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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.
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