<== ==> (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?”


“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?” 


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

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