The fair-haired man knocked at the grey door of the Response Centre, and then stood patiently waiting for it to open. After a moment it did so, and a woman in a black uniform peered out. "Yes?" she said, her tone indicating equal parts nervousness and irritation.
"Agent Nita Kerys?" asked the man, studying her. She fit the description he'd been given – short, ginger hair, green eyes, slightly darker skin than his – but in his job, it became second nature to double-check these things.
"Er, yes, that's me..." She frowned. "Are you my new partner? Only no one's said anything..."
Ignoring her question, he stepped away from the door. "Come with me." Turning, he strode away down the corridor, back the way he had come.
Nita hesitated a moment, and then scuttled after him. If she didn't, she'd probably have to go on another solo mission, and she'd had enough of them to last a lifetime. Catching up with the strange man, she looked at his arm, where she saw an unfamiliar flashpatch. Actually, it was a familiar patch – her own, the cactus of the Department of Mary-Sues – with a silver knife overlaid on it, stabbing into the point where the branches met.
She asked a few questions – mostly along the lines of 'Where are we going?' – but the man didn't answer. Nita lost track of the number of corridors they walked down, but finally the man stopped in front of a blank wall. This wasn't as odd as it could have been – some of the doors in HQ had a habit of vanishing, after all – but the man performed what appeared to be an intricate knocking-code, and that /was/ unusual. Nowhere in HQ had Nita seen a door that needed a code, except here.
The door opened, and all thoughts about how strange it was were driven from her mind by the corridor beyond. "Ai!" she exclaimed, and covered her eyes.
And well she might, for the walls were painted in a swirling mess of urple, wilver, blello, bleen, and several similar colours. The effect was so blinding that she was sure more than a minute's exposure would cause her to go permanently blind, or perhaps make her eyeballs crawl out of their sockets and run away. She groped sideways with her free hand and, finding the man still there, asked, "What is that?"
"Defence mechanism," he said, and, grabbing her arm, pulled her inside. The door slammed shut behind her. "Keep your eyes closed," the man added, and dragged her off down the corridor.
Nita obeyed. In fact, she didn't dare disobey, even though the gravity in the corridor changed nauseatingly several times, including once turning the floor into a ceiling and dropping her through three metres of empty space onto a mattress. But the man was there to help her up and continue guiding her, and finally she heard the sound of a door opening and closing, and they stopped. "You can look now," said the man, letting go of her arm.
She did, and found herself in a larger-than-average Response Centre. Part of the reason for the size was that it contained two consoles, each of which seemed to be showing footage from security cameras throughout HQ. There were five doors leading out of the room – the grey room, she was pleased to note – only one of which, the one they'd entered through, had been closed. Two of the others were bedrooms, the third apparently a bathroom, and the fourth seemed to lead into a small cafeteria.
"You're observant. Good." Nita span around to see the man still standing behind her. "I appreciate that in a partner."
Nita blinked. "You are my new partner?"
The man smiled, obviously an expression he wasn't used to. "Correction, you are mine. You've been recruited."
Nita blinked at his wording. She'd moved departments before, usually on personal grounds – a fancy way of saying no one liked her – and it was always 'reassigned' or 'transferred'. 'Recruited' was only used of those newly joining the PPC. "Recruited to what?"
The man tilted his head to one side. "You've seen 'Men in Black', I assume?" She nodded. "Good. Then you'll understand the concept of a job you are not allowed to leave without being dead or having your memory wiped. This is one of those jobs."
Nita stared, trying to get her head around his words. "But, but, what about my friends?"
"You have no friends," the man stated. "It's one of the reasons we selected you after my previous partner 'left' us."
"But selected me for what?" Nita pressed. "Who are you?"
The man shook his head. "I think the Elm should be the one to explain that to you. You'll get to see him in a minute. Now, let's get this over with." For the first time, Nita saw a hint of hesitation on the man's face. "I am Agent Peter Piper, your new partner, and," he raised a hand to cut her off as she opened her mouth, "any jokes about pickled peppers will result in injury or death. This is the only time I will warn you about that."
Nita nodded, wide-eyed. "Yes, sir."
Peter smiled again, cruelly. "Oh, no. You don't call me 'sir'. That title belongs to the Elm. Follow me."
Peter led Nita through the cafeteria – much better, she noted, than the one most agents were forced to use – to another door, which opened to reveal not the expected office, but a forest path under dark skies. Peter led Nita down the track, the trees – conifers, she noted – growing ever thicker, until they came at last to an open space, in the middle of which stood a giant elm tree. "Sir," said Peter, calling Nita to a stop, "she's here."
Ah, excellent. The mental voice seemed to come from all around them, but the sudden shifting of the elm's branched indicated that it was the actual Official here. Agent Kerys, is it?
"Er, yes, sir," replied Nita, her voice quavering slightly in fear. She'd heard about non-flower Officials, but had never met one before, and certainly never in what appeared to be the outside world.
Good. Agent Piper, no doubt, has explained nothing to you, so I will do so for him. You have been recruited to join the Department of Internal Operations. I am given to understand that you were a member of the PPC during the period known as the Reorganisation? Nita nodded. Then you will remember that the Department of Internal Security was said to be reorganised into the Department of Internal Affairs. That is not strictly true. The DIA is only one half of the original DIS. We are the other side.
"Um." Nita looked around for a second before assembling her thoughts into something approaching coherency. "I've never heard of you."
No, agreed the Elm. We are a very secretive department, by necessity, due to our role. The corridor you passed through on your way in is one of the ways we keep unwanted visitors away. Agent Piper will teach you the route through it, which you will be required to memorize. As you have no doubt realised, it cannot be traversed with open eyes.
Nita blinked and looked at Peter. "So you...?"
He nodded. "I was as blind as you while bringing you here. Don't worry, it's not that hard to remember the way."
Nita nodded dazedly, and looked back at the Elm. "Er, what is it the DIO does, sir?"
After a moment of silence, the tree replied. This department was set up to deal with the PPC in the same way that the PPC deals with badfic. When an agent team in any department is seen to be operating outside normal parameters, we observe them. The influence of what we term 'Sue-teams sends others encountering them out-of-character. For example, a common sign of teams we need to take on is Officials speaking normally.
Nita stared. "You're saying we have to assassinate assassins?" she asked, dreading the answer. Beside her, Peter nodded.
"Exactly that. Come back to the RC and I'll show you how we operate."