Outside Davao City, Moro Republic
0800L, April 12 2025
Mushad Ali was not a happy man.
It had been a really bad day, so far.
The fact that he had awakened before dawn to the sight of flaming rocks flying from the heavens.
He knew that it was the American THOTH missiles; kinetic weapons dropped from low earth orbit...but they looked like the Hammer of Shaitan. There was nothing in the Moro Republic's Arsenal to fight such things.
Then came more fireballs from the sky.
Those had not exploded when they landed, worse luck; they had turned into the American SC-1 Sub orbital Shuttles, landing at the airfields, the highways, anyplace that would support their weight, disgorging troops of both the Greater and Lesser Satan.
Two had exploded near the ground, possibly from the surviving anti-aircraft weapons.
But far too many landed safely.
Then a piece of shrapnel from a nearby explosion had knocked him unconscious.
He had awakened to find a Ukrainian soldier prodding him with a bayonet.
Now, he was being prodded along a jungle road, with his hands tied and hobbled under the watchful eyes of Ukrainian Spestnaz. He had been captured and tied into a coffle with several soldiers of the Moro Republic.
What was really upsetting him was the fact that he had seen the small group of American soldiers a few hundred feet up the road. His captors did not realize that he spoke Russian, and so, had not guarded their tongues.
A tall redheaded Colonel stepped forwarded, hands on her hips, and surveyed him carefully, as if he were some bizarrely fascinating insect. He was surprised and dismayed when she addressed him in fluent Kabyle; with no more accent than if she had stepped from the streets of Riyadh.
(*Beard of the Prophet! *) She exclaimed. (*You have come a long way from your homeland. *)
Her accent sounded like Riyadh, but no women of that city would have spoken to any man as she did, let alone stand there with a lit cigarette dangling from her lips as she spoke.
He stood silent before her. He tried to keep his features impassive. (*Damn this American bitch! *) He thought to himself. (*Remain silent unto death*) he reproved himself. An IRA soldier had told him of their tactic of silence as prisoners.
"Never speak to them." He'd said. "Mushad, me boyo, we say nothing to the damned Sassenach, never a word." He grinned "Even when we're locked in Dartmoor for years, we say nothing to the damned English. If we can do nothing else to the damned bastards, we still bedevil them with our silence."
She laughed, but it was a cold laugh. For a second, he thought of Sean O'Rourke. He'd had that same cold laugh, and a smile that never touched his green eyes.
She could have been a relative of the IRA man. Her nametag said "Rourke", but that could mean little. She wore the silver eagles of a Colonel, and an Intelligence Badge.
(*Silence? *) She asked. It was both a statement and a question. (*Don't worry, brother, you will talk loud and long before I'm done. I've gotten good at extracting information from your comrades. *)
She smiled and Mushad felt the hair prickle on his neck. It was a lazy, feral smile, and made Mushad recall a snow tiger he had seen in Kashmir. (*I'll take my time with you later.*)
She turned to the Moro prisoners and switched languages. (*You boys have information I want and I want it right now.*)
Her Tagalog was not as good as her Kabyle, but it was more than passable.
(*I need to know about the disposition of your forces. Who will talk first? *)
(*The soldiers of the Moron Republic will never betray their faith! *) Screamed a teenager.
(*We will die before that, bitch! May you and all your infidel brethren of the Greater and Lesser Satan rot in hell forever! *)
She chuckled coldly. (*You bastards will tell me everything I want to know before I'm through. *)
(*There is no amount of pain that you can give me that will make me betray my nation! *) He screamed back. He spat in her face to emphasize her disdain.
Colonel Catherine Rourke chuckled. (*Pain. *) She laughed.
Something in that laugh made Mushad Ali's bowels start to liquefy. He was both scared and mystified. How could this infidel bitch scare him so easily?
She stretched out her hand, lifting the chin of the Moro teenager. He flinched, half-expecting a slap, but her touch was almost gentle. She looked deep in his eyes.
(*Your Republic is allied with the monsters of Al Quaida. *) She stated.
(*They taught us about pain. *) She inhaled deeply on the cigarette, until the lit end glowed brightly.
(*More pain than you can ever imagine. *)
She exhaled the cigarette smoke in a cloud about the young soldier.
"Once, I had a husband, and children, and grandchildren…and then your leaders saw fit to bring the Hellpox upon our land." She said. "And so I tended to my family as they fell ill, and I watched my husband die, and my children died, and my grandchildren died, and I fell ill, and I wanted to die…but I did not die." She said.
She waved the cigarette tip before his eyes and he tracked it, mesmerized, expecting her to burn him.
"No, your Great Leader had done something worse to me, and others like me. We cannot die anymore."
She took the cigarette from her lips and ground it out on the back of her hand. The Moro flinched as his nostrils were filled with the stench of burnt skin and flesh.
Colonel Rourke's hand never wavered.
As everyone watched, the burn healed, the skin grew back around the wound.
In less than 30 seconds, the skin was unbroken again.
"Koschei Besmerytni" muttered one of the Spestnaz troopers. He crossed himself in the Orthodox fashion.
(*The Terrible Undying Ones*) translated Mushad. He had heard the Old Russian folktale. There had been reports of this, but he had never believed them. Now he saw the legend come to life.
Several of the prisoners moaned. Mushad noticed puddles growing around the legs of other prisoners…and then whimpered, as he felt a warm and wet sensation on his own leg…
She sighed. (*You are young and brave and full of patriotic and religious fervor. *) She said. (*No, I don't think you will talk. It would be a waste of effort to try to question you. *)
Like a striking snake, the Beretta jumped from her shoulder holster and into her hand. She rammed the muzzle under the Moro's chin. "Imsh-allah." she said, and pulled the trigger.
The prisoners were sprayed with blood, brain tissue and bone fragments as his skull exploded like an overripe melon.
The nearly decapitated body fell to the group and twitched. The stench of blood and body fluids filled the air as the sphincters relaxed.
Colonel Rourke grasped the body by the throat and threw it in the ditch. (*Now, who will tell me what I want to know? *) She asked conversationally. (*And who wishes to lie in the ditch to feed the wild dogs and rats? *)
"I wish she wouldn't do that." remarked Kepitan Pavel Rovitch to the American Liaison, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Raven.
"Why?" answered Steve. "Pavel Ivanovitch, it gets results. I should not think your father would have done much different in Afghanistan.
"Da," answered the younger man." But it does jar my picture of Americans. I always thought Americans stood for fair treatment of prisoners, the Geneva Convention, that sort of thing."
"Ha." barked Steve harshly. "We did that when we had the luxury. When there were 210 million more Americans than there are today." He spat on the gravel. "Now?...Now, we are…something else." He shook his head. "Osama Bin Ladin destroyed America."
His face was like iron as he looked at Pavel. "What we are now? – I do not know…but it is not America…not the America I grew up in, not an America I would live in, if I had a choice."
"I like the name your men gave us. I had forgotten the tale of Ilya Murometz and the Terrible Undying One. Do you remember the tale, Pavel?"
"Yes." answered the Kepitan. He flinched. There was a scream as the Colonel broke the fingers of a Moro who was giving evasive answers.
"The Terrible Undying One was an evil wizard who could not be killed. Any hurt was healed instantly. The only way to kill him was to destroy his heart. What no one knew, was that he kept his heart in a jar, hidden away. Ilya Murometz learned his secret and destroyed the heart."
"We are the opposite, Pavel. When Osama Bin Ladin unleashed the Hellpox upon America, he killed 210 million Americans." Steve turned his head and spat.
"An entire generation of children dead, can you comprehend that, my friend? All the children born after 1981 and unvaccinated from smallpox. as well as many of the older folk - So many dead that the sky was black from the funeral pyres."
Steve's eye were distant, unfocused as his vision turned inward.
"Think of it, Pavel. So many dead...whole families - parents, children, body after body, just fed into the fires. Go into the suburbs and you see empty houses with a yardful of graves. Parents would bury the children in the yard and then die themselves. And through it all, the old folks, the grandparents, walk like spectres, unable to help.
His voice was flat as he continued. " The America you remember from the movies of your childhood is as dead as that piece of carrion in the ditch." he tilted his head to emphasize the point.
"Once upon a time, had I seen anyone treating prisoners as Colonel Rourke is doing right now," the snap of an arm bone breaking punctuated the sentence. "- And I would probably arrest her."
Steve wiped sweat from his brow as he calmly watched the interrogation. "But there is damned little mercy left in me. There is damned little mercy left in any of us, Pavel. Only hate."
The men of Spestnaz prided themselves on iron will and discipline. But even they started to quail as they watched Col Rourke work her way through the prisoners. Some had already turned their heads, unable to watch the carnage without flinching.
"Take Col Rourke, there." Said Steve. "She is America personified. Worked her way through college as a fashion model. Turned down a high-paying career in fashion to become an Air Force Pilot. Worked her way up the ladder, making firsts all the way. Retired, became a language professor at SUNY. Became a department head of Middle Eastern Studies at Stony Brook. Worked hard, AND talented. Be easy to hate her, but she was a damned nice person."
He turned his head and spat. "Then came the Hellpox. She's the only survivor of her kids and grandkids, hardly any of her non-military friends survived." He waved his hand in her direction. "Sometimes I see her and think of the Hindu Kali incarnate. All she lives for is blood and vengeance. But there is never enough to stop her pain."
"My people suffered also, my friend." said Pavel.
There was a sharp crack and a scream as the Colonel broke the leg of another prisoner.
"I know, Pavel," sighed Steve, "But 15% mortality is not 77%. Osama saved the good stuff for us. He wanted to take over your land, and so he threw the worst against us. God is an Iron." he said.
"God is a what?" said the younger man, confused.
"Sorry, Pavel, your English is good, but that is a little convoluted. Most English-speakers would not understand the joke, either." he laughed sourly. "A glutton indulges in gluttony, so an iron indulges in...Irony."
"I don't understand." Said Pavel.
"Hellpox should have killed us all. Should have left an empty wasteland from Mexico to Canada."
"God let some of us live. Some of the older folk, vaccinated for smallpox, and almost all of the people vaccinated under the military medical program...we lived. " He checked the loads in his pistol.
"And of that number, of those who survived, about one in five is Koschei Besmerytni. We all bear the scars. If there is anyone in America who did not get the Hellpox, we've never found them."
"For a time, I doubted that God existed. But then I thought about it, and I realized God exists." He spat again, his eyes cold. "God spared the one group of Americans most able to exact revenge."
He used the olive drag "boonie towel" to wipe his face. "And so we are Koschei Besmerytni - the Terrible Undying Ones who walk the Earth like a force of nature." He took a drag from his canteen."
Pavel still looked confused. "But to be immortal. It has been a dream of the ages. You act as though it were a curse."
"It is a curse." said Steve. "We are, as we were the day we came down with the Hellpox. Our bodies are locked to the patterns they were in on that day. I will always have this 48-year-old body. If I have surgery to correct the three ruptured discs in my back, I will be "healed" back to that condition. I have a prostrate tumor. It has gotten no bigger in three years, it probably never will. But if I have surgery, it grows back. Shoot me, and my body will expel the bullet and heal the wound. Cut off my hand and it will grow back. But I will always have an aching back, an inflamed prostate, and a never-ending procession gallbladder stones. Forever, or until God in his mercy allows me to die."
Pavel had never considered that aspect of immortality.
"I vowed on the memory of all my dead, that I only wish to live until I have cleaned the world of their killers." said Steve. He wiped the sweat of the tropical heat from his brow. "You ever read Kipling, Pavel? I understand he's popular in Russia. Don't know about your people."
"I've read almost all of his work." Said Pavel. "He's best in the original Russian." He stated with a straight face.
"My favorite is "McDonough's Song" said Steve.
" Holy State or Holy King-
Or Holy People's Will-
Have no truck with the senseless thing.
Order the guns and kill!"
"Make no mistake about it, Pavel" Steve said. "We have the tools, we have the will, we have the time. They will die, all of them, and all their friends. And that horror will never rise again."