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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. She 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 gambler 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 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.
“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 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.)