[Part 30] 07:02:56 // 05-JUN-2042


They stopped at old wooden picnic table in a park fifteen minutes from the Paradise Mind campus. It was completely exposed, but the sight-lines were wide open. They’d spot anyone coming for them.

Blair helped him remove his jacket. Mottled red and purple bruises wrapped his torso. From the way they looked, Dodge was surprised he didn’t hurt even more than he did. Mr. Francis had really worked him over. He tried not to take too much pleasure from the memory of the wet snap of his neck.

Blair set his jacket down beside the bag of supplies she’d grabbed from a HealthMart and leaned over to probe Dodge’s chest and back. The pressure was bearable until she touched the lump just beside his spine, then he squeezed his eyes shut and groaned.

She backed away, stroking her chin.

“The good news is, nothing is broken,” she said. “The bad news is, you have an upward displacement of the fifth rib, which is more painful than if it was broken.”

Of course it would be more painful.

“I’d like to get an X-ray, but since that isn’t going to happen, I’ll to need to reset it the best I can. Lay down.”

Dodge raised his arms in protest. “Do you even know how to reset a rib?”

“I could leave it. You like the way it feels now?”

Dodge angled his neck and tried to look over his shoulder to see exactly how bad it was, but stopped when his back was torn by agony. 

“You’re sure you know how what you’re doing?” He didn’t have much choice. He couldn’t stay like this.

“I watched someone do it once.”

“You watched?”

“I did a medical specialty in the army,” if she was growing impatient she was hiding it. “Spin around and lay down on your stomach. Please.”

“What army?” Dodge said, now more interested in Blair than worried she might mutilate him. “The NAAF?”

“Israel Defense Forces. Now on your stomach.”

Dodge shifted his weight as gently as possible and lay prone on the damp wood, his nose pressed into the middle of someone’s carved initials.

“I’m about to bring traction on your back and engage the musculature, then press to reset the rib. It will hurt.”

Dodge took a deep breath in anticipation of the pain as Blair kneeled on the table’s bench.

“What did you do in the army?” Dodge asked, trying to distract himself.

“Started as a medic,” Blair said.

“Started?”

“I was transferred before I finished my training,” Blair said, reaching over Dodge to grab his right forearm, then pulling it up and back.

Dodge grit his teeth as red torment arced through him. He could feel bone grinding in his back. 

“Transferred where?” Ignore the pain. Breathe through it.

Blair planted her elbow over the raised hump of dislodged bone. 

“Recruited,” she said, while manipulating Dodge’s arm up and down. “By the government.”

“The gov—?” His thoughts washed away with a crisp swell of torment as Blair fully extended his arm and applied pressure on the head of the rib with her elbow.

The bone slipped back into place with a pop and his senses dissolved into a shrill pewter cloud.

He stayed still for a long time, but the pain eased, and when he dared move he was surprised when the stabbing fire he had grown accustomed to failed to greet him. It was like waking to find a long-past unwelcome houseguest had packed up and left silently in the night. His back still throbbed, but a monotonous body-wide ache had replaced the debilitating pain in his back.

Blair was unpacking a padded wrap from the plastic bag. Dodge pushed himself upright and rolled his shoulders, enjoying the simple act of relatively pain-free movement.

“Feel better?” Blair turned to him, bandages in hand.

“Yeah,” Dodge said. “Thanks.”

“Raise your arms. This should keep everything in place.” She wrapped Dodge’s torso tightly with the bandage, fastening the loose edge with the velcro strip. “But try not to move around too much or it will slip right back out.”

“I’ll do my best,” Dodge said and slid down from the table. Blair pulled a Maple Leafs t-shirt from the bag and handed it to him. He pulled the thin material over his head. It bulged slightly over the bandage, but at this point he the last thing he cared about was how he looked. She then shook a bunch of hexagonal ultramarine pills into his palm.

“These are painkillers. Take them,” she said and handed him a bottle of water.

Dodge swallowed four pills in two large gulps and handed the bottle back to Blair. She finished it and set it back on the table.

Carefully, not moving too quickly, Dodge rolled his shoulders. Everything felt like it was back in the right place.

Was there anything Blair couldn’t do? She was amazing. He turned back to face her. “Where did you transfer to?”

“Intelligence,” she answered without hesitating.

"So, you’re a spy?

Blair didn’t seem at all surprised by the question. “No, I’m unemployed. I told you, I worked for Entropy up until a few days ago.”

“But you used to be a spy?”

She tossed the painkillers to Dodge and then handed him his old jacket and helped him pull it over his shoulders.

“For a while.”

“What did you do?” Dodge asked.

“I served my country,” Blair said. “The rest is classified.”

“Wow,” Dodge said, unable to contain his awe. “A spy. A real life spy. Len wouldn’t believe it.”

“Len is dead,” she said, suddenly serious. “This isn’t a game. Being a katsa is not about shoot-outs and fancy gadgets. It works best when no one knows what you are. Now we have more important things to worry about—unless you’d like to chat more about your past?”

She was right. The past was past.

“Let’s get moving,” Blair said, walking to the path leading out of the park.

Dodge fell in beside her. “We need to arrange a rendezvous point.”

“A what?”

“A rendezvous point. A meeting place. You know, for when I get Joshua away from the Paradise Mind. I don’t think it’ll be a good idea if you’re waiting for us at the front door.”

“I know what a rendezvous point is. But you’re not going after Joshua, I am.”

They stopped at the edge of a residential street. Cars and bicyclists rolled past.

“I’ve been inside,” Dodge said. Blair turned toward the traffic as if waiting for something. “I know my way around. I’ll be able to find him easier.”

“I appreciate the offer.” And she looked like she meant it. “But it’s safer for both of us if I go. If you’ve been there before, you’re more likely to be identified. I can get inside without causing too much attention to myself. I used to be fairly good at it.”

Dodge knew enough not to argue.

“Okay, but I’ve already got the getting in part figured out,” he said, trying to suppress the unexpected pleasure he got from being useful. “The campus is a highly secure building, but they are a religion, and have a public face. They hold testing sessions every day at nine and four. Anyone can walk in off the street, declare themselves a potential, and find out how discordant with the True Cerebrate they are. We Non-Accompli are always way off.”

A driverless taxi approached and Blair waved it down.

“Anyway, you go in with the testing group. It’s usually full of sad cases, just look borderline-suicidal and you’ll fit right in. They test the electronic output of your brain and tell you how much it will cost and how many years of study it will take to align your screwy mind with that of the True Cerebrate’s. There’s usually only an adept or two supervising these things. I bet you could slip away from them fairly easily. Just ask to use the bathroom or something.”

Blair seemed to be considering it. “Crude,” she said after a moment, “but it could work.”

“It will,” Dodge said. It was perfect.

The taxi stopped. They ducked in and Dodge slid along the plastic seat.

“Yonge and Bloor,” Dodge told the face on the screen. They had plenty of time for Blair to make it to the Paradise Mind campus for the nine o’clock session.

He didn’t want to talk while the cab could overhear, but it was all he could do to not ask her more about her life as a spy. Instead, he did his best to relax in the uncomfortable seat, watch the city crawl by, and enjoy breathing unencumbered by searing pain.  

* * *

 They made it downtown a half hour before the testing session and Blair instructed the driver to stop a block away from the campus. Once on the sidewalk, Blair grabbed Dodge’s arm, led him down Yonge, and pulled him into a bustling coffee bar. They ignored the line and took seats on empty stools next to the window.

The Paradise Mind campus was a gleaming black cube spanning half a city block, like a monolith sent from the future. Dodge shuddered as he noticed that its smooth surface absorbed the bright morning sunlight, reflecting nothing but shimmering waves of heat from its roof, as if suggesting that nothing that met the building, including sunlight, could ever escape unaltered. There was no telling what was happening to Joshua in there.

Blair’s strong fingers gripped his knee and Dodge snapped back to reality. Her eyes bored into his. “You have five minutes to tell me everything you know about the Paradise Mind campus, starting with where you think they will be holding Joshua.”

“I’ve only been there twice. I wasn’t inside for very long either time.”

“Anything will help.”

“Well, the entrance is on the corner of the building, but that’s obvious, I guess,” he said, suddenly uneasy. Not anxious, exactly, but nervous. This was really happening. “The lobby is a big triangle, occupying the entire corner of the building, floor to ceiling, with a display running up the back wall. There’s a reception desk, and an elevator bank behind the screen, and I think a stair case alongside the elevator.”

Blair nodded impatiently, urging him to continue.

“Anyway, the first floor is mainly lobby. The resource center is there too. The testing center is on the second floor, and takes up about half of it. I’m not sure what’s on the other half. There weren’t any doors or anything. I didn’t really get to look around too much. I was just there to sign contracts.” Dodge took a breath and glanced about to see if anyone was looking at him. “The third floor is a rooming and study area for cerebrates. It’s called the … Scrutinium or something.”

“Go on.”

“Um, I wasn’t on the fourth floor at all. And the fifth floor could be legal. When I was there to sign the contract to acquire Joshua’s DNA, Mr. Hill said the documentation was being brought down from ‘five’.”

“Is that it?” Blair asked.

“There’s a set of elevators running up the center of the building.”

“You said that already. Anything else? Sixth floor? Garage? Roof? Basement? Security placements? Cameras? Guards?”

“There’s a couple of guards at the front doors, but other than that …”

Blair raised an eyebrow. “When you said you had a plan to get in, I assumed you would base it on something more useful that what anyone could see from the lobby.”

“It’s better than nothing. They didn’t exactly give me a guided tour. Mr. Hill said they rarely let non-cerebrates in there at all.”

“You didn’t notice cameras or guards?”

“It’s not like I was trained for this,” Dodge said.

“Clearly,” Blair said. “You were there once to sign your contract. What were you there the other time for?”

 “To collect the camera I used to sample Joshua’s DNA.”

Her eyes narrowed. Uh oh. “Why, exactly, did they have it?”

“I built it for the job, but I needed nanites to make it work. It’s not like I have access to a nano-assembler,” Dodge said defensively. “And they offered use of theirs.”

Blair scowled, and the way she was looking at him made his stomach do a flip.

“This was way before I met you. I’m helping now, aren’t I?”

“Not much,” she replied. “But you’re trying.” She stood up and straightened her jacket. “I shouldn’t be more than an hour. Two at the most. Meet me at the entrance to the Yonge-Bloor subway at noon with three tokens and something to disguise Joshua.”

“Good luck.”

“Don’t need it,” Blair said and winked.

Dodge shook his head. As she passed, he gripped her shoulder momentarily and looked at her in a way he wasn’t used to looking at people—directly and unflinchingly in the eyes. Surprising them both, she leaned close and kissed him, once, dryly on the lips. It was over before Dodge could react and then she strode out of the coffeehouse, crossed the street, pushed past the ever-present protestors, and entered the sliding ebony doors of the Paradise Mind campus.