10/19/2012

Cosmic Flash - Chapter 11: The Good Life




The remainder of the night had been spent in the local club scene located in the luxurious district of Asphidire.  The place they went to was a nameless spot rented out on the top floor of a hotel building that overlooked the rest of the bustling city, which was just as restless in the night as a city like this would be on Earth.  Zach, Jeila, and Morgon were accompanied by Tarot, who was also off-duty for the night and met up at the club for the festivities.  The flashing strobe orbs spun from their spots on the ceiling and caressed the dance floor of the room as the group found their seats at a table and ordered their beverages while conversing.  Once they had been served their drinks by the busboy, they started catching up on old times and before long made their way to the dance floor to lose themselves in the vibrative tunes of the current Rhythic performer playing a gig at the club, a young Dark Alfimese male with long hair down to his waist that obscurred his face.  He pulsed away at the silver disks floating around him, sliding them across his area of space with his fingertips to the rhythm of the electronic music being played throughout the club and simultaneously spinning and dancing along with it.  This was Zach's first experience with seeing a Rhythic performance and because the club itself had been outfitted with the same soundwave-condensing architecture as a Reverb Room, he was getting as authentic of an experience as everyone else and he was enjoying every minute of it.

After the performance, they went outside to the top floor balcony of the hotel and looked out onto the violet sky where three of Arias' moons were looming above to greet them, one covering the largest portion of the right side of the horizon.  Zach leaned over the railing and looked out at the city before him, taking a sip from the pouch full of what might as well have been an alcoholic beverage since it had the same alcoholic taste and buzz as one from back home, only without the unwanted disorientation.  He never could remember the names of the beverages and cuisines here, Jeila had helped him order a drink she felt he would like.  Usually he would just choose whatever the hostess felt was good and hope for the best.

"You guys realize we probably should have been back at HQ for debrief like a while ago, right?" Tarot said, as he followed them to the balcony, his long blonde hair down to his shoulders and a distinct jagged scar from the accident in MIE traveling down from above his eyebrow to the bridge of his nose.  He was a lot bigger when they first met but now he was pretty skinny due to his lack of physical exercise following his leave from MIE.  They knew it was part of his religion that he wasn't supposed to put a strain on his body unless completely necessary.  As long as he ate healthily and took care himself, he would be fine, as he put it.  He was the only one out of the group that wasn't indulging on the drinks they were all consuming profusely.

"Its really been that long?" Zach asked in surprise.  "I could have sworn we've only been here for like an hour."

"More like three hours," Morgon said, checking his Cosmer.  "And 45 Clicks."

"Holy shit," Jeila exclaimed.  "We were having a little too much fun."

"Don't worry," Zach said, reaching into his pants pocket and pulling out his own Cosmer.  "Globe didn't message me, so I don't think they need us that bad.  If he did, then we would have cut it short."  Zach checked his recent transmissions and saw plastered across its screen that he had 14 missed messages.  "What the hell?"  He went straight for the settings and saw that he had turned off sound notifications at the start of the mission and forgotten to turn them back on.  "Oh damn.  Looks like he was trying to get a hold of me."

"Guess we should be going then," Jeila said somberly.

"Well I already debriefed after the mission was over, so I'm headed back to my apartment," Tarot mentioned, starting to walk off.  "Nice use of the Da Vinci Hands by the way, Derek."

"Shit dude, finally getting to use those out in the field got me thinking how I could put those to use in a Mating Room.  That's got to make for an interesting night.  You should let me borrow them outside of duty one of these days."

Tarot laughed.  "We'll see about that.  I'll talk to you guys later.  Nice catching up again."

"You too man, see you," Zach said as he walked off.  Morgon stepped up from the railing and started to head back inside after him.

"I'm gonna head back to Post.  Need to write my debriefing report and update my Log."

"I thought you had to update Logs back at the Monolith?"

"No, I have different protocols, remember?  ICD's don't work on Monolith grounds, so I have to debrief and update my Log out of town."

"Damn, man.  So when are we going to get to hang again?"

Morgon chuckled and shrugged.  "Who knows, man?  Whenever we happen to crosspaths again and neither of us are busy.  We may end up on a case together again soon.  Maybe I can get to see YOU at work next time."

"Its a date then," Zach said with a laugh.  "I'll trans you later."

"Okay.  Make sure you trans me on my auxillary Cosmer.  Never my main one.  That's the one I use for the...you know, project."

"I don't even know the number to your main one anyway."

"Oh right," Morgon muttered awkwardly.  "Well...okay then."

"Get out of here, you goofball," Zach said, waving him off as Morgon waved back and walked back into the club.  With him and Jeila alone, he sighed heavily and gave her a bright smile, which she returned with a pathetic look.

"Pot calling the kettle black with the goofball comment right about now," she said dismissively.

"What, I can't be happy that you're back?  I mean, its been a whole Arian year."

Jeila rolled her eyes and leaned up from the railing, turning her body to face him.  "I guess I kind of missed you too."

"Oh yeah, that was very convincing."

Jeila smiled and looked out towards the gleeming city.  Zach noticed that she wasn't wearing the headpiece he'd always seen her with, the one with the star with jagged ends on the front emblem.

"What happened to your headpiece?" he asked curiously.

Jeila felt her forehead for it as if she didn't know it that it wasn't there but quickly remembered, shaking her head irritantly.  "That asshole took it from me while I was under."

"Graft?"

"Yeah.  I wasn't wearing it, but I had it in my bag and when I had to blow my cover, he searched my belongings and it was one of the first things he took.  I haven't seen it since."

"Well, now that we've got him, they should be sending guys to infiltrate his hideouts.  They'll find it."

"Maybe."

"You never did tell me what it was from."

Jeila shrugged and looked up at him.  "Maybe I didn't want to."

Zach shuffled uncomfortably and crossed his arms.  "You're being awful closed up all of a sudden."

"And this surprises you?"

"A little bit.  Before there was a time when we could talk to each other about anything.  Did something happen when you were undercover?"

Jeila looked off in thought for a moment but then shook her head confidently.  "No.  I mean, things happened but nothing I couldn't handle, you know?"

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, its just - I was under for over a month, so I'm a little stressed out.  I haven't been to sleep a lot since I took the mission.  He tried to get me to break a few times but I held my own."

"Well, you did an amazing job either way.  I mean, the amount of dirt you got on him is massive.  He's done for.  You should be happy, you helped take down a high-profile criminal who was trafficking illegal drugs and God knows what else."

"I know," Jeila replied with a sigh, closing her eyes and nodding her head.  "I know, but...there's more to it than that.  I don't think I did enough."

"What do you mean?"

"You saw how he seemed to know more than he was letting on, right?"

"Yeah."

"That's because he does.  I know it.  I just didn't get the chance to figure out what it was.  He talked about it all the time, said it was going to 'give his life actual meaning.'  I was so damn close but he was an expert at covering his tracks.  Its like everything he wanted us to know about him, everything I managed to uncover about him, he intentionally leaked for me to find, instead of it just being that he was sloppy.  I can't help but think that, because he did such a good job at hiding the parts of his plans that I wanted to find the most."

"Well don't beat yourself up about it.  You did what you could.  And now that we've got him, there's virtually nothing he can do.  No one has ever broken out of custody in the Monolith before.  And he's hardly got the firepower to even try it.  We've got all of his connections and his entire organization is on lockdown, he'd have to pull some real deus ex machina kind of crap for him to get out of this one.  I doubt luck's really on his side like that."

"Well," Jeila sighed, leaning up from the railing and starting back for the club.  "Regardless, you need to be careful when you interrogate him.  Don't underestimate what he might have planned.  Anyone who can still act confident when they're gonna be taken in to the Monolith of all places is either losing his mind or really thinks whatever he's got planned is going to work.  Just watch yourself, okay?"

"Is that worry I hear in your voice?" Zach asked with a smirk.

Jeila smiled and leaned forward, kissing him on the forehead.  "I'll see you around," she said, turning and heading back to the club's entrance.  Before she stepped inside, she turned to him.  "Its my family crest by the way.  The Halos family crest.  All the women in my family wear one when they aren't working.  Its a tradition."

Zach nodded with approval.  "That's pretty cool."

She shrugged.  "Its a story."

Zach chuckled.  "Get some rest, okay?"

Jeila nodded at him.  As she turned and walked away, Zach smiled to himself.  That was her favorite saying, she would use it every time something noteworthy enough to bring up in general conversation sometime afterwards would occur.  It was one of the many things he missed about her and about the time they spent in training, when times were simpler.  But when he thought about it more, he realized that times were never simple, not since he left Earth over a year ago.  Things had gotten complicated from the moment he stepped foot in this half of the galaxy.  He couldn't help but wonder how things had changed since he left.  He'd been able to keep track of Earth time and he knew it was around July now, 1989.  Michael Jackson had come out with a new album a few months before he left and he hadn't even gotten the chance to check it out; he was probably reaping the benefits from that and working on something new.  Reagan was probably out of office by now.  Jack and Danielle were probably still together, Ward had probably graduated by this time, or knowing him, had flunked or dropped out.  Who knows what happened to his dad.  He might be dead by now.  Or he may have found a way to get the money without him.

But what occupied Zach's mind the most was the thought of whether or not he was missed at all.  He wondered if there had been a huge search party organized to try and locate his whereabouts in the woods where he'd disappeared.  He wondered if Jack felt guilty after a while for stealing his girlfriend and attacking him, if Ward felt any remorse for letting it happen, if Danielle felt somewhat responsible for him going over the edge and disappearing into the night like he did.  Part of him wanted to see if he could take a trip to back to Earth whenever he got some downtime, just to see how things had changed.  It was illegal, but he was sure he could get a pass from Tome to let him off.  However, the more he thought about it, the more he realized how much he didn't want to know what was going on there.  And the more he realized that, the more he realized how much he didn't want to go back.  At all.  He had a good life here in the North Circuit.  He was well-educated in its ways now.  And not only that, but he was something far better here.  On Earth, he was a college student, a conspiracy nut, a baker, a virgin.  Here, he was an ex-soldier, a secret agent, a total bad ass who could fuck hot alien chicks whenever he felt like it.  To say he felt as if he was doing something that made a difference was an understatement.  Things had changed so much, he knew there was no real point in going back, even out of curiousity.  There was nothing he really liked about the way things used to be, so going back just to see if there was anything left for him would be redundant.  He had all he needed here.  In the North Circuit.  Where he mattered.

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"He's still not talking," Globe informed once Zach came in to join them.  After being thoroughly chewed out by Albion for his lateness and Globe showing equal displeasure in his neglecting to answer his Cosmer's transmissions, he was finally allowed into the waiting room on the other side of the interrogation room where Graft sat with his hands restrained behind his back in a single chair with a table in front of him.

"What else is new?" Zach said with an annoyed sigh.  "There's only so much we can do if he doesn't talk"-

"I'll get him to talk," Globe said with determination in his voice.

"Just curious, what is it we're trying to get out of him at this point?  I mean, we've got him and we got most of his connections from Jeila."

"I want to know what this confidence is all about, what his plan is."

"You don't think he might just be playing mind games with us?"

"What would be the point of that?  So we can call him on his bullshit when we find out he's bluffing?"

"Well no, to keep us on edge, keep us trying to figure out what his game is, so we'll stay distracted with that and not on more important matters.  I mean, who knows he could be trying to make us think he's got something going on for years to come, even after he's been put away.  He could be trying to get us to think he's got some kind of long thoughtout and fully committed plan that somehow involves him going to prison and doing something on the inside or some shit, I don't know."

"Somehow I feel like that would be a waste of energy.  If it were me and my life's work was crumbling before my eyes, I'd skip the theatrics and get straight to the bawling."

"Wait, you cry?"

"Nope, but if I were in his position, I would."

The two sat in the opposite room where they were hidden from Graft through the one-way mirror similar to one held in a general police station or any interrogation area.  Zach leaned on one of the chairs near the mirror and looked off in thought.

"Maybe we should try to play with his mind a little," Zach suggested.  "You know, humor him."

"What are you talking about?"

"Like play into his game.  So far we haven't exactly acted like we've wanted to hear what he's got to say."

"Yes we have, that's why I've been asking him what his deal is all this time."

"Yeah but he gave us something to work with and we sort of ignored it."

Globe turned to Zach with a look of confusion.  "You're talking about the thing he said about the Deep?"

"Yeah.  Maybe we can use that to get him to open up, try to see what we can learn from there."

"Oh yeah, so he can start going on about how we are all one and should learn to accept each other because we may have or will live that life some day or some other kind of religious bullshit"-

"I mean, I'm not seeing any other options here, really.  He's not going to talk, this is better than nothing.  Let's just try it and see what happens.  If we don't get anywhere, we'll try something else."

Globe looked away for a moment and sighed before getting up and heading to the door.  Zach followed him and the two stepped into the interrogation room where Graft sat.  At their presence, he looked up nonchalantly and sighed, licking his lips with his bloody mouth.  His wounds had been cleaned but his broken teeth were still bleeding slightly.  Globe exchanged unsure looks with Zach, who nodded with assurance before he turned back to Graft.

"You said something about the Deep.  Back on Honario," Globe stated sternly.

Graft blinked slowly and apathetically.  "I did."

"You said and I quote 'The Deep has a stronger grip on us than we think.'  What did you mean by that?"

Graft snorted with a smile and shook his head but remained silent.  Globe turned to Zach with an annoyed look and Zach straightened up.

"This Deep guy," Zach said, trying his hand at him.  "He's the bad guy, right?  The one we're supposed to be looking out for"-

"Do you even know what you're talking about?" Graft snapped, looking up at Zach irritably.

Zach shrugged and shook his head.  "I'm not really religious.  Sorry."

"Neither am I," Graft said with a broad smile.  "But I know more than you."

"Yes, I think you've made that clear already for the hundreth time," Globe said impatiently.  "Now the Deep, what does he have to do with you and vice versa?  He your pal or something?"

Graft suddenly began to laugh.  "Not my pal, friend.  I'm just along for the ride."

"Then why'd you let yourself get caught if you're just along for the ride?" Zach asked suspiciously.

"I'm here as a favor for a friend actually," Graft said with a sly smirk, his eyes darting back and forth between the two of them.

"Who?"

"Does it matter?"

"What's the favor?" Globe asked, leaning forward across the table while cautiously trying to hold back his anger.

Graft looked at Globe but when he did, the arrogance and charm in his demeanor slowly began to slip away and he swallowed almost nervously before looking off.

"What if I told you, that I'm here to...deliver a warning?" Graft asked with a slight tremble in his voice, flexing his neck muscles as if to force down his sudden anxiety.

Zach and Globe exchanged confused looks before turning back to him.  "What kind of warning?"

"A genuine one," Graft said, swallowing again.  "For something that none of you are going to come out of unscathed."

Graft strained suddenly and pressed his hand over his chest but quickly regained his composure.  "What is it?  What are you talking about?" Globe asked anxiously.

Graft looked down into his lap and shook his head with another quick laugh, but instead of it showing his arrogance, it made it appear that he was bordering hopelessness.

"It seems there really is no way out of this," he muttered to himself, before looking up to them.  When he did, all form of pride and pretension was gone from his eyes and only fear replaced them.

"What I'm about to tell you is going to kill me," he said to them frantically.  "As soon as my heart stops, something big is going to happen and its going to be the start of something even bigger.  I let you catch me so I could tell you myself"-

Graft suddenly stopped and grunted as if something was obstructing his throat.  He looked down and grabbed his chest tightly as anguish suddenly filled his face and he moaned and gurgled as the veins protruded from his neck and his eyes went red.  Globe, in the middle of the confusion, sprinted for the door.

"I'm calling for a medic, stay here!" he commanded Zach, who ran forward and grabbed Graft as he started to fall from his seat.  He collapsed onto the back wall and Zach, in a panic, pulled Graft's dress shirt open to see that there was a pulsing purple spot growing across the center of his chest.  Graft called out in pain and collapsed onto the floor, taking Zach with him.  Writhing on the ground, he began to cough violently, blood splattering from his lips.

"Whoa, whoa, easy, easy," Zach said, trying to comfort him.  "Its gonna be okay"-

"No," Graft croaked through short wheezing breaths.  "Its not."  He leaned forward suddenly and grabbed Zach by the shirt, pulling him closer towards him.  "You listen to me and you listen good.  They made promises.  They made bold claims, that's what they do, they make you think they will give you everything.  They made me believe it would be in my best interest to help them and then I did and they dragged me along by the ankles and never planned to let go.  Whatever you do, don't let yourself get under their thumb because I swear to Doen, you will NOT get out.  They are extremely powerful.  And they are about to start showing just how powerful they are soon.  Very soon."

"Who are you talking about?" Zach asked with worry.

"The Deep," Graft muttered hoarsely, blood running down the sides of his mouth as his eyes grew dim.  "Don't let the Deep find you...Don't let the Deep find you....don't let the Deep find...you, don't let the...Deep..."

As the last of his energy slipped away, Graft's eyes rolling into the back of his head and his lips quivered one last time to deliver his warning before they stopped moving and so did the rest of his body.  The purple spot on his chest had taken over the entirety of his torso, eroding away at his innards.  Zach let go of Graft and let him lay there on the floor while he stood up in shock.  A few seconds passed and the room was filled with a medic team that crowded around Graft's body and hauled him away down the hall while Globe escorted Zach out of the room, both of them out of breath as they hustled down the hallway of the Cosmic Flash Department.

"Did he say anything more to you?" Globe asked, filled with tension.

"Yeah but it was all cryptic.  He knew that was going to happen if he told us too much, somebody must have orchestrated it."

"I know.  I'm more worried about the big thing he said was"-

Out of the side window they walked along, the sight they saw transpiring outside made them stop in their tracks.  A taxicruise that had just entered the lower stratosphere and was preparing to take its landing across the city suddenly ignited from its front.  The explosion continued all the way to its back until the entirety of the ship burst into a mix of red and blue flames, immediately plummetting from the sky and colliding with one of the many skyscrapers trailing along the city.  Zach swore he could hear the screams of the citizens under it all the way from the Monolith.

"Oh my God," he muttered as he watched the scene unfold.  They both remained speechless, watching from afar as chaos erupted from the city below.  Thousands of people were being killed right before their eyes.  This must have been what Graft had warned.  And the way he made it seem, the worst was yet to come.

--------------------------------------------------

"So here's what we've got," Globe said, as he stood before Team Tempest in the Briefing Room of Office 201, which was lit up by a large holographic display in the center of the table surrounding them.  Zach sat among them, accompanied by Tarot, who was back on duty after spending the night at home and witnessing the attack on his way there, Ruby, who had just joined them, and Opera, who sat on the farthest end.  Globe pressed a button on his hand, that changed the display in the center each time, reminding Zach of several sci-fi movies he could recall and realized this was probably where they received their inspiration.  When Globe pressed the button, the picture of Graft's official ID popped up on the display.  "Two days ago, at 9:45pm, Aesir 1, 60K461, we detained Morrow Jonis Graft AKA "Mr. Graft," head of a notorious organized crime syndicate operating in the Barland District of Alfheim, after trying to sell a high-profile 'asset' to one of our Ops working in Project Troy.  Once we had him in our possession, he remained silent until he began to finally talk, albeit reluctantly, during which time an Incinerative Denotator went off in his chest, melting his heart and inner organs almost immediately."

"Talk about heartburn," Zach said jokingly, crossing his arms.

"Really?" Opera said with offense, eying him from across the table.  "You were with him when he died."

"Well sorry, I just saw the opportunity and went for it.  I'm guessing its too soon.  Don't bite my head off."

Globe looked between them awkwardly before continuing.  "Anyway...along with providing us with some cryptic warnings concerning the religious character known as the Deep-"

Tarot cleared his throat discreetly and Globe rolled his eyes.  "The religious figure known as the Deep, he also gave us warnings about some sort of secret group that is known to make promises at the heavy expense of those involved and they are quote, 'extremely powerful,' and are said to start asserting their dominance soon."  Globe pressed the button again and a replicate of the city appeared, re-enacting the destruction of the taxicruise and its collision with a nearby skyscraper that crumbled under its weight as well.  "Not even two minutes later, the Taxicruise 256 was detonated over the city of Asphidire and collided with the nearby Loastens Building, leaving nothing but rubble in its wake.  Graft had warned about this before his untimely death too, stating that 'something big was going to happen and would be the start of something even bigger."  Now, during Graft's autopsy, we discovered that a heart monitor had been put in place in his chest along with the Incinerative Detonator.  We linked it to the suicide bomber that was reported to have been the cause of the Taxicruise 256 explosion and learned that the bomber was set to activate his own detonator as soon as Graft's heart stopped.  Graft apparently knew this."

"So why was he putting on the front when we detained him?" Zach asked curiously.

"Because at the same time, he apparently hadn't had his plan fully laid out for him.  Also in his autopsy, we discovered a disposable transmitter like the ones we use located in his brain that was sending information to him from the moment we found him, to the moment just before his Detonator went off.  Decoding the messages, we heard this.  I'll play the most important parts."

Globe pressed another button and the room was filled with the sounds of a distorted voice that echoed throughout their office space.  "We know where you are, Morrow.  We know that you let yourself get apprehended.  We know everything you're planning.  You think that Cosmic Flash can save you?  You are sorely mistaken.  The device in your heart will eat away at your flesh like a parasite and you will feel every inch of your innards rot and melt away as you struggle to take your last breath.  We dare you to get them to come after us.  You will only be leading them to their own doom.  You wanted to give your life meaning but it was you who threw away all significance you could have held in being apart of our regime.  Doen will see to it that our memories of your waste of a life be discarded once we finally reach maturity.  Your part in our growth will be so insignificant, you won't even be apart of our consciousness as Aos.  You will be nothing."

Globe pressed the button again, stopping the transmission.  "Those were messages being sent to Graft before and during our interrogation.  They were spaced-out, sent separately over the course of that evening.  Now its apparent that whoever this is had Graft in the palm of their hand and used him to further their agenda but something they did unsettled Graft to the point where he deliberately allowed himself to be captured so he could warn us of their existence.  He soon found out that he was being monitored by them and they created a means of making sure that he didn't talk, but he was still able to give us enough to go on before he passed away."

"So what about the heart monitor and the suicide bomber plan?" Ruby asked.  "Where did that originate from?"

"Apparently, it seems that this group knew that Graft was going to cross them and used him as a catalyst for an even bigger plan."  Globe pressed the button again, changing the display on the table to show a congregation of men in robes walking together across a transparent plateau.  "Initially, we believed that this group may be linked to the Church of The Elder Brother, the episcopal overseeing the practice of Oasism throughout the North Circuit, but last night, a rather large congregation of members from the Church as well as several clergymen accompanying them were aboard the Taxicruise 256 at the time of the explosion.  I doubt this was a coincidence."

"So they used Graft as a means of launching a strike against their own religious group?" Tarot asked with worry.

"Maybe not their own.  Its possible that it could be a group of extremists who are opposing the Church.  This is further proven by the fact that this congregation was headed to Arias to engage in a protest."

"Protesting what?" Zach asked.

"A local funeral for an AC Soldier who was killed on Linaeo and brought back here for his service."

"That's sick," Ruby declared.  "How is that supposed to be righteous in any way?  He died defending us all."

"Some Oasists feel like soldiers join Star Crest because they want to kill," Tarot answered.  "They want to take lives and so the Oasists consider it 'spiritual suicide' because they are technically killing themselves."

"Do you think that?" Ruby asked sternly.

"No, of course not.  I mean, I think they have the right to be upset, but protesting a funeral is just disrespectful.  Personally, I feel like everything Star Crest does is furthering our celestial maturity, but its a touchy subject; people have varying beliefs on exactly how we should live our lives to reach that maturity."

"Exactly, which is why its possible that this group of extremists may be targetting the Church due to opposing beliefs regarding the matter and using terrorist tactics as well as allying themselves with powerful criminal organizations to gain the funding and firepower to make that happen."

"But wouldn't that be counter-productive?" Opera asked.  "I mean, I thought the whole point of being righteous and helpful towards others was so we could all reach celestial maturity and killing others for personal gain or doing other bad things would be helping the Deep get a stronger hold on us."

"Well like we said, there are differing interpretations within the religion on how we are to reach maturity and they could believe their way is helping.  But we can argue their motives all day, the fact is, they are targetting people, killing them, and there's no telling what they're planning for the future, so now that we have a trail to follow, we have to act now."

"Any other teams being put on the job?" Zach asked with a bit of attitude.  "For something this big, they can't expect just us to be handling this."

"We're not the only team being put to work on this case but we were given priority clearance since we were involved from the start, so we have the most responsibility."

"So if all else fails, blame us.  Great."

"We're being given all of the assistance we need to deal with the situation.  So there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to handle this."

Zach shrugged and Globe rolled his eyes, continuing.  "We traced the transmission to a small conclave located on Alfheim.  Tempest, I'm sending you out there to meet up with a few assets of mine who are going to give you a 'tour' of the Oasis Palace in Wenter City.  There, you're going to find your way to Archbishop Biran and get him to give you access to the conclave."

"But Wenter City is a sovereign state," Zach said confusedly.

"Right."

"So...if they find out there's a Cosmic Flash Operative there, they'll have a bitch fit and get the whole Service shut down."

"Well no.  If you get caught in there, we'll disavow all knowledge of your employment with us so that won't happen.  So don't get caught."

Zach sucked his teeth with annoyance.  "Then how am I'm supposed to get the Archbishop to take me to the conclave if I can't tell him I work for CF?"

"I'm sure you'll think of something, kiddo."

"Damn it, Globe," he exclaimed, leaning back in his seat.

Globe chuckled lightly before turning to the rest of the team.  "You'll find your Taxicruise passport and your tour authorization papers in your personal locker and you'll find your equipment and another disposable transmitter in the excrement room of the Parko's Restaurant five miles from the city.  I want you on your way by least by 7am sharp.  I'll have the rest of your assignments sent to your Cosmers soon.  Until then, you're all dismissed."

Zach sighed heavily as his team stood up and headed straight for the exit.  As he got up to join them, Globe called out to him.

"By the way, I'm sending Jeila with you, so you'll have some company out there."

"Wait, why?" Zach asked.  "She just got back from deep cover and you're putting her back on the field already?"

"She volunteered to do it."

"And what did her Case Officer say?"

"He was all for it."

Zach looked off, annoyed.  "That girl sometimes, I swear."

"Look, I can tell her Case Officer to let her sit this one out if you like"-

"No, its fine.  She's not going to anyway.  Once she's made her mind, there's no stopping her."

Globe laughed lightly.  "Sounds like my third wife."

"Please," Zach said, throwing up his hand as if to stop him.  "Do not become the teen movie principal.  You do not want to follow that path."

Globe gave Zach a confused look before he turned and stepped out of the office where they'd just finished briefing.  As soon as he stepped into the corridor, he was greeted by Opera, who stood against the wall with her arms crossed and a sour look on her face.

"Um," Zach said, looking around curiously.  "You waiting on me?"

"Uh-huh," she said, almost with a false enthusiasm.

"You look upset.  Is this about the joke I made earlier?"

"No, this is about you potentially costing us our jobs," Opera muttered sternly.  "You need to start taking this seriously."

"Um, how am I not taking this seriously?"

"The jokes?  The tongue-and-cheekness?  The cynicism towards the mission?"-

"I was just doing that because of the whole religious context.  Forgive me for not jumping for joy over the fact that I'm going to Church"-

"I don't care how you react to it, English, but you should at least be professional about it.  Save your antics for when you're off-duty.  This isn't just a way for you to kill time now that you have nothing better to do here in the North Circuit."

"Okay, hold on a second," Zach interrupted.  "I don't appreciate you treating me like I'm new at this.  Now with all due respect, how I choose to approach the situation has nothing to do with you.  As long as I get the job done, that's all that should matter.  I may not see things the way you do, but really, its none of your business.  You don't know if this is just my way of coping with this new life and making sense of it all, so how I choose to go about it is my concern.  I'd appreciate it if you got off my back."

Opera sighed and her expression grew dark.  "You - We - are about to get into something bigger than we've dealt with before.  Bigger than this Service has dealt with before.  To say that we might be in over our heads may be a severe understatement.  This means we need to be at the top of our game.  If you fuck this up and get yourself caught in Oasis Palace, we will lose our trail.  And then we'll all be fucked.  So you need to start taking this with a little less grain of salt and handle things the right way."

"Listen, like I said, this isn't new for me.  I've done everything I'm supposed to do since I first got out on the field, and not once have I screwed it up, we've managed to get assignments done in a heartbeat through careful planning, precision, and execution.  So cut me some slack, all right?  If it makes you feel any better, Boss assigned Jeila to watch my back while I'm out there."

"What does she have to do with anything?" Opera asked with a deep sense of displeasure in her voice.

"Um, she's my friend," Zach said forcefully.  "And she's got my back.  That's what she has to do with anything."

Opera rolled her eyes and leaned up from the wall, turning to head around the corner by the office door.  "Regardless, you heard what I said.  Step your shit up or you will ruin this for all of us."

"Yeah, nice to see you too," Zach exclaimed after her, as she walked away and disappeared down the corridor.

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