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