VILLAGE ONE, OSSETIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY
APRIL 15, 1942: 0350 HOURS
Trooper Patton wiped the sap from her bush knife and sheathed it over her shoulder; carefully, with both hands. It was far too sharp to fling about in the dark. Then she knelt to run her fingers over the product of her ingenuity: a straight sapling, hastily trimmed to a murderous point at both ends. One point was rammed into the packed earth of the trail; the middle of the stake was supported by the crutch of a Y-shaped branch cut to just the right length. The other end slanted up . . . Patton stood against it, measuring the height. Just at her navel, coming up the trail from the north. The briefing paper did say that the Fritz SS had a minimum height requirement, so it should hit . . .
The Draka woman was grinning to herself as she slid back four meters to her firing position to the left of the trail, behind the trunk of a huge fallen beech; laughing, even, an almost soundless quiver. One that Monitor Huff beside her knew well. Lips approached her ear, with crawling noises and a smell of wet uniform.
“What’s so fuckin’ amusin’, swarthy one?” asked Monitor Huff, commander of C lochos, the squad.
Patton was dark for a Draka, short and muscular, olive-skinned and flat-faced; their people had a Franco-Mediterranean strain that cropped out occasionally among the more common north-European types. Huff could imagine the disturbing glint of malicious amusement in the black eyes as she heard the slightly reedy voice describe the trap.
“Belly or balls, Huffie, belly or balls. Noise’ll give us a firin’ point, eh?”
“You’re sick. Ah love it.” Their lips brushed, and Huff rolled back to her firing position. Gonna die, might as well die laughin’, she thought.
Down the trail, something clanked.
“Clip the stickers,” Tetrarchy Commander Einar Labushange said as he crawled past the last of his fire teams. This was the largest trail; half the tetrarchy was with him to cover it, where a ridge crossed the path and forced it to turn left and west below the granite sill. Less cover, of course, but that had its advantages. He touched the bleeding lip he had split running into a branch, tasting salt. “And be careful, if’n I’m goin’ to die a hero’s death, I don’t want to do it with a Draka bayonet up my ass.”
He slid his own free and fixed it, unfolding the bipod of his Holbars, worrying. The little slope gave protection, but it also gave room for the Fritz to spread out. And withdrawing would be a cast-iron bitch, down the reverse slope at his back and over the stream and up a near-vertical face two meters high. At least they could all rest for a moment, and there was no danger of anybody dropping off, not with this miserable cold pizzle running down their—
The sound of a boot. A hobnailed boot, grating on stone. The heavy breathing of many men walking upslope under burdens. Close, I can hear them over the rain. Very close. He pulled a grenade out of his belt and laid it on the rock beside him, lifting his hips and reaching down to move a sharp-edged stone. He rose on one elbow to point the muzzle of the assault rifle downslope and drew a breath.
Eric could smell the trucks now, lubricants and rubber and burnt distillate, overpowering churned mud and wet vegetation. They must be keeping the boilers fired; he could hear the peculiar hollow drumming of rain on tight-stretched canvas, echoing in the troop compartments it sheltered. Only a few lights, carefully dimmed against aircraft; that was needless in an overcast murk like tonight’s, but habit ruled. To his dark-adapted eyes it was almost bright, and he turned his eyes away to keep the pupils dilated. There was an exercise to do that by force of will. Dangerous in a firefight, though; bright flashes could scorch the retina if you were overriding the natural reflex. He counted the trucks by silhouette.
There must be at least some covering force. Adrenaline buzzed in his veins, flogging the sandy feel of weariness out of his brain. He would have to be careful: this was the state of jumping-alert wiredness that led to errors. Some of the trucks would mount automatic weapons, antiaircraft, but they could be trained on ground targets. Eight assault rifles, including his, and the demolitions experts from Marie’s tetrarchy—they were going to be grossly out-numbered. Mud sucked at the soles of his boots and packed into the broad treads, making the footing greasy and silence impossible.
Thank god for the rain. Darkness to cover movement, rain to drown out the sounds. That made it impossible for him to coordinate the attack, once launched; well, Draka were supposed to use initiative.
“Halten Sie!” A German voice sounded from out of the darkness, only a few meters ahead now: more nervous than afraid, only barely audible over the drumming rain. He forced himself to walk forward, each footfall an eternity.
“Ach, it’s just me, Hermann,” he replied in the same language. “We got lost. Where’s the Herr Hauptman?” And knew his own mistake, even before the spear of electric light stabbed out from the truck’s cab. Hauptman was German for “Captain.” At least in their Regular army, of which the Liebstandarte was no part.
The SS don’t use the German Army rank system! The night lit with tracer fire, explosions, weird prisms of chemical light refracted into momentary rainbows through the prism of the falling rain. The Germans were shooting wild into a darkness blacker to them than to their opponents.
He flung himself down and fired, tracer flicking out even before his body struck the ground. Grenades went off somewhere, a sharp brak-brak; a fuel truck went up with a huge woosh and orange flash in the corner of his eye. A bullet went over his head with the unpleasantly familiar crack! of a high-velocity round; the Holbars hammered itself into his shoulder as he walked it down the length of the truck, using the muzzle flash to aim. Stroboscopic vision. Lightflash, blinkblinkblinkblink.
Blink. The driver tumbling down from the open door, rifle falling from his hands. Blink. Metal dimpling and tearing under the ratcheting slugs. Blink. A machine gunner above the cab trying to swing his weapon toward him, jerking and falling as the light slugs from the Holbars struck and tumbled and chewed. Ping-ting, ricochet off something solid. Blink. Shots down the canvas tilt, sparks and flashes, antennae clustering on its roof . . .
“Almighty Thor, it’s the command truck!” Eric whooped, and ran for the entrance at the rear. His hand was reaching for a grenade as he rounded the rear of the truck, skidding lightly in the torn-up wet earth. The canvas flap was opening at the rear. The Draka tossed the blast grenade in and dove to one side without breaking stride, hit the ground in a forward roll that left him low to the earth in the instant the detonation came, turned and drove back for the truck while it still echoed. You had to get in fast, that had been an offensive grenade, blast only, a hard lump of explosive with no fragmentation sleeve. Fast, while anybody alive in there was still stunned . . .
Standartenführer Hoth had been listening on the shortwave set in the back of the radio truck, to the broadcasts from over the mountains. It was all there was to do; as useful as Schmidt’s poring over the maps, there by the back of the vehicle. Reception was spotty, and he kept getting fragments. Fragments of the battle south of the passes, in German or the strange slurred Draka dialect of English; his own command of that tongue was spotty and based on the British standard. Evaluations, cool orders, fire-correction data from artillery observation officers, desperate appeals for help . . . There were four German divisions in the pocket at the south end of the Ossetian Military Highway—the Liebstandarte, split by the Draka paratroops and driving to clear the road from both ends, with three Wehrmacht units trying to hold the perimeter to the south. Trying and failing.
Time, time, he thought. The faint light of dials and meters turned his hands green; the body of the truck was an echoing cavern as the canvas above them drummed under the rain.
“Are you getting anything?” he said to the operator.
The man shook his head, one palm pressed to an earphone and the fingers of the other hand teasing a control. “Nothing new, Standartenführer. Good reception from Pyatigorsk and Grozny, a mish-mash from over the mountains—too much altitude and electrical activity tonight. And things skipping the ionosphere from everywhere: a couple of Yank destroyers off Iceland hunting a U-boat, the Imperial Brazilian news service . . . ”
The first explosion stunned them into a moment of stillness. Then Schmidt was leaping to his feet, spilling maps and documents. Hoth snatched for his helmet. Firing, the unmistakable sound of Draka automatic rifles, more explosions; only a few seconds, and already orange flame-light was showing through the canvas. The truck rocked, then shook as bullets struck it, a shuddering vibration that racked downward from the unseen cab ahead of them. Slugs tearing through the rank of electronic equipment, toppling boxes, bright sparking flashes and the lightning smell of ozone. The radio operator flew backwards across the truck bed with a line of red splotches across his chest, to slump with the headphones half pulled off and an expression of surprise on his face.
Hoth was turning when the grenade flew through the back of the truck, between the unlaced panels of the covering. It bounced back from the operator’s body, landed at Schmidt’s feet. There was just light and time enough to recognize the type, machined from a hard plastic explosive. It was safe at thirty feet, but more than enough to kill or cripple them all in the close quarters of the truck. He had enough time to feel a flash of anger: he could not die now, there was too much to do. It was futile, but he could feel his body tensing to hurl himself forward and kick the bomb out into the dark, feel the flush of berserker rage at the thought of another disaster.
Eyes locked on the explosive, he was never sure whether Schmidt had thrown himself forward or slipped; only aware of the blocky form plunging down and then being thrown up in a red spray. That barrier of flesh was enough to absorb the blast, although the noise was still enough to set his ears buzzing. The SS commander was a fast heavy man, with a combat veteran’s reflexes: in a night firefight, you had to get out—this was a deathtrap. There was a motive stronger than survival driving him forward, as well.
The past day had seen his life and his cause go from triumph to the verge of final disaster. He had seen his men cut down without an opportunity to strike back, while he blundered like a bull tangled in the matador’s cape. Out there was something he could kill. A thin trickle of saliva ran from one corner of his mouth as he lunged for the beckoning square of darkness.
A step brought Eric back to the rear of the truck. He had just time to wonder why the explosion had sounded so muffled when a German stepped over the body of the comrade who had thrown himself on the Draka grenade and kicked Eric in the face, hard.
The Draka’s rifle had been in the way. That saved him from a broken jaw; it did not prevent him from being flung back, stunned. The ground rose up and struck him; arms and legs moved sluggishly, like the fronds of a sea anemone on a coral reef; the strap of his Holbars was wound around his neck.
Self-accusation was bitter. Overconfidence. He had just time enough to think stupid, stupid when a huge weight dropped on his back. The darkness lit with fire.
Down. Reflex drove Sofie forward as motion flicked at the corner of her eye, letting the Centurion run on ahead. She landed crouched on toes and left hand, muscle springing back against the weight of body and radio. Shins thudded against her ribs, and the German went over with a yell; she flung out the machine pistol one-handed and fired, using muzzle flash to aim and recoil to walk the burst through the mud and across the prone Fritz’s back, hammering cratering impacts as the soft-nosed slugs mushroomed into his back and blew exit wounds the size of fists in his chest. Eric had stopped ahead of her, walking a line of assault-rifle fire down the truck. Explosions; there was light now, enough to seem painful after the long march through the forest. Eric—
Ignore him, have to. She twisted and pivoted, flicking herself onto knees and toes, facing back into the vehicle park, its running shouting silhouettes. Her thumb snapped the selector to single-shot and she brought the curved steel buttplate to her shoulder, resting the wooden forestock on her left palm; there was enough light to use the optical sight now, and the submachine gun was deadly accurate under fifty meters. The round sight-picture filled her vision, divided by the translucent plastic finger of the internal pointer, with its illuminated tip. Concentrate: it was just school, just a night-firing exercise, pop-up targets, outline recognition. A jacket with medals, lay the pointer on his chest and stroke the trigger and crack. The recoil was a surprise; it always was when the shot felt just right. The Fritz flipped back out of her sight; she did not need to let her eyes follow. More following him, this truck must mean something; quickly, they could see the muzzle flashes if not her. Crack. Crack. Crack. The last one spun, twisted, only winged; she slapped two more rounds into him before he hit the ground.
A bullet snapped through the space her stomach would have been in if she had been standing; she felt the passage suck at her helmet. Aimed fire, if she hit the dirt he might still get her, or the centurion in the back. Scan . . . a helmet moving, behind one of the bodies. Difficult . . . Her breath went out, held; her eyes were wide, forcing a vision that saw everything and nothing. The Fritz working the bolt of his Mauser. Blood from a bitten cheek. The pointer of her scope sinking with the precision of a turret lathe, just below the brim of the coal-scuttle helmet. Her finger taking up the infinitesimal slack of the machine pistol’s trigger. They fired together; the helmet flipped up into the ruddy-lit darkness with a kting that she heard over the rifle bullet buzzing past. A cratered ruin, the SS rifleman’s head slipped down behind the comrade he had been using as a firing rest.
Sofie blinked the afterimage of the Mauser’s flash out of her eyes, switching to full-auto and spraying the pile of dead: you never knew.
Knee and heel and toe pushed her back upright as her hands slapped a fresh magazine into her weapon, hand finding hand in the dark. Unnoticed, her lips were fixed in a snarl as she loped around the truck Eric had been attacking; her eyes were huge and dark in a face gone rigid as carved bone. He could not be far ahead. She would find him; his back needed guarding. She would.
The Fritz flare arched up from behind a boulder. Harsh silver light lit the trees, leeching color and depth, making them seem like flat stage sets in an outdoor theater, turning the falling rain to a streaking argent dazzle. The Draka section hugged the earth and prayed for darkness, but the flare tangled its parachute in the upper branches and hung, sputtering. Einar Labushange laid his head on his hands; the light outlined what was left of the Draka firing line on the ridge with unmerciful clarity. He was safer than most, because when his head dropped, the dead SS trooper in front of him hid him. He could feel the body jerking with pseudo life as bullets struck it, hear the wet sounds they made. Rounds were lashing the whole ridge; the firepower of the Fritz infantry was diffuse, not as many automatic weapons per soldier, but their sheer numbers made it huge now that they were deployed.
Not as many as there had been when the Draka had caught them filing along below. Forgetting, he tried to shift himself with an elbow, froze, and sank back with a sound that only utter will prevented from being a whimper. Briefly, some far-off professional corner of his mind wondered if he had been justified in using an illuminating round, that fifteen-minute eternity ago. Yes, on the whole. The Fritz had been in marching order; he did not need to raise his head to see them piled along the trail, fifty or sixty at least. More hung on the undergrowth behind it, shot in the back as they waded through vine and thicket as dense as barbed wire. Clumsy, he thought, conscious even through the rain of the cold sweat of pain on his body, the slow warm leakage from his belly. Open-country soldiers, Draka would have gone through like eels or used their bush knives.
Stones and chips tinked into the air; a shower of cut twigs and branches fell on the soldiers of the Domination, pattering through the rain. They crouched below the improvised parapet; occasionally a marksman would pop up for a quick burst at the muzzle flashes, roll along to another position, snap-shoot again at the answering fire that raked their original shooting stand.
“Fuckahs never learn!” he heard one call out gleefully. There was no attempt at a firing line; the survivors of the two lochoi would rise to fire when the next charge came in. Overhead, a shell from 2nd Tetrarchy’s 60mm mortar whined. Only one, they were running short. Short of everything; and the Fritz still had more men. Despite the dozens shattered along the trail, the scores more lying in windrows up the slope they had tried to storm, and thank the One-Eyed that the bush was too thick to let them around the flanks easily . . .
Einar did not move. As long as his body stayed very still, the knee that had been shattered by the sniper’s bullet did not make him faint. He could feel the blood runneling down his face from the spot where he had bitten through his lip the last time the leg had jerked. It would be the bayonet wound in the stomach that killed him, though.
He struggled not to laugh: it was very bad when he did that. A flare had gone off just as the last Fritz charge crested the ridge, too late for either of them to alter lunges that had the weight of a flung body behind them. Just time enough to see each other’s faces with identical expressions of surprise and horror; then, his bayonet had rammed into the German’s throat, just as the long blade on the end of the Mauser punched through his uniform tunic right above the belt buckle. It had been cold, very cold; he could feel it, feel the skin parting and the muscle and crisp things inside that popped with something like a sound heard through his own bones. Then it had pulled free as the Fritz collapsed, and he had watched it come out of him and had thought, How odd, I’ve been killed as he started to fall. That was very funny, when he thought about it. Unlikely enough to be killed with a bayonet, astronomical chance for a Draka to lose an engagement with cold steel. Of course, he had been very tired . . .
Light-headed and a little sleepy, as he was now. He must not laugh. The stomach wound was death, but slow; just a deep stab wound, worked a little wider when the blade came out. Not the liver or a kidney or the major arteries, or he’d be dead by now. The muscles clamped down, letting the blood pool and pressure inside rather than rush out and bring unconsciousness as the brain starved. But there were things in his gut hanging by strained threads.
It was very bad when he laughed.
And he was very sleepy; the sound of the firing was dimming, no louder than the rain drumming on his helmet . . .
He rocked his ruined leg, using the still-responsive muscle above the tourniquet. The scream was probably unheard in the confusion of battle; he was very alert, apart from the singing in his ears, when the second decurion crawled up beside him, the teenaged face white and desperate in the dying light of the flare.
“Sir. Pederssen and de Klerk are expended, the mortar’s outa rounds, they’re working around the flanks, an’ we can’t stop the next rush; what’m I supposed to do?” The NCO reached out for his shoulder, then drew his hand back as Einar slapped at it.
“Get the fuck out. No! Don’t try to move me; I can feel things . . . ready to tear inside. I’d bleed out in thirty seconds. Go on, burn boot; go man, go.”
The sounds died away behind him; the buzzing whine in his ears was getting louder. Nobody could say they hadn’t accomplished the mission: the Fritz must have lost a third or better of their strength. They would never push on farther into this wet blackness with another ambush like this waiting for them. A hundred dead, at least . . . Somehow, it did not seem as important now, but it was all that was left.
The flare light was dimming, or maybe that was his eyes. Maybe he was seeing things, the bush downslope stirring. Clarity returned for a moment, although he felt very weak, everything was a monstrous effort. No choice but to see it through now . . . Oh, White Christ, to see the desert again . . . It would be the end of the rains, now. A late shower, and the veld would be covered in wildflowers, red and magenta and purple, you could ride through them and the scent rose around you like all the gardens in the world, blowing from the horizon. No choice, never any choice until it’s too late, because you don’t know what dying is, you just think you do . . .
Einar Labushange raised his head to the sights of his rifle as the SS rose to charge.
“Ah. Ah. Ahhhaaaa—”
It was amazing, Trooper Patton thought. The German impaled on the stake still had the strength to moan. Even to scream, occasionally, and to speak, now and then. Muzzle flashes had let her see him, straddling as if the pointed wood his own weight had punched into his crotch was a third leg. Every now and then he tried to move; it was usually then that he screamed. The bodies behind him along the trail were still; she had put in enough precautionary bursts, the trail was covered with them, and a big clump back down the trail about twenty meters. That was where the rocket-gun shell had hit them from behind, nicely bunched up and focused on the fire probing out of the night before them.
“Amazing,” she muttered. Her voice sounded distant and tinny in ears that felt hot and flushed with blast; she wished the cold rain would run into them. Amazing that nothing had hit him. There was a pile of spent brass and bits of cartridge belt by her left elbow, some still noticeably hot despite the drizzle, and two empty drums; the barrel of her rifle had stopped sizzling. She thought that there was about half of the third and last ammunition canister left, seven or eight bursts if she was lucky and light on the trigger. Cordite fumes warred with wet earth, gun oil and a fecal stink from the German, who had voided his bowels as he hung on the wood. Uneasily, she strained her battered ears. She and Huff had been reverse-point; the plan was that they would block the trail, the Fritz would pull back to spread out, and then the rest of the lochos would hit them, having let them pass the first time to tempt them to bunch. It had worked fine, only there was no more firing from farther north. Glimpses had been enough to estimate at least a tetrarchy’s worth of dead Fritz; the other six troopers of their lochos couldn’t have killed all the rest, so . . .
“You thinkin’ what I—”
They had both risen to hands and knees, when Patton stopped. “Wait,” she said, reaching out a hand. “Give me a hand, will you?” She felt in the darkness, grabbed a webbing strap and pulled the other soldier toward the trail. Outstretched, her hand touched something warm and yielding; there was a long, sobbing scream that died away to whimpers.
“What the fuck you doin’?”
“Lay him out, lay him out!” Patton exclaimed feverishly. And yes, there was a tinge of light. Couldn’t be sunlight, the whole action was barely ten minutes old. Something was burning, quite close, close enough for reflected light to bounce in via the leaves. “Easy now, don’ kill him. Right, now give me your grenades.”
There was a chuckle from the dim shape opposite her. The German was crying now, with sharp intakes of breath as they moved him, propped the stake up to keep the angle of entry constant, placed the primed grenades under his prone body, wedging them securely. The flesh beneath their fingers quivered with a constant thrumming, as if from the cold. Huff paused as they rose, dusting her hands.
“Hey, wait. He still conscious; he might call a warnin’.”
Patton looked nervously back up the trail. If the Germans had spread out through the bush to advance in line, rather than down the trail . . . but there was no time to lose. It depended on how many of them were left, how close their morale was to breaking. “Right,” she grunted, reaching down and drawing the knife from her boot. The Fritz’s mouth was already open as he panted shallowly; a wet fumbling, a quick stab at the base of the tongue, and the SS trooper was forever beyond understandable speech.
The cries behind them were thick and gobbling as the pair cautiously jog-trotted down the trail.
“Fuckah bit me,” Patton gasped as they stopped at a sharp dip. There was running water at her feet; she rinsed her hands, then cupped them to bring it to her lips. Pure and sweet, tasting of nothing more than rocks and earth, it slid soothingly down a sore and harshened throat.
“Never no mind; this’s where we supposed to meet the others.” Again, they exchanged worried glances at each other without needing to actually see. The ambush force was supposed to pull out before they did; that was the only explanation for the silence. Or one of only two possible explanations . . .
To the south there was a multiple crash, as of grenades, then screams, and shouts in German.
“Shit,” said Huff. There had been seven of them in the lochoi assigned to this trail . . . “Like the boss man said, mind in gear—”
“Ass to rear. Let’s go!”
Silently, the two Draka ran through the exploding chaos of the vehicle park. Eric had tasked the satchelmen in general terms: to destroy the SS trucks, especially fuel or munitions carriers, or block the road, or both, whichever was possible. Most of the satchelmen had run among the trucks with a charge in each hand, thumbs on the time fuses, ready to switch the cap up. Get near a truck, throw the charge, dive out of the way . . .
Trooper McAlistair shoulder-rolled back to elbows and knees, bipod unfolded, covering the demolition expert’s back. Blind-sided chaos, she thought. Feet ran past on the other side of an intact truck; she snap-shot a three-round burst and was rewarded with a scream. That had not been the only set of feet; without rising she scuttled forward, moving in a leopard crawl nearly as fast as her walking pace, under the truck and over the sprattling form of the Fritz, who was clutching at a leg sawn off at mid-shin. She rolled again, sighting, wishing she was on full-auto as she saw the group rounding the truck. Six. Her finger worked on the trigger, brap-brap-brap, tracer snapping green into their backs; one had a machine gun, a MG42. He twisted, hand clamping in dying reflex and sending a cone of light upwards into the gray-black night as the belt of ammunition looped around his shoulders fed through the weapon, then jammed as it tightened around his throat, dropping him backwards into the mud. The overheated barrel hissed as it made contact with the wet soil, like a horseshoe when the farrier plunges it from the forge into the waiting bucket.
The satchelman had not been idle on the other side of the truck. The target had been especially tempting, an articulated tank-transporter with a specialized vehicle aboard; that was a tank with a motorized drum-and-chain flail attached, meant for clearing mine fields before an attack. The charge of plastique flashed, a pancake of white light beneath the transporter’s front bogie. All four wheels flew into the night, flipping up, spinning like coins flicked off a thumb. The fuel tank ruptured, spreading the oil in a fine mist as the atomizer on a scent bottle does to perfume. Liquid, the heavy fuel was barely flammable at all without the forced-draft ventilation of a boiler. Divided finely enough, so that all particles are exposed to the oxygen, anything made of carbon is explosive: coal dust, even flour.
The cloud of fuel oil went off with the force of a 15mm shell, and the truck and its cargo disintegrated in an orange globe of fire and fragments that set half a dozen of its neighbors on fire themselves. The crang blasted all other sound out of existence for a second, and echoed back from hills and forest. Most of the truck’s body was converted into shrapnel; by sheer bad luck a section of axle four feet long speared through the satchelman as a javelin might have, pinning him to the body of another vehicle like a shrike’s prey stuck on a thorn. Limbs beat a tattoo on the cab, alive for several seconds after the spine had been severed; there was plenty of light now, more than enough for the Liebstandarte trooper to see the bulge-eyed clown face that hung at his window, spraying bright lung-blood from mouth and nose beneath burning hair. Since the same jagged spear of metal had sliced the thin sheeting of the door like cloth and crunched through the bones of his pelvis, he paid very little attention.
Tee-Hee McAlistair flattened herself; the ground rose up and slapped her back again as the pressure wave of the detonation passed. For an instant, there was nothing but lights and a struggle to breathe. Above her the canvas tilt of the Opel truck swayed toward her, then jounced back onto its wheels as the blast proved not quite enough to topple it past the ballast weight of its cargo. Vaguely, she was conscious of blood running from ears and nose, of a thick buzzing in her skull that was not part of the ratcheting confusion of the night battle. That had been a muchbigger bang than it was supposed to be. Doggedly, she levered herself back to her feet, ignoring the blurred edges of her sight. The buzzing gave way to a shrilling, as needles seemed to pierce slowly inwards through each ear. The satchelman—
“Shitfire, talk about baaad luck,” she muttered in awe, staring for an instant across the hood of the truck at the figure clenched around the impaling steel driven into the door. That drooped slightly, and the corpse slid inch by inch down the length of it, until it seemed to be kneeling with slumped head in a pool that shone red in the light of the fires. Behind, the transporter was a large puddle of fire surrounded by smaller blazes, with the flail tank standing in the middle, sending dribblets of flame up through the vision slits in the armor. As she watched, a segment of track peeled away to fall with a thump, beating a momentary path through the thick orange carpet of burning oil.
A burst crackled out of nowhere her dazzled eyes could see, ripping the thin sheet metal of the truck’s hood in a line of runnels that ended just before they reached her.
“Gotta get out of the plane a’ fire,” she said to herself. It was strange; she could hear the words inside her head, but not with her ears . . . Turning, she put her foot on the fender of the truck and jumped onto the hood, then the cab roof, a left-handed vault onto the fabric cover of the hoops that stretched over the body of the truck. That was much more difficult than it should have been, and she lay panting and fighting down nausea for an instant before looking around.
“Whoo, awesome.” The whole cluster of Fritz vehicles was burning; there was a fuzziness to her vision, but only the outermost line near the road was not on fire. There was plenty of light now, refracted through the streaked-crystal lines of the rain; muzzle flashes and tracers spat a horizontal counterpoint to the vertical tulip shapes of explosions and burning vehicles, all soundless as the needles of pain went farther into her head. It occurred to her that the Fritz must be shooting each other up—there were more of them and the Draka had gotten right into the position. That would have made her want to giggle, if her ears had not hurt so much; and there seemed to be something wrong with her head, it was thick and slow. She should not be watching this like a fireworks show. She should . . .
One of the trucks pulled out of the line and began to turn back onto the road; its driver executed a flawless three-point and twisted bumping past the guttering ruin of the first to be destroyed; other explosions sounded behind him, nearly as loud. The actions of hands and boots on wheel and throttle were automatic; all the driver could see was the fire, spreading toward him: fire and tracers probing out of the unknowable dark.
Tee-Hee reacted at a level deeper than consciousness as the truck went by. Kneeling, she raked the body of it with a long burst before leaping for the canvas tilt. The reaction almost killed her; it calculated possibilities on a level of performance no longer possible after blast-induced concussion slowed her. Her jump almost failed to reach the moving truck, and it was chance that she did not slide off to land in the deadly fire-raked earth below. She sprawled on the fabric for an instant, letting the wet roughness scratch at her cheek. But her education had included exhaustion drill—training patterns learned while she was deliberately pushed to the verge of blackout, designed to keep her functioning as long as it was physically possible at all. Crawling, she slithered to the roof of the driver’s cab and swung down, feet reaching for the running board and left hand for the mirror brace to hold her on the lurching, swaying lip of slick metal.
That seemed to clear her head a little. Enough to see the driver’s head turning at last from his fixed concentration on the road and escape; to see the knowledge of death in his widening eyes as she raised the assault rifle one-handed and fired a burst through the door of the cab. His lips shaped a single word: “Nein.”
The recoil hammered her back, bending her body into an arch and nearly tearing loose the left-hand grip. Then she tossed the weapon through the window and tore the door open, reaching in and heaving the dying German out; pulling herself into the cab with the same motion, hands clamping on the wheel. She took a shaky breath, wrenched the wheel around to avoid a wreck in her path.
“Freya, what’s that stink?” the Draka soldier muttered, even as she fumbled with the unfamiliar controls. It was still so hard to think; out to the road, then shoot out the wheels. Grenade down the fuel pipe. Block the road, back to the woods, where was the throttle . . . ? Not totally unfamiliar; after all, the autosteamer had been invented in the Domination, the design must be derived . . . there!
Shit, she thought, slewing the truck across the narrow road. There was a steep dropoff on the other side; this should slow them a little once she popped a charge to make the hulk immovable. Literally. I’m sitting in what the Fritz let out. White Christ have mercy, I’ll never live it down!
At that moment, the SS trooper fired his Kar-98 through the back of the cab. It was not aimed; there was no window, and it was the German’s last action before blood loss slumped him back onto the bullet-chewed floorboards. Chance directed it better than any skill; the heavy bullet slapped the Draka between the shoulder blades; she pitched forward against the wheel, bounced back against the back rest, then forward again.
But I won, was her last astonished thought. I can’t die, I won.
Eric felt the German’s impact like a flash of white fire across his lower back and pelvis. Then there was white fire, dazzling even though his head was turned away: explosion. Eric’s bruised face was driven deeper into the rocky earth; his tongue tasted dirt and the tenderness of grass. Fists pounded him, heavy knobby fists with thick shoulders behind them, driven without science but with huge strength into back and shoulders, ringing his head like a clapper inside the metal bell of helmet that protected neck and skull. His conscious mind was a white haze, disconnected sense-impressions flooding in: the breathy grunts of the man on his back as each blow slammed down; the bellows action of his own ribs, flexing and springing back between knuckles and ground; shouts and shots and some other, metallic noise.
Training made him turn. That was a mistake; there was no strength in his arms; the movements that should have speared bladed fingertips into the other’s throat and rammed knuckles under his short ribs turned into feeble pawings that merely slowed and tangled the German’s roundhouse swings.
Bad luck, he thought, rolling his head to take the impact on his skull rather than the more vulnerable face; he could hear knuckles pop as they broke. Fists landed on his jaw and cheek, jarring the white lights back before his eyes; he could feel the skin split over one cheekbone, but there was no more pain, only a cold prickling over his whole skin, as if he were trying to slough it as a snake does. One hand still fumbled at the SS officer’s waist; it fell on the butt of a pistol; he made a supreme effort of concentration, drew it, pressed it to the other’s tunic and pulled the trigger.
Nothing. Safety on, or perhaps his hand was just too weak. He could see the Fritz’s face in the ruddy flow of burning petrol and lubricants and rubber: black smudged, bestial, wet running down the chin. The great peasant hands clamped on his throat. The light began to fade.
Felix Hoth was kneeling in the mud behind his radio truck, and yet was not. In his mind the SS man was back in a cellar beneath the Lubyanka, strangling an NKVD holdout he had stalked through the labyrinth and found in a hidden room with a half-eaten German corpse. He did not even turn the first time Sofie rang the steel folding butt of her machine pistol off the back of his head; she could not fire, you do not aim an automatic weapon in the direction of someone you want to live.
Hoth did start to move when she kicked him very hard up between the legs where he straddled the Centurion’s body. That was too late; she planted herself and hacked downward with both hands on the weapon’s forestock, as if she were pounding grain with a mortar and pestle. There was a hollow thock, and a shock that jarred her sturdy body right down to the bones in her lower back; the strip steel of the submachine gun’s stock deformed slightly under the impact. If the butt had not had a rubber pad, the German’s brains would have spattered; as it was, he slumped boneless across the Draka’s body. With cold economy she booted the body off her commander’s and raised her weapon to fire.
It was empty, the bolt back and the chamber gaping. Not worth the time to reload. The comtech kneeled by Eric’s side, her hands moving across his body in an examination quick, expert, fearful. Blood, bruises, no open wounds, no obvious fractures poking bone splinters through flesh . . . So hard to tell in the difficult light, no time . . . She reached forward to push back an eyelid and check for concussion. Eric’s hand came up and caught her wrist, and the gray eyes opened, red and visibly bloodshot even in the uncertain, flickering light. The sound of firing was dying down.
“Stim,” he said hoarsely.
“Sir—Eric—” she began.
“Stim, that’s an order.” His head fell back, and he muttered incoherently.
She hesitated, her hands snapping open the case at her belt and taking out the disposable hypodermic. It was filled with a compound of benzedrine and amphetamines, the last reserve against extremity even for a fit man in good condition; for use when a last half hour of energy could mean the difference. Eric was enormously fit, but not in good condition, not after that battering; there might be concussion, internal hemorrhage, anything.
The sound echoed around the bend of the road below: steel-squeal on metal and rock, treads. Armored vehicles, many of them; she would have heard them before but for the racket of combat and the muffling rain. Their headlights were already touching the tops of the trees below. She looked down. Eric was lying still, only the quick, labored pumping of his chest marking life; his eyes blinked into the rain that dimpled the mud around him and washed the blood in thin runnels from his nose and mouth.
“Oh shit!” Sofie blurted, and leaned forward to inject the drug into his neck. There, half dosage, Wotan pop her eyes if she’d give him any more.
The effect of the drug was almost instantaneous. The mists at the corners of his eyes receded, and he hurt. That was why pain overload could send you into unconsciousness—the messages got redundant . . . He hurt a lot. Then the pain receded; it was still there, but somehow did not matter very much. Now he felt good, very good in fact; full of energy, as if he could bounce to his feet and sweep Sofie up in his arms and run all the way back to the village.
He fought down the euphoria and contented himself with coming to his feet, slowly, leaning an arm across Sofie’s shoulders. The world swayed about him, then cleared to preternatural clarity. The dying flames of the burning trucks were living sculptures of orange and yellow, dancing fire maidens with black soot-hair and the hissing voices of rain on hot metal. The trees about him were a sea that rippled and shimmered, green-orange; the roasting-pork smell of burning bodies clawed at his empty stomach. Eric swallowed bile and blinked, absently thrusting the German pistol in his hand through a loop in the webbing.
“Back—” he began hoarsely, hawked, spat out phlegm mixed with blood. “Back to the woods, now.”
McWhirter stepped up, and two of the satchelmen. The Senior Decurion was wiping the blade of his Jamieson on one thigh as he dropped an ear into the bag strapped to his leg. The lunatic clarity of the drug showed Eric a face younger than he recalled, smoother, without the knots of tension that the older man’s face usually wore. McWhirter’s expression was much like the relaxed, contented look that comes just after orgasm, and his mouth was wet with something that shone black in the firelight.
The Centurion dismissed the brief crawling of skin between his shoulder blades as they turned and ran for the woods. It was much easier than the trip out, there was plenty of light now; enough to pinpoint them easily for a single burst of automatic fire. The feeling of lightness did not last much beyond the first strides. After that each bootfall drove a spike of pain up the line of his spine and into his skull, like a dull brass knife ramming into his head over the left eye; breathing pushed his bruised ribs into efforts that made the darkness swim before his eyes. There was gunfire from ahead and upslope, muffled through the trees, and there a flare popping above the leaf canopy. He concentrated on blocking off the pain, forcing it into the sides of his mind. Relaxthe muscles . . . pain did not make you weak, it was just the body’s way of forcing you to slow down and recover. Training could suppress it, make the organism function at potential . . .
If this is wanting to be alive, I’m not so sure I want to want it, he thought. Haven’t been this afraid in years. They crashed through the screen of undergrowth and threw themselves down. The others were joining him, the survivors; more than half. The shock of falling brought another white explosion behind his eyes. Ignore it, reach for the handset. Sofie thrust it into his palm, and he was suddenly conscious of the wetness again, the rain falling in a silvery dazzle through the air lit by the burning Fritz vehicles. Beyond the clearing, beyond the ruined buildings by the road, the SS armor rumbled and clanked, metal sounding under the diesel growl, so different from the smooth silence of steam.
He clicked the handset. The first tank waddled around the buildings, accelerating as it came into the light. Then it braked, as the infantry riding on it leaped down to deploy; the hatches were open, and Eric could see the black silhouette of the commander as he stood in the turret, staring about in disbelief at the clearing. Wrecked trucks littered it, burning or abandoned; one was driving slowly in a circle with the driver’s arm swaying limply out the window. Bodies were scattered about—dozens of them; piles of two or three, there a huddle around a wrecked machine gun, there a squad caught by a burst as they ran through darkness to a meeting with death. Wounded lay moaning, or staggered clutching at their hurts; somewhere a man’s voice was screaming in pulsing bursts as long as breaths. Thirty, fifty at least, Eric estimated as he spoke.
“Palm One to Fist, do y’read?”
“Acknowledged, Palm One.” The calm tones of the battery commander were a shocking contrast to Eric’s hoarseness. “Hope you’ve got a target worth gettin’ up this early for.”
“Firefall.” Eric’s voice sounded thin and reedy to his own ears. “Fire mission Tloshohene; firefall, do it now.”
He lowered the handset, barked: “Neal!” to the troopers who had remained with the guide in the scrub at the edge of the woods.
The rocket gunner and her loader had been waiting with hunter’s patience in a thicket near the trail, belly-down in the sodden leaf mold, with only their eyes showing between helmets and face paint. With smooth economy the dark-haired woman brought the projector up over the rock sill in front of her, resting the forward monopod on the stone. She fired; the backblast stripped wet leaves from the pistachio bushes and scattered them over her comrades. The vomiting-cat scream of the sustainer rocket drew a pencil of fire back to their position, and then the shell struck, high on the turret, just as it began to swing the long 88mm gun toward the woods. The bright flash left a light spot on Eric’s retina, lingering as he turned away; the tank did not explode, but it froze in place. Almost at once bullets began hammering the wet earth below them, smack into mud, crack-whinnng off stone. The rocket gun gave its deep whap once more, and there was a sound overhead.
The Draka soldiers flinched. The Circassian guide glanced aside at them, then up at the deep whining rumble overhead, a note that lowered in pitch as it sank toward them. Then he bolted forward in terror as the first shellburst came, seeming to be almost on their heels. Eric hunched his head lower beneath the weight of the steel helmet: no real use in that, but it was psychological necessity. The Draka guns up the valley were firing over their heads at the Fritz: firing blind on the map coordinates he had supplied, at extreme range, using captured guns and ammunition of questionable standard. Only too possible that they would undershoot. Airburst in the branches overhead, shrapnel and wood fragments whirring through the night like circular saws . . .
The first shells burst out of sight, farther down the road and past the ruined buildings, visible only as a wink-wink-wink-wink of light, before the noise and overpressure slapped at their faces. The last two of the six landed in the clearing, bright flashes and inverted fans of water and mud and rock, bodies and pieces of wrecked truck. He rose, controlling the dizziness.
“On target, on target, fire for effect,” he shouted, and tossed the handset back to Sofie. “Burn boot, up the trail, move.”
It was growing darker as they ran from the clearing, away from the steady metronomic wham-wham-wham of shells falling among the Fritz column, as the fires burnt out and distance cut them off. A branch slapped him in the face; there was a prickling numbness on his skin that seemed to muffle it. The firefights up ahead were building; no fear of the SS shooting blind into the dark, with their comrades engaged up there. Although they might pursue on foot . . . no, probably not. Not at once, not with that slaughterhouse confusion back by the road, and shells pounding into it. Best leave them a calling card, for later.
“Stop,” he gasped. Something oofed into him, and he grabbed at brush to keep himself upright. “Mine it,” he continued.
Behind him, one of the satchelmen pulled a last burden out of her pack. Unfolding the tripod beneath the Broadsword mine, she adjusted it to point back the way they had come, downslope, northwards. Then she undipped a length of fine wire, looped one end through the detonator hook on the side and stepped forward. One step, two . . . around a handy branch, across the trail, tie it off . . .
“Good, can’t see it mahself. Now, careful, careful,” she muttered to herself as she stepped over the wire that now ran at shin height across the pathway and bent to brush her fingers on the unseen slickness of the mine’s casing. The arming switch should be . . . there. She twisted it.
“Armed,” she said. Now it was deadly, and very sensitive. Not enough for the pattering raindrops to set it off, she had left a little slack, but a brushing foot would detonate it for sure. The trail was lightless enough to register as black to her eyes, with only the lighter patches of hands and equipment catching enough of the reflected glow to hover as suggestions of sight. Still, she was sure she could detect a flinch at the words; mines were another of those things that most soldiers detested with a weary, hopeless hatred; you couldn’t do anything much about them, except wait for them to kill you.
The sapper grinned in the dark. People who were nervous around explosives did not volunteer for her line of work; besides that, her training had included working on live munitions blindfolded. And Eddie had not made it back; Eddie had been a good friend of hers. Hope they all come up the trail at a run, she thought vindictively, kissing a finger and touching it to the Broadsword.
Eric stood with his face turned upward to the rain while the mine was set, letting the coolness run over his face and trickle between his lips with tastes of wood and greenness and sweat from his own skin; he had been moving too fast for chill to set in. The scent of the forest was overwhelming in contrast to the fecal-explosive-fire smells of the brief battle—resin and sap and the odd musky-spicy scents of weeds and herbs. Alive, he thought. Gunfire to the south, around the slope of the mountain and through the trees, confusing direction. A last salvo of shells dragged their rumble through the invisible sky. Sofie was beside him, an arm around his waist in support that was no less real for being mostly psychological.
“Burn boot, people,” he said quietly, just loud enough to be heard over the rain. “Let’s go home.”
They were nearly back to the village before he collapsed.