Tangled Webs

The Reorganisation

Chapter Thirteen - Preparation

The news spread through HQ like wildfire. The Mysterious Somebody was gone! The SO was in charge! No more Deputies! Promotions based on skill! A new order!

Of course, it wasn't exactly like that.

I can't recall ever hearing about this... Queen Anne's Lace before.

You said the same thing about the Clover, the Marquis de Sod pointed out. As you've only really heard of current Department Heads, it doesn't really mean much.

But how do you know she'll be good with Bad Slash? the SO insisted. You say she's been working...

With the Postal Department, yes, the Marquis supplied. It's an important job.

Then who's going to do it once you put her in another role she's not qualified for? the SO demanded.

Her assistant, the Daisy said bluntly. Otik. She's been training him for years ,and she says he's ready to take over. Actually, she says his form makes him even more suited for the job than she is.

Oh, so you've talked to her about this already?

How else would I know she was suitable? the Marquis asked rhetorically. She's a very capable administrator. True, she doesn't know much about Bad Slash specifically-

Oh, frabjous day.

- but then, she doesn't really need to. How often do you need to know about killing Mary-Sues?

You... have a point, the SO said grudgingly. Still, we may want to get one of the Division Heads in Bad Slash to watch her for a while. He shook his petals slightly. All right. Who's next?

I've been going through your Division Heads, the Marquis began, and there's a Daffodil I think might be a suitable successor to you. He-

Wait, wait, the Sunflower interrupted. I don't need a successor!

But you're Head of the PPC again, the Marquis pointed out carefully. Who's going to run the Department of Mary-Sues now?

I will, the SO said firmly. It's time for our leaders to be involved with the Organisation. We've had enough bureaucrats.

... if you say so, sir. The Marquis' petals shifted slightly. All right. We've got a potential replacement for the head of the Star Trek Division, but he's a bit... strange. How do you feel about a hippie Sequoia?

~

The cell block was dark as Nyx Nightingale pushed the door open slowly. A quick look established that there was no guard. That was good – she didn't want to risk meeting any DISers at the moment. With the number of times she'd disobeyed her orders in the last day, they'd probably lock her away. At least, she thought, they haven't rescinded my access yet.

She wasn't quite sure why she wanted to see Blue, the former DMS Agent. All she knew was that he and his partner had started the chain of events that had led to the MS' expulsion, and now that it was finally over, she owed him a visit. So here she was, in DIS Central for hopefully the last time.

The prisoners were quiet, all either sleeping or cowering in corners, as Nyx walked quietly to Blue's cell. Kneeling down in front of the bars, she could see him huddled at the back, hair dulled by the dirt of nearly a year in prison. "Agent," she hissed.

"No Agents here." Blue didn't seem to move, his hollow voice almost sounding like it came from the wall above him. "Only the dead."

Nyx blinked. "Blue?"

"No one by that name, either," the voice said. "But one who used to answer to it. Speak."

Nyx swallowed. "I... wanted to tell you. It's over."

At that, Blue raised his head slightly. "It's not."

"It is," Nyx insisted. "The Mysterious Somebody – the one who got you in here – is gone. We got rid of him."

"The Mysterious...?" Blue shook his head. "Never heard of him."

"He's the one who framed you," Nyx supplied. "Got you imprisoned. Now that he's gone, the DIS will-"

"The DIS?" Blue crawled forward towards the bars. "Little girl, you don't know what you're talking about."

Unconsciously, Nyx's hand went to the silver sash she was still wearing. "I know. They're not... the nicest people, but now we know who did this-"

"You know nothing," Blue snapped. "You think the Mysterious Somebody put me in here? You think he's the one who interrogated me, told me he knew I was innocent but still locked me up? You think I'd still be here if it was the Mysterious Somebody's fault? Little girl, little Guard, you know nothing."

Nyx stared. "You mean... what do you mean?"

Blue sneered. "What do I mean? The Mysterious Somebody was never the problem, little girl. The DIS is the black heart of the PPC. They're the torturers, the ones who imprison without due cause, they're the ones who killed... Immy..." He curled up again, shaking slightly. Nyx bit her lip, remembering Palaver.

"How could I be so blind?" she asked herself. "How could I not see it?"

"Don't you mock me!" Blue snarled, straightening up so she could see the tears running down his face. "You're all the same, you Guards! Pretend sympathy until you can take me out and beat me again! No shame, no sympathy, just death, death, death taking centuries! I almost wish you'd just kill me now, like Palaver!"

Nyx paled. "Palaver... is dead?" she asked in a whisper.

Blue didn't seem to hear. "And now you tell me the Mysterious Somebody's gone? Will he be in here soon, too? It's just another step in your plot to take over!" With startling speed, he threw himself at the bars. Nyx jerked backwards, away from his filthy, grinning face. "You can't imprison everyone, little Guard! There aren't enough cells in here!"

~

Constance Sims rubbed her eyes. It wasn't often she spent so much time working Medical – usually it was only when things got really bad that she was pulled out of the DMS. But this new patient, Dassie, had become her special problem. At the moment, that seemed to mean she wasn't allowed to sleep. With a sigh, she leant back in her chair and tried to read.

The sound of footsteps jolted her back to full awareness, and she looked up to see Emily Newton heading towards her. "Hi, Constance," the other nurse said. "How is he?"

"Still the same," Constance said, glancing at her patient. "I don't think that Nightingale girl realised he was in a coma when she was here. It sounded like she thought this was a sedative."

Emily grimaced. "So it's not working."

"Not yet," Constance replied. "Not that I'm surprised. The amount of brain damage that boy sustained, it's a miracle he even survived to be put on the drip."

"He'd be dead anywhere other than the PPC," Emily agreed. "What was it Fitzgerald said? Medicines from seventeen worlds?"

"Something like that," Constance said vaguely. "I'm still not sure we should be wasting them on him."

"He doesn't look that bad," Emily said critically. "I mean, the hair, but..."

"He's DIS," Constance insisted. "Wouldn't we be better off if they were all dead?"

"You won't have to put up with them any longer," a strange voice assured her, and a blurred shape flew out of the next cubicle. Constance, already moving when it finished speaking, managed to duck underneath the blur, and as it landed, revealing itself to be some sort of cat person in a black PPC uniform – no flashpatch – she lunged for its legs.

The cat leapt out of her reach, landing behind the terrified Emily and wrapping a hand around her throat. "Move, and she dies," he hissed, extending his claws. Emily gave a frightened whimper as one dug into her skin, deep enough to draw blood.

Constance stood up slowly, hands held away from her body. "All right," she said, "what do you want?"

"Your patient, of course," the cat said. "He's becoming a nuisance."

"Are you with the DIS?" Constance asked, looking as surreptitiously as she could for something to help her out of this situation.

The cat grinned. "You'd like to know that, wouldn't you?" he asked. "But I'm not going to tell."

"Okay, that's fine," Constance agreed. "But you don't need to threaten Emily. You could just let her go."

"So she can call for help?" the cat asked rhetorically. "Anyway, I'm beginning to like her." His tongue, definitely not human, flicked out and licked the girl's ear. Emily whimpered again, and Constance really couldn't blame her.

"All right," the woman said, "you could let her come over here. We can't run away with you watching, and holding her isn't helping you get the job done."

"Well, yes, I could," the cat said thoughtfully. His free hand, previously just holding Emily's arm in place, began to stroke the bare skin of that arm. "Or I could just kill her." His hand traced its way up to her shoulder, and then up to caress her cheek.

"But that would serve no purpose," Constance said carefully. "Surely you'd prefer just to get the job done quickly?"

As the cat considered this, he ran his hand down Emily's neck and slipped it into her top. Constance shuddered slightly as she watched the cloth move over Emily's chest. The cat, seeing her reaction – and ignoring his captive's third whimper – grinned. Then, with no further warning, his claws shot out, slashing through the girl's throat. Constance stared in horror as her colleague's body dropped to the floor. "Your turn," the cat said, gathering himself to leap.

He never made it. Constance, whose hand had been moving slowly into position, grabbed a pair of surgical scissors that had been lying on the table behind her and threw them with unnerving accuracy at the cat's head. Of course, his reactions were fast enough that he could bat them away, only sustaining a slight scratch to the back of his hand, but that gave Constance the time she needed to dart around him and beat him senseless with a piece of equipment that even she had never found a use for.

Breathless, the nurse stood over the two prone forms, one murderer, one victim. "I ought to kill you slowly for what you did to Emily," she said to the cat. "Instead, I'm going to take you to the SO. He'll know what to do with you. And you know what? I hope it's a thousand times worse than anything I could come up with."

~

C'baoth sat in his new office, glowering at the Plant on the other side of his desk. "So you permitted them to sabotage the Factory?"

I couldn't stop them! the Tree Fern exclaimed. They imprisoned me!

"So you keep saying," C'baoth said evenly. "I still find it hard to believe you could be so easily trapped."

I wasn't expecting it! Why would they turn on me? They were loyal-

"Don't lie to me!" the Sith Lord bellowed. "I can see your thoughts, see your weakness! You would never have saved the Factory, you would never have informed me of their betrayal. You are a traitor, Tree Fern."

No, Lord! the Plant babbled frantically. I'm a coward, just a coward! I would never betray you, Lord! I was only-

When the jagged blue lightning hit him, the Tree Fern stopped speaking and started screaming. The second burst of Force Lightning cut off even that when his trunk caught fire, burning fiercely in the dry air of the Factory. C'baoth kept pouring lightning into him, only stopping when the former head of PPC Bioengineering, Inc. was a small pile of ash and charcoal. Then, with a slight smile, he pressed a button.

The office door slid open to allow the Gladiolus to enter. She stared momentarily at the remains of the Tree Fern, and then looked at C'baoth. You summoned me, sir?

"You and the Bindweed," the Dark Jedi corrected. "Why is she not here?"

She'll arrive shortly, the Gladiolus assured him. She sends her apologies, but the Marigold and his team needed her aid. She knew both the Orchid and the Nightshade, you see, and so might be able to help them in their work on the security codes. She could give them an idea of-

"All right, all right." C'baoth shook his head. "I would not be so forgiving, but it is essential that we get the Factory operational again as soon as we can."

We take every opportunity to remind the teams of that fact, sir, the Gladiolus said loyally.

"Quite. How is the cleaning going?"

The Gladiolus lowered her largest flower slightly. We are on schedule. Over half of the pods have been emptied and washed out. As soon as we get the system unlocked, we will be ready to begin production.

"Not quite," C'baoth corrected her. "There is still the matter of who is to operate the machinery. There are only a dozen or so of us, far from sufficient."

The Gladiolus hesitated. I... can we not use the Defectives? They were left behind when the traitors left, and they do have experience.

"No," C'baoth said, "we can't. You can have them disposed of once we are done here."

Yes, sir, the Gladiolus replied immediately. Might I ask who you have in mind to replace them?

"I have a- ah, Bindweed. Welcome."

I apologise for my lateness, sir, the Bindweed said, entering the office. The Marigold asked-

"Yes, so the Gladiolus informed me," C'baoth said irritably. "Have they made any progress?"

They expect to have the system fully operational within the next half hour, sir, the Bindweed confirmed. The Marigold has informed me that, should you wish to visit the control centre and give the specifications for the first batch of 'Sues, they would be honoured to accommodate you.

"The first product of this Factory will not be Mary-Sues," C'baoth informed the two Flowers. "Tell me, do you have the knowledge to create a pattern from a DNA sample?"

I do not, the Bindweed admitted, but the Marigold has been studying the system. I am certain he will be able to do as you desire.

"I will hold you accountable if he cannot," C'baoth said. The Bindweed just nodded, which convinced him that she at least thought she was sincere. Reaching up, he lifted one of his two pendants over his head and held it out, a small red phial on a silver chain. "This is the sample you need."

Is that... blood, sir? the Gladiolus asked.

"It is indeed – or rather, it was. I've had to make some changes. The source of it was far too independent. But this... it should make very useful workers."

I shall see to it that the Marigold understands, sir, the Bindweed assured him. Would you allow us to test it on a single pod first, to ensure that we have the system correct?

"If you feel the need," C'baoth said indulgently. "But try not to delay longer than you have to."

At that moment, the main light in the room flickered on. All around them, in the walls and on the factory floor, small noises marked the starting up of systems that had lain dormant for days. C'baoth stood up, robes flowing around him. "Ladies," he intoned, "the Factory for Mary-Sue Generation is once again in operation. We have entered a new era, and through our efforts, even the vaunted PPC shall know fear beyond their imaginings!"

It's only- the Gladiolus began, but the Bindweed hushed her. C'baoth grinned widely. He had been brought low, but he was back on his feet. It would take time, but he had time, and the end result would be worth it: the annihilation of the PPC and all it stood for!


Chapter Fourteen - Opposition

"Unhand me, you filthy apes!"

Constance's captive had woken up halfway to the SO's office, and had made such a fuss that she's had to knock on the nearest door to get help. Now she and Agent Jared Calinson, with a nervous Dafydd Illian tagging along behind, were carrying the cat between them. Jared looked over at Constance. "Nurse Sims, can't we just kill him instead?"

"It would be easier," Constance admitted, "but we can't. He's killed an Agent – a Nurse, but still an Agent – and that means he answers to the SO."

"Couldn't he just answer to us, instead?" Jared grumbled. "I mean, we know the SO won't let him go free..."

"He'd better!" the cat exclaimed, struggling to get free. "I have friends!"

"I really doubt it," Constance replied disinterestedly. "Look, Jared, it's not like we-" She walked into a door and looked up. "Oh. We're here."

"Distraction does wonders," Jared commented dryly, and raised a hand to knock. The door slid open before he could, and the four entered the Sunflower Official's office.

The SO was behind his desk, facing the Marquis de Sod, but both Flowers lifted their heads to look at the Agents. The Sunflower said, sternly, Nurse Sims, you are meant to be guarding Agent Hyrax, are you not?

"What, from murderers like this one?" Constance asked sweetly, shoving the cat onto the deck face-first. "He killed Nurse Emily Newton in his efforts to get at your precious Dassie."

The Marquis' petals fluttered. A Nurse has been killed? Fitzgerald will be after me for a replacement...

"You can't just replace people like Emily!" Constance snapped. The SO raised a leaf.

My colleague spoke in haste. He has his own priorities and was just about to leave.

I'll sort everything out while you deal with this little problem, the Daisy said, flicking a petal in Constance's direction before moving quickly to the door. Be sure that I know what I'm doing. The door closed behind him before Constance could snap a retort, and then the SO was speaking again.

So this... person tried to kill Dassie, did he? Is he from the... did he say who he was working for?

"Not a word," Constance said grouchily, "but I think he's DIS. It'd be just like them."

The Department of Internal Security are essential for the safety of PPC HQ, and you should not disparage them so, the SO said, but the uncertainty in his voice was clear. More to the point, jumping to conclusions doesn't help anyone. You. He poked the cat, who snarled up at him, straining against the arms that held him in place. Do you have a name?

"Not one I'm telling you, Flower," the cat hissed. "It'd be more than my job's worth, with you and that Daisy so close and all."

Ah, yes, your job. The SO steepled his leaves. And this job of yours involves killing innocent people?

"You sure you're not confusing me with your Assassins here?" the cat asked snidely. "I am right, aren't I, Connie dear? You are really an Assassin, aren't you?"

Constance gritted her teeth. "An Assassin who could break your arm if she chose," she confirmed, "and who does not take kindly to being called 'Connie' by the likes of you."

The cat leered at her. "Now, Connie dear, you wouldn't-" There was a snap as Constance smashed his forearm over the edge of the desk, and he screamed. The SO looked balefully at Constance.

Agent Sims, was that really necessary? He'll be much harder to get answers out of now.

"But we don't need to," Jared said suddenly, his voice harsh. "No way he can be anything other than DIS. Not acting like this."

We should not let the actions of a few rogues colour our- the SO started, but Jared cut him off with an incredulous snort.

"A few rogues? Sir, we've all seen what they do in the cafeteria. These're the Bracket Fungus' best – or worst – Guards! I mean, even my old partner, Nyx, she turned into one of them in, what, a day?"

Nyx Nightingale was a special case, the SO snapped, as you should know, Agent Calinson. You were there when-

"I know what I saw," Jared said stonily, "and that wasn't much. What you told me is one explanation, nothing more. But my point stands: Constance told me what this thing did to that Nurse – which you haven't heard yet – and that sort of sadistic torture is pure DIS. No one else in the PPC is like that. No one."

And you are willing to risk the entire Organisation on the strength of your conviction? the Sunflower asked. Because that is what you are doing. If we tell the PPC that the DIS is killing people, we will-

"Be rid of them," Constance cut in, "and good riddance. There can't be that many of them – we could flush out that den of snakes easily."

And risk open war? For that is what it would be. The SO shook his head. I will not take that chance, Agents. Not until we know, and know for sure. The danger, the losses, would be too great.

"Coward," Jared said. "You're just afraid."

And with good reason! the Sunflower agreed. If we attack them, the entire PPC could be destroyed!

"Just like it will if you let them go on as they are," Jared said calmly. Turning, he shot a look at his partner. "Dafydd, meet me back at the RC. I've got things I need to do."

Agent Calinson! the SO cried. Jared, halfway through the door, stopped but did not turn. Please... do not do anything rash.

"These days, doing nothing is rash," the Assassin replied, and walked out.

~

Nyx Nightingale walked the halls of HQ in a daze, hardly looking where she was going. As a result of this, she walked past more locations in more parts of the structure than anyone would have ever thought possible, although of course, she didn't notice. She was completely lost in her thoughts.

She'd known that the DIS were cruel, sadistic, all that. But somehow she'd never quite made the connection, never quite realised that they were the cause of the trouble, not a symptom.

That wasn't quite true, of course. In her wanderings she'd happened to pass the Canon Library, and had wandered inside long enough to ask the Librarian a few questions...

"Oh. It's you again. Have you got my books?"

Nyx winced. She'd forgotten about the books. "The SO still needs them," she said.

"I'm sure he does," the Librarian said dryly. "I don't suppose that's all you had to say."

"I'm... not really sure," Nyx replied. "I'm... confused."

"Well, don't come to me," the dry voice said from the darkness. "I'm no counsellor."

"I'm trying to figure out what's going on," Nyx persisted. "With the Mysterious Somebody and the DIS and everything."

There was a sigh. "I don't suppose I could get you to go away by pretending not to know anything?" the Librarian asked.

Nyx shrugged. "
Do you know anything? I mean, with the Mysterious Somebody's departure, I expected everything to be cleared up, but the DIS..."

"He's gone, is he?" the voice asked disinterestedly. "And it's only been seven years."

"You remember when he joined?" Nyx found herself excited. "Why did they put him in charge?"

"Things were too much of a mess for them not to," the Librarian explained unwillingly. "I gather there were Flowers and Agents dying all over the place. Didn't bother me, but there you go. Then they put him in charge, he set up that Security department, and everything was fixed. Sounds like a set-up if you ask me, but of course, no one does."

"It probably was," Nyx said, scowling. "So the Mysterious Somebody
created the DIS?"

"I suppose so," the Librarian replied. "Will you go away now?"


... but it hadn't really told her anything. Yes, the DIS as a department was only formed after the MS's ascension to power, but who was to say the individual members – or the Bracket Fungus himself – hadn't orchestrated that rise? She'd assumed the MS was the puppet-master – which he was, in Dassie's case – but could it be that the DIS had had control even over him?

Nyx only realised that she had walked into someone when an angry voice snapped, "Hey! Look where you're going! I could have you arrested for-" As it cut off, Nyx realised who was speaking, and looked up into Twp'atwt's black eyes. She watched as they narrowed, heard the sound of his claws sliding out – everything seemed so slow – and then she was running, trying to get as far away from the Pine Marten as she could.

It was unfortunate, in her headlong flight away from the enemy she had seen – the one who was chasing after her – that Nyx still did not look where she was going. She would have been glad to see almost any other Agents, but when she hurtled around a corner and bounced off Ontic Laison, heard Nendil Morifλa's voice saying, "Well, well, this saves us some time," her terror reached new heights. She tried to turn, to run again, but Ontic caught her in something halfway between a grapple and an embrace, and then she heard Twp catch up with her, felt his claws dig into her back...

When Nendil managed to persuade Ontic to let go, Twp to wait a moment, he shoved the woman face-first against the wall and examined the damage that had already been done. Nyx's top was torn to ribbons at the back, and blood showed through where the Pine Marten's claws had ripped the skin. Angrily, the elf turned on his associate. "What in Melkor's name was that?"

"We're supposed to kill her," Twp said, as if to a small child. "I was doing my job."

"And Guards attacking each other in the corridors, this is a good idea?" Nendil shook his head sharply. "Too much mess, Twp'atwt. It should be done neatly."

"Or just quickly," Twp retorted. "What, you planning on keeping her around as a plaything?"

Nendil snorted. "Despite what you may have heard, the Eldar are not related to cats. But we can't leave a Guard's body – even a treasonous one – lying around HQ. It sets a dangerous precedent. We'll need to take her back to Central."

"I can do that!" Ontic piped up, grinning at Nendil. The elf shook his head.

"None of us can. We don't have the time. Remember, we have to be ready at the real traitor's office whenever the BF calls."

"Then we kill her and shove her in an empty room," Twp suggested. "We can pick her up later for disposal."

"And if we lose her?" Nendil retorted. "While she's alive, we can track her." His brow furrowed in thought. "All right. We'll go with the locking her in a room idea, but we leave her alive."

"She might still get out," Twp protested. "Then what'd we do?"

"Take her clothes," Ontic said. The other two stared at her, and she smiled widely. "She won't run around HQ naked, will she? She'd look silly."

"... psychological imprisonment," Nendil said slowly. "I like it. Twp, you pick a room. Ontic, you start on the clothes. And hurry, will you? We've got work to do."

~

You have no idea who he is?

Certainly not! the Bracket Fungus protested. Do you honestly believe I would allow someone who would do such things to work for me?

There have been rumours, the SO began, but the Fungus cut him off.

There have been rumours that you orchestrated the Mysterious Somebody's removal so as to attain power yourself. I would not put too much confidence in rumours.

Perhaps that is so, the Sunflower admitted, but the fact remains that this cat attacked someone who was a rock in the Mysterious Somebody's roots.

The Mysterious Somebody is gone, the BF replied evenly, and we are still here. The traitors left with him.

Possibly, the SO agreed, but it is hard for me to forget that the DIS is the one department specifically made by the MS.

And you and I were born from the death of a star, the Fungus said flatly. We are none of us responsible for the manner of our creation. Besides which, this cat attacked Dassie Hyrax, correct?

Attempted to, the Sunflower corrected, pulling up Constance Sims' report on the attack alongside the image of the Bracket Fungus on his screen. In fact he killed a Nurse who happened to be passing, and attempted to-

Irrelevant. The point is that Dassie is one of my Agents. Do you think me so callous as to turn on my own?

There are many who will, the SO said in lieu of an answer. For a moment he considered mentioning Jared Calinson, but dismissed the idea. Agent Calinson was too sensible to get into any trouble, surely. If word of this spreads...

That the Guards are killing each other? The Bracket Fungus' image shook slightly. They'll be cheering us on.

Nurse Newton is still dead, the SO replied bluntly. With tensions as high as they are, any further incidents could prove catastrophic.

I have no control over rogues, the Fungus said sharply. Once you ascertain his identity, talk to his Department Head.

The Clover is unable to find any mention of him in the Finance archives, the SO informed him, and the Marquis de Sod cannot locate his records. He may as well not exist.

Well, perhaps he isn't even with the PPC at all, the BF suggested.

He is, the SO replied. There's no way he could not be.

Well, whichever. The Head of the DIS lapsed into a thoughtful silence, and then said, You are correct in saying that further incidents of this type would be dangerous. I shall step up patrols at once, crack down on any dissidents. In fact, I believe a curfew may be in order... just until everything settles down again.

No curfew. The Agents will never tolerate it.

The BF regarded him. If I didn't know better, I'd say that was a threat.

Just a warning from someone who knows the Assassins better than you do, the SO assured him. Increase your patrols, but please warn them to be careful. This is a troublesome time for the PPC, and to see this Organisation go up in flames is my worst fear.

As it is mine, the Fungus agreed. I will see to it that all goes according to plan. You need not fear on that count. He cut the connection.

~

The training manual for the Department of Internal Security states that, when the security level in HQ is elevated above 3.582, gatherings of more than nine and three-quarters people are prohibited outside DIS Central. Any Guards encountering such gatherings are empowered to disperse them, and to arrest any who fail to comply. In the entire history of the department, the security level has only risen above 3.582 on one occasion, involving a thousand three-foot long copies of the Starship Enterprise roaming the corridors shooting at each other and anyone they encountered.

The Bracket Fungus has just announced a security level of 3.8.

The cafeteria is crowded almost every hour of the day, and this was no exception. Jared Calinson sat on a table in the corner, watching the mass of Agents gloomily. His attempts to stir them up against the DIS had failed, resulting in nothing more than a free drink from a sympathetic Untangler. There was no way he could act by himself, no way at all, so he was stuck. He-

He became aware of a commotion near the main door, and as it spread, stood up on his chair to get a better view. The Agents near the door were backing away, leaving a quintet of figures in the middle of an empty space. Even from the distance he was at, Jared could see their silver sashes. Suddenly he was practically throbbing with nervous energy, listening intently as the speakers around the room crackled to life.

"THIS IS THE DEPARTment of Internal Security," announced a voice that practically oozed grease and slime. "You are participating in an illegal gathering. If you do not leave the room within thirty seconds, you will be arrested."

The crowd was as silent as a grave, an analogy most of them could personally attest to. Then Jared stepped up onto the table and called out, "Do you believe me now? Evil!"

One of the distant figures turned towards him, and he saw it – him – lift a radio again. "And that is treason," the voice announced over the speakers. "Watch what happens to those who try to cause trouble, Agents, because-"

The next noise to come from the speaker was a gurgle as the Guard dropped to his knees. Jared couldn't see what happened, but the crowd flowed away from another table, on which a reddish-haired woman was standing with a bow, another arrow knocked. "That's what happens to those who cause trouble!" she called out. "I know there are Assassins here who're still armed! Get them."

From maybe a dozen points in the crowd there were shouted replies. As the majority of the Agents finally decided that this was a place they didn't want to be, those dozen Assassins, weapons out and ready, battled the current to get to the main door. The four remaining Guards, seeing their leader down, the danger they were in, abandoned him and fled the room. The twelve, half of whom had nearly reached them, followed exultantly. The woman, however, stayed on her table, and as soon as the room was clear enough, Jared ran over to her. She was smiling grimly as she stepped down and walked briskly over to the body to retrieve her arrow, and she had just put it back in her quiver when Jared reached her.

"That was... impressive," he said, trying to find the right word. "I was beginning to think no one cared what they did."

"Oh, people care," the woman – an Assassin, Jared saw from her cactus flashpatch – said. "They just need something to set them off, and you were it."

"I'm not the one who shot this guy," Jared pointed out. "I don't think I could have."

"Not at the distance you were," the Assassin said, wilfully misunderstanding him. "But it doesn't matter. Our colleagues will catch those four, and then we can move onto the rest of them. But first..." Depositing her bow on the floor, the woman fished in her bag and pulled out...

"A camera?" Jared asked incredulously. The Assassin grinned.

"First Guard I've ever shot," she said, taking a photo. "I don't usually record kills, but this one's historic. And a pretty good shot, too, if I do say so myself."

"Uh... right." Jared shook his head slowly. "I should probably go back to my RC and get a weapon to... oh. No, I can't." He grimaced. "My partner would start asking questions."

"Hmm? Weapon?" The woman looked up, and then reached into her bag again to pull out a small gun. "Not as much fun as a bow, but it should see you through."

Jared blinked, accepting the proffered device. "Uh... thank you. Sorry, I didn't catch your name..."

"I'm Jay Thorntree," the Assassin said, straightening up and lifting her bow again. "Now come on, whoever you are – we've got work to do."

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