Glade sat in traffic, edging his way through South London from Lewisham to Vauxhall, an awkward journey in the busy morning. He felt tired, disheveled, and older than his years. It was an unfortunate day for an important meeting.
Agent Duluth had intimated that the Department were less than happy with Search Unit Sigma's recent performances. That wasn't a surprise. Mixt, Nakishdan and Rainith's behaviour had hardly been exemplary. Glade wondered if he were about to be fired, for failing to keep them in control. He hoped not. Looking after them might be annoying, and impossible at times, but he needed the money. With his poor service record, Glade wasn't sure what other employment he'd find.
'If only these idiots could concentrate on their missions,' he muttered. But as he waited at the traffic lights at the Elephant and Castle, a sudden depression gripped him, and he couldn't maintain the energy to be annoyed at them.
Glade yawned. He was tired. Partly because he was depressed, and partly because he hadn't slept well at Lydia's. It was unusual for him to spend the night there. Most times he visited Lydia, he'd leave around midnight. But last night he'd fallen asleep. Depression, probably; it did sap his energy. Lydia had been awake when he'd left this morning, but they hadn't spoken. He frowned. They had almost nothing in common. If it weren't for their shared kink, they wouldn't have remained together longer than a week. As it was, their sado-masochistic relationship had kept their relationship going for almost a year. It seemed to be a powerful bond, even if they had nothing to talk about afterwards.
As Glade approached Vauxhall, he was tempted just to keep on driving; ignore the meeting, go home and go to bed. That was an attractive proposition. Much more attractive than meeting Agent Duluth, Ms Darben, and the ineffective malcontents who made up Search Unit Sigma.
'Mixt, Nakishdan and Rainith have to be the worst government agents ever,' he muttered, but he kept on towards the meeting, because he really couldn't afford to lose his job.
'I'd just like to know, that's all,' said Ms Darben.
'Does it matter?'
'Probably not. But Mixt and Nakishdan work for us. In our line of work, we generally like to know a lot about our employees. We know that Rainith the Red has had no close contact with anyone since she's been in London. We know that Glade goes to Lewisham every week to whip a woman he met on a bondage website, and recently he bought a cane. We know that you have no intimate relationships, but have a picture of Rainith in your desk drawer.'
Agent Duluth frowned, but didn't comment. Ms Darben sipped her tea from a chipped mug, brought to her by the waitress who maintained a cheerful aura at all times, no matter how awkward her customers.
'So, knowing all that, I'd just like to know if Nakishdan and Mixt are sleeping together.'
'What do you want me to do? Install spy cameras?'
'We don't need to know that much. But see what you can find out. If they're having some sort of relationship tangle it might be affecting their performance.'
'I wish we could fire them all and replace them with some better agents,' said Duluth, with feeling.
'Well, unless the Kesh find some way of sending other people back, we have to make the best of it.'
'But it's chaos. They get everything wrong.'
'Most things, I agree. Though they do seem to have found out quite a lot recently. 102 Woo, for instance. Some sort of secret organisation in the world of the Kesh, who want to kill Geeda Lala. Though the Kesh don't seem keen to provide an explanation.'
'The Kesh Ven Ven Lar never are. We're doing their dirty work for them and they never fully explain why.'
'I admit it's trying, being obliged to work in the dark. They could be a lot more helpful. But it's our history that threatens to disintegrate, not theirs, so we have no choice.'
'Do you think that's really true?'
'That it's only our world that's in danger of falling apart? Maybe the Kesh are in danger from Geeda too.'
'Perhaps. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing. They have access to our world. Or our universe. We have no access to theirs.'
The door opened and Rainith the Red hurried in. She sat down at their table, some papers in her hand.
'I've written two reviews for Sticky Glitter fanzine and I want you to send them back in time.'
Rainith brandished her papers impatiently. 'I need to get these reviews published in 1977.'
The fairy regarded them with contempt. 'Why? Because I need to let everyone know how great X-Ray Spex are, of course.'
They glanced at the first line of Rainith's review.
'Compared to X-Ray Spex, all other bands are useless cunts.'
'Strong writing style,' said Ms Darben. 'Your enthusiasm really shows through.'
Glade barely acknowledged Agent Duluth, though he managed a respectful greeting to Ms Darben, and even smiled at Rainith. Almost immediately, Nakishdan and Mixt bustled into the cafe, deep in animated conversation.
'We have to land on the roof,' said Mixt. 'And take out the Battle Commander from there. Then we can mop up the rest.'
'We can't land on the roof if the anti-spacecraft cannon is still functioning.'
'We'll bomb it first.'
'Our bombing skill isn't high enough.'
'We should get down to business.' Ms Darben pitched her voice lowly enough not to be overheard by the waitress, but strongly enough to sound authoritative. Mixt and Nakishdan paid no attention.
'How do we get our bombing skill high enough to destroy the cannon?'
'I think we have to take the mission to the fourth moon and attack the pirate outpost.'
'Stop talking about Star Metal Planet.'
Mixt and Nakishdan were discomfited, as always when Ms Darben turned out to know more about them than they thought she did.
'Do you have spies watching us at the playstation?' demanded Nakishdan.
'I don't need spies. You haven't talked about anything else for weeks. Please concentrate, we have important - '
'I want to see the Sex Pistols,' said Rainith, interrupting. 'Preferably at an early gig. Can you send us back to see the Sex Pistols?'
'We don't get to choose where you go.' Duluth also kept his voice low. 'The Kesh notify us of where Geeda is likely to be, and they help us send you there.'
'But I want to see the Sex Pistols. I want to see them the first time they play. At St Martin's School of Art. They were supporting a band called Bazooka Joe. By co-incidence, Adam Ant played bass for Bazooka Joe. Before he became Adam Ant, that is.'
Everyone at the table stared at Rainith.
'What?' she said, looking round rather angrily. 'I've been reading about it.'
'I see. Well, interesting as that sounds, we really don't have control over where we send you. But I've asked you all here today because recent developments have been so - '
'Wouldn't Geeda Lala be at Sex Pistols gigs?' asked Rainith. 'If she went to these other punk gigs, surely she'd have gone to see the Sex Pistols?'
'Perhaps, but - '
'Is her second name Lala?' asked Nakishdan.
'Yes, Geeda Lala. Why?'
'I met a girl called Lala at the Raped gig. Do you think that might have been her?'
Everyone now stared at Nakishdan. Ms Darben and Agent Duluth looked rather angry.
'You met a girl called Lala? And you didn't think to mention it?'
'I thought her name was Geeda. You never said it was Lala.'
'Yes we did. Everyone did. Repeatedly. I've even heard you say it.'
'Oh. I mustn't have been paying attention. Or I forgot.'
Ms Darben drummed her fingers lightly on the table. 'Does anyone else have any shocking revelations they forgot to mention?'
'A flying snake invaded my fairy kingdom.'
'Is that really a shock?' asked Nakishdan. 'It sounds like what you'd expect in a fairy kingdom.'
'It was a big surprise to the Elvish fencing master.' Rainith turned back to Ms Darben. 'The day after the Sex Pistols first gig, they played at Central School of Art. Can you send me back there too?'
It took some time for Ms Darben to bring order to the meeting, though she managed it, despite interruptions from the waitress, and Mixt, Nakishdan and Rainith's strong tendency to veer off topic at any moment.
'To recap - the snakes have been appearing in more places, both past and present. Glade encountered one in a car park, and one has apparently invaded the Fairy Kingdom of Mercia. They're liable to show up whenever you go back, and we're still fighting them in the cordoned-off section of the London Underground. It's as if whatever we do attracts more of them.'
'Maybe we should do nothing,' suggested Nakishdan.
'We can't. Because the ultimate cause of all this is Geeda Lala's incursion into our past. That's letting the flying snakes in. Inhabitants from a nearby universe, we assume, although that Kesh haven't really made that clear.'
'They haven't made anything clear,' said Glade. 'Their original story, that Geeda was some sort of super criminal, was clearly untrue. She sounds more like a young woman who wants to go to gigs.'
Ms Darben agreed with him. 'Though it still doesn't make much sense. Why would she enter our world just to go to gigs? Presumably they have music where she comes from.'
'Maybe it's no good?' suggested Rainith. 'I didn't like any of the terrible music here till I went to punk gigs.'
'We don't know that she's just come here to hear music,' Duluth said. 'The Kesh only tell us some of her locations. She might be visiting other places they don't want us to know about. Important dates in history, that sort of thing.'
'For instance the first Sex Pistols gig. We should go there immediately.'
'Sounds terrible,' muttered Nakishdan. 'These bands can't play. I hate them.'
'That's because you're stupid.'
'Says the world's worst fairy music critic.'
'And then there's 102 Woo.' Ms Darben dragged them back to the discussion. 'We don't know where they fit in.'
'Have you asked the Kesh about them?'
'Yes. We sent them a message though the normal channel. So far they haven't replied.' Ms Darben looked at Nakishdan. 'What more can you tell us about the girl, Lala?'
'My finger was on the table. Then I put it in my mouth.' Mixt suddenly sounded very alarmed.
'My finger was on the table. Then I put it in my mouth. By accident.' Mixt had gone very pale. She began to tremble.
'What's the matter?'
Mixt's trembling rapidly became worse. 'My finger was on the table. Then I put it in my mouth.'
Nakishdan rose quickly. 'I have to take her home.'
'But we've got business to - '
Mixt was deathly white and her eyes were wide with panic. 'The dirty table. I put my finger in my mouth.' She began to shake, and seemed on the verge of going into convulsions. Nakishdan dragged her from her chair, supporting her body as he led her quickly from the cafe.
'I wasn't expecting that,' said Agent Duluth.
'I was,' said Ms Darben, quite glumly.
Rainith brandished her papers again. 'About my X-Ray Spex review. How soon can you send it back to 1977?'