Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Insert Ludicrous Cyberpunk AI Here

"Her first mission, eh?"

"I think she'll do excellent. What's the issue?"

"Ya really think a couple of mere geeks would be any good?"

"Michael! Honestly. If we're not geeks ourselves then what are we? Silly."

Michael grinned, fully enjoying acting as a foil to the new Librarian.

"Besides," Tash continued swiftly, " – WARGS have always been our supporters back in the real world. Anyone we can count on in emergencies – and they're almost a feeder group to us. Dave's a WARG and he's a full-fledged agent!"

"Exactly. So, back to Alice?"

"Alice? Yeah." Tash swivelled round and checked the monitor behind her, a recent alert detailed on its screen. "The fandom is Warhammer 40k. We were lucky to pick anything up here; the world is galaxy-spanning, bloody huge. You know it?"

Michael thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Sounds nasty."

"I wouldn't know. Unfortunately I don't know every single…"

He recognised those signs easily. "Anyway, Tash: Alice, 40k. Is she up to it?"

"I had a look, and the fandom was on the list she gave us when she signed up. It's one she knows. And it's a low-level Stu. She'll be fine."

"She may be fine, but there is an issue, Tash," he said, his hand slapping the desk. "You and I have both reviewed the rookies' training missions, and I know you noticed the ghost problem Alice found in fandoms. I will talk with her later about it, but I want to know if you are confident with sending her in."

"I'm confident, she's enthusiastic, and she's far from being the only agent with 'issues', Michael. Let's get to the Briefing Room…"

"This means I'm going to get glomped again, doesn't it?" Michael sighed.

"What? Having one's ribs crushed on a daily basis does tend to endear one eventually."

OoOOoOOoO

The Leader and the Librarian met with the new agent to give her the mission. Alice was of normal height and a-bit-more-than-normal weight, light brown hair to her shoulderblades worn back with a hairband and wore glasses. She wrapped her arms around Tash's thin waist and lifted her off her feet in a greeting hug, much to the Librarian's squeaks, then turned to Michael and did likewise, only without lifting him off the ground. There was nothing more to Alice's hugs than a friendly gesture, if a bone-crushing one, although it had taken Michael and others some time to realise it.

The mission was given, and accepted gladly, Alice practically jumping for joy and having to be shushed from spilling off into the ether about her enjoyment of the fandom so that Tash could give her the specifics. Alice pulled out her ubiquitous notebook for the briefing, and left to prepare carrying the purple-labelled cardboard box full of gadgets.

Michael followed her into the corridor. "Allie, d'ya mind if you and I can have a quick chat?"

"Sure! I want to go and sort stuff for going into 40k, though. I've got some old stuff jotted down in my notebook and I need to go and read through them before I go."

"You do like your preparations, don't you…" he said, shaking his head.

"'Course I do! You know how the old adage goes, be prepared. Though I think I get distracted too much and start reading up on stuff that's only barely relevant, but it's still interesting all the same…"

"Alice…"

"…'cause yassee I was doing some research last night and if you look at the etymology of 'Sue' you'll eventually get back to Hebrew where it meant 'Rose'…"

The English student had a tendency to waffle at times.

"Alice!"

"Eep. Sorry."

Michael rolled his eyes and grinned, but the smile dropped almost immediately. "Look, Alice. I've seen the footage of what you discovered during your training mission. It's a point of pressing concern for me."

"Oh, that."

On her training mission, Alice had performed about average but for a funny, interesting, and then mildly worrying quirk. Every so often her expression would twist and glare solidly into midair, and even on some occasions turn around and holler at the said air to shut up. Once when there were minor canon characters around too. This behaviour was explained by Alice when she had returned.

"It's a Sue, one of yours," he said, watching her face fall.

"I chopped aspects of her into little bits and sowed her far and wide. I'd hoped she was gone. Evidently not…"

"She still exists as the first generation of whatever you managed to salvage from her creation. It's now a ghost-Sue, kinda, who haunts you around. She's there in real life at the back of your mind, or not even that – but in a fandom where they have more power, she becomes visible."

"And audible."

"Yeah. But only to you. Which I appreciate is an irritant, but this may end up being more than just that."

"I can't do the Vault of Abandoned Ideas. It's not how I work – so when I got sick of this pandering, I took out all the good bits and distributed them around several other original-fiction stories…so the Sue is dead, ish, dissected and ghosty – but still she follows me around!" Alice sighed, knowing that few knew about this issue. "It's embarrassing."

"Don't be ashamed. The moment they sense weakness in you they'll pounce. Believe me, they'll take whatever chance they can. I know what it's like to have that second voice in your head."

She gulped quietly. "I can do this."

"Why don't you take someone with you? They can keep you from getting distracted."

"Louise?"

"She fell headfirst into custard on her training mission… ya sure?"

"'Course I'm sure. I trust her, and she's one of the few people on my entire life who likes my weirdness. I've tried to tell her some things about 40k – well, mainly 30k, but that's the Horus Heresy and I hope to hell I ain't going there – so she's not completely in the dark. Plus if I can go in the guise I'm hoping for, I might need a friend…"

Michael nodded, somewhat subdued, and not being truly able to say what he really needed to say. At least the rookie was enthusiastic, bouncy and researched enough to probably succeed, which helped somewhat; must be all the bruised ribs. "If you think you need a disguise; well the Library has a three-storey wardrobe you could pick from. Although – I think the Automatic Tailorisation machine was fixed the other week – so give it a try."

"The whatty-wha?"

"Try it. It's awesome. Anyway I ought to be off; things to see, people to do – hang on, scratch that, reverse it…"

Alice laughed. "All right. Thanks for the advice. Give Claire my love."

"Will do. She sends her good luck."

OoOOoOOoO

"It's a little ostentatious, don't you think?"

Dave watched Alice fix the cloak around her neck in front of the mirror, the Automatic Tailorisation machine chugging in the corner before shutting off. The machine was a fun discovery on the unisex floor of the costume cupboard, hidden behind a curtain and initially broken but now back to full use, though so far few agents had given it a try beyond a bit of fun. The brass box-like control-festooned machine looked straight from Steampunk, and the user would push buttons and move levers and wheels before stepping inside the machine, a brightly-lit space about the size of a photo booth, to allow the machine to effectively sew the chosen clothes around them. Where the machine got its sources of fine cloth, thread, trimming and fasteners was anybody's guess, and several had made lewd jokes about 'defabrication' and whatnot. Now Alice, with a book of the Imperial Inquisition at her side, had designed herself an incognito disguise.

Dave thought she'd gone a little far.

"It's not that bad, is it? Fits like a dream, too."

"Well, yeah, no, it's not bad, but it's a little… flashy? The cape's nice and all, but the skirt's to the ankles, and the breastplate? And that… thing that hangs down?"

"Considering, Dave, that this – " Alice said, handing him the open book, " – is what they expected female Inquisitors to wear…"

"Gaaah!" exclaimed Dave. 'This' was a rather atrocious suit of too-ornate black plate armour, wrapped with linen and ribboned with red, the woman armed with far too much and topped off with a white beehive. "Yes, fine, God that's hideous."

Alice grinned at his response. Compared to the picture her dress was simple. The cloak was pale blue and plain except for a thin gold trim, the skirt dark blue. The breastplate was a brushed silver with faint scrollwork on the joins, fastened by a white belt. The 'thing that hangs down' was an arrowhead of fabric that came from the belt to hang down half of the skirt and was the same colour as the cloak only marked with Inquisitorial symbols in gold and white. A few more trims of pearl, more 'I' icons and arm coverings and the costume was complete. Dave was right, it was far too ostentatious for home, but even though she wore blue and silver when most of the pictures used black and red, it was plain enough to bear and looked adequate enough for fitting in. And she loved cloaks.

Alice lifted the last piece of her disguise and belted it on: her short sword, again plain and unadorned but well-used. It was her weapon of choice; not exactly a master with it but knowing and trained enough for her skill to be somewhat reliable. Dave gave her a nod. "Good luck on your mission, Alice. Sorry, but I'd better toddle off, FYP and all that…"

After a big hug he was off, passing a short woman with dark brown hair entering the room. Alice smiled widely. "Louise! You're alive!"

"Am I?" said Louise, her usual return.

Alice and Louise were housemates, friends from university, members of the gaming group who now had close links to the Society. Following in Dave's stead, they had handed their applications to join in to Adrian himself, then heard nothing back for several months…meanwhile the Society itself endured the war which followed, and only once they had stabilised enough to consider following the applications were the pair called in by Tash to sit the entrance exams, to everyone's great amusement. Now, after only a semi-disastrous test mission, Alice had her first real assignment and had requested that her best mate join her.

"Wow," Louise said. "You mentioned something about disguises but I didn't think to this extent! …What am I wearing? I can go and get my long skirt if you want."

"Nope! Lemme get the Tailorisation thingy going again, 'cause you're going to be my Interrogator and you need to be 40k-i-fied too. I've got most of our kit, soooo… yet again, we're waiting for you – so strip to the underwear and get in the machine!"

"All right, all right…"

OoOOoOOoO

"God the skies here are even worse than underneath Eyjafjallaj√∂kull…" mumbled Louise as the two walked up the snowy and dirty path that led to the higher entrance of a gigantic hive city. The sky above them was liberally coated with thick, greasy-looking dark clouds, didn't smell too good, and the wasteland below was totally devoid of any other soul.

"Welcome to 40k and it's God-awful welfare schemes," said Alice, testing out a set of silver-rimmed goggles that she had found coming with her outfit. She wondered whether the Tech labs should go up and have a look at that machine in the costume cupboard – it had interesting surprises. "These are pretty nice. Some kind of -punk, not sure whether it's steam- or cyber- or both… ooh, is that night-vision? Ow the sun hurts!"

"Lemme see that," said Louise. "Night vision, infrared, magnification, zoom, X-ray, blue filter, dunno, sparkle-O-vision…" She jerked the goggles away from her eyes, saw Alice laughing, and threw them back at her.

"Come along, composure! Dignity! You are a servant of the Emperor!" giggled Alice, placing the goggles on her head and struggling to regain her own as they approached the entrance.

It was a very large entrance that towered above them for at least ten times their height and festooned with gribbly gothic architecture. Armed guards and living gun platforms protected the door into the higher tiers of the hive.

"What am I again?" whispered Louise.

"Interrogator. Think apprentice Inquisitor. Just that should be enough to get us in."

Alice then stopped on the path, allowing Louise to walk on for another several yards. She turned, and saw her friend glaring into space, her fists clenched.

"Alice?"

"I'm OKAY!"

"Just asking, jeez!"

They were permitted entry with little trouble at all. A couple of people who looked very frustrated were still engaged in arguing with the guards, and they even saw one being dragged away to some lower level. There was a gangway to cross before they could reach the main part of the upper hive, and down below they could both see the lower levels, reaching down into the depths and looking murkier the further it went. Giant fans blew just below the gangway to eradicate the stench which still existed, if barely, and tiny figures could just be seen trudging their way around what both of them loathed to call a daily life.

"It appears this section is the affluent rather than the effluent… murmured Alice.

"Shirley will hit you whether you use a thesaurus or not, Alice," replied Louise.

Alice didn't answer, as over the gangplank she could see what dogged her. Ignored in real life, brought uncomfortably back in her training mission, warned about by the Leader and now full of constant mirth at her predicament, was Misty, the dissected Mary-Sue of Alice's literary past. She was a ghost, literally; made out in shades of pale blue-grey and hair vanishing off like clouds, she hovered in the empty space; and when she spoke, only Alice could hear her.

~ You are so funny! Really, hilarious! What are you doing here, what a waste of time, all dirty and gritty. No-one can find anyone here, let alone you, so why are you even bothering? Go home to your cocoa. ~

"SHUT UP!"

Alice's shout echoed considerably over the thoroughfare and down the void. Everyone stopped at the shout, including some of the ants down below.

Louise, red-faced, yanked her friend away from the rail and into the levels proper.

~ Tee hee hee! ~

OoOOoOOoO

"Alice, what…?"

"Don't ask."

"No, seriously. What?"

"Louise! Please."

"Fine."

"Okay! Sorry. It's just a problem. I'll sort it out."

The two agents traipsed quietly through the halls and galleries of the upper tier, their enthusiasm somewhat dampened. Their surroundings were opulent enough, full of gilding and statues and LCD screens full of programmes proclaiming their love for the Emperor. The latter caught their attention for a few minutes, but soon became rather boring, though the patterned silver borders were amusing to watch as they changed and shifted. Their plan, what little there was of it, was to wait in the large public areas for the Stu, what little they knew about him, to show up; they always did sooner or later.

A faint heavy marching sound echoed over from the far side of the square in which they chose to flop. Looking over, they saw a column of dark blue armoured giants crossing the ground in perfect lockstep. Their enormous bolters were held at rest, but they could be brought to bear in less than a second.

"Space Marines?" asked Louise, seeing the wide-eyed grin on Alice's face.

"Oh yes. Crimson Fists," she said, recognising the red fist livery on the giant shoulder pads.

"We're not going to see Sanguinius or anyone like that, are we?"

"The Primarchs are long dead. Now they're canon Mary-Sues if ever I saw them. Super Space Marines! No, no Primarch for me…" Alice sighed comically; she had a mild infatuation with a few of the Space Marine primogenitors.

The two wove closer, Louise having to stop Alice from getting giddy with excitement and even dope-slapping her when she whispered something about glomping one of them.

Then from behind them came a male, haughty and totally indignant voice.

"You two have been following me all over! I demand you explain."

They turned, and were faced with a short man in a red-yellow-blue and white jumpsuit, thick luscious black hair and eyes that changed colour every few seconds, like a set of traffic lights.

"I know who you are. You're those damned spoilsports who delight in ruining everyone's fun! Well you aren't invading my territory, that's for sure!" He ran a gloved hands through his liquorice locks, causing many of the sparse passers-by to stop and stare in adoration. Alice and Louise merely exchanged glances.

"Hello, Stu," said Alice sarcastically.

"Stu? How dare you! My name is McLaren Mercedes TVR Lexus-Lotus Corvette Ferrari the Fifteenth! And I am your lord and master!"

"Bollocks you are!" said Louise, through giggles.

McLaren was clearly annoyed at the laughter, and marched forwards, his eyes flashing red. Alice whisked back her cloak and drew her short sword, and Louise sighted down the laspistol attached to her outfit.

"Want to carry on, or shall we go back quietly?" Alice said, both of them reaching for a Prohibitor.

"Eep." McLaren jumped to the side, and ducked through a fountain. The two agents gave chase, not hearing the shouts from the other side – and they ran into a wall of navy and crimson.

"Ah, Space Marines – "

Louise managed to skid to a halt, but Alice tripped and placed an outstretched hand on the closest Space Marine's massive breastplate. The frightening helm tilted in derision and his hand came up, gripped her sword blade tightly, and with but a twitch snapped it from the hilt.

"Eek!"

Alice back-pedalled, bumping into Louise and knocking them both to the floor, shoving what was left of the trusty weapon back in its sheath by rote. "Okay, look, sorry guys, we didn't mean to bump into you – ow! Louise?"

"You're on my foot!"

"Sorry! I mean, uh, did you see the – "

She cut off abruptly as the entire squad, some eleven Space Marines with a helmet-less Sergeant and a lighter blue-painted Librarian – yes, she reminded herself, Librarian was a Space Marine rank, one with extremely powerful psychic abilities – in the lead drew their bolters and pointed them at the two women.

"This is NOT how I wanted my first meeting with Space Marines to go!" squeaked Alice, near-paralysed with fright from being faced with thirteen gaping maws. "Please, gentlemen, we're…"

Then, to the girls' horror, McLaren stepped out from behind the Librarian.

"It's the Stu…" whispered Louise.

"Hello, agents," said the smug little brat. "The tables have turned now, eh? The Crimson Fists are my friends… and they know all about you."

The Sergeant nodded.

"I think I should kill you. It disgusts me how they dare to send rookies after me. I find it rather amusing, actually…"

"You – you wouldn't."

"Oh?" Half the Marines took a step forwards, cutting off any lateral escapes. "I think it would be a great victory."

The Librarian frowned at his words and lowered his weapon, glancing to the small man behind him in puzzlement.

"McLaren, isn't it?" said Alice. "Look, McLaren, please, listen. Listen to me carefully. You don't need to do this. Death is never a good thing, huh, is it? We're not trying to kill you, or your associates, far from it; we're trying to help you. We don't want you dead, that's not how we work. Please, just think about what you're – "

"No! I don't need you to tell me what to think!"

"Why should we not just take them to the relevant authorities and let them deal with these two?" said the Librarian.

McLaren coloured at the protest.

Alice thought she could see the way out.

~ Ruuuubish! ~

Alice twitched visibly; Louise grabbed on to her to keep her from doing anything stupid. "We're here from the Inquisition, on a special mission, and our objective is – " She tried to tilt her head towards the Stu.

"They are lying," said McLaren.

"Please. Don't let him win."

The Librarian blinked, and gave the most miniscule of nods. But McLaren was having none of it.

"I've had enough! You are traitors and liars! I'm fed up of hearing your voices."

McLaren turned to the Librarian, placing a hand on his bolter arm.

"Fire."

OoOOoOOoO

"NO! NO! NO! LET ME GO!"

"Natasha THINK! Those are .75 calibre weapons – "

"I AM NOT LOSING ANYONE ELSE – "

"They're not firing! They've stopped for something – "

"If this DOES turn into a firefight, you sending more agents in at this point is just going to get their heads blown off!"

Five or six agents were struggling to keep Tash in her seat and prevent her from jumping into 40k herself. The Librarian had drawn on the same strength that allowed mothers to lift fallen trees off their children, and keeping her from entering the horribly tense situation was getting tougher by the moment.

"Alice is getting through to him. You need to give her a chance!"

"But – "

"Tash! Look at the scene, you could ruin it – "

"LISTEN!"

Someone – nobody could pinpoint who – screamed into the fray, and in the pause that lasted for about five yoctoseconds they all heard one word said by the Crimson Fist Librarian.

Some did not register it for several more moments of struggling, several now sporting singed hair and colouring eyes.

"Tash, please – "

She relaxed at last after studying the scene. "Michael, get in there and bring them back."

OoOOoOOoO

"No."

The Space Marine Librarian's electrifying word froze the entire scene.

"What?" said McLaren incredulously.

"No. This isn't right."

"I order you to shoot them! Now! Don't fuss about wondering whether it's right or not!"

The Librarian turned to the Stu, glared at him and flicked his ear. With a suit of power armour and the strength of a psyker Space Marine, the clip round the ear sent him spinning on the ground.

"We shall take them before a real Inquisitor. He shall decide their fate. I will not have the Holy Ordos come down on my Chapter because of a mistaken summary execution."

"I – "

The Librarian nodded, and the bolters were lifted. Some Space Marines stepped forwards and helped the two women to their feet; surprisingly gentle despite the above emphasis that saw the Stu on his arse.

"Come, Lord Ferrari."

McLaren made a noise that sounded like a strangled owl, and the girls fought down giggles even through their trepidation. These stopped as the Space Marines loomed, and they swallowed their laughter at once.

~ Oh Alice… you're failing again… ~

The Stu's consistent whining caused the Crimson Fists to form a very solid guard around the two hapless women, escorting them to the large gothic palace set into the walls of the upper tier. They were shepherded through level after level of tight security, eventually leaving the two agents with the Librarian – and allowing the Stu to reclaim the Crimson Fist squad without the moderation of their senior member. They watched as McLaren looked over his shoulder and blew raspberries at them as the heavy blast doors closed behind them.

They stopped outside an office door, the Librarian showed them in. There was a figure in this office; a brown-robed unassuming man with a small red Inquisitorial rosette on a chain.

"Lord Ario Barzano?"

Louise glanced at Alice as recognition washed over her face.

"Yes, Librarian?" he said, his voice pleasant and just as unassuming; also sounding unconcerned and out-of-the-loop. Neither agents were fooled.

"I have brought these two to be questioned. They maintain they are Inquisitors like yourself but Lord Ferrari thought otherwise. I thought to seek a third opinion."

"Ah, yes. Thank you Librarian. Would you leave us?"

He nodded and left.

Through the massive setting of this fandom, few characters were repeating and those that did remained on their planets. Those of the Inquisition were not like this; they could be posted hither and thither across an entire galaxy, used as the hundreds of authors needed. Knowing and using these little quirks of this universe was vital for survival here. Alice liked the Ultramarines Chapter of Space Marines; in reading the books about them, she had come across one Ario Barzano before. He was an Inquisitor, a real one, a very good one – but he was also an empath, and his interrogation and lie-detecting skills were now against them.

"So! Inquisitor, are you?" he said after a few moments.

"Yes, Lord Barzano."

"Ah." His face twisted up at the corners – Alice was loath to call the expression a smile. "See I know the names and whereabouts of all the Inquisitors in this subsector, and you aren't among them. The location I could have dealt with; after all, missions abounds. But no matched name, or even a known pseudonym? Well. That only tells me that you are not what you say. So I will have an explanation, before I advise the Crimson Fists to deal with you."

The colour drained from the two women's faces.

"If you please."

Louise, who didn't know this fandom at all beyond the waffling of her housemate, could only glance at Alice out of the corner of her eye and struggle not to speak. Alice herself was drawing a blank. She felt up against the wall.

~ Ha ha! ~

"We are… on a special mission. To, um, er…"

Gradually Louise could see Alice's bullshit-cogs work harder.

"We have been sent to this planet by our superiors to catch a dangerous man."

"Elaborate."

"He is… uhhh… hard to categorise. He's dangerous because he's powerful, but not in a way that would interest the Ordo Malleus. We're a special group set up to catch these people, but they're few and far between so there's not many of us and we're pretty much under the radar."

"Is that so? Then who are you?"

Alice's words stuck there; Louise was trying to stop her from rattling off about the Society any more than she had. A large parade of 'DAMN's were marching through her head with every sentence.

Then she swore she could see the lightbulb going off.

"We are the Ordo Maria-Rosa, a subdivision of the Ordo Obscurus."

Barzano's eyebrow raised in puzzlement, before he nodded. Okay, it was cheesy, barely fitted with the canon and really was the result of too much pointless research, but he had accepted it. After all the Ordo Obscurus was just that; obscured and always in the shadows, even among the three larger Ordos of the Inquisition which were all much larger and much more feared. Alice knew he was an empath from reading the books; did he have a vague inkling of what they were on about?

Louise's thoughts were interrupted as there came the sound of shouting outside.

"Just how dangerous is this man, exactly?" Barzano asked urgently.

"He has the Crimson Fists under his power; they're obeying him with no…with little question. The Librarian seems to be fighting it off, but it's not enough."

There was a loud explosion – not too close, but closer than the shouting was. The two girls clamped hands over their ears, and Alice's goggles fell from her head.

"Are either of you armed?" he asked.

"Um," said Louise.

"We were," said Alice, holding up the broken hilt of her sword.

Another explosion – closer this time. Alice panicked a little, struggling with her goggles. She heard Misty's hilarity in her ear.

"What do I do, what do I do?"

Barzano, without much more than a moment's hesitation to size her up, marched to a chest filled with sharp, explosive, projectile and other death-bringing or maiming things; he then plonked a bolt pistol into her hand. Alice was completely unprepared for the weight of the half-size bolter, and gaped at it.

"I don't know how to use this!" she blurted out, holding it by fingertips.

The Inquisitor turned, sighed in frustration, and swung it out of her hands. "That sword of yours. Was it just for show?"

"Er, no, I kinda know how – "

"Good enough for me. Take that," he said, pressing a sheathed sword into her hands and throwing the bolt pistol back into the chest, " – and make sure you use it."

The Inquisitor strode off, leaving Alice and an ever-curious Louise to look at what he had left. Alice tugged the blade out of the elaborate Inquisitorial-stamped sheath, breathing out as she let the engraved metal catch the light.

Then she depressed a button on the hilt, and with a soft whomph the sword hummed into life; waves of crackling energy suffusing the power blade ready for dealing with bad guys.

The blue light from the sword underlit Alice's grin.

"Shiny!"

OoOOoOOoO

The three legged it through the corridors of the palace, bursting out through the front doors. Ario Barzano carried a large plasma pistol in both hands, Alice with her sword buzzing with the energy electrifying it, and Louise with her trusty laspistol which had been pronounced 'adequate' and with a new Inquisitorial battery that gave it slightly more oomph.

Outside, the squad of very confused Crimson Fists were facing each other; the constantly feared 'brother verses brother' scenario. The hollers of the Stu turned into a yelp and he ducked out of sight.

The Librarian joined the three, nodding to the Inquisitor and marching forwards to calm his brothers. A shout from the side of the square alerted the two agents.

"Michael – Claire!"

"Aren't you a sight for sore eyes!" cheered Alice, who proved that a one-armed glomp was just as crushing as a normal one, her other hand holding her power blade.

Barzano waited a few moments, watching the greeting with some bemusement. "Ordo Maria-Rosa, I presume?"

Claire looked confused; Michael blinked, then glanced at Alice and her big grin. "Oh dear. Yes," he said, nodding to the Inquisitor.

"I believe our quarry has jumped the wall…"

"I've had enough of him," said Claire. "One lucky break and he think's he's all that – well Tash has a few words for him, I'd imagine!"

"Replace 'words' with 'a good paddling' and you might be closer to the truth…" murmured Michael, Claire giving him an odd look in return.

The four agents split into their pairs to corner the Stu, or at least to chase him back out into the square where the bamboozled Space Marines stood. At sight of Barzano McLaren turned one-eighty and hurried past a large row of the LCD screens, their currently black surfaces being slowly filled up with row upon row of silver hearts.

Alice, spotting him, hesitated a moment, then chased him to the other side of the row. McLaren pulled out a large shiny sword shaped like the Corvette symbol, gave a kind of gargled squeak of fury and swung at her – but she brought her own sword up just in time to meet his. He drew in breath, ready to draw upon his super Stu strength, but Alice readjusted her hands so she could flick the switch on her hilt, and her sword flared into hot powerful life and seared through his blade, the lightweight magnesium splintering and catching fire. He skipped backwards, pulling out a longer and stronger blade covered in BMW roundels, but the power blade on its highest setting plunged through the blade like sellotape, wedging the two weapons together. Michael then took advantage of the distraction to grab McLaren's jumpsuit collar and kick him in the back of the knees, sending him once again on his arse.

"This suit's getting filthier by the minute – ah ha ha, uhhh…hello?" he trailed off as Michael's livid face glared into his own.

Alice smiled as she turned her blade on and off, and Louise kicked the other sword a number of times and eventually enlisted the assistance of the actually rather pleasant Crimson Fist sergeant to dislodge it. The target had been captured – her first real mission wasn't a total failure after all!

Then the screens around them flashed to white, startling all those with normal eyes enough to make them jump The Space Marines were merely alerted enough to train their enhanced ocular implants on the VDUs, ready for any danger.

An immaculate swirl of silky white hair, crowning a chocolate-brown face, fashioned itself from the white pixels.

"Is that normal?" asked Claire.

"No. The broadcasting station doesn't have any worship shows that look like that."

The face on the screen smiled softly, large and all-encompassing silver Matrix-code-patterned eyes near hypnotising. The figure pulled back, revealing a slender female form floating in silver cyberspace, dressed in a pure white gloved bodysuit - or was it simply a part of her? – and spread her arms in welcome.

Michael, while confused at the appearance, easily recognised the signs after so long and so much spent working diligently for the Society. Claire watched as he flipped up his communicator.

"Tash?" he spoke down it. "I think we have a second Sue here… get Phoenixia to come see, will you?"

"Phoenixia? Why?"

"I think she's – "

He cut off abruptly as Tash's face vanished, replaced by the same figure that was still on the monitors above. Text punctuated with silver hearts scrolled across the bottom of his communicator's screen.

+++ Warmest greetings, dear sweet Agent. I am @, one with the computer…and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your introduction to your Library's system…+++

"Um," said Michael.

"Um…" echoed Claire.

"Um!" squeaked Tash.

Simultaneously, @'s visage had impressed itself on all computerised mechanisms in the immediate vicinity, causing them to shut down with their power completely drained and leaving only silver hearts on any screens, or tinny laughter from speakers – but Michael's communicator lit up, unresponsive to his frantic button-mashing and even his removal of the battery.

In the Library, Tash and many others watched this strange event, that familiar feeling of apprehension growing – but only for a moment, as suddenly silver hearts popped up on the Monitor Room's screens and laughter tittered through the speakers. Immediately she pulled up the powerful antivirus system, but before she could do any more Phoenixia shoved her off her chair.

"What the hell?" she cursed as she stared at the screen. She slapped her hand onto the wide keyboards, plunging her will into the computer and causing a red border to appear around every monitor in the Library. She laid a hand on the control interface. "She's in the computer – "

"The antivirus isn't stopping her!"

"It will," growled Phoenixia. "It's the best in the Multiverse and it can stop any digital Sue that dares approach – "

But the antivirus came up with an unexpected message: NO THREATS FOUND.

"WHAT?"

The ex-hologram practically tore off the covering to access the interior of the computer, reaching her arms inside and allowing herself a better, and unique, look at the workings. A diagram appeared on the screen, detailing the thousands of layers of antivirus and firewalls she and Adrian had built up over the centuries; (a) was an eighth of the way through to the core, farther than anyone had ever reached. At last, the antivirus window caught on to the invasion as Phoenixia waged her digital one-woman war.

"She's not – ! She's not even in the system, she's in the base wiring – or in the wireless – "

She jerked upright and whirled around, arms still tangled in wire. She stared towards Tash – or more accurately, to her laptop, sitting innocently on the table with Facebook and a Word document half-open on its desktop… linked in to the Library's wireless with nowhere near the level of protection needed.

This was the second time Tash found herself sprawling to the ground. "Phoenixia, what kind of – !"

Phoenixia jerked out Tash's headphones only to hear @'s chuckle emanate briefly, before the screen shone bright silver. She fought the influence of the Sue to get through to Tash's own commercial antivirus system; but it was already corrupted, filled with mocking profuse thanks and silver hearts. Windows started appearing and vanishing as Phoenixia rushed to close them, but they came too fast, leaving her to recognise what @ was really doing. The windows used were websites, forums, internet and intranet pages, email clients…the glow started fragmenting into hearts, each one disappearing with every window.

Phoenixia drew in her breath sharply and looked back to the monitor of the Library computer, unchanged since the laptop had started to glow. The other agents and the Librarian watched as, past the baffled antivirus, the silver hearts vanished one by one, shooting off in many different directions. Unfortunately Phoenixia knew exactly what had happened, and she slammed the laptop shut.

"What has she done?"

"Damn that Sue! She's used us a conduit!"

"A what? Phoenixia – "

She jerked her head up and glared at the others. Her eyes almost seemed as though they were smouldering with rage. "The attack on the Library was a dupe. Tash's laptop was all she needed. (a) has sneaked in, photocopied her arse, and all of them have left the building."

There followed a moment of blinking as they translated this; but then the Monitor Room exploded into activity as everyone present raced to now-completely functioning terminals and ran high-level searches in every fandom with Internet access.

In 40k, the four agents watched the pseudo-invasion over Michael's communicator, at a loss for words. (a)'s travel up through the computers had taken less than forty seconds, and now there were any number of her spread across the Multiverse, and in every personal computer in the Library at that moment.

McLaren broke the silence, his eyes wide. "Cool."

"You!" Alice marched over to him, sword in hand, and grabbed his shirt. "Who was that? What was that? What are you up to?"

"Not me, not me! I've never seen her before! That was awesome though; she just got into the computers like that – "

Alice wasn't the only one who silenced him again. Ario Barzano met her gaze over the now gagged and kneeling Stu, and he nodded to her.

Michael and Claire prepared the device that would make memories of the Stu and the agents fuzzy, with Louise watching in curiosity, having being banned from helping. Alice, however, took that wonderful power blade off her belt and walked up to the Inquisitor.

"What should I do with your sword, sir?"

"Yours is broken, and if you plan to continue on you will need to go armed. Take it with you, and don't let it break this time," he replied.

"Really?"

"I just said, didn't I?"

"Eeee!" Alice squeaked before wrapping her arms around the genial Inquisitor in what had to be the closest public non-threatening bodily contact he had had for a long time.

"Did she just glomp the Inquisitor?" asked Claire in bemusement.

"Yup…" sighed Louise, head in her hands.

The Crimson Fist Librarian stifled his laugh as the glomp-shocked Barzano blinked, patted her on the back and asked if she would let him go now. He turned to the captive, who had always struck him as odd and now he had proof. He was a resourceful little brat, he gave him that, even with the Ordo Maria-Rosa Inquisitor's shackles now on his wrist.

McLaren had managed to chew through his gag, and now he spat out the remains, struggling to rise from beneath his guards. "Smile all you want, Librarian! I know stuff now! Even the great and mighty Crimson Fists fall before me; but hey, you're bound to anyway, seeing that you worship some Imperial doofus who can't get off the can!"

At the astounded silence, Louise went "Ooooooh dear."

Michael applauded sarcastically. "Well done old boy, well done indeed."

Then the bolters came up, pointing straight at the Stu's head.

"Wait! Hang on, don't kill him!" Louise shrieked. Alice scurried forwards and yanked the Prohibited McLaren out from certain death, ignoring the whisperings of Misty in her ear and throwing him unceremoniously to Michael.

"Gentlemen, while it's quite gratifying… the Ordo Maria-Rosa will take him from here."

The Librarian studied her face. It wasn't worth lying to him, but with McLaren having thoroughly pissed them off he gave them the benefit of his doubt.

"You take the heretic, and deal with him as you wish. But ensure he is punished for his blasphemy."

"Just one thing before we go…" said Alice, a mischievous grin coming over her face. The three other agents and Barzano recognised this grin. It was the smile that preceded bruised ribs.

"Yes?" said the Librarian.

"Can I glomp you?"

OoOOoOOoO

Tash silently marched the captured Stu into the Library basement. He had all but resigned himself to being locked up, for his mind was burning with what he had seen. She pushed him down the corridor, glaring at the captives who considered it a good idea to heckle, or fire questions, or complain. It never worked, but they did it anyway and were relentless about it.

She stopped at an empty cell, unlocked it and pushed McLaren inside.

"Hey, what kind of treatment is this? I have rights, you know!"

"Oh yes, dearest Librarian, I've half a mind to report you to Geneva for this!"

"We're treated like animals! It's unsanitary!"

"Not to mention demeaning."

McLaren grinned at the support. "If this is the best you can do, Tashy-washy… you can barely capture us, barely keep us contained… it's rather pathetic, is it not? Perhaps your leadership status here needs a review, and your agents retraining, mmm?"

She was still for only a few moments before the rage flushed her face, and she seized his shirt and hauled him painfully against the bars.

"Listen to me you little PIPSQUEAK! You almost got my agents killed and believe me when I say that is the LAST thing you should do! You are made of construed bollocks and you are doing oh-so-well in making our lives an utter misery! How would you bloody like it if I did the same to you, huh? HUH?"

McLaren's eyes bugged as the usually calm Librarian screamed at him. All the other inmates had silenced at the unexpected outburst, and the boy could only make small squeaks in response.

Tash's face screwed up, and she dropped him, turning on her heel and fleeing the basement. McLaren slumped against the bars and slid to his knees, letting out the breath he had been holding.

"Yeeeeesh! What leapt up and bit her in the butt lately?" came the slightly-humoured comment.

"Shut up, you," snapped a miserable Sue sat in a corner.

McLaren listened to the banter, considering the knowledge he had to share. And share it he must. "Guys, listen. I've got some news for you. I saw something today that I think you might be interested in…"

OoOOoOOoO

Tash walked the corridors of the Library slowly, furiously ashamed at herself for losing her temper at the stupid boy in the cage. For all their immense faults they were human beings, and she was angry at herself after going over what she had said to him – and the other Sues – because it could easily be construed as a threat of death. Something which she was very much against, even for them.

The thought bubbled up hot inside her again and she turned towards the wall, her forehead impacting the panelled wood as she cursed at herself under her breath and struggled to remain calm.

Slowly she released a sigh, and as she breathed in again, an unexpected smell came with it.

Burning?

Tash whirled around in alarm, sniffing the air around her. If part of her Library was on freakin' fire

Wait, it smelt good. Mellow. Crispy.

She followed her nose to an open doorway, her baffled curiosity deafening her to the cordial banter within.

"…but she hit the Total Author Lock barrier thingy that's on that fandom, and kinda slid down it with a broken nose. So we scooped her up and hogged her on back here."

"Total Author Lock?"

"Yeah, Adrian told me about them once, and how they worked. Well she kept wailing that she wanted to go and play with the Liveships, and we didn't have to say no there. She was stuck."

"Tis annoying though, 'cause we can't get through either, and Sues only two levels above her can get through TALs like they were mosquito nets. Doesn't stop them all, even though thanks to them there's very few Sues in those fandoms screwing things about. So generally we don't worry about them."

"Ah, all right then."

"More toast, chaps and chapesses?"

Tash now stood in the doorway, trying to take in the scene. Lots of hungry agents were in this kitchen, sat on chairs or on the floor, most munching on a copious supply of toasted bread. Loaf bags littered the worktop at the back of the room, tubs of butter and jars of varying spread were loaded onto the table. The Acacia honey had been hidden somewhere nobody wanted to go and there had been negotiations over the Nutella. Standing at the head was Alice, that wide cheeky grin on her face and her sword in her hand.

"Hey Tash, want some toast?" chorused a number, punctuated by laughter.

"How'd ya like it done? Warm bread or charcoal'd?" asked Alice, lifting the crumb-scattered engraved power blade up and thumbing the control switch. The crumbs vaporised swiftly as white and blue energy coruscated up the steel, settling down to a pale glow as she placed it on its lowest setting.

"Urk." The noise Tash made as she rebooted her vocal cords made the whole kitchen hoot with more laughter. "Alice, please tell me you have not stolen that buzzing thing from the 40k fandom!"

"Um," said Alice. "The Inquisitor gave it to me and told me I could keep it. Kind of. Don't think he thought I was going to take it out-universe…and it's not one-of-a-kind, they make these small little, um, non-special power blades by the dozen…"

"Fine, all right." Tash threw up her hands, in no mood to argue. "What are you doing with it?

"Making toast." She slid the sword through a half-cut loaf of bread she had in front of her, and in what had to be described as a truly Hitchhiker's moment, toasted the bread with a fizzle as she did. Dave caught the toast with his plate, nodding to her with a grin and returning to the loganberry jam.

"That is not how you're supposed to – "

"Hey Tash, we have Marmite!" said Jess, flicking the round glass jar so it came to a dancing stop in front of her. The Librarian stared down at the spread, and smelt the lovely toasty buttery smell…

"Oh sod it, give me three rounds. I'm bloody hungry," she said, pulling out a chair to join the others, who welcomed her with gusto.

On a screen in the corner of the kitchen was a visual representation of the extensive clean-up of the Library's computer system. @'s attack on the computer and her momentary express visit through the wireless had provoked the resident digital being into a full-on defensive mode, adamant that she was going to sweep her computers clean of any Sue influence and ensure this would not happen again. Nobody had ever seen Phoenixia like this before.

The monitor bore a Pac-man maze to one side. Phoenixia, represented as a purple Mrs. Pac-man, had been wakka-wakka-wakka-ing her way through the labyrinth, giving the computer a thorough clean-up of all the dots and discarded fruit which lay around. Any ghosts that dared to show up before her were unceremoniously dealt with.

However the forlorn purple figure now had the maze to herself, empty of all detritus. But every now and then a silver heart would pop up; Phoenixia would swoop down upon it, rip it to shreds and resume her wanderings. Michael was watching her exemplary efforts to rid the system of (a)'s miniscule effects, keeping note of when the silver hearts showed. She had been sweeping for over six hours now, and only four hearts had shown in the last two.

A digital Sue?

Crap.

He hoped they'd seen the last of her… it… them? Probably not, but riding on this thought was the hope that she wasn't as powerful as they feared. Though if she could use their systems as a slingshot…

Nothing had emerged thus far, not even in the agents' inboxes, and as far as he knew she was a new discovery. Either she was only just created, or any other powers she had were much lower than this.

Or she was spreading and biding her time to strike…

He bit violently into his toast, nearly chomping on his lip too. He was sure they'd find a way to work out what @ was really after, and that Phoenixia could use what she had discovered about her to develop an antivirus Prohibitor of some kind.

He was sure he was sure.

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