Twelve o’clock came and went. When Blair still hadn’t returned by two, Dodge finally stopped hoping she would breeze in with Joshua trailing behind her. Something had gone wrong. He grabbed the blue bag containing the new hoodie he’d bought to disguise Joshua and glared at it, hoping for inspiration to strike.
Instead, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed two men in ill-fitting suits and loud ties descend the stairs from street level, then glance down at a device one of them held. Even if they hadn’t pointed right at him and wove through the crowd in his direction, he’d have recognized them instantly as cerebrates.
The familiar burst of anxiety and dread convulsed in his stomach, but he didn’t let it overwhelm him. If the Paradise Mind had found him here, it could only mean that they’d discovered Blair and somehow forced her to talk. He had to move.
Without letting himself think, Dodge raced across the corridor and into the subway entrance, pulled one of the small magnetic tokens from his pocket, and slid it into the turnstile. The two heavy plastic doors flipped open with a snap and he ran toward the stairs down to the trains.
Over his shoulder, he saw his pursuers enter the station, scan the crowd and move after him. They probably had rep high enough to walk right through the barrier. They’d be on him in seconds.
He raced down a short flight of stairs and south along the track, then back up the escalator at the other end, through the exit turnstile, up another flight of stairs, briefly into the blinding sunlight then through a dim parking garage, and finally collapsed on a bench two streets down in a small parkette. Dodge squinted back the way he had come, but couldn’t spot the men chasing him.
His back was aching again. Blair had told him to avoid physical activity, and running in fear was certainly physical. He popped open the painkiller bottle and dry-swallowed two pills. It took a few minutes as he sat and panted under the sweltering sun, but the tenderness in his overworked muscles receded, and he could think without pain blurring the edge of his vision.
If the Paradise Mind had found him at the rendezvous point, it could only mean that Blair had told them where he’d be. Judging by the resolve she had displayed in the two days he had known her, making her reveal anything against her will would have taken some doing. They must have fucked with her brain somehow. Dodge could only hope she’d still remember him when he found her.
Wait, what? When he found her? Somehow he had already decided he was going in.
Well, no point arguing with himself.
He needed a plan, a diversion to keep the campus occupied while he found Joshua and Blair. Maybe he could sneak in and pull a fire alarm. Or blow up the roof.
Then he realized he didn’t need literal explosives. He had metaphorical dynamite that would not only draw a crowd to the campus, it would draw an outraged, Frankenstein’s monster crowd, waving torches and pitchforks and demanding revenge. That’d do nicely.
Dodge hopped up from the bench. Not only had he come up with a plan, it might even work. He jogged over to Yonge Street and headed north. The smooth obsidian edifice of the Paradise Mind campus crouched directly ahead. As he passed by, he threaded his way through the dozen chanting people at its entrance. They occupied a base camp of folding card tables decorated with strangely festive crepe paper and warning pamphlets. The protestors marched in circles, clasping signs in the afternoon heat: ‘Mind, not Code’ and ‘Humans Have Emotions’ and ‘You stole my son and gave me a robot.’ Dodge couldn’t see the security guards on the other side of the heavy sliding doors barricading the entrance, but he knew they were just on the other side.
He pulled his mobile from his pocket. Using the remaining time on the disposable device, he retrieved the contract from his data locker—the contract stating that he, Montrose Douglas Dodgson, the now legendary assassin of Klaxon Overdrive, had been under paid duty by the Paradise Mind—and posted it to every social media platform, feed tip form, and news source he could think of. Including Entropy’s own Klaxon Overdrive domain.
Shock would ripple through the Klaxon Overdrive community as notifications lit up the link. Shortly after that, when the major feeds caught word, the Paradise Mind’s covert involvement with the death of Klaxon Overdrive would be global news, and a teeming throng of apoplectic fans would overwhelm the campus. That’d draw the media, and maybe even the police. Plenty of noise to keep the campus occupied while he found Joshua and Blair.
Dodge crossed the street against the light, snaking through the snarled afternoon traffic, and entered the massive department store above the subway station. He needed a new suit.
He went straight to the men’s department and purchased a cheap, ill-fitting, grey two-button from the rack, a plain white dress shirt and a yellow and blue striped tie.
The clerk, to her credit, tried to talk Dodge out of the purchase, offering a slightly more fashionable cut with a smart-fabric lining, but Dodge declined. He wouldn’t even let the clerk have the suit altered to fit properly. Dodge didn’t want to look good. He wanted to fit in.
Dodge added a razor to his pile, paid with what was left on the cashcard in his pocket, and used the store’s restroom to change into his new persona. He shaved his sunken cheeks, then wet and flattened his hair. Once he was all cleaned up, he stared at himself in the spotted mirror, wiped any trace of expression from his face, and assumed the zombie-like attitude of converts to the Paradise Mind. He shuddered, surprised by how eerily natural he seemed in the smooth-cheeked guise of a cerebrate.
Twenty minutes later he was back down the street at the campus. A full-blown crowd was already building, the sudden influx of newcomers amazing the full-time protestors. They were agitated, but still just milling around, unsure of what to do next. No one had yet stepped up to work the crowd into a frenzy. This was just the balance Dodge was hoping for: enough commotion and bluster to be distracting, but not so much as to be dangerous.
Dodge marshaled his nerve, and squeezed through the agitated mob, receiving insults and rough tugs of his clothing along the way. At least the crowd believed he was a cerebrate. Hopefully he’d fool the people inside too.
Finally reaching the entrance, Dodge let a fraction of the anxiety he was feeling show. The security guards on the other side of the glass took him for a lost adept and opened the doors. The crowd heaved forward to follow Dodge into the lobby, but the guards’ threatening tasers slowed them enough for him to slip into the cavernous reception area.
He turned as the doors closed behind him, quieting the noise of the crowd. Four guards were stationed just inside now. The Paradise Mind would have received word of his contract hitting the link at the same time as the fans and they were already preparing. Just as a guard started towards Dodge, the crowd outside surged forward.
Bodies slammed into the glass and the guard instantly turned back to the doors and buzzed the electromagnetic locks into place. The other guards, concerned by the churning mass outside, didn’t even glance at the facial image scanner or T-ray scan as Dodge hurried through the security gate.
Then that was it. He was in.
The vast triangular lobby was glass all the way to the roof, and the crowd dull through the black tint. An immense translucent display curved across the entire back wall of the lobby, obscuring the open-concept layout of the building’s six floors with a video montage of every conceivable horror sufferable by humanity. Exploding buildings and bloated bellies and marching soldiers and infection-ravaged faces and lonely eyes and thousands of other images flickered past. Each scene was softened by the subtle implication that, with the help of the Paradise Mind’s brain conditioning, solutions to all earthly problems were within reach.
A reception desk sat at the back of the lobby, stretching across the length of the room and barring entrance to the bank of elevators rising upwards to salvation. Behind the desk, a pair of cerebrates were chattering into their headsets as they watched the crowd growing outside.
Apart from the lobby itself, the only publicly accessible part of the Paradise Mind campus was the Resource Center, which, occupying most of the first floor, contained the reconditioning pods and sold all the required books, study aids, and other tools necessary to achieve cerebrate status. The Resource Center had been busy, and the customers had drifted into the lobby, alarmed by the hundreds of angry people that had suddenly arrived at the doors.
“What,” Dodge blurted as he reached the desk, “has occurred to arouse such a display of Discordancy?”
The two behind the desk hadn’t even noticed him approach and didn’t respond. The elevator dinged, and five more security personnel rushed out. One strode to the Resource Center and encouraged everyone to exit the building through the rear, without giving the appearance that it was an evacuation. The others raced to reinforce the doors.
“I am anticipated at a congress with cerebrate … Francis,” Dodge tried again. “Will you please communicate my presence to him?”
A muffled roar erupted from the crowd outside, and the doors bulged inwards. Things were getting ugly fast. The reception personnel froze as voices continued to call insistently through their headsets. The receptionists were obviously just adepts, kids really. They weren’t prepared for a terrarium-like view of mob violence. Not that he was either. Maybe releasing that contract to the link hadn’t been such a brilliant idea after all.
The crowd surged again. Kicks thudded hollowly on the solid plastic. Dodge doubted the windows, however impregnable the manufacturers might have promised, would hold up for long. Another elevator full of security personnel arrived and took up position against the doors, trying to hold them together.
He had only intended a minor distraction, not the razing of the entire Paradise Mind campus. Ordinarily he would have cheered the crowd on, but the looks of terror on the receptionist’s faces made him reconsider. These people weren’t involved with Mr. Hill or Joshua or Blair. In fact, he was far more in the wrong than almost everyone in the building, no matter what he thought of the Paradise Mind trying to reprogram humanity. He’d underestimated the effect leaking the contract would have. Klaxon Overdrive’s murder had caused hundreds of thousands to travel to the scene of the crime. He should have known finding out the Paradise Mind had been behind it would incite people into a frenzy.
And now here he was, trapped inside.
A distorted wail of sirens pulsed through the thick plastic as the police arrived. Drones from the major link feeds darted about in the sky, occasionally dropping to hover just above the heads of the crowd, or attempting to glimpse inside the impenetrable black windows.
Having emptied the Resource Center, an older guard, his thick silver hair and stern features projecting an immediate sense of authority, strode up to the reception desk.
“Cerebrates, your emmoa has grown dominant. You had best be advised to secure yourselves in the Rectory, and meditate on raising your logos,” he said. “Inform the sequestered cerebrates to prepare for a breach. I shall seal off reception after you depart.”
The adepts tried to appear calm as they scurried away from their posts. They entered the open elevator, hands pressed lightly together at the fingertips, abdomens rhythmically expanding and contracting, and waited for Dodge to follow. He waved them on, motioning that he intended to take the stairs instead. He could have handled the elevator, probably, but the fewer converts he got face-to-face with, the better.
The older guard had already rushed over to the doors, leaving Dodge alone at the back of the lobby. He walked to the left of the elevators and entered the triangular stairwell running behind the shaft.
Painted featureless white, the stairwell offered no guidance. He hadn’t been expecting a detailed directory of the building’s layout, specifying exactly where they kept kidnapped superstars, but floor numbers would have helped. His only option was to search the campus level-by-level, until he found Joshua or Blair or someone stopped him.
He should have taken more time to think this through—though if he’d stopped to think too long, he probably would have spun out on the reality of his situation. At this point the only thing keeping him upright was forward momentum and never looking further ahead than the next step.
It could crash and burn at any second, but it was working so far. The incessant desire to swallow a tryp had even eased off. Eventually there’d be a reckoning, he was sure of that. But it wasn’t imminent.
Once Joshua and Blair were safe, then he could have his breakdown.