Episode 26

ROBERT: Subject Trent Fitzgerald, newly-recruited 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 Fitzgerald?
TRENT: Is there any booze around here?
ROBERT: I’m sorry?
TRENT: Booze. Hooch. The good stuff. You do know what alcohol is, right? I know shrinks who get plastered.
ROBERT: I’m afraid we’ve only got tea, coffee or water at the –
TRENT: Never mind, I’ve got a hip-flask. [a few moments pass as the hip-flask is produced and Fitzgerald takes a generous swig] Where were we?
ROBERT: I was asking how you feel, Agent Fitzgerald.
TRENT: Truth be told, I don’t really feel anything after the first drink. Great anaesthetic.
ROBERT: Are you going to treat this inquisition properly, Agent Fitzgerald? Or do I require another method of –
TRENT: Unless your other method involves a kebab, I don’t wanna know.
ROBERT: Are you really Canadian?
TRENT: What the hell kind of question is that?
ROBERT: Agent Brolland was a New Zealander, and he turned out to be something else entirely. Are you really Canadian?
TRENT: Course I am. Hoser.
ROBERT: What gives you your Slossblessed powers?
TRENT: Who d’you think?
ROBERT: Do you want to know what I think?
TRENT: Not really. [takes another drink] But feel free to tell me.
ROBERT: You’re alone. There’s no others like you anywhere, because Sloss isn’t a religion. Agent Brolland was not a Slossblessed. Agent Gardner was not a Slossblessed.
TRENT: What does Glen have to do with this?
ROBERT: During your time with CRUD several months ago, in Toronto, you informed Belinda Cunningham that –
TRENT: Her last name’s Cunningham?
ROBERT – that there was a third Slossblessed present in the safe house, besides yourself and Agent Brolland. Later, before the San Francisco attack, you told her it was Agent Gardner. You and Miss Cunningham assumed the Church of Sloss had sent him to aid the team, when in fact there is no Church of Sloss. You both know why.
TRENT: [long pause] Have you interviewed her yet?
ROBERT: Not yet. I wanted to give you the opportunity to come clean first.
TRENT: Then how do you know all of that happened? Have you met Belinda before?
ROBERT: Let’s get back to the questions, shall we?
Mabel Faust was running for her life.
            The tall, ugly-coloured creature was rushing at anyone in sight, howling like a wounded wolf and swinging its grotesque arms around like a windmill. It hadn’t actually struck anyone yet, but its deadly-looking claws were reason enough to scramble away in fright.
            Mabel had been perusing the local fruit market, on a mission to find figs for her husband’s birthday pudding, when the creature had bounded down from the hills and let out its horrid cry. She’d dropped her handbag and run, acting on impulse more than anything. The crowd from the markets around her had soon followed suit.
            “Stop, fiend!”
            She turned around, following the sound of the voice as the masses surged past her like the Yangtze after a flood. She caught sight of a man, tall and balding, standing right in front of the paused monstrosity. He had his hands raised in a halting gesture, and he spoke with a rich British accent. It reminded her of that James Bond actor her husband hated. Who was that again? Roger Moore?
            “You, foul beast,” the man cried, “will cease this activity at once! I will not stand –”
            The monster reached forward midsentence and grasped him around the waist, and without pause flung him bodily off the street and into a nearby public telephone booth. He struck the glass door hard, not enough to shatter but creating a spider-web of cracks throughout it. He fell to the ground, unmoving.
            “It must be Godzilla’s spawn!” a white Afrikaner man screamed from near Mabel’s ear. “The Japanese are invading!”
            Mabel’s blood ran cold. “Godzilla!” Her screamed echoed those around her as the crowd doubled their pace.
            As she was buffeted back with them she lost sight of the fallen British man, but for an instant she thought she saw him stand up and reach for the phone inside the booth he’d impacted. She couldn’t tell for certain as she was swept away by the exodus of Johannesburg.
The newbie, Douglas Roth, seemed even greener than Lonie, despite his kill-crazy attitude. Michael appeared to have taken on a Hollywood action hero persona in lieu of his usual, Belinda-tag-along self. Belinda herself looked ready for action, holding her gun confidently in a manner suggesting she’d done this sort of thing before.
            The only two who looked uncertain were Lonie and Brendan. Thinking of himself, Brendan knew this could only hinder them.
            They’d been walking for hours, and the sun wasn’t helping anything. Although he’d never been, Brendan imagined this was what Mordor felt like. Hell, for all he knew Dream had a satellite in the sky tracking their every movie – his very own Eye of Sauron. The party of mismatched agents felt reminiscent of a fellowship of some kind.
            Was I this into Lord of the Rings before I reset?
            “Are we getting any closer?” He felt like a whiney child when he asked, but it had to be on everyone’s minds by now.
            Michael, still resembling a camp pastiche of Stallone and Van Damme, shook his head. His almost-comical aviators glinted in the sunlight. “Still a ways to go, buddy. Keep trekkin’.”
            “Why would…Dream bother…putting it here?” Lonie asked, in-between gasps of air. Apparently her new fitness regimen hadn’t taken full effect.
            “No idea. Maybe to ward off intruders? If the heat doesn’t kill them, the subsequent melanoma would.”
            “Only thing gonna kill anything is ME!” Douglas roared, in complete defiance of social etiquette and the baking heat. He was probably more gung-ho than Michael was – a scary thought, to be sure.
            All Brendan could do was keep walking, and idly muse on how he’d gotten back ‘home’. It was all a transient blur, waking up in the capsule and finding years had been taken from him by a programmed New Zealander. He’d had no memory of anything since his teens, and the videos he watched of the man wearing his body triggered little within. Only murk, a deep feeling he needed to do something, but wasn’t sure what. Something involving a star – ever since he’d woken up, stars had been featuring in his dreams and thoughts almost as heavily as Susan Kendrick had during high school.
            He couldn’t tell anyone else; their distrust was obvious. Those who’d apparently known him beforehand regarded him warily, like a dog brought in to replace a dead predecessor. Mary in particular, before her left-field trek to Russia, had stayed well out of his way, looking at him as one might look at a friend you don’t recognise anymore.
            All he wanted was for someone to recognise him. Anyone. He’d considered tracking down his parents before Damian had forbidden it – apparently, CRUD employment carried a caveat of no familial interaction whatsoever. Brendan was sick of not being seen, or rather, being seen as someone abhorred and possibly reviled by the friends his other self had left behind. Once this was over, he’d make sure the others knew who he was.
            Even if it meant putting on an accent every now and then.
            His thoughts were interrupted by Michael’s ringing satellite phone. The action hero retrieved it, pulling out the antenna with his teeth like the pin on a grenade. “This is Hammer,” he said loudly. He’d decided they all needed codenames on this trip, now he was in charge – Brendan’s allocation of ‘Bumblebee’, given his initials, was less than flattering.
            Brendan caught snatches of the voice on the other end, unmistakably Damian’s. Michael wasn’t given a chance to speak, and when he hung up after a few moments and replaced the phone he fixed them all with a grim look. “Bad news, guys. Home base is toast. Brandon went rampant.”
            “What?” Lonie rushed across the sand to stand next to him. “What happened?”
            “Apparently, Beth hacked him. He self-destructed the Johannesburg facility.” He grimaced. “No word from Bauer or any other team.”
            “Did Brandon back himself up?”
            He shook his head. “Consider him dead.”
            Brendan knew he’d be feeling considerably more if he actually really knew who Brandon had been. “Did the third team get out ok?”
            “Damian’s not sure. Trent and Nick disappeared when Beth zapped herself out, but we don’t know where they ended up. He’s with Ash in the city now.”
            “So what do we do?” Belinda asked, speaking for the first time in hours. “We can’t –”
            “We can, and we will,” Michael responded, anticipating her statement.
            “No way.” She folded her arms. “If our house has burned down, we need to go look for survivors. Harridan can fly back and –”
            “We continue with the mission,” Michael told her, emphasising the important words. “Going back isn’t an option. There’s a base here needs blowin’ up.”
            “YEEAAAAHHH!” Douglas agreed enthusiastically.
            Belinda unfolded her arms, trudging begrudgingly towards the base and ahead of them all with a sour look on her face. “Well come on, let’s get this over with. Let’s continue with the mission.”
            Brendan noticed Michael regard her warily as she mocked his tone, and for an instant – so fleeting he wasn’t sure it’d actually happened – he thought he saw the barrel of Michael’s rifle move in her direction. Just for an instant.
            It was then that Brendan realised if they were a fellowship, there was the Boromir.

The meeting had been called unexpectedly, and the request by Jacob that ‘popcorn was required’ left Tucker a little baffled.
            Dream, Jacob and Mary had all gathered around a large monitor screen as a family might for movie night, and by the time Tucker hobbled there on his crutches they’d apparently already picked a channel. The scene was verdant, some kind of wood or forest, and the solitary figure on screen – one Agent Dac Rogers – clued Tucker in as to what they were watching tonight.
            Dream looked up and gestured grandly to him. “Mr Egant! Come, have a seat!”
            Truth be told, it was the last thing Tucker wanted to do. His mind was set on being with Beth until she recovered, but when Dream gave an order, you didn’t refuse. The Dream Machine, and whatever horrors lay within that meant no living person was left whole afterwards, was one hell of a motivator, if the near-catatonic Patient in the infirmary was anything to go by.
            He sat down beside Jacob, who gave him a sidelong look before returning his gaze to the screen. The ocular implants in Nick Driver’s eyes showed Agent Rogers leaning against a tree, holding his pistol in both hands with an anguished look on his face.
            Tucker raised an eyebrow. “What happened?”
            “They just found out Trent’s actually Sloss,” Mary filled him in.
            “Serious? I thought he was just joking in that interview.”
            “Apparently not.” She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Explains a few things, though.”
            At first he’d not been sure if Mary was really on their side, but after her rite of passage – executing one of Dream’s prisoners, a so-called innocent investment banker – he’d found her almost as ruthless and calculating as Dream himself. “Oh yeah?”
            “Well, how else could he shoot lasers out of his hands? Unless Beth got to him?”
            He shook his head. “Nope, just Brendan. In fact, now you mention it, are there really any other Slossblessed at all? I mean, Glen just ended up being a freakin’ druid, so –”
            “Quiet!” Dream hissed, gesturing at the screen. “We’re missing the good part!”
            Tucker turned his attention back to the screen, seeing movement at the bottom. It appeared Trent’s lifeless body was shifting slightly.
            Dac flew into action, dropping to a combat stance and aiming at the god at his feet. “Take it slow, boy.”
            The Canadian voice below him seemed to falter somewhat. “Wha…who shot me?” His head, just in view on the screen, turned in the direction of the dead CRUD neophyte nearby. “Oh. That asshole. Figured he had something screwy.”
            “Why’d you lie to us?” Dac’s voice was hardened steel.
            “About what?” Apparently it was then that he noticed the weapon in his face. Trent’s voice seemed to drop below freezing. “You wanna put that down right now, eh?”
            “Drop the act. You’re not really a Canadian informant.”
            “No, I’m a Canadian agent. Slight difference.”
            Dac’s voice grew terse. “Stop being facetious. You’re Sloss.”
            Trent coughed in surprise. “I’m sor-”
            “Don’t make me shoot you.
            He considered his words before responding, and as he propped himself up on his knees Dac’s aim heightened. “Do that, and I’ll just come back. You can’t kill a god.”
            Dac’s eyes widened, probably a combination of shock and realisation. “You’re admitting it.”
            Trent shrugged. “Can’t deny it. Can’t put the pin back in the grenade.”
            The screen shifted slightly as Nick raised his hand. “I managed to, once. Might’ve been a fluke.”
            Dac seemed on the verge of snapping like a twig as he swung around, aiming dead center of Nick’s eyes. For a moment Tucker thought Dac was aiming at them.
            “Man,” Jacob commented, grabbing a handful of popcorn from Tucker’s proffered box, “if only we had 3D glasses handy.”
            Back on screen, Dac was losing it. “Now ain’t the time, Nicholas.” He turned his attention back to Trent. “What are you doing here? Why is a god –”
            “I got bored.”
            This time Dac seemed so surprised Tucker wondered how he didn’t manage to drop his gun. “You what?”
            Trent shrugged again, as if it were the most nonchalant thing ever. “To save you wondering about some big, Battlestar Galactica-esque twist, I just got bored. It’s lonely when you’re the only one up there, so I decided to come down for a bit of a visit. Figured I’d join up where the action is.” He looked down at the dead Jack Dollarman at his feet. “Poor guy. He was one of my most devout followers, but he stopped believing.”
            “He what?”
            “Yeah,” Trent murmured, suddenly introspective. “There was a Church, a while back, and I ran their meetings for years. No-one in it got superpowers like me. They seemed to have trouble believing I was actually a fundamentalist who’d been gifted with Sloss’s blessing, so after a while I told them who I really was. They couldn’t take it. They grew resentful, hated me. They burned down the Church and chased me out, swearing vengeance on me if they ever saw me again.”
            Now, he finally did drop it. Dac slumped against the tree, sliding down slowly with his head in his hands. He was mumbling something inaudible as Trent stood up, with Nick taking no action to stop him.
            “This is bullshit.”
            Dac’s voice was loud and booming, though slightly muffled through his hands. He lowered them as he went on. “This is utter crap. We are a counterinsurgency division. We’re not the bloody Ghost Hunters.” He turned a venomous, incinerating glare at Trent. “Are you telling me that our counter-terrorist operation, dealing with very serious global security issues, now has to contend with a bored god? That’s not including things like artificial intelligences, plush-toy zombies, mind-controlled sleeper agents and a man who liked to eat hay. Is that what we’re dealing with now?”
            No-one on either side of the screen spoke, although Jacob gleefully took another handful of popcorn and watched rapturously. After a few minutes Dac finally continued, “Almost makes me wish I hadn’t woken up, really.” He raised his head skyward and screamed, “Jacob! If you can hear me, you should’ve worked on your aim!”
            Jacob munched his popcorn, gesturing in acknowledgement with a broad grin on his face. “Next time, buddy!”
            “I can’t do this anymore,” Dac went on. “I can’t. This is turning into an episode of Supernatural as directed by Tim Burton. I’m over it. I want out, right now.”
            The screen jolted a little as Nick jogged over, hands raised in placation. “Whoa, hold on there. We’ve still got a mission to complete. Base Breton should be only a few kilometres away –”
            “You’re not even supposed to friggin’ be here, Nicholas,” Dac shot back, using his full name again almost as an insult. He then snapped his fingers like he’d forgotten something. “Oh, sorry! Better add ‘teleportation’ to that list of supernatural crap that’s taking up our time now!” He laughed in a half-sane kind of way. “Does that mean there’s now no-one going after Base Kerouac? Did the rest of your time die back in Johannesburg?”
            “We don’t know that Johannesburg’s gone,” Nick answered, gesturing emphatically with his hands. “For all we know, Damian got the situation under control after we left.”
            “I doubt he’s got the ability to handle a rampant AI, Nicho-”
            “Call me that again and I’ll use that tree as a toothbrush for your ass.”
            Dac stopped mid-rant, staring frozen at the owner of the icy voice in front of him. Even Trent turned and regarded Nick with something between awe and admiration. Even Tucker had to admit he found that a bit ballsy.
Nick took the advantage and continued. “Pull yourself together, Thomas. We’ve got a job to do, and it needs doing. After that you can feel free to have your little hissy fit, but not on my time. Now, stow that crap and let’s get moving. We’ll take out Breton, find ourselves some transport and hoof it to the Andes to bring down Kerouac. Any questions?”
            No-one spoke, oppositional or otherwise. The screen bobbed as Nick nodded curtly. “Good. Get your shit together and let’s go.”
            The three men wordlessly packed up the remnants of their gear as Dream switched off the monitor. “I knew that would be worth seeing,” he commented.
            “What are they gonna do now?” Jacob asked through a mouthful of popcorn.
            “They’ll attack Breton, and get themselves killed. Not that it matters to me any.” He looked over at Tucker inquisitorially. “Are the countermeasures in place?”
            Tucker nodded, remembering the work orders he’d issued not long ago for Breton’s new security procedures. “Good to go, sir.”
            “Excellent. And how is Miss Atkinson?”
            “Resting. Still in a medically-induced coma, until they can stop the swelling in her brain.”
            Jacob grunted a laugh through his popcorn. “Her fault for that dumbass gene.”
            Tucker fixed him with a steely look. “That ‘dumbass gene’ saved her life.”
            “Eh. She’ll be dead soon anyway.”
            Tucker felt his ire grow, clenching a fist out of Jacob’s view. “Excuse me?”
            “You both’ll be dead soon,” Jacob explained, still scoffing popcorn. “Not gonna be much room for finesse or mind control in the new world order.”
            “What, is it all going to be bludgeons and machine guns instead?”
            Dream raised a finger at Tucker like a parent admonishing a child. “That’s enough, Mr Egant. Please, feel free to return to Miss Atkinson’s side. Let me know if there’s anything she requires.” There was more than a bit of sardonic tonality in his latter sentences.
            As he stood from the haphazard gathering and headed back to Beth’s hospital room, still internally cursing the stupid crutches, a plan began to formulate in Tucker’s head. For some reason it seemed he and Beth were nearing the end of their term with Dream, and while he hadn’t agreed explicitly the Doctor had been more than willing to let Jacob inform him of his and Beth’s place in the grand scheme of things. It came somewhat out of nowhere, but it didn’t matter. Tucker would sort it all out anyway. The Intern had shaken up the natural order he and Beth had established with Dream. Natural selection demanded that Tucker rectify that.
            All he needed was a particular implant. And he knew just where to get it.

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