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 Post subject: Armageddon Parts 36 - 40
PostPosted: Sun Jun 26, 2011 2:04 pm 
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Section Twelve, DIMO(N), Fort Bragg, North Carolina

“Let’s start with weapons. Jerry?”

“In Helljar-One, that’s the one simulating the normal Hell-place environment, it’s the older stuff that does best. Shouldn’t surprise us really, tolerances are greater so they can take the sand and grit better. The pumice in the air is the real problem. It mixes with moisture and oil to form a cement that really blocks the weapons up. Regular cleaning is essential and using Militec rather than lube oil is a good start. Good news is that grenades and fused weapons like rockets and shells work just fine. Bad news is that the M16 and M4 have very serious problems. The gas tube and bolt carriers jam up so fast it isn’t funny. We got the first of the new rifles, the M114 and M115, they both work better. All weapons have to be carefully cleaned and often though.

“Helljar-Two, ironically, is a lot easier on weapons that One. The mud and filth is bad of course but its something the troops know how to deal with. We’ve had the reports back from Tango-Bravo, and the first A-Team we sent in to help them out, and we’ve correlated them with the results from Helljar-Two. Very high degree of congruence I’m glad to say, that gives us a degree of confidence in our results. Based on our studies, we’ve pulled the M4A5s from Tango-Bravo and given them pre-production M114s instead. They’re happier now. The Special Forces group in with Tango-Bravo now also has M114s.”

“Excuse the interruption Jerry, but while we’re on the subject of the Special Forces people we’re sending in, any word on the medical side of this.” General Schatten looked at the woman who was supervising the medical side of the studies.

Doctor Sangina thumbed quickly through her notes. “The first group under Lieutenant Madeuce have suffered quite badly. They have pumice deposits in their lungs and those will have a severe impact on their future health unless we can find a way of treating them. This isn’t a new problem, its been known in the mining industry for centuries. It’s usually called silicosis although the specific form here is known as Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. There are some treatments under evaluation for the condition, including whole-lung lavage but, unless we get a breakthrough, I’m afraid the first group of patients are going to have to accept some severe health consequences 15 – 20 years down the line. The second group we sent in, and all after that, have breathing masks that filter out the dust. That should solve the problem.”

“Apparently, people in the Hell-Place heal a lot faster than they do here, any word on that?”

“It is true, that’s why the victims in Hell survive the way they do. It’s not a function of place though, it’s a function of being a creature of that place. Souls who have transitioned to hell via death or creatures that are native to hell have much-enhanced healing power and wound resistance compared to us. They retain those advantages when they come to our dimension. The catch is that humans from hell can’t survive here for long, they leak, ohh, I don’t know how to describe it, life energy I suppose. Baldricks can, we think because they use their bio-electrical generating capability to replace the leaking energy, to trickle-charge themselves so to speak. Reborn Humans don’t have that capability so they die in our dimension. Now, if we go to the Hell dimension, we don’t get a boost in healing or damage resistance, we’re just the same there as we are here.”

“Thank you. Sorry, Jerry, I was very concerned about the people we’re sending in. Can you continue please?”

“No problem. Helljar-Three is the one with the burning desert. That’s the one we know least about, we’ve only got limited intelligence there. In some ways its much more hostile than Helljar Two, when the reports said burning desert and flaming rain, they weren’t joking. In other ways, its more benign. The air is much drier and the dust content is a lot, lot lower. As far as we can make out, our equipment functions much better there, its just that we don’t.
“Thank you Jerry. Greg, vehicles?”

“Main problem is dust and the pumice cement. We have heavy-duty air filters that can cope with it and we’re designing better ones. Like the weapons side of things, the secret is to clean and keep cleaning. A couple of things, diesels are less susceptible to choking on dust that gas turbines. We might want to think about a diesel-powered M1 for operations in Hell itself. That always has been an option but the gas turbine’s advantages have meant we haven’t gone there before. Now, we might want to rethink that. But, as long as we use the right filters and keep cleaning things, we can take our ground vehicles in right now. Oh yes, current NBC protection systems for the crews of the Abrams and Bradleys are quite adequate for the conditions. Strykers as well. The logistics vehicles may need an upgrade.”

“Which brings us to aircraft. Bill?”

“Bad news all around I’m afraid Sir. Same problems Jerry and Greg have been talking about. Dust chokes the engines quickly and cakes the airframes. Being sucked through a jet engine causes hellish erosion problems, mostly on the blades but its pretty gruesome in the rest of the engine as well. You can take a zero off the number of hours between overhauls at least, probably two. That’s not the worst of it, the dust scours the aircraft itself, abrading the wing and fuselage surfaces. Faster aircraft go, the worse that gets. We need new coatings for the aircraft that’ll help cut that down.

“We tried the prop-planes as well. Mixed news there, the erosion problem on the airframes isn’t so bad since the aircraft are much slower but the damage to the propellers is wicked. You should see an old P-47 we stuck in a wind-tunnel and blasted with a simulated hell atmosphere while we ran its engine. After an hour, the prop was ground to nothing. Aircraft with liquid-cooled engines were a problem, the cooling system got jammed up so the engines over-heated and seized up. Radial engines were bad as well at first but we’ve managed some work-arounds for them. Oil coolers are still a problem though.

“Sum of it all, we’ve got a lot of work to do before we can deploy air power into Hell. Priority problem should be airframe erosion, once we can lick that, the others will follow.”

Schatten looked around. “Good work guys. I’ll transmit the data through to the Army in Iraq.”

Combat Team Alpha. By the Hellmouth, Western Iraq

“Hokay, lot of men told me to go to hell in the past. The Big Cheese is the first one who really meant it.”

“We really going into Hell, Hooters?”

“Sure are Biker. It’s a thunder-run. Hold one.” Stevenson flipped her radio system so she was addressing all 14 vehicles in her command. “Right, this is what’s happening. We’re going in through the hellmouth, according to our source, the area inside is called the Martial Plain of Dysprosium. It’s a prairie-like area the baldricks use for parades and so on. We can swing in, cross it and hit two encampments that are about twenty miles inside. We’ll take them down and shoot up any resistance. Anybody who shoots at us gets greased. Try not to hit non-combatants but if they’re being used as shields or getting in the way, that’s too bad. Word from the top is, we don’t deliberately target any non-coms but they’d better learn to keep out of our way. No vehicles to be left behind, there’s an engineer unit out here, if one of us gets immobilized, we send for them and they tow us out. All clear? Good. Formation, my four tanks lead, line abreast, Bradleys behind, four more M1s at the rear. Right hand tanks watch right, left hand watch left, forward center pair ahead, aft center pair behind. Bradleys, watch the sky, the Harpies are our worst threat. See one, kill it. I’ll command from Alpha-One-One.”

That would upset the two Bradley crews that technically formed the HQ section but Stevenson felt much more at home in her Abrams.

Stevenson flipped her radio back to the in-vehicle circuit, “Biker, take us through.”

“Coming inside Captain?” The driver didn’t know whether the radio was still set to company-wide so he was careful.

“Sure. Orders are to seal down. Gonna limit our vision though, everybody watch out, if something blows as we go through, we’ll need to react fast.” Stevenson relaxed, leaning up against the cupola ring as she heard the gas turbine behind her spool up The back of her tank looked different after the week waiting outside the hellmouth. It had what looked like a low tent over it, one made of metal filter foil. It would allow air in, some, but it would also keep dust out and stop harpy-fire basting the engine. The top edge of the Abram’s performance had gone, reduced airflow to the turbine had seen to that, but the big tank was still fast and agile enough. She took a last look around at the blue sky and yellow sun of Earth, then dropped inside her tank and dogged the hatch down. As the Abrams lurched forward, she could feel the air pressure increase slightly as the tank’s NBC system established a positive pressure gradient.

Outside the black wall of the ellipse was approaching as the tank accelerated towards it. There’d been a lot of debate about whether to crash through at high speed or to ease through. Eventually, the decision had been left to her and she’d decided the high speed approach was best. Get through and in before anybody waiting in ambush could react. Besides, nobody had even a slight understanding of what the inside of the portal was like and being half-in, half-out could be a very bad place.

It didn’t seem to matter; the wall approached them but Stevenson wasn’t aware of actually going through it. One moment she was on Earth, almost instantly and without any other sign, everything had changed to the thick red light of hell. No shock, no jolt, nothing. Just the sudden switch in lighting conditions. Stevenson looked through her optronic system and saw the terrain ahead brightening as the system compensated for the light. A check on the navigation system was more worrying, the compass needle was spinning around uselessly while the GPN navigation system had gone dead. According to the inertial navigation system, she was still on Earth, about a klick from where she had started. She wished that were true.

“All Alpha vehicles. I’m defining the hellmouth as position zero, its direction is East. Adjust all inertial systems accordingly.” She punched the data in herself and watched the electronic compass settle down. Her tank’s nose was pointing dead ahead, bearing two-seven-oh so to get back to earth she would have to drive on oh-nine-oh. She looked behind on oh-nine-oh by the compass and to her relief, the hellmouth was still there.

She had the hand-drawn map in her hands and carefully orientated it with the hellmouth. Whoever had drawn it had nice handwriting she thought. It showed the plain she could see now and the two installations way over on what would be her arbitrarily-defined south. She looked again through the optronic surveillance system, she couldn’t see much ahead, there was a pile of burned out timber over one side, she guessed that would be the reviewing stand the Predator had blown up in the first days of the war. Or what was left of it. Another glance at the compass showed that the computer had settled it down to correspond with her arbitrary alignment.

“Hokay, Biker, take off, head course one-eight-oh. Try and hold 20 mph.” She flipped the radio back to company net. “All vehicles, one eight oh. Expect target in 20 miles. Contact time one hour.”

The ground was a lot smoother than she’d expected; compared with the rough jolting she got every time her tank crossed the Iraqi desert, it was a positive luxury. She looked behind her, the Bradleys were following in her wake with the second group of M1s behind them. A cloud of red dust was rising behind the vehicles, a V-shaped cloud from each that merged behind them to give a fair equivalent of a smoke screen. If it had been white and at sea, it would have reminded her of water skiers at a beach resort. Only, it wasn’t white it was red and this wasn’t a beach resort, it was Hell although compared with the beaches in her home of Bayonne, it would be hard to tell the difference. And they weren’t water skiers, they were the point of a very, very pissed-off human army.

“Boss, target up ahead.” Anything here that wasn’t a tank or a Mick-vee was hostile. This didn’t need that distinction, a line of nine baldricks, tridents on shoulders, marching across the plain. A guard patrol perhaps? Stevenson didn’t know and didn’t care. Her laser gave a quick flash that was instantly translated into range. “All Alpha-One vehicles, targets one-six-three degrees, range 1,200 meters. Engage HEAT.”

The baldricks realized what was about to hit them a split second before the tank guns crashed. They turned, aiming their tridents at the oncoming tanks. Two lightning flashes hit Alpha-one-one’s turret, causing the computer to blip and reset. No damage and the shells exploded in the baldrick line, throwing parts of them skywards. Those who weren’t dead were still writhing on the ground when the four M1s drove over them. Stevenson could feel the tank shift slightly as Biker used his tracks to grind them into the ground. Then they were gone, just leaving a green stain on the ground.

A TOW-2 missile shot overhead, turned in mid air and plowed into a small stone building that had been half-concealed in a dip in the ground. Probably a guardhouse, possibly for the patrol that had just been summarily blasted out of existence. One of the Bradleys hadn’t wanted to be left out of the first engagement of the first human Thunder Run through Hell.

“Target should be up ahead.” Stevenson transmitted the message long after the mangled remains of the patrol and the burning guardhouse had been left behind them.

“Not here, Captain.” Baldy’s voice was regretful.

“It has to be. Map shows it due south of the hellmouth. Unless it ain’t that accurate. Hokay, we’ll do it the hard way. Bravo units form here. Keep radio link open so we can get directional cuts on you. Charlie team, go east, twenty minutes at 20mph then come back. Use Bravo’s links for direction. Alpha, we’ll go west, same time, same speed, do the same.”

The formation split into three, the Bradleys forming a defensive laager while the two platoons of Abrams tanks set off in opposite directions. Stevenson’s luck was still holding, ten minutes after the split, she spotted the encampment that was her primary target. A small group of buildings surrounded by a stone wall. “All Alpha elements, target located. Home in on my radio.” She waited until she got the acknowledgements and then started to edge her tanks forward.

Fublaronishel’s Encampment, Martial Plain of Dysprosium, Hell

It wasn’t a great command but for an ambitious young demon, an independent command like this was good. If he did well, his overlord would see and reward him. If he did not, the command was small enough so that any errors would be easily concealed. Fublaronishel had high hoped of this command, hopes that it would lead to better things and perhaps the award of a mate. Then his eyes narrowed, a cloud of dust? It couldn’t be the patrol he had sent out, they weren’t due back for two days. Then he saw what was approaching and his heart went cold.

“Iron Chariots! Iron Chariots are coming.” It was impossible, the Humans couldn’t have brought their Iron Chariots here. They had been terribly hurt by the nameless one whose disgrace was such that even thinking his previous name was punishable by death. They couldn’t be coming. Fublaronishel knew that they were, because he could see them. They still couldn’t be. “Turn out the guard. Every demon to the walls.”

His men were well-trained, they ran out of the barracks and scaled the walls, facing the dreaded Iron Chariots. The humans had stopped, many spear-throws from the walls, perhaps they were afraid to attack a fortification. Then the desert erupted into smoke and dust as the fire lances screamed out from the long tube that topped the Chariots. The walls shook with the impact, the stones shattering, fragments thrown across the encampment ground. It dawned on the stunned Fublaronishel that they had struck his wall before he had heard the sound of their launch. He staggered, looking at the walls, still standing although shaken to their core. Too many of his men were down, he was understrength to start with, he had only six of his nine nine-demon sections and one of those was out on patrol, a second was at an outpost less than a couple of miles away. That had left him with 36 and already a quarter of them were on the ground, dead or wounded it was hard to say. Then, another scream and the explosions struck his wall, tumbling it down into a pile of pulverized rubble. That was when he heard another sound, a whistling roar, something he had never heard before.

It was one of the great Iron Chariots, it reached the ruined wall and started to cross it, something no chariot Fublaronishel had ever seen could do. The roar increased and the Chariot pulled up over the rubble, its front pointing at the sky, then its nose suddenly crashed down and the chariot accelerated down the other side of the rubble pile. The strange box and tube seemed to rotate, the tube swinging around to point at him but he didn’t see the great blast as it launched a fire-lance. Instead, there was a dancing point of light and Fublaronishel felt the impacts knock him off his feet. He was weak, unable to rise, and helpless when the chariot crushed the life out of him with its treads.

Combat Team Alpha. Fublaronishel’s Encampment, Martial Plain of Dysprosium, Hell

“And the walls came tumbling down.” Stevenson’s voice was smugly self-satisfied. “Baldricks, meet depleted uranium.” Her platoon’s first salvo had been sabot, bolts of depleted uranium alloy that had smashed into the wall, the shock waves from the impacts leaving the stones riddled with stress fractures. The second salvo had been HEAT rounds, their explosions blasting the riven wall down, leaving it a gentle pile of rubble, the wall’s defenders mixed in with it. “Biker, take us through.”

She flipped her radio back to company net again. “All Alpha-Alpha vehicles, over the wall, destroy the encampment. One and three take the buildings on the left, two and four the right. One HEAT round into each.”

“Wait for us, we’re three minutes out.” She recognized the voice, the commander of Alpha-Bravo, pleading to be allowed to join the assault.

“Can’t let them regroup. Its pedal to the metal time boys.” Her tank was accelerating towards the ruins of the wall and the baldricks staggering round behind it, She lost sight of them as the bow rose, the gas turbine screaming out power as it pushed the tank over the rubble. Then the bows dropped again and she saw the pitiful little encampment in front of her. A baldrick was trying to aim his trident at her tank but Baldy cut him down with the co-axial machine gun before he had the chance. Several more baldricks were over on the right, she ignored them, they were Alpha-Alpha-Two’s responsibility. A charge well and truly kept for even as her first HEAT round flattened the nearest left-hand hut, a canister round from Two turned the baldricks in the group into chopped fragments.

The encampment was burning, the building set a fire from the copper plasma jets formed by the HEAT rounds. Some of the baldricks had been taking cover inside, their screams as they burned could be heard even inside the tanks as they waddled down the single street between the buildings, their guns crashing as they demolished what was left of the encampment. They were wreathed in the smoke, only vaguely semi-visible, the screaming roar of their engines the only thing that the baldricks could hear before they emerged from the cloud that hid the monsters. It was the roar of the engines that broke the baldricks more than the gunfire or the screams of the victims as the tanks cut them down or ground them into slush with their tracks. The baldricks that were left ran from the burning encampment into the open ground where they hoped to make their escape. These baldricks knew nothing of how tanks fought infantry.

Behind her, Stevenson could hear the crackle of 25mm gunfire as the Bradleys caught up with her platoon and added their own quantum of destruction to the holocaust that was engulfing the outpost. Her tank had reached the end of the street and it crashed through the wooden gate that gave access to the highway in front of her. A dozen, perhaps a dozen and a half baldricks were running away, trying to escape across the open ground. It was pitiful, Stevenson felt slightly sorry for them as her four tanks formed into their line and the canister shells scythed them down. Baldricks could run faster than humans, a lot faster, but that didn’t save them. The ones who survived the canister were cut down by the machine guns and then crushed under the tracks. If any had survived, they would have learned an important lesson that day. Mechanized warfare is a bitch.

Over to her left, another black pyre of smoke was staining the red sky. “Charlie, is that you?”

“Sure is Captain. We cut the corner and hit the secondary. Its ashes, there were eighteen, perhaps twenty Baldricks here, all dead. No casualties.”

“Bravo, any casualties back there?”

“Not a one Cap. We’re fine and we got some of the baldricks you missed on the way through.”

“Hokay, guys, form on me. We’re heading home.”

An hour later, Stevenson was staring at her map again. “It’s got to be here. We came back on an exact reciprocal of the way we came in. It’s got to be here.”

“Could they have closed it Hooters?” Crab’s voice was worried.

“I’ll tell you something else, we didn’t see that guard house we flattened on the way in. We weren’t that long, we should have seen the wreckage at least.”

Stevenson pressed her lips together. “Right.” Radio to company command channel. “All right guys, same drill as before. We go two ways, Bravo stays here and keeps in contact. We’ll find that hellmouth.”

This time it was Charlie that lucked out, at the end of their cast. They spotted the burned-out display stand and that gave Alpha Team the reference it needed. Twenty minutes later her command reassembled and drove triumphantly out through the Hellgate

As they crossed the ridge, Colonel Macfarland was waiting for them, impatience conflicting with congratulation on his face.

“Sir, both targets wiped out, no casualties, more than 100 baldricks dead. And Sir, something’s really screwy with directions in there.”

\

_________________
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 2:09 pm 
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Tartarus, outer borders of Hell

Count Belial had long since stopped watching the bleak landscape roll past below. He had been flying for two days straight and even his inhuman endurance could not prevent the ride becoming extremely uncomfortable. The wyverns flew faster than any demon, while his own prized flock flew faster than anything the demons had ever encountered, thanks to Euryale's breeding program. Unfortunately it was also fast enough to transform the normally soft and welcoming clouds of ash into a blast that stung Belial's eyes and scoured his skin. The remoteness of his domain made the wyverns a necessity if he was to maintain any real presence at Satan's court, but Belial had also found them useful as a mercenary force. After millennia of facing virtually helpless lower-plane species, few demon lords bothered to maintain the kind of aerial combat forces seen in the Great Celestial War. They mostly depended on the harpies who, one on one, were no match for a Wyvern and its rider. The timely arrival of a few of his superior wyverns at a flier skirmish usually won him considerable favor with the victorious duke.

Whatever the merits of wyverns, right now Belial wanted nothing more than for this flight to end. From the moment he had left Satan's throne room, his mind had been churning on the details of the plan. The attack had to be spectacular, of that there was no doubt, but this time spectacle was not enough. Destroying a couple of human settlements would get him temporary adulation, but when the main attack began the glory-hungry dukes would soon see fit to consign his actions to historical trivia. They would say that his attacks merely kept the court entertained while the real forces were mustered. To gain real status he had to play a major and unquestionable role in the demon victory. His first thought was to burn the human capitals, but it was no use - the humans seemed to be divided into thousands of city states that had temporarily united into a planet-wide crusade against the demons. Destroying a mere pair of them would undoubtedly terrorize the local population but likely have little effect on the forces the humans could field. In fact, if their political leadership was anything like Satan, destroying it may actually give an advantage to the human armies. Belial laughed grimly at the joke he would never dare make to anybody.

Half a day into the flight, a revelation came to him, and with it the solution to his dilemma. Belial had been trying to comprehend why the humans fought so well now when they had never done so before. The reports of the few battered survivors had stressed the killing power of the human magic, but when pressed they had admitted that had never seen human mages conjuring the magic unassisted. What they had seen were and endless array of strange metal items; boxes that spat killing flame, spears that threw metal pebbles, sky chariots that loosed the deadly fire arrows and of course the iron chariots of legend. The humans had never shown any magical ability when the demons had visited before.

To Belial, it was obvious. The foundation of his painstakingly rebuilt power base was the superior weapons his forges produced. The difference between a typical bronze trident and a Tartaruan one was relatively slight. The painstakingly crafted copper laminations increased its power by around one and a half-fold, almost two-fold in the jeweled silver versions he made for the nobility. The secret tempering process produced prongs that bit deeper and snapped off with noticeably lower frequency than a common cast trident. The difference was not overwhelming, but it significantly tilted the odds in the small skirmishes that had been typical of Celestial warfare since the end of the Great War.

Even still the difference between an armed demon and an unarmed demon was not great. The tridents permitted the lesser demons to fling lightning, but it took many blasts to fell one demon and against celestials served only to thin out a charge before contact. The real fighting was done in close quarters. While tridents and swords had useful reach they often broke and did no more damage than tooth and claw. Belial saw that because the humans were so weak, they had been forced to invest tremendous effort into creating powerful weapons, weapons that could multiply their strength until it was sufficient to challenge a demon. In a flash, Belial saw the humans' scheme. When they had first seen the demons five millennia ago, they must have realized that weapons of unprecedented enchantment were the only thing that could offer them a hope of resisting the armies of hell. They had probably been refining their lore and stockpiling them in secret all this time, revealing their new magics only when threatened with outright extinction. Belial had not thought the short-lived humans capable of such patience and planning. Regardless, now that he understood where their strength came from, he could destroy it.

Belial felt the wyvern's weight shift beneath him and the pounding of its wing beats slowed slightly. Immediately he connected with its mind, ready to punish the creature for its laziness. Instead he was relieved to find that the beast had sighted its roost and had begun a slow descent towards the palace. Belial raised his head into the slipstream, opening his eyes and blinking back the grains of pumice that battered against his face. The dusty red foothills of the Tartaruan range were dimly visible beneath them, dotted with flickering fires and columns of smoke rising from the forges. His capital sat in a deep depression between the upper foothills, now almost perpetually shrouded by smog. The palace itself had originally been a prison, carved laboriously from adamantine to house the most dangerous angelic prisoners of war. Many millennia ago Satan had found it most amusing to exile him to an abandoned ruin in a worthless backwater, but Belial had gradually transformed it into a great arsenal and an almost impregnable fortress.

The wyvern dropped into a glide, shedding speed fast as it circled over the dwellings of Belial's subjects. The great guardian-beast at the main gates spotted its master returning and loosed an ear-splitting discordant screech from its thirteen throats. The scurrying figures below had long since stopped being startled by the noise, but they did pause and look up, before falling to their knees in deference to their master. His steed began its final swoop down onto the basalt flagstones of the outer courtyard. Belial saw that Euryale was already waiting for him on the terrace, accompanied by assorted servants. As he drew up she was stared disapprovingly at his mount, clearly angry that he had pushed one of her prized specimens so hard.

"My Lord." Euryale's snake-like 'hair' writhed and glared at him, but her tone was flatly deferential.

She gestured to a pair of servants. "You two, take this beast to the roosts immediately. Feed him chopped flesh, not live and not too quick. Don't let him bloat himself. If he sickens I will hold you responsible."

The self-proclaimed gorgon queen turned back to Belial, who had begun striding up the steps towards the palace. She hurried to keep up. "So what news from Mekratrig's court? What great deeds have you accomplished while I mind your palace for you." Her tone carried bitterness rather than resentment; gorgons in general and Euryale in particular were not welcome in Dis. She too had been an outcast and she had even further to go before returning to favor.

"Not here." Belial paused to address the servants. "I want every baron, every captain and every senior overseer in my throne room in four hours time. Send the fastest fliers. Stop groveling and move!" The lesser demons took off, some literally while the flightless ran for the barracks, leaving count and consort to enter the palace and make their way to Belial's study.

No sooner had the bronze doors clanged shut than Euryale spat "So let me guess, Satan exiled you again and now we must prepared to be invaded by half the neighboring dukes."

"Silence wench!". Belial had seemed distracted, but now he fixed her with a gaze so terrible she immediately regretted her taunt. For a moment she thought he was going to strike her, but when he spoke again it was not with a roar but with pride tinged by glee. "Abigor has been proven a fool and a traitor. He allowed most of his forces to be slaughtered by the humans and then joined their side." The news had stunned every demon to hear of it and Euryale was no exception.

"Our lord Satan has chosen me to strike the next blow against the humans. My plan will deliver a decisive blow and stand in sharp contrast to Abigor's failure. They must have places like Tartarus, hidden places where they produce and stockpile their enchanted weapons. We will find these places and we will destroy them they way we destroyed the last two human cities. With most of their weapons gone and no way to make more, the human armies will falter and be swept away."

Belial's plan seemed mad to Euryale at first, but within seconds she began to see the logic. It was not the way wars had been fought; destroying crops and food stores was standard practice, but disarming the enemy had never been considered a viable or useful tactic. Yet the human magics were unprecedented and the humans were so very reliant on them. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense.

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

“May I speak with you, Excellency?”

James Randi looked up at the figure that had just entered his office. He felt the start of a surge of affection and crushed it down ruthlessly. Damn, these succubi are dangerous ran through his mind. Even aware of their ability to induce empathy with anybody within smelling distance, the pheromones worked. “I’m not an Excellency or even a Sire. And calling me that doesn’t get you any favorable consideration, quite the reverse in fact. But if you want to call me James, or The Amazing Randi, then we can talk.”

Lugasharmanaska noted the abruptness and guessed it was the man over-compensating for the effects of her miasma. It was a pity the humans had found out about that. “James, I know we have the ability to talk to demons in hell now. Using your machines.”

“We can. One on one. Julie’s making Domiklespharatu a whimpering nervous wreck. It doesn’t get us very far but it’s giving her a bit of revenge for the torment he put her through. So?”

“My Liege-Lady is Deumos, the Princess of all the Incubi and Succubi in Hell. There are thousands of us you know. I would like to speak to her using your machines.”

The reply was so blunt it had to be honest. No wheedling or trickery, just a blunt request. Randi was amazed and suspicious. “And just why should we do that.”

“My mission was to seduce one or more leading politicians, bend them to my will and then learn from them as much about you humans as I could. I failed, the politicians who were leading in Bangkok resisted me. That failure could earn me my death. But I need to report to Deumos my findings.”

“Why, if you’ll be killed.” Randi thought for a moment. “Could she kill you here, by remote control so to speak?”

“No, but that does not matter now.” Lugasharmanaska gave what was her equivalent of a smile. “Anyway I have not failed any more have I? I am here with you now and this building is indeed a palace of power. I did not get here the way intended but I am here. And I ought to report my findings to Deumos.”

“And what findings might those be?” Randi was interested in how this conversation was going. He had the impression Lugasharmanaska was being honest for the first time since she had arrived here.

“I will tell her that you humans are going to win this war. That short of some incredible stupidity on your part, and you are not a stupid people, you can hardly help but win. Already she must know about the raid yesterday, it will do no harm to tell her it will be the first of many, each more destructive than the last. I will persuade her that her only chance of survival will be to join the human side, to stand with humans against Satan. She may stand with him and die for a certainty, or stand with humans and have a chance of survival. And she will believe me for I will be telling her the truth.”

“That never got anybody believed. I was telling people the truth about cheap tricksters like that Israeli idiot and malicious frauds who pretended to be mediums for decades and nobody believed me. Lugasharmanaska, let me take this to the powers that be. We’ll see what they say.”

It hadn’t actually taken much persuading. The chance of turning a demon lord was too good to pass up. Anyway, measuring the signals generated as Lugasharmanaska talked to Deumos would provide a whole world of valuable data. So, four hours later, the succubus was relaxing on a couch while the technicians worked on the wiring connecting her to the signals amplification system. A group of four Marines were in the room as well, their orders simple, if the Succubus tried anything, kill her. However, there was something else as well. Randi had given their leader a letter Lugasharmanaska had written, one that had made his eyebrows rise.

“OK, Luga. Off you go, try and get through.”

Lugasharmanaska screwed up her eyes and concentrated her very hardest. As the signal started to be generated, the electrical sensors around her head picked it up and started boosting it, driving it against the indefinable, unknown barrier that separated the dimensions. She grimaced slightly, she guessed the humans weren’t trying to hurt her but the boosted signal was having the same effect on her mind as over-loud music had on human ears. Then, there was a snapping sensation. She was through.

“Your Royal Highness. It is Lugasharmanaska. I have much to report.”

“You have been gone for a long time kidling. We thought you were dead.”

“I was recognized and captured. I failed in my mission.”

“Then it would have been better for you if you had been dead.” The mock-affection had gone from Deumos’s mind voice.

“Highness. I failed in my mission, but I have also succeeded. I am in the human’s power palace now, speaking to you from there. I have become part of that power structure, a lowly part but still high enough to learn things you must know. Please, I beg of you, hear me.”

“Speak then kidling. Perhaps your words may earn forgiveness.”

“Highness. I have learned this and it is truth. The humans will not lose this war. They will win and Satan’s empire will come crashing down upon him. They have killing arts beyond our imagination and the ability to use them. They have not shown us a tenth of a tenth of a tenth of what they can do. Did you hear of the attack yesterday when the humans sent their tanks and mickvees into Hell itself? When they destroyed whatever they could find, killed all and destroyed all.”

“I had heard this. None here could understand it. They did not kill quite all, some wounded were pulled from the ruins. Why did they not hold what they took for ransom?”

“Highness. Humans called this a Thunder Run. It is to demonstrate they can go where they wish, when they wish and you can do nothing to stop them. They do not wish for plunder, just to kill. We have nothing that they want except for our utter destruction. They see us as their, I think the phrase is, mortal enemies. The raid yesterday was the first of many, each more destructive and devastating that the last. Nothing Hell has can stand against them, Heaven itself cannot stand against them. You have two choices Highness. You may stand with Satan and be destroyed with him for a certainty or you may stand with us and have a chance of survival.” Lugasharmanaska’s mind voice was desperate, she had to convince Deumos of the catastrophe that faced her.

“Us, kidling?”

Lugasharmanaska took a brief gasp of air and then concentrated again. “Yes, Highness. Us. I have joined the humans and cast my lot with them. I may not survive to see their victory but it is better to have a chance of living to see victory that a certainty of seeing defeat. Highness, by every standard of loyalty I owe you, I beg you to do the same.”

“And why should I believe you?” Deumos’s mind voice was cold.

“For this reason.” Lugasharmanaska waved her hand and the technician started upping the power in the transmission. The pain in her head was dreadful, it seemed to fill her whole body. She had thought kitten had been weak and foolish when she had writhed in pain during this transmission but now, for the first time, she understood what the young Goth girl had suffered every time she made a bridge.

Sleeping Chamber, Palace of Deumos, Hell.

For a moment, Deumos did not recognize the black ellipse that was forming in her bed-chamber. By the time she did, four humans had stepped through it. Their leader, his features strangely obscured by a mask that covered his nose and mouth looked at the great figure that was sprawled on the couch, and lifted a tube to his shoulder.

“Whosh, blam, thank you Ma’am. You’re dead.”

Then they stepped back through the ellipse letting it collapse behind them. The whole attack had taken less that five seconds and Deumos had never had a chance to react.

“Highness, they could have killed you if they had wanted to. They can kill you any time they want to. They can kill anybody any time they want to.” Lugasharmanaska’s mind-voice was very weak and shaky. “To join them is your only chance.”

“Very well kidling. I will think on this. You have done well to tell me of these things.” Deumos leaned back on her couch, her mind just beginning to absorb how easily she could have been killed. And Satan was lying, hiding just how powerful humans were. She had a lot to think about.

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

Lugasharmanaska was gray, her normal shiny black skin, dull and faded. That alone told anybody watching what she had gone through. Her mind was weak but still calculating, assessing the result of this, the greatest gamble she had ever made. As soon as she had heard Abigor and a Herald had defected, she knew that her usefulness was diminished to almost nothing. She had to find a new role for herself if she was to continue in her privileged position. This was her throw, her attempt to do so.

“Did it work?” Randi was speaking.

“Sure did. Never seen anybody so stunned. We could have put the AT-4 into her and there was nothing she could have done to stop us. Perhaps we should have done.” The Marine Lieutenant sounded quite regretful.

“Perhaps. Luga, your side of this. Did it work?”

“Perhaps.” She had thought to exaggerate the effects of her message but she decided not to. Only the truth would serve her now. “Deumos will think on what I said and the demonstration. I would not expect her to do more. Once we make a few more demonstrations of power, then she will join. But she will join I think.

_________________
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 2:14 pm 
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Camp Hell-Alpha. Martial Plain of Dysprosium, Hell

“The dimensions are all screwed up.” Captain Keisha Stevenson was watching the mechanics take the dust filters off Alpha-Alpha-One and take them away to the cleaning area. The building they were in was a garage large enough to hold all four Abrams tanks with room to spare. It was pre-fabricated, the parts flown in using one of the massive Russian Mil-26 helicopters and then brought through the Hellmouth and assembled. It was one of four such buildings in the complex with more to come. At the moment, Battle Group Alpha was the only portion of the US Army permanently stationed in Hell. A lot more was coming in and out, but Alpha was the only unit that actually stayed there. Once again, she thought, her unit was ending up as the sacrificial goat. She was beginning to regret blasting that angel, the act that had brought her on to General Petraeus’s radar. The she thought about the scene in the hut and decided that she didn’t regret firing that canister round at all.

“The beacon worked though?”

“Sure, but it was weird, we were steering straight line, not deviating a degree, but we could see the beacon behind us slide slowly away to one side.”

“It’s not just bearing, it’s range as well. We took the data out of your navigational computer and analyzed it. The speed you were doing, the time you took and the distance you covered don’t add up. I needn’t tell you the problems that causes the artillery boys. It’s not just you, all the other units are reporting the same thing. Bearing and range are all out of whack. We’re going to have to find something to pound on in order to see how significant it all is. Before that we’re going to establish another beacon, about 30 miles out from this one. Get a cross-bearing and navigation will get a lot easier. Also, we can compare our data with the on-the-ground data and that’ll give us a handle on what is going on. If there’s a mathematical relationship, we can program the navigational computers to handle it.” Major Warhol didn’t look that convinced. But then he hadn’t been on the Thunder Runs and didn’t appreciate how disturbing the distorted dimensions were to crews who wanted to get back home. That was one reason why he was here, to see how the real conditions of Hell compared with his simulated Helljars.

Home, now that was an interesting word, Stevenson thought, looking around the base. At the moment, this was home. Four garages for her armored vehicles, all with a positive pressure system to keep the unfiltered Hell atmosphere out and dust-trap doors to let the vehicles in. Massive filters on the roof to clean the air before that got in. Workshops to keep her tanks and armored infantry carriers running, and that meant scrubbing the engine air filters every time they went out. As a start, there was much else as well. Torsion bars had to be cleaned, the maintenance list went on and on. Still, at least the pumice was softer than the hard sand of the Iraqi desert. Then there were the barracks. The living accommodation wasn’t bad but it was Spartan. At least the air was clean there as well although that had its disadvantages. Two days ago, the cooks had tried to raise morale by serving good old American hamburgers, comfort food for the crews. The smell of fried onions had lingered for hours and hours, constantly recycled by the air purification system.

The whole lot was surrounded by razor wire and there were anti-harpy systems all over. Russian Tungaskas for long range defense, twin .50 machine guns in old-fashioned, but still power operated, turrets on the building roofs for close-in work. More loot from the museum stripping exercise she guessed. Outside the razor wire were minefields. The next unit in would be an artillery battery that was being attached to Alpha for the duration of its stay in Hell. Stevenson was in no doubt that Hell-Alpha could put up a devastating fight if it had to but the baldricks operated in such large numbers, devastation might not be enough.

“You’re worried about the defenses?” Major Warhol had caught her unconscious glance up and out.

“Aren’t you? Abigor hit us with nearly 400,000 baldricks and it took five divisions plus to stop him. We stopped him cold, sure, but you and I both know how many more legions Satan’s supposed to have. How are we supposed to stop them with just a reinforced company?”

“It won’t come to that. Anyway, the hellmouth is right behind you. If you look like getting overrun, you can just back out and there’s those five divisions still covering you.”

“That’s another thing. How can we be sure that thing is going to stay open?”

“It will, Captain, we think so anyway. We think the baldricks made a huge mistake, they opened a portal so large they can’t close it again. We’re working on a way to close the things but we think they can’t.”

“Major, no disrespect sir, but its our ass that’s hanging on your think.”

“None taken. If its any consolation I’m going to be here for some days so its my ass hanging as well.” Warhol glanced around and dropped his voice. “And Dave Petraeus is moving here as soon as we can get an HQ building put together. And even if the Hellmouth closes, we already know we can open new ones, small ones, to get people out. We’d have to blow up the equipment but we’re sure we can get you and your people out. Anyway, when you going out again?”

“Tomorrow. The map shows a river not so far from here. We’re going to push right up to it and see what it’s like. See if it really is boiling blood like the legends say.”

“The Styx?”

“Nah, not according to our map. It’s called the Phlegethon according to Abigor. Deepest penetration we’ll have done. Want to come along? You can ride in one of the Tracks.”

It was a challenge and Warhol knew it. One he couldn’t resist. “Sure, a day by the river? What more could a man ask?”

North-West-Upper Gallery, Shaft 18, Slocum Mine, Tartarus

Publius Julius Livianus had long since lost track of when he had last seen the sky. From what he recalled it wasn't a great loss. The diffuse reddish light, constant choking smoke, jagged volcanic landscape and demons, demons everywhere the eye could see, all combined to make the surface a living nightmare. Down here in the flickering torchlight existence was almost tolerable. The demons still came and on each visit they lashed him with their barbed whips, but rarely more than once a day. As long as he kept up a steady rhythm with his pick-axe, then the ore crates filled up. If the ore-crates were full, he received only a single lash. In all it was far superior to the earlier place, where for uncounted centuries he had lain pinned to the ground on an endless plain of burning sands, his flesh continually scorched but yet never dying. Publius shuddered. The only reason he still thought of the place was to remind himself that progress was still possible. Through sheer will he had maintained his sanity and eventually managed to meditate on virtue even in that place, and he had ascended to this less tortuous level of Hades. It seemed logical that with sufficient effort he would be released to the next level. At least, that's what he told himself and any fellow prisoner who would listen.

Suddenly, Publius became aware that the general din of the mine workings had changed subtly. Every alert for the approach of an overseer, every human in the gallery began to lighten their strokes and raise their head, listening intently. There was a commotion of snarls, shouts and the clang of dropped tools, punctuated by the occasional scream. The source soon became apparent as a demon entered their gallery, bellowing orders and lashing his whip idly as he went.

"Go to the loading area. All of you, now. Leave your tools. Go."

None of the humans waited to be lashed and Publius ran with the others until he reached the loading area. The large gallery was normally where the crates of ore were tipped into carts to be dragged up to the surface, but it doubled as an assembly area when the demons wished to 'motivate' the workforce, usually by eating whichever unfortunate had missed their quota that month. With all the workings on this shaft emptied several hundred humans were crowded into the cavernous space.

This time however the scene was a little different. A dozen demons were gathered on the platform and some of them carried bronze tridents instead of whips. One of them was quite different from the rest; obviously female, she was covered in fine coppery scales that glittered softly in the torchlight. A snakelike tail coiled around her feet and great bat-like wings were folded against her back. However her most distinguishing and terrifying feature was the mass of snakelike growths that took the place of hair. Publius had heard the rumors many times; the black snakes could freeze a man rigid, the red ones could enslave his will. The rumors weren't clear whether it took a bite or just a look, but just to be on the safe side he avoided looking at the snake-demon directly.

The largest overseer spoke first. "You vermin are here to answer a simple question. As long as one of you answers it correctly, you can all go back to work. Fail to answer and you will all be thrown back into the hell from which you came. Do you understand ?"

The humans seemed dazed. Some were nodding, others just stared at him. Moronic beasts, Oodusjarkethat thought I wonder why are the brass are bothering with them. Surely if the rulers of hell needed to know something about the human world they could just send a succubus to find out.

Lakheenahuknaasi wasn't sure why they were bothering either. She felt claustrophobic down here and her wings kept fluttering involuntarily. Fortunately the non-fliers were unlikely to understand why. The humans seemed to be trying to stare at her without actually focusing on her. They were pathetic, with their corpse white skin, sunken pink eyes and wild unkempt hair, yet their mass gaze was strangely unsettling. She shook her head. Their minds were dull, expressing nothing more than unfocused despair and hatred tinged with a slight curiosity about her presence. They were just humans.

"We desire to know where humans make your weapons. What towns make the flame lances, sky chariots, fire arrows, thunder sticks and iron chariots. Where are these weapons stored. You will tell us or suffer the consequences."

Lakheenahuknaasi waited. Silence. The humans looked at each other, then the demons. There was a murmur, indistinct and almost subliminal. She struggled to distinguish words from the diffuse babble but it defeated her. The mental activity jumped up an order of magnitude, as if the humans were shaking off a stupor. The noise started growing, chaotic, unformed, unstructured and somehow threatening. It swelled and broke up into distinct fractions, some just an undifferentiated mumble but other parts clear and distinct. Some of the humans began to shout names.

“Eyam!”
“Woolwich!”
“Slough!”
“Donzy!”
“Essen!”
“Hobbiton!”
“Carthage!”
“The Emerald City!”

Lakheenahuknaasi tried to focus, to see which ones seemed sincere but it was impossible. The humans were grabbing at each other, punching, kicking. Even as she watched, the guards were allowing the situation to get out of control, an unthinkable, unprecedented situation. They were bellowing and lashing at nearby humans with their whips but they were barely making a dent in the din that was reverberating off the cavern walls. One torch was knocked over, then another, as the assembled ranks of workers dissolved into chaos.

The gorgon's question had set Publius's mind racing. He had always thought of the demons as mere servants of the cosmic order. Yes they were malicious, but that was their lot in life, they could no more go against their nature than a wolf could avoid chasing a hare. Other prisoners had told him of their notions of two celestial realms opposed, of demons as evil beings that had rebelled against a benevolent creator, but he had placed no stock in it. What omnipotent god could would permit the existence of opposition, and what benevolent god would give them humans to torture? Yet here was undeniable proof that the demons were not simply cosmic jail-keepers. The only reason they would want to know about human weapons was if they were fighting humans. That meant the demons invading his home, laying siege to Rome no doubt - or just possibly, he barely dared hope... the legions coming to liberate him? The demons were desperate to know of human weapons, could it be that they weren’t just fighting humans, they were fighting and loosing? Could it be that the demons were not part of the cosmic order at all, simply common slavers?

Publius was snapped out of his reverie by a stray elbow catching him in the ribs. He dropped into a crouch and realized that he was in the middle of a riot. For a split second he considered rushing the demons, but it was impossible, they were armed and organized and any case even if they could be overcome the humans would still be trapped and at the mercy of the hordes of demons on the surface. For now the important thing was to prevent the demons from getting the answers they were so desperate for. Publius had seen the men shouting names, some were obviously faking but a few had a defeatist desire to collaborate. One of the later group was stumbling around right in front of him, weakly shouting "No, no, do what they say, you'll get us all eaten alive". He knew what he had to do. Lifting a dagger-sized rock flake from the nearest crate, Publius yelled "Death to the traitor!"

Lakheenahuknaasi found herself backed up against a wall. The humans were pressing close and she reflexively loosed a spray of paralyzing darts at them. Eight poisonous spikes shot out from a pair of her head-tendrils and embedded themselves in the chests of three humans, who staggered and fell twitching. Meanwhile her escorts were firing blasts of lightning into the crowd, electrocuting humans when they hit, blasting clouds of rock dust into the air when they missed. The humans fell back, hiding behind rock crates or cowering on the floor. Slowly the noise abated and the dust began to settle.

Lakheenahuknaasi climbed back onto the dais and surveyed the chamber. The floor was splattered with blood strewn with human bodies, from which a distinct smell of cooked flesh emanated. They would be up again soon enough, the humans in hell recovered from a single lightning bolt within minutes. She searched for the humans that had been calling out names earlier, in particular one from whom she had picked up a feeling of honesty and compliance. Her eyes stopped on a human that seemed more badly injured than the rest; it was lying in a spreading pool of blood, its neck at a strange angle... in fact looking closer she could see that its skull had been crushed in multiple places. Lakheenahuknaasi blinked. It was the human who had been trying to answer her question. She glanced around, all the ones from whom she had picked up a tendency to cooperate were dead. Killed by their fellow workers. And from the rest were other feelings, fear certainly, bordering on pathological terror but something else, something she’d never thought to associate with humans. They were triumphant.

Brown’s Lane, Coventry.

For three long years the spiritual home of Jaguar Cars had lain idle, the last car had rolled off the production line here in 2005 and the firm had moved its operations elsewhere, fifty-four years after production had started. It seemed that the Jaguar’s parent company at the time, Ford, cared little for tradition. Now the idle car factories of Coventry, Birmingham and Dagenham had found a new role; while the Land Rover factory at Solihull would essentially be doing the same thing, just swapping civilian production for purely military models, the other car factories would be supporting the war effort rather differently. There was help arriving for that, the company’s new Indian owners were sending over plans for a light armored car that would fit the existing production line well.

The roads around the Brown’s Lane factory were jammed with low-loaders carrying various versions of the FV430 tracked armored personnel carrier and wheeled Saxon carriers. They’d all been brought from the nearest rail freight yard, itself hastily restored to operation and now filled with military vehicles on flat-bed trucks. The FV430s were vehicles that had either been in storage, or in various museums up and down the country. What they all had in common was that they had not gone through the ‘Bulldog’ upgrade. While BAE Land Systems was fully occupied building newer vehicles like the Challenger 2, Warrior and AS90, car factories like Brown’s Lane would take up much of the slack involved in upgrading existing vehicles. Eventually once the tooling from India was in place they would also begin to manufacture military vehicles.

Until then, each FV430 which arrived at Brown’s Lane would be stripped down, worn components replaced. The old Rolls Royce K60 engine would be removed and replaced by a modern Cummins B series engine with new sand and dust filters. Once that was done, Israeli designed appliqué armor and a Remote Weapons Station would be added, though not the weapon itself; the army was still debating as to whether the tried and trusted Browning Heavy Machine Gun, or a new FN designed weapon, the BRG-15, firing a 15.5 x 115 mm cartridge should arm the FV432s. The later was more powerful and likely to do more damage to a baldrick, but the Browning had the advantage of already being in service in some numbers. The last thing the British Army needed right now was another cartridge on top of the 9mm, 5.56mm, 7.62mm, 8.59mm and 12.7mm rounds it already employed. The armorers had enough of a headache as it was.

The Saxons, some of which were the Saxon Patrol variant that had replaced the last of the Humber ‘Pigs’ in Northern Ireland, were coming in for a slightly different upgrade. At the moment they were somewhat lacking in offensive capability, a single 7.62mm GPMG was considered inadequate against baldrick attacks. Like the FV430s they would be fitted with an RWS, though for the moment they would be issued to units assigned to the Home Guard rather than being sent out to Iraq. The Saxons, as it turned out, were far easier to work on and even better, once finished, they could be driven to where they were needed, rather than taking up valuable rail cars and transporter trucks.

Just to make life even easier, the workers who had been made redundant by the collapse of MG Rover and the contraction of the car industry in general in the West Midlands had flocked to get jobs in the new defense related concerns that had grown up. To its immense relief and surprise the government had not needed to use its new powers to direct labor to where it was needed. To protect these vital factories from potential baldrick attack a company of the Home Guard had been formed from the workforce. It was now a common sight to see workers who were not on shift drilling in the car park of Brown’s Lane and the other former car factories in the area. At the moment all they had were L85A3s, a semi-automatic version of the standard SA80 intended for use by cadet forces, though the Brown’s Lane Company had somehow managed to get hold of a Carl Gustav and a few rounds of HEAT and HE. How, was probably a question better not asked.

“Well, we’re certainly back in business.” The Works Manager looked at the sight below with satisfaction. Behind him, the representative from Tata Motors nodded with satisfaction. The purchase of the company by the Indian Tata group had caused extreme concern over whether the plant would just be taken off to India and the workers thrown out but the Tata management had gone out of their way to prove otherwise. Then, The Message had come and national identity had become very unimportant. Oh, there were a few countries still who were predictably refusing to join the rest of the world’s fight, North Korea being prominent amongst them, but India had thrown all its resources into the human struggle against their enemies. One small part of that effort was this plant here.

“I think it’s time for lunch, don’t you?” The Tata representative had a twinkle in his eye when he asked. The British had always had a love-affair with what they called Indian Curry and Tata had brought in staff who knew how to make it properly. As a result, it was quietly acknowledged that the Jaguar works canteen was the best Indian Restaurant in the Midlands. And with food rationing back, a good mid-day meal was something to be treasured. As long as it didn’t delay the work on the factory floor of course.

_________________
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 2:16 pm 
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Outer Ring, 7th Circle of Hell[/i[]

The voice was urgent, omnipresent. [i]Corporal Tucker McElroy! Do you hear me?


I hear you! McElroy screamed back in his mind. It wasn't because he realized that he was being contacted via some sort of telepathy; writhing in the river of lava for last month or so had burned his lungs so badly that he couldn't speak, so this was his only option.

You were killed at Hit, correct?

Affirmative! McElroy bellowed back. I'm burning up here, so please, whoever you are, get me out of here. McElroy remembered his manners at the last moment. “Pardon my bluntness![/i]

Not at all. My name is kitten. I work for the government. We have been trying to contact all U.S. military personnel killed in action during the first battle with the baldricks. So are you in a fire? Is there a way out?

It’s some sort of river, of lava. I’ve tried to get out but I never make it very far. There are baldrick guards on the banks, sooner or later, one of them comes along and pushes me back in. Are you taking a survey or something?

Please climb out now. We're sending in some cover for you, but you need to be on survivable terrain.

That galvanized McElroy. He would have double-blinked, if his seared eyelids were still functional. He half-leaped, half swam and broke the surface of the lava stream. It wasn't quite liquid, wasn’t quite solid and it was certainly more substantial than flames, so with great effort, he could make his way through it. He didn't know how big the river of flaming lava was, but he couldn't see the far shore, in fact he couldn’t see anything, his eyeballs were also boiled into uselessness. In any case, he’d never ventured out far enough to try. Most people, including him, spent their burning time marshaling enough strength to crawl out onto the shores of the river for a brief respite. Then, a baldrick would come along, stab the unfortunate soul with a trident, or perhaps its claws, and hurl the screaming creature back into the lake.

McElroy lost count of how many times that had happened to him.

On my way! McElroy shouted. I'll let you know when I'm out.

It didn't take long. Panic-driven instinct combined with this glimmer of hope, and he scrambled out of the flames and onto the rocky shores of the lake. Unmindful of the sizzling hunks of flesh and fat that he left on the ground behind him, he crawled ten meters before he collapsed.

Clear!

He just wanted to close his eyes, but of course, he couldn't. He wanted to breathe again, but he couldn't. The agony slowly dimming and to his amazement, his sight was already beginning to return. Dim and shadowy certainly, but returning. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, he noted with detached amusement that a demon had already spotted him and was closing quickly, bellowing some pointless taunt or curse. Tucker couldn't tell, because his ears were long gone.

Had he dreamed the whole thing? Hallucinating on top of burning in Hell? He would've smiled at the thought, but he already brandished a skeleton's grin. Maybe when his lips grew back, he'd smile again. Now, though, the demon was nearly upon him.

Oh well, back to the lake for him.

Then, the demon did a very strange thing. He was perhaps three meters away when he stopped. McElroy felt a distinct throbbing, a rapid whump-whump-whump of displaced air passing over him. He turned his head the other way.

A mini-Hellmouth dominated the background nearby. In front of it stood four uniformed soldiers, unmistakably United States Marines. They were all firing, unloading their weapons into the demon. It was quite thoroughly dead when they were done.

Corporal! Have the team arrived? kitten spoke in his mind. The voice was in distinct pain, as though someone were squeezing all the air from kitten's lungs. To have that kind of effect within thoughts...what the hell was kitten going through to do this?

And how! They just smoked a baldrick. Merely thinking the words gave him strength enough stand up. He mused that he must look like Anakin Skywalker at the end of the most recent Star Wars movie, all burnt and freakish. He turned to the four marines and saluted, and they matched him. One of them, stepped forward and began to speak, his facemask wobbling slightly as he jaw moved beneath.

He was still deaf, so he couldn't hear what the Marine was saying. Hurry, please! Send them back! kitten suddenly squealed.

McElroy held up his hand. Pointed to his ears, shook his head. Pointed at the marine, then the portal, and made shooshing motions. The marine stopped, nodded, and passed what looked like an old-fashioned rifle with a wooden stock and a rucksack to McElroy. The four Marines vanished into the portal, which itself closed a second later. He looked at the rifle, recognizing it as an M-1 Garand but with a bigger bore than any Garand he’d ever seen.

You're on your own, Corporal, kitten said, voice weak and dim. Your orders are to evade and survive. You're the among the first we've extracted and armed successfully, so you may be on your own for a while. I'll contact you from time to time. Understood?

Affirmative. Thank you, kitten. Please pass along word to my family that I'm out and kicking. He didn't get a reply, but that was alright. McElroy was already scanning the area. The wind was throwing dirt into his unprotected eyes, but he could already see better than just a few minutes than before.

The shoreline was deserted, aside from the baldrick corpse. The stream of lava stretched on for miles in each direction, but there was cover further inland, or so it appeared. He squinted; maybe it was a edge of a forest? Or tall grass? Or just a rocky outcrop? His vision was still too bad to tell. At any rate, it would leave him less exposed. He was like a piece of metal in a sand tumbler out here, and the fresh burn wounds were all singing "Ave Maria" as the grime and grit blasted him. They were healing fast though, he could feel his ears returning already.

Placing the Garand and rucksack down for a moment, he went over to the baldrick. It was dead all right, big holes blasted in it and even bigger ones where the bullets had exited the wounds. The monster had nothing he could use, except its trident of course. McElroy hitched his pack to his back, slung the Garand over his shoulder and took off, running up the shore towards what he could now clearly see was a forest.

Throne Room, Belial’s Palace, Tartarus

Belial's throne room was, in many ways a microcosm of his lord's. A mason would note that the columns were carved of adamantine rather than granite, and inlaid with gold and silver rather than sheathed with brass. A soldier's eye would be drawn to the assorted barons in attendance; much of their forms were covered by burnished bronze plates, many set with gaudy jewels. At no other court in hell would a demon show such weakness as needing armor to protect themselves. Here in Tartarus the master proclaimed dominance through superior arms and the servants competed to show their devotion to his principles. A politician would ignore these trappings and focus on the occupant of the throne. The Count's face was lined with the rage and exasperation of a master failed utterly by his servants. The skilled politician would look through this to recognize the desperation of a being that believes it is about to miss its only opportunity for survival.

Euryale's eyes took in all of this as the great doors swung open and admitted her to the room, along with one final similarity to the His Infernal Majesty’s court - the gutted carcass of overseer Oodusjarkethat still cooling on the floor. If Count and King shared anything, it was a healthy respect for the demonic tradition of taking out ones frustrations on ones underlings. That's the fourth one in as many days she thought. The interrogations were proving disastrous, not only had they failed to produce useful information but they had cut production to barely a third of its normal level. The lack of success along with Belial's retribution was crippling the demon's morale.

She strode forward into the throne room, flanked on the left by the long slithering form of Baroness Yulupki. As the most powerful of Tartaruan naga, Belial had charged Yulupki with preparing the chorus that would provide most of the power for the portal ceremonies. The first of the foreign naga had begun to arrive, borne on makeshift litters slung between pairs of Great Beasts, and the baroness's already inflated pride had swelled to new heights as she began to drill her expanded chorus into harmony. Euryale was still technically in command of the portal opening, but it was a strained relationship at best. Yulupki wasted no opportunity to demonstrate her kind's great superiority in psychic strength over the gorgons.

Euryale reached the dais and kneeled perfunctorily, but the naga was even quicker.

"Count Belial, my chorusss stands ready. The firssst of the foreigners are being broken in and I forssseee no problems in producing the level of energy you requesssted.", Yulupki hissed eagerly.

She fancies herself a rival for the count's favor thought Euryale, what a ridiculous notion. For a start, she has completely misjudged his mood.

Sure enough, Belial rose to his feet and rebuffed the naga. "And of what use is your snake pile when we have no idea where to strike? Four days! Half our time gone and still no answers. How difficult could it be? Truly you are the dregs of hell, if I cannot even count on you to wring a few simple facts out of an ample supply of apes!"

Yulupki drew back, coiling upon herself and seemingly genuinely bewildered to be the target of the Count's ranting. "Sssire, we naga are ready to play our role... it was the gorgonsss, sssire, who were supposssed to drag the truth out of the humansss. It was Euryale who promisssed to find their armoriesss for you!"

It was an obvious move and Euryale was ready for it. "Sire, no demon can be blamed for the humans behaving so unreasonably. Something strange has gotten into them, something new, as it has their brethren on Earth. Your genius revealed the source of the earth human's new-found power and the stratagem to eliminate it. I am sure that we can discover the source of the slave's unexpected rebelliousness and counter it."

The flattery went down smoothly and Belial sank back into his throne, his ranting abating to grumbling. "If that hag Deumos would just send me some succubi we'd have answers in no time."

Euryale gritted her teeth. Every gorgon quickly became used to being told they were not as effective at persuading humans as succubi, much weaker fliers than harpies, less powerful witches than naga, poorer fighters than a common lesser demon. And yet there was truth in his words, something odd had happened to Deumos over the last few days. She’d become reserved, distant, as if she was watching and calculating rather than participating. That didn’t change the fact that few demons appreciated flexibility and fewer still valued intelligence over brute strength. Belial usually did and that was the one thing that made being his consort tolerable, but sometimes even he succumbed to the official propaganda that cast the gorgon race as a failed experiment. She had long since learned to bide her time and treat the other demon's scorn as a blind spot to be exploited.

"Belial, succubi would not help. They'd get the humans talking all right, every single one would say whatever he thought the harlot wanted to hear. It would take weeks to sort out the sincere ones and even longer to find the useful ones." The truth of her words was plain and the count slumped deeper into his throne.

Euryale paced in front of the dais, her tail lashing across the floor, thinking out loud. "Collective punishment isn't working. The humans were already becoming inured to torture and now they think they can accomplish something by resisting. There are far too many to interrogate each one fully in the time we have. They now resist enthrallment so strongly that when we barb them repeatedly they go almost immediately from refusing to talk to saying whatever they think we want to hear."

Her thoughts were interrupted by one of the barons speaking up. "With all the chaos out there we can't afford to lose a significant number of humans anyway, who knows when we'd get fresh ones sent up." Others began to whisper to each other and murmuring filled the chamber.

Euryale shook her head. Guruktarqor's statement was correct but irrelevant. The key question was... where was the human resolve to deny them answers coming from? They were actively killing their own kind to deny the demons answers. She found it hard to believe they were just being perverse. What did it look like from the humans point of view? Information about weapons, needed urgently, could only mean the demons were fighting humans somewhere. With that thought, understanding dawned.

"I see it now." Euryale's voice rang out clearly and caught the attention of every demon in the throne room. "By asking such direct questions, we have acted as unwitting carriers of the disease of hope. Clearly all humans are inherently prone to the insane belief that they can prevail against the forces of hell. It took hold on earth and drove them to create magic weapons that seemed powerful enough to justify their belief. Now thanks to our actions it had taken hold here too."

"What is that antidote for hope?" she continued. "We know it well, despair, the proper natural state of a human. But merely restoring despair is not enough, for apathy does not serve our purpose. We must corrupt their newly minted hope into selfish desires, harness it to drive the humans we want, and only the humans we want, to step forward."

Euryale paused for a moment to let her words sink in and Yulupki took the opportunity to heckle. "Pretty ssspeech gorgon, but just how do you propossse to do that? You are no sssuccubusss, to manipulate the humansss emotionsss at a whim."

The gorgon flicked the naga a look of contempt, more for her utter predictability than anything else.

"I propose that we take the humans from one mine and have my gorgons enthrall them all. We will convince them that they are recent arrivals from earth and that the armies of hell are already marching triumphantly across the planet. But there are many fortified cities that will take long sieges to reduce. We must make it clear that the humans are doomed, but that it will take us many years and many demon lives to eliminate them all unless we can strip them of their weapons. We will release these humans individually into the other mines. Finally we will present the humans with a new, false hope. Any human who gives us the information we seek will be released from bondage and held in quarters on the surface. We will promise that should their information proves correct, the next human city to attempt surrender will be spared and given to them to rule. If it proves useless, they will suffer the personal attentions of our best torturers and then eaten alive."

The whole court was stunned. Euryale's plan was so radical, so ambitious in its exploitation of the human mindset that they did not know what to make of it. Every head turned to look at the Count, looking for his cue on whether to treat this gorgon as a genius or a lunatic. For a long moment Belial's face remained impassive, unreadable. Then it broke into a vicious grin.

"I find your suggestion most suitable Euryale."

She inclined her head. "With my lord's permission."

"Granted. All of you, give her whatever she needs."

Euryale turned and fixed Yulupki with a predatory glare, which for a gorgon meant a scaled face framed by no less than twenty four spine-fringed tendril-eyes staring blankly at her target. The naga's will broke and she hung her head, coiling around herself and folding her own tentacles behind her back in submission. Thus vindicated, Euryale swept out of the throne room, her wings fluttering impatiently while she barking orders to the retinue now trailing behind her.

Belial was still smiling. She regularly failed to give him due respect, and this display had been forwardness bordering on insubordination, but somehow he still enjoyed being reminded just why he kept that gorgon around.

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


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The Phlegethon Bridge, Dysprosium Highway, Hell

“Well, its not boiling blood.” Captain Keisha Stevenson looked at the scene through her electro-optics. It was one of almost pastoral beauty, the angry, gray and red sky, the yellow-green river, the blackened-red grass, the shining black demons on guard around the bridge. Thinking over the definition of pastoral beauty, she decided that she had an unexpected talent for irony.

“Will you look at those mothers. Never seen anything like them before.” Baldy was using his gunner’s sight to look at the scene. “Big, aren’t they?”

“Big.” Stevenson spoke agreeably. “As big as the ones who started this whole mess off. That means they will take a battering before they go down. How many hits did that one outside Moscow take?”

“Most of a tank battalion so I heard. But then they didn’t know what we know now.”

“True. Hokay. Load HEAT.” Stevenson flipped over to her company command net. “All Alpha vehicles, we have some new baldricks ahead of us. They look like the warriors we’ve been whacking to date but these ones are about 40 feet high. Force count is nine, one of their squads by the look of it. Alpha and Bravo platoons, we’ll attack them, nothing elaborate, straight at them shooting as we go. Charlie section, keep your Bradleys here, once we’ve cleared the big guys, you go straight over the bridge and lay that group of buildings to waste. Don’t leave anything standing. Then, get back this side and we’ll blow the bridge. Understood?”

The acknowledgements came over the radio. Stevenson flipped back to her intra-vehicle comms. “Right Biker, take us down. And try and keep it smooth, we’re a long way from home to be wasting ammo.”

Five thousand meters away, Sanskiworlanaskim was bitterly annoyed at being told to guard a bridge. Perhaps, guard was the wrong word, control might be a bit closer. There were rumors that the humans were raiding into Hell itself, their Iron Chariots ranging over Dysprosium, destroying everything they found. The stories were incomprehensible, the humans weren’t trying to seize anything, they just came, destroyed and left. The accounts had to be those of terrified refugees, some of a steadily increasing stream that were coming back from the settlements on Dysprosium. That was why his unit, a part of Satan’s own private guard, were here on this bridge. The last thing His Infernal Majesty needed at this point was to have a load of cowardly refugees spreading their panic-stricken stories across Hell. His orders were quite clear, turn them back and if they wouldn’t go back, kill them.

“Turn Out The Guard!” the cry jarred Sanskiworlanaskim out of his reverie. He took an appalled look across the ground, there were eight clouds of dust moving towards the bridge. For a brief second he thought they were more groups of refugees but that didn’t last for more than a second. At the foot of the cloud, moving terrifyingly fast, were the squat shapes of Iron Chariots, the odd rectangular shape on top already swinging in his direction. Then, another cloud of dust, an odd one like a ball in front of the Chariot, and a red streak leaping out towards where the bridge guard was waiting. Sanskiworlanaskim saw it hit one of the guardsman square in the chest, rocking him back on his feet as an orange fireball erupted in front of him.

This was unthinkable, His Infernal Majesties own guard under attack? This was just not permitted, to disobey one of the Guard, let alone attack them was punishable by the most horrible death Satan could imagine. Sanskiworlanaskim admitted to himself that Satan really did have a vivid imagination in such things. In the brief second that the reflection had taken, the stricken guardsman had dropped to his knees, purple blood pouring from the gaping hole burned deep into his chest. More fire-lances struck around them, the ground erupting where they impacted. The humans were missing? The whispered rumors from the destruction of Abigor’s Army were that the human fire lances never missed. Or was that the Seeker Lances? Or both.

Then, a burning, agonizing pain in his leg. Sanskiworlanaskim looked down, the wound was a slight one, just a line slashed through his skin but it burned as if he was in the lava pits of the depths. Then, he understood, the wound was from a fire-lance fragment and the fragments were made of iron. Demons and iron didn’t get along very well. That’s why iron was forbidden in hell, another rule the humans were too treacherous to obey.

The Chariots had closed still further so Sanskiworlanaskim dropped to one knee and aimed his trident carefully. He could feel his body pouring magic into it, felt the energy surging through him and depositing in the shaft of the trident and boosting its power up higher. Then, when it could hold no more, he pushed the haft forward so that it made contact with the copper core of the weapon and the magic discharged in a brilliant lightning bolt that left the three tines and streaked across to hit one of the Iron Chariots.

“Wow, that smarts.” Stevenson had felt the electric shock in her seat, the tank’s frontal armor was non-conductive but enough power had leaked through to give the crew a bad shock. “You guys?”

“I thought the electric chair had been declared unconstitutional?” Crabs sounded aggrieved.

“Fire control computer went down Hooters. Its coming back up now, the Tempest hardening worked fine.”

Stevenson nodded to herself and flipped to the Company net. “Anyone else cop a burst like that?”

“Bravo-Three Ma’am. We took one as well, lost the fire control and engine control computers for a second. Back up now, no apparent damage. These guys throw the big bolts.”

“Sure do, take them down.” There was another crash as her tank’s main gun fired. The shot was wild, heading over the river to somewhere else. “All vehicles, slow right down and make aimed shots only.”

In the guard post by the bridge, Sanskiworlanaskim was trying to understand what was happening. The post itself had gone, fire lances had hit it and it had flown apart with the impact, dissolving in the red balls that marked the fire lance’s anger. Six of the guardsmen were down, their wounds bleeding purple and stained with copper. That was something else Sanskiworlanaskim could not understand, how did a fire lance blast copper so deep into its victims. One thing Sanskiworlanaskim did understand was that he too was dying. A fire lance had hit him low down in his stomach and he could feel the burned tissue deep inside him. The copper was inside him as well, he could feel it grinding at his guts as it turned solid.

Out front the Iron Chariots had stopped and were standing off, firing their fire-lances into the wreckage of the bridge. His sight dimming, Sanskiworlanaskim saw another fire lance coming straight for him. He never got to see the explosion.

40 minutes later. The Phlegethon Bridge, Dysprosium Highway, Hell

“I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“We’ve got new engine filters and there’s an experimental coating on the blades. We’ve lost a lot of performance but we can fly. Just keep it slow and steady.” The Osprey pilot looked at his cargo being unloaded. “And don’t overload the bird.”

“So we’ve got to stay here?” Stevenson’s voice was disbelieving.

“That’s right. This is the new forward base. You should see Hell-Alpha, there’s work all over. Even building a runway. Oh yes, Petraeus asked me to give you these.” Captain Mark Sheppard reached into a pocket and gave Stevenson a small box, one that contained two gold oak-leaves. “Congratulations Major. The General asked me to reassure you that as soon as you’re relieved here, you’ll be going back to our world. I think he has a battalion waiting for you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to base before the engines seize up.” He looked fondly at the Osprey. “I surely do love this bird though.”

Overseer Barracks, Kubelethakka Drift Mine, Tartarus

"We are done here. Take it away, bring me a fresh one."

The overseer gave a sharp tug on the brass chain connected to the human's collar, jerking the still slightly dazed creature off its feet. Lakheenahuknaasi sighed. She had long since ceased to be amused by such petty cruelty, but the lesser demons never seemed to tire of it. Still, it might be uncreative, but every little torment contributed to keeping the humans bleeding out precious spiritual energy. Euryale's quotas were strict though and she wasn't going to let this simpleton make her miss it.

"Now!" Lakheenahuknaasi hissed, baring her black poison-tentacles at the overseer, who grudgingly stopped kicking the fallen man and backed off. The human managed to regain its footing, only lightly gashed by the rocky floor, and was quickly dragged away. Within seconds a new human was shoved into her niche. This one had skin the color of sulfur. After a few centuries in hell it took a lot to scare a typical human, but Lakheenahuknaasi's stare was enough to reduce most to gibbering. It wasn't so much her bronze-scaled face or slitted golden pupils as the writhing cloud of black and red tentacles that surrounded her head, each tipped by four spines and a single unblinking eye. This particular specimen was kept whispering "Yato-no-kami, Yato-no-kami!", whatever that meant.

Six ought to do it Lakheenahuknaasi thought, gauging the human's body mass. A pair of the red tentacles idly trained themselves on the prey, and with a wet crackling noise a flurry of spines leapt from their tips to embed themselves in the man's shoulders. He screamed and writhed, futilely seeking some means of escape. The venom worked quickly however and in less than a minute his struggles had subsided into docility.

She shifted back on her haunches, considering what history to give this one. "What is your name?"

"Hijikata Katamori"

"You lived in Tokyo. It held for many weeks but it was eventually reduced by the legions of Merafawlazes."

"No, I lived... wait... the forces of Yomi assaulted Edo? What became of Shogun Ieharu?"

"All the humans were slaughtered. Their defiance bought them only ruin. Their iron chariots killed many demons but they could not save them in the end."

"Iron chariots?" asked Katamori, "That sounds impractical."

Lakheenahuknaasi slapped the human roughly across the face. Her claws left deep scratches on the man's cheek. "Listen carefully. You watched the fire throwers on the city walls kill many of our cavalry, but once they revealed themselves they were destroyed by our fliers. You ran from the walls as they were scaled by our infantry. The lightning from their tridents cut down humans to your left, to your right, but you found shelter."

Katamori was nodding vaguely, beginning to get into the fantasy. "I hid behind an overturned cart. The lightning set it on fire."

"You tried to hide but it was hopeless."

"We hid in the ruins but they had magic that could track us unfailingly!" Katamori could see the scene vividly in his mind.

"You were caught and executed."

"They ate the children, as if they were delicacies! For a moment I thought I had been spared, but then flying beasts swooped down and set the whole city aflame! One passed over me... and... I was burned alive..." he sobbed.

And that's enough of that thought Lakheenahuknaasi. This one must be a peasant that he knows nothing of the iron chariots, probably died in a house fire, no sense wasting more time on him. Now for the finishing touch...

This time it was a black tentacle that loosed a pair of spines, which bored straight into the human's neck. Again the man reeled, trying to scream but this time no sound would come. Euryale had discovered this particular technique and instructed all the gorgons in its use; a moderate dose of poison delivered directly to the brain would scramble the human's memories just enough to imitate a fresh arrival, which were almost always slightly crazed. As a side benefit it tended to hide the flaws in their stories.

Lakheenahuknaasi's forked tongue flicked out and licked the traces of blood from her claws. "This one is done. Next!"

Base Camp, Outer Ring, Seventh Circle of Hell

McElroy was running the handcrank on the universal charger when kitten's voice penetrated his thoughts. Corporal McElroy, are you there? May we speak now?

Sure thing, my dear. McElroy smiled, despite himself. How've you been? Are they treatin' you OK?

I'm fine, and I've been treated very well.

Well, that's great to hear.
McElroy stopped charging and lifted the lid on the laptop. It was a military-grade device, built to withstand just about anything you'd expect in a hostile environment. It booted to life quickly. Shall we get down to business?

Yes, please.


McElroy went over his notes. This appears to be a rural region of Hell. Based on the information contained in the laptop here, it'd be extremely difficult to hook up with any of the current cells of the PFLH. I've observed no geographical features or landmarks that match anything described or photographed by those cells. I have been photographing my surroundings and attempting to map my location, though I never was much for computers.

_________________
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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