Interrogation Room, DIMO(N) Field Facility, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
“I have nothing to say.” Kathryn Branch had been left with little to hold on to in her life. Her family were either dead or under arrest, her faith had been shattered with the conquest of Hell and the war against Heaven. The long spell in a woman’s prison had robbed her of her values and self-respect. She’d even lost the ‘modest’ clothing she’d worn from choice. Now, she had to wear a standard women’s prison overalls, orange and cheap. All she did have left was her dogmatic refusal to answer questions and to that she clung desperately.
“Now that is unfortunate.” Agent-In-Charge ‘Kamikaze’ Smith was being cautious but the evidence gained here was not intended to be presented in court so the usual rules did not apply. “Several other nations have expressed an interest in interviewing you so we may well have to extradite you to them.”
“You can’t threaten me. The judge said… “
“That applies to a court hearing only. Anyway, if we hand you over to another country, what happens there is entirely up to their legal system. You may have heard of ‘extraordinary rendition’. By the way, don’t think that dying gets you off the hook. We’ll just be waiting for you at the other side and will carry on where we left off. One way or another Kathryn, we are going to get to the bottom of this. Unless you know you’re going to Heaven of course. We haven’t kicked the gates open there. Yet. But, you won’t need to worry about that, you are on your way to Hell.”
“No I am not! Hell is for those who turned their backs on the True Faith. The Faithful are exempt.” The words came out in a rush, an affirmation of belief that revealed desperation as much as anything else.
“Really? That’s not what Yahweh said. He said all humans and that’s what he meant. Ever since we’ve been occupying Hell, we’ve compared those who die here with those who turn up there. They match exactly, no exceptions. You’re going to Hell, Kathryn, only question is when and how you get there. And how you spend the time between. I understand that Indonesia is one of the places demanding your extradition. Prisons are pretty bad in Indonesia you know. You really want to spend the rest of your life screwing the guards for extra fish-heads with your rice?”
“You can’t threaten me like this.”
“In case you didn’t notice, I just did. Anyway, you might be right, Michael-Lan promised you entry to Heaven didn’t he?”
Kathryn Branch was sobbing. All the humiliation and abuse she had suffered in prison was catching up with her and it overwhelmed her. Even more overwhelming was the fear of much worse to come. She had believed that nothing could be worse than her present incarceration but logically she understood that she could be doing far worse. Now it appeared she would be. Mixed in with all that was something that she rigidly denied even to herself, something that contradicted everything she had been indoctrinated with since childhood. She was being betrayed by those she had worshipped.
“Michael-Lan promised me nothing. He just said that it was my duty to stand by the True Faith. My duty.”
“Well, that tells us what you would have found yourself doing in Hell.” Smith leaned back in his seat. “Have you heard of a man called Robert E Lee?”
Branch shook her head through her tears, then stopped as the name registered. “The great general in the War of Northern Aggression?”
“I wouldn’t have phrased it quite like that but that’s the one. Well, he’s been recovered and survived his ordeal quite well. You know what that ordeal was Kathryn? No? He spent the years between his death and his rescue rolling a giant boulder around. One only just within his ability to move. He couldn’t see where he was going so every so often he would collide with another boulder and be half-crushed when it rolled back over him. Well, we asked Abigor what gives? Why did he get that while most soldiers went to the river of fire or the toxic swamps. He said it was because those who got to push the boulders were the ones who allowed their obedience to duty to overcome their sense of what was right. I guess the boulder represented the weight of their sense of duty and the collisions what happened when their sense of duty collided with somebody else’s. Just my guess there of course. You were on your way there as well I’d guess. You still can go there, if you really believe that divine command is absolute. That ring is proving to be one of the quickest to empty but it’s still there. Like the idea behind it.”
Branch shook her head and started crying again. It was one thing to discuss Heaven and Hell in theoretical terms, no matter how vivid the imagery used by the preachers. To be told precisely what her fate was to be and the realization that there had been nothing she could do to avoid it was quite different. It had a reality, a concrete absoluteness that weighed down upon her. She could imagine, all too clearly, just how Robert E Lee had felt, pushing that rock around.
“Michael never promised me anything. When the message came, we all laid down on our beds and waited to die. My father, my mother everybody. Just as we had been ordered. My father told us all not to worry, that we were the righteous and faithful and that the condemnation to Hell did not apply to us. We would be part of the chosen, the saved. I remember laying there, hearing our dog whining outside, then the Archangel Michael himself had come down and stood at the end of my bed. He said that I had been chosen for a very special mission, to watch over the humans who were Left Behind. He told me that there were a very special group of humans chosen for this role. We would report back to him on what was going on and what was happening down here. When I was assigned to DIMO(N), I told Michael everything that I could find out about the research going on there. Eventually, he asked me the exact position of the facility within the base so it could be attacked.
“So you betrayed us all, for nothing?” Smith was curious about that.
“I am not the betrayer. You are, If you had not turned your back on God, none of this would have happened.”
“Well, it’s pretty lucky we did then, isn’t it? Take her away.” The last three words were spoken to the guards who were waiting. Smith caught the way they grinned at each other and the roughness with which Branch was pulled from her seat and hustled out. Imprisonment was obviously not going well with for her.
A few minutes later, he was in the Director’s office, relating the conversation to Colonel Paschal. “Anyway, she’s quite emphatic she was promised nothing in exchange for her treachery.”
“And you believe her?”
“Certainly, yes. She’s pretty much broken. I don’t think the other women in the correctional facility have much sympathy for her. She looks pretty roughed up. Face and arms bruised, walks hunched up as if her stomach hurts her.”
“Yitzchak claims he was offered the world and everything in it. Well, Archangel status and lots of other goodies as well.”
“That’s not the only difference. Branch, we can see that the archangel who approached her inspired great loyalty from her. She’s taken the abuse at the prison and the threat of being sent to an Indonesian prison, well, not quite in her stride but she’s taken it. And when she speaks, its to reassure herself, not inform us. Yitzchak, he sings like a bird and is almost unhealthily interested in making a deal with us. There’s no real loyalty there, just somebody on the take.”
“So he’s smarter.”
“No, it’s a totally different style of working. A totally different relationship. Michael-Lan seems to inspire loyalty in the people who work for him. In some ways, he’s like a good Mafia gang boss, he gives enough respect to the people who look to him for leadership for them to give him their loyalty in return.”
“That’s not just Mafia bosses, that’s any good manager.”
“Probably, but I spent most of my career so far chasing gang bosses. There’s two quite different styles here, I wouldn’t be surprised if Yitzchak was taking his orders from somebody else. Now, does the style of the archangel he reported to sound familiar? Lots of promises, of a happy eternal life thereafter, all he demands in exchange is absolute loyalty?”
“Sounds like the spiel that Yahweh gave to us for so long.”
“Exactly, radically different approach from Michael who is supposed to be running this war. Doesn’t that make you think there is a rift between those two? And if that’s the case, we have a situation we can exploit.”
Montmartre Club, Eternal City, Heaven.
It was a rhetorical question, Maion was half-dancing around her apartment luxuriating in the soft, silky feel of her new robes. They were better-quality than anything she had had in her life before and simply wearing them was a delight to her. A delight she made very obvious to Lemuel who was standing by the doors watching her. In fact, it had been made very clear to her that she would be “delighted” with whatever Lemuel gave her just as she would regard whatever allowance he chose to provide her with as a princely sum. The fact that his gifts were so suitable and her allowance so generous just made acting so much easier.
“I am so, so happy Lemuel-Lan.” And she genuinely was. The contrast of her life now with that she had lived before was as marked as the difference between night and day. That applied to her time before she’d been introduced to the club as well. Once she had faced a life that had seemed to promise little but drudgery, making reverential dances for Yahweh and looking after some junior angel’s home. Now, she had a fine apartment, expensive possessions and a life to match them. “Thank you for everything.” Thank Michael-Lan and Charmeine-Lan as well she thought for without them I wouldn’t be here. I owe them everything for without their guidance and lessons, I would not have this wonderful home and this wonderful master. But I can never tell Lemuel that.
“I must tell you something Maion. I have expelled my ex-wife Onniel from our house. She has gone, I believe to another part of the Eternal City to hide her shame.”
“I have heard this.” Maion thought quickly, reflecting on the lessons she had received from Charmeine-Lan. Don’t gloat, don’t seem avaricious, don’t seem to take advantage of misfortune. Always be sympathetic and supportive. Never speak ill of anybody and then your lovers will assume that you never speak ill of them. “It has been common talk. It must have been very hard for you Lemuel-Lan, and I feel so sorry for her as well. I hope she finds happiness in her future.” And again, Maion found it easy to speak the words sincerely for they echoed what she was actually feeling.
Lemuel-Lan-Michael was touched by her concern. “Your kindness does you credit Maion-Lan-Lemuel and I honor you for it. Now, I must leave and start my day’s work. I will see you again in a few hours.”
Maion dropped to her knees and swept her wings over her head as Lemuel left. When she heard the doors close behind her, she rose and started to make sure the apartment was perfect for his return. The food had to be packed away, his favorite dishes prepared and everything made spotlessly clean. She was so busy working on her apartment, she almost missed the knock on the door. When she opened it, She dropped to her knees instantly for Michael-Lan was waiting outside.
“How’s it going Maion. Are you happy here? Nice apartment by the way, Lemuel is obviously looking after you well.”
“He is indeed Noble One. I could not ask for better.”
“Drop the Noble One, Maion. You’re part of my clan now and formality bores me. I get too much of that from Yah-yah.” Despite his genial attitude, Michael-Lan watched Maion sharply to see how she would react to the mild blasphemy. To his delight, she flushed with embarrassment but there was a half-concealed smile as well. “By the way, are you getting your supplies of stuff properly?”
“Yes, Noble… Yes, Michael-Lan. But I am confused? Do I not have to pay for it?” That was, after all, the need that had brought her into this life.
“Not now you are a member of my clan, no. Payment is only for outsiders. As long as Lemuel is your master, just as I am Lemuel’s, then your supplies are a privilege of the name you bear, Maion-Lan-Lemuel-Lan-Michael.” And that binds you firmly to us both, Michael-Lan added to himself.
“Now Lemuel-Lan has expelled his ex-wife Onniel from his home, he has invited me to go there. Not to stay of course. Is this permissible?”
“Of course it is.” Michael-Lan’s voice was magnaminous and hearty. “You are not a prisoner here, you may come and go as you please.” That stuff you shoot between your toes keeps you a prisoner here far better that bars and walls. “But, I counsel you Maion, take care. There are violent forces at work in the Eternal City and your relationship with Lemuel might endanger you both. And Onniel bears you a great grudge. She has run to He Who Is Above Us All himself, demanding that you be punished for taking Lemuel from her. So be careful.”
Maion put her hand over her mouth. “Surely The Lordly Father Of Us All would not concern Himself with as insignificant a person as I?”
Of course he won’t, you silly goose. I doubt if he knows you exist. And Onniel has been discretely picked up and now sits in a bare, featureless room, forbidden contact with anybody and allowed only to reflect on her sins. Which are many, I should have freed Lemuel from her years ago. “I do not know Maion, The One Above All is a law unto Himself. And I believe he smiles upon Onniel. So, I counsel again, take care little one. You make my friend Lemuel happy and he deserves that.”
“Thank you Michael-Lan. I will heed your words and act upon them.”
“That is good. Now, heed these and remember them also. Maion, you are part of my clan. Whatever happens, never forget that. If you get into trouble, if you are in danger, hold fast, and remember I will be coming to your rescue. You are one of us, Maion-Lan-Lemuel, one of my people and that means I will always be there to aid you. If you need help, it is for me to succor you. Leaders serve their followers Maion, just as much as followers serve their leaders. For your own safety, let me or Charmeine-Lan know when you plan to go to Lemuel’s home and we will take care of you.”
Maion dropped to her knees again and swept her wings forward. Michael’s words echoed in her head and filled her body with a warm glow for she sensed the truth behind them. She belonged now, she was a part of his clan.
Third Legion, New Roman Republic, Hell
“Salve Tribune Madeuce. How does the Third Legion prosper in the service of the Senate and the People?”
“Well, First Consul. Soon, with your permission, we will demonstrate our skills.” Tribune Madeuce had to get his mind around the formal statements that were expected and the style of phrasing required by the standards of New Rome. Gaius Julius had made it clear that the Army served the Senate and the People, never the ruling Consuls. He had read the histories of what Rome had become after his death and pinpointed the Praetorian Guard as being one of the primary causes of the downfall. One amongst many of course, but he was determined to eliminate all those that lay within his reach.
In front of him, a group of armored personnel carriers moved on to the exercise ground, dodging from cover to cover. Madeuce recognize them instantly, a Polish derivative of the BMP-2 built especially for the daemons. Three extra suspension wheels to allow for the extra weight, a higher and longer body shell to provide protection for the crew and an open passenger compartment. Armament was three 23mm cannon, one at the front of the passenger compartment, the other two on its sides. All three guns could fire forward, alternatively they provided a 360 degree field of fire around each vehicle. Derivatives of the same vehicle had 120mm automatic mortars in the back. Unlike the infantry vehicles, the mortar carriers and the other specialist support equipment was crewed by second-life humans.
Overhead, Madeuce heard the howl of inbound artillery. Explosions hammered at the “angelic defensive position” droning it in fire and steel “Sir, we’re rationing fire, one gun is representing each battery of four. Cuts down expense.”
“Very good Tribune. The gunners?”
“A mixture of Second-Life humans, mostly artillerymen we have recruited, and daemons. The daemons do the heavy lifting, feeding the guns. Their strength means we can hold a slightly higher instantaneous rate of fire and a much higher sustained rate of fire than a human artillery battery. I wouldn’t care to pitch us against an MLRS battery though.”
The armored personnel carriers were raking the “enemy” position with bursts of cannon fire, the tracer rounds lacing it with fire. Then the artillery fire ceased and there was a sudden blast of fire from the mortars. Simultaneously, the daemons in the infantry units rose to their feet and charged across the ground, their chromed bayonets flashing in the dim red light, for all the world looking as if they were already stained with the blood of their enemies. That was a human perception though, the wild primary colors of daemonic blood were still baffling scientists. The charge went home, supported by the fire from the mortars, machine guns and auto-cannon of the support units. The daemons cheered, the “battle” was won.
A few minutes later, the display force was drawn up for inspection. Gaius Julius walked down the lines of infantry, giving the impression to each human and daemon that he had, just for a second, stopped and noted each one individually. Caesar stopped in front of one daemon rifleman and looked carefully at his turn-out. “Well presented, excellent turn-out. Your name is?”
The daemon smacked his chest with his fist then stretched out his arm in an almost-perfect Roman salute. “I am Tesserarius Dripankeothorofenex, of the Third Legion, First Consul.”
Caesar gravely returned the salute. “And why do you fight in the Third Legion Dripankeothorofenex?”
“For the Senate and the People of Rome, First Consul.”
Caesar grinned at the reply the daemon had obviously been carefully taught. Then, he dropped his voice to make the conversation private. “And why do you really fight?”
Dripankeothorofenex grinned in return. “Because it’s fun, First Consul. The human way of fighting is much more enjoyable than just lining up with tridents.”
“Good for you.” Caesar raised his voice again so that it would carry around the parade. “An excellent turn-out and an enthusiastic soldier of good morale. Tribune Madeuce, promote this daemon to Duplicarius. Soldiers of the Third Legion, I am pleased to tell you that you will soon be assigned to join the Human Expeditionary Army for its assault on Heaven. Let the arrogant Angelic Host know what befalls those who stand against the Legions of the New Roman Republic!”