The staff canteen was fairly empty when Ash arrived for lunch. It was a good and bad thing, since there were moments when she much preferred solitude, but today was her birthday. Busy patrons and bustling lunch crowds would’ve been nice. They could tell her how pretty her heart looked.
So far the only other occupant was Belinda, canteen lady. Ash liked her; she was kind of like the Team Mum, widely liked by everyone at CRUD when she wasn’t usually imposing health diets, primarily fulfilling the role of resident oracle. There wasn’t much she didn’t know – except how to divide by zero. That was something only Ash knew.
Belinda walked over to Ash’s table, covered in flour and looking like she’d just baked a particularly carnivorous batch of cookies. “You alright hun? Where’s the birthday crowd?”
Ash shrugged, toying with the plush heart. “Other places. Probably not hungry yet.”
“Well Jacob ordered you a three-tiered Toblerone cheesecake as a birthday treat,” Belinda told her. “They’re not going to leave you hanging on your birthday. If nothing else, that cake wasn’t cheap.”
Ash held the heart out to her. “Dac bought it for me. It was just what I wanted.”
Belinda smiled warmly, though Ash couldn’t shake the feeling her smile was like that meant for a child. “See? They’ll be celebrating your birthday, darl. Don’t worry.” She turned back towards the kitchen, clenching her fists for what Ash assumed was Round 2 with the cookies.
Ash looked at the heart again, feeling the synthetic pumping inside her fist. It’d fit in the last of two empty spots in the Doll, meaning the project was nearly complete. It made her happy, because soon the Doll would be ready for deployment.
Suddenly Mary burst into the canteen – still covered, Ash noted idly, in Brendan’s blood. “Quick! Upstairs!”
Without thinking Ash leapt from her table and sprinted with Mary out of the canteen. She stuffed the heart into her pocket and replaced her free hand with her slit-knife; Mary hadn’t explained what was going on, but chances are it was something bad. Like a terrorist infiltrating the building. Or Damian needing his toast popped again.
Or maybe it was 917…
Ash shoved the thought away, but she knew instinctively she was right. Her belief was confirmed when the Green Alert was displayed on every screen on the main floor; analysts sat huffily with their arms folded as black-clad specialists ran around with stun prods. She slid the slit-knife away – it was the last thing she’d need now.
“Ash, my darling,” Damian called as he strode towards her looking stressed and British. “I’m afraid we’ve got something of a situation.”
“It’s 917?” Ash asked, already knowing the answer.
Damian’s face turned grave. “We wouldn’t be sounding the Green Alert if it wasn’t.”
She took a deep breath. “What did he do?”
“Slipped free of his handlers when he went to the bathroom,” Mary told her. “He’s somewhere in the bowels of the building.”
“Does that mean we should be looking for a log instead?” Brendan called from across the room. “Because, y’know, he’s, like, in bowels…”
Without even looking Mary raised her arm – which Ash noticed was holding a pistol – and shot Brendan in the head. Ash saw his body fall out of the corner of her eye, and made a bet with herself that he’d get up in five minutes once the bullet had been pushed backwards out of his brain.
“Get me a prod,” Ash said to Damian, steeling herself for what was to come. “I’ll bring him in.”
“Alive, dear lady,” Damian said knowingly. “We need him alive.”
“I’ll go with you,” Mary said, loading a fresh clip into the pistol. “I won’t use it unless I have to,” she added to Damian as he looked apprehensively at the firearm.
“I know 917 is a pain in the ass, but until we figure out his part in Doctor Dream’s plan we need to keep him breathing,” Damian explained, looking more harrowed by the second. “I need to go and start locking down lower corridors; the exits are already sealed.”
“Look at it this way,” Mary said, handing Ash a stun prod. “This is his way of giving you a birthday present.”
The lower levels of the CRUD building were dark, like Ash’s bedroom. She felt most at home in low-light, being blessed with good eyesight. Some even joked that she’d been born specifically for places with no lighting, meaning she often drew the short straw when they needed someone to enter a sewer or a duct.
Fortunately these lower levels were a bit more open, making it easier for them to track 917 to the corner he’d put himself in. He was dressed in his regular beige outfit, holding his odd-shaped head in his hands. He was muttering quietly, and made no attempt to move as Ash and Mary approached with prods raised.
“Graham?” Ash called.
The man made no kind of recognition that she’d spoken his name, and continued muttering. Ash grit her teeth, trying to get through again. “Graham, it’s Ash. It’s my birthday.”
He suddenly whipped his head up, staring right at her with his luminescent, haunting green eyes. Mary raised her prod higher, looking nervous. Abandoning thought, Ash dropped her prod and approached him properly. She held her hands out. “It’s alright. I’m not gonna zap you.”
Graham – Subject 917 – shook his head furiously. “No, no, the monkey’s not in the stable yet.”
“I know, Graham…”
“So we can’t eat the cathedral, it’s not baked properly yet. Not baked.” He ran his fingers several times through his ragged brown hair. “How will mother bake the sepulchre if all we do is talk about soy milk? It’s like a bear with no rattle! It’s splendid, Ash!”
Ash nodded slowly, taking small steps towards him and reaching her hands out to grab his shoulders gently. “I know it is. It’s a splendid birthday present.”
“CANADA!” he suddenly screamed, grabbing her shoulders back. “You’re going to the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, the mollified question!”
“I am,” Ash affirmed, not bothering to wonder how he knew. His cell was far away from the conference room and any recording stations, but he somehow had intuitive knowledge of things during rare moments of lucidity. Maybe it was some kind of side effect from the drug Doctor Dream had dosed him up on.
“You mustn’t eat the poodle, Ashley,” Graham said insistently, gripping her shoulders harder with each squeeze. “Don’t eat the poodle. The malt man owns it.”
Mary lowered her prod from Graham’s midsection as he fell sideways, unconscious. He let go of Ash’s shoulders and lay in a slump. Ash gave her an admonishing stare. “He might’ve told us more if you didn’t electrocute him.”
“Hmph.” Mary shook her head, twirling the prod for a moment and sliding it into her belt. “What can I say –”
“I’m a live wire!”
Both ladies turned to see Dac standing behind them, holding his one-liner book in front of him and looking flushed. He’d obviously run from the main level. Mary glared at him.
“What can I say?” Dac said with a roguish wink. “I know when I’m needed.”
“We face a crisis, my dear old things,” Damian said when they’d all assembled at the conference table. “It seems Subject 917 is breaking free a bit more these days. It’s becoming harder and harder to look after him.”
Ash stared into space, thinking about the non sequiturs Graham had been spouting. Usually he spouted words and phrases that had nothing to do with anything – courtesy of the Harness drug – but occasionally something meaningful broke through. Specifically, this time, the “mollified question”. For some reason that was sticking with her.
She shifted in her chair, and the synthetic heart started beating again. She made a mental note to put it in her car after the meeting.
“Why can’t we just kill him?” Jacob asked, voicing the question everyone had on their minds. “He hasn’t given us anything good since we captured him from the Doctor’s lab in North Ryde.”
“No,” Lonie replied, looking firm and serious. “He’s a prisoner, yes, but he’s committed no crimes against any of us. If he’s so dangerous, why didn’t he try to escape from the building?”
“Because he’s an idiot,” Jacob shot back. “He doesn’t know better.”
“Exactly. He doesn’t know better.” Lonie flipped open one of her leather-bound law tomes, scanning a page for a particular passage. “Section III, Paragraph 4G, of the CRUD Prisoner Accord states that –”
“Enough with the law passages, please!” Jacob yelled tiredly for about the fiftieth time that week. “Alright, we can’t kill him, fair enough! Get your head out of the law books!”
Lonie looked hurt, shooting Jacob a perfunctory glare before looking back at her book. Ash was fairly sure she could hear Lonie say “Philistine” under her breath.
“This problem will surely not be resolved through brute force or murder, chaps,” Damian stated after a few moments of silence, “but through problem-solving. Perhaps a reinforcement of the cell downstairs, maybe some adamantium layers…” He trailed off, lost in thought.
“Bros, why are we still keeping him here?” Brendan asked. “He’s, like, not giving us much in the way of info. We should just send him to a home.”
“Yeah, and while we’re at it let’s get rid of Coconut, yeah?” Glen added unhelpfully. “We need a horse as much as we need a psycho drug victim here.”
Mary looked like she was about to pull out the same gun she’d used to kill Brendan and turn it on Glen, but she was stopped by Brandon piping up. “We’re getting a call from our recon operative in Toronto. He says he’s found something.”
Damian punched up a few commands on the table and brought up the projector screen. It displayed a regular Canadian house full of antlers and hockey pucks, with Australian agent Nick Driver grinning at them all. “Right-o, lads. How’s it going?”
Dac shifted uncomfortably in his chair; it was common knowledge that he and Nick were in direct competition as Most Ace Australian Agent. Nick was almost as roguish and charming as he was, and more than once Ash had found herself becoming lost in his eyes.
“What have you got for us, Mr Driver?” Damian asked, getting straight to business.
“It seems the Doc is accelerating his plans somewhat,” Nick reported. “He’s already begun painting his logo over the Fair Trade coffee company’s main building. By tomorrow he’ll be plastered all over town. If you guys are coming, it better be soon.”
“Understood, Mr Driver. Will we see you at the party?”
Nick flashed a winning smile, and Dac shifted again. “Of course, mate. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
The projector shut down as Damian turned around to face his agents. “Alright ladies and gentlemen, let’s grab a quick birthday lunch and be on our way. If you need to see Beryl, do it now.”
Ash stood before the rest of them. “You guys go to the canteen, I’ll catch up.”
She jogged out towards the parking garage while Jacob started complaining about Beryl again. She got to her car, a nondescript blue hatchback, and cracked open the boot.
The vivisected Doll lay inside, the fabric cut from collarbone to waist and filled with soft, synthetic organs. The head was also split in two like a coconut, bare within without a brain.
Ash smiled, pulling out the still-pumping heart and placing it in the empty cavity in the Doll’s chest. Almost immediately it began to latch onto the other organs inside, connecting them with red tendrils made of plush material.
The entire body started to move.
“Dream’s Caffeam?” the Intern asked incredulously. “Really?”
“Really,” Dream replied plainly. “It’s a pun on ‘caffeine’, and it has my name in it. What more could you ask for?”
The Intern paused for a moment over Skype. “Um, well, it’s kinda lame.”
Dream resisted the urge to send a virus over the phone line. “In what way is it ‘lame’?”
“Well, Caffeam isn’t a real word. Why didn’t you just go with ‘Dream Caffeine’? It still sounds rhymey a little.”
“You know, I’m not convinced you’re the best Mole anymore,” Dream shot back harshly. “You sound more like an unsubjugated freckle.”
“Yeah, mate,” Nick Driver said from behind him, his voice loud enough to carry into the Skype speaker. “If you’re a Mole, I’d be the chemo that wipes you out.”
“You’re a useful source of information,” Dream said before the Intern could reply, “but your usefulness extends only so far. Mr Driver is expediting the CRUD team here quickly, but unless you come through on your end it will come to nought.” He lowered his voice dangerously. “And I won’t be afraid to set my chemotherapy friend against you.”
The Intern didn’t sound happy, but Dream didn’t expect he would. “I’ll make sure they’re in position when you need them. Then you’ll see me in all my brown, cancerous glory.” He ended the call.
Dream and Nick sat in silence for a moment, then Nick whistled. “That guy really likes his moles, doesn’t he?”