50 – SARTAEL
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.
51 – THE ARK
One time when Kim Lokken was fourteen she was picked up at school at mid-morning by an elder of the End Dome Church and driven home, but he wouldn’t say what was wrong. When she got home her mother was crying, and of course Kim started to cry in sympathy before Clara even said a word. After a while Clara looked directly at her daughter. She was immersed in grief and too horrified to face blurting it out to her, but finally she wailed, “Kim, your father is dead!”
Then Kim’s tears welled from her own red hot pain and not merely from empathy with her mother’s grief. They both cried until there was nothing more to give, and when Kim’s eyes were dry she was still wracked by dry sobs and whimpers that trailed off at length to silence. After an hour of this she started to speak. “Why?” she asked, over and over again until her mother came clean.
Peter Two Feathers had explained everything to her. For years he had lent the Golden Gift to Erik at night to honeycomb the land under Franklin and the surrounding area with tunnels to access the coal. This was the bread and butter of the whole town. But overnight there had been a cave-in that smashed his helmet lantern, plunging him into total darkness, and he couldn’t dig his way out, even with the Golden Gift, because he got turned around somehow and was boring deeper into the mountain rather than back the way he came. As Erik made a greater volume of space to walk in, the air he had was stretched too thin to breathe, not to mention the suction losses through the Golden Gift itself.
It wasn’t until well past dawn that miners with picks and shovels broke through the cave-in and reached Erik’s body. Peter assured Clara that he died without injury or pain. He simply fell asleep and never woke up again.
As for Peter, while he mourned the death of Erik he was more troubled that the men who retrieved Erik’s body were also members of the Church, and it was impossible to hide the fact that Erik had been in possession of the Golden Gift, which was the most sacred End Dome relic. This was already causing unquiet among the faithful. Peter Hansen, his chosen Apostle from the White Wing, was starting to make a bid to unseat Peter before his time.
Children weren’t supposed to be confronted with death so early. Kim thought about her own death. She wondered what it was like for her father at that moment, and if there really was an afterlife. If there was not a second life, then her father didn’t even know he was dead. He didn’t know that he had ever lived and married Clara and fathered Kim. So what was the point of doing anything? The End Dome Church was supposed to have the answers to all these questions, but what if they were wrong? Added to her personal grief, all these thoughts were intolerable to Kim.
She didn’t go to school for a week. Sofie and Dory came over after a couple days to see if she was well. She was not well, but their visit lifted Kim from her grief a microscopic bit, and Clara saw that. When Sofie’s mother came to pick her up, Clara asked her to stay until Dory’s parents came as well, because she wanted to ask all of them something.
“The funeral for Kim’s father will be this weekend,” she said when they were all together. “I’d like to take Sofie and Dory to be with Kim when we go.”
“I don’t know,” Sofie’s mother demurred. “These are just fourteen year old girls, and a funeral is a pretty solemn thing.”
“Besides,” Dory’s father added, “this should be a private family time for you and Kim.”
“That’s precisely the thing,” my mother replied. “We have no family here in Franklin. My parents are back East and my husband was a sort of black sheep in his own family. We’ve never been close to them. Kim has taken the death of her father very hard, but when Sofie and Dory came over to see us today there was a visible improvement in Kim. I could see it come right out to light up her eyes again. That’s when I realized, Sofie and Dory are Kim’s real family.”
“Clara, I still don’t think a funeral is something little girls should see,” Sofie’s mother insisted.
“And they won’t see the actual Rites. Not even Kim will see that. Look, my husband is dead. I have to go lay him to rest, and I have to bring Kim. And I think she needs to be with her best friends right now.”
In the end they consented to let the girls remain together for the weekend.
For Clara this was her first time to see the Golden Gift in action, the central mystery and devotion of the End Dome Church.
The children were not allowed to attend the actual ceremony upstairs in the Temple Sanctuary, and it would have been unseemly to run around and play while Kim’s father was sent to his long home, along with five others from across the globe. So they sat around in the Temple basement getting quite bored as volunteers prepared the Banquet of God for a thousand parishioners.
Jerry Shybear joined them after breaking away from a group of boys smoking outside. The original Shy Bear had been his grandfather and he seemed to know a lot of secrets about the Temple. Jerry led the girls into a gigantic supply room which wasn’t locked, and they went along because there was nothing else to do.
There was no electric light within, only a window with blinds, and since they were in Washington State it was gloomy outside, so it was even gloomier inside. There was an old piano which was probably broken, a map of the Green River Gorge area, and heaps of the sort of things one would find in a church: old hymnals, stacks of old bulletins, and dozens of folding chairs. The children could hear organ music and the vocal choir bleeding through the ceiling from the main Sanctuary upstairs.
There was End Dome scrapbook albums, End Dome cookbooks, End Dome paints and brushes, End Dome wood carvings, End Dome homespun, and broken End Dome furniture.
Sofie found an End Dome walking stick made from a gnarled old piece of wood and shifted it from hand to hand to get the feel of it.
One of the walls was unfinished, and Jerry moved aside a piece of plywood to reveal another dark space beyond. It was so black inside it drank the vision like a sponge. “I’ve never been in there,” he said.
None of the girls wanted to go in there but Jerry dared them to go, so naturally Sofie was the first one through. Then Jerry followed her to show he wasn’t afraid. Dory and Kim were both afraid of the dark hole, and they were not afraid to show it, but they didn’t want to be left behind so they squeezed in after them.
It was too dark to see, but Jerry, a smoker at age fourteen, lit a series of matches, which only lasted a few seconds. This gave him time to find an ancient dusty candle, and he lit that. After that the kids had a little bit of light and they could see where they were.
There wasn’t a tile floor. Just natural stone and dirt, and a sort of stone “igloo” in the center of a circle of stones.
This was the cairn of the Ark of the Covenant in its original state, resting on the very summit of End Dome. The structure was completely unmolested. Superstition overcame Prophet Lange and the Apostle Malekwa at the end, it seemed. They built the whole Temple right over the top of the cairn, as if to hide it.
There was even a little commemorative mouse. Dory and Kim screamed together when they saw it.
Without a word Sofie let her cane fly in an arc over her head, and she brought it down, hoping to scare the mouse away. She ended up hitting the mouse instead, with a lucky shot.
“This is a church right? So there’s your church mouse.”
“You crippled it,” Dory observed, shifting instantly from fear to maternal concern. It was in obvious pain and tried to stagger away.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Sofie replied.
They all took a closer look at the creature. The head of the mouse was misshapen. There was a huge white bump on the back that was nearly as large as the mouse’s head itself. Dory said, “Look what you did, Sofie! Look at that bump!”
“That isn’t from anything I did,” Sofie insisted. She put the end of her cane directly over the head of the crippled creature and pressed down hard to finish it off. “And I don’t want it to suffer. This is better.”
“Now what do we do with it?” Kim asked, disgusted by the sight of the dead creature with what looked to be a flat furry coin where its head had been. The bump was still intact, but no one knew what it was.
Sofie scratched the bare ground with the cane and dug a little trench. When it was deep enough Sofie slid the mouse in with her foot, and then both she and Jerry kicked dirt over it and stamped it down to finish the job.
“Now if you ladies will join me,” Jerry said, “I want to find out what’s in that pile of rocks.” He went to the cairn and began trying to pull one of the stones loose.
Jerry wasn’t making much headway. Hunky offered what little help she could, and one of the stones slowly gave way like a hinged door. They moved it aside just enough that they could squeeze inside the stone igloo one at a time.
This was it, the Holy of Holies, the very tippy-top of End Dome hill where the Ark of the Covenant lay in its original position. The children gasped at the beauty of the artifact.
The golden exterior surface of the Ark was dotted with thousands of tiny holes. Some of these holes had spines sticking out of them, like the needles of a cactus.
Kim put an index finger close to a part of the Ark that was needle-free, and that was something that she ought not have done. There was a sound like a short squirt of steam and her fingertip was instantly skewered. She pulled away involuntarily before the pain even registered. “Ahhh! Dammit!”
After that the golden Ark sported one more extruded spine from its surface.
Dory was a little smarter. She grabbed a pencil out of her purse and leaned over the black sphere with the eraser tip prudently standing in for her finger. She verified the Ark was still active and just as nasty.
Jerry thought about kicking it, but a glance at his thin moccasins led him to change his mind. So it was a mystery. Best leave it at that.
Sofie was the only one who was not afraid. She allowed her own finger to be skewered by the Ark and said to Kim, “Whatever trouble you’re in for getting stabbed by this thing, I’m in the same trouble.” And so she had her final victory over Jerry in the test of courage.
After that Kim, Jerry and Dory all shook their heads and slid back out of the stone cairn. But when Dory and Kim were outside they heard another sound and both of them froze. One of the elders of the Church was standing in the storage room cocking his ears to listen. All of the kids held their breath and tried not to make a sound. The deacon looked into the dark gap and could just make out two silhouettes.
“Get out of there!” he yelled, exploding in anger. With red faces Jerry, Kim, Hunky and Dory scrambled out of the hole, then out of the supply room, and sat down in a corner of the basement lunchroom. The deacon locked the supply room tight, and after that it would always remained locked so as long as the Temple stood, which wasn’t to be for much longer.
When Kim saw her mother again during the meal after the ceremony she was somehow different. Kim could see she wasn’t mourning my father anymore. “It’s all true, Kim,” she said with her soft lisping voice. “Everything in the Endomion, it’s all true.”
Of course Clara had always believed what she was taught with the ears of faith, but now she had seen the Golden Gift work with her own eyes and she came away with an unshakable bedrock foundation of belief she would carry with her until her own end. And that was precisely the intended effect of the Last Rite.
A week after that, Kim and Sophie both came down with the same disease as that little church mouse. They got matching little bumps at the base of their necks.
52 – MYTHOS
Talishi’s party had nearly completed the descent of the Wall of God on the Catwalk. Only about a thousand feet of vertical distance remained. But no one let their guard down just yet. That thousand feet was still perfectly fatal.
On the final afternoon they arrived at a section of the Catwalk that Bayard called “problematic”. It had been damaged somehow, perhaps in a quake, and for nearly a mile it had become no wider than a toehold. But there were steel pitons already pounded into the rock ready for them to snap brass carabiners and sling ropes.
By some quirk of fate or baronic contrivance Victoria was next in line after the Bayard. He said to her, “Talishi calls you one of the B’nei Elohim, yet I know almost nothing about them. Can you tell me more, or is it some sort of divine secret?”
“There are some things about us we may never reveal,” Victoria said, “but what I can tell I will. The most important thing is that we are a family, one big unruly but mostly loving family with the usual family squabbles.”
“Then are you noble born?”
“Not in the way you are royalty, Baron, as the son of Queen Aurra. In a real sense we would be considered nothing more than common folk here.”
Victoria did not know that was precisely what she needed to say to raise Bayard’s interest level in her to eleven. Still, Bayard wanted to test that. “And yet you can fly. Some say you are demigods, which would make you far greater than royalty.”
“I can fly, that is true, but it’s not on account of something innate to me, to my body. For all practical purposes, it’s nothing more than a magic trick.”
Applause and cheering broke out on the line ahead of them on the Catwalk. Lady Talishi had successfully traversed the broken portion to safety on the other side.
“And our foe, this woman Joy, is she also B’nei Elohim?”
“She is one of us, and that is what I alluded to when I mentioned family squabbles. Some of us have removed themselves to the camp of the enemy.”
“And the way she controls the dragon, is that another magic trick?”
“More trick than magic,” Victoria said. “Neither we nor the Elohim that we serve hold the supernatural realm to be real. So call it a holy deception.”
“The House of Sala has also dabbled in the same sort of thing,” Bayard said. “When the gods of Earth first brought people to live in Haaretz, the Gold Beards feared that many of them would sail west across Thalury and make their homes in our ancestral lands. We sought to discourage that, so we spread a tale among them that the world was constructed like a stair, and the Wall of God was but the second of many such awesome barriers. We told them another wall existed to the west, and Thalury tumbled over this step in a bottomless cataract.
“We went on to tell them that from the beginning of days sailors heeded the divine injunctions of all the Elohim never to sail out of sight of Haaretz, lest they meet the edge and fall over it. We made the claim that so rigidly was this law observed that if any sea captain captain, drunk or otherwise, steered his ship such that the land of Haaretz faded from view, it was cause for the crew to mutiny and throw the captain overboard. No such crew returning to port ever faced punishment.
“And the story contained a warning that went something like this: In the fullness of time King Ravenmaster was put to death. It was the days of the revolution in the ancient kingdom of Kurgan, when the union of loosely-united city-states known as the Saiph League was born, and many of the laws established by the Elohim were overthrown.
“‘Reason’ reigned supreme, and when time was ripe seamen were found to man two ships, sailors who were willing to disregard the divine warning never to sail out of the sight of land. Such was the rebellious mindset of the men of the Saiph League that it never occurred to them the gods issued their commandment for the safety of mariners.
“Instead, there were rumors of yet another land far in the west, a choice land the Elohim created for their own enjoyment, a beautiful realm filled with gold, rich in abundant fruit, and the divine prohibition was to keep this land from being despoiled by mere mortals.
“The two ships commissioned by the revolutionaries were Will O’ The Whisp and Fire of the Covenant. They drifted in the current with sails unfurled. After two days, the dark line that was Haaretz could no longer be seen in the east, and some of the sailors shuddered, for the tradition was deeply embedded within them.
“And their fears proved more than superstition, for one night after about a week underway the lookout in the highest mast of Fire of the Covenant screamed that the horizon ahead was closing in on them. There was a sharp edge to the sea!
“Captain Dogtrapper signaled with lamps to Will O’ The Whisp that he was raising his sails and turning back. Captain Skulldagger aboard the Will didn’t follow suit until it was too late. With billowing sails Fire of the Covenant barely escaped, but the current became too strong for her sister ship. In short order she was seen to tip over the edge and was never seen again.”
By a strange coincidence Baron Bayard slipped off the Catwalk just then and screamed. Victoria pushed her nose into the wall of the Sacred Cliff, resisting the urge to fly after him, since it would be as useless as her attempt to save Aliwe. But Bayard’s fall was arrested by the ropes, as they were intended to do.
When he had been hauled back up, and had recovered enough that his voice had steadied, Victoria begged him to continue his story again. Or his meta-story, his story about a story that had been told to the Israelite colonists in Haaretz to keep them from sailing to the lands of the House of Sala.
“’Will ‘O’ The Whisp had indeed fallen over the edge of the world,” he said. “For not far away from Haaretz the sea poured over a great cataract, an infinite waterfall. For days the ship fell partially submerged within these waters, which had become a vertical sheet.
“The crew found they had no weight, they floated freely, and some floated far away from the ship. Winds eventually broke the sheet into globes of water, ranging in size from a man’s head to the size of a barn. Fish were seen swimming in some of these spheres of water, and when the food aboard ship ran out these fish provided the only source of food. There was no thirst, for Thalury was a freshwater sea, always replenished every few thousand years by comet-fall.
“As the crew continued to fall, the black underside of the world became visible overhead and the doomed crew could see that the warnings were true, the world was indeed a vast stair.
“The eternal winds blew the globes of water further and further apart, and the heat of the day caused them to slowly evaporate. One day none of the water globes which remained near the ship contained any fish, and the men began to starve. Thoughts of killing each other for meat crossed their mind, but by the time they were desperate enough to act, they were too weak to successfully attack each other or do anything more than moan pitifully.
“Then came the final week, when they passed away one by one, according to their remaining strength.
“But the story we told them didn’t end there,” Bayard told Victoria. “We said that when human beings die in Haaretz they find themselves resurrected on the rim of the Wall of God, where they wait for a ship to carry them across yet another sea that lies east of the rim.
“The dead people atop the wall can hear voices upon the winds of Haaretz through a trick of reflecting sound. Ever they walk the ramparts, hoping to hear their loved ones. When they do hear their name it is bittersweet, for they find their friends and loved ones have soon forgotten them and moved on. The more famed a person was in their life, the more fragments they hear, so they linger a while more. The humble accept the truth sooner. It’s really all about letting go.
“But there are always the dummies at far end of the bell curve, and firmly anchored there was Captain Skulldagger, captain of the Will o’ the Whisp. To this very day the shade of this infamous captain is still standing on the rim of the Wall of God waiting for his name to be heard once more as the story of his voyage was retold, just as I have told it once more to you.
“But Skulldagger notwithstanding, at length almost all the dead come off the precipice and rest on the lawn behind it before the Upper Sea, waiting for a white ship to come and take them east to an unknown destiny. The Talishite priestesses who attend them always refuse to speak of their final fate, and only say to them, ‘Great gifts are sweeter when they are but revealed in their fulfillment unspoiled by hasty tidings.’”
Within twenty years all the members of Captain Skulldaggers’s ill-fated crew passed east across the Upper Sea, or leaped from the rim to a more permanent death, but the captain alone remained. For he had attained a form of immortality through infamy, and never a day passed but that his name was spoken aloud by someone far below in Haaretz with a shudder as the story of the Will ‘O’ The Whisp is told to yet another generation. The sound of his name is carried aloft to the rim, and he savors it.’”
When Baron Bayard finished telling his story, Victoria began to see a glimmer of how she could see the way through to loving this man. He was strong and essentially kind, and more important than that, he was interesting.
After everyone had survived the rope traverse the Catwalk became much wider and safer, but their journey began to be slowed by the presence of many blown-down trees which had been knocked over recently in a storm and lay directly across the trail. Sometimes they could roll over them, but other times they had to crawl under them, which was exhausting work, and they could not avoid getting their clothing soiled.
The fearsome cliff under the Catwalk came to an end, and became a normal slope.
The company entered a small stand of fat virgin trees that draped the slope down to the bottom, and here the character of the journey changed dramatically. Victoria thought it was a magic place that had escaped the ax in the first, second, and third waves of cutting from Wazol, as though by an oversight.
After that they reached a large outcropping of stone that Bayard called Picture Buttress. It offered a marvelous view to a forest glade below. Victoria thought it was beautiful but still dangerous. The trail actually wrapped around the parapet here, and a thoughtful person, probably Bayard on his journey long ago, had provided a rope for each of them to hold on to.
They passed a large duckpond so serene that it reflected the sky and the branches of the trees above the water like a mirror. The trail skirted the edge of this pond with a small but calm diversion before resuming its course.
“It’s going to be a little rough going here,” Bayard said, plowing through prickly Mastema’s Club and bidding Victoria to trust him. The route was flagged with orange and black ribbons. “Not many people know about this trail. Those of us who do know of it use it and we maintain it but we don’t fully connect it anywhere.”
And finally the Catwalk ended ignomiously in some poor old man’s back backyard in the city of Wazol.
He was tending his garden and shrugged as one hundred forty people tramped through his property and went out the side gate to the front of his house to reach a city street.
“Where do we go next?” asked the Baron.
“Victoria knows,” said Lady Talishi with a smile revealing her awareness that Vic had spoken to a living Aliwe. “Menkant. Then Joy and her dragon will come to us.”
53 – PROBATION
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.
54 – ISLE OF WIGHT
Lilith Gervasi was an English Jew and an eighteen-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. She did not sleep nights anymore, not even a year after the War. Instead she stayed wide awake, watching the coast with her war surplus Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle for Nazis who would never come. She suffered terribly from something 21st Century doctors would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
One instant Lilith was scanning the beach in front of St. Catherine’s lighthouse on the Isle of Wight. The next instant a woman appeared.
The manner of the woman’s appearance was entirely out of the ordinary, Lilith thought. Then again, so was standing watch all night every night. Lilith realized it was possible she wasn’t entirely sane.
The female was not a Nazi, but Lilith wasn’t taking chances, not after what she had suffered. She fired a round into the air from fifty yards to get the lady’s attention and advanced closer. The strange woman had white hair, but despite that she looked to be rather young, perhaps only thirty years of age.
The woman watched Lilith draw near with the rifle but she could not put her hands over her head because she was nursing a baby. When they were close enough together that they could comfortably speak the woman said, “Please don’t shoot again. As you can see I have a baby.”
“Who are you?” Lilith demanded. “You don’t sound remotely English.”
“My name is Talishi,” she said. “And you are correct, I am not from your country at all. I am from somewhere very far away.”
Lilith’s rifle dropped a bit from its sight-line on Talishi’s’s head. It was now aimed at her heart. Lilith said, “So what are you doing here? And how did you get here?”
“I am here to meet someone,” Talishi said. “As for how I arrived, I could explain it to you, but you would think me entirely balmy, rather than just yourself.”
Lilith lowered the rifle to point at the ground between them, and there was the faintest glimmer of a smile. “Why did you bring a baby?”
“This is my beloved newborn daughter Del,” Talishi said. “I’m so madly in love with her I never let her out of my sight.”
That was enough. Lilith unchambered the round and slung her rifle over her back.
It was pre-dawn, and in the gloomy light that was beginning to gather, Talishi could take a better look at Lilith. The girl had just reached adulthood, but there was an aged look in her hollow eyes, as though she had already lived four lifetimes, and it haunted Talishi. A kind of Darwinian process in the camps had produced a girl who was able to outwit, bribe, or intimidate anyone to get what she needed to survive. Talishi saw the results right on Lilith’s surface. “Do you live here, at the lighthouse?”
Lilith nodded. The work camps had emaciated her body, and when she returned home to the Isle of Wight and was fed by her father, the weight came back in the form of strong, wiry muscles. She was eighteen but looked twice that. “My father is here, she said. “He operates the lighthouse and runs a weather outstation.”
“I should like to meet him,” Talishi said.
Lilith spat at the ground. “He has sold his life to the Goy and betrayed the promise of God that our people should rule Palestine.”
“When you say your nation,” Talishi said, “I know you are not speaking of England, Lilith Gervasi. You are a member of a people whose very right to exist is always being questioned.”
Lilith’s eyes narrowed at Talishi. “How do you know my name?”
“I know many things about you, Lilith. I know that your father rendered a service to the Crown that went far beyond the sacrifices that any other Britons were asked to make. I know he was used by the government to help deceive Hitler as to exactly where the invasion was going to take place. They planted false information on him. I know you and your mother were taken to camps on the Continent by German frogmen. I know they tattooed numbers on your arm and I know that you have come through such suffering and human degradation and evil that few could ever begin to understand the mere periphery of it, let alone sympathize with the core of your ordeal and your memories of it.”
Lilith showed Talishi the six numbers tattooed to her arm by the SS to affirm her assessment was correct. She said, “The Crown owes a very large marker to my father, but he will not cash it in to obtain a thing, a concession of such little import it could not possibly disconcert the government in the smallest way. The Foreign Secretary refuses to allow Jews to immigrate to the British Mandate in Palestine. Not even Jews who are already British subjects.”
“Oil,” said Talishi.
Lilith nodded. One word, but it explained everything. The Middle-East was awash in petroleum, but if the Arabs could not be assured that the Jews would never have an independent state there, they would attack the wells owned and operated by the British. So the Balfour Declaration and the Churchill White Paper were torn up for the worthless pieces of paper they always were, and all bets were off in the Holy Land. She said, “The admiral who deceived my father is dead. My father is willing to let the whole matter go.”
Little Del started to cry. It was cold, dawn was just breaking, and she wanted her mother to take her back to a place that was warm so she could go back to sleep. Talishi said, “You saw the manner of my coming, and your eyes were not deceiving you. What would you do if I said I could take you to Palestine in the blink of an eye?”
“What would I do?”
Lilith did not hesitate at all. She went into the grounds of the lighthouse complex, and returned ten minutes later carrying a small tote bag with clothing and her personal effects. She also carried her rifle, but now she also had several boxes of .303 caliber cartridges, carried on little straps. But she had not taken the time to wake her father and notify him that she was leaving, and Talishi knew that as matters stood the girl could probably never be persuaded to speak to him.
Talishi also noted, with some satisfaction, that Lilith carried in one hand a quantity of unleavened bread. That was the essence of the feast of Passover, to re-affirm the willingness of the children of Israel to respond without delay to the command of their God to depart a place. Deep down Lilith might have had a tiny spark of recognition.
Talishi asked Lilith to hold Del for a short time, which forced the girl to leave her rifle and other belongings on the ground. Holding the infant distracted Lilith from the instantaneous transition. The crack of dawn in England changed to mid-morning in Israel, for they had moved east toward the rising sun. Lilith saw the light had shifted, and the terrain as well. The beach was gone, replaced by desert. Astonished, Lilith almost dropped Del, but managed to hang on to the child. Her eyes lifted to meet those of Talishi. “Who are you really?”
“If I told you the truth, like I said before, you would think me a nutter, and blasphemous to boot. But hopefully, Lilith, at the very least I will be your lifetime friend.”
Holding Del in her arms and listening to Talishi’s words had an effect that Lilith could never put into words. After a few wordless moments, as body shook with dry weeping, Lilith returned the child to Talishi.
After that she was whisked away by a number of Jewish farmers who lived a few miles inland from the Mediterranean, at a kibbutz founded by Polish immigrants in 1943 named Yad Mordechai. The settlement lay on the coast highway only eight miles north of the city of Gaza and today lies only two and a half miles outside of the border of the Gaza Strip.
Lilith spoke no Polish, nor at that point had she learned Hebrew (which had been revived from extinction to become the official tongue of Eretz Yisrael). But all she had to do was brandish the tattoo on her forearm, and it was enough for the pioneers. They were already acquainted with Talishi and on good terms with her, but they refused to reveal anything about her to Lililth when she began to ask many questions. And in the weeks and months that followed, Lilith began to suspect she had been taken to her new home by an angel of God. That first morning began to seem like a dream. But much fighting lay ahead, and that was much more like a nightmare.
Immediately after the death of Princess Khondiel and the destruction of the avatar of El Shaddai on the battle plain behind the Nine Mile Wall, High Lord Patriarch Kirodiel Gerash divided his forces in twain. Half of the army of Mastema was rushed back home to the Middle Land in the east, leaving the other half of his soldiery to complete the occupation of the lands of House Bellon and garrison the Magodon peninsula.
When the White Beard army reached the city of Salem once more, they were transferred completely across the Middle Land by relays of many horses, like a bucket fire brigade.
And it came to pass that as Lady Talishi was just arriving at the city of Jelaket, Lord Kirodiel assailed the ice bridge between the lands of the House of Gerash and the House of Sala with an exceedingly great force. But Duke Evandr Sala of Saharad, the Prince Consort and husband of Queen Aurra, rushed to the west to defend the border, where he was joined by Countess Ayani Sala.
On the eve of the battle Ayani asked Evandr, “How did you survive the countless battles you have fought, Sire? For it is well known that you never lead your forces from headquarters in the rear, but share the physical danger and hardships of the front.”
Evandr replied, “A cowardly general thinks only of his personal survival, Countess Ayani. Thus he endangers himself and his entire army, and indeed he puts the existence of his entire state in jeopardy. But when I advance on the battlefield I have already reconciled myself with death. I go into every battle, no matter how great or small, as though I were certainly doomed to die. And because the thought of dying has already been accepted in my mind, this frees me to focus only on fighting well. Thus I retain my life. Keeping my life, I gain the victory. Gaining victory, I preserve the state and save the life of the people.”
In the battle Evandr gave a good account of himself, and the aid of Ayani was vital, yet Lord Kirodiel, despite his numerical losses, simply continued to feed more troops into the battle until the Gold Beards began to yield.
The battle had taken place while Lady Talishi and her traveling party on the far side of Barbelo had reached the city of Vaska, the capital of House Antero.
Duke Evandr rallied his forces once more on the edge of the plain at the foot of the ice bridge, near the city of Galcha. There the Countess, asked, “Sire, why have you camped your army on this plain, and let Kirodiel attack from the high ground?”
“Because in this battle,” Evandr replied, “we are the like the guest, and Lord Kirodiel is like the host. Therefore I yield the hill of honor to him and accept this lower station.”
“But he can see our entire force, Sire,” Ayani objected, “while we cannot know what strength he has hidden in the ice!”
“Ah, but Ayani, that would only be important if we were the attacker. In that case we would tire ourselves fighting uphill and possibly be surprised by hidden forces waiting to ambush our men. Instead, my army is deployed like water, dwelling in the low places considered to be of negligible military value.”
“Why is that an advantage, Duke Evandr?”
“Is not water itself vital if people are to live?” he answered. “Do not people seek it out in wells and rivers and even swamps? By our mere continued presence on this plain Kirodiel will begin to covet this plain.”
“But Sire, we are ringed by ice on three sides, and he has taken all of that high ground. When he attacks, we will not know from which direction he will come!”
“Yes, Ayani, but his forces are, as you say, spread like a partial ring all around us while down here we have the interior lines of communication. Anywhere he attacks I can order reinforcements within minutes. And anywhere I counterattack he will be weak, while his own signals will be slow to propagate around this ring. Do you see, Countess, how we assure ourselves of victory merely by humbling ourselves and keeping to the lowland?”
And Evandr did gain the tactical victory in the battle of Galcha that day, yet Kirodiel had many more men to spend. By throwing their lives away with no absolutely no remorse, Kirodiel was able to grind out a strategic victory by forcing Evandr and Ayani to withdraw deeper into the lands of House Sala.
When Ayani and Evandr had assessed the battle of the previous day, Ayani said, almost in despair, “Duke Evandr, why do men love combat so much?”
“Because as long as a child is growing he is filling out his potential, Countess Ayani. As long as he has not yet reached his limits, he remains a child. His limits remain unknown unless they are met and perhaps even exceeded somewhat. Combat is the crisis by which men come to know their limits and obtain maturity.”
“For many women this maturity is attained in a very practical and natural way,” replied Ayani. “Motherhood. Maturity means acknowledging your limits and returning to your root. It is a woman’s nature to make herself still and embrace her center. So even without the experience of motherhood, women are naturally mature.”
“But young men are always reaching out, always moving, always extending, until they know their breaking point. And while they are on this personal quest to find their limits, they can be enlisted in stupid vainglorious campaigns to defend the honor of warlords and kings and patriarchs who themselves never attained adulthood. And many of these young men, of course, needlessly die.”
“That’s what makes a female warrior different from a male warrior,” Ayani said. “She is primarily interested in the survival of the people she protects.”
So Evandr and Ayani fought a noble fighting retreat for many days until the fighting drew nigh to the Gold Beard capital itself, the city of Saharad. At that moment Lady Talishi and her companions were in the city of Gerazan in the far west of the West Lands.
Queen Aurra joined her husband on the field. She said, ““Look at that, Evandr! Ten times ten thousand arrayed against us! Did you ever see such a host?”
“A large force does not assure the enemy a victory, Aurra. What are the stakes? Kirodiel is fighting to add yet another tax-paying province to his empire. But our people can barely make ends meet as it is. Paying the Gerash tribute would kill them. They are fighting to survive.”
“But leading them are the most famous generals and captains on Barbelo!”
“And how did they get so famous, Aurra? By their reckless aggression. If I present our shock troops to them as bait they will rush out to engage them, thinking how this will advance their reputation.”
“But behind them are the best fed and best trained troops in the world!”
“But they aren’t fighting for their wives or cities or farms in the Middle Land, they are fighting to prop up a bankrupt culture and a fragile economy of arms trading. When they see the carnage wrought by our extraordinary force, they will hesitate. And in that moment we will strike with our main force. The Sala army will prevail because it is humble. Our soldiers do not think of self-aggrandizement or the aggrandizement of their leader.”
Once more Evandr’s words rang true, and the captain of Ayani’s forces brought the White Beard patriarch into captivity, but Hovan the son of Kirodiel went into the camp of Ayani with a squad of Eyes of Mastema and released his father.
And Kirodiel came again after Ayani with his dwindling army. Their forces clashed in the ravine of Anixi, and Ayani was driven down the brook to the plains of Nolesh. Then Countess Ayani, aided by the timely arrival reinforcements commanded by Evandr turned and drove the Gerashi army to the brink of the gorge of Armak.
But for the first time since the invasion the strange woman Joy came to the aid of the Gerash forces with dragon fire. And in this battle Zadkiel the chief lieutenant of Kirodiel slew Evandr, but in his death throes Evandr sorely wounded Zadkiel in his thigh.
Following the death of Evandr, Queen Aurra, in her grief, sent a curse upon the land such that when any of the soldiers of the White Beards set objects down at night, in the morning they were found to have disappeared.
Lord Kirodiel said the missing goods were not a sign of the power of El Shaddai, but indicated only thieves, and on that point he was correct, only the thieves were a number B’nei Elohim tunneling unseen under the ground. Everyone started keeping their worldly goods and weapons on their own person, but the invaders were steadily impoverished even as they looted the land of the Gold Beards.
These events had transpired while Lady Talishi and her diminishing party were crossing the ice bridge to the city of Belen in the land of the Black Beards.
“Queen Aurra,” despaired Countess Ayani, “how can we, numbering in our thousands, hope to prevail against our enemies numbering in their tens of thousands?”
The Queen said, “A light commando force wreaking havoc behind enemy lines will tie down a much greater force hunting for it. A small army that is still and rested with have the better of a large army that is worn out marching double-time to meet it.”
“But there must be a limit to how small a unit can be before it is ineffective no matter how intelligently it is employed.”
“Too light, and we invite aggression. Too heavy, and our army becomes unwieldy. The excellent commander coordinates the small with the great, the strong with the weak, the eager with the reticent, balancing opposites to obtain the perfect middle way.”
And nothing would have pleased Queen Aurra more than to see her words of encouragement to the Countess hold true, and waylay the forces of Kirodiel in vengeance for her fallen mate, yet she could see there were not enough B’nei Elohim to aid her and the very tinders her army felled to form bulwarks against House Gerash were just so much kindling for the dragon.
Worst of all the queen judged that Kirodiel had assailed her land at a horribly inopportune time when her subjects were fleeing the cities at her command to spread themselves across the entirety of the lands held by House Sala, as suggested by Lady Talishi. The knew everything her people possessed they took with them on the road, and all these possessions were ripe for Kirodiel’s forces to plunder.
Yet Queen Aurra also knew that at a word from her the whole House of Sala would flock into her army; yea, even the women, the infirm, and the children. She foresaw the war would grow so bloody that the whole face of the land would be covered with dead bodies, but no one would even take the time to bury them because they would be too busy marching to make more dead bodies, and the land would exceedingly stink. This, she resolved, would not be.
So Queen Aurra rode across the plains of Nolesh and met Lord Kirodiel for a parley on the hill of Ronmok, and there the queen negotiated the surrender of her forces for the sake of the lives of her people. And the queen turned over to the forces of House Gerash every seaworthy vessel of the Gold Beards on the river Loenna.
Lord Kirodiel took the queen captive after the parley, putting her in a wooden cage identical to the one which had once held Talishi. Lord Kirodiel journeyed with all his remaining forces down the winding river Loenna to the great sea known as Thalury. This voyage took place even while Talishi was lodging in the castle of the Larund king in the city of Peshast.
Yet Queen Aurra, who still deeply mourned the death of her mate, and found the indignity of her captivity almost too much to bear, counted House Sala fortunate, since most of the people would now complete their emigration from the cities unmolested by the army of the White Beards. And she had appointed Countess Ayani to guide them to the new faith communities in her stead.
At length the research department on Palato, using Edgar’s guidelines, duplicated the macro effect. All middle and upper eschelons of the forces of Mastema were issued silver copies of the Golden Gift, putting them in rough parity with the B’nei Elohim.
Then High Lord Sartael summoned the boy and said, “You have done what you said you would do, Edgar Shybear, so I take your oath of loyalty to be fullfilled.”
“Thank you, my Lord!”
“You are not of the House of Gerash, yet I consider you like a son. And I would consider it a terrible waste to pit you against another boy who has trained for his entire life to survive the death combat. So I will take your torment at the hands of Hogarth, and his subsequent execution, to be the struggle you surmounted to attain the rank of ish. There remains only the question of who is to be your wife.”
And Sartael summoned before his throne the four widows of Hogarth, Ananael, Yelena, Jabniel, and Nedra, who had been Edgar’s servants for nearly a year, and bade Edgar to choose any two of them.
Then Edgar saw the wisdom of Mastema in having them function has his servants for these many months, for it gave Edgar the opportunity to come to know the four women, and judge whether he could love or only despise them.
He said, “Lord Sartael is very generous to his servants, but if it pleases the Lord, let only the one woman Jabniel stand by my side, and send the others away, for in their term of service it was plain for me to see that three of them could never hide their resentment as they toiled for me.”
Then Jabniel, at the command of Sartael, moved to stand next to Edgar, and Lord Sartiel, as Mastema, god of Barbelo, declared them joined together as husband and wife. They sealed the impromptu wedding with a kiss, but Jabniel had to bend down quite a bit. She was nephilim and seven feet tall.
Abanael, Yelena, and Nedra were dismissed from their servitude in the house of Sartael, yet all four of the former wives of Hogarth smiled, including Jabniel, for each of them had received exactly what they were hoping for.
And Sartael said to Edgar, “Now it remains only to find you a place of your own here on Palato, that you may begin work on developing my macro bomb.”
But Edgar said in reply, “I beg the Lord’s indulgence this one final time. In the year that I have lived under the Lord’s roof I have closely watched those nephilim he calls the Eyes of Mastema, as perhaps only an outsider truly can. They are an ancient order, and if they were once a noble and efficient organization, I fear that the centuries have taken its toll on them. I say this not as a resentful victim of Hogarth’s torture, but as an honest appraisal of my Lord’s official investigative body.”
“I appreciate your candor, young Edgar. Do go on.”
“My Lord, never have I seen such a lethargic mass of bureaucratic back-biters and back-stabbers and pole climbers outside of perhaps the Roman Curia that governs the Catholic Church on Earth, which is nearly as old. The internal politics of the Eyes of Mastema remind me of nothing so much as the bickering in any run-of-the mill harem, my Lord! That you tolerate such a festering hen party is a wonder to me. It is a good thing that I already knew the principle of the macro. I doubt I could have focused long enough to stumble on it under the insufferable conditions I find here on Palato. I know of a surety I would find it impossible under the same conditions to achieve a macro that produces unstable dark matter. The distractions would prove too great. So I beg you, Lord Sartael, send me and Jabniel far from here, to any point in your realm that is not quite so thick with the moral rot of palace intrigue.”
And instead of becoming wroth, Sartael broke into a bout of laughter, for no one had dared to say what he himself had concluded about the Eyes of Mastema for many years now. He said to Edgar, “I will provide for you a ship, and stock it with any such equipment as you direct. You may use this ship to journey to any point in my empire and there build your research facility. Yet do not take yourself to be completely immune from the Eyes, for they will be sent from time to time to collect the results of your work, as you agreed. I ask only that you accept a new name. That way your B’nei Elohim may never learn where you are and what you are doing for me.”
Edgar Shybear bowed, and his new wife Jabniel took this cue to bow along with him. “If it pleases my Lord, let my name be Ithuriel, which means ‘brilliant one of God.’” He neglected to tell Sartael that Yeshua had already chosen that name for him.
And the name did please his Lord. But Ithuriel had earned the eternal emnity of the Eyes of Mastema.
Long ago, well before the time of Talishi, Mastema had struck a bargain with El Shaddai to mirror the permanent worm-tunnel that terminated at the Sacred Pool with another larger one that terminated at Jupiter, the fifth and largest planet of Sol. Yet he did not call in this marker until the nephilim had learned to penetrate into space and could make the second tunnel useful.
Since the tunnel was to be operated entirely by Mastema himself, he needed only to associate the Sol side of the fold-line with a physical object that would serve as a constant position reference. El Shaddai linked his side of the line with a spacecraft that was named after the man who first discovered the moons of Jupiter. After this spacecraft became the first man-made object to be placed in orbit at Jupiter, El Shaddai’s involvement with the project was done.
Mastema ballooned out the Sol end of the line and sent men through to begin construction of a structure he called an ID Grid. This object looked a bit like the towers of steel that carry high-voltage electricity over the land on Earth.
The fold-door was detached from the Galileo orbiter as a reference and locked instead on the newly built structure. The ID Grid was a physical gate that would identify each vessel before passage. An identical ID Grid was constructed over Palato. Only warships of the Navy of Belial, or freighters and passenger vessels registered with the Navy of Belial, would be permitted to cross after passing through this Identification Grid.
The Solar ID Grid was permanently positioned near the moon Hyperion, which became the location of the largest Jovian base of the Navy of Mastema.
Both El Shaddai and Bat-El, who co-owned the system, were interested in allowing the humans of Earth to develop naturally (which is to say, under their own divine manipulations) without being dominated by the slightly more advanced nephilim. They jointly decreed that nephilim could only settle those bodies whose mean distance from Sol was greater than three times the distance of Earth from Sol.
They reserved to the humans of Earth all of the inner planets and half of the asteroids, while the nephilim of Barbelo were given the gas-giants, all their moons, and the other half of the asteroids. Earthlings were also permitted to settle any object in the Sol system no matter what the distance, but they were more than a century away from taking El Shaddai and Bat-El up on that offer.
That last detail was not provided to Mastema, lest he wonder how the Earthlings managed to produce something like the Galileo spacecraft decades before its time.
At Sol two-way radio communications were not possible with Barbelo. It would take more than eighty thousand years for each response. So in that system the colonists began to feel themselves to be more Solarian than Centauri, and they soon lost their connection to the great families of their roots.
So it was that the Bellon and Gerash families who settled Ganymede mixed together and produced a new family that called itself Krenek. The Larund and Sala families merged on Callisto to form family Ushnel. It worked this way on the other moons as well. Family Antero settled Io but soon shattered into many smaller clans that eventually were dominated by Family Sonad. Europa started as a Gerash project that was divided into many clans as well, but no unified order emerged there.
Mastema could never swallow the independence of the Jovian League, so he harassed them constantly with raids by warships arriving through the Fold-Gate, but for a number of decades he could not amass sufficient forces to bring the colonies back under his complete control.
But Mastema thought long-term, and he thought incremental. Every passage of a tanker or passenger liner to Jupiter was accompanied by one or two fighters, or a bomber, or possibly even a corvette, all for “security reasons” and none of these spacecraft returned to Palato.
Solbrig was made Prime Minister of the Federal Assembly to remedy rates of inflation which rose as high as 28 percent under the Jovian League’s fiat currency, a local version of Mastema’s stater. All members of the Jovian League unanimously agreed to give this wildly successful financier complete powers of reform.
After an astonishingly deep but relatively short economic depression and other painful measures, Solbrig put inflation and interest rates back in check. The economy of the outer Solar System achieved a long-term pattern of gradual, stable growth.
But after a devastating large-scale and simultaneous surprise attack with the corvettes, bombers, and fighters which had slipped the notice of the colonists, the Navy of Mastema invaded Ganymede. Survivors with the means to do so tried to flee into space, but these refugees as well as the entire Jovian League fleet was bottled up in low orbit by Barbelo’s naval forces.
A large fraction of the Jovian colonial fleet had been underway on widely separated maneuvers and was caught off-guard by the Imperial attack, but ironically this preserved that portion of the fleet from destruction. When these stragglers returned to wartime readiness, Callisto, Io, the smaller moons, and the Ganymede government in exile placed themselves under the direct military rule of the cherub Leonor.
After a long period of quiet the Imperial naval base at Hyperion was suddenly fortified by the Emperor with many large warships. The Jovian League grew disgusted with Leonor’s complacency in the face of this buildup, and made an alliance with Ariyama (“The Fair”), a disgruntled ophan in Leonor’s force.
Ariyama vowed the expulsion of the Empire from all Jovian territory. Each ally was to contribute a quota of ships and money. Ariyama assessed the tribute at 2 billion staters at first but the money was poorly supervised and even more poorly spent. Every month the tribute Ayiyama demanded went up, until the Jovian League began to tap into a fund laid aside for extreme contingencies. They had little choice.
Suddenly the Emperor sent his swollen fleet against every site of military value on Ganymede, Io, and Callisto. By the time the Jovian delegates could agree to so much as declare the peace broken, Ariyama’s fleet was already a smouldering orbiting demolition alley of lifeless wrecks and every Jovian city lay at the mercy of being nuked from space.
Memmar Krenek, Patriarch of Ganymede, wished to carry on the conflict with guerrilla tactics, laying waste the entire moon. But the provincial governors, hoping to protect their territories, forced him to take a stand at the broad Memphis Facula plain, where together with the levies from the house of Ushnel and the house of Sonon the Jovian League was completely defeated by Lord Sartael.
When Ithuriel and Jabniel departed Palato with a full tank of water, they had to decide where to go. All Ithuriel knew was he wanted to get very far away from the Eyes of Mastema. That ruled out Xanthos and Hippo. And the Eyes even were starting to creep into the Eggbeater too.
The ship he had been given bore the malevolent name Insolent, typical of all the ships in the Navy of Mastema. Ithuriel renamed it Chivalrous. It was an early design, roughly cylindrical, somewhere in size between a corvette and a frigate.
By the process of elimination their choices were whittled down to basically just Jupiter. So Ithuriel sidled the ship into the ID Grid, his credentials were accepted, and Palato was replaced by Hyperion. As easy as that.
There was plenty of food aboard but no showers were possible during the voyage, only sponge baths, and once every two days Ithuriel and Jabniel would wash their hair in a plastic bubble with elastic collars for the neck and both arms to contain the water.
The bridge was lit with dim blue lights and the constant hisses and whistles and chatter on the HF band tended to lull them to sleep. Once every few days they would have an honest-to-God real contact, another ship passing in the night “only” a hundred thousand miles away or so.
Jupiter and its moons made a miniature solar system within the Solar system. It was some 32 million miles across if you counted all the asteroids scooped up in the planet’s gravity. For practical purposes it was a system only two million miles across if you considered it to be just Jupiter, four big moons, and small change. Still, even this smaller version was four times bigger than the Earth-Luna system and there was a lot more to see.
Ithuriel selected an elliptical orbit that allowed him to view all the major moons close up, one after the other. On one orbit, as Jupiter eclipsed the sun, Brand spotted a very thin back lit ring. Naturally he had known about the ring but it hadn’t occurred to him to try it until he actually saw it.
The ring was deep within the gravity well of Jupiter. When he circularized his descent ellipse the ship was running on fumes. Certainly he did not have sufficient water as propellant to escape again. So this move would be a gamble.
The ring was really just a narrow set of ringlets, far skimpier than the glorious rings of Saturn, but no one was mining the ice there. It was cherry! Ithuriel snuggled Chivalrous in among the floating pieces of ice and pulled up next to a thirty footer.
With a little hot water still in the ship’s tanks, a space-suited Ithuriel melted a hole into the ice and secured an umbilical between the ship and the ice ball. He got a cycle going, with hot water melting the ice, and cold melt water being sucked back into the ship’s tanks. Part of the new water was diverted, heated, and cycled back out to the ball to melt some more ice. In a week he had the tanks nearly full again, but the ice ball was a jagged mess.
Then Ithuriel got underway again, and found a hundred footer near the outer edge of the ring. He attached a transmitter to it, and gently rammed the front of Chivalrous against it before bringing the ship’s engines up to full power. The ice ball blocked the impact of the remaining smaller ice-balls on the ring’s edge as they plowed their way out into clear space.
When sufficient velocity had been obtained to send the ice ball towards Earth, Ithuriel started braking Chivalrous with retrofire. Through the front view port he watched his ice ball shrink to a point, destination somewhere in the asteroid belt. He would negotiate the sale of the ice later.
Ithuriel was about to pat himself on the back when Jabniel slinked into view with her long legs open for business to give him a bit more than a pat.
57 – CARTEL
Domestic Enemies Containment, Observation, and Neutralization.
DECON was created in 1942 to administer the internment of Japanese-American citizens in the western United States. Later, with the invasion of Sicily, Italian-Americans came under DECON’s surveillance, but they were not officially detained, thus revealing the essentially racist nature of the program.
German Wehrmacht prisoners of war, however, taken in 1944 and 1945, were shipped to the United States and detained in DECON camps. And when Nazi agents attempted to commit sabotage inside the borders of the United States they were also placed in the custody of DECON for…questioning…after which they were summarily shot. As a result of these interrogations, DECON developed dossiers on every US citizen of German descent.
Three times in 1944 DECON interrogated Dory, and Jerry about Kim and Hunky. Two of these interviews were in an individual setting and one interrogation occurred when they were playing in Jerry’s backyard tree house, which truth be told had nothing on the spectacular tree house at Canterwood Academy.
During the second one-on-one interrogation Jerry and Dory almost broke when DECON lied about the prognosis of Kim and Hunky and said they were very nearly dead. But soon that was revealed to be lies.
Kim felt she was being unfairly treated by Doctor Trochmann and his team at the clinic, so in her letters, written of course in Relbimian, she ordered Jerry and Dory to say nothing about the Ark of the Covenant hidden under the Temple sanctuary.
Since Relbimian was a language the Boda created from scratch from their earliest days together, and used by them since then only on brief occasions, it was almost as secure as a one time pad, and there was little chance DECON would decipher it.
During the final interrogation of Dory and Jerry a DECON agent actually invaded their tree house and brought along another agent who was an expert at reading body language. The idea was to look for any signs of collusion between Jerry and Dory.
The interview turned sour very quickly. After a few minutes of their intransigence one of the DECON fellows said he thought recent high school graduates were a little too old to be playing in a tree fort. And to drive home his point he unveiled an army draft notice with Jerry Shybear’s name on it.
“I can make this go away, son, if you tell me how Kimberly and Sophia might have gotten sick. Otherwise you’ll have to show up at the draft board tomorrow morning.”
“Honestly, sir, I’ve told you everything I know.”
“Dory, will you help the gentleman out?” the other agent said. “War is hell. You might not ever see him ever again after tomorrow.”
Dory had nothing to say. Orders were orders. So the first DECON guy shrugged and placed the draft notice in Jerry’s hand. “Suit yourself, son. Go kill some Japs.”
Then both agents left the tree house in a huff. They would have tried a little bit harder if they hadn’t thought pushing the kids was really like drilling a dry hole.
Jerry’s father had been happy to go kill Germans in France in the Great War, but Jerry himself was a very gentle person and he didn’t want to kill Japs or anyone. He was willing to take his chances with the draft lottery the same as the next guy, but obviously DECON could pull strings behind the scenes and rig the game.
Jerry just wanted to stay home and wait for something to break so he could see Kim and Hunky again. There was only one thing left that he could do but he was embarrassed to ask Dory for help so Jerry suggested a game of Cartel instead.
“And by Cartel I mean strip Cartel of course.” That raised the stakes a notch from losing little colored pieces of paper.
The dice flew high, and round and round the board they went. Soon Jerry bought up 42nd Street, Broadway, and Park Avenue, and all he needed was Wall Street for a Cartel.
Dory scooped up the Appian Way, the Burma Road, and Easy Street, and all she needed was the Yellow Brick Road. But all along Dory was puzzled that Jerry wanted to play a stupid game when he’d just been drafted into the military. She didn’t seem to have her heart in it.
After a while Dory got a half-Cartel going with Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard, but she also bought Bourbon Street and Main Street on a whim, and soon she was short on cash.
As the game continued they both had serious Cartels going but Jerry had some lucky rolls and avoided landing on any of Dory’s properties, while Dory kept landing on Jerry’s stuff and started to have a serious cash flow problem. She auctioned off her belt and nylons for a little breathing space.
After that Dory started landing on Jerry’s Cartels over and over again and she was methodically stripped of most of her cash. She started showing more and more skin to stay in the game. Soon Jerry owned Dory’s dark yellow dress with white polka dots, and when she landed on Jerry’s properties again he got her knit rayon undies and bra.
But Dory rallied a little bit near the end. The properties associated with her knee socks and little black Mary Jane shoes, which Jerry didn’t want, were enough to complete a second Cartel, creating a kind of death row on her side of the board. Soon Jerry was shirtless, and after another round Dory demanded his pants. But Jerry simply put on Dory’s bra and dress, and when he was sufficiently covered, he dropped trou and handed them over.
“A man shalt not wear that which pertaineths to a woman,” Dory preached. “For all who do so are an abomination to the Lord!”
Jerry found that wearing Dory’s dress was a very interesting, perhaps even a life-changing sensation. Seeing Dory naked didn’t do nearly as much for his arousal as wearing her clothing did.
After that Jerry landed on the second part of Dory’s Death Row and, with Jerry having no more cash, she demanded his underwear, which he duly handed over. The game was over, but he was fine with that, because under the cover of Dory’s yellow dress he slipped into her panties and together with her bra he had everything he was looking for. He bid the girl adieu, left the tree fort, and went down to his house.
The next day Jerry showed up at the draft board downtown, and when he stripped for his medical examination they saw him standing there wearing Dory’s pink panties and bra.
“You want to tell me about it, son?” the doctor drawled. He was a local physician drafted to staff the entrance station.
He looked down at himself, then caught the doctor’s eye. “I guess I’m a…waddya callitt, homosexual.”
The Army NCO in charge of the processing station had heard this sort of thing before. The slackers thought it was an easy way out. He said, “Okay, then who’s your boyfriend?
Jerry had to think fast. He blurted out the name of the only male homosexual he actually knew, another boy his age from high school, “Aaron Anton.”
“That checks out,” the sergeant said. “We had that Aaron Anton guy in here last month. Queer as a football bat.”
So the doctor stamped Jerry’s paperwork 4F, which meant he could stay home. “Get yourself some help son,” he said, with a trace of disgust. Before 1973 homosexuality was considered a pathology by the medical community, perhaps a bit like schizophrenia.
Jerry thought he would indeed take the doctors’ advice and seek some help, but the kind of help he was looking for probably wasn’t exactly what the doctor had in mind. Jerry hunted down Aaron Anton and turned his lie into reality. He thought of it as deep cover.
Aaron was quite a specimen of male beauty who was a little famous in his own way. He had posed in various styles of Jockey underwear for an illustrated catalog. Aaron was not hard to seduce at all once Jerry had steeled himself to override a lifetime of inhibitions. But what they did together plainly was an abomination in the Code of Moses.
Jerry Shy Bear wasn’t a girl who felt she was trapped in a boy’s body, he was a boy who wished he was a girl. He had a simple case of Venus envy. That was why, growing up, he spent all his time playing with Hunky and Dory and Kim rather than other boys his age.
When he was penetrated by Aaron there was some pain, despite Aaron’s attempts to break him in gently, but growing from deep under the pain was a profoundly transcendental ecstasy associated with a direct stimulation of the prostate. It fit well with Jerry’s desire to be the passive, receptive one. Sweating from the pain, he writhed on the bed until Aaron boiled over inside him.
To Aaron’s extreme disappointment, however, Jerry found himself unable to reciprocate in the same way. So Aaron had Jerry lay on his back and pleasured him orally. Jerry let his back arch, legs stiffen, and mouth lay wide open as he felt a release far more satisfying than anything he had ever done for himself.
That was Jerry’s first sex. He had no idea it could be like that. As he lay there in his sore bliss was willing to let Kim go her own way and spend his entire life with Aaron Anton and said as much. But Aaron patted his ass with affection, lit a cigarette and said with a decadent purr, “Not much chance of that, boyo. I don’t much care about who I fuck, I only care about who else I fuck.”
58 – MENKANT
Two divisions of the Army of Mastema had been left in the West Lands to carry out of the occupation of House Bellon. During the invasion of the East Lands, Lord Kirodiel sustained casualties at the hands of House Sala equivalent to a full division. So only a single division, reorganized from the survivors of the original two, remained available for action.
These men were put on every boat and ship that could be commandeered from the Gold Beards and drifted down the river Loenna to Thalury. Kirodiel himself embarked on the royal barge and took the lead position of the expedition, with Queen Aurra confined to a cubical wooden cage on the main deck in somewhat less comfort than she had come to expect. Yet Kirodiel was not interested in humiliating the queen beyond her basic captivity, and did not hold her in a state of undress as he had once forced Talishi to do.
And after the expedition reached the mouth of the river, the prevailing winds sufficed to take them halfway across Thalury, but over the whole land of Haaretz is a stagnant air mass created as the winds pile up against the barrier that is the Wall of God, and there the fleet was becalmed. So oars were broken out, and the army began to row day and night, and when they grew fatigued this was remedied by many whips.
At length the Gerash expedition rowed past the Isle of Avior and Murzi Bog to enter the wide mouth of the river Sabik, and the people of the city of Sadl thronged the bank to watch the parade of ships toil upstream. Then, after passing the place where the river Nanki entered from the south, they rowed through Canterwood, and Yeshua, who had been expecting them, waved from the beach together with many of his followers as the White Beard fleet continued on.
Victoria found Wazol, which was snuggled up against the Wall of God, to be extraordinarily beautiful during the night, and many of the people of Hamar called the city the Queen of Lights.
She could have flown by herself to the capital of Menkant in a relatively short time, but Talishi wanted to maximize the element of surprise, so she insisted everyone go together by land. Victoria had never ridden a horse before, so there was a brief period of familiarization before they could set out. Baron Bayard found it within himself to volunteer to hoist Victoria on the animal and in other ways make her ready. One hundred twenty folks began the journey, but only one hundred nineteen animals were embarked, because Bayard, who was concerned about Victoria’s inexperience with handling horses, wanted them to ride pretty much glued to each other.
They rode north down the upper reaches of the Sabik, taking most of the day to cover forty miles, with many stops to rest the horses and rub their own sore asses. Talishi did not rush them at all. The dense forest began to thin out, and great vistas could be glimpsed through them at last. Talishi called a halt to that day’s riding.
In the morning when Talishi’s party resumed the ride the trail turned to the east away from the river a small distance and ascended a gently rising slope of grasslands where the trees disappeared altogether. In the distance ahead, as the sun climbed toward the zenith, they saw large herds of cattle grazing, and beyond them, as a dark line that slowly grew to encompass them, was the city of Menkant itself.
When Menkant was originally platted out the founders prided themselves on the fact that they retained the original belief of the House of Israel that their God, El Shaddai, was a mighty warrior king of a deity, one who didn’t have a son as men had sons, and certainly one who didn’t come as a woman. But belief was only important in the absence of the object of that faith, while on Barbelo the existence of the Elohim was a basic physical fact, like gravity or the weather.
Eventually even the Menkalites had to concede that Talishi really was their God, the same God who had spoken to Abraham, and that Yeshua really was her son. So when Talishi arrived in Menkant with Baron Bayard, Victoria, and over a hundred Fallen Angels, room was quickly found for all of them. Talishi, Victoria, Bayard, and Ambe Omphal, the senior officer of the surviving Fallen Angels, were invited to stay in the house of the king.
The king dwelt nigh to the bank of the river. Thus it was that Talishi and her inner group had a front row seat when the lead ship of the White Beard expeditionary force rowed smoothly into position and tied up nigh to the house of the king. Queen Aurra was in her cage on deck as Kirodiel intended, and as Kirodiel also intended, this was what her son focused upon to the exclusion of all else.
“Baron Bayard Sala,” bellowed Lord Kirodiel from the rail of the ship. “Although it pains me to place your mother in such straits as you now behold, I find there is no avoiding it, for I wish to make a simple trade, the common criminal called Talishi for Queen Aurra. What say you, Gold Beard Baron?”
Bayard drew his blade and bellowed in reply, “Such a cowardly proposal from one who styles himself the Patriarch of the oldest family on Barbelo! This woman for that one, as though bartering in serving wenches! I say, rather, that both women shall go captive, or both shall go free, and that the one man of us who remains alive, be it yourself, Lord Kirodiel, or me, shall be the one to give the order!”
Kirodiel drew his own blade and ordered his men, “Let the Baron step aboard!” By making this order both he and all his men were held to the terms outlined by the Baron. By the same token, the freedom of Talishi was now conditioned on Bayard prevailing in the combat.
A plank of wood was thrown to bridge the gap between ship and land. The Baron fearlessly crossed over the rail and stood on the deck of the royal barge in full view of his mother and Lady Talishi and Ambe Omphal and (most important in the mind of Bayard) Victoria.
The Baron saluted the Gerash lord with a sharp military slash vertically downward, and Kirodiel returned his salute. Then they started in with fairly standard stuff, just simple thrust and parry from safe distances.
Suddenly, without a word, Kirodiel literally pounced upon his challenger, his blade slicing down with bewildering speed. But Bayard had studied well in his many practice bouts and especially upon the field of battle and didn’t fall for this poly for an instant. He fended off Kirodiel’s first attack with ease.
The patriarch attacked again. At each of his parries Bayard felt he was striking stone. There was simply no give. He backed out of range and they began the usual circling of each other, testing with probing thrusts.
Kirodiel paused and a sudden oxygen debt forced him to draw his breath in a sharp gasp. Bayard made his own first attack then, a clumsy but forceful pounding of blade-on-blade that started to wear the White Beard patriarch down.
The auxiliary noises of their fighting were the only sounds to be heard. A resonant back-slide of steel-on-steel and CLASH! Nick, slide, and CLASH! The Baron was moving Kirodiel back now but the Gerash lord’s defenses proved more and more unyielding as Bayard swept him closer to the far rail of the ship.
Kirodiel unexpectedly counter-attacked with frightening violence. Bayard was a few moments gaining his original stance at the cost of a few feet of deck. Bayard tried to prevent Kirodiel from circling around him to force his own back to the far rail.
During the struggle the two combatants spoke no word one to the other. Both would have found such a thing too effete.
Bayard pressed an attack. Lord Kirodiel countered with a deft flip of his sword down along the back of his arm. It had become a shield allowing his arm to bear the brunt of the Baron’s blows. Kirodiel was well beneath Bayard’s high two-handed thrusts and the Baron realized, far too late, that he was dangerously vulnerable to a bloody touch from the Gerash lord in the form of an elbow jab with his blade’s tip.
First blood to Kirodiel, who savagely pierced the spleen of Bayard. The Baron sank to the deck with the shock of his wound.
Victoria saw this and flew the short distance over the rail to stand between Lord Kirodiel and his prey with the shard of Dragonthorn that was little more than a knife, and would probably shatter against the steel of Kirodiel’s blade anyway.
Joy in turn saw that and hove into view riding Demonstroke, hovering on great flaps of his wings. The hellish mouth of the beast was pointed directly at the cage of Queen Aurra.
59 – SATURN
Gambling that carbon was going to become expensive Ithuriel and Jabniel prospected for graphite. But misfortune struck once again. A large eruption on Io of almost pure carbon depressed harvest prices and wiped out all of their gains. Just one year after getting married Ithuriel was back to his original resources. And so, with the reluctant, hard-won agreement of his wife Jabniel, Ithuriel lit out for Saturn, which took the better part of two years on the ascent ellipse.
While they were enroute the little ice ball Ithuriel had sent hurling towards Earth from Jupiter’s ring reached the vicinity of the Moon but apparently “broke cherry” in the lexicon of ice ball cowboys. That is, the individual Ithuriel had contracted to receive the ice and make payment, a Mr. Roth Wardian, took possession of the ice but never came through with the money. Although it pained him greatly to do so, Ithuriel contacted Dory directly, (using the way available to all B’neil Elohim) asking for help.
On this occasion, there was an hour and forty minutes of round trip travel time for the neutrino transmissions. When Ithuriel spelled out what happened, he asked Dory if she could take care of his Roth Wardian problem. After discussing the matter with Robyn (who passed along that she loved and missed her son Edgar very much) Dory agreed to look into it.
As it turned out, Ithuriel was not the first ice prospector Roth Wardian broke cherry with. He had quite a bad reputation. No one in the inner system would do business with Wardian anymore, which was probably why Ithuriel found it so easy to get a contract with him.
With the money from Ithuriel’s hundred-foot ice ball from the Jupiter ring Wardian went out to the asteroids, where the B’nei Elohim initially lost his trail. When they picked his scent up again, they were ready to shove a Brushfire missile up his ass, but they ran into a little problem which Dory explained to Ithuriel several months after his first call.
“We know exactly where Roth Wardian is now,” she said. “I’m including the one-line orbital elements for his rock in this transmission. The thing is, Edgar, we can’t touch him. There’s nothing to hit. He lives inside this cluster of boulders called the Gravel Pile. They’re all just sort of floating there, more or less loosely held by gravity into a ball. It’s a lot like Phobos. If it was a solid rock we could crack it open maybe, but the Gravel Pile is already cracked. It’s one thing to strike this asshole from a destroyer in passing, but your mother is not willing to send anyone in there to dig him out. And I’m sure that’s not what you’re asking us to do. So accept our apologies and go with my love. Your mother sends her love too. Better luck next time. Dory, out.”
Saturn is almost a hundred times heavier than the Earth and deeply cold, something like 350 degrees below zero, because the faraway sun only gives about one percent of the light and heat to Saturn that it does to the Earth. But that is still about five thousand times brighter than the full moon in Earth’s night sky, and the eyes could adjust to that, so seeing wasn’t really a problem.
The ring system of the planet was truly big. In fact, if the famous braided F-ring was taken to be the outer edge, it took light a full second to cross from one side of the rings to the other.
The B-ring was the brightest one, because it was about six hundred feet thick. The second brightest was the A-ring, which was one hundred and fifty feet thick. These broad rings were made of countless pieces of ice, ranging in size from microscopic fragments of snowflakes to miniature moons.
When Chivalrous arrived in the ring system of Saturn, Ithuriel laid claim to a six hundred-foot ice ball sitting in the middle of a local thickening of one ringlet in the A-ring. The nearest neighboring ringlet was thirteen miles away and moved at only a brisk walking speed relative to Ithuriel’s ice ball, just three miles per hour. The narrow gaps between the innumerable ringlets were mostly clear of ice.
After his planned burn to send the ice ball closer sunward, a fourth of Ithuriel’s water would be gone. If his ice ball were re-melted at that point and allowed to become a solid ball again it would have a diameter of only 475 feet across instead of the original 600.
There didn’t seem to be any way around the requirement for a second burn at the destination. The end customer had to circularize the descent ellipse, or the ice ball would start to climb back out toward Saturn’s orbit again due to the conservation of angular momentum. A second burn would reduce the ice ball in mass yet again, and it would be as though Ithuriel sent down an ice ball only 380 feet across. But Ithuriel thought he knew away around this requirement,
According to Dory’s data there was a mile-wide collection of smaller rocks, boulders, pebbles, and sand, all spinning just fast enough to keep from sticking together, but not spinning fast enough to fly apart. Roth Wardian owned it, and he made a tidy profit mining its innards, because he could borrow around anywhere inside it without the expense of drilling solid rock. Wardian called it the Gravel Pile.
“Roth Wardian!” Jabniel said with some alarm. “Are you crazy? That’s the same guy who ripped us off!”
“Jabs, this time it’s different.” On the long hop to Saturn Ithuriel had shortened his wife’s name from Jabniel to Jabs. “We’re going to ride the ice down to market, and when you talk to him, you’re going to let him you’re coming down, with who knows how much muscle. That should keep him honest.”
He reckoned that his ice ball could crash into the Gravel Pile without blowing up. Oh, it would break up alright, but the fragments of ice would just be swallowed up inside the Gravel Pile and Wardian could go in there and grab ice chunks easier than other companies could drill for ice on asteroids that already had great veins of the stuff running through it.
The asteroids were all on different orbits with different periods, and the relationships between them were always shifting. Sometimes a lot of water-rich asteroids would drift close together. Supply would outstrip demand and water prices would plunge, at least for that region of the Belt. Other times a “desert” would form when few or no asteroids bearing water would be in a region, and the price of water would sharply increase.
All of these situations were compiled and documented in the Old Spacer’s Almanac (“Old” but really going on all of seven years old) that was transmitted to subscribers throughout the system. Ithuriel knew the Gravel Pile was entering just such a desert.
Ithuriel also knew Roth Wardian would remember his name, so he let Jabs negotiate the contract under her prenuptial name of Jabniel Bat-Naseth. Roth did know of Jabs’ father Naseth on Barbelo, and so he was eager to do business with her. He was also well aware of the coming dry spell, and that’s why he agreed to Jab’s idea to crash the ice ball into his Gravel Pile, and why he also agreed to pay Jab’s almost insane asking price.
Roth knew Jabs would be coming down with protection, possibly even an Eye of Mastema, so he didn’t plan to break cherry on her like he did to Ithuriel, but when all was said and done, Roth figured he would still make a killing. He’d have the only asteroid with water ice for millions of miles around.
The Gravel Pile was closer to Jupiter than to Mars, firmly in nephilim territory. Wardian had his start as a B’nei Elohim boytoy but he went rogue, and when he scammed Ithuriel on his first ice ball that gave him enough capital to move to the outer Belt. He was one of just a handful of humans who had set down roots beyond Mars.
But it was slow going, all the negotiations between Wardian and Jabs, because round trip for radio transmission at light speed between Saturn and the Gravel Pile was three hours.
In all of the vast area of Saturn’s rings, the arrival of Ithuriel and Jabs by all rights should have gone totally unnoticed. They should have made hardly more than a blip. But the radio negotiations with Roth Wardian, conducted entirely in the clear, attracted the attention of the Stratis gang, a small group of nephilim parasites.
Stratis could have never done the planning and the thinking for the stunt Ithuriel proposed to do, but he didn’t have to. After he sat there and listened in to everything Jabs said, Stratis got it into his thick head that if he moved really close to the Jabs kid, say only forty or fifty miles, and watched her like a hawk, it could be his ticket out of the Rings. When it was underway he could take over the iceball, kill Jabs, and ride the ice ball all the way down.
The Stratis gang was mobile. They had a taut little warship about the size of a corvette. It was a bit smaller than Chivalrous and could be controlled by just three men, or even just two men in a pinch. Stratis parked inside Ithuriel’s ringlet 75,000 km from Saturn’s cloud tops, but just forty miles to the east, or spinward, of Ithuriel.
By Saturn’s standards, this wasn’t being a good neighbor. It was akin to parking one’s mobile home flush up against another one. Ithuriel knew this sign couldn’t be good.
Ithuriel used the engines of Chivalrous to melt a small pond into the surface. Quickly, before the ice froze again, he sank Chivalrous into the ice until he struck bottom. He melted more ice and sank again, and again, using the retrorockets to push them all the way through the ice until the back of the ship was just poking through the other side of the ice ball, with only the engine nozzles and the back door sticking out into space. Then he let all the water freeze again, which unfortunately put some dents into his ship as the ice expanded.
For the next few months Ithuriel melted many veins into the ice of his snowball, which would allow hot water to make a slush to be used as propellant for the big burn. And once, just once, during all his preparations, Ithuriel and Jabs were paid a visit by some of their nosy neighbors.