In the brief respite following Rainith's intervention, Geeda Lala, Fourteen Trees and Baticla attempted to rally their forces and commit to a plan of action. This was hindered by Mixt and Nakishdan who chose that inopportune moment to start arguing.
'What do you mean you don't believe me?' Mixt sounded aggrieved. 'I'm shocked.'
'I just find it odd you never mentioned before that you were in Paris during the riots in 1968 and you shared a barricade with Jean-Paul Sartre and Mick Jagger.'
'What's strange about that? There were all sorts of people there. Activists, intellectuals, rock stars…"
'And you just happened to be behind the same barricade as them?'
'There wasn't time to pick your barricade, you know. Not with the French riot police charging up the street with batons and tear gas grenades. You just had to dive for cover and start throwing cobblestones.'
Nakishdan was not convinced. 'It's strange you never mentioned this before.'
'Nothing strange about it. I've done lots you don't know about. Just before the riots broke out I was modelling for Picasso - '
'This is becoming more ridiculous all the time.'
Mixt, indignant, rose from her position behind the barricade. 'Ridiculous? Nothing ridiculous about it. He was doing this huge series of etchings and I was one of them. Number 289 if I remember correctly. Naked women in brothel.'
'Could we get back to making plans?' said Geeda Lala. 'I'm sure the mercenaries will be back - '
'Naked woman in brothel?' said Nakishdan, ignoring Geeda Lala. 'Really?'
'Yes. Which led to the neo-expressionist movement, so I understand. Not that I claim any particular credit for that. Though he did say I was one of his favourite models so you never know, I probably had some influence.'
'I don't believe you met any of these people.'
'I've met plenty of people,' declared Mixt. 'Don't blame me if you had a dull life after they threw you out your cavalry regiment in disgrace.'
Mixt and Nakishdan glared at each other. As in London, they rather resembled one another, with their spiky blond haircuts. Geeda Lala once more attempted to steer the conversation back to their present predicament.
'Should we send a delegation to the city council? It can't be legal, sending mercenaries against us. Even in this city there are laws.'
'So how come you went from Picasso's studio to Jean Paul Sartre's barricade?' demanded Nakishdan.
'It wasn't his barricade. He just ended up there. We were walking up the street after having lunch in a little cafe on the Seine - '
'You were having lunch?'
'Of course. We often had lunch. After Picasso introduced us. So we were walking up the street and there were barricades and then the riot police came so we just had to dive for cover.'
'With Mick Jagger?'
'Had you been having lunch with him too?'
'No, I'd never met him before. He just happened to be behind that barricade.'
Baticla, the Vooren, turned to Fourteen Trees. 'What is this conversation about?' Fourteen Trees shook her head and admitted she was mystified. She herself was feeling some distraction, due to there not being any chocolate to be found in the city. Whoever had programmed the virtual reality had apparently neglected to include confectionery, which was a severe blow to the chocolate-addicted Fourteen Trees. She was trying hard not to let it affect her, but found it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
'Maybe we should contact the workers at the other markets,' said Geeda Lala. 'We could send a joint delegation - ' She halted, noticing that no one was listening. Mixt and Nakishdan were staring sulkily at each other, like children. Rainith had started to argue with a market worker who'd criticised her choice of music on the radio. Fourteen Trees was staring into space. The other strikers looked to Geeda Lala for guidance. She, after all, had precipitated the whole situation, with her inflammatory propaganda in defence of worker's rights. Suddenly she felt inadequate for the task. She turned to Baticla.
'What do you think we should do?'
'I don't know.'
'What do the Vooren normally do when they go on strike?'
'Vooren don't go on strike. We don't have a word for it. I never even knew the concept till you started talking about it. You need to tell us all what to do.'
'I don't know what to do,' admitted Geeda Lala.
Rainith broke off from arguing. 'This is the worst strike ever,' she said. 'Humans, Kesh and Vooren - you're all hopeless. Fairies would do it much better.'
'So…' Ms Darben addressed the Elf who sat on the chair in her office. 'Why don't you tell me why you're here?'
She estimated the Elf to be between thirty five and forty centimetres tall. Whether he could change shape like Rainith, and become human sized, she didn't know. He wasn't forthcoming, though had responded politely to an offer of water, which he now drank from the smallest shot glass available in the building.
'We detected you here once before, though we weren't able to catch you then. We understand you used our pathway to travel back in time and confront Rainith the Red. Is that correct?'
Noutan scowled at the mention of Rainith's name, but didn't reply.
'Are you determined to remain silent?
'I demand you release me.'
'We'd like to. The Department has no quarrel with the Elves. But really, we can't allow you to wander invisibly through our building. I'm sure you understand the security concerns.'
Ms Darben spoke in her most conciliatory voice. While the Department of Historical Disturbances had as yet no use for Elves, there was no telling what might happen in the future and she felt it would be better to remain friends with them if possible. Perhaps one of them might take the place of the unreliable Rainith. The fairy was always causing them trouble, after all. An Elf capable of time-travel might be an improvement.
A red button on her desk flashed, signifying an urgent communication. She called in the guard outside her office to keep watch on Noutan, then went into the corridor to talk privately.
'It's Mixt and Nakishdan. They've managed to contact us.'
This was a surprise, but a welcome one. So far, communication with their agents now inhabiting the virtual game world had been one-way only. Mixt and Nakishdan's faces both appeared on her screen, pressed close to each other.
'Hello Ms Darben! Fourteen Trees worked out how to call you back.'
'She's really smart.'
'You should employ her as an agent.'
'We need your help.'
'Remember you told us to keep a low profile and then we said that would be difficult because Geeda Lala had started a huge strike which is now gripping the city? Now the Mayor wants to negotiate. That isn't a bad option seeing as we're surrounded by mercenaries and we probably can't hold them off forever.' Mixt paused, and smiled brightly. 'So we need you to negotiate for us.'
'Negotiate terms for ending the strike. You know - better pay and things like that.'
Ms Darben's felt the vague sense of unreality which often happened when talking to Mixt and Nakishdan.
'Geeda Lala doesn't feel up to it,' explained Mixt. 'You can't blame her, she's very young. She doesn't have any experience of negotiating. Fourteen Trees is even younger - '
'- And most worried about chocolate,' added Nakishdan.
' - Yes, mostly worried about chocolate. And no one else here seems able to negotiate either. Strikes are a new thing, apparently. Everyone is confused. So we suggested you do it.'
'You're head of a department,' said Nakishdan. 'You must have negotiated loads of things.'
Ms Darben frowned. 'Can't you do it?'
Mixt shook her head. 'I've never really learned any industrial negotiating skills. I'm sure I'd get everything wrong. And as for Nakishdan… well he's Nakishdan.'
'I can see the problem, muttered Ms Darben. 'How am I meant to talk to this mayor? And is he actually a real person?'
'He seems real. But he's a Vooren, not a human. Don't insult his clan, the Vooren get very sensitive about that.'
'I'm not sure this is the best idea.' Ms Darben felt that asking her to negotiate terms for ending a strike in a world she'd never been to might be difficult. Nakishdan dismissed her concerns.
'Just get equal pay for women and then about a hundred percent pay rise for everyone. And more paid leave and medical care as well. And creches, I think I heard someone mention creches. And shorter working hours as well. It shouldn't be that difficult.'
As Commissioner Tiro, representing the Mayor, arrived at the market, escorted by several heavily armed members of the mercenary group Bitter Frost, he was was observed by various persons around the city. The mayor was watching, of course, via a link in one of the mercenaries' vehicles. But he was also observed by Melusine Morte, agent of 102 Woo, assistant to Captain Lir, and among other things a communications specialist who'd managed to launch her own concealed drones into the polluted skies above the city, scanning all activity and quickly focusing on the main event of the day, the strike.
Captain Lir was pleased with her work. 'We've found the agents Mixt and Nakishdan. Geeda Lala may be close. Which means that Mathematician Girsin is probably somewhere in the vicinity. 102 Woo will carry out our mission as instructed.'
Mathematician Girsin while not close, was also observing events. He had drones of his own, and a great many resources, being head of the Double Red Mercenaries.
'So, Mixt is involved in this,' he muttered to Deetmir, his small robotic companion. 'Interesting.'
'Not that interesting.' Deetmir was orbiting a few metres above Girsin's head, and still showed disapproval of the whole enterprise. 'And Captain Lir and Melusine Morte are probably somewhere close'
'So what? They can't harm me. I have an entire mercenary army. Make the sound clearer, I want to hear what they're saying.'
Deetmir made some adjustments, allowing them to overhear the conversation in front of the barricades where Mixt was talking to the Commissioner. This was not as easy as it could have been. There was a lot of background noise from the nearby vehicles, a lot of raised voices near the barricades, and a strange, doom-laden sound that seemed to be gradually drowning out everything else.
'What is that noise?'
Deetmir didn't know, and made some agitated whirring sounds as he attempted to calibrate his instruments.
Commissioner Tiro was also having difficulties. 'Your negotiator isn't here? Why?'
Mixt indicated the nearby screen, where Ms Darben awaited. 'She's our expert negotiator. You have to talk to her.'
'This is not very - ' The commissioner paused. 'What's that noise?'
'I'm not sure,' admitted Mixt.
'It's Rainith,' said Nakishdan. 'She got bored so she went to DJ some more. Apparently it's Joy Division hour.'
The market shook as Rainith turned up the volume and a huge, base heavy sound engulfed the crowd.
'I demand you stop this immediately,' cried Commissioner Tito. 'Sonic warfare is explicitly banned under Treaty 236.'
'Eh…' Mixt was temporarily at a loss. She shrugged 'It's not our doing. Probably some hostile third party.'
'What's happening?' Ms Darben had to shout to make herself heard.
'It's a bit noisy here,' Mixt shouted back. 'We're working on it.'
Geeda Lala appeared. 'Fourteen Trees says if Rainith keeps playing Joy Division she's going to leave because she really can't cope with all the gloomy lyrics while she's having chocolate withdrawal symptoms.'
'Who's this Rainith?' demanded the commissioner. 'I thought you said it was a hostile third party?'
Some distance away, Captain Lir and Melusine Morte were still observing events.
'What's happening now?' asked the Captain.
'I've no idea,' replied his assistant. 'I'm baffled. Everyone's shouting at each other and no one can hear anything because there's some terrible music playing over the speakers and there's a young girl in a very strange hat who's been stamping her feet and now she's burst into tears. Also, I think I saw a tiny humanoid creature with wings flying over the market.'
'A tiny humanoid with wings? You mean a fairy?'
'I don't know. No such creature appears in our data base.'
Captain Lir nodded. The ways of this city were stranger than he had anticipated. 'Keep observing. 102 Woo is trained for adversity. Nothing will stand in our way.' He frowned. 'That really is a gloomy sound. Are you sure it's actually music?'
'This is a more civilised way of doing things.' Mixt looked around Dr Tau's pale, spacious, soothing office. 'Virtual therapy. Just push a button and here we are. No annoying journey to make.'
Nakishdan agreed. 'It's a lot better than the local health service back in London. I've never thought that group therapy was suitable. All these people complaining about stuff. It puts you off.'
'This is a really nice office. I'd have come here earlier if I'd known you had such a nice office.'
'Much better than that old classroom we had to go to.'
Dr Tau, therapist, was a Vooren with skin a slightly darker shade of blue than the workers at the market. She studied her newest clients calmly.
'What can I help you with?'
'Nothing, really,' said Mixt.
'We just came here for a break. It's all chaos at the market, with mercenaries and striking workers and so on, but now they've started to negotiate and it's taking a long time and we got bored.'
'So we thought we'd see what your therapy was like,' added Nakishdan.
Dr Tau looked disappointed. 'You don't actually have any problems? You do sound very familiar with the concept of therapy…'
'True, we have been obliged to seek help in the past.' Mixt smiled. 'But really, here in Star Metal City we always feel fine. It focuses the mind when there are people shooting at you. Other problems just seem to disappear. Back in London I was prone to a few obsessions - nothing serious, of course - but here I never notice them. Well, a few very minor things, I suppose, like Nakishdan refusing to store things properly, even when he knows that weapons and armour should be stored in separate cabinets, and the weapons cabinet has separate compartments for laser rifles, laser pistols and plasma grenades, and you should store them in order of their power rank, and ballistic weapons should go on the next shelf and not in the same drawer we put med packs in, but that's just Nakishdan being careless. I'm not obsessed about it.'
'You're completely obsessed about it,' said Nakishdan.
'At least she's not a complete slob who just leaves things anywhere,' declared Rainith the Red, mysteriously appearing on the couch beside them.
'Hey!' Nakishdan was startled. 'Who let you into our therapy? Leave immediately.'
'I didn't want to be in your stupid therapy. I just pressed my search button because Ms Darben asked where you were and it brought me here.'
'Well go away again.'
Rainith was offended. 'Don't tell me to go way! I'll stay if I like.'
Dr Tau looked at the fairy. 'Now you're here, do you have any problems you'd like to discuss?'
'Me? Problems? Of course not, I don't have any problems.'
Mixt and Nakishdan burst out laughing.
'No problems?' cried Nakishdan 'This fairy is a walking personality disorder. Hostile, mean, stupid, aggressive, unfriendly, miserly, violent, you name it, she's got it. You should sign her up, Doctor, she'll keep you in business for years.'
Rainith leapt to her feet, outraged. 'How dare you say that about - '
She was interrupted by the arrival of Fourteen Trees. 'What's happening?' asked the young Kesh. 'Why are you all here?'
'I'm a therapist,' replied Dr Tau, calmly. 'Can I help you in any way?'
'Yes! I'm terribly addicted to chocolate! I think about it all the time,' wailed Fourteen Trees, and burst into tears. She flopped onto the couch, sobbing. Mixt put her arm round her to comfort her. Ignoring this, Rainith resumed her rant at Nakishdan, but was again interrupted as Geeda Lala materialised in the room. 'Why is my search button saying everyone's come here? Where are we?'
'I'll need another chair,' murmured Dr Tau. "Do you have anything you want to tell me?'
Geeda Lala looked round the room, at the sobbing Fourteen Trees, and Nakishdan and Rainith shouting at each other.
'I feel a bit guilty for causing all this, I suppose. And the world-threatening temporal distortions. And hostile flying snakes invading London, that was probably my fault too. And Mathematician Girsin chasing us, and 102 Woo chasing us, and Nakishdan getting stabbed. Maybe a few other things.'
She took the seat, hastily provided by Dr Tau's receptionist. The blue-skinned Vooren looked round at them all.
'So who'd like to start?'