<== ==>

Grace was so different when she discussed the past. Talking about the now, Grace was sharp and efficient. When reminiscing, she became wistful and contemplative. “We are not the only power in space. Colossal alien empires inhabit the stars, far enough away from us to not threaten us in the present, but close enough to know of us and we of them. The Cidemci are living clouds of spores who consume worlds like a virus consumes its host. The Xaryh need neither water nor sleep and are incredibly fast and strong, with technology to rival our own. The Optilera are more cybernetic than organic, great screaming abominations of metal and circuitry.” 

Grace shivered. “One of the reasons I prize our alliance with LUX so much is that these are the enemies of the future. To fight them, we have to study them. And can you guess what LUX‘s Distant Species Survey found was the universal constant of all highly-developed life in the galactic cluster?”

Henrietta shook her head. She had never even heard of the aliens Grace named. “They all love music or some sappy shit like that?”

Grace very nearly suppressed her smile. “They respect force. How couldn’t they? Like humans, they rose to dominate their planet, and it was only with that platform that they could come to dominate hundreds more. A species that picks fights with things that will kill it tends not to be very successful. Even a lion will back down when it thinks it’ll die, yes?”

Henrietta nodded. She had never really thought of the why of Gabros-1 before, but it really was different than everything BEACON had done before or since. “I see. Gabros-1 was a message. ‘Fuck with us and this will happen to you.'”

“Not quite.” Grace smiled appreciatively. “These things aren’t too different from us- they seek to understand TORCH just as TORCH seeks to understand them. In our conversations with the Xaryh, we told them all about the Matres. We told them about how they were not just figures of cultural and historical significance, but the very soul of TORCH itself. We told them about Gabros-1, and we told them that an attack on a Mater was an attack on all of us. Because a Mater is more than her flesh-and-blood body, Retta. She’s a towering colossus of principles and ideals, she both represents and shapes the views and hopes of untold millions.”

Henrietta couldn’t argue with that. Enron probably could- but all Henrietta could do was sip her coffee and listen. “The sacrifice of Gabros-1 to protect the Matres, and the soul of TORCH, from future enemies,” she said. “Okay. Enron also said that you were… trying to seize more power for yourself?”

“Can I tell you a secret?” Grace leaned in close. “I am dogshit at politics. That didn’t even occur to me until years later. If I had struck while the iron was hot and pushed for a more unified TORCH, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess we’re in now.” She smiled in embarrassment. “Oops.”

Henrietta sat back, grinning in disbelief. “So even the great Grace Diakon makes mistakes, eh?”

“Way too many.” The moment of levity passed, and Grace was back to her austere self. “I don’t have the luxury of making mistakes. And yet I do, and always will.” She offered a hand to Henrietta. “Are you still my daughter?”

Henrietta accepted the hand without pause and stood up. For some strange reason her fatigue had simply vanished, as had the jitters. “What’s on the agenda for today, mom?” she asked.

Grace checked her watch. “Unfortunately, we don’t have time to dither about. We need to get the PHAROS Act voted into law as soon as possible. I have my best writers working on drafting it- they’re using you and Manna’s report a lot, thanks for it- but it’s our job to secure the votes.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I’m a soldier by trade, not a politician. I suck at this.” Grace finished the cigarette and stamped it out under her boot. “But I know someone who’s naturally gifted at political strategy. She’s agreed to meet with us.”

They left Cresset Mound and headed northwest, again passing through the Free District from the train, then disembarked at the LUX district. 

Like the other districts, LUX‘s buildings reflected their sensibilities: subtly complex and architecturally restrained towers that loomed overhead. BEACON‘s District was orderly, SPRING‘s was a nonstop party, but LUX‘s felt gothic and melancholy. Most of the girls wore the long dark robes that were the branch’s unofficial uniform, and quite a few of them had Arcane Suppressors pressed to their foreheads.

The metal cubes prevented those girls from using their magic. If they were wearing them here, in the heart of their own territory, it was because they had trouble controlling their powers. Most LUX girls hated the suppressors, called them “leashes”, but it seemed like a necessary evil to Henrietta. Eve wasn’t the only witch who lost control and massacred others, just the most famous.

“What’s your strategist doing here?” Henrietta asked, gazing warily at one fleshy girl with an AS on her forehead and a spacey, unfocused look in her eyes.

“She’s in LUX– she leads it, in fact.” Grace shared a calm nod with a passing girl. “Hyperion Aprilis.”

“…The Queen of Blades?” Henrietta opened her mouth to protest before she noticed a throng of people standing around an elevated stage. Standing atop it was a slight, slender beauty with tightly-tied orange hair. Hyperion.

<== ==>

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