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Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 7, Out of the Ashes
As Stavin finished relaying the tale of his final encounter with Nemesis, a hush fell over the assembled leaders of Secular Genesis, until it was broken by laughter from Brevis’ avatar.
“You’re joking, right, Stavin?” he said once he composed himself.
“Oh, yes, Brevis,” responded Kylie with pointed tartness. “We all know what a devoted prankster Stavin is. We are well and truly dry-humped.”
Stavin shook his head. “As bad as it seems, it changes very little…”
“Little?!” shouted Paradigm, who looked like he might have throttled Stavin were this a physical meeting and not a Grid-based one. “You had an AI in our midst—an AI that just happens to be the offspring of the Godhead!”
Thoroughly unmoved by the outburst, Stavin said, calmly, “Someone who claims to be an AI and claims to be the son of the Godhead. But to be truly accurate, Thomas was the one who introduced Nemesis to our inner circle, so I won’t be letting you hang that around my neck.”
“Now, wait…” Thomas began.
“I don’t plan on hanging you for it, either, Thomas,” Stavin said. “Nor will I stand for anyone else doing so. Nemesis had the ability to arm that hellpod for us; we could never had struck the blow we did without his help. So, good has come of this.”
“And in return, how much damage has been done to our organization,” Paradigm responded, “with Nemesis having been privy…”
“To what?” Stavin said. “I’ve met most of you in person on multiple occasions, and I only know where Kylie is at any given moment. Nemesis was a silent and virtual collaborator. He cannot compromise any of us.”
“This could work to our advantage,” Witta said. “If we tell the citizens of the Catholic Union about Nemesis, it will sow anger, doubt and fear. The Godhead siring a child in secret? And that child willing to burn Nova York?”
“Brilliant, Witta, except that we would sound like lunatics,” Stavin noted. “Nemesis’ reveal to me was in a secure Grid salon, just like this one. There is no way to record that kind of meeting. All of you are taking it on faith that I’m not flay-dancing with all of your heads and concocting an outrageous tale. I can’t prove any of this. No, Nemesis clearly wants to remain in the shadows, and that’s just where I like him. Because we can continue to take full credit for the hellpod strike and hold the remaining four hellpods we have over the heads of everyone in the Union—though, of course, we’ll let them think we have more than that.”
“As well as letting them think we can activate them,” Kylie pointed out. “Which we cannot. Which is a stumbling block for us.”
“But we can provide vids that show we have them, and the assumption will be that we can activate them,” Stavin said. “If need be, we can trade one of those hellpods for a mid-sized thermonuke or two from the right person, and still rain down serious damage. We’re still a force to be reckoned with, and the Vatican is now down two popes. Maybe we can find a way to take credit for the Red Pope’s death somehow and make everyone even more nervous about our reach.”
“I have a contact, a minor functionary in the Black Tower, who says he saw a glimpse of Pope Paresh after the hellpod attack,” Gloria interjected.
Stavin paused and considered the information. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Nemesis has already proven himself treacherous. The ‘death’ of the Black Pope may have been a ruse in his own plans. He may have escaped. But it’s still going to worry people that we were able to divine the pope’s whereabouts so precisely.”
“With Nemesis’ help, Stavin,” Coulter chimed in.
“Yes, with the help of an AI that no one knows exists and who doesn’t want to be known, Coulter,” Stavin responded. “We still look like the ones with all the knowledge and power here. We simply have to ride the momentum and fan the flames we’ve already started.”
“If we misjudge that momentum, we’ll be riding right into the fires we’ve started,” Kylie noted. “But it’s worth the risk.”
Stavin smiled. Kylie’s support would be enough; she was the oldest of them and one of Secular Genesis’ original founders. The others would fall in line, with the possible exception of Paradigm and Coulter. All that was left was to make the Vatican fall.
As much as he needed his emotional fixes, Bohlliam had turned away two small groups of pilgrims since the attack on Nova York. One of the women with whom he was arrayed remotely had been at the site and the feedback through his interface—so much like the ones worn by the simons of the popes—had made him want to scream.
I need to draw emotions from others to keep from dying inside, but that much fear all at once. That much pain. I never expected something like that. I don’t have room for anything else right now.
The emophage virus had scuttled virtually all of his natural ability to generate emotion and he was one of the few long-term survivors, thanks to the interface and his own latent empathic talents. And thanks to the handful of volunteers who consented to be linked to him. He felt like a vampire though, and tried to shut off his remote array connections for days at a time, relying on his business of “prophetic interpretation” here in Angel City to fill in the gaps.
But now? Maybe I should just unhook myself and slide into the abyss. Let the effects of the virus complete their task and rob me of not only emotion but the very will to live.
But even if he sometimes doubted the worth of continued life, he had his pilgrims. Those he had turned away would be back tomorrow. And the day after if necessary. It was common knowledge what his prophetic powers really were. Nothing more than an empathic interface. People came to him wanting interpretations of dreams or answers to their problems. He gave them the only thing he could, which was to tell them what emotions were really driving them at the moment. But they seemed to need it, and who else would provide it for them?
Everyone knows I’m no prophet, but still they call me one. People want so badly to believe they’ll make you a holy man even when you don’t believe in God anymore.
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