Updated: May 24
Dodge avoided the automated water taxi and ran all the way across the island to the narrow service bridge, where he hid under a topiary Klaxon Overdrive logo and waited for security to cross in their armored cart. At least it gave him time for his hearing to return. The guards were frantic as they whizzed by, too concerned about the voices squawking from their mobiles to think about stopping to look for someone cowering in the bushes. They would assume the journalist they had sent in the water shuttle a half hour ago was dead, along with everyone else. If they gave him a thought at all. They’d most likely be terrified about how Klaxon Overdrive had blown up on their watch. They’d never work again.
By the time he hobbled all the way across the bridge, sirens were erupting from the city, and camera drones were already skimming across the water. Everyone would be here soon. Police. Fire. HomeSec. The feeds. The entire world would be watching.
Once across the bridge he ran north, crossing Lakeshore and the commuter rail line, and didn’t stop until he had lost himself in the maze of condos in the city’s south end.
After acquiring Klaxon’s DNA, he was supposed to go directly to the Paradise Mind’s downtown Campus, hand over the merchandise and collect payment. The plan incinerated, he went to Len’s.
Len lived and worked out of an old hotel turned strip club turned hotel turned back to strip club in the rapidly re-deteriorating east end of downtown. He had bought it twenty years ago—before its next-door proximity to the high concrete wall of the Studio Alley exclusion zone had made it nearly worthless—and never left. It suited him. He preferred to live his life online rather than out there with the people and their diseases anyway.
As always, the two misanthropic regulars, the automated bartender, and the robot strippers ignored Dodge as he dashed over the bleach-faded tile towards the back stairs. On the way past he caught a glimpse of himself in the bar’s mirrored backsplash. He looked like he had stuck his face in a smoky tornado. He grabbed a couple napkins from the bar and wiped his face as he skipped the elevator and leapt up the stairs to Len’s fourth-floor office.
Light spasmed into the gloomy hallway through the wavy translucent window in Len’s door. In homage to some old detective movie, Len had painstakingly hand-lettered a sign on the reinforced plastic:
Len Quid, Karma Mechanic.
As Dodge stood and waited for the door to open, a gush of maniacal laughter vibrated out into the hall.
What the hell was Len laughing at in there? He’d have seen what happened. For all Len knew, Dodge had been atomized. Why was he laughing?
Hidden cameras scanned Dodge’s biokin, recognized his sooty, scowl-distorted face, and buzzed the lock open. Exaggerated astonishment rippled through Len’s features as Dodge entered, as if the security system hadn’t announced his arrival when he walked through the bar’s front door two minutes ago. Len remained still for a second, mouth open, staring at Dodge, and then burst in an explosion of spittle-flecked laughter.
“Montrose?” Len bellowed when the first wave of hilarity passed.
Dodge stood, holding the doorknob, barely able to breathe. Even Len didn’t know his true identity. How had he figured it out?
A wave of heat rushed through him. He was going to pass out, wasn’t sure what was keeping him upright as it was. The tryptophan numbness had worn away an hour ago. He desperately needed another dose.
“MONTROSE!” Len spouted the name as though it were the punch-line to a joke, threw his head back and roared with laughter. His four-hundred pound bulk writhed in the leather loveseat. He was laughing so hard sweat streamed down his pink face. “Shit son, you look like you just pissed on your own grave,” Len said as Dodge finally stepped into the office. The door closed behind him.
Len’s office took up the entire fourth floor. Ancient computer equipment lined the walls and was stacked to create new ones, maze-like—save for the front third of the floor where Len spent most of his time. Dodge sometimes imagined archeologists in the far future, huddled in the depths of Len’s office, carefully examining the strata of decomposing plastic and silicon to create a technological timeline for the early to mid twenty-first century.
He slunk past a row of dot-matrix printers and sagged into the brown pleatherette couch. Apart from Len’s loveseat, was the only piece of furniture not cobbled together from outdated electronics.
“How?” Dodge moaned quietly, to no one in particular.
Len stretched back in his reinforced seat and peered at him over a desk fashioned from antique PC cases.
“Montrose Douglas Dodgson. This is where you been all these years?” He shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe my boy is Dr. Replactor hisself. I’ve never had an honest-to-goodness world-wide fugitive over before. Should I offer you champagne or duck shit on a cracker or what?”
“I almost died,” Dodge said, avoiding the larger point. His skin prickled.
Len’s joyful giggling transformed into a rasping cough. The loveseat groaned under him as he pressed a small white towel to his lips.
“But you didn’t. I was worried for a minute until I watched your oh-so-graceful exit through the Needle’s external security feed. Nice landing, by the way… Montrose.”
They stared at each other. Len continued to chuckle and Dodge tried to keep from completely freaking out.
“How did you find out?” Dodge asked. He didn’t really want an answer.
“I’ll show you after you tell me how the hell you managed to get the Needle to explode like that,” Len offered.
“I didn’t do anything… How could I—? Where would I—?”
“Gee-zus, I was kidding. You’re so easy, sometimes it’s no fun. I know it wasn’t you. I wouldn’t trust you to blow up a balloon.” Leather protested as he leaned forward. “So what did happen in there?”
Dodge told Len what he had found and how he had escaped, his voice a robotic monotone. He was fixated instead on the thought of his name coming from Len’s mouth.
Len managed to stay quiet until Dodge finished.
“Well, buddy,” Len said, sticking his hand into his computer’s feelE airgrid and wiggling his pudgy fingers. “I suppose you’re rich. But I’m not sure if finding a buyer is going to be as easy as getting the merchandise was. We got a spotlight. Watch this.”
A wallscreen slung between two thick wooden pillars grayed as it activated, and Len initiated Entropy’s content stream with a wave of his hand. “It started like ten minutes after the place blew.”The screen sprung to life—displaying only the content section of the normal link feed because Len had hacked away the flickering ad windows. The flashing Entropy Expanse logo in the middle of the picture dissolved into a stylized animation of a blue sun, which exploded in a blinding crescendo of light and drums that left the words ‘Klaxon Overdrive Goes Supernova’ shimmering in stardust and string instruments. It cut to a shot of Jolene Tewksbury, Entropy’s second-most prominent face. Though now that Klaxon was gone, she’d probably just been promoted.
She was dressed in a blue tutu and halter top, no bra, with one hand on her hip, the other clutching a slender microphone, and her thin, light brown legs kinked at the knee. Her hair was done up into cat ears on her head, and her makeup was bright and angular, glowing blue and orange on her lips and eyes.
The Needle’s remains smoked behind her. Multicolored lights flashing from every emergency service vehicle in the city reflected off the trillions of microscopic mirrored fragments floating in the air, creating a shimmering, dreamlike display around the reporter.
“I’m standing in front of what was the Needle, one of the greatest architectural and design achievements the world has ever known. Now it lays in ruin,” Jolene said, slicing one well-manicured hand through the air. Her solemn voice was at complete odds with her look-at-me style.
“More important than the loss of this great landmark is a blow much more profound and eminently tragic. A loss irreplaceable. Tonight, the world mourns its first son, Klaxon Overdrive.”
The camera zoomed in, framing her multi-ethnic skin tone, perfect eyebrows, and bombay-blue eyes. A single tear slid down her face, catching and reflecting the lights around her.
Len sighed, shaking his head. “She probably had her tear ducts modded to drip light-refracting tears on command.”
Dodge didn’t respond, dreading what was to come.
Her picture cut to footage of Klaxon during the final show of his recent ‘Contempt’ concert tour in Death Valley. Monochromatic holo-projectors enlarged the singer’s image to skyscraper height. His head was thrown back, arms wide, body shining with a scarlet intensity in the star-speckled sky. His projected image covered hundreds of meters with every step, the crowd itself a writhing stage below him.
Jolene continued. “Tonight, in one, last, heart-stopping performance, Klaxon Overdrive left the world forever. Gone in a fiery blast that ripped away the top of the building behind me.”
The coverage cut to a quick aerial shot. It looked like the inside of a well-shaken snow globe. Jolene was the only feed personality on the ground, most likely due to Entropy barring other content agencies from their island. The area was cordoned off, and drones were stacked up against the invisible dronesense wall in the sky that prevented them from getting any closer, but already crowds of weeping fans were gathering, streaming across the bridge and massing at the fringes of the blast site. Entropy wasn’t stopping them.
The camera panned over the anguish-contorted faces of the gathering crowd. “Klaxon has been absent from the public eye since last year’s New Year’s Eve concert in Death Valley,” Jolene narrated. “The concert shattered attendance records with more than seven and a half million fans voyaging into the desert for a week-long celebration of love and life. Various reports had speculated his recent absence from the public eye was due to a lengthy treatment in a German drug rehabilitation clinic, but more reputable information provided to Entropy.news revealed he had been sequestered at a secret location, preparing the release of his next movie, The Other Side Of Life, and the accompanying soundtrack.”
The shot ended on Jolene, her downcast lips stiffened to form a hard magenta line. “Killed also in the blast was the man responsible for this hideous, tragic loss. Montrose Douglas Dodgson.”
She paused for a moment, letting the words sink in. Everyone would remember. It hadn’t been that long.
Dodge’s vision puckered. It wasn’t possible. How did they find him? He considered putting his head between his knees to keep from hyperventilating, but he didn’t want to miss anything.
His worst fears were coming true, and they were showing it on the news.