Kushiel

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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.”

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