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Inferno novella (completed)

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Excerpt that follows the last one. Hope it's an interesting read, because I haven't written one of these in awhile; plus the characters of Inferno are familiar with the demonic threat, whereas it was a horrible surprise to the protagonists of Knee Deep and Shores, so I'll have to find a way to up the "horror" game a bit.



We named the structure Hell Keep. It is a small, makeshift fort that twists and tunnels through the middle of the craggy mountain that serves as its foundation. Turns out it's the only way to pass the steep mountain range blocking our progress: we had to drive for an hour along the narrow beach of a boiling ocean to reach it.

The only way in from our side was the courtyard entrance, a house of smoldering red brick poking out of the side of the mountain. The courtyard is about the size of a baseball field and paved with a kind of fleshy soil that turns my stomach to walk on. The front gate is decorated with skulls that are almost human, but not quite. The courtyard was sparsely populated with shit-imps and a couple of floaters. Facing a floater is the worst -- the way it seems to grin at you with a mouth like a great white shark, and the way it stares into your soul with that doll-like green eye. The way it swims through the air, flaunting what an unnatural abomination it is. Borg wanted to BFG the horrible things, but I splattered 'em like tomatoes with the minigun to save battery power.

The kids (Adams, Ellison) dispatched the imps with small arms fire, and surprised me with how well they worked together: one would get an imp's attention and draw its fire while the other flanked it and capped it in the head. They went back and forth like that 'til the courtyard was cleared. I was about to commend them when Ellison made some stupid Jurassic Park comment and got Adams giggling again. Maybe they're idiot savants.

From the front gate, the fortress tunnels through the mountain in two directions, and the architect didn't bother paving the craggy walls. We knew the tunnels were just big enough for the rovers, but we parked them outside and continued on foot to secure the fort: the doctors were behind myself and Ellison, with Borg and Adams taking up the rear. At any sign of bogeys on either side of us, the docs would hug the walls to let the marines through.

We took the right path first, with Ellison taking point, and came to another outdoor courtyard, this one paved with gravel. A pack of pink, slobbering bulldog demons was waiting for us there -- dumbest creatures that ever lived, next to Ellison and Adams. They just keep coming at you no matter how many pieces you shoot off. Across the courtyard was the door to a long, winding, brick-paved tunnel that led to a sort of ritual room about thirty feet in diameter, with four jade pedestals arranged in a diamond at the center. Another door led out the other side of the mountain, to a lovely view of more damned barren highlands and more damned ugly mountains.

Human remains were arranged lovingly on the pedestals. One was a bleached skull. I won't go into the rest, except that we cleared them off and buried them in the gravel courtyard.

Sweet Home said the remains could be a sign that we're close to Plutonia Labs. I hope that's the case, and that we'll be going home soon: Parker keeps trying to make conversation with me to ease her nerves, and I can't look at her without thinking of Sophie and the kids and a long vacation in our Colorado cabin. I think I'll assign her to Borg's rover from now on.

The left path from the entrance led back outside, where a crumbling stone bridge stretched across a moat of Inferno's murky-red death-stench water. We debated whether to risk crossing it. Ellison tapped his foot on the first segment of bridge and heard solid thumps. He smugly assured us it was fine, like he'd just performed a scientific test he was super proud of.

The moment he stepped onto the bridge he fell right through it, ten feet down into waist-deep mire. For about five minutes we couldn't stop laughing. His childish whining about the smell made us laugh harder.

Adams, being the lightest and the dumbest of the marines, volunteered to leap onto the bridge next and run across it to check the cave on the other side. Our envirosuits are solid, so it wouldn't be an issue if she fell. I gave her the okay. She leapt over Ellison's hole and started tearing ass across the bridge like she was in a decathlon, the damned bridge collapsing under her feet at every step. The crazy bitch made it across, but she was going so fast she couldn't slow down before she bumbled right into the cave, out of our sight.

Silence for about one second. Then her voice shrieking a battle cry and her ACR barking on full auto, lighting up the cave entrance with a yellow strobe light. Then out came Adams just as fast as she'd went in, leaping off the cave ledge and into the murk with a thick splash. Three shit-imps came out after her, one of them shoved into the "water" by his clumsy buddies.

Borg and Ellison laid down heavy suppression fire on the cave entrance while I slogged across the moat toward Adams, imp fireballs sailing over my head from above and scorching my face with hot gusts of air. Adams was duking it out with her shit-imp, punching it and cussing at it like it was one of her brothers -- she'd engaged her helmet to protect her face, so maybe she's smarter than I thought. I put one round between the demon's eyes and dropped it in the murk. Adams's helmet retracted and she whined about my stealing her kills. I told her if she plays with her food, someone else is gonna eat it for her. Maybe she'll go for the kill from now on instead of fucking around.

After clearing out the cave, Hell Keep became our new base. It has a fantastic view of the surrounding landscape and our IPS readings are much clearer than when we first landed. We erected our sentry guns at both entrances, and parked the rovers in the gravel courtyard, where we set up our portable base facilities and are now having a barbeque. No joke.

We have three months of rations and water stored in the rovers, but Doc Olsen got visibly excited when he saw those bulldog carcasses and asked Parker to keep them cold with the fire extinguisher while he set up the skillet. Among Olsen's pet projects is the study of animal and plant life of Inferno, and he'd prepared bulldog once before for a company of hungry marines. His dad was a hunter, so he learned how to clean and cook wild game when he was a kid. It shows, because that crazy viking is one hell of a chef: demon steak ain't as bad as we'd thought, though it's the gamey-est meat I ever tasted.

Adams settled for rations, adamantly refused to eat with us. The suggestion of eating demon meat made her physically ill. Borg the Meat Enthusiast almost ordered her to partake, to discipline her for calling her captain a kill-stealer. Borg never much cared for whiny young recruits.

I guess I don't, either, but I can't be bothered to care anymore.

Doc Parker has been playing with the IPS for the last two hours with nothing noteworthy to report. I'm having Borg relay her reports to me so I don't have to look at her. He hasn't said anything about it, but I think he understands.

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[Opens with crackling static on the earth radio band and the whine-and-chatter of Hobbes's minigun mount firing in long bursts.]

BORG: [nearby] "--let that shit rain all over the rovers! I just cleaned those things, goddammit!"

ELLISON: [distant, unintelligible]

BORG: "'Cos you're a lousy shot, Caveman! If ya can't hit it, push it back so it don't come within shock range! Those things can zap a grown man dead at ten meters!"

CHIEF: "Ten-nine, Sweet Home. We're sweeping some of the local pigeons off our roof. We got the coordinates, but say that last bit again. Over."

WARREN: [static] "--straightest course to target area is through the slough northwest of your position by about nine kilometers. Should be obvious on the map when it renders: it's where the river seeps into the surrounding landscape. It's the only path across the river within a hundred kilometers. Even then, the marshy terrain might swallow the rovers. Over."

CHIEF: "We'll walk if we have to. These lazy sunsabitches could use the exercise. Over."

WARREN: "The target of interest is pretty small on our scan, but it's just on the edge of the map. Should see more of it when you cross the slough. Over."

CHIEF: "You're sure it's human this time?"

PARKER: "Your transmission is still rendering, Sweet Home. Please hold."

[Minigun fire for a few moments, Ellison cheering. The IPS grinding away.]

PARKER: "I've marked the area on our map, Sweet Home. It's human, all right. Uh, that is, according to Paxton's scan key. Scan shows it's white, so that ought to mean earth metals." [pause] "Uh, over."

WARREN: [static] "--having some technical difficulties over here. Contact us again when y--" [long hiss of static] "Proceed with caution. Out."

[Chief grumbles something under his breath.]

ELLISON: "Bogeys splattered, Chief!"

BORG: "And it only took him half a goddamned belt of ammo."

ELLISON: "Aw, c'mon, Sergeant--"



[Opens with roaring engines in the foreground, echoing and fading as the ATRVs slowly drive inside the 'Keep. As the engines fade, the background noise becomes apparent: general hustle and bustle of Inferno Team, and a distant chorus of hideous calls that bridge the gap between whale, bird, and ghost.]

CHIEF: [aside] "--moving! Adams, strike that tent in the next ten seconds or I'm leaving you outside! Move it!" [to mic] "Mission log update. Mass migration of death heads in progress, bound for our position. Team and equipment being moved to the altar room until it passes. Assuming they don't already know we're here, they shouldn't notice our presence. Otherwise we may need additional support. More as it develops."

BORG: "Rovers are inside, Chief."

CHIEF: "Good. Help the kids strike the base."

BORG: "Dammit, Adams!"

ADAMS: "I know how ta do it, Sir! The damn thing's stuck on--"



[Calls of the migrating death heads still audible, but muffled by the walls of the 'Keep. No other sounds in the background -- Inferno Team is quiet, possibly resting.]

PARKER: [softly, nearby] "--think we're being punished?"

CHIEF: [inquisitive grunt] "Say again, Slim."

PARKER: "Do you think God is punishing us? With this...with the invasion. Cashing in all the terrible, selfish things we've done as a species."

CHIEF: [laughs] "I thought scientists were logical people. No room for spiritualism."

PARKER: "We can believe in God and be scientists at the same time. It's not that weird."

CHIEF: "Slim, I've already been punished with endless war for the last twelve years. If that's God's work, I'd sure as hell love to know what I did to piss him off."

[Silence for a minute, then a long sigh from Chief.]

CHIEF: "Fuck it. Forgot what I was gonna say now."

PARKER: "What--? Oh! Oh, you were recor--"



[Opens with the roaring ATRV engines and occasional chatter between the marines and doctors.]

ADAMS: [Sings an unidentified country song, her voice shaking from the bumpy ride.]

WARREN: [on radio] "We read you, Inferno Team. Go ahead. Over."

CHIEF: "We've descended the mountain on the morning of Day Four, after the last trace of death head migration was off our radar. Now heading northwest to the slough. Over."

[Whirring wheels and squealing Adams as Hobbes goes briefly airborne, then touches ground again with a rough thud.]

ADAMS: "I think I like Olsen's driving better, Chief!"

CHIEF: "Try to avoid the Dukes o' Hazzard Stunt Course route from now on, Doc."

OLSEN: [laughing] "Sorry, Chief."

CHIEF: "Crazy-ass viking."

[Adams resumes singing.]

WARREN: "Drive safe, Inferno Team. Check in again when you reach the slough. Out."



Taking five to rest. Everyone's a little shaken after our last encounter.

IPS can track the energy signature of a death head, which is why it can tell us whenever they're in our vicinity. It can't do the same for other hellspawn types. A herd of bulldogs for example.

We were traveling single-file with Hobbes in front. The rovers clock in at 80 mph so we were making good time when we came to the hill. Hobbes went right up the hill with no trouble, and came down the other side...right in the midst of fifty bulldogs, if I had to hazard a guess. Adams and I immediately opened up on them, parting the herd like Moses. Calvin came through behind us as it started to close up again -- came out of the herd with three bulldogs clinging to the rear fender and the other forty-seven hot on its tail, snarling and slavering.

Bastards were only half as fast as the rovers, but the terrain got disagreeable at that point: we'd get about a block ahead of the stampede, then have to slow down 'til they were drooling on our tires in order to make a turn or dodge around a fallen tree, or else risk rolling the rovers. A pack of shit-imps must've spotted us from the top of the hills because now and then starbursts would sail over our heads or explode against the chassis. I sighted one long enough to put a trilogy of lead into one of its arteries, but the rest vanished too quick.

Then over my right shoulder came a bang so loud I could feel it shove the rover as if hurrying us along; looked behind us just in time to see a rainstorm of demon giblets and a black mushroom cloud rising into the air. In Calvin's backseat I saw Ellison loading the RPG-7 with another rocket. The herd was down to about thirty strong and a couple of them were starting to wise up, turn tail and run. The second rocket scattered the herd long enough for us to put three blocks between us and them.

Naturally that's when we came to the steep incline and fucked ourselves.

Hobbes went down at an angle, skidding down the hill in a dust storm of ash-colored soil; we hit the bottom sideways and rolled. I may have blacked out, and my lungs had collapsed and left me coughing, my nostrils choked with a soiled ash scent. Olsen was conscious but in shock, staring at the steering wheel. Took me what felt like an hour to realize Hobbes was lying on its side (my side specifically), and Adams and the minigun were gone. When we heard Calvin's engine roaring down the incline and the snarling herd not far behind it, me and Olsen both scrambled to unfasten our belts.

I know what happened next, but the order of events is foggy. I remember Calvin landed better than we did (on all fours, ironically unlike the one we'd named after the cat), and Parker expertly skidded in a J-turn behind the crashed Hobbes. I remember Ellison helping me and Olsen to upright Hobbes as fast as we could, soiling our envirosuits with terror as the herd's snarls grew deafening. I remember spotting the minigun turret half-buried in a pile of ash gravel twenty-five feet away, with the barrels pointing toward the direction of the herd, which we could still hear but didn't yet see. I remember watching Adams -- on her back about fifteen feet from the turret -- wrestle with a stray bulldog that had approached us from behind, before drawing her sidearm and putting four bullets in its throat.

I remember seeing Borg jump out of Calvin with the BFG 9000 in his arms -- damned thing looks like a white, full-size vacuum cleaner with a black metal underjaw. I remember wondering how he could configure it with inhumanly steady hands while mine were already shaking so badly that a revolver reload was out of the question.

Borg's the best man I ever served with. The thought of losing him turns my stomach sideways. He seemed disappointed when I ordered him to hand over the weapon and move the team behind the blast zone. The herd was just coming over the top of the incline when I locked the BFG's gyro-mount arm over my right shoulder and switched it from "pulse" to "overdrive."

I took three paces back from the base of the incline and waited for the rovers to get about a block away; waited for the first row of the bulldog legion to touch down at my level before I squeezed the trigger.

They got two steps closer while the weapon hummed, building up its charge. Then it sneezed out a small green supernova that vaporized the bulldog immediately in front of me before branching out into a forty-tentacled electric horror, thrashing its tendrils into the herd's ranks and deep-frying any living thing they touched -- like I'd just opened the Arc of the Covenant on them. Most of the dumb animals were reduced to blackened, crumbling husks before their comrades realized what'd happened; by the time they did, there was only seven of them left standing.

I chucked the BFG and finished six of them with my bear killer -- loaded with magnum hollow points that didn't leave much of their skulls behind. The last one scrambled back up the incline and just made it to the top before Borg chopped it down with his ACR.

No casualties on our end, though Adams is pretty banged up: she'd used her terrain-jumpers to fly clear of the rover at the last second, and came away with a dislocated left shoulder and five stitches for the gash on her forehead. The docs unloaded a stimpack on her, so she should heal up pretty quick -- at least long enough to last the rest of the mission. She'll crash hard when that shit wears off.

I scolded Doc Parker for reaching for the "berzerk" pack first, almost wasting it on non-lethal injuries. Adams is energetic enough as it is.

Turret mount is a loss, but the minigun is still functional. Borg configured it for infantry use: swapped for the short barrels and a double-drum magazine. It's his now, to make up for my stealing his BFG glory.

Glory. Guess that's why the idiots back home feed me that "war hero" bullshit: all the times I put my head in the lion's mouth to keep my troops from being swallowed. My last military psychologist said I have a death wish, which is moronic: I wanna live to see my kids again more than anything. Maybe I'm always trying to do my troops a favor, knowing they got families to miss, too.

We set up camp on the edge of the slough just a few minutes ago. The rancid brown river dies off here and bleeds into a soggy spread of marshland several miles across at the skinniest point. The barbed "agony trees" are thick here, standing on their roots at about thirty feet tall, and even uglier when they got vegetation: olive green ropes of moss dangle from the boughs and into the water like jellyfish tentacles. The boughs are thick with mossy tufts: anything could be watching us from up there and we wouldn't be able to see it 'til it dropped onto our heads.

We're waiting for the IPS scan to show a larger picture of the target area before we go slogging across.

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PARKER: "--just rendered now. Sweet Home, this is Inferno Team. Do you read? Over."

WARREN: "Loud 'n clear, Inferno Team. Go ahead. Over."

PARKER: "Are you looking at the target area now? Over."

[Silence for ten seconds.]

PARKER: "Sweet Home, are you there?"

WARREN: "Yes, we're here. We've steered you wrong, it looks like. That area is too small and scattered to be Plutonia Labs. Possible software corruption. The eggheads are trying to fix it at present. I advise you plot a new course and not risk losing the rovers. Over."

[Background noise: ATRV engine straining itself, the tires grinding against swamp mud. Borg is yelling instructions at Olsen.]

CHIEF: "Thanks anyway, Sweet Home. Hobbes is currently stuck in the mire at the shallowest point we could find. Looks like we'll be wading across on foot. Over."

WARREN: "Negative. Alter course and head due east. Contact us again in an hour. Out."

PARKER: "Wait, Sweet Home. This can't be a glitch in the software: it's showing earth materials beyond a doubt. The pattern suggests...It looks like a campsite."

CHIEF: [scoffs] "Slim, Plutonia Labs didn't have any portable base units, and there've been no organized expeditions before us."

PARKER: "Look for yourself, Chief. That is a campsite, I'm sure of it. Or former campsite." [to mic] "Whether or not it's Plutonia Labs, we should investigate anyway. Over."

[Radio silence for another minute as the ATRV whines away in the background. Chief and Parker mumble to each other, Chief in affirmation.]

CHIEF: "Sweet Home, she could be right. If the outer masses are tents, they're arranged defensively. The largest mass looks like an ATRV tilted at an angle. Confirm, over."

[Radio silence. Chief repeats himself; gives up after a full minute of no reply, grumbling about "bargain-bin tech." Parker's voice fades into background as she continues calling Sweet Home.]

CHIEF: [shouting] "Ellison! Adams! Bring Calvin up to the edge and hook the winch to Hobbes's rear fender."

[Two minutes of ATRV noise: Calvin adds his engine to the mix as it draws closer and idly purrs. Parker shouts for Chief from a short distance away.]

CHIEF: "Put 'im in reverse and get ready to drag Hobbes outta that muck. Wait 'til Ellison gives you the signal before you start backing up. Don't need both o' you idiots eating all our stimpacks."

ADAMS: "You can have 'em, Chief. They go straight to my hips. Aheheh."

[Parker shouts louder, her voice shaking in alarm. Ten seconds of moist boot-steps as Chief swiftly approaches her.]

PARKER: [much closer now, mumbling too low for the mic to hear]

CHIEF: "They'll find out sooner or later, whatever the problem is. Calm down and speak clearly."

PARKER: "They cut me off."

CHIEF: [silent for a moment] "Whaddaya mean?"

PARKER: "Look at the IPS!"

CHIEF: "I see the damn IPS, Slim. Fix it if it's on the fritz."

PARKER: [voice trembling] "I can't fix what isn't broken, Chief! The IPS is fine! There's just no signal! They've closed the slipgate! We have no contact with earth!"

[Ellison shouts an exclamation in the distance, and the ATRVs go silent. The background noise is filled with sloshing as the rest of the team assembles around Parker's station.]

CHIEF: "Calm down, Slim. They've been having tech issues since the start of this op. They could be doing maintenance."

PARKER: "They would've said something about a shutdown for maintenance! or told me to stand by, or something!"

ADAMS: "What's up, now?"

CHIEF: "Technical issues on earth. Nothing new."

ELLISON: "We lost contact?"

CHIEF: "That's enough. Slipgate goes offline and within seconds all o' you start acting like sniveling children!"

PARKER: "They have no reason to shut down the--!"

CHIEF: "Quiet! That's an order!"

[Everyone is silent for several moments. Someone sniffles.]

BORG: "Move forward, Chief? Or back to Hell Keep?"

CHIEF: "One thing at a time. You grunts get back to work un-stuck'ing my RV and let us worry about slipgate-related mishaps." [a beat] "Move!"

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Any thoughts from the readers are welcome. I'd like to know if it piques anyone's interest or if it's even worth pursuing.

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I'm most of the way through now. Should have a readable draft on the site soon...

fyi if I didn't make it too clear, these are excerpts taken from roughly the same region of the story -- I didn't start at the very beginning because I used to have the beginning on the site, and wanted to share new stuff.

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Finished! Gonna read through and do some edits, then hopefully I'll have a link by the end of the week.

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It's finished and online! Check my signature, or check the first post for a direct link.

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Please don't be shy about leaving feedback and questions. I do go back and edit these now and then to fix problems that I missed before, like poor wording and logic errors.

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