OPTICA #11

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Thanks to the endless rain, it was a chore to walk the streets of Ttlatic. Jonquil worked hard to keep her clothes impeccable-  she’d rather get shot in the gut than let her uniform be ruined. Fortunately, SPRING_Rain sold an excellent app that projected a transparent hardlight umbrella from her watch.

The Eigen River divided Ttlatic in two. For centuries, Porropelin had been a colony of the Neighbors, the fiendish reptilians who were TORCH’s most fervid foe. They had set up shop north of the Eigen, while the telly natives inhabited the south.

When TORCH arrived, they crushed the Neighbors and booted them out of the star system. They then replaced their hideous buildings with their own. While the north side looked like any other TORCH city built in the Era of the Nascent Flame, the south side was still distinctly alien. Tellies preferred conical towers with wide bases, all with wild and chaotic color schemes. The more attractive ones reminded Jonquil of a Jackson Pollock painting or a tie dye shirt. The uglier ones looked like they had been painted at night by a bunch of drunks.

The cones were connected by walkways that criss-crossed the sky. They were the only way around the city: the streets of the south side were flooded with foul-smelling scummy water.

Jonquil had never done particularly well with heights and the walkways were always too busy. The tellies weren’t brash enough to try to push her off but they also were too proud to stand aside- and likewise, no TORCH agent would let herself be subordinated to a xeno.

As a result, shoving matches were commonplace. Jonquil had a very low center of gravity and was much stronger than she looked… but touching the oily, scummy skin of the tellies was automatic defeat.

Jonquil jogged to keep pace with the taller Aliza, who had this impressive ability to shimmy past tellies without ever touching them. “Where are we going?” Jonquil grunted.

“Labor-Caste District. I’m almost certain the tellies at SPRING_ToMind are from there.” Tellies had a multi-tiered caste system that Jonquil didn’t understand, other than when a telly worked with a TORCH agent, they were usually from Labor-Caste.

“And what are we going to say to them?” she asked Aliza dryly. “‘Have you seen this telly? We’re looking for one of yours in a terrorist attack that killed ours.’ You think they’ll tell us?”

“Why wouldn’t they? You know me, Jonny. I’m really persuasive.” Aliza stuck her tongue out playfully. “You should probably set that xeno hatred aside, by the by. We’re gonna try to work with ’em here.”

“I don’t hate them. I just don’t think there’s much to be gained from talking to them.”

“Impossible to say! We’ll find out soon enough.” Aliza neatly sidestepped a beefy Warrior-Caste telly. Jonquil wasn’t quite as successful in her dodge, and her shoulder brushed against the warrior’s elbow. She groaned at the slimy stain it left on her jacket.

Without warning, the warrior leaped off the walkway and into the flooded street below. So did all the other tellies. Jonquil instinctively went for her sidearm until she saw them treading water as a telly wearing stiff clothes made from chitinous animal shells stood on an elevated platform.

“Oooh!” Aliza turned to watch. “This is always so fascinating!”

Jonquil disagreed. Every few weeks around midday, the tellies took a break from work and went into the streets for this thing that they did. The ones in shells, some manner of religious or political leader, would stand there and dance about, then the others would mirror its movements. Then after ten minutes or so they’d calmly return to work.

Just like always, the one covered in chitin shimmied and shook and flailed its long thin arms in the air. Purple and green sparks illuminated the screen on its neck. Aliza observed the ritual with fascination. “If I’m reading his screen right, he’s trying to raise money for charity,” she said. “Says the… poor… lost souls… need assistance.”

“Who are the lost souls? Us?” Jonquil asked.

“I don’t think so. They usually call us something that roughly translates to ‘invasive species’.” Aliza kept watching as juvenile tellies swam out with open bowls, begging for the shell-shaped coins they used as currency.

Rather than keep watching, Jonquil took the cleared walkways as an opportunity to make good pace. “I wanted to keep watching,” Aliza whined, jogging after her.

They made their way across the boundary from Commerce-Caste to the Labor-Caste district. The buildings were smaller and meaner here, with less impressive coloration and more accumulated waste.

On the street level, the buildings were covered in graffiti. What appeared to Jonquil as a nonsensical vomiting of colors was apparently a spirited debate. Aliza widened the apertures of her eyes and squinted at the artwork. “Oh my. How vulgar.” She chuckled. “I think these were written by some teens.”

“What makes you say that?”

“They’re very preoccupied with sex and murder, mostly coming our way. Seems like there’s a broad consensus here that something must be done about us.”

“Dissatisfaction is that high?” Jonquil scoffed. “That makes no sense. Life has gotten immeasurably better here since TORCH arrived. The economy has quadrupled, standard of living is exponentially higher, deaths from disease are halved-”

“Yeah. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter how comfy a cage is, it’ll always be a cage.” Aliza fixed her clothing. “I wonder why they’ve started to turn against us now, though. Something we did?”

“Not to my knowledge.” Jonquil peered down and saw a trio of youths turn into one of the street-level alleyways. “You think it’s a good idea to ask?”

“Sure! But aren’t you worried that the sewage will ruin your nice clothes?”

In response, Jonquil hiked up her pants to her knees, revealing the long trench boots she was wearing. “It’ll take a lot more than some grime to dissuade me.”

“Attagirl.”

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