Episode 25

ROBERT: Subject Nick Driver, premier field agent for Counterinsurgency Reliant Upon Diversity, interviewed by myself, Dr Robert Abrams, PsyD and attaché CRUD psychologist. Time is [REDACTED]. How do you feel, Agent Driver?
ROBERT: I’m sure you are. Let’s get this over and done with, then, shall we?
NICK: Whatever.
ROBERT: How have you –
NICK: Why are you interviewing me?
ROBERT: This is part of an investigation –
NICK: No, I mean me specifically. I’m just a background player. Why are you questioning me?
ROBERT: What do you know about Project Starfire?
NICK: [long pause] I know enough.
ROBERT: That’s why you’re being questioned, Agent Driver. Simple as that.
NICK: Does Damian really think Dream was after Starfire when he attacked San Francisco? Coz he was looking in the wrong place, if that’s the case.
ROBERT: Without going into specifics, Director Ashcroft believes Project Starfire is, at least, one of Doctor Dream’s goals in his current operation. My job is to determine the credibility of Dream’s threat to this country and the world abroad, as well as preventative measures to stop a tragedy like San Francisco from occurring again. To that end, I need your full cooperation in this matter.
NICK: [long pause] Fair enough.
ROBERT: Why do you think Damian chose you as one of only a handful to know about Project Starfire?
NICK: Probably because there are fewer people he’d trust more than me. It’s why he tasked me to be the double agent. It’s why I was put into deep cover in Toronto, before that business at the supermarket.
ROBERT: Why does he have such implicit trust in you?
NICK: You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.
ROBERT: Try me.
NICK: I’d rather not. Can we get back on topic?
ROBERT: [short pause] Tell me, in your own words, what Project Starfire is.
NICK: It’s a defence mechanism.
ROBERT: Can you be a bit more specific?
NICK: Right now, it’s the only thing I know of that can end Doctor Dream permanently.
“He may not have died, you know. He could still be out there; they never found a body.”
            Mary paused before replying, feeling her voice crack before she even spoke. She knew Dac was right. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
            They stood near each other, barely moving, for half an hour as evening fell. She’d begun considering moving inside for some tea when the comm bud in her ear buzzed loudly. She winced in discomfort as she pressed the receiver button.
            “Proximity alert,” said Brandon’s synthesized voice. He was the primary AI in control of the facility until a permanent replacement could be made. “Incoming projectile.
            She turned, seeing Dac with a finger to his ear. “Is it a missile?”
            “Negative. It appears to be some kind of capsule. Impact outside CRUD elevator in twenty seconds.
            Dac acted quickly, moving faster than Mary would’ve thought possible with the wounds he had. He grasped her wrist in one hand gently and her IV drip in the other, pulling her towards the elevator. “Come on, inside.”
            “What if Brandon’s trajectory is wrong?” she asked as she followed him awkwardly slowly.
            “He’s never wrong.”
            “Thank you.”
            The two of them got inside and sealed the doors with only a few seconds to spare. There a loud thud outside as the capsule hit the ground – by the sound of it, only a few centimetres away from the door.
            Before they could investigate their buds buzzed again. “This is Director Ashcroft. What’s going on up there?”
            Mary found it odd Brandon hadn’t told him. “Something just landed outside the elevator. Dac and I are investigating.”
            Dac pulled her again. She really didn’t appreciate it – she wasn’t an invalid. “Come on,” he whispered, “before he calls the elevator down.”
            They opened the doors as Damian instructed them to stay away from the object until security forces could arrive. Mary wasn’t one for sticking to protocol right now. Besides, she was more concerned with what she saw in front of her rather than Damian’s instructions.
            It was a long, granite grey capsule that looked unsettlingly like a coffin. There was a dividing line running down the middle that started underneath what looked like a glass panel at the top. The entire thing hummed gently and gave off ambient heat, trailing thin wisps of smoke. She wondered for a moment whether it had been shot at them or just dropped from somewhere.
            She edged towards it cautiously, ignoring Dac’s warning or Damian’s frustrated yelling to stand down. She peered above and into the glass panel, and recoiled in shock. She almost fell down with her drip.
            Dac rushed to her side, ignoring the heat. “What? What’s wrong?”
            “It’s Brendan.” She struggled to get her heart rate down as she said it. “Brendan’s inside it.”
            Dac wasted no time, pressing his ear bud once more. “Boss, we need medics up here! Brendan’s back!”
There was an odd thumping underneath Damian’s head as he came to, and after a moment’s thought he realised it wasn’t the splitting migraine that had taken residence.
            Footfalls. Big, flat and fast. Something was thumping its feet below him.
            He jerked fully awake, his eyes blearily adjusting to the low light of encroaching evening. He could smell things fleetingly – trees, fire, vanilla…
            It could mean only one of two things; either he’d been taken to a nearby Peter Alexander store, or the footfalls belonged to…
            She grunted somewhere above him, affirming his supposition. “Couldn’t let you die there. We still need you.” It always unsettled him a little when she spoke these days; the zombie’s vocal chords had apparently been stolen from Jeremy Irons.
            “What…what happened?” Images rose up in his head like errant weeds. “Brandon killed the guards, Nick and Trent vanished…” A sick feeling crept into his gut. “Did headquarters –”
            “Explode again?” Ash spat a short, mirthless chuckle. “Yep. Sure did.”
            Damian groaned, feeling the migraine spike inside his head like a barbeque spit through a roast hog. “The insurance company isn’t going to like this.”
            Ash sounded surprised. “We have an insurance company?”
            “Not after this we won’t. Office destruction negates premium cover.”
            As odd and slightly surreal as the situation was, Damian felt oddly calm talking about company insurance with an undead agent in the body of a plush monster. Somehow it didn’t feel like the weirdest thing to have happened to him in the last twelve months.
            “Well, I got you out of there,” Ash went on, “so a plan would be nice now. Preferably not involving anymore electricity. We don’t like electricity.”
            We?“Fair enough, too.” He thought for a moment. “Can you get me to a public phone?”
            “You? Sure. Me? Not so much.”
            He smirked faintly. “That’s alright, dear. I’ve got something else in mind for you.”
In the end, they’d raised no-one. Bauer, the other transport chopper, and Damian’s personal line were both dead. It seemed they were on their own.
            Sometimes Michael liked it that way. It meant, especially on missions, he could emulate his favourite action hero personas in ways that wouldn’t seem stupid to the casual observer. Right now he was combining Aragorn and Dutch Schaefer, getting his team ready with minimal supplies for the desert crossing.
            Belinda seemed worried because Michael was on edge – it usually meant people died when that occurred.
            “Alright,” he said, taking charge. “We’ve got a bit of ground to cover before hitting Base Jung, so let’s get some stuff straight. I’m leading. You all follow me. Question orders and I’ll leave you behind. For all we know, we’re the last CRUDders still standing.”
            Michael groaned in annoyance. “Yes, Brendan, CRUDders. Unless you’ve got a better name?”
            “I was thinking CRUDites.” Brendan looked at the others plaintively, as if it were obvious. “Or maybe the Magnificent CRUDs?”
            “I thought about the CRUDwiches,” Lonie said, surprising Michael with such silliness.
            “Or we could just be Kill Team CRUD?” Douglas offered, stroking his assault rifle unsettlingly. Michael wondered for a moment how Damian could be so desperate he was hiring from the Deep South.
            “No, it’s CRUDders because I say so.” He nodded, as if that were an end to the matter. “Now, once we get to Jung we’re entering the south-east access point. If schematics and radar are accurate, we’ll be inside the facility after some vent navigation. Once inside, we rig the generator to blow with enough C4 to level a city block. We leave no survivors.” He glanced at them all in turn. “Any questions?”
            Douglas raised a hand away from his rifle. “Uh, yeah. Why are still talking?” He got to his feet quickly, holding the rifle vertically against his shoulder. “Let’s go kill something!
            While he admired the enthusiasm, Michael knew he’d have to keep an eye on that one. Lack of military discipline could make the others panic. When people panicked, they died.
            No-one was going to die today except the bastards at Base Jung.
            “Alright, then,” he said, keeping his reservations to himself. He grabbed a shotgun from the chopper’s equipment rack, pumping it to life. “Let’s smoke us some Dream meat.”
            Real macho, Michael. Real macho.
There was a long tree branch that had stabbed through Dac’s left shoulder. It stung like a bastard.
            If the smoke, trashed cockpit and shattered glass everywhere was any indication, Bauer wouldn’t be up and flying anytime soon. The canopy had caved in like a cheap plastic cup, crushing Pilot Ike into nothing. The two random marine redshirts had been tossed around the chopper likes Barbie dolls in a spin dryer, their necks snapped at odd angles after they’d been ripped from their restraints. The only other survivor was Jack, who’d had the presence of mind to properly brace himself before they’d crashed.
            The mission was FUBAR, and that was putting it politely.
            Dac was searching around the wreckage for the first aid pack while Jack extricated himself from his restraints, coughing and spluttering. “What the hell hit us?”
            “No idea, but it was very blue,” Dac replied, feeling a bit stupid for saying so. “Have you checked outside?”
            “Been a bit afraid to leave, sir.”
            Dac couldn’t remember the last time someone had called him sir. Probably back in his previous life, before CRUD. “Go take a gander. Might see what struck us down.”
            He heard sounds of Jack’s movement as he kept looking for the pack. As he found it, retrieving the morphine hypodermic from within, he heard the young agent yell, “Mr Rogers! We’ve got company!”
            He didn’t have time to inject himself and slid the needle into a slip on his belt, point down. Wincing as the branch moved within his shoulder he retrieved his pistol, stepping back to the demolished exit hatch and arriving next to where Jack stood, transfixed. Following the young man’s gaze, Dac saw two bodies lying, unmoving, on the verdant ground in front of them. They were both facedown, but their respective haircuts and attire looked eerily familiar.
Jack obviously had no clue, aiming his rifle uncertainly at them. “Do we shoot? They might be hostile.”
Dac made a wry grin. “They can be hostile, but they work for us. It’s Nick and Trent.”
“I thought they were leaving after us, on the mission to the Andes?”
“So did I.” Dac advanced on them carefully, keeping his weapon out but slightly lowered. “You two conscious?” he called.
Trent grunted into the ground with the sound a gazelle would make after a night of bad grass. “’Smatter?”
“D’wee ge’ ‘er?” Nick mumbled in a similar fashion as he started to haul himself across and onto his back.
“You’re in Montenegro,” Dac explained, keeping questions to a minimum for now. He’d discern how they got here later. “You crashed our chopper.”
Trent scoffed, still facedown. “I never did.” He started to prop himself onto his elbows, groaning as he did so.
Dac motioned to Jack to advance on them, holstering his pistol. “It’s alright, son. They’re fr-”
One perfectly-aimed bullet exited Jack’s rifle and slammed straight into Trent’s forehead. Blood and brain matter sprayed backwards, making a Jackson Pollack on the grass as his body slumped back down to the ground. The shot echoed throughout the forested clearing in which they stood.
Barely thinking, barely registering what Jack had just done, Dac reacted purely on instinct. His pistol was back out and aimed squarely at the neophyte, a point blank shot at his head. “What the hell did you just do?!”
Jack glanced sidelong at Dac, keeping his rifle trained on Trent’s corpse. “How long I’ve waited to do that, sir, you’ll never know.”
“You working for Dream?” Nick was now standing, his own sidearm similarly aimed. “Or Beth? You another Mancheerian son of a bitch?”
Jack shook his head fractionally. “No, I’m my own man. No thanks to that piece of crap.”
“What are you talking about?” Dac felt his finger close tighter over the trigger. “Did you know him?”
The neophyte spat at the corpse. “You might say that. As well as anyone knows their god.”
He turned fully to stare at Dac, as if the answer were the plainest thing in the world. “His name’s Sloss. He was my god until –”
Nick fired twice, hitting Jack in chest and abdomen. The rookie went down without a sound, his eyes closed before he hit the ground. His rifle dropped from his hands and fell next to him.
Dac looked over at his still-breathing companion, who looked as utterly bewildered as Dac felt. Neither man said a word, the forest’s quiet breeze adding the only punctuation to their silence.

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