The Rhododendron turned to me. If this does not work, he said, the staging points won’t be safe. There are countless places to run to, and you-
“Won’t need them,” I cut him off. “It’s the Efficient who are going to have to run and hide, not us.”
We don’t have time for optimism. If something goes wrong-
“I’ll keep them safe,” I promised. “Rhodes… in all honesty… what are our chances?”
In all honesty? The Rhododendron shook his flower slowly. I have no idea. There are just too many variables. He sighed a mental sigh. I know one thing, though – whatever happens, the PPC will never be the same again.
“Given what the PPC’s been like this past decade? I don’t think that’s a big loss.”
The Flower spread his leaves. But the ideal- he began.
“Is dead with the Crocus and the Lilac – by the Overpower, it probably died with the Sunflower Official!”
I sincerely believe otherwise, the Rhododendron stated simply. I still hold to that ideal – and I know the Sub Rosa does – and I believe you do, too.
“Well… maybe.” I looked around the Operations room, the heart of our resistance against the Efficient – the control centre for loyal HQ. “But we’ll talk about that later, right? For now… we’ll wait for your signal.”
Oh, yes. The Rhododendron looked over at the scorched patch not even Building Maintenance dared clean, the spot where the Crocus, the previous Head of Operations, had been murdered…
Yes, he said again. Later.
I swallowed. “Rhodes…”
On my signal, he said, and fled.
One of the few advantages we held in the war was the Tiger Lily’s unswerving loyalty to the Sub Rosa and the old ways. Even when most of Internal Affairs defected to the Efficient, their resources stayed under our control. Not the weapons – those had been destroyed by the Cherry Tree long ago – but the cameras…
And so I was able to watch the Rhododendron make his way through the twisted maze of HQ. The corridors he passed down were battered, their bland grey walls marred by burns, bloodstains, explosion damage – but still uniquely recognisable. I don’t know how he avoided enemy contact, as he snuck into the very heart of Efficient territory – perhaps he was skilled, or maybe just incredibly lucky. Either way, he made it to his goal – the Department of Dead Author Electricity Generation.
The generator room was black, and it was only with the aid of infra-black vision that I could make out the Rhododendron as he slipped between the humming machines. Even then, I couldn’t see what he was doing – but I knew what he had taken with him.
What he was leaving behind.
The Flower had almost completed his circuit – was returning to the door, approaching the twin forms of the Rowling and Tolkien generators – when the camera was overwhelmed with light. Cursing, I flicked back to normal vision mode – and turned on the sound.
Well, well, said a ‘voice’ I knew only too well. The Rhododendron himself. Should we be flattered?
I don’t think so, a second voice replied. Villains make stupid mistakes – it’s practically a well-known fact.
The Rhododendron visibly slumped. Foxglove, he said, a greeting or a curse. Slaver Sunflower.
And what are you doing skulking about back here? the Foxglove asked. Up to more mischief, I shouldn’t doubt. Oh, since you’re here: did you plan the Cafeteria Massacre personally, or was it one of your merry band of criminals? We need to know for the charge sheets.
I winced at the reference. No, the Second Battle of the Cafeteria hadn’t exactly covered us in glory… but it had been necessary.
Nothing? the Foxglove asked. Pity. We’ll get it out of you in the trial, so I’m not really that bothered. I breathed easier. Of course they were planning a trial! That meant we had time to stage a rescue – the DIA cells were leakier than a rusty sieve these days…
I don’t have anything to say to you, the Rhododendron said, and looked directly up at the camera. I know he didn’t have eyes, but somehow I could read the message he was sending anyway.
“No,” I whispered. “Rhodes, no…”
Well, the Rhododendron corrected himself, maybe one thing. Five.
Five? the Slaver Sunflower repeated. Five what?
Four, the Rhododendron went on amicably. Three.
I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to run down there and pull him out, tell him this wasn’t the way, we could still fight them.
But there was no time for that – no time for second thoughts – no time for anything but to lift my radio and shout into it: “Meatloaf! I say again, Meatloaf!”
One. And as the Rhododendron’s gaze met mine across the camera link for the very last time, I pressed the button on my Remote Activator, the emergency, pre-programmed button, and fell through the portal. I never saw the Rhododendron’s final moments – never saw him lift that simple, silver device from its hook – never saw him flip the lid and press the single red button.
And I never saw the inferno that engulfed him, the Foxglove and the Slaver Sunflower as twenty thermal detonators activated at once. All I know is that it would have been utterly painless – the last two bombs were still strapped to his bandolier.
From our staging ground, the Loyalists of the PPC watched the fall of HQ.
The Ghost had survived the war (as it had survived everything else), and it projected a map on the cliff above our campsite. With DoDAEG obliterated, all the technology in HQ was down… including the portal generators.
And the shields.
All across the Multiverse, the wildest and nastiest creatures in existence broke down the Generic Surface walls, tore the doors from their hinges, and rampaged through the grey corridors, searching for prey.
But all the Loyalists had portalled out. Only the Efficient remained.
As we watched in silent awe and horror, a cluster of red dots near what had once been the Department of Finance succumbed to a swarm of giant spiders, while another – the most organised group on the map – finally broke under the unrelenting blasterfire of a hundred battle droids.
“That was the Cherry Tree,” said a voice in the darkness, and I was surprised to realise it was my own. “He was the last of them. The last Flower.”
Only the last traitor, said a tired mental voice, and a ripple of shock ran through our gathering. I turned, a desperate hope rising in my heart – had the Rhododendron somehow escaped?
No. Before us, supported by a woman of about forty, stood the most famous Loyalist of all: the Sub Rosa, last of the Firstborn, Head of Intelligence.
So it has come to this, she said, staring up at the map, on which the last few red lights were now falling fast. After all these years… this is how HQ dies.
“It isn’t dead,” I protested, my voice sounding wild even to me. “We can repair this – we have Building Maintenance-“
Not even they could restore what once was, the Sub Rosa said gently. Perhaps someday, some portion of the old structure may be reclaimed – but not as our Headquarters. A meeting-place, perhaps – a centre – but not a base.
I bit my lip. “Then the Rhododendron died for nothing.”
For everything, the Sub Rosa said sharply. The PPC is not a building – is not a hierarchy of Departments and Divisions – it is not a thing. It is you. You agents, you lovers of canon – you are the future, not that shattered shell. She lifted her blossom and watched as the last red dot finally winked out. HQ is the past. If you return, it will be to a museum, a memorial – the House of What Was.
“No,” I said, and turned to gaze up at the map of what had once been my home. “Not of What Was. It will be the House of Rhodes.”
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