The crowd recoiled as the horrific images rippled back from the stage. They saw what was happening, but couldn’t respond rationally. Driven by Godwave-warped anxiety, their brains rebelled, and they threw themselves against the barriers, trying desperately to escape. Those unlucky enough to have secured a place next to the gel were crushed as the crowd surged forward.
Dodge sunk to his knees, landing in a slippery pool of blood. The pain, combined with the nauseating effect of the Godwave, threatened to pull him into unconsciousness. He clamped his hand down over the wound and fought against the urge to let go.
“This is over Arella,” Joshua said, refusing to move. “You’ll have to create your perfect society without me. I’m not Klaxon Overdrive. Not anymore. You killed him.”
Dodge watched with blurry eyes as Blair raised her gun and fired. The bullet struck the stage between Joshua’s feet. She shook her head, trying to clear it, and noticed Jennifer cowering on her knees. Blair grabbed her, forced her to her feet, and steadied the gun against her head.
“Come with me, Joshua,” Blair said. “Now.”
Jolene Tewksbury moaned from the ground, her still-amplified voice stirring the already distressed crowd into a fresh frenzy. Without a moment’s hesitation, Blair shot Jolene with three precise shots to the chest, shredding her heart and quieting the noise, then re-affixed the gun to Jennifer’s head.
“Go with her,” Dodge said with a groan. Blair had just killed Jolene Tewksbury in front of millions of people. She was on edge, capable of anything. “It’s better than being dead.”
“I’d rather be dead than a fucking puppet.”
“I will not tell you again,” Blair said, pressing the gun harder into Jennifer’s temple. The girl mewled in pain and tried to resist but Blair held her tight. “Come with me, or I’ll tear your head from your body and make a hundred of you. Imagine watching me torture your girlfriend from a hundred unique perspectives. Want to reconsider whether that would be worse than helping me to save the world?”
Dodge shifted his hand clamped over his wound and brushed the gun tucked in his pants. If he got the chance …
Drones circled like seagulls at the dump, capturing everything for the ravenous viewers around the world. An aircraft approached, coming over the lake. The Burning Spear was returning.
There wasn’t much time left.
“You’ve got this all twisted,” Joshua said. He seemed sure of himself. Impossibly calm. “It would disgust your father to see what you’ve become. You think you’re an idealist, but you’re just another murderer. He died trying to keep the world safe from people like you.”
Blair wailed, her face contorting in rage. She lowered the gun and rushed Joshua, fingers extended like claws. Her guard down, Dodge freed his gun, steadied his shaking hands, and fired. The first shot went wild. Blair ducked at the sound, swirling in her fury to face the unexpected attack. He took a breath, aimed, and fired again. The second struck the meat of her thigh, tearing away a chunk of flesh. Her leg buckled, and she fell to her side. Her gun skittered across the stage, out of reach.
“No,” she screamed as she tried to rise. Tears streaked her mottled face.
Dodge forced himself to stand, keeping the gun as steady as possible.
“You need a doctor,” Joshua said.
Dodge nodded his head. He did need a doctor. Maybe he could get Len to arrange—
His vision blacked out, then he blinked back to reality, head spinning.
In its fury, the crowd had nearly broken through the barrier. The Burning Spear helicopter circled overhead.
Everything was happening too fast, he couldn’t think, but he knew they weren’t safe where they were.
“We need to get out of here before they tear us apart.”
“No,” Joshua said. “I’ll never be free. I can’t escape who I am.” He walked over to where Jennifer still stood, dazed. A bright red circle marred her temple. He kissed her cheek. “And now Jennifer’s involved. This has to end.”
“We can try,” Dodge said and tugged at Joshua’s arm. “She can come with us. I’ll get one of those helmets for her and—”
Joshua stood firm. The holo-projector had been showing all this, and his massive image beamed a resolve visible for miles around.
“I don’t want to live like this,” Joshua said, his voice clear over the roar of the crowd. “I want you to end it.”
“How am I supposed to—”
Joshua glanced down at the pistol in Dodge’s hand. “If I run now, I’ll never stop. Eventually Entropy or the Burning Spear or someone else will catch up with me, and then I’ll be right back here again. Or somewhere worse. They’ll use me to get what they want, no matter who gets hurt. They can’t exploit me if there’s nothing left to exploit.”
“I’m not even human, you said so yourself.”
“Listen to him, Joshua.” Blair had recovered and was sitting up, applying pressure to her leg. “You’re special. You can do so much for the world. You have a gift.”
“I don’t belong here, not anymore.” His amplified voice carried over the noise from the crowd. Bodies had piled up against the barrier, nearly high enough to form a ramp. “I just want to be free.”
Dodge raised the gun. It was so heavy.
With a last surge, the crowd broke over the barriers and erupted forward, battering against the stage’s foundations. The floor rocked beneath them.
Blair threw herself forward, dragging across the stage. The Burning Spear helicopter had reached the stage and hovered overhead, a sniper, no doubt, poised to fire.
The world stopped moving, the crowd’s roar went quiet in his ears. All at once Dodge understood: he could refuse to shoot, and Klaxon would remain here, with Entropy. A slave.
Or he could pull the trigger and Joshua would be everywhere.
He wasn’t killing Joshua. He was killing the meat that trapped Joshua. The body was dispensable, what mattered were the memories it contained.
Dodge squeezed the trigger.
Phosphorescent light burst from Joshua’s skull, radiating out like a newborn sun. Bone and silver-etched black fragments flew into the air as the holo-projector captured and displayed the image at a massive scale. Joshua’s body crumpled, and the hologram fell too, slamming through the crowd, a smile still visible on the remains of his face.
Dodge let the gun slip from his fingers.
The Godwave abruptly ceased, relinquishing its hold on the spectators. Their cries hit him like a physical blow and he found himself on the ground, Joshua’s smiling corpse beside him.
He heard Jennifer scream.