Nita Kerys shielded her eyes with one arm as the door to her Response Centre opened. She listened for the sound of it closing, but it was far easier to hear the newcomer's response. "What in all the worlds is this?"
Opening her eyes again, Nita waved. "Hey, Peter."
"Nita," Agent Peter Piper said flatly. "I believe I asked you a question."
Quick recovery, Nita thought, reaching out to flick off the UV lamp sitting next to her. "I was sunbathing," she said. "Well, lamp-bathing, there's not much sunlight in here."
"I... see." Peter blinked a couple of times. "Why, exactly?"
Reaching around with one hand for her top, Nita sat up. "It's a habit I picked up a while back, from an old," she stopped to pull the t-shirt over her head, "acquaintance in Bad Slash. Bit of an odd girl, but she had the right idea. 'course, she used to do it on missions, but there's not much chance for that in our line of work, so-"
"Yes, yes, I see." Peter shook his head. "Agent Kerys, in future, I would appreciate not finding scantily-clad young women on the floor of my RC, at least not without warning. I expect," he added, raising a hand, "that you are about to make some comment about how people would pay for that sort of thing. Please don't."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Nita muttered, wrapping her towel around her waist as a makeshift sarong. "That better?"
"Much." As he walked over to the table to put down the file he'd brought into the room, he frowned back at her over his shoulder. "Where did you get the lamp from, anyway?"
"Borrowed it from Justin," she said vaguely. "And don't ask why he's got a UV lamp, he never said. You want I should take it back?"
"I wouldn't want to deny you your pleasure," Peter said blandly. "However, as I mentioned, some warning next time would be appreciated."
Quite how she was meant to warn him when he'd been gone for two days, Nita wasn't sure. A note on the door wouldn't work, as he'd have to close his eyes out in the corridor or else lose his sight. Either way, it wasn't particularly relevant. Leaving the lamp where it stood, she wandered off to her bedroom to change out of her swimwear.
Stepping out into the main room again a few minutes later, Nita was surprised to see Justin Agent, who ran the DIO Control Centre, talking earnestly to Peter. She hadn't known the bedrooms were soundproof – that, after all, was the only way she could have missed hearing the main door alarm – and wondered vaguely why that should be the case.
"Ah, Neets," Justin said, noticing her. "I see you've been making use of that lamp of mine."
"That's right," she said to the Dwarf. "Peter didn't approve, but..."
"He rarely does," Justin replied with a wink. "I'm certain he doesn't approve of this conversation, either."
"No, not really," Peter agreed. "We have a mission, Nita," he added after a moment's pause. Nita raised an eyebrow.
"A mission? Well, okay. Where are we off to?"
"A new department," Justin supplied, snatching a sheet of paper from Peter's hand and waving it in her direction. "Seems someone decided that what the PPC really needs is a Department of Gary-Stus, headed by, of all things, the Moonflower Official."
Nita stared. "That's... just..."
"Awful," Peter stated dryly. "Someone out there is being particularly unimaginative, and unfortunately, we're the ones who have to deal with it."
Nita grimaced. A whole department... "Does it have many Agents?" she asked suddenly, filled with dread. If the 'Suethor had decided to make the new Department as large as the DMS, it would take the pair of them days to kill off everyone.
"Fortunately, no," Justin replied. "As with most of these situations, the author has focussed almost exclusively on her single Agent-pair. There's a couple of others mentioned, but being only names, they won't even have a physical form. They'll be erased once you remove the focus."
"You mean these two Agents," Nita said, trying not to make it sound like a question. She decided she'd at least partially succeeded.
"Sally Jones and Morwen Weatherwax," Peter supplied, "a human and a shapeshifting elf/raven. We'll also have to get rid of this Moonflower creation, as it's showed up in person once or twice."
"Once or... how long has this department been around, anyway?"
Peter shrugged and looked at Justin. "A couple of weeks," the Dwarf said apologetically. "There are so many odd departments around these days, we had to be sure it wasn't real..."
Peter shook his head. "Sometimes I wish we could take out some of those departments," he said, scowling. "Well, no point in waiting around here. Agent Kerys?"
"Question, first," Nita said. She'd been running back over her training in her head, and seemed to have hit a snag. "Didn't you tell me that we're not allowed to kill Flowers? Limits placed on us by the Board, something like that?"
"That's true," Peter confirmed. "We don't kill them, not even the 'Sue creations. We have a... place to send them."
Nita frowned. "A 'place'? Where? Not some sort of prison?"
Peter simply shook his head, and Justin laughed. "Oh, go on, Peter, tell her."
Peter sighed. "You've read Day of the Triffids?" he asked. Nita nodded, and then did a double-take.
"That's what you do with them?"
"Usually," Justin clarified. "There's not many 'verses with walking flowers, but there are some. There was one which never got finished, or even explained, but we picked up resonance from it. Then there was-"
"All right, all right." Nita glanced at the console. "We going, or what?"
Sally Jones stepped out of the portal and immediately slumped down onto her beanbag. "That was awful," she said to the black bird that followed her through just before the blue doorway closed.
The raven landed on the table, and golden mist enveloped it for a moment before clearing to leave Agent Morwen Weatherwax perched on the edge. "Tell me about it," she grumbled, dropping her pack onto the floor. "I nearly got shot."
Sally glanced up at her partner while reaching for a book. "Feather in your hair," she said casually, carefully hiding her smile as Morwen leapt up and ran over to the nearest mirror. Vain little elf, she thought, flicking through to her bookmarked page.
"They don't seem too bad," Nita whispered to her partner, where they both crouched in the small room off the RC. Peter shook his head with a grimace.
"A few problems," he muttered, "but you're right, they seem okay. They're not the issue here, though. Their department is."
"And we're going to kill them over it," Nita pointed out. "Couldn't we just, I dunno, neuralyse and recruit them?"
Peter stiffened, turning slowly to glare at his partner. "They are 'Sues," he said coldly. "We do not recruit their kind."
"We did in the DMS," Nita said pointedly. "I know lots of-"
"It may be that the emblem has confused you," Peter cut her off in his most icy tone yet, "but this is not the Department of Mary-Sues. We do not do things the way they do. What we do is what I say we do. Is that clear?"
Nita stared, mouth opening and closing a few times. Eventually she gave up on the verbal reply and just nodded. Peter gave her a thin smile.
"Excellent. Now, if you'd like to ready weapons and follow me..."
The DIO Agents stepped out into the RC just as Morwen Weatherwax finished putting her equipment away. Peter's knife struck the shapeshifter in the back of the neck before she could even turn around, but by the time Nita had a good enough angle on Sally Jones, the Assassin was alert to the danger and threw herself out of the way of the arrow. Peter cursed under his breath, reaching for another knife, but Sally made it to the door before anything could hit her. Rather than pursuing, Peter walked swiftly over to Morwen, checked for her lack of pulse, and then turned on Nita. "You idiot."
"What?" Nita stared. "What did I do?"
"You let her go!" the veteran DIOer snarled. "I don't care if you think she's Agent material, you do not let the 'Sues get away!"
"I didn't!" Nita protested. "You were in the way, I couldn't-"
"No excuses!" Peter snapped. "We have to go and get her, and we have to do it now, before she makes any more trouble!"
"But you-" Peter ran from the room and down the corridor before Nita could finish her objection, which was probably fortunate, as pointing out that he was the one taking up time hadn't been a good career move. Nita followed as fast as she could, but only just caught a glimpse of her partner rounding the corner. She started after him, but then stopped, a thoughtful expression on her face. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the Remote Activator – Peter had given it to her so he could listen through the door more easily – and fiddled with the settings a little. Finding the one she wanted, she opened the portal, took a deep breath, and leapt through.
When you are fleeing for your life from a crazed Agent who's just killed your partner, you don't tend to look where you're going. That was why Sally Jones ran straight into the black-clad figure who appeared out of a portal in front of her. She tried to dodge around the woman, but the newcomer caught her arm and dragged her to a stop. With her other hand, the woman pushed the reset button on her Remote Activator, opened a portal, and nodded. "Come with me if you want to live," she said, and then stepped through.
Sally hesitated for a moment, but then a dagger struck her in the arm from behind. With a small scream she threw herself into the blue void and vanished.
Peter Piper made a desperate effort to run fast enough to beat the closing portal, but it was impossible. Grimacing, he came to a halt and pulled out his communicator. Flicking it on, he leant against the wall and said, "Control?"
"Right here, Peter," Justin Agent's voice said cheerfully. "You need something?"
"Portal trace," Peter replied. "One of the targets just jumped out around three meters from my current location. I need to know where she went."
"DIS technology," Justin said with an audible grimace of the sort only a dwarf can create. "If you insist, though. Tapping into the system now. Looks like... huh."
"What?" Peter asked.
"Just not a location you see very often, is all," Justin said, his voice sounding slightly strained. "Up near the Boardroom."
Peter shook his head. "I'm lost right now. Fill me in?"
"It's about as far from your current location as you can get," Justin said ruefully. "Got your RA?"
"Yes, I- no." Peter sighed. "I gave it to Nita, but she seems to have gotten lost. I'll have to walk."
"Exercise is good for you," Justin pointed out. "If you need me, I'll be in your RC – minor problem with the console I've been meaning to fix."
"That's fine," Peter said, though he hadn't noticed any such problem. "I'll report in if I have any difficulty."
"Righto," Justin said, and signed off. With a sigh, Peter looked around, and then headed off down the corridor towards where he'd last seen his partner.
Sally staggered as her feet hit the carpet, but managed to remain upright. As the first drops from her wounded arm hit the floor, she realised that whoever owned the room would likely be very annoyed. Then she managed to focus enough to see exactly what was dripping from her injury, and wished she'd fainted.
"At least he doesn't use serrated blades," a voice muttered behind her, and a hand reached around and yanked the dagger out. Sally screamed again, trying to clutch her arm to her, but the other woman held it firmly in one hand as she used the other to push the sleeve up. "And at least it's a clean cut. Here," she said, stepping around into Sally's line of sight, "put pressure on it. I'll be back in a minute."
Sally nodded mutely and did as she was told, but as the woman walked away, she lifted her hand from the cut tentatively, hoping against hope that her first impression had been wrong.
It hadn't. She wasn't bleeding, or at least, not bleeding blood. True, the glitter that flowed from her arm was red, and almost looked like blood, but the light that scattered from it was unmistakable. And glitter for blood could only mean one thing, as all PPCers knew. "But I'm not..." Sally murmured.
"I'm afraid you are," the other woman said, returning with a bandage and efficiently wrapping the wound. "Not a bad one, but a 'Sue nonetheless."
"But I can't be," Sally mumbled. "I'm an Assassin, I-"
"For the Department of Gary-Stus?" the other asked. "Under the Moonflower Official? Come on, you're a smart girl, you know what a rip-off that is."
"There's been a population explosion," Sally murmured. "They had to set up a new department..."
"I wish I had a CAD," the woman muttered, scowling. "You'd believe that, for-"
The console let out an ear-splitting [BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP]. Instinctively, Sally turned to look at it, but the other woman cursed. "Close your eyes!" she snapped, and slapped a hand over Sally's face before she could do anything anyway.
"What in Mahal's name do you think you're doing, Kerys?" a gruff male voice bellowed. "This is against all the rules!"
"Whereas killing an innocent girl is completely acceptable?" the woman – Kerys – yelled back. "We're not gods, Justin!"
"Rakhâsul bund barazu!" Justin snarled, a language that Sally guessed to be Khuzdul, Dwarvish. "She's a Mary-Sue, Nita! You've been killing them for years!"
"Not all of them," Nita insisted stubbornly. "When they're not so bad – and she isn't - we just recruited them."
"What, we should bring her in here?" Justin snapped. "Oh, that's a great idea, that is."
"She'd be a darn sight better than Peter!" Nita shouted. Then there was silence, sudden and heavy. Sally, realising that Nita had moved her hand, opened her eyes to see that she'd identified Justin correctly. He was a Dwarf, in a PPC uniform. Still, she'd seen stranger things. The apparent staring contest between the two – her rescuers? Captors, she was beginning to think – seemed roughly intense enough to boil lead, so she coughed.
Justin's head swung round. "What's your name, 'Sue?" he snarled.
"Er, Sally Jones, but-"
"Right." He pulled an axe from his belt, and suddenly seemed a lot more threatening. "Then, Sally Jones, you are charged with wilful perversion of the cause of the Protectors of the Plot Continuum, with impersonating an Agent of the same, with disrupting the very fabric of this organisation, and with being a Mary-Sue or agent of such. The penalty for your crimes is death, and there is no appeal." Hefting the axe, he stepped towards her. Out of the corner of her eye, the woman saw Nita starting to move to intercept, but-
The sound of Sally Jones' skull splintering was loud in the response centre. Nita stared as the woman – the woman she'd tried so hard to save – collapsed to the floor, glitter blood spilling out and then evaporating. The DIO Agent stopped in mid-stride, turning to stare at Justin. "You..."
"I killed her, yes," the dwarf said calmly, brushing at his axe-head. "It was your job. I promise I won't tell Peter I had to do it instead."
"But you just... murdered her," Nita said, still trying to come to terms with it. "You didn't even let her-"
"Defend herself?" Justin shook his head. "Did you, when you were in the DMS? No. She was a 'Sue. She had to die."
"But she... she wasn't bad," Nita said, still trying to understand. "Why...?"
Justin sighed, replacing his axe in his belt. "You really want to know?" Nita nodded uncertainly, and he grunted. "Right. Then come down to Control with me. We'll leave her here, you can pick her up later."
In Nita's stunned state, she almost lost her way in the corridor twice before reaching the door to DIO Control. As soon as she was inside and the door had hissed shut, she opened her eyes to see Justin standing by the central computer console. "Let's not waste any time," he said, and pushed a button.
A section of the far wall lit up white, a projector whirring into action somewhere overhead. Then two figures appeared on the screen –a woman with red hair, holding a short sword and obviously on guard, and a blue-haired man, peering into a strange glass pod full of a pearly liquid. The woman looked over her shoulder at the man.
"Can you see what's in it yet?"
When the lights came back on, Nita rubbed her eyes and looked at the clock. Had it really been half an hour? It seemed like only seconds, but the film had spanned over a year...
"Do you see now?" Justin said softly.
Nita shook her head slowly, still staring at the spot where the film had played. "I see why we have to be hidden from the PPC at large – too much like the DIS – and I understand where 'Sues come from, but... we let them live back in the DMS. Why not here?"
"'Sues come from lots of places," Justin said, walking into her field of view. "Most of the ones you meet outside aren't Factory bred. In here, though – except during the occasional outbreak – they all are."
"And?" Nita asked. "That's what I don't get. Why's that so bad?"
"Because they're spies," Justin said bluntly. "We don't know who's running the Factory these days – DIS or Mysterious Somebody – but someone is. And you can be sure they've not forgotten the PPC." He shrugged. "If they send in 'Sues as spies, they don't lose anything that can't be replaced, and they get information about what we're up to." He allowed himself a small smile. "We don't think they know about the DIO yet, though."
Nita looked startled. "That was why you took a blood sample, wasn't it?" she asked, suddenly understanding. "During my training."
"One reason, yes," Justin admitted. "So do you understand why I had to kill her?"
Nita shook her head slightly, less in denial than disbelief. "I think so... Peter's going to kill me, isn't he?"
Justin shrugged. "He needn't know," he said, offhandedly. "I sent him off on a wild goose chase, so we can tell him you caught the-"
The console chimed. Justin raised an eyebrow. "Speak of the devil..." Tapping a button, he leant down to the microphone. "Peter?"
"Who else?" the senior DIOer's disgruntled voice said. "She's not up here."
"She wouldn't be," Justin agreed. "Nita caught and killed her a while back. She's just come back here to wait for you. Matter of fact, I was just going to call you and let you know."
"Well, don't bother," Peter Piper said. "Just get her to meet me outside the Moonflower's office. Oh, and tell her to bring the Remote Activator. I want this bit, at least, to go smoothly. Out."
Justin flicked the microphone off and raised an eyebrow at Nita. "You heard the man," he said.
"And he sounded mad," Nita agreed. "He'll be madder still if he finds a body in our Response Centre."
"Then move her," Justin said, turning back to the console. "Honestly, do you expect me to do everything?"