Updated: May 24
Dodge froze. This was it. Finally, everything was about to end. No more everpresent fear. No more constant, unyielding anxiety. No more worrying about the Paradise Mind or Entropy or the feeds or his terrible life or anything else ever again. It probably wouldn’t even hurt. Only for a second as the blast tore him apart, then nothing. His shadow-existence would finally be over. He actually felt good about it. Best he’d felt in months. Behind him, the collector beeped as it completed its acquisition cycle. The nanites, having successfully analyzed Klaxon’s DNA, had done their work and sent their message. He was now very rich. Not only rich, but he’d never be found out, the blast would more than take care of any evidence he left behind. All he had to do was get out of the building and he wouldn’t ever have to worry about anything. He’d be free. And rich. And alive. A shock of self-preservation startled him and he tore his eyes from the scintillating weapon. Dodge started counting in his head, snatched up the collector, and dashed from the room, leaving his empty case behind. He threw himself down the first flight of stairs—stumbling over the corpses piled at the bottom—then down the other set and through the penthouse’s main reception room. The music still pounded, the bass thumping in his chest as he exited the suite and nearly tripped over the body as he skidded into the hall. Surprisingly, considering his luck, the elevator doors were open and inviting. He jumped in and hammered the single button on the control panel, shouting “Ground floor.” He fell against the rear wall of the pod, breathing hard. Forty-five seconds from penthouse to elevator. About three minutes remained before the Needle lit up. The ride up had only taken two. He was going to make it. He was going to live. Except the elevator still hadn’t moved. He lunged forward and jabbed the lone button again. “Down! Lobby! Ground!” Still nothing happened. The little light behind the button didn’t even come on. He hammered his fists against the control panel and screamed at the roof of the pod, venting his rage at the tinny voice that had accompanied him on his way up. His memory jump-cut back to what the voice had said. Something about the elevator being propelled by air pressure. Just air. Dodge didn’t give himself time to reconsider. He yanked the gun from his waistband, pointed it down, averted his face and squeezed the trigger twice. Two fist-sized holes burst through the elevator floor. The shots concussed his hearing and his eardrums grew tight. Then he swung the gun up, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger again. The elevator dropped. The ceiling whistled as air rushed up and out into the vacuum. The sudden lurch caused Dodge to stumble and jerk the trigger again, blowing a second hole in the ceiling and sending the pod falling even faster. He clutched the railing as what seemed like hurricane-force winds screamed through, rending the floor open. He stuck his head into the torrent rushing through the pod and looked down, searching for the bottom, but the shaft below seemed bottomless. The pod jerked and he fell to his knees. The camera slipped and clanged to the floor beside him. Below, a piercing shriek of metal on metal joined the screaming whistle of air. Acrid black smoke streamed up through the holes, choking him. He had a flash of the camera falling through the floor and tumbling down the shaft and brushed the floor blindly, panicked, and hit the camera strap with his hand and grabbed it tight. He rolled away as the rush of air began to quiet, and the blare of the horrible shrieking lessened. The tinny voice stated, “Emergency brakes activated,” yet the elevator didn’t stop. The pod doors had stayed open the whole time, and he watched the interior of the elevator shaft crawl by until, finally, the lobby doors rolled into view. Dodge readied himself to jump out, but the elevator still didn’t stop. Then, with only a third of the lobby doors still visible, the elevator shuddered to a halt and the doors wheezed open to reveal a thin rectangle of metallic light. He tossed the gun and the camera up into the lobby then jumped through the narrow opening and slapped his hands against the floor. Slippery fingers scrabbling over the metal, Dodge struggled through the opening, half in and half out, scissoring his legs in the air. The elevator groaned and began to slide further into the shaft. His terrified cries were lost in the vaulted lobby as he fought his legs up and used his elbows to lever himself free of the shaft. He scooped up the camera and the gun, struggled to his feet and limped towards the exit. Halfway to freedom, the building shook and he caught a brief instant of a roar before his hearing was replaced by an atonal drone. He looked back as he ran. Neon-phosphor flame shot from the gaping shaft behind him and leapt towards the ceiling. The lobby’s reflective surface caught the vivid light, intensifying it and terrifying Dodge, for a split second, into believing he was enclosed in a silent inferno and about to be roasted alive. Then the entrance doors whooshed open and he was outside, still running, the humid air glorious on his face. He sucked in a deep breath and, with a noise like a meteor impact filtered through the wet cotton in his ears, something sent him flying into the air. He somehow managed to hold the collector safely over his head, saving it from impacting the ground, but felt his mobile crunch in his breast pocket as he landed hard on the path. He rolled over, afraid that the island itself would be next to explode, and glanced at the twisted wreckage that had landed not twenty meters away. Severed by the blast, the tip of the Needle had smashed to the ground, and its shining point stretched all the way down the lawn and into the water. Only half of the Needle was left standing, a charred stub all that remained of the massive tower. His vision rippling with phantom spatters of color, Dodge struggled to his feet and stumbled away from the flaming debris still crashing down around him. Len wasn’t going to believe any of this.