HEARTH #5

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Tomasa nodded. Everything Grace said fit with what she knew, although she had very little personal exposure to the supposed masses who hated the Mater. “That’s shitty… I dunno why anyone would think of you like that. I mean, everyone I’ve ever talked to in BEACON loved you.”

“Well, that’s also part of the issue. In the past, a girl like you would have worked extensively with girls from other branches. How can you feel any camaraderie or sisterhood with women you never interact with?” Grace shook her head. “Make no mistake, the disintegration of TORCH into nine or more suborganizations would be a calamity. We would all be far poorer for it.”

“Then we’ll stop it from happening,” Tomasa said. “How are we going to do that?”

“Great question. So long as I remain divisive, there will be those who oppose my beliefs and decisions on fundamental principle.” Grace sighed. “I realize it sounds like I’m complaining about my low likability.”

“I think you’re adorable, Gracey.”

Grace didn’t smile much. When she was amused she mostly communicated it by raising her eyebrows. “Much obliged. But my actual concern is that if I cannot find a way to be heeded by the rest of TORCH, the schisms will widen until they are irreparable. I need your help to keep that from happening, Tomasa.”

“I’m with you. I just don’t get how I’m the person to do that. I’m…” Tomasa rotated her wrist, searching for the right word. She wasn’t nobody. True, her importance was just a shade of the woman on the other side of the desk, but she wasn’t nobody. “…new to all this,” she settled on.

Grace nodded. “You saved my life. On Paran-7. Manna, I’ve told you the story, haven’t I?”

“You haven’t, Mater, and I know you enjoy storytelling,” Manna said pleasantly. “If you think we have the time for it.”

Grace pointed to her AEGIS. “This was when I went on campaign during the recess a couple years back. Naturally I wanted to go to where the fighting was the thickest, which at the time was Paran-7. So my squadron was in the air, maybe 12,000 feet up, doing some scouting in preparation for ingress into the Bactrarii fortress. Then we come under heavy fire from a well-hidden mounted gun.

My team is killed or scattered. I get my wing is clipped so I have to make an emergency landing. I’m stranded miles behind enemy lines, my leg broken, my escort lost, my comms out of commission. And soon, the Bactrarii are upon me. Nasty, nasty bastards: big and hairy and smell like a sewer. Tenacious too. I beat off the first attack, and the second, but I assume I’m going to die to the third or the fourth or the fifth. But then…”

“I show up,” said Tomasa.

“Tomasa shows up,” Grace says, excitement creeping into her voice. “Covered in blood.”

“Everyone was so busy checking comms channels, trying to find the other members of your team,” said Tomasa with a casual grin. ” I figured the Bactrarii would have a better idea of where you were than we did, so I tap their comms… ‘cept none of us speak their language, so I just listen for words that repeat. They get really excited after you fight off the first and second patrols cuz now they know where you are, so I map those periods of increased activity to the search area and I figure out your movements. By then I’m far afield myself, late at night, no time to get help.”

“And she can’t fire her weapons, because that’d make too much noise. So Tomasa works her way to me with the pneumatic blade and nothing else.” Grace became more animated as she retold the story. “She finds me and carries me, armor and all, to safety. What did they call you in the newsphere again?”

“Uh, ‘Tomasa the Wonder Girl.’ That’s what got me my promotion to Colonel, and a buncha medals… and you to sponsor my election to the Sorority.” Tomasa shrugged. “I just don’t get what some admittedly badass soldiering has to do with politics.”

“It wasn’t the soldiering, Tomasa, it was the cleverness. It was the fact that you had the sharpness to come up with a plan and the initiative to act upon it without hesitation. I have a lot of smart girls and a lot of gutsy girls, but rarely do I get one who’s both.” Grace leaned in. “I studied your records after that. Top of your class at the Academy. Top of your class at the Proving Ground. Commended over and over again for bravery, leadership, and a cool head under pressure. The very model of a modern legionnaire. Talent like you doesn’t come along very often.”

Tomasa had been praised a lot in her life, like Grace said. Teachers, commanding officers, friends and colleagues. But somehow, Grace’s words meant so much more. Maybe it was because Grace so rarely gave compliments… Tomasa knew she meant what she was saying. “I am the very model of a modern legionnaria, I’ve no fear of xenos for I am always scarier, I shatter their defenses and I sneer at any barrier, no matter what the burden I’m always the choice for carrier.”

“Gilbert and Sullivan is a bit more in my wheelhouse,” Grace said, her excitement fading. “There’ll be a learning curve for you, I’m certain, but you’ll get the hang of this quickly. I’ll be here to assist however I can, and Manna is at your disposal. Right, Manna?”

“Yes Mater, of course.” Manna bowed. “It’d be my privilege to assist Tomasa.”

“I’m raring to go!” Tomasa punched the air. “What’s first on the agenda? Sorority is in session starting tomorrow, yeah?”

Grace nodded. “I’ve already met with the other new BEACON sisters, you’re the last one in. For the moment, I just want you to watch and listen. Pay close attention to the leaders of the other branches especially, so I can get your take on them. Try to divest yourself of whatever stereotypes or preconceptions you have.”

Tomasa grinned energetically. So she was going to be spending all of her time rubbing shoulders with the most powerful and famous people in TORCH… that didn’t sound half bad. “Shouldn’t be a problem. I did that easy enough with you.”

“Manna, anything else?” Grace asked.

Manna consulted her watch. “Almost time for your meeting with the Mater Medica. Just one last order of business, Mater. The name.”

“Oh… right. Always forget. Tomasa, when you become a Sorority sister, you technically leave whatever branch you’re a part of and become a member of HEARTH. Of course everyone knows where your loyalties lie, but it’s tradition to adopt a HEARTH name.”

Tomasa hadn’t known that. “…Shit.” TORCH agents changed their names when they changed branches, of course, but… she kinda liked Tomasa. She had gone by Rosalind in the Academy, but hadn’t been overly fond of that either. Online she went by Amaretto, an inside joke from her youth. “What kind of names are acceptable?”

Manna sent a file to her watch. “There’s a selection of open first and last names on there,” she said. “Take a minute to peruse them and have one chosen when we next meet tomorrow.”

“Make sure you like it,” said Grace. “You may be going by it for the rest of your life.”

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