"Oh, yes. We thought that we could trust her, and then it turned out that she had double crossed us, all along."
"How awful! What's happened to her, now?"
Imbolc sipped at her hot coffee, listening to Ontic explaining about the unfortunate case of an agent over in Bad Slash who had betrayed the PPC by giving away many of their secrets to a power crazed Mary Sue who had been defying the protectors of canon for far too long. Ontic sighed, and shook her head.
"She died, sweetie. I was there, and saw the whole thing. Dassie was holding her down, trying to stop her from running away, when she grabbed the knife from his belt and went for him. Of course, she didn't hurt him much - just a scratch - because she wasn't trained as an assassin. She just did exorcisms, or something like that. She managed enough to get make him let go of her, though, and then instead of running, because she knew we'd find her... well..."
Leaning in closer, as Ontic lowered her voice, Imbolc nodded at her friend to carry on. The other, however, simply shook her head, and sighed dramatically.
"Oh, you know."
"No, tell me."
Smiling, Ontic rolled her eyes, before leaning over to Imbolc to whisper the answer, as though it was some terrible secret. In a way, it was. The treachery of Agent Sunshine was widely known, and had been a common topic of conversation, finally meaning that Imbolc didn't have to pretend not to hear the constant whispers about... about Thingy, her ex, all those months ago, and Tango, to whom she had not spoken to since that day of the arrest. So far as Imbolc was concerned, Sunshine's betrayal was a thinly disguised blessing. Besides, hardly anybody knew about the end of this piece of gossip, meaning that, for once, Imbolc would have something nice and juicy to talk about in the Finance department. That was one of the perks of having a friend in the DIS. Ontic was perfectly lovely, and had helped her through one of the roughest patches of her life. To be honest, Imbolc couldn't see why everybody else seemed so scared of the security service. After all, they did such a good job, rooting out all the conspiracies, traitors and lies that had plagued the PPC recently.
"She stabbed herself, seven times. Blood everywhere. Dassie tried to stop her, but she was insane. There was nothing he could do. Anyway, sweetie, it's been good talking to you, but I've got to run off. There's somebody in DAVD I have to talk to, stupid bulk of stone that he is. I'll see you later." She leapt up, and sauntered off down the corridor, leaving Imbolc to go the other way, still sipping slowly at the hot coffee. She thought about Sunshine, which, inevitably, led to Bl... Thingy. Everything led to him, these days. Him or Tango. At least she didn't cry about it much, anymore, but that whole episode had just been so awful, especially with all the people casting either pitying looks at her, or scared looks, as though she had been part of the conspiracy. That's what it had turned out to be. A few months ago, Ontic had told her that Thingy had been ranting again, saying how he had been trying to brainwash her, not just Tango. Thank goodness the DIS had got to her in time.
Wrapped up in her angsty thoughts, Imbolc had not noticed the other agent walking down the corridor, until they bumped in to each other, making her spill coffee over her arm.
"Oh, sorry... Immy? Is that you?"
Imbolc looked up, and froze. The red, frizzy hair had grown, and there were care lines beginning to appear over the unevenly splashed freckles, and she had lost a lot of weight, but apart from that... Imbolc dropped the coffee mug, splashing the remainders of the contents all over the floor, and shattering the mug. She gave a small, petrified squeal, and then sprinted off as fast as her legs could carry her, tears splashing down her cheeks.
"Immy! Imbolc! Come back!"
However, the girl had already turned a corner without looking back. Tango gave a small, upset gasp, and looked down at the broken coffee mug. She stood there for a frozen moment, and then walking off in the direction she had been walking before, stumbling slightly, with shock.
"Are you sure that's the full report, Carreg?"
The agent nodded, frowning. He wasn't a lying type of person, and doubted whether he'd even told five lies in his entire life. His companion nodded, flipping through the folder once more, and then left, shutting the door with a soft 祖lick'. Carreg let out a sigh of relief, and leant against his desk.
Although he didn't see anything particularly wrong with what he was doing, it still made him uncomfortable. There was just something strange about the whole situation but, all things considered, it was probably better not to think too much about it. He left the thinking to India and Echo. As he thought about the young pair, he allowed himself a small grin. Silly things. They practically lived in his RC, even if they didn't get on with Tango very well. It was a pity that he couldn't tell them about this business, but then again, it was probably for the best. It would only upset them.
Suddenly, the door flew open, slamming against the wall, and a wild Tango stumbled through. Staggering as though she had been drinking, although that was prohibited, due to new rules issued by the DIS, the agent stumbled over to a chair and flopped down in to it, nearly missing the seat.
"Hey there lass, what's wrong with you? Was the Big Thorn in a bad mood?"
He frowned. Usually, the answers were longer than this, if only by a little. Shutting the door, he walked over to Tango and sat down beside her, on the floor, to stop her falling off her seat as much as anything else. Judging by the way she was swaying, the seat wouldn't be occupied for long, and he didn't want the lass to hurt herself.
"What is it, then?"
There was a small pause. When they had got in from their last mission, just before Tango had been summoned by the Big Thorn, everything had been just fine.
"Care to spill?"
Another pause, and then...
"Oh, I hate it, and I wish we'd never found that horrible place in the first place, then I'd be back with Blue, and Blue would be with Imbolc, and Imbolc would never, ever have run away from me!" She let out a loud wail, burying her face in her hands. Carreg waited for the story to continue, but nothing further came, so he gave her a small nudge.
"Lass? What horrible place? A Sue fic, with one of those made-up lands, right in the middle of the canon ones?"
The girl shook her head miserably, and then whispered, "Worse. We found the place where Mary Sues are created. This huge factory full of pearl like pods, each one with some beautiful, brainless drone growing in it, waiting to be programmed. There were rooms, too, where the 全ues were programmed, and people walking around in white coats - they were as drone like as the 全ues themselves... but worst? Blue swore blind that he saw..." she froze, but Carreg didn't notice, and the information was difficult to register.
"A factory?" he asked, string in to the middle distance, "Why didn't you just tell the... it's the SO isn't it, for the assassins? What was it Blue saw? Didn't you see it too?"
Tango leapt up from her seat like a scalded cat, and sprang across the room to cower in a corner, her shaking hands covering her mouth. She shook her head, suddenly terrified.
"Don't..." her voice was barely above a whisper.
"I... I shouldn't have... I promised them..."
Narrowing his eyes, Carreg immediately jumped to what seemed like the obvious conclusion. "You're in league with 全ues? You betrayed us? Betrayed the flowers? The whole PPC? Here, wasn't Blue that one who killed the Evermind a while back? Is that why he did it? What did you promise the 全ues?"
As Carreg advanced around the room, like a looming shadow, Tango scuttled away to another corner, petrified. "No! It's nothing like that! We never promised the 全ues anything! It's the DIS! They made us! Only Blue wouldn't! Please!"
Carreg stopped in the middle of the room, and began clenching and unclenching his hands, his brow furrowed. He shook his head, trying to clear it, as Tango continued to cower away from him.
"You aren't making any sense."
"I've already said too much."
"Too much, but not enough. Alright, so what do the DIS have to do with this?"
"They knew that we knew... it wasn't our fault... they made us promise not to say, but Blue wouldn't, I don't think. That's why he's still there. Oh! What if they killed him? Like they killed that poor girl from Bad Slash!"
"I'm sure the DIS would never..."
"I meant if somebody's innocent!"
Again, the moment drew out, and the sudden bubble of frantic speech came to an equally sudden shock. Then, in the silence, Tango began to laugh, bitterly. She sat in the corner, rocking backwards and forwards, swaying gently. Her hands shook and shivered as she laughed, and then tears began to roll down her cheeks.
"Innocents?" she hissed, "They're the ones the hurt. Like me and Blue. I bet the girl from Bad Slash never did anything wrong at all."
"You're making them out to be like some sinister organisation of their own."
"They are!" Suddenly, her eyes widened with terror. "You're with them, aren't you?"
The sudden verbal attacked knocked Carreg off his balance, stunning him. "What?"
"You heard me!"
The ex-assassin leapt across the room, brushing past Carreg, towards the desk that stood against the far wall, and grabbed from one of the drawers an old dagger, which she had never relinquished after her time as Blue's partner. The blade flashed as she held it out in front of her, defensively.
"You're in league with them, aren't you? Promise me you won't say anything."
So entranced in the little drama, both agents failed to notice footsteps coming down the corridor.
"I said promise me!"
The door slammed open, and two agents burst in, laughing at something. "So I said to her... Oh! Sorry, are we interrupting something?"
Startled, Tango dropped the dagger, and the both whipped their heads around to stare at the newcomers.
"India. Echo. Uh, come in." They sidled in to the room, aware of the friction.
"So," said Carreg, placing himself carefully between Tango and the door, as he saw her start to move slowly in that direction, "What's new with you guys?"
Imbolc ran into the Department of Finance, dashing straight through the main room and into the Archives, ignoring the startled glances from the few agents still on duty. Finding a secluded corner near the back of the rows of shelves, she curled up and sobbed her heart out. It wasn't fair!
Some ten minutes later, as the tears began to dry up, she heard a small sound. Looking up, she peered into the shadows. There was nothing there that she could see, but she couldn't escape the feeling that she was being watched. "Is someone there?" she asked quietly.
There was silence for another moment, and then a patch of shadow moved, stepping forward into the dim lit patch. "I am here to escort you to the Bindweed," said the DIS agent.
She recognised him, of course - he was the guard who always stood outside the Bindweed's office. Sitting there on the floor, looking up at the black-clad DISer with the silver sash that marked him as on duty, she realised that he was actually quite intimidating. The black cat emblem on his sash seemed to be ready to leap at her. Shuddering, she shuffled backwards into the corner.
"Agent Imbolc," the guard - she realised she didn't know his name, even though he'd been stationed in the DoF for several months - said, "the Bindweed wishes to speak to you. Please come with me."
Imbolc bit her lip, and then nodded, ashamed at her irrational fear of the DIS agent. After all, wasn't Ontic her friend? Surely someone who worked with Ontic couldn't be all that bad. It wasn't until she'd gotten up and started towards the Head of Finance's office that she realised she'd never encountered Ontic while the other was on duty. Would her friend look just as scary wearing the black-and-silver? She didn't know, and she wasn't sure she wanted to find out.
With that thought still echoing through her mind, Imbolc stepped into the green cave that was the Bindweed's office. In the months since she had taken over after the Evermind's death, the Plant had spread out to cover all the walls, ceiling and floor of the office, except for a narrow path leading to a single chair in front of her desk. Imbolc had never had a problem with this before, but now she felt like she was stepping into the maw of some great beast.
Ah, Agent Imbolc. Do sit down.
The agent did so, aware that the DIS guard had stopped outside the door. On the desk, the Bindweed's single flower tilted towards her.
I understand that you have been... somewhat distraught of late. I wondered if you'd care to talk.
Imbolc shook her head. "I'm fine."
My dear, you are not. I can see you've been crying. I know it's nothing to do with me, but I just want to help. I'm sure I'll be able to.
Normally, Imbolc would have thought nothing of such a statement, but now it flew through her head. I'm sure I'll be able to. How could she be sure of that without knowing what the problem was? And then a lot of little bits of information began to connect in Imbolc's mind. The fact that the DIS guard walked past her desk several times a day. The fact that she sometimes thought the security cameras were pointing specifically at her. The way the Bindweed always made a point of calling her in every week. They're watching me! she thought, and then dismissed the idea as paranoia.
Ahem, said the Bindweed, and Imbolc looked up, guilty. The Plant let out a mental sigh. I asked how you were getting on with the other agents. I've noticed that you don't socialise in the Department very much.
"Oh." Imbolc shook her head, and then realised that this wasn't much of a response. "I talk to people when I'm off duty," she added.
Well, I should hope you don't do so when you're supposed to be working, said the Bindweed cheerfully, but Imbolc didn't find it at all amusing.
"Yes, ma'am. May I get back to work, ma'am?"
Oh, no, said the Bindweed, you seem far too upset for that. Take the rest of the day off.
"Yes, ma'am," said Imbolc, too emotionally exhausted to argue. "Thank you, ma'am." Not waiting for a reply, she stood and left the room. As she walked back across the room towards the main door, however, she glanced back over her shoulder to see the DIS guard watching her go. She shuddered, and quickened her pace.
The Nightshade stepped out of the portal in front on the Mary-Sue Factory and waited for her escort. Ever since those two agents, Blue and Tango, had managed to break in, security had been tightened at the factory, and anyone wandering around without an escort or a badge would be shot on sight.
She didn't have to wait long. A wookiee and an orc, both clad in the black uniform with silver sash of the Department of Internal Security, came out to greet her. She suppressed a shudder of distaste - she had never really liked the DIS, especially not the way they'd been heading since the Evermind's death - and followed the pair into the white corridors of the factory. That was one thing she preferred here to back in HQ - the white was so much more aesthetically pleasing than grey.
The guards took her to the Orchid's office and stopped outside the door, allowing the Nightshade to enter alone. Inside, the Orchid waited behind her desk, while the Tree Fern, Head of Acquisitions at Bioengineering Inc., stood on the near side. The Nightshade took the single chair, and looked at the other two. Well?
Demand for 'Sues is increasing, the Tree Fern said without preamble, and this one factory cannot supply all we need.
And what do you think we can do about it? the Nightshade asked, although she had a fairly good idea.
Sure enough, the Tree Fern replied, The Orchid claims she cannot operate a second unit. We request that you either free up another... sympathetic official to run a new, improved factory, or that you - or rather, the Mysterious Somebody - request that the Assassins no longer kill 'Sues, but rather let them off with a warning of some sort.
The Nightshade shook her flower rapidly. You know we cannot do that. The Sunflower Official is still not under our control, and he would question such an order. He is Deputy for Action, and he cannot be ignored.
Can he not be replaced? asked the Orchid. The Nightshade looked at her, and she gave a little shrug. I'm just trying to cover all the options.
The Nightshade nodded. No, I'm afraid he can't. Like it or not, he was the first of the Flowers, and the Assassins look up to him. No one else could do his job, not without a major decrease in productivity.
A major decrease in productivity is what we want, muttered the Tree Fern, but he waved his fronds. There is no way, then?
None, I'm afraid.
He gave a mental sigh. Then we shall have to carry on as we are. I regret that this meeting could not be more constructive. He moved over to the door, which opened to allow him to pass. The two DIS guards who had escorted the Nightshade in followed him out of the factory.
The Nightshade slumped in the chair, and the Orchid looked quizzically at her. I can't stand that Tree, the Nightshade muttered. The Orchid nodded sympathetically.
I know what you mean. He keeps trying to run everything. I think he'd try and tell the Mysterious Somebody what to do if he got a chance.
The Nightshade snorted. I'd like to see him try. She shook her flower. Well, he's gone now. So, how've you been keeping?
Oh, you know. So-so. You?
Pretty much the same. She waved a leaf. So, what's been happening out here?
Oh, you wouldn't believe the things I've been hearing. Only the other day, one of the staff was telling me...
The Orchid gossiped on, and the Nightshade smiled inwardly. She missed this, working at the PPC. Oh, how she missed it.
Agent Ontic stood outside the office of the Sunflower Official, dressed in the uniform of a DIS guard. She smiled at a passing Assassin, who instantly walked faster. Whether that was a result of her smile or just the idea of a DIS agent smiling, Ontic didn't know, and didn't really care. All that mattered was that she'd made that one Assassin a little more fearful.
She spotted a movement out of the corner of her eye and pulled out a dagger, moving swiftly to stand in front of the SO's door. A moment later, she smiled and stepped back. "Sorry, sweetie," she said to Agent Imbolc, who was frozen in fear, "I have to be on guard at all times around here. You never know when an Assassin might come by with a flamethrower. You're here to see the SO?"
Imbolc nodded, still staring at the dagger. Ontic gestured at the door. "Go right in, sweetie. I'll stay out here and keep the vampires, wolves, orcs and mad Assassins from your door."
Imbolc nodded again and scuttled through the doorway, closing the door behind her. Ontic leaned against the wall and idly tossed her dagger from hand to hand. "What could you be doing in there, sweetie?" she muttered at the grey wall. "What would a nice girl from Finance want with the Deputy for Action?" The wall, of course, did not answer. Ontic shrugged. "I guess I'll just have to check the tapes later." Resuming her guard position, she waited.
Imbolc left some time later, throwing a single nervous glance in Ontic's direction before scurrying off down the drab corridors towards the DoF. As soon as she was sure the girl wasn't coming back, Ontic pulled out her DIS-issue radio. "Agent Ontic to Bracket Fungus," she said in clipped tones.
Yes? came the bored sounding reply. Ontic grinned.
"Got something that might interest you, Brackie. Our little friend Imbolc has just been to see the Sunflower Official."
She has? The Fungus sounded surprised. Whatever for?
"Well, I don't know, Brackie," Ontic said. "Why don't you check the cameras and find out?"
Don't call me that, muttered the Fungus, but apparently followed her suggestion, for the line went dead. A few minutes later, he came onto the radio again. Well, that's very interesting.
"What is?" asked Ontic eagerly.
Imbolc has just asked the SO if she can transfer to one of his departments. Apparently she doesn't feel safe in her current role, and thinks she has evidence of corruption in the PPC.
"Well, now," muttered Ontic, "that is interesting. Do you think she's talking about the, you know, that place?" Even in an empty corridor, Ontic wouldn't speak of the Factory openly.
I find it hard to see what else it could be, the Bracket Fungus replied. I recommend you-
"No, wait," Ontic cut him off. "She might have actually stumbled onto something. Tell you what, Brackie, I'll try and get her to tell me over lunch."
Very well, the Fungus said, but if she is talking about the Factory...
"Then I'll do what must be done," said Ontic cheerfully. "Bye now, Brackie," she added, and flicked the radio off.
It was some time before Ontic saw Imbolc again. The Finance agent didn't show up in the cafeteria at lunchtime, though Ontic thought she saw her poke her head around the door and scuttle away again.
The agent was on her way back to DIS Central, still in uniform, when Imbolc turned a corner less than two metres ahead of her. Ontic grinned as Imbolc stopped. "Hi, sweetie."
"Er, hi," said Imbolc, looking around nervously.
"You weren't at lunch today, sweetie," said Ontic. "Were you busy?"
"Yes, yes, busy," she replied, a little too quickly. Ontic nodded sympathetically.
"I know how that can be. Did it have anything to do with what you were seeing the SO about?"
Imbolc's head jerked up. "What? No, no, that was just a, um, budget matter. He wanted to spend more money on fertilisers."
Ontic nodded. "Well, he would, wouldn't he? I hope you get it all sorted out for him."
Imbolc nodded. "Yes. In fact, I'd better go and do that right now. Er... yes. 'Bye, Ontic." Without waiting for a reply, she stepped past the DIS agent and rushed off down the corridor. Ontic watched her, and shook her head once she passed out of sight.
"You're really no good at lying, sweetie. And you'll never get to learn." Whistling softly and tunelessly, she followed the route Imbolc had taken down the corridor.
Chapter Four - Betrayal
Ever since the argument, relations between Tango and Carreg had stayed formal, and very polite. Although they still spoke to each other, full conversations were not easy, and for once, Tango was relieved every time India and Echo burst in through the door. Scribbling down notes about the last mission, a very strange Star Wars fic with excessive battles, bloodshed and beatings, Tango shut her eyes tightly, and set down her pen. Her head throbbed so much from the horrible memories, but the bleepka was on the other side of the room, and she couldn't be bothered to go and fetch it.
The door banged open, and Echo fell in, looking particularly distressed.
"Just me." Tango didn't even bother to open her eyes, but instead squeezed them even more tightly shut. Echo was one of those girls who managed to be annoying just by existing.
"Oh. Hi, Tang'. Where's Carreg?"
"He had some report to give to the Big Thorn, or something."
"So he'll be back in a minute?"
Slumping down in to Carreg's chair, Echo began to drum her fingers on the desk in some rhythm which, Tango assumed, must have had the rest of the tune playing in her head. Whether there was an unheard tune or not, however, the tapping quickly became annoying.
"Where's your Bleepka, Tang'? We ran out."
"By the door."
"Oh, yeah, I see it." The blonde jumped up to her feet, crossed the room in seconds, and downed the contents of the bottle. "I needed that so much. How long until Carreg's back, again?"
"I don't know. Not long."
"I'll wait, then. India's going that way too, so they'll probably turn up at the same time."
India. Of course. The terrible two were hardly ever apart. At least the boy was much more of a thinker than a speaker, unlike Echo. He actually came up with intelligent things, occasionally, even if he was very young, even by the standards of the PPC.
There was silence for a little while, for which Tango thanked any deity she could think of, before Echo began to cough and splutter. Rolling her eyes, Tango ignored it at first. When Echo's coughing carried on and on, however, she frowned and looked up. The other girl was doubled over on the floor, clutching her stomach. Her normally pale face was almost porcelain-white, and she was sweating and shivering.
"Echo? What is it?"
Echo, however, couldn't splutter out words as the coughing fit raked her skinny frame. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. With a gasp, Tango leapt across the room, but she didn't know what to do. Her job had been to end lives, so she had never been trained how to heal people. Instead, she did the only thing she could do, and put her arm around her companion, trying to offer some weak form of emotional support.
Just as quickly as it had begun, the coughing fit ended, and Echo's body went limp. Tango shook her, but her only response was a small moan, before Echo gave a final shiver, her eyes rolled upwards, and the last breath left her body.
"Echo? Echo?" This time, there was no response. Scared, Tango quickly got to her feet, and looked wildly around the room. The death had been so sudden, and when Echo had entered the room, she had been full of her usual bounce. The DIS would be on to her in a flash! It would all be blamed on...
Tango's glance fell upon the empty bottle of Bleepka, and her eyes narrowed. No, surely it couldn't be that, could it? Then again, it was the only thing that made any sense. Echo had downed the entire bottle, after all, and there was nothing else she had done whilst in the room, aside from the usual annoyances. Tango looked again at the still body, blood smeared down the front of the jacket, hands and face, and then she looked back at the bottle. Picking it up warily, she sniffed it. She thought there was a strange edge to it, but that could easily be imagined.
Either way, there was no longer any doubt in her mind.
Carreg had poisoned the Bleepka.
Why, though? Tango chided herself as she paced backwards and forwards, trying to think of a way out of this muddle. It was obvious, now that she thought about it. He was in the pay of the DIS, and this was a result of her silly, stupid outburst the other day. She needed silencing, so Carreg had tried to kill her discreetly, but had got his precious Echo instead. With a small, helpless giggle, Tango imagined the look on his face, and then imagined his reaction if India had got the poison, too.
One down would be bad enough, actually. He had tried to kill her, and instead he had only managed to kill Echo.
"Don't worry," she muttered to the dead body, "I'll get revenge. For both of us."
Calming down with every breath, Tango walked slowly over to her desk, and pulled out the dagger which, technically, she was not allowed to have. The DIS would have had her in their cells quick as a shot if they'd found out about it. Well, they would find out now.
She wedged the dagger into her belt, and then picked up Echo, carried her over to a chair, and placed her down carefully, so the girl's glassy blue eyes were staring at the door. As soon as she was happy with Echo, as though positioning a marionette in a shop window, she pulled up another chair, and sat down, the bottle cradled in her arms. She let her head flop sideways, and stared in to space, giving the impression of death. Then, she waited.
Imbolc ran through a carved archway - grey, of course - and up the stairway on the other side. She didn't know why she was running, just that she had to get away from everything. At the top of the steps she stopped, looked around, and had to sit down quickly on the stone to keep from falling over.
The large room, up one wall of which the staircase ran, was not a normal room. Stairs and balconies ran all across the walls, floor... and ceiling. There seemed to be at least six different directions of gravity, and the whole led to a room where Imbolc could hardly tell the difference between up and down. It was, for lack of a better word, weird.
Imbolc shook her head, trying to get rid of the dizziness. She hadn't known there were such things in HQ.
"'Oranges and lemons,' say the bells of St. Clement's..."
The words, sung to the familiar tune, echoed through the room. Imbolc sat bolt upright. She could not work out where the haunting voice was coming from, but she recognised it. Ontic.
"'You owe me five farthings,' say the bells of St. Martin's..."
Getting to her feet, Imbolc walked to the stairway and looked up it. At the top, another balcony launched a stair out across the empty space of the room. It looked dangerous, spanning the chamber with no handrails.
"'When will you pay me?' say the bells of Old Bailey..."
Imbolc decided she didn't care about the danger - she just wanted to get out of there, away from the singing. She ran up the staircase ahead of her, stopping for a moment on the platform.
"'When I grow rich,' say the bells of Shoreditch..."
The voice seemed even closer now. Frantically, Imbolc looked around, trying to locate the DIS agent, but could see nothing but stone walls. Guessing that Ontic had to be somewhere on the same side of the room as her, the Finance agent ran out over the bridging stairway.
"'When will that be?' say the bells of Stepney..."
As she ran, the room seemed to rotate around her, until she realised that the stair itself was in fact helical. Thus, when she finally reached the balcony on the other side, she was upside-down compared to when she started off. Stopping to catch her breath, she looked back to the other side, trying to spot Ontic from this new angle.
"'I do not know,' say the great bells of..."
"... Bow," said Ontic, right in her ear. Imbolc span around.
"Ontic!" she exclaimed, looking around frantically for a way out. Not finding one, she said, "You, er, startled me."
"Sorry about that, sweetie," said Ontic, and then gave her a concerned look. "You know, sweetie, you shouldn't run in here. It's dangerous, and we wouldn't want you hurting yourself."
"Er, no," said Imbolc. "I was in a hurry..."
"Somewhere important to be?" asked Ontic.
"Um..." Imbolc looked down at the stone slabs as her voice trailed off. Ontic nodded.
"You were trying to get away from me, weren't you, sweetie? Now, why would you want to do that?"
"I, um, you, er..." Imbolc shook her head, trying to clear it. It was as if Ontic's very presence was clouding her mind.
Ontic also shook her head. "Now, sweetie, you know you shouldn't run away. You might get lost, and we don't want to lose you, do we, Elanor?"
Imbolc blinked, and looked over her shoulder, trying to see who the other agent was talking to. "Er..."
Ontic's piercing grey eyes focussed on her. "Well, I'm sure you had a good reason, sweetie. I expect I'd better leave now. I've got work to do, and I don't want to be late."
Imbolc nodded, relieved that the other was leaving. "Goodbye, Ontic."
"Goodbye, sweetie," said Ontic, and turned away. Imbolc breathed a sigh of relief.
"Oh, and one more thing." Ontic turned back around, her hand at her belt.
The DIS agent leaned in close, and her next words were a whispered chant, spoken rapidly.
"Here comes a candle to light you to bed. Here comes a chopper to chop off your head."
Imbolc saw the knife, and screamed.
When Carreg opened the door, the first thing he saw was the blank stare of agent he had carefully protected since she had first arrived in the department.
Echo sat, dead, with her pale, bloodied hands on her lap. The blonde hair framed her pretty face on which dried blood was stained. One leg was crossed over the other, as if she was just frozen in a moment after returning from a particularly bad mission, waiting for his return, or listening to either India or himself, just as she usually did. On this occasion, he thought, as his breath caught in his throat, she had been talking to Tango.
Tango, who the poison had been intended for.
She sat next to Echo, facing away from the door, looking vaguely like a discarded rag doll. In her lap was the empty bottle. Carreg sighed, and walked over slowly.
"Well, Ontic," he muttered under his breath, "I hope you're happy."
He closed Echo's eyes, unable to stand blank, soulless reflection of his treachery. Turning to do the same to Tango, he lifted her chin with one hand, and made to close her eyes with the other, when she grabbed his wrist. With burning anger, her eyes met his, and he gave a startled yell.
"You know the reason I didn't stand behind the door to wait for you, so that I could kill you as you came in?" her voice was calm, as though talking about nothing more serious than the fact there was yet another new agent in the next Response Centre along. Carreg opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
"It's because I'm not a backstabber."
There was a flash of sharp pain in his abdomen, and when Carreg looked down, he saw his partner dragging her dagger through his flesh, before she gave it a harsh twist. Jerking in agony, he fell to the floor as Tango stood up.
"Send Echo my condolences, Carreg."
Stepping over his twitching body, she opened a portal, and was about to step through, when the door opened, and there was an ear-piercing, prolonged scream. Slamming her hands over her ears, she looked up just in time to see India, red in the face, howling as loudly as his lungs would let him. Terrified, he took off, as if expecting her to jump at him, foaming at the mouth. Doors in the corridor began to slam open, and Tango panicked, leaping through the blue doorway.
When the first DIS agents skidded through the door, there was no sign that Tango had been there.
I want to move to one of your departments.
I think I'm in danger in the Department of Finance.
I have important information.
The PPC is corrupt.
I can prove it.
The Sunflower Official sat in his office, head resting on his leaves, thinking hard about what Agent Imbolc had said. On the face of it, it sounded like the paranoid ravings of an agent gone mad from too much time in Finance. But there was something about how she'd said it...
It clicked, suddenly. 'I have important information' was among the last recorded words of the Evermind, who had been killed by a rogue agent. The SO sighed. Blue had been one of his best assassins, but apparently the stress of the job had been too much for him. Who would have thought that he would go crazy and kill the Head of... Finance...
The Sunflower sat bolt upright. Imbolc was in the DoF. The Evermind had been head of the DoF. That was the link. Both of them had access to the same information, and Blue had had reason not to want that information to come out. He had killed the Evermind, but why not Imbolc? Oh, of course - those two had been a couple. Blue, even if he had gone crazy, wouldn't be the sort to kill the one he loved, or at least, not without exhausting every other option...
The SO shook his petals. This is silly, he muttered. It was all wild speculation based on one paranoid agent and a coincidence of phrasing... but it wouldn't go away. The idea had lodged in his mind, and try as he might, he couldn't get rid of it. It was possible, after all.
He sighed. There was only one way to resolve this internal debate, and that was to go to the heart of the matter. He would have to visit the DIS - much as he hated to do so - and speak with his former agent. As Deputy for Action, he had all the authority he needed to visit a prisoner. The other option was to visit Tango, Blue's former partner, who was still technically under his authority, but the DIS had released her. They wouldn't have done that if she'd known anything.
The SO nodded, his mind made up. He would visit Agent Blue in his cell later that day. For now, though, he had business to attend to. Looking at the clock on his wall, he waved a frond at the door to open it, just in time to prevent the agent outside from knocking.
Ah, Agent Nyx, Agent Jared, do come in. He waved the pair through the door, thinking as he did so that he should probably see about getting some chairs in to make his agents comfortable. Then he remembered that the department also included Jay Thorntree, and shuddered. I don't want to make her think she can stay in here any longer than absolutely necessary, he muttered, and then turned his attention to the two agents, all thoughts of soft furnishings forgotten. Now, I gather you two have a report to give me?
Jared nodded, but Nyx said, "Before we do, can I ask something?"
The SO nodded. Nyx was one of his favourite, and most loyal, Assassins. He always welcomed a chance to talk with her. Go right ahead.
"Well, I just wanted to know if the rumours are true."
Ignoring Jared's long-suffering sigh, the Sunflower tilted his head. What rumours?
"You know, about Agent Tango, over in DAVD?" The SO sat upright.
Tango? I had not heard any rumours about her...
Nyx rolled her eyes. "They're saying she went crazy and killed her partner and another agent and then vanished into thin air. I just wanted to know if it was true."
The SO shook his head. I'm afraid I hadn't heard such a rumour. Then a thought struck him, and he added, Would you happen to know when this took place?
Nyx shook her head. "Not a clue, sir."
Hmm. Do you happen to know if the DIS is dealing with the case?
She shrugged. "I'd assume so, seeing as it is a murder case."
The SO nodded. Of course. He paused for a second, and then said, I wonder Agent Nyx, if you could run an errand for me. It would be helpful if you could go down to the DIS offices for me and inquire as to the truthfulness of these rumours, and also when the murders and Tango's disappearance took place. Could you do that?
"Certainly, sir," said Nyx, but Jared looked troubled. Nyx looked over at her partner, and then said, "Sir, would Jared be required to come with me?"
The SO shook his head. No, I don't believe so. He knew that the agent had a certain fear of the DIS, and indeed of large crowds in general. As it happens, I have another task for you, Agent Jared. There is a new recruit by the name of Dafydd Illian who needs a partner for his first mission, and I believe you would be an ideal partner for him. It's only a temporary assignment, he added, to reassure the agent, just until Nyx gets back.
Jared nodded, and then said, "Sir, what about our report?"
Oh, that can wait, said the SO dismissively. Go on, you two. Nyx, report back to me as soon as you return. Jared, you need to go to RC #8718, Agent Dafydd will be waiting there.
The two agents departed, leaving the SO with his thoughts. Agent Tango has gone missing after killing two agents. Agent Tango, who used to be Blue's partner. Can it be that Imbolc is afraid that Tango is after her now? She did say she was in danger... am I jumping to conclusions here? He shook his petals in agitation. It sounds crazy, I know, but I can't help thinking it's true, or at the least close to it.
The Flower sighed. Well, he said out loud, Nyx will tell me. Until she does, I have work to do. So saying, he curled a frond around a pen lying on the desk and began to leaf through a pile of paperwork.
In the cold depths of the lonely cell, Blue sat huddled in to a corner, his arms wrapped around his knees. Dark shadows circled his eyes, and he was covered in bruises. Dried blood covered his cracked lips. From a little further down the line of barred rooms, somebody was wailing for mercy in their sleep. The light flashed on above him, and it began to flicker dimly. The clack, clack, clack of footsteps echoed down the corridor, and the other prisoners fell silent. Blue recoiled even further in to his shell.
As the footsteps approached, he bent his head, hoping that he wouldn't draw attention to himself. The tactic, however, failed to work, and the DIS agent stopped outside his door. Keys clanked in the lock.
"Hey, Blue, it's your lucky day. The Bracket Fungus wants to talk to you. Get moving."
The unfortunate Assassin was pulled to his feet, and shoved roughly through the door of the cell. As they walked back along the long, narrow corridor with cells on either side, he felt the stares of the various occupants. There was a little pity, yes, but mostly it was relief that they themselves had been spared, and were being ignored still.
Blue was led out of the row of cells, and the door clanged shut loudly behind him, closed by a strange looking agent who must have been a pine-martin or ferret, making him shudder. Around him, dozens of DIS agents lounged, like a swarm of rats. This room was their nerve centre; the place they went to plan, gossip, check rotas and store the rows and rows of glinting weapons, each item unique, stamped somewhere with the symbol of the black cat that had become so feared throughout the PPC.
Talk did not stop as Blue was marched through the room to a large, imposing door on the other side of the room, but jeers filled the spaces between sentences, adding to the general cacophony. An Elven agent, Nendil, stuck out a foot and made him stumble, causing many of the agents to laugh nauseatingly. Blushing furiously, and ignoring them as best he could, Blue was grateful for the relative peace of the next room.
Behind the desk, the Bracket Fungus sat, smirking as only a plant could. On the desk itself, Ontic sat swinging her legs, humming a little tune. Her eyes glinted with an almost merry malice. She giggled, sending a shiver down Blue's spine.
"Well, hello there! Shut the door, Dassie dear."
Obediently, the guard who had pulled Blue from the cells shut the door. Unlike the doors in the cells, there was no reverberation, only a soft 祖lick' as the noise outside was drowned out.
Ah, Blue. I believe Ontic here has some news for you...