HEARTH #22

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

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

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

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

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

“Pardon?”

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

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

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

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

“Let me go! I’ll represent you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace nodded. “Yes. Go on.”

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

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

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

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

“I was?” Henrietta asked, surprised.

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

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

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

HEARTH #21

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace blinked as though Henrietta had said something unbelievably stupid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

HEARTH #18

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sufficiently cowed, Henrietta got back to work.

<== ==>

HEARTH #17

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

HEARTH #16

<== ==>  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>  

HEARTH #14

<== ==>  

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

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

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

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

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

“I hated Basic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not really.”

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

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

<== ==>  

HEARTH #12

<== ==> 

“Do you smoke?” Grace asked.

“Nah. Should I?”

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

“You want me to speak candidly?”

“Always.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==> 

HEARTH #11

<== ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<== ==>

HEARTH #7

<== ==>

 

“Did you choose a new name?” Manna asked.

“Oh, yeah. Henrietta St. Thomas. St. Thomas like Tomasa. Henrietta seemed fitting.”

“Why’s that?”

“Henrietta means ruler, so bow to the new king. None betta, can’t fool her, so just kiss the ring.” Henrietta grinned. “I’m not stupid, Manna. The Mater Protectoris doesn’t take daughters. I’m the first ever. That means she’s grooming me for command, doesn’t it? So if Henrietta is my name, then one day I’m gonna run this shit like Grace does. Meteoric rise to eminence, right? I say it’s time for a repeat performance.”

Manna didn’t say anything, she only smiled blankly. She led Henrietta into Sorority Hall and down the hallway. “That room over there is BEACON’s chambers, where our legislation is drafted and voted on,” she pointed. “Down the hall and to the left is the washroom. The room with the ornate doors is the grand hall.”

The chamber was already half-full, and the section with the pink-and-blue BEACON banner was three-quarters stuffed. 9 AM was the time of convening but most girls got here much earlier than that. Grace was already here, surrounded by three other women who Henrietta recognized to be Matres. “How many BEACON Matres actually use their seats?” she asked Manna.

“Depends on the session. For this one, it seems we’ll have eight regulars, with three or four others who may stop in later.” While every Mater was guaranteed a lifetime seat on the Sorority, less than half of them actually exercised that right. They had to show up in person for the votes and serve as a full-time legislator. Most gave up their voting privileges to pursue personal projects.

The ninety Matres had controlled TORCH since the birth of the organization. Henrietta didn’t know how to feel about that. If they were all like Grace, so powerful and wise, then maybe it’d be okay- but not every Mater could be Grace’s equal. Maybe none of them were.

Manna went off to address her Mater while Henrietta went to take her assigned seat in the back of the BEACON section. Just about every single BEACON sister looked to be her senior in both age and rank. A few were even famous enough for Henrietta to recognize, although none of them had received as much media attention as Henrietta had after she saved Grace’s life.

To her left was Jane, a bouncy and enthusiastic young woman with lime green hair. She was much older than Henrietta, and had led the distinguished 205th “Bloody Fists” Legion for decades. She had gone into politics rather than take a promotion to Princepa Third Class and command five legions. They exchanged pleasantries and talked shop- as the old adage went, any two legionnaires could enjoy one another’s company for centuries so long as the topic of conversation was professional murder.

The seat to her right was empty, and Henrietta soon figured out why when a woman stumbled into the room. She was… not in the best condition. Both of her legs were gone, as was her right arm, all replaced instead with mechanical components. Her left eye was an unnerving red bionic that gave off a faint bloody glow. Her face might have been beautiful once, but the flesh had been melted and fused. She wore a headscarf, and Henrietta suspected that it was less a fashion choice and more a necessity to hide burn scars. Her movements were sloppy and sluggish, she clearly didn’t have full control of the bionic limbs.

Henrietta got up and walked over to the woman, who most were doing their best to ignore. She stopped in front of her and saluted. “Colonel Henrietta St. Thomas,” she said to introduce herself. “Formerly of the 14th ‘Butterfly’ Legion, BEACON_Elite. May I assist you in finding your seat, ma’am?”

The disfigured woman paused, then grunted and moved to shove past. The sudden movement sent her careening to the floor-

But Henrietta moved fast and caught her by the shoulders. “…God damn it,” the woman muttered. “Fine.”

Henrietta tried to give her as little assistance as possible, just a stabilizing hand on her back. “You’re pretty strong, kid,” the woman said. “Guess Star is feeding them well these days.”

“Oh! You know the legata?” Henrietta’s old CO was Legata Ashtaroth, or ‘Star’ as her friends called her. They hadn’t really gotten along on a personal level, but Star had taught her tons about everything worth knowing.

“Haven’t seen her in a long time, but yeah. Served with her when we were kids.” The woman glanced back at Henrietta. “Name’s Catherine, by the way. Friends call me Cat. Formerly of the 7th ‘River’ Legion, then a desk-jockeying princepa third class, now the seared shell of a woman you see before you. You don’t have to hide your disgust.”

“Disgust?” Henrietta asked confusedly. “What disgust? I see nothing but a woman of immense courage- not just to take those wounds, but to wear them with pride. Scars like that are worth more than any medal, ma’am.”

<== ==>

HEARTH #6

<== ==>

Henrietta St. Thomas looked herself up and down in the mirror. After a few minutes, she decided she looked hot in suits.

Granted, she also looked hot in uniforms… but baggy fatigues hid her amazing body. The business suit that was standard for HEARTH agents meanwhile emphasized her strong shoulders and hips. The muscle on her arms and chest was obvious, but so were her curves, all in an extra-classy package.

She had elected to dress similarly to Grace: black pants and jacket, white shirt, silver tie to match her platinum hair and a complementary pink square. Since she wasn’t a soldier at the moment she was free to wear a bit of jewelry, so she complemented her suit with glittering white gold earrings.

Her apartment was on the outskirts of the BEACON district, comfortable but sparsely decorated. She’d worry about embellishments as soon as she got her first paycheck- she had received a major pay raise when she switched branches.

Wearing bespoke suits, working next to the Mater every day in the capital of all of TORCH, all the while making twice as much money as she used to… that was well worth the price of a new name.

Making sure she had everything she needed in her messenger bag, Henrietta left for her first day. She could save a few minutes by taking the train, but instead she chose to walk to Cresset Mound. The entire area already bustled with activity from morning commuters. Restaurants from a hundred different SPRING corporations served breakfast sandwiches and coffee to impatient girls. Office buildings, convenience stores, entertainment shops and small parks rounded out the landscape.

Cresset Mound itself was meticulously maintained, the air gently sweet as the emerald grass wafted in the wind. Busy as the surrounding areas were, the Mound was more lively still. There was far more security, including snipers on the rooftops of the lesser buildings and armored vehicles patrolling the streets.

Her destination, Sorority Hall, was magnificent. The building was C-shaped and eggshell colored, a synthesis of a dozen different architectural styles. Roman pillars and Arabic domes, Chinese thatching and Renaissance facades. The entire thing was covered in engravings, each one meant to represent the foundation of one of TORCH’s nine branches.

As it was HEARTH’s building, they put their own basrelief front and center. It depicted the tall and elegant Augusta, HEARTH‘s deceased founder and the Mater Politico, delivering a speech to a raucous crowd behind a podium. Right to the left of that was the BEACON basrelief: a scene of Grace and a half dozen armor-clad others driving their pneumatic blades into the flesh of a shrieking, twisted mass.

“The Cenotaph,” a clipped voice said from behind her. “Apparently. The Mater says that’s not how it looked.”

Henrietta looked behind her to see Manna, holding a paper tray with three coffees on it. She hadn’t heard her approach. “Hey Manna, one of those for me?”

“Three sugars, no cream.” Manna offered one of the cups to her. “I called the Azariah and asked them how you take your coffee.”

“I’m going to take that as thorough and not creepy. I notice you’re here early.” Henrietta took a sip and found it to be watery. BEACON girls liked their coffee strong enough to eat through steel.

“I came with the Mater. She had an early meeting with some of the other legislators already. ‘Last one to rest, first one to rise,’ that’s her motto.” Manna bowed her head in what might have been apology. “I hope you aren’t overly fond of sleeping.”

“I can keep up with anyone, don’t you worry about a thing.” Something about Manna’s demeanor rubbed Henrietta the wrong way. Everything so clipped and hollow, like Manna was a very slightly flawed copy of a person. What was her deal?

Henrietta decided to change the subject. “So, The Cenotaph… a Titan.” The greatest and most terrible enemy they had ever faced. If there was a god, then even he would cower before The Cenotaph. It had been defeated after many years and unthinkable sacrifice. “Grace really fought it, huh?”

“Delivered the killing blow herself,” Manna said, unable to hide her admiration. “She was just a sergeant with exactly two subordinates… distinguished for bravery and ability, but no one famous. But she fought brilliantly. Soon after, the Mater rose to prominence in meteoric fashion. From a complete nobody to our most eminent figure in less than a decade. And now here we are.”

“Here we are,” said Henrietta thoughtfully. That wasn’t something often said about Grace. She had been TORCH‘s most famous figure long before Henrietta… few were old enough to remember the Mater when she was just as a rank-and-file commando.

<== ==>

HEARTH #5

<== ==>

Tomasa nodded. Everything Grace said fit with what she knew, although she had very little personal exposure to the supposed masses who hated the Mater. “That’s shitty… I dunno why anyone would think of you like that. I mean, everyone I’ve ever talked to in BEACON loved you.”

“Well, that’s also part of the issue. In the past, a girl like you would have worked extensively with girls from other branches. How can you feel any camaraderie or sisterhood with women you never interact with?” Grace shook her head. “Make no mistake, the disintegration of TORCH into nine or more suborganizations would be a calamity. We would all be far poorer for it.”

“Then we’ll stop it from happening,” Tomasa said. “How are we going to do that?”

“Great question. So long as I remain divisive, there will be those who oppose my beliefs and decisions on fundamental principle.” Grace sighed. “I realize it sounds like I’m complaining about my low likability.”

“I think you’re adorable, Gracey.”

Grace didn’t smile much. When she was amused she mostly communicated it by raising her eyebrows. “Much obliged. But my actual concern is that if I cannot find a way to be heeded by the rest of TORCH, the schisms will widen until they are irreparable. I need your help to keep that from happening, Tomasa.”

“I’m with you. I just don’t get how I’m the person to do that. I’m…” Tomasa rotated her wrist, searching for the right word. She wasn’t nobody. True, her importance was just a shade of the woman on the other side of the desk, but she wasn’t nobody. “…new to all this,” she settled on.

Grace nodded. “You saved my life. On Paran-7. Manna, I’ve told you the story, haven’t I?”

“You haven’t, Mater, and I know you enjoy storytelling,” Manna said pleasantly. “If you think we have the time for it.”

Grace pointed to her AEGIS. “This was when I went on campaign during the recess a couple years back. Naturally I wanted to go to where the fighting was the thickest, which at the time was Paran-7. So my squadron was in the air, maybe 12,000 feet up, doing some scouting in preparation for ingress into the Bactrarii fortress. Then we come under heavy fire from a well-hidden mounted gun.

My team is killed or scattered. I get my wing is clipped so I have to make an emergency landing. I’m stranded miles behind enemy lines, my leg broken, my escort lost, my comms out of commission. And soon, the Bactrarii are upon me. Nasty, nasty bastards: big and hairy and smell like a sewer. Tenacious too. I beat off the first attack, and the second, but I assume I’m going to die to the third or the fourth or the fifth. But then…”

“I show up,” said Tomasa.

“Tomasa shows up,” Grace says, excitement creeping into her voice. “Covered in blood.”

“Everyone was so busy checking comms channels, trying to find the other members of your team,” said Tomasa with a casual grin. ” I figured the Bactrarii would have a better idea of where you were than we did, so I tap their comms… ‘cept none of us speak their language, so I just listen for words that repeat. They get really excited after you fight off the first and second patrols cuz now they know where you are, so I map those periods of increased activity to the search area and I figure out your movements. By then I’m far afield myself, late at night, no time to get help.”

“And she can’t fire her weapons, because that’d make too much noise. So Tomasa works her way to me with the pneumatic blade and nothing else.” Grace became more animated as she retold the story. “She finds me and carries me, armor and all, to safety. What did they call you in the newsphere again?”

“Uh, ‘Tomasa the Wonder Girl.’ That’s what got me my promotion to Colonel, and a buncha medals… and you to sponsor my election to the Sorority.” Tomasa shrugged. “I just don’t get what some admittedly badass soldiering has to do with politics.”

“It wasn’t the soldiering, Tomasa, it was the cleverness. It was the fact that you had the sharpness to come up with a plan and the initiative to act upon it without hesitation. I have a lot of smart girls and a lot of gutsy girls, but rarely do I get one who’s both.” Grace leaned in. “I studied your records after that. Top of your class at the Academy. Top of your class at the Proving Ground. Commended over and over again for bravery, leadership, and a cool head under pressure. The very model of a modern legionnaire. Talent like you doesn’t come along very often.”

Tomasa had been praised a lot in her life, like Grace said. Teachers, commanding officers, friends and colleagues. But somehow, Grace’s words meant so much more. Maybe it was because Grace so rarely gave compliments… Tomasa knew she meant what she was saying. “I am the very model of a modern legionnaria, I’ve no fear of xenos for I am always scarier, I shatter their defenses and I sneer at any barrier, no matter what the burden I’m always the choice for carrier.”

“Gilbert and Sullivan is a bit more in my wheelhouse,” Grace said, her excitement fading. “There’ll be a learning curve for you, I’m certain, but you’ll get the hang of this quickly. I’ll be here to assist however I can, and Manna is at your disposal. Right, Manna?”

“Yes Mater, of course.” Manna bowed. “It’d be my privilege to assist Tomasa.”

“I’m raring to go!” Tomasa punched the air. “What’s first on the agenda? Sorority is in session starting tomorrow, yeah?”

Grace nodded. “I’ve already met with the other new BEACON sisters, you’re the last one in. For the moment, I just want you to watch and listen. Pay close attention to the leaders of the other branches especially, so I can get your take on them. Try to divest yourself of whatever stereotypes or preconceptions you have.”

Tomasa grinned energetically. So she was going to be spending all of her time rubbing shoulders with the most powerful and famous people in TORCH… that didn’t sound half bad. “Shouldn’t be a problem. I did that easy enough with you.”

“Manna, anything else?” Grace asked.

Manna consulted her watch. “Almost time for your meeting with the Mater Medica. Just one last order of business, Mater. The name.”

“Oh… right. Always forget. Tomasa, when you become a Sorority sister, you technically leave whatever branch you’re a part of and become a member of HEARTH. Of course everyone knows where your loyalties lie, but it’s tradition to adopt a HEARTH name.”

Tomasa hadn’t known that. “…Shit.” TORCH agents changed their names when they changed branches, of course, but… she kinda liked Tomasa. She had gone by Rosalind in the Academy, but hadn’t been overly fond of that either. Online she went by Amaretto, an inside joke from her youth. “What kind of names are acceptable?”

Manna sent a file to her watch. “There’s a selection of open first and last names on there,” she said. “Take a minute to peruse them and have one chosen when we next meet tomorrow.”

“Make sure you like it,” said Grace. “You may be going by it for the rest of your life.”

<== ==>

HEARTH #3

<== ==>

By the time Tomasa finished with the headlines and was digging into improvements of  productivity on yield worlds, the train ride was over. She followed Manna off and the two of them headed into the BEACON district.

The architecture, orderly but unimaginative steel towers, reflected the sensibilities of the military women who lived and worked here. It was all centered around a huge park with an artificial river running through it. Women jogged, sparred, or simply relaxed at the end of the workday.

The 29 Matres of BEACON all shared a spiral office building, stylish but not ostentatious. Security was tight, but the beefy guards didn’t hassle Tomasa since she was with Manna. They headed for the elevator in the back of the hall, where three women stood. One of them, a tall, silver-haired beauty with sharp features and slitted eyes, looked familiar. She wore only sweatpants and a tank top while the other two were in full uniform, their chests covered in medals and commendations.

“That’s… Seffora, the Mater Avium!” Tomasa hissed through her teeth. Indeed, it was Seffora, the brilliant queen of the skies whose knowledge of aerospace warfare was unmatched. Tomasa had a notification on her watch to alert her whenever Seffora uploaded a new op-ed on atmospheric and orbital combat.

“Oh, yes, so it is. Perhaps the Mater Protectoris can introduce you to her later.” Manna didn’t slow down. As they walked, Tomasa quickly came to realize who were Matres: the ones not in uniform. Seffora wore sweats, a voluptuous woman with dark blue hair was in a summer dress, a third in a bright red waistcoat that complimented her cherry hair. Each of them was shadowed by a woman dressed identically to Manna: perfectly neutral black-and-greys with no distinguishing features.

Other than Grace, Tomasa had never conversed extensively with a Mater before. They were the titans of TORCH, the organization’s most legendary figures. Tomasa was a small fry by comparison.

Manna placed her finger on the elevator’s biometric scanner, then pressed the button for the 29th floor. “We’ll get you access too,” she said. “You’ll be visiting the Mater’s offices frequently.”

The top floor contained just seven rooms, three on each side and one on the end. The doors were a rich mahogany and the carpet was a tasteful grey. Manna explained what was behind each door as they went. “That’s the restroom. That’s the meeting room. That’s my office- very small. Never go in the room with the lock on the door. That’s the sitting room, for breaks and reception. That’s the gymnasium. And here is, of course…”

The door at the end of the hall was the only one labeled.  The simple metal plaque read:

GRACE DIAKON

THE MATER PROTECTORIS

MARSHAL OF BEACON

Manna knocked three times. “Yes,” a voice called from within. Only then did she open it.

Grace had great interior decorating sense. While the embellishments were sparse, they were all purposeful. The walls were a pleasant grey with exactly one minimalist painting per side. There were also filing cabinets for some reason- a rare sight these days.

The most colorful thing in the room was a hot pink Mark XV Gawain AEGIS in the far left corner, similar to Tomasa’s but customized for Grace. The Mater had worn that armor on Paran-7… she was amazing. She fought in the armor so naturally, like she had been born inside of it.

Everything was spic and span, shockingly neat. Even Grace’s desk, dominated by mountains of paper, looked well-maintained. Grace herself sat on the windowsill, smoking a cigarette. The Mater looked back with one eye and then beckoned Tomasa forward.

Grace wasn’t beautiful, but she had a ferocity and a sorrow that were hard to pin down. She kept her bubblegum pink hair as neat as ever. Her eyebrows were bushy, her nose chiseled, her cheeks full and her jaw surprisingly soft.

Same old Grace- other than the bags under her eyes, which were darker and more pronounced than they had been on Paran-7. In lieu of armor or fatigues, she wore an immaculately tailored suit with a pink tie to match her hair and a deep purple pocket square. She still wore calfskin gloves, as ever.

Tomasa bowed. Every time Grace stared at her with those cool, sad, lustrous eyes she felt like she should be bowing. “My Mater.”

Grace finished her cigarette and put it out. “There’s no need to be so formal.” Her voice was deep and distant, a little raspy.

“Oh, all right.” Tomasa stood up straight. “Sup?”

“There’s no need to be so casual, either.” Grace stood up and cracked her neck. She was still small, over a head shorter than Tomasa and even little Manna. “I’m teasing. Talk to me however you like. Just know that most Matres are sticklers for etiquette.”

“Yeah… gotcha.” Tomasa’s cheekiness left her rapidly. “You, uh, you look good. Kinda tired.”

“I dislike sleeping. It’s an inherently selfish behavior, as I can do nobody any good while I’m asleep. That’d be a good mindset for you to cultivate as well.” Grace walked over to her desk and gestured for Tomasa to take a seat. “I have three meetings tonight, the next one in…” she checked her watch. It was more ornate and more sophisticated than Tomasa’s. “Twenty-five minutes. That means we have twenty to talk.”

<== ==>