OPTICA #19

<== ==>

This room stank of sulfur. Industrial-sized flasks sat atop stoves, cooking away at a variety of ingredients. Like math, chemistry was universal, so Jonquil recognized some of these components. Nitromethane, chlorates… simple homemade explosives. Nothing with a fraction of the sophistication of a rabbit bomb.

But thick black cases sat on the far side of the room, separate from everything else. That had to be the real deal.

As Aliza said, there were four tellies. They wore sac-caste robes and were all different colors: lime yellow mixing ingredients on the far side of the room, olive green lazily guarding the main door, cherry red by the cases, and muddy purple sorting powders into bags.

Jonquil had the advantage of stealth. She targeted the purple one first, as it was the closest: a propulsor blast to its head sent it crumpling to the floor. Yellow, Red and Green turned to face her, but Jonquil was already moving towards a row of flasks.

Green raised its claw-rifle, but hesitated. It couldn’t risk hitting one of the volatile chemical flasks. That moment of hesitation was all she needed to point the propulsor between two flasks and shoot, taking the telly to the floor.

Red tried to flank her while Yellow made for the exit- she couldn’t let that happen. Jonquil threw herself to the floor and shot the propulsor at Yellow’s feet. She caught one of its legs and sent it crashing to the floor- thankfully muted by the ankle-deep water.

But by then, Red was upon her. It leveled its rifle at her chest, and as it was about to fire, Jonquil tossed her jacket in the air. The quarter-second of distraction let her roll out of the way of the shot, which left a bubbling crater on the floor.

Telly guns were powerful but primitive, and they needed to be reloaded after every shot. Red instead tried to stab her with the tip of the rifle, driving Jonquil backwards. It meant to keep her off-balance while Green and Red recovered.

If that happened, she was dead. Jonquil dove towards the wall, and Red thrust his bayonet to meet her. But Jonquil stuck out her arm and fired her propulsor- at the wall.

The concussive blast sent Jonquil flying, up in the air and over the flasks. She landed in the water, slapping the ground to distribute her weight. The maneuver baffled Red.

It baffled Jonquil too. Crazy moves like that weren’t her style. She twisted to her feet and rushed forward. Red had to reload its rifle, giving her time to close the gap. Jonquil slid under the table with the flasks to get beneath Red, thrust her hand in the air, and fired the propulsor. Red flew up and back, landed hard and did not rise.

Her heart pounding, Jonquil quickly made her way to Yellow, drawing the disruptor and pointing it at its head. She raised her watch and showed the telly the message Aliza had beamed her. The telly’s bug eyes glimmered with understanding. “Stay down.”

She quickly made a pair of hardlight handcuffs and shackled the telly’s wrists together. With all the threats neutralized, Jonquil made her way over to the black cases. One of them was partially open, so she carefully lifted the lid.

A device the size of her head sat inside. It was shaped like an egg and painted in garish colors. There was writing on the side- not the telly’s visual language. Writing Jonquil could read.

Reproducing Nanoparticle Bomb – Easter Module

334-160-92-82

From Your Good Friends At neo_SMOKE

A TORCH-made rabbit bomb.

<== ==>

LUX #19

<== ==>

 

“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.

“Oh?”

“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.

<== ==>

 

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.

<== ==>

BEACON #19

<== ==>

“The quiet woman with us is Chryse,” Fail-Not said. “She’s a LUX Senior Fellow- one of the foremost xenopologists in all of TORCH. She primarily studies the Neighbors.”

“Hello,” said the woman to Anna’s left. Anna was lean and Fail-Not skinny, but Chryse was full-figured and rotund. Her small eyes glimmered with something strange from behind her spectacles. She didn’t wear any armor, rather she was clad in durable canvas clothes. A major risk indeed, although a scientist wouldn’t know how to pilot an AEGIS.

“She doesn’t talk much,” said Anna, “but she’s great at what she does. Don’t pay her too much mind, she’s focused on her research.”

“Why’d you bring her?” Lucifera asked.

Chryse shifted her weight uncomfortably and stared at the floor. “Interesting phenomena on this planet.” Her voice was soft and thin.

“Any particular reason why you brought a scientist into a warzone?” said Amalek, who along with Zabda had come to the front to join them. “Mater. Colonel Amalek Kavod.”

Anna grinned enthusiastically. “Kavod! Sapiens, I haven’t seen one of you in foreeever. You look just like Ziklag Kavod. He had bright red hair, though. Yours is the same as Fail-Not’s.”

Amalek blinked stupidly. “You… knew Ziklag?”

“Knew him? I worked side-by-side with him for years! He tended to draw a lot of attention to himself… the only male on Astra’s entire executive committee. He might have even succeeded Astra instead of Grace, were it not for that thing between his legs.” Her smile flickered for just a moment. “But that was so, so long ago- before there was even a TORCH. You look exactly the same as him, down to that big ole chip on your shoulder.”

“I don’t have a chip-” Amalek stopped himself. “You didn’t answer my question, Mater.”

“So I didn’t.” Anna turned around. “Chryse, mind briefing the legata and her staff on what we’ve found? That should take care of most of their annoying questions.”

“Yes Anna,” said Chryse obediently. “But it’d be easier to demonstrate. Legata, would you and your commanders follow me?”

“Sure. Uhhh, Sheba, come here,” Lucifera said into her watch. Tamar and Ruth had remained topside.

The legata, two of her colonels, and her corporal bodyguard followed Chryse over to one of the walls at the back of the chamber. “It’s very subtle,” Chryse said, pointing her light at the the wall, “to the point that you wouldn’t notice it. But the moment the ground curves downward, the room also widens and widens. This tunnel complex has a hub- and we’re standing in it.”

The walls were covered in painted carvings: hundreds of them, too many scenes for Herod’s eyes to follow all at once. They all depicted tall, skinny, long-necked creatures- Neighbors- in a variety of scenes.

“My area of study is the Ropinqa,” said Chryse. She straightened out her posture and squared her shoulders… at last, she was back in her element. “You call them Neighbors or Romeos. A-as soldiers, your primary concern is how best to fight and kill them… but I seek to understand the way they think and behave.” She couldn’t fully suppress the bitterness in her voice. “I-I have never seen carvings like these before.”

“I’ve never seen Romeo art before,” said Amalek wondrously. “The lizards don’t seem to have much of a mind for beauty.”

Chryse nodded in almost worshipful fascination. “They are far more utilitarian than us… usually. Um, so that’s the first strange thing. Art for art’s sake is… much rarer among their kind.”

She shined her light on one of the scenes. A Neighbor wearing a skirt and cape standing on an elevated platform. A few dozen others surrounded it, kneeling in prostration. “Ropinqa culture is high individualistic. Mass action is only observed with the promise of money, prestige, a choice of mates… they don’t have cults of personality or spiritual leaders. A Ropinqa is loyal to themselves, their close blood relatives, material gain. The stories we tell ourselves to justify our ideals hold little sway with them. Mass action comes at the doing of some exceptional Ropinqa who cultivates admiration for their abilities. Which makes this engraving truly baffling.”

“They’re… worshipping,” said Sheba, her lip curled in disgust. “The one in the middle is a… god or a prophet or something.”

“Those clothes are not known to me,” said Chryse softly. “I’ve been to twenty different Ropinqa-occupied worlds, including their homeworld. Never once have I seen them wear such garments. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to ascertain what is being worshipped. But yes, it seems religious in nature- we don’t understand their faith well, but we’ve never seen this type of behavior before.”

<== ==>

OPTICA #18

<== ==>

Jonquil used her watch to make an airtight helmet membrane that would at least protect her nose, mouth and eyes from the garbage water. She wouldn’t be able to breathe while wearing it, of course. “My record is two minutes, by the way,” she told Aliza. “For holding my breath, I mean.”

“Because I’m worried about you, I’ll spare you the comment I want to make.”

“Thank you. You done yet?”

Aliza grunted. “Maybe. You’re gonna get a request in a second, accept it and we’ll see how it goes.”

Sure enough, her watch buzzed. “You have received a priority message from Alizarin Fete,” it read. “It contains a potentially malicious download. Do not accept priority messages from accounts you do not recognize.

Jonquil tapped accept. And her eyes turned off.

“Well?” she asked, trying to keep the terror out of her voice in favor of impatience. “Did it work?”

“I… believe it did, yes! I can see the room you’re in and… yep, I can apply infrared too. Okay, you ready to swim?”

Jonquil tightened her jacket and took several deep breaths. “You’ll guide me verbally through this,” she said. “I’m placing my life in your hands here, Aliza. Don’t fuck it up.” She put the air bubble on over her head, then stepped forward to plunge into the abyss.

Jonquil could feel the sticky, grimy water clinging to her jacket, seeping into her pants and coat, soaking her in its oily embrace. She swam methodically, following Aliza’s instructions- things like “you’re too high, swim down,” or “take a left,” or “oh Sapiens, what is that? Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

The seconds went by with agonizing slowness. This was probably the worst thing she had ever done- the only redeeming bit was that she didn’t have time to dwell on it.

But it ended. Everything ended if you gritted your teeth and beared it for long enough.

“There, 122,” Aliza said in her ear. “Swim up and slightly to the right, then follow the curvature of the ceiling.” Jonquil probed above her until she found the opening, then swam up to the surface. Pulling the air bubble off, Jonquil greedily sucked down air- not caring that the air was fetid and rotten.

She still couldn’t see a thing, but gradually the world settled around her to the point that she was able to pull herself out of the tub. Her clothes were heavy with wastewater, so she stripped off her jacket and bunched it up under her arm. “I don’t suppose you’d help pay for a new outfit?” she asked, choking back the urge to vomit.

“No chance, Diakon. I’m gonna try to give you your vision back now…” Several moments of silence. “Ooh. Well, the good news is that I know a good surgeon for prosthetic eyes.”

“Aliza.”

“Just kidding! Here you go.” Jonquil’s vision returned all at once, and she staggered forward a step from the rush. After a moment, she regained herself.

The sooner this was over, the better. “You get a glimpse inside with the infrared?” Jonquil muttered, creeping closer to the door.

“Yep. Four of them in there, all packing. Do you want me to send you a message for them? A warning or something?”

Jonquil checked the propulsor and found that the green light was still on- that meant it was operational. The particle disruptor on the other hand, ugly even when clean, was obviously jammed. That was bad: the propulsor was a non-lethal instrument with a short range. The disruptor was an all-too-deadly weapon that would tilt the odds in her favor.

But just because she knew the disruptor wasn’t working didn’t mean everyone else did. “I have a message for ’em,” Jonquil said. “‘Show me how to say, ‘stay down’.’”

She creaked the door open.

<== ==>

LUX #18

<== ==> (Coming 7/24/2019) 

Eve’s heart had only just settled from the encounter with Cressida. She glanced down at her tea, covering her mouth with her cup to hide her snarl. “Of course,” she said, all of her willpower going into keeping her voice neutral. “The Mater’s work on the links between Titans and teleoarcanism are essential.”

“Certainly. I never got the chance to work with the Mater Veneficis, but I was at her periphery.” Nysa inspected her nails with exaggerated indifference. “She worked closely with Hyperion, who worked closely with Libera, who worked closely with me. I’m not much of a scientist, but even I could see the beauty of her writings on the Titans. Her enthusiasm and love of her craft… it shone through in every word of every paper.”

Eve peeked up and nodded. “Yes…  her writings were the underpining for much of my research. I also never met her, though.” That much Eve could say with confidence. She had never met Maia Oread- although she had read some of her papers years earlier. The late Docent Oread was an adequate researcher with a solid writing style, but her methodology was faulty and her thinking shallow. Nothing special- Eve had in fact forgotten all about them until last night.

“That’s a shame. Eve fascinates me, you know.” Nysa folded her hands on the table as she leaned in. “In the same way, oh, Stalin fascinates me. How someone so brilliant could be so vile. How she could write with such sensitivity and wisdom, and commit such a horrific atrocity.”

Eve shut her eyes. The pounding of her heart was like the clanging of a hammer against an anvil. She sweat like a hog, and the smell of ozone filled her nostrils. “Yes,” she squeaked out. “I agree.”

Nysa’s eyes glimmered with triumph. “You seem to have strong opinions on the Mater, May- would that be right?”

Eve just nodded.

“I wonder. Are there any other Matres you have a high opinion of? Say… Schwarzschild? The Mater Peregrina?”

The late founder of SMOKE, who committed suicide rather than face tribunal for high treason. Now there was someone Eve didn’t think about very often… probably because she hated Schwarzschild’s guts.

Even before her meltdown, Eve had difficulty keeping her temper much of the time- a problem exacerbated a hundred times over by Schwarzschild. Like Eve, she had been gifted with incredible magical abilities. was called Field Equation, the magnificent power over portals let Schwarzschild only move whole starships across the cosmos. Not only that, she could also gift a weaker form of her powers to others. The latter ability let Schwarzschild create an entire branch centered around her and her ability.

But unlike Eve, oh-so-careful every minute of every day of every year to keep Born from Atom in check, Schwarzschild used Field Equation without a care. That was a deadly quality for a portal operator. Countless girls died because their portal opened hundreds of feet above or below ground, or the depths of space, the middle of the sea, the inside of a star…

But what made Eve truly loathe the woman was that Schwarzschild never admitted fault or apologized. Eve lost her temper once and it led to several dozen deaths- something she’d never be able to forgive herself for. Schwarzschild let millions die over the decades because of her laxness, and never spared them a whit of grief.

Strangely, thinking of Schwarzschild went a long way to calming her down. Perhaps because it let her focus her hatred on one target instead of everyone and everything. “Sorry?” she asked Nysa.

“Many in LUX are big fans of Schwarzschild… some would even consider their loyalties to lie with her. There was a newsphere poll recently about the approval rate of neo_SMOKE across branches… over eighty percent of LUX girls said they approved.” Nysa shook her head, her golden hairbun bobbing. “I don’t understand it myself. Why would anyone choose to worship someone who failed on every level? And yet, countless do… some even down here.”

It clicked into place. Nysa had licked the truth… but mistaken the flavor. “You think I’m neo_SMOKE,” Eve said softly.

Nysa gave her a hard smile. “I never said that.”

“You think that I, disillusioned by Eve’s fall, rejected LUX and instead became a member of neo_SMOKE. Now I’m just a LUX agent on paper.” They both knew this, but talking it out was Eve’s most effective methods of calming down. “And I came down here to…?”

“That’s what I’d like to know. Nobody gets transferred down here- ever. So what makes you so special? Your file is devoid of anything but cliches. There are a million women just like you- and yet they sent you down here. Why?”

<== ==> (Coming 7/24/2019) 

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.

<== ==>

BEACON #18

<== ==>

They had deployed the flashlights attached to the Gawain and Vishnu’s collarbone. 500 women with powerful flashlights made for queer shadows on the roofs and walls.

There was no way that Neighbors carved these tunnels. It had absolutely nothing in common with the citadel from yesterday that wound and widened, shrunk and stopped abruptly.

The architecture was ten times more disturbing than the citadel, but for a completely different reason. It was too perfectly precise. Every single corridor ended in a right angle, every wall smoothed out with geometric rigor and a hint of obsession.

She stuck close to Amalek. Even in the lighter Vishnu AEGIS, he was awkward and ungainly. “Not much for armor, are you ma’am?” she asked him.

Amalek’s helmet betrayed no emotion but she could easily imagine his scowl. “Not all of us are meatheaded jocks like you, Corporal,” he shot. “My contribution to this legion is the massive brain between my ears that turns your hands and feet into a productive tool of destruction. Thank me later.”

“He’s insecure about it,” whispered Zabda, who had been walking a few steps behind. “Corporal, please don’t bully your commanding officer. Treat him gently.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Herod. “I was wondering what our highly intelligent and gifted colonel thought of these tunnels.”

Amalek seemed mollified by the compliment. He ran his hand along the wall experimentally. “Something’s strange,” he muttered. “The architecture’s all wrong. So, did the Neighbors even carve these tunnels?”

“Who else?” asked Zabda with a shrug. “We haven’t seen any locals.”

“Isn’t that weird too?” Amalek asked. “Look at this planet. Sure, this is a drier part of it, but it’s lush and verdant, fifty percent water, well within its star’s habitable zone. It should be teeming with life. All we’ve seen though are the Neighbors. Where did the natives go?”

“Extinct?” asked Herod. “Wiped out by the Neighbors, perhaps?”

“It’s possible. I’m not an xenopologist, so I can’t-” Amalek tripped over his feet and nearly went down in a heap, but he quickly righted himself. “Don’t laugh!” he snapped.

Herod didn’t laugh. “So colonel, you have no idea about these tunnels?”

“No- nor am I sure what we’re even doing here.” Amalek grunted. “I’d like a word with the Mater. Playing hide-and-seek down here is stupid- we have a war to fight.”

Zabda shook her head vigorously. “Amalek, you successfully managed to piss off the second-scariest woman in BEACON. Can you at least try not to also make an enemy of the first-scariest in the same day?”

Amalek didn’t reply. He was too busy navigating the downward sloping ground. Then without warning, the entire expedition stopped.

Herod made her way to the front and found Lucifera with two other women. One was Anna, who gave her a happy little wave. “Hey, hey Herod!” she cried. “Come here, I want you to meet someone!”

“A friend of yours, Anna?” crisply asked one of the strangers, a tiny, delicate thing at the Mater’s side. Like Anna, she wore an Isis AEGIS. Unlike Anna, she was small and girlish, with heavy bags under her eyes. “This is what you were wasting time on? Annoying the rank-and-file?”

Herod stood at Lucifera’s side. “Who might you be?” she asked.

“Fail-Not,” said the short woman. “I’m a-”

“-Verbena,” Herod finished, her gaze darkening. “You’re the Mater’s Verbena. Her assistant.”

Fail-Not cocked an eyebrow. “Not many of you meathead soldiers who know about us. Do you have a problem with Verbena?”

“…No,” said Herod, sincerely. “I used to be acquainted with one of yours, that’s all.” Herod was careful to keep emotion out of her voice, although she didn’t entirely succeed.

“Herod’s mysteeerious,” said Anna, wiggling her fingers dramatically. “Cool, right? She’s kinda like Loose Lucy’s Verbena.”

“I am not.” Herod rounded on the Mater. “I’m her bodyguard, voluntarily.”

“Oof, touchy. Sorry, it was just a dumb joke.” Anna put up her hands innocently. The colonels gaped at Herod, who had gotten in the Mater’s face without realizing it.

“…My apologies,” Herod muttered, shrinking back.

Fail-Not glared. “Anna, what did you say to this woman?”

“Nothing. Just spooked her a little with the invisibility.” Anna grinned. “Fail-Not’s the brains of my operation. She keeps everything in order for me. I wouldn’t be shit without her.”

“And don’t you forget it,” said the small woman. “Please forgive Anna if she gave any offense.”

Lucifera looked between the two women. “I’ve never seen a Verbena treat her Mater the way you treat yours, Fail-Not,” she said.

“Well, the little squirt was trained to my specifications,” said Anna cheerfully. “I can get kinda lazy if nobody’s lighting a fire under my ass.” She affectionately ruffled Fail-Not’s short dark blue hair. “Ain’t she cute, though?”

Fail-Not’s face gave nothing away, but the moment Anna removed her hand she smoothed her hair out.

<== ==>

OPTICA #17

<== ==>

After several torturous minutes of descent… movement. Shuffling and clicking sounded from the next stairwell down. Tellies, quite a few of them. Jonquil waited as long as she dared but they made no signs of moving.

She had little choice but to go through the nearest door back to the rows of apartments. There was more activity here as little creatures that wouldn’t come to her waist chased each other through the halls. Telly juveniles, who had yet to shed their back legs. Their heads were bulbous and heavy on their tiny torsos as they played just like children- horrifying frog alien children.

Jonquil waited for their play to take them down a bend in the hall, then rushed down as quickly as she dared. This was taking too long. The sun would be down soon, and tellies grew more active at night. Not only that, but the tellies could see in the dark and Jonquil could not- she’d be at a major disadvantage.

She made her way to the other end of the building, found the second staircase, and moved down. This time the stairwell was empty, allowing her to access the ground floor. The smell was even worse down here. “Aliza,” she muttered. “I’m on the ground. Now what?”

“Oh, you’re still alive?” Aliza’s voice came in through the cochlear implant that interfaced with her watch. “I was wondering which of your stuff I could have.”

“You can have my boot lodged up your ass. C’mon, I don’t have any time to waste.”

“Yeah yeah. Okay… the apartment number is 122. Looks like this.” A trio of vertically-arranged geometric symbols appeared in a small hologram over her watch. “Find those.”

Numbers were the only bit of telly language that made sense to Jonquil, because they were universal. Two plus two was four on every planet, in every culture. Two of the symbols, silvery horseshoes, were identical. Jonquil deduced them to be twos.

She went on a hunt for rooms with the silver horseshoe as the middle number, all the while sticking to the shadows. There were a few armed tellies patrolling the floor, but lackadasically. They were prepared for an attack, not an infiltration.

Jonquil wasn’t the Mater Sicario or anything, she wouldn’t have stood a chance against professional anti-infiltration measures. But the Drowned Star were angry young men with big guns and no formal training.

After several minutes of searching, she discovered the 120’s in a curving hallway. It was infested with guards, several of them huddled outside 122, playing a gambling game with leaves. Jonquil gritted her teeth and ducked into a corridor. “I found the apartment but there’s no way in,” she hissed into her watch. “No less than ten guards out front. Our boy doesn’t take chances.”

“Shit.” Aliza was silent for several moments .”I… have an idea. How long can you hold your breath?”

“Aliza, I swear, there’s a time and a place-”

“Not for that. Telly apartments have disposal shafts for waste and trash. Those shafts are flooded and they connect the apartments to one another. You could swim through one of the neighboring water tunnels and up the bomb maker’s, get into his apartment like that.”

“Swim through a literal river of shit, eh?” Jonquil looked down. Her poor, poor outfit. This jacket would not only never be worn again, she’d probably have to burn it. “How am I going to see down there?”

“Well… good question. You have a neural implant, right?”

“Two. One to interface with tech and one to monitor vitals.” Jonquil instantly grew suspicious. “Why?”

“I can jailbreak that sensor and interface with it to see through your eyes… and then apply my own infrared vision to make your way through the tunnel. Um, you’d be blind while I was doing that, and possibly forever depending on how the jailbreak goes.” Aliza paused. “Wait, shit, you’re going to tell me to do it. Okay, I can’t actually, it was a joke, haha.”

“Aliza. Do it.” Jonquil rubbed her temples. “Just shut up and do it and don’t blind me if you can. How long will you need?”

“A few minutes. Get as close as possible to 122. You’ll still need to hold your breath and swim.”

With a nod, Jonquil peeked back at the hallway. She could probably make it to 128 without being detected, the only guard there had its back to her. Jonquil crept past, opened the door and slid inside with barely a peep.

The apartment was small: just a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. The latter was her destination, and fortunately the room was empty save for some kind of slimy water snake that slid past her boot. Jonquil gazed down the brown-and-black pit in the floor, where viscous dark liquid sloshed around. The fishy stench was far worse than any of the other foul things she had sniffed today.

Sapiens, did she hate Porropelin.

<== ==>

LUX #17

<== ==>

Eve’s heart began to pound at the prospect of recognition. “Were you ever stationed at Pergamon?” she asked, trying to keep her voice even.

“LUX Command? No… never. Before here, I was only ever stationed in Chantico.”

Her heartbeat only intensified. Maia Oread had never been to Chantico… but Eve Volcanis had spent much of her life there as a well-known public figure. Eve had grown out her hair and hired a neo_SMOKE surgeon to alter her facial features, but things like her body type were harder to disguise. Anyone who had met Eve before would probably recognize her, unless they were particularly oblivious. “Well… maybe we ran into one another somewhere else. What did you do in Chantico?”

“I was BEACON in those days. Worked at a checkpoint.” BEACON was TORCH’s military arm, they partially handled security services in the capital. “Did you ever go there for vacation or something…?”

Coronis interjected before Eve could respond. “May, didn’t you present your research at a symposium in Chantico?”

“Oh! Oh yes.” That was a good cover. LUX ran multiple symposiums a year in Chantico, and it would be the main reason for an owl of May’s station to travel there. “Yes, I suppose that must have been when we met.”

“Huh, okay.” Cress didn’t sound convinced. “Well, it’s nice to remeet you. Uh, I wanted to talk to Eyes about something, but if she’s busy…”

“No, no, I’m finished.” Eirene stood up. “Um, I’ll see you later May. Cress and I will be in the engine room.”

The two of them left the mess hall, leaving Eve alone with Coronis who finished up her sandwich. “You and Eirene really hit it off, huh,” the smuggler said, a burning woman and an angel dancing beneath her chin. “You know who she reminds me of sometimes? Juno, the Mater Sapientia.”

Juno flashed through Eve’s mind. The gentle, doe-eyed, astonishingly brilliant woman who was Eve’s very favorite conversationalist. Soft and kind, but strong as steel in her convictions and unrelenting in her pursuit of truth. Emerald of hair and eyes, quick to joy and tears, and the best scholar Eve had ever known.

Eve had reduced her to a charred pile of meat.

 “You never met Juno,” she said through her teeth.

“But you do see the resemblance, right? I was a biiiig fan, almost as much as I was of you. You gotta understand, I spent so much time reading about Matres, I feel like I’ve known you for years now.”

“So I’m just as the texts describe me?”.

Corey shook her head, her curls bouncing. “Nah. You’re way cooler in person. Anyways, how did you and Eirene become such good friends?”

Eve hesitated to tell the story to Coronis, but decided to be truthful. Peitho was going to be a problem moving forward. “…so now I have to protect Eirene. It seems to me like Cressida is the one who ought to handle that, but whatever.”

“Cress? She’s… well, don’t expect too much from her.” Coronis sipped her coffee. The story had no visible effect on her. “Poor thing can barely choose what socks to wear in the morning, let alone to stand up to someone like Peitho.”

“She knew me,” Eve hissed. “Maybe we met in Chantico… I don’t remember her. But if we did meet, it’s only a matter of time before-”

“May, May, may I ask you to stop worrying so much?” Coronis moved to put a hand on her shoulder, but realized what a bad idea that was midmotion. “We can handle Peitho. We can definitely handle silly old Cress. I invited you down here because I thought the calm and quiet would help relax you… but how are you going to do that if you keep inventing problems for yourself?”

Eve scowled. Did Coronis not see how this was her fault? She brought Eve down to this godforsaken base where tinpot tyrants like Peitho thrived. She failed to vet everyone properly, putting Eve close to at least two people who could recognize her. She didn’t account for the suspicions of Nysa. All because of how excited Coronis was at the prospect of her very own Mater friend. “So what are we going to do? Just… nothing?”

A visage of what looked to be Eve and Coronis dressed as burglars appeared by Coronis’ head. “I didn’t say that. I’ll talk to Peitho- she and I have an understanding. Cress though, she’s truly no threat to you or anyone.” Coronis stood up. “Okay, I gotta lot to do today but we should get dinner together!”

She wandered off, leaving Eve to finish her meal alone.

Eve expected most of the crew to bother her with introductions, but they were giving her a wide berth. Not that she was complaining, she hated to awkwardly seek common ground with a stranger. She’d prefer curling up with a long, boring research paper in her room any time.

But it remained unsettling. None of them had any interest in the first newcomer to the base ever? 

Eve hadn’t quite polished off her plate when Nysa approached. “Good morning, docent,” she said, hands folded behind her back. As yesterday, Nysa stood out with her meticulous and professional dress sense. Today it was a butter-yellow pantsuit with a jacket that went down to her knees. “This seat free?”

“Not unless there are invisible girls down here.”

Nysa smiled with half her mouth. “I knew an owl like that. Naturally there was a twist to it: she couldn’t turn her bones invisible. If she lost her focus she turned into a shambling, levitating skeleton. It was probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Eve mustered her most polite smile. There was no way Nysa was here for small talk. She was here to squeeze Eve for more information.

Nysa sat across from her and stared a hole into Eve. “I was reviewing your file again, docent, and I wanted to ask you more about your Pergamon deployment. I was there for several years, but I don’t believe we ever met.”

“It’s a ringworld,” Eve replied cautiously. “A floating city. Close to a million agents live there, not all of them LUX.”

“Very true. Plus, you were a researcher while I was on the administrative side of things. I read the papers you published on Pergamon and found them illuminating- especially your theories on the Titans.” Nysa chuckled ruefully. “You know who studied the Titans extensively? The Mater Veneficis. Eve Volcanis.”

<== ==>

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.

<== ==>

BEACON #17

<== ==>

“Loose Lucy!” Anna exclaimed happily. “Man, it’s been years, hasn’t it? When was the last time we met?”

“Gabros-1, I think. A quarter-century ago.” Lucifera paused. “I’m a bit surprised you remember me.”

“You kidding? I never forget a face- especially not a cute one like yours.” She glanced at Ruth. “You were there too, but I don’t remember your name.”

“Colonel R-ruth Lakham.” All the color had drained out of her face. “I-it’s an honor, Mater.”

“Just Anna, please. I mean, you technically outrank me.” Anna winked… or maybe she blinked. It was hard to tell as she only had the one eye. “And lastly would be… you.”

Herod met Anna’s curious gaze. “Corporal Herod Makkaba,” she said. “I’m the colonel’s personal protection detail. Pleased to meet you, Mater.”

“Interesting.” Anna scratched her nose. “Well, I’m the Mater Sicario, but you can call me Anna too.”

The Mater Sicario… the amount of stories about her were staggering and generally hard to believe. She didn’t seem stuck-up like Berenice, but the friendliness was somehow worse. “It’s an honor,” Herod said automatically. “That’s the Isis AEGIS, isn’t it? That’s how you turn invisible?”

“Colonel!” Ruth hissed. “M-Mater, please forgive her impudence. She’s very new to the legion, she doesn’t know-”

“Ruthy baby, chill your tits.” Anna flapped her hand. Ruth shut up instantly. “I’m as far removed from that sort of thing as I can. And you got it in one, Herod.” Anna did a little pivot, showing off how the catsuit hugged her whip-handle-lean thighs. “AEGIS Mark XVII. Isis. It doesn’t have all the weapons from the Gawain, and barely any armor, and it can’t fly. But it has some fun tricks.”

The Isis AEGIS was worn mostly by BEACON_Unorthodox, who handled guerrilla, counterrevolutionary, sabotage, and other black operations. Herod had never tried it on herself. It didn’t fit her problem-solving style. “Are you the VIP that we’ve been sent to guard, Mater?” Herod asked, keeping her voice polite.

“I said to just call me Anna. And yeah, that’s me! Well, one of three. But the other two are kinda my groupies.” Anna pointed at the ground. “They’re down below right now.”

Lucifera cocked an eyebrow. “In the tunnels? Mater Si-”

Anna.” There was some firmness behind it that time.

“…Anna, what are you doing on this planet? It’s… well.” Lucifera hesitated. “Kra-ki-wa isn’t exactly the shining center of TORCH space. About as far removed from that as you can get..”

“Well, that’s the great thing about being a Mater. I can do pretty much whatever I like. So I thought this would be a nice place to go, and now I’m here.” Anna showed her teeth. “Don’t worry your pretty green head about it too much, Loose Lucy. You know me- I can take care of myself.”

“Then why do you need an entire legion as an escort?” asked Herod.

Anna turned her attentions back to her. Herod finally realized what was so disturbing about the way she moved… it was clipped. Most people would turn their entire upper body to face her, but all Anna did was move her head a few degrees to the right. “Great question. I don’t know. Is that why you guys are here?”

Herod stared. “You’re telling me you didn’t requisition our support, Ma- Anna?”

Without a word, Anna turned invisible once more. Her body shimmered momentarily before vanishing from sight.

“Anna! Shit.” Lucifera pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why did it have to be her? Ruth, tell Amalek, Sheba, and Tamar that the VIP is the Mater Sicario.”

“Y-yes ma’am,” said Ruth. “B-but I want to say… I’m not comfortable with this. We aren’t bodyguards… and it’s the Mater Sicario. You know her reputation.”

“The operative word is Mater. As in, we do what she says.” Lucifera grunted. “Anna’s not how some people think she is, but you’re right to be wary. Just… give her space and do as she asks. If it seems really sketchy, come to me. Tell the other colonels the same. Capem?”

“…Capem, legata.” Ruth staggered away.

Lucifera limped towards the tunnels, favoring her left leg more than she had before. “Ruth seemed intimidated,” said Herod, keeping her voice neutral. “But you weren’t, legata. Do you and the Mater have some history?”

“Nothing so fanciful.” Lucifera smiled wistfully. “She and I go way back. All we old biddies have been around for such a long time that our paths have crossed once or twice. Anna… well, there’s not many people like her in this galaxy. Maybe she’s the only one. Hope so- one of her is enough.”

“Are, err, the stories true about her, ma’am?” Herod dropped her voice to a hush. “Did she really kill 200 Neighbors death commandos in an evening without any weapons?”

“Ask her that one. I do have it on good authority that the one about her standing still for seventy hours straight is true. Let me put it like this: a Mater is the best, the absolute best, at whatever her little niche is. For example, Berenice is the Mater Bellum because she’s bar none the best soldier in TORCH- a lot of people might hate her, but nobody knows how to fight a war like she can.”

“And Anna is the Mater Sicario,” said Herod. “The Mother of Assassins.”

“So she’s the best professional murderer in TORCH. Try to stay on her good side.” Lucifera picked up the pace. “C’mon. I don’t like tunnels so I don’t want to spend any more time in there than I have to.”

<== ==>