Brendan snapped back into consciousness, alert and alarmed. His last memory had been being shot in the head. Now he was lying in a burning building.
A woman was standing above him, grimacing in pain with hands coated in blood. He hadn’t seen a person look so angry before.
“You’re coming with us, Brendan,” she said simply, her voice flecked with pain. “We’ve got a long journey ahead of us.” She looked up and out of his field of vision. “Tucker! Come help me with his arms!”
He was glad none of his bros were around to hear him scream. That would’ve been embarrassing.
“You left him there?”
Standing at his office desk Damian could not have sounded more incredulous if Glen had told him they’d met Godzilla along the way. “Yes, we did. He was a threat to the mission.”
“What, because he turned out to be Australian, you barmy nutter?” The boss-man mimed picking up a phone. “Beryl, could you make a call to security and tell them Australians are now considered a security risk? Thank you.”
Ash murmured behind Glen. “I thought Beryl was the hairdresser.”
“If you’re not careful, she’ll be your replacement! Or yours!” He pointed in turn to Ash and Glen respectively. “Good God, people, I thought I’d trained and cultivated a group of sterling, upstanding operatives that got the bloody job done. Not only did you fail to identify the location and function of the underground generator, but you left a team member behind.”
“We don’t know that for certain!” Glen said adamantly. “If the Mancheerians got to him, who knows how long he supplied Dream with info? Might’ve given him as much as this Intern did!”
Damian threw up his hands in frustration. “Ah, yes, that bloody Intern…the one who put two of my best in the hospital, possibly permanently. Are we any closer to an identification on that front, at least?”
Glen paused before shaking his head – gently, since his nose was still healing underneath the bandages – and felt ashamed for doing so. Damian nodded sardonically. “I thought so. Jesus Christ…”
“Is…” Ash halted for a moment, then continued, “Are they going to be alright?”
A lot of Damian’s fire went out for a moment and he regarded her sombrely. “It’s touch and go right now. Dac’s wound was an in-and-out, so while he’s critical he’s a bit more stable. Mary, though…” He trailed off, looking through the windows of his office and into the workplace beyond. “The bullet lodged in her pulmonary artery. The doctors say it may be impossible to get out without killing her. She lost a lot of blood on the way over.”
Glen murkily remembered Jacob screaming in terror as he held Mary’s lifeless body, trying desperately to stop the bleeding. He hadn’t heard a person make that kind of noise, hadn’t thought it was really possible. What compounded it was that it was his gun that had done it, the one he’d taken from the Mancheerians.
What if I’m the Intern? Did I throw that gun there as a misdirection? Did I knock out the lamp?
This kind of second-guessing made Glen glad that Cylons didn’t exist.
“For now,” Damian continued, “they’re both out of the picture, which means we need a bit of a team restructuring.”
“Restructuring?” Glen raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, we need to completely overhaul the teams we’ve currently assembled,” Damian affirmed. “For starters, we’re taking Nick out of the field until a replacement for his hand can be fashioned.”
Glen still winced internally whenever he thought about Nick’s hand; he was one lucky bastard.
“Furthermore, once he’s woken up, Dac and Nick will be permanently separated. What occurred between them – and the interloper Trent – cannot happen in the field again.”
That was one area Glen wholeheartedly agreed with him on. “It was quite disconcerting having them pretty much aiming guns at each other.”
“Quite.” Damian scowled momentarily, then went on. “In any case, we also need to work out what to do about Trent.”
“What do I do with you, Trent?” Belinda sounded jovial, but Trent knew from experience that the mood could be painted on her and easily washed off with some water and antibacterial soap. “You’ve seen the interior of HQ, but you’ve not been approved for CRUD status. So do I wait for Damian’s say-so or do I just kill you now?”
The silver pistol moved slightly in her hands before she dropped it from his head. Trent found he could breathe a little easier then. Belinda winked. “Just kidding. It’s alright, my sons don’t get my sense of humour either.”
Trent did his best to laugh, but it came out rather weak. He eased back in his seat in the cafeteria. “Hopefully he’ll give me CRUD status. I mean, what else can I really do, eh?”
She regarded him very seriously for a moment. “You can tell me who the Slossblessed in the team is, and who the Intern’s taken residence inside.”
At that last one Trent chuckled a little. “Phrasing, Belinda.”
She gave him an admonishing slap on the shoulder. “Seriously, Trent. Who are they?”
He took a deep breath, steadying himself. “Ok. You might want to sit down for this.”
Jacob had opted not to stick around for Mary’s surgery. He felt sick enough as it was, and the thought of watching from the surgical theatre did not make him feel better.
His hands hadn’t stopped shaking since she’d been shot. The entire way home Glen had had to stem her blood flow because Jacob couldn’t keep steady. It just all felt so unreal, like he was watching it in a dream. Dac and Mary – two of CRUD’s top agents – nailed by a shadowy assassin in a tent flying underneath a giant plane on the way home from a demolished supermarket in Canada.
It sounded like some kind of Mighty Boosh joke.
Seeing Anna die years ago had been bad enough; he didn’t want to see it happen again to someone he cared about. Instead of watching his beloved getting cut to pieces by surgical goons he’d instead gone to see another surgery – namely, Brandon’s.
In the hellish aftermath of the supermarket’s destruction they’d left Brandon’s head and body behind, but apparently Trent had found the time to retrieve the personality SD card jammed inside the Canadian android’s skull. He’d mentioned afterwards that he hadn’t had time to retrieve the girlfriend’s, though.
Jacob was still wary of him – maybe Dac had been right to be distrusting of him.
The card was intact, so RnD had begun constructing a new body from spare parts. Apparently there had been an issue with the language settings temporarily switching to Spanish during the vocal transceiver phase of the operation, but after some tweaking they’d managed to switch the language to Canadian.
Brandon himself had been uploaded to one of the HQ’s servers, and was utilising the security cameras to watch his own rebirth. He was typing out messages on a nearby screen to Jacob as a means of communication.
It’s quite fascinating watching myself being built, y’know?
“Personally, I’d rather watch a snuff film than myself being born,” Jacob replied, watching the RnD techies building Brandon’s new right arm. “I’m not a fan of birthing scenes.”
I suppose it’s different for androids. Not as much red stuff when we come out.
“Was it painful?” Jacob suddenly asked, switching tracks awkwardly. “When the Mancheerians killed you – I mean, destroyed your body – did it hurt?”
Brandon seemed to hesitate before responding. Yeah, it hurts. I felt everything right up until my head was completely disconnected. There’s a function for turning off pain software…but I didn’t use it.
Because…she was dead. I wanted to feel it all. It was the only way to fully erase the emotion.
“What do you mean? What emotion did you erase?”
Another hesitation. The anguish. The pain I felt. My system is designed in a manner that allows me to burn out emotional subroutines if they become a liability. My emotional response to her demise, seeing her head rolling towards me…the only method of coping was to drive that anguish to its peak, to feel it so completely that my central processor erases the emotion entirely before it destabilises my being.
“So, you felt so much pain that it made the pain go away?”
Jacob suddenly realised he much preferred Brandon when he was humanlike. The cold, analytical android side could stay hidden for all he cared. At the same time, though, he wished halfheartedly that he could erase emotions the way Brandon could.
At the very least it would mean his hands would stop shaking.
Dac’s first surgery had apparently gone well – or, as well as could be expected for a man in his condition.
He was lying, unconscious, in a hospital bed next to Graham 917. Mercifully the medics had sedated the latter so his non sequiturs could remain temporarily silent. Lonie knew that if she’d been in hospital she’d’ve given an arm and a leg to not hear his insipid babbling.
You, Miss Ramona, will have to kill before this is over.
Those particular words had haunted her since his pseudo-prophetic verbal diarrhoea and she hadn’t been able to shake them. She hadn’t mentioned that part during the quick debrief she’d had with Damian, only the salient elements about three will die and eagles being speared and such. It had all made sense in a really vague, Battlestar Galactica kind of way. One of her boyfriends had shown her that show, and she knew now why she really hadn’t enjoyed it.
She’d considered consulting Belinda – resident agony aunt and apparently oracular seer – but had decided against it. This was a little something she had to keep to herself.
…before this is over.
“Before what is over?” she murmured.
“What’s that?” Nick asked as he shuffled over to her. His arm stump had been cleaned up and was wrapped in a bandage.
Lonie shook her head. “Nothing. Just talking to myself.”
Nick nodded, seeming unconvinced but not pushing the matter further. He looked over at Dac grimly. “Any word on his condition?”
“Critical but stable,” Lonie replied, echoing what the medics had told her. “He’s apparently in better shape than Agent Chestnut. She’s still in surgery.”
They were silent for a moment before Lonie said, “How does it feel?”
Nick let out a breath, clutching the stump with his remaining hand. “Like it’s still there, but not. I didn’t have a choice. If I hadn’t done it, we’d all be dead.”
“Did you know you could get a replacement?”
Nick shook his head. “Nope. It didn’t matter. The team had to come first.” He straightened up a little, as if re-steadying himself. “Besides, the docs reckon I’ll only be handless for a day or two. That’s pretty good, right?”
“Yeah, pretty good.” Lonie trailed off into silence again, just watching Dac and listening to the oddly harmonic sounds of the heart monitors.
She wouldn’t kill. She wasn’t an agent, she didn’t have to kill anyone – except maybe Brendan, if he ever came back – and she was positive she would not allow Graham’s ramblings to come true.
She would not.
The Patient was strung up on what some might consider a modern-day crucifix; it was a large metal cross with tight cord in place of nails for the wrists and ankles, and electromagnetic plating going through the center stake to deliver any kind of radiation, electrical discharge or power burst that could be programmed into it.
Dream called it the Intersection – he’d meant it as a joke of being the intersection between life and death, seeing that anyone strapped to it would almost certainly die, but apparently none of his minions had gotten the joke. When one of them had mentioned this fact, he’d made sure they were the first one to test it out.
Everyone got the joke after that.
He stood in front of her. At first he’d been slightly disconcerted about conversing with a simulacra of himself, but since the mental transfer when he’d abandoned her in his old body it had slowly been…well, evolving wasn’t quite the right word. Reasserting was probably better; the masculine jawline and cheekbones were shifting into a distinctly womanish shape, and the shock of short black hair Dream had sported in that body was now lengthening slowly into flowing, feminine locks.
Apparently the mind could reshape a body. It was an interesting by-product of the experiment that he hadn’t anticipated – more importantly, though, he no longer felt like he was talking to himself.
She blearily opened her eyes, still quite weak from the transfer. “What do you want?” Her voice was raising by semitones every day; soon she’d probably sound like her old self.
“Just because we’ve hit a zenith does not mean the experiment is over, my dear Patient.” He produced a small tool the size of a screwdriver, a thin metal implement which tapered down into a needlepoint. “Now, we begin the real testing.”
“What exactly…are you trying to study here?” she asked blearily, her voice jerking a little between normal and a higher tone.
“Ah, now that’s a question for another day,” Dream said soothingly as he moved the tool towards her neck. “Rest assured this is an experiment years in the making, a plan that is almost at fruition.” He grinned maliciously. “Of course, you wouldn’t know – all of it was within the layer of memory I hid from myself.”
“What could you possibly –”
She suddenly screamed as the tool punched hard into the side of her neck like a spider bite. Dream’s grin intensified as he imagined the pain flowing through her like a flooding river, every centimetre of her feeling like it was frozen, on fire and being electrocuted all at the same time.
He called this tool Longinus, from the surname of one of Julius Caesar’s assassins. He’d originally opted for calling it Brutus, but he felt it didn’t have the elegant violence implied in a name like Longinus. If there was one thing he loved, it was elegance.
The Patient was still screaming when the Mancheerians arrived. Between them Beth and Tucker were holding a third person; when they got closer Dream saw it was the unconscious form of Brendan Brolland, a CRUD agent with an annoying New Zealand accent. The Intern had complained many a time about Brendan’s excruciating tones.
He retracted Longinus from the Patient and the screams faded for a moment, replaced with groans of pain. He stepped over to the Mancheerians. “You did not tell me you were bringing…a guest.”
“Sorry,” Tucker apologised. “They left him behind once we revealed the truth about him. We figure he’s far too valuable to let die.”
“I see.” Dream regarded Brendan warily. “Is he Deactivated?”
Beth nodded. “For the moment. I’ve temporarily replaced the New Zealand personality until we can work out what to do with the real one. If we wake him up he’ll just think he was captured and that the team managed to escape.” Her gaze slowly made its way over to the Intersection. “Who is –”
“Never mind who that is,” Dream snapped. “Take Agent Brolland to one of the cells downstairs. We’ll wake him up later.”
The two of them started to haul him off until Dream suddenly said, “Ms Atkinson? A word, please.”
She gave Tucker a look – was that fear? – before staying back, leaving Tucker to carry Brendan away on his own. Once he was gone Dream drew closer to her. “I hear the Intern struck some of his fellow agents.”
She nodded, her worry somewhat replaced by a gleeful smile. “During the team’s interrogation I said one of the Intern’s safewords. It was a delay trigger; once they reached minimum safe distance they would temporarily Activate and kill two of the agents.”
“What was the word?”
“Orange.” She smirked. “It’ll only work if I say it. The Intern has been programmed so that certain words said by certain people will set them off.”
“Excellent. So who was killed?”
“I’m not sure. I’m guessing the Intern hasn’t contacted you yet?”
Dream shook his head. “It must be too dangerous right now. No matter. Right now we need to prepare for the next phase of the plan.”
Beth’s eyes widened. “You mean –”
“The destruction of CRUD.”
She looked like all her Christmases had come at once, dunked in chocolate and served with a side of naked Joss Whedon. She whooped with joy, which made Dream frown. Sometimes, for a professional assassin, she acted alarmingly like a Justin Bieber fan.
“Yes, quite,” he said, somewhat bemusedly, “and I’m sending you and Tucker to spearhead the effort. The team will be sent to their Headquarters in San Francisco, and with the Intern’s help they’ll be able to effectively wipe that pesky counterinsurgency unit off the face of the Earth.”
Beth nodded emphatically, looking extremely excited. “You got it, Doc.” She clapped her hands and made an “eeee!” sound that just made Dream question her professionalism even more.
“Ah, you can go assist Mr Egant now,” he said after a moment, sounding a little weary. As she headed off towards the cells he remembered something. “Oh, and Beth?”
She turned, still looking enthused. “Yeah?”
“When you see the Intern, make sure you kill them. No loose ends, and all that.”
Beth’s smile made Alex DeLarge look like a kitten in comparison. “With pleasure, sir.” She left the room with a skip in her step.
Dream turned back to the Patient, brandishing Longinus. Horror pained her expression once more. “So,” Dream said, advancing on her predatorily. “Where were we?”