OPTICA #22

<== ==> (Coming 8/22/2019)

Aliza didn’t wait for Jonquil to speak, she started to exchange excited messages with the bomb maker. “Oh gosh, Jonny, how did I never see it before?! Sacrifice Caste wanted to be sacrificed! When TORCH banned it… they stole their livelihoods. Now we have a new generation who grew up with their destiny stolen from them- of course they’re gonna be angry and lash out!”

“But… why? Why do they want to die?” Jonquil asked faintly.

“It says… that in the before, there was only one people. The princes would light their great torches and all the world would bask in the light. It says that the long cruel ones- the Neighbors- were hard masters but they contented themselves to steal the riches of this world. TORCH… we stole their souls. We brought darkness to this world and left only splinters.”

Jonquil put her hand over her forehead, not following any of this. “Is this just their religion? ‘We want to kill each other and you won’t let us?’”

“There is no telegaeic word for ‘religion’. They all seem to practice the same faith.” Aliza turned to the bomb maker. “He says that when the sacrifice is done properly… a telegaeic’s body… explodes forth in color. A priest can shape that color into messages that can be seen from great, great distances. He says that without these messages, a short distance becomes impassable.”

She let out a long sigh. “Of course. Auditory communication is so crucial, especially in a pre-digital world, but the tellies can only use visuals. So they communicate from afar by… sacrificing one another. They don’t value life in the same way we do, sacrifices were a crucial component of their civilization. Without them, every telly city became completely isolated overnight.”

“…I guess I understand why they’d be pissed,” Jonquil said distantly. Too many conflicting thoughts had entered her mind, battling for supremacy. Just a moment ago, her stomach roiled at the monster that sit before her. Now she felt a bit bad for the poor dumb thing. “But we gave them video phones, they don’t need to kill each other anymore.”

“Phones designed for our hands, not theirs.” Aliza pointed at the four-fingered hand of the telly, banana-yellow with fingers nearly a foot long. “And besides… it’s tradition. Their way of life. Even if it’s wrong, they can’t just accept it being taken from them.”

Jonquil crossed her arms. “What does this have to do with me?”

Aliza hesitated before speaking. “it wasn’t just TORCH… it was you personally, apparently. He says most of the others don’t remember because it was in a different city, but he was there. He saw what you did.”

This time, the confusion only lasted a moment. “Aliza, was Grace Diakon ever here on Porropelin?”

Aliza pressed a few buttons on her watch. “Umm… yep. Was one of the signatories of the Articles of Protection that made Porropelin part of TORCH space. She… err… she’s the one who pushed for a ban of telegaeic sacrifice.”

Jonquil sank into her chair, and the fatigue rolled back in. Of course. Of course, of course, of course she couldn’t escape. Not even here, on this waterlogged backwater of a world, was she free of Grace Diakon’s looming shadow.

By the time Jonquil looked back up, Aliza was staring at her in concern. “Jonny, are you-”
“I’m fine,” she said, a little more forcefully than she intended. “What’s he say?”

“Says he wants to know if we can undo the ban.”

The telly stared at her with its bulbous yellow eyes, leaning towards her. Jonquil hesitated. This was crucial. No, she wasn’t Grace Diakon- but the alien didn’t know that. Was it right for her to lie? To give this creature a hope for a better future that didn’t exist?

“Tell him… if it cooperates with us, then I’ll do my best to repeal the ban,” she finally settled on. That was the truth- sort of.

Aliza beamed the telegaeic two interlocking yellow shapes. The telly replied with a mirror of the same. “He says he’ll cooperate,” she said softly.

He told them everything. The bombs were given to him by a TORCH woman who he didn’t know. He described her as black-clad, with a mask that covered the bottom of her face… an outfit of a typical neo_SMOKE operative. She told them to use the bombs however they saw fit. That had been only a few days earlier- they weren’t sure what to do with them.

He had been thinking of using them against his enemies in Commerce Caste, as they were traitors who had cooperated with TORCH, but he hadn’t decided yet. He said that they never wanted all-out war with Commerce, or even with TORCH. He completely denied using the bombs against SPRING_ToMind, and doubted that any telly was involved in the attack.

Jonquil left the room with a heavy stone in her stomach and stiffness in her joints. She didn’t know what to do or what to think. She sat still and breathed deeply while Aliza reported to Sepia.

“So the tellies didn’t blow SPRING_ToMind,” said Aliza thoughtfully. “Who did? If neo_SMOKE wanted to use them as a proxy, why not just use them as a proxy?”

“You can’t say for sure the tellies are innocent.” Sepia had replaced the cup of coffee with a fresh one. “Could be another bomber. Or your guy could be lying.”

Aliza shook her head. “I really doubt it. He has no reason to lie.”

“Regardless, even if this particular one wasn’t involved then there are still a million other tellies in Ttlatic,” Jonquil heard herself say.

“How many of them have access to rabbit bombs?” asked Aliza.

neo_SMOKE gave him two, perhaps they gave them to others as well?” Jonquil sighed. “We can’t let them have rabbit bombs- homemade explosives are worrisome enough.”

“What can we do?” Aliza asked, furrowing her thick brows. “Go after all of sac-caste? There are hundreds of thousands of ‘em in Ttlatic alone.”

“They’re not the problem. neo_SMOKE is handing out high explosives to xenos.” Jonquil’s cool yellow eyes met Aliza’s mechanical red ones. “This goes way beyond drug smuggling and tomfoolery. This is high treason.”

At this, Sepia turned and left the room. She had barely said a word to them. That wasn’t like her.

Urgh, she was too weary to pore over Sepia’s behavior. “What now?” she asked Aliza.

“It’s… after midnight, right?” Aliza checked her watch. Porropelin had a 30 hour day. “I’m too amped to sleep, I think I’m gonna go clubbing and dance myself into unconsciousness. You?”

Jonquil had taken a nap, so she wasn’t particularly sleepy… but she certainly had no interest in a club, particularly not the scuzzy sort that Aliza frequented. “I’ll stay in,” she said. “Get a bit of reading done.”

“You absolutely pathetic nerd.” Aliza grinned, but the exhaustion was apparent on her face. “You think they’ll give us the day off tomorrow for cracking the case?”

Jonquil studied the floor tiles for a while. “I don’t think we cracked anything,” she said finally. “I think this is at best a lead and at worst a red herring. But I just don’t see anywhere to go from here… maybe the results of the other’s investigations will be helpful.”

“Yeah, maybe. See ya tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

<== ==> (Coming 8/22/2019)

LUX #22

<== ==> (Coming 8/21/2019)

Hustling down to Engineering, Eve half-expected to find poor Eirene smeared over the walls. Instead she was sitting by the engine, reading something on her watch. “Oh, hi May,” she said. “You look, um… a little frazzled.”

“I am a little frazzled.” Eve straightened herself out. “Are you all right?”

“Fine, fine. I’m just running some diagnostics on the generator, a few things have been funky.” She patted the side of the van-sized machine. “Shouldn’t be anything to worry about. This girl’s top-of-the-line.”

Eve took a seat alongside Eirene. “What did Cressida want?” she asked cautiously. Cress had wanted to talk about something- could it be related?

“Oh, umm, a personal affair.” Eirene averted her eyes. “It wouldn’t be right of me to say any more, it was said in confidence.”

Eve bit her lip. If Cressida had something to hide, maybe Eve could use that for leverage. But how to get Eirene to talk about it? “If Cressida is the security officer… shouldn’t she protect you from Peitho?” Eve asked. 

A rueful smile formed on Eirene’s face. She must have swung by medical, because the injuries Peitho had inflicted were gone. “You’d think so, right? But Cress is an incredibly gentle and kind person. I think that’s why she and I became so close… well, I don’t think I’m like that, I think I’m just too weak to be tough and too cowardly to be mean. But I can get away with being so passive and feeble… I spend all my time working with machines.” 

She ran her hand along the engine with almost maternal affection. “Nice predictable machines. Harmless if you handle them properly. Every problem they can have can be understood, controlled, and fixed. People are so… messy. They’ll never do what you want, they change when you look away, and sometimes they’ll do things just because you weren’t expecting them to do it. That’s why I spend all my time down here.”

“If she was truly kind… wouldn’t she keep you safe?”

Eirene shook her head. “It’s not like that. Cress wants to help- and she does, in a million ways. But she doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Peitho… because Peitho’s a terrible enemy to have, and Cress just isn’t much of a match for her. I would never ask someone to sacrifice themselves for me.”

“What about me?” Eve asked.

“You?”

“Am I going to be destroyed?”

“Oh… hah… I don’t know. Part of me says you will be. Part of me says you’re an even bigger monster than Peitho. Most of me… is just happy that someone was willing to try.” Eirene’s smile was one of someone who had walked through hell… no. Of someone who was walking through hell. 

It was inhumane, to manipulate someone the way Eve was trying to manipulate Eirene. Taking advantage of someone so vulnerable… Eve saw how someone like Peitho could do it, and how revolting it was. Was it really right for Eve to cling to life like a barnacle, even if it meant lowering herself to that scum’s level? “It was… reflex,” she said finally. “I didn’t think. I just moved.”

“Well, I’m pleased you did. How did you get so brave, May? Is there a secret to it or something?”

“No secret,” Eve said, shaking her still-damp head. “I just want to help. But… like you said. It might not go the way we want it to. The only way for you to be safe is for us to do something about Peitho, right?”

“Something? You don’t mean…?”

Eve kept her face stony. “As a last resort. Let’s try to think of something better first. That means we’ll need whatever kind of allies we can muster. Cressida is the security officer, and your best friend besides. Can’t we get her to help?”

“Well, I can try to talk to her. I don’t think it’d do much, though.” Eirene opened a shunt and pulled a tray out. It was made of a clear glass with several indents in it, each of which had a different liquid inside. “Lessee… helium-4 normal, helium-3 a smidge low… oh, interesting, an excess of caesium… so that means…”

Eve’s scientific knowledge didn’t cover the negative mass engines that TORCH used so extensively in their bases and starships, although she did understand the basic underpinings of the strange machines. It was also far and away the last thing on her mind right now. “We should think of something better,” she urged. “If Cress won’t be responsive to being asked. Maybe we could…”

Eirene looked up and frowned. “We could what, May?”

No, too strong. She had to dial back. “Well, you know her much better than I do,” she said instead. “How do you get Cress to do things?”

“You don’t. Poor thing… she doesn’t really commit herself to any course of action. She can never decide which fork of the road to take, so she just ends up going nowhere. Then she wonders why she’s not happy.” Eirene sighed. “And the person on the base whose job is to help her is the personnel officer-”

“-Peitho.”

Eirene nodded gravely.

If Cressida was truly so indecisive, she’d probably keep her discovery about Eve to herself. But on the other hand, Nysa and maybe Peitho were prowling the base, looking for weapons to use against Eve. It seemed only a matter of time before one of them got wind that Cress knew something and squeezed the truth out of her.

“…This isn’t right,” she muttered. “Any of it. This isn’t what I wanted.”

“It’s not what any of us wanted,” said Eirene. She was closely studying the results from her diagnostics. “But it’s what we got. Why do you think half the girls down here are so conked out all the time? We’re all trapped in this place together. You can’t escape without dying, so the girls die- by inches.”

Eve glanced around the dark, humid engine room. “So this is my tomb, huh?”

“I think you died a long time before you got here, May. If you don’t mind me saying.”

“…You’re a sharp one, Eirene,” said Eve, smiling grimly. “You could be pretty dangerous yourself.”

Eirene giggled. “Well, fortunately for all of you I have cripplingly low self-esteem.”

<== ==> (Coming 8/21/2019)

HEARTH #22

<== ==> (Coming 8/20/2019)

Manna grinned. Grace covered her mouth in an attempt to hide how amused she was. “Impressive freestyling. Giving them the boot twice… like a reboot. Clever.”

“I aim to please. I’m not afraid of anything you or anyone else throws at me. Let those bitches take their shot.” Henrietta flexed her bicep. “I’ll just shrug it off and come back stronger.”

The embers of a smile at the corners of Grace’s mouth didn’t last long. “But now we have to deal with Enron. We know her play now: accept the OPTICA investigation and ally with Snow. Instead of just trying to resist our narrative, she’s presenting one of her own. Smart.”

Grace sounded almost admiring… what a strange dynamic. Enron obviously despised Grace, and made no secret of that, but Grace had no animosity towards her biggest rival. “Why don’t we meet with her?” said Henrietta.

“Pardon?”

“Why don’t you and I meet with Enron? She’s a businesswoman. Let’s make a deal with her. She can’t really be against the BEACON investigation, she must want the attacks to stop too and she’s gotta know OPTICA can’t do it. Maybe we can offer her something.”

Grace shook her head vigorously. “Absolutely not. After years and years of her swearing to oppose me on principle, she won’t backpedal- especially not after that speech.”

“I think it’s worth a shot. Solve all our problems in one meeting.” Henrietta smiled confidently. “The worst she can do is say no.”

Grace opened her mouth to refuse, then closed it. “I’m skeptical,” she said, finishing her cigarette and handing the butt to Manna. “Enron hates my guts. But perhaps she’d be open to compromise if I wasn’t present.”

“Let me go! I’ll represent you.”

“You’ve been in Chantico for three days, you’ll be in completely over your head. Enron is not a woman you can toy with.”

“Mater, may I make a suggestion?” Manna asked calmly. Grace nodded. “You could still be present while Henrietta does most of the talking. Even if Enron isn’t willing to negotiate with you around, we may get a more complete picture of her thinking.”

“C’mon, what do we have to lose?” Henrietta asked.

Grace rolled her eyes. “It’s a doomed plan. But… if there is a chance, we should take it.  The downside is manageable.” She kept mulling it over. “All right. Let’s go.”

They took the train there. Grace earned plenty of stares and murmurs from the commuters, but Manna stood in front of her with her arms folded and nobody dared approach.  “I wanted to ask you something about Manna,” Henrietta told Grace. “How do they train girls like her? Verbenas? It seems kinda… inhumane.”

Grace cocked an eyebrow. “The plural is also Verbena.”

“Whatever it is, they don’t seem to have any individualism or sense of self-worth. I talked to Manna some when we were compiling the report and I got the sense she just kinda… viewed herself as an extension of your body. That’s how she was trained to feel, right?”

Grace nodded. “Yes. Go on.”

“Well, she didn’t get the chance to decide for herself-” Henrietta paused. Of course. No TORCH agent got to decide for themselves. That was the point. “It feels extreme,” she said lamely. “She can’t do anything but be your Verbena. I can change branches or jobs, but Manna’s been pigeonholed into one tiny compartment for the rest of her life.”

“You’re right. It’s disagreeable, the training. I’ve seen how the sausage is made, so to speak… and it’s the most rigorous training program in all of TORCH.” Grace shuddered slightly. “I was against the program when it was proposed… but I get it. Because Matres exist outside of TORCH’s typical chain of command, our staff can be awkward or disruptive. I used to have a dozen different secretaries and aides… now I just have Manna. It’s efficient.”

“Yeah, but at what cost?” Henrietta glanced at Manna’s back. She had no ass.

“Entry into the Verbena Program is entirely voluntary.” Grace met Henrietta’s eyes with that piercing iron gaze. “Girls in the Academy are given the chance to join- they can say no without fear of punishment, and they’re told what to expect. You were even considered for the program, but you were cut in the final round before offers.”

“I was?” Henrietta asked, surprised.

“Of course. You were setting records and catching eyes left and right even then. But they passed on you, because you consistently tested highly in individualism and ego. You’re much too self-centered to ever become an extension of another person.” Grace nodded in approval.

It was far from the first time Henrietta had heard that.

<== ==> (Coming 8/20/2019)

BEACON #22

<== ==> (Coming 8/19/2019)

Herod moved to the right, corkscrewing as she did so to face the dragon above. It moved as soon as she did, talons out, ready to rip her apart.

No way to hurt it with her hands full. No time to dodge. Only one thing to do.

Herod dropped the wounded woman and raised her rocket launcher, firing a trio of missiles at the diving drake. She was too far away for a lethal hit, but she was at least able to drive it off.

The dragon below caught the wounded legionnaire in its gaping, rubbery mouth. The poor girl let out a choked cry and then was silenced as the monster crunched through her armor to brutally rend the flesh underneath.

Nothing left to do. Herod flew past, her attention still on the ground. Some of the dropships were still intact: a defensive line of Beowulfs had been erected around them. Tamar, unmistakably larger than any of the others, rained bloody death on any dragon stupid enough to get close.

Tamar! She might be able to help. She would have access to a boosted officer’s comm channel. “Colonel,” Herod said with as much urgency as she could muster. “I’ve lost track of the legata.”

“Bit busy here!” came Tamar’s frantic reply as she pumped round after round into the air. Most of them missed- but the pressure was crucial. The dragons swarmed around the dropships, eager to destroy them. Only Tamar’s savagery kept them at bay.

“A quick message to her, please colonel!” Herod pled.

“Ugh, okay!” Tamar was silent for a moment. “Above you! Just below the clouds! I’ll paint her for ya!”

“Thank you,” Herod replied, flying upwards as fast as she could. Tamar’s intel was good: there was Lucifera… drifting blankly through the air as though she were asleep.

A dragon was heading straight for her. As it reared its head back to tear her apart, Herod slammed into it at speed. Even a 190-pound woman wearing 40 pounds of armor became a lethal projectile at 800 mph.

Again, though, Herod didn’t kill the damn thing. She knocked it aside, but by the time she got her rocket launcher up to blow the dragon apart, it was retreating. The rider thought better of a two-on-two fight. 

“Good timing,” Lucifera observed. “You’re better at guarding my body than I thought you’d be.”

“Thank you? Ma’am, this isn’t sustainable.” Herod gestured below.

The legata nodded calmly. “I’ve seen that, yeah. Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan. 119th!,” she cried, switching to the universal channel to speak to the entire legion. “I’m above the fighting and I can see that we’re screwed. All legionnaires, converge on the marked point and I’ll call for air support.”

The 119th disengaged and fell back to around the dropships. As the dragons surged in, Lucifera connected to BEACON’s fleet orbiting above. “This is Legata Lucifera Humol, 119th legion,” she yelled. “Requesting fleet support. I repeat, we are under attack and require fleet support!”

A cool woman’s voice answered. “Request granted, legata. Be advised that heavy rainfall has reduced the efficacy of orbital disruption attacks.”

“Fine, sure, just kill the bastards!”

There was a surreal moment of quiet, and then the sky caught on fire. Pillars of light and flame flew past Herod and Lucifera, then curved and changed direction in mid-air. The air was filled with these beams, which avoided BEACON birds like they had the plague but instead went straight for the dragon riders.

Upon contact, the dragons and the Neighbors on their back simply ceased to be. They vanished, leaving behind nothing but a cloud of pinkish vapor.

Herod watched in horrified awe. Death was omnipresent, thousands of riders turned to nothingness instantly. To her shock though, there were many survivors. The beams only killed about half of the dragon riders- the others broke into a hasty retreat. 

“Superheated replicating plasma filament with nanotargeted guidance,” Lucifera said softly as she watched the carnage from high above. “When only the Wrath of God will do.”

“A choosy god,” said Herod, pointing at the survivors.

“That’s this damn rain’s fault. Where did it come from? Scanners said drizzles, not this.”

At least a hundred prone BEACON birds lay dead or wounded across the mesa, along with many more dragons. Those still breathing were safe… for now.

<== ==> (Coming 8/19/2019)

OPTICA #21

<== ==>

Sepia raised her eyebrow. “Huh. Is that… all you got?”

“Listen, this is an alien race. You guys take me to be an expert on them, but I’m not. I understand a tiny shred of the intricacies of their culture, rites, history and tradition. In some senses, they’re fundamentally different to us- so much so that I can’t even grasp what that difference may be. It’s like asking a Chinese grade-schooler who’s picked up a few words of Spanish from the TV to interrogate a Colombian drug lord.”

“So no, you don’t have much?”

Aliza sighed the sigh of a methods-oriented scientist talking to a results-oriented cop. “A few things. He denies being part of the bombing. Says it’s just a coincidence that he has the same kind of weapon as was used to destroy SPRING_ToMind. Refuses to say where he got the bombs or what he wants them for. He’s a hardened criminal and he isn’t afraid of us. I think he assumes he’s already dead, seeing as how Blackbox killed a bunch of his friends right in front of him earlier today.”

“Can you assuage his fears?” Sepia asked. “Make him feel safer?”

“I tried to- he said he wants to see Jonny.” Aliza glanced back over. “Wouldn’t say for what, but he was insistent about it. He’s pretty much turtled up.”

Compared to swimming in a sewer, talking to a confrontational telly would be a vacation. “C’mon.”

They went inside, with Jonquil taking a seat from across the bomb maker. The loathsome frog thing’s yellow skin was a brighter shade than it had been earlier, and its leg was wrapped in the hardening sap tellies used to treat wounds. It blinked stupidly at her, and she returned eye contact.

Aliza stood between them. “I’ll translate,” she said, and beamed a message of a multicolored screen with a red circle above it.

“Ask it why it wanted to see me,” Jonquil said.

Aliza sent a yellow circle that split into four smaller ones. The telly replied with a lime green cloud around a blue oval. “It wants to know why you hate him.”

“Hate it?” Jonquil blinked. “I don’t hate it. I just want to keep my people safe. What makes it say that?”

“It says… it wants to know why. It says you have brought so much suffering and pain to his caste, and for no profit to you. He says the only explanation is that you hate him and all of Sacrifice Caste.”

Jonquil sat back in her uncomfortable metal chair, a sharp frown on her lips. She had no idea what this thing was on about. “Ask it… what pain I’ve brought Sacrifice Caste. Is it talking about today?”

This time, Aliza and the telly had to exchange a series of messages of decreasing size before Aliza turned to her. “He says today was the latest in a long line of cruelties and indignities. He asks if you’ve forgotten, or if you’re trying to insult him.”

“Aliza, I have no clue what this toad is on about. Do you?”

Aliza gave her a sideways smile and shrugged. “Not a clue.”

Jonquil studied the telegaeic for a moment. This wouldn’t get them anywhere. To understand what it was saying, she had to understand what it was thinking. “Tell it… tell it that there are great differences between our people. Tell it that TORCH does not wish to fight Sacrifice Caste. Tell it that whatever offense I dealt was accidental, and I don’t know what I did wrong.”

The bomb maker clicked a few times in agitation and sent multiple symbols in rapid fire. “He says he’ll explain to you like you’re a child,” Aliza translated. “He says you stole the… um… it doesn’t translate. Maybe like the ‘precious thing’ from Sacrifice Caste. He says without this treasure, only doom awaits his people.”

“What did I steal? Other than some muck from its sewer.”

Again, Aliza and the telly exchanged a volley of messages. “Hmm.” Aliza put a finger to her lips. “Well, that’s interesting. It says Sacrifice Caste is nothing without their treasure. Purposeless. It says the treasure was taken to keep the tellies weak and helpless, so that TORCH could do as they liked to not only sac-caste but all the peoples of this world.”

It hit Jonquil like lightning striking a tree. “The practice of sacrifice? Wait… members of Sacrifice Caste want to be ritualistically murdered?”

Aliza beamed another message. “It says… ‘yes, of course we want that. Why do you not want that?’”

Jonquil’s mouth fell open. A moment ago, she imagined the tellies to be a strange race, but in her ken. Not fully understood at this time primarily out of a lack of interest on TORCH‘s part.

In an instant, she changed her mind. The tellies were beyond her or any TORCH agent’s understanding. Sacrifice Caste were not coerced slaves. They desired to be ceremonially butchered, and were willing to use guns and bombs to get that right back.

<== ==>

LUX #21

<== ==>

There was no time to dry or get dressed. With the clarity of mind that only comes from a crisis, Eve wrapped herself in a towel and charged out of the bathroom, leaving steam in her wake.

She dashed for the lounge, where Coronis said she would be. It was on the far end of Deck 2, so Eve had to run across the entire deck in nothing but a towel- fortunately the deck was almost abandoned. The only people here were either asleep or so high that they may as well have been comatose.

Eve burst into the lounge. It was a dark and smoky room, the walls and ceiling painted black and a richly perfumed scent in the air. Everyone here was drinking or snorting, and a few had paired off to make out or otherwise.

Coronis was in the center of the room alongside Libera. They were… playing checkers? “Corey, we have a problem,” Eve said desperately.

“Don’t distract her,” Libera called, her speech slurred. “She has two thousand digits riding on this game-”

“I win,” said Coronis.

What?

She pointed at the checkerboard. “I took your last piece. I win.”

“Oh.” Libera picked up the piece, which was in fact a shotglass, and downed the contents. “Ha! You win! Best of seven?”

“Sure, lemme help May first.” With a winsome smile, Coronis stood up and guided Eve to the corner of the room. “What’s the problem?”

Eve made sure nobody was listening in. “Are you sober?”

“Yeah! Don’t worry, I never use my own product. The vodka in my pieces is just water.” Coronis winked. “Did something happen?”

Eve gave Coronis an abbreviated version of events. Again, Coronis just stared like Eve had said nothing interesting. “You know she recognized you?” the smuggler asked skeptically.

“She’s seen the footage, she must know. Most people don’t have a pair of extra arms sticking from their ribs.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s true.” Coronis rubbed her chin for a few moments. “Hmm… well. What do you want to do?”

“I need to get out of Lethe-2, now,” Eve said urgently. “I can take my same spacecraft if need be-”

“No can do. Nysa’s put it in storage. We have evacuation ships but they’re biometrically locked to Nysa and Libera.” An illusion of Nysa dropping a spaceship into a box materialized next to Coronis’ head. “Or I could get a ship to come and pick you up, but it’d take a while… weeks. Months maybe.”

Eve’s stomach felt like an iron ball. She was trapped down here. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t leave. “B-but Cressida knows who I am… I can’t stay.”

“Cress’ no snitch. I think you’re worrying too much again if you don’t mind me saying. We’ll take care of it.”

How?!” It was all Eve could do not to scream at Coronis, who took a step back when faced with her intensity.

“I-I’ll think of something! I-” Coronis looked over at Libera, who had started to loudly sing to herself. “Okay look, I gotta keep an eye on the boss lady. I’ll have a plan by dinner tonight- and I guarantee you Cress won’t snitch on you before that. Just… go put some clothes on and don’t worry about it.” She looked Eve in the eyes. “I mean it. I’m gonna make this go away.”

Eve was on the verge of losing her temper. Not now, not now! She had to leave, get far away from here and try to calm down. Turning on her heel, she returned to the bathroom to shower and dry herself off. Breathe. One and two and three and four. Five and six and seven and eight.

It took almost an hour of deep breathing before Eve felt her temper had finally receded. As she pulled her purple robe on, she realized something. If Cressida was in the shower room and Coronis with Libera… that meant Eirene was alone and unprotected.

<== ==>

HEARTH #21

<== ==>

Once again, Henrietta met Grace after the session ended for the day. “Do girls often get their shit pushed in during assembly?” she asked.

“That’s new.” Grace chewed on the filter of her cigarette. “That might be the first instance of violence since… Eve, I think. Not happy about us starting it, but that was what Enron wanted. She knows how to push people’s buttons to get them to act the way she wants them to.”

“She really got us,” Henrietta murmured. “If her speech didn’t turn the rest of TORCH against BEACON, that exchange definitely did.”

“If she wanted to sell it, she should have let herself take the punch.” Grace’s voice was dry and bitter. “Enron wants to sell herself as a victim, but she’s not the one who had to be carried out.”

“I thought she, like, sells people shit. Why is she also kicking our asses physically as well as verbally?”

Grace shrugged. “When you spend your entire life insulting professional killers, you learn how to protect yourself.” She continued to take thoughtful puffs.

“I wanted to ask you something. Why can’t we just let OPTICA handle the investigation?” Henrietta asked. “I mean, it doesn’t really matter who does the investigating, what matters is we catch the terrorists, right?”

Grace blinked as though Henrietta had said something unbelievably stupid.

Beads of sweat formed on Henrietta’s forehead, and she heard herself start to ramble to defend herself. “I mean, OPTICA doesn’t coalition with BEACON, but it also doesn’t coalition with SPRING. It’s in Azalea. You and Davida were talking about how OPTICA might swing all the way to join SPRING the Lotus soon, right? Wouldn’t giving Snow this, which she so desperately wants, be a good way to prevent that from happening?”

“..Were that it were so simple. Manna, explain to Henrietta.” Grace sighed and popped the cigarette back in her mouth.

“We can’t hand the investigation over to OPTICA because OPTICA… well, as the young sister from LUX pointed out, OPTICA is flawed.” Manna’s tone was neutral, like she was reading aloud from a textbook. “Much of the branch has been co-opted by outside interests, most notably SPRING and UMBRA. Grant OPTICA control of the investigation, and whatever narrative they spin will become the truth- no matter how politically inconvenient to us it may be.”

“Like blaming the witches, for instance,” said Grace. “LUX, our coalition partner and home to more than ninety percent of TORCH’s witches, can ill-afford that kind of bad PR. And both UMBRA and especially OPTICA have bones to pick with LUX. Wouldn’t suit us.”

Henrietta stiffened. “Even if the witches are behind it?”

“They’re not, I’m reasonably sure.” Grace took a long drag from her cigarette. “Henrietta, rest assured that my first priority is an end to these attacks. But I can’t trust OPTICA to do it. BEACON has decades of experience acting as military police and as peacekeepers. Unlike OPTICA we maintain our organizational integrity. We can handle a counterterror investigation- and it won’t be like OPTICA will be shut out. They’ll assist us, all the other investigative services will.”

There were several moments of awkward silence as Henrietta debated asking Grace about the Blue Sands Massacre. She had never heard of it before. It happened years before she was born, and it wasn’t something taught about at the Proving Ground.  “Did you guys really kill 400 FORGE girls…?” she finally asked, her voice hushed.

Grace’s shoulders stiffened. “I had no involvement in that except to give it the okay, and I didn’t know they’d be opening fire,” she said sharply. “It was… urgh. FORGE and LUX were about to go to war with one another, legitimately. If that happened, TORCH would have been finished.”

“Why?”

“Some… sample. An alien creature with a lot of ‘g’s in its name. Yuggot or something.” Grace made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “LUX thought it was horrifying and wanted to destroy it. FORGE thought it was promising and wanted to make weapons from it. A disagreement became an argument became a brawl became a gunfight, and before anyone knew it there were thousands of girls in pitched combat against one another. Eve told me her girls were dying- FORGE are engineers, even their interns carry serious weaponry. So to put a stop to it, I sent the closest BEACON warship we had to end the fighting. Unfortunately, that ship was the Black Mercy.”

Henrietta’s jaw dropped. “You sent Head Bitch Berenice to end the fighting?” Every BEACON soldier knew Berenice Sorek, the Mater Bellum- and yes, she had most certainly earned the title Mother of War. She led BEACON’s most feared and infamous commando unit, the cultlike and utterly deranged 1st “Black Dog” Legion… more commonly known as the Bitches. “You may as well have nuked the planet from orbit.”

“I know that now. I certainly didn’t expect her to massacre other TORCH agents so indifferently.” Grace shuddered. “I wanted to stick up for LUX- who were absolutely right to want to destroy that thing, by the way. FORGE will hate me for as long as I live. But no, I never ordered TORCH agents to be slaughtered like that.”

Henrietta believed it. When she had met Grace on Paran-7, she had been struck by the Mater’s easy control and self-confidence. But just a few days together on Chantico, and Grace had shown how much guilt and shame she carried. “It really sucks, doesn’t it?” she asked softly. “Being in charge.”

Grace snorted. “Don’t I fucking know it. If it gets too much for you-”

“Stop.” Henrietta put her hands on her hips. “I’m invincible, evincing these princesses as insects, giving them the boot twice like a bad PC, they’re just two-byte bugs in need of a vaccine. Don’t worry your pink head about Wonder Girl Retta, she’s a built-better pacesetter without fear or fetters.”

<== ==>

BEACON #21

<== ==>

 

The rain was now a torrential downpour, so thick and heavy that things ten feet away were barely visible. Plumes of black smoke choked the sky- after a moment, Herod realized they were fireballs around the destroyed hovercraft. The air was thick with battle, Gawain-clad legionnaires like airborne shadows as they fought… they fought…

Dragons. No- Neighbors, riding aboard fleshy winged serpents the size of buses. There had to be thousands of riders, and the air was positively thick with rocketfire and bolts of sickly blue plasma. Bodies fell from the sky and slammed into the mesa.

A nightmare. Without hesitation, Herod put on her helmet and turned on her thermal sensors, highlighting the battle. She went to join the fray- but a hand grabbed her shoulder. It was Sheba. “Your job is to protect the legata,” she yelled. “Stay by her side, no matter what happens!”

To their credit, the expeditionary force jumped into action. More than half of them were airborne before Sheba finished her sentence. Herod doubled back and found Lucifera, who was watching the scene with a flat look on her face. “Your orders, legata?” Herod asked, keeping her voice steady.

“I need to direct my girls,” Lucifera replied. “With me, Herod.” Her visor covered her face and she took off, her protection detail half a second behind.

It wasn’t hard to stay close to Lucifera. Herod flew beneath her and used her onboard lock-on to keep track of the legata’s position relative to herself. The rain made it hard to draw a bead on her enemies with her free-mounted weaponry, but her left wrist rocket was guided. She took a shot at a Neighbor rider aboard one of the flesh-dragons.

There was an explosion and the dragon let out a bloodcurdling shriek- but it didn’t fall. Instead, it was blown backwards and left with a garbage can lid-sized hole in its torso… a hole that rapidly began to close. Hyper-accelerated cellular regeneration. Very bad.

The Neighbor shot a bolt at Herod, who flew underneath it. She rushed towards the dragon, dodged a swipe from its flabby unfurled claws, and fired another rocket directly into its underside.

The good news was, this blew the dragon and rider apart. The bad news was the explosion knocked Herod herself backwards, and by the time she righted herself she lost track of Lucifera. Fuck. 

Herod looked around, but even with enhanced 360 degree vision she couldn’t find the legata. She scanned the ground frantically, looking for the broken body of the legata. 

What if the worst had happened? Stupid, stupid, stupid! Getting distracted like that when her sole responsibility was Lucifera’s safety.

Mentally she told her onboard computer to tag everything she looked at as either “Lucifera” or “Not Lucifera” based off the signature from the legata’s own armor. It didn’t seem like Lucifera was anywhere in the battlespace. Legionnaires met the dragons without hesitation, but the monsters had the advantage: they were vastly larger and nearly impossible to hurt. The only advantage the birds had was maneuverability, and that would only take one so far under torrential rain.

Not even something as advanced as the Gawain could fully overcome this rain. Drops the size of Herod’s fist pounded away, a rainfall strong enough to wipe away whole cities. Wind speeds were beginning to rise too: if they reached gale force then flight would become ten times harder.

Herod flew low, only to nearly collide with another legionnaire. If Herod had been a half-second slower with her retro thrusters, they would both be dead. The other legionnaire had taken a shot to her jetpack and was flying erratically. “Get it off me!” she screamed. “It’s melting, it’s melting, get it off!”

Herod hesitated. She had to find Lucifera, not help this girl- what if the time spent here cost the legata her life? No time to further deliberate. She flew in close and slid her hand into the emergency release slot. The girl’s jetpack detached to reveal a blackened mass of charred, blasted skin that sizzled as rain drummed against it.

Herod caught the wounded girl, who screamed in incoherent agony. “Medic!” Herod bellowed into the local comm as she went to land-

And was waylaid by two more dragons. One directly below her, its gullet swelling, and one up and to the right preparing to dive bomb. No way to use her rocket launcher or sword with her arms full. Herod peppered the one beneath her with minigun fire from her shoulder.

That didn’t stop it. The dragon spat a glob of fire at her, a shocking blue and oily flame. Nowhere to dodge except to the right- where the other dragon was waiting.

Clever.

<== ==>

OPTICA #20

<== ==>

OPTICA moved slowly when uncertain, but there could be no uncertainty after the discovery of TORCH-manufactured high explosives. Jonquil sent the photos to Sepia, who immediately contacted Blackbox, and soon a strike was authorized. The counterterror unit came in fast and hard, taking the Drowned Sun by surprise. Jonquil managed to exfiltrate herself in the midst of the chaos.

Blackbox took no prisoners when it came to xenos, but at least they were surgical about it. They hit the bomb maker’s cell, took what they wanted to take, and got out of there before a response could be organized. Nine Drowned Sun were killed and a score more injured. No injuries to anyone in Blackbox. The bomb maker and his guards were taken into custody, and the contents of his lab were seized.

An hour after Jonquil discovered the rabbit bomb, she and Aliza sat aboard a Blackbox hovership. Jonquil had stripped out of her ruined clothes and instead cocooned herself in a thermal blanket. There was silence aboard the ship as the Blackbox hounds covered their faces in sheer dark masks and didn’t speak to outsiders. That suited Jonquil just fine: she stared out the window at the flooded city below and listened to the pitter-patter of evening rain hit the windows.

“Hey Jonny,” said Aliza. “Do me a favor: never do anything that insane ever again. That was not good for my heart.”

“Right. This was very hard on you,” Jonquil said. She was so, so tired. How was she going to conduct an interrogation when she could barely keep her eyes open? “Mrrg… I need a stim.”

“What you need is a good night’s sleep.” There was concern in Aliza’s voice… something Jonquil wasn’t used to hearing. “And two or three long, hot showers. You’re dogshit at interrogation, we both know, so I’ll take care of it.”

“I-” Jonquil stopped mid-complaint. Aliza wasn’t wrong. Interrogation was easily Jonquil’s worst skill, and she’d be doubly bad at it in her current state. “… Thank you. But I can’t go home, not at such a crucial time. I’ll shower at the precinct.”

“Suit yourself. But I’d say you’ve earned a real rest: we cracked the case. neo_SMOKE gave tellies the bomb. Why they wanted SPRING_ToMind destroyed, I’m not sure, but that’s a minor thing. We know the who, what, where, and when, and it didn’t even take a day.”

Jonquil stared back out the window, saying nothing. This was all wrong. She was too fatigued to articulate why exactly, but no part of this sat right with her. It was like she had found the missing jigsaw puzzle piece was actually three-dimensional. Like she had been focusing all her attentions on one tree in a massive forest.

Immediately after they arrived back at Spectra Plaza, Jonquil went to take a nearly hour-long shower in the precinct gym. Viciously scrubbing her skin with soap was the only way to get all the grime off, but rote mechanical tasks like that helped to clear her mind.

After that, she tried to take a nap at her desk- but her sleep was restless and troubled. A great big shaggy beast bit her right arm off. Stone and metal rained from the sky, trapping her in a field of debris, until she realized they were the remains of a great colossus disintegrating around her. The planet of Porropelin came to life and swallowed her, swallowed everything in a cataclysmic storm that destroyed star system after star system. Someone reached out to protect her, but they only fell into the vortex themselves as she screamed-

Jonquil started awake with tears in her eyes. More nightmares… they never ceased. Sitting up, she realized she had fallen asleep in a bathrobe. Jonquil reached into her desk, examined her four sets of back-up clothing, and eventually chose the double-breasted rust waistcoat with matching pants.

She had only slept for about an hour. It was now the middle of the night. The precinct was eerily quiet, although there were always a few girls at work no matter what the hour. Jonquil grabbed a cup of coffee and headed to the interrogation rooms to check on Aliza.

The map told her that Aliza was having words with the bomb maker in Examination Room 4. Sepia sat behind the one-way mirror in the observation deck, her feet on the table. “Diakon,” the boss said, raising her coffee cup. She looked even more exhausted than Jonquil. “Aliza told me what happened. Great work. Never do it again.”

Jonquil smiled tiredly. “When am I going to be debriefed?”

“When things calm down some. I doubt I’ll be able to pin a medal to your chest since you absolutely should not have done what you did.” Sepia did not return the smile. She was… not angry, but frustrated, and not with Jonquil. “It’s gonna cause a lot of problems.”

“I accept full responsibility for my actions,” said Jonquil, not sure what Sepia meant. “And I’d like for it to be known that Aliza tried to talk me out of it.”

“You’re not in trouble, Diakon. Like I said, great work. It’s… complicated.” Sepia sighed in a way that only someone very old could sigh, like a bit of her life force escaped with it. “I can’t say much more.”

“Oookay.” Jonquil looked in the interrogation room, where Aliza was beaming a shapeless pink-and-teal mass at the bomb maker. It replied with a rounded black rectangle dotted with green and blue holes. “How’s the interrogation going?”

“How the fuck should I know? I don’t speak shapes.” Sepia sipped her coffee. “But I think she’s almost done. She’s been in there by herself for a while now.”

Sure enough, after a few more shapes exchanged, Aliza came to join them in observation. Fatigue was starting to get to her: she had been awake for nearly 20 hours now, all in constant activity. “He wants to talk to you,” she told Jonquil.

“Me?”

“You specifically.”

<== ==>

LUX #20

<== ==>

 

Most of the owls showered before breakfast or bed, or not at all from the stink of a few of them. Eve did not dare undress in front of others, so she waited until the shower room was completely empty.

The hottest water temperature was a few degrees below boiling. It would have scalded anyone else, but Eve found it pleasantly moderate. Her long, wild violet hair grew heavy with water.

She hated being naked. With her clothes off she could ignore her deformities- that became impossible when she took them off. The skinny little half-tentacles that hung from her midsection, the craters and lumps on her chest and belly, the enormous black rift along her sternum that she prayed would never open. 

Eve was always a little radioactive. But when she lost control of her abilities she emitted 100 times more radiation than a chunk of enriched plutonium.  While Born from Atom couldn’t directly harm her, it still acted as a mutagen. Naturally the mutations were nothing useful, like a new magic power or a functional limb. Just bumps and indents and masses of pointless flesh and that damnable rift.

More pressingly, her mutations were well-known. Anyone who had seen the footage of her meltdown knew about them: her clothes had disintegrated seconds into the rampage, something she only learned when she watched the footage herself.

The incident was bizarre to think about, because Eve didn’t exactly remember it. It was more like a dream, a dim reflection through a dirty mirror. She remembered what happened directly before- trying to drink her tea while Necessity yelled at her and called her a monster- and she remembered waking up in a holding cell afterwards.

But it was her. She did it. The footage was undeniable and there were hundreds of survivors to confirm it. And the worst part of all was that Eve had laughed the entire time. Laughed like a madwoman as she reduced friends and colleagues to liquid.

Oh yeah. The other reason she hated showering. Her mind had always been prone to wandering, so long walks or showers had proved invaluable to her research in the past. Not anymore. Now every idle moment brought her back to the events of that awful day four years ago.

What had she missed? Why had she gone berserk? What was she supposed to do now? Just die? Just end her putrid life and make the universe a not-insignificantly kinder place for her absence?

Eve realized she had stood under the showerhead without moving for close to five minutes now. Shaking herself back to reality, she grabbed the shampoo and began to lather her hair.

“Do you need any help?” someone asked from behind her. A bolt traveled up Eve’s back. She recognized the voice. It was Cressida. “Err, I noticed you standing there without moving… is everything okay?” the security officer asked.

Eve peered over her shoulder. Cressida stood there, a shower caddy in her right hand. She was totally nude, her lean and lissome body bared, her chest knotted with muscle. “Fine,” Eve said quietly. “Don’t worry about me. What are you doing here?”

Cressida didn’t look convinced. “Umm, I didn’t have time to shower earlier. I could see you talking to yourself too. I don’t want to pry, but…”

“But what?”

“But it sounded like you were talking about killing yourself.”

Eve flushed, realizing that she had indeed been muttering to herself as was her habit. She hadn’t even realized. “T-that… isn’t your concern.”

“Well, it sort of is. I don’t… think it’d be good for anyone if you did that. Including me.” Cress looked up. “Shit, that sounded callous… I’m sorry, not what I meant. Just that, I know it’s really hard to be moved to a new base and all. I definitely had a hard time myself. But hurting yourself isn’t the answer.”

What did Cress mean by that? It wouldn’t be “good” for her if Eve killed herself? “I’m not going to,” Eve settled on. “I think about it sometimes, but I’d never actually do it. I’m too much of a coward. Besides, if I do go through with it, I’d be gracious enough to make it look like an accident. So you have nothing to fear, officer.”

Much to her horror, Cressida made her way over to Eve. “Hey, listen… I know we just met and all, but if you need someone to talk to, I can try and listen. I’m not very smart but I’m better than being alone, right?” She moved to clasp her hand against Eve’s shoulder, which would burn the flesh off of her hand. So Eve darted away.

And exposed the front of her body to Cress.

Cressida stared at her chest, and Eve was pretty sure Cress wasn’t checking out her rack. She was staring at the huge, unsightly deformities that decorated Eve’s torso. “Oh… uhm…” She flushed. “Sorry. Sorry! I gotta go!”

And before Eve could grab her and tear her head off- god damn it, why was that her default- Cressida had run out of the room.

<== ==>

HEARTH #20

<== ==>

Enron cleared her throat and smiled at the room. “You all know what I’m about,” she said. “My enemies would paint me as this… barbarian, who does whatever she wants, but that’s not who I am. I have a vision for TORCH. I see what we were and what we are, and I know what we can be. And I know what we will be, if Grace and BEACON get their way. She wants to throw us headlong into the past, one where everyone loved her and everyone needed her- a time that’s long gone. But let’s talk practical concerns. I want these terrorist attacks to end just as much as anyone.”

Did she? Enron’s acting wasn’t the best. She didn’t seem concerned about the attacks at all. “Like Grace said the other day. Girls should have the chance to live in peace, without fear.” Her voice became soft and distant. “So what did BEACON do the last time it was given a chance to interfere in another branch’s affairs?”

Enron held up her watch and pressed a few buttons, and a massive image appeared behind her. Pictures of black-clad girls lying on the ground, dead. Perforated with bullets, blasted open with rockets, slashed to ribbons with a pneumatic blade.

Henrietta’s stomach hit her pelvis. Those were FORGE girls. And those wounds… they were typical of those killed by BEACON legionnaires.

“Behold, the Blue Sands Massacre,” said Enron. “We’re coming up on its 20-year anniversary. LUX and FORGE have a disagreement that turns violent. BEACON intervenes… and the end result? 402 dead FORGE agents. That’s what BEACON does. They find the enemy and they kill them… and if they can’t find an enemy, they just kill whoever’s closest.”

The room was dead silent save for Enron’s powerful voice enveloping them. “This is why we send BEACON legions far, far away so they can do their killing on alien worlds,” said Enron, staring directly at the BEACON delegation. “They’ll put on suits and make speeches and act like the rest of us, but don’t be fooled. These girls are beasts.”

Several BEACON girls shifted uncomfortably, while others stared daggers at Enron. The worst part was that there was truth to what she was saying… a couple of them were definitely thinking about attacking her.

Enron wasn’t deterred. “And what happened after this massacre? How did we respond to BEACON’s bloodlust? We created a new branch. OPTICA. The watchers, the eyes in the sky, the girls tasked with making sure that every branch was respecting the laws we all agreed to. I don’t care about battles won half a century ago. I care about now- and the TORCH of now doesn’t need warlords who are above its laws. It needs respect for the institutions we all agreed to.”

She took a deep breath. “Which is why I’m announcing that SPRING will be fully supporting the OPTICA investigation- and that I’m creating a fund from our treasury where every last digit will go to finding the terrorists and bringing them to justice.” Enron shot a pointed look at Hyperion and LUX, communicating so much with just a single glance. “When you have a rat problem, you get a cat. You don’t blow up your house. That’s all.”

Enron stepped down from the stage, but several BEACON sisters moved towards her. SPRING girls matched that movement, until several women from either branch were nose-to-nose in arguments. Henrietta started forward, but she caught sight of Grace, who sharply shook her head no.

Enron was right there, loudly arguing with a tall and heavily muscled BEACON sister- still dwarfed by SPRING’s CEO. It all happened in an instant, as fights often do. The BEACON girl took a swing at Enron, who blocked the strike, slammed a knee into the girl’s sternum, and threw her like a basketball into the crowd of BEACON sisters.

“Shit!” Henrietta exclaimed. That was no bureaucrat with a few self-defense lessons who Enron had just taken out like garbage. That was a trained, experienced soldier.

It seemed for a moment that the entire Sorority would erupt into a 700-woman brawl, but things calmed down after Theodora banged her gavel a bunch again.

<== ==>

BEACON #20

<== ==>

 

She next shone her light on a nearby carving of a Neighbor on its knees while another stood behind it with a knife. “Is it being… executed?” Amalek asked with a frown.

“That was my first thought too. But no. That’s not a weapon- it’s a ritual dagger.” Chryse shone the light at the head of the kneeling Neighbor. “Look, its ears have been removed. And if you look back at the first carving, the ones kneeling closest to the podium are similarly missing their ears.”

“Ritualistic self-mutilation,” said Amalek. “I imagine they wouldn’t do that normally?”

“They would not.” Chryse shone her flashlight on a third drawing. Two Neighbors, one atop the other, their snouts touching. A robed Neighbor stood behind them, observing. “There are over a hundred carvings, but these three were the most interesting to me. This is a drawing of reproduction- the one on top is fertilizing the one beneath.” Her voice was breathy and far-away.

“What’s the big deal?” asked Sheba.

Chryse shot her a glance. “Ropinqa… ah… don’t have a concept of consent,” she said. “Reproduction is a battle for dominance for them, everything is. But here… there’s no violence. Both parties are willing, because they’re being instructed by the priest. I have occasionally observed consensual sex between Ropinqa before, but when combined with these other engravings…”

“Something fucky is going on here,” said Sheba. “This doesn’t add up. The defenders at the citadel, they were perfectly ordinary.”

“Were they?” Amalek had his hand on his chin and his eyes on the floor. “Mostly, yes… but didn’t they seem poorly-armed and equipped? Didn’t we beat them a bit too easily?”

Sheba nodded. “I thought that too,” she said. “Thought we caught them off-guard… but they could have also been weakened already.”

“And the defenses around the citadel. They weren’t facing southwest, towards the frontier. They were facing northeast, towards the mountain. Towards this very mesa.” Amalek swallowed dryly. “Could there be multiple Neighbor factions fighting on this planet? The ordinary ones we’re used to and this… cult?”

“It’s very possible… Ropinqa factions are constantly at war with one another. It’s one of the reasons why BEACON has been so successful against them: they once outnumbered us a thousand to one, but we fought with unity while they could not coordinate their massive numbers and amazing technology.” Chryse glanced at the engravings. “I’ve just never seen this behavior before.”

Herod stared at the multitude of engravings. The longer she looked, the more she found them loathsome. Ordinary Neighbors were bad enough, slithering and unctuous monsters. These carvings suggested something vaguely resembling humanity… but that touch of empathy only served to accentuate how fundamentally wretched the monsters were.

The Neighbors couldn’t help being born monsters. But a monster should not wear the skin of a real person.

“Legata, we’ve secured the Mater and her retinue,” Herod said to Lucifera, who hadn’t said a word since they came in. “Shall we return topside?”

“I need another hour or two,” said Chryse. “Once I finish my notation, we can-”

A siren filled the tunnel, the shriek bouncing off the walls and drowning out all other noise. An urgent-priority message… only a colonel or higher could send one of those. Lucifera silenced it with a press of her watch. “Tamar, what’s going on?” she asked in the colonels’ frequency.

“We’re fucked, that’s what’s up!” the voice of Tamar yelled back. “We’ve got an entire air cavalry bearing down on our heads! Thousands! We’re surrounded!”

“Fuck,” Lucifera groaned. “We’re on our way.”

“Hurry! They’re moving in and- shit! I gotta go! Over and out!”

There were no words. The expeditionary force turned around and rushed topside as fast as their feet would carry them. They dashed madly to the tunnel entrance and ran out into hell.

<== ==>