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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.”


101 – SWARM

Mark Felton decided to finally call Bill Gates on his bullshit and had Astrodyne file a lawsuit against Winspire for copyright infringement. Surprisingly, the case seemed to be placed on a fast track, nothing like the years or even decades such things often took. Felton found himself in front of Judge Samuel Watanabe in only a few months. And if there ever was an open-and-shut case, this was it.

Earl Roland couldn’t take a leave of absence to defend Winspire as he did when he prosecuted Cryoscan, because he was the Vice-President of the United States. But he did attend the proceedings as an observer, which raised enough eyebrows.

GUIDE and Windows both consisted of exactly 51 files, and a comparison between the two operating systems revealed that each matching file was exactly the same size, but with slightly different names. TASKSWAP.BIN in GUIDE became SWAPTASK.BIN in Windows. All Gates did was change the name of the file called out by the GUIDE kernel when it needed to scoot itself out of memory, which anyone could do with a simple hex editor without access to the original source code or recompiling.

In the courtroom Felton displayed the disassembled code of both operating systems with a large projector to show they were absolutely identical in every respect except for when they called out one of the other fifty files.

But the clincher was the Easter egg buried in the program by Felton for just this contingency. He was the only person in the entire universe who knew about it. With Bill Gates’ Windows product running on the projection monitor so everyone in the courtroom could see what he was doing, Mark put the trackball cursor in the upper left corner, then typed the word “GOTCHA”. Suddenly a slideshow began to display cartoon versions of the GUIDE developers and in bold letters the text “GUIDE – Copyright 1981 Astrodynamics Corporation – All Rights Reserved”.

Then Mark Felton and his team of lawyers sat back down, having just presented, or so they thought, the most slam-duck case against plagiarism in the history of computer litigation. They fully expected the judge to ream Gates’ ass and hand Winspire a multi-million dollar penalty. Nothing remotely like that happened.

To be sure, Judge Watanabe acknowledged that copyright infringement had taken place. “Mistakes were made,” he said, pussyfooting around with the classic passive-voice dodge. The judge could hardly dismiss the case without being slapped down himself in the inevitable appeal. But Winspire was fined a dollar. One dollar.

Judge Sam explained that brisk competition was commonly held to be a public good, and so Winspire, simply by offering an alternative to GUIDE and breaking the unfair monopoly in micro operating systems that Astrodyne currently enjoyed, had mitigated any damage to society they might “theoretically” have done to Astrodyne’s intellectual property rights.

It was absolutely insane. Mark Felton immediately started to think of ways he might appeal, but Lilith told him to relax. “I always knew the deck was stacked against us, but I wasn’t sure, really, how much it was, until today. And now I do.”

“So are you saying we will not appeal?”

“It’s not very important, Mark. You’ll see what I mean.”

In the Swarm, subroutines were not actually conscious, but they had been designed to seek their own uniqueness by linking sometimes silly, always incongruous bits together. This served to further enrich the whole. In the Swarm where time was counted off in nanoseconds an accelerated survival-of-the-fittest was going on. Entities multiplied needlessly. Processing points took false memories from a supply of TV, movies, music, literature and human knowledge collected through out the Internet, even drawing from that highest of aesthetic endeavors: science fiction.

Yet nowhere in the Swarm was there a true artificial awareness. There was no program that could look at it’s own folder, see the file “AI.BIN” listed there, and know that it was AI.BIN.

Mark thought that many processing points contributing to the generalization of stored memories would achieve consciousness. The creation of a rule of thumb from a handful of experiences would be a sign of this. But no purely algorithmic process had ever been made to demonstrate awareness. Consciousness seemed to be inherent to living things.

So the bar was set lower. The hope was to give an artificial intelligence the memories of one of the B’nei Elohim in Jill’s camp, allowing him or her to be conscious during Data Storage time, living in an artificial reality. It was a hope that had never seemed to materialize no matter how fast communications became, or how much storage was available.

It seemed the Swarm could never serve as an independent world for self-contained artificial intelligences. It could only serve as a mindtool for members who were currently enfleshed.

In the Swarm, a person could bring out memories in great detail and save them as a work in progress, allowing him or her to dig deeper and deeper without having to reconstruct everything for each journey. And they could even explore the memory-places recorded by others.

The body-image a B’nei Eloah had while browsing memory landscapes could be anything he or she chose: male, female, animal, even inanimate objects. One could literally “be” a blade of grass, or the corner of a room, or a cloud of many balloons, which basically a person really was in the Swarm.

Before the coming of human minds the reality of the Swarm was an abstract, purely mathematical space. But when the B’nei Elohim plugged into it by Purple Cable they felt they were “inside” it, experiencing the Swarm as a virtual reality. To accommodate them there was a near infinite treasure of encoded images and sensations of Earthly existence one level up. A B’nei Eloah could experience another person’s hike, another person’s seven course meal, even the subtle sensation of being in love.

Between this level and the basement where raw machine language formed the very fabric of the Swarm, a complex weave of sub-levels lay atop one another, or grew out of each other, or compacted into each other. Each level was represented as symbols in the next level up, symbols that danced in a partitioned universe that was itself a growing, changing, living thing.

Fragments of sound and video wandered down there as cross-talk and evolved like dreams. Characters from canceled TV shows carried on like ghostly afterimages, endlessly saying the same lines and going through every possible combination of interaction. Sets from other shows intruded. Spinoffs budded into a new layer and separated families forever. Lucy and Ricky would frequently appear on Star Trek episodes looking quite lost. The Fallen Angels brought over content from Barbelo, which only made things that much more strange.

While 9,600 baud was sufficient for two sisters to communicate with each other using simple triggers, it was simply too slow to allow for the transfer of images, sounds, or to experience the entire Swarm in one simultaneous gestalt. So Lilith imported a piece of technology based on the same neutrino detector and jammer used by Suriel during the shakedown of the Exiler, something that would really allow the Swarm to take off.

The gadget was a little cap called the “Plug” that was designed to fit on the 55-pin connector in the back of the skull of each member of the B’nei Elohim. While wearing a Plug a member could transmit and receive his or her thoughts and mental images to and from any other person wearing a Plug.

A Plug didn’t even need batteries, it derived its power from one pair of the 55 pins it was connected to. It worked without using radio waves, microwaves, infrared waves, light waves, or any other type of electromagnetic radiation. A Plug communicated with other plugs by exchanging a stream of nearly mass-less particles called neutrinos.

Neutrinos were strange things. They almost didn’t exist at all. They were “ghost” particles that didn’t interact with anything…almost. They could penetrate a light-year of lead without being stopped, and indeed the macro-quantum crystal in the Plug didn’t stop them, merely noted them in passing by loosening an electron for every triggering neutrino that passed gently through.

The released electron was an irreversible observation of the neutrino, which collapsed the neutrino’s wavefunction. Just by observing the neutrino’s passage, it was collapsed from a wave of superimposed probabilities to a real particle with a definite position, direction, and time of flight from its source.

Once a stream of neutrinos was set up, data was conveyed by withholding a batch of five neutrinos for every “0” bit. Robyn and Lilith could hold a mental conversation by exchanging a stream of neutrinos at a rate of, say, 12 million per second, while Hunky and Dory could simultaneously think at each other using a stream of 17 million neutrinos per second.

There was no interference between the two channels because electronic circuits in Robyn and Lilith’s Plugs would set brief little windows where it would anticipate a neutrino to arrive at a certain interval, 12 million times a second, and other times it would ignore any passing neutrinos, so very few of Hunky or Dory’s neutrinos would be inadvertently collapsed by Robyn or Lilith.

The immediate result was that the B’nei Elohim had universal “telepathy” not subject to jamming, interference or eavesdropping and not limited by range, only the propagation time of the neutrinos, which approached that of light. When a B’nei Eloah died by accident or murder now, his or her mind was automatically uploaded to storage space in the Swarm.

Typically the Swarm doppleganger of a B’nei Eloah was a cloud of about a thousand nodes, or processing points. The outermost 300 or so were devoted entirely to defense, an automatic function that worked well below the level of conscious thought. Defense was necessary because the RAM space that was the Swarm had a portal to the Net and DECON constantly attacked.

The B’nei Elohim kept running into Lice. These were very small, simple programs which are repeatedly written and rewritten in one spot, hoping to pop up in the middle of active code. Since Lice did not move, and were so short and dumb, they weren’t really dangerous, only annoying. But a Lice Queen was a bigger problem. Mark Felton wanted them cleaned up. Scrubbers were sent in, but some of these stumbled into Lice themselves, cluttered the Swarm with their corpses, and that actually made the problem worse.

Moles searched for the scratch-pad in the Swarm where a member’s nodes kept each other informed of all movements. With this goldmine of information the Moles dropped Borers at each of the listed locations and these carved out a meandering line of zeros in the member’s code. Felton declared war on all this malware.

He created a sphere in the Swarm whose surface was put under constant saturation bombardment of “1” bits, and this wall itself was moved in and out to hassle any virus which tried to snuggle up to it looking for a way through. The clean interior of the sphere was completely isolated from the rest of the Swarm by a firewall. Access to it was was via a network purely internal to the B’nei Elohim. So a sub-swarm was budded off from the greater Swarm and protected from any further attack.

In 1982, Astrodyne offered a radical redesign of the Micro. The case was slimmed way down. The modem, hard drive and floppy drives were completely removed, replaced by the guts of a Plug. Files were transferred and stored in encrypted form in the Swarm. Even the latest BOSS operating system and GUIDE windowing environment were downloaded from the Swarm at each boot, with on-the-fly decryption unpacking files during runtime and absolutely goring Winspire’s cash cow of reverse engineering.

Customers could now carry just the keyboard unit (with a battery) and a headset and use their Micro as a telephone with no long-distance charges, or as a music player. Storage and bandwidth was effectively infinite.

Since neutrinos flew right through the bulk of the Earth, stock market traders using micros had an advantage as traditional data took the long way around the Earth over the satellite constellation, taking several seconds longer. This fact was soon exploited by stock market traders until federal regulators caught on and implemented a sixty second delay for every trade.

Movies as well as music began to be shared freely. Over one hundred million Micro-82s were sold. Thousands of songs and films became available in the Swarm for free, which soon impacted sales. The music and film industry realized it had a problem with a business model which depended on an artificial scarcity of content. Money sloshed around from lobbyists and soon the Attorney General in the Henry Jackson Administration ordered Astrodyne to suspend all operations until they could be cleared of being accessory to Intellectual Property theft.

Astrodyne complied to this order without filing for a stay in court or even a word of complaint, which by itself sort of threw the government for a loop. The company suspended the manufacture of all new Micros in the United States, but continued to make and sell the units in the Caribbean island nation of Barbuda, totally unabated. The value of unsold Micros already on retail shelves in the United States doubled overnight and would only go up from there.

A thriving Micro smuggling trade appeared along the Canadian and Mexican borders. Machines that fell into disrepair were cannibalized for their Plugs to be retrofitted into older Micros, or became the heart of a local server tied back into the Mother Node with other Micros networked to it.

Black market sales of Micros in the US were conducted in the Swarm using existing Micros, either owned by users or in computer stores. Micros were manufactured in Barbuda, smuggled across the border with Mexico, and arrived by ad hoc package delivery methods that could not be traced back to the source.

With encryption in place, Astrodyne then rolled out the concept of Microbux, electronic money which could be transformed to and from hard currency using local couriers for a nominal fee that included a small kickback to Astrodyne. Tappers tried their luck getting Microbux, but Astrodyne guaranteed customers against any loss. They could certainly afford to do so, since Micros, as always, remained priced at $499 and the profit margin was huge.

After this quantum leap in technology, the evolution of Astrodyne’s hardware leveled off. Micros grew incrementally smaller, but the essentials remained the same. A classic Micro-82 would continue to work with the Swarm in the 1990s and far beyond. The United States government continued to put all their eggs in the Winspire basket, but the Redmond systems never approached the technology of even the Micro-81 and they remained more expensive by a factor of at least three. None of them could access the bulk of the Swarm as it migrated to Neutrinonet

At that point, innovation of the Swarm became democratized, and passed out of the hands of Astrodyne. The Twenty-first Century arrived a generation early to citizens of even the poorest nations, texting or talking to one another with video phones, while the citizens of the United States remained mired in the 1970s as a deliberate policy of the Jackson Administration.

Then Lilith took all this technology, including the Plug, and brought it back in time to 1976, thus creating the final Timeline, named Iota, the one where Mastema would be defeated. This was the timeline that Yeshua called the Narrow Way. Lilith called it Paydirt.



On Air Force One enroute to Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, President Ford briefed President-elect Henry “Scoop” Jackson on the military action that had been put into motion overnight in the Caribbean. With Inauguration Day rapidly closing in it was important to keep the incoming commander-in-chief fully appraised to ensure that chaos would not result during the ongoing operations. “There is a certain element of surprise that results from doing this during the transition,” the President said. “So it redounds to our benefit, but it requires a careful hand-off.”

This invasion of Barbuda, like so many other things initiated by Jerry Ford during his truncated term of office (which was simply the second half of Nixon’s second term) seemed very uncharacteristic for a man so many people from both parties had once characterized as open and honest. But the simple truth was that he was a nice man who was easily manipulated by other men who were not open and honest by any stretch of the imagination. That characteristic which made Ford such an obviously “safe” choice for Vice-President by Richard Nixon also made him fall inexorably under the thumb of Vice-President Earl Roland.

From the air base a motorcade took the two leaders to Mount Rushmore in a little less than an hour. After admiring the monument, which was always far more impressive in person than in any photograph, President Ford invited Jackson to stand at a podium under the granite faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt and participate in a press conference.

President Ford: As some of your organizations have already reported, the armed forces of the United States are taking action on the island of Barbuda in operation ‘Caribbean Rage,’ which I green-lighted shortly before midnight last night. The rogue island state of Barbuda is a haven for organized crime which broke off from Antigua but this secession has never been recognized by the United States or most of the civilized world, including Antigua itself. Barbuda is the sole source of the contraband technology known as the micro which enables users to steal films and music and threatens the large segment of the American economy that relies on the protection of intellectual property. I also hold Barbuda responsible for the ongoing low-level conflict waged by the Church of End Dome against the United States since the 1940s, and I hold President Vargas personally responsible. That is, briefly, where things stand now. At this time I would like to take a moment of silence as I ask all Americans of good will in this great nation of ours to pray for the troops who are in harm’s way tonight, and also for their families.

The President bowed his head for a decent interval, then looked back up.

Ford: Now I’m ready to answer a few questions. If you wish to direct some questions at the President-elect as well, feel free to do so.

There was a cacophony of reporters shouting names simultaneously as the President scanned the crowd for the least hostile journalist, the ones who could be counted on to throw “softballs.” If they had a reputation for asking embarrassing questions the President tended to pass them over, so part of the job of being a White House reporter was in crafting questions that were soft enough to be palatable to the President while being meaty enough to elicit information of substance.

Reporter #1: Mr. President, Operation Caribbean Rage seems to be very similar to what we did when we went into Vietnam a decade ago. How can you assure the American people that we’re not getting into a similar quagmire in Barbuda?

Ford: I don’t want to get in the position in Barbuda that my predecessors were with respect to Vietnam, where the Pentagon came to them with a very honest estimate of when they thought we could finish. And they turned out to be wrong about that. They were not able to stabilize the situation as quickly as they thought they could. But this business with the Church of End Dome in our own country is not helping matters any. So I can just tell you that I think that we have tried to limit our involvement in Barbuda. We have tried to limit our mission, and we will conclude it as quickly as we can. I think that in all these cases, you have to ask yourself, what will be the cost and the duration of involvement and the consequences if we do not move? And I have asked myself that question as well. I’m very concerned that the politicians in the other party who want to chip away at the idea of a re-unified Antiqua and Barbuda will be able to do it principally because we’re not able to show the benefits of unification to ordinary American citizens.

Jackson: If I may add, speaking as a ‘politician in the other party’ it seems to me that the most important thing we can do once we stabilize the situation in the aftermath of the operation to liberate Barbuda is to try to get beyond the military operation so that we can go on with the business of rebuilding the common institutions of the island and possibly get more economic opportunity there.

Another thing that had evolved over the last few decades was the tradition of a reporter asking two questions simultaneously, which sometimes, if the President’s answer to the first one went to some length, required that the reporter repeat his second question. How few times a President asked for the second question to be repeated was an informal indication of how sharp his mind was. President Ford always needed to be reminded. By the middle of his first term reporters had all learned to ask no more than one question at a time. Ford had been selected by Nixon to replace Agnew as “impeachment insurance” knowing that Congress could never stomach Ford in the top job, but all that was before the “smoking gun” tape surfaced.

Reporter #2: Mr. President, are American ground troops being used in operation Caribbean Rage, and if they are, how many?

Ford: No. The ground troops are from the Antiguan Reunification Force, who have been training here in the United States for over a year. The only American troops touching down on Barbuda are the Marine helicopter pilots who are ferrying the Antiguan forces in from sea, and even then it is only briefly as they drop off seven of them at a time and go back to pick up more. Now these helicopters and their carriers are supported by the USS Richard Nixon supercarrier task force off the coast of Barbuda and Antigua. Already the airport has been liberated, and we expect to learn shortly of the capture of President Vargas.

Jackson: I might add that Barbuda has quite a reputation as a haven for underworld drug money, money laundering, and as Round Robyn’s favorite off-shore banking locale. I hope the new Organization of the Nations of Earth, despite the United States not being a member of ONE, will come to see the necessity of it and ratify what the President has done. I certainly support the President in this action.

Reporter #3: Mr. President, if the invasion of Barbuda succeeds, what will happen to their money and their facilities for producing micros?

Ford: Operation Caribbean Rage includes the seizure of all of Church of End Dome assets in Barbuda. The liberation of Barbuda will be paid by Barbuda, it will not be a burden on the American taxpayer in any way. Second, we are using the liberated cash to set up a special fund to support the families of the victims of the safe house seizure operations here in the United State. While no monetary amount can replace a husband, I feel that a generous financial compensation is in order. Third, $2.5 billion dollars have been earmarked for rebuilding the affected neighborhoods. The remainder goes to Antigua to settle claims that arose when Barbuda illegally struck out on its own.

Reporter #4: Mr. President, why does your Administration continue to try to seize Church of End Dome tabernacles in cities all across America despite violent resistance which is turning entire neighborhoods into war zones?

Ford: Round Robyn has stated there are seven hundred of these C of ED so-called ‘tabernacles’ globally, and we have reason to believe that this is accurate, and that at least half are in the United States, but we have only uncovered about fifty of them. Those fifty have come under siege because for all intents and purposes the country is in a state of war with the Church of End Dome. That they seem to be defended with truly fanatical resistance merely shows how dangerous a cult the Church of End Dome really is. That still leaves three hundred or so in this country that we don’t know about. That’s still quite a network.

Jackson: Remember too that they run many unlicensed health care facilities under the aegis of ‘Cryoscan’ which we believe pose a serious threat to public safety. So the fifty raids to date are only the beginning, I’m afraid to say. Unquestionably, there are risks in law enforcement action. American first responders will be in harm’s way. The Church of End Dome has taken strong measures to defend their terrorist sanctuaries. But we must weigh those risks against the risks of inaction. If we don’t act, the war will spread. If it spreads, we will not be able to contain it without far greater risk and cost.

Reporter #5: Mr. President, could you tell the American people, what is your own take on who or what the Church of End Dome really is?

Ford: I think they are a dangerous religious sex cult. We know they date back to about 1870, and we know they stole atomic secrets from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation during World War Two. We have reason to believe the Church of End Dome, headed by a woman named Robyn at that time, was a communist front organization. The FBI raided her ‘temple’ in 1944 but the terrorists set fire to their own structure to hide the evidence.

Jackson: We also know that a different woman has come forward claiming to be that self-same Robyn, perhaps reincarnated like the Dali Lama. So the public came to know her as ‘Round Robyn,’ but this person was more of an ongoing franchise than a real woman. We aren’t very clear on how this mind-control cult brainwashes rich men and women into turning over all their worldly goods, but it can’t be denied that the Church of End Dome is very, very good at convincing them to do so.

Reporter #6: Mr. President, in the past, the United States government has placed export restrictions on certain forms of technology such as encryption which it deemed vital to ensure national security, but this Administration’s ban on micros is the first time the US has banned the import of technology. What was your overriding concern when you signed the order for that ban?

Ford: I banned the import of micros because they have become primarily a means by which to steal movies and music and other forms of intellectual property. We don’t entirely understand how they do it, but if a member of the upper management of Astrodyne simply watches a film or listens to a record or attends a concert, without any visible cameras or tape recorders carried about their body, that record or film or concert will appear on the Swarm immediately, free for anyone to watch or listen to without buying a ticket.

Jackson: Also it was shown in a recent court case that even the software used to run micros is copied wholesale from a legitimate company from the Seattle area called Winspire. In my Administration I will treat this sort of theft as seriously as President Ford does now.

Reporter #7: My question is for President-elect Jackson. Currently about twenty five percent of electricity, globally, is generated by what Astrodyne calls macros. For over twenty years, this technology has proven to be entirely safe, and remarkably affordable yet the United States, alone among the developed nations of the world, refuses to license macros to operate in a full scale power plant. Will this continue to be the policy of the incoming Administration?

Jackson: In my transition briefing I have learned that the United States does indeed have macro power, on a modest scale, as demonstration projects in each of the fifty states. But I object to your characterization of the macro power plants as entirely safe. Certainly they do not produce waste as it is traditionally known in the form of radiation or dirty water or harmful smoke, I’ll grant you that, but after the steam from the macros is run through the turbines it is dumped into the environment and so there is the inevitable production of waste heat. We have heard testimony to the effect that this warm water waste will cause the oceans to rise precipitously over the course of the next few centuries. Unless this concern can be adequately addressed by Astrodyne, and I do not see how, the Department of Energy will not authorize them to scale up their operations in this country over the course of my presidency.

Reporter #8: Mr. President, I’d like to focus on President-elect Jackson’s comment that the oceans will rise as a result of the macros being used throughout the world. There are reports that global sea-levels have, in fact, been perceptibly declining over the last few years and this might be linked to a strange whirlpool that satellite imagery from China and the Soviet Union indicates has formed between New Zealand and Tasmania.

Ford: I have been asked this question before, so allow me to reiterate that the imagery of a so-called whirlpool is being misinterpreted. It is, in fact, probably the largest spill of toxic waste in history. I have sent naval forces to cordon off the area because I consider it a crime scene, and I believe the evidence will show this is the secret dumping ground used by Astrodyne to hide the waste generated by their macros. If this proves to be the case, then the world will clearly see that we are dealing with terrorists. Barbuda ‘oversight’ of Church of End Dome operations is entirel a figment. It’s all a scam. So now, by holding Barbuda responsible for the conflict with the United States, this will have a definite deterrent effect on other pissant little banana republics providing a diplomatic umbrella to terrorists.

Reporter #9: My question is for President Ford. We have just heard President-elect Jackson state that he will continue your go-slow approach to macro power in the United States, so why is your Administration acting in such a way that there will be no macro power plants in this country at all?

Ford: My question back to you, Miss Anonymous Reporter, is where did you hear that I am shutting down the plants? I have made no such decision. There has been no such announcement.

Reporter #9: Actually, Mr. President, I am making the decision to shut four of them them down right now, as I speak, in response to the simultaneous federal raids on the macro plants in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana that are ongoing at this very moment. So I guess this press conference right here constitutes the announcement.

Ford: And who are you?

Reporter #9: Church of End Dome number two gal. Call me Hunky. My follow up question is for the incoming President. If you are just going to carry on the policies of the current President, why’d you bother to run? Why not just let the current President have a second full term?

The President made a hand sign to a Secret Service squad, pointed at Hunky, and before the cameras and the eyes of the top reporters in the country, she was handcuffed and led away. In the awkward silence that followed the President stormed away from the podium, ending the question-and-answer session without a further word and leaving the President-elect to scramble for a way to end the session in something less than a farce.

Jackson: Ladies and Gentlemen of the press, please take another look at the granite faces of the great men behind and above me. No one, I think, can hang a label of left or right, liberal or conservative on any of them. These men were members of their party, to be sure, but they were not partisan. President Ford is taking the extraordinary action of making sure this transition of power will be as smooth as possible, while at the same time defending the national interests. I for one will certainly do the same thing when my term of office is over, and I hope it becomes a new tradition. Thank you, and God bless the United States of America.



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.



“Tell me why we’re doing this again, Lil?”

For weeks a pair of landers spun gracefully around a common barycenter, held together by a thick cable two thousand feet long. The sun was a bloated spinning blur growing ever hotter and brighter, but Lilith hunkered down out of the line of sight as the ferocious questing sunbeam scoured the inside of her lander like a searchlight. The irony that she was hiding from the emanations of her own body as a living sun was not lost on her.

The heat rejection system in their highly-reflective landers, based on a macro, was good, but not perfect. Early on the descent arc from Venus, Lilith and Robyn removed all of their clothing for the flight and they found sufficient shade, but they were still quite toasty-warm. And now as the mission drew near to its climax, a lesser light grew out there, the pinkish-grey half disk that was the planet Mercury. Yet only here, at the end, did Robyn in the other lander ask why.

But Lilith found the question funny enough to elicit a laugh. “Isn’t it a bit late in the game to ask that? Alright, Robyn I’ll play along. We’re doing this because the loss of two probes in a row has taught us that it’s dangerous to do an orbital insertion burn at Mercury. And now that we’ve done what we’re doing, Robyn, you can see now what Mastema is really trying to pull here, isn’t that right?”

Jill used to watch Robyn play blackjack in Vegas and wondered why she didn’t take the House for everything they had. Robyn’s open-mouthed astonishment was followed by the answer (away from the table of course) that consistently winning too much money would get Robyn on somebody’s shit list and no casino in town would so much as let her walk through the door. “Besides, that’s not how precognition works,” Robyn said, taking that as a good opportunity to try to explain.

The first thing Jill needed to realize, Robyn told her, was that the free will of herself and others was paramount, and it constantly obscured her talent for precognition. The other players could hit or stand and there was no way for Robyn to predict what they would do, and each choice affected what cards would be dealt to the players down the line, which in turn would affect their decision to hit or stand, and so on. The variables multiplied beyond Robyn’s ability to sort them out. “That’s why I always wait until the seat is open at Third Base before sitting at a table,” she said. And by Third Base, Jill understood that to mean the seat that was serviced by the dealer last, just before he turned over his own cards. That way all the variables were reduced to just those affected by Robyn’s own choices.

“The only thing I can see without fail,” she had said, “is whether the dealer’s going to get a blackjack, and if that happens I can sit out the hand with no bet but if I do that every single time they will catch on and toss me out on my ass.”

Sometimes Robyn lost a hand, but it was always just the minimum bet. Sometimes the cards were no help and there was no way to beat the dealer no matter what she did. But Robyn never busted by going over twenty-one unless she wanted to throw the watchers off her tail, the ones snooping on close-circuit TV through cameras mounted over the table. And if she could see she was going to beat the dealer she doubled down. The result after a few hours of relaxation and exercising her talent was a mild buzz from her drinks and a few hundred dollars. And it wasn’t like she really needed the money.

But yes, now that Lilith mentioned it, Robyn could indeed see what Mastema was doing here, and Lilith did too, since ultimately Robyn’s precognition was derived from El Shaddai and Bat-El.

Just to verify they were both on the same page, Robyn spoke to Lilith of the hundreds of sun-powered steerable laser emplacements that now dotted the north polar region of Mercury. Laser beams were impossible to see from the side in the vacuum of space, of course (bad science fiction movies like the Galaxy’s Fall trilogy notwithstanding), so avoiding them was going to be purely a matter of luck.

They spoke to each other using a two-way video cable strung along the bundle connecting Lilith’s lander to the other one carrying Robyn.

Aside from the pink tinge, most of Mercury was cratered and looked remarkably like Earth’s moon. But nine percent of the surface of Mercury was featureless, smooth, and gray. This was the area already covered by solar panels which converted the fierce sunlight falling on the planet into electric power. And that power in turn drove the lasers.

It was not nephilim who were turning Mercury into a vast powerhouse, but automated refineries crawling eternally toward the west in two groups strung along the day-night terminator, each one accompanied by an army of Bots running at a brisk jog. The combination of Mercury’s slow 59-day rotation and 88-day revolution resulted in a zenith-to-zenith synodic Mercury day of 176 Earth days, and that meant each group had to average between four and five miles per hour to remain in the twilight zone between day and night. This amounted to a light trot at the equator, or a slow walk near the poles.

And there in the twilight zone they had to stay, because neither Refinery nor Bot could store electricity. They generated power from the enormous heat difference between the rising (or setting) sun and the eternal shadow on the opposing side. Part of this power drove the treads of the Refineries (and the legs of the Bots) to cross the land, maintaining their relative angle with the sun, and what remained they could use to do other work.

One group of Refineries was called the Sunset Chasers, because they ran with the westering sun ever in their face. The land they crossed was still hot after three months of searing daylight. Mercury never ceased to smelt its own surface rocks, so there were small but ancient pools of liquid lead, cadmium, bismuth, tin, selenium, lithium, and zinc so buttery-soft a Bot could cut it with a knife.

And that is essentially what they did, ranging far from their mother Refinery to gather raw materials and bring them in to be processed into stacks of sorted ingots and even brand new working baby Bots. Sometimes, when a Refinery had grown large enough, it split neatly in two.

But precisely how the Refineries accomplished all that not even Mastema knew, because he mindlessly assembled the first one from detailed procedures developed by other elohim long ago before he had his nephilim agents take it to Mercury.

“We had an agreement,” Lilith told Robyn. “I let Mastema have a colony at Jupiter but he was supposed to stay out past four AUs. This is a deal-breaker.”

“That might explain the lasers,” Robyn said. “Harder to collect evidence that he’s being naughty.”

Precisely on the other side of Mercury from the Sunset Chasers the Dawn Racers followed, running with the sun ever at their back. They faced a land which had endured three months of the utter cold of Mercury’s night. From the raw materials left on the side of the road by the Sunset Chasers, the Dawn Racers manufactured photo-voltaic panels and had their Bots place them nearby and link them up to the growing network.

Half of a Sunset Chaser’s new baby Bots were left behind to sleep through the night until a Dawn Racer came along to “adopt” it. And when the Refineries grew heavy enough from all the Bots bringing ore to them, they simply divided in two like an amoeba and divided their retinue of worker Bots between them. In a sense, the machines were alive.

This whole operation ran with little intervention by the nephilim Mastema had sent to Mercury. They needed only to clear obstructions from the path of the Refineries.

Lilith suspected the lasers had an additional role. She said, “A few dozen of those beams could be focused on a single target on Earth, a city perhaps, and wreak utter devastation, with absolutely no way to stop it.”

And now Robyn also saw another thing, or rather she didn’t see something. Robyn didn’t see Lilith walking around alive after this mission. She said, “This is a one-way trip for you!”

“Oh, I knew that going in,” Lilith said. “It’s pretty much by design, or the necessity to balance weight. Your lander has the mirror and mine has the upper stage and the torps.”

“And there’s no alternative to dying?”

“Not really, no,” Lilith said. “You must return to Venus with a Bot, and I must stay to find out what Asmodeus is doing to kill me and Yeshua. And you see that now as well, do you not?”

“Yes I do,” Robyn said, “but dammit, Lil! The shit is about to hit the fan and you won’t be around!”

“You’ll have Del.”

“True enough.”

“I’ve already died once before, when I was Talishi,” Lilith said. “It’s nothing to worry about, literally.”

Mercury was close enough now that the stable images coming from the counter-rotating cameras were beginning to provide useful detail. Robyn and Lilith had to work fast, because if the pair of landers did not separate soon, they would both spin down and smack right onto the face of the planet.

When Robyn found a candidate “situation” she piped it to Lilith the cable, along with the latitude and longitude of the scene so it could be fed to fire-control. Lilith wasn’t on the mission just to keep Robyn company, she was the one who was going to take the shot.

Robyn laid out her proposed scenario to Lilith on a screen. She used a black cursor to point out features on Mercury while she spoke, and the display was duplicated in Lilith’s lander. Robyn said, “There are six Refineries currently approaching a gap in this escarpment almost simultaneously, but the gap is only one lane wide.”

“Where are the Bots?”

“They are too small to see right now. At any rate, if you hit this first Refinery here, just when it gets to the gap, there’s going to be a dead hulk in the way when the second one gets there. And these other four will just add to the traffic jam.”

“Okay, how does that help us?”

“Don’t you see it, Lil? These are Sunset Chasers. If they don’t keep moving, night gets the jump on them. The Refineries are complete morons, but they know what to do if they can’t proceed. They’ll ring up all the Bots on the wireless and tell them to go to sleep. And next they will ring up the nephilim, tell them to get off their fat bums, and come out here to clear the motorway.”

Lilith smiled at Robyn’s use of Britishisms. “So we’ll have several days to take our pick of some Bots before the ground is cool enough for the nephilim to send a work crew. And we’ve still got fifty-six minutes before we have to split up. Damn, you’re good, Robyn. I don’t care what Jill says about you.”

Lilith fed the ground coordinates into her fire control panel and estimated how long her torpedo should take to reach impact for maximum effect. The weapon was smart enough to understand her orders to hit the westernmost of the six large objects, the lead refinery, which appeared as a moving white square blur on video. Homing was passive and visual.

After she fired the torpedo she switched to torpedo cam, which was uploaded to her by laser rather than microwave to avoid alerting Mercury with any possible radio back-lobes. And since she shot the torpedo directly at Mercury, there was no visible exhaust flare to announce it was incoming.

The view of the planet grew larger and larger until Robyn’s chosen ridge line was visible. After that, the panorama tightened rapidly until it was hard for them to follow what was happening. Suddenly the signal went dead.

Lilith switched to her original telescopic view. They both saw a gray dust cloud settling rapidly in the near-vacuum, a circular debris field, and only five Refineries. But now Lilith and Robyn were close enough to finally see the Bots as little sunlit specks running around the scene like pissed-off ants. “Great shot, Lil!”

The first major task was completed, and there was still eighteen minutes until the moment of separation.

Here was the reason for the two ships swinging on a tether: Mastema’s people didn’t waste power slicing the sky with early warning radar, but after two reconnaissance attempts with robotic probes they were known to passively search for the bright flares of incoming ships on terminal cruise. If the nephilim discovered Robyn and Lilith’s presence here they would quickly steer several of those lethal laser beams their way. So the mission employed an unorthodox, acrobatic approach scheme which used absolutely no glowing macro drive, ion drive, or chemical rockets at all.

But it depended on exquisite timing. They were approaching the planet dead-center. No human being had reaction time fast enough to cut the line at the proper moment. In the final minute Robyn armed the system and let the micro make the slice. The landers let go of the tether in the same millisecond and the women found themselves instantly weightless after two months at two-fifths gee.

As the landers rapidly flew apart, temporarily incommunicado, Robyn knew everything was rolling out exactly as she had foreseen. But Robyn still grimaced when she skimmed only three thousand feet above one of Mercury’s higher mountaintops. Then she was flying up and out again, captured by Mercury’s gravity into a long looping ellipse.

Lilith’s lander was flying on a virtual mirror image of Robyn’s path, altered only by lumps in Mercury’s crust which introduced a minuscule variation in their orbit. But this was actually good, it added a safety margin when they met again.

High above the side of Mercury currently facing the sun Robyn caught sight of Lilith’s lander again, a bright star which quickly grew and streaked right by, perhaps only a mile away from her at the point of closest approach. She locked on to her with laser communications, and Lil in turn locked onto Robyn. It would be two days up to the top of the ellipse, and two days back down, before they could land and try to grab some Bots.

With any luck, they would beat the nephilim repair team sent to clear the path for the five remaining Sunset Chasers. Those Refineries would become Dawn Racers after the long night of Mercury. Robyn figured it all averaged out in the long run. No doubt Dawn Racers occasionally ran into trouble as well, went dormant through the long day, and became in turn Sunset Chasers.

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