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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, 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.)

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.)

Cleansed by Fire, Part 55

For the previous installment of this story, click here

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

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory cocked his head and leveled his gaze at Ghost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ghost?” Gregory asked.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleansed by Fire, Part 54

For the previous installment of this story, click here

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

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

Go faster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am there.

Here you are. Mind mine. Bohlliam responded.

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

<Confusion> Bohlliam ventured.

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

<Need> <Want> <Stay>

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

<Fear> <Despair>

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


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

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

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

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

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

Cleansed by Fire, Part 53

For the previous installment of this story, click here

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

Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 8, Framed in Pain (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I certainly know that I do.

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

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

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

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