TC57

A day after departing the double moon Rhene-Minos the navigation officer Erel Barakiel reported, “We have achieved synchronous orbit over the city of Xanthos, sir.”

Suriel was summoned from a nap back to her station on the flight-deck, where she focused the big imported 500mm Fairchild refractor down onto the city and threw the image up on the main viewport’s liquid crystal layer.

Lahatiel climbed down into the locked lander with Elimelech and prepared for separation. A series of thumps announced their departure. The time of flight to the surface was about an hour. Several domes on the outskirts of Xanthos, separated from the main city, were landing bays for ships.

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

Standing outside the lander after they both emerged, Elimelech shook hands with Lahatiel and thanked him for his role in securing his freedom. “I did not trust you at first but now I believe you are a good nephil, Ophan.”

“Thank you, Elimelech. I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elimelech laughed. “That is the very dome I marked for him as the secret heart of power in Xanthos.”

“As payment for your reprieve?”

Elimelech nodded. “Obviously the Emperor has decided he must flatten a Xanthos dome, any dome, to quiet the nobility on Barbelo. If he happens to take out Cabala Dome, the stronghold of his own accursed loyalists, so much the better.”

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

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

“But alternatively, Elimelech, it may be that this ophan is rallying the Jetrel loyalists even as we speak.”

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

“The command is now given, but do not use members of your family and do not go yourself. Send someone you can trust, Eli, yet someone it would not upset you too much to die as a martyr for our Cause in the very likely event Asmodeus does something rash. As for the ophan, do not kill him.”

“Do not kill him?”

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

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

Presently a convoy of ground vehicles went out from the Gnome Dome led by one of Elimelech’s more aggressive captains, and this movement was registered in the corner of Hashmal Suriel’s eye.

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

All of these maneuvers were tabulated by Suriel’s mind as she watched from above, which gradually built up for her a gestalt impression. Back on Palato Asmodeus had doubted his son Apollyon that Elimelech could be followed through the city from a warship in orbit, but Asmodeus had no idea Suriel could do it in this unique way.

“I know which dome the ringleader is in,” she finally said after a solid hour of watching the screen. Suriel spoke with a shaky confidence she knew would quickly erode if anyone pressed her to prove it. She went to Adnarel’s fire control gear and selected a nondescript dome three rings in from the southwest edge and painted a red video smudge on it with her finger against the touch-sensitive screen.

“That’s perfect,” Adnarel said, studying the image at her own fire-control station. “I can come up this canyon at eye level, right between these domes here and here, Hashmal. There won’t even be collateral damage.”

“Commence your attack, Sar Adnarel.”

“Yes ma’am.” Adnarel did not feel the slightest twinge of remorse that she was about to kill a thousand people. Guilt was not listed in her position description.

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

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

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

“But enough about me,” Orus said. “It has been several weeks since an actual tourist has dared to show his face here, and it’s especially heartening to see a tourist in uniform.”

“I imagine times have been tough, especially after the Great Ones officially shunned this place.” Lahatiel could see that Orus seemed to find comfort in his presence.

Orus said, “It’s this damn impatience for the Emperor to change his policy about letting us go home. They pushed it and pushed it, some people got abducted, some people got killed, and all they really did was pushed most of the tourists right out of here.”

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

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

“Surely this anti-Asmodeus sentiment isn’t taken up by everyone in Xanthos.”

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

“Don’t they realize if they draw too deeply from the well their whole parasitical structure will come crashing down, and you their hosts along with it?”

“Since when has prudent foresight been a characteristic of organized crime?” Orus saw something over Lahatiel’s shoulder and fell silent, immediately regretting being so free with information to the ophan. He tried to slink away as Iron Fist soldiers entered en masse and cordoned off the gallery of shops.

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

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

He was beaten and bruised as well, but Lahatiel was glad the boy was still alive. “I’m Ophan Lahatiel Gerash of His Majesty’s Navy, at your service.”

“I am called Hadraniel, sir.”

“Your father will be pleased to see you again, young Hadraniel. The Imperial Observatory will be my very next stop.”

The boy’s face fell after an initial show of excitement. “What are the chances of that ever happening?”

“They are far better than you think right now,” he said, assuring both him and Orus. “The thing has already been set in motion.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know these people, I take it,” Lahatiel said, grinning at Orus.

“Ophan, this is Freelord Jetrel, the head of his titular clan.”

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

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

“It’s just the Iron Fist bitter-enders,” remarked Orus when Lahatiel and Hadraniel prepared to enter the lander while sporadic gunfire continued outside. “They saw the destruction of Gnome Dome and realized they had nowhere to go. A whole city is out for their blood.”