Tag Archives: Cleansed by Fire novel

The Return of the Thing?

So, my Muse is beginning to flit around inside my head and whisper ghostly entreaties to return to my epic storyline “Cleansed By Fire.”

Yeah, like I need another thing on my plate, right?

Because it’s been so long, and because I had long ago begun to do some rewrites of early chapters as well as adding some new info, I’m thinking of starting over from the beginning.

What say you, dear readers? If you had been reading it before, would you like to see its return?

And if you hadn’t read it before, go click on the damn link above, poke around a bit, and let me know if you’d like to have me circle back the beginning for a version 2.0 of the series.

Yes, in part this is laziness, as running earlier chapters with revisions and additions will give me time to generate new content. So, sue me.

But first, let me know if I should even bother bringing the series back and getting back to a story that will likely be the equivalent of two or three novels.

Cleansed by Fire, Part 62

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 10, Strange Days

“Is Stavin a total void? Wiped trail? No twittering about him anywhere?” Kylie asked the man in her office, who was serving as liaison between her and the other Secular Genesis cell leaders this week.

“None, Domis. Not via linkpad nor Grid messaging nor any of the usual drop-points,” the man responded. “And he missed three critical salon appointments with Paradigm, Witta and Thomas. Three hours ago, per protocols, we shoutcalled his priv-trans and got nothing but vapor. We can’t even confirm if he’s alive, so either his priv-trans was cripped, he’s in custody under heavy shielding or he’s off-planet.”

“Are you linked up with the other cell leaders, and what are their opinions?” They were all trying to keep their locations and identities secure, and no one even wanted a virtual salon meeting right now since Stavin vanished. The man before her, whose name she didn’t know and didn’t want to know, and the sliptrans-equipped hindbrain attached to his cervical spine, were all the contact she was likely to have with her comrades for days, and she was the ranking coordinator now with Stavin gone.

“All of them but Coulter. Consensus of all but Gloria is that the Vatican has Stavin in custody and is interrogating him.”

“Harass Coulter’s devices and tell him that if he isn’t linked up with you in one minute, I will assume he is behind Stavin’s disappearance and have him killed on sight.”

Kylie waited, drumming her bony fingers on her hard-desk, counting off the seconds in her head.

“Coulter is online, Domis,” the man told her as she silently reached the 37-second mark. “He dissents with the consensus.”

“As well he should. And good fortune that Gloria is thinking clearly, too, right now. No one should be thinking that the Vatican has Stavin. After the hellpod attack, they would be broad-shrilling the news to the entire Catholic Union if they had one of us. Especially on the heels of the ‘miraculous’ survival of the Black Pope and naming of a new Red Pope soon.”

“The others wish to know what the minority opinion is, then.”

“Maree Deschaine almost certainly found him,” Kylie said. She was uncertain if Gloria and Coulter agreed with that, but they would line up behind her out of reflex. “I can understand the Vatican being too drone-witted to realize how resourceful she is, but there’s no excuse for us to be. Stavin underestimated her, too. At his peril, it would seem.”

“How does that explain the situation with his priv-trans?” the man asked.

“She snared him and burned him to ash like he did to her cousins, or she took him off-planet so she could well and truly enjoy her time with him without interruption. It isn’t beyond conception that she has access to a private craft dressed up to get past Aerial Control, or some deal with a third-tier Ishmaeli or Isaacian to give her orbital passage out of the Union.”

“Consensus is willing to cede that your theory is sound, but not a lock. What is the coordinator’s course, then?”

“Stavin was right that we can terrorize the Catholic Union even without being able to arm our remaining hellpods,” Kylie responded. “Take one of them to a a storage facility that looks like a hundred or two other storage facilities in heavily populated areas. Make sure its the kind of place that is distinct enough that they’ll know its somewhere in the Union, but with few enough identifiers that they’ll go crazy trying to find it.”

“Make some demands and attach them to a vid of our staged hellpod placement,” she continued. “Sell off one of our hellpods and buy eight or nine small thermos. If we don’t get what we want in a week or two, set off three of those thermonuclears in the middle of a storage area like the one we vid and tell them we have a dozen more hellpods where that one came from.”

After a few minutes of letting that sink in with the other cell leaders, the man came back with the majority response, “Dramatic, certainly, but hitting them with fissionables isn’t going to look like a hellpod attack.”

“Hellpods set to explode from a ground position don’t have the same character as those launched from orbit, and all the tests done with ground detonation were done off-Earth. No one will know what to expect, and it will still kill thousands, maybe tens of thousands. Enough of the populace will think the Vatican is covering up and that the radiation is something they released as a cover to keep the public from panicking about more hellpods. There’s enough fear brewing already to fuel paranoia aplenty.”

After a few moments: “Consensus agreement.”

“One more thing,” Kylie added. “I had a priv-trans put in Tobin Deschaine when he was still a templar, and I want it trilled so that we can get him in for some questions. I just wish he would have put one in Maree. Maree is a cracked reactor right now and she needs to be dealt with. He may know where to find her and, besides, I’m tired of my grandson’s ‘retirement.’ It’s time for Tobin to get back to work with Secular Genesis.”

Cleansed By Fire, the Story So Far (pt. 1)

Even summarizing things, I’ve already got a lot of text just for the first four chapters. So, for those of you who have been reading my novel and have lost track of things since it’s been going on for so long…and for those of you more recently come to my novel who need a summary, too…here are the first four chapters outlined for you, with the other five current chapters to be summarized in a day or so.

Then it will be back to work to conclude (over another few chapters at least) this first novel…in what I fear will be a trilogy of novels ultimately.


Chapter 1, Requiem for the Red Pope

As the end of third millennium approaches, one of the three popes of the Terran Catholic Church (which, through the Vatican, controls the better part of three continents—the Catholic Union—both politically and spiritually) has died. Against the backdrop of the Red Pope’s demise, regional templar commander Lyseena xec-Juris in Nova York brings together her administrative officers—Paulo sup-Juris, a polished officer who had been raised in a wealthy merchant-class family; Mare exec-Juris, a more hard-around-the-edges officer; and Kevan sup-Juris, a more wise-cracking officer. In that meeting, they discuss the challenges of handling security for the upcoming millennial celebration (the templars being a national investigative and law enforcement body), just days away, and having to handle security for the Red Pope’s requiem celebration, which will be held the day prior.

The steward for Lyseena’s office, Willem Staffordis—whose job it is to serve both as a secretary/administrative assistant and as a watchdog for the Vatican in the regional templar office—brings Lyseena news that a pair of her most talented technical officers, Adam and Elisya, (who are in their official pre-marriage courtship period) have been caught in the act of premarital sex (a crime, but relatively minor) and the use of birth control (a very serious crime in the Catholic Union). Lyseena orders Adam to be sent for castration and eventual assignment to a work farm for life, and orders Elisya to have her ova harvested and be sent to serve with the Dry Sisters, a sort of medical/healthcare equivalent to the templars.

Seeing a few too many coincidences with the convenient revelation of Adam and Elisya’s activities, along with the suspicious death of the Red Pope just before the chaos and stress of the millennial celebrations, Lyseena meets with Ather sup-Juris, who is both an interrogator for the templars as well as an internal affairs officer and intelligence officer under the service of the Black Pope. She asks him to look into the suspicious affairs.

Meanwhile, on Mars, Gregory Dyson, the Peteris (co-pope) of the church known as the Universal Faith Catholic (UFC), receives a Vatican ambassador, Samuel Landers, who invites him and his wife, Amaranth Dyson (who, as Paulis, is the other co-pope of the UFC) to the requiem and millennial celebrations on Earth. As the Vatican has long been at odds (and sometimes open hostilities and warfare) with the UFC, which is a far more liberal faith institution (and unlike the Vatican, does NOT have any kind of political or territorial control), Gregory deduces this is a trap, and declines. Also, as Amaranth is missing on Earth, after a bloodless coup orchestrated by the Catholic Union in the African nation of Uhuru, Gregory takes the opportunity to deliver a subtle insult to the ambassador before dismissing him.

Later, Gregory receives a visitor, Domina xec-Academie, who was the right-hand administrator for the late Red Pope. She requests asylum. Although he mistrusts her, and she immediately begins their relationship by unsuccessfully trying to seduce him, he grants her asylum because she claims to have important information about the demise of the Red Pope (including evidence that his death was orchestrated), a death that Gregory fears the UFC will be blamed for. However, the asylum he grants is a sort of “house arrest” so that he won’t lose track of her.

Back in Nova York, as Lyseena’s team heads home for the night, Maree sup-Juris makes some covert communications to a terrorist/resistance group (Secular Genesis, which seeks the downfall of the Vatican and, ultimately, all religious institutions) that she is secretly part of, in an effort to confront her cell leader, Stavin, who has put her in harm’s way by remotely accessing her data at the templar offices too frequently and blatantly.

Chapter 2, Women and Children

A successful British lawyer named Daniel Coxe, who had in more recent years become an artificial intelligence systems programmer for the Vatican, discovers anomalies in the Vatican’s premier AI, the Godhead (which holds the memories of dozens of previous popes and many memories of the current ones as well), which indicate that the Godhead has secretly created an AI child, without authorization and without telling anyone.

Amaranth, who had been on Earth as part of her missionary duties as Paulis of the UFC, is on the run from the Vatican with her bodyguard, having gotten most of her team safely off the planet, and the two of them prepare to don some quick disguises through the miracles of high-tech temporary cosmetic surgery, to slip away themselves.

Maree arrives home, having demanded that her cell leader, Stavin, meet her there to discuss her role in his plans, only to find that she was being monitored all along, and he is already there waiting for her with two thugs. He assaults her and threatens her by promising to burn several of her family members alive if she doesn’t cooperate with his plans.

Getting set up in the very large set of suites that Gregory has granted her (so that he cannot be accused of holding her a literal prisoner), Domina installs a tiny device into her new apartment’s computer systems to facilitate secret communications with someone called the Nazarene, who is behind her false “defection” to the UFC.

Bartelle D’Onofrio, captain of the warwagon Scion’s Dream (the single most powerful military spacecraft in the Vatican’s orbital armada), stands over the body of a man he has just killed in his quarters, mere days before the captain is set to retire from the military and take Vatican vows to become a governor of one of the Catholic Union’s regions on Earth.

One of Lyseena’s three templar admin officers, Paulo sup-Juris, goes to his aunt’s home instead of his own apartment, and lays in bed with Gina, whom everyone thinks is his cousin, not realizing that his real cousin has relocated under another identity to let this woman take her place and be close to Paulo. The false Gina is Paulo’s lover, with whom he has a child named Grace, and this puts him in violation of his vows (of loyalty and chastity) and puts him and “Gina” in violation of several very serious laws of the Catholic Union.

In space, Emil Standish, a member of the resistance/terrorist group Secular Genesis, meets with twin sisters Mehrnaz and Sarai (the Sisters of the Red Sun), who are elite mercenaries, to deliver necessary equipment for a mysterious job (which they don’t even know the full details of) that they are to perform for Secular Genesis. In the process, the xenophobic Emil, who distrusts genetically engineered races (the sisters are members of the Ishmaeli race), mortally insults their honor and almost gets himself killed in the process.

At the end of the day, as Paulo lays with his illegal wife, Lyseena frets about her spiritual and temporal duties and prays for herself and her admin officers, knowing nothing of Maree’s betrayals or Paulo’s indiscretions. Meanwhile, Lyseena’s other admin officer, Kevan, has perverse and sadistic dreams that give us a window into the darker parts of his nature that he hides behind his public demeanor and his jokes.

As morning comes, Maree gets into a vehicle with her Secular Genesis shadow, and acts as if she is cowed by Stavin’s threats and demands the night before. Instead, en route to the city, she kills the man who is to bring her to work and keep tabs on her, and embarks on her own agenda, fearful that her decision might cost family members their lives.

Chapter 3, Narrow Paths and Wide Gates

In the commandeered vehicle of the Secular Genesis operative she has just killed, Maree picks up a unaware Paulo, who thinks it’s the livery car he had ordered to take him back to the office. Once she reveals her identity, she tells Paulo that she knows about his illegal relationship with Gina and his illegitimate child, Grace, and demands that he reveal her as a Secular Genesis plant and spy and round up her relatives for questioning to keep them out of Stavin’s hands.

On Scion’s Dream, in orbit above Earth, we discover that the man that Captain Bartelle D’Onofrio killed was the ship’s counselor, Drewtine Atkins, and that his murder was ordered for some reason by the Nazarene as part of some larger scheme.

Daniel Coxe, knowing that his discovery of the Godhead’s secret AI “child” can only lead to trouble for himself, arranges with one of his cousins to meet at a casino soon in another region of the Catholic Union, in order to figure out how to get him out of the Catholic Union and hopefully back to his original homeland in Europa.

We discover that Ather sup-Juris has some kind of deep affection for Lyseena (although their vows would prohibit acting on any such thing), and that he has some information to give to her regarding the recent mysterious happenings.

Maree tests the wraithskein (high-tech camouflage bodysuit) she took from the man she killed who was supposed to shadow her, and considers her options, deciding finally that she won’t seek vengeance on Stavin and will instead just abandon both her lives: working with Secular Genesis and serving as a templar for the Catholic Union. Then she hears a news report that lets her know Paulo wasn’t able to round up all of her family, and that Stavin did indeed burn those few relatives alive, some of them children. At that point, she commits herself to a path of revenge.

Ather shares with Lyseena intelligence suggesting that Adam and Elisya were set up to be caught in flagrante by someone named Enn whom they both thought was a friend.

Emil reports back to Stavin, who is furious that he insulted the Sisters of the Red Sun. As punishment, he decides to ship Emil back to the twins with evidence of his xenophobic hatred for their kind. Although some of Stavin’s fellow cell leaders are concerned that Emil’s actions may have jeopardized their plans, Staving assures them that things will remain on track. We also get the first mention of a mysterious figure named Nemesis, who is helping Secular Genesis and seems to have a secret to arming hellpods (weapons of mass destruction that came all too close to exterminating humanity many centuries earlier).

In recovery after his castration, and awaiting his forced servitude on a work farm, Adam finds himself blaming Elisya for his predicament and receives a covert message from Enn that reveals that Enn betrayed both him and Elisya.

Daniel, under the pretext of taking a weekend trip, heads for Pacifica to meet with his cousin and try to flee the Catholic Union. En route, he finds out about a new product to allow AIs to lie, a notion he scoffs at.

Gregory gives the UFC’s premier AI, Ghost, some investigative tasks related to Domina and the late Red Pope.

Ather discovers that Secular Genesis was tapping templar data through Maree, and also reveals to Lyseena that Maree’s ascension in the templar organization seems to have been part of a plot going back at least three generations, and which included her father, Tobin Deschaine, also a celebrated templar officer. They decide to track down Tobin, who now lives very much under the radar, to help locate Maree.

The Sisters of the Red Sun speculate about the seemingly innocent shuttle that they are supposed to launch for Secular Genesis, and what nefarious things it might hide. Meanwhile, on Scion’s Dream, Bartelle prepares to frame a crewman for the disappearance of Counselor Atkins and implicate both men in various conspiracies as part of the Nazarene’s grand plan.

Lyseena tightens procedures for her staff in the wake of Maree’s betrayal, and brings Ather in to temporarily fill the gap left by Maree. After this, Lyseena meets with Gyles xec-Juris, who nominally leads the Red Orders until a new Red Pope is named (thus making Gyles her ultimate superior, practically speaking). Gyles berates her for failing to realize Maree was a traitor, but she turns the tables on him by revealing that he was in a better position to know, having been directly responsible for much of Maree’s career advancements (a fact she can prove and that he wouldn’t want public). She then forges an uneasy alliance and peace with Gyles by offering to get him a plum position using her own political capital, since he will lose his position when a new Red Pope is named, and he has no more favors he can call in. Before they part, Gyles reveals that he had planned to have Lyseena stripped of her rank right after Maree’s betrayal was discovered, but was headed off by the Godhead, for reasons unknown.

Chapter 4, Requiem’s Eve

As he waits for his cousin to meet him in the casino they’ve designated for his escape, Daniel looks forward to putting as much distance as possible between him and the Godhead AI (and the human elements of the Vatican, too), even as he listens to news of one nation invading another using an army of remote-controlled factory-grown troops (meat puppets).

After receiving news that he is to be a grandfather again soon, Gregory gets news from Ghost that there is a connection between Domina, the late Red Pope, and a White Pope of the past who died under similar suspicious circumstances. That earlier pope also turns out to have been the man indirectly responsible for almost eliminating Muslims worldwide through a custom virus (which also led to the death of many non-Muslim Arabs and Jews as well).

Paulo examines taunting communications from the mysterious Enn to the templars, then has a discussion with his aunt about his emotional neglect of Grace. He also tells his aunt to extend an invitation to Gina and Grace to attend the millennial celebrations in Nova York so that Paulo can meet with his lover and daughter secretly in public.

Maree murders a criminal she had been keeping safe for years as a street informer, and kills his lover as well, so that she can get a new IDentipod to hide her identity and aid her in avoiding the templars searching for her.

Having received Emil as a “peace offering” from Stavin, the Sisters of the Red Sun are unsure what to do with him (they don’t feel enough rancor to kill the man, as Stavin had hoped they would) but are culturally obligated to accept the gift, at least for a time. In the end, they decide that at least Emil might serve as an organic sex toy for now—a thought that the xenophobic man finds repugnant.

Lyseena breaks in two new tech officers to replace Adam and Elisya and finds out that at least one lead gleaned from Maree’s office and her betrayal has born fruit and netted them a suspect to question (a local priest) who seems to have links to Secular Genesis.

Gregory prepares to meet with Domina and try to get useful intelligence from her, despite knowing that her intentions aren’t totally honest. What he finds is a scene calculated to seduce him and befuddle him, and after some taunting and innuendo on Domina’s part, Gregory simply leaves in frustration and anger, unwilling to resort to extreme measures that might get information out of her.

Stavin consults with Nemesis via a secure audio transmission, and Nemesis warns him he shouldn’t have left Maree alive, though Stavin remains unconcerned about her.

Emil, having viewed his sexual treatment at the hands of the Sisters of the Red Sun as a rape (though culturally, they see it otherwise) and hating both of them simply for being Ishmaeli, he taunts and insults one of the twins when she comes to tend to him. Disgusted with his behavior and with Stavin for giving Emil to them, the twins launch him out of the airlock of their spacecraft.

Thinking that he is about to be transferred to the work farm where he will likely spend the rest of his life, Adam finds himself given over to officials from the office of the White Pope, and realizes with horror that he will be refitted and physically altered to be a drone in the service of the Dry Sisters, the very group to whom his former fiancée is being turned over.

With false identification in hand, Daniel boards a spacecraft bound for Mars, which his cousin has deemed the safest destination for him to be out of reach of the popes and the Godhead.

After collecting himself, Gregory returns to Domina’s suites for a surprise visit, and confronts her with the connection between the Red Pope and the long-dead Pope Kuang-Hsu whose viral technology almost wiped out Islam. Although he doesn’t get any information out of her, he is gratified to put her on the defensive for once.

Working late with her admin officers, Lyseena realizes that the mysterious Enn who set up Adam and Elisya is almost certainly the same individual as the person Nemesis they have recently found out about who is working with Secular Genesis.

After interrogating Domina, Gregory returns to his chambers, alarmed to find a strange woman on his bed, who turns out to be his wife, Amaranth, heavily altered by temporary cosmetic surgical work. He is overjoyed that she is alive and returned to Mars, though he gets a somewhat cold response at one point from her when she discovers the lavish appointments he has given Domina for her asylum (since Domina is responsible for much of the harassment that Amaranth endures from the Vatican when on Earth).

(part two of the summary is here.)

Cleansed by Fire, Part 61

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)

After so many visits to Domina’s suites, dealing with every form of seduction or sexual innuendo known to humankind being thrust in his face, Peteris Gregory Dyson was wholly unprepared to see a plate with a pastry waiting for him, and Domina attired in very casual, standard garb.

She sat with a similar plate and identical dessert in her lap, a nicstick smoldering in an catchtray on one side of her and a cup of tea steaming near her other hand.

“Come, Gregory, have a bite with me. I’m so tired of talking about ancient papal history and current Vatican politics,” she said to him silkily.

“Don’t you mean you’re tired of giving away tiny clues to me, with increasing frequency, despite your best intentions to obfuscate?” the Paulis countered. The dessert did look delicious, but it was highly disturbing. Not because of any risk it posed, because Miko would never let him anywhere near a fork to eat it anyway. Rather, because it was a honey-grape crispcake with a light ginger cream frosting—Gregory’s favorite sweet treat, and one he only enjoyed here on Mars, in his own chambers, baked by his wife when she was actually in-planet and in a doting mood.

How deep a damn profile do their have on me, anyway? Need to steal away a couple of the Vatican’s psychotechs for ourselves.

“You don’t really think I haven’t told you anything I didn’t want you to know,” she said. “I simply don’t want to shatter your delicate male ego. Please, have a bite. I don’t bake for many of my captors.”

“Watching the waistline, Domina, but thanks,” He told her, “and I granted you asylum, if I recall. However, I bow to your continuing ability to regale me with how much you know about my tastes—in all things.”

As she opened her mouth to respond, Gregory’s linkpad chimed—only two individuals would have ignored his order not to interrupt him for the next hour. One was the UFC’s chief AI. The other was his wife.

As he glanced at the text display, he was dismayed to discover it was both of them, telling him he needed to cut his session with Domina short.

“You know, I was just about to take a taste of that, Domina,” Gregory lied with an almost convincing cadence and grin, “but something seems to have come up.”

* * *

Domina swept the dreadful cake Gregory found so appealing into the disposal bin the moment he, his bodyguard and the MobileEye had left her apartment. On the one hand, it was a shame to have their session end before it could even begin. In a strange way, the Peteris’ visits were a comfort to Domina—she could almost have called it a friendship, even if the man were a bitter enemy, technically speaking.

Even more than that, it was the only mental stimulation she could enjoy these days. Gregory was proving to be more adept at the finer points of misdirection and manipulative diplomacy that the psych profiles gave him credit for having. No doubt the influence of his wife, or that damnable AI Ghost—or perhaps both of them.

But in the end, the Nazarene really didn’t expect her to seduce the Peteris or to totally confuse him; only to waste his time. And, at least, Gregory’s departure meant she could continue to translate the latest message from her patron. The Nazarene had sent a much longer than normal message, which meant pieces of it were hidden in dozens of different innocent-seeming transmissions and messages to her terminal.

When she finished, the completed message filled her with pangs of remorse for the past—for the Red Pope who has been her mentor and lover—as well as with an eager, fierce rededication to her current mission.

When the new Red Pope is named, I will come for you. The arrival of an important new visitor is your signal. I will come from the sky and carry you out of the nest of your enemies.

* * *

Gregory made his annoyance clear when he arrived in Ghost’s atrium. Uncharacteristically, Amaranth was there as well.

“What couldn’t wait for another damned hour or so?” he snarled.

“The White Pope, Black Pope and Godhead are sequestered,” Ghost answered.

“They cut off contact with everyone but the Papal Advisory Council a half hour ago,” Amaranth added.

That gave Gregory pause, but only for a moment. “All right, so that means they’re about to decide on a new Red Pope and will probably name him in a few days. We already know who’s calling the shots with the ships in space above us: the Black Pope. Soon, we’ll have a face to attach to the man who will be giving the marching orders to the people picking off our people one by one on the ground. So?”

“Gregory, they will be naming the new Red Pope tomorrow, and I already have reliable intelligence on whom they will be announcing,” Ghost said.

Something in Ghost’s tone took him aback, and he noticed for the first time that a faint sheen of impending tears were glistening in his wife’s eyes. Amaranth was holding her emotions in check as usual, but her armor was cracking a bit, and the implications of that frightened the Peteris.

“The new Red Pope will be Gavin xec-Academie,” she said softly, sharp notes of pain edging her quiet words. “Our son, Greg. Our son.”

(This completed Chapter 9. To read the next installment, which begins Chapter 10, click here.)

Cleansed by Fire, Part 60

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)

Strange  bed-partners indeed, Bechan Adym reminded himself yet again as he waited for the Voudoun priest to see him. Rabbi Brifel Mann had told him to seek out the houngano Varshtis Maongi for aid, and so he was here. But it was already hard enough being a good Jewish boy looking for help from another religion; so much the worse to have to look to help from one that had so many inadvertent spiritual ties to the Vatican thanks to the the mixing of Catholic, Haitian and tribal African religious traditions some 2,000 year or more earlier to create Voodoo—which was transfigured some four centuries ago into Voudoun.

When the houngano finally emerged from his office, Bechan was surprised to see how Asiatic the man’s features were, having completely forgotten how rapidly Voudoun had spread through nations in the Asian Republics—Chinan, Krishna and Dehli excepted—over the past century. Varshtis had obvious signs of Caribbean or African blood in his veins, but his Pacific Asian heritage showed so much more strongly.

The houngano greeted Bechan warmly, and introduced his priestess wife, the mambin Heathri Maongi, whose ancestry surprised Bechan even more, since she was as pale and blonde a Scanda as he had ever seen outside of high-art grid-vids from Denmark or Swedelund.

The negotiations for the Voudoun’s aid and how Brifel or Bechan would repay it later went well overall, and it was a pleasant enough transaction, though Bechan was uncomfortably aware of the sliptrans implants that the couple wore so prominently on their necks and brows, as did almost all hounganos and mambins.

The Voudoun is probably the only religion that can truly say its gods talk to its practitioners, Bechan pondered, thinking about the history of their religion. The Vatican had virtualized the memories of its popes with the Godhead, but they didn’t try to virtualize God. The Voudoun, on the other hand, have at least 13 AIs scattered across the planet, and maybe elsewhere in the solar system, each of which was a virtualization of one of their L’wha—their godling representatives of their Great Good God Bondye. For all I know, one of the L’wha is riding Varshtis, or Heathri, right now. I can’t know if I’m dealing with a human or an AI that thinks itself a minor god.

But, it seemed to Bechan, if one of the L’wha was running the show at the moment, using either the priest’s or priestess’ body, then the gods must be with him, because the houngano and mambin were generous with their help and modest in their demands.

As they finished up, and he rose to leave, Varshtis paused significantly, slapped himself on the side of his skull, and laughed softly. “Oh, my Hebrew friend, I almost forgot.”

“Forgot what?” Bechan asked, trying to keep his voice mild.

“Why, your zombi, of course,” the houngano said, his gaze becoming briefly flinty before it softened back into slight amusement. “A gift for you.”

A short man in simple trousers and a long coat moved into the room, and settled himself into a casual stance a foot away from Bechan, all the world like a trained dog who had just come to heel.

Bechan’s stomach felt a cold clench of despair as he remembered his parting words to Brifel in Jerusalem, and his off-hand joke.

Maybe they’ll loan me a zombi for my journeys, I had told him. Something to do the heavy work and not force me listen to small talk.

There was no way to refuse this gift of a zombi, some person who had been largely turned into a human automatonwhether willingly or unwillingly Bechan would probably never knowbecause to do so would be to unravel all these negotiations for help.

It was disturbing in part because a zombi was something altogether illegal to possess in most nations of the world.

But what was all the more disturbing was that the houngano and mambin had known he had made the joke to Brifel. Because Brifel would never have passed along that comment to them.

As Bechan looked into the calm and confident smile of the houngano, he realized the message sent by gifting him a zombi.

We know more than you can imagine. The ears and eyes of our L’wha reach far. And your ancient religion is still tied too much to scrolls and rituals. While we have our gods on the SystemGrid.

It was a sharp reminder to Bechan that friends often came at a high price, and he hoped he wouldn’t have to make too many more friends in this journey.

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

Inside My Head: Listening to the Story

So, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these “Inside My Head” posts, and once again, as I think was the case every other time, I’m going to let you inside the fiction-writing portion of my cranium and take a chance to talk about the Cleansed By Fire novel, which I guess I’m probably 3/4 the way to completion on, give or take. Seems appropriate, since I’ve temporarily ceded most of the non-fiction posting to Miz Pink while I finsh this first draft of the novel here in this online venue.

So, I’ve mentioned before how sometimes I feel like I’m a tool to tell a story, rather than the creator of that story. How things I’ve planned or thought would happen have often gone 180 degrees counter to that. What I have discovered, I think, is that it’s less that the story controls my choices at times and more than there is a story that exists to be told, and it gets told best if I shut up, calm down, and pay attention.

That is, if I listen hard enough, the story will tell itself.

I came to this conclusion rather recently, when I finished an eight-part saga at my other blog. Being that the other blog is heavily fiction-oriented, I actually have a number of one-shot stories written, as well as several ongoing series. The one I just finished marks the first time I’ve completed an entire multi-part story. And, given that each of those chapters was over 4,000 words at the shortest and over 7,000 in the longest cases, that means I pretty much wrote a novella, I guess.

But at times, I would have to stop, because I just didn’t know what came next, a situation I’ve faced many times in writing the Cleansed By Fire novel, too. Sure, I could force the plot into some certain direction, but I know that isn’t right. I know there is a proper scene that needs to be there but I don’t always know what it is. So, I had several chapters of that eight-part saga already written, but with several missing scenes in each. And, at one point, after completing the first two chapters, I had chapters 5, 6 and 7 mostly written, while 3 was only half done and 4 and 8 weren’t even remotely started.

(Some of you who recall me mentioning that my other blog is erotica-oriented can, by the way, stop snickering and saying to yourselves, “how hard can it be to write a scene where man A fucks woman B or woman C gets it on with woman D while man A watches”…at least half, and probably two-thirds, of my eight-part story was plot, conflict and characterization, and there was a dramatic arc. But the sex scenes sure were fun to write, I admit.)

When I stopped trying to force things, and just listened, I would realize what needed to happen, and the missing scenes and chapters came together perfectly. Often, though, it would not come together at all as I had “planned” in my head. I would have entire chapters that suddenly would go in directions I never intended, focusing on characters I had planned to remain as background noise.

This is something that’s been happening a lot in the novel here, too, and I’m finally learning not to fight it. To listen instead.

It has been in my head that certain characters need to be focused on or that certain things should happen to make my plot entertaining. What I’ve found instead is that the story needs to be told. If that story ends up requiring two or three dozen characters and some of them don’t get seen for chapters at a time, I need to accept that. It isn’t about scenes or focusing on a “star.” It’s about telling a narrative, and just like in life, narratives require several people and not always at the same time. Also, life is not tidy, and I’ve tried too hard at times to make things tidy and bring events and people together who need to remain separate.

Take Paulo, Grace and Gina, for example. And I will assume you’ve read up to the current installment. If you haven’t, don’t continue unless you want spoilers. I had it in my mind that all three characters would be with us for a while. That at some point, the three of them would have to make a break, but they would do so together. I never initially expected that Grace and Gina would be where the hellpod hit. I never expected that Grace would go through slipspace almost unprotected.

Once those things happened, though, I thought I would bring Gina back. Grace would be convalescing at home with her great-aunt, Paulo would be dropping by, and Gina would materialize out of the shadows, missing a hand and sporting several burns on her face and body. We’d find that she managed to slip into a transit station before she burned, and someone with a slipcar took her through a slipgate to safety, but only after she lost her hand in a nearly fatal encouter with some melting portion of building. She would lose both linkpad and IDentipod. But she would see this as her chance to escape the Catholic Union, because she would be thought dead and would be untrackable. She would confront Paulo with the need to flee, even though their daughter was essentially mindless, and the conflict would be Paulo’s struggle with his vows to the Vatican vs. his love for his family and he would be unflagging in his love for his scarred woman even as she struggled with her disfigurements…

Does any of this sound as trite to you now as it does to me in retrospect?

But this was me trying to force a narrative on events that came to me unexpectedly. Thank God I never wrote those scenes. Because Gina is dead. She burned. Which makes sense. It’s especially important, I now realize, that she stay dead because I’m 90% certain that a character who either already died or is going to (don’t want to tip you off who it is yet) will come back from the dead. Sort of. But you know, we can’t have too many dead or presumed dead people coming back, or I’ll have to submit this entire novel as a script run for some soap opera on TV.

So, Gina is dead and will remain so. Paulo was compromised by saving Grace, thus putting him into dangerous waters. Most unexpected to me of all, though, was Grace’s metamorphosis, of which we’ve only gotten a glimpse so far, which will reveal a great deal about slipspace and open some interesting (I hope) metaphysical areas to explore. Suddenly, a three-year-old girl has become a complex and integral character to the storyline. I’m sad Gina is dead, because part of me wanted to explore the love between her and Paulo. But in a sense, I still will be, as their shared offspring is a person who is a little girl physically but anything but when it comes to personality and intellect.

That strikes me as much more interesting than “Gina miraculously survives and the whole family goes on the run.”

I also thought Domina would be a constant factor and an often-seen character. Instead, after seeing a lot of her early on, we haven’t seen much of her for a while. She is a critical character and she will do some pivotal things, but I realize I don’t need to create scenes for her just to have her around. Same with Daniel Coxe. or Bechan Adym. Or Gregory and Amaranth. Or the Sisters of the Red Sun. They will appear when they need to, and I simply have to trust that they will remain memorable enough that when they show back up, readers will continue to give a damn about them and what they are doing.

So, soon I’ll dive back into the writing in earnest. If nothing else, the eight-part erotica/adventure story has inspired me because it proves that I can begin and complete a relatively complex narrative. So now it’s time to finish this novel soon.

All I have to do is keep listening.

If I do, I think the story will tell itself to me clearly enough for me to give you something worth reading.

Cleansed by Fire, Part 59

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)

“You took a great deal of time sedating and storing the doomed Stavin,” Sarai noted; it had been more than a day-cycle since they had discovered from him the honor-claim that Maree Deschaine had on him—the one thing that delayed the execution of their own vengeance. “Did you encounter difficulties with him?”

“Not at all, sister,” Mehrnaz replied. “But it occurred to me that given the depth and nature of their relationship as co-conspirators against the Catholic Union, he must have methods of contacting the Maree-avenger. So I brought with me substances to loosen his tongue before I prepared him for stasis.”

“Your demeanor indicates that you were successful, but why would you suppose that the Maree-avenger would be monitoring any usual channels of contact with him?”

“Because he assaulted her, burned her family, and set a hellpod upon her city, dear sister,” Mehrnaz said with some amusement. “And she does not seem to subscribe to the usual notions of Catholic forgiveness. I suspect she wants his blood, and will look anywhere that he might turn up and reveal himself.”

“Very well, then. Now the only problem is in determining how to compose a message that will actually convince her to tell us where to find her.”

* * *

It was getting harder to keep Bohlliam in check. It was taking so much longer than she thought to knit her mind back together. Almost a day now that he had been hidden in a  dark corner of one of the basements of the hospital, without food or water. Grace had been able to suppress his thirst and hunger a bit, and she was actively feeding him as many blissful emotions as she could while she worked, but he was beginning to become impatient.

And if he became too impatient, he might also become suspicious.

She knew she was close, though. Almost ready to make the leap. In fact, she had already knitted together all the connections she needed to create. Everything was ready. Except that she couldn’t do anything until her father was there. Everything hinged on that.

Bohlliam began to send waves of complaint once more, and she tamped them down as gently as possible.

I’m still here with you, Bohlliam. I will always be with you, she lied.

And then she sensed her father beside her body. Just barely felt the touch of his hand on the cheek of her little body, several levels above.


Grace leapt. It wasn’t her most graceful psychic act of all time, but she didn’t dare be cautious now.

Bohlliam felt the connections tear in his mind. He sensed her attempted flight and grabbed at her.

But she was gone.

In the sub-basement, Bohlliam howled as all those beautiful, borrowed emotions were torn from him like food from a starving man.

* * *

Paulo looked down upon the sleeping face of his daughter and saw so much of her mother in there right now. He felt a pang of physical discomfort at that. He had saved his daughter, and probably lost her mind in the process. He could come here to grieve and bear watch as an uncle, but never admit his fatherhood.

And in all this, he couldn’t even properly mourn the woman who had been his wife in all the ways that mattered—the woman who had taken the name and place of his cousin to remain hidden from the authorities and prevent Paulo from being punished for breaking his vows. He couldn’t tell anyone around him, “I have lost the woman to whom I gave my heart for safekeeping.” He could only be a man mourning a dear cousin.

So it was bittersweet feelings that he bent forward to kiss Grace’s brow.

“Daddy,” she whispered into his ear.

She hadn’t spoken once since her virtually unprotected passage through slipspace. “Grace? Grace?”

“Say nothing. Call no physicians in here,” she said. “Everything depends on that.”

Even with his elation at hearing her voice, even with the rising hope that her mind could be saved, Paulo’s perceptions weren’t so dulled that he could prevent feeling a little thrill of fear.

My daughter is speaking with a little girl’s voice. But not a little girl’s words.

And then another frightening thought took hold.

How does she know I’m her father? We never told her.

With the barest of whispers, he asked, “Why?”

She hugged his neck fiercely and kissed his cheek.

“A man with a sensorium array is going to be looking for me right now,” she whispered. “He won’t give up. You have to run, Daddy. You have to run with me now.”

“It’s not that easy, Gracie. I can’t just run, I know you don’t understand, but I need…”

“You need to deal with the problem of our IDentipods,” she interrupted, nothing of a little girl’s inflections in that youthful voice. “You need to somehow forge transit documents. You need to get past hospital security. How long do you need?”

Paulo pulled away from her slightly, looked down into her eyes. His daughter was there, her eyes filled with trust and fear and love. But they were a woman’s eyes, so much like Gina’s. They weren’t the eyes of the weeping daughter he had carried through the slipgate. “What happened to you, Grace? What are you?”

“Your daughter,” she said, an edge in her voice now; not anger, exactly, but maybe desperation. “I’m still that. I always have been, I always will be.  How long do you need?”

“Two days, maybe three,” he said. “I can have someone brought here to guard the room. Or hunt this man down.”

“Under what pretext?” Grace asked. “And if the med-techs or physicians walk in here right now and see us talking like this, I’ll be taken away from you for study and evaluation and observation, seeing as no one has ever gotten their mind back after a trip like mine.”

“If I just run with you, we’ll be caught before I can even get out of the city.”

“I can play comatose for the doctors for a day and probably hide my mind from Bohlliam that long, Daddy. That’s all I can promise.”

“Do you know where this man is, Grace?”

“Until five minutes ago, he was in a sub-basement near where some linens are stored.”

“Will you be all right?”

Her head was already back against the pillows, in the same composure and demeanor as before her mind had returned. For a sickening moment, Paulo feared he had imagined this entire episode.

But then, speaking out of the side of her mouth, eyes still closed, she said, “I’ll have to be. But if you can find him and kill him quietly, that would certainly make our lives much easier.”

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

Cleansed by Fire, Part 58

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)

Paulo hadn’t expected Maree to arrange to meet him quite so quickly, just a few days after their clandestine exchange of Grid messages. The meet location was out of the way enough to be private; not so far out of the  core city that it would cause Paulo to be flagged for monitoring.

And in the style of so many cloak-and-blade grid vids, it was an abandoned structure, full of shadows and places to hide—Paulo had picked the general area; Maree had picked the final location. He’d been here 15 minutes now, time enough to wonder if Maree had a secret melodramatic streak. He saw something move in one set of shadows, and his hand fell instinctively to the grip of his sidearm. It strode out on six legs, something like a mix of terrier and cat, but with none of the organic charm. A pest-hunter. He spied another one in the distance, and took a deep drag on his blunt brown nicstick, designed to mimic the look of an expensive cigar.

Pest-hunters were easily purchased in retail outlets. These ones were budget models, and certainly purchased by Maree. They were probably set to attract and kill only flying insects right now. Maree was almost certainly watching from afar through an ocular, and was looking to see if any flying things weren’t caught by the pair of vermin killers. Anything they didn’t catch would likely be a spyfly.

And so, Paulo was patient. Maree would come when she was satisfied it was safe. And if she didn’t come, it probably meant there was a spyfly somewhere nearby, and Paulo would know he was being monitored.

But he doubted it. Only Lyseena would have a desire to keep tabs on him and as far as she was concerned, his hospital-bound daughter, Grace, was anchor enough to hold him close and keep him loyal.

Twenty-one minutes passed before he heard the low, growling hum of her duosphere approach. “I’ve never seen you smoke before, Paulo,” Maree commented as she stepped away from her vehicle.

“Only occasionally. My father and brothers had a tradition of smoking a cigar before a deal, and then another one after it was sealed,” he said, looking at his nicstick and deactivating it, watching the last wisps of smoke drift away. “I took up the practice with them before I was given over to the templars. When I was cut off from the merchanter lifetsyle, I switched to nicsticks. So much more appropriate for a common law officer.”

Maree grinned at that. “I’ve missed you Paulo, you insufferable classist stick-prick.”

As Paulo slipped the now-cool nicstick into a pocket, he said bluntly, “Did you have any idea that Secular Genesis would put Nova York under a broiler like that?”

The hellpod attack, she realized, and wondered why he would bring it up, but didn’t hestitate to shake her head and answer: “I never would have thought they even had the capability to do that, but it explains why I became so expendable so fast to them.”

Paulo nodded. “Good. I’d hate to think you were capable of involvement in something like that.”

“Why do I have the impression if you hadn’t liked my answer, we’d be having a gunfight right about now?”

“It’s a fair enough assessment. Gina—damn, will I ever stop calling her by that borrowed name? She. She was there, near the impact. I got Grace out, but with only part of her mind intact.”

He told her the story then, in fits and starts, and stopped several times to compose himself. He’d would sometimes cry in front of Gina when she was alive. He could cry in front of his aunt or his daughter. He would shed no tears in the presence of anyone else.

When he was done, Maree sighed. It was a simple thing, but full of honesty. She felt for him, and that gave him confidence she might help him, particularly after he related to her the measures he had taken to cover her tracks.

“I suppose I do owe you a favor, then, Paulo,” she admitted. “But I am rather tied up. How soon can we get you and her on the run?”

“I don’t know. I suppose if there isn’t a change in her condition, I should probably run in a week or two at most regardless.”

“Paulo, no one recovers from losing their mind in slipspace. So you might as well run now instead of waiting.”

He glared at her, then closed his eyes and spoke carefully. “She doesn’t show typical symptoms. She has no madness. I think she was shielded from that, but I still don’t know how much of her I’ll get back. But I have to wait a bit first, to be sure.”

“I can’t guarantee I’ll still be here, Paulo, when you’re ready. If I find a trail that leads to Stavin, I’ll be on it.”

“I understand, but I suspect you could help me from afar, even if just to help me plan. You are, clearly, the superior undercover operative.”

“And the most stylish,” she quipped, leaning against her duopshere like an advertis-femme. It surprised her to feel any kind of humor again; camaraderie felt good, especially with someone in similar straits. “I’ll help you as much as I’m able.”

“Then I suppose,” Paulo said, fishing out his nicstick again. “This calls for a simulated cigar.”

* * *

Riding Bohlliam’s mind and sensorium array, Grace was increasingly eager as they approached the hospital where her tiny three-year-old body waited for her, and the rest of her mind.

She was also increasingly nervous.

What she brought to Bohlliam wasn’t something he was going to part with willingly. She might as well be a drug to which he was addicted, so hungry was he for satisfying emotional stimuli and responses for his emophage-ravaged brain. She needed his help to knit herself back together, but if he had any inkling of what she ultimately planned, he would cut her off and close her in.

But she hadn’t spent a lifetime, give or take, in slipspace to be thwarted now in realtime.

I’m in your mind, so it should be easy enough with my help for you to recognize and reach my physically anchored mind once we’re a bit closer, she told him. Make an empathic connection and hold it, so that I can repair my own damage and sustain a lasting link to you once I am back in my own head.

<Concern> he projected.

It’s a gamble, certainly. But you have two choices. First, make the attempt and succeed or fail. Second, don’t make the attempt and we’ll see how long I last in your head, giving you an emotional foundation again, before I fragment and you’re back to second-hand emotions from the mentally ill.

The split second he paused filled her with concern. She couldn’t be sure she was shielding her emotions and intentions from him adequately by amplifying her impatience, irritation and anger all this time. He was an empath after all. Not well trained, but still…


Let’s hurry then, but be careful. A man with a sensorium array is going to stand out. I don’t know how much time I’ll need, but we need as much as we can get.

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

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.)