifting weight, sending them further off-balance and disengaging the beam. Their weapons slipped from their slack grips and landed on the boat’s floor, then Joshua’s legs buckled, and Blair’s weight sent them both over the side, into the black water. The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds.
Dodge had hit the ground hard, wrenching his back, but he forced himself immediately up and hobbled to the water’s edge. The boat’s rocking slowed. Neither Joshua nor Blair surfaced.
“Joshua!” Dodge called. Only the seagulls overhead cried in answer.
Holding his back, he leaned over and peered down at his quivering reflection. Gentle waves lapped against the boat’s hull. In the distance, the crowd around the Needle buzzed like a carnival.
He had to go in.
The mere thought of dropping beneath the water’s surface constricted his chest, but Dodge kicked off his shoes and curled his toes over the boardwalk, fighting every signal his brain was sending.
It’s not safe, the burst of neurochemicals screamed at him, nothing comes back out.
As though siding with his anxiety, even the intense sunlight refused to penetrate the gloomy lake.
He had no choice. He had to go in.
Dodge sucked in a breath, and jumped—
Opaque murk swallowed him.
Panic roared in his head.
Run. Away from the grasping claws. Away from the eternal darkness.
Save what you have left.
Just give up.
—Dodge screamed silently, fighting back against the fear. He wouldn’t give up. Not this time. From here there was nowhere to retreat, no further ground to surrender. If he quit now, after already running from his family, from his career—from himself—his only sanctuary would be death. And if he was going to die, better to do it trying to embrace life than running from it.
He scissored his legs and speared further down, waving his arms ahead of him like a blind man in an unfamiliar room. Again he kicked, driving into the depths. What if he had missed them? The third time he kicked, his arms collided with something. A person.
Dodge snaked his hand under the limp figure’s armpits and hauled back towards the faint surface. Color leeched from his vision as his muscles consumed his dwindling oxygen supply. The body in his arms slowed him, making it feel as though he wasn’t moving at all, but he continued to kick, pulling with his free hand. The light grew brighter until, with a last burst, he broke the surface with a sputtering gasp and gulped in a lung of air.
With Joshua in his arms.
Dodge whooped and smacked his palm against the surface, sending a surge of water into his mouth that made him gag as he tried to breathe and tread water at the same time.
Point taken. He’d celebrate once they were safely on shore.
He paddled backwards to the boardwalk, stopping when he nudged against the wooden wall. Now he had to figure out how to get the unconscious Joshua up onto dry land.
Cramping muscles jabbed his side. His left leg slowed, and they ducked under the water. Ignoring the pain, Dodge treaded harder, rising their heads just above water level.
Dodge glanced up at the boardwalk just as two sets of white-clad arms reached down at him. Each pair of hands grabbed one of Joshua’s arms and lifted him up, out of Dodge’s grasp. He squinted up to the boardwalk where a child stood at the boardwalk’s edge, dressed all in white. It lowered to one knee and as Dodge blinked his eyes, he realized it wasn’t a child at all—it was a short man. Up on the boardwalk, the two others had started CPR on Joshua.
“We had a bet on who’d come up first,” the little man said in a deep voice as a hand extended down, offering help. “But none of us put any money on it being you.”