Dylan

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"I knew Jesse would call you," Dylan Linwood said. "Come with me."

"Hey—" Clair struggled but was unable to pull away. "What do you think you're—?"

"In here." He dragged her through the main entrance of the chancellor's office. It was furnished in mid-twentieth century style, with wood panelling, leather armchairs and a low desk for the chancellor's personal assistant. The top of the desk was empty, pure ornamental ostentation for the young man behind it. He looked up with a smile, the lenses over his eyes flickering with dense layers of images: social media and schedules, mainly.

"How may I assist you?"

"I want to see the chancellor, now," Dylan demanded. "It's about the welfare of the students of this institution. You could say it's a matter of life and death."

"Ignore him," said Clair, finally wrenching herself from Dylan Linwood's grasp. "Please."

It was too late. The chancellor herself, a tall, smartly-dressed woman with tightly-wound auburn hair, had emerged from the office behind them.

"Mr Linwood, a delight, as always. Do come through."

She turned and walked back into the office. Dylan Linwood indicated that Clair should precede him.

I wondered why she did. Maybe she played along in order to protect Libby, or maybe in the desperate hope that he might have something new to offer.

The chancellor took the seat furthest from the door, a magisterial perch with a coffee table beside it. The room was supposedly secure, but not for me. I was seeing everything through Clair's lenses and hearing through her ear rings, barely-visible devices in her auditory aural canal that functioned as speakers as well as microphones, picking up her voice via conduction through the jaw. It was like being her, in a way, minus only her thoughts.

"A matter of life and death, you say, Mr Linwood? Do explain."

"He's over-reacting," Clair said, perched awkwardly next to Dylan on two less imposing chairs.

"To what, Clair?" Chancellor Gordon had uploaded Clair's name and entire academic history the very second she walked into the office.

"I stupidly went to him for advice."

"She came to me about Improvement," interrupted Dylan. "It's here, on your campus, and you need to stamp it out before it claims another victim."

I was beginning to understand. Clair must have spoken to Jesse's father the previous night, in the blacked-out security of their home. What had she told him? What had he told her in return?

"Really, Mr Linwood." Chancellor Gordon arched an eyebrow. "I believe you are overstating the case."

"You are aware of the phenomenon, then?"

"I have heard rumours."

"Have you taken any provisions against it?"

"Not specifically."

"So you admit that you allow your students to fend for themselves as an insidious threat spreads among them."

"Please, Mr Linwood. We're not talking about viruses or some new kind of drug—"

"No, we are talking about something much more seductive and sinister. What teenager doesn't want to be smarter, stronger, prettier? I'm not leaving until I am certain that this institution is capable of providing my son and his friends the protection they deserve."

"Mr Linwood," Chancellor Gordon said carefully, "I completely agree with you that Manteca New Campus is obliged to protect each and every one of its students to the fullest extent possible. But we cannot protect every student from every threat, particularly threats that are, some might say, of an imaginary nature."

"If there were evidence of harm, would you act?"

"Of course we would."

From under his jacket, Dylan pulled a slim document folder. "I have obtained the pathology reports into the deaths of nine young women. Brain scans show evidence of damage to the prefrontal cortex, temporal lobes and hippocampus. The damage was consistent and unrelated to the cause of death—which was suicide, by different means in each case."

"I fail to see how this is related—"

"According to family testimonies, Chancellor, all of these young women used Improvement." Dylan proffered the folder to her. "Go on, take a look. Then we can discuss what measures you will introduce to protect Clair and her friends from the malevolent forces preying upon them."

The chancellor took the folder, opened it, and flipped through the old-fashioned pages with a tightening frown.

I was able to see the images and text on the pages. They seemed authentic, although I couldn't imagine how he had obtained them. What concerned me more were the flags multiplying in the Air around this very conversation. Hundreds of people were sending Clair messages about her and Dylan Linwood.

"Hey, Clair," sent a friend, "is that really you in there with Gordon and Linwood?"

"Now we know why you've keen skipping out of college," said another.

"Get closer to the folder, will you? We want to see the pictures!"

Clair dismissed all the messages unanswered. She must have known what I had only just realized, that Dylan wasn't there solely to harangue the chancellor into taking action against Improvement. He was there to harness the college's social media and create a bigger impact than he could on his own. It didn't matter whether people saw what was in the folder or not; it didn't matter if Clair did anything or not. The chancellor was sitting down with a well-known anti-d-mat campaigner and one of her students to discuss a possible danger caused by d-mat. That alone was enough to create a minor buzz.

He must have had a camera on him, but I couldn't detect the signal. I tried to jam it, angry at him for using Clair. All references to Improvement were forbidden, but it was taking an unusual amount of time for the Improvement Complex to kick in. Maybe WHOLE was resisting it. All I could do was watch in outrage as the footage spread, and spread, and spread.

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