There are ants in my Lucky Green Boots Circulation: 196,662,418 Issue: 932 | 2nd day of Eating, Y23
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The Flash Drive


by liouchan

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"The Games Room has been compromised. All games are down. Bug swarms are imminent. Evacuate island immediately."

      Hattie was out of her broom closet of an office before the announcements and sirens had even begun to blare from Roo Island's speaker system.

      The Lenny took the time to help usher out the accountants from the neighbouring office, prying them away from the files they were trying to gather. She had no safes to empty or sensitive documents to destroy.

      As soon as the small group of dry, grey-suited office workers had made it into the street, they were nearly swept away in a massive multi-coloured wave of gamers pouring from the neighbouring casinos, belled caps a-jingle, cards and dice spilling from their pockets and sleeves.

      Hattie and her colleagues put on their sunglasses and squared their shoulders, looming over the crowd. Fleeing islanders now gave them a wide berth. This was for the better, as the besuited group was headed for the opposite side of the harbour from the evacuation ships.

      They had not yet walked for a minute when a flash of light caused the crowd to start, stumble and break apart.

      In front of the arcade that went around the Games Room complex, the entire width of the street was blocked by nothing. Nothing stood there anymore. It was not a hole in the ground or even in the atmosphere. No colour, no light, no scents or wind filled it. A chunk of reality had gone missing. The edges of the gap flickered and crackled. The inside looked almost like static. It hurt Hattie's head the longer she looked at it, so she promptly stopped looking at it, and set about keeping people away instead.

      The group of office workers was soon relieved by Roo Island security in full protective gear, who set up barriers to block the perimeter around the glitch. Hattie resumed her jog towards the shore. The initial panic had weathered out as people now knew where to go, and there was less jostling on her way.

      At the northern point of the harbour, a small boat awaited the team, marked only with a discreet imprint of the insignia of the Defenders of Neopia.

      As soon as the boat had left the island, the agents took their stations in the sleek control room and began to share their reports, scanning the screens for information.

      "The wave of glitches is occurring all over Roo Island and Neopia Central. It is not known in which area it originated."

      "It seems to have appeared simultaneously in other lands, intel is coming in from the Woods and the Desert."

      "Different glitches are making people loop around the same area," said an agent, viewing a map on which arrows circled gaps. "When moving to the next area, they are sent back to their starting point. Identities are confirmed, but further testing is needed."

      "Glitches of smaller size cause different anomalies."

      Hattie leaned towards the screen of the agent who had spoken last. They had pulled up a video feed, shaky amateur footage from the largest N.C. Mall in Neopia Central. Instead of the gaping static hole she had seen in the street by the Games Room, a blocky grey haze was spreading in various areas. All of the wares in the shops' display windows and all promotional posters were concealed, covered in static grey. Someone turned to face the camera, and Hattie held back a start. The Neopian's entire face was blocked by the grey, as though it had been scrubbed out by an eraser. A very powerful eraser.

      "The Hidden Tower?" asked the Lenny.

      "Hidden for good," another agent replied instantly. "No, really. Not even the Faeries can locate the entrance. Who knows if this was caused by an artefact."

      "We've got Judge Hog flying around to reassure the crowds. Ink is doing rescues, and Captain K might get back to the planet in time to do something."

      The agents fell silent, sipping coffee. There was much to do for the Defenders during a crisis. None of it would be up to the small administrative branch from the dingy little offices in Roo Island, though. They would watch their work pile up little by little during the catastrophe, and brace themselves to deal with clearing paperwork and damage control in its wake.

      Hattie's tie clip vibrated against her shirt. She excused herself to the bathroom. The others nodded distractedly.

      One of the perks of working with other secret agents was that everyone had secret communications, everyone excused oneself to listen to them in private from time to time, and everyone knew to respect each other's secrecy - it was, after all, an important aspect of the profession. It could make the waiting line for the bathroom rather packed on busy days.

      Hattie adjusted her earpiece. "Five to Headquarters. Coming in from secure area." It was as secure as a toilet stall on a small boat could ever be.

      "Headquarters to Five. Express transport is headed your way, prepare to board in fifteen minutes. You're dispatched on a special mission. The doc is uploaded to your device, brief yourself on the way."

      "At this time, of all times, Boss?"

      Hattie could not help but be sceptical. She specialised in information retrieval. She knew that her skills were important, in their own unglamorous way, but she did not expect to be dispatched until the danger that had panicked crowds fleeing from gaps in reality was cleared.

      "We cannot do anything to fight the Shockwave - that's what they're calling those glitches - because we are missing a vital piece of information. We have to send you, in particular, because you trained under Agent Vector, and the information that we need is in the last case that Vector took before disappearing. Experienced agents had ways of eluding our surveillance, but as a trainee, you would have been much closer to Vector. You will need to use your personal connection to your mentor."

      Hattie had not even heard of her mentor's code name in years. Her mentor had been brilliant, if eccentric, before going off the radar altogether, which, when one works for a secret organisation, was no small feat.

      "Five. Just be careful not to follow in Vector's exact footsteps, if you know what I mean."

      Hattie was quite sure that she did understand. The final years of Vector's career had seen the agent increasingly invested in a side project, which involved more and more personal missions. No amount of reasoning from their higher-ups would dispel Vector's interest. The agent would accent lectures and sanctions with a smile, and be gone on another side trip within a month. No one had ever found a way to convince Vector that Chet Flash was only a mythical character from folk tales.

      Of course, now that Vector had truly disappeared on that search, the only way to track the retired agent would be to undertake the same quest. Headquarters suddenly regretted discarding information relevant to legends. Hattie's mission would be to track Vector. Not Flash. A very important distinction.

      After hopping onto the submarine that had pulled up next to the boat and leaving her colleagues to bob aimlessly on the sea, Hattie checked the reports on the situation in the kingdom of Brightvale, where she was headed. Brightvale was mostly free from glitches, and no one knew why. Its neighbour Meridell was mainly affected at sky level, where airships had been reported missing. Aside from that, it seemed to have faced nothing much worse than disappearing Mortogs, chaotically bouncing Hasees, and missing royal toy chests and biscuit supplies.

      Hattie needed to start with Brightvale because Vector had spent much free time there, at the University's coffee shops and in the Seekers' club. Vector had taken her through the art galleries. It had seemed oddly pointless at the time. For now, it was her best starting point.

      The quiet streets of Brightvale, as normal as could be, offered a curious contrast to the rest of the world. Hattie picked out familiar locations, settled in, started some small talk, asked about a Victor here and there - Vector had never been good with code names. Few people remembered an eccentric Tonu on a wild goose chase. Most people did not. At the Seekers' club, the name she gave was answered with a particularly sceptical frown, and she was emphatically encouraged to try elsewhere than these premises.

      "You've been wandering around here a while now, haven't you. What are you after?"

      Hattie turned to face the speaker and was met with a Peophin. The lady was draped in a white silk dress that flowed from under a tight, boxy-shouldered jacket. The ensemble was topped by a particularly elaborate hat with ribbon and brooch. Without thinking, Hattie straightened her own cravat.

      "Some rather specific information, Madam. I'm afraid it is quite important."

      The Peophin nodded. "Yes, of course it must be. After all, you are the only person in this entire kingdom who is not disregarding the fact that the entire world is currently crumbling around us." She produced her membership card for the Seekers, and they were let in with a distinct lack of trouble. Before putting away her card, she quite accidentally dropped it behind her, allowing Hattie to pick it up for her and read the name: Lady Delphine Huntington.

      Hattie thanked her sincerely and took advantage of this opening to investigate the Seekers' curio cabinet, remembering that Vector had enjoyed contemplating it.

      "Weapons enthusiast?" said Delphine's slightly gruff voice from behind Hattie's shoulder.

      "Not exactly." Most of the items displayed were priceless antique weapons from every part of the world.

      "Pity."

      It was more difficult to focus on a secret investigation with someone right behind Hattie. The Lenny scanned every object behind the glass for clues.

      Delphine continued. "I'm sure that you realise you could get more help if you disclosed what you were after."

      Hattie's eyes widened. She turned away from the cabinet, but could not have taken one more step without running into Delphine, who was hovering one foot from her.

      The two sized each other up.

      "If you can get me into Moltara without running into any glitches, you will see for yourself what I'm after."

      The Peophin raised an eyebrow. "Moltara already, so soon after meeting me?"

      Hattie held back a smile. "Out of all the pilot's licenses crammed onto your membership card, surely you will have a vehicle to get us there."

      "Then you had better strap in." Delphine turned away, giving Hattie a flick of her tail fin and of her breezy white dress as she pivoted.

      Hattie felt foolish for following such a vague lead. She would have felt much more foolish for ignoring the shameless graffiti on the lava sample in the case behind her, the scribbles which read, for anyone to see: "Chet Flash wuz here."

      Delphine had meant what she said. Hattie had to be strapped into the Peophin's small, personal airship - whatever newfangled Seeker technology that was - with a full harness. She tried not to look too intimidated while the lady, who had traded her dainty hat for a pilot's helmet, tightened the straps over her chest.

      Hattie conceded to pulling out her own tablet. Delphine was too focused on piloting to see much of the secret device, and the map of the glitches that was updated in real-time would be crucial to their navigation.

      They switched to a land vehicle to make the trek down to Moltara, and Hattie was strapped out and back in much like a parcel. She had given Delphine the precise location where the lava sample had been found, and the Peophin had very much taken charge of this trip, casually removing her jacket to drive in the growing underground heat, crossbow held at the ready on her lap.

      They had to avoid most of Moltara City, which was impossible to reach through glitches. It was through long-vacated empty tunnels that Delphine got them into the back of the Moltara Caves.

      Hattie stretched her legs and aired her very crumpled suit. With the caves almost empty, it would be nearly impossible to find anything, let alone slip out of Delphine's surveillance. She was surprised to see the Peophine remain by the vehicle to wait for her, though.

      At this depth, glitches would threaten the stability of the entire cavers, and most of the inhabitants had not waited for evacuation orders to remove themselves to safer grounds. Hattie only met a few of the most stubborn magma Neopians, who gave her directions to the right site. It was reserved for geological research.

      Hattie poked her head into a tent. "Excuse me, I'm looking for a -"

      "Vicky," a voice cut across her. "This is she!" In the gloom, a magma Tonu straightened up to peer at her.

      Hattie was stunned. She took some time to watch this new person, catching familiar details here and there. "You... have made some changes!"

      "Don't we all," the Tonu said brightly. She ambled up to Hattie, frowning in an effort to place her. "No... it couldn't be." She opened her arms wide. "Hattie, the Mutant Lenny. Five!"

      Hattie returned the embrace as an air-hug, from a safe distance. Vicky made Borovan in mismatched old mugs. They settled on a rocky bench outside the shelter. Pleasantries were exchanged. Hattie allowed some time for chatter, observing her former mentor cautiously. This was the agent who had thrown away her entire career to chase after a ghost. She had succumbed to "the Flash drive", as she had called it jokingly at first. The Lenny was not sure how to bring up the topic. She would need to be subtle, so as not to make Vicky close up before revealing the information Hattie needed.

      "But none of that was really necessary, so it was no use holding on to it, as my good friend Chet Flash told me."

      Hattie blinked. "That was nice of him, to give you advice like that."

      Vicky snorted. "As if! They were nothing but a rascal. Made up for it with the best Juppie Java and cookies, though. Our favourites. And, you know, for fixing up the world in general. Can't deny that. Where would we be without the Flash code."

      "Code? Was Flash a scientist?"

      "The best. Simply the best."

      That must have been what her higher-ups were really after. Important research. "Was it very difficult to follow him? I mean, no one even knows his species -"

      "Oh, Flash was a Kyrii."

      "Wait, you saw him?"

      "Oh no, I never saw them, but I heard them. One day, Flash was in a mood, and kept telling me: 'Those apples, they will be the end of me.' That's how I knew they had the typical Kyrii allergy. Reminded me of the trouble I have avoiding foods that contain Neggs!"

      Hattie blinked, feeling her feathers tremble a little. She could hardly believe her luck. "It sounds like you have a great many stories from those last years. We have so much to catch up on! Say, did you even keep your last documents?"

      "Nothing." Vicky smiled serenely. "I gave all my information back to Flash. It was only right, you know."

      The Lenny's stomach sank. "How? I thought you had lost touch with Flash at the end."

      Vicky raised her hands. "I only wanted to put all of that behind me, to put everything back into place once I was done. Doesn't stop anyone else's way to Flash."

      Rocks shifted and echoed around the caves like the movements of a gigantic stone stomach. Who knew when the Shockwave might reach them. Hattie refrained from checking the time. "How could you have given something back to Flash after losing touch?"

      Vicky's tone lost some of its serenity. "Just by being in the right place, where Flash was as well! You always did have trouble seeing what was right in front of you at times."

      The Tonu took their mugs away and dragged a box out from under her cot. From the box, she pulled a strange, heavy vest, which she pushed towards Hattie. "Here, it's reinforced with chrome. If Flash is gone, you will need chrome."

      Hattie took whatever it was without comment. "May I use your facilities?"

      Vicky pointed behind her. "Bathroom is at the back, to the left. If you want to make detours on the way, my personal collection is on the second shelf to the right, my archives are rolled up tight inside the Neovision set, my safe is in the freezer that doesn't work, and my valuables are in the table's false bottom."

      Hattie clicked her beak. "Thank you, I will have a little snoop around."

      "Enjoy!"

      She did not. It was full of lovely photos with friends from all over Neopia, all memories made after Vicky had left her older friends and disappeared. The photos had no semblance of order to them. Somehow, Hattie's eyes kept flicking from one to the next, though. Someone in each small photographed group was pointing her in a different direction, where the next photo had been placed. At the end of the path was a shot from the Seekers' camp by the Tyrannian Obelisk.

      "Please don't be there," thought Hattie acidly.

      "Chet Flash wuz here," read the half-obscured graffiti in the back of the photograph.

      While she had a bathroom to change in, Hattie grudgingly put the chrome vest under her suit. She was not sure how to part from her mentor. They might never see each other again. Vicky seemed blissfully unaware of that, though. Hattie let her be.

      "Where next?" Delphine asked as soon as she had got back to their vehicle.

      "Another place that will gladly take your credentials, Madam Seeker."

      Their next flight was a lot more turbulent. Hattie held on for dear life under her harness, but Delphine had the time of her life diving and gliding between glitches in the sky. She could have been on a roller coaster.

      Delphine's card let them into the Seekers' digging site with every honour but the red carpet.

      Hattie had arrived. Now all she had to do was track down whatever it was Vicky had found before her.

      Part of her hoped that there would be nothing. That Vicky would be proven wrong, for good.

      A gaggle of geologists analysed the exposed strata beneath the latest Flash graffiti that Hattie had found, and pointed her to more caves. A beautiful series of prehistoric paintings, this time, not even open to the public. How lucky Hattie was that Chet Flash had led her to this attraction.

      "Done yet?" said Delphine, gliding behind her, holding her white dress above her tail.

      "Done," said Hattie, her eyes on a particular painting. It was a good thing that she could read Tyrannian, because Chet Flash - or whoever left those inscriptions, anyway - could write it.

      "Now, where?" Delphine asked at the airship.

      Hattie had waited for them to board before revealing the next destination. "Shenkuu," she said, jotting down more specific coordinates for the pilot. "Poetically referred to as a place with a silver light. That should be the last one. We should hurry."

      "Quickly, then." Delphine asked no further questions. She flew them halfway out of Tyrannia before asking, "You are trained for parachuting, are you not."

      She had definitely spotted Hattie's parachuting license in her jacket. Hattie faced the Peophin, frowning in disgust. "No, absolutely not!"

      Delphine was unfazed. "Well, I suppose it is time for a little crash course, then."

      Hattie cringed. "If you are going to eject me, please do it without any more puns."

      Delphine ejected her before the end of her sentence.

      "Sorry, dearie," she called as she sped off, yelling over the wind. "Too many factions, too many conflicting interests. Someone else will be delighted with this information, I'm sure."

      Hattie threw up her hands in a rude gesture before opening her parachute.

     To be continued…

 
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