The little man got down on one knee, wrapped his fist around Dodge’s arm, and plucked him from the water like a sodden doll. Dodge rolled onto his back and concentrated on forcing as much air into his body as possible.
“You look like a drowned chinchilla,” the man said. His voice was like thunder on the horizon, dangerous yet non-threatening. “If you’ll pardon the cliché.”
Further along the boardwalk, Joshua coughed, then retched. He was alive. A soldier rolled him and brown lake water streamed from his mouth.
“Is he okay?” Dodge asked between gasping breaths.
“Barnett?” the little man asked, not taking his eyes off Dodge.
“He’s breathing, Sarge,” she said. “Vitals are stable. He’ll survive.”
“Excellent,” the Sergeant said. “It looks like Wilco will get that new mech he’s been asking for.”
Dodge climbed to his feet, and no one moved to stop him. A slimline helicopter sat on the crest of the hill, its side panel open and its rotor blades still spinning. Two soldiers tended Joshua, and two more stood next to the helicopter.
The Burning Spear had finally caught up with them.
For a frantic second Dodge imagined running, but he wouldn’t get two steps. And bluffing his way out wasn’t an option either. They were fucked.
He tilted his neck down to see the Sergeant’s face. The little man was around four feet tall, and his skin and eyes looked even darker against the stark whiteness of his uniform. Silver hair bristled from his small round scalp.
“Are you going to kill me now?” Dodge asked.
“Well, son,” the Sergeant reached up and scratched his hairline, as though he hadn’t considered it. “No one’s paid us to kill you, so I don’t know why we would.” He raised an eyebrow at the bag in the boat's rear. “Our contract is to retrieve Klaxon Overdrive, and that’s what we intend to do. Besides, you did us a favor, going in after him. These suits chafe like the dickens when they’re wet.” He reached up and clapped Dodge on the elbow, nearly knocking him over. “Actually, it’s a pleasure to have finally caught up with you. This was one hell of an assignment. These civvy deals are usually as tedious as a night in Vegas. In and out. No challenge. No fun. You kept us chasing far longer than we ever expected. Made us earn it. You’re damned good at not being found, you know that?”
“I’ve had years of practice,” Dodge said, his sarcasm hiding an unexpected sense of pride. “Blair helped.”
“I’m sure she did.” He said with a chuckle that sounded like tumbling rocks. “Hell of a fighter, that one. I’m still expecting to see her pop out of the lake.”
Dodge grimaced at the thought of her. The Sergeant chuckled again, as if they were sharing a joke.
“I know how you feel, son,” the Sergeant said. “We only had a passing acquaintance with her and half of my company fell in love.” He paused and then called over his shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Barnett?”
The soldier on the boardwalk kept her head down and continued tending to Joshua. After another second, the Sergeant twitched his head and the two soldiers hoisted Joshua to his feet.
“I’m not going with you,” Joshua protested, his voice barely above a whisper. “I’d rather be dead.”
“I won’t let you take him,” Dodge said. Though he didn’t know what he was supposed to do to stop them.
“I’m touched by your conviction,” the Sergeant said. “Both of you, I really am, but,” he flicked his hand absently next to his head, “I think, Joshua, you’ll chose to accompany us.”
Someone seated in the helicopter leaned forward into the helicopter doorway. Jennifer. Her hand flew to her mouth as she looked down at the nearly drowned Joshua. Then her eyes narrowed and she shot a hateful look at Dodge.
“She tried to contact an Alfred Blair at Entropy, said she was looking for Joshua Warner,” the Sergeant explained. “When we told her that two crazed employees had abducted him, she was insistent she be allowed to come in and give a description.” He looked back and forth between Dodge and Joshua. “Any further objections?”
Joshua sagged in the soldiers’ arms as Dodge studied the boardwalk.
“I am sorry,” the Sergeant said. “If it’s any consolation, you got closer than most.”
Dodge’s stomach sank as the two soldiers escorted Joshua up to the waiting helicopter.
“Don’t feel bad about the way this turned out,” the Sergeant offered. “It couldn’t have ended any other way. We both know exactly what it is: thirty years of home movies wrapped in a lab-grown shell. Klaxon Overdrive belongs to Entropy. I’m sure you’ve grown attached to it, otherwise you wouldn’t have gone in the drink after it, but you have to remember, it’s not real.” The sergeant glanced up at the helicopter. Jennifer leaned out, reaching for Joshua as the soldiers helped him in. “It doesn’t have any right to complain about how it’s used or when it’s turned off.”
He paused a moment, then nodded, snapped around, and followed his soldiers up the hill. Joshua watched Dodge as they secured him in the helicopter’s belly, Jennifer’s arms around his neck, the fight gone, resigned to his fate. He smiled, as if to tell Dodge not to worry, that he had tried his best. Then the panel slid shut, and the ground shook as the blades whipped faster. Dodge buried his face in the crook of his elbow as the helicopter lifted into the air, swooped down over him, and darted over the water, frothing up tiny whitecaps on the lake’s surface as it raced toward the Needle.
It was over. Entropy had won.
He looked over at the boat, at the duffle bag containing the probably hundreds of thousands in cashcards and the black box holding a copy of Klaxon Overdrive’s mind. Strange that the Burning Spear hadn’t taken it with them. Entropy must not have known about it.
They weren’t omniscient after all.
And if they weren’t all-knowing, maybe he could still do something. Maybe he could still get to Joshua.
It was a long shot, but he had to try.
Before he could give himself the chance to come up with a reason not to, Dodge ran to the boat and leapt in. The key was already in the ignition. He turned it and the motor whined to life. After untying the ropes, Dodge torqued the engine and shot the boat out into the open water, heading east, following the helicopter towards the floating mass surrounding the Needle.
He wasn’t giving up, not this time. He’d free Joshua if it killed him.
Dodge’s head purred with excitement, anxiety replaced by determination. For once in his life he would do what needed to be done. Head on, no skulking around the edges. He directed the boat at the Needle and leaned back to collect the taser and gun from the boat’s floor, then opened the bag and grabbed the second taser. Each contained about half a full charge, which wasn’t much, but would hopefully be enough to get through Entropy security.
He stuck a taser in each pocket and tucked the gun into his waistband. His one step at a time plan had worked out so far, but now he was sprinting with his eyes shut. He knew he’d eventually smack into something, it was only a matter of time, but somehow it didn’t bother him. If this is how it ended then so be it. He was tired of being afraid.
Dodge re-zipped the bag but there were no locks on it. He couldn’t lug it around with him, and he couldn’t just leave it in the boat. He needed to stash it somewhere, just in case he made it out the other side.
As he flew past an airport buoy he had an idea, slowed the boat and circled back, slid alongside the buoy and cut the throttle. He leaned over the side and secured the bag to the bottom of the floating beacon by the straps, checking twice to ensure it wouldn’t slip off if the weather turned rough. The ROM cube was waterproof, and hopefully no one else would find it if he didn’t make it back.
He returned to the wheel and gunned the throttle. Eyes shielded by a flat hand, he surveyed the flotilla, looking for a suitable place to dock, and settled on a flat raft cobbled together from barrels and shipping skids.
Dodge cut the engine and let the boat drift up to the raft. No one was around, but the occupants had locked a line of backpacks together with their rolled sleeping bags. He tied the boat off and picked his way along the makeshift walkway between the watercraft.
The path lead to a catamaran. He climbed a wooden ramp up to the deck and surveyed the floating sprawl between him and the island. From the height of the tall boat he spotted several pockets of communal activity, each a hub where the labyrinthine paths met. It was one giant settlement, across the water all the way up to the aerogel perimeter surrounding the Needle’s remains. Entropy had built a stage against the enormous silver stump, and it stretched all the way to the edge of the barrier.
Jolene Tewksbury’s face beamed from the giant screens hung above the stage, and he didn’t know what she was talking about, but a giant countdown below her showed fifteen minutes until showtime. The crowd was already thick, buzzing in anticipation.
On the other side of the gel was a flurry of activity, with Entropy employees finishing last-minute tasks. The Burning Spear’s black helicopter sat on the protected lawn like a wasp on an anthill.
They’d be getting Joshua ready now. Whatever Dodge was about to do, he only had minutes to do it.
He left the boat and hurried across the winding pathways that grew wider and more sturdy as he neared the island. People called out greetings as he passed, offering drinks or selling food or drugs or just being neighborly. Even the air smelled sweet. It was like passing through the biggest family reunion ever.
Just as he reached solid ground, the Burning Spear helicopter rose over the crowd, spun in the air and shot out over the lake, heading away from the city.
The air hummed with excitement as he neared the gel barrier. Thousands stood facing the stage, waiting for what was about to happen. Dodge pressed his way through the crowd. The barrier wrapped along the entire front of the stage and continued around to the other side of the Needle. He circled around, and once he’d finally made it far enough that the thick base of the Needle obscured the stage, he found a potential entrance: swinging metal doors bracketed by poles imbedded in the gel.
Only a sliding bar secured the green doors, but armed guards stood on either side. With a crowd surrounding him, stealth wasn’t an option. There was no choice now but a head-on assault.
He pulled a taser and held it down behind his thigh as he approached the door. Once within range, Dodge swung his arm out and swept the beam across the unsuspecting guards. Before they had hit the ground Dodge rushed over and slid the bar aside. The gate opened easily, swiveling on silent hinges, and he slipped inside.