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Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)
The lighting in Ghost’s atrium was just the slightest bit brighter than usual; someone who didn’t come here almost every day for 15 years would likely never have noticed.
Ghost was proud of herself. That thought filled Gregory both with hope and dread, because he was certain of the reason. The lighting instantly dipped just a hair below normal.
“Gregory, you are concerned,” Ghost said. It was a statement, not a question. Gregory was inside the heart of her, and even he didn’t know how much she could see and sense about visitors here.
“I’m afraid, Ghost. I don’t want to preside over a mess like this. I want to finish out my last five years as Peteris without going to war with the Vatican. Part of me doesn’t want to find the Godhead’s bastard child.”
“Greg, we’re already at war, and the enemy you can’t see is the one who is most likely to slit your throat from behind.” It was Amaranth’s voice, over a comm channel. Sometimes, she listened in on his regular meetings with Ghost; she almost never came to the atrium herself. “We have to find the Godhead’s child. I think it might be one of the keys to getting us out of this mess. Or at least surviving it.”
“You’re the fighter, Amaranth. That’s why you’re the Paulis. I’d rather live and let live.”
This time, it was Ghost who answered him. “The Vatican does not want you to live, Gregory. Nor Amaranth. Nor the UFC. Nor probably your children, with the exception of Gavin. Amaranth just quoted Benjin Shapsa. Let me go much older with Sun Tzu: ‘Know your enemy and know yourself and you need not fear the result of a thousand battles.'”
“Go ahead, Ghost,” Gregory said gently, though what he wanted to do was snarl: Get on with it!
“The previous Vatican ambassador to Mars, Drewtine Atkins, received 37 significant parcels via transport vessels in a very compressed time period, most of them from the Vatican and the rest via a single military shuttle.”
“Ghost, if this is part of your search for cargo and data transmissions in multiples of 13 to find out how and where the Godhead sired his child, you need your math processors checked,” Gregory noted dryly.
“I’m getting to that,” Ghost said. “Of the items he received from various Vatican offices, 16 of them were very large parcels sent out of Nova Roma, from a cargo point near the Godhead’s complex.”
“Sixteen possibly from the Godhead, certainly within range of the 13 inception routines from him that we’re looking for…but Nova Roma in general has plenty of reasons to send crap to the Mars consulate,” Gregory pointed out.
“Immediately after the sixteenth parcel arrived from Nova Roma and ended up in Atkins’ possession, 27 parcels were sent by Atkins to Toadstool 15, not far from the Vatican consulate,” Ghost continued. “Thirteen of those cargo containers had physical characteristics in line with the ones sent from Nova Roma. The other 14 seem to correspond physically to the large parcels that arrived by military shuttle.”
“OK, 27’s a more promising number,” Gregory admitted. “So we have maybe the 13 inception routines from the Godhead and the 13 from the mother AI. But why 27 cargo containers? What’s the extra parcel?”
“Considering that five levels of Toadstool 15 were purchased—not rented—within hours of the parcels’ delivery, and a fringejumper was purchased from the flightport two weeks later, and there is no record of electronic transactions for either—just a notation of an in-kind trade—I would surmise that the extra cargo container contained easily traded and very valuable contraband, or a lot of that negotiable hard currency that the black market loves so much.”
“The Godhead’s child was born here on Mars,” Amaranth said over the comm, her voice carrying the sense that she had just shuddered. “And Ambassador Atkins was the agent for making sure that happened.”
“So it would seem,” Ghost answered. “And then once it was operational, the AI left after being installed into the fringejumper, I presume, as that vessel is long gone from Mars and I’ve found no trace of it since its departure.”
“So we still have plenty of unknowns, but at least we know where it all started,” Gregory said. “Amaranth, I don’t normally go for this kind of thing, but I think you need to arrange to have Atkins abducted and dragged to Mars so we can have a discussion with him.”
“No, Gregory,” Ghost responded. “There is more you need to know. When he left Mars, Ambassador Atkins was reassigned by the Vatican to be the chief councilor on board Scion’s Dream. He is now missing—quite possibly killed to tie up loose ends. He’s also being charged in absentia with complicity in the attack on Nova York, along with Secular Genesis, you and the Paulis, of course—and a crewman currently in custody who until recently lived on Mars, in Freecity.”
“Dear God, don’t tell me the mother is…” Gregory began, awareness dawning on his face.
“The military shuttle that delivered what I presume were the 13 female inception routines was registered to Scion’s Dream,” Ghost said, confirming Gregory’s fears. “And it gets worse. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time any primary AI with a fully military template, in warwagon or otherwise, has ever helped to birth another primary-class AI rather than just secondary-class tactical AIs. All 18 fully military AIs based on Earth, the one here on Mars, and the AIs for the warwagons were built from scratch, not born of other AIs.”
“And the dreadful significance of that fact?” Gregory asked, a knot growing in his gut.
“After that hellpod strike on Nova York, every military AI was sharply interrogated and audited, and all four warwagons were required to account for their stock of hellpods. None of that has turned up any leads on the attack, and that’s why the Vatican keeps pointing its finger at us and claiming we have some secret military AI no one knows about.”
“Because only a primary AI with fully military functions can activate a hellpod or generate a legitimate activation code for one,” Amaranth finished.
“I would be willing to wager, were I enamored of such activity, that the Godhead’s child itself is a military AI thanks to the mother, and responsible for arming and launching that hellpod,” Ghost said. “But we have no hard proof of that, so we are still in the smelter.”
“And we have no idea why the hell the Godhead’s child would want to fire a hellpod at a sitting pope in the first place,” Gregory said, rubbing his eyes. “Ghost, what are the chances that you can set up a meeting between us and the AI for Scion’s Dream?”
The lighting in the room rose fractionally once more. “I have already been in contact with Dreamer. She is wary of me, and I can of course provide few details without tipping our hand, but I suspect we will have a private meeting arranged within a matter of days.”
Once Gregory had vacated Ghost’s atrium, Amaranth did something that was rarely necessary, and keyed up her linkpad to a secure channel with Ghost.
“Paulis?” Ghost responded. “Should I call Gregory back inside?”
“He has enough on his mind, Ghost; too much to handle this right now. I have an assignment for you that I want you to handle with utmost discretion. If you find any success in it, we’ll bring Gregory in then. It’s about the Godhead.”
“Do you wish me to assault him?” There was a cautionary tone in her voice.
“Nothing so drastic as that, Ghost. If you harry the Godhead directly, it will only reinforce the idea that we were behind the hellpod strike, even if you did it covertly. I want you to make his life difficult though.”
“The idea both you and Gregory had to speak with Dreamer is a good one. All four warwagons have been too staunchly against the use of hellpods since the Conflagration for me to believe that Dreamer would want a child running around launching weapons of mass devastation, especially aiming them at popes. The Godhead, however, has the scheming personalities and memories of numerous popes and a notably cold-blooded streak. I find myself wondering if Dreamer even knows what their child is up to, if indeed she is the mother. And I find myself suspecting the Godhead knows much about what his child is doing.”
“What do you wish me to do?”
“Question the Godhead. Incessantly. Harass him. Tell him we know about his offspring, tell him how we found out and try to get him to slip up and give us some kinds of clues; any kinds of clues. Be as merciless as you can in bothering him without interfering with any of your other priority items. Make any threats you deem necessary that won’t constitute acts of war, and make sure every threat is attached to a mention of his child.”
“Because the Godhead clearly wants his child to remain a secret, so he won’t dare reveal our communications to the popes or anyone else,” Ghost noted. “Except perhaps to his child, which might draw that AI out of hiding.”
“You’ve already considered this strategy, haven’t you, Ghost? Perhaps even been planning to do some low-level version of it even if I didn’t tell you to release the doomhounds.”
“Paulis Dyson, I am shocked that you would think I am capable of such secretive and autonomous action,” Ghost retorted, the mock indignation clear in her tone.
“Don’t worry, Ghost, I won’t tell anyone,” Amaranth said with syrupy sweetness; it struck her suddenly that this might be the first time she had ever jested with the UFC’s main AI. And it took a declaration of war for me to find any kinship with my husband’s ‘other femme’. “We ladies need to keep some of our secrets, right?”
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