HEARTH #29

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Henrietta chose a hell of a day to be half-delirious from sleep deprivation. Today was the day that committees met for the first time to begin drafting legislation. Grace had gotten Henrietta assigned to the powerful Defense and Security Committee, where BEACON concentrated most of its political capital.

While committee was overall more relaxed than the general assembly, it was also more intimate. Henrietta could sneak some restless sleep during the full assembly, but there was no choice but to pay attention in the much smaller committee room.

Staying awake was both mandatory and pointless. Nothing even came close to getting done. It seemed like there were a million tricks to stall a vote on some bill: markups, hearings, expert testimony, amendments, cross-meetings with other committees (especially the powerful and much-feared Budgetary Committee,) and the classic tactic of just pretending the bill didn’t exist. They discussed nine different laws and made progress on zero of them. Henrietta thought it doubtful any would ever come to a vote.

Naturally her thoughts turned to her encounter last night. Grace and Enron… two icons locked in a dance of death. Somehow Henrietta found herself smushed between them.

She refused to believe Enron’s claims about Grace. There was simply no way honorable, courageous Grace could ever be so cruel and cowardly.

At the same time, she couldn’t simply dismiss the allegations out of kind. Enron sincerely believed them… and two billion dead? That was unthinkable. Why would Grace order something like that?

Matres had no obligation to serve on a committee, but Grace did make an appearance to discuss the PHAROS Act. She outlined its three main goals: improve response to terrorist attacks, centralize investigations of past terror attacks under BEACON, and remove the red tape that made arrests, interrogation, and evidence requisition across branches so difficult.

Henrietta already knew all that, and she couldn’t look straight at Grace- not now. Ultimately she dozed off several times for a few moments, snapping back to reality. Grace definitely noticed, her gunmetal grey eyes boring into Henrietta like power drills.

When the Sorority finally let out for the day, Henrietta trudged off to join Grace on the steps of Cresset Mound. Manna handed her a coffee the moment she got close. “Drink this,” she instructed.

“I love you,” said Henrietta, taking the cup and downing half of it. It had a lingering bitter aftertaste. “What did you put in here?”

“Stims. Your lack of alertness during the meeting was unacceptable.” Manna’s voice was perfectly neutral. “The Mater is displeased.”

Grace had yet to look at Henrietta. She smoked her cigarette in silence. “Late night?” she finally asked.

Henrietta nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t-“

“You reflect on me, Henrietta.” Grace’s voice was cold enough to flash-freeze the blood in Henrietta’s veins. “And your every action is scrutinized. Even if you may not pay attention to what happens around you while the Sorority is in session, countless others do.”

Those few words were the worst lecture Henrietta had ever received. Grace’s disappointment was like being entombed at the bottom of a deep, dark lake. 

Henrietta shook her head. “I know. It won’t happen again. But please listen.” Grace nodded to show that she was done. “Enron came to me last night. We talked for almost an hour.”

The Mater’s eyes widened slightly. Resignedly, she glanced at Manna. “How much time do we have?” she asked. 

“About ninety minutes, Mater. We were going to prep for your meeting…”

“Later.” Grace walked Henrietta over to a park bench and sat her down. “Tell me,” she said serenely.

Henrietta blathered for maybe ten, fifteen minutes about the talk. She shied away from telling Grace about her attraction to Enron, but she brought up nearly everything else. Midway through the stims kicked in, and they always made her jittery. “And I know she’s crazy, she’s got that look, she must be,” Henrietta finished. “But… I don’t know, Grace. I just don’t know anything.”

Grace had finished her first cigarette and started on another one. Besides that, she had been a perfect listener: she maintained eye contact throughout, she gently asked expository questions, and her facial reactions were subdued but communicative. “Do you trust me, Henrietta?” Grace asked.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know each other very well, do we?” Grace gestured at her with the cigarette and smiled wryly. “So you trust me based on reputation.”

“I… guess. But it’s deeper than that. Grace, it’s like… when we talk, I feel like I’ve known you for years.” Henrietta breathed in. “It’s weird.”

Grace was silent again, staring at Henrietta, lost in thought. Was she trying to decide what to say? “I didn’t kill Medici,” she said finally. “Truly, I didn’t. The thought never crossed my mind. I was shocked to hear of her death- Gabros-1 had been thoroughly pacified with little fighting, so much so that BEACON had designated it safe for virtually all commerce. We were drawing up plans to set up bases and colonies planetside. The locals were agreeable and remarkably similar to humans- maybe the most humanlike alien race we’ve encountered.”

Grace sighed heavily. “Yes, I ordered the destruction of that culture. It was a hard choice- but I would make it again today. Because that’s what being a leader is, Henrietta. It is being confronted with two devils, both of whom demand your soul, and trying to determine which is the lesser.”

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