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Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 7, Out of the Ashes (continued)
Everything about the meeting with the Black Pope’s chief steward smacked of insult and superiority. Of putting the lessers in their places.
For one thing, it wasn’t even Pope Paresh himself meeting with Gyles xec-Juris and herself, Lyseena noted. Granted, he was still in the midst of his cognos upload, a very lengthy process, but the summons could have been delayed until he was finished.
As much as I have fought with Gyles over the years, he is, after all, in charge of the Red Orders until a new Red Pope is named, and that in itself deserves at least the illusion of respect. Even I didn’t start laying into him the other day until he went on the offensive with me. On the other hand, Pope Paresh was never known for his delicacy, so that might explain the tone of things; thank the Trinity that the diplomatic corps answers to the White Pope.
Gyles was clearly livid when she arrived, and apparently had only been holding his anger and responses in check for her arrival. Once Lyseena had been given the summary, his dam broke immediately.
“How dare you put the citizens of the Catholic Union in such peril, and keep the templars in the shadows on this!” he shouted at Freyr Ulwe xec-Litigia, Pope Paresh’s chief steward. “You knew the Black Pope was to be attacked and you told us nothing. More than a hundred templars, dead. Thousands upon thousands of citizens, dead. All on your heads. And don’t you dare try to lay it on us!”
What shocked Lyseena most of all was that Gyles was saying “us,” including her with himself. She would have laid good odds that he would have tried to hang her out for a sacrifice instead.
“And what would you have done if I told you that the Black Pope had been targeted for harm by Secular Genesis?” Freyr asked with complete equanimity.
“Lyseena would have made sure he didn’t step foot in Nova York for that cognos upload—or appear to be doing so, anyway. And if she didn’t, I would have told her to. And if he insisted, we wouldn’t have let anyone near the site.”
“And that would have been unacceptable to the Black Pope, the White Pope, and the Godhead,” Freyr responded. “For the fourth millennium, it was vital for unity and for the future of the Union that the cognos uploads be public ones for once.”
“The pope wasn’t even there!” Gyles snapped. “It was a subordinate in holoweave, projecting the appearance and actions of Pope Paresh as he did his cognos upload here, safely in the Black Tower, as usual.”
“The public doesn’t know that,” Freyr said. “And you won’t be telling them.”
“If I may, Steward Ulwe,” Lyseena interjected, sensitive to the fact that unlike Gyles, with his interim administrator status, she wasn’t even marginally superior in rank to Freyr and wouldn’t be able to unleash a fraction of a percent of her anger here. Not against the right-hand man of a pope. “How are we supposed to keep that knowledge from them? Once the Black Pope shows up hearty and whole?”
“Simple. We will say he was there and the hand of God protected him. Out of all these deaths, even your hallowed templars and all the innocent women and children, the nation will be unified against one of its most implacable enemies—the heretical UFC, which is clearly in league with Secular Genesis here—and they will have even more faith in the divine mandates of the popes, too.”
Gyles leaned forward, with something close to murderous intent in his eyes, and spat on the table in front of Freyr. “How many citizens do you think will fall for a story that the Black Pope survived a direct hit from a hellpod? A direct hit! Because the hand of God reached down.”
“Nonsense. We will tell them that God gave him foresight of the attack, just in time to get to the slipgate at the base of the platform. All the media who were there would have been unable to transmit any images of the final movements of the pope’s surrogate—and they were all fixated on the hellpod anyway at the end—and we ensured that all of our own recording equipment that was trained on the upload platform was turned off when the hellpod appeared.”
Straining to keep the churning pool of anger, disgust and shock out of her voice, Lyseena asked: “How could you have not warned us of a hellpod, though? With all that just one of them can do, how could you have made a choice like that for any reason?”
“For what it’s worth, commander,” Freyr said, almost with gentleness, “we didn’t know it would be a hellpod. We didn’t even know it was going to be a weapon of devastation that would be used. The Godhead received intelligence that was virtually irrefutable that the Black Pope’s cognos upload location in Nova York would be discovered no matter what we did, and that he would be killed if he appeared in the flesh. We suspected a more mundane form of assassination attempt. To be blunt, though, the fact that it was a hellpod actually works to our benefit to create more unity and to strike out at the UFC. God works in mysterious ways.”
“That’s still a hell of a thing not to tell the Red, since we’re in charge of security issues like this, and in charge of protecting the populace,” Gyles snarled. “You had no right.”
“For the glorification of the popes and the Terran Catholic Church, we had every right to do what we did, and you will accept that. You have both taken vows, and will abide by the decisions of the papacy and the Godhead. The only reason you are being made privy to this is to aid in your duty to prove that the UFC was involved and to bring retribution to all others who were involved in this horrific assault against the Black Pope and the citizens of the Catholic Union.”
After a moment, he added, quietly: “And if anyone should start talking about surrogate popes in holoweave, I will know exactly which two people to have killed.”
Sharing coffee with Cilliya Narwahli could be a very pleasant thing, both Gregory and Amaranth were now thinking. Most days. But her presence here, officially, as Minister of Defensive Affairs for MarsGov—right after a hellpod strike in the Catholic Union, was as disheartening as it was predictable.
Settting down her coffee after a small sip, Cilliya smiled thinly, leaned back in her seat, frowned, and looked to the ceiling.
“The Vatican is demanding that we hand the both of you over to them, along with Domina xec-Academie,” she said. “None of that is public yet, but it will be soon. If we don’t comply, the Catholic Union will consider itself and Mars to be in a state of war.”
“How is this any different than any other time in the past couple centuries when someone has slapped the Vatican around and they came out screaming that we were behind it?” Gregory asked. “This is the fourth time in my 15 years as Peteris already that they’ve told you to give us to them.”
“And the first time that a hellpod strike was the reason, Peteris,” she countered.
“Where the shit would we get a hellpod?”
“Gregory,” Amaranth interrupted, “if I wanted to put a serious dent into the UFC’s funding reserves, I could find us a hellpod within a week. More to the point,” she said, turning to Cilliya, “how would we activate it?”
“That’s the rub, and that’s where they can apply pressure to MarsGov, because we have a warwagon in our fleet,” the defense minister answered. “Full of hellpods. Of course, when the independent audit is carried out and the inquiries are made, it will be clear that Shadowblack never fired a shot. But they are saying that either Shade activated a hellpod that you acquired or that our military AI in-planet did so, that you are hiding a secret military AI, or that Ghost is a military AI masquerading as a modified spy AI.”
“Just because the damn thing came from our direction doesn’t mean anything. The bastard who did this could have been anywhere in between Earth and Mars to pull this off,” Gregory pointed out.
“All well and good, but you have Domina, and the Red Pope is dead, and she is a suspect. The Vatican is going to make a strong case that you were involved in the assassination of the Red Pope and with the timing here, very likely the destruction of the Market View sector and surrounding environs in Nova York. They’re trying to tie you to Secular Genesis even as we speak.”
Amaranth chuckled at that, but it was a dry, almost heartless one. “As if Secular Genesis would work with the second-largest Christian denomination in the system.”
“Strange days make strange sex partners, Paulis,” Cilliya said.
Gregory paused, and leaned forward, his fingers steepled as if in prayer. “MDA Narwahli,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper, “is this the point at which you attempt to slap some wristlocks on the two of us and we shoot our way out of here?”
“Jesus God, Gregory, does MarsGov appear to be that brain-addled?” she answered. “We’ve never handed you over before, even in those cases over the decades when we suspected you did do something to the Vatican. The idea that you’d send a hellfire happy new year greeting to them is ridiculous.”
“But handing us over and letting the UFC be investigated, sanctioned and gutted would get you off a possible warpath,” Amaranth noted. “And this will get ugly fast.”
“Oh, yes, and by all means, let’s allow the Vatican to make us dance, leave a religious and political vacuum that it can step into, provide them with a foothold on Mars, which is something they’ve been burning for since the beginning, and look like a bunch of simpering cowards,” Cilliya said.
“Not to mention the fact that with you gone, our System Navy won’t be bolstered by the ships of the Shared People, with whom you have treaties of mutual protection. Oh, and we lose your UFC militia forces in the effort to guard all the doors between the underground and the towers above once the Vatican decides it’s tired of not being allowed to establish colonies here and comes over to start ringing our chimes.”
“So, we’re all still friends,” Gregory said.
“Almost. We’ll be friends again when you’ve told me who this other person from the Vatican is that you’re harboring and instill me with confidence that you can help us figure out how to prove that the Vatican is full of shit as usual.”
(To read the next installment in this story, click here.)