The platform was now crowded with onlookers recording the scene from dozens of tiny cameras, people probably watching their viewer counts skyrocket as word spread across Blink that someone was about to be lightninged to death by an escaped mental patient. No one made to intervene, they just watched in detached curiosity as if Zoey, Jacob, and Homeless Zeus were behind the glass at a zoo enclosure. Doll Head stalked up and down the aisle of the train car, glaring out of the windows at the crowd. Zoey realized he wasn’t trying to scare the onlookers away, but was instead making sure all their cameras had a chance to get a clear shot of him in all of his menacing glory. At one point he stood in the open doorway, raised his hand, and with a crackle that made the whole crowd flinch, did that lightning trick with his fingers. The audience was impressed. Zoey wondered if she had lost her freaking mind.
Something else that was weird, which had almost gone unnoticed by Zoey due to the other, weirder things happening in her life at the moment, was that there were a lot of armed people in that crowd. Scattered among the gray-jumpsuited rail staff, white-shirted security guards, and hundreds of gawkers, Zoey could see half a dozen of the Co-Op guys in their black coats and ties, looking like Secret Service agents with their little machine guns pointed at the air. Then she counted at least five more men and women in black vests full of pockets, wearing amber wraparound shades and black backward baseball caps, clutching assault rifles with fingerless gloves. And then there were the armed loners—the odd man or woman who didn’t seem to be part of any team. There was one guy in a tank top with two pistols in shoulder holsters, beside him was a bald Japanese guy in a leather jacket with a katana on his back, then a woman with pink hair and a short double-barreled shotgun strapped to each thigh. They hadn’t shown up in response to the developing hostage situation—they hadn’t had time. They must have been waiting there, but why?
“I have to say,” thundered Doll Head, striding up the aisle, “they were wise to hide you on the train. But I found you, as was my destiny. Now you have seen the power inside me. You know what I can do to you.”
Zoey replied, “Okay, don’t, uh, go into a psychotic rage here or anything, because I’m more than happy to cooperate. But right now I have no idea what you’re talking about. Okay? I know there’s some kind of contract. But here’s the thing: I don’t know who wants me, or what they want me for, or anything else. And I don’t want to know.”
Doll Head grinned. “You are truly Arthur Livingston’s daughter. I should have expected nothing less.”
“Did he owe you guys money? Is that what this is about? Did he screw you on a drug deal or something? Whatever it is, I don’t care—if you want me to call the guy I talked to earlier and tell him to pay, I’ll do it. But I didn’t know Arthur Livingston. He tried to give me a car for my sixteenth birthday, I gave it back. His money was dirty, I wanted no part of it.”
“Good. So you will open his vault for me.”
“I would absolutely do that, if I knew where it was, or what it was, or how to get into it. But I swear, this is the first I’m hearing of it.”
“I want you to know that I am not surprised, nor disappointed. In fact, I would have been disappointed in anything less. After all, you have no reason to respect me. Like all who have power, you only respect others who have it. You need me to demonstrate my power to you. So that you can respect me, and deal with me as an equal.”
“No, no, you really don’t—”
Doll Head reached out with his left hand and grabbed Jacob by the throat.
Jacob thrashed and tried to twist out of the man’s grip. His perfect hair tumbled down into his eyes as he choked out the words “Hey! No! What are you—Let go!” Doll Head was not choking him. Just keeping him in place. “Zoey!” hissed Jacob, tendons straining in his neck, face turning red with panic and exertion. “Just do … what he says…”
Doll Head said, “Shhhhhhhh,” and, continuing to pin Jacob to the seat with his left hand, reached out and laid the other hand gently on Jacob’s forehead. He held his palm against Jacob’s brow, pressing his thumb against one temple and his middle finger against the other, gripping his skull like a bowling ball.
“Zoey … tell him … how to…”
“Shhhhhhhhh. The only human destiny is to succumb to one stronger.”
There was a pop, and a sizzle, and smoke. Jacob’s body went rigid, his hands clenched and flew to his chest, his feet kicked the seat in front of him. One shoe flew off. There was a stink like steamed broccoli. Zoey’s cat howled and hissed and tried to claw his way out of the crate. Doll Head withdrew his hand and Jacob slumped back, his eyes open but blank, his mouth hanging slack. A low gurgle escaped from deep in his throat, a line of drool ran from his mouth, a pool of urine spread across his lap. In Jacob’s temple was a smoking hole left by the electrical current that had fried his brain.
Zoey screamed. “WHAT DID YOU DO? WHAT DID YOU DO?!?!”
In a theatrical voice, Doll Head Man said, “I have freed him from that weak husk. He has joined me, become part of something far more powerful. Only the limp vessel remains. I have added him to my collection.”
It was chaos out on the platform. A TV camera crew was now covering the situation live, and Zoey heard the soft drumming of helicopters outside the station. A huge screen that ran along the rear wall had flipped away from the local weather report and switched to live coverage of the scene. The headline that crawled along the bottom was not, as Zoey expected, “Crazy man holds up train” or “Hobo harnesses the power of lightning.” No, what it said was:”LIVINGSTON DAUGHTER HELD HOSTAGE”
Zoey clinched her teeth and wondered how many times she was going to have to pay for her mom having chosen a scumbag for a sperm donor. Jacob, his half-closed eyes twitching aimlessly around the cabin but seeing nothing, slumped over against her. Zoey pushed him off and screamed through her window at the people on the platform.
“HELP ME! HE’S GOING TO KILL ME!”
Once more, they just stared. Up until that point in her life, Zoey had lived every moment with the unspoken assumption there was always somebody she could call if things went to hell. Her mom, a teacher, the police, God. But now she was trapped in this giant steel tube—just her, and this man, and death. Maybe everyone feels like this at the end. The ice breaks under your feet and you realize that there had never been anything below you but cold and darkness. It was the point at which things could not get worse.
There was a stir in the crowd. People started to turn, to look back at the main entrance of the station. Then the crowd parted, slowly, as if a wild animal had wandered in and no one wanted to startle it with sudden movements. From the split in the crowd emerged first a huge black man, with a perfectly bald, polished head Zoey thought looked like a Whopper, the chocolate candy. She didn’t know if that was racist or not, but all of the progressive attitudes in the world wouldn’t change the fact that his head looked exactly like a Whopper. Behind him was a stunning but stern-looking Chinese woman, walking with the gait of someone whose skirt is too tight to be practical, but who is quite used to it. Behind her was a man in a cowboy hat with bushy eyebrows and a red nose who looked like he had popped out of a cartoon. Looming behind them was one more man she couldn’t see clearly. But the crowd knew who he was, who they all were, and wanted no part of them. No one in the group was visibly armed, but not even the men with machine guns would make eye contact with them. Everyone just stood down.
Doll Head Man, aka The Soul Collector, reached out a hand and pressed it against Zoey’s brow, digging finger and thumb into her temples.
He whispered, “I can take your treasure, or I can take your soul. I desire no outcome over the other. You choose. You have three seconds. One.”
“PLEASE! I’LL TAKE YOU TO THE SAFE OR WHATEVER IT IS WE’LL FIGURE IT OUT I’LL DO WHATEVER YOU—”
“Stop. I’m here.”
At the door stood a striking, pale man in an overcoat and fedora. He had cold blue eyes and sharp cheekbones. His suit jacket, vest, shirt, and tie were all shades of gray and silver—Zoey thought it made him look like a robot. There were no wrinkles, it was as if the suit was part of the skin he was born with. Zoey immediately thought that she could not imagine this man wearing anything else.
She had seen him once before, projected through her phone.
The Soul Collector turned to face the man, arms loose at his sides, blocking the aisle with his body, putting himself between the silver suit and his prey.
Will Blackwater glanced around the train car as if assessing the situation, then calmly said, “First thing’s first—are you all right?”
Zoey was about to answer, when she realized Will was asking that of the Soul Collector, not her.
He smiled and said, “I wondered when you would arrive, Will.”
Will stopped where he was and removed his hat. His hair was a black helmet that looked ready to withstand a hurricane.
“How are you doing, Brandon? Are you still taking your medication? You’re not, are you?”
“I’m free of all that now. Thanks to Molech, I have become my destiny. I am the Soul Collector.”
“Yes, I can see that. The boy in the back there, is he dead?”
“His soul is with me now.”
Will nodded thoughtfully, as if doing some minor math in his head. “All right. That complicates things. I can get you out of here. But we have to go now. The girl looks unharmed. Is that correct?”
“All right. That’s good. I’m sure you’ve noticed we’ve drawn quite a crowd here.”
The Soul Collector cast a scornful glanced toward the platform. “I possess a power that can reduce all of them to ashes.”
“Well, I don’t want to get ashes all over my suit, so let’s go ahead and do this as cleanly as possible. We have a car outside and we can get you through this crowd without incident if we move soon.”
He looked past the Soul Collector and said to Zoey, “You’re coming with us. We’re taking you to your father’s estate. That’s where his vault is. Do I need to tell you that your best—and only—course of action is to comply?”
Zoey glanced at the brain-dead man slumped next to her, thin tendrils of smoke still drifting out of the burn holes in his temples, stinking like piss.
She said, “Please. Just … let me go. Whatever shady business Arthur Livingston was into, whatever money he had, the vault, I don’t care about any of that.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re involved because your father involved you, and now you’re a hunk of meat in a kennel. If you don’t do what I say, things will get bad in ways you cannot comprehend.”
Will stood straight, placed his hat back on his black helmet of hair, straightened his sleeves, and addressed them both.
“Now, the situation is this. You see what’s happening out on the platform. In the absence of an actual organized police department in this city, what we have instead is a gaggle of grossly unqualified and often mentally unstable hired guns. Every single one of them knows Livingston’s daughter is here, each of them thinks they can get a payday out of this. It’s a lot of very stupid people, pumped up on adrenaline, who know their every move is being broadcast to a live audience. We have to make it clear to them, and to everyone who may be lying in wait between here and our destination, that we are now in charge of this situation. Now, I’m going to walk out that door first. Zoey, you’ll be next. The Soul Collector will be right behind you. The moment we step out, we will be swarmed. Zoey is going to address the nearest camera and say the following. Listen carefully. Are you listening?”
Zoey nodded. Beside her, Jacob let out a guttural sound while his cloudy, unblinking eyes shifted lazily around the car. In a flash, a whole alternate future played in her head, one in which Zoey and Jacob arrive at the station without incident, the two of them shuffling off the train together …
He carries her bag for her. On the platform, she gives him her number. They agree to meet on Saturday night. The day comes and Jacob picks her up at her hotel. Her handsome stranger has a convertible and even though it’s December they put the top down and cruise through the chill air, the fifty-story video screens flashing ads and brand logos overhead. They go to a fancy restaurant, maybe one at the top of a tall hotel that looks out over the new city, and there’s a long line but of course Jacob can get right in because he knows people. They eat and drink and laugh. She sees the way he looks at her, Jacob knowing he can get someone thinner, and prettier, but he sees who she really is. He sees what’s inside, and wants it. And afterward, they’re waiting for the valet to bring the car around and the night air is cold and she’s a little bit drunk and Jacob drapes his coat over her shoulders …
Zoey said, “I’m listening.”
“You’re going to say, ‘My name is Zoey Ashe. I am Arthur Livingston’s daughter, and I am being held hostage. I have—’”
“Held hostage by the Soul Collector,” said the Soul Collector.
“Right. ‘I am being held hostage by the Soul Collector. I have been told that if anyone tries to intervene, he will kill me. Please do not interfere with this process. All other bounties have been rescinded.’ Got it? It doesn’t have to be those exact words but the idea has to come across. Everything is under control, there is no money to be made if they interfere.”
Zoey nodded. She stuck a finger into the cat crate and scratched Stench Machine’s head. “Let’s get out of here.”
She stood, and realized Jacob’s silver flask had fallen into her lap. It was wrong to take it, she barely knew the guy. But she took it anyway, and stuffed it into her purse. Something to remember him by, if she lived through this. The moment Zoey stood, a buzz went through the crowd outside, everyone trying to muscle into position to get a shot of the hostage and captor emerging from the train. Will wrestled her carry-on from the overhead bin and stood by the door. Zoey followed as instructed, carrying Stench Machine’s crate by her side.
Zoey felt a hand on her back, and flinched. Even through her jacket she thought she could feel a buzz from the Soul Collector’s fingers, a jittery vibration like ants crawling between her shoulder blades. The door slid open and the noise hit her like a wall—reporters crowding around and screaming questions, gray uniforms trying to shove back the rubberneckers. All of the screens on the back wall were now tuned to the local news, and the local news was showing the three of them, creating a jarring House of Mirrors effect. Zoey watched their situation play out on the monitors a split second after it occurred in real time—the tall man in the overcoat and fedora, followed by all five feet two inches of Zoey, looking pale and frazzled with black and blue bangs dangling out of her wool cap. Behind her, the strapping savage in the loincloth. The crowd backed off at the sight of him.
No, that wasn’t right. They were backing away from Will.
The trio edged out onto the platform, into the massive unfinished building that Zoey had only glimpsed from inside the train. She saw another train on the next platform over, the line from Las Vegas. All roads lead to Tabula Ra$a, a place that didn’t even exist when she was born. A TV news crew rushed up, and then another. She was famous. It sucked.
Behind them, the guys in black vests and sunglasses prowled into position. The Co-Op men in overcoats with their little machine guns edged toward the door, to block the path. Will glanced back at Zoey and nodded. There were cameras all around now—hell, even the random onlookers were essentially walking cameras—so Zoey didn’t look at any particular one.
“Um, can everyone be quiet? I’m supposed to say something.”
She gave the commotion a moment to die down. She glanced back at the train car and saw paramedics rushing inside to tend to Jacob. She wondered if his family was here in the crowd, or if they even lived in town.
“Okay, um, listen. I am being held hostage, by—” She couldn’t bring herself to say his stupid name. “The scary-looking man behind me. He has told me that if anyone tries to interfere, he will kill me.”
A stir went through the crowd. Gasps. What the hell did they think was going on here? Zoey looked back at the TV screens again and saw that the cameras had zoomed in on the Soul Collector’s face. He was baring his yellow teeth, inscrutable eyes behind the bug-eye goggles, TV monitors along the back wall reflecting back his own face in their pure black lenses. He was soaking up the attention. Zoey realized she was watching the greatest moment of this man’s life. She bit her lip so hard it bled.
Zoey cleared her throat and continued, “His name is the Soul Collector. He has magic powers.”
Zoey turned to face the man and said, “Show them.” She held up her thumb and forefinger. “Show them the trick with the lightning. So they know you’re serious.”
The Soul Collector thought this was a fantastic idea. He bared his teeth again and raised the hand, letting all cameras focus in. Zoey, feeling like now would be the perfect time for some liquid courage, unscrewed the cap on Jacob’s flask and tipped the rest of its contents into her mouth. The Soul Collector leered at her, held his hand in front of her face, fingers spread, and let the piercing arc of blue electricity leap from thumb to forefinger.
Zoey spat half a flask of whiskey at him, the mist flying through the arc and igniting into a fireball. She had aimed at his face, but the ball of fire instead descended and engulfed his crotch. The Soul Collector shrieked like a man whose nuts were on fire, and fell hard on his ass. Zoey grabbed Stench Machine’s crate and sprinted through the crowd.
Zoey flew through a gauntlet of elbows and tumbled through a revolving door. She emerged onto a noisy sidewalk full of rumpled people waiting for cabs to drift past in the molasses ooze of traffic outside the terminal. She thought about flagging down a cab herself, but in this traffic, her pursuers could just lazily stroll up and yank her out of the back seat.
Instead, Zoey ran into the street, weaving and juking across six lanes of gridlock, clutching tightly her box full of annoyed cat. She dodged behind a steampunk van covered in copper tubes, wooden panels, and clockwork gears, only to almost get run over by a Coca-Cola delivery truck, its side panels playing a looping video of animated polar bears frolicking in the snow and urging everyone to drink Coke on Christmas. She shuffled between a customized pickup with a naked holographic woman dancing in the bed and a Vespa scooter that was straining under a trio of young Middle Eastern men. She finally emerged on the other side of the street and hurdled a stinking pit where men were trying to repair an oozing sewer line, only to have her left foot land in a patch of wet cement, marring a stretch of unfinished sidewalk. She stumbled and fell and Stench Machine thrashed and hissed as his crate bounced, no doubt realizing how much better off he’d be on his own. Zoey ignored the yells of an enraged work crew, clambered to her feet, and pushed through the first door she saw.
She smelled grease and curry, and found herself in a packed McDonald’s bearing signs in both English and Hindi, glossy ads on the doors promising beef-free burgers made of fried vegetables and Indian spices. She shouldered through the EMPLOYEES ONLY door to the kitchen and bumped past harried Indian teenagers working a row of deep fryers, then crashed through another door and emerged into an alley that served as an open market of street vendors selling knock-off purses, prepaid phones, and AK-47s. She wove her way through chattering customers and vendors haggling in sprays of rapid foreign words.
She took a corner and saw a crowd up ahead, thick enough to disappear into. The people were milling about in a city park, clumping around a scattering of steaming food trucks. There was a bandstand nearby and somebody was packing up gear, the aftermath of a concert in the park that must have just ended. Zoey cast nervous glances over her shoulder and headed for where the crowd would be dense enough to swallow her. She ran, sweat freezing on her face, feeling like her lungs had sprouted razor blades. She shouldn’t be in this bad of shape, she had quit smoking when she was fifteen.
Zoey excuse-me’d her way through a bunch of laughing black people around a picnic table having what appeared to be a birthday party, and tried to blend in. She scanned the crowd. A dozen college kids ran back and forth in wired-up glasses, playing some open-world video game, throwing magical fireballs at each other that only the other kids in glasses could see, dodging real makeshift tents where homeless people lived. She saw giggling Japanese girls in parkas who looked like tourists, a group of Indian kids around a park bench eating fried curry balls from insulated McDonald’s boxes, and a pair of old homeless men arguing about something. Most of the rest of the crowd was lined up in front of food carts selling kebabs, pizza cupcakes, and ice cream churros. Nearby there was another cart selling baggies of weed, to help perpetuate the cycle of junk-food commerce.
Zoey decided to keep moving, putting more crowd between her and the street. She passed a group of drunk guys circled around a roped-off area where a chubby frat boy was menacing a confused, heavily sedated bear. She eventually found an empty park bench that was displaying a video ad along the back featuring a man in a skull mask holding a huge knife, advertising his services as a vigilante for hire, hostage negotiator, and bail bondsman. She plopped down on the bench and sat Stench Machine’s crate at her feet. She tried to think.
She had no ability to leave the city, short of just walking—obviously she wasn’t getting back on a train (ever, again, for the rest of her life) and she had no means to rent a car, not with her credit. She also had no place to stay—she literally didn’t have enough limit left on her credit cards to pay for a room, even with the cash advance Will Blackwater had used to lure her out here (and they were probably having a good laugh about that, too—for a measly five hundred dollars they had gotten their hostage to come right to them). She could try hitchhiking along the highway out of town, hoping some stranger would get her out of the city without also murdering her or demanding sexual favors as payment, but the odds of that were even worse than usual—her face was all over the news, and she had some kind of a bounty on her head. She had an urge to call her mom, but what would she do? Drive the ten or twelve hours from Colorado, on a suspended license, in a beat-up Toyota that, oh wait, was now a fish habitat under a frozen pond?
Zoey let Stench Machine out of his crate. He prowled the area around her bench, hoping to find a bird to eat. He wasn’t much of a hunter, so when he saw that no birds had died of natural causes within five feet of the bench, he just gave up and lay down in the dirt. Zoey picked up the cat, hugged him, and tried to think of what to do. She glanced around. The Bank of America building that loomed over the park was wrapped in a thirty-story-tall animated weather forecast, showing cartoon rain drifting down over the next week. The Hilton next to it was one big promotional video boasting about their heated rooftop pool. The office building next to it carried a feed of the local news, which first covered the aftermath of some kind of small explosion (shots of shattered glass and debris surrounded by startled onlookers) but then cut to video of Zoey’s big, dumb face. Zoey groaned and stupidly tried to pull the knit cap down further, as if obscuring her eyebrows would make her anonymous. She glanced at the people around her, seeing if anyone was paying attention.
The building was showing a clip of her walking off the train, just minutes ago. Then it cut to her doing the trick with the whiskey, then to video from inside the train car, the news grabbing the Blink feed from one of the people who had walked past her and Jacob on the way to the restroom. There were some cheers nearby in the park, and Zoey thought for a moment they were cheering her up on the screen, but she turned and saw the frat boy had the bear in a headlock. The bear seemed mildly annoyed—
Zoey froze. The feed up on the screen was now showing her, sitting on the park bench. Then it cut to another view, from behind. Then another, closer. It suddenly dawned on her that she had just tried to disappear into a crowd in a world where half of the crowd was wearing live cameras.
Every stranger was staring at her now. Clutching her cat and leaving its crate behind, she ran.
Through the crowd, across the street, and into an alley full of pantsless women in heels, wigs, and imitation fur coats. She rounded a corner pawn shop with a sign boasting that they would pay $75,000 for a human kidney, and headed toward the only spot on the landscape that wasn’t bathed in light: a roped-off construction zone around a low, oddly shaped building. She climbed over orange barriers and ducked behind a huge metal roll-off bin full of construction debris. She peered back the way she came …
Lights, hovering about ten feet in the air, creeping toward her. It was a whizzing device the size and shape of a flying barbecue grill, with twin blue beams piercing the darkness, sweeping the ground for its target.
The lights hit Zoey’s hiding spot and she ran, the drone tailing her, probably already reporting back to her father’s mob, or the vigilantes, or the hobo wizards, or some other faction of thugs who also wanted to capture her and do unspeakable things. She plunged into the darkened construction site, tearing through yellow caution tape, shoes alternately sinking into sucking mud, then crunching through shards of broken glass that coated the ground. Looming ahead of her was a brick structure that looked like an apartment building that had been tipped onto its side. Exactly that, in fact, right down to useless sideways balconies and an ornate main entrance mounted fifty feet off the ground, its shredded awning flapping in the breeze.
Zoey saw faint light coming from an unglassed window low enough for her to climb into. She clambered her way through, entering what she thought was destined to be the most inconvenient building in the history of architecture. Stench Machine had finally had enough and thrashed out of her hands, darting toward the light at the end of the hallway that Zoey had climbed into. A sideways hallway—Zoey was standing on a painted wall, to her left was a tiled floor, to her right, light fixtures and acoustic tiles. She moved gingerly down the hall, stepping around open doorways at her feet. Above her was an identical row of numbered doors that only a gymnast could enter.
From behind her came the glare of lights and the angry bee hum of four rotors—the drone was following her in. Zoey jogged deeper into the absurd sideways building, kicking debris that had landed on the floor/wall—chunks of furniture, broken table lamps, a shattered toilet. She tripped over a fire extinguisher box and nearly plummeted into one of the floor doors. The drone was right on her now, and Zoey scrambled back to the emergency box, yanking the fire extinguisher free. She advanced on the whirring drone and, letting out a karate yell, swung the fire extinguisher. She knocked the little bastard right out of the air in a shower of sparks and chunks of shattered plastic.
Something burst out from the guts of the machine as it crashed to the floor, bundles wrapped in foil. Curious, she picked up one of the bundles. It was warm, the size of a burrito.
She unwrapped it.
It was a burrito.
She kicked over the broken drone, one rotor still whirring uselessly in its plastic housing. In bright yellow letters on the side it said:
FINE MEXICAN FOOD
DELIVERED TO WHEREVER YOU’RE STANDING
Below that was a phone number and a Web address to place orders. The drone itself was painted the red, green, and white of the Mexican flag. It had a festive sombrero glued to the top of it.
She heard voices from down the hall.
Zoey turned, seeing no one. The faint words were echoing from the direction of the lights at the end of the hall. Zoey moved cautiously along the wall, which sloped increasingly to her left as she went, as if the whole structure had a slight twist to it. She whispered a call for Stench Machine, which she knew was useless even while she was doing it. She found the source of the light, pouring up from an open doorway in the floor below her. The top of a ladder was visible, obviously having been propped up there for someone to go down into the sideways apartment without falling in and breaking their neck. Stench Machine was perched at the edge of the doorframe, peering down inside.
Something grabbed the cat. In a blur, he disappeared into the opening below.
Zoey ran to him, glancing back one more time to see if anything or anyone else had followed her into the building. She reached the open door, crouched, and peered into a lit chamber full of harsh shadows and debris. She yelled for the cat again, which again was stupid, because even if he responded he wasn’t going to climb a ladder (even if cats in general could climb ladders, she was pretty confident that hers couldn’t). So, she climbed down and found herself in a broken, sideways dining room. There were shattered windows on the floor, showing off a view that consisted of nothing but impacted mud and dead weeds. Furniture was tossed around the wall. Above her, to the right of the door she had just dropped through, was a sideways kitchenette with a bar. Two large, filthy Latino men used the bar as a bench, their muddy work boots dangling over the black marble countertop. Zoey turned and saw four more men standing behind her. One was holding a sledgehammer, another a pickaxe, another a regular axe. The fourth, a stocky man with Spanish words tattooed on his forearms, cradled Stench Machine in one hand and held an unlit blowtorch in the other. They all stood in silence for a moment, under the dim glare of a work lamp that lit the room like a medieval torture dungeon.
The man who was holding her cat said, “You lost, Chica?”
She was just so, so tired. She gave the ladder a look but she wouldn’t make it up two steps before they grabbed her. As if she could leave without Stench Machine anyway.
Zoey sighed exhaustedly and said, “People are after me. I just need a place to hide. You guys got this … area here and that’s fine. It’s a big building, I’ll find another room. But that’s my cat. I’d like him back, please.”
The stocky man said, “We can’t let you do that.”
One of the other men said something to him in Spanish, and he answered in kind.
Zoey said, “Just let me have the cat. Please.”
“And then where you gonna go?”
“Somewhere else. Please—”
Her phone rang. Thinking that somehow this could be a rescue, she pulled it out. The hologram of Will Blackwater blinked to life once more, floating above the phone in the dim light of the room. Everyone around her reacted, and started bantering with each other in Spanish. The stocky man with Zoey’s cat let out a harsh laugh.
Zoey hung up on the call.
The stocky man looked her up and down.
“You’re not from around here, am I right?”
“And you got no place to stay? No friends, no family? That why you’re tryin’ to squat in a horizontal building?” Zoey didn’t answer. Instead she wiped tears from her face and thought about how much she just wanted to go lay down somewhere. So tired.
He said, “Make you a deal. I’ll give you a ride wherever you want to go. Maybe even give you something to eat. But you got to do something for us, first.”
Two of the men started talking to him in Spanish, talking over one another, insistent. The stocky man gestured with the blowtorch and said, “Callate.”
He turned back to Zoey and said, “And you got to do it for all of us.”
Behind the sideways building was a row of mobile homes parked haphazardly in the shadow cast by the dancing lights of downtown Tabula Ra$a. Inside one of the trailers, five of the men were standing around the cramped living room. Zoey and the stocky one with the tattoos, named Rico, were in the bedroom.
Rico sat upright on the bed and Zoey said, “Now the head. Hold still.”
She set the phone to scan and held it next to the man’s right ear. She slowly moved it in an arc around his face. She checked the scan, and tapped the screen and told it to save.
Rico said, “So that’s it? It’s got me in there? So I call somebody, it’ll look like I’m standing there in front of them, right?”
“Well, you’ll look like you’re a foot tall and standing on their phone. It’s not like Star Wars, it can’t project you into the middle of the room. You’d need a projector on the floor for that. Or the glasses, the glasses will make it look like the person is right in front of you. But they’ll make you look like a dork.”
They’d been at this for half an hour. It had turned out, after a lengthy and embarrassing discussion, that Rico and his crew were not, as Zoey had thought, a roving gang of rape bandits. They were the first wave of a demolition crew hired to recover anything and everything of value from the sideways building—copper wire, plumbing, undamaged fixtures—before the structure that had once been the Parkview Luxury Apartments would be demolished without having ever seen a single tenant.
“A-Ron! Get in here. We’ll do A-Ron next, then we’ll be done. Thanks for doing this. Bought these for the crew a month ago but the hologram thing never worked. Made everyone look deformed, like funhouse mirrors.”
Rico dialed from his phone, and A-Ron answered as he was walking through the doorway. A hologram of Rico’s squat frame popped out of A-Ron’s phone and A-Ron said, “Yay. It works. See, now you just got to hire Zoey to hang around you twenty-four hours a day for when you inevitably break it again a week from now.” To Zoey he said, “Yo, why does your cat smell so bad?”
Before she could answer, Rico asked, “If I’m sitting down then why am I standing up in the hologram thing?”
“It plays your face in real time but your body is just a standard animation. When you call somebody, your mouth and face will move while you talk but you’ll always be wearing what you’re wearing now.”
Zoey started to answer but A-Ron cut in. “So if I call you while you’re takin’ a dump, I don’t got to watch you.”
Zoey made A-Ron stand in the center of the room just as she had done with Rico. She stood back a few feet and started scanning A-Ron’s body.
Rico said, “Suck in your gut, ese. You see how fat I looked in mine? This thing adds twenty pounds.”
“It ain’t the phone, ese.”
Zoey said, “So, I don’t understand. That building just fell over? Perfectly intact?”
“Could have been way worse. If it’d fallen the other way, it’d have taken out the Rand Hotel, like dominoes.”
A-Ron said, “Inspectors in this city are a joke. Everybody’s dirty, nobody’s taking time to do it right.”
“Hey, Parkview was built to code, it’s what they did next door that doomed it. They started digging out the basement but they were too close to the foundation here, they dig and dig and one day you got twenty stories just falling gently on its side, like it got drunk and stepped in a ditch. Concrete pilings snapped like toothpicks, sounded like cannons going off.”
Zoey finished with A-Ron and he called Rico’s phone to test it. His hologram popped up and A-Ron said, “Yo, it does make you fatter.”
Zoey said, “You can actually download any body or outfit you want. Make yourself into a muscle man, put a little tuxedo on it to class it up.”
A skinny guy with a mustache, the oldest of the group, popped his head in the bedroom and said, “Why is it taking so long for the burritos to get here?”
There was an awkward silence. Zoey finally said, “Oh. That was for you. I might have … crashed it. I thought they had sent it after me.”
“You thought somebody sent a burrito helicopter after you?”
“I thought it was a security drone or something.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing! Well, I helped drown a man and set another man on fire and vandalized that restaurant’s toy helicopter but all of that was after. My biological father died and I’m in town to settle his affairs but now they’re trying to get into his safe or something, it’s a big mess. He was a…” Zoey trailed off as the expression on every face in the trailer froze. “What?”
Rico said, “Get Cesar.”
Confused, Zoey said, “This town has a Caesar?”
“No, that’s just his name. You know the whole world’s lookin’ for you, right?”
The Blink network encompassed some 120 million cameras in the United States alone. Along with the millions of live feeds broadcasting from glasses and pinned-on cameras, Blink also included hundreds of thousands of indoor and outdoor security cameras, in addition to most car dashboard cams (standard on every new model since 2020), and a swarm of aerial drones owned by police departments, TV news channels, and tens of thousands of random voyeurs. At any given moment, ninety-eight percent of these feeds were broadcasting absolutely nothing of interest.
But “Blink” wasn’t just a bunch of cameras. The nerve center of this sprawling mass of electronic eyes was a software algorithm that made sure the viewer always had something to watch. So if you logged into Blink from your phone or computer, it greeted you with three general categories: People, Places, and Events. Once you were in “People,” you could jump into your best friend’s camera to see what he was up to, or log in to see what pop star Latrell La’range was doing with his Thursday evening. If you had wired-up glasses, you could overlay your view with their feed—literally see the world through their eyes, blotting out your own reality completely. If you chose “Places,” you simply told Blink where you wanted to be and it’d give you the most popular view of it—if you wanted to see Mt. Everest, you’d jump into the feed of whichever climber had the most interesting view at the moment—or whichever one was having the most dramatic near-death experience.
“Events,” however, were the real star of the show. For example, if the aforementioned pop star got high and stabbed a dancer at a nightclub, as had happened four times in the previous year, then “Latrell La’range Has Stabbed Another Stripper” would appear as an Event on Blink within a few seconds. Then Blink could drop you into whatever feed had the best view of the situation, and would continue following the event from camera to camera as the mostly nude man with the massive orange afro fled from the club, stole a car, led police on a chase, and attempted to board a private jet to Mexico. As long as there was a working camera in range, you could watch the drama unfold in real time, the view hopping from one feed to the next. If things were moving fast and there were a lot of cameras around, the view jarringly switched every few seconds, which was disorienting to new viewers (and why everyone had started calling it “Blink” years ago). The result was that the network had become a massive breeding ground for spontaneous reality shows that organically popped up within that worldwide nebula of camera feeds. The “Event” listings updated in real time with everything from drama in your social circle (“Catfight at Rob and Jina’s Wedding Reception”) to worldwide news (“Hostage Standoff in Kyoto Burger King”).
A lot of this was new to Zoey, and had to be explained to her as she sat there on the sofa in the construction crew’s trailer. She didn’t own a Blink-enabled device, as it seemed absurd to imagine anybody would want to watch her serve lattes and mood-enhancing teas to rednecks. She didn’t really keep up with the feeds, either, as she thought Blink was still just for creepy people to broadcast upskirt videos of women on the bus, as it had been when it was new. This is why Zoey didn’t realize that for the last eighteen hours, she had been the star of a viral Blink Event that at the moment was being followed by more than twenty million people.
The work crew in the trailer knew, however, because of Cesar. He was the youngest member of the crew who, according to Rico, had been following Zoey’s story religiously from the start. Rico called Cesar away from his task of ripping copper wire out of another part of the building, and when he walked through the door and saw Zoey, there were a few seconds of confusion followed by pure, starstruck awe.
Cesar uttered some kind of Spanish curse and clapped his hands and said, “So who gets the five million?”
Zoey said, “Wait, what? Is that the bounty they have out on me?”
Cesar said, “Girl, you don’t even know what’s going on, do you?”
“I’ve been traveling since seven, I’m out of the loop apparently.”
Cesar took over the controls on the wall screen and scrolled to an Event listing called “The Hunt for Livingston’s Key.” The icon for the show was a picture of Zoey’s face.
She sighed and said, “Already this is ridiculous.”
“Okay,” Cesar said, “it all started when that warehouse blew up last week. Right after that, this rumor floats around that Arthur Livingston had a vault, okay? But here’s the thing—nobody can find the key, because he hid it somewhere. There’s talk that there are all these clues hidden around and everybody’s obsessed with this mystery. Now, nobody even knows what’s in the vault, okay, some say it’s bodies of people he’s had killed, some say it’s gold, some say he’s got a woman trapped in there and she’s only got twenty-four hours’ worth of air. It’s all crazy rumors—you know how Blink is. Or maybe you don’t. Anyway, so then this huge offer pops up on the skin wall—”
“The, uh, board, the underground one where people post illegal bounties for freelancers. So an offer goes up, okay, a million for the key to the vault. It’s from Livingston’s own people, which is huge, because it confirms that the whole story is true and that they don’t got the key. Blink goes totally wild with this—for days the crazy stories are flying around, all these treasure hunters promoting feeds claiming they know where the key is, saying it’s in some abandoned cathedral or a cave out in the desert. But it’s always just a big show, nobody ever comes up with a key. And meanwhile, the hype over this thing just keeps building and building, millions of us watching, everybody talking about it. Then finally, this morning, pow, big plot twist, okay? The key ain’t in town. The key is in Colorado. With the daughter that nobody knew Arthur had.”
“So this whole thing is over some Blink rumor? Can I just look into a camera and tell everybody I don’t have the key?”
“You do have it.” Cesar pointed at his temple. “Up here.”
“What, like a combination? Because I don’t have one of those, either.”
“No. The vaults the rich people got now, they don’t open for keys or combinations or nothin’ like that—they open for people. Okay? Fingerprint scans, eyeball scans, that sort of thing. Livingston’s vault is one of a kind—it has a scan that goes right into your skull. Reads your brain neurons and synapses, all that. And Livingston set his vault so it would open for one person and one person only. You.”
“And he did this knowing it would make me a target for every greedy psychopath in the country.” Zoey thought about all of the strangers giving her glances on the train, and the crush of reporters as she was being escorted to a gruesome death. She shook her head and said, “That man was cancer on two legs. So you were watching this the whole time?”
“Everybody was. And all eyes were on you, all these treasure hunters and crazies all heading your way, and the rest of the world watching them to see who gets to you first. Everybody on Blink forming up into teams, fans rooting for their guys to win. And then it gets really good. This other contract goes up, outbidding Livingston’s people, okay? Three million. Some other crime family, they want the key for themselves. So now you’ve got a whole other faction of scumbags in on the action, and everybody’s heading off to Colorado, and then that motivates all these white knight types who want to save you. All head out to converge on your location.”
Zoey thought, And that whole time I was on my sofa watching wildlife documentaries and failing to dye my hair.
“But the problem is,” he continued, “they got the wrong town. They think you’re out in some suburb around Boulder, okay?”
“Ah. Nobody knew I’d moved.”
“So everybody’s trying to nail down your current address, but this wrongcock with mechanical jaws figures it out before anybody. So while everybody else is turning over every stone in the wrong town, this guy is staking out your trailer, just waiting, and watching. And then he turns on his feed and then there’s that crazy car chase and the thing with the ice … well, you know. You were there. So the next time it picked up was when you boarded the rail. So then all the hunters and crazies swarm the train station here waiting for you to show up, but a few guys get smart and go to Salt Lake, thinking they could get on the train with you. Two of ’em made it.”
“Two?” Ah, right. The Soul Collector, he was one. The other was, of course, Jacob. He hadn’t been hitting on her. He had been there to collect the bounty, and to shoot an impromptu reality show about it.
She said, “So explain the thing with the people who can shoot lightning out of their hands.”
Three different people in the room said, “The what?”
“The bad guy on the train? He could shoot electricity from his fingers. Is that something people just do here?”
Rico said, “Nobody I know. Seems like it’d be dangerous to take a leak.”
Zoey said, “Nevermind, forget I asked. So, whoever turns me in to Livingston’s scumbag mob gets a million, but whoever turns me in to this other group of worse bad guys gets three?”
“Make that five,” said Cesar. “Look.”
He brought up a list and at the top, just above the one million–dollar offer from Livingston Enterprises, was an updated offer of five million dollars. The name next to the bid was …
“Who’s ‘Molech’?” Zoey asked.
The response was a series of nervous glances.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Rico. “Even if the people in this city didn’t need that cash, they’d turn you in just to get on his good side. You don’t want to know what he does to people who get in his way. Though if you do want to know, I can bring up the videos. He likes to do it for an audience. Got a creepy fanbase on Blink, these Team Molech guys were cheering the loudest when the Hyena started broadcasting from outside your trailer. Throwing up a lot of suggestions about what he should do to you.”
“Do I want to know how many people are on Team Molech?”
Cesar said, “It’s a lot. But ya know, not all of ’em are psychos, probably, some just doin’ it for the shock value. Still, if they saw you in public, they’d report your position without a second thought. Then they’d pop some popcorn and watch Molech’s people tear you apart on cam—”
Rico cut him off. “Enough. Cesar, you got to learn when to stop talking.”
Zoey went cold, but remembered that whoever got to her first, it was really her father who had murdered her.
Rico squinted at Zoey and said, “And you, get that look off your face. I got a wife and four kids, I’m gonna bring home a suitcase full of blood money? Where do I tell them I got it from?”
A-Ron said, “I’ll take your share.”
“Man, your momma would string you up. And she’ll know where you got the cash, because I’ll tell her.”
Cesar said, “I hate to tell you, but it’s either gonna be us, or those guys.”
He gestured at the screen, where the feed had switched. They were now watching a half dozen flamboyantly dressed men packed into the back of a van. One guy had a red Mohawk and was covered in tattoos, and was sharpening a scimitar. Another had what looked like a bazooka with war slogans painted on the sides. The guy next to him looked like he had covered his body in glue and rolled through a knife store. At the bottom of the feed was a logo that said “LEAGUE OF BADASS.”
Cesar said, “They’re in their van, on their way to Parkview. Right now.”
The feed on the screen cut to a dash camera on the van, which showed they were rounding the park, the collapsed apartment building sweeping into view ahead. Then suddenly, the feed went black.
Cesar said, “They’re jamming us, so we can’t watch how they approach. Smart.”
Zoey scooped up the sleeping Stench Machine from the sofa and said, “Where can I hide? Is there a place they can’t get to in the sideways building?”
Rico said, “We told you, you can’t go back in there. It’s not safe, the place is fallin’ apart. We don’t even let the crew go off unsupervised. If you stay here we can—wait, Zoey—”
She was already heading for the door. These people seemed nice but she thought there was no way they’d walk away from five million dollars when it was between that and fending off a bunch of high school dropouts with military-grade weapons looking to create a shootout for their Blink show. She yanked open the door of the trailer—
Standing there, blocking the view of everything beyond, was an enormous bald, black man in a suit that was an expanse of dark pinstripes around a white shirt and a bright purple tie. She had seen him before—he was part of the entourage of fancy suits who had showed up at the train station with Will Blackwater. He was one of her father’s men.