Chapter XXIII: Tough Guys

An analysis of the captured components from the Nod vehicles we seized in Egypt crossed my desk this morning. That was the first time in the entire war that I felt that degree of sheer, ass-opening terror.

-General Jack Granger

"Pyramid, this is Caprica Two-One. Contact with unidentified vehicle, range thirty. Feeding it to you, over."

The truck bumped along the rough, paved road running southwest, seventy kilometers from Alexandria. The road had been laid decades ago, but with the collapse of local government no one had been willing to expend the resources to repave it, especially considering it led to what had once been a vast tiberium wasteland. Even the Brotherhood of Nod's seemingly endless resources had a stretching point, it seemed.

"Caprica Two-One, acknowledged. Maintain eyes on target. Vectoring a drone to provide overhead cover, over."

It was an older truck, one of the last of the Toyota lines before the auto manufacturer had been absorbed into GDI decades ago. This one was built for heavy hauling, a big and brawny vehicle even before it had been covered with scrap metal plating and ceramic bolt-on armor. The rear bed had been converted into a small troop hauler, covered with metal and with a heavy machinegun mounted on a swivel. The front grille had been mounted with a heavy metal frame bumper, festooned with short spikes.

"Pyramid, confirm vehicle is armed. Thermal showing three possibles inside, over."

"You sure about this, ma'am?" asked the driver of the truck. He carried a mixed accent of French and Hungarian. "We're driving right into their perimeter. We could just radio them."

"It has to be face to face, Deaton," the woman sitting beside him replied, and shook her head. She had a mutt of an accent: French, British, and Lebanese, with a hint of German in the vowels. "They won't trust radio communication, even with the old ID codes from the second war."

"Caprica Two-One, Pyramid, we can confirm three passengers. Drone will be overhead in one minute, over."

"Yeah, but this is GDI, ma'am," Deaton said. "Likely to just blow us up from the air if they think we're a threat." He glanced around, checking out the slits in the windows. "We shouldn't have used an armed vehicle."

"We're in Egypt, Deaton," the woman replied. "Going around in a truck that isn't armed would be more suspicious."

"Fair point, ma'am."

"Pyramid, Caprica Two-One. Interrogative. Ah, do we need to mark for airstrike, over?"

"Do you think they'd help?" Deaton asked.

"They're smart enough to recognize what we can offer them," she replied.

"Sure about that, ma'am?" Deaton asked, his tone skeptical.

"Have to hope on it," she said with a shrug. "We need them, they need us. We need to be rid of Nod and al-Hazaam's thugs."

"With respect, Captain," Deaton muttered. "You're the last person I'd expect to be relying on hope or faith."

"Caprica Two-One, Pyramid. Mark for airstrike, but remain on standby. Actual is confirming, over."

"Faith is overrated, Deaton," she replied. "Hope is more useful. Makes for more efficient ammo usage."

Deaton barked out a laugh.

"There's the practical, cynical bitch I remember," he said, and she smirked, then checked the laptop beside her.

"Close enough. Let me out here. I'll walk."

"Pyramid, Caprica Two-One, vehicle is stopping, over."

"Caprica Two-One, Pyramid. Acknowledged, over."

She clambered out of the technical, rifle slung across her chest, and started walking away from it. Her heart began to pound in her chest, and she expected a bullet to lance through her lungs or neck any moment from an unseen GDI sniper. She had no idea where they were, but they were out there nonetheless.

The sand blew past in the hot daytime winds, familiar to her after decades in this barren landscape. The hood, shemag and robes over her light armor insulated her from the worst of the wind. Thankfully she didn't have to wear a sealed mask to keep microscopic tiberium particles from getting into her lungs, so the heat wasn't the stifling sort that came with that kind of headgear.

She stepped well away from the vehicle, unslung her rifle, and held it up in the air from the middle of the barrel.

"Pyramid, Caprica Two-One, one foot mobile exiting vehicle. Appears armed. Standby. Foot mobile is moving away from vehicle. Looks like he's holding a weapon in the air, over."

She waited, sweat running down her neck and back, and hoped they understood her intent.

"Pyramid, confirming that, Caprica Two-One. Maintain eyes on target. Actual is dispatching a fireteam to pick them up, over."

First Lieutenant Edward Boyd narrowed his eyes as the trio of Pitbulls rolled down the bumpy, broken road toward the contact point. He'd been out with his platoon on patrol when the Battle Commander had issued them new orders through EVA. He hated it when that happened; most conventional commanding officers actually bothered using the radio instead of networked artificial intelligences who changed orders without any warning. Boyd liked actually getting some warning when his parameters were changed instead a sudden flashing marker that overrode everything he'd previously been doing. Worse still when they did it in combat . . . .

On the Pitbull's console, he could see the marker indicating the unidentified vehicle one kilometer ahead, just beyond the next rise.

"Toaster-Two, move north, maintain five hundred meter distance. Toaster-Three, same to the south," Boyd ordered. He suppressed a smirk. Not every platoon received stylish callsigns like "Hitman" or "Dragon" or "Phalanx." He was lucky he hadn't gotten something even sillier.

The other two Pitbulls veered off, their launchers tracking the target vehicle - or rather, the marker indicating where it was, fed to their targeting systems from telemetry provided by both the sniper-recon team and the overhead drone. Boyd's own Pitbull surged over the hilltop and started down the other side, and he could see the old junker-turned-technical parked half a kilometer away, the lone foot-mobile figure standing about thirty meters closer and with a rifle held high in the air.

"Bring us within fifty meters. We'll dismount. If they try anything, ribbon them." The driver and gunner acknowledged, though he knew that if anyone reacted first, it would be the sniper team providing overwatch.

He slipped his helmet on as they closed in, and sealed the rebreather. His helmet HUD blazed into existence inches from his face, and he linked it to the vehicle's sensors and targeting. As he finished that, the Pitbull ground to a halt just shy of fifty meters from the lone figure. Boyd levered open the passenger door and dismounted, bringing his GD2 up to his shoulder in a move-to-contact position. Behind him, PFC Chuen dismounted and covered their rear.

Boyd strode through the sand, the heat jumping up what felt like fifty degrees, despite the Pitbull's shit air conditioning. The heat of his own breath against his mask didn't help. His boots slogged through the sand, and a not-insignificant part of him worried that even now a microscopic bit of tiberium had dug into his uniform or armor and was festering like a mass of crystal gangrene.

He got within twenty meters of the lone figure, still holding the rifle aloft, before he stopped. He kept the rifle's barrel leveled at the ground a couple meters n front and to the left of the sandy-robed person. Whoever the person was, they were obviously big and well-fed, though he couldn't tell gender through the brown coat, shemag, and robes.

"First Lieutenant Boyd, Global Defense Initiative," he called. "Identify yourself."

The figure lowered the rifle, but didn't set it down in the sand. Instead, the person reached up to the shemag and pulled it off, revealing her face.

He wasn't surprised it was a woman; neither GDI nor Nod care dmuch for gender these days. What did surprise him was the glassy green knobs jutting from her right jaw, cheekbone, and curving over the top of her eyes. Another group of tiberium crystals jutted from her left jaw, and tiny nubs of green poked from her flesh elsewhere.

"My name is Captain Autumn Burke," she said, he voice clear and strong, ringing with an accent that seemed to be a mongrel of British and Turkish, with some German in the vowels. The mutant woman stared back at him with hard brown eyes, even from this distance.

"I have a proposal for GDI, on behalf of the Forgotten."

There were only three variations on the weather around Pyramid Base, Sergeant Colt had come to conclude: clear and hot, sandy and hot, and cloudy and hot. Cloudy and hot, he had determined, was the worst, because that meant everyone had to throw on hoods and seal their BDUs. Cloudy in Egypt meant an ion storm was rolling by, and that meant flight ops were grounded, tiberium particles were flying everywhere, and no one wanted a lungful of crystal. They were close enough to the Red Zone that it was a miracle they weren't walking around under permanent hazardous-ops conditions.

He was just glad that he didn't need to walk around with a hood and mask whenever he stepped outside. After spending a week watching roads outside Alexandria with a bladder-bag as his only relief, he was glad to just have a shower, a shave, and three hots and a cot.

He sat beneath one of the plastic tents, clad only in his standard BDUs and ballistic vest, helmet and mask hanging from his belt, and methodically worked his thumbs to push rounds into standard GD2 magazines. Master Sergeant Goetzmann, from the 166th Assault Infantry Battalion, had been roaming the tents and barracks like a predator, hunting for soldiers who looked like they were busy being useless and dragging them over to help load magazines. The last thing anyone expected when they signed onto the recon career path was to be sitting around a chem-proof tent, idly chatting with other troops while shoving bullets into boxes, but he welcomed the change of pace. It was boring, simple work, and it let his mind wander.

The chem-proof tent was filled with half a dozen troops, drawn from just about all of the component battalions that made up the FEST-F. The Commander had pulled together an eclectic group: mechanized infantry from Germany and Northern Europe, armor from what had been the UK, Special Ops from the Pacific, aviation units from Japan, South America, and East Asia, and Colt's own 4th Recon.

"Shit, man, you heard what El-Tee Boyd's platoon brought in?" PFC Andrystyl said as he bound a stack of loaded magazines together with shipping cord. The Swede, a machinegunner for the 86th Mechanized, was built like a truck, and his voice was low and thick with a mutt of an accent born out of every country in Scandinavia.

"Locals, I heard," replied Corporal Periotti, a Floridian from Colt's own 4th Recon. His hands moved quick and fast, methodical but efficient as he loaded. "Nod defectors."

"Bullshit, not what I head," Specialist Brown, a vehicle mechanic from the 121st Armored. Her accent was British-Irish, and even in full armor she was skinny and her features sharp and narrow. "It was a few mutants. Forgotten. Armed, too, but they had an escort."

"Shiners," Colt grunted. "You know how many times we had to deploy against them back in B-2? Fucking crystal-heads were always hitting the towns on the edges of the Yellow Zones. Always ran before we could get there and run them down. The fuck can they offer?"

"Shiners fucked up Nod good in the Second," Periotti said.

"Yeah, 'till they stuck that shit with Tratos on us and fucked off," Colt grumbled. "Even after we proved it was CABAL, they just went off to the Red Zones and told everyone to eat green and die."

"If they want to eat bullets," Andrystyl grunted, "they can eat bullets for us. Take some Noddies down with them, eh?" He swung up another box of magazines and packed them in with the rest.

"Saw some casualties come in a bit ago," Brown commented after a few moments. "Mech troops from my B Company."

"They okay?" Colt asked.

"Two dead," Brown said. "Five wounded. Driver said they got hit from stealth. Missiles, right over a ridge, no warning."

"Stealth?" Andrystyl asked. "Fucking stealth tanks?"

"Noddies have been hitting and running all along the axis," Colt said, snatching up a new empty box magazine. "Makes sense. They're trying to do what they can before we hit Alexandria."

"Pfft, yeah, everyone and their mum knows where we're headed," Brown said. "Not subtle. Friend of mine in 2nd Heavy, their 31st Battalion? Said they got hit hard by stealths and beam guns at the edge of the old 11 Highway between Cairo and Alexandria. Lost seven Predators and a Mammoth. Then they got hit by Vertigos when they brought up the firepower. Lost a dozen and three more."

"Damn," Colt muttered. "Command's fucking around out here when we should be punching through to the city and taking out their air power."

"How bad is it out there?" Brown asked. She glanced at the two recon troopers. "You guys have been scouting it. How many?"

The Sergeant paused halfway through loading, and remembered what he'd seen. The numbers of convoys, the troop movements, the aircraft coming and going from the Nod launch towers.

"A lot of assholes," Colt admitted, sliding another round into the magazine.

"Lot of soon-to-be-dead assholes," Periotti clarified.

Battle Commander Alexander Karrde settled into the chair at the head of the circular table in the secured conference module. He'd initially wanted their new guest to be brought into the command bunker for their meeting, but his advisorss had pointed out that they couldn't fully trust the Forgotten representative. Nod used mutant soldiers, and even if she wasn't a Brotherhood plant, the Forgotten were neither unified nor had gotten along perfectly with GDI. Their mutual history had included more than a few bullets exchanged.

The fabbers had spat out this conference module in less than an hour. It wasn't large or well-appointed; in fact it was mostly just a large plastic box with a bolted-on air conditioning unit and a table, with a dozen chairs. They'd brought in a flatscreen television to mount on the wall, a local network connection, and most importantly, a huge water cooler.

Karrde had, after some consideration, decided it best to not bring the collection of colonels and lieutenant colonels who commanded different elements of his Wild Cards. He'd discovered the hard way that assembling a hodgepodge of troops from different nationalities and Zones was not a good way to quickly create a cohesive fighting force, and while they performed well during combat, outside of combat the upper-level officers of his task force - really a division in all but name - bickered like angry bulls. The other division commanders were occupied with Nod counterattacks along the southern flank of their axis of advance; Brigadier Creden and his 2nd Heavy Armored were stuck in worst, with Brigadier Hienstremann's 14th Infantry right in alongside them. Brigadier Axel Higgs and his 143rd Integrated Air Strike Force were tied up providing air support across the entire region, and the other four divisions were further west, tied up fighting over the Sinai Peninsula and pushing up into the former Israel and Lebanon.

Therefore, Karrde had brought in only one other officer, one who, despite the Colonel's insignia on his uniform's collar, did not hold any actual command in the task force. Then again, no one wanted to be under the command of Colonel Nick "Havoc" Parker, and he wanted no one under him either. The "Colonel" rank was mostly there so everyone knew how important he was, being the Commander's personal advisor and, when the situation called for it, troubleshooter.

Captain Autumn Burke stepped into the conference module, accompanied by two GDI troopers in full heavy combat gear and carrying riot guns. Not that it would matter; Karrde had seen even the smaller and more recently altered tiberium mutants heft weapons suited for vehicle mounts, and bat humans aside with one arm. Burke probably could have killed both of her escorts before they could raise their weapons.

He watched the woman carefully as she entered. She wore sand-brown fatigues and jacket, incongruous with the idiotically-hot landscape of Egypt. Then again, tiberium mutants had impressive heat tolerances. She had just as much sheer body mass as the soldiers who escorted her into the room, and was a few centimeters taller than them, even in their helmets and body armor. Her hair was dark brown, pulled back behind her head in a rough braid. Her features were delicate and her jawline wide, giving her face a rounded look. She would have been attractive, if one ignored the livid scars running down the right side of her face where it looked like someone had come way too close with a knife far too many times. Coupled with the jutting tiberium crystals and the obvious wear from living in a Yellow Zone, she looked like the kind of person who would have been both experienced enough to fight Nod and tough enough to earn command of a force of Forgotten.

And there were the eyes. Sharp, dangerous, evaluative. There was iron in those eyes, the old kind that came from a lifetime without compromise. Those eyes were most often seen in the experienced Nod officers they'd captured, hard men and women who lived on scraps of bread and canned meat and beans and poorly-filtered water, sleeping on hard rocks under an open sky, and driven on by hate for their enemies. Whatever Captain Burke was, she had the eyes of a dedicated soldier.

"Battle Commander," she said as she stepped into the room. She stood straight, her tone respectful, but offered nothing else.

"Please, Captain, take a seat," he said, gesturing toward the empty chair. The mutant reached out and gingerly pulled the chair, moving with the cautious grace of a Zone Trooper in full kit around unarmored humans. She settled down and sat straight, eyeing him with that hard gaze.

"Captain, I have to admit that this has caught us off-guard," Karrde started. "GDI has not had any contact with the Forgotten for decades."

"We are not unified as we once were," Burke said, shaking her head. "Even under Tratos, we weren't a single force. Without Tratos . . . " She shrugged, a slight motion. "We are still Forgotten. A nation, perhaps, but not a country or entity."

"There a difference?" Parker asked, and Karrde glanced at the comment. Havoc shrugged. "What? Curious."

"I understand, Captain Burke," the Commander said, pointedly turning back toward the mutant woman. "If there is no central Forgotten government for us to deal with, then who do you represent?"

"The local Forgotten military in this region," she said. "There is no central authority here beyond the Brotherhood and ourselves. Our enclaves are much deeper in the desert, where tiberium grows thicker and Nod hesitates to tread. We help to convince them further."

"You still fight Nod?" Karrde asked, and she nodded.

"The Forgotten and the Brotherhood have been enemies for decades," she said, and a smirk spread over her face, twisting the scars and the crystal growths. "The impending end of the world hasn't changed that, any more than it has changed for the Brotherhood and GDI. They still prey on our people for research into our mutations, and the warlords under their banners see our enclaves as targets for food and resources."

"I see," Karrde replied. "I assume the offer you mentioned to my subordinate involves our mutual enemy?"

"Yes," Burke said, with a short nod. "Though many other Forgotten enclaves despise GDI almost as much as they do Nod, I can see past our differences. The enemy of my enemy has never changed, Commander."

Karrde nodded. The alliance between GDI and the Forgotten had always been one of necessity; GDI had the firepower, resources, and manpower, while the Forgotten had the local support, intelligence, and knowledge of the land. That never meant they had liked one another. Mutant marauders had been raiding GDI outposts and civilian towns as far back as prior to the Second Tiberium War, and GDI's leadership had done little to help the mutant population during the widespread social collapse between the First and Second Wars. The fact that most of them came from former Nod territory hadn't engendered good will in either direction.

"Captain, what are you proposing?" he asked.

"Cooperation between your troops and mine when you attack Alexandria and Cairo," she said, and Karrde blinked. She nodded, and then shrugged. "It is obvious where you're going to strike next, Commander. Egypt is a massive wasteland. Its two steps from being a Red Zone, and the only other inhabited areas beyond our enclaves are the regions around the Nile Delta. The port facilities in Alexandria and the nuclear launch facilities outside Cairo are where the largest concentration of Nod troops are located."

She leaned forward slightly, and another smile twisted her features, this one a little more vicious.

"And we know about the weapons research they've been working on," she added. "We know they were transporting chemical components to Alexandria. And we can feed you more information on where the main research facility is located."

Karrde slowly nodded, thinking furiously over the offer. While the Forgotten had every reason to want to cooperate with GDI, he couldn't trust her offer completely, if only because of simple institutionalized paranoia about Nod infiltration.

"If we accept your offer," Karrde said. "What can you give me beyond intel? You said you commanded Forgotten soldiers."

"I can bring up a fully-mechanized force totaling seven thousand," she said. "Mixed armament, light vehicles, a lot of it scavenged. Not well-suited for slugging it out with heavy armor, but a few thousand mutants are a force to be reckoned when going house-to-house."

"That's a lot of angry mutants," Parker commented, and Karrde looked to him again. "Hey, I fought a bunch of Nod's freaks back in the First and saw Forgotten in action in the Second. Seven thousand of them on our side is a whole lot of pain ready to be served to Nod."

Karrde frowned, and nodded at his point. In the Second Tiberium War, the Forgotten had been lucky if they could field companies of light recon and vehicles in support, as opposed to something akin to a short division. And their contribution had still be asymmetrically powerful.

"Our numbers grow every month," Burke said, nodding. "We don't keep census data. We have a hard time keeping everyone fed. But war provides for everyone, whether victory or death."

"Those troops and their expertise would be a massive boon," he said, and for a moment he remembered what it had been like fighting in Rio against the Nod fanatics. The chaos of close-quarters battle, the fear of snipers, the concentration of noise from being hemmed in by sheer walls, attacks coming from every direction. "But as much as I hate to admit it, my people won't be willing to trust yours right away."

"Understatement of the millennium," Havoc muttered, drawing another glare.

"GDI," Burke said, exhaling in what sounded like disappointment. "Of course. Blue Zone blunts don't trust Red Zone shiners."

"Nor do we trust that someone doesn't walk under a scorpion tail flag, either," he added, shaking his head.

"We have had our own share of problems with the Brotherhood infiltrating our ranks," Burke said. "You want a gesture of faith? Something to prove our willingness to cooperate?"

"Something good enough to convince my people you're not going to stab us in the back," Karrde said. It bothered him to admit that, but it was true. "I can't trust an offer like this, out of the blue."

"I understand," she said with a weary nod. "I wish we didn't have to do things this way." She sat back, eyes going distant, and nodded. "As I said, we know where the Brotherhood was researching this new weapon, whatever it is. It's a facility in Casabad, a pumping station for an irrigation and water supply system. I can get you location, defenses, observed force strength, and some limited layout data."

Karrde relaxed, and nodded.

"Even if they've completely emptied the site of components or research-"

"They haven't," Burke said quickly. "After you smashed their troops a week ago, they've buttoned up the site. There should still be personnel, components, and possibly research data inside."

"Excellent," he said. "Captain, if you can give that information, and it checks out, it would go a long way toward . . . ." He paused, about to say 'proving you were trustworthy,' but stopping himself. He reminded himself he needed to be more diplomatic; he'd been plenty blunt already.

"Toward helping us drive these bastards out of Egypt."

Thousands of miles' worth of metal pipes stretched across the desert landscape, running from one dead or dying city to another. The pipe network that slashed back and forth across Egypt had been part of a classic GDI humanitarian initiative to get water to cities whose own water supplies were literally drying up due to the political collapse at the start of the 21st century. Unlike many of those initiatives, the project was quite successful, but when GDI began withdrawing troops to the Blue Zones, local interests had taken over the water supply network.

The fact that those "local interests" were working for the Brotherhood of Nod was no real surprise. What was surprising was that the Brotherhood had repurposed one of the primary pumping stations into their main research facility.

From low orbit, Major Huan Chen's monitor showed a pumping station that looked innocuous enough, save for having a dozen automated Nod turrets surrounding it. The feed he was getting on his Firehawk's screen was being sent by a Prophet observation craft in low orbit, just a few hundred meters above his own aircraft. The blocky ship had replaced the Kodiak air command vessels, which themselves had replaced the AWACS and other 20th-century airborne EW platforms GDI's member countries had used in the First Tiberium War. The Prophet had every scope and scanner on board pointed at the pumping station far below, and Chen could easily make out individual soldiers and their weapons as they patrolled the pumping station's perimeter.

The building itself was a rectangular structure three stories tall; according to the mutants' reports, the first floor was the maintenance and operations level, the second had housing for the "workers" and the third was the station's control room - which meant it was the command room for the entire research facility. The building was surrounded by pipes and pumping machinery, and low sheds were scattered around the compound - ostensibly vehicle sheds and equipment rooms, but actually containing combat vehicles and armories. A chain-link fence surrounded the compound, and the turrets ringed the complex, connected to the low-profiled bunkers that controlled the launchers.

"Apex approaching, twenty seconds," reported Lawrence, the EAA for Chen's flight.

"Copy that," Chen said. "Vipers, prepare to cut strat-boost and begin dive."

Acknowledgements came over the comm, and Chen stilled his breathing. He watched the altimeter slow as he leveled out the ascent, and the distant roar of the stratospheric boosters began to die down. He could see star overhead, whirling past as the Firehawk slowed its ascent.

He reached the apex of the ascent, and nosed the Firehawk into a dive toward the planet below. It was in the early morning hours, and he could see the sun rising to the east. Below, he could see the brown-gray stretch of desert, with a storm-gray expanse of ocean to the north. Glittering lights indicated where Alexandria and Cairo were located, but they were muted compared with how they might have looked half a century ago. Flickers of light ran through the gray clouds, indicating localized ion storms. And everywhere, he could see the gleaming green patches of tiberium, glowing in the darkness and reflecting star- and moonlight.

This was why he flew. For moments like this.

"Vipers, confirm target acquisition," he ordered, in the sudden moment of quiet peace at the top of their climb.

"Two, bunkers marked."

"Three, marked."

"Four, marked."

"Begin dive," Chen ordered, and gunned the Firehawk's engines. They roared anew in his ears. "Good luck, people."

The four fighter-bombers started the Wild Weasel run.

GDI hadn't changed the common term for SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) airstrike operations from the old American phrase. What they had changed was the methodology. In the 20th the Wild Weasel strikes had been dependent on AWACS, long-range missiles, and drones to locate, strike, and distract SAM sites respectively, but that proved ineffective against EVA-driven SAM setups, which could pick out approaching aircraft and blast them out of the sky despite countermeasures. GDI had often been forced to destroy SAM sites from the ground, resulting in bloody battles where GDI troops couldn't rely on air support. Wild Weasel operations against Nod SAMs were casualty-ridden missions demanding pilots willing to dive into enemy radar nets to take out their launchers.

The strat-booster changed that, as they allowed the Firehawks to simply fly over the SAMs and their radars and come down at them from the stratosphere. They were based on the same boosters GDI routinely used to get ships and satellites into orbit, but modified to fit onto a Firehawk without sacrificing mobility. But there were drawbacks: the boost was short-term, and they ate fuel at such a vicious rate that even with drop-tanks the Firehawk would have to return to base immediately after releasing munitions.

But there was nothing more exhilarating than flying straight down into enemy launchers' radar coverage and dropping high-explosive, laser-guided thunderbolts on enemy heads. Major Chen and his Vipers were specialists in Wild Weasel and other strat-booster operations, and thus were old hands at playing Zeus.

Chen was shoved back into his seat as his Firehawk screamed down into the atmosphere, the air igniting around him as he reached reentry speeds. Strat-booster-equipped Firehawks had ceramic heat-resistant plating bolted on as part of their modifications, but even so the temperature inside the cockpit rose to uncomfortable levels. Sweat ran down Chen's face, but he ignored it, keeping his eyes locked on the altimeter, a wild grin on his face as his heart pounded from the rush of leaping a step closer to space and descending to the planet like a burning angel.

There was a reason they called them Firehawks. Wreathed in reentry heat, they screamed down through the atmosphere, and at the very edge of the SAM sites' upper radar coverage, the Viper flight released and began to level out. Below, the SAM sites immediately swiveled their weapons up at the new, descending radar contacts, and launched a couple of seconds later once they confirmed hostiles. Six turrets each released a trio of anti-air missiles at the distant Firehawks, and ECM defenses activated to befuddle the descending bombs. The Vipers burned their engines and shot southwest, dropping flares and chaff.

The SAMs ascended and exploded among the countermeasures and the Firehawks. Chen grit his teeth as they went evasive, weaving around the missiles that the chaff and flares couldn't trick. The air shook around them as enemy munitions detonated, and he heard a scream over the radio.

"Three, hit!" shouted a voice. A moment later the explosions ended. Chen pulled up Viper Three's feeds, and sucked in a breath. Viper Three was dropping into a nosedive, one engine gone and another leaking flame and smoke. Its wings were shredded and the EAA core was destroyed.

"Three, eject!" Chen ordered, and midway through his command the cockpit exploded open and the pilot launched out of the Firehawk's remains. A few seconds later a parachute bloomed, and the pilot began to descend.

"Lead, I'm clear," Three reported. "No injuries."

"Copy that, Three," Chen said, exhaling in relief. "Lawrence, connect to Pyramid."


"Pyramid, Viper Lead," he called. "Missile released. I have a pilot down. Transponder active, need recovery."

"Acknowledged, Viper Lead. Diverting a bird to pick your pilot up," came the response from one of Pyramid Base's myriad comms officers. "Acquiring BDA now. Viper, targets are burning. Good job."

"Acknowledged Pyramid. RTB. Viper Lead out." He switched comms back to his squad. "Three, that's coming out of your paycheck."

"Fuck you, sir," Three replied, and Chen barked out a laugh. The apparent lack of discipline was typical among squads who had the honor of SEAD work.

"Or maybe you'll just pay for the rounds when we get back to base," he suggested.

"I'd rather pay for my bird, sir," Three grumbled.

The shockwaves from the exploding SAM and shredder turret bunkers echoed around the pumping station, jolting off-duty soldiers out of their beds and sending the on duty guards to defensive stations. Nod troops, clad in desert-brown cloaks and shemags and goggles, bolted for the armories and vehicle sheds while someone belatedly triggered the alarm.

The second wave of the strike force swooped over the pumping station while the Nod security was still reacting to the sudden attack, screaming over the now cleared airspace. The led element were A-17 Orca ground-strike craft, a variant of the A-15 that sacrificed maneuverability for speed, armor, and range. The A-17s were not designed to hover over a battlefield and provide concentrated close-air support. Instead, the smaller, sleeker craft jetted over the pumping station, loosing anti-personnel and anti-structural rockets at the vehicle sheds and armories. Incendiary warheads dove into the armored sheds and detonated, sending flares of blinding light that illuminated the darkened compound, and bright, searing flames erupted from the structures. By the time anyone on the ground brought an anti-air launcher to their shoulder, the A-17s had already peeled off, leaving room for the third wave of the assault.

Ten Hammerhead gunships, flanked by eight A-22 Orca "Spec-Ops" craft, charged over the horizon toward the pumping station, and the moment their gunners came within range they opened fire with miniguns and anti-personnel rockets. A virtual river of tracer fire swept over the exterior of the pumping station thanks to the dozens of miniguns the VTOL craft sported, and many of the Nod soldiers still in the open were cut to bloody ribbons by the massed fire.

The suddenness of the attack and the raw firepower involved were too much for the limited Nod garrison to withstand. Most of the troops on the ground were already dead, and those still alive retreated into the few buildings not flattened by the initial two waves of strike craft. The Hammerheads slowed as they approached, while the A-22 gunships circled around the perimeter of the station.

Unlike the A-15s, the A-22s were not designed as primary ground strike craft to kill tanks and hardened targets. They carried a pair of miniguns, two unguided rocket pods, and a six-man squad of riflemen on exterior benches. Where the A-17s sacrificed maneuverability for speed and armor, the A-22 sacrificed armor and speed for sheer maneuverability and the capacity to carry a rifle squad into battle. The lighter Orcas were intended to support special operations raids like this one, and were roughly analogous to the older MH-6 "Little Bird" craft the United States had used in the 20th century in a similar role. Once they had secured the outer perimeter, they began to descend and drop off their troops to surround the complex, with one exception, which headed for the pumping station itself.

The Hammerheads, meanwhile, came to a halt inside the compound and began dropping lines. GDI troops started fast-roping down into the corpse-and-debris-strewn lot. One of the men descending was a bit larger than the rest, and his GDI-issue ceramic battle armor did not fit perfectly because of the haste in issuing it, but the Colonel's insignia on his uniform was not to be argued with.

Colonel Nick "Havoc" Parker hit the pavement and stepped forward, dropping into a crouch with his weapon shouldered, covering his sector. The rest of the rifle team on his Hammerhead followed suit, and once they were down, he checked his HUD. The remaining air-assault troops, drawn from A Company from the 22nd Special Operations Battalion, was fanning out across the compound, securing structures, with the exception of Second Platoon, which had been assigned to take the pumping station.

He didn't issue any orders; he didn't need to. This company was made up of some of the best air-assault troops in the Initiative. Second Platoon's troops started toward the doors leading into the main floor of the pumping station, and Parker followed.

Truth be told, when he'd volunteered to head up this operation, he knew that he wouldn't be needed in the field. He could have just stayed back in the temporary airfield they'd set up a distance away and commanded from the safety and objectivity of the comms trailer. But he didn't volunteer himself to Karrde's task force to command; he'd volunteered to fight.

The NCOs and platoon commanders knew what they were doing. Captain Hieatt, head of the air-assault company, knew what he was doing. They'd take care of the details. Havoc intended to do what he did best: live up to his name.

There were two sets of man-entry doors to the pumping station's main floor, on either side of the big roll-up doors that would let vehicles inside. Fireteams stacked up on either side of the doors, and the squad sergeants sent the hand signal for "bang and frag." The breachers set charges on the doors, and a pair of grenadiers readied their launchers.

When the order went out, the breachers blew the doors in with a teeth rattling detonation. Before the blast finished echoing through his ears, Parker saw the grenadiers fire their weapons. The first rounds through were frag grenades, then followed by cluster flashbangs. The former exploded inside the room, flinging shrapnel in all directions and forcing heads down. The second set consisted of nine flashbang grenades looped around a central charge; once they flew the desired distance the charge exploded, launching the flashbangs around the large interior room. The flashbangs in turn detonated, filling the main chamber with searing light and deafening sonic claps.

Colonel Parker led the way in, GD2 shouldered, and wished he had something heavier. Maybe he would snatch a Zone Trooper-issue railgun from the armory when he got back to base.

Unnoticed in the chaos below, the lone A-22 that didn't drop troops on the perimeter instead swung over the top of the pumping station. It came to a hover over the rooftop of the station's central structure, and a single figure in bulky armor dropped off the side of the Orca. He fell into a low crouch on the rooftop, and went to work.

Below, Captain Amaefule, commanding officer of the Nod garrison, was berating his men, even as his fingers hammered away at the keys of the control terminal before him. The control room on the top floor was made up lines of terminals and computer desks, with oft-neglected monitors for the pumping station itself lining the walls. A wide bay window took up one wall, normally giving the staff a wonderful view of the desert, though now simply showing a panoramic view of the fires and chaos below.

"No, you idiot!" he hissed and he activated the scrubbing program that would flash the optical drives and then flood the remaining storage with junk data. "Flush and flash the drives first. Then break them!"

"But we only need to break-" one of the soldiers protested, standing over a hard drive riddled with bullets. While he and the rest of the squad wore the uniforms of the Brotherhood's professional infantry, his helmet was off and he only wore the torso plates of his armor; the squad had been roused from bed quickly and had barely had time to grab their vests and personal weapons.

"They can recover data from fragments!" Amaefule cut him off. "Flush, then flash, then break! Don't fuck around, just do it!" He turned back to his terminal, and saw that the wiping process had started. Good. They would need only a few minutes.

The control room's data was of limited value compared with the labs below, but he wouldn't give the enemy anything. Besides, they still possessed important intelligence: resource logs, energy reports, communications logs, records of supply and personnel, and so on. Amaefule had long ago learned that the only data that the enemy didn't find useful was the data you destroyed, especially when the enemy had EVAs that could sort through the junk even human analysts couldn't be asked to sift.

"Once the files are wiped, we'll deploy the incendiaries and then get down below," he ordered. "Buy the labs enough time to torch everything."

There was an explosion outside, loud enough to come in over the general din, and he glanced up. His radio chirped, and the dark-skinned, clean-shaven face of Lieutenant Narique appeared in the corner of his visor's HUD.

"Captain, we're getting overrun!" he reported. "They've nearly taken the bottom level!"

"Hold your position for a few more moments, Lieutenant," Amaefule ordered. "We're almost done up here."

"Sir, one of the GDI troopers has killed half my men single-handedly! I think he's a com-"

The ceiling blew in, silencing the Lieutenant's warnings.

Amaefule's head went numb, and he could hear nothing. He blinked,a nd found himself lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. He sucked in a breath, belatedly realizing that the air had been blasted out of his lungs, and he started scrabbling to his feet, recognizing a breaching charge when he saw it and knowing what inevitably followed. He didn't bother shouting commands; he simply highlighted the squad using the HUD and his eyes, and ordered them to open fire at the center of the room and the rapidly-spreading cloud of smoke and dust.

He didn't know if anyone was obeying his orders, but he struggled to his feet, slewing like a drunken fool, and brought his assault rifle to his shoulder. It felt like it weight a couple of tons, but struggle and forced the weapon up.

There was movement in the cloud, and he saw a sudden searing flash of light, accompanied by a shudder rolling through the floor.

A black-armored Brotherhood soldier across the room was standing, weapon leveled at the unseen threat, and he simply came apart from the stomach with a gaping hole blown in the steel wall behind him. He fell apart, the bisecting wound cauterized and smoking. The soldier's biometrics flatlined on his HUD.

Something moved in the cloud, twitching in another direction, and another bright flash of blue-white light filled the room, and another jolt went through the floor. Amaefule thought he saw a line following the flash, like a trail of superheated air, and an arm went flying through the air, gripping a pistol. The rest of the body was nowhere to be found. Another flatline.

The figure took two quick steps to the side, and the weapon fired twice. The floor shivered again, and two more unseen soldiers died. Amaefule got rifle leveled and sighted, and nearly fired a burst when another Nod trooper, this one only armed with a large, curved combat knife, surged up and swung at the looming figure in the smoke. Amaefule could clearly see the man - fearless, desperate or both - silhouetted in the fires visible in the wide window, and the massive shape whirled on him with impossible speed. It spun toward him, and the weapon rose up and smacked across, hitting the knife so hard it went flying across the room and sent the soldier stumbling sideways from the force of the blow.

The massive weapon swung back, the butt impacting with the soldier, and he was launched back to slam into the window. The armored glass spideredwebbed from where his back hit it.

The Captain fired, and though he couldn't hear the report, the rifle kicked hard against his shoulder. He steadied his feet as he emptied the weapon's magazine into the looming figure at less four meters away, and he saw the attacker recoil from the first few impacts. Forty rounds burned away at tremendous speed, but before he'd gotten a quarter of the way through the magazine the figure whirled on him, weapon rising.

The smoke had cleared enough that, through the muzzle flare of his rifle, Amaefule could see his attacker. Whatever gender he or she possessed was indistinguishable behind layers of brown-and-gray camouflaged composite armor. Synthetic musculature covered by an armored weave sheathed whatever wasn't covered by the armor itself, and the helmet was dominated by a dark visor. It wore a jetpack on its back, and a dark-gray GDI emblem was etched into the armor's chestplate. In its arms was a carbine with a bulky power generator where the magazine would be, and Amaefule realized that it had to be a scaled-down railgun simply by the effect it had on his men.

His weapon clicked empty, and the Nod officer realized with a sinking feeling that none of his rounds had penetrated the looming creature's powered armor.

The GDI commando leveled the railgun at him, and the last thing Captain Amaefule felt was the floor shuddering one more time.

Trucks packed the main room on the first floor of the pumping station. It was a place used for loading and unloading supplies and equipment and performing maintenance on the maze of pipes and machines lining the chamber and running up toward the ceiling on all sides: a classic industrial complex of catwalks and multicolored metal pipes leading from heavy mechanical equipment. Several large catwalks ran overhead, and the trucks filling the floor below were loaded with crates and barrels and sealed metal and ceramic containers marked with biohazard and tiberium symbols.

Nod soldiers were everywhere: hiding among the trucks, crouched on the overhead catwalks, or lurking among the machines, and the GDI troops storming the room found themselves caught in close, savage combat. Rifles sounded, bullets ricocheting off trucks and machinery, the noise deafening in such tight confines. Brown-and-gray ceramic met black armored soldiers, often exchanging shots so close that their enemies' blood splashed on their armor. Knives hissed from sheaths, and rifle stocks clashed. Soldiers on both sides howled and screamed and fell, gasping or gurgling, in combat that was medieval in both proximity and brutality. It was a nightmarish, face-to-face tangle of chaos, where command devolved and discipline, reaction, and a steady hand prevailed over any sort of tactics.

In this environment, Havoc reigned.

The GD2, even in carbine configuration, was too large for his tastes. He slung it in favor of a .45 caliber GS21 submachinegun, loaded with armor-piercing rounds to punch through Nod strike plates, and a long combat knife. The GS21 was a more compact weapon than the standard GDS-4, with a box magazine that ran the length of the weapon from the top and small enough to be used in one hand if need be, and better suited to the kind of combat Havoc was engaged in. He left a dozen corpses in his wake as he prowled forward between the trucks, hunting.

He was between two trucks, with less than a meter and half of space between them. He advanced, GS21 raised, and caught a hint of movement ahead over the din surrounding him. He dropped into a crouch right as a black-armored figure swept around the corner, weapon raised. In the heartbeat it took the Nod trooper to realize his opponent was crouched below his line of fire, Havoc squeezed the trigger, and four armor-piercing .45 caliber rounds punched through the soldier's abdomen. He fell back, screaming, his cries barely audible over the chaos and the sharp echo of the submachinegun. Another soldier leapt around the corner, rifle tracking; he was alert but startled, and also missed Parker for the critical instant. Havoc put another trio into his legs and flank, and he stumbled back, rifle firing into the floor. The tight confines howled with a ricochet, but Havoc ignored the wild shots whipping about and squeezed the trigger again. The second soldier took two more in the chest and fell, twitching. He rose and strode forward, sweeping the gap behind the two trucks and finding them clear.

The wounded soldier was still thrashing and crying in pain, and Parker's knife dipped down and across in a quick, economical stab. The enemy soldier went still, and he kicked the weapons away from the bodies.

He checked his HUD and found GDI troops advancing well up the left side of the room, firing up into the catwalks overhead and clearing them of shooters. They gave a good firing angle but offered no cover themselves, and within moments the catwalks were littered with the corpses of hose who didn't fall back. The right side of the garage/maintenance area was a different story; he could see simply by their positions that the GDI troops on that side of the room were pinned down, and the intense fire on that end told him the enemy had a strong position and temporary fire superiority.

He navigated between the trucks, a faint map displayed on his HUD, compiled by the EVA assigned to the operation from everyone's helmet cameras. Beautiful tech, wished he had it back when he was young and storming Raveshaw's villa, or breaking into the Temple of Nod.

Those memories brought a smile to his face as he slid around a truck and came face to face with another Nod soldier, two meters away. The black-armored figure was apparently pulling security for his fireteam, as two other Nod soldiers were firing in the opposite direction.

The Brotherhood trooper was fast, and his weapon snapped up to sight Havoc in a heartbeat, but two .45 rounds punched through his visor before he could squeeze the trigger.

Havoc was faster.

The Nod soldier flopped backward, and one of his companions spotted the sudden movement. The Colonel couldn't tell if he was calling for help as he whirled and tried to level his weapon at the new threat, but it didn't matter. The soldier pulling security, alert from threats from that direction and ready to engage, hadn't been fast enough. Well before the next trooper even got his weapon all the way around, Havoc's GS21 put four bullets into his heart and lungs. The third soldier barely realized he was under fire before two more rounds dropped him.

Havoc slid by the twitching bodes, kicking their weapons away, and circled around to the rear of the enemy strongpoint. He leaned around a truck and sighted four Nod soldiers, one with a squad machinegun, and a figure in much heavier, black armor. For an instant, he thought it was a Black Hand, but he quickly realized the armor was too light, and he held an assault rifle instead of a laser or flamethrower. An Acolyte then, in semi-powered armor. They seemed blissfully unaware that he'd just taken out their flank support.

Five Nod soldiers, one an elite in heavy armor, with enough discipline and skill to hold down the entire advance on that flank. Taking on that many skilled opponents would be suicide, even if by surprise.

So Colonel Parker did what he did best: he told the odds to sit down and watch.

A grenade rolled toward the enemy position's right side, and they Nod troops were so focused on pinning down the enemy that they only realized it was there when it blew one man to hamburger and sent another flopping to the floor, howling in unexpected agony. The Acolyte recoiled in surprise, sparks flying from his armor, and Havoc rose, GS21 blazing. He pumped several bursts into the two Nod soldiers on the left side. One went down with blood flying from holes in his thighs and lower back, and the other spun around, taking five rounds across his left bicep, shoulder, and flank. He fell to the floor and went still, his companion thrashing weakly in a pool of bright blood.

The Acolyte whirled toward the new threat, and Colonel Parker emptied the rest of the submachinegun's ample magazine into the armored Nod priest as he charged forward. More than half the shots missed, and many more just deflected off the heavy black armor, but at least one got through, judging by the way the priest jerked backward. Another round skipped off the helmet, and a third looked to have punched through the priest's left forearm plating, judging by the blood that erupted from the wound.

Havoc's weapon clicked empty, and he slammed it across into the Acolyte's faceplate just as the priest's rifle discharged. Two rounds hit Havoc in the chestplate, one deflecting and the second impacting like a hammer but flattening on the heavy ceramic plate. He snarled, ignored the pain, and swept his knife up and weaved it around into the priest's right forearm. The blade slid in between the glove and the forearm plate, slashing into the back of the Acolyte's wrist.

He ducked and sidestepped as the power-armored priest retaliated with a reflexive forward kick - a quick, ugly blow that was standard when facing a foe in close, designed to collapse the enemy's chest beneath a power-assisted boot. As Havoc sidestepped around the blow, he brought the knife up, jamming it into a gap in the underarm of the Acolyte.

The priest whirled, faster than an un-assisted human could manage, and Parker ducked and slid down, pulling the bloody knife away before he could cut deep enough to kill. The priest's swing was wild and violent, and the assault rifle slammed into the side of the armored truck so hard that the barrel bent upward with a metallic howl and the panel bent inward. Havoc shot up to his feet, dropping the GS21 and tossing the knife to his right hand.

The power-armored priest dropped his rifle and swung back toward Havoc, which made his next strike easier. As the Acolyte spun, the Colonel stabbed his knife up, weaving the tip under the priest's chin. The Acolyte's forward momentum carried him into the knife, and it slid up into his throat, driving deep.

Havoc twisted as the blade impacted, pushing the Acolyte aside and deflecting his momentum lest the armored priest throw him to the ground. The Acolyte stumbled and the dropped to his knees with a clatter of ceramic on concrete, grabbing at the knife and pulling it free. Blood poured from his torn throat, in almost certainly lethal amounts.

Havoc took no chances. He scooped up his GS21, reloaded quickly as the Acolyte tried to stem the blood flow, and shot him twice in the back of the head.

He heard boots behind him, and the chamber was growing quiet, with only sporadic firing on the far side. He turned to see a GDI fireteam advancing toward him, weapons at the ready, but he could read their body language clear as a bell.

"Sir," one of the trooper said. His IFF tagged him as a Corporal Kim. "Colonel, that . . . ." His loss for words made Parker grin as he wiped the knife on the Acolyte's cape.

"What kept you guys?" Parker asked. "Come on, we've got work to do. And tell your friend upstairs to hurry down when he's done pretending to be a real commando."

At the bottom of the elevator shaft, Brother-Sergeant Husef al-Muqar had assembled what remained of his security force. Feeds from the rest of the platoon and squad commanders told him that, with a few exceptions, all of the Nod troops above had been killed, wounded, or captured. Only the troops on duty in the lab, along with al-Muqar and his fellow warrior-priests, remained to defend the research facility.

The result was inevitable. He had a single eight-man rifle squad, two Confessors, a trio of Acolytes, and himself and Brother-Corporal Villafonte. The base's garrison had not been strong and the Black Hand presence had been only token; the facility had been better-guarded through being relatively innocuous than by being well-defended, especially with the power-bases at Alexandria and Cairo in relative proximity. The outer defenses were appropriate to a facility that needed to be protected from mutant raiders or attacks of opportunity. They hadn't anticipated a huge commando assault like this.

He shook his head. That was irrelevant now. The only thing that mattered at this point was denying the enemy. The Confessors had already executed the few remaining scientists - to their evident surprise - and were now destroying components and computer files and lab equipment with the help of a couple of the riflemen.

The rest of the remaining troops were assembled outside the elevators, in the receiving bay that both the personnel and cargo lifts opened into. They had hastily assembled a defensive barricade at the opposite side of the room, built out of desks, crates, and a couple of forklifts, and had cleared the rest of the room to open up their firing lines. Incendiary claymores were set up on either side of the elevators, in case anyone managed to get through the hail of fire, beams, and bullets that the Nod troops would lay down the moment the elevator doors opened.

They would be overwhelmed eventually; ammunition would run out or GDI would throw explosives down the lift shafts, or they would tunnel in from the sides or above. But Brother-Sergeant al-Muqar intended to make them pay for it, and buy his men enough time to destroy all the evidence they could.

As he stood behind the barricade, flame rifle in hand, he thought he heard something on his suit's audio sensors. He increased the gain, concentrating on the sounds coming in over his earpieces. He could hear labored breathing from some of the infantrymen, others whispering prayers of benediction and salvation. One man kept flicking the safety of his weapon on and off. There were crackling fires somewhere behind him as the Confessors burned what was flammable and melted what wasn't. Rumbling air processors audible from overhead vents, humming generators, and the faint thrum of electrical conduits. And somewhere over the din . . . Engines?

Or a jetpack?

"Brace yourself, brothers and sisters," al-Muqar said. "The enemy is imminent. Deny him in the name of Ka-"

The personnel elevator's door blew open, hurling noise and shrapnel and smoke into the room. The infantry jerked in surprise, but the Black Hand answered instantly. Villafonte and the Acolytes laced the elevator door with laser beams and bullets, and al-Muqar triggered his flame rifle, sending a column of white-hot fire across the room and through the smoking gap. The riflemen opened fire and instant later, pouring rounds through the gap.

Then Brother-Corporal Villafonte's head blew apart in an explosion of metal and blood. A moment later, one of the Acolytes fell, the armor on his back exploding in a fountain of blood and ceramic plate. Al-Muqar noted the blood shooting at an angle, down and back, and swung his gaze up toward the ceiling. The third Acolyte went down, shot through the chest as well, and the Black Hand saw where the rounds had come from: a vent duct running along the top of the room.

It was too small to hide in; not even a Shadow could fit inside that vent. But the shots had come from the vent duct, right at where the flimsy metal met the concrete wall . . . Just over the elevator door.

Al-Muqar ducked and dodged sideways, and the fourth shot skipped off his shoulder armor. He ducked behind one of the forklifts, and he pieced together what had most likely happened: the enemy (almost certainly a commando, damn him) had likely come down the elevator shaft and used a fiber-optic cable or other device to scout the room, threaded through the duct. Once done, he'd either used an onboard computer or an EVA to triangulate firing angles using that visual data through the flimsy metal of the duct. He then planted a charge on the elevator to draw attention, then shot through the thin duct walls at the Black Hand troops while they were distracted.

Clever bastard.

Al-Muqar did not wait for the enemy to adjust. He rose, raising his flame rifle, and leveled it at the far end of the vent duct.

"Squad, ignore the elevator!" he ordered, and triggered the projector. White fire exploded out toward the vent. "Engage the vent! Follow my tracer!"

He didn't know if the fire would actually burn through the duct to hurt the commando, but he knew the heat would surprise and disorient him, which was good enough. The rest of the surviving troops (two more were dead, shot by the railgun through the thin metal) followed his lead, pouring rounds into where he was spraying flame.

Something flew through the elevator door, and he realized too late what it was.

The chaff grenade detonated, filling the air with charged strips of metal that disrupted electronic sensors, including the ones on al-Muqar's helmet. He jerked his head as static filled the monitors on his helmet, and he quickly switched to pure visual detection before-

Al-Muqar stumbled backward, his chest going suddenly numb, and his helmet finished switching over to visual in time for him to see the commando, hanging upside down in the elevator doorway, legs hooked to a strut or beam or something inside the shaft. The remaining riflemen shifted their aim toward the visible threat, but the brown-and-gray-armored figure brought his weapon around and, with almost casual disdain, began blowing apart the remaining soldiers. A couple of shots from the Nod troops deflected off his armor, but he didn't seem to care as he gunned down the last couple of troops in the span of a heartbeat, his rifle twitching to each new target just long enough to fire. Al-Muqar thought he saw the man sway backward with each shot, but that might have been the confusion of a dying brain.

The last of his men fell apart, and al-Muqar could only lie back, partially slumped against a wall and blood pooling around his body. His limbs refused to respond, and he could barely keep his eyes opened. The commando dropped down into the shaft, flipping over as he fell, and started to clamber up into the room. The Brother-Sergeant watched, hopeful, but as the figure started to climb he paused, glancing around the room, and spotted the incendiary claymores. He fired a few shots to either side of the room, hitting each claymore and blasting it apart before it could detonate, and then ascended and started across the room.

As al-Muqar's vision darkened, he saw the commando calmly climb over their barricade, shoot one still-moving Nod soldier in the head, and then pull out a breaching charge and set it on the door the Nod faithful had tried to defend.

Forgive me, Kane, al-Muqar begged, and there was a sudden blast of noise.

Then nothing.

The cargo elevator descended to the bottom floor, and Colonel Parker was the first off, followed by a dozen GDI riflemen and a squad of engineers. They were greeted by a scene of wanton carnage, with Nod corpses spread all along a makeshift barricade on the far side of the room, and a single figure on gray-and-brown armor sitting almost casually on top of one of the desks making up said barricade.

"Colonel," the commando said, standing up and hefting his rail carbine. His words were filtered through the helmet's voice processor, coming out slightly flat. "Glad to see you made it down here, sir."

"Lab section clear?" Parker asked, striding toward the commando, and the man nodded. His body language was indolent, and his tone a hair shy of insubordinate. Parker approved; commando training produced excellent soldiers, but it also produced arrogant ones. As far as he was concerned, that was how it should be. After all, the results were plain to see, and decorated the wall directly behind him.

"Aside from these," the commando said, gesturing to the dismembered and splattered corpses, "There were four others in the lab, trying to destroy the data."

"Did they?" Parker asked, and the commando shrugged.

"Data wants to be free," he replied. "And I signed up to protect freedom. Violently. Looks like they killed the science staff, though, so you'll have to make so with the kind of intel that doesn't ask for directorial pardons, sir."

Parker nodded, satisfied, and glanced over the bodies of the Nod troops. Aside from armored riflemen, he counted two more Acolytes and a pair of Black Hands. He grunted, glancing back at the commando.

"Black hands in full kit. Real tough guys," he said with a nod of approval. "Good work, Lieutenant . . . ."

"Fullerton, sir," the commando said.

"Keep this up, Fullerton, and you'll be a Captain soon enough."

"I'll endeavor to fail a bit more, lest that unpleasant scenario happen, Colonel."

"Cut the eloquence, commando," Parker said with a grin. "We don't deal in big, witty words here."

"I'll work on forgetting all my doctorates, right away, Colonel," Fullerton said, and started toward the door. "Keep on your toes, sir. I might have missed one. Unlikely, but you never know."

"All right, people," Colonel Parker said, turning to the troops behind him. "Let's get in there and get this place sorted out. I want all this gear loaded onto the Oxen within the hour. Move!"

The officer's lounge was quiet and empty at this hour. It was already sparsely-appointed, mostly made up of ceramics and plastics that were fabricated on-site, with little concern put to decoration. The most beautiful thing in the lounge was the air conditioning unit. Only three people graced the room: Major Galwansky, who was moonlighting as the bartender, and two men with a significant part of their bodies replaced by augmentations seated at one of the pre-fabbed plastic tables.

Commander Karrde raised a glass to Colonel Parker.

"A job well done, Colonel," Karrde said, and Havoc snorted.

"Wasn't my job," he said. "The new kids have some fancy tech these days. Never appreciated it until I saw it in action."

"What was it like?" Karrde asked. "First War? You didn't have jetpacks or augs or powered armor or railguns like the 'kids' these days."

"Nah, it was the same back in those days," Havoc said, and took a long gulp of his beer. "Skill was important, but you relied on tech as much. Whatever you could pry out of the enemy's hands in field, most often."

He paused, staring down into the beer.

"The commandos took a lot of casualties in that war," he muttered, and shook his head. "For a good cause, though. We didn't become commandos because we wanted a cushy posting where we pressed buttons to blow up cities. We wanted to be on the sharp end of the stick. Needed the impossible done, you sent in a commando. Support optional."

A few moments of silence followed. The Major swung by and brought them new beers; Karrde tossed him a couple of fabricator coupons in turn. Money was useful, but out here, but the tiberium-fueled fabricators could get one things one really wanted or needed, so the fabricator coupons every soldier got along with their checks were worth a hell of a lot more than money for the commissary.

"So, what do you think of the mutants?" Karrde asked. "And their commander?"

"Hm," Parker said. "Four beers, maybe."

"Eh?" Karrde asked, and Havoc shrugged.

"The crystal spikes might work on some women," he said. "And she was probably pretty cute when she was younger, but I'd need at least four before I'd throw that do-"

"No," Karrde said, pinching the bridge of his nose in irritation. "I meant . . . Combat."

Parker laughed, and Karrde wondered if he'd done that deliberately.

"You mean if I think we should trust them, right?" he asked, and then shrugged. "I worked with mutants before. Won't find anyone this day and age that's quite so pissed off, unless you look on the other side of battleground. Good fighters. Decent soldiers, if they're led right. Burke seems the kind."

He took a another gulp, then set his glass down.

"But you don't need to ask me that, Commander," he said. "You've already trusted them enough to launch a raid based on their intel. So are you really uncertain, or just second-guessing yourself?"

Karrde blinked in surprise at Havoc's insight. The Colonel's mouth crooked up in a smile.

"Kane didn't think I was very smart either," he said. "Anyway, you've already thrown in with them. Their intel looks to pan out. I say go for it."

The Commander nodded at that. Parker spoke truly; he had made the decision, but he was second-guessing himself again.

"You may be right," Karrde said, but Parker wasn't finished.

"Commander," the colonel said, waving his glass in the air. "No officer got anywhere second-guessing himself. There's confidence and there's arrogance. Leave the latter to the commandos and fighter jocks who need it when they're in the shit and only ornery cussed outrage and disdain can see them through the other side. When you make a decision, stick to it, because backpedaling gets men killed and gets campaigns halted, and then you never get to sleep with hot girls from InOps, and have to settle for the big Russian ones whose gender is malleable, and maybe some Slavic slab who names her machinegun after a Romanian princess, but before the sheep get . . . ."

He trailed off at Karrde's expression of mixed amusement and befuddlement.

"Beer!" Parker said, and laughed. "Crazy stuff happens, right? But irrelevant."

He jabbed a finger at Karrde.

"Be sure of yourself, and the men will follow you. As long as you're not an asshat, you'll be fine." He took another drink. "And if you are an asshat, I reserve the right to beat the shit out of you."

"Acceptable," Karrde said, and raised his own mug. Glasses clinked, and they took a long drag.

Karrde was mostly finished with his pull on the mug when his Comcom began vibrating. Grumbling, he set the glass down and keyed it on. Parker snorted.

"You always wear that thing?" he asked.

"Its grafted to my skin, just about," the Commander replied. He brought up the command-level memo he'd just received, high priority. His eyes flicked over it, and sobriety ensued.

"Well, shit," he muttered, and waved a hand to the bartender. "Major! Two soberalls!"

"Ah, hell, what now?" Parker asked, and the Major hurried over with two pills and some water.

"Not what, who," Karrde said, accepting his pill and water with a nod of thanks. He downed them. "General Granger is the who, and he wants to talk to us now."

"Hell," Parker grumbled and threw back the last of his beer, then the soberall pill and water. "Let's see what the bald man thinks is so damned important."

They rose and hurried out of the officer's lounge, and Karrde found his heart pounding and his head starting to ache. Soberall was like the full night's sleep after drinking, plus the hangover. He was going to be aching for a while, but he needed to be sharp.

After all, something had spooked the stone wall that was General Jack Granger to the point that he had just ordered an immediate assault on Alexandria.

Intel - GDI Archives - Excerpt: A Concise Explanation of the GDI Commando Program - Colonel Jack Harper, GDI 22nd Special Operations Battalion

Ninety-eight percent washout rate. Twenty-two percent fatality rate. Some tout this like it is supposed to be a good thing. Others use it to criticize the commando training program, saying it is a complete waste of good human life. Neither side knows the truth. Technically, yes, the program produces a twenty-two percent fatality rate before training is completed. The reason why is both simple and complex.

Simply put, the training produces a twenty-two percent average fatality rate, which is the exact same current fatality rate attributed to active duty commandos. The reason for that is because as far as the Commando Program is concerned, you never graduate. Every mission is a brutal learning experience, and the loss ratios are high, despite the advanced weapons, the strength-enhancing reactive polymer weaves beneath the reinforced armor plating. These are men and women who plunge into the most dangerous operations across the globe: reconnoiter into Nod-held cities, pursuit of mutant raiding parties, assaults on dangerous sites in the Red Zones. They die.

There is no graduation for a commando. You join, you learn, you fight, you kill, and if you don't wash out by going back to your old unit, you die in service. In "training."

Its brutal, but that's what the commando is all about. If you didn't have the mindset to commit yourself to the life of the commando, you can't handle the mental stresses of the job in the first place.

That's where the washout rate comes from. That's where the high fatalities in "training" come from. There are no bloody drills and bloodless battle; for a GDI commando, they are one and the same. Learn or die.

Author's Notes: In case you can't tell, I really love writing Havoc. This chapter made the lovable old badass cyborg killing machine just click for me.

Well, we've been leading up to Alexandria and Cairo for a while now. Time to get this party started!

Until next chapter . . . .