I waited until Angel had finished washing her face before reporting on my conversation with Moth. I made it quick and brief and to-the-point, and did my best to not sound irritated at not knowing all the facts. P-DAP agents aren’t supposed to know all the facts. If you get nabbed by the FNTs, it’s better than you don’t know anything. Actually, that’s not true. It’s better for the good of mankind that you don’t know anything, but it’s not so good for you. I knew this one person, once, who –
Actually, you know . . . it’s probably best we don’t go into that.
Angel looked up from the wad of paper towels she was using to dry her face and straighten her hair, and fixed me with a hard stare. “UOCs?”
She grunted, and began to use some of the curly wire as a comb. “I don’t like UOCs.”
My eyebrows went up. “Why not?”
She grunted again. “I had a bad experience.”
“With an UOC?”
She nodded curtly.
I perked up. I’d never heard of Angel having bad experiences. She had a perfect record, as far as I knew. “What kind of a bad experience?”
Long Hair came and hovered next to me. “Yeah, what kind?”
Angel glared at me and her both. “I won’t go into it here. Let’s just say that it was the closest I’ve ever come to being dead, and it involved an UOC. And a redhead. I won’t say it was all my partner’s fault, but that’s just because I’m in a reasonably tolerable mood.”
“But what happened?” Long Hair said, leaning closer.
“I’M NOT GOING INTO IT NOW!”
Both Long Hair and I jumped back. (Long Hair more than me, just for the record.) Angel gave us another glare via the mirror and then cleared her throat. “We have things to do. Long Hair and I will stay up here and work on the antidote.” She pointed at me. “You will go find the UOCs. And watch out for the Fernacktorians.”
I saluted her, made a few adjustments to my gear (which had gotten a little askew during the kafuffle), and left the bathroom. I stopped over at the drinking fountain for some water, and then headed back for the abyss of darkness and flashing green and pink lights. That is, the dance floor. I tried not to dawdle . . . dawdling is not encouraged at the P-DAP agency in general and violently discouraged among P-DAP agents in particular; however, I was a trifle reluctant to venture into the abyss – I mean, dance floor – once again. To be precise, I don’t think it was the fact that I was reentering the ab – dance floor – that bothered me so as it was that I was doing it alone. I mean, who am I kidding? Six FNTs? Against me? I’d be at the gates of Heaven before I knew what hit me. At best. At worst . . . well . . . you remember that person I was telling you about, but didn’t? He –
No, no – I was right to keep it to myself. The point is: I wasn’t terribly comfortable being on my own on a dance floor that, at any moment, could become a pit of death. Angel and Long Hair were shut up in the girls’ bathroom, and I’d just remembered that Angel’s communicator didn’t work anymore. So if I needed help or something, I’d have to yell.
I’d reached the bottom of the stairs by now, where I sort of hovered in the doorway to the gym, watching the mass of students while I waited for my courage and resolve to catch up with me. It was coming – it always did. While I waited, I peered from the shadows at the human beings/Fernacktorians I was trying to save/kill. The dancing of the students was becoming more and more uniform. It wouldn’t be apparent to the untrained eye, but to mine, I could see that peculiar movement that was trickling into each person, so that somehow, they all seemed to be, ever-so-slightly bopping/moving/bouncing as one being. The AMP was really starting to take its toll. Soon, very soon, their minds would be turned to complete mush, and they’d all dance like they were completely identical. At that moment, they’d be past saving – open to even the slightest suggestion by the Fernacktorians.
There. My resolve had caught up. The courage was still a bit behind, but I didn’t have any more time to spend dawdling. I marched into the pit of death – er – dancing, and kept my eyes peeled. For FNTs, of course, but mostly for my colleagues. I hadn’t forgotten about the other P-DAP agents that were supposedly somewhere within the crowd. Mingling with the other students. Blending in with everyone else. Pretending to be as mind-melted as the rest of them. At least that’s what I hoped. I still thought of myself as alone because so far, I’d seen no sign of them. And of course, I wasn’t supposed to, but, well, maybe I’d seen no sign of them because the FNTs had already gotten to them. After all, if Angel had had a bad experience, there was no reason I shouldn’t have a bad experience. There was always that. I gulped, looked behind me for any sign of my courage, and then approached the center of the floor.
For a moment, I was worried about not looking calm, cool, and confident enough. It was much harder to manage without Angel at my side. Then, I remembered that I was supposed to be like everyone else, and so needed to appear like I’d been downing AMP for the past hour. In other words, I shouldn’t be calm, or cool, or confident. Instead, I needed to be . . . I took a moment to survey the other students around me. Yeah. My feet should be dancing vaguely – my face should be plastered over with a blissful grin and glazed-over eyes – a little bit of hysterical laughter and staggering wouldn’t be out of place, but might be pushing it slightly. I decided to push it slightly and wove my way to the Fountain. Figured I’d look suspicious without a glass of AMP in hand.
I ducked under the tent, glanced around for Young Man, didn’t see him, and so filled up a glass in peace. I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing to not see Young Man or not. After all, if I could spot him again, than I’d at least know where one of the six FNTs was. Not that I was going to complain. Glass filled, I tipped it straight back, letting it slosh down all over my front. I wiped my chin with the back of my hand, refilled my glass, and then staggered back out into the crowd.
FNTs . . . P-DAPs . . . FNTs . . . P-DAPs . . . They’re out here: I know they are. As I weaved through the students, pretending to sip my drink, I watched everyone with shrewd, half-open eyes. It’s kind of hard to see with half-open eyes. I wasn’t quite in step with the dancers, but I was close. P-DAPs . . . There was no way of knowing which ones were UOCs. There was no way for them to know that I was a P-DAP – that I was on their side. The codes were the only things that would allow us to find each other. Which meant I was going to have to talk to some people.
Hmmm. I glanced at a rowdy bunch of girls off to my left, all of them dancing like fiends and waving their AMP glasses above their heads. Hmmm. Here was as good a place to start as any. I wriggled my way in between the shoulders of a couple girls within the circle. I toasted my glass to their glasses, causing them to dump their contents out over the hair of their owners. Didn’t feel too bad about it either. After all, the heat was growing so fierce amid all the dancers that most hair-dos had deflated anyway. And, there was always a slim chance that reminding humans of their own, personal, petty cares and worries would help them resist the effects of the AMP. The girls on either side of me, however, showed no sign of being upset. I’m not sure they even noticed. Oh, well. I was looking for UOCs. I smiled pleasantly around the circle I was now part of.
“Having fun?” I shouted above the music.
Everyone nodded, laughing and shrieking “YES!” and all that.
I rubbed my ears and nodded back, still smiling. “Say . . . I was wondering!”
“Wondering what?” a short blonde yelled.
“Have any of you seen Chuck?” I shouted back, still smiling.
“Who?” they all said.
“Chuck!” I said, even louder.
“Jack?” a brown-haired girl said. “He’s over there – on the other side of the floor.”
I shook my head. “No, no, not Jack –”
She shook her head too. “I’m pretty sure that’s Jack – do you know Jack? He’s really nice –”
“Of course he’s nice!” I shouted. “But I’m not looking for Jack, I’m looking for Chuck!”
“Ohhhh . . .” they all said. They exchanged glances with each other. “Who’s Chuck?”
That was all I needed to hear. None of them were UOCs, otherwise they would have recognized the beginning of the code. I waved good-bye and withdrew, knocking another glass of AMP out of a girl’s hand as I went. As I turned around, I nearly bumped into someone who looked vaguely familiar. As he side-stepped me (very speedily, I must say), I recognized him as the bored-looking kid with the gum. Well, he didn’t look bored anymore, but no one who’d been drinking AMP for the past hour and half could possibly look bored. I caught a glimpse of a far happier than was normal smile, gave him a pitying look, and then moved on. Poor things. They wouldn’t last much longer.
I found an open place among the pack of students and paused to survey my surroundings, anxious to try out the code on a more prospects. I was very engaged in my survey, hand above my eyes, other hand holding my empty glass, rising up onto my toes to gain a better –
Something blew on my neck.
If you’ve never had that done to you before, it’s really annoying. It’s when someone comes up behind you, makes an O with their lips and blows chilly air toward the back of your neck. It usually results in a slight start and goosepimples. If, however, you’re a P-DAP agent like me, you sort of jump and gasp and shriek and get goosepimples. Members of the P-DAP agency do not blow on each others’ necks. It’s not decorous. It’s not civilized. Therefore, I was unused to the experience, and overreacted by jumping, gasping, shrieking, and getting goosepimples from head to toe. I then shuddered, rounded on the person behind me, and glared fiercely.
“What?” I said, brandishing my AMP glass.
It was the gum-chewer again, standing quietly behind me and grinning in a pleased sort of manner. “Heard you were looking for Jack!” he said over the din.
“Changed my mind,” I said. I wasn’t sure why he was talking to me, and was thinking the worst. After all, I’d picked him out from the start as a possible Fernacktorian agent. Come to think of it, the smile had a devilish sort of look to it – and the eyes had a kind of gleam that made you want to duck or something. Alarms started going off somewhere inside me, and I glanced down at the red glow-stick around my wrist. It was hot and glowing pinkishly, but I wasn’t sure if that was from the person in front of me or simply from the AMP infested students. Before I could move my hand though, he spoke again.
“Jack is over –”
“Yes, he’s over there – they told me! Actually, I was –” I broke off. What was I thinking? I couldn’t try out the code on a suspected FNT – he might pick up on something.
“You were what?” he shouted.
“Nothing!” I started to back away, more and more suspicious as he followed me. Yes . . . I could definitely see him as an FNT. Kind of sweet and charming and innocent on the outside, but those eyes giving away the ruthless intelligence on the inside. And he’s picked me out of the crowd, which meant that I was in trouble, and Angel was nowhere in sight. Had to think fast – how should I –
“I was wondering . . .” he began.
“Wondering what?” I said, trying to be chatty and easy-going as I backed away.
He kept following, almost lazily. “If Chuck were –”
“I’m not looking for Chuck, I’m looking for Jack!” It took me a moment to realize I had mixed it up. I wasn’t looking for Jack – I was looking for Chuck. Actually, I wasn’t looking for Chuck at all – it was part of a code, but – that was beside the point. The point was that this person in front of me had brought up the beginning of a code. I shook myself, and stared. No way. I stared some more. Could – I folded my arms. “What did you say?”
He paused in the gum-chewing. “Sing a song of sixpence . . .”
Good grass, I thought, it was. I swallowed, composing myself as I tried to remember the proper response. It was an older code – one I was less familiar with – but I knew it was in the book. Sing a song of sixpence . . . I cleared my throat.
“Pocketful of wood.”
“If only I could love you just the way I should.”
“Alas my heart is gone,” I said
“Given to a maid so fair;”
“Not with blonde, not with black,”
“But with red, red hair,” he finished.
And that was that. I’d found my first UOC.