By Divine Agency

AN: Thanks to both my lovely reviewers, Amethyst Asheryn and jaybriel, I really love knowing that people enjoy my work! Now, as requested, Darien does show up in this chapter - but I honestly don't know how comic relief-y he'll be, as we're getting to the serious plot at long last, and in this chapter there are Developements. I hope people are pleased by them!

Chapter 11: Needles in Haystacks

PRESENT

Rings

Another day, another summons to the Temple; at least they'd given him a couple of days to let the headache disappear, even if the numbing effects of the Phero machine hadn't yet worn off. Perhaps that was all to the good; usually stepping into the Temple gave him the shivers for some reason, but today he was thankfully oblivious to the official chill filling the room. Amethyst fluttered a wave at him from where she stood by some senior's desk; Snark looked up as he walked by and scowled, but Rings saw the tap tap tap of his fingers on the edge of his console and wondered what he'd heard that made him anxious. It was never a good sign when one of the report controllers was worried, particularly one as callous and self-centred as Snark.

But he didn't have time to speculate right now, though maybe later he'd tell Honey and see if she could run a trace on Snark's aura to see if she could pick something up (technically you weren't supposed to use your abilities against another agent, but since Honey couldn't turn her eyes off and in any case Snark had tormented anyone he could with projections for a while after getting the hang of them he really wouldn't feel any guilt about it.) Now he was wanted by one of the Chief Controllers, and that was more than enough to concentrate on.

Controllers in Artemis were superficially similar to the Supervisors in Athene, and with the corresponding ability to creep Rings right out for no good reason. They were probably lovely people, and despite the lofty heights they'd risen to most of them had started where Rings had, in a cell in the bowels of Athene. But - oh well. Everyone knew his abilities were haywire anyway, after all the time he'd spent having his head screwed around with in Athene, so if they gave him a grudge against authority no one would blame him.

Controller 3-04 Snow was fairly average by their standards, and Rings nodded to her respectfully. She might not be the most sympathetic controller in the world, but she'd been doing this job for longer than almost anyone and had seen practically all of her early colleagues killed by Athene so it was hard to blame her, and she hadn't degenerated to the level of using Athene codes for everyone. And a couple of the Chief Controllers were pretty cold over agents who lacked 'proper offensive abilities', like Rings, so he'd take neutrality just about every time.

"Reporting, Ma'am," he said easily, standing before her console in a quiet corner of the temple.

"Thank you, Agent Rings. Sit down."

Rings stifled a sigh. That flat a phrasing meant he wasn't being offered a choice in the matter and that he'd be here for a full debriefing, not just a set of orders. Well, he was blocked enough that sitting here wouldn't make him edgy, after all, so there was no use complaining. He sat. "What do you need to know, Ma'am?"

"Actually, we don't require a verbal report this time. We've analysed the information you gave the Phero machine, so we're up to date on the details of your mission as well as the package you received from Agent Silver."

She spoke with a perfect serenity that only increased Rings's immediate rush of weary annoyance. "There really is no need for brain scans -" he began tersely.

"Yes, your feelings on what you term 'mind-rape' are well documented," Snow said, looking at the dossier on her console with an apparent interest that made Rings flush slightly. It had been a tactless thing to say, of course, but it had been soon after his rescue from Athene and the thoughts of what they'd done to Spiral - what Rings knew they'd done to Spiral, despite the lack of evidence after they'd deactivated most of his own psychic abilities - still haunted him.

"It's not that," he lied automatically, quashing the feeling of anxiety about it. They couldn't have a polygraph trained on him in here... unless it was in the chair... But in any case, what did it really matter? "I don't see the point of taking up the time of a tech-path and a controller to sort the data when I'm perfectly happy to just tell you what happened."

Snow sighed a little, and Rings cursed his inability to place the expression on her usually bland face. Was it tension? Concentration? Simple boredom, even? "Well, as it happens we had no choice. There was -" she paused, and tapped one nail thoughtfully against her console "- leakage, between the package and your own memories."

Rings heart leapt. "That's not meant to happen," he said, trying to keep his voice even, to dispossess the hope before it could take him over entirely. Could it be that his wishes were finally granted, that his Carrying ability was going the way of his active abilities, soon to be inaccessible? Could it, could it maybe be that soon he'd be free of all the machines for good? He'd have to stop being an agent if he couldn't Carry, and that would hurt. But maybe they could give him a job somewhere else, maybe with the un-secured personnel.

Maybe if he was no longer classed as at-risk, just maybe he could finally have a room with a window.

Rings hated to let weakness be seen, so he kept back the tears that were so close to the surface at this thought; kept up the professional guise that had solidified from the resolute defiance of an angry boy, and fixed his gaze back on Snow's face.

"It can happen," she said reluctantly. "For all it's meant to be distinct from the rest of your thoughts, the package is just memories, really; it's read by the subconscious like anything else. And so, as with any memory, there can be... cross-referencing."

The regret was so bitter that it closed Rings's throat for a moment, and only his practise at fighting past such bleak emotions let him focus on her words. "Cross-referencing?" he asked, momentarily blank. "Then - I must already have known some of the information in the package?" But what could it be? No Agent would transmit stray memories or common knowledge with the information package, it simply wasn't done. And that meant Rings must have obtained without even realising it some sort of confidential news.

"It doesn't happen," Snow muttered to herself. "It just doesn't happen," and even numb, Rings could tell she was half-incredulous about whatever they'd plucked from his grey matter. Then she sighed again, and met Rings's gaze squarely with her strange, pale eyes. "The information Silver was gathering was about the latent psychics Athene was investigating, to see if they were worth bringing in. You know we can't usually locate them ourselves, we can't quite figure out what machine they're using..." Rings smothered impatience; her inconsequential talk just meant the eventual revelation must be worth the wait. No Chief Controller was picked for being a chatterbox. "...But one of the latents Silver was investigating was someone you recognised. Someone you've met. And that was what we were sifting through the Phero machine to find out."

While Rings was still silently digesting this unprecedented briefing, Snow tapped a few buttons on her console, and an image silently popped up on her screen. Rings took one look at it, and surprise and professionalism both broke together.

"You have got to be fucking kidding me."


Darien

The Arms Chief stepped out of his sound-proofed booth and accepted the gun from a triumphant Darien. "All that, and only one reload," the agent said smugly, shaking his hands to relieve the tension.

"And yet you still fail, hotshot," the Chief informed him dryly, slipping the magazine out of the gun and firing into a target to check the chamber was empty.

"What? No way! I got all of them, record time, and none of them set off the alarm. I'm golden!"

"You're brass. The computer says that two of them got shots off back at you. If they weren't holograms you'd be feeling it now..."

Well, that was plainly ridiculous. "That's why we wear Kevlar," Darien pointed out, having unpleasant flashbacks to his teachers at school.

"Kevlar doesn't cover everything, hotshot, and that was a stealth mission. You should have been able to pick them all off wearing nothing but your underwear without so much as stubbing your toe."

"Underwear, eh?" Darien said, starting to smirk again. "I wasn't aware I was allowed those kind of tactics, Chief."

"God help me, hotshot, if I have to put up with your sexual innuendos I'll reload this gun and show you that you're not the only crack shot in the room. Might teach you that Kevlar doesn't stop everything, too." The Chief scowled and Darien grimaced an apology, waving a deprecating hand.

"Sorry, Chief. Old habits die hard. I'm trying to clean up my act, I swear." He really was, too, though the only result his immense self control seemed to have gained was that Kevin from Accounting apparently thought he was plotting something particularly complicated and dastardly, and Jules from Reception still had a crush on him rather than nursing a broken heart.

"About time, too. I swear that if we let agents take weapons from the armoury for their own purpose, you'd have been killed long ago."

"There's a new kid who favours garrottes, apparently," Darien said, not alienated by the attitude he knew the Chief gave to every agent in the company. "I won't be safe anywhere with string... Know anything about him? Or are pieces of wire beneath you?"

"If watching you fuck up a stealth exercise isn't beneath me, nor's wire. Why? Are you thinking about a new partner?" Darien shrugged, and the Chief shook his head as he led the way back to the control booth. "Don't go for him. He's too flamboyant, and you don't need any help to get yourself killed. You need a partner who won't let you rush in guns blazing. Being good in a fight won't go nearly as far as some tactics would."

"That's so boring," Darien protested. "No way could I have a partner without some kind of fighting spirit. And if you'd give me some neat gadgets, I wouldn't need to be so dependent on the guns, would I?"

"Not without permission from upstairs, hotshot," the Chief told him, and Darien sighed to himself as he listened impatiently to the lecture that explained why, precisely, he'd failed the exercise despite his record time, and reflected once again that the action films of his childhood had clearly led him poorly. None of them had described this level of bureaucracy.

Not that being an assassin wasn't still the most best career Darien could imagine; no way he'd be able to hold down something that required much paperwork, sitting in an office, concentration on raw data or respect for his superiors, and despite what his colleagues might think, the career of male prostitute would not have been one Darien relished. One of his first jobs had been to take out a piece-of-scum pimp who'd gotten above himself, and Darien was quite morally at piece with any work that removed creatures like that from the earth. You couldn't get them all, of course, or who would pay you? But still... He'd enjoy being an assassin a lot more if it wasn't for all the restrictions.

Who'd have thought, for example, that a criminal agency would have an R&D budget? When Darien waxed lyrical on the tranq grenades and satellite pickup that the mysterious Artemis agent had enjoyed on his last mission, he was told that there was no way Nox could match it. And that they still wouldn't give him grenades, either.

It was just unfair. Alright, he might be - erratic - but Darien knew with no false modesty that he was good. He'd be better, if only they'd work with him...

Artemis must have lots of money for nifty assassin toys. No wonder their agents were reputed to be so elite... Not that Darien had been able to find out much about that, really. He'd been trying, too; while Boss waited for a suitable case to turn up for a solo assassin of his inimitable flair - as Darien liked to think of it, rather than Boss's less flattering term of 'someone as bloody reckless as you' - Agent Darien Aster had been checking out the Nox library for perhaps the first time in his career.

It did at least let him avoid his colleagues while he tried sheepishly to turn over a new leaf (not that he'd let Sarah know that her lectures had had an effect; he had his pride, after all) but the gaps in the archives when it came to Artemis and the even more shadowy Athene were almost as frustrating as having to restrain himself from sexually harassing his more attractive male colleagues. The Divine Agencies, it seemed, were even more paranoid than their common cousins, and aside from what he'd learnt from Rings and Boss, Darien still knew approximately zilch.

Rings. Darien wondered if it still bothered the agent that he knew his name. Probably not, actually; they would surely have given him another mission almost immediately, assassinating a head of government or infiltrating a world bank or stealing a picture from a national gallery. It was only Darien who had to sit around waiting to be given more work, bored out of his skull, with nothing to think about except the foibles of the other agencies.

Sarah was probably right. If he had a partner he wouldn't get passed over for so many jobs. Still, it was better to get passed over than it was to have to put up with someone completely unsuitable. It wasn't like they were paying him on commission.

All the same, Darien thought about checking out the dossiers of the new recruits as he left the firing range, but the idea was just exhausting. He'd been at HQ all day, sparring and practising on the range, and his temper was wearing a little thin. And whatever Sarah might say, his short fuse wasn't actually from the strain of being good - though that couldn't help - but he couldn't say what it really was, or she'd either laugh him off or freak out. And Darien was probably just imagining things anyway.

Still, when he stepped out of the HQ building, he instinctively straightened his Kevlar-lined jacket, and wished for a moment that the armoury was willing to loan guns to off duty agents. Maybe he should buy one himself on the black market, or steal one. He carried concealed weapons without a warrant every time he went on a mission, it wouldn't particularly bother him to do so at home.

And a gun would make him feel a hell of a lot more comfortable than a knife when every time he stepped into the street his neck prickled with the feeling that he was being watched.

He should have told Boss or someone, probably. There were all sorts of reasons for an assassin to find himself being followed; someone from a job catching up with him, the Law Enforcement people deciding to do something about the crime underworld for once (if it was that, they'd back off soon enough. No one legit wanted to mess with the agencies), even someone from Nukta deciding to thumb their nose at Nox by taking down an agent (after all, Nox agents did exactly the same to them). But it wasn't like he'd seen anyone suspicious, and they'd either make a stupid fuss about it and restrict Darien's movements until he was half crazy with frustration, or they'd think it was just his patented unreliability coming to the fore again. Point out that after James died he'd seen a conspiracy in everything, so determined was he to find some sort of reason for the pointless death...

No. He could deal with it himself, if need be. It wasn't worth the hassle...

Or at least, that was what Darien thought until he entered the code for his front door, deactivated the alarm, and walked into his apartment; for instantly he knew that he hadn't been imagining anything. There was someone else there. He paused just inside the door, body tensed for action, thinking about the knife in his pocket and really, really wishing that it could also fire bullets at people.

"So you know I'm here," someone said, stepping from the tiny kitchen into the main room and walking over to the window. "Not bad. Maybe you're a better agent than I gave you credit for. What was it, did you hear me breathing? Or was it sheer animal instinct, someone else in your lair? I don't really think you're a telepath, though I could be wrong. You never really can tell what the machines will bring out until you're in them, though it's not a method of self-discovery I really recommend. And you won't get to the knife before I break your wrist, so I don't recommend trying."

Darien eased his hand away from his pocket, relaxed marginally, and snorted. "You're a bit full of yourself, aren't you, Rings," he said conversationally. "I'm on the other side of the room. I don't think you could move quite that fast, and I don't see any back up."

The agent's bland expression tightened a bit, to Darien's interest, as he used the name, but he didn't protest. "Well, you wouldn't see Kit unless he wanted to be seen. But the others aren't here right now. No reason to advertise the fact we know who you are by sending in a whole trail of us."

Darien smirked. "Yeah. Of course. The truth is that you just wanted to see me on your own. Admit it, I'm irresistible."

Rings gave him an irritated look. "This is the worst mission I have ever been assigned," he muttered, then said more clearly, "In fact I was ordered to come here on the grounds that you'd be less likely to attack on sight someone you'd met before, however briefly."

"So you're the one who's been following me all week, huh?" Darien said, mind buzzing behind his lazily suggestive voice. What was Rings doing here? What did Artemis want with him? And what had he meant about telepathy and machines? More cryptic, coded clues?

"Not really," Rings said, his annoyance smoothing into terse purpose. "I've been looking for the people who are following you, in fact, and they've been at it for much longer than a week. More like a couple of months, and they'd probably been looking for you remotely for longer than that. They couldn't just comb the schools and hospitals to find you, they must have had a hell of a time. One latent in a city of millions? Worse than a needle in a haystack." When he met Darien's gaze, his expression was very serious. "You're a rarity, blue-eyes. Bet they don't know whether to bring you in or not. Old as you are, there's too much resistance to the training, and they really don't like resistance. But they go through agents so fast, they just can't pass up the opportunity to recruit when it falls into their laps..."

"What are you talking about?" Darien demanded flatly, trying not to show how Rings's ambiguous words were making his adrenalin surge. "Who wants to recruit me? Artemis?"

"Any respect I had for your perception is gone again. Athene, blue-eyes. The bad guys. They want to haul you in and make you into one of their little drones. Artemis sent me to try and stop them - though I have to admit, in your situation personality removal might be an advantage."

Oh, this was definitely not the reunion he would have preferred with the mysterious agent. "What does Athene want with me?" he asked sharply. "I don't know anything about them! I never even heard of them before I met you."

"You've heard of them, trust me. Nearly every world leader has an Athene agent dripping poison in their ear, half the stocks on the market would go up and down on their say-so, and their are more than a few international banks that might as well be Athene's cash-boxes. You just don't know it was them. And all the same, they've heard of you," Rings finished grimly. "The information Sylvie gave me - she found a file with your name on it in Athene's HQ. Apparently something happened two years ago that one of their trackers zeroed in on. An unexplainable explosion. Sound familiar?"

The words were like a blow. The explosion that had killed James, the one no one had ever managed to deconstruct - Athene knew something about it? Were they behind it? After two years of blaming himself for want of any other culprit, anger began to burn. No sign now of his usual flirtatious manner, Darien nodded once, lips tight.

"Well, we figure that was what snared their interest, though it took them a long time to figure out who you were. God, you're in your twenties - who would have expected someone to activate that late, and without help?"

"Stop messing around, Rings," Darien snapped. "I want to know what the hell you're talking about, and why Athene wants me."

Rings looked at him for a long time, and nodded slowly. "You're - special," he said at last. "You can do things that other people can't. Athene looks for people like that, like us, because they can give them the power they need - if they're properly controlled. Most of the time they find us as kids, by searching schools - usually it shows up best in young people. Teenagers." There was a darkness in his expression that was broader than the present moment, and the part of Darien still filing away information wondered if Rings was implying that Athene had taken him away when he was only a teenager... "I can't tell you more than that," he said quietly. "And you wouldn't believe me anyway. No one believes at first. But Athene is watching you. They might not take you, but they might. And trust me -" There was a pain and anger in his controlled features that put Darien's two years of it to shame. "- anything is better than being inside Athene. So we from Artemis are watching you, and the Athene agents. But you need to be careful, and wary, because right now your security sucks."

That brought Darien out of his half-stunned acceptance of Rings's speech, the scornful addendum making his chin come up. "My security's enough that no one's gotten in my flat before, no matter how much I pissed them off," he said, stung. "I don't know how you did it -"

"Don't flatter yourself," Rings said coolly, and held out his open hand; on it were several tiny lumps of metal and plastic. Darien went a little bit cold as he realised their import. "Athene have had your flat bugged, and neither your security nor your instincts were good enough to catch them. I've deactivated the rest of them, and I'll take these back for testing, but if they planted one lot they can plant more - and they may well realise that you've had outside help, so you're going to be in further danger. I'd suggest you relocate to somewhere a bit safer. Maybe Nox HQ. Not even Athene want to go head to head with another agency."

Darien stared at the bugs until Rings slipped them back in a pocket, and then set his shoulders, re-assuming with an effort his usual flippancy. Damned if he'd let Rings get to him. "Well, I hope you enjoyed going through all my stuff," he said slowly, mind still buzzing on what he'd heard. "There's a word for people like you, you know."

"I didn't particularly relish it," Rings said indifferently. "For someone with such a pleasant abode, you don't treat your possessions very well. No wonder you never noticed people planting bugs; you probably would have missed a full-scale ransacking." He shook his head, and then walked past Darien to the door.

Before he could escape, Darien grabbed his arm, ignoring the Artemis agent's sudden tension. He was under their 'protection', Rings wasn't about to shoot him for so holding him a few moments. "After I sort this out, you owe me a proper explanation," he said evenly, squarely meeting Rings's eyes. "You probably owe me a date, too, but I'd pass on that if you'd just tell me what the fuck is going on."

Rings's lips quirked with black humour. "Maybe. But by the time this is 'sorted out', you might not be in any position to remember any of it. So I won't bother making promises." He pulled his arm free, and opened the door. "Try to stay alive, blue-eyes," he said quietly. "It's going to be a real challenge." And then he slipped away and closed the door.

Alone, Darien quickly activated all the locks and alarms any agent considered necessary for personal protection; clearly, they wouldn't keep out the serious agencies, but they were at least something. And then at last he was able to think about what the hell he should do.

The first thing for any sensible man would be to tell Boss. Nox would not only issue him with a gun rather than him having to acquire one for himself, they would give him surveillance, body-guards, whatever. It might take him a while to convince them, but Darien could do it in the end, and Nox took the safety of its agents seriously. They might even, as Rings had suggested, offer him accommodation in HQ somewhere until they assessed the risks...

But there was another issue at stake, one which had burned at him poisonously since Rings mentioned how long Athene had known of him. That explosion. James. If the Athene Agency had been responsible - and if they had their fingers in as many pies as Rings said, they could well have been - or even if they simply knew the cause... The Nox Agency would never give Darien permission to investigate that, not with the big black blotch on his psych record where James was concerned. How could he give up this one little clue to the mystery?

And how could he tell Nox about the danger without explaining this little snippet of information?

That decided him. Darien could take care of himself, and now that he knew what he was facing, he could make preparations. Athene might be good, but they were not all-powerful. He wasn't going to let himself be steered around, a pawn of the Divine Agencies.

No matter what Rings said.


GLOSSARY

The Athene agency - Athene was the name of the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. Athene is an undercover agency that captures young psychics before they can completely manifest, and trains and brainwashes them into becoming totally loyal drones. The eventual aim of Athene is power.

The Artemis agency - Artemis was the Greek goddess of virginity and hunting. The Artemis agency is made up of technicians and officials who defected from Athene, and the psychics they brought with them. The aim of Artemis is too free as many psychics as possible from Athene, and eventually destroy the Athene agency entirely. To make money, the Artemis agents also work as assassins, spies, and thieves, and they have a reputation for being extremely elite.

The Nox agency - Nox is the Latin term for 'night'. An agency made up of assassins, spies and thieves; generally, agents are sent out on missions in pairs. They are a solely mercenary organisation.

The Nukta agency - Nukta is the Greek term for 'night'. An agency made up of assassins, spies and thieves. They are in competition to the Nox agency, for choice clients and jobs, but it is not as extreme as the warfare between Athene and Artemis. An unimportant agency.

The Temple - Of the Artemis and Athene agencies, a control room deep in their HQ, where the central computer is accessed.

Phero, the Phero machine, the Carrying machine - Phero is a corruption of the Greek verb for 'to carry'. Used in conjunction with the Dreaming machine, the Carrying machine is used to repair neural pathways used for the psychic ability of Carrying. It can have unpleasant side effects, and can be used to damage mental abilities as well as enhance them. Similar machines are used by Athene to force psychics into full power.