TC022

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105 – YELLOW MOUNTAIN

The acronyms DECON stood for Domestic Enemies Containment, Observation, and Neutralization. The containment part was handled at Yellow Mountain in Nebraska, a thousand-foot tall butte on the great plains near the place where the corner of the state met the Wyoming and South Dakota borders. It had been hollowed out like Cheyenne Mountain for NORAD, but at great expense, without the benefit of the Golden Gift.

Hunky’s cell was lit with a sickly red light that evoked mental images of blood, part of DECON’s standard psychological procedure to break down the prisoner for interrogation. Hunky had been around the block. Such tricks were simple jokes to her.

Hunky’s dress was of Barbelo make, satiny and white under normal light, but with a hint of metallic reds and greens shifting on its surface, like the colors of an oil stain floating on a puddle. In the light of the cell it looked like a dark rag. Under normal circumstances, Hunky wouldn’t touch a dress with a 3.048 meter pole, but it had been required as part of her role as a credentialed White House reporter.

She took off her dress and began ripping out the hem to obtain objects she had hidden there before embarking on the operation, small tools made of a polymer whose structure would not be synthesized on Earth for at least another forty years. There was a plastic jeweler’s screwdriver almost as hard as steel, but perfectly invisible to the metal detector that had been waved over her body. Also there was a dental pick and a very thin scalpel.

Hunky didn’t get very far with these, because the guards busted in and took them from her, along with her dress. Hunky didn’t care one way or another. That was simply confirmation that she was being watched.

After that Vice-President Earl Roland and President-elect Henry Jackson entered the cell and saw Hunky standing there wearing nothing but her bright yellow panties and a matching bra. Roland ordered Hunky to reveal what was hiding underneath her hair. “What the hell are you talking about, Earl?” came Hunky’s reply.

Roland was already bored. “Shall I have the guards come back in here and hold you down, do it anyway?”

Hunky sighed, did an about-face, and lifted her ponytail, allowing the Vice-President and the President-elect to see a thing there like a little white mushroom.

Roland said, “What you see right there, Henry, is some kind of implant linked to Neutrinonet. Sitting here deep inside a small mountain makes no difference. Hunky is still linked to the Swarm as long as it’s plugged in.”

Roland removed the plug, revealing a white cup with fifty-five black pins, each one like the lead in a mechanical pencil. “We have found that pulling the Plug results in a Church of End Dome over-reaction, every single time.”

Jackson said, “So we can expect them to come calling here shortly?”

“Every single time,” Roland repeated. “Please tell us a little about yourself, Miss Hunky.”

“I’m cold.”

“We will provide you with nice international orange clothes without any little surprises sewn into them.”

“In that case get me a clean pair of panties.”

“Request denied.”

“Why?”

“Because you want it.”

Hunky, realizing she was getting nowhere, turned to the President-elect. “My name, originally, was Sophie Krause. I was born in the State of Washington in 1925.”

The President-elect looked at the mannish woman, who nevertheless looked half her stated age, and said, “Bullshit!”

Hunky continued without a beat. “My father Karl Krause was a German-American immigrant who moved to Washington from Pennsylvania before the First World War to work the coal mines around there. My mother was his first cousin Erika Zinter. But let me ask something about you, Scoop. Round Robyn has a theory that says whatever little committee a Senator chairs in Congress, be it the Committee on Military Kickbacks, or the Committee on Porking Little Boys, or what-have-you, the chairman is really doing that thing and just wants a little cover. I’m sure you’ve seen what DECON can do by now. So reviewing the rise of one Henry Jackson to the presidency, and putting two-and-two together, what’s the scoop, Scoop?’”

“We’ll see if you mouth off like that after the traditional attention-grab,” Roland said. He called for some DECON guards to come into the cell. One of them had a bucket with white electrolyte paste which he painted on the bare metal bed that was the sole piece of furniture in the cell, and Hunky was secured to the bed at four points with tie-wraps at he wrists and ankles.

Hunky was rather calm, considering she was about to be brutally tortured with electricity. Turning to the President-elect she said, “You know what motivated our Vice-President to become such an expert in producing pain? It’s a pronounced fear of death. Earl is obsessed with it. Earl is terrified by the inevitability of the end. It’s going to happen to all of us, and there absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. Most people drown such fears in this or that religion which provide sure answers that remain constant throughout the centuries, or even in my own religion where we have a rather unique solution. But Earl specializes in taking victims to a level of pain that simply overrides their dread of death, to that point where they just beg to die. It sickens me to think about it, but that moment, which is clearly evident in the victim’s eyes, is some kind of religious experience for Vice-President Roland.”

“I have to admit you are pretty close to the mark, Miss Hunky. And here at DECON there has always been plenty of work for someone like me to do. Someone who, as you say, finds it to be such a spiritual thing.” The President motioned for a switch to be thrown.

There was a hum. Hunky’s body convulsed on the metal cot, thrashing wildly within the limits imposed by her physical constraints. Hunky bit through her tongue and urinated, but there were no moans or screams, which was puzzling.

“Tough broad,” the President-elect said, trying to keep from fainting at the horrifying sight as it went on for about a minute.

The President ordered the current cut. “Not so tough. They have some way of electing to anesthetize themselves. Her consciousness cut out at the first jolt, what you saw was just the involuntary jerk of muscles. But when she wakes up again she will be very sore. She’ll feel just like she beat herself up. It’s a lot better to use a whip for this sort of thing but I didn’t want to get her blood all over you. Cut the dyke loose.”

When Hunky woke up later she was alone, and as Roland promised, unbelievably sore. But she knew the drill, it wasn’t the first time it had happened to her. She spent some time massaging herself. Then she took off her panties and began picking at the thread stitching of the decorative pattern embroidered on them. Her guards watched all this on their closed-circuit television screen, but assumed she was just idly trying to fill in time with something to do. Hunky accumulated the thread from her panties into a big tangled pile of stuff resembling spider’s silk.

The stitching Hunky had dug out from the fabric of her panties was a polymer chain from Barbelo finer than a newborn’s hair, yet stronger than steel wire. Robyn called the stuff Polywire, and it was just one of the millions of deadly things to be found on Barbelo.

Her undies were shredded and Hunky’s fingers grew bloody from lacing the stuff through little vent holes around the cell door. A small piece of one thumb, in fact, had been sliced clean off and the floor was slippery with her blood. It hurt like hell, but she knew she had to work fast.

Her watchers grew alarmed at the blood, and guessed she had found a way to commit suicide. Roland saw the scene on closed-circuit television and ran down to her cell.

The door opened and the Vice-President walked halfway, stopped and stood there looking at her in total disbelief that slowly turned to belief. Roland realized death would follow in mere seconds, with no chance of reprieve, and he wasn’t ready. That stark fact was clearly evident in his eyes. Hunky didn’t find it to be a spiritual moment, but she smiled, knowing he would get to think about it for the short span of life that remained. And Roland saw her break out into a gloating smile.

Immediately after that Roland’s legs buckled. The Vice-President jerked and bounced down on Hunky’s deadly web, letting gravity finish the grisly job. After his spinal cord was severed many slices of Vice-Presidential meat plopped down in a wet pile at the door like so many bony ingredients for pork stew.

The DECON guards were furious. They tried to cut the web down but only succeeded in slicing their own knives into little razor blades. Hunky began to laugh hysterically. Finally they used their handguns to blow chunks out of the door frame where the wire was slung. The web drifted down to the floor and the guards stepped through aiming their weapons directly at Hunky. The Secret Service agents guarding the President-elect followed, and when they motioned it was clear the actual President-elect stepped through into the cell after them.

“Gun mentality,” she sneered at the DECON guards, lisping the second word with her injured tongue. She stood there nude except for her bra, but was victorious and unashamed.

“You’ve assassinated the Vice-President of the United States!” said the President-elect.

“Self-defense,” Hunky replied. “The Vice-President of the United States tortured me with electric shock. But right now you’ve got much, much bigger things on your plate. You might want to take me somewhere where we can at least pretend we aren’t being overheard.”

The President-elect paused, then agreed with a nod of his head.

Hunky’s tongue was stitched up by a physician and she was given her promised set of prison clothing, then was left alone in the glassed-in alcove overlooking the cell bank with the President-elect but at the insistence of the Secret Service her hands were bound to her chair with tie-wraps.

“Why this place?”

“The Vice-President seemed to think it was sufficiently secure to lay some compromising shit on me,” the President-elect said. “State your piece.”

“I don’t think the late Vice-President gave you a very good understanding of what happens when one of us are captured, especially someone of my rank. You might remember that I said I was the number two gal.””

“We’re supposed to expect your people to come rescue you shortly. I didn’t give it much credence. The cell bank down there is full of inmates, after all.”

“Members of the Church of End Dome are not the only domestic enemies of our dear departed Vice-President. But look around. You’ll find I’m the only CoED you got here, and that not for very much longer. Seriously. Del is coming, do you know what that means? No? This is, I believe, the first and last time we’ve allowed any one of our people to be held here for any substantial length of time.”

“Allowed?”

“The thinking was that if we could get to you we could end the war.”

“What, get to me? Kill me? The country can make more Presidents you know.”

“Not kill you. Talk to you. Like right now. What did the Vice-President have on you?”

“Sex videos. Same sex videos, if you must know.”

“That’s the stupidest thing. Not stupid that you let yourself be filmed having sex with someone of the same gender, but stupid that anyone cares. That’s all that DECON is really doing you know. Provide both the disease and the cure. Let’s have done with all that crap.”

“What do I have to do?”

“End the war. That’s all.”

“What, the Barbuda thing?”

“All of it, the whole stupid war that’s been going on between America and my church since 1943, the one that you’ve been losing badly from the gitgo by the way. If not we’ll end it ourselves but if it comes to that there won’t be an America anymore, not like the one we grew up in. It might seem strange to you, Scoop, but the folks in the Church of End Dome are actually loyal Americans who loved what this country was and should be again. So we don’t want it to come to an end, and neither would you, if you knew everything.”

“But I don’t know everything. Tell me everything.”

ice-world

106 – KUSHIEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are my orders, Sire?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rhene. Yes sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Retreat, Erel? That sounds relaxing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir.”

dubois-goldberg

107 – DECON

President-elect Henry Jackson, Hunky, and six Secret Service agents gathered in the main control bay of DECON, which was surrounded by four levels of prison cells, including the one where the entirely unrecognizable body of the Vice-President still lay. It was the largest cavity inside Yellow Mountain, Nebraska.

Two of the Secret Service agents had initially preceded the Vice-President and President-elect by elevator into the DECON complex. Two had accompanied the leaders, and after that two more had come down as reserve. President Gerald Ford had separated from Jackson after the incident at Mt. Rushmore and flew over to Caspar, Wyoming to remotely manage the war in Barbuda.

The bulk of Yellow Mountain blocked any direct radio transmissions between the agents and the larger team that waited in the summit parking lot but DECON had promised to arrange for communications and at first the agents had been satisfied with the results. But now the link had been severed and Special Agent Ted Hickey, the leader of the detachment inside the mountain, demanded the DECON leadership explain why.

Ed Conley, the man in charge of DECON when the Vice-President was not actually present and handling the reins, said, “I took DECON to Protocol Yellow when the Vice-President was killed. No messages get in or out after the initial message that we are actually at Protocol Yellow. Only the President can move us back to Protocol White and he is flying over from Casper right now.”

“I want to get the hell out of here,” Jackson said.

“Unfortunately, sir,” Conley replied, “the elevators are locked on their tracks as part of Protocol Yellow.”

“Then we’ll take the goddamn stairs!” the President-elect said. “The reporter goes with.” A nod from Ted Hickey confirmed this plan was a Go. By a quick hand-sign Hickey indicated that two special agents would stay behind and they understood it was to ensure the integrity of the crime scene.

Hunky spied her Plug sitting on a console in the main bay. “I want my Plug back before we go.” The President-elect nodded, and one of Hickey’s special agents retrieved it for her.

When DECON went to Protocol Yellow guards on every level of the mountain took the safeties off their weapons and began to patrol their assigned routes within the complex, but the doors were not locked. Some of these squads encountered the four Secret Service agents climbing the stair well with their charges, but they did not detain them.

“Jerry Ford,” Hunky said with disgust as she climbed the stairs with the President-elect and the agents. It was quite a climb. Yellow spinning lights turned the stairwell into a disco. “Nobody voted for his ass, and nobody voted for Roland either. Ford’s probably coming here because he’s got his own sex video hanging over his head.”

“Two days until the Inauguration,” Jackson said, stopping for a rest on a stair landing between floors. “That’ll give him forty-eight hours to comb the DECON records, remove whatever it was Roland had on him. Frankly, I don’t blame him at all.”

Ted Hickey caught the eye of the President-elect. “This isn’t America. This isn’t who we are.”

“I agree one hundred percent. So tell me your mission statement, Special Agent Hickey.”

“The law specifies a list of people that the Secret Service is required to protect,” he said. “Anyone can opt out of that protection except the President, the Vice-President, the President-elect, and the Vice-President-elect. I’ll try to accommodate your wishes, but by law I’m in charge until we get out of here.”

“Agreed.”

Five minutes after they left, Ed Conley asked for a report on the progress of the stair-climbers. “Last report has them spotted on level 31,” a subordinate replied.

“Go to Protocol Red. Use this when you call it away.” And Conley handed the subordinate a sheet of paper from a notebook.

“Yes sir!” He punched the complex-wide intercom. “SECURITY ALERT, PROTOCOL RED. REASON FOR SECURITY ALERT, ESCAPED PRISONER. TARGET IS A WHITE FEMALE NAMED SOPHIE KRAUSE. DETAIN ALL ACCOMPANYING SUSPECTS. DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED IN THE EVENT OF RESISTANCE.”

“What the hell is Protocol Red?” demanded one of the two agents Hickey had posted behind in the command center.

“It means DECON slams down tight and no one can move after two minutes. After two minutes everyone should be at their posts but there are always laggards so for the next eight minutes after that only the DECON Internal Police can move, individually and in squads, taking names and questioning tardy personnel. If their excuses are halfway valid they will personally escort them to their units, if their excuses are lame…” Conley shrugged. “Vee haff vays.”

The other Secret Service agent pointed a 9mm at Conley. “Rescind the order authorizing deadly force. The President-elect and four agents are with her. In fact, you and everyone involved with that announcement just committed a felony offense, threatening the life of the President-elect”

Ed Conley said in a loud voice, “I don’t like the way this Secret Service agent is pointing his gun at me. I can’t focus on my job.”

From the upper levels of the cell bank all around, DECON guards with semi-automatic rifles poured fire into the two Secret Agents. It was massive overkill, but the tone of Conley’s voice seemed to suggest he really didn’t like being threatened.

“Now that,” Ed Conley said, “is closer to what I call a felony offense.”

In the stairwell the rotating yellow lights ceased and rotating red lights spun up, and Agent Hickey’s party heard the alert with the part about deadly force. He and his agents chambered a round. Hickey said, “They know exactly where we are, and if we keep climbing up these stairs, we’re going to run into company. So we need to do make a detour.”

Hunky tried a door leading to level 28 but it was locked. Hickey swiped a badge and it clicked open. He ordered one of his agents to join him on point, and the other two on rear-guard, with the President-elect and Hunky between them, and they all left the stairwell.

“So where do we go?” Jackson asked.

“My girl is coming,” Hunky said, “and she’s homing on my Plug. I’m talking to her right now.”

“Your girl?”

“Del. Ever heard of her?”

“There’s been whispers.”

“Well she says she’s coming, so we just need to find another stairwell and go down as far as we can go, then straight out. My people are squirting a layout of this place to me now. I can see it in my head.”

“How can they have a layout?” Jackson asked.

“We know every corner of this mountain,” she said, “the number of times our people have been taken here for a short spell.”

“I accept your plan, Hunky,” Agent Hickey said. “Just tell us where to go. And boys, girls, no one stops us no matter what, got that?”

As Ed Conley indicated, for two minutes after Protocol Red was called away the Big Board was lit up with a flurry of activity as the DECON personnel moved to their assigned stations. The activity dropped abruptly at the two minute mark and for the next eight minutes the Big Board showed a reduced set of activity as the internal security forces squared everything away.

The movement of Hickey’s team was masked by this. But at the eight minute mark they descended one level down a partially painted stairwell that was empty of personnel and looked to be little used. Still, the swipe of the badge to open the door at the bottom of the stairs registered on the Big Board.

“What’s that movement?” Conley wanted to know. The duty officer quickly put up a visual of the space that Hickey’s team and his guests were entering from the stairwell. And as they passed under the security camera and out of view Conley got one good look at Hickey, who held up the Vice-President’s badge and stuck his tongue out. He was incensed. “Go to Protocol Blue! Now! Shut it all up tight!”

The red lighting shifted over to all blue, everywhere. Now even the Vice-President’s badge was no good. None of the doors in the entire complex would work at all unless Ed Conley personally authorized it from where he was, on a case by case basis. He pointed at a section of the Big Board where a force of seven security men were now trapped in a section of corridor. He said, “Get ahold of these fellows and tell them to drop two levels and work their way east. Release the doors in front of them in such a way that they run smack into where the Secret Service team is trapped. No one else moves.”

Conley was good as his word. When Hickey tried to get out of the office space they had crossed, the door wouldn’t respond. He tossed Roland’s now useless badge away. “Any ideas?”

A hissing black shaft about a foot long penetrated a nearby wall and carved out something in the rough shape of a door, which then fell forward flat to the deck. The hissing stopped and the black shaft retracted into what the President-elect knew must be the Golden Gift, so familiar from the Scroll of Lael but now physically present, held in the hand of an attractive red-haired young woman wearing a gray and red tunic, textured black tights, and black boots.

“Del!” said Hunky with a big grin. “Just in the nick of time, as usual. Gentlemen, meet Del. She’s a two-legged Tough Women Attack Team, all by her lonesome.”

dnews-files-2014-11-venus-surf-670x440-141112-jpg

dnews-files-2014-11-venus-surf-670x440-141112-jpg

108 – VENUS

At the bottom of their loop on the four day mark, when Robyn and Lilith skimmed just over Mercury’s highlands again, they lit off their macro engines to make planetfall. So there were two big bright flares telling anyone on Mercury who happened to be watching the skies that two interlopers had arrived. Fortunately the danger was minimized by the low altitude where they initiated the burn, which limited the sight horizon for any surveillance.

That part went well, and presently there were two Astrodyne landers parked in the dark on the gradually cooling night-time surface of Mercury. A pale cyan glow could be seen overhead, stretching off to infinity. They lit up the whole area with floods, and saw a pipe elevated on pylons which terminated in the mountain pass. The floodlights made the cyan glow emanating from the pipe difficult to see, but Lilith obtained the spectrum of the glow and noted it was pure ionized carbon gas, a puzzle to be figured out later.

Lilith and Robyn were already suited up, and they had already recycled most of their cabin air with a pump, so it was only a few minutes after landing before they completed their checklists, popped their respective hatches, and stepped down the ladders of their respective ships to the ground.

There was little need to get acclimated to Mercury’s tug. They had spent the last two months rotating at the same gravity as the planet, by design, and the recent four day interval in free fall did not seriously reverse that conditioning. But Robyn, knowing Lilith would never leave Mercury, started crying as soon as her feet touched the ground. Unable to remove her helmet to wipe her tears, this made it difficult to look for Bots.

By luck, Lilith spotted one sleeping Bot near enough to her lander that it reflected the floodlights. It was a beautiful little human-shaped thing, nearly four feet tall, with silvery skin. She picked it up tentatively. It didn’t wake up, and there was no sun power for it to use in any event. It was made from exotic and light metals like lithium and beryllium, and would have weighed as much as a small child on Earth, but in the lower gravity of Mercury it was even easier to lift. She secured it to the cargo apron of Robyn’s lander.

So they already had one Bot in the bag. This encouraged them to go looking for more. They only needed the one, but perhaps they could use some spare parts.

There were no more Bots near the landing zone so they had to comb the ground by foot, using the lights on their suits. This was a surprisingly time-consuming task, like a snorkeler looking for a fin which had fallen off somewhere within a mere five feet of murky water. By the time Robyn stumbled onto her first Bot, Lilith had bagged another one of her own. She decided three was enough.

Robyn’s crying had become sobbing by that point. Lilith could see it by the way Robyn was shaking.

Instead of talking to her by radio, which could be picked up by their enemies, Lilith walked right up to Robyn and touched her faceplate directly to Robyn’s faceplate, just like a kiss, so she could speak and they could hear by the direct conduction of sound with no chance of being overheard by any of the nephilim.

“Do pull yourself together, Robyn,” she said. “You’ll be riding their lasers halfway back to Venus and that won’t come off very well at all if you keep blubbering.”

Robyn calmed down at Lilith’s words, and even cracked a smile. “Watch for blowing rocks.”

“Good girl! Take care.” Lilith shook her head with a grin and patted Robyn’s faceplate with a gloved hand. Then she picked her way gingerly over the dark rocky landscape to a point that would be safe from the exhaust of Robyn’s ascent and any debris it might kick up.

There was no way for Robyn to hide the bright light of her hot engine exhaust during the launch, and the higher she rose the more area of Mercury there was that could potentially see her. It was the time of maximum peril. She deployed her ship’s mirrored light-sail, which unfurled like an inverted silver umbrella, complete with a metallic network of bracing to hold its shape.

Robyn’s burn was nearing completion when she heard a loud bang, accompanied by a sudden return to zero gravity. She realized they must have melted her nozzle and main motor. She looked at a monitor showing the condition of her lander’s ass end. Under a searing red light, black scorch marks quickly grew over the painted deck plates and conduits until they reached the camera, then the image went blank.

Robyn tilted her ship slightly to keep the ongoing assault of coherent light from crawling right up the inner core of the lander stack to the main tanks, which would melt the mid-body plumbing and ignite the propellant mix. By doing this she gave Mercury’s lasers nothing but mirror to chew on. On her instruments she noted a small but steady acceleration just from the laser light alone. Fine, with that acceleration from radiation pressure she could still get to Venus, even though her burn was not yet complete, but it would take some tricky sailing.

Her enemies must have been perturbed that Robyn didn’t blow up after a few seconds and disappear from radar, so they poured it on, adding more and more lasers to the attack. And every time they did, Robyn did some figuring and tilted the ship’s sail a little bit more to fine-tune the ascent. When she finally had enough velocity to intersect Venus she thought she had won.

But her enemies recalculated her flight path and realized her glide path was still on course to reach Venus. So they began randomly adding a laser from here and there from across the north polar region of Mercury. Robyn’s velocity cup was overflowing. She had to keep tipping that cup first one way, then another, reflecting the light from side to side, but always keeping her projected course touching the edge of Venus.

It was all well within her limited capabilities as a pilot, but the transit would be about two months. If she was a garden-variety human being, eventually she would need to sleep, and over time Asmodeus’ nephilim would simply grind her down and they would prevail. But Robyn had undergone the Change, her brain was entirely replaced by nanotechnology, so a lack of sleep wasn’t an issue.

After a week the attack ended, leaving Robyn to drift free on her glide path directly at the limb of Venus, which she fine-tuned with solar radiation using her light sail. The boys at Mercury even stopped pinging Robyn with their fire control radar and lost her track. They no longer cared about her. Perhaps Lilith was still alive and had done something back there. Robyn hoped that was true.

As for herself, Robyn used her Plug to keep the Swarm updated with her memories, in case she didn’t survive the re-entry and landing. But as things stood, her precognition said she would do well. News from back home was interesting. Hunky had killed their old nemesis Earl Roland, but Gerald Ford was trying to pin it on the President-elect, making for some interesting politics. Soon Americans would pine for the halcyon days of Richard Nixon.

Space was big, ships were slow, so space travel was boring. From time to time Robyn would whine to herself, “Are we there yet?” But things had to play out at their own pace. Events taking place on the island of Barbuda were designed to pull the American naval forces away from the whirlpool in the south seas so Robyn wouldn’t be caught when she brought the Bot to Mark Felton.

As the passage from Mercury drew to a close Venus was half lit, a perfectly white cueball growing visibly as Robyn watched it grow. She would not be entering orbit around Venus before she landed. It was going to be a straight shot to the surface of Venus with no stops, not even to the new space station Astrodyne had parked in orbit.

Robyn had taken to calling her lander the Aphrodite. She came in butt first. Reentry was quiet at first, but as the daylight terminator was crossed, plunging Aphrodite into night, the view outside the window became lit with phosphor oranges and red that had probably been there for quite some time but were not visible in the bright sunlight.

A high squeal started to be heard, but Robyn couldn’t quite pin down when it had begun. The squeal became a dim roar, the aft mirror burned completely away, and the glow faded. She watched as the view outside went completely to black.

There was no sea on Venus to provide a standard “sea level” but when Aprhodite descended to thirty-one miles altitude above the standard reference geodesic, which was an average of all Venus elevations, the dark clouds parted. This presented to Robyn a panoramic view of hell.

She could see every feature of the terrain, but it was as though she was looking at a photographic negative of a raw world, all in reds. Robyn’s destination was Maxwell Montes far in the north, on the Venusian “continent” called Ishtar Terra. It was a brighter red than the surrounding landscape, because it was lit with glowing lava from active volcanism. Aphrodite came in from the southeast over an area Bell Regio, where B’nei Elohim had a tentative settlement. That’s where Robyn’s help would come from.

The micro took Robyn’s lander unerringly to a flat-topped secondary cone of Mt. Maxwell. It was relatively dark down there but she could still see where the computer was trying to bring her. When airspeed had dropped to a safe level the parachutes deployed. But she needed to hurry down because the high-concentration sulphuric acid rain was already making the parachutes smoke.

Nighttime temperatures in this inferno was exactly the same as the daytime temperatures, close to nine hundred degrees Farenheit. The sky above was not quite black, but dimly lit up like a vague, faraway red overcast as it reflected the oven glow of the surface. The ground below seemed to periodically roil like a mirage from the heat. The only sort of air conditioning that could possibly work on Venus relied on macros making a constant stream of air into dark matter, expanding and cooling as it went, the ultimate cold sink. On the south pole Astrodyne was doing very much the same thing, but on a much larger scale.

Landing was anything but smooth, more like a controlled crash. Boulders strewn around the site made for a jerky, violent end to the flight. Poor Aphrodite would be abandoned on the hellish plateau after Robyn’s people picked her up and transferred her Bots to their own lander. And that lander would be abandoned in turn after bringing them all back to Bell Regio. There would be quite of scrapyard of melting, corroding human junk dotting the surface before Venus got anywhere near being terraformed.

At the bottom of their loop on the four day mark, when Robyn and Lilith skimmed just over Mercury’s highlands again, they lit off their macro engines to make planetfall. So there were two big bright flares telling anyone on Mercury who happened to be watching the skies that two interlopers had arrived. Fortunately the danger was minimized by the low altitude where they initiated the burn, which limited the sight horizon for any surveillance.

That part went well, and presently there were two Astrodyne landers parked in the dark on the gradually cooling night-time surface of Mercury. A pale cyan glow could be seen overhead, stretching off to infinity. They lit up the whole area with floods, and saw a pipe elevated on pylons which terminated in the mountain pass. The floodlights made the cyan glow emanating from the pipe difficult to see, but Lilith obtained the spectrum of the glow and noted it was pure ionized carbon gas, a puzzle to be figured out later.

Lilith and Robyn were already suited up, and they had already recycled most of their cabin air with a pump, so it was only a few minutes after landing before they completed their checklists, popped their respective hatches, and stepped down the ladders of their respective ships to the ground.

There was little need to get acclimated to Mercury’s tug. They had spent the last two months rotating at the same gravity as the planet, by design, and the recent four day interval in free fall did not seriously reverse that conditioning. But Robyn, knowing Lilith would never leave Mercury, started crying as soon as her feet touched the ground. Unable to remove her helmet to wipe her tears, this made it difficult to look for Bots.

By luck, Lilith spotted one sleeping Bot near enough to her lander that it reflected the floodlights. It was a beautiful little human-shaped thing, nearly four feet tall, with silvery skin. She picked it up tentatively. It didn’t wake up, and there was no sun power for it to use in any event. It was made from exotic and light metals like lithium and beryllium, and would have weighed as much as a small child on Earth, but in the lower gravity of Mercury it was even easier to lift. She secured it to the cargo apron of Robyn’s lander.

So they already had one Bot in the bag. This encouraged them to go looking for more. They only needed the one, but perhaps they could use some spare parts.

There were no more Bots near the landing zone so they had to comb the ground by foot, using the lights on their suits. This was a surprisingly time-consuming task, like a snorkeler looking for a fin which had fallen off somewhere within a mere five feet of murky water. By the time Robyn stumbled onto her first Bot, Lilith had bagged another one of her own. She decided three was enough.

Robyn’s crying had become sobbing by that point. Lilith could see it by the way Robyn was shaking.

Instead of talking to her by radio, which could be picked up by their enemies, Lilith walked right up to Robyn and touched her faceplate directly to Robyn’s faceplate, just like a kiss, so she could speak and they could hear by the direct conduction of sound with no chance of being overheard by any of the nephilim.

“Do pull yourself together, Robyn,” she said. “You’ll be riding their lasers halfway back to Venus and that won’t come off very well at all if you keep blubbering.”

Robyn calmed down at Lilith’s words, and even cracked a smile. “Watch for blowing rocks.”

“Good girl! Take care.” Lilith shook her head with a grin and patted Robyn’s faceplate with a gloved hand. Then she picked her way gingerly over the dark rocky landscape to a point that would be safe from the exhaust of Robyn’s ascent and any debris it might kick up.

There was no way for Robyn to hide the bright light of her hot engine exhaust during the launch, and the higher she rose the more area of Mercury there was that could potentially see her. It was the time of maximum peril. She deployed her ship’s mirrored light-sail, which unfurled like an inverted silver umbrella, complete with a metallic network of bracing to hold its shape.

Robyn’s burn was nearing completion when she heard a loud bang, accompanied by a sudden return to zero gravity. She realized they must have melted her nozzle and main motor. She looked at a monitor showing the condition of her lander’s ass end. Under a searing red light, black scorch marks quickly grew over the painted deck plates and conduits until they reached the camera, then the image went blank.

Robyn tilted her ship slightly to keep the ongoing assault of coherent light from crawling right up the inner core of the lander stack to the main tanks, which would melt the mid-body plumbing and ignite the propellant mix. By doing this she gave Mercury’s lasers nothing but mirror to chew on. On her instruments she noted a small but steady acceleration just from the laser light alone. Fine, with that acceleration from radiation pressure she could still get to Venus, even though her burn was not yet complete, but it would take some tricky sailing.

Her enemies must have been perturbed that Robyn didn’t blow up after a few seconds and disappear from radar, so they poured it on, adding more and more lasers to the attack. And every time they did, Robyn did some figuring and tilted the ship’s sail a little bit more to fine-tune the ascent. When she finally had enough velocity to intersect Venus she thought she had won.

But her enemies recalculated her flight path and realized her glide path was still on course to reach Venus. So they began randomly adding a laser from here and there from across the north polar region of Mercury. Robyn’s velocity cup was overflowing. She had to keep tipping that cup first one way, then another, reflecting the light from side to side, but always keeping her projected course touching the edge of Venus.

It was all well within her limited capabilities as a pilot, but the transit would be about two months. If she was a garden-variety human being, eventually she would need to sleep, and over time Asmodeus’ nephilim would simply grind her down and they would prevail. But Robyn had undergone the Change, her brain was entirely replaced by nanotechnology, so a lack of sleep wasn’t an issue.

After a week the attack ended, leaving Robyn to drift free on her glide path directly at the limb of Venus, which she fine-tuned with solar radiation using her light sail. The boys at Mercury even stopped pinging Robyn with their fire control radar and lost her track. They no longer cared about her. Perhaps Lilith was still alive and had done something back there. Robyn hoped that was true.

As for herself, Robyn used her Plug to keep the Swarm updated with her memories, in case she didn’t survive the re-entry and landing. But as things stood, her precognition said she would do well. News from back home was interesting. Hunky had killed their old nemesis Earl Roland, but Gerald Ford was trying to pin it on the President-elect, making for some interesting politics. Soon Americans would pine for the halcyon days of Richard Nixon.

Space was big, ships were slow, so space travel was boring. From time to time Robyn would whine to herself, “Are we there yet?” But things had to play out at their own pace. Events taking place on the island of Barbuda were designed to pull the American naval forces away from the whirlpool in the south seas so Robyn wouldn’t be caught when she brought the Bot to Mark Felton.

As the passage from Mercury drew to a close Venus was half lit, a perfectly white cueball growing visibly as Robyn watched it grow. She would not be entering orbit around Venus before she landed. It was going to be a straight shot to the surface of Venus with no stops, not even to the new space station Astrodyne had parked in orbit.

Robyn had taken to calling her lander the Aphrodite. She came in butt first. Reentry was quiet at first, but as the daylight terminator was crossed, plunging Aphrodite into night, the view outside the window became lit with phosphor oranges and red that had probably been there for quite some time but were not visible in the bright sunlight.

A high squeal started to be heard, but Robyn couldn’t quite pin down when it had begun. The squeal became a dim roar, the aft mirror burned completely away, and the glow faded. She watched as the view outside went completely to black.

There was no sea on Venus to provide a standard “sea level” but when Aprhodite descended to thirty-one miles altitude above the standard reference geodesic, which was an average of all Venus elevations, the dark clouds parted. This presented to Robyn a panoramic view of hell.

She could see every feature of the terrain, but it was as though she was looking at a photographic negative of a raw world, all in reds. Robyn’s destination was Maxwell Montes far in the north, on the Venusian “continent” called Ishtar Terra. It was a brighter red than the surrounding landscape, because it was lit with glowing lava from active volcanism. Aphrodite came in from the southeast over an area Bell Regio, where B’nei Elohim had a tentative settlement. That’s where Robyn’s help would come from.

The micro took Robyn’s lander unerringly to a flat-topped secondary cone of Mt. Maxwell. It was relatively dark down there but she could still see where the computer was trying to bring her. When airspeed had dropped to a safe level the parachutes deployed. But she needed to hurry down because the high-concentration sulphuric acid rain was already making the parachutes smoke.

Nighttime temperatures in this inferno was exactly the same as the daytime temperatures, close to nine hundred degrees Farenheit. The sky above was not quite black, but dimly lit up like a vague, faraway red overcast as it reflected the oven glow of the surface. The ground below seemed to periodically roil like a mirage from the heat. The only sort of air conditioning that could possibly work on Venus relied on macros making a constant stream of air into dark matter, expanding and cooling as it went, the ultimate cold sink. On the south pole Astrodyne was doing very much the same thing, but on a much larger scale.

Landing was anything but smooth, more like a controlled crash. Boulders strewn around the site made for a jerky, violent end to the flight. Poor Aphrodite would be abandoned on the hellish plateau after Robyn’s people picked her up and transferred her Bots to their own lander. And that lander would be abandoned in turn after bringing them all back to Bell Regio. There would be quite of scrapyard of melting, corroding human junk dotting the surface before Venus got anywhere near being terraformed.

adnarel

109 – ADNAREL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know you are Suriel. Sorry. I’ll tell you more later.”

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

“I don’t know what a Hand of Mastema is,” Achimel sneered.

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

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

Asmodeus said, “Come closer, Arioch, and state your piece.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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