Bravo

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BRAVO


B0 - VOICE OF BELIAL


"That little Talishi girl scares me." Belial was never crafty like Binah. He could not construct an avatar to manifest his will as physical action on the worlds that orbited him, nevertheless he commanded Binah to build another one and teach him how to operate it. And he insisted it be black, and much larger than Binah's avatar, with more powerful arms and noisier motors, for it was Belial's delight to terrify the planet-dwellers on every occasion that he went down among them.

When Belial first heard tidings of a new prophetess (he did not yet know that Chokhmah was walking among the nephilim in the body of Talishi) he appeared to his servant Israel, a nobleman of Family Gerash, who were also known as the White Beards. To this Israel then, Belial (through the agency of his terrifying avatar) said, You alone have done all things according to my will. Therefore I name you the Voice of Belial. Go first unto Aramel in the far west and speak unto King Gordius the words I will tell you.

And Israel was forced to travel the entire distance to the city of Aramel on horseback, for the avatar of Belial was not configured to provide life-support for any passengers like the avatar of Binah was, which often moved Talishi about, even to the West and East Lands over the ice. Belial was not remotely interested in the comfort and convenience of his slaves.

The teachings of Talishi had grown popular among many of the yin throughout the Middle Lands and even among some of the yang of Aramel. Israel counseled that King Gordiel move against Talishi and put her under arrest, but the King was reluctant to agree on account of the popularity of Talishi among many, even his own kin. At this, Israel grew angry, and insisted that the King comply, for he came in the name of Belial himself.

King Gordiel said, On that point I have only your word, but know that I was made king of this city by the Gerash patriarch Kirodiel, and by the written law of Belial the giving of the scepter is without repentance. An errant king may only be held to account to the Patriarch by war.

Israel said to him, Consider the alternative, sire. Yin-centered rituals and devotions! Talishi is cutting at the very heart of god theory.

But King Gordiel was a far more practical yang, and he asked Lord Israel to lay out the real danger.

Israel said, The danger is two-fold, Sire. First is the Patriarch's over-reliance on income from pilgrims to the temple of Belial. We, that is Belial (Peace Be Upon Him), could lose a third of the revenue base overnight. The second and truly frightening part is the long-term danger of actually destroying the entire sacrifice-atonement system. Our entire religious structure is based on the proven fact that Belial's aim is not too good. As long as 'someone' is punished, never mind who, Belial is happy. But now Talishi comes along saying even the gods are to be judged according to an objective scale of good and evil.

Gordiel said, I see where you are going. Instead of merely atoning for our crimes, we must start actually being nice to one another.

Then will you move against this Talishi, Sire? And the King noted that this Lord Israel idiot failed to discern his sarcastic snark.

Not in haste, self-described Voice of Belial. My daughter Princess Khondiel admires this new prophetess, which gladdens my heart in a way I cannot tell. I will invite Talishi to preach before the throne, and judge for myself whether her teachings are dangerous to the peace of the realm. As for yourself, Lord Israel, get thee hence from my city and return to the capital. Messengers will be sent with word of my decision, yea or nay.

Very well, Sire, only let your word be yea, I pray you, for your sake and the sake of your subjects.

B1 - SUNSET DISCOURSE


Talishi really packs 'em in when she speaks. Khondiel was a scrubby urchin who rose to the very top of the Fallen Angels gang because no matter what trouble she got into, she never seemed to actually get into trouble. This was mostly a matter of her connections. She was, after all, the King's daughter. But Princess Khondiel was not the marrying kind. The Law of Belial made no provision for homosexuality.

In the country outside of Aramel the prophetess Talishi brought a new doctrine to the people, and knowledge of Chokhmah began to take root in the land, yet it did not rise to the level of worship. Talishi preached to the yin of the city who were her primary audience, but many yang came to listen also. And since it was a large gathering of people, Khondiel's Fallen Angels showed up as well, but their focus was on picking pockets. But all of them (even Khondiel's doll gang) were astonished at Talishi's teachings, for many of them ran contrary to what the people had always been taught to believe about the gods. But Talishi confirmed the divine origin of her doctrine by healing the sick with knowledge about the bodies of the world-dwellers that the elohim themselves had obtained through long study.

Khondiel witnessed Talishi healing many nephilim with medicines prepared from fireweed and the bark of Vogul trees, and she spoke of Talishi to her father King Gordiel, but it was more than Khondiel's words that impressed the King, for his daughter had stopped dressing like a dirk, and was seen much more frequently inside the castle, even during nights. But it was not until the audience with Lord Israel that King Gordiel sent a messenger to Talishi that he would have her visit the court to teach what she would, if she was willing, for it was no sovereign command or decree.

Talishi agreed to come, if the encounter was open for any of the people to witness. So King Gordiel prepared to receive Talishi in an open-air gallery outside of the palace itself, with much seating for spectators, for this was where the King often entertained visiting nobles with exhibitions of personal combat. And Khondiel came also, dressed like an actual princess. And these were the words Talishi spoke to the people and their king as the sun sank below the horizon in the west:

Chokhmah is a lamp whose light is these words. The darker your thoughts, the further from Chokhmah you go. She who is far from Chokhmah is no better off than he who denies Chokhmah. Celebrities are known by many and are called famous, but she who embraces Chokhmah sets an example by her deeds and is called influential. Yeng are said to be superior to the animals because they can control their own environment, but she who embraces Chokhmah can control her own behavior. The wealthy accumulate many riches but cannot keep all of them safe. She who embraces Chokhmah has few desires, and so holds on to all that she has. Thieves take from those who do not have enough to supplement their own bounty, but she who embraces Chokhmah diminishes the overflowing to enrich the impoverished. The moralist sits back in judgment of the causes of a tragedy, but she who embraces Chokhmah is too busy mercifully addressing the needs at hand to render judgment. The judge demands to see evidence of good in others, but she who embraces Chokhmah does good in this moment, and does not live for yesterday or for tomorrow. The strong yang can do he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills. She who embraces Chokhmah makes her own awareness of injustice the determinant of her actions. The boastful put their riches and knowledge on parade, but she who embraces Chokhmah does not tell all that she has, nor all that she can do. The proud would rather break than bend in pliable humility and admit error, but she who embraces Chokhmah considers those who point out her faults as her greatest teachers. Traditionalists would teach an old thing before cultivating a new thing, but she who embraces Chokhmah finds that creativity is the coin to buy her way. Leaders examine who speaks rather than listen to what is said, but she who embraces Chokhmah knows that half of a conversation is listening. Warriors retaliate for suffering an indignity by committing another indignity, but she who embraces Chokhmah knows the greatest revenge is not to be like him who did the injury. The greatest conqueror is she who has conquered herself.

B2 - REWIND


IDF Major Lilith Gervasi has led a full and crazy life, and it's about to get fuller and crazier. Lilith Gervasi was the daughter of English parents Benjamin and Edith Gervasi and at fifty-six years of age she was the oldest of the five "volunteers", having been born a few years before World War II. Lilith was a survivor of Ohrdruf Nord, the first Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by the US Third Army and she had the numerals 271828 tattooed on her arm. It was a tragic irony, therefore, that Lilith found herself in the hands of an American, distaff version of Doctor Mengele, but Jews on the whole haven't fared so well in America in the wake of the "limited" exchange of nuclear warheads that terminated the 1973 Yom Kippur War. She signed up to avoid deportation to the radioactive wasteland that was Eretz Yisrael.

Too young to have served in the War of Liberation, she was a sergeant in the Sinai in the '56 war, and a captain in the '67 war, but by '73 the religious right in Israel had prevailed to keep women out of combat roles, and Lilith was not allowed to enter the country when the call to overseas reservists went out. It was just as well, she might have been incinerated, or barring that, would certainly have died of radiation poisoning later.

The final slide in Dr. Amanda Trochmann's presentation wasn't a still image at all, but a digital video file of the actual drug trial involving Lilith Gervasi, filmed the day before in what resembled an operating room, but Dr. Roland thought it resembled a pornographic shoot a lot more, for Lilith was nude, and there was a second camera pointed right between the woman's legs presenting a close-up for the team to watch as the drug took effect.

There's the transition, Dr. Trochmann. Shit! Blink and you miss it.

In Lilith's crotch shot, she was now sporting a brand new penis, uncircumcised, as well as her original vulva just below it. And she had grown at least six inches, instantaneously, for her knees were now elevated.

I did miss it, Mandy said. Rewind the video.

They tried to comply, but they couldn't find the footage where Lilith had no penis, not even when they reached the beginning of the file. As far as the record was concerned, Lilith had been mutated from the very beginning. But absolutely everyone attending the experiment knew that wasn't the case.

And absolutely no one could explain any of it. But Pharmadigm was sufficiently frightened that they invoked an emergency protocol and transferred everyone, everything to Hanford, the whole shooting match.

The chromosome studies showed that only one half of Lilith's sex chromosome pair was modified. She is now XZ, not XX like Robyn and Jill, or YZ like Jerry. That covers all the bases, because YY doesn't work."

Except that I don't believe a word of it, Roland said.

We're ready for that, Amanda said. We have one more volunteer. We will administer the drug with yourself attending, and you can define the parameters of the experiment any way you like.

And assuming that convinces me, Dr. Trochmann, what is it, exactly, you're asking the CDC to do?

It should be obvious. Every chromosome is changed, Dr. Roland. Faster than fast. Even their gametes. They can pass these changes along to their children. So we're really talking about a new species here. I'm asking for sterilization, right after you see what it does to Mike.

You've got four right now, but you're asking to sterilize five of them, right after you make the fifth one?

Mike Morrich is black, she said, and Roland's objection melted away.

B3 - OLD ONE


Replicase (RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase) I am not the one you worship as G-d, Binah explained to Lilith, but I seek that one even as you do. Belial stands between us and the Old One who created elohim in this galaxy and humans on Earth. This planet alone had the combination of a stable sun, a self-moderating climate, a magnetic field to shield it from cosmic rays, a large moon to dampen wobble due to precession, a large gas-giant planet to vacuum up most stray comets and asteroids, the optimum rate of spin to moderate both temperature extremes and stormy weather, an active geology to rebuild eroded lands, and a fully functioning water cycle.

In the beginning the ocean of Earth was saturated with the ingredients of life, the amino acids and nucleic acids which form naturally on many planets or even in deep space according to the exquisitely tuned laws of chemistry selected by the Old One for this universe. Some of these amino acids slammed into each other and stuck together for a short time, forming random shapes, but these rickety structures were soon torn apart again.

Floating there in the sunlight of a new star, buffeted by chains of wiggling crystal maggots that were amino and nucleic acids, the Old One assembled an enzyme called replicase from raw amino acids. It grabbed a handful of hydrogen end caps from one amino acid and tore them away, preparing it for assembly into a larger structure. As the Old One added amino acids together one at a time, the object folded up like a long phone cord tying itself into a knot. The Old One busied itself for a time making a few dozen identical replicase enzymes, and soon it had all the hardware it needed.

So the Old One turned to making the software. The shortest strand of RNA that can reproduce itself is a mere 4119 nucleic acids long. Omit a single one, and the strand is worthless. The only thing the strand coded was replicase, but there was a 'Catch-22' because it took replicase to read the old strand and build the new one. So the Old One turned one of its hand-crafted ones loose on the strand and away it went, zipping along in fits and starts, powered by random collisions with speeding water molecules.

If the replicase machine found the nucleic acid it was looking for in the ambient soup floating all around, it added it to the growing child RNA strand. If it found the amino acid it needed, it added it to the growing child replicase structure. Two structures emerged from this process, a second, identical RNA strand, and a second, identical replicase enzyme.

Two became four, four became eight, eight became sixteen. Life on this planet had begun. Random thermal collisions still destroyed the fragile structures, but now they could replace themselves with identical children faster than they could age. In a few years the entire ocean was filled with copies of these RNA strands floating in a soup of replicase.

Then competition began. Replicase was hoarded and these hoards were raided by eating. The single-stranded RNA creatures gradually gave way to more sturdy double-stranded DNA creatures with error-correction that could resist mutation and aging. And after the sea had filled with advancing life, even the land was colonized by them. Here on this planet, alone in all the universe, did a species evolve whose natural gait was to walk on two legs, leaving two hands free to manipulate its environment.

It is a tragic misfortune that the first meeting of elohim and humans took place under the cloud of sequestration, but Mastema and Belial set up a community of elohim isolated from the greater community as a kind of harem. I am committed to reversing that and restoring humans, nephilim, and the other three elohim in this bubble to full union with El and the Old One who is father of all. To do this I must unite with the flesh and mind of a human being who is full willing to make such an eternal decision.

Let it be as you have said, Binah, Lilith said. You not only have my freely-given assent, you have my eager willingness to do this thing.

B4 - DISCIPLE


Talishi, dolled up to meet royalty. When Talishi had finished delivering the Sunset Discourse and healed many of the people who had come to see her speak, Princess Khondiel spoke quietly to King Gordiel her father, and after that Gordiel bade Talishi to visit the throne room for a private talk.

When she drew near, the King said, Lady Talishi, when you say, 'she who embraces Chokhmah' do you mean to say that no yeng can become your disciple?

Not at all, Your Majesty. When I speak in those terms, I wish to convey an image. As a rule, yen are much gentler than yeng. A yang who admires Chokhmah will have a gentle heart, like a yin, because he sees others around him as another 'I' yet he will retain his strength and his yeng nature.

Thank you for explaining that, Lady Talishi, the King said. For it seemed to me that for many years my own daughter had a fierce heart, yet in recent days she has come to admire Chokhmah, and it has gentled her. This gladdens me.

The king is aware that one in six nephilim are born with a preference to use the left hand, Talishi said, and at first both the King and the Princess were puzzled by this apparent non sequitur. This is not a matter of choice, there is an element of chance that is a part of every birth, otherwise all of our sons would look exactly alike, and of our daughters would be identical. And yet, because left-handers are a minority, our culture traditionally ascribes their preference to evil. We speak of the 'left hand of the damned' and there are many charlatans who profess to change this preference to the normal one.

Then Khondiel and her father realized exactly what Talishi was speaking about. Talishi had been oblique, to avoid offending them. The King took her cue and said, There are other preferences which must have the same random source as left and right orientation. I believe the children who behave this way have precisely the same degree of moral culpability for those inclinations, which is none. We should love them without condition!

Khondiel beamed. Thank you, father King.

Princess Khondiel, Talishi said, you are who you are. Good for you! Lucky you! Never try to undo that and live a lie because some uncompromising prophet has forbidden it in a scroll.

The King said, My daughter has expressed to me her strong desire to become your disciple, Lady Talishi.

I have not yet formally gathered disciples to myself, and if I did, it would be a far greater commitment than a few hours a day away from the castle. She might be asked to travel to the other lands of Gorpai, or perhaps even to other worlds. Would you, Khondiel, be willing to part with your father for years, decades, even for half a lifetime?

I am willing, and more, I would put the Fallen Angels at your disposal.

And I too am willing, the King said. For I deem, Lady Talishi, that you will return to me a daughter who is fit to rule this city.

In that event, Your Majesty, I will take Princess Khondiel to be my first disciple. She bowed deeply, and the audience was concluded.

King Gordiel arranged for Talishi to spend the night in the castle. The next morning Talishi summoned Binah to send his avatar to the city of Aramel, and she took Khondiel in a suborbital flight to her house in Anshar, but they remained chaste, and slept separately one from another.

B5 - PROSECUTION


Courtroom sketch of Talishi on trial for inciting infidelity to Belial. When Lord Israel had sufficient force to move against Talishi without the consent of King Gordiel, the task would have been quite impossible for him if Talishi's closest disciple Khondiel had been present to protect her good friend and teacher. But Talishi, who wished to bring matters to a head, sent Khondiel and all her Fallen Angels away to bring a collection of food to a hungry village far from Aramel, and this provided a narrow window of opportunity for the Eyes of Belial to scoop her up.

Talishi was placed naked in a cubical wooden cage and taken to the city of Belial. There after many torments and humiliations, she was put through a public trial to incriminate herself by her own words so there would be no doubt among the people that her teachings blasphemed the god of House Gerash. Lord Israel served as the prosecutor, while Khondiel, through a special waiver in the law forbidding yen to work, served in her defense.

The ordeal went on for many days, as Israel attempted to trip Talishi up with riddle-words, but he was dealing with an advanced composite being, both eloah and nephil, and Talishi had a suitable answer at every turn. Israel was too stupid to realize he was being soundly beaten, but it did- n't matter, since the outcome of the trial was foreordained.

On the last day Israel turned to the words of Talishi's Sunset Discourse in Aramel, which had been preserved as scripture in a growing collection of books called the Buron.

He said, I find it interesting that you always say 'she who embraces Chokhmah' meaning yen. Do you imply that all yen are your disciples?

Talishi replied, Sadly, no, the patriarchal mind-set is not confined to your gender. By these things you shall know a yin is not my disciple: She is caught up in every fad and does not affirm her uniqueness. She grows annoyed at situations she cannot help, and so she is perpetually angry. Controversies that divide yin and stir up the disciples attract her. Assuredly, no yin who does these things can call herself my disciple.

Israel said, And yet, contrary to the Laws of Belial and the edicts of the Gerash Patriarch Kirodiel, you employ your disciples at labor, and call them Fallen Angels, which some say is an army of females.

Talishi said, A patriarch gathers the wealth and scatters the people. The Fallen Angels scatter the wealth and gather the people.

Israel asked, So you espouse redistributionism?

Talishi replied, I espouse only giving yin work that draws them together in service of their sisters. There is no overlap with the work of yeng.

Israel said, Where do yang fit into your schemes, Talishi?

Talishi said, Just as humans were called out of the animals and given free will, and just as nephilim were called out of the humans to have a closer relationship with the gods here in this world, I call the Fallen Angels out of the nephilim that they may unite and nourish one another.

Israel asked, Do you mean lesbian separatism? I point out that such a thing is considered completely unnatural by all our ancient traditions.

Talishi replied, It is natural to stink. It is our frequent bathing and use of perfumes which are unnatural. Do you suggest turning back the clock on personal hygiene? To the Fallen Angels, the word "unnatural" simply means "not on the level of animals.

Israel ran completely out of arguments. He told the judge there no further questions. The judge ordered a recess before the defense could begin.

B6 - THE MIKE SNAFU


"I didn't sign up for none of this shit." After Dr. Earl Roland of the CDC examined Robyn, Jerry, Jill and Lilith for himself he took Pharmadigm up on their offer and conducted the final drug trial on Michael Morrich under conditions totally of his own design. Roland chose the operating room and brought in his own cameras and recording equipment. Of the Pharmadigm team, only Amanda Trochmann was permitted to attend, and that only in the role of an observer who was not permitted to touch any of the apparatus. Of the CDC, only Roland was present.

Amanda could produce no video evidence of Lilith's transition from unmutated human to whatever she was now, but that was not the extent of the problem. Even the charts she had worked up on Lilith and the others seemed to have been altered somehow, after the fact. As far as the medical evidence went, Lilith and the others had the "Z" chromosome from the very beginning and also the physical changes associated with it. The situation was so unusual that Roland couldn't help but suspect it was an elaborate hoax, and if he could prove that, the government would come down on Pharmadigm like a ton of bricks. But Amanda swore up one side and down the other that she didn't understand what has happening.

Therefore when Roland satisfied himself that Mike Morrich was fully human he transmitted two copies of the chart to his office in Washington by two different routes, fax and hand courier, using people he knew and trusted. Then he prepared to administer the drug himself. But all these preparations were to no avail. He would never capture the transition moment.

Before Roland even pushed the plunger to administer the drug, before Mike's crotch-cam was activated and set to record, his tormentors saw that his crotch was already changed, with two penises, and he had grown a foot taller. Mike wasn't going to get a Near Death Experience. It was enough, apparently, that Roland was on track to give him the drug. Actually giving him the drug was a side note. There was a muffled curse from Mandy.

A disturbed Earl Roland reviewed Mike's chart once again. It was completely different, in so many ways it wasn't funny, yet never once was the chart out of Roland's eyeshot. Amanda Trochmann never went near it. Days later, when he returned to the CDC office, he would compare the chart to the two he sent by plane and fax, and they would be identical in every respect, even down to the artifacts of the copy machine.

Roland was frightened. Turning to Amanda Trochmann he said, You have the go-ahead on sterilization. Spay and neuter the whole bunch. But it doesn't matter because none of these people will ever leave this installation.

Roland said this with Mike Morrich fully conscious and aware of what he was saying, since the drug was never administered to him, but Roland didn't care. And Mike was now in direct mental contact with Jill Pennell, so she and the other three "volunteers" knew what was about to happen to all of them, that they would be rendered incapable of reproduction and imprisoned in the Hanford facility for the rest of their lives.

Presently there was a phone call for Roland. This is Sergeant Jim Lasker in Building 1002 at Pearl. Sorry to disturb you Dr. Roland, but you wanted to be informed if any of the five subjects escaped. Jerry Aspin just punched his way out of his holding pen.

How did he get out? Roland snapped off with rage.

We're not sure at this point, Doctor. There was an explosion. But we're getting hits on the motion sensors. Don't worry, Doctor, we'll get him.

I didn't sign up for any of this shit, said Mike, jumping off the examination table, and he simply walked out of the room. Roland and Trochmann were too spooked and astonished to stop him, and by Roland's own contrivance there was no other manpower present to bring Mike to heel.

B7 - BUSTOUT


Just guess the magic number Robyn, Jill, and Lilith were kept in an old clinic at Hanford used to treat radiation sickness. They were apart from Mike, because Pharmadigm didn't want any hanky-panky. Jerry was still a convict and kept apart from everyone. Technically, Lilith was now equipped for hanky panky, but things were moving too fast and that sort of thing was on the back burner.

Jill said, Jerry and Mike have started their run, so now it's our turn.

You're up, Robyn, Lilith said, but Robyn still didn't understand how the plan was supposed to work.

The clinic was partitioned into two large rooms of roughly equal size, a main room intended for daytime activities, and a separate ward in the back where the girls could sleep. The only exit was through the day room, but at night the girls were confined to the night ward and locked in.

There was a hexadecimal keypad, a four-by-four square with sixteen buttons numbered 0 through 9 and A through F. Robyn also knew from listening carefully that the code was always four taps. But the Pharmadigm people were careful never to let their "residents" see what they were tapping.

The problem was that there was a ten second delay after trying a number before the red light would reset to the yellow light and it was ready to accept another try. Robyn figured if she started at 8:00 PM and went all through the night to 8:00 AM she would just be able to do the whole range from 0000 to 0FFF. It would take sixteen nights to go through the whole set, assuming she didn't make a single mistake, and her hands didn't cramp up, and she didn't despair of the whole operation.

Just start doing it, that's the important thing, Lilith told her. You'll see what I mean after you begin.

Robyn shrugged and started pounding combinations, one after the other. And when she did, she could sense something like a tower of future moments stacking up on top of each other. Each moment was an attempt to punch the combination. This tower ended in a moment of joy, eight days later, when she hit the right combination and the door unlocked. And the joyous number was 76FC. She read it right out of her memory of the future, but that memory hadn't presented itself until Robyn started trying to punch out.

So Robyn entered 76FC and got the green light. There was a click, and the women stepped out into the muted light of the rest of the clinic, hoping it was deserted for the night. It was. But there was a closed-circuit television camera in the main room of the clinic, so now their captors could see them making the escape attempt and would come calling very shortly.

Lilith said, Ain't precognition grand? But let's hope they aren't so paranoid over security they have a separate combo for the outside door, with another number to precog, because we'll never get out of here.

They aren't, Robyn said, they didn't. You'll see. 76FC. Green. Go. They were out of the building.

It wouldn't do to have the "volunteers" locked up inside the clinic in the not-so unlikely event of a fire, so for fire safety and also as a precaution in case they did get out, a guard was posted in a shack nearby with bright lights flooding the doorway. The escapees stood there illuminated like deer frozen on the highway. Fortunately for them the guard wasn't expected to just stare at the outside of the clinic for the duration of his watch. Just staying awake was sufficient, it seemed. So he had his back turned, hunched over a newspaper. Robyn, Jill, and Lilith crept around the outside of the clinic as quietly as they could until they were exactly 180 degrees around from the guard shack, then they headed straight out in the long shadow of the building.

B8 - DEFENSE


Talishi knew this was going to happen, but it was still a shock, you know? As the defense of Talishi against charges of inciting infidelity to the Law of Belial drew to a close, Khondiel said, Lady Talishi, despite all the evidence we have heard for the charge of impiety toward Belial, you still maintain your innocence. How can this be?

Talishi said, For most wives on Gorpai it is not a powerful decision to stay married, because her only alternative is to starve. In the same way, it cannot be a powerful decision to worship Belial anywhere in the Middle Lands, because the alternative is a mock trial and execution.

Khondiel said, So my Lady, you contend that any 'piety' which is compelled by law is invalid?

Talishi answered,Exactly. Such 'piety' is as phony as the 'love' found in many, if not most, patriarchal marriages. How much more vital is the love of two nephilim who are utterly free to stay or to part, yet who still choose to stay together! Does that sounds risky? Living dangerously is the very thing that lends excitement and significance to our lives. Only with conflict can we flare with incentive to create a new destiny.

Khondiel asked, New destiny? Doesn't that go against everything we have been taught about the laws of fate?

Talishi said, Belial once told me that to take fate into one's hands was to rise beyond good and evil. In reality, a rock and a tree are beyond good and evil, and so is everyone suborned to the laws of cause and chance. Rocks, trees, and people who are not permitted, or refuse, to make a choice are amoral. The entire field of ethics simply doesn't apply to them.

Khondiel asked, So you don't think High Lord Patriarch Kirodiel Gerash ought to legislate morality?

Talishi said, Not that he ought not to but he literally can not. It's a logical impossibility, like a three-sided rectangle.

Then Khondiel said, The defense rests.

After the conclusion of the court proceedings, which to no one's surprise (except Khondiel) went totally against Talishi, Khondiel was allowed to pay one final visit to her client in the dungeons beneath the Temple of Belial. The first few minutes had been spent in a wordless embrace, as best as could be managed through intervening iron bars. Then Khondiel glanced around, assuring herself that their attorney-client privilege of private counsel, no matter how brief, was still inviolate. She said, Guilty! And a sentence of death. I can't believe it Talishi. So what's your plan?

Talishi said, Plan? There is no plan. Look around you Khondiel! Look at this security. Talishi reached through the bars again to touch her friend's face. They've been planning this whole thing. That trial? It all stinks of Belial moving behind the scenes. He wants something from me. It only remains for Belial to lay it all out in the open.

Khondiel said, What if you're wrong? Granted, that's not very often, but I say we fall back to my plan.

Talishi narrowed her eyes and said, Khondiel, don't do anything stupid. Better yet, don't do anything at all.

They were interrupted by Khondiel's escorting guard, a kind but unswervingly loyal yang. I'm sorry, that's all the time I am permitted to give you. He took Khondiel by the arm and firmly steered her away.

Talishi called out after her. Khondiel! Just drop it, do you hear me? But Talishi sighed, knowing her all too well.

B9 - SIDEBAR


It breaks Khondiel's heart just thinking about Talishi being in such straits. After Khondiel was whisked away Talishi's next visitor was the prophet Israel, who came down into the dungeon and moved very close to the cell to look directly into her eyes. After studying her quietly for a long time, he said, Belial sends his regards . . . Chokhmah.

Talishi smiled. I knew Belial was behind all this. Give it up, Israel. If you have spoken to Belial you already know only too well that no threat to my life can make me do his bidding, let alone yours.

Israel said, Oh, a martyr is the last thing we want, Talishi. Unfortunately, your Fallen Angel friend has her mind quite made up. Do you really think the Eyes of Belial are unaware of the preparations she has made to rescue you?

Talishi frowned at this. What does she have in mind?

Israel said, You will be proud when you see it. Fallen Angel commandos! Guards taken out with a head twist. Safe houses from here to the edge of the city. But as you've correctly surmised, it's a trap. That way we catch Khondiel red-handed, scoop up key Fallen Angels, and crush your whole movement over the space of a single night. Then you hang, with no one left to rally around your corpse.

Talishi said, Khondiel may be young and female, but don't underestimate anyone who has spent three years under my wing. And don't sell Khondiel's Fallen Angels short either.

Israel said, Belial has a far better plan that will save the lives of yourself, Khondiel, and all of her Fallen Angels, but it requires that you be fully willing to participate. The first part of his plan is that you will walk Belial through the procedure by which an eloah may assume the body of a nephil.

Talishi laughed at him. Belial has no idea what he's asking for. Were I to begin writing the mere highlights of information down as fast as I am able, by the time this body died of old age, I would be only part of the way through the front matter of the procedure.

You and I both know you have quicker channels by which to enlighten Belial. But in any event, you will soon have much time to devote to writing. The second part of his plan is that we shall parade you captive in a cage through every city, town, and village in the Middle Lands.

Talishi said, That would have the effect of discrediting me and everything that I have taught. I refuse.

Israel broke into a sly grin. Chokhmah, you must not refuse, because the alternative is Khondiel, remember? Her plan?

In the end Talishi had to accept the humiliation because it really was the only alternative open to her. She had no fear of execution. If her body was destroyed she would live on for many lifetimes of nephilim as the star Rigilkent, for Talishi was no longer nephilim alone, and Chokhmah was no longer elohim alone, but they were one hybrid being.

But Talishi did fear that her nephilim friends would attempt to rescue her from execution, and she knew she was merely bait in a trap set by Belial, and knowing the cruel efficiency of the Eyes of Belial it would mean certain capture and death for Khondiel and the Fallen Angels she led.

So Talishi-Chokhmah agreed to have Binah reveal the art of possession to Belial, and in return her execution was called off and the trap unarmed. To Khondiel this merely delayed things somewhat. From that day forward Khondiel never ceased plotting to get Talishi free of Israel's bondage.

Lilith was the head of the Femina Caelestis Girl Guard, but her primary allegiance was to her homeland of Israel, and there under the name of the body she currently wore (her third) she was Karin Durr.

Karin was an officer with the rank of major in the formidable Israeli Defense Force, which when rendered in Hebrew and shortened to an acronym was known as ZAHAL.

The active forces of Israel were grouped into twenty-six battalions, Alfa through Zulu. Major Durr was known throughout the country as Bravo since she commanded the two thousand men and women of Bravo Battalion. In times of war in Israel, which were all too frequent, millions of reserves were called up and assigned to one of the twenty five other battalions, which rapidly became full divisions, but Bravo Battalion, the elite, remained made up solely of hand-picked army regulars.

It took a long time for the Israelis to accept that Karin Durr was really the famous Lilith Gervasi of their early history, who was instrumental in the Israeli victories over the Arabs across six separate major wars and innumerable lesser reprisal raids.

Lately, Lilith managed to retain a single body for a number of years, which allowed her to gain traction and begin to pile up rank again. But she looked more like a supermodel than a soldier these days, and that annoyed her to no end.

With her head sticking outside of the hatch on top of one of twenty segments of a towed barge, Bravo let the eternal winds of the Gulf of Suez and the moderate rolling of the barge kick saltwater spray over her. Her tan, mottled major's uniform was impeccable, sharply creased, heavily adorned with fabric service ribbons, and practically skin-tight.

Lilith was invincible in war, but her enemies knew she couldn't be in two places at once, and they also knew if both Femina Caelestis and Israel were attacked simultaneously, Lilith would automatically default to defending her homeland. So when the Evil Empire of Belial moved to assail the heart of Femina Caelestis at the lunar city of Fortuna, the Emperor ordered up another Arab-Israeli War just to keep Lilith out of the way and occupied.

Africa was almost completely surrounded by water. The place where it was joined to Asia had been crossed by a man-made ditch 200 km long for the last 200 years, permitting ships to travel between Europe and the Far East without detouring all the way around the Dark Continent. It was not even a particularly elaborate engineering feat. The land was so flush with sea level that the canal did not require locks.

Eventually, by the turn of the 21st Century 23% of all world trade was using the Suez Canal, but it was only wide enough to permit one lane of travel, alleviated only with turnout lanes here and there, requiring quite an elaborate traffic control setup.

For a long time there had been talk of widening the canal, but the proposals for dredging it wider always entailed shutting down traffic for up to four years and the predicted increase in traffic was not thought to be enough to justify the loss of government revenues from transit taxes, an enormously important source of income for Egypt ever since the country became a net importer of petroleum and local Islamist suicide-bombers completely sealed off the country's once lucrative tourist trade spigot.

In the 2020's a new idea was put into effect that didn't require the disruption of shipping at all. Sand berms were piled up all along the length of the the canal and two twin sets of locks were constructed at Port Said at the north end and Suez City in the south. The entire channel. along with the chain of three lakes that formed part of the passage, was raised 20 meters, and this widened the canal to 300 meters, permitting the safe transit of two lanes of even the largest supertankers. Then the Suez Canal captured fully 30% of world trade.

Throughout the early part of the 21st Century the Cold Peace between Israel and Egypt became progressively more like a Cold War, punctuated by hot flashes now and again. By 2036, the Camp David accords were completely forgotten, and Israel found itself in essentially the same position it was in 1973, with the entire Sinai Peninsula under occupation.

The eternal problem for Israel was that it could not predict exactly where the next attack was going to come, so it had to defend the entire 200 km length of the Suez Canal. That made it weak everywhere. But Egypt, as the guest army, could choose the place where to concentrate its artillery, thus punching a hole at one point in the much-vaunted Ben-Judah Line of fortifications.

The commander of the Egyptian 1st Army knew that the Sinai was like a bread with a hard crust that was soft in the interior. After breaching the crust in the short channel between marshy, salty Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake, the Egyptians started ferrying over tanks, troops, ammunition, and other war materiel on rafts as fast as they could, building up quite a bridgehead on the other side, like an infection of bacteria lodged in a wound.

Bravo did not wonder how she drew the worst beach, a narrow sandy artificial spit extending about a kilometer south of the locks on the Egypt side of the southern canal entrance. There were some who wanted her to fail, even if it was to the detriment of the security of greater Israel. But El Shaddai had never permitted her to fail.

The sand spit was no more than 15 meters wide. Bravo would never have picked it for her worst rival. It was suicide. Her battalion would be stretched along it like a string of pearls. One air wing in a few low pass- es with napalm could finish all her people off in mere minutes. Completely against orders, Bravo had filled each container in the barge with only 50 of her people, not 100, lest her entire Battalion be taken out in one short bloody fiasco.

Bravo did her best work sneaking around stupid orders from theater commanders. Hardships like this just made her stronger. She was the kind of junior officer Greater Israel once utterly relied on for their initiative and quick decision-making in the field, but the bureaucrats nowadays considered her an anachronism with a bad attitude, totally insubordinate. She had lost count of how many times she had been hauled in for the ordeal of court martial.

Lilith had, in fact, been drummed out of the IDF twice before, only to be reinstated with back pay after the hue of public outcry reached fever pitch. This only reinforced in Bravo's mind the existence of a divine will which lit the path she walked on. And the fact that El Shaddai spoke directly to her through the Plug didn't hurt.

A pair of IDF Archangel strike/intercept fighters punctured the air with an ear-shattering tearing sound as they flew overhead and on to the center of Port Tewfiq, whose outskirts were passing now to Bravo's left. Port Tewfiq was a sort of annex to Suez City at the end of a long causeway. Multiple booms were heard there as the police station, customs, and warehouses were leveled. Several kilometers to the west on the shore proper, a beached mil- lion-ton oil tanker was already burning.

Suez City had always taken the brunt of the last century of Arab-Israeli conflict, but the Egyptians were expecting their enemies to cross at the Al-Kubri tunnel, or even float their M255 Schwartzkopf tanks across the canal in rafts. An amphibious landing was totally unexpected. For one thing, Israel was not even thought to have landing craft in the Red Sea, nor were amphibious exercises ever observed.

And this amphibious assault was arriving under the guise of twenty deceptively painted, weathered-looking old barges slowly towed behind a jumbo tugboat toward the southern entrance of the canal. They were in two parallel trains of ten containers all linked together.

At Bravo's command they all broke free from each other and began moving under their own power toward the assigned beach.

Bravo ducked in and reentered her barge. All twenty of the special landing craft began to take sporadic 40mm mortar fire from somewhere in the city but this was mainly just an annoyance. Each landing craft was covered over with tank armor, constructed in the best shape for defense, a shape evolved through more than a century of constant warfare.

She made her way to the front of the barge, pushing through the men and women hanging on to straps from the ceiling of the barge. Greater Israel was unique among nations. Ever confronted with a chronic shortage of personnel, men and women were drafted equally, trained together, and sent into battle together. There was no discrimination at all.

Bravo faced her people from the front of the barge. She was a woman of faith, and attributed all her successes to God without the slightest doubt shadowing her mind whatsoever. She began to pray: God of our fathers, when you led us by the hand out of slavery in Egypt to be your chosen priestly people, you gave us this land forever, from the Sinai desert to Lebanon, from the river Euphrates in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and your word cannot be false. We rush now to push back the Egyptian invaders, and we know that without you O God, we will fail and be killed to the last man and woman. But you are our shield and our right arm, and we trust you utterly. Amen.

Then she raised her head and addressed her people, saying, I have never lied or concealed the truth from you. They gave us the most dangerous beach possible. We'll be practically single file. When you disembark immediately turn to the right and get off the sand spit as soon as possible. We're the first. Our mission is to seize the canal operations center and to secure a beachhead for the forces that will come later. God be with us.

The boat officer beached her assault craft right up onto the sand, the closest of the twenty to the structures of the locks and the buildings that supported them. The wall behind Bravo dropped down to become a ramp, revealing a beach being torn up by mortar fire. She knew the heavy shelling was soon to come. She yelled her motto, Follow Me! and led her people out onto the sand, the 1st Platoon of Gold Company.

Further down the spit were Blue Company, Orange, and White, each with five platoons, all of them storming the sand spit simultaneously.

The astonishing sight of an innocent barge breaking up into twenty motorized landing boats, turning with perfect coordination like a drill team on parade, beaching on the spit, and disgorging a thousand troops onto Egyptian soil was spotted by the alarmed men in the canal control tower, and they called it in to a gun battery somewhere in Suez City.

Splashes began to fly up in the sea around them as the gunners got their range. The splashes got closer to the beach, and some of them struck the now abandoned landing craft.

Gold Company 2nd Platoon, the people from the boat immediately next to Bravo's, was the first hit with an incoming 155mm shell. Artillery is the troop killer. Sixteen people lay dead, another twenty lay wounded or were knocked off their feet. Of the wounded, eight would later die. Only twelve people in that platoon were unharmed, but some of these would be picked off in ones and twos by the random mortar rounds coming in.

A pair of soldiers in Bravo's Platoon, a male and female, set up on the sand a compact air search radar and tried to pinpoint where the rounds were coming from by tracing their flight-paths back. Blue 5th Plt. took five dead and twelve injured before he got a fix. The female called out the resulting coordinates over a portable phone and requested an airstrike.

At first Bravo wasn't sure what happened next. She found herself waking up with her legs soaked by seawater. It slowly dawned on her that she was close to an incoming round and had been knocked by the concussion a little ways into the water. Bravo had no recollection of the last few seconds, minutes? She didn't know. Her only thought at that point was dying was so easy. As she always suspected. Bravo had never been obsessed with the issue of death or whether there was an afterworld and the conditions there. She would always shrug and say, Leave it to God.

Besides, she already had died twice before.

But Lilith was not to die that day. Her body armor had intercepted most of the blast shrapnel, and the overpressure had been enough to put her in mild shock but was not life-threatening. Still, she was a little dazed, and no longer led the assault, to be sure.

Captain Uri Gonen had taken command of the assault when she went down. It was all handled seamlessly. Bravo, in fact, no longer had a coherent Platoon to lead. Seven were immediately dead, twelve were wounded, and four of those would soon die from blood loss, missing limbs, or other serious in- juries. The rest merged with the other Platoons running north.

The Orange 3rd Plt. was the last to be hit, with six dead and ten wounded, three mortally. A single Archangel flew to the location called in from the ground and let loose a cluster bomb, which broke up into many bomb-lets and saturated the area of the offending gun battery with many small explosions, disabling the guns and killing all personnel.

Now Bravo's people were free to hurry off their vulnerable position on the beach, plagued only by mortar fire, which claimed thirty-one lives. Total killed in the landing phase was eight percent of her force, and another twelve percent injured. This was very bad, but not nearly as bad as the forty percent casualties Bravo had anticipated. She gave her thanks to God for this gift.

By the time she caught up to Gonen in the canal ops center the building was largely secure. Bravo's immediate objective had been achieved, and she ordered her people to fan out into Suez City to prepare to greet the rest of their people soon arriving, less clandestinely, in waves of lightly armored hovercraft. There were fights for the railroad station and the Al-Gaysh Causeway to Port Tewfiq, and a very hot struggle for the Governorate building on the waterfront.

With her successes of the opening hours, with Bravo's empty husks of a landing force abandoned on the bar swaying with the tide and not likely to be needed ever again, Colonel Motti Adan parked his ass safely in that Governorate building.

Eager to gain the credit for a regional victory, he separated Bravo's troops from her and reassigned them to the main thrust on the road north to Ismailia. Temporarily, there was the incredible situation of Greater Israel's best battalion commander twiddling her thumbs with nothing to do.

When Colonel Motti Adan learned that Bravo had deviated from the plan and attacked with only half her force he was absolutely furious. On the top floor of the occupied Governorate, which had contained the city's police station, she and Captain Uri Gonen stood before him at attention as he vented the worst of his wrath, which eventually got around to the question that was foremost in his mind: Where are your people now?

Bravo decided on telling a partial truth. I loaded the landing craft forty-six percent full, sir. I left the balance of my battalion in the bar- racks at Eilat.

Your battalion? Major, I can assure you that it is no longer, and never shall be again, your battalion.

Uri Gonen asked the Colonel pardon and explained that the assigned beach would have been too crowded with twenty-two hundred troops, and the resulting confusion would have led to much higher casualties, perhaps even a total rout. He was awarded another stream of shouted insults, focused more intensely directly upon him.

Captain Gonen is my chief staff officer, sir, Bravo said when there was a pause for breath in the colonel's stream of invective. He was following my orders. Therefore I accept the heat, sir. If there is to be any punishment I take it upon myself.

I should throw you both behind bars, Adan said, but I think it is far better that you should both sit out the rest of this war. Major Gervasi, you and Captain Gonen will do nothing. That is mandatory. I repeat: nothing! Do you understand me?

Yes sir! they both blurted in reply.

Now get out of my sight!

There was a very large black car parked right in front of the building. Bravo cast covetous eyes on it. Gonen saw the Colonel's eagle sticker on the window and shook his head. No, no, Major, that is Adan's limousine, you can't be thinking what I think you're thinking.

Bravo simply got in on the passenger side of the limo and expected Gonen to get in and drive. She had already found the keys in the front ashtray when he reluctantly took his place behind the wheel. What do you mean it won't be easy? she asked him, grinning.

He shook his head. Where to?

Your discretion, Uri. Anywhere. Away from here.

He chose to drive east, then turned southeast on the long causeway out to Port Tewfiq, a narrow land bridge that contained only the highway and a railroad. Halfway out to the peninsula Bravo had him pull over momentarily and she scraped the Colonel's sticker off the windshield of the car.

At the end of the causeway the land flared out, room for Suez' sister city. There were residences on the left and the newly-evacuated Red Sea Hotel on the right. Here Gonen turned left and followed an arterial to the beach on the canal side of the peninsula. An empty parking lot was found and Gonen stopped, hoping that it was what Bravo had in mind.

They got out of the car. To the south they could see Green Island and the approach to the canal entrance cluttered with commercial ships, which could not proceed because the Colonel had ordered the locks slammed tight until further notice. Bravo looked out there with her field glasses and noticed that a Greek-flagged freighter, the Galatea, had more-or-less elbowed its way to the head of the line of waiting ships, but no one was going anywhere.

Gonen could feel his own frustrations bubble to the surface now and he felt the need to blow steam. A little sword practice, perhaps?

Their friendship went back to the IDF's special training in occupied Damascus when their instructors matched Uri up with her to be a realistic opponent in hand-to-hand combat. But realistic for whom? Both were formidable with a blade.

He drew his sword wordlessly and saluted her with a sharp military slash vertically downward. Bravo whipped out her own sword and returned his salute. These were the classic decorative weapon carried by all commissioned officers but the swords were also quite real. Practice was sometimes painful and always dangerous.

Those fools! she hissed as they started in with the fairly standard stuff, just simple thrust and parry from safe distances. In a matter of days Egypt will be too strongly entrenched inside the Sinai and we'll be unable to resist a drive into the heart of Eretz Yisrael. We have to present a serious threat to their flank. Now!

With that word she literally pounced upon her challenger, Bravo's blade slicing down with bewildering speed. But Gonen had studied her well in their practice bouts and didn't fall for this.

She attacked again. At each of his parries Bravo felt she was striking stone. There was simply no give. She backed out of range and they began the usual circling of each other, testing with probing thrusts. She paused and a sudden oxygen debt forced her to draw breath in a sharp gasp. Gonen made his first attack then, a clumsy but forceful pounding of blade-on-blade that started to wear Bravo down.

The auxiliary noises of their fighting were the only sounds to be heard on the beach that morning. A resonant back-slide of steel-on-steel and CLASH! Nick, slide, and CLASH! She was moving him back now but Gonen's defenses proved more and more unyielding as she swept him closer to the edge of the surf.

For a simple practice she was attacking with frightening violence. He was a few moments gaining his original stance at the cost of a few more feet of sand. He said, Then we don't have a choice. We have to resort to the usual disobedience.

How? Bravo asked as she tried to prevent Gonen from circling around her and getting her back to the sea. I no longer have a battalion to be disobedient with.

I know better than that. I know you, Major. I know without a doubt that you have something planned.

This time Gonen pressed an attack. Bravo countered with a deft flip of her sword down along the back of her arm. It had become a shield allowing her arm to bear the brunt of his blows and he realized he was dangerously vulnerable to a bloody touch from Bravo in the form of an elbow jab with her blade's tip. She was well beneath his high two-handed thrusts. He saw this just in time and backed off.

Yield! he called as fatigue overtook both of them.

They rested where they stood, on hard-won new Israel territory, west of the Canal. It was a shapeless peninsula choking the mouth of the Suez Canal somewhat to the south of where they had made their amphibious assault, scoured by constant winds from the Gulf of Suez.

Bravo surveyed the continuing GI amphibious operations, the fresh supplies and troops coming directly from across the Gulf from a makeshift harbor in that part of the Sinai desert still held by the IDF.

Then Bravo stared south at the town of Port Tewfiq itself. The place was still smoking in many places from the brutal Israeli air strike but now it seemed merely to brood and lick it's wounds. Most of the population had been allowed to leave peacefully.

Gonen stood with Bravo on the sandy beach briefing her between gasps of breath on the IDF's achievements of the last two days. While he babbled on Bravo felt alienated, looking at him as if reexamining a habit, as if really noticing him for the first time. He was good-looking enough, except a set of eyes that bulged a microscopic amount, just slightly, enough to give him a deadly stare. From long association with him Bravo knew he was probably a needy type who covered it up with military spit and polish.

He said, There is a big land battle at Bar Gifgafa and we've broken out onto the highway to Kantra East. They'll be linking with another force that we pre-positioned in the mountains on the west side of Khatmia Pass, and that will give us the beginnings of a credible attempt at a pincer movement against the enemy lodgment.

What about Port Fuad?

No luck there. We're losing control of the city as I speak to the Egyptian Third Army.

She closed her eyes and sank to her knees on the sand of the beach. Lord I have done everything in my power to prepare a victory for your greater glory, but the obstacles I now face are insurmountable! Yet you are the God of Israel. Grant me watchfulness, that I may know when you make your move. Amen.

Her shoulders wanted to slump in despair but she resisted this, knowing that despair was the precise opposite of trusting God. She glanced around the town at the severely damaged cargo-handling facilities that resembled a child's toy city overturned, thrashed, and burned by a bully who had eventually tired of his destruction.

From a rat-hole of a tunnel half submerged at the water-line nearby a half- dozen black speedboats erupted. Swedish Boghammer II's they were. Fast, armored, each boat sported what looked to be a 56 millimeter cannon.

The enemy still a few has surprises for us, does he? Bravo mused. At first she thought this was God's reply to her prayer, but while she watched the speedboats swarmed around an Israeli helicopter carrier (the deck emptied of helos) and set it afire. After circling the waterborne inferno a few times, pumping shots into it and piling the flames on, they made a sharp turn and headed up the passage toward the locks and the Suez Canal Authority complex.

Already Bravo and Gonen were leaping off the beach and back up to the parking lot and their waiting car. Soon they were driving back northwest over the causeway, then northeast to the area where the southern end of the canal actually began.

Just north of the beach where Bravo Battalion had first attacked there were many buildings clustered around the gigantic locks, buildings captured at the cost of precious blood and the lives of people Bravo knew well. There upon those buildings the Boghammer speedboats opened up with 2 inch salvos.

The gray structures began belching flying pieces and sporting large holes while the boats swarmed in the waters below the big steel doors of the locks like so many sharks. Behind the massive doors the water was at the level of the rest of the Suez canal.

The rest of Bravo Battalion had of course been relieved and sent north, and specialists from other units had taken over. None of Bravo's people would have crouched in terror at a few 56mm bursts as these men were seen to do when Bravo appeared among them. There was an unreality about her as she stood unflinching in the thick smoke, gaping with astonishment that nothing had been done.

Who is in charge here? she bellowed.

A baby-faced butterbar, a second lieutenant, shuffled forward into view.

A combat engineer, no? Yes? Have you figured this place out?

Only the bare basics, ma'am, he said, twitching at the sound of another shell crashing into the building.

Do I have your undivided attention, Lieutenant?

He snapped his head forward. Yes ma'am!

Open the front door of the locks!

The second lieutenant shook his head. Ma'am, the doors are designed to latch together before you put a load on them. The weight of all that water might permanently damage the locks if you try to open them.

Do it! she snapped. I will cover your ass later. I'll take the responsibility. Astonishing...how about that? 'I'll take the responsibility.' How often do you hear those words?

So here was action at last! It had never been done before. They were huge, the double doors of the lower locks, but they had never been opened under the full weight of 20 meters of water. They seemed to groan as they slid slowly back into their slots but they held. The speedboats saw their doom and tried to flee, but there was no way to go fast enough to escape what was coming.

Over millions of tons of water burst out to fill the pool below the locks, flowing unstoppably toward the fleeing small craft. When the six boats were struck by the wall of water they popped up, overturned, and smashed to pieces before being submerged. Bravo thought it was one of the more memorable instances of overkill she had ever arranged.

Across two kilometers the wall of water spread out and moderated, lifting the Galatea roughly and bringing her down again, flipping over and sinking a smaller dry general cargo ship that had been turned sideways to the rushing water, and giving a large crude oil tanker an unwanted ride up and down that the enormous ship shrugged off as the wave rushed out to sea and dissipated. Other ships at anchor barely noticed.

Let's see if the locks still work or if the mechanism has been stripped, Bravo said. Let's do a live test. Get on VHF 16 and tell the Captain of the first vessel in line he may proceed into the northbound locks.

Yes ma'am.

Gonen shook his head with at the artistry of this multiple death. He said, Colonel Adan will hear of this and say `Very good kill, but it could have messed up the locks and endangered our nation's future income from transit dues.' Then when they start searching for someone to blame the name on everyone's mind will be `Bravo.' I can hear it now. `This was Bravo's idea.' And then he will say, 'I told her to do nothing!' and he will lock us in the stockade.

Everyone is sitting around, she said, disgusted, as they went out of the building onto the streets of Suez City. Everyone is more afraid of the finger-pointing that follows action than in actually being hit with a round! It is time to get out here, Uri. To the front.

That won't be easy.

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Strangers In Paradise