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Before the shakedown cruise, when Lahatiel was first reviewing personnel records to crew his frigate he settled on a navigation officer from among the Red Beards, a nephil whose name meant “Lightning of God”. He was Barakiel Antero, and he held the rank of erel.

Arioch’s objection was based on reports that had been gathered by the Eyes. He said Barakiel was actually a fraud, a homosexual who faked the two death combats that led to his current rank and whose “mate” was a convincing woman but still a man where it really counted. But Lahatiel just shrugged, knowing the only penalty for homosexual males in the Navy of Mastema was simply to withhold their access to breeding females. Which suited them to a tee.

During the interview, when Lahatiel casually remarked on what the Eyes had uncovered of the officer’s love life, Barakiel said, “Sir, it struck me that even though it is only recently that the Empire has allowed women like Hashmal Suriel to serve, she still has full legal standing. There are women who love only other women, and this has finally come into the light of day, but there are also men who love only other men, yet this fact remains shrouded in darkness.”

Lahatiel said, “What you say is true. Unlike the case of Suriel, same-gender unions are not sanctioned for men in our empire, even if your preference for males has a similar pre-natal origin to my own preference of using the left hand. This prohibition seems to be driven by the Eyes more than any command of Asmodeus.”

“Still, sir,” Barakiel said, “you have to wonder about that serial chain of possessions of Gerash patriarchs our Lord Mastema has made throughout the centuries. Certainly he must have found himself occupying a body that had the same ‘condition’ that I was born with.”

Lahatiel nodded. “I agree. It must have happened dozens of times. And that is why it has roughly the same moral import in Mastema’s mind as my choice of dark green as my favorite color.”

“My lover’s name is Peniel, sir, which means Face of God. He was my opponent in the Laraji, the death trial. The poison I used in my dart was powerful enough to convince the proctors that I had killed him, but it actually allowed him to recover later with no ill effects. Then Peniel presented himself to me disguised as his own ‘sister’, and became my ‘wife’ together with my real sister, Anafiel, who I love in a completely different way, and never touch beyond the innocent hugs and kisses of siblings. For Peniel alone is my lover.”

“And yet you hold the rank of erel, so you fought the death combat once again. I presume you repeated the deception.”

“Yes sir, and in my second combat my vanquished ‘opponent’ Sachiel and his ‘sister’ Gedael became my alleged third and fourth wives, but they are both same-gender lovers even as Peniel and I are, and these three men and one woman dwell together in the security of my…ah…harem. If one day I could put them beyond the reach of the Eyes you would have my undying loyalty, Ophan Lahatiel.”

Lahatiel narrowed his yes. “Yet I am looking for a navigator who will give me his undying loyalty from the moment he reports aboard my ship.”

“Yes sir, forgive me, I did not mean to imply I was setting a condition on my faithfulness to you, and I do not believe I am faithless to our Emperor, only faithless to certain Eyes of Mastema who might be disgusted by something they don’t understand. But I can say, sir, at the very least, that I was not the first to conceive of this deception, and I won’t be the last to resort to it. What the Navy gets in return for supporting the five of us (despite the fraud) is a damn good pilot and navigator. But I have never killed a man, and I do not relish killing. There has to be something more than this eat-or-be-eaten mentality spread by the Cupel system.”

Lahatiel said, “Your sexuality doesn’t come into this. I am looking for the best officers possible to crew the Exiler, and the incident at Hyperion was something that caught my eye.”

“Yes sir,” Barakiel said. “You must be referring to the time on the Adversary when we stopped a raid on Palato by rogue elements of the Navy, I flew my ship right into the Hyperion ID Grid and brought the vessel to a stop inside, where we could fire at the mutineers through the lattice while being perfectly safe from counter-battery fire, at least if the rebels still wanted to carry out their raid.”

So Lahatiel accepted Barakiel as his navigation officer, and he had performed well during the shakedown cruise. Barakiel remembered what happened after the gunner took out the incoming torpedoes.

“Well done, everyone,” Lahatiel said. “Now swing the Big Eye back to where you’re getting the radar pulses, Suriel. We don’t want to miss the rest of the light show. The fighters will come from another direction and home on the enemy’s own radar. The Beaters won’t even know what hit them.”

Suriel said that from the pulse-rate of the radar that the enemy was about forty thousand kilometers away. So there wasn’t anything to see until two tiny blurred puffballs appeared briefly and faded, only a few minutes apart.

The radio blurted, “Exiler this is Wing zero three one, splash track 4010, splash track 4011, over.”

Lahatiel grabbed a mike out of the overhead clutter and said, “Wing Zero Three One this is Exiler, acknowledged, thank you, out.”

“One, two, just like that,” Suriel said, “and the skirmish is over.”

The young female gunner was impressed but to Barakiel it had been all been rather routine. A real test of his abilities was laid out by Asmodeus himself after the incident with the Beaters. The Emperor spoke to Lahatiel and Barakiel alone, with only the patriarch’s son Apollyon present in the throne room.

“You are ordered to deploy to the asteroid in the Jupiter system designated ‘Green Rock’,” he said, and at that name Lahatiel’s heart skipped a bit, and he almost lurched from his position of attention, fearing he had been unmasked. Asmodeus did not notice this and went on. “It seems your characterization of my Navy as having grown slack might be correct. I have lost contact with a destroyer and a cruiser at Green Rock, so I placed it under quarantine until I could find a more competent crew to investigate. You will now do so, Ophan Lahatiel.”

“Yes sire!”

“Your orders are to neutralize the asteroid as a threat to my Navy,” he added. “Your navigator will find the real-space transit from the Hyperion ID Grid to Green Rock will have been shortened considerably, because the ID Grid is no longer at Hyperion. I am having it moved. This fact is classified at the highest level. Have Erel Barakiel take the acceleration of the ID Grid into account when you return, and your level of propellant. This will define the window of time in which you must carry out your sterilization orders at Green Rock.”

Asmodeus dismissed his officers, offering no explanation at all for the movement of the ID Grid.

After a routine ascent to orbit and the ID Grid over Palato the Exiler emerged from the Jovian ID Grid only a few thousand miles away from Green Rock. Asmodeus had obviously timed his deployment orders carefully. Soon Exiler was stationary in the space off the asteroid, which was littered with the debris of Punisher, Chastiser, and the greenhouse. Noriel had come up to the flight deck, and both she and Lahatiel stared at the devastation with sobs and tears. The crew wondered how they could be so moved, emotionally.

“I’ll take the lander over myself,” Lahatiel said. “My wife comes with me. Suriel, you stand well off in Exiler in case there’s a trap.”

“Yes sir.”

The interior of the micro-asteroid was still pressurized, and a few electrical panels had little immortal green and red lamps still glowing, but the main lights were not lit. It was gloomy, like entering one’s house at dusk after an extended trip.

No one could be found inside, neither Naseth and his family, Lahatiel’s father Terel, his mother Greidi, not even their dead bodies. As they searched, Lahatiel and Nuriel made their way to the operations center, where a set of four chairs faced a series of panels and monitors. Lahatiel knew the place well. A few instruments still functioned in idle.

Naseth’s log was old school, hand-written. Lahatiel learned then of the raids by first Chastiser, which required three Bulldogs to fend off, and finally Punisher, which cost Starkad the final Bulldog, the greenhouse, and Green Rock’s miniature black hole. But there his log entries ended.

Lahatiel was about to give up and return to his ship when a sphere of gushing water appeared in the center of the room, forcing both he and his sister-wife to close their faceplates before they drowned. Soon the room was completely immersed, making it impossible to open the hatch and escape, because the hatch opened inward. Both of them swam to the center of the sphere because there was little else to do. The universe turned inside out. Then Lahatiel and Nuriel bubbled up to the surface of the Sacred Pool in Canterwood, on Barbelo.

The mouth of the wormhole in the Green River Gorge had been temporarily borrowed to allow this transit.

Both Lahatiel and Noriel were overjoyed beyond words to see their parents again, alive, as well as their grandfather Naseth and all the other inhabitants of Green Rock. When things were completely explained to them, they expressed their gratitude to Yeshua for rescuing their kin and giving them a place to live in Haaretz.

Terel was moved to tears by pride for his children when he learned that they not only successfully returned the ship to Asmodeus, but Lahatiel had been given Exiler to command as an ophan. He said, “Lahatiel, I praise you for your loyalty to our Lord, but I learned just now that Mastema is somehow steadily killing both Yeshua Bat-El and his mother El Shaddai. If you remain in the Navy you will be helping him to carry out this murder, which will not only extinguish the lives of two living stars, but also the lives of everyone on the Earth.”

“Father I must confess my loyalty to him is a sham. I did not tell of Green Rock in order to keep you and mother safe from the Eyes of Mastema. When I return I propose to maintain the pretense with a false report.”

“And what of the crew of your ship, son, will they not report you to the Eyes?”

“I do not believe they will, Father. I have chosen my crew with extreme care. All of them are extremely good at what they do, but they also have issues with Asmodeus, mostly revolving around the desire to put their loved ones beyond the reach of the Eyes.”

Yeshua said, “Lahatiel, if I offer a safe haven for the dependents of your entire crew, do you think that will suffice to make your loyalty, and theirs, undivided once more, but solely on my behalf and against Mastema?”

“I believe it would, Lord, but Asmodeus has spoken of soon sending me after the starship launched by the Beaters from Hybla-Dia. I cannot assure you that I will be ordered by Asmodeus to return to the Sol system, and if I understand things correctly, you cannot create a passage to Barbelo unless we do.”

“There is one other way,” Yeshua said. “Asmodeus has shown favor to you because you remind him of another man that he admires very much named Ithuriel. I cannot say too much, because if I do the path forward will be lost, but I can say that you will be ordered to meet this Ithuriel, and if you can deflect his loyalty away from Mastema even as your loyalty and the loyalty of your crew has turned, then it will be possible to take your loved ones far beyond the reach of the Eyes.”

To this Lahatiel agreed.

Returning to the ship was easy, Lahatiel and Nuriel simply dove toward the bottom of the Sacred Pool and were ejected in a cloud of ice crystals near the ship, where they could be grappled by the engineer and hauled aboard.


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Strangers In Paradise