Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 1, Requiem for the Red Pope (continued)
Someone had given the rooftop cafe what Lyseena thought was a rather pedantic name: The Blessed Pinnacle. The food was rather good for what was a glorified office cafe, though, and no one could argue against the breathtaking view of the city from here. A century ago, it had been designed as an officer-only area—if you didn’t have a xec, sup or man in your name, eat farther down the tower and enjoy a nice view of a neighboring building’s walls.
The exclusivity ended more than a dozen years ago, and now the only thing the xec, sup or man appelation got you was access anytime you wanted; everyone else had assigned days and times during the month that they were allowed to dine here.
Lyseena was bemused—but also unsurprised—to find that Ather sup-Juris was already waiting for her at the entryway, even though she had headed straight for the roof after keying him on her linkpad. The hostess for the day seemed visibly relieved at Lyseena’s arrival and ushered them to a seat with what had to be the single best vantage point for viewing the shoreline several miles away. Whether that seat assignment was a testament to the hostess’ respect for Lyseena’s rank or fear of Ather’s reputation was entirely unclear.
“Ather, my friend,” Lyseena said once they were seated, “have you been skulking around the Pinnacle all morning? It takes less time for me to get here from my office than it does for me to get from my bed to my refresher.”
Ather leaned his body—which he somehow always managed to maintain just this side of what might otherwise be classified morbidly obese—back in the chair and grinned. “Things have been hectic, and I suspected that by no later than tomorrow you’d be contacting me. I was willing to skulk at the end of the hall until then if necessary. I’ve been wanting to get the olive and pecan crusted pork here for months.”
“Something stopping you from eating here on your own?”
“The management has informed me gently—and with vast wellsprings of trepidation that I might devour their heads for telling me so—that they would prefer I not dine here without a companion. For some odd reason, when people see me here alone, every single patron assumes I’ve come here to spy on them. This is, I am told, bad for business.”
“Has it never occurred to your vastly undertapped intellect to invite someone to lunch with you?”
Ather’s grin spread even more broadly, skirting the edge of a wicked leer. “But my dear Lyseena, such people would assume I had invited them to dine only to spy on them, and they would suddenly develop a very important meeting or elective surgery to attend to instead.”
Lyseena chuckled. Ather could be dangerous to anyone given his position as a templar liaison for the Office Inquisitorial, but she had nothing dangerous for him to uncover, so she could at least marginally classify him as a friend. And anyone who could make her smile today was a welcome presence. He and his three fellow liaisons served as interrogators for her office as well as a sort of internal affairs force for the Inquisitor to keep the templars in line, but what Lyseena needed today was not his ability to get information out of people but out of thin air. The inquisitors and their personnel were, after all, also charged with intelligence work.
She reached for her water goblet and knocked over the salt mill in a manner so casually accidental that someone of Ather’s caliber couldn’t possibly have believed for a moment that it was truly an accident. His meaty hand shot out quickly and righted the mill—not a single grain having hit the table. “I assure you that my wits remain every bit as intact as my reflexes,” he said.
Obese he might be, Lyseena thought, and slow on his feet, but nothing was farther from the truth for his hands. And in any kind of fight, fast enough hands—particularly if the owner of them had a concealed needler, razorswitch, monoblade or slug pistol—would always win over fast feet.
“I’m so clumsy lately; I’ll take your word that your hands are an accurate measure of your mind, Ather.”
“Now that you know I haven’t let myself go to seed, what might you need me to do for the Office Templar—or is this something more personal?”
Lyseena almost joked that his if his intelligence skills were so good, he would already know what she wanted, but she was already skirting a fine line testing him as it was. A friendly jest could be misintrepreted as an insult at this point. Perhaps after dessert.
“Ather, might I presume that you are aware of the…indiscretion…that came to light in my office today?”
“Most certainly. There are probably things I could tell you about it that you don’t yet know yourself.”
“Send me a capsule report later if you would. You are also of course aware that the Pope Tommis is dead,” she added, with an appropriate level of sarcasm, “and under suspicious circumstances.”
“I am not aware of any accessible report that has used the word suspicious.”
“No. I’m certain that report won’t be accessible to me until after this millennial mess is over. But I think that the Red Pope dying at such a convenient time—what with it being so close to the millennial celebrations that there is no way we can put his body in stasis and deal with it afterward without appearing to be dishonoring him—qualifies as suspicious, particularly since he had a clean bill of health two months ago.”
Ather shrugged almost imperceptibly. “Your wantonly suspicious nature and scurrilous cynicism are hard to argue against. You should also know that Domina xec-Academie, Tommis’ former steward, is missing.”
That took Lyseena aback. “And all this is happening almost in parallel with two of my most key and trusted pit personnel having been caught in flagrante and now of no use to me…”
“You sense a trend, perhaps?”
“The same trend you no doubt already suspected.”
“Surely. But the cutlet is so delectable and I have been so starved for good lunch companionship. Otherwise I would have come to your office to tell you.”
“Good. Lunch is on me. Consider it payment in advance. If you get me answers by tomorrow, your gratuity will be a lunch date after the millennium.”
Ather signaled the waiter and smiled again. “I’m salivating already.”
Whether at the prospect of food or the thrill of the hunt, though, Lyseena couldn’t begin to guess.
The Peteris of the Universal Faith Catholic had been exploring the grid on his lightdesk for two hours now to find some ancient jazz music that was so rare that it made the platypus seem like a ubiquitous garden pest. It wasn’t that he lacked for work as one of the two most powerful people in the UFC; it was simply that the Vatican ambassador for Mars had been camped in the reception area for all that time and it gave Peteris Gregory Dyson immense emotional satisfaction to keep him waiting while attending to a petty personal task instead of real work. The only question that remained as he prepared to receive the ambassador was whether to tell him this had been the reason he was flattening his hindquarters outside.
The Peteris touched an avatar on his desk to let his steward know the ambassador could be admitted, and then he switched the desk to standby.
If Ambassador Samuel Landers was perturbed by the wait, he gave no sign, and bowed his head as he approached the Peteris. Gregory returned the gesture and invited the ambassador to sit himself. “My apologies for the wait, ambassador. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Waiting breeds humility, so you have only done me a favor, Peteris. The Vatican has asked me to personally issue you an invitation to attend the keystone celebration for the fourth millennium in the UPA. Your wife is also invited.”
Gregory’s wife, Amaranth Dyson, was the Paulis to his role as Peteris—requiring the two co-leaders of the church to be a married couple would be a two-century tradition next year, he mused. So many anniversaries these days to celebrate. And the one he was being invited to now smelled like a trap.
“Is it the Vatican’s hope, ambassador, that it could kill the Paulis and Peteris more efficiently if we were to attend such an event together?”
Samuel’s placid face never shifted expression, and his congenial tone remained steady as he said: “My dear Peteris Dyson, assassinating either of you, much less both of you, at such a gathering would be beyond the pale. As would imprisoning you while under an official invitation.”
Of course, a convenient accident might not be, Gregory mused. With so many intersecting ‘coincidences’ already this week, it wasn’t worth risking.
“I should point out that Vatican agents did try to kill the Paulis in Uhuru last month. I took that rather personally. I remain quite fond of my wife and I already fret over the fact that she must travel so much in her role as Paulis.”
“Your wife is unscathed, I hope, but she was prostelityzing in a Papal Protectorate after all.”
“Ambassador, Uhuru is a sovereign nation that is neither part of the Vatican Nations nor allied with Europa or Old Africa. As such, it is accorded as neutral territory. You’ve been at war with us for more than three centuries and with Europa and Old Africa for 20 years—cold, simmering conflicts though they may be. I should think you would be familiar with the rules of conduct in unaccorded nations.” The merest hint of menace had crept into Gregory’s voice. The UFC tried to stay out of politics and violence, but since its policies were considered heresy by the Vatican, it was still considered a deadly enemy—and he was the Peteris, not some novice to be played with.
“Peteris, three of the five ruling leaders of Uhuru voted to accept the Vatican’s protection, a clear majority decision.”
“Yes, and the other two leaders were under house arrest at the time, while the citizens were demonstrating in the streets demanding a referendum to vote down such a move.”
“Politics is such a messy business. Perhaps you and the Paulis should consider a career in the mercantile realm where merely money and not souls are in the balance. I’m sure no one would begrudge you leaving five years before the end of your term. It isn’t unprecedented. You’ve had a good 15-year run.”
“Yes, but with the Vatican down one pope, we finally have even odds again. How could I bear to leave office?”
“There’s also the Godhead to contend with, and there will be a new Red Pope named after the millennium,” Samuel noted, his words tinged with just a hint of venom.
The Peteris sighed. “I’m not worried about going head to head with an AI no matter how big a building it occupies. And the new Red Pope will still have far less experience learning the steps on this dance floor than I do.”
He reactivated his lightdesk and keyed up the one in his guest’s chair as well. He synched the second desk to his grid search and steepled his fingers in his lap. “Perhaps, ambassador, you can help me find a pair of jazz tunes I’ve been unable to track down these past two hours.”
Imagining what kind of expressions flickered across Samuel’s face as he stormed out of the Peteris’ office would give Gregory a huge degree of pleasure for the rest of the workday, he was certain. Forgive me, Jesus, he thought as a smile came unbidden to his lips. But even you had your days, didn’t you?
(For part 4 of the story, click here)