[Part 33] 15:32:03 // 05-JUN-2042

Dodge had taken a lot of hits over the past few days, but this was the hardest blow of all. The room swam in dizzying furrows.

Joshua couldn’t be a replactor. It wasn’t possible. He would have noticed.

Replactors were run by automated routines or wireless controls. Dodge had spent days with Joshua and the thought never crossed his mind that he was anything other than human. No way Joshua was one of those things. How would it even be possible? Customize a bioskyn control system with a highly-trained personality-mimicking neural net, maybe. But running autonomously for days at a time? Eventually the seams would show. No AI was that good.

Joshua was confused, highly emotional. No one would program this. Artificial personalities had guide rails to prevent erratic behavior. Only people acted this crazy.

Dodge worked his way up to his hands and knees, took a breath, then forced himself to his feet.

Mr. Hill smiled. “Mr. Dodgson,” he said, glancing up and down at Dodge’s outfit. “You look like you belong here with us.”

“You’re lying.” Dodge glanced over at Joshua. He had slid down the wall and crouched, face between his knees. “I’ve spent days with him. He maybe a bit deranged, but he’s not a replactor.”

“Regardless, the facts remain that Mr. Overdrive possesses a cloned and bioprinted organic body, controlled by an artificial brain.”

“No,” Joshua said from the floor, but he didn’t sound surprised. More like he was offering a tired rebuttal to an argument he’d already been in the middle of losing. “I’m me. Not a copy. No one is controlling me.” He pounded his chest with a closed fist. “I’m making this happen.” Thud. “I have memories.” Thud. “I’m real.”

Mr. Hill shrugged. “You are quite real, but undeniably more than mere human. Look for yourself,” he said and pressed the glowing corner of the wall-mounted monitor. It flashed to life, displaying a series of blue wireframe icons.

“This,” Mr. Hill said to Joshua, “is what you are.”

At Mr. Hill’s touch, a wireframe of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man filled with color, dissolved, then grew into a 3-D image of a human skeleton which layered on organs, nervous system, and musculature, before growing a pale covering of nearly hairless skin. Assembly complete, the image revolved on its axis. It was Joshua.

Mr. Hill gestured at the monitor. “Antibody levels. Glucose browning. Muscle, joint, and tooth wear. Toxin accretion. According to every test, your body is, at most, a few months old. Even the cellular material itself—”

Mr. Hill pressed a button containing a cell icon. The spinning body blurred and focused in on a microscopic enlargement of a cellular scan.

“—retains the chemical and hormonal traces associated with rapid aging. Here,” he pointed to grey squiggles within the cells, “striations consistent with the cellular knitting during bioprinting.”

Joshua had stopped watching. His face pressed against his knees.

“And your brain.” Mr. Hill pressed the icon of a brain and trailing spinal cord. The image of Joshua’s body returned, muscles stripped away to reveal a roadmap of nerves. The skull contained a single black semicircle, as though the image had been censored.

Mr. Hill’s speech quickened, raising an octave. “The entirety of your hindbrain—that which regulates your hormonal and autonomic functions—is entirely organic. That is where nerves cease, and bio-electronics take over. Your brain—” His calm facade tripped as his lips quivered and his pupils went wide, but reappeared just as quickly. “—your magnificent brain, is a gloriously tuned machine.”

Joshua’s face fell, like Mr. Hill had just pronounced him dead.

“Stranger yet, is your brain’s affinity with that of the True Cerebrate’s. Our initial tests show a less than 1% deviance in your response levels from that of a perfectly balanced mind. Your emmoaic and logaic minds are acting in concert, artificial as they may be. And, if I may say, it is a glory to behold.”

“I can’t believe this,” Dodge said. He was feeling like he might be sick.

Joshua was as an AI. Unless Mr. Hill was making this all up with a fancy graphics package, Joshua was a replactor. The most incredible one Dodge had ever seen, but just as artificial.

“Neither can I, frankly,” Mr. Hill agreed. “And to think we have you to thank for delivering him unto us. We contract you to supply us with simple DNA and you show us the future. Questions abound.” Mr. Hill stroked his chin. “Perhaps, your associate Ms. Blair can elucidate further. I have already learned so much since my last conversation with her. The sad tale of her father’s death, to name but one—but that is her story to tell.” Mr. Hill’s eyebrow arched. “As it happens, I was about to have another discussion with her. I would especially like to confirm my suspicions about the contents of that intriguing memory cube she had in her possession. Perhaps, armed with this fresh information, she will find herself more inclined to be forthcoming with us. We’d prefer not to rummage through her mind ourselves. The side effects can be unpleasant.”

Dodge didn’t know all that the Paradise Mind were capable of, but he had no doubt they’d do whatever necessary to extract the information they wanted from Blair’s head, through whatever means necessary. He opened his mouth to argue, but Mr. Hill cut him off.

“I do not intend to burden you with this deluge of information, Mr. Dodgson. And please excuse me if I have let my tongue slip. I’ve only revealed this because you have proven to be a most resourceful young man. The way you used the tools at hand to achieve your goals has been almost cerebrate-like in clarity. The rally you have initiated outside proves that. Rest assured, we regularly deal with those unwilling to accept the future of our race. They pose no threat, even in the quantities massed outside. I expect they are being lulled even as we speak.”

What did he mean by lulled?

“As I am sure you know, last evening my adept lost his life in service to the greater good. While I am loath to speak ill of any man who devotes himself to self-expansion, Mr. Francis was poorly suited to the protracted existence of an adept. Conversely, you, Mr. Dodgson, have all the qualities necessary to advance spectacularly under our guidance. It would honor me to act as your precept. Mr. Overdrive, I am sure, would appreciate having a familiar face to help him adjust to his new life with us.”

After everything that had happened, Dodge’s stomach lurched as he imagined joining the Paradise mind, but a vile curiosity tinged the nausea. Maybe this was his way out. He’d turned away before, but why not give it a try? He’d never have to run again. Maybe the Paradise Mind could bring him peace. As absolutely against the thought of converting as he’d been three days ago, Dodge found himself considering Mr. Hill’s offer. Celebrities, movie stars, politicians—they all claimed to benefit from the Paradise Mind, why couldn’t he? Maybe Joshua—or whatever it was—would be better off under Mr. Hill’s care. It wasn’t like replactors had rights anyway. They had owners.

“I understand your hesitation, Montrose. May I call you that?” Mr. Hill reached out and rested his hand on Dodge’s forearm. “I shall leave you to contemplate my proposal. Whatever your decision, you may consider your debt to us nullified. You are free to leave, should you so choose.”

Mr. Hill took a deep breath and removed his hand from Dodge’s shoulder. The smile faded from his face. “I fear I have indulged my emmoaic mind,” he said, his voice again serene. “Come, Mr. Overdrive, we must prepare for your new life.”

“No,” Joshua said, dragging himself from oblivion. “I’m not going with you.”

“I shall decide what you want,” Mr. Hill said. “You will do as I say or we will wipe your magnificent brain clean, memories and all, and replace them. You should count yourself lucky to retain them at all. It seems Entropy has access to brain scanning capabilities more advanced than our own.”

Joshua’s lips pulled into a tight line. What must be going through his head right how?

Of all the things Dodge had feared in his life, of all the anxieties and phobias, this just shot to the top of the list. He couldn’t imagine learning he was a robot only pretending to be the person he thought he was. It would completely cave him in.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Joshua snarled, eyes straining. “You’re twilight.”

Mr. Hill performed his sleight of hand, and his taser appeared. “You will do as I say. I would prefer your free acceptance, Mr. Overdrive, but if you insist on resisting, we can proceed in that fashion as well. I am prepared for both outcomes.”

Joshua looked to Dodge, his expression pleading. Dodge looked away and stepped aside as Mr. Hill took Joshua by the arm. For just a moment it seemed like Joshua might resist, but then he dropped his head and allowed himself to be led out.

“You can shelter here until the difficulties outside are clear,” Mr. Hill said to Dodge as he left the room. “And if you choose to stay, we can begin your training tonight.”

Dodge watched the rotating image of Joshua’s nervous system on the wallscreen. Joshua was a machine. Just like all those other creatures that had destroyed his life. They weren’t even human.

But Joshua was.

He was as human as if he had a prosthetic arm or an artificial heart or a chip bridging a spinal cord injury. He had feelings. He had memories. His brain was artificial, but his mind was human.

While the Paradise Mind might be a panacea to those who actively sought it out, Joshua hadn’t. Whatever Joshua was, whatever Entropy had made him, he still possessed the ability to decide for himself. Dodge couldn’t just abandon him.

He took a second to gather himself, then rushed out into the hall and caught up with Mr. Hill. 

“I’d like to come with you,” Dodge said, stepping closer. “And help with Joshua—Precept.” 

Mr. Hill followed Dodge’s movements closely with the glowing diodes of the taser, but smiled as Dodge said, ‘Precept.’ 

“I am gladdened—” 

Then Dodge launched himself at Mr. Hill, arms spread. As fas as plans went, it was crude, but he didn’t know what else to do.

Viridian neon struck his chest, locking his muscles in mid-air and reducing his senses to a uniform grey wash. When his vision finally coalesced from squirming rainbow fragments, and feeling crept back to his convulsing muscles, the ebony floor was only inches from his face and he was lying on a breathless Mr. Hill.

Dodge could only see Joshua’s feet.

Mr. Hill groaned as he slipped both of his hands under Dodge’s chest and pushed. Dodge commanded his body to resist, but his neuro-electric impulses died somewhere between his brain and muscles. Mr. Hill was slowly sliding his way out.

Joshua still hadn’t moved.

Mr. Hill freed his chest, then wiggled, methodically working his legs from under Dodge’s dead weight. With a final heave, he rolled Dodge away.

Dodge swung his eyes up to Joshua, who now stood against the wall, clutching the taser in a shuddering hand. 

Mr. Hill regained his feet and rubbed his tailbone as though unconcerned by the weapon pointed at him. He stretched, reset himself, then locked eyes with Joshua and extended his palm. “Give me the weapon, Mr. Overdrive.”

Joshua pressed the firing stud.

Hill spasmed and fell forward, thwacking his head on the floor. Joshua released the stud and Mr. Hill’s body went slack. Then he fired again. Vivid green whips lanced out. Blood seeped from Mr. Hill’s compressed lips.

Joshua cut the beam, allowing a moment of respite before pushing the stud yet again.

“Joshua,” Dodge said from the floor. “He’s had enough.”

The beam cut off. Mr. Hill’s blood was barely visible on the black tile.

Joshua tilted his head up and down in a slight nod, then tucked the taser into his waistband and stepped over the convulsing Mr. Hill to help Dodge to his feet.

“I’m okay,” Dodge said, but his legs weren’t listening. He stumbled and caught the wall. His ears were thick with white noise, but he took a breath and looked over at Joshua, who was again pointing the taser down at Mr. Hill.

“Went a bit off there, didn’t ya?” Dodge said.

“I’m no puppet.”

“I’ll remember that,” Dodge said as he took a step forward. Then another. His muscles were his again. “Now, let’s get out of here.”

Joshua turned, pulled the taser free and hit the immobile cerebrate with another extended blast. His back concaved, teeth exposed in a grim rictus. A dark wet spot spread over his crotch and the tang of hot urine singed the hallway air. Joshua held the stud until something within him was satisfied, then cut the beam and let the cerebrate relax.

“Now we can go,” Joshua said.

On the way past, Dodge ducked into Joshua’s room, crouched with the care of an arthritic and hauled Blair’s bag from under the bed. Barely able to lift it, he handed the bag to Joshua and they continued down the hall. Mr. Hill still hadn’t moved.

“I’m sorry I kicked you,” Joshua said as they neared the end of the hall. “When you mentioned Arella, something happened. Melting plastic, red and vibrating. Serrated orange metal cleaner. It scared me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Dodge replied. He had no idea what Joshua was talking about. Sounded like nonsense, except the part about being scared.

Of Blair.  

Why was Joshua scared of Blair?