LUX #28

<== ==>

 

Eve tried to steady her hand as the headband clinked to the floor. Why was she so scared? Why was she such a fucking coward? All she did was run and hide, run and hide like some sort of rodent. The most brilliant scholar? Hah! That was just her trying to avoid people, because books never surprised her. The most powerful witch? What good is a gun that doesn’t shoot where you point? All she could ever do was blow up, incinerate everything no matter how much she loved it. That was what happened to poor, stupid Juno eh? Juno tried to stand close to Eve, tried to find the good in the devil, and she died horribly for it. She melted, her hands clawing at her face as her flesh turned to butter and her eyeballs boiled in their sockets.

Eve did that. Eve killed her. That’s what she did. She killed people who loved her, and she laughed about it.

A hysterical giggle escaped her throat. Who was she fooling? Why not turn Lethe-2 into her grave? She and everyone here was clinging to life like a barnacle, literally bottom feeders. Libera was a junkie and Coronis her dealer, Nysa an enabler and Peitho a psychopath, Cressida a coward and Eirene a mute victim. Nothing worth saving down here, least of all Eve.

It wouldn’t even be hard. All she had to do was let go. It’d be like sinking into a warm bed after a never-ending day of labor. She wouldn’t feel anything but relief and she’d die happy- and who would be hurt, really truly?

Yes. She’d do it. She was laughing now at the idea, at the thought of all these useless and pathetic girls who had perverted her vision for LUX into this tumor of a base screaming as their clothes burned and their skin flared up like flash paper…

Something sharp hit her in the face, knocking her from her bleak reverie. Eve blinked and realized it was herself. Her own hand had slapped her.

Grace. Grace would be hurt. Grace, who when Eve went supernova showed neither fear nor hesitation. While the rest of TORCH tried to get as far from her as they could, Grace ran straight towards her and slapped Eve in the face. She mutilated her hand doing so- but she saved Eve. 

Grace, the only true friend Eve had left. They would never speak again… but they were still friends. 

Eve touched her lip and realized she was smiling at the memory. Fucking Grace. What was she doing right now? Probably stressing about how to do the right thing and help people as usual. She never changed. 

Eve quickly scooped up the headband and put it back on before anything else set her off. Relief spread through her body and she sighed. That had been far too close.

Fortunately it had worked. The door slid open.

Cress’ room was sparsely decorated. A poster of Napster, the popular SPRING musician known for her beautiful voice and hypnotic dance moves, was over Cress’ meticulously-made double bed. The dresser was crowded with make-up and haircare products… soldier girl took better care of herself than it seemed from first glance. Besides that, it was pretty sparse other than a strange smell that Eve couldn’t exactly put her finger on.

“Cress?” Eve called in a pantomime. “You in here? I thought I’d bring you something to eat.” This was stupid. Who was she talking to? With a huff, she set the tray down on Cressida’s desk and looked around. There was no private bathroom, so the door on the far wall had to be the closet.

Eve opened it to find it full of pressed uniforms, polished shoes, and modest swimsuits. There were also more casual clothes: baggy pants, skirts, and loose blouses that’d be perfect for clubbing.

And, sure enough, there was a big space between the clothes. Eve tapped it and it rang hollow. “Huh.” Experimentally, she gave it a push and the entire wall gave way. “Oops!”

There was a small room behind- and there was someone in there. Eve stood back with her hands on her hips. “What are you doing in there?”

“…Hiding from you,” the answer came. The voice was deep but slightly nasally, and definitely male. Abundantly male, really.

“Well, come on out,” said Eve. What was going on? Why was Cress hiding a male agent in her room?

He stepped out to reveal he was extremely tall: close to two meters. His hair was short and dark and speckled with grey, and his skin was both pale and oily. “…Hi,” he said, staring at her blankly.

“Who are you supposed to be?” Eve asked. Something was very wrong here.

The male didn’t answer. He just turned his head to look at the door. Cress was standing there, wearing an athletic swimsuit that showed off her powerful arms and legs. “…It’s not my fault,” he said. “She barged in. I don’t know how-”

Cress ran over. For a second Eve thought she was going to attack, but instead she just placed herself between the two of them. “What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice deathly quiet.

“I came to bring you some food so we could talk…” Eve pointed at the tray. “But I heard a noise from your closet so I went to investigate. Who’s, uh, your friend?”

Cressida was deathly pallid, while the male sweat like a pregnant nun at confession. “Th-this is… ummm…” Cressida swallowed her words. “My… friend… St… Sterope?”

“Why are you asking me?” Eve asked incredulously. “Why does your friend live in your closet?”

He cleared his throat. “Well, I mostly live in this room. I just hide in the closet.” Cress shot him a glare, but he kept talking. “My name is Stanislav. It’s nice to meet you.”

Only when he spoke did Eve finally realize it. His hair. It had grey in it. No TORCH agent, no matter how old they got, had grey hair.

Stan was not a TORCH agent. Stan was… something else. “Where were you born, Stan?” Eve asked.

“Err… Vladivostok. Russia.” He swallowed dryly. “Planet Earth.”

<== ==>

HEARTH #28

<== ==>

Henrietta stared dumbfounded at Enron. The things she was saying… they went beyond conspiracy theories. “You’re full of shit,” she said matter-of-factly.

“How do you know that?” Enron shot. “How can you be sure? You’ve never even seen Gabros-1, all you know about it is what you’ve read about it in BEACON-approved accounts.”

“Do you have evidence?” Henrietta demanded. “Let me see your proof. Cuz you sound like nothing more than a crank.”

“They called me a crank when I said they were trying to suppress LUX‘s division into four branches- but I was right. They called me a crank when I said BEACON and MIRROR were secretly training slaves for the Matres- and years later, when the first Verbena were ready to serve, they declassified the program.” Enron shook her head with conviction. “I know it. There’s no way the version Grace has spoonfed the rest of you is true. She murdered Medici, as good as killed her with her two hands.”

A new emotion entered the fray for Henrietta: pity. Cruel and childish as she was, Enron was undoubtedly brilliant. But grief and bias had spoiled her ability to think rationally. She had drawn a conclusion without first examining the evidence- and having emotionally committed to that conclusion, she would brute force the facts to fit what she believed.

The well of Enron’s mind had been poisoned, and Henrietta couldn’t help but feel bad for the radiant goddess towering over her. “It’s just not true,” she told Enron sadly.

Enron waved that aside. “It doesn’t matter. Gabros-1… you said it yourself, a medieval civilization. Two billion members of the dominant race lived on that planet across thousands of tribes, hundreds of tribal leagues. They were great lovers of music- I happen to be a big fan of what little survived. Every day on Gabros-1, creatures lived and loved and hated just like us, and then one day we came down and turned them into piles of ash. Is that right, soldier girl? I loved Medici more than anyone, but even if the official story is true, I never wanted to see billions killed to ‘avenge’ her death.”

Enron was animatedly furious, her eyes wide and her nostrils flared. “It was politics. A way to prove the importance of the Matres to a new generation who had forgotten all their ‘great sacrifices’. An excuse for TORCH branches to collaborate as a way to fight their increasing independence. Who benefits from that? Your damn Mater. Grace Diakon killed an entire world because she felt her power slipping.”

Henrietta refused to believe it. That couldn’t possibly be true- and yet she didn’t know enough to formulate a defense. 

She wished Grace was here. 

“What do you want from me?” she asked, trying to sound tough and knowing she instead came off as hoarse and whiny.

“I’m here to tell you: you don’t have to stay with her. As it happens… I could make use of your talents.” Enron grinned. “You think much more like me than you do her. It’s only natural.”

Henrietta stopped in her tracks. So. Enron hadn’t just come to fuck with her, or to preach her insane ideology.  “A recruitment attempt? It’s a fucking shoddy one.”

“Nah. It’s brilliant. Everything I do is brilliant.” Enron turned to face Henrietta, calmly unbuttoning her body-obscuring cloak. “That feeling you get when you’re around me? That’s your brain trying to tell you that I’m the choice, not her. Because when she talks, you hear a bitter old woman lamenting the good old days. And when I talk, you hear a vision of the future. We both believe in what we’re saying- but the difference is, I want TORCH to be better and she’s scared of seeing TORCH change. And in your heart, soldier girl, you know TORCH has to change.”

Enron shrugged off her cloak, revealing the sleeveless leotard and short skirt underneath. It hugged her bountiful figure, every curve ample, every sinew and muscle radiating awesome power.

Henrietta’s knees were weak. She had never been so attracted to someone in her life- and she hated Enron’s guts.

“I can see it in your eyes, soldier girl,” the CEO cooed. “I can see that one day you’ll be mine.” Enron’s soft palm rested on Henrietta’s cheek, sending shivers through her body. “I’ve planted the idea in your mind, and it’ll grow and grow until you’re exactly as I want you to be.”

Her head felt swoony from Enron’s everything: her look, her smell, her smile, her titanic raw power. It was intoxicating, completely different from the effect Grace had.

Grace.

Henrietta sobered up and slapped Enron’s hand away. “Don’t you touch me,” she said from the back of her throat. “You think you have me figured out? Fuck you. I’m nobody’s property- and if you think I’m some stupid thing you can toy with at your leisure, then you’ll find that this plaything hits back.”

Without another word, Henrietta turned and stomped away. The first beams of sunlight peaked out over the horizon.

<== ==>

BEACON #28

<== ==> 

There was no time to set up a new ambush. Herod had no clue what they could do, tactics weren’t her forte, but it seemed there was only one thing they could do: a frontal assault. They would be heavily outnumbered, though… defeat was nearly certain. Maybe a few would make it, but the 119th would be finished.

Herod sighed and prepared to die. It was a full minute of heavy rumbling later that a new voice spoke up. Anna.

“I can help,” she said calmly. “But I have some conditions.”

“What sort of help can you provide-” started Amalek, but he was cut off midsentence. According to the display, Lucifera had muted him.

“What are they?” the legata asked.

“Just two. First, I want to be attached to this legion. You guys will be my escorts for the foreseeable future. That shouldn’t be an issue, should it?”

What a curious request. As a Mater, Anna could order them around however she liked- so why was she asking permission?

Lucifera grunted an agreement. “And the second?”

“Herod has to help me. I have need of her skills.”

Herod’s arm still ached from the heavy fighting outside. “I’d rather not,” she said icily.

“Okay. Die down here. Come on Fail-Not, we’re leaving.”

Damn it. Anna was right: they were screwed. Amalek’s plan had thinned the numbers of the enemy but they were just too damn numerous. Whatever the Mater had in mind, it was probably the 119th’s best chance at survival. “Fine,” breathed Herod. “What do you need?”

“Come meet me at the tunnel entrance,” said Anna happily. “Lucy, get your girls ready for a strike on my signal.” She went off-comms before anyone could reply.

“Do as she says, Herod,” Lucifera sighed, unmuting Amalek long enough for him to sputter a protest. “I don’t know what’s going through Anna’s mind but she probably means what she says when she claims to want to help us.”

Herod gritted her teeth. She had absolutely no interest in being used as a pawn by a Mater, but there seemed to be precious little other choice. She flew towards the cave mouth, surveying the scene outside.

Most of the surviving flyers were still clustered in the air, but some broke away to fly to the caverns. Once overhead, the dragons’ throats horrifically distended and they vomited fridge-sized loads of plasma that exploded on slimy contact. Each shook the tunnels, and a new load was dropped every second.

Anna and Fail-Not were at the cave entrance, busied with some sort of long briefcase. “Hey Herod,” said Anna without looking. “How’s it going?”

“Fine,” she said suspiciously, floating over to them. “What is this?”

Anna turned her body to show Herod what they had: a sniper rifle almost six feet long, as tall as Anna and nearly as wide. There were dozens of components, and Mater and Verbena were hard at work assembling it.

Herod had never seen one so big before. “You’re going to use that?” she asked. “Assassinate the leader?”

“Yep! You got it!” Anna grinned at her like a little kid. “Pop his head like a water balloon, it ought to solve our problem if the mouthy one has got the right idea about how these things operate. Kill the leader, throw the rest into disarray.”

The leader must have been the one on the large, magnificent dragon… the one who was impossible to attack as he was surrounded at all times by hundreds of other riders. “How are you going to do that?”

“Well, the old girl here has a ridiculous amount of kick.” Anna patted the rifle affectionately. “As I lack the time to set up a nest and the terrain to climb a vantage point, I’m going to be using you instead.”

Herod stared at the Mater, not comprehending. Anna sighed. “I’m gonna climb onto your shoulders,” she explained. “You’re gonna fly up high. I’m gonna shoot the boss. The recoil is gonna throw me off your shoulders. You’re gonna catch me.”

Ah. That explained it. Herod finally had proof of what she suspected since she met Anna. “You’re completely insane.”

Anna laughed. “Ha, aren’t I? But I can guarantee success. Don’t they teach you anything about the Mater Sicario in school? What do they say about me?”

“You never miss,” said Herod quietly.

“I neh-vah-miss. So long as you catch me, everything will be gravy.”

“And if I don’t catch you?”

Anna stared with that lazy smile of hers. She was completely relaxed, like she was talking about her plans for a day at the spa. “You’ll catch me.” She patted the metallic cheek of Herod’s helmet. “Come on, time’s wasting. Fail-Not?”

“Prepared with diagnostics, Mater,” said the Verbena, pulling up her wrist computer.

Anna handed the gigantic rifle to Herod. “Here, attach this to your leg with the cable,” she said, before walking towards the cave mouth.

Unable to disobey a direct order, Herod attached the gun to her ankle via a telescoping cable. “I see one major flaw in this plan,” she said, jogging after Anna. “The moment we fly out of here, they’re going to attack us.”

“We’re not flying towards them, dummy,” said Anna cheerfully. “We’re flying away from them.” She deployed her own helmet, although on the unarmored Isis it was more like a mask. Anna’s face vanished, replaced by a black cowl with no features besides three glowing red eyes.

“And how am I going to carry you?” Herod asked. “I don’t have a kangaroo pouch module.”

“Does that exist?”

“I have no idea-” Herod nearly dove backwards as Anna sprang towards her with catlike agility. The Mater wrapped her legs around Herod’s ribs, then wrapped her arms under Herod’s armpits. 

“There. That comfortable?” she asked.

Physically, no. There was a lot of steel and circuitry separating Anna’s lithe torso from Herod. Still, having the Mater rest her head on her shoulder was… strange. “It’s workable,” Herod replied flatly. “Let’s go.”

<== ==> 

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.”

<== ==>

LUX #27

<== ==>

 

They headed for the kitchens. “So I was thinking, how do you protect a secret?” Coronis asked. “How do you make sure someone doesn’t tattle? You can bribe them, but they’ll be loyal to the money and not you. You can threaten them, but people get unpredictable when they’re under a lot of pressure. You can kill them, but that’s… mean. But there is a better option… any idea what it is?”

Eve shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I have absolutely no imagination for criminal enterprise. What do you do?”

“Hee hee! Glad you asked. You find a secret of theirs and do an exchange. ‘I won’t tell if you won’t.’”

“How is that not a threat?”

“Because it’s based on equanimity and trust. Neither of you want someone to find out your secret, but you know your secret is safe so long as you keep theirs safe. Trust me, it works every time.” Coronis paused. “At least, that’s what they say on the neo_SMOKE forums. I’ve never actually tried it before.”

They entered the kitchen. This room was heavily automated: the chef Dryas controlled a litany of mechanical limbs that interfaced with a chip in her brain. This let her cook for 140 people a day without standing up. “Hey Dryas, I have a special request,” said Coronis brightly. “Some food to go?”

The chef- a thin and pretty thing with wide misty eyes- smiled at Coronis. “Sure. Anything for you, Corey.”

“Thanks babe. I appreciate it- will put a little extra in your next delivery.” While Dryas busied herself with one of the machines, Coronis turned her attention to Eve. “So, here’s what I’m thinking. It so happens that our buddy Cressida has her own private quarters. You take this tray of food up to her room.”

“And?” Eve asked with a frown. “Poke around and hope to find something incriminating? How do you even know she has something to hide?”

Coronis pantomimed zipping her lips. “I’m sorry, I am, but I can’t tell you. I have an oath of confidentiality with my clients.” An illusory mini-Coronis repeated the motion. “I certainly can’t tell you to check the inside wall of her closet: it doesn’t have a false back, so there’s no point.” 

Eve stared blankly. What the hell was Corey going on about? What exactly would Cress have to hide? “I… all right,” she settled on. There was little choice but to trust Corey. Eve couldn’t very well skip back down to Peitho’s office and ask her to take care of it.

Dryas produced the food minutes later: fish-esque and wild rice with tea-boiled eggs and seaweed salad. It smelled heavenly. “Welcome to Lethe-2, by the way,” she told Eve. “Hope the station’s been treating you well.”

It’s been a nightmare that I can’t wake up from. “Still finding my footing,” Eve said with a polite smile.

They made their way upstairs to the Crew Quarters, quiet in the late afternoon. As the securiy officer, Cressida had her own personal quarters at the end of the hall. “This is as far as I go,” said Coronis, pointing at the door. 

“…You really wanted to say that, didn’t you?”

“I did!” she crowed. “Yet another lifelong ambition filled because of you, Mater. But no, I’d rather Cress didn’t know my part in any of this. It’ll look a lot better if you find out on your own.”

“On my own then,” Eve sighed.

“Mmm. Don’t take too long, Cress will be here in a few minutes- every day before dinner, she works out and then comes back here to change. I’m gonna disappear, but I’ll see you later.”

Eve sighed and walked forward. Absurdly, she was nervous. Not afraid… it took something truly terrifying, like the Enyoni, to scare her.

After a moment, it became clear. Eve was nervous about plumbing the depths of Cressida’s soul. Whatever this “secret” was, it had to be deeply personal. Eve would invade Cress’ privacy so she could blackmail her into silence.

It was shitty. Necessary, but shitty. All those years trying to be a good person… what a stupid charade that was. Eve hid in her library, safely insulated from everything difficult about the world, and convinced herself that this was some sort of virtue. Of course she had been good in there- she had been afraid of moral quandaries so she created an environment where she’d never have to make any real decisions. When she thought back to her life as a contented scholar, her belly filled with a cold cement loathing.

She tried to open the door to Cress’ room, only to find it was locked. Eve glanced behind her to see that Coronis was gone. Shit.

Doors carried biometric scanners and motion sensors. If a TORCH agent (or one of the peripatetic robots, like the cleaning bot she saw last night) stood before it, it opened. However, Cress’ door was specially coded to only open to her. A superior officer could override that, but Cress outranked Maia.

There was no time to find Nysa or Libera and convince them to open the door for her. Eve didn’t even know how she’d do that. Nor could she turn back- for all she knew, Cress planned to tell Nysa what she had discovered at dinner. It had to be now.

That left Eve with only one option: break the door down.

Although she hadn’t designed these sessile bases herself, Eve knew the architecture of LUX bases well. The bases weren’t advanced at first glance, but that was because all the really impressive stuff was hidden from sight. Such electronics were easy to tamper with if you knew how they worked. 

For instance, if the door’s sensors were exposed to extreme heat, they automatically reset to factory conditions and unlocked. This was in place as a fire hazard… Eve could exploit it to her own advantage.

She went to set the tray down, and realized her hands were shaking. Of course they were. This wasn’t like her scrap with Peitho, where all Eve had to do was stand still. She would need to take her headband off for this. She would need to muster her rage and hatred- that’d be the easy part- but not let it consume her. Too much and she’d turn Lethe-2 into a smoldering crater.

She pressed her finger to the back of the Arcane Suppressor. It read her fingerprint and the band went slack. She removed the headband with a shaking hand.

<== ==>

HEARTH #27

<== ==> 

“Do you have anything to say to me that isn’t an insult?” Henrietta demanded. “Because I may just go home if not.”

“Ah… I guess there is something beneath the skin.” Enron’s eyes twinkled. “You meant both those threats, at least in the moment you delivered them. But you won’t walk away. You’re too interested- and you can’t possibly leave alone something that interests you. You either probe it and explore it until it breaks, or until it rears up and bites you back. Do you know why I interest you, soldier girl?”

Henrietta just glowered. Once again, Enron read her like a book: she couldn’t just walk away, she didn’t even want to. She wanted to find the magical combination of words to wipe that grin off Enron’s face, but they weren’t coming.

“I interest you because we are exactly the same, plus or minus some years,” crowed Enron. “Grace, she’s a sneaky old bird. She knows she can’t beat me, so she got her own version of me instead.”

“You keep her name out of your mouth,” Henrietta hissed.

Enron continued as though she hadn’t spoke. “And that’s why I’m interested in you back. Because I look at you and I see myself. And I’m very fond of myself. But you’re not quite there yet, are you? Just an overpraised and overpromoted thug, at least for now.” Enron shook her head. “It can’t be forced, y’know. I didn’t become this way overnight. It was years and years of hard work- but even more pain. That’s one thing your Mater and I agree on: people are nothing until they suffer, no more than a lump of metal is anything until it’s heated and beaten.”

Henrietta didn’t want to listen. She wanted to go home. And yet, her legs moved mechanically to keep pace with Enron’s massive strides. “Jokes on you. I’ll never be anything like you,” she said with a nasty smile of her own. “I’m going to be like Grace- just like her. Even if you manage to beat her, you’ll never be rid of her, Enron. I’ll carry my Mater’s legacy a thousand years into the future if I have to, just to make sure your vision never becomes a reality.”

Enron clapped a few times, although it didn’t seem sarcastic. She seemed… genuinely pleased. “Perfect! Now you’re starting to sound like a real Chantican! Soldier girl, let me ask you something. You know you don’t know much about politics or history or… really any of the things you should know about for your job. All you really know is what you’ve been told by others in BEACON, and I’ll bet they’re all the same in the way they think. So how do you know your cause is just?”

There was something about the way Enron talked. Her voice was so strong, each word hit like an uppercut. Ordinarily Henrietta would have just ignored her, but… maybe she had a point. “I’m not a scholar,” she said after a few moments of contemplation. “But I’ve read the founding charter of BEACON. I believe in those words. ‘We fight to deliver light to a universe swallowed by darkness. We shall kindle a series of beacons from Earth to the distant stars, in every clime a shining signal. We bloody our hands so others have the luxury not to.'” She glared at Enron. “Somehow I don’t think they had you in mind when they wrote that.”

“Ha! Recited like a good trooper.” Enron broke into a mock military march. “Come ooon. You’re not stupid. You know that you’re out of your depth here.”

“Gonna assign me a reading list?” Henrietta asked dryly.

“I don’t read- I don’t have time.” How was she this chipper and energetic at this awful hour? Nobody should be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed before sunrise. “I’m going to tell you a story instead.”

Great.”

“It’s a good one- it’s the story of the Scourging of Gabros-1.” The cheeky smile left Enron’s face, and her eyes glittered with something dark. “You’re familiar with it?’

“Everyone in BEACON knows about it.”

“Edify me then. What do they teach soldier girls?”

Henrietta hesitated. She didn’t want to get any of the details wrong, but it had been years since she had read about the infamous campaign. “Ermm. Gabros-1 was a populated planet, medieval tech level, most of the locals were tribal. Friendly enough, until a radical killed… some Mater.”

“Medici,” said Enron immediately, her voice soft and wistful. “The Mater Auri. Founder of SPRING. My mother.”

“…Yeah, her.” Henrietta hadn’t even been alive during the Scourging. She knew next to nothing about Medici. “A xeno killed her. And that triggered an, umm, response. All of TORCH‘s might bore down on Gabros-1 to send a message to all alien races, now and forever: fuck with a Mater and we fuck with you back- and we fuck harder than anyone else.”

This next part was the one she knew the most about. “We didn’t just defeat them, we eradicated them. With methodical precision, we turned their cities to glass and their peoples to ash. After the fleet was done pounding them, the legions came in to finish the job. We killed and we killed and we killed until we couldn’t find anyone else to kill, and then we irradiated the planet for good measure. We’ve never done that before or since, but we had to because …  they killed a Mater. Her life was worth more than a hundred billion xeno scum. Now the broken ruins of civilization on Gabros serve as her tombstone.”

“Nice flourish on the end there,” Enron said appreciatively. “That’s a good story. What a pity it’s all lies.”

“What?”

“Medici wasn’t murdered by xenos. She was murdered by Grace Diakon.” The murky darkness in Enron’s eyes finally condensed into something cogent: hatred. “Grace fed Medici false info to lure her to her death. Then she destroyed the evidence, and the rest of the planet while she was at it.”

<== ==> 

BEACON #27

<== ==>

 

A pair of dragon riders got behind Herod, boxing her in. She fired rockets behind her, but they went wide. With a grunt, Herod deactivated her thruster, hanging in the air for a moment before falling.

The dragons dove after her, getting closer… and closer… and closer… until Herod reactivated her booster and zipped upwards. The dragons were moving so fast they couldn’t turn. Her sword met the left dragon’s neck and she lopped its head off. The second snapped at her, so she turned 90 degrees and ran her blade along its side, leaving a deep gash along the side.

The second dragon would recover, but not instantly. Herod ignored it, instead rocketing upwards as fast as she could towards a red target. The rider was locked in battle with another legionnaire- untiil she flew straight into a bolt of plasma. The bird was killed instantly, the superheated goo eating through her armor and liquefying her flesh.

Snarling, Herod surmounted the dragon and jabbed her sword deep into the rider’s back. The Neighbor gasped and convulsed, then went still. She followed up by beheading the dragon from behind.

The pnuematic blade was sharp enough to cut through whatever you wanted it to cut, but each attack sent shockwaves through her arm. Her already-injured arm was bothering her more with every swing. 

Nevertheless she fought on. She killed two more riders before spotting a unique rider at the center of the swarm. He wore dark robes and his flesh dragon was larger than the others, covered in elaborate ritualistic markings. A sheer mass of flesh served as an impenetrable barrier around him, hundreds of other riders flying in circles to protect him.

That had to be the leader. Herod considered risking an attack. If it worked she’d save the legion, and if it failed nothing of value would be lost. Before she could make a decision, her intercom lit up. “Good work,” Amalek’s calm voice said in her ear. “All legionnaires retreat and prepare for stage two.” Veteran birds had expected this announcement and were already at the peripheries of the sky battle. Herod was a talented amateur- she was right in the thick of it.

She ducked and weaved around draconic attacks and bolts of plasma. Others fell around her: a legionnaire got her leg seared off by a plasma bolt. Another got her flight module bitten off and she helplessly plunged to the ground. A third took plasma to the stomach and had enough time to scream in agony before she was incinerated.

Herod made her way out, and fired a few rockets to cover the escapees behind her. The dragon riders were coming after them in force, thousands of them. She and the others hadn’t put even a dent in their numbers.

But of the three hundred that Amalek had painted red, less than a hundred remained. They had done what they were sent to do. Now it was up to the might of the 119th proper.

Herod flew down as quickly as she could, dragon riders in hot pursuit. The Gawain was faster than the flyers, but only just. They glided into the caverns, the dragons in hot pursuit.

The tunnels were only large enough for dragons to comfortably enter in ones or twos. The enemy’s order of battle had grown fragile, the riders frenzied by the loss of their leaders. The disturbingly human cries of the monsters reverberated off the walls. The tunnels began to diverge into dozens of different passageways, and the legionnaires took whichever they could reach. Herod took the third from the left, flying over a line on the ground that only existed in her display.

The line was there to tell them where the trap was.

BEACON war camps were protected with perimeter grids. Anyone without the proper biometric signature would trigger an alarm. The grids could even deploy walls of hard light to trap intruders.

The moment a dragon flew over the line, a hardlight wall appeared instantaneously and vertically bisected it. The other riders slammed into the wall, dragons piling atop one another in a horrific twisting mass of flesh. Riders were crushed under the weight of their own mounts. The order that the enemy enjoyed disintegrated in a flash. Herod landed next to Lucifera, who was waiting at the base of the tunnel. “The trap is sprung, ma’am,” she said.

“Good,” replied Lucifera. “All units, attack!”

And like lightning, the 119th struck.

They had been camped out in the antechamber with all the carvings, waiting for the order to deploy. The hard light walls went down, and within an instant a barrage of rockets hit the massed flyers. Smoke and rubble rained down, as did chunks of the blown-apart bodies of flesh-dragons and Romeo riders.

The rockets stopped, and within an instant were followed with expanding rounds from Tamar and her Beowulfs. The high-speed bolts tore holes in the enemy like knives through sponge.

The riders had rushed into the caverns in great numbers, and again that worked against them in the enclosed space of the tunnels. There had crowded themselves out of a retreat, and the only direction they could possibly advance was towards certain death. Hundreds upon hundreds of riders were killed within seconds.

Amalek had deduced it. The ones he painted red were the ones with clipped ears, the leaders of the cult. Without these representatives of their living god present, the rest of the riders were little more than a frothing rabble.

Thousands of dragons and as many riders were turned to paste against the full force of the 119th’s weaponry. Herod kept close to Lucifera, who watched the scene intently from behind her expressionless helmet.

At last, there was a cry of “Cease fire!” and the cacophony ended. The smoke cleared to reveal that the tunnels were positively smothered in gore. There were no enemies left to shoot.

All this at the cost of a couple dozen legionnaires. “I’m running simulations now,” Amalek said through the comms thoughtfully. “The numbers show that we killed… between 4 and 5,000 riders. That means there are still thousands more outside.”

“But they can’t be more than a disorganized riffraff at this point,” said Sheba. “We ought to be able to clean them up without issue.”

“Not necessarily. We didn’t get the commander. They’ll soon reorganize and attack again- and this time they won’t fall for the same trick.” Amalek snarled in frustration. “Damn it. Damn it!”

“How did so many escape?” Lucifera grunted.

“It seemed most that followed us into the tunnel died- but a large contingent didn’t.” Amalek sighed. “I need to think of a new solution and quickly. They’ll hit us again within an hour.”

“I don’t see the big deal,” said Sheba. “We’re dug in and ready to be hit again, aren’t we? We’ll just-“

She didn’t get to finish her sentence, as a rumbling interrupted her. Then another. Then a third. “What the hell is going on?” Sheba demanded.

“They’re shelling us,” Amalek said hushedly as pebbles fell from the ceiling and clouds of dust were kicked up. “Dropping huge heaps of plasma on top of the caverns. In a few minutes they’ll begin to crumble, and then collapse, and then we’ll be trapped down here.”

“With no way out except directly into them,” added Ruth. “Fiendishly clever… if they can’t pull us out then they’ll make these caverns our tomb.”

“Then what do we do?” asked Lucifera. “Opening the door to suggestions.”

<== ==>

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.”

<== ==>

LUX #26

<== ==>

 

When Eve got this way, the sort of nausea that permeated every inch of her body and scorched her innards in a dry heat, she did the only thing she could to relax. She sat in a dark room and turned her mind off.

It was a meditation technique she learned when she was young. Eve left her body behind and became a diffused conscience. She imagined herself spreading across this planet, the water and plants and mud and Enyoni. To vanish without dying, to cease as a continuous being, to instead become part of something so much greater than herself. To become unthinking, to attune to magnificent wisdom, to cease to feel but to become part of f this world’s burbles and tantrums and processes.

When she returned to her body, her ass was sore from sitting perfectly still for… over three hours.

Eve stretched her legs and torso as she returned to the hallway. She had to figure out what to do about Peitho’s offer. It was obvious that Eve needed someone down here to help cover her tracks, take care of the problem of Cressida, and keep Nysa at bay. There were two options: spacey and amoral Coronis or cruel and charismatic Peitho.

Eve’s mind was clear after the meditation. She’d give Coronis one last chance to impress her. The worst thing Eve could do was vacillate: she had to make a decisive choice and live with the consequences.

She found Coronis in a corridor outside the mess hall, but not alone. The neo_SMOKE smuggler was in a heated argument with a dark-eyed male agent Eve hadn’t seen before. They both kept their voices low.

“There’s no point in a partnership if one of us doesn’t respect the terms of it,” the male told Coronis, his voice cold.

Coronis scoffed. “Boo hoo! You’ve never once cared about if you were stepping on my toes or not.” A weeping woman appeared at the side of her mouth. “Did I ever say anything?”

“At a certain point, a difference in scale becomes a difference in kind. I can’t work with someone who refuses to show me the basic respect I am due as a colleague.”

“Will you shut up?” Coronis rolled her eyes. “There was no disrespect- it’s a sensitive situation. But if that’s how you feel, maybe I’ll be more anal about which of us does what. Maybe you’ve forgotten that I’m the one who’s supposed to handle drugs?”

The tall man’s eyes flashed and he bit his lip. “Then perhaps it’s time we renegotiate the terms of our partnership to better reflect reality.” He looked up at Eve, who had been standing around awkwardly to listen to the conversation. “Speak of the devil. There she is.”

Eve had little choice but to approach. “Hey Corey,” she said, trying to sound casual. “Who’s your friend?”

“Dis.” He offered his hand. Eve didn’t take it. “Senior Docent and Acquisitions Officer. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Docent Oread.”

Dis was tall, straight-backed and confident, matinee-idol handsome with neatly-cropped hair and a sharp, prominent nose. His hair and eyes were jet black, and his dark pupils gave his stare a vaguely insectoid vibe. He reminded Eve of a tightly wound, delicately constructed wristwatch.. “Nice to meet you,” she said with a small smile. “You guys fighting over me?”

“No, no, not over you,” sighed Coronis. “May, there’s something I should tell you. I’m not the only neo_SMOKE agent in this base. Dis here, or Von Neumann as we call him online, is the other one.”

“Ah. Okay.” Eve didn’t say anything more.

“So, I helped fake your death…” Coronis gave Eve a meaningful glance. “And now Von Neumann is annoyed with me for not including him.”

“It’s not that I wanted to be included, Kelvin. It’s that an operation of that size demands my attentions. That’s part of our charter, isn’t it? Trust no one but your fellows in neo_SMOKE. And yet you exclude me.”

Eve quickly took stock of the situation. Dis, or Von Neumann or whatever he wanted to be called, was a neo_SMOKE agent alongside Coronis. Unlike her, however, he didn’t know that Maia Oread was in fact Eve Volcanis. Coronis had instead lied to him and told him Maia had faked her death and transferred here. “I’m sorry to hear that you two are fighting,” she said neutrally. “I can’t say I know enough about the workings of neo_SMOKE to offer an opinion.”

“That’s okay, May, you don’t need to play peacekeeper between us. neo_SMOKE handles its shit.” Coronis glanced at Dis. “Can we discuss this later? Maybe someplace more private??”

Dis’ eyebrows went up. “Private, eh? Hmph. I’ll be waiting.” He skulked away.

Coronis ran her hands through her hair and exhaled as if to shed an invisible suit of armor. “So…” Eve said conversationally. “You and him, eh?”

“Ugh! Don’t remind me!” Coronis stuck her tongue out and went blegh. “Look, I was young- really young- and stupid.”

“Really stupid?”

“There were piles of bricks with more sense than I had.” A falling brick squashed a little man next to her mouth. “It’s a purely professional relationship these days, I swear.”

Eve quirked her mouth up into a smile. “Didn’t seem all that professional to me. I wonder where that private talk will take you…?”

Coronis’ nose turned pink, but she smiled back. “I assume you want to talk about Cressida?” Eve nodded. “In that case, follow me.”

<== ==>

HEARTH #26

<== ==>  

Henrietta never slept well after an ass-kicking- and today had been one ass-kicking after another. It was the worst sort of insomnia, the exhausted sleeplessness where the body cries out for rest but the mind stubbornly continues to race.

Enron kicked her ass rhetorically. She made both Henrietta and Grace look worthless and stupid… how could anyone overcome such an overbearing and brutish presence? The worst part was that she was right: Enron was winning. Henrietta wasn’t used to being on a losing team.

Then Manna kicked her ass physically. It was amazing how someone so unassuming could be so effortlessly deadly. Henrietta had been the best hand-to-hand combatant in her legion, and before that the best in her class. She thought it was one of the things she was galaxy-class in- it turned out she had just been a big fish in a small pond.

And Grace… Grace was an ass-kicking just by existing. God damn. Henrietta had no idea what to do about that woman. She had never looked up to someone before, not really- but there was just something about Grace. The myths about her, of which there were countless, didn’t do her justice. She was so certain, so powerful, so polished and yet genuine like a metal masterwork. It was indescribable, the feeling of working in tandem with her. Henrietta still felt like she was dreaming.

But the feeling wasn’t necessarily good. With the stakes so high, the pressure was crushing. Henrietta had been chosen for this job because she was good in a crisis- but while she knew everything worth knowing about soldiering, she was hopelessly out of her depth in the political arena. There’d be no time to get experience. She needed to be superb yesterday- and she wasn’t even close.

So she lay in bed until she was certain sleep would not come. Then she got up and went to make a cup of tea.

As she poured, there was a knocking sound… against her window? This was the fourth story of the apartment building. Someone stood outside, tossing pebbles at the windowpane to get her attention. The person wore an obfuscating black muumuu and featureless mask. They looked like a black ghost in the pale moonlight.

Henrietta’s watch buzzed with a message from a number she didn’t have in her contacts. “sleepless night? fancy a walk?” it read. 

Who are you?” she sent back.

come outside and find out

After a moment’s thought, Henrietta went to the bedroom to get “dressed”. But she didn’t put on sweatpants and a tank top. She opted instead for the suit of AEGIS armor in the corner, throwing on some baggy clothes over it so she’d look chubby but normal to any passerby.

The black ghost waited for her outside… Sapiens, was she huge. Henrietta was scarcely bigger than one of her legs. “Armor, really?” the ghost asked, her voice muffled by her mask. “Paranoid much?”

“No, just prepared.” Henrietta got ready for a fight. No telling what this stranger wanted. “Take that mask off, now.”

The ghost obliged. Thick dark hair tumbled down in rivulets to frame full cheeks, lush lips, and intense green eyes.

Enron.

Henrietta started and moved a step back. “Hey, easy,” Enron said, putting up a hand. “I come in peace, soldier girl. I want to talk.”

“What do you and I have to talk about?”

“Loads.” Enron cocked her head away. “You came to my office because you wanted to find out the sort of person I am, right? Well, I don’t think you got the picture.”

“I learned plenty.” Henrietta kept her voice icy. This was the despicable woman who had said those awful things to Grace, who had treated Henrietta like garbage just a few hours ago. It didn’t matter how hot she was.

Enron merely shrugged. “If that’s what you believe. Go back to bed.” She went to leave- and with a groan, Henrietta jogged after her.

“I’ll give you twenty minutes of my time,” she told Enron. “You try anything funny and I’ll shoot your ass with my propulsor.” The propulsor cannon was non-lethal but hurt like a bitch.

Enron grinned like a kid and slowed her gait. She began to walk towards a park near the edge of BEACON territory. “You’d cause a major incident and ruin Grace. I’m the CEO of SPRING, soldier girl- you’re nobody.”

“Are you saying your life is more valuable than mine?”

“Politically? Without a doubt.” Her smile was patronizing. “Oh, silly soldier girl, don’t they teach you that there are expendable soldiers in wartime? The Matres and the Princepas are the key assets. The brave soldier girls like you are the pawns.”

Enron couldn’t have been more punchable if she tried. Henrietta shook her head, trying to keep her cool as they entered the park. “This is what the famous CEO of SPRING does? Wastes her time insulting expendable pawns? What does that say about you, I wonder?”

Enron ignored her entirely. “I love coming here,” she said brightly as they entered the park. It was naturally abandoned at this ungodly hour, the only sound a gentle breeze sifting through the grass. “BEACON. Enemy territory. The belly of the beast. Knowing that I’m unwelcome… it’s a thrill. You soldier girls, you solve all your problems with killing. No woman, no problem. But you can’t kill me- you can hate me, insult me, threaten me, wish death upon me, but you’ll never have the stones to kill me.”

“I could right now,” snarled Henrietta. “I could raise my right hand and reduce to nothingness. And you know what, maybe it’d be worth going down for that. I’d be saving untold millions from you, that’s worth a lot.”

That finally got Enron’s attention. She looked at Henrietta with pure amusement on her face. “You really mean it? Hahahaha, I like you! You have such… spirit! There’s nothing under the surface here- a real live noble savage. I feel like you’d be more in place hunting gazelle with a spear than wearing a suit and voting on taxes.”

Henrietta couldn’t get a read on Enron. The woman before her was childish and pure in a monstrous sort of way, like if a tiger learned to talk. She had nothing in common with the sarcastic iconoclast who delivered that fiery speech in the morning, or the vindictive brute who had been so cruel to her last evening.

<== ==>  

BEACON #26

<== ==>

The entirety of the 119th had made their way back onto the mesa and busied themselves with salvaging anything usable. Food, water, medical supplies, and fuel for their jetpacks were of the highest priority. Little of the Isaiah remained besides scrap metal, but not everything. Several industrial refrigerator carrying emergency food supplies had survived, and literal tons of meals were intact inside. That would keep them fed… assuming they lived through the day.

The searching was half-hearted, as the 119th weren’t really here to scavenge. They were here to lure the enemy into attacking.

Herod hated this plan. It was risky and full of uncertainties. It was far too dependent on the enemy’s actions. It could go catastrophically wrong at almost any step.

It was probably their best hope.

She approached Sheba, who was using the scanner on her watch to determine what was under a pile of rubble the size of a house. “Colonel,” Herod said. “A word?”

“Sure, so long as it’s just one,” Sheba said distractedly.

“I know that you and Colonel Amalek aren’t on the best terms. I wanted to hear what you thought of his strategy, ma’am.”

“Feh. CHAMP’s got Lucy’s ear, of course. She treats every turd that falls out of his mouth like a bar of gold.” Sheba sighed heavily. “That said, I can’t think of a better plan. We’re screwed, I’m pretty sure- but we can’t retreat.”

“We could stay in the tunnels,” Herod suggested. “Shore up the defenses and wait for circumstances to change, ma’am.”

“Even if that’d work, we wouldn’t do it.” Sheba looked up, her smoky eyes dark with disapproval. “C’mon recruit. We’re a fucking BEACON legion- the most deadly fighting force in the galaxy by virtue of sheer bitchiness. And we’re the doublefucking one-one-ninth! We didn’t get nicknamed the lightning legion as a PR stunt, we’re called that because we’re fast and means. We don’t hide our heads from goddamn xenos and hope that they’ll leave us alone. A tactical retreat is one thing, but we’d rather die than hide.”

“Oh.” Herod looked at the girls scavenging through piles of metal and rubble. “That seems imprudent, ma’am.”

“If we were smart, do you think we’d be stranded on this hellhole?” Sheba grinned. “C’mon, back to work.”

Herod nodded and kept listlessly scanning the ground for potential valuables. It was five or six minutes later that the riders burst from above the clouds. 

Just as Anna said: it was like they materialized from thin air, thousands and thousands of them. Enough to block out the sky with their fleshy bodies, enough to drown out all other noise besides the cruel beating of their wings and their horrible screams. They sounded almost human.

Sheba glanced at Herod and nodded. “Good luck,” she called, her helmet climbing the back of the head and covering her face. “Make them glad to be in hell, so that they’ll be away from you.”

The colonel made her way for the tunnels, but Herod didn’t. Instead she and about a hundred others dove for nearby piles of rubble. It wasn’t comfortable to go prone in the Gawain, but Herod lay on her belly anyways.

The riders circled above. “Hold position,” Amalek murmured in her comms. “All units, be ready to strike, but only on my signal.”

Using her infrared, Herod monitored the area around the rubble. Most of the riders continued to circle above, but some buzzed the entrances to the tunnel complexes. The first shots rung out, the distinct pneumatic thonk of the Beowulf’s expanding rounds. Tamar and her heavies were covering the retreat into the tunnels.

“What are we waiting for, ma’am?” someone asked over the comms. “The fight’s starting.”

“For them to make a mistake,” Amalek replied. “Hold position.”

Herod was under the rubble for what felt like hours when Amalek spoke next. “There you are, you scaly bastard. Soldiers, I’m going to mark targets for you now. Engage the ones in red- they’re the leaders, I want at least half of them dead. Don’t waste your time on any of the ones I haven’t marked. Attack on my signal.” The longest second of Herod’s life passed. “Now.”

Herod rolled out from under the rubble pile and spotted a rider flying low. She had a clear shot and she took it, her rocket blowing the rider apart. The mount turned and screeched at her, its flabby throat ululating. But it was too slow- Herod had already closed the gap, pneumatic blade drawn.

In one swift motion, she beheaded the beast. Its head hit the ground, flopped and wiggled like a fish, and then grew still. 

That was how to kill to dragon. Cut off its head. 

Herod increased her angle of ascent until she was moving directly up into the thick of it. Amalek had assembled one hundred of the best fliers in the 119th for this strategy. 100 birds against 8,000 or 9,000 dragon-riding Romeos.

Herod targeted the nearest dragon painted red by her display. She dodged a bolt from the rider’s spear, then went to drive her blade into the dragon’s gullet. It weaved to the side, and its head snapped at her, getting a mouth full of her shoulder. 

Herod grunted at the pressure as the monstrous jaws tried to tear her arm off. She deployed her shoulder-mounted minigun and superheated high-speed rounds burst out the back of the dragon’s head. It still wasn’t dead, so she decapitated it for good measure. Its corpse- and its rider- went plummeting for the ground.

The other legionnaires acquitted themselves well. A girl with a sword on either arm hacked away at a big dragon. One bird fired a rocket into the side of a pursuing drake, and another followed up by slashing the beast’s head off.

They were killing and killing and killing. Now the great numbers of the dragon riders worked against them, they couldn’t coordinate against the swarming legionnaires. Herod and the others were like wasps buzzing around the head of a great beast, using their smaller size and fewer numbers to their advantage. The overwhelming strength of the enemy was no good against such small and mobile targets.

Amalek was pretty smart after all.

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OPTICA #25

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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.

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