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When the army truck driven by Captain Raziel topped a pass high on a terminal moraine he saw a sheer wall of slowly retreating ice across a wide zone of freshly uncovered land still being carved by melt.

Thirty ji tall, the blue-white ice barrier stretched left and right to sink over the horizon. This was the edge of the awesome Northern Ice that covered almost half their world. Behind Raziel's truck lay a mere twenty-five hundred ji of unfrozen land and then the Southern Ice. It was slowly melting over the centuries. Only in one place, near the capital city, did the two ice packs come close together across the narrow equatorial belt of Lemnos and kiss, but in the distant past, in the time of Talishi and the World War, there were three such bridges, dividing Gorpai into three lands.

The four-lane concrete ribbon wound down the other side of the pass and straightened out, a low elevated highway that disregarded the shifting waters under it on a beeline for the base of the wall.

Raziel's passenger, Beleth, was his older sister and only surviving wife. Once he had four wives, two of them his sisters, befitting his rank in the middle eschelon of the Army of Belial. But as was so often the case in a harem situation, jealousies erupted, one wife was murdered by another, and Raziel himself strangled the guilty wife to death, more out of wrath that she had brought his career to an abrupt halt than to avenge his dead younger sister.

A third wife died after an extended illness. She had been the sister of his opponent in the second ritual killing of the Cupel system mandated by the Law of Belial. Now, with only one woman to wager, advancement to flag rank was out of the question. Raziel was damaged goods and even his promotion to major was long overdue.

Raziel had been diverted from combat to a more sedate role in logistics, and in the supply world, after the self-reinforcing bravado of battle command fell away, he a healthy fear of death returned to him.

Raziel drove closer to the blue and white wall until it grew to half their world. They could see the cliff was literally vertical, and even a little more than vertical.

If one of those overhangs decide to sheer off right now, he pointed out needlessly, we're dead. A high ridge of ice and snow on both sides of the road attested to the constant clearing that was needed.

Experimentalism, Beleth said, without any sign of worry about the ice, contrary to popular belief, can, if implemented properly, allow one of the freest possible societies.

The dangerous period was short. Soon the highway entered a tunnel melted into the very base of the ice. The pale blue translucent walls grew darker until they were black. They were safe, but to Beleth the tunnel was a kind of death anyway. The shrinking glow behind her could well be her last sight of Gorpai. From now until they departed the planet she would know only caverns.

Raziel sighed. Push for Experimentalism and you rank up there with King Haniel, who rallied his city under the banner of Talishi and killed thousands of his own people.

I rather think it was your own Army of Belial did the killing.

Suicide by Belial. You have to be pretty stupid and gullible and naive to think Experimentalism can work.

Why can't everyone determine what is good for the public in Experimentalism? Beleth suggested. You can have Democratic Experimentalism. What do we have now? Traditionalism. One person can determine what is good for many, but the many cannot determine what is good for themselves?

Beleth, there is a fatal flaw at the heart of Democracy. People are naturally lazy. They want free stuff. In a pure democracy, everyone will simply vote themselves sustenance from the Commons and no one will contribute. The whole structure will come crashing down. This has happened many times before, which is why only Traditionalism has survived.

Construction in ice was simple; it needed only a source of heat and a flexible conduit to whisk the melted water away. Deep within the ice the road twisted this way and that, finally dumping out in a multilevel city of burrows, bristling with security.

Look up tunnel 610 on the map, this isn't familiar to me.

It's coming up on the left. Ugh, I'm carsick now. I never could read and ride.

I was thrown off by that sign for 910.

This map has a blurb at the bottom that says, 'with apologies to Zelebsel.' Who's Zelebsel?

Probably some poor yang who trusted an earlier edition of the map.

Tunnel 610 was interrupted by a series of several checkpoints and it was only Raziel's credentials as a supply officer that got him through the gates with a long skinny gray box of ordnance strapped down on his flatbed trailer. His manifest was not in order. It would not do to allow even a quick glance inside the box.

The road dead-ended in a large illuminated cave that was the lay-down area for supplies coming in and going out of the facility. He was expected. The box was quickly forked off the truck and disappeared inside the bowels of the facility.

Raziel and Beleth themselves were taken to a well-lit conference room deep within a maze of passageways carved into the ice. They were given warmer clothes to wear, because the chill was eternal and omnipresent. Space heaters would only melt the walls.

Presently they were joined by three yang and a yin, and Raziel was mildly surprised when the yin began speaking rather than one of the males. She said, My name is Tabaet. These yeng are members of my team. They are Malkiel, Senciner, and Xaphon.

Your team? Raziel gasped. They answer to you? And Belial permits this?

She smiled. Belial permits much, because we do many things for Belial that he could not have otherwise. have delivered for us was designed and assembled right here.

Raziel took her awkward speech as a signal that someone might be listening to what was said in the room. And that presented a problem. It would be difficult conveying what had to be said while dancing around the actual words. He nodded his head to indicate he understood the situation.

Tabaet said, I would extend a full welcome to you, but this is a classified project, and the yin is uncleared.

I will not send my wife away away, Raziel insisted. Where I go, she goes. You will have to get her a clearance. She must be...fully the project.

That is impossible, Malkiel said. You must be content to train one of us to operate the The project is of such a nature that only four people can be...fully involved.

It was a condition of bringing I remain the sole operator. If you do not accept that condition, then you'll have to content yourself with an inert mass.

Time grows short, Senciner objected. With any delay the risk grows.

Raziel smiled. It is the unique nature of any reasonable delay is irrelevant.

Tabaet sighed and came to a decision. Very well. We have a simulator. Xaphon will instruct you in his role, and Malkiel will instruct your wife. I will retain Senciner on the team. When you are both fully involved in the project, there will be opportunity to discuss this further.

The yeng exploded simultaneously with loud objections but a glance from Tabaet quickly silenced them, and to Raziel that was an impressive thing to witness. Beleth concealed a smile behind her hand.

Tabaet:, we have commit, and we have liftoff at oh-two-thirteen universal time.

Raziel: Go all engines.

Beleth: We appear to have good thrust at this point.

Senciner: Talishi, we're go here on the ascent. Begin your roll maneuver.

Raziel: Tabaet, at three clocks the dynamics computer says the trajectory looks good.

Beleth: I show ten ji in altitude at this time.

Tabaet: Roll complete and we're pitching.

Beleth: Altitude twenty-two ji, velocity seven ji per clock.

Raziel: Ten clocks. The trajectory on my plot board is right on the preplan line.

Senciner: Through max vibration, and we're go, Talishi.

Beleth: Husband, feel that weight!

Raziel: And the booster computer reports we are now through the region of maximum dynamic pressure.

Tabaet: We're EDS MANUAL.

Senciner: Thirteen clocks and we are go.

Beleth: Altitude now two hundred seventy ji.

Raziel: Engine two out.

Tabaet: Raziel that inboard out was way early.

Raziel: Acknowledged.”

Tabaet: Senciner, confirm number two engine down.

Senciner: Affirmative, Talishi.

Raziel: You don't see any problem with that though, do you?

Senciner: Negative, not right now Raziel. All the other engines are go.

Tabaet: The early shutdown of the second engine will cause no problem, we will burn a little longer than normally scheduled.

Beleth: Coming up on five hundred ji altitude.

Senciner: Seventeen clocks. Trajectory's good, thrust is good.

Beleth: We're now six hundred ten ji high, seven hundred eighty, correction, seven hundred ji downrange.

Tabaet: Guidance initiate.

Senciner: And telemetry reports the guidance system is correcting our eighty ji error.

Raziel: The guidance is good and the lander computer is go.

Beleth: We're now at an altitude of nine hundred thirty ji.

Tabaet: The little red lines are right back on the little white lines up here.

Beleth: We are currently about up to four hundred ji per clock, twelve hundred fifty ji in altitude...two thousand two hundred ji downrange now.

Raziel: And our cabin pressure is sealed at point six one, which is normal. Senciner, what was the story on engine two?

Senciner: I don't have a story on why that shutdown was early, but the other engines were go, and we're go, we're still looking good, our gimbals are good, trim is good.

Tabaet: Level sense arm time four eight clocks, nominal, predicted second stage cutoff seven zero clocks.

Beleth: We are now six thousand two hundred in altitude, eighteen thousand ji downrange.

Tabaet: Standing by for crew report of main engine shutdown.

Beleth: MESD.

Raziel: Confirm MESD, Captain.

Senciner: And the radar at first glance says we look good on the ascent ellipse and the boosters are in 'safe' so thank you, everyone. We are clear of the planet and you are free to move about the cabin.

Tabaet said to Raziel and Beleth, You are also free of being overheard by anyone on Gorpai, so do you have any questions?

Senciner called you Talishi a couple of times back there, Raziel mentioned.

That's my real name. It wouldn't do to be called that in the heart of Belialdom.

Did your parents have a soft spot in their heart for the Talishi of the scriptures?

I am the Talishi of the scriptures.

How can I accept that as true? Raziel asked. Talishi hasn't made a dent on history since the days of the scriptures.

It was out of self-preservation. Every act of possession dilutes the personality of the one who possesses.

Belial has possessed the Gerash Patriarch generation after generation since the World War.

And Belial has reaped dissolution. Little remains of his original psyche except his malevolence.

Then why do you risk dissolution, if you are truly Talishi?

Bat-El found that possession of an infant avoids this problem. A baby has no well-formed personality to contaminate the one who possesses her. But now I have a question to ask you, Raziel. Belial has exactly ninety-two special weapons configured as missiles. How did you, a mere captain, manage to obtain one of them?

Your question tells me you do not doubt the weapon is genuine.

That should come as no surprise, she said. We ourselves created and assembled all ninety-two of these weapons, and Senciner has remotely verified the presence of the radioactive core. The only thing we do not know about this round is the code that is now required to arm it. So if you would only arm the round at this time, we can proceed to the next step.

Raziel floated to Senciner's console and replaced him at that position, where he entered the code on a keypad. When Senciner resumed his place, he confirmed the warhead was armed.

Thank you Raziel. Talishi's relieved glance took in both him and Beleth, and she smiled. Senciner and I welcome both of you aboard this historic flight, the first penetration into space by nephilim since Kandiel's ill-fated flight long ago, and the first without direct aid from the elohim.

Indeed, Raziel said. With the weapon now armed, we could go head-to-head against the avatar of Belial right now.

But that is not our purpose and you know it, Talishi said. Senciner, begin moving to intercept the comet, accelerate to point zero three gravities.

Can a person have both a Buddhist faith and a Christian faith? Senciner asked a week later as Talishi tried on various sunglasses during one of their ten hour down times.

They were in the center of three compartments in the tall, narrow space vehicle. Below them was the engineering space. Raziel and Beleth were on the top deck, having been minimally trained to operate the Big Board. If they encountered any emergencies they couldn't handle, they were supposed to come below and alert them, and it was Talishi's sincere hope that nothing more complicated than propellant re-balancing cropped up.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God, Talishi quoted. That would include Buddha and all men and women of good will. In fact, when Buddha said he was enlightened, perhaps he stumbled onto this very truth, but it took Bat-El to put it into words that people could understand.

Talishi, Buddha said he became enlightened, yet he was still alive afterwards. How do you meld with the All yet retain consciousness? And actually what did the Buddha become enlightened of? This he never said.

'In the beginning there was nothing, and El Shaddai said ‘let there be light’ and so there was still nothing, but it could be seen. Talishi tried on some sunglasses. How do these look?

Blessed are the cross-eyed; they shall see God twice.

You blaspheme, Senciner.

Okay, then how about, 'Blessed are the skeptics, for they make great scapegoats.'

The simple truth is that when you die, you will devolve into your constituent elements, and enter the same state of nothingness as individuals that preceded your conception and birth into this universe. If you do not fear the eternal nothingness that preceded your birth, then neither should you fear the eternal nothingness that will follow your death.

This remains speculation, even for you.

I have already died once before.

You are the nephilim incarnation of Chokhmah. Even when your nephilim 'container' is destroyed once again you will remain Chokhmah.

Even elohim have finite lifespans, and the same nothingness awaits us, Talishi said, selecting a recording of a spy program popular on Gorpai. Binah has not contradicted that induction.

Agent Y is a genetic freak, Senciner said when he noted her choice of entertainment. He's got YY sex chromosomes.

Talishi shook her head. There are no YYs, only maybe YYZs, or super yangs.

If I say he's YY, that's what he is.

Well there’s XY's, YZ's and ZZ's.

Talishi, no, there's XXs and XZs too. Besides, Agent Y is a fictional character.

Is it true what they say, Senciner, that too much testosterone makes yeng bald?

That’s absolutely one hundred percent correct. That’s why baldness is a sure sign of virility. You’re sweating, Talishi.

Yin don’t sweat, we glow. Besides it’s hot.

Ship's internal temps are well within specs.

Talishi dropped into bed like falling timber. Come here, I want to test the testosterone theory.

You want a short little stub like me?

I know some pretty tall Amazon babes who are married to tiny little runts.

Blessedly, Beleth didn't come below until their lovemaking was well over and they had covered up again. She said, Please come upstairs, Raziel is very upset about something.

What Raziel was very upset about was the amount of remaining propellant. A week of low but constant acceleration had depleted the tanks to 68%, and he just discovered that fact on his watch. You failed to mention that we almost at the point of no return, he complained bitterly. With almost a third of their velocity-change expended, they would need another third to come to a halt, and the final third to return to Gorpai and successfully land.

Because we were at the point of no return the instant we launched, Talishi replied sweetly. I thought you knew.

How could I possibly know?

Because your special weapon is set to detonate the instant it is detached from the ship, Senciner put in, his glance upwards indicating the long needle fixed to the very top of the ship like a church steeple. You, in fact, were about to advise us of that fact to force us to abort the mission and return to Gorpai.

Raziel held his expression in check, but a slow grin infused his features. Fine, it's all out in the open now, that merely pushes up my timetable a bit. Proceed with Turnaround.

We will do no such thing, Talishi said. If the comet is allowed to strike Gorpai there will be another Great Deluge and millions will die.

Then I will detach the special weapon and allow it to detonate now, in deep space. The Deluge will still happen, but we four will all die as well.

Husband! Beleth exclaimed. Such talk was well out of character for him, she feared his mind had somehow broken. And she feared for her own life.

By all means do as you have threatened to do, Talishi said. But your very presence aboard this spacecraft tells me you do not have the courage to die. Your plan was to ride out the Deluge up here, then return to Gorpai when it began to ice over, perhaps forage on Larund or Sala food caches.

If you do not turn this spacecraft around I'm dead anyway.

You are dead even in that case, Senciner said. Yes we knew the special weapon would detonate the instant it came off the rail, but we also know it will detonate after a certain amount of time under one full gravity. If we land on Gorpai, there no way you can run fast enough to get far enough away from the ship to survive the blast.

That last part is a little surprise from Belial, Talishi said. He didn't tell you, did he? You're an intelligent yang, Raziel, but did you really think Belial would permit you to carry off the weapon unless it suited his purpose?

And what purpose was that?

'To destroy whatever enclave you thought to seek refuge in after the Deluge, she said. You know what we're saying is true. Consider! We discovered the approaching comet, but did Belial allow us to warn anyone outside of the House of Gerash?

Raziel shook his head. No, and Belial is content to let perish the less desirable parts of even the House of Gerash.

Such as the ones who married outside of Gerash, Talishi muttered, or soldiers like yourself who do not have a full retinue of wives.

We still have time. You can set down on the planet and let Beleth and myself run free, and depart again before the timer detonates the weapon!

You just told me that Belial is using the comet as an opportunity for selective genocide. Does that sit well with you, Raziel? You feel no obligation to try to thwart Belial?

Easy for you to say, Talishi, the incarnation of Chokhmah who can never die. You can carry battle to Belial with no eternal consequences to yourself, and drag down your blind followers with you.

That's where you're wrong, Senciner put in. I'm not blindly following her, and neither were Malkiel and Xaphon. We knew full well this flight was to be a one-way trip. It's a fighting chance to prevent a third Deluge and save the lives of millions.

In a way, Raziel, I'm glad you insisted on coming, Talishi said. I am quite fond of Malkiel and Xaphon back at the armory, displaced by yourself and Beleth, and now they will survive, if we succeed in changing the path of the comet.

Raziel was miserable. This is easy for you, with your irrational beliefs, but for me death is oblivion. When I’m dead I won’t even know that I’m dead or that I ever lived. So I must grasp every additional moment possible, no matter how great the cost to others.

Senciner said, You mean you are not even aware of the proof of the afterlife that even our most skeptical philosophers accept? Astonishing! Then it falls to me, Raziel, to be your teacher. A thing is meaningful if it is verifiable in principle, but whether or not something is verifiable in principle must itself be verified. A logically possible method of verification must be analyzed and verified. For instance, if someone says, ‘I have a pain in my ankle,’ it is not verifiable by me, but still meaningful. If someone says ‘Kandiel wore a red dress on her twentieth birthday,’ it is not verifiable today, but it could have been verified by one of her contemporaries...such as Talishi.

Raziel said, Go on.

Okay, now things that are verified exist. Things that are not verified, but are at least verifiable in principle, may exist. Things that are not verified may not exist. Things that are not verifiable, even in principle, can not exist. Do you accept all of those premises?

I do, Senciner.

The afterlife is consciousness after death. Consciousness is exclusively self-verifiable. No one else can verify your consciousness and you cannot verify anyone else's consciousness. Provisionally, therefore we can say that the afterlife may exist, because it is verifiable in principle by the person who is conscious of it, if it exists.

Very well.

But if the afterlife does not exist, this is not verifiable, even in principle, because consciousness is required to make the verification that consciousness does not exist. Since the truth value of the proposition ‘no afterlife exists’ is not verifiable, even in principle, and the negation ‘the afterlife exists’ is at least not excluded, then the afterlife must exist, by the rule if not non-A then A.

Raziel said, Replace your proposition ‘the afterlife’ with ‘being reconstituted as an aquatic monkepotamus on the third planet orbiting Arcturus’ and your proof still holds.

Not so, because in principle we could send a starship to Arcturus III and interview that aquatic monkepotamus, so it is verifiable in principle. But the afterlife consists of a pure intellectual existence which is not publicly verifiable.

You are incorrectly assuming that the aquatic monkepotamus does not generate a special field that renders it completely invisible to any methods of detection, this rendering it completely unverifiable. Therefore the proof still holds.

Reincarnation as an aquatic monkepotamus, with the proviso that there is a special field that renders it completely invisible to any methods of detection, is one possible form of afterlife. Fortunately there are other modes, such as reincarnation as an intelligent materialist on the planet Gorpai. The only limitation is that you must be completely undetectable.

Raziel said, Then try this: Our Lady is defined as an Invisible Pink Unicorn in the sky who all people go to when they die. If Our Lady exists, she is verifiable in principle by the person who goes to Her.

The Invisible Pink Unicorn is not comparable to postmortem consciousness because the Invisible Pink Unicorn is not exclusively verifiable by the person who goes to Her, but She is also verifiable publicly by other people who go to Her (unlike one's consciousness, which is only privately, or self-verifiable; we can't even verify if living animals are conscious). So your counterexample fails.

Not true, sir. The Invisible Pink Unicorn is not verifiable publicly. She's invisible, She's undetectable by any of nephilim senses or technology. She can only be seen by a soul outside of a living body.

Raziel, She must have been seen by a living person, specifically, that person who first stated that She is pink.

Well then! The afterlife must have been seen by a living person, specifically, that person who first stated that you go there when you die.

Raziel, the existence of the afterlife, defined as postmortem consciousness, emerges as a result of verifiability being a prerequisite for existence plus consciousness being a prerequisite of verifiability. This is not comparable to the independent attributes of the Invisible Pink Unicorn which are not tangled with the observer's consciousness.

Actually it depends which side of the schism you fall upon, Raziel said. Some followers argue that the IPU, (peace be upon her), is pink and invisible, while others argue that her invisibleness is merely a shade of pink -- the most beautiful shade of pink naturally.

An absolutely invisible, absolutely beautiful shade of pink would represent a spike in the data. We should be able to see less beautiful shades of pink become less and less visible as the absolutely beautiful shade of pink was approached as a limit.

No, invisibility is conferred by infinite pink beauty. That is, we cannot see perfection. For proof, just look at the world! You cannot see anything that is perfect. It stands to reason that if we could see perfection, we would see perfect things. Yet we don't.

This is true in the case of the atmosphere. A perfectly clear atmosphere is invisible, but when it is made less than perfect by suspending smog particles in it, it does become visible. However, pink is a color, and color is a certain frequency of light, so a perfect pink color consists only of those photons which have the frequency of pink, with no sidebands of yellow or orange. So a perfection of pink would be observed in an ideal pink laser, but it would still be visible.

This is all just word salad! Raziel objected with a sudden burst of frustration and anger. It doesn’t mean anything!

Yes, but our lives and the lives of millions of yen and yang on Gorpai do mean something, Talishi gently asserted, and so does this mission. Whether that is also true for yourself and Beleth is entirely up to you. The thing has been set in motion. Nothing you can say or do will coerce myself or Senciner to turn this spacecraft around. Your greatest possible remaining span of life is now measured in hours. But whether we succeed or fail is entirely in your hands.

When Raziel and Beleth showed signs of failing to understand, Senciner said, We cannot watch you every moment of the remaining time. You could sabotage the ship, perhaps blow out a panel and let all our air escape into space, or launch the weapon, which you assure us will result in instant obliteration. We couldn't stop you, if you decided to thwart the mission out of spite. No one would ever know.

Raziel sighed. Exactly how do you intend to deflect the comet?

We will ram directly into it, Talishi revealed. The weapon will go off on impact and vaporize at least half of it. The other half will enter a new orbit and miss the equatorial zone of Gorpai, or perhaps even miss the planet altogether.

But as you draw near to the comet, you and Senciner will be very preoccupied, I imagine.

Very busy, she admitted. I'm afraid we will regret our missing Malkiel and Xaphon before the very end.

Then we will do what we can to help, Raziel said, and he permitted himself a wry grin. It will be . . . the excellent thing to do.

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Strangers In Paradise