Ms Darben's office in MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall had been redecorated. The room smelled of paint and there was a new picture on the wall, 'The Thames at Chelsea,' by John Minton, part of the Government Art Collection which was shuffled around between embassies and official buildings every few years. The Head of the Historical Disturbances department was satisfied with the results. The work had needed doing but had been put back for several years due to budget constraints.
A film was playing on her computer; old footage of a concert by the Clash at Victoria park in East London in 1978. As she watched the view from near the stage, the small, distinctive figure of Rainith the Red could be seen, jumping up and down at the front of the crowd. Rainith was surrounded by larger figures, all male, but she pushed them out the way when they came too close. Ms Darben still wasn't sure if Rainith's fairy nature gave her extra strength. Their research department never seemed to be able to give any definitive answers about fairies. It might just be the result of Rainith being in a bad mood most of the time.
Agent Duluth knocked and entered. He glanced at the screen. The Clash were playing London's Burning and Rainith was still visible.
'Watching that again?'
'Just checking they all actually exist,' said Ms Darben. 'As of this moment, they do. Mixt and Nakishdan make an appearance later in the film.'
It was troubling for Ms Darben and her department that their three agents Mixt, Nakishdan and Rainith, were all missing. It had been postulated that if they had ceased to exist, as had been known to happen to people bitten by the winged snakes, then they'd have disappeared from all past historical records.
'That they're still on this film shows they all do still exist. So where are they?' Ms Darben looked toward Agent Duluth. 'What did you find?'
'No sign of a struggle at their house. Everything looked the same. No sign that they'd prepared for any sort of long journey. They haven't withdrawn money, or bought anything unusual. There were half-finished drinks in their living room in front of their PlayStation, the same as usual.' Duluth paused. 'The curtains in the living room weren't drawn. We know Mixt would never leave the curtains open at night. Something must have happened to make them leave in a hurry.'
Ms Darben paused the film; the Clash stood suspended, mid song. 'No one has any idea where Rainith is and we can't make contact with her friend Sorena. This is bad.'
Ms Darben was worried about the safety of their agents. More, she was worried about their mission. With Mixt, Nakishdan and Rainith all gone, there was now no one who could be sent back in time. If a historical crisis were to occur, they were now vulnerable, and unable to deal with it.
Rainith had enjoyed seeing the Clash at Victoria Park in 1978 though she had sensed some incongruity in the event. Punk bands had started off in small venues and now, only a year or so later, here they were in a park, playing at an event which could almost have been described as a festival. There were people selling badges and t-shirts, and food-stalls, and children milling around. It was very different from her first experience, when she'd seen X-Ray Spex in a small pub in Putney. Fortunately, X-Ray Spex were also on the bill and Rainith loved seeing them in any circumstances. She liked them much better than the Clash.
Mixt and Nakishdan hadn't especially enjoyed the day though they'd been relieved that nothing untoward had happened. No winged snakes had turned up to endanger lives so they weren't called into action. It was one of the many gigs they'd been sent back to in search of Geeda Lala. They hadn't encountered her either, and had spent most of the day at the back of the crowd, observing things, while Rainith shoved her way to the front, elbowing all opposition out of the way till she stood right in front of X Ray Spex, dancing and enjoying herself. Afterwards she'd almost been in a good mood, not even bothering to argue much with Nakishdan when he said how much he'd hated all the bands. She'd contented herself with telling him to shut up while she got on with composing her review of the event for the fanzine Sticky Glitter.
The gig had taken place almost four decades ago, though it was less than a year ago that they'd all been sent back there. And though the gig was still fresh in the minds of Ms Darben and Agent Duluth, watching the old recording in their headquarters in Vauxhall, neither Rainith, Mixt nor Nakishdan had anything on their minds at the moment except survival. Rainith, a long way north of of her intended route, had turned south-east, and flew at the level of the tree tops, still travelling at night, always wary of the keen-sighted owls who patrolled the Elvish forest. Her wing had healed and her rage had not diminished. She was back on course for the Forest of Ancient Oak, where she'd find Noutan the Elf, and kill him.
Rainith hadn't given any thought to what would happen after that. If there were many Elves in the forest, they'd probably catch her and kill her. The thought didn't dissuade her from her mission.
Mixt and Nakishdan weren't thinking about music either. They were busy instructing Geeda Lala and Fourteen Trees on how to survive in Star Metal City.
'Does everyone just fight all the time?' asked Geeda Lala.
'Not everyone. But there's always someone ready to attack you.'
'It made for a good game,' said Mixt. 'Though it's not much of a place to live.'
'Why did Mathematician Girsin send you here?'
Mixt wasn't certain. 'Some sort of revenge. He'll have something planned. Something annoying.'
Nakishdan's wrist computer bleeped. He brought up the screen, on which there was a message.
From General Girsin, leader of the Double Red Mercenary Army - To all inhabitants of Star Metal City - 50,000 credits reward offered for the death or capture of StarMix and StarNak.
Mixt scowled. 'That's more or less what I was expecting. Fourteen Trees, can you get us out of here before we have to fight the entire city?'
Rainith the Red travelled south east. Her progress had slowed. She'd been skimming the treetops at night and remaining in cover by day but now that she was nearing her target she had to take greater care. The darkness of the night could hide her movements but certain aspects of Elvish vision became more sensitive at night. More sensitive to the aura of a passing fairy, for instance. Rainith's own sensitivity was very acute; whether she could detect the presence of Elves before they detected her was a moot point. She was smaller, faster and more nimble, but she was deep inside their territory and they were alert to her approach.
As dawn approached Rainith was tired from her long flight. She looked for shelter but was obliged to keep going when she sensed the distant approach of a patrolling owl. The owls were friends of the Elves. She couldn't afford to let the bird come close enough to spot her. Rainith had come to hate the owls and was glad she'd killed one earlier. She'd kill more of them if they got in her way.
Finally judging that she'd put enough distance between herself and the owl, she sank below the level of the treetops, settling into a hollowed out space in the trunk of an ancient beech tree. Before pulling some small branches over her position to conceal herself completely, she consulted her map of Wiltunscir. She was now only five miles from the Forest of Ancient Oaks. There she'd find Noutan, her quarry. She wondered if he knew she was coming. Probably, she thought.
Noutan did know. The fairy intruder into the Elvish land of Wiltunscir hadn't been identified, but he felt sure it was Rainith. Who else would it be? There was only one fairy alive insane enough to pursue him here. In response to some worried enquiries from his tribe he was contemptuous.
'Let her come,' he said. 'I'll run her through with my sword as I did before, when she fell from the sky and would have died if her friends had not spirited her away.'
Noutan's tribe, and his extended family, were re-assured by his words, but they were not complacent. They didn't intend to let any fairy harm one of their own, here in their home. So they prepared themselves, and lay in wait. There were now a great many Elves waiting for Rainith to arrive, hoping to kill her before she ever came near to Noutan.
Geeda Lala looked down at the burned-out vehicles and twisted metal debris that covered the area outside Star Metal City, relics of old battles between the factions that continually fought for supremacy. 'It seemed easy to steal this hopper. Why wasn't security better?'
'It never was in the game,' Mixt said. 'We were always stealing little aircraft like this when we needed to go places.'
Having decided that remaining in the city was too dangerous now they had a price price on their heads, they were heading for cover. Mixt had remembered an old underground bunker they'd once used as shelter. It was hidden, and well supplied. At least it had been in the video game; they hoped it was the same here. So far, everything else seemed very similar.
'Could we fly a bit faster?' Nakishdan was checking their radar. The skies in this region were never safe.
'I'm flying at safe maximum speed,' said Mixt.
'You could push it a bit more.'
'No I couldn't. It's dangerous.'
'Not as dangerous as a surface to air missile.'
'There's nothing on the radar.'
'There might be a stealth unit up ahead.'
Mixt scowled. 'I'm not going to burn out the engine by going too fast.'
'It won't burn out the engine! This is just like when you refused to go even one mile an hour over the speed limit at home.'
'It's nothing like that,' said Mixt.
'Yes it is.'
'Well so what? I didn't want to go driving all over London like a maniac.'
'It's responsible. That's what our therapist said.'
'Ha!' Nakishdan was dismissive. 'Our therapist is paranoid about anything adventurous. Plenty of people in the therapy group thought your obsession with speed limits was ridiculous.'
'No they didn't.'
'Yes they did.'
Mixt turned to Nakishdan. 'How can you claim the therapy group supported you? They all thought you were crazy. I was the responsible one.'
'Completely untrue! They all thought you were loopy. Probably thought I was just there to support you, as a kind friend.'
They flew on, in rather angry silence.
'What does therapy mean?' asked Fourteen Trees, eventually.
'It's a place people here go to discuss problems,' Geeda Lala told her.
'What sort of problems?'
'Do they still have them?'
'That's really primitive.'
Both Mixt and Nakishdan were offended by this.
'What do you mean primitive? Are you saying the Kesh don't have them?'
'Not really,' said Fourteen Trees. 'We got over them a long time ago.'
'Oh really,' said Mixt. 'Well if everything's so great on your world, how come Geeda Lala had to flee to ours?'
Geeda looked embarrassed. 'I had some problems with my family.'
'Maybe if you'd had a therapist you could have sorted them out.'
'I doubt it.'
'Me and Mixt wouldn't be having such problems if you hadn't crashed into our world and sent us all spinning through time. It's your fault we ended up in therapy.'
'There's no proof of that,' countered Geeda Lala.
'Stupid Kesh,' muttered Nakishdan.
'What's that beeping sound?' asked Fourteen Trees.
'Incoming missile!' screamed Nakishdan, who'd taken his eye of the radar while they were arguing.
'Dammit!' yelled Mixt, and pushed the throttle as far forward as it would go, no longer worried about exceeding the aircraft's recommended speed.