0553 Hours

Ragnarok Project Primary Site

"No response from the hilltop installations, Merarch!" The commtech's eyes were wide with fear and excitement as he turned to look at Stonewall Jackson Bohner. "Or the sentry patrols. Shall I keep trying on the secondary channel?"

"No." Bohner shook his head, eyes bright and narrow as he stared at the dust and smoke coming from just a few hundred meters up the canyon. "No, I think not. In any case, it's clear where the enemy's primary effort is bein' made." He had no trouble, now, classifying those troops as enemy, for all that they were Draka every one. Any doubts about that had been erased when they used Yankee air support to kill his people. "Nesmith-"

"Little over five minutes, Merarch." Bohner glared, but the scientist didn't flinch, spreading his hands. "Fuelin' mostly completed, and we don't dare rush what's left without overrunning the tanks. Gyros take that long to come up to speed anyway, and they cannot be whipped into workin' faster. I'm goin' down to do what I can, but we need those five-six minutes." Bohner nodded, watching Nesmith stride out of the bunker before he turned and grabbed a Holbars off the wall. Looked like he had his marching orders.

"Cohortarch Bekker, take charge here. I'm going forward to the two-line." The next one back after the one the enemy was about to hit. "Major Ito, yo' will accompany me." The Japanese Army man, who had been sitting in a corner and visibly willing everyone else in the command bunker to forget he was alive, looked up with a vacant expression. Bohner thrust a submachine gun into his hands.

"Merarch Bohner, I-"

"No arguments." Bohner fixed him with a glare, pupils narrowed like a snake about to strike. "You're not goin' to get a chance to hedge your bets back here, Ito. Not after the way the rest of yo' little plan's turned out. Yo' stayin' right where I can keep one eye on yo' until this is all over."

0553 Hours

One-Line, Ragnarok Project Primary Site

Tetrarch Douglas Eggleston held up a hand. All the emplacements forward of the one-line had their communications out- at least, he devoutly hoped that's what it was, and not something else. Still, it was obvious that the enemy was a mechanized force of about four Tetrarchies with some attachments, probably one of the oversized Centuries the Reaction Cohorts up north used to stop cutting expeditions.

Which meant he knew what their solution would be, because this was a situation straight out of the War Academy. You did not charge antitank obstacles and entrenchments. You stopped, deployed infantry, and cleared them before moving past. Eggleston had had his men hold fire, concealing the positions of his few antitank rifles and rocket-guns until they had the best shot. When the troop carriers slowed down to unload, they'd slaughter them.

Or at least, that was the plan. In the excitement of his first time under fire, Tetarch Eggleston had forgotten that the "enemy" had studied at the War Academy too, and knew the school solution just as well as he did. A classic junior officer's mistake born from a lack of experience. Sadly, it meant that Eggleston would never have a chance to acquire that experience.

D Century's Buffalos thundered forward, the heavy crunching of their wheels sounding like a herd of their namesakes coming up to a full stampede. Somewhere drums and electric guitars were playing, ratcheting the tension even higher. Ready…steady…almost there…

The Buffalos shot steam from their cab-mounted stacks as they surged forward with a burst of acceleration. Eggleston blinked for a moment, just a moment, before chopping his hand down. It was too late. The antitank gun to his left crashed out a single shell, and one of the front-line Buffalos stopped, troopers in the back jumping for cover as a fireball consumed the driver's cabin. A few rocket gun shots went wild.

And then the eleven remaining Buffalo halftracks of D Century, First Reaction Cohort slammed into his lines. Three hung up in the antitank ditch, one dissolving into flame as a pair of rocket-gun shots caught it in a crossfire, but the rest kept going into the infantry's positions before a trench or obstacle brought them to a stop. In the instant after they ground to a halt, just as Bohner's troops were starting to emerge from their holes to fire weapons and throw grenades, the front-rank Buffalo drivers squeezed together improvised clackers and detonated the Broadsword directional mines daisy-chained to their sides. There were screams, a horrible sound like hail on a tin roof as supersonic ball bearings ricocheted off the sides of the Buffalos, and then the men and women of D Century were leaping down, guns firing and machetes flashing in the firelight.

"BuLaLa! BuLala!" The Draka war cry sounded as they fell on the One Line like a steel-tipped wave. A good number of Bohner's people had had the sense to stay down after the Buffalos hit, and they were Draka. Ellis' people were Draka, and Reaction Cohort troopers, graduates of a hard school of fighting to the death against people who despised you. A minute, and there were only scattered shots and screams along the One Line. Another, and there were none.

"Master Warrant!" Ellis' command car pulled to a stop, and he jumped out even as Jenny started assembling the Yankee COIL device. McWhirter looked up, his wrinkled mouth strangely slack with pleasure, licking his lips as he shook bits of blood and torn flesh off his machete blade. "Get First through Third organized and in the trenches, o' Bohner's people goin' throw us right back out again!" McWhirter shook his head, blinked, and something like sanity came back into his eyes as he started shouting for squad leaders. Ellis spotted Tetrarch Sideman coming up from the rear, one arm streaked with angry red burns. His carrier must have been the one that caught the shell. "Allright, Tom?"

"Yeah." Sideman looked down at his arm, his voice full of annoyance more than anything else. "Got off before she started really burnin'. Lord knows where my troops are though."

"Fo'get 'em." Sideman blinked, and Ellis waved his hand back. "Want you to go back to the disabled Buffalos. Find as many as yo' can, get 'em organized, get 'em up here. We goin' need every rifle we've got in a minute here, and we do not have the margin for little lost Draka wandering around back there tryin' figure out which end is up. Do it, go, now." Sideman nodded and turned, sprinting off for the smoking, disabled carriers in the rear, yelling as he ran.

Ellis ran back to his Hyena, where Jenny had the long black tube of the COIL projector hooked up to its tripod and battery. Ellis clambered up behind it and adjusted the telescopic sight. Men were massing back in Bohner's reserve line, and behind them he could see the nerve gas depot.

"Listen up, Draka!" Ellis pitched his voice to carry as he carefully zeroed the crosshairs in on the spot he wanted. "They goin' be all over us in a minute. If we hold 'em, this whole damn thing goes away. We don't, everyone dies. There ain't no in-between on this one, boys and girls, so you hold. Hear me? Yo' fuckin' hold!"

"Got the target, Centurion?" Master Warrant McWhirter was holding his Holbars up to his shoulder, carefully lining up shots and squeezing them off. The range was long for the small 5.56mm round, but every other shot or so a man would drop from the next line of fortifications. He didn't look away from the enemy when he spoke.

"Yeah. Dialed in, long as we can keep it." McWhirter laughed, a guttural sound with all the humor of a hyena's bark.

"Then shut up and let us handle this, Sir." Ellis laughed, much the same sound, and turned his attention to steadying the scope as McWhirter took the rest of the Century's troops to the forward trenches, as close as possible to Ellis' men. He found himself thinking- praying, perhaps, although the man he addressed in his thoughts was quite mortal.

Nothing curse you, Rosemont. Don't you dare let me down now.

0555 Hours

Aboard Spirit of Rio

"Got anything, Mad Dog?" Rosemont fought to keep an edge from his voice. "We are on a bit of a deadline here, you know." The flak was bursting closer to them now as the Draka gunners got their radars online and their barrage patterns set up. Even if Bohner's people didn't have a missile launch ready, the attack was looking worse by the second.

"Fucked if I know, Sir." Brown most definitely had an edge in his voice, but his hands were still moving smoothly over the bomb system controls. "Between all the smoke down there and flying like we're the Goddamned Blue Angels the target could be painted bright fuckin' pink and I wouldn't know about it. Can you give me some straight and level?"

"Sure I- Chaff!" Rosemont screamed the last word into his mask as the Retaliator's threat board lit again, craning his neck for a sight of the Cobra coming after them. He caught the distinctive white smoke trail rising up from the jungle and turned into it, cutting down the size of his radar signature just as Brown's chaff cloud blossomed large on the scope. The Cobra whizzed past, a long finned thing the size of a telephone pole, and Rosemont turned to glare at his bombardier. "I'll fly straight and level just as soon as you don't mind getting clocked by one of those. How about it?"

"Well, we've gotta do something."

"I am." Rosemont keyed his radio. "Warhammer 504, this is Spirit. What is the story on that second Cobra battery?" A pause that stretched on too long without an answer. "504, respond." Another silence. "Mondo, Saint, this is Rosie. Answer up, Goddammit!"

His only reply was the crackling hiss of static.

0556 Hours

Two Line, Ragnarok Project Primary Site

"Go! Let's fuckin` go, Draka, let's move!" Stonewall Jackson Bohner set the example for his men, vaulting out of his trench and darting forward towards the next piece of cover, firing his borrowed Holbars from the hip. Loyal Draka troops swarmed up after him, cutting the air with bursts of autofire and wildly screamed war cries.

The traitors up ahead were ready for them, firing back from cover with their rifles and a couple dismounted heavy machine guns from their wrecked transports, and men of the Race were falling around him. Not enough, though, not nearly enough, and Bohner threw himself into a cluster of rocks, carefully snapping off rounds to cover his men's advance. Citizen officers were expected to lead from the front, after all, and besides, this was the turning point of history. He knew it. There was nowhere else on Earth he'd rather be right now.

The Draka Race surged forward to victory, and Merarch Bohner cheered as he got up to run with them. Here. His people were on their way back, and by all the Gods and Goddesses, the first blow was being struck here!

0556 Hours

Aboard Warhammer 504

5 km south of Ragnarok Project Primary Site

"Set deflection, 30 mils."

"30 mils." Saint reached up and adjusted the gunsight pipper, bringing it down to the correct angle. "Altitude six thousand. Flak's pickin' up down there. Let's do this."

"Roger." Mondo casually snapped Warhammer 504 over onto her left wing, craning his neck to pick out the light gray specks of the SAM site's launchers and radars in the jungle below. He supposed he was going to have to give the photo geeks on Reprisal a bit of a break, because it was pretty obviously a new installation. Among other things, that meant the site hadn't been covered up with camouflage netting yet, making it relatively easy to pick out from the air. That would make this easier. Well, possible, at any rate. 504 screamed in over the treetops in a shallow dive, wings swinging forward as Mondo popped the airbrakes. As the plane slowed in midair, he pushed the stick forward, raking the pipper's green "death dot" across the clearing as he held down the trigger.

Just forward of the Retaliator's bomb bay, a 25mm revolver cannon spooled up to full speed with a sound like a supersonic buzzsaw. It burned through its' 1100 round ammunition tank in less than twenty seconds, and the earth around the Draka missile site exploded as though from a driving rain as it was peppered with fragments of high-explosive shell. The control and launcher vans were made of heavy sheet steel, and all the men and women inside heard was an insane clattering sound, as though someone had dumped a bucket of rocks on the roof. The site's radar dishes were made of aluminum and copper wire, and they eroded just as surely as a sandcastle at high tide. When the Draka missile operators looked back up to their scopes, they saw that they were all dead.

Warhammer 504 jolted in midair as she pulled off from the target, and Saint sucked in a breath as lights on his panel flashed bright red. Nothing seemed to be falling off, so he flicked his eyes over to his radar countermeasures panel and keyed the radio with a tight smile.

"Spirit, this is Warhammer 504. Second site is history." He glanced over at Mondo. "Hey, damn. We pulled it off!"

"That we did." The pilot pulled his plane into a right turn, heading for the coast. "How much damage did we take?"

Saint glanced down at the panel and grimaced. Nothing that said immediate crash, but- "All we need. Think it's about time to head back for the barn." Mondo nodded.

"Roger that." As they climbed up out of range of the anti-aircraft guns, Saint risked a look over his shoulder and blew out a careful breath.

"We did what we could. Here's hoping the old man can seal the deal."

0557 Hours

One-Line, Ragnarok Project Primary Site

Ellis ignored the screaming line of Draka infantry coming out of the bush further up the valley. He ignored the whine of the bullets and the missiles rising up out of the smoke like overgrown green trees, minutes away from launch. He shut out everything except the Yankee COIL projector and the last few connections.

"Battery!" Praise Nothing, that was the last step. Jenny shoved the cables off of the brick-sized battery pack to him, and he shoved them into the side of the projector. He bent to look through the sighting scope, carefully placing the crosshairs over the outline of the nerve gas depot through the smoke. He could see flashes around the edge of the scope, Bohner's troops coming closer and closer. Ten seconds to hand-to-hand range on his front line, maybe less. One of them would get this far- no way of stopping that, not when he had to be so close to the front line and doing something so obviously important. All the way here, and they probably were going to miss it by that fuckin' much.

Still had to try, of course. And hope. Ellis stabbed his finger down on the button.

0557 Hours

Aboard Spirit of Rio

"Contact!" Rosemont whipped his head to the side to look at his B/N in astonishment.

"You sure, Mad Dog?" Brown nodded.

"I'll tell the fuckin' world, Sir. COIL paint, right where it oughta be." The kid's voice was still high, but now it sounded like excitement, not fear. "Hot damn. We're gonna get 'em."

"Yeah. Set it up." When they'd first leveled out after 504 called the missile site down, Rosemont had thought at first it was too late, that Ellis had failed or the valley was too fouled with smoke and haze for the Retaliator's systems to pick out the pinprick of coherent light miles below them. He'd never been so thankful to be wrong. Brown bent down over his scope and stabbed at a key, then flipped a switch on the armament board.

"Ten low, pilot. Three miles do- oh, shit." The Spirit's nose came around, pointing back down the valley and into a sky strewn with black flak bursts, now thick and close together like blisters on a horrible burn. The guns couldn't track a high and fast target, but if they put up enough lead and shrapnel it wouldn't matter. Brown stared straight ahead for a moment, taking in the death-filled sky before them, and Rosemont could almost see his eyes going wide as he took in the same scene. Then Mad Dog shrugged his shoulders and bent down over his scope.

"Let's get these sons-of-bitches, Rosie." His voice was perfectly level now, as though he'd been using his commander's callsign all along. Rosemont nodded, pushing the throttles forward as his other hand guided his mount smoothly onto the bomb run.

The stories, when they began months later in Officers' Clubs from South Africa to Iceland to the Philippines, would start out relatively modest. The men telling them, clad in green Nomex flight suits that inevitably sported a Retaliator patch, would allow that maybe three or four other guys on the planet could have pulled it off. That guy Yeager, say, was supposed to be pretty hot shit for an air force puke, maybe throw in Dessaix or Muldoon if you wanted to be internationally expansive. A few years later, one or two might even talk about Delapore, who was supposed to be the best of the new breed of Snake pilots. But not a few years after that, as they told the story over Scotch whiskey, sweet rum or sharp rice beer, those same men would swear that no other jet jockey on the planet could have made a bomb run into that valley and lived to drop his payload. And decades later, in Buenos Aires and Kobe, Nova Archona and Candor Chasma, when the story had begun to pass into myth as all tales must- then, they would say that only Rosemont flying a Spirit of Rio could have done it. That somehow, for just a few moments, her control runs had become his sinews, her engines his heart, and the bombs tucked into her belly his booted foot stamping out those who would break the peace.

Most of the listeners, raised to control their ships through neural links and other methods as far beyond Rosemont's hydraulics and cables as they were beyond leather reins and a whip, would smirk and roll their eyes at the notion that anyone before them could have really known what it was to be one with an aircraft. A few would listen, and believe, and something uniquely human would live on in them.

Spirit of Rio shot through the fire at just under the Mach, thick air streaming off her wingtips and spiraling out into the air. Rosemont could feel her frame shaking and whining as bits of metal tore at her skin, and a veteran's touch and feel responded where lesser skill must have failed. A warning light as one of his turbofans was torn to pieces by a Draka shell, wasp-high squealing of the fire alert as he automatically shut down the engine and slammed the other into afterburner, using up the last of his energy to put her right-

-there-

Julie Rosemont squeezed the trigger on his stick and felt the thump of his bombs dropping free. Then the shells struck home, and he felt the horrifying sensation of falling as a wing was shot away. A quick grab for his ejection handle, and the world dissolved into noise and light.

0600 Hours

One-Line, Ragnarok Project Primary Site

The blast threw Pietr Ellis off of his combat car when it hit, a hammer of hot air slamming him off the back of it and down onto the dirt, the air whuffing out of his lungs. For a terrifying moment he couldn't breathe, as fire seemed to wash over his face and his lungs could only draw in sulfur clouds. Then strong hands helped him to his feet, and he saw.

The entire valley behind the line Bohner's people had rushed from was a firestorm. The fuel-air bombs had struck true, the heat of their ignition ripping open the nerve gas drums and instantly destroying the fragile, deadly organophosphate molecules that would have fastened onto nerve endings with the lethal slickness of black ice. The blast wave from them had torn open the nearly-full missiles nearby, mixing their fuel and oxidizer together and adding to the inferno. That had ignited plants, clothing, camouflage netting, and anything else remotely flammable, further adding to the heat. As Ellis watched, paint on the few remaining structures was beginning to catch fire, and there was a sound eerily like popping corn as ammunition began to cook off. Soon the fires would be hot as a forge, burning metal and charring bone.

Best to be gone by then.

Ellis shook himself and looked at his men and women, clustering around their leader for orders. "Allright, Draka. We got no kinda time for doin' it wrong, so let's do it right. I want a sweep for wounded, ours and theirs, as far forward as we can go.. Any of Bohner's people wanna surrender, take they weapons and they come with us. They don't wanna surrender, expend 'em or leave 'em for the fires. Three minutes max, then we are fuckin' history. Move it!" They moved, and Ellis turned to grab his radio handset from Jenny. "We need to know how many vehicles can run. Master Warrant-"

"Dead, Sir." Jenny's voice was quiet, hoarse, and she pointed to one of the foxholes just forward of their position. McWhirter's lips were bared in a snarl, his wrinkled skin pocked with half a dozen bullet wounds he'd taken before the one that had torn his throat out. Even in death's rictus, he still looked closer to peace than Ellis had ever seen him. The Centurion shook his head, then leaned down to close the staring blue eyes.

"Allright, then. Tell his 2IC to find out what runs and what we can get runnin'. Anythin' else, we leave. Wounded first, then we walk- only a couple klicks to the valley entrance."

Ellis looked up at the sky, smudgy with smoke and starting to clear. There was a single white parachute floating down towards the Earth.

"And one more thing. Get the Recondos on the horn. Tell 'em that if the man who just saved the State an' Race gets his throat sliced by one of Bohner's people before they get to him, I'll bust 'em so low they'll have to salute a centipede."

0610 Hours

Ragnarok Project Primary Site

The two parties came in almost simultaneously. Ellis looked back and forth for a moment, then waved his subordinates off. They were clear of the firestorm now, with loyal troops on the way to provide ambulances and medical supplies and enough men to stop any attacks by the truly stupid or desperate. The details could wait. After a moment of looking back and forth, he stepped forward to the first man they'd brought in, the one in a green flight suit.

"Name." For a moment, the pilot looked at Ellis like he was speaking another language. His hair was shot through with shocking white and his face haggard with fatigue. Ellis prodded, gently. "What's your name, son?"

"M-" The Yankee coughed, turned his head to the side, and hacked as his lungs tried to clear out the soot and burning tar in the air. "Melvin Brown. Lieutenant junior grade, U.S. Navy. Service number 665893." Ellis chuckled softly.

"Well, Lieutenant Melvin Brown, service number 665893, yo' can be easy. We're the troops yo' were supportin' a while back, so yo' a guest, not a prisoner. Anythin' we have is yours, and we'll get yo' back to yo' people just as soon as we can get to Regentropfen." The young man slumped in relief for a moment, then looked up.

"Centurion-"

"Ellis."

"Ellis. What about Captain Rosemont?" Ellis bit down on his lip. It hadn't sunk in until just now that the man whose flying had just saved them all was also the one who had burned his people alive twenty years ago. The name Rosemont was one every Draka born since 1945 knew and had a grudge against. But now all he could say was,

"We looked. But there was only one chute. I'm sorry, son. " Brown bent his head down between his knees and nodded, then looked back up.

"We were close when the blast hit. Too close. Almost collapsed my chute and-" He broke off there, and Ellis just nodded. There was nothing more he could say without shaming the man, and right now he didn't feel like doing that, even to a damn Yankee. One of D Century's medics led him off to the aid station, and only then did Ellis turn towards his other guest.

"I suppose yo' pleased with that." His voice was as flat and cold as metal in the rain. From his position on the ground, burned and with two Reaction Cohort troopers holding rifles on him, Stonewall Jackson Bohner spat.

"Fuckin' right. Even if I couldn't fix the rest of yo' from handin' everything over to the Yankees and Bushmen again, at least I got that old fucker. I hope he burned." Part of Ellis couldn't help but agree, but its voice was dying. Instead there was just anger, a tightness in chest and stomach and an infinite weariness in his voice.

"Mayhap he did, Bohner. If he did, that's one mo' death that's on yo'. I lost twenty-three of my people in there, and barring a miracle from a God I do not believe in that number is goin' to get higher. Possibly considerable higher, if there are still some of yo' little fuckheads holdin' down the road between Camp Forrest and here. We got maybe thirty of yo' people out- you tell me how many that leaves on your hands. And the fightin' in Archona. And the boats comin' for the shore. And yes, maybe one old Yankee too." He looked down at the Merarch as he lay in the dust, shaking his head. "And for what, Bohner? For what?"

"For the Race." Bohner's eyes were bright, narrow as he looked up at the Centurion. "To give us a chance to do somethin', somethin' besides dying by bits on this Gods-cursed island. Give us a chance to reclaim-"

"Shut up." Bohner's mouth hung open. Apparently it had been a while since he'd been told that. "Even now, still, all yo' got is slogans? We're not dyin', Bohner. We're livin'. Just not the way yo' wanted. Well, yo' gonna get yo' fill of dyin' now."

"Fine." Bohner spat into the dust. "Shoot me. I'll welcome it." Ellis grinned, full and jovial and hideous.

"Shoot yo? Why, Merarch Bohner, shootin out of hand is for banana republics and would-be dictators. Yo' comin' with us. We'll put you on trial for the Yankee cameras to see, and send yo' off to a Yankee prison afterwards where no friends can free yo'. Where you can watch us make something less and less like what yo' wanted." He bent down to the older man, his voice dropping off almost into a whisper. "And when you die, Bohner? Yo' won't die a superman and martyr to the Race. Yo' will die a senile old man with bad teeth, forgotten long before yo' gone. Yo' stole years from so many, and now we gonna feed 'em all to yo' until yo' choke on it." He rose and turned to go, leaving the old man gaping at him on the jungle floor.

"Live long, Bohner. Live a long, long life."

0830 Hours

Bridge, USS Reprisal

"It's confirmed, Skipper." The chief yeoman's voice was soft, as close to gentle as a twenty-year enlisted man could be with his Captain. "Warhammer 501 went down over the target. Only one chute, and the Snakes picked up Brown. They're bringing him back to Regentropfen."

Jaime Guitierrez waved his hand to acknowledge the man, staring off onto the horizon as his ship forged northwards to meet the flotilla of boats from Zanzibar. A good number of them had turned back when it became apparent that the IQEA ships were shooting first and asking questions never, but there were still a lot of them coming. Some would get through, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. Not anymore.

And maybe, just maybe, afterwards they could do something to stop this whole crazy fucking thing from going into another cycle. He didn't know what. Or how. But he owed it to a friend.

USS Reprisal sailed off into the morning sea, her decks already shaking as aircraft leapt from her deck and into the bright blue sky. Her bow sent a fine wash of spray up into the sky, where it caught the light for a moment before falling back into the ocean. Tears, Guitierrez thought, and that was enough for him to let some of his own flow for his friend