Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
“The Conductors from the Medical Department have cleared me for travel.”
“So they have,” Alice Kingsley returned thickly. She sat across from him at her desk with crossed legs and arms. In front of her was a file with his name on it. She clicked her tongue. “The times certainly are tense.”
“Yes,” Jericho said after a beat. “If you clear me too, I can aid the Ophiuchian mission for peace.”
Alice waved him off. “Don’t try that with me. I’ve told you many times before—it doesn’t work with me.” She leaned forward and stared into him. “Let me get this clear. You’re insisting that you fell down the stairs.”
“I tripped,” Jericho amended.
“A trip that left you a bloody mess at the front of our SERPENS Establishment.”
Jericho nodded. “I am a klutz.”
Alice did not smile. Jericho was unsure how to react.
“I can’t help people who don’t seek help themselves,” Alice clipped, tapping her fingers on his portrait photograph clipped to the file. “Since you’re insisting that you merely tripped, there is no evidence at present that allows me to hold you back.”
“So,” Jericho tried, “I’ve been cleared?”
“You’ve been reassigned.”
Jericho blinked. “Reassigned?”
“The team handling the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict has already departed,” Alice explained. “They left while you were in the Medical Department.”
“Instead, you’re being assigned to a missing person’s case,” Alice continued. She studied him, then made a sound that he assumed was a laugh. “No need to look disappointed. Any case assigned to an Ophiuchian is high profile. But even if that weren’t the case, shouldn’t someone who’s chosen to serve as an Ophiuchian agent not care whether or not something is high profile? Are we not called by those outside these borders as neutral peacekeepers?”
Alice leaned back in her chair and studied him long and hard before she elaborated: “The missing individual is an Ophiuchian agent.”
Jericho perked up at this.
“You may have heard of her. Leona.”
“The soon-to-be Chairman of the ELPIS Department, and an individual who completed the State Conductor Exam with the second highest score of all time. And a saint candidate.” Alice laced her fingers together and frowned. “The very fact that no one has seen her face and yet everyone knows these things highlights her position in our current world. Some say she is even the symbol of Ophiuchus. Peace.” Alice seemed to chuckle at the thought.
After wondering if he should laugh along, Jericho tried, “That’s… bad.”
There was a long pause of silence.
“I don’t know all the details, but the agent was last seen in the Twin Cities of Gemini,” Alice finally said, closing the folder gently. “And it seems as if you were granted your wish. This may involve ELPIS, although the uncertainty of it has not allowed the ELPIS Department to be dispatched.” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Your train is to depart in an hour, so it’s best that you get ready. It would be unfortunate if you were to miss it again.”
* * *
Jericho arrived at the Grand Snake Train Station with a single suitcase in hand. In it was one change of clothes and his conductor.
The station was as busy as usual. Ophiuchian Conductors dressed in their monochrome uniforms crowded the platforms and left little room to breathe. Wrapped around many of their right upper arms was a white sash with the Ophiuchian symbol—the letter U with a wave running through its center—emblazoned on it. Interspersed between the agents were a handful of individuals who were not dressed in monochrome. Rather than boarding the trains, they were leaving them. They were most likely citizens here to submit requests for aid.
Jericho blinked down and found a young woman standing at his side. She was very small and slender. Tiny. He would not have even seen her if it weren’t for that pink.
Bubblegum pink. That was the color of her pixie-cut.
“You are Mister Jericho, right? Of the General Investigations Department?”
“I’m Ferris Hart. Cancerian.” She extended her hand. “I work in the Assignment Department.”
Jericho stared at her hand for a moment before he shook it. For some odd reason, her face lit up at this and she cleared her throat and straightened her uniform.
“Please follow me, and I’ll introduce you to who you’ll be working with.”
Jericho followed the young woman through the crowd and nearly ran into her when she stopped short in front of a signpost. He glanced up. Platform 2, it read.
Two men and one woman stood by the sign, all dressed in monochrome suits. One man stood leaning against the post with his arms crossed, wearing a trench coat over his uniform and a homburg hat tipped over his eyes.
“Hey, everyone,” Ferris greeted them with a small wave before clearing her throat. She stepped to the side and gestured to Jericho. “This is Jericho. He’s been assigned the missing person’s case. Please introduce yourselves.”
The agent who introduced himself first stood a head taller than Jericho. He had curly light brown hair that was haphazardly slicked back. The pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on his hawk nose made his hazel eyes seem twice as large.
“Wtorek Izsak—Izsak being my first name,” the man said with a bright smile as he extended his hand. He wore thick gloves lined with metal. “From Taurus. Conjurer. Happily married. Proud father. Bad vision.” He gestured to Jericho’s own square glasses. “We’re twins.”
“Jericho,” Jericho said, shaking his hand and studying his face. Something about it was familiar. “Not married. Or a father.”
Izsak stared at him for a long moment before he barked out a laugh and clapped Jericho hard on the back. “Gabe, looks like we’ve got one of the good ones!”
The one nicknamed Gabe stepped forward to shake Jericho’s hand. She was roughly his height and had dark skin and a dark rope of hair tied high into a ponytail. There were dark circles beneath her eyes but the smile beneath them was a blinding white.
“Gabrielle Law,” the woman said. “I’m originally from Aries. Lived in the countryside. I’m an Elementalist. I’ve heard a lot about you from Doctor Kingsley—er, is everything okay?”
Jericho found himself unable to release the woman’s hand. Unable to remove his eyes from the woman’s face. There was something about it that itched at his memory.
“Have we met before?” Jericho tried, still shaking the woman’s hand. “On another assignment?”
Gabrielle searched Jericho’s face. “No, I don’t think so.” She glanced down at their still ongoing handshake. “But it’s good to hear that you’ve heard of me… er…”
That wasn’t it. There was something else. Something about Gabrielle Law that was very nostalgic. Familiar. Jericho was certain.
“You…” Jericho was close now. Close to the answer. “You are… someone who looks like they have a terrible personality.”
Gabrielle stared. Ferris stared. Izsak stared. The unintroduced man stared.
Jericho released Gabrielle’s hand and covered his mouth. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.” He paused. “Oh. I mean—”
Izsak threw his head back as a laugh tore through his body. He slapped Gabrielle hard on the back and wiped a tear from his eye. “Told you, you can’t get everyone on your side.” And then he leaned forward and gave Jericho a cuff on the shoulders. “You’ve got a good eye.”
“I am sorry.”
Gabrielle looked nonplussed. Unaffected. Maybe she was too tired to care. It seemed that way because the woman soon yawned and rubbed her eyes. “None taken. Can’t please everyone.”
Then the final agent in the trench coat stepped forward. He regarded Jericho with charcoal-colored eyes. His hair was the same shade of black, and his curls were barely tamed by his hat. A mole dotted his cheek right below his left eye.
After a very long pause, the man pulled down his hat. “The name is Talib al-Jarrah. Manipulator Conductor of Scorpian descent.”
Jericho reached out his hand.
Talib studied it before rubbing his chin. “I noticed that you have yet to say where you’re from or to state your conducting form. Why is that?”
“Is it because you’re working for the Organization?”
Jericho felt his heart skip a beat. He frowned. “The Organization?”
“Yes, the Organization.” Talib nodded gravely before leaning in close and whispering in Jericho’s ear. “The ones orchestrating everything since the very beginning. The ones behind everything.”
“The ones behind everything?”
Before Talib could elaborate, Ferris cut in-between them. Her face was red. Jericho couldn’t tell whether she was angry or embarrassed.
“Talib!” Ferris snapped. “Not this again! Other agents will avoid going on assignments with you if you keep doing this!”
“Avoid me, Miss Hart?” Talib scoffed. “They only avoid me because they know that I’m onto them.” He leaned in close again. “The Organization is afraid of what I know.”
Jericho stared. “What?”
“Talib is our resident conspiracy enthusiast,” Izsak provided, looking more amused than anything else. “Sure makes the train rides go by fast. My favorite is the one about bubble wands being secret weapons of mass destruction.”
“You call it conspiracy,” Talib drew with a tip of his hat. “I call it the hidden truth.” He whipped his head round in Izsak’s direction and then formed a circle with both of his hands. “How you can even view bubble wands as a child’s toy baffles me. The chemicals laden in them make us all complacent!” He turned to Jericho again, clenching his fists. “The Organization is nefarious and clever. They’ve even found their way into Ophiuchus through the Assignment Department.”
Ferris threw up her hands. “Oh, so you’ve finally found our links to your Organization, have you?”
“Aha!” Talib pointed a finger at her face. “So you’ve admitted it! You are affiliated with them!”
“I don’t mean to interrupt your flirting,” Jericho interjected. “But I didn’t realize there would be so many people on this assignment.”
Ferris and Talib paused with their mouths ajar. Their cheeks reddened in unison, and their gazes met. In the background, Izsak chortled.
“That’s not—” Talib began.
Ferris cleared her throat and straightened her uniform. “Actually, Gabrielle and Izsak are on a different assignment, but they’ll be riding along with you partway.”
“A different assignment,” Jericho repeated.
Ferris cast a glance sideways as she dug into her bag. “Yes, it’s one that involves Leona—the subject of your missing person’s case.” She procured two manila envelopes stuffed with papers and handed them to Jericho and Talib. “The details are inside, but in short, before her disappearance, she was investigating a lead on a party we believed to be involved in an Ariesian assassination plot.”
“A party,” Jericho stated. He received odd looks.
“From the stories I’ve heard, Leona is a very skilled Conductor,” Ferris continued quietly. She glanced around. “I didn’t think anyone would be able to lay a hand on her, but if there were anyone able to then it’d be…”
Yes, it had to be.
Finally, he would be able to—
“But we still don’t know for sure.” Ferris waved the idea off. “At least until you and Talib investigate. If you find any possibility that ELPIS may be involved, you are to report back to the ELPIS Department.”
Jericho blinked out of his thoughts. So he was working with Talib Al-Jarrah, then.
“Anyways, the lead that Leona was looking into turned out to be true.” Gabrielle ran a hand down her face. “Which is why Izsak and I are heading to Aries. And since we’re riding together, it’d be a good opportunity to exchange information.” She laughed a bit as she studied Jericho. “And get to know our fellow agents.”
Jericho paused. “Aries. The assassination.”
“Yes.” Ferris nodded. She looked grim. “I heard you were in the Medical Department when it happened, but… There was an assassination attempt on the prince of Aries.”
Jericho’s shoulder throbbed with an odd phantom pain and he reached up to rub it. “I see.”
* * *
The four of them boarded the v-train half an hour after and found their way to their assigned compartment. Two booths faced each other within the compartment. Between them was a small table nailed to the floor.
Jericho took the window seat and Talib sat beside him. Gabrielle and Izsak sat across from them.
As the other agents became situated, Jericho spied out the window. From the sea of agents, he could barely make out Ferris’s bright pink head. She was waving. He raised his hand to wave back.
The train started up a second later and began to roll along the tracks. The compartment rumbled with each click, clack, click, clack. The horn bellowed.
The crowds of Ophiuchian agents standing on the platforms flitted past the window in a monochrome blur as the train pulled out of the station. The monochrome soon faded into pure white as the light from the central vitae reservoir pulled into view. It was even brighter than the sun. So white and bright that it was blinding.
Jericho held his stomach as it churned. He turned his eyes away from the window and flipped through the files he’d been provided. Odd. There was no picture of Leona inside. How were they supposed to find her if—
“So, Jericho, tell us a bit about yourself.”
Jericho glanced up and found Gabrielle studying him. Despite the fact she looked as if she was about to doze off, her lips were upturned in a smirk. A very odd combination.
“I’ve already made friends with Talib and Izsak here since we’ve been on a lot of assignments together,” Gabrielle continued. “I’ve seen you around, but we’ve never had the chance to talk.” She crossed her arms and gestured toward him. “I’d like to hear about you. Maybe we could be friends, too.”
There was some underlying intention in the woman’s words, Jericho knew. But he didn’t know what. Perhaps he was overthinking it.
“Aw, don’t haze the kid,” Izsak chuckled. “You can’t bring everyone under your umbrella.” He leaned forward and dug into his suit pocket. A burst of amber light erupted from the pocket, and out from the light, Izsak procured a fluffy, white object. An object that Izsak pushed forward with a wink.
Jericho stared at the offering in confusion before he took it in his hands. It was soft to the touch and had a pair of flopping ears, a pair of misshapen eyes, and a lopsided smile. A stuffed animal. Which animal, Jericho wasn’t sure.
“You know if you were going to get your Conducting License just to conjure up things like that,” Gabrielle sighed with a shake of her head, “you could have just been a stage magician.”
Jericho glanced at Izsak’s hands—rather, his gloves. They were conductors, it seemed.
“Hey, can’t believe I’m hearing that from you,” Izsak snapped back at Gabrielle. “I need to practice for Csilla, alright? You know how hard it is for Conjurers to do these kinds of things. We need to picture every single nook and cranny of the things we conjure down to the details. Anyway, Csilla loves this stuff.” Izsak glanced at Jericho and broke into a smile. “Csilla is my daughter. Here, let me show you.” Before Jericho even had the chance to digest the conjured stuffed animal, Izsak shoved yet another object into his face. A photograph.
A smiling young girl with light brown hair braided into twin pigtails sat covered in dirt next to a smiling woman. Their smiles were identical as were their light brown eyes.
“Right next to her is my wife, Elizabeta,” Izsak explained as he shook the photograph back and forth. “She works as an agent, too—people think Csilla takes more after her since Csilla took the V-Type Test and it said that she’s a Transmutationist like her mother, but we all know she’s a daddy’s girl.” A deep breath. “Did you know that she was almost chosen to be saint candidate too—my little Csilla!”
“You really have no shame.” Gabrielle sighed again.
Glancing between the two, Jericho found himself frowning. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand?” Izsak pulled back and glanced at the photo. He chuckled again. “About what?”
“You and your wife work as Ophiuchian peacekeepers. You have a daughter.” Jericho frowned. “It’s one of the most dangerous professions. There are other Conducting License jobs. Better salary. Safer. Your daughter could lose both of you, and she would be left with nothing. I don’t understand.”
Izsak exchanged a look with Gabrielle, who exchanged the look with Talib. Jericho was also confused by his own behavior. Normally, he didn’t engage this much with his associates. It was too difficult. And Gabrielle and Izsak weren’t even on the same assignment as him. So why…?
Jericho’s temple throbbed.
There was a beat of silence.
“Well, it’s because we love our daughter so much that we chose to be agents,” Izsak replied as he sank back into his chair and pocketed the photo. He stared out the window with half a smile. “I want her to live in a better world than this.”
It was then that Gabrielle leaned forward, propped her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her folded hands. She stared at Jericho in a way that reminded him of Alice. “And you? Why are you working in Ophiuchus, Jericho?”
* * *
Twin Cities, Gemini
Jericho wasn’t sure when or how he had dozed off, but when Talib shook him awake, the sky beyond the window was pitch black.
Jericho stepped onto the platform before the others since his suitcase was much smaller and lighter. Easier to remove from the compartments.
As soon as he stepped out of the train, he took in a deep breath and tasted salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. It was an unpleasant, yet nostalgic taste. But the nostalgia was odd as he’d never been to the Twin Cities before. Never had an assignment directing him to the location. How had he even known there was a conductor manufacturing plant nearby?
He brushed the thought aside.
The platform was dotted only by a handful of people and was sparsely lit by v-lamps that ran parallel along the train tracks. He made his way to the metal railing at the very end and peered over its edge.
A fractured city unfolded beneath him. The buildings glimmered with faint light like tiny stars and a spider web of streets ran between them. Right below him ran a large river that split the city in two. The river stretched far into the darkness—so far that the light from the city couldn’t unveil it.
Talib joined him, lugging along a very large and black suitcase. Dropping it to the ground with a sigh, Talib panted out, “Yes, it’s quite the sight. This Dioscuri Bridge here is in fact one of the most famous attractions in all of Gemini.” After a beat, Talib added, “I believe the Organization is using this as a gathering place for their secret meetings.”
“I see.” Jericho leaned closer against the railings.
“Careful with Mr. Giggles there,” came Izsak’s good-natured laugh.
“Mr. Giggles.” Jericho blinked before he looked down at his hands. In his left was his suitcase, and in his right—Oh. He was still holding the stuffed animal. Was he the strange one here or was it Izsak?
He turned and found Gabrielle and Izsak standing right behind him. Both were carrying heavy suitcases.
“Our train to Aries leaves in a couple minutes,” Izsak said as he jerked his thumb backward. “So we won’t be seeing each other for a while.” He pointed to Mr. Giggles. “But you can keep him.”
“I don’t want to,” Jericho said, staring at the thing. He glanced up to find an amused-looking Gabrielle and a startled Izsak. “Oh. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“It’s fine.” Izsak waved him off. “But I insist you keep it.”
“He just doesn’t want to have to lug it to Aries,” Gabrielle elaborated as she closed the distance between her and Jericho to shake hands. “Anyways, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the future,” she said, giving his hand one last shake. She smiled thinly before she turned to leave with a loose wave. “It was nice getting to know you.”
Izsak offered the same formality before turning on his heels. “Oh, I remember now!” The man chuckled again as he joined Gabrielle’s side. “The reason it was so funny that Jericho said you have a terrible personality. That’s what the prince said to you the first time you met him.”
Jericho stared after the two before Talib cleared his throat.
“Those are good people, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said as he picked up his suitcase. He walked toward the exit and inclined his head, indicating that Jericho follow. “I hope we can be as good as them.”
After stuffing the plushie into his suitcase, Jericho followed after him.
The descent to the city from the bridge station was long. The stone stairs that led to the inner city seemed to extend forever, both downward and to the sides.
“These stairs,” Talib grumbled from beside him. “The Organization probably built them this way to weaken us.”
“Right,” Jericho replied, not even glancing in his direction.
Their footfalls echoed in the silence that followed.
“Can never get used to the looks,” Talib said from beside him.
“When people recognize our uniforms,” Talib elaborated.
Jericho glanced around. Although there were not many people walking up and down the stairs, the people who were present eyed them. The stares weren’t subtle. Many were outright ogling.
“Seeing how this city is run…” Talib grunted as he lugged along his suitcase. It looked even heavier than he was. “I can’t tell if those are looks of admiration or looks of ‘get out of my city!’”
Jericho reached over and plucked Talib’s suitcase out of his hands. “How is this city run?”
“Oh, my thanks, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said, dusting off his hat and shaking off his arms. He straightened his cap before he elaborated, “Yes, there are many organized crime groups running the city.”
“And Ophiuchus allows them?”
Talib thought for a moment before answering. “After the war, they helped reshape the economy of this country. Without them, Gemini would never have become the powerhouse it is today.” He slid his hands into his coat pockets. “The crime groups also act as a quasi-police force and help reduce crime.” A side-glance. “Their competition. Plans of regulation have been discussed in our advisory board, but nothing concrete has been set yet. For now, they are a necessary evil. Besides, it's a bit of a foible since there hasn't been any evidence of the need for Ophiuchian intervention. We don't want to overstep our bounds. It's best practice to leave it to Gemini's own security forces to handle it. As much as I hate the idea.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t know about them, Mr. Jericho.”
Jericho ruminated a response. Finally, he said, “I’ve been living under a rock.”
Talib stared. “Was that a joke?”
They reached the street level ten minutes later.
The buildings here scratched at the sky, leaving only a crack of star-dotted blackness above their heads. A narrow one-lane road unfolded a couple of meters in front of them, and it was sandwiched between two enormous sidewalks. Although the road was empty, the walkways were spotted with ambling pedestrians.
“Well, it’s getting late,” Talib said from beside him as he rubbed his chin. “We should stop at an inn for the night. You—”
Before Talib could finish, a small body collided into the man’s own with such force that it knocked his hat clean off. The offender was a teary-eyed child. A boy. A distinctive scar ran diagonally across the boy’s face.
“I’m so, so sorry,” the boy stammered as he bent down to pick up Talib’s fallen hat. He handed it to the man with shaking hands. “I didn’t mean to—” His eyes widened as he seemed to register the monochrome uniform hidden beneath Talib’s trench coat.
“It’s all right.” Talib waved him off as he accepted the hat. “But you should—”
The boy took off in the opposite direction before Talib could finish.
“Well, that was rude—”
But Jericho was heading off in another direction too. Jericho could hear Talib sputter in confusion behind him, but he, too, was confused by his own actions. He moved forward as if being led along by an unknown force. A string pulling him along the streets.
The streets. He knew these streets. He knew these streets like the back of his hand. A turn here, a turn there. How did he know these streets? His head pounded; his stomach flipped. His footsteps echoed around the alleyways.
He came to an abrupt stop—strings cut—in front of a strip with wooden barricades along its front. The strip housed a collection of shops. A coffee shop. A bookshop. And between the two was a pile of ash and rubble. Singed wooden planks and shards of glinting glass protruded from the ash pile. A store must have been there before. Jericho could almost see it in his mind’s eye. A tavern, maybe, with a rustic brown roof and fogged-up windows. Dimly lit, maybe, with smoke from v-cigs and regular cigs clouding up the air.
It was nothing now. Carved from its place. Unsalvageable.
Jericho drifted past the barricades and approached the remains slowly. Ash and wood and glass crunched beneath his feet.
“TwinStars…” He murmured to himself. The name slid off his tongue easily, like it was something he would toss around often. Which he knew was not the case. He crouched down and sifted through the ash in thought.
A second later, Talib emerged from the alleyway behind. He was panting heavily and doubled over once he saw Jericho standing amidst the debris. When he recovered himself, Talib approached Jericho with raised brows: “How did you know about this place? It wasn’t mentioned in the debriefing file.”
“This place. What is it?”
Talib gave him an odd look and scratched his chin. “This was an establishment run by the Foxman brothers.” He frowned. “If you didn’t know that then how did you—”
“The Foxman brothers?” The name felt familiar on Jericho’s tongue.
Talib studied him for a moment in silence before nodding. “Yes, one of the crime families I mentioned earlier. Like I was saying, I arranged an audience for tomorrow morning with both the Foxmans and the head of the Romano Family. They know everything that happens in this city, so they must know something about the disappeared Miss Leona.”