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A Programmer in Q-Branch

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He had been bundled into the back of a van and sedated. He didn’t even see the colour of it. They moved unbelievably fast, to their credit. Q was reminded very abruptly of precisely why he didn’t often leave HQ; Q-branch were not often given a high security detail, yet held more vital information than most of MI6 put together, and were – quite honestly – the least likely people to withstand torture.

Q fought initially, but there were several of them, and he was physically very underwhelming. He could shoot a moving target at fifty paces, could fuse and disarm and detonate literally any explosive, while blindfolded, but in hand-to-hand combat with highly muscular and well-trained men, he usually pressed a transmitter and hoped somebody would find him quickly.

The room was nondescript. Peeling wallpaper and mould in the top corners. Décor implied Western, temperature implied north, but it was rather unlikely that he had been kept in the UK.

It didn’t matter either way. MI6 were excellent at retrieving hostages, or indeed compromised agents, especially somebody like Q.

He was too valuable to be forgotten. He knew too much to be allowed to remain under external control. They couldn’t risk him breaking and releasing information, nor wait for him to succumb to temptation if they offered to let him switch sides. Q had some idea of the lengths people would go to for information; he was relatively certain he could withstand most things, but he knew he would reach his limits at some stage. Everybody has limits.

Given the information that lived treacherously in his skull, he needed MI6 to move quickly. He could not depend on himself, not when his physical self could be severely compromised. He was not an active agent for a reason.

Information. It was entirely about the information they could extort from him. He was able to hack into most computer systems in the world, and he had essentially created the new infrastructure of MI6 security from scratch; they needed him to do precisely that, show them the workings of MI6 and compromise the security of infinite quantities of agents whom Q had been tasked with protecting.

They continued asking, initially. They tried to tie him in intellectual knots, and realised they were hilarious outclassed. Their combined intellects were nothing close to Q on his own.

Physically, he was dwarfed by them. Their leader was utterly average, his associates ranging from ‘large’ to ‘monstrous’. Q was thin and lithe, the annoying side-effects of a lifetime spent with computers rather than with any physical exertions. Apart from playground bullying, he had no real experience of beatings or other physical pains. MI6 had trained him to withstand certain forms of torture, but those were specific, and did not cross into the levels of pain where information was liable to be released. MI6 didn’t bother with self-defence, as a rule, not for non-field agents. It was too expensive.

Q ran through his cover story repetitively, almost to comfort himself. It was unlikely that they knew who he was. He was not exactly the type to be head of Q-branch, living under an initial rather than a name. He was young, bespectacled, and at least appeared naïve as compared to the previous heads of branch.

His name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q-branch, he had no access to classified files. If needed, Q would ‘break’, and sacrifice information that would give them access to a secondary database he had constructed. This would either get him killed, if they bought it, or would piss off his captors, if they didn’t. The database was still in early developmental stages, relatively easy to see through, but would buy him a little time.

They beat him first. Q told himself it was not surprising. His sun-deprived, chalk-white skin blossomed with bruises. He gasped for air as he was kicked in the stomach, breath flying out of him, struggling to draw oxygen back. He concentrated on the breath coming into and leaving his body, however disrupted, however irregular.

His eyes were wet and his nose running, his glasses mangled, like his ankle is shortly after they hit it with something hard, Q couldn’t see what, he needed his glasses, and oblivion seemed to be there for an unfairly short while, and then he was conscious and retching from the pain that radiated in white-hot pulses through his body.

His name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q-branch, he had no access to classified files.

Q had been told it was better to make them kill you. If you were on the verge of breaking, you stood the chance of subjecting dozens to the fate you were undergoing. The risk of millions of life, dangling in the balance, waiting for you to shatter under pressure.

A white-hot brand against the soles of his feet. Oblivion lasted a little longer, but not long enough for the pain to recede, or for the room to lose the smell of burning flesh.

His name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q-branch, he had no access to classified files.

Somebody slipped a blindfold over his eyes. It was oddly the most terrifying thing that had happened so far. Even with his glasses shattered, he could make out the softened shapes, could have some idea of what was happening before it happened and pretend he could steel himself.

Now, the darkness was all, and he listened with frantic desperation. He heard the belt being slid off; his blood froze, bile rising in his throat, before the buckle snapped against the doorframe with a terrifyingly loud crack.

He couldn’t see where the blows were coming from. After every single one, they asked him another question, and he held onto the information like a drowning man to a lifebuoy, the only thing they would not take from him.

I’m not Q I’m not Q I’m not I’m not I’m not I’m not

He drifted. They called him ‘pretty’. Some part of him still understood what that meant. He was in too much pain to feel afraid. They left him alone for a little while. He didn’t move from where he was lying, despite not being tied down. He concentrated on breathing, and it wasn’t enough.

He didn’t object when they lifted his frail body, placed him in a lukewarm bath. He hadn’t known there was a bathroom here. He hadn’t known there was anything other than here. His head lolled when unsupported, and he told them again and again and again that his name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q branch, he had no access to classified files.

They cleaned him, their touches rough or inappropriate or both. Q wants to drown himself in the few inches of water. They won’t let him try. He is frightened of dying. He is more frightened of becoming something he is not. Ironic, then, that all he can see or hear of think is his fucking cover story.

Tell us about the 00 agents. Tell us about M. Tell us how to access MI6 files. Tell us.

Voices, everywhere, the same questions, the same answers. He doesn’t know. He knows everything. He could give them entire biographies. He doesn’t know anything about them. He can programme computers, he is clever, he is so much more clever than they but he can’t show them as much as a shadow of it, cannot confess to his own genius.

MI6 aren’t coming. They would assume his death by this stage. His computers would have been locked down, his life transferred to a series of boxes. He had a family, once. He wonders where they are. There’s a part of him that wishes he could have told the truth. Or at least, fewer lies. He’s going to die lying, pretending to be something and someone else.

He was once Q. He was once a superb quartermaster. He saved lives. He did extraordinary things. Just to prove he could, at one stage he actually did achieve more from his computer, in his pyjamas before a cup of Earl Grey, than Bond managed in two weeks of active duty in Pakistan.

His name is Oliver, he is a programmer in Q-branch, he has no access to classified files, and he is going to die.

The addendum is almost comforting, in a slightly perverse way. It signals an ending. It illustrates that there is eventually a way out. The more he repeats his little mantra, the closer he comes to that final sentence, and he is trying so hard to give them reason to just fucking kill him already, he doesn’t know anything, he doesn’t know, no matter how much they hurt him.

They continue to call him Q. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t his name. It isn’t his first initial. Q was his title once, and he is no longer Q now he has been missing this long. There is another Q in the branch, probably R has been promoted. The man who had once been Q has forgotten his name. He isn’t Q, his name is Oliver, he is a programmer in Q-branch, he has no access to classified files, he is going to die. Four statements out of five are now true.

He is also pretty. He wants to be pretty even less than he wants to be Q.

They want him alive. They keep him alive. They wash him, and feed him, and let him drink, and when his mind starts to constantly escape into itself, give him painkillers and drugs to wash everything away into a blue-green ocean that reminds him of somebody he once knew.

The man who was once Q feels himself stop fighting, when the man who calls him ‘pretty’ begins another round of interrogation. “I’m not Q,” is the only thing the man who was once Q manages to gasp, before the last fragments of himself fall from a shelf and breaks to splinters on a concrete floor in a room he doesn’t recognise but will dream about to the day he dies.

He had a family once. He sold his soul to the British Government. He’s mostly forgotten why by now.

---

It was a damn good thing, on balance, that the British Government gave a shit.

---

“What the hell are you doing here?” Sherlock Holmes snapped lividly, as he walked through the door of 221B Baker Street to find his obnoxious elder brother, settled in his armchair, drinking his tea (and John’s milk), looking utterly placid, as though he hadn’t just broken into Sherlock’s home.

Which he hadn’t, as it happened. Mrs Hudson had let him in. Furthermore, she had made the tea. And hadn’t even used John’s milk.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow, entirely unperturbed. "I require your assistance."

“Not interested,” Sherlock told him instantly. John placed a placating hand on Sherlock’s arm; Mycroft smiled genially at him. John was a very good influence in Sherlock’s life. He heartily approved of the man.

Mycroft reached into the interior pocket of his suit, withdrawing a series of photographs. “An important figure in MI6 has been abducted. We need him back,” he stated simply.

Sherlock looked, eyebrows furrowing as he examined the face of a young man, surprisingly fashionable-looking for somebody in espionage, an intelligent man who – at the time of the photograph – had been working too hard for too long, had eaten shortly beforehand, worked at computers most of the time and was almost never involved in physical labour. “Q-branch?” Sherlock asked, narrowing down the viable options within MI6. “What was he working on that’s so important to get back?”

“Everything. That is Q. He has been missing five days. His retrieval is no longer an MI6 concern; after five days, the average mortality rate is deemed too high to continue expending resources on a retrieval. It has thus been passed to me. Usually I would employ other colleagues, but this is a little too vital to entrust to simply anybody.”

“This is the new quartermaster of MI6?” Sherlock asked, with utter scepticism. “He’s far too young.”

Mycroft's expression did not change. “I assessed him myself. His appointment was entirely justified. Whomever has acquired him will be aware of this. If he is dead, we have little to fear. If he is not, it is imperative that we get him back before a great proportion of our secret service is compromised. In either instance, I need your assistance, Sherlock.”

“Jesus, how old is he?” John asked, looking at the photographs.

“Twenty-six,” Mycroft replied. John looked profoundly disturbed at that statement; the man was far too young for this kind of profession. Mycroft was implying torture and death, for somebody who looked about half his age. It didn’t sit well with him.

“Why are you so personally invested in this one, Mycroft?” Sherlock asked, voice heavy with suspicion. “You’re obviously anxious.”

John stared blankly at Mycroft. The man looked completely implacable. ‘Anxious’ was certainly not a term that sprung to mind. “That is not something I care to explain at this moment," Mycroft replied calmly. "I’m certain it will come to light in the near future.”

“We’ll accept,” John said for Sherlock, making Sherlock grimace as he watched Mycroft with unguarded mistrust. “Sherlock. Grow up. You don’t have any pressing cases, this will keep you busy.”

Sherlock sighed, rolling his eyes with childish petulance. Mycroft and John watched him, with surprisingly twin expressions of expectation.

Sherlock’s eyes snapped open, and he looked straight at Mycroft. Mycroft looked back. Sherlock’s eyes assessed, questioning, and Mycroft didn’t move even fractionally.

“Fine,” Sherlock conceded, tucking his legs up and glaring pointedly at John as though the man had personally affronted him. “Give me data.”

---

MI6 had tracked Q a decently long way, to a private airbase in the Midlands. Sherlock knew – from prior experience with MI6 workings – that while the priority was retrieving the lost agent, there was a decent amount of resources dedicated to damage control. If somebody as high-up as Q broke under torture, it risked more than anybody could afford.

Q’s disappearance was the latest in a series of lower-profile disappearances. Obviously, they were working their way up through different levels of security clearance. The first had been a minor secretary, body discovered fifty-six hours later. The next was a programmer, basically a drone in the scheme of things, body discovered within twenty-four hours. The third was a member of Q’s own department, who had presumably been the one to give the information leading to Q’s capture. His body had not emerged for nearly four days, and was in quite a few pieces.

Sherlock demanded to see the corpses. He needed to ascertain the modus operandi of the abductors, find any leads towards where they had been held and killed, and attempt to confirm whether Q was even alive.

A small part of Sherlock hoped Q’s body would emerge quickly, so he would have more tangible data. But this posed a challenge, and a challenge was always excellent.

The torture techniques were relatively standard; beatings, deliberate broken bones, electrocution in the case of the third, sexual assault on the first, who had been a rather pretty young woman, and a running theme of burns. The bruising was very telling, indicating no more than four assailants, consistent on all three bodies. A single unit, then, probably within a larger organisation.

Sherlock could safely confirm that looking at the bodies did very little, except make John feel exceptionally uncomfortable about the state Q was likely to be in. “Does he have a name? A real name?” John asked, staring at the mutilated body of the third. Sherlock didn’t grace him with a reply. “Sherlock.

“Yes?”

“I asked a question!” John snapped. “Does Q have a real name?”

Sherlock's tone was bored, concentration elsewhere. “Probably. It doesn’t matter. He won’t admit to having a real name any longer. He probably hasn’t had a name since joining MI6. His name is now Q. Or actually, now he’s been replaced, he doesn’t have a name. But for convenience's sake, let us call him Q.”

John nodded, still looking over the corpses, set immortally in throes of death, of pain. His mind kept bringing up the images he’d seen of Q; he reminded John of Sherlock, in many respects. Thin and dark-haired and too intelligent for his own good, and in this case, far too young for this. He should never have been hired at his age, he had a whole life to lead, and John had already had a go at Mycroft for the intense stupidity of hiring somebody of Q’s age.

“Do you have any ideas as to how the hell we get to him, and quickly?” John asked, brow knotted.

Sherlock looked up at him, appraising. “You are genuinely concerned about him,” he stated flatly, eyes sharp. Sherlock, over the years, was beginning to understand far better how John worked, could recognise his concerns and his upsets.

“Yes,” John returned in a similar tone.

Sherlock nodded, attention firmly placed on the corpses.

“I’ll find him,” he said eventually, looking up, staring at him through clear blue irises. He always looked so alive when on a case, as though a thousand different light-bulbs were all going off at once, flaring, dimming, igniting once again. “You know I can, and I will.”

“How?”

Sherlock closed his eyes, and let out a soft sigh. Evidently, this mattered a little too much to John. Christ alone knew why. Sherlock was idiotic enough to have not noticed how very similar he and Q were, and it was that similarity that continued to resonate for John. Q was somebody’s son, somebody’s friend, somebody too young to be consumed by work just yet. He still had time, and he didn’t deserve to die.

Sherlock had long since worked out what he would need to do, but it was such an abhorrent option that he had been strenuously trying to avoid it. He gave a slightly indulgent groan. “Okay. Fine. I know how, but you need to leave me alone to deal with it.”

John kissed him very lightly, unspoken gratitude. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said blandly. “We’ll need to be ready to move at short notice. I also need you to contact the ridiculously overenthusiastic double-oh agent who apparently wants to get involved.”

“We could use a backup,” John noted.

Sherlock nodded distractedly, waving John away. He needed to think, and most importantly, he needed to be absolutely ready.

---

Bond was on a mission, location classified, mission classified, everything bloody classified. He had been out of communication for a week – Q had supplied him with a device that transmitted his location and status nightly, without his needing to speak to MI6 directly – while working on some very delicate communication aspects with a local drug cartel.

“Good evening Bond,” the voice in his ear told him. “Rendezvous at 20:00, but I understand we have no further developments?”

Bond raised an eyebrow. "And who the hell are you?"

“Q,” the man replied; Bond gave a harsh snort. “I can give you security codes if you…”

Bond let out a slow breath, trying not to allow anger and genuine concern to slide into his tone; he was very fond of Q. He was a good quartermaster and had fast become a fairly good friend to Bond. They shared a sense of humour, albeit not concerning Bond's appalling record of equipment returns, and Bond had quietly been harbouring hopes that their relationship would take on a different slant at some stage.

“I am the new head of Q-branch,” the voice told him.

“No shit. Patch me through to M, right now,” Bond hissed at him.

There was a brief moment of silence, a single dial tone, and the sound of M picking up. “Bond?” he asked calmly.

“Where the hell is Q?” Bond asked, through gritted teeth.

“Ah. The previous quartermaster went missing almost six days ago now. We have had to reinstate a new head of branch.”

“That doesn’t answer my goddamn question. You haven’t found him?” Bond spat, pacing in his room, pinching the bridge of his nose hard. He didn’t need to hear the answer to know Q was still missing. Probably already dead, after a full six days. “How did this happen?! I’m coming back, now. He's our most valuable resource to date, and if there's no body, he could still be alive.”

“Bond, you will remain on your current mission, do you understand?” M told him firmly. Bond told him, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off – his current mission was going nowhere, and he was not going to be commanded by an agent he did not know and did not trust. M pointed out that he didn’t trust anybody.

“Yes, well. I trusted Q,” Bond told him, pulling out the earpiece and throwing it hard at the wall, breath harsh in his throat, his lung.

It shattered, tinkling plastic and wires in a sorry heap. It occurred to Bond that Q would be livid at him trashing good equipment. He also needed to find some way of getting to the bloody airport now. Brilliant.