OPTICA #19

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reproducing Nanoparticle Bomb – Easter Module

334-160-92-82

From Your Good Friends At neo_SMOKE

A TORCH-made rabbit bomb.

<== ==>

OPTICA #18

<== ==>

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

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

“Thank you. You done yet?”

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

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

Jonquil tapped accept. And her eyes turned off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aliza.”

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

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

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

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

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

She creaked the door open.

<== ==>

OPTICA #17

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sapiens, did she hate Porropelin.

<== ==>

OPTICA #16

<== ==>  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>  

OPTICA #15

<== ==> 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we do that?” Aliza asked.

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

<== ==> 

OPTICA #14

<== ==>  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To that, Jonquil had no answer.

<== ==>  

OPTICA #13

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

“You keep shrimp in your pockets?”

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

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

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

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

“Fine line between flirting and harassment, Aliza.”

“Any line I walk on is a fine line.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

OPTICA #12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fight us?” Jonquil asked.

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

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OPTICA #11

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Thanks to the endless rain, it was a chore to walk the streets of Ttlatic. Jonquil worked hard to keep her clothes impeccable-  she’d rather get shot in the gut than let her uniform be ruined. Fortunately, SPRING_Rain sold an excellent app that projected a transparent hardlight umbrella from her watch.

The Eigen River divided Ttlatic in two. For centuries, Porropelin had been a colony of the Neighbors, the fiendish reptilians who were TORCH’s most fervid foe. They had set up shop north of the Eigen, while the telly natives inhabited the south.

When TORCH arrived, they crushed the Neighbors and booted them out of the star system. They then replaced their hideous buildings with their own. While the north side looked like any other TORCH city built in the Era of the Nascent Flame, the south side was still distinctly alien. Tellies preferred conical towers with wide bases, all with wild and chaotic color schemes. The more attractive ones reminded Jonquil of a Jackson Pollock painting or a tie dye shirt. The uglier ones looked like they had been painted at night by a bunch of drunks.

The cones were connected by walkways that criss-crossed the sky. They were the only way around the city: the streets of the south side were flooded with foul-smelling scummy water.

Jonquil had never done particularly well with heights and the walkways were always too busy. The tellies weren’t brash enough to try to push her off but they also were too proud to stand aside- and likewise, no TORCH agent would let herself be subordinated to a xeno.

As a result, shoving matches were commonplace. Jonquil had a very low center of gravity and was much stronger than she looked… but touching the oily, scummy skin of the tellies was automatic defeat.

Jonquil jogged to keep pace with the taller Aliza, who had this impressive ability to shimmy past tellies without ever touching them. “Where are we going?” Jonquil grunted.

“Labor-Caste District. I’m almost certain the tellies at SPRING_ToMind are from there.” Tellies had a multi-tiered caste system that Jonquil didn’t understand, other than when a telly worked with a TORCH agent, they were usually from Labor-Caste.

“And what are we going to say to them?” she asked Aliza dryly. “‘Have you seen this telly? We’re looking for one of yours in a terrorist attack that killed ours.’ You think they’ll tell us?”

“Why wouldn’t they? You know me, Jonny. I’m really persuasive.” Aliza stuck her tongue out playfully. “You should probably set that xeno hatred aside, by the by. We’re gonna try to work with ’em here.”

“I don’t hate them. I just don’t think there’s much to be gained from talking to them.”

“Impossible to say! We’ll find out soon enough.” Aliza neatly sidestepped a beefy Warrior-Caste telly. Jonquil wasn’t quite as successful in her dodge, and her shoulder brushed against the warrior’s elbow. She groaned at the slimy stain it left on her jacket.

Without warning, the warrior leaped off the walkway and into the flooded street below. So did all the other tellies. Jonquil instinctively went for her sidearm until she saw them treading water as a telly wearing stiff clothes made from chitinous animal shells stood on an elevated platform.

“Oooh!” Aliza turned to watch. “This is always so fascinating!”

Jonquil disagreed. Every few weeks around midday, the tellies took a break from work and went into the streets for this thing that they did. The ones in shells, some manner of religious or political leader, would stand there and dance about, then the others would mirror its movements. Then after ten minutes or so they’d calmly return to work.

Just like always, the one covered in chitin shimmied and shook and flailed its long thin arms in the air. Purple and green sparks illuminated the screen on its neck. Aliza observed the ritual with fascination. “If I’m reading his screen right, he’s trying to raise money for charity,” she said. “Says the… poor… lost souls… need assistance.”

“Who are the lost souls? Us?” Jonquil asked.

“I don’t think so. They usually call us something that roughly translates to ‘invasive species’.” Aliza kept watching as juvenile tellies swam out with open bowls, begging for the shell-shaped coins they used as currency.

Rather than keep watching, Jonquil took the cleared walkways as an opportunity to make good pace. “I wanted to keep watching,” Aliza whined, jogging after her.

They made their way across the boundary from Commerce-Caste to the Labor-Caste district. The buildings were smaller and meaner here, with less impressive coloration and more accumulated waste.

On the street level, the buildings were covered in graffiti. What appeared to Jonquil as a nonsensical vomiting of colors was apparently a spirited debate. Aliza widened the apertures of her eyes and squinted at the artwork. “Oh my. How vulgar.” She chuckled. “I think these were written by some teens.”

“What makes you say that?”

“They’re very preoccupied with sex and murder, mostly coming our way. Seems like there’s a broad consensus here that something must be done about us.”

“Dissatisfaction is that high?” Jonquil scoffed. “That makes no sense. Life has gotten immeasurably better here since TORCH arrived. The economy has quadrupled, standard of living is exponentially higher, deaths from disease are halved-”

“Yeah. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter how comfy a cage is, it’ll always be a cage.” Aliza fixed her clothing. “I wonder why they’ve started to turn against us now, though. Something we did?”

“Not to my knowledge.” Jonquil peered down and saw a trio of youths turn into one of the street-level alleyways. “You think it’s a good idea to ask?”

“Sure! But aren’t you worried that the sewage will ruin your nice clothes?”

In response, Jonquil hiked up her pants to her knees, revealing the long trench boots she was wearing. “It’ll take a lot more than some grime to dissuade me.”

“Attagirl.”

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OPTICA #10

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Everyone was assumedly asking the same question in silence. “Right, so, tellies. I’m not sure why they’re there.” Cordovan glanced at Aliza, and soon most of the room was looking at her.

While it wasn’t her job, Aliza was generally acknowledged as Major Crimes’ specialist on the locals. The light-based communication of the tellies was extremely complex and only a small handful of HEARTH and LUX linguists had managed to get a handle on it. Aliza’s eye implants were a major boon for translation, making her the only person they had handy who could understand their language.

“Huh… no clue. But I think I can translate their conversation, if you rewind.” Aliza watched, her mechanical eyes unblinking. “The one in the front, ahead, is telling the others to hurry because they’re too slow. He’s not comfortable staying here, surrounded by so many aliens. The ones behind are… more casual, I think. That one is asking why he’s in such a hurry, and that one is saying he’s hungry and he hopes that SPRING’ll feed them before kicking them out. The third is silent except to agree with his fellows.”

“Any idea why the leader is in such a hurry to leave?” Sepia asked.

“He seems nervous about something. Whatever it is, he’s not saying.”

“Nobody seems perturbed,” said Hunter, flatly as always. “Must be there a lot. Involved in SPRING_ToMind’s work.”

That made sense. “So case closed then,” said Cinnabar. “Either witches or tellies blew the base… probably the latter.”

Jonquil shook her head. “We can’t be that hasty. There’s no reason to believe-”

“That’s the most obvious answer though,” Cinnabar interrupted, eager to one-up Jonquil. “If tellies were patrolling the base, they’d understand the security and layout well enough to plant the bombs.”

“Makes sense,” said Sepia. “At the very least, I want to know why SPRING_ToMind was using tellies for their work. We’re gonna focus the investigation on them for now- will give the witches and others a look later.”

Sepia then handed out marching orders for the various duos. Cinnabar and Oxford were to gather more information on SPRING_ToMind, particularly on any prior arrests or other scandals relating to their employees. Hunter and Cordovan were to try to match the bomb locations to the footage and see if they could compile a suspect list. Almost everyone else was assigned to something involving the telegaeics.

One by one, the other inspectors filed out of the room. Aliza blew Cordovan a kiss as he walked out of and he pantomimed catching it and putting it in his pocket. Sepia saved Jonquil and Aliza for last. “You two are also gonna look into the tellies,” she said. “See what you can shake up about rebellion and dissidence on their side of town.”

“Senior Inspector, I’m against this,” Jonquil said sharply. “The simple presence of telegaeics in the base is peculiar, but I hardly think it’s suspicious.”

“I dunno Jonny, that one telly was acting mighty weird,” Aliza said. “It might be good to at least question him.”

“And besides, we’re not flush with leads. It’s gonna be a lot of work before we start seeing progress.” Sepia took a long draught from her mug. “This is important work, hear?”

“Yes ma’am.” Jonquil still had reservations, but she couldn’t think of a convincing counterargument. With a salute, she turned to leave.

Aliza followed her out. “What’s the problem?” she asked.

“Nothing. I just think we should be searching for evidence, not harassing the locals because a few of them were spotted at the crime scene. Do you think we’ll even be able to find the ones that were at the base?”

“Probably not, but I’m sure we can dredge something up.” Aliza smiled. “This is kinda exciting, isn’t it?”

“It isn’t. It’s an atrocity. Dozens are dead.”

“Sure- but c’mon Jonny, you can’t tell me you aren’t at least a little into it. Big mystery. Bomb goes kaboom. Aliza and her deadpan sidekick save the day with her amazing investigative prowess.”

“I’m the deadpan hero,” said Jonquil. You’re the comic relief sidekick.”

“See? Told ya you were into it!”

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OPTICA #9

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Cordovan smiled dashingly at the gathered women, and at least one of them replied with a wistful sigh. “Our investigation focused on who would have access to the building,” he said, his voice warm like a campfire. “We managed to get our hands on the security footage. Here’s what we know so far.”

He pulled up a video clip. “The offices of SPRING_ToMind on the day before the bombing.” Most of the girls were dressed in the chic, modern styles that served as the unofficial uniform for SPRING girls: unbuttoned longcoats, short fringed pencil dresses, bodysuits with silicon skirts. Jonquil thought it bold but tacky.

There were others, too. Girls dressed in uptight, formal fashion, pantsuits or long dresses and jackets. A few were sporting Arcane Suppressors themselves… witches. Judging from their clothes they seemed to be members of LUX, the science and research branch. That was no surprise, SPRING often relied on LUX‘s scientific knowhow to develop new technologies. There were also girls in practical outfits and labcoats. Those would be MIRROR… probably biomedical technicians.

“As you can see, SPRING_ToMind employed many contractors from outside the branch,” said Cordovan. “Unlike the full-time employees, they would not have been present during a crunch in the wee hours of the morning.”

“So witches worked in the base?” Cinnabar frowned and stared daggers at Jonquil. “Why the hell aren’t we investigating them?”

“Because we haven’t rounded them up yet,” Cordovan said patiently. Jonquil felt her heart sink. She had hoped Cordovan would say that OPTICA didn’t investigate the LUX witches because they hadn’t done anything suspicious. “It’s harder than expected to find these contractors. The accounting department was totally destroyed in the explosion, so we’re trying to retrieve the back-ups… haven’t had much luck so far, SPRING isn’t being helpful and LUX is ignoring us.”

“What a shocker,” said Aliza, and the others murmured in agreement. OPTICA and LUX did not get along whatsoever. LUX never passed up an opportunity to make their lives difficult. “What about Arcane Suppressor registries?” She pointed at one wearing the headband. “She has to register that thing if she wants to work in a non-LUX base.”

“I already asked: LUX refuses to turn over Arcane Suppressor info unless we can prove some witch involvement in the attack. I doubt we’ll ever see anything from them.”

“What about public transit logs?” Sepia asked.

“Ahead of you, boss. SPRING_Forth sent over transit information but it’s 19 terabytes of data, the techs will need some time to parse it. It’s pretty unlikely the bomber would be dumb enough to take the bomb onto the train with them.” Cordovan’s resigned smile did funny things to Jonquil’s guts.

Aliza was less distracted. “Well, that sucks! You’d think SPRING would want this solved more than anyone else. How come you’re not showing us the footage before the explosion? Too hot to handle?”

“You’re the one in charge of that kind of footage, DI.” Cordovan got this roguish look on his face, and a few of the younger hounds giggled. “No… we haven’t actually acquired it yet. SPRING wants to vet the footage themselves before they send it to us for ‘liability reasons’.”

“They’re impeding the investigation!” someone called, and the rest of the room seemed in agreement. “They can’t do that!”

“’Fraid they can,” Cordovan said. “Their base, their footage. All we can do is ask nicely… while they have to turn it over to us, nobody can stop them from dragging their feet.”

Nobody wanted to get on SPRING’s bad side. They controlled the majority of TORCH’s economy, and could put enormous financial hurt on anyone who upset them. OPTICA had a pretty good relationship with the businesswomen, and the leadership was intent on keeping it that way- which meant kowtowing to SPRING interests.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get it in time. That’s not what I found most interesting about this footage, actually.”  Cordovan fast-forwarded a bit until something new walked down the hallway. It wasn’t a SPRING businesswoman, or a MIRROR curator or a LUX scientist. It wasn’t even a TORCH agent.

It was a xeno.

Specifically, a creature halfway between a frog, a shrimp, and a human that padded down the hallway gracelessly. It had long, thin limbs but large hands and feet with puffed up appendages. The creature was pretty short, about Jonquil’s height, and wore nothing but a slick loincloth. Its yellow eyes were the size of baseballs and featured cross-shaped pupils, and when it blinked it did so with both horizontal and vertical eyelids.

It was purple and had no mouth, no visible nose, no throat or chin. Instead, that entire area was covered with a huge scaled screen the size of a beach ball. A flickering yellow-and-orange pattern danced across the screen. The TORCH agents gave the creature a wide berth.

Three others followed soon behind it. Each was a different color, both their skin and what was displayed on the organic screens: one was silver with a flashing green circle with two red ones inside, the second red with a yellow-and-green spiraling zig-zag. The final one was sea blue and had no pattern, then three red flashes, then nothing again.

The creatures were telegaeics- TORCH called them “tellies” for short. The native species here on Porropelin. As a general rule, TORCH left them alone to their telly business and they returned the courtesy.

What the hell were they doing in a SPRING base?

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OPTICA #8

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“You find anything else?” Cinnabar asked Mint. “Anything useful?”

Mint scowled and opened her mouth to say something nasty, but Jonquil interceded. “Thank you for the prompt and thorough work, Inspector. Please keep us posted.”

“…Sure.” Mint was mollified by Jonquil’s courtesy. “Wish I could help more, but you know these neo_SMOKE cats, they act like children. Most of them are high off their gourds when they enter these ‘secure’ chatrooms so they ramble nonstop.” Mint made a flippant gesture. “I’ll keep looking. See if I can get anything from higher up on the underworld food chain.”

She turned to leave and Jonquil watched her go. Mint, who had no friends and was generally disliked, insulted everyone who tried to talk to her except Jonquil. Why was that?

Ah yes. Jonquil too had no friends and was generally disliked. They were much alike, plus or minus 14 inches of height.

“Great. Diakon, Aliza, you’re up to the plate.” Sepia sipped her coffee.

Seeing the hostile or disinterested faces of her fellows, Jonquil sighed and passed her notes to her partner. “Alrighty everyone, let’s talk about the weapons.” Aliza glanced down, reading Jonquil’s work. “We all know it was a rabbit bomb by now. What Jonny and I found was that there were… four in total.”

She pulled up the map Jonquil prepared with the four bombs labeled. “First floor bathroom, second story right side maintenance closet, second story left side coat room, and third story stairwell. The first story bomb was larger than the other three, judging by the casing, and they were planted with a lot of care. The three upper story bombs did serious damage to the foundation of the building, so when the one on the first story went off a few seconds later, it caused the entire building to cave in on itself.” Aliza paused. “Multiple bombs also suggests the possibility of multiple culprits.”

“Let’s say one for now for simplicity’s sake,” said Sepia, wiping some coffee off her lip. “So the bomber knew her shit. Good to know. What else?”

Jonquil figured she could get away with a brief comment. “If the bomber only cared about leveling the building, she would have taken out the levee upriver,” she said. “That would have destroyed the building in a deluge. This seems a more difficult and delicate way to only mostly destroy the building and only mostly kill the people inside.”

“She might not have thought of it,” said Cinnabar.

“She knows her shit,” Jonquil replied. “She thought of it.”

The other DI’s face contorted in fury. “Maybe she was new to Ttlatic, then.”

“She knew the workings of SPRING_ToMind well.”

SPRING corporations all look the same, dumbass.”

“Well, why use a rabbit bomb then?” Jonquil shot back. “A neutronic fusion bomb is cheaper and would kill everyone inside just as dead. So would a memetic viral agent. A Neighbors totem imbued with furious ancestral spirits, same story. The bomber’s intentions were not to simply kill everyone inside.”

“What were they then?” Cinnabar asked, crossing her arms. Jonquil opened her mouth to reply, but Cinnabar interrupted her. “We don’t want your patented speculations and hunches, witch. We want the facts. Do you know?”

“I don’t,” Jonquil admitted.

“It’s still a hell of a lot more than we knew before. Nice work ladies, take your seats.” Sepia peered around, then called on Cordovan and his partner Hunter.

Hunter was a big-hipped and laconic woman. She was nice enough, but silent to the point of creepiness. Jonquil didn’t hold it against her, though- she was only so quiet because of the Arcane Suppressor strapped to her forehead. The metal circlet prevented Hunter from using her magical ability- it also prevented her from feeling almost any emotion. She had described it before to Jonquil as “profound numbness, like I’m always encased in someone else’s body.”

Hunter could never take off the Suppressor except to sleep or bathe- it was on a time lock. Sepia could also remove it, assuming Hunter could get ahold of her. All witches in OPTICA had to wear Suppressors unless they submitted themselves to a monthly screening to prove that both they and their ability were not dangerous.

Jonquil hated those fucking screenings- but they were a small price to pay so she could avoid wearing one of those horrid things.

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