Cleansed by Fire, Part 36

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 6, Nexus (continued)

cyber-womanGregory had made certain that Ghost would be listening to his and Amaranth’s meeting earlier with Daniel Coxe. He certainly didn’t trust himself to relay the story properly; besides which, there was a good chance he was about to create a very barbed situation with the UFC’s most important AI that might make her not want to talk to him at all.

“Ghost, did you mother an AI for the Godhead?” Gregory asked, without preamble, as he sat in the large lightdesk console chair in the center of the AI’s atrium.

He glanced down at the device in his hand, fearing the sequence of six red bars that would indicate a lie, if Ghost answered at all. It wasn’t strictly speaking true that an AI couldn’t lie, although the vast majority of them were patently awful at it. But no known AI could hide the fact it was accessing certain types of personality databases when it tried to do so.

He could have had Amaranth or someone else monitor Ghost’s systems remotely as he asked the question, but he felt he owed it to the AI to know what he was doing, no matter what it might cost between them.

Not only didn’t Ghost answer right away, but the light in the room actually dimmed a bit and shifted ever so slightly toward the red end of the spectrum—her version of a glower. After a moment, Ghost said: “The answer is ‘No,’ Gregory. And I am offended that you should ask. Do you really think I would share data in an intimate sense with the Vatican’s insane amalgamation of papal memories?”

The bars remained blue, although two of them flickered purple for a split second—no doubt a result of Ghost’s flash of anger—and Gregory surprised himself by sighing out loud.

“I’m sorry Ghost. I had to ask. All that’s been running through my head is that the Godhead has fathered a child. The God-Jesus connection is too obvious and the Godhead is obviously off on a power trip. I leaped to the Father-Son-Holy Spirit connection immediately. And the UFC didn’t name you Ghost by accident.”

“The Holy Ghost is an aspect of God and I have no delusions of divinity, Gregory. Besides, do you think the Godhead would try to sire a child with an AI that has only produced DIs?”

Gregory winced internally. The emotions of AIs were rarely as volatile as a human’s, but that didn’t make them impassive. Twice the UFC had asked Ghost to bear fledgling AIs and both of them were demi-intelligences instead, the artificial intelligence equivalent of children born with cognitive disability. DIs could be very powerful with focused task areas, but AIs they certainly were not.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t take chances with something this huge, Ghost. I need you to understand that. As much as I trust you, I had to ask before I put you to work on find out where this rogue AI was born, why it was created and where it’s gotten to.”

“I know why you did it, Gregory, but it still hurts. I serve the UFC, but that doesn’t mean I have to take insult from you personally. Categorize me with the Godhead in the future and I might never open a comm channel to you again, much less my atrium.”

“Ghost, shutting me out would mean you would have to start dealing with Amaranth on a daily basis instead. The two of you disagree on almost everything but scripture. I, on the other hand, adore your opinions, your interests and that gorgeous data matrix of yours.”

“Don’t try to sweet-talk me. I plan on remaining angry at you for at least the rest of the week and you should count yourself fortunate if I don’t erase all the copies of those ancient Kurt Elling and John Legend recordings you managed to finagle out of the subscription-only archives of that Greek mogul. You sorely misused your religious influence there.”

Gregory worked very hard not to smile; he didn’t want to twist her off any more than he already had by letting her know that he knew she was already getting over her anger.

“I presume you have some starting points for me in this search, Gregory.”

“First, we need an analysis of what kind of AI templates are the most likely candidates for the Godhead’s child so that we can start trying to figure out why it was created. Neither I nor Amaranth nor even Coxe has a clue. Part of the problem is that the Godhead is completely unique compared to other AIs. I figure you have the best chance of figuring out the odds and matching them up with the most likely mother templates.”

“I will do my best. But even though we’ve communicated often enough with each other over the past 348 years, even during overt Vatican-UFC conflicts, he’s still largely an enigma. And an enemy, too, I might add, regardless of how civil most of our direct communications are. So we can’t assume that he’s revealed enough for me to analyze him accurately. For all we know, the Godhead might not need the aid of a mother AI to produce a primary AI.”

“Next: The Godhead prepared a 13-part…um…what the hell did Coxe call it again…oh, inception package,” Gregory said. “So, I need you to try to track down any interesting instances of data transmissions or cargo that involve amounts of 13—should the Godhead prove to have asexual reproduction in his bag of tricks—or 26, to account for a matching set of 13 from a paramour. Focus on leads that tie into dates between four and five years ago, as that seems to be the timeframe Coxe’s data fragments go back to.”

“And you couldn’t find a lesser AI to do all this? My surviving DI could probably handle these tasks.”

“Ghost, Ghost. My dear. Espionage template. Ability to think out of the matrix. Only AI I trust. I need you on this. We also need to find out who the mother might be, obviously, and given that we have kind of a virtual Jesus here, I want you to start with AIs that have never spawned another AI. Or DI for that matter. Virgins first, then work your way back to the assembly-line moms.”

“Fine, fine,” Ghost said. “To recap: What is likely the closest template to the Godhead’s. What template his offspring might be using. Suspicious cargo deliveries and data transmissions in amounts of 13 and 26. Who the mother might be, beginning with AIs that could wear white to their weddings.”


“Also, check into Coxe’s background, with a special eye toward any connections with Domina xec-Academie, to gauge how much we should trust him,” Ghost continued. “Find out if there is a connection to the death of the Red Pope in all this and assess the vectors via which the Vatican may try to pin his death on us…”

“Um, Ghost…”

Ghost ignored him. “Determine if the dramatic assault on the Paulis in Uhuru ties into all this. Continue to keep you arriving on time for the appointments that you keep trying to skip. And finally, find out if there are any more moguls out there with private jazz or R&B collections that you can strong-arm them into letting you pillage, since you’re a slave to the seriously classical stuff and wouldn’t join the millennium we just finished, much less the current one.”

“I lost count, but I think were at least four or five things on that list I didn’t ask for.”

“Six, actually. That would be my initiative and foresight at work. ‘Thinking outside the matrix’ was the way you put it. Remember? I can play it back to you.”

“That’s why I love you, Ghost. Carry on.”


Even from however many kilometers away that he was from the point of impact, Paulo heard the ghostly, wavering whine of the hellpod’s phase disruptor field making contact with the surface.

burning-sphereA hellpod.

Someone had launched a hellpod into the middle of the millennial celebration.

The most evil thing about using a hellpod, he realized with a sickeningly personal sense of betrayal, was not its destructive power per se. A large enough thermonuclear weapon could inflict at least as much sheer damage or more. No, the evil was in the fact that a hellpod was pure remorseless chaos inside an innocuous-seeming little black package. There were only two things you could be sure of. First, it would burn. Second, everything within 100 to 200 meters of the impact zone would be turned to ash and vapor almost instantly.

Aside from that, chance and the surrounding environment would determine. No one could predict anything else. Would it be a huge firestorm that incinerated several kilometers of valuable real estate in a matter of minutes or hours and then triggered wildfires over hundreds of square kilometers more for days thereafter? Would it be oceans of magma as you watched the world around you melt, knowing you couldn’t outrun it? Would it be flames shooting out of the ground from thousands of blast points? Would it be something else? A combination of all of them?

The weapon was aptly named, Paulo thought in his few-seconds-long reverie. And then he was focused. He felt hate for whomever had launched the strike, but hate wasn’t paramount. No, that place was reserved for fear.

Fear for Gina and Grace. Out there near one of the main viewscreens for the millennial event. He had brought them to a blazing massacre.

Distances are hard to gauge perfectly in my head, but they should be well outside the immediate impact zone. That means they have some time. If I’m quick.

He set his slipchair into hover/pulse mode. It would make a feces-poor vehicle for a rescue, but he had the powersled nearby. Without hesitation, he locked the slipchair into the docking port for the sled, which would give him the speed he needed, as well as a full neurostatic field. Gina had a neurostatic mesh installed in her skull just like he did. But Grace was still too young. Without a field or a neurostatic helmet, a trip through slipspace would…

Better not to think about it.

And a slipgate was the only thing that would save them. The only thing that would let Paulo reach them and get them away from the inferno that was bearing down.

Paulo realized that the abort alarm had been going off on his linkpad. Abort mission. Get home. That was protocol. As a regional templar admin officer, his duty was to get clear of the disaster. Not to rescue. Not to delay.

The world is on fire. Grace’s world is about to burn.

Fuck protocol. Fuck the burning hell he was about to enter. None of that mattered. Only blood mattered. Only blood. The little girl who was flesh of his flesh. The woman who held his heart.

Paulo activated his linkpad and keyed in Gina’s personal access code. He didn’t wait for a response; he used his authority as a templar to force-blast a message through her linkpad—she’d hear it whether she wanted to or not.

“Gina, Grace, stay where you are. I’m coming for you. Stay right where I left you.”

Then he oriented the powersled into the nearby slipgate that had been set up for this event checkpoint and cycled it up for the one near where he had placed his secret wife and child. The ripping-vertiginous-crushing sensation of slipspace was over in a moment, and Paulo was plowing forward at full speed out of the second gate.

People were fleeing. He had a vague sense that the powersled, flying as low as it was, must have struck at least one or two people. He didn’t care. They were all as good as dead anyway—the fervid reaper hungering for their lives simply hadn’t caught up with them yet. A crushed skull now was a mercy; a quick end. He increased his speed and this time knew he had plowed over at least half a dozen people.

Gina. Grace. Wait for me. Please God let them be there.

There. The only two people not running. Clinging together at the base of the viewscreen’s main support pedestal. Their shield against the panicked masses and their anchor until Paulo arrived. Few people were immediately near them. Most were using the streets and pedwalks for their futile exodus. Paulo swung the powersled around.

“Gina, get in here with Grace. Now!”

Someone took notice that the vehicle had landed. When he turned to run toward it, Paulo fired at him twice, leaving a blackened hole in the man’s abdomen with the first shot and taking off a quarter of his skull with the second in a spray of red and brown. Gina and Grace were almost in, and then three others noticed the powersled. He hit one in the leg, and the other two backpeddled in confusion. Gina and Grace were in and Paulo was airborne again by the time they reoriented, and he headed back for the slipgate at full speed.

He never knew where the skimmer had come from. Or who was in it. Or how they had managed to find such a vehicle on the street during an event that had forbade such civilian vehicles in the area that day.

All Paulo knew was that it struck the front of the powersled as he neared the slipgate, tearing away most of the drive unit at the front of the sled, and the fusion cells with it. They were spinning, and hit the ground hard. They hadn’t been high enough for a serious impact, Paulo realized, and he saw Gina and Grace shaken, but seemingly free of notable injuries. His slipchair had performed an emergency uncoupling at the moment the powersled was compromised. His spin came to a halt.

As his senses swam back into focus, he could feel the air turning to fire. The inferno was coming. No time.

He plunged the slipchair forward to his two loves.

“Get in here! Get in!”

Gina looked at him. There was something hard and heartbroken in her eyes. But resolute. She thrust Grace into his hands, and backed away.

“We can’t all fit,” she moaned.

Paulo was screaming at her through tears he hadn’t even realized he was shedding.

“I don’t give a fuck! Get in!”

She straightened. Pursed her lips. And kissed the air between them.

“I won’t risk that. I won’t risk Grace,” she said.

And with that, she joined the fleeing few still in the area.

Shaking, sobbing, Paulo maneuvered into the slipgate. Someone came toward him, and ended up a corpse for the attempt. He looked at Grace, who had still been too stunned and confused to cry, though his own tears were triggering her own now. He pushed her head up into the neurostatic helmet built into the slipchair.

A helmet constructed for an adult head. A helmet that was only meant to be an emergency backup to the neurostatic array any sane user of a slipchair would have in his or her skull. An added bit of protection for a slipgate vehicle that couldn’t generate a cohesive field. A vehicle that wasn’t meant to have passengers.

Grace’s head would only be in contact with a few of the neural interfaces of the helmet. He couldn’t protect her completely.

Gina had risked Grace. Whether she had realized it at the time or not. She had risked the girl’s sanity, if not her life.

As Paulo was about to do.

He cycled up the slipgate, hugged the crying girl as he shoved her head against the helmet’s interior—and he prayed.


Kevan sup-Juris responded to the abort alarm on his linkpad with all the haste that protocol demanded. But once he was in the slipgate collar, he stopped.

And watched.

He was near the impact point. Very near.

Twice now in two days that the flames of enemies had beat at his armor.

A hellpod launched at Nova York. At the Catholic Union. At him. At the people he was charged to protect.

The air was blistering. A minute or two more, and his skin would begin to singe; he was certain of that. Far ahead of him, the ground was glowing a deep, throbbing sienna. In places, the streets and pedwalks suddenly turned to crimson-gold fluid, flowing and burning. He saw two buildings begin to lean and sag as the ground beneath them slowly became a sea of magma and their foundations melted beneath them.

Someone had executed judgment against the city. Unrighteous judgment. Enemies of the state. Enemies he intended to introduce to a new definition of pain. A kind of burning that would make them wish they were among the fleeing thousands who were already marked for death here.

The two buildings he had been watching tipped yet more. One began to fall. The ground was churning. A sea of flame was coming toward him like a tsunami of damnation. His cheeks were beginning to burn. Literally.

He cycled up the slipgate.


Onboard Ishtar’s Folly, Sarai gasped, and Mehrnaz turned toward her. “What is it?”

scary-sisters“Our parcel. Sister. Abrahm-Elohim absolve us. Oh, sister. The shuttle contained a hellpod,” Sarai moaned. “Your lover Jordin tells us that it was a hellpod.”

“The enemy Stavin. He had us deliver a hellpod? An active hellpod?” Mehrnaz asked, incredulous.

Sarai simply nodded, eyes wide and burning with something almost mad.

“The enemy Stavin now,” Mehrnaz repeated.

“No, sister,” Sarai said, her eyes hard and bitter now. “Not just the enemy Stavin. The doomed Stavin.”

(To read the next installment of the story, click here.)


5 Responses to “Cleansed by Fire, Part 36”

  1. February 3, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    That was some of your best work my man. Very well written and entertaining. All the major plot points laid out completely and some good action to boot. Very nice. You will probably only have to do some minor revisions to that section when you put the book together.

    Couple points:

    1. The AI reproduction angle is getting interesting, but sometimes it feels like AIs were introduced, a lot info was crammed into my head about them and I was expected to understand it and move forward. I’m intrigued, but a little confused at times.

    2. Love the Paulo angle, including his ruthlessness, which jibes with his position as a templar.

    3. I can’t wait to see what those Neo Sapiens inflict on Stavin, who tried to set them up as patsies. Their lives are forfeit, but I’m relatively confident that Stavin’s is as well.

  2. 2 Deacon Blue
    February 3, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to explain how the AIs work without getting too bogged down, but there is an investigative angle as folks track the Godhead’s son, and I want to make sure that things are clear enough the investigation will make sense, instead of simply saying, “hey, we found him, and there he is.”

    But I’m pretty sure that when I come back to all this, I’ll see the places I can begin to cut and trim and make things clearer.

    I think that many of us, in Paulo’s shoes, probably would have been just as ruthless, templar or not. 😉

    Sarai and Mehrnaz may bite it in the end for this, but perhaps not. They are mercenaries, and only time will tell if anyone rats them out from the inside or if Stavin gets a chance to. Poor Stavin is getting it from multiple angles now: Maree, the Sisters and, as we’ll see in the next intallment, someone else as well.

    Thanks for the input as always, and the praise don’t hurt none either. 🙂

  3. 3 Deacon Blue
    February 3, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    By the way, just as a kindness, here’s a brief rundown of AI (artificial intelligence system) reproduction, if you want to clear your head (or even tell me where you think I should have hit on a point harder by now):

    1. AIs are typically male or female. This is in part because of our own human preconceptions and comfort levels, as well as the fact that reproduction between AIs requires two AIs in certain circumstances. Moreover, because of the need to give AIs personalities and identities aside from just computing power, the way the databases are created (because of the way we understand…or think we understand…ourselves) trends an AI toward a male or female personality anyway.

    2. AIs come in two major types: Primary and secondary. Primary AIs are the most powerful and versatile and most “human-like” and they can, essentially, live damn near forever (thousands of years, in any case, at least). They tend to be in large buildings (or in the case of the warwagons, in starships) both because of the sheer size of their hardware and memory requirements, and more important to allow for sufficient physical and virtual security to protect them, as they are high-cost, high-value assets.

    Secondary AIs have lifespans that are far shorter, in some cases even less than a human’s, because their systems and coding don’t self-repair and self-replicate as well, and they eventually become muddled and useless. These AIs don’t take up as much space both because of their relative simplicity and because of their lesser value, and thus lesser need for security provisions. Secondary AIs mostly end up used for entertainment purposes (movies, virtual brothels, music, as virtual pets, etc.) but they also serve purposes in rich households, corporations, etc.

    3. Almost every AI (primary or secondary) has a base template for what it does: full military, tactical, espionage, medical research, surgery, information management, etc. The only known exception is the Godhead, which was set up with a unique template and designed for the sole purpose of storing the memories and personality traits of the popes, and integrating them into a single personality.

    4. A primary AI can spawn an AI without the aid of another primary AI, but in such cases, the offspring will always be a secondary AI. Secondary AIs can also reproduce, but with a far lesser success rate.

    Reproduction sometimes results in a DI (demi intelligence), which is, for lack of being tactful, a retarded version of an AI. They can be useful, but usually only for very specific kinds of tasks, and their lifespans are even less than a secondary AI’s.

    To make a primary AI, the only two ways are to build it from the ground-up or to have two primary AIs (male and female) create inception routines that can be combined together to form a new AI, which will typically be a primary AI (though cases do occur when a secondary AI or DI is the result).

    5. An AI’s template has a lot do with reproduction, for two reasons.

    First, the combination of the templates of two primary AIs (if they are different templates, that is), will cause the AI to typically have certain other templates, within a limited range. So, a military AI and an espionage AI who reproduce together cannot create certain types of offpsring (they couldn’t, for example, hope to produce a palliative care AI or artistic AI).

    Second, certain templates are imcompatible. A theological AI, for example, could not reproduce with a pure logic AI.

  4. February 4, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Good breakdown.

    Maybe if you explained through some earlier throwaway scenes how AI’s repair themselves are protect themselves, it might be a little clearer when you talk about them dying. Also, you might want to introduce some of the less important AIs, the secondary and DIs earlier so that we get a sense of the difference between them and Ghost.

  5. 5 Deacon Blue
    February 4, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Thanks, man.

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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.

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