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.

After Edgar Shybear provided Sartael with the specifications and procedures for copying the Golden Gift, it would take nearly a year for the engineering division on Palato to get tooled up to produce them. In the meantime the High Lord Patriarch took Edgar into his household as an adopted son.

The four widows of the late, unlamented Hogarth were also taken into Sartael’s household, but only as servants. They were ordered to provide Edgar any service that he wished or needed, except (and they were strongly counseled on this point) for the one thing a healthy young man of his tender years really wanted and thought he really needed.

Since Edgar was not emancipated under the law of Mastema, he was not required to attend weekly worship.

Worship among the White Beards did not carry the same meaning that it did on Earth. There was something more direct and honest about it. Edgar learned the essence of Mastema worship from reading the sacred scriptures of House Gerash:

Five days are appointed, with names after the names of the Five Families. They are Larunday, Anteroday, Bellonday, Saladay, and Gerashday.

Three days you shall eat, on Larunday, Anteroday, and Bellonday, and on the fourth day, or Saladay, you shall eat a double portion. But on the fifth day, or Gerashday you shall eat nothing, and drink only water. For this is the fast appointed by Mastema. Only soldiers on campaign are exempted from the Fast of Mastema on Gerashday.

Three days you shall work, and the income thereof shall be for your own use. Saladay you shall work also, but the income thereof shall be for the temple.

But Gerashday is the day of worship, you shall not work on that day, neither you nor your whole household.

On that day you shall enter the Temple of Mastema if you dwell nigh to the Mountain of Mastema in the Middle Land, or you shall enter the local shrine of Mastema if you dwell in the colonies in the Westlands and Eastlands or far away from the Mountain of Mastema in the Middle Kingdom.

There on Gerashday you shall worship Mastema. None shall be exempted. The elderly or infirm shall be transported to worship Mastema by their families. Only soldiers on campaign shall be waived from worshiping Mastema on the fifth day.

And this is the essence of worship: You shall give one-fourth of your income to Mastema. A holy priest of Mastema shall receive your worship on behalf of Mastema.

And the procedure for worshiping Mastema shall be to present to the priest your worship card made of crackerwood sealed in a leather pouch, together with all the money you have earned on Saladay.

The priest shall inspect the seal, unwrap the worship card, and inspect the pattern of recent punches. If the money and the punches are in order, the priest shall make a new punch using one of five different punches drawn by lots, a star, a square, a triangle, a circle, or a rectangle.

Then he shall store the worship card back in the leather pouch, add a seal, and return it to the worshiper, but the money he will put in the temple treasury.

Women however, shall not worship, nor shall a woman be found in the Temple of Mastema nor any shrine of Mastema, upon pain of death. Neither shall a woman or a girl be permitted to earn income. The head of a household shall count a boy’s income as his own for worship purposes.

If a man’s worship card is falsely punched, and it is proven that he did not worship by consulting the temple accounting books, that man shall be put to death.

If any man loses his worship card and no audit is pending, then there is no guilt; the man’s worship card shall be replaced.

But if a priest of Mastema suspects wrongdoing and requests to examine a man’s worship card, and the man claims it is lost, then his guilt shall be assumed; he shall be put to death.

Sixty-four punches shall fill the worship card. In the five festival days of New Card Week the priests of Mastema shall issue new worship cards. New Card Week shall be a time of re-dedication to Mastema, and the new year shall be met with fresh hearts.

Employers shall send to the Temple or to the local shrines of Mastema information on the wages of every man and boy in their employ. The priests of Mastema shall use this information to ensure that each man is worshiping Mastema in the correct amount.

For Mastema knows that men are faithless and weak and do not always seek to conform with the will of Mastema in all things. That is why the Eyes of Mastema must always keep watch. They are the sentries of the priesthood of Mastema.

The House of Gerash was indeed organized as something of a republic, as High Lord Patriarch once indicated to Queen Aurra at her council.The Middle Land was divided into three provinces, and the whole land of occupied House Bellon to the west was taken to be the fourth. In two thousand years the ice bridge that had separated Rumbek from Salem had melted away, leaving no physical barrier between the White Beards and the Brown Beards they had conquered.

Each one of the four provinces was governed by a Popular Assembly comprised of three Freelords and one Lord Advocate, except Mastema Province, where the High Lord Patriarch presided in place of the Lord Advocate. The Popular Assemblies conducted the daily business of the Republic.

The four provinces were further divided into three departments each. Twelve Freelords, with one vote each, presided as chief judges over their own departments and voted with the Lord Advocates to elect the successor to the High Lord Patriarch in the event of his death. Inevitably their choice became possessed by Mastema (or by that entity that still called itself Mastema) so the whole affair amounted to a hereditary monarchy in substance.

Freelords were elected by the people, directly.

The Lord Advocates had two votes each. One Freelord in cahoots with the Lord Advocate could dominate the Popular Assembly. Conversely, all three Freelords arrayed against a Lord Advocate could swing the province their way.

In the State Council, which conducted war and distributed taxes, the Lord Advocates only had a single vote. The High Lord Patriarch had two votes as the Head of State, except in the event of the passing of a Lord Advocate, and electing a new Lord Advocate from among the Freelords, when the Gerash Patriarch only had a single vote to prevent a tie.

One Lord Advocate allied with the High Lord Patriarch could sway the State Council. Alternatively, all three Lord Advocates combined against the High Lord Patriarch could steer things their way, at least on paper. Generally it was not a healthy thing to do so. The dreaded Eyes of Mastema, the secret police, served only the current incarnation of their god.

In the theoretical republic of White Beards, every citizen was theoretically on a level one with another. In practice, some citizens were more equal than others.

The right to elect freelords was conditioned on military service, either in the Army, the Eyes, or more recently the space-going Navy of Mastema. And military service in the House of Gerash was a twisted combination of incest, polygamy, and an ancient, pervasive death cult.

When a boy reached the Age of Initiation and chose to serve Mastema in the armed forces, he entered the rites of the Cupel system of testing. Under the Rites he wagered his sister in a ritual fight to the death with another boy. This combat was called Laraji. The boy who survived Laraji took the sister of his opponent, and his own sister, to be his wives. And he became one of the ishim in the lower echelon of the armed forces of Mastema. Later the ish could advance to malak and even ravmalak based on his valor in combat.

Mastema didn’t set this up on a mere whim. There was a certain logic to the system. The incest brought out to the surface any genetic defects, and the death combat eliminated the boys who carried those defects. After two thousand years of this artificially accelerated evolution the people of Barbelo had diverged sharply from the humans of Sol. Mastema now called his people the nephilim. They were not truly a separate species from man, for they could still interbreed, but the nephilim were well embarked on the road to speciation.

If a ravmalak desired to attain to the middle echelon of the forces of Mastema he was required to wager his two wives against the wives of another ravmalak in the second ritual killing of the Cupel system of testing. The man who survived the second Laraji took the two wives of his opponent, and retained his own two wives. He was called a sar in the middle echelon, and again he could advance to erel and hashmal based on his valor in combat.

If a hashmal desired to attain to the upper echelon he was required wager his own four wives against the four wives of another hashmal in the third and highest ritual killing of the Cupel system of testing. The man who survived the third Laraji took the wives of his opponent, and retained his own wives, for a grand total of eight wives. And he became an ophan in the upper echelon of the armed forces of Mastema. The way was clear for him to advance to cherub and even seraph based on his valor in combat.

For the span of time that Edgar lived as a son in the house of Sartael there were many opportunities for candidates of every rank to advance based on meritorious service, for it was an eventful year.

The Beaters started throwing rocks. In a devastating large-scale surprise attack, the Beaters caused a large meteor to all but destroy Dartarus in the eastern kingdom of the Gerash Middle Lands. This was a city of three hundred thousand people which lay on the southern shore of the estuary of the river Kelang, where it flowed into the Eastern Sea.

At the same time, they invaded Palato and took possession of it. They were able to do this because Sartael had chosen to take nearly the entire Navy deep into the Eggbeater in a show of force to remind the colonists there of their obligations under the True Religion.

The avatar of Mastema remained, and took to the skies of Palato, but Mastema could do very little. The Beaters used the largely Gerash population of Palato as nephilim shields to protect their ships and ground forces from retaliation. Some of these captives were the wives of Hogarth. Edgar Shybear was not present, he had gone along with the fleet as an observer.

The grounded and camouflaged Beater ships, reduced now to little more than expensive pillboxes, beat off several attempts at orbit-to-surface precision strikes against them. Finally Mastema withdrew his avatar to provide cover when the first elements of his navy returned from the Eggbeater.

With his avatar, Mastema could repel any ship-to-ship attack, but the gun and rocket emplacements clustered all over Palato took a terrible toll on the warships when they drew near.

Still, a sufficiently large fraction of them survived to enable a counter- invasion of Palato with infantry. The Beaters succeeded in burning their ships before the Army of Mastema could seize them, and the surviving attackers took to the hills in vacuum suits.

In Beater propaganda, they claimed that more Gerash cities would now be destroyed in retaliation for the Patriarch’s attempt to reclaim Palato by force. In reality, the meteoroids had been set in motion weeks before, because Mastema was utterly predicable.

The cities of Ganelon and Sastrom in the mountainous areas of the central Middle Lands were subsequently destroyed. The nephilim of the city of Mastema fled into the countryside in a great panic, for they could only be next on the Beater target list.

Although none of the other families had been threatened by the Beaters, Family Sala considered themselves safe due to a fundamental change that had been initiated by Queen Aurra two millennia prior. The people were reorganized into “Faith Communities” of about twenty-five people each, spaced at regular intervals across the plain irrigated by the river Loenna. Each Faith Community was self-supporting in most things, and for those goods they could not obtain, they would trade with neighbor cells.

The entire nation had abandoned urban conglomeration and spread itself out so thinly and evenly there remained no viable targets to hit. A meteor would destroy at most a handful of random Faith Communities. It was also not lost on Family Sala that they were similarly protected from Mastema’s nuclear weapons. They farmed the breadbasket of Barbelo and embraced Talishi as a feminine creative spirit, having turned their back on Mastema worship once and for all.

There was little Mastema could do to reverse what Queen Aurra had done at the behest of Talishi. Family Sala remained quite capable of defending their lands fiercely through guerrilla warfare, yet there were no high-value targets the Gerash Patriarch could threaten to extort compliance. The best he could hope for was to contain the spread of Talishism, and prevent the concept of Faith Communities from taking hold in the other families. But in years to come there were many secret adherents of Talishi among the nephilim, even in the upper ranks of Mastema’s military forces.

Aided by the strikes from orbit, the citizens of Palato revolted from Beater occupation and pursued the invaders into the rugged mountains between the major settlements. Remnants of the Beater forces were hunted down for months. Some vengeful men who had lost entire families in the strikes on Barbelo sought Beater stragglers out personally and devised particularly gruesome forms of justice.

Yet there would be many more Beater attacks, and still more cities would be destroyed. In time it was begrudged to the Salas that their strategy of radical decentralization was probably the wisest course.

The extended period of general peace that had existed since the Techno War was transformed into the Long War as House Gerash settled down to an endless period of low-level conflict against the Beaters, punctuated by brief spasms of total chaos. Under these circumstances the existence of the Imperial Navy and the harsh Cupel system of military training he had decreed was more than justified. And that suited Mastema just fine.