<== ==> 

Henrietta helped Catherine into her seat. “May I get you a drink of water or anything, ma’am?”

“Aw, quit blowing smoke up my ass.” Catherine shifted around, trying not to look too flattered. “Urgh, can never get comfortable in these chairs.”

Henrietta sat down herself. “If it isn’t too forward, ma’am, could I ask how you received your injuries?’

Cat looked at her in surprise… probably. Hard to tell. “You don’t wanna know, kid… you’re the first person to ask me that in a while. Most tip-toe around it, like I don’t notice the way they stare.” Her voice was coarse and throaty, like sandpaper. “They’re too polite to point and too spineless to say anything, and I’m too self-involved to let anyone help me. Bad combo.”

“I promise it isn’t my intention, if I come off as disrespectful.” Henrietta bowed her head. “You’ve still got fire in your belly and hell in your heart, right? Then you’re twice the woman I am.”

“Ha! Little charmer you are.” Catherine at last smiled. “You’re new, right? That’d make you… Grace’s girl. Heard a bit about you.”

“Nothing good, I hope.” Henrietta grinned back. “I’d be right to assume you’re an old hat around here?”

“Yep, few decades now. Scale of one to ten, how much do you know about politics?”

Henrietta shrugged her broad shoulders. “Strong two to light three. I’d love it if you could give me some pointers, ma’am.”

“Sure- so long as you call me Cat.” Catherine gestured with her organic arm at the BEACON delegation. “Well, these are BEACON sisters. You’re one of them-“

“Oh shut up, I know that much!” Henrietta laughed.

“Kids like you rarely know your asses from holes in the ground.” With a playful shake of her head, Catherine gestured up at a banner hanging overhead of an indigo rose. “Sorority’s got three voting blocs. BEACON‘s part of the Roses along with our ‘friends’, the eggheads and misfts in LUX.”

The delegation for the science and research branch called LUX indeed sat next to BEACON on the left side of the hall, and they dressed super fucking weird: many in flowing robes, a few in silvery jumpsuits, at least one had her entire body covered in what looked to be linen body armor. There were also a shockingly high number of men: at least a dozen of the sixty-girl delegation. BEACON had maybe two or three in a delegation more than twice as large.

“Where’s Hyperion?” Henrietta asked. Even she knew LUX‘s infamous leader.

“Dead in a ditch, hopefully,” Catherine spat. “You put me in my first good mood of the month, let’s not spoil it with talk of her. On the other side of the room are our opposing coalition, the Lotuses. They’re assholes. You don’t talk to Lotuses, you don’t smile at Lotuses, you don’t piss on a Lotus if she’s on fire- I can tell you from literal experience that they wouldn’t do it for you. Lotus has got three members: PLUTO, FORGE, and especially SPRING. They’re the power of the Lotus, just like BEACON is the power of the Rose.”

The businesswomen of SPRING were universally fashion forward, in mod and colorful outfits that all looked great individually and yet garishly clashed with everybody else. Henrietta caught sight of a gigantic Amazon whose beauty literally dropped her jaw… that must have been Enron, the infamous CEO of SPRING. With enormous effort, she tore her eyes away.

“Please tell me you know the difference between the two coalitions,” Catherine said with an eye roll.

“I’m not that ignorant. Last time I show an old bird some kindness, I swear.” Henrietta winked. “Roses are all about centralization of TORCH: every branch has its role, nobody steps on one another’s toes, we work together and cooperate. Lotuses are the opposite: they want every branch to be a self-sustaining organization. Less chain of command… sounds like chaos, honestly.”

“Good to see at least one young woman has her head screwed on straight.” Cat nodded approvingly. Her neck made a whirring sound… one of her vertebrae was mechanical too. “And lastly are everyone’s least favorite people, the Azaleas. Lotuses might be wrong at best and evil at worst, but at least they stand for things. Bad things, but things. Azaleas are filthy moderate centrists. They sometimes act as a unit but usually don’t, more often they let us and the Lotus court them for votes. The trade-off is that they don’t get much legislation through themselves. Name the four branches in the Azalea.”

“By order of elimination, it’s HEARTH, OPTICA, MIRROR and UMBRA,” said Henrietta, although her attentions were attracted to someone else sitting with the Azalea but separate from the four delegations. She had an innocent round face and stared at the ceiling… before sneezing. A rabbit flew from her face into her hands.

She looked at the rabbit, then around to see if anyone noticed. She met Henrietta’s eyes, put one finger to her lips in a shhh gesture, and then turned away.

That must have been Alice, the only woman in all of TORCH with no branch… sort of. She was a branch unto herself. That bored little lady was perhaps the most important person in the room: Grace held the spear of TORCH, Hyperion controlled the mind, Enron the purse strings… but without Alice, there would be no organization. It would disintegrate overnight.

<== ==> 

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