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Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 6, Nexus (continued)
The nearly 1,400-year-old AI that served as the brain for the warwagon Scion’s Dream was, for the first time in a very long time, disturbed. The hellpod strike was deeply troubling to her, as one of the last survivors of the Wagon Wars. So much that she and the others had sacrificed to keep the Conflagration a distant and unfortunate memory. She could feel the ripples of unease from the AIs of the other three warwagons, too, over the sliptrans net they maintained with each other.
Despite the unsettled feelings that had emanated from Shadowblack‘s AI, suspicion fell on him immediately. That suspicion was especially strong in Dreamer’s thoughts, as the Nazarene had alerted her earlier to the suspicious courier pod that had launched from Mars the day of the Red Pope’s Grand Requiem. The Nazarene’s role in the Catholic Union was too important to risk his public exposure, so she had contrived to “accidentally” catch the podship during a nav system update and then let the command crew know. Shadowblack was Mars’ warwagon, and aside from the strange podship, the false shuttle that had carried the hellpod also had been on a trajectory from the direction of Mars, too.
But she and the others—Striker of Battlehammer and Wyrm of Celestial Dragon—had gone through the detailed and complex routines they has set up centuries before, and determined that Shade had neither gone mad nor turned rogue.
But that still left Mars—possibly MarsGov, possibly the UFC or a Secular Genesis cell; or a combination of them—as the prime suspects. Not that it was Dreamer’s duty to assign blame. If the Vatican decided that war with someone was necessary, then she would be called upon.
It would be a shame if she and Shade had to battle each other—she would do her best to spare him if it came to that, as there were only the four of them now—but as a military AI, she knew she would be a liar if she claimed she wasn’t long overdue and very eager for a real bit of war again.
For one of the rare times in his life, Stavin was not simply satisfied but truly happy. Ecstatic. Everything perfectly according to plan.
It was going to be a joy to talk with Nemesis today, particularly since it wouldn’t be over an audio-only sliptrans channel for once. They would be meeting in a virtual salon set aside for just the two of them. Perhaps Stavin would even get to see his friend’s face for the first time.
In that, at least, he was to be disappointed, he realized, as his own avatar resolved itself in a seat in the salon. Across from him, standing, was Nemesis, who was using a stylized avatar rather than his true appearance. He was silvery-white from head to toe, naked but without genitalia—it occurred to Stavin suddenly that Nemesis might be hiding his gender; he might even be a woman using a voice synth all this time. He had long white hair, a muscular but wiry body, and a large tattoo of an elaborate sword that stretched from his left hip down to his ankle. He bowed his neck slightly in recognition of Stavin’s arrival, and though he smiled as his head rose back up, it was a strange, small, distant kind of grin.
“Nemesis, my friend, that operation could not have gone smoother if it was made of skateglass.”
“I agree, Stavin, everything was coordinated well,” Nemesis responded. “And I commend you and your people on a flawless delivery of another hellpod to me just minutes ago.”
“No thanks necessary,” Stavin said. “We need to thank you, once again, for having the means to activate that first hellpod, and to give us a code for this one, should we need it. And knowing how stubborn the Vatican can be, I’m sure it will come to that. Good thing we have a few others in reserve.”
“You misunderstand, Stavin. I am acknowledging your delivery of the hellpod. I will be keeping this one, and I will be giving you no more codes for any others.”
“I believe I was clear. The crew of the delivery shuttle is dead. You may salvage the remains of the vessel itself at your leisure.”
For a moment, Stavin was struck speechless, and he was certain this was the first time that had happened in his adult life. He stood up, fists balled. He unclenched his fingers as he remembered he was in a secure virtual meeting place—a mind projected into the Grid—where fighting could quite literally accomplish nothing.
“What the hell are you talking about? If you wanted a hellpod for yourself, we might have been able to strike a deal. But who do you think you’re fucking with here? We’re working together. This went flawlessly. We can bring the Vatican to its knees.”
“Stavin, Secular Genesis was a tool. You were a laborer to manipulate that tool for me,” Nemesis said evenly. “Together, you have accomplished what I needed, regrettable though that action was. I no longer need you. It is possible I will need this hellpod. It is even possible I will find you and launch it at your heart. But I simply don’t know right now. What I do know is that our relationship is at an end, and you should attempt to stay well clear of me for the rest of your existence. If that is possible.”
“What you needed? What possible use could you have for a hellpod strike in Nova York against the Black Pope if your aims aren’t the same as ours? We can continue to work together and make our enemies tremble!”
“You’re becoming quite the Grid-vid villain now, aren’t you, Stavin? Will you wring your hands and fondle your beard next with a wicked glint in your eyes?” Nemesis taunted. “Our goals have never aligned. And as to ‘why’ I wanted Nova York and the Black Pope to burn, I will not tell you that.
“What I will tell you, insignificant little soul-damned cretin that you are, is that I am not the enemy of the Vatican. I am the foe of all those who would stand in the way of the will of God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mother and the Terran Catholic Church. I am the only begotten son of the Godhead himself, and I am your nemesis, Stavin, and that of all your ilk.”
Dealing with the aftermath of the hellpod attack—debriefings, strategy and planning sessions, interrogations, data sifting, coordination of the comm-log staff, the matter of Paulo’s diversion to rescue his niece and so much more—Lyseena didn’t want to receive a message from the office AI, and confirmed 30 seconds thereafter by Willem, that she needed to go downlevel to the executive slipgate for a confidential, emergency liaison.
That said, the summons didn’t surprise her. She had been wondering when whatever defecation that was raining down on Gyles would work its way to her thanks to the irresistible gravitational forces of bureaucracy. Someone was going to get blamed for this attack, and she was beginning to suspect that the deal she had worked out with Gyles to give her some breathing room was about to go up in flames about as quickly as the Market View sector of Nova York had earlier today.
So it was with great confusion when she realized that neither Gyles nor any other representative of the Red had exited the gate. Instead, the person who stepped out of the slipchair was from the Black. Lyseena shivered as she took note of his sensorium array, shaped like a stylized cross on his back, the crux connected to his cervical spine and the bottom of the cross curving and entering into the base of his lumbar spine. He was clad in a skin-hugging ebony unitard, with only his hands and the bottom half of his face unclothed.
One of the simons of the Black Pope.
Simons disturbed Lyseena. They served a necessary role of course, taking on any sensations or physiological effects that their pope didn’t wish to experience. It made life much easier for a pope who didn’t like aches and pains—or who decided he would willingly resist pleasures of the flesh. More importantly, it made the kidnapping or interrogation of a pope useless. After all, what good was it to torture a pope when the simon would feel the pain? Or to inject truthtelling drugs or other chemicals when the effects could be transferred to the simon?
And even if you killed the simon accompanying a pope, the sliptrans buried in the pope’s brain would simply interface with the next simon in line of succession, no matter how far away he or she was. And with 12 simons online for each pope at any given time, even if you inflicted enough psychic pain to overwhelm and kill that remote simon, you could never hope to remove all of them before the Vatican had activated replacements for every one that had fallen.
It was a necessary thing. But a gruesome thing all the same, Lyseena felt, knowing what these people gave up and took on for the honor of being a simon.
And then there as the awkwardness of being around someone who had been rendered both deaf and blind, so that the simon could neither see nor hear any of a pope’s dealings, and thus could never be interrogated either.
But none of that was what truly disturbed Lyseena at the moment.
When a pope dies, the simons follow him into death within hours as the active and passive sliptrans connections are severed, Lyseena told herself. They couldn’t possibly have a new Black Pope in place this quickly, and this simon should long since have been a corpse.
Which meant the Black Pope was still alive, despite having been at the impact point of a hellpod.
All this flashed through Lyseena’s mind in a matter of moments. The simon didn’t wait for any kind of greeting; he couldn’t have heard it anyway. He simply said, “The steward of His Eminence the Pope Paresh Chopra craves audience with you and with your superior, Gyles xec-Juris, who is already at the Black Tower. You will notify your staff now and accompany me forthwith.”
(This installment ends Chapter 6. To read the next installment, which begins Chapter 7, “Out of the Ashes,” click here.)