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 Post subject: Armageddon Parts 56 - 60
PostPosted: Sun Jun 26, 2011 3:02 pm 
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Command Post, Northern Front, Phlegethon River Bulge, Hell

“My Lord, this is against all our traditions.”

“And humans fighting back is not? If they defeated Abigor, then they are adversaries worthy of note. Abigor’s description of the great battle was quite clear, the Beast charge at the start of the fighting was a disaster for his cavalry. We must learn from those mistakes. Even if we can never admit the source of our learning.”

Lapradanultrox looked out across the array of forces now moving down on the northern flank of the great bulge in the Phlegethon river. The sight was a strange one to demonic eyes, the great square blocks of the legions divided into much smaller groups. Even more oddly, the cavalry legions had been completely broken up, dispersed amongst the infantry. One Beast supporting each group of 27 foot-soldiers. Behind the hills, the great flock of harpies, almost 180,000 of them were waiting to launch their attack. This was also unprecedented, the mores of demonic warfare were clearly established. The Harpies reconnoitered to find the enemy, the Beasts charged to crack a hole in the enemy defenses, the infantry closed to destroy the broken army.

That was the way it had always been and that was the way Abigor had fought. And his army had been destroyed in the most catastrophic defeat ever inflicted on demonic arms. Not even the Celestial Enemy had ever done the damage the humans had inflicted on Abigor. Lapradanultrox appreciated Beelzebub’s desire not to repeat the same experience on an even more cataclysmic scale but to cast away every basic principle of warfare? Beelzebub’s decisions were courageous in more ways than one. Such a break with the past would be heroic, if he won. It could easily be considered treason if he lost.

“But where is our great blow? How shall we defeat the enemy without the one massive strike to break his will? How can we crush their defense without the concentrated blow of the Beasts?” Lapradanultrox looked again at the strange formation.

“Look at the humans, Lapradanultrox, look at them. Where is the defense for us to breach? They have not drawn a line, not even one behind a ridgeline as Abigor described. Instead there is a field of death ahead of us, as deep as we can see. Our cavalry cannot charge through it, they will lose speed and momentum before they get far enough to matter and they will be destroyed. We cannot charge through the defense the humans have constructed, we mush chew our way through it. The foot soldier groups, each with the extra strength of a Beast to support them, will take on those small defense positions and we will chew our way through.”

“This will be a bloody day.” Lapradanultrox adjusted his vision for long range and scanned the human defenses that were waiting, silently, mercilessly.

“Bloody day? I think not. This battle will not be over in a day. It will go on for days until the human army has been crushed. Like it or not, Lapradanultrox, the days when a battle would be decided honorably in a single day are gone. The humans have won the first battle of all, we now fight on their terms and no matter what happens, things in Hell will never be the same again. Now, sound the advance to contact.”

Below them, the great Army started to move forward. Word was being passed to the assembled harpies, to swarm into the air and commence their assault on the humans. That was Beelzebub’s plan, to hit the humans with his foot soldiers, harpies and Beasts all together so that the humans would be overwhelmed.

Then, far away behind the human lines, beyond the region where the dust-laden atmosphere closed out vision, Beelzebub saw something strange and inexplicable. A sheet of flickering light, like the bolts thrown by the tridents of his foot soldiers and nagas, but covering the horizon in great sheets, reflecting off the clouds overhead.

“Human magery!” Lapradanultrox’s voice rose into a scream. “The human mages have started their work. The battle is joined.”

Artillery Battalion, Rear Echelon, Phlegethon River Front[i]

This particular battalion had guns that were an odd hybrid, old D-30 122mm guns mounted on a new truck chassis. A product of the emergency mobilization that had all of Russia in ferment. The guns had come from storage, the trucks had once been intended for the civilian market, although why civilians would need 8 x 8 trucks had never been quite clear. It was rumored Americans wanted them for conversion into SUVs. But, the design for the self-propelled guns had been drawn up for the export market where wheeled, self-propelled artillery had been a big growth sector. Those plans had been modified quickly for the Great Salvation War and the truck-mounted guns had poured off the lines as fast as the factories could be converted. Artillery was the God of War, a God that had never let the Russian Army down.

Lieutenant Sergei Aleksandrovich Ehlakov commanded this battery of six guns and he had his assigned fire-plan. It was laid down, strictly, severely, the targets clearly designated for destruction on a finely judged schedule. It was not his place to select targets or to swing his guns from one place to another. He was not an American officer who would swing his guns from one point target to the next, his place in the scheme of things was as a part of a machine that delivered massive, total destruction. His task was to keep his guns firing, to drench the battlefield with high explosive so that the enemy could not move forward to attack the defense lines. He had his support of course, the big trucks carrying ammunition and all around him, the little jeeps with their anti-aircraft guns welded on to the beds. His D-21s had come from store and so had the anti-aircraft guns. Quadruple 14.5 mm machine guns, twin 23 mm cannon, whatever had been in storage was here, to protect the guns from attack.

“Battalion Control Tovarish Lieutenant. The enemy is moving. Commence fire plan in six-zero seconds.”

The gunners were waiting, the first shells already in the breeches of the guns. Who would have the honor of firing the first shell against the enemy horde descending upon them? The first of the thousands that would descend like rain on that enemy and grind his forces into the mud. Would his guns, here on the northern flank, succeed? Or would the guns further south open the battle? Ehlakov watched the figures on his clock changing as they reached the appointed second. Then, the strained silence turned into a mighty roar that crushed his eardrums and seemed to drive him into the ground. The ground that was already shaking in a rolling sea-like motion as the long lines of guns recoiled, their spades digging deep into the ground, before they returned to their position and their gunners could stuff more shells into their chambers and send another ‘package’ to its recipients. Now, all that Ehlakov could see were his men dropping into the methodical, routine motions as the shells were brought forward and fired. He looked down to his next target, in two minutes he would have to shift to the next aiming point.

[i]Third Platoon, Second Company, Third Battalion, Fourth Regiment, 247th Motor Rifle Division, Phlegethon River Front, Hell


“Here it comes Bratischka. The enemy advances and our gunners make their reply. Soon it will be our turn.”

Lieutenant Anatolii Ivanovich Pas'kov dropped into the turret of his BMP-2 and fastened it in place. There was nothing to be gained by staying outside now. The word passed down from on high was that humans were more or less safe inside their armored vehicles. They should fight from them, not outside them. Pas’kov felt agreeably comfortable with that advice. Overhead, he could hear the express-train roar of the artillery shells overhead, heard it even through the metal shell of his BMP. “Outbound” he yelled, instinct taking over. For a quick second he wondered what it would be like to be outside, under the tons of descending metal that was aimed at the demons, then he decided he didn’t care and certainly didn’t want to find out. Being inside his faithful BMP-2 suited him just fine.

Outside, seen through the vision blocks of the BMP, Pas’kov could see a mass of black covering the opposite banks of the river. A terrifying sight, he’d heard the numbers of the enemy were counted in the millions but he’d never quite imagined what “millions” looked like. Now he knew. The artillery had its work cut out.

Tornado GR.4, 617 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

“You know, it’s a pity we phased the old JP-233 out of service.”

“You can say that, you never used one.” Squadron Leader Desmond Young had been one of the pilots who had used the JP-233 on its one and only operational deployment, 17 years ago in the Gulf War. He wasn’t quite certain which had been worse, the light displays as the submunition dispenser had fired its cargo, the violent changes in pitch as the weight distribution had changed or the Iraqi anti-aircraft fire that had been all around them. All in all, it had been an exciting night and Young had been only too pleased to hear that the JP-233 had been withdrawn from service. Officially that was because of the anti-land mines treaty but the real reason was that the crews had made their discontent with the weapon very plain.

“Targets dead ahead.” In the back seat, Flight Lieutenant Wyngarde had the target area marked on the rolling map in front of him. Navigating in Hell was weird, nothing seemed to work quite right, an aircraft couldn’t just retrace its route to get home. A crew that relied on instinct to navigate could get hopelessly lost. Still, the navigation systems people were working on that, they had the beacons set up and, with them, a modernized version of the old Gee navigation equipment first used by Bomber Command in World War Two. It might be an old system but it worked, even in Hell. “Clear of the prohibited zone.”

That was crucial, the last thing the Tornadoes needed was to get caught in the mass of descending Russian shells. So, the bombers had flown a looped route, one that took them parallel to the Phlegethon River and over the area where the drones had said the enemy harpies had gathered. Young didn’t need navigation systems to see where his target lay, it was directly ahead, marked by the beginnings of a cloud of harpies taking to the air. The strike was a few second late but that didn’t matter too much.

The eight Tornadoes swept over the harpy assembly area, raining more than 60 BL-755 cluster bombs on the creatures below. The ground vanished under a rippling wave of explosions as the Tornadoes swept over the scene and turned for the run home, the airborne harpies floundering in their wake. Long before the Tornadoes crossed the Harpy grounds, they had pulled back into a steep climb, releasing their bombs as they did, so the bombs were tossed into the mass of harpies, rather than dropped on them. By the time the bombers reached the center of the target area, they were already clear of the harpy cloud and climbing steeply.

“We’re clear Peter, Dragon-one to all dragon elements, weapons delivered, time to go home and get some more.”

Wyngarde looked over his shoulder at the explosions still rolling over the ground now far below them. “Drop confirmed Boss. And to think they wanted to take our cluster bombs away.”

Command Post, Northern Front, Phlegethon River Bulge, Hell

The flickering lightning seemed never to stop, it was rolling backwards and forwards along the horizon. Overhead, Beelzebub heard a dreadful screaming noise, obviously the battle-cry of the human mages. It was squeezing his mind, causing his vision to blur, and as it peaked, he saw the whole of the river bank under his army erupt into volcanoes that spewed mud, water and bits of demon skywards. A rippling surge of explosions that blanketed the whole area. That was when Beelzebub felt something very strange, a wind, a warm wind that picked up force as the human mage bolts pounded into his Army. Overhead the same winds rippled the clouds of dust that saturated the atmosphere, forming them into strange patterns that swirled and changed even as he watched them. Like the blood of a human kidling stirred into a cup of wine.

“Mu Lord, the magery, it is causing winds to blow and storms to form.”

So the humans could control the weather as well as their other accomplishments. That thought did not make Beelzebub any happier. The descriptions he’d heard of the human mage-bolts had been bad enough, although he’d dismissed Abigor’s more colorful descriptions as being part of his alibi for defeat. But he’d never mentioned strange winds and patterns in the sky. The idea hardly had time to form in his mind before the explosions that were shattering his army along the banks of the Phlegethon shifted back to engulf a new zone and spread their death toll amongst another portion of his Army. Beelzebub looked at the carnage forming on the ground in front of him and knew that Abigor hadn’t lied, if anything he had understated the truth. He’d mentioned the human mage bolts that struck from afar and devastated the ground but he’d never said anything about a concentration of magery like this.

Combat Group, Northern Front, Phlegethon River Bulge, Hell

Hertonymarkess felt himself staggering under the sheer impact of noise and the crushing power the explosions that were all around him. He couldn’t think straight, every time a thought tried to form in his mind, the terrible screams and explosions drove it away or entered his head and shredded it. Screams, they dominated even the explosions, the battle cry of the human mages as their mage-bolts slammed into the army, the screams of the demons and Beasts as they were torn apart and died. He couldn’t hold his trident properly either, the shaking was too much. The ground was heaving and rolling under his feet, in ways Hell had not experienced since the great earthquakes a few millennia ago. The little quakes, the ones Hell experienced every day had nothing on the destruction the human magery was causing.

Yet Hertonymarkess knew that the magery was only part of the shaking that was causing his problems. The rest was his own muscles, shivering with fear of the mage-bolts. An enemy, even a human, was not something he feared. If there was a human in front of him now, he could have fought and, win or lose, fought ferociously. It wasn’t the prospect of fighting that was terrifying him at all. It was the human’s ability to deliver remote-controlled death. For, there was nothing to fight here, the humans were still far away and their mage bolts just pounded the target, administering death and destruction at random. There was nothing Hertonymarkess could do about it, his skills, his courage, his training, his spirit mattered nothing. All that mattered was the pure blind chance of whether he and his combat team would be standing where the next mage bolt, or dozen, landed. It was that utter helplessness in the face of random, pitiless fate that was so terrifying.

Without being aware of it, Hertonymarkess had entered the Phlegethon River and it was with utter astonishment he realized he was in water up to his waist. The wading was slowing him down but he realized it mattered little. The human mage-fire was concentrated on the banks of the river behind him, some of the bolts were landing in the water but they were few in number. Most of the bursts were behind them and he got the feeling the ones in the river were mistakes, bolts that were landing short. Ahead, he could see a target, the first of the little forts that the humans had set up. Now that was odd. Why had the humans set up lots of little forts rather than one big one? Everybody knew that the bigger the fortress, the harder it would be to take?

There were Iron Chariots in the fortress, Hertonymarkess felt his stomach cringe at the thought of iron, then he set his grip firmly on his trident and closed the grip, discharging a bolt at the defenses ahead. It was immensely satisfying to strike back at last, after the helpless terror of the mage-bolts, now there was some way he could fight. Overhead, the vast cloud of harpies was closing in, with luck they would suppress the defenses long enough for his group to get close to that little fort.

Harpy Group, Northern Front, Phlegethon River Bulge, Hell

Uxaligantivaris screamed out her battle cry and tried to launch a jet of flame at the Sky Chariot but it was too fast for her and it rolled away and zoomed upwards. The humans were cowards, they refused to fight, they just stood off and let fly with their fire-lances and seeker-lances, cutting her comrades out of the sky. She knew the losses already suffered by the harpies were almost beyond comprehension, the first strike by the Sky Chariots had killed hundreds before they had even taken off. Then, there were the great seeker lances that had torn into the formation from afar, their explosions killing hundreds more. Then, after that, the Sky Chariots had returned and were slashing at the harpy cloud.

Her skin was on fire, a mass of mad itching that threatened to drive her mad. If the voices in her head didn’t do that first. There were so many of them, some were human speech that made little sense, others were a weird, intense beating noise, as if somebody was pounding her with a giant hammer. Yet others were a gentle hiss that simply filled every corner of her mind and drowned out all that went on inside. The mass of electronic noise was hardly surprising, Uxaligantivaris had no means of knowing it and would not have understood the implications even if she had, but she was being painted by more than 2,000 radar sets. Those alone were doing damage to her, quite distinct from the missiles and guns that they targeted. Uxaligantivaris knew that something was wrong but she couldn’t know how wrong for the truth was she was being slowly microwaved to death in mid-air. Already her body temperature was slowly rising as the radar energy was exciting the molecules that formed the liquids in her body.

Below her, she could see the human forts that formed their defensive position. It made little sense to her, but her job wasn’t to understand, just to do as she was told. Even though that meant something she had never done before. Harpies were scouts and raiders, intended to observe enemy formations and report on their movement. Sometimes they would attack undefended positions by night to spread fear and terror. Never before had the harpies been told to attack defensive positions that were fully-equipped and putting up resistance. Harpies traded protection and firepower for speed and flight. Not enough of either of course, not compared with the human Sky Chariots, but a good trade for their proper role. Now, they were being pitched against a serious defense.

There was one advantage in doing that. Uxaligantivaris had noted that the human Sky Chariots were staying high, not dropping close to the ground. Perhaps they couldn’t, she’d noticed that their wings didn’t flap like any proper flying creature. Oh, a couple had had wings that seemed to flap forward and backwards but none flapped properly. Still, the message was clear, close to the ground and the Sky Chariots would leave them alone. Cheered at the thought, she folded her wings, expelled gas, and dropped like a stone on the defense position beneath.

Command HQ, Camp Hell-Alpha, Hell

“The battle is joined Tovarish General.” General Ivan Semenovich Dorokhov was standing in front of his screen, the facilities here in hell were nowhere near as good as those General Petraeus had left behind in Baghdad but they would serve.

“Very good, Ivan Semenovich. How goes the day?”

“Well, David Howellovich.” Both men grinned at the mangled Russification of Petraeus’s middle name. “Our artillery and air strikes are hurting the baldricks badly. We estimate their casualties already must be approaching ten percent of their total.”

“A word of advice Grazhdanin Ivan, divide your estimates by three. We learned this the hard way in Iraq and before that in Vietnam and the Balkans.”

“And we learned that same lesson in Afghanistan and fighting the Hitlerites. But Gospodin David, we have hit Beelzebub’s army hard. His casualties on the northern flank are mounting and they are only now moving into our main zone of resistance. The southern flank is moving more slowly, the situation had not developed there yet. There appears to be no movement at all in the center.”

“Hmm. The baldricks are learning. Not slowly either. Whatever you need, just call. We’re lining up the support for you here.” As far as Petraeus was concerned, that was his role in this battle. Let the Russian Army do its thing and just make sure they have every tool they needed, and some that they didn’t know they needed, not yet anyway. “For your information, the BUFFS have arrived. They flew through the hellmouth a few minutes ago and are circling to gain height. They’ll be ready when you need them.”

Dorokhov laughed. “The sight of those flying through the Hellgate must have been impressive. Is there an intact eardrum left back there?”

“Not a one. Not a one. But tell your men, the Gray Lady is coming.”

_________________
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 3:04 pm 
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DIMO(N) Headquarters, Crystal City, Virginia

For the fourth time in the last half-hour, a gentle beeping filled the monitoring room. With some irritation, Technical Sergeant James Nevaquaya put aside the draft response procedure he’d been reading and glanced up at the grid of monitors.

:
! 2-network Anomaly Detected
! --------------------------
! VERIZON node 21633 : 28% dropped frames : Detroit, MA
! VERIZON node 21638 : 12% dropped frames : Detroit Metro, MA (4.8 km)
! SPRINT node 45-3C : 15% dropped frames : Detroit, MA (2.5 km)
?
? Detailed capture triggered on 36 nodes.


One monitor was showing a map of the anomaly site – freeways snaking through a dense grid of streets, north of Detroit. Nevaquaya’s hand went to the mouse as he tried to bring up the spectrum display. The prototype was barely functional, a cobbled together mess of mostly civilian technology, but for now that novelty and importance of the task was keeping frustration at bay. The spectrum analyzer was still hobbled by the cell site’s receiver limitations, but it was clearly showing a broadband hump peaking in the low gigahertz.

The gentle beeping was abruptly replaced by an insistent two-tone warble. The text scrolling onto the status display snapped Nevaquaya’s mind to intense alertness.

! Multi-network Anomaly Confirmed
! -------------------------------
! VERIZON node 21633 : 34% dropped frames : Detroit, MA
! VERIZON node 21638 : 25% dropped frames : Detroit Metro, MA (4.8 km)
! VERIZON node 21629 : 17% dropped frames : Detroit, MA (6.5 km)
! VERIZON node 21635 : 14% dropped frames : Warren, MA (9.3 km)
! SPRINT node 45-3C : 31% dropped frames : Detroit, MA (2.5 km)
! CDMA2000 down
! SPRINT node 45-3A : 20% dropped frames : Detroit, MA (3.9 km)
! SPRINT node 44-8D : 16% dropped frames : Warren, MA (8.7 km)
! CINGULAR node MA335 : 26% dropped frames : Detroit, MA (3.9 km)
W-CDMA down
! CINGULAR node MA334 : 22% dropped frames : Detroit Metro, MA (5.2 km)
! ALLTEL node 4775 : software failure : Southfield, MA (11.2 km)
! T-MOBILE node MA5XA : W-CDMA resetting : Detroit, MA (6.3 km)
?
? Composite spectrum display enabled.
? Detailed capture triggered on 92 nodes.
!
! *** POSSIBLE PORTAL OPENING - heuristic match 0.82 ****
!

Within seconds an office chair rolled through the door from the adjoining office, carrying Graeme Wilson with it. The civilian contractor took in the situation on the monitors almost instantly.

“0.82? That’s the highest yet. What do you make of the spectrum?”

“The general spike structure sure looks like the recordings. I’ll call NORAD – can you get any more resolution out of those sites?”

Wilson had already begun typing, his fingers a chattering blur. Console windows popped up and streams of incomprehensible commands flashed past. Meanwhile Nevaquaya had gone straight for the first entry in the speed dial.

“…big one, at four two degrees twenty three minutes north, eighty three degrees four minutes west. Confidence is moderate.”

Nevaquaya watched the civilian work while the duty officer at NORAD checked the radar picture. The contrast between the usual procurement process, even the usual R&D process and what was going on here was incredible, things were happening in days that had taken years just a few months earlier. The monitoring system was crude and buggy as yet, but getting even that operational in under four days was amazing. America had apparently rediscovered engineers who thrived on doing the impossible. Then Nevaquaya thought again, no not rediscovered, just set free from the demands of reaching some unattainable ideal of perfection.

The spectrum display flicked and restructured itself, crisper and with fewer gaps. Secondary windows began to fill up with phase analysis of signal components. “There, how about that?”

Nevaquaya stared at the screen for three seconds before speaking directly into the phone.

“Confirmed, we’ve got more data here too, confidence is now high, repeat, confidence high for portal opening over northern Detroit.”

He pressed mute, then another button that began sounding the incident alarm in the other offices. Finally he turned to Graeme. “The spikes match. NOARD is seeing radar interference at that location. Looks like the demons are going for Detroit, with a big one too by the look of it. Fighters are on the way, they’ll be contacting national guard units next.” Footsteps sounded in the corridor outside as more DIMO(N) staff converged on the monitoring room. Both men stared at the screens, where the error rates and signal strengths were climbing inexorably. Both knew that their warning was better than nothing, but also that it left precious few minutes to intercept the demon targeteer. If friendly forces couldn’t stop it in time, the heart of a great American city would die in ash and fire.

Over Interstate 75, Detroit, Michigan

Megaaeraholrakni’s arm and wing muscles already ached from the exertion – she had done very little flying these last few centuries – but the demon was so enraged that she barely noticed. How could Euryale have been so incompetent? It could not have been her own fault, she had concentrated firmly on the great glass towers that stood haughtily above the human sprawl. Yet the portal had opened half a league to the north, instead of half a league to the south, almost completely the wrong direction. ‘More likely that half-witted naga.’ she thought, as she painfully climbed through 500 feet. ‘though surely Yulupki isn’t stupid enough to try sabotaging the Count’s scheme?’

Below her streams of tiny iron boxes raced back and forth, traveling along two wide black strips set in a shallow trench. The trench cut through the human city, snaking gently and occasionally joining up with other trenches in curious curling structures reminiscent of spilled entrails. Many more of the iron boxes stood motionless on parade grounds dotted between the buildings. ‘Perhaps they worship them’ Megaaeraholrakni thought; she could think of no other reason to go to such extreme efforts for the chariot’s sake.

The gorgon could sense the nascent portal ahead; indeed it would be hard for her to miss it, given how much psychic energy it was leaking. Belial had exhorted the naga to put every effort into this attack and they were obviously giving it everything they had. It could be that this focus on power accounted for their lousy aim. She was drawing near now and the air itself seemed to crackle with power. The portal mouth was bobbing high in the air over a dark L-shaped castle, or more precisely over the bone white chariot-filled parade ground behind it.

Megaaeraholrakni began a slow sweeping turn, oblivious to the attention she was beginning to draw on the ground below. She reached out with her mind, the psychic force radiating down from her wings to caress the extra-dimensional nexus at the heart of the portal. Crude ‘dragging’ was for novices, one merely had to induce a desire to move in a particular direction and the portal would do the work (or rather, the teams of naga powering it would be forced to do the work, but it was all the same to the gorgon). But mere seconds after the portal had begun to move it began to oscillate wildly, shedding energy that arced to the ground as lighting. Megaaeraholrakni had no choice to use every ounce of strength she possessed to wrestle the portal back into submission. Flying directly above it, buffeted by the thermals created by the arcing, it seemed to her that she was riding an untamed beast, ready to throw lighting back at her at any moment. The gorgon’s confidence in her own ability was supreme however, and perhaps not unwarranted, as she soon had the unborn portal simmering in a semblance of submission. Grimly she set off towards the great gleaming towers, a corner of her mind already devising a way to gain revenge on whoever was responsible for this mess.

Tanner Firearm Supplies, Northern Detroit

“Thanks for keeping these aside for me Erwin. I know they’re hard to come by right now, what with the Brits adopting them as standard and grabbing the whole production run.”

“Hey no problem Danny. Wouldn’t want to see a friend short of firepower if one of those monsters makes an appearance.” The shopkeeper insisted on shaking the customer’s hand. The man then scooped up the box of .338 Lapua from the counter and made his way out of the store.

Daniel Wright had stowed the ammo in the under-seat safe and was about to start his pickup’s engine when a glint in the sky caught his eye. He considered himself something of an aircraft buff and took a closer look, trying to the identify the type. It was bronze colored, the silhouette changing as he watched… something clicked into place as he realized that it was not a plane, but a creature. A creature that looked just like the grainy news footage from England. At first it had looked like it was circling over the AA&M building. Now it was definitely heading for downtown; the shop was built just off the I-75 and the demon was flying roughly parallel to the highway.

He leapt out of the truck, grabbing his Barrett 98 from the rack. Fortunately the optics were still in place from his Sunday range visit. As Daniel unlocked the safe he hesitated for a second; shooting into the sky was usually a reason to make fun of ignorant third-worlders, as what went up had to come down and it could well come down on someone’s head. But only for a second. The Sheffield death toll had now passed 16,000 and he had to stop that happening here at any cost. Daniel clicked the magazine home, braced himself on the side of the truck, brought the monster into the sights and fired.

The shot was on the edge of effective range to start with, and without tracers it was basically impossible to correct for drop, deflection and wind drift, so Daniel just had to give it his best guess. He could hear other shooters opening up, and with luck one of them got lucky. He blew flew the first magazine with no apparent effect on the distant flapping form and as he was reaching for the second he noticed that other shoppers from the gun store had joined him in the parking lot. Some were starting at him, some at the sky.

“There’s a damned Baldrick up there!” he shouted, “grab a rifle and start shooting, or it’ll burn the city.” He didn’t wait to watch them respond, the fresh magazine clicked home and he soon had the rifle realigned on the target. This time the creature definitely seemed to be hit, dropping suddenly and flapping erratically as he fired his last three rounds. No way to know if it was one of his rounds that did it, but it didn’t matter. Erwin and Bob were back with AR-15s from the store, and beside him even Emily was enthusiastically letting fly with her Smith & Wesson 586. Top marks for effort, Daniel thought, as he noticed a large, dark green and very old half-track coming to a stop on the side of the freeway. The ready platoon of the 3rd Michigan Infantry Regiment, United States Volunteers had arrived with an M-16 quad-50 they’d “liberated” from a museum and they wasted no time opening up with their much-loved M2 mount. Wright recognized some of the volunteers as they took up their positions, the 3rd Michigan had been built around a re-enactors group and to Wright, they looked a bit odd in modern BDUs.

I75-I94 Interchange, Detroit, Michigan

The gorgon’s mood had improved somewhat as she flew south towards the human towers. This realm’s bright direct light had been painful at first, but now it felt pleasantly warm on her back. The proto-portal seemed to have settled down, and she was free to gaze at the landscape below, savoring her power to end their pitiful existences. She was death incarnate, an avatar of cleansing flame come to burn this hive of vermin off the face of the planet. Megaaeraholrakni had always reveled in the exercise of psychic power, and now this was the culmination of all those millennia of effort.

That said she did have something of a dilemma. As she ascended it became clear that the towers were built next to a wide river. If she opened the portal over them, the lava would pool there and many of the lesser buildings would be spared. Perhaps it would be better to open it some way from the river, to ensure that the rest of the city burned? There were a great many parades of chariots here – the big flat buildings next to them could be workshops, and Belial had been quite insistent about destroying those. On the other hand, blocking the river with lava would not be so bad, the scalding steam and the flooding was sure to be amusing…

Megaaeraholrakni’s musings were interrupted by a sharp pain in her right wing. Suddenly she became aware of the irregular cracking sounds coming from below, coming faster and faster with each passing second. Agony flashed down her side as something tore into her flank. The gorgon looked back in disbelief at the green blood dripping from the wound. How dare they? She’d heard the rumors of the human’s newfound magery… now too late she realized how foolish she’d been to dismiss those warnings.

Another projectile slammed into the base of her tail, shattering a vertebra and sending pain shooting up her spine like a white hot poker. Megaaeraholrakni screamed and flailed wildly in the air, an act that granted her a brief respite as the next few shots went high. The portal crackled dangerously below her and she threw her wings out again, desperately trying to glide clear. It was at this moment that the hail of machine gun rounds began to arrive. The heavy rounds ripped through her torso, spraying yellow blood into the air as the gorgon began to fall out of the sky, trailing limp wings behind her. Megaaeraholrakni had a final few seconds to reflect on her folly before she plummeted through the phantom portal mouth. The massive electrostatic charge building there found a convenient discharge path through her body, and the gorgon finally died in a white hot flash of lightning, her charred and broken body tumbling down onto the interchange below.

Okthuura Yal-Gjaknaath, Tartaruan Range, borderlands of Hell

Baroness Yulupki’s eyes were closed, her coils writhing with pain as she tried to force the chorus back into harmony. The ritual had started to go wrong as soon as the portal begun to form. Instead of a single unified psychic push, there was discord. The closest human sensation was ‘tone’ and ‘timbre’; the ritual needed pure chords, but some of the naga were holding the wrong notes. The situation had rapidly deteriorated as each naga tried to stay in ‘tune’ with her neighbors, magnifying the initial dissenting voices into a psychic cacophony.

“All of you, follow me!” Yulupki screamed, over the wails of her subordinates and the hissing of the lava. It was hard to know if the naga on the other platforms heard her, but telepathy was out of the question in this din. The effort had dried out the tips of her tentacles and the energy began to arc back to the surrounding flesh, charring the scales. To the naga it seemed that her body was on fire and her brain was being squeezed in a vice, but gathering strength she didn’t know she had, she made a final push to stabilize the portal. She was somewhat surprised to find it actually working. Her strong, clear stream of psychic energy stood out clearly in the haze and the other naga rallied around it.

“That’s it, hold it, a little longer!” Why hadn’t that damned gorgon opened the portal yet? She couldn’t keep this up, if the signal didn’t come in another minute they’d just have to…

The wash of feedback hit Yulupki like a brick wall. She collapsed onto her pallet, barely hanging on to consciousness. The raging psychic turmoil had been replaced by a numb calm. ‘No, that can’t be, oh no…’ Her pitiful cry rang with the anguish of a human whose eyes had just been torn out.

From her vantage point on the crater rim Euryale had been watching the ritual with mounting concern. She was not yet a participant, but she could sense the unbalanced forces and the resulting instability in the half-formed portal. At the same time, she could sense Megaaeraholrakni’s progress over the human city through the mental link with her handmaiden. That link had just dissolved into echoes of pain, confusion and panic before disappearing entirely. Mere seconds later, what could only be described as a psychic shockwave had rushed out from the centre of the crater. The gorgon could barely make out the great snakelike forms through the dense smoke and heat shimmer, but she could tell that nearly half the naga were down and the rest were thrashing and wailing. Behind them the shrines were breaking out in glowing red patches, as local hotspots began to melt the metal.

Euryale launched herself from the rocks, determined to save the ritual. She pushed questions of what had gone wrong and who would pay out of her mind. That could come later. Her wings billowed taut as they caught the strong thermal and she soared over the bubbling lava. The thick smoke stung the gorgons eye’s; she couldn’t see clearly, but the series of bright flashes and a tortured groan probably signaled the collapse of one of the shrines. She was right over the portal now and she could feel it swelling and ascending, pushed out of the volcano’s throat like a cork in a barrel.

It was the moment for Euryale’s own supreme effort. She put everything she had into a single release aimed directly down, hoping to slam the portal down into the lava in the same act as pushing it over the threshold for opening. For a split second the smoke seemed transparent, as the entire crater was lit up by a storm of dancing lightning. Then noise and motion returned and Euryale was falling, the air whistling through great burning rips in her wings. The lava below convulsed, dropping and splashing and throwing out great chunks of magma. Desperately she tried to ride the thermals clear of the maelstrom before she was swatted from the sky or consumed by the fire.

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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 3:05 pm 
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Heavengate, Hell

The stones upon which Shakoolapicanthus walked were smoothed from the guards' tread over dozens of millennia. He could almost see his reflection in them, he thought, as he continued pacing along the top of the defensive wall.

The wall – it was massive, the work of millennia. It had been built, at first, of mounded earth, but the earthworks had long been replaced with huge blocks of granite. Fifty times the height of the tallest Dukes, the huge loop towered above the surrounding foothills. A human looking down on it from the air would have thought it looked nothing more than a giant tire sticking out of the ground. The outer face sloped gently down toward the plain, crisscrossed with trenches and ringed with smaller fortifications, parallel to the main wall. The inner face sloped sharply down toward the large inner ring. It was faced with granite, polished by the sweat and blood of thousands of lesser demons and enslaved humans to gleam in the dull, striated light.

Faced entirely with polished granite, that is, save for a small staircase almost too narrow for the scrawniest demons to walk down. That staircase was joined to the ramparts at the top of the wall by a small, nondescript crenelation, which Shakoolapicanthus found himself approaching for the twentieth time since his shift had begun. This was the final circuit, and he was ready to be done with his portion of the guard duties. There was just one task that remained.

He passed the standing guard, taken from Satan’s personal legions. They stood fifty feet apart all around the wall for the duration of their shifts, staring impassively down at the large building in center of the wall's inner ring – and stepped backwards down onto the staircase, as though he were climbing a ladder. The steps were also smoothed by continual travel, but far rougher than the smooth stone to either side. For a moment, he contemplated what a rush up that wall would be like, then shuddered at the thought of even trying, let alone in the face of tridents raining down magic on the attackers. This was a unique fortress, designed to keep attackers in, not out.

At the bottom of the wall, he straightened and turned around. The building was before him, towering over him even as it was dwarfed by the ringing wall; a giant demon-made mountain of stone, is what it was. A ring of demons stood guard about it, and twenty were orderly clustered about the only entrance, staring at it as though it were a poisonous snake about to bite them. Shakoolapicanthus stopped before them and said, “I am entering the Gateway.”

The demon in charge of the guard challenged him in the ritual. “Who are you to enter the Gateway?”

“I am Shakoolapicanthus, a captain of the Guard. I see that all is well within.”

“Shakoolapicanthus, a captain of the Guard, I will permit you to enter the Gateway. Bring word of the inner guard.”

Shakoolapicanthus nodded, the demons before him parted, and he stooped as the guard raised the iron portcullis. As he passed beneath it, he shivered; the feel of iron nearby always made his back crawl. It was the only place in all of Hell where iron had a use; it was rumored that the gate's construction had cost the lives of fifty demons, and that a thousand naga had enchanted it with the strongest spells imaginable.

The iron behind him, he made his way forward through the low, twisting passageway on his hands and knees. It was uncomfortable, and certainly made walking impossible for even the lowliest demons or angels. The stone around him seemed to weigh down on him, to close in on him.

Never too soon, the inner sanctum approached and the passage widened. The first thing that tipped him off was the stench of blood. He rolled his eyes – Again. The two sides sometimes made points by bursting into the realm of the other and slaughtering the guards before dropping back to the relative safety of their own homes. Once, the raiding parties had encountered each other; it had taken two centuries to alleviate the tensions from the resulting bloodbath. Another consequence of the raiding was that only the lowliest, unluckiest demons were chosen to be the inner sanctum guards; Shakoolapicanthus speculated that the same was true of the other side.

The passage opened out into the inner sanctum, a rectangular room as small as possible. Dominating the chamber, seeming too large for the room in which it was contained, was the jet-black portal: the last one open between Heaven and Hell. Creation of portals between the realms had been forbidden at the end of the Great Celestial War, and only one had been kept open to permit contact and the occasional diplomatic delegation between Satan and Yahweh. A delegation had come through recently, Shakoolapicanthus reminded himself; according to rumor, human magery had destroyed it in the Pit. The higher-ups vehemently denied the rumors, of course, but that made him all the more certain that something had happened. Certainly, strange things were happening in Hell, human armies were fighting in the Infernal Region itself and all the barrack room rumors were of the humans in the pit rising against their tormenters. It was even whispered, there was now an area in the pit where no demon dared go, where if one tried, the penalty was a horrible death by human magery.

The two guards were lying contorted on the ground, charred in places and dismembered in others. Blood was spattered all throughout the chamber. But something was different; standing in front of the portal was a towering white figure. It was staring at him with its pale, white eyes, and Shakoolapicanthus felt himself shudder far more than he had passing under the iron portcullis. This was no mere angel; this was a high-ranking one, one who could probably crush him as easily as it had these two unfortunates.

Slowly, like a cornered Beast, Shakoolapicanthus started to back away toward the tunnel. The angel did nothing for a moment, then flared its wings – they stretched nearly across the chamber – and said, “Stop.” Shakoolapicanthus stopped. He was shivering uncontrollably.

Slowly, the angel raised his sword. It glimmered in the torchlight, bronze lined with pale gold. The angel was gathering fearsome magic; it was already making Shakoolapicanthus' hair stand on end. Then it spoke. “Do you know who I am, fallen scum?”

“N-n-n-no, sir. I do not.”

“I am Michael-lan, commander of the forces of the Most High One. I have a message for the Fallen One from my master. You will bear it to him. Tell him that these words have come from the Throne of the Nameless One. ‘Satan Mekatrig, despite previous warnings you have failed to oppress and dominate the humans. They have forced their way into your realm and still you cannot defeat them. Your failures in this matter have ensured that the humans are developing into a threat to the chorus. The gates of Heaven may be closed to any who may wish to enter but our hosts may leave to engage our enemies at our pleasure. As a last warning to the humans we have gathered Uriel and the Bowls of Wrath. Your failures are causing us to intervene against our wishes but the chorus must not cease. On your head lies what may result.’ Tell him that, and only that.”

The archangel stepped forward, over the twisted bodies, and touched Shakoolapicanthus on the forehead. As he did, he released a surge of magic; the demon howled in pain and surprise as the archangel seared a mark onto his face. Then, without a backward glance, the archangel disappeared back into the portal.

Shakoolapicanthus emerged from the gateway so disturbed he didn't even notice when he bumped his head on the iron portcullis. He said nothing to the guards, but ran as fast as he could to the stairs, and took them up as fast as he could. Five minutes after a brief meeting with his garrison commander, he was on the back of a surging Beast, heading from the Heavengate into the Elysian Fields, toward the city of Dis.

Camp Hell-Alpha, Hellmouth, Martial Field of Dysprosium, North of the Phlegethon, Hell

Abigor's room was pretty spartan, but someone had apparently taken the notion that he might like some plants for decoration. Ordinarily, he'd be offended at the notion that he enjoyed decorations – everyone knew that he used wealth only as a display of status and not because he was soft and decadent – but these plants were green, and had flowers on the end, rarities in Hell. They let off a sickly sweet smell, which Abigor actually liked.

He sniffed them once more, and then sat back, taking a few minutes to try to digest everything he'd learned since his surrender. On his left was a towering pile of DVDs and books on the history of human militaries. It was rich and fascinating, full of change – nothing like the static, unchanging nature of the civilized warfare he was used to in Hell.

For centuries – he was becoming used to the human way of telling time – for centuries, humans had fought in mostly the same way. Infantry would line up and charge each other – sometimes with spears, sometimes with swords. Auxiliaries would harass the enemy lines with projectiles; arrows, stones. Cavalry would protect the flanks, swoop in and charge the enemies. There were similarities to what Abigor knew, of course; infantry and auxiliaries would be combined in Hell, since all infantry could fire projectiles. Cavalry were more important; in Hell, they made or broke battles. And in Hell, flies were an integral part of the battlefield; perhaps they were analogous to auxiliaries? Something to ponder. Humans had not taken to the air before a hundred years ago. The short human timescale still surprised Abigor; a century ago was yesterday.

But with the humans, the themes of infantry-auxiliary-cavalry interplay were repeated in so many variations. In some parts of their world, huge hordes of men armed with sticks and swords had swarmed each other; in others, disciplined infantry formed the core of armies; while in others, men had shot their arrows from horseback. One book claimed that an army was made up of horsemen who could hit a teacup a hundred yards away from a galloping horse. Abigor hadn't heard of any demon who could match that feat from a galloping Beast.

And then, three centuries ago, the human inquisitiveness, curiosity – the human tendency to treat the world as a problem to be solved, rather than a place to live, their almost desperate need to know why – had apparently begun to reward humans. Three centuries ago seemed like last week, when humans were nothing but cattle, to be tortured for benefit and eaten as delicacies. Yet it seemed that no matter what question they asked, the answers that they found were immediately turned into weapons of destruction.

Abigor considered the benefits they had reaped. The ability to throw projectiles further, faster, more frequently, and more accurately seemed to be the chief benefit; it had reshaped the battlefield. Humans could now throw projectiles over the horizon, on long arching curves that impacted precisely where the humans wanted them. It seemed that their entire ground combat doctrine, Abigor now saw, was shaped around using these 'guns' – what he had called fire-spears – as effectively as possible. The accuracy with which humans could throw projectiles explained why they fought like cowards. Their goal was to win the battles; so instead of presenting themselves entirely and honorably, they presented as small a target as possible while still permitting themselves to throw back.

And then there was the question of flying chariots, which were known to humans as 'aircraft'. They flew higher and faster than flies and their firepower was far beyond the flies. The same magic – Abigor caught himself; there was no magic here. There were only skills he did not understand. The same ability that let humans throw projectiles such long distances and with such accuracy also permitted them to create 'bombs', which could be dropped with great accuracy . The seeker lances – 'missiles' humans called them though why was an odd thing that Abigor had yet to fathom out since they never missed – were another manifestation of the same abilities: projectiles that flew like aircraft and sought out their target.

Before the destruction of his Army, he had seen how the human aircraft had decimated his flies and he had thought that was the end of it. Now, he knew differently, human aircraft could do many things, they could wipe out flies with contemptuous ease but they could also raid death and destruction on the ground forces. He had seen a little of that but only a thin shadow of what human aircraft could do when unleashed to use their full power. He had seen how the humans themselves had been forced to invest huge sums in the development of anti-aircraft weapons to defend themselves against aircraft. That was something Satan didn’t have to worry about deploying, there wasn’t an anti-aircraft gun in all of Hell.

And then there were the human boats. They were larger than any boat he'd ever seen; anywhere you needed to go in Hell, there were roads, or Belial's wyverns if the place was inaccessible. The human boats had guns on them, and could also throw missiles. Some even had aircraft on them, and some could actually swim under the water to throw missiles or hunt other boats. Abigor thought of the seas that surrounded Hell’s one great continent and imagined the human boats loose in them. All of Hell would be at their mercy with only Dagon’s few legions of Kraken to defend it.

So much to absorb. Abigor shook his head. Most bombs, missiles, and artillery shells exploded like injured flies, while other projectiles were solid iron. Some were thrown from guns, and others were dropped or thrown from aircraft. These new things were all so confusing in the details, but in general he was starting to absorb the picture of how humans did things. They fought to win – that much he'd already seen. But they didn't fight to win by outmaneuvering…… Abigor stopped himself, that wasn’t true, human armies could maneuver in ways a demonic army couldn’t even dream of. To humans though, maneuver was a way to bring overwhelming firepower to bear on their enemy with the aim of annihilating either his desire or his ability to fight – or, in some cases, both.

The DVDs he'd seen had been particularly illuminating. He'd had no idea how ferocious humans were to each other, and the scale of the battles that had raged across the human world even in the last century – the last few days, to him – stunned him. How had they come so far in so little time? He'd seen lines of chariots – trucks – stretching for miles, throwing their projectiles into the air all at once. The sound was familiar to him, the thumping of artillery and the scream of inbound shells and rockets. They still took him back to the battlefield in the human world, where he'd watched his army disintegrate around him; he still had nightmares about that.

He'd seen lines of trenches, with humans running about in them – and in between them, a charred, muddy, churned-up wasteland that was as bad as anything in the Pit. Coils of razor wire criss-crossed that little hell, and guns crashed and chattered across while artillery lobbed back and forth. Once, he saw a flood of humans boil up out of one trench and charge into the hell, only to be scythed down. One had made it back to the trench.

He'd seen a coastline lined by razor wire and huge guns, and the dawn bring with it a sea of iron – boats as far as the eye could see, all firing at once, as people once more charged bravely into the crossfire from small boats that scuttled like beetles up to the beach.

He'd seen the view from above of a jungle wasteland with craters evenly spaced as far as the eye could see, as a line of explosions marched up the screen. The trees looked like grass, and the people running about looked like ants.

Abigor shook his head again. The myriad, creative ways humans had found to destroy their enemies were mind-boggling. Then a strange thought came to his mind, based around the way the humans had suddenly changed from a primitive mob that was just walking meat to a demonic army to the pitiless killers against whom no demonic army could stand. Oh, Abigor had heard the guns thundering, tens of leagues away as a human army stood against the sledgehammer blows of the combined armies of Asmodeus and Beelzebub, and in his mind’s eye he could see what was already happening, the demonic horde screaming and dying under the pounding of the human guns. One of his books had expressed it so well, ‘Artillery is the King of War, Infantry is the Queen of the Battlefield. And it is well known what the King does to the Queen.’

Abigor shook his head, it had all happened so suddenly. Three centuries from helpless victims to the Lords of War. Unnaturally quickly. Had there been another hand here? The way the humans had fought each other, each set of wars driving their weapons technology further forward and setting the conditions for the next set. As if humans were being trained to fight, bred to destroy both Satan and Yahweh. Abigor could see now why Yahweh had washed his hands of them, the human’s driving need to know had caused them to reject his teachings and ready-made answers in favor of finding their own. They had even laughed at Yahweh’s pronouncements, and dared his prophets to “prove” their doctrine. When the prophets and true believers had repeated Yahweh’s rulings, they’d been faced with the human battle-cry ‘prove it’ and ridiculed the prophets with evidence of the truth. There was even a slogan they used for such contests, one Abigor had spotted somewhere. “Scifi, Science, and mockery of stupid people.” He didn’t know what Scifi was but it was quite clear who they meant by the stupid people bit, Yahweh himself. No wonder he had been annoyed with them

Humans couldn’t have done it by themselves could they? Surely they must have had help. Were there others whose hands were involved here, perhaps the others who had once held sway on Earth but had been driven out by Yahweh and Satan? Their hand was still present, Abigor knew that, there were a small number of humans who were protected by them, who lived in Hell but were free of its torments. Had they trained humanity to become the Lords of War who would drive both Satan and Yahweh away from Earth?

This was worth further thought, but one thing was bothering him. This artistic destruction, he had all experienced. All save the use of aircraft, but that did not create much more destruction than the pounding artillery had. What had the Colonel meant when he'd said that Abigor had not even begun to see what humans could do when they put their minds to it? On his right lay a single DVD case. He picked it up, delicately opening it with his claws, and popped the DVD into the player. The large screen in front of him went from off to blue to black with white letters: THE MANHATTEN PROJECT.

The first part of the video, Abigor didn't understand. It was about things called “Adams” – wasn't Adam the first human to come to hell? He was still in Satan's palace in a little cage, if Abigor remembered correctly.

Then came the first pictures of what humans did with these Adams, and Abigor became very interested. He became very interested indeed.

An hour later, Abigor was sitting on his couch, mouth agape, staring at the screen as the credits rolled by. What sort of gods were the humans, to be able to destroy a city with a single bomb? He closed his mouth, then shook his head. A single bomb, capable of annihilating an entire city. An entire army would be nothing. They had played with him, when they could have destroyed him and everyone with him with ease.

Suddenly, the part of his mind that had been bothering him since his defection, the part that continually accused him of treason, became quieter and smaller. A lot quieter, and a lot smaller. There was no doubt that the humans were going to win this, no doubt at all. He saw it now: the humans were deploying just enough firepower to utterly destroy whatever was sent at them, waiting, keeping their cards in reserve, watching their enemies to see how they reacted. So simple, so logical, so utterly unconventional.

There was a knock at the door, and Abigor looked up. It opened, and a languid man walked in, flanked by two soldiers carrying nasty-looking guns – shotguns, Abigor recognized now. The lights in the ceiling seemed to flicker a little bit, casting a slightly dimmer glow. The man looked familiar, then Abigor placed him: he'd come a few days earlier to interrogate Abigor about the city of Dis and possible military targets.

“General Abigor, I'm pleased to see you again.” The voice was flat, uninflected, almost disinterested.

“Likewise.”

The visitor took a thick piece of rolled parchment from under his arm and spread it out on the table. “General, would you mind coming here to look at this?” Phrased as a request, there was no doubt it was a command.

Abigor rose and stepped over to the table, looked down. It was a copy of the map of Dis he'd looked at earlier, but now there was a set of red concentric shapes drawn on it, basically circles but strangely distorted. The shapes were colored successively darker toward the center but the relationship was strange, distorted, darkening quickly where they overlapped, sometimes dramatically so. Some of the shapes were arranged in neat triangles. And in the center of those formations, the area of darkest red was horribly large and terrifyingly dark.

His hair was standing on end as he looked down at the map. The shapes and patterns went on and on, so that the city was completely covered by the circles. Satan's palace, on the fortified spur that stuck out into the Pit, was invisible under the triangles of overlapping circles. What could the circles mean? There was only one explanation – and it came from the DVD he had just watched and Abigor suddenly knew why it had been given to him. It made all the pieces began to fall into place. The humans could destroy whole cities with single bombs, and they had shown they could do so without any compunction. Dis wasn’t the only city in Hell, but it was the largest and it was the administrative center for the whole of Hell. Why would a city be a target? Hadn’t Belial just destroyed a human city with his party tricks? Was this to be the human revenge? With a rising wave of bile in his throat, Abigor began to suspect what the shapes and colors meant.

“General Abigor, what do you make of this map?” asked the Targeteer.

“It seems that ... that this is a map of the destruction caused by the explosion of atomic bombs to the city of Dis.”

The visitor raised one eyebrow. “Very good, General, though we call them 'devices', not 'bombs' and they ‘initiate’ not ‘explode’. Technically, a nuclear initiation isn’t an explosion. These circles represent the overpressure radii of each individual initiation, they’ll all be taking place at once by the way. As I'm sure you learned, one way our devices bring about the destruction of their targets is shockwave caused by the initiation; the shockwave is measured by over-pressure. Where patterns overlap, the over-pressure increases dramatically. Terrain is critically important as well, the shockwave will be channeled by some features, reflected by others. Where it is channeled, it will extend further in one direction at the expense of others. Where it is reflected, it will cause no damage beyond the point of reflection but destruction before that point will be multiplied many times over.

“As is our way, we targeted only military installations – the barracks, production centers, command and control points, administrative buildings and so on – but you can see that the installations are so densely concentrated in the city, the city would be destroyed by such an attack. No part of the city is subject to a shockwave of less than 5 psi overpressure; such strength guarantees the destruction of all but the most hardened targets. Most of the city, more than 90 percent of that will suffer from overpressures an order of magnitude greater.

“We did need to use very high-yield devices in ground bursts to destroy the most hardened targets. These are the earthworks and the walls which surround the city. We suspect that the construction of the buildings is so poor that the ground wave caused by the destruction of the walls would destroy the city anyway. Of course, blast is just one way a nuclear device destroys its target. There is also light flash which will blind every unprepared person for tens of miles, and fire. Another map for you, this one shows the anticipated firestorms. You’ve seen those films of what a firestorm in a city can be like? You can expect winds approaching 200 miles per hour, heat levels so high that it will melt steel let alone bronze, the fires will suck all the oxygen out of the air and the people trapped in the wreckage of Dis will asphyxiate. Finally, there’s direct radiation as well, but that isn’t a factor, after somebody has been reduced to the size, shape and appearance of a McDonald’s hamburger by blast, fire and debris, irradiating them as well is a mere technicality. Of course, that doesn’t cover fallout. The ground bursts will create horrible levels of contamination. Normally we wouldn’t worry too much about fallout from air bursts but the atmosphere here is so dusty, even air bursts are going to generate a lot of fallout as well.”

“So,” said Abigor flatly, “you will destroy Dis.”

“No, we needed to create a plan to destroy Dis, but it is just a contingency plan.”

“Then why are you showing this to me?”

“Because, General, you need to know what we can do – what we are willing to do. The destruction of Dis would take the lives of nearly every demon living there. It would leave no building standing, and in its wake there would be giant radioactive firestorms. After the fires died, there would be nothing of Dis left save craters; what was once a city would become a charred, radioactive wasteland. Nobody, human or demon, would live there for ten thousand years.

“We can do that, General. And we would be right to do that, after how your people have treated us in the past. Demons have enslaved humans, treated them as cattle, eaten them, and tortured them for thousands of years. As a professional, its not my job to make moral judgments on the people whose destruction I plan. But, just for once, I’m going to indulge myself. A quick death in nuclear fire is the least that your race deserves.

“But we are magnanimous in victory, General, as you know. We fight to win, but once we have won we strive for peace. If there are other options that make this plan as superfluous as all the others I have drawn up over the years, then we will prefer to use them. But I warn you, we can be pushed too far for that. This map.” He tapped it with a finger. “Is still not the worst we can do. General, if you really anger us, we will try and bring democracy to your country.”

“I see.” Abigor frowned down at the map, trying to picture the bustling city he'd known for dozens of thousands of years as a charred, smoking wasteland, trying to picture the city vanishing in a series of impossibly bright flashes. And if that was so, what was this other hideous threat? Yet he had a strange feeling there was something he didn’t quite understand because the last remark had made the two soldiers in the room grin broadly. “Who are you. What are you.”

“People call us many things. Targeteers, Contractors, The Business, The Wizards of Armageddon. The last was intended as an insult but we rather like it. And, of course, it has turned out to be a much more accurate description than its author realized.”

Abigor sighed. “You must be a great General then.”

“Actually, I’m not in the armed forces at all, in fact I never have been. I’m a civilian who is employed by a consultancy company, something we call a think-tank, to do analytical work. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for more than 25 years.”

“To do this for years. Then I can assume your plans are ….. complete.”

“Then you understand.” A statement, not a question. The Targeteer began to roll up the map. “Thank you for your time, General Abigor. I am sure we will meet again.” The two soldiers escorted him from the room, and Abigor's hair began to lay down. Outside the room, the thunder of artillery had never ceased but now Abigor put it into its true perspective. It was indeed just a pale shadow of what humans could do when they wanted to. He glanced at the door after the man, then looked again. He could have sworn those plants were green and flowering before the man had come in.

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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 3:06 pm 
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Coach Insignia Restaurant, Renaissance Center, Downtown Detroit

Gloria Hurst clearly remembered her first trip to Renaissance Center, three decades ago. The gleaming complex of glass and metal towers had promised a fresh start for the city, still struggling to get over the stigma the 1967 riots had created. The 80s rolled around and the dreams of a regenerated Detroit never came to pass; outside of the little oasis of ‘civilization’ the corporations had built, the slums had just continued to decay. Jobs kept leaving and never seemed to come back, buildings crumbled and the criminals seemed to multiply . So many times she’d thought of selling up and moving out, but somehow she’d never had the heart to leave. Her children had never understood that, particularly after her house had been robbed twice in the same month.

The war had almost come as a relief. All the plants still open were running at full capacity and many of the closed ones were being reopened. The roads were clogged with buses (only the gas rationing had forestalled gridlock) and downtown the crowds were thicker than ever. Still, Gloria’s own neighborhood had hardly changed. All the attention was on places like Sterling Heights and Livonia, where the remaining plants were. As for the suburbs, she’d heard that the government had been requisitioning all the foreclosed McMansions and subdividing them to create cheap worker accommodation. She imagined the look on the faces of the homeowners association and laughed.

However the ring of slums between downtown and the industrial belt was being ignored, if anything there was even less interest in regenerating it now that war production was at the top of everyone’s minds. Gloria sighed. At least the muggers were keeping a low profile. The cops weren’t playing catch-and-release any more, the ones who got arrested tended to be drafted and the ones who fought back usually got splattered by the huge guns all the cops were carrying now.

“Granny!” The young boy’s voice roused Gloria from her thoughts. Ah, there they were, her eldest son and his family, come to visit her at last. “Granny, what’s that?” Her grandson was staring out the windows, which had a fine view of the city due to their location near the top of the city's tallest skyscraper. The boy seemed to be pointing at something near the horizon. Gloria turned stiffly in her chair and strained to focus on the distant buildings. There was an odd flickering over an intersection, perhaps two miles to the north, and a glint that seemed to come from something falling out of the sky. Her heart beat faster as she realized that the irregular, chattering roar that had been slowly building was the sound of many, many guns being fired. Was it the demons? Had the army shot down a demon? The sound of gunfire died away. Several people were standing at the windows now, asking out loud the same questions she was thinking.

The molten rock literally exploded out of nowhere, the unstable portal hurling great sprays of magma in every direction. Many who’d seen the images of the portal opening over Sheffield had remarked on the eerie beauty of the hellish fountain, unfolding in its first few seconds like a giant deadly firework. This attack was different, a raging beast that seemed to lashed out at random without symmetry or reason. Gloria winced as the first gouts of lava reached the bottom of their arcs, smashing into buildings with a spray of fire and rubble. The freeway intersection collapsed and disappeared in a vast cloud of smoke, peppered with tiny gouts of fire as gasoline flash-vaporized and exploded. For a full ten seconds the scene unfolded in silence, save for the screams and yells of the people in the restaurant. Glasses and plates began to rattle and fell as the first seismic vibrations made their way up the building. Then the shockwave hit, an overpowering roar overlaid on a deep rumble that seemed to grab Gloria’s guts and shake them in her torso.

“We’ve got to get out of here! Mom, come on, let’s go!” Her son had grabbed her shoulders and was trying to pull her up.

“Lawrence. Lawrence! Look at that crowd.” Lunchtime was the busiest period for the Coach Insignia and now it seemed that nearly everyone was trying to jam themselves through the doors at once. Some of the staff were shouting, gesturing, trying to control the flow but without much success.

“You watch the news, you know what happened in England." Gloria was shouting hoarsely, to be heard over the din. "That lava will flow downhill, straight towards us. I’ll never get out in time, not with my arthritis.”

Her son just stood there, stunned. “We can’t leave you…”

“Of course you can! You have to save your kids! Now move!” Gloria shoved his arms away.

Lawrence Hurst’s face was full of anguish, but his mother’s reasoning was indisputable. In the distance he could see the lava already beginning to flow down the trench the freeway sat in, heading for the river - and downtown. He hugged her tightly. “Goodbye mom.” Then he was gone, trying to force a path through the crowd for his family, his wife dragging their screaming children behind them. Gloria turned back to the window, tears streaming down her face. The tears were not for herself; oh, fear was welling up inside her, and frankly she hoped the building would collapse before the fire got to her. The tears though, they were for her city, which had suffered so much and struggled so hard to rebuild, only to have its heart burnt out by a war that nobody could even have imagined just a few months ago.

GM-Cadillac Hamtramck Assembly Plant, Detroit

It had been a hell of a job to get the plant converted over in two months flat, as much for training the workers as the retooling. Jake suspected that the Army already had a plan for the switch ready before the Message, because once the word was given the work started almost immediately – and went on 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, UAW be damned. Somehow they’d pulled it off and now the triple-one sevens were rolling off the line. Production was already up to ten units a day and still increasing. His section was responsible for wiring and accessory fit and they’d had some pretty horrible QC issues while the new workers were broken in. Jake O’Reilly’s temper was legendary at the plant, but truly he didn’t mind the hours or the problems; it was worth it to see his people so energized and the factory back at full capacity. The triple-one seven wasn’t as tough as a Bradley, but it was a huge step up from a Humvee and a hell of a lot easier to build than the Stryker. If the Army kept kicking Baldrick butt (armies even – couldn’t forget the Ruskies and the Brits, Jake thought), then they’d be a lot of escort and patrol missions coming up, and the ‘hell-model’ Guardian was the ideal tool for that job.

The attack came without warning; the factory floor was too noisy to hear the gunfire outside, and the management were still arguing on the phones when the portal opened. Tons of molten rock crashed through the roof, spraying onto sections of the line below. Sizable sections of the plant were destroyed within the first ten seconds, and fires began spreading immediately through the remainder. Shockwaves battered the staff as shrapnel zinged through the air, combining with the heaving ground to leave many workers in a state of shell-shock. After Sheffield everyone had been told that this might happen, the most pessimistic staff had even expected it, but nothing could prepare them for the reality of having a volcano appear in the sky nearby. Jake’s first thought was to get his people out. His second thought was to save as many vehicles as he could. His third thought was that these goals combined nicely.

“Listen, all of you…” It was useless, the roar was overpowering. Fortunately since the new workers had been put on the line Jake had been keeping a megaphone close at hand. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d used it to stop some butterfingered technician about to burn out a wiring harness; now he cranked the volume to the max and used it to save their lives.

“LISTEN, ALL OF YOU. TAKE ANY VEHICLE THAT CAN DRIVE AND GET CLEAR. THERE ARE PLENTY IN THE TESTING AREA. IT’S YOUR BEST HOPE FOR SURVIVING THE ROCKS AND THE SMOKE.”

The burning rocks seemed to have stopped coming for now, and Jake used the respite to herd his team into the nearly completed vehicles. The power had gone out, throwing the factory floor into a hazy twilight filled with screams, shouts and running forms. “TODD’S TRAPPED, YOU THREE, PULL HIM OUT OF THERE. RICK, IT JUST NEEDS FUEL, GET SOME DAMN DIESEL AND DRIVE HER OUT.”

The Guardians were roaring to life and starting to move, knocking equipment aside as they sought any open path out of the chaos. Jake looked around – all of his staff seemed to have gone save a few huddled in a still unfuelled M1117. The smoke was already too thick to see the other sections…

The brief respite ended as a fresh wave of flying lava crashed into the plant. Jake fell to his knees, dazed by the impact of a trolley propelled by the blast. His eyes were swimming and his throat burned with the heat and the toxic smoke. He couldn’t see the Guardian… he hadn’t heard it leave, but he couldn’t see it… he struggled to regain his feet but the shaking, cracking floor seemed to defeat his efforts.

A hand gripped his wrist and pulled him up. It was Todd, and Jake had never been so grateful to see the spiky-haired brat. “She’s fueled up boss, let’s go.” Jake was half-dragged, half-clambered through the door of the Guardian. The cabin was filled with injured workers, and someone was already in the driver’s seat, because no sooner was he on board than the engine roared to life and the armored car pulled away. Flames licked at the windows as the vehicle sped through the factory, crashing through the wreckage of jigs and component bins as it made for the doors. Then they were clear, rolling across the huge parking lot, surrounded by a mass of other vehicles trying to escape the destruction. Lava continued to rain down, destroying some of the cars even as they watched, but luck smiled on their Guardian and they were soon out of range.

Jake leaned forward to address the driver. “Get us up to the Davison intersection. The VDF are bound to set up a checkpoint there, we can drop off our wounded and refuel. They’re going to need all the help they can get.”

White House Situation Room, Washington D.C.

“Sir, it’s Detroit. City’s been hit hard, the attack started just a few minutes ago.”

“Let’s hear it John. In a hundred words or less, please.”

“Mr. President, the Baldricks hit Detroit with a lava attack. As far as we can see right now, it’s the same mechanism as Sheffield, but bigger and nastier. We shot down the spotter demon, but the portal still opened. We’ve got something like forty thousand tons of lava a second falling out of the sky a couple of miles north of downtown.” Secretary Warner paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts.

“The Cadillac plant took a hell of a beating and Wayne State has already become a firestorm. The freeway trenches are channeling the lava; we can’t stop it before it reaches the river. In the next half hour we’re going to lose the Renaissance Center, plus the tunnel and the bridge to Windsor. As for casualties… haven’t got an estimate yet, but worst case is well into six figures.”

“You know, Detroit is the Democrat-voting stronghold of Michigan, if it’s gone, then it might be enough to flip the state into our column.”

There was a stunned silence in the room. Eventually President Bush’s voice cut through the disbelief, pitched low and frighteningly cold. “Karl, shut up, just shut up. John, could you continue please.”

“Personnel at DIMO(N) detected the portal activity at 12:43 Eastern. NORAD was informed immediately of course. We vectored in F-16s from the 127th out of Selfridge, they flew up on full reheat but the local United States Volunteers got to the co-ordinates first. As far we can tell, they sighted a demon of the same type that the Sheffield footage shows, what General Abigor calls a ‘gorgon’. Local citizens already had it under fire when the USV shot it down with triple-A. Unfortunately the damn things seem to be salvage fused.”

Blank faces stared back at him. “It’s a nuclear warfare term, it means… never mind. The point is, shooting down the gorgon seems to cause the portal to open prematurely. We bought some time to evacuate, but not nearly enough to save everyone. Sadly the LDV unit was directly under the portal when it opened; they were killed instantly.”

Bush stopped glaring and his face softened from his barely suppressed anger at the earlier remarks. “They died in the line of duty? That should be recognized, it’ll put the Volunteers on the map as part of our armed forces. Medal of Honor?”

Secretary Warner thought quickly. “I agree with the sentiment, yes Sir. But the Medal is a bit over-doing it. A Silver Star each for the crew would be appropriate I think, and a Presidential Unit Citation for the Third Michigan. The situation in Detroit is pure hell, if you’ll forgive the phrase sir. There’s a serious difference between this attack and Sheffield. Over there, the portal remained in one place and poured its lava over the same target. So, although it spread, the starting point was constant and to some extent the damage was self-limiting. The Baldricks have learned their lesson from that Sir, this time the portal is moving, its sort of dancing around at random over a two or three mile area, a bit like a deflating balloon. So the lava’s being spread over a much wider area and the damage is a lot greater.”

“I hope nobody ever thought the Baldricks were stupid, that could be the worst mistake we could make.” A slight surge of amusement went around the room at that point, briefly lightening the somber tone. The President himself had benefited more that once from a presumption of stupidity. “As soon as word of this second attack hits the streets, we’re going to be under pressure to do something. Remember World War Two?”

The reference caused a certain degree of bewilderment in the situation room. Eventually the Army Chief of Staff, General George W. Casey, explained. “Back in World War Two, there was popular demand for anti-aircraft batteries around our cities. So the President ordered 90mm anti-aircraft batteries set up. Unfortunately, those guns were also badly needed as tank-killers in Europe but the Army there never got them due to the AA priority. So a lot of our tank crews died while our cities were never attacked.” Casey settled back, mentally noting that the aide who had slipped him the explanation for the President’s remark had just earned himself a promotion and a choice assignment.

“Can we pull any triple-A back from Hell?” Bush didn’t sound hopeful.

“Not a chance Sir. The Harpies are the most effective weapon Satan has, they’re giving us a lot of trouble. They’re like aircraft but present in infantry numbers and our fighters just can’t shoot them down fast enough. We were lucky first time round, Abigor had only one legion of them, sixty-six hundred. We believe there are at least 33 legions being thrown into the battle to under way. Over 200,000, our troops need every anti-aircraft system they’ve got. We can’t even give them air support properly at the moment, all our planes bar a few, are killing Harpies. If anything we need more triple-A out there not less.

“Anyway, Sir, its pointless. We know now that killing the gorgon path-finder doesn’t do any good, well, not much anyway. Once it’s over a city, that city is gone. It’s like the bad old days before we had the GBIs up in Alaska, once we spotted an inbound missile, we knew the city it was aimed at was gone, it just hadn’t died yet. We can’t defend the cities because by the time the gorgon appears, its too late. We have to pre-empt the attacks at source. Now, there are a few things we can do there, our early warning system based on the cell phone net worked. We need to give DIMO(N) all the resources they can use, that they don’t already have anyway, for early warning. It isn’t much, but it’s the best we can do until we get all our pieces into place. Other than that, all we can do is to mitigate the disaster. I do hope FEMA are going to be a bit more competent this time than they were at New Orleans.”

There was an embarrassed shuffling of feet at that remark. Secretary Dirk Kempthorne took the bait elegantly. “Well, at least we’re arming the victims this time around, not disarming them. I guess the crime rate will be a bit lower.”

“Given the size of the holes the LEO community have taken to blowing in the alleged perpetrators, I think that’s a reasonable assumption.” There was a brief spasm of amusement at the sally from FBI Director Robert Mueller. “One thing about these lava attacks, we don’t get much looting, people are too busy running to think about getting a free television. Most of them anyway. And the draft is sweeping most of the candidates for street criminals out of the way into the forces where the Sergeants are straightening them out. Law and order isn’t really a problem, you’d be surprised how rarely it is in a really major disaster. How long it will stay that way is another matter, one or two more attacks like this and we’ll have mass panic on our hands. That’ll do more damage to our industrial production than the attacks themselves.”

"Which brings us to the why? Neither Detroit nor Sheffield were really important production centers, so why Detroit? Have the analysts worked out the enemy's strategy?"

"Only the obvious so far, Mr President.” Secretary Warner took a deep breath. “Sheffield and Detroit were both industrial powerhouses until quite recently, very recently in Baldrick terms. Remember, to them, centuries are a short period. My guess is, this 'Belial' has worked out that our military strength relies on our industrial base, but his intel is stale and his targeteering is lousy. Make no mistake though, he hit us hard this time around, this is the worst blow we've taken since this whole business started. We don't want to give him a chance to refine his aim."

“Then we have to kill him at source. Now. Prime Minister Brown was right, we can’t just let this pass. Hell has to hurt for this and hurt badly. We lost under four thousand people in 9/11 and we took two countries down by way of retaliation. Now you say we’re going to lose upwards of 25 times that number.” Bush’s jaw set. “They’re going to have to pay, the American people demand it. Tell me what we’ve got and how we’re going to use it. The answer ‘nothing’ won’t be accepted.”

“Sir, we have several plans in motion. We have a path-finder of our own on the way up to Tartarus, he’s expected there in 24 to 36 hours. Once he’s in place, we can portal a deceased special forces team to his location and they’ll position navigation beacons to home a B-1 strike in. They’d devastate the area. As a back-up we have a British special forces group ready to go in. If the B-1s can’t do the strike, they’ll do a ground raid. We have a B-1 searching for Tartarus as well, if our pathfinder can’t get through, she’ll find Tartarus, eventually. We have time Sir, we believe that it will be a week or more before Belial manages to get set up for a third strike. One of our options will be in place by then.”

“Not good enough, what do we do now?” Bush’s voice was dogmatic and a little petulant.

“We can hit Dis with an air strike, the B-1s won’t be able to hit Tartarus for days, we can let them loose on Dis. With conventional bombs of course. We have a nuclear strike plan, we can adapt it for a conventional bombing strike. That’s about our only serious option right now.

“In the meantime, we have to think about limiting the disaster we have in hand. We have a couple of options there. We have a prototype device that is designed specifically to close portals. This prototype is too large to be carried by an existing bomber but we do have a different alternative. We have old C-54s we’ve pulled from the boneyard and we can refit one to carry that prototype device. The original plan was to use a Britannia and target the Sheffield portal but that’s run a long way out of steam now, the vulcanologist believes it’ll run dry in a day or less. We can test out our new device in Detroit instead.”

“There’s another thing we can do.” Doctor Surlethe’s voice was clinical. “We can deprive the baldricks of their own navigation beacons. I propose we test the entire population for the Nephilim genetic ancestry and quarantine those carrying it in isolation camps until the war is over.”

There was another stir in the room, this time of anger. In one corner, Karl Rove leaned back in relief, somebody else had made a political error of grade one levels. Secretary Kempthorne was the one who took up the cudgels though. “And we know what to look for do we?”

“Well, we will, after some investigations.”

“And then you propose to place people in indefinite confinement without them having committed an offense on the vague off-chance that a baldrick might use one of them?”

“Better that than an incinerated city.”

“Even though we already know that wearing tinfoil hats offers complete protection against mind entanglement?”

“But there are a few people out there who won’t. There are always eccentrics who deny that the tinfoil hat is absolutely essential to prevent baldricks taking over their minds.”

“And you want to indefinitely jail an unknown number of people, possibly millions, because one or two might refuse to wear their hats?”

“Well… Put like that…..”

“And that’s how it will be put ladies, gentlemen, Karl.” Rove winced, he hadn’t been forgiven after all. “We will make it a legal requirement to wear a tinfoil hat and enforce it. But there will be no mass detentions. We did that in 1941 and the stain is with us still. Thank you, we will have another meeting in six hours time when we can get some of the rest of the world in with us. Karl, Dr Surlethe, I wish to speak with you privately.”

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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 3:08 pm 
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Indian Air Force Jaguar-IS “JM-414” Over the Southern Front, Phlegethon River Bulge

Statistically (as confirmed by the Federal Aviation Administration) 80 percent of cockpit voice flight records recovered after aircraft crashes, end with the words ‘Oh ****.’ The speaker may have been the pilot or the co-pilot (or, it is rumored, in some cases the aircraft itself although this possibility is denied, derided and generally rejected) but the ultimate words remain the same. So, Flight Lieutenant Anuradha Mehta’s exclamation when a wyvern came out of nowhere and removed her Jaguar’s entire vertical fin and rudder assembly was entirely in accordance with tradition. It was no consolation when the Wyvern almost thereafter immediately had a terminal encounter with a U.S. Navy F-18E and gone down after taking two hits from AIR-120 rockets and a burst of 20mm cannon fire. The fact was that JM-414 was going into a flat spin and there was nothing Mehta could do about it.

Mehta hadn’t seen anything like the creature before, not outside mythology and fantasy art. It was a huge flying creature two legs, one pair of wings and small steering fins on the lower tail and upper neck. Mehta estimated its size as roughly 12 meters long and its wingspan around 40 meters. It had been fast, it had dived on her in a collision course with an approach speed of around 400 knots. As it had passed it had taken a swing at her aircraft with the great spiked ball on the tip of its tail, a ball covered in strong scales. It had totally wiped out his fin and that had killed JM-414 as surely as a missile hit. She looked downwards, she was over the battle area but whether she was on the baldrick or human side was another matter. On the other hand, she had no real options in the matter, JM-414 was uncontrollable, going into a flat spin and would soon break up. Her only choices were to eject or ride the aircraft in. She opted for the former and felt the slam in her back as the ejection rocket blasted her through the disintegrating canopy of her aircraft.

U.S. Navy F/A-18E “Eagle One” Over the Southern Front, Phlegethon River Bulge

The Indian pilot was out of her stricken aircraft, that was one good thing. What would happen on the way down and when she reached the ground was quite another. Lieutenant Commander Michael Wong really didn’t have time to worry about him. The sky was full of flying things, harpies, a wide variety of human aircraft and now these wretched giants that had appeared out of nowhere. They were about the same size as the Greater Heralds he had killed right at the start of the Salvation War and which were now proudly represented by the two great red kill marks under his cockpit.

“Eagle One to Regent. New sighting, big creature, looks a bit like a traditional dragon. One just took out an Indy Jaguar. Pilot’s out, call in CAESAR for a pick-up,”

“Very good Eagle One, for your information, new sighting is a Wyvern. They’re reported to be hitting the ground troops hard. Report status.”

“All AIM-120s gone. Two AIR-120s left, cannon and fuel low. The sky’s full of **** out here. Target rich environment.”

“Well say goodbye to it Eagle Flight. Return to Earth-Yankee base for refuel and rearm. Also for your information, the O-club is open there.”

That was a step in the right direction Wong thought. The tempo of flight operations precluded a beer but even soda would cut through the dust of Hell that seemed to get everywhere. His squadron was lucky, after being detached from Ronaldus Magnus they’d been assigned to one of the satellite air bases that surrounded the Hellmouth. What it must be like for the air crews, mostly A-10 and Su-25 drivers, who were based in Hell was difficult to contemplate.

Wong swerved his aircraft around and took aim at a harpy that was coming dangerously close. He lead it a little bit, squeezed the button and saw one of his remaining AIR-120s streak across the sky towards the bird-like creature. It saw the rocket and tried to evade but it was too late and the harpy vanished in the explosion that was part rocket and part its own body chemistry. “Formate on me Eagle Flight, we’re outta here.”

The navigation beacon was dead ahead, closing fast. “Eagle Flight to Regent, we’re closing on the portal now.”

“We have you Eagle Flight, you’re clear to transit. Hand over to Yankee once you’re though.” That was lucky, the amount of traffic through the portal could mean aircraft stacking up for hours. That was a disturbing thought, the whole human war effort in hell was being funneled through a bottleneck that was 1,800 feet wide and 1,200 feet high. If it closed now, the whole lot would be cut off. Then there was the quiet, undramatic switch from the red murk of Hell to the clear blue skies of Earth. Wong felt the engines surge in power as the filter vanes in the intakes rotated to clear the airflow.

“Yankee control here, Eagle Flight, you’re clear to land. Turn to oh-eight fiver and come straight in on runway 85.” Wong swung the F-18 to the bearing and saw the comforting rectangle of the new concrete strip up ahead. Something the Russian pilots, flying birds with undercarriages that looked like they could handle landing on a plowed field made fun of. Landing was proving an interesting experience, the modern aircraft were OK but the old birds brought out of store, or the boneyards, were a different matter. Pilots used to F-16s and F-18s were having a hard time adapting to the ‘hot and heavy’ characteristics of the old types. Wong wondered how Ronaldus Magnus was getting on with her older aircraft.

The runway was approaching fast now, Wong made minute adjustments to line himself up and cut power back so his aircraft drifted down in to the concrete. A different feeling entirely from the spine-crunching ‘controlled crash’ of a carrier landing. Over on the parking strip, Wong saw that a group of F-4s and A-7s had arrived. Rhinos and SLUFs, this war was getting more like a time machine every day. His F-18 stopped rolling and he added a touch of power to taxi off the runway on to the parking strip.

The debriefing hut was still a temporary structure, little more than a tent. Wong went inside and sighed to himself. One of the other F-18 pilots, a Lieutenant George Witz, was standing over the officer behind an interview desk. One of the problems with the mobilization was that it was calling back the bad as well as the good. Witz was one of the bad, Wong believed that first time around he’d probably resigned rather than be eased out. Now, he was cursing steadily, damning his aircraft, his missiles, the ground control. The AIR-120 was his present target and his denunciation of the unguided rocket was colorful even by fighter pilot standards. Wong sighed and went up to the first vacant desk. The officer behind it smiled at him, she already had his camera gun “film” up on her laptop. There was a lot to be said for digitization.

“Right Mike, we got you down for 14 harpies and a wyvern. Four AIM-120 kills, two gun kills and eight AIR-120 hits on the harpies, two AIR-120s and gunfire into the Wyvern. That square with what you remember.”

“Sure does ma’am.” In fact, Wong could have sworn he got two more harpies with gunfire than he was being allocated but in the wild furball that was going on in Hell, who could really say what was what?

“male bovine excrement.”

“I’m sorry?” The intelligence officer’s voice had gone cold. If she’d been the speaker’s wife, the victim would shortly be due for the ‘we’ve got to talk’ treatment followed by long nights sleeping on the couch.

“I call male bovine excrement. Nobody’s getting eight kills with those bits of crap. Somebody’s faking their claims.”

The AFIO was about to blister Witz’s ears when Wong cut in ahead of her. “You have a problem with the AIR-120?”

“Sure have, damned things go all over the place. Not one flies true. Haven’t had any luck all day with them crapshoots. You claim you got eight, you’re bullshitting.”

“Camera gun doesn’t lie, Lieutenant.” The AFCIO’s voice had dropped through sub-zero. She called up White’s download, the shots clearly showing the rockets flying straight and true but passing ahead of the targets. “It’s pretty obvious, you’re firing from too great a range and leading the target excessively. You’re using a rocket, not a gun, the lead you need is minimal. You watch Lieutenant Commander Wong’s downloads, they’ll show you how its done properly. We can’t give you ammunition to waste, you’re off flight roster until you can get consistent hits on the simulator.”

Witz turned away, still cursing under his breath. The AFIO packed up her laptop and smiled. “O-club’s open Mike.”

“Join me for a drink, Captain?”

“Be a pleasure. My name’s Patricia.”

“Is Witz going to be all right, he doesn’t seem happy.”

“Oh, don’t worry about him, he’s just Witzless.”

Wyvern Flight, the Southern Front, Phlegethon River Bulge

If the wyverns and their riders could have seen the radar tracking plots, they’d have known they were heading at 250 knots towards the center of the human positions along the southern flank. They couldn’t so all they knew was they were heading at their normal speed to where the humans were fighting. Each side of the wyvern, on panniers made of Beast leather, were loads of sulfur, ready to be set on fire and dropped on the humans below. Brimstone, burning sulfur, was one of Hell’s great weapons, an attack that burned, crushed and gassed all in a single blow. Far below them, they could see the human sky-chariots tearing into the harpy cloud, leaving the sky studded with the orange-and-red balls of fire as the harpies died.

Up here, more than half a league into the sky, the formation of 80 wyverns had gone more or less unnoticed. That had to be why the human sky-chariots were ignoring them in favor of rending the harpies. Still, it given the slaughter that was taking place in the harpy ranks, the wyverns and their riders were content with what small mercies they were given. There were whispers that more than seven thousand harpies had died already, more than one legion’s worth out of the six legions that had started the day’s battle.

Faranigranthis saw the wing leader up ahead make the signal, it was time for the attack. He ran a quick glance over his equipment, the sacks of brimstone were ready, all it would need was to pull the bronze bar from the rings and the sacks would upend, pouring the burning sulfur on to the enemy below. Behind them were the bronze flechettes, hardened in Belial’s workshops and also ready to be dropped on the enemy. Then, he returned his attention to the formation, already the first rank were peeling off for their dive on the enemy below. His turn came, he jabbed his spurs into the wyvern and felt it drop out of the sky as its wings folded and it howled its battle-cry.

This was the bit that made a wyvern rider’s life worthwhile. The screaming dive on an enemy below, watching them disperse and run to escape the deluge that was to come. Faranigranthis saw the humans below, their fortresses built around their iron chariots besieged by harpies and with the ground forces and beasts closing in. Off to one side, he saw a strange rippling blue flash tearing at the human positions and realized that had to be the naga at work, pouring their lightning bolts into the enemy ranks. As his wyvern dropped, Faranigranthis could see them more clearly, could see the great coiled forms strapped to the back of the Great Beasts that carried them. He touched his wyvern with his mind and the creature changed the angle of its dive so he could dump its load on the humans engaged by the naga.

It was time, nearly time. Faranigranthis calculated angle and speed, He had selected a line of three fortresses for his attack, a group that was already under heavy fire from the naga, the blue lightning bolts rippling off their armor. He touched the igniter that set the left hand set of brimstone bags on fire, then hesitated slightly and pulled the drop bar. To his delight he saw his aim was true and the deluge of burning yellow stones swept across the human iron chariots. Beneath him, the harpies swarmed over the stricken vehicles and the infantry floundering across the open space between the Phlegethon and the human defenses gained fresh heart. They swarmed up the banks and over the iron chariots that lay within them
Then, Faranigranthis saw how the human defenses worked. As soon as the three fortresses he had hit were in danger, those on either side opened fire on them, the little red flashes that streamed from them raking the position held by their fellows. From beneath the seething mass of harpies and infantry, he saw the iron chariots moving backwards, out of the overrun fortress, back towards the safety of the line behind. Still they were being raked by their fellows, but Faranigranthis saw the red fireflies bouncing off the iron chariots and he realized what was happening. The human fireflies couldn’t penetrate iron so they bounced off and just killed those outside its protection. None of whom were human of course.

Well, Faranigranthis knew what to do about that. He still had his right side pouches of brimstone and his flechettes. He dragged his wyvern’s nose around, touched its mind and gave it the instructions necessary. His next run would be on the second line of fortresses, the ones that were covering the escape of his first target. Once more his aim was true and the yellow cloud of flaming sulfur engulfed the iron chariots in their fortress. Their fireflies faded away and stopped as the chariots tried to back out from the cloud. Above them, Faranigranthis turned his wyvern again and headed for the chariots that had been the victim of his first pass. They were still there, fighting the infantry and Beasts that surrounded them and the harpies that flew over them. He aimed carefully and saw his flechettes hail down upon them. As he turned away, his load gone, he could see a rolling cloud of black smoke, laced with orange. An iron chariot was burning and he, Faranigranthis, had killed it.

It was time to go home. The Wyverns were assembling back at their original height above the battlefield and Faranigranthis could sense the exultation of the riders. They’d got in and they had struck a savage blow at the humans. Then, he did a count, there were fifty three Wyverns flying in the formation, out of the eighty that had dived on the humans just a few minutes before.

Naga Group, the Southern Front, Phlegethon River Bulge

Baroness Yuku fought the exhaustion that was growing throughout her body. The naga were built for maintaining a constant series of discharges but the rate at which she and her fellow naga had been firing them at the humans was greater than they had ever attempted before. Yet it had to be done, the humans had to be kept under fire if the assault was to stand a chance. Yuku mentally thanked her Lord that he had had the wisdom to ‘modify’ the instructions to send his best naga to aid Belial in his mad schemes. He’d interpreted ‘best’ to mean his youngest and least experienced coven, keeping his two most experienced groups with him for this battle. By the look of it, several other lords had done the same and that was a good thing, otherwise the assembled covens would be collapsed into semi-consciousness by now.

Those that still lived that was. There had been 54 covens assembled for this assault, just over 700 naga, and Chiknathragothem had grouped them in the center of his formation to punch a hole for the rest of his army to follow. That had seemed like a good idea until the holocaust of human mage-fire had descended upon them. The casualties had been dreadful but the soft, unarmored nagas had been hard hit. Less than 300 had survived the mage bolts and the churning ground. They’d forded the river and kept the human chariots under a constant series of bolts but nobody could do much more until the wyverns had doused their positions with burning brimstone. That had forced the humans back and out of their defensive positions.

The combination of bolts and brimstone from above, the relentless fire of the nagas and the advancing infantry and fliers had done it, they’d started to destroy the human defense. From her position on the river bank, Yuku could see the black, rolling smoke rising from more than a dozen iron chariots that had been overwhelmed and destroyed. Around them lay the bodies of their crews, many half eaten as they had been cut down. That might once have been a satisfying sight but Yuku could see more. The ground was black with the bodies of Chiknathragothem’s army where human magery had caused its terrible toll.

One of the infantry cohort commanders waved her forward, the foot-soldiers and cavalry were trying to clear the evil metal snakes and exploding mage-bars that covered the ground. The mage bars could be cleared by the simple expedient of picking them up and throwing them away, if they exploded, the mage-bar was gone, if it did not, it was gone. Slowly, a way was being cleared through the defenses, even though the human mage-fire never ceased and the casualties of those doing the clearing were high beyond counting. Yuku started to lead the seven surviving members of her coven forward along the cleared path, summoning up enough energy to unleash another series of bolts against the defenders. That was when the foot soldier leading her raised his trident.

“No further Highness. This is as far as we can go, the next line of human defenses is ahead of us.

And on either side of us and behind us thought Yuku. Nowhere is protected on this battlefield where the humans can see all and their mages can strike where they will.

Then, she heard a strange whistling sound and more mage-bolt explosions. Only these were soft in comparison with those she had experienced on the banks of the Phlegethon and they looked different. Instead of rolling clouds of black and red smoke, surrounded by thrown earth, they were gentle and white, almost angelic in the purity of their whiteness. Yuku watched confused as the white feather-like tendrils spread into a cloud that was utterly opaque yet still had the blinding white purity of the initial bursts. The clouds started to rise and that was when Yuku felt the intense head as more of the mage bolts spread the white cloud still further.

Yuku was suddenly aware that the white cloud was irritating her eyes and her nose was running. A stray cloud of the white smoke swept over her and she coughed, an explosive cough that shook her whole body. She looked around, she and her nagas were surrounded by white fragments that were falling over the whole area. One of the fragments landed on her skin and she looked at it, curiously at first but then in horror as her scales started to bubble and smolder. The lump was eating its way into her body, she could feel it searing into her flesh as it bit deeper and deeper. The agonizing pain started to spread as more and more of the lumps touched her and started the process of her destruction. All around her, figures were on the ground, rolling and screaming, trying to brush away the fragments that brought this unbelievable horror to them. Even as they did so, more of the rounds thumped down, adding yet more smoke and fragments to the cloud that was enveloping them.

The Great Beast that bore Baroness Yuku was on the ground, writhing and bellowing in agony as the white mage-fire burned into its body. Yuku was trapped underneath it, her body being crushed by the beast’s weight even as it burned from the white mage-fire. As she died in searing, mind-crushing agony, Yuku learned that it was very unwise to upset humans.

_________________
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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