HEARTH #2

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The atrium was massive, sleek and silvery with an elegantly-arched ceiling. Travelers ran past to catch flights offworld, disheveled new arrivals trudged forward like zombies after too much time in space, long-separated friends and lovers reunited in tearful embraces. It was all so much.

Tomasa found Manna almost instantly- more specifically, Manna found her. Grace’s employee was a dainty little slip of a woman with a blankly agreeable smile on her round face. Her clothes were as unassuming as possible, a simple black shirt and pants.

“It’s good to finally meet you, Colonel Fairfax,” she said pleasantly. “The Mater Protectoris has spoken highly of you in the past, and asked me to escort you to her. Please, let me get your bags.”

Tomasa kept her AEGIS and let Manna take her clothes trunk. “Thanks for the help,” she said. “I didn’t want to start my stay by throttling a customs officer.”

“That would be an inauspicious start to your tenure. I’d also like to congratulate you on your successful election to the Sorority- at such a young age no less.”

Tomasa felt no particular sense of accomplishment, as she had done very little. She made a few speeches, wrote a couple blog posts on the newsphere, and handled exactly two interviews. Elections to the Sorority, the legislature that controlled TORCH, were generally a sham anyways. Somebody important (in this case Grace) chose who they wanted to win and the ballot almost always came back the way they wanted it. “You’re the one to congratulate,” she said. “You’re the reason I have the seat at all, isn’t it?”

Manna demurred. “I was involved, but I claim no credit. I am simply an arbiter of the will of the Mater. She would have done much the same, but such matters are beneath her attentions- if you’ll excuse me.”

“No, you’re right. She’s one busy lady. I’m excited to see her with her hair down some- she was always wicked uptight on Paran-7.”

“The Mater’s hair is quite short, she has no need to keep it up.” Manna gave Tomasa a glassy look.

“Oh, no, I meant-” Tomasa stopped and squinted at Manna. “You’re messing with me.”

Manna chuckled. “Forgive me. My own little private joke. Shall we?”

They boarded the crowded pneumatic train, which ran from Diakon Spaceport to Grace’s office on the other side of the city. The train floated over the Free District, where girls from all nine branches of TORCH intermingled. Every branch was represented at the shops, restaurants, parks and fountains- the only place in all of TORCH space where that was true.

And the buildings! Tall, magnificent towers with shimmering crystalline windows. Many had vertical gardens covering the side that faced the rising sun, so the whole city was clean and organic. It completely outdid any other TORCH city in both size and beauty.

Chantico was the brain and heart of TORCH. The protectorate had spread out across the Milky Way, millions of girls manning thousands of bases on hundreds of different planets, moons, and satellites. But it all came back to here, to Chantico. This was the nerve center of HEARTH, the bureaucratic and diplomatic branch, as well as the meeting place for the Sorority and a million other crucial functions.

Tomasa was most interested in the people. Plenty of girls were BEACON: both casually dressed and uniformed security personnel. But most were not, and Tomasa had never extensively interacted with girls from other branches before.

She glanced at Manna, who was working on her watch. The silvery device projected hardlight holograms around Manna’s head, but she had her privacy filter on so all Tomasa could see were translucent blue rectangles of light hovering around her head. “Whatcha working on?” Tomasa asked.

“Schedules,” Manna replied without looking up. “As you said, the Mater is a woman much in demand, and the deprivation of my services for just a few hours has negatively impacted her efficiency. I’m looking for ways to squeeze in additional work hours for myself to make up for it.”

“Shit, that’s my fault then? Sorry about that.”

Manna waved a hand dismissively. “Colonel Fairfax, please feel no obligation to thank or apologize to me, or show me any particular courtesy. I assure you I will not be offended. My existence is one of glorious service, and I prize my duty far more than any ephemeral kindness. In fact, I’d prefer you be efficient in your speech to me.”

Creepy. What was up with this chick? This level of submissiveness went way beyond an ordinary secretary. “I guess that doesn’t cut both ways,” she said. “You talk like if a butler fucked a robot.”

“Would you prefer I be more direct with you, Colonel Fairfax?” Manna’s smile was blank.

“Talk to me however you like. I’m not gonna treat you any different than I treat anyone else.” Tomasa shrugged. “You work for Grace, not me.”

Manna stared at her for a moment, then smiled again. “Of course, Colonel Fairfax. As you wish- but the Mater did instruct me to obey you.”

“Well, you acting like that is a bit creepy, so I order you to be normal. And just call me by my first name.”

“Yes, Colonel Fair- err, Tomasa. In that case, may I return to my scheduling?”

“Yeah yeah. I have my own work to do.” Tomasa tapped a few buttons and brought up her own screens. Being that she was a politician now, she had tried to spend at least a few hours a day reading the newsphere and staying well-informed on current events.

It wasn’t anything good. Last week’s horrific terrorist attack on Nemesis had left a dozen TORCH agents dead, but nobody had been arrested yet. The search for the missing Bethesda station had yet to yield any results, and foul play was suspected. One of the peacekeepers on Drestia who fought Faraday and his infamous Canaries had died from her wounds, raising the death toll to four. Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. All anyone talked about these days, as though there wasn’t a war on.

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