“Shouldn’t you ask LUX command that question?” Eve said, self-loathing coursing through her the moment the words fell out of her mouth. Nysa going up a few rungs on the ladder was the last thing she wanted. “I don’t know why they sent me down here, Vice-Director. I’d be happy to tell you if I did.”
“Perhaps I will ask,” Nysa said, but she was lying. Clever as she was, she wasn’t much of a liar… her tone immediately became papery and slow, like she had to consider every word. “Are you neo_SMOKE, May?”
“No,” Eve answered honestly. “But perhaps I could provide some insight into why one might join neo_SMOKE.” This was her only move. Eve wasn’t much of a liar either, but if she could change the subject to something that she could speak candidly on, her position would improve.
“You’re right that Schwarzschild was a failure. SMOKE was an embarrassment of a branch. Their purpose was to spirit TORCH agents and material across the cosmos with their portals, an essential function. The only issue was that the branch was barely functional due to chronic mismanagement and administrative bloat. Eventually the rest of TORCH grew weary of all the preventable death and decided upon a… severe solution.”
“I know all that,” Nysa said impatiently.
“Ah, but what I think many of our generation don’t know is that Schwarzschild was a beloved icon long before the purging of SMOKE and birth of neo_SMOKE. The portals failed for one reason: the girls opening them were bad at their jobs. They lacked discipline or fastidiousness. And why did they lack these things? Because Schwarzschild herself did, and they took her example to heart. Branches have a tendency to be embodied by their head… and I don’t think that was truer anywhere than in SMOKE.”
What Eve was saying wasn’t exactly typical. The consensus in TORCH was that SMOKE was a den of vice and depravity that only festered due to Schwarzschild’s lax leadership. Few would argue that Schwarzschild intentionally created such a culture. “Schwarzschild felt no obligation to the rest of TORCH, or to anyone but herself. The shape SMOKE took was an expression of her disdain for the rest of us. ‘Look what I can do,’ she told us. ‘Look at the power I wield. All of you are just my toys, to live or die as I see fit.'”
As Eve spoke, Nysa’s skepticism slowly gave way to rapt attention. “But this had a side effect that I don’t believe was intentional,” Eve continued. “To the millions who felt repressed or dwarfed by the expectations placed on TORCH agents, Schwarzschild’s selfishness scanned as freedom. This is, of course, a dangerous idea.”
“Freedom gets in the way of the oaths,” Nysa murmured.
“Quite. TORCH only exists because of the consent of its agents to do things like live at the bottom of the ocean and study monsters. Just by existing, Schwarzschild gave girls a dream of an alternative. That was why she had to be destroyed- and of course, killing her turned her into a martyr. Thus, neo_SMOKE.”
“What was she thinking?” Nysa asked. “The damage done by Schwarzschild was immeasurable- did she just hate TORCH so much?”
Eve shook her head. “I can’t say with certainty, but I don’t think so. I think she did what she wanted, with no regards for how this would harm others. Me personally, I don’t believe Schwarzschild preached freedom. She preached selfishness. She didn’t believe in or reciprocity or a public good, she just wanted to be immersed in hedonistic pleasure. She doesn’t deserve her icon status… I don’t think she even meant to cultivate it, she just noticed people would compliment and favor her when she acted in a certain way.”
Nysa sat back in her chair. “I see. That’s an interesting take, May… and a critical one. You really don’t give her any credit.”
“She doesn’t deserve any credit,” Eve replied. “She was a selfish child who hurt everyone around her. I would never join neo_SMOKE and throw my lot in with someone like that.”
Nysa nodded, convinced. “So how does a cryptobiologist become so knowledgeable on someone like Schwarzschild? You never met her, did you?”
“No, I never met her,” Eve lied. “But I like to read about politics and Matres… something Corey and I bonded over.”
“Well, it’s good to have someone knowledgeable about history on hand,” said Nysa. “Maybe I’ll pick your brain a bit more later.” She stood up and straightened her clothes out. “I believe that you’re not neo_SMOKE, May. But I don’t believe you were sent here by happenstance. I do intend to find out, so let me know if you remember anything helpful.”
“Will do, Vice-Director.”
Nysa left. Eve’s remaining waffle was now too cold to eat.