<== ==>

What was the goal of all of mayhem? If this was the work of a single entity, it had to be done for a specific end. Henrietta couldn’t see anyone doing it out of something like a love of chaos or as a general protest tactic. Nobody had this level of organization and skill without also a specific aim.

The only thing that came to mind was that the terrorists wanted to further drive schisms between the branches of TORCH. Attacks had generally hit non-vital (and ergo gently-guarded) facilities. Someone intending to wipe TORCH bases out would be blowing up the engines of capital ships or sabotaging oxygen generators on massive space stations. These attacks were symbolic in nature: their true toll came in the aftermath. Each attack was answered with shock and mourning, then confused finger-pointing and calls for leadership to do something, then everyone calmed down, then another attack. Over and over again, until nobody trusted anybody.

Her back was sore from sitting in the same position for so long. Henrietta stood up and stretched. “Mmmf… how does Grace stay in shape, sitting on her ass all day?”

“We have a gym right here in the office,” Manna replied, not looking up. “The Mater worked out twice today. Her second favorite form of stress relief.”

“Hey, mine too.” Henrietta smiled at Manna. They were going to be spending a lot of time together, may as well test the waters. “Although I don’t smoke.”

Manna looked up, slightly puzzled, but then returned to her papers. “Mmm.”

Henrietta stood up and did a few stretches, giving Manna an up-close look at her strong, supple body. She paid Henrietta no mind. Was… she straight? She definitely didn’t come across that way. “How do you relieve stress?” Henrietta asked.

“I finish my work.” Manna looked up at last. Her pleasant smile was replaced with a flat, neutral look. The closest thing to disappointment she seemed capable of. “Henrietta, if you can remain sharp and focused while afield for four days with no sleep and no food, I imagine you can focus on paper for a few hours more.”

“Well, can we take a break and get some exercise?“You guys might have hit the gym twice today, but I haven’t been once.”

Manna sighed. “I don’t have time. I’m on a deadline, I’m to have this report compiled on the Mater’s desk by sunrise.”

“Either she pays you fuck money, or you’ve got a problem, Manna.” Henrietta grinned. “This kinda devotion is scary.”

Manna blinked absently. “I have no idea what you mean.”

“Come on. Grace just casually asks you to skip sleeping tonight? This can’t be what you had in mind for yourself. Are you in love with her or something?”

“I’ll thank you not to impugn my intentions, or the Mater’s conduct.” Manna wasn’t cold. She was flat. She dropped the politeness and calm and just spoke with mechanical precision. Were it not for Grace’s noted hatred of machines, Henrietta would assume she’s a robot.

Henrietta crossed her arms. “So what’s the story?”

“I’m a Verbena, Henrietta.” Manna pursed her thin lips at Henrietta’s look of confusion. “A Mater’s servant, a tool. From my earliest memory, I was trained to maximize my utility to the Mater. She doesn’t need dozens of mediocre workers, she needs one excellent one. I was therefore picked, reared, trained, and tested based on her needs and specifications. Every Mater has a Verbena, meant to act as an extension of her will rather than a separate agent. As I serve the hardest-working and most exceptional Mater, I have no choice but to be the hardest-working and most exceptional Verbena.”

Henrietta had never heard of such a thing as a Verbena before, but this did explain the girls who shadowed the other Matres while dressed just like Manna. She had assumed they were just all from the same top-tier staffing firm. “Is that why you don’t like me?” she asked, comprehension dawning on her. “You’re worried I’ll distract you and Grace?”

“I don’t dislike you, Henrietta.” No emotion still. “I simply see the world in terms of the Mater’s goals. She has high hopes for you… but they will take time to germinate. In the meantime, yes, my productivity will take a hit as I add your mentorship to my long list of tasks.” Manna sighed. “I am unused to such disruptions, so perhaps I have been cold or distant as a result. I apologize.”

“Aww, that’s okay.” Henrietta shot Manna a jocular grin. “I dig the ‘mysterious waif’ vibe. It goes well with the, uh, minimalist look. But, uh, what lesson am I supposed to be learning here?”

“That the Mater is only so successful because of hard work. That being the last to rest and the first to rise is the tool that we wield even when our enemies have us beat in every other category. You suffer from the issue many excellent individuals do, Henrietta: you only give your all to assignments that interest you.”

Manna tapped the papers. “The age of your life where some assignments were meaningless busywork and others decided your future is over. Now everything is important, because every breath you take is a reflection upon the Mater Protectoris- an idea far larger than you or me, larger than even Grace herself. Which is why this break is over.”

Sufficiently cowed, Henrietta got back to work.

<== ==>

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