<== ==>

The BEACON district mirrored the military discipline and austere sensibilities of its soldier citizens. By comparison, the SPRING district was like a never-ending street festival. Colorful banners advertising new products adorned the walls and signs. Tents and stalls were crammed anywhere they could fit, and they sold everything from food to gadgets to maid services to “maid” services. Girls wore gaudy bright colors, flower necklaces, fashionably asymmetric dresses. Some were showing a lot of skin, with costumes little better than their underwear.

These chicks knew how to party. It was a shame they and BEACON were rivals- SPRING could teach uptight BEACON girls a thing or two about having a good time. Henrietta half-expected them to jeer or attack Grace and her two-woman entourage, but nobody seemed interested.

“What’s this about?” she asked Grace over the commotion of two girls racing to finish a keg of beer. “Do they not recognize you?”

Grace looked back with her brow furrowed. “What? I can’t hear you. Speak up.”

Instead, Henrietta waited for them to turn a corner and get away from the contest. “Everywhere we go in this city, you get stares. Not here.”

“I imagine a lot of them don’t know who I am,” said Grace. “SPRING hasn’t been led by a Mater in a long, long time. The cult of personality that surrounds us doesn’t really extend to them.”

“But you’re Grace fucking Diakon. I mean, how do they not know?”

“It’s not like BEACON here, Retta. These girls don’t care a whit about the past- and to them, I am the past. So they don’t care about me.” Grace’s voice was flat. “This is the place.”

Enron’s office was eye-gougingly overstated: a forty-story tower with shimmering glass windows and golden inlay. It took up half a city block and reflected way too much light. “No shit,” said Henrietta, wincing at the abomination.

Security didn’t dare hassle a Mater, but Henrietta got one of the most vigorous patdowns of her life- not even in a fun way. Manna received much the same treatment. They were then shepherded to a waiting room. “Tell Enron that it isn’t wise to waste my time,” Grace told a security officer. “If I’m still in this waiting room in thirty minutes, I will leave.”

Twenty nine minutes and fifty seconds later, a secretary popped her head into the waiting room. “The CEO will see you now,” she purred.

They rode the elevator all the way up and entered Enron’s gigantic office, which was a goddamned mess. One corner of the room was filled with broken toys and swiftly-abandoned jigsaw puzzles. Boards for chess and go and backgammon, mixed-together sets of playing cards… Enron clearly loved traditional games almost as much as she loved abandoning them.

Another corner of the room was filled with video games, both the newer ones made by PLUTO and much, much older-looking things. Some were so old that they still used physical controllers- one was so ancient that its controllers were wired. Loads of people played games but who the hell used physical consoles anymore?

Everywhere Henrietta looked, there was more crap. Crushed cans of coffee and soda. Weights and other exercise equipment. Figurines and toy guns. Dirty clothes, including panties massive enough for Henrietta to wear as an undershirt. Childish shit.

The only part of the room with any sense of order were the walls, monochrome and nearly free of decoration. The only one was on the left, the lime green SPRING logo, a tropical tree. Emblazoned underneath it was SPRING’s simple two-word motto: “WHY NOT?

Enron stood by the window, looking out, and for the second time today Henrietta couldn’t help but be enamored with her ass. “This is the first time you’ve ever come here,” Enron said without looking back. “Twenty-seven years I’ve led SPRING, but only now do I receive a visit from the great Mater Protectoris.”

She spat the last words out like they were poisoned. “So you know this is important,” Grace replied, her voice soft and firm. “May we sit?”

“We?” Enron glanced back. “Bad enough you carted your slave along with you. Who’s the bimbo?”

“I assume you mean me?” Henrietta showed her teeth. “Henrietta St. Thomas. BEACON Sister. Noted strumpet.”

“Hmph.” Enron whipped around and drew something from her belt. Henrietta surged forth-

But it was only a red toy pistol. A foam dart flew through the air at Grace. Manna grabbed it from mid-air.

With a childish giggle, Enron turned around and stalked over, and Henrietta stepped forward to keep her away from Grace. “Tomasa the Wonder Girl. Just a boring BEACON meathead. What qualifies you for this, exactly?”

Standing this close to Enron was intoxicating. Not just that she was massive, one of her shapely thighs as thick as Henrietta’s waist. Not just her perfume, intense and disorientingly sweet. It was that overbearing, oppressive aura of hers… Henrietta had never experienced anything like it before.

<== ==>

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