Updated: May 24
“Ahhh, Dodge,” Mr. Hill said, as though he were sitting on a comfortable sofa and leaning forward to set down the cup of tea he had been enjoying during his wait. “Or should I say, Mr. Dodgson. How nice of you to finally join us. Mr. Francis and I were beginning to wonder if you might not return at all. It is so very nice to see you again, especially under these fortuitous circumstances. I’ll admit, during our negotiations, we were unaware we were dealing with a person of such notorious ill-repute.”
So they knew who he was now too. It hadn’t taken long for word to get out.
Dodge could still only move his eyes, and looked up at Mr. Hill. The older man was bald, with inquisitive eyebrows and quiet green eyes. The cerebrate’s hands were now empty, long fingers pressed lightly together, the taser gone. In accordance with doctrine, he was dressed like a Bible-belt politician and the sleeves of his jacket had slid up his forearms, revealing thin, hairless wrists.
Mr. Francis, Mr. Hill’s partner and adept, was shorter and stockier than the older man. His nose was crooked, like it had been on the receiving end of a punch or two, and he carried his head outthrust with his lips pressed together, as if constantly ready to tell the world it was wrong—which likely explained the shape of his nose. Unlike Mr. Hill, he had yet to fully graduate to the cerebrate notion of mind over body. His suit—a slightly more modern six-button square-cut from last season—revealed his lingering attachment to vanity, although it was an attachment with very little actual style. Dodge didn’t particularly care for either of them.
“Your hospitality has been gracious,” Mr. Hill said, “but it is now time to conclude our business.”
Dodge groaned. The effects of a neural taser were short, only long enough to disorient and temporarily incapacitate, but still extremely painful. A remnant of the taser’s electrical charge misfired a neuron, causing his cheeks to spasm, and the cerebrates waited until Dodge was again able to speak.
“I was just … on my way … to see you. I’ve got your … merchandise—” Dodge struggled to raise the collector with muscles that still weren’t fully functioning. “Right here.”
Mr. Francis cracked the book he was carrying and read aloud, judgment dripping from his voice, “Any Manifest in Covenant Agendum shall be rectified through the Judicious. Those guilty of the Manifest shall be Reproved in accordance with the Judicious.”
He cast Dodge a sickened glance, his demeanor betraying barely contained rage, then snapped the book shut and looked up at Mr. Hill.
Mr. Hill addressed the younger man in an approving tone, “A fine discernation, colleague. You are progressing admirably. Soon you will be ready for your Strata Thirteen upgrade.” He turned back to Dodge, and in the gentle voice of a quantum physicist attempting to explain probability theory to a child, said, “You were to fulfill your contract within two hours of the acquisition, and with complete secrecy. Conditions which, I am sure you understand, have been intractably violated. By your transgressions you have voided said contract and thereby our obligations to you.”
Mr. Hill let his last statement hang in the air as he reached into his jacket. With a magician’s flourish he produced a slender plastic cylinder. He pinched the black center tab, pulled and extended it into a thin sheet, then swiped to the proper file. Words formed in smooth black letters on the ivory film. Mr. Hill held the document by its cylindrical base, waving it slightly. Shimmering on the screen was the contract Dodge had signed, tying him and his services to the Paradise Mind.
“You are familiar with this contract, of course, and here is your signature, witnessed by Chief Cerebrate Mallory. I am sure you have your own copy somewhere, squirreled safely away in an offshore data locker.”
He did. Even though what they were doing was technically illegal, it didn’t mean that the contract still wasn’t civilly actionable.
“We cerebrates prefer to trust each other’s words,” Mr. Hill continued, “but when dealing with non-accompli, one must be circumspect, above all else.”
“But, haven’t you seen the news…? It wasn’t my fault.”
“Please, Mr. Dodgson,” Mr. Hill said, waving his hand in dismissal. “We have a contract. A contract which clearly states the consequences of default, regardless of fault.”
Whisking the wand back away into his hidden jacket pocket, Mr. Hill leaned over and helped Dodge to his feet. He gestured at the door. “After you, Mr. Dodgson.”
Dodge rose on quivering legs, bracing himself against the larger man. “I need to swap batteries on the containment unit. If we lose the charge it’ll be useless.”
The taser instantly appeared in Mr. Hill’s hand, pointed casually at Dodge’s chest. “I will allow you to proceed, but slowly. Any movement I perceive as threatening to myself or my adept will result in immediate incapacitation.” He spoke like a hypnotist, smooth and precise. “You have been warned.”
Dodge shuffled his cinderblock feet towards the workbench against the far wall, struggling to come up with something to save his ass. He wasn’t sure what would happen once he was taken to the Paradise Mind campus, but he knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. He probably should have read the contract.
Len had warned him about dealing with the Paradise Mind, told him they couldn’t be trusted. Len knew things about them that had been suppressed for so long they had become urban legends bordering on the absurd. Rumors about blackmail and shock treatments and underground EMP proof bunkers and cryonic preservation and titanium etched storehouses of writings and prehistoric alien DNA.
In the years since their inception, they had shed the shackles of rumor to become a popular lifestyle choice. They promised that anyone could harmonize their mind and body to unlock the true potential of their under-used brains—all it took was a lengthy series of active magnetic resonance pulses to the cerebellum and years of dedicated study. Dodge didn’t know what happened to a cerebrate during conditioning, but they always seemed to be confident and self-possessed—happy even. The Paradise Mind had international political clout and boasted many A-list actors, musicians, and athletes as their adherents. They must have been doing something right.
Dodge hadn’t cared for a second about their beliefs or their politics—they had offered him a job that paid better than all his previous scores combined. They had even offered to assemble the molecular robots he needed for his plan to work. Nano-scale replicators weren’t easy to come by, you couldn’t just walk into Kinko’s and ask the clerk to whip up a couple million cell-sized machines. It took an expensive piece of equipment like the nanofab in the university’s Technogenetics Department. And since he was no longer welcome anywhere near the university, he had to go elsewhere. It was an offer that left little need for consideration.
As usual, he should’ve listened to Len.
He still had the gun tucked into his pants; the barrel rubbed his hip every time he lifted his leg. Maybe, somehow, he could get at it and shoot his way free. Dodge glanced over his shoulder. Mr. Hill was watching him far too closely. He knew he’d be tasting the floor before his quivering hands could fumble the gun out and use it. If he were going to try, he’d at least have to wait until he regained the ability to make a fist.
Dodge eased the collector strap over his head, used his thick fingers to click out the battery, and fumbled the rectangular plastic replacement into the matte-black casing. If he didn’t run down the power by trying to capture any more samples, Klaxon Overdrive’s g-code would be safe for about twenty years, when the replacement fuel cell finally failed. Probably just about the same time he’d be getting out of whatever dungeon he was headed to.
Dodge replaced the collector around his neck as he glanced at the silver box of tryptoxetine. His current pill box—containing more than two hundred little pink octagons of peace—rested on the kitchen counter. Four steps away. Less if they were big ones.
"I need my medication,” he said as he moved to grab his pills, but Mr. Hill waggled a finger.
“Your need for pharmaceutical crutches has reached a conclusion,” Mr. Hill said. “The Paradise Mind will allow you to progress past all dependencies, be they chemical, emotional, or physical. You shall find you are much more content after your indoctrination into our ways, as millions of others before you.”
“No,” Dodge moaned, fresh panic pushing him to the verge of tears. “You don’t understand.” His insistence to feel the chemical-sweet texture of a tryptoxetine tablet on his tongue burned with pinpricks of pain in the backs of his eyeballs. “I need it.”
“You will learn, in time, to overcome your need,” Mr. Hill said with finality. “Come, we have a full day ahead of us. I would prefer your willing participation, but we are prepared to remove you through more unappealing means, if required.”
“I—” Dodge started to protest, his mouth was actually watering, but there was no arguing with a cerebrate. They didn’t change their minds. They couldn’t. If he took a step towards the pills, Mr. Hill would taser him and they’d drag him, and then he’d never get a chance to use the gun. He ground the heels of his palms into his eyes until he saw stars, then relented and trudged over to Mr. Hill.
“How did you manage to get in here, anyway?” Dodge asked as he reached Hill’s side. “My security is supposed to be unbreakable.”
Mr. Hill smiled. “With the emmoa and the logosa acting in concert, a cerebrate’s harmonized mind can overcome all obstacles, even those electro-mechanical.”
He’d have to make sure Len knew his locks weren’t cerebrate proof.
“After you, Mr. Dodgson,” Mr. Hill said. “I shall extinguish the lights behind us.”
Dodge trudged out his front door, Misters Mr. Hill and Francis following closely, like prison guards escorting an informant about to testify against a mob boss.
How the hell was he going to get out of this one?