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Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 7, Out of the Ashes (continued)
Much of the late afternoon and evening had been spent in war council with Amaranth. His brain was still reeling from discussions about whether to hire mercenaries to round out the UFC’s own security forces and very modest militia. The notorious and sadistic sanguinom teams that hired out from the Black Reaches—displaced near-messianic warlords and their zealot followers. Ronin parties, kanji militia, khmeri warhires or sunset squads from the Asian Republics. Ishmaeli hirebrands. Isaacian tactical coteries. The Europa Freelance Legion. All of those and more were now considered viable options, even though some of them posed the possibility of unnecessary collateral damage, potential double-dealing and war atrocities.
But the Universal Faith Catholic, unlike the Vatican, was oriented overwhelmingly toward religion and social work—it did not have at its disposal an entire nation with a standing military—and the UFC maintained what martial forces it had only as a defense against the Vatican’s aggressions. But those aggressions hadn’t been on any scale approaching this for more than a century-and-a-half. Clearly, more guns would be needed from outside the UFC and outside Mars.
So it was that Gregory fell into bed and drifted into deep sleep but uneasy dreams of cautiously navigating tunnels under Mars with blood-soaked floors and gore-covered walls, filled with ravaged bodies that bore too much resemblance to people he loved or for whom he was responsible. And he was uncomfortably aware of sticky blood on his own hands and shirt.
At one point, he looked down a side passage and saw his eldest son, Gavin—wearing the cardinal vestments of the Vatican’s Red Orders—casually slitting his own mother’s throat while she calmly waggled an admonishing finger at him. Then without transition Gregory was sitting at a small table while Daniel Coxe dealt them both some cards. Gregory tried to tell him he didn’t play deceiver very well, but it was so hard to speak with the blade jutting from his throat…
In the midst of whimpering slumber and sweaty sheets, Gregory felt a body wrap itself around him, and he woke suddenly, turning and pressing himself into the familiar contours. His face pressed into the tight curls of Amaranth’s hair, smelling the tang of tobbaq smoke. She must have been up far later than he had, he sensed; whereas he took his stimulants in liquid form—caff or strongtea—she preferred hers from a nicstick.
There was something far hungrier than normal, even frantic, in her probing and touches. Amaranth seemed to be searching for something, and in a primal part of his brain, Gregory quickly sensed what it was. How many hours had she been up past him, with her responsibilities so much more heavily geared toward defense and security? How many bloody scenarios had she had to consider with her staff after Gregory’s part in the discussions had ceased? What concessions to her conscience had she needed to make to protect the people she was charged to defend?
She was hunting for life. She was probing for love. She was seeking his heart with a hunter’s obsessiveness and a lover’s devotion. She was starving for something uncorrupted and sustaining in the midst of chaos and fear. His own blood responded and his mind and body began to hunt for the very same things from her.
Their hands sought each other as if they were trying to commit every centimeter of the other’s body to memory. Tongues and lips delved and darted and lingered as if to burn the taste and texture of themselves into the deepest recesses of their minds. They explored and pressed like they hadn’t in years, with the raw energy of two youths in the throes of early love but also the focus and intensity of wiser elders.
Much later, when Gregory finally pressed between Amaranth’s legs, he found a blazing and molten place. He seemed to melt into his wife. He felt swallowed and consumed as much as he felt he was entering and possessing her. His face found her hair again and he filled his lungs with her scents—perfumed oils, sweat, soap and smoke—and as her teeth bit down hard on his neck, he didn’t care what marks people might snicker about tomorrow behind his back.
There was no simultaneous release—nothing so hackneyed as that—but rather a languid swelling and then fierce, rolling passion where both lost track of who reached the peak first or where each ended. And in the end, when the torrent had run its course, they collapsed as one, twined together tighter than any skein of yarn and slept, finally, in peace.
“Tana sup-Juris, thank you for coming at such a late hour,” Lyseena said, extending her hand palm-down to grip the other woman’s forearm in greeting. Tana’s own grip was firm and steady.
As they released each other, the ivory-haired woman smiled, almost imperceptibly. “I wasn’t aware that we templars were allowed to sleep, commander. Now that I know, perhaps I will try it sometime.”
“Please do, Tana. I need my admin officers sharp in these turbulent times.”
The younger templar’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You have already cleared me for the position? I had assumed this was to be an interview.”
“You come recommended by too many people whom I trust, Tana,” Lyseena responded. “Besides which, I have two admin officers with vast field experience on Earth. An important consideration with Secular Genesis giving us the twist these days. What I didn’t have until now was someone who might have the experience I need to deal with our newest key threat, the UFC.”
Tana frowned. “I accept the post, of course, but it’s been 10 years since I last set foot in Mars; I don’t see how much of an edge I can possibly give you.”
“You were born on Mars, Tana. You spent more of your life there than you have on Earth. That counts for more than you know. You still bear the marks of it.”
Tana’s hand reflexively moved to the simple black tattoo above her left eye.
“From your days as a Trav?” Lyseena continued.
“It’s a reminder of the folly of my youth—the only trappings of those days that I retain. I shed the other tattoos, scalpsticks and wirebraids long ago.”
“Is it also a reminder to you of the success of whatever challenge earned that mark for you?”
“I’m not so prideful as that. Becoming a Trav was an act of desperation, commander, of a girl who hated living in Mars and thought that throwing in with the craziest of the population might give me reason to live, or at least make my life shorter and more exciting. It wasn’t until I took vows with the Order Juris that I found purpose and family.”
“You need not defend your loyalty to the templars. What earned you that tattoo?”
“I scaled Olympus Mons alone.”
“The tallest mountain in the solar system and the Travs gave you such a simple marking?”
“I had full gear. There were no dust storms to speak of. I picked a well-marked climbway with oxygen rechargers along the way. And I got back to the base via a powerlsed pickup. By Travailer standards, it was no more than a simple initiation. It was the only sane thing I did in my short time with them; everything else I did should have killed me. I keep the marking to remind myself of the limits of how foolhardy a person should allow herself to get.”
Lyseena nodded. “You disliked living on Mars, certainly a trait shared by some others who have come to us over the years, like the oldest son of the Peteris and Paulis of the UFC. Do you maintain enough objectivity to carry out investigations of Mars or the UFC with a level head?”
“I hated living in Mars. The people and institutions there are no different than any other. Some corrupt and morally bankrupt. Some honest. Most in the middle,” Tana answered. “If I might ask, commander, am I being chosen to fill your admin vacancy truly because of my skills and recommendations, or simply because I was once Martian?”
“Let me ask you a question of my own, Tana. Do you prefer your sidearm or your stunrod in a combat situation?”
Without hesitation, she answered: “That depends on the environment, the situation and the opponent.”
“That is why I picked you, Tana,” Lyseena said firmly. “I need many weapons in my arsenal to fight the Lord’s fight. There are times I will need the Martian you once were. There are time I will need the Terran you are now. There are times I may need you to be something else entirely.”
Tana nodded and made a slight bow of acquiescence.
“Dismissed, Tana. Get some of that precious commodity called sleep now. I don’t know how much of it you or any of us will be getting for a while.”
(This marks the end of Chapter 7. To read the nesxt installment, which is the first part of chapter 8, click here.)