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Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 5, Blood and Tears (continued)
The captain of Scion’s Dream was doing his level best to look pleasant this morning, just as if the daywatch was going to run smooth as wispsilk—even though that he knew from an informed source that it wasn’t. Showing a scowl now might make his later performances ring false. No sooner had that thought run through his mind than his executive officer approached with a slight frown line between his eyes.
“Sir, we’re picking up a vessel on long-range scans. Looks to be coming from Mars. Some sort of podship moving at high velocity. Has to be unmanned to be moving that fast.”
“Why the concern?” Bartelle D’Onofrio asked his second-in-command.
“The podship is not only moving far faster than most express courier vessels would, but its design is a semi-stealth one. Frankly, it’s a miracle we caught it on scanners. The AI actually brought it to the scancomm team’s attention while she was doing some astrographical pattern scan updates for her nav systems,” Commander Frankes responded. Then he saw the irritated frown on his captain’s face and as Bartelle opened his mouth, the commander sped up his report. “It’s trajectory is straight for a position off the coast of Nova York, sir. No express or emergency courier vessels are expected in the Catholic Union on that course from Mars right now.”
“Can we intercept it?” Bartelle asked.
“As long as we launch within the next 15 minutes, an unmanned interceptor could get in position with an interdictor field and tractor beams and have the podship pulled out of distortion mode—and probably with zero damage—long before it reaches Earth.”
“You’re dead certain this is an unauthorized vessel looking to enter Catholic Union space?”
“AI confirms it, sir. She’s contacted all military and Vatican central systems and no one…I mean no one…is expecting this.”
“Well, if it ends up being something corporate and we twist off an executive, you’d better have all the evidence I need to show that he failed to register a courier run with Vatican Traffic Control,” Bartelle said.
“A package will be on your desk long before we snare the podship, sir.”
“Get it done, Frankes.”
Bartelle kept the scowl on his face for a few minutes longer, even though he was smiling inside. Once again, we’re right on schedule, Nazarene. The only thing that would make me feel better is knowing precisely what it is that you’re setting up Mars to take the blame for.
Maree Deschaine was running for her life—well, perhaps just for her freedom, but the two seemed rather synonymous right now. She was certainly glad it was winter. Because if she had been running a couple months earlier here, in what would have been the drenching mid-autumn heat of Texas Province, wearing a bounty coat, she’d be ready to collapse. She was hot enough as it was, but since a bounty coat was essentially a tricked-up trencher favored by bond hunters and contract investigators—and unlike a longcoat was only able to seal from throat to crotch—at least the bottom part of the coat was letting in some cool air. Part of her wanted to open up the torso portion for some extra ventilation, but she didn’t dare.
Seeing the tac-tanks converge on her father’s boat (no damn you he’s nothing to you now just a discarded man named Tobin Deschaine) had filled her with dread. With a templar strike team like that, they were either after Tobin alone to find out where she was, or they already suspected she had met with him and they were hunting for them both. Either way, that meant that every biometric array in the city would be on and monitored by a bloodhound AI. Normally, those arrays weren’t used, since security pylons did a superb job of keeping track of citizens through their IDentipods with a lot less data chaos. Also, constant monitoring of an entire biometric array network quite literally could bore an AI to death. But with that strike team, they clearly wanted Tobin and Maree, and that meant they would be looking for facial recognition of both of them throughout the city.
Sadly, since Maree had wanted Tobin to know exactly whom he was dealing with from the start when he came up from below-deck, her disguise was still in the daysack she had hidden near her escape transportation. And that was still a few kilometers away. If she passed by a biometric array without some kind of disguise to at least slow up her identification—or God forbid if her face was identified by an AI while she was near a security pylon, thus letting the Vatican know whose IDentipod she was now using—she was dry-humped for certain.
As she exited yet another alley and ended up in an open street, Maree realized that the luck that she had experienced in tracking Tobin down so quickly was not with her in the mad dash to get back to her daysack.
Several meters away, she saw a templar watch-truck. She knew there would be several of them somewhere relatively close to shore to monitor the strike team on Alamo Gulf, but she had hoped to avoid encountering one. Two things registered very clearly in her mind at that moment.
First, she could not allow any of the monitoring equipment on the bed of that watch-truck to be trained on her.
Second, a watchteam would have two comm-log technicians and one templar field officer. The chances that all of them would fail to notice a woman running out of an alleyway at breakneck speed—much less that they wouldn’t recognize a former admin officer who had just betrayed the templars—was about nil.
If they had been local constabulary, I might have been OK. No local police force is going to uniformly memorize a face even as important as mine, since they resented the Office Templar in many cases anyway. But every templar in the Catholic Union will have been ordered very strenuously to keep my face clearly in their memory.
Maree didn’t hesitate. As she shifted herself to run toward the watch-truck, she slipped her left hand inside the sleeve of the bounty coat—which was tricked-up even more than most thanks to its law-breaking former owner—shoving a finger into the trigger tube hidden inside and feeling the cool, oily blast of numerous high-speed microsprays from the neck of the coat, forcing dozens of nanospheres into her blood vessels. She didn’t want to use a dose of overhype, especially since there were only six of them in the coat, but she needed all the enhanced sensory and reflex responses, as well as strength, that she could muster right now. At the same time, she drew her slug pistol—a nice three-magazine job that the former owner of the bounty coat had unwillingly bequeathed to her—and thumbed it to the magazine holding the explosive rounds.
As the overhype kicked in, she quickly took inventory of the watch-truck’s crew. Both comm-log techs were outside the vehicle. One was busy monitoring the equipment. The other was looking right at her. Being templar techs and not field officers, neither had a sidearm, but both had holstered stunrods and skeinvests. In the cab of the vehicle sat the field officer, who also was looking right at her. He would be fully armed, lightly armored and combat-trained.
Unfortunately for him, he was also seated in a cramped space and as good as dead, though he did his best to reach for his sidearm and the door nonetheless.
Maree fired one round through the windshield of the truck, and it exploded just as it pierced the transplast. Given the amount of blood and bone that splattered across the remains of the windshield, it was safe to assume that the field officer was now meeting with the Heavenly Host.
She briefly considered firing on the two techs, but she was almost on top of them already and there was no telling how easily she’d be able to find more high-grade ammunition for her guns while she was dodging both the Vatican and Secular Genesis. She holstered the pistol and pounced on the tech manning the equipment, snapping her neck. Maree’s momentum carried her into a bank of equipment and that knocked the wind out of her, but only for a moment, as she was fully in the throes of the overhype now. She disentangled herself from her second templar corpse and jumped off the bed of the watch-truck to face the third and final templar.
This tech had obviously taken basic combat training more seriously than most of his peers, and must have kept up with ongoing training as well. He was ready for her, with his stunrod in hand and poised in a very effective fighting stance. The one thing he had neglected to do while caught up in the notion of an impending battle, Maree noted with some satisfaction, was to open up a channel from his linkpad to his field marshal to report that he was under attack.
Normally, Maree might not have worried about a tech, even a combat-trained one, because techs simply didn’t get much chance to use fighting skills. But then again, normally Maree would have been wearing at least light templar armor in the field instead of a mere bounty coat, and that made the stunrod-wielding tech a far greater-than-normal threat. Still, he wasn’t likely to realize her coat was anything more than a simple trencher anyway.
Maree feinted, sidestepped and let the tech swing to gauge his talent. His moves weren’t bad, which meant she had to finish this quickly. As Maree gathered herself, the tech lunged forward for another strike, aiming the stunrod square for her abdomen. She stepped into the strike and dipped her torso slightly to catch the tip of the stunrod square in the chest. Theoretically, the ceramatin plates of a bounty coat—sandwiched between polymesh, which was further sandwiched between two very stylish-looking layers of black simhide—were enough to keep the stunrod from knocking her out.
In reality, while they did indeed do just that, it still stung like hell. Not that even that pain was going to slow someone on overhype, particularly someone with hours of field combat under her belt.
Maree’s right hand disappeared into her bounty coat’s other sleeve and came out with a buzzrake firmly attached to her fist and wrist. She knocked the tech back with an open-palm left-hand thrust to his chest, then lunged with the buzzrake in her right hand. The vibroteeth array tore into the stunrod, which is exactly what Maree wanted, and sheared the weapon in half. By the time the tech realized he was no longer armed, Maree had backhanded him across the face and gotten a good grip on the back of his vest with her left hand. She shoved him to the ground, face-first into the pavement, and drove the buzzrake into the back of his neck with a quick jab that neatly severed his spinal cord from his skull.
Without another thought, she spun and began to run again, into the next alleyway.
Now all she had to do was get back to her daysack, put her disguise back on and get out of the city of Houston and, ideally, the entire Houston Parish, too. And all this before the overhype wore off in three or four hours, at which point she would begin a gradual but inevitable descent into an eight- to twelve-hour-long coma.
Just another fine morning in the brand-new life of Maree Deschaine.
It hadn’t been entirely unexpected that he would be scolded by the Panel of Shepherds in addition to being scolded by Amaranth, though he had hoped they might at least wait a few days. One hour into his morning meeting with the men and women who served as his advisors and as a balance against papal authority in the UFC, he was starting to look forward to death by sudden stroke.
“Peteris, we need to turn Domina xec-Academie over to the Vatican and wash our hands of her before the Popes and the Godhead declare open warfare with us,” asserted Shepherdi Leonid Brahga. “You should never have taken her in without our approval.”
Gregory leveled his gaze squarely on the man who was at least half the time a major thorn in the Peteris’ ass. Some of the other shepherds had questioned his reasons for granting Domina asylum, but so far, only Leonid had been quite so bold as to attack the decision outright.
“Approval?” Gregory said. “A decision on whether to grant sanctuary on behalf of the UFC is a papal decision. Myself or Amaranth. That is one of several items that have always been, and I presume always shall be, the purview of the Peteris or the Paulis. Or both.”
“It may be your right, but we demand that you rescind that asylum now, for all our sakes,” Leonid stated. A couple shepherds nodded in agreement but Gregory noted that most were stonefaced or assiduously avoiding either Leonid’s gaze or his own.
“We, Leonid? You may be the most vocal member of this council, but you aren’t the chair of it,” Gregory pointed out. “Rebekha, does Leonid speak for you now? Did you hand over your seat while I’ve been sparring with the Red Pope’s former steward and trying to dodge her brazen sexual advances?”
Shepherdi Rebekha Graciela chuckled and leaned back in her seat. “No, he doesn’t. But I’ve chaired this panel long enough to know that once Leonid is fired up, it’s best to let you and him pummel each other for a while before I step in. Oh, and I’m sure Domina xec-Academie’s sexual advances have been a terrible burden to you, Peteris,” she added with a wink.
Her tone turned more serious, though, as she leaned forward again and continued. “But while I may not have quite Leonid’s level of indignation, we’re all concerned about harboring someone who probably killed the Red Pope.”
“Amen to that,” Leonid said. “Peteris, I know the Paulis is against this asylum…”
“Based on what, Leonid?” Gregory countered, cutting him off. “She only just got back last night. What did you get? A few moments with her in a hallway where she wondered out loud why her husband gave an entire floor of a candlestand to one of the most notorious and twittered-about chief stewards in recent Vatican history? Amaranth is in the ‘concerned’ camp like Rebekha. That’s all. Oh, and Rebekha, of all the many things I might accuse Domina xec-Academie of right now, possibly the only one I wouldn’t would be killing Pope Tommis.”
“We cannot harbor this woman. It’s too risky,” Leonid said. “And I won’t stand for it.”
“Fine, Leonid, don’t stand for it. Would you like me to leave the room now while you call for a vote?” Gregory asked, with a note of condescension in his tone. “Do you think you can get a majority of the shepherds here right now to move on a no-confidence vote that you can take to the entire Council of Elders? And do you think you’ll get a two-thirds majority of the shepherds, pastors and chief deacons there to override my decision to grant asylum?”
Leonid glowered, but didn’t answer.
“Look, all of you,” Gregory said. “Brethren. The sudden death of the Red Pope and Domina running here to Mars to us was going to give the Vatican every reason to point a finger at us regardless. Had I turned Domina away, they simply would have accused me of ordering the murder and then abandoning my puppet. The Vatican has always looked for excuses to initiate hostilities against us, and this was going to end up being one of those excuses regardless. Having Domina in our hands at least gives us a chance of convincing her to give us what we need to discredit the Vatican when they do start getting ornery with us.”
“I’m inclined to agree with you, Peteris, on a personal basis,” Rebekha responded. “But when the Vatican gets ‘ornery’ with us, people often start to get killed or rounded up. Our people. Our clerics. We can’t just bend over for the Vatican, but we can’t afford to spit in their faces, either.”
“I agree, with you, Rebekha,” Gregory said. “So take the riot guns off of you and everyone else and put a sniper sight on me. Issue a report that the Panel of Shepherds has ‘grave reservations’ about my decision to grant asylum and invite the Vatican to negotiate with all of you on the appointment of a neutral investigator to question Domina. The Popes are neck-deep in carrying out a Grand Requiem and ringing in the new millennium as if it were theirs alone. It will take them days to get started on the process.”
“And even if they manage to get their heads out of their nether regions long enough to do it quickly, I will conveniently be a jag-ass about giving them access to my guest, while all of you continue to publicly wring your hands over my domineering nature,” he continued with an amused snort. “By the time this is all said and done, we will have had at least a couple weeks to keep picking at Domina for information and if I don’t have something from her by then, especially now that my wife is back in-planet, it’s a lost cause. At that point, we can revisit the idea of tossing Domina out on her hindquarters.”
Rebekha looked around the table for confirmation, and got mostly nods. “Agreed, Peteris. We will forthwith redirect all the attorneys, justicars, mediators, reporters and irritated diplomats to you. I hope you’re wearing body armor these days, because some of them may end up being assassins.”
Gregory smiled thinly. “If any of them are, I’m sure Leonid will be the first to weep over my corpse.”
(To read the next installment of this story, click here.)