Dassie was sleeping again, his battered body and ravaged mind desperately trying to heal themselves, when a soft, familiar voice broke through the darkness. "Dassie..."
He woke with an effort, eyelids only able to half open. Nonetheless, he recognised the dark-haired figure leaning over him, although he took a moment to recall her name. "... Nyx?"
Nyx smiled faintly and waved. "Hey, you," she said. "How're you feeling?"
Now there was the question. His body was numb, and he was unable to even lift a finger, but his real concern was his mind, his brain. It was as if there were huge areas of it that were shut down or sealed off, leaving him with only a fraction of the capacity, and thought processes that moved at a snail's pace. It seemed to him that he should recall the reason for this, but that too was gone. But of course he couldn't convey all that through his unresponsive voice. "Weak," he said instead, and, "Slow."
"That's what we expected," another voice said, from a woman out of his line of sight. "This technique's been in the works for five years or so, but it was being developed to help a woman who the DIS," there was no attempt to disguise the contempt in her voice, "then picked up. The department pretty much abandoned it after that."
"A woman... Ontic?" Nyx asked. Dassie wanted to nod. Yes, yes! His fragmented memory brought back the details of Ontic's recruitment, how he and Nendil had dragged her from the carnage she'd wrought and then waited around in Medical to take her with them after it was clear her mind had shattered. Of course, he kept it to himself he had no choice.
"I don't particularly care," the other voice said. "The point is that it will work his neural structures will repair themselves now but it'll take time." That, Dassie could well believe they didn't seem to have improved at all so far.
"How much time?" Nyx asked worriedly. "With the feelings about the DIS around here, we really need him on his feet as soon as possible."
The unknown woman laughed harshly. "That's not going to happen. We're looking at years here. The file notes suggest a decade or so for a full recovery, but he should be reasonably independent in three. After that it's just memories, reaction times, things like that."
Nyx was staring. "Three years? Constance-"
"I can't do anything about it," Constance said bluntly. "Quite frankly you're lucky to even get that his nervous system was shot to pieces by some sort of insanely powerful electric field-"
Dassie flinched at the sudden memory blue lightning crackling over his skin, twisting his body and scorching his flesh and felt Nyx's firm grip on his hand.
"- and if we hadn't been able to fix that, he'd be paralysed for life no matter what we did with his brain."
Nyx wasn't listening any more. Leaning down to Dassie's ear, she murmured, "Dassie, we're in terrible danger. The DIS has fallen, but they almost brought the PPC down with them. If we stay here, with you in this state, we'll be killed for certain. Do you understand?"
Of course he understood! Slow he may be, but it didn't make him stupid. Of course, all he could do in response was to grunt, "'s".
Nyx nodded. "If we leave, though, and something goes wrong, you could be stuck like this for, well, forever. I don't... I can't make that decision, Das'. I just can't."
Turning his head even that fraction that was needed to look directly at the girl took an effort that bordered on agony, but Dassie managed it anyway. This was something he needed to ask. "... why?"
Nyx's eyes flickered open and closed rapidly, and Dassie could see tears forming at the corners. "I just... oh, Dassie. I barely know you, but... I don't know, it's like you're the only real person I've ever known. Since the day I got dragged into the DIS, I've found myself feeling more and more that-"
"Oh, please," Constance who Dassie had completely forgotten was present said. "Can't you have this scene somewhere else? It's making me ill, and while this might be Medical, everyone's busy right now, so I can't get any treatment."
Nyx's grip tightened until Dassie thought the bones in his hand might break, or possibly fuse. "You don't have to be here, you know," she hissed.
"Actually, yeah, I do," Constance retorted. "I'm meant to be looking after your boyfriend here, because he is still healing, and does need monitoring. It's my job to kick you out if you put too much stress on him, and believe me, lady, I am this close to doing just that."
Nyx scowled. "I'll leave in a minute," she said through gritted teeth. "Das', I've said I can't make that choice. So you need to. Stay here and trust people like Constance to guard you, or go out into the worlds with just me?"
It was a choice that would determine the course of his entire future. On the one hand, the life he'd known for seven years, albeit under new management. On the other, the life he'd joined the PPC to get away from. On the one hand, people who hated him for what he'd been forced to become. On the other, one woman he'd known for barely more than a fortnight. (On the one hand, the utter annihilation of the PPC, and on the other, the death of one man, who had already suffered more than most people thought possible, at the hands of those he was trying to protect. Dassie didn't know about that yet, though). In the end, it was no choice at all. Forcing his stubborn lips into a smile, Dassie Hyrax whispered one word:
Right. Have you got it set up right this time?
Jared Calinson's eyes snapped open in response to the insistent shaking of his shoulder. "What?" he mumbled.
"Ah, it's on already, sir."
"And what's Makes-Things doing in our RC?" he added.
What? And transmitting??
"And the SO? Dafydd, what is going on?"
"Yes, sir. Please start talking."
"It's the console," Dafydd Illian said nervously. "It just started talking."
"I really hope you didn't say that deliberately."
"Yes! Right now!"
Agents of the PPC, the Sunflower Official's 'voice' said from the console's speaker, I have some news for you. In light of the recent events, it has been decided that this Organisation is too large for one Flower or one man to manage.
"He means that putting a power-crazed nutter in charge and letting him set up a secret police force is a bad idea, right?"
"Shut up, Dafydd."
In light of this, we have chosen to reorganise the entire power structure here in HQ. There will no longer be a 'Head of the PPC' as such. Instead, all decisions will be made by a Board of Flowers.
"Hey, is he suggesting some sort of... election process?"
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
"Eh, hereditary distaste."
Let me reassure you, Agents, that there will be none of the 'representative government' so popular on many worlds. The recent events have also shown us what happens when the people or at least certain groups of them gain power over those in power here.
"Okay, now he's saying representative government is bad."
"I really don't like your tone of voice."
However, nor do we wish the Board to be made up of one Flower's picked cronies. Thus, the makeup will be as follows:
The Heads of the three largest Action Departments. At this time, these are the Department of Mary-Sues, represented by myself; the Department of Bad Slash, under the Queen Anne's Lace; and the Department of Implausible Crossovers, headed up by the Lichen.
"Isn't the Lace, like, new?"
"Fresh blood, right? Or sap, whatever."
Of course, we must represent all sides of the PPC. From the Infrastructure departments, we will of course have Hornbeam, the Ironwood from the Department of Sufficiently Advanced Technology, and the Clover from the Department of Finance. The choice of the third Infrastructure representative has not yet been finalised.
"What other Inf departments are there?"
"Um... lots, of course. Look it up if you're that interested."
In addition to these six, we will be splitting several extant departments off from the Infrastructure side and expanding them to cover roles previously filled by the Head of the PPC and his assistant. From this new Administration category, we will have the Sub Rosa from Intelligence, the Marquis de Sod from Personnel, and the Wisteria from Operations.
"Wow. They're old. Two of them have names."
"Is that why there are some Plants around with names?"
"Yeah, they're what's left of the Firstborn, or so they say. How is it I know that and you don't?"
"I've been here longer than you. I know the dangers of getting the Marquis intoxicated."
You may be under the impression that this announcement means you will be able to influence the decisions we have made. This is not the case. You have only been informed as a matter of courtesy, and to ensure that we are not bombarded with messages asking what is going on when your orders start appearing from the Board. That will be all. Please return to your ordinary business.
Jared looked at his partner. "Well."
Dafydd blinked. "Well? Do we need water?"
Jared resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Sometimes the kid could be hopelessly naοve, even if he was several orders of magnitude older than Jared. "Well, it looks like we're going to see a lot of changes around here."
"Yes, it does." Dafydd shook his head. "I wonder how it'll turn out? Ah, well." He stood up and started tapping buttons on the console. Jared frowned.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking up the list of Infrastructure departments, remember?"
"... oh. Right." With a sigh, the Assassin leant back against the wall, hoping to get enough sleep that he'd forget the sight of Daleks massacring his colleagues around him.
Somehow, he didn't think it likely.
The Clover was slowly settling into his new job. The move from being a simple Secretary in the Department of Personnel to full-blown Head of Finance was quite jarring, and being appointed to the Board of Flowers even more so. Nonetheless, one look at his new Department told him the change was the least of his problems.
It seemed that the Accountants could be split into three categories: those who had joined after the Bindweed's takeover, and were adept at manipulating accounts to fill their own pockets; those who had signed up under the Evermind, and had spend the last year in a state of abject terror; and those who, for whatever reason, had fled the Department entirely during the brief war. He had a nagging suspicion that most of those had been DIS spies, but at this point he was so understaffed that he would have hired the Bracket Fungus himself to make up the numbers, had he been allowed.
Unfortunately, he wasn't allowed. As virtually his last act as Head of the PPC before handing authority to the Board of Flowers, the Sunflower Official had ordered the Clover to bring Finance under control. That meant purging the corrupt Agents - he had sent the list to his old department, Personnel, so they could be reassigned, preferable to an Action department - and then, with a DoF less than a third of the size it should have been, sifting through the vast archives to cut off the sources of funding that were incompatible with the ideology of the PPC. That, at least, was how the SO had put it.
He had been given a place to start in what would otherwise have been an impossible task. As he moved through the archives, he was pleased to see that - although they looked to have barely been touched since the Bindweed's ascension - they were in reasonable condition, and still mostly organised. It took a matter of minutes to find the correct file.
FGenMS01, he said thoughtfully. Not as subtle as it could have been, but perhaps that bodes well for us. Agent Sambar!
The pale-skinned young man - a refugee from the Belgariad world, and a story created by an unimaginative author who had only read one of the books - stepped forward, looking slight nervous. "Sir?"
The Clover held out the Factory's information. Look through this file, and find all the details you can on the source of the money. Then cut off every avenue by which it is arriving in HQ. Do you understand?
"Won't that... I mean, won't we end up with almost no income then, sir?" Sambar asked. "The figure at the top of this page is almost a tenth of our total, and if you keep on doing this..."
This is what I have been ordered to do, the Clover said with only a hint of doubt. Go about your work, Sambar.
"Yes, sir," the man said, walking swiftly - almost running - out of the aisle. The Clover shook his flower slowly.
It will be difficult, he murmured to the air, and reached for the next file. This one was out of place, but his heart - metaphorically - sank as he looked at it. The value was even higher than the Factory's. PPC Bioengineering Inc. Oh dear.
This first meeting of the full Board of Flowers is called to order.
Not full, the Wisteria corrected. We still need the third Infrastructure representative.
But it's full for now,, the Marquis pointed out. This is all we have at the moment.
Can we concentrate? the SO asked pleasantly. We do have a lot to get through.
Do we? the Lichen inquired. I don't recall the agenda being that long.
You got an agenda? the Queen Anne's Lace demanded. What did the rest of us do wrong?
Well, you are new, the Marquis stated unkindly. You could hardly be expected to-
We are all new to this role, the Sub Rosa said quietly. Sunflower, perhaps you should begin now.
Very well, the SO said. First of all, the, uh, cleaning up after the War. How is it proceeding?
Very, very slowly, the Wisteria replied bitterly. No one joins the PPC to be come a janitor we have to actually go out and hire them. That's always left us short-staffed, and now the Clover here has cut our budget! How-
What I did, I did out of necessity, the Clover interrupted tersely. A disproportionate amount of our funding was coming from facilities and operations that we are unwilling to associate the PPC with any further things such as the Mary-Sue Factory of which we have heard so much. I have my Accountants searching for new sources, but we are highly unlikely to return to anything near our former prosperity. Flowers, budgets have been cut for all our departments. The PPC is on the verge of bankruptcy.
There was a long, long silence, and then the Wisteria bowed his stem slightly in the Clover's direction. I apologise. You've done the best you could.
The SO looked around the room. Our financial situation is critically important, and indeed, has implications for the next item on our schedule: the matter of a memorial to those who fell in the War. Does anyone here disagree with the need for one?
The Lichen spoke up. Why just this war? The DIS has killed hundreds in those cells of theirs. We should remember all their victims, not just those lucky enough to have had a chance to fight back.
The Sunflower's petals shifted slightly. You are of course correct. However, that does necessitate a... far larger monument than I had anticipated. Where can it be constructed?
The location would seem... obvious, the deep voice of Hornbeam rumbled. The Department of Internal Security has left us, it is true, but their residence remains. I deem it unlikely that any Agents of the Protectors of the Plot Continuum will be willing to occupy their former operations centre, so why should we not remove the internal walls and erect our monument to the fallen within the space?
He has a point, the Marquis agreed. Not to mention the fact that most of their victims died there, and may well be buried under the floors. It will be a powerful symbol which we sorely need, especially with the reduced salaries the Agents will now receive.
The SO mused on the idea. ... we'll put it to the vote. All those in favour of this idea, please manifest it in some way.
The vote was almost unanimous, with only the Wisteria dissenting (mostly on the grounds that demolishing the internal walls would likely fall to his department). Then the motion is passed, the SO said. Hornbeam, as this was your idea, I want you and... let's see... yes. Once this meeting is concluded, you are to take the Queen Anne's Lace and the Sub Rosa to the former DIS Central and discuss how best to convert it, and what form the memorial will in fact take.
I understand, the Ironwood rumbled, and the other two nodded their assent.
Good. Now, next on the agenda is the question of-
There was a knock at the door.
Chapter Twenty - Fate
The seconds seemed like years as Nyx waited outside the Sunflower Official's office, growing more and more nervous with each passing moment. By the time the door lock clicked, she was trembling uncontrollably. She reached out to push the flat, grey panel, but it opened of its own accord to reveal the SO standing there. Yes? he said irritably. Can't it- oh! Agent Nightingale, I... hadn't expected to see you back here for some time.
Nyx swallowed. Behind the Sunflower she could see other Plants waiting silently, at least in ways she could hear. Ignore them, Nyx, she thought. Focus on the task in hand.
Agent Nightingale? the SO said gently. As you can see, we are very busy, so... can this wait?
Her mood dropped straight into outright anger. "No, it can't," she snapped. "But don't worry, sir, I won't take too much of your valuable time. I just came to let you know that I'm leaving. Dassie and I are leaving."
The SO froze. I'm not sure I... do you have somewhere you need to be?
"Yes," Nyx said through gritted teeth, "away from here! It's not safe any more."
The Sunflower's petals rustled in agitation. I suppose we could grant you a brief leave of absence for services rendered, he began, but Nyx cut him off.
"No! We're not taking a holiday, we are leaving. For good!"
The SO seemed to deflate. I had feared... Nyx, the worlds are a dangerous place without the support of the PPC. With Agent Hyrax as he is...
Nyx snorted. "Yes, I should have guessed you knew about that before I did."
There was a momentary pause. Agent Nightingale, the Flower said, I give you my word that no reports of Agent Hyrax's condition have yet reached me. But I do not need them. I was present the last time he was conscious, here in this office.
"Oh, right," Nyx scoffed, "because you can just tell, right?"
The Sunflower gave her a disconcertingly calm look. Agent Nightingale, he said at last, you think of us as... humans in flower-shaped bodies, if you will. It pleases us to allow this, as it keeps you, the Agents, happy with your situation. However, it is not in fact true. We are not like you.
Our worlds are not your worlds. The path of the proton, the vibrations of matter, the diffusion of small particles... all these we can sense, can use, but they are grass beneath the mighty tree of the mind. In a very real sense, all we are is thought.
And that thought is, to you, implacably and inescapably alien. I was present at the moment my people were created, Agent Nightingale. I am the First of the Flowers and I... am... not... limited by your human conception of thought. The surface of your mind is as open to me as your face, I can see your words before you speak them. And I can see the flaws in that stream. So yes, Agent Nightingale, I can 'just tell'.
Nyx just stared, her mouth hanging open. The Sunflower's petals rustled, and then he straightened up. I have the utmost confidence in the Medical Department, but I suspect that even with their ministrations, Agent Hyrax will be incapacitated for years to come, if not forever. So leave, if that is your wish, but bear in mind what you depart to. And when you are forced to return, do try to remember my words. Goodbye, Agent Nightingale. And good luck.
The office door clicked shut, and Nyx was left to stare. Then, slowly, as if half asleep, she walked back to Medical, where Dassie still waited. What passed between them needed no words, and as Nyx opened the portal, her free hand dropped down to grasp his. Then blue light engulfed them, and they were gone.
The office door clicked shut, and the SO slumped slightly as he turned to face the Board, feeling the mental support of the other Flowers pull back. Will she do it? the Sub Rosa asked quietly.
I have no idea, the Sunflower said, but my roots can grasp it no longer. He shook himself slightly. What's next on the agenda?
I'd like to bring up something new, first, the Wisteria said. We can't continue meeting in your office even leaving aside the intrusions of Agents, it will seem as though we still all look to you for orders.
You... may have a point, the SO agreed. The Clover rasped his leaves together.
A point, perhaps, the Head of Finance said, but does he have an alternative? I hardly need to point out that building a room is not a sensible use of our limited assets.
There is already one available, the Wisteria said calmly. Or have you forgotten the Mysterious Somebody's former office?
Oh, right, the Marquis scoffed, because that will send the right image to the Agents, won't it. The new regime sets up shop in the defeated enemy's seat of power?
It seems to me, the Queen Anne's Lace said, that the simple solution to that problem would be, well, not to tell them where we are.
The rest of the Board looked at her, startled. On a tight thought, the SO said to the Marquis de Sod, Postal Department, you say?
Hidden depths, the Marquis 'muttered' back. Then he spoke up. It is an interesting suggestion. However, will the Agents not be concerned by a Board that requires secrecy in its actions?
They dont at the moment, the Lichen said. It's only the same as the way we run our departments.
Perhaps another vote? the SO suggested. This time it was unanimous. Excellent. Then, once we are finished, I suggest the Wisteria, Clover and Lichen head up to Room 1 to see how easy it will be to convert. Now, though, perhaps we could move onto the agenda the question of who is to replace the DIS.
Do they need replacing? the Sub Rosa asked. All they did was cause fear and kill people. We don't need that back.
They did more than that, the SO disagreed. As Deputy for Action, I was privy to this information, while the rest of you were not. They did fulfil their other tasks efficiently the tasks of keeping intruders from entering HQ, and of driving them out when they did get in. Additionally, they were always fast to deal with Agents who had gone insaner. The problems arose when they began to terrorise the PPC at large.
The problem arose when the MS set up a secret police force, the Marquis disagreed. We don't need another one of those.
On the contrary, the Lichen put in, the problem was that they were not secret. Had no one known they existed, they could not live in terror of them.
How could a department with so many tasks be expected to remain hidden? the Sub Rosa asked. I mean, okay, so we barely see Legal around, but...
It seems to me, Hornbeam said slowly, that the solution would be to separate those tasks.
You want to set up two new departments? the Marquis demanded.
Three, in fact, the Clover pointed out. Driving people out, keeping people out, and watching over the Agents.
Marvellous. Three new departments, and I have to recruit Agents for them... without letting those Agents find out they exist?
I have a solution for one of them, the Sub Rosa said. Captain Dandy and his Weeds could easily take the external security.
The SO and the Marquis both swung around to look at her. Captain Dandy's been missing for years, the Sunflower said.
Ever since we sent him to scout the plotholes after young Makes-Things set off the cascade, the Marquis agreed. Are you telling me you know where he is?
I've known for quite some time, the Rose said calmly. Some of my Spies came across him a couple of years back in the Middle-earth continuum it seems some of the plotholes bored tunnels through the mountains there and we've been keeping an eye on him ever since.
Why didn't you say so before? the Marquis demanded. The Head of Intelligence just shrugged.
Why would I? He was still doing his job, just as you asked him to.
Yes, thirty years ago, the SO pointed out. Still... you can bring him back?
On a moment's notice, the Sub Rosa assured him.
Then we have our... Department of External Security, if you will. Good. Now, what of the other two?
Do we really need both? the Lichen asked. I remember Captain Dandy, just about, and that Dandelion was about as effective a guard as you could ask for. No one will get past him.
That may well be, the SO agreed, but there have been rumours that some Agents have begun publishing their reports, out there in the Worlds. Of course they label them as fiction, but fiction invites fan-fiction... can even the Weeds keep out Mary-Sues?
Surely that could be handled by the internal- the Lichen began, but the Marquis interrupted.
NO! Do not even think of setting up a department that thinks it has the right to murder ordinary Agents! These have to be separate, and the 'Sue-killing one must be an absolute secret! If even a hint of it gets out, we will all be compost before the day is done!
... so, two departments then! the Lichen said cheerfully. Do we have anyone in mind to run them?
This talk of secrecy has put me in mind of one of our more reclusive brethren, Hornbeam rumbled. Do you perchance recall the Elm?
Isn't he the one who refuses to enter HQ? the Wisteria asked. Spends all his time out in a forest somewhere?
That's him, the Marquis agreed. He's a bit slow of thought, but given that this is a department that will have a licence to operate within HQ, to kill what everyone thinks are ordinary Agents... well, slowness can only be a good thing.
The Department of Internal Operations is decided, then, the SO said. We can ask Captain Dandy to find an out-of-the-way place in the areas he's explored to give it a base. And that just leaves... what?
Internal Affairs, the Sub Rosa suggested. It's going to be the most public of the three, so we should make it sound as non-threatening as possible.
All right, the Marquis agreed, but who can we get to lead it? It's going to need someone who can train his Agents to watch the entire PPC for signs of madness without being seen... and who can interpret fragmented reports to discern the truth of a situation... whose Agents are comfortable in any situation...
The SO exchanged a glance with the Sub Rosa. Does she still want a Department? he asked. The Rose nodded, not needing to ask, and the Sunflower sighed. All right. Then the Tiger Lily can head the Department of Internal Affairs. Much joy may it bring her.
Time passed. By any reasonable calendar, months had passed by the time the Agents were allowed into what was once DIS Central once again, and by that time it had changed beyond recognition.
The entrance now opened onto a balcony of Generic Surface that stretched across the entire front wall. The rest of the main floor had been removed, leaving a vast space dropping down to the next level. On that floor, the removed Generic Surface had been used to sculpt a vast array of tombstones. No one was ever able to count them it was said that a particularly cunning plothole-fed distortion had made it so that the number was actually indeterminate, but of course no one could tell.
The stones were not the main feature, however. That was the vast slab, midnight black and rumoured to be a stolen Monolith, on which were inlaid countless letters of ithildin, gleaming in perpetual starlight. These were the names of the fallen, and none who entered could stand to read them all, for they stretched from floor to ceiling without a break.
In the first weeks, the Tomb of the Unknown PPC Agent received a constant stream of visitors, nearly all of whom left with tears in their eyes, if they were biologically able. But as time passed, it became less and less regarded, and as the years rolled by it was forgotten by all but a select few. The dust gathered in the corners, and the lonely letters grew dim.
In the darkness, something waited.
And then there is the hill, a green hill far from the grey walls of HQ. Behind it lies a forest, and before it a great plain, for centuries abandoned to the grass and the birds.
Now the plain is a hive of activity. A hundred black-clad figures scurry across, setting up tents and huts. At the centre rests a white shape, the centre of all the motion. A babble of voices rise through the air, reaching the lonely figure on the hilltop.
She lowers her crude telescope, placing it on the ground beside her. She has seen all she needs to. They are here, though she tried to escape them. They are here, and they look like they're settling in for the long haul. That's good she can watch them. They will never know she's nearby. She is subtle, and they are blatant, obvious, and unobservant. A faint smile touches her lips. And better dressed, she thinks, glancing at her own tattered clothes. But she cannot risk trying to acquire a new uniform. All she can do is wait.
But Tango Dioxide is very good at waiting.
is dedicated to
Veminta Fincaran Agent, coauthor, friend
And now, whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine by being my friend...
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