“Is that customary.”Jericho
“If I were in charge, I would have you relieved of duty.”
Jericho blinked at the woman who sat across from him. He’d heard many stories about her. How her square-rimmed glasses did nothing to hide her ice-blue eyes ‘that could rip out your soul.’ How the tapping of her perfectly manicured nails ‘could drive even the strongest-willed Conductor insane.’ How her Librish accented voice ‘could shake down the very walls of Taurus’s renowned fortress of a capital city.’
Alice Kingsley. The Ice Gate of Ophiuchus.
And now that he’d had the opportunity to sit before her twenty-five times now, he could confirm the stories as true.
“I think you’re too dangerous. Too unstable,” she continued evenly. Her Librish lilt resounded around the white walls of the office and made the room seem larger than it already was. “But I doubt you even care about what I think.”
“I care,” he responded automatically. He pushed up his square glasses. “I care a lot. About what you think.”
“Spare me the façade. We’ve been through this already, Jericho.” Alice waved her hand as she rifled through the papers in front of her. “I study people for a living. And I see you for who you are.” She paused, lowered her papers, peered over them. Her eyes bore into him, digging, searching.
It almost felt as if she could hear his thoughts.
“But I doubt you care about that either.” She returned her attention to her papers, flipped through several more of them before she stacked them neatly on the table in front of her. “You’ve passed the psych evaluation the department has provided, and there’s nothing I can do about what’s been written.”
“So, you’ll be dispatched to the Capricornian-Aquarian border. There’s been an ongoing dispute around Gradstal, which is a town that connects the two countries. A large group of Sagittarian merchants who were using the trade route connecting the three countries were caught up in the conflict and are being detained within Capricornian borders. The Sagittarian royalty submitted their request for intervention a week ago, but with all the paperwork and politics, we haven’t been able to get to them until now. As expected, they’re calling attention from other nations. I don’t have to tell you how tense this issue is. Your train leaves in two hours.”
Jericho blinked. “I thought…”
“You would be dispatched to handle the ELPIS issue?” Alice gave one dry, chuckle. “Unfortunately, you know that only ELPIS Division handles those cases”
There was a long stretch of silence. But she did not speak.
“Jericho, you can leave now.” Her voice came out gently for once. It startled him out of his stiffness.
“Okay.” Jericho nodded. He rose to a stand, walked through the glass door behind him, and exited into the hall.
The hall itself was littered with Ophiuchian agents streaming back and forth between the rooms dotting the walls. All in black-and-white suits with a white sash around their arms, like him.
There had been a large number of cases opened these past few months. So many that closing one case meant immediately opening another. Last month he’d handled four cases himself. And here was another one. Not the one that he wanted.
Posted on the wall of the main lobby was a large map of the Signum continent. The continent was almost perfectly circular featuring Aries to the north, Virgo to the east, Capricorn to the south, and Scorpio to the west. At the very center of the ring of twelve countries was the city-state of Ophiuchus. A spot alongside the border that Capricorn shared with Aquarius was circled in red. Only a couple clicks to the north was the trade route running from Sagittarius, through Capricorn and Aquarius, to Pisces. Part of this route was also circled. Vitae reservoirs were marked on the map with a blue star, while locations of ELPIS attacks were marked with an X.
He bit the inside of his lip before he turned down the hall, made several more turns, and pressed out the entrance of the building. Sunlight met his eyes. As did the light from the vitae reservoir that glowed several miles away. Even from this distance with an entire strip of buildings between them, he could feel the warmth of it on his skin. Warmer than the sun. It painted the long, marble staircase just below him in a blinding white.
His stomach churned, and he placed a hand over his belly. He turned his eyes away from the light, and his stomach settled. When he closed his eyes, he felt right again. He paused and thought. Would it be unreasonable to walk down the stairs with his eyes shut like this? He had done it a handful of times before. He’d always made it down with success.
A breath of air tickled the back of his neck, drawing him away from his thoughts. The breath came with a whisper: “Traitor.”
Something pressed against his back. No, something pushed against his back.
His eyes snapped open in time to see a flash of white marble beneath him.
The momentum was too great. He couldn’t right himself.
His head cracked down on the step first. Then came the rest of his body. Down he rolled—each crack of limb against marble signaling another tumble forward.
It seemed as if he’d been rolling for an hour before he finally hit the bottom. He immediately tried to stand, but his limbs wouldn’t allow it. His arms were broken, it seemed.
He threw a furtive glance up at the top of the staircase just in time to see a shadow recede back into the building. Then, he was alone.
He would not succumb to this, he knew. He clenched his fists tightly in the red that pooled around him. Not until he’d done it. Not until then. He would not let go.
Then again, what was this?
Ophiuchus: A peace-keeping organization formed after the end of the Reservoir War. Consisting of several specialized departments, they help maintain international balance and peace between the countries of Signum. They handle conductor licensing, international affairs, conducting law and regulations, and ELPIS investigations. A country’s internal issues are not something this group handles as Ophiuchus respects the sovereignty of each individual country.Ophiuchus Informational Packet, mass distributed circa 1925