A centipede of sinners writhed across the Cathedral of Justice, its legs the Legionnaires herding each party of the condemned along their final course. At the head of the hall, haloed by the glory of stained glass and sunlight, stood the Angel, tall and bright and beautiful, weeping tears of golden fire as His flaming sword rose and fell.

Yakob turned away from the wallscreen, tired fury in the weathered lines of his face. "Thirteen years that thing has walked among us, killing anyone who displeases it. Thirteen years during which a man might be struck down at any moment on the flimsiest pretext, and every year more fall in line behind it."

He raised his eyes to those of the other man in the room, brushing faded white hair from the faint rectilinear bulges at his temples. "Thirteen has always been considered an unlucky number."

Liu nodded agreeably, taking a silver pen from the pocket of his dark coat and twirling it between his fingers. "So it has. And what particular misfortune do the stars indicate to you today?"

"I have recently come into possession of twenty-three kilograms of high-grade plutonium. Weapons-grade."

The pen vanished. "Morton and Rendemeier tried that, back in '27. Two hundred and fifty thousand dead, and we still have Justice." After a moment, he added pointedly, "Do you think it wise to speak so openly, not twenty kilometers from the Cathedral?"

Yakob's gaze was level. "I am quite certain your presence and these events remain unknown to Justice."

Liu made a tossing-away gesture. "So what do you know that Rendemeier didn't?"

"Do you remember the Pendeton bombings? The bomber's initials stamped into metal beams by careful shaping of the charges?"

"Passing lightly over the... substantial technical differences between conventional and nuclear weapons, as I presume you have not, what would you write?"

Yakob quoted, without hesitation or stumble, "In the days of the Lesser Kings, the sons of Man were troubled by a heavenly visitation, who imposed upon them duties heavier than mortal heart could bear. Then a deputation went up to the mountain of the sorceror Ti Men Chuan, saying, 'O master who holds night and day in the palms of his two hands, deliver us from this plague of righteousness.' And Ti Men Chuan gave unto them scrolls upon which he had drawn a certain sign, and when they placed those signs upon their habitations, the apparition appeared not therein."

"I am no Ti Men Chuan." But Liu was leaning forward intently, and the silver pen was poised like a hawk in his fingers.

"Ti Men Chuan did not have twenty-three kilograms of plutonium."

On Candle Flats, a man who wasn't there buried two things no one had ever touched or seen beneath a clump of sagebrush.

The constellations slid invisibly behind the hard blue desert sky, waxing and waning in influence. At the appointed hour, current flowed through electrocontractile plastic. Tangles of wire smoothed into runes, jewels slid into alignment with the heavens. A broken circle was made whole, and opened partway, a postern gate ajar and unguarded in the walls of the world.

Even without the limitations of human senses, Yakob could see nothing. Only a few of his most sensitive instruments flickered barely above the noise level. But in the Cathedral, he saw the Angel's head come up, eyes brighter than the sun, and from outside he saw the great doors wrenched from their mountings by the Angel's passing.

The Angel arrived in a splash of dust and burning brush, stalking out of the blast with flaming sword upraised. His head swung from side to side like a hunting beast's as He circled toward the barely-perceptible distortion, and for the first time in Yakob's memory, He was not weeping. In a flicker like badly-spliced film, He was kneeling, sword thrust into the ground, and the explosion threw Him ten meters forward, tumbling heels over head to land on His feet. He looked up at the device the charge had launched just as it reached its apex.

Yakob's eyes showed him everything, just slow enough to comprehend: the flash of x-rays that burned the Great Seal of the Lord of The Abyss into the desert sand, a hundred times larger than it had been on his wall screen; the shockwave that wiped it away an instant later; the rising globe of sun-hot plasma; and after a bit, the shattered yellow-glowing wasteland where nothing moved.

"Who knows about the Great Seal, Yakob?"

"No one knows except you and I. I did the work myself, and erased the logs afterward."

Liu nodded slowly. "You understand that my oaths do not allow me to let outsiders possess these secrets."

Yakob bowed his head wearily, eyes closed. "I suspected as much, so I burdened you with as few lives as I could."

Liu spoke from across the room. "Open your eyes, Yakob." Yakob looked up just as something flat and dark dropped into his lap. He flinched violently, but raised no hand in his defense, eyes locked on Liu's.

When, after ten full seconds, he was still alive, he looked down at the small leather-bound book, and back up at Liu.

Liu repeated, "Open your Eyes, Yakob." and departed.

This file was last modified at 2211 on 13Jul00 by trip@idiom.com.