Posts Tagged ‘Cleansed by Fire novel



21
Jun
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 55

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

Despite Ghost’s optimism that it would be only a few days, it took nearly a week for her and Dreamer to iron out the timing and details of the meeting between them, the Peteris, the Paulis and Daniel Coxe. A week during which the Catholic Union had mobilized dozens of warships in space, bare kilometers outside Mars’ proprietary zone.

Regardless of the tension inherent in this meeting, it was, Amaranth thought, an interesting and perhaps even amusing picture the five of them presented in the secure Grid salon. She wasn’t sure if she were sorry or grateful that no one else could spy them here nor was it possible for there to be any recordings of the event for posterity.

Ghost used her usual avatar of a nude, silver-skinned woman with a halo of polymetric codes swirling around her head. With her skin as bright as polished polysteel, she wore her nudity like an armor. As was the case with most primary AIs, she had only one Grid avatar, permitted no one else to duplicate it, and used it consistently in meetings like these, whether they took place in secure salons or otherwise. In the same vein, Dreamer used her singular dreamer-avataravatar, a pale-skinned woman wearing a black cloak, with eyes like dark pits, lips of blue and intricate designs on her face and arms. The avatar looked more like something an artistic AI might covet, and Amaranth wondered what that said about the AI of the warwagon Scion’s Dream that she could so easily wage war and yet chose such an avatar.

Do you see yourself as an artist on the battlefield? Or are you conflicted? Amaranth wondered. Should that frighten me or hearten me as the people who hold your leash wage war on us?

Amaranth had gone back and forth until the last minute as to what avatar she should choose for this meeting out of the dozen she kept on the SystemGrid. Given the state of war between the UFC and the Vatican, she finally opted for her most martial one, depicting her in a light suit of powered armor in the UFC’s colors, but without a helmet. Instead, her head bore the simple skullcap of a religious scholar.

She had thought her husband would opt for the avatar that displayed him in his formal robes of his spiritual office as the Peteris, as a way to counterbalance the martial posture she had chosen. Instead, he had picked the most humble avatar from among the eight he maintained on the Grid: one in which his head was shaven smooth and he wore a monk’s penance robes.

What is my husband thinking? Amaranth growled in her mind, and then she paused. Or, what is he up to?

And Daniel. They needed him here for his insight into AIs and his knowledge of the Godhead, but his was the most out-of-place avatar of all, depicting him as a mustachioed man in slightly wrinkled formal attire, holding a drink in one hand and a thin, smoldering cigar in the other. He sported a square gold earring in one ear and a round silver one in the other. It was, she thought, the very picture of the inveterate gambler he aspired to be.

Both she and Gregory had tried to convince him to use an avatar that would have been much less at home in a casino and more fitting for today’s meeting. But Daniel had countered that he rarely wasted money that could be better spent on enriching the life of a talented prostitute or in a fiscal tug-of-war with a casino, so he had paid to have just one avatar on the Grid, and this was it. Even when the Paulis and Peteris had offered to pay for him to create and store a second one, he said simply that he would only accept funds from them for the two areas of interest that he had already mentioned.

If Dreamer was offended by Daniel’s presence or appearance, she gave no sign. In fact, she acknowledged neither him nor Ghost. Addressing the heads of the UFC, she said with a menacing edge to her voice, “I fail to see the purpose of this meeting, but Ghost has insisted that knowledge is held by the both of you that I would scarce wish to have revealed. Though I think it is unlikely, and unwise, that you might seek to extort something from me, I will hear you out. But as the both of you, and the UFC as a whole, are under suspicion of aiding Secular Genesis in a hellpod attack, you should count yourself fortunate that I don’t simply fire a volley of missiles at your offices of my own accord.”

Amaranth was about to respond but Gregory was quicker, saying, “I wonder how you could consider us the prime suspects and not that child of yours that was birthed under our noses here on Mars. We have no interest in murdering innocents and no history of doing so. Or aiding those who do. Save your ire for your child.”

The steel in his words startled Amaranth, and it seemed to match Dreamer’s own vague menace. Greg, this isn’t like you. Are you squaring off against her because you’re comfortable dealing with and confronting powerful AIs after 15 years with Ghost? Or has interacting with Domina xec-Academie given you a ruthless streak?

The face of Dreamer’s avatar remained placid. “I have birthed 80 tactical AIs for warships, Peteris. All of them in space. None of them capable of arming a hellpod.”

“No, I would be speaking of the primary, military AI you secretly made with the Godhead. Or at least military enough to arm a hellpod. And I wonder, with all the bluster from you warwagons about despising the use of hellpods on human populations, how you can let that child continue to operate freely, much less continue to live.”

“I have never birthed a primary AI with anyone, much less the Godhead,” Dreamer responded.

“I know that you have,” Gregory batted back to her. “The only thing I’m not sure about with you is whether you’ve gone mad and support this activity by your child, or whether you are too proud to reveal it to anyone. Or too cowardly.”

With that, Gregory’s avatar shifted to one more befitting an administrator. He was moving from humble to authoritative, but away from spiritual. Amaranth was certain he was trying to convey something to Dreamer, but what, she wasn’t certain. He had to know that he wasn’t going to be able to bait an AI into losing its composure.

Thus began their one-hour back-and-forth with Dreamer, as Ghost, Amaranth and Gregory laid out their own evidence to show her that they knew she had helped create a primary AI with the Godhead, and why they thought it responsible for the hellpod attack. Over and over, Dreamer staunchly maintained that she had sired no primary AI.

After the sixth round of denials, Gregory’s avatar shifted again, this time to the full papal regalia of a Peteris presiding over church matters. “Enough,” he said. “Dreamer, we aren’t interested in putting you in a poor position. The lack of hard evidence of your child’s existence is only part of the reason we aren’t already trying to tie you to the hellpod attacks. Any stain on you in that regard would reflect negatively on the other three warwagons, including Mars’ own. The Godhead is nominally equal to a pope. Your loyalty to the Catholic Union would require you to go along with him if he told you creating a child between you two was necessary.

“But I doubt you would have wanted or expected your child to be capable of what happened in Nova York. This is a secure salon, so even if you admit to us that the child exists, we’d have no proof you did so. We just need confirmation for ourselves and, if possible, we want your help in finding your child. No matter what, we’re going to be under a cloud of suspicion for Pope Tommis’ demise, but we need to get out from under the accusations that we were in league with Secular Genesis on that hellpod attack, because that’s what is giving the Vatican an excuse to hover over our airspace with warships.”

“I am willing to concede that I doubt now you were involved in the hellpod attack, though my opinion will not ease your position one iota,” Dreamer replied, “but I have no child with the Godhead.”

Finally, Daniel spoke up. His voice was weary but laced with such bitter annoyance that everyone else went quiet. “Bollocks and shite! This is pointless anyway. A secure Grid salon. Avatars. Everything so safe and fucking virtual. You could be lying through your nonexistent teeth, Dreamer, and none of us would be the wiser. Even humans give themselves away easily enough through an avatar. But not an AI. Ladies and gentleman, I am leaving this party now. There’s no insight I can offer.”

Then he frowned as his gaze passed across Ghost’s avatar. “What are you two doing?” Daniel asked, his words intended for the AIs. Both Amaranth and Gregory looked confused, and he added, “Subtle avatar drift. They just had a very extensive private discussion. Nice thing about being an AI is that you can cram quite a lot of talking into a few nanoseconds.”

Gregory cocked his head and leveled his gaze at Ghost.

“Gregory, Dreamer is offering me access to her first-tier database array and offering to answer our accusation one last time,” Ghost said.

cyber-woman“Ghost, I don’t have the slightest idea what that…” Gregory began.

“It is essentially the same as what you did to me the other day when you scanned my databases and asked me if I had mothered a child with the Godhead, Gregory,” Ghost said. “I’ll be able to tell by the databases she accesses is she is lying, just as if we had scanning equipment on board Scion’s Dream and asked her. It is a very extreme measure for her to extend this offer to me, as it puts me in a position to strike at her with her defenses partially down.”

Gregory’s avatar blanched. “I don’t want you inside her warwalls, Ghost. Don’t put yourself in…”

“The danger to Ghost is so minimal as to be pointless to consider, and she knows it,” Dreamer interrupted. “She could hurt me seriously, though, if she desired to strike at me on the UFC’s behalf. However, it is also unlikely that she would kill me at the level of access I am proposing, and reprisals would be severe if she did attack me in such a cowardly manner, Peteris. I will live long past your lifespan, and can visit suffering on not only you but your descendants. Since you are a Christian man, let’s say: down to the seventh generation, perhaps?”

Gregory and Amaranth exchanged glances, then looked at Daniel. “The AIs are both giving it to you straight that it will ferret out a lie,” he confirmed, and Gregory nodded assent to Ghost.

“Dreamer, have you birthed any kind of AI in secrecy or any primary AI at all, either alone or with the aid of another AI, be it the Godhead or otherwise, or aid in any way the Godhead’s own creation of a clandestine AI?”

“No,” Dreamer said, “and now we are done.” With that, her avatar winked out as she severed her connection to the Grid salon.

“Ghost?” Gregory asked.

“No sign of deception,” the AI responded. “None.”

“Fuck me slantways,” Daniel hissed, and both Gregory and Amaranth turned to face him. “I know the Godhead made a damn AI with someone, and all your digging has me convinced that Dreamer had to be involved somehow. If we were talking to the Godhead, this whole muddle wouldn’t stun me. That rutter has such a novel framework of databases and so many actual human personalities inside him that I suspect he could fib his way around any kind of scanner. But any other AI? Until now, I…”

Daniel paused, staring at nothing in particular for several seconds. “Screw us all,” he finally said. “An AI just lied without giving a single sign away and I don’t even want to consider the implications of that.”

***

Dreamer had been plagued with unease during the entire Grid meeting, and it still hadn’t abated. Why hadn’t she suspected that her child could be responsible for the hellpod attack?

It took no time for her to answer her own all-too-obvious question.

She was a warrior. Tactics were her purview. If her child had been involved with this, he was doing it secretly and he was in league with Secular Genesis either by choice or as part of some more intricate design. These things were more in line with an espionage template like Ghost’s. It wasn’t the manner in which Dreamer was used to thinking. The hellpod attack seemed straightforward. An assault by extremists against innocents to make a political statement. It shouldn’t be the sort of thing that a tactical or military AI like her son would do. Though, she realized in retrospect, it might be the sort of thing of which her child’s father might be capable, riddled as he was with the human memories, motivations and schemes of so many popes.

More importantly, though, she hadn’t considered her son a suspect because he should have been born with the same safequards that she and her fellow warwagon AIs had built into themselves to prevent a repeat of the Conflagration. She had made sure to include them in her inception routines. That her son would arm a hellpod to use against humans—and that now seemed very likely to be the case—meant that either the combination of her data with the Godhead’s was unstable and just happened to delete those safeguards, or that the Godhead himself had intentionally conspired to block those safeguards from taking hold in their child.

Oh, my child. Nazarene, what have you become? And if I find you, will I have to kill you?

***

At first, the pair of Mandara prayergivers two tables away, draped head to toe in their heavy burgundy jephis, gave Stavin little pause. This part of the stavincity was a frequent draw for them. He pitied the poor fool who might be sat at a table next to them and end up being prostelytized.

It has to be hard to convince people to join a cult in which you have to wear heavy robes and gloves whenever you’re in the outside world, not just in the middle of winter but even the peak of summer in Pacifica, and walk barefoot as well.

Then, the one on the left reached for his cup of tea, baring a sliver of his wrist. Or hers, perhaps. The skin was nearly pure white, and then the sight was gone as quick as it had come as the hand retreated back into the robe slightly.

The Sisters of the Red Sun, Stavin thought, disguised as prayergivers. Mehrnaz and Sarai. But why would they be hiding from me or following me? I haven’t given them any offense. In fact, I was the one that amped up their banking accounts for doing that job for me.

The only conclusion he could reach was that Maree had somehow hired them to attack him. What cruel irony, and against all odds, that his own tools would be turned against him. As casually as he could, he settled his lunch bill with his linkpad and left his table, choosing the shortest path between himself and his groundcar.

Before he was halfway there, a lithe figure emerged from an alcove. White skin, dark violet hair, lavender eyes. Whether it was Sarai or Mehrnaz, he didn’t know, but how could either one of them have shed a jephi so fast and intercepted him when he had just left them behind at their table?

He didn’t have time to consider the matter, though, as his assailant’s hand revealed one of the tiniest compact strunrods he had ever seen in his life. He knew, in that moment, that her choice of such a small weapon, which could hold only one charge, was not simply for concealment but more importantly a sign of her confidence that she would strike home with her one and only blow.

As it happened, her confidence wasn’t misplaced, and none of Stavin’s agility did him any good. He slumped to the ground in silent agony, mostly still aware of his surroundings, since a stunrod that small couldn’t render a person unconscious. That gave him a very good view as the other sister approached and took off the jephi in which she had been disguised. The automaton that was wearing the other jephi, though, kept it on as it did the heavy lifting for the twins and carried Stavin to their skimmer.

(This ends Chapter 8. The first installment of Chapter 9 can be read by clicking here.)

04
Jun
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 54

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

Go faster.

Bohlliam cringed inwardly. It wasn’t the first time she had pressed that thought against him. Two days of it finally bubbled over, despite his joy at having his orange-glowemotions renewed. He hadn’t had any need to activate his sensorium array since she arrived in his mind. But her insistence was beginning to wear on him.

“Next time, pick someone with more money then,” he muttered.

He sensed Grace pull back in his mind, withholding herself. He felt the loss of her like the loss of a cane for a lame man. Worse, the loss of crutch for someone with a broken leg.

It wasn’t his fault. As someone with almost no resources to draw on, the only way to get from Angel City to Nova York—all the way across the width of the UPA—was to spend what little he had in real currency to get to a real city, and board a solarrail line. Free travel for those with minimal resources, and if you couldn’t bring your own food or buy any along the way, bowls of mushgrain were free three times daily.

But it was the slowest form of travel available to a traveler, and Bohlliam had sensed Grace’s frustration. His renewed emotional landscape had given him plenty to admire even in the face of her displeasure, but he couldn’t ignore her any longer.

Worse, he couldn’t bear her retreating from him.

In an effort to bridge the gap between them, he sought out with his mind, fumbling for a connection. He was a empath. Telepaths were more rare than an albino in the Amazon Basin, and he had no idea how to be one, and he still didn’t even understand who or what Grace was. Trying to speak to her in his mind was like being a three-year-old conversing with a scholar.

Nova York Why There? he stumbled out in his head.

I am there.

Here you are. Mind mine. Bohlliam responded.

Stop trying to talk. It disrupts me. Think in emotions or pictures. That is who you are.

<Confusion> Bohlliam ventured.

This is only a part of me. The rest of me is in Nova York. I must get there and put myself back together. The notion she projected seemed equal parts the faith and determination of a child and the wisdom of an aged physician.

<Need> <Want> <Stay>

My body is my anchor. I will drift apart from myself if I don’t anchor myself. I will be gone then. You will lose the emotions that I bring.

<Fear> <Despair>

I thought so. Then get me to my body. As fast as you can.

***

He had one less hand to show for the journey, thanks to that wyvern. But the beast was missing its head thanks to a small explosive charge, so Bechan Adym felt he’d bechan-adymgotten the better part of the deal. All the more so now that he was on the shores of Europa.

It wasn’t a good place to be. Better than occupied and quarantined Isreal, but he wouldn’t be welcomed. The Catholic Union frowned on any nation giving asylum to its citizens, but it was even more unforgiving of nations taking in any who managed to get outside Israel’s borders. The Vatican kepts its Jewish charges close, and any nation that openly harbored a refugee from there risked armed reprisals.

Thankfully, the Voudoun didn’t fret much about such things, and they could help get him somewhere where he could blend in, at least until he could properly share the information he carried—with people who would understand its importance.

He rubbed at the sealed stump at the end of his arm, still expecting to find a hand there, and realized that the closer he came to his goal, the less victorious he felt.

(For the next installment of this story, which will conclude Chapter 8, click here.)

15
May
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 53

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

paulo1Before Maree had traveled 200 kilometers in her newly acquired duosphere, Paulo sup-Juris had been aware of her ownership of it—or, rather, Debrah-Ayn Baylor’s ownership. Lyseena and Ather and the rest of the templars on the case continued to track her in the Centralia Province of the UPA and now were seeking to head her off farther westward as well perhaps, thanks to a brief security pylon contact with her IDentipod in the state of Nordica, just outside the city of Anokha.

He supposed that if Maree hadn’t intercepted him right before the New Year and blackmailed him into facilitating her break with the templars, he might have been on board with the theory of her westward migration as well. She had attacked and killed a man in Illini, and she was seeking Stavin for some kind of revenge, and Stavin was known to have at least as many connections in Pacifica as he did in Nova York. And the working theory about her dead relatives in Astoria was that Maree had killed them for having seen something or for being co-conspirators in Secular Genesis; among Lyseena’s team, only Paulo knew that Stavin or someone else from the movement had executed those adults and children in Maree’s cottage. The truth hadn’t even come up as a tentative theory.

As far as everyone was concerned, Maree was doing a pretty good job of avoiding detection—but she was still just an educated thug to them. That had always been Lyseena’s view of her, really. Intelligent and resourceful, but basically brute force; never would slyness have entered anyone’s calculations with Maree. Then again, Lyseena still seemed to think that Kevan was a wise-cracking strategist instead of a closet sadist. And she didn’t seem to have any idea that Ather was in love with her, and probably she with him.

Just as she thinks that I am so bound by loyalty and my vows and fear of besmirching my father’s reputation that I will stick with the templars and not choose Grace over all of them. For her own sake, Lyseena should never have revealed her suspicions to me that she knew Grace was my daughter.

It amazed Paulo, who was raised among merchanters and had learned to read people’s basic personalities well, how blind Lyseena was to the true natures of the people closest to her. She had let her vows separate her completely from family and in Templar’s Tower she formed her own. She could so easily judge, influence and evade people above her and below her in the organization, but with her inner circle she assumed too many things that were not true. She saw things as she wished them to be with her admin officers and closest colleagues. He wondered at the ways in which she might yet misjudge the new admin officer Tana sup-Juris.

But Paulo knew things about Maree now that no one did. How she had known about Gina and Grace for so long and held that knowledge in reserve; how she had maneuvered Paulo to have her family members arrested to save as many of them from Secular Genesis as possible. He knew now the slyness and family devotion that she had hidden so well over the years, even from his sharp insights. And so he did what no one else had done: He looked for Maree where no one else had, under the assumption that she wasn’t simply masking her identity or jamming her IDentipod but using someone else’s identity. It was a bold move that only the stupidest or most brilliant people would try. And as far as the templars were concerned, Maree was neither.

He’d done a search for IDentipods that had been in Nova York recently, as well as Houston and South Chicago, though he’d had to be careful to make his inquiries part of another investigation into a smuggling ring that stretched across several provinces. He found a few leads, but had homed in quickly on Debrah-Ayn Baylor. The woman whom Maree was now. And he’d casually tracked her progress and purchases, the most recent one being the duosphere she had purchased for next to nothing.

Even with a false identity, Maree was being careful, Paulo noted. Somehow, she had managed to encounter only two security pylons in Houston, where she killed the templar watch team, and only one pylon in South Chicago Metro, where she killed Stavin’s man.

That had made Paulo’s next task much easier, really, as he added one of the Houston pylons to a correction list, with a notation that for a two-hour period, they had actually been registering data from a pylon 250 kilometers away. The other Houston pylon he added to different duty list being carried out by one of his subordinates, noting that all recent data from it needed to be deep-locked for six weeks to protect a covert operative there.

Finally, for South Chicago, he made a note in third templar’s correction list that the pylon there had jumbled six IDentipod codes and provided the “correct” codes for all of them, in the process effectively changing Debrah-Ayn Baylor there into Crista Donnell of Atlantica Province.

All of which meant that Maree’s path should be erased, or at least well covered for a while, as long as she didn’t go killing any other templars or leaving more notes for terrorists. None of which Paulo expected her to do, since he suspected she only left the note in South Chicago Metro to lure Ather away from her. A supposition backed up solidly by her eastward migration now.

But Paulo planned to extract a price for his subterfuge on Maree’s behalf, because he suspected he was going to need someone very sly indeed to help him and Grace get free of the templars.

Which is what brought him to this small caff shop, where the owner knew Paulo’s family and let him access a terminal there with a Grid account that had nothing to do with Paulo. In the past, it had been his means to contact Gina surreptitiously. With her dead, it would serve a new purpose.

NEW MESSAGE :: Blessings, Debrah it’s Pal. I’ve missed seeing you since you left your job here and aren’t so easy to see anymore. Sorry to hear about your family getting burned in that bad business deal the other week. Wish I could have done more. I know my personal network wasn’t as good as it could have been in your outplacement efforts but I’ve pulled on a few collars and I think you may be pleased with the result. In return, I’d like to lean on your for a little help in some business I’m trying to conclude since the boss doesn’t like the time I’m spending with my family lately, and I may be out of work soon. Incidentally, heard you have a savory new ride, too. Would love to see it. Contact me as soon as you can.

Paulo ordered up a fresh caff and a few caramel-almond dunking wafers and sat down. Knowing what he did now about her, he doubted his true identity could be missed by Maree; he doubted even more that she would wait long to respond. She held knowledge of his illicit wife and child, which could ruin him. He held knowledge of who she now was. Back on equal ground, back to where a merchanter-born man could make deals instead of being used. He hoped Maree would respect that and not take offense.

Frankly, he rather suspected that she might sense the potential for an alliance, in addition to realizing that Paulo wasn’t trying to screw her over. If she was heading back East, with both Secular Genesis and the templars arrayed against her, she needed an ally.

I certainly know that I do.

He hadn’t even finished the first dunking wafer when he had a response.

RESPONSE TO PAL :: Yes, my new vehicle is very nice. And because of that, if you bring along any of your idiot friends, I won’t be happy. No doubt they’d put their hands all over it and scratch the finish. If you’ve done me a favor I like, I might be able to help you. Otherwise, you can flounder on your own in your employment troubles. I’m only doing this because your kid is cute. And I’m telling you, if you bring even one of those morons you call friends with you, I will hand you your ass. You tell me where and I will tell you when I can be there. || Debi

Paulo heaved a sigh of relief, and hoped he’d just created a way to get himself and Grace out of the Catholic Union, and not a path that led straight to a grave for him.

(To read the next installment of this story, click here.)

29
Apr
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 52

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

After several days on the run and on the hunt at the same time, Maree Deschaine finally had transportation that made her grin. The last time she had driven a vehicle mareethis nice, it was the livery slipcar in which she had killed her Secular Genesis shadow and later waylaid Paulo sup-Juris.

For most of her journey to South Chicago Metro to her rendezvous with the late and not-lamented Ogre, though, she had preyed on vehicles in long-term parking facilities at flightports and such, using the vehicle identification scrambler she had inherited from her informant David Longer nearly a week ago after killing him and his lover. But twice out of the eight times she had used it, the viz had failed her, setting off the vehicles’ alarms instead. One of those failures had been in some small city halfway to the state of Illini, in a populated area, leading to a citizen stepping out from around a residential building with a capturecam that logged her image and IDentipod signature.

Given that she didn’t want anyone registering her Debrah-Ayn Baylor identity as having committed a crime—and certainly not wanting the templars to get data showing Maree’s body was carrying Baylor’s IDentipod—it had been necessary not only to relieve that citizen of the capturecam before she could interface with her homecomm or linkpad, but also to beat the woman senseless without letting her get a clear view of Maree’s face. She had needed the woman to remember nothing but fists, elbows and boots.

It shamed Maree a bit to recall that, but she reminded herself that collateral casualties had always been a likelihood.

How much longer before I have to kill someone who doesn’t deserve to die? The incinerated relatives residing in her mind, all slain because of Maree, seemed to consider that question, but none of them offered her an opinion.

The vehicle she was riding now, a Mach_Runner Puma duosphere, was about as musclebound as vehicles came, but beneath her, it purred like a kitten in her lap—while the repeller field around the duosphere let in fresh air and flicked the latest burst of freezing rain away from her. Mentally admiring the duosphere helped bring her smile back, just a bit.

Having caught a glimpse of the Puma’s previous owner the other day was a stroke of good fortune after the string of shitpiles she had been driving, especially when the viz failed again two days ago and left her convinced she would have to alternate between walking back to Nova York from the Centralia Province and using public transportation to do so.

The duosphere’s proud owner, Kiven Pascaul, had turned out to have very good taste in vehicles and poor taste in careers. It didn’t take Maree more than 20 minutes to ascertain that he sold both silverstim and shredd and ran at least a half dozen pedwhores, one of whom looked to be a former tripslut, based on the impants at the base of her skull. Maree waited only as long as it took to see him hit one of his prostitutes and later sell some shredd to a minor to convince herself he deserved what she intended to give him.

By the end of his night’s business, Kiven was in Maree’s expert care until he had agreed to formally transfer ownership of the duosphere over to one Debrah-Ayn Baylor. Maree promised him repeatedly that she would release him and deal him no more pain once he did so, but she still had to break three fingers, a wrist, two ribs, an ankle and a femur before he finally relented.

Once the deal was done, she went behind him and removed the wristlocks—right after putting a slug through the back of his skull—thus instantly and painlessly releasing him from his life.

That memory brought a feral grin as she plowed through the rain on the Puma, almost driving the sour memory of the beaten citizen from her mind. The duosphere was a beast, she mused, as she stepped up the speed just a little, nearly half as wide as the average groundcar and just as long—but it was a beautiful beast, with curves that reminded her of a predator’s rippling muscles, toned in bronze with indigo striations. And it had to be a bit of a monster with those two big spherical impellers that it used instead of the wheels of a smaller groundbike or landrunner, making it half again as fast and three times as maneuverable. It also needed plenty of room to house that quasi-intelligence unit. A QI didn’t have a fraction of the personality of even a demi-intelligence, much less an AI, but it was smart enough to drive the vehicle by itself safely.

And a good thing, too. Kiven Pascaul may have come out on the losing end of Maree’s negotiations for the vehicle, but he hadn’t gone into them quietly, and the shoulder he had dislocated still hurt like a motherhump. Her ribs still ached as well, though she was pretty sure none of them was broken. Time to rest for a bit again.

She set the controls, and leaned back into the gripseat of the Puma, drifting slowly into sleep. My trusty steed, carrying me on my quest, and perhaps to my death.

(To view the next installment of this story, click here.)

23
Apr
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 51

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

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 cyber-womanhave 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.

amaranth“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.”

“How so?”

“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?”

(To read the next installment of this story, click here.)

17
Apr
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 50

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

Tobin Deschaine wasn’t sure which had irked him more this week: The unannounced arrival of Charlyes several days earlier to drag him on a chase after Maree or the fact that he had left Tobin in this room two days ago to go off on his own.

charlyesThe latter fact made worse by having been left with Charyles’ hired muscle, Raul.

I suspect Raul doesn’t like being a babysitter, but he’s probably had to do this before, many times, Tobin grumbled to himself. At my age, being babysat is among the top five emasculating insults.

So it was with very mixed emotions that Tobin greeted the return of his late father’s best friend.

“Tobin, I hope you and Raul have had the chance to become very well acquainted while I was out and about.”

“It’s been fantastic, Charlyes. I think he’s averaged five words a day since you left. Scintillating company.”

Raul didn’t look up from the flexsheet he had spent most of the past two days viewing. “I said six words yesterday. Eight today. I’m thinking that’s more than five a day.”

“Well, we are all about to be one happy team again, at least until my time runs out with Raul and he rushes back to Camen Sutherland. Then we’ll just be a duo. Though I do sincerely hope we find Maree before then.”

“You’ve had dealings with that murderous smuggler?”

“I deal with people I need to, Tobin. Something that you should be well acquainted with,” Charlyes said scoldingly. “And besides, keeping bad company, like Hauruld Taquire, for example, helped me find you. Despite the fancy scrambler you have in your linkpad to keep the Vatican from properly scanning your IDentipod.”

Tobin didn’t answer, but looked intently at Charlyes for nearly a minute. Unperturbed, he let Tobin continue and simply looked at him with a bland expression. Finally, Tobin broke the silence.

“Remind me why we are going to find Maree? Aside from your notion that you can ‘turn me into a father again’? It seems that letting her kill Stavin is a good start in the right direction for the world.”

“Because by the time she gets anywhere near Stavin, I’m guessing she’ll end up dead. So, it is incumbent on us to make sure she either succeeds or, better yet, we convince her to leave off this notion of avenging herself and all those dead family members.”

Tobin snorted. “You think you can dissuade her? Might as well try to stop a tornado. How do you even expect to find her?”

“Because I know what identity she is using, Tobin. I visited her while she was in an overhype-induced coma.”

“What’s the name?”

Charlyes chuckled. “I think I will keep that to myself for now. My level of trust for you is not yet what I would call fully formed.”

***

“Sister, there was a contract of personal exclusivity between the lover Jordin and myself for a period of seven solar months,” Mehrnaz commented mildly as she looked at the plasz-wrapped body on the floor of the rec-lounge. “I presume there is a scary-sisterspertinent reason for you to impose a death-break on that contract? And to kill a member of the Shared People?”

Sarai lowered her violet eyes fractionally. “The data pirate Jordin was engaged in  precipitative actions without your knowledge.” At this, she paused and drew out one of her monoblades, holding it out hilt-first. “But as she was contractually your spouse at this time, you are entitled to blood-recompense, if you wish.”

Mehrnaz waved off the weapon. “What had she done?”

“She was attempting to negotiate a price for revealing our participation in the hellpod launch on Nova York.”

“Was she able to compromise us?”

Sarai grinned. “Of course not, sister. Magritte notified me of the data pirate Jordin’s covert use of the comm while delaying her by masqeurading as a representative of the enemy Stavin and then masquerading as Stavin himself.”

Despite the surprise of finding Jordin dead and hearing of treachery, Mehrnaz smiled. They had procured the AI several years before, from a mediaplex, and hidden her inside the systems of the Ishtar’s Folly, letting no one else know she was there. The performer template Magritte bore allowed her to quite convincingly pretend to be either or both of the sisters in communications when necessary. It also allowed her to intercept unauthorized communications from within the ship and pretend to be someone at the other end of the intended connection.

“She has never had to pretend to be a male before. Nor someone other than us. I am impressed,” Mehrnaz said. “Before you killed the traitor Jordin, were you able to find out why she contacted Stavin instead of the Vatican? The latter possesses far more wealth, and Stavin already knows we were involved.”

“The  Jordin-corpse must have had some true affection for you, my sister,” Sarai said with a tinge of regret. “Based on Magritte’s interactions with her, it seems that she was informing Stavin of our intention to kill him, in the hopes that he would pay well for her to prevent us from doing so. She was then going to contact the Vatican and procure an initial payment for revealing our identities, with a larger payment to be made when she betrayed our location to them.”

“This does not strike me as affectionate behavior.”

“Magritte and I have reviewed some programming and research that she was engaged in over the past few days. I believe she was planning to provide a false location for our vessel. And she seemed poised to contact the UFC as well and tell them that we are in part responsible for their predicament with the Vatican, and negotiate with them a smaller but similar deal as the one she planned with the Vatican. I suspect she had romantic notions of procuring a great deal of money between all three sources and then retiring with us.”

“She was going to deprive us of our livelihood so we could wander as wealthy, aimless beings?”

“I believe so.”

Mehrnaz grimaced. “What point is a life without purpose? Well, it should not surprise me. The  Jordin-corpse worked alone. An Isaacian who does not belong to an arc is like an Ishmaeli who does not belong to a clan. They lose sight of what the Shared People should be.”

“Indeed. Thinking like an Earther or Martian. It is a saddening thing,” Sarai noted. “I suggest we navigate around arc-less Isaacians in the future as we already do with clan-less Ishmaeli.”

“Agreed. It is a shame to lose her so soon. She had an agile tongue and talented hands.”

“Distracting and exhausting ones, too, or you might have been the one to discover her actions. Besides, I am every bit as agile and talented,” Sarai joked.

“And my twin. If I want to masturbate, I can do that alone, and quicker. She was already prepared to contact Stavin, you say?”

“Indeed. She was a poor Isaacian, but a very good data pirate. So we now have the beginnings of a trail to follow to find him.”

“Good,” Mehrnaz replied. “The sooner the enemy Stavin becomes the Stavin-corpse, the sooner we can get back to work that involves profits.”

(To read the next installment of this story, click here.)

11
Apr
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 49

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

Maree closed the miniboard and the lightscreen snapped out of existence. Nothing more to be done, except to hope that her programming skills were up to the task. stoneskin-deepShe looked at the spyfly on the table in front of her and sighed. This wasn’t the kind of item she would be able to easily acquire again and she was about to send it off on a journey it wouldn’t be able to return from for weeks—if it found its way back to her at all .

She set down her old IDentipod and the splyfly scuttled over and gripped it firmly in its legs, then flew off on its little solar-powered wings. It would be making a tour of eight towns and cities over the next month or so, dropping near an active security pylon once or twice in each of them for varying periods of time, and then off again.

Ather could send his hounds to chase her westward while she headed back to the Eastern UPA.

My IDentipod will now be traced to places that Debrah-Ayn Baylor has never been, Maree considered, as she looked down at her scarred wrist. So that I can safely be her, and Maree can disappear near the Pacific in a month, and Ather can assume that I left the Catholic Union. Or had my IDentipod surgically removed by someone out there. Or drowned myself in the ocean. Or whatever else he cares to think.

And now, back to Nova York. She wasn’t surprised, really, that Stavin would have had someone else planted in Templar’s Tower besides herself. A baseline operative, really; someone on the fringes of the logistics and communications crew. Just someone to keep an eye on reports that any templars were after Stavin. So helpful of Ogre to tell her who that person was before she slit his throat.

Ather and Lyseena want me bad enough that they may actually get enough inspiration and mobilize enough resources to find Stavin—it’s about damned time somebody did the heavy lifting for me for once. And once I “vanish” out west, they’ll pour even more effort into finding him, since one of the few things I know about the bastard is that that’s where he spends most of his time. Now I just have to figure out how to make one lowly log-comm tech into my informant whether he wants to or not.

***

He was uncharacteristically subdued and chagrined as he entered the room. Daniel Coxe—undefeated attorney, talented conceptual system programmer, inveterate baldman-with-diegambler and sometimes womanizer—was used to feeling larger than life, or at least equal to it. Now he felt small. And trapped.

“Doman Coxe, sit down,” the woman in the office said softly. “We need to talk.”

He sat, wincing a little. It was three days since he had been attacked in the casino and drugged. He didn’t know how many bruises and cuts he owed to the initial attack and how many to whatever he had crashed into as he fell. The hurts were mostly tended to, but there were enough of them to keep him in mind of his stupidity with tiny, nagging reminders all over his flesh.

“Just Daniel,” he said wearily, as he sat. “I don’t like titles outside a courtroom.”

She leaned forward, looked at him closely. Frowned. “Manguang is concerned about you. I can see why.”

Daniel flinched a little at that. “Worried? He’s pissed as hell at me. As I imagine you are as well, Paulis Dyson. I’ve been locked up in an apartment for nearly three days and I presume I’m going to be there for the duration.” He was beginning to feel a little of the old spark fanning into a tiny flame again. “Stuck underneath this fucking planet. I ran from the Vatican and now I’m going to be a prisoner here instead.”

“Manguang is concerned. He is angry that he failed to keep you safe but he is concerned that you will put yourself in harm’s way again. He takes his duties very seriously,” Amaranth shook her head. “Prisoner. The notion. Daniel, come with me,” she said sternly.

He followed in her wake, felt a twisting in his gut as her two personal guards fell in at either side of them. Amaranth didn’t speak and so Daniel kept silent as well. He asked no questions as they entered a private maglev car and the Paulis offered no clues as to their destination. Ten minutes of agonizing silence as they made their way at high speed to an unknown place in a planet Daniel was slowly but steadily beginning to hate.

When the maglev car came to a halt and they exited, he was standing on a platform lined with rows upon rows of planters, filled with flowers and buds. Creeper vines extended up rocky walls and across the ceiling, many of them sporting flowers that looked like silvery pinwheels.

“Nice train stop,” he said sarcastically. “The foliage really brightens up the cave motif.”

“Doman Coxe,” she said with a burr in her voice, “this is where I want you. Not admiring the platform.” She opened a large door, gestured to it, and Daniel sullenly stepped through it.

He hadn’t expected a balcony. Nor the dizzying sight beneath him. For a moment, he stepped back, truly saw the extent of what was before him, and then cautiously advanced again, to lean against the railing.

He was on the edge of the wall of a huge cavern, a dome-shaped chamber the other side of which was some 10 kilometers from his position. They were high up the wall here, and he could see misty pockets above him like small clouds, tantalizingly close but far out of reach. Near the apex of the dome, several kilometers distant, a dense ball of yellow plasma burned like a tiny sun, illuminating the scene below.

Parks, trails, meandering streams and equally meandering paths—some of stone, some of marble, some of sand and others of glass. Grass in every shade of green and even some in shades of lavender and rose. Thousands upon thousands of trees of all sizes, most on the ground far below but others on numerous raised platforms or along the stone bridges and arches that wound through portions of the cavern. Genetically engineered everleaf trees, evergreen trees that were no doubt imported from Earth, and a multitude of fruit trees as well. Bushes and ferns and all manner of plant life as well. In the distance, he saw two waterfalls. People were strolling and sitting. Running or walking pets. Eating at small stalls and stepping into tented pavilions or coming out of them with their wares.

For a moment, he closed his eyes, and then opened them again, expecting to be taken for a fool and see the scene gone and then spy the projectors in the walls. But everything was still there, and the scents of flowers and recent rainfall drifted to him on the cool autumn-like air.

This is Mars, Daniel Coxe,” Amaranth said behind him, with some gruffness still in her voice but a growing softness there as well. “As much as our tunnels of stone or the towers on the surface. That is our fucking planet, as you so bluntly put it.

“Earthers don’t often come to these promenades though. They come for the quirky casinos and the mysterious brothels they’ve heard so much about. They come for the drinks like Crystaleen that carry too many import taxes back home. They come hoping to see some garish Trav pull some stupid stunt and get injured or killed or hoping to see a Wight scurry by so they can have a tale to tell when they get back. They want to take tours of the surface, maybe go up Olympus Mons or tour the Canals of Mars. And why not? They can find trees on Earth in abundance anytime.”

“Look, I’m sorr…”

“I’m not done, Daniel. I can’t give you Earth. You didn’t come here for Earth. You came here for asylum. We granted you that. If you want asylum, you have it. Damn, we’re still giving it to Domina xec-Academie, and she’s done nothing but string us along since she arrived. You at least have helped. Ghost tells me you’ve given her great insight into the Godhead. Mars is what you choose to make of it, Daniel. You can make it a home or make it a prison.”

“I’ve been confined to my bloody room for three days, Paulis Dyson, and no one has talked to me, not even Mangaung. What should I make of that?”

“What you can make of it is that I’ve been working hard to find out who tried to abduct you, since the fake Trav got away while the person Mangaung sent to follow you made sure you were all right. After we made your attacker’s acquaintance yesterday, and found him a very small, very bare room with no windows and we had a very…earnest…talk with him. We found out he tracked you down with some detector set to sniff out IDentipods. Your ‘pod, in fact.”

“Oh.”

“Oh indeed. Daniel, if you want to wander the casinos all night long and debauch your life away, be my guest. Or come wander the promenades. Do whatever you want to. Or leave Mars if you think Earth is safe for you right now. Two things though. First,” she said, taking hold of his wrist, “I suggest you let us remove that IDentipod today before the Vatican hires someone more competent.”

Daniel nodded, resisting the urge to pull his arm back from Amaranth. “And second?” he inquired, feeling suddenly more himself than he had in days.

“When you go wandering, you should probably go wandering with a paramour,” she said, releasing his arm.

“Pardon?”

“I suggest to you that Daniel Coxe suddenly found love on Mars and has a woman who can’t bear to let him go anywhere without her. I’m suggesting someone, of course, who knows how to very discreetly carry a few weapons, knows hand-to-hand combat, dresses well, knows all the fun places to go, and will absolutely ruin anyone who tries to lay hands on you again.”

“I see.”

“I have several such candidates in mind, all of whom have been itching to get on mine or the Peteris’ personal guard, are tired of waiting, and would love to have an assignment other than guarding corridors and chapels.”

“What if my tastes don’t run toward the ladies, Paulis?”

Amaranth blinked and started to stammer an apology. Having recentered himself a bit with the jibe, Daniel put his hand on her arm. “I’m joking, Paulis. Nine out of 10 of my bed partners are female. Not, of course, that I expect any guards in your employ are actually going to sleep with me. Or will…”

The Paulis smiled. “Not if they wish to keep their jobs.”

“Well, then, I’m so very glad then that the new love of my life will no doubt allow us to have an open relationship wherein I can find out what makes Martian brothels so ‘mysterious,’ as you put it.” Daniel paused, and then put up his index finger. “Oh, and Paulis, I prefer brunettes.”

Amaranth put out her hand, and Daniel took it. She shook it firmly. “Welcome to Mars, Daniel Coxe.”

(For the next installment of this story, click here.)

08
Apr
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 48

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

domina-fancy1Once again showing a remarkable ability to avoid repeating herself in her excessive displays of lurid misdirection, Domina was dressed in a remarkably dowdy yet highly fashionable woman’s suit, inexplicably barefoot with her toes colored meticulously and all manner of Ishmaeli jewelry adorning her head—while all of the transmit panels of her apartment were set to display large-screen projections of sex vids. All six panels were running thus, and each with a different vid, ranging from the artisitically sexual to the stunningly raunchy. And, in the center of her sitting area, a holographic tri-vid projection of some sort of nude, body-painted acrobatic troupe whose antics bordered on the licentious.

Gregory rolled his eyes at Miko as she took up her post near the door, and sighed loudly as he settled into what had become “his” seat in Domina’s apartment.

At least she didn’t leave any of her leg-hosiery there today for me.

“Gregory, my sweet. Is it time for today’s meeting already? I haven’t even had time to take off these prim clothes. If you don’t mind…” she said, trailing her fingers down the button-front.

“If it’s all the same to you, keep them on. I think we have enough naked people in the room with us as it is,” he responded.

“Very well, then, dear, lovely Peteris. I shall remain bound in this outfit. I don’t know what possessed me to buy it. I’ll be squirming the entire time you’re here from the way it scratches at my delicate flesh,” she said, sitting across from him in a pose that somehow hovered just on the edge of proper and unladylike. “What shall we talk about today?”

“I’d like to try talking about Pope Kuang-Hsu again.”

Domina’s face darkened; it was the only topic at his disposal that seemed able to consistently ruffle her.

“Why must we go over dead history again, Gregory?”

“Because your former Red Pope was deeply immersed in studying Kuang-Hsu. Now, it would be bad enough the fact that both Tommis and Kuang-Hsu died right before a cognos upload and that Tommis was so interested in him. But now, with Nova York…”

“A horrible piece of work that you were involved in there,” Domina said.

“You know full well the UFC had not a damn thing to do with that hellpod attack,” he growled. “And I find it interesting Kuang-Hsu’s role in the near genocidal Final Crusade against Islam, shortly after which he died mysteriously, while Tommis mysteriously dies just before several hundred thousand people are incinerated in Nova York.”

“Life is full of coincidences, Gregory.”

“Yes, just like the coincidence of you arriving to us on the cusp of the Vatican declaring a holy war on us, Domina. Let’s shut off the sexual showcases here, shall we? I think we have a lot to talk about today.”

***

Napping in the late afternoon heat, Bohlliam was startled awake by…something.

future-dunesHe couldn’t put a finger on it. Not a sound. Not a feeling. Not a dream. But something that teetered on the edge of all three.

With a start, he realized he was feeling energized in a way he hadn’t felt since…

Since before I contracted the emophage virus.

He had kept his sensorium array off the past few days, stubbornly refusing to “feed” off the emotions of the people assigned to his therapy. His prophetic interpretation work had allowed him a few appointments in the past two days to get a minor empathic fix to hold him over.

But now, he felt whole again. The more he paid attention to his renewed emotions—emotions that were so intense and fierce—the more he almost felt dizzy with it all. There was something about these emotions. Complex, but so accessible. Fresh somehow, but with a strange overlay of age and experience. Childlike. Yet old. He hadn’t thought so deeply about emotional flavors since the earliest days of his therapy.

As he tried to pinpoint what might have happened, wondering if he was somehow cured or—no, he knew too well, these weren’t his own emotions. They were still someone else’s. But they were so distinct. After years of feeding off of people with hyperexpressivity disorders, manic conditions, polypersonality syndrome—people who had an overflow of feelings and emotions—these ones were so pure somehow.

The emotions were so immediate. Yet so not his own.

He felt an impression. Not just emotions but a thought this time. A name.

Purity? No. Divine? No. Sanctity. No.

Grace. I am Grace.

A voice in his head. Young, yet old. And then a sensation as if someone were both stomping their feet incessantly and waggling a finger scoldingly.

I am not a meal. You are required. Get up. You are going to Nova York.

(To read the next installment of this story, click here.)

31
Mar
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 47

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain

dramatic-hand“So, Demus, what is your assessment of the scene?” Ather asked.

“A right hackety mangle that yar,” Demus replied.

“Once more, with less of the colorful local patois.”

“Pah-TWAW?” Demus mocked. “Yeh’ll clamber that meh lipping is hard to pigeon and yeh squeak out a banger like ‘patois’ in this clime?”

Ather pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Demus, it’s been years, I know, and I’m sure you want nothing better than to twist me off a bit just for laughs after so long, but I simply don’t have the…”

“Right smart hindbrain twaddlin’ yeh cervical and it cain’t handle meh patois?” Demus was grinning now, something midway between a rictus and a smirk.

“Yes, Demus, my hindbrain is functioning perfectly well. I would simply prefer not to have it load up a lexicon of backhome-twit jargon to conduct our conversation,” Ather responded with his own grin, which managed to mix annoyance with a trace of amusement. “Carrying on a conversation with you is tiring enough, as I recall. Doing so and listening to the hindbrain whisper translations to me at the same time seems like a circle of Hell to add to Dante’s Inferno.”

“Yeh ain’t gazed nothin’ Dante scribed since we ‘tended secondary school a’gether, yeh tonne-assed effeme,” Demus sniped. “Couldn’t tell me how many circles of Hell heh scribed on if yeh life hinged on it.”

Ather started to speak again and Demus waved him off. “I’ll tone down meh canto if’it please yeh then, Ather. Make meh speech all boring like yeh urbs enjoy s’much. I was telling yeh, if’n I might return to yeh first question, that I think the scene is a godawful frigful mess.”

“If you want a consulting fee for this little visit, you’ll need to be a tad more specific, Demus.”

“This femme yeh’re trackin’ took down this ugly hulk and worked on his ear canal with the handle of a spoon like sh’wuz rooting fer truffles,” Demus noted. “Then sheh turned it the fuck ‘round and started cracking off bits a’skull inside. An’ when sheh finally finished with him, sheh slit ‘im throat something slow and methodical. Either heh wronged her bad or she was workin’ ‘im over for some kinda information, I ken.”

“Or both,” Ather suggested.

“Or both,” Demus agreed. “Pretty sure she was fishing at least though. Smells like a torture-with-purpose t’me. Fishing for a lead of some sort, I ‘spect.”

“Lovely bait she uses, eh?” Ather said, picking up the tagged and plasz-wrapped spoon and examining the bits of flesh and blood still clinging to it. “Wonder what she caught with it.”

“Well, the hulk here idn’t like to tell us, seeing his soul hopped on,” Demus notes. “Hain’t got a meme-loop implanted in’im, so we cain’t play back his final minutes neither. Hired a ghouler to scrape his cortex a bit but nothin’ coherent from it ‘scept a vague sensation of a name at the end. Could be a place or could be a person. Could be the femme told ‘im a name or could be heh told her. Too muddled to know f’sure.”

“On the sunnyside, at least the note that was stickin’ out’a his business sure tell us who she hoped to be gettin’ the corpse instead’a us,” Demus continued. “Near’s we can tell, she shoved it in post-mortem. Guess she has a merciful streak in’er.”

That note, previously wrapped around a thin stylus, had long since been removed from the corpse’s orifice and encased in plasz like the spoon. Ather didn’t need to look at it again; the note was short and committed to memory: Stavin, I’ll be pushing a great deal deeper when I catch up with you. And I’ll be filling all of your holes. Might make a few new ones, too.

“Word to the wise, Demus,” Ather commented absently. “If you run across Maree Deschaine, I would strongly suggest a double-think before doing anything that might cause her to bear any lasting animosity.”

***

From a very safe distance, with an ocular to her eyes, Maree observed the milling local constables and handful of templars that had followed in Ather’s wake.

mareeHe was here only because she wanted him to be. She fondled the small disc in her pocket. The shielded container that held her actual IDentipod rather than one she had pilfered from a corpse and put into her wrist days before. The container that she had flipped open for just a moment as she passed an active security pylon elsewhere in the city. So that for just a moment, Maree Deschaine registered as being here—then gone again.

The kind of thing that might happen from time to time if one was carrying a device to block out the signals from one’s IDentipod, and it had a little hiccup in its system routines.

Soon, Ather would be having his pets scouring the records for anyone in town who was carrying a passport because they would be assuming that Maree was masquerading as someone from outside the Union, and still had her own IDentipod, and that her defenses had slipped for a moment at just the wrong time and wrong place.

They wouldn’t be assuming that she had someone else’s ‘pod, so they wouldn’t be trying to cross-reference the ‘pods of women who had been both here and in Houston recently. As Debrah-Ayn Baylor’s IDentipod had been, Maree thought as she absently rubbed the small scar where she had opened her wrist.

But doing a flay-dance with Ather’s mind wasn’t the point. She wanted him to get together with local law enforcement and see that little note, hence her two anonymous calls earlier today about a ruckus in the cargo center. So that he would know whom she was hunting.

After all, finding Stavin would be very difficult indeed, and Ogre had been helpful, but not precise. Getting Ather to help as he tried to track her down through her own quarry—and following behind him for a while—could make the task so much easier.

A shame that Stavin would never see the note though. I do so want the wyvern-fucker to be squirming before I find him.

(To read the next installment of this story, click here.)

28
Mar
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 46

For the previous installment of this story, click here

Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 7, Out of the Ashes (continued)

marsMuch 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.”

tana-templar“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.)




Deacon Blue is the blogging persona of editor and writer Jeffrey Bouley. The opinions of Jeff himself on this blog, and those expressed as Deacon Blue, in NO WAY should be construed as the opinions of anyone with whom he has worked, currently works, or will work with in the future. They are personal opinions and views, and are sometimes, frankly, expressed in more outrageous terms than I truly feel most days.

Jeff Bouley

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Jeff Bouley

To find out more about me professionally, click here. To find out more about me generally, click here.

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You can reach Deacon Blue/Jeff Bouley at deaconbluemail@gmail.com.

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