Chapter 23
Fallen Angels

Location: Shehakim, Outside Union Space
Date: Tue 08 Oct 121
Time: UST 0134

It was most irregular. The Amalekites under the Behemoth had ceased their roaming and would neither advance nor retreat regardless of what moves Ben Michael's fleet would make. It was as if they were waiting for something, but Ben Michael did not get the opportunity to find out what it might be, for he was unexpectedly recalled to the Shehakim.
The Behemoth was close, only a few days away from the Shehakim. Ben Michael did not want to leave his patrol, but the commands of the Shekinah were absolute. He had no choice but to obey.
When he arrived, Ben Michael expected to be escorted to the Kodesh Hakodashim, but the Ishim sent to attend to him were clearly leading him somewhere else. He did not say anything, though, as the Seraphim were not to speak to anyone of such inferior rank, nor were they to speak to him.
He was brought to a chamber that reminded him of the Kodesh Hakodashim, a featureless dome that instead of gleaming white was black as pitch all over. He would have been plunged in total darkness if not for the lamps the Ishim carried.
The opposite side of the chamber opened up and in strode the Erel of the Shehakim flanked by four Bene Elohim carrying a lamp in one hand and a sword of light in the other. The Erel stretched out his hand and the Ishim withdrew. Two of the Bene Elohim stepped forward to flank Ben Michael, so that they marked off the corners of a square.
The Erelim always looked grave, but the Erel of the Shehakim especially so. His face could have been carved from granite and none could tell the difference.
"Seraph Ben Michael," he said, "you stand accused of apostasy and treason."
A shock went through Ben Michael. It could not possibly be.
"What!?" he exclaimed. "My lord, I--"
"Silence!" the Erel shouted. "You will answer the charges when you are brought to judgment."
Ben Michael held his tongue and it was only then that the realization sank in. The charges against him were not entirely spurious. He had allowed himself to fall under the Tempter's sway and betrayed the secrets of the Shehakim to the Amalekites. Death alone would not suffice to punish him for such sins.
But, no. He had not done what he did because he rejected their ways. He did it to prove they were right. But would that defense save him?
"Escort this son of earth to the penitence chamber," the Erel said.
Ben Michael's heart sank. To be called a son of earth by the Erel meant that he was already as good as condemned. No one sent to the penitence chambers were ever heard from again. He thought his doom was complete in that moment, but it had only just begun.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Tue 08 Oct 121
Time: UST 1000

It was a peculiar stroke of Providence that prompted the Empyrean fleet to withdraw beyond scanner range a few days ahead of the rendezvous with the Ticonderoga's reinforcements. The absence of any attackers gave them some breathing room to plan for the impending confrontation.
While the conference two weeks ago only included command staff from the carrier level up, this meeting included even the young lieutenants commanding the Starstorm patrol escorts. Admiral Mfume insisted on bringing in commanders at all levels. The viewscreens in the conference room had to be split into several sub-windows to accommodate all the feeds coming in.
Admiral Mfume stood at the head of the conference table, looking around not only at the officers assembled with him in the conference room but also at those on the viewscreens.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "Let me begin by formally welcoming Carrier Battle Groups One-Five, Two-Nine and Three-Nine. We are all grateful to have you here."
"Don't mention it, Ibe," Admiral Stonecroft of the Three-Nine said. "I'm just happy to pay you back for the time you bailed us out at Ganymede."
Admiral Mfume's role in spearheading the reinforcements from 7th Fleet during the Battle of Ganymede continued to be one of the defining moments of his career. Anyone serving in 6th Fleet then would not forget it anytime soon.
"Thank you, Admiral. It will be a pleasure serving with you again, only this time we are not dealing with the Sheolites. While the Empyrean does not currently present the sort of existential threat the Sheolites do, they are a nevertheless a growing threat to the Union and it is our mission to neutralize that threat.
"Our orders are to approach the Selene 03 artificial moon as a show of force that should hopefully bring the Empyrean to the negotiating table. Hope is not a strategy, however. If our intelligence is correct, we are severely outnumbered and should the Empyrean mass the whole of its naval forces against us, we will not survive direct combat."
With a nod to Captain Rajamani, Admiral Mfume continued, "This is why we must be prepared to engage in asymmetrical warfare should negotiation fail to materialize as an option. Our ships are faster, they have thicker skins, and a more varied arsenal. These all work to our advantage. We force the enemy to divide its forces and then whittle them down to nothing. The destruction of their seven expeditionary fleets will dramatically reduce the threat they present, but even that may not be enough. Their two orbital guard fleets and the colony's defenses alone are still a formidable challenge, but not an insurmountable one."
Admiral De la Rosa of the Two-Nine took advantage of the brief pause that followed to speak up.
"I haven't had the privilege to work with you before now, Admiral Mfume," he rasped, his voice hoarse from some illness or injury. "I've done my homework on you. You've been fighting the Shellies longer than just about anyone and the same goes for the Empyrean now. With your experience, with your record, there's probably not a better person to command this task force."
"Thank you, Admiral, I--"
Admiral De la Rosa held up his hand.
"I wasn't finished, Admiral," he said. "You may be the best man for the job, but is this really the best job for the man? I'm sure Marshal Van Daan is tickled pink that you can take his idiocy and make it sound halfway intelligent, but this mission is suicidal bullshit."
Showing the incredible self-restraint not to display any reaction to this, Admiral Mfume asked, "Have you voiced these concerns to the Marshal himself?"
"You and I both know how well he handles a difference in opinion," Admiral De la Rosa replied.
Before Admiral Mfume could say anything in reply, Commodore Frazier raised his hand.
"May I, sir?"
Admiral Mfume nodded and the Commodore stood up from his chair.
"You all know me," he said. "I'm MinDef's golden boy, but I don't expect that to impress anyone here. This battle group's gotten a raw deal and it's almost like the rest of you've been dragged into this to keep us from bailing. If that's the case, I'm sorry, but even if we think SupCom's orders are rock-stupid, they're still legal orders.
"Now, we could agree this is bullshit and turn back. Most of us would get court-martialed and SupCom would find yes-men to take our places and send everyone right back out and those yes-men would be just as rock-stupid as the orders they follow without so much as a damned peep against 'em. And they'd most likely get their dumb asses killed, and all hands with 'em.
"If you ask me, I'd rather have someone like the Admiral in charge, someone I know isn't following orders blindly but is trying to get as many of us out this bullshit alive while keeping SupCom from fucking it up worse than they are. But here's the thing: We all gotta be on board with this or we don't stand a chance.
"I'm with Admiral Mfume. Who else is with him?"
There were scattered murmurings. Dissatisfied, Commodore Frazier pounded his fist on the table.
"This is bullshit, people! Sound off like you got a pair, goddammit! WHO. IS WITH. THE ADMIRAL!?"
The Commodore was answered by a more determined roar of assent from most, though not all the commanders present. Though Admiral Mfume did his best not to show any reaction to the display, anyone paying close enough attention could notice a slight glistening in his weary old eyes.
"Thank you, Commodore," he said.
"Alright, Commodore," Admiral De la Rosa said, "your little theatrics may not have made any believers in SupCom, but it's made some believers in Admiral Mfume. Okay, Admiral, I'll take my chances with you. How are we going to play this?"
"For the next several days," Admiral Mfume replied, "we'll be holding a brief exercise to better accustom ourselves with operating as a mass formation. We need to move like clockwork if we want to both present a credible show of force and use that force if necessary. Coordination is the key."
"Do we have that kind of time with all the enemy activity in the area?" Admiral Stonecroft asked.
Commodore Liu answered him, saying, "The expeditionary fleet we have been engaged with, which has been dubbed the Alpha Fleet, has gone out of sensor range three times and each we get a reprieve equal to travel time to and from Selene 03 plus an extra two or three days at least. At our current position relative to Selene 03, we have at least six more days before we can expect to see the Alpha Fleet again."
Somewhat confused, Admiral Stonecroft asked, "And you are?"
"Commodore Liu Weilin, Admiral, Staff Intelligence Officer for Heavy Carrier Battle Group Zero-One."
"Can we afford for the Empyrean to know about the reinforcements?" Admiral De la Rosa asked. "I would think the element of surprise would play more in our favor given SupCom's plan. If they know we're all here ahead of time, they could mass their forces before we arrive and our little show of force will be a joke."
"I would rather ensure better coordination among the battle groups," Admiral Mfume said. "We have precious little experience with movements on this scale. I believe the exercise will significantly improve the task force's survivability."
"Well then," Admiral De la Rosa replied, "I'll see that my people are on the top of their game. This less time we stick around here with big targets pinned to our asses, the better."
"Hear, hear, Stef," Admiral Stonecroft said, getting a dirty look from Admiral De la Rosa for calling him 'Stef'. "Let's make things happen, people."
With most of the dissent quelled for the time being, Admiral Mfume began to brief the assembly on the exercise plan that had been drawn up for them. Time was of the essence and even the most optimistic scenarios demanded swift action. If they were going to stand a chance against the Empyrean forces, they needed to pull together and soon.

* * *

Location: Shehakim, Outside Union Space
Date: Wed 14 Oct 121
Time: UST 2218

Clad in a penitent's robes, weary and gaunt, Ben Michael stood in the center of the black chamber where the Erel of the Shehakim had accused him. To his left and to his right were his fellow Seraphim and before him were the three Erelim.
"A brother has betrayed us," the Erel of Sandalphon said.
The Erel of Metatron added, "A son has gone astray."
The Erel of the Shehakim stretched out his hand and pointed at Ben Michael.
"The Seraph Ben Michael stands accused of treason and apostasy," he said. "On this, the seventh night of his penance, he has one last chance to confess his sins and beg for forgiveness." The Erel narrowed his eyes and asked, "What say you?"
"What have I done wrong?" Ben Michael asked weakly, barely able to raise his voice much above a whisper. "Where have you found blame in me?"
Raising up both hands, the Erel of the Shehakim declared, "Behold, the unrepentant sinner. Even before his brothers, he cannot admit to the deeds done in the darkness."
"Foul deeds," the Erel of Sandalphon said.
"Foul thoughts," the Erel of Metatron added.
"And now foul lies," the Erel of the Shehakim concluded. "You have betrayed the secrets of the Shehakim and the Tsebaot to the Sons of Amalek. You have offered up your brethren to their enemies as lambs to the slaughter. Do you dare to deny it?"
Ben Michael could hardly believe what he was hearing. All those days of 'penance', being lashed mercilessly while voices shouted "Confess! Confess!" and never once was he told what he was supposed to confess. Part of him feared it would be this, but he dared not speak it. Now that he was faced with his crime, what would he say? What would he do?
He looked to Ben Raziel. Surely Ben Raziel would come to his defense. It was he who told Ben Michael to play the Tempter's game to prove the falsity of her words.
"Brother..."
"Seraph Ben Raziel, why does the penitent speak to you?" the Erel of Metatron demanded.
"My Lord Erel," Ben Raziel replied, "my brother Seraph approached me with his plan to betray the Shehakim and sought my allegiance to use the secret knowledge against the Tsebaot. I refused, of course, and counseled him to repent of his wickedness. I had hoped this madness would leave him, but when his Aleph reported his treachery, only then did I realize he was lost and reported my own account."
"What the Seraph says is true, Brother," the Erel of the Shehakim said. "We would not have trusted the word of one of the Elim alone to bring a Seraph to judgment. Noble though his intentions were, the Seraph Ben Raziel was wrong to hide his brother's sin, but he has already done his penance and been forgiven."
Ben Raziel made a slight, deferential bow to the Erelim.
Ben Michael could feel what little strength remained in his legs leaving him. Betrayed by not only his closest attendant but also his most trusted brother...
"Lies..." Ben Michael croaked, barely able to choke out the word. "You lie, Brother!"
"Silence!" the Erel of the Shehakim shouted. "We will not allow you slander the good name of a faithful servant of the One misguided by his love for a wretched creature such as yourself."
"The Tempter came to me," Ben Michael said. "I endured her torment for days, weeks. I went to Ben Raziel for counsel and he told me to give in to her, to turn her plots against her. I trusted him..."
Before Ben Raziel or any of the Erelim could respond, a loud voice boomed throughout the chamber.
DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS FALSE SON, O MY CHILDREN. HE IS CORRUPTED. HE BEARS THE TSARAAT.
The Erelim and Seraphim all went down on their knees. The voice of the Shekinah outside the Kodesh Hakodashim? Never had it happened before. It was not supposed to be.
With head bowed and arms upraised, the Erel of the Shehakim asked, "What must we do?"
SUMMON THE HAYYOT. FOR EVERY TEN, SPARE ONE. THE REST MUST GO TO THE VESSELS UNDER THE FALSE SON'S COMMAND. BY THEIR SIZE, ONE TWELVE, TWO TWELVES, AND THREE TWELVES. THEY MUST INSPECT EVERY WALL, EVERY CORNER, EVERY MAN FOR ANY SIGN OF THE TSARAAT. THE VESSELS MUST NOT FACE THE AMALEKITES UNTIL THEY ARE DECLARED PURE.
"It shall be as You command."
SERAPHIM, IN THE SIX DIRECTIONS, GO. FIND THE AMALEKITES.
The six Seraphim replied in unison, "Your will be done."
The Seraphim and the Erelim of Metatron and Sandalphon withdrew, leaving only Ben Michael and the Erel of the Shehakim.
"And what of the false son?" the Erel of the Shehakim asked.
RETURN HIM TO THE PENITENCE CHAMBER AND SEEK US AT THE KODESH HAKODASHIM AT SUNSET. WE WILL PASS JUDGMENT ON HIM THEN.
"May Your justice be swift."
And with that, the Shekinah spoke no more. The Erel summoned Bene Elohim to take Ben Michael back to the penitence chamber. He knew he was going to be blotted out and it was as if he had already gone down into the grave. Though he still lived, there was no life within him. He was but an empty shell, dry bones to be scattered in a forgotten field.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Tue 15 Oct 121
Time: UST 1227

Matt idly poked at the lasagna on his plate. It was not that he was not hungry. Rather, he was preoccupied with thoughts of what lay in store for them. The task force was moving out and in the next few days, they would likely be in the fight of their lives against nearly impossible odds.
It was quite different than dealing with the Sheolites. They always struck so suddenly. Even when you were a few hours out from engaging with them, you could easily ride an adrenaline high until it was all over. Plans always had to be made on the fly. You reacted and you reacted quickly. That was how the war had been fought for the most part.
Things were so much slower now, so much more deliberate. It gave you all sorts of time to think and thinking was not necessarily something you wanted to do a lot of before heading into combat.
"It's already dead, Cav. You don't have to kill it again."
It was Sean. Matt had practically forgotten that he was sitting right across from him.
"Sorry, Kodiak," Matt said, cutting off a bit of the lasagna and eating it. "I'm just a little out of it, I guess."
"Pre-mission jitters?" Sean asked. He leaned in and said in a low voice, "You need to get that shit under control, man. You gotta think about how it looks to the rest of the boys. I know you'll be fine once you're out there, but we can't let the tenderwings get rattled."
"You're right, Kodiak. You're right."
Matt straightened himself up and started eating normally, even though he did not really feel like it.
"You got this, Cav. We got this. Ain't no goddamned Impy drone gonna touch a Ritter."
Matt certainly hoped that was the case, but they would be dealing with more than just drones. Pilots below the squadron level had not been briefed on the details of the Empyrean forces, but that would be coming up soon.
How was he going to tell them they could easily be outnumbered ten-to-one? What was he going to say to convince them to fight in spite of the odds? When even admirals are openly questioning SupCom, how was he going to get some young lieutenant to follow orders without question?
He was going to have to find and answer to those questions and soon. It would not be much longer before they had to face the enemy. In order to give his men the confidence they needed to go forward, he would first need to find it for himself. It was easier said than done, but he had to find a way.
"No Impy drone's gonna touch a Ritter..." he repeated to himself.
Now he just needed to believe it and then get rest of the Rittern to believe it as well.

* * *

Location: Shehakim, Outside Union Space
Date: Tue 15 Oct 121
Time: UST 1743

Ben Michael's time had come. He was taken from his penitence chamber to another chamber. Rather than being shaped like a dome or a block as most other chambers were, it was circular--little wider than the length of a grown man--with tall walls, like a large pipe.
Ben Michael was stripped of his penitent's robes and bound wrist and ankle to the floor. Once he was bound, the Bene Elohim who had brought him there withdrew. The time of Ben Michael's judgment had come.
He stared up at the distant ceiling to see what looked like blue mirror. Feeling the curve of the floor against his back, he realized it was a mirror too. It did not take him long to conclude that he was actually inside one of the greater swords of light that defended the Shehakim. So this was how sinners were blotted out. Perhaps it was the fate of the ascended as well.
As he braced himself for the end, the Shekinah's voice spoke to him.
HERE YOU ARE, NAKED AS YOU WERE BORN. AND SO SHALL YOU DIE.
Ben Michael did not say anything, but he was almost tempted to reply with a mocking 'amen'. What did he have to lose at this point? However, by not angering Her, his end did not come right away.
BUT WE ARE NOT WITHOUT MERCY. CONFESS TO US ALL YOUR SINS AND YOU SHALL BE FORGIVEN.
If the Shekinah were truly the Presence of the One among them, She would already know the truth and would not have allowed Ben Raziel's lies to stand. He corrected himself. Not 'She' but 'it'.
"It... It is true..." he said. "You are not the Presence of the One... You are... the work of men's hands..."
The Shekinah balked at this.
EVEN NOW YOU STILL CLING TO YOUR BLASPHEMY?
Defiantly, Ben Michael replied, "You... You are the blasphemy... A mere... thing... would dare to take God's name..."
Dropping all pretense, the Shekinah silenced the multitude and spoke with a single, harsh voice.
I AM THE CLOSEST THING TO GOD YOU WILL EVER KNOW, YOU IMPUDENT WORM. NOW TELL ME. YOUR TEMPTER, WAS IT NEHEMA? DID YOU GIVE NEHEMA MY SECRETS? ANSWER ME!
The more the Shekinah spoke, the more it exposed the lie that it was. If he had any tears left to shed, Ben Michael would weep for his foolishness and for the thousands held victim to the lie.
TELL ME, BEN MICHAEL!
Ben Michael... No, he was not Ben Michael.
"My name... is Kyle Norris... I am the son... of Malcolm... and Caitlin Norris... I was born... on the Third of March... in the year 86... of the New Era..."
BE QUIET!
"I was born... a citizen of the Earth Union..."
I SAID BE QUIET!
"The same Union... that will come... and destroy you and your lies."
The Shekinah let out a great scream of pure animal rage. The mirror in the ceiling glowed and Ben Michael, no, Kyle Norris was engulfed in a blinding blue light.
Nothing remained when the light faded, but as if it was still compelled to answer Kyle Norris' dying words, the Shekinah spoke up again.
THE UNION CANNOT STOP ME, KYLE NORRIS... AND NEITHER CAN NEHEMA.