Episode 31

This wasn’t the original plan.
Back in the day, we were just an intelligence organisation, and the worst thing we had to deal with in any given week was an overabundance of freedom fighters down in Nova Scotia that needed curbing, or a bombmaker selling their services to a bidder in Dubai that needed to be taught a lesson. You know, low-level stuff.
          Then it got weird. Suddenly we were the front line in a war we didn’t even know we were fighting, moving from common terrorists to supernaturally-powered operatives, torture technicians who specialised in mental manipulation, and a dude with a serious chip on his shoulder for our Director. We went to Toronto, Johannesburg, Russia, Montenegro, Australia…all these places to take him down. None of it meant squat. We still ended up where we are now – the relocation to Texas, the six-year absence, the final battle with Dream…
          All of it led to here, for better or worse. People are probably still talking about what else could’ve happened, how things might’ve been different, but I wouldn’t know. I gave up on people a long time ago.
THE RUINS OF SHANGHAI, CHINA
FIVE MONTHS AFTER THE SIX-YEAR ABSENCE
Chinese night hadn’t gotten any less hot at this time of year, even if the flames had died down ages ago. Lonie had wondered if the ashes of a city would grow cold over time, but given the muggy heat that pervaded the place she guessed they didn’t.
            It was the middle of the night, hopefully outside the time frame when Dream’s automated sentinels came calling to this particular area. The spooks back at the base had nicknamed them ‘Sleepwalkers’ since they mostly appeared in the evening. The fact it was a dreaming term hadn’t been lost on Lonie – the world was obviously so full of creativity today.
            She moved silently between wrecked buildings, ignoring the hot air as best she could and searching for the target. The black visor on her eyes was attuned to detect the target’s frequency, where it would hopefully glow a reasonably eye-catching yellow against the midnight blue tapestry of what had once been a social and technological monolith of the modern world.
            Shanghai, believe it or not, was actually not as bad as many other cities she’d visited recently. It was what they called a ‘Remnant’; ruins still remained where the city had stood. Other places, like Siberia and Taipei, had been absolutely demolished with nothing left but glass and blackened ground. It didn’t seem entirely possible that entire cities – hell, entire countries– had simply been wiped off like marks on a chalkboard. Of the fifty or so places Lonie had visited in her two-month-long quest for the target, Shanghai might even have been the most-intact. Generally speaking.
            “Ramona, this is the Mothership,” the voice in her earpiece suddenly said, jerking her out of her thoughts a little. “Sit-rep.”
            She growled a little when she replied. “Still looking, Dac. Will contact when it’s found.”
            “We need to speed up the timetable. You’ve got ‘walkers inbound.
            “Shit. How many?”
            “Radar estimates around half a dozen. They’ll be on you in six minutes.
            Adrenaline started to flood her system. “Do we know what triggered them?”
            “Not a clue. Get moving.
            Out of all those who’d been displaced by Dream’s stupid little pet project machine thing, Dac was the one acclimatising quickest to the new conditions. Unfortunately, it meant he’d become a bit of a bastard in order to get the job done. Lonie was sure she wasn’t the only one having that opinion.
            She looked up from the ruins she examined and heard the telltale whine of a Sleepwalker’s rotors. The miniguns and flechette launchers were enough to give one nightmares of their own.
            Quietly she uttered a much more potent curse word, then ran deeper into former Shanghai.
CRUD HEADQUARTERS
UNDERNEATH LAND NICKNAMED “THE RANCH”, BOWIE COUNTY, USA
TWO DAYS LATER
Thankfully, it seemed like things were starting to turn around. Just a little.
            Brendan knew it was good news for everyone except Dac, who’d already be planning the next phase in his little vendetta against Doctor Dream. Lonie may have achieved success in Shanghai – at the expense of several of the EMP bomblets that were instrumental in stopping Sleepwalkers – and was now slowly but surely on her way home, but that was just a battle. There was still a war to be fought.
            He looked out at the other people gathered in the mess hall as he sat down with his own meal, alone at his table. It was one of the quieter days they’d had recently, though he knew that wasn’t saying much. Mausoleums were probably more lively places than this.
            The ramifications of arriving six years into their future were still being felt even months later by the displaced former CRUD agents. There was no polite way around it – the team was battered and bruised, and Brendan didn’t know what anyone could do to help. Belinda and Michael had spent most of their time augmenting vehicles in the motorpool, speaking to few except each other and spending all their off hours in their room. Ash was engaged in self-tests regarding her plush body, also keeping verbal contact to a minimum. Nick and Trent spent most of their time either drunk or on missions – not much of a change from the norm, but it seemed like the friendly spark between them had gone out a bit.
            Lonie had gone on her whole solo journeyman thing looking for what she’d found in Shanghai. Anna had spent her days catching up in the library, both for the days she’d been Dream’s captive and the present day. She hadn’t been in the field since arriving.
            And Damian…
            There was still no word on whether he’d appeared or not, and it was starting to worry Brendan. The information he and Jeremy had stolen from Dream four years ago had given vague locations for where each operative would emerge in the future, allowing him to track them and get them to safety before Dream and his nightmarish Sleepwalkers got a hold of them. All except Damian – his entry had been left blank. It meant either Dream really had killed him back in 2012, or he was intentionally withholding information on his whereabouts. Both options didn’t bode well.
            “Remember when the worst thing we had to deal with was Beryl’s haircuts?”
            Jacob was sitting down at the table next to him, smiling and clutching a steaming tray of whatever today’s meagre lunch was. Brendan tensed and immediately dropped a hand to the gun at his side, but Jacob waved him away. “Please. You know I’m not real.”
            “Am I really going that crazy already?”
            Jacob chuckled, taking a mouthful of the imaginary lunch on his fork. “I wouldn’t say I’m borne out of crazy. More like…longing. You’re thinking about how it all used to be. How you wish it would be again.” He swallowed pointedly. “Those days are over, my friend. Gotta learn to adapt.”
            Brendan fixed the hallucination with a steely look. “I did. It’s how I survived.”
            “But what’s the point of survival if all it does is prolong that tired old thing you call a life?” Jacob replied, raising an eyebrow. “What was the idea behind keeping yourself alive for six years, just to watch the world burn to the ground?”
            “There’s still a way to fight,” Brendan insisted. The ludicrousness of speaking to himself in this manner was not lost on him. “We can sort all this out.”
            “Spare me the melodramatic exposition, B,” Jacob retorted, laying down his fork. “You’re not talking to the real Jacob, you know. Espousing your plans won’t help.”
            “Maybe I’ve just needed a sounding board.” Brendan let frustration enter his tone. “Since no-one here seems to want to talk. Maybe I made you out of sheer annoyance at how tight-lipped everyone is.”
            “Well, that does sound like crazy to me,” Jacob snorted, standing up from the table. “It’s a wonder you and Jeremy managed to hold it together this long. I mean, seriously – what was the point of starting your own little CRUD offshoot in that six-year time jump if all you’re gonna do is stick them with the old dogs who won’t bark anymore? What did you actually achieve in those six years? What progress did you make in your battle against Dream?”
            Brendan clenched his fist, feeling anger rise inside him. No-one else in the mess hall regarded him even slightly, so either he wasn’t actually talking or they just weren’t listening. “Shut up.”
            “How can I? I’m your subconscious, finally cluing you into the bleeding obvious.” He leaned down to whisper right into Brendan’s ear. “Your plan’s failing. It’s all crumbling down around you. They’re not adapting, and you’re not winning fast enough.” His voice dropped until it was barely audible. “Just give up. Save yourself the humiliation.”
            “I said, shut up.” Brendan said through gritted teeth.
            “And I mean, really, how can you expect to contend with Mary’s little operation-”
            “I SAID SHUT THE HELL UP!
            In a whirlwind movement Brendan stood and threw his tray in Jacob’s direction, but as soon as he rose the apparition vanished and his tray splattered its contents against the wall. The ear-piercing quiet of the mess hall appeared to drop deeper as everyone present finally looked over at him, watching the tray slide sadly to the ground with a smear of lunch trailing like blood above it. Brendan looked at each of them in turn – Nick, Michael, Belinda, Trent, Ash, Dac, even Jeremy – as they regarded him warily. Without a word Brendan turned on his heel and left, his fist still clenched tightly.
            He wasn’t going crazy, and they weren’t losing. There was still hope now that Lonie had found what they needed. There had to be. Otherwise, the Jacob phantasm was right – what was the point?
            Why bother to continue the war if all it meant was a slower path to the grave?
            No, I’m not thinking like that. We’re not done.
I’mnot done.
The tests were not going well. Ash didn’t need a doctorate in biochemistry to work that out.
            The doctors had studied her for five months, and still had absolutely no idea how or why her human consciousness was able to inhabit a body made of nothing but plush limbs and dead flesh. There was no electrical charge, no actual brain activity, nothing to suggest from an objective perspective that the seven-and-a-half-foot tall behemoth of artificial limbs was in any way functional.
            Obviously, her constant growling and impatience to get the hell out of the labs were indication things weren’t that simple.
            To be fair, the techies and doctors back at the Johannesburg HQ had made much the same analysis. They’d been a bit lazier, content to label her a genetic freak accident and continue about their work on more important, pressing matters – like installing a homicidal AI in their base computer. The selfish part of Ash was just a little bit glad the techies had been punished for their hubris that way.
            Right now, she was anything but glad. Dac had ordered her here, standing still for three hours while she was poked and prodded all over. She’d like to see him stand up to all these invasive procedures. Who knew, it might even make him more grumpy and less stoic.
            The lead doctor, some skinny brunette guy whose name she’d forgotten, stood in front of her with a tablet PC and a strange expression on his face. “Agent Ash – sorry, you don’t have a surname listed here…”
            “I never had one,” she replied simply. She tried to keep the rumble out of her voice that had come with the new body, it tended to unnerve people. “I was amnesiac when CRUD found me, ten years ago. They just gave me my first name after all the stuff they found on me.”
            The doctor raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
            “Ash,” she said. “There was ash all over me. I’d been in some kind of fire.”
            “Oh.” He examined the tablet pointedly, keeping his eyes away from her. “That’s, um, that’s not listed here on your personnel file…”
            She didn’t feel like a life story right now, but what else was there to do? Focus on the boredom? “It was classified information. But hey, my old boss is dead and the world’s coming to an end, so what the hell?”
            “He’s not dead.”
            Both Ash and the doctor looked towards the door to the science lab, where Dac stood in the entrance. He stepped forward carefully, keeping eyes on Ash. “He’ll be out there somewhere, and we’ll find him.”
            The dead tone in his voice didn’t make Ash feel confident in the slightest. “So why aren’t we out there looking for him, instead of fiddling around in here? Is that why Lonie went to Shanghai?”
            “No, she’s finding something else in there. Right now, we’ve got more important matters.” He held his hand out to the doctor, who passed him the tablet wordlessly. “I’m afraid testing needs to be cut short, Ash. I’ve got a job for you.”
            Finally, a break from the eggheads and prodding. She resisted the urge to look glad while the doctor still watched her. “Who do I get to kill?”
            Dac shook his head. “No-one. We’re putting you in charge of civilian relocation out of Sydney.”
            The glee she’d felt at being freed from the lab was quickly quashed. She frowned. “Sydney? As in, Australia? As in, miles away from the combat zone?”
            “The combat zone is global,” Dac explained, his tone still devoid of life. “There are pockets of civilian resistance in some of the western areas around Sydney, and I want them evacuated to The Ranch.”
            Now that was stupid. She stared at him incredulously. “You want to bring them towards the fighting? You want them under our roof, that gets shelled on a daily basis?”
            He nodded simply, as if it were so obvious. “I do. I want them brought here by the end of next week. There’s an old passenger ferry with enough fuel-”
            “No.” Her voice was flat, with a hint of threat in it. “No way. I’m not dragging any lambs to slaughter.”
            He sighed. “Ash-”
            “No, this is enough,” she said firmly. “You’ve been distant and devoid of life for weeks now, and I’ve had enough.” She gestured out of the lab, in the direction of the cafeteria. “They’ve had enough. You need to either explain shit to us now, or let us do this our way.”
            Dac’s voice finally regained a bit of flavour, becoming firmer and more commanding. “This is not the time to question the chain of command. You have to trust that I know what I’m doing.”
            “You mean like when you sent Nick on that solo recon mission to the Boston Remnant that almost got him killed by Sleepwalkers? You mean like the assassination attempt on Mary that got sixty civilians murdered instead?” She let the rumble flow in her voice like a wild river. “Are those the kind of things we need to trust you on?”
            Without another word Dac walked over to a nearby surgical table, grabbing a large bone saw sitting there. He slashed sideways and took Ash’s head off just below the neck, the bulbous orb crashing to the ground with a heavy, wet thump. Ash’s vision blurred and refocused as she stared from her spot on the ground at Dac, the saw clutched in his hand and a determined expression on his face. The doctor had stepped back, wanting no part of any of this.
            Fury built inside Ash as her erstwhile commanding officer crouched down next to her. She wasn’t bleeding, didn’t feel any pain and just felt phantom limbs from everything below her chin, but she still felt incredible rage at what he’d just done.
            “The doctors can sew you back together,” Dac said quietly, “and then you’re heading to Sydney. I do not have the time or the inclination to put up with disobedience. Do as I ask, and maybe we’ll get out of this situation alive.” He stood, the end of the saw inches from her upturned nose. “Am I understood?”
            All she wanted at that moment was to reach her hand forward and rip his throat out for such impertinence. His extreme behaviour was becoming a problem, and this just affirmed it. Instead, she made a growl in the back of her detached throat. “Understood.”
            He nodded, satisfied, and left the lab. The doctor beckoned his team over to start reattaching Ash’s head, as thoughts of enacting a similar punishment on Dac anesthetised her to the pain that started to blossom in her.
THE PANOPTICON – DOCTOR DREAM’S FORTRESS
THE RUINS OF NEW YORK CITY, USA
“The world is changing, for the last time.”
            Dream’s guest would not be responsive, he knew that. It still gave Dream pleasure to taunt him this way, though, with this diatribe of what most would term ‘insane’ but what Dream believed to be ‘prophetic’. With age had come wisdom, and that wisdom had sharpened clarity into an almost razor-edged relief.
            It gave him unbridled view of what was to come, what should become. He knew, in the very bones of his being, how all of this would end. It made him gleeful almost to the point of exuberance to tease his guest with this knowledge. The knowledge that they would not be successful, in any sense of the word.
            He turned from the window of the Panopticon, the mighty fortress tower from which he could see the entire world he had imprisoned in his destructive thrall. Had Jeremy Bentham, the original philosopher behind the Panopticon’s initial birth as a social institution, been alive to see the structural marvel that Dream had built on the festered ruins of one of his greatest enemies, Dream was sure he would have approved. This tower saw the world’s prisoners as they were meant to be seen; shackled, hopeless and dwindling. Ever-watched, and nothing escaped his gaze.
            His guest was seated, against his will, at a simple mahogany table with a chair at each end. The table itself was barren save for a small recording device sitting near the guest’s seat. Dream walked slowly towards the unwilling occupant, a fresh thought entering his prescient mind.
            “You should have helped me, you know,” he said without malice or accusation. “All I wanted was unity. Perfect balance between us and the forces of nature. If you’d allowed me to continue my work, and bring things together the way they were meant to be, this could all have been avoided.
            “But now,” he went on, resting a hand on the guest’s shoulder, “it’s all ruined. The Dream Machine has played its part, yes, but the steps after…none of them have occurred. The portents have not made themselves known.”
            His guest could only scowl, his mouth gagged with a handkerchief. Dream debated removing it, then perished the thought; he needed to oust every idle word from his mind before allowing his creator to speak.
            “And of course, there is your precious Project Starfire. Still hidden, still unknown to me.” He bent down, whispering into Damian’s ear. “Where is it? Why has it stopped me from completing my task?”
            The former Director Ashcroft merely glared daggers at his captor, his bruised and beaten face still allowing a piercing gaze to strike out from his tired eyes. Dream knew that, were he not gagged, he would no doubt be hurling taunts or insults at the progeny he’d unintentionally spawned.
            Dream went on as if Damian’s answer had been one he hadn’t liked. “It really is so very, very unfortunate. I can see it all with such transparency, such unrivalled clarity. Every mission, every death, every failed experiment, all has led us to this juncture. Things could not happen any other way.”
            “Mmey smml cmmd.”
            He had spoken through the handkerchief, his stupid words muffled. Dream reached forward and snatched the gag away, his eyes looking over Damian quizzically. “What was that?”
            The creator took a breath, flexing his jaw a little. “They still could. Things could still happen differently.”
            Thatwas what he had to say? Dream groaned; what a waste. “The voice of hope springing eternal. Utterly pointless.”
            “That Dream Machine of yours,” Damian said. “Why keep it? I know it’s still operational, someone could-”
            With a sudden burst of annoyance Dream backhanded him across the face and knocked him, still bound in his chair, to the ground. He cried out in pain as he hit the floor, Dream crouching down to stare at him with a frustrated expression.
            “We really are two different halves of a once-whole, aren’t we?” he asked rhetorically. “You don’t understand anything. What an absolute shame.”
            The strike had split Damian’s lip; he spat blood to the side before speaking. “I understand you perfectly, Dream. Better than you think.”
            A quiet fury boiled away in Dream. Pontificating and portending aside, Damian really was nothing but useless detritus in the grand tapestry of his plan. He didn’t even know why he was bothering to inform his erstwhile creator of the how and why of his grand designs. It would be so easy to just kill him now, a remnant of an age far removed from the Time of Nightmare.
            No, that would be too easy. And there was one use Dream knew that Damian could fulfil.
            He stood from his fallen captive and called out for assistance. Jacob and Mary walked in swiftly, their crimson robes of office as Dream’s foremost lieutenants adding a stark contrast to the Doctor’s usual black garb.
            “You called, sir?” Jacob asked, sounding vaguely amused as he looked at Damian’s stricken form.
            Dream regarded them both, his most loyal and trustworthy children. “We are finally moving towards the end. As such, there are events that we must set in motion.” He looked at Jacob. “Send word to our forces around the world that they must consolidate their efforts here. The other continents are now immaterial. North America is the priority.”
            Jacob bowed his head, smiling at his master. “You got it.” He flicked his eyes towards Damian. “What are we doing with him?”
            “Completing a circle,” Dream told him curtly. “Now go.” As the Intern hurried off Dream now spoke to Mary. “Your agents are ready for the final assault on this…Ranch?”
            Mary nodded. Her face gave no hint of glee or mirth the way Jacob’s had, but Dream knew she was committed to him nonetheless. “It won’t be too hard to take them down. All we need are some explosives and ground forces to clean up any stragglers.”
            “Good,” Dream affirmed. “They are the last potent pocket of resistance. Their demise will serve as the herald for our coming victory. We shall soon reach the zenith of our mission.”
            “Why aren’t they dead yet?” Damian’s voice called to them from where he lay on the floor. “You could’ve killed them when they arrived five months ago. You could’ve let them die back in Russia, six years before that. Why let them live until now?”
            “Ah,” Dream said, surprised Damian hadn’t asked that question in the five months he’d been a prisoner. “That would be far too easy. No, they will be given special treatment. The world will finally break as I will it, and they will be the last men and women alive to see it. I shall bring them to the lowest depth possible, before ending their miserable little lives. They will be devoid of hope, of optimism.”
            The smile he gave Damian was so wide and malevolent it made fear appear in the former Director’s eyes. “It will be my sweetest victory.”
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