[Part 32] 14:07:31 // 05-JUN-2042 - Continued

Dodge had two options: a door directly ahead of him, or the stairs leading up. Since it was close, he grasped the door handle, squeezed the latch, and cracked it open, revealing the campus vehicle bay on the other side. It ran along the back of the building and stretched up for two stories. Five blue UAVs were parked across from him, and a guard stood in the booth beside the locked-down vehicle gate. There was another dull silver elevator on the far wall, beside what was probably another stairway door. No point going out there.

Dodge let the door shut and headed up the stairs. As he rounded the first landing, he stopped and looked back down, just now noticing the stairs only led up. There was nothing below the first floor. Strange that a building of this size wouldn’t have sub-grade levels.

With nowhere to go but up, Dodge continued to the second floor landing, inched the door open, and peered into the hallway. The deserted testing center occupied the entire floor.

Each empty desk possessed a head-mounted display capable of projecting different images in each eye, a skullcap and a set of wrist and chest bio-rhythm sensors. The sensors measured the brain waves and physical responses as potentials viewed a series of videos similar to those displayed in the lobby as they answered several multiple-choice questions.

The system then compared the potential’s body-brain responses to stimuli against the True Cerebrate: the mythical unity of brain hemispheres. The deviation level determined the amount of programming and length of training necessary for a potential to achieve cerebratehood. The greater the deviation, the more training required. More training meant a greater expense. It was a lucrative revenue stream.

This empty room, studded with rows of terminals, showed exactly why the Paradise Mind had wanted Klaxon’s DNA. Programming a replactor clone of Klaxon Overdrive to act like a cerebrate would’ve taken no more than a long weekend. If the most popular public figure in the world came out as a cerebrate, the surge in applicants to the Paradise Mind training program would have translated to billions of dollars in revenue. Celebrity endorsement at its finest.

Even after Entropy stepped up to protest the theft of its intellectual property, the lawsuits and conspiracy theories would have dragged on for years. Decades, maybe. And all the while the Paradise Mind would be attracting converts by the thousands.

But obviously Blair nor Joshua weren’t anywhere near the public testing center. He’d have to keep searching.

He let the door shut and ascended the next flight of stairs to the third floor, the Cerebrate Rectory. The room beyond buzzed with activity. Dodge eased the door open and looked inside.

Glass-walled meeting rooms filled the otherwise open space. With the elevator bank blocking his view, he could only see a few Cerebrates at the rear of what was a group of perhaps twenty. Most had crammed into an enormous meeting room and had their backs to him, leaving empty the small metal tables and hard-backed metal chairs in the central part of the room. Abstract shadows of pale color flickered on the adepts as they gawked through the giant lobby display and down at the mob. He couldn’t see outside from his position, but he figured the crowd was still growing.

Blair and Joshua weren’t being kept on this glass-walled floor either. He would have been shocked if any of the adepts even suspected that Klaxon Overdrive was in the building. He let the door close, muffling the squabble of voices, and continued up to the fourth floor.

The landing and door were identical to the others, except the door had no latch, just a handle and a small circular protrusion directly above it. Dodge gripped the handle and tugged, but the door held tight. No way he was getting it open without whatever security-pass the campus used.

He figured the next two floors would be similarly protected, but checked to be sure. Both the fifth and sixth floor doors were locked. There was only one other way—he’d have to go back down to the second floor and try the elevator. He didn’t think that would be any more successful, but didn’t know what else to do.

He flew down the stairs, ignoring the increased clatter emanating from behind the Rectory stairwell door. When he arrived at the second floor, he again waited to make sure the room was clear before easing out of the door and pressing the round ‘up’ arrow next to the elevator.

While he waited, Dodge peered through the back of the transparent display wall and down into the lobby. Security had backed away from the windows and taken up a semi-circular defensive position at the reception desk. Each held a neural taser at the ready. Outside, the streets were heaving, and the mob had become a sea of angry faces stretching out into the street and blocking traffic. Spiderweb impact cracks marred the windows, and one door had a hole nearly large enough for someone to squeeze through. It would only be a matter of time before the crowd breached the doors and swarmed into the campus, venting their rage as they went. The adepts up in the Rectory, unprotected by even a locking door, would be swallowed up like raw meat in a jackal pen.

Not that’d he’d be any better off.

If Joshua and Blair were still in the campus, they were safely protected by the maglocks. They’d be safer where they were. He had tried his best, but he needed to save himself.

Dodge ran back to the stairwell, yanked the door open and headed back down to the first floor, rubber-legged with fear. If he could get into one of the UAVs maybe he’d be able to open the rear garage door and force his way out through the crowd.

The guard had left his post in the vehicle bay—probably called to the lobby with the rest of the security team—and the roll-up garage doors heaved and buckled as people outside attempted to find a way into the building. He rushed over to the nearest UAV and tried the door. It was locked.

The keys had to be somewhere. He scurried around the garage, searching. The guard booth was empty.

Dodge spun around, eyes searching the garage. Where were the fucking keys?

Apart from the silver elevator door on the other side of the room, and the rear stairwell door beside that, the bay was empty. He ran over and examined the silver door, but it didn’t have a button or even a security-pass reader, just a biometric thumb-print scanner next to it. He jabbed his thumb down on the square of black plastic. It winked lightning blue and then buzzed red. Useless.

He stepped to his left and yanked open the door he had assumed led to the rear stairwell. It did, which was no help, as it too only led back up.

Back in the vehicle bay, he heard a faint thump that sounded like it came from the elevator. He instinctively stepped into the stairwell just as four security guards raced out across the vehicle bay and through the front-stairwell door.

These guards were dressed differently from the two-tone grey uniforms in the lobby; they were outfitted in midnight blue and armored over the chest and at the joints, like soldiers. In addition to crowd-strength tasers in their hands, they had assault rifles strapped to their backs. These weren’t regular security guards, they were geared for war. But the elevator door they’d come out of was still open.

And just when he’d been trying to give up.

Dodge swore, darted out of the stairwell and through the closing silver door. It was as large as a cargo elevator and lined with an almost mirror-smooth black plastic, but felt as tight as a locker. Vertigo pulsated through him. He clenched his stomach and concentrated on breathing. In through his nose and out through his mouth. Expanding and contracting. Deep, calming breaths.

The control panel had only four round buttons, and the top one was lit up. Dodge had expected the elevator to go up, but the controls showed otherwise. This elevator went down.

He jabbed the second button with a shaking finger and clutched the handrail as the elevator dropped. Two seconds later, when the doors opened onto a basement level, Dodge pressed flat against the elevator wall and poked his head out, ready to jab the top button again if anyone was waiting.

The room was square and white and glowed without a visible light source. Oval-shaped corridors ran perpendicular off to each side and another straight ahead. Across the ebony floor sat an empty guard station, and behind that the bronze bust of a man with a broad, round face.

Before Dodge stepped all the way out of the elevator, he checked the outside wall for call buttons, and, unlike the floor above, saw two silver triangles, one pointing up, the other down. Taking the risk that the buttons would call the elevator back, he stepped out, let the doors close behind him, waited a second, and then pressed the up-facing arrow. The button glowed and the elevator doors immediately slid back open.

Okay, at least he’d be able to get back up. Now to find Joshua and Blair. And once he did, maybe Blair would have an idea about how to get them out of the mess he had stirred up.

Dodge stepped around to the rear of the guard post and pushed a wheeled chair aside. The station contained a bank of square monitors, each displaying an image fed by a security camera. Small black letters on each screen indicated the floor and camera position. Images from the floor he was on showed what looked to be labs: banks of computer monitors, technogenetic nano-factories, a clean room and a nanomachine assembly unit similar to the university’s. Another room contained what looked like larger versions of the pods in the Resource Center upstairs. Yet another possessed six empty inclined cylinders, three on each side of the room. Each was long enough to hold a human body and sprouted thick cables that snaked up into the ceiling. Every room seemed to be optimally configured, with no wasted space, and each was a flurry of activity.

It was clear what the rooms full of medical and computer equipment were for; he had worked with cruder versions of the same technology at school. The Paradise Mind was ready to manufacture replactors.

Lost in their work, the cerebrates down here seemed oblivious to the riot occurring above them. And if they knew what was happening, their outward calm went a long way towards proving the efficacy of the Paradise Mind teachings. He was almost impressed.

Cameras on the second sub-floor showed rooms studded with medical treatment and diagnostic equipment. One large room contained a full-body medical imaging bay. Another possessed an array of vaguely torturous-looking headgear. The rest of the cameras peered in on individual rooms, each containing a bed, a lifeless wallscreen and a small bathroom.

All the rooms were empty, beds stripped of sheets, lights off—except one, where Joshua lay strapped to his bed. 

Dodge scanned the third floor cameras, hoping to spot Blair, but didn’t see her. The bottom floor had only two cameras, one looking straight down a long hallway, the other pointed back at the elevator door.

Dodge backed away from the desk, glanced down each hall to make sure no one was coming, then dashed to the elevator and hammered the down button. When the doors opened he stepped in and pressed the button for the second sub-level.

In his excitement at finding Joshua, he hardly noticed the claustrophobia take hold before the doors opened and he was free. He found himself again at the T-intersection of hallways, each stretching away with doors on the inward walls. He arbitrarily chose the left hallway, hurrying up to the nearest door and peeking through the narrow window. The room was dark.

Dodge stepped back. Light peeped from a window further down the hall, one next to where the hallway turned off to the right. His feet slapped the ground as he sprinted over the black floor and burst into the room. Joshua was conscious but made no sound as Dodge rushed in and immediately began unfastening the straps holding him to the bed.

“You wouldn’t believe what’s happening outside,” Dodge said, freeing Joshua’s legs. “A horde of your fans are trying to tear this place apart. The cerebrates are freaking. You know—in their way.”

Joshua watched him with dead eyes. Dodge released the strap around Joshua’s chest and arms.

“Can you walk?” Dodge asked.

“My legs feel grey,” Joshua said, blinking heavily, his voice distant.

“Either way, we have to move.” Dodge grabbed Joshua’s arm and gave a tug. “Let’s find Blair and get out of here.”

Joshua’s cadaverous face came alive. He kicked out, catching Dodge in the chest with a bare foot, vaulted off the bed and landed softly, like a cat. Knocked off balance, Dodge grabbed out at the bed as he fell and the sheets followed him to the ground. Blair’s duffle bag lay on the floor under the bed.

Dodge pushed himself up on one elbow, not even surprised Joshua had attacked him again. What would he do if Joshua was having another breakdown?

“Take it easy, would you?” Dodge said from the floor. “I’m trying to help.”

“Everything is wrinkled. Brown. No one can help me.”

Not this again.

“I can,” Mr. Hill said.

Dodge rolled. Mr. Hill stood in the doorway, hands at his sides.

“I know you must be confused.” Mr. Hill ignored Dodge completely, speaking to Joshua alone. “Your thoughts a jumble of conflicting emotions and desires. You want to flee, to hide from the constricting adoration of your fans. You want to create, to manifest your inspiration. You want to surrender to the desires of the flesh. Thousands of thoughts and feelings and emotions. All at once. And they are tearing your mind apart.”

“How—how can you know that?” Joshua said, rising, weight poised on the balls of his feet, hands curled into fists.

“I know more about you than you know about yourself, Mr. Overdrive. Given time, I can teach you how to exploit your limitless potential.”

Joshua cocked his head, his features melting from frenzy to fear one instant at a time, like watching a series of time-lapse photographs. “You know what the tightness is?”

“I do, Joshua. And once you have accepted yourself and embraced the Paradise Mind, you will too. You will be the perfect cerebrate, the True Cerebrate we have all been waiting for.” He waved his arms. “You will become more than you could ever have dreamed.”

Joshua shuddered, his narrow eyes disappearing into his face.

“You aren’t suffering from a mental breakdown at all, Mr. Overdrive. Your body scan has shown us our dreams, our future. You are far more than what you know.”

“What am I?” Joshua whispered.

“You are the next step in human evolution. A fully-formed digital consciousness, a marvel beyond out wildest understanding. And now you belong to us.”