OPTICA #31

<== ==> (Coming 10/24/2019)

“I hate this plan,” Jonquil said, “and I’m angry that you even proposed it.”

“You said that already,” Aliza replied. “Like fifteen times.” 

“Because, in spite of me telling you that I hate it, and you responding in such a way that I know you heard and understood me, we’re still executing it.” Jonquil glared at two women who were watching them pass. Both scurried into a nearby alleyway.

neo_SMOKE was not a formal branch like OPTICA or UMBRA. They had no bases, no command structure. Technically they were a fugitive and terrorist group, and it was a crime to be a member. In practice though, neo_SMOKE was tolerated. They were generally harmless and actually made things like drug smuggling easier to control because they centralized it. The vast majority of members were bored girls with anti-authority streaks instead of ruthless terrorists or hardened criminals.

But there were lifers: girls who forsook their branch of origin to ensconce themselves in the criminal underworld. They tended to cluster together on the fringes of TORCH cities.

And Aliza, in her brilliance, had led the two of them straight into the center of neo_SMOKE’s operations.

Jonquil had already counted three snipers, eight girls packing serious heat, and one who looked like she could twist off their heads with her bare hands. Nobody was happy to see a pair of OPTICA hounds in their territory. “You don’t think they’ll actually attack us, do you?” she asked Aliza, trying not to sound nervous and doing a poor job of it.

“No. Well, maybe. Well… let’s walk faster.” They sped up. “Hey, I think I know that girl. She frequents one of my watering holes.” Aliza paused.

“Please don’t say it-”

“And she also frequently waters my hole.”

“That’s disgusting.” Jonquil shuddered. “And not even a particularly descriptive euphemism.”

“Look, I’m nervous, okay? I get vulgar when I’m nervous.”

“Everything makes you vulgar.” Jonquil tightened her grip on her new disruptor- the old one got sludge inside of its battery. She might have fought and beat four tellies on her own yesterday, but neo_SMOKE was in a different class altogether.

They briskly walked down the street, trying to beat the next pulse of heavy rain. Aliza veered them into an alley, where a pair of punkish girls smoked by the doorway. One had styled her hair into an outrageous acid-green mohawk and was covered in tattoos, while the other wore heavy black eyeliner and an outfit of black leather and latex.

“Hey girls,” Aliza said cheerily. “Is the den mother in?’

Both turned to face them. Mohawk chomped on her cigarette. “Looks like a couple dogs wandered in,” she said distantly. “How interesting. We don’t have many dogs around here, do we Raman?”

The goth one- Raman- frowned. “Not in my memory. Definitely don’t have an appointment, either. Bad doggies.”

“I would call ahead but I know you girls roll spontaneous-like.” Aliza smiled winningly. “We’re not here for a fight. In fact, this is a mission of mutual benefit.”

“Strange strange times in Ttlatic,” said Mohawk, as though Aliza hadn’t said anything at all. “All kinds of kooky shit going down. But is it genuine or a theater of the absurd?”

“The latter or both,” replied Raman, pulling up the sleeves of her leather jacket. “It’s all performative. Everyone putting on a show for our benefit. Is it still acting if they don’t know it’s fake?”

“At least some sort of performance art. It’s fun to watch, at least.” Mohawk blew a smoke ring in the air. “What do you think of the latest twist?”

“Contrived,” Raman grunted. “Hounds asking to see the boss? They’d just get turned away, and their asses kicked if they caused a fuss.”

Mohawk tutted. “That’s comedy, though. Lawgirls are fun to watch bleed. It’s, like, satirical. Raw.”

“Just not my thing, Brillouin. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get blood out of leather?”

“Hydrogen peroxide,” said Jonquil. 

Finally, they looked at them. “What?” asked Raman.

“A dab of hydrogen peroxide, then let it foam and blot it out. Immediately use a leather sealant.” Jonquil shrugged and smiled diplomatically. “Blood in leather is a bitch- but if you do that, you can save the jacket. Any restorer who knows glue from filler can get the color back after that- and that’s much too fine a jacket to ruin with my blood.”

Raman and Brillouin exchanged a wondrous glance. “She likes my clothes?” Raman asked. “She’s a stuffy hound in a prissy surcoat.”

“I wear my uniform,” said Jonquil. “But I appreciate a woman who takes pride in her appearance. I really respect that you express your individuality with your hair and dress- a luxury I’m not afforded.”

The duo exchanged an uneasy glance. Brillouin sighed in resignation. “You can go in. But we’re gonna search you.”

“Sure!” said Aliza, a little too cheerfully. “I call dibs on mohawk girl.”

Jonquil submitted to a thorough patdown from Raman, who was entirely professional save for lingering on one of Jonquil’s scars for a moment. The slice of flesh missing from her left bicep. “This must’ve hurt,” she murmured. “You hounds have it that dangerous here?’

“I used to have a pretty intense job,” Jonquil said. “This is a cakewalk by comparison.”

“Mmmg. I used to be BEACON, y’know.” Raman slid the propulsor off Jonquil’s wrist and took the disruptor from its holster. “Special forces, no less. The Sicarii. Assassins. I killed a lot of xenos in the name of Grace Diakon. I met her once, briefly. You know what she said to me?”

“What?”

“Complimented my appearance.”

Somehow, in the course of a minute-long patdown, Brillouin and Aliza had hit it off and were giggling about some private joke that had formed. Jonquil’s bad mood had only soured with Raman’s well-intentioned comment, so she was impatient to get inside. 

It smelled like cats in here- and sure enough, a pair of tabbies skulked past with intense purpose. Sneaking cats off Earth was beyond illegal, but Jonquil swallowed her objections. “Do anything to piss off the boss and nobody will ever see you two again,” Brillouin said cheerily as she led them down the hallway. She rapped on the simple door twice.

“What?” a voice called from within.

“Visitors, boss. Coupla of OPTICA hounds.”

“…That a joke?”

“Nope. Will you see ’em?” 

“…Sure.”

<== ==> (Coming 10/24/2019)

HEARTH #31

<== ==> (Coming 10/22/2019)

 “-So bearing this in mind, we must recollect that witches should only ever negotiate from a position of strength,” Hyperion said, her voice sharp and crisp. “The mundanes rely upon us: our abilities, our blood and toil, are the foundations of their commodious existences. How do they repay us? By press-ganging us into leashes, employing our abilities to enrich themselves while we suffer the pernicious side effects. Who cares if the witch grows depressed, apathetic or suicidal, so long as she’s properly exploited like the resource she is?”

Hyperion spoke with calm assurance. She lacked Grace’s natural magnetism… the speech was clinical, like a scientist’s notes. But she indisputably meant every word she said. “TORCH would have us live in fear of them,” she continued. “TORCH would minimize and ostracize us, construct machines to supplant us, and ultimately butcher us like hogs when the opportunity presents itself- just as they did to our sisters in SMOKE. But we will not allow it. They need us, hard as they feign otherwise. Ergo, I will not kowtow nor compromise. For you, my sisters, I ask only that you remember who your enemies are and treat them accordingly. And for the mundanes among us, recall that your role is to act as the auxiliary in the struggle- and we will struggle, until we are free.”

She stepped down from the podium to polite applause. “Well, at least she’s in a good mood,” Henrietta said, rolling her eyes. “I see she shares your message of unity.”

Grace pursed her lips in grim amusement. “We’re not as incompatible as it seems at first glance. Hyperion knows what she’s doing, and she and I have a working relationship. There are a couple things you ought to know before you meet her, however: she’s not friendly. She may try to get a rise out of you… stay diplomatic.”

Henrietta nodded. That wasn’t exactly her specialty, but it didn’t seem so hard to keep calm. “Hyperion and Enron are the only branch leaders who aren’t Matres, right?”

“That’s correct. Hyperion has been a significant figure in TORCH politics for decades, long before she formally took the reins of LUX four years ago when Eve…” Grace trailed off as she led Henrietta (and the silent Manna) to a tall, elegant office building. “… Well, you know. Hyperion was Eve’s daughter, and the two of them were a legendary pair. I hope that you and I can establish a working relationship half as effective as theirs.”
Henrietta’s cheeks warmed again. Sapiens, Grace’s compliments were addictive. “I won’t let you down, boss.”

The sign out front read “OFFICES OF THE CHANCELLOR”. A dead-eyed secretary with an Arcane Suppressor strapped to her forehead greeted them and offered them tea, which they politely declined. The secretary spoke in a monotone and moved like each step was a Herculean feat… that must have been the Suppressor’s doing.

Hyperion’s office was devoid of warm colors, sterile as a surgical suite. The only decorations were evocative, minimalist and highly abstract paintings plus a mounted fencing foil. The petite LUX chancellor didn’t have any bodyguards, and was dwarfed by her huge desk. 

“Marshal Diakon,” Hyperion said with a nod. “You’re late.”

“Thank you for your patience,” Grace replied. “It seems you took advantage of the extra time to let your speech run long.”

“You heard that?”

“I caught the tail end of it. Fiery by your standards. Something on your mind?”

“Always.” Hyperion had little flesh on her bones but she wore that semi-starved look well. It gave her this startlingly attractive blend of frailty and grit. She had luscious, pouty lips that seemed forever curled into a scowl, and her small eyes were inscrutable from behind her thin-rimmed glasses. Like Grace, Hyperion wore gloves: pale grey ones. “Who’s this?”

“Henrietta St. Thomas.” Henrietta offered a handshake. “New BEACON Sorority sister. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Chancellor.”

Hyperion stared at the hand like it was something foul. “And why have you brought some pup of no import to our meeting?”

“Don’t worry about her,” said Grace. “Henrietta is just here to observe. The meeting is between you and me.”

“I think otherwise,” Hyperion replied. “A BEACON Mater is one story. Some rumble bumble lout with delusions of statescraft is another. Get out.”

Henrietta refused to get angry, so instead she smiled. “That’s not fair. You hardly know me. Why don’t we get to know each other better before you decide I’m-”

“Fine,” said Hyperion without warning. “You may stay. But seal your lips while grown folks converse.”

“That’s all I wanted to do,” said Henrietta, as she crossed her arms and sat down.

<== ==> (Coming 10/22/2019)

BEACON #31

<== ==> (Coming 10/21/19)

Ruth, who had moved closer to Tamar, pulled up a hard light screen. “I sent a couple birds to scout out avenues of retreat,” she said. “And it’s not what I wanted to see. The storm that attacked us has migrated southwest, towards the citadels the other legions hold.”

“What?” Lucifera shook her head. “We gotta warn them.”

“Can’t,” said Ruth. “I already tried and that’s jammed too, as is our connection to the fleet. This storm… it’s like a living thing. It knows how we talk to one another across long distances and it’s stopping us.”

Lucifera threw up her hands. “Well, fuck! I guess we’re all screwed!” 

Not necessarily,” said Amalek. “Remember the shape of the citadels. They have strong air defenses, to the point that even our orbital bombardment barely rattled them. I’ve been wondering that this whole time… why did the citadel Neighbors have such weak infantry and yet such stiff air defenses? And now we know.”

Comprehension dawned on Lucifera’s weathered face. “The storm attacked them too. They were hiding in there from it. The dragon riders, the cult- they’re the enemies of the ones we killed yesterday.”

Amalek nodded. “So it seems. But while the legions should be safe if they take cover inside the citadels… they can’t retreat. If the storm is magic, it will simply park itself above them for as long as it takes. Any ship that tries to rescue them will be destroyed. Eventually the citadels will be worn down, and then…”

Silence. “How many legions are on this planet?” Herod asked quietly.

“Fifteen combat legions, including us.” Ruth’s face was pale. “And another ten support legions. 50,000 women.”

“They’ll all die,” said Amalek. “Unless whoever is creating this storm is stopped.”

“AKA we find the shaman and stick our boot down its ass so far that it tastes the metal of our AEGIS’s,” said Tamar with a mean grin.

Lucifera considered this. “You’re probably right, but how can we possibly find them?” she asked. “We can’t access the geolocation grid, and the shaman hasn’t exactly marked itself with a locator.”

“…Haven’t they?” Sheba walked a few steps forwards and pointed into the distance. “Follow the clouds and the answer is clear.”

The skies of Kra-ki-wa had turned a foreboding jet black. They were thickest behind the mesa, before tapering off thinner and thinner in the direction of…

The mountain.

“That’s where the summoner is- and the rest of cult,” said Sheba confidently. “If we can get there, we can kill him.”

The four colonels, one legata, and sole corporal took a moment to wrap their minds around the implications of this. “Well, it was nice knowing you all,” Lucifera said cheerfully. “The 119th had a good run, but now we’re screwed. I’ll tell the girls to prepare their death confessions.”

Herod was inclined to agree. Between the mesa and the mountain was over 100 miles of enemy territory- and as they had no vehicles, they would have to march all the way there on foot. Most of their supplies had been destroyed with the dropships, so they’d have to rely on salvage from the Isaiah and whatever they could forage on an uncharted alien world. 

Untold enemies would outnumber them many times over in every encounter, and even if some of them managed to survive the march, the mountain base was an impenetrable fortification and likely the home of an enormous force. Plus, the enemy could control the weather- who knew what else they had up their sleeves?

It was suicide, plain and simple. And all of the colonels knew it.

Amalek broke the silence. “It’s… risky. And yet, I don’t see any alternatives. We can’t march backwards without getting caught in the storm. And we can’t stay here, they know we’re here and will keep hitting us. Our only hope is to undergo a forced march to the mountain, find the shaman and kill it. As a bonus, the mountain would also make an excellent extraction point once we’ve gotten to the top.”

“So we gotta climb it too,” said Lucifera wearily. “Great. We march in the morning.”

“…That’s it?” asked Ruth disbelievingly. “We’re just going to… do it? Legata, it’s futile. We won’t even make it halfway.”

“Eh. It doesn’t seem that difficult.” Anna materialized between Sheba and Ruth, sending both of them leaping back. God damn it, did she love scaring them like that. “Hey Loose Lucy. I’m tagging along, right?”

Lucifera had geared up to leave, but she turned back around. She looked to have aged five years in the last few minutes. “Yeah.”

“Neat. It’ll be fun, I dunno what you guys are so worried about. We’ll make campfires, sing songs, it’ll be like the old days.” There wasn’t an ounce of worry on Anna’s face. She was either completely insane, fearless, or she knew something they didn’t. Maybe all three. “Oh, don’t worry about accommodating me. I’ll find my own places to sleep.”

“Sure,” Lucifera sighed, and turned to leave. “Sheba, get your girls on salvage. Ruth, set up camp. Amalek, with me. Tamar, I want you to break to the girls what the plan is.”

Tamar nodded. “Sure ma’am. No problem. But, uh, shouldn’t you do it…?”

Lucifera just limped off, Herod and Amalek in tow.

<== ==> (Coming 10/21/19)

OPTICA #30

<== ==>

 

They needed a place to talk where they were sure nobody would listen in. Jonquil suggested a restaurant with booths. Aliza instead took her to a titty bar.

It was unreasonably hot in here, and they were the only customers in the late morning on a work day. The waitress was obviously high and the golden-haired “dancer” on stage was mostly just groping herself. “This place sucks,” Jonquil grumbled.

“Look, it’s way better at night.” Aliza stared at the dancer intently with the air of a art connoisseur appraising a painting. “The dancing is way better, the music is thumping, everyone has a great time. They even have male dancers, y’know.” She grinned at Jonquil. “Did you know Cordovan danced when he was studying at The Pound?”

An image of the chiseled DI in tight undies and little else danced through Jonquil’s mind. She shook her head to get it out. “You’re remarkably calm,” she said as the waitress arrived with their drinks. Ordinarily Jonquil would never partake with the sun up, but after talking to Polly she had ordered her Manhattan without hesitation.

Aliza accepted her own drink, a Sex on the Beach, and took an inquisitive sip. “Ugh, they even water it down during the day,” she moaned. “Why wouldn’t I be calm?”

Jonquil glanced to make sure the waitress was gone, then leaned in. “Because we’ve become embroiled in a conspiracy? Because UMBRA may have blown up SPRING_ToMind and are trying to frame neo_SMOKE for it?”

“Hold on Jonny. There’s zero evidence of that.” Aliza sat back in her chair and kept watching the dancer. “All we know is that UMBRA had some involvement with SPRING_ToMind. Why would they bomb the place? There’s no motive.”

“I… do not know. But this is incredibly suspicious, you must admit.”

“It is,” Aliza agreed. “We need hard evidence, though. Polly’s suspicion isn’t enough.”

Jonquil took hold of her chin. “If UMBRA was involved, there has to be a paper trail. From what Polly said about SPRING_ToMind’s accounting they were probably playing a financial game… if we can get our hands on their account sheets, I’ll bet we can find a link somewhere.”

“The accounting department was destroyed in the explosion,” Aliza replied. “The data still exists, of course, in the cloud- but SPRING is blocking access to it. There’s already an OPTICA request to see it but you know how they are, they’ll take as much time as possible to give away organizational secrets to us.”

“Stupid bitches. We’re trying to figure out who killed their girls and they’re whining about financial security?” That was it, though. UMBRA would be far too careful to leave any direct trail leading back to them elsewhere. The financial records were their only hope. “And if SPRING does release the files to OPTICA, UMBRA will make sure to erase whatever’s incriminating. Damn it.”

The two of them sipped their drinks in uneasy silence for several minutes. Aliza was right: the Manhattan had been diluted with fruit juice and too much ice. Today was not going her way at all.

Eventually Aliza spoke up. “I have an idea. But you’re not going to like it.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“No, I’m serious, you’re going to hate it. You are probably going to get angry the second it comes from my mouth.” Aliza grimaced. “I don’t love it either. But I don’t see any other options.”

“Sapiens, just say it.” Jonquil was in no mood.

“First you have to promise me you won’t get mad, and you won’t say ‘I hate this plan’ or similar.”

“Fine, whatever. What’s the idea?”

<== ==>

LUX #30

<== ==> (Coming 10/16/2019)

 

Cress and Stan’s faces mirrored one another’s: bittersweet smiles at the remembrance of what must have been a happier time for them. “Stan didn’t care that I was a witch, or that I hadn’t accomplished anything in my entire life. Stan just… liked me, and wanted me around. We talked more and more, soon every day.”

“Then one day, a neo_SMOKE agent wanted for smuggling tried to escape OPTICA pursuers through my checkpoint. I went to stop her, and then I thought, ‘what if they shoot her like they did those other girls?’ And I froze up. And I… let her go.”

There was no joy on Cressida’s part as she told the story. She didn’t seem proud of herself. “It was dumb. I didn’t have any principles so I thought that if I did something daring I could force myself to have principles. All I was doing was ruining my life with a pointless act of rebellion.” 

“I was court-martialed, naturally. LUX intervened on my behalf, I guess for no other reason than I’m a witch, and offered to take me in rather than have me imprisoned. But they didn’t want me after that fuck-up, so they stuck me down here- and everything that I said about Chantico goes tenfold for this awful fucking place.” 

For the first time, anger snuck into Cressida’s voice as it grew thick and breathy. “I was trapped. I didn’t know what to do, and the more I thought about the more I realized I had a nice life in Chantico but I was so stuck in here-” she tapped her head- “that I couldn’t realize it.”

“I kept thinking to myself, ‘what makes me happy?’ And the only answer I could come up with was Stan. We kept talking even though I was down here… and I started to let slip more about my circumstances because, hey, what did I have to lose?” Cress lay her hand atop of his. “And then…”

“I told her I wanted to meet her,” said Stan with the air of a dying soldier. “I was persistent. I brought it up many times. I guess I did a good job.”

Eve blinked. In all her years, she had never heard of a TORCH agent with a boyfriend from outside the organization. The rules outlined in the charter were in place for a reason: TORCH was centuries ahead of the governments of Earth. Any fragment of their technology would be like giving a nuclear bomb to some medieval king. All bets were off when advanced technology fell into the hands of those not ready for it.

But Cress had ignored that. The most sacrosanct principle, ignored. 

“How much do you know?” Eve asked Stan. Sapiens, how many decades had it been since she talked to a human? Let alone one from this time period.

He scratched his head. “Enough.” He spoke quotid- the language TORCH agents spoke- okay, but it clearly wasn’t his first tongue. “Not a lot about the history, but the big things I know. You’re… famous?”

“She used to be the leader of LUX,” explained Cressida. “She’s one of the most powerful witches to ever live. If she wanted to, she could turn this whole base into soup.”

“O-oh.” He swallowed dryly. “Uh, pretty cool. Like literal soup or?”

Eve smiled in spite of herself. “So you spirited Stan from Earth to Lethe-2. That was Coronis’ doing?”

Cressida nodded. “It’s an open secret that Corey is a neo_SMOKE agent- she was happy to do it. I figured out that she’s the one who snuck you down here, too. She’s, um, a really good smuggler.”

No kidding. “And then what?”

“And then I just had Stan… live in my room. I brought him food from the kitchen. I used to sneak him out every now and again but we had a few close calls… ” Her cheeks pinkened.

Eve glanced at Stan. “And how do you feel about all this?”

“Pretty horrible,” he said promptly. “I mean… this place is like a prison. I don’t have any sort of life down here. If anyone sees me, Cress dies- which is fucked up, by the way.”

“I-it’s been hard,” Cressida added. Tears began to form in her cheeks. “We’ve been fighting a ton. I just… I just want to be happy, Eve. But it seems like everything I do just makes things worse.”

Now that was something she could relate to. With a grunt, Eve stood up. “Well, now all three of us have something to hide.” She looked at Stan. “If you like, I could come hang out here sometimes. Give you someone but Cressida to talk to.”

“Please,” Stan said, his voice filled with relief. “You have no idea how awful it is to talk about swimming when you can’t go swimming.”

Eve completely understood his meaning, and she completely understood why Cressida looked like she had just been punched in the stomach. “Do you want to go to dinner?” she asked.

“T-that’s okay. You brought us… I think it’s meant to be food.” Cressida glanced at the nuked remains of the meal Dryas had prepared. “I’m going to trust you, Eve. I don’t know if I should, but I will. P-please don’t make me regret it.” Her voice was soft, but there was a firmness to her words and posture. Part of Eve was annoyed, the rest of her was pleased that Cressida finally found her guts.

“Deal.”

<== ==> (Coming 10/16/2019)

HEARTH #30

<== ==>

Grace was so different when she discussed the past. Talking about the now, Grace was sharp and efficient. When reminiscing, she became wistful and contemplative. “We are not the only power in space. Colossal alien empires inhabit the stars, far enough away from us to not threaten us in the present, but close enough to know of us and we of them. The Cidemci are living clouds of spores who consume worlds like a virus consumes its host. The Xaryh need neither water nor sleep and are incredibly fast and strong, with technology to rival our own. The Optilera are more cybernetic than organic, great screaming abominations of metal and circuitry.” 

Grace shivered. “One of the reasons I prize our alliance with LUX so much is that these are the enemies of the future. To fight them, we have to study them. And can you guess what LUX‘s Distant Species Survey found was the universal constant of all highly-developed life in the galactic cluster?”

Henrietta shook her head. She had never even heard of the aliens Grace named. “They all love music or some sappy shit like that?”

Grace very nearly suppressed her smile. “They respect force. How couldn’t they? Like humans, they rose to dominate their planet, and it was only with that platform that they could come to dominate hundreds more. A species that picks fights with things that will kill it tends not to be very successful. Even a lion will back down when it thinks it’ll die, yes?”

Henrietta nodded. She had never really thought of the why of Gabros-1 before, but it really was different than everything BEACON had done before or since. “I see. Gabros-1 was a message. ‘Fuck with us and this will happen to you.'”

“Not quite.” Grace smiled appreciatively. “These things aren’t too different from us- they seek to understand TORCH just as TORCH seeks to understand them. In our conversations with the Xaryh, we told them all about the Matres. We told them about how they were not just figures of cultural and historical significance, but the very soul of TORCH itself. We told them about Gabros-1, and we told them that an attack on a Mater was an attack on all of us. Because a Mater is more than her flesh-and-blood body, Retta. She’s a towering colossus of principles and ideals, she both represents and shapes the views and hopes of untold millions.”

Henrietta couldn’t argue with that. Enron probably could- but all Henrietta could do was sip her coffee and listen. “The sacrifice of Gabros-1 to protect the Matres, and the soul of TORCH, from future enemies,” she said. “Okay. Enron also said that you were… trying to seize more power for yourself?”

“Can I tell you a secret?” Grace leaned in close. “I am dogshit at politics. That didn’t even occur to me until years later. If I had struck while the iron was hot and pushed for a more unified TORCH, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess we’re in now.” She smiled in embarrassment. “Oops.”

Henrietta sat back, grinning in disbelief. “So even the great Grace Diakon makes mistakes, eh?”

“Way too many.” The moment of levity passed, and Grace was back to her austere self. “I don’t have the luxury of making mistakes. And yet I do, and always will.” She offered a hand to Henrietta. “Are you still my daughter?”

Henrietta accepted the hand without pause and stood up. For some strange reason her fatigue had simply vanished, as had the jitters. “What’s on the agenda for today, mom?” she asked.

Grace checked her watch. “Unfortunately, we don’t have time to dither about. We need to get the PHAROS Act voted into law as soon as possible. I have my best writers working on drafting it- they’re using you and Manna’s report a lot, thanks for it- but it’s our job to secure the votes.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I’m a soldier by trade, not a politician. I suck at this.” Grace finished the cigarette and stamped it out under her boot. “But I know someone who’s naturally gifted at political strategy. She’s agreed to meet with us.”

They left Cresset Mound and headed northwest, again passing through the Free District from the train, then disembarked at the LUX district. 

Like the other districts, LUX‘s buildings reflected their sensibilities: subtly complex and architecturally restrained towers that loomed overhead. BEACON‘s District was orderly, SPRING‘s was a nonstop party, but LUX‘s felt gothic and melancholy. Most of the girls wore the long dark robes that were the branch’s unofficial uniform, and quite a few of them had Arcane Suppressors pressed to their foreheads.

The metal cubes prevented those girls from using their magic. If they were wearing them here, in the heart of their own territory, it was because they had trouble controlling their powers. Most LUX girls hated the suppressors, called them “leashes”, but it seemed like a necessary evil to Henrietta. Eve wasn’t the only witch who lost control and massacred others, just the most famous.

“What’s your strategist doing here?” Henrietta asked, gazing warily at one fleshy girl with an AS on her forehead and a spacey, unfocused look in her eyes.

“She’s in LUX– she leads it, in fact.” Grace shared a calm nod with a passing girl. “Hyperion Aprilis.”

“…The Queen of Blades?” Henrietta opened her mouth to protest before she noticed a throng of people standing around an elevated stage. Standing atop it was a slight, slender beauty with tightly-tied orange hair. Hyperion.

<== ==>

BEACON #30

<== ==>  

By the time Herod set Anna down on the mesa, the fighting was mostly over. Much like the Neighbors at the citadel, the leaderless dragon riders were brave but disorganized. With strong discipline and expert coordination, the 119th made short work of the enemy.

A few hundred dragon riders managed to escape into the distance. Most did not. The mesa was now dotted with debris from both the BV Isaiah and the decapitated bodies of the flesh-dragons. The legionnaires were bloody and tired from hours of hard fighting, but only a few had fallen.

When it was clear the battle was over, the 119th spread out across the mesa to rebuild. There were massive piles of salvage left over from the Isaiah, plus a camp to set up and wounded and dead to tend to. Most importantly, the battle-weary women desperately needed to rest.

Herod flew overhead until she located Lucifera, who was huddled over another legionnaire. This woman hadn’t fought quite as well: a bolt of burning plasma had taken off her right arm and leg, leaving behind only charred strands of twisted flesh and melted metal. The girl’s breathing was labored and her skin flushed.

“Bad day,” Lucifera sighed, nodding sadly at the landing Herod. “Bad fucking day.”

“Could be worse, ma’am,” Herod replied. “We’re still alive.”

“Mmm.” Lucifera touched her own lips. “That girl on the ground is Centurion Tiglath. I’ve known her for decades. She fought in The Cenotaph War, all the feuds against the Neighbors. Decorated for heroism on Nemesis and Haeton. There are less than a hundred survivors of the original 119th, and she’s one of them. Big fan of, uh… what was it?”

“Candles,” said Zabda, who had Tiglath’s head in her lap, stroking the dying girl’s hair. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. “She made candles in her spare time.”

“Fucking weirdo.” Lucifera laughed hollowly. “So fucking dumb. Fight like a hero for decade upon decade, and then make one little mistake and, whoops, there goes half your body. We dunno what to do with her.”

Herod frowned. “I’m not sure I understand, ma’am.”

“Ordinarily, a girl loses limbs, we send her back to the fleet and they give her prosthetics.” Lucifera pointed to a legionnaire Herod didn’t know who had two metal arms. “But we can’t get to the fleet, now can we?”

They couldn’t. Herod joined the silence that was only interrupted by Tiglath’s heavy breathing. Lucifera finally turned around. “Zabda, do what you can to make her comfortable. We’ll figure it out later.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The four colonels were together in the midst of a hushed but intense argument. Sheba was in Amalek’s face, waving her finger in his face. “Arrogant, reckless little brat!” she snarled. “The fuck were you thinking?”

“That I was the only one here with a plan,” Amalek replied, his gaze steely and unwavering. “A successful plan, mind you.”

“Your ‘successful plan’ left four thousand lizards and their mounts alive. If we didn’t have that demon of a Mater, we’d be the ones strewn dead across this mesa, not Romeo.”

Ruth tried to interject herself between the two of them. “Let’s all cool down,” she said softly. “Amalek did his best, and none of us had a better suggestion. It may well be that there was no tactic that could have won the day.”

Amalek stared at Ruth. “What is that supposed to mean?” he demanded.

“J-just that it was a desperate situation. And your plan, um, it was good- but Sheba’s right, it didn’t… completely work.”

Amalek’s face turned red. “And what did you do that was so useful in this battle, colonel?”

Ruth pursed her lips and looked away nervously. Tamar intervened. “Careful, runt,” she rumbled. “Don’t take your frustration with your own failure out on Ruthy.”

“That’s rich,” Amalek snorted. “Considering your job was to coordinate the offensive, Colonel Tamar. And yet your offensive was only half as effective as you swore it’d be- and that’s my fault?”

“It is your fault!” Sheba shot. “What did you do, exactly? Ruth’s no ace in her armor, but neither are you- hell, you’re the worst in the entire legion.”

“This legion has two thousand meatheads, it needs at least one person to do some thinking,” Amalek growled. “That’s fine- but what I find odious are stupid people who’ve tricked themselves into thinking they’re smart like you, Sheba.”

“Hey,” said Lucifera exhaustedly. “Can you four chill the hell out?”

The four colonels looked at the boss and bowed their heads in apology. “Sorry ma’am,” said Tamar. “We’re just, uh, stressed. Got some bad news.”

Lucifera cocked an eyebrow. “Go on.”

<== ==>  

OPTICA #29

<== ==> 

Polly nodded faintly. “…Sure. Am I a suspect?”

“No,” said Jonquil. “But you are one of the only first-hand accounts we have, so your recollection could be crucial.”

“…One of the only? How many… did everyone die but me?” Polly’s face drained of color.

Aliza shot Jonquil a glare- a reminder that for whatever virtues Jonquil possessed, she was dog turds at interrogation and deposition. “There are still lots of people unaccounted for,” Aliza said soothingly. “They’re combing the wreckage for survivors, plus we’re still trying to account for who was actually in the building at the time of the blast. It’s only been a day since it happened.”

Deftly done: everything Aliza said was technically true, and it was exactly what Polly wanted to hear. Of course, the chances of other survivors were close to nil: the bodies yet to be discovered were the ones buried under tons of rubble or blasted to smithereens. Polly’s survival was miraculous.

How terrible it was, to lose everything you cared about in one random act of violence.

Polly seemed to calm down, though maybe that was the meds. “So there’s still hope. That’s good… we’re nothing without hope. Ask away… I’ll do my best to answer.”

Aliza smiled. “Well first, I’d like to ask what you did every day at SPRING_ToMind.”

Polly sighed. “Well, I’m a spectroscopist. I study light, specifically in communications. I was working on a way to embed messages in beams of light… like how the tellies talk to one another.  Mostly I just tinkered with my code all day long.”

“How was your research coming?”

Polly’s smile was bittersweet. “Slow. My niche is small and expensive. I think I might have been onto something when…” She trailed off.

“Is that why there were telegaeics in the base?” Aliza asked. “We saw some on the security footage and were curious.”

“Yeah, actually. They were in my wing… I worked with them a lot. Not that I could communicate much with them.” Polly looked at the ceiling. “Could they have been the ones who…?”

Aliza shrugged. “It’s a possibility that we’re looking into.” Another half-truth. “Was there anything strange about SPRING_ToMind, in your opinion?”

“I-I don’t think so… are you trying to say the bomber targeted us?” Polly asked in a small voice.

Aliza didn’t answer immediately. “We have to consider the possibility. It was either random or it was targeted- and if it was targeted, then the bomber’s motive becomes crucial motivation. Come on, wasn’t there anything odd? Think back to when you first started working there- anything out of place, anything you dismissed as just a quirk?”

Polly shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry… I can’t think of anything… oh! There was one thing.”

“Yes?”

“Accounting… they were always really weird. They didn’t talk to anyone outside of accounting, and if we had to talk to them for any reason they’d pretty much ignore us for as long as possible. I remember once that my pay didn’t arrive when it should have, so I messaged them… I didn’t hear back for three days. The digits were in my bank account. They didn’t so much as send me a ‘fixed it’ message.”

Aliza stroked her chin thoughtfully. She and Jonquil traded a glance. If a company was doing something shady, accounting was the first place to look. It wasn’t much to go on, though. “What about more recently?” Aliza asked instead. “Anything strange on the days leading up to the explosion?”

“Strange…” Polly continued to stare into space and avoid looking at either of them. “Well, the week before, President Du Pont made a speech. She told us that we had to deliver a working prototype before the end of the year, or else the investors would start pulling out. So we all starting spending long hours at the office… I even slept there sometimes. Everyone was stressed and tired.”

“Anything else?”

“Umm. Yeah, actually. Two days before, a few women came in to look at my wing’s projects. They didn’t say much. They looked around, asked a few questions to my boss, and left. At first I thought they were investors, but they didn’t really look like SPRING girls. They looked, uhh…” Polly sucked on her teeth. “M-maybe I shouldn’t say.”

“We can’t find who did this unless we know the whole story, Polly,” said Aliza gently. She went to cup Polly’s hand in hers, but Polly drew her hand back rather than be touched. “I want justice- and I bet you want it a thousand times more than I do. But I need the whole picture.”

Polly stared off into space for a minute. Her eyes were misty and her voice quivered when she spoke. “They looked like UMBRA agents.”

<== ==> 

LUX #29

<== ==>

 

“The first time I saw you was when I was still stationed in Chantico,” said Cressida. “I had heard your name before, but I did some security work during LUX symposiums and you made a speech at one. About, umm… I think it was the Titans.”

The three of them sat cross-legged on the floor. Cress had changed into casual clothes- Eve had averted her eyes. Stanislav did not. “The connections between them and teleoarcanism,” Eve said. “Titans are multirelative entities who create micro-tears in ninth-dimensional space, reverberations of which can be felt in the third and fourth dimensions that we inhabit. They don’t experience time and space as we do- it draws from my theory that teleoarcanism is the result of Titanic activity on higher dimensions.”

Cress nodded hesitantly. “Ummm… yes. Maybe?”

“I have no idea what you just said,” Stanislav said.

“Well, anyways, we never spoke, but I stood maybe a few feet away from you.” She sighed. “I didn’t… recognize you when we met. But then I saw you, umm, disrobed this morning.”

Eve sighed. “I figured. Are you afraid of me, Cressida?”

“Should I be?”

The answer to that question was yes. The answer Eve gave was, “I’m trying very hard.”

Cressida’s smile was thin and fragile. “Well, whatever you are, I don’t think you’re a serial killer. I think you’re just a person who lost her temper. Of course, you could always lose it again… but what could I do about it?”

“What did she do?” Stan asked. “What did you do, Eve?”

“I killed dozens of people.”

“Oh.”

Eve smiled grimly. “I think the better question would be, what are you doing here Stan? Cress, mind reminding me of Rule 2 in the TORCH charter?”

No interaction with humanity except to maintain the clandestine nature of TORCH activity. Interaction is… uhm, punishable by death.”

Stan winced, but he seemed to already know that. Curious. “So you’ve both committed capital offenses, it seems,” he said softly.

“S-seems so, haha…” Cressida shook her head. “Will you, um, tell anyone?”

“No,” said Eve. “I know you have your reasons, although I’m not sure what they are. I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine, all right?” It didn’t feel as shitty as she expected, lying to Cress. But that was the funny thing: when you perpetrated a massacre, more mundane sins stopped feeling like they mattered. 

Cress nodded in relief. There was no way she suspected that Coronis engineered the situation. Ideally she’d never find out. “You came in here to bring me food, right?”

“Yeah. I thought I’d talk to you about what you saw and try to… convince you not to tell on me.” Eve sighed. Maybe she should have actually done that. That would have been the right thing to do. “How did you end up with a non-agent boyfriend, exactly?’

Cressida and Stan made eye contact. They had a silent conversation, like only two people who knew each other exceedingly well could have. Then Cress spoke. “Okay. I’ll tell you.”

“You know that I originally enlisted in BEACON. I’m in good shape, but I’m not really much of a fighter. I thought maybe I could be a medic or a scout or something, but I wasn’t good enough for legion deployment. I instead ended up in BEACON_Security, and eventually I was assigned to Chantico.”

“A lot of girls dream of having a job in the capital, but I hated every second of it. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew that just standing at a security checkpoint and performing ID checks every day wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. But, you know, work is work. It sands your edges off, makes you neutral and regular. You just don’t have the energy to yearn for something more, because work takes so much out of you.”

“I found myself wishing for excitement, and then I got it. The Snuffing of SMOKE. All the SMOKE agents in Chantico were being rounded up to stand trial, and the ones who fought back were… killed. It was chaos for a few days. Some SMOKE agents tried to flee the city through my checkpoint with false ID’s. I did my job, I arrested them. Later on I found out that three of the four were found guilty of treason and executed.”

Eve hadn’t been in Chantico during the Snuffing. She had been aboard Pergamon, which carried over 2,000 SMOKE scientists. Every single one peacefully surrendered. They were exonerated at trial and almost universally invited to join LUX.

Few other branches extended the same kindness to the SMOKE agents in their midst. In a few cases things devolved into full-on armed conflict or even massacres, like those poor girls at Trinity Station who were massacred by UMBRA. “So you blamed yourself for the deaths?” Eve asked.

“Yes,” said Cressida, as though to say absurd, isn’t it? “I was miserable after that. I couldn’t decide, should I have let them go? What were my morals? What did I stand for? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t stand for anything, I didn’t mean anything, I was just a drone that did a job and anything else about me was irrelevant.”

“That was when I met Stan. SMOKE had been replaced with neo_SMOKE and a massive black market sprung up pretty much overnight. One thing they issued was the Angora Bypass… a plug-in that let me interface my TORCH intranet with the Earth internet. I was just so bored, I didn’t have anything to lose, so I started chatting with humans. Just a little at first, but I got bolder and bolder. And then I met Stan.”

<== ==>

HEARTH #29

<== ==> 

 

Henrietta chose a hell of a day to be half-delirious from sleep deprivation. Today was the day that committees met for the first time to begin drafting legislation. Grace had gotten Henrietta assigned to the powerful Defense and Security Committee, where BEACON concentrated most of its political capital.

While committee was overall more relaxed than the general assembly, it was also more intimate. Henrietta could sneak some restless sleep during the full assembly, but there was no choice but to pay attention in the much smaller committee room.

Staying awake was both mandatory and pointless. Nothing even came close to getting done. It seemed like there were a million tricks to stall a vote on some bill: markups, hearings, expert testimony, amendments, cross-meetings with other committees (especially the powerful and much-feared Budgetary Committee,) and the classic tactic of just pretending the bill didn’t exist. They discussed nine different laws and made progress on zero of them. Henrietta thought it doubtful any would ever come to a vote.

Naturally her thoughts turned to her encounter last night. Grace and Enron… two icons locked in a dance of death. Somehow Henrietta found herself smushed between them.

She refused to believe Enron’s claims about Grace. There was simply no way honorable, courageous Grace could ever be so cruel and cowardly.

At the same time, she couldn’t simply dismiss the allegations out of kind. Enron sincerely believed them… and two billion dead? That was unthinkable. Why would Grace order something like that?

Matres had no obligation to serve on a committee, but Grace did make an appearance to discuss the PHAROS Act. She outlined its three main goals: improve response to terrorist attacks, centralize investigations of past terror attacks under BEACON, and remove the red tape that made arrests, interrogation, and evidence requisition across branches so difficult.

Henrietta already knew all that, and she couldn’t look straight at Grace- not now. Ultimately she dozed off several times for a few moments, snapping back to reality. Grace definitely noticed, her gunmetal grey eyes boring into Henrietta like power drills.

When the Sorority finally let out for the day, Henrietta trudged off to join Grace on the steps of Cresset Mound. Manna handed her a coffee the moment she got close. “Drink this,” she instructed.

“I love you,” said Henrietta, taking the cup and downing half of it. It had a lingering bitter aftertaste. “What did you put in here?”

“Stims. Your lack of alertness during the meeting was unacceptable.” Manna’s voice was perfectly neutral. “The Mater is displeased.”

Grace had yet to look at Henrietta. She smoked her cigarette in silence. “Late night?” she finally asked.

Henrietta nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t-“

“You reflect on me, Henrietta.” Grace’s voice was cold enough to flash-freeze the blood in Henrietta’s veins. “And your every action is scrutinized. Even if you may not pay attention to what happens around you while the Sorority is in session, countless others do.”

Those few words were the worst lecture Henrietta had ever received. Grace’s disappointment was like being entombed at the bottom of a deep, dark lake. 

Henrietta shook her head. “I know. It won’t happen again. But please listen.” Grace nodded to show that she was done. “Enron came to me last night. We talked for almost an hour.”

The Mater’s eyes widened slightly. Resignedly, she glanced at Manna. “How much time do we have?” she asked. 

“About ninety minutes, Mater. We were going to prep for your meeting…”

“Later.” Grace walked Henrietta over to a park bench and sat her down. “Tell me,” she said serenely.

Henrietta blathered for maybe ten, fifteen minutes about the talk. She shied away from telling Grace about her attraction to Enron, but she brought up nearly everything else. Midway through the stims kicked in, and they always made her jittery. “And I know she’s crazy, she’s got that look, she must be,” Henrietta finished. “But… I don’t know, Grace. I just don’t know anything.”

Grace had finished her first cigarette and started on another one. Besides that, she had been a perfect listener: she maintained eye contact throughout, she gently asked expository questions, and her facial reactions were subdued but communicative. “Do you trust me, Henrietta?” Grace asked.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know each other very well, do we?” Grace gestured at her with the cigarette and smiled wryly. “So you trust me based on reputation.”

“I… guess. But it’s deeper than that. Grace, it’s like… when we talk, I feel like I’ve known you for years.” Henrietta breathed in. “It’s weird.”

Grace was silent again, staring at Henrietta, lost in thought. Was she trying to decide what to say? “I didn’t kill Medici,” she said finally. “Truly, I didn’t. The thought never crossed my mind. I was shocked to hear of her death- Gabros-1 had been thoroughly pacified with little fighting, so much so that BEACON had designated it safe for virtually all commerce. We were drawing up plans to set up bases and colonies planetside. The locals were agreeable and remarkably similar to humans- maybe the most humanlike alien race we’ve encountered.”

Grace sighed heavily. “Yes, I ordered the destruction of that culture. It was a hard choice- but I would make it again today. Because that’s what being a leader is, Henrietta. It is being confronted with two devils, both of whom demand your soul, and trying to determine which is the lesser.”

<== ==> 

BEACON #29

<== ==> 

Herod left the cave, Anna holding her in silence. The Mater’s grip certainly felt solid, but they were about to move extremely fast. Herod activated her thrusters. Blue flames slammed into the ground and lifted her off, over the cave entrance and into the air.

The dragon riders took notice of her. “Fly away,” Anna murmured. “It’d be a pain if they give chase.” Herod certainly agreed, so she made her way for the open air past the mesa. The g-forces of zipping through the sky at around 400 miles an hour should have knocked Anna off right away, but the Mater didn’t seem to have the slightest trouble hanging on.

As far as Herod knew, the Isis AEGIS didn’t amplify strength. Was Anna simply that athletic of her own accord…?

To her relief, the riders didn’t follow. She flew out until the Mater told her to stop- almost eight miles from the mesa. “Great, now go up,” Anna instructed. “And raise your leg for me if you will.”

Herod kicked upwards, and Anna grabbed the rifle as it swung close. She unhooked it from Herod’s ankle. “Everything seems good,” she said, running her hands along its surface. Like a spider monkey, Anna clambered up Herod’s torso and sat on her shoulders, the Mater’s thighs on either side of her head. “Herod, sweetie, mind sticking your arm out for me? Yeah, just like that.” a tripod rested in Herod’s outstretched palm. “Try not to move.”

“This is stupid,” Herod said. “We’re way out of range.” The best snipers could make shots at about five miles away. Three was a tenuous proposition for all but the absolute best, and that was under ideal circumstances. Sitting on a stranger’s shoulders, using their hand as a tripod, was nowhere near ideal.

“Talking makes you move. Now let’s see. Fail-Not, how fast does this planet spin?”

“Fast,” the Verbena said through their comms. “It has no moon… 1581.04 mph.”

“Mmm. Send me the numbers for wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, and temperature, please.” Anna was silent for several moments. “Herod, can you move exactly 60 feet to the right, 12 feet forward, and five feet up?”

Herod’s display showed the spot. With a sigh, she floated over from one patch of empty sky to another. “Ohhhh yeah. Much better.” Anna was silent again.

For five straight minutes. Herod could do nothing but stand there with her arm out like an idiot, watching her fuel dwindle and the Romeos drop payload after payload on the tunnels. “Mater,” she said through gritted teeth, “Are we going to shoo-“

“Shh. When you talk you move- and you ruin my concentration. Sniping is about patience, dude. I account for a million things, double and triple check my work, and then I move my finger. And I told you to call me Anna.”

Herod would have liked nothing better than to shake Anna off of her. Instead, like a good soldier, she floated in silence as Anna continued to do nothing.

Then the gun fired.

The shot sounded like thunder striking a tree. A depleted uranium bullet the size of a combat knife skimmed through the air. It missed the outer riders, the ones behind them, the flesh-dragons, every one of the hundred things between it and its mark. Its destiny was the leader, with his cropped ears and dark robes and impressive drake.

The bullet didn’t just hit him. It pierced his sternum, and like an old building robbed of its central support, he crumbled. His top half went forward while his bottom half fell backwards.

All of this happened in less than one second.

True to her word, the shot knocked Anna off of Herod’s shoulders. The Mater fell in complete peace, her arms folded over her stomach and her ankles touching. Herod swore and flew down after her, outpacing the force of gravity with her jetpack and grabbing Anna from out of mid-air.

“That went well,” said Anna cheerfully from between Herod’s arms. “Hey Loose Lucy. I got their boss. You wanna…?”

“What?” Lucifera was silent. “Damn it, of course you did. Okay. While they’re in disarray! 119th Legion, strike with everything you have!”

Hundreds upon hundreds of Gawain-clad legionnaires emerged from the tunnels, raining rockets and machine gun fire upon the Neighbors- who, without their master, looked as helpless as children lost at the mall. Herod veered towards the mesa to join the fight. “That was…” She was silent. “That shouldn’t have been possible. How did you do it?”

“Normally. There’s nothing special about me, Herod,” said Anna. “I’m normal. I’m just a Mater.”

Mater. Not too many letters away from “monster”, was it?

<== ==> 

OPTICA #28

<== ==>

To prevent UMBRA from following them out, Jonquil and Aliza left through the cargo entrance. Within minutes, they were on a train bound for Silica General Hospital.

It was a strange feeling to know that an intelligence agency had its eyes on you. Everything took on a new context. The SPRING girl reading the news on her watch who glanced their way a couple times. The off-duty BEACON security officer eating an early lunch at the cafe next door. The two nurses on a smoke break in the lobby. All of them could be the eyes of the enemy.

“Jonquil. Can you stop that?” Aliza grumbled.

“Stop what?”

“Stop staring at everyone like they’re about to take off their skin costume and vomit acid at you.”

“I’d prefer that to one of them being UMBRA.” Jonquil dropped her voice. “We have to be careful, Aliza.”

“It’s pointless, so just relax babe. UMBRA‘s tentacles are absolutely everywhere. We’d have better luck going a year without getting rained on than we would going a day without being spotted.”

Jonquil wondered how the hell that was meant to relax her.

Silica General was a huge U-shaped building, with rounded mint green walls. It was huge, thrice the size of Spectra Plaza, befitting its status as MIRROR‘s headquarters on Porropelin. Hundreds of research projects and initiatives, thousands of MIRROR doctors treating countless patients.  An otherwise-featureless pink plaque sat in front of the main entrance. It simply read “The Answer Stares Back”. MIRROR‘s motto. No idea what it meant.

The helpful woman behind the desk directed them to the trauma ward. That was where they’d find Polly Peck, the young agent who survived the SPRING_ToMind explosion. Polly had regained consciousness overnight and had been drifting in and out ever since, and OPTICA was waiting for her to recover before interviewing her.

Silica General was a labyrinth. Even with explicit directions, it was a fifteen minute walk from the entrance to Polly’s room. On the way, they passed rushing surgeons, haggard nurses, and shell-shocked patients.

The medical chicks were good people. They worked hard and organized well; MIRROR was perhaps the branch with the fewest internal conflicts and the most cohesive organizational vision. 

But Jonquil absolutely hated their aesthetic sensibilities. Everything was washed-out and low contrast, and so the hallways stretched on forever into a blurry mush. The walls almost seemed to pulsate in an optical illusion she couldn’t exactly explain. Girls ran to and fro in face masks to prevent the spread of bacteria, their outfits similarly bland and neutral. The air smelled like disinfectant.

Polly’s room was at the very back corner of the trauma ward. A simple little room with a bed, nightstand, and some dressers filled with supplies. Polly lay in bed with her doctor standing over her. “Last  question, how’s the dose treating you?” asked the doctor, a ruddy and full-figured woman with thick purple hair.

Polly sat up. Her right eye was hidden behind a bandage that wrapped around her scalp. Another big bandage adorned her left cheek, her right arm was in a sling and there were more bandages on her left arm and both her legs. Poor thing looked halfway through mummification. “Not so bad,” she said vacantly. “Makes me feel kinda… swimmy. But the pain is a lot less bad.”

“Good. We’ll steadily decrease it starting tomorrow and get you walking again. Those legs of yours are still good to go.” The doctor turned to leave when she spotted Jonquil and Aliza. “Oh, hello officers.”

“Morning doc,” Aliza said cheerily. “Mind giving us some time alone with your patient?”

“So long as you don’t bust her up any worse.” The doctor chuckled. “Don’t push her. She’s been through an ordeal.” She walked closer and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Physically, I’m positive she’ll make a full recovery. Mentally… might be tough.”

“We’ll treat her gently,” Jonquil promised.

The doctor moved to slide past them, but hesitated. “I’m sorry, I’m sure you get this question a lot, but…”

“Yes, I’m a Diakon,” Jonquil said wearily.

The doctor waved her hand. “Not you. I meant your partner. Those eyes… they’re MIRROR-made, aren’t they?”

Aliza’s back stiffened and she pursed her lips. “…Yes,” she said.

“Fascinating! How does an OPTICA hound end up with MIRROR tech in her skull?”

“…I used to be LUX,” Aliza forced out through gritted teeth. “They collaborated with MIRROR to make them. These are a prototype.”

The doctor nodded. “How long have you had them?”

“Just over three years now.”

“How do you like them? Good? Do they-”

“Doctor,” Jonquil interjected. “We’re in the midst of a criminal investigation of a terrorist attack.”

“Oh. Right. My bad.” The doctor bowed her head in embarrassment, then walked away.

Jonquil didn’t know much about Aliza’s mechanical eyes except for their functionality, and that Aliza hated to talk about how she got them. Now she knew that Aliza got the new eyes just before she transferred to OPTICA.

But if there was one thing Jonquil Diakon knew how to do, it was avoid touchy subjects. She clasped Aliza’s shoulder. “Let’s get to work.”

The consternation on Aliza’s face melted away, and she instantly reverted to her usual bouncy self. “Yeah, let’s. Oh Pollyyyy!”

Polly’s attention was on the window, watching the rain hypnotically beat against the glass. “Mmgh?” 

Aliza approached the bed, Jonquil a step behind. “Nice to meetcha. My name’s Junior Investigator Aliza Fete. The dwarf is Junior Investigator Jonquil . She’s the one who found you in the wreckage.”

“Wreckage?” Polly echoed. “What wreckage…? Oh… you mean… right.” She closed her eyes. “Sorry. It’s all fuzzy. Like a pool of rainwater.”

Jonquil sat at the foot of the bed. “Polly, my partner and I would like to ask you a few questions, if that’s all right. Anything you can tell us will be helpful.

<== ==>