Archive for July 10th, 2008


Cleansed by Fire, Part 4

For the previous installment of this story, click here, or click on the “cleansed by fire novel” link under the Tags heading for this post (or click here) for a complete listing of installments. 

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 1, Requiem for the Red Pope (continued)

Some hours later, the Peteris retired to a mostly empty level of Candlestand 33, one of the 70 towers that each stretched nearly a kilometer above the surface of Mars, spaced at more or less equal distances across the planet. He always picked this floor because it lay halfway between the ruddy surface of the planet and the landing platform at the top of the tower. The views were wonderful even from the 300 “toadstools,” the much shorter cousins of the candlestands that saw most of the cargo traffic and maybe a third of the higher-end merchant traffic that visited Mars—and likely 90 percent of the smugglers. But there was something awe-inspiring and humbling about his visits to this level.

In the past, many Peterises elected to move their offices from time to time to deter assassination attempts, and it was a common practice for the Peteris and Paulis to keep separate offices on opposite sides of the planet so that when the Paulis was Mars-side, the holy couple wouldn’t present too tempting a target for their enemies.

One enemy, really, the Peteris reminded himself. No government but the one that claims to serve God best, the Vatican’s, really has any grudge with us.

Gregory Dyson was not a man who felt obliged to hide, however. Assassins were skilled enough to find him if they wanted him that badly and if they could slip past his security net. He wasn’t about to run from office to office—he kept just one, near the base of Candlestand 33—and he certainly wasn’t going to stay below the surface all the time and deny himself this view of the Martian landscape and some of the ancient deactivated atmosphere generators and the likewise defunct automated landscaper platforms off in the distance, covered in rust-colored dust. And he and Amaranth were damned if they were going to have to travel thousands of kilometers to share a bed on a weekly or monthly basis—or even less often, as many of their predecessors had done.

We are husband and wife. We will live together when our work doesn’t keep us apart on separate worlds. We will die together if necessary. As God wills, not us. He rubbed his eyes and sighed. Lord, I miss my wife. Bring her home soon.

Several of the candlestands boasted impressive resorts and residential spaces, mostly for offworlders who didn’t like the idea of living underground but also for the relatively small number of citizens who preferred being aboveground or who wanted—and could afford—more sumptuous accommodations in a tower. Candlestand 33 was mostly trade offices and embassies, though. If Mars had any defensive weakness, it was the network of candlestands and toadstools. They were the only structures that lay above the nearly impenetrable defensive energy shield that permeated the crust just below the planet’s surface layer. That shield could ward off almost any outside attack but it existed primarily to ensure that the crust of the planet never experienced a breach that might cause the complex artificial ecosystem below the surface to suffer, or its atmosphere to escape. The candlestands and toadstools were Mars’ connection to the Earth and to other settlements in the solar system. They could theoretically be destroyed but that would not kill the population—merely isolate them. And invaders couldn’t hope to move sufficient troops through the airlocks of the towers to conquer the underscape. They would only make themselves easy targets.

It’s not a gilded cage I live in but a garnet one. Thank God it’s a big enough cage that I don’t have to worry about losing my mind.

Terraforming Mars had proved to be a monumental failure. Even when the Conflagration had begun on Earth some 1,400 years past and laid waste to vast portions of civilization, the atmospheric processors had trudged on and the robotic systems continued to try to seed the Martian surface with genetically altered flora. But when the dust had settled on Earth and the Vatican had helped restore order to much of the planet—perhaps the last truly noble thing it had done before growing so comfortable ruling people with an iron hand—humans found that Mars refused to be changed even though the automated systems had continued their work faithfully for nearly two centuries. Mars rejected letting life take root and it rejected holding any serious atmosphere.

So when eyes turned again toward Mars as a home—and Europa and Old Africa joined forces to help found an independent nation here—the best thinkers rejected earlier fantasies and instead carved out a world beneath and sealed it off from the harsh environment above.

The only place in the entire solar system, Gregory mused, that the Universal Faith Catholic could house most of its resources and people without the serious risk of falling prey to the Terran Catholic Church—the body that had once been the Roman Catholic Church and now ruled two continents, much of Africa, and few slivers of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Southern Asia. A thriving theocracy hungry for more territory. They just couldn’t wait for Jesus to return, so they tried to do it themselves.

The UFC stood as the only serious Christian counterpoint to the Vatican, having originally drawn into its fold disgruntled Catholics and many of the Protestant denominations. By trying to stay out of politics, the UFC had earned the respect of even the most secular nations in Europa that had all but outlawed religion. Judaism might as well be dead and posed little threat to the Terran Catholic Church; the Vatican had restored Israel and vastly expanded its borders, but it seemed mainly to serve as a reservation for the vast majority of Earth’s Jews—it might as well have been a wildlife preserve or zoo the way it had been designed.

And the poor Muslims. What few there are left scattered and still trying to recover almost 80 years later. They may have had God wrong in the interpretation, but Islam didn’t deserve what the Vatican did to it.

The Peteris sensed the arrival of his visitor before she even reached the door. One of his more prudent decisions had been to have sensor webs incorporated into his vestments; the moment the woman had gotten within range of the motion sensors at the end of the outer hall Gregory had felt tingles across his skin. So he was already facing the door when she entered.

“Welcome, Domina xec-Academie. I like visitors who arrive early rather than late.”

A moment of surprise flickered across her face, but she recovered quickly and bowed. “As long as you don’t think I was arriving early to catch you off your balance.”

“Of course you were, Domina…may I call you by your given name?” She nodded and the Peteris continued. “But I would expect little else and since I have both of my feet firmly grounded in our modest Martian gravity, there is no harm.”

Not that he would admit it, but Domina had put him off balance in another way. He had expected her to be wearing either a scarlet uniform in keeping with her former role as chief steward to the Red Pope, or something more neutral and business-themed. Instead, she was wearing a formal gown that clung precisely to the places that evolution had always dictated that men would look. It showed off her physique well—a body she had clearly earned; it showed none of the perfect symmetry that betrayed a nano-enhanced physique. But Pope Tommis had been well known to consider physical exertion a sign of moral character; that he would keep fitness minded types in his inner circle made sense.

He didn’t have to admit anything verbally though. The slight smirk on her mouth showed that she knew she had gotten the reaction she wanted.

“I must admit, Domina, I don’t know many political refugees who take the time to pack such clothing. I seem to recall that you were in quite the rush to seek diplomatic sanctuary from me. The words ‘danger’ and ‘peril’ came up several times in your message.”

“Heh. I bought this at one of the shops in this tower.”

“I also don’t know many people in your position who would try to access their Vatican accounts while dodging the Vatican itself.”

“I was a steward, Peteris…or may I call you Gregory?” He nodded assent. “A good steward always knows ways to make sure there are special wells to tap for emergency funds. And I have always been a very good steward.”

“Humility sits uneasily on your shoulders, Domina.”

“I have nothing to be humble about.”

“I see that you are only too happy to provide a visual aid in that regard. Do you have a dinner date after our meeting?”

“I rather thought I might show my appreciation for your protection in a more private and personal way later. I thought you might appreciate a preview first.”

Gregory was somewhat chagrined to admit to himself that he was feeling other tingles now, none of which had anything to do with warnings from the sensor webs in his vestments. “Domina, I am a married man and you, an accomplished woman who cannot possibly be in her 40s yet, are at least 15 years too young for my tastes even if I were single. Beside which, you swore a vow of chastity when you gave up your family name and took up Academie in its place.”

“I have been very chaste, except with Pope Tommis. He liked to keep his chief steward close to his…confidence.”

“I wonder, was your conscience ever touched by the cruel irony that the Red Pope called upon his templars to routinely castrate men who had sex outside of marriage and turn over women who did the same to the Dry Sisters—while the two of you not only fornicated but also violated your vows to your church?”

The jibe was meant to unsettle her. The Peteris was dismally disappointed to see that he had not made a single dent in her psychological armor.

“Oh, dear Peteris, you can’t possibly be unacquainted with the doctrine of behavioral dispensation? It is impossible for popes to sin. Their actions are preordained and part of God’s plans, mysterious though they are. And those in the immediate circle of a pope are also accorded the same dispensation so long as they commit no evil against one of the popes or the church directly. Until a new Red Pope is named, I remain sinless. So you should probably take me up on my generous offer soon.”

“Loyalty trumps libido in my case, Domina. Tempting though it is, I must refuse out of deference to my wife. Surely you don’t think that you need to sweeten the pot with sex? I have already agreed to give you asylum without even having heard what you have to share with me.”

Domina managed to shrug in a manner that was entirely casual and eminently sensual. “Tommis was not able to perform as his condition worsened, and so I have been rendered unintentionally celibate by default. I must admit that I am a bit jaded now. I’ve bedded a pope. I’m afraid that nothing of lesser social caliber will suffice. And so that leaves me with heads of state, royalty, and a Paulis or Peteris. I am in the hands of the UFC, and so political leaders and royals are in short supply. And the Paulis is the wrong gender for my tastes.”

“I’m sure there are shops that can provide you with tools to ease your pain, probably within a short walk of the one that sold you that gown.”

Gregory sat and Domina was almost in synch with him as she settled into her own chair. It was something she would never have dared done to a pope; he supposed he should feel flattered that she sat a fraction of a second later than he did. Well, no need to be coy then if she wanted to be so forward anyway.

“Domina, I’m not in the habit of giving asylum to murderers or accomplices to them, but you have assured me you have information worthy of my protecting you. I do expect, however, that you tell me which you are. Murderer? Or accomplice?”

She hesitated not a moment. “Neither. The only reason I fled right before Tommis’ death is because information had come to my attention that I had been targeted for some kind of harm. Tommis was hardly in a position to protect me; it was quite clear he was going to die. I had nothing to do with his demise though. I doubt it was natural, given the timing, but someone went to a great deal of trouble to orchestrate his death. He was sick so long—more than a year—that it had to be a custom infection or nanotech though. No poison could have been that precise. You would have had to be close to him to know how sick he was though; that’s why it was so easy to keep the public believing he was still hearty and whole.”

“You expect me to believe that you had no involvement?”

“Gregory, to kill Tommis would have been to ensure downward mobility for me. I certainly can’t become a pope myself without sprouting a penis. And if I were part of an organized plot by someone in the upper echelons, why would I run instead of cashing in on my reward? The only question worth asking about my flight from Earth is whether I was lucky to hear about the fact that someone was coming for me or whether I was being fed information to herd me.”

The Peteris waved his hand as if trying to disperse noxious fumes. “Forget that then for now. I’ll take your word no matter how ill-advised that might be. What do you have to tell me that was so important you believe it worthy of granting you diplomatic sanctuary?”

“Tommis’ cognos hadn’t been uploaded to the Godhead in more than a year. That was never made public, but the other popes maintained within the inner circles that the process might pose a risk to his life, given his lingering and worsening illness.”

“And the Black Pope and White Pope…”

“…underwent the usual uploads,” Domina finished, “which means their brains were linked up to the Godhead twice during that period.”

So there was something in Pope Tommis’ mind, his readable cognos, that the Vatican didn’t want to become part of the Godhead. Gregory finished his thought verbally with: “So he had to die before the millennial celebration because the Vatican would be doing a public cognos upload for the benefit of the faithful masses, and there’s no way they could fail to include Tommis.”

“Presumably,” Domina said.

“But that doesn’t explain why they would kill him so close to the millennial and not sometime closer to when he first became visibly ill to people like you who were in the know.”

Gregory had been hoping for a response, but Domina was silent. It could have been for any number of reasons, but every neuron in his brain screamed that she was withholding information now.

“You have beautiful eyes, Domina.”

She smiled at that. “Does that mean you have reconsidered my offer to ease you in these troubled times while you are separated from your wife?”

“No. It means that I want to know what those beautiful eyes have seen—and what your ears have heard as well—that you aren’t telling me.”

“I am no traitor to the Vatican. My vows are something I take seriously. What I have told you, in order to buy myself time to figure out how to regain my rank and privilege in the Holy Mother Church, is all that I can give you.”

“I would urge you to reconsider. We can find a place for you in the UFC. We serve God, too, just without all the messy tyranny of the masses.”

Domina’s green eyes turned so cold that Gregory would swear they were now blue-green. “You are a heretic and the UFC in its entirety is heresy and a blight in the sight of God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost and the Virgin. I have nothing against you personally, but in my loyalty and in deference to my vows, I ultimately wish to see you dead or in Vatican custody.” Her gaze warmed again. “But all things in due time. Might I convince you to dine with me at least, and see if we can come to…accommodations?”

I would sooner set vipers loose under my sheets than invite you beneath them, Gregory thought as his fingers danced a subtle pattern across one of the hems of his vestments. Within seconds, two guards were in the room and the Peteris was pleased to see a shocked look on Domina’s face.

“You guaranteed me asylum,” she said simply, letting all the associated implications hang in the air between them.

“And my protection you shall have. But there is such a fine line between asylum and imprisonment. You’ll have accommodations worthy of any visiting dignitary—much more spacious in fact. Because you won’t be stepping out of my reach until I have the answers I want. By coming to us you’ve put the entire UFC in peril. If the Vatican doesn’t already know you are here, they will within days, and they will assume I and my wife were leading an official assassination of the Red Pope using you to do the job. That could mean open warfare between the two churches and I don’t relish the kind of bloodshed that would bring. I intend for you to help me forestall it.

“If there’s any more shopping you need to do, do it from a lightdesk or a terminal. This level of the candlestand is now yours and I’ll ensure that it’s worthy of your station within the next 12 hours. If you want to see any other part of Mars while you’re here, you’ll have to do it through the windows.”

(For part 5 of the story, click here.)


Deacon Blue is the blogging persona of editor and writer Jeffrey Bouley. The opinions of Jeff himself on this blog, and those expressed as Deacon Blue, in NO WAY should be construed as the opinions of anyone with whom he has worked, currently works, or will work with in the future. They are personal opinions and views, and are sometimes, frankly, expressed in more outrageous terms than I truly feel most days.

Jeff Bouley


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