Camp Hell-Alpha. Martial Plain of Dysprosium, Hell
“The dimensions are all screwed up.” Captain Keisha Stevenson was watching the mechanics take the dust filters off Alpha-Alpha-One and take them away to the cleaning area. The building they were in was a garage large enough to hold all four Abrams tanks with room to spare. It was pre-fabricated, the parts flown in using one of the massive Russian Mil-26 helicopters and then brought through the Hellmouth and assembled. It was one of four such buildings in the complex with more to come. At the moment, Battle Group Alpha was the only portion of the US Army permanently stationed in Hell. A lot more was coming in and out, but Alpha was the only unit that actually stayed there. Once again, she thought, her unit was ending up as the sacrificial goat. She was beginning to regret blasting that angel, the act that had brought her on to General Petraeus’s radar. The she thought about the scene in the hut and decided that she didn’t regret firing that canister round at all.
“The beacon worked though?”
“Sure, but it was weird, we were steering straight line, not deviating a degree, but we could see the beacon behind us slide slowly away to one side.”
“It’s not just bearing, it’s range as well. We took the data out of your navigational computer and analyzed it. The speed you were doing, the time you took and the distance you covered don’t add up. I needn’t tell you the problems that causes the artillery boys. It’s not just you, all the other units are reporting the same thing. Bearing and range are all out of whack. We’re going to have to find something to pound on in order to see how significant it all is. Before that we’re going to establish another beacon, about 30 miles out from this one. Get a cross-bearing and navigation will get a lot easier. Also, we can compare our data with the on-the-ground data and that’ll give us a handle on what is going on. If there’s a mathematical relationship, we can program the navigational computers to handle it.” Major Warhol didn’t look that convinced. But then he hadn’t been on the Thunder Runs and didn’t appreciate how disturbing the distorted dimensions were to crews who wanted to get back home. That was one reason why he was here, to see how the real conditions of Hell compared with his simulated Helljars.
Home, now that was an interesting word, Stevenson thought, looking around the base. At the moment, this was home. Four garages for her armored vehicles, all with a positive pressure system to keep the unfiltered Hell atmosphere out and dust-trap doors to let the vehicles in. Massive filters on the roof to clean the air before that got in. Workshops to keep her tanks and armored infantry carriers running, and that meant scrubbing the engine air filters every time they went out. As a start, there was much else as well. Torsion bars had to be cleaned, the maintenance list went on and on. Still, at least the pumice was softer than the hard sand of the Iraqi desert. Then there were the barracks. The living accommodation wasn’t bad but it was Spartan. At least the air was clean there as well although that had its disadvantages. Two days ago, the cooks had tried to raise morale by serving good old American hamburgers, comfort food for the crews. The smell of fried onions had lingered for hours and hours, constantly recycled by the air purification system.
The whole lot was surrounded by razor wire and there were anti-harpy systems all over. Russian Tungaskas for long range defense, twin .50 machine guns in old-fashioned, but still power operated, turrets on the building roofs for close-in work. More loot from the museum stripping exercise she guessed. Outside the razor wire were minefields. The next unit in would be an artillery battery that was being attached to Alpha for the duration of its stay in Hell. Stevenson was in no doubt that Hell-Alpha could put up a devastating fight if it had to but the baldricks operated in such large numbers, devastation might not be enough.
“You’re worried about the defenses?” Major Warhol had caught her unconscious glance up and out.
“Aren’t you? Abigor hit us with nearly 400,000 baldricks and it took five divisions plus to stop him. We stopped him cold, sure, but you and I both know how many more legions Satan’s supposed to have. How are we supposed to stop them with just a reinforced company?”
“It won’t come to that. Anyway, the hellmouth is right behind you. If you look like getting overrun, you can just back out and there’s those five divisions still covering you.”
“That’s another thing. How can we be sure that thing is going to stay open?”
“It will, Captain, we think so anyway. We think the baldricks made a huge mistake, they opened a portal so large they can’t close it again. We’re working on a way to close the things but we think they can’t.”
“Major, no disrespect sir, but its our ass that’s hanging on your think.”
“None taken. If its any consolation I’m going to be here for some days so its my ass hanging as well.” Warhol glanced around and dropped his voice. “And Dave Petraeus is moving here as soon as we can get an HQ building put together. And even if the Hellmouth closes, we already know we can open new ones, small ones, to get people out. We’d have to blow up the equipment but we’re sure we can get you and your people out. Anyway, when you going out again?”
“Tomorrow. The map shows a river not so far from here. We’re going to push right up to it and see what it’s like. See if it really is boiling blood like the legends say.”
“Nah, not according to our map. It’s called the Phlegethon according to Abigor. Deepest penetration we’ll have done. Want to come along? You can ride in one of the Tracks.”
It was a challenge and Warhol knew it. One he couldn’t resist. “Sure, a day by the river? What more could a man ask?”
North-West-Upper Gallery, Shaft 18, Slocum Mine, Tartarus
Publius Julius Livianus had long since lost track of when he had last seen the sky. From what he recalled it wasn't a great loss. The diffuse reddish light, constant choking smoke, jagged volcanic landscape and demons, demons everywhere the eye could see, all combined to make the surface a living nightmare. Down here in the flickering torchlight existence was almost tolerable. The demons still came and on each visit they lashed him with their barbed whips, but rarely more than once a day. As long as he kept up a steady rhythm with his pick-axe, then the ore crates filled up. If the ore-crates were full, he received only a single lash. In all it was far superior to the earlier place, where for uncounted centuries he had lain pinned to the ground on an endless plain of burning sands, his flesh continually scorched but yet never dying. Publius shuddered. The only reason he still thought of the place was to remind himself that progress was still possible. Through sheer will he had maintained his sanity and eventually managed to meditate on virtue even in that place, and he had ascended to this less tortuous level of Hades. It seemed logical that with sufficient effort he would be released to the next level. At least, that's what he told himself and any fellow prisoner who would listen.
Suddenly, Publius became aware that the general din of the mine workings had changed subtly. Every alert for the approach of an overseer, every human in the gallery began to lighten their strokes and raise their head, listening intently. There was a commotion of snarls, shouts and the clang of dropped tools, punctuated by the occasional scream. The source soon became apparent as a demon entered their gallery, bellowing orders and lashing his whip idly as he went.
"Go to the loading area. All of you, now. Leave your tools. Go."
None of the humans waited to be lashed and Publius ran with the others until he reached the loading area. The large gallery was normally where the crates of ore were tipped into carts to be dragged up to the surface, but it doubled as an assembly area when the demons wished to 'motivate' the workforce, usually by eating whichever unfortunate had missed their quota that month. With all the workings on this shaft emptied several hundred humans were crowded into the cavernous space.
This time however the scene was a little different. A dozen demons were gathered on the platform and some of them carried bronze tridents instead of whips. One of them was quite different from the rest; obviously female, she was covered in fine coppery scales that glittered softly in the torchlight. A snakelike tail coiled around her feet and great bat-like wings were folded against her back. However her most distinguishing and terrifying feature was the mass of snakelike growths that took the place of hair. Publius had heard the rumors many times; the black snakes could freeze a man rigid, the red ones could enslave his will. The rumors weren't clear whether it took a bite or just a look, but just to be on the safe side he avoided looking at the snake-demon directly.
The largest overseer spoke first. "You vermin are here to answer a simple question. As long as one of you answers it correctly, you can all go back to work. Fail to answer and you will all be thrown back into the hell from which you came. Do you understand ?"
The humans seemed dazed. Some were nodding, others just stared at him. Moronic beasts, Oodusjarkethat thought I wonder why are the brass are bothering with them. Surely if the rulers of hell needed to know something about the human world they could just send a succubus to find out.
Lakheenahuknaasi wasn't sure why they were bothering either. She felt claustrophobic down here and her wings kept fluttering involuntarily. Fortunately the non-fliers were unlikely to understand why. The humans seemed to be trying to stare at her without actually focusing on her. They were pathetic, with their corpse white skin, sunken pink eyes and wild unkempt hair, yet their mass gaze was strangely unsettling. She shook her head. Their minds were dull, expressing nothing more than unfocused despair and hatred tinged with a slight curiosity about her presence. They were just humans.
"We desire to know where humans make your weapons. What towns make the flame lances, sky chariots, fire arrows, thunder sticks and iron chariots. Where are these weapons stored. You will tell us or suffer the consequences."
Lakheenahuknaasi waited. Silence. The humans looked at each other, then the demons. There was a murmur, indistinct and almost subliminal. She struggled to distinguish words from the diffuse babble but it defeated her. The mental activity jumped up an order of magnitude, as if the humans were shaking off a stupor. The noise started growing, chaotic, unformed, unstructured and somehow threatening. It swelled and broke up into distinct fractions, some just an undifferentiated mumble but other parts clear and distinct. Some of the humans began to shout names.
“The Emerald City!”
Lakheenahuknaasi tried to focus, to see which ones seemed sincere but it was impossible. The humans were grabbing at each other, punching, kicking. Even as she watched, the guards were allowing the situation to get out of control, an unthinkable, unprecedented situation. They were bellowing and lashing at nearby humans with their whips but they were barely making a dent in the din that was reverberating off the cavern walls. One torch was knocked over, then another, as the assembled ranks of workers dissolved into chaos.
The gorgon's question had set Publius's mind racing. He had always thought of the demons as mere servants of the cosmic order. Yes they were malicious, but that was their lot in life, they could no more go against their nature than a wolf could avoid chasing a hare. Other prisoners had told him of their notions of two celestial realms opposed, of demons as evil beings that had rebelled against a benevolent creator, but he had placed no stock in it. What omnipotent god could would permit the existence of opposition, and what benevolent god would give them humans to torture? Yet here was undeniable proof that the demons were not simply cosmic jail-keepers. The only reason they would want to know about human weapons was if they were fighting humans. That meant the demons invading his home, laying siege to Rome no doubt - or just possibly, he barely dared hope... the legions coming to liberate him? The demons were desperate to know of human weapons, could it be that they weren’t just fighting humans, they were fighting and loosing? Could it be that the demons were not part of the cosmic order at all, simply common slavers?
Publius was snapped out of his reverie by a stray elbow catching him in the ribs. He dropped into a crouch and realized that he was in the middle of a riot. For a split second he considered rushing the demons, but it was impossible, they were armed and organized and any case even if they could be overcome the humans would still be trapped and at the mercy of the hordes of demons on the surface. For now the important thing was to prevent the demons from getting the answers they were so desperate for. Publius had seen the men shouting names, some were obviously faking but a few had a defeatist desire to collaborate. One of the later group was stumbling around right in front of him, weakly shouting "No, no, do what they say, you'll get us all eaten alive". He knew what he had to do. Lifting a dagger-sized rock flake from the nearest crate, Publius yelled "Death to the traitor!"
Lakheenahuknaasi found herself backed up against a wall. The humans were pressing close and she reflexively loosed a spray of paralyzing darts at them. Eight poisonous spikes shot out from a pair of her head-tendrils and embedded themselves in the chests of three humans, who staggered and fell twitching. Meanwhile her escorts were firing blasts of lightning into the crowd, electrocuting humans when they hit, blasting clouds of rock dust into the air when they missed. The humans fell back, hiding behind rock crates or cowering on the floor. Slowly the noise abated and the dust began to settle.
Lakheenahuknaasi climbed back onto the dais and surveyed the chamber. The floor was splattered with blood strewn with human bodies, from which a distinct smell of cooked flesh emanated. They would be up again soon enough, the humans in hell recovered from a single lightning bolt within minutes. She searched for the humans that had been calling out names earlier, in particular one from whom she had picked up a feeling of honesty and compliance. Her eyes stopped on a human that seemed more badly injured than the rest; it was lying in a spreading pool of blood, its neck at a strange angle... in fact looking closer she could see that its skull had been crushed in multiple places. Lakheenahuknaasi blinked. It was the human who had been trying to answer her question. She glanced around, all the ones from whom she had picked up a tendency to co-operate were dead. Killed by their fellow workers. And from the rest were other feelings, fear certainly, bordering on pathological terror but something else, something she’d never thought to associate with humans. They were triumphant.
Brown’s Lane, Coventry.
For three long years the spiritual home of Jaguar Cars had lain idle, the last car had rolled off the production line here in 2005 and the firm had moved its operations elsewhere, fifty-four years after production had started. It seemed that the Jaguar’s parent company at the time, Ford, cared little for tradition. Now the idle car factories of Coventry, Birmingham and Dagenham had found a new role; while the Land Rover factory at Solihull would essentially be doing the same thing, just swapping civilian production for purely military models, the other car factories would be supporting the war effort rather differently. There was help arriving for that, the company’s new Indian owners were sending over plans for a light armored car that would fit the existing production line well.
The roads around the Brown’s Lane factory were jammed with low-loaders carrying various versions of the FV430 tracked armored personnel carrier and wheeled Saxon carriers. They’d all been brought from the nearest rail freight yard, itself hastily restored to operation and now filled with military vehicles on flat-bed trucks. The FV430s were vehicles that had either been in storage, or in various museums up and down the country. What they all had in common was that they had not gone through the ‘Bulldog’ upgrade. While BAE Land Systems was fully occupied building newer vehicles like the Challenger 2, Warrior and AS90, car factories like Brown’s Lane would take up much of the slack involved in upgrading existing vehicles. Eventually once the tooling from India was in place they would also begin to manufacture military vehicles.
Until then, each FV430 which arrived at Brown’s Lane would be stripped down, worn components replaced. The old Rolls Royce K60 engine would be removed and replaced by a modern Cummins B series engine with new sand and dust filters. Once that was done, Israeli designed appliqué armor and a Remote Weapons Station would be added, though not the weapon itself; the army was still debating as to whether the tried and trusted Browning Heavy Machine Gun, or a new FN designed weapon, the BRG-15, firing a 15.5 x 115 mm cartridge should arm the FV432s. The later was more powerful and likely to do more damage to a baldrick, but the Browning had the advantage of already being in service in some numbers. The last thing the British Army needed right now was another cartridge on top of the 9mm, 5.56mm, 7.62mm, 8.59mm and 12.7mm rounds it already employed. The armorers had enough of a headache as it was.
The Saxons, some of which were the Saxon Patrol variant that had replaced the last of the Humber ‘Pigs’ in Northern Ireland, were coming in for a slightly different upgrade. At the moment they were somewhat lacking in offensive capability, a single 7.62mm GPMG was considered inadequate against baldrick attacks. Like the FV430s they would be fitted with an RWS, though for the moment they would be issued to units assigned to the Home Guard rather then being sent out to Iraq. The Saxons, as it turned out, were far easier to work on and even better, once finished, they could be driven to where they were needed, rather than taking up valuable rail cars and transporter trucks.
Just to make life even easier, the workers who had been made redundant by the collapse of MG Rover and the contraction of the car industry in general in the West Midlands had flocked to get jobs in the new defense related concerns that had grown up. To its immense relief and surprise the government had not needed to use its new powers to direct labor to where it was needed. To protect these vital factories from potential baldrick attack a company of the Home Guard had been formed from the workforce. It was now a common sight to see workers who were not on shift drilling in the car park of Brown’s Lane and the other former car factories in the area. At the moment all they had were L85A3s, a semi-automatic version of the standard SA80 intended for use by cadet forces, though the Brown’s Lane Company had somehow managed to get hold of a Carl Gustav and a few rounds of HEAT and HE. How, was probably a question better not asked.
“Well, we’re certainly back in business.” The Works Manager looked at the sight below with satisfaction. Behind him, the representative from Tata Motors nodded with satisfaction. The purchase of the company by the Indian Tata group had caused extreme concern over whether the plant would just be taken off to India and the workers thrown out but the Tata management had gone out of their way to prove otherwise. Then, The Message had come and national identity had become very unimportant. Oh, there were a few countries still who were predictably refusing to join the rest of the world’s fight, North Korea being prominent amongst them, but India had thrown all its resources into the human struggle against their enemies. One small part of that effort was this plant here.
“I think it’s time for lunch, don’t you?” The Tata representative had a twinkle in his eye when he asked. The British had always had a love-affair with what they called Indian Curry and Tata had brought in staff who knew how to make it properly. As a result, it was quietly acknowledged that the Jaguar works canteen was the best Indian Restaurant in the Midlands. And with food rationing back, a good mid-day meal was something to be treasured. As long as it didn’t delay the work on the factory floor of course.
(Thank's to Starglider and Jan who provided the second and third parts respectively.)
Nations do not survive by setting examples for others
Nations survive by making examples of others