OUTSIDE THE PANOPTICON
“Come on!” Lonie bellowed. “Get the-”
The door suddenly burst inwards in two neat pieces. Trent flicked his hands like he’d burnt them on a stove. He was almost tapped out, and it hurt like hell in his everywhere. “Got it!” He yelled over at the others doing their pitched battle thing. “Get your asses in here!”
The last team members still standing – Dac, Nick, Anna, Jeremy and a few random soldiers Trent hadn’t bothered to get to know – started making their way forward. They didn’t have time to wait; Dream could be readying a nuke or something to kill them all right here and now.
Trent grabbed Lonie by the arm. “Come on, we gotta hoof it!”
“But the others…”
“No time! They’ll make it!”
He wasn’t about to tell her his own plan, the one that would probably screw them all over if not timed correctly. It’d definitely fail if they didn’t move now.
Lonie reluctantly ran after him into the dark tower, and the sounds of gunfire outside gradually died down. Trent lit up one of his palms with energy to light the way. It felt like that tiny light was all that was left inside him.
In a few minutes it wouldn’t matter.
“Where are we headed?” Lonie asked, clutching the rifle Trent knew for a fact was empty. Maybe she just needed to pretend she had some kind of defence in the nightmare HQ that had plagued them for so long.
Trent shook his head. “Not sure. Just trying to head somewhere Dream might be. I’ve got a little somethin’ up my sleeve.”
“Yeah,” he admitted, “something to wipe out every Sentinel out there. Just gotta-”
Suddenly they came into a wide room not dissimilar to the one they’d been in at Red Square, all those years ago, when the Dream Machine sent them to the future. Instead of the chains and shackles of that place, though, this room was lined wall to wall with stout, coffin-sized capsules. The room’s ceiling was vaulted, with capsules going from floor to roof, and at rough count Trent estimated a good two or three hundred right there.
He and Lonie stopped in their tracks, and Trent’s blood ran cold. The light in his palm flickered weakly. He had a horrid suspicion he knew what they were.
A loudspeaker crackled nearby, and Dream’s effluent yet harrowed voice came through. “Before she turned on me, Mary ran her own offshoot of your little agency. Enjoy meeting your opposites.”
Yup, Trent knew what they were. “Oh, shit.”
Each coffin slid open, and a figure stepped from them and dropped to the floor. The ones higher up hit the ground on both feet like it was nothing, and as the lights in the room surged to their full brilliance, Trent’s mouth dropped open in horror.
They were CRUD – more accurately, exact duplicates of the men and women he’d fought with. Three hundred copies combined of Dac, Nick, Anna, Jeremy, Brendan…all of them. He saw a pair of Glens, five Michaels, a Belinda or two, a bunch of Lonies and Jacobs and Ashs and Grahams. He even saw a few doppelgangers wearing his face, too.
All of them wore black jumpsuists. All of them had hands raised, energy glowing just like Trent’s.
And all of them had that same, incredibly wicked grin that made Trent really glad he hadn’t eaten lunch that morning.
Dac and the others rushed back from the Sentinels, stepping over the ruins of the door. Belinda and Michael’s armada was still potent, but the ground forces needed cover if they were going to make it out alive.
Jeremy howled, “We need to barricade the entrance! Keep the Sentinels out!”
Dac’s radio was in his hand. “Belinda? You reading me?”
“Very loud and kinda clear, Dac! Bit busy up here!”
“I need a missile or two shot down at the tower’s base!” He fired his rifle awkwardly with one hand as a Sentinel swooped towards him. “That doorway’s gotta be blocked again!”
As if sent swiftly from a vengeful god, there was an explosion not far from where they’d all stood mere seconds ago. The ground was pulverized, but the tower remained intact. Dac hadn’t expected it to be that easy; if the tower were so flimsily built they could’ve had this over with months ago.
The Sentinels kept coming, and what few soldiers he had left were starting to fall to them now. Dac was fast running out of ideas.
“Let me stay!” Nick suddenly piped up. “I’ll hold them off!”
Dac shook his head, firing a volley at two that came within a hair’s-breadth of weapons range of him. “On your own? You’ll get smoked!”
Nick flexed his hand, the robotic one he’d had to replaced the one he’d lost back at that supermarket in Canada. That felt like so long ago to Dac, it wasn’t funny. “I’ll try hacking them, or something! You’ve gotta get moving, boss!”
While he was glad Nick had suddenly abandoned his maudlin attitude to the whole thing, he couldn’t just leave him here. They’d gotten past their differences, they’d come to understand each other a bit better…no, it couldn’t end like this.
It couldn’t, and it should’t, but Dac knew it would.
Nick looked insistently at him. “Please,” he said, his voice dropping low so only Dac could hear him amongst the roar of battle. “Let me do this.”
Dac grit his teeth, accepting what he would give anything to not let happen. He gestured to the others. “Guys, on me! We’re going in!”
None of the others stopped or questioned, though Jeremy gave Nick a thankful and harrowed smile as they retreated inside the tower. Dac knew that made sense, since Nick really hadn’t done himself many favours at the base with all that whining.
It still gutted him that they were leaving him. He knew the ‘hacking’ option Nick had offered would never work – his hand wasn’t designed to do that. But maybe it’d buy them a few minutes to get to Dream, to find a killswitch or something for all of the Sentinels outside. He’d make sure Nick’s sacrifice would not be in vain.
They made it through another room and got to a corridor small enough that the Sentinels could not safely move through. Dac primed a charge, stuck it to the wall of the corridor – his intention to permanently blockade themselves inside – and strode forward wordlessly. He did his best to block out the horrid, gut-wrenching scream that came from behind him as he triggered the detonator.
This was a fight way above Lonie’s pay grade, and judging by the way he was struggling she guessed it was for Trent, too.
She still held the rifle – empty, but somehow it made her feel ever so slightly less vulnerable to have it – and watched as Trent fought the hundreds of clones surging towards him. Each blast managed to down one or two, but they kept coming and firing at him. Their energy didn’t glow as bright as Trent’s, but she could tell they were still kicking his ass almost as hard as he was kicking theirs.
“This is…ugh…ridiculous!” Trent yelled above the sound of energy discharging as a Glen and a Nick were felled. “So not what I envisioned when I woke up this morning!”
She didn’t know what to say, what to do other than hide at the entrance to the chamber. More and more clones were dropping from the ceiling, from the walls, from everywhere in the room, it seemed. Her hands were shaking, and the rifle suddenly dropped from her grasp and clattered to the ground. This was it. It wasn’t the first time she’d thought it today, but it really was. She didn’t know how or why Dream had snagged clones of them all, imbued with the powers of a god, but this was it.
She was about to die.
“Oh, for…sod this!” Trent suddenly screamed.
He threw his arm forward prominently with a giant, eye-searing blast of energy that cut a swathe through at least twenty or thirty clones. They didn’t merely fall to the ground like the others had, they instead were vaporised just above the ankles. At the same time, a large portion of Trent’s waist suddenly went transparent, the same colour as his energy blasts, then disappeared.
He grunted, jerking to his wounded side a bit but still standing. “I was saving this for the bastards outside…just in case…but I think…they need this more…than the machines!” Each portion was punctuated by another powerful blast that saw parts of his arms, his legs, even little portions of his head disappear in that transparent way.
Lonie’s empty hands now grabbed the door frame, utterly transfixed. All proper thought left her, all words she could’ve possibly uttered now lay at the back of her throat. She barely noticed Dac and the other survivors suddenly arriving behind her, watching the event with as much rapt attention as she gave.
“What the hell are you doing?” Dac bellowed. “Who are-”
“Long story, boss!” Trent shouted back, and Lonie noticed his voice sounded hollow, incomplete. Like he was speaking from far away. “Don’t know if this’ll work…but got no choice, right?”
He raised both his hands above his head while more of the lesser energy blasts from the clones struck him repeatedly, causing what was left of his body to stagger awkwardly. Still, though, he stayed standing.
Trent’s face turned back to the look at them all, smiling grimly. It was the only part of his body not marred by a missing piece. “Make this right, Dac. Make this right for everybody.” His voice was so barren now that Lonie could barely hear it anymore.
Without waiting for a response from Dac, Trent closed his eyes and turned his head back to the clones. His entire form shone with the brightest energy Lonie had ever seen, going entirely white as sparks flickered out from him and struck the walls. The clones stopped their advance as the light got brighter, and the walls started echoing with Trent’s suddenly booming laughter. His body grew, expanded, became like a wall of light that encompassed the entire room…
And then, it burst. Lonie shielded her eyes as Trent’s wall exploded outwards and ran down the length of the chamber from his position and forward. When it faded, every clone in the room had vanished – the dead ones, the lives ones, the pairs of disembodied feet, all of it completely gone. As if they’d never existed.
She suddenly let go of the door, and walked forward with the others to the place where Trent had stood. Idly, almost without thinking, she laid a hand on the ground where he’d fought, and saved her life.
She felt a tear in her eye.
At the opposite end of the chamber a door burst open, and Brendan and Mary – the latter still wielding his obsidian claymore, stood and looked at the others. Mary’s arm was wrapped around her stomach, bloodied.
Dac snapped everybody out of it. “We’ll mourn later, guys. Let’s finish this.”
“Yeah,” Lonie said, her own voice hollow in her ears. “Let’s go.”
As she and the others moved in, she found herself thinking something simple.
Brendan was the first to open the door, the one they suspected Dream was hiding behind. Mary had said it was his private chamber at the top of the Panopticon, where the Dream Machine was kept. While he still had a lot of unanswered questions for her, Brendan was content to take her word for now.
Sure enough, the room was nothing but a bed, a desk, a large open window and Dream himself, standing in front of his patented Machine. His arms hung loose, and he glared at them all with contempt.
Brendan, Mary, Dac, Anna, Jeremy and Lonie stepped into the room. The last remaining soldiers – totalling merely four – stood guard outside the room. Dac told them the threat was routed, and this would be the end of it.
“Ah, the heroes,” Dream said, his voice oddly husky. “I’d say I had seen this coming, but, well…” He trailed off and glared pointedly at Mary.
She brushed it off. “Only reason I didn’t kill you years ago was because he said it wouldn’t work.”
“Damian – ever the thorn in my side in death, as he was in life.” Dream let out a growl that seemed almost entirely uncharacteristic of him to Brendan. “Well, you’ve got me cornered. What now?”
“I should think that’s fairly obvious,” Dac replied, his face grim. “You know we can’t let you walk away.”
“I’d never dream of it.” Dream raised one of his hand, showing a detonator. He flicked the primer switch. “You all know how this works – bombs at the bottom, and with a little click I blow us all up. See? That’s what you’ve reduced me to – saying that I’m going to ‘blow you all up’, rather than something a bit more eloquent. Does that please you?”
They all stood stock still, and Dream looked meaningfully at Brendan. He dropped the claymore, gritting his teeth. This wasn’t the end yet. “Do you think it’ll be that easy?”
Dream looked surprised. “I can’t see why it wouldn’t be.”
“That’s just…that’s just what you don’t get about us,” Brendan told him. “You shot us, stabbed us in the back, gassed us, infiltrated us, lied to us, and brought us as low as you could possibly do short of using a shrink ray on everyone. And we still came back. What does that say about us?”
“That you’re a collection of persistent, pontificating cockroaches!” Dream suddenly screamed. “I wanted revenge! I wanted to see my creator break, and I wanted him to feel such regret and shame at what he did to me! You think I want to be in control of a burnt-out, husk of a world? You think I wanted this?” His face looked quite deranged, and spittle flew from his lips.
“I think,” Anna said, very quietly, “that you’ve been chasing revenge for so long that you don’t know who you are anymore. What you are?”
“Oh really?” Dream spat, rounding on her now. “The woman who shared my head, who wears that twisted, malformed body I used to own – you want to know what I am? You want to know what I am capable of?”
Suddenly, things happened very fast.
Mary let go of her bleeding stomach, wincing mightily as she did so, and picked up Brendan’s claymore with both hands. She groaned loudly in pain as she bent to pick it up and surged forward, slashing with the sword as Dream turned from Anna to stare at her. Before he could react Mary severed his hand with the detonator above the wrist, letting the limb fall impotently to the ground.
Almost simultaneously, Dac, Anna and Jeremy raised their rifles and fired volleys into Dream. The doctor’s body jerked and convulsed as each bullet struck him until he finally fell backwards, blood splashing all over the Dream Machine. His hands flew out and hit the Machine as he landed in a pool of his own blood on the ground. The Machine hummed quietly, then went silent.
No-one moved or spoke for a long moment. Brendan was very aware of the sound of his heartbeat intermingled with them all breathing fast.
Jeremy broke the silence, holding his rifle out to inspect it. “Well, that was good timing. I’m out of bullets.”
“Yeah,” Anna said awkwardly, her voice uncertain, “me too.” She dropped her rifle to the ground and walked over to Dream’s corpse. She bent down to feel for his pulse, his eyes staring lifelessly at the dark ceiling.
Dac put his rifle down and walked towards her. “Is he…”
She nodded mutely and stood from the body. Lonie walked over to her and pulled her towards the window.
Mary’s hand was back at her stomach, but her skin was incredibly pale now. She huffed a laugh at Dream’s corpse. “Bout time, too.”
Brendan still remained silent, though he bent down to pick up his sword that Mary had dropped after cutting Dream’s hand off. He then picked up the limb itself, prying open the fingers and holding the detonator inside it. He threw the hand to the ground.
It was so surreal – Dream was dead. They had won. It was all over.
The fighting was still fierce outside, and Brendan could hear the choppers doing battle with the Sentinels, but there had to be a killswitch of some kind around. They’d find it, and shut it all down…
They’d won. He kept returning to that thought as they looked over the Dream Machine. He didn’t say anything, just let the thought keep spinning round and round his head like a vinyl record on repeat.
“An idea occurs,” Jeremy said in the still-stunned atmosphere. “Can we not use this to go back?”
Lonie raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“Can’t we use the machine to travel to the past, before all this unpleasantness? Can’t we stop it all from happening?” Jeremy looked it over idly. “Shouldn’t be too hard to figure out how it works.”
Dac nodded slowly, like he was waking from a dream. “Yeah…we could…we could try that.”
“Why the hell are we all being so weird?” Lonie suddenly asked loudly. “We killed him. We killed Dream. Why aren’t we celebrating?”
It was a question Brendan certainly had – probably because they’d lost so much, the victory was taking time to settle in. And strictly speaking, the battle wasn’t over.
“There’s not much left,” Dac said, his voice still sounding numb. “There’s just…it’s almost all gone. What do we do next?”
“Well, those ten million Africans I rescued could probably help,” Mary said baldly, still sounding agonized. “Most of ’em are still well away from here. We can rebuild.”
“Or we can stop this all from happening in the first place,” Jeremy reiterated. “Surely that’s the sounder option?”
A gun fired.
Brendan was only partly aware of it sounding off behind him, from a distance. He turned quietly to see the soldiers outside the door slumping down to the ground, equally as quiet. Their killer strode forward with confidence, arm raised and holding a pistol.
The light from the room shone on the face of Nick, who fired immediately.
Anna dropped to the ground, blood spattering all over her chest. Lonie rounded on the assailant – still weaponless – and took two bullets, one to her left leg and another to her right arm. She keeled over and lay on the ground, grunting in pain. Another three bullets fired, and struck the Dream Machine in strategic places. The lights on it flickered and died, the machine making one last sputter before dying completely.
Nick stood at the doorway, aiming the gun around the room. “Well, seems I didn’t miss much.”
Brendan stared, openmouthed, speaking for what felt like the first time in ages. “The hell are you doing?”
“Oh, what’s the matter, you thought I’d actually die if you left me behind?” He waved his robotic hand again, and Brendan saw Dac’s eyes go wide. “You didn’t believe me when I said I could hack them, did you? I know it’s not what the hand was designed for, but it helps if you wrote the Sentinel base code like I did. Also helps when you can convince one of them to fly you up a floor and past that bullshit excuse for a barricade you made down there.”
Brendan felt his brain might be in danger of exploding. “You really were working for Dream. You son of a-”
“Oh, for God’s sake, do you all really not realise what’s happened?” Nick grinned wickedly, and Brendan thought it the most chilling thing he’d seen that day. “I am Dream, you idiots.” He gestured the pistol at the ruined Dream Machine. “You shouldn’t have let me anywhere near that. I touched it when you shot me.”
“And then it hummed,” Jeremy said, realisation dawning on his face, “and went quiet. Because you-”
“Traveled, yeah,” Nick said matter-of-factly. He almost sounded like he’d been waiting a long time to get this off his chest. “There never was a Nick Driver. I took some poor loser and turned him into the greatest weapon of all. Oh, don’t worry about that,” he added, now gesturing at the bloodied corpse lying against the Dream Machine, “there’s nothing there now. Turns out the little trick I did with Agent Farraday there,” now he pointed at Anna, lying on the ground immobile and with eyes closed, “leaving my body behind for her, it can work across time, too. Who knew?”
He straightened up. “Now, no more monologuing. Time to-”
Brendan raised a hand. “No, come on, you can’t just brush that aside. You’re telling us that a friend we’ve known for years, someone who had an entire life built from the ground up, who checked out with security, who was, for all intents and purposes, a real person…you’re telling me he’s actually a time-traveling, parasitic megalomaniac with a serious enough grudge to pretend to be a real person for decades? Just to have a chance to kill us right now, in an overly elaborate and prolonged fashion, right at the end of the world?”
Nick eyed him warily. “Yeah? So?”
“That is, without a doubt, the single most stupid, circuitous and overly-complex revenge plan I’ve ever heard,” Brendan said pointedly. “Seriously. Why not just go back and kill us all in our cribs? Or kill Damian after he made you in London? Or, I dunno, go further back and kill his mother or something? I mean, why waste all that intellect, talent and patience on a freakin’ grudge?”
“You clearly don’t understand the mind of a vengeful man,” Nick replied curtly, his voice going dangerously low.”
“No, I think you clearly are an absolute moron,” Brendan retorted, slipping entirely back into his old New Zealand accent. “Seriously, bro, you’re almost as stupid as me. That’s pretty stupid, eh?”
He suddenly lashed out, catching Nick’s gun from his hand and throwing it aside. Nick’s eyes flared and he punched Brendan hard in the chest, winding and knocking the Kiwi down. Brendan clutched at himself as Nick flexed his hand again, holding it up to stop any of the others coming towards him.
“You know what?” he said, sounding now just as deranged as his dead counterpart across the room, “I don’t even need the detonator.”
He pinched his robotic thumb and forefinger together, and a thunderous boom echoed from below the tower. The ground shook, knocking everyone to the floor.
Brendan’s sword went skittering away as the tower slanted, sending it flying out the window. Anna’s limp body slammed against the wall, with Lonie not far behind her. Jeremy caught Mary with one hand as she fell towards the window, while Brendan grappled for purchase on the floor. He saw Nick’s gun fall but get picked up just as quickly by its original owner, who now aimed it purposefully at Brendan’s head.
He hadn’t noticed Dac, who Brendan now saw climbing up the nearly-vertical floor towards Nick – no, he was Dream, now. Brendan could see that same mad glint in his eyes that was completely, irrefutably Dream. He locked eyes with their nemesis, unflinching but holding on for dear life.
“Who knows,” Dream screamed over the sound of the collapsing tower, “maybe I’ll hit the right spot this time!”
Dac’s hand suddenly reached out and clamped on Dream’s leg. The doctor looked down and screamed, aiming and shooting at Dac. Bullets pierced Dac’s shoulders and torso, but still he held on with a determined look. His body began to glow with a light similar to Trent’s, but with a more pronounced red light to it.
Brendan recognised it from the description Dac had given them, right before they’d set off for New York. It was the ace in the hole, the weapon Dac had said he would only use if they ended up having no other option. He had activated Project Starfire, the reality-breaking gene Dac had injected himself with before they left. And, despite never having field-tested it, it appeared to work.
“If I had my quote book here,” Dac roared, “I’d probably say something like, ‘Pride comes before the fall’, asshole!”
Dream started to glow red too, and howled as if the most agonising pain was making its way through his body. He lost his grip on the gun, and as it fell from his hand Brendan saw it disintegrate into a million little red atoms. Dream lost his purchase on the floor as well, as the tower finally buckled and started falling towards the ruins of New York City.
Brendan held on, as did Jeremy with Mary. Anna and Lonie lay sprawled on top of each other on the wall that had now become the floor of the tower.
Dream and Dac, now fully grappled with each other, fell together through the window – narrowly missing Mary – and burned a bright, luminescent red as they dropped to the ruins below.
Brendan suddenly felt the falling tower stop moving mid-collapse, and they came to a jerky halt somewhere in mid-air. The doorway that had led to the rest of the tower now looked out to the sky, and through it Brendan could see one of the choppers had dropped safety lines and latched onto them tightly from above. They weren’t going to be falling anytime soon.
He looked back down to see Dac and Dream land in a heap of rubble, now just an indistinct beacon of red light. As they made contact, the light exploded outwards.
The world went white.
He didn’t wake up for days.
When he did, as his eyes blearily adjusted to the light, he realised he was back in the Texas base, in the infirmary. Jeremy was standing over him, a bandage wrapped around his head and a few strips covering a cut over his eyebrow.
“Morning,” he said pleasantly, smiling broadly. “That fast-regen stuff really works well, huh?”
Brendan coughed a little. “Give it time, you’ll get used to it.” He sat up in bed, pulling a few drips from his arms that he knew he wouldn’t need now. “How long?”
“Six days. You fell from the tower and landed on a giant chunk of rebar.” He winced. “Took them a while to extricate you from it.”
“They could’ve just yanked.”
“I told them that, but I don’t think they believed me.”
Brendan snorted. “Some clone you are. Nowhere near as persuasive as me.”
Jeremy laughed a little, but then his face turned somber. “We won out there – all the Sentinels started dropping when the tower went down – but it’s still pretty bad out there. They’re picking survivors out of the wreckage, good guys and bad guys. World still looks like crap.”
Brendan rubbed his head. It ached profusely. “So, the Dream Machine…”
Jeremy shook his head. “Completely shot. What do we do next?”
The ache got worse. Rubbing his temples, Brendan lay back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling. “That, detective,” he replied, quoting one of his favourite movies, “is the right question.”