Episode 38

I saw those newer choppers come in, and had a very “hell yeah!” moment. All thoughts of how, why, when and where the hell they’d stashed them evaporated in the searing face of the encroaching victory for the good guys.
But, as always, victories like that come with a price tag. And if you fail, it might just send you bankrupt.
Oh, don’t worry, in my next book there’ll far less bad puns. Promise.

“She’s not dead.” Jacob leant down to feel Mary’s pulse while Dream slowly got to his feet. “Want me to finish the job?”
Dream’s thoughts were erratic. His gift stripped, he had no idea what to do next. He staggered around, clutching at his head. “Too chaotic…the river is lost to me…”
“Boss?” Jacob eyed him warily. “You alright?”
“She did something…the gift is gone. I can no longer see.” He flashed a glare at Jacob, his eyes wild. “You’re in league with her, aren’t you? You’re deceiving me.”
Jacob opened his mouth to protest when a figure suddenly crashed through the window of the Panopticon. It somersaulted once it hit the ground and came to its feet right in front of Jacob, knocking him backwards against the wall. Dream’s vision went blurry, then cleared up as he saw the figure holding something against Jacob’s throat.
“Long time no see, bro.” It was Brendan. “Not interrupting, am I?”
Dream suddenly screamed, his head pounding. He felt as if a limb had been severed, that the pain was so extreme he was blinded by it. He roared, her screeched, stepping awkwardly backwards and away from the two men. What little vision he had was so blurry, so tinted with red that all he could think was that he needed to kill.
But not today. Today was the time for retreat.

The knife at Jacob’s throat was cold, a contrast to the searing waves of hatred coming off of Brendan. He glared at the Intern. “It’s over.”
Jacob snorted. “Please.”
He lashed a foot out and kicked Mary in the stomach. She convulsed, choking, and Brendan’s head moved down to look at her for a fraction of a second. It was all the distraction Jacob needed; he thrust a palm strike at Brendan and knocked him backwards, tumbling to the ground. The knife fell out of his hand next to him.
Jacob’s aimed his gun at Brendan’s head – the bastard might be immortal, but a good enough shot in the head should incapacitate him – but the Kiwi had his massive obsidian-coloured blade up in a defensive posture already. By some miracle he managed to deflect the bullet Jacob fired, pinging harmlessly to the ground.
“Cute.” Jacob holstered the gun. Then, without another word, he ran for the armoury.
Picking up the knife and sliding it into the holster at his side, Brendan chased him.

The Sentinels outside were starting to thin, but not fast enough. It was getting closer to a stalemate than anything else.
Lonie was beside Trent while the god zapped incoming attackers. She could see him getting fatigued, which didn’t make sense – how could a god get tired? In any case, her rifle blared loudly whenever one of the machines got too close. She’d already taken a bullet in the shoulder, making it difficult to aim.
The pre-victory high Dac had given them had vanished from her. This was the end, despite the reinforcements they’d received. Why hadn’t she just stayed with her books, safe in the base to wait for the end of the world?
No. I’m here now. This is where I belong.
They still hadn’t been able to touch the Panopticon itself. She knew they needed to get inside if they were to have a chance at winning this thing. And there was only one person that could make it through that gunfire to open the doors.
She pulled out her radio, clicking the emergency frequency. “Ash! You busy?”
The other end cut through the static, and Lonie heard the sound of metal being torn apart. “A little. What’s up?”
For a moment, Lonie felt a pang of longing; she missed the simple days when Ash had just been high-pitched, rather than sounding like a bass-voiced villain from RoboCop. “We need to get inside.”
“Yup. I know.” A brief pause, punctuated by another metal shredding. “Gimme a sec?”
Without waiting for a response the other end clicked off. Lonie went back to shooting, trying to ignore the flare of pain in her arm. More machines fell, Trent kept blasting, and suddenly there was an ungodly roar the likes of which lions could be afraid of.
Ash dropped from the sky, as if she’d jumped up from one part of New York and achieved flight for a brief moment. Her landing shook the ground like the Hulk had just arrived, and as she drew herself up to full height Lonie could see the extent of the upgrades Dac and the CRUD lab techs had given her.
She was still the slightly monstrous-looking plush zombie thing, and there were several holes in her where gunfire had gotten through, but her forearms had been replaced by a different tool on each limb. Her left arm now ended in a minigun, the ammunition belt trailing around to a hefty lump of metal on her back, and her right arm now carried a vicious-looking blade that looked like a cross between a scythe and a bastard sword. There were scraps of metal and splashes of hydraulic fluid where the blade had carved its way through Sentinels.
She opened fire as soon as she hit the ground, downing half a dozen Sentinels in one spray. “What’s the plan?” she cried over the cacophony of battle.
Trent laughed as he took down another two machines. “Great timing! I’m runnin’ out of juice, here!”
“We need to break down the door!” Lonie yelled, nailing another Sentinel. “Can you get to it?”
Ash looked towards the large black door at the base of the Panopticon, roughly half a kilometre of open ground away from where they stood. The fighting on that ground was too fierce for Lonie to fight through without being Swiss cheesed.
“Not without being shredded!” Ash yelled back, her blade flashing malevolently as another Sentinel was felled for getting too close. They seemed to be sending Sentinels with longer blades as well as ones with guns. “Can we call in an airstrike?”
“They’re kinda busy!” Lonie gestured with her rifle, showing them the greater swarm of Sentinels combating the choppers in the air. The fighting might be fierce here, but there was much more where that came from in the airborne battle.
Ash paused for a moment, looking over at the door. Lonie could see the cogs moving in Ash’s head, knew the only way they were going to have a chance at victory was by punching through that door. The only way that could happen was if…
“I’ll draw them away!” Ash shouted, looking at both her and Trent. “You’ll need to open the door, but I’ll get you some cover!”
“That’s suicide!” Trent cried, voicing what Lonie knew to be true.
“Don’t worry about me!” Ash replied, and for a brief flicker of an instant Lonie could’ve sworn she heard the old high-pitched Ash’s voice return. “Just get in there and win this thing! Tell Dac I forgive him!”
She suddenly charged forward, screaming and firing in all directions above her. Trent and Lonie were hot on her heels, covering from the rear as a flurry of Sentinels amassed and came right at them. Trent was looking so worn out now, like every blast of Sloss energy was killing him. Lonie’s rifle was almost depleted. They wouldn’t last long.
They got halfway to the door, dodging and taking fire all at once, when suddenly a stream of bullets severed Ash’s blade arm. Everyone kept running, but Lonie felt a stab of horror. They weren’t going to make it.
Ash suddenly stopped midstride, planting her feet firm and firing into the sky. “Get in there!” she screamed. “I’ve got this!”
Lonie wanted to stop too, wanted to help her defend, but she knew she couldn’t. It was a sacrifice, but Ash knew what she was doing. She knew it meant more than them to see this thing through to the end.
Trent took down another couple above Ash, then shouted, “Thank you!”
“Yeah,” Lonie added, “thank you so much!”
“Just get out of here!” Ash yelled, bullets starting to rip into her torso. She screeched as they punched through her, plush filling puffing out and onto the ground combined with the strange, dark-coloured fluid that she had for blood.
Lonie spared her one last look, seeing her start to lose her footing as Sentinels converged on her like hungry vultures, then rushed the last bit of distance to the door right behind Trent.

It didn’t take Brendan long to catch up with the Intern, standing in a room full of guns. “That won’t do you any good,” he said, his accent slipping back into New Zealander.
Jacob had a hand behind his back, and now brought it forward with a katana clutched in it. “Nah. This might.”
He launched forward and slashed, giving Brendan barely any time to block the oncoming hit with his claymore. The swords sparked, and they clashed.
Jacob kicked Brendan in the stomach, winding and knocking him backwards. He righted himself as Jacob came at him again, slashing horizontally for his neck. The claymore came up and deflected the blow with a clang, but Jacob had the advantage here; his blade was slimmer, could moved faster and was more wieldy than Brendan’s.
“Sure you don’t wanna give up now?” Jacob jeered, rushing forward again.
Brendan grit his teeth and shouted, charging forward. He would not be dying today. His sword met Jacob’s again in a vertical block, and as the blades locked against each other Brendan started pushing gradually forward.
“You’re a son of a bitch,” he said venomously through his teeth. “You turned your back on all of us. You didn’t fight.”
“Spare me the soap opera,” Jacob shot back. “I realised who I truly am, and who I am is a completely psychotic nutter with a fetish for stabbing people!” On stabbing he surged forward again, forcing Brendan backwards in their blade lock. “What about you, Mr Fake Kiwi? You’ve got no right to preach about fake personas to me!”
“I fought it!” Brendan shouted, the anger in him almost uncontrollable. “I fought, and I won!”
He pushed back, and this time Jacob staggered away from the blade lock. Brendan pushed the advantage and stabbed forward, missing Jacob’s torso by inches. Jacob turned on the spot and slashed, catching Brendan across the chest. The slice opened him down to his ribcage, blood spilling from the wound all down his body.
Brendan cried out and shifted backwards, his grip on the claymore loosening slightly. He spat out a curse as Jacob leapt off the ground towards him, sword held above his head for a downward vertical slash that would cut Brendan in two.
Time slowed. Jacob dropped from the air like an avenging angel. Brendan saw the katana come down and pierce the middle of his chest, spearing him through and pinioning him to the ground. The blade sank into the floor, with the hilt and four inches of metal protruding upwards from Brendan’s body.
Well…this is kinda painful.
He coughed up blood, his hands grabbing uselessly at the sword to try and prise it out of him. Jacob knelt beside him, gun in hand and an evil smirk on his face.
“Y’know, I always wondered why Beth never gave me that cute little regenerative gene you’ve got,” he said idly, checking the clip in his gun. Brendan noticed it was full bar one. “Then I figured it out – that’s too easy. Being able to heal any old wound is just too easy. There’s no skill involved. Whereas me…I had to rely on just being awesome. My skills were developed because I’m awesome, and I don’t need a God mode cheat to win. I can get by on what I’ve got.” He looked at the gun, then suddenly holstered it. “Nah, you know what? That’s too easy. I wanna kill you the hard way, to make sure you never come back.”
He was down on his knees near Brendan’s head. Brendan let his arms drop from the sword, swallowing down more blood that welled in his throat. “I am going to pull you apart,” Jacob whispered. “I am going to take out every little piece of your head until there’s nothing left. Let’s see you regen out of tha-”
Brendan had taken Jacob’s moment of villainous soliloquy to retrieve the knife at his side, bringing it up fast and jamming it into the left side of his skull. Jacob’s eyes went wide as he faltered back from Brendan, getting awkwardly to his feet and feeling the hilt with his hand. Blood started dribbling from his eyes like a parody of tears.
“But…I was awesome…” He sounded so shocked.
A hand suddenly reached around from behind him and unholstered his pistol. It fired five times into Jacob’s back, bullets piercing him out from his chest and stomach, then, as Jacob gave Brendan one last quizzical look, a sixth bullet penetrated his head and blasted his right eye out. His useless body dropped to its knees, then keeled sideways and fell limp.
Mary stood behind where Jacob had been, the stolen gun lowering in her right hand. Her left clutched at the bloodied wound on her stomach.
“Y’know, he talked way too much,” she coughed.

Dream heard a loud and sudden boom from beneath the floor. Someone had blasted open the door. He knew it – at least, he thoughthe knew it.
He checked a monitor near the Dream Machine, and sure enough he found Trent and Lonie making their way inside. Elsewhere on the battlefield, Dac and his men were making good ground against the Sentinels. Dream saw Nick, Anna and Jeremy slowly pitch their battle forward every few steps, making their way to the blasted doors.
In the sky, the sudden arrival of Belinda and Michael’s armada – piloted by some of the ten million South Africans Dream had thought he’d teleported into the air above a volcano – had turned the tide somewhat in CRUD’s favour. It was closer to a stalemate, but they were no longer getting slaughtered as they had before.
It was all so wrong. It wasn’t what was supposed to happen. None of this. They should have all been killed so long ago. Hubris had laid Dream low, and now he was reaping what he had sown.
He moved to the Dream Machine, and initiated his contingency program. There were some things he knew he could not prevent, not unless he wanted the tapestry of reality to suddenly unravel, but there was something he could do now.
It was looking like CRUD might have a chance at winning, and there was no escaping that. But if they were going to succeed, Dream would make certain they would pay dearly for every inch of victory they achieved.

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