Lonie awoke to an anguished yell.
Her vision was blurry as she slowly opened her eyes, feeling like someone had just slugged here with a sledgehammer. She’d never experienced a flashbang, and found she didn’t like it at all. Surely there was a law somewhere about using it on civilians in an unjust fashion; she’d find the relevant paragraph if they survived this.
As her eyes focused she saw a red and white blob in the bottom of her field of vision. Several darker-coloured blobs were moving around the red and white blob, and she could vaguely hear – through the loud ringing – someone shouting, the same someone who’d yelled.
The anguish cut through everything else, and Lonie was thrown sharply into the here-and-now. Her sight adjusted, and she could see the blobs; Ash, lying dead with two bullet wounds in her skull, whilst the others all staggered slowly to their feet – except Jacob, who’d thrown himself forward onto her slain corpse.
Lonie blinked, not quite believing it. Her voice slurred as she tried to speak. “Wh…how?”
She was vaguely aware of a smoking gun lying on Ash’s chest, and before she could help herself she jerked backwards and threw up on the floor.
“You know, that was an absolutely atrociousimpression of me,” Damian said wryly, talking through the swollen lump on the left side of his jaw. “Coconut could probably do a better rendition.”
Beth stared sardonically at him. “I’ve missed your British stiff upper lip, Mr Ashcroft – it’s why I bruised part of it.”
“And now apparently you’re channelling Dac,” he went on, letting out a mirthless chuckle. “Good God, woman. Pick an act and stick to it.”
He knew she was going to hurt him again, but he didn’t care. His premier team was scattered, with at least one person dead. Most of his staff had been killed. Beth and her terrorist mooks had captured the building, and it was quite probable no-one would be leaving here alive. What was one more little jab with the pain stick?
He braced himself for the crowbar – what was it with her and that bloody crowbar? – but it never came. She simply smiled, the way the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland would smile if it were a serial killer. “My act is leader of this team. You know all about leading, don’t you?”
Damian sighed, ignoring the jabs of pain from his jaw. “I didn’t realise we were holding an impromptu management seminar.”
“We’re not.” Beth stepped outside the shattered glass walls of the conference room and snapped her fingers before returning to Damian’s side. “Part of being a good leader is delegation, isn’t it?”
He didn’t answer. He wasn’t keen to play these games.
“Well, it just so happens I have a proposition for you,” Beth continued. “A very enticing one for you, I think.”
“No, Beth, I will not be the officiator for your wedding to Dream.”
She laughed heartily. “Ah, no, gave up that fantasy a while ago. Tucker’s the main love interest in my story.” She winked. “No, this is a very different proposition. I’d like you instead to meet a friend of mine.”
She looked towards the large, burly man striding casually towards them with a large metal suitcase. Damian suddenly felt oddly apprehensive about that; suitcases usually meant torture tools. He hadn’t been properly tortured since Vietnam.
What a day that had been.
“This,” Beth said, gesturing grandly to the thickset gorilla in front of her, “is Rob-Bob Egant. He’s Tucker’s brother – you may have heard of him as ‘Mr Elbow Grease’.”
Damian’s blood ran cold. He shivered, remembering what went with that name.
“Y’see,” Beth went on, “his thing is cars – loves his cars, ol’ Rob-Bob. Loves ‘em so much, he dismantles ‘em. Keeps all the spare parts. Ends up getting creative with them – makes waterboarding look like Disneyland by comparison.” She winked again.
If she winks anymore, I may just go gay. Or crazy. Or both.
“You and he are gonna be great friends, Damian. Great friends.”
Don’t wink don’t wink don’t wink don’t
She winked a third time, and Damian felt the last vestige of his heterosexuality evaporate like water on a hot skillet. He cringed, which Rob-Bob obviously took as a sign of fear. He grinned in response.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” he said, his Australian accent thick and penetrating, “I’ll take real good care of ya.”
As he laid his suitcase on the wrecked conference table, Damian wondered idly if Glen knew anybody gay he might meet up with. The man liked to talk to horses, after all – he had to know someone a little bent.
He decided he’d muse on Glen’s sexuality as the first of Rob-Bob’s tools emerged from the suitcase.
It felt like forever before Lonie came to herself again. She wiped the small bit of vomit adorning her lip and tried to regain some equilibrium – God knew someone here had to.
She took one more look at Ash’s body and knew it wasn’t going to happen; her hands were shaking violently as she tried closing them into fists. Didn’t help.
The others had all gotten to their feet, and Nick stood over he reassuringly. He reached down towards her shoulder with his stump before remembering he didn’t have a hand anymore. He reached with the other hand. “It’s alright, hun. We’ve got you.”
She shook her head. “How…what happe-”
“The Intern.” Jacob cut her off coldly, looking down at Ash’s corpse. “Beth must’ve spoken a codeword to activate them.” He nudged the body with his foot. “Least we can rule her out.”
Glen frowned admonishingly. “Stop it. Snark won’t help.”
“And I suppose eating some hay and having a nice chat with Coconut would?” Jacob shot back. “Honestly, why the hell are you even with us? Why aren’t you off with your equine friend?”
Glen’s eyes narrowed. “You listen –”
“For all we know, you’re the friggin’ Intern,” Jacob went on. “You eat hay, for Christ’s sake – ain’t that just a little weird?”
“How does that prove I’m the Intern?”
“It’s obfuscation. You look so weird we don’t think it’s you.”
Glen’s hands balled into fists. “Maybe it’s you, asshole. What about that little forgetful thing when we broke you out of the cell? What was that about?”
“Lost a bit of time. Happens to everyone.”
Nick tried to cut across them. “Guys, come on –”
“And what if it doesn’t happen to everyone?” Glen talked over him. “What if it just happens to someone with mental conditioning?”
“Yeah, let’s blame my stress on mental conditioning –”
“Yourstress? How d’you think the rest of us feel?”
“Guys, that’s enough –”
“I think the rest of us feel that you are a horsefu-”
It took Lonie a moment to realise she was the one who’d screamed. The shaking had subsided, and she now stood next to Nick and glared daggers at the two alpha-male pissing contestants in front of her. They fell silent under her gaze.
“This,” she said, quietly and coldly, “is not the time. We have a dead agent, and it’s only going to get worse unless we stick together. Pointing the blame-finger will only get us killed.” She took a deep breath before going on. “Any one of you three could be the Intern, so I suggest you all proceed as a group away from anywhere that Beth can contact you with a codeword. The vents are probably a good place to start; no cameras or audio speakers, and you might run into some friendlies there.”
No-one said a word, but they all regarded her as if they’d never met her before. Lonie had no idea where this newfound strength was coming from, but she wasn’t about to stop now. “I will wait here until help arrives, whether it’s Trent or another agent. All else fails, it’s a good place to hide.”
“What about the camera?” Glen asked, pointing upwards.
Lonie looked at him pointedly. “I’d suggest you shoot it, Agent Gardner.”
Glen nodded slowly, looking like he’d just been shown up by a child, and quietly aimed his pistol at the lens. He put two rounds in it as Lonie continued. “Once you’re gone, I’ll lock the door behind you. Stay away from any speakers throughout the building.”
The others all murmured assent, still clearly held in the thrall of her death glare. They set about taking weapons and armour, stepping over Ash’s corpse. Lonie kept her desire to vomit at bay, staring away from the body and steeling herself for what would come next.
She’d be alone, and near-helpless; she couldn’t rig explosives or arm weapons. She was a lawyer – the best she could do was quote weapon prohibition regulations if one of the mercenaries broke the door down.
It really didn’t make sense for her to stay here, but for some reason her gut told her to. Always go with your gut was the mantra she’d adopted for as long as she could remember, and if it meant staying in an armed holdout with a dead body and a bunch of gun-toting mercs out for her blood, she would – however reluctantly – go with it until the end.
You, Miss Ramona, will have to kill before this is over.
She pushed it aside, and followed her gut.
“Did I ever tell you about my university physics professor?”
The Patient looked up, her head hanging low in her restraints. Dream waited patiently for her to respond, then continued when he realised she wouldn’t. “Dr Erskine. We always used to joke that he’d given the super-serum to Captain America.”
She didn’t laugh at his obvious high-brow joke. He made a mental note later to tell it to his minions – someone would laugh. “He was a man of solids, of what he could see and feel and smell. He had this idea that nothing abstract could ever be used to prove things scientifically. Things like dreams, intuition, gut instincts…they all fell into his ‘impossible to quantify’ basket. So when I told him that dreams were not just a sleeping pastime, but were in fact a scientific resource to be utilised effectively, he thought I was just another young, crazy student with stupid ideas lodged inside my head.”
He stepped towards the crucifix. “I set out, from that day, to prove to him that dreams were, in fact, realistic. They were a resource, and they had relevance in the physical world. Why do you think it’s in my name?”
The Patient coughed tiredly. “Is this…going somewhere…at all?”
Dream pursed his lips, still clutching Longinus in one hand. “Indeed it is. You see, he was mired in old ways of thinking – old methodologies. He stuck to what he knew, and never considered the possibility that contemporary thinking could expand and, in some cases, replace historical thought. He had to be educated.”
He jabbed Longinus back into her neck, dialling the pain up as far as it would go. She screamed, flailing with futility against the crucifix restraints. He kept the needle in there for a few more seconds before withdrawing it, her screams ceasing. She breathed heavily as she hung her head, her eyes shut tight against the pain’s afterimage.
“So,” Dream went on, as if the brief interruption had never happened, “I visited him in his home one night – a bachelor’s pad for a scientist is never anything glamorous or well looked after. I found him asleep within a pile of Guinness bottles, snoring loudly beside a pile of notes on Newtonian laws. I thought, then, how I should educate him, how I should open his mind to the possibilities of dreams – and that’s when the idea struck.”
He leaned in towards the Patient’s neck, hovering Longinus a few millimetres away from it tauntingly. She tensed with horrid anticipation as he did so. “I took a scalpel from his lab desk, and sliced his eyes out slowly, methodically. I did so even as he woke up, struggling against the weight of my body lying atop his. I removed his physical sight so all he could experience was the metaphysical – the abstract he was so keen to stay away from.
“I spoke to him, through the blood that covered my face and his, about what this meant. About what he could now see, what he could only see for the rest of his life. Then I told him that one day I would come for him, that one day he would be of use again. I let him live after that, and he never returned to the university.”
He put his hand into his coat pocket and retrieved another device – a remote. The Patient remained tense even as he thumbed the remote away from her, turning on a television monitor in the corner of the room. Dream grinned, relishing her fear and lack of comprehension as the screen showed a blindfolded man sitting in a steel chair, his wrists handcuffed to its arms and an intravenous drip connected to a vein in his left arm. The drip trailed away off-screen.
“Since then,” Dream continued, “I’ve always kept him in mind when debating who to use as a test subject for the new contraption I’ve built. It seemed appropriate that he be the first one to experience its majesty.”
He clicked the remote again, and the camera panned away to show what the drip was connected to. The Patient’s eyes widened – Dream presumed out of fear, but he liked to think it was understanding. Cohesion. Comprehension.
It was what would come when the device became usable.
“Consider this my response to your ‘Project Starfire’,” he said, enjoying the horrified look she gave him when he mentioned that name. Obviously, nobody outside of CRUD was supposed to know it.
Sometimes, the Intern was very useful.
He pulled out a radio from another coat pocket, hailing his minion in the room on the television. “Activate the Dream Machine.”
I really need to come up with a better name for it than that.
In the minutes that followed Dream felt a great sense of pride as his baby – the one he’d made himself forget before adopting the Patient as his Hyde – came to life. The screams Dr Erskine gave as the machine worked its magic were only matched in their joyous state by the looks of pain and terror etched into the Patient’s expression all the way through. Even after it was all over, and the machine had finished, she still had that look on her face.
Dream smiled broadly, holding up Longinus again. “Soon it’ll be your turn to enter the Dream Machine. First, though, some calibrations are necessary.”
He pulled her head forward with one hand and stabbed Longinus into her spine with the other. The screams were melodious.
If only sex felt this good.