50 – SARTAEL
Beyond frozen, airless Hippo lay the so-called Eggbeater, a vast collection of asteroids and comets left over in lieu of the gas giant planets that never formed in Mastema’s twin star system due to gravitational perturbation.
The Eggbeater was actually two separate belts of debris, each orbiting its respective sun, but these belts merged when the orange and yellow suns approached each other in periastron. Sometimes this resulted in collisions that populated the Eggbeater with smaller chunks in greater numbers, but mostly there were only near misses that altered the orbits of the mixing objects to various degrees.
Very rarely, one of the larger objects in this vast pinball game would be hurled toward Barbelo. The Navy kept a close eye on these, but they were not the only watchers. The families Antero, Larund and Sala would not tolerate another conspiracy of silence when it came to comet-fall.
To compare distances, if Barbelo was in the Solar System, and its orange sun was in the position of the Earth’s sun, the brighter yellow-white sun would occupy the space between Saturn and Uranus. This was close enough for the other system to be explored by robotic probes, but somewhat beyond the ability of the humans to make the crossing themselves without an extreme effort. Typical flight times would be on the order of three or four years, no matter how much rocket science progressed.
But hundreds of small bodies in the Eggbeater were settled by wave after wave of pioneers from Barbelo, and after a time, the settlers had established themselves well enough to become multiple sources of many new waves. Few of the colonists obeyed the Cupel system of testing or any other precept of the Law of Mastema.
Religious and political unity shattered in the new frontier of space. Some of the “Beaters” (as the colonists of the Eggbeater came to be called) were peaceful adherents of Talishism, but many of them were quite warlike, especially after the Navy came calling from Palato and found their devotion to Mastema to be wanting.
In the very low surface gravity of the asteroids it was considered more practical to have four hands rather than two hands and two feet. Genetic engineering began to blur what it meant to be human, and this practice was disgusting to Sartael.
Other Beaters dabbled in techniques for changing genders within a few days. The procedure was reversible and complete, right down to a functioning uterus for men, very useful for new colonies where breeding females were at a premium. Such a thing was absolutely incompatible with the system established in the Law of Mastema that treated women as little more than property. So Sartael vowed perpetual war.
The Beaters were happy to oblige him.
“The one who tortured you was named Hogarth,” High Lord Patriarch Sartael said when Edgar showed signs of returning to consciousness again.
Edgar’s finger still ached, but it was bearable. As a B’nei Elohim, his brain had been modified in such a way that he was able to sense that he was in the presence of a human incarnation of an Elohim by the mere proximity of the fold-line terminus within Sartael. He dropped to one knee, bowed his head, and said, “Glory to Mastema, Lord of Barbelo!”
This pleased Sartael to no end. At least Yeshua had taught the boy manners. He said, “Tell me your name and whether you like to know the spectacular details of the death of this Hogarth?”
“I am called Edgar Shybear. As my Lord must have surmised from the report his Eyes gave him of my personal possessions, which do not include a copy of the Golden Gift, I have not yet fully entered into the B’nei Elohim order. That is why I retain my given name and surname. As for the fate of this man named Hogarth, my Lord, I would only say that this is your star system, so it is your rules.”
“Suffice it to say, Edgar Shybear, the other Eyes of Mastema have been sufficiently motivated by the demise of Hogarth to recognize the physical mark of a B’nei Elohim so they will know how to treat you and others of your order with the proper protocol in the future. But Edgar! Tell me what you know of the B’nei Elohim named Joy.”
“I know of no one by that name among the B’nei Elohim, my Lord.”
“No matter. Joy came to Barbelo two thousand years ago and pledged herself to my service. Perhaps that is why Yeshua has not sent another one all this time, except his assassin. Joy flew my dragon and brought war to my enemies from the air. Then Yeshua sent another B’nei Elohim to kill both the dragon and Joy. That one, it was said, could fly through the air unaided.”
Edgar did know a living B’nei Elohim of that description, but no matter what his preferences were he could say nothing that would lead Mastema to piece together that El Shaddai and Yeshua could manipulate time. Rather, Edgar only said, “El Shaddai and Bat-El created the B’nei Elohim to serve them, yet we are not slaves to them. If this Joy assigned her loyalty to you, my Lord, then it was her free choice to do so.”
“What is your particular talent, Edgar Shybear?”
“They say, my Lord, that I am gifted with great intellect.”
“And would you, like Joy, put yourselves in service to me alone?”
“Such was my intention, Lord Sartael, when I departed Canterwood Academy before graduation and contrived to fly a shuttle to Palato.”
“Why did you not complete your education there?”
“It was an incident so trivial, yet so far-reaching in its ramifications my Lord will think me to make a jest.”
“Yet I would hear it, young Edgar.”
“The Academy had trained us to pursue knowledge, to foster our natural curiosity. But there came a day when we gathered together, six boys, six girls, of different Houses and even worlds, and we shed our clothing to learn about the variety of the human body. When Yeshua learned of this he disbanded our class and sent every child home. I left before my mother could collect me.”
Sartael broke into the deepest fit of laughter he had experienced in years. When he was able to speak again he said, “You are wrong, Edgar, I do not think it a jest, I know this is exactly the sort of thing Yeshua would do. So random, so stupid, and now he has lost you to me. I would have you swear an oath to mark the beginning of your service, but oaths may be broken at will by the faithless. So in lieu of an oath, Edgar Shybear, reach into that great intellect of yours and teach me something I do not know. Teach me how the Golden Gift works.”
“Yes, Lord.” Edgar looked around the lord’s chamber for something he could use as a training aid, but found nothing. So he said, “If it pleases Lord Sartael, please command the coins I had in my luggage to be brought to me, so that I may make an illustration.”
A snap of the fingers, a terse whistle, and the Eyes of Mastema moved to obey. Presently they brought to Edgar a small leather bag filled with coin of House Larund. Edgar seated himself on the floor before the throne of Sartael and dumped out the change. He arranged them more or less evenly and said, “These coins represent the atoms and molecules of the flesh and blood of the neck of an enemy of my Lord.”
Then Edgar used his fingers to clink pairs of the coins together here and there. He said, “The man’s neck is at body temperature, so the atoms are in motion, always bumping into each other like this.” Now he stood several of the coins on their edge. “Del passes the blade of the Golden Gift through the man’s neck, and every atom the blade touches becomes rotated to a right-angle with respect to the rest of the universe. This is what we call dark matter, My Lord, and it no longer interacts chemically with the other atoms. And yet they retain their original motion, so we get this.”
Edgar used his finger and thumb to flick the standing coins, causing them to roll out of the collection and across the floor of Sartael’s chamber. “Of course, my Lord, the actual engineering details are much more complicated, but I will provide them to such learned men as my Lord will provide. Let the revelation of this secret stand for me in place of an oath, and let it be tested by equipping the Eyes of Mastema, and any other men the Lord might choose, with copies of the Golden Gift made right here on Palato. Then the Lord Sartael will know I serve him alone.”
“And what will you do for me after this test, young Edgar Shybear?”
Edgar gathered all his coins together into a roll and held this roll on the floor between a finger and thumb. He said, “My Lord, the B’nei Elohim believe that once matter is stood up like this by a macro, and made into dark matter, it can never lay back down again. I do not believe that. I want to prove them wrong, Lord Sartael. Because if you could pack a lot of dark water together like this, and then let it lay down again,” and Edgar splayed the coins out to illustrate, “the water would decompress with great violence. This would open a way to build powerful drives for spacecraft, and even more powerful bombs.”
And Lord Sartael smiled. He knew precisely what El Shaddai had achieved with this Edgar. He was intended to create a starship and put El Shaddai in communication with El without violating the terms of his ancient bargain. But something had gone wildly wrong, and Edgar belonged to Mastema.
51 – THE ARK
One time when Kim Lokken was fourteen she was picked up at school at mid-morning by an elder of the End Dome Church and driven home, but he wouldn’t say what was wrong. When she got home her mother was crying, and of course Kim started to cry in sympathy before Clara even said a word. After a while Clara looked directly at her daughter. She was immersed in grief and too horrified to face blurting it out to her, but finally she wailed, “Kim, your father is dead!”
Then Kim’s tears welled from her own red hot pain and not merely from empathy with her mother’s grief. They both cried until there was nothing more to give, and when Kim’s eyes were dry she was still wracked by dry sobs and whimpers that trailed off at length to silence. After an hour of this she started to speak. “Why?” she asked, over and over again until her mother came clean.
Peter Two Feathers had explained everything to her. For years he had lent the Golden Gift to Erik at night to honeycomb the land under Franklin and the surrounding area with tunnels to access the coal. This was the bread and butter of the whole town. But overnight there had been a cave-in that smashed his helmet lantern, plunging him into total darkness, and he couldn’t dig his way out, even with the Golden Gift, because he got turned around somehow and was boring deeper into the mountain rather than back the way he came. As Erik made a greater volume of space to walk in, the air he had was stretched too thin to breathe, not to mention the suction losses through the Golden Gift itself.
It wasn’t until well past dawn that miners with picks and shovels broke through the cave-in and reached Erik’s body. Peter assured Clara that he died without injury or pain. He simply fell asleep and never woke up again.
As for Peter, while he mourned the death of Erik he was more troubled that the men who retrieved Erik’s body were also members of the Church, and it was impossible to hide the fact that Erik had been in possession of the Golden Gift, which was the most sacred End Dome relic. This was already causing unquiet among the faithful. Peter Hansen, his chosen Apostle from the White Wing, was starting to make a bid to unseat Peter before his time.
Children weren’t supposed to be confronted with death so early. Kim thought about her own death. She wondered what it was like for her father at that moment, and if there really was an afterlife. If there was not a second life, then her father didn’t even know he was dead. He didn’t know that he had ever lived and married Clara and fathered Kim. So what was the point of doing anything? The End Dome Church was supposed to have the answers to all these questions, but what if they were wrong? Added to her personal grief, all these thoughts were intolerable to Kim.
She didn’t go to school for a week. Sofie and Dory came over after a couple days to see if she was well. She was not well, but their visit lifted Kim from her grief a microscopic bit, and Clara saw that. When Sofie’s mother came to pick her up, Clara asked her to stay until Dory’s parents came as well, because she wanted to ask all of them something.
“The funeral for Kim’s father will be this weekend,” she said when they were all together. “I’d like to take Sofie and Dory to be with Kim when we go.”
“I don’t know,” Sofie’s mother demurred. “These are just fourteen year old girls, and a funeral is a pretty solemn thing.”
“Besides,” Dory’s father added, “this should be a private family time for you and Kim.”
“That’s precisely the thing,” my mother replied. “We have no family here in Franklin. My parents are back East and my husband was a sort of black sheep in his own family. We’ve never been close to them. Kim has taken the death of her father very hard, but when Sofie and Dory came over to see us today there was a visible improvement in Kim. I could see it come right out to light up her eyes again. That’s when I realized, Sofie and Dory are Kim’s real family.”
“Clara, I still don’t think a funeral is something little girls should see,” Sofie’s mother insisted.
“And they won’t see the actual Rites. Not even Kim will see that. Look, my husband is dead. I have to go lay him to rest, and I have to bring Kim. And I think she needs to be with her best friends right now.”
In the end they consented to let the girls remain together for the weekend.
For Clara this was her first time to see the Golden Gift in action, the central mystery and devotion of the End Dome Church.
The children were not allowed to attend the actual ceremony upstairs in the Temple Sanctuary, and it would have been unseemly to run around and play while Kim’s father was sent to his long home, along with five others from across the globe. So they sat around in the Temple basement getting quite bored as volunteers prepared the Banquet of God for a thousand parishioners.
Jerry Shybear joined them after breaking away from a group of boys smoking outside. The original Shy Bear had been his grandfather and he seemed to know a lot of secrets about the Temple. Jerry led the girls into a gigantic supply room which wasn’t locked, and they went along because there was nothing else to do.
There was no electric light within, only a window with blinds, and since they were in Washington State it was gloomy outside, so it was even gloomier inside. There was an old piano which was probably broken, a map of the Green River Gorge area, and heaps of the sort of things one would find in a church: old hymnals, stacks of old bulletins, and dozens of folding chairs. The children could hear organ music and the vocal choir bleeding through the ceiling from the main Sanctuary upstairs.
There was End Dome scrapbook albums, End Dome cookbooks, End Dome paints and brushes, End Dome wood carvings, End Dome homespun, and broken End Dome furniture.
Sofie found an End Dome walking stick made from a gnarled old piece of wood and shifted it from hand to hand to get the feel of it.
One of the walls was unfinished, and Jerry moved aside a piece of plywood to reveal another dark space beyond. It was so black inside it drank the vision like a sponge. “I’ve never been in there,” he said.
None of the girls wanted to go in there but Jerry dared them to go, so naturally Sofie was the first one through. Then Jerry followed her to show he wasn’t afraid. Dory and Kim were both afraid of the dark hole, and they were not afraid to show it, but they didn’t want to be left behind so they squeezed in after them.
It was too dark to see, but Jerry, a smoker at age fourteen, lit a series of matches, which only lasted a few seconds. This gave him time to find an ancient dusty candle, and he lit that. After that the kids had a little bit of light and they could see where they were.
There wasn’t a tile floor. Just natural stone and dirt, and a sort of stone “igloo” in the center of a circle of stones.
This was the cairn of the Ark of the Covenant in its original state, resting on the very summit of End Dome. The structure was completely unmolested. Superstition overcame Prophet Lange and the Apostle Malekwa at the end, it seemed. They built the whole Temple right over the top of the cairn, as if to hide it.
There was even a little commemorative mouse. Dory and Kim screamed together when they saw it.
Without a word Sofie let her cane fly in an arc over her head, and she brought it down, hoping to scare the mouse away. She ended up hitting the mouse instead, with a lucky shot.
“This is a church right? So there’s your church mouse.”
“You crippled it,” Dory observed, shifting instantly from fear to maternal concern. It was in obvious pain and tried to stagger away.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Sofie replied.
They all took a closer look at the creature. The head of the mouse was misshapen. There was a huge white bump on the back that was nearly as large as the mouse’s head itself. Dory said, “Look what you did, Sofie! Look at that bump!”
“That isn’t from anything I did,” Sofie insisted. She put the end of her cane directly over the head of the crippled creature and pressed down hard to finish it off. “And I don’t want it to suffer. This is better.”
“Now what do we do with it?” Kim asked, disgusted by the sight of the dead creature with what looked to be a flat furry coin where its head had been. The bump was still intact, but no one knew what it was.
Sofie scratched the bare ground with the cane and dug a little trench. When it was deep enough Sofie slid the mouse in with her foot, and then both she and Jerry kicked dirt over it and stamped it down to finish the job.
“Now if you ladies will join me,” Jerry said, “I want to find out what’s in that pile of rocks.” He went to the cairn and began trying to pull one of the stones loose.
Jerry wasn’t making much headway. Hunky offered what little help she could, and one of the stones slowly gave way like a hinged door. They moved it aside just enough that they could squeeze inside the stone igloo one at a time.
This was it, the Holy of Holies, the very tippy-top of End Dome hill where the Ark of the Covenant lay in its original position. The children gasped at the beauty of the artifact.
The golden exterior surface of the Ark was dotted with thousands of tiny holes. Some of these holes had spines sticking out of them, like the needles of a cactus.
Kim put an index finger close to a part of the Ark that was needle-free, and that was something that she ought not have done. There was a sound like a short squirt of steam and her fingertip was instantly skewered. She pulled away involuntarily before the pain even registered. “Ahhh! Dammit!”
After that the golden Ark sported one more extruded spine from its surface.
Dory was a little smarter. She grabbed a pencil out of her purse and leaned over the black sphere with the eraser tip prudently standing in for her finger. She verified the Ark was still active and just as nasty.
Jerry thought about kicking it, but a glance at his thin moccasins led him to change his mind. So it was a mystery. Best leave it at that.
Sofie was the only one who was not afraid. She allowed her own finger to be skewered by the Ark and said to Kim, “Whatever trouble you’re in for getting stabbed by this thing, I’m in the same trouble.” And so she had her final victory over Jerry in the test of courage.
After that Kim, Jerry and Dory all shook their heads and slid back out of the stone cairn. But when Dory and Kim were outside they heard another sound and both of them froze. One of the elders of the Church was standing in the storage room cocking his ears to listen. All of the kids held their breath and tried not to make a sound. The deacon looked into the dark gap and could just make out two silhouettes.
“Get out of there!” he yelled, exploding in anger. With red faces Jerry, Kim, Hunky and Dory scrambled out of the hole, then out of the supply room, and sat down in a corner of the basement lunchroom. The deacon locked the supply room tight, and after that it would always remained locked so as long as the Temple stood, which wasn’t to be for much longer.
When Kim saw her mother again during the meal after the ceremony she was somehow different. Kim could see she wasn’t mourning my father anymore. “It’s all true, Kim,” she said with her soft lisping voice. “Everything in the Endomion, it’s all true.”
Of course Clara had always believed what she was taught with the ears of faith, but now she had seen the Golden Gift work with her own eyes and she came away with an unshakable bedrock foundation of belief she would carry with her until her own end. And that was precisely the intended effect of the Last Rite.
A week after that, Kim and Sophie both came down with the same disease as that little church mouse. They got matching little bumps at the base of their necks.
52 – MYTHOS
Talishi’s party had nearly completed the descent of the Wall of God on the Catwalk. Only about a thousand feet of vertical distance remained. But no one let their guard down just yet. That thousand feet was still perfectly fatal.
On the final afternoon they arrived at a section of the Catwalk that Bayard called “problematic”. It had been damaged somehow, perhaps in a quake, and for nearly a mile it had become no wider than a toehold. But there were steel pitons already pounded into the rock ready for them to snap brass carabiners and sling ropes.
By some quirk of fate or baronic contrivance Victoria was next in line after the Bayard. He said to her, “Talishi calls you one of the B’nei Elohim, yet I know almost nothing about them. Can you tell me more, or is it some sort of divine secret?”
“There are some things about us we may never reveal,” Victoria said, “but what I can tell I will. The most important thing is that we are a family, one big unruly but mostly loving family with the usual family squabbles.”
“Then are you noble born?”
“Not in the way you are royalty, Baron, as the son of Queen Aurra. In a real sense we would be considered nothing more than common folk here.”
Victoria did not know that was precisely what she needed to say to raise Bayard’s interest level in her to eleven. Still, Bayard wanted to test that. “And yet you can fly. Some say you are demigods, which would make you far greater than royalty.”
“I can fly, that is true, but it’s not on account of something innate to me, to my body. For all practical purposes, it’s nothing more than a magic trick.”
Applause and cheering broke out on the line ahead of them on the Catwalk. Lady Talishi had successfully traversed the broken portion to safety on the other side.
“And our foe, this woman Joy, is she also B’nei Elohim?”
“She is one of us, and that is what I alluded to when I mentioned family squabbles. Some of us have removed themselves to the camp of the enemy.”
“And the way she controls the dragon, is that another magic trick?”
“More trick than magic,” Victoria said. “Neither we nor the Elohim that we serve hold the supernatural realm to be real. So call it a holy deception.”
“The House of Sala has also dabbled in the same sort of thing,” Bayard said. “When the gods of Earth first brought people to live in Haaretz, the Gold Beards feared that many of them would sail west across Thalury and make their homes in our ancestral lands. We sought to discourage that, so we spread a tale among them that the world was constructed like a stair, and the Wall of God was but the second of many such awesome barriers. We told them another wall existed to the west, and Thalury tumbled over this step in a bottomless cataract.
“We went on to tell them that from the beginning of days sailors heeded the divine injunctions of all the Elohim never to sail out of sight of Haaretz, lest they meet the edge and fall over it. We made the claim that so rigidly was this law observed that if any sea captain captain, drunk or otherwise, steered his ship such that the land of Haaretz faded from view, it was cause for the crew to mutiny and throw the captain overboard. No such crew returning to port ever faced punishment.
“And the story contained a warning that went something like this: In the fullness of time King Ravenmaster was put to death. It was the days of the revolution in the ancient kingdom of Kurgan, when the union of loosely-united city-states known as the Saiph League was born, and many of the laws established by the Elohim were overthrown.
“‘Reason’ reigned supreme, and when time was ripe seamen were found to man two ships, sailors who were willing to disregard the divine warning never to sail out of the sight of land. Such was the rebellious mindset of the men of the Saiph League that it never occurred to them the gods issued their commandment for the safety of mariners.
“Instead, there were rumors of yet another land far in the west, a choice land the Elohim created for their own enjoyment, a beautiful realm filled with gold, rich in abundant fruit, and the divine prohibition was to keep this land from being despoiled by mere mortals.
“The two ships commissioned by the revolutionaries were Will O’ The Whisp and Fire of the Covenant. They drifted in the current with sails unfurled. After two days, the dark line that was Haaretz could no longer be seen in the east, and some of the sailors shuddered, for the tradition was deeply embedded within them.
“And their fears proved more than superstition, for one night after about a week underway the lookout in the highest mast of Fire of the Covenant screamed that the horizon ahead was closing in on them. There was a sharp edge to the sea!
“Captain Dogtrapper signaled with lamps to Will O’ The Whisp that he was raising his sails and turning back. Captain Skulldagger aboard the Will didn’t follow suit until it was too late. With billowing sails Fire of the Covenant barely escaped, but the current became too strong for her sister ship. In short order she was seen to tip over the edge and was never seen again.”
By a strange coincidence Baron Bayard slipped off the Catwalk just then and screamed. Victoria pushed her nose into the wall of the Sacred Cliff, resisting the urge to fly after him, since it would be as useless as her attempt to save Aliwe. But Bayard’s fall was arrested by the ropes, as they were intended to do.
When he had been hauled back up, and had recovered enough that his voice had steadied, Victoria begged him to continue his story again. Or his meta-story, his story about a story that had been told to the Israelite colonists in Haaretz to keep them from sailing to the lands of the House of Sala.
“’Will ‘O’ The Whisp had indeed fallen over the edge of the world,” he said. “For not far away from Haaretz the sea poured over a great cataract, an infinite waterfall. For days the ship fell partially submerged within these waters, which had become a vertical sheet.
“The crew found they had no weight, they floated freely, and some floated far away from the ship. Winds eventually broke the sheet into globes of water, ranging in size from a man’s head to the size of a barn. Fish were seen swimming in some of these spheres of water, and when the food aboard ship ran out these fish provided the only source of food. There was no thirst, for Thalury was a freshwater sea, always replenished every few thousand years by comet-fall.
“As the crew continued to fall, the black underside of the world became visible overhead and the doomed crew could see that the warnings were true, the world was indeed a vast stair.
“The eternal winds blew the globes of water further and further apart, and the heat of the day caused them to slowly evaporate. One day none of the water globes which remained near the ship contained any fish, and the men began to starve. Thoughts of killing each other for meat crossed their mind, but by the time they were desperate enough to act, they were too weak to successfully attack each other or do anything more than moan pitifully.
“Then came the final week, when they passed away one by one, according to their remaining strength.
“But the story we told them didn’t end there,” Bayard told Victoria. “We said that when human beings die in Haaretz they find themselves resurrected on the rim of the Wall of God, where they wait for a ship to carry them across yet another sea that lies east of the rim.
“The dead people atop the wall can hear voices upon the winds of Haaretz through a trick of reflecting sound. Ever they walk the ramparts, hoping to hear their loved ones. When they do hear their name it is bittersweet, for they find their friends and loved ones have soon forgotten them and moved on. The more famed a person was in their life, the more fragments they hear, so they linger a while more. The humble accept the truth sooner. It’s really all about letting go.
“But there are always the dummies at far end of the bell curve, and firmly anchored there was Captain Skulldagger, captain of the Will o’ the Whisp. To this very day the shade of this infamous captain is still standing on the rim of the Wall of God waiting for his name to be heard once more as the story of his voyage was retold, just as I have told it once more to you.
“But Skulldagger notwithstanding, at length almost all the dead come off the precipice and rest on the lawn behind it before the Upper Sea, waiting for a white ship to come and take them east to an unknown destiny. The Talishite priestesses who attend them always refuse to speak of their final fate, and only say to them, ‘Great gifts are sweeter when they are but revealed in their fulfillment unspoiled by hasty tidings.’”
Within twenty years all the members of Captain Skulldaggers’s ill-fated crew passed east across the Upper Sea, or leaped from the rim to a more permanent death, but the captain alone remained. For he had attained a form of immortality through infamy, and never a day passed but that his name was spoken aloud by someone far below in Haaretz with a shudder as the story of the Will ‘O’ The Whisp is told to yet another generation. The sound of his name is carried aloft to the rim, and he savors it.’”
When Baron Bayard finished telling his story, Victoria began to see a glimmer of how she could see the way through to loving this man. He was strong and essentially kind, and more important than that, he was interesting.
After everyone had survived the rope traverse the Catwalk became much wider and safer, but their journey began to be slowed by the presence of many blown-down trees which had been knocked over recently in a storm and lay directly across the trail. Sometimes they could roll over them, but other times they had to crawl under them, which was exhausting work, and they could not avoid getting their clothing soiled.
The fearsome cliff under the Catwalk came to an end, and became a normal slope.
The company entered a small stand of fat virgin trees that draped the slope down to the bottom, and here the character of the journey changed dramatically. Victoria thought it was a magic place that had escaped the ax in the first, second, and third waves of cutting from Wazol, as though by an oversight.
After that they reached a large outcropping of stone that Bayard called Picture Buttress. It offered a marvelous view to a forest glade below. Victoria thought it was beautiful but still dangerous. The trail actually wrapped around the parapet here, and a thoughtful person, probably Bayard on his journey long ago, had provided a rope for each of them to hold on to.
They passed a large duckpond so serene that it reflected the sky and the branches of the trees above the water like a mirror. The trail skirted the edge of this pond with a small but calm diversion before resuming its course.
“It’s going to be a little rough going here,” Bayard said, plowing through prickly Mastema’s Club and bidding Victoria to trust him. The route was flagged with orange and black ribbons. “Not many people know about this trail. Those of us who do know of it use it and we maintain it but we don’t fully connect it anywhere.”
And finally the Catwalk ended ignomiously in some poor old man’s back backyard in the city of Wazol.
He was tending his garden and shrugged as one hundred forty people tramped through his property and went out the side gate to the front of his house to reach a city street.
“Where do we go next?” asked the Baron.
“Victoria knows,” said Lady Talishi with a smile revealing her awareness that Vic had spoken to a living Aliwe. “Menkant. Then Joy and her dragon will come to us.”
53 – PROBATION
After Edgar Shybear provided Sartael with the specifications and procedures for copying the Golden Gift, it would take nearly a year for the engineering division on Palato to get tooled up to produce them. In the meantime the High Lord Patriarch took Edgar into his household as an adopted son.
The four widows of the late, unlamented Hogarth were also taken into Sartael’s household, but only as servants. They were ordered to provide Edgar any service that he wished or needed, except (and they were strongly counseled on this point) for the one thing a healthy young man of his tender years really wanted and thought he really needed.
Since Edgar was not emancipated under the law of Mastema, he was not required to attend weekly worship.
Worship among the White Beards did not carry the same meaning that it did on Earth. There was something more direct and honest about it. Edgar learned the essence of Mastema worship from reading the sacred scriptures of House Gerash:
Five days are appointed, with names after the names of the Five Families. They are Larunday, Anteroday, Bellonday, Saladay, and Gerashday.
Three days you shall eat, on Larunday, Anteroday, and Bellonday, and on the fourth day, or Saladay, you shall eat a double portion. But on the fifth day, or Gerashday you shall eat nothing, and drink only water. For this is the fast appointed by Mastema. Only soldiers on campaign are exempted from the Fast of Mastema on Gerashday.
Three days you shall work, and the income thereof shall be for your own use. Saladay you shall work also, but the income thereof shall be for the temple.
But Gerashday is the day of worship, you shall not work on that day, neither you nor your whole household.
On that day you shall enter the Temple of Mastema if you dwell nigh to the Mountain of Mastema in the Middle Land, or you shall enter the local shrine of Mastema if you dwell in the colonies in the Westlands and Eastlands or far away from the Mountain of Mastema in the Middle Kingdom.
There on Gerashday you shall worship Mastema. None shall be exempted. The elderly or infirm shall be transported to worship Mastema by their families. Only soldiers on campaign shall be waived from worshiping Mastema on the fifth day.
And this is the essence of worship: You shall give one-fourth of your income to Mastema. A holy priest of Mastema shall receive your worship on behalf of Mastema.
And the procedure for worshiping Mastema shall be to present to the priest your worship card made of crackerwood sealed in a leather pouch, together with all the money you have earned on Saladay.
The priest shall inspect the seal, unwrap the worship card, and inspect the pattern of recent punches. If the money and the punches are in order, the priest shall make a new punch using one of five different punches drawn by lots, a star, a square, a triangle, a circle, or a rectangle.
Then he shall store the worship card back in the leather pouch, add a seal, and return it to the worshiper, but the money he will put in the temple treasury.
Women however, shall not worship, nor shall a woman be found in the Temple of Mastema nor any shrine of Mastema, upon pain of death. Neither shall a woman or a girl be permitted to earn income. The head of a household shall count a boy’s income as his own for worship purposes.
If a man’s worship card is falsely punched, and it is proven that he did not worship by consulting the temple accounting books, that man shall be put to death.
If any man loses his worship card and no audit is pending, then there is no guilt; the man’s worship card shall be replaced.
But if a priest of Mastema suspects wrongdoing and requests to examine a man’s worship card, and the man claims it is lost, then his guilt shall be assumed; he shall be put to death.
Sixty-four punches shall fill the worship card. In the five festival days of New Card Week the priests of Mastema shall issue new worship cards. New Card Week shall be a time of re-dedication to Mastema, and the new year shall be met with fresh hearts.
Employers shall send to the Temple or to the local shrines of Mastema information on the wages of every man and boy in their employ. The priests of Mastema shall use this information to ensure that each man is worshiping Mastema in the correct amount.
For Mastema knows that men are faithless and weak and do not always seek to conform with the will of Mastema in all things. That is why the Eyes of Mastema must always keep watch. They are the sentries of the priesthood of Mastema.
The House of Gerash was indeed organized as something of a republic, as High Lord Patriarch once indicated to Queen Aurra at her council.The Middle Land was divided into three provinces, and the whole land of occupied House Bellon to the west was taken to be the fourth. In two thousand years the ice bridge that had separated Rumbek from Salem had melted away, leaving no physical barrier between the White Beards and the Brown Beards they had conquered.
Each one of the four provinces was governed by a Popular Assembly comprised of three Freelords and one Lord Advocate, except Mastema Province, where the High Lord Patriarch presided in place of the Lord Advocate. The Popular Assemblies conducted the daily business of the Republic.
The four provinces were further divided into three departments each. Twelve Freelords, with one vote each, presided as chief judges over their own departments and voted with the Lord Advocates to elect the successor to the High Lord Patriarch in the event of his death. Inevitably their choice became possessed by Mastema (or by that entity that still called itself Mastema) so the whole affair amounted to a hereditary monarchy in substance.
Freelords were elected by the people, directly.
The Lord Advocates had two votes each. One Freelord in cahoots with the Lord Advocate could dominate the Popular Assembly. Conversely, all three Freelords arrayed against a Lord Advocate could swing the province their way.
In the State Council, which conducted war and distributed taxes, the Lord Advocates only had a single vote. The High Lord Patriarch had two votes as the Head of State, except in the event of the passing of a Lord Advocate, and electing a new Lord Advocate from among the Freelords, when the Gerash Patriarch only had a single vote to prevent a tie.
One Lord Advocate allied with the High Lord Patriarch could sway the State Council. Alternatively, all three Lord Advocates combined against the High Lord Patriarch could steer things their way, at least on paper. Generally it was not a healthy thing to do so. The dreaded Eyes of Mastema, the secret police, served only the current incarnation of their god.
In the theoretical republic of White Beards, every citizen was theoretically on a level one with another. In practice, some citizens were more equal than others.
The right to elect freelords was conditioned on military service, either in the Army, the Eyes, or more recently the space-going Navy of Mastema. And military service in the House of Gerash was a twisted combination of incest, polygamy, and an ancient, pervasive death cult.
When a boy reached the Age of Initiation and chose to serve Mastema in the armed forces, he entered the rites of the Cupel system of testing. Under the Rites he wagered his sister in a ritual fight to the death with another boy. This combat was called Laraji. The boy who survived Laraji took the sister of his opponent, and his own sister, to be his wives. And he became one of the ishim in the lower echelon of the armed forces of Mastema. Later the ish could advance to malak and even ravmalak based on his valor in combat.
Mastema didn’t set this up on a mere whim. There was a certain logic to the system. The incest brought out to the surface any genetic defects, and the death combat eliminated the boys who carried those defects. After two thousand years of this artificially accelerated evolution the people of Barbelo had diverged sharply from the humans of Sol. Mastema now called his people the nephilim. They were not truly a separate species from man, for they could still interbreed, but the nephilim were well embarked on the road to speciation.
If a ravmalak desired to attain to the middle echelon of the forces of Mastema he was required to wager his two wives against the wives of another ravmalak in the second ritual killing of the Cupel system of testing. The man who survived the second Laraji took the two wives of his opponent, and retained his own two wives. He was called a sar in the middle echelon, and again he could advance to erel and hashmal based on his valor in combat.
If a hashmal desired to attain to the upper echelon he was required wager his own four wives against the four wives of another hashmal in the third and highest ritual killing of the Cupel system of testing. The man who survived the third Laraji took the wives of his opponent, and retained his own wives, for a grand total of eight wives. And he became an ophan in the upper echelon of the armed forces of Mastema. The way was clear for him to advance to cherub and even seraph based on his valor in combat.
For the span of time that Edgar lived as a son in the house of Sartael there were many opportunities for candidates of every rank to advance based on meritorious service, for it was an eventful year.
The Beaters started throwing rocks. In a devastating large-scale surprise attack, the Beaters caused a large meteor to all but destroy Dartarus in the eastern kingdom of the Gerash Middle Lands. This was a city of three hundred thousand people which lay on the southern shore of the estuary of the river Kelang, where it flowed into the Eastern Sea.
At the same time, they invaded Palato and took possession of it. They were able to do this because Sartael had chosen to take nearly the entire Navy deep into the Eggbeater in a show of force to remind the colonists there of their obligations under the True Religion.
The avatar of Mastema remained, and took to the skies of Palato, but Mastema could do very little. The Beaters used the largely Gerash population of Palato as nephilim shields to protect their ships and ground forces from retaliation. Some of these captives were the wives of Hogarth. Edgar Shybear was not present, he had gone along with the fleet as an observer.
The grounded and camouflaged Beater ships, reduced now to little more than expensive pillboxes, beat off several attempts at orbit-to-surface precision strikes against them. Finally Mastema withdrew his avatar to provide cover when the first elements of his navy returned from the Eggbeater.
With his avatar, Mastema could repel any ship-to-ship attack, but the gun and rocket emplacements clustered all over Palato took a terrible toll on the warships when they drew near.
Still, a sufficiently large fraction of them survived to enable a counter- invasion of Palato with infantry. The Beaters succeeded in burning their ships before the Army of Mastema could seize them, and the surviving attackers took to the hills in vacuum suits.
In Beater propaganda, they claimed that more Gerash cities would now be destroyed in retaliation for the Patriarch’s attempt to reclaim Palato by force. In reality, the meteoroids had been set in motion weeks before, because Mastema was utterly predicable.
The cities of Ganelon and Sastrom in the mountainous areas of the central Middle Lands were subsequently destroyed. The nephilim of the city of Mastema fled into the countryside in a great panic, for they could only be next on the Beater target list.
Although none of the other families had been threatened by the Beaters, Family Sala considered themselves safe due to a fundamental change that had been initiated by Queen Aurra two millennia prior. The people were reorganized into “Faith Communities” of about twenty-five people each, spaced at regular intervals across the plain irrigated by the river Loenna. Each Faith Community was self-supporting in most things, and for those goods they could not obtain, they would trade with neighbor cells.
The entire nation had abandoned urban conglomeration and spread itself out so thinly and evenly there remained no viable targets to hit. A meteor would destroy at most a handful of random Faith Communities. It was also not lost on Family Sala that they were similarly protected from Mastema’s nuclear weapons. They farmed the breadbasket of Barbelo and embraced Talishi as a feminine creative spirit, having turned their back on Mastema worship once and for all.
There was little Mastema could do to reverse what Queen Aurra had done at the behest of Talishi. Family Sala remained quite capable of defending their lands fiercely through guerrilla warfare, yet there were no high-value targets the Gerash Patriarch could threaten to extort compliance. The best he could hope for was to contain the spread of Talishism, and prevent the concept of Faith Communities from taking hold in the other families. But in years to come there were many secret adherents of Talishi among the nephilim, even in the upper ranks of Mastema’s military forces.
Aided by the strikes from orbit, the citizens of Palato revolted from Beater occupation and pursued the invaders into the rugged mountains between the major settlements. Remnants of the Beater forces were hunted down for months. Some vengeful men who had lost entire families in the strikes on Barbelo sought Beater stragglers out personally and devised particularly gruesome forms of justice.
Yet there would be many more Beater attacks, and still more cities would be destroyed. In time it was begrudged to the Salas that their strategy of radical decentralization was probably the wisest course.
The extended period of general peace that had existed since the Techno War was transformed into the Long War as House Gerash settled down to an endless period of low-level conflict against the Beaters, punctuated by brief spasms of total chaos. Under these circumstances the existence of the Imperial Navy and the harsh Cupel system of military training he had decreed was more than justified. And that suited Mastema just fine.
54 – ISLE OF WIGHT
Lilith Gervasi was an English Jew and an eighteen-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. She did not sleep nights anymore, not even a year after the War. Instead she stayed wide awake, watching the coast with her war surplus Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle for Nazis who would never come. She suffered terribly from something 21st Century doctors would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
One instant Lilith was scanning the beach in front of St. Catherine’s lighthouse on the Isle of Wight. The next instant a woman appeared.
The manner of the woman’s appearance was entirely out of the ordinary, Lilith thought. Then again, so was standing watch all night every night. Lilith realized it was possible she wasn’t entirely sane.
The female was not a Nazi, but Lilith wasn’t taking chances, not after what she had suffered. She fired a round into the air from fifty yards to get the lady’s attention and advanced closer. The strange woman had white hair, but despite that she looked to be rather young, perhaps only thirty years of age.
The woman watched Lilith draw near with the rifle but she could not put her hands over her head because she was nursing a baby. When they were close enough together that they could comfortably speak the woman said, “Please don’t shoot again. As you can see I have a baby.”
“Who are you?” Lilith demanded. “You don’t sound remotely English.”
“My name is Talishi,” she said. “And you are correct, I am not from your country at all. I am from somewhere very far away.”
Lilith’s rifle dropped a bit from its sight-line on Talishi’s’s head. It was now aimed at her heart. Lilith said, “So what are you doing here? And how did you get here?”
“I am here to meet someone,” Talishi said. “As for how I arrived, I could explain it to you, but you would think me entirely balmy, rather than just yourself.”
Lilith lowered the rifle to point at the ground between them, and there was the faintest glimmer of a smile. “Why did you bring a baby?”
“This is my beloved newborn daughter Del,” Talishi said. “I’m so madly in love with her I never let her out of my sight.”
That was enough. Lilith unchambered the round and slung her rifle over her back.
It was pre-dawn, and in the gloomy light that was beginning to gather, Talishi could take a better look at Lilith. The girl had just reached adulthood, but there was an aged look in her hollow eyes, as though she had already lived four lifetimes, and it haunted Talishi. A kind of Darwinian process in the camps had produced a girl who was able to outwit, bribe, or intimidate anyone to get what she needed to survive. Talishi saw the results right on Lilith’s surface. “Do you live here, at the lighthouse?”
Lilith nodded. The work camps had emaciated her body, and when she returned home to the Isle of Wight and was fed by her father, the weight came back in the form of strong, wiry muscles. She was eighteen but looked twice that. “My father is here, she said. “He operates the lighthouse and runs a weather outstation.”
“I should like to meet him,” Talishi said.
Lilith spat at the ground. “He has sold his life to the Goy and betrayed the promise of God that our people should rule Palestine.”
“When you say your nation,” Talishi said, “I know you are not speaking of England, Lilith Gervasi. You are a member of a people whose very right to exist is always being questioned.”
Lilith’s eyes narrowed at Talishi. “How do you know my name?”
“I know many things about you, Lilith. I know that your father rendered a service to the Crown that went far beyond the sacrifices that any other Britons were asked to make. I know he was used by the government to help deceive Hitler as to exactly where the invasion was going to take place. They planted false information on him. I know you and your mother were taken to camps on the Continent by German frogmen. I know they tattooed numbers on your arm and I know that you have come through such suffering and human degradation and evil that few could ever begin to understand the mere periphery of it, let alone sympathize with the core of your ordeal and your memories of it.”
Lilith showed Talishi the six numbers tattooed to her arm by the SS to affirm her assessment was correct. She said, “The Crown owes a very large marker to my father, but he will not cash it in to obtain a thing, a concession of such little import it could not possibly disconcert the government in the smallest way. The Foreign Secretary refuses to allow Jews to immigrate to the British Mandate in Palestine. Not even Jews who are already British subjects.”
“Oil,” said Talishi.
Lilith nodded. One word, but it explained everything. The Middle-East was awash in petroleum, but if the Arabs could not be assured that the Jews would never have an independent state there, they would attack the wells owned and operated by the British. So the Balfour Declaration and the Churchill White Paper were torn up for the worthless pieces of paper they always were, and all bets were off in the Holy Land. She said, “The admiral who deceived my father is dead. My father is willing to let the whole matter go.”
Little Del started to cry. It was cold, dawn was just breaking, and she wanted her mother to take her back to a place that was warm so she could go back to sleep. Talishi said, “You saw the manner of my coming, and your eyes were not deceiving you. What would you do if I said I could take you to Palestine in the blink of an eye?”
“What would I do?”
Lilith did not hesitate at all. She went into the grounds of the lighthouse complex, and returned ten minutes later carrying a small tote bag with clothing and her personal effects. She also carried her rifle, but now she also had several boxes of .303 caliber cartridges, carried on little straps. But she had not taken the time to wake her father and notify him that she was leaving, and Talishi knew that as matters stood the girl could probably never be persuaded to speak to him.
Talishi also noted, with some satisfaction, that Lilith carried in one hand a quantity of unleavened bread. That was the essence of the feast of Passover, to re-affirm the willingness of the children of Israel to respond without delay to the command of their God to depart a place. Deep down Lilith might have had a tiny spark of recognition.
Talishi asked Lilith to hold Del for a short time, which forced the girl to leave her rifle and other belongings on the ground. Holding the infant distracted Lilith from the instantaneous transition. The crack of dawn in England changed to mid-morning in Israel, for they had moved east toward the rising sun. Lilith saw the light had shifted, and the terrain as well. The beach was gone, replaced by desert. Astonished, Lilith almost dropped Del, but managed to hang on to the child. Her eyes lifted to meet those of Talishi. “Who are you really?”
“If I told you the truth, like I said before, you would think me a nutter, and blasphemous to boot. But hopefully, Lilith, at the very least I will be your lifetime friend.”
Holding Del in her arms and listening to Talishi’s words had an effect that Lilith could never put into words. After a few wordless moments, as body shook with dry weeping, Lilith returned the child to Talishi.
After that she was whisked away by a number of Jewish farmers who lived a few miles inland from the Mediterranean, at a kibbutz founded by Polish immigrants in 1943 named Yad Mordechai. The settlement lay on the coast highway only eight miles north of the city of Gaza and today lies only two and a half miles outside of the border of the Gaza Strip.
Lilith spoke no Polish, nor at that point had she learned Hebrew (which had been revived from extinction to become the official tongue of Eretz Yisrael). But all she had to do was brandish the tattoo on her forearm, and it was enough for the pioneers. They were already acquainted with Talishi and on good terms with her, but they refused to reveal anything about her to Lililth when she began to ask many questions. And in the weeks and months that followed, Lilith began to suspect she had been taken to her new home by an angel of God. That first morning began to seem like a dream. But much fighting lay ahead, and that was much more like a nightmare.