Tangled Webs

The Reorganisation

Chapter Five - Conspiracy

Slowing down with every step she took, Agent Nyx advanced towards the door to the nerve centre of the DIS. Outside, a guard stood watching her, leaning nonchalantly against the wall. He smirked as she faltered, unsure what to do. Just as she looked as though she was about to turn and run - and fair play to her, she'd got further down the corridor than most Agents ever managed - he called out to her.

"Got something you think we ought to know?"

Nyx paled, and opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Instead, she shook her head. The Agent guarding the door smirked.

"Department swap, then? Good girl. Step this way."

She tried hopelessly to explain that, actually, the SO had sent her to find out about the truth behind the Tango rumours, but again, the words stuck in her throat. The DISer took hold of her arm, and he led her through the door and along a corridor to a crowded room.

"Name?"

"I... I'm Nyx Nightingale, but..."

One or two of the Agents looked up disinterestedly from whatever they were doing, but most paid the stunned Assassin no attention whatsoever. In the medley of faces, Nyx spotted one or two she thought she recognised, but in the writhing mass, they were gone again in an instant.

"Nice to meet you Nyx, my name's Nendil. This," he grabbed a long knife from a rack which was choked full of weapons, "is your regulation weapon. After that, you get to choose one of your own. What would you prefer?"

"Um, a blaster, but..."

Nendil, however, had already walked off down the rows of weaponry, and was looking for the blaster. With a grin, the Elf plucked one from a row just above his head, and thrust it in to her hands, along with the knife. On each, the dreaded symbol of the black cat seemed to leer out at her. She didn't have any time to protest however, as Nendil was marching off again, further down the rows of weaponry, until they came to a large cupboard. Swinging open the large doors, Nendil reached an arm inside, and pulled out a black jacket, identical to all the ones worn by members of the DIS, and a silver sash. He held them out.

"Well, take them; I can't stand around all day."

Too afraid of the consequences of disobeying the order, Nyx awkwardly took the sash and jacket, making sure she covered the symbol of the black cat on the sash as she tried not to drop the weapons. Like most of the PPC, she was troubled by the symbol of the cat, and to think that she would end up wearing it sent shivers down her spine. Oh, if only she had never asked the SO about that stupid gossip!

"Follow me; we'll need to find you a Buddy."

"A... I'm sorry?"

"A Buddy. Like a partner, until you get used to the way we work. The DIS has a funny effect on some people, you know, like they want to back out almost as soon as they get here. It's just a precaution, really. Let's see, who can we... he'll do. Hey! Dassie!"

From the other side of the room, an Agent looked up, trying to see who called his name, before spotting Nendil and Nyx. He stood up as Nendil swaggered across the room, Nyx hurrying behind in his wake.

"We've got a newbie for you; Nyx Nightingale. You've got guard duty in a bit, right?"

"Ten minutes."

"She's all yours, then. Will you be down at the cafeteria for some sport, later?"

"Maybe. Depends how guard duty goes."

"Um, excuse me..."

"Ah, come on. It'll be fun. Ontic's going to be there, and she's always good for a laugh."

"Um..."

"Well, I'll probably..."

"Excuse me?"

The two DISers looked around at her, and Nyx unintentionally recoiled. She smiled apologetically. "Well, it's just, the SO..."

"Doesn't know you changed? Don't worry, Nyx, Brackie won't be letting you go. Your report is far too good for that. Have fun, now." With a nod, Nendil strode off again, leaving Nyx standing next to the other Agent, Dassie, and wishing the ground would swallow her up. The other Agent motioned for her to sit down, and she gladly dropped in to the seat, squirming as he looked her up and down.

"So, Nyx Nightingale has actually chosen to transfer by herself, hm? Who would ever have suspected that?"

"How do you know who I am?"

"You're one of the SO's favourites. Of course we know who you are. We know who everybody in the PPC is; what they do, who their partners are, past partners, favourite weapons, favourite food, best friends, enemies, the canons they work in, background, and pretty much everything else you can think of. Trust me on this one. The DIS knows exactly who you are."

There seemed to be no response to this, but as she tried to swallow the information, Nyx found her head swimming with endless questions.

"Alright, so tell me about my background."

Dassie shrugged, still staring at her, his expression cold and calculating. "Off the top of my head? Not sure. I can't remember everyone's individual file though, and I have to say, this was unexpected. I didn't get any time to read up on you."

As the DISer continued to stare at her, not blinking, Nyx began to feel nauseous, and more than a little sick. The background hum of conversation seemed to increase, and the Assassin was sure people kept looking at her. As she shivered, the steel walls suddenly seemed to be much closer, as though they were closing in on her. A breath caught in her throat, making her choke...

Dassie pulled himself to his feet, towering above her as she shrank back in to the chair. When he offered his hand to help her up, she stared at it for a moment, panic setting in. Rolling his eyes, he pulled her to her feet, but she felt as though she would fall over as soon as his hand left her shoulder.

"You'd better put your stuff on, we've got guard duty. I'll show you round the cells."

~

The Sunflower Official moved through the corridors of HQ like a giant sunflower in a suit moving along a series of grey hallways, primarily because he was one. He had waited for Agent Nyx to return, but as she hadn't, he had left a note on his desk, told the DIS guard to let Nyx in if she showed up - he didn't like the DIS, but he trusted them to do their job - and headed down to DIS Central. He had to see Agent Blue, to find out what he had known that had led him to kill the Evermind.

He entered the DIS command centre and informed the guard at the door that he wished to speak to the prisoner. The guard - it seemed to be some sort of weasel or ferret - spoke into a radio. When it - the SO had difficulty telling what gender it was - was done, it turned to the SO again. "Agent Dassie'll be right out," it said, showing off rows of sharp teeth. "You can wait for him just down the hallway there." It pointed a claw at another door, and then resumed its guard stance. The SO moved to the other door and waited.

After a few minutes, another agent - human, this time, but still wearing the silver sash of the DIS - came to the door. "You're here to see a prisoner?"

Yes. I wish to speak to Agent Blue.

The agent's eyes widened, and he stepped backwards. Lowering his voice, he said, "Come inside, please."

The SO did so, made curious by this strange behaviour. After the DISer shut the door, he said, "There's a lot of people who wouldn't be happy about you doing that, sir. Blue's been in here for a long time, and he's not in the best of shapes."

What do you mean by that? the SO asked.

The agent looked uncertain. "I can't really say, sir. Just... be careful. I'll go and see if he's awake. In the meantime, Nyx'll look after you. Nyx!"

"What is it, Dassie?" said a very familiar voice. The SO stared, stunned, as Agent Nyx Nightingale walked around the corner, wearing the black and silver of the DIS. She stopped as she realised who he was, and her shock was evident in her voice. "Sir?!"

"Nyx," said Dassie, apparently oblivious to her reaction, "you need to watch the Sunflower while I go and check on one of the prisoners. Okay?"

"Yes..." replied Nyx, nodding. As soon as Dassie was out of sight, she said, cautiously, "Sir... what are you doing down here?"

I've come to see a prisoner, he replied. After a moment of silence, he said, I waited hours for you to come back. If I'd known you were going to leave for the DIS...

"No!" said Nyx, and then lowered her voice, looking fearfully over her shoulder for Dassie. "No, it's not like that. They didn't give me a chance to ask - they just asked whether I was here to give them information, and when I said no, they assumed that I was joining. It all happened so fast..."

The SO looked at her pleading expression. It sounded like a badly-written cover story, but he knew Nyx. He knew that she wouldn't betray him, and that if she did, she'd come up with a far better excuse than that. All right, Nyx. I believe you. I'll talk to the Bracket Fungus and see if I can get you out of here.

Nyx nodded, and he could see the relief in her eyes. "Thank you, sir. I don't think I could-"

"Ahem."

The pair turned, guiltily, to see Dassie standing at the entrance to the corridor by which the cells could be reached. "Oh... Dassie..." said Nyx, weakly.

"Sir, he's ready to speak to you," said Dassie, showing no sign that he'd overheard anything. "I might warn you, though, he's a little violent... and not entirely sane."

Agent Dassie, I deal with violent, partially-insane agents every day. Please lead me to him.

"Yes, sir. Nyx, stay here and watch the radio," he said, throwing it to her. She nodded, and Dassie led the SO down the gently-curving corridor. They stopped outside one of the doors. "He's in here," the DISer said, and then added, "You're sure you'll be all right?"

He's not armed with a flamethrower, so yes, I will be.

"Well, okay." Dassie shrugged, and opened the door, gesturing the SO through. "If you need me, just yell." And with that, he shut the door, leaving the SO alone with Agent Blue.

For a long moment, the SO simply stared. Blue was a state. He was covered in bruises and cuts, and looked to have had at least one arm broken and badly reset. The SO could barely see the face of the energetic agent he had once known. Blue...?

The agent looked up through tormented eyes. "So now you're here too, are you?"

I don't understand...

"Oh, sure you don't." Blue curled up further into his corner. "Here to gloat, I suppose? Here to enjoy the spectacle of your scapegoat?"

What?

"Oh, don't play the innocent. You and your friends just wanted to keep the Factory a secret. That's why I'm here, remember?"

The SO refrained from commenting that Blue was there because he'd killed the Evermind. This was far too interesting. What factory?

"The 'Sue factory, of course," Blue said, "the one with the Orchid in charge. Stop acting like you don't know what I'm talking about."

I'm afraid I don't understand...

Blue snorted. "The PPC is corrupt, Sunflower. You've got a nice factory making money and Mary-Sues on the side. And then Tango and I found out about it, so you killed the Evermind and locked me away. Quit the act."

The SO stared, stunned. It wasn't just that Blue had used the exact same words as Imbolc - The PPC is corrupt - it was the import of what he was saying. That... that can't be. I'd know about it...

Blue continued his mocking stare for a moment, and then suddenly went wide-eyed. "You... you mean you didn't know?"

The SO shook his head. I most certainly did not!

Blue whimpered and curled up into a ball. "I shouldn't have told you, I shouldn't have told you, they'll kill me like they killed Imbolc."

Don't worry, said the SO, I won't tell anyone- wait, what did you say?

Blue, however, wasn't listening. He seemed to have retreated into his own little world. "Dear, dear Immy, never hurt a fly, now she's dead and gone, gone, gone. Never would have hurt anyone, and they killed her because she knew. Should never have told her, should never have told anyone. Should have kept it all a secret, then everything would be okay." The words faded away, to be replaced by muffled sobs.

Agent Blue? the SO said, but there was no response. Shaking his head, he went back to the door. Agent Dassie, I'd like to leave now.

The door creaked open, and Dassie looked in. Seeing Blue sobbing in the corner, he shook his head sadly. "Get anything useful out of him?"

The Sunflower hesitated for a moment, and then said, No, nothing. He's delirious.

"Sorry about that, sir," said the DISer. "I did try to warn you."

I thank you, Agent, the SO said, and left the Department of Internal Security, deep in thought.

~

Nyx Nightingale? I thought Nendil might have been playing a practical joke when he said you had come to join us. I'm so very glad you have, my dear.

Unsure how to respond to the Bracket Fungus, Nyx just gave a small nod, and carried on standing to attention. Beside her, Dassie seemed much more relaxed as he leant against the wall, arms folded.

You are, of course, very welcome in our ranks.

Again, she nodded dumbly, and the Bracket Fungus sighed.

No conversation? I'm sure we'll have you as chatty as Ontic in no time. Now then, Dassie, there is a troublesome Assassin over in RC 360 who I want you to deal with. Agent Palaver. Take Nyx along, too. This will be good training for her.

"Are you sure, sir? She's just a newbie, and you know how..."

Irritably, the Bracket Fungus interrupted, with a flourish. Don't be silly, boy. We want the girl trained up.

"Yes, sir. What's the charge, sir?"

Oh, I don't know. Be... creative. Off you go, now.

With another sharp nod, Dassie pulled Nyx out of the room, and wove through the mass of chattering Agents towards the door. As they passed in to the corridor, he shook his head at her, as though she'd failed some kind of test.

"You should speak more to him. He'll only like you for it."

He nodded at Nendil as they passed, who was lounging against the wall still, in exactly the same manner as when Nyx had first arrived. Nendil nodded back, and flashed a wolf-like grin at Nyx, who shivered and looked away. Although she didn't like either of them in the slightest, she would rather be with Dassie than with Nendil. At least he seemed to have some semblance of sanity. Or at least, as much sanity as was possible within the PPC...

"He said Palaver, didn't he? I know Palaver, he would never do anything wrong."

Rolling his eyes as Nyx scurried along behind him, trying to keep up, Dassie shrugged. "Look, it doesn't really matter if a person is guilty or innocent of a conventional crime. Most of the people in our cells were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or didn't show us enough respect. Do you want to come up with the charge?"

"No!" Struggling not to fall behind, Nyx nearly crashed in to her Buddy as he suddenly slowed down to a relaxed swagger - the trademark movement of a DISer. Edgily, she looked around to see what the matter was, and spotted two Agents ducking in to a corridor, eyeing them fearfully.

"We'll do him for suspicious behaviour concerning the disappearance of various valuable PPC items, then. Common theft."

"Palaver would never steal anything, though. That's just not in his nature!"

"It is now."

Another agent hurried past them, keeping her head down and pressing close to the walls. Nyx went cold as she realised she was the cause of the fear, but Dassie seemed unaffected, not even looking at the girl. As they walked down another corridor, they passed a couple more agents, and each time, they were met with the same reaction; sudden changes in direction, people doubling back on themselves, diving through the closest door, or avoiding eye contact and speeding up. Once, she passed a good friend, but the other girl had acted like a complete stranger.

When they arrived at RC 360, a journey which had taken place far too quickly, Dassie rapped loudly on the door, and then, when it failed to open, he gave another loud knock.

"Open up in there!"

Looking around nervously, Nyx realised that they were being watched from afar by various nervous faces, many of whom she counted good friends, or acquaintances at the very least, and she felt her face flush bright red. The door to the RC opened, and a blue Twi'lek girl from the Star Wars canon - Nyx recognised her as Palaver's partner, Isold'evan - poked her head out. As soon as she saw the silver sashes she gasped.

"I... I haven't done anything!"

Impatiently, Dassie brushed her aside, and pulled out a second confused looking agent, who blinked in confusion, like a rabbit in headlights. Focusing on Nyx, he became even more puzzled than before, deep frown lines deepening on his forehead.

"Nyx, what's going... mmf!"

Burning up with shame and humiliation, Nyx winced as Dassie punched her friend in the stomach, and sent him sprawling to the ground.

"Agent Palaver, we are arresting you for the charges of theft and vandalism of PPC property. Please come with us. Nyx, handcuff him."

Dazed, Nyx fumbled for the item on her utility belt and, with shaking hands, clipped them around Palaver's wrists, trying to ignore the shocked whispers in the background. As they marched off down the corridor, Palaver howling claims of innocence and hurling insults and accusations of treachery at Nyx, she did her best to keep her expression calm and impassive.

~

The Nightshade arrived at the front entrance to the Factory to be greeted by the wookiee from her previous visit and a human. She wasn't very good at identifying individual humans - their minds, from what she could see on the surface, were mostly the same - but this one was distinctive. Rather than the usual chaotic turmoil, she thought in single lines, which occasionally went off on wild tangents. That was a mind unique to one of her least favourite DIS agents - Ontic.

I wish to speak to the Orchid, said the Nightshade, controlling her movements very carefully. The light-sensitive areas of her petals detected the human nodding in agreement, and her mental inspection revealed a surface thought of agreement. As she followed the pair of DISers down the gleaming white corridors towards her friend's office, she mused once again on the cruel fates that had given the Flowers half-shares in both visual and mental sight. They could only see light, shadows and movement, and could only sense the surface of a mind. It was very unfortunate.

They arrived at the door, and her petals sensed air movement corresponding with speech. As Ontic, the speaker, was nearby, she didn't bother interpreting the vibrations, but instead lifted the words straight from the agent's surface thoughts.

"You go right on in, we'll wait here."

The Nightshade nodded, and stepped through the doorway to where the Orchid waited. As soon as the door shut, she asked, Is the room soundproof?

The Orchid laughed. You've been working with the Mysterious Somebody too much. Everything is soundproof to us..

The other shook her petals. Well, I get tired. She paused for a moment, and then added, He's not a very, uh, thoughtful master.

The Orchid nodded in agreement. I recall. Why do you think I got out so fast?

The Nightshade rustled in surprise. You ran away to this place? To these 'Sues?

Oh, I know it isn't exactly ethical...

Not to mention that it's disgusting. The Nightshade shuddered. I mean, the Defects...

They're not too bad, replied the Orchid. They're hard workers.

Partly because they don't know how dangerous this place is, the other muttered, thinking of the superenergetic fluids used in the 'Sue pods. If the workers knew that what they were working with was a liquid forced to hold more energy than it was ever intended to... but they didn't, and it was effective, at least. But anyway, she continued, I suppose we need the Factory... at least with the MS still in power.

And that's what you want to talk about, isn't it? said the Orchid shrewdly. The Nightshade nodded, and the Orchid beckoned her over to the desk. You're saying he needs to go?

Yes. For the good of the PPC. He's going to ruin everything if he's not careful. She glanced back at the door - another instinct learned from too much contact with bipeds. You can see what he's made the DIS into.

I agree, replied the Orchid, though it'll certainly cost me my job. But how can we do it?

Ah, said the Nightshade, and would have smiled if she was physically capable. I've got a few ideas about that...

~

"Why did you make me taunt her?"

The two DISers were walking down a lonely corridor, as far from the centre of HQ as Nyx had managed to steer the other. The grey walls seemed wider here, but perhaps that was just because the feeling of claustrophobia she had felt earlier, with all the eyes staring at her as she had mocked the girl from DAVD, Agent Penny, or whatever her name was, had vanished.

"You need the others to trust you."

"Well, they might trust me now, but my old friends certainly don't! Don't you care how they all look at us? Like there's no worse fate in the entire universe than being stopped by me or you?"

Dassie shrugged, but she noticed he wasn't meeting her eyes - rather, he seemed to be focusing on a point somewhere beyond her, although there was nothing to look at here, except long lines of grey wall which seemed to go on forever. In the small corner of her brain that was still capable of rational thinking, Nyx found this odd. Ever since Nendil had dragged her across the room in the DIS headquarters, Dassie's steady gaze seemed never to have left her.

"I'm used to it. You'll get used to it."

"Oh no I won't! I don't care what anybody says, I'm going right back to that department, where I belong."

"No you won't."

"Excuse me?"

She was clenching her fists so hard that her nails were digging deeply in to the soft skin of her palms, threatening to draw blood. She hardly noticed the pain, though. The only thing bothering her was the carefully blank expression on her Buddy's face, and the certainty in his voice. Her blood began to boil as her cheeks reddened, and she clenched her teeth together to stop herself from saying anything suicidal. She stopped walking abruptly, and Dassie paused, then moved to lean against the wall.

"You won't go back, because then you'll be completely alone. That's what they were doing in the cafeteria, when they made you made you taunt that Penny girl. They were estranging you, so they're the only people you can talk to. Besides, once a DISer, always a DISer. They never let you go."

"I hate you."

Again, Dassie shrugged, as though the thought didn't bother him at all. What made it even worse was that he looked so idle just standing there with his arms folded, blue eyes still staring in to the depths of oblivion. If he would just look at her, maybe she wouldn't be nearly so bothered by him. Even if he would just change his tone!

"Lots of people hate me. Lots of people hate you too, by the way. Just in case you hadn't noticed."

"No they don't. My friends will understand the position I've been put in."

"Really? Go, then. Go back to your old partner. His RC is that way, probably. Have fun explaining to him why you had a hand in beating up Palaver and that girl who works over in medical, or why you mocked so many people who once trusted you. I'm sure he'll understand perfectly." Carefully watching each other, Dassie sat down on the floor, and crossed his legs. Cocking his head to one side, he raised a dark eyebrow as Nyx stood there, not moving. "You still seem to be here."

Sitting down beside him with a sigh, she drew up her legs and rested her forehead on her knees.

"I still hate you."

"I hate me, too."

There was a short pause, and then Nyx looked up, confused.

"Huh?"

Dassie shrugged, and ran his hand through his hair, letting it flop over one eye. "I said I hate me too. You needn't think I like my position at the DIS."

"So why are you still here?"

"It's like I said, isn't it? Once a DISer, always a DISer."

"I thought you were just trying to wind me up?"

"I wouldn't do that. I like you too much. You must be the only person I've spoken to in at least a year who isn't terrified of me and has decent morals."

Resting her head on her knees again, Nyx groaned loudly. "That's going to happen to me as well, isn't it?"

"Yep." Leaning back against the cold, grey wall, Dassie grinned at her, although she still wasn't looking back at him. Her braided hair fell over her face and knees, trailing down to the floor, the bright beads at the bottom clinking gently each time she moved.

"Great."

"Hey, it's not all so bad. You get to skip all the queues."

To this, Dassie's only reply was to be almost hit in the face by beads as Nyx jerked her head up, stunned. There was silence for a moment, and the grin faded from his face, replaced by the usual unreadable mask.

"So there's really no way I can escape from the DIS? Apart from anything else, Nendil keeps leering at me, I'm sure that ferret keeps smirking at me every time I pass him, and Ontic always seems to be standing right behind me. It's horrible, like there's nowhere to run."

"Ontic does that. You never get used to it, I'm afraid; it's just one of her funny little ways. You don't want to try and hide from her, though, because then she'll never leave you alone. I swear that girl's lost her mind. She's pure evil. Worse than, oh, I don't know. Any villain you can think of. It's not like normal malice; she can't tell right from wrong. The first time I met her, she tried to kill Nendil and I, although, you know, he's just as bad. Oh, and Twp'atwt is a pine-marten, not a ferret."

"A pine marten? I thought they were supposed to be rare? Either way, he seemed as bad as Nendil."

Dassie nodded, and began to tell Nyx stories about various members of the DIS, each one worse than the last, until at last he came to the Bracket Fungus himself.

"He must be the most evil plant in existence. He gives Ontic a free run of things, and lets her see all sorts of things only the plants are usually allowed to go near. He never does anything himself, either; he always gets one of us to do his dirty work for him, like beating people up. He'll stand right in front of somebody who's half dead, and then, ‘Dassie, continue,' and then I'll have to keep hitting them until they're unconscious... although, you already know about that one, don't you?"

"Mm. I'll never forget the look Palaver gave me when the BF told me to hit him. He didn't even offer resistance!" She moaned, and covered her face with her hands, letting Dassie put a comforting arm around her. "I can't believe he made me do that."

"You never had a choice. You would have had to, sooner or later."

"Not if I'd never..." she trailed off miserably, and twisted one of the thin, dark plaits between her fingers, before sub-consciously beginning to chew on the bright beads at the end.

"You would have. That's how the DIS ended up with half its members. The BF looks through all the files, finds somebody successful in their field, like you, and then steals them from their department, one way or the other. He'd already gone to the SO about transferring you, but the SO wouldn't have it."

"No! You're kidding me, Dassie. None of the flowers ever do that!"

Remorsefully, Dassie shook his head. "They all do it, even your SO, who you think so much of. The Bracket Fungus is just particularly nasty about it. It's one of the reasons I hate him so much. I wish he was dead."

"Don't we all?"

"Mm. Speaking of the BF, aren't you supposed to have a meeting with him around now?"

"Oh, sugar!" Springing to her feet, Nyx leapt off down the corridor, calling a farewell over her shoulder. Moving at a more leisurely pace, Dassie pulled himself to his feet, and began to walk off in the same direction, when a furry arm wrapped itself around his shoulders.

"Hello, Dassie."

Looking up, Dassie found himself staring in to the eyes of the only pine marten to be employed by the PPC.

"Twp'atwt. What are you doing here, sneaking around?"

The pine marten grinned wickedly, showing two rows of pointed, glaringly white teeth.

"You'll never guess what I just overheard two lovebirds gossiping about..."


Chapter Six - Dissent

The Sunflower Official sat behind his desk, deep in thought. He was still mulling over what he had learnt in the DIS cells – that 'they' had killed Imbolc and the Evermind, that there was a factory making Mary-Sues, run by a Flower, and that Agent Blue had been locked up for finding out about it. Of course, the only evidence he had for this was the ravings of an insane agent, but if it were true...

... if it were true, then it didn't take much effort to realise that 'they' were the DIS. And if that were the case, if the Department of Internal Security was in fact performing a massive cover-up operation... then something was rotten in HQ.

The SO thought about it a bit more, and unpleasant links began to form in his mind. The Evermind had been in charge of the Department of Finance. Blue had mentioned money. If the Evermind had found out about the factory, she would have been able to check on the money aspect. The Evermind had been about to announce important information about the PPC when she had been murdered. Imbolc had been in the Department of Finance, and by all accounts close friends with the Evermind. Imbolc had been in a relationship with Blue.

No. It's not possible. It all made far too much sense, though. And if the DIS was indeed covering up the existence of the factory, then something ought to be done about it.

For a moment, the SO considered reporting his suspicions to the Mysterious Somebody, his immediate and only superior. He rejected the idea almost immediately. The MS had taken over from him as head of the PPC some time ago, but there had never been a great deal of trust between the two. The SO's firm hold on the Action departments no doubt made the MS nervous, while the very thought of having someone giving him orders was uncomfortable for the SO.

No, the SO said to the empty room, I won't give him the satisfaction. And with that decided, there was only one option left to him. She'll hate me, he said, but I hope she'll understand.

~

Agent Nyx Nightingale opened the door to the SO's office carefully. She'd been told by the Bracket Fungus that her former head of department wanted to see her, but had been given no reason. She devoutly hoped that he was going to tell her she didn't have to return to the DIS, but knew that the Laws of Narrative Comedy might make that unlikely.

From the doorway she could see the Sunflower behind his desk, his head bowed as if deep in thought. He didn't seem to have noticed her presence, so she coughed. His head jerked up. Ah, Nyx. Welcome.

Nyx nodded. "Sir." As the SO still hadn't gotten round to installing seats, she leaned back against the wall. A casual observer would have thought her at ease, but there were no casual observers in the PPC, only Assassins and their associates. Any of them could see that she was tense and ready to fight. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

The SO nodded. Yes, I did. He fell silent – if such a word can be applied when speech is telepathic – for a moment, and then continued. Something has come to my attention concerning the Department of Internal Security. I... have reason to believe that they can no longer be trusted.

Nyx thought back to what she had seen – what she had been part of – while partnered with Dassie. She agreed with the SO – in fact, she was convinced that the DIS was never trustworthy – and she was about to tell him as much when he went on.

I won't go into all the details, but the offshoot of my thinking is that I need someone to spy on the DIS for me. To be my spy, and to be ready to sprout and bind them down if needs be. He lifted his head, pointing it straight at Nyx, and she felt a chill run down her spine at the sight of those yellow petals. Someone in the department. Someone like you.

"No." She stepped away from the wall, walking over to the Flower's desk. "You said you'd get me out. You promised you'd get me out."

Nyx, the SO replied, you must know by now that the Bracket Fungus won't let you leave.

"You could make him," she replied angrily. "You're head of the Action Departments, you've got Assassins by the score at your disposal, you could force him to let me go. You say you can't trust them? Fine – then get rid of them."

His petals and leaves shook. Nyx, no. The time is not right. If I – if anyone – makes a move against the DIS, we'll be ripped to shreds. The Mysterious Somebody backs them, and even I won't disobey him without need.

For a moment, two forces warred within Nyx. This was the first time she'd heard about anyone above the two Deputies, and even though it was logical that there be someone, she'd never quite made the connection before. She wanted to ask what he meant, but to do so would divert her from her main reason to being here, which was probably the SO's intention all along. No. She had to stick on the subject. "Find someone else, then. I want to come home."

The Flower looked troubled. Nyx, he said after a moment, I need your help. I promise you that when... when we have enough evidence, when we can do something, I'll get you out. But for now... His head shook, petals waving. For now, I couldn't get the BF to let you go even if I wanted to.

"And you don't want to," added Nyx, shaking her head in anger and disgust. "All right," she continued, "I'll be your spy, sir, but I want out as soon as possible."

Of course, Agent Nightingale, the SO replied. You have my word. If it helps, I don't like this any more than you do.

"Oh, I'm sure you don't," muttered Nyx sarcastically. Without waiting for a reply, she stormed out of the office and down the grey hallway, back towards DIS Central.

Behind his desk, the SO bowed his head once again in silence.

~

Agent Dassie walked glumly through the corridors of HQ, not even up to affecting the usual DIS swagger. That didn't matter, though, as he wasn't on duty, and he was hardly remarkable enough to be instantly recognised. He was no Twp'atwt.

He was no Twp'atwt, and that thought dragged his mind inevitably back to the reason he was here, heading steadily towards the heart of the PPC. Cursèd rodent, he thought bitterly.

He had known Twp'atwt for a long time, and knew full well that the pine marten would twist any situation to his own advantage. If you told Twp'atwt a secret, he would sell it to the highest bidder. And if he managed to find out a secret by himself, as he had over this issue, he would hold it over your head like a sixteen-tonne weight.

Of course, he would never outright call it blackmail. It was simply you doing him a favour. Sometimes he wouldn't even refer to the secret at all, although usually he wasn't that subtle. Nevertheless, blackmail and coercion it was. Dassie had been caught out that way twice before, and ended up taking a full third of the other Agent's guard duties to ensure that he would neuralyse himself. That was one thing you could say for the PPC – you could be absolutely sure a secret would remain hidden if it needed to be.

This time, however, the secret was far bigger – you couldn't get much worse than direct condemnation of the Bracket Fungus – and the payment correspondingly more dangerous. Dassie had been 'asked' to go Upstairs, sneak into the office of the Mysterious Somebody, head of the PPC, and find out who and what he was. No one in the DIS seemed to know, according to Twp'atwt.

Dassie wasn't at all sure why Twp'atwt even wanted to find out, but he couldn't exactly turn him down without being removed from the DIS, and possibly from life itself. So here he was, in the dark uppermost corridors of HQ, searching for the infamous office.

This looks promising, he thought, peering into the gloom. The passage seemed to come to a sudden end with a black, forbidding door. Against one wall, somewhat incongruous, was a wooden desk loaded with pens and other implements of a secretary. Dassie snorted. Hardly the sort of door ward you'd expect with an entryway like that.

There was a whisper of noise behind him, and Dassie's eyes widened. The sound would have meant very little to a non-Agent, but everyone in the PPC had come to recognise the sound of a Flower moving. Looking around frantically, he could find no hiding place except the desk itself. Running the dozen meters to the end of the corridor, he ducked under the desk and curled up to hide just as a Flower appeared around the corner.

Although he had never seen this particular Official before – the MS denied any need for DIS guards – he recognised it by the distinctive flowers as a Nightshade. He didn't know what it was doing up there, but it barely mattered – all that was important was that it would give him his chance to get into the MS's office.

The Nightshade drifted past, moving in that inimitable way Flowers do, and reached the door. Dassie took a deep breath - Do I have to do this? he wondered. Couldn't I just lie to him? - and then the door opened silently and he had no choice. As the Nightshade slipped inside, the DIS Agent followed, diving through the door and lunging to hide behind the nearest piece of furniture – a leather armchair. In bright green.

Dassie stared at the back of the chair. It wasn't exactly what he'd been expecting. Then again, from what he could see, nothing there was. Instead of the dark, forbidding gloom one would expect from the door, he was in a well-lit, airy space with what seemed to be – in defiance of all probability – a glazed window looking out on a wide meadow. As for the Mysterious Somebody himself – or herself – all that Dassie could see under the chair was a pair of sandaled feet on the other side of the room.

You summoned me, sir? the Nightshade asked, her tendrils coming into Dassie's view even as she confirmed the MS's gender.

"I did indeed," the Mysterious Somebody replied, and that was another shock. The voice was not sinister, not old, not evil. If you met its owner in the street, it seemed, you would barely give him a second glance. But then again, you might – it was the sort of voice that could, if you let it, persuade you to give your life in service to it, as so many had.

Dassie frowned. He wasn't sure where that last bit had come from. Of course, he mused, he does run the PPC, but I wouldn't say we gave our lives in service to him. He shook his head. It was probably irrelevant. The Mysterious Somebody was speaking again.

"I did indeed," he was saying, "because I needed the door to be opened. We couldn't have our guest waiting outside, could we?"

Guest? The Nightshade's roots shifted in shock. Sir, I assure you, no one is in here save you and I.

"Ah, my dear." The voice gave a little chuckle. "Of course you did not see him enter. After all, the Bracket Fungus trains his agents very well indeed."

At that point, Dassie lost any doubts he had as to whether the MS was talking about him. He glanced sideways at the door, then over at the window, wondering which was a more likely escape route.

Unfortunately for him, he didn't have the choice. The Nightshade, apparently better at deduction than your average Flower, reached over the chair and twined her tendrils in his hair. Try as he might, Dassie could not prevent himself being lifted up. I am terribly sorry, sir, the Nightshade said. Should I dispose of him?

"No, no, by no means," the Mysterious Somebody replied. "Agent Dassie, how are you feeling?"

"..." Dassie was speechless. This was in part to do with the way the Nightshade had a creeper around his throat, but more, it was down to him staring in amazement at the man before him.

Now, he hadn't been expecting a wizened old hunchback, not with a voice like that. However, he had also not expected a handsome twenty-something with long, dark hair and piercing blue eyes. After that shock, the peripherals – white robes over an emerald green tunic of some description, a gold medallion around his neck, as well as the aforementioned sandals – were practically irrelevant.

"Nightshade, release him," the man said. The Flower withdrew her tendrils, leaving Dassie to stand, shaking, behind the chair. "Now, then," said the man, smiling kindly, "why don't you take a seat and tell me about yourself?"

~

Enter.

Entering was the last thing Nyx wanted to do, but nevertheless she pushed the door open and stepped inside. "It's me, sir."

The Sunflower Official's head jerked up. Agent Nightingale? You...?

"I just came to apologise, sir. I... I understand that you don't really have a choice in this matter."

The SO nodded. Thank you, Agent. He paused for a moment and then asked, hesitantly, Do you... have anything to report?

For Nyx, the hesitation wasn't enough. It wasn't that she wanted him to grovel or anything, but he didn't seem to be showing any sign of remorse. He'd got his way, his spy was resigned to her role, on with business. At that moment, Nyx decided that there was no way she'd help her former boss now.

Thinking quickly, she came up with a plausible-sounding lie that would get the SO in major DIS trouble. "There's a large body of dissent," she told him. "They don't like the way the Bracket Fungus has been taking the department. If you walked in there and told him he has to leave, they'd side with you."

The SO stared at her, and Nyx had the uncomfortable feeling that he was looking at far more than just her face. Finally, he ruffled his petals in dissatisfaction. Really, Agent Nightingale, do you expect me to believe that? You know full well that I am no fool, to accept such a blatant untruth.

For a moment, Nyx considered denying it. Ultimately, though, she realised there would be no point. "Sorry, sir."

I'm sure. Now, will you at least answer my next question truthfully? Nyx nodded sullenly. Wonderful. I have been hearing... unsettling things of late, concerning a Factory that creates Mary-Sues. What do you know about this?

"... what?"

I do not see that my words were particularly ambiguous.

Nyx shook her head, trying to take in his words. "Sir, I... no. I've not heard anything."

The SO sighed. Agent Nightingale, this is not helping your cause. I already know that the DIS is aware of the Factory. All I am asking is your aid in stopping it, and perhaps bringing the Bracket Fungus down at the same time.

"Sir," Nyx said, stammering slightly, "I swear I don't know anything about this. How can you think I could live with something like that? My friends have to face those things, I should be facing them... if I knew anything about this, there wouldn't even be a DIS left..." She stopped, too distressed to go on.

The SO merely shook his head. I am sorry to have kept you, Agent Nightingale. Please close the door on your way out.

~

The Sunflower Official sat at his desk in silence for a long time after Nyx left the room. Now that his agent had apparently been suborned, he needed a new plan. It was a given that the Factory needed to be shut down – there was no way it could be left operational to continue churning out 'Sues.

It took a while, but eventually the SO had an idea that, in a humanoid, would be accompanied by a comic slapping of the forehead. For a giant animate sunflower the only visible sign was a faint susurration of the leaves, but the emotion was definitely the same.

Pressing a frond against the large red button inlaid into his desk, the SO activated the thought-operated computer (being the most practical form of interface when you are a telepathic plant). Scouring his memory, he compiled a list and summoned twenty currently-partnerless Agents to meet in the Really Very Tiny Auditorium.

~

Isold'evan sat in the back row of the RVTA. That wasn't saying much, as the whole auditorium only had three rows of eight, but it gave an illusion of security that she sorely needed after Palaver's arrest. A chamber full of chattering Assassins was no match for being home on Ryloth, but it was something.

With perfect comic timing, the room fell silent as the Sunflower Official entered. No one knew why they had been called together – the only link Isolde could discover was that none of them currently had a partner – so all were intrigued to hear what their Head of Department had to say.

My agents, the SO began, I'm not going to mince words. You're here because a dire threat is facing the Department of Mary-Sues, and indeed the entire PPC. I have discovered the existence of a Factory producing our nemesis, the Mary-Sues you fight each day. Unfortunately, I know nothing more about it... save that it is apparently affiliated with our own organisation.

He paused for a moment, and Isolde felt as though her lekku were trying to strangle her, which would probably have been preferable to taking in what the SO was saying. A 'Sue factory run by the PPC?

You have been chosen to go out into the Multiverse to seek for this Factory. I can offer no further information save this: The Department of Internal Security is not to be trusted. Isolde snorted, drawing irritated glances from those around her. I knew that, she thought bitterly.

Some of you have already fallen foul of them, the SO went on with what seemed to be a look in her direction. I do not promise that this mission will be safe, nor that you will all return from it. You are to leave as soon as possible, and are free to use any resources you need. The Sunflower Official inclined his head slightly towards them. Agents, I salute you. Or would if I had hands.

~

I don't know about this.

The Nightshade waved a leaf at her friend. I tell you, he is getting out of control.

He was there a long time ago. The Orchid shook her head. What if he comes here personally? I couldn't...

The Nightshade gave a mental snort. What, leave HQ? You know that place would fall apart without him. She paused, considering that statement in light of their current plan, and corrected herself. His rule would fall apart. The Sunflower would probably take over, and believe me, the Mysterious Somebody knows this.

The Orchid shivered. What if he sends more of those DIS guards? I already feel like I'm imprisoned.

Then a few more won't make much difference, the Nightshade said snippily. Come on, we need to do this.

What about the staff? the Orchid asked, making one last effort to find an excuse. I know they're only 'Sues, and defective ones at that, but they are the only contact I have for long periods of time. This plan of yours could endanger them. The energy in those tanks...

The Nightshade sighed. It wasn't that her friend didn't think the MS needed to be ousted, it was simply that she was afraid for her own self and position. The Nightshade had no such qualms, mostly because her life and position were completely dependent on the whims of their master, he being so close at hand. She had a little leeway while he was occupied with that DIS Agent, Dassie, but surely he would soon tire of his sport – whatever it was, the Nightshade didn't pretend to understand the Mysterious Somebody or know what went on behind those closed doors – and she'd be forced to go back to watching her every move.

Orchid, she said, a little more forcibly than she intended, if we do not do this, if we do not do something, the MS will have full control over the PPC before long. I know for a fact that he is planning to discredit and remove the SO as soon as he is able, and has been organising things to that end. We must act, and quickly. The only question is whether you will work with me or act against me.

The Orchid curled her petals inwards in a Flowerlike gesture of acquiescence. I'm with you, of course. I just... please, when you report this, could you give the impression that I tried to prevent it?

The Nightshade nodded, sympathetic now her plan was secure. You did, she pointed out, so it won't even be a lie, merely a... bending of the truth.

Had she possessed the necessary features, the Orchid would have offered up a sickly smile. All is well, then. I suppose we should get started. She pressed a tendril against the wall panel that opened her office door. Come with me. I know a way that will keep us from view.

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