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 Post subject: Armageddon Parts 6 to 10
PostPosted: Sun Jun 26, 2011 11:59 am 
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Throne Room, Infernal Palace of Dis, Hell.

“And exactly how did they spontaneously explode?” Satan’s voice had a silky, oily quality to it that was far more unnerving than any of his berserk rages.

“We don’t know Sire. We found bits of metal in the wreckage so we think it was one of the human machines but we don’t understand it.”

“A machine? A human machine you say? They invaded my territory and killed four of my subjects with a machine?” The silky, oily quality was fading, replaced by the hysterical screams of rage. The audience found that immensely reassuring, it was business as usual. The unnatural calm had been horrifying from its unprecedented nature. A raving, screaming temper tantrum was much more familiar. “And nobody saw it?”

“None Sire. Although we do have a message that was transmitted by one of their warlords. It refers to a Predator aircraft.”

“And just what is a Predator?” Satan was struggling to keep his temper under control.

“A hunting bird.” The voice came from a tiny minor demon on the floor. Satan glanced sideways and his glance mashed the speaker into a purple pulp that drained away through the stone floor.

“Does anybody else want to state the obvious?” There was a sudden shuffling of cloven feet and demons glancing sideways at each other. The more astute of them were already trying to work out the best place to take cover when their infernal overlord decided it would be necessary to stage a massacre.

“There is another problem with that message.” Asmodeus spoke carefully. “The warlord spoke of ‘major enemy leadership figure’, we assume that means an important person here. Yet there was nobody on that stand of any importance, a few relatives of Abigor, that is all. None in the leadership and none of any importance. We do not understand this.”

“Perhaps I can explain.” Beelzebub was also speaking carefully. “The warlord also spoke of ‘information received from reliable informants’. There can be only one explanation for that comment. There are those of your Infernal Majesty’s subjects who are in contact with the humans and are passing information to them.”

A horrified gasp went around the hall. The whole concept was a nightmare to contemplate yet was also eerily plausible. Who here had not sold information on an ally to an enemy in order to bring about a tactical advantage?

“But Sire.” Asmodeus was appalled, his voice terrified at even speaking of this idea. “Nobody important was killed.”

“Nobody important perhaps.” Beelzebub spoke almost as smoothly and calmly as Satan had done. “Not in our terms perhaps. But the traitor – or traitors – who sold the information to the humans may have been using them to settle a private score of his or her own. Who knows where treason might end?”

Even Satan was silenced by that thought. The hall was still, silent as the occupants absorbed the implications of what Beelzebub had said. Then, the glances that they were exchanging underwent a slow change from apprehension at what might Satan might do next to suspicion at what their neighbors might be saying to these upstart humans. No matter how intense those suspicious glances became, they couldn’t match the ones Satan was casting at them.

Room 352A, Arkham Asylum, New York City, NY

The voices had been haunting Julie since her sophomore year of high school. Every time she'd tried to tell them to go away, they simply laughed at her. And when she denied they were real, they'd whisper to her, caressing her mind like an unwanted lover, telling her secrets – what was happening far away, what others were thinking about her, telling her things that were never wrong.

And they were always right, always there, always just out of her senses, dripping across her mind like black grease. Even after she'd tried to kill herself – it hadn't worked; they'd told her that it was pointless, that someone was at the door just as she'd watched the blood stream from her wrists with morbid fascination – even after the suicide attempt, when her family had tearfully waved her goodbye, and she'd gone to Arkham for treatment (which hadn't worked) and incarceration, they were telling her things, what was happening outside. The conquest was on, they'd said. The infernal deal that had haunted her nightmares since she was five, that had haunted every waking moment since the voices had first come, was sealed and complete. Heaven's gates were closed and locked, the whole of humanity damned without hope of rescue or reprieve.

Her cell was locked, as always. The white walls were padded, and she was sitting on her cot in the corner murmuring to herself when one of the voices – Domiklespharatu, it called itself – whispered, "Look to the door!" She did; the lock on the door clicked and lifted. "They're coming to get you ... coming to take you away ... to experiment on you ... to rape and torture and mutilate and humiliate you ... ."

The voices were never wrong. She hurled herself back into the corner, away from the strange people filing into the room. Then there was Dr. Becky, her presence a welcome familiarity that was dispelled by the presence others, more people in uniforms and more in white lab coats. Domiklespharatu laughed. “Look at you, pitiful little girl.” The floor reared up, and she stumbled backward into the walls.

Dr Becky Skillman had worked at Arkham for fifteen years, and in all that time she’d never been visited by the government. Two men in suits, with dark sunglasses, guns, and no sense of humor had knocked on her office door, shown her a pair of bright and very impressive badges, and asked her for a list of the patients at Arkham for whom treatment had done absolutely no good. Especially the ones who heard voices.

She wasn’t one to deny the government a request, especially not in this day and age, with the Message, a quarter of the Arkham staff were gone, and the strange reports filing through the news were unsettling. There was fighting, of some sort, the sort that reminded her of the nightmarish hallucinations of her patients. The men had been from the Secret Service and they’d thanked her cordially, gone, and then a half hour later were back with an entire platoon of men in fatigues with rifles, asking to be taken to Room 352A on the third floor.

Julie Adams had been at the top of the list, and they’d decided to take her first. Before Skillman had a chance to ask any questions, they’d waved a piece of paper – subpoena or something like that – in her face, and were demanding the case files.

Adams was an untreatable schizophrenic, and had only gotten worse through the eight years she’d been in Arkham. No treatment had worked – and they’d tried them all, from the newest drugs to some of the oldest tricks in the books, the sort that the staff all mutually agreed to keep quiet because people who didn’t work at psychiatric hospitals just didn’t understand. And now the government wanted to take her away?

Skillman shrugged. Eh – not her place to question or worry. As they filed into the pure white cell, Adams was scrabbling against the back wall, face contorted in fear, the greasy tangles of her long, black hair swabbing the wall. “No! NO! I’m not gonna let you take me!”

The soldiers impassively moved forward, seemingly deaf to the woman’s harsh, pathetic screams. Reaching down, two deftly warded off her slaps and kicks and lifted her by the shoulders so that she hung between them like a rag doll. Brushing past Skillman, they filed back out of the room, Adams’ screams echoing down the corridor. The two men in black thanked her, and walked out, leaving her standing in the silent room, listening to the sick woman being dragged down the hall.

Temporary Headquarters, Randi Institute of Pneumatology, The Pentagon, Arlington, VA

James Randi sighed and rolled his eyes. While the search teams were scouring the nation’s medical facilities for the apparently insane who might not be insane after all, the fakes and charlatans had continued to pour into the Institute in unimaginable numbers. The publicity combined with the persuasive talents of the US Secret Service and the FBI had achieved results that even his million dollar prize had failed to attain. Privately, Randi kicked himself, he should have involved the Secret Service earlier. They’d even brought John Edwards and Sylvia Browne in, over those two unworthies angered protests. It had taken only a few minutes testing to discredit that pair of mountebanks, after which they’d been unceremoniously ejected from the building. As Agent Stella Carter had remarked ‘Hey, guess what. Sylvia didn’t bounce.’

Up to now, that had been par for the course. There were still the palm-readers and card-players who waited in the antechamber for their turn, all dressed up in beads and eye liner and all sorts of clothes that looked mysterious in smoky, underlit rooms but just appeared absurd under fluorescent business lights. They were the routine dross that had to be inspected, just in case. Even so, there was hope for the plea for any real psychics or necromancers to come forward had brought in five or six possible hits – all quiet, shy people who worked ordinary jobs and lived ordinary lives.

He was just about to call the next person in when his cell phone rang. He checked it; it was a 555-1000 number. He answered. “Randi here.” After a moment, he nodded and said, “Will do. Please bring her in.”

At last. Randi sighed the words to himself. Ever since his discussion with that charming Thai General, he’d been waiting for the first of the medical subjects to arrive. Then, he squared his shoulders and opened the door to the antechamber and just stood there, looking out toward the outside door. It opened, and eight national guardsmen marched in, wearing full combat fatigues. Two of them were carrying what appeared to be a heavily sedated woman, her glassy eyes half-open and a bit of drool trailing down her cheeks. Behind them were three men in lab coats, looking like stereotypical doctors. As they reached where Randi stood, one of the men in lab coats strode forward past the soldiers and offered his hand. Randi shook it, and the man said, “James Randi? Dr Ed Bullmore, psychiatry and neurology at Cambridge. Pleased to meet you.”

“The pleasure’s mine, Dr Bullmore. What do we have here?”

Bullmore spoke with a pleasant British accent. “Untreatable schizophrenia patient from New York. Name: Julie Adams. Onset at age sixteen. Reported ability to read minds.” He looked meaningfully at one of the soldiers, who spoke up, sounding shaken. “On the way over here, she told me about my daughter who drowned. No way she could have known about that – she was locked up for years before Kelsie was born.”

Randi thought for a moment. “Bring her in.” Briskly, the white-bearded man walked back through the door. He glanced over at his secretary. “Jane, please request brain-imaging at the nearest hospital ASAP. Play the DoD card if you have to.”

Neuroimaging Center, Arlington Hospital, Arlington, VA

Julie Adams woke up in a little tube of metal, found herself immobilized, and felt a little whisper in the edge of her mind. “See? I told you soooo!” Then she slipped back into unconsciousness.

When she next woke up, she was sitting in a chair, leather straps holding her wrists to the chair arms. Sitting across the table from her was a grandfatherly-looking man, bald but with an enormous white beard. A voice danced across her vision, and she said, “James Randi?” The man raised one eyebrow, dropped it, and continued to regard her over clasped hands. She struggled with the bonds.

“They told me you’d do this to me! They told me!”

He spoke, his voice, calming and authoritative. “Who told you?”

She’d never been asked that before. Before, they’d always assumed the voices weren’t real, that she was crazy. She wasn’t crazy; she just heard voices. “They did.” A warning buzzed across the back of her mind – “Don’t trust him. He’s going to rape you.”

The man smiled. “Have they ever told you who they are?”

These questions were completely foreign to her. “Uh … I … no … .”

His eyes twinkled through his spectacles. “Well, Julie, we want to help you. We know they’ve hurt you. We’re going to hurt them back, and we’d like your help.”

It was tempting. She’d always thought of them as enemies, even when they were telling her the truth. But they’d been enemies of her enemies, and so they had been her friends. But now, this man was offering his help to her, to her … “DON’T LISTEN TO THEM!” screamed a voice, and spots erupted behind her eyes as Randi morphed, grew – black scales erupted on his face, horns growing from his bald head, his glasses falling to the desk, shattering; furred bat wings unfurled, spread, brushed the walls and ceiling, looming over her. And now a smell like rotten eggs was strengthening; the room was darkening, and she could hear faint screams in the distance, like a chorus of damned souls.

She was dimly aware of her own screaming, of the stabs of pain spiking through her; the thing across the desk was prodding her with a pitchfork, leering at her. It stepped backward and lustily licked its lips, grabbing a giant organ from between its legs and –

The hellish scene shimmered and faded suddenly, and the previous scene returned with the bald, grandfatherly man looking concernedly down at her and two men with chiseled faces hovering right above her. One of the men said, “Hold still, sister. You’re almost safe.” There was a prick in her arm, and then she was happy, floating free down toward blessed oblivion.

Randi straightened up and looked over toward the door. The psychiatrists and a lab technician were filing through the door. “Did you guys get it?”

“Yes James, we did,” said Bullman. “Before we hashed the room with electronic white noise, the electronic surveillance system we had set up caught a faint signal. It was a miracle we picked it up at all, it was right on the edge of the spectrum covered by the ESM but it was there and we’ve recorded it. It has some strange properties, and we’re sending the records to the physicists next door. They’ll digitize it, feed it into our threat libraries and we’ll be able to monitor for it. Also, if we can feed the waveform into the computers controlling our own emitter systems, we should be able to transmit ourselves.

“Much more importantly, we’ve already figured out how to keep her, and others like her, safe and sound from any further interference.”

Randi cocked his head curiously. “And what’s that?”

“Well, James, the signal in question isn’t that much different from an electromagnetic pulse, you know that thing the scare stories have claimed would wipe out electronics worldwide. We’ve known how to defend against that for decades and the power levels are much lower here. So, building on that experience.” Bullman grinned and pulled a shiny contraption from his lab coat. “A hat made of aluminum foil.”

Recon Team Tango One-Five, Wadi Haran, Western Iraq.

“Control, we have baldricks, column advancing along the Pipeline Route. Estimated battalion force with company-level harpy cover.”

“Very good. Engage and harass.”

Lieutenant Jade “Broomstick” Kim acknowledged, the transferred her attention back to the mast-mounted sight on her AH-6J helicopter. A deft touch on the controls and the aircraft rose slightly so that the ball of the sight just peaked over the ridge. The picture hadn’t changed much, even though the column was mounted on the rhinolobsters, they were moving slowly. Well, slowly by United States Army standards, Broomstick guessed that by medieval standards they were fairly galloping along. That was excruciatingly slow when compared with the way the First Armored Division was moving up.

A long rectangle of rhinolobsters, each with its rider and a small group out in front. They’d have to be the command group. The primary subject of interest, the cream of the crop in this target-rich environment. Eliminate the command structure first, leave the combat elements floundering around without orders. It was a process the United States Army called ‘shaping the battlefield’. “Tango Leader to all Tango birds. Select Hellfire missiles, target the command group in front, ripple fire both missiles.”

Spaced out down the wadi, the three Little Birds gunner their engines slightly and lifted up still further. The column ahead was oblivious to their existence, even when the laser target designators locked into place. On her display, Broomstick could even see the designated targets starting to shift and scratch as the lasers irritated their skins. Then, a gentle squeeze on the firing button and the first of the Hellfires streaked off across the desert. Off to her left, a split second later, Tango-one-five-Bravo fired its first missile with Tango-one-five-Charlie following an instant after that. Broomstick had already selected her next target when she fired her second missile, as soon as she saw the explosion from the first hit she swung the laser to her selected victim and watched the Hellfire missile obediently switch targets. The explosions four thousand yards away seemed an almost continuous rolling thunder as the six missiles devastated the command group.

“All Tango-One-Five elements, jobs done, let’s get out of here.”

“We got a problem ell-tee.”

Broomstick looked across at the burning patch of desert where the baldrick command group had been. Above it the harpies were heading for the position of her three Little Birds, coming in very, very fast.

“Bug out, everybody bug out now. Max speed.” She rammed the throttles forward, swinging her helicopter into its high-speed position, trying to get away from the cloud of harpies that was closing on her.

“No good ell-tee. They’re faster than us.”

Broomstick didn’t acknowledge, she didn’t have to. The AH-6 could do about 180 miles per hour flat out and the harpies were closing the range. She pulled back and swung the nose round, flipping her armament selector switch to the pair of Stingers mounted on the side of her cockpit. The annunciator tone was mixed, even in the cold of a desert night, they were having difficulty locking on. It was no good, whatever lock they had would have to do. She fired into the mass of harpies, watching as one missile went through the formation without exploding, the other struck home and she saw a harpy briefly outlined in fire as the Stinger tore into it. There was another flare as well, but Broomstick had no time to congratulate herself or anybody else. She was turning away, diving, obeying the old rule, no matter how little height you have, trade height for speed. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that Tango-one-five-Charlie had left it too late. The Little Bird was engulfed in jets of fire from the harpies, its fuel tanks exploded and the flaming wreckage fell out of the sky to earth.

She was back in the wadi, heading away from the cloud of harpies, grimly aware they were closing in on her. “Control, engaged baldricks, command group badly hit. We are under attack by company-strength harpies, Charlie is already down. Two harpies down. Issue is in doubt. Tell others, don’t close in on harpies.”

Duty done, Broomstick spun her helicopter again and went straight at the formation of harpies pursuing her, her two miniguns blazing a long, long burst. It registered briefly that there were two piles of burning wreckage on the desert floor now and that she was alone. Bravo had gone. So had at least two more harpies, torn apart by the stream of bullets from her miniguns. Then, there was a clank and silence, she’d run out of ammunition. The harpies were on her, clinging to the airframe, tearing at it with their claws, kicking at the skin with their hooves. One was clinging to the cockpit canopy, smashing at it with its claws, trying to tear its way in. She could see the demented, screaming hate on its face, she could smell the stink of jet fuel as the harpies tore their way into the Little Bird’s structure. That was all she saw and smelt because that was when Tango-one-five-Alpha exploded.

There are 550 million firearms in the world, enough for one person in twelve of the world's population. The moral dilemma that faces us is how to arm the other eleven.

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 26, 2011 12:01 pm 
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309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona

She was an old lady, put away in her retirement home like all too many aged family members who were just too much trouble to look after. Her age showed in so many ways, her wrinkled skin, shabby appearance, general neglect. Another few months, a year or so at most, and she would have been gone, forgotten. Only now times had changed and those who had written her off as a relic of the past now found they needed The Gray Lady again.

“What about this one?”

The AMRG clerk looked at the tail number and turned to the page in the ledger. “This one’s a good prospect Sir. She hasn’t been stripped or cannibalized yet and she was in good condition when she arrived. I’d mark this one down as a definite.”

“Do it, we’ll get a team down here to work on her. The draft notices are going out this morning.” For once in its life, the U.S. Government was beginning to move fast. The re-institution of the draft had been authorized late the previous night with the highest priority being to get the maintenance and technical support personnel who had left the services over the last few years back into uniform. In a strange way, it was almost like the job being done here, inspecting the veterans and getting them back into service. The B-52G in front of them looked like an early candidate for a return to the colors.

“How many does that make?” Colonel Degan was in charge of this particular effort, a few hundred yards away, another team was going through the short line of eleven B-1Bs parked in storage. That team wasn’t doing well at all, the Bones here were in a hell of a mess. It was very doubtful if any of them could be repaired. The B-52s, that was another matter. Still, there had been some pleasant surprises, tucked away in one corner of the airfield had been a B-52H along with four B-1Bs and one of the surviving B-1As, all in perfect condition. What the latter was doing there was something of a minor mystery but it had been rumored for years that more B-1As had been built than the official records showed.

“There are 43 B-52s in repairable status Sir. Of those, 20 require a medium level of remedial repairs, the remainder, well, they’re a real mess. Take months if not years to fix them up. Shortage of engines is the main problem, they’ve all been stripped of those. Mind you. We’re not short of spare parts.”

That was true enough, Degan thought. There were 45 more B-52s in the Boneyard but they’d been scrapped. The wreckage was still here though, the wings shorn from the fuselage, the tails chopped off. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance of fixing the wrecks?”

“No Sir,” the technical officer was quite firm on that point. “The wing spar’s been chopped and the forge to make new ones was scrapped decades ago. Those birds are gone, at best they’re spare parts for the rest.” Degan grimaced. Those planes were badly needed. The technical officer saw the expression and sympathized. “Good news though Sir, the tactical boys have been through the line of F-111s, there’s 169 of them here and they reckon we can salvage enough to equip a group, fifty or sixty if we’re lucky. And the transport guys did even better, Lockheed-Martin are coming down to refurbish all twenty of the C-5s we have here.” In some cases that would mean almost a new aircraft, it was an old joke, ‘repairing” an aircraft meant lifting up its registration number and sliding a new aircraft underneath.

“Any word from the Rhino drivers?” There were literally hundreds of surplus F-4 Phantoms here and several teams were working their way through them, trying to find how many could be brought back into service. Not many, was one guess but times were desperate and at least F-4 components were still in production. That was the second batch of draft notices going out, by tomorrow a lot of airline pilots were going to be trying on their old Air Force and Navy uniforms again.

The technical officer shook his head. Those teams had a lot of work to do and it would be days before they finished. He scratched his head, the Arizona sun was beating down hard and the aluminum foil lining his baseball cap was getting uncomfortably hot. Still it was better than having some baldrick invading his mind and turning his thoughts to jelly. “OK Sir, I think we’re done with the bombers. You want to have a look at the KC-135s? See if any of those are fixable?”

“Lead on.” Degan looked back at the B-52 behind them. Already, people were starting to go over her in detail, listing all the fixes needed. There were 84 B-52s in USAF service and another 9 in the Air Force Reserve, if they could bring that up to 120 with the aircraft salvaged from here, it would be a decisive step forward.

Oval Office, The White House, Washington D.C.

“Did it pass Dick?”

“It did indeed. 99 in favor, one against, you can guess who that was. Effective as of 1800 Washington Time, the United States of America has formally declared war on Hell. Unconditional declaration, first time we’ve had one of those for decades. We’ve issued a conditional ultimatum to Heaven as well. Unless they open the gates and surrender those who closed them for trial within 72 hours, a state of war will exist there as well. Civilian mobilization bill is through, reserves mobilization bill is through, first issue of war bonds will be released tomorrow.

“Next stage is to mobilize industry, we’re making plans for that now. We’ve got the leaders of our major defense contractors up all night, working out what they need and how we can ramp up production. At the moment we’re concentrating on getting ammunition supplies increased, we’re expecting to use up our stocks of Hellfire and AMRAAM missiles pretty fast at the rate we’re going, as for aircraft we’re hoping Davis-Monthan will bridge the gap until upped production rates start to fill the gap. Ships can wait for the time being, tanks and armored vehicles will be more important, at least in the short term.

“Mister President?” Condoleezza Rice was punctilious about using the President’s formal title when other people were around.

“Condi.” President Bush turned around, taking quick note of the Secretary Rice’s headgear. “Nice hat.”

Rice smiled in appreciation, she’d been on the telephone to Donna Karan to have her aluminum foil hat designed professionally. After she’d been appointed Secretary of State, one of the satirists had said that her appointment marked the first time in its history when the United States had a Secretary of State who looked good naked. She thought that was a little over the top but at least she’d always taken pride in her wardrobe.

“Good news Sir. The Indian Ambassador has just told us that the Indian Air Force are sending a combat wing to Iraq. A squadron of Su-30MKIs interceptors, two of Jaguar ground attack aircraft. Even better, the new Iranian Government is opening up its airfields to us. That gives us some badly needed depth. General Petraeus was worried about how close our airfields in Iraq are to the invasion. Word from the Israelis, they’re moving up from the east now, their F-15s will be available to give top cover when we need them.”

The President nodded, one of the problems in this situation was that the bulk of America’s F-15 fleet was grounded with structural problems. That left the country short of heavy fighters, privately he wondered if that was a coincidence or not. Just how long had the enemy been planning this assault?

Al Habariyah, Iraq

The clear yellow light was painful to the eyes of beings accustomed to the comforting red skies and dust clouds of Hell. Not that there wasn’t enough dust here but it was the choking clouds of silica, not the soft, warm touch of volcanic pumice. The accursed sand was getting into Hornaklishdarmar’s hooves, rubbing even his hardened skin raw. Glancing across at the eight demons in his contubernium, he could see they were having the same trouble. When they’d first entered this world, they’d held straight ranks, lined up in perfect parade order but that had been long abandoned. Now, the legion was straggling, spread out, its ranks tangled as the fitter or less feeling had moved ahead and the lesser spirits had lagged behind.

It wasn’t as if this area was actually worth the discomfort. On the long march from the portal, the legion had seen nothing of any value, just the empty desert and the accursed sand. At least now they were approaching some sort of civilization, a collection of huts, so poor that they didn’t even have doors, just some sort of blanket hung in the entrance. There were even one of the human’s weird four-wheeled chariots, a white thing with a boxy body at the side of the road, its front wheels crushed and broken. Obviously abandoned as the humans had run from the approaching legion.

“Lords! Have mercy on me! I beg you, forgive me for not submitting to you sooner. I was mislead by traitors who denied you. Forgive me and accept my obeisance.”

Up in front of him, Hornaklishdarmar could see the human run out from one of the buildings, an older human, portly and dressed in a flowing robe. He dropped to his knees in front of the legion. Hornaklishdarmar saw the commander of his Octurnia go towards the man, raising his trident to strike him down.

Hornaklishdarmar was on his knees, his head ringing from the terrible blast that had suddenly engulfed the human and the demon poised to kill him. The human had gone, only his head was left, rolling in the dust leaving a wet trail behind on the sand. The commander of the Octurnia had gone completely, just yellow smears on the ground behind where he had been. Several of his staff were down, screaming, ripped open by the blast. Hornaklishdarmar saw the other demons of the legion edging away from the scene and the hut from where the man had come. Suddenly, the sight alarmed the demon, there was something wrong.

Now, Hornaklishdarmar was on his back, and he could see the yellow fluids leaking from his body. His instinct had saved his life but he was still hurt. Where the truck had been was now just a crater, black, smoking, surrounded by the dead bodies of demons, tens of them, some smashed and pulped beyond recognition, others still demonic in form but dreadfully still. Yet others were worse that dreadful, writhing and threshing with the wounds ripped in them by shrapnel. He pressed his arm into the vicious rip in his skin, feeling the comfort the pressure caused, and looked at the scene again. It had been planned, he could see it now. The first man, the fat one, had caused the demons to crowd back against the truck, packed them around that second, huge explosion. It had all been planned, very skillfully planned.

Operation Iraqi Freedom Headquarters, Baghdad, Iraq

General Petraeus stood before the transmission screen and waited for it to light up with the link from Washington. His briefing would be going direct to the command center in the White House and to as many of the growing list of allies as could be provided with the equipment.

“Mister President Sir. My situation report.

“We have identified the enemy force as eight infantry divisions, three cavalry brigades and one airborne brigade. The enemy main body consists of four infantry divisions and is advancing towards Khan Al Baghdadi. It is preceded by one of the cavalry brigades supported by an airborne battalion. The cavalry brigade itself is split into three columns each containing three cavalry battalions supported by three airborne companies. At the moment, we are falling back in front of that force, we have no wish to engage it at this time.

“To the north is a flanking force consisting of two infantry divisions. They’re moving close to the Syrian border, again with a cavalry brigade in front supported by harpies. We’ve been harassing that screening force overnight, I’m sorry to report that the 160th Aviation Brigade took significant losses, at least a dozen AH-6 and MH-6 helicopters were lost to Harpies. We’ve learned from that, the Harpies make helicopter operations too dangerous, we’re going to have to eliminate them before we can send helicopter-based forces in again. However, their sacrifice was not in vain, we’re driving their reconnaissance elements in on the main body and we’ve severely hit their command and control structure. We believe we’ve eliminated a significant proportion of their battalion and brigade level command staff. A brigade of the First Armored Division is moving into position around Al Qaim. It’s a perfect kill zone, with their recon element driven in, their heading into it blind.

“To the south is another screening force, identical to the one in the North. We haven’t done much about that one yet but the British are moving up a mechanized battle group to handle it. We had word from al Qaeda a few minutes ago, they hit one of the infantry divisions with a combined suicide and truck bomb attack. They claim to have killed more than sixty baldricks including a part of the brigade command group. We can’t confirm the numbers but a Global Hawk has confirmed the attack.” Petraeus paused for a second. “Sir, I still can’t get used to feeling pleased about an IED incident.

“Overall, we’re about to start the main phase of our defense. We’re going to kick the northern and southern screening forces in and push them back on the main body. That will put them in a kill zone west of the Hawr Al Habbaniyah. As we compress them in that area, we’ll be hitting them with artillery and all the tactical air we can bring up. If we stop them, we can drive them back across the desert, all the way back to the Hellmouth. If we can’t stop them there, the only way forward is through two narrow necks of land, north of the Bahr al Milh and south of the Buhayrat Ath Tharfar. Those are also perfect killing grounds and give us a another chance at them.”

“They won’t get through?” President Bush sounded concerned. The heavily populated Tigris-Euphrates valley was in the direct path of the advancing baldricks.

“No Sir, we’ll stop them dead. After a while, all their added numbers means they’ll be piling more bodies into the kill zone. The days when an army could be swamped by sheer weight of numbers are gone. The way we’re mauling their command structure, once they’ve started advancing into the killing ground, they won’t be able to stop, the sheer pressure of the forces at the rear will drive them forward.”

“General.” Rice smiled an apology for the interruption. “Be advised, we’ve just heard from the Russians. They’re sending down forces from their southern military region. Armored divisions, battle experienced from Chechnya, they’re coming through Iran. They’ll be with you in a few days, you can count on them for reinforcements.”

“Thank you ma’am, that’s good to know. If you’re speaking to the Russians, could you ask them for their Smerch rocket launchers. We need all the salvo rocket artillery we can get here. Also, their Luna short-range ballistic missiles, we’ve got ATACMS here but we need something with a bit more reach.”

“I’ll do that. The Iranians are promising to send help as well. Any requests?”

“Fuel. That more than anything. We’re going to need all the fuel we can get. We can’t cope with these baldricks in a slugging match, we have to maneuver them to death. One thing my people here are asking. Why here? For the sort of enemy we’re fighting, this is perfect ground for us. No restrictions on maneuver, no civilians to get in the way, we can use every scrap of firepower we’ve got. So why here? Why not straight into New York or Washington? Come to think of it, why aren’t we seeing more hellmouths opening up anyway?”

Vice President Cheney leaned forward. “We have a theory on that, we think that for some reason the Middle East is where is easiest for them to open the portal, it may be the only place they can open a portal we don’t know. But we think that its no coincidence that all the reports of monsters, hells, battles between good and evil etc start in this area. We don’t know but that’s our guess. Anyway, don’t knock it, its better we fight them out there than back here.”

Petraeus laughed. “I’ve heard that before. Another question, a policy one. We’re likely to start taking prisoners soon. What do you want us to do with them.”

Rice’s voice was decisive. “Ship them to Gitmo.”

“I thought we were closing that place?”

“We were, but plans changed. Its under international management now. It’s being organized by the Italians, Bangladesh is providing the funding, the Germans the guards, the Russians the political speeches, the Belgians the entertainment, the Japanese the music and the British are providing the food.”

Petraeus visibly winced at the thought. “Ma’am, that’s inhuman. Please, whoever thought that arrangement up, buy them a beer for me.”

“Why, thank you General. I’ll enjoy it.

There are 550 million firearms in the world, enough for one person in twelve of the world's population. The moral dilemma that faces us is how to arm the other eleven.

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 26, 2011 12:02 pm 
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Muncie, Indiana, United States of America

Muncie was a small town, typical of the American rust belt. Highly religious, conservative, with 65,000 people before the Message and 50,000 after, the city had been ailing even before a quarter of the population had laid down and died. The manufacturing industry had been slowly abandoning the city for decades, leaving it with rusting, overgrown factories, a 23 percent poverty rate, and a hospital and university as the largest employers. The Message had hit the town hard, too as it had most of the rural, conservative American Midwest, leaving the local economy in shambles and even further down the toilet.

Sharon McShurley, newly elected mayor, was sitting at her desk in the Town Hall wondering for the millionth time that day what she was going to do when the telephone rang. She picked it up. “Hello, the Mayor speaking.”

“Mrs. McShurley?” The voice was male and unfamiliar.

“Yes? May I ask who this is?”

“This is Nathan Feltman, Secretary of Commerce for Indiana.”

“Ah, Mr. Feltman. How can I help you?”

“Mrs. McShurley, I was contacted not five hours ago by Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez. You know of The Message?”

“Of course.”

“And of the developments in Iraq?”

“Of course. It's been all over the news.” Truth was, she'd been doing little more than watch the news since The Message. There had seemed so little she could do even to regain control over her small town.

“Secretary Gutierrez has informed me that the United States is immediately shifting to a war economy. I don't know how things will work on the military side, but on the economic side, we're going to be ramping up production as fast as possible. I've already spoken with the mayors of Indianapolis, Gary-Hammond, Fort Wayne, Evansville, and Anderson. Do you have a list of production overcapacity and unused assets in Muncie?”

“Yes, we do.” Unemployment was just the single most pressing problem in the city, and had been for thirty years.

“We need to compare our list with yours, and then we'll send the updated version to the US Department of Commerce. They'll be asking corporations to buy them up and get working on military equipment. Given Indiana's central location, rail accessibility, and manufacturing history, we'll be up near the top.”

Feltmann gave McShurley the fax number for the Indiana Department of Commerce, and within twenty minutes, the substantial list of old factories, closed-up warehouses, abandoned rail yards, and defunct properties was on its way to Indianapolis. A half hour and two double-checks later, it was again winging its way through cyberspace to Washington, D.C., where an undersecretary of commerce opened it and copy-pasted its contents into a secure website, open only to the procurement officers of the vast national and international corporations which supplied the US military with its equipment.

The next day, McShurley was in her office when the phone rang again. “Hello?”

“Mayor Sharon McShurley?” Another unfamiliar voice.


“This is John Walker, with Borg Warner Automotive. In light of the recent developments, we've decided not to close down the plant in Muncie. Instead, we're retooling it to provide transmissions for tanks.”

“Well, that's certainly happy news. Thank you.”

The man hung up, McShurley got back to her paperwork, and within a half hour the phone rang again. “Hello?”

“Mayor Sharon McShurley of Muncie?”


“I'm James Torida of General Dynamics Land Systems. We have acquired an older factory in Muncie to build M1A2 parts, and we would like the cooperation of the local government in finding employees and in renovating and retooling the plant as quickly as possible.”

“We'd love to help in any way we can.”

They discussed the details of the deal for fifteen minutes, then hung up. McShurley heaved a sigh – two in one day! Wow!

The phone rang again fifteen minutes later. It was General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, wanting again cooperation, tax breaks, etc., to get another old plant up and running, this time to manufacture AIM-120C missile casings. McShurley was more than willing to cooperate.

Before business hours ended, three more corporations had called. One wanted to acquire land to build a fourth railroad track south through the city; apparently, it was working on a line south from Chicago to Cincinnati and the Ohio River to supply raw materials from the mines in Minnesota and Ontario down to barges on the Ohio. The second had bought two abandoned warehouses on the south side of Muncie and wanted to open up the old trackyard to the warehouses to help supply the rejuvenated factories. The third was applying for a construction permit for the properties northwest of town that had so recently been slated for urban sprawl.

804 South Tillotson Ave., Muncie, Indiana, USA

Jim Schenkel had been a tool machinist for forty years before being laid off from his long-time job in 2003. He'd elected to retire instead of pursuing another job, and for the past five years he'd followed the same schedule: up at six, drink his coffee, read the morning paper over toast, an egg, and a glass of orange juice, tend his gardens until lunch, eat a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, monitor his investments and piddle around in his workshop until dinner, eat a bowl of soup, then watch the news until 10.

It was 1:30 AM when the phone rang. Groggily, he rolled over, and picked up the receiver on the sixth ring. “Hello?”

“Jim? Jack Roberts here.” Jack Roberts was his old supervisor at the ABB factory, before they'd all been fired and the place shut down.

“Jack? Why the hell are you calling me at –“ he squinted at the clock – “1:30 in the morning?”

“Jim, you're re-hired. We need you in tomorrow morning at 6:30.”

“What the hell's going on, Jack?”

“The factory's been started back up for the war effort. We need all the equipment repaired and retooled; the management wants the lines rolling in a week.”

“... the hell? I'm retired, goddamnit.”

“Like I said, we need you back. To be blunt, Jim, you don't have a choice. We'll send men out to get you if you can't make it on your own.”

“I don't give –“ he stared at the receiver, listening to the audible dial tone.

The next morning, at 6:30, he pulled into the parking lot of the ABB factory on the south side of town, and stared. It was packed with cars, and people were streaming toward the factory. The factory itself was brightly lit; the loading docks were packed with semis, and parts were already starting to form small piles waiting to be taken inside. He parked his car and joined the flow of humanity heading back to work.

That morning, The Star Press headlines read, “Look out, Baldricks! Here comes Muncie!” That day, the Mayor's office received eight more phone calls from corporations, and the first semis and trains started to roll into the city as construction equipment started to move away from the university – which had agreed to put its new dorm on hold for the time being to aid in the war effort – and toward the old, broken-down factories. Overnight, the city had been transformed.

And it wasn't alone. All across the eastern Midwest, the rust belt was being de-oxidized. Surveyors were entering old factories, cleaning companies entering and sweeping up dust, weeds being cleared and broken windows replaced. Lights that hadn't shone for decades were being turned on and replaced; cars were parking in lots that were more grass than gravel and hadn't been touched by tires for thirty years. More and more trains were rolling out of yards and thundering down the immense but ailing network of tracks connecting American cities to each other, and tractor-trailer semis were moving down the highways in huge fleets, carrying piping and wires and tools and other implements of the new war economy.

If Satan could have looked up from Hell and seen this, if he had wanted to learn about his enemies, if he had been capable of comprehending the vast network of the US economy and felt the rage at betrayal coursing through the collective veins of that nation, he might have felt that he was seeing the first traces of life in the resurrection of a giant long dead. But in the next dimension, sitting on his throne, lording over his sulfurous domain, and trying to figure out how fifteen of the senior generals in Abigor's army had spontaneously exploded, these thoughts never even occurred to him. Ignorance is bliss, until the first bombs start dropping.

Moscow, Russia

And these changes were hardly unique to the US. In Russia, Vladimir Putin had immediately accelerated the redevelopment of the military; old factories closed during the economic woes of the 1990s were being reopened, old mines and oil wells were being rechecked for viability. The storage depots and military installations were being searched for equipment, tanks, armored carriers, artillery that had been sitting in storage for a decade or more was being refurbished. New tracks were being laid, and the first of tens of thousands of new T-90S tanks were rolling off the final assembly lines even as he walked toward this meeting, flanked by security forces.

Putin entered the church, and crossed himself before the altar before he turned to the men gathered there, about ten in all: the heads of the Russian mob. He spoke first, taking charge, as always. “Gentlemen. You are not stupid; you know why I've gathered you here today.”

They all nodded with varying degrees of alacrity. Putin continued. “Now, the human species faces a threat greater than anything it has ever faced in its past. We – I and all of you – face not just extinction, but eternal damnation. This is now our reality.” He paused to evaluate what he saw in their faces. Blank, hard, determined – they share the vision, he reminded himself, just like every live human now. “Therefore, in return for amnesty from prosecution for any crimes which may have been committed prior to the Message, I would like to request that all of you cease from any illegal activities in which you may now be engaged.”

There was a small stir in the room. One, a fat man with an unlit cigar drooping from his lips, spoke. “Sir, with all due respect, why do you take us for criminals.”

As he spoke, Putin fixed him with a lidless stare until the other man dropped his gaze. “We are not stupid, you nor I. You know that I called you here today; you know that I am aware of who you all are in actuality and where you may be found. These things are not unknown to the government.”

“Then why are we guaranteed amnesty?”

“Because the fabric of society must not buckle during this war. All of you are hard men; we need such men to help prepare our society for the terrors of a war on the very forces of Hell. And we will need such men to administer the territories of Hell once it has been conquered. I am asking all of you to become respectable, but I am not asking you to lose profits.”

That seemed to seal it for most of them. As he walked away, Putin allowed himself a thin smile. Russia would show the world what she was capable of, and Russia would play her part in fighting eternal damnation now and forever.

The Fifth Circle of Hell

Lieutenant Jade Kim tried to move. She was stretched out on some form of frame, her wrists secured by an bronze shackle with a heavy spike driven through the palm of her hands. The pain caused by her moving was severe but that was the least of her problems. She was submerged in a ghastly mass that seemed to be comprised of equal portions of mud, toxic waste and raw sewage, she was drowning in it, only able to breath by the occasional drafts of air as the movement of the foul swamp briefly exposed her face. She had no idea how long she’d been here but she did know she’d be in this place for eternity unless she did something about it. Or, worse, she might be hauled out for another dose of the treatment she’d got when she had arrived. Gang rape was so unimaginative but she knew that if she hadn’t already been dead, the internal damage the baldricks had done would have killed her.

Time for applying the lessons driven home at SERE school. The drill taught by the instructors, Survive, Evade, Resist and Escape. Lesson in part four was that all bonds would loosen in time if worked on. Of course she’d never been nailed down at SERE. The spike through her hand was the first problem, until that was out, she couldn’t do much else. She twisted her hand around, trying to get a grip on the spike, succeeded even though the effort sent waves of pain up her arm. Then she started to rock it from side to side. She had no idea how long she kept trying for, it seemed like forever, but suddenly she was aware the spike was moving slightly with her pressure. Encouraged, she kept up the effort, feeling the motion increasing as the spike worked free. Then, at last, it was loose and she worked it up through her fingers, exquisitely careful not to drop it. Who knew how deep this found much was and anything dropped would never be found again.

But, with the spike free, she had a lever at last. Still with painstaking care, she worked it around and pushed it under the iron bracket that held her wrist down. Once more she started to push, levering the bracket away from its frame. In time, it loosened and she took a deep breath. The way she had been taught, she crossed her thumb over the palm of her hand and wrenched. Her hand slid under the shackle, scraping skin off in the process but her arm was free. That made levering the rest of the bronzework off her much, much easier. Her arms and legs freed, she was able to move and she now had four spikes as weapons.

The sight once she got her head out of the muck was grim, some sort of river meandering through the gray, foul-smelling wasteland. Enough to fill anybody with despair which was, she supposed, quite intentional. There were rocky outcrops from the swamp, breaking the featureless plain but they didn’t matter too much right now. She’d survived and escaped, now it was time to evade. She stood, sinking in the foul mess up to her waist, and started to make her way to one of the rocks. It would be a start, but she’d only managed a few feet when she bumped into another cross under the mud. Instinctively, she reached down to clean the filth off the face of the victim.

“Hi ell-tee.” It was McInery, the pilot of Tango-one-five-Charlie.

“Hi Mac. Hold tight. I’ll help you get out of this.” With her spikes as levers, she was able to pry the shackles off quickly. “Salvage the spikes, we’re going to need them.”

She looked around quickly, it suddenly occurred to her that all the members of her unit would probably be close at hand. It didn’t take long to prove that correct and not much longer to get the six members of Recon Team Tango One-Five out.

“You’re out of uniform ell-tee.” McInery noted the fact casually. Kim looked at him and laughed, the first time that sound had been heard here for longer than anybody could remember.

“So are you sergeant.” She reached out and quickly drew three chevrons in the mud that coated them all. “There, that’s better.”

“You OK ell-tee?” Robinson, her co-pilot on Tango-one-five-Alpha spoke with pity in his voice, another thing that had never been heard for longer than anybody knew.

Kim glanced down, the damage the demons had done to her was obvious, even though the wounds were healing unnaturally fast. “Won’t do much good for my future sex life.” Then her voice caught and shook as the memory quickly overwhelmed her. “It wasn’t the size, it was the barbs.” Then she shook herself. It was gone, past. Now was time for the group to evade.

Only, something else got in the way. Or, to be more precise, the supervisor of this area did. Jarakeflaxis was doing his routine rounds, amusing himself by disemboweling some of the humans choking in the swamp. In truth, he wasn’t paying much attention to his surroundings, he’d been doing this round for millennia. He heard something, that wasn’t unusual, moans, screams wails, all were quite familiar to him. Only this sounded like a human woman yelling “take him down.” Then six figures smacked into him, knocking him over and swarming on top of him.

Jarakeflaxis couldn’t believe it, they were humans. What were free humans doing here? They were slamming metal spikes into him, keeping him pinned down as he floundered in the mud. One of the humans was the woman he and his friends had enjoyed not so long ago. She had a spike in her hand and he could see the gratification in her eyes as she started her swing. Then, he could see nothing because they’d driven their spikes into his eyes and he was blinded.

Kim looked down at the torn, shattered body. Rage, hatred and Krav Maga had killed Jarakeflaxis, killed him dead. So started the Resist bit of SERE. “Well done boys. Get him over to the rock there.”

They dragged the body over, then Kim drove spikes through its hands, crucifying it against the outcrop. Then, she dipped the hand in its green blood and painted four letters over the scene.

“PFLH?” McInery was confused.

“People’s Front for the Liberation of Hell.” Kim grinned savagely. “That’s us boys. Let’s tear this place apart.”

Wadi Al Khirr, Western Iraq
Memnon hissed softly and sniffed the remains of his companions. Groztith and Hezbitari had been flying next to him, soaring on the very ethers of this world savoring the panic and the fear. It was like the sweetest nectar to their refined senses. These monkeys were clever little things, they always had been but who would have imagined they would have come so far as to fly themselves in chariots of steel and plastic? Plastic. Memnon snorted in confusion. What was it? It was hard like metal yet he could divine nothing of the earth from it. No metal, no ore. It had no elemental song within itself, it did not sing, it did not even hum. It was a dead thing this plastic that only told him its name and nothing more.

Yet these chariots of steel and plastic had been so very deadly, yes. Unleashing arrows of fire and steel that tore through ethereal flesh with rude abruptness and unerring accuracy his wing mates were overcome. Groztith barely had time to chant its challenge to the once-born. The arrows tore him into this pool of viscera and smoking bone. Memnon groaned slightly as his ruined left shoulder began throbbing again, ephemeral essence gelling and congealing over the gaping wound where his massive leathery wings had been. The chariots had eyes and they were not fooled.

It had taken all of his will to overcome the pain and panic as another human arrow of steel and fire had pinned him between his once proud wings. Hezbitari was dead as well, the leering face plastered against the cracked tree trunk to his left. The rest of the demonic form was sprayed in a smoldering mess splashed among the tree tops and underbrush. "You're a fool Hezbitari." Memnon growled as he made it up to his cloven hooves and steadied himself. Above him he still heard the chariots roaring triumphantly as they raced away after having circled over his clearing these last few minutes.

His senses smelled the approaching monkeys before he heard them and he licked his lips. He smelled more plastic and steel and he knew they were armed with weapons that wounded far worse than simple steel swords and spears. It did not matter. Briefly, it was like the old days, he had the advantage. He had their minds before they even knew he was there. These ones were not like the others, the ones whose minds seemed shielded by something he couldn’t explain. These ones, the ones in the long robes, were vulnerable still. He held their minds in his hands and carefully formed the image of himself, transparent, invisible in his own. They would see what he wanted them to and that was nothing. He let loose a deep throaty laugh like some predator from this world's bygone days. Memnon liked to play with his food. It was time for his pound of flesh.

The first monkey peered over some underbrush, carefully keeping his crafted spear of plastic and steel before him like a talisman. Memnon stood imperiously, arms crossed and quietly waited as more of them approached, tentative and fearful. Some whispered curses as they saw the charred remains of his wing mates blasted all over the clearing. Several were easily within an arm's length of the never-born as it watched them with cold satisfaction. Twelve of them in all moved in tight formation into the clearing. What an auspicious number, Memnon mused.

Arabic. The language was Arabic. His gift of tongues was perfect as he listened to the monkeys musing and whispering as they examined the remains of his wing brothers. By the time the clouds overhead lifted and the sun shown down on these fields the ephemeral flesh and bone would boil and hiss away. One of them lifted a box to his ears and spoke into it. He could feel the ether sparking around him and trilling with voices. They were communicating over distances without seeing their audience. He had heard of this phenomenon from those who dared venture into this plain. He did not believe it until now.

"Clever little monkeys, you have come far." He finally spoke breaking the silence in perfect flawless Arabic save for the omnipresent low growl that undercut every syllable. Some of the al-Quaeda men whirled around and began firing wildly. They could not see him.

No matter. It was time for his pound of flesh. One of the humans stared dumbly down at his chest as a taloned claw erupted from his chest in a gruesome spray of crimson gore and bone. The soldier's eyes focused on the still beating heart held in the claws like an obscene flower before dimming forever. Memnon shuddered in near orgasmic joy as he felt the passage of the Essence through him and into the depths of his realm. The fallen soldier’s fellows screamed incomprehensibly in a panic, some fumbling for grenades and others were firing into the smoky form dancing along the edges of their perceptions. They heard the guttural chant of challenge from their unseen attacker and some of them found their bowels turned to water and fear gripped them as surely as the talon gripped the hapless soldier's heart. They had come to set up another roadside bomb, to strike another blow at the satans who had invaded earth but it was they who had been ambushed. Memnon's eyes rolled into the back of his head like a Great White Sharks' revealing black within black eyes, lifeless, like a doll's eyes, and he descended upon the children of Seth and ravaged them as only the never-born could with divine fury and hunger. Their screams could be heard for kilometers and then there was only a sudden still silence.

There are 550 million firearms in the world, enough for one person in twelve of the world's population. The moral dilemma that faces us is how to arm the other eleven.

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 26, 2011 12:05 pm 
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Wadi Al Jaram, Western Iraq
“Now hollow fires burn out to black, and lights are guttering low.
Square your shoulders, lift your pack, and leave your friends and go.
Oh, never fear, man, nought's to dread, look not to left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread, there's nothing but the night.”

“Sorry Sir?”

“Houseman, poem called ‘A Shropshire Lad’ about the kids who died fighting for Queen Victoria in far-off parts of the Empire. How they left home and died for thirteen pence a day. His theme was that they couldn’t see what they were dying for or the point of it all. We’re spared that, we know what we’re fighting for here.” Brigadier John Carlson glanced down at his watch. “Today. When dawn comes, we will be fighting for everything there is to fight for. There’s literally nothing we won’t be fighting for.”

“That’s not true Sir.” Simon deVere Cole, Carlson’s ADC was speaking equally softly. “We’re not fighting for God. Queen and Country, yes. Our people, yes. The whole of humanity, yes. But not God. Never again. We stand for ourselves this day, on our own two feet. The men are saying its about time too.”

“That’s good. I wish there were just a few more of them.” That was the truth. Carlson had the British Brigade here, The Royal Dragoon Guards, a regiment of Challenger II tanks, were dug in along the ridgeline, with the 1st Duke of Lancaster and 1st Mercian, two battalions of mechanized infantry with their Warrior armored carriers, beside them. From the front, all that could be seen of them was the tops of their turrets peeking over the ridge. From behind, the tanks were sitting in open-backed revetments so they could fall back from this position to the next. Carlson looked up at the stars overhead. It was a trite cliché that looking up at them made man and his works seem insignificant and now it was a false cliché as well. For today, man’s works made the heavens themselves insignificant. And Carlson had just a regiment of tanks and two battalions of mechanized infantry. Plus his artillery batteries of course and a lot of engineers. One advantage of a “peace-keeping” mission was that there were a lot of civilian development projects involved and they had needed engineers. Those engineers had been hard at work for the last few days.

Out in front, he could see the result of their labors. A shimmering river that stretched north and south as far as he could see, glistening gently in the moonlight. It was a beautiful sight if one didn’t know what the silver river was, to those who had seen what razor-wire could do, it glimmered with evil promise. Yet even worse was what nobody could see until it was too late, the thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines sewn across the front. Carlson’s plan was quite simple, all good military plans were. He would break the enemy attack on the minefields and wire while his artillery poured fire into the mass of enemy hung up in front of him. As they broke through the mines and wire, as they surely would, his tanks would slaughter them while the infantry protected the tanks. The wire and the mines were his force multiplier, the thing that would allow him to stand against the force threatening him.

He ran those figures through his mind as well, 93,300 infantry, 6,666 cavalry, 2,187 harpies. Less those killed by attrition in the long march to contact. Against them, he had just over 8,000 men. The government in the UK had promised him more, but they were a long time coming, years of British under-spending on defense had seen to that. Those years were gone but even with the Government printing all the money it needed for the war effort, it would take time for the added production to reach the front. The RAF had only four C-17 transports and their first priority had been to fly aluminum foil out to the theater. Every man in his force now had his helmet lined with aluminum foil and the people in the rear were handing rolls of the stuff out to the civilians. In a strange way, this was already shaping up to be one of the great logistics achievements of the war. A concerted effort to give every human on earth his own aluminum foil hat. Carlson chuckled, he suddenly had a picture of aluminum haberdashery becoming a study topic at Sandhurst.

“Sir. General Fereidoon Zolfaghari to see you.” deVere Cole interrupted the train of thought.

“General, Sir.” Carlson snapped out the salute. The Iranian General returned it punctiliously.

“I think you will be pleased to see me Brigadier.” The English was excellent. “I have brought with me the Shamshar Armored Division. Three of my regiments of T-72s, 324 tanks, are moving into position along your left while we speak, supported by a regiment of armored infantry, 108 BMP-1s. We have not the excellent position you have here but the Global Hawks tell us the enemy will strike your position first. When they die on your wire, we think they will try and flank you. They cannot go to your right, the Hawr al Hammar prevents that. They must go to the left, right into the guns of my tanks and artillery.”

“We’re more than pleased to see you General, you’re a sight for sore eyes. We’re expecting to get hit after dawn. That glow on the horizon? It’s the Baldrick’s campfires.” A thought occurred to Carlson. “Have all your men aluminum foil for their helmets? We have plenty if you are in need.”

“The Americans gave us enough, thank you, but I will spread word. If any of my units are short, we will come to you. If I may offer you some help in return? You are very light on anti-aircraft here. I have an extra anti-aircraft regiment, the Shamshar is a composite division, made up from what is left of all four of our southern armored divisions. So many of our men went when The Message was sent, we could not support all the units we had. At least it means we are not short of front-line equipment for those we have left. I would be honored if you would accept the attachment of the regiment to your force. It has SA-8 missiles and ZSU-23/4 guns.”

“Thank you, I am honored to accept. General, I was about to have some tea, a little fruit. It is poor refreshment to offer a comrade in arms, but perhaps you would deign to join us?”

“I would prefer a glass of the whisky for which your Scots are so famous.” Carlson lifted an eyebrow and Zolfaghari smiled gently. “The pact is broken, the commandments do not apply. Now we have faith only in our tanks and guns.”

Like any good ADC deVere Cole had anticipated his Brigadier’s needs and a bottle of 18 year old Laphroig had appeared. He measured out glasses for the two officers.

“Oh come on Simon, pour one for yourself as well.”

“Thank you Sir.”

“To the morrow and may the day be ours.” Carlson’s voice rang across the moonlit desert.

“And to our arms. May we bring honor to our countries and those we fight beside.” Zolfaghari’s response echoed across the dunes. Below them, the razor wire seemed to sway in response but it was just the wind rippling across the sand.

Headquarters, Multi-National Force Iraq, Green Zone, Baghdad.

General Petraeus stood in front of the great screen that showed the disposition of forces in Iraq. Viewed one way, what he was about to do was committing an act of mass murder. The thought made him chuckle quietly to himself, a long time ago he’d held a press conference and the subject of night vision equipment had come up. The American officer behind the podium had explained how the U.S. Army had night vision equipment that enabled them to fight a 24-hour battle while their enemy didn’t have anything approaching that capability. One journalist had been greatly angered by that and had launched a tirade about how the one-sided night-fighting capability “wasn’t fair.”

Well, what was happening now wasn’t fair either. The screen showed the disposition and order of battle of the Hellish forces in great detail. The Predators and Global Hawks were doing sterling work, tracking every move the baldricks made. Zoom down far enough and the display could show how and where individual baldricks were deploying and spending their time. It was painfully obvious that the baldricks had no such capability. They were charging head-first into a trap, unwavering, unconcerned with what the humans were doing. Petraeus was doing his best to help them, his aircraft had been carefully hitting the command structure of the enemy forces, slowly but surely breaking up their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

It was far worse even than that. The baldricks were moving slowly, as a professional, Petraeus recognized them for what they were, an infantry army that moved like one. Slowly, ponderously. They had their cavalry out as screens of course but it was a myth that cavalry forces could move much faster than leg infantry, they could in a tactical sense but the difference strategically was marginal at best. The harpies had been more of a worry, there had been an effort to use them as an advance guard but they’d been shot out of the sky by the F-16s based at Kirkuk and Incirlik. The small detachments, usually three at a time hadn’t stood a chance against the fast jets and after a while, their commander had stopped sending them out.

In contrast, the Allied forces were mobile almost to the point of insanity. They could slash at an enemy formation, disengage, regroup and slash again while their enemy was still wondering what to do about the first attack. Petraeus had moved the whole of his First Armored Division against the northern flanking force. Petraeus grimaced, the northern force was identical to that bearing down on the British Brigade but the British formation was the weakest of all of his combat groups. It was a calculated risk, nobody could be strong everywhere and the British position was the easiest to defend in depth. If the baldricks broke through there, Petraeus had two brigades of the Fourth Infantry Division north of the battle area and the 82nd Airborne in Kuwait ready to pinch off the breakthrough.

In the center, Petraeus had positioned his 25th Mechanized Infantry Division, the 10th Mountain Division and the 15th Marine Expeditionary Brigade. They were his stop line, intended to hold the main body of the baldrick force. Only, Petraeus didn’t intend to stop them If the baldrick commander had anything like the command capabilities at Petraeus’s disposal he could have seen what the American General actually had in mind. The main body of the baldrick force would indeed be pinned on the American Corps in front of Baghdad but while they threshed there, the allied northern and southern forces would be closing in on their flanks and rear. By the time they realized what was happening, the racing tanks of the First Armored would be between them and the hellmouth. It had all the makings of a military catastrophe.

Petraeus knew that if he pulled this off, it would go down as one of the greatest envelopments of all time, comparable with those the Germans had pulled off at the start of their war with Russia. That was one of the things that made Petraeus uneasy, for all the scale of those early victories, the Germans had lost the war with Russia and most skilled strategists knew that they had never really had a chance of doing otherwise. What was facing the baldricks was an unparalleled military disaster yet Petraeus knew in his heart that this was just the opening move. He had no idea of the military resources hell could throw at Earth and until he had a handle on that data, he was fighting blind. All he could do was make sure the casualty rate was as lopsided as possible.

“Sir. Message just in. The Iranian Shamshar Division is arriving and taking up position to the south of the British. They’ll be in defensive position by dawn. General Zolfaghari has ceded operational command of the defense to Brigadier Carlson as officer-in-position.”

“Thank you Charles. Send my compliments to the General and my appreciation of an advance to contact well-executed.” There was more to that message than met the eye and the recipient would know it. Ceding overall command to an officer of lesser rank had been a magnanimous gesture, one that spoke volumes about the character of the Iranian general. Privately, Petraeus promised himself that he would see Zolfaghari received full credit for his part in this operation. Then his mind went back to the battle that was about to unfold. What could go wrong? What hadn’t he foreseen? What were his options when everything dropped in the pot?

He looked again at the huge display on the wall. Four new symbols had just appeared, the Iranian regiments covering the southern flank of the British brigade. Everything was set up, the pieces were in position. Behind the allied lines, the truck convoys with their supplies of ammunition and fuel were waiting to support the lunge forward. With them were his reserves, Stryker brigades, more mechanized infantry. Again Petraeus reflected on just how unfair this battle was going to be. A human general would have known how and where the great ambush would be mounted, to a human, brought up on armored warfare and battles of maneuver, the Iraqi road network made the positions and deployments entirely predictable. The baldricks painfully obviously had no concept of those matters. Truly, this was a bronze age Army fighting a force from the 21st Century. That didn’t change the fact that this was a – literally – hellishly big bronze age army.

“I’m going outside for a few minutes. Get some fresh air.” Petraeus spoke to his deputy, settled his aluminum-lined baseball cap on his head and left the command center, his bodyguards following. Outside, it was still night, the stars shining brightly down. In front of the command building sat four of the hulking M1A2 Abrams tanks, silent shadows in the darkness. Petraeus walked over to them, absent-mindedly returning the salutes from their crews as he racked his brain trying to think of outcomes and eventualities that might have missed his attention. It was no good, as far as he could see, he’d done all he could, it was time to rest and let the battle unfold.

Then he patted the massive sloping armor of the nearest tank. “Well, honey-bunny. It’s all down to you and yours now.”

Headquarters, Army of Abigor, Western Iraq.

Abigor stood over the wooden table, looking down at the parchment scroll that was pinned to it. It was a map of the area, with thick lines drawn on it, representing his forces as they fanned out across the countryside. His plan was simple, three thrusts, each aimed at a major population center. The city called Kirkuk in the north, Baghdad in the center, Basrah to the south. His mounted troops would brush any enemy opposition out of the way and leave the cities isolated. Then, his infantry would besiege them, cut off their supplies and starve the defenders. When the cities collapsed, they would storm the walls and ravage the inhabitants amid scenes of horror that would panic the remaining humans. They would stream away from his advance amid utter terror and he would slaughter them while they did so. Humanity would die screaming for its defiance. As it should.

Where to go next? Once the fertile crescent of the Tigris-Euphrates had been cleared, what to do? Keep heading east into Persia or head west towards Jerusalem? Ravaging the area the humans called “The Holy Land” would be satisfying and it would give Satan an opportunity to goad Yahweh over the fate of his “Chosen People”. That made Abigor grin, how could the humans have believed Yahweh for so long? Accepting every bit of good fortune that came there way as one of his gifts, dismissing every disaster as a test or trial. Abigor couldn’t help but think that humans must be terminally deluded. Perhaps that was why they were resisting now? They were hoping their Yahweh would change his mind and come to aid them? They were in for a disappointment if they were, it simply wasn’t happening.

Abigor tapped the parchment with a claw, thoughts irritating the outer edges of his mind. Just why did his commanders keep exploding? Obviously the humans had something to do with it, putting things together it had become obvious that the commanders exploded when the human’s flying chariots were around. Yet how? The chariots flew so high up they could hardly be seen. Sometimes the only clue they were there was the great white streak they left across the sky. How could they hit so precisely from so high? It was impossible. Abigor’s customary scowl deepened. Perhaps it wasn’t the humans after all. Promotion by assassinating one’s superiors was a well-known tactic in hell, smiles upon as long as it was successful. A commander who couldn’t even protect himself was unfit to be in a position of authority. And yet, and yet…. Some commanders had noted another pattern, it was always the leaders who rode ahead of their command, their banners flying proudly that died. Some had started to hide themselves in their units, keeping their banners furled and marching on foot like the rest. It showed lack of pride and hurt the morale of the units but those commanders lived.

Problems, more problems. The truth was that Abigor wasn’t quite sure where his units were or how much resistance they were facing. The distance he and his kind could read minds was limited to line-of-sight and with so many dead commanders lost from his ranks, communications were spotty at best. He’d tried sending out small groups of the flying demons to get information on the positions of his units but the human flying chariots had killed them. Those flying chariots were a nuisance, they’d made the demonic fliers too vulnerable to use except in large groups. Just how did humans get them to fly so high or move so fast? Some of them were so quick they arrived before their noise could be heard.

Abigor stretched and walked outside his tent, his clawed feet clicking on the stones in the sand. Above him, the stars shone brightly, their light apparently amplified by the clear, dry desert skies. That was a unique thing about this dimension, Abigor’s home had no stars, no planets, not like these. It was a place that existed in and of itself, self-contained and alone. Heaven was the same, another self-contained, isolated entity that was complete within itself. Bubbles in a formless void.

Idly, Abigor wondered what would happen to this planet once the humans on it had been harvested. It would make a nice private retreat for his personal use, would Satan allow him to keep it? He had conquered it after all. In his heart, he knew that would not be the case, Satan wouldn’t allow any of this realm to establish a presence outside it for to do so would be to give them the chance of establishing a power base independent of his reign. This planet would be abandoned, left to develop without humans. Perhaps to see another species of intelligent life develop and in its turn be harvested to serve the beings from the higher dimension. Abigor had heard that there were creatures living in the sea that were almost as intelligent as humans.

Another problem, another worry that flittered on the edge of his mind. He and his kind were used to being able to read human minds and control their thoughts, even across the dimensional rift. Once he and one of Yahweh’s angels had held a competition to see who could cause the most minor fatal accidents in one day; he’d won that, 106 to 102. But now, it was becoming harder and harder to find humans who could be affected by the demons mind control. Something was getting in the way, something was stopping the demons possessing the minds of anybody they chose. Already, nearly all the important people, the leaders, their minds were closed off. Even the lesser people, the peasants, were becoming immune. It was so hard to find one who could be possessed now.

Abigor shook himself. Why was he worrying, a few days and it would all be over. Humanity would be a panicked mass, fleeing for its survival and a few days beyond that it would be gone forever. There wasn’t any point in worrying about details.

There are 550 million firearms in the world, enough for one person in twelve of the world's population. The moral dilemma that faces us is how to arm the other eleven.

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The Royal Dragoon Guards, Al Badiyah Al Janubiyah, Western Iraq

“Time to mount up.” Guardsman Bass finished the last of his tea and shook his mug over the sand. His Challenger II was ready to move, one of the 56 tanks lined up along the ridge. It was still dark but the eastern horizon was glowing red as the sun approached it’s first appearance. That’s why the tanks were along this ridge, with the sun behind them the baldricks would be advancing with the glare of the dawn directly in their eyes. It was a small point perhaps but the officers were paid to think of things like that. He climbed up on to his tank and slid into the turret beside the 120mm gun, settling comfortably into the familiar seat. “Boiling vessel on?”

The loader nodded, the tank was going to seal down, they’d fight that way. Nobody knew what the baldricks would do when they found themselves under fire so orders were to expect the worst and make sure the tea urn was ready to use. Bass felt his ears click as the positive-pressure system powered up. The air inside the tank was at a higher pressure than that outside so that if there were any leaks in the tank, the flow would be out, not in. They had rations, everything they needed without depending on the outside world. They even had some empty cases from the artillery so they could relieve themselves without leaving their armored home.

“Sabre-One Actual.” Lieutenant McLeoud’s voice was calm, studied. “All Sabre One units. Confirm sealed down.”

Bass thumbed his transmitter button. “Sabre One-two sealed down.”

“Very good. Recon tells us the baldricks are moving, straight at us.” There was immense satisfaction in the Lieutenant’s voice now. ‘Straight at us’ meant straight into the minefields and on to the razor wire. We will be opening fire at 5,000 meters with HESH. Aimed shots only boys, we can’t waste ammunition. Hold Fast!”

The last words were McLeoud’s family motto, repeated with almost boyish enthusiasm. Young officers bass thought, a little patronizingly, a little sadly. So keen, so likely to die. “You heard our Lieutenant. Load HESH.”

“Up.” The one word meant that the 120mm gun was loaded, ready to fire. Bass leaned forward slightly and peered through his commander’s periscope. Even in the brief time since they’d mounted up, the sun had risen enough to start lighting the battle area. Across the dunes, Bass saw a section of the horizon turn black. Baldricks crossing it in strength, a great square of them. He knew the numbers, 81 ranks, each of 81 baldricks. This was the cavalry, their advance guard. As he watched the great square changed, splitting into three rectangles, the two at the rear moving up either side of the lead so they formed an extended line. Then the rectangles split again, into three sections, one behind the other. The numbers played in Bass’s head, 729 in each sections, almost 2,200 in each of the three closely packed waves. This would be a bloody day, Bass had read the intelligence on the baldricks and of their wild, primary color blood. So what color would the blood be?

“They’re charging by battalion.” Bass lased the formations that were approaching at steadily-increasing speed. “Range 17,500 meters. They’re not holding formation very well. No discipline there at all.” A critical point, a charge had to hit as a solid blow, a fist formed of every available asset. If the charging cavalry were ill-disciplined enough to allow their formation to break, the strength of the blow would be much reduced.

F-14A Tomcat over the Al Badiyah Al Janubiyah, Western Iraq

“Lion-Leader, the enemy are moving. Engage airborne threats as detected.” Lieutenant Hooshank Sedigh looked around at the other Tomcats making up his formation. The last weeks had been strange, after decades of sour hostility, the airfields around Dezful had seen a constant stream of C-5 and C-17 transports landing as the Americans shipped in supplies of spare parts for the Iranian Air Force. Not just spares, stocks of AIM-54C missiles for the F-14s that had done without for so long and, even better, American technical service teams, Tiger Teams, to bring the Tomcats back up to full serviceability. Aircraft that had been stripped hangar queens for years had been towed out and were being repaired. Sedigh’s Tomcat had been upgraded by a team lead by retired Navy maintenance chief who had been drafted out of his civilian job. Now, more things worked on the aircraft than they had for years.

“Be advised, Indian Air Force Su-30s are closing on your position from Omidiyeh.” Another change, Iran’s airfields were crowded with aircraft from all the surrounding countries. A weird mixture of types and technologies. It was lucky the American AWACS birds were up, keeping sense of it all. “F-15s approaching from King Khalid Military City.” The American controller tactfully didn’t mention that the F-15s had been Saudi until quite recently. The Saudis had been terribly hit by The Message, a huge percentage of their population had just died. Typical of the Sunnis thought Sedigh then mentally kicked himself. The time for that nonsense had gone. It didn’t matter any more. How could he rail against unbelievers when everything he had believed in was a proven, demonstrated lie? Anyway, the Americans had repossessed the Saudi Air Force, although it did seem that, even before they had done so, a surprising number of “Saudi” pilots answered to the name of ‘Bubba’ or ‘Jim-Bob’.

“We have first target group on scan now. They are stacked behind lead ground element, estimated number approximately 950. Lion Group will engage. Fire at will.” Sedigh swelled with satisfaction, his 24 F-14As were Lion Group. They would fire the first shots of the Battle of Al Badiyah Al Janubiyah.

First Brigade, First Armored Division, Tel Ash Sha’ir, Northern Iraq.

“It’s starting.” Colonel Sean MacFarland looked at the electronic displays in his command center. He’d zoomed in on Al Badiyah Al Janubiyah where the map was showing the first of the Baldrick formations moving up. They were leading with their cavalry down there, just like they were doing here. MacFarland zoomed out, moved his point of display up to Tel Ash Sha’ir then flipped the display mode from synthetic to raw video. The pictures from the Global Hawk showed the baldrick cavalry shift from a solid block to a column of three long lines. The British had placed their faith in wire and minefields to stop the initial push but MacFarland was relying on his artillery. It wasn’t as if he was short of it.
Command Sergeant Major Frank L. Graham picked up the microphone. “All Ready First units, now here this. The enemy is moving. These are the bastards who thought we’d just knuckle under to their wishes. Well, they’re wrong and we’re going to show them just how wrong. We’re going to teach them what American values stand for. We’ll show them the meaning of truth, justice and the American way, and by the last of those I mean, of course, mindless indiscriminate violence.” There was a chortle of laughter at the crack. “So show them just how much violence Old Ironsides can do when we put our minds to it.”

He put the microphone down. “The MLRS and Paladin batteries are waiting Sir. Just give the word.”

Cavalry Legion, Right Flank of the Army of Abigor, Al Badiyah Al Janubiyah, Western Iraq

Visharakoramal kept his beast in hand, trying to keep lined up with the other members of his unit. It was hard, the great beasts wanted to surge ahead, their claws snapping in anticipation of biting into flesh, their tails arched up, ready to strike. Ahead of him the first rank was already breaking into a gallop, the beasts covering the ground with great loping strides. The second rank were into the trot, waiting for the order so they too could start their charge. Visharakoramal’s third rank was still at the pace, their turn had not come yet. Far ahead of him, he could see a strange shimmering cloud that seemed to stretch across the battlefield. Odd, but then this human world was full of surprises.
It wasn’t the way they’d expected it to be.

It was time, his beast broke into its trot as the lines in front shifted to the gallop. The waves had spaced out, the gaps between them lengthening as the beasts accelerated to full speed, their riders letting them have their head in the race to gain the honor of being the first to crash through the enemy lines. Then, the surge and the pounding in his rear end as his beast went into the gallop, its head stretching out as its muscles pushed it faster towards the enemy. Visharakoramal sneered at the enemy in front, instead of forming up in the open where they could fly their banners and show their defiance like proper warriors, they were hiding behind the hill crests. Not that hiding would save the humans. In front of him, the first wave was nearing the shimmering river. Then, the earth opened up and swallowed them.

F-14A Tomcat over the Al Badiyah Al Janubiyah, Western Iraq

“Fox-Two, Fox-Two, Fox-Two, Fox-Two, Fox-Two, Fox-Two.” Lieutenant Hooshank Sedigh was one of 24 pilots making the ritual chant as the missiles streaked away from his Tomcat climbing up, high into the stratosphere as the started their deadly course. This was what the Tomcat had been built for, taking on a massed formation of enemy aircraft and blasting them apart with long-range weapons. It was, after all, what their American Tiger Teams had said, it was all very well to win a fight but much better to kill your enemy before he knew the fight had started.

The radio crackled again, the Su-30s were opening fire with their long-range missiles. They didn’t have the multi-target capability of the Tomcats, not quite, they could engage four targets at once instead of the Tomcat’s six, but they were firing their R-77 missiles in a stream at the mass of harpies. As the first four hit, the radar would automatically switch to the next four, and then the next. Sedigh realized something else, the harpies would be looking at the huge salvo of missiles aimed straight at them, not upwards to where the AIM-54s were already hurtling down. Off to the south, the American F-15 formation was already closing to follow up the initial long-range pounding.
Over a hundred kilometers away, Inkraskalitran saw the sky in the far distance turn into a white could, one that lengthened towards the flock of harpies with incredible speed. This had to be the fire-spears thrown by the human sky-chariots, the harpies had all heard of them and quietly discussed them. There was word that three of the great Heralds had been destroyed by the fire-spears, if so, what could the smaller fliers do against them? He watched the fire-spears approaching, then the whole world seemed to turn upside down.

His eyes blurred, de-focused from the shock, Inkraskalitran looked with horror at the chaos wrought upon the harpy flock. One of his wing-mates had taken a direct hit from a fire spear and had been blown to fragments. Others around him had been caught by the blast and fragments and were fluttering down, crippled, wings torn apart, some already burning where their bodies were being seared by their blood. Even as he watched, the members of his flock were dying as more fire-spears tore into them, the explosions adding to the chaos in the flock. Hundreds were dead and dying as Inkraskalitran tried to absorb the havoc that was being wrought. In the chaos, he saw a fire-spear coming for him. Panic-stricken, he dived and turned away, trying to accelerate as fast as he could but the fire-spear obediently changed course and followed him. That just wasn’t fair.

“I love it when a plan comes together.” The voice in Sedigh’s earphones was a mixture of professional satisfaction and awe. The sky where the harpies had been was a mass of explosions and fireballs. “Lion Group, return to base, maximum speed. Reload and get back out here fast. Don’t worry about fuel, we’ve got tankers up if anybody gets short. Tiger Group,” That was the Indians Sedigh thought. “close on what’s left of that harpy formation and slaughter it as soon as the F-15s have finished. Don’t hang around, don’t get close, zoom and boom. Watch out, the F-15s will be there as well.”

Sedigh thumbed his transmitter. “Eagle Eye, kill totals?”

There was a laugh in the controller’s voice. “Bloody fighter pilots. Hard to say Lion Leader. In that mess, its hard to work out who’s killing what. We have Lion Group down for 121 kills, Tiger Group for 290. Panther Group is about to engage. Good luck Lion Leader, look forward to seeing you back here.”

It made sense, Sedigh thought. The Tomcats were long-range killers, they had no place getting mixed up in a wild furball, but the fighter pilot in his soul screamed in protest still. Because what a furball it was going to be. Behind him, the area of sky occupied by the harpies redoubled in its fury as the salvoes of AIM-120Cs tore into it.

Cavalry Legion, Left Flank of the Army of Abigor, Tel Ash Sha’ir, Northern Iraq.

Zorankalirtagap jabbed his heels into the neck of his beast, urging it onwards, towards the enemy who was supposed to be trying to stop the Legions of Abigor. His beast responded gallantly, straining every muscle in its body to get ahead of his rivals and be the first to start the slaughter of the humans. Dawn was well advanced, the sky turning from black to blue, only it wasn’t? Zorankalirtagap took time to glance upwards, there was a weird white cloud rising from behind the humans, a cloud tinged red from the rising sun. The appearance of a cloudy red sky for one second made Zorankalirtagap homesick but the clouds shot through with streaks of intense white fire. Suddenly, Zorankalirtagap saw the streaks of fire were curving through the air and the curve was going end with him.

The mathematics were simple and deadly. Just under 25 kilometers away from Tel Ash Sha’ir were 29 M270A1 MLRS rocket launchers. Each had 12 rockets. Each rocket had 644 shaped-charge multi-role sub-munitions. 12 x 29 x 644 = 224,112. Getting on for a quarter of a million sub-munitions were descending on the 6,600-strong cavalry legion that was charging across open terrain. The United States Army had a name for what was happening. They called it steel rain.

Zorankalirtagap was staggering around amid the wreckage of the cavalry charge. His beast was down, threshing on the ground, screaming with the agony of holes blasted through its body. Great craters seared by the fury of the shaped-charges that had blasted raw copper plasma into its body, they were something that the beast had never experienced before. All around it, others of its kind were in the same condition, screaming, legs, claws, tails blasted off, their faces melted, their bodies ripped open and their organs hanging out. Some were dead, they were the ones who had been fortunate enough to be hit so hard that even the tough body and lust for war that was bread into the beasts could not allow them to survive. Between the bodies of the great beasts, their riders were strewn, some dead, some screaming from their wounds, all hurt in a way none had ever experienced before.

It really didn’t register in time, the screams from overhead that drowned out even the shrieks and howls of the shattered cavalry charge. The explosions did catch his attention, they were large enough to attract anybody’s. they rippled across the killing field, tearing apart the force pinned down there and finally bringing peace to the crippled beasts as they were blown apart.

Just over 12 kilometers away, the 18 M109A6 Paladins had dropped into the steady firing rate of four rounds per minute, the rate that conserved ammunition and broke armies. Their shells arched over the Abrams tanks and Bradley armored vehicles of the First Brigade and slammed into the mass of struggling baldricks below. On the ridgeline above the tankers and mechanized infantry watched in slightly bored interest as the baldrick cavalry died. There was nothing to be really interesting here, they’d seen MLRS and artillery at work before. The artillery observers actually had something to do, they watched the patterns of shells landing and datalinked a stream of information back to the guns, directing fire onto any pockets of survivors.

In the middle of the mass of artillery fire, Zorankalirtagap was learning new lessons and learning them very fast indeed. He was learning that he was helpless, that there was no defense against the shells that were moving backwards and forwards across the killing ground. He was learning that artillery and the controllers who directed in had no mercy, no compassion for the creatures they were slaughtering. They were just targets, to be erased as quickly and conveniently as possible. Zorankalirtagap had learned one other thing. He was a creature of hell but these seemingly puny humans could create hell any time they wanted to. For the first time in his long life, Zorankalirtagap knew what sheer, unadulterated, panic-stricken terror felt like.

The Royal Dragoon Guards, Al Badiyah Al Janubiyah, Western Iraq

“Now that is a sight.” Guardsman Bass swung the turret of his tank so he could watch the scene in the minefields. The meter long bar mines had been designed to knock out tanks but they worked against the baldrick’s rhinolobsters very effectively. The first wave had been blown apart by the mines, Bass had seen one rhinolobster have both its left legs torn off by the mines, as it had collapsed to one side it had landed on another and been killed by it. But the problem with minefields were that they were declining assets, every mine that claimed a victim thinned out the field. The second wave had done much better than the first, for a time at least. Quite a few of the rhinolobsters had made it though the minefield and then they’d hit the razor wire.

Razor wire was nasty stuff, lift a piece carelessly and it could remove a man’s fingers. There were dozens of interlocked coils down there and even as Bass watched he saw the rhinolobsters tear into it and become entangled in the mass of razor-sharp edges. They screamed and threshed as the wire sliced ever-deeper into them and their efforts only got them more entangled and inflicted yet more damage. Some of the riders tried to help their mounts, grabbed the wire to lift in clear and these ones learned the terrible truth and the wire sliced their fingers to the bone.

Behind that second wave came the third and these had learned. Most of them followed the paths of the rhinolobsters that had made it to the wire. They climbed over the creatures from the second wave, escaping the first entangling coils of wire but got bogged down in the rest. Others followed them and by simple weight and mass they crushed down the wire with the bodies of those in front of them. By sheer weight of numbers, the enemy cavalry had breached the wire and were through.

“Get ready Boys.” Lieutenant McLeoud’s voice came over the radio. “The artillery lads are opening fire. Get ready to pick off any of them monsters that get through.”

Bass settled down into his tank commander's seat, then took a look through the scope. The blood in the minefield and on the wire was green.

There are 550 million firearms in the world, enough for one person in twelve of the world's population. The moral dilemma that faces us is how to arm the other eleven.

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