The reason Lahatiel requested the Exiler be returned to him was that he needed to orbit Palato to establish the conditions of free fall for Apollyon’s training, and also Exiler was large enough to allow the training. For the Laraji, Lahatiel chooses a variation of Freeball he made up on the spot: Combat Freeball, with knives. As for the Laraji venue, he describes to the Emperor a standard Freeball arena based on the sport popular in the Sol system, and Asmodeus causes the arena to be constructed next to Exiler, on the same orbit.

The event would be televised, of course, as all of the death combats of the Emperor’s own son had been broadcast for many decades. But this time, Lahatiel assures Asmodeus his son would survive and the patriarch would not be humiliated, because Apollyon and his companions would not be going in cold like Uzziel.

As the match draws to a close Uzziel places all six of his boys in a ring. These boys hope by sheer numbers to capture Apollyon and fling him at an armed Uzziel for the kill.

At the referee’s first whistle Apollyon’s closest teammates curl into fetal positions at his feet, and he is also curled up. At the second whistle all three make themselves straight as fast as they could. Apollyon surges forward and the other two boys are flung back.

When Apollyon is joined by his Van and his Wingbacks, the Flankers reach the elastic end cap feet first and kick back off again, perfectly timing it to take advantage of the thumping rebound. Spinning on his long axis now to make him harder to grab, Apollyon reaches Uzziel’s defending line.

Apollyon’s Wingbacks overtake him and join to face Uzziel’s defenders too. Freeball is a contact sport. Apollyon’s team kicks and punches to form a narrow tunnel for him to drill through, scattering bodies like bowling pins.

Forbidden to stab the unarmed boys, Apollyon bends and twists his body like a maggot to wriggle free. Stinging from blows, Apollyon reaches a wall feet first and does a little dance. “Left foot sticks, right foot kicks,” he chants, launching hymself out again to chase after Uzziel.

Uzziel and one of his flankers link hands to swing off each other and change course, tumbling head-over-each-other’s-heels. Thus, Uzziel is flung after Apollyon, but he is left flailing with a yaw rotation he cannot control. By chance, when they meet, they are both in a poor position to strike each other, but Uzziel’s position is slightly poorer. Apollyon slips his blade between Uzziel’s ribs and pierces his heart.

The match is televised across the empire, and everyone knows Abaddon did not cheat to favor his son. The Emperor is overjoyed. No one has ever seen him happy. Ever. On a whim he makes Sar Lahatiel the rank of ophan.

This time none of the Eyes of Thaumiel make their displeasure audible. It seems they have grown in wisdom rather quickly.

ASMODEUS: How many dependents are attached to the officers manning Exiler?

ARIOCH (next in line after Balberith: There were a total of sixteen yen and all their children.

ASMODEUS: Lahatiel, today I have made you a flag officer, entitling you to eight wives. You may keep your sister Nuriel of course, and also take any seven of those sixteen women, whosoever of them that pleases you the most. The rest shall be returned to their fathers. You are my chief lieutenant now! Choose a new crew for the warship Exiler. In the days to come I am going to rely on you to deal with Lilith’s blasphemous starship.

As he begins to carry out the command of Asmodeus to staff the Exiler with a new crew Lahatiel requests access to the full personnel records of the Navy of Thaumiel. Arioch says he will accommodate him only if he could be present during the selection process and retrieve the records personally.

House Gerash runs old school. All of the archives are in the form of microfilms embedded in punch cards. At Sol the equivalent archive would be in the Swarm and accessed by Micros.

First on Lahatiel’s agenda is an operations officer. He asks for the best tactician in the fleet, regardless of rank. Arioch retrieves four microfilms and Lahatiel instinctively reaches for the one that he seems to be most reluctant to hand over. Suriel Larund was her name, and she had last served on the cruiser Coercer when Asmodeus had sent that ship in together with a squadron of smaller ships to follow up on rumors the Beaters had constructed their own supercarrier. They found the vessel in question, but during the battle the skipper of Coercer was killed when the hull was breached. Suriel took command using the lander as a secondary bridge, and sent fourteen four-yeng corvettes to their deaths making futile torpedo runs against the carrier. The Beaters were obliged to pull their fighter cover in close, and that opened a window for three bombers to stand off and let their payloads fly. Scratch one Beater supercarrier.

For the benefit of Arioch, Lahatiel reads aloud a fragment from a fitness report penned by the Commanding Officer of the Wayfarer where Suriel served as the Tactical Action Officer. “She’s uncanny. With just a few occasional glances at her gear she maintains a complete picture in her head of what’s happening around the ship at all times, even in the heat of battle. This situational awareness has prevented collisions with other ships and even rocks on numerous occasions.”

Arioch doesn’t care about any of that. What is important to him was the fact that Suriel is a yin, first of all, and second, that she was a yin who preferred other yen in bed.

There was a time when a female officer would have been unthinkable in the Navy of Thaumiel, because yen had been considered little better than property under the Law of Thaumiel from the very beginning. Even now as a commissioned officer, Suriel could own no land, not even if through some miracle she attained to the highest echelon, which to date no yin had ever done. But all that was before the Beaters started throwing rocks at the cities of Barbelo.

Thaumiel knew if a yang, by some odd fluke, was killed by a yin in the death combat then he didn’t deserve to live and contaminate the gene pool. And if she died she yielded up a sister who would otherwise be unavailable.

LAHATIEL: But obviously this Suriel must be very fierce. Always on guard against being raped.

As for Arioch’s other objection, about her sexual preferences, Lahatiel didn’t really care, and if the truth be known, neither did Thaumiel.

Suriel was in the first class of yen who entered under the new rules, and at the time everyone thought they were suicidal. But after many trials Suriel and a hard core group of other yen survived and they even did well for themselves. Suriel alone among them went on to survive a second Laraji.

Suriel has three booty-wives, Auriel, Chobaliel, and Orifiel, plus one sister-wife named Camael. All of them were totally dependent on her continued financial support as a hashmal, but only her booty-wife Orifiel is her lover. Suriel accepts Lahatiel’s offer to transfer to Exiler.

SURIEL: I ask only to keep Orifiel in my stateroom aboard this ship, sir, and to keep my other wives safely on Barbelo.

LAHATIEL: I agree, Suriel. But please tell me one thing. I’d like to know your honest opinion of our Emperor.”

SURIEL: Asmodeus I worship not, and why should I do so? All women are denied entry to the Temple of Thaumiel and from every shrine of Thaumiel. For me it was never a question of loyalty. Women are second-tier citizens in his Empire, and if it suits Lord Asmodeus to let me serve under you aboard his frigate, sir then it suits me as well, but neither you nor he should construe mutual advantage as fidelity.

Lahatiel proposes to crew Exiler with just four officers and one ravmalak, when the normal complement of a frigate was eleven. When Arioch objects, Lahatiel reminds him that he returned the vessel to Asmodeus with just his sister an himself as crew.

The navigation officer takes the ship out into the Eggbeater on a “shakedown” cruise that was really an opportunity for Exiler’s new crew to work and gel together as a team. And if some Beaters were flushed out of the woodwork along the way so much the better.

Two weeks into the training deployment Suriel brings something to the attention of Lahatiel.

SURIEL: I think I know what this is, sir, but I need a second set of eyes.

Lahatiel joins her at the console.

LAHATIEL: Yes, I recognize those numbers, Suriel. Where did they come from? Why is there’s no corresponding symbol on your scope?

“Sir, one time on the Coercer I was bored and I discovered that commercial signal analyzers are actually much more sensitive than what the SLIP-64 uses, so if I create a dummy symbol out there and hook it, I can open a beamport on that bearing and my store-boughten gear will trigger on stuff that’s way out there, long before the SLIP-64 shows a symbol. Just now I took a look out at 210 tack 45 and I got a whiff of something. Fusion motor signature. No doubt there are others nearby on different bearings. I can open more beamports out that way and fish around for more, sir.”

“Actually, I have a better idea. Gunner, program a torpedo for Launch On Bearing Only and send it on its way: 210 tack 45 and go.”

“Yes sir,” the weapon’s officer said, immediately complying with his order. Her fingers flew over the console and then a thump shook the ship. “LOBO away.”

There followed about an hour of watching with the Big Eye and waiting. Then Hashmal Suriel announced that one of the unknown contacts had lit off their fire-control radar to take shots at Exiler’s torpedo which they discovered, far too late, was almost upon them and in terminal cruise. A little puff of light appeared on the Big Eye briefly, indicating that either the gunner had scored a hit, or the enemy had somehow detonated her torpedo.

Immediately there was heard frantic shouting back and forth on UHF radio in the clear, indicating the presence of at least two more ships. It also told them the gunner scored a hit.

One of those two remaining ships started slicing and dicing the sky with search radar to find whoever it was that shot it at them, and after a few minutes they had Exiler locked on with what Suriel called “steady rails” which referred to the constant train of radar pulses on one of her scopes. It meant a torpedo was being launched at them.

LAHATIEL Gunner, warm up your laser and get ready for some incoming rounds. And helm, begin taking random evasive maneuvers, I don’t want to make it easy for them to hit us.

Immediately everyone began to be pitched back and forth in their couches as the navigation officer made wild course changes under high acceleration. Meanwhile the engineer, below-decks, monitored the strain on the engines. Sure enough, within ten minutes a rising whine filled the bridge. Suriel had picked up an inbound torpedo and immediately initiated countermeasures.

As Suriel tried to jam the torpedo with Macksy the weapon’s officer spotted a dot moving against the star background on the Big Eye and started putting short, powerful, Q-squelched laser pulses on it, one after the other. The lights on the flight-decked of Exiler dimmed with each power draw.

Somehow, the gunner never missed and she didn’t need any stinking fire control radar, an uncanny fact that astonished even veterans when they saw her do her magic. Every hit took a toll. Pretty soon the dot became a harmless scattered line of tumbling commas that missed the ship by a good 500 meters, flashed by like a set of lightning bolts, then sailed off to infinity on the other side.

ADNAREL: That was my first real ship-to-ship tussle.

Lahatiel beamed at her.

LAHATIEL: You performed like a champ. Everyone did.

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

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

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

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

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

ADNAREL: Also, sir, there was the question of what to do with my sister and my mother and myself in any event. If we were cast out to become beggars, or set to toil on what had been our own land, it would set a precedent, and other officers of flag rank would fear to die in service to the Emperor, lest their own wives and children suffered the same fate. So Sartael reorganized my father’s estate as a kind of agricultural cooperative, and set my mother in place as the Emperor’s representative. Our farm hands continued to have employment, and the Emperor, Sartael, and then later Asmodeus, received far more in taxes than he did when my father was lord of the plantation, because there was no middle-man with expensive tastes like my father to intercept the bulk of the profits. My childhood was spent doing little more than idle play. When I became a full-grown woman and set aside my toys, life grew boring for me indeed. I knew nothing about farming, and sometimes there was only enough food and money to survive from one day to the next. But I did have one talent that could not be denied. When I went hunting with a bow to supplement our green stuff with meat, I found that if I put my mind to it, I simply could not miss. And that, through a long, strange winding path that included granting certain favors to smooth the way that I’d rather not go into great detail about, and an accelerated college education, led to my present job in Thaumiel’s Navy as a weapons officer.

As Lahatiel had done with the three other officers he had selected to crew the Exiler, he gently steered Adnarel into revealing her true feelings about the Gerash Patriarch. At one point she admitted her feelings.

ADNAREL: It was quite an eye-opener to see him scramble to recover from one of his own bad decisions. It was a person like waking up one day and realizing they have exceeded their own father in maturity and wisdom, and their father now seemed like nothing more than a petulant, selfish brat, only taller.

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

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

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

BARAKIEL (wiping it off in disgust): They weren’t lying. You really are a crack shot!

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

He rubbed it in some more.

BARAKIEL: Sar Adnarel, perhaps you don’t know the ancient spacer’s rule that says you have to clean up your own floating globules of puke.

Lahatiel was much more tolerant of Adnarel as she tried to get her space legs.

LAHATIEL: You clean it up, Erel. Momma and Poppa are trying to enjoy an after-dinner smoke.

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

Barakiel went aft to get cleaning supplies.

BARAKIEL (passing Adnarel): Boot.

Before his head was clear of the Banquet Room deck, Adnarel unrolled from her fetal position.

ADNAREL: I shan’t forgive you, Helm. I shan’t forget.

And without another word Adnarel went forward to the flight deck to brood at her weapons console. A legendary feud was born.

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

Before the shakedown cruise, when Lahatiel was first reviewing personnel records to crew his frigate he settled on a navigation officer from among the Red Beards, a nephil whose name meant “Lightning of God”. He was Barakiel Antero, and he held the rank of erel.

Arioch’s objection was based on reports that had been gathered by the Eyes. He said Barakiel was actually a fraud, a homosexual who faked the two death combats that led to his current rank and whose “mate” was a convincing woman but still a man where it really counted. But Lahatiel just shrugged, knowing the only penalty for homosexual males in the Navy of Thaumiel was simply to withhold their access to breeding females. Which suited them to a tee.

During the interview, when Lahatiel casually remarked on what the Eyes had uncovered of the officer’s love life.

BARAKIEL: Sir, it struck me that even though it is only recently that the Empire has allowed women like Hashmal Suriel to serve, she still has full legal standing. There are women who love only other women, and this has finally come into the light of day, but there are also men who love only other men, yet this fact remains shrouded in darkness.

LAHATIEL: What you say is true. Unlike the case of Suriel, same-gender unions are not sanctioned for men in our empire, even if your preference for males has a similar pre-natal origin to my own preference of using the left hand. This prohibition seems to be driven by the Eyes more than any command of Asmodeus.

BARAKIEL: Still, sir, you have to wonder about that serial chain of possessions of Gerash patriarchs our Lord Thaumiel has made throughout the centuries. Certainly he must have found himself occupying a body that had the same ‘condition’ that I was born with.

LAHATIEL: I agree. It must have happened dozens of times. And that is why it has roughly the same moral import in Thaumiel’s mind as my choice of dark green as my favorite color.

BARAKIEL: My lover’s name is Peniel, sir, which means Face of God. He was my opponent in the Laraji, the death trial. The poison I used in my dart was powerful enough to convince the proctors that I had killed him, but it actually allowed him to recover later with no ill effects. Then Peniel presented himself to me disguised as his own ‘sister’, and became my ‘wife’ together with my real sister, Anafiel, who I love in a completely different way, and never touch beyond the innocent hugs and kisses of siblings. For Peniel alone is my lover.

LAHATIEL: And yet you hold the rank of erel, so you fought the death combat once again. I presume you repeated the deception.

BARAKIEL: Yes sir, and in my second combat my vanquished ‘opponent’ Sachiel and his ‘sister’ Gedael became my alleged third and fourth wives, but they are both same-gender lovers even as Peniel and I are, and these three men and one woman dwell together in the security of myb&ahb&harem. If one day I could put them beyond the reach of the Eyes you would have my undying loyalty, Ophan Lahatiel.

LAHATIEL: Yet I am looking for a navigator who will give me his undying loyalty from the moment he reports aboard my ship.

BARAKIEL: Yes sir, forgive me, I did not mean to imply I was setting a condition on my faithfulness to you, and I do not believe I am faithless to our Emperor, only faithless to certain Eyes of Thaumiel who might be disgusted by something they don’t understand. But I can say, sir, at the very least, that I was not the first to conceive of this deception, and I won’t be the last to resort to it. What the Navy gets in return for supporting the five of us (despite the fraud) is a damn good pilot and navigator. But I have never killed a man, and I do not relish killing. There has to be something more than this eat-or-be-eaten mentality spread by the Cupel system.

LAHATIEL: Your sexuality doesn’t come into this. I am looking for the best officers possible to crew the Exiler, and the incident at Hyperion was something that caught my eye.

BARAKIEL: Yes sir. You must be referring to the time on the Adversary when we stopped a raid on Palato by rogue elements of the Navy, I flew my ship right into the Hyperion ID Grid and brought the vessel to a stop inside, where we could fire at the mutineers through the lattice while being perfectly safe from counter-battery fire, at least if the rebels still wanted to carry out their raid.

So Lahatiel accepted Barakiel as his navigation officer, and he had performed well during the shakedown cruise. Barakiel remembered what happened after the gunner took out the incoming torpedoes.

LAHATIEL: Well done, everyone. Now swing the Big Eye back to where you’re getting the radar pulses, Suriel. We don’t want to miss the rest of the light show. The fighters will come from another direction and home on the enemy’s own radar. The Beaters won’t even know what hit them.

Suriel said that from the pulse rate of the radar that the enemy was about forty thousand kilometers away. So there wasn’t anything to see until two tiny blurred puffballs appeared briefly and faded, only a few minutes apart.

The radio blurted, “Exiler this is Wing zero three one, splash track 4010, splash track 4011, over.”

Lahatiel grabbed a mike out of the overhead clutter.

SURIEL: Wing Zero Three One this is Exiler, acknowledged, thank you, out.

SURIEL: One, two, just like that, and the skirmish is over.

The young female gunner was impressed but to Barakiel it had been all been rather routine. A real test of his abilities was laid out by Asmodeus himself after the incident with the Beaters. The Emperor spoke to Lahatiel and Barakiel alone, with only the patriarch’s son Apollyon present in the throne room.

ASMODEUS: You are ordered to deploy to the asteroid in the Jupiter system designated ‘Green Rock’.”

At that name Lahatiel’s heart skipped a bit, and he almost lurched from his position of attention, fearing he had been unmasked. Asmodeus did not notice this and went on.

ASMODEUS: It seems your characterization of my Navy as having grown slack might be correct. I have lost contact with a destroyer and a cruiser at Green Rock, so I placed it under quarantine until I could find a more competent crew to investigate. You will now do so, Ophan Lahatiel.

LAHATIEL: Yes sire!

ASMODEUS: Your orders are to neutralize the asteroid as a threat to my Navy. Your navigator will find the real-space transit from the Hyperion ID Grid to Green Rock will have been shortened considerably, because the ID Grid is no longer at Hyperion. I am having it moved. This fact is classified at the highest level. Have Erel Barakiel take the acceleration of the ID Grid into account when you return, and your level of propellant. This will define the window of time in which you must carry out your sterilization orders at Green Rock.

Asmodeus dismissed his officers, offering no explanation at all for the movement of the ID Grid.

After a routine ascent to orbit and the ID Grid over Palato the Exiler emerged from the Jovian ID Grid only a few thousand miles away from Green Rock. Asmodeus had obviously timed his deployment orders carefully. Soon Exiler was stationary in the space off the asteroid, which was littered with the debris of Punisher, Chastiser, and the greenhouse. Noriel had come up to the flight deck, and both she and Lahatiel stared at the devastation with sobs and tears. The crew wondered how they could be so moved, emotionally.

LAHATIEL: I’ll take the lander over myself. My wife comes with me. Suriel, you stand well off in Exiler in case there’s a trap.

The interior of the micro-asteroid was still pressurized, and a few electrical panels had little immortal green and red lamps still glowing, but the main lights were not lit. It was gloomy, like entering one’s house at dusk after an extended trip.

No one could be found inside, neither Naseth and his family, Lahatiel’s father Turel, his mother Greidi, not even their dead bodies. As they searched, Lahatiel and Nuriel made their way to the operations center, where a set of four chairs faced a series of panels and monitors. Lahatiel knew the place well. A few instruments still functioned in idle.

Naseth’s log was old school, hand-written. Lahatiel learned then of the raids by first Chastiser, which required three Bulldogs to fend off, and finally Punisher, which cost Starkad the final Bulldog, the greenhouse, and Green Rock’s miniature black hole. But there his log entries ended.

Lahatiel was about to give up and return to his ship when a sphere of gushing water appeared in the center of the room, forcing both he and his sister-wife to close their faceplates before they drowned. Soon the room was completely immersed, making it impossible to open the hatch and escape, because the hatch opened inward. Both of them swam to the center of the sphere because there was little else to do. The universe turned inside out. Then Lahatiel and Nuriel bubbled up to the surface of the Sacred Pool in Canterwood, on Barbelo. The mouth of the wormhole in the Green River Gorge had been temporarily borrowed to allow this transit.

Both Lahatiel and Noriel were overjoyed beyond words to see their parents again, alive, as well as their grandfather Naseth and all the other inhabitants of Green Rock. When things were completely explained to them, they expressed their gratitude to Yeshua for rescuing their kin and giving them a place to live in Haaretz. Turel for his part was moved to tears by pride for his children when he learned that they not only successfully returned the ship to Asmodeus, but Lahatiel had been given Exiler to command as an ophan.

TUREL: Lahatiel, I praise you for your loyalty to our Lord, but I learned just now that Thaumiel is somehow steadily killing both Yeshua Bat-El and his mother El Shaddai. If you remain in the Navy you will be helping him to carry out this murder, which will not only extinguish the lives of two living stars, but also the lives of everyone on the Earth.

LAHATIEL: Father I must confess my loyalty to him is a sham. I did not tell of Green Rock in order to keep you and mother safe from the Eyes of Thaumiel. When I return I propose to maintain the pretense with a false report.

TUREL: And what of the crew of your ship, son, will they not report you to the Eyes?

LAHATIEL: I do not believe they will, Father. I have chosen my crew with extreme care. All of them are extremely good at what they do, but they also have issues with Asmodeus, mostly revolving around the desire to put their loved ones beyond the reach of the Eyes.

YESHUA: Lahatiel, if I offer a safe haven for the dependents of your entire crew, do you think that will suffice to make your loyalty, and theirs, undivided once more, but solely on my behalf and against Thaumiel?

LAHATIEL: I believe it would, Lord, but Asmodeus has spoken of soon sending me after the starship launched by the Beaters from Hybla-Dia. I cannot assure you that I will be ordered by Asmodeus to return to the Sol system, and if I understand things correctly, you cannot create a passage to Barbelo unless we do.

YESHUA: There is one other way. Asmodeus has shown favor to you because you remind him of another man that he admires very much named Ithuriel. I cannot say too much, because if I do the path forward will be lost, but I can say that you will be ordered to meet this Ithuriel, and if you can deflect his loyalty away from Thaumiel even as your loyalty and the loyalty of your crew has turned, then it will be possible to take your loved ones far beyond the reach of the Eyes.

To this Lahatiel agreed.

Returning to the ship was easy, Lahatiel and Nuriel simply dove toward the bottom of the Sacred Pool and were ejected in a cloud of ice crystals near the ship, where they could be grappled by the engineer and hauled aboard.

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

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

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

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

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

Asmodeus is pleased at the results of this test.

ASMODEUS: Before the Eyes I declare Ophan Lahatiel to be the Hand of Thaumiel, even as Zadkiel was once the Mouth of Thaumiel. When you do a thing, Lahatiel, it shall be as though I had done it. When you say a thing, it shall be as though I had said it.

LAHATIEL (kneeling): My Lord grants to his servant a great honor!

Naturally this set the Eyes of Thaumiel murmuring among themselves again.

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

LAHATIEL: Yes, Lord, he is a nephil from Earth, yet years ago he placed himself entirely under your command. It is this Ithuriel who brought you the secret of the macro which powers Exiler and lies at the heart of her torpedoes.

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

LAHATIEL: What are my orders, Sire?

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

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

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

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