HEARTH #28

<== ==>

Henrietta stared dumbfounded at Enron. The things she was saying… they went beyond conspiracy theories. “You’re full of shit,” she said matter-of-factly.

“How do you know that?” Enron shot. “How can you be sure? You’ve never even seen Gabros-1, all you know about it is what you’ve read about it in BEACON-approved accounts.”

“Do you have evidence?” Henrietta demanded. “Let me see your proof. Cuz you sound like nothing more than a crank.”

“They called me a crank when I said they were trying to suppress LUX‘s division into four branches- but I was right. They called me a crank when I said BEACON and MIRROR were secretly training slaves for the Matres- and years later, when the first Verbena were ready to serve, they declassified the program.” Enron shook her head with conviction. “I know it. There’s no way the version Grace has spoonfed the rest of you is true. She murdered Medici, as good as killed her with her two hands.”

A new emotion entered the fray for Henrietta: pity. Cruel and childish as she was, Enron was undoubtedly brilliant. But grief and bias had spoiled her ability to think rationally. She had drawn a conclusion without first examining the evidence- and having emotionally committed to that conclusion, she would brute force the facts to fit what she believed.

The well of Enron’s mind had been poisoned, and Henrietta couldn’t help but feel bad for the radiant goddess towering over her. “It’s just not true,” she told Enron sadly.

Enron waved that aside. “It doesn’t matter. Gabros-1… you said it yourself, a medieval civilization. Two billion members of the dominant race lived on that planet across thousands of tribes, hundreds of tribal leagues. They were great lovers of music- I happen to be a big fan of what little survived. Every day on Gabros-1, creatures lived and loved and hated just like us, and then one day we came down and turned them into piles of ash. Is that right, soldier girl? I loved Medici more than anyone, but even if the official story is true, I never wanted to see billions killed to ‘avenge’ her death.”

Enron was animatedly furious, her eyes wide and her nostrils flared. “It was politics. A way to prove the importance of the Matres to a new generation who had forgotten all their ‘great sacrifices’. An excuse for TORCH branches to collaborate as a way to fight their increasing independence. Who benefits from that? Your damn Mater. Grace Diakon killed an entire world because she felt her power slipping.”

Henrietta refused to believe it. That couldn’t possibly be true- and yet she didn’t know enough to formulate a defense. 

She wished Grace was here. 

“What do you want from me?” she asked, trying to sound tough and knowing she instead came off as hoarse and whiny.

“I’m here to tell you: you don’t have to stay with her. As it happens… I could make use of your talents.” Enron grinned. “You think much more like me than you do her. It’s only natural.”

Henrietta stopped in her tracks. So. Enron hadn’t just come to fuck with her, or to preach her insane ideology.  “A recruitment attempt? It’s a fucking shoddy one.”

“Nah. It’s brilliant. Everything I do is brilliant.” Enron turned to face Henrietta, calmly unbuttoning her body-obscuring cloak. “That feeling you get when you’re around me? That’s your brain trying to tell you that I’m the choice, not her. Because when she talks, you hear a bitter old woman lamenting the good old days. And when I talk, you hear a vision of the future. We both believe in what we’re saying- but the difference is, I want TORCH to be better and she’s scared of seeing TORCH change. And in your heart, soldier girl, you know TORCH has to change.”

Enron shrugged off her cloak, revealing the sleeveless leotard and short skirt underneath. It hugged her bountiful figure, every curve ample, every sinew and muscle radiating awesome power.

Henrietta’s knees were weak. She had never been so attracted to someone in her life- and she hated Enron’s guts.

“I can see it in your eyes, soldier girl,” the CEO cooed. “I can see that one day you’ll be mine.” Enron’s soft palm rested on Henrietta’s cheek, sending shivers through her body. “I’ve planted the idea in your mind, and it’ll grow and grow until you’re exactly as I want you to be.”

Her head felt swoony from Enron’s everything: her look, her smell, her smile, her titanic raw power. It was intoxicating, completely different from the effect Grace had.

Grace.

Henrietta sobered up and slapped Enron’s hand away. “Don’t you touch me,” she said from the back of her throat. “You think you have me figured out? Fuck you. I’m nobody’s property- and if you think I’m some stupid thing you can toy with at your leisure, then you’ll find that this plaything hits back.”

Without another word, Henrietta turned and stomped away. The first beams of sunlight peaked out over the horizon.

<== ==>

HEARTH #27

<== ==> 

“Do you have anything to say to me that isn’t an insult?” Henrietta demanded. “Because I may just go home if not.”

“Ah… I guess there is something beneath the skin.” Enron’s eyes twinkled. “You meant both those threats, at least in the moment you delivered them. But you won’t walk away. You’re too interested- and you can’t possibly leave alone something that interests you. You either probe it and explore it until it breaks, or until it rears up and bites you back. Do you know why I interest you, soldier girl?”

Henrietta just glowered. Once again, Enron read her like a book: she couldn’t just walk away, she didn’t even want to. She wanted to find the magical combination of words to wipe that grin off Enron’s face, but they weren’t coming.

“I interest you because we are exactly the same, plus or minus some years,” crowed Enron. “Grace, she’s a sneaky old bird. She knows she can’t beat me, so she got her own version of me instead.”

“You keep her name out of your mouth,” Henrietta hissed.

Enron continued as though she hadn’t spoke. “And that’s why I’m interested in you back. Because I look at you and I see myself. And I’m very fond of myself. But you’re not quite there yet, are you? Just an overpraised and overpromoted thug, at least for now.” Enron shook her head. “It can’t be forced, y’know. I didn’t become this way overnight. It was years and years of hard work- but even more pain. That’s one thing your Mater and I agree on: people are nothing until they suffer, no more than a lump of metal is anything until it’s heated and beaten.”

Henrietta didn’t want to listen. She wanted to go home. And yet, her legs moved mechanically to keep pace with Enron’s massive strides. “Jokes on you. I’ll never be anything like you,” she said with a nasty smile of her own. “I’m going to be like Grace- just like her. Even if you manage to beat her, you’ll never be rid of her, Enron. I’ll carry my Mater’s legacy a thousand years into the future if I have to, just to make sure your vision never becomes a reality.”

Enron clapped a few times, although it didn’t seem sarcastic. She seemed… genuinely pleased. “Perfect! Now you’re starting to sound like a real Chantican! Soldier girl, let me ask you something. You know you don’t know much about politics or history or… really any of the things you should know about for your job. All you really know is what you’ve been told by others in BEACON, and I’ll bet they’re all the same in the way they think. So how do you know your cause is just?”

There was something about the way Enron talked. Her voice was so strong, each word hit like an uppercut. Ordinarily Henrietta would have just ignored her, but… maybe she had a point. “I’m not a scholar,” she said after a few moments of contemplation. “But I’ve read the founding charter of BEACON. I believe in those words. ‘We fight to deliver light to a universe swallowed by darkness. We shall kindle a series of beacons from Earth to the distant stars, in every clime a shining signal. We bloody our hands so others have the luxury not to.'” She glared at Enron. “Somehow I don’t think they had you in mind when they wrote that.”

“Ha! Recited like a good trooper.” Enron broke into a mock military march. “Come ooon. You’re not stupid. You know that you’re out of your depth here.”

“Gonna assign me a reading list?” Henrietta asked dryly.

“I don’t read- I don’t have time.” How was she this chipper and energetic at this awful hour? Nobody should be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed before sunrise. “I’m going to tell you a story instead.”

Great.”

“It’s a good one- it’s the story of the Scourging of Gabros-1.” The cheeky smile left Enron’s face, and her eyes glittered with something dark. “You’re familiar with it?’

“Everyone in BEACON knows about it.”

“Edify me then. What do they teach soldier girls?”

Henrietta hesitated. She didn’t want to get any of the details wrong, but it had been years since she had read about the infamous campaign. “Ermm. Gabros-1 was a populated planet, medieval tech level, most of the locals were tribal. Friendly enough, until a radical killed… some Mater.”

“Medici,” said Enron immediately, her voice soft and wistful. “The Mater Auri. Founder of SPRING. My mother.”

“…Yeah, her.” Henrietta hadn’t even been alive during the Scourging. She knew next to nothing about Medici. “A xeno killed her. And that triggered an, umm, response. All of TORCH‘s might bore down on Gabros-1 to send a message to all alien races, now and forever: fuck with a Mater and we fuck with you back- and we fuck harder than anyone else.”

This next part was the one she knew the most about. “We didn’t just defeat them, we eradicated them. With methodical precision, we turned their cities to glass and their peoples to ash. After the fleet was done pounding them, the legions came in to finish the job. We killed and we killed and we killed until we couldn’t find anyone else to kill, and then we irradiated the planet for good measure. We’ve never done that before or since, but we had to because …  they killed a Mater. Her life was worth more than a hundred billion xeno scum. Now the broken ruins of civilization on Gabros serve as her tombstone.”

“Nice flourish on the end there,” Enron said appreciatively. “That’s a good story. What a pity it’s all lies.”

“What?”

“Medici wasn’t murdered by xenos. She was murdered by Grace Diakon.” The murky darkness in Enron’s eyes finally condensed into something cogent: hatred. “Grace fed Medici false info to lure her to her death. Then she destroyed the evidence, and the rest of the planet while she was at it.”

<== ==> 

HEARTH #26

<== ==>  

Henrietta never slept well after an ass-kicking- and today had been one ass-kicking after another. It was the worst sort of insomnia, the exhausted sleeplessness where the body cries out for rest but the mind stubbornly continues to race.

Enron kicked her ass rhetorically. She made both Henrietta and Grace look worthless and stupid… how could anyone overcome such an overbearing and brutish presence? The worst part was that she was right: Enron was winning. Henrietta wasn’t used to being on a losing team.

Then Manna kicked her ass physically. It was amazing how someone so unassuming could be so effortlessly deadly. Henrietta had been the best hand-to-hand combatant in her legion, and before that the best in her class. She thought it was one of the things she was galaxy-class in- it turned out she had just been a big fish in a small pond.

And Grace… Grace was an ass-kicking just by existing. God damn. Henrietta had no idea what to do about that woman. She had never looked up to someone before, not really- but there was just something about Grace. The myths about her, of which there were countless, didn’t do her justice. She was so certain, so powerful, so polished and yet genuine like a metal masterwork. It was indescribable, the feeling of working in tandem with her. Henrietta still felt like she was dreaming.

But the feeling wasn’t necessarily good. With the stakes so high, the pressure was crushing. Henrietta had been chosen for this job because she was good in a crisis- but while she knew everything worth knowing about soldiering, she was hopelessly out of her depth in the political arena. There’d be no time to get experience. She needed to be superb yesterday- and she wasn’t even close.

So she lay in bed until she was certain sleep would not come. Then she got up and went to make a cup of tea.

As she poured, there was a knocking sound… against her window? This was the fourth story of the apartment building. Someone stood outside, tossing pebbles at the windowpane to get her attention. The person wore an obfuscating black muumuu and featureless mask. They looked like a black ghost in the pale moonlight.

Henrietta’s watch buzzed with a message from a number she didn’t have in her contacts. “sleepless night? fancy a walk?” it read. 

Who are you?” she sent back.

come outside and find out

After a moment’s thought, Henrietta went to the bedroom to get “dressed”. But she didn’t put on sweatpants and a tank top. She opted instead for the suit of AEGIS armor in the corner, throwing on some baggy clothes over it so she’d look chubby but normal to any passerby.

The black ghost waited for her outside… Sapiens, was she huge. Henrietta was scarcely bigger than one of her legs. “Armor, really?” the ghost asked, her voice muffled by her mask. “Paranoid much?”

“No, just prepared.” Henrietta got ready for a fight. No telling what this stranger wanted. “Take that mask off, now.”

The ghost obliged. Thick dark hair tumbled down in rivulets to frame full cheeks, lush lips, and intense green eyes.

Enron.

Henrietta started and moved a step back. “Hey, easy,” Enron said, putting up a hand. “I come in peace, soldier girl. I want to talk.”

“What do you and I have to talk about?”

“Loads.” Enron cocked her head away. “You came to my office because you wanted to find out the sort of person I am, right? Well, I don’t think you got the picture.”

“I learned plenty.” Henrietta kept her voice icy. This was the despicable woman who had said those awful things to Grace, who had treated Henrietta like garbage just a few hours ago. It didn’t matter how hot she was.

Enron merely shrugged. “If that’s what you believe. Go back to bed.” She went to leave- and with a groan, Henrietta jogged after her.

“I’ll give you twenty minutes of my time,” she told Enron. “You try anything funny and I’ll shoot your ass with my propulsor.” The propulsor cannon was non-lethal but hurt like a bitch.

Enron grinned like a kid and slowed her gait. She began to walk towards a park near the edge of BEACON territory. “You’d cause a major incident and ruin Grace. I’m the CEO of SPRING, soldier girl- you’re nobody.”

“Are you saying your life is more valuable than mine?”

“Politically? Without a doubt.” Her smile was patronizing. “Oh, silly soldier girl, don’t they teach you that there are expendable soldiers in wartime? The Matres and the Princepas are the key assets. The brave soldier girls like you are the pawns.”

Enron couldn’t have been more punchable if she tried. Henrietta shook her head, trying to keep her cool as they entered the park. “This is what the famous CEO of SPRING does? Wastes her time insulting expendable pawns? What does that say about you, I wonder?”

Enron ignored her entirely. “I love coming here,” she said brightly as they entered the park. It was naturally abandoned at this ungodly hour, the only sound a gentle breeze sifting through the grass. “BEACON. Enemy territory. The belly of the beast. Knowing that I’m unwelcome… it’s a thrill. You soldier girls, you solve all your problems with killing. No woman, no problem. But you can’t kill me- you can hate me, insult me, threaten me, wish death upon me, but you’ll never have the stones to kill me.”

“I could right now,” snarled Henrietta. “I could raise my right hand and reduce to nothingness. And you know what, maybe it’d be worth going down for that. I’d be saving untold millions from you, that’s worth a lot.”

That finally got Enron’s attention. She looked at Henrietta with pure amusement on her face. “You really mean it? Hahahaha, I like you! You have such… spirit! There’s nothing under the surface here- a real live noble savage. I feel like you’d be more in place hunting gazelle with a spear than wearing a suit and voting on taxes.”

Henrietta couldn’t get a read on Enron. The woman before her was childish and pure in a monstrous sort of way, like if a tiger learned to talk. She had nothing in common with the sarcastic iconoclast who delivered that fiery speech in the morning, or the vindictive brute who had been so cruel to her last evening.

<== ==>  

HEARTH #24

<== ==>

 

Some women would have crumbled just standing this close to Enron. Henrietta instead called upon her combat experience. This office was a warzone. This conversation was a gunfight. She had to keep her head, or else she’d die. “Nothing in particular qualifies me for the Sorority, but I’m a fast learner. I could ask you the same thing, though. You’re a businesswoman, not a stateswoman.”

“Please. They’re the same thing. If you’re not getting rich then you’re getting played. I bet you’ve bought into all the claptrap about ‘duty’ and ‘sacrifice’. That’s nothing more than a marketing strategy- a shitty, outdated one.” Enron went to push Henrietta aside, but she telegraphed it. Henrietta bent her knees, rooted her feet, and refused to move.

Fuck, was Enron strong though. If Henrietta hadn’t been ready, she would have been sent flying. “Oh?” Enron cocked an eyebrow and smiled grimly. “Some fight in this one. More than the skank I sent to the hospital.”

“I wanted to apologize for that,” Grace said. “Political disagreements are one thing, but none of my sisters have a right to take a swing at you. I’ll be issuing a statement condemning it.”

“I’m not the one who got her ass kicked.” Enron’s smile only widened. “You really are desperate, huh? You spend your whole life trying to ruin mine, and now you’re here for… what, exactly?”

Grace shook her head. “I’ve never tried to ruin your life, Enron. I’ve never meant you any harm. Any misery I’ve brought you was utterly incidental- I have a lot of people to worry about and I can never please all of them.”

“Bull. Shit. I see right through you.” Enron spoke from the back of her mouth, each word a hateful growl. “You dream of the day that you can mount my head on a pike.” Enron then went to muscle past, but this time Manna stepped forward to cut her off and she hesitated. That was strange… Henrietta was almost twice Manna’s size, a musclebound BEACON asskicker. Manna was a shrimpy secretary. Why did Enron shy away from her? “So did you bring your thugs to beat me up?”

“Exactly the contrary. They’re only here to make sure we don’t come to blows.” Grace’s voice was thin, like it had been stretched and strained.

Henrietta decided now was her moment to step in. “We want our security package to go through,” she said. “You know that. You have the power to make it happen. We want to negotiate.”

“Negotiate? Negotiate?” The huge woman threw her head back and laughed. “Is this why Grace keeps you around, because you amuse her? What could you possibly offer me that’s worth the death of SPRING?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that your ‘security reforms’ are nothing more than a ploy for BEACON to impose its will over us. To steal our freedom.  I’d rather jump out the window than vote for them.”

“What do you want?” Henrietta asked. She was mostly able to keep her tone diplomatic. “Work with us and we can all get what we want: the terrorists brought to justice and the girls safe in their beds. SPRING has suffered too, and we both know OPTICA is helpless.”

Enron sneered. “And BEACON is better? Fine. I’ll tell you my price. I want Grace to step down. I want her to publicly admit that she was behind the death of Medici, the Mater Auri. I want her to admit she helped Eve, the former Mater Volcanis, to escape justice. I want her stripped of her Mater rank and brought before a tribunal to answer for her crimes. I want her to be found guilty and publicly executed, her name to be stricken from the record books and her existence to be forgotten.”

There was silence in the room for a long time. Grace was the one who broke it. “You’d support it in that case?”

Grace?!” Henrietta looked back, wide-eyed. There was no humor or sarcasm evident in the Mater’s face. She meant it.

Enron just laughed. “Not a chance. Even if you died, they’d just martyr you and nothing would change. I’m already winning, Grace. Every day, there are more girls who think and act and talk like me, and less like you. You’re desperate enough to stand here and hope I’ll let you win, or settle for a tie, but I won’t do either. I’ll keep beating you, day after day, year after year, until every last bit of what you’ve done has vanished into the dusts of history.”

Enron jerked her thumb to point at herself. “You’re nothing more than a dinosaur stomping around a world that no longer wants you. I’m your extinction event. Mater, meet Meteor.”

Grace’s face was like ash. “Thank you for your time, Enron. See you tomorrow.” She turned to leave, and Manna hurried after. Henrietta lingered for a moment to meet Enron’s dark, angry eyes.

“You seem confident that you’ll win,” Henrietta said quietly. “I like that. It’ll make it more satisfying when we crush you.”

“Come try it, bimbo. I’ll grind you to paste. Now get the fuck out of my office.”

<== ==>

HEARTH #23

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

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 #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 #10

<== ==> 

“I want to clear up a misrepresentation of my viewpoint,” Grace said, her words slow and clear. “Indeed, the ban on AI is as old as TORCH. The older among us remember the ocean of suffering caused by flirtation with machine minds. We remember the lesson of that: that the reliance on AI caused more suffering and devastation than any other invention in human history.”

“And yes, I have advocated in favor of the AI ban for as long as this legislature has existed. But this has nothing to do with clinging to tradition, or a philosophy of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The Mater Semita is correct. AI-based technologies would be lucrative and make the lives of TORCH agents both easier and safer.”

Grace’s speaking skills were incredible. She had this aura to her, her gunmetal grey eyes so intense and clear that words gained this awesome power to them. Every word was delivered with strength and conviction, clear and fast, not a syllable swallowed. Nor did it come off as overly rehearsed or sterile… the opposite, really. Henrietta couldn’t take her eyes away.

“However, I don’t believe that any law should be passed for that reason,” Grace said. “Because ease, convenience, and safety are deceptively dangerous things. An agent must be vigilant in her perception, bold in her actions, and daring in her thinking. That strength was what gave us the edge, what has allowed us to vanquish our enemies and prosper as we have.”

“Ease will dull that vigilance. Convenience will wear down that boldness. Safety will smother that daring. We remain strong because we remain uncomfortable, because we grasp the fragility of our position and because we see the galaxy not as a splendid adventure but a dangerous cesspool that we must keep as far as possible from our beloved island, our Mother Earth.”

“I oppose this use of AI because I oppose the sacrifice of our best qualities in exchange for an uptick in life expectancy. Our purpose, as both an organization and as individuals, is clear: ‘to shelter, nurture, and benefit the interests of humanity.’ It is there in the charter. Every last one of us has sworn an oath to uphold it. Where is it written that our highest priority is in fact to live a long time?”

“Nowhere. I refuse to be part and parcel of a sale of our principles and a softening of our resolve- for no benefit save than to ‘fatten the wallet’ of the Mater Semita. I categorically oppose this legislation and I call for you to do the same.” With that, Grace stepped down.

The room was in stunned silence for a few moments. Henrietta touched her cheeks and felt the beginnings of tears. Grace’s speech had this deep sadness to it, like a proud old lioness facing down a pack of jackals. Some of the girls looked similarly moved, others looked troubled. On the other side of the room, SPRING and FORGE girls rolled their eyes and giggled.

Then Enron stood up and advanced to the podium with predatory panache. Her outfit was the cutting edge of fashion, a shimmering silver dress that exposed her right shoulder. Ascending the podium, she pulled the microphone as high as it went. She must have been two feet taller than Grace.

“I’ll be quick,” she said, her voice deep and rich like a mountain. “Everything Grace said is crap. She doesn’t get it, and she never will. 50 years ago, sure, maybe all she said was true. But times change- and what worked for her generation hasn’t aged well. The charter was written when TORCH was a feeble paramilitary which survived off alien plunder. We were little better than pirates, with Gracey as the leader because she was the most violent.”

Enron glared at Grace with unmistaken and unmitigated loathing. What had happened between these two? This went way beyond a political rivalry. “Now we’re hearty, healthy and strong,” she continued. “Needlessly throwing away lives and productivity out of some decrypt ideal of martyrdom is stupid. TORCH’s job is to harbor and better mankind… I don’t see anywhere where it says we gotta be as miserable as Grace is to do it. If she was serious about that, maybe she’d give up the smokes.”

Much of the room chuckled. Enron wasn’t quite as good a speaker as Grace, but she had an entirely different sort of charm. She was more conversational, relatable almost. She sounded like she was speaking to the crowd, not at them. She spoke the way people- not Henrietta, but perhaps others- thought. “Increasing TORCH’s productivity, and helping our agents not die while they do their jobs, helps us all out. There’s no sale of principles here, there’s just a stubborn old woman who misses the days that we all bowed and scraped to her every whim.”

Enron paused. “And by the way- AI’s not mentioned in the charter. I don’t want to reenact the whole argument about technicalities from last session, but there’s no legal basis for a complaint. There’s that.” She stepped down to applause from her side of the room. Henrietta’s heart sank. The result of the vote was obvious.

There were 701 members of the Sorority. 296 voted against the AI bill. 359 voted for it. The remaining 38 members, including Alice, abstained.

By then it was already time to break for lunch.

<== ==>