The Sunflower Official was doing his best to decide what to do with the murderous cat-person. Sending him over to the Department of Personnel was only a temporary solution, even with half a dozen Assassins assigned to watch over him and the Marquis de Sod keeping things under control. Sooner or later, he would have to make a decision – turn him over to the DIS, interrogate him properly, or just kill him. It wasn't a choice he wanted to make, so the soft chiming of the computer was something of a relief. He hit the red button with a leaf.
What in all the worlds do you think you are playing at? I demand you call them off at once!
The SO swayed slightly at the Bracket Fungus' words. As calmly as he could, he asked, Who are you referring to, exactly?
Don't think you can try that on me, the Head of the DIS warned. After the threats you were making-
Threats? I don't recall threatening anyone.
'The Agents will never tolerate it', you said, and now you send your pet psychopaths out to murder my Guards! I warn you, if you endanger this Organisation we will put a stop to it.
It was Jared, the SO realised. It had to be. Against all logic he had gone out and started killing off DIS Agents. It wasn't that the Sunflower particularly minded the death of a few Guards... but the consequences could be overwhelming. He was stuck with another choice – to deny knowledge and have the DIS go after a few of his Agents, or to claim responsibility and try to negotiate a peace, with the entire PPC at risk.
Some might think the question was difficult, that the future hung in a delicate balance. They'd be wrong.
No games, Bracket Fungus. I was merely clarifying your position. Yes, I will call them off – but on a condition.
Conditions? The BF sounded astonished. You ask for conditions?
I do, the SO confirmed gravely. Your attitude towards the Agents of the PPC has become intolerably harsh. If you do not adopt a more lenient stance towards minor offences, I will not be answerable for the actions of my employees.
Without our stance, the PPC would have crumbled to dust long ago, the Fungus said sternly. If we do as you ask-
I do not 'ask', the SO interrupted smoothly, I demand. The Agents are the living sap of the PPC, and they do not approve of your actions. As your superior in the Organisation, I order you to heed them.
Were the Bracket Fungus human, he would have drummed his fingers on the desk. As it were, he merely paused for a moment before replying. Sir, your orders will be obeyed. I will conduct an investigation into the feasibility of what you require, and you will hear from me again within the hour. Internal Security out.
As soon as she heard the lock on the RC door click, Nyx Nightingale moved. She had been thrown face-first onto the cold Generic Surface of the floor and, naked as she was, it wasn't the most pleasant experience. Standing up introduced her to a whole new set of aches and pains, but the worst was in her heart when she saw the state of the console.
She had heard when Nendil stuck his sword through the screen, but had hoped that the rest of the computer would be intact. She could program it blind if she had to, though it wasn't her favourite pastime. But the DIS Agent had been thorough. Nothing she could do was going to make the console work now.
Almost she gave up, sat down and just waited for the Guards to return and drag her back to Central. Almost. But then she saw the cobwebs, the dust, and realised just how old this Response Centre was. If she was lucky...
An examination of the wall to the left of the ruined computer showed that she was. In the almost-pitch-dark room, with only a little light filtering around the edges of the door, there was no way anyone would have seen it, but Nyx's fingers felt the difference between Generic Surface and metal. In the darkness, she smiled.
It had been more than two decades, if her memory was correct, since the old-style portals had been in common use. It was clear that none of the DISers had known about them. Nyx only knew because a former partner of hers had been a particular fan of them, particularly of the way the coordinates were programmed in...
It took five minutes, working with fingernails, scraps of console, and teeth, for Nyx to pry off the six-by-twelve inch cover plate on the frame of the portal. Below, she found eight cog wheels, one group of three and one of five. As her partner had told it, the three were for setting the location, while the five were for story ID numbers. Unfortunately, all were unmarked – they were designed to be adjusted from the console, after all – and so she had no idea what they were set to. Next to the wheels was a switch, sitting open. "Never find out if I don't try," she muttered, and closed the switch.
For a long, terrible moment nothing happened. Then there was a creak, and the two metal shutters slid ponderously into the wall on either side. What they uncovered was a blinding blue doorway, bright enough to blind the Agent momentarily. When she recovered her sight, she looked around the ancient RC once, took a deep breath, and stepped through the portal.
One would expect a glowing door on the bridge of a spaceship to be extremely noticeable. This effect would only be amplified by the appearance of a well-built young woman through it, and if she were to be completely naked, the effect would likely be unimaginable. Those not acquainted with the ways of the Protectors of the Plot Continuum would therefore be surprised by the complete lack of attention that greeted Nyx's arrival on the Starship NCC-1701 Enterprise. Nyx was not.
The bridge didn't offer any clues as to the story she was in, but Nyx breathed a sigh of relief anyway. The bridge of the Enterprise was about the best place she could have hoped for – almost all Star Trek 'fics involved waiting around on it. If she could only find a story with some Agents currently in it...
Ducking back through the portal into the RC, Nyx flicked the switch open again and studied the five ID wheels. There was still no way of distinguishing between them, and besides, she had no idea what the current ID range was. So, she improvised. Flicking each wheel in turn, she randomised the settings completely, then reopened the portal. After enough tries, she reasoned, she was bound to run into someone.
It took twenty-one tries to find a story that allowed her to escape. On her eighteenth attempt, she did find a pair of Agents, but as they were Sean and Luxury from the Department of Bad Slash, she decided that interrupting their sex on the captain's chair, especially when she was naked herself (an invitation, to Lux, if there ever was one) would not be the best of plans. So it was with great relief, on the twenty-first setting, that she stepped out to be greeted by a Klingon woman with a phaser demanding to know what she was doing.
Before Nyx could reply, the woman next to the Klingon – shorter, human – looked up at her presumably-partner and said, "If I had to guess, I'd say clothes."
"But who is she?" the Klingon insisted. "You can't assume everyone's on your side, Morgan."
"This one is," Nyx assured her breathlessly. "I'm trying to get back to HQ."
"You'll stand out a bit dressed like that," Morgan said dryly. "What were you doing? And, more importantly, what are you doing in our mission?"
Nyx's explanation was brief, but to the point. The Klingon raised an eyebrow once or twice, but when the story was over, the two Agents conferred, and then looked at her.
"We can give you a ride," Morgan said, "but only back to our RC. After that, you're on your own – we're busy."
Nyx looked down at herself. "Uh, I could do with some-"
"We'll find you something," the Agent assured her. "Now come on, sooner begun is soonest done. Or however that goes."
The three Guards lurked very well. If there were awards for lurking, they would probably have won them all, provided Ontic didn't get distracted and wander off. However, Nendil, at least, also had some discretion, and that was why they were not lurking when the message came, but waiting in a nearby RC whose occupants had been arrested two weeks previously.
The call wasn't showy. Nendil's radio let out a quiet triple beep, and that was it. Had it been a double beep instead, they would have relaxed, and gone back to DIS Central at their own pace. As things were, they stood up immediately and left the room in silence.
The door to the Sunflower Official's office was invisible, the handle missing as it sometimes was, but that didn't stop it exploding into small pieces when Ontic – giggling gleefully – fired a rocket at it. Before the debris had settled, the trio were inside and fanning out, all moving towards the desk behind which the SO stood, head turned away from the explosion. It was only when Twp'atwt's knife sparked and flew away from his hand just as he was about to strike the Flower that they realised the SO was not the only person in the room.
Nyx Nightingale stood calmly by the wall, out of sight at the wall, pistol in hand, bright pink bathrobe tied tightly around her waist. Nendil, nearest to her, turned in mid charge and flicked his dagger in her direction, but his aim was off and it merely clattered off the wall beside her. Then he felt a jolt of pain in his left arm and found himself unexpectedly falling.
Twp had retrieved his knife, but when he tried to renew his attack he found his delicate ears assaulted by the atrociously loud static coming from the SO's computer. The knife hit the floor again as he crumpled into a heap, paws clasped to the side of his head. Then Ontic reached the desk, unhindered by the noise, out of Nyx's line of fire. Nyx scrambled to get into position, but Nendil rose up to block her, clutching his bleeding left arm, and-
Ontic stopped dead, her eyes very wide. The Sunflower Official, petals vibrating, was staring directly at her. His primary leaves reached out to touch the sides of her head, and then... both collapsed. The entire confrontation, from the destruction of the door on, had taken less than thirty seconds.
Nyx narrowed her eyes and pointed the gun at Nendil's head. "Out," she snarled, "and take them with you."
The elf scowled, reaching experimentally for his sword and noting the speed of her reaction. "We should never have taken you in," he said, lowering his hand and spinning around. Once he had picked up Ontic, and with Twp crawling behind him, the Guard left without a backward glance.
The SO stood at his desk, Nyx at his side. He looked at her. Has it really come to this?
Nyx looked around at the destruction the three DIS Agents had wrought. "It has," she confirmed sadly. "There's nothing else you can do."
The Sunflower lowered his head. Then so be it. Reaching out with a leaf, he tapped a button on his console. The screen flickered to life, a bewildering kaleidoscope of colours that the SO navigated with apparent ease until finally he pressed the button again, and it stopped. The colours faded, and an image – mercifully adjusted for human eyes – appeared of the Sunflower himself, a live feed from a camera that left Nyx conveniently out of shot.
Across the whole of HQ, Agents looked up at their consoles, startled, as the Head of the PPC began to speak.
Agents of the Department of Mary-Sues. Assassins of the PPC. My comrades. A time has come that I have long dreaded. I have been attacked by members of that Department that purports to keep us safe, the Department of Internal Security. I have no doubt that their intention was to kill me. They failed, and they will not get a second chance.
Agents Jay Thorntree and Jared Calinson, partners in action if not in fact, looked at each other in the RC they had ducked into to escape pursuit. "It can't be," Jared whispered.
Jay grinned. "It is."
As founder and leader of this illustrious Organisation, I hold the authority to create and abolish Departments at will. This power I now invoke – the so-called Department of Internal Security, lead by the Bracket Fungus, is henceforth shut down. All former members of it must report immediately to the Department of Personnel for reassignment.
Agent Flickerbright fluttered over the consoles in DIS Central. "This doesn't look good, sir," she said. "Want me to block him?"
No, let him talk, the Bracket Fungus said. He'll only dig himself in deeper, and you know we're prepared for anything he might throw at us.
Flickerbright looked over her shoulder at the hulking shapes that now filled the main area of Central. "Only if they do what they're supposed to," she said uneasily.
Trust me, they will, her superior assured her.
If any of these people will not submit to my authority, they will be in open and avowed defiance of their orders, and will be considered to have made war upon the people of this Organisation. The Guards must therefore be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from HQ. Their outrages are beyond all description, and if you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so, to any extent you may consider necessary.
Agents India and Penny stared at the screen. The SO wasn't the Head of DAVD, but they still knew who he was. Everyone did. "Does he... does he realise what he's saying?" Penny asked.
India nodded, still stunned. "He's going to bring all of HQ crashing down... and he doesn't care."
Penny shook her head slowly. "India? Let's not go up to the cafeteria any time soon. Or leave the RC at all."
If any Guards are listening, I urge you to heed my words. You may think yourselves a match for any Assassins, and that may be true, but the DMS outnumbers you ten, a hundred to one. If you do not surrender, you will all die.
Nothing more needs to be said.
... can't believe he's doing this, the Marquis de Sod exclaimed.
I can, the Sub Rosa said calmly. It's the only sensible reaction to what they've done.
To destroy the PPC? That's never sensible!
He does seem to have the... advantage, Hornbeam said ponderously. Per... haps he is so sure of himself that he deems the risk... acceptable.
But how can he think that? the Marquis persisted. No one knows what the DIS have in that complex of theirs, no one. To think mere numbers could ensure victory is... madness.
Then perhaps we should join him, the Wisteria said. I myself do not have sufficient Agents, but...
Nor do I, the Marquis said quickly. Nor does Hornbeam. Sub Rosa...?
Not trained for combat, they'd be a liability.
Well, it was just an idea, the Wisteria said hurriedly. Maybe we'd be better off just securing our own Departments.
I can't, the Marquis said bitterly. He sent all the psychopaths my way, remember?
And you really think they'll come? the Sub Rosa inquired. No, you'll be safe from DIS attacks, I'm sure.
For myself, Hornbeam boomed, I do not think that anyone will be safe. There will be much to fear in the days to come.
Chapter Sixteen - Murder
It wasn't what the Sunflower had said, but that was the word that spread through HQ like fire over an oil slick. War! The Assassins were leaving their Response Centres on mass, while those few who had already been active against the DIS loudly declared that they'd known it was coming. War! Emergency recalls were issued, summoning everyone back from their missions. For the first time in decades, the Plot Continuum was almost entirely unpoliced. War! Anyone not involved hid in their rooms, listening in fear to the sounds of battle. 'Anyone not involved' did not, of course, mean anyone not in the DMS. This was the PPC, after all. DAVD, Bad Slash, even Personnel had some of their Agents joining the fray. But in general, the PPC waited for the storm to pass.
For Jared Calinson and Jay Thorntree, that was starting to look like a very good idea.
"Jay!" Jared called, firing at the advancing horde of Guards with a gun that now seemed far too small. "We need an out!"
"No can do!" the woman shouted back, still sounding somewhat chipper. "They're coming from down here, too!"
Jared ran back around the corner to where his companion was kneeling with her bow, firing arrow after arrow. "Why are they all after us?" he demanded, leaning back to get off a couple more shots before a spinning lightsaber made him duck for cover.
"Probably because we're right outside their base," Jay muttered savagely. "Did you really think this was a good idea?"
"They should all have left!" Jared said defensively, plucking at his belt for one of the grenades they'd stolen and tossing it back around the corner. "Ears," he added, covering his own.
Jay dropped her bow and brought her hands up as the explosion shook the hallway. Gratifyingly, the army advancing from the other direction were disconcerted by the grenade, coming to an uncertain halt. Before going back to her bow, she briefly grabbed her camera and took a picture. "We're not going to do this," she said as she began firing again.
"We don't have a choice," Jared pointed out. "We fight or we die." He glanced around the corner of the wall again, and then collapsed with a heavy thud as something struck him in the face. Jay looked down quickly as it rolled past her.
"A rock? How low-tech can you get?" When there was no reply, she sighed. "Answer: low-tech enough that the Laws of Narrative Comedy ensure that you got knocked out by it. Of course. What am I meant to do now?"
"Die," a harsh voice suggested, and a tall elf in black stepped around the corner Jared had been guarding. Fortunately, his sword was out of position, so Jay was able to roll away before it came down. When she saw what it had done, though, her eyes narrowed in fury.
"You. Broke. My. Camera."
The elf – with a cold chill she recognised him as Agent Nendil of the DIS – sneered. "I'll break a lot more than that," he said, lifting his blade again. Jay was halfway through her second roll when the moment was shattered by the strangest sound she'd ever heard in HQ – the sound of clattering hooves.
The Guards she had been shooting at scattered wildly as a large black horse galloped through them. As it careened past Jay, its rider leapt, passing over the Assassin's head and colliding feet-first with Nendil. Both of them crashed to the floor, and the newcomer was up first. "DIS scum," he snarled. "You'd kill an unarmed woman?"
"We'd kill anyone," a cheerful voice commented, and the newcomer had to duck and roll – unconsciously imitating Jay – to avoid being decapitated by a sword flashing by. Coming to kneeling position, he looked at his attacker, and stared.
Ontic Laison beamed. "Hiya, Mort," she said. "Nice to see you. I'm afraid I have to kill you now."
"Yeah, I don't think so," the Assassin said. Glancing at Jay, he reached up and pulled one of his two swords from where they were strapped to his back. "Mort Wentway," he introduced himself, tossing it to her and pulling out the other to block Ontic's next attack.
"Jay Thorntree," Jay replied, getting to her feet and readying for an attack on Nendil. "And thanks."
"Don't mention iiii-!" Mort's words cut off into a squeal as Ontic's sword clashed against his and somehow passed through his defences to glance off his shoulder. He winced, switching his blade to the other hand, and then went onto the attack, no longer able to give attention to speech.
Jay, however, could always spare a moment to talk, and so even as she lunged for Nendil, slashing and stabbing, she said, "I'm surprised you even know how to use a sword, Guard. I thought you needed brains for this sort of thing."
"I fought against Morgoth, you Secondborn Sickling," Nendil snarled back. "My skill with the blade is unparalleled in all the PPC!"
"Really?" Jay parried his blow, forcing him to take a step back or lose an arm. "Then why am I beating you?"
"You have no chance," the elf replied, twisting his sword through a lightning-fast set of moves that Jay nonetheless managed to block. "That you think you're winning is just a sign of your naivety!"
"And you're in denial," Jay retorted. Then she lashed out with her foot, connecting solidly with Nendil's knee.
Her reward was a sharp intake of breath, and Nendil staggered backwards another step or two. "Have you no honour?" he hissed, raising his sword to block her continuing rain of blows.
"Not really, no," Jay said through gritted teeth. "Not when I'm fighting the parasite that killed my partner."
Nendil frowned, still somehow managing to block her attacks. "I don't know what you mean," he said.
Jay scowled. "And I don't want to talk about it. Now die, will you?"
"No, I don't think so." Dropping his sword, the elf reached up to where the symbol of the black cat marked his silver sash. "Ontic!" he called. "With me!" Then his fingers touched the cat, and he dropped down through a blue square that appeared in the floor, which closed up after him.
Jay lowered her sword, staring at the space where her opponent had been. "What... just happened?" she asked of the grey wall.
"Some sort of personal remote activator," Mort's voice said behind her. "Ontic had one too."
"I'm going to have to talk to the Sunflower about that," Jay murmured. "I could do with one the next time my partner goes crazy."
"They seem a bit dangerous to me," Mort pointed out. "What if your arm's sticking out? It'd get torn off."
"... maybe not, then." Reaching down, the woman picked up Nendil's discarded sword, looked at it, and then pushed it through her belt. "I think I'll keep this one," she said. "Where's Jared?"
"Ow," said a weak voice from the floor. Jay nodded.
"Good. All the Guards gone?"
"I think they left while we were fighting," Mort supplied. "Probably sent away by Ontic and Nendil to keep them from interfering."
"Or they just got bored," Jay suggested. "Either way... want to find some more?"
Mort smiled grimly. "Sounds like a plan," he said, and then looked thoughtful. "While we're at it," he added, "we can try to find my horse."
The two squares of light flashed into existence in DIS Central, depositing the pair of Guards directly in front of the Bracket Fungus. As soon as he saw who they were, his 'face' crinkled in disappointment. Nendil, you know full well that that technology is not to be revealed yet. Of Ontic I might have expected it, but you...
"I was about to be killed," Nendil said bluntly. "Don't worry yourself – there were only two Assassins around, and neither of them are bright enough to figure out the potential this thing has."
I hope, for your sake, that you are correct, the BF said. If you are wrong, and they find a way to block it, we-
"I'm not wrong," Nendil snapped. Then he sighed. "But we're losing already. It's only been, what, half an hour, and already we're taking unsustainable losses."
So are our enemies, the Fungus pointed out. Far more so, if my understanding is correct.
"It isn't," Nendil said bluntly. "There have always been more Assassins than Guards, and they've got pretty much everyone else on their side. We're by ourselves, unless you count that bunch from Finance, and frankly..." He shrugged. "Sir, in all honesty, I think we should cut and run."
No, the BF said flatly. Not yet. You forget, Nendil, about our secret weapon. He gestured towards the darkened main area of DIS Central. They will bring us the victory.
"I'm not so sure," Nendil replied warily. "I've heard about these things, and they're not exactly loyal. Why do you think they won't just turn on us?"
I am sure they would, if they had the chance, the Fungus said. Do not take me for a fool, Nendil. They have all been fitted with a device similar to the one you used. The difference, however, is that they will be transported to the middle of an ocean.
"Clever," Nendil grudgingly admitted, "but it only works if you have a chance to set it off."
If the Sunflower's mob gets into this room, there won't be any of those things left to transport, the Bracket Fungus said calmly. Trust me, Nendil. Everything is prepared.
"Then is it time for them to be unleashed?"
Almost. If you can just check the map to see where our forces have reached...?
Nendil's fingers flickered over the keypad beside him. A map of HQ, greatly simplified to fit on a 2D screen, came up. "Mostly on schedule," he said, studying the red and blue dots that swarmed in the corridors. "Looks like there's one group held up not far from here, though."
Then they shall fall back, the Fungus declared, and when they reach Central, we shall send forth these weapons and destroy our opponents utterly.
Nendil smirked. "Destroy? I'm sure they've a better word than that..."
I prefer destroy, the BF said petulantly. Issue the orders, Nendil.
Twp'atwt awoke in a quiet room. Uncurling he looked around wildly for a moment, trying to get his bearings, and then realised that he was in his own room, on his own bed, clearly placed there after his collapse on the way back from the SO's office. Getting to his feet took a bit of effort – his balance seemed to be off – but before long he was armed and ready to go. Shaking his head to try and clear the fog – it didn't work – the Pine Marten staggered out into the corridor.
Before long he had passed through into the main area of Central, as deserted as the corridor, and then on to Control. Here, at least, there were people – Ontic perched on a console, chatting to Flickerbright, while Nendil hunched over a keyboard alongside the Bracket Fungus. Continue monitoring them, the Bracket Fungus' voice said, clearly addressing Nendil, and then the Head of the DIS turned to Twp. I see you're awake now.
"Sorry, sir," Twp said, and the words echoed oddly in his head. "What's going on?"
Nendil looked up at him in surprise and spoke. Twp, however, heard nothing. His eyes widened, and the elf frowned at him, his lips still moving. The Bracket Fungus' fringe twisted. I thought as much. It seems the Sunflower's attack has damaged your ears, Twp'atwt. You're deaf.
Twp panicked, dropping to all fours in his distress. When he managed to pull himself together, he remained in a crouch. "Is... is it permanent?" he asked, the echo taunting him now.
I have no idea, the Fungus said bluntly. Whether it is or not is irrelevant for the moment. The so-called Head of the PPC has declared war on us.
Twp yelped. "That's... a bit rash, isn't it?"
That, the BF stated, is why you were meant to kill him. At the moment, we're only just holding his Assassins back. The weapon we've just sent out should help with that, but nevertheless...
"I'm sorry, sir," Twp said, and he was. If they'd succeeded, he wouldn't be deaf. His next words, however, weren't at all sincere. "Should we go back and try again?"
You wouldn't get anywhere near him, the BF said dismissively. No, I have something else for you to do. The Sunflower being how he is, it will not be long before he tries to rescue those we've been forced to imprison. Pitiful, but there it is. You, Twp'atwt, are going to deny him that opportunity.
Twp got the point immediately, and grinned, sharp teeth gleaming in the cold light of DIS Control. "Are there any that you want alive, sir?" he asked.
The Fungus laughed softly. None, Twp. None whatsoever. Across the room, Ontic looked up, mouth forming words that Twp couldn't hear. No, Ontic, the BF replied, I really doubt he'll need your help. Will you, Twp?
"Against that lot?" Twp snorted, and drew his sword. "Not a chance, sir. I just wish they'd be more of a challenge, you know? After so long in prison, all the spirit's gone out of them."
Then it shouldn't take you too long. Run along now. The Pine Marten started for the door. Oh, and Twp? He stopped, looking over his shoulder at his superior. We may be needing those cells before too long. Try not to leave them too clean.