<== ==>

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.”


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

<== ==>


<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

“The cutest kind.” Aliza winked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” said Jonquil with relief. 

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

<== ==>


<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, maybe. See ya tomorrow?”


<== ==>


<== ==>

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

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

“So no, you don’t have much?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>


<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“You specifically.”

<== ==>


<== ==>

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!”

<== ==>


<== ==>

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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“If what Cinnabar says is right, then that changes things,” said Jonquil.

Cinnabar scowled, but Sepia looked interested. “What do you mean, Diakon?”

Jonquil put a hand to her chin. “A well-coordinated bombing against someone nobody would want to bomb. The attack was at night too, so casualties were minimized. Only the overnight staff was there. This was how our thinking went until now, because that was what was logical.”

“We know that,” Cinnabar said impatiently.

“But with this new information,” Jonquil pressed on, “we can deduce that the bomber was familiar with the way the company worked. Disgruntled ex-employee, maybe? Or one of the ten percent who weren’t in?”

“Very possible. Good work, Diakon.” Sepia glanced at Cinnabar. “Anything else?”

“Yes- the survivors. We have a positive ID on them both.” Cinnabar magnified two new images. “Junior Entrepreneur Polly Peck, who works in photonics, is unconscious but stable at Silica General. Entrepreneur Seagram Emm, who works in subvocals, is lucid and in our custody.” Polly was the blue-haired girl that Jonquil had saved. Seagram meanwhile had dark grey hair and gloomy features, and her makeup suggested some sort of goth sensibilities.

“What’s she know?” asked someone.

“Let’s not hassle the poor girl,” said Sepia. “Nearly got blown to smithereens a few hours ago. Let’s give them some time to recover before we start badgering. All righty… who’s next?”

From the back of the room, a long and bony hand went up. The woman who approached was frighteningly tall but thin and gangly, ugly by TORCH standards with pronounced cheekbones and a vacant, hollow look. “Hey Mint. Got something for us?” Sepia asked conversationally.

“Have I got something for ya? Yeah, a steaming bag of dog shit. Special delivery.” Mint was an odd bird, but she was one of the most best analysts they had. She led this precinct’s OPTICA_Cyber lab. The techs were often held in low esteem by the street cops and vice versa. Crime solvers were typically active, athletic, and extroverted. The techs were the opposite of all that.

Mint held up her watch and clicked a few buttons. A file appeared on the screen: thousands of pages of chatlogs, all compressed into twenty pages of relevant tidbits and summary. “I know this is a lot,” said Mint, “but I can summarize the summary. These past few weeks, the underground has been going crazy. You’ve all heard about the terrorist attacks on other TORCH worlds.”

A hard thing to ignore. Attacks had occurred on Nemesis, Vidian and Inwem, along with several other planets, all in a matter of months. While the attacks were different in MO, they had all carried high death tolls. Investigations into the usual suspects had not yielded anything definitive, and of the few arrests made none of them seemed likely to lead back to the bombers.

Assuming that the attacks were coordinated, it wasn’t too surprising that one such was eventually launched on Porropelin. Part of Jonquil just wished it hadn’t been her problem- another was glad that she finally had a reason to try to find the bombers herself.

“You think this is the most recent incident?” Cinnabar asked.

“I wouldn’t mention it otherwise, dumbass,” Mint said sharply. “Low-level subversives in neo_SMOKE didn’t know about the attack, at least… nothing to suggest that.”

Neo_SMOKE was not a branch, but rather a wide-ranging and decentralized criminal syndicate. Mafioso, activists, nonconformists, vigilantes, racketeers, smugglers, assassins, mercenaries, terrorists, gamers… all those who existed on the periphery of TORCH society. Eclectic as they were, neo_SMOKE were no joke: their ingenuity at circumventing TORCH law was extraordinary. Millions of girls who otherwise played by the rules used their excellent software for one reason or another.

Naturally, OPTICA spent plenty of time chasing around neo_SMOKE. That was even how OPTICA agents earned the nickname of “hounds”- neo_SMOKE were “cats”, and dogs chase cats.

“There aren’t many leads in the data, from where I sit,” Mint continued, pushing up her circular glasses. “Anti-establishment sentiment is running high… but they attacked a SPRING base, so that doesn’t scan to me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked someone from the back of the room.

Mint barked a laugh. “Hmph, SPRING’s big business, and the leadership is reform-minded. Previous attacks have targeted, y’know, HEARTH consulates or BEACON military bases. That sort of thing. Attacking SPRING to protest TORCH’s old guard is like punching yourself in the ass to protest your stomach.”

“A form of anti-corporate protest?” Jonquil asked. Some neo_SMOKE agents and other subversives resented SPRING for making so much of TORCH revolve around buying and selling.

“It’s not impossible… but it’s not in the chat either. neo_SMOKE likes money as much as anyone. Most of it is the usual drug deals, arranging meet-ups, software sharing… y’know.”

“What about bomb components?” asked Cordovan. “You checked for that?”

“I’m not stupid, flank steak. I did and I was sure I’d get something- but I didn’t. None of the components for a rabbit bomb were being smuggled or traded into Ttlatic in the last few weeks.”

The lack of evidence was in of itself evidence. It meant the bomb was either assembled before it arrived to Ttlatic, was assembled here some time ago, or the bomber expertly covered their tracks.

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