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Beyond frozen, airless Hippo lay the so-called Eggbeater, a vast collection of asteroids and comets left over in lieu of the gas giant planets that never formed in Mastema’s twin star system due to gravitational perturbation.

The Eggbeater was actually two separate belts of debris, each orbiting its respective sun, but these belts merged when the orange and yellow suns approached each other in periastron. Sometimes this resulted in collisions that populated the Eggbeater with smaller chunks in greater numbers, but mostly there were only near misses that altered the orbits of the mixing objects to various degrees.

Very rarely, one of the larger objects in this vast pinball game would be hurled toward Barbelo. The Navy kept a close eye on these, but they were not the only watchers. The families Antero, Larund and Sala would not tolerate another conspiracy of silence when it came to comet-fall.

To compare distances, if Barbelo was in the Solar System, and its orange sun was in the position of the Earth’s sun, the brighter yellow-white sun would occupy the space between Saturn and Uranus. This was close enough for the other system to be explored by robotic probes, but somewhat beyond the ability of the humans to make the crossing themselves without an extreme effort. Typical flight times would be on the order of three or four years, no matter how much rocket science progressed.

But hundreds of small bodies in the Eggbeater were settled by wave after wave of pioneers from Barbelo, and after a time, the settlers had established themselves well enough to become multiple sources of many new waves. Few of the colonists obeyed the Cupel system of testing or any other precept of the Law of Mastema.

Religious and political unity shattered in the new frontier of space. Some of the “Beaters” (as the colonists of the Eggbeater came to be called) were peaceful adherents of Talishism, but many of them were quite warlike, especially after the Navy came calling from Palato and found their devotion to Mastema to be wanting.

In the very low surface gravity of the asteroids it was considered more practical to have four hands rather than two hands and two feet. Genetic engineering began to blur what it meant to be human, and this practice was disgusting to Sartael.

Other Beaters dabbled in techniques for changing genders within a few days. The procedure was reversible and complete, right down to a functioning uterus for men, very useful for new colonies where breeding females were at a premium. Such a thing was absolutely incompatible with the system established in the Law of Mastema that treated women as little more than property. So Sartael vowed perpetual war.

The Beaters were happy to oblige him.

“The one who tortured you was named Hogarth,” High Lord Patriarch Sartael said when Edgar showed signs of returning to consciousness again.

Edgar’s finger still ached, but it was bearable. As a B’nei Elohim, his brain had been modified in such a way that he was able to sense that he was in the presence of a human incarnation of an Elohim by the mere proximity of the fold-line terminus within Sartael. He dropped to one knee, bowed his head, and said, “Glory to Mastema, Lord of Barbelo!”

This pleased Sartael to no end. At least Yeshua had taught the boy manners. He said, “Tell me your name and whether you like to know the spectacular details of the death of this Hogarth?”

“I am called Edgar Shybear. As my Lord must have surmised from the report his Eyes gave him of my personal possessions, which do not include a copy of the Golden Gift, I have not yet fully entered into the B’nei Elohim order. That is why I retain my given name and surname. As for the fate of this man named Hogarth, my Lord, I would only say that this is your star system, so it is your rules.”

“Suffice it to say, Edgar Shybear, the other Eyes of Mastema have been sufficiently motivated by the demise of Hogarth to recognize the physical mark of a B’nei Elohim so they will know how to treat you and others of your order with the proper protocol in the future. But Edgar! Tell me what you know of the B’nei Elohim named Joy.”

“I know of no one by that name among the B’nei Elohim, my Lord.”

“No matter. Joy came to Barbelo two thousand years ago and pledged herself to my service. Perhaps that is why Yeshua has not sent another one all this time, except his assassin. Joy flew my dragon and brought war to my enemies from the air. Then Yeshua sent another B’nei Elohim to kill both the dragon and Joy. That one, it was said, could fly through the air unaided.”

Edgar did know a living B’nei Elohim of that description, but no matter what his preferences were he could say nothing that would lead Mastema to piece together that El Shaddai and Yeshua could manipulate time. Rather, Edgar only said, “El Shaddai and Bat-El created the B’nei Elohim to serve them, yet we are not slaves to them. If this Joy assigned her loyalty to you, my Lord, then it was her free choice to do so.”

“What is your particular talent, Edgar Shybear?”

“They say, my Lord, that I am gifted with great intellect.”

“And would you, like Joy, put yourselves in service to me alone?”

“Such was my intention, Lord Sartael, when I departed Canterwood Academy before graduation and contrived to fly a shuttle to Palato.”

“Why did you not complete your education there?”

“It was an incident so trivial, yet so far-reaching in its ramifications my Lord will think me to make a jest.”

“Yet I would hear it, young Edgar.”

“The Academy had trained us to pursue knowledge, to foster our natural curiosity. But there came a day when we gathered together, six boys, six girls, of different Houses and even worlds, and we shed our clothing to learn about the variety of the human body. When Yeshua learned of this he disbanded our class and sent every child home. I left before my mother could collect me.”

Sartael broke into the deepest fit of laughter he had experienced in years. When he was able to speak again he said, “You are wrong, Edgar, I do not think it a jest, I know this is exactly the sort of thing Yeshua would do. So random, so stupid, and now he has lost you to me. I would have you swear an oath to mark the beginning of your service, but oaths may be broken at will by the faithless. So in lieu of an oath, Edgar Shybear, reach into that great intellect of yours and teach me something I do not know. Teach me how the Golden Gift works.”

“Yes, Lord.” Edgar looked around the lord’s chamber for something he could use as a training aid, but found nothing. So he said, “If it pleases Lord Sartael, please command the coins I had in my luggage to be brought to me, so that I may make an illustration.”

A snap of the fingers, a terse whistle, and the Eyes of Mastema moved to obey. Presently they brought to Edgar a small leather bag filled with coin of House Larund. Edgar seated himself on the floor before the throne of Sartael and dumped out the change. He arranged them more or less evenly and said, “These coins represent the atoms and molecules of the flesh and blood of the neck of an enemy of my Lord.”

Then Edgar used his fingers to clink pairs of the coins together here and there. He said, “The man’s neck is at body temperature, so the atoms are in motion, always bumping into each other like this.” Now he stood several of the coins on their edge. “Del passes the blade of the Golden Gift through the man’s neck, and every atom the blade touches becomes rotated to a right-angle with respect to the rest of the universe. This is what we call dark matter, My Lord, and it no longer interacts chemically with the other atoms. And yet they retain their original motion, so we get this.”

Edgar used his finger and thumb to flick the standing coins, causing them to roll out of the collection and across the floor of Sartael’s chamber. “Of course, my Lord, the actual engineering details are much more complicated, but I will provide them to such learned men as my Lord will provide. Let the revelation of this secret stand for me in place of an oath, and let it be tested by equipping the Eyes of Mastema, and any other men the Lord might choose, with copies of the Golden Gift made right here on Palato. Then the Lord Sartael will know I serve him alone.”

“And what will you do for me after this test, young Edgar Shybear?”

Edgar gathered all his coins together into a roll and held this roll on the floor between a finger and thumb. He said, “My Lord, the B’nei Elohim believe that once matter is stood up like this by a macro, and made into dark matter, it can never lay back down again. I do not believe that. I want to prove them wrong, Lord Sartael. Because if you could pack a lot of dark water together like this, and then let it lay down again,” and Edgar splayed the coins out to illustrate, “the water would decompress with great violence. This would open a way to build powerful drives for spacecraft, and even more powerful bombs.”

And Lord Sartael smiled. He knew precisely what El Shaddai had achieved with this Edgar. He was intended to create a starship and put El Shaddai in communication with El without violating the terms of his ancient bargain. But something had gone wildly wrong, and Edgar belonged to Mastema.

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Strangers In Paradise