[Part 8] 02:15:51 // 04-JUN-2042

Updated: May 24

Dodge loitered in Len’s office for as long as he dared, already knowing what he was going to do as soon as he stepped outside, no matter how stupid it was. He washed his smoke-smudged face and fiddled with his collector, checking and re-checking the data integrity, until Len looked up from his terminal and threatened to delete Dodge’s biokin from the security system if he didn’t leave immediately. Remembering that Len had installed a network of motion-tracking tranquilizer dart guns throughout the office, Dodge finally gave in, gathered his camera, slunk through the maze of obsolete technology, and descended the rear fire exit.

Even though Len had told him to avoid his apartment, he really had no other choice. If he didn’t get another pill soon, it wouldn’t matter if Entropy found him, or how the Paradise Mind would react to his breaking the contract, or whether Len would find a buyer for Klaxon’s DNA. He’d be too far lost in an anxiety-fueled psychosis to care about any of it.

Just how many clinical neuroses had he experienced in the past few hours? Some psych student somewhere was missing out on a groundbreaking thesis cataloguing the potent interplay of disorders fighting it out in Dodge’s head. The worst part was he had been so close to leaving it all behind. The appointment had already been booked. A few targeted bursts with a narrowly directed magnetic beam into his pre-frontal cortex and bye-bye daily grind. No more anxiety. No more drugs. No more constant, mind-crushing fear.

Sure, he’d probably end with a different personality, but it’s not like he would have noticed. He wouldn’t have even realized anything had changed. He’d have been free.

Free from himself.

Now he had to do something monstrously stupid just to keep his fragile sanity intact for another few hours.

But either way he had to keep moving. If something bad was going to happen, the sooner the better. One way or another, he needed this to end.

He took a breath, and psyched himself into action. He could do it. Get to his apartment, slip in, get his meds, and right back out. How hard could it be?

Besides, no one even knew where he lived.

Dodge pushed himself off the stairs before he changed his mind, and trudged down Queen St., hugging the exclusion zone wall. His apartment was on the edge of a relatively affluent neighborhood a few kilometers away, down by the beach, and the quickest route there kept him next to the Studio Alley ruin the whole way. 

This had once been a nice place to live: an old working-class neighborhood that had gentrified seemingly overnight as property values in the city went stratospheric. The southern edge had been home to the city’s lucrative movie and television studios. Lucrative, that was, until movie making moved digital, and the need for giant sets became a thing of the past. It was a swift one-two punch as the movie money dried up just at the global economy ran face first into the Bot Crash depression. Wasn’t long after that the huge buildings were locked up and abandoned.

It didn’t happen overnight, but like a cancerous growth, it only took one malfunctioning cell to start a devastating chain reaction that metastasized out over the course of a few years. With the big buildings empty and attracting crime, surrounding homeowners fled while they still could. The area’s property values fell, house by house, street by street, until a huge swath of city from south of Eastern and up to Queen became nearly worthless. 

Then came the May Day Riot inferno of 2040.

No one was ever arrested for it, but most people believe activists, protesting the proposed North American Union, started the fire in one of the abandoned warehouses. Years of neglect had ruined the area’s infrastructure, and the flames spread swiftly. Three days layer, when the firefighters finally got the blaze under control, half a square kilometer of buildings had been destroyed, and plenty of others deemed hazardous.

Already deep in debt, the city didn’t have the money or resources to save a neighborhood from imploding, so they did the only thing they could afford to do: put a thick concrete fence around it and hoped one day someone with deep pockets would decide it was worth the investment to raze it to the ground and start over.

That was eight years ago. They were still waiting.

Studio Alley was officially evacuated, but Dodge knew it wasn’t empty. Plenty of people still chose to live inside the high walls. People with absolutely nothing, barely clinging to their lives, a bad winter away from frozen in rotting homes. It felt like the world had been getting better lately, but not for everyone. 

At least he could afford to eat. Afford his medicine. His life was infinitely better than it could be, yet, even with everything he had, he still couldn’t live with himself. And now how was he supposed to afford the surgery—

A sudden electric whoop yanked him out of his sulk. The motion posters on the barrier nest to him jumped and writhed in a vertigo-inducing blue dance. The cops were on him.

God, no. Why now?

He spun to face a police drone hovering above him. A lump formed in his throat, choking his breath.

Did they know who he was? 

They couldn’t, could they?

The spotlight snapped on and he pulled his hands away from his sides. His left brushed the barrier as it rose.

“Hold it,” a tired voice called through the drone’s speaker. “Face the camera.” Dodge put his hands up and his eyes drifted left, to the barrier that ended just higher than his outstretched arms. They’d be checking his biokin, and when it came back without an ID, they’d want to hold him. “Stay where you are. A cruiser is on the way.”

Dodge didn’t even pretend to obey.

He dropped his hands and jumped, surfing a crest of naked, undiluted panic. He caught the top of the thick concrete barrier and scrambled over, landing hard on his back in something wet, but didn’t wait for the pain or the smell to announce themselves before he jumped to his feet and ran, headed into the dark alleyway between two dilapidated houses.

The drone followed over the wall, spotlight blazing, and Dodge crouched, keeping out of sight. It’d be running infrared and night vision. He had to stay out of its line of sight. Dodge kept low, doubled back toward the wall then sprinted east along its length, leaving the drone hovering behind him. Once it was out of sight he darted back between boarded-up buildings, crossed a potholed street, and slid into the lee of a single story brick house, panting hard. His tongue tasted like garbage. He forced himself to take slow breaths in and out of his nose until the smell went away and his heart slowed its pounding.

He watched the sky, but the drone didn’t reappear. It must have given up, which meant the cops probably weren’t onto his biokin yet. They would have stopped anyone skulking along the edges of Studio Alley at night.

But still, that had been close. Even if the facial recognition cameras in the cruiser hadn’t immediately twigged on his ID, if they had detained and swabbed him, they would have learned who he really was and ended up with the biggest unintentional arrest in policing history.

He stayed where he was for a long while, twitching at every scuffle, every tinkle in the wind, too afraid to move. Finally, the prospect of staying still and suffering through tryp withdrawal here in the stinking slum was scarier than the idea moving, and he started again towards home. Still, he was cautious, darting from shadow to shadow across parched grass and moon-bleached patchwork gardens. He ran like a playground spy, hiding from no one in the dark. 

It took realizing he was trying to conceal himself behind the trunk of a slender maple to see how absurd he was acting—he had yet to see a single person or even the slightest sign of life in this inner-city disaster zone. The drone was long gone. So who, exactly, was he hiding from?

Now that he thought about it, of all the places he could have found himself, Studio Alley seemed like the best possible choice. No one came in here if they didn’t absolutely need to. He could find a deserted house and stay almost indefinitely. It was brilliant.

Once he got his pills and some food and a change of clothes, he’d come back, scout out a nice semi-detached, pry the boards off a window, make himself a comfy nest, and ride the mental velvet of two tryptoxetine every hour until Len made him rich.

With the lure of potential refuge driving him, Dodge stopped his absurd game of hide and seek and instead broke into a brisk trot. Now he had a plan.

As he walked, he caught odd bursts of distant noise, like the low rumble of heavy machinery, coming from somewhere off to the south. Or maybe it was just his imagination, echoes of the city reverberating in the silence. Whatever it was, if he couldn’t see it or even figure out what it was, he didn’t need to worry about it. He already had more than enough going on to keep his anxiety stoked for the next few months. At least.

The neighborhood remained dark and deserted and peaceful for the next hour as the sky ahead reddened, casting long, hulking shadows on the surrounding shanties. A few minutes later he was at the other side, over the wall and once again amongst the living. Morning was breaking, and with the streets becoming busier, he was back to looking over his shoulder every five seconds to make sure he wasn’t snuck up on again.

He knew he was almost home when the sidewalk billboards beneath his feet began chattering at him. The greenish-orange glow of the sunrise glared off their transparent covers, washing out the flickering advertisements. 

He ran the next three blocks, and when his building was in sight, Dodge pressed into the doorway of a 24-hour automat and scanned the area.

Early morning life was stirring. Metal shell removed, the corner convenience store was open for business. A robot was wheeling crates of fruit out to stock the front display. Down the street a skeletal octogenarian stooped behind his miniature Rottweiler, transparent plastic bag in hand. Even Migas, Miles’ morning guy, had already taken up his usual position on the corner beside the apartment. His cart was still wet from its morning rinse, and his products available for those who needed a quick mood augmentation before shuffling off to work. 

While Dodge didn’t care for Migas’ more mainstream wares—stimulants and depressants alike merely caught and amplified the ever-present undertow of hysteria running through him, leaving him drenched in extreme paranoia or chewing on the thought of suicide—he still used the dealer to supply his ongoing self-medication. Illicit drugs had been decriminalized years ago, but tryptoxetine was still under copyright, which made it one of the few meds you still needed a prescription for. And without a solid, high-rep identity, Dodge was forced to source his medication from alternative sources.

Migas caught his eye and nodded without changing his neutral expression. The pharmacist had a personality like dried breadcrumbs, but at least he was polite.

Dodge’s building looked the same this morning as it usually did, not that he saw the outside of his building many mornings. Vines still snaked up the dirty red brick exterior. The small window in the front door still had its spiderweb crack. Nothing looked suspicious. There were no beefy thugs loitering by the front door, wearing especially tacky leather gloves, shiny dark clothes and sunglasses. No flashing sirens with yellow electrified “crime-scene” tape surrounding everything and keeping the feed drones and gawking passers-by at bay. No brown, late-model cars containing undercover officers in bad suits drinking coffee and looking unconvincingly nonchalant.

As far as he could tell, everything was normal, and that, like everything else, worried him. 

Dodge hurried to his building’s door, entered his passcode and voice ID and shouldered the door as the lock buzzed. The lobby was empty all the way back to the building’s faux-antique elevator. The the wrought-iron metal grate menaced in the dim light, like the jaws of some long-abandoned industrial meat processor. Dodge had never so much as set foot in it. Not even to move in.

He darted across the lobby, avoiding the stretch of loose floor tiles, and into the stairwell. Hearing nothing but the constant whirr of his brain, he filled his lungs and hurdled the back stairs two at a time, stopping briefly to peek into the hallways on each landing.

When he arrived unchallenged at the third floor, Dodge shot his head in and out of the stairwell, like cops did in the movies. Everything was quiet.

He gave himself a second to relax. He supposed he should have been used to this by now—his neck wrenched from always looking behind him—but this latest setback in his otherwise dreadful life was shaping up to be the worst yet.

He broke cover, crept up to his door, pressed his ear to the reinforced steel, and heard nothing but the sound of his own rasping breath and his heart beating savagely in his chest. Although, according to the contractor who installed it, the door was supposed to be soundproof, so he shouldn’t have been able to hear a symphony warming up inside.

The camera checked his biokin while Dodge punched in his code. The shrill beeping echoed in the silent hallway. In addition to the physical scan and manual code, the security program detected the pressure and timing of the keystrokes, identifying him and him alone. It was overkill, but he needed the reassurance. Len had directed the installation of the system, and claimed it was impenetrable. No one would be able to sneak up on him once he got inside.

The maglock snapped and the door swung open. Ceiling lights flickered on as programmed, illuminating the brick walls and the dark wooden floor. The sight of familiar surroundings was enough to help unlace his wound-up nerves. He was home. He was safe—for a few minutes at least. Even better, the small silver box of pills was shining at him from across the room.

Dodge took three steps into the apartment before realizing his futon, fully extended when he had left, was now neatly folded up—

—and then he was on the floor, bright flashes marring his vision, muscles gone entirely. The floorboards ran away in narrowing dusty lines.

He had no idea what had happened, could barely think. Was he having a stroke—?

Then two sets of shiny leather shoes stepped into his field of view. Two men in suits, one holding what appeared to be a neural taser, the other a well-worn, leather-covered book. He recognized them instantly: Misters Hill and Francis. His handlers from the Paradise Mind.

Oh. Fuck.