Episode 30

The alarm sounded almost comical, like something Brendan would’ve expected to hear on The Benny Hill Show. He half-wondered if he’d turn around and see a quarter of Dream’s thugs chasing him with bats and knives. They could post it all on YouTube.
            He knew it wouldn’t be that easy to get out of Dream’s lair, especially not with a former agent on his tail. Part of him didn’t believe Mary had turned rogue – if nothing else, it was kind of a lame plot twist. It’d be like if someone turned out to be have been mentally-programmed to be evil all along.
            Shark, I’m jumping over you.
            A gunshot rang out behind him and the bullet struck the wall of the corridor he ran down. He kept moving as fast as he could, hoping that somewhere his random running might lead him to an exit vent or escape hatch. So far there’d been no signage anywhere except for “ALL EMPLOYEES MUST ENSURE THEY ARE INOCULATED”. That told him the energized particles they’d all been infected with were about to go worldwide, and anyone not inoculated would be killed along with the rest of the team.
            That was something he didn’t quite believe either. If there was one thing TvTropes had taught him, it was that someone wasn’t truly dead until you saw a body. Dac had proven to be a bit genre savvy before he’d been zapped, and it did all seem a bit Star Trek-y. He’d assume, until proven otherwise, that they’d gone elsewhere.
            Besides, if he really was the last CRUD agent left, who the hell could he get to follow him? His own organisation had been intent on labelling him as an enemy until proven guilty, so how would the other intelligence organisations see it? CRUD was clandestine, certainly, but some other big-name entities knew about them. Maybe ASIO was hiring.
            He turned another corner and came face to face with a brick wall. It seemed strangely out of place, since the walls leading up to that point had been akin to a hospital’s. It seemed Dream was taking the whole ‘Doctor’ affectation very seriously.
            Brendan spun on his heel to run elsewhere when he came face to face with Mary, the gun she’d killed Anna with pointed right between his eyes. He froze, raising hands in supplication.
            “You don’t have to do this,” he said, filling his voice with as much steel as he could muster.
            She clicked the hammer back. “I do, actually. The faithful will inherit the Earth.”
            “I thought the geeks were doing that?”
            She ignored his jibe and starting to pull the trigger when the lights suddenly went off. Before Brendan could react he felt a hand grab at the front of his collar and wrench him forward. Hot breath went into his ear as Mary whispered.
            “Punch me, and get out of here. They’re watching me on camera. Lights are out for twenty seconds.”
            “Why?” Brendan hissed. “What the hell is he-”
            “The team’s dead. Make another one. Can’t leave yet.”
            He clenched a fist, understanding what she meant. It didn’t make him happy. “When-”
            “Get out!” She threw him bodily towards where the wall was at the same time his fist started to come up, still in pitch darkness. He felt his fist connect heavily with her face at the same time a strange tingle made its way over his entire body as he passed through something. Light returned quickly to his eyes, blinding him a little as he tried to reacclimatise.
            He was standing in a rocky tunnel at complete odds with the surgical cleanliness he’d just run through. A brick wall identical to the one he’d seen a moment ago now stood in front of him, with the tunnel snaking off in the other direction. It appeared the wall had been some kind of hologram, designed to trick escaping prisoners the way it had Brendan.
            He ran down the length of the tunnel, dwelling a little on one particular sentence of Mary’s: “The team’s dead. Make another one. Can’t leave yet.
            Well, so much for the Star Trek theory. He ran, unsure if anyone was behind him now, not knowing who might be ahead, but grappling with an overwhelmingly negative prospect.
            He really was the last agent, his regenerative gift restored to him. He was all CRUD had left.
            And he was completely alone.
The plane landed a few kilometres away from where Damian had intended, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Apparently the pilot needed to get back for a quick porn run to the Solomon Islands. Standards these days…
            Ashley had remained silent for most of the trip after her little Graham episode, acting like a sulky child forced to come with parents on holiday. The two had disembarked and were now making their way into the trees.
            Something was grievously wrong, Damian knew. There was no smoking ruin where Base Breton should be, and as they got closer he found the structure itself was still there, unmolested. There was an awful lot of blood though, spattered on the ground like jam slapped onto toast.
            Ash could obviously tell something was up too, breaking out of her silent treatment and murmuring thoughtfully. “No bodies. You reckon they were here?”
            “Unless the guards carried their corpses away,” Damian replied, not convinced they’d been the ones to bleed. His team were better than that. “My guess is it’s a ruse, they must’ve killed some of the guards here.”
            “So, where are their bodies?”
            He thought for a moment, coming up with no rational explanation. “They disintegrated?”
            “Yes, because that’s an entirely reasonable rationale.”
            The voice was unmistakably Dream’s, but he was nowhere in sight. Damian raised the assault rifle he’d brought and Ash tensed, her massive hands clenching into fists and a wolflike snarl escaping her lips. “Where are you, you bastard?” Damian called out into the clearing, his words echoing off Base Breton’s walls.
            He heard Dream chuckle, and judging by the modulation it was some kind of radio transmission. Perhaps he was below, taunting them from a secure place underground. “I’ve always been with you, Director. But you already knew that.”
            “Spare me the double talk,” Damian shot back, aiming in different spots in a vain attempt to locate him. “Why don’t you come out so I can greet you in person?”
            “Ah, alas, that is not to be. Our finale must be continents apart, I’m afraid. I can see you, however, so that is some comfort.”
            Damian grit his teeth, rapidly losing what little patience he had left. “I’m looking for my team. Have you done something to them?”
            Dream paused for a moment before replying. “On second thought, let’s make this a private audience.”
            Ash suddenly dissolved – there was no other word for it – into a mass of orange dots. One moment she was there, ready to strike, the next she’d completely disappeared from his side wordlessly like a Star Trek transporter. Damian’s gut clenched and he tightened his grip on the rifle, still looking madly around for his antagonist.
            “That’s better,” Dream said. Damian heard a noise that sounded like Dream clapping his hands together. “Now, then, let’s talk about you and me.”
            “What’s there to talk about, you brute?” Damian growled slightly. “What have you done with Ash? And where’s my team?”
            “Are you referring to Agents Rogers, Fitzgerald and Driver? I’m afraid they’re no longer with us.”
            “Where did you send them?”
            Dream voice suddenly dripped with derision. “Well, the last I checked it was a place with a sort of crimson lake, some pits of fire and lava…you know, real hellishimagery.”
            No. No no no no. “I don’t believe you.”
            “Why would I lie? This way you don’t have to keep up some futile search to locate them. I’ve saved you time and effort. Not that you had much time left anyway.”
            “Shut the hell up,” Damian snarled, suddenly losing his cool entirely. “If you’ve killed them, you know that means I won’t stop until I put a bullet in your brain.”
            “Oh, how aggressive! I’d’ve expected something far more creative from you, anyway. Or did I take all of that in the divorce, too?”
            Damian frowned, his teeth still bared like an angry dog. “What divorce? What idiocy are you spouting, you fiend?”
            Dream’s tone suddenly sharpened, like a teacher reprimanding a student. “Be silent, Director, and you might learn something. Do you honestly not remember?”
            Not now. No. Not now, dammit. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
            Dream sounded pleased. “Ah, you do remember, then? Most excellent. It’ll make my exposition far more expedient.”
            “I said I don’t know-”
            “The separation, Director. You know what I mean when I talk about the separation. The procedure that made us the men we are today.”
            Rage bubbled inside Damian as the memories he’d done his damnedest to repress started to surface. “It never happened.”
            “Oh, don’t be so naive, Director,” Dream admonished. “Hide from it all you want, but the truth has a nasty way of seeking you out. You knew this was coming, you knew it was inevitable.”
            “You know,” Damian retorted, his voice still contorted with anger, “you’re sounding an awful lot like Hugo Weaving right now. ‘It is inevitable, Mr Anderson’.”
            Dream suddenly burst into laughter, which under other circumstances might’ve defused the situation a bit. Right now it just made Damian more edgy. “My dear Director, did you just crack a joke? I am quite surprised you’ve got the wherewithal for that right now.” He coughed a little as he got himself back to normal. “In all seriousness, we’ve been headed in this direction for years. You’ve known it. You knew nothing short of a bullet in my brain would be enough to get rid of me.”
            He had known, Dream was right about that. He’d done his best to ignore the problem, pray that Dream might just one day fade back into the ether from which he’d sprung, but that was just idiotic. The memories were back entirely, flashes of the energy chamber where he’d stood years ago, before CRUD, before all of this.
            “By now you’re probably reminiscing about my birth,” Dream went on. “That’s good. A nice little book end to our journey together. It’s a wonder we haven’t interacted to a great degree since that day, and yet we’ve stood as each other’s worst enemy ever since you started that little agency of yours.”
            “Yes,” Damian said quietly, the anger still inside but feeling a little muted now. “I suppose that is quite strange.”
            “In a way, we barely even know each other, yet no-one knows me better than you,” Dream pontificated. “Maybe, under different circumstances, we’d’ve been friends.”
            “I doubt it. One is always one’s worst enemy.”
            Dream chuckled, and Damian started to feel the rage seep out of him like honey from a broken jar. This had been inevitable, right from the word go. Now that he thought about it, he deserved this fate. He’d never really espoused this to anyone before, but Damian was a firm believer in Social Darwinism and the concept of Natural Selection. It appeared a predator fitter than him for survival was about to take his place.
            “Any last words, brother?” Dream asked, sounding somewhat genuine.
            Damian dropped his rifle to the ground, spreading his hands out wide and preparing himself for the same fate Ash had suffered. “I’m not sure. Is your clone your brother, strictly speaking?”
            “I believe clone is the wrong word,” Dream replied thoughtfully, “since technically I am you, rather than a copy of you. I suppose…I’m your negative? But why quibble over semantics.” He cleared his throat. “Goodbye, Director. Your sins have finally come to visit you.”
            Damian Ashcroft – the last Director of CRUD, former heir to the Ashcroft family fortune, and the twisted, accidental creator of the terrorist known as Doctor Dream – closed his eyes a final time. “Let them guide me to where I belong, then.”
            Dream made a thoughtful noise. “How appropriate.”
            Damian didn’t see his hands fade away into orange nothing, didn’t see his legs evaporate below his waist. He felt a slightly tingly sensation at the base of his skull that mingled with the notion that he felt this was right and proper. This was what he had earned himself, positive or not.
            Then, after a second or two, he felt nothing at all.
James Bowie’s namesake county was an arid, stinking, fetid place with far too many guns and replica Bowie knives sold at the tourism stands – not that there were a lot of those. Brendan wasn’t surprised that the tourism market was more concerned with bladed mementoes, especially in America, but it did make the place seem a hell of a lot less safe than previously believed.
            Not that it’d been safe to begin with, especially after his companion had learned that Bowie County was dry – prohibition was still in full effect, meaning there were no liquor stories in the County proper except for a smattering of a few near the Arkansas state line. That was dangerous in and of itself; one of his companion’s caveats for joining this little escapade was that booze would be involved.
            “You told me we could drink, and that this’d be a perfect substitute for my original idea,” Jeremy Birch complained, his scientist-esque looks clashing somewhat with his whining. “We should’ve gone with that instead.”
            “For the last time,” Brendan said wearily, “we are not setting up shop in Redfern.”
            “Why not? It’s perfect. Liquor, close to the city-”
            “And entirely a place where Dream could think to look for us.” Brendan finished his sentence. “He won’t search for us in redneck country.”
            “Don’t be so sure,” Jeremy warned. “He might be more of an innovative thinker than you give him credit.”
            Brendan narrowed his gaze at Jeremy. “Trust me, I don’t underestimate him for a second. A terrorist single-handedly responsible for killing my old team? I don’t take anything for granted.”
            They dropped their discussion as they approached the New Boston Courthouse, where the day’s crowd milled around apparently waiting for the outcome of some trial that had been concluding today. The two men ignored them, heading inside to the reception desk.
The dark-skinned lady behind it spoke to them with a distinct Southern twang. “Can ah help you boys?”
            Brendan nodded, getting straight to business. “You can. My name is John Brenderman, and this,” he gestured to Jeremy, “is my associate, Will Keiser. There’s a plot of land up for sale off the Interstate 30, between here and Texarkana, that we’re interested in purchasing.”
            The receptionist raised an eyebrow. “That land’s prime real estate, sir. You fellas sure you got the cash for it?”
            Brendan laid the suitcase he’d carried from the hotel on the desk, opening it to reveal the multitude of greenback inside that he’d scavenged from the vault back in the ruins of Johannesburg. The city was still under lockdown pending an official investigation into the disappearance of nearly ten million residents, but Brendan had still managed to slip past the cordon and get inside what had once been his home.
            “Trust me,” he said to the receptionist, “money is no object.”
Then, suddenly, feeling returned to him.
            It was a searing, piercing pain as his molecules realigned themselves, and within seconds of returning to consciousness his body was deposited on the hard ground. It was dark – or was that just his eyes returning to normal? – and an overpowering smell of burnt grass met his nose.
            Dac Rogers coughed heavily, phlegm splattering on the ground and threatening to be followed by a vomit chaser. And if that don’t take the cake as the worst analogy ever conceived…
            He cleared his throat and wiped his mouth, slowly raising his head to take it all in. He wasn’t dead. Dream’s little zappy thing hadn’t sent him into promised oblivion. Unless this itself was hell, which, with burning grass smell, wouldn’t surprise him.
            Pain abruptly returned to his foot; the bullet wound Owen had given him had been bandaged by Dream’s medics, before strapping him into those fetish restraints, and it now throbbed afresh with intense discomfort. Dac crumpled a little, putting pressure on his foot with both hands that didn’t seem to alleviate it any. He wondered idly if they had paracetamol in hell – perhaps he’d ask Satan for a quick trip to a pharmacy somewhere?
            He was starting to get his bearings slowly when he was interrupted by someone grabbing him roughly by the shoulders and hauling him painfully to his feet. Before Dac could react he was grabbed in some kind of sleeper hold, arms wrapped tightly around him. He started to struggle but suddenly stopped short when his would-be assailant spoke to him.
            “Dac! It’s so good to see you again!”
            Dac awkwardly stopped moving, doing his best to ignore the pain in his foot. “Brendan?”
            It wasn’t a sleeper hold, it was a freakin’ bear hug. The former New Zealander released him slowly, looking him up and down. It was still quite dark so Dac couldn’t make out individual features, but the voice was unmistakably Brendan’s. “Yep. Good to see you again, mate. It’s been way too long.”
            Time hadn’t passed for too long for Dac, and it’d felt like only hours since he’d last seen the man. Still, he didn’t let the sentiment pass. “Yeah, good to see you too.” He winced as his foot throbbed again. “Sorry, foot’s a bit sore.”
            “Oh, shit!” Brendan cried, slapping his head like he’d forgotten something. “Sorry about that. We’ll fix that up at home.”
            Dac nodded slowly, the dominant burnt grass smell still present. He couldn’t tell where he was, other than the fact that it was alfresco and deeply entrenched in night. “Where’s home? Did they fix Johannesburg?”
            Brendan shook his head. “’Fraid not. We’ve set up shop near here.”
            “Where’s here?”
            “We’re outside New Boston, in Bowie County, Texas,” Brendan replied. “Nothing too fancy, but the base is pretty, at least.”
            That sounded new. “I didn’t know we had a safehouse in Texas.”
            “Oh,” Brendan said slowly, as if only just now realising something majorly important. “Yeah, about that…it’s probably best if I explain it to all of you.”
            “All of us?” Dac echoed, suddenly hopeful. “Did the others survive?”
            “Yeah, you’re all here,” Brendan affirmed, sounding a little hesitant. “Lonie, Trent, Michael, Belinda, Nick, Ash, Anna-”
            “Anna’s alive?” His heart leapt into his throat; he was sure Mary had killed her with that gunshot.
            “Lonie grabbed her, when Dream sent her here,” Brendan told him. “She’s getting better back home. Listen, we really should move-”
            “What’s wrong, Brendan?” Dac’s danger sense started to tingle, not unlike Spider-Man’s. “What aren’t you telling me?” He sniffed again. “And what the hell is that smell?”
            Brendan’s body started to become more defined in Dac’s eyes as his vision started to adapt to the darkness. He saw Brendan’s face contort into a frown. “I’ll explain everything back-”
            “Now. You’ll explain it now.”
            Brendan seemed to grasp that Dac wouldn’t take ‘explain later’ for an answer. He sighed resignedly. “Alright. Come with me.”
            He walked along the ground – which Dac started to notice was actually on some kind of hill, arid and grassless – and up to a rise a short distance away. Light started to flourish in Dac’s vision – bright orange light, all along the skyline he looked at. He didn’t need 20/20 vision to know what it was.
            “Where’d you say we were, again?” he asked trepidatiously.
            “Outside New Boston,” Brendan answered sombrely. “Well, what usedto be New Boston. The attacks have been getting more frequent, but we don’t think he’s discovered where we are yet. This is just blind firing.”
            “By he, I assume you mean Dream.”
            “Mmhmm.” Brendan sighed again. “Listen, Dac, you need to realise,”
            “How did this happen? That entire skyline is on fire! Has he started bombing America now?”
            “Not just America. Everywhere. The whole world’s on fire.”
            Dac jerked his head over to stare incredulously at Brendan. “Are you serious?”
            Brendan made another noise of assent, then, without precede, dropped a bomb on Dac. “You’ve been missing for six years, Dac. The entire team’s been missing for six years.”
            Dac felt as if a black hole had started sucking him in from the inside; his entire body tautened, his mind not truly grasping the concept. “Umm…” he said slowly, fumbling with words, “how…you’re not freakin’ serious, are you?”
            “I wish I weren’t,” Brendan replied morosely. “You were all gone for six years, and Dream did all this.” He spread his arms out to encompass the entire burning landscape. “It’s been a bit of a one-sided war, and it seems like it’s nearing its end. You all came back too late.”
            Dac stood at the rise, looking at the now clearly-defined burning city off in the distance. Reality started to ensue as his gut ejected its contents. He dropped to all fours and threw up over the rise, his body convulsing with every heave.
            When he was finally done he rolled onto his back, staring at what should have been a cloudless, starry sky that had instead been replaced with what looked like thick, impermeable smoke akin to the sky in The Matrix. He didn’t need Brendan to tell him that this was some by-product of the conflict with Dream.
            “But hey, look at the bright side,” Brendan said above him, putting a little bit of cheer into his voice. “You couldn’t have picked a better seat for the end of the world.”

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