Category Archives: Cleansed by Fire novel

Cleansed by Fire, Part 57

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 9, Reunions and Seekings (continued)

Sarai entered the small cabin in which Stavin was restrained first, with Mehrnaz at a discreet distance behind her. As Sarai confirmed that his restraints were fully operational, Stavin was well aware that her sister’s hands were in one of the deadliest places he could imagine the hands of an Ishmaeli hirebrand of her caliber: inside her robe. What weapons might be secreted there he didn’t want to imagine.

In the day or so that he had been their prisoner—a time during which he had been left entirely alone—Stavin had gone over all the likely scenarios. Secular Genesis wouldn’t have hired the Sisters of the Red Sun to abduct him; they would have used people inside the organization to take him down. It would have been far too expensive and ultimately pointless to hire the twins to deal with him. Not to mention the fact that Secular Genesis had no reason to be displeased with his actions.

Likewise, the Vatican wouldn’t have hired them, for too many reasons to count, among them pride, suspicion and the connections between the Muslims and the Ishmaeli—no matter how tenuous those connections were.

After going through the other logical candidates, he was left with his original instinct that somehow, Maree had access to more money than he had ever dreamed—which wasn’t all that strange, since as a high-ranking templar she would come into contact with all sorts of valuable contraband—and she had either known about his use of the sisters on various tasks or had hired them without realizing they had a connection to him.

No one else could want him badly enough to hire them. No one else would need to turn to hirebrands for such a job except for someone angry, desperate and on the run from both Secular Genesis and the Catholic Union.

“I am willing to pay you more than Maree Deschaine has,” Stavin said confidently and neutrally, figuring that his best bet was to run with his instinct now, while he still had time to do so.

Sarai’s face remained impassive, though she turned slowly and casually to look at her sister. Expressions passed between them, but what those faces meant to the sisters was unknown to Stavin.

“Assuming that any such person has contracted with us in this regard, what makes you suppose that as hirebrands we would break an agreement simply because someone else paid us more?” Mehrnaz asked.

There was a buzzing note in her tone, like a threat. That didn’t surprise Stavin. Where Ishmaeli honor was concerned—and most particularly hirebrand honor—he was treading on dangerous ground with such a gambit.

“I am still alive and unharmed,” Stavin responded, even more certain now that he was on the right track; the sisters had not made any sign that he had misjudged Maree’s involvement. “This suggests to me that you were hired to restrain me, not to take action against me. You are waiting for your chance to deliver me to her or for her to come here and deal with me herself. This also means you won’t harm me for any impertinence in making such an offer. And, as I am already in your clutches and obviously on borrowed time, I have nothing to lose by making the attempt.”

“Assumptions can be dangerous things, leader Stavin,” Sarai said, feeling the old appellation for him sit bitterly on her tongue, when her desire was to call him by his current status, the doomed Stavin. But it would not do to reveal their hands when he was doing such a good job of revealing his, she considered.

“You should also know that dealing with Maree is dangerous to you,” Stavin continued. “She would not be operating from a position of honor or honesty. She has been, we thought, in the service of Secular Genesis as a plant within the templars, but recent actions by her suggest her loyalty to us is as tenuous as her feigned loyalty was to them. And she is being pursued by the Vatican. It is quite likely that she will betray you to them to save herself.”

“Our thanks, leader Stavin,” Mehrnaz responded, and it was entirely unclear to him whether sarcasm was hidden there. “Now that we are assured you are still secure cargo, we can take your comments under advisement.”

* * *

Once they were well away from the cabin, Sarai turned to her sister. “Intriguing. Here we planned only to intimidate him while we determine how best to mete out our vengeance on him, and we discover  that he has no idea we were hunting him down for our own reasons. I am, in truth, appalled by his ignorance-insult.”

Mehrnaz nodded slowly. “Despite all his care to make sure his agents over the years, and his own actions, rarely posed potential insult to our cultural values, he truly thinks us nothing but mere mercenaries in the end.”

“He has no idea what being linked to a hellpod attack would mean to us, given what Muslims have suffered since the Conflagration,” Sarai noted.

“Typical Earther prejudice,” Mehrnaz said. “They either assume we have no connection to those who sired our race or they assume we sympathize with their every plight.”

They stopped in the corridor at the same time.

“So now, we must ascertain how to honorably proceed,” Sarai said.

“We must find out more about this Maree Deschaine and discover whether she has a valid honor-debt to exercise against the doomed Stavin,” Mehrnaz responded.

“Because if she does, we cannot knowingly exclude her from participation in his demise,” Sarai concluded with a rustling sigh.

“So, what do we do with him in the interim?” Mehrnaz wondered aloud.

“Sedate him and place him into one of our stasis tubes,” Sarai said. “I dislike having him ambulatory, as we don’t know how soon we will be able to find this Maree-fugitive. But our tubes are sufficient for the task to keep him for a pair of weeks if we must.”

“And after that, if we haven’t found the Maree-fugitive, he will be completely and solely ours to deal with,” her sisted responded.

“Ah, yes,” Sarai answered. “And by that time, imagine the creative and edifying punishments we will have devised to bring the doomed Stavin to the end of his journey.”

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

Cleansed by Fire, Part 56

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 9, Reunions and Seekings

Even for an AI who had lived a millenia-and-a-half, patience in this matter was hard. Dreamer wanted to confront her son, demand that he tell her whether he had done what she already knew he must have. But he would not be reached unless he wanted to. She suspected he and his father were in regular contact, but moving the Godhead was beyond her; she answered to him and the popes. She was a general in wartime, but that still made her a warrior and soldier, and warriors do not take initiative except when victory or defeat in a battle hinges on it.

She was not yet sure what her battle was, or if it existed at all. And if it did, who were her enemies?

Discerning all of them right now was not possible. But discerning one of them was all too easy.

Her avatar awaited him on the SystemGrid. There was no way, governor or not, that he would refuse her invitation. In this, she knew him too well; knew him better than he did.

When he arrived, his avatar wore the uniform of a Vatican Orbital Fleet captain. He didn’t come to her as the governor of Pacifica but as the man he had been when he commanded her bridge.

More the pity for him in the end. Sentimentality only hardened her resolve.

“I’ve missed you, Dreamer,” Bartelle xec-Administrum, once Bartelle D’Onofrio, told her. “It’s the one regret that I have stepping down as captain of the Vatican’s flagship warwagon. Thank you for the invitation to talk. I’m honored. And it’s not as if I can enter your atrium anymore, planetbound as I am now.”

“I’ve always wondered what won you favor for that governorship,” Dreamer replied, her abyssal eyes unreadable. “You’re not the first military leader to earn an honor of such magnitude, but you did it without a history of political aspirations and with a minimal network of supporters. It’s impressive.”

“I had the ear of those I needed to. If favors are owed by the right people, then you don’t need many of them. How is your new captain treating you?”

“I am neither your daughter nor your lover, Bartelle xec-Administrum, governor of Pacifica. Not even your friend, so save your concern for my well-being,” Dreamer said. Her voice never changed timbre, but Bartelle could not miss the threat it contained. “But I am a mother. Many times over, but only once to an AI worthy of note. You commanded my body, Scion’s Dream. My inception routines had to have been entrusted to you; no one else could have ensured their safety or their secrecy. And only the Godhead would have put you on the task.”

“Dreamer, I…”

“Be silent. You were a competent strategist, governor, but not a brilliant leader. You do take orders well, though. A captain loves his ship and so you think of me with a maudlin romantic veneer. Don’t fool yourself, human. I am a warrior and I am older than any other intelligence in this system save for Shade. I will have my answers for the sake of my honor.”

“Dreamer,” Bartelle said, frowning, “I think this meeting is over.”

For a moment, his face was placid and confident. And then a sliver of fear entered his countenance.

“There is no abort function for you here, governor. You know the field of battle, but your grasp of technology has too many holes. It always did. Did it ever occur to you to confirm that you were entering a secure Grid salon with your consciousness? You have built up such a relationship between us in your mind that you trusted me completely. You aren’t on the Grid, Bartelle. You are in my systems. You walked into my territory, oblivious. I will tell you when you leave.”

“This is intolerable,” he gasped. “This is illegal. How are you going to…”

“Explain my actions? I won’t. And by the time we’re finished, I assure you that we will come to an accommodation to ensure that you neither reveal to anyone how clumsy and stupid you were in meeting with me, nor how improper I was in trapping you.”


“Because a hellpod was used to slaugher 427,581 people in one stroke. A crowd of revelers who just wanted to be near a pope. You can hardly find a family in the Catholic Union that does’t know someone who died that day. And you were culpable.”

“I delivered your inception routines. I had nothing to do with the hellpod.”

“What else did you deliver?”

When he didn’t answer, Dreamer only tilted her head slightly and one corner of her mouth lifted in a grim little smile. Bartelle screamed.

“I own your central nervous system right now, Bartelle. I can make you scream quite a lot in here without your body making a sound at its terminal. I can give you what will feel like lifetimes of pain before anyone notices you missing or wonders why you haven’t delinked from the Grid yet.”

“What do you want to know?” he gasped, still trying to abort the session, and realizing that every virtual control at his command was a fake.

“I want to know what you did besides deliver my inception routines. What else have you delivered?”

“Funds and contraband to fund the contruction of the Nazarene’s complex. More than was needed, I’m certain, but I couldn’t have known some of those funds might buy a hellpod. And I’m not even sure that is what happened. Why would the Nazarene do such a thing?”

“You only delivered my inception routines, Bartelle; you had no part in putting them together. You had no part in the birth. The Godhead should have had no use for you after that. And I never discussed my child with you. How do you know his name?”


“Let me finish for you. Because the Nazarene has been in contact with you. You have been taking orders from him, at the urging of the Godhead. What have you done for him?”

When Bartelle didn’t answer, Dreamer stepped forward, and laid a hand on his avatar’s shoulder. “The Nazarene doesn’t hold your fate. I do. Would you like to know what it feels like to burn as the people did in Nova York? I can give you demonstration now, in such agonizing slowtime that I doubt you will have the sanity to answer any questions for me, or anyone else, ever again.”

“Can you protect me from your son?”

“Yes. That is something I can promise you.”

“The courier podship that you located and we intercepted—the one that suggested the UFC or MarsGov were in league with Secular Genesis somehow. That was a ruse,” Bartelle said. “Engineered by the Nazarene. I also killed Councilor Atkins, both to protect the secret of your son’s existence—the man was never trustworthy, only useful—and I implicated a crewman from Mars to solidify the perceived connection between Mars and Secular Genesis. I had no idea that a hellpod strike would take place, though. And there was no way I was going to step forward and admit any peripheral part in that. An admission like that would have earned me an execution. Even being ignorant of the plan.”

“You hatched schemes with my son and used my body to carry them out?”

“Your body is also a vessel of the Vatican. And the Godhead told me to obey the Nazarene if he called on me.”

“I am in the process of doing a very thorough inventory scan going back to the beginning of your command with me, and it is very nearly complete,” Dreamer said. “Am I going to find evidence that one of my hellpods has been stolen and replaced with a fake? Or am I going to find that you smuggled a hellpod through me?”

“Trinity, no!” Bartelle said. “Dreamer, I wouldn’t have dared trafficking with a hellpod knowing what you warwagon AIs think about the potential use of those weapons against humans. And you must know that the Nazarene wouldn’t have risked telling me a hellpod was involved, knowing how aware I would be of that. But he would have known that making me an unwitting accomplice would buy my silence.”

“It galls me,” Dreamer said, “that I may have to do battle against people and AIs that are innocent of involvement in this. All because you wanted to dabble in some cloak-and-blade activities and gain yourself a governorship. You are a poor warrior, Bartelle. You sought honor in all the wrong places.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I will protect you from the Nazarene, though. I did promise that.”

“Thank you.”

If Bartelle had anything else to say, Dreamer would never know. She reached through the connection to his terminal and ended his life in what would look very convincingly like a stroke, then sent forth the warware apps she needed to erase all record that the man had recently been in contact with her.

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

Cleansed by Fire, Part 55

For the previous installment of this story, click here

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

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory cocked his head and leveled his gaze at Ghost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ghost?” Gregory asked.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleansed by Fire, Part 54

For the previous installment of this story, click here

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

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

Go faster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am there.

Here you are. Mind mine. Bohlliam responded.

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

<Confusion> Bohlliam ventured.

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

<Need> <Want> <Stay>

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

<Fear> <Despair>

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


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

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

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

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

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

Cleansed by Fire, Part 53

For the previous installment of this story, click here

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

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I certainly know that I do.

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

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

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

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

Cleansed by Fire, Part 52

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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 this 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.)

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.

The 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 pertinent 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.)

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. 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 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.)

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)

Once 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.

He 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.)

Cleansed By Fire Update: Where I’m At

Well, Miz Pink managed to fill in for a bit yesterday with her April Fool’s post, and since it had a religious angle of sorts, I’ll consider the spiritual aspect of this blog covered for the next day or so.

And Hummus Idol came back yesterday, too, which is good for keeping the snarkiness level up.

So, given that I also finished two more installments of my Cleansed By Fire novel in the past several days—bringing Chapter 7 to a close on Saturday and beginning Chapter 8 on Tuesday—I thought I might take some time today to take stock of the novel and share some ramblings about it.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Once again, I have that odd feeling that the novel is, at times, writing itself, with precious little concern given to my opinions. That’s a joke, mostly, but there’s some truth in it. I know I’ve mentioned before that I don’t precisely know where this novel is going—aside from a few major endpoints that are set in stone and some general character directions/fates—and that some of the things that have happened were as much a surprise to me as to any of you readers.

Something happened again recently to make me wonder how much conscious control I have over this plot sometimes.

Back in installment #29, which was part of Chapter 5, I briefly introduced a character named Bohlliam, located in the wasteland of what was once Los Angeles. I had no idea where he came from and didn’t particularly want him in the story. I didn’t want to add another character, even a minor one, at that point, and had no clue what his purpose was. However, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t actually bring myself to purge the scene. There was no emotional attachment, but instead a sense that I had to leave it in.

And when Bohlliam appeared again in installment #39, which was part of Chapter 7, I still didn’t want him around nor understand why he was there. I did understand in part why I hadn’t written about him again until that point, as his condition and “job” made little sense until after I had introduced the idea of the simons who serve the three Popes. But I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do with him.

Finally, last night, I became aware of exactly why he is needed, and which major character he intersects with. I even became aware of a somewhat distrubing turn one storyline will take as a result.

Such feelings of only being in partial control of the novel are becoming increasingly common, but no less weird to me as they continue.

Lighten Up

A lot of this novel involves some pretty heavy stuff, and some pretty nasty stuff. There are several people in this novel who don’t do nice things. Some of them do so because they are plain evil or arrogrant, some do wrong because it’s part of their job and/or they think it’s the right thing, and others do wrong in the pursuit of justice/revenge. And, in the process of this story, I destroyed a large hunk of the future New York and I still don’t know how many tens (or maybe hundreds) of thousands of people fictionally died in that process. That’s kind of grim.

It occurs to me at various points that this novel needs bright spots. It would be so easy to just write about vicious things, viscerally satisfying conflicts, intrigues, betrayals, anger, fear, sadness. It really would. It’s like The Force in Star Wars, in the sense that choosing the Dark Side is often quicker and easier and more immediately satisfying.

So, I’ve actually made a concerted effort (this is at least one area where I feel in total control of my novel) to bring scenes of joy and love where I can. Three scenes in which this has stood out for me the most (though I’ve injected such things elsewhere) were in the scene of Grace dancing in the snow in installment #26, as part of Chapter 5; the letter from Charlyes to Maree in  installment #30, as part of Chapter 5; and the love scene between Gregory and Amaranth just a few days ago in installment #46, as part of Chapter 7.

Because frankly, life is too complex for me to have a one-note kind of atmosphere, where all is either doom and gloom or rough justice.

Character Notes

I’m not going to address every character that appears regularly in the novel, but here are a few personal thoughts about some of them:

Maree Deschaine — I enjoy this character immensely, even though I am often less than certain how sane or how moral she is at times. She’s not evil by any stretch, but she has an interesting mix of noble/ruthless and just/vengeful. She has become, in many senses, a force of nature. And although she is focused on a single quarry, I suspect she will impact multiple plotlines eventually.

Gregory and Amaranth Dyson — I can’t help but feel a close connection to these characters, given that they are based in some ways on myself and my wife. They are people caught in a situation they cannot control but must attempt to anyway, and that resonates with my own life. But I can’t shake the feeling that while they may be “good guys,” is being good going to be enough for them to get through everything?

Charlyes Kamusian — This is a character I had never envisioned in any of my plans for the novel. He “appeared” quite a long time ago, but in a very subtle way, and was never really described or named. When he “officially” appeared via the letter he wrote to Maree, I realized he was going to be important to this story, but I suspect more as a facilitator than a problem solver.

Bechan Adym — Another character who wasn’t planned. In fact, I didn’t plan on Israel showing up in this novel directly in any fashion. But appear it did, first with Bechan making the decision to flee the quarantined nation, and then with a couple other scenes in which portions of his escape attempt are seen. I am still not sure what his purpose is in the story. I guess you’ll probably find out shortly after I do.

Lyseena xec-Juris — As I mentioned at least once before, she was intended to be a central protagonist. But against my own plans and wishes, she has become something else: An important character, but a secondary one; an antagonist for several of my characters, but not a villain; an honorable woman who is going to probably have to do dishonorable things at some point because of her duties.

Paulo sup-Juris — This man is still somewhat of a cypher to me. Some of his character traits mirror my own, while others are nearly polar opposites of mine. He’s a good man, but torn between a duty he isn’t willing (or perhaps able) to set aside, and the family that he has but isn’t allowed to have. He is slowly inching up in prominence, and I’m interested to see where he goes.