Cleansed by Fire, Part 14

For the previous installment of this story, click here

There is also a link under “Categories” in my sidebar for Cleansed By Fire, to more easily access all the installments of this novel; alternately, you can 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 3, Narrow Paths and Wide Gates (continued)

It wasn’t uncommon for him to go standard class rather than business or luxury class when he went on a gambling trip, since there was no reason to spend money on a short flight that could be better spent on hours of entertainment. And he would certainly never have gone by sliptrain—the cost of the multiple slipgate passages could really stack up, and it was a whole lot less jarring to his nervous system to spend a few hours in the air than an hour cycling in and out of slipspace.

But for Daniel Coxe, this was still a first: An absolutely no-frills budget airline. He wasn’t sure how much Harry’s assistance was going to cost, but he wanted every credit available to get out of the Catholic Union safe, sound and preferably unnoticed until several days had passed. And if he had something left over for a little gambling and maybe a show before he fled, so much the better.

He pulled a flexsheet out of the seat compartment, unfolded it and turned it on, waiting for the obligatory flight safety vids to play through so he could find some good reading or something to watch. The resolution was a little off, and he flipped it over to see the brand name SmartPage in the bottom corner. Cheap product, he thought, nothing like the VirtasheetPrime or FlexxxConnect ones he usually used. Now those have some serious pixel depth.

After the fight safety vids came the obligatory ads. Six in a row, a new record for Daniel and another sign that money saved on a SmartPage flexsheet wasn’t worth the hassles that came with it; not that he was worried about having to get that cheap in his new life. Once he was out of the Catholic Union he could start tapping some “retirement” funds.

The final ad was for a company called PrevArIcator F.C.E., a company that said it had the first-ever prototype AIs with the ability to lie convincingly, and falsehood modules for several AI templates would be available within two years. Daniel actually laughed out loud about both claims. The bravado might push up their value in the market, but when they didn’t deliver the goods, the company would tank and heads would roll. Likely some second-tier execs would find themselves facing charges. If the senior execs were smart, they were planning to pocket the take from investors and head off to Oceana with new names for early retirement. Daniel actually did a search to see how many investment analysts shared his view and found only a handful who even slyly suggested it.

People are such easily duped novices. I’m a conceptual programmer and a divorce attorney with no court losses to my name and not a single unhappy client. If I can’t figure out how to teach AIs to be good liars, no one can.


The final access door to Ghost’s atrium opened and Gregory stepped inside and headed straight for the main seat in the middle of the room. He hadn’t gotten halfway there when Ghost kicked up the illumination just slightly—an AI’s version of a smile—and greeted him. She talked to many people both inside and outside of the UFC—being the only really big AI the church used—but few were allowed into the atrium, generally only a sitting Paulis or Peteris.

“A little late for our morning meeting today, are we? People have been talking about that steward you gave asylum to; I hope you weren’t sampling her last night or this morning. Or both.”

“Ghost, my love, if I step out on Amaranth, it would be for you and no one else.”


“Not much to discuss with you, really. I got your data feeds on my linkpad during my morning ecumenical meetings and they’re already downloaded to my flexsheet and lightdesk. You seem to have everything well in hand, particularly with the integration of the Hiroki papers into the libraries. How you keep 4,000 years of New Testament documents and religious theory straight—and all that ancient Hebrew stuff before it—without going insane is beyond me. Hiroki was pretty out there on the bleeding edge of theology.”

“He wasn’t quite so maverick as you think. My reconciliation and data analysis routines were able to integrate him pretty solidly into the canon. He’s colorful, but no one will be able to call him a heretic anymore now that I’ve cross-referenced and tied him to some older and more accepted thinkers. So, then, aside from complimenting me to avoid talking about the vicious slattern you’ve given refuge to, why are you here then?”

Gregory suspected she knew already, but this was their usual dance after 15 years of his service as Peteris, and he had worked with her more informally via a terminal for nearly a decade before that, so it was a comfortable waltz. The UFC had made the interesting choice, centuries ago when it decided that it needed a really powerful AI to counterbalance the Godhead, to create Ghost from a modified espionage template. It made her uniquely qualified to not only analyze and interpret data, but dig it out of obscure sources and notice when similarities and inconsistencies weren’t really what they seemed. Having to keep ever-evolving religious doctrine straight and discredit the Godhead from time to time, those were critical skills. 

“I want to know everything that I can know not only about Domina xec-Academie but also about the late Red Pope. I need to know if there is anything out of the ordinary about them together or individually that might cause me distress or make my wife even more angry than she will already be that I have a ‘vicious slattern’ set up in very generous accomodations.”

“And I, instead of some dedicated bloodhound AI, am doing this because…”

“…I complimented you so nicely earlier, and I am now even saying, ‘pretty please.’ Really, Ghost, there is something going on here that Domina isn’t telling me, and the risks to the UFC in harboring her right after the suspicious death of a pope are significant. You’re the only AI in the UFC I can truly trust, and nothing but an AI will do on this one.”

“You’re so endearingly anachronistic, Gregory. There can’t be more than 20 other people even in your age demographic who would say ‘pretty please.’ You have a few minutes until your next appointment. Add some more flattery, particularly if it involves my data matrix or acquisition routines, and I’m all yours. If you tease me about the size of my firewall, though, you’re in trouble.”


Ather waited for the latest swarm of templar staff to disperse from Lyseena’s general vicinity—she had elected to station herself at a console on the outside of the pit. She was near the suite, but dutifully trying not to fall into the trap of sequestering herself there. Ather suspected that if she did, things would become even more chaotic in the command center.

“Lyseena, I have some initial insights if you want them. I know we’re meeting with your officers in just under an hour…”

“Do you have something about Maree?”


“Don’t ask permission in the future. Anything about Maree I want to know immediately. Is there something new about the arson at her home and those dead relatives?”

“No. But I wanted to tell you she had a data sniffer attached to her slipchair.”

“You mean someone else attached one to her chair.”

“No, Lyseena, her fingerprints, DNA traces and security protocols are all over it. She placed it there. Turns out her slipchair has been sending out flash dumps to some listening posts. She was monitoring them. We’re trying to triangulate the positions of the receiving posts now in the hopes that one or more might still be active and perhaps even run by a warm body that we can interrrogate.”

“The good news,” Ather continued, “is that flash dumps are too quick to let anything serious out of the tower but I’m sure her contacts made off with some useful intel about our movements and some general plans. Initial analysis suggests it was probably Secular Genesis listening in. There are some coded identifiers that we’re still trying to assess, but I’m guessing already that we’ll find they match up to names of some cell leaders in this region who would be warned when any flash dump referred to them. I think the flash dumps helped keep them ahead of our attempts to catch them.”

Lyseena frowned. “How long?”

“The flash dumps have been going on the entire time she’s been with you, from the time during which she supervised the pit all the way through her service as one of your admin officers.”

“Is it possible she’s being forced or coerced here? The data sniffer suggests she wanted to know who was pulling data, too.”

“The sniffer’s contents go back roughly a year,” Ather said. “And we’ve found several disabled swiper programs in her chair that otherwise would have destroyed much of the evidence we’re sifting through now. So, yes, it seems possible she could be trying to undermine the terrorists. But it doesn’t jibe with her personality, at least insofar as how she’s presented herself to us over the years. I’d wager she was feeling anger toward them or fearing they would betray her somehow. She seemed to want leverage against them, not evidence for us. That makes sense, based on Paulo’s assessment that she seemed very out of sorts yesterday. Something must have come to a head very recently.”

“Your expression tells me you have something else for me.”

“It is my hope to always have something of value for you, Lyseena. You know she had that old slipchair for sentimental reasons. It was her father’s.”

“Yes? I know a little about it. Tobin Deschaine. Very good officer, but never quite made it to vow-worthy material. In hindsight, I suppose it would have better for us if he had been a little more talented. The celibacy clause in the vows would have meant Maree never would have been born.” Lyseena surprised herself with the bitterness in her voice. Maree was supposed to be my sure, steady, ruthless hand. Mine!

“Lyseena, one of the things I’ve been collating is Maree’s family history,” he said, tapping the hindbrain at the back of his skull for effect. “Did you know her grandfather was the chair of one of the citizen oversight panels for the templars, before the Vatican disbanded citizen oversight powers entirely?”

“That should have been a red flag for his son ever joining the templars.”

“Yes,” Ather agreed. “Except that Edward Deschaine, the grandfather, was always very cordial with the templars and with local law enforcement agencies and constabularies as well. He was always the voice of moderation when his oversight board would cry foul about our tactics. Always. And yet no one ever removed him from his position as chair. Not even the most vocal and fringe elements of the oversight board.”

Lyseena nodded for Ather to continue. He could see that the wheels were beginning to turn in her head.

“His son, suprisingly to everyone, joined the templars during the time the boards were still active and his father was still one of their biggest, and yet still most moderate, voices. Edward was taken somewhat aback since he did have ‘some concerns’ about templar policies and leadership at the top, but reminded the members of his family and his citizen oversight board that he did, after all, encourage free thought.”

“Edward Deschaine was never a moderate,” Lyseena said. “He let the more radical elements in the oversight boards act and speak for him. He put on an act. His son, Tobin, entered the templars as a plant.”

“Of a sort. I have not found a single instance of Tobin Deschaine doing anything but his duty. Efficiently and effectively. What I did find, though, was that he always stopped just short of being shining enough to attract the Vatican’s attention and thus any pressure to take the vows and become Tobin Juris. And maybe man-Juris or sup-Juris down the line. He became a truly exceptional officer only after he married. And he became a highly decorated field officer around the time Maree was in secondary school and heading up the Morality Union and in university, when she was involved with the Templar Officer Training Corps. And especially when she followed her father into the templars. Many there were who supervised or worked with Tobin and opined, ‘If only he wasn’t married and could take the vows.’ How fortunate, then, that Maree was everything her father was, only earlier in her career, and still unmarried.”

Lyseena closed her eyes and winced. “A three-generation-long plan to groom someone to be a plant in the upper echelons. Tobin’s loyalty wasn’t questioned and when he started doing extremely well, it was to help bring honor to the Deschaine name; to help bolster Maree’s talent and get her noticed. And if she hadn’t been tapped to take the vows, she would have raised up a child to do it in her place. Aside from the cousins and such that we rounded up today, what close family does she have?”

“Her mother died when she was six. She has a brother four years her junior, who ran off in the middle of his university studies, maybe a year after ambitious young Maree took her templar vows. The cousins and their children in Astoria are the only ones she really talked to at all, aside from a call two or three times a year to her father. He has been doing a lot of traveling since his retirement, by the way.”

“Yes, I know,” Lyseena said. “We’ve wanted to talk to Tobin ever since Paulo told us about Maree’s odd behavior. He doesn’t spend credits very much. Stocks up heavily and then it’s off to the next stop on his tour of the Catholic Union. Almost as if he wants to stay out of sight these days. Out of the fray.”

“Yes, I noticed that, too,” Ather said in a playfully conspiratorial tone. “How fortunate for you that I am so very talented at finding poor, lost, wayward souls. I have leads already on his location, and I’ve already put your hounds on the trail for you.”

(To read part 15 of this story, click here.)


2 Responses to “Cleansed by Fire, Part 14”

  1. September 3, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Left a long comment on your long recap. I hope it’s not too presumptuous.

  2. 2 Deacon Blue
    September 3, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Nonsense, man…I mean, hell, you already pulled me short of making a huge mistake once. Feedback for me is good on this project, as I sometimes need outside eyes to suggest to me avenues I might not have considered…or to help identify blindspots I may have from being too close to the action. I’ll respond to your longer comment later (I did read it); my dad is coming into town in mere hours, though, and there is lots and lots of cleaning yet to do. 😉

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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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