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Justin Agent was browsing the HQ network looking for clues. This was his default state: checking up on the agents of the PPC to see if any of them were, in fact, 'Sues or 'Stus. When he found one, he passed the word to Peter and Nita, and went back to looking. It was a pleasant enough job, if you like that sort of thing. Easy. Kind of like being a techno-savvy Sherlock Holmes, if Holmes had a habit of sending assassins after the guilty. So not very much like. Justin realised he was entering a stream-of-consciousness fugue state. He shrugged it off and kept working.

The Ironic Overpower noted the word ‘easy’ in Justin’s thoughts, and schemed.

Justin's brow furrowed as he clicked through a link to a comment made by an Agent Morgan, somewhere on the network. "New Time Lord agent?" he muttered. "What new Time Lord agent?" In another window he called up the Personnel database of new recruits. "She's mad," he muttered. "What's she...?"

The comment was linked into a posting board of some kind, unhelpfully labelled 'PPC Posting Board'. It was fairly standard for the network – it had a Constitution and everything – but there was something subtly wrong about the whole affair. Justin pulled up the post Morgan had replied to.

Obviously I can't ask for permission yet, but would you lovely people be willing to check out my characters for me?

"Hah, fat chance," Justin murmured. "Let someone write fanfic in HQ? Not happening, dearie." He read a few more lines with vague curiousity - some sort of character description, not too bad, but hardly worth his attention. He was just about to fire off a quick report to Personnel (anonymous, naturally - he had an image to keep hidden), but stopped short as something he had just read snagged his consciousness:

Curious, she flew her TARDIS in, crashed in the PPC lobby, and was subsequently recruited.

"What is this?" the Dwarf breathed. "Is this girl writing PPC fanfiction in her RC? I'd better put a stop to that." He tapped a few keys, and on a third screen a symbolic (ie, very bad) map of HQ popped up.

[Tracing location... error. Scope too narrow. Please widen scope]

Justin blinked. The culprit wasn't in HQ? That was weird. Maybe New Caledonia, then, or off in a TARDIS somewhere... he widened the searcher's scope. A moment later, his eyes widened in astonishment.

[Source located outside PPC jurisdiction. Verse – approx. World One. Specifics? Y/N]

Justin's mind whirled. He clicked another post on the Posting Board, and a third – same result. The fourth post he read in full, and nearly fainted with shock before remembering that grown dwarves didn’t faint. This ‘PPC Posting Board’ wasn’t a posting board for the PPC at all - it was populated by people who clearly thought of the PPC as fictional.

“I’ll show ‘em fictional,” he muttered to himself, touching his axe almost without realising it. Oh, he wouldn’t actually hurt anyone, but a quick visit couldn’t do that much damage...

… except no, that wasn’t his job. His job was to stop ‘Sues getting into HQ, not teach the multiverse the truth about the PPC. Which meant, much as he might dislike the idea, he had to divert their attention from Morgan before she gave everything away, or rather, even more away.

“Yay, damage control,” he whispered, and a slight smile appeared on his face. His job was easy, sure enough, but sometimes it got a bit dull. Justin was a dwarf of action, and sitting at a desk all the time wasn’t quite where he’d expected to end up. He cracked his knuckles and hit the ‘Post Reply’ button.

Please do ignore her. This so-called 'Agent' Morgan is clearly just a delusional individual. The PPC is of course fictional...

Once he had finished, Justin sat back, his expression satisfied. "Problem noted, problem solved," he said to himself. "Now I just need to put up a filter to stop anyone else finding this board, and-"

[New message detected on 'PPC Posting Board'. Origin: Department of Operations. Text follows]

"This is going to be more trouble than I thought," Justin groaned. "I'd better get Peter and Nita on the case."

The day that followed was a harrowing one for the DIO. Various PPC agents posting innocently on the Board were met by claims that they were insane or liars. Some of them argued. Nita accidentally denied the existence of a perfectly legitimate Boarder, JulyFlame, only to attract the attention of the similarly-named Agent July. Finally Peter stormed into Justin's office.

"This has gone on too long," he said firmly. "They're refusing to listen to reason, and I have a job to do here. Fix it, Justin, or I'll fix you."

Justin raised an eyebrow and tapped the hilt of his battleaxe. "I'm sure that wasn't a threat, Agent Piper," he said.

Peter tensed, then sighed. “All right, sorry. I’m not cut out for this sort of work, Justin - it’s getting to me. When are you going to fix it?”

“What do you think I’ve been trying to do?” Justin asked. “None of my filters are working. It’s like something in the network is actively working against me. Do we have any gremlin agents, do you know?”

Peter frowned. “Justin... what if it’s them fighting you - the boarders?”

Justin laughed. “How can they? They don’t even believe we exist. It’s impossible to hack into a network you think is fictional - believe me, I’ve tried.”

“But what if they’re- no, never mind, it’s just the workload getting to me.” Peter let out a short, sharp laugh. “Actually the work’s not that bad - it’s Nita who’s getting to me. It’s like everything she types on that wretched board goes wrong. Have you seen the one who called us trolls?"

"I replied to it," Justin said. "Quite a good argument, actually – I wish I'd thought of it. Maybe their Nameless Admin would have deleted the rogue posts."

"What?"

"Sorry, I've been doing some background reading." Justin shook his head. "On the bright side, it seems to be working. There's a party on in the Lounge right now – some winter celebration – but these Boarders think it's a roleplay." He tapped one of his screens, indicating the thread in question. Peter frowned.

"How can they think it's a roleplay? How do they even know about it?" He looked worried. “Justin, you don’t think... I mean, they couldn’t be right, could they?” Justin looked at him for a long moment, then reached over and pinched his arm. Peter flinched back. “What was that for?”

"Testing,” the dwarf said bluntly. “You don’t feel in the least bit fictional. No, probably someone's just posting from the Lounge," he suggested. "Now, if you're feeling stressed out, why not go down there yourself? It'd do you good to get out of the office."

Peter stared at him as if he didn't understand a word the Dwarf was said - which, given that Justin couldn’t recall him ever leaving DIO HQ except on missions, he might well not have. Then he shrugged. "No. But you've given me an idea. I just need to approach it right..."

~

Nita Kerys was just considering getting her sun lamp out when the door slammed back. Her partner stomped in with a face like a simile. "You're leaving," he said bluntly.

Nita blinked. "Um, what?" she said. She felt there was more that could be said, but 'What?' covered most of it.

"Leaving the RC," Peter repeated. "I'll look after the console for the time being. Go do something else – that party in the Lounge, or something."

Nita's face lit up. "The christmas party? I get to go to- Peter, you shouldn't have!" She threw her arms around her partner, whose scowl only deepened.

"Yes. I know. Get lost, Nita."

Nita practically skipped towards the door, then stopped as Peter called out from behind her, "That's the wrong way..." She rolled her eyes.

"Honestly, you think I'm going to my first party in five years looking like this? They'll have mistletoe! I'm putting on my makeup whether you like it or not."

The look on Peter's face was priceless. He clearly wanted to say You have makeup? in an incredibly condescending tone, but fought down the impulse and went for, "Just... hurry up, please."

Ten minutes later, Nita walked out of the door, eyes tightly closed, and made her way through the DIO's corridor. She'd occasionally tried peeking at the urple-and-wilver paint coating the walls, but it always ended with her getting utterly disoriented. Better to go blind and just remember the route. Once out in the main halls of HQ, she headed straight for the Lounge.

The party was everything Nita had dreamed it would be, which wasn't saying much: even before she'd joined the DIO she'd been a loner, and for the past seven years her contact with others had mostly been limited to Peter, Justin, the Elm, and people she had to kill. She’d tried going on a date once, but wouldn’t you know it, her prospective boyfriend had turned out to be a Gary-Stu bent on wrecking the entire fabric of the multiverse. Or at least that was what Peter told her when he forbade her ever seeing him again.

Well, that was all in the past now, and Nita Kerys was back on the scene with a vengeance. This party had dozens, if not hundreds of people in it - most of them drunk - and if she couldn’t find someone to pay attention to her, well... well, she just would. She had makeup on and everything.

(Back in DIO HQ, Peter slipped into Justin’s office. “How’s she doing?” he asked.

“I can’t imagine why you’d assume I was watching her,” Justin replied primly. Peter snorted.

“Justin - I can see the screens. I’d be disappointed if you weren’t keeping an eye on her.” He leant on the desk and studied the picture. “Wow... she really doesn’t know how to do her makeup, does she?”

“Maybe you could give her tips,” Justin commented absently. “Now shut up and watch...”)

A huge sprig of mistletoe caught Nita's attention, and she hung around unobtrusively nearby until a likely-looking agent happened past. Then she stepped forward, looking up at him with a big smile, and puckered her lips.

This happened three times.

Eventually Nita grew tired of the rather lackluster kisses (and besides, Agent Luxury was starting to look interested) and wandered away. The party was in full swing, with chocolate-covered snacks of all descriptions, including eggnog (very tasty – Nita went back for thirds... twice). Various old friends and enemies were catching up with each other, and Nita was...

... lonely, because she didn't have any old friends. That was why she'd been recruited to the DIO in the first place – no attachments. She sighed. No one would say hello to her here. She might as well leave.

"Hi there." Never let it be said the Ironic Overpower doesn’t have a sense of timing.


Nita blinked, turning to look at the black-haired woman in the corner who had greeted her out of the blue. "Um, hi," she said. The woman nodded and lifted her mug.

"She's got a baby, you know," she said, sounding distinctly morose. Nita blinked rapidly. Had she missed half a conversation? The eggnog must be getting to her. Or was eggnog non-alcoholic? And did the chocolate coating make a difference? She’d have to check that.

Oblivious to her conversation-partner’s distration, the agent in the corner went on. "Had a baby, I guess,” she sighed, staring down at her mug. He's still alive – lovely little thing. But not Traf.” She glanced up at Nita as if checking she was still there, and shook her head with a slight smile. Apparently I'm a maudlin drunk."

Nita had stopped listening. The name Traf rang bells – what was it? Something from biology, she thought - tumor necrosis receptor... something something. It had always sounded like a magic incantation to Nita, which was probably why she’d failed biology so miserably. Not sure that’s quite the meaning she was going for, Nita told herself - and then it clicked. A couple of years back an agent had died in childbirth - her name had been Traf. It had been a tragedy, no mistake, but it hadn’t stopped there. Traf's partner had gone missing at around the same time, and her name had been... oh. Oh dear.

The short woman had stopped speaking. "Um, right," Nita said, looking at her in a shocked daze. "I... um, I have to do something." She took a few hurried steps away and spoke rapidly into her radio. "Peter, are you there? I've got a problem – a big problem."

(“Is that her radio? What’s she doing, listening to music?”

Justin rolled his eyes. “Maybe she’s trying to get in touch with you? Ooh - maybe she’s asking you on a date!”

Peter shook his head slowly. “Then I’m glad I left the radio back in our RC.”)

There was no reply. The seconds stretched out into what felt like hours - days - years. Finally, around the time of the heat death of the universe, Nita surrendered to panic. If Peter wasn’t on the radio, she had to find another way of reaching him - and there was one place he was sure to be watching. Nita pulled out her palmtop console and accessed the PPC Posting Board. Finding a comment by Peter (one calling her an idiot - not that that was very specific), she posted a quick cry for help. Of course, she realised as soon as she hit Post that there were better options open to her - like, say, radioing Justin and asking for his help - but it was done now.

Peter's reply came soon enough: Nita, calm down. Who's talking to you? Why is this a problem? Remember your training – and stop posting DIO business on the network. Nita blushed. She’d been hoping he wouldn’t realise quite how stupid she was being. No such luck. She picked up a glass of eggnog and downed it.

(And a small, spider-like machine scurried away, whispering to itself in machine-code: mixture 2 delivered to target unit returning for disposal)

All of a sudden, Nita’s embarrassment solidified into cold rage. ‘Remember your training’, was it? After seven years he still felt the need to patronise her? Okay, she wasn’t the most graceful person in the world - or even in the DIO - but she did her job, didn’t she? Well, forget the radio! Forget Peter! She could handle this by herself!

She was still holding her radio. She wanted to throw the little black device across the room, but realised just in time that Justin would never forgive her. She clipped it back onto her belt - but defiantly, it was clearly defiant - and watched the agent who had spoken to her. Agent Morgan - it had to be. Time Lady, former partner to the late Traf Elosia, instigator of the whole PPC Posting Board crisis... threat to the PPC.

Okay, granted she didn’t look much like a dire threat - she just looked drunk. As Nita watched, Morgan wandered across the room (in a classic portrayal of random Brownian motion), and, bumping against a table, dropped her gun. Nita tensed. Okay, take back ‘didn’t look like a threat’. A drunken Time Lady with possible anti-PPC intentions was not a good person to be holding a gun.

(Peter leaned in so close that he could see every freckle on Nita’s face. “What’s she so worried about?” he asked of the room at large. “There’s nothing going on...”

Justin was tapping away at a keyboard. “That woman is Morgan,” he said after a moment. “You don’t suppose Nita blames her for this?”

“Not possible,” Peter said dismissively. “She’s far too intelligent for that.” He paused a second. “Never tell her I said that.”)

“If I was sober,” Morgan announced to the room at large, holding her gun by the barrel, “I could tell you exactly what this is.” She shook her head and mumbled something else, then looked up as a random Operations agent spoke to her. Nita inched closer, trying to hear.


“… and everyone went back in,” the Ops guy was saying. Nita pulled her AAD from her belt and pointed it at him. [Colt. Department of Operations: Building Maintenance. Known PPC Agent] it reported. “I nearly shot you!” Colt went on. His companion – did Ops have partners? Nita didn’t know, Sues rarely showed up in Infrastructure Departments – elbowed him. “Ow, hey, what was that for? I offered to share first.”

("She’s really way too tense," Peter said. "I know Nita, and this isn't like her one bit."

"Maybe she's just having a bad day," Justin pointed out. "I know I'm pretty tense. Or, hey, maybe she's been drugged."

"Ha, ha," Peter said. "It hasn't been that stressful. There must be some reason... are you sure she's not drugged?"

"By who?" Justin retorted. "Everyone’s been drinking eggnog, you’d have to be right there to get anything into the right glass, and... wait, hang on." He typed a few lines of code, frowned at the screen. "There is something there," he muttered. "I can’t get it into focus, but there’s definitely... is that a robot?"

"Something infiltrating HQ?" Peter asked. "... I know you said about how they couldn’t possibly hack us, but-"

"Definitely not," Justin confirmed - but was there a hint of doubt in his voice?)

The Ops agent’s partner spoke, but Nita tried to tune out the words. Morgan was frowning, mumbling something, and as Nita watched in mounting horror, she flipped the pistol around and lifted it to firing position. Nita’s pulse raced. This was it – crunch time. The DIO agent lunged forward.


“Everyone down!” she yelled, shoving between Morgan and Colt, blaster already in hand. “Morgan of the DMS, I charge you with-“


“Nita, no!” came Peter’s voice from her radio, cutting her off. He sounded panicked, for the first time Nita could recall. “Not a threat!” he yelled. “The cameras have picked up- look, just get out of there. We'll neuralyse later. This is all getting out of hand…”


Nita was shaking as she backed away from the shocked-looking Morgan. “Peter, I’m sorry…” she said to the air around her, not even bothering to lift her radio. She just had to trust that Justin would pick her up on the room’s microphones and relay her words.


Apparently her trust was justified. “Just leave!” Peter yelled, and for once Nita didn’t even think about disobeying. She ran, pushing past startled agents, and didn’t stop until she reached the secret entrance to DIO HQ, and the safety of her own Response Centre. She shoved past Peter, slammed the bedroom door behind her, and sobbed her heart out.


~

Peter Piper paced up and down under the sourceless moonlight. “I don’t understand it, sir,” he said. “Nita’s usually very... well, reasonably sensible. What could cause her to break down so completely, over so little?”

Animal behaviour is a mystery to me, the Elm’s voice said from all around him. If it helps, feel free to theorise aloud. I will not object.

“Thank you, sir,” Peter said, and sighed. “All right. We know something snuck in there and drugged her - we have the pictures. We know Morgan was drugged too, probably to ensure she got drunk enough to provoke Nita. We know Morgan found the Posting Board first. And we know that board consists of people who think we’re fictional toys to be played with.”

The Posting Board is irrelevant to this matter, the Elm said sharply. Give it no further consideration. Has the short one discovered the source of the robots?

Peter blinked. “Sir, it can’t be a coincidence,” he said. “The board shows up and my partner gets drugged, all in the space of a day? Someone’s plotting something. Either someone in the PPC created that Board to try and get at Nita, or it’s a real thing and they somehow caused the attack. Either way, we need to look into it.”

I gave you an order, animal. Do not investigate the Board further, or I will be forced to have the short one lock you out of all records of this and all previous encounters. If you consider this chemical alteration of your partner important, confine your suspicions to the boundaries of HQ - where I am sure the true culprit lies.

Peter sighed. “Yes, sir,” he mumbled. Then he frowned. “All previous...?”

Did you have something further to say to me, animal?

“No, sir.”

Then go home.

~

Peter did nothing about the matter for a week or so, letting the Elm think he’d won. He went on his missions, performed the required assassinations, then went home and read his usual fare (a blend of historical texts from across the multiverse and, when Nita wasn’t looking, historical romances). At the end of the week, he left Nita sunbathing and made his way up the hall to see Justin.

 

“I’ve got a little bit of an issue,” he said without preamble. “There’s some reports I want to take a look at – some research I’m doing – but I don’t know where to look. Are you busy?”

 

Justin looked at his console, which had only a couple of active screens, showing the Lounge and Cafeteria. “I’m sure I can leave this for a few minutes,” he said dryly. “What’s on your mind?”

 

“Well, it’s about that Board incident,” Peter began, then frowned at the look of blank incomprehension on Justin’s face. “You know, the Posting Board? Just before Nita went to that party?”

 

Justin’s brow furrowed, and then his face lit up with understanding. “Aye, I recall,” he said. “Slipped my mind for a bit, that had. What of it?”

 

“Well,” Peter said, still puzzled by Justin’s uncharacteristic memory loss, “I’m wondering if there have been other incidents like it – you know, people saying we’re fictional, etcetera.”

 

“Well, there’s a fair few agents who say such,” Justin pointed out, “but then, a lot of us are bit-parts from badfics, so it’s not much of a question.”

 

“I don’t think it’s the same issue,” Peter disagreed. “We – that is, they, the rest of the PPC – go into stories and bring characters back; they liberate them from their Suethors. I’m talking about people who think the PPC itself is fictional – that we have authors of our own.”

 

“Authors who congregate on a Posting Board and occasionally try to hack our network?” Justin said dubiously. “I think you’re onto a loser there, my friend.”

 

Peter laughed. “I know, right?” he said. “But something keeps happening. I’m just curious as to what it is.”

 

“Well, I’ll try a few searches,” Justin promised. “Any mentions of that Posting Wall-“

 

“Board,” Peter corrected mildly.

 

“Aye, that – or any other fictional-PPC antics, and I’ll pass them onto you.” The Dwarf shook his head and grinned. “Hey, if we are fictional, do you reckon we could write our own story? Maybe give ourselves a holiday?” Peter shook his head immediately.

 

“Get a vacation out of the Elm? Not even in fiction, my friend.”

 

~

 

Justin sent a mass of files over a couple of days later, with a note saying, Can’t quite remember what you wanted with this lot, but here it is. Whenever Nita was out of the RC – and she spent a lot of time in her room when they weren’t on missions – Peter caught up on his reading. The variety of incidents was staggering, and disturbing: they ranged from single spoken sentences (“And it also explains why the author has been dropping references to Vulcans and Klingons in this chapter, doesn’t it?”) to entire weeks in which the PPC had been overrun with badfics.

 

Those concerned Peter the most. He was used to Sues working their way into HQ – of course he was, it was his job – but those were Factory creations, deliberate infiltrations. The only ‘story’ they had was a plan of action written by whoever ran the Factories these days. The badfic invasions were something else entirely: it was as if the PPC were a fandom, a canon which regularly became popular enough for Suethors to write for it.

 

“It doesn’t make sense,” he snarled, banging his fist on the console in frustration. They couldn’t be fictional – like Justin had said, they were obviously real – but there had to be some way to explain what kept happening.

 

On the screen, unnoticed by Peter, a new file appeared, right at the top of the stack. Crisis for the SO, read the title. A few moments later, resolved to finish his reading before drawing any conclusions, Peter clicked it.

 

It appeared to be a short story about the SO receiving a message – from Justin, if that could be believed. The message concerned something called ‘Fanfic Land’, which held, yes, stories about the PPC. Peter’s frown, which had formed when he opened the file, deepened as he read the last paragraph:

 

Below that were the titles and summaries of those three stories. The SO glanced at them, then did a double-take and stared at the topmost. No... he said, stunned. Not... her. Still staring at the screen, he used a frond to navigate a small window to the 'Retired Addresses' folder and selected one. There was someone who needed to know about this... and then, he had an Organisation to put on alert.

 

Peter had no idea what was going on in the apparent story, but Justin had to have sent it to him for a reason. “This actually happened,” he murmured, jumping to a conclusion – but it felt right, and if Justin had been told to stop his research (the Elm had non-ocular light-sensors everywhere), this was just the way he might try to give Peter one last helping hand. And if that had happened, then the SO knew what was going on, and that meant…

 

“Hey, Peter, what’s up?”

 

Nita’s voice shattered Peter’s train of thought, and he hurriedly closed his files. “Oh, nothing much,” he said, aiming for nonchalance and missing by a mile. “Problem?”

 

Nita looked a little worried. “Er, no,” she said dubiously. “Are you… all right?”

 

“Perfectly,” Peter said, straightening up. “And I’m glad you’re here. There’s a few things we need to go over from that last mission…”

 

~

 

It was late at night that Peter received the message. Nita had gone to bed, and Peter was about to, when suddenly the console – the console Peter had been sure was switched off – lit up. Puzzled, Peter crossed to it and sat down. A chat window had opened, and a single line of text hung there on the screen.

 

you think you know whats happening but you do not

 

“What in the worlds?” Peter murmured. No-one should be able to reach this terminal but the DIO’s staff – and Nita was asleep, the Elm didn’t type, and Justin was a better speller than that. He supposed it could be another Flower – they knew about the DIO, at least in vague terms – or maybe… Legal?

 

Who is this? Peter typed back. There was a brief pause, and then:

 

i am the one who watches the watchers i haunt the system i am the ghost in the machine and i have seen your research you have not gone deep enough

 

“Okay, that’s a lot of words for no punctuation,” Peter said, leaning close. “The ghost in the machine, huh? Some kind of hac…” The word hacker trailed off – hadn’t a mysterious hacker been Justin’s explanation for the Board incident? And no one in the PPC should be able to contact him… time for another intuitive leap.

 

Are you from the Board? Peter typed. The reply was nearly instant.

 

which board

 

“Don’t play dumb with me,” Peter murmured. “What, I might have meant the Board of Flowers?”

 

You know which Board.

they do not know i exist i am here to point you in the right direction

 

“That’s not an answer,” Peter sighed. “All right, get pointing.” As if the ghost had heard him, a new block of text appeared:

 

consider the following points one your friend justin does not remember the incident why not two the sunflower official knew about one incursion yet he did nothing why not three there has never been an official response to the incursions why not and now i will leave you goodbye peter i hope i see you again

 

The Console flickered into darkness as soon as Peter had finished reading. He didn’t go for the switch – there would be no point, he knew somehow that the chat program would have vanished. Instead he focussed on remembering what the ‘ghost’ had said. Justin forgot. The SO did nothing. The Board – of Flowers – has never bothered to respond. What links these three things? How does this make sense? What is going on here?

 

~

 

None of Nita’s colleagues ever mentioned her near-breakdown, and Nita thought she knew why. The Elm, of course, was so utterly alien that he probably didn’t realize there was anything wrong. Justin was too polite to mention anything, although she knew for a fact that he’d faced the difficult task of neuralysing as many party-goers as he could get his hands on. As for Peter… Peter Piper didn’t know how to deal with crying women, unless he was killing them. Not that Nita thought he would have any qualms about doing just that, but she hadn’t messed up that badly. Not quite.

So the matter rested, as far as Nita was concerned. The weird Board disappeared from the HQ network as mysteriously as it had come, and Agent Morgan went back to work in the DMS. Everything returned to normal for the DIO, and if Peter seemed a little more detached than he had been, Nita put it down to his feelings over her failure. After a day or two, Nita barely thought about the incident any more - and after a week, she would have been uncharacteristically hard pressed to remember it had even happened. A couple of months passed. Then came the call.

Nita. My room. Now.


Nita ran down the corridor to DIO Control. Justin had sounded furious – and that wasn’t like him at all. She pushed through the door to find the dwarf glowering at the console, one hand gripping his battleaxe. “Justin?” she said, keeping well back. “What-?”


“Did you know about this?” Justin snapped, not looking away. Nita shook her head, blinking.


“Know about what?”


Justin drew his axe from its holster in one swift motion that made Nita flinch, and pointed it at the desk by the door. “Read it. Fast.” On the table was a note.


This will likely be my last message to you. I have no expectation of surviving this – just of setting the fire. It’s up to you to keep it burning.


Remember the fiasco last Christmas with that ‘PPC Board’? That all died down a little too smoothly, didn’t it? I suppose you wondered why I didn’t chase it up – well, the Elm told me not to. He said there was nothing to investigate - that I should forget all about it.


Like that would stop me.


It wasn’t an isolated incident, you know. It’s all there in the records – agents have become aware of this ‘Board’ on any number of occasions, but it’s always been hushed up. They forget it ever happened – but the system knows. The ghost in the machine remembers. And I remember, now.


I know what you’re thinking – is somebody neuralysing them? You wish. It’s a lot more insidious than that. This happens almost instantly – except to me. I still remember.


You know what this means. It’s the flash patches, it has to be. Everyone except us has all kinds of wiring under those things. They say it’s an SEP generator, but I don’t believe it. It’s a contact neuralyser, designed to wipe people’s brains the instant they realize what’s going on. And that means this goes a long way up. All the way to the top.


The Board – ever noticed how our esteemed overlords have the same name as that ‘anomaly’? It’s them, Justin – the so-called Flowers. They’re toying with us, sitting in their own world at their ‘PPC Board’. There are no real Flowers. Each and every one of them is an invented character – and they are not on our side.


So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to put an end to their tyranny, and let’s not mince words: I’m going to kill them. And they’re going to kill me. But that can’t be the end of it.


I am the torch. Be the inferno.


P.P.


Nita looked up at Justin, dazed. She’d forgotten all about the Board... but Peter clearly hadn’t. “I didn’t… I swear I didn’t know.”


“I believe it,” Justin said, and now his voice wasn’t even angry, just numb. “Do you know, he had me do some of the research for him? I pulled up the records of previous encounters for him. I took a look at the back of a flashpatch.”

Nita stared. “And it’s a neuralyzer?”

“Of course not,” Justin said. “Stupid idea. It’s an SEP field, just like we all know. But he wasn’t listening by that point. It was like something was driving him - something outside himself.” His computer let out a soft ping, and he leant down to check something.

Nita swallowed. “Not... the Board?” she said, and shivered. The details were coming back to her now. “Can they really control us?”

“I sincerely hope not,” Justin said bleakly, still studying his screens. “But they’re not the only ones who’ve tried. At the party - you were drugged. That’s why you overreacted so badly. We still don’t know who was behind that.”

 

“You think they’ve gotten to Peter, too?” Nita asked, looking at the letter in mounting horror. It certainly looked as irrational as she’d been at the party. Then a terrible thought struck her. “Justin, this letter – it’s not just a rant, is it? Where is he?”

 

“I don’t know,” Justin said wearily, gesturing at the screens. “I can’t find him. I’ve been looking everywhere. From what he said, I would have expected him in the SO’s office by now – it’s the usual standby. But he’s in none of the offices.”

 

“Then I’ll have to go and look for him,” Nita said firmly. “I know how he thinks – I can find him.”

 

“You could if you could get out,” Justin agreed. “But he locked the doors behind him – and locked out the portal generators.”

 

“But you can reboot that,” Nita said, desperation slipping into her voice. “You can, I don’t know, fix it - can’t you?”

 

“If I have time,” Justin said. “But I don’t think we’ll have that long. He’s got something planned – or whoever’s controlling him has.” There was a chime from the console, and he frowned. “DIA message to the DES,” he murmured. “That’s unusual to say the least – the Tiger Lily and Captain Dandy don’t exactly get on. Let’s see.”

Nita was off in her own train of thought. “If he’s being manipulated it’s not his fault, right?” she said. “I mean, if he’s drugged or whatever. Or even if we really are fictional – that would mean it wasn’t his fault, right? Justin?”

Justin had turned to a new screen, and his face had frozen into an emotionless mask. “I sort of hope we aren’t real,” he said, “that way what Peter’s doing won’t matter. Take a look...”

Nita walked over and stood silently behind the dwarf. What she saw made her want to simultaneously scream and cry. Six screens in front of him showed six different angles, but all of them showed the same tableau: Peter Piper standing over the motionless forms of half a dozen Flowers, screaming defiance across the Small Auditorium. Behind a row of chairs a DIA team crouched, the blaster burns on the seats behind them an eloquent explanation for their concealment. Justin tapped the screen.

“Two Yellow Roses,” he said in a monotone. “A Dandelion from the DES. The Snowthorn. And the Clover.”

Nita felt her stomach lurch, as if her heart had knocked it on its way to her feet. “Department Heads?”

“WhatThe and Finance,” Justin said. “The Head of the Department of Finance is dead - again - and our colleague killed him.” His hand gripped the hilt of his axe. “Peter, you utter idiot,” he snarled at the screen. “You should have talked to me, you should have-“

“Later,” Nita said, and she was actually shaking now as what had happened sunk in. “Anger later. We have to do something.”

Justin laughed hollowly. “Do what, exactly? He hardly needs our help. He’s injured two of the DIA squad in there – they’re just looking for a way out now.”

Nita shook her head, blinking back tears. “We need to help them, not him. Peter’s not himself. He’s being controlled, or influenced, or something.” Or written this way, she thought, but didn’t say – it was too much. “He has to be stopped.”

“But we can’t get there!” Justin bellowed, slamming a fist into the console so hard the screen jumped. “Idiot, idiot!”

The console pinged again, and one of the screen switched to displaying text. Nita bit her lip and read it. “It’s too late,” she said, and the words were agony. “Here come the Weeds.”

The screens lit up with a sudden white flash, and when it cleared there were a dozen Flowers from the DES surrounding Peter. He was fast – faster than Nita would ever have guessed – and took down five of them with a single sweep of his blaster, but there were too many for him – and they’d come prepared. Nita didn’t know what kind of gun it was, but Peter simply froze in mid-attack. The Weeds surged forward, the DIA leapt over the chairs to join them, and then it was all over until the trials.