Tangled Webs

Crashing Down

Chapter Seven - Clear the Way

The door to Tango's makeshift cell creaked open, and the red-haired woman looked up to see Hazelhead standing there with a young man she didn't recognise. "Have you decided to let me go?" she asked in a bored tone. "It would save a lot of time and hassle if you did."

The DIA Agent glared. "You would say that, spy," he snapped, "but you're not getting out that easily. Your friends can't help you in here, so there's no point threatening us."

"Threatening...?" Tango gave him a puzzled look. "Hazelhead, I have no idea what you're on about."

Hazelhead positively sneered. "Oh, I'm sure." He shoved the young man next to him into the cell. "You two can just sit and chat about how little idea you have, then. Make it last – you'll be here a long time." With that he slammed the door, leaving Tango warily peering across the dimly-lit room at her new companion.

The young man shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. "Um. Hi," he said.

"Hello," Tango replied evenly. "And you are...?"

"Um. Steve Dimond. I think I'm supposed to be here to see you."

"... oh." Tango shook her head. "Sorry, I didn't... why are you in here, then? I was expecting a conversation, not co-imprisonment."

Steve looked sheepish. "I slipped up," he admitted. "I told Hazelhead who my sister is, and... well, here I am."

Tango frowned. "They're locking you up for being a relative of a Cat? That's not very, uh, reasonable."

Steve shrugged. "Well, with the current situation and all, it's not too unexpected. And I-"

"Wait, wait," Tango cut him off. "Situation?"

"Mm, I suppose you wouldn't have heard," Steve agreed. "It's the DIS. They've come to HQ, they're running around killing Flowers and- wow, what's up with you?"

Tango had gone deathly pale. "They're here already?" she whispered. "I'm too late... I thought I'd have longer... we have to get out of here," she said suddenly, looking at Steve.

The Agent shrugged. "You won't be able to open the door," he informed her, "but-"

"Don't be so defeatist," Tango snapped, and banged her fist on the grey panel. "Let us out!" she screamed. "We're in terrible danger – let us out!"

She continued in this vein for a couple of minutes, and then turned, breathless, to look at Steve. He was standing against the wall with folded arms, looking at her with a faint smile. "You could help," she said accusingly, her voice hoarse.

Steve walked across to her and peered at her face. "Your eyes have gone all puffy," he said critically.

Tango gaped. "Well, thank you very much!" she exclaimed, turning her face away.

"No, no." He pressed his hands gently to her cheek to turn her back. "Let me." He caught his shirt cuff between his fingers and dabbed at what she realised were probably tears of frustration. "Now," he said after a few moments, "what I was going to say before you started screaming is that I didn't come in here entirely unprepared. I do have a plan for getting out, though this isn't anything like how I planned on using it."

Tango looked at him dubiously. "Through a locked door?"

"That's right," Steve confirmed. "Now, just let me..." He started unbuttoning his shirt.

Tango's eyes widened and she slapped at his hands. "Stop that! I don't know who you think you are, but-"

Steve raised an eyebrow. "I'm not going to try anything, Tango. Look." He tugged the dark grey cloth covering his chest – Tango had assumed it was a vest of some description – and pulled it out, revealing it to be, of all things, a bedsheet. "Hold," he instructed, pushing it into her hands with more force than strictly necessary and rebuttoning his top.

Tango watched with a puzzled look on her face. When he was done, she said, "So what's this for? You going to pretend to be a ghost and walk through the door?"

"Not that," he replied, "though that's pretty good. I'll try it next time. No, I'm going to – give it back, please? – do this." With a single rapid motion he ripped the sheet lengthways along a line which it looked like he had already weakened.

"Oh, genius," Tango muttered. "Now we get half each."

"I'm not done," Steve pointed out with a slight frown. Laying the halves side-by-side on the floor, he pulled out a needle and thread from his pocket and sewed the sheet back together with long, rapid stitches. "All right," this needs to be fast," he said as he finished. "Come over here, please."

Tango walked over dubiously as he held the sheet – in this dark corner it just looked black – up against the wall with both hands. "Stand in front of me, please."

Tango looked him up and down. With his hands pressed against the top corners of the sheet, he had stretched his arms so that his body was some distance away from the wall – there was enough room for her to stand under (or between, really) his arms. "Are you sure you're not trying something?" she muttered, ducking under and turning to face him.

Steve beamed. "Absolutely positive," he said. "Now, if you were paying attention... I tore the sheet to make two halved. Then I fixed the halves together to make a whole, and we're escaping through that hole. Go!" Dropping his arms, he threw himself against Tango and she tumbled backwards,

falling

down

into

darkness

until she hit the floor. Steve landed heavily on top of her, and as the air rushed out of her lungs she looked over his shoulder and saw the rectangular hole in the wall ripple and then transform, or rather, change its past so it never had been a hole, but merely a grey sheet with a tear down the centre, which fell into a rumpled heap. Then she was left lying on her back with a strange man on top of her, and he was heavy. "G'off," she grunted.

Steve rolled to the side and sat up. "I'm really glad that worked," he said. "I think you'd hit me again if it hadn't."

"I've half a mind to do so anyway," Tango confirmed, pushing herself into a sitting position and rubbing her ribcage. "That hurt. What happened, though?"

Steve shrugged. "I tricked Legal. They're so used to having puns turn literal on us that they made my awful line work automatically. They caught the mistake in seconds, but by that time we were already through. Simple enough," he added defensively, in response to her disbelieving look. "And it worked, right?"

"Right," Tango agreed dubiously. "So now I'm an escaped prisoner in HQ, where both the Agents and now the Black Cats, who are apparently invading already, will want to kill me. My side? Includes no one. Thank you so very much."

"You were eager enough to get out a few minutes ago. And..." Steve hesitated for a moment. "Look, for what it's worth, I'm on your side. I'll..." He sighed. "Sounds really bad, but if you come back to my Response Centre, I can hide you from both sides until this crisis is over and we can straighten you out with the Flowers."

Tango smiled. "It does sound bad," she agreed, "but right now I need a friend badly enough that, hey, I might not even hit you if you tried something." She paused for Steve's startled laugh. "All right, then, Agent Dimond – lead the way."

~

"... I vant zhis to go as smoothly as zhe planning sessions," Lady Zhevago finished, tugging on her lace-edged sash. "Zhere is no reason for us to lose a single Cat."

Joel Weaver nodded. "I thought you'd say that, Lady," he replied, "and I'm certain we're up to it. One hundred and twenty Black Cats will go in, and one hundred and twenty will come out again. I guarantee it."

"Zhat is as it should be," Lady Zhevago agreed. "Now, let us go and show zhese pathetic replacements how to do zhere job – and vhy zhey should never have forced us out in zhe first place."

There was a cheer from Calma Division, but one voice muttered, "She wasn't even with us back then, how can—uck!"

Joel returned to Lady Zhevago's side as silently as he had left, wiping the blood off his long knife. "My mistake," he said calmly. "One hundred and nineteen Cats will go in."

Lady Zhevago nodded once in acknowledgement of his work, and then looked at her Cats. "Zhe moment is upon us," she said. "Let us do vhat ve are here to do." And as she turned away and began to walk towards the distant door, she felt the mass of Calma Division moving behind her, and smiled.

The door swung open without needing to be forced, and the Black Cats filed into an abandoned front office. Lady Zhevago raised an eyebrow. "Is zhis zhe right place?"

Joel Weaver frowned, brushing aside a lock of white-blond hair which had fallen over his hazel eyes, and checked his copy of the map. "I'm sure it is," he said doubtfully. "Maybe they... heard us coming?"

"I do not zhink so." The black-clad woman folded her arms and tapped a foot. "Vill somevune please find an enemy for me so zhat I know vhat is going on?" At least ten small groups of Cats immediately broke off from the group and ran out through various doors, searching for anyone they could bring back. Within a minute, they had succeeded, and a young man with brown hair was dragged before Lady Zhevago. She looked down at him with a bored expression. "Name?" she asked.

The man glared venomously. "Agent Radix," he spat, "Department of Internal Affairs, Protectors of the Plot Continuum. That's all you're getting, traitor."

Lady Zhevago smiled widely. "Fortunately, 'zhat' is all I needed," she said brightly. "Ve are in zhe right place. Agent Radix," she went on, looking down at him again, "you can consider yourself honoured. You are zhe very first member of the DIA we have encountered... and zhe very first one we have killed." Her sword left its sheath at a considerable speed. Radix didn't even have time to cry out before his head was sliced away and sent rolling across the floor. Lady Zhevago handed the weapon to Joel, who began to rub it clean, and looked with distaste at the headless corpse in front of her. "Count yourself lucky," she said. "Zhe rest of your Department vill not die so cleanly."

Straightening up, Lady Zhevago turned to her Division. "First Section," she said, "you are vith me. Ve vill strike at zhe head and kill zhe Tiger Lily zhat leads zhis Department. Zhe rest of you..." She spread her arms. "Kill everyvune you find. No prisoners, no survivors – and no excuses. Before zhis day is out, zhe DIA vill cease to exist – or I vill vant to know vhy."

~

"I really don't think it's that simple," Narto said, hurrying after his partner. "I mean, the Bonsai Mallorn did say-"

"I've known him longer than you," Selene replied briskly. "Without Dafydd around to hold his branch, he doesn't know what he's doing. If we want answers, we have to go higher up."

"But the SO?" Narto asked despairingly. "He's the highest there is! Surely someone lower down..."

Selene smirked. "He's just one of the Board of Flowers, remember? One of nine, equal. Your former boss is one of them."

"The Lichen's hardly as intimidating, though," Narto muttered. "He's just a lot more-- watch out!"

Selene didn't stop fast enough, and went crashing down to the floor with the Agent she'd run into. Scrabbling to her feet, eyes beginning to flare red, she shouted, "Jingle-brained thrice-cursed incompetent! Why don't you look where you're going?"

"You were the one running," Narto said, kneeling next to the man on the floor. "Hello? Are you all right?"

The man with the blue hair lifted his head. "I think... so," he said, with effort. Narto nodded.

"Good. I'll try not to let my partner kill you, she's a bit tense right now." The man on the floor stiffened, eyes darting from side to side. "Joke, joke," Narto said quickly. "You didn't think... okay. Let's start again."

"Let's start with an apology from him," Selene suggested, standing with folded arms. Narto glared at her briefly, and then focussed on the man again.

"Right. I'm Narto, from the Department of Geographical Aberrations. My partner here is Selene. You are...?"

But the man wasn't listening any more; he was busy staring at Narto's face. "Narto... Narto Telyan?"

Narto blinked. "Well, yes... have we met?"

"You are, aren't you?" the man went on, oblivious. "I can see it around the eyes... so much like hers..." He sat up suddenly, lifting one hand to run his fingers through his azure hair. "I'm looking for some... people," he said. "They shouldn't be here."

"'Sues?" Selene asked. "Are there Mary-Sues in HQ again?"

The man gave a tight, mirthless grin. "Oh, much worse than that," he said. "Where were you going?"

"To see the Sunflower Official," Narto informed him. "There've been some disturbances... well, no. There's absolute chaos a few corridors out from our department, and the Consoles are going haywire. No one can get hold of the DoSAT or, well, anyone important, so we're going to find out what's happening."

The man nodded. "That's them," he said with conviction. "The Flowers can't do anything against them, they're too strong." He reached out and grabbed Narto's shoulder, startling the younger Agent. "But we can," he hissed. "We can kill their leaders, we can stop them now – before it happens again."

"Before what-?" Narto began, but the man wasn't listening any more. Neither was Selene, who now sported a wide smile.

"I like your way of thinking, whoever you are," the vampire said. "Direct solutions have always been more appealing. Let me help you up." She held out a hand which, after a moment's hesitation, the man took.

~

Agent Morgan paced her Response Centre. "It's definitely a signal. She thinks there's something up – something big."

"Might it have something to do with that power cut we had the other day?" Traf asked. "She might be getting a bit, you know, slow."

"Not a chance," Morgan said, shaking her head. "If she says something's going on, it's something I need to know about."

Traf sighed. "Morgan, I can tell where this conversation's going. You parked her about as far from our Response Centre as you possibly could, we really, really don't need to go and see her."

Morgan rolled her eyes. "It's not that far to the lobby, Traf," she replied. "It'd do you good to get out some, you're a lot less cheerful than you used to be."

"That's because I'm exhausted," Traf pointed out. "I don't know why I ever transferred to the DMS, I was a lot more suited to Intelligence."

"It's been four years, can't you stop saying that?" Morgan rubbed at an ear absently. "Look, don't worry about it. I'll go alone."

Traf looked at her, sighed, and stood up. "I'm coming, aren't I? You two have saved my life a couple of times, I can hardly not go and see her." She grimaced. "Even if it does mean going down into HQ's heart. I suppose it'll get us out of any missions which come—"

[BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!]

"—through, especially if we go now. Instantly. Without any delay or time to look at the console or anything go, Morgan, go!"

~

The room at the Dragon's Bane had a distinctly tense atmosphere. "There's no question about what they're doing there," Nyx said into the silence. "If the Black Cats are at the PPC, their only goal can be to destroy it. They've had no reason to take it over for years – it's not like they care about the Canon Protection Initiative."

"We wouldn't let them take it over, anyway!" Kayleigh put in indignantly. "We'll fight them, we will."

"You'll need to," Dassie said absently, looking at his lover. "Nyx, you're not thinking of...?"

"Getting involved? Yes, I am," Nyx confirmed. "I don't see that we have a choice, Das'."

"But the Flowers surely know they're there by now," Dassie protested. "You know how the Cats operate; they've gone active as soon as they could. The two of us won't be able to do a thing against them."

"Yes, we will," Nyx said bluntly. "You said it yourself: we know how they operate. No one else in HQ has seen them for seven years. We're the only ones who can say what they might do. If they try their trick from Mandalore again, would the PPC know? No. They'd be wiped out."

Kayleigh raised a hand. "Excuse me... what?"

Dassie glanced at her. "An adaptation of portal tech. They started out with an army chasing them. When they were done... well, no more army. Quite elegant, but utterly savage."

"If you'll excuse me saying so," Salamander put in, "that sounds like exactly the sort of thing the PPC needs to hear about. You told me we've been caught out by unexpected moves before, right?" He shook his head slightly. "And... we're not the people you knew. Most of the oldbies have moved on. We don't remember."

Nyx looked pointedly at Dassie, who sighed. "We're going to do it, aren't we?" he said. "After all these years, we're going to go back to the place that exiled us – to help them, no less."

"What else can we do?" Nyx asked softly. "We saved their Agent. That puts us firmly on their side. This... this is just the next step."

Dassie shook his head and glanced back at Salamander. "I suppose you're right," he said.

Nyx nodded. "Okay. Thank you. Kayleigh, we'll all use your Remote Activator, if you don't mind. We don't need to give the Cats a shot at finding us. And..." She glanced at the door. "I suppose we need to take our leave of that Meril girl, first. Das' and I don't have Agent invisibility any more, so..."

Dassie grimaced. "Do we have to?" he asked plaintively. "She's so... I mean, no offence to your friend, Kayleigh, but she's a bit... 'Sueish."

"I agree," Salamander said unexpectedly. "I was thinking we might need to call someone in to deal with her, but then I got... well."

"I think she's lovely," Kayleigh protested. "Anyway, Sal, we're not trained to make that sort of decision. We're Slashers, not Assassins." She thought for a moment. "Okay, so I wasn't exactly trained at all, but if I had been, I wouldn't have been."

There was the sort of silence that usually – as Salamander knew, Nyx and Dassie didn’t know, and Kayleigh knew but didn't care about – followed one of Kayleigh's more convoluted declarations. Then Dassie coughed politely. "So. Shall we get going?"

~

"Too many!" Mortic shouted. "El, we can't get through this way!"

Elanor swung her sword – a relic of the 'Sue she had briefly been – and managed to strike a glancing blow on a DISer's arm. She glanced quickly in Mortic's direction to see him battling two others in their silver sashes, and shook her head. Even if they killed these three, more would be waiting. There was clearly something going on up ahead – something they would never find out about. Reluctantly, she began to fall backwards. "With you!" she called to Mort.

The two retreated as rapidly as they could without opening holes in their defences. As they rounded a corner, the DIS Agents – former Agents – stopped, turned, jogged back along the corridor in the other direction. Mortic breathed a sigh of relief.

"They were on guard," he explained, at Elanor's puzzled look. "A guard can't get drawn away from his post unless he knows no one can come up behind him."

Elanor nodded thoughtfully. "So we just had to get to somewhere with a cross-corridor, and..."

"Precisely." Mort sighed. "But... that means they're sure of their victory. Otherwise they would still be trying to kill us, to make sure no one knows they're here. The fact that we're alive means the PPC is in grave danger."

"Isn't that always the way?" Elanor asked vaguely. "So. Which way now?"

"Back," Mort said with a shrug. "We're out of options; all the routes are blocked. All we can do is what I said in the first place – hide, and wait. And hope." He shook his head. "I don't like it, El, but..."

"But we must." Elanor bowed her head with a sigh. "All right, then. Back to the Response Centre – and hope we don't get caught on the way."


Chapter Eight - The Man Who Once Inspired You

The Mysterious Somebody clasped his hands behind his back and watched his subordinates. The Bindweed and the Gladiolus shifted uncertainly in front of him. Sir, I promise- the Gladiolus began.

"You keep promising," the Mysterious Somebody said levelly. "We are already half an hour behind schedule, ladies. If this takes much longer, I will begin to get angry."

The two Flowers exchanged a glance. Sir, the Bindweed tried, the delay is hardly our fault. The mass purge brought problems to light which we never-

"You should have checked the systems years ago," the MS snapped, silencing her. "Don't make excuses for your own incompetence."

Sir, with respect, the Gladiolus put in, that's not our responsibility. The Marigold-

"Ah, of course," C'baoth cut her off. "I'm speaking to the wrong Flowers." Marigold! his voice suddenly thundered through their minds. There were a few seconds of silence as the two Plants worked to clear their thoughts - the Bindweed shot the Gladiolus a reproachful look - and then a rapid rustling sound began and grew rapidly louder until the Marigold practically threw himself through the door at pretty much the highest speed a Flower can manage. The Bindweed pulled in her tendrils, disgusted at her colleague's eagerness and lack of dignity.

"Ah, Marigold," the Mysterious Somebody said kindly, "I gather these delays are your doing?"

The Marigold's petals folded in surprise. Well, he said, I suppose I- AIEEE!

The Bindweed and Gladiolus stared in motionless horror as the fierce blue lightning poured from the Mysterious Somebody's fingertips and blasted into the writhing form of the Marigold. The tortured Flower's screams reached a peak and then, quite suddenly stopped. The others watched in silence as clouds of smoke and steam rose from his remains, which crumbled to ash on the floor.

~

Deep within the Factor's computer systems, the camera footage of the Marigold's demise was closely scrutinised by an intelligence which wasn't supposed to be there - not that that ever stopped it. this is unexpected it may prove detrimental, the intelligence said to itself. i think it is time to allow them to move i hope nothing else goes wrong.

~

"Factory floor to Mysterious Somebody," a voice said from the speaker in the MS's desk, startling the two Flowers from their thoughts. "Sir, we're ready for you now."

The Mysterious Somebody looked down at the smile of smouldering ashes on the floor. "Fascinating," he mused. "Amazing how fast these techniques work." Turning with a swirl of his white coat, the Dark Jedi walked briskly to the door. "Bindweed, Gladiolus - come," he commanded without looking back. The two Plants exchanged a look; the Bindweed shrugged expressively, and they followed their Master out into his domain.

~

A Dandelion leant against a high stone wall somewhere in the Welsh countryside. The narrow valley was choked with trees, so she was invisible from all directions other than directly above - and as the wall was actually one face of a vast, artificial raised platform in a disused and dangerous slate quarry, the changes of anyone peering over were insignificant. The Flower lifted a small silver device in her frond and depressed a button. Weed-23 in position, she said. Door 1-Cym-3 secured.

Excellent, her commander's voice came, relayed by the device. Status of the interior?

No activity, Twenty-three said. The door's been out of use for a while, and the corridors built into the old workings don't seem to be in use, but I sealed the door anyway as per instructions.

Good job, Twenty-three, Captain Dandy said. World One doors all secured, he added on the trans-global channel. All World One Agents to return to Base for briefing on current events.

Twenty-three's seeds shook in surprise. The Weeds all knew what was going on in PPC HQ, about the Black Cats and their invasion; what more could there be? If either side had won, they'd have been called off guard duty already, rather than continuing their role in sealing all the entrances to HQ. She shrugged. Captain Dandy would tell her when she got back. Pulling her Remote Activator from her slung pouch, the Flower entered the code for DES Base, opened the portal, and stepped through.

~

The Nightshade was attempting to meditate, but she wasn't very good at it. Even out here in the wilderness, with no minds to disturb her but the soft, sing-song thoughts of the birds, she couldn't manage to focus. There was so much to think about, so much that needed doing. She hadn't been the Mysterious Somebody's secretary for seven years, hadn't been employed for that long, but her own small dwelling took just as much work as PPC HQ, if not more. She freely admitted that much of it was probably unnecessary - even the biggest wooden hut hardly needed a complete inventory taken every week - but it made her feel better. Except when she was trying to meditate.

Nightshade! Come quickly! The voice of her old friend echoed through the Flower's mind, tinged with equal parts eagerness and concern. With a sigh, the Nightshade pulled herself together, got up, and moved off through the sparse woodland.

She followed the mental trace her friend had left easily, coming in a little while to a small clearing atop a hill. There the Orchid stood waiting. Well? the Nightshade asked wearily. What is... oh.

The Orchid had slipped to one side, and the Nightshade had a clear view into the vale below. The whole reason they had set up camp in this location was that it gave a good view of the wide plain on which the Mary-Sue Factory - the Orchid's former holding - was situated. The Mysterious Somebody never bothered to send out patrols, secure in his steel and glass fortress, so the expanse of grass in front of the Factory was usually empty and silent.

Not today. Rank upon rank of figures marched across the field, from an assembly area in front of the Factory to a vast pink portal several hundred meters down the field. The Nightshade reached out with her thoughts to try and get a better feel for them, but recoiled in horror. These were minds unlike she had ever experienced - powerful beyond belief, but empty of their own thoughts and purpose, bound utterly to a presence she knew only too well. Where is he? the Flower asked.

By the Factory door, the Orchid told her. I didn't want to touch them either, so I fetched the lens. In one frond she held out the strangely-shaped contraption; the Nightshade took it gratefully and lifted it in front of her petals.

The blooms of a Flower have rudimentary light-sensors - just enough to make out figures, but insufficient to determine their identity. The lens, devised by Makes-Things from the PPC back when Flowers were the only Agents, focussed and amplified light in strange ways. Without it, the Nightshade could just about tell that the army below was mostly light-haired and dressed in pink. Looking through it, she could see that the host was made up of blonde young women with perfect faces and vacant expressions, all alike, along with a scattering of dark-haired young men who looked hauntingly familiar. Who was he? The Flower shrugged, dismissing the question as unimportant, and turned her gaze toward the Factory.

The Mysterious Somebody wore a white robe that was more of a coat these days, more suited to the environment of the Factory. His hair, which had been a youthful brown, had faded to grey, and his face had acquired more lines, but it was still clearly him. A gold medallion hung around his neck, and on his face was a cruel smile as he watched his army depart. Two of his Flower associates - Minions, the Nightshade thought nastily - were standing with him, the Bindweed and the Gladiolus. How long have they been going? she asked of her friend.

The Orchid shrugged. A few minutes now. Where do you suppose they're headed?

The Nightshade glanced at the white-headed Flower. Where do you think? she asked. It's got to be HQ.

I was afraid of that, the Orchid agreed with a mental grimace. What can we do?

Do? The Nightshade looked startled. Well... nothing. We can hardly warn them, can we?

Being who we are, I suppose not, the Orchid said with a sigh. But I feel so useless...

The Nightshade nodded, and unintentionally reached out once again with her thoughts. She brushed against the army below them - felt again their distressing emptiness, their complete possession by the clone Jedi - and then straightened up with such a startled cry that, far away in front of the Factory, the Gladiolus suddenly looked up in their direction.

What? What? the Orchid demanded frantically. Did they spot us? Does he know we're here?

No... no, the Nightshade said in a wondering tone. I just realised... we can't beat an army, right?

You just realised that?

No, the Flower repeated irritably. What I realised is that we don't have to. C'baoth may think he has an army, but he doesn't. They're all extensions of his will now; that's why he's made them all the same, so he can control them all the same way. If we cut him off from them... they'll die. She turned her largest bloom fully towards her companion, petals spreading wide. They'll all die, within minutes. Orchid... we can help them. We have a way. It's all going to be made right.

~

Captain Dandy looked out over the group of Weeds. How're we doing, One? he asked. The yellow Flower at his side tapped the console.

Everyone's checked in except Eleven, Weed-1 reported. He should be- there he is. A Wild Rose appeared in a flicker of blue light at the back of the room. All extant Weeds One to Sixty-seven are accounted for, Captain.

Thank you, One, Captain Dandy said. Now I think it's time to let them know what's going on. Stepping to the front of the stage, the Dandelion nodded to the crowd. Unusually for the PPC, the vast majority of them - some fifty of the sixty Plants present in the room - were of the same species as him, some yellow-flowered males, others seed-headed females. That had been his choice, and deliberate - Dandelions had been far more numerous than the other species' back on their homeworld, and had formed a close group because of it. When Captain Dandy had been assigned to explore the plothole network created by the Cascade, he had taken his Dandelions with him. The few other Flowers who had joined, he knew, still felt something like outsiders, but each of them had proved their worth many times over.

My friends, he said, I'm not going to mince words, you know I'm not. You've all done an excellent job. We've sealed HQ so that the Black Cats can't escape - they have no doors left to go through, and the portal inhibitors won't let them back out now. Well done. There was a satisfied murmur throughout the crowd, and Captain Dandy nodded. I'll say it again, well done. But... the situation is now worse than it was.

The Cats have adopted a particular strategy from the beginning: cut off the head and the body will die. They've been attacking the members of the Board of Flowers. Since we defended the Sub Rosa from them, they've had a partial success: the Wisteria is dead.

This time the murmur was one of shock and dismay. Captain Dandy's head bowed slightly. Sadly, this is not the worst news. As you all know, we were one of three security Departments in the PPC. This is no longer the case. The Black Cats... He paused for a moment, opening his leaves to increase the rate of photosynthesis, the Flower equivalent of a human taking a deep breath. The Black Cats have captured DIA Central. As far as we know, there were no survivors. We cannot be sure, but we should prepare for the worst. With the DIA gone, and the DIO - let's face facts - too small and secretive to do the slightest bit of good, we may be all that's left. That means it falls to us to defend HQ.

Our strategy has always been to seal up the complex and let the DIA and the Assassins take care of the Cats. This is no longer an option. DIA Central has fallen, and the Black Cats have full control over the communications system of Headquarters. There can be no organised resistance inside unless we provide or facilitate it.

Weeds, you've worked hard today. Now I'm going to ask you to work even harder. You sixty represent more than half of the Department of External Security, and I need you. I need volunteers to go into HQ and find out what's going on. I need volunteers to try and meet up with the Department Heads, especially the Sunflower Official, and determine how much of a chance we realistically have. I'm not going to lie to you - it's a dangerous job. The Cats will kill you on sight, and we are vastly outnumbered. That's why I need volunteers. He glanced over to one side, to where Weed-One, his second-in-command, almost seemed to have gone pale like a human in shock. I won't order anyone to go. If you want to volunteer, I'll be in my office. He turned and walked out through the rear door. Behind him, he heard the gratifying sound of sixty Flowers all moving forward as one, all following after him - all volunteering.

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