Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle are on a mission assignment in the capital of Capricorn to look into the Verbundene Augen. While there, they come across Flannery Caertas who is there for business regarding the conductor convention and Roberto who is there on a case.
They come across an comatose Olive who is under Claire Yuseong’s care but is soon set to be transferred back to Aries and then a scheming news reporter by the name of Hilton Tyler who holds negative views of Ophiuchus. Along with these things, they learn that Leona is also in the city.
As their investigation continues, the diplomatic conductor convention looms in the background.
Sehnsucht » Yearning for the ideal at 0900 hours.
Peacekeeper Alice Kingsley still remembered the sound of the conducting grenades pounding above her head as she’d huddled between her parents in the shelter. The sound had been a deep bellow—always proceeding a high-pitched whine and a brief skip of silence.
She had known at the time that there had been nothing to be afraid of. The shelter was state-of-the-art, designed to keep the wealthy families that supplied the East-Western Powers safe from the most powerful Projectors and conducting grenades flying in from the north and south.
Usually after the bombardments stopped, they would be advised to remain underground for three hours. During this period, Alice had been free to wander around the bunker. She often spent the time exploring.
However, there had been little to explore besides the cement walls and wooden shelves stocked high with dryfoods in brown packaging or glass jars. There had been multiple rooms to the shelter, but one room looked no different from the other. And so, when she explored, she’d often bide her time observing the people threading in and out of the rooms in the connecting hall. Duchesses, dukes, heirs, businessmen and businesswoman—her parents had all introduced her to them. There had not been a face she didn’t recognize, until that one day she stumbled upon two faces that were unfamiliar—
A girl with startling fiery red curls wearing a pair of sunglasses and a boy with barely-tamed black curls. When Alice had found them, they had been walking hand-in-hand, the boy leading the girl.
Flannery Caertas and Talib Al-Jarrah, Alice would soon come to know.
“Are yer sure it’s this way?” Flannery had asked to which Talib had answered, “Yes, of course, I’d never lead us astray. We’re almost there!”
Alice had followed them from behind curiously, holding Talib’s gaze whenever he’d look back in her direction until he’d looked away.
“What are you doing?” Alice had eventually inquired after she’d followed them around the hall in three loops.
Flannery had turned her head and snickered. “We’re escapin’ this hellhole.”
Unsophisticated, Alice had thought before stating plainly, “You’re just walking in circles.”
Talib had stiffened, shaking his head profusely and smashing his fingers to his lips.
“Circles?!” Flannery had gasped before turning and swatting at Talib’s head. “Yer a liar! Y’said we were almost there! Admit it—y’only led me around ‘cause ya wanted t’be m’friend!”
Talib had stammered. “M-My mom says there’re monsters outside! Real monsters! We can’t go out! I’ve seen them myself!”
“Monsters aren’t real,” Alice had rebutted him. “Your imagination is too hyperactive.”
“Hyperactive…?” Both Talib and Flannery repeated the word in confusion.
“When did you guys meet?” Alice had asked after a beat of silence. “I’ve never seen you around before.”
“We met just yesterday, actually,” Talib had replied before Flannery had interjected with an exclamation—
“But we’re already tighter than two peas in a pod!”
“Your eyes…” Alice had gasped then.
Flannery’s eyes had been milky in color—almost indistinguishable from the whites of her eyes in the dark. Blindness.
Flannery had merely pulled at her lids and had grinned widely. “What? Do they look funky or somethin’? ‘s what happens sometimes when y’spend t’much time directly lookin’ at pure vitae from the reservoirs when yer so young, y’know? They came up with a new word for it. Got t’name it m’self. Vitae Caecas.”
“Then why would you want to leave so badly?” Alice had asked then, rather rudely. “You think you’re being brave, but that’s just because you can’t see. Literally.”
“It’s not about bein’ brave. S’bout not bein’ fair,” Flannery had pouted. “All the grownups are makin’ it a mess up there and forcin’ us t’stay down here. Why do we have to be punished? Really hate bein’ left behind—”
That was when the alarms had gone off again and the bombardments returned.
Boom, boom, boom —even now Alice still remembered the sound.
The adults around them back then had shouted over each other as they’d rushed back and forth in the halls. All of the noise had caused Talib to fall into a cowering crouch. Alice herself had frozen in place, terrified since she usually was with her parents during these times.
But Flannery had been all smiles. “Finally!” She’d grabbed both of their hands before placing them against the wall. “Feel! Isn’t it cool?”
Cool? Alice had thought, feeling the rumbles through the concrete. It had tickled her palm and made her more aware of the fragility of the shelter than anything else.
But Flannery had continued to grin as she’d pressed her entire face against the wall. “It’s calming.”
After watching Flannery for several minutes, Alice had closed her eyes and pressed her head against the wall too as the trembling of the shelter engraved itself into her body.
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
Pinching the bridge of her nose to dispel the memories of childhood, Alice B. Kingsley returned her attention to the files laid out on her lacquered desk. She had gone through approximately 50 of them. Name, age, occupation, etc. The sample size was smaller than what she preferred but it was what they had to work with.
From the door-to-door interviews she’d conducted over the past couple of days, she’d come to the realization that the Verbundene Augen had started quite some time before the Capricornian Watch was made public. It was only after the Watch became known that a name had finally been put to the movement.
Many of its members were veterans of the Reservoir War or spouses and parents who had lost their children to conflict at the southern border. Most didn’t hold extreme ideology. In fact, most didn’t support full demilitarization—rather, they wanted the government to invest in increasing the number of generator conductors instead of weaponized conductors. There was also a theme of wanting slowly to withdraw from the Argoan border and for the Kaiser to sign an armistice between the two countries. Animosity against peacekeepers was surprisingly at a minimum.
Of course, there were radicals but they were the vocal minority.
The only similarity between the radicals and the moderates she’d interviewed was that they shared a particular interest in the diplomatic conductor convention. It seemed as if they were planning to gather together to meet or to protest there. This was of particular interest to Alice, and she wanted to sit down and observe one of these meetings. She supposed, however, once the military police got word of this, they would be eager to shut it down instead.
Well, it wasn’t her position to judge. Merely evaluate.
That aside, what interested Alice the most was the profile of Marionette Engel, the leader. The woman had served near the end of the Reservoir War, had earned several distinguished honors, and had even come from a wealthy family with a strong presence in the military. Her father had a chair in the country’s Commerce Chamber and had recently pushed policy to increase funding of a regional conductor manufacturing company.
It just didn’t add up.
Either way, Alice already had an approach model and an assessment typed up to hand into the Capricornian government on the most effective measures to take regarding the movement. She was going to let Talib look it over before handing it off to Gabrielle to present in front of the needed parties. And that was it.
They would stay for a couple more days to aid with suggestions and policy implementation then they would depart back to the Serpens Establishment. Perhaps, Alice reasoned, Gabrielle would extend their stay even longer than that to ensure the Ariesian prince boarded the train back to Aries successfully from the hospital.
When they had been sworn in to become Ophiuchians, they had sworn service to Signum and had renounced their former alliances to their respective countries. Yet Gabrielle still had personal concerns regarding the Ariesian prince.
But moving that matter aside…
Alice put down the files and picked up the notepad at the corner of her desk. A series of sentences were scribbled there beside names.
Laughing and lamenting with you. Received by Ferris.
Be there for you. Received by Roberto.
There was a line drawn beneath the last sentence and below it came additional sentences:
Always there for you. Gabrielle.
I am here. Talib.
I see you. Jericho.
Jericho… Alice pinched the bridge of her nose and recollected her thoughts:
Moraeni hadn’t received any letters but that was unsurprising given his lack of contact with those outside of seeking to obtain a conducting license.
The thematic pattern of all these letters—presumably written by the same person—was ‘being present.’ Unfortunately, Roberto had been the one to call Ferris in and had forgotten to ask if there were any lotus symbols drawn on the back of the cards that were still back in the Serpens Establishment. So for now, it was all inconclusive.
A groan drew Alice away from her analysis. She paid it no mind at first, even as it grew into a moan. It was only when the moan grew to yelling and the sound of thumping did Alice rise from her desk. She turned her attention to the three large beds set just across the room. Her bed—unfolded at the moment—rested at the left wall, Gabrielle’s at the center, and Flannery’s along the right wall.
Gabrielle was tossing, turning, arms flying out as she shouted incomprehensibly. Alice quickly approached her, dodged her blindly swinging arm, before gently nudging her leg and whispering into her ear. Eventually Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open, and she blinked into the dark in confusion.
“You were having a nightmare again,” Alice whispered.
“Oh…” Gabrielle gave a noncommittal grunt before murmuring, “I’ve always wondered why we don’t have nightmares of nice things instead. Would kill for a nightmare about a beach vacation.”
“They wouldn’t be called nightmares then.”
Gabrielle yawned and rubbed her eyes. “You two didn’t end up serving until the near end of the war, right? You and Talib. I know Roberto was drafted right when he reached the age. Moraeni and Izsak served in my joint unit. Never thought to ask.”
“We were more involved with the after-war fallout,” Alice affirmed. “Our family’s contributions allowed us to be kept away from most of the fight.”
“Espionage and reconnaissance?”
“Service and volunteering.”
Gabrielle snorted. “Of course, you and Talib are saints.”
“It’s a bit of reach calling it that.” Alice paused in thought. “But is that why you asked Talib and me to join you?”
“Of course not. I chose you both because you were the only ones who didn’t look away…”
Gabrielle looked across the room towards the bed pressed against the wall. “We would’ve been enemies, you know? Back in the war.”
Alice followed her gaze to the bed and found Flannery entangled in the sheets there—legs half-hanging off the bed, head buried into her pillow. “Let’s not jump to conclusions.”
Abruptly, Flannery lifted her head, cracked open her clear cerulean blue eyes, locked gazes with Alice from across the room, and flashed a smile.
* * *
The kitchen to Flannery’s villa was just as Alice remembered it. A cobblestone hearth crackled away perpendicular to the kitchen stove, while a large window taking up the entire wall opened up to the left and let in gray light. At the center of the kitchen stood a glass table toppled high with a mix of Libran and Capricornian dishes: fish, chips, meats, and potato dishes. From the maids, most likely.
Talib, bedhead somehow even more curly than usual, was already sitting at the table and shoveling eggs into his mouth. Gabrielle made her way to the chair across from him, picked up a piece of buttered toast, and nibbled at it as she sank down.
It was tradition for them to stay at one of Flannery’s villas whenever they happened to take on missions and assignments in the same location Flannery was in.
Suddenly, Roberto stormed into the kitchen from the arched door leading to the bedroom halls and tossed a newspaper onto the dining room table. “It’s not looking good with your assignment, Gabrielle.”
The headline read: Shots Fired Across the Southern Border—And not at the Argoans!
Gabrielle picked up the newspaper and scanned it, while Alice read over her shoulder. It detailed in Common a purportedly ‘covered-up’ incident occurring at the Argoan-Capricornian border in which soldiers were ordered to fire on Augen protestors…?
Alice resisted pinching the bridge of her nose. Gabrielle did, however, throwing down the newspaper.
Talib picked up the article, scanned it, choked. “Written by Hilton Tyler? That’s your newspaper friend, isn’t it, Flannery? The one who you invited to dinner with us that other night?”
“The one that insulted us under the table?” Gabrielle arched a brow.
Flannery’s smile dipped for a moment before she winced. “Is it? Sorry. M’parents wanted me t’get some good publicity for the company, and he runs one of the most popular newspapers in Signum.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Gabrielle yawned and chugged an entire cup of coffee with one gulp. “But this isn’t good. Whether it’s true or not, this will definitely cause the Augen to retaliate—”
A sudden boom trembled through the kitchen—no, the building—rattling the windows in their frames. Alice’s mind flashed back to the days in the bunker, and she shot up to a stand reflexively. Gabrielle was already storming out the door of the villa with Roberto trailing behind her. Alice exchanged a look with Talib before following the two out the door with him at her tail.
“B’careful!” Flannery shouted as she lingered behind.
* * *
When they poured out onto the streets, they were nearly stampeded by screeching civilians running in the direction opposite of where a smoke pillar was rising into the gray sky. They worked against the tide of bodies and headed in that direction. As they drew nearer and nearer, the screaming grew louder and the dust screen grew thicker. Eventually, Alice came to realize that the smoke was coming from the direction of the hospital they’d visited earlier—where Olive was residing.
Gabrielle caught a man who crashed into her. “What’s happened?”
“An explosion!” the man stammered. “The damned Augen and the military police just opened fire on each other. The Augen—they’re working with ELPIS! They brought down the main wing of the hospital! Half of it was in flames!”
ELPIS…? With the Augen? No, impossible.
Alice had completed a thorough opinion assessment, and all those she interviewed had scored low on ELPIS-ideological leanings. She’d even multi-layered those questions too to not seem biased—
“Are you hurt?” Gabrielle pressed.
“I’m fine. We’re fine. A water Elementalist put out the fire. The doctors and the military police are—”
“A water Elementalist?” Gabrielle gripped the man. “What was his name?”
The man blubbered something senselessly before ripping himself free of Gabrielle and dashing away.
Gabrielle didn’t seem too deterred by this and instead shouted at them as she gestured around the area. “Split up! Let’s get as many people out here as we can!”
Roberto shot out immediately in the direction opposite. Meanwhile, Talib remained at Alice’s side as he sent out a handful of paper crane mediums to presumably guide civilians out from the dust cloud.
Grabbing a hold of his arm as his eyes glazed over, Alice marched forward through the smog. During her combing, she helped a cowering woman out from beneath a flight of stairs and aided a man in guiding his children out from the smokescreen.
As they drew closer to the hospital, Alice spied doctors, nurses, and medical Conductors scattered around the area tending to the wounded. Around them ran a handful of unaccompanied children. Before Alice could decide on which group needed her assistance the most, Talib grabbed her hand and started pulling her through the smog without warning. She didn’t resist, and eventually, he tugged her past a twisted, toppled iron gate to a clearing where Gabrielle stood stiff, tense.
After joining Gabrielle’s side alongside Talib, Alice followed her gaze to two figures opposite of her—one of whom Alice recognized immediately.
Francis Foxman, one of the heads of the Foxman crime organization. Or perhaps it was Theta, ELPIS leader. Possibly both. His face wasn’t marked with his identifying tattoo—a touch-up? A white vitae blade was gripped in his hand. Proto-conductor.
Alice’s mind buzzed as she recalled those days in that windowless, doorless room. She still remembered the sensation of the rope digging into her wrists, still remembered Theta’s apathetic gaze, still remembered the darkness and the cold.
It took a moment for her to recollect herself, but when she did she noticed that beside Theta stood a young woman with straw blonde hair and caramel brown eyes. She clung to Theta’s unarmed arm. The tourist, Alice recalled.
“Didn’t think ELPIS would be fond of proto-conductors,” Gabrielle said calmly, clenching her gloved fist. “Didn’t think you were the type to use a Projector’s conductor either. Always thought you were more of a ‘drop them from ten feet’ type. Not a ‘slice-n-dice’ type.”
“This was not my doing, Miss Law,” Theta explained calmly. “Although justifying myself in front of a peacekeeper whose work involves deception and bowing her head seems…”
Gabrielle remained in startled silence for a moment, before humming, “Well, I figured you were still alive after what happened in Gemini, so it’s good to see my deduction skills are still sharp. Sad to see your courteousness has gone downhill.”
“I apologize for my rudeness, Miss Law,” Theta said, lowering the blade. “I’m trying to ascertain what happened here.”
“You’re saying this wasn’t you?”
“It was not,” Theta affirmed. “And I don’t believe this was Gamma’s work either. Another sect, perhaps, but given the recent developments that is unlikely.”
“Recent developments?” Gabrielle continued, spreading her arms. “Look, I’m not pointing fingers. If you come with me, maybe we can work together and you can help us figure out exactly what happened here. A lot of people are hurt. What do you say?”
Theta almost seemed to chuckle. “I don’t think I will. I don’t deny my faults, but I also don’t see the point in turning myself into a corrupt, puppet organization.” He locked eyes with Gabrielle. “October 30th. Think about it.”
Alice frowned but noted that Gabrielle had stiffened.
Abruptly, out from the haze of smoke sparked a burst of gold light. A short vitae blade. It hurtled towards Theta without warning, and the man barely had the time to raise his own blade conductor before it nearly took off his head. There was a spark of blue as the two blades collided and then a loud clatter as the golden blade deactivated and hit the ground. The woman standing beside Theta’s side yelped and clung to him tighter.
Out from the dust cloud stepped Leona, chairwoman of the ELPIS Department. Her golden hair seemed to glow in the smog now just like how it had done in the darkness of the Twin Cities.
“I see you’ve made a gamble,” Theta said, lowering the weapon slightly. “You’re reckless.”
As Leona ran at him with another vitae blade drawn, he sank to his feet and touched the black spot on the ground there. He disappeared into the portal in the blink of an eye—but not before the tourist leapt in to join him. Leona stopped short in her dash, de-igniting her blade before slowly turning to face them all.
“Good to see you, Leona.” Gabrielle extended her hand. “I caught word that you were in Capricorn when I first arrived here. It’s a pleasant surprise.”
Leona approached her, hand extended. There was a dullness to her amber eyes that seemed unnatural. “Yes, I heard you were in this city too, Gabrielle. It looks like we’re destined to keep crossing paths—if there were such a thing as destiny.”
There was something unusual on Leona’s back neck just below her shirt, Alice realized. It almost looked like a bruise—no, a tattoo. The shape vaguely reminded Alice of a scorpion.
“That being said, I’m aware that you were assigned to investigate the Verbundene Augen on behalf of the Capricornian government, Gabrielle,” Leona continued, voice cutting through Alice’s thoughts. “Your assistance is no longer needed. Clearly, the Augen is associated with ELPIS. My department and I will take things from here, although we would appreciate your assistance with the relief effort.”
Peacekeepers suddenly flooded the grounds, stampeding this way and that. Alice didn’t recognize any of them. The ELPIS Department, most likely.
Gabrielle frowned. “I know it looks like ELPIS, but isn’t it weird that proto-conductors are being used instead of regular conductors? Theta was carrying one, and I spotted a couple of them when I was helping the civilians… Theta mentioned he had no idea what was going on too—”
“Gabrielle. You would trust the words of a terrorist over the words of your fellow peacekeeper?” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “You said you conversed with him…?”
Gabrielle didn’t frown and instead held up her hands. “Never said anything like that. Jurisdiction is jurisdiction. I’m just putting in my two bills.”
Leona smiled thinly. “I understand, Gabrielle. Enjoy your return trip. Hopefully aiding in the relief effort now will show that you made at least some effort here.”
And with that, she turned on her heels and departed into the smog.
“Well, she seems more charming than usual,” Gabrielle muttered, rubbing her neck. “Definitely not how I wanted to start the morning.”
Alice crossed her arms. “I suspect that you’re not planning on leaving Capricorn any time soon?”
“Not even thinking about it,” Gabrielle returned. “Say, Talib, you were talking about wanting to see the diplomatic conductor convention earlier, weren’t you? How about we finally cash in that vacation time?”
* * *
When they arrived back in the villa the next morning after spending the entire night helping with relief efforts, Gabrielle received a return call from Trystan. The royal guard respectfully apologized for not getting in contact despite Gabrielle’s numerous attempts to reach him and then informed them that the Ariesian prince had made it out from the hospital safely and that they were now on board a hospital train heading out of the capital.
Alice felt relief.
And old patient was still a patient.
The military police officer wouldn’t stop laughing. He was on the floor, practically rolling around as he held his shaking abdomen.
Dämon frowned down at him. “What do you find so amusing this time?”
“Cadence Morello. Born between June 2nd and June 4th. Blood Type AB. Vision, 20/32. Height, 156 centimeters. Weight, 47 kg. Ambidextrous. Personality type, ESFP-Assertive. Parents, dead. Blood siblings, none. Other considered ‘siblings,’ four elder brothers and elder sister, alive.
Occupation, swindler, con woman, freelancer, too many to list. Known by seventy-two different aliases. Owes gambling debts under twenty aliases. Is owed gambling debts under forty-two aliases.
Described by friends as ‘easygoing, fun, sociable, life of the party.’ Described by employers as ‘skilled, charming, worth-the-money.’ Described by locals as ‘deceitful, crass, cheating, unreliable.’ Described by tourists as ‘lovely, kind, helpful.’ Described by children as ‘the best one, their favorite, funny, cool.’
Unusual activity: involvement in underground modified conductors deal with Capricornian government and involvement in the Twin Cities incident with ELPIS.
Probability of being a True Conductor, 100%.
Probability of disrupting the syzygy, 6%.”
Dämon hummed. “And what did you do to this one?”
“I didn’t really do much.” The officer rose to a sit causing the scorpion-shaped tattoo resting at the nape of his neck to become visible. “It was something she’d been feeling deep down this entire time. It seems like she thought she’d conquered her self-deception already. ‘But that was also a lie.’” He threw his head back and laughed again at some inside joke Dämon didn’t understand. “The arrogance—poor thing! I just helped bring that realization to the surface. People can’t change. Not really, not permanently.”
“Aren’t you going through them too fast? I always thought you were a person of pleasure.”
“Hm? Not really. The first one to take the wheel was way too clever, admittedly, so I had to do away with her. Though… I suppose it would’ve been more fun to keep her around to see how far we could go. This political atmosphere suits her. ”
“And I’m guessing you adjusted your approach with this Cadence?”
“Sleep deprivation and lack of inhibition tend to bring out the purest form of human nature. You always put on a face and mold yourself to expectation—so much so that you continue despite no longer under another person’s gaze.”
“Forcing sleep deprivation to get what you want seems very unlike you, I have to admit,” Dämon said, turning back towards the swirling pool of light contained by the glass case behind her. “I’m a bit disappointed—”
She stopped short as she felt cold fingers wrap around her neck from behind and remained still as she felt hot breath ghosting the back of her neck. Something cold prick against both of her ears. When the officer pulled away, she felt a weight pulling down her earlobe.
Hesitantly she reached for the area. Dangling earrings. She couldn’t tell what shape they were in but they were made of paper and wet from the blood dripping down from her newly pierced lobe.
“Me as well? Are you classifying me in the same department as Cvetka then? Someone who needs constant surveillance and advising?” Dämon arched a brow. “I do enjoy my privacy.”
“There’s no such thing as privacy,” the officer said, before he added quietly, “By the way, they’ll be coming down here soon.”
“The True Conductor?”
The officer smiled. “No, the peacekeepers.”
Dämon hummed, unconcerned. “Well, you still didn’t answer what you found so entertaining.”
The officer blinked before smirking and glancing off to the side in the distance. “Oh… right… Well, who would’ve thought such a familiar face would be hiding in plain sight?”
“A familiar face?”
“One of her former patients just entered my sights. I’ve always had an inkling about him, but I would’ve never expected this. And if he’s a True Conductor, then it means that other peacekeeper under her wing is also a True Conductor in the same group. And that means that two of her patients—former and current—are in my hand.”
“Of course. That cold arrogance, that cool-headed defiance, acting as if everyone is beneath her and that she can see into them. Her approach to her practice is ‘only you can save yourself.’ Wrong from the very beginning.” The officer bit his thumb. “I can’t get her out of my head. Even though she denies it, I can see it. I’ll just show her all of her work was fruitless from the very beginning.”
Following the attack on the city’s main hospital, the diplomatic conductor convention was moved from outdoors to indoors—with increased security bolstered by the ELPIS Department. Gatherings of ten or more people aside from state events were now prohibited.
Alice admitted that she much preferred it this way—the interior-hosting, that was. No mud on her shoes, no rainwater soaking her purses and dresses, no wind messing up her air. And much easier to hide conversation.
The convention was now being held inside a large building with tiled marbled floors and a series of pillars that held up a large glass dome. Gray light bled in through that dome illuminating the people filtering through within. They were colorful people—some wearing silken garments with embroidered flowers, others wearing tight leather clothes that concealed everything, more wearing tight and crisp business suits, and more yet wearing cloaks clipped with tassels.
The booths propped up evenly throughout the building were just as colorful. Signs in languages ranging from Common to Capricornian to Sagittarian and Geminian were posted above wooden tables hosting various contraptions of varying length and sizes: v-batteries and small v-generators and other devices Alice didn’t recognize. Some even stood as tall as the ceiling.
“My, do you see that, Alice?” Talib whispered from beside her. “They’ve even developed a vitae-powered clock! Waltz & Tick, ey? Well, that certainly is a name to remember. You know… it’s suspicious that their initials W&T sound almost the same as that dismantled spy agency, right…?”
Alice glanced at the sign Talib was gesturing to and found a grim-looking elder man with russet brown hair and ice-blue eyes standing beneath it. The desk behind him was spotless save for a cylinder-like contraption with flipping digital numbers typed on small white cards. It appeared to be vitae-powered.
“Talib, we need to keep an eye out for members of the Augen,” Alice said. “Keep the games and charades for some other time. Preferably when I’m out of ear’s reach.”
“I’m being covert, dear Alice,” Talib whispered. “They taught me back in the day that being the most noticeable person in the room is the best way to blend in.”
Alice eyed the passersby who were giving Talib odd looks. “I think your interpretation leaves much to be desired.”
“I gotta agree with Tal here, Alice,” Flannery interjected as she looped one arm over Alice’s neck and the other around Talib’s. “People’ll always look away from bright, flashy lights.”
The three of them—all in civilian wear—had decided to come here together to save them multiple trips. Gabrielle, however, had left the villa earlier to come to this place, while Roberto’s assignment here had him trapped back in the villa running over tax paperwork. Too many people in one place would be suspicious, so Alice supposed that was fine. They were pushing the limit as it was.
Alice’s attention was drawn away by a large crowd gathering around a stage that sat centermost in the open space beneath the dome. She tugged on Talib’s sleeve, prompting him to abandon his tirade and follow her to the area. As she neared the lip of the crowd, she spotted Gabrielle and drew near to her with Flannery and Talib. For once, Gabrielle was not in a suit but a comfortable pair of slacks and a loose blouse. Her Ophiuchian armband was nowhere in sight—and neither were Alice’s or Talib’s.
“Looks like this is the main show on the itinerary,” Gabrielle said.
At the center of the stage stood lead scientist Dämon Fortschritt in front of a large rectangular object cloaked by a red curtain. Beside her stood a vaguely familiar woman with a wiry frame and a pair of overalls that seemed to go against the sophistication in the room.
Marta, if Alice recalled correctly. Alice had seen the woman in a photograph taken in one of Gabrielle’s written reports and had heard of her from time to time back when she had been speaking with the Ariesian prince. Alice had gotten the impression that Marta was hard-headed, but right now all Marta seemed like was nervous.
Alice looked past Marta back to Dämon who seemed to bask in all of their gazes before abruptly spreading her arms wide and signaling for the red curtain to be dropped. When it fell away, Alice instinctively winced at the brightness. It was a glass case filled with what appeared to be vitae.
“You all look at this here”—Dämon rapped against the glass—”and you think that I’ve merely brought you something from one of the vitae reservoirs. But I tell you that isn’t the case! What you see here is an artificially induced pool of vitae.”
A chill ran down Alice’s spine, and she uncrossed her arms as she shared a look with Gabrielle.
“As we all know—hopefully since we all have our licenses here, right?—vitae falls into two distinct and broad classifications depending on what in particular the vitae particles are associated with: soft and hard; living and non-living. We know that we ourselves contain both hard and soft vitae, while the rocks beneath our feet are hard vitae completely. Our reservoirs—we know—are hard and naturally occurring.”
Dämon rubbed her hand against the glass.
“But things that occur naturally tend to be difficult to come by. Vitae researchers and conductor engineers all over Signum have dedicated their lives to understanding the formation of vitae reservoirs—even going so far as to try and extract hard vitae from things like rocks and earth to try and create an artificial reservoir but to no avail.”
Dämon pulled away, gesturing to Marta:
“But together with my special team and partners—including Marta John who is here today—”
Marta smiled weakly.
“—we’ve done it! This vitae you see here was induced from the stone gravel just outside of our buildings.”
Alice couldn’t believe her ears.
“I know a demonstration is in order, but the reaction needed for this to happen requires a very stable environment. If you’d be willing to travel, I’d be happy to show you in my lab.”
Now Alice was skeptical.
But when Alice looked over her shoulder towards Gabrielle, she found the woman looking both hopeful and horrified. Alice didn’t blame her. Gabrielle had fought in a long war over this energy source. To now find out there was now possibly an easier way to obtain that energy probably brought into question in Gabrielle’s mind the worthwhileness of the sacrifices she’d made up until this point.
Upon turning to Flannery, however, Alice found that she was absolutely pale—almost grimacing.
“This form is also not quite stable yet, however, which is why we’ve only brought a small sample of it,” Damon continued, drawing away Alice’s attention. “Nothing is ever perfect. But this is just a preview. I hope to show you soon the full potential of my research, so we can move together towards a more sustainable, peaceful Signum.”
And with that, Dämon bowed.
A chorus of applause erupted.
It almost felt like a dream.
As the crowd dispersed when the curtain was put down over the glass case, Gabrielle approached the stage. Alice followed after her with Talib, while Flannery excused herself to her own ‘business-y affairs.’ They made it to Gabrielle’s side just as Marta was descending the steps of the stage to the ground floor.
“How’s it going, Marta?” Gabrielle greeted her with a nod.
Marta took a step back, pale. “Who are you…?”
“It’s Gabrielle,” Gabrielle explained. “We had a quick chat in Aries after the prince’s… incident a while back. Put in a word for you about your vitae spectrophotometer after his majesty and her majesty mentioned it to me. Glad to see you making your way up the ladder.”
“Peacekeepers…” Marta murmured before her eyes widened. She glanced over her shoulder towards Dämon who was speaking with a cluster of wealthy-looking investors onstage. Abruptly grabbing a hold of Gabrielle’s hand, Marta whispered quickly: “The real research facility is at 43th street. Beneath. Just keep walking. Look closely. You need to see it… T-This isn’t why I became a conductor engineer—”
“Woah, what?” Gabrielle placed her hands on the woman’s shoulders. “Look, slow down. I don’t understand what you’re saying—”
Marta abruptly shut her mouth and stared at something past Gabrielle’s shoulders. When Alice followed her gaze, however, she found nothing.
“I-I should go,” Marta whispered, before peeling Gabrielle’s hands away and darting back up the stairs to Dämon’s side.
“What was that about?” Gabrielle arched a brow after a beat.
Alice stared after Marta for a moment before turning her attention back to the covered glass case.
Could it really be that easy?
* * *
When the convention temporarily closed its doors for a two-hour repose, Alice, Gabrielle, and Talib took to the streets in search of any suspicious gatherings. There were clusters of military police scattered around all the sidewalks and alleys, alongside peacekeepers—presumably from the ELPIS Department.
Gabrielle requested Talib to send out some of his mediums to scour the area, so Alice was left with once again guiding a glazed-eyed Talib around by hand.
It was while they were combing down an alleyway behind a restaurant that they overheard a peculiar conversation in Capricornian between chefs crowding the backdoor of the restaurant:
“—eren’t meant to attack the hospital!”
“I understand that, but all I’m saying is that it wasn’t unjustified. You saw what they did at the border! They’ve turned us into their very own target practice! You know that that hospital is used mostly by military officials! The ones who sent us out there in the first place! After we fought in their other war!”
Gabrielle immediately stowed away behind a trash bin diagonally across the Capricornians. Alice did the same, dragging Talib down along with her.
“But there were normal people there too!” argued a man wringing a chef’s hat in his hands. He paced back and forth, running his fingers through his hair and rubbing his face—half of which was consumed by burn marks. “What about them?” He stopped short and flung his hands out. “This isn’t why I became a member of this. I wanted to serve my country—not become an enemy of it!”
“Enemy? No, no, no—can’t you see?” another, shorter chef returned. “They’re taking us seriously now!”
“They think we’re working with ELPIS! That we’re terrorists!” the other man laughed, clearly irritable. “Of course they’re going to take us seriously!” He shook his head. “Why the hell did we take those proto-conductors from her? We’re not criminals. Marionette would never—”
“Well, Engel isn’t here.”
“Talib,” Gabrielle whispered back to them, “plant one of your mediums on—”
A high-pitched whining followed by a soft ca-chack! resounded just behind Alice and cut Gabrielle off short.
The Capricornians snapped to look at them—no, behind them. Alice followed their gazes and found a man crouched just a little ways behind her. He was poised at the very center of the alley—open, exposed.
It was the news reporter whom Flannery had invited out to eat with them several nights ago and who had written the Augen-border article. Hilton Tyler.
Hilton lowered the camera before leaping to his feet and taking a step back.
Alice faced forward and found Gabrielle standing with raised hands. The Capricornians were now ringed around them, the shorter one looking them up and down.
“What’s this?” he asked, eyeing Hilton’s camera. “News reporters?”
Now that they were closer, Alice could better distinguish their features. Thankfully, none of them were any of the people she had interviewed recently so she knew she wouldn’t be recognized. However, this also highlighted how poor her sample size for her interviews had been.
She quickly noted that all six of the chefs had the Augen mark tattooed somewhere on the bodies. For the chef who had been wringing his hat, it was just peeking out below his collarbone, while for the shorter chef it was barely visible behind his neck. But paired alongside those tattoos were—Alice squinted—scorpion tattoos. Much like Leona’s.
A new fad?
“Hey! What’s going on down there?” came a shout in Capricornian from down the alley. “No large gatherings of over ten people!”
At the lip of the alley stood four military police officers.
“Militärpolizei!” the shorter chef shouted.
“Wait—” Gabrielle interjected.
But it was too late because the shorter chef was already escaping down the alleyway. Without skipping a beat, Hilton dashed out of the alleyway opposite and flashed a reporter’s badge at the policemen. The befuddled police officers looked between the departing Hilton and the chef in confusion.
After a beat of hesitation, the other Augen members fled down the alley, some heading back into the restaurant and others dashing after the shorter chef. The military police started after them, pushing Alice to the side as they brushed past. Two of them followed the ones who went into the kitchen, while the other two darted after the short chef and the duo that had followed him. Abruptly, however, the shorter chef skidded to a halt mid-pursuit, turned on his heels, and pulled out something from his waist just as a female officer reached his side. As said officer reached for his shoulder, the chef swung out with a slash of white light.
A blade conductor. No, gauging by the wavering light of the blade, it appeared to be a proto-conductor much like the one Theta had held in front of the hospital. It split the fabric above the officer’s chest, disconnected her hanging gorget from its chain, and blossomed a red streak at her chest.
“Oh, great,” Gabrielle grumbled before dashing to the scene.
The wounded officer stumbled backwards, cradling her injury with a groan. The other officer caught her and lowered her to the ground before reaching for his belt.
Gabrielle reached the scuffle just as another one of the Augen members drew out a knife and lunged for the standing officer’s legs. He dragged the blade across the officer’s back leg just before Gabrielle grabbed his wrist, threw him over her shoulder, and ripped the blade out of his hand. She kicked back the shorter chef and sent him flying into the alley wall before dragging the grimacing officer back. Without skipping a beat, she pounced on the formerly dagger-wielding Augen member and slapped a pair of suppression cuffs on him from her belt.
“Haven’t been in service recently, right, sir? It can get you a little rusty.” Gabrielle rose to her feet, reached into her suit pocket, and pulled out her conducting license and Ophiuchian badge.
The remaining chefs froze at the sight of it.
“Two things you should notice. One, I’m a peacekeeping agent. Two, I’m a fire Elementalist. You’ve served; you know how this’ll end. Plus, I don’t want to have to write about extra reports of having to use my conductors on civilians either, so…”
The chef lowered the proto-conductor.
“Great,” Gabrielle popped. “I’m going to cuff you, but I have a couple of questions for you later. Especially about that fancy proto-conductor.”
Alice walked over to the officer whose back legs had been cut and assessed the damage. She couldn’t tell whether or not the tendon was damaged but she could tell that the officer was putting on a brave face. When she pressed a handkerchief she drew out from her purse against his injury, he whimpered. He looked young—perhaps still in adolescence.
Talib scrambled over to them and tended to the other officer before sending out several mediums—presumably to get help.
“Good call,” Gabrielle said.
Alice turned her attention back to the adolescent officer. As she inspected his wound further, she noticed something peculiar. Imprinted on his skin just above the cut was a familiar blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion.
Twice was a coincidence. Thrice was a pattern. Or so Talib said.
“You’ll be fine,” she said before asking:”Where did you get this tattoo?”
“T-Tattoo?” The officer grimaced. “What are you talking about? I-I don’t have any tattoos…”
Alice frowned. “It’s right—”
The officer stared at the female officer across from him before turning to glower at the Augen members who Gabrielle was busily detaining. “They don’t know when to stop.”
Alice followed his gaze.
Peculiar. Not even one of the Augen members was resisting. Mob mentality was certainly possible. However, given their violent actions earlier, Alice had expected at least some of them to put up a fight, but…
The shorter Augen member slumped as Gabrielle slapped suppression cuffs over his wrists. She caught him and lowered him down onto the ground before moving to the final member.
“They don’t even deserve to be arrested,” the young officer growled suddenly, clenching his fists. “My best friend was in that hospital. He was just supposed to have a daily check-up, but now they say they don’t know if he’s gonna wake up because he was caught up in the explosion…”
“Your justice system will handle their situation accordingly,” Alice informed the man curtly.
“Justice system?” the officer’s face contorted before he struggled to a stand. “If they—”
Alice pushed him down, reaching into her purse again for a thin cloth glove lined with metal. “Sit down—”
The officer suddenly whipped around and spat in her face before raising his fist at her.
“Hey!” Talib shot up to a stand and grabbed his wrist. “What do you think you’re—”
The officer whipped around and cracked Talib so hard against the jaw that he went flying back to the wall.
“Hey!” the wounded female officer grimaced as she held her bleeding chest wound. “Tom, what do you think you’re doing?!”
“These peacekeepers are the reason why we’re like this in the first place!” the officer—Tom—spat. “My dad says if it weren’t for them—”
Alice took the opportunity to slip on her conductor. As Tom turned and lunged for her again, she grabbed his wrist with her conductor-gloved hand. There was no doubt that he had much more physical strength than her. However, when she activated her conductor, he froze in place, eyes wide.
Tom’s facial muscles twitched, his eyes flitting back and forth. His mouth barely formed words: “Wh… at happ… ing?”
“I’m a Specialist,” Alice informed him calmly. “The vitae particles inside your body are now frozen in place. They will continue to be frozen in place until I release you. Do you understand?”
The officer let out a breathy sigh in response.
“Now, I’m going to ask you to take a deep breath and—”
A loud bang resounded from just behind the officer, and he abruptly fell forward onto Alice’s body. Tensing and keeping her grip on his wrist, Alice slowly lifted up his head. A bullet hole marked his forehead. Feeling her blood run cold, she released him and remained frozen there, the dead man in her lap. She slowly lifted her head to see who had fired the gun and registered a familiar man standing at the mouth of the alley.
Familiar square-rimmed glasses were perched on his prominent nose—a different one than what he usually wore meaning it was a recent purchase. He’d cut his hair short since she’d last seen him nearly over a year ago, and he was dressed in a raincoat. Crawling up from his neck onto the lower part of his right cheek was a snake tattoo.
Izsak. No, Gamma.
Why was he here?
“Izsak…” Gabrielle called out from behind.
All the Augen members who she’d been tousling with were now the ground—suppression cuffs faintly glinting around their wrists. The military police officer was staring wide-eyed at her fallen comrade but trembled rigidly in place. She looked young too.
“Peacekeepers?” came a voice from behind Gamma as a woman stepped out around him.
The woman had mousy brown hair tied back into a tight bun and had an unbuttoned Capricornian officer’s uniform shirt thrown over her shoulders.
Although Alice didn’t recognize her, Gabrielle clearly did—
“…Conta? I see that got you too, huh?”
“….I recognize that peacekeeper.” Conta nodded to Gabrielle. “She was investigating the Campanas several months ago. I believe her name is—”
Conta glanced at Gamma. “Yes. I don’t recognize the other two though. Are they—”
“They’re not with the ELPIS Department,” Gamma answered. “General Investigations and Psychological Evaluations. They must be here to investigate the Verbundene Augen.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Conta said. “Anyone here is a possible host. We should act accordingly.”
“Hey, hey, now, at least involve us in the conversation if you’re planning to off us,” Gabrielle interjected, fingers inching slowly towards her pants pocket where her conductor was stored. “You, Izsak, and Conta both—”
A groaning emitted from behind Gabrielle cut her off short. Alice stared past her and froze as she saw one of the Augen members who was cuffed begin to stir and groan.
Impossible. Suppression cuffs constricted the flow of vitae in a person and effectively rendered an individual unconscious. The only way a person could remain conscious with suppression cuffs on was—
There was a burst of bright white light.
Arching through the air now were four glowing white appendages. Their origin was Conta’s bleeding hand, which tightly gripped a knife also dripping with blood; their director was the conducting glove on Conta’s extended hand; and their targets were the remaining military police officer and the three cuffed Augen members. The Projector-like vitae ran through each of their heads like a hot knife to butter.
Alice felt nauseous.
Abruptly blue cracks began to crawl along Conta’s vitae starting from the Capricornians she’d bulleted through. The cracks crept back towards her slowly as if fighting an uphill battle.
“Conta,” Gamma said tersely.
“I know.” Contra lowered her extended hand, her vitae disintegrating before the blue cracks made their way to her.
During the distraction, Alice noted that Gabrielle had been reaching for her pants pocket again.
Locking eyes with Gabrielle, Gamma pointed the gun at Alice. “Don’t.”
Gabrielle froze. Talib almost glowered.
Gabrielle’s face contorted then, and in an instant she pulled out her glove conductor and shoved it on. Alice ducked as Gamma fired off a shot in response and then pressed against the walls as a torrent of magenta flames erupted in the alleyway. However, only a second after, the flames died abruptly.
When the smoke cleared, Alice registered Gamma and Conta standing stiffly in the same place they had been standing before.
Alice hadn’t been expecting Gabrielle to kill them, but she had been expecting her to at least incapacitate them. When she turned her attention to Gabrielle, however, she came to realize the reason for this.
Gabrielle’s conductor-gloved hand was stuck in the alleyway wall. Rather, it was embedded in a familiar pale-tangerine portal that glowed there. Gabrielle tugged against the portal to no avail.
A sudden draft of familiarly cool wind whistled through the alley, and the smell of v-cigarettes curled in the air. Turning her head again, Alice registered a figured half-covered in shadow standing at the opposite end of the alley. To the wall at his left glowed a familiar portal out from which Gabrielle’s gloved hand protruded. The figure gripped Gabrielle’s protruding wrist tightly, prying off her conductor slowly with one hand before releasing her. Gabrielle fell back onto the floor away from the other portal with a gawk—now conductorless.
“You came,” Gamma said. “Theta.”
Tucking Gabrielle’s conductor under his arm, Theta stepped out into the light and removed his gloved hand from the wall. “And you’ve seen what’s been developed in this country.”
Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “You should have killed P.D. Oran when you had the chance. It’s clear that this is the result of his research.”
Theta tensed. “You’ve lost Oran? Tau didn’t mention—”
“Of course not. His pride won’t let him admit that he’s done wrong,” Gamma pointed his gun at him. “Your actions in the Twin Cities were flawed due to your faulty initiation. I have your resistor with me. If we return you now, I can find a suitable person quickly—”
Without hesitation, Gamma fired a round. At the same time, however, Theta pulled out a silver pistol from his waist and fired a round too. A whine screeched through the air for a split second as their bullets collided and ricocheted against opposite walls.
“If we are speaking of experience, I have more of it in wielding this type of weapon than you, Gamma,” Theta said, cocking his gun. “This would be a poor time to be returning to your resistor.” His gaze shifted to Conta. “Beta? It’s good to see you again.”
“And you as well.” Conta—Beta—dipped her head. “But I can’t disagree with Gamma’s opinion.”
“You’re wearing a dead man’s skin and pretending to be him,” Gamma said, lowering his gun. “You’ve pretended so much that you’ve convinced yourself that you are him.”
“Regardless, I plan to live out the rest of my life like this,” Theta replied, almost as if amused. “I refuse to have merely a record of my last time with Altair. For me, this will be the last chance. Perhaps that way, I’ll give it my all.” Theta reached into his suit pocket and threw something at the duo.
Beta immediately sent out projections of vitae. The glass object twirling through the air shattered just above their heads. Black liquid and glass rained down on them and onto the floor beneath their feet.
Beta tensed, glancing down at the stains. “You’ve become a fool.”
“There’s no ‘becoming’ one.”
And with that, Theta placed his gloved conductor against the alleyway wall beside him again. In the blink of an eye, Gamma and Beta were swallowed up into a portal that opened below them.
Theta lowered the gun a beat after and then inspected it. “This really is Al’s lucky pistol. Always thought he was being dramatic about it but that doesn’t seem like the case. I got really lucky there.”
“Any reason you decided to break up the party?” Gabrielle asked, tense and eyeing her conductor in his hand. “Where did you send them?
“You already know why but you don’t need to know where,” Theta replied. He approached her slowly, holding out her gloved conductor. “Though I suspect you won’t be able to relax until I give this back—”
Gabrielle hesitantly extended her hand to accept it but Theta did not release it from his hold.
“—which I will do after you take off your clothes and I confirm you are not infected. After that, we can work together.”
Alice paused, heart hammering, suddenly aware of the officer’s blood staining her dress.
Gabrielle frowned. “Who said we were going to work together?”
Theta paused. “I apologize. That’s on me. I thought my message when we met at the hospital was clear—’October 30th,’ the day we agreed to work together to investigate the Campanas. Allow me me state this clearly then: I’d like for us to work together. A partnership.”
His accent was fluctuating, Alice realized through a haze of tension. Interesting.
“Oh yeah.” Gabrielle eyed her conductor. “I’ve been giving that some thought.”
Talib finally shook himself from his daze and slowly inched over to Alice as she picked herself off the ground. She stared at the lifeless officer at her feet.
“What is going on…?” Talib whispered.
Frankly, Alice had no clue. And she despised the fact.
“Under normal circumstances, working with peacekeepers would be something I would consider abhorrent,” Theta said. “But perhaps a change of pace and perspective is needed. As you can see, I am not a very combatively adept individual. I would like your assistance in that department. And your perspective and resources as well.” He paused. “We have worked together previously.”
“I get what you’re saying,” Gabrielle drew, “but I was working with Francis Foxman and his brothers.”
Theta paused, frowning slightly. “Who do you think is standing in front of you?” He studied them. “I understand you’ve got questions, Miss Law, Mr. Al-Jarrah, Miss Kingsley. I’ve been watching you ever since we came across each other at the hospital. I’ve got answers.”
“Is that supposed to be convincing?” Gabrielle arched a brow. “And what does that have to do with the stripping?”
“So I can determine whether or not you have been infected by the Manipulator,” Theta explained. “If you have the scorpion mark, then this won’t work.”
Scorpion mark? Alice tensed. Did he mean a scorpion tattoo? Her mind went to the Augen members, the officer, and then to Leona.
“A Manipulator?” Gabrielle scoffed before composing herself and shrugging. “We’re standing here and talking normally. Obviously, we’re not being manipulated.”
Theta loosely gestured to the bodies on the floor. “And what of them? You saw it yourself. Fully coherent and feeling, but clearly being manipulated.”
Gabrielle stared past Theta towards the bodies with a grimace.
“Gamma and Beta knocked them because they were infected by the Manipulator. Would infect others. It was what they viewed as necessary,” Theta said before he abruptly, rapidly explained the concept of offshoots and spores and compared the Manipulator in question to a basically a mushroom.
It was ridiculous. As ridiculous as believing that the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was true—which Alice had gradually, begrudgingly come to accept.
“But how is that possible?” Talib interjected hesitantly, “You explained it, but living manipulation—”
“I mean this with respect, Mr. Al-Jarrah, but you all have much to learn regarding vitae theory.”
Theta took out a v-cig from his suit, lit it, before continuing:
“Important associates of mine have been afflicted by this Manipulator which is what prompted me to come here in the first place… But that’s not the subject that concerns me the most at the moment nor is it the subject for why I’m approaching you here today.”
He took a drag.
“I need to find the Capricornian conductor engineer Dämon Forstchritt’s research facility. After witnessing her presentation today, I have reason to believe she and her research may be involved with this Manipulator. And that research is more pressing than the Manipulator themselves.”
“Priorities aside, what if we decline the offer?” Gabrielle pressed. “I mean, you’re not offering a lot of concrete evidence. Doesn’t mean you’re going to drop concrete on us, are you?”
“No. If that is the case then I will investigate on my own, and you can continue out here running into situations you will have difficulty understanding… And then you will most likely become infected yourself.”
“Like Leona?” Alice tried.
“Clever girl,” Theta said after a beat. “You’ve seen it then.”
Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose. “Wait. You’re saying the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department is being… manipulated?”
Theta took another drag. “If you accept this offer, then I will answer the questions you have to the best of my abilities.”
“Why not work with your ELPIS friends?”
“Clearly you can see that our ideals no longer coincide. And I do believe doing something different might be the best option. Perhaps this is something Omicron would do…”
After seemingly recollecting her thoughts, Gabrielle said, “My friend Izsak Wtorek was looking into saint candidates and reservoirs before he became your Gamma. Would you be able to tell me about that? The usual textbooks aren’t really doing much.”
“Yes, I would be able to,” Theta replied. “That much, I still do recall.”
Alice’s heart skipped a beat. “And failed saint candidates?”
“There’s no such thing as a true failed saint candidate,” Theta replied, echoing the words Talib had said Leona had said on the train. “But if you have questions about them, I can answer those for you too.”
“Hey, Gabrielle…” Talib said tersely as he readjusted his beaten hat. “You’re not seriously thinking about this… are you?”
“I’ve been seriously thinking about it for a while now,” Gabrielle muttered. “Sure, I don’t mind licking a couple of boots to get where I want to, but I’d like to at least be thrown a treat or a bone here or there. And so far, there’s been a famine and a leash.” She glanced at them. “I did say right before you joined me that I was going the villain route, didn’t I? You don’t have to follow me.”
And with that, Gabrielle began to strip.
Alice watched her in utter shock before she swallowed her pride and did the same. It wasn’t for Gabrielle that she was doing this, however. It was for herself.
Talib immediately covered his eyes, grumbled something about this being a necessary part of defeating the Organization, and also stripped. Despite his words, Alice was certain Talib’s intentions were a bit more selfless than hers.
After inspecting all three of them and seeming to be satisfied, Theta handed Gabrielle back her conductor. “You can put on your clothes now.”
“Thanks for the permission,” Gabrielle grumbled, quickly sliding on her conductor before moving onto her clothing. “And why don’t you strip? To reassure us too?”
“You didn’t seem like you believed me about the Manipulator earlier, but now you do…” Theta regarded her carefully before he began to peel off his coat jacket. “As you wish—”
“No, stop!” Gabrielle held out her hand halting. “Saints, I was joking! Mr. Foxman, come on. It is, Mr. Foxman, right?” She extended her hand out to him—not the conductor-gloved one. “Second time’s the charm.”
Theta stared at it before accepting the gesture.
It felt unholy.
“My mediums made contact with the military police,” Talib said. “They’ll be here soon.”
“Right. Mr. Foxman, you mentioned wanting to look into Dämon, right?” Gabrielle asked. “Actually, we were in contact with a conductor engineer who’s been working alongside Dämon just recently. She said some things that didn’t really make sense earlier but might make sense to you. It was a location.”
“I may have a gate placed there.” Theta extended his hand to the wall. “Tell me. Let’s go.”
* * *
When Alice reemerged from Theta’s portal alongside the others, she found herself stepping out in front of a series of brick buildings labeled in gold-gilded numerals. She had been half-expecting Theta to lead them back to the windowless room and trap them, so she was pleasantly surprised.
The buildings were guarded by white pillars and the street sign read 43rd. The roads were empty, the clouds gray, the Capricornian flags billowing in the wind.
Hands on hips, Talib twirled around. “If I recall correctly, Roberto mentioned that the buildings on 43rd are where the Capricornian government keeps its old war relics from the Reservoir War. I didn’t think it would be so easy to get to this place without jumping through hoops; and I didn’t expect it to be so empty either. The Organization must’ve spirited away the common folk.”
“No. Either we’ve been expected and this is a game,” Theta said. “Or they simply don’t care. If you could control everyone, would you care what people knew or care what to protect? Whichever way—it doesn’t matter.”
“Reassuring…” Gabrielle noted.
Alice looked from the buildings to the ground. Right in front of the building on the gray-bricked road was a lidded storm drain. She nodded to the area. “I suppose you don’t have one of your gates placed down there, do you?”
Theta frowned. “It’s putrid. Of course not.”
Gabrielle and Talib both worked to lift the storm drain cap. A ladder extended into the dark down the hole beneath it. Talib, drawing the short end of the stick as always, descended first after sending down a medium to scope the area. Theta stared at him all the while.
What they found down below was not a running sewage system tunnel but a small room that barely fit them all in it. Unfolding opposite to the ladder was a single doorway hosting a staircase that seemed to descend endlessly.
Without any reluctance, Theta stepped through the doorway and began walking down the steps. Yawning with a stretch, Gabrielle ignited her gloved conductor to provide light and followed down after him. Alice exchanged a look with Talib and followed suit.
Pipes and insulating cables ran alongside the narrow walls. Occasionally, a humming or buzzing sound would emanate from them. And even a nostalgic boom, boom, boom. Other than that, there was dead silence.
During their descent, Theta would frequently pause, cut his hand, and run the injured area along the lower space of the wall.
“An exit,” was all he replied when asked for an explanation.
“Okay, no more beating around the bush,” Gabrielle finally said as they continued down. “Do you mind if we try to get on the same playing field now?”
“That was what was agreed. Ask your questions.”
“Izsak…” Gabrielle’s face twisted. “Is there anything of him left? Anything?”
Theta stared at her. “The brain is a complex organ. Its neuroplasticity is something to be admired. How much information is preserved after a person’s vitae leaves their body and another’s enters? How many neurons survive after hypoxia? In the end, every person is different.”
“It’s really just a yes or no question.” Gabrielle arched a brow.
“When your friend shows you a photograph they’ve taken and tells you the circumstances of the picture, can you say that you’ve experienced the same? It all falls under your perspective, Miss Law.”
Gabrielle remained silent for a while. “He has a wife. A kid.”
“If it disturbs you so much, I suggest you kill him to give yourself peace of mind.”
“That’s an awful thing to say about someone you’re buddy-buddy with.”
“Gamma will simply return to his resistor if you kill him. He doesn’t use his vitae often, so there will still be enough of him left to form him.” Theta glanced at her. “Of course, preferably, you won’t kill him. If you just remove a problem without addressing it, the problem will only return the same as before.”
Alice interjected, “And how do you think the brothers of Francis Foxman feel?”
Theta stopped in his tracks. “Miss Kingsley, I apologize if I’ve been a little less than cordial. Please believe me when I say that I am trying my best”—he turned and stared into her much like how he had back in that windowless, doorless room—“but I ask that you refrain from bringing my brothers into this.”
Alice regarded Theta from a moment before nodding. “Fine. But which do you prefer to be called?”
Theta faced forward slowly. “Either.”
“Omicron. The Specialist children. That woman who was with you,” Talib interjected. “What happened to them? They all disappeared without a trace. You had something to do with the children, didn’t you?”
Theta’s face tightened for a moment. “I’ve laid Omicron to rest. Those children are none of your concern, but they are safe. The woman is safe as well, although I had a difficult time getting away from her… She has no association with me.”
“I figured as much.” Gabrielle yawned. “You brothers are really loyal to each other, aren’t you? I trust you won’t be dropping any buildings on them—the children, I mean. Ideally, they’d be under the protective service agencies of their respective countries.”
“They would only be taken advantage of…” Theta frowned. “I’m beginning to realize that vitae reservoirs are only an overarching problem this time has. So much has changed for the worse…”
Gabrielle studied him before pressing, “Anyway, I think it’s about time I ask what’s going on with the vitae reservoirs and the saint candidates.”
“Have you witnessed someone conducting without a conductor before?” Theta returned without skipping a beat.
Alice tensed and exchanged a look with Gabrielle as Olive flashed into her mind.
“By the silence, I’m assuming yes. That is exactly how that Manipulator can influence living things with ease. It’s something only a saint candidate can do.” Theta ignited his v-cig from his pocket again and took a drag. “You all have conducting licenses meaning you understand vitae theory basics—or at least what you believe to be the basics—correct?”
“I would hope so,” Gabrielle replied.
“Okay, I will explain now. Keep an open mind since I’m certain what I’m about to tell you will partially go against what you’ve been taught.” He turned to Alice. “I’m sure you will have much to say. You are very clever, but also very stubborn.”
Alice tensed. “Don’t assume things about me.”
Theta turned away from her before beginning, “On average, there are 7×10 27 vitae particles in a single human body. Up to 1/4th of this vitae is in dynamic equilibrium—constantly being burned off from the body in the form of energy while being replenished through ingestion of vitae particles found in food.”
The fraction was new but nothing else was.
“But three-fourths of that is what is considered uniquely you. It is what is expelled when a conductor is used, and this cannot be replenished. You can try to replenish this by ingesting vitae particles found in food but it is not the same because it exists at a different energy level.”
Different energy level? Was he referring to vitae’s constant state of energy fluctuation?
“Now I will switch to a different topic. There is a term you use for the amount of vitae particles an object can contain at maximum.”
“Yeah, vitae capacity,” Gabrielle provided. “Unknown number.”
“Human beings have a high vitae capacity but they generally aren’t able to reach full capacity because they are closed channels—unless it is done forcefully, but that requires an exceptional amount of energy and a catalyst. The exception would be True Conductors but that’s an entirely different topic.”
Alice’s mind went to Jericho.
Gabrielle tensed. “True Conductors—”
“Like I said, that’s a different topic,” Theta interjected. “As I mentioned earlier, vitae does in fact have different levels of energy. They do not exist in a state of flux as you’ve been taught. To keep things simple, I will categorize it into four levels. The lowest is what you consider hard vitae. This is the baseline, and when a living thing dies, the vitae particles temporarily enter this level before returning to the cycle. The second level is what you would consider soft vitae—what you consider living vitae. The third is the 3/4ths vitae within you that I mentioned. And then there is the fourth.”
Alice began to feel a warm draft rising from below.
“This fourth energy level of vitae is highly volatile and unstable. Vitae particles in this state naturally coalesce together due to their similar energy states. Without the use of a conductor due to this coalescing, these vitae particles are visible to the naked eye. Also due to the high energy level these particles are in, they are unable to return to the cycle until their energy level drops down.”
Gabrielle pressed, “Are you saying that vitae reservoirs are at this fourth level of energy?”
“There is no suggestion. This is fact.”
“But it’s still hard vitae…” Gabrielle tested.
Ignoring the comment, Theta continued, “Saint candidates—”
Alice’s heart skipped a beat.
“—contain in themselves vitae particles that are at this highest energy level and therefore contain a much higher volume of vitae particles than a normal human being. In fact, you could say that the number of vitae particles they contain is equivalent to several hundreds or thousands of humans. This is possible because of a human’s naturally high vitae capacity—”
Theta suddenly tripped forward over a large insulating cable that ran down the length of the steps. Gabrielle caught him and guided him back up to his feet.
They were getting close.
Brushing himself off without so much of a blush, Theta continued: “The issue with living manipulation for normal Manipulators is that they aren’t able to expel a high enough amount of vitae or vitae at a high enough energy level to completely overcome their living target’s vitae without a dilution effect occurring. This doesn’t occur with saint candidates. This elevated energy level in their vitae also allows them to freely expel vitae without a conductor.
Faintly, Alice made out light at the bottom of the steps. “And how…”
“For us, it’s called initiation. For them, it’s called a baptism. I believe you would call it a ‘saint candidacy ceremony.’ A different name, a different series of steps, a somewhat different end result, but the general mechanism and purpose is the same.”
There it was. The itching suspicion, the uneasiness that had been gnawing away at Alice’s stomach for months now. To hear it confirmed did not bring her relief.
“Even at that highest energy level,” he continued as they reached the doorway at the very bottom of the steps. “Vitae still is capable of storing memories. However, since this vitae is still in an elevated state of energy, it tends not to return to the cycle. As centuries pass by, this vitae continues to collect, continues to store memories. Nothing is forgotten. I suppose that’s the true immortality people tend to seek.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Supposing this is all real,” Alice pressed, “how exactly did you come to find this information…?”
“We didn’t find it,” Theta replied. “We were the ones who developed and refined it. The parts of the vitae theory that you’ve been taught and have come to know were developed by us.”
Alice felt a chill run down her spine.
Gabrielle pressed her ear to the door. After apparently hearing nothing, she clenched her gloved-conductor and pushed open the door.
They were immediately blinded by the light pouring out from the room but Theta and Gabrielle didn’t hesitate. They stepped into the room in unison and called back to say that the room was clear. Despite this, Alice found herself lingering to collect her thoughts. However, her head was empty. Nothing came to mind.
Talib abruptly pressed his arm against hers. When she looked up at him, his brows were furrowed slightly but he was half-smiling.
“We still don’t know everything yet,” he said, tapping his nose. “I say we wait before we draw conclusions.” He paused, frowning. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around the elevated vitae levels. It’d be nice if we had some actual proof and evidence behind it, but I guess we have to lean on intuition.” He sighed. “You know… do you think Jericho’s condition has to do anything with this or am I reaching again?”
Frankly, Alice had never expected Talib and Jericho to develop any sort of relationship besides a professional one, but their camaraderie was a pleasant development.
Alice frowned. “I don’t believe anything is reaching at this point.” With that, she entered the room alongside Talib.
The appearance of the room was rather anticlimactic. At the center beneath a series of low-hanging pipes and insulating cables sat a large, square table toppled high with files.
The room’s walls appeared to be made of glass with small metal divides rigidly running parallel in-between them. Upon closer inspection, however, it became evident that the walls were actual glass cases similar to the one Dämon had presented to the crowd. And much like the case Dämon presented to the crowd, all of the cases lining the room were also filled with psychedelic pools of vitae.
That was really all there was to it.
Wandering around the room and inspecting everything, Theta continued, “This has never been a conflict between your countries nor has it been a conflict between your ELPIS Department and us…”
Alice approached one of the glass walls and peered into the vitae there.
“… It has always been between us and them.”
A boom, boom, boom resounded from the pipes.
Not quite absentmindedly, Alice pressed her ear against the glass and felt warmth and vibration bleed into her.
And then she heard a groan.
“The Diplomatic Conductor Convention is a technological, engineering, conductor symposium held in a select country of Signum on a rotating schedule once a year. This event started back in 1925 as a way to unify and promote cultural exchange in Signum following the Reservoir War.
It is at this convention that engineers and researchers from across Signum gather to present their research and inventions to the public eye in hopes of garnering the attention of the powerful political circles of Signum.”‘Events of Signum’, Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition