Tangled Webs

The Reorganisation

Chapter Seven - Departures

Dassie...

Agent Dassie awoke with a start and a pounding headache. Had he heard something? He couldn't remember. Sitting up on the bed, he stared out of the large window at the landscape beyond. Where was it? There was a mountain rising out of dense forest, but he didn't know the location. Nevertheless, he felt more at home here than he ever had outside the town of his birth.

Dassie!

He jumped, with a sudden feeling that someone was calling his name just out of earshot. Was it a Flower? It didn't seem like it. Flowers, even though they spoke telepathically, still came across as outside voices. This was more like a feeling, an urge to get up and go...

Into the other room.

... into the next room. Slipping his feet into the green slippers lying beside his bed, he walked through into the main chamber of the Mysterious Somebody's apartment. The Head of the PPC was seated at his desk, poring over some reports and seemingly completely absorbed in them. Nevertheless, Dassie felt as though his master was giving him his full attention.

The DIS Agent stopped abruptly. His master? Where had that come from? It certainly wasn't true, except in the abstract sense that the MS ran the entire PPC. Shaking his head, he started forward again and stopped before the Mysterious Somebody's desk.

"Ah, Dassie," the MS said, looking up with a smile. "Did you sleep well?"

"Very, sir," Dassie replied. The bed was the most comfortable he had slept on since he had joined the PPC. A nagging thought at the back of his mind asked why the Mysterious Somebody had a spare bedchamber adjacent to his office, but he dismissed it.

"And how are we feeling today?"

"A little strange, sir," Dassie admitted. "I just realised that I've been here almost a week. It seems like longer," he mused aloud, "but I feel like I could stay here forever and not tire of it."

The MS frowned, putting down his papers and looking completely serious. "You realise you will have to go eventually," he said, ignoring the Agent's visible distress. "We cannot have the DIS under-strength – the Bracket Fungus will be after my hide again."

Dassie bit his lip. "Couldn't I stay a little longer, sir?" he asked, astonished by his own pleading tone. He was sure that, only a few days ago – had it really been so little time? – he would have been running as fast as he could. Now, though, now the very idea of being separate from his master- no, from the Mysterious Somebody was enough to bring almost physical pain.

The MS smiled indulgently. "Perhaps another day, then. But no more than that."

Dassie's face broke into a wide grin. "Thank you, sir," he exclaimed. "I swear you won't regret this. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

The Mysterious Somebody shook his head. "No, Dassie, that's all right. You go and get some more rest. I'm sure you're tired."

Despite having only just gotten up, Dassie found he was, indeed, exhausted. Stifling a yawn, he staggered towards the door. "Thank you, sir," he said again. Just before entering the small side chamber, he stopped and turned, despite his desire to do little more than collapse on the bed. "Sir," he said, "who are you? Really?"

The Mysterious Somebody smiled again. "I'll tell you when you're rested, Dassie. Now go on, get some sleep."

"Yes, master," Dassie murmured, and stumbled over to the bed. Before he even hit the covers, he was fast asleep.

~

Isolde staggered as she stepped through the portal. After having spent several hours searching a moon in her own continuum for the Factory (it hadn't been there; the strange dimensional readings she had picked up had been a PPC-affiliated freelance intelligence agent) she was not prepared for the normal gravity of... wherever she was. She hadn't really been paying attention when typing in the co-ordinates – the only reason she knew what universe she'd just been in was that she recognised some of the constellations – but this seemed to be a particularly pleasant planet.

Looking around at the green field she had appeared in, the Twi'lek smiled. It was entirely different to her homeworld, but all the better for it. Off in the distance she could see a forest, although one end of it didn't concern her at all. There was a lake behind her, mountains off in the distance, a clear blue sky – strange, it was, how many of these skies were blue – and-

Isolde's thoughts came to a sudden halt, and she looked back at the forest. What had she thought? Tracking her gaze slowly along the line of trees, she didn't catch sight of the end of the woods out of the corner of her eye. The reason she didn't see it was that it was blocked out by a large metal-and-glass building.

She looked directly at the structure and found her gaze sliding off to marvel at the sky, the ground, the trees, anything except the building itself. With an effort, she forced herself to look at it regardless of her inclinations to the contrary.

The building – complex, in fact, she saw now that there were several structures grouped together – was large and imposing, yet at the same time strangely delicate. Tall spires of steel and glass – or was it crystal? – stabbed skyward, almost high enough to be a danger to air traffic, if there was any on this world. Through the glazed exterior, she could see clean white walls, and at one point in the main building, a cafeteria of some sort in which, and she had to rub her eyes to be sure she was actually seeing this, a Plant of some description, some sort of orchid, was sitting down with two humanoids clad in black and marked by a silver sash.

Isolde's heart pounded. She had found it! This was the factory she was seeking, run by a Flower, hidden by a Someone Else's Problem field, and guarded by the hated DIS. All she had to do was head home and tell the SO about it and it would be gone, destroyed by the best the PPC had to offer. She-

It was her lekku that saved her, taking the brunt of the blow meant for her skull. With a cry, Isolde span around to see a grinning human female in black-and-silver standing there, a large branch raised in her hand for another blow. "Hello!" the DISer said brightly.

Forgetting the Remote Activator in her hand, Isolde fled, running directly away from the other Agent. With the loss of concentration she could no longer see the Factory, and thus didn't notice it again until she ran from the grass onto the paved plaza and tripped over a bench.

Pulling herself upright, she looked around wildly. The DIS Agent was following her, running along at a leisurely pace that nevertheless had brought her too close for Isolde to try and get around the Factory. With no other choice, she aimed for the revolving door and began to run again.

~

Ontic grinned as the Twi'lek girl fled into the factory. She had thought this was going to be another simple task, but now it looked to be getting interesting. Dropping the branch, she pulled out a dagger and jogged forward to the Factory. She was told it was invisible to most people, but she'd always been able to see it, and she'd never bothered to understand the explanation of why.

Tapping her blade rhythmlessly against her empty palm, the DISer entered the Factory. There was no sign of the Agent she was chasing, but that was okay. The search would be fun.

"Is everything all right, Ontic?" a fairy Agent asked, fluttering around her head. Ontic nodded cheerfully.

"Everything's fine, dearie," she said. She didn't know the fairy's name, and it didn't really concern her. "You just fly away and sprinkle some children with your fairy dust," she added, not so much dismissive as simply losing interest.

"Oh, yes, they'd love that," the fairy muttered. "You know, seeing as it's poisonous."

Ontic giggled as she walked away into the main body of the Factory. She didn't remember whose idea it had been to arm the fairies of the DIS in that way – it might even have been her own – but she liked it. She liked a lot of things, but at the moment she liked hunting down the blue Agent who was loose in the Factory.

Whistling without any effort at a tune, Ontic ambled through the Factory. The pods of sparkling liquid lined her route like short, glittering trees. Long cables stretched up from them to the distant ceiling. Occasionally a white-coated, white-faced woman – one of the workers, failed products of the Factory – walked past with a clipboard. Ahead of her, the avenue of pods marched away, broken only by the Twi'lek who now staggered out of a side corridor and stopped, startled, to find Ontic already there.

Bored with the game, Ontic skipped across the last few feet to the Agent, lifted her dagger and sliced it across to neatly slit the girl's throat. The blood spurting out made interesting patterns in the air, on the floor, and on Ontic's clothes as the blue Agent clutched at the wound, trying desperately to stem the flow. Of course it was hopeless, and before long she collapsed to the floor. Kneeling beside her, Ontic slit both of the girl's wrists and gouged her anguished eyes out to be sure she was dead. Only then did she look down at herself.

"Now look what you've done," she said severely to the dead Agent. "I'm all messy." She giggled again, tried vaguely to wipe some off the blood from her face, and then wandered off towards the cafeteria, leaving a trail of sticky footprints behind her.

~

The Nightshade sat behind her desk, staring at the photograph gripped in her tendrils. She knew from experience that a non-Plant would see just a strange panel of bright, almost luminous ink that gave them an uneasy feeling, but that was because Flowers 'saw' differently to other species. The light patterns gave a feel for the scene, true, but most of the image was held in what she'd heard called a psychic impression.

At the moment, the photo was a printout from the security cameras in the Factory. It showed herself and the Orchid in the vicinity of the recent 'accident', and the fact that she was holding it meant that the Orchid had succeeded in wiping the records. This – and the others she had been sent with it – were the last evidence of their involvement. They were also the only way to prove to her new superiors, if and when the MS fell, that the pair of them had been working against him.

There was a familiar mental resonance from down the corridor, and the Nightshade slipped the photograph quickly into a drawer. The Bindweed was the third-to-last person she wanted seeing it, after the Mysterious Somebody and the Bracket Fungus. Only when she was sure none of the papers were visible did she look up, intending to greet her onetime friend.

After several silent moment, she managed a weak, ... what happened to you?

The Bindweed spread her petals wide. You know how it is when you like your job. You tend to settle in.

... yes, agreed the Nightshade, that is what I do. But I don't generally end up taking up half the corridor.

The Bindweed looked ruefully back at her trailing creepers. I expected a little warning before ever having to leave that office again. This stuff isn't too hard to shed, but it does take a day or two, and His summons was so urgent...

The Nightshade's leaves twisted in distaste. Don't you believe it. He's not got any reason to call you up here save boredom.

The Bindweed shrugged, a very large gesture when you're a plant with over a hundred creeping tendrils around you. It sounded urgent, at least.

Well, he's busy at the moment, the Nightshade said. In fact, the Mysterious Somebody was occupied with that DIS boy who'd showed up a few days previously, but she wasn't about to volunteer that information. Instead, she did what she was good at: she made small talk. How has Finance been treating you, anyway?

Not so bad until recently. Then, though, that Imbolc girl got herself killed, and most of the Department have been lax ever since.

The Nightshade nodded. Well, you know how it can be. You remember how we all were during the Crisis before the MS took over.

I don't believe I was, the Bindweed replied. The Bracket Fungus and I just got on with our jobs, mere Personnel workers though we were.

The Nightshade remembered her own sadness at the death of her friend the Poppy, whose demise had actually brought about the Mysterious Somebody's rule, and wondered again how she could ever have liked the Bindweed. Well, some of us, then, she amended. Either way, these Animals are all so emotional, it's no wonder they take time to pull themselves together.

The Bindweed nodded, and then glanced at the imposing doorway. Not all, she pointed out.

The Nightshade couldn't suppress a shudder. No, she agreed, not all of them.

As if on cue – and for all the Nightshade knew, it could have been – the door opened smoothly. The DIS Agent walked out, and then stopped as the Mysterious Somebody's voice called out. "Remember, Dassie, you need to return here in a week."

"Yes, Master," Dassie said, and continued off down the corridor. The Nightshade stared after him. Could that really be the same Agent she had pulled up from behind the chair? He seemed so lifeless now...

"Nightshade," said the Mysterious Somebody, speaking through her speaker in his usual sinister tone, "is the Bindweed without?"

The Nightshade considered responding 'Without what?', but decided that the MS's anger wasn't worth the momentary humour. She is, sir, she replied.

"Excellent. Please send her in. And then contact the Bracket Fungus and apologise for the length of time his Agent was away."

~

"... couldn't find anything out. I'm sorry, Twp'atwt."

"Shh! Keep it down! Hello, Nyx."

Nyx Nightingale ignored the pine marten and instead stared at his companion. "... Dassie?" she squeaked.

As Twp'atwt sniggered, Dassie inclined his head towards her. "Hello, Nyx," he said, almost mimicking Twp'atwt's tone.

"But... you... where... look, come with me." Stepping away from the door through which she had entered DIS Central – almost empty at that hour – she grabbed Dassie's arm and dragged him through the back door of the main room. Ignoring the mocking glances from the few passing Agents – and the howling laughter from Twp'atwt before the door closed – she dragged him along the corridor and into her personal room, assigned to her some days ago. Closing the door, she leant against it with folded arms and looked at Dassie. "Where have you been?"

Her erstwhile partner sat down gracefully on the bed, looking around for a moment before replying. "Busy."

"Busy? I was worried sick!" Nyx knew full well that she sounded hysterical, but she didn't care. "After that conversation and all your warnings about the DIS, you vanished. What was I supposed to think?"

Dassie raised an eyebrow. "You could have just asked."

Nyx snorted in disbelief. "Oh, yes, that would go down well. 'Hi, Dassie and I were talking about how evil you all are, I was wondering if you'd killed him for it or whether he was gone for some other reason'. I can see that would guarantee my continued existence."

Dassie blinked. "You thought they'd killed me?" Nyx stared at him in disbelief.

"I say again, what was I supposed to think? And, while I'm on the subject, what kind of answer is 'busy'?"

"A truthful one," Dassie replied mildly. "Look, Nyx, I don't know what you think is going on here-"

"I'm stuck in a department full of lunatics where the one non-psychopath vanishes without telling anyone, that's what," Nyx snapped. Dassie continued as though she hadn't spoken.

"-and I don't know if I gave the wrong impression in that conversation, but there is nothing between us. Any 'relationship' you think you have with me is pure fantasy."

Nyx stared in disbelief. "Are you even listening to me, Dassie? I thought the Bracket Fungus had killed you, the only sane person I've met in this department, you're flat out refusing to tell me what you have been up to, and now you assume I'm... infatuated with you? What is wrong with you?"

Dassie looked around the small chamber. "What was I supposed to think?" he asked, in a far less frantic tone than Nyx had. "You leap on me, drag me into your bedroom, and start saying how you were 'worried sick'. Since I'm fairly sure you aren't my mother..."

Nyx made a disgusted sound. "How can you be so mind-numbingly stupid? Is it just a part of being male, or is it something they hand out on request?"

"I could ask the same question about overreacting to everything," the other Agent said calmly, "but I'll refrain. Have you satisfied your curiosity now?"

Nyx felt like screaming, but that really would give the wrong impression to everyone listening. "No," she replied through gritted teeth, "I haven't. But seeing as you are being utterly impossible and will not tell me anything, I suppose I never will."

"In that case," Dassie said, standing, "I think I ought to be going. The Bracket Fungus will be wanting a report."

Nyx suddenly realised that she looked very much like she was barring the door. Stepping hastily to one side, she gestured at it. "Go ahead, Agent Dassie," she said curtly.

Dassie nodded to her. "I'll see you later," he said, and made his way out of the room, closing the door behind him. Nyx stared after him for a few moments, and then threw herself onto the bed.

"Stupid, stupid men," she muttered to herself, digging her fingers into the cover. "Stupid, stupid, stupid Dassie and the stupid DIS." Her anger thus expended – years as an Assassin had taught her to clear her mind rapidly – she sat up on the bed, leaning against the pillow.

"Was he really like that on the mission?" she wondered aloud. He'd seemed distant then, true, but that was just a mask, one that had slipped when there was no one else around. Just now, though, he'd spoken to her as though she was the partner of an arrested Agent – the aloof DIS manner had been threaded into his every word.

Maybe he'll loosen up again later, Nyx thought. It was possible, after all, that he'd been on a secret mission for the Bracket Fungus, one that had traumatised him into retreating behind that shell. She didn't think so, however. It hadn't seemed like an act. It was almost as if the Dassie she had known – briefly – had been replaced by some sort of robot. She was struck by the sudden urge to chase him and look for a power switch, but she knew that to be ridiculous.

With a sigh, Nyx glanced at her watch. It was a couple of hours before she had to go on duty – guarding the cells again. Just enough time for a nap. Kicking off her shoes, she pulled the blanket over and tried to get some rest. One last thought, though, kept running through her mind, wanting to be vocalised.

"What happened to you, Dassie?" Nyx Nightingale murmured to the empty room, and slipped into a dreamless sleep.


Chapter Eight - Discussion

The Nightshade quivered as she stood before the Mysterious Somebody's door. He didn't call her into his office very often – the last time had been when he had captured that DIS Agent, Dassie – so she was understandably nervous. What if he'd figured out that she was working against him? She might never leave the office again.

She quelled her thoughts as the door silently opened and the MS's voice called "Enter." Taking a deep – and entirely metaphorical – breath, she did as she was bidden.

The dark room was different from the airy chamber Dassie had known. The Nightshade had never worked out how the MS managed to change everything around so fast, and it had long since ceased to bother her. However, this particular variant – a stone-walled cavern lit only by dozens of candles, in the centre of which was a blocky tomb that the Mysterious Somebody used as a desk – never boded well. She didn't know what it was modelled on, or how accurate it was, but it usually showed up when her boss was flaunting his power. Even his costume – although her visual sensory apparatus could only detect a pale blur with a darker blob in the middle, she picked up from his surface thoughts that the green tunic of her previous visit had been replaced by a similar black one – practically exuded quiet superiority.

"Ah, Nightshade," the Mysterious Somebody said, "do you have anything to report?"

The Nightshade stiffened. Had he found something out? A dozen ideas ran through her mind, but she quashed them all and simply asked, Concerning what, sir?

The Mysterious Somebody sighed and picked up a sheet of paper. "I have here a report from the Tree Fern of Bioengineering Inc. He tells me that the 'Sue output of the Factory dropped to an all-time low during the last week, and is still not back up to normal. I believe you have been visiting the Orchid from time to time, so I wish to know whether something has gone wrong. It's hardly a complicated request."

Sorry, sir. The Nightshade, had she possessed the necessary anatomy, would have been hiding a grin. She knew how to respond to this one. There was a minor accident. The Orchid worked hard to prevent it, but... She shrugged, a far more expressive gesture when it involves tendrils and leaves.

"I see. What sort of accident?"

A leak, the Nightshade replied. Some of the hyperenergetic fluid found its way through a crack in one of the pods. On contact with the atmosphere it evaporated, releasing a cloud of highly reactive vapour. This spread through the surrounding area, breaking open the pods it came into contact with, and-

"Yes, yes, I see," the Mysterious Somebody said irritably, cutting her off. "How did this happen?"

Normal wear and tear? the Nightshade suggested. Of course, she knew how it had really happened – she had taken a chisel to the pod in question and then run away very quickly – but she wasn't about to admit it. It has been a while since the Factory was set up.

"Not long enough," the MS retorted. "I know the technology those pods are based on, and it managed to last over thirty years mostly intact. If something broke, it was sabotage."

Perhaps something those two Agents did when they found it? the Nightshade said, trying to casually divert the MS's thoughts before he got too close to the truth.

The Mysterious Somebody scoffed. "That took effect after this long? No, it was recent, it must have been." He stared hard at her, and then shook his head. "It must have been some new Assassins creeping in – the Bracket Fungus tells me there's been trouble with them. I shall have to ask him to double the guard."

Is that necessary? the Nightshade asked, alarmed. At her superior's look, she went on. Would the DIS not be better put to guarding HQ? Secretly she had another concern – how could she and the Orchid work against the MS with the guards in black and silver watching their every move?

"We cannot have the Factory out of commission," the Mysterious Somebody said severely. "If it were to fail again, our income would be severely affected. How long do you think the PPC would survive were we to cease paying the Assassins, or the Guards? Or if Makes-Things and Hornbeam were no longer able to keep the technology in repair? It would be crippled running, Nightshade."

But sir... if the Factory were no longer operation, would not the workload be likewise decreased?

"You know full well that that would not be the case," the Mysterious Somebody replied. "Our facility is not the only source of 'Sues, and furthermore, Mary-Sues are not the only target of this organisation. No," he concluded, "the decision is made. You are to contact the Bracket Fungus and request that he double the Factory's guard immediately."

The Nightshade stood there for a few moments, trying to think of any way to persuade her superior against this course of action. Giving up, she nodded. Right away, sir, she said, and left the darkened chamber.

~

Hornbeam? Are you even in here?

The Sunflower Official stood in the doorway of the room Makes-Things had indicated and felt like he was on the verge of taking root, he'd been there so long. Theoretically, he could simply enter without waiting for a response – as a Deputy, even though he had no direct authority over the Infrastructure departments such as DoSAT, he was important enough that no one would object – but he didn't. Partly this was out of respect, but the most part was because he didn't trust something not to explode if he opened the door. Not for the first time, he wondered if the Ironwood had enjoyed some training sessions with Q.

Who is there? came the reply at last. The Sunflower gave a mental sigh of relief.

It's I, Hornbeam. The SO. I need to see you – urgently.

So very hasty, came Hornbeam's reply. You are almost as bad as those Agents of yours.

Yes, the SO said, but if this goes on you won't have to deal with them any more. I keep losing track of them.

That certainly does sound attractive, Hornbeam mused. The SO repressed the urge to bang his head against the wall – he was already shedding seeds all over the place out of worry.

I think they're dying, Hornbeam, he said, trying to get through to the Ironwood.

Dying? That is distressing... There was a pause long enough that the SO wondered if his comrade had fallen asleep, and then, I suppose you'd better come in.

Finally. The SO pushed open the door to room 2659 and moved inside to where Hornbeam resided. He settled into one of the chairs by the Ironwood's desk and looked up at the Head of DoSAT. Then he looked up a bit further. Hello, Hornbeam. It's been a while.

Not so long, the tree boomed. You seem to be agitated. Perhaps you should rest and clear your mind.

It would clear my department, the SO retorted. I'm here because my Assassins are vanishing.

It sounds like the portal system is working well, then, Hornbeam commented. The Sunflower Official gave into temptation for a second, thumping his head against the desk, before straightening up.

No, the... well, yes, the portals are working fine, but they're not what I'm talking about. My Agents – some of them – are vanishing while on missions. He paused to let that sink in, but went on before Hornbeam could comment. As the other was as slow as an ent, that wasn't hard, but he thought it best to be safe. They are on a special mission for me, searching for a location. I am worried that they may be dying, or rather, being killed. I was wondering if you had anything to help me keep track of them. Sometimes you had to say something several different ways before Hornbeam would accept it.

Hoom. The Ironwood looked as thoughtful as a fifty-foot-plus tree can. Some sort of tracking device, perhaps? One that could be attached to the uniform, perhaps under the flashpatch?

Yes! The SO jumped out of the chair. You have something like that?

I used to, Hornbeam corrected. I gave them all to the Bracket Fungus some time ago. He has requested a second batch, though, so perhaps you could ask him for some of them.

The Bracket...? The SO shook his head. What could the Bracket Fungus want with trackers? His Guards rarely left HQ anyway. Whatever it was, it was unlikely to be good. You are sure of this?

Certainly I am sure, Hornbeam replied. It was I he asked, after all.

Yes, of course. The SO thought for a moment and then asked, as casually as he could, Did he happen to say anything about why he needed them?

Something to do with needing to know exactly where people were, Hornbeam said vaguely. He was in a great hurry, I do know that – even by the standards of you hasty folk.

I... see. The SO's mind whirled. Could it be that the DIS was now tracking his own Assassins? Might that be why they kept vanishing? What were the other options? Perhaps they were expanding operations beyond the boundaries of HQ, or maybe there was some plan that required complete coordination of Agents... so many possibilities.

Realising that he was taking up Hornbeam's time – although in truth, the Ironwood probably hadn't noticed the pause – the SO bent his petals politely towards the other. I am grateful for your help in this matter, Hornbeam, but I fear I must go. Farewell, and may your leaves never fall.

May your plans always take root and bring forth fruit, Hornbeam replied, and the SO left the Department of Sufficiently Advanced Technology deep in thought.

~

"... never seen anyone dragged out of here so fast!"

As soon as Nyx heard the cruel laughter, she knew it was about her. Who else would Twp'atwt be talking about? She was mildly surprised that it had taken him this long, but perhaps whoever he was talking to – Nendil, by the sound of that laugh – had only just arrived. Whatever the case, she needed to go through the room, which meant facing the pair. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open.

As she'd guessed, Twp and Nendil were chatting not far from the door. They looked up as she entered, and the pine marten gave her a wide grin, showing all his pointed teeth.

"Sleep well?" he asked. "I hope so. If you're looking for your lover, he's off with Ontic."

Nyx sighed. "He's not my 'lover', Twp," she said. "I could point out that you were talking to him before I was. It seemed to be fairly private... care to tell us what that was about?"

Twp stared at her, then flinched as Nendil focussed on him. Nyx relaxed, out of the elf's direct line of sight, and tried to figure out whether to feel guilty or proud at turning the tables on the rodent. "Yes, Twp," Nendil said, his tone disturbingly gentle, "why don't you tell us about that?"

"What's this?" asked a semi-familiar voice from the main door of DIS Central, and Nyx looked over with a sinking feeling to see the two new arrivals. "Having a party without me?"

"Hardly a party, Ontic," Nendil replied. "Is your shift over so soon?"

"So the watch says," Ontic replied cheerfully. "We didn't get to arrest anyone, though, so I'm thinking of going back out."

Twp'atwt gave a brief laugh. "Do you never sleep, girl?" he asked. "You've been on three successive shifts now."

Ontic frowned. "Sleep... no, not often," she admitted in a bright tone. "Should I?"

"Yes, you should," said Nendil. "I'm sure poor Dassie had to hold you up all through your shift."

"No, he didn't," said Ontic, puzzled. Nendil rolled his eyes.

"Anyway. How was it, Dassie?"

"Well, she didn't try to kill me this time," Dassie said, and the elf smiled in a slightly pained way that Nyx decided indicated an unpleasant shared memory. "The good thing about working with Ontic is that no one is going to trouble you. She's got that aura about her, wouldn't you agree, Nyx?"

Nyx blinked, startled at being addressed. "I've never, uh, worked with her," she managed to say. Dassie gave her a sympathetic look.

"Oh, that's no good," he said, in a tone that could be either serious or dryly sarcastic. "Maybe you could take your shift with her? I assume that's why you're out here."

"Oh, no," Nendil said at once, grinning at Twp'atwt. "Ontic needs some sleep. Maybe you could go on patrol with Nyx, Dassie."

Nyx groaned. She wasn't sure what was worse – the prospect of being alone with this new Dassie, or the thought of Nendil and Twp's continued snide comments. One thing was sure, she didn't want to go on duty with Dassie.

Unfortunately, she didn't seem to have much choice. The Agent in question looked at her and smiled. "Yes, why not?" he said. "It should give us an opportunity to... talk."

Nyx glared daggers at her fellow Agent. Only a few hours ago he had been attempting to convince her that there was nothing between them – which she'd already known - and now he was giving Twp the biggest opening ever? What was wrong with him? Sure enough, Twp'atwt picked up on it and leered at her. "Make sure you don't miss anything while 'talking', Nyx," he said.

"I haven't even agreed to work with him yet," she snapped. "Don't I get a say in this?"

"Since you ask," Nendil said lazily, "no, you don't. As a senior member of department, I have the authority to give out assignments to junior Agents. And you, Agent Nightingale, are very junior indeed. Now, are you going to accept Agent Hyrax's offer, or do I have to make it an order?"

"Agent...?" Nyx looked confused. Who was he talking about?

Twp'atwt snorted. "Ignorant newbies. Agent Nyx Nightingale," he went on in what he probably thought was a dramatic tone, "allow me to introduce Agents Ontic Laison, Nendil Morifλa, and last but not least, Dassie Hyrax. I'm sure you'll grow to love them... or some of them." He leered again, and Nyx would probably have hit him were her mind not on other things.

"You all... have surnames?"

"So do you, dearie," said Ontic, looking up for a moment. "Lots of people do, y'know."

"Yes, but..." She frowned at Nendil. "You're an elf."

"Give the girl marks for observation," Nendil said dryly. "Never heard of mother-names?"

"Oh." Nyx considered for a moment. "I guess that makes sense."

"I'm overjoyed that you think so. Now, Agent Nightingale, you are meant to be on duty. Do I need to bring this to the attention of the Bracket Fungus?"

"... no." Nyx sighed, checked her weapons, and nodded. "Lead the way, Agent Hyrax. You've been doing this longer than me, after all."

~

"Psst."

The whispered voice woke Blue from a troubled sleep. He almost didn't bother – he didn't bother with much these days – but there was something about it that attracted his attention. He sat up and looked around.

"Psst! Hey, over here!"

Turning his head, Blue stared across the hallway at the Agent – he couldn't think of him as the other Agent – in the cell over there. The man seemed to be waiting for a response, so after a few moments working out what was appropriate, Blue ventured, "Hello."

"Thank the stars!" the other exclaimed. "You don’t know how long I've been waiting for someone to talk to."

"I'm not someone," Blue said in a monotone. "Not any more."

The man gave him a funny look that Blue was certain should mean something. "Well, anyway. My name's Palaver. What's yours?"

Blue shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Nothing does."

"Oh, come on," said Palaver. "I can't just call you 'hey, guy', can I?"

Blue sighed. "I'm Blue," he admitted.

The other nodded. "Hi. Now, do you know how I'd go about contacting our jailors? I've been falsely accused, you see, and I'm sure I'll be able to sort things out if-"

Blue cut him off with a laugh that was midway between mocking and insane. "Don't you get it, Palaver? We're all falsely imprisoned! That's what the DIS does. They cover up their crimes by creating an atmosphere of mistrust between the Agents, and we – the lost, the forgotten – get to suffer for it."

Palaver stared. "Blue... wait, Blue? Agent Blue, DMS? I remember you now! You're the one who killed the Evermind last year."

Blue flinched violently. "The Evermind... Immy shouldn't have told her. Everyone dies when they know. They killed the Flower, they killed darling Imbolc, they've probably killed Tango by now. I'll be next, or maybe they'll keep me around..." He looked around wildly. "They're waiting for me to go mad, they are. I know it's what they want. I won't give them the satisfaction, though. Sooner or later, they'll have to kill me, and then I'll win." He grinned across the hall at Palaver, barely noticing when the Agent backed away into the far corner of his cell. "I'll win, because they won't be able to hurt me any more. That's what they do: they hurt people. If we all died now, they'd have to go out and pick up some more just so they had someone to hurt. Maybe they'd build a factory to make people for them to hurt. Wouldn't that be something?"

~

DAVD. Home to some of the most disturbing – and disturbed – Agents in the PPC. Its halls are painted in shades of black, and frequently echo with the screams of injured Agents and Canons. Its Head is a giant Thorn, delighting in the name of Thornelius Archimedes III, but generally simply called the Big Thorn. Outsiders know relatively little about it, and were they not fully occupied worrying about the DIS, rumours would probably abound concerning it.

From the inside, of course, things are completely different.

The silence of the empty Response Centre was split by a faint 'bing' from the console, and then by a far louder screaming as a blue portal snapped open. From the dusty grey locale on the other side two Agents tumbled through, dragging between them a horrifically injured red-haired woman. There was a crackle as her flowing blood hit the edge of the portal, and then it was spilling over the floor like the Empire over the Rebellion on Hoth, provided you thought all the Imperial forces were made of red liquid and that the snowfields were black Generic Surface.

"Why'd you bring us here?" Agent Penny snapped, fear for the injured Canon's life overcoming her generally quiet nature. "Did you think we could put a bandage on and she'd be all better?"

"I... it's not my fault," India explained, lunging for the console and bringing up the Directory. "I don't know the code for Medical, Echo usually handled that stuff."

Penn winced at her mistake. India had walked in on a fellow DAVDer, Tango, just after she'd killed both Echo and Carreg, one of the oldest Agents in the Disturbing Acts of Violence Department. He claimed that it didn't bother him that much, but Penny had heard that sort of talk before, and knew not to take it at face value.

The wounded woman in her arms stopped screaming and went limp. Penny's eyes widened and she dropped the Canon to the floor, throwing herself down on her knees beside her. The blood flow had slowed to a trickle, and when Penny felt the other's chest, she could find neither heartbeat or evidence of breathing.

"India!" she yelled, ignoring the fact that the room was quiet and he was three feet away. "I think she's died!"

"The author made her a full-fledged Jedi, remember?" India called over his shoulder. "Couldn't she be in a healing trance?"

Penny looked harder at the woman. Now that she knew what to look for, she noticed the way her skin had not gone completely white from blood loss, and thought she could see a very slow movement of the chest that she'd missed in her haste. "It's possible," she admitted, "but still..."

"I know, I- got it!" India stabbed viciously at a button on the console, and a new portal flickered into existence. On the far side, a startled doctor looked up.

Penny grabbed the woman by the arms and dragged her across the floor. "Come on, Mara," she muttered, "don't die on me now."

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