Makes-Things scowled at the glittering brass-and-steel construction occupying half the room. "What in HQ possessed you to use a Babbage Analytical Engine as your filing system?" he demanded.
My secretaries preferred it, the Big Thorn said. Is it a problem?
"Problem? Look, no matter what people tell you, steampunk is no match for good new-fashioned electronics."
I'm sorry for wasting your time, then, Technician.
Makes-Things rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The thing is, I can see what they did, but I don't know how. Your engine shouldn't even be connected to the HQ network - I mean, they shouldn't even be able to connect. Let alone do... this."
‘This' was a malevolent virus running wild in the HQ network. It was redirecting portals at random, shutting off the lights, auto-locking any doors that could be auto-locked, and generally making a right mess of everything. It had resisted every effort to kill it, and had already claimed a dozen lives.
Why do we not destroy the machine? the Big Thorn asked. Makes-Things shook his head.
"It's got another layer of programming. This spring here? If it relaxes, it sends an instruction to the virus. I don't know what it does, and I don't want to find out."
"Then we need another solution," a new voice said, and a man in a white robe walked up to the Analytical Engine. "I'm the Big Thorn's... well, I'm suppose I'm his chief administrator now. My colleagues did this, so maybe I can undo it."
Makes-Things frowned. "Have you worked on a Babbage Engine before?" he asked.
The young man shook his head. "They wouldn't let me near it. Said I'd damage their ‘big project'. I should have seen the signs - I'm sorry, sir," he added, nodding to the Big Thorn.
"How is it you think you can help, then?" Makes-Things asked. The man in white smiled.
"The greatest military mind ever believes that art is the key to understanding the artist. Perhaps by knowing the artists so well, I can work out this device - for what is it if not art?"
Makes-Things stared, shaking his head slowly as the Secretary knelt down to study the Engine. "Metaphysical ideals aside, sir," the PPC's head technician said to the Big Thorn, "I've already asked the Sub Rosa to organise a hunt for the missing secretaries. Do you have any idea where they might have gone?"
The Marquis de Sod sent all their records to me - to my personal computer, the Plant replied. I should be able to find out their home ‘verses, favourite fandoms, lust objects and so forth.
"It's a start," Makes-Things said, nodding thoughtfully. "We'll need to-"
If a silence can be louder than a noise, this one was. The hum of a thousand frightened, restless voices in the halls outside stopped, replaced by a wary, waiting silence. The lights in the DAVD archive stopped flickering. Makes-Things and the Big Thorn looked down at the man, who stood up from his work. "Quite simple, really," he said. "I knew Taffeta would be in charge - he always is - and he'd never leave himself without an escape hatch. He delegates that sort of thing to Frock, and she's got a Vulcan's love of logic and symmetry." He nudged the spring Makes-Things had earlier discussed. "If this was the signal to enter the kill phase, then this," he pointed at a similar spring on the far side of the Engine, "had to be the key to shutting it down."
Makes-Things' mouth was hanging open. "And you just... went ahead and did it?" he said. "Without checking with me?" The Korean blinked. "That sounded a bit arrogant, but I do have years of experience, and you just said you'd never used a Babbage Engine."
"I didn't have time," the secretary said. "People were dying out there - good people. Now we need to go and help those who are trapped - if you can do without me, I mean, sir," he added, glancing at the Big Thorn.
How can I say no? the Plant asked. That was rhetorical. Go and do what needs doing. Fizz R will be there should you need him.
"Thank you, sir," the man said, and looked to Makes-Things. "Come along, Technician - we've got Agents to save."