Episode 20

It was pandemonium.
            Graham 917’s headless body was the least of their concerns; zombie Ash was wasting the crap out of the mercs while the intelligence analysts scrambled for cover. Jacob was firing bullets left right and centre. The entire main floor was in a shambles.
            It was exactly what Nick had been hoping the situation would resemble.
            He’d eschewed the rifle across his back in favour of a pistol; picking his shots carefully he aimed at the mercs as they tried in vain to stave off the plush zombie attacking them. Trent was readying hand blasts – probably for when Ash inevitably turned to fight them – and Lonie was holding her pistol uncertainly, waiting for the right moment to shoot.
            “Belinda!” Trent screamed into his radio. “You guys ready?!”
            Nick couldn’t hear the reply as he kept firing carefully, nailing a merc in the head that dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a figure moving slowly, ceiling lights glinting dully off of something they were holding.
            Damian. With a crowbar.
            Nick saw a merc raised a shotgun in Damian’s direction; two quick shots and he’d killed the bastard. “Boss!” he shouted, looking for any other assailants.
            Damian heard his voice and made his way over, still holding the crowbar. Nick saw his right hand was twisted at the wrist, almost certainly broken. It looked painful, but at least he still had a hand to break. “Good to see you, chaps,” he said, panting.
            Trent eyed the broken bones. “You gonna be ok?”
            “Of course I am!” Damian shouted back. “I’m British!”
            Only three mercs – and Jacob – remained. The zombie reached down and picked one of them up, tossing him aside like an old newspaper and advancing on the others. Jacob’s shotgun kept blasting away repeatedly, taking chunks out of the zombie that just seemed to keep growing back.
            “We need to get the analysts out of here!” Nick shouted over the hubbub. “We don’t have much longer!”
            “I’ve got it!” Lonie yelled back, running to the side and away from the line of fire. Nick tried to shout after her, to stop her going on her own, but he had little time to think before a stray merc bullet caught him in the shoulder.
You, Miss Ramona, will have to kill before this is over.
            For some reason Graham 917’s ominous prophecy was ringing in Lonie’s ears as she made her way past the carnage and towards the huddled group of intelligence analysts – all unarmed, looking more frightened than she’d ever seen people be before. She motioned for them to get up from where they sat behind the computer desks.
            “Come on, the carrier jet’s leaving soon!” she bellowed. “Let’s get moving, guys!”
            “I don’t think so!”
            She turned to see Jacob, standing nearby with his shotgun held up and aimed right at her. She froze, nearly letting go of her pistol. There was something new in his eyes, something she’d never seen before.
            Malevolence.
            Even with all the chaos raging around her, she knew he had irrevocably changed. She knew he wasn’t the Jacob she’d known for years, the co-worker she’d spent countless hours laughing and enjoying company with. Whoever this man was that stood before her, it was not Jacob.
            “Are you going to shoot me?” Lonie asked, staring as stalwartly as she could at the shotgun’s barrel.
            Jacob pumped the shotgun, ejecting the empty shell within. “I was thinkin’ bout it. Can you tell me why I shouldn’t?”
            “Is there anything left of the old you inside there?” It seemed so silly, having this conversation while guns blazed and a plush zombie wreaked havoc, but she had to know.
            Jacob’s mouth twisted, giving what Lonie guessed would be a derisive laugh if she could’ve heard it. “You going all ‘Lonie Skywalker’ on me?” He put on a mocking tone, lowering the shotgun a little. “‘There is still good in him, I can still save him,’ that kind of thing? Please, don’t make me la-”
            BLAM.
            She didn’t hesitate, didn’t think, just acted. She aimed her gun – one-handed – with more speed than she’d’ve thought she could muster, firing a bullet towards the side of his head. It entered just shy of his left eye, shearing through skull bone and twisting his head around as blood splattered from it. He staggered for a moment, dropping the shotgun, and cast an angry, pained look at Lonie before keeling over sideways.
            One of the two remaining mercs ran over, spraying bullets with a semi-automatic, and grabbed hold of Jacob’s body. Lonie ducked behind a desk, breathing rapidly as her heart beat just as fast. She looked at the gun in her hand, her whole body shaking the way it had when Graham 917 had first spoken his words to her.
            You, Miss Ramona, will have to kill before this is over.
            He’d been right; she had just killed one of her friends, a co-worker, and she would never feel the same again.
The second-to-last merc was finally grabbed by the zombie, his head being consumed just like Graham’s must’ve been. Trent didn’t envy those bastards one bit; if he was going to die he sure as hell didn’t want any limb separation. I mean, imagine if the body just feels like there’s a phantom head there forever and ever? Jeez, now I know how Nick feels.
            He looked down at Agent Driver, lying on the ground with a hand pressed to his bleeding shoulder. It wasn’t a serious wound, but it meant less firepower. Not that there was much left to dispense firepower on, unless the zombie suddenly turned on them.
            The final merc was dragging Jacob’s body out limply by his arm, firing inaccurately at anything nearby with that semi-auto. The zombie started advancing on him but suddenly stopped, one of its hand rising up to clutch at its head. It turned around, howling in agony, as Trent noticed khaki-coloured blood seeping from its right eye.
            Are you serious? You guys fire enough lead at it to poison the entire schoolchild population of Los Angeles, and yet you never think to shoot its goddamn eye? It’s a wonder you idiots captured this place at all.
            The merc didn’t dally; he took the moment of weakness to haul Jacob towards the elevator. Trent fired a hand blast in his direction, pegging the merc squarely in the ribcage. His grip on Jacob’s arm must’ve been ironclad because the two bodies were hurled backwards into the elevator like a bowling ball; they landed in a heap inside, the merc’s head thrusting forward at an unnatural angle as he hit the wall of the elevator. Before Trent could get to them the doors had shut, already sending them upstairs.
            Dammit!
            The zombie started stumbling towards them, still shrieking like a wounded animal. Trent saw Ash’s hideously-deformed face contort into a simple, horrifying expression of hunger, as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks and he was a meal on legs she could scoff down like all the other morsels littering the main floor.
            Not today, I’m afraid.
            He rubbed his palms together like he was preparing defibrillator paddles, feeling energy ripple throughout his body as it came together in a single perfect discharge between his hands. The zombie moved a little faster, letting go of its regenerating eye and making a beeline straight for Trent.
            “You need help, old boy?” Damian asked, gesturing helpfully with the crowbar.
            Trent didn’t answer; instead he threw his palms out like his life depended on it, sending a concentrated blast of the power of Sloss straight into the zombie’s head. The abomination was catapulted backwards, crashing into the conference room and demolishing what was left of the glass conference table. It lay there, amidst shards of broken glass and computer display, unmoving.
            But not dead; Trent could see its manufactured body still moving slowly, up and down. Is this thing indestructible?
            He blew on his palms like guns he’d just fired. “Thank you, deus ex machina,” he whispered, turning to face Damian. The Brit looked stunned at what he’d just seen. “What’s the matter?” Trent asked. “You never seen faith before?”
In the end it all happened fast, faster than one would’ve thought for such an exodus.
            The front company upstairs was empty for the night, so the only remaining occupants in the building had been Damian, Lonie, Trent (with Brandon’s USB), Nick, Belinda, Michael, zombie-Ash and the intelligence analysts. Trent had done a very brief examination of the elevator before they left, but there was no sign of Jacob; the merc who’d carried him out was still inside, his head snapped forward like the end of a breadstick.
            Damian had insisted on taking Beth with them; she’d been knocked out cold by the crowbar hit, and he was positive he’d be able to get some good intel from her at the new safehouse they were headed to. Trent had reluctantly acquiesced and brought her aboard.
            The only other living thing inside had been Coconut, but Brandon had hacked into the surveillance cameras and seen that the horse had left; by the look of the way his pen had been demolished he’d either smashed his way through the door or the mercs had wrecked the place up intentionally. Either way, Mary’s prized stallion was gone.
            They’d all piled into the carrier jet, which was primed and ready to go with a highly-alert Michael in the pilot’s seat. Brandon had counted down the minutes remaining until the Grave activated as the jet roared through the underground launch tunnel that opened up into the San Francisco river. The aircraft burst out of the water, under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the night sky as the forcefields went up around CRUD HQ.
            Damian watched as the building’s supports fell away and the entire structure descended into its final resting place; the semtex detonation produced a modest explosion at the lowest level, allowing the rest of the building to cave in and crumble down to the Grave. The entire event lasted less than a minute, ending with the top level of the front company falling down to ground level atop CRUD’s ruins. The front company’s logo lay on top of the debris like a stamp of ownership; in the morning the world would just think an advertising agency had collapsed, maybe from faulty building supports or a gas explosion that had levelled it – despite the fact most of the building now resided below ground.
            They wouldn’t know a counter-terrorist agency had been here; anything CRUD-specific was completely erased from the area, so far below ground level that it was almost a certainty that with a bit of time – and an anonymous donation given on the contingency that the lower levels of the ruins remain undisturbed – the San Francisco building contractors would just replace the site with something new; maybe an office building or a coffee shop.
            Damian knew, though, that one day – when Doctor Dream and his plans had been foiled and the world could return to being a slightly safer place – CRUD would rebuild here. This attack, this uprooting assault that lasted all of a few hours but had altered the agency immeasurably – literally and psychologically – would not go unanswered. They would not be deterred from their mission, not now.
            Damian would make sure of it; even if he had to use his new crowbar to smack some sense into them.

THREE WEEKS LATER
The doctors had said the medication was to blame; Dac’s morphine had reacted a little oddly with the injuries he’d sustained, making him slightly more susceptible to waking delusions and hallucinations. The Glen he’d seen when he woke up was just in his mind, something he’d willed himself to see somehow.
            It didn’t make him feel any better.
            Once Damian had finished recounting the last month’s events he’d headed topside, obviously drained by having to relive it all again. Dac couldn’t blame him; he still looked damaged, like all the torture Beth and Rob-Bob had dispensed on him hadn’t quite healed yet. He’d’ve been surprised if anyone was fully healed here. He knew he sure as hell wasn’t.
            He was standing outside the elevator that operated between the CRUD safehouse underground and the hill under which it resided that looked over lovely, sunny Johannesburg. Dac had never been to South Africa before – he noted idly it was one of the few major places in the world he’d never had a mission to. Well, first time for everything.
            He was processing everything he’d heard, doing what one inevitably did when they’d missed something important; wondering what would’ve happened differently had he been there. Could he have exposed Jacob as the Intern? Could he have stopped Ash and Glen from dying? If he and Mary had been on hand, would the CRUD building in San Francisco still be standing?
            He thought of it as a form of survivor’s guilt; he hadn’t been there when they needed him, and he would never forgive himself for it – shooting victim or no, he had failed his friends, and the bad guys had added a notch to the win column.
            He ruminated on this for a while before Mary arrived in the elevator, shuffling over slowly with her drip still attached to a stand she moved with her. Dac was mostly healed, dressed in street clothing with bandages wrapped around his body underneath.
            He didn’t turn to look at her as she approached. “Did Damian..?”
            “Yeah.” Her voice was devoid of emotion as she stood next to him on the hill, looking at the city below them. “He told me everything.”
            They were silent for a while, watching as the sun slowly began to sink behind the mountain range far away. Dac finally broke it. “He may not have died, you know. He could still be out there; they never found a body.”
            Mary waited a moment before responding, and when she did Dac was certain he heard her voice crack a little. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
            They stood for the next half hour as African night descended upon them.
Somehow, its face looked a lot more like Ash used to be.
            The zombie was strapped to an operating table that was upright, set vertically like a torture slab. Trent didn’t find the comparison helpful; he knew what they planned to do to her when she woke up, and he didn’t envy her one bit whether she was human or zombie.
            He looked over at the surgical theatre, where doctors were operating on Beth. Apparently the blow she’d sustained from the crowbar had messed her head up more than they’d all thought, and shortly after arrival they’d kept her in a medically-induced coma until they’d known what to do with her.
            Trent didn’t envy her, either. Right now, the only person he envied was Glen; at least he hadn’t lived to see the tragic aftermath of the attack on San Francisco.
            He shook his head slightly, then headed off to find some liquor.
His head had hurt immensely when he’d woken up, but it had been worth it.
            When he’d pointed the gun at Lonie, ready to blast her into oblivion, he’d felt an insistent tugging inside his head. He’d felt the last vestiges of Jacob, the man he had once been, pulling hard on the nerves in his brain; he’d been screaming Don’t do this, it’s Lonie, she’s your friend, don’t do this…
            He’d been worried those vestiges would return to haunt him later, a split personality he didn’t need in his new profession. Thanks to Lonie, that wasn’t the case; the bullet had damaged the part of his brain that retained Jacob within his mind. Despite the blood loss, the skull reconstruction and the excruciating pain, he was now free of the man he’d once pretended to be.
            The man who was Jacob Aldente was no more. All that remained was the Intern.
            He strode up to the doors of Doctor Dream’s office, opening them without knocking. The Doctor was already inside, taunting his captive strapped to the Crucifix. He looked up when his guest arrived.
            “Ah, marvellous to see you dear boy!” He walked over and clapped the Intern on the back. “Good to meet you in person!”
            The Intern was tense; not too long ago, Dream had wanted him killed as a loose end. Now, though, the game had changed. He was necessary to Dream’s operation since Beth had dropped off the grid and Tucker had started his rehabilitation.
            “Good to be met,” he replied, nodding curtly. He gestured at Dream’s captive. “Is this who we’re working on today?”
            Dream looked over at the Crucifix, returning to the Intern with a smile. “Ah, yes, let me introduce you two.” He stepped over to the woman that looked like she’d been there for weeks, her head hung low out of fatigue and pain. Dream pulled it up to look at the Intern; she winced as he did so.
            “My Intern,” he said, his voice booming, “this is Anna Farraday – our Patient.” He pulled out Longinus, his favourite torture tool, from his pocket. “I think it’s time we got to work on her.”
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