You’ve got to admire the human spirit sometimes.
I mean, seriously, we were at the end of our tether. Our boss was a bastard, our enemy was omniscient, most of our friends were dead, and the world stank of burnt flesh. Most men would’ve crumbled.
Instead, we rose.
It wasn’t an immediate thing, I think. It’s not like we piled into what few armed vehicles we had left in order to storm the gate. No, this was a bit more careful, a bit more planned out. We knew Dream would know what we were doing, if his bits about ‘knowing all’ were true. Given Lonie’s testimony about some of the stuff Graham 917 babbled at her, we thought it was legit.
No, it wasn’t immediate. But it still happened. And that was before we knew what the real advantage we had was.
THE RANCH, UNDERNEATH TEXAS
FIVE WEEKS LATER
It was almost a complete one-eighty from what Lonie had seen when they first arrived.
The world was still in flames, but it seemed they were readying a defence for it. What few soldiers and agents they had left had been demoralised, but now they moved with renewed optimism. The Ranch was dusted off, cleaned up and restored to full glory, instead of the damaged, dirty husk it had been.
And Dac – if ever there was a speed record for personality turnaround, Lonie was positive he’d set a new one.
Part of that was most likely his new relationship with Anna, which seemed to have emerged straight out of nowhere for most of the others, but to her it seemed like a good fit. They were both strong-willed enough, but she’d learned enough about Anna in the past few months to know she’d be able to temper the cold fury inside him. He was brighter now, his face more cheerful – at least, as cheerful as one can be during Armageddon – and his cold and distant attitude was almost completely gone.
Ash still hadn’t forgiven him for decapitating her, but she went along with it all regardless. It seemed she, and most of the others, were willing to put their disdain for Dac’s past actions behind them. When compared to the atrocities Damian had committed, Agent Rogers was positively a saint.
The only one who didn’t seem entirely convinced of Dac’s newfound crusader personality was Nick, and it seemed their ages-old rivalry – thought, for all intents and purposes, to have been thoroughly put to bed – had been revived.
“It just seems…sudden, y’know?” Nick was telling Lonie in the conference room. Not that she was really listening, though. “I mean, he goes from cold and deadly to optimistic and badass over the course of a day, all because Damian did some dodgy shit when he was younger. Doesn’t that strike you as incongruous?”
She shrugged, looking outside the room to the fast-moving agents as they readied equipment around them. “Honestly, he could’ve found God for all I care. As long as it means we’re moving in a positive direction.”
“Positive would be a bullet in the mouth. Way quicker.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You know, some might say your attitude’s a little…what’d you say? Incongruous?”
“I’m an erratic individual,” he said, taking a long drink from a mug of what smelt like coffee with a strong hint of rum. “Just ask Trent.”
“Whatever.” She stood from the table, done with her five minute break. They had work to do. “If you’re going to get all nihilistic on us, just give me fair warning. There’s enough of that going on without you sinking into a Linkin Park frame of mind.”
She started walking away from the conference table as he suddenly shouted, “If we’re so likely to win, where the hell’s Michael and Belinda?”
“Twelve.” Brendan looked at the engineers plaintively. “You’re telling me we only have twelveworking helicopters?”
One of them – some younger guy named Richard – raised his hands. “Well, technically it’s eleven helicopters and an anti-personnel gunship. Because, y’know, it’s a bit better armed-”
“So what you’re telling me,” Brendan cut across him, “is that we only have twelveworking helicopters?”
Richard sighed. “Yes. We only have twelve-”
“Do better.” Brendan’s tone was hard steel. “No room for screw-ups here.”
“You can’t just snap your fingers and will it to be, sir,” Richard replied. “The fact is we’ve only got so many parts and so many chassises, we can’t just conjure them out of thin air.”
“Twelve helicopters isn’t gonna cut the mustard if we go up against Dream. Find more somewhere.”
“Like where?” Richard said frustratedly.
Brendan and the engineer both turned to see Dac walking over to them. Though still not sure how to take Dac’s sudden change of heart, Brendan took it onboard regardless. “How quickly can you get to San Francisco?” Dac asked.
Richard looked bemused. “Sir?”
“I asked how quickly you can get to San Francisco,” Dac replied patiently.
The engineer thought for a moment. “Well, uh, if we left today we could be there in about twelve hours-”
“Do it. Take a team of engineers and whatever excavation equipment we’ve got left to San Francisco. Uproot any ruins from our old base there and see what you can find underneath.” Dac looked over at Brendan, grinning. “Nothing like a little graverobbing.”
“But the San Francisco base was levelled,” Richard complained, “there won’t be anything there except rubble.”
“You got a better idea? And just remember, ‘suicide’ is not an acceptable answer.”
Richard’s mouth opened and closed like a pufferfish, until finally he sighed. “Yes, sir. I’ll assemble a crew.”
“Good man.” Dac clapped him on the back. “Take Ash with you too. She should be finished with her upgrades shortly. Might come in handy.”
As the engineer stalked off, annoyed at having been countermanded, Brendan approached Dac. “You realise this might be a little bit hopeless, right?”
Dac rolled his eyes. “Don’t go all Nick on me.”
“You’ve got to admit he’s got a bit of a point there,” Brendan admitted, as much as he hated to. “We’re throwing pebbles at a dragon, and I’ve played enough role-playing games to know pebbles aren’t gonna cut it.”
“Funny you mention dragons,” Dac said conspiratorially. “I actually have something for you.”
For a brief moment Brendan excitedly forgot himself, and lapsed into his old false New Zealand accent. “You got me a dragon?”
Dac glared at him. “Yes, Brendan. I got you a dragon. Totally.”
“Well,” Brendan replied, his accent back to Australian, “you’ve got to admit, in a world with body-swapping, plush zombies and flying robots, dragons’d be the least incongruous aspect.”
THE PANOPTICON, RUINS OF NEW YORK CITY
The wind had started howling early that morning, and it felt to Dream like it wouldn’t end anytime soon. His black cloak was plastered against his skin and his black, spiky hair blew in the gale.
He stared out across the decayed corpse of America’s once-great eastern city, feeling at once despondent and hopeful. Beth’s suicide-by-proxy had robbed him of a powerful resource, one he’d hoped to manipulate to his own ends, and after an extensive psychiatric evaluation that had determined Jacob was now devoid of anymore of her influence he realised he wasn’t angry at the erstwhile Intern. No, he was more angry at himself.
Pride had been his constant companion, the wounding of which having started this quest for vengeance in the first place. Because, when he broke it down, that really was the root of it all. Damian had abused him, left him for dead, and embarrassed him in the worst way possible. It’d made him angry, made him wish nothing but death for his erstwhile creator.
So why didn’t he just do it? Why the theatrics? Why the continuing campaign against a people who were clearly battered, broken and defeated?
Why not just end it now?
He called Jacob and Mary to his side, and told them his intent. Their reactions were predictable; Jacob accepted without hesitation, while Mary appeared momentarily apprehensive. Dream knew she was truly in league with herself, helping CRUD from behind enemy lines in subtle ways. He’d already seen what would happen to her.
Despite everything, he knew she’d do what he asked before she tried betraying him. That was what mattered.
THE RANCH, UNDERNEATH TEXAS
Dac knew, with a sickening feeling in his gut, what was about to happen before it actually did.
Brendan had called them all to the briefing room, where they were receiving an incoming signal from somewhere. Dac didn’t have to check the origin to know it had come from New York.
“What does he want?” Nick asked despondently, apparently not out of his apocalyptic naysaying phase.
Dac, Brendan, Nick, Lonie, Anna and Trent all sat at the table. The screen in front of them quickly showed the placid, pale-faced image of Doctor Dream, standing somewhere grey and windy.
“I send this message to all who remain on the surface of this blasted world,” he said, his tone morose. “Those of you still breathing in the charred carcass of the world you’ve all bought yourselves. You have all been slighted.”
He turned and gestured to someone chained up behind him. Whatever camera was on him panned backwards to show Jacob and Mary standing either side of Damian, the bonded figure lashed with metal against one of the Panopticon’s walls. He looked like he’d been thrashed for days.
“I speak, of course, of the perversion present from those who seek to control more than they can fathom. I speak of the people who have sought, since time began, to shackle the world into a form they can easily dominate. There are names, dread words defining those who have tried and failed to accomplish this task. Millennia worth of tyrants and feckless, gutless worms struggling to give their lives meaning through attaining power through false control.
“My campaign has burned this world into nothing more than a sparsely-inhabited husk. The few of you not hiding underneath the Earth in whatever scant holes you can find have no doubt come to the conclusion that I am nearing the end of my journey. As a quest to rid the world of the evil pollutant most responsible for poisoning it – namely, those people I speak of and their own desires for powers – I have been successful. As the world draws its final breath, I have achieved my goal. All those people are dead.
“All except one.”
He pointed a long, accusatory finger at Damian, whose expression didn’t change. Dac still knew where this was heading. “This man,” Dream proclaimed, “is the last of the new world tyrants. This man is the product of scientific and financial ambition, the bastard child of a world made to breed tainted souls. This man, the final vestige of greed and personal gain, is all that stands between me and the end of my journey. This man was my brother.
“You, who watch this, should thank me for what I’m about to do. Because once I kill this man, I will end your suffering. All of it.”
He held his hand out to Jacob, who handed him a long-barrelled revolver. Dream placed the gun against Damian’s temple, cocking back the hammer. The former Director didn’t flinch, didn’t make any move other than to close his eyes.
“Your Starfire will not save you,” Dream said to them all, “and your agents have forsaken you. I command. I rule. I am Dream.”
The gun fired.
Dac didn’t need to watch anymore. He saw some of the others in the briefing room jump in shock, saw Lonie clamp a hand to her mouth, saw Trent watch with a steely expression as their former leader’s head lolled backwards and spilled blood from the gaping wound.
He started walking from the room as the transmission finished. “We launch in the morning,” he said stoically.
The revelations Anna had uncovered left Dac not feeling as sorry for Damian’s death as he would’ve done previously. The last six years worth of torment, the state of the world now – he bore as much blame as Dream did. There was a tiny pang of sadness, a final vestige of regret that Damian had died. That was all.
The only thing that mattered to him now was winning.
THE PANOPTICON, RUINS OF NEW YORK
That night, as Dream lay on his sleeping mat and looked at the ceiling, he reflected on the day’s events. Why hadn’t he done that earlier? Why drag out his revenge on Damian?
Maybe he was really as wrapped up in himself as his creator had seemed to believe. Maybe ego was the Achilles heel they would exploit to stop him. Not that they could, anyway, but they had to believe it was possible. Crushed hope was a far sweeter venom than simple malice.
He closed his eyes and looked forward in his mind, seeing the next few days play out as he had prophesied. The battle, the deaths, the screaming and the blood and…
Wait. What’s that?
He was crouched on the ground, a hand clamped to his head. The outline around him was murky, not allowing him to see where he was, but someone stood in front of him, a blurry shadowed figure he couldn’t make out. He hadn’t seen this when he’d viewed the future before. He knew every event from this day until the day his body would die, when he could ascend into becoming pure consciousness.
This was something new. Something unexpected. It only made him more curious when his crumpled form spoke. “What have you done?”
And the figure responded, in an indistinct voice, “You’re the prophet. You tell me.”
Dream’s eyes opened, and he shot up to his feet in an instant. He realised he was breathing heavily, and…was that fear?Was he afraid at what he’d seen, because he hadn’t seen it before?
For years, as his abilities had evolved, he’d known what every day would bring from now until the end. This new development hadn’t factored in anywhere. Something was dreadfully wrong.
Maybe I, ironically, have been able to dream again. Yes, that’s all it was. Just a dream.
He laid back down, but the persistent thought that this was something else refused to leave him.