Let me tell you, it was gloriousto see things go down the way they did.
At the beginning, at least, it was. CRUD may not have been rolling in tanks and helicopters the way Dream was, but to see this collection of people and machines, diminutive by all account, marching on this titanic structure in the centre of old New York City…it was a real David and Goliath moment.
And I was proud to be there.
EN ROUTE TO THE PANOPTICON
They marched at dawn, and they didn’t stop.
It was a long way from Texas to New York, but they were driven by a force that seemed to stave off fatigue. There was hope rekindled, not least of all from Dac’s one-eighty, and it meant they rested scantly and trekked through the days to get there. They walked, they camped, they slept, they woke, they walked again.
It didn’t quite get through to Jeremy exactly whythey were so motivated, but Brendan had explained to him the significance of Damian’s death and the way it had galvanized so many of them into permanent action. It almost seemed like the need to rescue the planet was secondary right now.
Oh well. At least there’s exercise involved.
Finally they arrived on the outskirts of New York, and Dac took stock of everything they’d brought with them. There was a truck carrying several heavily armed troops and Ash, who no-one had seen since before they left Texas. The twelve helicopters – since the science team hadn’t had time to grave-rob San Francisco – flew in formation a short distance behind them. Having now transcended their roles as secret agents to become soldiers, after a fashion, the premier CRUD team stood at the front of the procession with rifles and shotguns. It was a dark, clouded night.
Lonie. Brendan. Nick (thankfully sober). Dac. Anna. Even Trent was with them, though in lieu of a gun his hand were aglow with his godlike energy. They certainly formed one of the oddest groups Jeremy had ever witnessed.
Dac raised a hand to halt them, then communicated something to the helicopters that Jeremy couldn’t hear. Their weapons went live, and Jeremy saw miniguns unfurl from underneath the cockpits to aim at the gigantic tower smack dab in the middle of the ruined city.
He could tell Brendan was ready, in that intuitive way they had. It was the kind of bond that, were anyone to find out about it, might lead to trouble.
He leant over to speak to Anna. “Nervous?”
She nodded, giving him an awkward smile. “Yup. Probably gonna end up dead.”
“That’s an overly bleak view.”
“Gotta admit, bit of an overly bleak situation. So, y’know, don’t judge.”
He smirked. “As a matter of fact-”
Before he could finish, a sniper’s bullet pierced his forehead and splashed blood all over Anna. His eyes went wide momentarily, before his body fell backwards and landed with a thud on the dusty ground.
Jacob lowered the rifle, grinning. Talk about easy targets.
“The opening shot has been fired, sir,” he said to Dream, who stood behind him. “Sentinels?”
Dream nodded slowly, his expression unreadable. “Sentinels.”
Jacob put the rifle on the ground – a little concerned that Dream wasn’t exactly revelling in the victory they were about to achieve – and sprinted off to the motor pool. Two thousand Sentinels, armed to the teeth, were prepared to go out and kick their asses.
And Jacob, sitting astride one of them with a specially fashioned seat, would ride with them into the bloodbath.
This is going to be awesome.
They all looked at Jeremy’s slain corpse, and Dac raised a hand holding his rifle into the air. “Take them down!”
The CRUD soldiers, only numbering two hundred or so, surged forward in a wave of shouting and body armour. Brendan looked over at Anna, still covered in blood from Jeremy’s head, and shouted, “Take his body away! Quick!”
Anna snapped out of her shock and replied, “But we’re moving!”
“Do it!” Brendan screamed, as he pulled out the weapon Dac had gifted him back at Texas.
She moved over to Jeremy’s corpse and dragged him away from the truck and the charging troops, as the helicopters overhead flew forward in formation and opened fire. A tidal wave of Sentinels rose seemingly from underground and advanced swiftly on the choppers.
Anna laid Jeremy down on a slope of debris, where he hopefully wouldn’t be incinerated, and gave him a brief, sad look before she started making her way back to the battle.
She stopped cold when his body breathed.
As she turned she saw the bullet that had killed him slide out from the front of his head, the wound closing up around it as it popped out and onto the ground. Jeremy raised a hand to his forehead and rubbed as if it’d been nothing more than a headache. “Well, that was unexpected.”
She blinked, not quite knowing what the hell was happening. “Are you…”
“Oh,” he said, as if suddenly realising what had just happened. “Yeah. So, you know how you found out there’s someone else who used the cloning thing Damian used to make Dream?”
Her eyes went wide. “You’re kidding.”
He shook his head. It seemed so odd, having this chat while the fight raged on behind them. “Brendan. During the six years.”
She clenched a fist. “Oh, that motherf…”
It was total pandemonium, exactly what Jacob had been hoping for. The array of Sentinels surged forward with him at the forefront, laying down fire on the encroaching agents.
I suppose they’re not really agents anymore…more like cannon fodder.
His eye was drawn, as the Sentinel he straddled gunned down three CRUDders in the space of about two seconds, towards Brendan. He knew instantly that the insanely tall guy making his way through machines on the ground was his former best friend, seeing as he stuck out like a sore thumb. He twisted the Sentinel towards the ex-New Zealander, intending to chop off that thumb.
Man, I have got to find some better jokes when this is all over.
He was metres away from crashing headlong into Brendan, his guns all targeting the man’s chest, when suddenly Brendan turned and faced him directly. He swung a…
Holy crap. Is that a freakin’ sword?
It was indeed a sword; a claymore, almost as big as Brendan, swinging towards him like some nightmare out of a Game of Thrones episode. The blade was black as night, and it cleaved down the centre of Jacob’s Sentinel.
Barely having time to think he threw himself sideways before the blade could touch him, landing on the ground with a thud. His heart pounded in fear as he stood, grabbing furiously at his side for the gun holstered there. The Sentinel was carved neatly in two and stood on each side of Brendan as he turned, his face an expression of pure rage. The sword was clutched tightly in both his hands.
Suddenly, something propelled Jacob high into the air and away from the battle. The familiar dark colouration of the Panopticon rushed at him as he struck a high wall on the tower.
His vision went as black as Brendan’s blade.
Brendan turned to see Trent lowering his hands, still glowing from the blast he’d delivered. “What the hell was that?” he asked angrily.
Trent zapped a Sentinel idly as he yelled at Brendan. “You and he were gonna have some ‘former best friend personal combat and redemption’ moment, and we got more important shit to do right now! Sort him out later!”
For a brief flicker of a moment Brendan considered cutting him in half, clearly in the throes of some kind of berserker rage. He’d always heard the adage ‘never bring a knife to a gun fight’, but it seemed to be doing him well here. Regenerating health tended to deflect bullets well.
He controlled the urge to slay a god, and went back to dicing machines instead.
Tiberius stood in the Panopticon’s sniper’s nest, his rifle balanced carefully on the edge of the wall in front of him. He lined up a shot at Brendan’s head, the picture Dream had given him lying on the ground beside his crouched form. It wouldn’t kill the sword-wielding maniac, but if it hit just the right spot it’d knock him out for the rest of the fight.
Not that it’d be a long fight anyway; Tiberius could see Dream’s forces were winning, that more CRUD agents were dropping compared to Sentinels. They hadn’t even gotten to the human soldiers Dream kept in the Panopticon yet. Yeah, this would be a cinch. He would make his mother proud by doing this thing for her, for Dream, for all of them.
His finger rested on the trigger just as the door behind him burst open. He turned swiftly, his hand already dropping towards his pistol out of reflex, but when he saw who it was he stopped short.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “I thought Dream said we had to-”
A shot rang out in the tower, drowned in chaotic miasma of sound below for all the combatants, as Tiberius, a thin trickle of blood trailing its way down the bridge of his nose, slumped to the floor of the sniper’s nest.
His killer pulled out a small radio, and said only one word: “Now.”
More and more of the mechanical bastards were rising up, and they just couldn’t keep them down. Dac saw men and women fall at his sides as the gunfire intensified, and not even Trent’s god powers were doing enough. They were losing this thing.
The helicopters and few land vehicles they had were either heavily damaged or downed altogether. The handful of his agents left on the ground kept fighting, showing no sign of retreat or surrender. The night began to crackle with lightning, and a storm was readying to overlap the one unfolding before his eyes.
Have I done this? Have I doomed these people to die because I told them we could fight? Is this my fault?
The thought didn’t let him stop firing, targeting anything Sentinel-shaped with the rifle locked in his iron grip. He quickly surveyed the battlefield during a snatch of five-second respite, seeing Nick shotgunning a machine, Brendan slicing his way through scores of Sentinels, Lonie and Anna and Jeremy – wait, how was he standing? – all of them firing in all directions. They were being herded into an area not far from the foot of the Panopticon as the Sentinels created a perimeter, keeping them locked down. Trent was busily blasting as many as he could, standing beside the few who remained alive, but they just kept coming.
Dac turned, his respite over, to see a Sentinel barreling straight for him with cannons opened wide. He started raising his rifle, but he already knew it was too late.
There was a bright flash, and he shielded his eyes as the Sentinel burst into flames mere centimetres from him. Shrapnel sliced across his arm as he ducked down, and when his vision cleared and his ears began to stop ringing he looked to the sky.
A veritable swarm of choppers, planes and other military aircraft bore down upon the Panopticon, their cannons and machine guns tearing the Sentinels apart with swift and imposing will. The perimeter around the agents broke apart as the Sentinels found themselves fighting on two fronts, and while there were still plenty of them they were suddenly evenly matched against the aerial horde gunning for them.
Dumbstruck, Dac nearly dropped his rifle. His radio suddenly blared at him, and numbly he placed it to his ear.
“Howdy! Figured y’all could use a hand!”
Now he nearly dropped the radio. “Michael?!”
“The one and only! Well, maybe not the only, although…d’you happen to have anyone on your team named Michael? Otherwise you’d be right-”
“What the hell is this?” The newcomers were already gaining significant ground. “I thought you and Belinda-”
“-took off? Sure did. Secret orders. Found this lot over in San Fran. Apparently they’d been there for a little while, said something about being from Johannesburg?”
“But-” Dac was cut off as the radio suddenly blared static, then went quiet. “Hello? Michael?”
There was a short pause, barely audible amongst the cacophony raging nearby, but then a voice responded. “Ten million people were teleported out of South Africa the same day you all were. Same method. I redirected them. Don’t say I don’t give you nice things.” The radio clicked off.
Dac knew the voice, and without hesitation he charged at the Sentinels. “Move your asses, people! We’re gonna win this thing!”
He heard the shouts and cries of assent, and as one the final, unified front of CRUD surged forward towards the Sentinels.
Dream slammed his fist against the wall. They were losing. A phantom armada had suddenly appeared literally out of nowhere, and now he was losing. This couldn’t happen. This shouldn’t be happening. He’d seen…
No. He couldn’t. He tried, but now he couldn’t see the future. It wasn’t like before, when he’d had that strange vision of the murky figure. Now he found he could not see anything to do with his future, nothing beyond the here and now.
“I, I can’t…” Dream staggered like he’d been struck, his eyes closing tight as he tried to regain equilibrium. “Why can I not see…WHY CAN I NOT SEE?” He screamed in frustration, struggling to see further. His vision had permanently clouded. No more of the future lines were visible to him.
“Oh, I’m so sorry about that.”
Mary stood before him, watching as he cried out and threw his arms about like a madman. “You!” he growled dangerously. “What have you done?”
She smirked. “You’re the prophet, you tell me.”