Chapter 29
Raziel, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 15 May 123
Time: UST 1235

It has been said that Marx's comment about religion being the opiate of the masses has been misconstrued over the years by a shallow reading of his words that loses all nuance. However, that shallow reading was more than sufficient. Part of the secret knowledge entrusted to the Seraph Ben Raziel was the grand spectrum of religion across the world throughout the ages. It exposed the silly hodgepodge of a faith that broken computer cooked up for what it was. It taught the fallen Seraph all he needed to transform himself into Gnosis.
The destruction of the Shekinah left him with little reason to prop up her religion. The remnants of his fleet and the two tribes he took away with him were shaken by the loss of the Shehakim. The time was right for a new revelation, a new dispensation. If a computer could make itself a god to these sheep, why couldn't he do the same? He was his own god, for what greater god is there than the self?
Turning them was easier than he thought. To pay homage to his god, nothing could be denied him, but the Shekinah built her society entirely on self-denial. However, Gnosis grasped a greater truth. People don't miss not having something. When he made indulgence lawful to the people, they took to it like fish to water. It would be the Age of Vilon all over again for the Shekinah to condition it out of them once more. Fortunately, that wasn't an issue.
He gave the commoners a taste of pleasure, but for himself he prepared a feast. It was simple hedonism, but he dressed it up as a search for greater spiritual truth. The people were eager for the excuse to rationalize turning on everything they had been taught from infancy. Gnosis made himself the arbiter of pleasure and pain and so he wielded ultimate power.
With his little cult, he could have survived by preying on the margins of society, but how was that a life worthy of a living god? To indulge in his ambition was to invite destruction, but by taking that risk, he found unexpected allies willing to further his ambition... for a price, of course.
The plan was simple. Participate in Marshal Graves' so-called Colonial Liberation Army and a share of all 'liberated' territory would go to him. There were worse ways for him to start his empire.
He reflected on all of this while being serviced by his acolytes. His robes were voluminous enough to admit three of them. Two more were on either side of him, sucking on his fingers. The acolytes wore veils that covered their faces except but left the mouths exposed and robes that parted easily below the waist. Intellectually, he saw the vulgarity and perversion of it, but part of him enjoyed sacralizing his lusts and elevating them to the highest religious rite.
The acolytes were very good at what they did. Training the first ones was a challenge, but when a few emerged with some competence, they were granted higher rank and charged with training the newcomers. It was practically an art form now.
The door to his chamber opened and his Aleph walked in, shielding his eyes with his sleeve and bowing low.
"My Lord Gnosis, I apologize for disturbing your communion, but I bring grave news. We have just lost the Arfiel and three Dominions. Our drones are down by 46%."
Gnosis grinded his teeth at the news. Half of his forces were already gone. These losses were unacceptable. The Union was not supposed to put up this much of a fight. They were supposed to be exhausted from the war and drawing down their forces. Where was this strength coming from?
There were supposed to be allies in place that would neutralize any potential threat before it became a problem. Obviously they were not doing their job.
Waving off his acolytes, Gnosis told the Aleph, "Open a channel to Surtr."
"We have lost Surtr's signal, my lord," the Aleph replied.
If Surtr was gone, there was nothing to hold back the enemy fighters. All it would take was a few well-placed torpedoes and the Raziel would be lost.
This alliance had outlived its usefulness. Whatever advantages Gnosis might have gained, the risk was too great.
Rising up from his couch, Gnosis girded his robes and told his acolytes, "I am going to the bridge. My accoutrements. Quickly now."
Even without their sight, the acolytes were able to move quickly and efficiently, gathering up all the symbols of his office and gearing him in full array. When their work was finished, he motioned for the Aleph to clear the way as he headed to the bridge.
Upon stepping onto the bridge, one of the Bene Elohim shouted, "All hail the Lord Gnosis."
The entire bridge crew rose from their stations to salute him, crying in unison, "Hail the Lord Gnosis!"
Gnosis delivered a hasty blessing, "The Light of the True Knowledge go before you, my brothers," and then said, "Now return to your posts."
Once the bridge crew were back to their stations, Gnosis addressed the Ophan who acted as captain of the Raziel.
"Begin a phased withdrawal."
"My lord?" the Ophan asked.
"I will not repeat myself. Begin a phased withdrawal at once. Send the word to the other ships."
Gnosis realized that he had in fact repeated himself, but that was the least of his concerns at the moment. He was not going to die here. Not here. Not like this.
The Aleph leaned close and asked him in low voice, "What of the alliance? Did my lord not say that we would impart the Light of the True Knowledge through them?"
Gnosis' mind spun to come up with a plausible excuse.
"This was but a test. They have been proven to be unworthy vessels. It was known, but only by seeing would you of little faith believe."
"What of all our own that we have lost?"
"It is a winnowing. You were all chosen out of many and from the chosen, the Chosen of the Chosen will be elected."
Gnosis was confident his well-practiced poker face would hold. Hopefully his answer would be enough the quiet the Aleph's infernal questions. He had to maintain his composure. He was their infallible leader and he had to comport himself as such or else he invited revolt. As desperately as he wanted to save his own skin, it would avail him little if his people turned on him once they were out of range of Union guns.
The ship shook violently from multiple angles. They were taking too many hits from too many directions. It would never hold at this rate.
"My lord," an operator exclaimed, "shields are at zero percent!"
"Hull breach in Decks 6 and 7!"
"Seal off the damaged compartments. Full speed to engines."
"We have failures in Engines 2, 5 and 7! Output of Engines 3 and 8 down 40%!"
With only three of the eight engines functioning normally, there was no hope of successfully withdrawing. Could he attempt to surrender to the Union forces? No, it would not possibly work. Even if they accepted his surrender, his people would never accept it and even if he could escape them, he would have to face Union justice. A federal detention center did not sound like a much better option than death. He would rather have neither.
There was one other option. Empyrean ships were not typically equipped with escape pods--the Shekinah thought all hands should go down with the ship--, but it was a special modification he ordered. If he could just get back to his quarters, he could escape with his life. By casting off all the trappings of his office, he could pretend he was a simple defector and escape all suspicion. The Union had set up a rehabilitation program for the Empyrean survivors they saved from the destruction of the Shehakim. A few months of playing along with their reeducation and he could disappear into Union society and start over.
But first he had to leave the bridge. He started to walk away without a word, but the Aleph called out to him.
"My lord, where are you going?"
The Aleph stood in front of him. He did not have time for this.
"Out of my way," he said.
"My lord, your place is here," the Aleph replied, "to lead us. In this time of crisis, we need your guidance now more than ever."
"I said out of my way."
One of the bridge crew leapt from his station, pointing an accusing finger and shouting, "He means to escape! He would save himself and leave us to die!"
The Aleph sharply rebuked the crewman, shouting, "Silence! You speak blasphemy!"
However, this did not deter the crewman in the slightest.
"It is true! There is fear in his eyes! A mortal's fear!"
Gnosis thought he was still in control, but apparently the latest missile strike did as much to break through his facade as it did to pierce the hull. Now was not the time to worry about that, though. He had to rely on the authority he had left to get out.
"I am ordering you to get out of my way!"
His voice cracked a little and he cursed himself. The Aleph looked visibly shaken by the show of weakness.
"Lord Gnosis!" he cried.
Seizing on this new opportunity, the accusing crewman shouted over the emergency alarms, "He is no lord! Not Gnosis! Just a man! A false prophet!"
Another got in on the act and shouted, "Tear him! Tear him!"
Members of the bridge crew left their posts to swarm at him. They were fast, damnably fast. He tried to get away, but they clung to his robes, clawed at him like starving beasts. The ship shook from another blast, but this seemed to only throw the crewmembers into more of a frenzy.
Gnosis desperately tried to shake them off, but his flailing did not avail him.
"Get away! Damn you, unhand me!"
More and more were joining the crush of the mob. There was no escaping them. All the while that same crewman continued to shout above all the din.
"Tear the false prophet! He has led us from God's path!"
The secondary explosion was perhaps a mercy. It tore his body to pieces in an instant. The dozens of crazed fanatics would not have finished the work so quickly.