HEARTH #22

<== ==> (Coming 8/20/2019)

Manna grinned. Grace covered her mouth in an attempt to hide how amused she was. “Impressive freestyling. Giving them the boot twice… like a reboot. Clever.”

“I aim to please. I’m not afraid of anything you or anyone else throws at me. Let those bitches take their shot.” Henrietta flexed her bicep. “I’ll just shrug it off and come back stronger.”

The embers of a smile at the corners of Grace’s mouth didn’t last long. “But now we have to deal with Enron. We know her play now: accept the OPTICA investigation and ally with Snow. Instead of just trying to resist our narrative, she’s presenting one of her own. Smart.”

Grace sounded almost admiring… what a strange dynamic. Enron obviously despised Grace, and made no secret of that, but Grace had no animosity towards her biggest rival. “Why don’t we meet with her?” said Henrietta.

“Pardon?”

“Why don’t you and I meet with Enron? She’s a businesswoman. Let’s make a deal with her. She can’t really be against the BEACON investigation, she must want the attacks to stop too and she’s gotta know OPTICA can’t do it. Maybe we can offer her something.”

Grace shook her head vigorously. “Absolutely not. After years and years of her swearing to oppose me on principle, she won’t backpedal- especially not after that speech.”

“I think it’s worth a shot. Solve all our problems in one meeting.” Henrietta smiled confidently. “The worst she can do is say no.”

Grace opened her mouth to refuse, then closed it. “I’m skeptical,” she said, finishing her cigarette and handing the butt to Manna. “Enron hates my guts. But perhaps she’d be open to compromise if I wasn’t present.”

“Let me go! I’ll represent you.”

“You’ve been in Chantico for three days, you’ll be in completely over your head. Enron is not a woman you can toy with.”

“Mater, may I make a suggestion?” Manna asked calmly. Grace nodded. “You could still be present while Henrietta does most of the talking. Even if Enron isn’t willing to negotiate with you around, we may get a more complete picture of her thinking.”

“C’mon, what do we have to lose?” Henrietta asked.

Grace rolled her eyes. “It’s a doomed plan. But… if there is a chance, we should take it.  The downside is manageable.” She kept mulling it over. “All right. Let’s go.”

They took the train there. Grace earned plenty of stares and murmurs from the commuters, but Manna stood in front of her with her arms folded and nobody dared approach.  “I wanted to ask you something about Manna,” Henrietta told Grace. “How do they train girls like her? Verbenas? It seems kinda… inhumane.”

Grace cocked an eyebrow. “The plural is also Verbena.”

“Whatever it is, they don’t seem to have any individualism or sense of self-worth. I talked to Manna some when we were compiling the report and I got the sense she just kinda… viewed herself as an extension of your body. That’s how she was trained to feel, right?”

Grace nodded. “Yes. Go on.”

“Well, she didn’t get the chance to decide for herself-” Henrietta paused. Of course. No TORCH agent got to decide for themselves. That was the point. “It feels extreme,” she said lamely. “She can’t do anything but be your Verbena. I can change branches or jobs, but Manna’s been pigeonholed into one tiny compartment for the rest of her life.”

“You’re right. It’s disagreeable, the training. I’ve seen how the sausage is made, so to speak… and it’s the most rigorous training program in all of TORCH.” Grace shuddered slightly. “I was against the program when it was proposed… but I get it. Because Matres exist outside of TORCH’s typical chain of command, our staff can be awkward or disruptive. I used to have a dozen different secretaries and aides… now I just have Manna. It’s efficient.”

“Yeah, but at what cost?” Henrietta glanced at Manna’s back. She had no ass.

“Entry into the Verbena Program is entirely voluntary.” Grace met Henrietta’s eyes with that piercing iron gaze. “Girls in the Academy are given the chance to join- they can say no without fear of punishment, and they’re told what to expect. You were even considered for the program, but you were cut in the final round before offers.”

“I was?” Henrietta asked, surprised.

“Of course. You were setting records and catching eyes left and right even then. But they passed on you, because you consistently tested highly in individualism and ego. You’re much too self-centered to ever become an extension of another person.” Grace nodded in approval.

It was far from the first time Henrietta had heard that.

<== ==> (Coming 8/20/2019)

HEARTH #21

<== ==>

Once again, Henrietta met Grace after the session ended for the day. “Do girls often get their shit pushed in during assembly?” she asked.

“That’s new.” Grace chewed on the filter of her cigarette. “That might be the first instance of violence since… Eve, I think. Not happy about us starting it, but that was what Enron wanted. She knows how to push people’s buttons to get them to act the way she wants them to.”

“She really got us,” Henrietta murmured. “If her speech didn’t turn the rest of TORCH against BEACON, that exchange definitely did.”

“If she wanted to sell it, she should have let herself take the punch.” Grace’s voice was dry and bitter. “Enron wants to sell herself as a victim, but she’s not the one who had to be carried out.”

“I thought she, like, sells people shit. Why is she also kicking our asses physically as well as verbally?”

Grace shrugged. “When you spend your entire life insulting professional killers, you learn how to protect yourself.” She continued to take thoughtful puffs.

“I wanted to ask you something. Why can’t we just let OPTICA handle the investigation?” Henrietta asked. “I mean, it doesn’t really matter who does the investigating, what matters is we catch the terrorists, right?”

Grace blinked as though Henrietta had said something unbelievably stupid.

Beads of sweat formed on Henrietta’s forehead, and she heard herself start to ramble to defend herself. “I mean, OPTICA doesn’t coalition with BEACON, but it also doesn’t coalition with SPRING. It’s in Azalea. You and Davida were talking about how OPTICA might swing all the way to join SPRING the Lotus soon, right? Wouldn’t giving Snow this, which she so desperately wants, be a good way to prevent that from happening?”

“..Were that it were so simple. Manna, explain to Henrietta.” Grace sighed and popped the cigarette back in her mouth.

“We can’t hand the investigation over to OPTICA because OPTICA… well, as the young sister from LUX pointed out, OPTICA is flawed.” Manna’s tone was neutral, like she was reading aloud from a textbook. “Much of the branch has been co-opted by outside interests, most notably SPRING and UMBRA. Grant OPTICA control of the investigation, and whatever narrative they spin will become the truth- no matter how politically inconvenient to us it may be.”

“Like blaming the witches, for instance,” said Grace. “LUX, our coalition partner and home to more than ninety percent of TORCH’s witches, can ill-afford that kind of bad PR. And both UMBRA and especially OPTICA have bones to pick with LUX. Wouldn’t suit us.”

Henrietta stiffened. “Even if the witches are behind it?”

“They’re not, I’m reasonably sure.” Grace took a long drag from her cigarette. “Henrietta, rest assured that my first priority is an end to these attacks. But I can’t trust OPTICA to do it. BEACON has decades of experience acting as military police and as peacekeepers. Unlike OPTICA we maintain our organizational integrity. We can handle a counterterror investigation- and it won’t be like OPTICA will be shut out. They’ll assist us, all the other investigative services will.”

There were several moments of awkward silence as Henrietta debated asking Grace about the Blue Sands Massacre. She had never heard of it before. It happened years before she was born, and it wasn’t something taught about at the Proving Ground.  “Did you guys really kill 400 FORGE girls…?” she finally asked, her voice hushed.

Grace’s shoulders stiffened. “I had no involvement in that except to give it the okay, and I didn’t know they’d be opening fire,” she said sharply. “It was… urgh. FORGE and LUX were about to go to war with one another, legitimately. If that happened, TORCH would have been finished.”

“Why?”

“Some… sample. An alien creature with a lot of ‘g’s in its name. Yuggot or something.” Grace made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “LUX thought it was horrifying and wanted to destroy it. FORGE thought it was promising and wanted to make weapons from it. A disagreement became an argument became a brawl became a gunfight, and before anyone knew it there were thousands of girls in pitched combat against one another. Eve told me her girls were dying- FORGE are engineers, even their interns carry serious weaponry. So to put a stop to it, I sent the closest BEACON warship we had to end the fighting. Unfortunately, that ship was the Black Mercy.”

Henrietta’s jaw dropped. “You sent Head Bitch Berenice to end the fighting?” Every BEACON soldier knew Berenice Sorek, the Mater Bellum- and yes, she had most certainly earned the title Mother of War. She led BEACON’s most feared and infamous commando unit, the cultlike and utterly deranged 1st “Black Dog” Legion… more commonly known as the Bitches. “You may as well have nuked the planet from orbit.”

“I know that now. I certainly didn’t expect her to massacre other TORCH agents so indifferently.” Grace shuddered. “I wanted to stick up for LUX- who were absolutely right to want to destroy that thing, by the way. FORGE will hate me for as long as I live. But no, I never ordered TORCH agents to be slaughtered like that.”

Henrietta believed it. When she had met Grace on Paran-7, she had been struck by the Mater’s easy control and self-confidence. But just a few days together on Chantico, and Grace had shown how much guilt and shame she carried. “It really sucks, doesn’t it?” she asked softly. “Being in charge.”

Grace snorted. “Don’t I fucking know it. If it gets too much for you-”

“Stop.” Henrietta put her hands on her hips. “I’m invincible, evincing these princesses as insects, giving them the boot twice like a bad PC, they’re just two-byte bugs in need of a vaccine. Don’t worry your pink head about Wonder Girl Retta, she’s a built-better pacesetter without fear or fetters.”

<== ==>

HEARTH #20

<== ==>

Enron cleared her throat and smiled at the room. “You all know what I’m about,” she said. “My enemies would paint me as this… barbarian, who does whatever she wants, but that’s not who I am. I have a vision for TORCH. I see what we were and what we are, and I know what we can be. And I know what we will be, if Grace and BEACON get their way. She wants to throw us headlong into the past, one where everyone loved her and everyone needed her- a time that’s long gone. But let’s talk practical concerns. I want these terrorist attacks to end just as much as anyone.”

Did she? Enron’s acting wasn’t the best. She didn’t seem concerned about the attacks at all. “Like Grace said the other day. Girls should have the chance to live in peace, without fear.” Her voice became soft and distant. “So what did BEACON do the last time it was given a chance to interfere in another branch’s affairs?”

Enron held up her watch and pressed a few buttons, and a massive image appeared behind her. Pictures of black-clad girls lying on the ground, dead. Perforated with bullets, blasted open with rockets, slashed to ribbons with a pneumatic blade.

Henrietta’s stomach hit her pelvis. Those were FORGE girls. And those wounds… they were typical of those killed by BEACON legionnaires.

“Behold, the Blue Sands Massacre,” said Enron. “We’re coming up on its 20-year anniversary. LUX and FORGE have a disagreement that turns violent. BEACON intervenes… and the end result? 402 dead FORGE agents. That’s what BEACON does. They find the enemy and they kill them… and if they can’t find an enemy, they just kill whoever’s closest.”

The room was dead silent save for Enron’s powerful voice enveloping them. “This is why we send BEACON legions far, far away so they can do their killing on alien worlds,” said Enron, staring directly at the BEACON delegation. “They’ll put on suits and make speeches and act like the rest of us, but don’t be fooled. These girls are beasts.”

Several BEACON girls shifted uncomfortably, while others stared daggers at Enron. The worst part was that there was truth to what she was saying… a couple of them were definitely thinking about attacking her.

Enron wasn’t deterred. “And what happened after this massacre? How did we respond to BEACON’s bloodlust? We created a new branch. OPTICA. The watchers, the eyes in the sky, the girls tasked with making sure that every branch was respecting the laws we all agreed to. I don’t care about battles won half a century ago. I care about now- and the TORCH of now doesn’t need warlords who are above its laws. It needs respect for the institutions we all agreed to.”

She took a deep breath. “Which is why I’m announcing that SPRING will be fully supporting the OPTICA investigation- and that I’m creating a fund from our treasury where every last digit will go to finding the terrorists and bringing them to justice.” Enron shot a pointed look at Hyperion and LUX, communicating so much with just a single glance. “When you have a rat problem, you get a cat. You don’t blow up your house. That’s all.”

Enron stepped down from the stage, but several BEACON sisters moved towards her. SPRING girls matched that movement, until several women from either branch were nose-to-nose in arguments. Henrietta started forward, but she caught sight of Grace, who sharply shook her head no.

Enron was right there, loudly arguing with a tall and heavily muscled BEACON sister- still dwarfed by SPRING’s CEO. It all happened in an instant, as fights often do. The BEACON girl took a swing at Enron, who blocked the strike, slammed a knee into the girl’s sternum, and threw her like a basketball into the crowd of BEACON sisters.

“Shit!” Henrietta exclaimed. That was no bureaucrat with a few self-defense lessons who Enron had just taken out like garbage. That was a trained, experienced soldier.

It seemed for a moment that the entire Sorority would erupt into a 700-woman brawl, but things calmed down after Theodora banged her gavel a bunch again.

<== ==>

HEARTH #19

<== ==>

“No, no, no and no,” said Snow, the Mater Custodes and the Chief Superintendent of OPTICA. “No! No. Hell no. No, no, no, no- oh, well, no. Fuck no! Absofuckinglutely not. If you were to make a giant no out of a nonillion smaller no’s, each one made of Nobelium from Norway, it’d still not equal how much of a fucking no it is!” A vein bulged in her forehead as she spoke and gesticulated wildly.

How this thin, seemingly unhinged woman ever became the leader of a branch was a mystery. Snow seemed overwhelmed by emotion just standing there. Most OPTICA girls Henrietta had met were slick professionals… why were they led by this spaz? She glanced at Catherine, who was listening to the speech with grim amusement.

“Listen carefully,” said Snow, her voice husky. “Grace and her cronies will trample our independence however they can- don’t let her. OPTICA’s job is to defend TORCH from internal threats. I’ve pushed and pushed for you all to give me a chance to find out who’s behind these attacks, and you won’t let me.”

“Because your branch sucks!” someone yelled from the LUX section. The room exploded into yelling and arguments until Theodora banged her gavel a bunch. Funny… nobody had dared interrupt Grace or Enron with invectives.

Snow’s face was beet-red by the time she could speak again. “Hey smartass, we don’t all have the luxury to sit around picking at our scabs and watching bugs fuck through a microscope! OPTICA hounds have been on the scene of every last one of these attacks, but every time we start to get anywhere we get shut out! I sure as shit am not gonna hand this over to BEACON- I want OPTICA to do it instead. We have the resources and the infrastructure, we just need the will. Don’t pass Grace’s shit. Vote it down- and instead, vote for the antiterror bill we’re drafting.”

At the very least, Grace had gotten one thing she wanted: the rash of terror attacks would be the issue that defined this session of the Sorority. It didn’t hurt that perhaps the most horrific attack yet occurred late last night, on a rainy little world called Porropelin. Henrietta had never heard of it before, but apparently they had found sixty corpses so far.

Snow stepped down. Henrietta glanced at Grace elsewhere in the BEACON section, but the Mater made no moves to make a speech of her own. An OPTICA Superintendent followed Snow’s speech claiming that BEACON could not be trusted with the investigation rights. Generosity, FORGE’s Mater Exitium and the CEO of Ven-Tech, argued that FORGE’s independence would be under attack from the bill. A PLUTO Executive Chairman pointed out (in what Henrietta considered a fair point) that there was no guarantee of success especially considering BEACON’s military police had no more luck catching the terrorists than anyone else.

But everyone in the room knew this was leading to Enron’s speech. The gigantic SPRING CEO sauntered up to the stage… Sapiens, was her ass fantastic. Henrietta didn’t necessarily like big girls but Enron just had this natural sex that poured from her every movement. It made it a little hard to concentrate on what she was saying.

<== ==>

HEARTH #18

<== ==>

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.

<== ==>

HEARTH #17

<== ==>

There was no sleep for Henrietta to be had that night. Grace had set her and Manna to the grind.

“This is grunt work!” Henrietta complained as Manna brought in another box of files. “This is the job of staffers, not elite badasses like us!”

“I am Grace’s staff,” said Manna pleasantly. “And you have no staff, at least not yet. Besides, this is a difficult and particular assignment- it’s a great honor to be personally tasked with it by the Mater.”

Henrietta glanced down at the boxes, which were filled by OPTICA reports about the various terrorist attacks to hit TORCH in the last year. “You’re just trying to butter me up,” she grumbled. “Anyone could compile a report about the attacks. And why in the name of Astra’s blessed butthole are we using paper copies?”

“The Mater is old-fashioned like that. I’ve already forwarded you a digital copy of all the data, you may peruse that instead if you wish.”

“Don’t we have like think tanks or whatever for this?” Henrietta asked.

“Mmm-hmm. Their reports and suggestions are in this box.” Manna gave it a kick. “But the Mater doesn’t put much stock in them.”

“Why not?”

“They fall under the purview of Princepa Lamb, the Mater Invictum.” Manna took a seat at the desk, boxes on either side of her. “She’s technically the Mater’s right hand woman, but they don’t agree on very much… and Lamb would one day like to lead BEACON herself. She’s not fond of being made to play second fiddle to the Mater, as she has for all these decades. Many in BEACON’s upper echelons also think she ought to be in charge. Often Grace has to reject her suggestions for political purposes- if Lamb can claim credit for any major successes, it’d strengthen her position.”

That wasn’t something publicized. Henrietta knew who Lamb was, of course, everyone in BEACON did… but she had no idea that she and Grace were at one another’s throats that much. “How come I’ve never heard that before?”

“Because both the Mater and Lamb understand how important it is for BEACON to remain united, at least outwardly. Neither will publicly undermine the other, as neither wants to lead a broken branch.” Manna clapped her hands. “Shall we begin?”

Henrietta wasn’t a expert on terrorism, she was a soldier- but she had been trained to fight guerrillas and partisans. They all operated in much the same way: they leveraged their small numbers and limited resources with hit-and-run attacks. They were patient and dramatic, meant wear the foe down and eventually break their spirit.

Similar tactics were used to counter all of them: strike hard and fast. Focus on beheading the leadership rather than killing the soldiers. Try to win as much support as possible from the local population to minimize antipathy. Of course, what was taught at the Proving Ground war colleges was enormously different from what was done in the field.

It wasn’t Henrietta’s specialty, but her worst was better than most people’s best. She’d give it a shot.

For hours and hours, Henrietta read in silence. Each report came from a different investigative agency. For example, the report about hacked defense turrets opening fire on BEACON peacekeepers on Inwem was written by BEACON_Enforcement, the military police. The report about the poisoned water supply devastating a MIRROR base on Haeton came from OPTICA. SPRING_Affair, the private investigative agency, handled the inquiry into reactor meltdowns that left dozens of PLUTO physicians dead on Theia.

The terrorists were conducting a sustained, professional series of attacks on a wide variety of targets. The attacks had mostly ignored forgettable TORCH outposts on Class-E and Class-D worlds. Similarly, the Class-A worlds save for Nemesis had been spared- and Nemesis was a shithole. None on Earth. None on the Moon or Mars, Pergamon or Voc-Deiv. Almost all of them had taken place on Class-B and Class-C planets. The terrorists had targeted worlds big enough for people to care, but not so big to be tightly defended.

The terrorists switched up their MO’s unpredictably, and were never caught. Arrests were usually mad, but they were invariably deemed dead ends and no one was ever convicted.

OPTICA_Counterterror had published a report on the attacks at the end of last month. It named two main suspects as being behind the string of attacks. The first was hardcore members of neo_SMOKE, the cultlike followers of the disgraced Schwarzschild. While most were peaceful enough, a hardcore minority were happy to engage in violence for political or financial purposes. The second suspect was LUX radicals, witch extremists who had turned their political grievances militant.

“OPTICA can see no other organization of the appropriate scope or motivation to be behind these massacres,” the brief read. “While neither has a history of terrorism, it is only an escalation of their existing Modus Operandi rather than a reinvention or reversal.”

The BEACON report from The Zimri Institute of Security and Unconventional Warfare (ZISUW) disagreed. “No marginalized organization within TORCH has the reach or resources to commit these attacks,” it claimed. “There are three possibilities: a mind-altering alien parasite, a heretofore-undiscovered secret society, or the action of many small groups acting in concert either purposefully or not.”

The confusion was understandable. There was no clear MO, no consistent target, no culprits had been caught, no hard evidence discovered. Since the attacks all hit different branches, there were over a dozen separate investigations across six different planets.

<== ==>

HEARTH #16

<== ==>  

Four years ago, LUX’s head Eve Volcanis had lost control of her immensely powerful magical abilities during a Sorority session. Those standing near the Mater simply melted as though they were made of cheap wax. Their flesh fell off their bones like globs of ice cream in sun. Others caught aflame themselves, screaming so loud they tore their throats out as the flames swallowed them alive. And those who had gotten in the Mater’s way… they were the most unlucky of them all. They faced heat so intense that their molecules displaced and they were reduced to dark puddles.

Two Matres (Augusta and another LUX Mater named Juno), 41 Sorority sisters, and 30 staffers had been killed. Another hundred or so had suffered debilitating or ruinous burns. 

Never before had two Matres been lost in a day. Never before had a Mater died in Chantico. Never before had a Mater killed another Mater. The Volcanis Incident was the subject of endless arguments, debate, and conspiracy theories to this day.

Grace had been there. She hadn’t experienced it via security footage- she had watched it with her own eyes. And she did more than that: Grace had been the one to stop the massacre. Clad in an AEGIS taken from a dead security officer, Grace charged straight at Eve. What happened next wasn’t captured on film, but the massacre was over in an instant. Eve was subdued and captured- only to make her escape through unknown means and vanish. They said she was still out there somewhere.

“Grace, I… how did you manage to stop her?” Henrietta managed. “How did you gather the will to run straight towards something like that?”

“Well, my armor protected me from the ambient flames,” sighed Grace. “And I knew Eve would never hurt me on purpose. I hoped the sight of me would calm her down… and it did.” Grace pulled off one of her gloves. “Not enough, though.”

And that was why she wore them. The flesh on her right hand was twisted and gnarled like an old tree, with long cracks along the skin and small chunks missing. The middle and left fingers looked to be barely mobile. Without a word, Grace wiggled her fingers to show the extent of the damage, then put the glove back on.

“I charged straight in without a thought to my own safety- because it was Eve. My friend.” Grace looked down at the stoop. “That day, I lost… so much. Eve was my closest friend and Augusta my most prized colleague, and dozens of promising young women met their ends as well. But not only that- I lost my ability to get my sisters to listen to one another. Eve was so close to me, and all those conspiracy theories that abounded after she vanished… it was almost as though I was the one who killed all those girls.”

Grace shook her head. “And the worst part is… it is my fault. Eve was perfectly happy working in her library on Pergamon. I was the one who asked her to come to Chantico. I thought a friend in the Sorority would help. I missed her. And because of my weakness, my selfishness, I ruined so many lives.”

Henrietta’s first instinct was to tell Grace it wasn’t her fault. To tell the Mater, who seemed so vulnerable standing there with her head down and her eyes glassy, that she couldn’t have possibly known what would happen. To tell her to not be so hard on herself, to not force herself to carry the unthinkable weight of the tragedy all by herself.

But Grace wasn’t someone who wanted to be pitied, and it wasn’t Henrietta’s place to give her advice. So she said something else. “Let’s fix it,” she said. “You want TORCH to be how it was, strong and unified, right? So you and I will make that happen- and Manna too, if she feels like it.”

“Of course I do,” said Manna, who had been with them in silence the entire time.

For the first time since Henrietta arrived in Chantico, Grace cracked a smile. A weak little half smile- but a smile. “Yeah. We’ll do it.”

<== ==>  

HEARTH #15

<== ==>

Grace bumped her head against the statue of the dead Mater called Zimri. “It didn’t work, it seems,” she sighed. “Ninety of the hundred Matres remain, but we’re like relics. My notions are the creaky ramblings of a stupid old woman. Even you feel that way, Retta.”

“I don’t-” Henrietta stopped herself. What was the point of denying it, when she had told Grace so much a few hours prior? “Well, I… I do believe in you, Grace. It’s just that I don’t know exactly what I believe.”

“Hmm.” Grace studied Henrietta intently for a moment, before turning back to the statue of Zimri. “Each of these statues has a story behind it, one worth knowing. I’d hope, in time, you would learn them all. But I want you to start with the seven Matres who had their statues turned towards the Astralon, and the three who had their statues removed.”

They kept walking before stopping in front of a statue of a thoughtful beauty with aquiline, noble features. “You know who this is, right?” Grace asked.

Henrietta did. “Augusta. The Mater Politico. She used to lead HEARTH, until the Volcanis Incident. She was… egh… incinerated.”

Grace nodded. “Augusta and I agreed on nothing. She hated the title of Mater, while I thought it crucial to retain the spirit of TORCH. She loved it here in Chantico, while I find it a miserable place. She was a pacifist who thought a small military should be maintained for defensive purposes only. She also didn’t care for the smoking.”

Grace took a long drag. “And yet she and I were great friends. Why? Because although we had such drastic views of how to get there, we wanted the exact same thing. A healthy TORCH that focuses on fulfilling its prime goals: to defend Earth from threats and ready the galaxy for human colonization.”

“What was she actually like?”

“Augusta? Melancholy. Deliberate, more shy than you’d expect- but she held her principles and never compromised. Gentle, professional, calm. We called her Marblehead because she always had that cool look on her face, like a marble statue.” Grace chuckled ruefully.

“And then she died,” Henrietta said softly. Manna looked at the floor.

“And then she died.” Grace’s posture went rigid and her voice grew crisp. “Then the vultures descended. Enron. Necessity. Snow. Women who have no vision of a greater TORCH, whose sole concerns are with their little fiefdoms within it- or worse. Some care only about themselves, or about avenging past slights. And here we are, four years later, and each passing day makes TORCH less like one organization of nine branches and more like nine organizations under one banner.”

Grace threw the butt to the ground and stamped it out with her heel. “This is not what I wanted,” she said lowly. “And if it continues as it has, we will cease to exist.”

Henrietta could only nod. She had heard similar things from some of the older legionnaires, and had read much the same in BEACON-friendly outlets. But to have it stated so plainly, with such steely conviction… it was different.

Grace kept walking. Henrietta followed. They made their way away from the HEARTH Matres and towards the LUX ones. There was something odd… a pedestal, but no statue atop of it. A blank spot between Diana, the Mater Caelum, and Hemera, the Mater Apricum. “Who was here?” Grace asked Henrietta.

The answer was obvious. “Eve. Mater Volcanis. I… you don’t need to tell me about her, I know the story. Everyone does.” Henrietta’s throat became dry just thinking about the security footage of the Volcanis Incident. They played it a million times in the newsphere, it was impossible to avoid.

Henrietta was a soldier. She had seen- and done- some pretty horrible things. But she doubted she’d ever see anything so disturbing as Eve Volcanis’ rampage through the very Sorority Hall that Henrietta now worked in.

<== ==>

HEARTH #14

<== ==>  

Of all the people Grace pissed off with her speech, OPTICA seemed the most offended. Counterterrorism was mainly their job, and Grace all-but-accused them of shitting the bed. The fact that OPTICA was indeed shitting the bed did not seem to matter.

The BEACON girls formed a bulwark around Grace as OPTICA and SPRING sisters hurled insults at her. They only dispersed after Grace was safely outside, far from Sorority Hall.

Grace was on her third cigarette by the time Henrietta was able to work her way over to her. “And so concludes your first day on the job,” she said. “How do you like it?”

“Somehow both thrilling and unbelievably boring,” Henrietta replied. “I just sat around and listened to people talk. You’re at least fun to listen to- most of these girls sound like they’re delivering a book report.”

“Mmm.” Grace blew a cloud of smoke in the air. “You’ll get real work to do soon. Bills to draft. Maybe a speech or two of your own. For now, ears open, mouth closed- just like basic training at the Proving Ground.”

“I hated Basic.”

“Everyone hates Basic. C’mon.” Grace gestured for Henrietta to follow. “There’s something I want you to see.”

The two of them plus Manna headed towards the top end of the hill that lent Cresset Mound its name. The session had taken almost all day so the sky was dyed red by the setting sun.

There were dozens of buildings on Cresset Mound, but none half as impressive as the Astralon. Henrietta had seen pictures of it before, and it adorned many girls’ bags in keychain form. It was the tallest building in Chantico and easily the most famous.

The Astralon was made from a midnight blue stone that reflected no light. It was a tapering tower that grew thinner and thinner before widening again about midway through. After a moment, it became clear that the tower was an arm holding an enormous torch.

Of course, the torch was lit: a roaring red-and-yellow flame the size of a house at the tower’s top. That fire, the Eternal Flame, had been lit when the Astralon was completed a quarter century ago. It was supposed to never go out. “Never” was an awfully long time, though.

“Whose hand is that supposed to be?” Grace asked, gesturing with the cigarette.

“Mine,” said Henrietta. “And yours. And Manna’s, and everyone else’s. Because we’re all sisters. We all share this burden.”

“Good. Someone knows her mythmaking. What a pity that it’s bullshit.” Grace kept them moving towards it. “There’s a nice museum inside the Astralon that you should check out on a day off. But it’s not the part I like. I was against them building something so gaudy and oversized anyways.”

As they approached the Astralon, Henrietta noticed some figures surrounding it. They weren’t people but rather stone statues: life-sized, highly detailed ones arranged in a circle.

One of them was of Grace. The sculptor had captured the Mater’s features perfectly: the steely intensity in her eyes, the strength of her features and the imperious confidence of her posture. The Grace in the statue was clad in her armor, frowning, staring straight ahead and slightly up. “You feeling okay?” Henrietta asked. “You’re looking kinda grey.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “This one I wasn’t against… you have no idea how strange it is to stare at a doppelganger of yourself made from rock, though. And she got a few of my features ever-so-slightly wrong. The nose is a shade big.”

It actually was. Henrietta mockingly tweaked the statue’s nose. “So, you asked me over to critique the failings of the sculptor?”

“No. It’s important for you to understand our history if you’re going to represent us.” Grace began to walk, and Henrietta followed. “When TORCH was birthed from the ashes of GARDEN, I pushed endlessly for the creation of the office of Mater. Do the history books say why?”

“Not really.”

“It was so that our traditions would never be forgotten. Every young TORCH agent will at some point ask herself, ‘why do these women get so many special privileges?’ The answer is that these women sacrificed more than you could ever know for there to be a TORCH.” Grace stopped in front of a statue different from the others: it was turned towards the Astralon rather than facing outwards. A BEACON Mater, a petite and curvaceous woman with a clever glint in her stone eyes.

“Each of us was a veteran of The Cenotaph War. Each of us was a hero from that war, elected to her office by ballot. Because I knew that one day, most of the girls who had fought alongside me would be dead, like Zimri here. One day, all of these statues will be turned to face the Astralon- but until that day comes, I wanted those who founded TORCH to lead it. I want our vision of what TORCH should be to remain at the forefront. We fought too damn hard and sacrificed too damn much for anything less.”

<== ==>  

HEARTH #13

<== ==> 

There was a sleepy vibe in the chamber after lunch, as though the girls wanted to nap rather than continue to make decisions that affected the lives of millions of TORCH agents. Henrietta was the opposite: she was raring to go, to do something useful and important, and yet she was asked to sit down and shut up.

Traditionally speaking, the leader of each delegation made a short speech about her legislative goals at the beginning of a new session. They switched off between alphabetical and reverse alphabetical, and it was the latter this session.

Director Belladonna, the beautiful Mater Mysteria of UMBRA went first. She came off as perfectly professional, and spoke for several minutes about the need for additional funding towards UMBRA’s intelligence operations in a period of uncertainty. It was a wonky, dry speech from someone with such a fearsome reputation- and yet for some reason, the UMBRA spies could barely hold in their laughter, like there was some joke that only they got.

CEO Enron of SPRING went next and briefly discussed her intentions to increase the ease of doing business, and remove “wasteful and outdated regulations.” Nothing specific, but it sounded great.

Polymath Paradox, the PLUTO head and Mater Matematica didn’t say much, just talked about Hausdorff Space and some other stuff Henrietta didn’t follow. From the looks of the rest of the room, most of the sisters were equally lost.

OPTICA’s Commissioner Snow, the Mater Custodes, argued for more funding, more policewomen, and more respect. It was poorly-delivered and argued and reeked of insecurity… why was she even in charge?

The Mater Medica, Chief Panacea of MIRROR, called for friendship and cooperation between branches. It sounded very nice. Henrietta forgot the entire speech as soon as it was over.

Hyperion, the Chancellor of LUX, had the shortest and most cryptic speech: “Each of you is cognizant of what I want. If you’ve somehow forgotten, then don’t be perturbed. You’ll receive a reminder soon enough.”

Speaker Theodora of HEARTH spoke of peace with alien races, and the importance of providing ample support to diplomatic missions along the frontier after some HEARTH agents were killed at an embassy on Tristala. The xenos out there were too distant to be threatening today, but perhaps in the future they could be needed allies or dangerous enemies.

Necessity of FORGE was absent- from the first day of the new session! FORGE had no speech as a result.

Finally it was Grace’s turn. Henrietta had monitored the Mater throughout the other speeches but Grace had barely reacted to any of it. Her face remained cool and impassive, betraying no emotion but attentiveness. She stood and walked to the podium for the second time in the day.

“Inwem. Haeton. Theia. Tristala. Vulca. Ambys. And most recently, Nemesis.” Grace’s voice was cool and somber, like she was delivering a eulogy. “A pall has fallen over our protectorate. Planet after planet is struck by a menace that festers in the shadows while we wring our hands helplessly. I speak of course of the rash of terrorist attacks that have struck these worlds, all in quick succession, since our Sorority last convened.”

Grace looked down, her eyes glassy. “I don’t know who is behind these attacks. I don’t know who’s organizing them- I can’t even say for certain that they were a coordinated strike. But I do know this: life is not meant to be lived in fear. TORCH agents deserve to feel safe, deserve to be able to go to work in the morning without wondering if they’ll come back that night. These cowardly attacks do not target armed, combat-ready women. They target businesswomen, office workers, administrators. All of TORCH cries out in one voice: ‘when will we be free of fear?’”

She leaned forward against the dais, that much closer to her audience- both in the room and on TV too. “I answer you: we can overcome this. But if we are to do so, we must do it in one voice- for when we break into a thousand petty squabbles, we lose the ability to protect ourselves from those who would do us harm. The rivalries between our investigative and security agencies limit cooperation between them. I will not sit back and watch as my sisterhood is chipped away at by an enemy who takes advantage of our bickering.”

Grace did not glare at anyone when she said that, not even Enron. She just spoke in that clear, sad voice, and her regularity lent her strength. “BEACON legislators are in the midst of drafting a new set of emergency security measures. We will pull out these terrorists by the root and ensure they never again find fertile ground to plant themselves. I ask my sisters in the other eight branches to lend their wisdom and expertise to this bill, and I ask my sisters in BEACON to prepare themselves for a fight against a new adversary. And I ask you, and myself, to find the strength necessary to protect what we love. Thank you.”

Grace stepped down, and the instant she was finished the room erupted into rancor. Everyone seemed to be yelling at everyone else. The BEACON girls circled up around Grace, swallowing her into the mass. “Great speech,” one told her. “I’m with you, Mater,” said another.

Henrietta met Grace’s eyes and they exchanged a nod. Henrietta was starting to understand why she had been brought to Chantico.

<== ==> 

HEARTH #12

<== ==> 

“Do you smoke?” Grace asked.

“Nah. Should I?”

“It’s a terrible habit. Makes your hands sticky and your clothes smell.” She inhaled. “It’s Henrietta now, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Do you like it?” Henrietta wondered why she’d ask the Mater such a banal question and felt a bit stupid.

Grace didn’t seem to notice. “It suits you better than Tomasa. Too long, though. What do you think of ‘Retta’?”

“Sure.”

Grace took a long drag of the cigarette. “I wanted to get your opinion on the first half of the session.”

“You want me to speak candidly?”

“Always.”

“I think we’re screwed,” said Henrietta. “Your message is not gonna land with younger agents. Your speech was great, but these ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom and discomfort… nobody wants to hear that except the people who already support you. We’re not lazy, I think we work hard too, but we also want to enjoy our work and our lives. Maybe that’s not right, but it’s what is.”

Grace nodded solemnly. “But it’s what I believe,” she said wistfully. “I’m not lying when I say those things- and it wasn’t so long ago that they weren’t even controversial statements.”

“Things change,” Henrietta said with a shrug. “It’s been generations since you and the other Matres founded TORCH. But you say the same things in the same way. I think that might be the problem.”

Grace stared out at the garden, smoking the rest of her cigarette in silence. Henrietta didn’t know what to say, so she just stood at parade rest and waited for someone to do something. “What do you think of Davida?” Grace asked, exhaling a cloud of white smoke.

“The Mater Tormentum… she’s like a dinosaur, exactly what Enron accuses you of being,” said Henrietta. “She still sees all of TORCH as a military hierarchy with a commander on top, not a union of nine distinct but equal branches. She thinks force is always on the table, she doesn’t understand that the weapons we use here are words. She lets protocol and tradition get in the way of her decision-making. She’s a great soldier, but… I don’t think she deserves to call herself ‘Mater’. If that’s something I’m allowed to say.”

“I didn’t bring you on to blow smoke up my ass or bullshit me,” Grace said airily. “Nor can I particularly disagree with anything you said… except one bit. You’d be impressed at how much fighting you end up doing in this job, and I mean that in the literal sense. Don’t think you’re completely safe here, Retta… there are few creatures more dangerous than insecure people entrusted with enormous power.”

“Beg pardon Mater, but do you want to practice your second speech a little?” Manna interjected.

“No, I’ll improv it. No need to write anything.”

“What’s this other speech?” Henrietta asked. “Something to do with the terror attacks?”

That finally earned Grace’s attention, and she glanced at Henrietta. “Yes. How did you know?”

“Deduced it with my huge brain. Also, you mentioned it yesterday. Anything you need from me?”

“No, I think you’re doing well to just keep watching and listening. Trust me, you’ve already earned enough attention by standing near me.” Grace gestured out with her cigarette, which was nearly burned down. “You may have surmised that I have many enemies in TORCH. You’re well on your way to inheriting them.”

“When you face down a quartet of Bactrarii death commandos with nothing but a pneumatic blade and a big smile, a few politicians don’t inspire much fear.” Henrietta flexed her bicep. “Don’t you worry about me, Grace. I can handle whatever’s thrown at me. You point me at something you want done and I won’t just do it, I’ll destroy it.”

Grace didn’t smile exactly, but she gave an amused, approving nod. “I may just take you up on that.”

<== ==> 

HEARTH #11

<== ==>

“Arrogant, vengeful, stuck-up bitch,” cursed Davida, the Mater Tormentum. “Who the hell does she think she is?’

“The one who won the vote,” said Grace, calmly taking a bite of her sandwich.

The food court where the Sisters ate was arranged in much the same way as the voting chamber. Sisters sat with their own delegations, all except for Alice who drifted from place to place. Right now she was joking around with a couple UMBRA Matres.

Henrietta sat three down from Grace, close enough to listen to her conversation but not close enough to actively participate. Manna, who stood behind her Mater with her hands folded, had packed a lunch for Grace while Henrietta ate the (admittedly delicious) potato cakes they served here.

Davida had a shock of orange hair that made her look a bit like a candle. She was a hearty, masculine woman with strong scarred hands and a big chunk missing from her right cheek. Her work on orbital bombardment doctrine was legendary in the fleet, and she was famous for her willingness to get her own hands dirty. A tall and bony woman dressed identically to Manna in a black shirt and pants stood behind her. “Win, fine, but she insulted you,” Davida growled, pounding her fist into her palm. “I ought to kick her ass for that.”

“That’s what she wants,” Grace replied. “To get a rise out of us. Every second you let this bother you, Enron gains a bit more of an advantage. I’m more concerned with the votes… 359? Our estimates had 341, didn’t it?’

Davida shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah… they came from OPTICA. I hear Enron’s been cutting lots of deals with Snow and the rest of OPTICA‘s leadership.” She leaned in close. “Even rumors that soon, she wants OPTICA to join the Lotus.”

Grace sighed. “So that chicken’s finally coming home to roost. Not good, Davida. Enron could gain a permanent majority, she could pass or block any legislation she liked. We’d be helpless.”

“Well, what do you want me to do about it? Blow up her house?” Davida crossed her strong arms. “When you asked me to come to Chantico, I wasn’t happy. I was getting good work done- and there’s a war on, the girls on the front could use me. You promised me a seat at the table if I came, but now I’m hearing that soon our enemies will have total control of the Sorority and we’ll be stuck here with our thumbs up our asses?”

Grace shook her head. “They aren’t our enemies. They’re our sisters who have a different viewpoint.”

“Bullshit. Nobody in my family talks shit about my commander- not with a full mouth of teeth.”

“In any case, I’m enormously grateful for you being here,” Grace said placidly. “My judgment can get clouded when I spend too long in this viper’s nest. Talking to someone who’s been in the shit, who exemplifies vigilance and daring better than anyone I know… you can’t imagine how helpful you’ve been to me, Davida.”

It was a lie- Grace asked Davida to come to Chantico to increase the size of the BEACON delegation by one- but Davida bought it. She grinned like the cat who got the cream. “Mighty nice of you to say that, Marshal.”

“If you’ll excuse me,” Grace said, standing up. She threw Henrietta a nonverbal indication to follow then headed out of the cafeteria, with Manna and Henrietta not far behind.

Grace led her to a lush green veranda filled to bursting with orchids. The garden was meticulous, there must have been multiple full-time gardeners to keep it looking so good. The Mater put a cigarette to her mouth and Manna lit it.

<== ==>