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. In between them straddled a small table that was nailed to the floor.
Jericho took the window seat and Talib took the space beside him. Gabrielle and Izsak sat across from them.
As the other agents became situated, Jericho spied out the window. From the sea of monochrome, 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 train horn bellowed loudly.
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 a blinding 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 began to churn. He turned his eyes away from the window and began to flip through the files he’d been provided with. 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 that the woman 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 missions together.” Gabrielle continued. “I’ve seen you around but I’ve never gotten the chance to talk.” She crossed her arms and gestured towards 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 just overthinking it.
“Aw, don’t haze the kid,” Izsak chuckled. “You can’t bring everyone under your umbrella.” Abruptly, he leaned forward and dug into his suit pocket. A burst of red-orange light erupted from the pocket area, and out from the light, Izsak procured a fluffy, white object. An object that Izsak pushed forward with a wink.
Jericho stared at the offered object in confusion before he took it in his hands. It was soft to the touch and had a pair of flopping ears and a pair of misshapen eyes and a lopsided smile. A stuffed animal. What 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 his head, “you could have just been a stage magician.”
Jericho glanced at Izsak’s hands — rather, his gloves. They were conductors, it seemed.
“Hey,” 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 out 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 had 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,” Izsak explained as he shook the photograph back and forth. “She works as an agent too. We’ve been arguing whether Csilla’ll turn out to be a conjurer or a transmuter — but we all know she’s a daddy’s girl.”
“You really have no shame,” Gabrielle sighed again with another shake of her head.
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?”
“Why would you and your wife choose to work as Ophiuchian peacekeepers when you care so much for your daughter?” Jericho asked. “It’s one of the most dangerous professions. There are plenty of other jobs you can get with a Conducting License. Better paying ones. Your daughter could lose both of you like this, and she would be left with nothing. So why?”
Izsak exchanged a look with Gabrielle who exchanged the look with Talib. Jericho was also confused by his own behavior. Normally, he did not engage this much with his associates. Gabrielle and Izsak weren’t even on the same assigned mission 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 Jericho of Alice. “And you? Why are you working in Ophiuchus, Jericho?”
Jericho wasn’t sure when he had dozed off or how he had dozed off but when he was shaken awake by Talib, the sky beyond the window was a darkish purple.
Jericho made it out onto the platform deck before the others as 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 it was sparsely lit by v-lamps that ran parallel alongside the train tracks. Jericho was grateful for these things because that meant that he didn’t have to fight a crowd or stumble blindly to cross the platform. He made his way to the metal railing at the very end and peered over its edge.
A fractured city unfolded beneath him. Tiny little dots of buildings glimmered with faint light, and spiderwebs of streets ran in-between them. Right below him ran a large river that split the city in two. The river stretched out far into the darkness — so far that even 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 infamous attractions in all of Gemini.” After a beat, Talib added, “Although, I do 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 on his heels and found Gabriell and Izsak standing right behind him. Both when 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’m not sure I want to,” Jericho replied, 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 with an extended hand. “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 as well. “Oh, I remember now!” The man chuckled again as he joined Gabrielle’s side. “The reason why what Jericho said about you having a terrible personality was so funny. That’s what the prince said to you the first time you met him.”
Jericho stared after the two curiously before Talib suddenly cleared his throat.
“Those are good people, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said as he picked up his suitcase. He began to walk towards the exit and inclined his head indicating that Jericho follow. “With this mission, I hope we can be as good as them.”
After stuffing the plushie into his suitcase, Jericho followed after him.
The way down to the city from the bridge station was long. The train station was located at the very end of the bridge, but the descent down from the stone stairs that led to the inner city seemed to extend out forever both downwards and out to the sides.
“These stairs,” Talib grumbled from beside him. “The Organization probably built them this way in order 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 suddenly 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 were eyeing them. The looks weren’t even 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. It certainly was heavy. “How this city is 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.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t know about them, Mr. Jericho.”
Jericho ruminated a response. Finally, he said, “I have been living — as people like to say — under a rock.”
Talib stared. “Was that a joke?”
They reached the city level ten minutes later.
The buildings here scratched up 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 check in 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 on the walkway 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 around him.
He finally came to an abrupt stop — strings cut — in front of a strip that with wooden barricades dotting its front. The strip housed a collection of shops. A coffee shop. A bookshop. And in-between the coffee shop and the book shop was a pile of ash and rubble. Singed wooden planks and shards of glinting glass protruded from the ashen 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 square windows. Dimly lit, maybe, with smoke from v-cigs and regular cigs clouding up the air.
Whatever it had been before, it was nothing now. Carved out 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 shifted through the ash in thought.
A second later, Talib emerged out from the alleyway behind him. The man was panting heavily and doubled over as soon as he registered Jericho standing in the middle of 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.”