While the main six are entangled by an unseen enemy, peacekeeper Gabrielle Law embarks to investigate the Verbundene Augen in Capricorn alongside two companions.
Verschlimmbesserung » Improving for the worse beyond 0700 hours
Ariesian knight-turned-Ophiuchian peacekeeper Gabrielle Law felt like she was losing her minions one-by-one. She’d lost her first, oldest, and best to a body-hopping, ancient terrorist. And now she’d lost newest to—as Elizabeta Wtorek had said back in the Medical Department—’fatigue’ and ‘exhaustion’ which had led to an ‘unconscious state’ for an ‘indeterminable amount of time.’ At least was how it was ‘on paper,’ Elizabeta had clarified shortly after. In other words, Jericho’s condition was a medical mystery. At the moment, he was still tucked away in that bed in the Medical Department under Elizabeta’s hawk-like gaze and probably looking like he was still sound asleep. A very long sleep.
But that wasn’t Gabrielle’s field, and she wasn’t doing anyone any favors by worrying about it. What was important was endgame.
“Yeah. Endgame. Your eye is still on the prize, right?” Wtorek Izsak would always ask during the brief periods of repose during the war. Back when ‘peacekeeper’ was a concept only fantasized about. “Only one of us’s got 20/20 vision, so I’ll leave that up to you. That’s what friends are for, right?”
“Love is blind,” Moraeni would interject in that strange way of his. Always coming in with a saying that never pertained to the situation. “And friendship closes the eyes.”
“You should both be comedians,” Gabrielle would return. “You both would do great for the economy. Fruit stalls would be sold out every time you did an act.”
Izsak’s jokes really had been awful at the time and had only gotten worse after he’d become a father. Still, Gabrielle would do anything to hear one of those jokes again—even if it meant being stuck with thousands of them on this day-long train ride.
She had boarded the Grand Snake Train two hours ago with two of her other minions in tow. Both sat across from her now, one folding an intricate origami crane and the other rifling through a series of colorfully-enveloped letters. Neither were Conductors specifically suited for combat… which was troublesome since they were entering a country based in the military, but Gabrielle figured that this trip to Capricorn would be something routine.
“Hey, Miss Law.”
Gabrielle turned to find Talib staring at her through the reflection in the window. In the light pouring in from the pane, his caramel brown eyes almost seemed to glint amber. He reached across the table and placed a red paper-crane in her lap. She arched a brow in turn.
“It’s been some time since we’ve had a case together, Gabrielle. So… I feel like it’s an excellent opportunity to talk.”
“Didn’t I tell you to stop calling me ‘Miss’?” She yawned. “Makes me feel old.”
“Well, you are older than me—”
She clicked her tongue. “What did you want to talk about?”
Talib began to fold another crane, this time forest green in color. “Endgame. I mean, we’re almost there. Soon you’ll be the chairwoman of the Assignment Department, and Alice is no doubt heading towards Chairwoman of Psych Evals. Soon, you’ll both be on the electoral list for Head Chair of Ophiuchus and then… well. What next?”
With evident disinterest, Alice peeled open a red envelope and began to scan the cream-colored letter within. Despite rarely going out into the field, the Librish woman somehow always received more goodwill letters and gifts than Gabrielle herself did. Bachelorette for life, Gabrielle supposed.
“I mean, I’ve got a couple of policies and regulations in mind,” Gabrielle replied, stifling a yawn. “More of a focus on prevention than trying to amend things after they happen. You know the drill.” She rubbed her eyes. “Can’t believe the election is so close. I’ve got to prepare my platform—”
“Ah, like a disease control?”
“Your policy that you mentioned. Prevention.”
Gabrielle stretched and grimaced. “When you put it like that it sounds ugly.”
Talib made a final crease and placed the newly formed paper crane on the table. “Izsak was the one who was working with you on all of that policy stuff. I mean…” He turned the crane so that it’s now faced her. “Will you be able to manage it all alone? Moraeni is certainly a big help, but he’s busy all the time…”
Gabrielle grimaced, brows furrowing. Gamma… Damn, she had been trying not to think about that lately.
“I’m no good politician, but if you’d like, I could help you on your campaign when the time comes around,” Talib continued, pulling out another sheet of paper and folding it again. “You… said you wanted to cut down funding on the General Investigations Department and put more funding to the International Relations Department and Psych Evals specifically.”
Gabrielle hummed, resting her cheek on her fist. “I’m surprised you remembered that. You always seem more interested in your… hypotheses when we’re in meetings. Gotta say. Sometimes the stuff you say is a lot more interesting than my policies.” She sighed. “But you’re right. Since the election is getting closer, I need to start thinking about how to…”
“Make yourself a likable candidate,” Alice finished.
Talib glanced at Alice, saying, “It’s not such a bad idea. Cutting things down. If something grows too big, it’s bound to fail.” He creased another origami paper and flipped it over on itself. “It’s the same with all the great empires. They reach for glory, grow too big, and crumble under all the weight. They try to rule all their people justly, but one community’s justice is not another’s. And yet still, each ruler that comes along thinks they’ll be the ones to do it. I think that’s what they call gambler’s fallacy.”
Gabrielle arched brow. “I like it better when you’re talking about the Organization—”
Talib leapt to a stand, slapping his hands down on the table and sending all of the cranes that were piled up there leaping into the air. “Don’t get me started on the Organization! I’m sure of it—they’re the ones behind Jericho’s state! I warned him not to use graphite pencils for his journals because the Organization has laced certain brands with poison, but he said, ‘I’ll live with it. Thank you for your concern.’ That man’s bravery was no doubt viewed as a hindrance to the Organization so they—”
“Oh please, Talib,” Alice interjected as she peeled open a blue-enveloped letter and began to read its contents. “I don’t need you to interfere with Jericho’s progr—” Her eyes widened, her glasses reflecting the letter in her hands.
“What is it?” Gabrielle asked.
Alice placed the letter down flat on the table. In curling blue letters it read,
Take me with you ♥︎
It was a bit creepy, but when it came to anonymity, most people had no shame. Not really unusual, Gabrielle thought before she registered what had made Alice go so pale. At the corner of the letter there was a cartoonish drawing of an eye with three eyelashes. Gabrielle had gone over the case files just the previous night so she immediately recognized the symbol as belonging to the Verbundene Augen.
“Oh, that…” Talib’s brows rose. “Sort of looks like the letter Jericho was reading right before he fainted.”
“Jericho received a letter like this too?” Gabrielle frowned. “What did it say?” She pointed to the eye symbol. “Did it have this?”
Talib frowned. “I think it said… ‘I’ve got my eye on you.’ I’m not sure if it had the symbol…” He stiffened and began to dig into his coat pocket. “Wait that blue envelope!” He ripped out a stack of letters, sorted through them, and pulled out one encased in an envelope that was the same shade of blue as Alice’s. He peeled it open, scanned it, and slowly placed it on the table:
I’m here ♥︎
At the corner of the page was the Augen’s icon.
Talib stiffened, jerking his hand away from the letter and wiping his hand. “What if it’s coated with poison? And Jericho was—”
“You and Ferris collected all of the letters afterwards,” Alice interjected. “If it was that, you both would’ve been in the Medical Department with them. Plus, Jericho’s blood test came back clean. I double-checked.”
Alice always had held a soft spot for Jericho, and Gabrielle still didn’t know why. When Gabrielle had heard about a peacekeeper who had ELPIS ties being admitted into Ophiuchus, she had jumped at the opportunity. Having someone with that experience and sort of reputation at her side was definitely desirable. It’d taken Gabrielle months to get Alice to disclose details about Jericho to her, but the toiling had been worth it in the end. But now…
“Did you get anything like this, Gabrielle?” Talib asked.
Gabrielle shrugged, ruffling the back of her head. “I didn’t really get through all my letters so I don’t know. Left them back in Ophiuchus… But I’ll ring Ferris once we get to Die Hauptstadt. I’ll have her check her letters and Moraeni’s too.”
“It could be a message from the movement itself to peacekeepers,” Alice murmured, pulling her letter off of the table and examining it. “Perhaps they’re saying they’re aware that they’re being watched and they’re returning the favor. Of course, the letters aren’t dated so we don’t have a clue of when they were written.”
“That’s an interesting analysis,” Talib noted.
“It’s why I’m here, Talib.” She sighed, flipped the letter over, and scanned the back. “To do what the Psychological Evaluations Department was originally meant to do. Not treat, but study and evaluate.” Frowning, she placed the letter back down on the table, back-side up. Etched into the corner of the page there was a rudimentary drawing of two lotus flowers.
Talib turned his letter on the table over. There was a singular lotus flower printed on his.
“Perhaps the Organization is behind the recent growth of the Augen movement,” Talib suggested, eyes widening. “They could be using the civil unrest in Capricorn to their advantage and—”
Alice interjected, “The ‘Organization’ this time wouldn’t be in reference to the saint candidates, right? I can never tell with some of your tirades.”
Talib gaped obviously. “How did you—”
“Talib, you left your notes out on my coffee table a month ago,” Alice explained, crossing her arms and locking eyes with Gabrielle. “It’s no doubt that Izsak was investigating something on your behalf when he became initiated into ELPIS.” A pause. “And now you’re making Talib do the same. I understand that we came into your ‘hand’ with a certain degree of understanding that we’d be acting as pawns. But providing information and orders to one pawn while keeping the other in the dark isn’t characteristic of a leader. It’s the characteristic of a dictator.”
Gabrielle’s frown deepened before she sighed and rubbed her eyes. “You’re right. It’s just that everything that’s been happening with ELPIS lately is…”
“At any point in time we could fall victim to resistors and become your enemy,” Talib concluded.
More like ‘become a different person’ which Gabrielle thought was much, much worse.
“So, tell me, Talib,” Alice continued, “what has your search led you to find?”
Wincing, Talib sank into his seat. He glanced at Gabrielle and, after receiving a confirmatory nod, he explained, “Saint candidates have been involved in every major event in Signum. From small border skirmishes to the civil revolutions. Of course, you could chalk it up to the cultural significance of saint candidates and their position as role leaders in the Monadic religion and in Signum historically. Given that position, it’d be natural for them to be in the history books. You could chalk it up to coincidence, meaning maybe those events of unrest are ‘the cause’ and the saint candidates are ‘the effect.’ But I don’t personally believe in coincidence. And given ELPIS’s origins, perhaps saint candidates also…”
“A reversal of cause and effect? And again with the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.” Alice frowned. “That’s a dangerous and ridiculous conspiracy. You can’t just start making baseless theories without factual evidence. There has to be temporality proving causation. Besides, even if it were true, there’s still the ‘why’.”
“Look. Alice. The other reason I haven’t mentioned any of this to you or Elizabeta is because…” Gabrielle sighed, crossing her arms. “Leona considers ‘failed saint candidates’ to be the same as ‘regular saint candidates’.”
“That would mean Izsak and Elizabeta’s daughter Csilla might also be classified as possible adversaries,” Talib continued.
Csilla, the failed saint candidate of Taurus. Thinking of her as an ‘adversary’ as Talib had put it seemed ridiculous especially since she was barely fifteen years old.
“And also…” Talib continued.
“Flannery,” Alice finalized.
The failed saint candidate of Libra.
“You know how ridiculous this sounds, Gabrielle,” Alice stated instead of asked.
There was a lapse in conversation. Alice continued to sift through her letters, while Talib continued folding the cranes. The train’s clinking on the tracks became deafening.
“You’re folding a lot of those,” Gabrielle noted after a beat. “Any reason?”
Talib perked up. “Actually, there’s a legend that I’ve heard—”
“About the Golden Beast?” Gabrielle responded without thinking.
Talib threw his head back with a laugh. “Golden beast? Oh, come on, Gabrielle. That urban legend is ridiculous!” He shook his head, shaking off the last of his laughter with it. “No, no. It’s a… Sagittarian legend. If you fold one thousand origami cranes, then you’ll be granted a wish. Or, there’ll be a full medical recovery of someone you hold dear. I tried doing it once before and—well—it did work.”
Alice paused, glancing at him.
Gabrielle arched a brow.
“It’s for Jericho this time,” Talib elaborated. “And hopefully it’ll work this time too.”
Gabrielle watched him fold ten more cranes in silence.
Talib spoke again after his thirteenth crane. “You told us that you were going to bring true peace to Signum no matter what, GAbrielle. You said that all of our questions about how Signum got to this point would be answered so we’ll never repeat a war like that ever again. I’m following you because I believe that.”
Alice corrected, “No. We’re holding you responsible for that.”
Die Haupdstadt, Capricorn
As soon as Gabrielle stepped out into the cold, gray light gracing the capital of Capricorn, she was met with a sea of bodies. Men and women, dressed in slacks and evening coats, crowded the station platform and wielded signs written in Capricorn and Common. They were all shouting, spitting, jeering, some even crying as their bodies pressed up against one another’s. Emotion clouded the air with their fogging breaths.
When Gabrielle had seen them all from the window when the train had first pulled into the station, she knew she was in for a headache. But she hadn’t realized it would be this bad.
NO MORE! NOT OUR WAR! read one sign.
“You’re just damn lemmings! You know you’re leading Capricorn right to ruin!”
These shouts and signs were not directed at Gabrielle herself, however, nor were they directed at Alice and Talib who stepped out of the train cart behind her. Rather, all of this wrath was directed towards a group of uniformed Capricornian soldiers who stepped out from a train cart three carts over. The soldiers’ medals were dirty as were their faces which were caked in mud. Their expressions remained steely as the crowd surrounded them. The gray light seeping through the overhead clouds hollowed out their faces.
Gabrielle recognized the look in their eyes. Her own eyes had gradually taken on that dull glint of emptiness during the Reservoir War. It had taken time and practice to shine it out.
One of the protestors started swinging their sign wildly in the air and nearly brought it down on a soldier’s head.
Damn, Gabrielle thought, scanning the platform. Things could get ugly quick. Where were the military police? Nowhere, evidently.
With a sigh, she pulled out her badge, straightened the sash on her arm, and dragged herself over to the opposing groups. The protestors closest noticed her approach first, eyeing her sash then her badge before lowering their signs and their voices. The silence spread quickly until all fell quiet and all eyes were on her—save for the eyes of the unwieldy protestor wielding the sign.
“Let’s not get violent now,” Gabrielle said as she put herself in between the protester and the soldier. “Or we’ll both be going against the thing we’re trying to promote. Yeah?”
The protester froze upon registering Gabrielle’s sash and badge before lowering the sign and disappearing back into the crowd.
The Capricornian soldiers studied her for a moment and then studied Talib and Alice coming up behind her. The male soldier who stood at the front of the group inclined his head in thanks before signaling his group forward. The soldiers passed by the quieted crowd in formation before heading through the square that unfolded wide and gray beyond the station.
Gabrielle wondered what Ophiuchus was doing if things like this were happening out in the open.
A tap on the shoulder cut her ruminating short. When she turned, she found a woman with straw blonde hair and caramel brown eyes staring up at her with flushing cheeks. The woman placed a delicate hand over her mouth as she covered a gasp.
“A peacekeeper!” the woman exclaimed. “It really is a peacekeeper! I’ve never seen a peacekeeper before!”
Gabrielle shared a look with Talib and then tapped the white band on the side of her arm. “Yep, that’s what I am, ma’am.”
“Can I get a signature?” the woman pressed.
Asking for a signature from a random peacekeeper? And claiming to have never seen a peacekeeper before? This woman was strange, and she was dressed strangely too. Rubber boots that went up to the knees hugged the woman’s legs, while pastel-pink raincoat was wrapped around her body. Paired with this came a pink sun hat which rested on her head.
“Oh! I’m so rude!” The strange woman extended a gloved hand. “I’m Louise Bonnefoy! It’s a pleasure to meet you!”
Gabrielle accepted the gesture and then the pen and paper Louise offered her. “Gabrielle Law.” She quickly signed her name and handed the items back. “Nice to meet you too, Miss Bonnefoy.”
Louise stared at the autograph in admiration. “Oh, Argo is so amazing! First I come across a guild master, then a gang of tattoo artists—”
“Argo?” Gabrielle did a double-take.
“—then a saint candidate and now a peacekeeper!”
Gabrielle felt her neck hair stand on end. “Saint candidate…?”
What? Was she referring to Leona? Here? But ELPIS wasn’t involved—
A commotion broke out just behind Gabrielle. A passerby had thrown a rock at one of the protestors which kickstarted a tousle that had blown out into a fistfight. Torn between a sigh and a yawn, Gabrielle stepped forward and easily pulled the entangled bodies off of each other. When all was settled and she turned back to Louise, she found that the woman had run off somewhere.
Gabrielle whipped back to Alice and Talib. “Did you see—”
“She darted off that way,” Alice replied, pointing down the length of the train where a dot was disappearing on the horizon. “But frankly, it wouldn’t be surprising if Leona was here. After all, if you were to believe Talib’s theories, then they’re always around when something is happening. And if you were to believe reason, then the ELPIS Department is simply ensuring that the Augen truly has no ELPIS ties.”
Talib didn’t pay the insult any mind and instead squinted in the complete opposite direction. “Hey, guys, isn’t that…”
He pointed out past the station towards the far sidewalk where a phonebooth rested on the corner of the street. A man with ear-length dark black hair and thick brows stood there, one hand resting on the phone booth and the other on the bow conductor hanging at his hip.
Gabrielle squinted and then did a double-take. “Trystan Carter?”
She quickly crossed the expanse of asphalt road after him, traversing over a series of crisscrossing v-tram rail-lines. The clip-clopping footsteps behind her informed her that Talib and Alice were not too far behind. As they drew nearer, a pair came out from behind the phone booth and joined Trystan’s side. One was dressed in sky-blue silk garments and wearing a cap with a hanging beaded string. The other wore a wooden mask.
Gabrielle stopped short a couple of feet away from the group and called out with a wave, “Fancy seeing you here!”
Trystan startled and turned away from the two Sagittarian men he was conversing with. “You’re… the peacekeeper. Miss Law?”
Gabrielle closed the distance between them, extending a hand. “And you would be royal guard Trystan Carter, Sagittarian prince Yuseong Haneul, and his guard—gauging by the mask—Felix?”
“Please, call me Claire.” Claire smiled like any politician would, accepting the gesture. “It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Peacekeeper Law.”
“Pleasure is all mine,” Gabrielle replied cordially. She peered into the phone booth. “I’m guessing you all are here for the diplomatic conductor convention? Is Prince Chance already queuing up in line?”
Trystan tensed and shared a look with Claire.
Gabrielle shared a look with Alice in turn. “Did something happen to the prince?”
Claire and Trystan led them all across the open square, past the square buildings topped with spires lining the area, and through several well-kept alleys. Every corner was impeccably spotless and clean. Even if they were protesting and going through a civil revolution, the Capricornians sure kept their streets clean, Gabrielle thought.
Eventually, they made their way to a brick building guarded by a medium-height, black fence. The building boasted numerous brick arches held up by white limestone pillars. An open, grassy courtyard expanded just behind the gate and was dotted by men and women dressed in either white lab coats or medical gowns. Upon pounding up the white steps and entering the building, they made their way up to what seemed like the highest floor. The floor’s hall was lined with only four doors, and a familiar man dressed in a monochrome suit was staioned cross-armed in front of one of them.
“Roberto?” Gabrielle arched a brow.
“Hey, Gabe, Alice, Talib.” Roberto Gonzalez greeted them with a slight jerk of his head. “Been waiting for you guys to show up once Ferris rang me in and told me you were all coming.” He jerked a thumb back to the door behind him. “Got pulled into this in the middle of my commerce investigation.”
Roberto led them inside the room he was guarding without a beat of hesitation. The room itself was lavishly furnished, hosting open windows, silk curtains, and several ornate armaments. There were two rows of three beds put off to the side of the wall. Three of them were already occupied.
A young girl with cropped black hair dressed in silk garments was draped over the closest white bed. Yuseong Eunji, princess of the Seong Clan, most likely. Behind her stood a woman donning a white porcelain mask. Soha. They both moved to the side at Gabrielle’s approach.
Laid out on the white bed there and covered in thin sheets lay the Ariesian prince Olivier Chance. He looked peacefully asleep, his breathing only mildly shallow.
“What happened?” Alice asked, falling into place beside her.
“He collapsed at the library,” Trystan explained. “Two days ago—”
It was around the time Jericho collapsed then.
“—the medical Conductors said it was exhaustion and fatigue. Prince Yuseong helped me find a room here since one of his vassals had also fallen ill. I’m considering arranging transportation to have the prince taken back to New Ram City…”
“That’s not a bad idea.” Gabrielle turned to Claire and inclined her head. “Thank you for taking care of our prince, Prince Yuseong.”
Claire offered a deep bow as his sister joined his side. “Aries and Sagittarius’s relations have always been strong. And I’ve come to consider Prince Chance as a friend. It was nothing. Really.”
Gabrielle’s gaze drifted to the other occupied bed. A dark-skinned woman with a blemishless face lay there. The woman’s black hair curled around her cheeks as she seemed to sleep soundly. Standing guard and tucked away in the corner of the room by her bedside was an equally dark-skinned man wrapped in silken robes. A conducting spear rested at his side.
“A Virgoan advisor,” Roberto explained, coming up from behind Gabrielle. “She collapsed around the same time as Prince Chance apparently. I was there, brought her in. The medical doctors and Conductors couldn’t find anything wrong with them. Figured they might’ve been exposed to the same contaminants or something. City police are still investigating.” He paused in thought, rubbed the back of his neck. “Heard from Ferris too… The ELPIS guy’s out cold, right?”
Gabrielle took note of the way Claire’s eyes sharpened for a brief second.
“It’s Jericho, Roberto,” Talib corrected. “Not ‘ELPIS guy’.”
“Fine. Jericho knocked in too?”
“Yeah, he’s up in the Medical Department.” A frown pressed down on Gabrielle’s lips as her gaze flicked from the Virgoan diplomat to the prince. Shaking her head, she addressed Trystan, “If you need anything, Mr. Carter, feel free to reach out to any of us. We’ll be in the city for some time. Hopefully, the prince sleeps it off.”
Trystan opened his mouth to say something more but merely bowed his head.
And with that, Gabrielle bid farewell to the Sagittarians and Roberto before departing the hospital wing with Alice and Talib trailing behind her.
“Say, Alice,” Gabrielle drew quietly, pulling the Librish woman aside as they made it back outside. “Jericho hasn’t mentioned anything about something called ‘True Conductors’ has he? In one of your sessions?”
“Are you asking me to disclose patient information to you?” Alice returned coolly. “I still have my own morals and standards. I’m a doctor before I’m a peacekeeper.”
“This might have something to do with saint candidates—”
“This is why Olive said you had a terrible personality, Gabrielle,” Alice interjected evenly. “If I recall correctly, you kept pressing him for details about the Tragedy only hours after it happened. Despite him being in shock. Even I thought that was pushing it.”
Gabrielle sighed, glancing up at Talib who paced just a couple of steps in front of them. “Look, the pirate I was undercover with mentioned the term. She somehow knew Jericho who somehow kicked it off with our Ariesian prince after they met for like a second back at New Ram City over the summer. It’s just too much of a coincidence. Especially if you throw in the fact that ELPIS and Leona have been involved in every incident with them.”
Alice’s eyes widened a fraction. She frowned, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “No, Jericho’s never mentioned anything like that… And he tells me everything.”
Alas, there was no rest for the weary. As soon as Gabrielle Law left the hospital grounds with Talib and Alice, they were due for their preliminary meeting to discuss their investigation of the Verbundene Augen movement with a Capricornian official.
The meeting was to be held in the Seeziegenhalle, a military building that was located at the exact center of the capital. It was a domed structure supported by twelve white pillars, half of which hosted Capricorn’s black national flag. The limestone steps leading up to the building were wide, long, and pristine. And as Gabrielle ascended those steps, she began to wonder how hard the groundskeeper toiled away to keep everything looking so nice.
Seeziegenhalle itself was filled with uniformed men and women, chests all gleaming with medals, as they marched up and down the red-carpeted hall. There was a constant ring-ring-ring trilling in the air from the occupied phone booths lining the far end walls. Elevators dinged in the distance, while Capricornian words were exchanged harsh and clipped.
It felt very much like the Assignment Department back in Ophiuchus. Busy, busy, not a time for a chat.
Major General Martin von Spiel was already waiting for them at the oaken, circular table that took up the center of Meeting Room 4 at the back of the building. The room was lined with empty bookcases and hsted a large map of Capricorn on its back wall. Martin first gestured to the chairs across from him with a genial smile, before clasping his hands as he waited for them to seat themselves. Although Gabrielle had never met him directly, she had heard many good things about him during the Reservoir War. Honorable, wise, dedicated, etceter. She, Talib, and Alice had all spoken with him over the phone on separate occasions during the aftermath of the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, and they had all agreed that they could add the word ‘personable’ to the mix.
And yet the first thing Martin von Spiel said to them in barely accented Common was, “Thank you very much, Miss Law, Miss Kingsley, Mr. Al-Jarrah, for coming all of this way. Your peacekeeping organization has always assisted us when we needed it the most, and Capricorn can’t thank you enough for aiding us during that ELPIS infiltration at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. That being said, with all due respect—” He took a sharp breath. “—We don’t need you here.”
Gabrielle arched a brow. “You’re the ones who invited us.”
“Yes, there was a communication issue. A—how do you say—misunderstanding,” amended Martin von Spiel. “This is a situation Capricorn is perfectly capable of handling on its own. Ophiuchus’s interference in a small political movement like this will only damage both of our reputations. If you come in now, who is to say you won’t set precedent? Who is to say we won’t set precedent?”
Bureaucratic politics with a dabble of hurt, nationalistic pride, it seemed.
“Mr. Von Spiel,” Talib interjected suddenly, “I understand that you might hold a negative view of us in light of what happened to your son Fritz in the Twin Cities with ELPIS—”
Martin’s lips pulled down immediately. Gabrielle moved to stomp on Talib’s foot beneath the table but found Alice’s foot already there. This sort of off-handed comment was something Gabrielle expected from Jericho, not Talib. Maybe the two were just rubbing off on each other.
The mahogany doors to the room abruptly creaked open, and a woman entered. A white lab coat was draped loosely over the woman’s shoulders like an afterthought, while military medals gleamed at her chest. The sleeves of her coat billowed back like wings as she approached them, heels clicking all the way.
“I have to rebut everything you’ve said just now, Major General von Spiel,” the woman said, accent barely noticeable in her Common as she rounded the table and came to a stand beside the major general. “Which has been happening quite often lately.”
Martin shot up to a stand. “What are you doing here?”
“General Watzmann sent me himself to deliver our welcome message,” the woman explained before extending her hand across the table. Her lips curled, her blonde lashes catching the overhead light. “Dämon Forstchritt, head conductor engineer of the state.”
Huh. Gabrielle had always assumed Dämon was a man. Flashing a smile, Gabrielle accepted the gesture and watched as Dämon slid herself into the seat beside Martin whose face had tightened considerably.
Dämon began immediately: “So, you’re interested in seeing whether this movement will disrupt not the peace in Capricorn but the peace in Signum as a whole.”
“The peace in Capricorn ties into the peace in Signum,” Gabrielle returned.
“What a perfectly neutral answer. Now, would you prefer me to provide you a cohort study of information or a case-control study?”
“Could you clarify what you mean by that?” Gabrielle returned.
Dämon eyed Alice. “Would you like me to hand you a file on individuals who have been exposed to the rhetoric of the Verbundene Augen so you can follow along to see which ones convert to better understand the movement and its implications for Signum?” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Or would you like me to give you a file on the individuals who are confirmed to be members of the Augen so you can work backwards and find out what they were exposed to eliminate that exposure?”
Well, that was certainly a way to put it.
“You keep a very tight eye on your citizens, I see,” Talib noted.
“And we’re not here to ‘eliminate’ anyone or anything,” Gabrielle continued. “This is your country and your people, after all. Your country’s movement. We’re just here to make sure there aren’t any signs of this movement becoming violent and spiling over–”
“If I might interject, Gabrielle,” Alice said suddenly, lock eyes with the Capricornian woman. “Frau Dämon, I’d prefer it if you simply compile information regarding current Augen members and where they tend to gather and hold meetings. I can’t let your bias start clouding our investigation before it begins.”
Dämon flashed a smile. “Well, of course. It doesn’t matter the method. It’s always better to catch malignant behavior before it metastasizes.”
Gabrielle resisted yawning.
After that terrible experience, Gabrielle received a dinner invitation addressed to herself, Alice, and Talib from one Flannery Caertas. Since Flannery was in the capital for strictly business purposes, Gabrielle felt somewhat warmed by the fact that she had invited them all to dinner despite being so busy herself. The warmth, however, soon became eaten away by apprehension as Gabrielle recalled the earlier train conversation.
Upon arriving at the restaurant location with Alice and Talib in tow, Gabrielle was greeted by a gaunt server who directed them to the back of the restaurant. Although the tables at the front of the dining area were filled to the brim, they became less so as they moved further back until only one occupied table was within their sights.
At the helm of the table sat Flannery Caertas, future CEO of Signum’s number-one conductor-manufacturing company. Flannery’s bright red hair acted like a gigantic red arrow, and yet she still leaned across the table and waved her hands wildly at them as the server dropped them off. It was hard to believe that she was to inherit a fortune.
To Flannery’s left sat Roberto who was already working on a mouth-watering, well-plated dish of pork. An unfamiliar man occupied the chair to Flannery’s right. The unknown man was bushy-browed and blonde with a prominent brow and rather trimmed nails. Not a soldier nor an official. There was a pen resting behind his ear too; and the leather bag resting at his feet seemed to contain parts of a camera. So maybe he was a—
“This is Hilton Tyler. He’s a Libran reporter who’s here to write a story ‘bout the conductor convention,” Flannery explained with a pearly smile as they neared the table. “Came across him, chatted him up a bit, decided to invite him over. Bit excitin’ and bit of a change, ya know what I mean?”
Gabrielle resisted scowling as she seated herself.
She hated reporters.
“Jeeze, all four of ya’ve got a dead look in yer eyes,” Flannery noted. “I get Roberto lookin’ under the weather, but the rest of ya’ve just arrived. The city isn’t treatin’ y’too bad, is it? If y’need some time t’relax, I can get ya a pass t’an all-inclusive spa in the city.”
“My dear Flannery, bless your heart.” Talib inclined his head and placed a hand over his chest. “You’re always so considerate. But alas, also so naive. Don’t you know that the Organization owns all the spa resorts in Signum? Even if you try to relax, they’re using those hot baths to collect samples of your genetic information to complete their final plan!”
Hilton, salad fork halfway in his mouth, paused and stared.
Flannery’s smile dropped for a second before she threw her head back and cackled. “Man, yer theories keep gettin’ better and better, Talib! I love it!”
Talib returned the chuckle, albeit less energetic. “Don’t you mean getting ‘more accurate’, not better? This is no laughing matter, Flannery.”
There was a regrettable sort of quiet tension between Talib, Alice, and Flannery as the dinner continued on. Roberto seemed oblivious to it, either too busy working on his meal or too busy thinking about his case in the city to care. The Libran reporter still seemed too caught up on Talib’s usual anecdotal theories to read the atmosphere.
Gabrielle attempted to break the silence by addressing Hilton, “So, how’s the article on the conductor convention going, Mr. Tyler? What newspaper are you with?”
“Oh, I’m not just here for the convention,” replied Hilton automatically. “I’m also here to see how Ophiuchus handles this situation.”
Gabrielle felt another headache coming on. “Is that so?”
“Whenever you peacekeepers become involved, bad situations always become worse, and readers tend to eat that up,” Hilton finished. “And for the record, I’m with whatever newspaper pays the most.”
Gabrielle blinked at him and then shared a look with Flannery who winced with apparent regret. “So, what you’re saying, Hilton, is that you’re paying for dinner.”
Dämon Forstchritt, leading face of Capricornian conductor engineering, stood in front of the plexiglass window as she basked in the glow emitting from behind it. Every so often she would look down at her clipboard and jot down a sentence or two. Behind her stretched a network of clear wires and metal tubes that passed from the ground floor to the ceiling.
When she looked up at the window after jotting down another observation, she saw a silhouette behind her reflected on its surface. She turned her head curiously and found a woman with wild black curls barely tamed by a bun standing there. The woman was dressed in a military police uniform, gorget and all.
Dämon tensed. “What’s your military code? Who let you in here?”
“It’s me.” The woman waved a dismissive hand, scanning the area. “Where’s P.D. Oran?”
Dämon’s brows rose. She looked the woman up and down. “Oran is in the restroom. Vomiting. That aside, I must say you look more ravishing than usual this time, Scorpio.”
“That’s an insult, Madam Dämon,” the woman replied, crossing her arms. She threw a glance at the windowpane and a smirk blossomed up her face. “I see you’re very busy despite the earlier intrusion. I’m very proud of you.”
“Well, it wasn’t unexpected given the noise the Verbundene Augen has been causing lately.” Dämon paused in thought. “It won’t interrupt my research down here, will it?”
“Oh, don’t worry. Your research is as important to me as it is to you,” Scorpio replied. “Of course, even I can’t control the passion of people.”
“You mean mob mentality?” Dämon chuckled. “Not that I’m particularly for or against it. And not that I would hold it against you either. You’re the reason my work is finally being realized, after all.”
“You should be grateful.” Scorpio nodded. “Though, I admit that if it weren’t for your progress, we’d be behind on the syzygy.”
“Hm… To be honest with you, even after you’ve told me all the details, I still care little for your True Conductor and syzygy obsession,” Dämon said, turning back to the glass and jotting down several more notes.
“Of course, you care little for it,” Scorpio responded. “You’re a woman who only cares for the present.”
“What else would I care for?”
The plexiglass window groaned as the light behind it shifted.
“Born September 1st. Blood type O. Vision, 20/60 in both eyes. Height, 161.3 cm. Weight, 54.4 kg. Left-handed. Personality, INFP-Turbulent. Father, alive. Mother, awakened. Siblings, younger brother and two younger sisters, alive. Occupation, Virgoan Advisor for multiple relations.
Described by associates as ‘kind, attentive, thoughtful, dedicated, well-versed, reasonable, inquisitive.’ Described by family as ‘warm, compassionate, mischievous’ and ‘occasionally terrifying.’
Unusual activity: involvement in bringing Virgo out of isolation, presence in cavern incident with True Conductor Yulia Kriska, presence in Twin Cities incident.
Probability of being a True Conductor, 100%. Probability of disrupting syzygy, 26%.”
Dämon arched a brow. “That was a mouthful. And who might that be?”
Scorpio smiled distantly. “Someone who I’ve been able to get to know very well recently. Someone who can’t even choose a happy ending.”
“Endings…” Dämon hummed, turning away from the other woman and towards the glass pane again. Something writhed behind it, distorting the light seeping through. “Say… where are you looking then?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if ELPIS—as you’ve said many times before—is constantly looking at the past, and I’m currently looking at the present, then where are you looking?”
“Oh… well.” Scorpio smiled, placing a hand on the plexiglass and closing her eyes. “Our eyes have always been focused on the future.”