|Timeline:||Ten Years Hence . . . ?|
|Published:||September 8, 2013.|
|Rating:||PG-13/T - Violence.|
|Betas:||Neshomeh and The Irish Samurai.|
|Cameos:||Special thanks to everyone who volunteered their agents back in January. Especially to the following, whose agents I used: Neshomeh, Irish Samurai, Vixenmage, Pretzel, SeaTurtle, Kitty Noodles, Eileen Alphabet, Cassie, Ellipsis Flood, Sergio Turbo, Cyba Zero, doctorlit, Fish Custard, Riese, Herr Wozzeck, Lily Winterwood, and PitViperOfDoom.|
The halls of HQ had seen better days. Walls were crumbling and covered in Suvian graffiti. Doors lay broken on the floor, if they were there at all. Piles of debris littered the hallways. Sparks shot intermittently from breaches in the Generic Surface. There were occasional stains on the floors and walls, in a variety of colors and levels of sparkle, that were best not to speculate about.
Through the destruction moved Agent Oopart. He was dressed in mottled grays to better blend in with the rubble. He wore a hood pulled up to hide his straight black hair and dark eyes. The bag over his shoulder was full of supplies from his most recent raid. He moved cautiously. He knew the dangers of drawing attention to yourself in these gods-forsaken corridors. Make too much noise and you could easily find yourself dead, or worse. He’d lost too many friends and comrades in this place. Oopart had no intention of joining the Lists.
He was coming out of the old home of FicPsych, now deserted. It was not a place that Oopart ever wanted to go through, but it was the most direct route to and from the kitchens. The psych wards had the disquieting mix of sterility and imagined ghosts that was usually found in abandoned hospitals. Even the Sues avoided the area, which was another reason Oopart used this path.
He continued on, weaving through hallways and intersections. He ducked behind a pile of rubble when he saw movement in a cross-corridor. He counted to ten while peering around the heap. There was no more movement, so he crept forward and pressed himself to the wall at the corner. He drew his belt knife, the only weapon he carried, and snaked his head around the corner. He saw another gray-clad figure ducking and weaving through the hallway. Another member of the Department heading out on a raid, or maybe recon? Not wanting to draw attention to himself, Oopart watched until the other agent was out of sight and continued on.
When he reached a section of wall with a perfect cubic meter of material missing, he knew he was getting close to home. The missing blocks became more frequent as he continued. Eventually, he came to a pristine wall; an unlikely sight in HQ these days. A quick check to make sure the coast was clear, and he set about knocking out the passcode against the Generic Surface.
After a few seconds, a perfect square meter at the bottom of the wall disappeared. Oopart tossed his bag into the gap and crawled through after it. By the time he was on his feet on the other side, the wall was whole again and the Enderman responsible was back at his station.
It was strange, Oopart thought. Jof had worked in the kitchens before the world went to hell. Now he was a sentry, and the best defensive engineer they had. He was responsible for sealing off the hallways that eventually became the Department of Resistance. Every agent still fighting owed Jof their life. He wasn’t much for conversation these days, but he had more than earned Oopart’s respect.
Oopart picked up his bag and, with a nod to Jof, headed for the heart of the Department. He needed to check in and offload the supplies before he could get some well-deserved rack time. His trip to the command center took him past old response centers, retrofitted into barracks and storage. There was substantially less rubble here, due to several members from Janitorial still being around.
In the Really Very Tiny Auditorium, now devoid of chairs, Eagrus Khan ran combat drills. It was important that everyone in the Department could defend themselves against a breach.
It hadn’t always been like this. Oopart could still remember when he’d arrived in HQ, a fresh-faced kid of fifteen, still so green he could damn near photosynthesize. He’d had no idea what he was in for. Nearly ten years later, he barely resembled that kid.
The lights flickered in the hallway and no one batted an eye. The Sues couldn’t cut off power to all of HQ; they still needed it for themselves. Instead, they were trying to cut off the Department. They had failed so far, due to the remnants of DoSAT. Makes-Things claimed that he had help from HQ itself, if you could believe that. The man had always been half-mad, by some accounts, but he seemed to have slipped further since the occupation started. He spent a lot of his time muttering to himself or arguing with the wall of his workshop. He still hadn’t reestablished external portaling. He claimed the shields around HQ had been recalibrated to prevent anything coming in or going out, and he hadn’t been able to come up with a work-around.
Oopart’s route took him through what passed for a mess hall in the Department. He walked past a mismatched collection of tables where agents ate. Among them, Oopart recognized Eusabius, who was humming to himself and scratching the scar that ran down his face and disappeared under an eyepatch. A few tables over, Harris Frost was fishing his spoon out of his bowl of soup. It was always soup. Even when they could find satisfactory food, they had to make it stretch. Adding water and calling it soup was the best way to make that happen. By the looks on their faces, some of the agents longed for the days of the Cafeteria.
“Oopart!” called a deep voice from behind the large soup pot. Kur’nak gave a tusked grin and waved a ladle in greeting. It was odd to some that an Orc would choose the spatula over the axe, but Kur’nak was an odd Orc. “You bring me anything good? By my father’s memory, I would kill for some garlic.”
“Sorry, Kur’nak,” Oopart called over his shoulder. “No garlic today. What would you do for some packets of stale crackers and some kind of protein paste?”
The Orc laughed. “I might seriously inconvenience someone for that protein, but crackers don’t matter.”
“I’ll see if I can get the Council to send it your way sooner than later. No promises.” Oopart made his way out of the area.
“No promises that it’ll be edible!” called Kur’nak.
Oopart walked past a hallway that had belonged to the DIC. The black paint was faded and chipping now. This was where the Department of Resistance had started in earnest. The Council took up residence in the nine response centers along this hall to make it easier to find them in case of an emergency. There were checkpoints at both ends of the hall, manned at all hours. The indicators on the wall told Oopart that four out of the nine were presently in their quarters. Some of those not in their rooms were on duty in the control center, a bit further on. Oopart had no intention to disturb the sleep of any of the council members who were in their rooms, so he went on.
He stopped at a cross-hall as a unit of teenaged agents passed, jogging in step. Sammy Nahinu was leading the way and keeping everyone on beat by singing. “Now we sing this stupid song! Sing it as we run along! Why we sing this we don’t know! We can’t make the words rhyme properly!” She was wearing her usual tie-dyed shirt, one sleeve of which was tied shut to cover the scars of her missing arm, and beaded headband. She had switched out ripped jeans for sweatpants that were cut off at the knees. The rest were in a variety of workout-appropriate clothes. Sammy flashed a peace sign and called out a quick “sorry, dude” to Oopart between rounds of the song. When the joggers had passed, Oopart continued on his way.
He soon came to his destination. The cavernous room had been stripped of everything except the monolithic structure at its center. The odd lighting in the hall still picked out pieces of names in glowing letters. Names that had been forgotten. There were new ones now. The walls of the Tomb were covered in the names of those who had fallen to the Sues. The ones closest to Oopart’s position had been scrawled early on. They were the ones who had been on the front lines when the Sues invaded. Most of them were marked as belonging to members of the DMS. Department tags became increasingly rare the further into the room one ventured. Oopart made his way down the stairs to the main floor. As he went, he read names from the wall. It was the least he could do.
Halfway down, he picked the names Lee and Ian out. They were written in the untidy scrawl of a teenager and adorned with a peace sign and the DMS cactus. Further on, “Kilroy Vincentus (DMS)” had been literally burned into the Generic Surface. Three-quarters of the way down, more departments became prominent. Fiona Darcy and the Radioactive Moss Creature, both from Floaters, were near each other on the wall. Oopart reached the floor and began to walk the perimeter of the room. More names, fewer departments. It had become less important what job someone had done when everyone was focused on survival.
Doc. Caroline Moor. Derik. Voltarmi. Jack. Corolla. Saline. Phobos. Castor Parwill. Otik Horak. Zerenze. Luxury. Dayn Aisenhek. Zim.
The Lists didn’t go on forever, but they were close enough so as to make no difference. They circled the room from floor level to as high as anyone could reach.
At the back of the room was the command post. Its location among the Lists was intentional; a sobering reminder of the cost of the Council’s decisions. Every member of the Council had to walk past all of those names when they came on duty. They worked surrounded by the ghosts of friends and partners during their six-hour shifts. Worse than any of that, though, was the black curtain that obscured the section of wall directly above command.
As Oopart walked up to check in, he had to go through the usual process of getting questioned about his past and having his bag emptied and its contents logged for distribution. It took a little longer than usual because the agent in charge of security today was Skeet, and he ran a pretty tight ship. Once he was cleared, Oopart was allowed to enter the command post and give his report.
Inside was the usual organized chaos. Maps of Headquarters, all but useless before the occupation (no one was sure why the halls had stopped shifting in the early days of the conflict), were spread out on a table. Several agents were sorting through reports about Sue movements, hallway access, and supplies. Toward the back wall, the council members on duty were discussing something that Oopart couldn’t hear. It didn’t take long for them to notice him, though. One of the councilors present was always looking over his shoulder.
<Welcome back, Agent Oopart,> thought Councilor Ilraen-Aroline-Fothergill. <I trust you have some news for us.> It wasn’t a question. The Andalite was an imposing figure, standing head and shoulders above Oopart. His eyes were intense; the three he had left were, at any rate. One eye stalk, and part of his ear, had been lost to a sword-wielding Sue. His tail had also taken heavy damage, and now ended in a stump. Those were far from his only scars. He was accompanied by two other councilors: Tess and the Potted Fern Official.
“Yes, sir,” said Oopart, standing up straighter under the scrutiny. “I left the Department through exit four. There was no sign of the enemy at that time. I proceeded toward my objective in the kitchens, with the intent to take a route past FicPsych Unit C and through the Large Auditorium. I couldn’t get to the auditorium because the mini-Aragogs have expanded their web through two new intersections.”
I have said several times that the feral spiders were a major problem, thought the PFO. We need to take more decisive action.
“I have to agree with the Fern,” said Tess. “I think we’ve probably ignored them for too long.”
<Agreed. We’ll talk to the rest of the Council about what action to take.> He turned his attention back to Oopart. <Continue.>
“Sir. I had to backtrack to FicPsych and take Unit A to the fountain before I could circle back to the kitchen. I saw signs that there’s a CAF pack patrolling the fountain plaza, but never got confirmation of that. The kitchens are about wiped out. All I could find was crackers and protein paste, which I promised Kur’nak I’d talk to you about.”
“You know the protocol, Agent,” said Tess. “The stores will make sure that it gets distributed to the people who need it most.”
“Understood, ma’am. Shall I continue with my report?”
Please do. We haven’t got all day.
“Aye, sir,” said Oopart. “As I made my way back through the fountain plaza, I heard voices. I hid in the basin, pressed up against the side. It was a pair of Garys. They were headed out on patrol. I’m sorry, sirs, I didn’t hear anything about where they’ve set up shop.”
<No one has, yet. But we will find them sooner or later.> Ilraen’s eyes narrowed. <You are looking more uncomfortable, Agent. Is there something you aren’t telling us?>
Oopart had hoped to gloss over this part of the story, but his resolve crumbled under the force of that three-eyed stare. “Yes, sir. I am sorry, sir. It’s just . . . the Garys, sir . . . it was a pair of . . . them, sir.” He nodded toward the black curtain that hung on the wall above the command post. The names hidden by that shroud belonged to those who faced a fate worse than death: to be forcibly converted into the very thing they fought against, and to be used against their former comrades.
“You’re sure about that?” demanded Tess. “You are absolutely sure that it was former agents and not just Stus in disguises? We’ve seen that kind of behavior out of them before, but we’ve never known them to send out converts without a handler.”
“Yes, ma’am,” snapped Oopart, whose posture had gotten more rigid under the intensity of the councilor’s questioning. “I recognized them through the glitter, ma’am. They were both members of the DMS when I joined the department, ma’am.”
Tess opened her mouth to ask more questions but stopped and looked at her colleagues. After a moment she returned her gaze to Oopart. “We will consider this new information carefully. You may go.”
Oopart snapped a salute. “Sirs. Ma’am,” he said, before turning on his heel and walking out of the command center.
When he was gone, the three councilors turned to each other.
“I don’t like it,” said Tess, her arms folded across her chest.
<None of us do. Something has changed, and change has not been a good thing in a very long time.>
This has to be why the report was sent. Legal knew this was coming.
<I am inclined to agree. Tess, will you talk to Makes-Things? Sweeper needs to be ready and we don’t know how much time we have left.>
“I’ll talk to him, but that isn’t our only problem. We still need a candidate, and the report didn’t exactly make one easy to find.”
What about Oopart? He fits the bill.
Tess shook her head. “We don’t know what he’d be up against, and I would feel better sending someone who has some combat skill.”
He was a member of the DMS. That must count for something.
<You might be surprised what even the combat-inept can do when they have to. Also, you are missing the big picture. We don’t have many options.>
“Beggars can’t be choosers? I don’t buy it. There has to be someone better.”
Well, until we find that person, I think we need to keep Oopart close.
<Agreed. I will talk to the rest of the Council and see if they have any ideas. In the meantime, reassign Oopart.>
Screams filled the halls. Oopart couldn’t tell if they were pained or defiant, or if the difference mattered anymore. He stood in a hallway, blood running down his face from a wound near his hairline. Groups of agents ran past him; some toward the fighting, some away. They called to him as they passed.
“Rally at the Tomb,” said one agent.
“We’ll make our stand at the Armory,” yelled another.
“Get to the Nursery! Save the kids!” urged a third.
Oopart, lost in shock, paid them no mind.
What had happened? The DIA, DMS, and DF had been mobilized quickly. They’d met the Sue advance in the Cafeteria. The agents had had superior numbers. They’d had experience and training.
The Sues had brought surprises.
When the battle had started, agents had fallen quickly. Not just from Suvian weapons, though there had been some of that. No, most of them fell to friendly fire. To swords and knives in their backs. The Sues had somehow turned agents against each other. It had been tried before, but never on this scale, or with this level of success. The ranks of agents had fractured quickly and the rout was inevitable.
Oopart was broken out of his daze and lurched into motion. He ran on with the stream of retreating agents and staff. He didn’t know where they were going. He didn’t care, as long as it was away from the Sues.
The group he was with rounded a corner, and stopped short. There was a line of Sues coming toward the fleeing agents. The only thing between the two groups was a lone Plant in a tie-dyed shirt.
The Hippie Sequoia addressed the oncoming horde in a calm, but forceful, tone. You will stop where you are. I will not let you hurt these people.
The force of the direct commands stopped the bulk of the Sues, but one of the Garys remembered that they were winning. “You can’t stop us, tree. We are legion! We are power! And you are going to die with your friends!” He swung his sword, which was at least as tall as he was, over his head and started the advance again. The rest of the intruders followed suit.
All things die in their time, said the Plant. But how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, and love sometimes expresses itself in sacrifice. I will protect them as others once protected me. You shall not pass!
Oopart watched as reality rippled in the hallway. He became dizzy. When his vision cleared he was looking at a full-grown Sequoia, which was firmly rooted in the Generic Surface and blocking the entire hallway. The walls and ceiling had deformed to accommodate the mass of the tree. Shreds of tie-dyed fabric adorned its boughs.
The Sequoia spoke one last time to the frightened agents. Her voice was serene. I will not be able to stop them forever. Please, run while you can. Help any you can on the way.
Oopart was one of the last to turn and flee. Tears were now mingling with the blood on his face. As he ran down the hallway he heard an explosion and felt a blast of heat. The smell of smoke and a psychic scream followed him, but he never turned back. He fled.
The halls bled away. Oopart was surrounded by smoke and screaming. There were faces in the smoke. They leered at him. “Coward,” screamed the faces. “You could have done something! You could have saved someone, coward! You only care about yourself! Craven little man!”
The smoke was suffocating him. The heat was stifling. He needed to run, but his legs wouldn’t work. He needed to escape. He needed to wake up!
Oopart sat up in his bed, sweating and gasping for breath. His sheets were tangled around his legs and the Sequoia’s scream still rang in his mind. He wished this weren’t such a common occurrence, but that nightmare haunted him every time he closed his eyes.
He checked the clock. A little over an hour before he was on duty. The alarm would have gone off in the next half hour. Oopart decided that there was little use in trying to go back to sleep. He slipped from his bed, lowering himself from the top bunk. He could hear deep, even breathing from other bunks; his colleagues had grown used to people crying out in their sleep. Oopart pulled on his clothes, walked past the other five sets of bunks that were crammed into this former RC, and out into the Department.
Oopart stifled a yawn. His fitful sleep had left him tired, and the slow pace of guard duty at the command center was not helping. He had been reassigned, and the only explanation he had been given was, “It’s only temporary.” So here he was. Standing with his back to the command post instead of doing a job he was suited for.
<Are you sure it is connected?> Councilor Ilraen was on duty again. He was talking to the Robinson kid inside the command post.
“Of course I’m not,” said Henry Robinson. “There’s no way to be sure. What I am saying is this was really strange. This is the earliest incident I’ve been able to find in the archives that doesn’t seem to make any sense.”
Poor kid sounds frustrated, thought Oopart. He really needs to get out of the archives more.
<Actually, it does make some measure of sense. Agent Barid had a long-standing feud with the Cafeteria over their policy of not feeding trolls. It is conceivable that, with his knowledge of potions, he might have taken it into his head to poison the food. I knew him. He was as unstable as anyone in the PPC.>
Oopart shook his head. Sounds like we’re better off without that one.
“But look at it. Within a week of the poisoning in the Cafeteria, Barid was decommissioned and the Board of Department Heads was assassinated. After that . . . ” There was an audible pause. “After that, the dominoes kept falling.”
<That is not proof that the Cafeteria poisoning was a precipitating event. I know how difficult this has been for you. I know you want to give meaning to your mother’s death. But we need facts, not suppositions. Give me something I can take to the Council. How does a poisoning, in which no one actually died, lead to the assassinations and murders? If it is connected, then we are still missing something. Find the missing link between the Cafeteria and the Board Assassination.>
The Board of Department Heads was all anyone was talking about when I joined. Some kind of bomb, they said. Caused a . . . black hole? No, that can’t be right. Plothole collapse? Something.
“Ilraen, you know what a mess the records are. TooManySecrets is working with a fraction of the old network. I’m sifting through a broom cupboard full of files because people are sleeping in what used to be the archives! We don’t know how much more information there is or even where it might be anymore.”
You’re lucky there are any records left, kid. They’re kinda useless under the circumstances. Forget what happened before and tell me how we win this thing.
<Henry, please don’t give up. You are doing important work. I’m proud of you, and I know Jenni would be, too.>
So the Warhorse has a soft side, after all. Will wonders never cease?
There was silence for almost a minute before Henry came out of the command center. He was walking quickly, but Oopart caught the glint of tears on his cheeks. It always amazed him that there were any tears left to be shed in the Department.
<Agent Oopart,> thought Councilor Ilraen from right next to the man. Oopart would never understand how he managed to move so silently with hooves. <How are you adjusting to your new assignment?>
“Well enough, sir,” said Oopart with a salute. “Still think I would be more valuable in the halls, though.”
<You may be right, but consider this: the food supplies are dwindling and our scouts bring in less and less every day. No offense to you and your comrades, of course. There is just less to find. We are quickly approaching the end of this chapter. This war is going to end one way or another, and sooner than one might expect.> The Andalite’s eyes scanned the walls of the Tomb.
“So, what does the end game look like, then?”
<To quote Confucius: ‘Study the past if you would divine the future.’ A very important lesson.>
“Well that’s a cheery thought.”
<More than you know. You were a late arrival, so perhaps you are not aware. The PPC is, historically, an organization of overcomers.> Oopart was about to reply when Ilraen spoke again. <Ah, your replacement is here. Good day, Agent Oopart.>
Ilraen turned and walked back into the command post. Oopart looked up the stairs to see Skeet in his ratty black trench coat. Time to get some terrible soup, I guess.
The soup was as terrible as Oopart had imagined. He sat at his table, stirring the contents of his bowl. He had combat drills scheduled in an hour. He’d rather be force-fed Kur’nak’s entire vat of soup. “Hey, Kur’nak,” he said. “You know soup has to be more than water, right?”
“You’re lucky it’s even got that much,” replied the Orc, gesturing with his ladle. “Besides, you know the rules. Don’t like? Don’t eat.”
“Do I look like I’m eating?”
“Do I need to come over there and—” Kur’nak was cut off by a sound Oopart didn’t recognize. Other people in the mess hall were surging to their feet. Kur’nak dropped his ladle and grabbed a cleaver that he hadn’t needed in quite a while. The Orc started running in the direction of exit four.
“What’s going on?” Oopart asked a nearby agent. “What was that sound?”
The other agent drew a short sword. “An Enderman screaming.”
“Jof!” Oopart drew his belt knife and joined the agents heading to defend the Department. As he left the mess hall, the alarm sounded. It was official: the Sues had made their move at last.
Men and women began to pour out of the old auditorium and the barracks. Some were only half dressed and had probably been sleeping. They carried maces, swords, and the occasional gun. Sounds of battle could already be heard.
When Oopart rounded the final corner to exit four he found a much smaller battle than he expected. A handful of Sues and CAFs had their backs to the wall. They were fighting Kur’nak and any other agent who could get close enough to strike a blow. They must have somehow gotten Jof to open the hole and overpowered him. This couldn’t be it, could it?
Then he saw them. Half a dozen small holes opened in the wall as the tips of lightsabers burned through. This was a delaying force so they could widen the opening. It would only be a few moments before the saber lines connected, at the rate they were cutting.
The small force inside the wall was outnumbered and outmatched. Oopart watched as Kur’nak dispatched the last Sue. There was no time to regroup, though. The lightsabers finished their job and withdrew. The section of wall that had been loosened began to tip slowly inward.
“Lok’tar Ogar!” Kur’nak bellowed as he threw himself against the wall. The force of his assault nearly brought the loose slab back to vertical before the forces on the other side began to gain more ground. “Victory or death!”
Others rushed to help. They pushed on the wall if they could get close, or on each other if they could not. The mass of agents in the hall pressed forward as one. They heaved against the weight of the slab and the force of the Sues on the other side. Slowly, they tilted the slab past vertical and out into the midst of their enemies.
There was a moment of silent stillness after the wall fell. It was as if the world were holding its breath. Then it started screaming. The Sues flooded over the slab and Kur’nak led the charge against them.
Oopart was too far back to be in the initial wave, but he could see Kur’nak towering over the two armies. The Orc sent glitter arcing through the air with every swing of his cleaver. He was a force of nature, but his momentum and rage carried him too far into the mass of Sues. One swing lost him his weapon and he had to use his bare hands. He tried to retreat back to his lines, but Oopart saw him get overwhelmed and dragged down. He never came back up.
No no no no no no no, thought Oopart. He found himself against a wall with agents pushing past him to fill the rift and push back the invaders. He wanted to tell them it was no use. There were too many. There was nothing they could do. They needed to get out of there. He tried to yell to them, but the din of the battle was too much.
The tide was turning against the agents. They were losing ground and the Sues were pushing past the choke point of the wall. The line of agents bowed inward.
Oopart watched as a small group of Sues pushed its way down the hallway, keeping a wall on one side so they wouldn’t be surrounded. They were headed straight for him. The lead Sue had a wicked grin and a horned helmet. She carried a large mace and, as she drew nearer, Oopart could see a sparkling flash patch; a gaudy mockery of the DMS cactus.
Oopart raised his knife in his shaking hands. The Sue slammed her mace into another agent, clearing her path forward. Oopart’s eyes were drawn to a piece of fabric, fluttering from a bloody horn. Through the blood, he could make out tie-dye. A psychic scream echoed in his memory. The smell of smoke. The clangor of battle. Sues. Agents. Death.
Oopart dropped his knife and ran.
He ran until the sounds of combat faded to echoes. His body couldn’t handle the stress anymore. He gasped for breath, tears streaming down his cheeks. The faces of agents he had abandoned floated through his mind. He doubled over and vomited.
<Agent Oopart. Look at me.>
Oopart looked up at the councilor he hadn’t heard coming. The Andalite stood tall and strong. It twisted the dagger of shame in Oopart’s guts for Councilor Ilraen to see him like this. “I’m sorry, sir. I couldn’t . . . .”
<I know.> His tone was gentle. He put his hand on the agent’s shoulder. <However, you need to come with me, Oopart. You have a job to do.>
Oopart was confused, but there was a force buried in the Andalite’s gentleness that compelled him to follow as Councilor Ilraen moved deeper into the Department.
Oopart soon realized that they were headed for the remote corner where Makes-Things kept his workshop. What was left of the archives was stored there, as well.
Intermittent sounds of battle reached them as Oopart hurried to keep up with Councilor Ilraen. He wondered how the Andalite could be so cool when the Department was fighting for its survival. What was going on?
They turned onto a new hallway and came face-to-face with Skeet, who was sitting on a makeshift barricade made out of bunks from nearby barracks. “Gentlemen,” he said just before he jumped down. “I’m afraid I can’t let you go this way without the password.” He put his hand on the hilt of the katana that was mostly hidden by his trench coat.
Ilraen stepped forward. <Case Sweeper. Password: Flaming Denethor.>
Skeet took his hand off the sword hilt. “Excellent.” He started to push one of the bunks out of the way.
<I am surprised to find you here, Agent Skeet. I was sure you would have joined the fighting.>
“A good soldier never leaves his post without a good reason,” said Skeet. “I have a job to do, so there’s no time to go running off on my own personal quest.”
Oopart cringed at the comment about good soldiers.
<Skeet,> started Ilraen. He paused for a moment and then said, <You are relieved of your post.>
Skeet snapped a quick salute. “Thanks, Ilraen. You know what this means to me.”
<Good luck. I hope you find her.>
With that, Skeet was trotting down the hall and out of sight. Ilraen and Oopart continued on their way.
“What was all that about, sir?” asked Oopart.
<He’s gone to find his partner, Amy. We lost her to the Sues several years ago. She was not one of the lucky ones.> His voice was as cold and hard as steel.
They went the rest of the way in silence.
Ilraen finally stopped outside Makes-Things’ workshop. <Henry, open the door, please.>
There was a moment before Oopart heard locks being undone. When the door had been fully unlocked, it opened slightly. Ilraen pushed the door in slowly and entered with his hands up. Oopart followed, recognizing the strict security precautions. The room was littered with spare parts from various pieces of technology. Oopart didn’t pay much mind to that, though. He was quickly confronted by Henry Robinson, who had a wand trained at his chest.
“Agent Oopart,” said Henry, coldly. “How did you dispatch the Sue in your first mission?”
“It was a minor Potter Sue. We played a game of Sue baseball with the Whomping Willow.”
Henry seemed satisfied with the answer and let Oopart further into the room. When Oopart looked past Henry, he understood why they needed the heightened security. The entire Council of Nine was in attendance.
Tess had her Uzis at her side. The Potted Fern Official was reviewing some documents, which Oopart found odd, under the circumstances. Councilors Mal was standing next to the Fisherman in a way that suggested Oopart’s arrival had interrupted their conversation. Caleb Cooper, looking sullen as only a Twipire can, was leaning against one wall. Vania Tolluk, in her usual pinstriped pants and jacket, had a baseball bat slung on her back and a needler in her hand. William Marshall, who stood out in his blue robes, had his own wand at the ready. Ilraen walked over to stand next to the last of the Council, Eledhwen Elerossiel, who was one of the few who could match him for height. They all looked at Oopart expectantly.
Tess turned to Ilraen. “We’re really sure about this?”
<We are all agreed. Also, you know what has been said about beggars being choosers.>
Agent Oopart, thought the PFO. You’ve been selected for a special mission.
“A mission?” asked Oopart. He gestured to the door. “People are out there dying! What are all of you doing in here? They need leaders!”
We understand your feelings, Oopart. However, none of us would be here at this moment if it were not truly important.
The meeting was interrupted by the rattling of the locked door. Someone was trying to get in. When the handle didn’t work, whoever was out there started trying to batter down the door.
Caleb pushed off the wall, cracked his knuckles, and said, “Looks like there’s no time for speeches. Pity. I was looking forward to hearing you all go on at length.”
“I’m afraid our charming friend is correct,” said Eledhwen. “Ilraen, take Oopart down to Makes-Things. The rest of us will buy you time.” She pulled a pair of knives from her belt.
<I will return when I am able. Henry, with me, please.>
The young wizard had been standing near a large schematic on the back wall. He didn’t look pleased with the request. “You know I could be a big help up here. They might need my magic.”
<Makes-Things may need our help. William can provide whatever magic they need here.>
Henry looked for a moment like he was going to argue. Instead, he punched through the schematic and walked into the tunnel it had concealed.
<Agent Oopart, if you please.> Ilraen motioned to the tunnel.
The tunnel trended gently downward. The walls were smooth Generic Surface and there were lights spaced evenly along it. Oopart couldn’t see where it led due to curves and twists, but he could hear something in the distance. It sounded like a waterfall, but that didn’t make any sense, did it? There weren’t any waterfalls in HQ.
Oopart was beginning to wonder how far down into the bowels of HQ they were when a final turn in the tunnel brought him to their destination. It was a large chamber with a basin in the middle of it. The waterfall that Oopart had heard was coming in through a short-range portal and exiting through another one at its bottom. It was a perpetual loop that caused the water to cascade over a wheel. The wheel was connected to a massive machine that was partially suspended over the basin.
“What is all this?” he asked Councilor Ilraen.
<Welcome to the Headquarters Pool, Agent Oopart. It is home to our greatest hope: Operation Sweeper.>
Oopart could see it now. The high diving board was still in place on the far side of the machine. At the bottom of its ladder, Oopart could see Makes-Things at a console and Henry gesturing back toward the tunnel.
Oopart could hear the sounds of gunfire bouncing through the tunnel. The door had been breached. How long did they have here?
<Oopart, we must hurry.> Ilraen galloped off around the empty pool.
Oopart ran to catch up. When he arrived at the other side of the chamber, Ilraen was handing a bundle of documents to Makes-Things. <Get him ready to go. We don’t have much time.>
Makes-Things adjusted his glasses. “Good luck, Ilraen,” said the small Korean man. “Henry, get the machine set while I give Oopart his instructions.”
Ilraen was running back to the tunnel when Caleb appeared, supporting William Marshal, who had a crossbow bolt in his thigh. Vania was right behind them, carrying her baseball bat. No other councilors appeared, and William continued to fire spells into the tunnel.
“No time to worry about that now,” said Makes-Things. He pushed Oopart toward the high dive. “Gotta get some height.”
“What’s going on? What am I supposed to be doing?” asked Oopart as he reached the bottom of the ladder. He started to climb.
“This is a jury-rigged time machine. You’re going back to stop any of this from ever happening.”
Oopart reached the top of the ladder and found himself on the diving platform. He could see the battle at the mouth of the tunnel. Ilraen was almost to them when his skin turned gold. Oopart didn’t know what he was seeing. The Andalite sprouted wings and began to expand. His torso elongated and his arms shriveled away. He was becoming a large gold dragon.
Makes-Things reached the top, slightly out of breath. He had been holding the bundle of documents the whole climb. “Now, we’re sending you back to just before the Board was assassinated. We got all the information together that we could find. Here, you’re gonna need it.” He shoved the documents into Oopart’s arms.
The machine below them started to hum and spark ominously. The pace of the sparking sped up until finally a portal formed over the empty pool. It seemed to Oopart to be unstable. Oopart saw Henry Robinson sprinting toward the mouth of the tunnel to join the battle.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Oopart was having to yell over the sounds of the portal and the fighting.
“No. But I am sure it’s better than dying at the hands of an army of Sues,” said Makes-Things. “Believe me. I’ve been reliably informed that I died once, and I can’t say anything good about it. Besides, if this works, you’ll land in the pool before we drained it.”
“And if it doesn’t work?”
“Then you won’t live long enough to know.”
Henry was flinging spells as fast as he could, trying to keep Ilraen from being overwhelmed as more and more Sues poured from the tunnel. Oopart had lost sight of the other councilors.
A fireball hurtled out of the mass of Sues toward the two men on the high dive. Oopart ducked, but his hands flew up to cover his head and the fireball grazed the files he was holding. He threw them to the platform and stamped out the fire as quickly as he could. Some of the documents appeared to be all right, but many of them were badly burnt.
“You have to get out of here!” yelled Makes-Things. “This portal isn’t going to last forever, and I doubt we’re gonna get another chance.”
“But the papers—”
“Sod the papers! Take what you’ve got and jump!”
There was a roar as Sues swarmed over Ilraen. Henry was screaming in fury and trying to get to the morphed Andalite.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” said Makes-Things. “Get going!” He shoved Oopart over the edge.
The air rushed past Oopart for a moment and then he hit the portal and everything went blue.
To be continued . . . .