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

<== ==>

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.

<== ==>

HEARTH #29

<== ==> 

 

Henrietta chose a hell of a day to be half-delirious from sleep deprivation. Today was the day that committees met for the first time to begin drafting legislation. Grace had gotten Henrietta assigned to the powerful Defense and Security Committee, where BEACON concentrated most of its political capital.

While committee was overall more relaxed than the general assembly, it was also more intimate. Henrietta could sneak some restless sleep during the full assembly, but there was no choice but to pay attention in the much smaller committee room.

Staying awake was both mandatory and pointless. Nothing even came close to getting done. It seemed like there were a million tricks to stall a vote on some bill: markups, hearings, expert testimony, amendments, cross-meetings with other committees (especially the powerful and much-feared Budgetary Committee,) and the classic tactic of just pretending the bill didn’t exist. They discussed nine different laws and made progress on zero of them. Henrietta thought it doubtful any would ever come to a vote.

Naturally her thoughts turned to her encounter last night. Grace and Enron… two icons locked in a dance of death. Somehow Henrietta found herself smushed between them.

She refused to believe Enron’s claims about Grace. There was simply no way honorable, courageous Grace could ever be so cruel and cowardly.

At the same time, she couldn’t simply dismiss the allegations out of kind. Enron sincerely believed them… and two billion dead? That was unthinkable. Why would Grace order something like that?

Matres had no obligation to serve on a committee, but Grace did make an appearance to discuss the PHAROS Act. She outlined its three main goals: improve response to terrorist attacks, centralize investigations of past terror attacks under BEACON, and remove the red tape that made arrests, interrogation, and evidence requisition across branches so difficult.

Henrietta already knew all that, and she couldn’t look straight at Grace- not now. Ultimately she dozed off several times for a few moments, snapping back to reality. Grace definitely noticed, her gunmetal grey eyes boring into Henrietta like power drills.

When the Sorority finally let out for the day, Henrietta trudged off to join Grace on the steps of Cresset Mound. Manna handed her a coffee the moment she got close. “Drink this,” she instructed.

“I love you,” said Henrietta, taking the cup and downing half of it. It had a lingering bitter aftertaste. “What did you put in here?”

“Stims. Your lack of alertness during the meeting was unacceptable.” Manna’s voice was perfectly neutral. “The Mater is displeased.”

Grace had yet to look at Henrietta. She smoked her cigarette in silence. “Late night?” she finally asked.

Henrietta nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t-“

“You reflect on me, Henrietta.” Grace’s voice was cold enough to flash-freeze the blood in Henrietta’s veins. “And your every action is scrutinized. Even if you may not pay attention to what happens around you while the Sorority is in session, countless others do.”

Those few words were the worst lecture Henrietta had ever received. Grace’s disappointment was like being entombed at the bottom of a deep, dark lake. 

Henrietta shook her head. “I know. It won’t happen again. But please listen.” Grace nodded to show that she was done. “Enron came to me last night. We talked for almost an hour.”

The Mater’s eyes widened slightly. Resignedly, she glanced at Manna. “How much time do we have?” she asked. 

“About ninety minutes, Mater. We were going to prep for your meeting…”

“Later.” Grace walked Henrietta over to a park bench and sat her down. “Tell me,” she said serenely.

Henrietta blathered for maybe ten, fifteen minutes about the talk. She shied away from telling Grace about her attraction to Enron, but she brought up nearly everything else. Midway through the stims kicked in, and they always made her jittery. “And I know she’s crazy, she’s got that look, she must be,” Henrietta finished. “But… I don’t know, Grace. I just don’t know anything.”

Grace had finished her first cigarette and started on another one. Besides that, she had been a perfect listener: she maintained eye contact throughout, she gently asked expository questions, and her facial reactions were subdued but communicative. “Do you trust me, Henrietta?” Grace asked.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know each other very well, do we?” Grace gestured at her with the cigarette and smiled wryly. “So you trust me based on reputation.”

“I… guess. But it’s deeper than that. Grace, it’s like… when we talk, I feel like I’ve known you for years.” Henrietta breathed in. “It’s weird.”

Grace was silent again, staring at Henrietta, lost in thought. Was she trying to decide what to say? “I didn’t kill Medici,” she said finally. “Truly, I didn’t. The thought never crossed my mind. I was shocked to hear of her death- Gabros-1 had been thoroughly pacified with little fighting, so much so that BEACON had designated it safe for virtually all commerce. We were drawing up plans to set up bases and colonies planetside. The locals were agreeable and remarkably similar to humans- maybe the most humanlike alien race we’ve encountered.”

Grace sighed heavily. “Yes, I ordered the destruction of that culture. It was a hard choice- but I would make it again today. Because that’s what being a leader is, Henrietta. It is being confronted with two devils, both of whom demand your soul, and trying to determine which is the lesser.”

<== ==> 

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 #25

<== ==> (Coming 9/10/2019)

They didn’t talk during the walk or train ride, or even when they got back to the office. Grace sat on the windowsill smoking a cigarette while Manna busied herself with some administrative task on her watch. 

It took Henrietta ten minutes to work up enough courage to break the heavy silence. “Well, that went well.”

Grace let smoke out through her nose. “I told you. Enron’s not someone you can negotiate with… and she’s right. She has no reason to meet us in the middle.”

“So what? She’s just gonna get whatever she wants?” Henrietta shook her head. “Fuck that. Fuck her.”

“We’ll figure something out. For now, you should get some rest.” 

“Hell no. I’m way too amped to sleep.” She glanced behind her. “Let’s sweat this out. I haven’t had a good workout in forever.”

Grace finished her cigarette. “Sure. Manna, you coming?”

“Yes Mater.” The Verbena hesitated. “It’s just that we’re on a tight schedule, and the impromptu meeting with Enron pushed things back some. We still have a lot to do-”

“After.” Grace removed her suit jacket. “Let’s go.”

The gym was small but had all the necessary accoutrements: a pair of treadmills, a weight rack, an adjustable bench, a smith machine and a wide open space marked with tape for sparring. “What’s today?” Grace asked, unbuttoning her collar.

“Legs, Mater.” Manna methodically removed her clothes garment by garment. “Perhaps you’d like to spar as well?”

“Urgh… sure.” 

Henrietta had a lot less practice taking off a suit, so she was still unbuttoning her shirt when Grace and Manna finished changing.“… I gotta say, it’s a little bit of a thrill to see the Mater Protectoris in a sports bra and shorts,” Henrietta grinned. She had never seen Grace in anything but a suit or AEGIS armor. 

Grace was tiny, but every inch of her body communicated supple, understated strength. Her shoulders were broad for her sleek build, and while she lacked feminine curves there was a certain allure in how every bit of her body seemed to so naturally flow into every other part. She stretched her arms, her compact muscles shifting. “Imagine that I see it in the mirror every morning,” she murmured.

Henrietta grinned as she took off her own clothes to reveal her own muscular frame. She had at least 40 pounds on Grace, all of it iron-hard muscle. Henrietta was naturally athletic and strong, and had maintained a rigorous exercise schedule during the long voyage. It was oddly satisfying to be undressed in front of Grace. “Hey, I had a great idea for a way to improve your popularity: a racy photoshoot. The Mater Exposed! Grace Diakon dishes to us about her favorite workouts, brands of cigarettes!”

Grace glanced at Henrietta. “On second thought, why don’t you spar with Henrietta first, Manna?”

“Of course.” Manna walked over to the center of a tape circle. She was waifish and bony, and looked sort of like a strong breeze would knock her over. “Henrietta, how much of a challenge are you looking for?” Her voice was gentle and pleasant.

“From a shrimp like you? Give me your best shot.” Henrietta put her hands up. “How hard do you want me to go? Cuz I’m top-ranked in hand to hand. I-”

She didn’t get another word out, because Manna was beneath her.

The Verbena moved so quickly that Henrietta wasn’t able to counter. Manna sent her heel into the back of Henrietta’s knee, and the two of them went down in a heap. After a brief struggle, Manna ended up on top with a knee on Henrietta’s neck and control of Henrietta’s left arm. “One for me,” she said demurely.

Manna climbed off, and Henrietta stood up in a daze. She hadn’t ever seen someone move so fast before. “Not bad,” she admitted. “But you took me off guard. This time-”

Henrietta struck first, throwing a snap kick at Manna’s head- only for Manna to duck, rush into her guard, and push her off-balance. Henrietta tried to cuff Manna’s head, but she dodged the swing as though she had been warned of it months in advance. A palm strike to the sternum took Henrietta’s breath away, then she went over Manna’s hip and hit the ground hard. Manna planted a knee on the back of Henrietta’s neck and took control of her arm. “Two for me,” she said.

They finished twenty minutes later. Final score was thirty-three for Manna, zero for Henrietta. Manna wasn’t even breathing hard, while Henrietta was soaked in sweat, too tired to even raise her arms.

Grace came over to join them. She had just finished her sets on the squat rack. “How did it go?” she asked, her voice the picture of innocence.

Henrietta bent over, hands on her knees. “Your girl kicks serious ass,” she wheezed

. “Namely, mine. Now I get why Enron was scared of her. What the hell do they feed you?”
“It’s nothing more than a lifetime of discipline,” Manna said, her voice neutral. “If I’m to keep the Mater safe from her enemies, I have to be able to defeat stronger opponents. You have every physical advantage in the world over me, Henrietta. But you’ve only fought weak opponents, so your style is sloppy and full of mistakes- you never needed to refine it. With hard work, I’m certain you could dispatch of me.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call BEACON legionnaires and eight hundred pound alien commandos ‘weak’,” Henrietta grumbled.

“Compared to me, they are.” Manna’s planted her hands on her narrow hips. “You’ve taken advanced close quarters combat training at the Proving Ground, yes? But that’s only scratching the surface of what your body is capable of. Verbena train to exploit the weaknesses of those who would harm us or our Matres- and I am small and weak. All I do is use your speed and power and… other attributes, and I turn them against you..”

Grace patted Henrietta’s bare shoulder in consolation. “If it makes you feel any better, Manna has beaten my ass like I owe her money more times than I can count. I usually ask her to go half strength or so, and then she and I are an even enough match.”

“It’s my sole source of stress relief!” Manna chirped.

Bitter a pill as it was, Grace and Manna were probably right. Truly elite combatants would be on a different level from the muscle-headed legionnaires Henrietta had trained alongside. Plus, Grace’s lissome legs looked fantastic after a workout and Henrietta got a chance to stare. 

“Don’t think you can discourage me,” she told Manna. “We’re gonna go at every opportunity, until I can beat you consistently.”

Manna bowed her head, hopefully not to conceal a mischievous smile. “Looking forward to it.”

<== ==> (Coming 9/10/2019)

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 #22

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

“Pardon?”

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

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

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

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

“Let me go! I’ll represent you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace nodded. “Yes. Go on.”

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

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

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

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

“I was?” Henrietta asked, surprised.

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

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

<== ==>

HEARTH #21

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace blinked as though Henrietta had said something unbelievably stupid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

HEARTH #18

<== ==>

What was the goal of all of mayhem? If this was the work of a single entity, it had to be done for a specific end. Henrietta couldn’t see anyone doing it out of something like a love of chaos or as a general protest tactic. Nobody had this level of organization and skill without also a specific aim.

The only thing that came to mind was that the terrorists wanted to further drive schisms between the branches of TORCH. Attacks had generally hit non-vital (and ergo gently-guarded) facilities. Someone intending to wipe TORCH bases out would be blowing up the engines of capital ships or sabotaging oxygen generators on massive space stations. These attacks were symbolic in nature: their true toll came in the aftermath. Each attack was answered with shock and mourning, then confused finger-pointing and calls for leadership to do something, then everyone calmed down, then another attack. Over and over again, until nobody trusted anybody.

Her back was sore from sitting in the same position for so long. Henrietta stood up and stretched. “Mmmf… how does Grace stay in shape, sitting on her ass all day?”

“We have a gym right here in the office,” Manna replied, not looking up. “The Mater worked out twice today. Her second favorite form of stress relief.”

“Hey, mine too.” Henrietta smiled at Manna. They were going to be spending a lot of time together, may as well test the waters. “Although I don’t smoke.”

Manna looked up, slightly puzzled, but then returned to her papers. “Mmm.”

Henrietta stood up and did a few stretches, giving Manna an up-close look at her strong, supple body. She paid Henrietta no mind. Was… she straight? She definitely didn’t come across that way. “How do you relieve stress?” Henrietta asked.

“I finish my work.” Manna looked up at last. Her pleasant smile was replaced with a flat, neutral look. The closest thing to disappointment she seemed capable of. “Henrietta, if you can remain sharp and focused while afield for four days with no sleep and no food, I imagine you can focus on paper for a few hours more.”

“Well, can we take a break and get some exercise?“You guys might have hit the gym twice today, but I haven’t been once.”

Manna sighed. “I don’t have time. I’m on a deadline, I’m to have this report compiled on the Mater’s desk by sunrise.”

“Either she pays you fuck money, or you’ve got a problem, Manna.” Henrietta grinned. “This kinda devotion is scary.”

Manna blinked absently. “I have no idea what you mean.”

“Come on. Grace just casually asks you to skip sleeping tonight? This can’t be what you had in mind for yourself. Are you in love with her or something?”

“I’ll thank you not to impugn my intentions, or the Mater’s conduct.” Manna wasn’t cold. She was flat. She dropped the politeness and calm and just spoke with mechanical precision. Were it not for Grace’s noted hatred of machines, Henrietta would assume she’s a robot.

Henrietta crossed her arms. “So what’s the story?”

“I’m a Verbena, Henrietta.” Manna pursed her thin lips at Henrietta’s look of confusion. “A Mater’s servant, a tool. From my earliest memory, I was trained to maximize my utility to the Mater. She doesn’t need dozens of mediocre workers, she needs one excellent one. I was therefore picked, reared, trained, and tested based on her needs and specifications. Every Mater has a Verbena, meant to act as an extension of her will rather than a separate agent. As I serve the hardest-working and most exceptional Mater, I have no choice but to be the hardest-working and most exceptional Verbena.”

Henrietta had never heard of such a thing as a Verbena before, but this did explain the girls who shadowed the other Matres while dressed just like Manna. She had assumed they were just all from the same top-tier staffing firm. “Is that why you don’t like me?” she asked, comprehension dawning on her. “You’re worried I’ll distract you and Grace?”

“I don’t dislike you, Henrietta.” No emotion still. “I simply see the world in terms of the Mater’s goals. She has high hopes for you… but they will take time to germinate. In the meantime, yes, my productivity will take a hit as I add your mentorship to my long list of tasks.” Manna sighed. “I am unused to such disruptions, so perhaps I have been cold or distant as a result. I apologize.”

“Aww, that’s okay.” Henrietta shot Manna a jocular grin. “I dig the ‘mysterious waif’ vibe. It goes well with the, uh, minimalist look. But, uh, what lesson am I supposed to be learning here?”

“That the Mater is only so successful because of hard work. That being the last to rest and the first to rise is the tool that we wield even when our enemies have us beat in every other category. You suffer from the issue many excellent individuals do, Henrietta: you only give your all to assignments that interest you.”

Manna tapped the papers. “The age of your life where some assignments were meaningless busywork and others decided your future is over. Now everything is important, because every breath you take is a reflection upon the Mater Protectoris- an idea far larger than you or me, larger than even Grace herself. Which is why this break is over.”

Sufficiently cowed, Henrietta got back to work.

<== ==>

HEARTH #17

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

HEARTH #16

<== ==>  

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>