Chapter Sixteen: Unrivaled

Rule Zero: Thou Shalt Not Taunt Murphy.

"Actual, this is Hammer One."

"One, Hammer Actual, go ahead."

"Interrogative. Breach or exterminate?"

"One, breach." Colonel James Creden grinned. "We'll let the infantry mop up behind us. We've got a war to win."

"Understood, Actual. One out."


"Sir, we've gotten nearly everyone behind cover," called one of the officers across the command center. Commander Karrde looked up, sighing, and nodded.

"Colonel Franklin back yet?"

"No, sir. His men are pinned down. Nod elements are breaking off to surround his position."

"Understood," Karrde whispered, looking over the battlefield, and began issuing additional deployment orders. "FAC, assign Type Three air cover to five kilometers west of the Pentagon."

"Understood, enabling Type Three air cover," his forward air controller replied. That meant that the entire area west of the Pentagon was open to bombing at the discretion of the pilots in question. In effect, he'd just marked the area as a free-fire zone.

"This is it," the commander said, steeling himself.

The world shivered as Nod finally began their assault on the Pentagon itself.


"Can it work?"

"Well, we don't have the expertise here to synch up the computers with the sensors,"

"I don't care," Major Jess Howell muttered, her voice echoing inside the interior of the tank's turret. "Can your rig up the goggles to a monitor?"

"Yeah," replied the Predator's former commander, a Master Sergeant named Davis. "But not to the targeting computer. Software doesn't recognize the goggles."

"Different manufacturers," Howell grunted. "Just wire them into a monitor. We'll just rely on standard crosshairs instead of the targeting computers." She looked back toward the man working on the autoloader, a Corporal Wilkins. "How's the loader?"

"Fucked," muttered Wilkins. "Looks like a solid penetrating shot."

"Can you fix it?" she asked, and he sighed.

"This place isn't exactly a parts depot," he said. "And half the broken pieces need a full overhaul."

"Right," Howell said, grunting.

This wasn't her tank, nor was it theirs. Havoc's people had found it partially disabled during one of their sweeps, with the crew killed by Nod militia who had grenaded the hatch and shot up the interior. The militia had met Havoc's people a couple minutes later, who gladly returned the favor.

She hadn't asked what happened to Davis' tank, or why they seemed to be missing their driver.

"Going to have to load by hand, then," Davis mused, and she nodded. Outside the tank, they hard a clanging sound, a familiar noise to any tanker, and Howell popped her head out of the sweaty turret. Down below, Colonel Nick Parker was standing by the tank, a wrench in hand.

"Major," he called up to her.

"Sir?"

"Don't call me that. One of the radio jockeys got an intercept, I'm taking three guys to go check it out. You're in charge 'till I get back."

"What?" she asked, caught off-guard, but before she could protest, Parker tossed the wrench aside and hurried across the warehouse to a waiting Nod buggy.

"Um, okay," she called after him. " . . . thanks?"


Shrapnel rained around him. A man screamed nearby. Corpsmen ran from body to body. Explosions ran up and down the line, the three-meter wide concrete barrier blasted and shattering under constant rocket and mortar fire. The autocannons and railgun towers roared and chattered.

PFC Cale Winters was exhausted. He was bleeding from his mouth where he'd bitten his tongue, and he'd had to get a replacement helmet when his original was damaged by shrapnel. This one wasn't synched up to the company network, and he'd had to pull the connection on his HUD to keep from getting conflicting information.

His hands were numb. He'd spent all but two of his grenade drums, and had thrown all of his compliment of disc grenades. Now he was down to a bandoleer of regular frag, concussion, incendiary, flashbang, and gas grenades, along with a drum of white phosphorous grenades and a half-drum of explosive grenades, and his GD45 sidearm.

The launcher clicked, and he realized he was down to one drum.

They came across the hundreds of meters of open space between the Pentagon and the civilian structures. Light assault vehicles, Scorpion tanks, Reckoner APCs, infantry groups boiling between them like a dark tide of militia. Rivers of tracers flew back and forth from the civilian structures as riflemen, snipers, and machinegunners poured fire into the defenders' lines.

The field between the buildings and the Pentagon became littered with burning corpses, both human and machine. Dozens of light vehicles had been destroyed by rocket and grenade fire, and yet more came on, maneuvering around the bodies of the ruined vehicles. Infantry bounded from cover to cover, using the ruined hulks of transports and tanks as barricades and shelter.

Cale began firing his remaining grenades, arcing them over enemy cover to explode in the air and rain shards of boiling-hot phosphorous on them from overhead. He could hear their screams even over the ruckus of war on all sides of him.

Men fell all around him. The grass and concrete were stained with blood, the sky corrupted by smoke, fires stabbing into the morning sky. Explosions ripped up the ground and hurled body parts into the air. Dust clogged and choked. Brass casings rained to the concrete.

They fought on.


They were close to achieving breakthrough.

Commander Logan Rawne leaned back in his chair, watching his chess pieces advance. He had lost countless troops and vehicles thus far, but he had a glut of resources on hand. He cared nothing for his losses; he knew any true brother or Sister would give his or her life gladly for the cause.

The Avatars walked closely behind the main advance, almost ready to strike the defense line that remained at the Pentagon. He had two companies of elite airborne troops ready in carryalls, as well as two more battalions of regular airborne infantry waiting his orders. Reinforcements of Spectre artillery platforms were sliding into place to provide the final supporting punch. GDI's reinforcements were cut off, surrounded, or blocked.

Everything was going according to plan, and it would take an act of God to stop this advance.

He sent his artillery their targets, and followed by giving the airborne forces their deployment orders as well. The Spectres began firing, and the Avatars strode forward.


Corporal Tanner Bowles stumbled over a chunk of debris, bumping it with his foot and nearly taking a painful spill to the asphalt. He steadied himself and rose, bounding across the street. He could hear the clanking and clatter of engineers setting up weapons emplacements, and the dull tremors of Scorpion tanks sliding into prepared firing positions. The road itself was strewn with vehicles the troops had dragged or driven into place to form makeshift barricades, and he could see troops digging into firing holes or taking positions inside buildings lining the river bank.

His light infantry company, supported by a couple squads of Scorpions, was turning this stretch of critical road into an impenetrable killing zone. The GDI forces east of them would have to cross this bridge to reach the Pentagon, and their orders were to hold and delay them on this side of the river for as long as physically possible.

Scrambling over another barricade, Bowles dropped down into a makeshift fighting hole, lading next of a heavyset man leaning over a light machinegun, peering through a slit in the rubble he'd piled up half an hour previously.

"Dougherty," grunted Bowles, grinning, and the machinegunner looked up as the corporal tossed him a sealed brown bag. "Happy birthday."

"Birthday was three months ago," Doughterty grunted, picking up the bag.

"Little belated, I know," Bowles replied, grinning, opening his own bag.

"GDI MREs," Dougherty said, and a smile spread across his own features. "Chicken fajita. Never had one of those before. Where'd you get it?"

"Travis and the guys over in Third were checking a GDI APC that we hit with rockets over thataway," Bowles gestured. "Found a pile of MREs inside." He began to fish chunks of dried, pre-cooked meat out of the tray inside the bag.

"And Third Platoon just let you have some of their food?" Dougherty asked, pulling out a bag of tart candies and starting on them.

"Oh no, it took some spectacular exploits of daring thievery on my part," grinned Bowles. "Real Solid Snake stuff, you know."

Dougherty chuckled. Solid Snake was an in-joke for their platoon; one of the troopers had stumbled across a mint-condition NES while looting a vault back in Illinois, with a half-dozen games still operating on it, even after sixty years. They'd all played the original Metal Gear game religiously.

"Tell you what, if we run into any deadly Zanzibar hamsters out here, I think-

Bowles paused as they heard footsteps behind them, and they looked up, to see Sergeant Zherron walking over their fighting hole, his infra-red goggles still sitting on his forehead.

"Enjoying your meal, men?" he asked, and both soldiers nodded.

"Good," he continued. "Don't puke it up when GDI gets here."

"Are they on the way?" Bowles asked, and Zherron nodded.

"News just came down from battalion. We've almost taken the Pentagon, we just need a few more hours to secure the building. Infidels are trying to get reinforcements to bolster their lines, so we've got to keep them off that bridge."

"Can't we just blow the bridge?" Dougherty asked, and Zherron shrugged.

"I suggested that to the lieutenant, and he said we were going to 'need them intact to maintain forward momentum and retain the initiative.'"

"In other words, battalion doesn't want to waste time having the engineers build new bridges," grunted Bowles, and Zherron shrugged again.

"'The ways of our illustrious commanders are mysterious and wise, and we must only do as they command, for they are the words of the Messiah himself,'" Zherron quoted, and the two troopers in the hole chuckled.

"If they come this way, save your fire for the infantry," Zherron added, all business now. "Company might call for an infantry counter-charge and flanking maneuver if they send only armor our way. Make sure your charges are ready."

Bowles nodded, tapping the pair of shaped tiberium-based explosive charges he had in a pouch on his belt.

"Just need to hit the timer, sarge," he said, and Zherron nodded.

"Good hunting," he added, and moved off to check on the rest of the squad.

"How long do you think we've got?" Dougherty asked, settling back over his machinegun, and Bowles shrugged.

"GDI's getting desperate," he replied, smiling. "These idiots never expected us to attack like this. Probably rolling everything they've got just to-"

"CONTACT!"

Both soldiers jerked at the yell, coming about fifty meters to their left. Bowles shouldered his rifle as he dropped his MRE, moving forward to cover.

Then there was noise, and darkness.

Bowles blinked, his head aching and feeling like he was drowning a kilometer below the ocean. He shook his head, trying to rise, and could feel powerful vibrations in all directions. The early morning sky, hazy and unclear, was streaked with smoke and fire, and he could feel the vibrations of firing weapons. The shockwaves of booming cannons resounded on all sides of him, and a hand reached down to grab him.

"Bowles, up! On your feet, Corporal!"

It was Zherron. His infrared goggles were pulled down over his eyes, his rifle was in one hand, and a hunk of Bowles' tattered combat vest was in the other as he dragged the dazed corporal to his feet.

"What happ-" Bowles began, but stopped as he saw Dougherty.

The machinegunner's left flank was shredded. Stone was embedded in his body, a dozen hunks of concrete and shiny mirror-asphalt buried in his flank. He lay across his machinegun, and the wrapper for his MRE was draped over his face. Somehow, seeing that brown paper bag on his friend's head was more obscene than any deliberate marking or disfigurement.

"We're under fire, Bowles!" Zherron yelled, steadying the corporal. "Get your ass on the line! Half the squad is down, we need everyone we-"

Zherron flew apart at the waist, and the explosion of an object whipping past faster than the speed of sound hit Bowles a second later, knocking him off his feet. He struggled to regain his footing, pushing off the broken ground, and found his chest was coated in Zherron's blood and bits of flesh. Half the sergeant's body was missing, the other half broken into a dozen semi-liquefied pieces. The stink of ruptured intestines filled the little fighting hole.

Bowles retched onto the ground, and heard a massive explosion behind him. He stumbled forward, covered in blood and vomit, and his boot hit Zherron's goggles.

He numbly picked them up, noticing distantly that they'd fallen off his head somehow, and then stumbled to the nearest hunk of debris that would shield him from incoming fire. He fumbled with the goggles, putting them on, and the world became a series of whites, blacks, and grays. Moving more on instinct than anything else, Bowles raised his weapon to his shoulder and leaned around the corner of the piece of masonry he crouched behind.

The goggles were broken, he realized. They were showing massive heat signatures, coming from the buildings down the road, but the buildings weren't staying still. They were growing large, their heat signatures flaring every few seconds, accompanied by nearby explosions, and-

Bowles was a tough man. He'd faced the nastiest horrors in his piece of shithole Yellow Zone without blinking. Yet, the sudden horrified realization that hit him at that moment made the corporal void himself, which only marginally worsened the stink in the blood-soaked fighting hole.

The heat he was seeing on his new goggles wasn't coming from buildings.

He tore off the goggles, the rifle falling slack in his fingers, even as he felt the horrible rumbling. Staring down the street, fear hammered his heart, and Bowles realized that the massive, oncoming forms were still half a kilometer away.

The air shattered, and a Scorpion simply ceased to exist, replaced by flying hunks of metal and fire. A thunderbolt fell upon their lines, blowing apart cover and sending men - and the pieces thereof - hurtling through the air. Rockets, laser beams, cannon shells, even machinegun fire rippled back toward the advancing shapes rolling through the haze and gloom, but seemed to have no effect. Bowles watched, fascinated and horrified, as lasers simply dissipated against unyielding ceramic plating, cannon shells bounced off harmlessly, and rockets exploded without effect against the impregnable hulls.

They answered, and the world shattered in all directions, incoming shells blowing apart metal, ceramic, stone, and asphalt. He heard yells, screams of pain and panic, furious prayers, an officer yelling and firing his service pistol at a couple of fleeing soldiers.

The world shook again, and then again. Dust and smoke filled the air, and then Bowles was hurled off his feet. He rolled underneath as battered car, and then began to crawl away. A Scorpion blew apart, its twisted, half-molten cannon bouncing past and skidding to a halt nearby. Bowles scrambled and crawled, moving through oil slicks, shattered glass, pools of blood and body parts. A hand flopped to the ground nearby, still clutching part of an M16 MkII's handle and trigger group.

He felt more than heard the pitiful attempts at return fire from his own comrades, and the answer sent the world shivering on all sides. Bowles managed to get out from underneath the car, and ran into a nearby building, even as machinegun fire stitched the ground around him. He stole a glimpse toward the oncoming forms, and his heart leapt into his throat -now they were no more than two hundred meters away, their immense, boxy shapes crunching over vehicles and barriers with impunity. They belched fire and hell, shattering carefully-constructed defenses like they were made of paper and glass.

An RPG team hurried into the little storefront Bowles had taken shelter inside, and frantically began setting up to fire. He stared at them, dumbfounded at their idiocy or courage. Then he rose, running out the back of the building, even as they fired. He heard the snap-whoosh of their outgoing missiles, and dove for cover through a doorway into an alley at the rear of the building.

He heard and felt the storefront cave in when the inevitable retaliation came. A chunk of the building a few meters ahead of him blew out as the shell continued on, as nothing as simple as a dozen layers of concrete and metal would slow it down. Bowles rose and scrambled, still clutching his rifle, and emerged from the alley, looking for reinforcements or allies.

The ground shuddered beneath him, and he heard the roar of an engine, suddenly so close and personal. The grinding noise of its treads sent spikes of pain through his head, and as he looked up, he saw it.

Twenty meters away, rolling down the street, was a building.

No, not exactly, but it might as well have been. It was like a house had simply risen up on treads, sprouted a pair of cannons and machineguns, and decided to wreak havoc on everything before it. The slab of metal and armor alloys shuddered down the street, crushing cars like insects, its cannon booming with such force that it ruptured Bowles' eardrums and shattered glass in all directions. He dropped to one knee as blood splattered down his cheeks from his ears, and then saw movement.

On the back of the building-sized tank was a man halfway out of the top hatch, manning a machinegun. The man and his weapon were like a joke, compared with the sheer size of the tank. For an instant, he considered raising his rifle and trying to pick the man off, but then the machinegunner glanced his way. His mouth opened, and the machinegun swung toward Bowles.

The corporal dropped his rifle, raising his hands, to ward off the incoming fire or just to surrender, he didn't know himself. He opened his own mouth to yell something, but then the machinegun roared. The alley was filled with bullets, whipping shrapnel, and blood.

As the corporal's body fell to the concrete, the oblivious Mammoth-27 rolled down the street, its cannon raining thunderbolts on the enemy before it.


He heard gunfire up the corridor, and broke into a dead run.

Colt could hear Russell's shouts echoing down the hallway, and knew he was engaged when the roar of a laser weapon resounded from the same direction. Russell screamed, and continued firing, and then there were several more laser blasts. There was more shouting, violent cursing, and several vicious impacts, and then . . . silence.

He slowed, fingers clutching his GD2 tightly. Silence drifted through the empty apartment building, and in its wake came a sickening uncertainty. There was no doubt in his mind that Russell had not made it out of that encounter intact, but at the same time the corporal knew he couldn't leave Russell without making sure he was okay.

He edged toward the front of the abandoned apartment building, rifle up at his shoulder, and as he listened, Colt could hear panting and pained moaning. He moved up, weapon ready, finger over the trigger.

He stepped into the front lobby of the building, and saw Russell lying on the floor, facedown, helmet off. There was a stink of cooked meat in the air, even through the filter of Colt's rebreather, and he saw smoke issuing from Russell's back and shoulders. He was still alive, breathing heavily but otherwise completely still.

The commando was nowhere to be seen, though that didn't exactly fill Colt with relief. He swept the room with his flashlight and thermal sensors, and didn't detect anything. Very slowly, he edged into the room, crouching beside Russell.

"Hey, its Colt," he whispered, and Russell's head rose to face him. The corporal almost recoiled in shock and horror.

Russell's jaw had been perforated by laser fire.

"What did that bitch do to you?" Colt asked, reaching down to roll the agonized trooper over to check his torso.

The machinegunner tried to speak, his jaw not responding, his arms flopping helplessly. Colt was confused; why would she disable Russell like this if she wanted to-

Russell suddenly shook his head violently and thrashed against Colt as he lifted the wounded man up, and then the corporal caught sight of a flat object underneath his chest.

Russell thrashed again, throwing Colt off a split-second before the mine detonated. The wounded man's body fell across the mine and absorbed the blast, but Colt was lifted bodily and hurled across the room to hammer the wall. His head hit ceramic, and everything went dark for a long, agonizing second.


Dark shapes swarmed across the gaps between burning corpses and broken metal. Rockets flew back and forth, detonating among the advancing Nod tanks and blowing chunks out of the wall. Screaming mortars exploded on all sides, pelting the defenders with shrapnel. Burnt flesh and corpse-stink choked their way through rebreathers. Over the din of war, the chants of Nod soldiers could be heard, led by the tall-helmed confessors, and the militia rushed through gunfire that would drop sane men. The stimulants pumping through their blood kept them standing and firing and charging until their bodies were shredded.

It was hell.

Winters swept his grenade launcher toward the oncoming enemy, even as a Scorpion exploded less than two dozen meters ahead. Shrapnel deflected off the plating covering his body, and he ducked behind cover. As soon as the debris stopped raining, he rose.

"KANE LIVES!"

A Nod soldier, not five meters away, face twisted in euphoric fanaticism, charged at him, firing his rifle from the hip. Brass rained through the air, bullets bounced and shattered concrete and deflected off the trooper's armor.

Cale fired. His grenade lanced straight into the soldier's chest, leaving a white trail of smoke and knocking the man backward. White phosphorous burst from the grenade a heartbeat later, setting the man's fatigues ablaze. He howled in agony, twisting and thrashing, but Cale paid him no more mind.

More Nod troops were charging around the corpse of the Scorpion, scrambling toward the wall. They ran over debris, firing rifles, tossing grenades, yelling battle cries and fervent chants. Cale spun toward a pair running toward him, their rifles blazing, and fired.

The grenade launcher clicked empty. He dropped the weapon and drew a frag grenade off his chest. He depressed the spoon, and pulled the pin, and electrical fuse inside the grenade began counting down. He chucked the explosive into the enemy as they swarmed toward him, and then grabbed and lobbed another grenade, and then another.

Then they were too close, and Cale dragged his sidearm out of its holster. He raised the weapon and then felt a vicious punch to one of his legs, and tumbled backward behind the wall.

The pair climbed over the wall a moment later, and his sidearm cracked twice, blowing one soldier's neck apart and punching through the mouth of the other. They toppled off the wall, one of their rifles clattering to the ground beside him. He scrabbled for the weapon, and, despite the insane situation, Cale managed a laugh. It was an AK-47.

Here he was, a GDI soldier, one of the best-equipped warriors in the world, defending the most important building in North America with a half-empty eighty-year old assault rifle.

He tried to stand, but pain flared up his leg as he rose. Cale gasped, rising to one knee, and could see another Nod trooper clambering up over the wall. He shot the man twice in the neck and chest.

Up and down the line, they were coming up and over the wall. Nod soldiers, carried forward by numbers, cover, pain-deadening amphetamines, and raw hatred, hurled themselves at the GDI lines, dying by the dozens and not caring.

Fire sprayed across the fields as flame tanks rumbled forward, bulling through rocket fire and grenades. Scorpion tanks threaded between them, while buggies and rocket bikes zipped through the gaps. Emerging through the smoke-streaked morning air came swooping Vertigos, disgorging payloads across the line, vaporizing both Nod and GDI with equal fury.

And stomping through the smoke and chaos, like detached gods, came the Avatars, hurling ruby thunderbolts for their arm-mounted cannons, red optics arrays boring into the souls of the defenders.

This is it, he thought, shouldering the ancient weapon and firing at another Nod warrior. Time to die, Cale. Second day out of boot.

Fuck me.


"Colt? Colt, respond."

Gutierrez shouldered his rifle, glancing back toward Penlan. The other trooper's head was resting against the wall, and he moved back across the room to check her vitals, linking his HUD to hers. The display indicated that she was still alive, her breath shallow, but she had passed out.

He turned back toward the door, and one of the smart claymores detonated.

"Shit!" he yelled as shards of heated metal whipped about in the corridor outside, and he ducked behind the nearest cover, a boiler of some kind. He leveled his rifle at the entrance to the room.

Silence. He crouched, listening intently to his own breathing. Had the mine gotten the commando? His own breath was sounded ragged in his ears, and he paused to swallow.

Out the corner of his eye, Gut saw movement, and spun-

A blue-white laser burst lanced across the room, severing Gut's GD2 just ahead of the trigger group. The metal front of the rifle clattered to the floor, glowing white where it had been blown apart, and he hissed as shards of shrapnel cut through his armor around his chest and left forearm.

She was in the room with him.

Gut rolled around the boiler, drawing his sidearm, mind racing as he tried to figure out how she'd bypassed the claymore. He didn't know how it was physically possible.

Movement. He fired at a flicker across the room, and three rounds punched into the wall, hurling chunks of masonry into the air.

Stillness.

He spun, eyes hunting around the room as he moved to put his back to a wall. Fear welled up inside him, making his steady pistol grip shake. Gritting his teeth, Gut stilled his hands, making sure he was holding the weapon properly: left hand supporting gun hand, weapon firmly in hand, sights aligned.

Seven meters ahead, near the door-

Crack-cracrack!

Then she was there, dancing around his bullets like some goddamned Japanese ani-

He took a step back, and a blade slashed across the front of his HUD, cutting a crease through the visor. He snapped forward, smashing the butt of the handgun down with one hand while the other snapped forward the grab the attacker's passing arm.

He struck only air, fingers grasping at nothing, and then his gun hand's wrist flared in agony. He stumbled backward, pistol clattering to the floor and blood splattering across the concrete. Through his rebreather, Gut could smell the copper tang.

He managed to draw his knife, and then a blue-white beam - thin and narrow, like the one that had maimed Penlan - hit him in his shoulder, blowing apart armor. Gut toppled backward, clutching his wound, hearing his knife clatter away.

She's toying with me.

"Fuck," he breathed. "Fuck. Fuck . . . you . . . ."

His fingers were going numb, but he still had enough strength in his left arm to pull a grenade off his belt. He glanced to Penlan, seeing her a safe distance away, and depressed the spoon on the fragmentation grenade.

You may kill me, he thought. I'll be damned if I let you get Penlan, too.

Gut rolled over as he saw movement, and he pulled the pin, triggering the grenade's electrical fuse. His arm pumped, chucking the grenade at the commando even as he saw another blue flash of killing light.


Breath pumped out of Sandra Telfair's lungs as she ran. She hurried down the alley, and thought she heard the boots of pursuing Nod soldiers close behind her. She reached the mouth of the alley, looking up and down the street. She saw nothing but abandoned vehicles, debris, and the occasional corpse.

Where were the civilians? Were they all hiding in their homes? Maybe she could find shelter-

Gunfire sounded behind her, and the wall beside her exploded. She broke into a run as she heard yelling. She dashed across the street, ducking and weaving between cars to keep cover between herself and her pursuers.

They wouldn't shoot her. They needed her alive, and as long as she kept out of reach and kept running east toward the GDI lines, she'd be safe.

Bullets slammed into the car she was passing, and another shot over her shoulder, an inch from hitting her.

They'd changed their minds. Now they were shooting at her. Shit.

She ducked into another alley, cursing at herself for her panicked stupidity. If she'd kept under control, if she'd not lost her cool when she saw another Black Hand, she might still have a working weapon. And what blind panic had made her throw the gun away? She could have used it as a club, worst came to worst . . . .

She reached the other end of this alley, and looked back over her shoulders, to see another Nod trooper appear at the far end, raising his rifle. He began to yell, and she broke into a run, emerging from the alley to-

The roar of an engine sliced through Sandra's ears, and a Nod buggy charged down the street and stopped in front of her.

No. Goddammit, no.

She turned to run, but the only way to retreat was back down the alley, and now there were multiple Nod troops running toward her, and then, looming behind them, a Black Hand.

She was trapped. The buggy loomed in front of her, machinegun swinging to cover her.

"Freeze!" yelled a voice from inside the buggy. "Don't move! Hands in the air!"


The grenade clattered across the floor, top half smoking.

No. No . . . .

She'd shot the grenade's electrical fuse off before it could trigger the explosives inside.

Goddamn high-tech piece of shit.

Gut sank back to the floor, jaw agape as she stalked across the room, finally becoming visible as she shrugged off her camouflage field: a lithe woman in a dark red and black bodysuit, eyes covered in a mask that looked almost a part of her skull and face. Maybe it was.

"Good job," the woman said, and he thought she was smiling.

The laser pistol rose, centered his head, and she squeezed the trigger.

His helmet blew apart, the beam vaporizing Gutierrez's skull and brain in an instant.

The commando paused, looking around the room with a quick flick of her eyes, and stepped over the dead soldier's body. She moved toward the remaining trooper in the room, slumped against the wall. Penlan lay still, the faint, shallow breaths betraying the fact that she still lived. The commando crouched in front of her, examining her still body.

Lieutenant Cristos considered her options. She could easily just kill the infidel where she lay, but a live prisoner was preferable, and unlike GDI, the Brotherhood had something resembling a moral code. She'd call in a squad to secure the prisoner and move her out, and then would . . . .

She froze, and then slowly turned toward the entrance to the room, just as Corporal Colt came around the doorframe, rifle raised.

He saw the commando for a heartbeat, and guessed what was happening an instant before the Nod soldier vanished, and he spun back around the doorframe. An eyeblink later, a blue-white beam slashed through the wall mere millimeters from his shoulder.

Run, run, run. Penlan's not dead, but she'll be happy to kill you. Move, now!

Colt broke into a run, over the remaining smart claymore, and prayed it would be enough to slow down the commando before she put a laser beam through his torso. He thought he heard her behind him, and then the claymore exploded.

He didn't stop to check. He charged up the hallway toward the entrance, left hand rising to his chest webbing and snatching a flashbang. He primed and chucked it over his shoulder, gritting his teeth when it blew a second later.

Colt ducked around a corner, and a laser beam punched through the wall beside him, singeing the back of his helmet.

Shit, shit, shit!

She was right behind him. He could feel the commando's eyes burning into him, the cybernetic implants and augmetics casually lining him up and bringing the laser pistol into the center of his back, her finger gently squeezing the trigger.

He leapt over Russell's mangled body and ran out into the street outside. He didn't pause to check at the entrance, and for all he knew he was running headlong into the Annual Black Hand Taco Fiesta.

The street was empty, save for debris and corpses, both machine and man. He spent a heartbeat looking around, and then ran to his left. Just as he turned, a laser beams slashed across his back, boiling away armor, and he cried out in pain. Stumbling forward, Colt dove behind a car, spinning around to bring his rifle to bear even as the commando whispered out of the building. She whirled toward him, laser pistol rising too fast for him to see, and he fell back behind the car as she cored the engine compartment with three rapid bursts. She walked toward him, pistol firing rapidly, bracketing either end of the car with dazzling shards of killing light.

Colt dropped to his belly, pointing his rifle under the car, and fired at her feet.

Between the point where he achieved sight alignment and pulled the trigger, Cristos was already running toward the car and vaulting over it. She landed on the roof, leveling her pistol at Colt's back even as he wondered where she'd gone. She smiled, and then began to squeeze the trigger.

Then her head exploded.


"Good kill. Target down," Corporal Terrence said, watching the decapitated commando's body topple on top of the confused and startled soldier below.

Beside him, Sergeant "Simo" Havers grunted and peeled his eye off his sniper rifle's scope. He was right. Good, clean kill.


The sky screamed in protest, and eyes turned upward just as explosions rippled across the ground, spreading over the killing field west of the Pentagon like rivers of hell spilling over the land. Napalm and cluster munitions toppled and detonated, setting the sky and the dirt ablaze in equal frenzy, and those who could still see into the air spotted the forward-swept wings of jet fighters as they howled past.

The Firehawks stooped and twisted, unleashing their payloads: ground strike munitions, half-ton bombs, cluster munitions and guided missiles loaded with napalm and high explosive. Overhead, other Firehawks whirled and hunted, keeping the sky clear from Venom incursion while their comrades inflicted agony on the ground.

They weaved back and forth, loosing missiles and bombs, two dozen lithe angels slicing apart the sky like whirling scimitars. Tanks exploded, light vehicles burned, and Nod soldiers scattered when their positions were pounded by whipping shrapnel and ribbons of rapacious flame.

Moments later, the cries of another breed of engine filled the sky, and the Orcas pounced, speeding over the dead zone. Missiles rained from their belly pods while cannons chattered. Shell casings rained by the thousands as they weaved up and down the Nod lines, emptying their magazines in a frenzy of airborne wrath.

In the span of a minute, two squadrons of Firehawks and a squadron of Orcas had cut a swathe through fifty Nod tanks, a hundred light vehicles, and several hundred enemy soldiers, leaving a wilderness of fire and twisted metal in their wake. Then, they peeled off, their munitions expended.

Then, in the wake of the steel rain, the ground quaked.

The infantry didn't notice it at first, as they were locked in deadly close-combat with dozens of enemy soldiers who had still reached the walls. Rifles and knives clashed as GDI and Nod soldiers met atop and below the walls of the Pentagon, snarling and shouting, bleeding and dying atop one another. None of them could feel the shiver of the earth, save for the impacts of the Avatars as they strode forward into the burnt landscape, or the distant, light grinding of Scorpion treads as they moved to fill the gaps left by their predecessors. This was something different, something deeper and mightier.

The first to see it were the pilots of the quartet of Nod carryall aircraft swooping over the Pentagon, preparing to drop two companies of elite air-assault infantry east of the building. They managed to begin veering off, pilots yelling in surprised and worried voices, before a volley of missiles tore through their craft, blasting them into flaming wreckage and raining soldiers.

Two Pentagon Guards on the north side of the wall saw it next, as they were firing on advancing Nod troops. They felt the rumbles, and looked back behind them to the northwest, and their hearts hit their throats.

The third to see it were the Nod soldiers fighting them - but only for a few heartbeats, until their world exploded all around them. The air cracked, the ground shook, and the sound barrier protested with ear-breaking rage as it was horribly violated.

The rumbling grew more pronounced, and now it was noticeable - as were the distant, almost unheard cheers from the northern wall. Eyes turned north - or at least, those not locked on the chaos before them - and they saw a cloud of dust rising above the Pentagon, and could now acutely feel the roar and thunder of the shivering soil beneath their feet.

The first of them came into view through the smoke and debris, crunching over shattered tanks and buggies, grinding corpses under its treads, and the pair of titanic cannons in its main turret spat twin bolts of judgment that split a pair of Scorpions down the middle.

Then they could see another. And another. And another.

They spoke, rippling bursts of fury that blew armored vehicles to flaming debris.

"Armor!" screamed one of the GDI soldiers, both hands shooting up in the air in wild joy as another deafening explosion echoed across the grounds of the Pentagon, and more massive forms rumbled through the dust and smoke. They were a storm of steel, ceramic, chobham, and hypervelocity railgun shells, a slow moving hurricane of fury and blood and engines and explosive death.

The Mammoth Tanks of the 2nd Heavy Armor were on the field.


She heard the boots close in behind her, and fought back tears. No. Not now, not when she was so close.

She raised her hands, numb with disbelief.

"Keep your hands up!" yelled one of the militia, moving in close behind her. His shadow fell over her.

"Get down on the ground," yelled the voice from the buggy. She considered leaping up and running, knowing that they would hesitate to shoot her. But they were too close, she was unarmed, and . . . .

So damn close.

Sandra slowly knelt to the ground, and started to lay down. By now, she heard more men gathering behind her, and she looked back. The Black Hand - the one whose helmet she'd destroyed - was with them. All of the Nod troops had weapons leveled at her.

"Get on the ground, now!" yelled the man in the buggy, and she laid down, closing her eyes as she felt the cold asphalt press against her cheek.

Noise. Tight, close, powerful, a shuddering burst of sound that ripped through the air. Sandra realized it was gunfire, and for an instant she clenched in terror - had they decided to just execute her?

She felt impacts all around her, and the rational part of her mind realized she was still alive. The gunfire itself was too loud, too fast, and too distant to be the soldiers' rifles.

And then it was quiet. She heard footsteps, running toward her, and looked up.

The trio of Nod soldiers and the Black Hand were down, their bodies riddled with bullets, blood splattered all over the alleyway. And the men rushing toward her were in familiar battle armor, holding GD2s-

"Ma'am, are you injured?" yelled one of the soldiers as he reached her, crouching beside her, while the other covered the alley. "Ma'am, are you hurt?"

"N-no," she stammered, shocked and confused and disoriented, even as the soldier - a GDI soldier - helped her to her feet.

"Ma'am, we have to hurry," he said, leading her toward the buggy, and she understood. They'd ordered her to lay down so they could hose the alley with the buggy's machinegun. But what were GDI troops doing with a Nod buggy?

The side door opened, and the soldier helped her inside. As she clambered into the dark, tight, but infinitely welcome confines, the two soldiers climbed in after her. The buggy shot off immediately, the gunner swinging the weapon around in its turret to cover their rear.

I'm safe, she thought. It felt impossible. She was safe.

"Who . . . ?" she managed beginning to recover from the shock.

The man operating the machinegun looked down at her and grinned, and she stared. She knew this man.

"Name's Havoc," replied the burly old man, nodding as he saw the look on Sandra's face. His smile faded. "And its fine. You're welcome."


From the west they loomed, striding forward with arms outstretched, and sent forth shards of ruby destruction that seared the eyes of the men watching below. Smoke and dust and flames rose from a field of broken corpses and twisted metal, wrapping about them and billowing off blackened carapace. They pushed through the hellish cloaks of dust and choking black stink, their eyes shining in the gloom, spears piercing into the defenders.

"Deploy to cover the withdrawal. Pull everything back into the urbanized areas. We need the cover."

From the north, riding a wave of billowing dust, they came on, belching thunderbolts that shattered the sky and the smoke and the eardrums of the cheering men at the wall. They were beasts, but more than that: a massive, rolling river of dust and steel and chobham and engine oil and escaping fumes and whirling fusion generators that scarred the land with their passing. They were inexorable, their weapons thundering, their engines roaring, and their hides impenetrable.

"Maneuver two squads south to cover the southern approach. All units advance at a one hundred meter spread. Predators support from the rear, use the heavies for cover! Maneuver, goddammit, maneuver!"

The Avatars met the Mammoths on the open field, and battle was joined.

The dust and the fire and the smoke and the hellish haze rose up, clouding the battlefield as crimson beams and blasting thunderbolts filled the air. The entire world shuddered, and every crack of a railgun firing was like a fist to the ears. For the men standing on or lying behind the wall, there was nothing out there they could see through the fog of war but the glowing lights of the Avatars and their laser cannons. Night vision was useless, thermal was obscured, and normal eyes couldn't hope to penetrate the maelstrom.

But there was noise. That was what they remembered. Both Nod soldiers fleeing to cover in the urban landscape and cheering GDI troops knew nothing of the battle that followed except the hammerfall of chaos: the thundering steps of Avatars, the deadly deep whine of their laser cannons firing, the grinding peals of the treads of the mechanized cavalry resounding like distorted battle cries, and the bone-cracking detonations of their blasting cannons.

It was a Ragnarok in a bottle. Judgment Day in a can. A little slice of the Four Horsemen charging in with horns sounding and seals breaking, of Fenrir snapping his jaws shut on the world, of the universe kicking Bahamut in the crotch to cause the world to tip into the cosmic seas. There was a prelude to the end of the world, and it smashed down and crushed its way through that square kilometer west of the Pentagon, grinding bodies and hurling earth and smashing steel and chobham and Tiberium-reactor-forged metals in a colliding wave of noise and fury.

The air was filled with explosions, and every so often a shape could be seen lumbering in the darkness: a Mammoth lumbering along, an Avatar slipping through the gloom with its guns burning, a Predator rushing past with turret hunting. Nine times, the ground would suddenly and violently shake, accompanied by a low, deep rumble. Each time, the hellish glare of the black shapes rising into the sky would diminish.

Then, finally, there was silence, save the ear-punishing rumble of idling tank engines.

The tank engines, and the ecstatic cheers of the men and women who had been manning the last line.


"All Avatars down," reported the electronic assistant, and Rawne snarled. He silenced the annoying mechanical voice, and punched up a direct line with Temple Prime. Almost immediately, he saw the Messiah's face, and the Commander paused, afraid to tell him of the new development.

"Your Imminence," Rawne began, trying to apologize. "I regret-"

"Save the sycophancy," Kane replied, standing in the heart of his war room and looking at a series of holographic displays. He looked up toward the camera Rawne was viewing him from, and then, he did something that terrified the Commander to the core of his soul.

Kane smiled.

"Report," Kane ordered, looking back toward the display. "Plainly, if you please."

"Yes," Rawne replied, composing himself. "My main forces are within sight of the Pentagon, but we were unable to seize control before GDI reinforcements arrived." He paused, checking the reports, and winced. "A GDI armored division has responded and is engaging our assault forces across the Washington D.C. front. They have heavy armor, artillery . . . Mammoth Tanks."

"The Mammoth, yes," Kane said, smiling, as if at some private joke. "GDI's favored workhorse." He glanced toward Rawne. "Why are you afraid of them? They are only machines."

"I am not afraid of them," Rawne replied, frowning. "I simply respect them."

"Yes, as well you should," Kane said, nodding.

"I am requesting reinforcements," Rawne adding, bringing up theater force strengths on his display. "My Avatars are down and my initial assault forces don't have the firepower to defeat a heavy armored division in a direct confrontation. If I move in our follow-up forces and reserves, I can have another hundred Avatars and a hundred thousand infantry and attached armor units inside the city in a few days. If we regroup, we can-"

"Withdraw your forces, while GDI tries to catch its breath," Kane ordered, looking up. Rawne froze.

"What?"

"Regroup and withdraw," Kane said, turning back to his display. "Consolidate your holdings and prepare for a counterattack."

"Your Imminence?" Rawne asked, confused. "GDI is still reeling. A swift follow-up can still break them, even if they have Mammoth Tanks and artillery units."

"They recovered faster than anticipated, but that is acceptable," Kane said, almost to himself. He turned to Rawne again. "Attacking now, charging directly into their forces, is playing to GDI's strength. We held a momentary advantage, and now that advantage is slipping. They want us to assault again, to put our armies into a meat grinder with theirs. GDI has always won in a straightforward engagement with the Brotherhood, you know this."

"But-"

"It is time we fell back to our strengths, Commander," Kane said, and he smiled again. "We have played by GDI's rules, and now they will play the game by ours." The smile vanished. "Withdraw. Regroup. Fortify. GDI will fall upon our troops like an angry god in the coming days, and thus the faithful must be ready to withstand their wrath, so that when the time comes, GDI will feel mine."

"Yes," Rawne replied, closing his eyes and nodding. "I understand."

"Excellent, Commander," Kane declared. "Carry out your orders, and as always, have faith. In the Brotherhood . . . and in me."

Rawne nodded, and then Kane terminated the link, leaving Rawne alone in darkness.


The radio in Colonel Creden's ear chirped, and he switched channels to the division network.

"Hammer Actual, responding," he said.

"Hammer Actual, Bravo Charlie One Pentagon," came the reply, crisp and clear, and that made Creden sit up straight. A second later, his Mammoth's computer flashed a confirmation of the Battle Commander's authority.

"Interrogative, Hammer Actual," the Battle Commander said. "Is there any reason your force has stopped its advance outside the Pentagon, over?"

"Bravo Charlie One Pentagon," Creden replied. "We have orders to hold position to protect the Pentagon from attack, over."

"Hammer Actual, those orders are rescinded. The best defense is a good offense. No reason to let Nod recover. Push them back; we need the entire area west of the Pentagon within five kilometers clear of enemy presence, over."

"Understood, Pentagon," Creden replied, smiling, and cut the feed a few seconds later. He switched back to his regimental radio. "All units, Hammer Actual. New orders. Roll 'em up. Begin advance."

Then, with a shocking roar of one hundred tank engines and the deafening howl of a hundred and twenty cannons, the Predators and Mammoths of the Second Heavy Armor Division began the first GDI counterattack of the Third Tiberium War.


Amidst the blood, corpses, smoke, and debris, Cale Winters slowly limped his way onto the wall, and looked out at the departing Mammoth Tanks. He slowly lowered himself back down to the ground, and took off his helmet. He stared at it in his hands, noticing for the first time a crack in the visor.

He turned to look around, and found he'd lain down beside a corpse: another private, a young woman whose name had been burned off her chestplate, her helmet missing, slack jawed and staring into the air, half-lidded. She would have been decent-looking, were it not for the blood that had bubbled out of her mouth and the shrapnel wound in her temple.

Cale Winters reached over, closing the dead woman's eyes, and then laid his head back against the wall. He hoped they'd stop cheering soon.


A kilometer west, Mitchell Colt met his saviors face-to-face, moments before they hurried downstairs to where Penlan lay, still unconscious. After some consideration and a quick contact with their commander, they sent off their exact location and bunkered down inside the apartment to wait for reinforcements.

Colt made sure to collect everyone's dog tags, and quietly wondered how many people in the next squad he was assigned to would be killed.


Two kilometers south, Allen stood over the bodies of three dead militia and a slain Black Hand. He peered over the corpses for a moment, and then at the bullet-riddled walls on either side. After a few seconds, he sent a cancellation order to the remains of his platoon, and then ordered them to regroup a kilometer west.

They'd lost the prisoner and a half-dozen soldiers, including one of his brothers. How unfortunate.


Another kilometer south, Sandra Telfair stepped out of the captured Nod buggy, and was helped across the warehouse to the resistance force's medic, who examined her. A few minutes later, she heard the Predator and other assorted vehicles in the building rumble to life, and looked up in time to see Colonel Nick Parker clamber on top of the Predator and urge it onward.

She wondered to herself what he was planning, before settling back against the wall and closing her eyes. She was asleep moments later.


Five kilometers west, an orderly led a blind militia private to a medical truck for evacuation. Mari Marona considered refusing the assistance, but knew that would be idiotic, and let herself be led out by the arm, secure in the knowledge that soon she'd be back in fighting shape, thanks to Commander Rawne.

Soon, Marona promised herself. Soon.


Some distance to the north, Jose Alvarez fitted his helmet back on. He paused, admiring one of the surviving portraits of one of the American Presidents, before continuing on, hefting his flamethrower rifle. He stepped outside the White House a few minutes later, and looked up at the Nod banners waving across the edifice's front.

GDI was counter-attacking. Best to meet their advance soon.


One kilometer north of the Pentagon, a team of medics rushed into the heart of an embattled GDI force. The First Pentagon Guards had been surrounded by Nod troops, and only now had just found relief when the Second Heavy Armor had arrived to rescue them. The medics moved the middle of the battalion's position, but when they arrived, they found the man they'd been sent to assist lying limp on the broken asphalt, having bled out from a shrapnel wound to the aorta.

Reginald Franklin of the First Pentagon Guards had been killed trying to break through to the 7th Reserve. He had never seen or even spoken to any of the 7th, and his last words had been an angry curse at Commander Karrde for sending him on this fool's errand.


A half a kilometer west of the Pentagon, in the midst of a ruined building, a battered form in shrapnel-riddled powered armor lay beneath a pile of bricks. The figure inside shifted, coughed, and lingered in a world of pure, blind pain.

Victor Wallace cursed under his breath, and slid back into unconsciousness.


Five kilometers west, Logan Rawne stared at his holographic display, surrounded by darkness, and asked himself how everything had fallen apart so quickly.

Slowly, his arms heavy from an exhaustion he hadn't felt in a long time, he went to work organizing the retreat. In the name of Kane.

For once, that phrase meant little to him.


As the Mammoth Tanks rumbled off to battle, Alexander Karrde let the noise and the chaos slip away. He found a chair, and dropped down into it. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and his hands trembled.

A few seconds later, he slowly rose while rubbing his eyes, and, with steady fingers, keyed his Comcom to bring up the latest casualty estimates, and to direct his belated air cover.

He had work to do.


Forty-nine and a half astronomic units from the primary star of the system, the Mind awoke, for a single second. It looked, it catalogued, and it analyzed.

It went back to sleep just as quickly. Nothing interesting had yet happened on the third planet. All factors and readings were progressing at the predicted rate.


Deep in the land once known as Sarajevo, in the depths of the holiest site of Nod, Kane settled back into his chair. The tips of his fingers came together before him as he looked upon the world and the pawns that danced across it - and beyond - and smiled.

Now, the game could truly begin.


-


Author's Notes: Yeah, that took too long to write. I blame Resident Evil 5.

And that's it for the battle at the Pentagon. Next chapter covers the follow-up, including the recapture of the White House. Expect Boyle to return, along with more Mammoth badassery, and more Black Hand Taco Fiestas.

Yes, I did finally get around to watching most of Generation Kill while writing this chapter, too.

Until next chapter . . . .