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 Post subject: Armageddon Parts 31 - 35
PostPosted: Sun Jun 26, 2011 1:45 pm 
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Army Training Centre, Cultybraggan, near Stirling, Scotland.

Warrant Officer Class II William Bell watched with some satisfaction as the company he had helped train entered the firing range to practise their musketry skills. The men who made up D Company, 7th (Fife) Battalion The Black Watch, had shown great promises; there had been many bright individuals among them, who were potential Non Commissioned Officers, and also possibly officer material, and all had been keen to learn. That was something of a relief, the problem with any rapid force expansion was finding good NCOs and reasonable competent officers. The British Army had paid badly for that particular problem in the past, Bell hoped that this time around it would be different.

He was also rather pleased that General, sorry Field Marshal Dannatt, as he was now, had decided that as the army was expanding that the recent regimental amalgamations, which had been deeply unpopular in Scotland, would be reversed. Hence The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland had once again become the 1st Battalion, The Black Watch, and the regiment had regained its independent identity. The alternative, as Dannatt had pointed out, was to have battalions with absurdly high numbers, and anyway the public better identified with the more traditional regimental names. That argument had carried the day and regiments were demerging all over the U.K.. The parades as the merged regiments had formed, then split apart, their colors being cased and replaced by the old traditional standards were a frequent news item on television these days.

Bell himself had served for the full twenty-two years in the 1st Black Watch, retiring as a Company Sergeant-Major. Like all other army pensioners he had been recalled to the colours to help train a new generation of National Servicemen. It was highly doubtful that he would actually go into action with the new battalion once it was operational, but he was certainly fit enough to continue to serve in his current training role, or transfer to the re-established Home Service Force.

As the first platoon began to shoot at the targets, Bell remembered the first month after conscription had been brought in. The army had been totally unprepared, the last time they had to train thousands of new recruits had been 1960, and arguably they had not faced a situation quite like this since the raising of the Kitchener Armies in 1914. There had been not enough uniforms, weapons, equipment, or accommodation, as in 1914-1915 new recruits had to be billeted amongst the civilian population while new hutted accommodation was constructed.

At least now the worst of the shortages were over, everybody now had uniforms and at least most of the normal equipment that an infantryman should expect to have. Moreover the new L1A2 Self Loading Rifle chambered for .338 Lapua rounds had begun to come off the production lines in some numbers. The first orders had gone to FN-Herstal over in Belgium. Years of being players in the export market had meant they were geared up to switch between calibres quickly. The omnipresence of the 7.62x51 NATO and, later, the 5,56x45 had eroded that capability but enough had remained for them to start producing the new rifles within a week of receiving the orders. Initial priority had gone to regular and Territorial units in the Middle East, which had at least freed up numbers of L85A2 and L86A2s for the National Servicemen to train on, but now the first L1A2s had begun to be issued to conscripts for familiarity training. British production was ramping up as well and once that happened, the re-equipment of the rest of the Army would follow.

Today was the day that the 7th Black Watch would get their first chance to fire the new rifles, having spent the previous week learning how the weapon worked, how it should be cleaned, and what its various features were. Bell himself had examined one of the rifles closely himself and had realised that although it was semi-automatic, just like the old 7.62mm L1A1 SLR the old matchstick/paper clip trick would work on it. However it was debateable whether firing a .338 rifle on full automatic was a good thing. The old 7.62 NATO had been hard to control on full auto, the .338 was way out there. Given the muzzle climb, it might be good for shooting down harpies though.

“In your own time, commence firing!” The range officer called out.

‘CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!’

Bell watched with interest as a few members of the platoon paused after the first shot, somewhat shocked at the recoil of the .338 round compared to the 5.56mm that they had gotten used to. To their credit they adjusted their position slightly and resumed firing. From what he could see, despite the extra power of their new weapons the level of marksmanship had not dropped off appreciably.

“They’re shooting very well, Mr. Mathews.” Bell observed to the platoon commander.

“They are indeed, Sergeant-Major.” The young subaltern, who had found his Sandhurst class suddenly passed out early, replied, slightly nervous of the very experienced Senior NCO. “In no small thanks to your training of them.”

‘THUD! THUD! THUD!’

Both men turned their heads towards the sound and saw that on the range next door that S Company had begun to practise firing their newly issued Browning Heavy Machine Guns. The 12.7mm round was a prodigious man killer, and was also pretty effective against baldricks, so every infantry battalion were being issued with the big machine-gun. The M-2s had come from FN-Herstal as well, Bell couldn’t help reflecting that the armorers were doing well out of the Salvation War. The M-2 issue was even including the units due to be mounted in Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles. The 7th Black Watch was one of them and would be receiving its new Warriors as soon as the vehicles were available. Until then, they were making do with FV-432s and some M-113s the government had found somewhere.

Two Warriors had recently visited Cultybraggan so that the men destined to join armoured infantry regiments could become familiar with them. They had been examples of the new Warrior Mk.2, armed with the 40mm CTA cannon, rather than the old 30mm RARDEN cannon. The RARDEN had proven very effective against baldricks, but its one weakness was its low rate of fire, the troops in Iraq had requested a weapon with a greater rate of fire. The MoD had bitten the bullet and decided that the time had come to make a choice, and quickly. The BAE Systems proposal, which involved installing a 40mm CTA cannon in the existing Warrior turret had been chosen, even if the turret was now a bit cramped, because it could be manufactured more quickly and existing Warriors could be modified faster.

“Have you tried the new rifle yourself yet, Sir?” Bell enquired.

“I certainly have, Sergeant-Major.” Mathews replied. “It has one hell of a kick, left my shoulder all black and blue, and one really does need that bipod. I think it will make a good battle rifle, though, once we all get used to it.”

“Rather reminds me of the old Slur, Sir.” Bell said wistfully, having left the army before the SA80 family had entered widespread service. “Bit fiercer, though.

“It’ll certainly give those baldricks a pause for thought if they come back again.”

Western desert of Iraq.

Corporal James Moss, well he was an Acting Sergeant, as the old platoon Sergeant was gone (he had been a member of the Free Church of Scotland), of 3 Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion The Royal Scots, scanned the desert around him from the commander’s hatch of the FV432 ‘Bulldog’ APC. As with the other Scottish regiments 1st Royal Scots, the senior line infantry regiment of the army, had been de-amalgamated, in its case not only from The Royal Regiment of Scotland, but also from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. Part of the regiment, mainly men from the Borderers, had been sent home to the UK to help form the new 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Scottish Borders, while a mixture of reservists and Territorial Army soldiers took their place in Iraq.

While the upgraded ‘Bulldog’ was considered by the troops to be an excellent vehicle, having protection fully equal of the Warrior IFV, the fact that it was only armed with a GPMG had kept the units equipped with it out of the fight with the baldricks. Major General Brims had kept them and the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment back as his reserve, while the 1st Battalion The Scots Guards and 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire) had all the fun in their Warriors.

Determined to play some useful part the Scots and Lancasters had scoured armouries for heavier weapons to replace their GPMGs with. Moss’ ‘Bulldog’, for example, had a Browning HMG on the commander’s mount, the GPMG being relocated to a pintle mount aft of the main troop compartment hatches. Getting enough Brownings for his platoon had cost Moss every bottle of whisky that the platoon possessed, and most of their beer. A very happy American unit had handed over the HMGs and ammunition and had immediately drawn replacements for themselves.

Other ‘Bulldogs’ had Russian made DShK machine-guns taken from Iraqi armouries while some sported American Mark 19 Grenade launchers. The British Army had adopted that weapon for use in Afghanistan and the Quartermaster would surely be surprised to find out how many were now in the unofficial inventory. With their new armament the ‘Bulldog’ equipped battle groups had been sent out into the desert behind where the armoured battle groups of 4th Mechanised Brigade had advanced, to sweep the ground for any stray baldricks who may have escaped.

A few baldricks and injured harpies had already been encountered by the mechanised patrols and successfully dealt with. Mostly killed, but there were whispers that some had been taken prisoner. It was also whispered that units who managed to take such prisoners would be smiled upon by those in authority. However this long after the defeat of the demon army the chances of encountering a live baldrick, or even a dead one, as the corpses had largely decomposed, was slim. Still, Acting Sergeant Moss was ever hopeful of getting his chance.

“I can see something move over there, Corp…er, Sarge.” One of the dismounts, who was standing head and shoulders out of the open troop hatches reported.

Moss cocked the big Browning and swung it round in the direction that the private had indicated, while he studied the object through the Common Weapons Sight on his new L1A2 (he had taken the CWS off his old L85A2 and fitted it to the new rifle).

“Oh, sorry, false alarm, it’s a cow, or something.”

“Bloody numptie.” Moss complained. “You had me going for a minute there.”

“That’s the feckin’ real thing though!” Another soldier called out, flipping the safety catch off his rifle and opening fire.

The baldrick that the soldier had spotted had started to try an run as soon as he had heard the APC approach, but was too weak to move particularly fast. The .338 Lapua round struck him in the side and was enough in his weakened state to bring the demon down.

“Davie, halt!” Moss said to the FV432’s driver. “I think we might have just taken ourselves a baldrick prisoner.”

The Portal From Hell, Western Desert, Iraq

In any other circumstances, the sight would have been hilariously funny. The little force about to sally through the portal was built around veterans of the first great invasion, most still bearing the wounds of that horrifying massacre but the rest? Kidlings wearing equipment to big for them, so heavy they could hardly lift it, mates who were scarcely any better off. None of them knew how to operate their tridents, how to charge them and then discharge the magic in a searing bolt. Most of the mates were crying, they knew what awaited them. The kidlings were excited, trying to run around with their equipment, assuming that what was about to happen was just a game. One kidling couldn’t lift his trident properly so had it over his shoulder with the end trailing on the ground behind him. In any other circumstances, the sight would have been hilariously funny but Abigor’s heart was near breaking.

“Get ready!” His order ran around the group, bringing them into some form of formation. “Move out.” He went into a jog-trot and stepped through the great ellipse that represented the portal between dimensions, into the clear yellow sun and blue skies that he had devoutly hoped never to see again. Behind him, his pathetic rag-tag band appeared in a grim pastiche of a fighting formation.

The truth was, Abigor was surprised to be still alive. He had expected to be swamped by a barrage of fire-lances and mage bolts as soon as he and his band had emerged but the desert was silent. The ridge up ahead of them seemed deserted but Abigor wasn’t fooled by that, he knew the humans would stay below the ridgeline where they were safe until it was time to pour their fire into their enemies. Thinking about it with the clarity that accompanies imminent death, Abigor suddenly realized that it was a very sensible approach.

Yet still the desert was silent, no hideous holocaust of fire erupting around them. Had he been wrong? Had the humans given up and gone home? Surely that was unlike them, it didn’t fit the remorseless harrowing of his Army as it had retreated across the desert. But why was it silent?

“Everybody, be careful where you put your feet. Do not step on mage-bars. They will kill you.” Or worse he thought, but there was no need to worry the mates and kidlings with that possibility. Despite all his fears, the ridgeline was approaching fast as he jog-trotted across the desert. For preference, he and his veterans would have been at a full run to cover the ground as fast as possible but they had to measure their pace to the abilities of the weakest members of their group. This attack was a sick joke and Abigor knew it.

Yet it had succeeded. They reached the ridgeline and deployed on it. The mates and kidlings were exhausted by the run across the desert, the veterans were barely fazed by its exertions. Abigor was keeping them relatively closely bunched. He knew it was wrong, that he should be dispersing his people out so they would not be slaughtered in mass by the human mage-magic but that was not his intent. He knew his group could not survive and keeping them bunched would mean a quick death for them all as the humans concentrated their fire on them. He had seen to many demons screaming their last seconds away as they had been torn apart yet still lived. He did not want his kidlings and mates to die that way.

The minutes ticked by, Abigor marvelling that the humans had taken so long to react. He glanced behind him, the forces that were supposed to have followed him out were nowhere to be seen. That, he had expected. He had known from this start that this ‘attack’ was really just a mass execution. Then, overhead, Abigor heard the screaming howl of mage-bolts as they started to descend upon him. It was all over.

Combat Team Alpha. By the Hellmouth, Western Iraq

“Any movement Hooters?”

“All still out there. Nothing happening.” Stevenson’s combat team had drawn the hellmouth watch assignment for the day. She had her platoon of Bradleys in the center, holding a ridgeline while her two platoons of Abrams tanks were spread out to either side. If the baldricks emerged, they’d fight in the best traditions of the U.S. Army, they’d protect their artillery observer while he called down unimaginable firepower upon their enemies. “Wait one, there’s movement. Here they come again.”

Down in the desert, figures were emerging from the hellmouth. They were a disorganized stream, undisciplined, nothing like the neat formations that had emerged before. They were spread out in the desert, running straight at the dug-in Bradleys but to Stevenson’s already experienced eye, this wasn’t an attack. Anyway, was that all of them?

“Alpha-actual to Domino. We have hellmouth activity. Baldricks emerging, number estimated at..” Stevenson did a quick count, there were around 400 at most. “Four hundred, say again four-zero-zero. Heading for our position.”

“Four hundred? Are you sure of that?”

“Sure am. Four hundred, no follow up force. There’s something very wrong about this.” She thought for a second and looked through the high-powered optics on her tank. She blinked and looked again. “Sir, this force is a joke. There are some regulars down there but there are some small ones that can hardly lift their weapons. Others don’t have any at all.” She looked again, at the way the formation was breaking up as it crossed rough ground. For the first time she appreciated the amount of training the earlier formations had shown. Their lines had never wavered, never broken no matter how rough the ground or intense the fire brought down in them. This mob were not even in the same class. “Sir, these baldricks aren’t soldiers, most of them aren’t. They look more like civilians.”

“Understood.” There was a pause. “Deny contact, ring them off, don’t let them go anywhere but hold your fire until ordered otherwise. Give them at least 1500 meters clearance”

“Very good Sir.” Stevenson broke contact and changed to her command frequency. “Third platoon fall back, let them have the ridgeline, we don’t need it. First and second, move up to flanking positions. Hold fire.”

There was a cloud of dust and black smoke as the Bradleys backed off their ridgeline and headed for the one about 2,000 meters to the rear. They were already in position when the baldricks ran up on to the ridge and started to deploy into a defensive perimeter. A tight one, Stevenson thought, perfect for artillery. Didn’t baldricks ever learn?

“Report.” The single word came over her radio.

Stevenson looked carefully. “We’re in position. Sir the enemy force is at least 50 percent civilian. There are small ones running around, I think they’re playing, it looks like their children of some kind. And others are behaving like their mothers.” She flipped her optics up to full power. “Well what do you know, our big friend the football player is up there.”

“Very good. Hold positions, do not open fire. This is going right up the chain.”

Stevenson relaxed in her seat, watching the baldricks. There were some real soldiers across there, they were watchful, their tridents at the ready. But the rest? No way were they soldiers. Women and children was Stevenson’s guess. Hokay, I guess now is when we find out what sort of people we really are she thought to herself. The minutes ticked by until almost an hour had passed.

“Alpha-Actual. This is Command-One-Actual.”

Whoa, that meant General Petraeus himself. “Alpha Actual Sir.”

“Get ready, there’s artillery fire coming in. IP between you and the baldricks. Safe distance from both but its tight. FYI, we’re going to try and get this lot to surrender. As soon as the shells have landed, expose your vehicles but do not, I repeat do not, open fire. One shot from you without orders, Captain, and you’ll be burning **** for the rest of your career.”

“Understood Sir. Expose but do not fire.”

Overhead there was a howl of descending 155mm shells from a Paladin battery. The salvo was beautifully placed, one shot to each side of the baldrick group, two in front of it, two behind. A perfect hexagon that was just, only just, far enough out to be safe. “All Alpha Vehicles, move up onto the ridge crest. Do not under any circumstances fire. Repeat, do not under any circumstances open fire. Require verbal repeat and acknowledgement of that order from each vehicle.” She listened as the acknowledgements came in. Then, her Abrams lurched as she moved up to the crest of the ridge.

On The Ridgeline, Hellmouth, Western Iraq

Abigor’s skin crawled as he expected the lash of mage-fire and iron fragments but the desert erupted in a neat hexagon around his unit, the bursts harmless. Oh, they buffeted and shook the ground but there were no screaming, disembowelled demons on the ground to show they had landed. Then, all around him, Iron Chariots appeared. In front, to either side, behind him. The humans really did love surrounding their enemies so that none could escape when the killing started. But the Chariots remained silent. No fire lances, no seeker lances, the chariots just sat there and watched him. The silence was eerie after the crash of the mage-bursts. The kidlings had stopped their games, the mates their weeping, everybody was just waiting. It dawned on Abigor they were waiting for him. Everybody, demon and human were waiting for him.

If they were waiting for him to start fighting, what happened if he did not? Why had the humans given him a chance denied to him by Satan? What would happen if he took that chance? It couldn’t be any worse than what would happen if he didn’t. Abigor made his decision and stood up, throwing his trident away. Then, he raised his hands to show he was unarmed. “All of you, throw down your arms. Stand up and raise your hands like mine. So that the humans can see we are unarmed.”

Across the desert, the Iron Chariots kicked up a cloud of dust and started to move in.

Combat Team Alpha. By the Hellmouth, Western Iraq

“Sir, they’re surrendering. They’ve thrown down their arms and are standing up. They’ve raised their hands, all of them.”

“Captain Stevenson, move in, carefully. This may be a trick but if it isn’t we have a priceless opportunity here. Do not fire, even if fired upon.”

That means I’m the sacrificial goat. Stevenson thought. She gave the order and her command started rolling closer to the group on the hill crest. They were motionless as her tanks and armored infantry vehicles closed in. When they were less than fifty meters away, the big one, the one Stevenson thought of as the football player, dropped to the ground and sprawled out on the sand. She checked her intercom, making sure it was set so only her crew could hear her. “Reminds me of one of my ex-boyfriends guys. I wonder if he wants me to trample him too?”

There was a suppressed series of snorts from her crew. She stopped the vehicle and got out, climbing down the outside of the turret and on to the ground.

“I am Captain Keisha Stevenson, United States Army. I am authorized to accept your surrender.”

“I am Great Duke Abigor. I am, or was, commander of sixty legions. I offer you my surrender and fealty.”

White House Communications Center, Washington DC.

“Vladimir, this is Dubya. I have urgent news. General Abigor has just surrendered and defected.”

“That filthy Vlasovite bastard.”

“Sorry, Vladimir, you misunderstand, he’s a baldrick, he’s defecting to us.”

Without missing a beat, Putin carried on, “What I meant to say of course was that he is a heroic champion of freedom and liberty who has overcome his corrupt upbringing so that he can rally to the side of truth, honor and justice.”

“That’s right Vladimir, he’s a filthy Vlasovite bastard, but he’s our filthy Vlasovite bastard.”

_________________
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 1:47 pm 
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Headquarters, Multi-National Force, Baghdad, Iraq

“Well, they’re human.”

“You have got to be kidding us. There’s no way those things are human.”

Dr Surlethe settled back in the conference room chair with every sign of comfort. That was one thing the higher ranks of the Army had down to a fine art, their conference rooms were well-furnished, air conditioned and had all the luxuries one might wish combined with hi-tech presentation equipment. It would be years before civilian releases caught up with the Army version of Microsoft Powerpoint. The Marines, now they were different, their “conference room” was usually a tent somewhere with a bare wood trestle table and a few camp chairs. One Marine General had remarked on the Army’s “excessive facility” only to be rather coldly told that ‘any damned fool can be uncomfortable’.

“Nevertheless, they are human. Sort of.” There was a stir of relaxation at the qualification.

“What do you mean Doctor?” General Petraeus needed to know a lot about these creatures, not least because he had almost a thousand of them in a Prisoner of War camp.

“General, we’ve looked at the DNA of the baldricks and its human.” Surlethe thought for a second. “Look at it this way, the difference in DNA between a chimpanzee and a human is around two percent. The difference between baldrick and human DNA is about one half of one percent. So baldricks are much more closely related to us than we are to chimpanzees.”

“They don’t look it.”

“No, they don’t General.” Again Surlethe thought for a moment. “Actually they do. If we ignore the way-out bits, the strange contortions and so on, they do look like us. We started off by thinking that they were a next-level up version of us that simply evolved differently but when the DNA comparisons came through we had to abandon that. There’s no doubt about it in our minds, we and the baldricks had a common ancestor somewhere way back when. The really big question is did that common ancestor evolve here on earth, on the hell-place or somewhere else?”

“I still find it hard to believe that something that’s so different from us could be related to us. DNA shifts and mutation rates can’t explain that level of difference.”

Protect us from intelligent, well-read generals Surlethe sighed quietly to himself, life had been much easier in the old days when Generals knew how to destroy armies and nothing else. Then, they just accepted everything a scientist said. Put on a long white coat and they were as good as gold. This one had an annoying habit of arguing with scientists and, even more annoying, was very often right. He quickly realized that it was about to get worse.

“I’ve been reading up on the Human Genome Project. According to their findings, the useless repetitive sequences, the junk DNA make up at least 50% of the human genome. According to the people working on that program, the junk DNA doesn’t have a direct function, but they reshape the genome by rearranging it, thereby creating entirely new genes or modifying and reshuffling existing genes. It also appears that something quite drastic happened around 50 million years ago that caused all our junk DNA.”

“That’s correct General. Our working hypothesis is that somehow we and the baldricks split away from each other way back then. We went our way, they went theirs. Perhaps we all came from somewhere else and the ‘something quite drastic’ was that we stayed here and they went to the hell-place. We each used different parts of our junk DNA and activated different strings. The difference may be only one half of one percent but it’s a very important one half of one percent. There’s more to it than that of course; it looks to us like the baldrick DNA itself has been corrupted, either by selective breeding, prion infection, both or something else.”

“So, how can you help me look after the prisoners we’ve acquired.”

“Well, we know from other sources that they are exclusive carnivores. Its probable that they’ll eat any sort of meat, they’ll eat in large quantities but at irregular intervals. Without need for major physical exercise, they’ll probably eat only once a week or so. Won’t be a pretty sight when they do though.” Surlethe thought back to the sight of the succubus eating and shuddered. “Medication might work on them, we’ll have to be careful and take it by stages. Oh, and General, their metabolic pathways are almost identical to ours. Chemical weapons should work on them just fine.”

The Ultimate Temple, Heaven

The archangel Michael strode forward into the Temple. All about him, the people sang; he could feel the ecstasy of the choirs of angels, of those few, fortunate saved humans. As he entered the Holiest of Holies, the thick marble of the temple walls drowned out the beautiful music outside; reduced to a dim glow, he focused his attention on the sight before him.

He knew the sight was supposed to awe him, every time without fail: the great white throne, with its flashing lightning and pealing thunder surrounding the giant figure who sat on it, the One Above All Others. Before the throne were the seven great, gold lamps, burning their ceaseless incense so that the clouds of scented smoke hung thick and hazy, the smell clinging to everything. Michael loved it for it appealed to his sense of the ridiculous but now he’d just about had enough of it and of the pretensions of that throne’s occupant.

At the four corners of the room stood the four living creatures, chanting their ceaseless cry: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come;” and the twenty-four members of the Private Choir. They were ancient even by the angels' standards, and were constantly on their faces before the throne, murmuring, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being." Time was, their voices had outstripped even the living creatures in volume, but even here they were not free from time's ravages. An astute observer might look closely into their eyes and see the misery and despair there. Singing the same praises for untold millennia was not as heavenly as it sounded.

Michael stopped in the middle of the lamps and knelt down on both knees, prostrating himself and pressing his flawless lips to the cold, dark jade floor. As though sensing intentions, the four living creatures quieted, and the twenty-four elders' murmurs died to whispers. From the white throne, the voice of Yahweh thundered: “Michael, my good general, what news do you bring me?”

"Oh nameless one, Lord and God of all, I prostrate myself to your presence. The messengers of Gabriel have returned, save one – Appoloin – who was killed in your service." As he related the information, he couldn't help the quiver of surprise that crept into his voice; the idea that humans, of all things, could destroy demons or angels, let alone the merciless slaughter to which they had apparently subjected the demonic army, still confused him. If he were capable of admitting it to himself, he might even have said that the prospect scared him. And yet, it was these humans with their incredible abilities that offered him a chance to depose Yahweh, take his place and put some order back into Heaven.

"My Lord, the army the Morningstar sent forth has been utterly destroyed. The human magic has proved far beyond the capability of the fallen ones."

Yahweh was silent for a moment, then spoke. "Interesting. And what of the rest of Satan's hordes?”

"My Lord, the delegation you sent to Dis has not returned; it is several choirs overdue. It is not known if the messengers we sent have been received."

"Is Uriel prepared to go out into the world?"

"He is, my Lord.”

"Summon him to me, Michael." At the decree, Michael's fist clenched and lightning sparked around it as he bit down on his excitement. Yahweh was falling for the scheme, despite its wildness and apparent impossibility. All the maneuvering, all the scheming, all the corruption was about to pay off. Michael looked up at the figure towering over him with awe and love written on his face but in his heart was nothing but contempt.

Camp Echo, New Amarah Airfield, Al Amarah, Iraq

The truck convoy, a long line of the eight-by-eight HEMTTs, pulled up at the long line of huge hangars that were half-buried in the ground. This was one of Saddam Hussein’s airfields, one disused until recently but now put to a use that the deranged dictator could never have imagined. The great buried hangars were perfect as a detention area for captured demons. Some of the baldricks sitting in the trucks looked at the razor wire that surrounded the hangars and shuddered. Many bore the scars of that infernal wire.

Abigor had a truck to himself, his size and weight made that essential, and the truth was that he had thoroughly enjoyed his ride. The great truck had moved faster than he had ever dreamed possible, carrying him away from the Hellmouth and towards wherever it was that the humans would take him. The trip itself had been an eye-opener. The black strips the humans laid across the desert were crowded with chariots, nose-to-tail convoys of them, mostly heading west. He had, at last, seen the Iron Chariots, ‘tanks’ they were called apparently, at close quarters. Many different types of them, some looking similar, others very different. Long lines of them moving west and he noted how everybody got out of their way. He’d seen the humans inside them and they’d waved at him, shouting things as they passed. Some had been abusive, Abigor recognized curses when he heard them, but most were almost friendly. Once or twice he’d waved back and that had caused the tank crews, even the hostile ones, to behave in a more friendly manner. It seemed that humans had a strange attitude towards their enemies.

He’d also looked at one of the homes of the Flying Chariots as the convoy had made its way East. Two of them had been taking off, the howl they made painful to the ears. ‘Warthogs.’ One of the truck drivers had shouted. ‘Wait till you see them babies at work.’ They were babies? What did the parents look like? A few minutes later, Abigor had his answer, a great chariot many times the size of the warthogs landed and started to disgorge tons of cargo. Another followed and by the time their convoy had moved on, two more. The movement at the flying chariot base was constant, if the chariots weren’t taking off, they were landing.

“General Abigor? Follow me please.” The human spoke politely but firmly. From the number of chariots around, obeying him was unwise. Anyway, Abigor remembered the long streams of chariots heading west. Arguing wasn’t an option. He followed the human into the hangar.

It was pleasantly gloomy inside, a pleasant change from the glaring desert sun. It was cooler too although Abigor hadn’t been upset by the heat outside. The interior was divided up into cages, each holding a single demon prisoner. Large enough for him to get up, walk around and exercise. The cage walls were wire layers interspaced with razor-wire.

“General, these are the prisoners we have taken to date. We are doing the best we can to look after them properly, if there are any complaints, please tell us. You are senior officer here and responsible for them all.”

Abigor didn’t understand much of that but the last words made sense. The humans had given him a command, far less than a single legion that was true, but a command none the less. It was a start. He stared at the nearest prisoner, entangling its mind with his own.

“What have they done with you?”

“Nothing, they just keep us here. They feed us meat, give us water.”

“How did they torture you?”

“They did not. They are soft and weak. Jahnibatwesvhik over there had a long splinter of enchanted iron in his chest. It was poisoning him so they took it out. Gave him a drug so that he slept while it was done. As if he couldn’t have stood the pain like a true demon.”

Abigor nodded and turned to the human with him. “You have looked after them well.” His voice showed disbelief and confusion.

“It is our way, when we can. What do your people do for amusement? We have no idea what to give our prisoners. Do you have books you read or games you play?”

We torture human souls for our amusement. was the answer that ran through Abigor’s mind but he guessed that saying so was not the smartest thing he could do at this point. “We will be happy for whatever you can provide.”

“Good, we’ll find something. General, there were civilians with your party. I must warn you, we do not look kindly on those who use civilians as cover for their actions.”

“Satan sent them with me, they are my family. We were all sent to die together.”

The human nodded. “We’ll investigate that further. In the mean time, the women and children will be housed in another building like this one. We want you to point out which child belongs to which mother so we can house them together.”

Abigor absorbed the information that was pouring in on him. It was impossible, surely, that these genial hosts could be the same merciless killers who had destroyed his Army. “Did you take part in the fighting?”

“Sure. My brigade held the town of Hit against your infantry. We got pasted holding it, your guys fight well up close, but we held long enough for the gunships to get to work. General, are any of your women nurses?”

“What are nurses?”

“Those skilled with helping to treat the wounded. Most of your people have wounds.”

“No.” Abigor’s confusion levels increased to near-breaking point. What was with these humans? In the demon armies, nobody treated the wounded. They died or got better according to their luck. A popular demon might be looked after by his immediate comrades, an unpopular one might get killed so he wouldn’t hold up the rest, but that was all. Then, Abigor thought of the sight of two demons carrying a legless third all the way back home. Contact with humans was having disturbing effects.

“That’s a pity. We’re short of medical staff here and we don’t know our way around your bodies. If we operate, we could be doing more harm than good. Our medications could kill.”

“Would dissecting a few living demons help? I can assign a few of these to you for that purpose if you wish?”

Colonel David Paschal looked at the baldrick towering over him and shuddered at the thought. Then reminded himself that these were demons after all, they were not supposed to be nice people. He also reminded himself that his job was to watch, learn and interact with these creatures while his shattered brigade was rebuilt. “No thank you General Abigor, that would be prohibited by our laws.”

Abigor was looking at him curiously. “Sire, you seem to know much about us already?”

“You are not the first to rally to our cause. We have others as well. Some have proved most helpful, especially a succubus we captured.” Paschal held his breath, would Abigor fall for the bait.

He did. His explosive snort rattled the cages. “A succubus! I hope you do not believe everything that single-sex freak told you. They are deceivers and seducers all.”

“No, we adopted an old human principle ‘trust but verify’. Your people here have been helpful in the ‘verifying’ part.”

Abigor relaxed. “Then I will order them to continue doing so.”

Paschal looked at the hangar around them. There was no sign of the modification but the roof had been coated with a new aluminum foil foam laminate that was orders of magnitudes more effective at stopping the baldrick mind-entanglement capability than normal foil caps were. With luck, people in this hangar should be isolated from outside mind-links. “Please do that General.”

Headquarters, Multi-National Force, Baghdad, Iraq

“Major Marina Fyodorovna Luchenko, First Guards Engineer Division reporting Sir. My General has assigned me to you as liaison. He asks what would you like built where?”

General David Petraeus looked at the Russian officer. “Good to have you on board Major. And your engineers, we need them badly. Our supply lines are very difficult, the road network is completely inadequate for the volume of traffic we are moving. It would help if somebody told the Israelis about obeying traffic signs. Our traffic accident rate is bad enough without their assistance.”

Major Luchenko snorted delicately. “So, Sir, what can we do to help?”

“We need a highway Major. Starting at Diddiwanyah, then going around Al Najaf and then due west to the hellmouth. I’d like four lanes going each way, each lane extra wide to handle our HEMTTs – and your trucks of course.” Petraeus looked at the Russian woman and grinned broadly. “That’s right Major, I want you to build the ultimate highway to hell.”

_________________
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 1:55 pm 
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Swamps by the River Styx, Fifth Ring, Hell

Okeraphluxos looked over the swamp from his castle. It was small, of course, just as he was a minor duke; he owed his fealty to Kinathroses, the major duke who controlled about half of the sixth ring, and that duke, in turn, owed fealty to Asmodeus, who held the segments of the fifth, sixth and fourth rings, and had just acquired a sixth of Abigor's former holdings, including good land outside the pit and a chunk of the third ring. It had been a long time since a Great Duke of such high status had vanished and the others were falling over themselves trying to seize the choicest of his properties.

His yearly report to Kinathroses was due in the next week, and he needed to find a way to conceal the strange things that had been happening. Oh, not just the usual fudging of the numbers; he'd been doing that for the last few centuries, since the number of humans arriving into hell had ballooned. But even more recently than that, his guards had become reluctant to venture into his swampland realm. He'd had to make an example out of the most recalcitrant, crucifying and then disemboweling him. That hadn’t done much good, they were still reluctant to go out into the swamps alone and when they did, they were quick to return. Those that did return.

It wasn’t just the mysterious disappearances of his guards and the equally mystifying destruction of the causeway through his territory. Okeraphluxos had other major problems on his hands. His best troops were being taken away to reinforce Asmodeus’s Army, leaving him with only the least effective, the very old, the very young and the infirm. All untrained and looking like the soft civilians they really were. As he sat in his chamber pondering the issue, another dull, distant thud rumbled across the swamp. The damnable noises had been going on just a little longer than this mysterious disease of cowardice had been infecting his troops. The minor duke shook his head, cleared his thoughts, and returned to the business of figuring out how to continue deceiving his lord.

Outside the castle, Lt Kim regarded the building skeptically. “That's a castle?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

Rahab nodded. “That is the home of the minor duke who commands this chunk of the fifth ring.”

Kim looked at it critically. It was a large house rising out of a cluster of smaller houses, surrounded by a piled stone wall at least fifteen feet high. From her vantage point on top of a mound of granite, Kim could see baldricks coming and going through the gate; most were marching in short columns, but one, leading a row of animals that looked like rhinolobsters, but without the long, arching tails, was seated on the beast at the head of the column.

“Note that animal shipment down, Mac,” said Kim. “Brass will want to know everything they can about the economy here.” Beside her, McInery was clicking away with the cameras, documenting as much of the outpost as possible.

Rahab was looking at Kim with a mixture of distrust and curiosity. “What are you planning to do?”

Kim smiled, rather viciously. “You'll see.” Indeed you will, she thought. And it will blow your stone-age mind.

Behind them, Madeuce loomed up, face impassive beneath its mask and goggles as always. “Are you ready to start, ma’am?” he asked.

“You OK, Mac?”

“Yeah, my lungs feel like **** though. Gonna be glad to get out of here though.” Madeuce bit his lip in self-reproach. Getting out wasn’t an option for Kim and her crew. They were stuck here and he’d just rubbed that in.

Kim guessed what was running through his mind. “You’ve earned an out and it’s different for you. This place is ours now, earth is your place. Anyway, this is your last run, kitten will be contacting us soon and then, your on your way home. So, as your final hurrah, take it away, Lieutenant.

The big man nodded, a hint of a smile playing about his lips. He signaled to the other three men accompanying him, and they marched off. Kim detected a hint of motion closer to the wall; through the dim, noxious atmosphere, she could just make out Bubbles planting the last few bricks of Semtex. The perpetual mists and fog of hell were annoying but it made the life of the guerilla much easier. As Madeuce disappeared behind another rock outcropping beside the causeway leading out of Okeraphluxos' stronghold, Bubbles slowly made his way back from the base of the wall.

Okeraphluxos was still sitting in his chamber and thinking when he heard a series of loud pops from the window. The sounds were entirely unfamiliar; curious, he stood up and went over to the window as the cracks continued. The sight that greeted him was entirely unexpected: at the gate, his demons were milling about; some were yelling and screaming, and some were running back toward the barracks. With each pop, another demon yelled and dropped; once or twice, heads literally exploded. The foodbeasts below were panicking, and stampeding straight for the back of the compound. He saw several demons trampled beneath their hooves as the small herd ran in blank terror. Several more cracks, and the remaining demons were also heading back into the compound, abandoning their injured comrades.

Abruptly, the walls around his castle just disintegrated. An instant later, a deafening concussion physically knocked him backward, and a shower of stone fragments flew through the window, lacerating the duke's face. In shock, he felt his face, felt the blood oozing out, then crawled back to the window. The room was still spinning around him, and he fought the urge to retch on the windowsill.

Outside, his castle was a complete wreck. The retaining wall had entirely vanished, the causeway leading through the swamp toward the Dis-Dysprosium road had disappeared, and two of the barracks buildings had collapsed. At first, he thought there was nothing left of the demons who had so recently been busy about their business in the castle, but then, looking more closely, he saw, strewn about the jagged rubble coating the ground, lumps that were smoother and darker than the rock fragments. Then, he did vomit on the windowsill.

It was that move that saved his life. As he ducked to vomit, the stone just behind where his head had been exploded in a vicious arc of fragments as something hit it. Okeraphluxos continued downwards, landing on the floor below the windowsill and crawled away. Just what was happening? Obviously his castle was under attack but he’d never seen a siege start like this before. Oh, sieges were known events, a property might be disputed or perhaps seized as a bargaining chip for some other issue but they ran to a set pattern. The besieging commander would pull his army up and display it in front of the target castle so that the besieged commander could see what he was up against and compare his own forces to them. Then besieger and besieged would meet and decide if the balance of forces made resistance practical. If it was, then the siege was on, if not then the defending garrison would surrender. This sort of sudden attack was unheard-of. And what had destroyed his outer walls?

Okeraphluxos decided to take a better look and was about to do so through the window he had just used when it occurred to him that doing so would be a terminally bad idea. He crawled out of the room, then went to another and used the window there. What he saw appalled him, the remainder of his troops were sprawled on the ground, dead or dying. Yet, across in the swamps, he saw a group of figures moving, six of them, humans by the look of them but colored so they were virtually invisible against the ground and mists of Hell. The six figures ran forward to new positions, spread out in front of his massacred men then dropped to the ground. Okeraphluxos took his eyes off them because as they dropped flat, four more humans, colored the same way, emerged from hiding places and ran across the ground.

One surviving member of Okeraphluxos’s garrison stood up to take a shot with his trident but before he could do so, there was a rapid series of small thuds and he fell down. They’d come from the area where the first group of six humans had gone to ground. He could hardly see them when he tried to make them out and by the time he spotted the first, the second group had taken cover as well. Then, the first group got to their feet and closed in on the large house that formed the keep of Okeraphluxos’s castle. They did something to the door and then retreated. Watching carefully, Okeraphluxos was bewildered, there was no precedent for what was happening. Sieges took a long time, even for a small castle like his. But this time his defenses were collapsing as if they didn’t exist. It was barely a few minutes since the first explosions had taken down his outer wall and now his keep was under attack. The destruction of his keep gate seemed tame compared with the series of blasts that had destroyed his walls but Okeraphluxos new it was the death-knell for his defense.

Outside the keep, Kim couldn’t help but feel smugly satisfied. The sudden, violent assault was doing its work, the baldricks inside the defenses couldn’t adapt to the speed at which the situation was changing. By the time they responded to one development, it was already history and the course of the battle had moved on so their attempted response just led to an even greater disaster. It was a classic blitzkrieg, something that the trackheads in their armor thought they monopolized. They didn’t, infantry could do it as well.

If the baldricks had kept their heads, if they’d been able to respond fast enough, they should have turned the remaining parts of the outer defenses into strongpoints, each of which would have had to be reduced individually. That would have broken the momentum of her attack and allowed the rest of the garrison to stage a counter-attack that would have destroyed her puny force. But, they’d never had the chance, by the time they’d overcome their initial reactions to the unprecedented violence and speed of the attack and started thinking, the opportunity was gone. The outer defenses had fallen and the keep was on its own – and now its gates were gone.

Kim looked hard through the mists. The baldricks were starting to react logically and she would have to stop that. They’d piled timber, carts and furniture up inside the gates to form a secondary barricade and were waiting behind it. Not bad she thought, a viable countermove against the sort of attack they were used to. Only, this wasn’t one. Quite apart from their superior weaponry and military tactics built a round those weapons, Kim and her men had the experience of two thousand years of warfare engrained within them. It wasn’t conscious knowledge, none of them had ever trained to take down a castle defended by medieval or older weapons, but they’d seen it done in the movies, read about it in history books. There wasn’t a move the baldricks could make that they didn’t know about and counter.

Countering the barricade was easy and Kim didn’t even have to give the orders. From his overwatch position, Madeuce had anticipated the barricade and was ready for it. He and his men each had an AT-4 anti-tank rocket launcher ready. The orange-white fire and streak of white smoke began with them and ended in rolling explosions that tore the barricade and its defenders apart. The explosions had barely subsided when Kim’s team charged forward, spraying the remaining defenders with bullets from their M4s. Madeuce waved and his men joined the assault, slower because they were the support team, loaded with heavy equipment, but still fast enough to get through the gates before Kim and her people vanished inside the keep. There were sounds of intermittent burst of gunfire from the rooms inside and then silence.

Okeraphluxos had seen the destruction of the last of his garrison at the barricade and knew it was all over. The humans hadn’t even bothered to ask him whether he wanted to surrender and it was pretty obvious that they weren’t about to. There was a trident hanging on the wall, not the run-of-the-mill cast one, a Tartaruan trident that had been forged with care by Belial’s best craftsmen. It could hold a charge better than the normal ones and its prongs would stab deeper and break less. It would be a good weapon to die with. His grip as he took hold of it was careful, he concentrated his magic into charging it up, ready for the burst of power that would open the fight.

He never got the chance. Kim’s men were already in the corridor when he stepped out of his room and the short, stubby M4s were far better suited to fighting in confined areas that the unwieldy tripod. The last thing that Okeraphluxos ever heard was the thudding of the gunfire and the last thing he felt were the bullets that killed him.

Ten minutes later, Kim was settled down in a comfortable chair, waiting for the scheduled contact. It came, right on schedule. Jade, this is kitten. Is it safe to open up?

Sure is kitten. Got a surprise for you too. We’ve just taken a baldrick castle. Not an impressive one but still a castle

Oooh, well done. Opening now.

The familiar ellipse started to open. “Madeuce, get ready to go through, its been good to have you with us.” Kim reached into a pocket and fished out a piece of jewelry she’d found as she’d been searching the building. “Give this to kitten for me will you? It’s the least we can do for her. And take the cameras with the pictures the brass wanted back as well.”

Madeuce nodded and stepped through the ellipse followed by his special forces team. As soon as they were clear, the barrage of supplies and ammunition came the other way. Then the ellipse closed off.

Twenty minutes later, Kim and her team had evacuated the castle. They’d left the bodies of the dead baldricks piled up in the courtyard, under a message that was much more detailed than the usual four letters. It read They oppressed the people. They faced the people’s justice. Fear Us. Popular Front For The Liberation of Hell

Rahab ran the words over in her mind. They were succinct, merciless. One side of her was appalled by the destruction and violence, another was fearful of the consequences that would result from the destruction of even a minor duke and his fortress. But there was another emotion as well, one she had forgotten could exist. It was called hope and she had felt it as she had watched the almost-casual destruction of the castle. She needed to discuss what she had seen with a military expert and fortunately she knew one who could help her.

417th Flight Test Squadron, Edwards Air Force Base, California

“How’s it going Sammy?”

Samuel Allansen looked up at the mis-shapen Boeing 747-400F behind him. “Well, its going.”

That was something of an understatement; the Boeing wasn’t really a -400F at all, it was something much more interesting, a YAL-1A Airborne Laser aircraft. The real distinguishing feature was the turret in the nose that controlled the Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser, or COIL installed in the aircraft’s body. Originally the YAL-1A had been designed to shoot down tactical ballistic missiles but it looked like that role was already history. It didn’t matter too much, after years of parsimony, the Salvation War was making funding available for all sorts of programs and the ABL was one of them. Nobody knew what was coming out of hell next and the capability of the ABL was just too delicious to give up. The test program had been accelerated by almost a year and three more YAL-1As were already being built at Boeing’s facility in Wichita. Once they joined the test program, things would really start to move.

“Shot down any baldricks yet?” Mickey Jennings was poking fun at his old friend but there was an element of frustration in it for them both. They were stuck here at Edwards on the ABL test program while other Air Force pilots were making sky-high scores downing harpies.

“Nah, can if any show up though. We’ve got the COIL installed and we’re doing systems integration stuff at the moment. The brass has ordered us to cut short the systems level ground and flight tests and bring the intercept tests against in-flight targets forward. They’d be happy if we could do them last week but yesterday will be soon enough for them.”

Jennings nodded sympathetically. The ABL had been a source of frustration to the people working on it, not for technical reasons although the program had been, to put it mildly ‘challenging’ but for finance. The budget had never been enough to work at optimum speed and there was always the threat of it being cut completely. At least that had gone, but the problem was now the constant push to get the program operational.

“And its not as if we don’t have things to work out yet.” Allansen was still talking. “The laser has a tendency to overheat and we’re not sure if the fire control system will be good enough to take on a baldrick. It’s infra-red and was designed to lock on to the flare from the end of a ballistic missile. That’s a whole world hotter than a baldrick and the egg-heads aren’t sure it’ll work against them.”

“The fighter jocks are complaining about the AIM-9 as well. Apparently it has real difficulty locking on to a baldrick. Still the 120s are doing well.”

“Yeah, but we don’t carry them. I’ve been on about that. What’s the point of building a critical bird like this and then giving us nothing to defend ourselves with? To do our job, we’d have to be within 300 klicks of an enemy missile base and you can’t tell me the bad guys will be happy about that. Yet here we are, the biggest, most expensive clay pigeon in the world.”

“Harpies ain’t no skeet-shooters, that’s for sure?”

“No? They took down enough helicopters for the Army to stop using them until the fighter jocks could clear the sky. OK, we’re safe enough from harpies at 40,000 feet but who knows what we’ll be facing next time around. And there is a next time coming, everybody knows it. Anyway, Mickey, that’s not why I asked you over. My copilot, Jimmy Grainger, is being assigned to one of the new birds Boeing is building. He’s leaving end of the month and I won’t be seeing him much in between. Want to join the crew? It’ll get you out from behind that desk.”

“Oh nooo. Why should I want to fly an aircraft when I can sit behind a nice comfortable desk, just loaded with routine paperwork? I’ll make you a counter offer, you can have my desk and I’ll have your bird.”

“Not a chance. Seriously, if you want the job, its yours. The Air Force is calling back all of its retirees and the ones who are too old to stand up without a walker get the desk jobs. You should see the F-111 wing that’s forming up in Washington. And you heard about the B-29s I guess.” Allansen adopted a comically exaggerated ‘hush secret’ pose, looking around theatrically. “I hear you’re down for transfer to a B-17 wing if you don’t get out from behind that desk.”

“OK, OK, I surrender, I’ll take the job. Anything but a B-17.”

“Welcome on board. And by the way, be careful what you say about the B-17s. Curt LeMay might hear you – remember we know now he’s out there somewhere. He was mighty fond of the B-17.”

_________________
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 1:56 pm 
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Private Quarters, Palace of Satan, Dis, Hell

Satan contemplated the goblet of wine in front of him and sighed moodily. Then he grabbed the orc servitor that had brought him the cup and wrung him out over the still, red liquid. Then he threw the mutilated corpse into a corner. Behind him the majordomo also sighed. Good staff was getting so hard to keep these days.

Satan didn’t worry himself with such mundane concerns. He had much more important things on his mind than his domestic staff. He stirred the wine with a talon, watching the contents of the goblet dissolve the organs squeezed out of the luckless orc, and then drank it down. Especially domestic staff that didn’t taste good. Had Yahweh planned this whole mess?

The fact was that the unexpected resistance of the humans had thrown all his plans into total chaos. It was just not supposed to happen this way. Ostensibly because growing lack of respect (by which Yahweh meant blind, unquestioning worship) from the humans had soured him of Earth, Yahweh had washed his hands of them and signed them over to Satan. In reality, Satan knew what really lay behind that, Heaven’s gates had been closed for millennia now, closed and locked. Giving Earth to Satan had just confirmed a situation that had actually existed for a very long time. Without even a nominal interest in Earth, Yahweh could retreat to Heaven and concentrate on more enticing projects.

It should have been easy, invade Earth, crush the remaining humans and bring their souls here to Hell. Leave the Earth almost depopulated, erase humans and all trace of their works, let it – and them - redevelop and see what happened next. Only it hadn’t worked that way. The Humans had massacred the Army sent against them. The news of Abigor’s crushing defeat had ricocheted around Hell, creating alarm and uncertainty unknown for thousands of years. Satan had had to move fast there, if Abigor had been left alive to spread his tales, that alarm and uncertainty would have turned up panic and demoralization. Annihilating Abigor and all his line had crushed that and shown everybody that Satan still had the situation in hand.

And that, Satan thought, was a very good question. One he would annihilate anybody who dared ask it. Did he have the situation in hand? The demons around him had no idea how critical the situation was had become. If the situation on Earth had been the only one he faced, then there would have been no problem but that wasn’t the case and there was the whole problem laid out simply and neatly. Satan knew that he had been neatly impaled on the points of a trident and any attempt to free himself from one prong only resulted in him becoming more firmly transfixed by the others. Oh, he had made a great show of ordering the assembled legions to go forth and invade Earth, this time in overwhelming numbers but he knew all too well that those orders were just for effect. To make the armies fit for war, they had to have their numbers made up with reservists, civilians who hadn’t handled a trident in anger for centuries. They just weren’t fit to go right now and if he sent them, he would leave Hell open, bereft of trained troops.

That was where the second problem came in, the second trident fork, the rebellion that had started in Hell itself. Oh, Asmodeus had hidden the extent of it, or rather he thought he had, but words was spreading anyway. Asmodeus himself was losing power because of the inability of his minions to put down the revolt, it was even being whispered that it was humans themselves who had risen against Satan’s power. And had done so with more of the devastating magic they’d used on Earth. Just how had they found such mages? Humans had never been seen to have magical powers before? Who had given them such powers?

There was only once plausible answer to that. Yahweh. And that brought his mind back to the original question, had Yahweh planned the whole thing? There was no doubt Yahweh was on the move, an Angelic delegation had been sent to Dis, but it had never got to the city walls. The rebels had killed it, wiped it out with that confounded magic of theirs. That left Satan with a very real problem, he was already getting some polite inquiries about that delegation. If he denied all knowledge of it, that would be instantly disbelieved and that disbelief would be expressed as an assumption Satan was admitting guilt for its disappearance. That could lead to war. On the other hand, if he admitted it had been destroyed by rebels, that would be an admission of weakness so profound it could lead to war.

No, if he invaded Earth, he would be leaving his realm open to invasion from Heaven. If he kept his Army here, he would be leaving Earth to build up its forces for an even deadlier defense. If he split his forces between the two, he might not have the strength to do either. And if he ignored this rebellion, it would grow and become a third, equally powerful demand on his strength.

All of which pointed to the third spike in Satan’s gut. Yahweh had never forgotten Satan’s rebellion that had established Hell as an independent entity. Oh, Yahweh was happy enough claiming victory and boasting of how Satan had been ‘cast down’ but the truth was simple. Before Satan’s rebellion, Heaven and Hell had been one entity, ruled by Yahweh. Now they were two independent entities and Yahweh ruled only one of them. And he had never forgotten it. Had he planned this whole mess? Once again the question echoed through Satan’s mind. Then another displaced it. Had the humans planned this whole situation. Had they, enraged by Yahweh’s betrayal of them, decided to take a deadly revenge on both? If that was true, where would they stop? Would they stop?

“Your Majesty, Asmodeus awaits.” The Majordomo measured the distance to the nearest cover, a familiar precaution these days, one which his predecessor had inexplicably neglected.

“Send him in.” Satan stared morosely as Asmodeus crawled in on his belly.

“Your Majesty, I abase myself before you.”

“Not enough. And your cringing is inadequate also.”

Asmodeus shriveled slightly on the floor. “Your Majesty, I bring bad news.”

“Let me guess, the rebellion you are tolerating in your domain is getting worse.”

On the floor, Asmodeus shuddered. “Majesty, one of my underlings has been killed, his castle stormed and its garrison wiped out. The attackers left this message. They oppressed the people. They faced the people’s justice. Fear Us. Popular Front For The Liberation of Hell

To Asmodeus’s amazement, Satan actually smiled. “The Liberation of Hell. I fought for that once. And won. And now the humans fight me for the same thing.”

“Majesty, they..”

“And you let them.” Satan’s voice had its oily, deadly quality back.

“No Majesty. This stupid rebellion can be crushed, easily. All I need to do is take five legions down there and hunt the rebels down. We can be training the rest of the armies while I do that. This must be done Majesty.”

“Then do it. And take ten legions, not five.” That was a solution Satan thought, he could tell Yahweh that the delegation had been destroyed by rebels who had been wiped out for their impudence.

“One other thing Majesty.” Asmodeus felt himself beginning to lose control of his bowels.

“Speak.”

“Majesty, Abigor is not dead. Our watchers saw him surrender his forces to the humans. He has defected to them.”

Satan’s scream of rage could be heard across four rings of hell.

Celestial Mechanics laboratory, DIMO(N), Yale, New Haven, Connecticut

“Why don’t we just nuke the wretched thing?” General Teed Michael Moseley glanced at the nondescript civilian sitting beside him. The man quietly reached out his hand, flat, palm down, and moved it slightly backwards and forwards in negation. Moseley’s mouth twisted slightly, a targeteer had spoken and the answer given, ‘not enough data’.

Dr Kuroneko frowned, then gestured at the projection screen. His first assignment had been to find a way of closing the Hellmouth in the Iraqi desert down if that became necessary. The obvious answer, the one the Air Force loved, had been his first guess as well. A bad guess as it happened.

“It won’t work General. Let me show you.” The EM field graphs disappeared and were replaced by an intricate wireframe animation, sprinkled liberally with numeric labels and equations. It seeming to show two spheres stuffed into the ends of a short rubber hose, which was threaded through the centre of a spinning donut. Glowing pinpricks were appearing in the upper region, alighting on the top sphere and streaming along the surface of the tube to the lower sphere, where they dissipated. Meanwhile the surface of the donut rippled and shifted in almost hypnotic patterns.

"This is our current best guess at the actual structure of the portal. We've been given free access to the NSF supercomputing grid, which helps a lot.The coders are still catching up with the theory though and the theory itself still lacks experimental confirmation."

Dr Kuroneko paused. The military types didn't seem to be nearly as concerned about the lack of rigour as the audience at a typical physics conference. He shrugged and continued.

"This is just a projection of course. The real thing is seven dimensional. The energy, or whatever is the equivalent of energy flows down from higher dimensions to lower ones. By the way, there’s no sign of it stopping with us, so there could be as many dimensions 'below' us as there are 'above'. The key to the portals is this constriction in the flow; it's formed of some kind of exotic matter, brought into existence by specific patterns of microwaves. We still don't have an empirical model of how that works..."

The audience were frowning now. The doctor's tone became defensive.

"...after this branch of science is so new it hasn’t even got a name yet. What we can do is model the behaviour of the portal once it's open. Once we could do that, your idea was one of the first things we tried."

The doctor touched a button on the remote and the lower sphere exploded into fragments. With nowhere to go, the glowing particles built up in the centre of the donut. Within seconds, they burst through into the lower area again, as if a temporary dam had been washed away. The particles sprayed wildly for a few more seconds before stabilizing into a new lower sphere.

"That was at x10 speed. Hitting this end of the portal can buy us only minutes at best." Dr Kuroneko paused to cast his eyes over the impressive collection of military brass. They weren't so different from freshmen, he thought, both spent most of their time playing video games these days. That had been a problem in itself. Politicians, civilians, had seen modern military command systems and noted their similarity to computer games. They’d somehow jumped to the conclusion that the similarity meant that wars could be made bloodless, a stupid concept now disproven by 400,000 dead baldricks in the Iraqi desert. He shook his head, refocusing on the task at hand.

"I know what you're thinking, what happens if we disrupt the far end? Well, watch this." He pressed the remote again and this time the top sphere shattered. Deprived of energy, the lower sphere faded away, but the glowing particles didn't stop coming. Instead more and more started to appear and this time they were drawn straight to the central torus instead of passing through to the lower region. The spinning donut started to twist and oscillate more and more wildly as it was bombarded with energy, then suddenly the screen went dark.

Kuroneko swore. The simulation had been thrown together in a 36-hour coding session so bugs were to be expected, but it had worked fine in the dry run. Naturally. He reset and tried again. Again the torus was bombarded with energy, looking as if it would fly apart... but then it suddenly swelled to twice it's original diameter. The particles could now make it through, and both spheres reappeared, much larger than before.

"As you can see, unlike our own efforts to date the strange matter envelope in the demon version is self-stabilising. Simply pouring energy in will only result in it reforming around a higher harmonic." Some of the military types still weren't getting it. He sighed and rephrased it into baby-talk for them. "So no General, you can't nuke it. We'll have to think of something else.

There was a long pause. The brass shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Dr Kuroneko pre-empted their next question.

"We have come up with one possibility. The inner structure of the portal is in a complex dynamic balance. If we can hit that torus with a blast of directed electro-magnetic energy, on precisely the right frequencies, it's very likely that we can overwhelm that balance and disrupt the exotic matter. It will dissipate and remove the constriction in the flow, thus closing the gate, Permanently unless somebody opens a new gate in the same place. Unfortunately the only a few systems in the world that can generate that kind of pulse, and all of them are huge pieces of apparatus built into research institutions."

That was that. There was nothing to do but get back to work on the simulation. If they could understand the resonance better, perhaps a series of smaller pulses, spread out over time...

"Actually Dr Kuroneko you may be in luck." The man speaking seemed to be a civilian, with a curiously flat voice. He reached inside a case and removed several copies of a file, which he passed out. Dr Kuroneko blinked. They were stamped 'TOP SECRET' and 'CANUKUS EYES ONLY'.

"When I received your initial report I did a little digging. I remembered hearing about a crazy idea that a group of Brits at Aldermaston came up with in the mid 80s. NATO was desperate for a way to stop a Soviet tank army steamrolling Germany without resorting to nukes. A lot of left-field ideas were studied and this was one of them."

He flipped the file open to a page showing a full-page schematic.

"As you can see, the device is conceptually simple. Two inner coils nested inside an outer one. Capacitors energise the inner coils and an explosive forces them apart. Tremendous current is generated in the outer coils and channeled into the Klystron array in the nose. Power output spikes in the terawatt range in the milliseconds before the device is destroyed. They called it Project Starglider. Don’t ask me why."

General Schatten spoke up. "Don't we have something similar? They don't show me all the air force toys but I've heard the rumors about e-bombs used in early strikes on Iraq."

"Nothing on the scale or precision of this device, General. It was designed to burn through EMP hardening and leave an entire division without communications or radar. It projects a precisely controlled spectrum in a relatively narrow burst. Only two problems; the working parts have to be kept filled with liquid helium and the damn thing weighs nearly 20 tons."

"Ah, so rather like the very first hydrogen bomb?" Dr Kuroneko was used to theory, not hardware, and he was struggling for a frame of reference. "It explodes but is almost completely immobile?"

“It’s a device, not a bomb, and it initiates, not explodes.” The targeteer spoke idly. “But you’re right, it was a clumsy device, even for a B-36. We built five of them in early ’54 designated the TX-16.”

“I never knew that.” Kuroneko was amazed, he’d always assumed the Ivy Mike device was a useless technological dead end.

“So don’t worry about size and bulk, if we need it we can move it. The Brits were planning to dump it out the back of a C-130, though that idea was marginal at best.” The targeteer’s voice was still idle and steeped with professional disinterest.

There was a long silence as the attendees paged through the file. Eventually General Moseley's impatience got the better of him. “So, did it work?"

"They built two quarter-scale prototypes. The first one was a non-superconducting test article. It was only fired at low power and according to the file, it's still in storage at the AWE. The second one was a full prototype. Results from the sole test were mixed. Power output was disappointing, but the amplitude profile did suggest that ten of the twelve emitter tubes shattered prematurely."

Dr Kuroneko had been frantically scanning the project history. "Ah, of course, the fact that the… device …. is destroyed when used would make finding out what happened rather difficult. Hmm. It looks like the engineers were convinced they could lick the problem, but the project was defunded in 1993... I presume because of the end of the Cold War?"

“That’s not why it was cancelled Doctor.” The idle voice was getting on Kuroneko’s nerves. “EMP is a grotesquely over-rated weapon. It’s literary achievements far outweigh its practical applications. There are much simpler ways of taking down a command system."

There was another long silence, before Secretary Warner decided that he had all the information he needed. The details were clearly best left to the specialists. It was time to ask the key question. “Can you make it work for us?"

All eyes turned to Dr Kuroneko, who had gone back to devouring the file. For a moment, he was oblivious to the discussion surrounding him, but then he sensed the silence and looked up.

"Ah, well, it looks like..," This is insane, he thought, I'll need a whole new set of simulations to even start... "Was the result of the British tests omni-directional or uni-directional?"

The flat voice answered again. “It was designed to hit everything in a ninety degree frontal cone, but I'm sure the engineers can refine that.”

"Well then sir, at first glance the theoretical work looks solid, we can replace the original coils with high-temperature superconductors to bring down the mass..." He grimaced briefly at the though of federal agents raiding half the low temperature physics lab in the nation for the material. "If we can get it working at design power... couple the simulation to an evolutionary algorithm to find the optimal frequency spread... then yes sir, I think it will work."

Buckingham Palace, London.

“Behind me you can see the new Regimental Colonel presenting the regimental colors to the reformed 1 Battalion, The Cameronians, also known as the Scottish Rifles. Due to defense cuts in the late 1960s the regiment chose disbandment over amalgamation, although two Territorial Army companies of the regiment survived as late as the 1990s before the final company was re-badged as part of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

“Today the only Scottish rifle regiment has rejoined its illustrious fellow regiments in the Scottish Division. Over the last month we have become rather used to de-amalgamation parades, but today’s parade is something special as it is a long time since the army has reformed a disbanded regiment.

“Behind me you can see the first recruits to join the battalion, in their distinctive Douglas tartan trews; some are former members of the two Territorial companies, though most are National Servicemen newly out of basic training.

“The Regimental Colonel is now taking the salute as the battalion marches off the parade ground.

“This is Brian Rix, for Reporting Scotland, in Hamilton. Back to the studio.”

“Your granddaughter seems to suit her new job very well, Your Majesty.” Prime Minister Gordon Brown remarked as he watched the television. “Would you like me to switch the set off, Ma’m?”

“I can manage thank you, Prime Minister, I’m not in my grave yet.” Elisabeth the Second, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Lord of Mann, Duke of Normandy etc, etc, formerly Defender of the Faith, said lightly as she got up to turn off the television.

“Anne is certainly very proud of Zara, though I’m not sure I approve of a rather junior subaltern being appointed as a Regimental Colonel. I do know that she is rather disappointed to have been assigned to The King’s Troop when she chose the Royal Horse Artillery; she wanted to see some action rather than being assigned to Home Defence.”

“The Ministry of Defence is rather nervous about assigning members of the Royal Family to active units. They feel they rather used up their luck with Harry. Losing a member of the Royal Family in action might hurt the nation’s morale, Ma’m.” The Prime Minister replied.

“Prime Minister, today we face the most serious threat that this country, indeed humanity, has ever faced. Should we lose the war then we will all end up in Hell, so it will not matter much if one of my family should die during the war. I also feel that we must bear all of the same risks that every other family in Britain must run.

“Andrew has already rejoined the navy; you may have noticed that Charles and my husband have been drilling with the Home Service Force Company formed from palace staff, so I do not see why William, Harry and Zara should not get their chance to see active service in this war.”

Gordon Brown smiled, this was why he liked Her Majesty, and why, on the whole he got on very well with her. His first audience with the Queen on becoming Prime Minister had been far longer than that of his predecessor; Her Majesty liked all things Scottish and was always keen to talk about Scotland. She also rather liked Sarah, the Prime Minister’s wife. “I shall pass on your wishes to the Ministry of Defence, Ma’m. When the Household Cavalry is sent into action William and Harry will not be held back, and I’m sure that if Zara wishes a transfer to another regiment of the Royal Horse Artillery it will be looked upon favorably.”

“Thank you, Prime Minister. The great advantage of a hereditary monarchy is that there are plenty of us spare should something happen to someone further up the line of succession.

“Anyway, where are my manners, how is your family?”

_________________
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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Palace of Asmodeus, City of Dis. Hell

“Explain yourself.” Asmodeus’s voice was unforgiving.

The subject of his displeasure was cringing on the floor, trying to think of some good reasons why the situation had ever got to this point. The problem was that, while Kinathroses could think of some very good reasons indeed, speaking any of them would get him killed. Instantly.

“Sire, I was betrayed by my subordinates….”

“That goes with the territory. This is hell you know.” Asmodeus spoke in an almost friendly manner, giving Kinathroses some vague hope that he might survive this session. “Your subordinates are supposed to try and betray you. It is your duty to detect their treachery and deal with it. If you are so stupid and incompetent that you cannot do that simple thing, then you are obviously unfitted to hold the position that you presently occupy. Perhaps the subordinate who betrayed you might better be suited to your present responsibilities.”

Kinathroses’s hopes of survival took an immediate downturn. Even if he survived the interview with Asmodeus, he would be demoted to the lower ranks and left to serve one of those who had once served him. And his new lord would promptly have him assassinated to avoid any attempts to reverse the situation. Better to try a different approach. “Sire, it is the humans who are at the root of this trouble.”

“Ahh. Human magery.” Asmodeus was enjoying himself immensely. “You claim human magic is so powerful that your armies could not stand against it. Abigor claimed that you know. It cost him everything.”

May your talons rot thought Kinathroses. You have no idea what the humans are capable of. You come here, throwing your weight around without understanding anything of what has been happening. Well, you can learn the way we are learning.. “Sire, human magery is much over-rated. Oh, they have some special tricks that it true but they are of little significance compared with other factors.”

“What other factors?” Asmodeus was genuinely intrigued. This was a cut on the situation he hadn’t expected.

“Sire, it is not what the humans have to fight with, it is how they fight. Or rather how they do not fight. They do not seek out our armies to face them in combat. They hide in the rocks, the mud and the caves. They wait until they have a demon alone, or perhaps a small group, then they strike from concealment, killing without warning. Then they fade away again. With all the demons leaving to join the armies for the invasion of Earth, we have too few under arms down here to stop them. By the time the message gets back of the attack, the humans are long gone. Mostly. Sometimes, we send a rescue column out and the column itself is attacked. And again by the time we react, the humans have gone. We cannot get messages around quickly enough, there is too much space to cover.

“And then there are the mage-blasts. Nobody knows where or when the next one will be. Our demons can be on the walls, marching along a road, or resting in their outposts when a mage-blast wipes them out. No warning, no challenge to combat, just a mage blast from out of the mists and darkness. Those that survive are horribly wounded. That is the factor that we cannot fight Sire. How can we fight those who will not stand and fight.”

“Trap them so they have no choice but to fight.” Asmoedeus’s mind turned to the problems he had just heard. He had ten full legions coming down, 66,666 trained veteran demons. That would swing the force level problem decisively his way. The communications problem was one he hadn’t thought of, in his military experience, mostly limited to the formalized, choreographed skirmishes in Hell, commanding units had been no problem. The troops had always been in range of his voice or mind-masking power. It had never occurred to him that wouldn’t be the case here. But he did have enough troops to overcome that problem.

The picture of the rebellion suppression campaign started to form in his mind. He would start with a single main operational base on the edge of the 5th circle segment where the rebellion was concentrated. Then, he would start to spread across the segment, establishing each outpost within sight of another. If one was attacked, support would be immediate because other outposts would see what was happening. And, even better, they could relay mind-masked messages from one to the next, allowing the great rear base to be informed quickly.

Asmodeus mulled the concept over, It seemed to work but he could see one flaw. If he pushed out from one point, he would force the rebels back. That’s where Hell’s strange topography cut in. It was an odd fact about Hell that if one set out in a straight line, in any direction, one ended up in the same place one had started. Left, right, forward, backwards, up, down, it made no difference. Keep going long enough and one ended up where one had started. Heaven was the same. Unless one created a portal, there was no way out because there was nowhere to go out to. Thinking about that made Asmodeus’s head hurt. Still, there was a solution, start from two bases, one at each end of the segment of the 5th circle and close in on the middle. That way the rebels would be trapped between them and eventually, they’d have to fight in the open.

Throne Room, Palace of Satan, Dis, Hell

Count Belial watched Satan rage at Hell’s inability to immediately destroy the impertinent humans, his own mind boiling with thoughts of how he could exploit this unprecedented situation. It had been a scant five millennia since he had clawed his way back to a place at Satan's court, a singular feat among dukes who had fallen so far from their lord's favor. His presence here was still something of a joke; as yet he commanded but a single legion and his domain could muster only a meager tribute of human essence. Most of Hell's nobility thought of him as little more than the court jester, but a few understood the influence that the great mines and furnaces of Tartarus gave him.

Those were the dangerous ones. He had to go from beneath notice to beyond challenge in a single stroke, or he would inevitably lose his domain to one of the dukes. This could be the perfect opportunity, but the timing had to be exquisite. As Belial watched, Satan scooped up another unlucky minor demon and crushed it into paste, squeezing the creature's remains out of his clenched fist before whirling to seek another target. Too early and he would only draw Satan's wrath as the unfortunate ogre had. Too late and his proposal would be seen as a challenge to Satan's preferred course of action - dangerous even for once as favored as Abigor had been, probably fatal for one as lowly as him. Belial waited for the instant that Satan's terrible eyes turned from rage to cold calculation, then spoke.

"Your Eminence..."

Every eye was on him. Satan's gaze bored into him and he dropped groveling to his knees in the expected manner.

"Your Eminence, my demons can strike back at the humans immediately. At your command I will reward their insolence with fiery annihilation. Of course my lord recalls the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah."

There was a murmur of suppressed laughter around the room. Sodom and Gomorrah had been essentially party tricks. They had occurred at a time when Satan and Yahweh were engaged in an informal competition to visit the most creative 'punishments' on the lower planes. The humans had become so pathetic, so despairing at the demons presence that there was little scope for honorable warfare against them; they simply ran screaming or lined up and waited to be hewn down like crops. The demons were always ready to appreciate new forms of suffering and Belial's creative use of magic had been quite spectacular, not to mention entertaining enough to gain his return to the palace. However his suggestion that such tricks be considered a legitimate means of waging war was ridiculous. Surely their lord could not be seriously considering it?

In fact Satan was doing just that. It would take weeks, perhaps months, to prepare another attack on the scale of Abigor's, and much as he wanted to believe that this was simply due to the incompetence and treachery of his former favorite, he knew this was not the case. He had Asmodeus away dealing with the rebellion down in the fifth circle and Yahweh was in the wings. There was another possibility that was on his mind as well, if one attack had failed he had to consider the possibility that a second would also fail. The humans had undoubtedly taken horrible losses, but Abigor was doubtless proclaiming that he would lead them to victory and instructing them how best to resist demonic powers. Combined with their strange and seemingly powerful magic, Satan had to agree with Abigor about one thing; he had to know what forces the humans could muster, what it would really take to crush them. That would take time, as would dealing with the chaos resulting from Abigor's fall.

Already Satan's informants reporting skirmishes between the forces of dukes trying to add chunks of Abigor's domain to their own. That situation was confused, sometimes it was hard to tell whether the demons who had been found brutally murdered or had just disappeared without a trace were the victims of that internecine skirmishing or had been the victims of the human rebellion. Satan was sure that the assassinations had been carried out on the direct orders of his dukes, testing each other's defenses, each preparing to take advantage of any opportunities the way Belial was. An interesting question, was the human rebellion actually the work of a Duke who had seen human magery as a new way of fighting a war? It didn’t really matter, with Asmodeus and his Army moving to crush the rebellion, the status quo would return soon enough, but in the mean time Satan had to be seen to take decisive action. Belial's suggestion was perfect; it was fast, if it worked it would kill enough humans to claim a major victory, and if it didn't Belial was completely expendable.

"You want to act like a human, cowering in your own realm, killing with magic instead of rending your enemies?" Satan spat contemptuously.

He's playing with me, Belial thought with some relief even as he continued to abase himself. Those words stated flatly would have spelled his doom. Phrased as a question, Satan was just forcing him to justify himself.

"Your Eminence, of course your glorious armies will grind the humans into dust, Abigor's failure will be of no consequence in the long run. But it will take time to muster fresh legions, the humans may falsely believe that their resistance has won them a respite. Please sire, let me erase that hope, command me to make them burn and suffer even as they await their final extinction."

Belial Kornakat raised his head and a silent understanding passed between him and Satan Mekratrig. He would get a chance. Success would mean elevation sufficient to ensure his survival in the court. Failure would result in a fate even worse than Abigor's.

"Very well. I see no reason to allow the apes the luxury of hope. You will choose two of their largest cities and destroy them utterly as you destroyed Sodom, as you destroyed Gomorrah."

Belial thrashed his tail and licked at Satan's talons, resembling for a moment a gigantic, monstrously disfigured dog. All for show of course; mentally he was weighing the risk of asking for more resources and looking weak against the risk of the attacks failing. He had heard that the humans had multiplied greatly since the time of Sodom, and this had to be a most spectacular defeat.

"Thank you your Eminence, we will begin at once, the suffering will be glorious... but sire... the bigger the coven, the more humans we can burn. If I could have more naga for the effort, our blow will be that much more crushing for the humans."

A fresh murmur passed around the throne room. Satan merely snorted. Belial's admission of weakness was pathetic. There was truth in his words though. With the grand portal to Earth already open, the naga would not be needed for the counter-strike, so the other dukes might complain but could definitely spare them. If his plan was successful, such reliance on others would prevent him gaining too much glory.

"Attend me. Each grand duke will send a party of portal-mages to Tartarus such that he deems fit to compensate for Belial's inadequacy."

Satan's gaze returned to Belial, who was writhing in fresh paroxysms of abasement. "You are right to bask in my generosity, Belial. I will allow you twelve days to destroy two great human cities. Fail me and I will have you baked alive in one of your own furnaces. Now leave us."

"Of course your Eminence! I will begin the preparations immediately!" Belial scrabbled to his feet and fairly sprinted from the throne room; meeting Satan's schedule would take a minor miracle.

DIMO(N) Headquarters, Crystal City, VA

Lugasharmanaska looked up at the moon and stars overhead, marveling at their beauty. She was relaxing on a long bed-like something that, like the roof garden she was in, was a left-over from the time this building had been a luxury hotel. The bar in one corner was closed but the furniture was still here. Not wood or stone but the curious dead material the humans called plastic. They used the plastic for almost everything it seemed. And there was an awful lot of everything, that was why Lugasharmanaska was thinking so hard.

The problem was quite simple, her original defection had placed her in a position where she could benefit no matter which side won the war. The more she had learned, the more she had seen, the more she had become convinced that the humans were not going to lose. They were wealthy beyond any demonic dream of avarice, they had machines to do their work for them and they had an unlimited number of those machines. And that was the problem because they used those same machines to do their killing. Lugasharmanaska shuddered slightly to herself. Humans were so good at killing, when they couldn’t find demons to kill, they practiced on each other.

It wasn’t just that they were good at killing, they were good at understanding as well. If they met something they didn’t understand, they didn’t write it off as “magic” or “magery”, they didn’t consider it to be “the will of something or other”. They set people to work studying it and those people would nibble away at the mystery until they had worked out what it was all about. Then they would hammer away at what they had learned some more until they not only understood the mystery but had worked out practical applications for it. Applications that were far more useful than the mystery itself.

In a flash of insight, Lugasharmanaska suddenly understood why Yahweh had abandoned this world. For millennia, humans hadn’t thought that way, they’d accepted what they had been told, treated “divine revelation” as something sacrosanct that it was death to dispute. Suddenly, that had changed, humans had stopped accepting what they were told and started asking questions. And, when they didn’t like the answers, they’d started arguing. They’d found their own answers and realized there was no place for “magic” and “magery” in the world they were learning about. There were only things they understood and things they didn’t understand – yet. Their plastic, their machines, their terrible efficiency at killing, all came from that same desire to understand what they didn’t understand – yet.

And that was why Hell and all its demons were going to lose this war. They accepted things the way they were, they didn’t ask questions about why. Things were what they were and that was it. Humans didn’t agree with that, things were there to be understood and used. They even had names for these arts. Understanding things was called “cyunse” and using things was called “enjunyrin”. Lugasharmanaska almost fell into the trap of believing they were new religions but she’d been saved from that error by a fluke.

She’d been in one of the buildings devoted to trying to understand Hell when she’d seen two men arguing in front of an audience. An old man, obviously of great importance and a younger man, probably his follower. They’d been arguing furiously, shouting at each other, waving their arms around and making marks on a great black board. Lugasharmanaska had expected to see the young man struck dead for his impudence, what Satan or Yahweh would do to a follower who argued with them in public defied even Lugasharmanaska’s devilish imagination. But the young man had made some triumphant marks on the board and the old man had looked at them for a minute or so then said, simply ‘he’s right you know”. And the room had burst out into applause and the old man had clapped the younger one on the back and shaken his hand. That was when she had understood, when cyunse said something was so, that was only the case until somebody proved otherwise. Then the old truth was dropped and a new one put in its place until that too was disproved.

That was why humans would win this war. Whatever Satan and his armies did, humans would understand it, improve it and then use the improved thing against their enemy.

The question was, what should Lugasharmanaska do now? She’d already modified her original plan quite drastically, her intent had been to tell the humans as little as possible and distort what she did say to them in ways that would benefit her. She’d nearly been caught, had only escaped by pure luck. Humans had taken what she had told them and used their cyunse on it. They’d proved that some of the things she’d told them contradicted others. She’d pretended ignorance, said that was the way she’d understood it and acted bewildered. And she’d made a vow to be much more careful for she knew her survival depended on being useful.

That was why she was up here on the roof. She’d accepted that mind-masking didn’t work on humans any more and that they were aware of her miasma and on their guard against its effects. Her ability to communicate with home had also gone. But she had to try, she had to warn her liege-lord Deumos of the danger she faced. For Lugasharmanaska understood humans and how they regarded their enemies. As long as the enemy fought, the humans would kill without mercy. If Deumos was to survive the oncoming destruction, she would have to find a way of not being an enemy of the humans without being slaughtered by Satan as a traitor. Somehow, Lugasharmanaska had to get a warning through. So she lay on the plastic chair, apparently relaxed and resting but in reality, screwing every ounce of mage-power she could muster in an attempt to contact Deumos. In the middle of the fierce concentration, she found herself wondering what her mage-power really was.

_________________
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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