Episode 9

The area was not entirely unfamiliar.

            For some odd, unshakable reason, Jacob was certain he’d been here before. The row of lights hanging on long, haphazard power lines from the ceiling was eerily reminiscent of something – he just couldn’t place what.
            The two crimson-clad people standing in front of him, though, weren’t entirely familiar. Nor did they look friendly.
            Shortly after Ash had fallen unconscious they’d been taken by more masked men and brought to this black, shadowed room and duct taped into creaky wooden chairs. Jacob was already formulating a plan to break one of the chairs apart and use it as a weapon when the rest of their compatriots were brought in.
            So now Jacob, Brandon, Dac, Trent, Nick, Mary, Glen, an unconscious Ash and a still-cadaverous Brendan were all held fast in rickety pieces of shit that could barely be called chairs with a blonde, scruffy-haired guy and a tall, muscular-armed woman in front of them with hands behind their backs.
            All just part of the job.
            “So, should we start with introductions?” The woman asked. She then casually took the crowbar she held behind her back and swung it right into Jacob’s bullet wound.
            He grit his teeth and cried out, his fists clenching behind the back of the chair as the pain freshly reared its ugly head. He heard Mary protest but was too blinded by the pain to register her words. All he felt was hot, searing agony.
            The woman looked at the crowbar contemplatively, then gestured to her male companion. “You can call him Chris. My name, as far as you know, is Beth.”
            The names sounded familiar, even if their faces weren’t. “Should I know you?” Jacob grunted through the pain, breathing heavily.
            “I suppose,” Chris said, “if you’re heavily into the espionage game, you’ve probably heard of us. Mind you, considering who you work for, that’s a game you all may not be playing.”
            “You’re the Mancheerians.”
            They all turned to look at Dac, speaking in a slightly slurred voice as he recovered from the knockout gas they’d spritzed him with. “Chris ‘Tucker’ Egant, and Beth “The Bruiser” Atkinson. Colloquially known as the Mancheerians, after a mind control technique you developed for the Soviets.”
            Beth swiftly moved towards Dac and swung the crowbar fully into his face. The hotshot agent’s head snapped sideways, blood splashing sideways onto the still-unconscious Ash next to him as he yelped in pain.
            “Good job, Dick,” Beth retorted, slowly wiping the crowbar’s bloodied end on Dac’s chest. “Yeah, Dream bought us out for a not-inconsiderable retainer fee. So now our Mancheerian candidates are his Mancheerian candidates.”
            “He pays well, you know,” Tucker added. “You’d do well to consider his offer.”
            “His offer?” Brandon sounded sceptical, and just as woozy as Dac. “What, some kind of ransom for my –”
            He was cut off as Tucker brought out what he’d been holding behind his back – Brandon’s girlfriend’s head. The female android’s cranium looked like it had been ripped right of the torso, with ripped cords and electronics hanging limply beneath her closed eyes.
            The others gasped in shock, and Brandon snapped out of his drowsy state, looking horrified. “No! What did…what did you do?!”
            Tucker smirked, tossing the head to the ground. Jacob felt sad for a moment; he’d known Brandon quite a while since joining the team, and yet he’d never bothered to learn his missus’ name. What a bad friend he was sometimes. “Well, the boss didn’t think we could get anything major out of her, so we got rid of her. Seems harsh, I know, but as we said – he pays well.”
            For a moment, Jacob was struck by the effectiveness of Brandon’s cybernetics; he was really mimicking emotions like pain and anguish, etched into his uncanny valley features like a humanist mural. The techs at CRUD had really outdone themselves this time.
            Beth frowned. “This is boring. Time to make it less boring!”
            She swung the crowbar a third time with all her might right at Brandon, and in an ugly, messy hit she tore his head clean off his shoulders. The android’s synthetic skull bounced briefly on the ground and rolled to a stop right next to his lady’s.
            The entire room was silent, with all the conscious team members staring in shock as the remains of Brandon’s body sparked and fizzled. Clearly, Jacob though idly, this is someone who does not fuck around.
            He wondered for a moment why he wasn’t as shocked or horrified as the others right now. Besides the pain in his leg, all he felt was…apathy. Pure, simple apathy.
            Dac, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. “You crazy bi-”
            Crack. Dac was silenced by another swing of the crowbar, this time hitting him below the ribs. The James Bond doppelganger groaned loudly as he started bleeding from his abdomen, his chair moving as he shook with pain and closed his eyes tightly.
            Still, only apathy. Odd.
            “Now here’s the deal, compadres,” Beth continued, uninterrupted. “Doctor Dream wants y’all to work for him. He’s got a mighty good pain scheme worked out, and a kickass dental plan.”
            “Um,” Glen suddenly piped up, a little apprehensively. “I’ve got a question about that.”
            Beth approached him slowly, putting on a sweet voice as she held the crowbar as one would hold a beloved teddy bear. “Yes?”
            “Well, a dental plan’s all well and good…but does Lisa need braces?”
            Tucker laughed heartily, a laugh that only grew louder as Beth – who’d no doubt been expecting this reaction – swung the crowbar right into Glen’s nose. The bone broke with a loud, sickening crack – or, rather, it would’ve been sickening if Jacob had felt anything beyond apathy and leg pain at that moment.
            “As I was saying,” Beth pressed on, enunciating every relevant syllable, “he wants to employ you all for the Master Plan. If you refuse, however, we have orders for Activation.”
            She put more weight in the start of that last word than would’ve been necessary, implying it was something not normal. “What do you mean by ‘Activation’?” Nick asked, his face still in something of a permanently anguished look due to his missing hand.
            Beth raised an eyebrow. “You’re telling me you haven’t read everything about us?” She tutted. “Well, there goes me thinking we were all on the level.”
            She glanced over at Tucker, who nodded silently, then returned to stare at the team. “Y’see, one of you lot is a Mancheerian called the Intern. You have been for a good year or so now.”
            It was only then that Jacob began to feel something. Oh shit.
            “You’re saying one of us is a traitor?” Mary asked incredulously? “No way. We go through polygraphs every two months, we’d’ve caught them by–”
            The crowbar met Mary’s right foot. She screamed, and Beth waited a moment before continuing. “Mancheerian programming can’t be picked up by any kind of lie detector test. It creates another personality – a backup that we can activate whenever we want.” She glanced at the surviving eight team members. “As the Intern, one of you has been funnelling important information to Doctor Dream for the last twelve months. You’ve been incredibly helpful.”
            The room was silent apart from their breathing until Tucker stepped over. “So, any idea which one?”
            Beth nodded. “Yeah, I know which one.” Jacob noticed she wasn’t glancing at any one of them in particular. Now the apathy was returning, though, he didn’t really care.
            “So now you know what it is,” she went on, “you should know that we’ll Activate the Intern if you don’t cooperate. And lemme tell ya, the Intern’s pretty darn creative when it comes to methods of coercion.” She tapped her nose and winked knowingly.
            Jacob could see Ash shuddering slightly, seeming to come back to full consciousness. “Did you kill Brendan?” she asked quietly.
            Beth’s face contorted into an ugly sneer as she approached Ash. “What?”
            “Brendan.” Ash nodded in the corpse’s direction. “He should be regenerating, and he’s not. Did you kill him?”
            Beth held her gaze for a moment, and then the sneer dissolved into the most unsettling smile Jacob had ever seen. “Well, that depends really.”
            “On what?”
            The smile grew more sinister. “On what you mean by ‘kill’.” She turned to Brendan’s cadaver and said, “Orior.”
            There was a loud, long gasp as Brendan’s corpse suddenly reanimated. He drew in a massive lungful of air and struggled against his restraints, shaking violently. His eye reassembled itself within its socket, and in a few seconds he’d regenerated completely.
            “What…” It wasn’t Brendan’s normal voice. It was markedly different. “What happened? Did I just die?”
            Jacob thought for a moment before realising what was wrong – he sounded Australian.
            No-one spoke. Beth took the opportunity to take over. “Y’see, Mr Brolland here has been an unconscious friend of our since he first found Sloss as his God. He was never really a Slossblessed. We just gave him a Mancheerian personality – not the Intern, that would’ve been too easy – and realigned his genetic code so that he could regenerate whenever someone killed him. We’ve become quite good with genetic code.” She looked over at Dac and Trent. “Remember the gas that came out of the guard’s noggin? Yeah, that was us.”
            Jacob, though still feeling apathetic about everything, felt like a colossal bomb had been dropped on the group. Brendan looked utterly confused and frightened, still speaking quietly in that alien voice as the others looked on in horror. Beth and Tucker smirked evilly to each other.
            Trent replied first. “So am I one of your Mancheerians too?”
            She suddenly looked inquisitive as she approached him. “No…you’re different. You really do draw your power from Sloss, and we can’t figure out why.” She held the crowbar up prominently. “Guess we’ll have fun finding out!”
Belinda didn’t ask where Michael had procured an aircraft capable of holding up to twelve occupants, she just accepted it as fact and appreciated his help. His former military connections were certainly coming in handy.
            They’d made good time to Toronto, and by now it was getting close to nighttime. The rain was pelting as heavily as machine gun fire as they started to approach the supermarket.
            “So how do you want to do this?” Michael asked, looking for a landing field. Belinda knew he’d have a bit more trouble landing than the chopper would’ve done. “Are we going in guns blazing or are they coming to us?”
            She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Trent didn’t say they were in much trouble, just that there was a traitor in the group and a Slossblessed we hadn’t found yet. I’m not taking any chances with them. Something tells me the mission’s gone wrong, and this is dangerous territory.”
            “Well it’s going to be difficult getting us out of here in a hurry if they’re under fire,” he mentioned. “I can’t exactly go straight up and down, y’know?”
            Belinda thought for a moment, and was suddenly struck by an insane, roundabout idea. “Have you ever seen The Dark Knight?”

Dream’s headaches had only just begun, it seemed.
            The neural probe hadn’t worked, and the Patient was still incessantly speaking inside his head. As a precaution he’d removed all comm equipment and important furniture – except for his wardrobe – from his office until she could be excised; he couldn’t take the chance she’d dominate him and contact the team, or anyone inside the underground network. The generator was too important to allow anything to happen to it.
            Periodically, his minions knocked on the door and informed him of the continuing situation. Right know they’d all been captured, the android had been destroyed, and the New Zealander’s Mancheerian programming had been broken. It was the kind of melodramatic, soap opera scenario Dream really wished he could be watching right now.
            Instead, he was trapped in his head with this crazy bitch.
            I heard that.
            “Heard what?”
            I am not a crazy bitch.
            “So, what?” He laughed a mixture of derision and fatigue. “You’d call yourself well-balanced?”
            I would be, if I still had a body. As I recall I was in near-perfect physical shape when you consumed me.
            “Ok, stop using words like ‘consume’, and ‘eat’, and all that. It’s not like I cannibalised you or something.”
            That probably would’ve been kinder, considering I’m inhabiting this festering piece of crap you call a brain.
            He growled, gritting his teeth and clenching his hands to fists. “God, save me from this hell.”
            A minion knocked on the door. Dream snapped at him. “What?!”
            The door opened slowly, and the young minion man stepped in cautiously. “Report from the field, sir. There’s an unregistered aircraft near the Toronto facility.”
            “Is it CRUD?”
            He shook his head. “We don’t know what it is. It’s approaching the supermarket fast.”
            Does anyone else know what’s there? What the generator’s for?
            Dream ignored the question, focusing as best he could on the minion. He silently applauded all of his minions for not questioning why he was going stir crazy in his office. “Alert Tucker and Beth. They could be in trouble. Don’t mobilise any of our air units; we can’t show our hand yet.”
            The minion nodded and retreated without a word. Dream slumped back in his chair, really feeling his age right then. This was still only the beginning of the Master Plan, and already he felt like it wasn’t going to be worth it.
            Well if it’s not worth it, don’t go through with it.
            “Would you shut up, please? I’d really forgotten how crazy you could be –”
            He stopped himself; he’d been on the verge of using her old name, her realname. That wasn’t a good sign. It meant she was getting to him more than he realised.
            There’s still time to stop this, you know.
            He shook his head. “No, there really isn’t. Not now.”
            Do you even know why you’re doing this?
            “Because it’s what must be done!” He stood from his chair and flung it one-handed at the wall, breaking the wooden furniture into pieces next to the wardrobe. “This is what will unite the world!”
            Really? A supermarket generator?
            “I wouldn’t expect a ghost like yourself to understand.”
            If I’m just a ghost, could I do this?
            It was then that Dream noticed his free hand – the one that hadn’t thrown the chair – was gripping something. A gleaming silver revolver. The hammer was cocked.
            “Where the hell did that come from?”
            You know where it came from.
            He swallowed. “Now, there’s no reason to be hasty here. If you kill me, you’ll kill yourself –”
            How effectual a villain are you, really? The Patient snorted. You’re being partly possessed by a former lab experiment, the only enemy agent you’ve killed is an android – who I know for a fact has a backup personality file and spare body back at CRUD HQ – and the only people who you can easily employ are either subservient minions or psychotic brainwashers. Seriously, when did you become teenage Anakin Skywalker?
            “Oh please. I grew out of that mindset years ago.”
            The voice had come from the wardrobe, the only thing left in the room besides the destroyed chair. The doors slowly opened, and another Doctor Dream walked out. It was a slightly younger, more muscular, naked version of the body he currently inhabited.
            The current Dream smirked. It had worked beautifully.
            The Patient sounded flabbergasted. How…what the hell is going on?
            “Oh, sorry, I feel I should explain.” The duplicate walked over and laid his hand on the current incarnation, and Dream felt the familiar pull of a body transfer. The whirlpool-down-the-plughole sensation dragged Dream from his old body and into the new one, leaving the original as a semi-empty vessel with the Patient trapped inside.
            There was a brief blur as he changed eyes, and when he blinked a few times he now saw himself standing above his old body that now cowered on the ground, weak and debilitated.
            His old lips were struggling to make words as if for the first time. “I…didn’t…”
            “You didn’t know?” He grinned maliciously. “My dear, I’ve known you were in there since the experiment. You don’t become a Doctor without being adept at your trade, do you?”
            “Neuropsychology, indubitably!” He gave a bow with a pronounced flourish. “All it took was the beginning of a clone growth and taking a small piece of myself to implant in the neophyte brain – just a few simple commands like how to talk perfunctorily, how to walk, the basics. So that I don’t need to start from scratch.” He leaned down to gaze into his old eyes closely. “Didn’t you realise? This was all part of the experiment. It hasn’t ended yet. Those Mancheerians helped a lot too – it’s much easier to forget you know something if there’s a thin shroud over your memories. That’s what stopped you from seeing it my mind – because I didn’t really know it was there.”
            He straightened up, calling for his minions. “Someone get me a restraint chair, a neural probe and some fresh clothes! The Doctor will see his Patient now!”
            Dear God, I’m starting to sound like Dac.

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