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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.)