HEARTH #31

<== ==> (Coming 10/22/2019)

 “-So bearing this in mind, we must recollect that witches should only ever negotiate from a position of strength,” Hyperion said, her voice sharp and crisp. “The mundanes rely upon us: our abilities, our blood and toil, are the foundations of their commodious existences. How do they repay us? By press-ganging us into leashes, employing our abilities to enrich themselves while we suffer the pernicious side effects. Who cares if the witch grows depressed, apathetic or suicidal, so long as she’s properly exploited like the resource she is?”

Hyperion spoke with calm assurance. She lacked Grace’s natural magnetism… the speech was clinical, like a scientist’s notes. But she indisputably meant every word she said. “TORCH would have us live in fear of them,” she continued. “TORCH would minimize and ostracize us, construct machines to supplant us, and ultimately butcher us like hogs when the opportunity presents itself- just as they did to our sisters in SMOKE. But we will not allow it. They need us, hard as they feign otherwise. Ergo, I will not kowtow nor compromise. For you, my sisters, I ask only that you remember who your enemies are and treat them accordingly. And for the mundanes among us, recall that your role is to act as the auxiliary in the struggle- and we will struggle, until we are free.”

She stepped down from the podium to polite applause. “Well, at least she’s in a good mood,” Henrietta said, rolling her eyes. “I see she shares your message of unity.”

Grace pursed her lips in grim amusement. “We’re not as incompatible as it seems at first glance. Hyperion knows what she’s doing, and she and I have a working relationship. There are a couple things you ought to know before you meet her, however: she’s not friendly. She may try to get a rise out of you… stay diplomatic.”

Henrietta nodded. That wasn’t exactly her specialty, but it didn’t seem so hard to keep calm. “Hyperion and Enron are the only branch leaders who aren’t Matres, right?”

“That’s correct. Hyperion has been a significant figure in TORCH politics for decades, long before she formally took the reins of LUX four years ago when Eve…” Grace trailed off as she led Henrietta (and the silent Manna) to a tall, elegant office building. “… Well, you know. Hyperion was Eve’s daughter, and the two of them were a legendary pair. I hope that you and I can establish a working relationship half as effective as theirs.”
Henrietta’s cheeks warmed again. Sapiens, Grace’s compliments were addictive. “I won’t let you down, boss.”

The sign out front read “OFFICES OF THE CHANCELLOR”. A dead-eyed secretary with an Arcane Suppressor strapped to her forehead greeted them and offered them tea, which they politely declined. The secretary spoke in a monotone and moved like each step was a Herculean feat… that must have been the Suppressor’s doing.

Hyperion’s office was devoid of warm colors, sterile as a surgical suite. The only decorations were evocative, minimalist and highly abstract paintings plus a mounted fencing foil. The petite LUX chancellor didn’t have any bodyguards, and was dwarfed by her huge desk. 

“Marshal Diakon,” Hyperion said with a nod. “You’re late.”

“Thank you for your patience,” Grace replied. “It seems you took advantage of the extra time to let your speech run long.”

“You heard that?”

“I caught the tail end of it. Fiery by your standards. Something on your mind?”

“Always.” Hyperion had little flesh on her bones but she wore that semi-starved look well. It gave her this startlingly attractive blend of frailty and grit. She had luscious, pouty lips that seemed forever curled into a scowl, and her small eyes were inscrutable from behind her thin-rimmed glasses. Like Grace, Hyperion wore gloves: pale grey ones. “Who’s this?”

“Henrietta St. Thomas.” Henrietta offered a handshake. “New BEACON Sorority sister. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Chancellor.”

Hyperion stared at the hand like it was something foul. “And why have you brought some pup of no import to our meeting?”

“Don’t worry about her,” said Grace. “Henrietta is just here to observe. The meeting is between you and me.”

“I think otherwise,” Hyperion replied. “A BEACON Mater is one story. Some rumble bumble lout with delusions of statescraft is another. Get out.”

Henrietta refused to get angry, so instead she smiled. “That’s not fair. You hardly know me. Why don’t we get to know each other better before you decide I’m-”

“Fine,” said Hyperion without warning. “You may stay. But seal your lips while grown folks converse.”

“That’s all I wanted to do,” said Henrietta, as she crossed her arms and sat down.

<== ==> (Coming 10/22/2019)

HEARTH #30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are we going to do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

<== ==> 

LUX #2

<== ==> 

“Tell me a bit about Lethe,” Eve told the computer as she eyed the approaching murky-grey marble planet.

“LETHE, AN E-CLASS WORLD IN THE GEHENNA SECTOR. ECCENTRICITY OF 0.65. SIZE IS 1.7 EARTHS. ORBITAL PERIOD IS 224.2 EARTH DAYS. PLANET’S SURFACE IS 98 PERCENT WATER, 2 PERCENT ICE. SURFACE TEMPERATURE RANGE IS 149 DEGREES CELSIUS AT THE EQUATOR IN SUMMER TO -60 AT THE POLES IN WINTER. LOCAL FAUNA IS SENTIENT BUT UNDEVELOPED AND NON-SAPIENT. TORCH PRESENCE: LETHE-1, LUX MOBILE RESEARCH BASE, INACTIVE. LETHE-2, LUX SESSILE RESEARCH BASE, ACTIVE, STAFFED BY 139 LUX SCHOLARS.”

Inactive, eh? “What rendered Lethe-1 inactive?”

“LETHE-1 WAS RENDERED INACTIVE IN THE YEAR 46 AJ. RECORDS STATE THAT THE BASE WAS DESTROYED IN AN ‘ACCIDENT.’ ALL FURTHER DATA SEALED BY LUX CHANCELLOR HYPERION APRILIS. ALL 89 LUX SCHOLARS STAFFING THE BASE WERE KILLED. IN 47 AJ, CONSTRUCTION ON LETHE-2 CONCLUDED. ALL FURTHER DATA ON LETHE-2 IS ALSO SEALED BY LUX CHANCELLOR HYPERION APRILIS.”

Destroyed? What could have caused that? And more importantly, what could have compelled LUX to build a second base with even more people in it afterwards?

Eve had still been with LUX in 46. She had never heard of Lethe-1. Hyperion certainly had never mentioned it to her. There were thousands of LUX bases on hundreds of planets, moons, and asteroids… it may have simply slipped by her.

No, unlikely. The base was destroyed and the entire staff killed. That didn’t happen every day. It should have been a major scandal, warranting discussion and debate in the newsphere.

The fact that all information was sealed was the giveaway. Hyperion had hidden the base’s destruction. Hidden it from TORCH, from LUX… even from Eve.

Hyperion. Eve’s willowy, severe, whip-smart daughter. What was she doing right now? Probably hard at work in TORCH‘s capital city of Chantico, indefatigable in her activism and merciless in the political arena. She had always been cagey, but to hide a catastrophe like this from her mother…

Eve shook her head. Hyperion was light years away. They had not spoken in four years and would never speak again. There was no point in entertaining thoughts of her- she wasn’t Eve’s daughter anymore.

The ship shook and rattled as it began atmospheric re-entry. Eve took the time to pack her things into her small glasswove bag. Three robes and one pair of shoes, a bypassed watch with all her books and notes, toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and soap, a diamond saw that she used for grooming… all she owned. On her first years on the run she had worn contacts and prosthetics, but then a black market surgeon had altered her face so nobody would recognize her.

Eve headed to the cockpit to get a better look at the approach. Reentry was so fast that a bubble of burning plasma formed around the craft, and streaks of light skimmed past. The surface grew closer and closer, and a loud hissing noise emerged as the craft automatically dispensed coolant.

And then she landed. There was a moment of violent shaking and then a pleasant weightlessness as the craft floated on the surface of the murky black ocean. A successful touchdown, with no effort on Eve’s part.

“SWITCHING TO SUBMERSIBLE MODE,” the computer informed her. As the craft groaned and twisted into its new shape, the comms crackled to life for the first time.

“Hiiiiiiii!” a voice burbled. “Hi hi hi! You’re right on time!”

Eve smiled. In spite of herself, she was pleased to hear the voice of another living thing again. “Kelvin?” she asked. “Did you know talk the same way you type?”

“Yes! And it’s such an honor, oh my gosh, to finally meet you!” Kelvin gasped. “I’m fangirling right now, oh gosh, the Mater Veneficis, the Queen of Wands, the founder of LUX herself, is going to be at my base! Oh gosh, oh gosh, give me a sec…”

When people found out who Eve was, they were typically frightened. Or suspicious, or furious. The bravest of them were curious. Very rarely, and worst of all, they would pity her. Never excited, never pleased.

“I’m not the Mater Veneficis anymore,” Eve said carefully. “Or the Queen of Wands. Or anything. I was stripped of all titles when I went on the run. I’m just… Eve now.”

“Okay, sorry, I’m good now,” said Kelvin. “I don’t care what the bureaucrats in Chantico say about you, you’ll always be a Mater to me. I’ve been a fan of yours for as long as I can remember- and can I say, I much preferred LUX when you were in charge!”

“Thanks.” Eve distantly felt her temper starting to flare. “Can we talk about something that doesn’t conjure so many painful memories?”

“Ohhh, of course. Welcome to Lethe! We have a magnificent ocean, zero beautiful beaches, and a lovely resort here at the bottom of the sea. When do you dock?”
“Just about an hour.” Eve paused. “I assume you’re here in your capacity in neo_SMOKE… not LUX.”

After SMOKE had been snuffed out, its leaders executed and its rank-and-file scattered throughout the rest of TORCH, a new branch arose: neo_SMOKE, a decentralized black market syndicate. Criminal elements throughout TORCH conglomerated into one loose umbrella organization- and their influence skyrocketed.Even non-members like Eve used their forums, chat clients and marketplaces for extralegal activity.

In real life, Kelvin was just a low-level LUX scholar of no particular import, but online she was a superhero. neo_SMOKE‘s Calico Contraband Network ranked her as one of the top ten smugglers in the Gehenna Sector, with an excellent reputation for successful delivery of exotic goods. Her specialty was living cargo, which was why Eve had sought contact with her in the first place.

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