The Bindweed straightened up, drawing in her stray tendrils which had started, with her lapse in attention, to anchor themselves to the floor, walls, and furniture. She grimaced as the end of one strand proved to already be too well attached and snapped off, but that was the price of letting herself go, she supposed.
Fully composed, she turned her attention to the computer in front of her. It was far more advanced – and a lot less malicious – than the consoles at her former workplace, and had a complete range of alert tones perfectly suited to any situation that might come up (including the horribly unlikely ones. Once, a misfiring system had set it to singing about 'the chances of anything coming from Mars', and Mars was three universes away). Allowing herself a touch of humour, the Bindweed had added a quieter version of HQ's ear-splitting 'BEEP' – and a gentler copy of the associated mind-tone – and set it to inform her of 'interesting or advantageous reports by the PPC's Department of Internal Affairs'. Most of the time they were fairly dull – warnings that a new fandom had been opened up, or that specific troublesome Agents had finally succumbed to insanity – but once or twice there had been important news. She tapped the red button beside her screen and began to read.
A few minutes later, she reached the end. Leaving the report open on her screen, she leant her flower on her tendrils to think. The report had been filed by a pair of secretaries who the Bindweed remembered as being Sunflower die-hards - it makes sense that he'd put people like them into his personal police force, she murmured – and concerned a sighting by some Agent from Bad Slash of a group with silver sashes who'd tried to kill her. The secretaries had not included any further details or speculation, but the monitor the Bindweed had inserted into their system was no ordinary program. It was a tamed copy of an entity from an obscure science-fiction continuum, and its original (variously known as "the Gun", "the Black Plan", and "the ghost in the machine") would have been more than capable of conspiring to bring down the PPC by itself – "one sneaky, very political AI" was a common description. Their copy had been very carefully worked on to remove those tendencies, but it was still very capable. Correlating the original report with the general increased disturbance in HQ, and the discovery of two or three mutilated Agents in the corridors, it had attached its own conclusion to the bottom of the report in its typical lowercase.
it seems that the dis have returned i recommend making use of this
The Bindweed spent a long time staring at that simple statement. The DIS, after all this time... finally, she shivered convulsively, shaking her creepers out to their very tips. The Boss needs to hear about this, she said aloud. It could be just what we've been waiting for. Closing down the report, she rose up on her foliage, opened the office door, and moved out into the crisp white corridor beyond.
In the darkened room, a cursor flashed on the screen. Then, letter by letter, a line of text appeared.
yes it could be just what ive been waiting for
Kayleigh appeared in Laketown with no fuss. She managed to avoid comically missing the town and falling into the water, landing on someone, or even setting the portal to a couple of feet above the ground. Sometimes even the Legal Department miss a trick.
Looking around, the Slasher took a breath of fresh air. "It's good to be outside!" she said. Then she blinked. "Oh, right... anger. I remember."
The town had changed somewhat since the Agent's last visit, but the Dragon's Bane inn which had been the centre of much of the plot of her mission there was still in place. Sauntering cheerfully through the door, Kayleigh called out, "Hey! Meril!"
The entire tavern looked over at her, her shout dispelling her Agent invisibility, but even her unusual appearance couldn't hold their attention long. As the occupants (Kayleigh couldn't help but think of them as 'bit parts') turned back to their drinks, a harassed-looking girl of about eighteen emerged from the crowd and headed towards Kayleigh. Being a 'fic-created character who Kayleigh had allowed to live, she still retained her original description: slim, with reddish blond hair, and blue eyes; hair plaited in long braids; pretty, in the ephemeral manner of young human females, with pink cheeks, bright eyes, and moist lips. The words were still almost visible above her head, and Kayleigh shook her head at the memory of the Author who had made Legolas think such a list.
The girl stopped in front of her. "Yes? Do I know ya?"
Kayleigh nodded slowly. "I'm Kay, remember? A few months back?"
Meril blinked, and then nodded. "Right! I remember ya. Sorry, I'm finding it a bit hard to think straight."
"Probably too much to drink," Kayleigh said cheerfully. Far be it from her to enlighten the Canons (or near enough) on the PPC's methods. "Do you remember I asked you to look out for my friend?"
"I... yes." Meril frowned, and looked down. "Shouldn't I find ya some clothes, first?" she asked. Kayleigh followed her gaze to look at her own bare legs, and gaped.
"So that's why it's so cold!" She considered for a moment, and then shrugged. "I suppose, if it would make you feel better, but I don't have a lot of time. Can't you just give me your dress?"
Meril gaped, her hands going to her chest. "For shame!"
Kayleigh blinked. "No? You just had to say. All right, then, I suppose you'd better find me something. A skirt," she clarified unnecessarily."
Meril nodded uncertainly. "All right... are ya sure yer Kay?"
"Absolutely positive," Kayleigh assured her. She knew what the problem was – last time she'd been here, she'd been in an Elvish disguise, which didn't look quite like her. But she was a PPC Agent, there was no way this girl – this bit-part – could disagree with her as to her own identity. Meril nodded again, dubiously this time, and led her up the stairs.
In Meril's room, Kayleigh pulled on a rough skirt over her bikini bottoms, and then sat down cheerfully on the bed. "So! My friend."
"Ya said friends, before," Meril pointed out, busying herself by the mirror to avoid looking at the Agent. "A man and a woman?"
"Oh. Yes, right." Kayleigh shook her head. How was she expected to remember these things? It was because she'd thought Sal's disguise might wear off, of course, but even so. "So have you seen them?"
Meril looked round briefly. "Not both of them," she said. "But... the man, Nissa and I think he's... well..."
Her unsure tone got through even to Kayleigh. "What's the matter?" she asked. "Either it's him or it's not, right?"
"It's... him," Meril informed her. "Probably. Only, we're not sure about his eye colour."
Kayleigh grinned. "Too scared to get close to him? He's like that, our Sal."
Blue Photon knelt in the corner, thinking deeply. He had managed to find a disused Response Centre, probably – his somewhat scattered memory threw out the classic description of HQ: 'It's a bit of a maze, unless you haven't noticed' – by virtue of the fact that he hadn't been paying much attention to anything on his mad dash from the Tomb. Even now, tears were still tumbling at intervals down his filthy cheeks. Imbolc was alive! Or, well, all right, not alive, but not gone, either. Still here. That meant he could get her back, somehow.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially one as sharp as Blue's used to be, but years of torment had taken their toll. First the months as a prisoner of the DIS, his battered body healing slowly, his mind reeling from the double wound of his own betrayal and captivity, and later Imbolc's murder. He had turned inwards, absorbed in his own psychosis, wrapped up in paranoid conspiracy theories way beyond what was actually occurring. Then, in the wake of his attempted murder by Twp'atwt, he had fled in a panic from another – so he thought – DIS Agent, and had wound up on an unknown world.
That had been seven years ago, seven years which had been spent alone in forests and deserts and mountains. From time to time he had come across villages, but his fear of the DIS had evolved into a fear of all human contact, and he only raided the simple houses for food and clothing. His insanity had not gone away, but it had changed. His tortured mind was no longer focussed on the DIS, but on survival above all other concerns. He had been alone for seven years, thoroughly wild, and then suddenly... Imbolc. The only person who could possibly have brought him back to some semblance of functionality.
Somewhere, in the middle of Blue's chain of thought, something shifted. His resurgent fear of the DIS – for it had to be them, arriving so close behind him, they must have been after him all along – flared instantly into anger at what they'd done to him. This was their fault! They had imprisoned him for telling the truth – tortured him for seeing too much – killed his beloved for not staying quiet! And now they were back, they were going to destroy the PPC, and they were...
...in reach, a small voice seemed to say. Blue looked up warily, suddenly aware that he had been ranting out loud, but there was no one there, only the quiet humming of the console. So it must have been his own thought. Amazing, how one part of his mind could be so consumed with anger, while another was so rational, thinking everything through, coming at last to the inevitable conclusion:
He could get revenge. He could make them pay.
Staring now blankly into space, Blue Photon considered the DIS. They were evil, each and every one, but there were two he had personal issues with. Twp'atwt, the giant rodent, had tried to kill him; Blue had maimed him, but he was probably still alive. Too resilient. Needed to be killed properly. But he wasn't the important one. The important one was her. The one who had taken his Immy away. Ontic. She needed to die. Could he rely on the PPC to do the job? Blue laughed bitterly. They hadn't even been able to free him, how could they kill a Guard?
Rising suddenly and jerkily to his feet, Blue turned towards the door, his mind made up. Ontic had to die. He had to kill her. She had to be destroyed. He took one step towards the door, and then his little inner voice whispered, clothes, and he stopped. His rags and skins were falling off, and here he was in a Response Centre. Given how careless Agents usually were, there had to be something lying around. Something... black.
Kayleigh walked slowly down the stairs behind Meril, trying to keep her skirt clear of her feet, the other woman getting further ahead with every step. At the bottom, she stopped and turned, waiting for the Agent to arrive. Kayleigh took her time, but eventually reached the foot of the stairs and looked around. "Well?" she asked. "Where is he?"
Meril shook her head slightly. "I said, he's in one of the private rooms down here. I'm not certain... I mean, we've been a bit worried about going in there. Something feels... wrong, ya know?"
Kayleigh nodded. "That's just Sal," she said, hopefully. Then, for a wonder, she seemed to catch something in the other's expression. "You don't have to come in with me," she said generously. "Just show me the door, I'll do the rest."
Meril gave her a relieved smile and pointed down a nearby corridor. The layout of the Dragon's Bane, it seemed, was still a bit fluid even after all this time. "He's in the third door on yer right," she said. "I don't think he locks it."
"Then I shouldn't have a problem," Kayleigh said cheerfully. "Go on, you can go now. Lots of work to be doing."
Meril nodded, even more relieved, and scuttled off back towards the main room of the inn. Kayleigh turned towards the corridor, took a deep breath, and started walking. She still moved slowly, only now it was not the dress but apprehension. Meril's description of Sal's injuries had been dire enough to penetrate even Kayleigh's ADHD to make her concerned. No Canon characters – or bit parts – should be able to catch a PPC Agent while he was working, and the various author-created folk hadn't been the type to do... that. Although Kayleigh had always known DAVD had been the ones to take him, this seemed a bit... extreme, even for them. I'll need to be very careful, she thought. They could still be around.
She came to the door Meril had directed her to. Showing her typical disregard for anything much, she didn't knock, but pushed it open with a cheerful, "Sal? You in-"
Her sentence was cut short by two things. The first was the pair of swords at her throat, but the second was the sight of Salamander – her partner – sitting on the covered bed, facing her. It was as bad as she'd feared. One of his arms was still in a sling. His visible skin – he wasn't wearing a shirt, for some reason – was covered in barely-healed cuts and bruises, and one particularly vicious wound on his stomach had been hastily stitched. But the biggest shock was his eyes – or wasn't his eyes. He didn't have any. Nor did he have a blindfold. Instead there was simply a flat patch under his right eyebrow, where his eyelids had been sewn together. His left eyelids were open, as if a doctor had been working on the empty socket that was visible behind them. Kayleigh shuddered, and only then realised that the people connected to the two swords had been talking to her.
"- don't tell us who you are we will cut your throat," one was hissing. Kayleigh blinked as the voice – female – went on. "We won't have anyone coming back for the rest of him, not after the time we've spent on him. We won't have any Cats in here." This last was said with particular venom. Kayleigh decided that an answer was probably in order.
"I'm not a cat," she said. "Look, I don't have the ears. Or the whiskers." She looked at Sal. "And I'm not DAVD, either, if that's what you think! I'm his partner!"
There was a distinct silence from the voice, which was filled by another voice from her other side, this one male. "... DAVD?" it asked, bemused.
"They hurt Sal," Kayleigh said as if it were self-evident – which, to her, it was. She wondered why her partner wasn't speaking up for her. "They're evil, you see."
After another moment's silence, the two swords moved away from her throat. "The people who did this are far more evil than DAVD," the female voice said. "They were – are – the Black Cats. They delight in torturing anyone they come across. They've tried to kill both of us multiple times – you wouldn't believe the close escapes we've had. They are a complete law unto themselves, and while we're giving you the benefit of the doubt for now, if you turn out to be one of them, we will have no qualms at all about killing you and throwing you into the Long Lake. Understood?"
Kayleigh thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. "Yep, got it all." Then she frowned. "Wait, no. Two questions."
"Go on," the female voice said warily.
"First," Kayleigh said, nodding at her partner, "why's Sal so still? I know he'd stand up for me if he wasn't. And second... who are you?"
"I had to sedate him while I work on his eyes," the male voice said. "He's got a nasty infection in that one, could be very dangerous if I don't keep checking on it, and having someone poke around in your sockets is pretty painful."
"As to your second question," the female voice said, "you don't know us." A brown-haired man and black-haired woman, both dressed in Lake Town clothing, stepped out in front of her, swords held loosely at their sides. "But since you asked... this is Dassie. I'm Nyx. A long time ago, we were with the PPC."
I stand in the grey room, glowing with power. Against the wall the last defender of my enemy lies broken and bleeding. At my side stands one of the last of the Black Cats, the former DIS, who has rejoined me out of desperation, lust for power, fear. She is my servant now.
And there is my nemesis, quivering behind his desk. You should not be here, he says.
I shake my head scornfully. "Your Assassins couldn't keep you safe," I say, "and nor will your feeble words. Do you think you can control me by them? I am the master of control."
You control less than you think, my opponent replies, but I see his uncertainty and smile.
"I control more than you know," I counter, and raise my right hand. "You supplanted me, flower. You hounded me out. For that, you deserve death."
The Sunflower Official looks up at me, his flower-head listing slightly to one side, as if injured. Do you truly think so? he asks.
"I do," I confirm with a cruel smile, as blue lightning begins to crackle across my fingertips. "Sunflower, your reign is at an end. You burn today." I extend my arm fully, cupping my fingers about the incandescent sphere on my palm.
"Let there be light," I say, and the vision
Sir? There's something you need to see.
The man in the white robe turned, his easy smile showing a sense of superiority. "Ah, Bindweed," he said. "Does it by any chance concern our dear old friends in HQ?"
The Plant edged onto the balcony, shedding leaves onto the clean floor. The man shook his head slightly. His people had been slowly – but surely – losing their focus as the years drew on; the Bindweed's lack of attention to her appearance was one of the least worrisome failures, but probably the most visible. For a moment he considered having some of his workers give her a forced trim, but dismissed the thought. There wasn't likely to be time, and with luck, what was coming would sort her out.
Yes, sir, the Plant said. Our little spy has uncovered evidence that the DIS – the Guards – have returned, in force.
The man breathed in deeply. "Excellent," he said, looking back out over the Factory floor. The endless ranks of silvery pods seemed to morph in his mind's eye into a vast army, his workers moving among them becoming commanders, issuing his orders to all. Instead of the glass wall of the Factory and the sunny fields beyond, he saw a great stone wall, one giant door set in its face. Letting the breath out, he smiled. The time has come, he thought. Glancing back at the Bindweed, he said, "We will be needing those special samples. How long will it take to run us up to full capacity?"
The Bindweed shrugged. If we flush all the units currently in production, we can enter the new details and get all pods converted to their production within the hour. Twelve hours from now, our first batch could be decanted. With your special methods of training... we can leave in under a day, easily.
"Do it," the man said, brushing his prematurely grey hair back over his shoulder and leaning on the balcony rail. Gazing over his vast domain, workers already moving with greater urgency as his mind reached out to fill them with new commitment, the Mysterious Somebody smiled. "Everything is proceeding exactly as I have foreseen it," he murmured.
Twp'atwt led the hundred or so Black Cats of Parma Division through the halls of PPC HQ nervously. This was the place where he had lost one eye, and temporarily his hearing. He shouldn't encounter those who'd hurt him so – Blue Photon, who'd taken his eye, was surely dead by now, and the SO with his infernal computer was Kell's problem – but facing down a Flower again was enough to bring his fears back into play.
But he was Twp'atwt, and he could overcome them. With a flick of his rodent-like head he dismissed the thoughts, "Almost there," he muttered over his shoulder, trusting his subordinates to pass the message along.
A PPC Agent wearing a flashpatch showing some sort of purple flower rounded the corner ahead of them. Having received Flickerbright's message about the escape of a bikini-clad Agent from Tinco's vicinity, Twp knew better than to give this woman a chance to flee. Even as the Agent stopped uncertainly, the Pine Marten nodded to Serna Tjan, his best shot. As the PPCer opened her mouth, Tjan calmly raised her crossbow and sent a bolt flying down the corridor. Its flight ended abruptly as it struck the Agent right between the eyes, killing her instantly. The body fell to the floor, and Twp smiled a sharp-toothed smile at Tjan. "Excellent work, as always."
"Only the best, sir," Tjan said in her soft voice. As the Division moved forward again, the rearmost rank – ghouls and carrion-eaters – dropped behind. By the time they caught up, Twp knew, there would be no trace of the dead Agent – and good riddance. But he had bigger fish to fry.
The door was completely non-descript. Most Flowers placed their offices at the ends of corridors, going for maximum intimidation, but this one was just another grey oblong midway along the hall. It wasn't even labelled, but Flicks had done her job well – her infiltration mission had resulted not only in the closing down of HQ's barriers, but also in the theft of a prototype Map of HQ. Now all the Cat leaders had copies. They knew where they were going.
Parma Division had come to a halt in front of the door. They could hardly all fit inside the office, but if necessary they could send a storm of fire into the room and ensure a victory. But hopefully, only Twp and his fellow leaders would be needed.
Nodding to his immediate subordinates, Twp'atwt knocked on the door. Enter, said a bored-sounding voice. Twp grinned, pushed the panel open, and stepped into the Sub Rosa's office.
The Head of Intelligence looked up as the Cats entered. Ah, so it's you who've been causing all this trouble, the Rose said, sounding completely uninterested. Twp'atwt, isn't it? Don't you know your DIS was replaced a long time ago?
"Shut up, Flower," Twp snarled. "Your time is over – we're back."
So it seems. But my time is most certainly not 'over'. Captain? Now, please.
There was a flash of blue light, and six Dandelions appeared in the office, three along each side wall. A seventh stepped out of a portal beside the Sub Rosa. DIS, eh? the last one asked. We can do that, no problem. Take 'em, lads.
The Dandelions lifted their strange-looking guns and opened fire, but Twp had already let out a whimper and moved. Grabbing Serna Tjan's arm, he threw himself backwards through the door. Of the ten who had gone in with him, a further six made it out before Tjan, the first to recover, slammed the door. "Flamer!" she snarled. One of Parma's three flamethrower wielders hurried to the front, and, "Scorch that door!" Tjan commanded.
As the flames roared, Twp'atwt stood in their flickering light. "Good work, Tjan," he said with a nod. "Now come on, Parma – one setback isn't important. We need to move on. Let's get to Personnel."
"We had to leave," Nyx explained. "Dassie was one of the enemy... I'd been tainted by them as well... with Das' as helpless as he was, we couldn't stay."
Once Kayleigh's (relative) harmlessness and non-feline status had been established, the trio had moved across to the bed on which Sal was still seated - the only piece of furniture in the room large enough to sit on. Now, as Dassie finished re-sealing the Slasher's eyelid and administered the anti-sedative, Nyx was telling Kayleigh their story.
"We've pretty much been on the run since then," the black-haired woman went on. "I don't know if it's that Legal's still on our case - I'm inclined to think so, given that we've met you - but within a month and a half we'd stumbled across the DIS encampment. They were already calling themselves the Black Cats by then - and they remembered who we were."
"So had Dassie recovered by then?" Kayleigh asked, gazing intently at the former Agent. "You said he was brain-damaged by the Mysterious Somebody."
"I still was," Dassie said, sitting down at Nyx's side. "I don't remember anything from those days - just a vague blur covering at least two years of my life. Nyx protected me," he added, smiling at her.
Nyx blushed slightly, but nodded. "How could I not? He was all I had left..." She shook her head. "Anyway. I managed to keep hold of our Remote Activator for a long time, which made it difficult for them to follow us quickly. We're lucky we had that advantage - their head tracker is the best I've ever seen, I've lost count of the number of times he almost caught us." She nodded at Dassie. "Like he says, it was a couple of years before he was fully functional again, but eventually we were both working on it. We just about lost them at that point, but then... well..."
"What she's trying to say is, then I lost our Activator," Dassie said with a rueful smile. "We had to start stealing from them, and that meant they could know exactly where we were going."
"That sounds like fun," Kayleigh said, perfectly seriously. The others looked at her for a moment.
"... so, that meant we had to do a lot of portalling and running," Nyx went on. "We were always looking for places to hide. Once, in the Star Wars 'verse, we managed to make it onto an interstellar liner, and travelled around the galaxy by spaceship for a full nine months before Mkellin - their scout - caught up with us." Her eyes went unfocussed for a moment, and she said, wistfully, "That was peaceful time..." Then she sighed. "We left so much behind when we left."
"So why aren't they here now?" Kayleigh asked, puzzled. "If they follow you around..."
Dassie grinned, the largest display of emotion Kayleigh had seen him make. "We blew up their computers," she said. "They've got spares, but in the confusion we managed to get out."
"They might still've been able to work out where we went," Nyx clarified, "but we also moved through time. We started off somewhere in Hollin during the War of the Ring - their base - and went to Forochel about, well, a bit less than a year ago - sometime between the Erebor quest and the War." She smiled slightly. "Stayed there a little while - to recover - and then... well, walked her. We found your partner when we came down into eastern Mirkwood - we think we just missed the Cats, actually - and... well, you know the rest."
"Who are you talking to?" a quiet, strained voice asked. "Who's here?"
"Sal?" Kayleigh turned to look at her partner, who had his head tipped slightly to one side. "Sal, it's me!"
"I'm Kayleigh, silly!" she exclaimed. "Your partner!"
"Okay, that much, I remember." Sal smiled slightly. "But why are you here? It's been a while..."
Kayleigh shrugged, then remembered he couldn't see her and said, "Shrug. I saw DAVD rampaging through HQ - they tried to kill me! - and came to see if that meant I could find you. But these two, points at them, say it wasn't DAVD who took you at all, but these Black Cats."
"Yes," agreed Nyx, suddenly grim. "They wanted to ask him about HQ. Kayleigh... these people you saw at the PPC, were they wearing... sashes?"
"Yes, silver ones," Kayleigh said. "How did you know? Have they used them as disguises before? They're not very good."
"No, they wouldn't be." Nyx looked at Dassie significantly. "Kayleigh... you asked why the Black Cats didn't follow us here. We've just found out another reason. They were busy - busy planning. The silver sash is part of their uniform. It was them you saw."
There was a brief silence, and then Kayleigh, with pursed lips, said, "Well. That's awkward."
Mkellin was displeased. His entire Scout Division was moving through HQ together, just like Twp'atwt's Parma; but where Twp was doing it out of stupidity, bad planning and a need to hold onto his power, Kell had good reasons – his was the smallest Division, and had been assigned the hardest targets. The Sunflower Official himself would be their second visit – the Flower who had defeated Nendil, Ontic and Twp before the exodus – but Kell had decided to focus first on the more vulnerable target, the one not surrounded by Assassins.
The vicinity of the Department of Sufficiently Advanced Technology was quiet, as it always had been. According to the Agents the Cats had interrogated, it had doubled in size since the Reorganisation – but since this meant they'd simply acquired a secretary and one other Agent, it was hardly saying much.
The Scouts came to a stop outside the door. Mkellin dearly wished he could check the interior himself, but as a leader he was required to, well, lead. Instead, he gestured to Jasmine Sims in the hand-code the Scouts were all fluent in. With eerily silent grace the young woman from the future moved forward to kneel in front of the door. He watched her reach into her pocket and then lean down further, but in a moment she was up. All clear, she gestured. No one within. One closed door.
Kell nodded, and walked up to the door himself. It opened without a sound at his touch – doors in HQ always do, unless it is dramatically necessary that they creak – and the thirty Scouts entered in good order. Kell saw at once that Sims had been correct – the receptionist's desk was empty, the tools in the main lab abandoned, the single metal door firmly closed. The Scoutmaster nodded once. Behind the door, according to their map, was the office of Hornbeam the Ironwood, Head of the DoSAT. By his use of an actual name he was marked as part of the first generation of Plants, one of four such on the Board of Flowers. But that won't save him, Mkellin thought, any more than it will save his colleagues.
With a gesture, Kell directed his Scouts towards the door. Hornbeam was huge – a full-sized tree, in fact – and so was his office. If everyone could get through the door fast enough, there should be no problems.
He was still following this line of thought when the door swung open and a woman in black leather came out shooting.
Even as he dove for cover Kell cursed himself for not seeing it coming. Years of scouting in low-tech environments had made him forget one of the most basic rules – check for cameras. Clearly this woman had seen them gathering, and had just been biding her time.
Jasmine Sims landed heavily behind the desk alongside him. "Stars above!" she exclaimed. "Sorry, sir."
"It happens," Kell replied, unable to reprimand her for an oversight he too had made. "What matters now is that we- are you hurt, Sims?"
"She caught my arm," Jasmine admitted, looking down at the sleeve of her shirt, which was already darkening with the free-flowing blood. "I'll be okay, as long as we get out of here soon."
"That may not be so easy," Kell pointed out. "I make it four dead, eight fled, three near the exit, the rest of us trapped. She's between us and the door."
"And she's got a friend," Jasmine said grimly. "A young man followed her out. I don't think he's shooting, but he's keeping her supplied."
Mkellin grimaced. "Options?"
"Full attack," Jasmine said promptly. "There's only two of them, fifteen of us. We couldn't take the office, but we could make the door out with minimal casualties."
Kell considered her plan for a moment, and then another, and then nodded. "Agreed." He glanced at her arm. "You, however, need to wait for a second after we start, and then make straight for the door." Jasmine looked distinctly unhappy, but nodded. Mkellin pursed his lips and let out a complicated whistle, counted to three, and then stood up, firing in unison with the rest of his Scouts.
Steve Dimond knew his sister had died, and he was right. However, those who die don't always stay dead. Mortic Wentway, lost during the blackout, had found her, reincarnated as a 'Sue in the making. He had brought her back to HQ, and they had been transferred to a new Department: The Department of WTF. While the Black Cats were preparing for their attack, the two WTFers had gone on their first mission, and now they had returned... at the worst possible time.
In the DoWTF's Response Centre, Elanor shook her head. "The things you learn, huh? Now, come on, you're buying me lunch."
Mortic blinked, confused by the sudden change of subject. "What?"
"I didn't think it was that complicated," Elanor said with a shrug. "I figure, you let me get killed, that means you owe me at least a lunch." Mortic winced, and she softened her tone slightly. "If you prefer, just think of it as, oh, a friendly thing to do." She smiled at him, and Mortic raised an eyebrow.
"What, at the cafeteria?" He shook his head. "I wouldn't call that friendly, more fatal."
Elanor waved a hand, dismissing the correction. "Whichever. Come on, Agent Wentway."
Mort gave in. "All right, then. If we can find the way." He opened the door and peered out. "Looks like... ah, no, there's someone."
"Anyone we know?" Elanor asked, trying to look past him. Mort glanced back at her.
"I'm not sure, they're a bit far off, but... wait." He paused, peering into the distance, and suddenly went very pale. "Oh, no. Not them."
Elanor frowned, concerned. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"I'm not sure... just a moment." Muttering a quick Order incantation under his breath, Mort poked his head round the door again. The 'spell' enhanced his eyesight, resolving the black blurs far down the corridor into full-scale people in black uniforms, some hundred of them, with a humanoid animal of some kind at their head. But that wasn't important. Only one thing was important: what they were wearing across their chests. That was something he could never forget, and would never underestimate.
With a soft whimper, the immortal Agent threw himself back into the room, pulling Elanor away from the door and slamming it. Frantically he looked around for some way to keep it shut, dashing over to the table and starting to drag it. Behind him, Elanor asked, "What is it, Mort? Who did you see?"
Mortic stopped, turned, and stared at her, terrified. "Black cat on silver sash," he said in a rush. "It's the DIS, Elanor. They're back."
Elanor frowned. "The DIS... weren't they some group who got thrown out of here years ago? I seem to remember something about them... no, it's gone." She shrugged. "So they're... dangerous?"
"Very," Mort said grimly, slowly recovering from his initial shock. "They almost killed me before we got rid of them. Why didn't we have them executed rather than letting them go?"
"Is that important?" Elanor asked. "I mean, if they're back..."
"... I suppose not." Mort sighed. "Okay. So we'll just stay here and wait for them to get killed, yes?"
"We can't do that," Elanor said mildly. "We might be the only ones who know they're here. We need to-"
"Not fight," Mort cut in. "We tried that before; I lost good friends in that war. I don't want to lose you... again."
Elanor shook her head. "I was going to say, we need to let someone know. Someone high up. Someone more important than the Snowthorn."
Mort grimaced. "Then can we stay here?" He moved over to the console and tapped a few keys. Then he frowned. "That's not good."
"It's not allowing me to send a message through to Upstairs. I could get an Agent, but no Flowers." Mort shook his head. "I've never seen this before. I think the DIS have hacked the system."
"Then we'll have to go in person," Elanor decided. Mort groaned.
"I knew, I knew you were going to say that."
"Glad to hear it." Elanor turned towards the door and then stopped, as if in thought. "Mort... you said you could contact Agents, right?"
"Well, yes," Mortic replied. "In theory, at least."
"I've just remembered... I've got a brother, haven't I? Steve?" Elanor shook her head slightly. "I can't believe... I should let him know I'm alive."
"He might appreciate that," Mort said. "Sorry, El, I hadn't realised you didn't know..."
"It's okay," the young woman said. "I'm still getting used to it myself... but. Right. Mort, show me how to use this Console."
"Come on, Cats!" Flickerbright exclaimed, hovering over the heads of her Division. "What are you afraid of? They're a bunch of janitors!"
"They might be in their underwear again," a voice protested. The fairy rolled her eyes.
"Shut it, Michaelis, you're too obsessed for your own good. Now come on." She flew off down the corridor at high speed, thirty Black Cats in her wake. The number was the same as Mkellin's entire scout corps, but it was only a third of Tinco Division. She had split her group up, aiming to hit all her targets simultaneously. So far they had met no resistance, other than the girl in the bikini while they were still all together.
And now the Department of Operations was coming into sight. Like most Infrastructure Departments of HQ – DoSAT, Finance, Personnel and the rest – it consisted not of individual Response Centres in the corridors, although those were still used for housing the Agents, but of a large main room with other sections fanning out from it. This made Infrastructure Department Heads particularly easy to hunt down, a fact which pleased Flickerbright no end.
Operations was hardly known for being dangerous – its Agents were the janitors, cooks and childminders of HQ – but Flicks had no intention of taking chances. As they drew near the door, three other fairies moved up to join her, and the rest of the force hung back in the corridor – save for the single troll, who had to knock the door down. As it fell, the quartet flew in.
The Operations room was reasonably well populated with Agents of every description, most of whom had turned to look at the sound of their door splintering. "Now!" Flicks exclaimed, and began to shed a trail of golden fairy dust as she flew across the chamber. In seconds the four had showered glitter on all those inside, and the Operations staff began to smile, thinking it all an absurd practical joke. By the time the first of them collapsed, faces mottled blue and red from the effects of the poison dust, it was too late for any of them.
Flicks eyed the mass of bodies with distaste. "All right, let's move," she said. The dust had a very short lifetime – it had already decayed and become safe for the rest of the Cats to walk through. Nevertheless it was with great trepidation that Tinco Division entered the room. Flicks watched them for a few moments and shook her head. "Pathetic," she said. "Erratic, come open this door for me." She pointed at the entrance to what she knew to be the Head of Operations' office.
The troll grinned, diamond teeth glinting, and lumbered across the room. As the rest of the team assembled in rough order, he smashed his fist through the Generic Surface of the door. It splintered under the impact, and Flickerbright flew through, her Cats filing in after her.
Behind his desk the Wisteria sat, dressed in his usual rumpled track suit. His voice was calm when he spoke, but his body language was distinctly tense. I do not believe you have an appointment.
"Nope," Flicks agreed cheerfully, "but I have thirty armed men and women with me. Does that count?"
... what do you want? the Flower asked. I know who you are, but why are you back here?
"That's a good question," Flicks said in a surprised tone, as if the question had never occurred to her. "I think... oh, yes." She looked down at the Wisteria with a bright smile. "That was it. We're here to murder the Board of Flowers – that's you, by the way – slaughter the Agents, and turn HQ into a pile of burning rubble. Does that about cover it?"
The Head of Operations stared at her. You will never get away with that, he said.
"Wrong!" Flicks said cheerfully. "Tinco Division? He's boring me now. Send a little bit of death his way, please."
Agent Hazelhead was just stepping through the door to DIA Central behind his charge when an alarm started to blare. The DIA Agent grimaced. "Charlotte," he said to the secretary, "what's going on, and why is it so loud?"
"Catherine," the woman corrected, "we've swapped since you left." She tapped a few keys. "And... looks like we've got an alert in. Several alerts." She frowned.
"I can hear that much," Hazelhead muttered. "What are they about?"
"Checking, checking..." Catherine's fingers moved rapidly over the keys. "Seems most of them are Flowers going offline – wow, I think the entirety of Upstairs has left the network."
"Including the Tiger Lily?" Catherine nodded, and Hazelhead grimaced. "Not good. Could be a technically-minded Agent gone psycho. You said 'most'?"
"Yeah," Catherine agreed. "Computer failures aren't enough to set off an alarm, ergo... ugh, I need to get this report system overhauled." She scrolled down a long list until she came to one entry highlighted in red. "Here we go. Looks like it's from someone in Operations, don't recognise the name – Kohn? Hmm." Clicking on the title, she opened the message. "I guess he was in a rush, there's no punctuation at all. Let's see..." Her eyes flickered down the page, and then she turned sheet white. "No..." she breathed.
"What is it?" Hazelhead asked, but Catherine Hust didn't answer. She was already out of her seat.
"Charlotte!" she yelled. "It's true! She was telling the truth! Gods of all stars – Charlotte!" With that she ran from the office, leaving Hazelhead completely bemused.
"Does she normally do that?" Steve Dimond asked from behind him. Hazelhead shook his head slowly.
"No..." Reaching over the desk, he turned the monitor to face the front. "Let's see what this says."
Steve and Hazelhead looked at the uncluttered white screen, and the message displayed thereon, with mounting horror. It was very simple, very short.
the department has been invaded and the wisteria has been killed i dont know who they were or why but i have a picture i hope you can stop them
The picture was blurred, out of focus, likely taken while running away, but it was clear enough to show the most important detail: each of the invaders had a grey or silver sash looped from left shoulder to right hip. It was even possible to distinguish the black blur of a badge over the heart.
"Gods of all stars," Steve murmured, echoing Catherine's oath. "They're back. She's back."