OPTICA #31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t say it-”

“And she also frequently waters my hole.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hydrogen peroxide,” said Jonquil. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Complimented my appearance.”

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

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

“What?” a voice called from within.

“Visitors, boss. Coupla of OPTICA hounds.”

“…That a joke?”

“Nope. Will you see ’em?” 

“…Sure.”

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

OPTICA #30

<== ==>

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s hear it.”

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

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

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

“Fine, whatever. What’s the idea?”

<== ==>

OPTICA #29

<== ==> 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How was your research coming?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

“Anything else?”

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

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

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

<== ==> 

OPTICA #28

<== ==>

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

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

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

“Stop what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just over three years now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

OPTICA #27

<== ==>

Jonquil returned to interrogation to find Aliza had come out just a moment prior. “I think UMBRA is trying to pin this on neo_SMOKE,” Jonquil announced to her partner.

Aliza still had her eyebrows, and she put them up. “…I hope I’m the first one to hear you say that,” she said, glancing around to make sure they were alone..

“You are. Think about it: what evidence do we really have of neo_SMOKE’s guilt? Two words on a bomb. Anyone could have put that there. Anyone could have given the bombs to sac-caste. UMBRA could very easily pin the crime on neo_SMOKE with a few scant pieces of evidence, then take over the investigation themselves to ensure the illusion is sold.”

Aliza’s response was to grab Jonquil’s arm and hurry her to the side, ducking them into a corner. “You wanna get killed?” she hissed. “This whole building is crawling with wights, and you’re gonna accuse them of terrorism? Without a shred of evidence?”

“Not terrorism, obfuscating the culprit of terrorism,” Jonquil fired back. “UMBRA and neo_SMOKE have that big rivalry, they hate each other’s guts. There’s no way UMBRA would be impartial in any investigation- and you know what these women are capable of.”

Everyone did. UMBRA had been founded by Belladonna, the Mater Sanguinis- the most infamously brutal black ops agent from TORCH‘s early days. For fuck’s sake her official title was “The Mother of Blood”.

Little had changed since then. During the Snuffing of SMOKE and the Red Riots, UMBRA agents had ruthlessly butchered their fellow TORCH agents, and reportedly tortured captives to boot. Brutality and outrageousness was just how they rolled. 

Aliza shook her head. “It’s pointless, Jonny. I don’t like it, but we can’t do shit.”

“We have to. OPTICA needs to continue the investigation, otherwise the truth will vanish. If Sepia won’t let us, we go over her head to Deputy Chief Inspector Kobicha.”

“You saw the situation with Sepia and Pennyroyal. You think the boss lady would act like that otherwise?” Aliza shook her head. “Nobody in OPTICA can stop this short of the Mater Custodes herself- and she’s a dozen systems away.”

“Then we investigate without OPTICA,” insisted Jonquil. “Show them the truth so clearly that they can’t avert their eyes. Come on Aliza, this is important, you know it is.”

“I know it’s no longer our problem. So what if UMBRA buries the truth, Jonquil? It won’t make all those dead girls alive again.” Aliza’s voice was permeated with a deep weariness. “You and I aren’t in any position to stop them.”

Jonquil frowned. “What sort of defeatist nonsense is that? You were a scientist, weren’t you? You LUX bitches don’t care about anything but discovering the secrets of the universe, and you spit in the eye of anyone who gets in your way.”

“That’s a stereotype,” Aliza muttered. “And I’m not LUX anymore.”

“No, now you’re OPTICA. That means you swore an oath to defend TORCH‘s values and laws with her life- and you’re telling me you don’t want to know the truth?”

“Of course, I want to know, Jonny, I just-” Aliza looked to the left, then deflated. “…I just don’t think we’d survive the attempt, is all. UMBRA is ruthless, and they won’t hesitate to dispose of us if we stand between them and what they want.”

Aliza’s words were credible. There was a real danger that UMBRA would try to kill them, or at least beat the fight out of them. And yet, Jonquil didn’t feel any fear. It was almost like Aliza said they might kill Jonquil’s avatar in a game or something. “Someone has to do something,” she urged. “If all the stars in the sky are against us. For the truth, Aliza, I’m willing to stare oblivion in the eye and wait for it to blink.”

There was a long silence. It was sometimes hard to pick up the nuances of Aliza’s emotions, because her mechanical eyes weren’t nearly as expressive as organics. Instead, Jonquil watched Aliza’s mouth: first pursed and peeled back. Uncertain. Then flat and symmetrical, in a grim parody of a smile. Resigned. “You can be a real pain in my ass, Jonny. And-”

“And not the kind of pain in your ass you like, yes, you’ve said it a thousand times before,” Jonquil said with a grin. “You need me as a partner, Aliza. If anyone else found out how often you repeat your jokes, they’d drown you in the storm drain.”

“Hey! My jokes aren’t repetitive, they’re crafted to perfection.” Aliza scowled playfully. “It’s about the delivery, not the novelty, you philistine. And by the way, you still turn bright red and start stuttering after half of them, so they can’t be that passe.”

“Well that too. Come on, sidekick. There’s a lead that we still haven’t followed.”

“You first, sidekick.”

<== ==>

OPTICA #26

<== ==>

The full debriefing took more than an hour. The UMBRA agent kept interrupting with questions and comments. Her laughing fit when Jonquil told her about the sewer adventure lasted three minutes alone.

Jonquil exited the debriefing in a rotten mood. What had she risked her life for yesterday, exactly? What was going on? None of this added up. Against her better judgment, she went to the break area and lit up a cigarette. She needed to kill some time- and calm down- while Aliza got debriefed.

The break room consisted of an internal room with vending machines, coffee makers and refrigerators, and a balcony for those looking to get some fresh air. The latter section was covered by an awning. Some found the drumming of rain against the glass soothing. Jonquil did not.

She tried to steady her breathing as she worked at the cigarette. “Since when do you smoke?” someone asked. 

Jonquil froze and looked up. Naturally someone she knew walked in the moment she lit the damn thing up. Fortunately, it was Mint, the gangly OPTICA_Cyber techie and one of the few people in the precinct Jonquil had a decent relationship with.

“My whole life.” Jonquil sighed in guilty bliss as she took a long drag. “I love them, but I try to avoid them if I can help it.”

“How come? They’re not dangerous or anything. I guess maybe your lungs won’t like it that much but you work out a ton.” Mint reached into her breast pocket and produced a pack of SPRING_Awakening stims. “I guess you gotta relieve stress somehow. You always look like you’re a bad day away from snapping.”

“I do?” Jonquil sucked on her teeth. Did she really come off as so fragile? And if she did, was that common knowledge? 

The techie popped a stim in her mouth and downed it with liquid from a black bottle. She shook her head and shuddered.  “So why don’t you smoke? Some kinda… proof of self-discipline?”

“No.” Jonquil found herself increasingly interested in the floor. “…Because Grace smokes.”

“Grace… Diakon? Ohhh.” Mint breathed in sharply. The stims must have just hit her- and the first rush was by far the best. “You’re so afraid of being compared to her that you won’t even do things she’s known for doing, and she smokes so you don’t? That’s fucking stupid, Jonk.”

The rail-skinny girl was now speaking twice as fast and swallowing the ends of her words. “It’s stupid, I know,” said Jonquil. “But whenever people look at me… they see her. Not me. Even the xenos see me as someone I’m not- they wouldn’t know a Mater from a Martyr, but they know that I look like Grace. Even Sepia… she’s always done right by me, but she calls me ‘Diakon’. Everyone else gets to be their first name. I’m the only one who’s her template name. And when people say ‘Diakon’, the person that makes them think of is never ‘Jonquil’. It’s been that way my whole life, everywhere I’ve gone.” 

That wasn’t wholly true… there had been one place where Jonquil didn’t feel that way. But she never thought about that if she could help it. “When nobody ever even tries to see you for what you are, is there even a ‘you’? Do I really exist, or am I just some shade? Is there Jonquil, or is Jonquil just Grace through a mirror darkly?”

“Quit your rambling,” Mint said, her teeth chattering. “It does sound pretty shitty I guess, but no matter how you looked, you wouldn’t be popular. You’re fussy and rude and have no sense of humor, and you don’t understand why anyone would make a decision you wouldn’t make.”

“And this is why we’re coworkers and not friends,” said Jonquil. She usually appreciated Mint’s brutal honesty, but certainly not now. Why had she bothered to open up to this awkward, ungainly woman?

“I don’t want friends,” Mint stuttered. “T-too complicated. The most complex code I’ll ever glimpse hasn’t got nothing on how outrageously strange people are… too much for me. I have several drug addictions to keep me occupied instead. Have you tried not giving a shit what people think about you?”

Jonquil laughed humorlessly. “I can’t. I’ve cared from moment one. It’s just part of me, on some level too deep to totally understand. And the worst part is… Grace Diakon must care what people think of her, too. A woman of the people and all.”

Mint flexed her jaw a few times. “I’ve never heard you bitch about it before. What makes today different, I wonder? Is it this UMBRA takeover?”

It was… but why did it have Jonquil so bent out of shape? Sure, it stung to have her investigation stolen from under her nose. But she had worked cases for eight or nine months only for the department to declare them cold- and that hadn’t troubled her as much as this.

There was a piece missing to all of this. A part of the calculus that she just didn’t get. Every instinct she had cultivated was screaming alarm bells at her, and yet Jonquil was no longer allowed to look into the crime. That was absurd.

“Mint,” she asked suddenly, “would you have found something about these rabbit bombs in the neo_SMOKE chatrooms?”

“Well, it’s possible. The black cats are good at keeping things quiet when they want to, and I can’t see a lot of what they say cuz it gets deleted automatically. But this kind of silence is weird. Usually there’s at least a little about any big deal, but I found absolutely nothing.”

Jonquil nodded. Exactly what she expected. “I have to go,” she said. “Thanks for listening to me complain- I know it isn’t exactly your favorite thing to hear.”

“Eh, it’s fine. Good to remind me every now and again of why I don’t want friends.” Mint waved her off. “Now then, if you need anything, I’m going to be pretending to work while watching porn.”

<== ==>

OPTICA #25

<== ==>

It took every ounce of self-control Jonquil had not to leap out of her chair. “What?! That’s not legal!”

“Afraid it is,” said Sepia with a sigh, a steaming cup of coffee in her hands. “UMBRA can take precedence in counterterror investigations. That’s written right there in the OPTICA charter- it was their job before we were around, and they didn’t want to give it up completely.” 

OPTICA was the newest branch of TORCH, less than twenty years old. Whenever a new branch was created, all the existing ones had to agree to what responsibilities and limitations it had. There had been law enforcement in TORCH before OPTICA, but it had been split up across numerous other entities, including UMBRA.

In other words, UMBRA could very well demand a concession like final say over counterterrorism. But Jonquil had never once heard of this clause before. 

“I’ve been with OPTICA since I got out of the Academy and I have never once heard of UMBRA doing this,” said Jonquil desperately. “Boss, this is some hoary old loophole.”

“I have to agree,” said Aliza, although she did so slowly. “We’ve already begun our investigation, too. Are you telling me we’ll be subordinated to UMBRA from now on?”

“No no dear!” The purple-haired girl’s smile was gentle and soothing, but Jonquil didn’t buy it. “We’re simply going to debrief you and get copies of your findings so far, and then we’ll proceed with our own investigation. I would never dream of ordering OPTICA agents around.”

Sepia buried her face in her coffee. Her eyes were dun when she looked back up. “Sorry girls.”

“On whose authority do you take control?” Jonquil asked the wight. “Who even are you?”

Purple Hair was the very picture of graciousness. “Whose authority? That’s classified, of course. As for me… it’s a pleasure to meet you in the flesh, Jonquil Diakon. My name is Pennyroyal. I am the Executive Secretary and mission leader of all UMBRA operations here on Porropelin.”

Jonquil met Pennyroyal’s eyes. There had to be tens or even hundreds of thousands of wights on this planet. Pennyroyal might have been the single most powerful person on Porropelin, and certainly somewhere in the top ten. She wasn’t Sepia’s equivalent in a different branch… she was like a great white shark while Sepia was a mid-sized fish.

And Jonquil was a minnow.

“It’s only been a day, so it can’t hurt that much for us to take control,” said Pennyroyal innocently. “Don’t worry, Miss Diakon, I’m sure your hard work will be crucial to our own investigation. UMBRA simply has the resources to handle this problem, moreso than OPTICA. neo_SMOKE is our responsibility, has been from day one, and if they’ve decided to play terrorists then we’ll be the ones to set them straight. That’s all there is to it.”
Jonquil stared at Pennyroyal, but she couldn’t get a read on her at all. The UMBRA girl’s posture was loose and straight, her expression genial but neutral. Her smile didn’t touch her eyes. This was a different breed than an attack dog like Scar… this woman was cool and professional, to the point that she could do absolutely anything with neither remorse nor joy.

It was scary, talking to someone so detached. There was something subtly wrong about Pennyroyal… something that crawled up Jonquil’s skin and churned her stomach.

“The Executive Secretary has the right of it,” said Sepia morosely. “This is her show now. You two and the other hounds will be debriefed. After that, OPTICA is finished with this case- and you two will take the rest of the day off. No arguments.”

“But-”

“No arguments, Diakon.” Sepia’s voice gained a sharp edge.

<== ==>

OPTICA #24

<== ==>

“Will you two just make out already?” asked someone behind Jonquil. Her voice was loud and raspy… Aliza. “It’s waaay too early for this kind of sexual tension.”

Aliza’s outfit was disheveled, her blouse rumpled and her coat in need of dry-cleaning. Her hair was frizzy and uncombed. She still looked fantastic in hip-hugging jeans and boots… it was annoying how effortlessly great Aliza looked every single day. She walked over to Jonquil’s side. “Seriously, you gotta forgive Jonny. She gets really gung-ho about these investigations. She’s a good kid though, so I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t beat her face in. It’s a nice face.”

Scar backed down- egos aside, there was no profit in them fighting and they both knew it. “Aliza,” she nodded. “A degenerate clone of a Mater and a robot-eyed freak. What a pair you two are.”

Nobody in OPTICA minded Aliza’s eyes much, but that was because it was Aliza. Most in TORCH were deeply distrustful of cybernetic implants. Aliza smiled the insult off. “They’re ugly, but they have their advantages: x-ray vision, for instance. Cute undies.”

Scar grinned. “I don’t wear underwear.”

“The cutest kind.” Aliza winked.

With the commotion over, the peanut gallery dispersed. Iris got to her feet and dusted herself off, and Aliza tossed Jonquil a meaningful glance. “Sorry about that,” Jonquil told Iris, trying her best to keep her voice even. “I’m high-strung. You okay?”

Iris stood up and pushed past. “If you ever do that again, they’ll never find your remains,” she spat.

“Don’t try to touch me and I won’t have to do it again,” Jonquil replied. “I still haven’t gotten an answer to my question.”

“We’re partners now,” said Scar, grinning viciously as Iris stood at her side. “neo_SMOKE terrorism is our specialty. You OPTICA skanks have done okay but this is heavyweight stuff. That means heavyweight solutions.”

“Heavyweight is right,” Aliza said appreciatively. “Damn, you must work out night and day. Can I feel your bicep?” 

Scar’s expression actually softened. “Sorry, I’m spoken for.” She pulled Iris closer to her. “I won’t forget what you did, Jonny. One day.”

“Looking forward to it,” Jonquil said coldly, striding past them. 

Aliza followed behind, her face contorted in worry. “Well that was a catastrophe,” she muttered. “I was trying to smooth things over, but now we’ve got an enemy for life. Let’s try to play nice with the wights, c’mon.”

“No way,” Jonquil spat. “You know who they are and what they do. They’re nothing but a pox on TORCH, a big ugly tumor that’s killing the whole body a little bit more every day. The least I can do is call them out on their bullshit. And can you please not hit on any more of them?”

Aliza chewed on her lip. “Sorry! I’m not even turned on. When I get nervous I just sort of do that. It’s not my best trait.”

Jonquil grunted in frustration. “We need to find Sepia. There’s no way she’s okay with this.”

The Senior Investigator was in her office, which was sparse and minimalist save for three shelves filled with complicated coffee-related machines and apparatuses. Sepia had busied herself with a siphon coffee maker… any coffee machine that involved a wick and a vacuum was too complicated.

There was already someone in here, a stranger in glaring UMBRA white. Her hair and eyes were a cheery purple, and she wore the former in a pair of almost girlish pigtails. She was unsettlingly adorable, with big dark eyes like a doll. “Ah, they showed themselves,” said the UMBRA agent. Her voice was a happy chirp. “See, I told you!”

“Mrrg.” Sepia didn’t look up from her carafe. “Aliza, Diakon. Have a seat.”

Aliza sat in the middle, Jonquil on the left, and the stranger on the right. “Chief, we need to talk about this,” Jonquil said sharply. “I don’t see why UMBRA needs to be involved in our investigation. We’ve been handling it so far-”

“Let me stop you right there,” said Purple Hair. “Missss… Diakon, I understand your concerns. If you’ll excuse my lack of political correctness, our branches are like oil and water. Rather than benefit from the cooperation, we’ll just step on one another’s toes and clash with each other while heinous terrorists go scot-free. Yes?”

“Exactly,” said Jonquil with relief. 

Purple Hair smiled sweetly. “Which is why, effective immediately, your friends at UMBRA will be assuming control of the investigation into the SPRING_ToMind bombing.”

<== ==>

OPTICA #23

<== ==>

Something was amiss at the precinct. Jonquil could instantly tell.

The vast majority of OPTICA inspectors didn’t bother with cars. The roads were in such laughably bad condition that most preferred public transit or automated flying taxis. Spectra Plaza still had a huge parking lot around back for patrol cars, but the lot was less than half full on a normal day.

But today, the parking lot was filled with automobiles: dull, featureless, blocky cars that were trying too hard to be forgettable. Jonquil gave them a once-over for logos, but found none.

The weather was chaotic, minutes-long bursts of heavy rain followed by periods of quiet, so Jonquil hurried inside with her guard up. She scanned for anyone she didn’t know, anyone who didn’t carry themselves like OPTICA. The lower levels of the precinct were filled with beat cops, mostly bleary-eyed puppies finishing up their night shifts. Jonquil approached one of the less haggard ones. “Good morning,” she said. “Do you know the story behind the cars outside?”

“Oh, hey DI.” What was this one’s name, again? She was tall and solid with leaf-green hair… Jonquil saw her around all the time but they rarely spoke. “Was a commotion about an hour ago. All those cars arrived together, filled with wights.”

Jonquil sighed. “Damn. Thanks.” As she feared. She hoped that the cars would be the procession of some Mater or other muckity-muck. Hell, she would have even taken a terrorist invasion of the Plaza. Those were things she could deal with.

Wights, what most in OPTICA called the agents of UMBRA, were another story. If they were here, that was because they had already won and were here to gloat.

Taking her hand off her disruptor, Jonquil headed to the upper floors, the offices of the investigators. Since most of the women on the morning shift had yet to arrive, the UMBRA wights outnumbered them.

Sapiens, were their outfits ugly. Glaring white with needless gold decoration, no regard for skin tone or hair color. And of course, they thought themselves soooo clever to wear something else when they were afield, while sneaking some white-and-gold onto their outfit as a cheeky hint of their affiliation- again without any concern for how gaudy and clashing those accessories could be.

One of them, a woman far too pale for her white turtleneck, approached Jonquil. “The woman of the hour,” she purred, her voice thick and sickly sweet. “Look ladies- it’s Jonquil Diakon, sewer-swimmer extraordinaire.”

Several of the UMBRA girls laughed. “At least I was doing something useful,” Jonquil snapped against her better judgment. “Trying to solve the deaths of seventy TORCH agents. Not that any of you give a shit about that.”

Another girl, tall and lissome with copper hair and a long diagonal scar bisecting her face approached them. “How can you say that, ‘Jonny’? We’re all in the spirit of sisterhood just as much as you. See, I’m missing most of my nose and you’re missing most of your height.”

“‘Jonny’? Did you-” she gritted her teeth. Aliza was the only one who called her that. They were spying on her. “What the hell are you doing here? Don’t you have blacksites to run, girls to torture, taxpayer digits to waste?”

Aww, did some mean old wights do you wrong, Jonny? So sorry. Most of us are real nice, honest.” The pale woman reached for Jonquil’s face-

And Jonquil grabbed her arm, broke her balance with a hip thrust, and threw her to the floor. The surprised UMBRA girl squawked as she went down hard. Jonquil grabbed her wrist- but stopped at the hum of a disruptor.

The scarred girl had pointed the blob-shaped gun at Jonquil’s head. “Unless you want to be turned into a miniature smear on the wall, I suggest you let Iris go,” Scar said hoarsely.

She meant it. She’d reduce Jonquil to a puddle of disrupted molecules in front of a hundred witnesses and not lose a wink of sleep- or see a day in prison. “So wights talk tough, but act like scared little bitches when someone stands up to them?” Jonquil raised her chin and met the eyes of Scar. No doubt in her eyes. “Go ahead and shoot, trash. This is OPTICA turf, so you can’t just kill anyone who bothers you like normal. I’d see you in hell soon enough.”

Several UMBRA and OPTICA girls had gathered around the scene, and the room was mostly silent. With a scowl, the scarred girl pointed her disruptor upwards instead. “Careful how you talk to me, Jonny,” said Scar with soft menace. “You won’t always be so safe as you are here.”

Jonquil released Iris’ arm and stepped over her. “You will never scare me,” Jonquil breathed, refusing to be intimidated by the twelve or thirteen-inch height difference. “I asked you a question, scum. Why are you here?”

Maybe her boisterousness was ill-advised… Scar was huge and had the look of a combat expert. Jonquil didn’t favor her chances in a straight fight.

<== ==>

OPTICA #22

<== ==>

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.”

<== ==>

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.”

<== ==>