There’s a book I read once, way before any of this started. It was called “Anatomy of the Human Spirit”. For the most part it was this chaffy, stupid piece of navel-gazing that was all about spiritual growth and personal well-being. Kinda like “The Secret”, but this guy actually believed what he’d written.
There was this one line that really stuck in my head, though. It went, “When faced with the impossible, we adapt to make it the definite”. Sounds stupid, right?
Thing is, that line couldn’t have been more apt.
TRENTON, NEW JERSEY
FIVE YEARS LATER
“And that, kids, is the story of how we got here!”
Brendan threw his hands into the air wildly, to give it some dramatic kick. If he’d been sitting in that classroom, he’d’ve been rapt with attention and cheering enthusiastically at this point. As it stood, the teenagers he actually had just looked at him blankly. One or two picked their nose, perhaps as some form of protest.
He lowered his arms, feeling deflated but trying not to let it show. He cleared his throat. “That concludes today’s history lesson. Now, Mr Birch will start your psychology lesson. Anyone who needs a bathroom break, now’s the time.”
If a bomb alert had been sounded at that exact moment, Brendan didn’t think it could’ve been as a big a motivator to leave class as his offer had just been. The room was empty in under ten seconds, leaving Brendan and Jeremy standing at the front forlornly. Clearly these kids had no taste for the theatrical.
Jeremy gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. I thought it was good.”
“Thanks. Maybe I need to go back to my real accent, eh?” The New Zealand lilt hadn’t left him since that day at the Panopticon. Perhaps it was a way of coming full circle from all the crazy that had happened.
Jeremy shook his head, grinning. “Nah. It’s kinda funny. If nothing else, I like to imagine you reading Shakespeare in it.”
Brendan frowned. “Technically, it’s your accent too, bro. Just because you speak like a ponce-”
“I do not speak like a ponce,” Jeremy replied sharply. “I speak like an educated, well-learned-”
“No, he’s right. You do speak like a ponce.”
They both turned to the doorway to see Anna, arms folded and leaning against the inside of the frame. As one they both walked over and gave her a hug. She felt lighter than when Brendan had seen her last. All that traveling must do great things for weight loss.
They broke apart, and she smiled at them. “Still teaching ungrateful kids?”
“More like ‘inattentive’. They’re verygrateful when we give them bathroom breaks.” Jeremy chuckled. “What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
Her face clouded over a little. “It’s, uh…it’s to say goodbye.”
“What?” Brendan suddenly felt at her stomach. “You’re not dying or anything, are you?”
She pushed his hand away, laughing. “No, nothing like that, stupid. I just…it’s time to stop doing these wilderness treks all the time. I traipse from one end of the country to the other every year…it’s time to settle down somewhere. Somewhere quiet, out of the way. Somewhere I can start, y’know…accepting.”
“Oh.” Brendan now knew exactly what she meant. He laid a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “It’s ok. We’ll be here when you need us.”
Jeremy seemed to cotton on too. “Yeah. Not like we’re ever gonna get anywhere but here.”
Anna laughed again, pulling them into another hugs. “Thanks, you two. Now, I gotta get going – lot of people to say goodbye to. Will you be ok?”
“Shouldn’t we be asking you that?” Brendan retorted. “Yeah, bro, we’ll be fine. Got a sweet teaching gig here, helping all these kids acclimatise to life in the States…it’s all gravy.”
“I’ve always thought Trenton was a highly appropriate place for us to set up shop,” Jeremy added. “Did you see the statue outside?”
Anna snorted. “You mean that big bronze bastard at the gates? Yeah, I saw it. He’d’ve loved it.”
“What makes you think he doesn’t love it, present tense?” Brenda pointed skywards. “We don’t know what happened.”
Anna opened her mouth to reply, then closed it quickly. A small smile flitted across her lips. “You’re right. I’m sure he loves it.”
It occurred to Brendan that she might know something a bit more than he did right now – he wasn’t going to press her, but he got the distinct impression. Either way, they hugged once more and she headed off. It was good timing, as the teens started filing back into the classroom.
“Alright, class!” Jeremy proclaimed. He pulled out a thick wad of papers from his briefcase and waved them around. “I’ve prepared a compendious lecture on the psychology of mammals, specifically in regards to Freudian motifs of-”
“Um, sir?” A young man raised his hand. He looked a little like Brendan. “I was wondering…is there any chance we can do another biology lesson instead?”
Brendan was prepared for this; he stepped next to Jeremy and answered the student. “We can do biology a little later, class. I still haven’t fully recovered from the last one.”
“But sir,” the student insisted, “with all due respect, you nearly put us to sleep with your history lesson. If we listen to Mr Birch talk about Freudian-whatevers, we’ll probably fall asleep.” His eyes went wide. “Please?”
The two teachers exchanged a glance; Jeremy nodded mutely, a thin, almost imperceptible smile on his lips. Brendan reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved the scalpel there. “Alright then, class. But afterwards, you get a double psych lecture. Deal?”
The students all sat up attentively and nodded hurriedly. “Deal!” the young man student said.
“Alright.” Brendan shed his jacket and started unbuttoning his shirt. He put the tip of the scalpel against his breastbone. “So who wants to see what the human heart looks like?”
They all raised their hands excitedly, with cries of “Me!”
Jeremy took a look at his watch, then tossed his lesson papers into the air. “Well, looks like it’s fuck-this-shit-o’clock.”
It was so odd, with everything starting to go back to normal, that part of you wondered what would come to sweep away the joy. I mean, you can’t expect a peace, any peace, to last indefinitely.
That’s why you’ve got to cherish it. Because who knows where you’ll be tomorrow?
PORT ADELAIDE, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
“I’m certain I’ve got it working this time!”
“You said that last week.” Belinda rolled her eyes. “Come on, just give it up. If we have a chat to Mary, I’m sure she can-”
“No! I can do this!” Michael protested, fiddling with the vehicle’s outer shell. “All’s I need is some twine to fix this part to that little bit there!”
This wasn’t the first time Michael had refused help in building his spaceship.
The backyard of a house in a still-ruined suburban neighbourhood wasn’t the most ideal place to pioneer space travel, but ever since they’d moved here following the events in New York, Michael had been insistent on building a spaceship. It seemed almost as crazy to Belinda as Graham 917 had been – then again, with all the crazy stuff they’d witnessed, maybe this was considered perfectly normal now. She didn’t quite know how to gauge that these days.
Right now, she was just happy to be around him. It also gave her time to work on a soon-to-be-award-winning novel she’d had the idea for years ago. After all, the end of the world had left humanity without any decent zombie literature in the last decade or so, and it was a niche she intended to fill.
Her phone suddenly buzzed as Michael banged particularly hard on the spacecraft with his hammer. “Hello?”
“Belinda?” It sounded like Anna, but the new haphazard cell towers made incoming calls still rather crackly. “Can you hear me?”
“Anna? Yes, it’s me, hi!” Belinda waved at Michael to quiet down, but he kept bringing the hammer down. “How are you, hon?”
“Great, real great. Just wanted to let you know it’s gonna be a while until I catch up with you guys again.”
Belinda had been expecting this for a while, but it still made her a bit sad. “I understand. Just make sure you take care of yourself, ok?”
“Thanks. I will. Make sure Michael doesn’t blow your suburb up?”
“I’d laugh if that weren’t such a realistic possibility.” She lowered the phone and bellowed, “Can you stop doing that for five minutes, please?!”
“Sorry!” Michael’s muffled voice came from underneath the spacecraft.
Belinda shook her head, chuckling quietly, and got back to Anna. “Alright, well look after yourself, and good luck.”
“Cheers, Belinda. See you round.”
As she hung up Belinda stood from her chair and walked to the spaceship. She knew exactly where Anna was going and why, and it made her remember what was important to her right now. She crouched down beside Michael, who poked his head out from the underside.
“You’re a mental patient, you know that?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re only just working that out now?”
She laughed louder this time, and got down on the ground next to him. “Alright, now what can I do to make this thing seaworthy?”
“Don’t you mean spaceworthy?”
“Oh, honey,” she replied, tapping two parts of the bulkhead that looked a little separated from each other. “You’ll be lucky if you can get this thing in a bathtub.”
The headquarters was neither nondescript nor ostentatious, but merely served the purpose of acting as the central location for the agency kept inside. It did, however, stand out a little from the desolation and ruins that had once been the proud capital of the Great White North.
From her window on the fifteenth floor of the building, Mary could see those ruins whenever she needed a moment to remember why she did what she did. She’d debated leaving this undertaking to someone else, but when push had come to shove they had all agreed she was the best fit for the job. Or, at least, the best fit who was actually willing to do it.
The doors to her office opened, and Anna walked in. “Hi.”
Mary nodded curtly. “Hello.”
Anna stepped towards the desk awkwardly. “Thanks for agreeing to meet with me.”
“It’s only fair,” Mary replied, taking a seat. “I don’t have awfully long, though. I’ve got an appointment in Scotland.”
She knew this meeting would be as hard for her as it was for Anna, but she wasn’t about to give this woman much quarter. The past was still there, fresh in her memory, and Anna hadn’t forgotten that Mary had shot her, ruse or no. For their first and last meeting since Anna had been thought dead, it certainly felt like this wouldn’t go for very long.
“Look,” Anna said, leaping straight in, “I just wanted to let you know I’m ok with everything that happened. I’m going off the grid for a while, and I wanted to tell you not to worry about me.”
“Trust me,” Mary replied icily, “I don’t worry about you in the slightest. There’s not much that can worry me anymore.”
“I suppose you have seen an awful lot,” Anna admitted. “Makes you an ideal fit for this job.”
“Ideal? I don’t know about that. But the only one willing, certainly.” She sighed. She’d rehearsed this every now and then, in preparation of this day. “Anna, you were Jacob’s, wholly and completely. I might’ve been in love with him – or who I thought was him – but you came first. I don’t want there to be any lingering doubt over that.”
Anna nodded calmly. “Ok.”
“I’m not looking for a heart-to-heart, or any of that contrived bullshit,” Mary went on, “I just want us to be clear with each other. Neither of us should be considered ‘the other woman’. You and he-”
The door to the office burst open, and two figures hurried inside. As they came closer Mary saw it was Lonie and the new guy, both looking flustered as if they’d run a mile to get here.
Lonie spoke first. “Sorry to interru- Oh, hi Anna!” She gave Anna a quick hug and then strode over to Mary’s desk. “There’s a problem over in Montreal. Some yahoo decided to steal one of the busted Sentinels and have a crack at repairing it.”
“So?” Mary asked. “What’s the problem? Go take the idiot down.”
The new guy scratched his head. “Well, it’s not as simple as all that.”
Mary’s eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
“There’s possibly the smallest of teensy-weensy chances that he somehow got his hands on a thermonuclear device that’s now inside the Sentinel,” the new guy admitted sheepishly. “Only possibly, though. No confirmed report. Well, that he’s got it, I mean.”
“You’re telling me there is a confirmed report that a nuke got stolen?”
“Yeah, turns out somebody in Quebec misfiled an inventory report. They only just realised.” Lonie rolled her eyes and sighed dismissively. “Only in Canada, boss.”
“Alright,” Mary said, straightening up. “Have a tac team loaded in a bird in the next ten minutes. I want eyes all over Montreal. Get Deputy Director Smithfield over from Washington to oversee the operation. I’m heading to Scotland.”
“But, ma’am,” the new guy protested, “you do realise this is a threat to the redeveloping world, right? I mean, it’s kind of stupid that you’re leaving us in this position just so you can take a holiday.”
She hadn’t bothered to learn the new guy’s name, but the way he was going she probably wouldn’t have to. “You realise it’s attitude like that which makes me want to fire you, right?”
The new guy looked affronted. “You realise that’d just shoot yourself in foot, ma’am? You need all the agents you can get right now.”
“What’s your name, rookie?”
He put on a shit-eating grin. “You can call me Dash, ma’am. Future CRUD agent extraordinaire.”
“Well, ‘Dash’, let me tell you something – our agency has survived long before you came along, and we could do just fine without you at all. So get that giant head out of your ass and do as I goddamn tell you.” It might not have been the sort of attitude Damian would’ve endorsed, but Mary found it got the job done all the same.
Dash swallowed hard while Lonie giggled quietly behind him. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll get right on that.”
“Come on, newbie,” Lonie said, grabbing him by the shoulder and making for the door. “We’ve got a nuke to find. Nice to see you again, Anna.” She smiled at the visitor, who returned the gesture.
None of the others had had the same problem with her as Mary did, and that was just fine if they were content to buddy it up with her. There was no way Mary would ever fall into that, though.
After Lonie and the idiot Dash left, she returned her attention to Anna. “With that, I’ll say goodbye and good luck.”
She didn’t wait for Anna’s reply, didn’t stop to try and mend things. That was just it. That was the end of her knowing Anna Farraday.
It was better that way.
As she left the new Counterinsurgency Reliant Upon Diversity building, giving her secretary instructions to escort Anna from the premises a few minutes after Mary had left, she saw something in the distance. She blinked a few times, sure she was hallucinating. After a few seconds the thing had disappeared.
That was odd. For a moment, she could’ve sworn she saw Coconut galloping through the city outside.
CASTLE MCCULLOCH, SCOTLAND
It hadn’t been easy finding the body, preserving it in secret or getting it into a vaguely-repaired shape, but they’d done it. Mary knew there was a reason she still kept these kooks hired.
The lead techie, the guy who’d helped her put in motion the plans that led to Jeremy’s birth so many years ago, was still here, slightly aged but no less snappy. “Alright, girly. We’re just about ready on this end.”
She nodded. “Ok.”
“Now, yeh understand there’s no guarantee this’ll work,” the techie explained. “As we been tellin’ yeh for years now, we can’t promise anything.”
“And even if it does work, we don’t know what the long-term effects are,” he went on. “Yeh could just end up at square one again.”
“I know. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
The lead techie eyed her cautiously, holding a set of electrodes in his hand that were connected to the machine. “It’s yehr funeral, girly. Yeh ready?”
She looked into the glass chamber, the place where Dream had been born, the place where Jeremy had come into the world to battle its evil. It now held Jacob’s corpse, still ruined from the battle in New York but preserved for the past five years. A second chamber stood adjacent to it, empty.
A clone of his DNA, combined with her memories of him. That was the plan.
She took a deep breath, letting her doubts fall away. This was where she needed to be. “Yep. I’m ready.”
The techie placed the electrodes on her head, and stood by the machine. Mary looked at Jacob’s body again, remembering that whole, perfect face, the snarky wit, the loving stares…all those things that made him the Jacob she’d fallen in love with.
She hadn’t lied to Anna before; Jacob had been her’s, and she had come before Mary in the grand scheme of things. Now it was Mary’s turn to come first.
The lead techie clapped his hands together. “Alright, lads, let’s do this thing.”
He activated the machine. She closed her eyes.
SOMEWHERE IN MADAGASCAR
Of all the things Anna would miss from her old life, back-and-forthing across countries every week wouldn’t be one of them.
She knew she’d come back to proper civilisation one day, maybe even sooner than she thought, but for now she needed space, somewhere quiet. The world wasn’t perfect yet, and they all still had a lot of work to do. In truth, she felt guilty for not sticking around to help.
But this was what she needed. She’d come back when they’d gotten on their feet a bit better. For now, she needed to stay in one place.
It wasn’t a long walk from the beach to the cabin she’d built over the last couple of years. Actually, cabin was something of a misnomer; it was more like a house than an assemblage of sticks and twigs, and with ready access to fresh water, good food and a waterfall nearby that could double as a shower, there was little else she could want for.
Well, that and…
She approached the cabin, dropping her bag of supplies just next to the door. She knocked gently – he was probably awake anyway.
Sure enough, it swung open. He stood in the doorway, wearing board shorts and a big grin.
“You brought them?” he asked excitedly.
She nodded, picking up the supply bag and handing it to him. “Sure did. Enough spare clockwork parts to keep you amused for years, sweetie.”
His grin got broader. “Awesome. I’ve always wanted to try this.” The grin faded a little. “Are you ok?”
She knew she wasn’t, not entirely, not yet. But she would be. She nodded firmly, giving him the best smile she could. “Sure am. I think it’s time we took that rest we’ve earned.”
Wordlessly, he pulled her forward into a firm hug. She didn’t resist. “It’ll be ok. We’ll be ok. A break from the world is exactly what we need.”
Anna knew he couldn’t have been more right. A break was exactly what they needed, time alone to build each other back up. Time away from gods, clones, robots, AI programs, world-breaking genes and all those explosions. Time for some peace, and quiet, and together.
“Don’t worry,” Dac said, gesturing with the bag of clockwork components. “With this, we now have all the time in the world.”
She groaned. “Oh, god. If this is how the next few years are gonna be, I think you need a new quote book.”
One day, long ago, I met a god.
He wasn’t a particularly good god, as far as otherworldly deities go, but he was pretty funny. Liked to joke about how he’d taken a break from the heavens to walk among the mortals.
I actually visited his home, once. I didn’t mean to, but the Starfire gene I’d implanted myself with – that convenient Deus ex Machina that ensured my survival – sent me there anyway. After that big kerfuffle in New York, after falling from that tower, after all that crazy red light and whatever, I ended up in heaven.
Well, “heaven” isn’t the best word to describe it. It was a place, divorced from reality but there nonetheless. And when I got there, the god I’d met was waiting for me. Big smile, jokey attitude, just like I’d remembered. He told me it wasn’t my time yet, as if I’d suddenly stumbled into some Hallmark movie about death. He told me I’d earned a break, we all had, and he’d owed us a favour.
You see, he was with us for so long, formed such an integral part of our lives, and despite everything that ended up happening we’d accepted him. We adapted to him, as he adapted to us. That was what the whole journey had been for us, he said. Adaptation. Acclimating to new environments. Surviving, but doing more than that.
We’d made it through hell, survived the worst the universe could throw at us, but what’s the point of surviving if there’s nothing to look forward to afterwards?
It all seemed a bit obvious, but when he said it, it just made sense. For that reason, he said, I was to be sent back. He’d had a chat to some of his friends, and they’d managed to expunge the supernatural elements from our world that still lingered. Starfire, the sentinels, the whole shebang.
Well, except for Brendan’s immortality thing. My friend, the god, thought he was kind of hilarious.
So I’d survived, and earned my rest. He sent me back with his sincerest thanks, and promised that the world could live without me for a while. The peace would not be eternal – what peace ever is? – but it would last for long enough for me to become a human being again. He also promised Dream wouldn’t be coming back to our world anytime soon, on account of him being completely erased from existence.
Apparently, my friend’s fellow gods were quite pissed off with the good doctor.
The god left me with a big smile and a pat on the shoulder, and put me back down here. He’d promised he’d try and visit again sometime, once all his stuff “at home” was sorted.
That was the last time I’d ever see the god.
I told a few people I still lived, just a few, and they all understood. Anna kept coming back and forth from her jobs around the world, helping it get back on its feet. I helped build a cabin, and started making clocks. It was something I’d always been meaning to do, but never got around to.
The ten million people who’d been re-routed through time from South Africa, whom Mary had saved from a fate worse than death, would be more than enough to repopulate the world. It was hard work at first, tough going, but they all started to make it through. They persevered.
“When faced with the impossible, we adapt to make it the definite”. We conquered an immense foe, and came out on top. We made survival the definite. Now came the rebuilding.
Like I said to Anna when she first came here, when we decided to slowly build to the idea of sequestering ourselves from society for a while, this wouldn’t be a permanent thing. We would be back one day – whether when the world needed us, or she just got bored with all the clock jokes I’d spent years working on – but for now, all was peace and quiet.
So why have I taken the time to write all of this down? Why have I documented one of the weirdest and most prolonged pieces of our history in a book that, most likely, no-one will read? Am I just that bored, you ask?
Whether this book means anything to you or not, there is one thing you should take away from it – adaptation. It was the unspoken spine of everything we experienced, everything we endured, and everything we suffered. We adapted. We got better. We didn’t break.
The world’s still a shambles, and it’ll take time to get it back in one piece – probably beyond my lifetime. But if Trent’s right, if this peace can hold for a while, then we’ve got time. We will adapt. We will live on.
“When faced with the impossible, we adapt to make it the definite”. You know what I’ve learned, through all these years of gods, clones, robots, et cetera?