Randi Institute of Pneumatology, the Pentagon, Arlington, VA
“I guess it’ll be a relief dealing with normal people after having that sick freak around.” There was a stir of anger in the room, kitten’s boyfriend had started to get up but she put her hand on his and stopped him. It was a gesture that did not go unnoticed by most of the people in the room. Martin Chestnut was one who didn’t, he looked around smugly, the angry reaction to the insult aimed at kitten amused and satisfied him. Another thing he didn’t notice was two of the Special Forces troopers exchanging significant glances, they knew what kitten had gone through to keep the link to the teams in Hell open. Chestnut had just scheduled himself for an old military custom, a blanket party, at the first available opportunity.
James Randi cast a very sharp look at Chestnut, he’d spent his life exposing frauds and imposters and he was convinced Chestnut was one although in what sense he wasn’t quite sure yet. There was no doubt in Randi’s mind that the man had skills though, he’d made everybody in the room hate him. Randi had caught a whispered comment from a visiting Marine, something about Chestnut being a candidate for wall-to-wall counseling. Still, business first.
“We have to evaluate your ability to open a link before we can take this matter any further. We have several people now who can speak to various people in Hell, but so far kitten is the only person we have found who can sustain a link and open a portal. She’s worked very hard for the last few weeks and she needs a break. So, we are going to try and open a portal to a team we have on the Seventh Circle, they are desperately short of ammunition and need resupply urgently. So, kitten’s going to talk to them and they we’ll see if you can open a portal.”
“Just keep that pervert away from me.” The Marine and the Special Forces troopers exchanged glances, the blanket party attendance had just grown. On one of the seats, kitten relaxed and opened her mind up.
Tucker? Are you there? Can you speak?
Hey kitten, sure can. We’re having a rest, we’ve just got a new member here. Private Joanna Cassidy, USMC. He rattled the serial number off. She’s in a bad way but she’ll mend, physically anyway.
“Got her, Marine Private Cassidy. Killed in a humvee wreck about six months ago, in Iraq.” The Marine had typed the number into a notepad and the answer was immediate.
Confirmed Tucker. Now, we’re going to try something. We’ve got another guy here who can contact Hell so we’re going to see if he can open a portal. If he can, we’ll be able to get you some stuff, we have a sword for Ori, one he’ll like we think. Its called a Katana, it’s a gift from the Japanese Government. A swordmaster over there made it from modern steel. We have more ammunition and some semtex for you.
That’s fabulous kitten, sure you’re not going to get hurt for this?
Quite sure, I’m not going to hurt. At the other end, Tucker noticed the satisfaction in her thoughts and wondered what was going on back there.
“Link’s set up. Martin, please make the portal.”
“Its Mister Chestnut to you.” He relaxed on the couch and had the wiring set up around him. Meanwhile kitten disconnected and isolated herself from the system. Behind the control bank, the operator started running the power up to portal threshold. Chestnut started writhing and moaning on the couch. “Shit, this hurts, you never told me it would hurt like this.”
Then, the black ellipse started to form in the room and Chestnut’s wailing reached a new level. The sword was the first thing to get thrown through, followed by some packs of Semtex and boxes of rifle ammunition. Then, the ellipse slammed down.
kitten grabbed her head-set and pushed through a contact. Tucker, did you get anything?
Yeah, thanks, the sword’s here and we got a box of ammo and five of Semtex. Guess your guy wasn’t too hot huh?
Very noisy. Bye Tucker, talk to you soon.
“They got a little stuff, the sword, 5 kilos of Semtex and 250 rounds of ammunition.” kitten relaxed a little.
“And that’s all anybody will get until you agree to my terms.” Chestnut had a predatory grin on his face.
“What terms?” Randi spoke cautiously.
“I want a million a year retainer. A hundred thou bonus every time I have to open a portal up for you. You’ll buy an apartment for me wherever I choose to live and I want a Ferrari. I’ll tell you which kind later.”
“That all?” Randi was beginning to lose his temper.
“No, but I’ll add the rest later. You might as well agree now though, you haven’t got any choice.”
“Actually we do.” The voice from the door was contralto and silky. For those who knew the General, this meant trouble was coming for somebody. Nobody had ever heard her swear, she’d never had to. “We have three more candidates coming in today. An Indian and a Chinese lady and a Chinese man. All have passed the initial tests you laid down James, they’re looking very good. The Indian Lady speaks very good English so I’m told, she worked in a bank customer service center before she went mad.” The General was staring at Chestnut expressionlessly. It occurred to Randi that the lack of feeling was more terrifying than any display of dislike could have been. “General Schatten? A useful recruit this one? For the field test?”
“Yes indeed Ma’am. Mister Chestnut.” Schatten loaded the ‘Mister’ with irony. “Here’s our counter-offer. We give you a nice green suit with a red-brown one for work-wear. We will pay you one thousand two hundred and forty five dollars and ninety cents per month, before deductions. We’ll also provide you with a comfortable pair of boots for walking around in. They may even fit. We’ll even feed you and give you a bed to sleep in.”
“Forget it. No way.”
“You don’t have any choice, Private Chestnut. You’re in the Army now. We have reinstated the draft you know.” Schatten’s voice was richly amused by the sudden change on the man’s face.
“You can’t make me do the portal thing. Or anything else. And I won’t. Not unless I get my money.”
“It’s Sir to you. No, we can’t. But I must advise you that you’re being assigned to a field test program. We know that sensitives can contact Hell, but what happens if we put a sensitive in hell and try to contact out? We need to know that but kitten was much, much too valuable to use that way. Still is. But you’re not. So, we’re assigning you to Camp Hell-Alpha and you’ll stay there until the program is complete. Of course, if you don’t co-operate that may take a very long time. You two.” Schatten gestured at the two Special Forces men. “Take Private Chestnut away and show him how the Army works.”
“It’ll be a pleasure Sir.”
“I thought it might be.” The two Special Forces men led Chestnut out and closed the door behind them. A few seconds later there was a muffled thud and the door shook, followed by an apologetic “oops”. The Marine in the room suddenly developed a satisfied expression in his face,
Major General Asanee had sat down beside kitten. “How are you doing?”
“Well, thank you ma’am.”
“Good, for I have some news for you. If our three new recruits work out a bit better than Mis…. than Private Chestnut…. did, you’ll get some leave soon. My Learjet is waiting to take you to Bangkok for your operation, as I promised, my government will pay the account. Until then, I’d like you to meet somebody, one who has already been through the procedure. She’ll tell you what to expect and how to do things afterwards. She’s waiting outside, as soon as you’re done here, you two can get together.”
Deep Tunnel Stygia ('The Slime Pit'), Shaft 14, Slocum Mine, Tartarus
Captain James Shanklin stood knee-deep in the stagnant water, listlessly hacking away at an exposed copper vein. It had been something like a century now that he'd been in this literally God-forsaken place, give or take a decade. It was all so unfair. Hadn't he died for King and Country, like you were supposed to? He'd gone to church... mostly. He'd been a faithful husband... almost. There had been that one time, a year before the German shell ended his life, just after that fresh-faced young private had joined the squad. In the earthly hell of the Somme they all thought they had only weeks to live, surely God could forgive a man for seeking whatever companionship and release he could under such conditions?
It would seem that God could not. James dimly recalled spending decades in an empty wasteland scoured by a constant terrible storm, wandering without ever finding rest or shelter. Then he was brought here, seemingly to mine copper for all eternity. The last few months had been particularly intolerable. He was sure that other prisoners were stealing ore from his crates when he wasn't looking, because he'd been sentenced to work in the slime pit almost every week. Worst of all, the pointless riots meant that all the humans were now kept chained up at all times. The corroded bronze manacle had already rubbed his ankle raw. The formerly lax demon supervisors seemed to have found a new motivation for their calling, as they were more eager than ever to apply their whips.
The rumors had been going around the mine since the demons had first questioned them about human weapons. At first there was nothing but a welter of speculation, but as of late they had taken a decidedly grim turn. New workers were arriving, fresh from earth and bringing tales of their homes falling to an irresistible demonic onslaught. City after city was apparently being raped, pillaged and burned by the fiendish legions. Some refused to believe, harping on about inconsistencies in the stories, but James knew they were just grasping at straws. He had seen what being in the midst of brutal slaughter could do to the mind first hand, at Flanders and Neuve Chapelle; if anything the confused ranting of the new arrivals only confirmed the horror of what they had witnesses. In his mind all of humanity was clearly doomed to suffer, individually and collectively.
Into this uniformly depressing picture had come an unexpected ray of hope. At the start of this shift, they had been assembled in the loading area again and Medusa had a different message for them. Reading from a slate chalked with strange runes, she had implored the workers to reveal the location of the human arsenals. Only then would the demons be able to spare the remaining cities from total destruction. Any human who helped make this possible would be rewarded with dominion over one of the surviving settlements, to rule it in Satan's name for the rest of time.
For Captain Shanklin the struggle with his conscience had been a brief one. He had been loyal to the King and the Empire had sent him to a fair approximation of this place, rendered in stinking trenches and screaming shellfire, only to throw away his life fighting over a patch of worthless French mud. He had been faithful and his God had abandoned him. Even in this place, his fellow men seemed to wish him only further suffering. No, he no longer gave his loyalty to anyone but himself. James resolved to grasp this chance. He was already in hell, he could hardly damn himself a second time by supping with the devil. Besides, if the people of Sheffield saw sense and surrendered, perhaps he would be able to save his home from total destruction. What more noble deed could be expected of him?
A dull pounding echoed down the tunnel, muffled by the standing water. An overseer was coming; at regular intervals the hoof-beats paused and were replaced by screams as another miner was given a taste of the barbed whip. The pounding became splashing as the demon approached. James' hands began to tremble as he waited for it to reach him, sweat beaded on his forehead as he prepared to betray everything he had ever known. At last the monstrous creature came into sight. The demon seemed to combine the worst features of a gorilla and a goat into a vast brutish humanoid. The sight of the human's motionless pick had just registered on its face and it began to raise its great spiked lash.
“Wait!” shouted Captain Shanklin, “I can help! I can tell you where all the Empire's steel comes from! I can lead you to the forges that make Britannia's great guns and railways!”
The demon paused with whip raised, uncomprehending. James shouted desperately. “The weapons that are giving your armies pause! The metal they are made from, you call it 'enchanted iron'. I can show you where most of it is made!”
For a moment it looked like the demon would ignore him, but then it slowly lowered its whip and reached into the water. The chains confining the humans had no locks; if the demons were capable of such craftwork, they did not waste it on lowly human prisoners. Instead there was simply an unwelded bronze link too thick for a human to bend, but which the overseer's supernatural strength could easily open and close. The demon's clawed hands emerged holding the end of the chain, with which it yanked the human forwards.
“Come.” James has no choice but to follow the brute up through the winding tunnels towards the main shaft, the chain pulling him roughly to his feet when he tripped and fell. “I hope you're lying, little human, because I'd love to make a feast of your entrails.”
They turned off the main tunnel into an area James had never entered before. It seemed to be a kind of office, well lit with numerous torches and filled with carved stone tables and stools. Slates filled with chalked runes lay on the tables and hung from the walls, along with thin fired-clay tablets covered in more runes. His eyes only had seconds to take this in before Medusa entered the room, her snake-hair writhing gently. James averted his gaze as quickly as possible, falling to his knees in the manner he'd seen the lesser demons use during the rare visits of the senior overseer.
“This one claims to know where the humans make their enchanted iron.”
Lakheenahuknaasi stared at the wretched human cowering before her. Its form was still dripping with rank water. She hoped this one had something useful. Euryale had gambled a lot on this wild scheme, and if it failed she would undoubtedly ensure her handmaidens suffered with her. Lakheenahuknaasi aimed a tentacle at the human and shot a single enthralment dart into the man's shoulder, enough to make it difficult for him to lie to her without robbing him of his wits. He reeled, shook his head and then tried to look at her out of the corner of his eye, in that annoying manner humans seemed to have. Lakheenahuknaasi smiled at him, unaware that her fangs made the gesture more threatening than reassuring. “So, you have something to tell me, yesss?”
Throne Room, Palace of Satan, Dis, Hell
Satan had thrown some temper tantrums in his time but this one exceeded any those present could easily remember. Most of the Orc domestic staff had died one way or another, and the only reason why the massacre had stopped there was that Satan had run out of energy. While his magic built up again, he contented himself with screaming abuse at the gathered nobles. Eventually even that led to an exhausted silence. He looked around at the stunned nobility, his eyes flickering from one to the next, trying to catch even the slightest whiff of treason.
“How many members of my guard were killed?”
“And you claim that humans did this.” There was a sly inflexion on the ‘you claim’.
“They did Sire, they were seen by a Greater Herald that flew not far away. He saw the Iron Chariots killing them.” That was a trump call, Satan wouldn’t argue with testimony from one of his own Greater Heralds.
“And after the battle they crossed over the bridge and destroyed the camp the other side of the Phlegethon. Then they retreated back to their side of the river where a Flying Chariot joined them.”
Satan screamed again, and a lightning bolt struck down the speaker where he stood. “Their side of the river? Who else thinks such treason?” His eyes ran around the room, seeking for treason again, or an excuse to kill, there wasn’t much difference really. “The humans are still at the Dysprosium Bridge.”
“They are.” Beelzebub spoke carefully. “But they destroyed it. The Phlegethon is unbridged there now.”
“Then destroy them. Take your legions, all of them, and destroy them. Belial, is your plan ready to carry out? Or will you be seeing your furnaces from the inside?”
“We are ready Your Majesty. We have the information we need and the chorus is set up.” And I can only hope that’s true Belial thought. It wasn’t when I left two days ago, and when I get back, I’ll have little time left.
“Then you will time your attack to match Beelzebub’s assault on the Human Army. How soon can you move your army.”
Beelzebub cast an eye at Belial and thought carefully. “Four days Your Majesty.”
“Then that gives you two more days than I promised Belial. Use them well.”
Behind the scene, Deumos watched carefully, absorbing every nuance, every undercurrent in the great room. And through her mind kept running the phrase “the humans cannot lose.”
Then, the audience was disturbed by a Greater Herald who stumbled in, exhausted from a too-rapid flight. “Your Majesty, terrible news. Asmodeus is dead.”
Nations do not survive by setting examples for others
Nations survive by making examples of others