There was an odd noise present when Dac finally awoke. It was a beeping. It was odd; he hadn’t set any alarms recently.
He blearily opened his eyes and saw nothing but white. He was about to question whether he really had opened them when he saw the roof; clinical, surgically clean, white panels.
He was in the infirmary.
The gun fell from Glen’s hand.
He reached his hand down his chest, resting his fingers gently on the bullet wound. A sharp pain jolted through him, making him wince.
The halogen lamp went out.
He grunted in pain, trying to push it aside. He looked around for a medic when he caught sight of Glen walking over to him. His nose looked a bit healed, though still coloured an angry red from the break he’d suffered.
Dac coughed a little, feeling pain in his chest again. “Morning, Glen. Admittedly, I’ve seen worse after waking up from a rough night.”
Glen snorted, then almost immediately clamped a hand to his nose gingerly. “Ow. Still a bit tender.”
“I figured. It looks like it’s healing a bit.”
Glen nodded. “Yeah, the doctors did a really good job. Three weeks and it’s almost completely healed – outside, at least.”
Dac blinked. “So I’ve been out of it for nearly a month. Great. What did I miss?”
Glen’s expression darkened. “It’s probably best if Director Ashcroft explains –”
“Explains what?” Dac was starting to feel worried now. The wound ached in response.
Glen stopped, shaking his head gently. “No, he should really tell you. I’ll give him a call.”
Dac tried to reach for him. “Glen,” he said insistently, “what the hell happened? What did I miss?”
“I’m sorry.” Glen turned quickly and vacated the room, leaving Dac alone. The beep of the heart monitor was all that was there to keep Dac company until Damian finally arrived.
He looked like hell; his normally crisp suit and neatly-arranged hair were both messy, and from the look of his eyes he hadn’t slept in days. He regarded Dac wearily. “Agent Rogers. Good to see you up and – well, up at least.”
Dac didn’t have time for pleasantries. “What the hell’s going on, Damian? Why was Glen –”
“Quiet, dear boy,” Damian snapped, without a trace of British pleasantness. “Quiet, and I’ll explain it to you. You see –”
“Did you find the Intern?”
If Dac had been one hundred percent healed he had no doubt Damian might’ve slapped him, given the look he shot the agent now. The Brit pursed his lips before continuing. “Yes, we found the Intern. But I fear that discovery came at far too high a price.”
THREE WEEKS EARLIER
“Obviously, this is a problem,” Glen retorted.
Ash gave him a sardonic expression across the conference table. “No shit, Sherlock. Problem doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
“Then how should I describe it, violent shitstorm? Cavalcade of fail? A cornucopia of imminent death?”
Ash snorted. “You really watch far too much television.”
“All those names, sounds like you’ve been watching The Bold and the Beautiful or something.”
Glen looked affronted. “Please! I only watch Days of our Lives, thank you!”
Is that supposed to make it better?
Glen grit his teeth. “Yes, Brandon, it is.”
“The way I see it,” Jacob said quietly, “it’s a big problem. Making names for it won’t help.”
Damian, who until now had been silent, nodded in agreement. “Quite. Now if you’re all finished wasting time we can get down to business.”
The assemblage consisted of himself and the surviving agents of his primary team – Ash, Jacob, Glen, the disembodied screen of Brandon and Nick. Despite the latter’s off-duty status Damian felt he needed to hear what was about to be said. Also present was Lonie, looking distantly away through the windows and devoid of her usual collection of law books. Trent remained in the cafeteria, whom Belinda had vouched for personally while she attended to lunch in the kitchens with Beryl.
Damian still didn’t trust him. Then again, it was rare that he trusted anyone in this business.
“There is no doubt,” he began, “that the recent mission to Toronto was an abysmal failure. We lost an agent, had another one dismantled,” he gave a meaningful look at Brandon’s screen, “and had two of our best and brightest nearly killed – in fact, for all we know, they could very well end up dead. On top of that we still have no idea what the generator was or what its purpose consisted of, and we’ve now got a smouldering ruin of a supermarket and some rather affronted Canadian security forces to deal with.”
He looked at each of the team survivors in turn. “As an infamous politician used to say, ‘Please explain’.”
Glen started to open his mouth but was cut off by Nick. “We weren’t prepared. Dream had superior forces present when we arrived. Our intel wasn’t entirely accurate.”
Damian nodded, not interrupting. Nick went on. “We ended up being taken captive by the Mancheerians, who we didn’t even know were working for Dream. They Activated Brendan –”
“Activated? You mean he was a sleeper agent?”
Nick nodded. “Of a sort. His Kiwi accent was fake.”
“I totally called it,” Glen muttered.
Damian rounded on him. “You have something to say, Agent Gardner?”
“Nope.” Glen closed his lips tight and shook his head.
He glared at Glen, flaring his eyes menacingly, then returned to Nick. “Continue, Agent Driver.”
“Apparently he was never really a Slossblessed. The Mancheerians got to him early and brainwashed him. They did something to his DNA to make him hyper-regenerative, then passed it off as Sloss powers.” Damian thought he could see a hint of a smile on Nick’s lips. “He looked…shocked, when he reassumed himself.”
“I can imagine.” He could – he saw Brendan protesting in that obnoxious accent that he was, in fact, a good guy, and they’d been mistaken, and Sloss was his bro, come on bros, don’t leave me eh, please –
Oh God, am I thinking like Brendan now? That’s not a good sign.
“So after Trent communicated with Belinda and Michael, we got rescued when they blew up the supermarket.” Nick finished quickly.
“The end.” Ash whispered.
Damian ignored her. “So what’s the next step?”
Nick blinked, confused. “I’m sorry?”
“What happens next? What do we do now?” Damian regarded him seriously. “I mean it. You all left the mission incomplete, with nearly half the team dead or incapacitated, so what’s next?”
Nick seemed lost for words. “Uh…well, we could…um…go back to the supermarket ruins –”
“No. Canadian security has sealed off the area.”
Ash piped up. “We could look for the Intern?”
“Any leads on that?”
She had no reply.
Glen’s turn. “We question Graham 917.”
“Already did.” Damian looked meaningfully at Lonie, who was still staring off distantly. “Miss Ramona was served with a load of rambling garbage in return.” He looked at the rest of them. “Anyone else have a brilliant plan?”
He knew he sounded a little unhinged, but given the events of the past twenty-four hours he didn’t think anyone could really blame him. He stood from the table and leaned down on it with his hands, looking at everybody present. “We are now back to square one in terms of Doctor Dream’s operations. We don’t know where he is. We don’t know where the Mancheerians are. We don’t know where Brendan is, or how much he’s told them. We don’t know anything about the Intern, except that it’s one of you surviving team members.”
He stood slowly. “To that end, my only recourse is to put each of you in a cell until we can determine who the Intern is.”
Glen’s mouth dropped open. “What?”
Ash seemed more animated too. “You can’t do –”
“I BLOODY WELL CAN!” Damian screamed, throwing his hands back down to the table and giving her an expression not unlike something out of a horror film. She fell silent instantly, looking shocked and downcast.
He straightened up again. “I cannot take any chances that one of you may damage this unit more than it already is – remember, you’re not the only team I have in the field every week.”
“I’ll do it.”
They all turned to regard Jacob, his voice still quiet. Damian noticed idly that the young man’s hands were shaking. “I’ll go into a cell. If it means we can solve this quicker, and help Mary…I’ll do it.”
Damian nodded, gesturing at him with approval. “Thank you, Agent Aldente.”
“Me too,” Nick added, raising his hand. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Excellent.” Damian pressed a button on the table, and several armed guards with assault rifles walked in to cover each of the four survivors. “Your associate Trent should be on his way there now, and we have armed guards stationed around the infirmary for Agents Rogers and Chestnut.” He breathed out a little, regaining some composure. “We would appreciate your cooperation with this. As soon as we can discover this Intern culprit, you’ll be free to go.”
He knew it wasn’t the most satisfactory method to deal with what had occurred, but it was the only option he had. With Project Starfire close to completion, there could be no more setbacks. He knew Nick understood – it was why he’d enlisted him as a double agent in Dream’s operation.
He also knew Nick wasn’t the Intern; according to his own reports, Nick had spoken to the Intern with Dream on more than one occasion. So that left Ash, Jacob, Glen, Dac, Mary and Trent as possible options.
It was days like this that Damian wished he’d played Guess Who? as a child.
“Hold it! Hold it tighter!” Belinda screamed as the colossal lobster fought to get its way out of the pot.
Beryl grabbed onto it as best she could. She had often wondered why Belinda chose such giant creatures for lunch in this place; was it better food, having so much flesh? Could it feed more people? And why the hell didn’t she kill these things before she cooked them?
What was she, a Klingon?
Beryl struggled with the lobster as Belinda continued berating her. “No, no, hold it further down the body! Not at the tail!”
“I’m sorry, B! ‘E’s too flippin’ ‘uge!” she cried.
“That’s exactly what you said about the fish yesterday!” Belinda shot back, wrestling with her own crustacean. “You know what? You’re fired. Get out of here.”
The shock hit Beryl like a bullet in the gut. “Wha? Why?”
“Because you’re a useless incompetent!” Belinda shouted. She turned to the near-empty cafeteria. “Michael! Get in here and help me!”
Michael – Belinda’s pilot boyfriend – had been chatting idly with Trent before the latter was led away by security forces, without complaint. He’d been fiddling with his iPad before Belinda called him. Beryl could see why Belinda was attracted; ruggedly handsome, bald, muscular. He was like an Australian Patrick Stewart.
Beryl especially loved Patrick Stewart in that show. What was it again? Oh, that’s right – Star Wars.
She sloped off sulkily as Michael came over and did a far better job of wrestling with the lobster. The two of them laughed as they fought the crustaceans, leaving Beryl to her own devices as she slipped out of the kitchens.
She felt mightily underappreciated; she could cut hair, cook food and had a great sense of humour, plus she’d really been working on her dictionary later. No, diction, not dictionary. My words are getting better.
She knew she could be annoying at times, and she had suspicions she was something of a joke around the office, but she was really trying her hardest. She’d worked her way up from the slums of South London and made it here, doing her best for a counter-terrorist organisation. She knew her parents would be so proud of her work if she could ever tell them one day. More importantly, though, she was proud of her work.
Except for her stint as one of CRUD’s accountants. If there was one thing she could never master, it was maths.
The CRUD building was a tall office structure in the middle of San Francisco, not far from the famous Golden Gate Bridge. The front company that took up most of the office space was an advertising agency that made a modest income and kept the real CRUD facilities hidden from the world underneath.
Counterinsurgency Reliant Upon Diversity. That last bit rankled Beryl; she wasdiversity, and she’d been kicked out. Those assholes. She’d show them one day.
She got to street level from the underground elevators and stepped out into the San Francisco nighttime. The streets were fairly empty, and the ad agency had closed for the evening. She stepped towards the road and began to light a cigarette as she thought about digging out her phone from her handbag and calling a cab.
She’d just lit the tip of the cig when her vision went black. Something was covering her face – a bag of some sort. She was being grabbed all over by different sets of hands as the muscled her off the street. A big hand clamped over her mouth, stifling her cries of shock and panic.
She was carried off her feet for a few minutes before she heard a woman’s voice. “Is she one of the real ones, Tucker?”
“Yeah,” a man’s voice replied. “We found a CRUD pass in her handbag. She’s not from the ad company.”
“Excellent.” The woman’s voice came closer to Beryl’s ear. “Are you afraid, sweetie?”
All Beryl could do was nod against the hand on her mouth, making loud, muffled noises of assent. She could feel tears start in her eyes.
“Good,” the woman replied. “That’s very good. Now, normally we’d do what we always do when we capture someone – that is, torture them horribly until either they die or we get bored – but in this instance we’re on a bit of a timetable.” The voice grew a little fainter; the woman had moved away from Beryl. “Take her to the Bridge. The rope you’ve got should do the trick; just don’t kill her until you get there. We want to send a message. Oh,” she added as an afterthought, “probably best if you chloroform her. She’ll only make a ruckus otherwise.”
Beryl screamed as loud as she could, her lungs burning with the effort, but was silenced as the bag and hand were momentarily removed and then replaced with a wet handkerchief. The drug knocked her out swiftly, her vision slowly fading as whoever was holding her started moving towards the Bridge.
Diversity…that’s me. Always diverse, ol’ Beryl.
The phone call came in shortly after the meeting had ended. Damian answered it tiredly, suddenly feeling almost twice his age at that moment.
The reply took a moment before it came – a synthesized voice. “Look at the Bridge.”
Damian sat up at attention. “Who is this?”
The caller ignored his question. “Your agency has cameras placed around San Francisco. You’ve got one near the Golden Gate Bridge. Go look at it.”
The caller hung up.
Damian stood quickly, tapping commands on the conference table to bring up camera displays for the entire city. He cycled through them until he found one near the Bridge outside. He saw something odd on it, near the San Francisco end. Something dangling.
He zoomed in, and instantly swallowed a lump in his throat.
It was Beryl; the erstwhile hairdresser hung from the Bridge by her neck, suspended by rope. Her face was oddly peaceful, in direct contrast to the purple bulge around her neck and near her jaw. She swung lazily on the wind like a grotesque windchime.
Attached to her chest was what looked like a large sheet of paper. Damian zoomed in further, struggling not to throw up, and saw what was written on it.
The glass walls of the conference room suddenly exploded, throwing Damian to the table and knocking his head hard against the electronics. He felt blood start to trickle from his forehead as he looked around, dazed.
The office was under attack. Nearly a dozen people in combat gear and face masks had broken in with heavy weaponry, throwing grenades and firing indiscriminately. Damian saw one of the intelligence analysts – what was his name? Callum something? – fall as a hail of bullets ripped his body apart.
One of the assailants broke off from the group and walked over to the ruins of the conference room, slinging a rifle over their back and retrieving a revolver. The attacker pressed it against Damian’s temple, removing their face mask.
It was a woman – more accurately, a woman Damian had seen before.
“Hello, Director Ashcroft,” Beth said sweetly. “Remember me?”
Before he could respond she flipped the revolver around in her hand and slammed its butt against his head.