Tangled Webs

Crashing Down

Chapter One - Fraying at the Seams

Do not be alarmed. There has been a momentary interruption in power flow. Please continue your duties as best you are able.

"That's nice. That's lovely." Steve Dimond kicked his console. "That's just what I always wanted."

"Well, look on the bright side," Agent Selene suggested. "You didn't really want to go on a mission, anyway."

"Nor did I want to sit around here waiting," Steve muttered savagely. "It'd be one thing if Constance were- sorry." He sighed. "Sorry."

Narto Telyan glanced between the two. "Should we go?" he muttered to Selene. She shook her head and took a step forward, placing a hand on Steve's shoulder.

"I know how you feel," she said gently. "I'm the same way with Dafydd. It's not that I liked the guy, but I was used to him. We got on each other's nerves, but in a familiar way. Right?"

Steve nodded slightly. "Right. And then he goes and runs off with my partner, leaving us both floundering."

"Well, at least I got assigned someone new immediately," Selene said, glancing at Narto. "But you... it must be hard on you."

"It is," Steve admitted with a sigh. "And now this... I mean, how do you manage to accidentally cut power to all of HQ?"

"It's probably a problem in DoDAEG," Narto offered, and then blushed as the pair turned to look at him. "Sorry."

"No, no," Selene said, "go on. Dee-oh-dayeg?"

"The Department of Dead Author Electricity Generation," Narto filled in. "They, uh, make use of all those authors spinning in their graves, you know? Power HQ with them." He took in their disbelieving looks. "Terri told me!" he said defensively.

Selene shook her head. "That Archivist is a bad influence on you," she said. "Filling your head with technobabble..."

"Well, it's always the way," Steve put in. "My sister was just as bad, she was a Secretary for Bad Slash before she got transferred, and she was always telling me the most bizarre stories..." He shook his head. "Heh, well, anyway..."

"Anyway," Selene said, breaking the awkward silence that followed – both she and Narto knew that Steve's sister had been killed in action nine months earlier – do you think we should head over to this DoDAEG and see what's gone wrong?"

"I don't really know how to find it," Narto said apologetically. "Terri only really mentioned it in passing, so..."

"Oh, well, never mind." Straightening up abruptly, Selene looked around. "So, Steve, hypothetical question: you're stuck waiting in your RC during a power outage with a pair of Agents you barely know. What do you do to entertain yourself?"

~

Nendil Morifλa sat on a convenient tombstone and waited patiently. The pile of books they'd made on Tolkien's tomb would have made for good reading, but there was no temptation for him. For one thing, he knew that they were fundamental to the Black Cats' plan to regain their proper station. None of the Cats would jeopardise that, not even Ontic, crazy though she was, and certainly not Nendil. Far too much was riding on it.

For another, it was all his history anyway.

A few stones over, Twp'atwt stood up abruptly. "Something's gone wrong," he said.

"Don't be such a worrywart, Twp," Ontic said, in such a reasonable tone that Nendil looked up sharply out of sheer astonishment. But it was all right, she was simply engrossed in whatever it was she was doing – counting daisies, it looked like.

"But she's taking too long," the Pine Marten grumbled, his claws tapping nervously against the stone. "Those systems should be easy to take out. If we wait too much longer, they'll send someone up here and find us."

"That's why we're armed," Nendil said dryly. "And besides, how are they going to portal here? They have no power, that's the point of the whole exercise."

"Zhat's what zhey vant you to zhink," Lady Zhevago put in caustically. "I vould not put it past zhem to deceive us in zhe hopes of catching us all at vunce."

"That's because you've never met them," Mkellin said languidly. "You've never even set foot in HQ, how would you know what those idiots would do?"

Lady Zhevago drew herself up to her full height – she, of course, had never sat down. "Vell," she began, but Nendil had had enough.

"That'll do," he said mildly, glancing between the two. They settled down, and Nendil entertained himself by examining the contrast between the two. Zhevago – who was always Lady Zhevago to her face – was a new recruit, only with the Cats for two years, but had made a big impression. Higher-born even than Nendil himself, she insisted on adorning her uniform with as many fripperies as she could. Nendil would have liked to clamp down on this – lace and frills were surely not appropriate for the Black Cats – but the Bracket Fungus assured him that, so long as they were in black and silver, she could decorate herself as much as she liked. As she was positively lethal with every weapon they could offer her – and several things that weren't weapons at all – Nendil had quietly decided that it was best to humour her.

Mkellin, at the opposite end of the spectrum, was one of the longest-serving Cats left alive, having joined up when the group was formed as the PPC's Department of Internal Security. He came from some obscure planet where, it was said, the trees moved as you walked in their midst – a story most of the Cats discounted, but Nendil accepted, having once spent a week or more lost in the Old Forest back in Middle-earth. Whatever the case, he and his people had almost supernatural scouting abilities, which had been completely useless in HQ, but had meant Mkellin rose to high rank very quickly once the Cats went into exile. That meant he was constantly irritating the status-conscious – such as Lady Zhevago – by his incredibly laid-back attitude. He, too, wore clothes other than the standard Cat uniform – his sash was more black than silver, and he was rarely seen without his camouflage cloak – but again, the BF had allowed it, and Nendil saw no reason to argue.

Time passed, and even Nendil began to grow worried, though it could hardly have been more than an hour since they began their operation. At last, a tiny portal hummed open in the air above the grave, and the fairy Flickerbright flew out, followed by three others of her species. As the portal snapped shut, she hovered in front of Nendil's face. "Done!"

"You're sure?" the elf asked. Flicks snorted.

"Your memory's going, Nen. I helped install those things, I can certainly take them out again. Not that it was too tricky – I don't think they'd been serviced since we left."

"Of course not," Mkellin put in. "There wasn't anyone left who knew they were even there, and you didn't think their DIA could have found them, did you?"

"Very true," Nendil agreed, "but now that our mission is complete, we really ought to get away from here. While unlikely, it's possible that our enemy will have a portal device working again by now-"

"I told you so," Twp said, baring his teeth. "If you'd listened-"

"-and if they do," Nendil continued over the top of him, "we want them to be suitably puzzled by what they find here. So come on." He looked around at his small team, the force that had been left to guard the grave while the rest of the Cats had returned to their base. "Everyone grab as many books as they can, and make it fast – I think we'll need several trips."

~

The trick, as ever, was silence. The Black Cats – the DIS – were generally unobservant if they thought themselves safe. And here, in their most secure base, they were as lax as they ever were. If their command group had been there – Nendil, or the stealth expert Mkellin – there would have been Words spoken, but of course they were absent, off on their mission to start the destruction of HQ.

Of course, that didn't mean Tango Dioxide allowed herself to get careless.

For seven years she'd followed the Cats through the Multiverse, resting only when they did, stealing from them when she could. She made no attempts to stop their activity, even when they started kidnapping and killing Agents again – far too dangerous, too big a risk. But she knew, had always known, that one day they would launch an attack on the PPC itself. That was what she was going to prevent.

And now it had started. Whatever they were up to in Oxford was the beginning, their first sally in a war that the other side wasn't even aware of. She had to change that; had to get into HQ and warn them about the oncoming storm. She still wasn't quite sure how.

She'd tried before to get in, using stolen Cat portal technology. It hadn't worked – there was some sort of barrier protecting HQ that stopped portals being opened to its halls from anywhere but inside. The consoles, and the portal generators that made up much of their workings, were fine. The Remote Activators worked through those. But Cat portals didn't open at all, or defaulted to just outside the walls, in one of the places it had walls.

Now, though, things might be different. She couldn't imagine the Cats trying to storm an actual door, so their current mission must be to turn the shielding systems off. She didn't know how – it seemed like a classic case of opening a box with the crowbar found inside – but it was the only way they could hope to succeed. And that meant she could get in, too...

Slowly, very slowly, Tango began to shuffle backwards. Her ragged clothes made no sound as they shifted over the grass of the hilltop. Her hair, naturally red, was stained with mottled blacks and dark greens, her pale skin – less pale now, with seven years of exposure – similarly darkened. If any Cats should happen to look up, they would see a shadow, if that. There was no risk.

There would be soon.

~

The lights flickered back into existence and Veminta Fincaran let out a sigh of relief. "At last," she muttered.

Her partner grinned slightly. "You too?" she asked. Vemi nodded.

"It's silly, I know, but being stuck here in the dark, I couldn't help thinking of that time..."

"In άberwald," Penny finished for her. "Yes, I remember. And even though we know that HQ's not a death-trap castle..."

"... yeah." Vemi sighed again. "Well, that was a long time ago. And we got our man."

"And got paid." Penny glanced at the console's screen, now back to life. "Speaking of which, looks like the SO's got another contract for us."

"Yet another 'Sue, I suppose." Vemi shook her head. "I don't know; I sometimes wish we'd just stayed in Ankh. It was a lot less monotonous."

"You know that wasn't an option," Penny chided gently. "It was all we could do to get Lord Downey to let us... what was it?"

"Go on a long-term assignment to a similar but not competing organisation to the Guild, for the purposes of improving their training standards," Vemi recited from memory. "I don't need reminding, Pen, I know all about it."

"You brought it up," Penny pointed out mildly. "But anyway, this contract... it's an interesting one."

Vemi leaned over and looked at the screen. Her eyes widened. "Wow. You think he added a couple of extra zeros?"

"Must have," Penny agreed. "No 'Sue's worth that much – not with the PPC's lack of resources. And it is a 'Sue."

"Hmm, hmm..." Scrolling down the screen, Vemi nodded. "Right, no, I see." She tapped a line. "She's already sent three teams running, and killed one of the Agents. She's nasty."

"Do we want to take the job, then? I mean, if she's that dangerous..."

Vemi shrugged. "We're Assassins, trained by the best to be the best. Why should we worry about an amateur 'Sue? No," she added, "I'm more worried about that power cut."

"Why?" Penny inquired, startled. "It's over, isn't it?"

"True, but we don't know what caused it. It could happen again, and I have no desire to get trapped in some backwater universe."

Penny glanced at the console again. "Oh, we might not have a choice," she said. "This contract was sent before the outage, and I've got a little blinking light here that says we've got a new message from after."

Vemi raised an eyebrow. "Well, let's hear it."

All Agents are required to report to their Head of Department as soon as possible. All Agents are required to report to their Head of Department as soon as possible. This is not optional.

Vemi scowled. "All-consoles message, was it?"

"Mmm... yes, looks like. Should've played automatically, but our privacy settings caught it."

"Pity they didn't catch the earlier one." Vemi thought for a moment. "All right, so we go and see the SO. Agreed?"

"Well, we could head off to look for Lord Downey instead..." Penny grinned sheepishly at Vemi's look.

The brown-haired girl shook her head. "You're impossible. And that doesn't even work, he said Department, not Guild. Now come on, if the Sunflower wants to see us, we'd better get moving."

"Yes," Penny agreed, slipping her shoes on. "His office is going to get very crowded."

~

The woman stood in the falling snow, hood held tightly against the wind. "We're going to have to move on," she said, not turning her head.

"Have they found us again, then?" her companion asked, voice muffled by the scarf around his face. "I see nothing."

The woman snorted. "As if they'd ever think of coming here. No, it's... well, this." She waved a gloved hand through the air.

The other stepped closer. "It's a bit cold, true," he admitted, "but that's no reason to go on the run again."

"It'll get worse, though." The woman shook her head. "I never intended for us to stay here, regardless; this was just a temporary hideout."

"But where will we go?" the other asked. "If we use the portal again, they'll be on us like a shot – you know they only missed us this time because of the explosives. We can't risk that."

"We don't need to," the woman reassured him. "We're going to walk. It's not all that far to go."

"But where?" the man insisted. "You know how much activity there is in this world these days. We'd be spotted by one side or the other, for certain."

"Not everywhere... or everywhen", the woman said. "I didn't just move us over here, I took us back. It's a long time before the War, and there's a nice little town that should be just right for us... destroyed a few years back, rebuilt, and never touched on in Canon again."

"Sounds perfect," the man agreed. "What's the catch?"

The woman shrugged. "Some nine hundred miles and a mountain range or two. Think you can handle it?"

"Of course," the man said in an amused tone. "It's only walking, after all."


Chapter Two - In Place of Proof

The small pop in a corridor far from the nerve-centre of HQ went entirely unobserved; the hallways was empty, so no-one saw the dark figure appear, unannounced, in mid-step and out of nowhere. There was another pop of displaced air, and Tango Dioxide stood in PPC HQ once more.

The blue light that accompanies, and to most people defines, an opening portal is not, though few are aware, an intrinsic feature of the technology. After 'serious concerns' were raised about possible disastrous incidents with invisible portals back in the very early days of the PPC, the glow was added to the instruments in the consoles by the short-lived Department of Health and Safety. It was never removed, and when the DIS absconded with samples to build their own, they weren't even aware that it was optional. They never did find out.

Tango did.

She looked around, brushing a clump of dirty hair away from her face and wishing she'd had a chance to clean up. Camouflage was all well and good in the wilderness of Middle-earth, but for convincing HQ at large of her sanity and seriousness – which hadn't exactly gone down well last time she'd been a herald of danger, and she'd been clean then – it was somehow lacking. Still, she thought with a wry grin, at least they won't think I'm a 'Sue.

~

"Anything?"

Mkellin looked up as Nendil stopped beside him, and grimaced. "Difficult to say. These... these so-called scouts were off getting drunk during half the mission, and the rest... well, frankly, they couldn't spot an army if it camped on their collective doorstep."

"Ungwλ." The elf shook his head. "I thought you'd got them whipped into shape by now, Kell."

"So did I," Mkellin said ruefully. "When I'm around, they're almost as good as anything I could find back home, and when I'm not... well, they're still usually the same." He shrugged. "General pre-mission excitement?"

"Not good enough," Nendil declared with a quick head-shake. "Report them to the Bracket Fungus; they will not be participating in the operation."

Mkellin raised an eyebrow and watched him for a moment, but then shrugged and nodded. "All right, will do. Have you got any leads on those two rogues yet?"

Nendil suppressed a small smile. Mkellin prided himself – justly so – on being able to track anything, even through portals. Losing those two was a blow, and if he hadn't been so important to the Cats, he'd be off hunting them down even now. But unfortunately... "I'm afraid not. They're still a wild-card. But we'll know if they try to portal anywhere, they won't catch us by surprise. I promise."

Mkellin sighed. "I guess you're right. And besides, there's not much two people can do to mess up this operation, right?"

"Right," Nendil said grimly, and walked away.

~

Finding someone to convince was taking a lot more effort than Tango had anticipated, and she was beginning to get angry. In the time she'd been wandering HQ, no less than seven Agents had turned and run away from her when she started talking. She understood the impulse, but she had hoped that the modern PPC might look for at least a little courage in its Agents. Three of them had been Assassins.

When the eighth turned a corner and walked towards her, she was too fed up to even look for a flashpatch. "You!" she called instead.

The Agent stopped and raised an eyebrow. "Me?" he asked.

"Yes, you. Do you want to die horribly?"

He gave her a level gaze. "No. I can't say I do."

Tango smiled grimly. "Then perhaps you'll listen to me. There is a vast army preparing to invade HQ; unless you listen to me, this Organisation will be utterly destroyed within days. Have I caught your interest yet?"

"Indeed you have," the man said evenly. "I think you should come with me."

Something in his tone or his face made her frown. "Wait, what...?"

Hands grabbed her shoulders from behind. The instinctive backwards kick failed to land, and then she was securely trapped. She glared at the Agent as he walked towards her; her eyes searched quickly for his flashpatch but found only plain black fabric. "What is this?" she snarled.

"This is a security operation," the man said calmly. "We received reports that you were wandering around threatening the PPC, and we cannot allow such a danger to the fabric of this Organisation. I'm very sorry, but we're going to have to take you into custody... whoever you are."

Tango stared at him. Oh dear sweet Valar... what have they done?

~

When Nendil reached Tinco Division's sector of the camp, he found Flickerbright and her infiltration team already back in place. "Hey, Nen," the fairy called, darting over the heads of several Cats and hovering before him. "We ready yet?"

"I'm just doing the final checks," Nendil assured her, "then we'll be off. Any problems here?"

"Nah, not many," Flicks replied. "One squad managed to lose their Remote Activator, but they're a pretty useless bunch anyway."

Nendil frowned. "Are they by any chance on the edge of the camp?"

Flicks gave him a surprised look. "Yeah, actually, they are. How did you... oh. Oh, no no no."

"My thoughts exactly." Nendil scowled. "If someone's started interfering... I have to check the portal records." He turned and walked off towards the Bracket Fungus' tent, Flicks buzzing over his head.

"Who do you think it was?" the fairy asked, shedding dust in her concern. Nendil flicked a glare at her and she reigned in her emotions, the poison powder ceasing to fall.

"I've no idea," Nendil replied after a few moments. "We've had a few incidents along those lines, usually inconsequential pieces of technology, but never anything big enough to get Mkellin on it. This..." He scowled. "Whoever it is, if they portal to HQ, they could ruin everything."

"Then let's make sure they didn't, eh?"

"Good girl. Come on, then."

~

"—got it completely wrong! I'm not threatening you with—"

"Oh, you're just doing it for fun? Let me tell you—"

"That's not what I meant! I'm deadly serious, I—"

"'Deadly' being the operative term!"

"Look, you patronising little--!"

All right, what's all this shouting about?

Agent Hazelhead of the Department of Internal Affairs looked up, trying to avoid the prisoner's angry – but now thankfully mute – glare. "Sorry, ma'am, but she's being..."

Intractable. Yes, so I see. Have you considered allowing her to take a shower?

Hazelhead blinked. "Ma'am?"

I didn't think so, the Tiger Lily said, with a disapproving tilt of her petals. She looked over at the prisoner. What's she even done?

"Nothing!" the woman snarled. Hazelhead shrugged.

"She was roaming HQ declaring that she was about to call down an army on the PPC. We thought it best that we bring her in."

"I told you," the prisoner grated, "I wasn't threatening, I was warning. If you would only listen to me-"

Wait. The Tiger Lily leant forward. Don't I know you?

The woman blinked, taken aback. "I don't... you don't look familiar, no."

So you're PPC, at least. Interesting. But no, I think I encountered you once...

The prisoner shrugged. "I'm Tango Dioxide. DMS, then DAVD. Then I... left."

The Lily's petals folded in puzzlement. You were transferred after the Evermind incident, and then you vanished when... The Flower's voice trailed off, and then she whirled to face Agent Hazelhead. Lock her away. Immediately.

Tango jumped to her feet, shouting. Hazelhead stared. "Ma'am, we don't even have a prison, what-?"

Make one, the Tiger Lily said sharply. This woman stands accused of multiple murder of PPC Agents, and attempted assault on the security and fabric of HQ, the two most heinous crimes we acknowledge. For our safety and hers, she must be isolated... until we can prove guilt or innocence, or if not that... forever.

~

There is a room which nobody visits. Years ago it was the site of evil untold and untellable. When the evil was cast out, it became a memorial, a monument, a mausoleum. It was the most frequented place in HQ at the time, but people's memories fade, and the record of the past, of what was done and what they brought upon themselves, is never a popular sight. So it was that the Tomb of the Unknown PPC Agent fell into obscurity, darkness filling its cavernous space and dust lying deep on the floor. The names of the dead faded; all save one, which gleamed ever bright.

There is more than one way to journey from place to place instantaneously. By far the safest is the portal used by both PPC and Cats, but woe unto those who forget what these marvels of technology are at the core: they are plotholes, stabilised and prolonged beyond their natural life, but plotholes nonetheless. And plotholes are a natural phenomenon.

In the depths of HQ the air is still, and the darkness heavy in the Tomb of the Unknown PPC Agent. Then a soft, impossible breeze stirs the dust, the darkness seems to lighten, though no light enters, and there is a whisper of birdsong. Something in the dark air seems to flex, to move...

... and a figure falls through. Clad in skins tied loosely together, his skin and hair coated with dirt so deeply ingrained that no amount of washing in streams could get it out, he waits for a moment in the dark, and then rises unsteadily to his feet. Despite the dirt, were there enough light to view by, his hair would still show a hint of its natural azure...

Blue Photon, once (so long ago) an Assassin of the PPC, looked up at the great dark slab before him. His eyes, accustomed to penetrating the darkest forest, caught the glimmer of the faded names, and came at last to rest upon the one that shone still. The starlight illuminated his face, and glittered in his newborn tears.

Imbolc Telyan.

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