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Ma'am? We've picked up a signal on the long-range scanner.

The Sub Rosa didn't even bother to lift her blossom. The scanners haven't stopped ringing since Makes-Things built them, she pointed out. With his Cascade still going strong, it's hardly a surprise that we're always detecting new portals somewhere. And with the reports we've been getting of simultaneous appearances… She snorted. I can't believe Hornbeam let him unleash this.

I don't suppose he intended to, the Tiger Lily said. She shrugged her leaves. Besides, at least the builders are happy with it.

Oh, yes. Did you know they've opened a new Infrastructure department? 'The Department of Building Operations and Maintenance', they're calling it. I think they've claimed the Floating Hyacinth and its supplies as part of their remit, actually. The Sub Rosa fluttered her petals. Well, it just demonstrates that someone is happy whatever you do. Back to work now, come along.

Ah – no. Something in the Tiger Lily's voice made her superior glance up. It's not a Cascade plothole. The scanner says it's natural.

Then tell the Big Thorn it was there; he can add it to his charts. The Sub Rosa's petals curled. Not that I disapprove of information-gathering, but I'm not sure why plotting every natural plothole that ever opens is useful. I think he just wants something to do.

Ma'am – it's stable.

The Sub Rosa's blossom whipped round. What?

The plothole – it's stable. And natural plotholes can't do that. Which means-

I follow. The Sub Rosa straightened up and untangled her roots from the earth. Show me.

~

The plothole had opened on one of the many airless moons the Flowers had originally colonised, which meant the Sub Rosa and her team had to don Lack of Air Containment Equipment to reach it – and then brace against a howling gale as the vacuum sucked the atmosphere from the far side through. As the Technicians set up their sufficiently advanced technology to stabilise the plothole further, the Sub Rosa stared through the spatio-temporal rip.

That's Old HQ, she said at last. There's no mistaking it, even if it has gone to ruin.

It's been more than ten years, the Tiger Lily pointed out. There's no-one on the other side?

No, the Sub Rosa agreed, and they haven't sealed the doors, either. I wonder if there's even anyone there, or if they just set the Sustainer on automatic.

There's only one way to find out, the Tiger Lily said. Someone has to go through.

Yes. The Sub Rosa furrowed her petals. Oh, confound Captain Dandy. Just when we need him and his Weeds, he has to go gallivanting off into the Cascade. 'We must map its extent,' he says, and, 'if we close some of the portals, the distributed program will be disrupted, and we might be able to end the spread'. Which is all very wonderful, I agree, but we need him here.

I'm sure we can manage without him, the Tiger Lily said, mostly keeping a smirk out of her tone. He's not that valuable.

I shall take that as you volunteering to accompany me.

The Tiger Lily jumped. What? But I-

Someone has to, the Sub Rosa pointed out. If Origin wants to contact us, we have to know why.

But not us, the Tiger Lily said. We're the Department of Intelligence, not Action! We-

The rush of air through the plothole cut off suddenly, leaving a faint scatter of ice crystals on the ground. That's quite impressive, the Big Thorn said admiringly. An atmospheric stabiliser large objects can still pass through… that Makes-Things, he really knows what he's doing.

Sometimes, at any rate. The Sub Rosa turned back to her subordinate. Coming? That's not a question, by the way.

~

The buildings of Old HQ were, to put it bluntly, a mess. It had been close to fifteen years since the Civil War, but it was clear no-one had occupied the structure since the plotholes had been closed. All the damage was still there, with more than a decade of weathering – and now the aftereffects of the gale which had howled through the corridors.

The Sub Rosa picked her way over the debris, aiming for the external doors. The plotholes which had linked the various parts of Old HQ were long since closed, and the place had not been designed to be navigated without their aid. It was possible, but only barely so. We may have been the only choice for this trip, the Sub Rosa commented to her subordinate. I'm not sure anyone else paid attention to the physical layout.

I'm not all that certain I did, the Tiger Lily murmured. Good grief, she exclaimed, ducking past a half-demolished wall, this is my office! And it backs onto the break room? Oh, the information gathering opportunities I missed…

The Flowers rounded a corner into a wide hallway filled with autumn leaves. The Tiger Lily shuddered. Ugh. People are disgusting. Why would you shed indoors, for Hole's sake?

Maybe the culture has changed, the Sub Rosa suggested. It's been long enough. Why should we assume our kindred share our hangups about what is, in truth, only a natural bodily function? You need to be more tolerant, Tiger Lily.

No, I don't, the Tiger Lily retorted. They should at least have the decency to do it outside, where it can fertilise the soil.

Perhaps you can tell them all about it. But for now… The Sub Rosa slipped out of the mostly-closed door and into full daylight. She spread her leaves wide and turned her petals skyward. It feels good to stand under our own sun again, doesn't it?

For once, the Tiger Lily didn't argue. The two Flowers stood there for long standard time partitions, soaking in the light.

Well, hello there. I don't think we've met before – are you looking for some… companionship?

The Sub Rosa swivelled her blossom, training it on the Yellow Rose who was approaching. Not precisely, she said. We're looking for information.

Oh, you're female-designated. The Yellow Rose fluttered her petals. Never mind, then. Information? What, about this place? No one cares about it except those crazy Holers.

The two PPC Flowers exchanged a look and a thought. Holers? the Tiger Lily asked. Who are they?

Oh, you know, the lunatics who used to go around saying 'Plotholes are good!', but nowadays are stuck on 'Plotholes will bring down the Hole and kill us all!'. Some of them are friendly, but most of them wouldn't know a proposition if it- well, anyway, they have some sort of obsession with this old ruin.

The Tiger Lily nodded her blossom. They must have been the ones who… regardless, you are likely correct. Given the ephemeral nature of plotholes, it is impossible for them to 'bring down the Hole'; the most they could do is briefly allow hard radiation to impact a small area of Origin's surface, which-

She stopped at the touch of the Sub Rosa's mind. Now would be a good time to look up, the Firstborn announced.

The Tiger Lily obediently tilted her blossom to the sky. The Sun was glowing a fierce white – and then a dark curve cut across it, growing until it covered half of that burning orb.

The sky is falling, the Sub Rosa stated calmly, as the Hole eclipsed the Sun, far larger than it had ever been before. I think it's time to consider evacuation.

~

Years of defending the Word Worlds from Merry Pseudos had left the Flowers with a vast array of weaponry. They could destroy planets from orbit; they could reach across half a continent to strike down an enemy; they could focus their very thoughts into a lance that would shred an opponent's mind. Given all that, it ought to have been easy to hold the evacuation centre against all attacks.

But treachery is hard to defend against. And it only takes one betrayal to give your foe the same tools as you have.

We need those shields! the Sub Rosa yelled. Get Operations to release everything – everything – to DoSAT, and tell Hornbeam if we don't get them in the next five standard time partitions, we'll all be dead!

I'm going, already! The Queen Anne's Lace ducked back into the hastily-constructed Generic Surface building which housed the only exit plothole from Origin. From the guard post by the perimeter gate, the Flowers from Intelligence felt her departure.

I think even five standard time partitions will be too long, the Tiger Lily said quietly. You saw how the mountains shook during the last earthquake – one more pass, maybe two, and the Hole will tear this world apart.

I know, the Sub Rosa admitted. But two passes is long enough to get a few hundred more Flowers to HQ – if they'll come.

And speaking of… The Tiger Lily swung her light-focusser around to peer down the Hill. Ma'am, we have a party of twenty approaching. No visible weapons. Mental scan… inconclusive. Her petals slumped.

Not your fault, the Sub Rosa assured her. All any of us can read is 'fear/panic/distress' these days.

The two Flowers watched the refugees (or maybe attackers) approach until they stood before the gate. Identify yourselves, the Sub Rosa called.

One of the new Plants looked up. Identify? it asked. Who do you think you are, anyway?

The only people with a way off this dying planet, the Tiger Lily snapped. Now tell us who you are, or get lost.

The Plant shrugged its leaves. I'm from the Government, it said, deceptively casual, and you are wanted criminals – dead or alive!

Down! the Sub Rosa cried, and threw herself from the tower just as the newcomer's weapon engulfed it in flame. The air surged against her leaves, conveying the rattling of other weaponry against the gate, and she felt the determined assault of several minds against hers. Likely they thought the combination would be enough to confuse, distract, maybe even injure her.

But she was a Firstborn. She had communed with the other Flowers before there was such a thing as words. She had walked the plothole passages between the stars, and stood on countless worlds. These Conservative rebels couldn't touch her.

The Sub Rosa lashed out with the full power of her mind. One by one, the enemies of the PPC fell, writhing in mental anguish, or simply blank. And from each of them she drew their knowledge, their plans, their secrets. What she found terrified her.

Tiger Lily! she screamed, even as the last of them hit the ground. They weren't the real attack! The Government has a Taproot – they're going to bring down the Hill!

How soon? the Tiger Lily demanded. How many more can we get out? She threw a glance back up to the summit. The queues-

No time, no time! We'll just have to throw everyone at the plothole – that way at least some will escape. Come on-

That won't be necessary, announced a firm mental voice, distant but still strong. Everything is under control. The Taproot is disabled.

Beside the Sub Rosa, the Tiger Lily gasped. It can't be!

It is, the Sub Rosa confirmed. Captain Dandy. When did you return?

We haven't, the Dandelion told her. The Sub Rosa's mind flooded with surprise.

But you're here, she pointed out. You must have come back!

Have I baffled you? What an unusual experience. There was mirth in Captain Dandy's tone, but only a little. The Cascade, Sub Rosa. We came in through the Cascade.

But… that's impossible! the Sub Rosa gasped. Artificial portals – they only work in Word Worlds. There can't be an opening onto Origin.

There's more than one, Captain Dandy said grimly. What do you think destabilised the orbit?

… root and branch. The Sub Rosa was shaking now, her mind flying in every direction. We didn't mean to… we didn't know

I know, Captain Dandy assured her. So do we all. Listen, I've sent a refugee party your way - maybe a hundred Flowers, they should be in sight any moment now. You should have time to get them through. Then I think you should leave.

Under the Sub Rosa, the ground rumbled ominously, a warning of the Hole's next approach. But what about all the others? she asked. What about you?

We have an exit of our own, Captain Dandy assured her. We're getting as many out as we can – the ones I've sent over are our own overflow. We'll send them back through the Cascade to HQ.

And you? the Sub Rosa demanded. We need you back, Captain-

We have a job to do, Captain Dandy cut her off. We need to map the Cascade – and we need to put an end to it. We can't let this happen to other worlds. Goodbye, Sub Rosa.

Not goodbye, the Sub Rosa promised him fiercely. We will see you again.

How sure are you of that?

I'm the Head of the Department of Intelligence. I am absolutely sure.

Back to Chapter 7

On to Chapter 9