Sky over Acara, Brazil. December 2008
In the dark skies of night, illuminated only by the glitter of the stars, a great figure, black as obsidian in the darkness, glided on outstretched wings. Beneath it, the activity of the world appeared to slow down and its sounds muted as if the world and all who lived within it were pausing out of respect for the monstrous being that flew over its head. Yet Uriel was not deceived by the appearance nor did he expect respect for his person. Those who lived underneath were humans and they had defied the almighty will of Yahweh. Not just defied it, but broken it and cast the pieces back in His divine face. They had resisted His commandments, their armies had invaded the realm of the Divine Enemy and cast him down. “Blown him up to the max,” as Michael-Lan had put it.
Uriel did not quite know what to make of The Eternal General, Commander of the Armies of the One Above All. He had changed in the last millennia or so, there was a levity in his persona that had been missing from the grimly determined commander who had fought the Divine Enemy throughout the Great Celestial War and led the final charge that had broken the Enemy’s last great effort. Sometimes Uriel even questioned whether Michael-Lan was still loyal to the One Above All but he had always dismissed those doubts. He had not dared raise the matter with the others in the First Tier of Archangels. Gabriel and Raphael would have laughed at the very idea. Azrael would have taken the suggestion as a personal affront and even questioned whether the very suggestion was indicative of Uriel’s own lack of loyalty. Raguel would have demanded proof of the accusation as was his way and when it had not been forthcoming, would have dared to judge even Uriel himself. Zadkiel would have merely stated that mercy and tolerance were the primary virtues and Uriel might do well to practice them.
It caused great frustration and anger to Uriel that he, the sword and the scythe of the One Above All, the one whose very passing caused entire nations to weep bitter tears, could have doubts about Michael-Lan’s loyalty and yet be unable to voice them. Nor was that the only reason for his anger and resentment. For the fact was that the humans were shutting him out of larger portions of their world. He had told his acolytes that the industrialized, developed areas of the world repelled him and he abhorred its clinical acceptance of death as an inconvenience to be wrapped in legal paper and forgotten. He had claimed that the less developed areas of the world still knew how to grieve and has their primal connection to death and mortality. It sounded good and it had much truth in it but it was still a lie.
Uriel no longer haunted the developed areas of the world because it was too dangerous for him to do so.
The change had started some sixty years before, a small change then and beneath Uriel’s notice. The humans had invented something that made his skin itch and revealed his presence known to those below. From those small beginnings, the things had spread across the world, covering it with small spots where his skin had become uncomfortable. Then, the humans had linked those spots into great sheets that covered whole countries and they had built weapons that could threaten even Uriel himself. He had learned that when the humans had sent their great burning lances through the sky after him and they had sent those who flew their aircraft to hunt him down. They knew not what or who they were dealing with but they responded with violence as had always been their way only now their ability to destroy was growing at rates the Hosts could not comprehend. He had told the One Above All of the change for all the good that had done. Lost in the surrounding miasma from the praise of his choir, the warning had gone unnoticed. He had told Michael-Lan who had simply replied “don’t sweat it Bro.”
What was a ‘bro’? And why had the General ignored the warning? Was he, Uriel, the only one who understood the threat developing on Earth? Perhaps then but not now. The destruction of the Eternal Enemy’s Kingdom and its occupation by humans had finally gained the attention of the Hosts and his warnings were at last justified, little reward he had got for them. Nor had the ever-growing web of human weapons and warning systems ceased to grow, they had spread from country to country, reaching out ever further, ever higher, crowding him away from the rich pastures of the developed world into the sparser, less populated areas. There, it was true that there death still had its terror and mystery but in truth the death that Uriel now feared was his own. He had never before believed that humans could kill those in even the lowest levels of the Host let alone the glittering archangels but the Eternal Enemy was dead at human hands and Uriel knew if the humans could find him, they would kill him with just as much dispassionate ruthlessness. Uriel looked at the humans and now he knew fear because they were killers with abilities that matched even his.
But, for now, here in time and space what Uriel wanted and what he must do were the sole thing in his universe. He looked down on the small town that lay beneath him, the crowded areas where the poorest lived, the great mansions of the rich and the smaller homes of those who lay between those two great extremes. He surveyed them and nodded as if coming to a decision yet the fate of those people had already been decided. It was merely Uriel’s vanity that implied there might yet be a decision made. His hand was already raised and he swept it over the town below, his benison chanted in tones dire with portent. “Peace be with you and my peace I grant you.”
Once there had been a time when every single living thing in the town, down to the angrily buzzing mosquitos and the languid grace of the dragonflies would have dropped to the earth in that instant instant. Those days also had gone. The animals and insects dies, that much was certain but the humans did not and resisted the divine command. Uriel concentrated, stepping up the power of his assault, driving down on the minds beneath him. Eventually, he felt the weakest down below crumble and their defenses collapse. In that instant they died. Even so, there were those who continued to resist and their defenses were too strong for the assault. Exhausted from the effort, Uriel turned in a slow beautiful motion and flew away, the light of the stars reflecting off the ebony wings jutting from his back. His work here was done, as much of it that was within his power. And that was the thing that drove his mind for he had never before experienced the concept that his power could be limited.
Conference Room, White House, Washington D.C. December 2008
“I’m afraid your going to have to get used to these things Barry.” President Bush looked at the President-Elect with a considerable degree of sympathy. “They’re more interesting now of course, my Daddy said that the ones in his term were incredibly dull.”
A swirl of laughter ran around the room. It was crowded, there were effectively two teams present in a room designed for one. The War Cabinet itself, serving President Bush and the Transition team, preparing the way for President Obama. “Well, the Chinese did always tell us to beware of interesting times.” Obama repeated the platitude with a certain degree of relish.
“True, and they don’t get any more interesting than this. General Petraeus, the situation in Hell if you please?”
General of the Armies David Petraeus, his six stars clearly visible on the great TV screen that dominated one end of the room, shuffled the papers in front of him. Only one other American had been awarded a sixth star, George Washington himself. Washington had got his for saving an entire country, Petraeus for saving the human race. “Mister President, Mister President-Elect, the Human Expeditionary Army is continuing to grow towards its final strength. The major problems continue to be spares, equipment and support. Our fuel and ammunition stocks are low, much of our equipment in unserviceable and in urgent need of renovation while new production is still inadequate. The truth is, I now have, on paper, five Army Groups yet in terms of available forces, I barely have more forces available than those at my disposal during major combat operations. Fewer if anything, the Russians have hit some nightmarish problems in their occupation zone that are trying down a large proportion of their Army Group. If it wasn’t for the arrival of the Chinese Army group, we would be in severe difficulties.”
“I thought we’d won this war?” Obama was confused, the picture he was getting was very different from his preconceptions. That applied to a lot of areas, he was beginning to realize just how unprepared for the Presidency he was.
Bush smiled in response. “Barry, don’t worry about it. Everybody, but everybody who has ever sat in this office was totally unprepared for it. My daddy was Vice-President for four years and he didn’t have any idea of the burdens involved, same for Bill, same for me. You’ll grow into this office, everybody does. Now, on the war, yes, we won the first campaign and we kicked the snot out of Satan and his crew. Dave Petraeus made it look easy but it wasn’t. We ran our ammunition stocks pretty close to zero and wore our equipment all the way down. If Satan had hung on just a little longer, we’d have had some real problems. We’ve had some months to recuperate but we’re still weak. Dave, you said the Russians are having problems?”
“They are Mister President, we haven’t got too much in the way of details but they ran into something totally unexpected and they’re having Hell’s own job in handling it. We’re expecting more of the same ourselves. Hell is a really big place, we’ve only occupied a small area of it and we haven’t mapped much more. The Baldricks occupied two areas, one around the Hell-pit, the other up at Tartarus and those we hold, but pretty much everywhere else, and that’s around 90 percent of the land area is unexplored and, we thought, unoccupied. Only it isn’t as the Russians found out. So, we confidently expect to hit something similar ourselves. The other thing is, the Heavengate we found? It’s shut down. We can’t reopen it, apparently it requires naga or their equivalents at both ends to open a gate between Heaven and Hell. Once co-operation was withdrawn at one end, the thing just shut down.”
“General, what can my new Administration do to improve things?”
“Not very much Sir to be honest. Just keep production up and keep the equipment flowing through to us. I’m not sure there is much scope for enhancing production still further. Don’t worry about developing wholly new kit, just keep the good old reliable stuff we have flowing through. Improve it where we can, we need better dust filters and so on. But food, fuel, ammunition, oil, batteries, all of that good stuff we’re desperately short of. Oh, and more of those. 94 inch Martini-Henrys for the Baldricks, they’re a big hit.” General Petraeus’s image faded from the screen.
“We’re arming the Baldricks?” Obama seemed bewildered by the idea.
“Of course, we need them as militia. We even designed a special rifle for them, or rather a lady called Marina O’Leary did. It was her company that came up with the idea for the M114 and M115 rifles. The M116 is chambered for the. 94 Nitro-Express round but it is fired from a scaled-up version of the old British Martini-Henry dropping block rifle.” Obama looked slightly confused, as a Chicagoan he didn’t have the Texan’s finely-honed knowledge of firearms. “The one the British used in the film Zulu.” That made the connection.
“Can I replace General Petraeus?” Obama spoke thoughtfully. “We could use him here.”
“Not really Barry. In theory you could but the Human Expeditionary Army is his command, with a Council of War to support him. That’s comprised of the five Army Group commanders, at the moment, one American, one Russian, one Chinese, one Indian, one Frenchman. All top-rank men by the way. If General Petraeus is relieved, his replacement has to receive the unanimous approval of those five. Very unlikely anybody will get that. Anyway, next issue. The weather.”
“You sound like a Brit, they always want to talk about the weather.” Obama’s voice was suave and it caused another ripple of laughter.
“Well, they’re justified in doing so now. We’ve had three super-storms, all of which have hit us hard. Two were here, we had the tornadoes in Missouri, they killed a lot of people and wiped out the B-2 fleet. We haven’t let on just how much of a disaster that was but we’re hurting from it. If I had longer in office, I’d cancel efforts to restart B-2 production and concentrate on the B-1 and B-3. That’s a course of action I’d recommend to you Barry. The second one hit Bermuda and trashed the base there. That wasn’t so bad, we lost a couple of ships and the population got hurt. The third one was the cyclone that hit India a couple of days ago. All three had the same pattern, a storm formed normally but suddenly increased in strength and changed direction. We’re being attacked using weather patterns but we don’t know how.”
“This has to be Yahweh of course.”
“Of course. President Abigor has confirmed that using the weather is a long-standing Yahweh tactic. He used it against the Egyptians now and then. But, how it’s done we don’t know. Ask the Baldricks and they just look apologetic and say ‘magic’. That’s their explanation for everything they don’t understand.”
“Mister President, Mister President-Elect. If I may have a word?”
“Please Doctor Surlethe.”
“We have an idea how the increase in storm strength is brought about. If one takes a hurricane, tornado or cyclone and injects a mass of warm air into the base, that’ll do it. That’s basically why such storms develop power over the sea and dissipate it over land. Of course, how a mass of warm air got injected into the storm is another matter. Some sort of portal is a working assumption. Steering the storm is another matter, we haven’t got a clue on how to do that. We’ll just keep battering at the problem until we come up with something.”
“A suggestion Doctor Surlethe?”
“Yes, Mister President-Elect?”
“If injecting warm air causes these storms to increase in strength, what would happen if we used a portal to inject cold air? Would that not diminish the storm or even break it up?”
“That’s a line of investigation we’re following right now Sir. The problem is that storms are hard to model accurately so we’re not sure what the results will be. But, that is a promising approach yes. However, we have another problem. We’ve had a series of attacks in South America, small towns where there have been massive, inexplicable deaths. People just struck down in very large numbers, usually between 70 and 80 percent of the population. The attacks are averaging around one every five days or so. Now, some months ago, we received a letter from a man called Jude Sanchez who claims to have met Uriel in Africa and included an account of this Uriel wiping out every living thing within the confines of a native town. He included evidence of other such incidents and we followed them up; they do pan out.”
“Who is this Uriel?” Obama sounded interested if a little incredulous.
“Well, another DIMO(N) operative, one Norman Baines who’s about the world’s leading expert on mythology, identified Uriel for us and gave a pretty good briefing on this particularly macabre gentleman. The name literally means “Fire of Yahweh” and he’s supposed to be one of the topmost ranks of Archangels. He is supposed to have been the Angel who guarded the gates of Eden with a fiery sword and I suppose the best description of him is that he’s Yahweh’s hit-man.”
“The Angel of Death then?”
“Not really Mister President, no. Azrael is supposed to be the angel of death in the Grim Reaper sense. Uriel is more along the vengeance and punishment line. Like a loan-shark’s enforcer. There’s one really nasty thing about Uriel, he doesn’t just kill his victims, he snuffs out their souls as well.”
“That sounds a bit far-fetched.”
“Not really Mister President. We have some supporting evidence for it; there have been eight of these attacks in South America, five in Brazil, two in Uruguay, one in Bolivia. They’ve killed around five thousand people. Not one of those victims has turned up in Hell. There is another oddity. In the Sanchez letter – and in the pictures he included – Uriel killed every living thing in the towns he attacked, even down to the birds, insects and earthworms. He left the ground sterile and clean. Yet in the attacks in South America, the animals, insects and so on all died, but anywhere between twenty and forty percent of the humans survived. The survivors all speak of the same events, things seeming to slow down, everything suddenly going quiet and most of the people dying. Here’s an interesting thing, all of the survivors were in the top earning brackets, the richer the inhabitants of a town were, the fewer died. Even more interesting, servants in the rich houses lived, but people living elsewhere did not, even if they were nominally wealthier than the servants. We’re still puzzling over that.”
“And so the war goes on.” Obama spoke reflectively. The meeting had been an eye-opener for him. “We’re under attack and we don’t know how its being done or whether we can hit back.”
“We’ll find a way, Mister President-Elect. Somehow, we’ll find a way.”
“In the meantime,” President Bush had a boyish grin on his face. “we’ve arranged a little message for Yahweh.”
National Cathedral, Washington D.C. Christmas Day, 2008
“We thought that this is the one day Yahweh might be keeping an eye on us, so we are going to send him a message.” Bush and Obama were standing side by side in the front row at the National Cathedral, waiting for the ceremony to begin. They were startled by a patter of applause at the back of the nave but it was just a small group of soldiers in the red-gray Hell-BDUs entering. A few of the civilians quickly stood and offered them their seats. Then, as the atomic clock sent out its noon alert, all across America, in every church that was still standing, the same ceremony took place.
A red flag unfurled from the spire, rippling in the wind as it burst open. Simultaneously, a group of trumpeters, in the National Cathedral taken from the Marine Corps band, elsewhere from marching bands, schools, even sometimes hastily-practiced amateur musicians, started a fanfare. It was always the same tune, an eerie, wailing, discordant melody that echoed and re-echoed across the land.
As the last notes faded away, Obama turned to Bush. “I don’t understand.”
“You’ll never make a Texan, Barry. That’s the Deguello. Santa Ana hoisted the red flag and played the Deguello just before the assault on the Alamo. Together, the Red Flag and the Deguello mean that we will give no quarter, we will have no mercy, we will take no prisoners, we will not stop attacking until we have won victory. And we played it on Yahweh’s day. I hope he gets the message and chokes on it.”