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Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 5, Blood and Tears (continued)
His latest meeting with Domina xec-Academie had gone, by Gregory’s estimation, about as well as any that had come before—which wasn’t the most ringing endorsement he could provide.
Once again, he left with plenty of images and uselessness to fill his head but little to fill in the gaps of his knowledge. He had set aside two hours for the former chief steward of the late Red Pope and wanted just about every minute of that part of his life back, with the possible exception of the mental image of her greeting him in a transluscent, skin-hugging, full-body confection made of slickskein that did more to draw attention to her body than actual nudity could have ever accomplished.
She had put on a scarlet daycloak fairly promptly and apologized with an obvious lack of sincerity and pure salaciousness in her tone that the outfit was a necessary part of her new excercise regimen, helping to balance the proper levels of perspiration and heat retention.
Most of the next two hours consisted of a well-orchestrated ballet of lies, evasiveness and coquetries of her part, coupled with sarcasm, accusations and diplomatic inducements on his.
Toward the end of their meeting, Domina presented him with a small gift-tube and mentioned it was something special for Amaranth. Miko Tanabi, who had taken to standing just inside the room while the Peteris’ other guardsman, Gregor Alenko, remained outside—a change in procedure orchestrated by the Paulis herself—cleared her throat and Domina handed it to her instead. She did so with a look that on casual glance appeared to be chagrin but was something that Gregory recognized as something almost shyly predatory.
After that came a flurry of quick meetings in which Gregory was alternately harrassed, praised and ridiculed by various members of the Ecclesiastia; then a short Sacrumass to conduct in the Grand Chapel, with his sermon sounding eminently more confident than he was feeling at the moment; and finally to the central UFC security station where Gregor retrieved Domina’s “gift” for Amaranth.
After a few minutes, Gregor reappeared and handed the gift-tube over to Gregory with news that there was nothing in the parcel that was setting off any sensors or alarms with the sniffer apps. Still, he was shaking his head as he handed it over, as if he were handing his Peteris a message about the death of a close friend.
“This cannot be good,” Gregor said with what sounded like bemused solemnity. “It is sealed for the Paulis but I could have…”
“No, don’t tempt me,” Gregory said. “If it isn’t dangerous and I break the seals, Amaranth will kill me. It’s keyed for her, it’s declared safe; she’ll open it. She’d break it open in a heartbeat if our roles were reversed of course.”
“Marriage creates the uneven game field for men,” the bodyguard responded. “This is why there will not be a Madame Alenko.”
Miko sniffed indignantly but said nothing in response to her Peteris or her fellow guardsman.
Later than night, Amaranth would walk into Gregory’s privy chamber in a slumbergown, just before bedtime, and toss the gift-tube into his lap.
“The gift is really for you, Greg,” she said, “and where it landed was quite appropriate.”
The Peteris of the UFC picked up the tube from his lap, opened it, and poured the contents out into his palm. One pair of very expensive, unnecessarily skimpy and vanishly sheer briefpants. Although they appeared to be new, the aroma now drifting into his nostrils suggested that something very energetic had happened inside them earlier in the day.
“I think I’ll be having that little chat about who owns your nethers a bit sooner than expected with our guest,” Amaranth said dryly.
“She certainly has a gift for subtlety, doesn’t she?” Gregory offered blandly. “Where do you suppose she finds the energy and stamina? I’m surprised those wanderlusts of hers haven’t suffered system crashes yet.”
“At least it’s an improvement from when she couriered me the plasz-wrapped thumb of one of my spies in Davidia,” she responded. “I think. So, are you going to throw that away now? Or make love to it?”
“Must I give it up?” Gregory said innocently. “It’s so rude for us to refuse a gift that so much…effort…went into.”
Amaranth snorted in a decidedly unfeminine manner. “Greg, toss it out, disinfect your hand and come to bed soon. I won’t be doing anything that will soil your briefpants but you will want to talk with me before I fall asleep. Particularly since I did a little something passive-aggressive today, my love, in response to this whole Domina fiasco.
“I gave asylum to my very own highly placed Vatican lackey. I’ll tell you a little about it tonight, and round out your knowledge in the morning. Just like you did with me and the Domina situation.”
With that, Gregory gave up hope of tomorrow being a better day.
After several hours alternately walking, crawling and slithering through various degrees of destruction beneath Jerusalem, Bechan Adym had long since lost his burning sense of purpose and replaced it with an overwhelming sense of anxiety and fear.
He had only a small survival pack that he pushed ahead of him, and the ultradense slickskein outfit that hugged his body, and neither of them was comforting him much. The skin-thin slickskein was a special polymer weave that was packed so tight on a molecular basis that it weighed as much as light field armor, while maintaining total flexibility. Its smoothness allowed him to glide through some of the tightest paths, but the weight and lack of breathability was also making him sweat miserably inside the damned thing, even though most of his body heat was being converted to energy for the small browbeam lighting his way. As a result, he was constantly sipping his own perspiration through a catchtube and liking it less with each passing minute.
The density of the slickskein ensured that he almost certainly would not be cut but it wouldn’t do a thing to protect him if a tunnel collapsed on top of him—a prospect that he was both dreading and desiring at this point. Soon, the way would become easier, or so he had been led to understand; he suspected that would mean something like getting disembowled first, then finding out later how much more pleasant it is in comparison to have a foot chopped off.
He closed his eyes and considered just turning back. Then he reminded himself, again, how much his ancestors had endured over thousands of years, and he pressed on. Fear was his regular companion now; he intended to make it his propellent instead of his braking thrusters.
In the small syna called Temple Ezrath, Rabbi Brifel Mann keyed up an interface with the AI that controlled the imagery on the Western Wall and also served as the main AI both for the local Jerusalem Civil Governing Authority and for Jewish priests and religious scholars across Israel.
“Good evening, Rabbi Mann,” the AI said in a voice that sounded like a young man forced to grow up too fast. “How are you?”
“Well, Kotel, very well,” the rabbi answered. “I saw some new imagery on the wall today, depicting the Holocaust with Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. It was very striking, all the more so for the fact it was mostly black and white.”
“It is fascinating, you know. I had discovered some archival material recently—an adult illustrated novel from the Second Millennium titled Maus. It was quite inspirational. The author…”
“Kotel, sometimes, a simply thank-you suffices,” Brifel said, reminding himself once again that the AI had only been the successor of the previous Kotel for five years now. The AI was smarter than most adults, but it was still a long way from fully finding its personality. “I actually wanted to talk about Bechan Adym.”
“How is he?”
“Seven hours underneath the city. You be the judge.”
“If he can survive and if he’s using stims, I should think he can reach the Jordan River, or the Dead Sea, in another four hours, if his path was well chosen,” Kotel noted. “Or, upwards of 13 hours if he chose poorly or made any wrong turns.”
“Hmmmm. Well, then, I think that in that case, you should wait another seven hours, then contact the Vatican authorities and tell them there has been a breach of the tunnels and that a pack of scuttlers should probably be sent out to investigate.”
The admin suite was overly crowded this evening, with three field marshals reporting to her in lieu of Maree, along with Kevan, Paulo and Ather. Willem rounded out the lot, quiet as ever off to the side as everyone else gathered in a circle in their slipchairs.
“We still have the Fourth Millennial Event tomorrow, and we all need rest, so I won’t keep you long,” Lyseena xec-Juris said. “We’ve all seen the reports for today and the long string of attacks, all but one of which Secular Genesis took credit for. Does anything strike any of you?”
“They were very audacious,” said one of the field marshals.
Lyseena narrowed her eyes and stared at the woman for a full ten seconds. “I’d relieve of your duties for an inane insight like that if it weren’t for the fact your field report shows you have a functioning brain.”
“Well, we’ve already established a pattern of the attacks escalating over time,” Paulo noted. “The effort was highly coordinated and clearly had purpose beyond mere harrassment of the Catholic Union.”
“Purpose, yes. But what?” Lyseena asked, with the air of someone who already had an answer.
“Fear, one would suppose,” Kevan added. “Though they seem to have only stirred up more interest in people about tomorrow. I swear with the media reports and citizen queries on the Grid more people want to come to the city core now, hoping to be just close enough to see templars and terrorist spar without getting killed in the process. I’m sure Ather must have some colorful commentary to share.”
“Ather has been busy,” responded Ather sup-Juris. “Lyseena has had me chasing Maree most of the day, and a fine chase it was. I love hunting. So, I haven’t been thinking of your problems, Kevan. Besides, I already know what Lyseena is leading up to because she talked to me about it earlier, and if I spoil her ending she’ll shoot me on the spot.”
“Too true,” she said, noting that two of the field marshals blanched at the thought. Probably best to let them think I would do that, for now at least. “Brothers, sisters. This entire godforsaken day has been leading up to something. Working us up and wearing us out and announcing to us that more was yet to come. And it did.”
Lyseena paused, took a breath.
“But didn’t it all seem rather…anticlimactic?” she continued. “We’ve had an entire day of rough foreplay and no one has fornicated with us.”
“I’d say we got pretty well fucked,” blurted one field marshal, whom Lyseena knew had been all too close to a pair of back-to-back assaults in recent hours.
“Did we now?” Lyseena asked. “No,we haven’t been yet. All this build-up, and no conclusion. That’s my assessment.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you, Lyseena,” said Paulo, “but does that mean they had a piss-up with their finale, or…”
“…it means, Paulo, that they haven’t presented it yet,” Lyseena answered. “We’ve had an entire day of chaos to manage thanks to the Red Pope’s untimely demise. A day we weren’t expecting to have to deal with, when we have an even bigger event and more chaos to deal with tomorrow. We were already stretched thin, and we figured they would strike us today when we were least prepared to deal with it.
“Instead, we’re tired, and now we know they aren’t finished yet, and we still have to face that tomorrow. No, fellow templars, this isn’t over. We’ve been played on a line like fish. Secular Genesis plans to strike us with their real attack, or attacks, tomorrow. They always did. And whatever they are planning, I think it’s going to be about as ugly as it gets.”
(This concludes Chapter 5. To view the next installment, which begins Chapter 6, click here.)