The success in Shanghai was juxtaposed with the failure we experienced at Sydney; Dream had been waiting for us, and the mission there ended in a massacre. Seven hundred of the last free men on Earth, wiped from its face in a storm of fire.
It would be fairly accurate to say that was the first sign we were nearing the end.
Don’t get me wrong, we’d known for a while. Dream had stepped up his campaign in the five months since we re-emerged from the ether. He’d planned almost everything, down to the last detail. I would later learn that it had all been orchestrated to lay us low on bended knee, make us supplicant in the face of adversity and despair.
Doctor Dream wasn’t so much a person by then, rather a force of nature. The grudge he bore against Damian had evolved into something far greater than mere animosity, or the childish anger one feels at a parent. It had now subsumed the Doctor into a malevolent, calculating mind. His visions of prophecy – more often than not with elements of truth to them – gave him belief in his near-omnipotent status. From his Panopticon, in the fetid carcass that had once been New York City, the architect of the Time of Nightmare moved everything towards fruition.
It had all become beyond personal for him, and his goal could not be accomplished until we were all truly and utterly defeated – body, mind and soul.
CRUD HQ – THE RANCH, BOWIE COUNTY, USA
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Brendan asked.
Anna, already feeling it was a question that had been over-asked, nodded again. “Yes, I’m sure. Do we have another choice?”
“There’s always LSD,” Trent piped up unhelpfully.
“That is the single most ridiculous thing you’ve ever suggested,” she shot back with a glare.
Trent gave her an offended expression. “You mean it’s more ridiculous than the catapult idea?”
Nick raised a hand towards Trent, the other covering his stomach. “Pleasedon’t mention the catapult again. The toilet still hasn’t forgiven me for the first time I reacted to it.”
The fallen god seemed confused. “But it was just-”
“Shut up,” Dac commanded, his cold air putting an immediate damper on everything else. Anna made a mental note to speak to him about all that later – if she survived.
All eyes turned to him and Brendan as they worked the surgical apparatus’ controls. The former New Zealander stuck in the control package Lonie had scavenged from Shanghai, and the program began to load.
Anna could feel her breathing start to get more rapid. She clutched the arms of the surgical chair harder as the long metal arm extended itself towards her, the steel skullcap at its end resting on her head. There were no words as it sealed itself around her head, blocking out all light and gassing her with anaesthetic. Within seconds she had passed out.
As she came to, no longer in the waking world but now within the mind of her body’s former owner, she heard a deep, familiar voice start to boom in every corner of her skull.
I WAS HERE AT THE BEGINNING, AND I WILL BE HERE AT THE END.
THAT IS THE ONE CONSTANT BEHIND EVERYTHING I HAVE DONE, AND EVERYTHING I AM YET TO DO.
Lonie still didn’t know why Trent hadn’t just zapped Anna instead of all this complicated surgical business. He was a god – if not a proper one, at least he had some residual powers handy – so why hadn’t he just extracted what they needed from her right away?
There was so much about the last few years she feared she’d never fully understand, not least of which was Trent’s catapult idea. It still gave her nightmares that sometimes rivalled Dream’s machinations themselves.
She’d gotten back from Shanghai with the control program in hand, a veritable success in a war of constant losses for what had once been a simple counterintelligence agency. It always struck her – and many she spoke to – as odd that their little band of counter-terrorists had blossomed into something of a haphazard army, far removed from their original purpose. The more she thought about it, the more she wished for simpler times when all that really mattered were the law books under her arm, or the regulations she’d quote at dissenting colleagues whenever she felt undervalued as a lawyer.
Hell, part of her would give up her new firearms proficiency and tactical training if it meant going back to those days. At least then the world wouldn’t be burning.
She was in the command center underneath The Ranch, reading field reports of Ash’s pullback from Sydney. She’d encountered heavy resistance, despite Dac’s belief there would be none, and had only made it out with fifteen civilians. Out of a colony of over seven hundred.
One step forward, two steps back.
Nick stepped in as she finished one of her reports. He held two cups of coffee, proffering one to her with a smile. “You look buggered.”
She graciously took it from him, taking a long drink and not caring that it was black and bitter. “They should really call them Sleepsprinters or Sleepmarathonrunners. They don’t ‘walk’ at all.”
He chuckled, taking a seat next to her at the info desk. The large radar screen above them showed some of Dream’s hotspots where the fighting was fiercest; though, fighting was something of an exaggeration. It was more like a prolonged massacre these days.
“I’ve got to ask you something,” he said, cutting away preamble. “How much do you know about Jeremy Birch?”
Lonie thought for a moment – truth be told there wasn’t a lot she could say about him. “Not much. Why?”
“I’ve got concerns.” He looked around quickly before continuing. “He and Brendan are awfully close, and as far as I can tell Jeremy hasn’t gone on a single operation yet. He’s just stayed here, ‘keeping watch’ over things.”
“So? What’s odd about that?”
“We don’t know him!” Nick protested. “All the rest of us – you, me, Belinda, Ash – we were all together before the time jump. We can trust each other. But him? He’s a stranger. I don’t give a shit if Brendan trusts him. Trent and I don’t.”
She frowned. “I really don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t. Have you tried speaking to him yet?”
He opened his mouth but stopped short of speaking, closing it quickly and thinking for a moment. “No. I haven’t. What if it turns out he’s one of Dream’s agents? What if he’s another Intern?”
For some reason he was starting to irritate her with this conspiratorial garbage. She got up, leaving her coffee undrunk. “If he is, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Excuse me.”
She walked off as he remained silent, but as much as his theory seemed born out of nowhere, she couldn’t help but think. Who was he? Why did Brendan trust him so implicitly?
And why hadn’t he left the Ranch in the five months since they’d got here?
“Alright, hit it!”
Trent pushed all the strength he could muster into his hand blasts and gripped the power rods tightly. Energy surged into the coils, and the level dial shot straight to the top. The generator sung happily with crackling energy once again.
He let go of the rods, electricity thriving once again. It wasn’t the first time this week they’d needed more of a jump-start – his energy, while potent, seemed to be used up quite quickly.
While to a lesser extent than others – notably Ash – the scientists had fiddled around over the last few months to see what made Trent tick. Despite numerous pleas that stated in no uncertain terms what he really was and why exactly he could eject a person across a room using nothing but a fancy lightshow, they still weren’t convinced. It was the folly of science, he thought – they couldn’t accept a faith-based answer, since it didn’t fit into their grand tapestry of physiological understanding. What was that old adage – ‘ye of little faith’?
Not that faith was exactly at a premium at the Ranch right now. Not since Dac had burned his little black quote book.
That was really the sign they were screwed.
He left the engineers to their jobs, adjusting power input from the surge he’d just given them, and was on his way out when he saw Jeremy in the doorway to the reactor level. The smug-looking bastard stood with a clipboard and stared pointedly at Trent as he approached.
He grunted. “Not in the mood, Remy.”
Jeremy grimaced, still not appreciating the nickname. “I’m afraid I’ve got to insist. We’ve got a bit of a problem here.”
“You mean beyond the world ending? Or is this a Dac-shaped issue?”
“I’ve already spoken to Director Rogers-”
“Oh, we’re calling him Director now? Thought that job was taken.”
“The former Director Ashcroft is curren-”
“Get to the point, Remy.”
Jeremy paused, fixing Trent with a narrow glare. “Ash is returning with the last refugees from Sydney. Once she’s done that, we will have as many free civilians as we can safely rescue from all parts of the world.”
Trent shrugged. “So?”
“So we need to think about a contingency plan.”
Trent rolled his eyes, stepping past Jeremy and walking out of the reactor level. “Not this again.”
“Yes, this again,” Jeremy insisted, walking beside him. “Director Rogers thinks my plans are promising.”
“The only thing promising about Dac is that he’s on the way to a severe facial alteration,” Trent shot back. “Ash only just got out of surgery. They had to reattach her head. Do you not see how screwed up that is?”
“Well, yes, but-”
“So why,” Trent continued, barrelling past him, “is he not off the active duty roster? Why isn’t he sedated, or at the very least lying on a therapist’s couch?”
“Do you happen to know a local therapist?”
“Do you happen to know you’re aggravatingly pedantic?”
“It’s been said.”
“Good. Now answer the question.”
Jeremy’s hand shot out and grabbed Trent by the bicep. He had half a mind to through the asshole into the nearest wall, but Jeremy’s words stopped him. “We are under immense pressure, and despite appearances to the contrary, Director Rogers is the best-equipped man for this job. Regardless of what you might think. There is plenty going on that you don’t know about, and he’s handling it the best he possibly can.”
Trent stared at the brown-nose’s fingers for a moment before shrugging himself free. “Whatever. I still think your idea sucks.”
“But can’t you see-”
“No, Jeremy,” he replied flatly. “I can’t see the point in sending everyone to the moon.”
Brendan watched from a distance as Jeremy extolled the virtues of an interstellar safehouse. Not for the first time, Trent wasn’t buying it.
He should’ve killed Jeremy for laying hands on him, but something had stayed his hand. Had he discerned who – and what – Jeremy really was? Did he understand now?
There were too many variables, and they’d come too far to let it all be undone now. Brendan continued to observe them, ignoring the voice of Jacob prattling away in the back of his mind.
With that kind of attitude, people might think he was crazy.
It was days like this that Dac really missed his quote book.
It had been one of the first things he’d destroyed upon looking at the brave new world he’d emerged in, deciding there was really no place for humour or one-liners in the bleak landscape before him. It had been a quiet thing, just tossing it into the open reactor chamber with a few people who happened to be nearby. Somehow, it felt like he was at once removing a cancer and a treasured limb.
None of the rest understood, except maybe Jeremy. The neophyte agent seemed to have taken to Dac’s harsher work ethic quicker than the others. That might come in handy later.
He sat at his desk, commander of the once-great agency that had safeguarded the world from countless terrorist threats. Now, unless things went exactly as he needed them to, that world would fall. His plan was risky, and based on a lot of unknown variables, but if he could knuckle through with the greater restrictions he’d placed upon his comrades they might live to see another year.
Or will I lose my humanity before then?
It was a thought that had crossed his mind before; would saving all of them end up damning him in the end? Could he return to the sceptical, wisecracking man he’d once been if he kept up this Lenin-esque regime, or would he be stuck in this personal ennui forever? Was it already too late?
He badly wanted to make them all see that what he intended would keep them safe, and bring what was left of the world back into the light. But he couldn’t. He didn’t want to possibly give them a beautiful lie if it was compared to the inevitable truth of them failing. Dream winning was not outside the realm of possibility. It all hinged on what Anna would tell them once the module Lonie had retrieved had run its course.
That control package had been a project being run out of Shanghai RnD back when CRUD had had a research facility there. The only people who’d known about it were Dac, Damian and a few of the admin staff – the latter of which were all dead – so once he’d returned Dac had set them to work finding it. If it did what it purported to-
His musing was interrupted as Nick burst into his office. “She’s ready,” he said without waiting.
Dac stood, putting on the cold, emotionless veneer that seemed to be replacing his real attitude more and more these days. “Can she talk?”
Nick nodded emphatically. “Oh yes, she can talk.”
“Where is he?” Anna screamed, moving her arms wildly in the surgical apparatus’ restraints. “Where the hell is Dac? I need him right goddamn now!”
She could see him coming over then, over the protestations of the medics as they tried to calm her. He was flanked on both sides by Nick and Brendan, the latter of whom looked like sleep had been minimal for him recently. None of that mattered though. She had to get it all out, while it was still fresh.
“What happened?” Dac asked swiftly.
“Oh god,” she replied, her loud bellowing replaced by a broken, crying voice. “It’s worse than we…god damn him. It’s all Damian’s fault.”
Brendan’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Damian started all this,” she went on, the hot memories of Dream’s past life seared into her mind’s eye. “That…that son of a bitch. It’s all his fault.”
Dac laid a hand on her shoulder with a more gentle touch than she would’ve expected. “What did he do, Anna?”
She choked back tears, shaking her head a little. “He made Dream. He’s Dream’s…I dunno, father? Brother? Whatever the hell.” Her voice cracked further. “He split himself, like soul mitosis…made another person…oh my god…” She started weeping again, trying hard to fight it but failing. It was all still too much.
“Did you find out how to kill him?” Dac asked.
She heard Nick sound sarcastic. “Couldn’t we just, y’know, shoot him?”
“Won’t work,” she said through her sobs. “We need Starfire.”
She could feel all three men tense; they knew what it was. Dac seemed to recover quickly. “Alright, we’ll setup Starfire immed-”
“That’s not…” She stopped, trying to find the right words for the next part. “That’s not it.”
“Not what?” Brendan asked.
“Damian…making Dream…that’s not the worst part.”
Dac immediately dropped down towards Anna, his face inches from her. “Then tell me,” he said, his voice barely audible yet with a slight crack to it, “what’s the worst part?”