HEARTH #17

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There was no sleep for Henrietta to be had that night. Grace had set her and Manna to the grind.

“This is grunt work!” Henrietta complained as Manna brought in another box of files. “This is the job of staffers, not elite badasses like us!”

“I am Grace’s staff,” said Manna pleasantly. “And you have no staff, at least not yet. Besides, this is a difficult and particular assignment- it’s a great honor to be personally tasked with it by the Mater.”

Henrietta glanced down at the boxes, which were filled by OPTICA reports about the various terrorist attacks to hit TORCH in the last year. “You’re just trying to butter me up,” she grumbled. “Anyone could compile a report about the attacks. And why in the name of Astra’s blessed butthole are we using paper copies?”

“The Mater is old-fashioned like that. I’ve already forwarded you a digital copy of all the data, you may peruse that instead if you wish.”

“Don’t we have like think tanks or whatever for this?” Henrietta asked.

“Mmm-hmm. Their reports and suggestions are in this box.” Manna gave it a kick. “But the Mater doesn’t put much stock in them.”

“Why not?”

“They fall under the purview of Princepa Lamb, the Mater Invictum.” Manna took a seat at the desk, boxes on either side of her. “She’s technically the Mater’s right hand woman, but they don’t agree on very much… and Lamb would one day like to lead BEACON herself. She’s not fond of being made to play second fiddle to the Mater, as she has for all these decades. Many in BEACON’s upper echelons also think she ought to be in charge. Often Grace has to reject her suggestions for political purposes- if Lamb can claim credit for any major successes, it’d strengthen her position.”

That wasn’t something publicized. Henrietta knew who Lamb was, of course, everyone in BEACON did… but she had no idea that she and Grace were at one another’s throats that much. “How come I’ve never heard that before?”

“Because both the Mater and Lamb understand how important it is for BEACON to remain united, at least outwardly. Neither will publicly undermine the other, as neither wants to lead a broken branch.” Manna clapped her hands. “Shall we begin?”

Henrietta wasn’t a expert on terrorism, she was a soldier- but she had been trained to fight guerrillas and partisans. They all operated in much the same way: they leveraged their small numbers and limited resources with hit-and-run attacks. They were patient and dramatic, meant wear the foe down and eventually break their spirit.

Similar tactics were used to counter all of them: strike hard and fast. Focus on beheading the leadership rather than killing the soldiers. Try to win as much support as possible from the local population to minimize antipathy. Of course, what was taught at the Proving Ground war colleges was enormously different from what was done in the field.

It wasn’t Henrietta’s specialty, but her worst was better than most people’s best. She’d give it a shot.

For hours and hours, Henrietta read in silence. Each report came from a different investigative agency. For example, the report about hacked defense turrets opening fire on BEACON peacekeepers on Inwem was written by BEACON_Enforcement, the military police. The report about the poisoned water supply devastating a MIRROR base on Haeton came from OPTICA. SPRING_Affair, the private investigative agency, handled the inquiry into reactor meltdowns that left dozens of PLUTO physicians dead on Theia.

The terrorists were conducting a sustained, professional series of attacks on a wide variety of targets. The attacks had mostly ignored forgettable TORCH outposts on Class-E and Class-D worlds. Similarly, the Class-A worlds save for Nemesis had been spared- and Nemesis was a shithole. None on Earth. None on the Moon or Mars, Pergamon or Voc-Deiv. Almost all of them had taken place on Class-B and Class-C planets. The terrorists had targeted worlds big enough for people to care, but not so big to be tightly defended.

The terrorists switched up their MO’s unpredictably, and were never caught. Arrests were usually mad, but they were invariably deemed dead ends and no one was ever convicted.

OPTICA_Counterterror had published a report on the attacks at the end of last month. It named two main suspects as being behind the string of attacks. The first was hardcore members of neo_SMOKE, the cultlike followers of the disgraced Schwarzschild. While most were peaceful enough, a hardcore minority were happy to engage in violence for political or financial purposes. The second suspect was LUX radicals, witch extremists who had turned their political grievances militant.

“OPTICA can see no other organization of the appropriate scope or motivation to be behind these massacres,” the brief read. “While neither has a history of terrorism, it is only an escalation of their existing Modus Operandi rather than a reinvention or reversal.”

The BEACON report from The Zimri Institute of Security and Unconventional Warfare (ZISUW) disagreed. “No marginalized organization within TORCH has the reach or resources to commit these attacks,” it claimed. “There are three possibilities: a mind-altering alien parasite, a heretofore-undiscovered secret society, or the action of many small groups acting in concert either purposefully or not.”

The confusion was understandable. There was no clear MO, no consistent target, no culprits had been caught, no hard evidence discovered. Since the attacks all hit different branches, there were over a dozen separate investigations across six different planets.

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