Breaking Strain: Chapter One
November 19, 1964, 1300 Hours
USS Reprisal, CVA-59
South of Madagascar
The right-hand waist catapult fired, and the Ryan A4R Retaliator attack bomber screamed down along the ship’s angle deck before hurling itself into the air on a pair of afterburning turbojets. As the nose came down and the aircraft accelerated towards Mach 1, its wings began sweeping backwards for high-speed flight, turning the clumsy-looking aircraft into a blunt-nosed arrowhead that screamed low over the ocean on its way towards the Madagascar coast.
In the cockpit, Captain Julius Rosemont turned his head to the right and grinned. The young man in the BN’s position next to him was wearing the same crash helmet and oxygen mask that Rosemont was, but he was still showing pale around the eyes and cheeks. Rosemont keyed the intercom.
“C’mon, Mad Dog. Admit it. That was fun.” Lieutenant Melvin Brown, three weeks out of the A4R Fleet Replacement Squadron at Norfolk and cursed with a face that made him look like a frightened mouse every time he was even a bit nervous, swallowed and shook his head as he bent down into the radar scope.
“I’ll let you know when it starts being fun, Sir. Hasn’t happened yet.” Weak as the joke was, Rosemont chuckled at it, making sure he had the intercom keyed when he did so. He’d seen a lot of nuggets come and go in the thirty-odd years he’d spent in the Navy, and from all appearances Brown was going to be okay. Not a whiner or a quitter, just hadn’t managed to quite adapt to the various and sundry insane things a U.S. Naval Aviator was expected to do as a matter of routine while he was in training. If he could keep that lack of confidence from breaking his nerve before he settled in Brown showed all signs of developing into a damn good BN, and his nascent sense of humor was a positive sign.
Rosemont kept the throttles pushed all the way forward as the coastline of Madagascar appeared on the horizon, low and lush green. His eyes picked out the folds of the terrain with the ease of long experience, and his hands casually floated the Retaliator up another few feet to make sure they would clear the first rise after crossing the beach. Moments like this were what he had always loved, what had kept him in the Navy even after it became clear that not even being the hero of Operation MONGOOSE and the Medal of Honor would allow him to have his own admiral’s flag. What he’d done instead had been a hell of a lot more fun- gone Restricted Line, served as a flight instructor and a test pilot wringing out new birds for the Fleet, and generally become an institution within the Navy’s attack squadrons. When the CO of Heavy Attack Squadron One broke his leg three days before the ship had been due to sail for the Quarantine, it had been an easy call for CAG to pull old “Rosie” off his staff and put him in place of the green XO. He was 53 years old and probably wouldn’t be able to hold off the damn flight surgeons for much longer, but by God he’d gotten to lead the Myrmidons of VAH-1 again. Didn’t get much better than that.
The Madagascar beach flashed white under their wings, and Rosemont keyed his radio.
“Warhammer 503 is feet dry, repeat feet dry.” Then the intercom: “Gimme a steer, Mad Dog.”
Instead of a verbal reply, the bombardier put a green steering bug up in the top of Rosemont’s HUD, and the pilot drew smoothly left to follow it. Their job for the day was a simple one- fly over the military installations at Trismestigus, about halfway down the island, and take some pictures to make sure the Snakes hadn’t gotten up to anything naughty since the last overflight of this section two weeks ago. Some of the squadron pilots would have taken that as a chance to set the autopilot and go cruising over at eight or ten thousand, but any time Rosemont wanted to be bored there was always plenty of paperwork waiting back in his office. Reprisal was operating under Quarantine authority, which meant they didn’t have to tell anyone they were making an overflight, and he didn’t like the damn Snakes that much anyway. Might as well rattle their cages a bit.
“Bit fast for the photo run, Sir.” Brown was keeping his voice pretty calm, all things considered.
“You worry too much, kid. Anybody ever tell you that?”
“Twice a day since I joined this goddam outfit, Sir.”
The Retaliator screamed out over the treetops, barely subsonic, and as they settled onto the heading for their photo run Rosemont expertly eased the stick back and chopped throttle. Just as Warhammer 503 flew over her initial point and Brown flicked on the camera pod in her bomb bay, the altimeter kissed 4000 feet and the airspeed indicator 450 knots- minimum altitude and maximum speed for the photo run. Rosemont grinned to himself. Not bad, Julie, not bad at all.
Rosemont and Brown flew three passes, south to north while easing themselves further to the west each time, “mowing the lawn” over their assigned sector. As they settled onto the fourth run, Rosemont fixed his eyes on a mountaintop up ahead. Have to try to slide over that without messing up the exposure-
The Retaliator’s threat panel screamed, and Julius Rosemont reacted with a lifetime’s trained reflexes. His eyes picked out the rising starburst coming up out of the valley and he slammed the plane off to the left, away from the climbing missile. The arrow shape turned to follow as Rosemont slammed Warhammer 503 into afterburner, holding down the manual override to keep the wings swept forward. He could hear them groan in protest as the stress built, but he’d need every bit of snap turn he could muster in five seconds or so. As the missile slid below the canopy rail and out of sight, he gasped out one word.
“Chaff!” Brown slammed his thumb down on the salvo button, and the Retaliator’s internal defense pod kicked out ten packets of chaff that burst into a thick cloud of metal strips. Rosemont snap-rolled 503 through a hundred and eighty degrees and yanked the stick back, reversing their turn. The threat horn stuttered and died, as he snatched the Retaliator away and the missile tracking radar switched to the chaff cloud.
“Jesus Christ, they shot at us!” For a minute Rosemont wanted to snap Brown down for that, but the kid’s reaction was understandable. The Draka understood very well that Quarantine overflights were not to be interfered with, and there hadn’t been any accidents like this for years. This was like going out your front door for the morning paper and stepping on a rattlesnake. Instead, he said,
“Call the ship.” As Brown keyed the radio and reported the attack with a forced calm, Rosemont pulled Warhammer 503 into a left turn, circling back towards the jungle below. As soon as Brown ended his transmission, he keyed the radio mic.
“Vendetta, 503. We’re going back in for another pass.” Brown’s eyes were wide as he looked over at his pilot, and the ship didn’t sound much less incredulous.
“Warhammer 503, you were just attacked in that area. Recommend you wait until we clarify the situation.” Rosemont grinned humorlessly beneath his mask.
“Vendetta, if this is some kind of mistake, you’re right. But if it’s not, by the time we call them and they apologize whatever they’re hiding will be long gone. We’re going back in.” A pause.
“Your call, Warhammer. Good luck.” Rosemont glanced over at the right hand seat.
“You with me on this, Mad Dog?” Brown’s eyes looked as big and wide as a cartoon chipmunk’s, but he nodded. “Allright. Set the camera for the fastest exposure you can and the widest field of view. We’re going to forget the flight parameters, do this low and fast, and trust the photo lab geniuses to pull something useful out of it.”
“Yessir.” The Retaliator’s nose came around and pointed down the valley again, bits of stray cloud wicking over the canopy as they pushed the Mach. Brown finished setting his panel and settled back into his seat, pulling the straps tight. “Hoooleee shit, I can’t believe we’re doing this…”
Warhammer 503 screamed over the valley again, the stick smoothing out under Rosemont’s hands as they cleared the first ridge and punched through the sound barrier. The green jungle canopy rushed by past the canopy and Rosemont felt his fingers tighten and his toes curling on the rudder pedals, expecting at any moment for another missile or a streamer of flak to come reaching up out of the jungle for him. It didn’t happen. The threat board stayed quiet as they finished their run, then climbed out and turned back for the sea. They still had another couple sweeps to finish in their sector, but Rosemont thought they’d pushed their luck enough for one day. They’d burned a lot of gas running around low and fast, and it was time they got this film back aboard the ship.
As they cleared the coast, Brown looked over at his pilot. “Sir, what do you think that was all about?”
Rosemont shook his head. “Kid, that’s a good question. I really wish I had a good answer for it.”
Ragnarok Project Primary Site, Madagascar
Merarch Stonewall Jackson Bohner threw open the door to the Cobra missile launch control center and stood in the doorway. His voice was perfectly calm and controlled as he asked, “Who gave the order to fire?”
The battery commander, a young boy of twenty-odd years, raised his hand tentatively. “I did, Merarch. We know what Yankee recon runs look like. The profile indicated-“
The battery control van echoed with the thunderclap of Bohner’s 13mm Tolgren automatic, sending the three other operators diving to the floor and rolling around with their hands on their ears, trying to stop the ringing. The battery commander slumped in his seat, blood and brains covering his console. As the last echoes of the shot died away, Bohner spoke into the silence.
“What it indicated, son, is that today’s recon run was being flown by a Yankee who liked to show off. Since yo’ was entirely too stupid to realize that, this whole effort may be blown. ‘S all right, though. I know yo’ won’t let it happen again.” The other operators looked up at him, their eyes wide, and Bohner impatiently motioned them back to their stations. They’d been trained to shoot when the battery commander ordered them to shoot. Wasn’t their fault the battery commander was an idiot.
“As you were. Clean that up, and you-“ Bohner pointed at the senior tech, who barely managed not to flinch, “-congratulations, yo’ the new battery commander. I’ll send you a replacement soonest.” He turned on his heel, throwing the control van’s door shut behind him, and walked out to meet his two principal aides. His first question to them was characteristically direct.
“How bad?” Doctor Bryan Nesmith shrugged his shoulders and ran a hand through his short sand-colored hair. He wore a long-sleeved lab coat in defiance of both military protocol and the muggy tropical heat, but it was no affectation- the coat’s surface was frayed and stained a dozen exotic colors by the chemicals he worked with daily, and had half a dozen singed holes in it from various near-accidents.
“Can’t say, Merarch. First pass stopped short of the most important parts of the complex, and the second was very low and fast. Depends on how good the Yankee cameras are and how sharp their photo intel boys are. Might not have gotten anythin’. Might have gotten everythin’.”
“Shitfire.” Bohner kicked at the jungle mud, looking out across the valley. Years of work, here, done in painfully slow stages to make sure it passed unnoticed. Now they were weeks away from success, and one boy’s stupidity might have blown the whole thing.
Well. Might was a long way from certain, and he hadn’t come this far to have his Will thrwarted at the last instant. All he had to do was buy a little time- but first, he’d better make sure that he had to buy as little as possible. He turned to his other assistant and spoke.
“This could pose some difficulties. I would appreciate it if yo’ would communicate with yo’ people and see if the final shipment can be accelerated.”
Major Shoichi Ito of the Imperial Japanese Army raised his eyebrows slightly, and nodded. “I will raise the matter with Tokyo, Merarch. I believe under the circumstances they will regard our request…favorably.”
November 22, 1964 1400 Hours
Yamamoto Residence, Tokyo, Japan
Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was contemplating the beauty of his gardens when his household staff Prime Minister Masanobu Tsuji to see him. That irritated the Prime Minister immensely, because he knew Yamamoto didn’t give a damn about how beautiful his garden was- although it was immaculate, arranged with the greatest taste by the finest practitioners of the art. The admiral had always been much more at home in good restaurants and in the company of geisha then writing poetry or sipping tea, but now he was taking the opportunity to play the retired elder statesman, interrupted in his meditations by the younger generation. It was condescending as hell, and especially galling because Tsuji knew he’d have to ask Yamamoto for something during this interview- and he knew the old man knew it, too.
“Admiral.” Tusji bowed deeply from the waist, gritting his teeth. The old bastard might be trying to bait him, but damn if he was going to let it crack him. “Please forgive me for disturbing you. But events have compelled me here to seek your counsel.”
“Prime Minister.” Yamamoto stood and bowed in return, only fractionally less than Tsuji had. “Please do not apologize. Even now this old man is always at the disposal of His Majesty’s ministers.” Officially, that was all Yamamoto was- an old man retired from government service, living on his Navy pension in the house the Emperor had granted him on his retirement. Officially, there was no such thing as the genro, the loose body of elder statesmen without whose approval no Prime Minister could govern. Officially, Yamamoto could not be Tsuji’s mortal enemy, because he commanded no power. Both men were far too experienced to be deceived by how things worked on paper. “What matters have brought you here to seek my humble opinion?”
“There has been a problem with the Draka situation.”
“So I heard.” Yamamoto’s eyes flashed and fixed on the younger man’s face, and Tsuji felt his spine stiffening as though he were an officer cadet again. “I have heard that the Yankees may have spotted your little summer house down on Madagascar. I have heard that your preparations there are not yet complete. I have heard that you are in a great deal of trouble, Tsuji. If you wish my counsel, you know what it will be. Abandon this foolishness at once, before you lead us into ruin as Tojo so nearly did in 1941.”
“I see.” Tsuji had expected this, and kept his face carefully blank. “And yet, much as it pains me to contradict you, Sir, I have decided instead to accelerate the operation. The Akita Maru has completed refueling in Goa and is ready to sail. We can be ready in a matter of days, long before the Americans can have a response ready. They are distracted by matters in Indonesia, and slow to act.”
Yamamoto grunted laughter. “You Army boys never change, do you? It looks like you need to be kicked in the balls every twenty years, to remind you not to underestimate a foe.” His gutter language was deliberate, delivered in the coarse Nagaoka dialect of his youth. Tsuji flushed and fought to hold himself straight.
“Perhaps, Sir. But what I must know is whether you will advise His Majesty against this course of events.” Now he felt every muscle in his body tighten. If opposition was to come-
“No.” Yamamoto shook his head, turning halfway to look at a flowering bush. “No, I shall not. I am of a mind to, you understand. But Admiral Nagano and Lord Kido are of your counsel, and I would not wish to trouble them by contradicting them in front of the Emperor.” Tsuji let out a breath quietly. In other words, much as Yamamoto might want his political head on a platter, he hadn’t been able to persuade enough of his fellow genro to support his views. Tsuji had his free hand. He bowed at the waist, more deeply this time, trying to hide a smile.
“Thank you for your circumspection, Admiral. I am sorry that I cannot take your most wise counsel, and will occupy no more of your time.” Yamamoto returned the bow, but did not move. “I can find my own way out, thank you.” It was a deliberate snub for the Admiral not to walk him out, of course, but Tsuji could bear a hundred subtle insults in this moment. No matter how much Yamamoto might try to bait him, he’d won and they both knew it.
“Tsuji.” Yamamoto’s voice stopped him by the gate to the house. “For all our sakes, don’t take the Americans for granted. Not even for an instant.”
November 23, 1964 0600 Hours
Archonal Residence, Nova Archona
Eric von Shrakenberg watched the black limousine pull in through the gate of the Residence in a cloud of white steam, and made his way to the Residence’s main staircase. Sophie was waiting in the foyer with a silver tray filled with fluted crystal glasses, each holding no more than a thimbleful of watered wine out of consideration for the early hour. He fiddled with his collar for a moment, watching Sophie’s eyes laugh as he fumbled and she visibly fought the desire to set the tray down to help. His adult daughter Anna, her long apple-red hair done up in a long bun on the back of her head, stepped forward and helped straighten it as both women giggled. Then both women sobered.
“Papa, what do you think this is about?” It was Anna who asked, but they were all thinking it. Eric shook his head slowly.
“I don’ know, heart. I was hopin’ yo might.” Anna still had quite a number of contacts from the decades she’d spent in the United States, and gave him a valuable outsider’s eye on things as he tried to steer this damn Archonate into the 20th Century. “All we know is that fo’ days ago, the Yankee carrier on station started squawkin’ in a code we don’ know, back and forth a fair bit with they headquarters in Venta Bellagrium. Carrier headed west and landed somethin’, took what looks to be the IQEA Director onboard, and started headin’ back for Madagascar like it wasn’t goin’ be here when they got there. Now we got her landin’ at Regentropfen on a carrier delivery plane, and a request to meet me as soon as possible.” A request that was backed by the nuclear warheads onboard said carrier, of course, and it was hardly an accident which one the Yankees had forward based to enforce the quarantine. All other factors aside, the name Reprisal wasn’t one that any Draka was going to forget.
The doors to the Residence opened, and the IQEA Director walked in, trailed by a pair of military officers and an honor guard of Marines doubtless on loan from the U.S. Embassy, trailed by troopers of the Archonal Guard. The Marines carried fixed bayonets, and reload magazines in white leather pouches at their belts. This was bad. Eric straightened.
“Service to the State. Eric von Shrakenberg, Archon. My wife Sophie, and my daughter Anna. Be welcome in my house, Director.”
“Buenos dias, Archon.” The slightly built, olive-skinned woman who had walked though the door first took a glass of wine from the tray and drained it along with the Draka, although the officers behind her refrained. “Carmen Ruiz de Vega y Hierro, Director of the International Quarantine Enforcement Agency. Thank you for receiving us.” Her voice was light but sharp, direct, much like the director herself. A woman and a quarter-Mayan mestizo besides, she had shouldered her way to the table alongside the old-fashioned patróns of Yucután State by sheer stubbornness and will- which made her disconcertingly good at dealing with the Draka. Eric broadened his smile.
“I am at yo’ disposal, Madam Director. Shall we go to my office and discuss whatever urgent matter brings yo’ here?” Sophie and Anna peeled off as they walked up the staircase, the Marine sentries and Guard troopers remaining behind. Maybe the social pleasantries had defused things a little.
Any hope of that, however, vanished as soon as the door to his working office swung shut behind them. No sooner had they all settled themselves into chairs than Director Ruiz tossed a series of photo prints on his desk. “We would very much like an explanation for these, Archon.”
Eric leaned forward, taking a magnifying glass out of his desk drawer and inspecting the first one. It was blurry, but he could still make out a jungle canopy. Camouflage nets. And underneath-
“Holy Thor, God of Thunder.” Eric tossed the first exposure aside, scanning the second. No doubt about it. They were mobile ballistic missiles, long narrow metallic cigar shapes strapped to the backs of heavy diesel trucks. For a moment his guts turned to water as he worked through the implications in his mind, wishing with all his heart that this might be some kind of ghastly practical joke. One look at the Yankees’ faces told him it wasn’t. “When were these taken? Where?”
“Captain Rosemont?” At the Director’s word, one of the two officers behind her stood. He was in a frost-white USN dress uniform, with aviator wings and a light blue ribbon leftmost on his medal rack. That made him-
“That Rosemont?” Eric couldn’t stop the words from passing his lips, fists clenched tightly until his nails dug into his palms. Dear Gods. How bad things had to be to bring that man, here! The American smiled, humorlessly.
“Yes, Archon. That Rosemont.” Eric stared into those light brown eyes for a moment, taking in the permanent sun-squint around the corners and the uncannily tight focus. Tried to imagine those same eyes looking down at Marseilles and Genoa one March night in 1945, smashing his army’s supply bases to pieces. He forced his eyes back to the director, gritting his teeth as he tried to stop his heart from pounding.
“Well, Madam. If you wanted to put me off-balance, congratulations. Now just what the Eblis is all this about?”
Rosemont cleared his throat. “These pictures were taken four days ago, Archon, over Trismestigus Province in central Madagascar. I was the pilot for that mission, and we were fired on by a Draka Cobra-type surface to air missile while looking the area over.” He leaned forward and smiled. “If that hadn’t happened, might not have given the place a second look. Bad luck, hey?”
Eric sighed and leaned forward, burying his head in his hands. After a long moment, he looked up. “Madam Director. Gentlemen. Yo’ have to believe that I knew nothing about this until y’all showed me these just a minute ago. Whatever is goin’ on down there, it is not authorized by my government.” The other officer, a portly man in an Admiral’s unform, snorted and Eric looked over at him sharply. “It’s the truth. I swear it on my father’s name and the first von Shrakenberg’s grave. Sweet Loki, Admiral Wallis, I was commandin’ in Europe when y’all smashed us up in ’45. I know what happens to us, do we step out of line that far. Have I impressed yo’ so far as a suicidal man?” The Admiral glared back, but Ruiz raised her hand to cut him off.
“You haven’t, Archon, which is why we’re here and our Retaliators aren’t. Speaking personally, I’m inclined to believe you. But you must understand our…concern over these events.” Her voice was cool, the essence of understatement. “If you have any insight into these matters, it’s critical that you give it now.”
Eric opened his mouth to reply, then bolted to his feet as a rattling came from the office door. Before the Americans could finish whirling around, he had palmed the autopistol out of his desk drawer and flung the door open. The tow-headed young girl who had been standing behind it held up her hands and shrieked, tumbling backwards into the hall.
“Freya!” Eric stood there, chest heaving, then stood aside to let the Americans see who it was. “Ladies and gentlemen, my apologies. My niece, Yolande Ingolfsson, who apparently cherishes ambitions for our secret service.” He peeked down at the girl, who was still shaking, and sighed. “It’s okay, ‘Landa. Just go on down and see Anna fo’ a bit, and don’ come by here when I have guests?” Part of him wanted to read her the riot act, but that wasn’t something he was going to do in front of a bunch of Yankees- and besides, scaring the girl out of a year’s growth would probably drive the lesson home better than a dozen blows with a birch switch.
Yolande ran off, and Eric slid the door shut with a sigh. The Americans were just settling back into their chairs when he turned to face them, dropping the pistol on a side table and leaning against the door. “In a way, Yolande is the answer to yo’ questions, Madam Director. She’s been with us ‘bout three months now, ever since my sistah and her husband got killed by bushmen up north. We all know they been makin’ it through your patrols more often lately, and gettin’ better at coordinating they attacks.” He held his hands up. “I’m not sayin’ this is yo’ fault, just explainin’ the situation.
“Yo’ probably know as well as I that certain elements of our military aren’t happy about the details of our exile, particularly the bushman raids and the limitations on high technology we labor under. Merarch Bohner, the legate commandin’ the forces in the Trismestigus area, is a prominent member of that faction. He’s been agitatin’ fo’ us to build up our forces and retaliate for the raids, but I had no idea…” He trailed off, and Ruiz cleared her throat.
“Do you know what he plans, Archon?”
“No.” Eric stared sightlessly down at the photos. “But whatevah it is, it’s big and it’s goin’ to be soon. He wouldn’t risk assemblin’ major hardware like this unless everything was close to ready. Missiles and payloads both.”
“Nuclear?” Admiral Wallis’ voice was gruff as he folded his arms across his chest. Eric shook his head.
“Doubtful. No way we could assemble that ourselves. He has to be gettin’ some help from outside, but I know y’all still sweep all the cargoes comin’ in for radioactives. I’d say it’s impossible he could get a significant number of warheads in, even did he have a source.” Eric ran a hand through his hair. “No, probably chemical. We’ve always been good at that, and if yo’ tryin’ to threaten someone…”
“It’s just as good.” Rosemont leaned forward, and Eric nodded in grudging respect. There was a real brain turning behind those damned bombardier’s eyes. “Question is, how much have they got and where?”
“I don’t know.” Eric leaned back against the door, looking up at the ceiling. “But I think I can find out. Take maybe twenty four hours, maybe less.”
The Americans exchanged glances, and the Director spoke. “Archon, we are willing to believe that you have nothing to do with this, at least for now. We will give you time to gather information on this and try to work with you to defuse the situation. But you must understand. If any missiles launch from Madagascar-“
“Everybody here dies. I know.” Eric grinned, a death’s-head look. “Guess that makes me what yo’d call real motivated about it, hey?"
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