Xanthos

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XANTHOS

When Captain Barakiel docked Exiler Sidekick with the mothership he went all the way forward with Rogziel's sealed orders for the Commodore. He told Lahatiel, "All seems to be going well, sir. The Major has apparently been accepted into Belial's confidence, and these are Belial's orders to you. But whatever you do, sir, Major Rogziel seemed to think haste was in order."

Lahatiel broke the seal and read through the sheaf of documents carefully. At length he said, "I'm going to modify these orders slightly. Major Suri- el, get everyone to their stations, we're getting underway."

"Yes sir." She put through calls to Lilith and Adnarel, who were sleeping like babies in their respective staterooms despite the unbearable tension of possibly being summarily destroyed by the combined firepower of Fortress Palato should Rogziel's ruse be detected.

"Captain, you will put us on an ascent ellipse to the prison moon Rhene."

"Rhene. Yes sir."

Lahatiel hit a switch. "Kushiel, prepare for acceleration on my mark."

"Aye aye, sir," came his voice, and the Commodore 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.

Gorpai has four natural satellites. Three of them are simply wayward aster- oids from the Eggbeater, captured long before the coming of nephilim.

The nearest one is Palato, which is 385 miles in diameter. Long ago it was tamed by tidal forces into a perfectly circular orbit precisely on Gorpai's equatorial plane. Like Earth's moon, Palato's rotation period and revolu- tion period are identical, so it always keeps one face locked toward Gorpai as it turns.

Palato is much smaller than the Earth's moon, but it is only about 42,000 miles from Gorpai, so from the surface of the planet, Palato looks very similar in both size and appearance. From Palato, Gorpai fills much of the sky and is truly impressive. There are no dark "seas" on Palato like on the Earth's moon but the larger craters dotting the surface of Palato are ed,dand reserved by the NavydofyBelialeasnitseprimaryibase. heavily fortifi

Only 163,000 miles from Gorpai 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 Gorpai, 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 Gorpai, much of the early colonization activity of the nephilim focused there. Only in the last twenty years has the population of Hybla-Dia surpassed Xanthos.

Much further away, at 310,000 miles from Gorpai, is the satellite Rhene, which is only about 90 miles wide. It is just visible as a (very bright) disk in the night sky of Gorpai. The fourth satellite of Gorpai is actual- ly 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.

At the Commodore's command, Sergeant Kushiel Bellon revved up the ship's macro to a quarter gee for an hour. In the injectors of Exiler's six en- gines, "dark water" which had been held in a dense, entangled mass of su- perimposed quantum states suddenly flipped back to normal water and began the obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle again, which says, 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.

The Commodore judged that Rogziel was performing well running interference for them with Belial, and there was probably no danger of a sudden attack from their own fleet. An early warning sign that something was wrong would consist of a modification of their orders by radio from someone who was not Rogziel. Therefore Lahatiel set Condition Four, normal steaming, which required only two officers to be on the flight deck during the watch peri- od.

"I turned off my fire-control computer but I still see blocks!" Adnarel complained.

"Lieutenant, 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. Hy said, "I had the insides of my eye- lids painted so when I close my eyes I always see a beautiful picture." Adnarel snorted at that.

"Alright, Suriel and Barakiel have the watch until 1500," the Commodore said. "The rest of us are off. Let's go get lunch." They took the ladder down, since they were under "gravity" for a while during the burn.

Discipline was relaxed slightly, but Lahatiel did have one firm rule re- maining unchanged: none of the five dependents who were still aboard the ship were allowed to set foot on the flight deck, not even his own wife.


The 1500 to 2000 watch was Barakiel and Adnarel, and it was the quietest five hours of the day on the bridge. There was nothing to see outside they hadn't already seen many times. At the beginning of the crossing they were so far away from Rhene that it did not appear to change in size for the whole watch.

Adnarel settled down to a long game of "Airplane." That was when sha used har trackball to "take off" and "land" the cursor on har fire control dis- play along the line on the bottom row of har screen.

Sometimes Lilith Gervasi came up to see what was happening, but she never stayed very long.

The 2000 to 2500 watch was with Adnarel and Kushiel. Sergeant Kushiel busied himself checking his precious six main engines after the burn using his remote panel on the bridge. Adnarel settled down to a long game of "Race Car". That was when sha used har trackball to move the cursor on har fire control display around the outermost two rings as quickly as possible, trying not to touch either ring.

"The entire Traditionalist world system is in retreat," Adnarel blurted from har favorite topic when sha was bored with Race Car.

"Retreat, Lieutenant? That sounds relaxing."

"There's nothing wrong with retreats, Kushiel, but that's not what I meant."

"Lieutenant Sala, I only feed Experimentalists to the lions. Not my ship- mates. Unless they happen to be Experimentalists."

   * * * * * 

In the Land We Know, Major Rogziel's downfall drew steadily nearer in the form of an Eye of Belial named Arioch, who passed through many perils at the foot of the Wall Menkal at last to the kingdom of Alodra, where he could move freely without fear of being stopped or killed by one of King Stronghammer's soldiers.

At the town of Melak at the mouth of the River Sabik, Arioch obtained land transportation up the river to Sadl. He found the prices to travel by horse-drawn wagon were much deflated, for the King had locked Menkal down tight and aside from Arioch who had gone over the wall, no customers emerged from the gate built through the Wall to seek passage until the King's declared ten day moratorium had passed.

At Sadl, Arioch crossed the river by ferry. From there only two days of foot travel remained to bring him west to the Temple of Belial in the desert of the Saiph League. There he could cross by mini-wormhole directly to the moon Palato, where he could report of the strange visit of the Impe- rial frigate Exiler.

   * * * * * 

By the middle of the uneventful ascent to Rhene, the officers on watch re- sorted to listening to broadcasts from Gorpai 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. Finally, when Suriel came up the bridge Kushiel concluded that nir- vana was really just his stateroom "rack" and hy was 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 Commodore they were deep into it, and Barakiel counted hymself fortunate to have missed it.

"Affirming the will of Chokhmah to save all," Lahatiel said to Suriel when Adnarel took har seat, "while also affirming the unconditional election of some, implies that there are at least two wills in Chokhmah, or two ways of willing. It implies that she decrees one state of affairs while also will- ing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass."

"Commodore, if Chokhmah has decreed all events, then it must be that things cannot and should not be any different from what they are."

"Theologians 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 Chokhmah could decree that a thing be one way," Suriel declared, "and yet teach that we should act to make it another way."

"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 Chokhmah likes me, because I like me, too, and if She didn't like me, then I would have issues with Her."

None of the airless moons circling Gorpai were really suitable for "es- tates" but the Emperor hated to see any of them go to waste. Therefore, Palato became entirely a naval reservation, the site of the largest nephi- lim military base in existence.

Hundreds of warships and support vessels were headquartered there, protect- ed by enough cannon and missile tubes to make the small moon virtually im- pregnable.

Belial himself protected Palato with his own angel, the mobile device which could withstand the heat of the interior of a sun, for that was precisely where it was manufactured. For those times when Belial wore nephilim flesh, the throne of the Emperor was also found deep inside Palato, pro- tected by many thousands of feet of solid rock, while the slowly turning surface of icy Gorpai loomed large in the sky.

Belial created on Rhene a brutal prison for the worst offenders of the Em- pire, 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 dun- geons 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. Accord- ingly, some of the survivors of Rhene were taken back to Gorpai and re- leased into society to spread horrific tales of what happens to nephilim who sin against Belial, or break the Law, which of course were exactly the same thing.

Now the Commodore began to issue another stream of orders. "Captain Barakiel, approach the moon Minos, but do it cautiously, with no fancy fly- ing. They don't take kindly to ships acting strangely. Major Suriel, when they hail us on VHF, they will have already checked us out with Palato and know who we are. Tell them Commodore Lehatiel Gerash is bringing orders from the Emperor in person and we want permission to land. Follow their instructions to the letter."

"Yes sir."

When Exiler drew near to Rhene-Minos the Commodore ordered all hands on deck, even Lilith, but Kushiel was to remain with his engines below. Li- lith did not actually stand watch, but for now she sat at Kushiel's remote position on the flight deck.

Adnarel came up to the bridge and sat at har fire control console, where sha refused to even look Barakiel in the eye.

Suriel didn't think it was possible at the time, but for the entire mission Adnarel 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. Sha 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 har to watch it unfold. Suriel almost felt compelled to take notes.

Barakiel approached Rhene with great caution to avoid tripping the hair- trigger automated defenses. Suriel watched the microwave band for any sign of a fire-control radar locking on.

Tiny Minos possessed a surface gravity sixty times less intense than the Earth. Barakiel didn't so much land Exiler on Minos as hy 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.

The Commodore asked Suriel to join hym briefly in the Banquet Room so hy could quietly pass along a few things.

When they were alone, he said, "There is a graduate student by the name of Marou Gerash, the son of Ithuriel Gerash of the Proxima Observatory. Ithuriel is the Royal Astronomer and a man of some renown in the Empire.

"A month ago this young student traveled from the campus at Danae to the capital city of Xanthos to enjoy what they still call Spring Break' at the hot springs there. Hy 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 Belial, relayed by Major Rogziel, are to take out this Iron Fist outfit even if the dirk is killed. In fact, if you read between the lines, Belial wants the dirk to be killed, if not directly by one of our torpedoes then by the Iron Fist after we answer their demand for a ransom by flattening one of their domes chosen at random."

"Let me guess, sir," the Major said. "You think we can actually save the dirk."

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 orders as the other officers."

"I know you are Suriel. I'll tell you more later. Back in a bit."

Lahatiel emerged from the upside-down lander hanging under the Exiler, weighing all of three pounds, and was met by guards who escorted hym through a maze of corridors to the spacious office of the Warden, Achimel Larund, a man with an exceedingly cruel reputation. The Captain handed hym a black message tube.

"Warden Achimel, please remove the document and verify it has the imprima- tur of Emperor Azibeel Gerash himself, and it has not been tampered with.

Lahatiel could get away with this deception because at that point in time in the Centauri system, outside of Exiler's crew and their families, only Belial himself, Major Rogzielm and a handful of Eyes of Belial knew that Azibeel was dead. And Belial would make no move or death announcement un- til he had Possession of Azibeel's son Thammuz, lest he be confronted with chaos and a full-scale succession struggle among all five families.

The Warden inspected the document carefully, then returned his gaze to the Captain. "I have authenticated it. The Emperor has looked better, but that is truly his face."

And why not? thought Lahatiel. The seal, a holographic image of the in- jured but still living Azibeel, was authentic after all, even if it had originally been affixed to a blank parchment.

"Then please read the contents aloud, Warden."

He opened the communique and read the following:

KNOW YE ALL YANG BY THESE PRESENTS that Azibeel, Patriarch of the House of Gerash, first citizen of the Empire of Belial and the whole Centauri Realm, has in his great magnanimity granted to the officer bearing this communiquC) the power to parole one Elimelech of the Cast Off from the correctional facility at Rhene. The Warden at Minos shall provide every assistance until such time as the bearer shall safely depart with custody of the aforesaid paroled pris- oner.

His Imperial Majesty Azibeel Gerash, Emp.

The Warden finished reading, and said, "I am at your service, Commodore. 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 wait aboard my ship."

When the six hours had passed, Commodore Lahatiel returned. Elimelech was found waiting in the Wardens office bound in chains, wearing a tattered orange 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 psycho- logical warfare against them.

The jumpsuit hid most of the damage, but numerous scars on his face attest- ed to a life of constant violence, either before or after his incarcera- tion, 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.

"Warden Achimel," Lahatiel ordered, "present the communique from the Emper- or to the prisoner, lest hy start to believe we are playing some cruel joke on hym."

As Elimelech read the offer of parole, the Commodore 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 "X". In the center was a clus- ter of sixty-one domes, like a giant Crwth game board, all connected by a web of roads. The captain posted it on the Warden's office wall at eye lev- el.

"Elimelech of the Cast Off," the Commodore began, "I have come to under- stand that you are scheduled to be vigorously questioned about your crimes for a second time in a matter of only a few days, and that you are also well aware of that upcoming session."

Elimelech merely glared defiantly back at the Commodore, waiting for hym to come to the point.

"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. See, that was not the correct answer. The Emperor will be most disappointed that hyz generous gesture of mercy was thrown back in his face. Hy 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 hy preferred the interro- gation. But I suppose one can't push a string. Thank you very much, Warden Achimel, for what cooperation you have provided. The Emperor at the very least will be happy to hear about that."

Commodore Lahatiel departed the office of the Warden at that time, and had nearly reached the Exiler Sidekick again when Achimel approached him timid- ly 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 hymself.

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

Elimelech said, "It is an aerial image of the city of Xanthos, sir on the satellite of Gorpai which is also called Xanthos."

"Excellent! 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, Elime- lech, 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. Hy 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 Direc- torate. I'm not looking for the facade, I'm looking for the real seat of power on Xanthos."

Elimelech shot hym a dark glance and seemed to mull it over for a bit, see- ing the Commodore's game now in full. Then hy 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 cus- tody in accordance with the Emperor's wishes. Hy will no longer need to be bound in chains. I'll be taking hym home to Xanthos myself aboard the Exil- er. The Emperor wishes it."

"The Emperor 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."

Lahatiel Gerash rolled the photograph up again, slid it into the blue tube, and led the way back to his ship. Hy entered the Exiler first and headed straight for the bridge. When Elimelech climbed through the lander hy found the hatch to the rest of the Exiler closed.

The Commodore's voice appeared on a speaker. "Relax and make yourself com- fortable, Elimelech," hy said. "I regret that the rest of my ship is clas- sified 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."


A day later Barakiel reported, "We have achieved synchronous orbit over the city Xanthos, Commodore." Suriel was summoned from a nap back to har sta- tion, where sha focused the big imported 500mm Fairchild refractor down onto the city and threw the image up on the main viewport's liquid crystal layer.

The Commodore climbed down into the locked lander with Elimelech and pre- pared for separation. A series of thumps announced their departure.

The time of flight to the surface was about an hour. Several domes on the outskirts of Xanthos, separated from the main city, were landing bays for ships.

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

Standing outside the lander after they both emerged, Elimelech shook hands with Lahatiel and thanked hym for his role in securing his freedom. "I did- n't trust you at first but now I believe you are a good man, Commodore."

"Thank you, Elimelech. I think."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"As payment for your reprieve?"

Elimelech nodded. "Obviously the Emperor has decided hy must flatten a Xan- thos dome, any dome, to quiet the nobility on Gorpai. If hy happens to take out Cabala Dome, the stronghold of his own accursed loyalists, so much the better."

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

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

"But alternatively, Elimelech, it may be that the Commodore is rallying the Jetrel loyalists even as we speak."

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

"The command is now given, but do not use members of your family and do not go yourself. Send someone you can trust, Eli, yet someone it would not up- set you too much to die as a martyr for our Cause in the very likely event Emperor Azibeel does something rash. As for the Commodore, do not kill hym."

"Do not kill him?"

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

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

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

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

All of these maneuvers were tabulated by Suriel's mind as sha watched from above, which gradually built up for har a gestalt impression. Belial had doubted Rogziel that Elimelech could be followed through the city from a warship in orbit, but he had no idea Suriel could do it this way.

"I know which dome the ringleader is in," sha finally said after a solid hour of watching the screen. Suriel spoke with a shaky confidence sha knew would quickly erode if anyone pressed har to prove it. Sha went to Adnar- el's fire control gear and selected a nondescript dome three rings in from the southwest edge and painted a red digital smudge on it with har finger.

"That's perfect," Adnarel said, studying the image at har own fire-control station. "I can come up this canyon at eye level, right between these domes here and here, Major. There wont even be collateral damage."

"Commence your attack, Lieutenant."

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

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

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

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

"But enough about me," Orus said. "It has been several weeks since an ac- tual tourist has dared to show his face here, and it's especially hearten- ing to see a tourist in uniform."

"I imagine times have been tough, especially after the Great Ones official- ly shunned this place." Lahatiel could see that Orus seemed to find com- fort in his presence. The Commodore didn't have the heart to admit he had many friends among the Cast Off, or that hy had already thrown in with Belial's enemies. Orus didn't need to know any of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was beaten and bruised as well, but Lahatiel was glad the dirk was still alive. "I'm Commodore Lahatiel Gerash of His Majesty's Navy, at your serv- ice."

"I am called Marou, sir." Hy hardly needed to indicate his family affili- ation, his white hair declared that he was also of the House of Gerash quite plainly, and the tufts of hair on his chin declared that he was on the cusp of physical yanghood, even if his parents would never allow him to attain to yanghood in a cultural sense.

"Your father will be pleased to see you again, young Marou. Proxima will be my very next stop."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You know these people, I take it," the Captain said, grinning at Orus.

"Commodore, this is Freelord Jetrel, the head of his titular clan."

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

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

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

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Strangers In Paradise