The conference chamber where Kellubrae met with Venifar and Linufel was neutral ground. Kellubrae would have preferred to bring the other two into his territory; the Southern Baptist section of Hell, which he ran, had plenty of meeting rooms. But this meeting was as much about establishing dominance as it was about working out a plan for meeting the objectives set by Lucifer. And none of the three would concede power to the extent of meeting within the territory of one of the others.

So they met in the conference room of Communicable Disease Research, which was currently between directors and which had been offered as a plum appointment to whichever one of them Lucifer deemed most effective in this little task he’d set.

The other two Fallen Angels held the same memo as he, on official Mark of the Beast stationery with the holographic flame “watermark” in the left-hand corner.

The Fallen Angel Averial, it read, has through unknown means disappeared in North Carolina. Your job is to find her and return her to Hell. You may use whatever methods you deem appropriate. Your budget will be subject to direct approval from me, but if you stay within your timeframe will be reasonable for the work you are expected to do. Your team will consist of Fallen Angels Kellubrae, Linufel and Venifar. You will choose your own team leader, who will report directly to me. Your current deadline for the successful completion of your goal is three months, subject to modification as events warrant and as I see fit.

There followed the lengthy list of titles so dear to the twisted heart of Hell’s First Fallen, and Lucifer’s grandiose signature, and in tiny little print at the bottom of the memo, a postscript.

Don’t fail me.

L

“Averial?” Kellubrae said. “She hasn’t been a player for a long, long time.” Unlike the three of them—he’d been locked in a deadly power struggle with Linufel and Venifar for almost two hundred years now. The more hate-centered branches of Christianity bred Hell-bound souls at a prodigious rate, and Kellubrae wasn’t the only Fallen who wanted to corner that niche of the specialty Christian Torture market for himself.

“Averial is gone, all right,” Linufel confirmed. “And more importantly, she didn’t go up in one of the Heaven-listed shipments. She isn’t on the log anywhere. I checked.” She rocked her chair back from the massive black conference table and smiled slowly. “She found a way out of here, and she found a way to disappear when she got there. So you bet your wings and fangs Lucifer wants her back.

All three Fallen Angels had received the memo simultaneously, and less than twenty seconds before they’d arrived in the conference room. Kellubrae had spent that time negotiating for the Communicable Disease Research site. Venifar and Linufel had, too, he thought. Linufel’s display of privately obtained information meant she had connections that he didn’t, and she was letting him know it. She proved herself by that single action a more dangerous opponent than he’d even suspected.

Venifar waved the memo. “The deadline is—ambitious,” he said. “We will have to work closely together.”

An admission, Kellubrae thought, that he had no applicable resources, but was willing to steal from the other two.

He decided not to tip his hand either way. He had specific plans that he thought he might accomplish with this mission; the first of which was promotion to director of Communicable Disease Research. He had some neat ideas for a highly contagious particle-borne variant of leprosy that ought to increase crimes of hate and cruelty tremendously. And he felt that Lucifer had been in his post entirely too long. What one Fallen Angel could rule, another could rule as well (or better?), and he had ideas for the reorganization of Hell that were well demonic.

But first things first. He needed to avoid being made team leader. “Venifar makes a good point,” he said to Linufel. “On the strength of his suggestion of teamwork, I nominate him as team leader.”

Linufel’s eyes gleamed. He could see he’d beat her to the punch, but this time she wasn’t going to mind deferring. “You’re so right. I second the motion.”

Venifar swallowed, and his eyes went round. “I’m afraid I must decline ” he started to say, but Kellubrae cut him off.

“All in favor?”

“Aye,” Linufel said.

“Aye,” Kellubrae said.

“All opposed?”

“I’m opposed, damn you!” Venifar shouted.

Kellubrae ignored the shout. “Motion carries by a two-thirds majority. Congratulations, Venifar. You’ll be working closely with the Big Guy.”

Chapter Four

NC Corridor Nixed

RICHMOND VA, — Reuters

Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder put the last nail in the coffin of the proposed North Carolina Corridor today. Speaking before the Virginia legislature, Wilder vigorously denied rumors that he supported the project.

The now defunct proposal called for the extension of a narrow strip of territory from the current North Carolina/Virginia border up the shoulder of Interstate 95 North, through Virginia and into the District of Columbia, where a throughway to Capitol Hill had already been negotiated with Congress and the District government. The whole corridor was to have been under the nominal sovereignty of North Carolina, with extraterritoriality rights granted to all encroached legal entities. The project was proposed by NC Governor James Hunt to “provide equal access to the mechanisms of government to all our citizens, regardless of plane of origin.”

Wilder’s rejection of the plan appeared to rule out any hope of compromise. He told the gathered legislators, “The last time the sacred boundaries of our Commonwealth were altered, it took the Grand Army of the Republic to make it stick, and it’ll be a cold day in Hell before I stand by and let it happen again.”

Informed of Wilder’s remarks, Governor Hunt responded, “I’ll see what I can do.”

~~*~~

Rheabeth Samuels looked out over her domain and thought furiously. She couldn’t count on much more time and there was still so much to do. She had enough work for at least two of her—and now this. She crumpled the fax and hurled it, sidearm, towards the trash. It bounced off the edge of her desk, teetered on the rim of the basket, and fell onto the carpet. Rhea wasn’t surprised—it had already been that kind of day.

In front of her, through the plate glass windows of her corner office, the warm spring sun lit a perfect Carolina morning. A gentle breeze was stalking catspaws through the grass, and Burden Creek sparkled as it rolled down into the pond. Rhea couldn’t appreciate it, anymore than she could appreciate the feel of the lush carpet beneath her bare feet. Her world had narrowed to debits and credits.

She strode over to her desk and thumbed the intercom. “Jan, CCI’s pulled out. The bastards didn’t even have balls enough to do it over the phone.”

“I saw that fax, Rhea… and I’m not the only one.” Jan’s worry came through clearly in her voice. “What are you going to do?”

Rhea wished she knew. There wasn’t time to line up new investors. “When Roberts gets here, I’ll take him personally,” she said finally, “Have someone haul ass down to the conference room to flight-test the AV equipment for a dog and pony show. I’m going to have to hit him for twice what we had planned, and we can’t afford any screwups.”

Rhea tapped the intercom off. Looking down, she saw the offending fax again. She considered only a second before stomping it flat; then she picked it up with her toes and dropped it into the trash. She allowed herself a brief smile as it rustled down against the plastic lining—if only she could do the same to the craven who had sent it. Of course, she’d need a bigger basket. She smiled again, thinking of the greasy blimp from CCI that she’d had to wine and dine: make that a lot bigger basket. Well, if he couldn’t understand that making an investment didn’t give him the right to put his hands under her skirt, then screw him—or rather, let him screw himself and CCI. They were the ones who were going to come begging for her company’s services. And she wasn’t even going to have to wait that long to see it happen.

In her office closet sat several pairs of sensible, stylish shoes. Rhea considered carefully, then slipped her feet into a pair of dark blue pumps. She made a face at the constriction of her toes, but bore it because she had to. Executives expected other executives to wear shoes. She inspected her skirt and blouse critically in the closet mirror, and made minute adjustments to each. Her hair, of course, was perfect. She glanced at her watch. Ten A. M. Jan’s voice came over the intercom. “Mr. Roberts has just signed in at the front desk, Rhea.”

“I’m on my way.” Deep breath, one practice smile, then it was time to go. Jan glanced up from her computer as Rhea walked past her toward the lobby and Rhea could see the computer screen reflected in Jan’s glasses. The display looked a lot like a resume, but Rhea decided she didn’t really care to verify that.

Instead she asked, “How do I look?”

“Well,” Jan said, “I’d invest.”

“Careful. I may take you up on that.” Rhea smiled—the confident we’re-going-to-land-our-investor smile.

“Maggie is setting him up with a coffee and leading him to the conference room. You’ve got about sixty seconds if you want to beat them there.”

“No problem. Hold all my calls, and cross your fingers.”

“I’ll cross my legs if you think it’ll help.” Jan demonstrated. She smiled, but her own smile was no where near as confident as Rhea’s. “Go get ’em.”

“Count on it.”

Jan nodded with enthusiasm, but just the same, Rhea heard her start typing again as she walked away. Rhea knew Jan’s wasn’t the only resume that found itself in the process of revision and updating. Better land this one.

She took the service corridor and ran, and was in the conference room well before Roberts and his escort from Marketing. She’d had time to get seated, get her skirt and blouse smoothed, and present the appearance of someone who never needed to run to meetings. She rose gracefully when they entered.

Roberts didn’t look bad all; he was fortyish with graying hair and a straight no-nonsense posture. She’d studied his record. He’d put in twenty years active duty with Army Intelligence, all top-secret stuff—no details available— and he was still in the Reserves. He had taken a lot hush-hush engineering skills with him into industry and he’d worked his way up from shop floor to management. He knew his stuff.

Rhea held out her hand, giving him a hundred kilowatt smile. She knew it was good—persuasion had been her business for a long, long time. “Mr. Roberts,” she said. “I’m delighted that you’re here. Now let me tell you exactly why your company wants to invest in Celestial Technologies manned spacelift program.”

Chapter Five

Jack Halloran was having a good day. It hadn’t started out that way; there’d been a couple of little red devils, gremlins almost, following him around in the morning, waving their pitchforks and trying to get him to cut people off in traffic and speed through school zones. He’d finally gotten rid of them during breakfast at Hardee’s by picking up a little litter in the parking lot and helping an old lady with her tray. It was the kind of thing you got used to quickly in North Carolina, and he didn’t regret leaving Spartanburg for a minute. He’d been at Celestial almost two years now, and he’d never looked back.

He whistled a little of the Dominoes “60 Minute Man” as he soldered the last trace onto the modulator board clamped to his work-bench. Case in point: Where else could a thirty-four year old Electrical Engineer work on an honest-to-God space drive? He breathed the pungent fumes of the rosin flux and eyed the joint critically. It looked good, and he raised the iron, watching carefully as the solder cooled to a shiny silver jacket, ensuring a good connection. Perfect. He used the iron to conduct his imaginary band for a second, then flipped off the power and laid the soldering iron back in its stand.

“Okay,” he told the board, “Time to come to poppa.” He loosened the clamp. His wrist grounding strap was barely long enough to reach the table where the trolley was set up, but he wasn’t about to risk static blowing a chip after all the time he’d put into this board, so he left it on, working against the slight tension of the coiled cord. He oriented the pins and seated the board securely in its socket on the trolley, then worked the ribbon cable on over the edge connectors. When he was satisfied, he popped the strap free, and looked down at his handiwork. On the metal lab table a steel wire linked two solid blocks of bronze that were bolted to the frame at either end. Between them sat a little cart, just four wheels and a platform, with hooks rising at each end to curl around the wire for guidance. That was the trolley. The prototype drive sat on the trolley platform, with a long flexible lead connecting it to the power supply which hung from a stanchion under the table.

The power supply had a simple rocker switch; one side said “off”, the other said “on”. Jack put his hand on the switch, then hesitated. The design was his boss Rhea’s (and there ought to be a law that all women that gorgeous be that smart), but the implementation was his. If this worked, then the name Jack Hannah Halloran was going to be in a lot of history books. Hell, if this worked, he was going to space. On the other hand, if it didn’t work, he would probably wind up in a Leno monologue. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred, he quoted to himself and threw the switch.

A pleasant hum filled the lab, but nothing else happened. Jack waited a second, then gingerly touched the trolley. It would roll freely in either direction, but showed no inclination to move on its own, and was certainly in no danger of running into the brass stops. The humming increased in frequency and suddenly a little puff of acrid smoke rose from the board he’d just finished. The humming stopped.

“Damn!” Well, he’d always preferred Letterman anyway.

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