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100 - SURIEL

As he began to carry out the command of Asmodeus to staff the Exiler with a new crew Lahatiel requested access to the full personnel records of the Navy of Mastema. Arioch said he would accommodate him only if he could be present during the selection process and retrieve the records personally.

House Gerash ran old school. All of the archives were in the form of microfilms embedded in punch cards. At Sol the equivalent archive would be in the Swarm and accessed by Micros.

First on Lahatiel's agenda was an operations officer. He asked for the best tactician in the fleet, regardless of rank. Arioch retrieved four microfilms and Lahatiel instinctively went for the one that he seemed to be most reluctant to hand over. Suriel Larund was her name, and she had last served on the cruiser Coercer when Asmodeus had sent that ship in together with a squadron of smaller ships to follow up on rumors the Beaters had constructed their own supercarrier. They found the vessel in question, but during the battle the skipper of Coercer was killed when the hull was breached. Suriel took command using the lander as a secondary bridge, and sent fourteen four-yeng corvettes to their deaths making futile torpedo runs against the carrier. The Beaters were obliged to pull their fighter cover in close, and that opened a window for three bombers to stand off and let their payloads fly. Scratch one Beater supercarrier.

For the benefit of Arioch, Lahatiel read aloud a fragment from a fitness report penned by the Commanding Officer of the Wayfarer where Suriel served as the Tactical Action Officer. 'She's uncanny. With just a few occasional glances at her gear she maintains a complete picture in her head of what's happening around the ship at all times, even in the heat of battle. This situational awareness has prevented collisions with other ships and even rocks on numerous occasions.'

Arioch didn't care about any of that. What was important to him was the fact that Suriel was a woman, first of all, and second, that she was a woman who preferred other women in bed.

There was a time when a female officer would have been unthinkable in the Navy of Mastema, because women had been considered little better than property under the Law of Mastema from the very beginning. Even now as a commissioned officer, Suriel could own no land, not even if through some miracle she attained to the highest echelon, which to date no woman had ever done. But all that was before the Beaters started throwing rocks at the cities of Barbelo.

Mastema knew if a man, by some odd fluke, was killed by a woman in the death combat then he didn't deserve to live and contaminate the gene pool. And if she died she yielded up a sister who would otherwise be unavailable.

'But obviously this Suriel must be very fierce,' Lahatiel told Arioch. 'Always on guard against being raped.' As for Arioch's other objection, about her sexual preferences, Lahatiel didn't really care, and if the truth be known, neither did Mastema.

Suriel was in the first class of women who entered under the new rules, and at the time everyone thought they were suicidal. But after many trials Suriel and a hard core group of other women survived and they even did well for themselves. Suriel even went on to survive a second Laraji.

Suriel had three booty-wives, Auriel, Chobaliel, and Orifiel, plus one sister-wife named Camael. All of them were totally dependent on her continued financial support as a hashmal, but only her booty-wife Orifiel was her lover. When Suriel accepted Lahatiel's offer to transfer to Exiler she said, 'I ask to keep Orifiel in my stateroom aboard this ship, sir, and to keep my other wives safely on Barbelo.'

'I agree, Suriel,' Lahatiel said. 'But please tell me one thing. I'd like to know your honest opinion of our Emperor.'

'Asmodeus I worship not, and why should I do so? All women are denied entry to the Temple of Mastema and from every shrine of Mastema. For me it was never a question of loyalty. Women are second-tier citizens in his Empire, and if it suits Lord Asmodeus to let me serve under you aboard his frigate, sir then it suits me as well, but neither you nor he should construe mutual advantage as fidelity.'

Lahatiel proposed to crew Exiler with just four officers and one ravmalak, when the normal complement of a frigate was eleven. When Arioch objected, Lahatiel reminded him that he had returned the vessel to Asmodeus with just his sister as crew.

The navigation officer took the ship out into the Eggbeater on a 'shakedown' cruise that was really an opportunity for Exiler's new crew to work and gel together as a team. And if some Beaters were flushed out of the woodwork along the way so much the better.

Two weeks into the training deployment Suriel said to Lahatiel, 'I think I know what this is, sir, but I need a second set of eyes.'

Lahatiel joined her at the console. 'Yes, I recognize those numbers, Suriel. Where did they come from? Why is there's no corresponding symbol on your scope?'

'Sir, one time on the Coercer I was bored and I discovered that commercial signal analyzers are actually much more sensitive than what the SLIP-64 uses, so if I create a dummy symbol out there and hook it, I can open a beamport on that bearing and my store-boughten gear will trigger on stuff that's way out there, long before the SLIP-64 shows a symbol. Just now I took a look out at 210 tack 45 and I got a whiff of something. Fusion motor signature. No doubt there are others nearby on different bearings. I can open more beamports out that way and fish around for more, sir.'

'Actually, I have a better idea. Gunner, program a torpedo for Launch On Bearing Only and send it on its way: 210 tack 45 and go.'

'Yes sir,' the weapon's officer said, immediately complying with his order. Her fingers flew over the console and then a thump shook the ship. 'LOBO away.'

There followed about an hour of watching with the Big Eye and waiting. Then Hashmal Suriel announced that one of the unknown contacts had lit off their fire-control radar to take shots at Exiler's torpedo which they discovered, far too late, was almost upon them and in terminal cruise. A little puff of light appeared on the Big Eye briefly, indicating that either the gunner had scored a hit, or the enemy had somehow detonated her torpedo.

Immediately there was heard frantic shouting back and forth on UHF radio in the clear, indicating the presence of at least two more ships. It also told them the gunner scored a hit.

One of those two remaining ships started slicing and dicing the sky with search radar to find whoever it was that shot it at them, and after a few minutes they had Exiler locked on with what Suriel called 'steady rails' which referred to the constant train of radar pulses on one of her scopes. It meant a torpedo was being launched at them.

'Gunner, warm up your laser and get ready for some incoming rounds. And helm, begin taking random evasive maneuvers, I don't want to make it easy for them to hit us.'

Immediately everyone began to be pitched back and forth in their couches as the navigation officer made wild course changes under high acceleration. Meanwhile the engineer, below-decks, monitored the strain on the engines. Sure enough, within ten minutes a rising whine filled the bridge. Suriel had picked up an inbound torpedo and immediately initiated countermeasures.

As Suriel tried to jam the torpedo with Macksy the weapon's officer spotted a dot moving against the star background on the Big Eye and started putting short, powerful, Q-squelched laser pulses on it, one after the other. The lights on the flight-decked of Exiler dimmed with each power draw.

Somehow, the gunner never missed and she didn't need any stinking fire control radar, an uncanny fact that astonished even veterans when they saw her do her magic. Every hit took a toll. Pretty soon the dot became a harmless scattered line of tumbling commas that missed the ship by a good 500 meters, flashed by like a set of lightning bolts, then sailed off to infinity on the other side.

'That was my first real ship-to-ship tussle,' she said.

Lahatiel beamed at her. 'You performed like a champ. Everyone did.'

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.


When Lahatiel had selected his engineering officer Arioch had no intractible objection to the ophan's choice of the Brown Beard Ravmalak named Kushiel Bellon. Arioch had nothing to say about Kushiel's devotion to Mastema, his adherence to the Law, his sexuality, his masculinity, his professional competence, or anything else about the nephil aside from his rank at the top of the lowest eschelon. 'An engineering officer should be an erel at least,' he said. But Arioch knew there was no use convincing Lahatiel.

Kushiel had performed well during the shakedown cruise, but after Green Rock he had proven the most difficult to sway away from devotion to Mastema. Yet as Lahatiel had guessed this devotion was entirely a front, and it only required a lever to cause this false front to collapse in ruin. Lahatiel found the lever, and the lever was getting Kushiel to hold forth on Asmodeus breaking trust.

'Xanthos was wild in the beginning,' he said, 'calling for many nephilim to come and labor there. In return we were promised some of the very land we toiled to bring to flower. But Sartael broke his word and gave landed estates only to his officers of flag rank, and we simple laborers were promised only more serfdom. Later when Asmodeus found he needed a much larger military to put down rebellion in the Eggbeater, he recruited from the Xanthos labor pool. Asmodeus promised his enlistees land on Hybla and Dia that would be theirs after a term of twenty years. That was the second covenant the Emperor made with us, and the second one he broke. On that day, I considered my oath of loyalty to the Emperor to be null and void. I did not walk away from him, for I still serve. He walked away from me, I deemed. So I will join you in opposing the Patriarch, Ophan Lahatiel. But I do not ask for sanctuary for my two wives in Haaretz or wherever it is that Yeshua is promising. I would have them remain aboard Exiler with me, sir.'

Lahatiel agreed, and it was no problem. After all, frigates typically had a complement of eleven nephilim and he had his own sister-wife Noriel aboard. Suriel had Orifiel with her, and Barakiel had Peniel.

After the Green Rock mission Lahatiel reported to Asmodeus that the asteroid was entirely neutralized. He said that Naseth had opened all the hatches to make the end for everyone more merciful than starving to death. All resistance was at an end. There were not even dead bodies of the insurgents inside the asteroid.

Asmodeus was sufficiently pleased at the results of this test that he said, 'Before the Eyes I declare Ophan Lahatiel to be the Hand of Mastema, even as Zadkiel was once the Mouth of Mastema. When you do a thing, Lahatiel, it shall be as though I had done it. When you say a thing, it shall be as though I had said it.'

Lahatiel kneeled and said, 'My Lord grants to his servant a great honor!' But naturally this set the Eyes of Mastema murmuring among themselves again.

'Lahatiel, I have a large problem and maybe you can solve it. Do you know of the Seraph named Ithuriel?'

'Yes, Lord, he is a human from Earth, yet years ago he placed himself entirely under your command. It is this Ithuriel who created the sub-macro which powers Exiler and lies at the heart of her torpedoes.'

Asmodeus said, 'Ithuriel served me well in the flower of his youth, but in his middle years he has become weak. He has a son born of of his wife Jabniel, a young nephil named Hadraniel. Ithuriel cannot bear the thought of possibly losing Hadraniel in the death-combat, so he withholds him from the military with Jabniel's assent. And I, for my part, will not push Ithuriel on this matter. He has given me enough. But Ithuriel is close to rendering a service to me far greater than siring more cannon fodder, and if he would rather train his son to be an astronomer than a soldier, then so be it. Unfortunately, young Hadraniel, who is now a student at the University of Xanthos, has been abducted by members of a criminal organization there called the Iron Fist, and they have certain demands for ransom. This would be a small matter unworthy of my attention in any other circumstances, but Ithuriel is very distraught, and he cannot find it in himself to keep working on a very important final project while the fate of his beloved son remains unresolved.'

'What are my orders, Sire?'

'Lahatiel, commanding Exiler you will proceed to Xanthos, discover where the boy named Hadraniel is being held, and neutralize the Iron Fist elements holding him. You will do this in such a spectacular way that it will deter any and all future kidnapping attempts of suchlike nature.'

'Lord, your pardon, but it may be impossible for even the new crew of Exiler to carry out those orders without killing this Hadraniel as well.'

'Civilian causalities are often unavoidable when servicing a target with an air strike. After the campaign, Exiler shall proceed to the estate of Ithuriel which is now in high orbit over Barbelo. There you shall bring Seraph Ithuriel news of the tragic loss of his young son Hadraniel. You shall offer my sincere condolences, and you will also provide what moral and physical assistance Ithuriel might need to complete his necessarily brief mourning process and accelerate his ongoing research to a successful conclusion.'

Exiler was underway less than an hour after Asmodeus gave his orders.

The entire crew of Exiler knew of the Patriarch's command to go directly to Xanthos, the largest of four natural satellites of Barbelo, but nevertheless Lahatiel ordered Barakiel to set up an ascent ellipse to the satellite Rhene first.

At a distance of 310,000 miles from Barbelo, Rhene, which is only about ninety miles wide, is just visible as a very bright disk in the night sky of Barbelo. Rhene was Mastema's prison. In an icy world of poisonous, motile flora, with a warrior-king god, an unforgiving religion, and a population steeped in harsh militarism, Rhene was the one place in the universe that gave natives of Barbelo nightmares.

'Barakiel, you will put us on an ascent ellipse to the prison moon Rhene.'

'Rhene. Yes sir.'

Lahatiel hit a switch. 'Kushiel, prepare for a quarter-gee acceleration on my mark.'

'Yes sir,' came his voice, and the ophan knew Kushiel and his wives were scrambling back there through one or more of the six drive pods clustered around the ship, or the maze of tunnels linking to them. Now the journey of Exiler would well and truly begin.

Barbelo has four natural satellites. Three of them are simply wayward asteroids from the Eggbeater, captured long before humans were transplanted on the planet below. The nearest one is Palato, which is 385 miles in diameter, comparable to the asteroid 2 Pallas in the Sol system. In the remote past it was tamed by tidal forces into a perfectly circular orbit precisely on Barbelo's equatorial plane. The moon itself was not perfectly circular, however, much more like a potato. As with the Earth's moon, Palato's rotation period and revolution period are identical, so it always keeps one end of the potato locked toward Barbelo as it turned.

Palato is much smaller than the Earth's moon, but it is only about 42,000 miles from Barbelo. From the surface of the planet, Palato looks very similar in both size and appearance, except there are no dark mares to make a 'man in the moon' pattern. From Palato, white Barbelo fills much of the sky and is truly impressive.

Only 163,000 miles from Barbelo is the much larger moon called Xanthos, which at 1,975 miles in diameter rivals the Earth's moon in absolute size. It is a true satellite of Barbelo, created by the magma back-splash of a cataclysmic and ancient collision that nearly destroyed the planet.

In apparent size Xanthos appears positively bloated to the few humans who have seen it, for Xanthos is a third again larger than Luna as it appears from Earth. Due to its relatively close proximity to Barbelo, much of the early colonization activity of the nephilim focused there. Only in the last decade has the population of Hybla-Dia surpassed Xanthos.

The fourth satellite of Barbelo is actually a satellite of Rhene, a moon of a moon. Tiny Minos is only seven miles in diameter, and revolves only about 2,500 miles above the surface of Rhene.

Between Xanthos and Rhene, at roughly 200,000 miles, was the orbit of Ithuriel's habitat.

At Lahatiel's command, Ravmalak Kushiel Bellon revved up the ship's macros to a quarter gee for an hour. In the injectors of Exiler's two sub-macro engines, 'dark water' which had been held in a dense, entangled mass of superimposed quantum states suddenly flipped back to normal water and began the obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle again, which said, in essence, that no two water molecules can exist in exactly the same place at exactly the same time. So the molecules of H2O flew away from each other with great violence, and the only way to expand was through the ship's rear nozzles. To conserve linear momentum, Exiler lurched forward.

Lahatiel then set Condition Four, normal steaming, which required only two officers to be on the flight deck during the watch period. Suriel and Barakiel had the first watch.

'I turned off my fire-control computer but I still see blocks!' the Gunner complained.

'Remember when Crwth first came out on Gamemaster?' Kushiel asked her. 'I played it so much, I would go to sleep and see dregs!'

'I used to pick Chamberries and then see little orange blobs when I closed my eyes,' Suriel said.

Barakiel wanted in on the act too. He said, 'I had the insides of my eyelids painted so when I close my eyes I always see a beautiful picture.' The Gunner snorted at that and struck belowdecks with Lahatiel for lunch, taking the ladder since the ship's acceleration provided a small amount of 'gravity'.

Early in the ascent ellipse there was no visible brightening of Minos. Barakiel settled down to a long game of 'Airplane.' That was when he used his trackball to 'take off' and 'land' the cursor on his navigation display along the line on the bottom row of the screen.

Suriel busied himself watching Kushiel's precious sub-macros during the burn using his remote panel on the flight deck. She logged when the burn timed out and ordered Barakiel to confirm they were still on track to intercept Rhene.

After that little bit of excitement Barakiel switched to a long game of 'Race Car'. That was when he used his trackball to move the cursor on his navigation display around the outermost two rings as quickly as possible, trying not to touch either ring.

'The entire Traditionalist world system is in retreat,' Barakiel blurted from his favorite topic when he was thoroughly bored with Race Car.

'Retreat, Erel? That sounds relaxing.'

'There's nothing wrong with retreats, Ma'am, but that's not what I meant.'

'Erel Barakiel, I only feed Experimentalists to the lions. Not my ship- mates. Unless they happen to be Experimentalists.'

By the middle of the uneventful ascent to Rhene, the officers on watch resorted to listening to broadcasts from Barbelo on Suriel's communication board. One of these programs was philosophical in nature, leading Lahatiel and Kushiel into an epic three hour conversation about inner and outer peace. When Suriel came up the flight deck to start her watch Kushiel concluded that nirvana was really just his stateroom sleeping bag and he was long overdue to attain it.

Between Suriel and Lahatiel the conversation drifted more toward revealed theology. By the time Barakiel came up to the bridge again to relieve the ophan they were deep into it, and Barakiel counted hymself fortunate to have missed it.

'Affirming the will of the Old One to save all,' Lahatiel said to Suriel when Barakiel took his seat, 'while also affirming the unconditional election of some, implies that there are at least two wills in the Old One, or two ways of willing. It implies that he decrees one state of affairs while also willing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass.'

'Sir, if the Old One has decreed all events, then it must be that things cannot and should not be any different from what they are.'

'Theologians on Barbelo have spoken of sovereign will and moral will, efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will, voluntas signi and voluntas beneplaciti.'

'I reject the notion that the Old One could decree that a thing be one way,' Suriel declared, 'and yet teach that we should act to make it another way. The Old One is truth, and truth is unified.'

'Give us this day our Daily Knowledge,' Barakiel put in, more than ready to make an end to their verbal joust. 'It's a good thing this Old Guy likes me, because I like me, too, and if He didn't like me, then I would have issues with Him.'

Mastema had created on Rhene a brutal prison for the worst offenders of the Empire, those recalcitrants for whom simple execution would be deemed far too merciful. Supplied only by shipments from a fortress on the nearby Minos and guarded by the Navy's elite military police, the prison on Rhene was considered absolutely airtight against any attempt to escape.

If hell existed anywhere in the universe, then Rhene was a good candidate for it. Every art of torment devised over thousands of years of nephilim tribal warfare reached its pinnacle and uttermost fulfillment in the dungeons of Rhene, whose majority of inmates were virtually buried alive, crammed naked in dark cells hardly larger than a coffin, with not even the possibility of escape by suicide.

In those isolated and claustrophobic conditions their minds wandered on strange ruts and withered, and when after many days or months they were periodically taken to the questioning chambers, dimly lit with blood red light and assailed by the never-ending screams of countless other inmates in neighboring cells, it almost seemed better to them.

Yet all these tortures would serve no purpose if all the inmates simply perished in the bowels of Rhene completely forgotten by society. Accordingly, some of the crippled survivors of Rhene were taken back to Barbelo and released into society to spread horrific tales of what happens to nephilim who sin against Mastema, or break the Law, which of course were exactly the same thing.

As Exiler drew near Lahatiel began to issue a stream of orders. 'Erel Barakiel, approach the moon Minos, but do it cautiously, with no fancy flying. They do not respond well to ships acting strangely. Hashmal Suriel, when they hail us on VHF, they will have already checked us out with Palato and know the identity of our ship. Tell them the Hand of Mastema is arriving in person and demands clearance to land. Follow their instructions to the letter.'

'Yes sir.'

Exiler drew near to tiny Rhene. Lahatiel ordered all hands on deck except Kushiel, who was to remain with his engines below. The Gunner came up to the bridge and sat at her fire control console, where she refused to even look Erel Barakiel in the eye.

Suriel didn't think it was possible at the time, but for the entire mission the Exiler's weapons officer Sar Adnarel Sala would manage to pointedly ignore everything Barakiel said. If a thread of conversation was taken up by others, Adnarel refused to take part if the topic was initiated by Barakiel. She seemed to have an immaculate memory for who started what discussion. After all, tossing someone in Lake Ignora wasn't as much fun unless the victim was acutely aware at all times of being in Lake Ignora. The amount of effort this took on Adnarel's part astonished Suriel, and it amused her to watch the train wreck unfold. Suriel almost felt compelled to take notes.

Unlike the navigator she despised, Adnarel Sala, at least, was not a fraud. She had easily killed her opponent in the death match simply because she could not miss. That was the talent for which Lahatiel had proposed to make Adnarel his weapons officer when he was reviewing the records of candidate officers. Arioch's objection at the time was that Adnarel was simply too feminine. She was a girly-girl, loud and proud. It was jarring to see that in Mastema's navy. At least Suriel made an attempt to half emulate a man, if you squint your eyes at her just right.

Lahatiel had to admit that even Adnarel's official photo made her come across as a supermodel from Earth. Barbelo didn't have supermodels, since they existed only to sell things to women, and women on Barbelo didn't have any money. If Barbelo had a film industry like on Earth, then Adnarel would have easily been a movie star.

But meeting Sar Adnarel in person, Lahatiel found, was a subtly disturbing experience. Fully seven feet tall, the young woman's undercurrent of sexual power was undeniable. The official record was sketchy about her past so Lahatiel was at a loss to explain how she had come to be a weapon's officer and not the trophy wife of another officer, mated to either her brother or the one who vanquished her brother. Lahatiel asked her to fill in some of the details.

'I was born on the isle of Danya, sir, the part of the land of House Sala that is occupied by House Gerash. I didn't have any brothers. I grew up with my sister on my father's estate. We had many farm hands to help us, and I never had to toil once for all the days of my childhood. But then my father died in a battle against the Beaters, and our land reverted back to Sartael, because according to the Law of Mastema my mother could not inherit property. And by this time Sartael was running out of high-ranking friends he could assign land to, yet he refused to allow lower-echelon veterans to have estates.'

'My engineering officer, a ravmalak, mentioned that same policy when he was telling me about his own life.'

'Also, sir, there was the question of what to do with my sister and my mother and myself in any event. If we were cast out to become beggars, or set to toil on what had been our own land, it would set a precedent, and other officers of flag rank would fear to die in service to the Emperor, lest their own wives and children suffered the same fate.

'So Sartael reorganized my father's estate as a kind of agricultural cooperative, and set my mother in place as the Emperor's representative. Our farm hands continued to have employment, and the Emperor, Sartael, and then later Asmodeus, received far more in taxes than he did when my father was lord of the plantation, because there was no middle-man with expensive tastes like my father to intercept the bulk of the profits.

'My childhood was spent doing little more than idle play. When I became a full-grown woman and set aside my toys, life grew boring for me indeed. I knew nothing about farming, and sometimes there was only enough food and money to survive from one day to the next. But I did have one talent that could not be denied. When I went hunting with a bow to supplement our green stuff with meat, I found that if I put my mind to it, I simply could not miss. And that, through a long, strange winding path that included granting certain favors to smooth the way that I'd rather not go into great detail about, and an accelerated college education, led to my present job in Mastema's Navy as a weapons officer.'

As Lahatiel had done with the three other officers he had selected to crew the Exiler, he gently steered Adnarel into revealing her true feelings about the Gerash Patriarch. At one point she admitted, 'It was quite an eye-opener to see him scramble to recover from one of his own bad decisions. It was a person like waking up one day and realizing they have exceeded their own father in maturity and wisdom, and their father now seemed like nothing more than a petulant, selfish brat, only taller.'

Lahatiel was content to leave it there, rather than push Adnarel for an open declaration of rebellion against Asmodeus. He knew peer pressure from the rest of the crew would greatly sway her if she was wavering on that front.

To Erel Barakiel's utter astonishment, the shakedown cruise of Exiler into Beater territory was Sar Adnarel's first experience in free fall. Apparently she had been trained to become a weapons officer in the middle echelon the Imperial Navy entirely by simulators and classrooms on the surface of Barbelo.

Adnarel's newbie status became a problem after their first dinner when Lahatiel and Suriel broke out cigars. A number of dependent guests excused themselves. Ravmalak Kushiel plugged his nose. Barakiel rolled off the lid from a can of smoked sardines. The smell of the smoke and the fish was too much for poor Adnarel. Sha started making horrible heaving noises. A fleck of her vomit struck Barakiel right in the face.

'They weren't lying,' he said, wiping it off with disgust. 'You really are a crack shot!'

But Adnarel was curled into a ball and would not or could not answer.

He rubbed it in some more. 'Sar Adnarel, perhaps you don't know the ancient spacer's rule that says you have to clean up your own floating globules of puke.'

You clean it up, Erel,' growled Lahatiel, who was much more tolerant of Adnarel as she tried to get her space legs. 'Momma and Poppa are trying to enjoy an after-dinner smoke.'

Barakiel felt knocked over by shame. In the eyes of Lahatiel he must appear as no more than an immature brat, which was entirely ironic, since Lahatiel was the youngest officer on board, younger than Adnarel even. Barakiel bristled at the injustice of it all. But this little girl who was allegedly a weapons officer was entirely to blame.

'Boot,' he sneered at Adnarel as he went aft to get cleaning supplies.

Before his head was clear of the Banquet Room deck, Adnarel unrolled from her fetal position enough to tell him icily, 'I shan't forgive you, Helm. I shan't forget.' And without another word Adnarel went forward to the flight deck to brood at her weapons console. A legendary feud was born.

On the current mission to Xanthos, with the layover at Minos that he had ordered, Lahatiel thought back to that vomit incident. He suspected the feud between his officers was made possible because Adnarel realized, perhaps only subconsciously, that both Barakiel and his lover Peniel were entirely immune to her sexual charms. And that insight suggested a course of action to the ophan as they drew near to Minos. He spoke to Adnarel privately, asking for her willing cooperation. 'I didn't want to give you the wrong idea,' he explained, 'but for this part of the mission, your talent as a gunner is entirely superfluous, but your talent as a beautiful nephil female is not.'

Barakiel approached Rhene with great caution to avoid tripping the hair-trigger automated defenses. Suriel watched the microwave band for any sign of fire-control radar locking on. Tiny Minos, the sub-mood of the moon Rhene, possessed a surface gravity sixty times less intense than Barbelo. Barakiel didn't so much land Exiler on Minos as he docked with it. A tube in the landing facility fitted itself around Exiler Sidekick's front hatch window to permit egress through the bottom of the ship.

Lahatiel asked Suriel to join him briefly in the Banquet Room so he could quietly pass along a few things. When they were alone, he said, 'There is a graduate student by the name of Hadraniel, the son of the well-known human named Ithuriel, who, of course, invented the sub-macro and is currently the Imperial Astronomer. A month ago this young student traveled from the campus at Danae to the capital city of Xanthos to enjoy a break from class at the hot springs there. He was abducted by associates of a criminal organization called the Iron Fist, who are demanding a number of things as ransom. The orders I have directly from Asmodeus are to take out this Iron Fist outfit even if the boy is killed, if not directly by one of our torpedoes then indirectly by the Iron Fist after we answer their demand for a ransom by flattening one of their domes chosen at random.'

'So let me guess where you are going, sir,' Suriel said. 'You think we can actually save this kid.'

He nodded. 'The rest of the team will follow orders, but I'm telling you so you don't wonder about any mission creep.'

'I appreciate that sir, but I am just as capable of following your orders as the other officers.'

'I know you are Suriel. Sorry. I'll tell you more later.'

Lahatiel emerged from the upside-down lander hanging under the Exiler, weighing all of three pounds, and was met by guards who escorted him through a maze of corridors to the spacious office of the warden, Achimel Larund. The warden was a nephil with an exceedingly cruel reputation, the better to command Mastema's version of hell. Lahatiel told him, 'I am the Hand of Mastema.'

'I don't know what a Hand of Mastema is,' Achimel sneered.

'I realize I will have to make certain allowances at first until all the servants of our Lord understand the authority that has been imbued in the Hand of Mastema. I will say only this: The Hand of Mastema demands that you release into his custody one Elimelech of the Cast Off from the prison at Rhene. Take as much time as you dare communicating with Palato about this demand, and my authority to make it. Or don't communicate with Palato at all, if you dare that as well. I will await your answer aboard the Exiler.'

Five Eyes of Belial prostrated themselves before Asmodeus and his son Apollyon in the throne room on Palato. Arioch stood up and said, 'Your pardon, Lord Asmodeus, but a matter has come to our attention that we believe proves your trust in Ophan Lahatiel was entirely unfounded.'

Asmodeus said, 'Come closer, Arioch, and state your piece.'

Arioch walked reverently forward a few more paces and said, 'We know, Lord, that you commanded Lahatiel to investigate the Iron Fist organization at Xanthos and destroy them. Instead, the Exiler has gone to the prison at Rhene and has ordered the warden to set free a notorious rapist and murderer named Elimelech, which will dismay certain very powerful clans on Barbelo when they learn of it.'

Asmodeus turned to his son and said, 'Apollyon, Lahatiel trained you to prevail in the death combat, so you know him better than I. Can you think of a reason why he would disobey my order to proceed directly to Xanthos, and attempt a jailbreak at Rhene instead?'

'My father and liege-lord,' Apollyon said, 'I believe Lahatiel intends to torture this Elimelech to give him a lead on the secret location of Iron Fist on Xanthos. I believe if you allow this prisoner to be released as Lahatiel has ordered, then Iron Dome will cease to exist only a few days afterward.'

'What perturbs me, son, is that the Eyes of Mastema are supposed to be my intelligence arm, yet the stupidity of their current leader has become apparent with this glaring oversight. You have faith in young Lahatiel, and I have faith that you would make a better commander of my Eyes than Arioch.'

Apollyon understood immediately. He stood up from his seat at the right hand of Asmodeus and said to Arioch, 'When my father created the title Hand of Mastema he said, ‘When you do a thing, Lahatiel, it shall be as though I had done it. When you say a thing, it shall be as though I had said it.' You were present when my father said that, so ignorance cannot be your excuse. The only alternative is that you believe my father said that in jest.' Apollyon drew his blade and approached the frightened nephil. 'And now, Arioch, your blade, if you please…'

Arioch drew his own blade in turn, and flipped it in his hand to present it to Arioch hilt-first. But then without saying a word he set the blades' tip against his own heart, turned, and rammed as fast and as hard as he could into the nearest dark gray wall of the throne room. His knees buckled, and Arioch sank slowly to the ground in the low gravity of Palato.

Apollyon rushed to the body of Arioch and flipped him over with a boot. The blade was still buried deep in his chest, piercing his heart with a mortal wound. As insurance against a botched attempt to fall on his sword, Arioch had simultaneously bitten on a cyanide capsule. The faint tell-tale odor of burnt almonds came from his open mouth even as he drew his final breaths.

The Eyes of Mastema might have been prepared with an antidote for hydrogen cyanide, and they might have been prepared to save Aricoh from his chest wound, but they were not prepared to do both. He was forever beyond the reach of Apollyon to arrange a far more entertaining and excruciating end.

After only a single hour the Warden radioed the Exiler and said, 'I am at your service, Hand of Mastema. Your order will take about six hours to carry out. Only the prison ferry is permitted to approach or depart Rhene. All other vessels are attacked by automatic systems which cannot be overridden, lest the prisoners contrive an escape.'

'Very good, Warden, then I shall continue to wait aboard my ship.' And Lahatiel told Barakiel to move off the platform temporarily to make it ready to receive the ferry.

When the six hours had nearly passed Adnarel entered the Banquet Room from her stateroom wearing the blue skin-tight body suit uniform Lahatiel had asked her to wear, but she was also wearing some intensely provocative perfume, outrageous molecules she reserved for liberty ashore and hadn't worn on the ship before out of olfactory courtesy for her fellow officers.

'Perfect!' Lahatiel exclaimed, but a picture said a thousand words. Lahatiel's suddenly obvious male biological response said that he wasn't telling his gunner a little white lie by any means.

So Lahatiel returned to the office of the warden, this time with Adnarel accompanying him. Elimelech was found waiting in the office bound in chains, wearing a tattered yellow jumpsuit which had been provided to him for the trip up from Rhene, but only for the convenience of Lahatiel, that he need not scrounge up clothing for whatever errand he had in mind for Elimelech, for otherwise all prisoners on Rhene remained in a disrobed state as part of the psychological warfare against them.

But the presence of Adnarel was an entirely unexpected form of psychological warfare.

The jumpsuit hid most of the damage to his body, but numerous scars on the face of Elimelech attested to a life of constant violence, either before or after his incarceration, or possibly both. A haunted look in his eyes spoke of the toll the prison was taking on his mind, but there was also a small hint of defiance there.

At a nod from Lahatiel, Sar Adnarel Sala took a large print out of a blue cylinder. It was a color photograph taken from space where two fissures on Xanthos met in a wide flattened cross. In the center was a cluster of sixty-one domes, like a giant Crwth game board, all connected by a web of roads. The Gunner posted it on the Warden's office wall at eye level, then stood where the prisoner could easily gaze at her, which he often did. He had never seen her like.

'Elimelech of the Cast Off,' Lahatiel began, 'the price of your freedom from Rhene is simply the correct answer to two questions. Please glance at this aerial photograph. My first question is, do you recognize this place?'

'I never saw it before in my life,' Elimelech spat, not even turning his head to look at it.

'Oh my, that was not the correct answer. Lord Asmodeus will be most disappointed that his generous gesture of mercy was thrown right back in his face. He might also conclude that conditions at Rhene have grown somewhat soft of late, warden, if a dangerous prisoner was offered a choice between freedom and a second round of interrogation, and he preferred the interrogation. But I suppose one can't push a string. Thank you very much, Warden Achimel, for what cooperation you have provided. Asmodeus at the very least will be happy to hear about that.'

Lahatiel and Adnarel departed the office of the Warden at that time, and had nearly reached Exiler Sidekick again when Achimel approached him timidly and said the prisoner had thought things over for a minute and had grown a bit more contrite. The Warden looked a bit like a whipped dog himself.

So back in the Warden's office Adnarel rolled out the map once more.

Elimelech said, 'It is an aerial image of the city of Xanthos, sir on the satellite of Barbelo which is also called Xanthos.' And every time he spoke his eyes drifted to rest on Adnarel. It had been a long incarceration for him, and he had seen nothing but male nephilim for years.

'Excellent!' said Lahatiel. 'Then if you would be so kind as to signify with this Darkr Markr which one of these domes is the true seat of power on Xanthos, Elimelech, you will soon be on your way back to hearth and home.'

'I will be happy to comply, if such a small thing is all that you wish,' Elimelech said. He took the Darkr Markr and casually put a black slash through the dome in the exact center of Xanthos.

'That's not good enough, Elimelech. I already know that dome is the Directorate. I'm not looking for the facade, I'm looking for the real seat of power on Xanthos.'

Elimelech shot him a dark glance and seemed to mull it over for a bit, seeing the ophan's game now in full. Then he sighed and looked at the aerial photo again, much more carefully this time, and placed an X over a dome on the outside ring, to the southeast of the Directorate.

'Very good,' Lahatiel said. 'Warden, please remand this prisoner to my custody in accordance with the Emperor's wishes. He will no longer need to be bound in chains. I'll be taking him home to Xanthos myself aboard the Exiler. The Lord Asmodeus wishes it.'

'Asmodeus wishes it,' Warden Achimel replied with a trace of sarcasm, releasing the chains with his own key. 'But I don't think you realize what a monster this is you and the Emperor are letting walk.'

Adnarel rolled the photograph up again, slid it into the blue tube, and led the way back to the ship. She entered Exiler first and headed straight for the bridge, followed by Lahatiel. But when Elimelech climbed through the lander he found the hatch to the rest of the frigate closed.

Lahatiel's voice emerged a speaker. 'Relax and make yourself comfortable, Elimelech,' he said. 'I regret that the rest of my ship is classified for visual inspection and you don't have a clearance. When we get to Xanthos I'll fly you down myself. In the meantime, you might want to close the exterior hatch before we return to open space, at least if you are fond of breathing.'

A day after departing the double moon Rhene-Minos the navigation officer Erel Barakiel reported, 'We have achieved synchronous orbit over the city of Xanthos, sir.'

Suriel was summoned from a nap back to her station on the flight-deck, where she focused the big imported 500mm Fairchild refractor down onto the city and threw the image up on the main viewport's liquid crystal layer.

Lahatiel climbed down into the locked lander with Elimelech and prepared for separation. A series of thumps announced their departure. The time of flight to the surface was about an hour. Several domes on the outskirts of Xanthos, separated from the main city, were landing bays for ships.

With Exiler's crew watching intently from high overhead, the metallic half-sphere that covered one of these domes rolled completely over on huge gimbals, opening to allow the lander to settle to the surface inside. When it closed again the dome quickly re-pressurized. Since it was a lander from Mastema's navy, there were no debarkation charges. It was all on the house.

Standing outside the lander after they both emerged, Elimelech shook hands with Lahatiel and thanked him for his role in securing his freedom. 'I did not trust you at first but now I believe you are a good nephil, Ophan.'

'Thank you, Elimelech. I think.'

'Please feel free to move around the city at your pleasure, sir. The hot springs are justifiably famous.' Then he went on ahead into the port of entry offices to arrange a ride. Lahatiel made a point of not following him. He stayed with his lander for an hour conversing with Suriel by encrypted text before seeking his own ground transportation.

Before the coming of macros very little underground tunneling could be accomplished anywhere on the rocky surface of the moon. Travel within the city of Xanthos was by special airtight electric vehicles sporting rear hatches which made a tight gas seal with any one of the dozens of standard ports located at ground level around the circumference of each dome.

Whatever Elimelech's crimes were, he was a nephil, with kin who loved him, kin who couldn't bear to think about what was happening to him at Rhene. They were utterly flattened by surprise when Elimelech showed up unannounced at the home of his mother and brothers high within in the Gnome Dome in the southwest quarter of Xanthos. Their condominium was a unit with an exterior view. There Elimelech was soon also reunited with his ecstatic wife Oeillet.

The wild festivities at Elimelech's place, the traditional music and dancing and drinking and eating, were abruptly cut short by the arrival of one Remadiel Sala, head of the clan which dominated the Gnome Dome. And through his dreaded 'Iron Fist' criminal organization Remadiel totally dominated all of the city too, but few have spoken of it openly, because Remadiel brutally enforced a code of total silence, and even their victims would say only that the associates of Remadiel paid a visit.

Elimelech and Remadiel embraced with the traditional double touch of cheek to cheek, boss and underboss together again. A cold glance from Remadiel at the nephilim all around the room was the unmistakable signal for them to clear out so he could speak to Elimelech alone.

'I learned just now,' Remadiel said, 'that some Imperial navy ophan is sniffing around the Cabala Dome asking embarrassing questions.'

Elimelech laughed. 'That is the very dome I marked for him as the secret heart of power in Xanthos.'

'As payment for your reprieve?'

Elimelech nodded. 'Obviously the Emperor has decided he must flatten a Xanthos dome, any dome, to quiet the nobility on Barbelo. If he happens to take out Cabala Dome, the stronghold of his own accursed loyalists, so much the better.'

'How can Cabala Dome be marked for destruction, when the same officer who flew you down here is nosing around inside that very dome?'

'Perhaps he's seeking to verify my identification of that dome. In any event, this ophan named Lahatiel will find nothing. No one will dare speak a single word to him about the Iron Fist nor the Gnome Dome, and if in his frustration he slaughters the innocent civilians of an entire city dome that will be no surprise because we already know the Empire is sufficiently barbarous to do such a foul deed. Things will go on exactly the way they did before, except now I am free.'

'But alternatively, Elimelech, it may be that this ophan is rallying the Jetrel loyalists even as we speak.'

'No, Remadiel, those so-called loyalists' are too timid to be rallied for a bake sale, let alone a revolt. But if you command me, I will go over to Cabala Dome in force, my brothers and myself, my captains and all my associates, and we will eternally silence this ophan right before the very eyes of the Jetrel clan.'

'The command is now given, but do not use members of your family and do not go yourself. Send someone you can trust, Eli, yet someone it would not upset you too much to die as a martyr for our Cause in the very likely event Asmodeus does something rash. As for the ophan, do not kill him.'

'Do not kill him?'

'No. Have him confined somewhere inside the Cabala Dome. Should the Empire be so foolish and bold as to carry out an air strike, I want his final thoughts to be that it is his very own fleet which is killing him. And if the Empire sends down troops to occupy and search the city, the ophan will be our hostage, and if they do not withdraw the ophan can die together with the Hadraniel boy. I'll send him along presently.'

Over the next hour Elimelech raised a small army of Iron Fist soldiery in the Gnome Dome, in case there was any trouble with the loyalists, but he was confident a strong show of force would be sufficient to cow them into submission as it had always done before. Iron Fist associates throughout the dome were pumped up when they saw their former underboss free from Imperial clutches and barking orders once again.

Presently a convoy of ground vehicles went out from the Gnome Dome led by one of Elimelech's more aggressive captains, and this movement was registered in the corner of Hashmal Suriel's eye.

Some of these vehicles went to other domes to gather more Iron Fist yeng. They were told to put their shopkeeper shakedown rackets on hold temporarily so they could participate in a major spoiling raid. A trickle of cars from these other domes joined the main parade and converged around the rim of the Cabala Dome in southeast Xanthos, and this too was observed by Suriel, though perhaps she was not aware of everything on a conscious level.

All of these maneuvers were tabulated by Suriel's mind as she watched from above, which gradually built up for her a gestalt impression. Back on Palato Asmodeus had doubted his son Apollyon that Elimelech could be followed through the city from a warship in orbit, but Asmodeus had no idea Suriel could do it in this unique way.

'I know which dome the ringleader is in,' she finally said after a solid hour of watching the screen. Suriel spoke with a shaky confidence she knew would quickly erode if anyone pressed her to prove it. She went to Adnarel's fire control gear and selected a nondescript dome three rings in from the southwest edge and painted a red video smudge on it with her finger against the touch-sensitive screen.

'That's perfect,' Adnarel said, studying the image at her own fire-control station. 'I can come up this canyon at eye level, right between these domes here and here, Hashmal. There won't even be collateral damage.'

'Commence your attack, Sar Adnarel.'

'Yes ma'am.' Adnarel did not feel the slightest twinge of remorse that she was about to kill a thousand people. Guilt was not listed in her position description.

Adnarel deftly flipped the switches that armed and released the torpedo. One Mark 64 Mod 2 torpedo configured as an orbit-to-ground smart bomb jumped from the aft end of Exiler, near the lander, with a burst from a small attached pyrotechnic squib. Designed to penetrate the atmosphere, it was made of heat-resistant titanium wrapped in an even more heat-resistant ceramic case, protecting a thousand pound macro warhead. Here at airless Xanthos the heat shielding would be redundant. After its engine ignited, the torpedo pulled away from Exiler on a descent ellipse whose projected orbit just touched the ground at the city.

After taking a taxi to the Cabala Dome and paying with Solyad, which was much more readily accepted than he had anticipated, Lahatiel wandered around the shops in the dome's main gallery asking questions that were politely ignored, but after persisting for a while more he found one friendly face. Someone who was willing to talk.

He was an old nephil named Orus who was a food vendor in the Jetrel clan. The Jetrels were part of a second wave of Antero settlers, and they had been struggling to make their own way on Xanthos for two generations. Orus smiled when he saw Lahatiel's Imperial uniform and became quite free with his information. It was though Orus were a dam, Lahatiel thought, at the very point of bursting.

'But enough about me,' Orus said. 'It has been several weeks since an actual tourist has dared to show his face here, and it's especially heartening to see a tourist in uniform.'

'I imagine times have been tough, especially after the Great Ones officially shunned this place.' Lahatiel could see that Orus seemed to find comfort in his presence.

Orus said, 'It's this damn impatience for the Emperor to change his policy about letting us go home. They pushed it and pushed it, some people got abducted, some people got killed, and all they really did was pushed most of the tourists right out of here.'

'Making things unpleasant for tourists is not a good path for a place like Xanthos to take. You've got volcanic underground hot springs and a smaller gravity. That's medi-tourist stuff. You don't have much else.'

'That's what I said too, at the time. Now who's left? We're down to maybe thirty percent of our original business.'

'Surely this anti-Asmodeus sentiment isn't taken up by everyone in Xanthos.'

'Nearly everyone. I blame this Iron Fist gang running around the city. They're the ones milking the unrest. And now after frightening away seven out of every ten of our former customers, the Iron Fist has turned to become a parasite on us.'

'Don't they realize if they draw too deeply from the well their whole parasitical structure will come crashing down, and you their hosts along with it?'

'Since when has prudent foresight been a characteristic of organized crime?' Orus saw something over Lahatiel's shoulder and fell silent, immediately regretting being so free with information to the ophan. He tried to slink away as Iron Fist soldiers entered en masse and cordoned off the gallery of shops.

Lahatiel found himself surrounded by a circle of toughs who motioned for him to turn over his sidearm. He was cast, none-too-gently, into a windowless room in one of the commandeered shops. It could not be locked, but a 350 lb. mountain of a nephil sat on the floor on the other side of the door, which amounted to very much the same thing.

For his crime of talking to the ophan, Orus was severely beaten and thrown into the room with him. Some time later the missing youth was also thrown into the room with Lahatiel and Orus .

He was beaten and bruised as well, but Lahatiel was glad the boy was still alive. 'I'm Ophan Lahatiel Gerash of His Majesty's Navy, at your service.'

'I am called Hadraniel, sir.'

'Your father will be pleased to see you again, young Hadraniel. The Imperial Observatory will be my very next stop.'

The boy's face fell after an initial show of excitement. 'What are the chances of that ever happening?'

'They are far better than you think right now,' he said, assuring both him and Orus. 'The thing has already been set in motion.'

Below 100,000 feet the onboard electronics took control of the final approach of the thing that had already been set in motion. When Adnarel's torpedo dropped a bit lower it passed directly over the town of Sonneillon, some three hundred miles southwest of the Xanthos capital. Her weapon screamed over the jade plains near Danae five times faster than any airliner. Soon it even dropped below the level of the rim of the long, straight, mile-wide canyon leading northeast to Xanthos.

With telemetry linking it back to Exiler, the analog computer flying the torpedo knew exactly where it was within 15 feet of error, and it knew exactly where its target in Xanthos was, and its sole purpose was to bring those two numbers together. Adnarel's only regret was that this attack was not a very good first demonstration of her fire-control skill set. The hardware was doing most of the work.

By the time the warshot hit, the four officers aboard the ship and their dependents (for no one wanted to miss this) had a perfect bird's-eye view from directly overhead displayed on any number of screens. Some watched from the flight-deck, some watched from engineering, and others watched from the Banquet Room.

The torpedo entered like a lightning bolt on the first floor, immediately detonating and punching through with a cone of destruction that was fully blossomed 10 milliseconds later. Many of the residents were on Elimelech's spoiling raid, but most of the eight hundred remaining occupants including Elimelech, his whole family, Remadiel, and the senior figures of Iron Fist, were killed instantly by the concussion.

Molten droplets of metal and concrete flew everywhere, twice as fast as any bullet, ricocheting off of floors, walls, ceilings, through the bodies of the dead and through the bodies of those nephilim who had somehow lived through the initial blast. The fury of this shrapnel was expended by the middle of the third second after impact when the whole physical structure of Gnome Dome began to collapse in on itself. No one survived.

Vehicular traffic around Xanthos looked like an ant-hill after throwing a boot into it. Suriel, monitoring battle frequencies, said to the other officers, 'It looks like we got the right dome. We knocked their jiste off the board. They seem to be in total disarray.'

Gnome Dome's destruction could not be heard through the vacuum, but at Cabala Dome Lahatiel felt a great deal of vibration and had a good hunch what had just happened. Later he heard a commotion outside the door, including several gunshots, which ended when the door was opened and four strangers entered. 'Orus, you're safe!'

'You know these people, I take it,' Lahatiel said, grinning at Orus.

'Ophan, this is Freelord Jetrel, the head of his titular clan.'

'And these are my sons,' Jetrel added. 'I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Ophan Lahatiel. You seemed to be just the trigger we needed to do what we've put off doing for much too long. The Iron Fist is soon to be no more, their dome been completely flattened. We're just picking off their loose remnants now.'

Indeed, flashes of light were seen on the streets of Xanthos throughout that evening, but it tapered off by early the next morning. Lahatiel made ready to depart.

'It's just the Iron Fist bitter-enders,' remarked Orus when Lahatiel and Hadraniel prepared to enter the lander while sporadic gunfire continued outside. 'They saw the destruction of Gnome Dome and realized they had nowhere to go. A whole city is out for their blood.'

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Strangers In Paradise