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)

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.

<== ==>

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.”

<== ==>

OPTICA #19

<== ==>

This room stank of sulfur. Industrial-sized flasks sat atop stoves, cooking away at a variety of ingredients. Like math, chemistry was universal, so Jonquil recognized some of these components. Nitromethane, chlorates… simple homemade explosives. Nothing with a fraction of the sophistication of a rabbit bomb.

But thick black cases sat on the far side of the room, separate from everything else. That had to be the real deal.

As Aliza said, there were four tellies. They wore sac-caste robes and were all different colors: lime yellow mixing ingredients on the far side of the room, olive green lazily guarding the main door, cherry red by the cases, and muddy purple sorting powders into bags.

Jonquil had the advantage of stealth. She targeted the purple one first, as it was the closest: a propulsor blast to its head sent it crumpling to the floor. Yellow, Red and Green turned to face her, but Jonquil was already moving towards a row of flasks.

Green raised its claw-rifle, but hesitated. It couldn’t risk hitting one of the volatile chemical flasks. That moment of hesitation was all she needed to point the propulsor between two flasks and shoot, taking the telly to the floor.

Red tried to flank her while Yellow made for the exit- she couldn’t let that happen. Jonquil threw herself to the floor and shot the propulsor at Yellow’s feet. She caught one of its legs and sent it crashing to the floor- thankfully muted by the ankle-deep water.

But by then, Red was upon her. It leveled its rifle at her chest, and as it was about to fire, Jonquil tossed her jacket in the air. The quarter-second of distraction let her roll out of the way of the shot, which left a bubbling crater on the floor.

Telly guns were powerful but primitive, and they needed to be reloaded after every shot. Red instead tried to stab her with the tip of the rifle, driving Jonquil backwards. It meant to keep her off-balance while Green and Red recovered.

If that happened, she was dead. Jonquil dove towards the wall, and Red thrust his bayonet to meet her. But Jonquil stuck out her arm and fired her propulsor- at the wall.

The concussive blast sent Jonquil flying, up in the air and over the flasks. She landed in the water, slapping the ground to distribute her weight. The maneuver baffled Red.

It baffled Jonquil too. Crazy moves like that weren’t her style. She twisted to her feet and rushed forward. Red had to reload its rifle, giving her time to close the gap. Jonquil slid under the table with the flasks to get beneath Red, thrust her hand in the air, and fired the propulsor. Red flew up and back, landed hard and did not rise.

Her heart pounding, Jonquil quickly made her way to Yellow, drawing the disruptor and pointing it at its head. She raised her watch and showed the telly the message Aliza had beamed her. The telly’s bug eyes glimmered with understanding. “Stay down.”

She quickly made a pair of hardlight handcuffs and shackled the telly’s wrists together. With all the threats neutralized, Jonquil made her way over to the black cases. One of them was partially open, so she carefully lifted the lid.

A device the size of her head sat inside. It was shaped like an egg and painted in garish colors. There was writing on the side- not the telly’s visual language. Writing Jonquil could read.

Reproducing Nanoparticle Bomb – Easter Module

334-160-92-82

From Your Good Friends At neo_SMOKE

A TORCH-made rabbit bomb.

<== ==>

OPTICA #18

<== ==>

Jonquil used her watch to make an airtight helmet membrane that would at least protect her nose, mouth and eyes from the garbage water. She wouldn’t be able to breathe while wearing it, of course. “My record is two minutes, by the way,” she told Aliza. “For holding my breath, I mean.”

“Because I’m worried about you, I’ll spare you the comment I want to make.”

“Thank you. You done yet?”

Aliza grunted. “Maybe. You’re gonna get a request in a second, accept it and we’ll see how it goes.”

Sure enough, her watch buzzed. “You have received a priority message from Alizarin Fete,” it read. “It contains a potentially malicious download. Do not accept priority messages from accounts you do not recognize.

Jonquil tapped accept. And her eyes turned off.

“Well?” she asked, trying to keep the terror out of her voice in favor of impatience. “Did it work?”

“I… believe it did, yes! I can see the room you’re in and… yep, I can apply infrared too. Okay, you ready to swim?”

Jonquil tightened her jacket and took several deep breaths. “You’ll guide me verbally through this,” she said. “I’m placing my life in your hands here, Aliza. Don’t fuck it up.” She put the air bubble on over her head, then stepped forward to plunge into the abyss.

Jonquil could feel the sticky, grimy water clinging to her jacket, seeping into her pants and coat, soaking her in its oily embrace. She swam methodically, following Aliza’s instructions- things like “you’re too high, swim down,” or “take a left,” or “oh Sapiens, what is that? Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

The seconds went by with agonizing slowness. This was probably the worst thing she had ever done- the only redeeming bit was that she didn’t have time to dwell on it.

But it ended. Everything ended if you gritted your teeth and beared it for long enough.

“There, 122,” Aliza said in her ear. “Swim up and slightly to the right, then follow the curvature of the ceiling.” Jonquil probed above her until she found the opening, then swam up to the surface. Pulling the air bubble off, Jonquil greedily sucked down air- not caring that the air was fetid and rotten.

She still couldn’t see a thing, but gradually the world settled around her to the point that she was able to pull herself out of the tub. Her clothes were heavy with wastewater, so she stripped off her jacket and bunched it up under her arm. “I don’t suppose you’d help pay for a new outfit?” she asked, choking back the urge to vomit.

“No chance, Diakon. I’m gonna try to give you your vision back now…” Several moments of silence. “Ooh. Well, the good news is that I know a good surgeon for prosthetic eyes.”

“Aliza.”

“Just kidding! Here you go.” Jonquil’s vision returned all at once, and she staggered forward a step from the rush. After a moment, she regained herself.

The sooner this was over, the better. “You get a glimpse inside with the infrared?” Jonquil muttered, creeping closer to the door.

“Yep. Four of them in there, all packing. Do you want me to send you a message for them? A warning or something?”

Jonquil checked the propulsor and found that the green light was still on- that meant it was operational. The particle disruptor on the other hand, ugly even when clean, was obviously jammed. That was bad: the propulsor was a non-lethal instrument with a short range. The disruptor was an all-too-deadly weapon that would tilt the odds in her favor.

But just because she knew the disruptor wasn’t working didn’t mean everyone else did. “I have a message for ’em,” Jonquil said. “‘Show me how to say, ‘stay down’.’”

She creaked the door open.

<== ==>

OPTICA #17

<== ==>

After several torturous minutes of descent… movement. Shuffling and clicking sounded from the next stairwell down. Tellies, quite a few of them. Jonquil waited as long as she dared but they made no signs of moving.

She had little choice but to go through the nearest door back to the rows of apartments. There was more activity here as little creatures that wouldn’t come to her waist chased each other through the halls. Telly juveniles, who had yet to shed their back legs. Their heads were bulbous and heavy on their tiny torsos as they played just like children- horrifying frog alien children.

Jonquil waited for their play to take them down a bend in the hall, then rushed down as quickly as she dared. This was taking too long. The sun would be down soon, and tellies grew more active at night. Not only that, but the tellies could see in the dark and Jonquil could not- she’d be at a major disadvantage.

She made her way to the other end of the building, found the second staircase, and moved down. This time the stairwell was empty, allowing her to access the ground floor. The smell was even worse down here. “Aliza,” she muttered. “I’m on the ground. Now what?”

“Oh, you’re still alive?” Aliza’s voice came in through the cochlear implant that interfaced with her watch. “I was wondering which of your stuff I could have.”

“You can have my boot lodged up your ass. C’mon, I don’t have any time to waste.”

“Yeah yeah. Okay… the apartment number is 122. Looks like this.” A trio of vertically-arranged geometric symbols appeared in a small hologram over her watch. “Find those.”

Numbers were the only bit of telly language that made sense to Jonquil, because they were universal. Two plus two was four on every planet, in every culture. Two of the symbols, silvery horseshoes, were identical. Jonquil deduced them to be twos.

She went on a hunt for rooms with the silver horseshoe as the middle number, all the while sticking to the shadows. There were a few armed tellies patrolling the floor, but lackadasically. They were prepared for an attack, not an infiltration.

Jonquil wasn’t the Mater Sicario or anything, she wouldn’t have stood a chance against professional anti-infiltration measures. But the Drowned Star were angry young men with big guns and no formal training.

After several minutes of searching, she discovered the 120’s in a curving hallway. It was infested with guards, several of them huddled outside 122, playing a gambling game with leaves. Jonquil gritted her teeth and ducked into a corridor. “I found the apartment but there’s no way in,” she hissed into her watch. “No less than ten guards out front. Our boy doesn’t take chances.”

“Shit.” Aliza was silent for several moments .”I… have an idea. How long can you hold your breath?”

“Aliza, I swear, there’s a time and a place-”

“Not for that. Telly apartments have disposal shafts for waste and trash. Those shafts are flooded and they connect the apartments to one another. You could swim through one of the neighboring water tunnels and up the bomb maker’s, get into his apartment like that.”

“Swim through a literal river of shit, eh?” Jonquil looked down. Her poor, poor outfit. This jacket would not only never be worn again, she’d probably have to burn it. “How am I going to see down there?”

“Well… good question. You have a neural implant, right?”

“Two. One to interface with tech and one to monitor vitals.” Jonquil instantly grew suspicious. “Why?”

“I can jailbreak that sensor and interface with it to see through your eyes… and then apply my own infrared vision to make your way through the tunnel. Um, you’d be blind while I was doing that, and possibly forever depending on how the jailbreak goes.” Aliza paused. “Wait, shit, you’re going to tell me to do it. Okay, I can’t actually, it was a joke, haha.”

“Aliza. Do it.” Jonquil rubbed her temples. “Just shut up and do it and don’t blind me if you can. How long will you need?”

“A few minutes. Get as close as possible to 122. You’ll still need to hold your breath and swim.”

With a nod, Jonquil peeked back at the hallway. She could probably make it to 128 without being detected, the only guard there had its back to her. Jonquil crept past, opened the door and slid inside with barely a peep.

The apartment was small: just a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. The latter was her destination, and fortunately the room was empty save for some kind of slimy water snake that slid past her boot. Jonquil gazed down the brown-and-black pit in the floor, where viscous dark liquid sloshed around. The fishy stench was far worse than any of the other foul things she had sniffed today.

Sapiens, did she hate Porropelin.

<== ==>

OPTICA #16

<== ==>  

It took Aliza a moment to understand. “Haha, good one Jonny. If you think I’m gonna let you go in there alone-”

“Have you been trained in infiltration and extraction, Aliza? I have- I can even show you my certification.” Jonquil had to get that certification for her old job in the Bentham Group, another one of OPTICA‘s elite units. They specialized in urban warfare and hostage rescue.

Aliza’s face paled when she realized how serious Jonquil was. “That’s suicide. There’s an entire paramilitary in there, they’ll kill you on sight.”

“So I’ll avoid being seen,” said Jonquil.

“C’mon, don’t. There’s one other thing we could try… that UMBRA unit here in Ttlatic that does extractions. Why don’t we ask them to help?”

Jonquil made eye contact- or the closest thing to eye contact that was possible considering the eight-inch height difference and Aliza’s lack of eyes. “I think I’d rather fight all of Drowned Star by myself than ask fucking UMBRA for help.”

Aliza sighed. “…Yeah. Agreed. I just want to make sure: is this an elaborate suicide attempt or do you actually think it’s a good idea?”

Jonquil stared straight ahead, not knowing what to say. Did she sincerely believe that it was the best course of action for the investigation? Or was it some sort of attempt to die in a blaze of glory?

She didn’t know. The idea had popped into her head and she had gone with it. Telly involvement in the bombing still seemed dubious: there was no clear motive for them to do such a thing. The bomber was also clearly intimate with how SPRING arranged their offices. It was still possible though, and even if the tellies were innocent they were definitely part of the puzzle.

At the same time, there had to be safer ways. Jonquil didn’t want to die, she was pretty sure… but the thought of her own death did not chill her either. Was that fearlessness or just a lack of self-regard?

It wasn’t the time for a methodical self-examination to discover the answer. “I’m going in,” she said. “Time is of the essence.”

“Well, nice knowing you I guess.” Aliza sighed heavily. “Bomb maker lives on the first floor, but we can’t get in through the street so you’ll have to sneak from the top down. I’ll try to get closer and monitor the situation. Try to check in with me. If I don’t hear from you for, I dunno, an hour, I’m calling Blackbox.”

Jonquil nodded. “It won’t come to that.” It helped to sound confident. With an affirmative grab of Aliza’s shoulder, she went off alone to The Drowned Star’s building.

The scaffolding entrance was thankfully unguarded, but the door was locked. Jonquil made a hardlight lockpick with her watch and cracked the door open. She carefully crept inside.

Jonquil made her way down the winding stairs, making sure to keep her steps light. Telly floors were always slick with what she hoped was water, so her boots had a hard sole that made sneaking tricky. Rotting garbage floated atop water, explaining the exceptionally odious smell.

The hallway seemed to faintly pulse, an optical illusion brought on by its shape: it expanded and constricted like a snake digesting a mouse. Whenever the hallway expanded, there were two doors on either side- apartments.

Three, no, four tellies were sloshing down the hallway towards her. They could move with great silence through water but were ungainly on land. Jonquil pressed herself against one of the doors and stood still until they passed by. All three were carrying claw rifles.

Jonquil pressed on to a spiral staircase that could take her all the way down to the ground floor. Her heart rate climbed as she sank deeper and deeper into the belly of the building.

<== ==>  

OPTICA #15

<== ==> 

Sac-caste’s buildings looked to be the telegaeic equivalent of a shanty town. The conical buildings were crumbling and unpainted and the murals that covered the street-level walls were smaller and simpler.

The scaffoldings were more extensive, but also narrower and less well-maintained. There were even some planks missing that Jonquil had to hop over- Aliza was able to stride across without issue.

The sac-casters were made distinct by their dress. Ordinary tellies wore nothing, or robes if they were people of import. Sac-caste wore dresses made from animal skin or a plant fiber. More significant tellies wore more elaborate skirts, with a few trying to move around in like 30 layers.

They were also far less accommodating than Labor Caste. They shoved, jostled, and harassed the OPTICA duo whenever they passed by. One tried to push Aliza off the bridge, but she ducked its thrust. Jonquil pointed her propulsor at it and it thought better of trying her.

“Why do they hate us so much more than the others?” Jonquil asked. They were both fairly new to Porropelin, about two years each, but Aliza seemed to know everything about the tellies.

“That’s a big mystery,” Aliza said, scratching her chin. “When TORCH arrived, sac-caste lived in a walled prison. They were only taken out to be killed.”

What?!

Aliza smiled back at her. “Sure. Why do you think they’re called Sacrifice Caste? They’d take ‘em to the top of the towers with the decks on them and kill ’em and… pray, we think. TORCH put a stop to that.”

Jonquil relaxed. “Well… good. So we freed them from enslavement and random murder and they hate us for it?”

“Xenos, man. They’re just as weird, complicated, and infuriating as humans are.” Aliza glance at a particularly large telly with a wriggling youth on its shoulder. “We just have a few centuries of tech on them. Swap the tech and they’d be imposing their will on us, finding the stuff we do weird and creepy.”

Jonquil shook her head. “That’s bullshit. We tested the tellies- they’re not as smart as us, they haven’t got our lateral thinking or creativity or organizational skills.”
“Of course an alien race isn’t going to beat TORCH in a contest TORCH designed,” Aliza replied. “I wouldn’t underestimate ’em, Jonny. You of all people should know how dangerous something can be when it’s underestimated.”

“So what do you advise? Leave this planet? Fuck off back to Earth and let the xenos do whatever they want?” Jonquil tapped her foot. “Don’t forget why we’re here. To prepare this planet for eventual mass human colonization. We study and tolerate the locals, but we’re not here to uplift them. We’re here to get them used to us.”

“How conservative of you. I don’t care about any of that, honestly- rule ‘em, kill ‘em, fuck ‘em, whatever. But if we’re going to rule these things, we may as well try to understand ‘em.” Aliza slid past another aggressive telly, and Jonquil mirrored her movement. “I’m no xeno-fucker, y’know. I’m interested in ‘em, but that doesn’t mean I have any affection or disdain for ‘em.”

“So we finally found something you won’t try to have sex with.”

Aliza grinned. “Their genitals are all internal, dude. Ain’t looking to get eggs laid in me… although I know for a fact there’s a girl at the precinct who’s into exactly that. Wanna guess who?”

“No!”

The towers grew both larger and more rundown the farther they went into the district. Tellies sat in the streets, their legs folded underneath them, begging for food or money. Beggars were transplanetary.

“Bomb maker lives on the bottom story of that building over there,” Aliza said, pointing to a cone with a garish lime green and pink mural around the top. “But that symbol is a gang sign… shit, it’s gonna be infested with members of The Drowned Star.”

Finally, an aspect of the tellies Jonquil knew about. Drowned Star was a well-armed paramilitary that recruited disgruntled young sac-caste members. They mostly fought other tellies, but sometimes were brave enough to clash with TORCH. And sure enough, no less than a dozen telegaeics patrolled the building. Each was armed with the claw-shaped rifles they favored. “Not getting in there easy,” she said.

“So what do you wanna do?” Aliza asked. “Requisition a Blackbox team?”

Blackbox was OPTICA’s elite military unit. They were more like soldiers than cops, and they were happy for any opportunity to kick xeno ass. Jonquil partook in joint training exercises with them in her old job… Blackbox girls were trained to always be agitated, vigilant, and ready for battle. They were excellent at their jobs and absolutely awful in conversation.

Jonquil could imagine it. “If a Blackbox team hits a Drowned Star building, it’ll be a massive firefight that won’t end until everyone on one side is dead- and that side will be the tellies. If we’re unlucky, it’ll draw the rest of sac-caste into the fight too… or enflame the tensions and send the tellies into revolt.” She swallowed dryly. “Hundreds or thousands would die… and maybe whoever bombed SPRING_ToMind would cover their tracks in the meantime.”

Aliza nodded grimly. “So what’s the alternative?”

“Leave, call it in. Hope that what we’re looking for is still here when OPTICA figures out what they want to do.”

Aliza shook her head. “No way. Nothing happens quickly in OPTICA once it goes past the street level, you know that. It’ll be weeks before any move is made.”

Jonquil nodded gravely. She didn’t understand it: almost every Senior Inspector, Chief Inspector, and Commissioner she had ever met was good at what they did, competent and intelligent and motivated. And yet OPTICA as a whole was always slow, vacillating, and ineffectual.

They couldn’t pass the buck to anyone, so that left one other option. “We can also go in there without being noticed. Extract the bomb-maker and question him, but don’t kill anyone. Surgical and quiet.”

“Can we do that?” Aliza asked.

Jonquil sighed. “We can’t. I can do that.”

<== ==> 

OPTICA #14

<== ==>  

The building in question was a broad tower with slightly different architecture. It was a tapered cone like all the others, but it had a huge circular deck on top of it as wide as the base of the building. You could fit a few thousand tellies up there, no problem. “What is it?” Jonquil asked.

“Not totally sure. Somewhere between a church, meeting hall, factory, apartment complex and bar. Like most telly stuff, it doesn’t have a direct equivalent. I’ve had good luck finding elders willing to talk to me there before, though.”

They entered the building from one of the scaffold-level entrances and found it awash with activity. Juvenile tellies chased each other around on all fours in the halls. Some tellies slept on the floor with their limbs folded under their bellies. Some were hard at work making what looked to be ceremonial robes. A few were wildly dancing- in prayer, maybe. They all took notice of Jonquil and Aliza’s arrival but none of them stopped what they were doing. The entire place smelled like the dumpster behind a bad seafood restaurant.

“If this goes sideways, we’ll be fucked,” Jonquil said. “I can’t possibly fight this many.”

“You won’t have to. Just stand there and look tough. I’ll do all the, uh, signing.” Aliza led Jonquil up the stairs towards the top floor. The crowds thinned out up here until they reached a room that, disturbingly, was flooded up Jonquil’s calves.

There were a few tellies in here dressed in ceremonial robes. Aliza took on a subservient posture, bowing her head. “These are the elders,” she muttered.

They looked exactly the same as all the others. Huge bug eyes, screens, technicolor skin covered in a secreted film. Nevertheless, Jonquil mirrored Aliza as one of the tellies approached them. It beamed a black-and-pink checkered cube at Aliza, who replied with a teal-and-lilac cube of her own.

“I’m expressing proper respect and deference,” Aliza explained as she beamed several more images from her eyes. “Now I’m going to ask about the unrest.”

It was all inscrutable to Jonquil, but Aliza understood well enough. “The elder says that the unrest has started in Sacrifice Caste and has spread to Labor Caste,” she said. “He says that it’s an internal matter, and that he’s in communication with Warrior Caste to ensure it stays that way. They don’t want us involved in their affairs.”

Jonquil nodded. “Ask if it knows about the attack.”

“He does- but denies that any telly could be responsible. I’ll tell him that I believe him, but my superiors may not and could connect the unrest to the terrorism… and he replies that if such a bombing was done by tellies, it certainly wasn’t Labor Caste.”

Jonquil raised her watch and showed the elder the footage of the three tellies spotted in SPRING_ToMind. “Ask if it knows them.”

The elder stared unblinkingly at the screen, no emotion in his face or posture. He turned back to Aliza and beamed a blood red leaf. “He says that these are sac-caste, and that Labor Caste has nothing to do with any of this. He says we should be investigating them instead.”

Sacrifice Caste, or sac-caste for short, was the most bizarre and mysterious aspect of the tellies- which was saying something. They were the only tellies to wear clothes besides robes and loincloths, and they did no work besides breed. They were also highly aggressive towards TORCH agents, to the point that agents were advised against going to their part of town.

“Ask it if it can point us in the right direction,” Jonquil prompted.

“Kay… he says there’s a sac-caste bomb maker. A scoundrel who hates TORCH and makes weapons to use against us. If he’s not behind the bombing, he knows something about it- so says the elder.” They exchanged a few more images. “I have an address. Let’s hit it.”

“That was easy,” Jonquil observed as they left the tower. “I was expecting something tougher.”

“He was very ready to help us, yeah,” Aliza mused. “And very ready to pass the buck to sac-caste. He seemed pissed with them. So, maybe the tellies did do it after all.”

To that, Jonquil had no answer.

<== ==>  

OPTICA #13

<== ==>

Jonquil didn’t expect the telly to know much. The bombing had happened only about fifteen hours ago and in the TORCH side of the city. Only tellies who were closely involved would know much about it. “What do you think?” she asked, bowing to Aliza’s expertise.

“I think we ought to find an elder and ask their opinion on all this. We’ve worked with them a lot before… and I wanna know more about this ‘reckoning’. I think I know a guy.” Aliza offered a hand and helped the telly off the ground, then gave him something from her pocket and beamed him an image. The telly helped up its friend, still dazed and winded from the propulsor shot, and staggered away.

“What did you give him?” she asked Aliza.

“Huh? Oh. Some shrimp- fuckers love shrimp.”

“You keep shrimp in your pockets?”

Aliza’s cheeks turned pink. “Don’t shame me.”

They returned to the scaffoldings. Jonquil had gotten damp during all of the excitement, and the hems of her rolled-up pants had still managed to get soaked. Aliza led them deeper into Labor-Caste District. The buildings became larger and more impressive, and the streets busier with activity. “So how’s life?” Aliza asked casually, peering over her shoulder. “You, uh… seen any good movies lately?”

“I don’t watch movies,” said Jonquil. “Let’s focus on the investigation.”

“Gosh Jonquil, throw me a bone won’t you? You’re the straight woman, I get it.” Aliza stuck out her tongue. “A little too straight.”

“Fine line between flirting and harassment, Aliza.”

“Any line I walk on is a fine line.”

Jonquil grunted. Their conversations always went like this. “What about Cordovan? You weren’t shy about grabbing his bits, or him yours.”

“They’re good bits! Fun to squeeze and grab. He’s the one I was drinking with last night, and y’know, one thing led to another.” Aliza shrugged. “I can give you the gory details if you like.”

“That is… quite all right.” Jonquil could imagine it vividly enough. “So it was…”

“Oh, it was excellent. A bit surprised I’m walking straight afterwards.” Aliza grinned, showing all her teeth. “We have another date this weekend. If you like, I could call in a last minute substitution. ‘I’m under the weather, but my hot friend is free.’”

Jonquil groaned, looking up at the grey sky and wishing for a lightning storm to smite her. “I was that obvious?”

“It’s not even eye-fucking, what you do. You’re eye-romancing him. Eye-making him breakfast and reminding him to turn on the dishwasher before work. Cordovan’s not that kind of guy, Jonny… he’s not going to be tied down, probably not ever. Maybe that’s why he and I get along.”

“So I’m doomed because I want something more substantial than a drunken romp?” Jonquil asked crisply.

“You’re doomed because you’re not buying what the man is selling. He’s selling artisanal dick, hot and fresh. The price is low and the quality is top-notch but that’s all he sells.”

Someday she’d get used to Aliza’s crassness. Today was not that day. “He doesn’t even look at me,” she murmured.

“Well you’re not exactly his type. You’re, uh, more of a niche flavor than a crowd-pleaser. But get a few drinks in him and I promise you he won’t give a shit about anything except what’s between your thighs.”

Jonquil shook her head fervently. “Not my thing. You can keep him.”

“I really can’t- and he can’t keep me. I just intend to enjoy it while it lasts.” With a roll of her shoulders, Aliza chuckled. “Finally did it.”

“Hmm?”

“Finally got you to think about something besides that fucking bombing.” She shuddered. “What a grisly scene. Being a cop isn’t so fun on days like this.”

“Fun…?” Jonquil blinked in confusion. “I don’t understand. What is fun about our job?”

Aliza put her hands up in a conciliatory gesture. “It’s just a joke, Jonny. Just that, y’know, we usually find time for a bit of levity at least. You’re stiff on a good day but I don’t think I’ve seen you so serious before. Cheer up.”

Before she knew it, Jonquil had rounded on her partner and was right up in her face. Aliza stepped back in surprise. “Tell that to the dead,” Jonquil growled, just as surprised at how angry she was. “Tell that to all their friends who will never see them again. Tell that to the rest of TORCH: that we were tasked with finding out who butchered those women but we didn’t because we weren’t taking it seriously enough. Don’t you understand the responsibility that’s been given to us, Aliza? I didn’t ask for a life like this for fun. I asked for it because justice for the dead, justice to the living, is the only thing that separates us from animals. How many lives is your ephemeral enjoyment worth?”

“It’s not like that,” Aliza said meekly. “All I was trying to say is-“

“I know you don’t take this work seriously. I know it hardly matters to you. That’s fine. I’ve long since made my peace with our differences. But now, when seventy-plus are dead and their bodies have yet to grow cold, I only ask that you not get in the way. If you aren’t going to take this seriously, then go home.” Jonquil met Aliza’s eyes and bored into them. “Don’t half-ass it, Aliza. That’s disrespectful. Full-ass it or don’t ass it at all.”

Aliza’s smile had melted away. After a moment of thought, she nodded slowly. “Okay. You’re right. I’ll try harder… but I don’t think the odd joke hurts our effectiveness. Get too tense and you become rigid, inflexible. Gotta stay light on our feet, eh?”

Jonquil just turned away, her point made. They walked in silence for several minutes more until Aliza spoke up.“That’s our spot,” she said, far more subdued than before.

<== ==>

OPTICA #12

<== ==>

They made their way down from the walkways and turned into the alleyway the three youths had just turned into. Because the predominant building shape was cones, alleys were wide at the ends and narrow in the center. The youths stood at that narrow center, one using a long metal stylus to draw an elaborate pattern on an empty patch of wall.

As they approached the tellies, Aliza toyed with the settings for her eyes. She could indeed shoot lasers from them- harmless light constructs. This allowed Aliza to communicate with the tellies, although her sentence construction was apparently childish and her “vocabulary” highly limited. “I’ll handle this,” she told Jonquil.

The youths started at the approach of TORCH agent, but Aliza beamed a silver-and-blue wavy line. “Calm down,” she translated. “My friend and I have questions.”

One of the tellies beamed back orange-and-green triangles clashing into one another. “He’s telling us to fuck off. Says he has nothing to say to us… his friends are beaming agreement.”

Jonquil hesitated. On the one hand, there wasn’t much profit in harassing the locals. On the other, tellies harboring anti-TORCH sentiments were exactly who they were looking for.

Plus, Jonquil took shit from everyone she worked with save Aliza- and Sepia, mostly. She wasn’t going to take shit from some filthy fucking xenos as well. “Ask again,” she said. “Tell them they’re not in trouble, but they will be if they don’t cooperate.”

The leader of the three replied with a yellow circle being pierced by a black spear. Aliza gasped. “He… says he doesn’t know anything about the dead girls, only that he’s glad they died and he wishes we were caught in the explosion too.”

Heat rose in Jonquil’s throat as she took a step forward, but the telly was quicker on the draw. It reached into his own napsack and yanked a curved dagger free, slashing at Jonquil. She saw the glint of metal and ducked, the blade shearing a few butter-yellow hairs off her head.

Aliza moved to aim her sidearm but the other two tellies swarmed her. A mistake. Aliza’ might have been bigger than Jonquil, but her background was in academics… she was a transfer over from LUX, where she had been a scholar of xenobiology.

Jonquil meanwhile had been in OPTICA almost her entire life. Before her deployment to Porropelin, she served on a counterterrorism taskforce that was regularly deployed to warzones. She was the fighter of the two.

While Aliza evaded their attacks, the telly swung his knife at Jonquil again, this time diagonally. Jonquil leaped into its guard and planted a sharp elbow into the telly’s sternum, then swept her knee into the joint of its skinny leg. As it hobbled to the side, Jonquil popped her hip to break its crumbling balance.

She grabbed the telly’s arm and sent it over her back and shoulder, throwing it into one of the other two. They fell in a heap. The third and final telly turned its attentions to Jonquil, starting for her- but she had time to train her sidearm on it.

That would be her standard- issue concussive shock bracelet, usually called a propulsor. It was a simple black bracelet with an opening the size of a marble over her right palm. A headshot would cause serious injury, so Jonquil elected for a body blow instead.

All Jonquil had to do was point her hand, spread her fingers, and think about firing. The propulsor then interfaced with her neural chip and a cannonball of compressed air burst from her wrist. It spun through the air and slammed into the telly’s chest, taking it off its feet and leaving it twitching helplessly on the ground.

The third telly pulled itself from underneath the one Jonquil threw and made a run for it. Aliza took aim with her own propulsor but she missed, the telly sliding out of the way of the blast.

“Let it go,” Jonquil said disdainfully. “We have two, what use is a third?” She headed over to the telly she had thrown and pointed the propulsor at its head. “Ask it if it’ll talk to us now.”

Aliza beamed two lines, one black and one red, snaking out of a yellow rectangle. The telly replied with a white triangle with two red ovals in it. “Says he doesn’t know anything,” Aliza replied. “I’ll handle this, hold on.”

She beamed several images in succession at the telly, who hesitantly replied with a dark orange circle. “He says that the tellies are angry with TORCH. He says that the elders call for peace but nobody is listening to them anymore. He says that others- not him, but others- are gathering weapons and getting ready to fight.”

“Fight us?” Jonquil asked.

They exchanged more images. “Just… fight. ‘A reckoning approaches’, that sort of thing. He says he doesn’t know anything about the bombing, and I think he’s telling the truth.”

<== ==>

OPTICA #11

<== ==>

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.”

<== ==>