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Inside Line

Chapter Text

Most of Section Eight's business took place in their own separate office, but they maintained a substantial outpost in Police Plaza in the Council building, disguised as part of Vinyáya's personal offices, to monitor general LEP operations (particularly Retrieval). As Wing Commander, Vinyáya had a very obvious reason to take a direct and personal interest in Recon and Retrieval, the other two-thirds of Surface Operations, and Section Eight took advantage of that. They could have hacked into the Ops booth, but Vinyáya had a perfectly legitimate access code that worked just as well and had the further advantage of not sending Foaly into nervous fits.

Generally, Vinyáya was happy to leave Recon and Retrieval to Root. That was what he was paid for, after all, and Vinyáya had quite enough on her plate already. Wing managed its public business (a gripping mix of flight rosters, shuttleport administration, coordination with Customs, and equipment maintenance) mostly by itself, but that couldn't be said for Wing's other responsibilities as a front for Intelligence, or her Council business, or Section Eight. She didn't need to do Root's job for him too, despite what her agents at Eight thought. Though it would certainly make things simpler.

Vinyáya had never really formalized the working relationship between Root's departments and Section Eight, the idea being that overfamiliarity bred dependence. Eight occasionally swooped in after the fact to take things out of Root's hands when fixing Retrieval's messes, but Vinyáya had never set up any protocol for intervention during a crisis. Missions that required Root's involvement were always coordinated ahead of time through Wing and Intelligence, never Eight itself.

That precedent had seemed well enough when the main concern had been preserving Section Eight's secrecy and making sure Retrieval didn't come to depend on having someone else around to do their job for them. Now they were in a real crisis, and Section Eight had no way of doing anything, even though its expertise was sorely needed now. Wing had no jurisdiction over what was technically still only an internal Recon crisis, either. They'd have to wait until the Council was officially notified, and given Root, who knew when that would be?

It was just as well Section Eight kept such a close eye on what exactly was going on in the Ops Booth, fumed Vinyáya, even if Root and Foaly didn't realize just how far it went. How typical of him to try and handle this one all by himself. If he thought he could handle this kidnapping the same way he handled all the rest of his surface runners, then he was a fool. When was he planning on informing the Council?

"Commander Root has just confirmed Foaly's alert," said Periwinkle Lomers, Section Eight's Head of Operations and Vinyáya's second-in-command there. "And – yes, he's called up Retrieval, with a full tactical and technical complement. And Foaly himself."

They would be taking Wing's shuttles up to the surface. Vinyáya toyed with the idea of commandeering one – no one would deny her jurisdiction if she simply showed up on the scene – before discarding it. For now, at least, she would be better placed to monitor the situation underground, and she should probably save the dramatic entrance for later in case things got worse.

For some reason, Vinyáya was absolutely certain things would get worse.

"Make sure one of our people is piloting Retrieval's shuttle," she ordered briskly. She still wanted eyes on the surface, even if they weren't her own. This was the next best thing.

"Already done, ma'am," said Periwinkle. "Major Feldspar is suited up now, and I've rearranged Wing's duty roster so we can keep an eye on anything else going aboveground."

It was public knowledge that Wing dabbled in Intelligence work on the side, but Vinyáya wasn't sure if anyone – even Root - actually understood what that meant. All of Wing's field staff were capable of performing basic Recon and Retrieval procedures in a pinch (having an extra field-qualified fairy on scene had proven helpful on multiple occasions in the past, even if Root didn't like admitting it), but that wasn't the only type of assistance even the most junior Wing pilot could offer. And Section Eight went far beyond that.

Most of Recon and Retrieval's missions went off successfully, of course, and Wing's pilots were generally able to provide sufficient backup on the rare occasion that it was needed. They knew when to listen to orders, when to ignore them, and when to call home for help, which covered the vast majority of potential situations. Section Eight's agents embedded in Wing were there for the very few instances where the situation was sensitive enough that Vinyáya's involvement was necessary. In this case, things were looking bad enough that sending Feldspar up was justified. (Not that she actually needed to justify her actions to anyone. There were perks to running the Council's top-secret all-powerful spy agency, after all.)

"Keep a line open to him," said Vinyáya. "Whatever's going on up there, we need to know."

"Of course," said Periwinkle, giving no sign as to how difficult running an undetectable, untraceable, jam-resistant open line underground from the field without any fixed equipment actually was. It was effectively impossible when Foaly was right there in the field and it all had to be done right behind the centaur's back. But then again, that was the entire point of sending Feldspar up; Section Eight's trademark was pulling off the effectively impossible. Vinyáya had every confidence that he would do his job and keep them informed underground, as she had every confidence that Eight would successfully contain and resolve the situation if standard procedure failed to. Ideally, Retrieval would do their job, mind-wipes all around, and that would be the end of it, and when they declassified the mission files later (ha! as if), they could all laugh over the redundant paranoia-induced overkill that Feldspar's presence ended up being.

That prospect was sadly looking less and less likely the more Vinyáya thought about it, given what they already knew about Captain Short's kidnappers. Mud Men who knew about the Ritual and were able to resist the mesmer? Things weren't looking good, no matter what angle you took.

"We will bring her home," said Vinyáya half to herself, as if saying it would make it true. "Even if I have to go up there and drag her out of that Mud Man's house myself." And she would; Eight's warlocks had a few things they'd been saving –

"I'll prep your shuttle," said Periwinkle.

Chapter Text

Things shortly went from bad to worse. Root reactivated himself for field duty and then promptly did his best to cause an economic crisis underground with his overdramatic evacuation order in the Tara surface terminal. "The Mud Men have committed an overtly hostile act," indeed – Vinyáya rather wanted to commit an overtly hostile act on him. The shuttle ports were administratively under Wing's jurisdiction, which made controlling the physical fallout easier – all the returning surface passengers and personnel were discreetly diverted to await the end of this incident – but dealing with the gossip and rumors took much more effort. Only a few calls had gotten out before they'd cut off civilian communications and shut down the markets, but those were enough for the rumors to start spreading. The severity of their response prevented immediate economic collapse, but now half of Haven was convinced that the Mud Men had declared war, and the other half would soon be coming to the same conclusion. No doubt the Council would have to make some sort of public announcement to address these concerns, but of course Root had picked the worst possible time to go aboveground. Everyone missed surface duty, thought Vinyáya sourly, but most people just dealt with it or suffered through therapy instead of indulging themselves with spurious excuses to get aboveground at the most inappropriate times.

To add insult to injury, he'd gone off after Short alone, never mind all those strongly worded discussions Vinyáya had had with him about Recon's standard operating procedures, and never mind the fact that Short herself had been abducted when alone. By the time Vinyáya had gotten off the line with the Atlantean ambassador (Councilor Lope owed her big-time, finance was his responsibility), full-out economic collapse put off for now, Root was already flying out over the Atlantic, and calling him back would have required making a scene. Vinyáya respected Root too much to do that to him and publicly undermine his authority in front of a full situation room, no matter how much she wanted to (no matter how much he deserved it).

She and Periwinkle watched silently in the privacy of her office as Root hovered above a lead-lined whaling tanker in pursuit of Short's tracker. There was no sign if Short was actually still attached to the signal or not; Vinyáya made a note to reintroduce the topic of subcutaneous trackers in the next Council session. Those wouldn't stop a really determined abductor, but they ought to put off most. Though even the somewhat antiquated equipment on Short's person that Recon was still using should have been utterly unfamiliar to humans. So either that was Short on the ship with her locator, which did not bode well for her health, or the Mud Men who had captured her knew enough about fairy technology to identify and remove her tracker, which boded very poorly for the overall situation. Dealing with Mud Men was always the worst. Section Eight hadn't had to deal with any since they took down Opal Koboi's extralegal pursuits during the Spelltropy breakout of eight years ago, and that whole business had been unbearably messy.

Which reminded her… "Do we know for sure that those Mud Men were acting independently? We don't have any footage of their eyes."

Periwinkle picked up her train of thought immediately. "They could have been under the mesmer, but what we have of their voices doesn't sound like it. The quality's not good, but…" she tapped on her tablet, sending a query to Section Eight's analysts in the other building. "No, as far as we can tell they weren't mesmerized at the moment."

"That doesn't mean there weren't fairies controlling them somehow," said Vinyáya, though she knew she was grasping at straws. There were only so many fairy renegades out there, and they were known quantities. Eight kept tabs on all of them, Eight had multiple potential plans on how to deal with each of them on file at any particular moment – in short, Vinyáya would not be overly concerned if it turned out that a fairy was behind the kidnapping. Humans, though...

"Are any of Turnball Root's associates still on the loose? What are the latest reports on Turnball himself out of the Deeps?" Short and Turnball Root had history, after all, and it would be just like him to try and target Julius through his officers. "We cleaned up after Koboi, didn't we? I remember she was linked to the goblin Triads – what's the latest we have on them?"

Vinyáya's speculation was cut off as Root's icon reappeared onscreen: he had returned to broadcast range. A moment later, the tanker exploded – the chatter from the situation room abruptly fell silent – and Root broke the surface of the water.

"Commander. Commander, what's your status?" said Foaly over the feed they'd piped in from the situation room. Vinyáya was already looking at Root's vitals, displayed on the side of the screen. Thank Frond, he'd made it out of there safely, except for some minor superficial damage, nothing that a good shot of sparks couldn't fix.

"My status, Foaly, is extremely annoyed," said Root, as he winched up his wings and started ascending. He did sound absolutely furious, not his everyday irritation but something colder and more resolute; Vinyáya hadn't heard him use that tone of voice in well over twenty years, since the last time his brother had tried escaping from prison. Truth be told, Vinyáya herself was feeling some of that anger fizzing in the back of her skull. She was fiercely protective of her officers, and that classification extended in some form to everyone in the LEP, regardless of if they were actually under her command (she was quite aware of the intraoffice gossip that cast her as the mother-figure to Root's paternal figure.) Vinyáya would have recruited Short into Section Eight if the younger elf hadn't decided upon a different path in Recon – she still would, if Short ever expressed any interest in doing Intelligence work. And Julius – well, the two of them had looked out for each other for five hundred years; their history went deep.

"Get on your computers," Root added. "I want to know everything there is to know about one Artemis Fowl, and I want to know it before I get back to base."

Periwinkle's tablet began to chime with incoming notifications from Eight's analysts. Foaly's response came a beat later, a subdued "Yessir, Commander. Right away."

"D'arvit," Vinyáya said wearily. Suddenly the Atlantean ambassador was looking a lot more attractive. Financial crises were one thing; surface crises with humans involved – particularly this specific human – were another thing entirely. And having both of them happen simultaneously was the last thing anyone needed. "I'd better talk to Lope again."

Chapter Text

Councilor Lope and his crisis response team had set up shop in one of the Council's empty meeting rooms. Finance was not within Vinyáya's Council purview, but the LEP had caused this crisis in the first place, and the LEP would be needed to ensure domestic security in Haven while the unrest continued. As the LEP representative on the Council, her involvement was required twice over.

A typical gnome, Lope was short, strongly built, and had surprisingly weathered skin for someone who lived underground. He wore as much gold in jewelry and ornaments as was socially acceptable, and then some; the traditional belief among the old gnome families, derived from the magical law of attraction, was that like called to like, and gold would beget gold. The amount of gold on his fingers and in his ears Lope wore was testament to his success as a banker, investor, and financier. Vinyáya personally thought it was a bit much, but then again, neither of them was on the Council for their fashion sense.

As Vinyáya entered the room, Lope rose to greet her. “We need to release a statement,” he said briskly. “I think we’ve got the markets settled down again, thank Frond, but that can only last so long. They know something’s up. If we don’t say something soon, we’ll have rioting in the streets.”

She cast an eye over the screens on the walls, which displayed different graphs: various stock indices, interest rates, prices of commodities, and so on. Most of them displayed a sudden blip about half an hour ago, before they evened out again, where the central bank’s systems had entered the market to intervene and stabilize them. Other markets’ lines abruptly ended, when they had shut down automatically, or Lope had ordered them shut down. But sooner or later they would have to reopen…

“We always have rioting,” said Vinyáya drily, “but I see your point. All right, do you want to do it, or should I? They might take it better from you.”

“Under the circumstances,” said Lope (a more polite way of saying “since it was one of your LEP men that caused this crisis in the first place), “it’s probably best you do it. I can take over if they have any questions, but the LEP needs to address this, and soon. You should hear some of the rumors circulating. I don’t care what you tell them, as long as it gets them to calm down.”

The other fairies in the room clearly did not agree with Lope’s cavalier statement; the public relations consultant in particular was quite urgently trying to attract Vinyáya’s attention. She accepted the tablet the pixie offered her, and flicked through it briefly. Mention Cmdr Root’s temper as justification, it said. Do not speculate about Mud Men or kidnappers’ motives. Do not get derailed into a discussion of Cpt Short. STAY ON TOPIC. All very reasonable, and nothing she hadn’t heard before from the PR specialists on her own staff, but then again she wasn’t the one who usually had trouble when making public statements.

“Let me see if Root’s available on the surface,” said Vinyáya (the pixie consultant looked as if he was about to have an aneurysm at the idea of Root saying anything else). “If not, I’ll speak to the reporters.”

Lope clearly did not care who made the statement, as long as someone did; the gnome had already returned to contemplating the graphs displayed on the wall. “Yes, yes,” he said impatiently. “Go on, I’ll meet you in the press room once I finish up here.”

Long experience from frustratingly unproductive Council sessions had taught Vinyáya that when he got in that state – when any banker got like that over gold – there was no use trying to talk to him. She went.

Root was, of course, not available; Major Feldspar reported that LEPretrieval had packed up from Tara and currently in transit to Fowl Manor. They could have put Root on the line underground, but given the current state of affairs – Root talking to the press on an average day was already asking for trouble; Root in a temper should only be let near his subordinates – it was probably just as well that Vinyáya make the public statement instead.

The thing was, Root’s very volatility made him more popular with the public: you could always count on him to tell the truth (as well as what he felt about the truth, and anywhere from three to give other unrelated matters). The people trusted him in a way they didn’t quite trust Vinyáya, who had been a divisive figure ever since she burst onto the scene five hundred years ago.  Maybe it was her gender; or maybe her meteoric rise through the ranks, which she’d accomplished despite her gender; maybe it was her Council seat; maybe it was the rumors of Section Eight, which she’d never quite managed to shake off despite repeated public denials; or a combination of all of them. The People would listen to her, but they wouldn’t be happy about it.

Vinyáya layered another few strands of magic into the glamour she wore, and rearranged the folds of her white Council robe over her black jumpsuit. It wouldn’t do to make a public appearance and not look her best, after all; half the fashion magazines had regular features dedicated to her. It did get wearing. She patted her hair down again, took a final look at herself in the mirror to make sure all her rank pins (a spreading oak for the Council; the hawk-in-flight insignia of Wing, and her silver commander’s acorns) were all in order, and then swept dramatically into the press room, where the reporters were waiting.

Upon her entrance, they immediately burst into questions. It was unusual for one of the Council to personally address the press about current events, and they had probably expected one of her subordinates. Well, under the circumstances, an LEP commander was required, and she was the ranking officer in Surface Operations still underground, so there she was. So she settled in behind the podium in the front of the room and swept the reporters with a level look. They fell silent. She cleared her throat.

“Good evening,” she said. “I’m here to discuss recent events. After a successful mission, Captain Short of the LEPrecon squad was abducted aboveground earlier aboveground by assailants as yet unknown. Commander Root, Retrieval, and a full tactical and technical complement are already aboveground to recover her. You may be assured that we will not rest until Captain Short is safely among us again.” She mentally apologized to Julius for singling out his officer and throwing her under the bus like that, but under the circumstances, Short’s career taking a hit was preferable to continued worst-case-scenarios getting thrown around underground.

“Commander Root correctly ordered an evacuation of all unnecessary personnel on the surface, though his methods may have been unnecessarily dramatic.” A pause, as the press fairies tittered politely. This was an understatement if there ever had been one. “That order is still in force. Under the circumstances, most of Wing’s fleet is on standby, but we are working to transport everyone back underground.” This was also technically true, though due to an unfortunate scheduling quirk, the fairies from the Tara shuttleport who had caused the panic underground would be enjoying an extended stay in Wing’s custody. She would deal with them later, particularly that idiot Nimbus.

“The LEP appreciates your patience and cooperation in these trying times,” Vinyáya added, and sat back to wait for questions. The press did not disappoint.

“Who kidnapped Captain Short?” shouted the reporter from PPTV. “Commander, are you able to tell us who is responsible for this unprecedented kidnapping—”

“Intelligence is currently investigating,” she said. “At this point we are not ready to rule out any suspects, but we are leaning towards the goblin triads.” This was patently ridiculous, given how stupid goblins were, but they were a convenient and politically neutral scapegoat.

The reporter knew this too. “Commander Root was quite convinced Mud Men were involved,” he persisted. “‘The Mud People have committed an overtly hostile act’ were his exact words in the shuttleport.”

Vinyáya would definitely be making her own feelings known to Root later. “Julius commands Reconnaissance,” she said. “It’s his job to deal with the Mud Men. He may have leapt to conclusions.” Which was a lie, but the sooner the press got off the topic of human involvement in the whole affair, the sooner gossip would settle down again. Under no circumstances could the public learn that humans had kidnapped Short. “As I said, Intelligence is still investigating. The kidnappers may have disguised themselves as humans or used the mesmer on them, which may explain his belief that the Mud Men were responsible.” She smiled, inviting the reporters to join in her slight, fond condescension towards Root and his tendencies for crying wolf.

Some of the reporters, including the one from PPTV. bought it, but not enough; clearly, they were rightly convinced that Root had been telling the truth and it was Mud Men. Maybe that was just as well. When the real details of the Short kidnapping got out, this press conference would get dragged out again, and Vinyáya and Intelligence might lose credibility. Well, nobody honestly believed the goblins had managed to kidnap an LEP officer; Vinyáya obviously not telling the whole story. The public could draw their own conclusions from there.

“Do you anticipate any other incidents? Should private citizens be concerned for our safety underground?” asked a reporter, a water-sprite from an Atlantean channel. Vinyáya suspected the involvement of the Atlantean ambassador in her presence here, and chose her words accordingly.

“I can assure you that the Mud Men are not invading, nor will they be invading any time soon. We would have noticed,” she said bluntly. That was one of the Atlantean ambassador’s particular favorites. “The LEP is on full alert for any other suspicious activity, but this matter remains an isolated surface incident. I urge you all to resume business as usual underground. Haven remains open and welcome to all. Including tourists.” That was a specific dig at Atlantis, and the water-sprite knew it; she ducked her head and scribbled furiously.

Out of the corner of her eye, Vinyáya noticed Periwinkle and Lope standing in the gallery, out of sight of the reporters. Excellent, if Lope was here, then he could take over, and that would give her an excuse to check back in with things aboveground. This whole press conference had taken a bit longer than she would have preferred.

“And on that note,” she said, “I’ll leave you with my colleague Councilor Lope, who will answer any additional questions you might have.” As Lope started making his way in, she slipped out to meet Periwinkle, and just in time, too. The reporters hadn’t expected her to leave so abruptly, and were shouting questions after her; she thought she heard something about bio-bombs. Well, that was Lope’s problem now, and the People were bound to calm down eventually. She had other stink-worms to fry.

“We have an open line from Major Feldspar on the surface,” said Periwinkle urgently once they were in the hallway. “It’s about Retrieval.”

“Retrieval?” Standard LEP hostage recovery procedure dictated that they send in Retrieval first, before setting up a time-stop if the squad was unsuccessful.  Root had taken up Retrieval One, the best of the best. What could possibly have happened – “Did they manage to recover Short already?” She doubted it; surely it couldn't have been that easy –

“…Not exactly, ma’am. You’re not going to like it.”

She was right.

Chapter Text

Periwinkle, bless her, had had the sense to commandeer the Situation Room and set up a makeshift command center there, kicking out the team from LEPtroll who had taken advantage of Foaly's absence to use the facilities. There were conference rooms in the Council building, of course, but the main LEP Situation Room offered more security and better integration into operations aboveground.

The wall-mounted screens had all been activated and were displaying a number of what Vinyáya recognized as the camera feeds from aboveground. Other screens were linked back to Section Eight headquarters and showed various teams of analysts. Major Feldspar was on the center screen, and once Vinyáya stepped into range of the camera pickup, he came to attention and nodded at her.

“What happened with Retrieval One at the Fowl mansion?” asked Vinyáya sharply.

Feldspar shook his head. “I’ll let you see for yourself,” he said. “I managed to obtain the video broadcast from their helmet cameras. If you’ll pull it up—”

Periwinkle tapped a few buttons and rearranged the feeds to place the footage from Retrieval on the main screen, and Feldspar was shunted to the side. He began to narrate as the video played, an on-screen Trouble Kelp leading the squad down the avenue. “This is the footage from Captain Kelp’s camera,” he said. “Earlier, Four was by the door when it opened, and was thrown by its impact into the surrounding foliage. Captain Kelp heard the impact over the open channel, and noticed Four’s absence when they sounded off. By the time Retrieval gets up the avenue, the human – we’ve identified him as Domovoi Butler, Artemis Fowl’s bodyguard and manservant – is standing outside. Retrieval retreats, the human steps forward. Kelp orders the switch to buzz batons.”

Onscreen, Butler swept back his hood, revealing the headset-mounted camera he wore. “Evening, gentlemen,” he said, and raised his gun.

“Pause the video,” Vinyáya snapped. “They were shielded. How did he know they were there? What’s that on his head – is that –”

“It looks like the camera from a standard-issue Reconnaissance helmet,” said the technical analyst from Eight soberly. “Presumably Captain Short’s, and consistent with the fact that Fowl was also able to locate and manipulate Short’s locator.”

They watched in silence as the video continued. Onscreen, Fowl’s enforcer began shooting, and the footage became choppy, switching between cameras as their bearers were incapacitated in varying manners. Finally, by the time the eleven remaining members of Retrieval had been taken down, Butler picked up – “That’s Corporal Kelp, ma’am,” said Feldspar – and began to speak, giving him his warnings about medics and mines on the grounds, and demanding a negotiator.

This was getting worse and worse, she thought, tuning out the younger Kelp’s nervous yammering. Vinyáya understood better than most that Retrieval’s reputation was only a construct, but even so, she was not wholly immune to the glamour of the commandos in black. She’d flown with them back in the day, and as Eight’s commander she was too often the one backing up that reputation by cleaning up Retrieval’s messes. They’d been defeated before, plenty of times that she’d seen, so this shouldn’t have been anything new. But this was the first time that a Mud Man had defeated Retrieval, and certainly the first time it had been done so easily.

Kelp’s camera feed showed him turning and heading back to camp. It cut off, and then Feldspar was returned to the main screen. He was sitting in the cockpit of his shuttle now – no doubt for privacy, so Root didn’t come by asking who he was talking to underground.

“What’s going on now?” asked Vinyáya.

“They’re preparing for a time-stop,” said Feldspar. “Root sent in some medics to pick up Retrieval – they were just unconscious, thank Frond – but the Mud Man ordered them to strip the squad of their helmets and equipment, and he took those back with him into the house. The helmets continued to broadcast until their cameras were deactivated by the younger Mud Man.”

Wonderful. So now the Mud Men had another stash of fairy equipment to do Frond-knows-what with. Foaly must be having fits at seeing his technology so mistreated.

The quality of Feldspar’s image began to ripple. “They’re initiating the time-stop, on my mark… mark,” he said. “We’ve got eight hours. I’ve sent you the geotemporal coordinates for synchronization, in case you need to enter the time-field.”

Vinyáya ruthlessly suppressed the worry that was rising up in her. Part of her wanted to fly to the surface immediately with LEPtactical to take over the situation, but she knew that that would take too long, and brute force had proven to be no use. They needed subtlety, but at this point they had no idea what Fowl wanted. Without that information, they couldn’t plan. Despite her reservations about Root and public speaking, he was an excellent officer, and he would be more than able to handle events topside. Vinyáya and Section Eight would do better to stay underground, where they would be better placed to evacuate the city, should that become necessary.

It still nagged at her. Vinyáya had spent her entire career watching out for Root; letting him go into the Mud Men’s den alone like this went against all the habits of five hundred years. The inaction chafed, even though she knew all the reasons for it. Periwinkle sent her a sympathetic look.

“Right,” said Vinyáya. “We’ve got a window of time now before Root goes in to negotiate. What do you have for me?”

“The most obvious thing is that the Mud Man was able to see Retrieval through their shields,” said Periwinkle, consulting her tablet. “They knew to take Captain Short’s helmet camera and use its filter. How did he know about the shield? What else does he know about us?”

“It’s not just that,” said Feldspar. “Don’t forget, Fowl kidnapped Short when she was performing the Ritual. He knew she was a fairy, he knew about the Ritual, and he knew that she wouldn’t have magic. And he was able to resist the mesmer.”

“Fowl was mind-wiped two years ago, after that business with Koboi,” said one of Eight’s agents. He had been participated in that mission. “It’s possible that the wipe might not have taken, but we checked his last mindscan and there’s no sign that there were any residual memories. And I doubt he ever learned this much about us then, anyway.”

“So he must have learned all this sometime in that span of two years,” said Vinyáya. “Do we know anything about what he was doing previously?”

“We’ve got the computers searching through Mud Man security footage to see if he shows up in it,” said Periwinkle, “but it’s a long shot. Nothing much has come up yet. Unfortunately, we didn’t keep tabs on him after the mind-wipe.”

Eight had decided that he was just a boy who had been dragged accidentally into Opal Koboi’s schemes, too young to take seriously or bother worrying about. They would not be making that mistake again, thought Vinyáya darkly.

“If he didn’t remember it,” she said, “then is it possible one of us told him? Has there been any movement among the exiles?” This was a polite term to refer to those outcast from fairy society, who spent their time on the surface or otherwise on the wrong side of the law. Eight kept tabs on them as a matter of course; their mission was to ensure the continued secrecy of the fairy world, and that required knowing who and what was likely to change that status quo. There was crime, and there was crime. Eight tolerated a certain amount of the former as a natural function of society – Vinyáya had been a smuggler, she would know – but she absolutely would not accept anything that threatened to expose fairies to the world above.

“Not that we know of,” said Periwinkle. “Everyone can be accounted for, except…” she pulled up a personal profile. Aeolia Rishel, a sprite who had apparently wandered aboveground a few centuries ago and been bound there by alcohol addiction. She had been living in Asia eking out a living as a petty healer.

“We noticed Rishel trying to sneak back in under a false identity two months ago. The identity forger she went to didn’t recognize her as one of his usual crew, and tipped us off. We sent in one of our agents to ask around and take a DNA test. She claimed she’d gone to the Well of Tara. She hadn’t been up to anything controversial aboveground, so we tagged her and let her in.”

“There was a disguised figure poking around Tara that our cameras picked up,” said the representative from Surveillance. Periwinkle’s tablet pinged, and she pulled up the relevant footage onscreen. Someone dressed in black, face veiled, moved through the camera’s pickup field. “Since Tara is also a Mud Man archaeological site, we assumed this was just some human poking around, maybe trying to steal some artifacts to sell on the black market. You know how that goes. But given what we know now… he looks big enough to be Butler, just going by his proportions relative to the rest of the frame.”

“You think Fowl had something to do with getting Rishel back underground?” said Vinyáya. “They might have met.”

“Her locator chip says she’s slumming it in the outskirts of Haven,” said Periwinkle. “We can find her, pull her in and ask her a few questions.”

“Put someone on that,” said Vinyáya tightly. “Feldspar, how’s Root doing on your end?”

“Commander Root and Foaly are in the back of my shuttle. He’s has just had his iris-cam inserted. Sending up that feed to you now.”

The world as seen by Root – steady progress down the manor’s avenue – came up on the display. Vinyáya found the perception of closeness soothing. She knew it was only an illusion – he didn’t even have an earpiece she could talk to him with – but this was as close as they were getting.

The door opened. Artemis Fowl the younger stood there, framed dramatically by the doorframe. He looked much as he had two years ago when he had gotten tangled up in Opal Koboi’s scheme with the silky sifaka lemur. That had been a mess, but it had been Koboi running the show then, and they knew how to deal with her. This time it was purely Fowl, an unknown quantity.

Good evening,” said the human.

“You’re Fowl?”

“Artemis Fowl, at your service. And you are?”

“LEP Commander Root. Right, we know each other’s names, so could we get on with this?”

Somewhere underground, thought Vinyáya, a PR consultant was crying.

Chapter Text

“We’ll be in touch. Don’t worry, I’ll see myself out.”

“You do that. But remember this, none of your race has permission to enter here while I’m alive.”

The feed from Root’s iris-cam displayed him stumping out of Fowl Manor. The heavy oak door clicked shut behind him. The situation room underground maintained their horrified silence: it had been an educational, if thoroughly horrifying, conversation, and Vinyáya did not envy Root for having had to undergo it.

Feldspar cleared his throat. “Commander Root has safely reached our shuttle,” he said. “Foaly is prepping him for debrief. He’s contacted Dr. Argon and Professor Cumulus, so you should be getting the expedited request to bring them to the surface any moment now. I’ll send you their temporal-spatial coordinates and trajectory of entry once I receive them.”

It would take time to gather the two psychologists and deliver them topside, more time than could be accommodated within the confines of a time-stop. Standard procedure when running an operation with a time-stop was to minimize downtime inside the magical field, but that lead to temporal paradoxes if the timestreams inside and out were not carefully coordinated. There was still magical fallout in the Bermuda area from when the time when some warlock had violated the Second Principle of Causality by having someone enter the time field before he had thought of it inside.

That was all very well for Root, who would find Cumulus and Argon ready and waiting for him once he got out of decontamination, the two doctors having subjectively regained the time it took for them to reach the surface. But it would be Wing’s equipment and personnel used to shuttle them around. Root still hadn’t officially read Vinyáya in on the situation yet – unnecessary, given her position and access, but a professional courtesy considering how he was using her department. Perhaps he thought she simply wouldn’t notice.

“I don’t think Argon and Cumulus are going to help Julius much,” said Vinyáya dryly. As intended, the quip broke the lingering tension in Eight’s command center, making the analysts laugh almost against their wills. “Come on, what do we have?”

Periwinkle projected a transcript and Gnommish translation of Fowl’s conversation with Root onto one of the screens. Eight’s analysts had highlighted and color-coded particularly worrisome parts, annotations spiraling off the edges of the screen. Almost the entire transcript was marked off. Vinyáya sighed. Best to start at the beginning, then; there would be plenty of time for the more difficult matters later.

“Fowl knew about Frond's geas on dwellings,” she said, pointing to Root and Fowl's opening dialogue. “'You only meant to lure me outside, where I could be snatched and used to trade.' And 'You have my permission to enter.' That gambit has worked before, but Fowl knew exactly what Root was trying.” 

“He doesn't seem to have a problem with murder, either,” said Feldspar. “That doesn't bode well for Captain Short, though he hasn't resorted to lethal force yet. That ship Fowl detonated could very well have had workers aboard, but it didn't, and he gave Commander Root enough of a window to escape from the explosion. If Fowl wanted him dead, he would be dead.”

The prohibition against murder was the most fundamental law of fairy society, based in both the Book and in millennia of custom derived from their chronically low birthrate. Fowl was only twelve. The only killing he should be doing was in video games.

“I'll make a note,” said Periwinkle. “He's dangerous, and we'll need to tread carefully around him in case he goes for drastic measures. Rishel might have told Fowl about this, along with the information about the shield, the mesmer, and the Ritual. Something else to ask once our Ops team finds her.”

Vinyáya scrolled through the transcript. The next point of interest, before the elephant in the room, was Fowl's threat of public exposure of the Lower Elements. Eight, of course, had long since laid in contingency plans for this scenario. It was always so rewarding when paranoia and worst-case-scenario planning paid off.

“Periwinkle, is Operation Gutenberg still in place?”

Her Chief of Staff tapped at her tablet. “Of course, ma'am. Our devices are in place at all the major Mud Men media channels, and we have teams topside on alert ready for deployment on our signal.”

Operation Gutenberg was a massive covert operation intended to prevent the flow of information aboveground by whatever means necessary. There were explosives hidden at all the world's major newspapers and TV channels, as well as in key points of the human communications network. If someone tried to reveal the existence of the Lower Elements, Eight would selectively disable the Mud Men's infrastructure and buy time to send in an Ops team to neutralize the situation. The explosives were designed to look like some sort of politically motivated sabotage; if it ended up sparking war among the Mud Men, well, that was just too bad.

“I'll go lay down some piping around the Manor's electrical systems,” said Feldspar. “He won't have 'the means to expose our subterranean existence' any more by the time I'm done with the place.”

“Be careful to stay out of sight of the cameras,” Periwinkle said. “You heard Butler's threat about sniper fire. We can't afford to lose you from the situation now, you're our man on site.”

“I don't think that's going to be a problem much longer,” said Vinyáya. “At this rate, given Fowl's comments about the timestop – there's no doubt about it. We're going to have to send a team to the surface.”

That comment – the promise of direct involvement – sank into everyone in the room. Eight's staff looked energized at the thought of hands-on intervention, which offered a much larger range of potential activity. Even Feldspar, though a consummate professional, looked relieved at the thought that he wouldn't be left alone on the surface to mind the fort. Periwinkle split the screen to pull up Eight's magical theorists on the side, and the relevant section of the Fowl transcript on the main screen.

“Let's get to the point. I know you've all been thinking about this,” said Vinyáya. “Leaving aside Fowl's unexpectedly detailed knowledge of Retrieval's standard operating procedures” – this was more common knowledge than it probably should be underground, due to Retrieval's place in popular fairy culture – “'I am special, because I know how to escape the time-field.' Where in Frond's name is he getting that from?”

“He didn't learn it from us,” said Cirrus, a pixie warlock whom Burdeh had snagged right out of college a few centuries ago, and who had since risen to become Eight's chief magical theorist. “The binding geas on that secret is still in place. There haven't been any leaks of that information of any sort, deliberate or accidental. It can't have been us. We'd know if it were.”

Eight had particularly stringent security mechanisms, both magical and technological. Most of fairy society had switched over to the latter, now – ever since the great migration underground, it simply wasn't feasible to rely upon magic as much as they used to, given the requirements of the Ritual. Foaly had been especially indispensable in developing technologies to replace the old spellwork that the LEP used to run on. Eight, however, had more access to the surface than most, and so was able to maintain a full department of full-time magical researchers and casters paid to do nothing but play around with magic. They had retained all the old enchantments and developed some others, to boot.

The time-field, although almost entirely technological in its current, battery-based incarnation, was still a magical invention at heart. Foaly was an engineer, a technician at heart. How could he hope to truly understand the subtleties of the spells that manipulated the fabric of time when centaurs had barely any magic? There were applications of magic that he could never even dream of, that only someone who could feel the currents of power could imagine. Eight had a whole staff of them.

“Fowl doesn't really know that you can escape a time-stop,” Cirrus continued. “It's impossible. Maybe Rishel or some other renegade told him about our magic and how Retrieval works, sure, but nobody in the general population knows about the fine points of time-stops. Not even Root knows. And we've been keeping an eye on private research. No one's thought about time theory for fifty years, and this isn't the kind of thing you can look into without our noticing the magical emanations. Section Eight are the only people above or under the world capable of doing this kind of research.”

“Fowl looked pretty convinced to me,” said Feldspar. “He certainly convinced Root, too. As bluffs go, that was the best one he could have gone for if he wanted to interfere with LEP procedure.”

“Was it a bluff?” said Periwinkle skeptically. “We can't discount the possibility that somehow he managed to think it through himself. He was involved in that time-stop during the Koboi affair a few years back, after all.” Her tablet pinged. “That was Argon and Cumulus's shuttle,” she added. “Major Feldspar, the shuttle has just entered the restricted airspace around the manor. They should be entering the time-stop momentarily.”

“No doubt they'll be talking about this with Root too,” Feldspar muttered. “Noted, and I've logged their tempo-spatial coordinates for you. Make sure to stay off that entry vector when you come up.”

“Poor Julius,” Vinyáya said. “He can't have been expecting this when he set up that time-stop. He may have finally gotten himself into something more than he can handle.”

“Foaly was speculating about that earlier,” said Feldspar. “You'll remember that Fowl told us his name, and where to find him. He wants something from us.”

“Well, that's obvious enough,” said Periwinkle immediately. “He's holding Captain Short for ransom. He wants the gold.”

Which was, in and of itself, quite possibly the absurdity to end all absurdities. All this fuss, all this worry about the future fate over the human world, over nothing but gold? Vinyáya had been expecting some sort of deep-seated ideological stance, perhaps – that was more in their usual line of work. Yes, gold was the foundation of the fairy economy, and yes, the Council would never let Root hear the end of this, but the gold was literally the least of their concerns at the moment.

“About that gold,” said Vinyáya. “Load, hmm, two metric tons from the vaults into a cargo shuttle, in case Root needs it.” Having successfully rediscovered the secrets of alchemy gave Eight a great deal of budgetary flexibility; the gold for Short's ransom would only be a fraction of their discretionary spending for the year. Root would still owe her a favor for keeping the Council off his back, though.

“I'll have my staff load it with tracker spells and the usual,” said Cirrus. “There's also a nice range of curses we've been wanting to try out. Misfortune, boils, unhappiness, and so on. If Fowl gets his hands on that gold, he'll wish he hadn't soon enough.”

The thought was immensely satisfying, Vinyáya thought, but there would be time to imagine the Mud Boy with a terrible case of acne later. “Fowl wants to keep that gold. Why does he need a ton of gold, anyway? Surely there are simpler ways to indulge greed.”

“Fowl's father disappeared two years ago while on a commercial trip to Russia,” said one of the analysts. “Fowl Junior – this one – has been funding investigative and rescue missions ever since, which has eaten considerably into the family fortune. That business with Koboi and the Extinctionists was also an attempt to raise capital.”

“Put someone on finding out what happened to the father,” said Vinyáya. “If we can find out something for sure, it might give us a psychological edge over Fowl. Frond knows we'll need it.” She sighed. “So Fowl's hoping Root will send in the gold, and then what?”

“Standard LEP operating procedure would be to send in a bio-bomb after that,” said Periwinkle. “Especially since as far as Root knows, Fowl is lying, and a bio-bomb would clean everything up for him.”

None of your race has permission to enter here while I'm alive,'” quoted Vinyáya. “That's practically an invitation to enter once he's dead, and Fowl knows it. Except, if Fowl had somehow left the time-stop before the bomb was detonated, he would still be alive, and Retrieval wouldn't be able to enter to pick up the ransom.”

“Leaving him sitting pretty on quite the pile of gold,” finished Feldspar. “It doesn't matter how Fowl found out about escaping the time-stop, or how he's actually planning on doing it, does it? Fowl is convinced he can do it, and he's making plans based on that assumption.”

“So we know we have to stop Julius from sending in the bio-bomb,” said Vinyáya slowly. “That would just be playing into Fowl's hands. And obviously, we need to get Captain Short out.”

Cirrus coughed. “There are a number of tactical plans designed to deal with time-stop related complications we've drawn up with Tactical that might be of use. We were rather hoping we could give some of these theories proper field applications. It's just not the same running nested time-stops in the lab.”

Vinyáya saved the thought – it had a number of promising applications, if she was understanding it correctly. Leave it to a theoretical warlock to come up with something like this – slap another time-stop over the first one like a bandage, send the gold in and get Short out, then Fowl leaves the inner time-stop not realizing there's an outer one there to catch him and contain the secondary blue rinse. Once Fowl was dead, they stroll in, pick up the gold, end of story. Neat, if somewhat heavy-handed for her taste. There was no need to sink to Fowl's level.

The console began to chime, and after a moment, Vinyáya recognized the protocol. Someone was calling the shuttleport from the surface, and the call was getting mirrored underground. A split-screen popped up: on one side, Wing’s Captain Larch, who was currently minding the store in the shuttleport. On the other side, Commander Root, with the slight discoloration that indicated he was calling out from a time-field.

“… Larch,” said Root. “Good, you’re in charge. No time to deal with civilians now.”

Root, of course, didn’t bother asking what state of emergency underground justified the LEP having taken over the shuttleports, which were usually run by civilians. Commandant Terryl was currently enjoying the hospitality of the LEP’s holding cells on charges of spreading conspiracy, so that left Larch.

“I need you to get me Mulch Diggums,” Root continued. “He was just booked back into the system this morning, so he’ll still be in the Haven holding facilities. I want him on a shuttle to the surface to E1 as soon as possible, and we’ll direct the coordinates from there. Got it?”

Larch’s eyes slid over to the second screen on his console, where a feed from the Ops room underground belowground was playing. Vinyáya moved into the video pickup, and nodded.

“Yes, sir,” said Larch evenly. “Right away, sir.”

“Let me know once Diggums’s shuttle is aboveground,” said Root. “This is a matter of our species security. I want him up here now.” He ended the call.

“Did you get all that?” said Larch, looking at the secondary video pickup. “Commander Root wants the prisoner Mulch Diggums brought to the surface in a priority shuttle, and to interface with the time-stop.”

Vinyáya nodded. “We’ll see you soon,” she said, and cut the connection.

Eight’s other officers had also picked up on Root’s plan. “Oh, that’s very good,” said Cirrus. He actually sounded impressed. “Send in someone lapsed, and let him scout out things out before making plans. And you could probably send in some drones, too, or lay a few spells on him—”

“I’ll make arrangements right away,” Periwinkle said. She was already tapping at her tablet.

“That won’t be necessary,” said Vinyáya. “I think I’ll go get him myself, actually. I could use some action after standing around talking for so long. We can’t let Julius have all the fun, after all.” She took a last look around the Ops room, and smiled. “Get those shuttles ready. We’re going to the surface.”

Eight didn’t cheer, but it was a close thing.

Chapter Text

Strictly speaking, Root had no influence over the prisons. Administered and run by the LEP (or whichever officers were in Administration's bad books that weekend), the penitentiary system was out of Root's chain of command. As head of Surface Operations and the most senior commander, Root had significant leeway, and the state of emergency would make up for what his force of personality didn't. If Larch (and Eight) hadn't intercepted his order to have Diggums brought to the surface, it still would have happened, though they would have wasted valuable time.

Vinyáya, of course, had the benefit of her Council seat as well as her silver Commander's acorns, and the former was smoothing her way here. Perhaps a little too well – Major Hawthorne, who was in charge of the booking system at LEP Central this decade, had trotted himself out to entertain her while his underlings were sent to fetch Diggums, and was now trying gamely to keep up conversation over a tray of rather wilted refreshments. She resisted the urge to do anything as passé as drum her fingers as Hawthorne told her, for the third time, about the issues they were having with their handcuffs, and dropped hints about how an increase in their budget would surely not go amiss. She'd left her detail from Eight out in the hallway, in the understanding that getting followed about by fairies in black generally led to rumors about her "secret police". She was regretting this now – surely it was worth a little more work for her PR staff to avoid Hawthorne's well-intended but frankly quite tedious relating of his financial woes.

What could be taking so long? Vinyáya had seen the booking reports. They'd only arrested Diggums this morning; there was no way he'd already been transferred to the Atlantis facility this quickly.

She set down her squid pâté and stood decisively, heading out into the hall. The squad from Eight fell in behind her, followed by Hawthorne.

"Wing Commander! Where are you going – please, it's not dignified—"

"Where is Mulch Diggums?" Vinyáya demanded. Surely he hadn't managed to escape already.

A squad of LEP officers came around the corner. Diggums was in the center, prodded along by buzz batons and a Neutrino, his hands held ostentatiously in the air.

"We got him!" called an officer. "We found him with one of those goblins' heads in his mouth, just as well you sent us in when you did –" He caught sight of Vinyáya and her people from Eight, and stopped short to come to attention. "Wing Commander, ma'am!"

The squad's sloppy salutes suited the shabbiness of their surroundings. She thought she saw Diggums filch something from the pocket of the officer in front.

"At ease," said Vinyáya. "Major Hawthorne, Captain Rowe, I'll take custody of the prisoner now. Cuff and frisk him, please." The last was to the squad from Eight, who moved forward in a wave of black.

"I've got rights," said Diggums, as he was grabbed by Eight. "I know the Book, you can't just do this—"

"You'd better gag him too," Vinyáya added blandly.

"—I want a lawyer! They had me in with goblins, they were going to ki—mmph!"

As Eight was otherwise engaged in searching the prisoner (turning up a badge and no less than three wallets), Captain Rowe had darted forward and stuffed a gag into Diggums's cavernous mouth. He wiped his hands on his jumpsuit and looked at Hawthorne nervously. Hawthorne cleared his throat officiously.

"Is there, ah, anything else we can do for you today, Councilor?"

"I'll be in touch." Vinyáya suppressed a sigh. She didn't have time for this sort of thing today.

Thankfully, Diggums was much easier to tolerate once properly secured. They tossed him in the holding cell of the back of the LEP cruiser and set off for the E1 terminal. Vinyáya drove – most officers of her rank took gleeful advantage of the drivers they were entitled to, but what was the point of heading the department that assigned drivers if she couldn't drive herself? She had started out as a smuggler, after all, and old habits died hard.

They pulled into the terminal, and the squad from Eight moved to transfer Diggums to the nondescript LEP shuttle sitting in the shuttle bay. As far as anyone knew, Vinyáya was simply delivering Diggums to the time-stop upon Root's request; there wasn't anything to suggest that she and Section Eight were preparing for an intervention in the field. All that – Cirrus, his team, Eight's operational equipment, and the two tons of gold – would follow in another shuttle departing directly from Eight's private shuttleport. The two flights would rendezvous in the air and proceed to Fowl Manor together.

As expected, Periwinkle was waiting in the hanger with Colonel Milfoil, who ran Intelligence. They were staying underground to keep an eye on things, not that Vinyáya expected much to happen underground with the current state of emergency, but one never knew. Less expected were the other figures in white standing together a little ways away from the shuttle: some of her colleagues on the Council had come to see her off. There was Lope, and old Frond, Lili Frond's grand-uncle. Most surprising was the presence of Councilor Crane.

The Council as a governing body was religiously justified, having taken over after the last Frond dynasty, but over the centuries, most of the seats had been devolved to specialists in various areas. Vinyáya's own seat was responsible for the LEP and questions of internal and surface security. Crane's seat, the only one that had remained with the priesthood, dealt with issues of religion and the interpretation of the Book. She and Vinyáya got along reasonably well, though Crane preferred to stay out of politics as much as possible.

"We heard you were heading topside," said Frond tersely as she approached. "Thought we'd come here and meet you, wish you luck."

"Thank you," she said tightly.

Vinyáya and Frond tended to fall on opposite ends of the political spectrum, though once Lili had joined the LEP, Frond had been forced to support his grand-niece. That he was here and speaking this civilly to her pointed to how serious he thought this situation was.

He eyed her, and shook his head. "I hope you know what you're doing."

Thankfully, Lope took that moment to move forward. "Better you than Root," he said. "I've just gotten the markets settled down. Do try not to do anything to stir them up again, please."

That was an understatement. If she couldn't suppress this situation with the humans, there wouldn't even be any markets left when the Mud Men came invading.

This left Crane. "You're going back to the old country," she said. "Remember the Book, and remember that there are powers greater than yours."

Vinyáya nodded. Crane sketched a rune over her, and stepped away.

"We'll see you when you get back," Frond said bluntly. "And do try to avoid paying the Mud Whelp anything if you can help it."

There was the Frond she remembered. Vinyáya wondered if he would have said the same had his niece been the one kidnapped, but that was neither here or there.

With that, the Council delegation left, to be replaced by Periwinkle and Colonel Milfoil. "The other shuttle has checked in," said Periwinkle. "They're ready to leave when you are."

"Everything's loaded? The gold, the equipment, whatever Cirrus wants for his spellwork—"

"Oh yes," Periwinkle said gamely. "I'm not sure he needed the third set of time-stop batteries, myself, or the assortment of ley-line mappers, or the alchemy vat, or the – " she squinted at her tablet "—the full set of religious regalia – really? is he planning to hold a service? – but it made him feel better."

Vinyáya had a good grasp of magical theory for a layperson, but she left the magical research to Cirrus and his department for a reason. She wasn't sure how they came up with their results, but as long as they worked – and they always did – she let them alone, and that policy worked for both of them. It was probably the wisest policy here, too.

"I've filed your flight plan," said Milfoil. He winked. "Remember, this whole operation is being run through Intelligence, so don't forget to file a report later. And take good care of my operatives."

If Wing was often a front for Intelligence, the seven sections of LEP Intelligence were a front for Section Eight and its clandestine activities. Contrary to popular belief, flattering as it was, Intelligence did function as a separate division. Vinyáya already was responsible for Eight, a Council seat, and Wing; she didn't have time to manage the entire Intelligence bureau as well. But the rumors were essentially correct in that there was extensive overlap between Wing, Eight, and Intelligence. The running theory these days was that Wing was the hypothetical eighth section of Intelligence, which was both accurate and laughably wrong.

Despite its name, Section Eight was not actually under the Intelligence umbrella. It operated independently of and had a much broader mandate than Intelligence, but Vinyáya and Milfoil had long since established an excellent working relationship – he'd held her Council seat before her, in fact – and their arrangement suited both of them. It generated horrendous paper trails (Feldspar was a member of Eight working for Wing on an Intelligence mission, and so on), but if Ark Sool had to sort through all that, then so much the better.

"I'll treat them like I would my own people," said Vinyáya, and Milfoil smiled.

There were two hand-picked squads of Eight's (or Wing's, or Intelligence's, depending who you asked) best in the shuttle's compartment, each and every one of them overqualified to pilot the shuttle. There was absolutely no reason that Vinyáya herself needed to be in the cockpit now, strapping herself in and running through pre-flight checks. Her habit for driving herself around was a well-known quirk, more or less tolerated; this was an indulgence, and she knew it. Still, as indulgences went, this was relatively tame. It certainly couldn't compare to Julius assigning himself a recon alone in hostile territory and causing a major financial crisis on the side. Yes, they would be having words about that later.

She toggled the comm lines open and adjusted her earpiece. "Haven Flight Control, this is LEP shuttle Acorns' Rest requesting permission for departure from E1 to surface."

"Acorns' Rest, this is Haven Flight Control. Your flight plan is approved. Be sure to avoid human-inhabited areas, and good luck."

"I'll check in at the Tara terminal."

"Understood. Fly straight."

Vinyáya undocked the clamps and gunned the engine, and the shuttle flew smoothly out of the bay.

They'd grounded all unnecessary flights due to the state of emergency, so the chute system was pretty much deserted. There was no real reason to rush – it was all the same once you got inside the time-stop, after all – but she flew with perhaps a heavier hand on the acceleration than safety standards quite dictated. Privileges of rank; small consolation at a time like this.

This was one of Wing's special shuttles, with all the sensors and equipment that Eight could think of (and then some) tucked in a neat, discreetly aerodynamic package. Despite the two squads and one dwarf prisoner currently buckled in, the shuttle took the turns beautifully, and sooner than she might have expected, they were up through the chute and on the approach to the Tara shuttle terminal. She hit the brakes and opened the drag fins to reduce speed.

The comm crackled online. "LEP shuttle, this is the Tara shuttleport. Please state your identification and clearance code on your approach."

That was Captain Larch; he must have been waiting for them in the flight control booth. "Tara shuttleport, this is LEP shuttle Acorn's Rest en route to surface, clearance code I3727."

A pause, as Larch checked his computer. This was all for show; Larch knew why she was here, and she knew he knew, but they had to follow all the protocols for the record. "Acknowledged, Wing Commander. I'll call ahead to Commander Root and his Ops base to let him know you're coming. You do have Mr. Diggums onboard?"

"Of course," she said briskly. "Just as Root wanted. How are things in the terminal?"

"There's not much going on up here, ma'am," Larch said. "A few civilian arrivals, who were transferred underground, but other than that... We've opened the hangar for you. It's all quiet outside. You are clear for departure."

And only just in time; the light in the tunnel was starting to change as the first tinges of sunlight hit the quartz windshield. Vinyáya put on her goggles and switched on the daylight filter, then pointed the shuttle's nose squarely at the light. The thrusters roared, and Acorns' Rest leapt forward through the hangar.

An observer outside the fairy fort would have seen the shuttle seemingly burst out of the side of the hill, bisecting the cow standing there. The hologram rippled in the wake of the passing ship before settling exactly as it had been before, not a blade of grass out of place. The holographic cow went back to chewing its cud. A moment later, the shuttle itself flickered out of sight, an effect achieved through a judicious combination of cam-foil, stealth ore, and heavily layered magical illusions.

Inside the shuttle, Vinyáya consulted the computer's navigational screen. Eight's other shuttle, the one with the two tons of gold, had already reached the surface; its blinking icon indicated that it was parked along the flight path from E1 to Fowl Manor. They were scheduled to meet the other shuttle in four minutes, which gave her just about enough time to settle her unfinished business with Mulch Diggums before she would need to check in with Cirrus and his team.

She transferred command to her copilot's station, then unstrapped her harness and stepped out of the cockpit into the main compartment of the shuttle. The two squads of operatives were buckled into seats that had been folded out from the walls and keeping an eye on Diggums, who was still cuffed and gagged.

Vinyáya stopped in front of the dwarf. "So," she said. "Mr. Diggums."

Gargled noises from the dwarf. Vinyáya raised an eyebrow, entirely for effect. The closest member of her detail laid a significant hand on his buzz baton, and another got up to unhook the gag, leaving behind the ring that prevented Diggums from unhinging his jaw.

He worked his mouth and spat. "I didn't know you were running Julius's errands now."

"I'm afraid you overestimate the degree of your involvement in this conversation," Vinyáya said. "You will nod or shake your head, as appropriate. That is all. Otherwise, I will have the gag replaced. Do you understand me?"

Diggums nodded. To be entirely honest, she was regretting ungagging him at all: the faintly luminescent puddle of dwarf saliva was already hardening on the carpet, which would never be the same. And this had been a new shuttle, too.

"Let's try this again. I wouldn't usually concern myself with Commander Root's operations" – this was a lie, and everyone on the shuttle except Diggums knew it – "but this was a special case, and I thought it would be easier on everyone involved if I stepped in. Commander Root requested your presence aboveground because he needs some of your particular talents. It is in your interest to do what he says. In fact, you should see this as a rare opportunity. You may even be lucky enough to be offered a deal by Commander Root. If that is the case, I strongly advise you to take it."

Diggums looked like he was about to say something, but then visibly reconsidered as he noticed the ranks of heavy weaponry surrounding him, the kind of artillery that had notoriously been banned by the Atlantis Convention. He settled instead for a politely questioning expression.

Vinyáya continued, "I can see you wondering: why should I do what Commander Root asks me to do? Let me make myself clear. If you and Julius do not come to an agreement, you will be returned to my custody. Julius may offer you a deal; I will not be so kind, especially not after I have taken it upon myself to have this conversation with you. I believe there are a few goblins in a holding cell back in LEP Central who have some unfinished business with you."

"They were going to kill me! I would have died!" spluttered Diggums.

Vinyáya shrugged. "Accidents do happen. Or would you prefer Howler's Peak? Maximum security, perhaps, if you're so worried for your safety. For the rest of your life, even. I can be generous."

He opened his mouth, and then shut it again. "I have rights," he said, a little desperately.

Diggums had already said this today, and Vinyáya's response now was the same as it had been earlier. She tilted her head, and one of her detail moved forward to stuff the gag back in the dwarf's mouth.

"You were going to kill that goblin in the cells," she said. "You're now obstructing an active LEP investigation. You only have as many rights as I say you do. Take the deal, Mr. Diggums. Do what Commander Root tells you to, and it will be much easier all around. Do you understand me?"

He nodded. Vinyáya rolled her eyes as she turned away. Dwarves. Give them an inch, and you'd find that they'd tunneled through the foundations of your house.

"Prep him for surface work," she said briskly to her detail. She checked her monometer. This entire business had taken longer than she had planned. "We're almost there. The rest of you, get ready for landing."

The two squads began ostentatiously checking their weaponry and personal equipment, a bit of security theater intended entirely for Diggums' benefit, as they had already made sure everything was working before boarding the shuttle in the first place. It also served to distract Diggums while they injected the contents of a sealed syringe into a vein in his arm. Foaly had his subcutaneous sleepers, but those could be surgically removed, and were only good for sedating a prisoner. This design of tracker was released directly into the bloodstream, and had full GPS and radio broadcast capacity as well as sedatives. If Diggums decided to try making a run for it, he wouldn't be able to get anywhere.

Vinyáya left them to it and returned to the cockpit, which remained as she had left it, mercifully free of the sight and smell of unwashed tunnel dwarf. By this time, they were at cruising altitude flying circles around Fowl Manor, a hulking pile of stone rising from the lower ground around it and circled by heavy walls visible through the windshield. The other shuttle from Eight had fallen in behind them, and her copilot was on a conference call with them and Major Feldspar inside the time-stop.

She strapped herself back into her harness and toggled her earpiece.

"Good to have you back, Commander," said Feldspar. "I take it Commander Root's pet convict was being less than cooperative?"

"You could say that," Vinyáya muttered. "In fact, the less said, the better. I should have kept him gagged. Julius owes me."

From the other shuttle, Cirrus said, "I told you, we should have just used drones."

"But Root was so determined to see Diggums, how could we disappoint him? You made excellent time here, by the way. It's only been a few minutes since I signed off."

Vinyáya checked her navigational computer. "How much time has passed inside?"

"About an hour and a half," Feldspar said. "I see it took you two hours to get here?"

Foaly's time-stops could last for up to eight hours, which were compressed into one frozen moment. Those eight hours were subjectively experienced by anyone inside the time-stop, though objectively they all took place in one long frozen instant, the moment time had been stopped. Communication and transportation through the time-stop was possible, but required the selection of a particular time within that eight-hour-long moment. There was nothing that required that the same amount of time had passed on both sides of the time-stop when crossing the boundary, either. Feldspar had subjectively spent an hour and a half inside the time-stop; Vinyáya and her staff had experienced that hour and a half, as well as another two on top of that, but they would be able to enter the time-stop as long as those eight hours had not elapsed. This was more or less a very minor form of time travel, as when they entered the time-field, they were returning to the past when time had been stopped.

In theory, you could go from the seventh hour and fifty-ninth minute outside to any moment within the time-stop, as it was all objectively the same moment seen from the outside. In practice, the subjective timeline experienced within the time-stop was still subject to all the usual laws of casuality. Vinyáya and her squad would have to enter the time-stop after the ninety-minute mark: if they entered any earlier, it would contradict Feldspar's established personal timeline of what he had already experienced.

"We were delayed at LEP Central," Vinyáya said shortly. "Hawthorne was being difficult. I only hope Argon and Cumulus were worth the trouble, Diggums certainly wasn't."

The two psychologists had been rushed to the surface earlier on Root's orders, a trip that had only taken an hour. They had gained back that hour when they actually entered the time field: from the outside, they entered two hours after the time-stop had begun, but Root had received them inside the time-stop subjectively not more than one hour in, much good that that would have done him. Feldspar said nothing in response to her statement, a lack of contradiction that was telling.

Vinyáya sighed. "Cirrus, what's your status?"

"We're linking the equipment in the two shuttles so we can get some synchronized measurements of the time-field from both sides, and—"

"How much longer do you need?" she asked, cutting in. Cirrus would certainly have them flying circles around the manor whiling away the remaining hours of the time-stop if left to his own devices. For all his experience in the field, he was still an academic and a theoretician at heart.

"We're just finishing up a few calibrations…" His voice trailed off, and the sound of energetic tapping came over the line. "Right, you're good to enter the time-stop. We can handle things on our end outside."

Cirrus and his team of warlocks in the second shuttle would be staying outside the time-stop until they were explicitly needed, taking the time to come up with potential operational plans. As Diggums was aboard, this shuttle would be entering the time-stop as soon as the timestreams lined up.

Vinyáya checked the temporal-spatial coordinates displayed on her navigational screen, indicating where (a descent over the wall) and when (an hour and a half ago) the shuttle was supposed to be going. "Feldspar, can you confirm the entry vector?"

"Yes, Commander," he said crisply. "Opening the portal on your flight path in three, two, one…"

She pulled the control yoke down, pointing the nose of the shuttle into a descending spiral. Right on cue, a frame of blue-tinged light appeared in the air. Vinyáya tugged the yoke again to send the shuttle through the portal. The air shimmered around her as time and reality rippled and reformed, and then they were on the other side. She brought the shuttle to a neat landing on the grass, and parked it. Root was standing there waiting. Perfect.

The detail from Eight was leading Diggums out; she followed them out, and smiled to herself as Root abruptly stopped yelling when he saw her.

"Hello, Julius," she said.

Chapter Text

"What are you doing here?" said Root.

"Prisoner delivery," said Vinyáya serenely.

Root stared at the spectacle of Diggums getting led out by the squad of operatives in black, from a shuttle which was clearly from Flight instead of from the penitentiary system, and put two and two together. "Could I talk to you for a moment?" he said finally.

"Certainly," Vinyáya said. "Carry on," she added to her team.

Root led her inside the closest empty shuttle — conveniently, the one Feldspar had piloted. He emerged from the cockpit at the sound of footsteps, but he half-saluted and retreated again once he saw the thundercloud on Root's face. She and Root were left alone in the empty passenger compartment of the shuttle.

"Why are you here?" Root asked again. "If you're here to tell me I should let Holly be blue-rinsed—"

Vinyáya held his gaze.

Root looked away first. "Right," he said, a tinge of apology in his voice.

"Has there been talk that you should let that happen?" Not even Councilor Frond, the leader of the conservative faction in fairy government, had suggested that — though of course he wouldn't have said so to Vinyáya's face.

"Lieutenant Cudgeon suggested as much earlier."

"Ah. I'm sorry." Root's first, best friend, though by all accounts they'd since grown apart — that must have hurt. "Under no circumstances will I let Holly be blue-rinsed. You have my word."

Some of the tension went out of Root's shoulders, and he ran a hand over his face wearily.

"How are you holding up?" said Vinyáya. "It's been a long enough day on my end, and that was without the time-stop fatigue on top."

"Well enough," Root said, grimacing. "I don't suppose you're here to take over the situation? That would certainly fend off the vultures."

"Not exactly. I have been vested with certain authority to act, should the circumstances warrant it, but for now I'm here to assist and observe."

"I see," said Root — he almost sounded disappointed that this was still his circus to run — then, a beat later: "'Assist?'"

"With your permission, my people will be running some surveillance on the side. This gambit with Diggums is a good idea, but I can do you one better and get you full electronic communications access inside the house."

"That would be very helpful. If we can find Holly and determine her status, that gives us a much freer hand. And I'd certainly much rather work with you than with Diggums. Honestly, why did you bother bringing him up at all? He can't have been cooperative."

"He wasn't," Vinyáya said dryly. "I won't bore you with the technical details, but there are some things are easier with a live operative on scene. Nothing's quite the same as a good opposable thumb."

"I trust you." Root cleared his throat. "Do you know anything we don't? Anything else, I should say."

"Fowl was involved in that business with Koboi during the Spelltropy epidemic a few years back, but he was mind-wiped after. We" — and this was the collective we, referring to Eight's whole operation — "suspect Fowl was in contact with a sprite exiled to the surface, one Aeolia Rishel, who may have given him his information about the People this time around. Presumably his end goal here is once again trying to raise capital to find his missing father. We have people looking for both Rishel and Fowl, Sr."

"Fowl has been involved with the People before?" said Root, utterly appalled.

"Considering the implications of what Koboi was trying to do, you can understand why we hushed it up." Though clearly Eight had done a better job of hiding the first Fowl Affair from fairy society than from Fowl himself. If not for the outbreak of magical plague, Fowl would have been magically bound to ignorance, but magic had been in short supply then, and one Mud Boy was low on the list of priorities. The technological mind-wipe they'd used instead had worked, but not as well as magic would have. Eight would not be making that mistake again.

"We beat Fowl once, I trust we can do it again." He paused, then added carefully, "But he thinks he can escape the time-stop." It wasn't quite a question, as if Root was afraid of what he might hear in response.

"Yes," said Vinyáya, in acknowledgement — not quite an answer to his unspoken question. This was classified beyond even Root's clearance: time-stops were key to the LEP's current operations policy. The LEP was simply not prepared to deal with the consequences if the news got out. Eight's warlocks had cast the strongest possible magical geas on the secret to prevent it from being spread; Vinyáya could feel it twinging ominously in reaction to even the veiled disclosure she had made. Presumably it hadn't stopped Fowl from finding out because he was human, and thus overlooked by the parameters of the spell.

Root paled. "You mean — "

"It doesn't matter," Vinyáya said firmly. "It only matters that Fowl believes it, and is behaving accordingly. That's what he was trying to get at with his line about 'none of your race has permission to enter while he's still alive.'"

Root shook his head, obviously trying to get his mind off the implications. "You've certainly been following along with events topside."

She smiled a sphinx's smile.

"I'm glad you're here," said Root abruptly.

Vinyáya met his eyes. "We'll get Holly out. In Danu's name, I swear to you, no harm will come to her."

"Thank you," Root said. He sighed. "Well, shall we get on with it?"

The assorted LEP and Eight personnel came to attention as Vinyáya and Root entered Foaly's designated Ops shuttle. Best to establish chain of command now; as Councilor she outranked Root, and as head of Section Eight her personnel there reported directly to her, but Root was still in command of this field situation. So she looked to Root.

"At ease," Root said. "Foaly, how are we with Diggums?"

"I've wired him up with an iris-cam and a mic. He's waiting outside and ready for you."

"Right. Commander Vinyáya, do you and your team — Euclase, is it? — need anything before we send Diggums in?"

Eight's lead tech on this side of the time-stop was an elf named Euclase; his specialty, unlike Cirrus', was in technology. He had set up his kit in the Ops shuttle and had had commandeered several of Foaly's screens to serve as a display some of the screens for his equipment: besides the Eight-issued tracker in Diggums' bloodstream, he was sending in a flock of BIRDs.

They weren't actual birds, of course. The Biphasic Infiltration Reconnaissance Drones were miniaturized semi-autonomous magical/technical constructs that were closer in form and size to insects, but the bird metaphor had proved more popular among Eight's R&D staff. A BIRD could perform discreet surveillance on a target with full audio/video broadcast; if being directly controlled by an operator, it could be used to interface with technological systems (certainly a human system should be no issue) or as a proxy for magical spells. Each unit was no larger than a grain of sand and ran completely silently, thanks to a magical, not mechanical, propulsion system.

"I can send my BIRDs with Diggums as he tunnels in," Euclase said. "Once he's inside the manor, I advise you have Diggums wait while we assess the situation and get into Fowl's security system. Diggums can then be directed through the house as needed."

Root thought it over, nodded. "I'll send him off. You do what you need to."

Vinyáya followed Root out of the shuttle; Foaly, after one last lingering, covetous glance at Euclase's console, trailed after.

Diggums was waiting, still cuffed, in the shadow of a shuttle. Some Retrieval officers led him over.

"Look who's finally turned up," said Diggums. "I heard you wanted to see me, Julius."

"That's Commander Root to you," snapped Root.

"Commander, now. I heard that. Clerical error, was it?"

Root's jaw worked dangerously. Vinyáya decided to step in: they didn't have the time to waste, time-stop or not. She cleared her throat pointedly, and Diggums' attention snapped to her.

"Ha ha, just a little joke. Sorry about that," Diggums spluttered. "Commander Vinyáya! I, uh, didn't see you there."

Root looked between them, but said nothing about it. "Diggums, one of my officers is being held prisoner inside that manor. Broadly, your objectives are to find out how this Fowl person knows so much about us, and to find Captain Short and do what you can for her. More specifically, you are to tunnel inside and then wait for further instruction."

The dwarf blinked. "I don't get it. You want me to get inside and then… not do anything?"

"Yes," said Root, through gritted teeth. "Need-to-know basis, and you don't need to know yet."

"… Okay then." Diggums squinted and tapped a foot on the ground. "I don't like the lie of the land here. I smell limestone. That means a solid rock foundation. There might not be a way in."

Foaly trotted over. "I've done a scan. The original structure is based totally on rock, but some of the later extensions stray on to clay. The wine cellar in the south wing appears to have a wooden floor. It should be no problem for someone with a mouth like yours."

"All right, then," said Diggums with a sigh. He opened the back flap on his tunneling pants.

Vinyáya took that as a cue to return to the command shuttle. Some things even Eight did not pay her well enough for.

Foaly and Root entered the shuttle again a few minutes later, Foaly looking rather worse for wear. He looked like he desperately wanted to ask about what Euclase was doing, but a pointed glare from Root sent him back to the station monitoring the dwarf's iris-cam and vital signs.

Euclase's BIRDs were hitching a ride into the manor on Diggums' shirt. Judging from the code spilling over the screen of Euclase's console, he was programming the flock to split up once inside: some to find and follow the Mud Men inside, some to monitor Fowl's security system, some to find Captain Short, and some to monitor Diggums himself.

They watched as the dwarf tunneled his way into the Fowls' wine cellar. The dwarf emerged among the barrels, snuck his way through the cellar, climbed the stairs by the door, and then picked the lock using one of his beard hairs. He opened the door, revealing a hallway in the main house proper.

"Tell him to stop, please," said Euclase. The commandeered screens turned on, displaying the video feeds from the different groups of birds as they made their way through the house. One of them showed a split-screen with all of the video from Fowl's security system. Euclase must have hacked in. Vinyáya leaned closer, trying to find Holly —

"How are you getting that?" said Foaly enthusiastically. "That looks like live footage. Are you interfacing with his system physically somehow? But I didn't see you send anything in..."

Euclase winked. "Trade secret."

"Come on, just a hint?" It was obvious what Foaly would be doing with his R&D budget for the next decade or so.

"This is all well and good," Diggums broke in, "but could we get on with it? I'm a little exposed here, you know."

"Get back into that cellar and close the door behind you," Root snapped. "We'll tell you when you're needed."

"Seriously? You dragged me topside for this?" said Diggums, before Foaly turned off the dwarf's mic. And not a moment too soon: Diggums was taking the opportunity to pass wind, presumably in response to being cut off. That wine cellar would never be the same.

According to Fowl's feeds, there were three Mud Men in the manor: Fowl himself, watching the monitor banks in his study; his bodyguard, on patrol through the manor; and the bodyguard's sister, washing vegetables at the sink in the kitchen. Captain Short herself was in a concrete cell somewhere, probably underground, and she was — smashing her bed onto the ground?

"She's alive!" Root's voice was uncharacteristically gruff. Foaly was doing a little shuffle that was presumably supposed to be a dance.

"Alive and well, thank Frond," said Vinyáya.

Euclase's control wands danced through the holographic interface of his console. From the video feed, one of the BIRDs had found Holly in her cell, and was now hovering safely out of range of the bedframe. A few gestures later, and then Euclase said, "I've looped the footage from the camera in Captain Short's cell. We're on an open audio channel to her now."

Foaly clearly wanted to ask about how Euclase had done this, but managed, with great and obvious difficulty, to restrain himself.

"Captain Short?" said Root loudly into the microphone. "Captain Short, can you hear me?"

"Commander Root?" said Short, in confusion. "Where are you — I don't understand—"

"There's a, uh, communications device hovering in your cell right now. We've also knocked out Fowl's cameras in your cell, so he can't see or hear us. Holly, what's your status?"

"I'm almost there," Short said, a seeming non sequitur. They watched, totally mystified, as Holly picked up the bed and slammed it onto the ground again, and again; then she knelt down, murmuring something that Euclase's BIRD couldn't quite pick up. Surely she wasn't — but yes, there were blue sparks of magic playing over her body now. Somehow she had managed to complete the Ritual.

"Captain Short!" Root shouted.

"Reporting for duty, sir. I had the acorn from earlier tucked in my boot, and I was able to use the bed to get through the cement of my cell." She was smiling, before the expression slid off her face. "Sir! You have to know — they dosed me with a truth serum. That's how Fowl knows everything. I told him about the hostage fund myself. And somehow he's learned to read Gnommish."

Vinyáya seethed. Fowl dared —

"No, Holly!" said Root. "It wasn't you. I have reliable reports that Fowl got his information from other sources."

Foaly glanced over at Vinyáya; this was the first the centaur had heard of this. Vinyáya nodded.

"Oh," said Short, somewhat doubtfully. She rubbed her face wearily, but when she raised her head again, she was utterly transformed. Captain Short was back and ready for duty. "Sir, I'm under eyeball orders not to leave the house, and I doubt I'll be able to mesmerize him into letting me go. How should I proceed?"

"Holly, we'll get you out," said Root. "We can definitely let you out of the cell — " this was half a question directed at Euclase, who nodded — "and after that, since we have access to Fowl's security system, we can keep you away from him and his bodyguard."

"We can use Diggums to get your equipment to you, too," said Foaly. "It'll be a whole new crunchball match once Fowl sees you with a Neutrino."

"You brought Mulch Diggums up here?" Short was almost laughing. Vinyáya tuned their conversation out so she could think. It was all well and good for Short to regain her magic and be released from her cell, and even better if they managed to arm her again. But after all that, she would still be under direct orders to stay inside the house. It all came down to Frond's geas on dwellings, which was a question of magic, not technology; Vinyáya had an idea or two about how to get around that, but nothing she'd be willing to bet an officer's life on.

"I need to talk to Cirrus," she said. Eight's top magical strategist was still circling outside the time-stop.

"Wing Commander?" said Short incredulously. "What are you doing here?"

Vinyáya ignored this, heading out of the command shuttle. Euclase could open up a connection to Cirrus, but he was handling enough already. She would ask Feldspar to make the connection from the terminal in his shuttle. As one of Eight's agents in Wing, his shuttle had the specialized equipment needed to call out of a time-stop.

As Feldspar set up the call, Vinyáya slotted in her earpiece and considered where to start. Certainly Short regaining her magic gave them a broader range of options.

"Cirrus? Can you hear me?"

"Commander Vinyáya," said Cirrus, his voice uncharacteristically urgent. "Fowl's mother is alone and unconscious in the estate on this time of the time-stop. What are your orders?"

A number of things fell into place. The way forward was suddenly very clear.

"Stay where you are. I'll come to meet you," Vinyáya said tersely, before she closed the connection and stood. Feldspar looked up, startled.

"If Julius asks for me, tell him I'm doing him a favor. He'll appreciate this one more than he did Diggums."


Vinyáya smiled predatorily. Her PR consultant would not have approved. "Don't you think it's time we gave Fowl a taste of his own medicine?"

Chapter Text

Vinyáya and her team reentered the time-stop an hour after they left, with their cargo from the other side in tow. There were four hours remaining for the time-stop, and Major Feldspar was waiting for them by the portal. Root, Foaly, and Cirrus were nowhere in sight, but Vinyáya thought she heard Root’s voice echoing from one of the parked shuttles.

Feldspar, Eight’s first agent on-scene, caught Vinyáya’s eye and led her aside. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said. “A lot has happened inside.”

“After you left, we used Diggums to carry Captain Short’s equipment to her. She is now fully suited and armed, and is still around the house avoiding Fowl and the other humans. Fowl, unfortunately, has noticed this, but as Short has her helmet on, he can no longer give her any commands. She remains bound under eyeball orders not to leave, and not to injure Fowl.”

“After Diggums delivered Short’s equipment,” Feldspar continued, “Euclase directed him to further investigate the house. He found a translated copy of the Book in a safe. Colonel Lomers has also checked in from underground. She confirmed our earlier theory that Fowl encountered the exiled sprite Aeolia Rishel and obtained a copy of the Book from her. He may have other sources of information as well, but if he does, we have not yet encountered them. Colonel Lomers sent up transcripts from initial questioning along with her report, if you’d like to take a look at them. And Section Eight was able to get a preliminary location for Fowl Sr. in the Arctic. Mafia custody, I believe.”

“Excellent,” said Vinyáya. She did so enjoy having competent subordinates. “Anything else to report?”

Feldspar paused, looking uncharacteristically hesitant. “… Lieutenant Cudgeon is arguing that we should send a troll into the house,” he said, all in a rush.

Vinyáya raised her eyebrows. Well. That would certainly explain why Root was yelling. There was no way he would ever let a troll be sent anywhere near one of his officers.

She could see some of the logic behind Cudgeon’s argument — trolls, which were nonmagical, would have no issue with the geas on dwellings. Encountering one of those ought to change up Fowl’s act immediately. Since Captain Short was on the loose, armed, and magicked-up again, she had a decent chance of staying out of the troll’s way.

But using a troll to deal with three Mud Men was utterly ridiculous — it was beyond overkill. The troll would only lead to severely traumatized Mud Men and correspondingly more difficult mind-wipes, not to mention the property damage to the house itself that would need to be repaired. Unless… was Cudgeon going for bust and trying to use the troll to kill all the humans, without resorting to the bio-bomb?

It wouldn’t look good in the post-op tribunal, that was for sure. Vinyáya didn’t particularly care if the humans made it out of the time-stop or not, but this kind of clumsiness and heavy-handedness had no place in command. Cudgeon was an ambitious officer; he was no doubt hoping to get a promotion out of this, but he still had a ways to go if this was the caliber of his political maneuverings.

Feldspar cleared his throat. “Commander Root, obviously, does not agree. He and Lt. Cudgeon are currently ‘discussing’ this.”

“I should let them know I’m back,” Vinyáya said.

“That might be best,” said Feldspar.

They left Cirrus and his warlocks fussing over the unconscious Angeline Fowl, whom they’d fetched from the other side of the time-stop, and followed Feldspar to the shuttle Root and Cudgeon were in. Honestly, she could have found it by herself just by listening to their voices.

Neither speaker noticed her entrance. Root and Cudgeon were in each other’s faces — Cudgeon was still going on about the troll, for Frond’s sake, and Root was yelling that he remained the ranking officer on-scene. From the way Foaly was lurking in a corner, he had tried to calm down the situation and been shouted down from both sides. The centaur met her gaze questioningly, and not without some relief.

Vinyáya summoned her best parade-ground voice and shouted, “Enough!

Root and Cudgeon turned. Root also looked relieved to see her; Cudgeon, on the other hand, looked utterly astounded. There was a vein popping in his head.

“Enough of this,” Vinyáya repeated. “Commander Root, by my authority as Councilor I am assuming command of this crisis situation.”

“Take it, with my compliments,” Root muttered. He cleared his throat. “Councilor, I stand relieved. You are in command.”

“Now, Lieutenant Cudgeon.“

Cudgeon, by this point, had turned an unhealthy-looking red shade. He was staring at her, and his jaw was working silently — in fact, he looked rather like a caricature of Root.

“Lieutenant Cudgeon,” Vinyáya said pointedly. Cudgeon finally seemed to realize she was speaking to him.

He abruptly shrieked, “Get me that outside line to the Council!” and leapt at Foaly, his hands outstretched into claws.

“Stand down, Briar!” Root yelled, but he was ignored as Cudgeon pinned Foaly to the wall of the shuttle.

Vinyáya almost missed the barely audible pneumatic hiss and the faint flicker of motion in the corner of her eye, but there was no missing the way Cudgeon collapsed, his eyes closed. The lieutenant winked out of sight before he hit the ground.

“… Oops?” said Root very unconvincingly. He was staring very hard at the place where Cudgeon wasn’t — where he had been, and was now lying unconscious outside the time-stop. Even without the broken geas screaming at her, Vinyáya could practically feel his train of thought grinding to its logical, inevitable, and extremely unfortunate conclusion: Cudgeon had left the time-stop.

Someone would have to be sent to fetch him. At least Retrieval was already on-scene.

Foaly said indistinctly, “But I don’t understand what happened — the dart was only supposed to deliver a sedative…?”

The centaur had not been party to Vinyáya’s earlier conversation with Root about the time-stop, so hopefully he wouldn’t put the pieces together quite yet. Get Euclase to distract him, she mouthed to Feldspar. With any luck, the opportunity to play with Eight’s toys would occupy him enough that the delicate conversation about time-stops could be delayed until debriefing.

Feldspar led Foaly out, leaving Root and Vinyáya in the shuttle alone.

“You’ve been busy,” said Root. “I heard something about Fowl’s mother? It seems the Mud Brat was correct about some things.”

“You can see why we’ve kept it quiet.”

A questioning look. Vinyáya rubbed her temples.

“Eight put a magical geas on the secret so no fairy could find out how to escape a time-stop. We overlooked humans.”


“The key is a change of consciousness, which isn’t possible without some external intervention. In Fowl’s mother’s case, Fowl dosed her with sleeping pills. She was sedated and alone on the other side of the time-stop, and Cirrus detected her when we came in to drop off Diggums. In Lieutenant Cudgeon’s case—“

“Foaly armed me with a sedative dart on my finger when I went to negotiate with Fowl. I forgot to take it off.”

“Yes, all entirely accidental, I’m sure.”

She and Root exchanged looks. More seriously, Vinyáya added, “I’m sorry it came to this. I know the two of you were close.”

“Six hundred years of friendship, and this is how it ends,” said Root bitterly. “I guess the troll was better than sending in a blue rinse, since Holly would have had a chance to survive, but — that he would gamble my officer’s safety for his own ambition — well, it’s your show now.” He sighed. “So you’re going for, what, a reverse hostage ploy with Fowl’s mother?”

That was one way of putting it. “He has someone we want. We have someone he’ll want.”

“You think Fowl will go for it?”

“Our understanding is that Fowl is only doing this for his father’s sake. How, then, could he leave his mother in our hands?” She might have approved of such filial duty if it hadn’t brought them to this situation, but a knife cut both ways. This would break Fowl.

“So she left the time-stop, fine — but how in Frond’s name did you manage to get her? Fowl forbid us entry.”

“You’ll have to allow me a few secrets, Julius,” said Vinyáya. “The future holds many mysteries.”

That was actually a hint about how she did it, but judging by the undisguised irritation on his face, Root hadn’t picked up on it. Vinyáya relented.

“Consider basic time-stop mechanics. All the events that happen inside the time-stop, no matter their subjective ordering, take place in that moment when time was frozen at the beginning of the time-stop. When I left the time-stop, I reentered the flow of time. The ‘present’ outside the time-stop is the future, relative to the inside.

“Fowl brought this upon himself. None of your race has permission to enter here while I’m alive, you remember, but we called his bluff when we entered the house on the other side of the time-stop. Either he retroactively rescinds his ban — and because he’s inside the time-stop, chronologically that takes effect before we entered — or he dies, and the condition is fulfilled that way. If he’s as clever as he thinks he is, he’ll catch the out. Either way, we have our leverage.”

“And since Fowl’s mother was already unconscious when we brought her back into the time-stop, he can’t pull the same trick he did earlier,” said Root slowly. “It’s certainly tidier than a troll. What would you have done if Fowl hadn’t sent his mother out of the time-stop?”

“There are greater powers than yours, as Councilor Crane told me before we left Haven. I think Cirrus is still disappointed he didn’t get to pull out anything really interesting from his bag of tricks.”

“Do I want to know?” said Root.

“Probably not.”

Root looked like he wanted to ask anyway, but they were interrupted by a knock on the shuttle door. Foaly stepped in a moment later, carrying an earpiece.

“Commanders, Fowl is trying to raise us on the radio.”

“What is he saying?” said Root, as Vinyáya said, “Have you responded?”

“Not much. He’s noticed Holly escaped,” Foaly said, “and no, we haven’t said anything yet.”

“Well then, you’re up again. Break the news to him gently, will you?” said Vinyáya to Root.

In anyone else, Root’s smile would have been considered mischievous. “You know, I have an idea. Why should I be the only one with the pleasure of dealing with the Mud Brat?”

“You think I should talk to Fowl?” This was hardly standard hostage negotiation procedure. “But you’ve already developed such a rapport with him.”

“The Mud Boy and I got off on the wrong foot, what with assaulting my officers and trying to blow me up,” said Root, in a spectacular understatement. “But he’s read the Book, you say. So let’s give him a show out of the Book. A bit of fear will do him good, and as I’ve been reminded” — he gestured at Vinyáya — “there are greater powers than the LEP here.”

“You’re joking,” Foaly said.

“I never joke,” said Root, and he said it with a straight face.

Root’s logic made sense once he elaborated. Up till now, Fowl had been writing the script, and the LEP had followed it, obediently jumping through all of Fowl’s hoops. Now that they were reversing the situation, they wanted to keep Fowl on his toes, off-balance and passively reacting, instead of plotting. Vinyáya was confident in her understanding of time-stop mechanics, and equally confident that Fowl would insist on plotting, if left to his own devices.

The good cop/bad cop negotiating routine was a classic — unsubtle, perhaps, but a classic for a reason. Root was currently doing a bad job of suppressing his amusement at the idea of being the good cop for once, since his temper usually cast him as the bad one. But Vinyáya was well-suited to being the bad cop this time, the stick to Root’s carrot, since she held a civilian title as a sitting Council member in addition to her military ranks.

More relevantly, as Councilor Crane had reminded her, fairy society was and remained a theocracy. Frond who dictated the Book had been a priest-king, and the same was true of the Council that had succeeded him. As a sitting member of that Council, Vinyáya was technically a priest of the second rank and therefore had some right to the crow-feather robe she wore, though no one had worn such a garment since the last time the fairy peoples had gone to war at Taillte ten thousand years ago. There were certain stories from the Book that still lingered in the human subconscious, and the LEP was tapping into them now.

Greater powers, indeed. Vinyáya doubted that Crane had intended to suggest they stage divine intervention as psychological warfare, but at least it was going to be entertaining.

So that was how she came to be stalking down the front avenue of the Fowl estate under an invisibility spell, wearing a crow-feather robe and carrying a sword and a spear. An unconscious Angeline Fowl, also invisible, was laid out on two hoverstretchers that trailed along behind her.

The sword and spear that Vinyáya carried were made in the image of two of the four great treasures that the ancient Dé Danann had brought with them out of their old cities in the time before time. The Lia Fáil, the Stone of Kings, now stood at Tara, and the cauldron of plenty would hardly be useful now, but the sword and the spear would serve as a potent reminder (to the LEP as well) of the People as they had been when they ruled the surface by magic, a time before the Book.

If they had the original Claíomh Solais and Lúin Celtchair to hand, instead of the replicas used in religious services, their virtues — the sword that could not be defeated, the spear that could not miss its target — might have been useful against Fowl’s mountain of a bodyguard. Still, some things were universal: even if Fowl didn’t recognize their significance, the antique weaponry was very sharp and very striking.

… and heavy, too. Vinyáya was glad to stop once she had reached the approximate spot where Retrieval One had been so ignominiously defeated earlier.

“Move a little forward,” said Cirrus, via her earpiece. He was serving as stage manager for this whole production. “Just another foot or so — perfect. Ready, ma’am?”

“Of course,” she murmured.

“All right, Commander Root, on your mark.” Her earpiece clicked over to Fowl’s radio channel.

Root finally broke radio silence. “The situation has … changed,” he said deliberately.

“What?” said Fowl.

That was Cirrus’ cue to drop the spell of invisibility. To Fowl, who according to Euclase’s BIRDs was currently watching his security cameras, she and the floating bier appeared directly in front of his front door with a sudden crack of thunder. Before Fowl had a chance to react, she thumped the butt of her spear onto the ground. The earth shook as if in response, a special effect courtesy of Cirrus’ warlocks.

“Artemis Fowl!” Vinyáya shouted, her voice laced with magic. She was using a touch of the mesmer, just enough to make her voice more compelling; Cirrus also had made her voice harsher, almost crow-like, and magically amplified it. Between the spellbound resonance and the microphone she wore, she had no doubt they could hear her throughout the house. The traditional summoning spell required calling a name three times, but judging from his squawking over the radio channel, Fowl had already noticed her presence, no further repetitions necessary. He sounded agitated. Good.

Vinyáya continued inexorably: “You have made mischief among my people. Why have you done so? It is not fitting that a child, as you are, should concern himself with affairs such as these. Your father is held prisoner in the Arctic” — she paused to let the echoes fade — “but child, where now is thy mother?”