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.
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! 2-network Anomaly Detected
! VERIZON node 21633 : 28% dropped frames : Detroit, MI
! VERIZON node 21638 : 12% dropped frames : Detroit Metro, MI (4.8 km)
! SPRINT node 45-3C : 15% dropped frames : Detroit, MI (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.
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! Multi-network Anomaly Confirmed
! VERIZON node 21633 : 34% dropped frames : Detroit, MI
! VERIZON node 21638 : 25% dropped frames : Detroit Metro, MI (4.8 km)
! VERIZON node 21629 : 17% dropped frames : Detroit, MI (6.5 km)
! VERIZON node 21635 : 14% dropped frames : Warren, MI (9.3 km)
! SPRINT node 45-3C : 31% dropped frames : Detroit, MI (2.5 km)
! CDMA2000 down
! SPRINT node 45-3A : 20% dropped frames : Detroit, MI (3.9 km)
! SPRINT node 44-8D : 16% dropped frames : Warren, MI (8.7 km)
! CINGULAR node MA335 : 26% dropped frames : Detroit, MI (3.9 km)
! CINGULAR node MA334 : 22% dropped frames : Detroit Metro, MI (5.2 km)
! ALLTEL node 4775 : software failure : Southfield, MI (11.2 km)
! T-MOBILE node MA5XA : W-CDMA resetting : Detroit, MI (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.