Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 1, Requiem for the Red Pope (continued)
By the end of the day—a day that had stretched well into the evening hours, in fact—Lyseena’s three admin officers were as exhausted as if they had run a marathon in full templar armor. Tomorrow promised more of the same, if not worse, and all three of them were ready to put the Templar’s Tower behind them for a few hours at least. Maree, Paulo and Kevan paused at street level, gave each other weary—and wary—nods, and set off their separate directions.
For Maree sup-Juris, her destination was fraught with contradictions and even heresy. I am about to continue a path of betrayal in the shadow of the Lamb’s Tower, she thought. Perhaps I’d be better to shit on the keystone altar at St. Paul’s Cathedrium, record it and put it up on the grid, and be done with everything.
But in the end, duty was all she had—duties by day and duties by night that could not be reconciled and which were mixing and churning together with increasing regularity. And that growing regularity was something that she was about to confront with a certain someone in mere minutes.
She was acting outside of normal protocols, but she had minimal fear. If anything, being caught at this point would be a relief in some respects. But everything had been too well-crafted, for too many decades, for something like this to derail the situation. That nonsense with her slipchair this afternoon, now that was something else entirely. I don’t fear death, or even torture, but out of professional dignity, I shall not simply be put in jeopardy merely for someone else’s convenience.
Maree was known among the templar to be a creature of habit and of very particular sentimentality. That is why no one made a fuss about her desire to still use the twelve-year-old slipchair she had received when she was promoted to man-Juris, even though that model had been discontinued long ago and at least four new technological advances had been made to the Templar slipchairs since then. And her regular visits to the nearby park beneath the Lamb’s Tower for a quick stroll, particularly after a busy day—which gave her separation from her colleagues and allowed her to order up a livery slipcar—were nothing of note. Her desire to often stop midway between the park and the nearest slipgate and have the slipcar wait for her while she bought a cup of caff, and sometimes drop a piece of memorysheet in the wastebasket while she ordered, was likewise of no consequence. Even the fact that she lived in a small cottage several towns outside the city proper—a fact that made it logical for her to order up slipcars instead of standard livery groundcars in the first place—was nothing strange, as it had been left to her by her grandfather.
These things had been a part of her character and routines for the nearly sixteen years since she took her vows with the Office Templar and went from being logistical officer Maree Deschaine to senior officer Maree Juris, and then on to Maree man-Juris and now Maree sup-Juris. For most of those sixteen years, she had done nothing untoward during her forays. And if agents of the Office Inquisitorial had ever been watching her, Lord knows they would have given up out of boredom after the first few years. So the past six years of subterfuge gave her little worry. Even the way she was being used now still didn’t worry her.
But it was insulting, and she was angry.
Her stroll was brief, and she called up a slipcar from a local livery service from her linkpad. Minutes later, it slid quietly up to the curb and she stepped in. The driver turned his head slightly, “Where to, ma’am?”
The man had a very small brown mole on his right earlobe. Such an inconsequential thing that hardly anyone would notice. Maree’s eyes drifted casually to his right hand, where she saw a simple silver ring on the middle finger. Two simple things, hardly of note to anyone, but of course not something that many people would have, certainly not in combination. Only from slipcars from this livery service. And even then, only on special occasions. The face was always different, and the gender and ethnicity varied from ride to ride.
Normally, these rides would be in silence. Data would be transmitted to the vox in her pocket, so that she could listen to it at her leisure between music and news feeds the next time she slipped the vox onto her ear. Or data would be pulled from the vox on rare occasions.
Silence was the order of the day on these rides.
Being unobtrusive was the standard goal.
This was not a normal day.
Maree cleared her throat and said, “910 Sweetser Lane, Astoria.” She paused as the slipcar pulled away from the curb and headed toward the slipgate station several miles away. “Are you Stavin?”
“Of course. That is who you stated you needed to speak to. Quite irregular, but these are irregular days.”
Maree snorted. “Not that I’d know what Stavin looks like, of course, or what he sounds like. And I sincerely doubt Stavin would actually put his ass in this slipcar and expose himself to a very potential risk that he was entering a trap. But I’ll pretend for the moment that you really are him. If you aren’t, you’d better have both a very good memory and ample knowledge of operations. Because I want my words to get to him exactly as I speak them, and I expect responses from you that are appropriate for someone who knows what is going on. If I find that I am getting neither, particularly that second part, you will be trying to figure out how to drive this slipcar away from Astoria with a broken collarbone. Do I make myself clear?”
“Very clear,” the man said mildly. “I wasn’t aware that you were in a position to dictate orders, but you are very clear.”
“Good. I want to know why the fuck you have accessed my slipchair so frequently lately. Are you trying to get me executed? The holo emitter has flickered three times in the past week!”
“The flash-dump of data requires a bit of energy. The security protocols we have in place are very good, but speed is of the essence. We have to get as much data as feasible from your storage cells in a very precise amount of time and the lightdesk holo will flicker. It is an unavoidable consequence and precisely why you have held onto such an old slipchair for so long. A small glitch like that would not be unexpected from time to time.”
“Three times in the past week,” Maree said with a growl slowly slipping into her words. “Do you think Lyseena xec-Juris became commander templar of this region by lacking an attention to detail? At best, she will become annoyed and make me replace the chair soon. At worst, someone will poke around and find your…additions.”
“Admin Officer sup-Juris if you will,” Maree interrupted fiercely. “Don’t try to get buddywise with me tonight, or I’ll get a start on that collarbone right now. I’ve earned my rank in the templar, even if it makes me ill to have it.”
“…Admin Officer sup-Juris, the protocols in your chair are entirely random. We do that precisely to avoid patterns. A random process, by its nature, means that the data dumps will not be at regular intervals. You were bound to get a slight cluster at some point. Putting you in jeopardy is hardly a value proposition. We would not…”
“A slight cluster?” came Maree’s savage reply. “Three times in five office days that my chair has randomly initiated flash-dumps to you? Three times in that week, around the same time as the Red Pope’s death and days before the the Fourth Millennial Celebration? Do you take me for an idiot?”
“Admin Officer sup-Juris, you piddling stand-in for Stavin! Don’t make me reach across your seat and break one of your fingers as a prelude to your shoulder. My family has given its years, its legacy and now my life to your cause. If I am taken prisoner in doing my duty, I will accept that. But I will not be taken advantage of. If I die in the course of my actions, I accept that. But I will not have my life thrown away casually.”
“Admin Officer sup-Juris, no one questions your loyalty, your attention to duty under very trying circumstances and your irreplaceable value…”
Maree’s hand shot out with a tiny leafblade between her thumb and forefinger. She held it to the driver’s ear firmly. He said nothing, but she could feel the tension. She was more certain than ever that not only wasn’t this Stavin, it wasn’t even one of his lieutenants.
“Look, you baseline operative, I will remove your fake mole by relieving you of your ear if you try to smooth my grade with psych bullshit one more time. There is nothing random about my slipchair’s flash-dumps now, if there ever was. You are planning something very large, you are planning it soon, and you desperately want data from my chair in the hopes that you can get something that will be of use to you in keeping the templars off your neck.”
“You are keeping me in the dark about it,” she continued, “I am willing to bet good debits that the frequency of my little holo flickers will increase, and you plan to get as much as you can, and you know that I will probably be revealed as a spy before the millennium arrives. I have not spent this many years rising in the ranks of the Office Templar on behalf of the Secular Genesis—having to pretend loyalty to the Vatican and do things that still make me sick—just so that I can be used like a common tripslut.”
Though the man clearly wasn’t a high-level member of the Secular Genesis and was probably a hair away from pissing in his trousers, Maree was at least impressed that he was still driving straight and at a constant speed. He might have potential if she didn’t do anything too obnoxiously detrimental to his body.
“What do you propose, Admin Officer sup-Juris? If what you accuse us of is true, what do you suggest we do? These are, as I said, irregular times. Field operatives are often in jeopardy. Even operatives as valuable as you. Do you expect to be given less risk? Do you expect operations to be cancelled for your benefit?”
Maree released the driver’s ear and settled back into her seat. She was calmer now. Physical threats against another could be very cathartic, particularly when they were justified.
“What I propose is that you tell Stavin I want him at my cottage tonight. I want to know what I am part of and I wish to be an active part of it; not a pawn or a tool. I will have my skills put to work on something more than just pretending to be a loyal templar and waiting for an inquisitor to haul me away. If Stavin doesn’t come himself—or even worse, if no one comes at all—I swear to you that not only will I turn myself in, I will personally hand my slipchair over to Lyseena xec-Juris.”
The driver sighed. “Look that won’t accomplish anything productive, even for petty revenge. Any tinkering with the chair’s modifications will activate a…”
“…swiper application that I located and disabled two days ago. The three backup apps as well, which were very well hidden, I must admit. Plus, I have a data sniffer hidden away that has monitored every one of your flash-dumps for the past year, and might therefore help Lyseena triangulate the position of some of your data posts. I think that would be very inconvenient for the Secular Genesis. Particularly in such irregular times as these.”
Silence reigned for the last minute or so of the drive. The driver eased the slipcar into an open collar at the slipgate terminal and began the slipspace calculations for Astoria station. “I’ll tell Stavin myself. And I have an eidetic memory. I’m not some mere flunky.”
Maree wasn’t sure if that was meant to reassure her that nothing would be lost in translation, or be a thinly veiled threat that he wouldn’t forget this night, or combination of both. And frankly, she didn’t much care.
“Glad to hear it,” she said as the slipgate hummed with its power-up protocol and a vague sense of ghostly pressure began to exert itself against her skin and even her thoughts. “You made good time to the station. I can almost guarantee there’ll be a nice tip on your account when we finish up the debit at my home. And you probably won’t even need to spend it on first aid for your collarbone.”
(This marks the end of Chapter 1. To read part 6 of this story, which begins Chapter 2, click here.)