Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi



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.)

18
Mar
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 45

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)

greenglow-hallDaniel virtually glided into the Burning Ares casino; he slid through the front doors and through the crowd fluidly like a fish that’s been caught and mercifully released. He was already breathing easier. He could forget that he was fuck knows how many kilometers under the surface of Mars breathing air recriculated through hydroponic ventilation tubes. He could pretend his old life was still waiting for him when he left.

Casinos. The only place other than a courtroom that I ever felt truly was home for my soul, he thought. As good as I am at programming work, as much as I love visiting a well-run brothel or taproom, nothing beats a head-to-head competition. Whether with another lawyer or with Lady Chance herself.

Once he was away from the lobby, minishops, boutiques and minor taprooms and onto the gaming floor itself, his mind was as sharp as it had been before uncovering the Godhead’s dirty little secret.

The outer rings of the gaming floor held the less popular games. People gambling on professional sports events like flipdisk, kickrunner and tennis. Lottery games. People playing high-stakes deceiver or overthrow. Even one table, he saw, for scatter chess, and people betting on the outcome of an ongoing game there.

But as he drew toward the center, and to the games with more energy, people and action, Daniel was smiling. Flashjack tables, callibra wheels, a dozen variations of hedron and more.

He happily scythed through several hundred debits worth of losses in the first ten minutes, then settled into a more comfortable up-and-down, back-and-forth set of wins and losses. It was the interplay of risk and reward, gain and loss, that drove him. He could leave here with more or less than he came with and it would make him just as happy either way.

Well, I guess that’s the key difference between a legal arena and a casino for me. I hate losing when there’s a justicar, magistrate or judge behind a bench.

After a couple hours at the Burning Ares, Daniel was ready for a change of scenery, and he had been told the Seven Veils was a definite step up in all ways. But that meant an 80 kilometer maglev ride, the kind of event that should be preceded by a trip to the refresher before he grabbed his nightcloak from the checkroom and hopped on the next train.

In hindsight, he would berate himself repeatedly for not having noticed sooner a man with all the trappings of  a Trav—piercings, tattoos, ribbons, wirebraidings, scalpsticks—but wearing grounders on his feet. Too much alcohol dulling his brain.

In fact, the thought did strike him as he entered the refresher, as he remembered his lessons from Manguang: Martians don’t favor grounders on their feet. And Travailers favor physical challenges, not assistive devices. By then, though, it was too late. Someone was through the door and on him—slamming into him, in fact—and he felt something pierce his underarm. And then his consciousness began to fade.

But he stayed just alert enough, and just long enough, to feel something else slam into him before oblivion took him.

***

No longer did Paulo sup-Juris have a reason to be at his aunt’s house in the outer city, with her away overseas and Gina now dead and Grace in the core city in a hospital berth.

paulo1How ironic that for once, Lyseena would probably like me as far away from the inner city as possible, he reflected, and I’m mere blocks away from the Templar’s Tower.

Instead, he sat by the bed of his daughter. Not that he could admit publicly that she was just that, but with Gina dead, his legal status as Grace’s demi-uncle gave him the right to be here. His templar rank didn’t hurt, either.

He held the little girl’s hand. Her eyes were dancing behind her eyelids, but this was nothing like any REM sleep patterns he had ever seen. It was like some flay-dance those eyes were engaged in. Even with her sedated, he could tell that something frantic was occurring in her mind. But he held her hand, because the physicians had told him that her brain patterns calmed significantly when he did so. In a way that no one else’s touch had so far.

If I could be here every minute, Grace. If I would. But if I did that, I’d be in a cell and no use to you. I’d be a pitiful enough demi-uncle under these circumstances. I’m all the more detestable for the fact I’m your father.

In the morning, he would have to return to Templar’s Tower. For now though, he would hold his girl until he passed out from exhaustion, and he prayed he wouldn’t let his grip falter even in sleep.

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

08
Mar
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 44

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)

baldman-with-dieSauntering over to the rack in the hostel-like quarters he was occupying temporarily, Daniel Coxe reached out toward a cloak and caught the eye of his babysitter, Manguang—though he was sure the man would prefer Daniel think of him as a liaison to the Peteris and Paulis. The taller man smiled slightly and nodded.

“Yes, Daniel, that is a nightcloak. You are planning to go out this evening?”

“I’m not confined to quarters, am I?”

“Not at all, but I thought you might avoid the public eye on the day the Vatican declared open warfare on the UFC, being a refugee.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “First, I’m not UFC. Second, there is no reason the Vatican would be looking very hard for me on Mars nor any reason for the few Vatican lackeys who work here to have a clue who I am; I doubt very many people are assigned to find me anywhere on Earth, frankly. Third, I’m hardly a security risk for the Vatican. Security in the Godhead’s complex would have been updated the moment I went missing. Sure, I have an explosive secret, but it’s a secret that the popes don’t even know exists, so they have no reason to fear me.”

“Still…”

“I’m not finished,” Daniel said, waggling a finger. “Fourth, I’m a flipping gambler. I have to live life a little dangerously. By the way, Manguang, are you going to explain to me why the nightcloaks are just a little thicker and way heavier than the daycloaks, since the temperature out in the passages retains the same brisk late autumn bite all day long? Or are you having too much fun running the outworlder through the ignorance obstacle course?”

“Guilty as charged, Daniel. One finds amusement where one can, and Earthers are such fun sport, particularly when we find someone who so clearly hasn’t perused a single Martian guidepack.”

“I didn’t know I was coming to Mars until I started heading here,” Daniel growled. “So? Nightcloaks. Why so heavy?”

“You haven’t been out in the common areas during nightcycle, yet, so you haven’t had the pleasure. Unless it’s a tourist-heavy zone, a-grav systems are turned down for power conservation. Instead of 89% Earth gravity, you have 65% E-grav. A 24 percentage point shift downward is a bit much for even a native. Tourists don’t usually bother with the cloaks. It’s a Martian thing. Tourists will just wear Earth-style coats and put a pair of grounders on their feet if they want to see the real Mars at night.”

“So it’s not a cultural faux pas like you said to wear a daycloak at night or the other way around?”

“Oh, it is. If you’re native or live here long enough, you can spot a daycloak vs. a nightcloak on sight. Subtle differences. If a person is wearing the wrong kind, it’s either an offworlder or a braggart, depending.”

“Braggart?”

“A Martian who wears a daycloak at night is saying ‘I don’t need the help; I’m better than all of you.’ Young dips do it sometimes. Travs sometimes, too, but usually only for the purposes of one of those insane physical challenges they love.”

“What about wearing a nightcloak during the day if you’re Martian?”

Manguang chuckled. “Would you want to announce to the world that you’re too incompetent to walk properly in almost 90% Earth grav without being weighted down? Enjoy your night out, Daniel. Do be careful at the casinos, which I’m sure are your destination. You aren’t as rich as you once were.”

“The Vatican only shot down the account I had in the Union. I can afford to lose a bit still. And shite, I could even win.”

***

Charlyes was amazed at how quickly even Hauruld Taguire had located the man he was looking for. Now all that stood between him and his quarry was a locked door. But some skills, Charlyes believed, should never be left to rot, so that wasn’t truly a problem at all.

charlyesHowever, he was far too old to be doing any of the rough stuff, which is why after calling on Hauruld earlier he had cashed in yet another favor to borrow some muscle from a smuggler acquaintance for the next few weeks. Just one man, but a very tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, agile and powerful one—someone he might have tried to seduce during in his more impetuous youth.

It was that man who entered the room first and, after a struggle so brief it could hardly be called one, there was silence. Charlyes strode into the room, put his finger to his lips and said, “I am going to close this door now, Tobin. Be a good lad and don’t make any noises that will require the permanent dislocation or removal of your cervical spine. Raul, did Mr. Deschaine give you any trouble?”

“Nosir,” the big man responded. “I expect you could’ve taken ‘im down yourself.”

“No need to emasculate the man, Raul. Even though hand-to-hand was never his strong-suit, even when he was keeping himself in shape, he can take a fossil like me. I do imagine he’s still very good with the guns. Maree excelled at both, thank heavens.”

“If he’s so good with guns, he should’ve kept one under the pillow ‘case someone like me came callin’ I think.”

“Raul, a man who truly appreciates the deadly nature of a gun and loves life will not go sleeping with one right next to his skull every night.”

“Charlyes,” Tobin said, more to end the banter between his intruders than anything else. “How the hell did you find me?”

“I was a contract investigator when your father was still in diapers, Tobin. I was a bond hunter when he was entering secondary education. I think that more to the point, you should be concerned as to why I found you.”

“So answer your own question already.”

“Tobin, I wanted to see how you were feeling about…things…since January first.”

“Replay that, please,” Tobin said.

“I was wondering if, after the events in Nova York, you are feeling the requisite level of concern for Secular Genesis—which took you to its bosom so long ago and nurtured you—now that it stands on the precipice and faces down the Vatican.”

“That depends, Charlyes. For whose benefit are you seeking an answer to that?”

“I ask questions, Tobin. I don’t give clues. You want clues, get invited to a quiz-vid show.”

“I’m very concerned that the people currently in charge of Secular Genesis aren’t already rounded up or dead so someone saner can take charge of the movement,” Tobin said, measuring his words carefully and speaking slowly, almost as if they tasted odd on his tongue. “Maree was right, damn her, and I hope she kills the lot of you.”

“Well, you won’t want me on that purge list,” Charlyes said with a wink. “And the only answer out of your mouth that I’d have liked better would have been one in which you expressed a bit more concern for Maree’s safety than for her ability to get herself into more trouble. Get dressed and pack light. I’m going to see if I can turn you into a goddamned father again, or something resembling one.”

***

It had been bitterly disappointing not to find Stavin here, Maree had to admit to herself, but the man she no longer considered her father hadn’t promised her he would be. It was merely another step on the path.

stoneskin-deepAnd if there was any consolation—and it was an awfully nice consolation prize—the man she did surprise in the cargo distribution bay was one of the two thugs who had restrained her while Stavin had gone to work on her with the spoon and the stunrod. Never having gotten their names from them or from Stavin, she simply had thought of them as Ogre and Troll since that night. This was Ogre, with his pug nose and dark little eyes set under a thick, fuzzy unibrow.

He had let out a high-pitched, girly yelp when Maree “emerged” from the side of the cargo crate, a vision of banded-steel in the shape of a woman until the wraithskein gave up the camouflage and shifted to an opaque gray. Minutes later Ogre was bound tightly with carbonwire and gagged with an oily rag and trying very hard to look defiant, even though Maree figured it was 50-50 that he would let loose his bowels in a heartbeat if she said “boo.”

Although she still felt very cross toward him for being part of her recent assault, she started by asking him nicely how she could find Stavin without having to muck around with official channels or potentially deadly snares.

When the polite approach failed, she returned the gag to his mouth and decided to pay homage to her treatment at Stavin’s hand, and went to the break room in the bay to find a spoon. They were fresh out of large slotted mixing spoons like the one she had owned before her cottage burned down, and the largest they had was a modest soup spoon, but there was no reason to be quite so literal. After all, she was already going to break with the culinary tradition Stavin had created by picking different anatomical paths than he had.

She began by shoving the handle of the spoon into Ogre’s left ear until she ruptured his eardrum, and then she shoved a bit farther and twisted a few times. She explained to him in calm, measured tones that as much as she shared Stavin’s love of symmetry (as when he hammered both her shoulders with the stunrod), she would absolutely not be ruining his other ear, because she wanted to make sure he could still hear her questions—and his own muffled screams about anything else she might do to him. He didn’t void his bowels at that, but his bladder did experience a momentary failure.

Still, though, he showed reluctance to answer Maree’s questions honestly when she removed the gag, so she pushed the rag back into his mouth and used the large end of the spoon to demonstrate just how far she could shove it into his wounded ear. The damage to bone and cartilage did finally loosen his bowels a bit but it also caused him to pass out. She broke a stimpod under his nose and when he awoke with a shudder, she shoved the capsule up one of his nostrils to make sure he stayed awake.

When Maree promised to stop abusing his head so badly if he would only be more forthcoming, his tongue loosened, but not as much as his bladder and bowels had before. So, she offered to let him watch her shove the wide end of the spoon all the way up the smallest hole and narrowest passage available to her on his body. She wriggled her fingers above his pantzip to punctuate her point.

After that threat, Ogre proved to be very accommodating, and Maree heard real honesty in his words. Men are such babies when you get around to that part of their anatomy, she mused.

He even sounded sincere when he apologized for burning the two little girls along with her three adult cousins—a wholly unsolicited piece of information that apparently whatever was left of his conscience felt inspired to reveal as a bonus.

This got the five charred corpses in her head to stand up and take notice; a shame, really, since she had finally gotten them to sit the shit down and not draw her attention to them. But now she felt their eyes looking through her and into him. Really, though, they were looking at her too, and they were quite clear about what they wanted. What Maree wanted, really. It was justice, after all, that she was after. She knew the corpses in her head were just convenient mental constructs—her conscience gone wild. She had gone around some kind of bend since learning that Stavin had carried out his threats against her family, of that she was certain—but she was confident she hadn’t descended into outright madness.

Maree almost felt sorry for Ogre; she hadn’t even considered that he might have been one of the arsonist-murderers that had carried out Stavin’s orders. Prior to that revelation, she had simply been planning on slaying him quickly, but no longer. For a moment, she was tempted to carry out her threat about the spoon before she killed him, but that seemed too cruel given that he had actually told her what she wanted to know. Instead, she simply made a very leisurely process out of the slitting of his throat.

Ogre made the most appalling noises, even through the rag in his mouth.

If only you knew what I just decided to spare you, because you would have made even worse noises then.

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

05
Mar
09

Cleansed by Fire, Part 43

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)

bartelleIt was Captain Bartelle D’Onofrio’s next-to-last day as the commander of Scion’s Dream, and the day of his final dramatic scene in this portion of the Nazarene’s machinations. In a few days, he would be Bartelle xec-Administrum, governor of Pacifica, and almost certainly he’d discover new intrigues foisted on him by way of repaying the debt to his benefactor, for better or worse.

Ideally, though, the next one won’t involve the surprise that a hellpod is involved.

If Bartelle was the protagonist in this scene, and he certainly felt that way, his opposite number was the poor, confused and ultimately sacrificial new crewman named Dimitri Martin, now standing before him adorned in wristlocks and anklelocks and flanked by two security officers. Fear surrounded him. And he clearly had no idea what was going on. 

The Catholic Union needs villains, and that’s what I’m going to provide. Now that I realize the subterfuge to implicate Mars and the UFC in something serious included the deaths of tens of thousands in one fiery stroke, I’m infinitely less inspired than ever to stick my neck out for the noose.

The captain almost felt sorry for Crewman Martin, but there was also the matter of the “missing” Drewtine Atkins, and someone other Bartelle needed to be tied to the ship’s councilor, currently cycling through the organics processors in the bowels of Scion’s Dream, since said councilor was also going to be turned into a scapegoat.

“Dimitri Martin, you have been arrested for conspiracy to aid in the hellpod attack against Nova York, in concert with your presumed co-conspirator Drewtine Atkins,” Bartelle intoned. “You are charged with complicity in the illegal use of a weapon of devastation, for gross disloyalty to the Vatican Orbital Navy, for treason against the Catholic Union, for the transmittal of contraband materials and messages on behalf of the UFC, and other crimes too numerous to mention. Which is amazing considering how short a time you’ve been on this crew. Your friends on Mars are proud of you, I’m certain.”

When Martin opened his mouth to respond, Bartelle waved him off dissmisively. “Utter one word and you’ll be gagged as well. I would say ‘May God have mercy on your soul’ but I’d be pleased enough if He simply sent you to Hell now. Officers, package him up and deliver him to the Black Orders.”

As they left, Bartelle realized that in his entire military career as an officer before, he’d never before been responsible for so many deaths as he had in the past week, both directly and indirectly. It was a shame, of course, that the security officers and shuttle crew would be added to the list, but allowing an innocent man to be interrogated by the inquisitors was too much of a risk.

We’ll never know, of course, how Martin got the explosives on board the shuttle or whether there are still other operatives to be found onboard Scion’s Dream who did so, Bartelle mused. A pity really, to leave that investigation unfinished as I change careers.

***

Although she had expected Paulis Amaranth Dyson to come calling, Domina was surprised that she entered the apartment alone.

domina-fancy1“You make your husband keep at least one of his guard dogs close by at all times, but you abstain? My, but we’re foolhardy,” she taunted the Paulis.

“I have nothing to fear from the likes of you.”

“Pope Tommis recruited me when I was 16, Paulis Dyson. Hand-picked my tutors and trainers. I can do more with my body than fornicate.”

Amaranth looked bored. “I’m sure you were quite deadly in your 20s and early 30s, Domina xec-Academie. I’m sure you still do your exercises. But you haven’t been in the field for the Red Orders for at least six years. You have, however, been very good at sending people after me whenever I leave Mars, which makes me very justifiably confident that my skills are more than adequately honed to kill you with my bare hands.”

“And here I thought your hands were only good for punching up orders to launch hellpods at Earth.”

“I know you’re not stupid enough to believe Gregory is capable or that, nor capable of letting me do so and get away with it,” Amaranth responded, to which Domina merely smiled and inclined her head slightly.

“You are here, then, to replace Gregory in my daily interrogations? Fearful that he may be growing…attached to me?”

“Steward Domina, I wouldn’t dream of upsetting the rapport that you and the Peteris are developing,” Amaranth answered. “Nor do I wish to expose you to unnecessary risk that I might be moved to harm you for any number of assaults that you have orchestrated over the years to make my husband a widower.”

amaranth“Doesn’t it bother you, Paulis, that Gregory isn’t more dedicated to making my daily life uncomfortable by way of avenging you for all those attempts?”

“Oh, it’s very easy for the Peteris to forgive you those attempts.”

“Really? Because of his gracious Christian spirit or because of his burning libido I stoke so well?”

“Because you’ve been so woefully incompetent in your attempts to harm me for so very, very long,” Amaranth responded sweetly. “This will be, if all goes well, the last time I deal with you directly. I’ve only come to make sure you understand that I’m a bit more Old Testament than my husband.”

Domina merely cocked an eyebrow.

“Eye for an eye, Domina. Tooth for a tooth. If any part of your body touches his, I will come back here to damage it beyond recognition.”

***

Under normal circumstances, Gregory didn’t bother to activate any of the transmit panels in his office unless he wanted to do a vid-comm with someone, watch a media program or have his walls display replicas of famous paintings to fit one of his moods. He preferred his walls to simply be walls; he certainly didn’t want the illusion of windows while he worked.

future-in-vestmentsBut today, all five transmit panels were on external mode, showing images of the Martian surface, as if the office were on the one of the lower levels of Candlestand 33 on the surface above, and as if a dust storm was raging “outside.” He knew how much Ambassador Samuel Landers hated his posting here on Mars and how much the man was going to enjoy today’s encounter.

So you need to be reminded of where you are. My home, ambassador, not yours. My arena.

Samuel entered the office wearing a formal diplomatic gown, flanked by two UFC guards. In one hand, the ambassador held a square of wispsilk that bore the ichthys and cruciform symbol of the UFC church, silver on white. In the other hand, a stub-bladed knife that would make a feces-poor weapon against anyone bigger than a child.

But the knife isn’t meant to wound the body, Gregory reminded himself.

“Peteris Gregory Dyson of the Universal Faith Catholic,” Samuel bellowed, letting a sour note enter his voice on the word Catholic. “The Vatican and the Catholic Union do hereby declare a state of open war between the UFC and themselves, effective immediately. Said state to persist unless and until you and Paulis Amaranth Dyson have complied with all of the articles of surrender that were delivered to you this morning.”

With that, he thrust the blade through the center of the wispsilk and slit the flag.

“It is done,” he finished. “Woe to you and to all of your allies.”

Gregory bowed. “So be it. Our articles of accord and statements of defense are likewise entered with you. We declare no war against you but we will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

Samuel bowed as well, but now that the formalities were concluded, he let the civilities drop as well. “You declared war when you helped burn Nova York with a hellpod.”

“We have done no such thing, nor were we complicit in any such act,” Gregory said. “And if you truly believe we would find any value in doing so, you are either delusional or idiotic. You are to remove your offices, and all your personnel, to a candlestand that houses no UFC offices, before the next dayrise.”

“You will regret your actions against the Union, Peteris Dyson.”

“I have taken no actions that invite regret or reprisal, ambassador. But tell me, since we were already in a state of war with the Vatican, and have been for quite some decades now, exactly what is going to be different than before? Will the popes declare me and my wife damned to a deeper level of Hell now?”

“This is a declaration of war in extremis. What mercy has been accorded is now gone, Peteris. We will take, or kill, your people wherever we find them. Inside the Union, or outside it. The Vatican security details for the embassy offices and for the flightports will be taking long walks during their mealbreaks for some time to come.”

With that cryptic statement, the ambassador turned on his heel, dropping both blade and torn flag on the floor, and left the office.

It was five minutes later when Gregory received news of a priest and a novice suddenly missing from a flightport chapel. By the time UFC security details had been dispatched to defend every likely next victim, there were two other UFC personnel gone from public chapels and one who had been the victim of an apparently brutal, and lethal, mugging while taking a stroll.

After that, Gregory devoted three of the transmit panels in his office to displaying the papal towers, so that he wouldn’t forget who the real enemies were.

(To read the next installment in this story, 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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To find out more about me professionally, click here. To find out more about me generally, click here.

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