[Part 34] 15:32:03 // 05-JUN-2042 - Continued

They got back to the elevator and Dodge hit ‘down.’

“Up is safer,” Joshua said, reaching over to press the upward facing triangle. Both buttons glowed in the silver panel.

“Blair has to be below us somewhere. We have to get her before we can leave.”

Joshua shrunk back at the mention of her name, eyes losing focus on the world.

“Sorry. Sorry, I won’t mention Blai—her name anymore. Okay? But we’ll need her once we’re out of here.”

Joshua didn’t answer, at least not rationally. He was babbling about serrated orange. Corrugated purple sour milk. Something had definitely kinked in that aretificial brain of his. Maybe his episode in the club had been the start of a cascading hardware failure. Dodge just needed him to hold it together for a few more minutes.

Strange. Usually he was the one falling apart.

The elevator arrived with a ding. Dodge dragged Joshua in and hit the lowest button on the panel.

He braced for the rush of anxiety and met the claustrophobia head on, pushing it back and stomping down to hold it there. The fear relented, unable to latch on with its terror-laced tendrils.

The elevator eased to a halt, and the door opened on a long hallway.

“Give me the taser,” Dodge said, but Joshua was still babbling to himself, so he grabbed the weapon from Joshua’s belt and stepped out.

A guard stood behind a waist-high partition just to the right, protecting a massive vault door. Alerted by the elevator, the guard was expecting someone to walk out—but not Dodge. The guard went for his gun, but Dodge hit him with a burst from the taser. The twin beams flashed incandescent and the guard shuddered and sagged down into his chair. Dodge stepped back into the elevator and pulled Joshua out into the hall.

“Where are we?” Joshua said, looking around, as though he had just woken up.

Dodge stuffed the taser back into Joshua’s waistband and left him observing the side-to-side movement of the security camera. The numbed guard had lifted his arm up to the desk, but not far enough to sound the alarm.

“Sorry about this,” Dodge said, grabbing the guard’s arms and pulling them behind the chair. A strange confidence occupied him. They were going to get out of this.

“Reproved …” the guard whispered.

“I know.” Dodge grabbed the cuffs from the guard’s belt and secured his hands to the chair. “‘I will be reproved in accordance with the judicious.’ You don’t want to know what happened to the last guy who said that to me.”

A strip of monitors on the desk displayed more camera feeds from around the floor. Most of the rooms were dark, which made Blair’s brightly lit cell easy to spot.

His nerves leapt at the sight of her, but his momentary high went sour in an instant.

He’d found her, but she was lying down, looked to be unconscious. Who knows what Mr. Hill had done to her. He’d been counting on her getting them out of here, and now …

He shook his head. He just had to deal with it. One more step. He’d come this far—get to the room, and figure it out from there.

They had her in “Obs A.” He just had to find it.

Dodge pulled the guard’s gun from its holster and unfastened the round passchip from its belted anchor. “I’m just going to borrow these. Stay put.”

He tucked the gun into his pants, noticing it possessed only a mechanical safety and not the electrical power-up required by most civilian weapons. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to use it. But if he did, at least he wouldn’t have to wait for it to warm up.

Joshua hadn’t moved, mesmerized by the sweeping movement of the camera. He wrinkled his nose. “Pine.”

Dodge sniffed the air. He smelt a chemical sharpness, as though there were a swimming pool nearby, and the cheapness of his suit, but no pine.

“Try to stay with me,” Dodge said as he pulled Joshua down the corridor. The first door they came to had “Obs A” stenciled next to it in neat black letters.

Dodge pressed the passchip against the round lock and it buzzed, unlatched with a thunk, and swung open.

Blair lay on a thin mattress in the middle of an otherwise empty cream-colored room, her clothes disheveled, her breathing shallow. He ran to her and kneeled next to the mattress.

“Blair,” Dodge said, nudging her with his fingers. Her metrical rise and fall of her chest didn’t waver. “Wake up.”

“Is she alive?” Joshua asked from the doorway.

“Yes, but they’ve done something to her. Probably drugged her, but with some of the equipment they have here who knows.”

Dodge grabbed her shoulders and shook. He didn’t want to hurt her, but even taking things one step at a time, he didn’t think he could get both her and Joshua out of the campus on his own. His entire body ached, except for the burning embers of pain glowing in his back. Embers that could flare up at any moment.

Blair stirred, moaning, but didn’t wake.

They’d have to carry her. Joshua would have to carry her, Dodge could barely lift his arms.

“I need your help,” Dodge called. Joshua was still standing in the hall.

“Can’t,” Joshua said, shaking, his eyes flexed. “Ochre. Too much ochre.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with that scrambled plastic brain of yours,” Dodge said, his frustration building, “but you have to help me move her. I can’t do it by myself.”

Joshua took one hesitant step forward, as if expecting a shock, but came no further. His face collapsed into disjointed burbling.

Dammit. Dodge took a second to shake three more painkillers into his mouth, and chewed them into bitter paste as he sat Blair up at the waist, crouched, and hoisted her up to his shoulder.

She flopped over his back, hands dangling, and he stumbled, almost fell. His back screeched at the strain, but he managed not to drop her. 

Once he was sure he wasn’t about to keel over, Dodge wrapped his left arm around her thighs and shuffled toward the door. Though only after three steps, and even through the pain, he couldn’t help but notice how warm she was, and the way her thighs felt under his hands.

Dammit, what is wrong with you? You’re barely keeping yourself upright and people are trying to kill you.

He shut out the thoughts running through his head and stumbled past Joshua, who followed a few steps behind. Somehow Dodge made it back to the elevator without collapsing. The guard was alert and straining for the intercom. Dodge shifted his hold on Blair and poked the call button.

“Snap out of it,” Dodge said, noticing Joshua still ten paces behind them, “and freeze the guard before he gets to the alarm.”

“No, not again,” the guard cried, his cerebrate calm shaken by the effects of the neuralizing beam. “It hurts—”

Joshua walked forward, and without looking away from Blair, pointed the taser at the guard, and thumbed the trigger. The guard seized with a shudder and went limp. A bell sounded in the quiet hallway as the elevator arrived.

Blair moaned and her vibrating diaphragm tickled his shoulder.

Dodge readjusted Blair and waved Joshua into the elevator, and she moaned. Hopefully that meant she was coming around. After Joshua skirted by he stepped in, and Joshua pushed the top button without being asked.

The elevator didn’t stop until it reached the ground floor. The metal doors slid apart, revealing two guards, waiting with the fingers of their blue gloves pressed together.

Everyone moved at once. The guards went for their weapons while Dodge lunged to the side, knocking Blair into the elevator wall while trying to protect her from the inevitable stream of bullets. But no shots came, and when Dodge peeked out the guards were on the floor, spasming silently in the aftereffects of Joshua’s taser.

At least he wasn’t completely out of it. Other than spouting nonsense and shying away from Blair, Joshua almost seemed to be settling down.

“Keep that thing handy,” Dodge said with a glance at the taser.

If the guards were returning, the riot must be settling down. Mr. Hill had been right: the Paradise Mind could easily deal with protestors. Without the distracting presence of the angry mob, security would be heading back to their posts. Time was running out.

Joshua gave him a long look, but nodded, then stepped out of the elevator, past the flaccid men, and fired the verdant beam across the garage, striking another unsuspecting guard in the back.

“This way,” Joshua said. “We’re blue.”

Dodge nodded and lurched out into the vehicle bay. Blair seemed to grow heavier with each step. His spine flamed. The guards writhed on the floor. They’d be mobile in a matter of seconds.

“Keys,” Dodge said, muscles sagging.

Joshua dashed to the guard station. A step later Dodge’s knees buckled, and he just managed to lowered Blair to the spotless concrete without dropping her. Her eyes fluttered open.

“You,” she muttered, blinked twice, and then frowned. “Where’s Joshua?”

“Getting us a ride,” Dodge said through gasping breaths. “Can you walk?”

Yes,” Blair snapped. She pulled her legs up and Dodge helped her stand. She tottered but pushed Dodge away when he tried to support her. “I can do it.”

Joshua appeared with a handful of black plastic keys.

“Pick one,” Dodge suggested. 

Joshua pressed the unlock button on one of the keys and the third truck from the end unlocked with a blink of lights. They shambled over to it, Dodge clutching his back, Blair remembering how to walk, and Joshua holding the key out in front of him. When they’d completed the long trek across the garage, Joshua pulled the door open, tossed the duffle bag inside, and smiled, triumphant.

“Think you can drive?” Blair asked Dodge.

He held his hands up, pretended to grip a wheel and mimed steering. He gasped as pain flared up his back.

“I’ll be fine as long as we don’t have to turn,” he replied. “We’ll use the pilot.”

“Not a chance,” Blair said. “We need to kill the pilot. I guess it’s up to me.”

Right. No point in escaping if the Paradise Mind could just call the vehicle back with them in it.

“I can drive,” Joshua offered.

“You can barely walk,” Dodge said to Blair, ignoring Joshua. “I’ll do it.”

Blair protested, but allowed herself to be helped into the back seat. She must have been in a bad way to give up that easy.

“I can drive,” Joshua said again as Dodge shut the rear door.

“Get in the passenger seat,” Dodge told Joshua.

Joshua didn’t move.

“You’re hurt,” Joshua said.

“I’m sure as hell not letting you drive. No offense, pal, but you’re not all there.”

“I’m diamond. And I can move.” Joshua lifted his arms above his head and waved his hands. “Get in the other side, I’ll be right back.”

After a second Dodge realized Joshua was right, he couldn’t drive. Give him another half hour and a few more of those painkillers, and maybe. But not now. He could barely see.

He methodically worked around the car, using his hands to on the cool metal to brace himself. Blair was watching him from the back seat, her jaw set. It looked like she was ready to crawl up and take the wheel.

A motor started with a metallic clank and bright sunlight rectangle spilled in under the opening garage door, washing the colorless concrete with glowing amber.

Bullets smacked against the garage floor, exploding in bursts of fine, gold-tinged powder around the UAV. The guards had regained control of their nervous systems and were shooting. Their aim was terrible, but would improve.

Dodge covered his face with his right arm and fell into the passenger seat. He knew from previous experience these vehicles were bulletproof, he’d be safe inside.

Joshua returned from the checkpoint, and before Dodge could pull his door closed, he jumped into the driver’s seat, pressed the ignition button, and jammed the truck into reverse. The momentum swung the passenger door all the way open and tossed Dodge against the dash.

“What the hell are you doing?” Blair said in what was probably intended to be a yell but was barely audible. “How could you let him drive?”

Joshua hauled the truck into drive as ghostly smears exploded on the windshield, bullets bouncing off the glass. Dodge’s door slammed shut as he fought to get his seatbelt on.

“If it weren’t for carrying your ass for the past ten minutes I would be fine,” Dodge moaned back.

Ignoring the clunking bullets, Joshua roared ahead, scattering the guards, and scraped under the rising gate. They swung out into the narrow alley running around the campus, and once out in the open, Joshua floored it.

The telltale sweetness of chemically overripe fruit trickled in through the vents. The Paradise Mind had used chemical pacifiers to quell and disperse the crowd. That’s why Mr. Hill hadn’t been worried.

“If I had known you would let him drive, I’d have done it myself,” Blair complained from the back seat.

Joshua swerved the truck expertly into a perpendicular alley, one traveling away from the campus. A busy street lay ahead, thick with traffic.

“If I had known you would be so ungrateful, I wouldn’t have bothered saving you,” Dodge answered.

Joshua swerved, squealing out of the alley between pedestrians and into the tight space between a city bus and three-wheeled vehicle. The trike’s driver only had time to shake his fist before Joshua darted out of the bus lane and into heavier traffic.

Blair still wouldn’t let it go. “He can’t drive, he can barely use the toilet by himself. He’s sick.”

Joshua pulled onto a one-way express street heading west and settled comfortably into traffic.

“Seems to me like he’s doing fine,” Dodge spat back. “And don’t give me that mental exhaustion bullshit. We both know exactly what’s wrong with him.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Blair said, her face a mask.

She was a good liar, but Dodge already knew the truth.

“I’m talking about the lump of brain-shaped plastic in Joshua’s head.”

Blair stared at him for a long moment, then flinched.

Ben zonah,” she said and deflated into the seat.

Dodge grimaced in unexpected satisfaction at the sight of her scowling out the window, arms crossed over her chest.

His body was on fire, the Paradise Mind and the Burning Spear were trying to kill him, and Klaxon Overdrive was a replactor—but at least he’d finally won an argument with Arella Blair.