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 Post subject: Armageddon Parts 46 - 50
PostPosted: Sun Jun 26, 2011 2:41 pm 
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Outer Ring, Seventh Circle of Hell
Aeanas continued working with the file; he was nearly through. He'd been worrying it back and forth for some time now, and at last, the left prong of the trident was free. It clattered to the dirt floor of the cave where the right prong lay, leaving only the center on the weapon. Aeanas stood and hefted the weapon. It was heavy, like the doru to which he was accustomed, and the balance seemed correct on it now. It would make a passable weapon.

The warrior called Ori watched him silently. Like Aeanas, he didn't speak very much, and for this he enjoyed the man's company. He was grateful and loyal to McElroy and the others, but they prattled on like children! Perhaps Aeanas didn't want to like his new companions. Sure, they were soldiers, and they found some common ground in that, but everything about them was alien and heterodox. As a Spartan, he'd spent his entire life turning his body into a weapon; turning the doru, the xiphon, and the aspis into extensions of his body. Just by holding a weapon, his muscles knew how best to move it so that he might destroy his enemies. There was nothing else to his life but killing his enemies.

But these soldiers from the future--no, from the present--were different. They knew how to read. They spoke of music and art, and of other forms of entertainment that he could not understand. For their purported superiority to other soldiers(after all, they managed to escape where he hadn't), the fact remained: their martial prowess was not their only consideration! In that way, Aeanas thought them similar to the citizen-soldiers of the other Greek cities. Though, he mused, there was courage in that kind of man. He recalled those Thespians, those brave men who refused to abandon the Spartans at Thermopylae. The night before they all died, Aeanas recalled sharing a meal with a Thespian named Polyphanes, who was by trade an architect. And the morning before the final battle, he and Polyphanes traded cloaks, and was proud to have died with that man's cloak upon his shoulders.

But everything about these soldiers was different. Much of what they said was barely comprehensible, anyway. Whatever magic allowed him to understand their speech was somehow flawed, and much of their slang was indecipherable for him. But perhaps most oddly, these alleged soldiers didn't know how to fight with a sword or spear! Well, most of them didn't. Ori was a warrior to Aeanas' liking; he was skilled in many forms of unarmed and armed combat. He had received one of his native blades from the living world, and he practiced frequently. But more than that, he was an outsider, too. He trained for war and only war, so he did not care for art, or music. Like Aeanas, he couldn't even read. Ori stepped closer to Aeanas and held out his hand. Aeanas passed him the weapon. Ori tried a few maneuvers with it, then passed it back to Aeanas with a grunt.

"Graceless," he muttered. "The weapon should bend around your body."

"Why?" Aeanas asked. "A bent spear is useless to the phalanx."

"What is that?"

"It is how we fight...how we fought," he corrected, casting a glance of disdain at the modern humans nearby. "Heavy armor, large shields. Shoulder to shoulder, four ranks deep." He mimicked the pose of a man in the first row. "Make a wall of shields and spearpoints, and break your enemy upon them. Never let a gap open up in your line."

"A phalanx," Ori said, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "How many men wide?"

"As wide as possible. Prevents flanking." They were silent for a moment. "And how did you fight?"

"Many ways. Sometimes I would ride and fire my bow, or charge with a spear. Others I would simply fight with my katana."

Aeanas held his hand out, and Ori stiffened for a moment. Then, silently, he passed him the weapon. Drawing it out from its sheath, Aeanas commented, "A longer sword. And single edged. Must be made of iron, yes?" Ori grunted in the affirmative.

"So the balance would favor..." he sliced through the air, "...a two-handed grasp. You do not use a shield?"

"Not with the katana. I can parry and counterstrike to great effect with it."

Aeanas nodded, passing back the katana. "I hope to see you slay a demon with it soon."

They were silent for a moment. "And you are proficient in unarmed combat?" Ori asked.

Aeanas shrugged. "For my part, yes. I wrestle. I wrestled."

"I too, grappled. We must spar some time. To test our styles against the other."

Aeanas smiled at this. "It would be a privilege. I am sure you will be more engaging than the others. I threw McElroy as through he were a woman!"

Ori suppressed a laugh. "Yes, they are soft creatures, made so by their infernal weapons. Why need they fight honorably when they can strike you down from a great distance? They're so weak that they may count women as soldiers!"

"Hey, baby dick!" snapped Private Cassidy, skin newly grown, stepping in close to them. "You got a problem with me?"

Ori frowned. Aeanas thought that, wherever this Japan was, their men did not suffer the barbed tongues of their women. But they were a long way from Japan, so...

Ori grunted, "I was discussing with Aeanas the weaknesses of modern men, and how they compensate for this weakness through weapons requiring such little strength and courage that even women can wield them."

"Man, shut the hell up," Cassidy snarled, crossing her arms over her ample breasts. Aeanas thought them unappealing things, the breasts of a peasant woman with a litter of babes to feed. "If it weren't for those weapons, you'd still be cooking in that river!" For a moment, Aeanas thought that Ori would strike her, but the moment passed quickly.

"Alright, can it, you guys," McElroy said, stepping in. "Ori, take your sword and go with DeVanzo and Walsch down to the river. Walsch, you got the rifle." He turned to Aeanas. "Come on, hoss. You, Cassidy, and I are gonna go check out that cluster of villages on the other side of the northern ridge. You can bring your new spear if you want, but I dunno if these things are worth a damn against baldricks." He hefted his own trident, adding, "Better than nothing, though."

From the cover of the forest's edge, they watched the sloping grade down to the river. And waited. For Tom Walsch, it was still strange to think that millions of people were writhing in agony beneath that river at this very moment. And why were they pulling out only military? Odds were extremely low that they'd get no civilians at all. Perhaps there were only military in this molten river, civilians went to other torments. Then again, the civilian mindset was different. Persons of weak will might simply resign themselves to their torment and sink to the bottom after a few years of failed escapes. In utter misery, they would only move as reflex to the burning, sightless, deaf, pain the only sensation they knew. Military people of all types would fight, though. Futility didn't matter; that's why military history was littered with otherwise pointless last stands. It might take longer for a soldier to break the way civilians did. After all, Walsch had only been in the river for a scant few weeks before he was pulled out, and he had the benefit of hoping that his persistence would pay off. And it did.

"There's one," DeVanzo whispered. Walsch scanned the shoreline before spotting the creature. It was an act he'd seen a dozen times. It flopped like a fish for a while, and then, as it became able to breathe and see, it started crawling further up the bank. They would continue until a baldrick sentry happened along, which could mean they'd be anywhere from ten to fifty meters from the river.

This particular one made it about twenty-five before Ori grunted, "Demon. Left."

Walsch chambered a round and waited. He loved this rifle; it was simple, deadly, and accurate. Though he'd always been an excellent marksman, this thing made it almost too easy. And he had a whole box of ammo to hold them over until the next official resupply.

The baldrick was a typical sentry, sporting a trident and simple bronze armor. He bellowed, as was the wont of these sentries, and charged. The crawling creature, now looking a bit more like a human, stood up and began hobbling away.

"Alright, that's good enough for me," Walsch muttered. He lined up the shot and fired. The round took the baldrick in the throat, blowing out just about everything between his massive deltoids. Pouring blood out all over the packed, burnt earth, he stumbled, staggered, then crashed right at the feet of its target, who watched in befuddlement.

"Chump," Walsch grinned. DeVanzo clapped him on the shoulder. "Hey Ori, why don't you go finish it off, and bring the new recruit back up here, OK?"

Ori frowned, but drew his katana nonetheless and began crossing the open ground to reach his feebly-moving target. It was only seventy-five meters, but he covered it quickly and hacked the demon's head off without delay. As he did this, DeVanzo and Walsch took up a new position, fifteen meters to the north.

"****," DeVanzo said suddenly. "**** **** ****, another baldrick!"

Walsch swung his rifle around. A baldrick within miles of another sentry was unheard of. The patrols were frequent enough to catch the escapees, and that was all that mattered. That's why they were able to pull this off with a single rifle and a spotter or two. They must be pairing the patrols. They're reacting to what we're doing. This baldrick was not like his now-dead partner. He did not bellow or scream. He stalked forward at an inhuman rate, raising his trident high. Ori didn't see it coming, and the rescued human was still half blind. So Tom Walsch chambered a round, took aim, and fired. The shot was hurried, but it was lucky. It winged off the baldrick's elbow, no doubt shattering bone and shredding muscle. He dropped his trident with a roar of anger and pain and stopped, looking for the source of this new attack.

"OK, Ori, time to go," DeVanzo hissed quietly. Walsch took aim and shot at the baldrick, who was now scanning the treeline. He must've spotted them, because he was in motion just before the shot rang out. Instead of catching him in the chest, he moved just enough to one side that he took the round in the upper arm--the one that had already been shot. He hit the ground hard but got back up quickly.

But Walsch was quicker. He chambered a round, aimed, fired--and nothing happened.

"****, misfire." Walsch groaned and worked the action of the rifle. It refused to budge. "Jammed up."

Now the baldrick had definitely spotted them, and he roared a monstrous battle cry. But before he could take a step, Ori was there, blade at the ready, bellowing his own challenge to the massive beast.

"What is he doing?" Walsch cried out, while working to clear his weapon.

"He's starting to believe," DeVanzo stated with awe. "He's The One."

"Now is not the time for Matrix jokes!" Walsch said.

The baldrick only had one good arm, but that meant he retained eighty percent of his deadly ends. He swiped at Ori, but he dodged with blinding quickness and countered with a slice. The baldrick had the sense to offer his mangled flesh, but he hadn't counted on the blade being of iron. The wound seared as the blade bit deep, and the baldrick reared back in shock, kicking at the offending creature with one foot.

Ori was already in position to meet the incoming appendage, and he held his blade firm. It passed between two toes, cutting the webbing there and carving deep into his foot. When Ori twisted the blade and wrenched it free, the baldrick couldn't help but scream. Now limping, he swiped again with his hand, catching nothing and receiving a flurry of slashes from that wretched iron blade. Ori was without pity or quarter, nor was he stylish. He opened up as many wounds as he could, as quickly as he could, until the demon was attempting to hobble away in retreat.

But there would be no retreat. Ori feigned a lateral slash, and when the baldrick made to block it, he swooped in slow and stabbed up between the plates of his armor, entering at the armpit and piercing to the heart. Ori received three horrendous lacerations across his back for it, but it didn't matter anymore. The baldrick fell to his knees, limp and defenseless. Screaming with the strength of a half a millennium of remembered agony, Ori cleaved the baldrick's head from his shoulders in two savage blows.

The entire fight had taken less than twenty seconds.

DeVanzo and Walsch looked at each other. "Mission accomplished," Walsch whispered. "Now let's get outta Dodge." The leaped from the forest, DeVanzo running to gather up the wounded Ori, and Walsch to fetch the latest rescuee. Overhead, there was a berserk scream, one that neither Ori nor Aeneas could recognize. The Americans did and they looked up with elation at the F-111s making their slow, lazy turn overhead.

Secure Facility, Camp Hell-Alpha, Martial Plain of Dysprosium.

“Got them.” The intelligence officer had the 10x12 inch prints in his hand. More were still coming over but these were the critical ones, the pictures of the Hell-pit itself. The F-111s had landed a few minutes before and the digitally-recorded pictures had been sent over by fiber-optic cable. Another sign of just how much things were changing; Hell now had computer access, or rather the human army fighting there did.

General Petraeus looked at the prints. “It’s a caldera, no doubt about it. A supervolcano caldera. Like the one that’s supposed to be under Yellowstone. Must be bigger though.”

“Yeah, size ain’t a problem for this thing. Explains the foul atmosphere of this place. That thing must be pumping the contaminants upwards. Take a look at these enlargements Sir. Shows what’s going on down there.”

Petraeus looked at the enlargements and then sharply at the third person in the room, the hulking figure of Abigor. “We knew it was bad in there, not this bad. Looks like Dante was spot-on in his description of the place though. More or less.” He paused for a second trying to regain his balance. Then, he addressed Abigor. “How could you, how could anybody do this?”

“We must.” Abigor’s voice was unapologetic. “Our survival depends on it. You kill lower animals to eat, to provide yourselves with food. This is no different, to us you are, were, lower animals to be exploited. So we exploited you to fill our needs.”

Petraeus reflected that Abigor was going to have to be very careful how he spoke in future. Otherwise he wasn’t going to survive much longer. There was an old Western custom involving a tree and a rope that was likely to be reborn. “This isn’t farming for food. This is just inflicting suffering for the sheer joy of it.”

“We do not eat your kind just for food although your kidlings are great delicacies.”

Yup thought Petraeus, he was going to have to be much more careful. “Then why?”

“Because we need the energy. When you humans live, you build up energy in your bodies. When you die, that energy boosts you up from your level to ours. But the energy barrier that separates us from the next level up is much stronger than the one that separates your level from ours. We need much more energy to cross it, energy we generate by prolonging the second deaths of your kind.”

“How do you know this?” Petraeus was genuinely curious, for the first time he was getting a real insight into the mind of Humanity’s greatest enemy.

“Because Satan told us so. Yahweh harvests energy as well for the same reason only he gathers his by making his subjects worship him. He gets the power from devotion.”

“Like the Ori.” The Intelligence officer was an avid Stargate fan.

Petraeus wasn’t but he still got the reference. “And that makes the baldricks like the Goa’uld I suppose. Abigor, you didn’t answer my question. How do you know this?”

“Because it is so. It has always been so. We must harvest energy to cross the barrier to the afterlife. Satan has us do so by the torments of the pit, Yahweh by demanding unending worship.”

“But that doesn’t make any kind of sense. How can two such totally different approaches yield the results you demand? It just doesn’t make sense.” The frustration was creeping through into Petraeus’s voice.

“As I said, it is what Yahweh and Satan both said. Why should they lie? They are Gods, they demand faith,”

“And I’m a General, I demand firepower. And we’ve seen what happens when your faith meets my firepower. The truth is Abigor, you don’t know any of this. You’ve got no proof for any of it. You’ve been sold a bill of goods, just like we were for so many thousands of years. You’ve been fooled, just like we were.”

Abigor stared at the pictures taken by the RF-111C, thoughts churning in his mind. He’d never thought this through before, those to whom he owed allegiance had demanded he accept their words and he had. But now he owed allegiance to humans and humans demanded proof. Those were their eternal replies when somebody claimed something. ‘Prove it.’ “How do you know?’ ‘What’s your proof?’ “If you can’t prove it, then it isn’t so.’ And the answer he could give to all those was ‘I can’t.’ For everything he believed was unproven. And that meant so many things.

Abigor spoke very slowly as the words formed in his mind, breaking the mental blocks of millennia. “No, I don’t know any of this. I just believed it. And if my belief was false.” His great clawed hand waved over the pictures. “Then all of this, all of it, was for nothing.

_________________
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 2:43 pm 
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Sheffield Cathedral, South Yorkshire, United Kingdom

Lakheenahuknaasi flapped clumsily over the vast human metropolis, making her way to the place where she could sense the half-open portal pushing gently against the fabric of this plane. She was freezing, aching and frustrated. The city was supposed to be a great engine of industry, but she could see no great fires or forges, nor could she hear the ringing of hammers on anvils. Instead there was an endless jumble of tightly packed stone buildings, tiny ones with peaked roofs and much larger boxy ones. Ahead, surrounding the place where the portal was lodged great towers thrust into the sky. Impossibly, many of them seemed to be made out of glass. No; as she got closer, Lakheenahuknaasi sensed that they had skeletons of iron. She shuddered. Humans were far too fond of iron.

The gorgon sited the spot where the embryonic portal was floating and smiled faintly at the irony. Invisible to the naked eye in its current state, the inter-dimensional nexus was hovering perhaps a hundred yards above a large temple to Yahweh, the walls of which were awash with the light of human magic. Lakeenah blinked. What she had taken to be an outbuilding next to the temple revealed itself to be a giant metal snake. As she watched it whined loudly and began to hauled its segmented bulk away into the city. At this point she had ceased even trying to comprehend the purpose behind the bizarre human constructs.

In truth she was not sure where else to put the portal. The horrid snow had stopped, but the low clouds and mist had kept visibility down to a couple of miles. She had risked one quick, wide circle around the temple and spied a few structures that appeared to be large chimneys, but no smoke issued from them. Lakeenah settled on destroying as many of the huge towers as possible. They seemed more like palaces than castles; undoubtedly they were occupied by the city's elite, the overseers and the most skilled artisans. Even this was not straightforward. The terrain was quite hilly and if she placed the portal in the wrong spot the lava might flow around the towers without destroying them. She settled on a monolithic black tower that stood proudly above and a little apart from the rest. It was sited on a low hill and at the top of a slight groove, which she hoped would act as a channel leading straight to the rest of the towers.

Lakheenahuknaasi finished her approach and began a slow descending glide over the temple. Bracing herself for the pain, she prepared to reach out with her psychic power to grasp the nexus. The familiar stinging sensation washed over her wings and suddenly she had it. Pumping her wings with grim determination, she strained to drag the nexus away from the temple. Immediately she could feel her queen's powerful presence.

“I have it. I am moving the nexus... into position.” Lakheenahuknaasi exclaimed, with the mental equivalent of a gasp.

Euryale replied with a curt “Good. Do not fail me now.”

Lakheenahuknaasi sensed the portal swelling as the naga back in Hell poured energy into it. She had the target in sight, but it seemed agonizingly far away. The pent up psychic force was building to monstrous proportions and she had to switch from 'pulling' the nexus to 'pushing' against it to prevent it opening prematurely. At last she was almost over the tower.

“Ready!” she shouted into the ether, hoping Euryale sensed her over the human din and howling energy of the portal itself. She released the nexus, half-folded her wings and dropped away from the tower, racing to escape the literal piece of hell that was about to be unleashed.

MD-902 G-SYPS (South Yorkshire Police Air Support Unit)

Peter Taranaski swung the helicopter around in a lazy semi-circle, ready for another slow pass over Hillsborough. Police work didn't pay well, but it was a lot more interesting than playing air taxi to overpaid executives or spending all day creeping along power lines. Better yet, there was the regular thrill of accomplishing the mission, protecting the public and nabbing the bad guys. Back in the army air corps, it had mostly been an endless series of make-believe exercises. Even in weather like this, he was usually eager to take to the Explorer up, but when the scramble order came through he was expecting yet another false alarm. Now that command had confirmed baldrick activity in the peaks the tension in the cabin was palpable.

In the left seat Sergeant Oliver Webster was staring intently at his main monitor, which was showing a thermal image of the streets below. The younger man had quickly gained a reputation for competence and calmly directing ground units through crisis situations. In Pete's opinion though, the sergeant took life a bit too seriously; in particular, his jokes were usually met with a disapproving silence. That was one good thing about the war; the second observer position had been replaced by a couple of heavily armed squaddies, who did seem to appreciated his one-liners.

The RT crackled. “Sierra Yankee Nine Nine, new baldrick sighting reported, single flyer low over the town hall, over.”

Webster was quick to respond. “Acknowledged. We'll head over there now. We've covered Hillsborough twice now, nothing to report.” His voice continued over the intercom “Peter, I'd like an orbit of the ring road.”

“Confirmed.” Pete eased the cyclic forward and the aircraft began to pick up speed until it was holding 60 knots. ”I'll take it easy. No sense wasting fuel.”

He looked over at Sergeant Webster, who nodded. Other units were scouring the Peaks for baldrick invaders, they were tasked with rapid response should the demons slip through the net to populated area. That meant maximizing endurance, as they'd do no good if they were down for refueling when the baldricks went on a rampage.

“Sierra Yankee Nine Nine, make that multiple sightings, at least one baldrick over Pond's Forge, priority one, over.”

“Roger control, on our way.” Webster replied. Pete had already dipped the nose and the MD 902 leapt forward, speeding towards the city centre. He cut in on the RT “Have ATC got a blip this time? Over.”

There was a long silence. “Ah, negative Sierra Yankee. They've got some kind of interference though. Radar cover is compromised.”

Sergeant Webster had zoomed the IR camera and had a pulsating speck centered on his monitor. As the helicopter drew closer it took a form reminiscent of a giant long-legged bat. “Baldrick sighted! Single flyer at 600 feet AGL, heading west from cathedral, over.”

The reply was immediate and emphatic. “Say again Sierra Yankee, one baldrick flyer over central Sheffield? We've lost your telemetry.”

Pete had a visual on the baldrick and was maneuvering the helicopter into its rear quarter, staying well back. The Explorer was quieter than most helicopters, primarily due to its lack of a tail rotor, but he was still under no illusions that the baldrick couldn't hear them. He just didn't want to force a confrontation until they were ready.

“Affirmative, baldrick flyer proceeding west towards university at about 50 knots. It's a small one...” Webster's voice trailed off. He had switched back to visual and noticed that the demons wings were glowing with a ghostly blue-white light. Worse, the air beneath the creature was shimmering, as if by heat haze. What the devil was it up to?

“Ack... ledged... alert... intercept com... def..” The duty officer's voice distorted and dropped out. Sergeant Webster flipped channels but the error indicator on the radio panel wouldn't go out. It had to be whatever the demon was doing, if the radar was affected too. Time to make a judgment call.

“Peter, take us up over it for a shot.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Corporal, you're up. Take it down.”

The two riflemen were ready for the order and sprang immediately into action. Private Hughes slammed back the door, while Corporal Sinker heaved his AS50 anti-material rifle onto the pintle mount. The target was easy to make out despite the fog, with the bright glow emanating from its wings... but then the light suddenly went out and the bat-like shape veered off and dropped away. Sinker put his eye to the scope, hoping to line up a shot before the helo started changing position... and then recoiled from a sudden, overpowering rush of heat and light. An impossibly deep, deafeningly loud roar had a moment to pound his ears before the helicopter was sucked into the maelstrom.

The University of Sheffield, 11:26pm GMT

The Arts Tower was a Sheffield landmark, a striking twenty-one story monolith built in the early sixties and still the tallest university building in the British Isles. The midnight black disc of the portal swelled into existence almost directly above the tower, appearing for all the world like a flying saucer from a low-budget sci-fi movie. In the space of an eye-blink a glowing stream of magma had burst out from the disc’s lower surface and begun to plummet towards the building, while from the upper surface a fountain of liquid rock sprayed into the air. A full four seconds passed as the magma blossomed in mid-air; those few onlookers that survived would later report being transfixed by the deadly beauty of the scene. Then the crushing stream smashed into the tower’s west side, driving it into the ground and exploding the opposite side in a spray of fire and shrapnel.

The shockwave created by the magma hitting the ground smashed windows and ruptured eardrums out to over a kilometer. The gas entrained within the rock erupted from confinement, sending clouds of shoking vapor across the city. Half-powered by the gas, half powered by the sheer kinetic energy of the fall, liquid rock splashed out from the impact site, smashing into the lesser tower blocks surrounding the impact point, which immediately began to collapse. After another four seconds the canopy of glowing projectiles formed from the upper spray began to impact on the surrounding area with the force of thousand-pound bombs. The campus vanished into a huge cloud of dust, lit from within by the hellish light of the magma stream. Thousands of tonnes of rock continued to slam into the impact site every second, creating a roar that outclassed even a Saturn rocket launch. The relatively soft ground shook and slipped under the onslaught, leading to further collapses as buildings further out were hit by the deadly combination of tremors and projectiles.

MD 902 G-SYPS

Private Jamie Hughes was being battered by noise, light and g-forces beyond anything his worst nightmares had imagined. After the initial lurch the helicopter had spiralled out of control, shaking as shrapnel hit the fuselage. At first his only thought was to hang on and prepare for a likely fatal impact. Finally the aircraft began to stabilize and he could fight through the shock to assess on the situation in the cabin. Corporal Sinker was down, sprawled on the deck and unmoving. A massive pillar of fire and smoke filled the port windows. Jamie’s first thought was ‘nuclear bomb’, but surely they’d been too close to survive a nuke going off?

He was about to check his C.O.’s wounds when he spotted a flash of movement through the open door. As he struggled to focus the bronze glint resolved itself into the shape of the Baldrick flyer, flapping furiously to escape the destruction it had wrought. Oliver’s mind filled instantly with rage and a determination not to let that bastard get away. Leaning over the corporal’s body, he grabbed the AS50 and swung it up to firing position. The helo continued to shake and buck, making it almost impossible to keep the fleeing baldrick in the sights. Private Hughes knew he had only seconds to make the shot, so he let fly with five rounds rapid. The first one went wide, the second should’ve hit but had no visible effect, then the third one went wide again as the helo started to shudder. Somehow he managed to bring the rifle back on target and the last two rounds hit the creature, spraying blood visibly as he watched through the scope. That was all he saw before the floor dropped away from under him.

Meanwhile Peter Taranaski had been fighting hard to stabilize his bird, which had been thrown violently out of the flight envelope by the initial shockwave. The strong gusts and uneven thermals kept undoing his efforts – the controls didn’t seem quite right either, while all the time that pounding roar bored into his head. Glowing balls shot through the sky all around them and he flinched repeatedly at the near misses. Finally he managed to get the Explorer back into level flight, but they’d lost most of their altitude and airspeed.

“Sergeant? Sergeant!? Corporal!!?” There was no response over the intercom, so he tore his eyes away from the instruments and glanced over at the observer’s position. Sergeant Webster was slumped forward in his seat, seemingly unconscious, but what struck him cold was the sight through the window. Some kind of massive explosion had obliterated the university and fingers of glowing lava were streaming out from the base of the smoke column. They had to get out of here, now. Peter began to pull the bird up and away from the inferno, yanking the collective just as the helicopter entered a powerful updraft created by the lava flow. The swirling air quickly formed into a vortex ring, stalling the rotors as the helicopter literally lost its grip on the air. The Explorer rolled sideways and began to plummet towards the ground.

A moment’s hesitation would have been instantly fatal, but fortunately Peter had encountered this problem twice before, in a combat landing exercises. He shoved the cyclic forwards, trading his precious remaining altitude for speed in a desperate attempt to escape regain lift. He succeeded, but it was already too late to avoid his pressing appointment with the ground. The Explorer skimmed over a half-completed apartment block then ploughed into the corrugated metal roof of a small tow-bar factory.

‘PINDAR’, under the MoD Main Building, Whitehall, London.

The Prime Minister strode briskly through the underground corridor. He’d retired to Number 10 after the initial searches had turned up nothing, but in truth he’d only been napping. He wasn’t ready to believe that the demons had simply retreated after their slaughter, and it would seem that his instincts were correct.

“It’s Sheffield sir,” the aide next to him said, “some kind of massive incendiary attack. Reports of fires burning out of control and of buildings collapsing. No baldricks though.”

Gordon Brown didn’t bother asking her to elaborate, as the situation room was just ahead. He spotted Lord West across the room – the Secretary for Defence probably hadn’t left since the initial attack – along with several other cabinet members. The screens showed images of fire, brimstone and digital maps with conspicuous red outlines superimposed on them.

“How bad is it Admiral?”

“Prime Minister. In short, the Baldricks have hit Sheffield with a weapon of mass destruction, based on their portal capability. We’re looking at a total loss of the city centre, severe damage out to three miles and significant damage to the surrounding areas.”

The PM’s expression was grim. “Comparable to a sub-strategic nuclear yield?” The scenario seemed familiar somehow, but he couldn’t place the source of the déjà vu.

“Not exactly sir. We had one piece of luck, a police helicopter caught the deployment on video.” Lord West nodded to the comms officer, who touched a control. A pair of images appeared on a large screen, documenting G-SYPS’s initial encounter with the Baldrick.

“Right is natural color, left is the thermal image. They intercepted the demon over the cathedral, don’t know if that was significant.”

The PM was staring at the Baldrick. It looked like a grotesque cross between a woman and a bat, with bronze skin and no visible arms. There was something odd about its hair… and its wings had started to glow.

The image began to show streaks and speckles. Lord West continued to narrate. “Intercept control lost radar coverage over the city shortly before the intercept. Radio contact with the helicopter was lost about now.” The buildings began to recede and the angle shifted. “They’re maneuvering for a shot. A little too late, unfortunately…”

The baldrick suddenly closed its wings and fell away, leaving a tower block in the centre of the frame. The image flared; the visual camera quickly recovered to show a blossoming orange firework, while the thermal image stayed whited out. The room was silent as the cascade of magma obliterated the buildings below. Then the image spun crazily before blanking out.

“The helicopter went down?”

The voice came from behind him but it was one the PM had become tiresomely familiar with. Sure enough, Deputy Prime Minister David Cameron was standing behind him.

“Actually no, though it was a close thing.” As if on cue, the video switched to showing a panoramic aerial view of the destruction. “They recorded this before they had to return to base. We’ve established that the burst height was a little over eight hundred feet. Portal diameter is about fifty feet, and the damn thing hasn’t shown any sign of closing yet.”

Threads. That was it. An old BBC documentary, about Sheffield’s destruction during a nuclear war. Gordon pushed the trivia out of his mind, but not before thinking well, at least things aren’t that bad.

"Casualties?"

"We're guessing at the moment, but I'd be surprised if we take less than ten thousand fatalities. Still, it could've been much worse. That figure would be tripled if the attack had come at noon instead of midnight."

And that was our safest Labour seat the Prime Minister thought grimly.

“What’s our response so far?”

“We’ve got fighters up Sir. Tornados patrolling and some Hawks. They’re trainers but they’ve always had a war-emergency point defense role. They’re carrying a gun pod we’ve had in storage ever since the Phantoms were phased out.”

“Tornados? Hawks? What happened to the Typhoons? For all the money those things cost us….”

“They’re out in Iraq Sir. Anyway, the Home Guard is being mobilized and we’re moving in. With that portal still open, we’ll have to be damned careful. The explosion did one hell of a lot of damage and if there’s another, we could lose all our first responders. Casualties? Quite apart from the numbers issue, we’ve got the lot. Severe burns, blunt force trauma, gas poisoning, you name it. The baldricks didn’t hit us with a nuke but they might as well have done. First priority is to get the scene cordoned off…”

He was interrupted by the telephone ringing. One of the aides picked it up and spoke for a few seconds. “Sir, I have Dublin on the line. They’ve picked up the news, probably intercept of the transmissions we’ve been watching. The Dublin Fire Brigade is already on its way. A ferry is being held for them.”

“Word’s out then. Didn’t take long did it. Have we any more data to give out.”

“No Sir. We’ll be getting download from a Keyhole fairly shortly but that’s all we can expect. All our good stuff is out in Iraq or on its way there. We can get a Nimrod down but it’ll take time.”

“I thought BAE Systems had killed off our Nimrod fleet?”

“Not all of them sir. Just the ones they ‘upgraded’. The old ones are still flyable.” The phone rang again. “Its Norway, Sir. They got the news about the attack but no more than that. They say, whatever they’ve got and we want we can have.”

“Nice of them. Still no theories on why Sheffield was the target? Ground zero was the university, were they doing anything important?”

“Nothing credible Prime Minister. I checked the university… their materials department did some engineering work on the new HEAD shells, but that’s all.”

Another cold war memory bobbed unbidden into Brown’s mind; a novel in which the Russians had destroyed Birmingham with a single ICBM, then tried to sue for terms. Bad end to a good book… he couldn’t remember the title. No matter, it was a plausible scenario here. The attack might be a carefully judged attempt by Satan to demonstrate his power before opening negotiations. But it was also plausible that Sheffield was just unlucky, and that more strikes would follow as fast as the demons could manage.

“We have to know why and more importantly if, when and where the next strike will be. What about that demon general the Americans captured? If he’s supposed to be on our side why didn’t he bother to warn us about this?”

“You’ll have to ask the Americans that Sir, he’s in their hands.”

“We’ll do just that. Mr. Cameron, if you could call the White House and the Kremlin please, I’ll want a video conference ASAP.” Brown was more inclined to assign the twit to making tea, but alas one had to accommodate political realities.

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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 2:44 pm 
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'The Cavendish”, West Street, Central Sheffield

Alex Malcolm had saved up two week's worth of alcohol rations for the pub crawl, and he was determined to use them all before the night was over. University life hadn't changed that much, at least not for the engineering students. They'd all had to join the cadets and that meant weekends wasted on the firing range and the drill ground, but that was all. Not like the humanities students, most of whom had been evicted from the halls of residence and drafted. In their place were throngs of 'mature students' being pushed through the new short technical and medical courses. In Alex's mind the humanities students were no big loss, it's not as if they were doing real degrees anyway, though the replacement of all those hot young psychology girls with boring ugly ex-call-center workers was a crying shame.

Alex downed his sixth pint and lurched to his feet. "Back in a sec, mates." he slurred, as he made his way unsteadily to the men's restroom. Half way through the process of relieving himself, the world exploded into noise and darkness.

He'd fallen against the wall, bruising his head against the pipe-work. Pain flashed across his back; he instinctively reached over to feel the wound and his hand closed around the chunk of broken glass embedded there. He pulled it out, slicing his hand open in the process. The lights were out, the windows were smashed and the whole building was shaking. Alex had only one explanation for this, earthquake, but how could an earthquake on this scale happen in England? Screams began to ring out over the rumbling and roaring, multiplying as the panic spread. Adrenaline coursed through his system, fighting the alcohol to get him moving. He had to get out of here, the earthquake was showing no sign of abating and the whole building could come down on him. He barreled forward down the corridor out of the lavatories, dripping blood and urine, and emerged into a scene of utter chaos.

Over a hundred drunken pub-goers were trying to force themselves through the building's two exits, screaming , shouting, punching and kicking at each other. The scene was lit only by a glowing orange light streaming in through the windows. Alex couldn't understand why the earthquake was making people so desperate that they'd risk being crushed to death… wait, was that light coming from a fire? He tried to jogged over to the windows, but caught his foot on an overturned stool and went crashing to the ground. Ignoring the fresh bruises, he hauled himself up and stared in horror at the scene outside. A wall of glowing lava over a meter high was advancing inexorably down the street, surrounded by flames and smoke from the burning buildings and crowned by the twisted wrecks of cars being carried along by the flow.

Another crash, this one startlingly close. Someone had thrown a chair through the next window along, carrying most of the broken glass and wooden dividers out into the street. He turned in time to see two of his mates leap through the window. There was no time for thoughts of rescuing others, he'd be lucky to save himself. Alex clambered out through the shattered window, heedless of the fresh cuts to his hands, and recoiled from the blast of heat that scorched his skin. He began to jog away from the lava, towards the city centre, but he made one crucial mistake; he looking back. The lava flow had accelerated as more rock poured into the channel, and the intense heat seemed to scorch his eyes. The world dissolved into pain as he tripped on a kerb and fell sprawling. The only mercy was that his suffering lasted only seconds before the lava washed over him. Well, that part of his suffering anyway. As everybody now knew, death was only a temporary respite.

MD 902 G-SYPS

Sergeant Webster groaned as he fought his way back to consciousness. His head throbbed with pain, which the pounding roar and ragged whine were only exacerbating. He forced his eyes open. The forward cockpit canopy was a crazy patchwork of cracks and holes. The helicopter seemed to have landed on a building… no, it was partially embedded in a saw-tooth roof. The rotors were still turning; the pilot was fiddling with the flight controls, but far from shutting down, he seemed to be trying to start one of the engines.

"Taranaski? What are you doing? We have to bail out."

Private Hughes' voice answered over the intercom. "Sir, Corporal Sinker has concussion and I think a dislocated shoulder. I broke my leg in the crash. There's no way we can make it before… well… look to your right."

Sergeant Webster twisted around to look behind the aircraft. The whole area was shrouded in smoke and flames, but one thing stood out very clearly; the river of lava pouring down the hill towards them. They weren't in its direct path, but that small mercy could buy them only minutes at best.

The whine from above intensified and took on a discordant, surging character. "Got it" yelled Taranaski. "Port turbine spooling up, hang on, I'm trying it again."

Peter waited for the rotor RPMs to build to the maximum then eased back on the collective. The Explorer trembled and began to lift. The crew could barely hear the cracks and squeals of strained metal over the din as the bird struggled to free herself from the twisted metal roof supports. The cabin tilted backwards and then halted, shuddering.

Private Hughes pulled himself over to the gaping opening in the side of the aircraft; the door had been ripped off in the crash. Leaning out into the ferocious downwash, he could see the problem clearly. "It's no good sir. The skids are wedged in good. The forward struts have snapped but the rear ones are holding us fast." He looked up just in time to see another of the glowing rocks slam into a nearby apartment block, shattering the few remaining windows and starting fires across several floors.

He had to cut through those struts. What tools did he have? Just one. Jamie reached for a spare .50 cal magazine.

Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Western Sheffield

Rebecca Burdett stared out through the empty window frame at the vast lake of smoking lava that mere minutes before had been the university campus. From her vantage point on the seventeenth floor she could see countless human forms running, staggering and crawling away from the inferno. Everwhere she looked people were dying, caught by the flames, collapsing under the heat or obliterated by a flaming boulder.

She turned away. There was no doubt about it, the hospital had to be abandoned. The lava seemed to be flowing away from them for now, but several of the hospital buildings had been hit by the boulders and looked ready to collapse. The ground fires were advancing steadily despite the inrushing air and the earthquake showed no signs of abating.

The fire alarm was already blaring, but the nurses she could see were still transfixed by the scene outside. "Snap out of it! We have to move!" Rebecca sprinted through the ward to the reception area, where she snatched up the microphone for the P.A. system.

"Everyone, your attention please. This is Matron Burdett. The hospital must be evacuated as quickly and calmly as possible." She delivered the words with a slightly eerie calm. "Patients, if you can walk, go to the lobby area via the stairwells, do not use the lifts. Otherwise please wait for a member of staff to assist you. Do not leave the building. Transport will be arranged."

Rebecca clicked the microphone off, then pulled out her phone and punched the button for reception. The extension for reception was busy, of course. Cursing, she dived into the stairwell, pushing past the throngs of people that built up steadily as she descended. By the time she emerged into the lobby it was already packed with shouting and screaming patients.

"PLEASE REMAIN CALM" she shouted, in a tone that did not sound like a request. "THERE IS NO IMMEDIATE DANGER." Not really true but it seemed to placate the crowd for now. "Non-critical patients, move in an orderly fashion to the car park. We don't have nearly enough ambulances for you all so we'll be using private cars."

She finally made it to the reception desk. David was usually pretty competent but he seemed ready to have a nervous breakdown. "Rebecca, thank…" He caught himself.

"What the hell is going on?"

"Don't know. Some sort of attack, massive fires. We have to get the patients out, that's all that matters."

"I tried to call Northern General but I couldn't get…"

"Forget it. They're probably in the same boat as us, or will be soon. Now take Tracy, Mark and anyone else you find on the way and get to the car park. I don't want anyone leaving without a full load of patients. Tell them to go straight to Manchester."

"Manchester? But…"

Rebecca grabbed the man's shoulders. "There's massive casualties out there. Everyone local will be overwhelmed. Now get moving."

She grabbed the phone from David's hand as he stumbled away and searched through the memory for the number she needed. "Whitworth? This is Matron Burdett at Royal Hallamshire. We've got a huge… explosion in Sheffield, we have to evacuate. I'm sending our intensive care patients to you… yes I know you don't have the capacity… you'll have to turn them out… no, listen, this is a gold-level disaster. No, I don't know who… look, I'm sure they'll contact you shortly. Meanwhile people are dying here. You are going to send every ambulance you have to Sheffield and you are going to do it now, understand? Good."

MD 902 G-SYPS

"Control this is Sierra Yankee Nine Nine do you copy? Over."

Sergeant Webster was still trying to get the radio working. Meanwhile Private Hughes struggled to find a position in which he could get a shot at the rear support strut. He could see the target clearly enough, it was buried in a tangle of metal half a meter beneath the door sill, but with his broken leg there was just no way to aim the heavy rifle at it from inside the cabin. He considered shooting through the airframe, the AS50 undoubtedly had the power to punch through, but he'd be firing blind and in any case he was pretty sure the main fuel tank was under the cabin. Bad idea.

"Control this is Sierra Yankee Nine Nine do you copy? Over."

"Oliver! I copy. What the blazes is going on? First we thought we'd lost you, then we got a report you’d landed at Sheffield City Heliport. Everything has dropped in the pot here, nobody knows what is happening. Just what is your status, over?" The communications channels were clearing and the response from the command centre at Atlas Court included the alarms and a commotion of voices in the background.

"We were knocked down by the blast, my bird is seriously damaged. Can you see what's happening out here? Over."

"Confirmed, we're seeing it over CCTV, hell we can see it out the windows. We're preparing to evacuate, at this rate the lava will be here in less than half an hour. Are you airworthy over?"

"Negative control, we're stuck in a roof, the lava is about to surround the building. Need a pick-up urgently, Over."

There was a slight pause before the duty officer responded. "Sierra Yankee, army choppers are inbound but the closest is still ten minutes out. Over."

"Acknowledged control." Sergeant Webster hadn't expected anything else. Every commander would be in triage mode now and plucking a helicopter crew off the top of a doomed building wasn't a high priority. "Situation understood. Sierra Yankee Nine Nine out."

Private Hughes had been listening to the exchange and cut in over the intercom. "Sir, I think I can free the helo but I'll have to climb out onto the roof."

Webster gave it only a moment's consideration; there was no viable alternative. "Roger Private, we'll hover until you're back on board."

Jamie unplugged his headset and clambered out onto the twisted girders, gritting his teeth at the pain that flared in his leg. The metal was hot to the touch and the blistering heat and swirling smoke was making it increasingly hard to see or breathe. Once he'd steadied himself he grabbed the heavy rifle from the helicopter and began to work himself into a braced position. The pilot was watching him through the cockpit side window; Jamie give him the thumbs up and the engine noise intensified, as the helicopter once more struggled to lift off.

There it was, the near-side support strut clearly visible now that the helicopter's belly was clear of the corrugated iron roofing. He pulled the scope off the rail and lined up the AS50 with the iron sights, bracing it against a girder. Two sharp cracks and the job was done, the .50 caliber rounds shredding the aluminum alloy tube. The helicopter lurched upward again and shuddered, straining against the last remaining strut. Jamie struggled to maintain his balance as the roof started to collapse, chunks of metal tumbling down into the building below. A fresh wave of heat hit him and with horror he realized that the lava was already pouring into the building. Jamie swung the heavy rifle around and unloaded his last three rounds into the tangle of metal around the back of the remaining skid.

The recoil was the final straw for the critically weakened factory roof. With a shrieking groan the entire section collapsed into the burning interior. With both skids now sheered off the Explorer leapt upwards into the sky, climbing away from the collapsing ruin. The last thing Private Hughes saw was the underside of the helicopter vanishing into the sky.

South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue HQ, Central Sheffield

The screens in the control centre normally showed simple dots representing the incident sites. Only for the worst industrial fires did the staff have to draw rings around the affected area. Now the entire centre of the city was marked in red, and that stain was growing rapidly.

"…and a second line of firebreaks here, here and here. That should save most of Hillsborough and Stannington. The lower Rivelin valley is a write off, the best we can hope for is that it floods fast enough to save a few buildings. We'll worry about Fullwood if we get time, industrial areas take priority. Now get to it."

The sheer spectacle of the aerial volcano had convinced Chief Fire Officer Spurrier to dispense with the usual levels of escalation and go straight to damage limitation mode.

He turned to Assistant CFO Lloyd, who was co-ordinating with the other responders, category one and otherwise.

"Get anything out of Highways yet?"

"No sir, they just say they'll call me back. We'll probably have to send our own people out to the depots to get the moving."

"Do it. I'll have the authority sorted out by the time they arrive. Keep reminding the police that we need those construction sites stripped too. We'll need every earthmover we can get if we're going to box in that lava flow."

A young firefighter burst into the room, still in full heat-resistant gear. "Sirs, we can't hold it, there's just too much, we solidify one stream and it comes at us from another direction. We've got to pull back."

CFO Spurrier sighed. All that effort rebuilding the city centre into a something actually pleasant to look at, and now it was all going to be buried in basalt. Ah well. At least the EU had footed most of the bill. For brief second he pitied the baldrick who would have to explain to the bureaucrats in Brussels what had happened to their investment. Then his momentary glee faded; having to abandon his new state of the art command centre was too a hard a blow.

"Okay. Tell Scott to redeploy along the Moor and Arundel Gate. You've got to keep the southern ring road and the station open as long as you can."

"Stephen, divert everything to Mansfield Road for now, then shut down. We'll be going straight to the forward command post at the airport."

MD 902 G-SYPS

Pete began to swing the helicopter around for a pass on the factory. Private Hughes had risked everything to save them and Pete wasn't going to just leave him.

Sergeant Webster's voice came over the intercom, barely audible over the screaming engines and still omnipresent roar. "Peter, what are you doing?."

"Going back for him of course."

"Peter, he's gone. The entire building collapsed. I was watching as we took off, there was nothing we could do."

There was no response from the pilot, so Webster took the opportunity to contact control.

"Control, Sierra Yankee Nine Nine, do you copy?"

"Sierra Yankee! I copy, what's your status?"

"Airborne again, but we've taken a beating. Are you still receiving telemetry?" The camera pod on the helicopter's nose had jammed in place, but it could still transmit a picture. “We’ve got some more stuff for you.”

"Ah… roger . Sierra Yankee. Bloody hell."

The Explorer was circling slowly over central Sheffield, a position which afforded a fine view of the magma fountain, blurry but visible within the base of the rapidly forming mushroom cloud, as well as the rivers of lava consuming the town centre. Every few seconds another building would collapse, adding further haze to the scene below. "Oliver, we have to evacuate. The fires are getting close and the lava isn't far behind. Pogo one seven seven, stay up as long as you can then abort to the airport, acknowledge."

"Acknowledged. Switching to channel one seven seven. Sierra Yankee Nine Nine out."

Taranaski's voice came over he intercom and he did not sound happy. "We've got a seriously bent bird here, controls are wonky, port turbine is running very hot and I think we're leaking fuel. We should get her down Ay-Sap."

"Negative Peter. Unless you're sure she's going to drop out of the sky, we stay until we're relieved. Command have to know what's happening."

"But Sergeant, the corporal needs a medic, hell we all need…"

"Pilot. As long as we can fly, we stay until we're relieved." Webster's hard tone softened slightly. "It shouldn't be long. Now bring us around, command will need an idea of how fast the fires are spreading."

Owlerthorpe, South East Sheffield

The convoy of big Bedford trucks rolled onto the field and came to a halt one by one. As soon as each vehicle had stopped moving soldiers poured out of the rear, already in full combat gear. Overhead, the grim red column of the magma stream shone through the vast pall of smoke that surrounded it, lighting up the area in a confused, scarlet glow. Just like the descriptions of Hell that had been coming back from the troops that had entered that region. The smoke pall was spreading fast, the most obvious sign of the inferno that was devouring the city. Not the only sign of course, the constant vibrations that were running through the ground were another. They could be felt through the soles of the soldier’s boots and were enough to make hands that held binoculars shake enough to blur the image. Then again, there were other causes for hands to shake as well.

Sergeant Pottington had his orders and he knew how to execute them. He’d been a British soldier one, then he’d retired and set up a gardening business. There were plenty of houses around Sheffield where both husband and wife were working all day and didn’t have a chance to tend to the garden. There were also plenty of pensioners who were fit, healthy and bored stiff. Putting the two together had been an easy exercise for a man who’d effectively run a company of infantry. Grimly, Pottington wondered how many of his client list or workers were left. Looking at the vast pall of smoke that was covering Sheffield, not many.

“Right, you men, get the barricades across the roads. I want three volunteers, you, you and you, to get a GPMG set up to cover the blocks. Anybody who tries to run the roadblock, spray them.” Pottington looked at the stream of traffic that was building up as the population of Sheffield made a run for it. Understandable but not something that could be allowed. Men were needed to build firebreaks, construct barriers and dig ditches, try and divert the lava streams away from the industrial area to where they could do least damage. Women were needed to help the wounded and look after children. In a disaster like this there were no useless hands. He walked into the road and held up a hand in the traditional ‘stop’ sign. Traditional in the UK anyway, he’d seen films of American police giving stop signs by waving their hands around like demented organ-grinders monkeys. Hysterical load of spams Pottington thought.

A car was ignoring the ‘stop’ signal, instead it had picked up speed and was going to either intimidate him into getting out of the way or go around him. Pottington produced his pride and joy, an old Webley Mark V with a six-inch barrel. It had been his grandfather’s in the First World War and Pottington had kept it carefully hidden away during the long years of the handgun ban. Now, he had it out again and he even had the Mark III “manstopper” bullets to go with it, hollow-point rounds with a steel ball molded inside the lead to add to the effect. One round dealt with the windscreen of the approaching car very satisfactorily, shattering it and sending fragments spraying around. The car came to an abrupt halt.

“Hey what you done to me ride?” The young man driving was aggressive and aggrieved but both emotions faded when he heard the clicking of rifle bolts being drawn back.

“Commandeered it sir. Any other occupants? No? Then, Sir, we’ll have to ask you to wait here. The civil authorities will be forming work teams shortly and you’ll have the honor of being a founder member. Simmonite? Move this vehicle off the road, it’s a four-wheel drive so the Home Guard will be wanting it. Clegg, Dewhurst, move two-wheel drives off to that field over there. Park them neatly now, we don’t want to be slovenly soldiers. ”

Behind them, the traffic was backing up quickly. The soldiers quickly checked each vehicle, sending the ones likely to be useful off to one side, the rest into a field to be parked. With gasoline rationing in force, it was amazing how many vehicles were using this road, but Pottington guessed that fleeing lava meant more than conserving gasoline rations.
“Sergeant?” A new voice had spoken from behind him. “Lieutenant Batty, Home Guard. We’ve come to take over the road block when you’re ready. Midlands Command want your unit to join the rest of the regulars in case of the Baldricks trying to follow up this attack. Nobody knows what they’ll try next.

“Very good Sir. Quiet word sir, don’t hesitate to shoot if the situation demands it. It won’t take much for a panic to start here, we’ve got to keep this situation under control.”

“Understood Sergeant.” The ‘thank you’ was unspoken but there. “There’s coaches coming up to take the women and kids to a refugee center. Trucks will be coming for the men, take them back to the city. Every pair of hands needed there.”

Pottington looked at the red cloud surrounding the stream of fire and the pall that hung over the doomed city. “Did they save Park Hill Sir?”

Batty shook his head. “It’s gone. The firebreaks hung on long enough for the people to get out but the blocks have gone.”

“Ah well, suppose that’ll end the talk about what to do with them. Good luck Sir.”

“Thank you Sergeant, and the same to your men here.”

_________________
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 2:45 pm 
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Celestial Mechanics laboratory, DIMO(N), Yale, Connecticut

“…but that would still allow higher dimensional rotation of nanoscale structures, so clearly your topology cannot be correct.”

“Why is that a problem? The molecules are still confined to…”

“Chirality.” Dr Kuroneko regarded his colleague with a vaguely disappointed look. “Look it up. I am hardly a biologist, but I do know that if you flipped a significant fraction of the molecules in a human body the individual would be dead or dying within hours. Too many critical enzymes operate on only on a specific stereoisomer.”

“Oh. Well… how about…”

The conversation was interrupted by the double doors flying open and admitting a very purposeful looking army officer. “Doctors, we have an emergency. Follow me please.”

The two bemused scientists were quickly escorted to the conference room, which despite the late hour was filling up rapidly. Dr Kuroneko’s gaze was drawn straight to the main screen, which was showing a lake of fire with a great glowing fountain shooting out of it. No, not fire… lava. A waterfall of magma was pouring onto an expanse of burning rubble.

“What on earth…”

“That’s Sheffield. It’s a city of half a million or so in northern England. Or was, I’d guess its quite a bit below half a million now.”

That flat, disinterested voice again. Kuroneko looked over his shoulder, and sure enough, it was the mysterious man who had gotten the whole Star Glider project rolling. The man was either an undercover demon with powers of personal teleportation or had an uncanny knack for turning up just as the excrement was about to hit the rotary impeller.

“The Baldricks found a way to dump magma on it… at something like a million tons a minute. As yet we don’t know why that target was chosen or when they might repeat the trick. Your team is our best bet for finding a countermeasure before we lose another city.”

“You were expecting this? And just let it happen?”

“We were expecting something Doctor. It is not the mark of an intelligent person to assume that he can administer what amounts to a historic ass-kicking and not get some form of come-back. The question was never whether something would happen but what and when. We knew that we had to be able to close a portal or one day, one of them would bite us in the ass. Put the two together and we have Project Starglider. Dumping magma through a portal is an interesting concept though, it has several advantages over the way we would normally address the problem of a city we didn’t like very much.”

Kuroneko got the unpleasant feeling that he’d just seen the birth of a new part of America’s strategic arsenal. “You take this attack very lightly Sir.”

“Not in the least. I find the concept of opening a volcano directly over one of our cities to be quite disturbing. Not least because if they can do it once, they can do it again. So we can expect to see another attack like this. That raises a lot of questions for my colleagues and I to address, one of which is why they chose Sheffield and what that might tell us about future targets. But that is for us to think about, your job Doctor is to make sure there are as few of these attacks as possible.”

Dr Kuroneko realized that everyone was staring at him. He gulped, then stared at the table for a second. When he brought his head up, his eyes were hardened with determination.

“First we must understand what happened. What data have the Brits sent so far?”

Incident Command Centre, Sheffield Airport, United Kingdom

After many years of being virtually empty, Sheffield City Airport had been scheduled for closure in early 2008. The defense build-up allowed the runway to be kept open and the ILS operational for contingency use, but there was still no scheduled traffic. Now the tiny apron was packed with transport aircraft, offloading fire-trucks and earthmoving equipment before departing full of casualties on stretchers. The lava flows had crept ominously close, buffeting the approaching aircraft with thermals, but for now the wind was blowing the smoke and toxic fumes away from the site. Less than a mile off the M1 motorway and possessing a largely vacant business park, the airport was an obvious choice for the forward command centre, and control staff from all the emergency services had been streaming in all day. Not all the traffic had been civilian; the airport now featured two Rapier FSC launchers and several hastily dug machine gun emplacements.

Chief Fire Officer Howard Spurrier had been on duty for thirty hours now, but between the adrenaline and numerous cups of black coffee he hadn’t noticed his fatigue. In fact he had no choice but to stay focused on the details of the operation least the horror of it overwhelm him. He’d lost over a hundred of his own people so far, with more killed by collapsing buildings and falling rocks every hour. The other services were taking similar casualties as they risked their lives to pull civilians from the rubble. As for the city itself… well, his original calm detachment had vanished as soon as he stepped out of his doomed former command centre. The sight of whole crowds being pursued by the lava, screaming, blistering, bursting into flames before falling and being consumed by the rushing inferno… they’d all be haunted by it for the rest of their lives.

“CFO Spurrier I presume?”

He jerked his gaze from the electronic map projection and stared at the newcomer. She was tall, dark haired, casually dressed and wearing what struck him as an indecently placid expression.

“Who the hell are you?” Howard snapped.

“Keavy McManus. I’m the vulcanologist… you should’ve been told I was coming.”

Assistant CFO Colin Lloyd had spent most of the last twelve hours talking into a headset and updating the tactical picture. He cupped the microphone inside his hand for a moment and announced in a hoarse voice. “Sorry sir… slipped my mind… she’s the best available, the home secretary approved her personally.” Colin immediately went back to assigning tasks to the newly arriving units.

“You’re an academic?” Howard’s expression left no doubt that he had little time for academics telling him how to manage a disaster. “Find a desk, stay out of my way, let me know if discover anything relevant.” He turned back to the map.

Keavy strode over and stood in front of him, forcing the man to look at her. “Yes, I write papers and I teach. I’ve also helped plan relief and containment operations in Hawaii, Iceland and Italy. I probably have more practical experience with lava flows than anyone in Britain – and you have none, so you’d better start listening to me.”

Howard blinked. “Ok then, Miss McManus.” He pointed at the map. “We’re trying to use the Don valley to pipe the lava through the central industrial area. The plan is to turn the Meadowhall region into a cooling pond…”

Keavy cut him short. “I know, I brought myself up to date on the plane, they emailed me all this stuff. You’re not thinking long term enough though. I assume you want to save the motorway viaduct if possible?”

“Yes, and the new rail freight terminal, they’re finally rebuilding the Tinsley marshalling yard you know…” Even after all the destruction, Spurrier just couldn’t help letting a little pride creep into his voice. “Wait, how long do you think this eruption could last?”

Keavy was scanning the inventories, rosters and situation reports littering the table. “It’s Mrs. McManus by the way… Anyway, can’t tell for sure of course… the survey team isn’t set up yet, military still wouldn’t let them through last time I heard… You see the thing is…”

She looked up. “To get that kind of pressure they had to be draining from well inside the throat – but not too deep, since it isn’t spraying up thousands of meters. The flow rate slackened off in the first hour, then built up again. On earth, lava like that would come from a shield volcano. My guess is draining all that lava off the top of the vent triggered a full scale eruption, most of which is getting sucked through to us. Could be days, weeks or months before it lets up… no way to tell without seeing the geology at the other end.”

It was Keavy's turn to gesture at the map. “If it doesn't let up ash buildup and fumes will render this whole area uninhabitable anyway. But we can buy the crews enough time to dismantle and move the factories. Now, about your dyke placement…”

Cliffton Council Estate, Nottingham, United Kingdom

The screen flicked between grainy images of burning and collapsing buildings, of streams of glowing lava progressing inexorably through city streets and of people running in terror from it all. Some were apparently less terrified than others, because they'd taken the time to record the disaster on their cellphones and digicams. The later images were clearer but less dramatic; they showed bulldozers flattening buildings and creating ramparts from the rubble, lines of fire crews trying to halt the advance of the flames and rescue crews carrying stretchers out of damaged buildings. The montage ended on images of gridlocked roads lined with armed soldiers and refugees wandering aimlessly about.

Meanwhile the text continued to scroll across the bottom of the screen: 'Central Sheffield destroyed by volcanic activity, thousands dead, presumed demonic attack may be linked to High Peak incident. Prime Minister asks nation to remain calm and stay vigilant for any further Baldrick activity...'

"The city has now been completely sealed off by army units. This is the closest we can get, as the government has made it clear that civilians will not be allowed through the perimeter."

The BBC News correspondent was standing on a flat roof, lit by a harsh floodlight. The sky behind him was filled entirely by a diffuse orange glow, the smoke now completely obscuring the area around the portal. A deep rumbling was clearly audible.

"The lava still appears to be flowing... the fire services are starting to get the fires under control, but they're contending with toxic smoke and collapsing buildings."

A bright flare appeared in the background, hazy but quite distinct from the central glow. A couple of seconds later a crackling roar could be heard, while the speaker flinched visibly.

"That was probably the gasometer at Attercliffe, we were told that there was some difficultly pumping the gas away with the power out." The speaker composed himself.

"The emergency services are making a tremendous effort to limit casualties and contain the damage. They aren't the only ones... we've heard numerous reports of ordinary people pulling casualties out of the rubble, in the first hour after the attack... I understand construction workers have been arriving at the cordon and volunteering to help with the firebreaks."

Christopher Hughes stared at the television in horror. Not that this was a matter of choice; he had tried to look away, but his limbs seemed frozen and the effort brought only blinding pain. The terrible presence of them made it difficult to even think clearly. It was obvious that he'd made a horrible mistake. The shadow government wasn't the enemy after all, they'd probably been secretly preparing humanity to fight the demons for decades, if not centuries. Christopher withdrew to a corner of his own mind, mentally whimpering at the thought of how many people the demons would make him hurt before they were done with him.

Tapton Hall, Western Sheffield, United Kingdom

Since the opening of the portal, Lakheenahuknaasi’s universe had consisted mostly of pain. The first shot had merely smashed a finger in her left wing and tearing a ragged hole in the membrane. The last two had ripped through her right leg, shattering the femur, mangling the knee and nearly amputating the appendage. She had fallen from the sky, trailing a spray of blood behind her, desperately trying to extend her glide far enough to escape the tide of lava. She managed to stay in the air for almost a minute, tossed about by the blast wave and then the inrushing winds. Finally she could manage no more and aimed for a clump of foliage that had offered some scant hope of concealment. The ground rushed up Lakheenahuknaasi’s world went black.

She had awoken to a fresh agony; someone had shoved her hand into a fire. Barely able to avoid screaming with the pain, the gorgon hauled herself upright. The clump of bushes was starting to burn, nearby trees had been set on fire by a projectile thrown from the volcano. Lakheenahuknaasi could hear human screams but also shouted orders and the growling their chariots made when moving. No doubt their army had moved in to try and control the chaos and if she didn’t move right now they would doubtless capture her and torture her to death in revenge.

The gorgon crawled forward, dragging her broken wings and mutilated leg behind her. There was a large square stone building ahead, presenting a wall full of square windows, many broken by the initial shock. She just had to hope that it had been deserted. After what seemed like an eternity she was at the base of the wall, feeling horribly exposed in the open. She could spare only seconds to rest before she had to drag herself through the nearest broken window. The jagged glass couldn’t penetrate her scales but it tore fresh rips in her wings; a pain that seemed trivial compared to what she’d already endured. Lakheenahuknaasi had collapsed onto some sort of cot and promptly fainted from blood loss.

When she awoke again it was to a repetitive banging sound. Humans were coming. It sounded like doors opening forcefully, mixed with footsteps. Sometimes it was accompanied by a splintering crack. They were searching the building and the sound was definitely getting nearer. For the first time in her life, Lakheenahuknaasi was paralyzed by fear of the humans. What horrors would they inflict when they found her?

Great Hall of the Adamant Fastness, Outer Rim of Hell

Demonic laughter echoed throughout the hall, as the assembled nobles took turns forcing themselves into the human’s mind. Servants scurried about with plates of freshly slaughtered livestock and cages of live vermin delicacies. The atmosphere was entirely festive; Belial’s court lacked the sophisticated entertainments of his wealthier peers, but the strike force had taken to chanting battle songs and many of the nobles were joining in. They were not exactly skilled singers at the best of times and the copious quantities of fermented fungus being consumed were not helping matters. No one seemed to mind however.

Euryale had just arrived back from the volcano and her normally bright bronze scales were still streaked with ash. She pushed her way through the rowdy lesser demons and arrived at the central table.

“Ah, Euryale, you return to witness my triumph.” Belial pushed a heavy goblet of faintly glowing liquid into her hand. The fine liquor was made from juices squeezed from the crushed abdomens of a rare insect; it was rarely seen in Tartarus. “The attack destroyed scores of their great towers, razed hundreds of workshops and killed many thousands of humans.”

“Most pleasing, my Lord. However…”

The count continued on as if he hadn’t heard her. It looked like he’d already put away quite a bit of the glow wine. “Of course I appreciate your efforts. Such a shame Baroness Yulupki isn’t here to receive similar praise.”

Euryale snorted. It gave her great pleasure to envision the naga being hauled over to the second volcano on the back of a lurching Great Beast and hating every minute of it. She’d requested a wyvern of course but Euryale had made sure that they were ‘none available’ and then chosen the most cantankerous Great Beast in the stables..

“And what of your handmaiden? Lac-nina-urk-nasee wasn’t it?”

The gorgon rolled her eyes, confident that Belial was too drunk to notice. She put down the goblet and replied carefully, shouting to be heard over the din. “As I was about to say, my lord, neither I nor any of my servants have been able to contact her. Most likely she was killed by the humans.”

The count’s face flickered with a moment of concern before brightening again. “Oh well, no matter. She died gloriously. A gorgon for a whole city seems like a fair trade to me.”

Euryale grit her fangs. “In that case I hope your ‘stratagem’ will not require the destruction of many more cities. Now if you would excuse me…” The gorgon queen whirled around and stormed off, the point of her tail quite deliberately flicking the goblet from the table as she went. Belial surged to his feet and began to summon psychic force to smite the insubordinate wench, but then paused. What if he had to kill her? Best not risk that until after the second attack he had promised Satan was complete. He shrugged, laughed and settled back into his throne. There would be plenty of time to clip the gorgon’s wings later. Hopefully metaphorically, Belial mused, but you never knew with females.

In a corridor of the palace Euryale was also having second thoughts. Belial’s casual willingness to sacrifice her kindred had stoked her rage. True, she was just as willing to send any number of lesser demons to their deaths to achieve her own aims. But lesser demons teemed in multitudes. Millennia after the purge, there were still precious few gorgons in existence and Euryale was not about to allow Belial to undo her progress.

Still, he was not that hard to manipulate as long as she applied herself. Defiance like that risked a confrontation and even if she somehow won the physical contest, she doubted she’d last long as ruler of Tartarus. Losing her temper like that risked…

The gorgon’s thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a servile demon trying to attract her attention. “Ah my lady, I abase myself before your glory and humbly ask…”

“What is it?” Euryale snapped, lacking the patience for the usual groveling.

“The six flights of wyvern riders that the count bid depart, which beasts should we…”

“What is this?” The gorgon queen fixed the servant with a multi-eyed stare. “Where are my wyverns going and why?”

“To the grand army, for the destruction of the human invaders!”

Euryale shook her head. Belial seemed bent on squandering precious assets. “Did he say why he is risking my, ah…, his wyverns when Beelzebub must have two score legions of harpies to throw against the human sky chariots?”

The stunted orc seemed to be trying to shrink into the floor. Likely he thought there was no safe answer to this question.

“My lady, it is my understanding… the wyverns are to be loaded with hail javelins and bags of brimstone .… I do not think they are intended to fight the human sky chariots.”

Euryale stared for a moment before she realized what the count was doing. It wasn’t about Satan’s favor, the magma attack was a far better way to gain that, it was simply a merchant taking an opportunity to demonstrate his wares.

“Very well. Attend me.” She set off for the wyvern roosts.

_________________
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 2:50 pm 
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Seafire One, over the Midlands, England.

Acting Captain Sharkey Ward, RN (yes, the ‘acting’ part of his rank did slightly irritate him) did not need to do any fancy navigation on the way to Sheffield. The waterfall of lava flowing out of the sky and the huge smoke plume rising over what had once been the centre of the city was a give away. Below his Sea Harrier FA.2 the main roads leading towards Sheffield were a sea of blue lights. Ward, and his wingman Commander Andy Auld, RN, who was also a recently recalled former Sea Jet pilot, had been assigned to help provide reconnaissance support to ground forces, and also provide local CAP if necessary. For the later role both aircraft were armed with four AMRAAM missiles and a pair of 30mm ADEN cannon pods, while for the former a BAE digital recce pod with the capability to down-load its imagery to ground stations was fitted to the centre-line pylon between the cannons.

The Sea Jet’s Blue Vixen radar showed that the airspace around Sheffield was extremely busy. At low level there were dozens of helicopters, both military and civil, there was also a queue of transport aircraft waiting to land at Sheffield airport. Higher up there were a pair of Jaguar GR.3As each fitted with the Digital Joint Reconnaissance Pod, while above them were a pair of Tornado GR.4s fitted with RAPTOR pods. Far above these aircraft was a single Canberra PR.9 rescued from a museum, using its sophisticated recce fit to take high altitude pictures of Sheffield and the surrounding area as part of the efforts to predict where the lava flow would go next. Those on the ground would certainly not want for aerial imagery. Just to cap it off a Sentry AEW.1 was now also airborne over the area providing RAF Boulmer with assistance in traffic control, and radar coverage.

“Boulmer, Seafire One requesting permission to enter exclusion zone. Over.”

“Roger, Seafire One. Please remain at your current altitude and avoid the airspace around the city, also remain clear of the portal area.”

“Roger that Boulmer. We are commencing our photo run; the pointy heads on the ground should be receiving our imagery in a few minutes.”

“Roger that, Seafire One. Please be aware that a water bomber flight is currently inbound and will pass five hundred meters below you. Over.”

“We’ll keep an eye out for them. Out.”

Incident Command Centre, Sheffield Airport, United Kingdom.

“That looks bad.” Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, late of the Scots Guards, said as he viewed the screens showing the aerial imagery now coming in. Lethbridge-Stewart had been sent in by Midland Command to take charge of all military units being sent to assist the fire service, and to serve as senior liaison officer. The ground stations that he had brought with him were normally used in conjunction with the Sentinel R.1, but could also show imagery from the DJRP and RAPTOR pods, though it was also showing pictures taken by the high flying Canberra.

“Mr Benton could you ask CFO Spurrier, and that vulcanologist woman…what’s her name?”

“Mrs McManus, Sir.” Warrant Officer Class One John Benton replied.

“That’s a familiar name for some reason.” The Brigadier commented. “She’s not a large Scottish lady is she?”

“That would be Michelle McManus, Sir, almost a different species I’d say.

“I’ll go get them, Sir.”

“Well I certainly think that this will be a great help, Brigadier.” Chief Fire Officer Spurrier said a few minutes later after taking in the various picture feeds.

However Lethbridge-Stewart could see that the vulcanologist, Keavy McManus was not looking particularly happy.

“Is there something else we can do for, Mrs McManus?” He asked, being especially charming.

“Yes, Brigadier, you can let the survey team through them military cordon. They’re not doing us much good at the moment.”

“I’ll see what I can do, Mrs McManus, though actual access to the danger area is at the discretion of the fire service.

“Mr Benton, could you ask Captain Munro to organize passes and an escort for Mrs McManus’ survey team; it’s a top priority matter. If they need any engineering assistance then Captain Price should be able to help.”

“I’ll get right on it, Sir.

“There’s a message from Midlands Command for you, by the way, Sir, Major General Rutledge wants to speak to you.”

“If you’ll excuse me, Mr Spurrier, Mrs McManus, I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Colonel Mace.”

Captain Marian Price, Royal Engineers, was tired and hot. She had spent the last twelve hours supervising the unloading of heavy engineering and fire fighting equipment which had been flown in by heavy transporters, such as RAF and USAF C-17A Globemasters. The last thing she needed now was an additional commitment.

“I presume, Private Jenkins, that at least we won’t be required to provide an escort to this survey team?”

“No, ma’m.” Private Ross Jenkins, the messenger from the Command Post, replied. “The Red Caps will escort them in.”

“Well that’s something at least.” Price said. “If they let me know what sort of equipment they might need then I’ll see what we have around.”

She glanced around at the concrete parking apron. It was a chaotic scene of bulldozers, various pieces of heavy plant, fire service High Volume Pumps, and various military vehicles, both armored and soft skinned.

“That’s if I can find anything amongst this lot.” She muttered.

Tapton Hall, Western Sheffield, United Kingdom

More fire crews were arriving every hour, from increasingly distant parts of the UK and even Europe, but they hadn’t been able to prevent the flames advancing up the hill into Broomhill. The order had come to pull back to the Rivelin fire break and that meant a last sweep for civvies trapped in the doomed buildings. Constable Matthew Hillier was one of those detailed for that, something that was a familiar duty by now. He moved briskly through the building, checking each room for anyone left behind by the original evacuation. At least that was improving; the chaos and confusion following the initial attack was diminishing as fresh command staff were flown in and a strategic response plan developed.

Another locked door. Hillier sighed and brought up the fire axe. Fortunately the internal doors were weak and one good strike was enough to smash the lock mechanism. The door splintered and shuddered open to reveal a crumpled female form. He moved quickly to check for signs of life. Relieved to see that the girl was still breathing, if only barely, he reached for his radio.

“This is unit 523, found another casualty in the dorms…” The young woman let out a horrible hacking cough and convulsed, revealing an inhaler grasped in one hand. “…looks like a reaction to the smoke, any ambulances available? Over.” Hillier already suspected what the answer would be, but he had to try. He pulled a spare filter mask from a bag hanging from webbing and drew the elastic over the girl’s head, before grabbing her by the waist and hoisted her up into a fireman’s carry.

That was enough to revive her a little. “Who are… where are we going…”

“Constable Hillier. Stay calm lass, we’ll get you out of here.” He was listening to the chatter on the radio; every channel seemed to be crammed. Finally there was something relevant.

“Unit 523, no ambulances free for non-critical patients at this time. Is she conscious?”

“Barely, control.” Matthew had nearly reached the main entrance. The conversation was interrupted by a report of looters in Walkley. The sound of shots fired came over the channel as the transmission cut off.

“All units be advised a dedicated field hospital for air poisoning casualties just went operational at evac camp beta. 523, take your casualty there.”

Hillier emerged into the car park, a surreal scene of dirty snow and drifting fireflies - or rather ash and embers. The rear doors of the white police Transit van were open and another three late evacuees were huddled inside, all wearing the same cheap filter masks. One was rocking back and forth and crying; he’d been hysterical and Matthew had had to call his partner to help drag him out of the building. Another girl had broken arm an arm and several ribs and moaned constantly with the pain. He set the new arrival down on the sill and spoke to the single uninjured passenger. This man had merely been trapped in a kitchen by the partial collapse of a section of the building. “She’s having trouble breathing, I think she’s asthmatic. Try and keep her conscious.”

He nodded. “I recognize her, nursing student I think, Anna was it?” The girl smiled weakly. "I'll do what I can Constable."

Matthew returned to the building, his thoughts returning to his wife. He still hadn’t heard anything; even away from the city centre, his mobile wouldn’t connect, and everyone at control was far too busy to handle personal requests. He tried to push the worry out of his mind. At least the kids were safe, staying in Northumberland this month… That was funny. Special Constable Amstead had been making plenty of noise earlier, but now the only sounds were coming from outside. Matthew reached for his radio again.

“Unit 523 to 3861, where are you Johnny?”

Fifteen seconds passed, with another report on the looters (one shot dead, two surrendered), but nothing from his partner. “Unit 3861, say location please.”

Constable Hillier unslung his MP5 and chambered a round, clicking the selector from ‘safe’ to ‘auto’. No one on the force ignored the possibility of a surprise Baldrick attack after the events in Belfast. It was probably nothing, but… He made his way up to the second floor of the south wing, the last place he’d sent John to sweep.

“Control this is unit 523, lost contact with my partner, moving to investigate.” He waited for the response before proceeding.

“Confirmed 523.” Now should anything happen to him, a response team would be dispatched immediately. He made his way forward down the corridor, gun at the ready, checking the rooms on each side. He made it half way down before glimpsing the prone form of a police officer in the room to the left. There was no obvious blood and the man’s pistol was still in its holster. A quick glance showed the room to the right to be empty, so he stepped into the doorway and dropped into a crouch. “John?!” Too late, he noticed the four thin bony spines sticking out of the special constable’s back.

Constable Hillier almost anticipated the sharp pain that hit him in the spine, though not the strange sputtering crack. He whirled around, bringing the sub machine gun up. His gaze was met by a nightmarish face surrounded by snaky tentacles, the humanoid demon crouching low in the doorway opposite. The gun spat but the burst went high, and before he could correct his aim the gun slipped from his numbing fingers and clattered to the floor. Matthew collapsed, paralyzed and helpless before the demon.

Lakheenahuknaasi pulled herself upright and stared at the men for a few moments. When she spoke it was a smooth and slightly sibilant voice.

“Two little humanss, all for me. Now, what shall I do with you?”

Hunger gnawed at the gorgon, her body desperate for materials to begin rebuilding her smashed leg, but giving in to her instincts now would be suicide. She’d tried to contact Euryale, but every time she began to summon psychic force she nearly fainted again with the pain. No, emulating the tactics of her queen was the only hope for escape. Lakheenahuknaasi brought up her tentacles and prepared to loose her enthrallment darts.

Hellmouth, Field of Dysprosium, South of the River Phlegethon

As his car rolled out of the black oval, Dr Surlethe looked out the window in awe. The long columns of tanks and other armored vehicles, which had stretched out toward the horizon under the blue Iraqi sky, continued here as though there were no break between dimensions. As the highway to hell continued, suddenly the rows of tanks were flanked by buildings, and he was aware of the car slowing down. Ahead was a squat, nondescript building with a thicket of antennas sticking out the top. On the other side was a veritable forest of flagpoles; each had a different flag flying in what looked to be a stiff breeze. The colors looked positively gaudy against the dull, orange sky.

The driver noticed what he was staring at, and commented, “That's the headquarters building, and them's the flags of all the nations that've signed on in the war against Hell and Heaven.”

“That's a lot of them,” he said, half to himself. “Where's the science building?”

“Over this way,” said the driver, and he turned the car to the right as the road they were on fed into another maze of streets in front of the headquarters building. Barracks and other buildings slid by them as they drove, weaving through heavy traffic. People were everywhere – surveyors, construction crews, military types – and the place was buzzing with activity.

They passed an airstrip after a few minutes, the car shaking as some sort of jet climbed over them and thundered off into the sky. As the driver edged over into the left lane, he remarked, “F-111, Aussie bird. Must be off on another reconnaissance mission. The diggers have been working right hard.”

Dr Surlethe nodded, preoccupied. They had not veered to the left or right as far as he could tell, which meant that they'd traveled through a right angle. That meant the hellmouth – still close enough to be visible – should be behind and to the right. Yet it was directly behind them; he could just see it if he craned his head around the passenger seat. This was interesting. The surface geometry here was very clearly non-Euclidean, but light still traveled in straight lines. Very interesting.

The drive pulled off the road into a parking lot and stopped in front of another squat building. It looked exactly the same as the headquarters, except without the flags in front of it. “Thanks,” said Dr Surlethe. He hopped out of the car, grabbed his briefcase, and quickly strode into the building, noting the double airlock doors that excluded the polluted atmosphere of Hell..

In the building, before the receptionist could say anything, he removed his breathing filter and asked, “Where's the meeting?”

“Your name Sir?” she asked.

“Dr Surlethe,” he said.

“Ah, welcome to Hell!” She smiled. “The department head meeting is down the hall on the left, third door. Room 108.”

“Thanks,” he said over his shoulder, already moving down the hallway. A clock over the receptionist's desk read 1:02. Inwardly he cursed; damn, two minutes late. As usual.

He took a second outside the door of the conference room to catch his breath, and then opened it as quietly as he could. Every eye was on him; most of the scientists, with mild respect, but there was an air of disapproval about three men in uniform. Dr Surlethe smiled. “Hello, gentlemen, ladies; sorry I'm running a little late.”

“That's perfectly fine,” said Dr Griswold. He was the head of the geology department, his size and beard making him one of the few people who actually looked the part. “Please, have a seat.” He gestured to the head of the table.

Dr Surlethe nodded, pulled back the chair, sat, and opened his briefcase, pulling out a tablet of paper and a pen. “Okay, let's see who's here,” he said. “Dr Griswold, geology?”

“Here.” Dr Surlethe nodded and made a note on the paper.

“Dr Jamison, physics and astronomy?”

“Aye.”

“Dr Sullivan, biology?”

“Present.”

“Dr Fulton, geography?”

“Here.”

“And Dr Abrams, climate science?”

“Here.”

“May I ask who these gentlemen are?” Dr Surlethe blinked at the three military men.

“Certainly,” said one of them. “I am Major Jim Schaeder, your liaison with the military. These are my aides – Leftenant John Grissom from the U.K. and Captain Aleksei Stepanovich Panasov of the Russian Army.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Dr Surlethe. “Now, I'm sure you all know this, but it bears saying anyway. The goal of this advance research center is to gather as much data about Hell as possible, as quickly as possible, and start to form a coherent picture of the world that we've entered. We'll be sending the information back to Earth, but, we are the scientific front line.

“Now, let's see where we stand. You have all prepared reports as I requested?” There were nods all around the room. “Dr Jamison, you'll go first.”

Dr Jamison, a slight, pretty redhead, stood up and shuffled some papers on the table in front of her. “We have not done too much. There are no obvious physical differences between Hell and Earth; on a basic level, at least, they're very much the same since we're all standing here.” She smiled, and chuckles drifted around the table. “However, there is some indication that the local gravitational field is maybe as much as 10% weaker than that on Earth; surely you've all noticed it walking.” Nods. “Initially, this will obviously impact friction, vehicle performance, etc. That may be why the air is so dusty as well. Other than that, we're looking to collaborate with geology to get an idea of what's going on under the ground.

“Putting on my astronomer's hat, we've got no idea what's going on above this damnable cloud cover.” Dr Surlethe noted that he might need to split the department soon. “We'd like to get a rocket launch pad –” this was aimed at Grissom – “but we understand we're relatively low priority here.” She turned back to Dr Surlethe. “That's all I've got.”

“Thank you, Dr Jamison. Next, Dr Griswold?”

Dr Griswold stood up. “Geologically speaking, Hell is a very interesting place. It's incredibly geologically active; the soil here, at least, is composed mostly of broken-down volcanic materials. I won't bore you with details, but I'll just say that as recently as two million years ago, this entire plain –” he stretched his hands out, obviously talking about the whole of the prairie that apparently stretched from the Phlegethon just to the north all the way to Dis – “was under a half-mile of lava from that giant caldera to the south. When I say giant, I mean it, We’ve got the first pictures back from the RF-111s, the diameter of that caldera is almost 700 kilometers. It’s circumference is more than 2,000 kilometers. It must have been one hell of a bang when it let go.

“That's about as much as we can say about the geologic history of Hell; we need more data. Hopefully, as the geography grows clearer, we'll be able to say something about the underlying geology and start to construct a picture of the history. And, as Dr Jamison said, we are working to get some geophysical measurements; hopefully, that will start to flesh out our picture some more.” Unceremoniously, Dr Griswold sat down.

“Thank you. Dr Fulton, are you ready?”

“Certainly,” said Dr Fulton, who unfolded himself from his chair and stood up, blinking at the papers in front of him through round spectacles. “This is probably the most pressing field of exploration here, since navigation and knowing what the terrain around us looks like are the most relevant issues to the military. As you all know, the terrain here is decidedly non-Euclidean.” More nods around the table. “We've been taking measurements, but this is actually a math problem and not one that any of us geographers have encountered before. So is there a mathematician in the house?”

“That can be arranged,” said Dr Surlethe.

Dr Fulton continued. “Other than that, we've been putting together a temporary map based on surveillance pictures from the recent reconnaissance flights. Here it is.” He picked up a stack of papers and handed them out one-by-one as he kept talking. “As you can see, we have the Phlegethon just to the north. In the distance, there are some hills; we speculate that they are foothills to a larger mountain range. In the other direction, it's all flat, with no major rivers, to the city of Dis. There's Dis, and then it drops off into the pit.”

The handout wasn't so much a map as a collage of pictures pasted together in photoshop. The pictures seemed oddly distorted, and didn't quite match up together at the edges, but the basic components of the terrain were still visible.

“The pit of hell appears to be arranged into nine concentric rings. It's eerily similar to Dante's description, working hypothesis, a baldrick got hold of Dante’s mind and let him know what he was in for. We don't have much data, but we surmise that the descriptions that have been given to us by the DIMO(N) counterinsurgency department match what is visible here, in the sixth ring.” He tapped an area on the map that looked like nothing more than a dark coffee stain. Through it, a river lazily wandered before apparently plunging off the side into the next level. “We surmise that is where the insurgency is located.”

Dr Jamison raised her hand. “Is this part of Dis, here on the fifth ring?”

Dr Fulton nodded. “You can see that a spur of the city has been built down into the pit itself, down this flat slope.” He indicated on his copy the extension of the demonic capital. “The city then extends for a ways along the fifth ring to the point where the river cuts across the ring. The spur itself acts as a base for walls that separate the rings.

“Anyway, that's pretty much as far as we've gotten geographically. We await more data from reconnaissance flights. We'll take as much as you can give us. Thank you.” He sat down.

“We have Dr Abrams and Dr Sullivan left. Who'd like to go first?”

“I'll go,” said Dr Sullivan, his heavy Oxford English accent being almost amusing given the environment. . “Aside from the baldrick corpses dissected in Iraq, and the biological knowledge that gave us, we've got very little information about the lifeforms and ecosystem here in Hell. Because it's similar to life on Earth, we hypothesize that there are common ancestors involved somewhere – in fact, the data from the dissections and corpse analysis suggests that the most recent human-baldrick ancestor dates from about one point five million years ago. Evolution here has been pretty drastic though and followed a different path from ours.

“But we need more data to test this. We're planning some expeditions out to the surrounding countryside, but if in the military advance there are any dead animals, please have them sent back to us. Thank you.” He sat down.

“Oh, I think we can guarantee you lots of corpses.” Panasov’s voice was almost droll as his mind recalled the long rows of guns awaiting the Baldrick assault.

“And, Dr Abrams,” said Dr Surlethe.

“Thanks,” said Dr Abrams, an older gentleman with a fine Santa Claus beard. “We find that the atmosphere here is relatively similar to that of Earth, which means that there was either gaseous exchange or the life processes here are similar to those on Earth. The high particulate count at this location suggests some volcanic activity in the vicinity, or a hell of a lot – pardon the pun – of volcanic activity somewhere far away. Other than that, we can't really do any meaningful climate science, aside from weather observations, without getting data from the upper atmosphere. We've sent to NASA for some weather balloons to go up; hopefully, they'll get here in the next couple of days, and then we can go from there.” He sat down.

“All right,” said Dr Surlethe. “Is there anything else?” Nobody spoke, so he continued: “Excellent. Let's plan on meeting weekly from here on out and comparing notes. Thanks, everybody!”

As the various scientists were moving out of the room, Dr Surlethe tapped Dr Fulton on the shoulder. “Mind if I have a word with you?”

“Sure,” said the taller man.

“I'm a mathematician by trade. Do you think you could email me the data? I'll see what I can do with it in my spare time.”

“I'd love to. Our department is all geographers; none of us really have the experience or knowledge to deal with this sort of non-spherical geometry.”

“Thanks,” said Dr Surlethe. “I look forward to it.” And he walked out of the room, contemplating just what he was going to tell the president and cabinet at the next meeting, and wondering on top of that what sort of shape could explain the curvature that was obvious here.

_________________
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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