Episode 34

When you get right down to it, Dream’s plan made no sense whatsoever.
          Seriously, a man takes down the entire world because his creator/father-thing taught him what hate was? Sounds a little Haley Joel Osment, if you ask me.
          But it’s how it was. I remember thinking at the time that, idiotic or not, Dream’s actions had left us with almost no options. No wiggle room. He’d laid us low, alright. So low, we were practically at the bottom already.
          And that was before we knew someone else had ripped off Damian’s schtick. Someone else had made a person out of emotion.
          While we didn’t know it yet, that would turn out to be one of the best things that could ever have happened to us.
THE RANCH, UNDERNEATH TEXAS
TWO HOURS AFTER THE GENETIC MEMORY EXPERIMENT
Predictably, an emergency meeting of all senior members was called in the conference room once the higher-ups had had time to digest everything.
            In all honesty, the backstory about how and why Dream was a douchebag was of only academic value to Trent right now. All that mattered most were two things – first, that Damian was, at least for now, still alive in Dream’s creepy prison tower thing. And second…
            “Someone else used the emotion splitting thing?” Nick yelled.
            Brendan raised a hand to placate him. “Calm down, Nick.”
            “No, I will not goddamn calm down!” Nick spluttered. He rounded on Dac. “You’re telling us there’s possibly another Dream running around right now?”
            Dac nodded. “That’s what Anna’s told me,” he replied simply.
            Nick’s eyes widened in disbelief. “And you’re not worried about that? You’re not concerned that an ageless, time-travelling psychopath might turn out to have some kind of cousin out there with him?!”
            “That is a distinct possibility,” Dac answered, his tone neutral and calm.
            “Bitching about it doesn’t help us now,” Lonie interjected. “We need to-”
            “What we need to do,” Nick screamed, now rounding on Lonie, “is find the nearest supply of cyanide capsules and down the lot of them! To hell with this! I’m not sticking around to get tortured by a pair of those assholes!”
            Trent’s hands flared a little, unbidden, and anger rose in him. “You’re chickening out now?” he asked, his tone low and dangerous. “Seriously?”
            “Anna’s right,” Nick shot back. “What Dream said about there being no hope? That we’re all screwed anyway? Yup. One hundred percent correct. Why bother breathing if all-”
            “You utter coward,” Ash spat from across the conference table. “You completely and utterly feckless coward. The very last thing we need right now is one of our best agents taking off to…do what, exactly? Commit suicide? How the hell does that help anyone?”
            “You didn’t complain when Belinda and Michael left!” Nick retorted. “Are they cowards too?”
            That was news to Trent. In all honesty, he hadn’t noticed their absence from the table much. “Belinda and Michael are gone?”
            “Just after the alert sounded,” Nick replied, dropping his voice a little. “Took a chopper and pissed off. They’re out of radar range, probably dead.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “I was in deep cover with Dream for a while. I saw some of the things he did, and that’s bad enough. But two of them? Nuh uh. Not happening.”
            “How do we know it’s another Dream?” Brendan asked rationally. “Maybe whoever used it did so to use against Dream. Did you consider that?” Trent had to agree, it was a likely possibility. Though the way their luck was going these days…
            “Yeah, I considered that,” Nick said sarcastically. “Decided it wasn’t worth risking my sanity over if I’m wrong.” He stood from the table. “Now, unless there’s anything-”
            Click.
            No one had noticed that Dac had stood, had drawn a pistol and aimed it squarely at Nick’s chest. The entire room became like a black hole, the silence piercing Trent’s ears. His hands hummed to life; this wasn’t the time to start team-killing, and if need be he’d take Dac down before things got ridiculous.
            Actually, I think we’re beyond ridiculous now.
            Dac spoke slowly and calmly. “You will sit back down at this table, or I will kill you. I can’t let you leave here, not now.”
            Nick bristled, squaring his shoulders up. Trent knew he was smart enough to know when he’d been beaten, but the way things had gotten desperate recently might mean he’d try something stupid. Every other occupant at the table sat and watched wordlessly.
            “You wouldn’t.”
            Ash raised a hand meekly. It was almost comical to Trent how the hulking mass of plush limbed death suddenly looked cowed like a child. “Actually, he would.”
            The two men stared across the table at each other, clearly waiting for something to happen. The silence stretched into a full minute before Dac broke it. “I did not sacrifice my sanity, my personality, and everything else that I am, becoming the hollowed-out asshole I am now, just so that you can run like a coward. You will sit in that chair, and we willfind a way to beat this son of a bitch.” He gripped the gun harder. “Or, I put a bullet in your head. Your choice.”
            Not once did he raise his voice. That scared Trent – and ever since he’d re-embraced his powers and remembered how much of a god he was, there was precious little that could really frighten him.
            Nick finally sat, saying nothing. Dac lowered the gun, looking satisfied, before taking his own seat too. Lonie, Brendan and Ash all looked away, equally wordless. Trent couldn’t help but follow suit.
            “Once Anna is released from the infirmary,” Dac told them, his quiet voice feeling loud in the tense silence, “we will begin the activation procedure for Project Starfire. It is the only method of defence we have left.”
            Lonie put up a hand almost as nervously as Ash had done. “I’ve heard that name. What is it?”
           
THE PANOPTICON, RUINS OF NEW YORK CITY
“Imagine a gene so powerful, it can undo reality.”
            It wasn’t the first time Dream had espoused the virtues of Project Starfire, but Jacob always felt intrigued whenever he did. The concept still seemed so alien to him, like it shouldn’t be possible. He sat with Mary, Owen, Tiberius and the bound pair of sibling captives at Dream’s spacious dining table. Both Damian and Beth glared at Dream, their mouths covered in duct tape, as he stood at the head of the table, loudly proclaiming his diatribe.
            “This is the nature of Starfire,” he went on. “It was designed to create something made to un-create. To disassemble. Or re-assemble, if need be. But of course, being a military project, the former was the intended result.” He strode towards Damian. The wounds from his last beating still hadn’t fully healed. “To think you believed you could play God, like you did with me. To think your precious Starfire might one day build a real superman, someone powerful enough to remake the world and remove its snares. Such a simple, humanistic goal…and yet, so utterly misguided.
            “Weare the inheritors of the world you so cherish, and we don’t need your gene therapy.” He grabbed Damian by the cheeks, bringing his face around to look at him. The former Director looked away. “You shrouded it in secrecy for so long, so that none but the most trusted were aware. To what end? Why hide your second-greatest accomplishment?”
            Jacob didn’t need to ask to know that the first was Dream himself – at least, that’s how Dream saw it.
            “You didn’t need fancy genetic alterations to fix the world,” Dream went on. He reached into his robes and retrieved a pistol, weighing it in his hands. “There’s plenty already in the world that can be used for such things. Why make more clutter?”
            He looked over at Beth. “Can you not understand that we have all we need right here?” Without warning he threw the gun, butt-first, towards Jacob, who caught it out of the air. He didn’t know where Dream was going with this, but played along anyway. He enjoyed seeing them both squirm, even if they were the closest thing he had had to parents.
            “See?” Dream asked the two of them rhetorically. “Now I’ve given Jacob the power. He doesn’t need a superman gene, he doesn’t need the powers of a fallen god. He doesn’t even need my ability to see all. He simply holds the gun, and wields the power. That’s all it takes.” He looked over at Jacob encouragingly. “Destruction is the only tool needed to reshape the world. Removing the inhibitive elements paves the way for reformation. We can rebuild the world as we need it, with our own two hands, without relying on the science you so worship.” He glared darkly at Beth. “Or using the deceitful nature you harbour.”
            He stood back from them both, raising his hands into the air grandly. “All is one within Dream! I am the epitome of your science, your deceit, your anger and your lust and your hope! Can you not understand why I’ve done all of this? Can you not see the resurrection awaiting us at the end of our difficult road?”
            All was silent for a moment, and Jacob wondered why he hadn’t been this pontificate-y before now. There were times he pushed the envelope with the diatribe a little, but now…
            “Amm dmm.”
            It was Beth, speaking into her duct tape. She was looking straight at Dream, her eyes full of the fire Jacob remembered when he’d first come to Red Square, when she’d shown him his true potential as a Mancheerian agent. It was a good sign; since her betrayal six years ago she’d appeared drained, defeated, a shadow of her former, conniving self. While he didn’t want to question the miracle, Jacob wondered what had suddenly spurred her back into life.
            Was Dream’s preaching really that effective?
            The Doctor leaned across Damian, who recoiled in disgust while bound in his chair, and ripped the duct tape off Beth’s mouth. She let out a breath and moved her jaw back into life before repeating herself. “I do. I see the resurrection.”
            Dream clapped his hands joyfully. “Excellent! I knew you would see! I knew you would understand!”
            She nodded slowly, a smile spreading across her lips. “I do understand. I see now, almost as clearly as you. I see you for the wretched, despicable, immovable creature that you are.” Her voice rose as she went on, but she didn’t shout. “I see you believe your revenge is justified, when all it’s done is burn this world to a hollow carcass. I see you abuse the gifts my brother gave you, even if he was misguided enough to form your evil in the first place. And I see, now more than ever, that I have no place in your grand and glorious Time of Nightmare.” She narrowed her glare at him, still smiling, and her tone dripped with venom. “You are a hateful bastard, Doctor Dream, and you will fail. It’s just a pity I won’t be there to see it.”
            She looked sideways at her brother, her gaze softening a little and her mouth firming. “I’m sorry. I know it can’t…” She stopped, as if thinking of what to say next. “Ah, fuck it.”
            Then, she stared straight at Jacob – her Intern, the closest thing she’d ever had to a child. She uttered two words.
            “Black violet.”
            Before Jacob could stop himself the hand holding the gun raised. With precision aiming honed through years of conditioning and training he fired, unbidden, right between her eyes. The bullet punched through her skull, splattering blood and brain matter behind her head like a grotesque, ephemeral flower. Some of it sprayed onto Damian beside her, who jumped in his chair in shock. Beth’s eyes rolled backwards into her head, and her body – still in its chair – keeled backwards without a word. She crashed to the ground, the whites of her eyes staring up into nothing.
            Owen screamed. “Mother!” He rounded on Jacob, his eyes burning with hatred. “You son of a-”
            Jacob shot again, without thinking, giving Beth’s future progeny a wound the same as her own. His head snapped backwards from the impact and his body was thrown from the chair, blood spraying across Tiberius, who sat next to him and recoiled in horror. Owen landed in a heap on the cold floor of the dining room.
            No-one had ever bothered to ask how he still existed when Tucker had died six years ago. Maybe Dream had lied about his heritage. It didn’t really matter anymore.
            Had Beth suddenly come unstuck? Was her whole personality just something Dream had made her into? Or did she really understand that what she’d done was wrong – or, at least, what she perceived to be wrong – and this was the only penance she could exact?
            And if she, one of the most ingrained and violent personalities he’d ever met, could repent, did that mean the same for the Intern she’d created?
            As Dream screamed, losing his equilibrium, for guards and a cleanup crew to hurry to the dining room, Jacob lowered the smoking gun, and realised he may never know the anwer.
Mary was not blind to Jacob’s problems as they lay beside each other in bed that evening. ‘Rattled’ didn’t even begin to describe how he looked, especially for one usually so unflappable as he.
            She reached a hand over to his cheek as he stared at the ceiling. “You couldn’t have known you still had a trigger.”
            “Dream should’ve realised,” he responded curtly. “When he took me back, when he made sure the old Jacob was gone, he should’ve deprogrammed any lingering phrases. He didn’t. He knew this would happen.” She felt his fist clench under the blankets. “I thought I was back in control.”
            “You are,” she soothed. “She can’t trigger you anymore.”
            “But that’s the thing,” he said, turning in bed to face her directly. “I wantedher there as my trigger. Ever since I shed that ridiculous fake self, and became who I really am, I’ve felt secure because I was meant to be. I was something that she said was complete, something real, just like her. But if she was able to reject Dream, if she overcame what he’d made her…does that mean I will too?” His eyes were wide with a fear she’d never seen before. “Will that wretched old self take over me? Will he conquer the Intern?”
            Although she would’ve loved nothing more than for that to happen, she shook her head gently. “No. The doctors said Lonie’s bullet messed up your brain. When they fixed you, you were all that was left. Jacob – the old Jacob – was gone. He can’t come back.”
            He shifted onto his back again, staring once more at that ceiling. “Drema probably said the same thing about Beth,” he mused, unsatisfied.
            Mary would’ve given anything to cut the last six years from her memory, tell him he would go back to his older self and have everything as it should be. It killed her that she had to play the ally, putting aside what she desired in exchange for placating him with the truth he needed to hear.
            It would be easier for her if he just put a bullet in her head.
THE RANCH, UNDERNEATH TEXAS
For whatever reason, Nick’s actions had done something to Dac. Beyond the tranquil fury he displayed, beyond the threat he posed to Nick with that gun aimed to kill, something deep within Dac had been stirred. Something he had assumed gone forever.
            He strode into the infirmary, where the medics were helping Anna out of bed. She’d not been physically injured by her ordeal, but it had left her shaken enough to require a lot of medically-aided sleep afterwards. She was on her feet when he came in.
            She raised a hand to stop him. “I’m not quite ready to discuss more of it,” she said. “I’ll give you more detail when-”
            He kissed her.
            It was so sudden he didn’t even realise it was happening until halfway through, when his hand was on the small of her back. She didn’t resist, and the medics offered no comment. He didn’t care. Complex thought vacated him, leaving only him and her standing in the middle of the infirmary.
            Finally they let each other go, and Dac found his heart pumping properly once again. It was as if he’d been kept in a garbage bin for the past few months, and someone had now taken the lid off to rescue him from the depths of his own sheltered, shut-down psyche. Threatening to kill Ash, aiming a gun at Nick, cutting himself off from it all…
            That was the way Damian would’ve gone. That was what led to this all in the first place. And God damn it, he wasn’t going to follow that path.
            He held her hands gently in his own, looking deep into her sapphire eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said, his voice filled with emotion for the first time in a long time. “Everything is going to be alright.”
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