NORTH CAUCASUS FRONT, 20,000 FT.
APRIL 14, 1942: 0400 HOURS
The shattering roar of six giant radial engines filled the hold of the Hippo-class transport aircraft, as tightly as the troopers of Century A, 1st Airborne Legion. They leaned stolidly against the bucking, vibrating walls of the riveted metal box, packed in their cocoons of parasail and body harness, strapped about with personal equipment and weapons like so many deadly slate-gray Christmas trees. The thin, cold air was full of a smell of oil and iron, brass and sweat and the black greasepaint that striped the soldiers’ faces; the smell of tools, of a trade, of war. High at the front of the hold, above the rams that led to the crew compartment, a dim red light began to flash.
Centurion Eric von Shrakenberg clicked off the pocket flashlight, folded the map back into his case and sighed. 0400, he thought. Ten minutes to drop. Eighty soldiers here in the transport; as many again in the one behind, and each pulled a Helot-class glider loaded with heavy equipment and twenty more troopers.
He was a tall young man, a hundred and eighty centimeters even without the heavy-soled paratrooper’s boots, hard smooth athlete’s muscle rolling on the long bones. Yellow hair and mustache were cropped close in the Draka military style; new lines scored down his face on either side of the beak nose, making him look older than his twenty-four years. He sighed again, recognizing the futility of worry and the impossibility of calm.
Some of the old sweats seemed to have it, the ones who’d earned the banners of the Domination of the Draka from Suez to Constantinople and east to Samarkand and the borderlands of China in the last war. And then spent the next twenty years hammering Turks and Kurds and Arabs into serfs as meek as the folk of the old African provinces. Senior Decurion McWhirter there, for instance, with the Constantinople Medal and the Afghan ribbon pinned to his combat fatigues, bald head shining in the dim lights . . .
He looked at the watch again: 0405. Time was creeping by. Only two hours since lift-off, if you could believe it.
I’ll fret, he thought. Staying calm would drive me crazy. Christ, I could use a smoke. It would take the edge off; skydiving was the greatest thing since sex was invented, but combat was something you never really got used to. You were nervous the first time; then you met the reality, and it was worse than you’d feared. And every time after that, the waiting was harder . . .
Eric had come to believe he would not survive this war many months ago; his mind believed it, at least. The body never believed in death, and always feared it. It was odd; he hated the war and its purposes, but during the fighting, that conflict could be put aside. Garrison duty was the worst—
In search of peace, he returned to The Dream. It had come to him often, these last few years. Sometimes he would be walking through orchards, on a cool and misty spring morning, cherry blossoms arched above his head, heavy with scent, over grass starred with droplets of fog. There was a dog with him, a setter. Or it might be a study with a fire of applewood, lined with books with stamped leather spines, windows closed against slow rain . . . He had always loved books; loved even the smell and texture of them, their weight. There was a woman, too, walking beside him or sitting with her red hair spilling over his knees. A dream built of memories, things that might have been, things that could never be.
Abruptly, he shook himself free of it. War was full of times with nothing to do but dream, but this was not one of them.
Most of the others were waiting quietly, with less tension than he remembered from the first combat drop last summer—blank-faced, lost in their own thoughts. Occasional pairs of lovers gripped hands. The old Spartans were right about that, he thought. It does make for better fighter . . . although they’d probably not have approved of a heterosexual application.
A few felt his gaze, nodded or smiled back. They had been together a long time, he and they; he had been private, NCO and officer-candidate in this unit. If this had been a legion of the Regular Line, they would all have been from the same area, too; it was High Command policy to keep familiar personnel together on the theory that while you might enlist for your country, you died for your friends. And to keep your pride in their eyes.
The biggest drop of the war. Two full legions, 1st and 2nd Airborne, jumping at night into mountain country. Twice the size of the surprise assault in Sicily last summer when the Domination had come into the war. Half again the size of the lightning strike that had given Fritz the Maikop oil fields intact last October, right after Moscow fell. Twenty-four thousand of the Domination’s best, leaping into the night, “fangs out and hair on fire.”
He grimaced. He’d been a tetrarch in Sicily, with only thirty-three troopers to command. A soldier’s battle, they’d called it, which meant bloody chaos, and relying on the troops and the regimental officers to pull it out of the can. Still, it had succeeded, and the parachute chiliarchoi had been built up to legion size, a tripling of numbers. Lots of promotions, if you made it at all. And a merciful transfer out once Italy was conquered and the “pacification” began; there would be nothing but butcher’s work there now, best left to the Security Directorate and the Janissaries.
Sofie Nixon, his comtech, lit two cigarettes and handed him one at arm’s length, as close as she could lean, padded out with the double burden of parasail and backpack radio.
“No wrinkles, Cap,” she shouted cheerfully, in the clipped tones of Capetown and the Western Province. Listening to her made him feel nineteen again, sometimes. And sometimes older than the hills—slang changed so fast. That was a new one for “no problems.”
“All this new equipment: to listen to the briefing papers, hell, it’ll be like the old days. We can be heroes on the cheap, like our great-granddads were, shootin’ down black spear-chuckers,” she continued. With no change of expression, she added, “And I’m the Empress of Siam; would I lie?”
He smiled back at the cheerful cynical face. There was little formality of rank in the Draka armies, less in the field, least of all among the volunteer elite of the airborne corps. Conformists did not enlist for a radical experiment; jumping out of airplanes into battle was still new enough to repel the conservatives.
Satisfied, Sofie dragged the harsh, comforting bite of the tobacco into her lungs. The Centurion was a good sort, but he tended to . . . worry too much. That was part of being an officer, of course, and one of the reasons she was satisfied to stay at monitor, stick-commander. But he overdid it; you could wreck yourself up that way. And he was very much of the Old Domination, a scion of the planter aristocracy and their iron creed of duty; she was city-bred, her grandfather a Scottish mercenary immigrant, her father a dock-loading foreman.
Me, I’m going to relax while I can, she thought. There was a lot of waiting in the Army, that was about the worst thing . . . apart from the crowding and the monotonous food, and good Christ but being under fire was scary. Not nice-scary like being on a board when the surf was hot or a practice jump; plain bad. You really felt good afterward, though, when your body realized it was alive . . .
She pushed the thought out of her head. The sitreps had said this was going to be much worse than Sicily, and that had been deep-shit enough. Still, there had been good parts. The Italians really had some pretty things, and the paratroops got the first pick. That jewelry from the bishop’s palace in Palermo was absolutely divine! And the tapestry . . . she sighed and smiled, in reminiscence. There had been leave, too—empty space on transport airships heading south, if you knew the right people. It was good to be able to peacock a little—do some partying, with a new campaign ribbon and the glamour of victory, and some pretties to show off.
Her smile grew smug. She had been very popular, with all the sexes and their permutations; a change from ugly-duckling adolescence. Men are nice, definitely, she thought. Pity I had to wait till I reported to boot camp to start in on ’em.
That was the other thing about the Army; it was better than school. Draka schooling was sex-segregated, on the theory that youth should not be distracted from learning and their premilitary training. Either that or sheer conservatism. Eight months of the year spent isolated in the countryside: from five to eighteen it had been her life, and the last few years had been growing harder to take. She was glad to be out of it, the endless round of gymnastics and classes and petty feuds and crushes; the Army was tougher, paratroop school more so, but what you did off duty was your own business. It was good to be an adult, free.
Even the winter in Mosul had been all right. The town was a hole, of course—provincial, and all new since the Draka conquest in 1916. Nothing like the mellow beauty of Capetown, with its theaters and concerts and famous nightspots . . . Mosul—well, what could you expect of a place whose main claim to fame was petrochemical plants? They’d been up in the mountains most of the time, training hard. She flexed her shoulders and neck complacently. She’d thought herself fit before, but four months of climbing under full load and wrestling equipment over boulders had taken the last traces of puppy fat off and left her with what her people considered the ideal feminine figure—sleek, compactly curved, strong, and quick.
Sofie glanced sidelong at her commander; she thought he’d been noticing, since she qualified for comtech. Couldn’t tell, though; he was one for keeping to himself. Just visited the officer’s Rest Center every week or so. But a man like that wouldn’t be satisfied with serf girls; he’d want someone he could talk to . . .
Or maybe it’s my face? she thought worriedly, absently stripping the clip out of the pistol-grip well of her machine pistol and inserting it again. Her face was still obstinately round and snub-nosed; freckles were all very well, enough men had described it as cute, but it obstinately refused to mature into the cold, aquiline regularity that was most admired. She sighed, lit another cigarette, started running the latest costume drama over again in her head. Tragic Destiny: Signy Anders and Derek Wallis as doomed Loyalist lovers fighting the American rebels, with Carey Plesance playing the satanic traitor George Washington . . .
God, it must have been uncomfortable wearing those petticoats, she thought. No wonder they couldn’t do anything but look pretty and faint; how could you fight while wearing a bloody tent? Good thing Africa cured them of those notions.
0410, Eric thought. Time. The voice of the pilot spoke in his earphones, tinny and remote.
“Coming up on the drop zone, Centurion,” she said. “Wind direction and strength as per briefing. Scattered cloud, bright moonlight.” A pause. “Good luck.”
He nodded, touching his tongue to his lip. The microphone was smooth and heavy in his hand. Beside him, the American war correspondent, Bill Dreiser, looked up from his pad and then continued jotting in shorthand.
* * *
Dreiser finished the paragraph and forced his mind to consider it critically, scanning word by word with the pinhead light on the other end of the pen. Useful, when you had to consult a map or instrument without a conspicuous light; the Domination issued them to all its officers and he had been quick to pick one up. The device was typical of that whole bewildering civilization; he turned it in his hands, feeling the smooth careful machining of its duralumin parts, admiring the compact powerful batteries, the six different colors of ink, the moving segments that made it a slide rule as well.
Typical indeed, he thought wryly. Turned out on specialized machine tools, by illiterate factory serfs who thought the world was flat and that the Combine that owned their contracts ruled the universe.
He licked dry lips, recognizing the thought for what it was: a distraction from fear. He had been through jump training, of course—an abbreviated version tailored to the limitations of a sedentary American in early middle age. And he had seen enough accidents to the youngsters about him to give him well-justified nightmares; if those magnificent young animals could suffer their quota of broken bones and wrenched backs, so could he. And they would be jumping into the arms of Hitler’s Wehrmacht; his years reporting from Berlin had not endeared him to the National Socialists . . .
He glanced across the echoing gloom of the cargo hold to where Eric sat, smoking a last cigarette. His face was impassive, showing no more emotion than it had at briefings around the sand table in Mosul. A strange young man. The eagle-faced blond good looks were almost a caricature of what a landed aristocrat of the Domination of the Draka was expected to be; so was his manner, most of the time. Easy enough to suppose there was nothing there but the bleakly efficient, intellectual killing machine of legend, the amoral and ruthless superman driven by the Will to Power whom Nietzsche had proclaimed.
He had mentioned that to Eric, once. “A useful myth,” had been the Draka’s reply. That had led them to a discussion of the German thinker’s role in developing the Domination’s beliefs; and of how Nietzsche’s philosophy had been modified by the welcoming environment he found among the Draka, so different from the incomprehension and contempt of his countrymen.
“The Domination was founded by losers,” Eric had said, letting an underlying bitterness show through. “Ex-masters like the Loyalists and all those displaced European aristocrats and Confederate southerners; prophets without followers like Carlyle and Gobineau and Nietzsche. The outcasts of Western civilization, not the ‘huddled masses’ you Yankees got. My ancestors were the ones who wouldn’t give up their grudges. Now they’re coming back for their revenge.”
Dreiser shrugged and brought his mind back to the present, tugging at the straps of his harness one more time. Times like this he could understand the isolationists; he had been born in Illinois and raised in Iowa himself, and knew the breed. A lot of them were decent enough, not fascist sympathizers like the German-American Bund, or dupes like Lindberg. Just decent people, and it was so tempting to think the oceans could guard American wholesomeness and decency from the iron insanities and corruptions of Europe . . .
Not that he had ever subscribed to that habit of thought; it led too easily to white sheets and hatred, destroying a tradition to protect it. Dreiser ground his teeth, remembering the pictures from Pearl Harbor—oily smoke pouring to the sky from Battleship Row, the aircraft carrier Enterprise exploding in a huge globe of orange fire as the Japanese dive-bombers caught her in the harbor mouth . . . The United States had paid a heavy price for the illusion of isolation, and now it was fighting on its own soil, full-fledged states like Hawaii and the Philippines under enemy occupation. His prewar warnings of the Nazi menace had not been heeded; now his reports might serve to keep the public aware that Japan was not the only enemy, or the most dangerous of the Axis.
“Jumpmasters to your stations!” Eric’s amplified voice overrode even the engines, there was a glisten of eyes, a hundredfold rattle as hands reflexively sought the ripcords. “Prepare to open hatch doors.”
“And step into the shit,” came the traditional chorus in reply.
Far to the south in Castle Tarleton, overlooking the Draka capital of Archona, a man stood leaning on the railing of a gallery, staring moodily at the projacmap that filled the huge room below. He was an Arch-Strategos, a general of the Supreme General Staff. The floor of the room was glass, twenty meters by thirty; the relief map was eerily three dimensional and underlit to put contrast against contour marks and unit counters. The mountains of Armenia extended in an infinity of scored rock, littered with the symbols of legions, equipment, airstrips, and roads; the red dots of aircraft crawled north toward Mount Elbruz and the passes of the Caucasus. Stale tobacco scented the air and the click-hum of the equipment echoed oddly in the unpeopled spaces.
“Risky,” he said, nodding toward the map.
“War is risk,” the officer beside him replied. The cat-pupiled eye of Intelligence was on her collar, she had the same air of well-kept middle age as he, and a scholar’s bearing. “Breaking the Ankara Line was a risk, too; but it gave us Anatolia, back in ’17.”
The general laughed, rubbing at his leg. The fragments from the Austrian antiairship burst had severed tendons and cut nerves; the pain was a constant backdrop to his life, and worse on these cold nights. Pain does not hurt, he reminded himself. Only another sensation. The Will is Master. “Then I was an optimistic young centurion, out at the sharp end, sure I could pull it out of the kaak even if the high command fucked it up,” he said. “Now the new generation’s out there and probably expecting to have to scoop up my mistakes.”
“I was driving a field ambulance in ’16; all you male lords of creation thought us fit for, then.”
He laughed. “We weren’t quite so stretched for reliable personnel, then.” The woman snorted and poked a finger into his ribs.
“Hai, that was a joke, Cohortarch,” he complained with a smile.
“So was that, you shameless reactionary bastard,” she retorted. “If you’re going to insult me, do it when we’re on duty and I can’t object . . . ”
He nodded and grew grim. “Well, we’re committed to this attack; the Domination wasn’t built by playing safe. There’ll never be another chance like this. Thank the White Christ that Hitler attacked the Soviets after he finished off the French. If they’d stayed in Europe, we’d never have been able to touch them.”
She nodded, hesitated, spoke: “Your boy’s in the first wave, isn’t he, Karl?”
The man nodded, turning away from the railing and leaning his weight against the ebony cane at his side. “Eric’s got a Century in the First Airborne,” he said quietly, looking out over the city. “And my daughter’s flying an Eagle out of Kars.” The outer wall was window from floor to ceiling; Castle Tarleton stood on a height that gave a fine view of the Domination’s capital. The fort had been built in 1791, when the Crown Colony of Drakia was new. The hilltop placement had been for practical reasons, once: cavalry had been based here, rounding up labor for the sugar plantations of Natal, where the ancestors of the Draka were settling into their African home.
Those had been American loyalists, mostly southerners, driven from their homes by vengeful neighbors after the triumph of the Revolution. The British had found it cheap enough to pay their supporters with the stolen goods of colonial empire.
“Strange,” Karl von Shrakenberg continued, softly enough to make her lean toward the craggy face. “I can command a legion handily enough—by Gobineau’s ghost, I wish they’d give me a field command—run my estate; I even get along well with my daughters. But my son . . . Where do the children go? I remember taking him from the midwife, I remember setting him on my shoulders and naming the stars for him, putting him on his first pony. And now? We hardly speak, except to argue. About absurdities: politics, books . . . When did we become strangers? When he left, there was nothing. I wanted to tell him . . . everything: to come back alive, that I loved him. Did he know it?”
His companion laid a hand on his shoulder. “Why didn’t you say it?” she asked softly. “If you can tell me?”
He sighed wearily. “Never was very good with words, not that sort. And there are things you can say to a friend that you can’t to your blood; perhaps, if Mary were still alive . . . ” He straightened, his eyes focusing on the world beyond the glass. “Well. This view was always a favorite of mine. It’s seen a lot.”
Together they looked down across the basin, conscious of the winds hooting off the high plateau at their backs, cold and dry with winter. The first small fort of native fieldstone had grown over the years; grown with the colony of Drakia, named for Francis Drake and heir to that ruthless freebooter’s spirit. It was a frontier post guarding the ranches and diamond mines, at first. Railways had snaked by to the great gold fields of the Whiteridge; local coal and iron had proved more valuable still, and this was a convenient post for a garrison to watch the teeming compounds of serf factory hands that grew beside the steel mills and machineworks. Then the Crown Colony became the autonomous Dominion of Draka and needed a capital, a centrum for a realm that stretched from Senegal to Aden, from the Cape to Algeria.
Lights starred the slopes beneath them, fading the true stars above; mansions with roofs of red tile, set in acres of garden. A monorail looped past, a train swinging through silently toward the airship haven and airport to the west, windows yellow against the darkness. A tracery of streets, sprawling over ridge and valley to the edge of sight, interrupted by the darker squares of parkland . . . eight million souls in Archona. Through the center slashed the broad Way of the Armies, lined with flowering jacaranda trees, framed between six-story office blocks, their marble and tile washed snow-pale in moonlight. The Assembly building, with its great two-hundred-meter dome of iridescent stained glass; the Palace where Archon Gunnarson had brought law into conformity with fact and proclaimed the Domination a sovereign state, back in 1919.
Karl’s mouth quirked; he had been here in the Castle on that memorable day. The staff officers had raised a loyal glass of Paarl brandy, then gone back to their planning for the pacification of the New Territories and the next war. None of them had expected the Versailles peace to last more than a generation, whatever the American president might say of a “war to end war.” Unconsciously, his lip curled in contempt; only a Yankee could believe something that obviously fatuous.
“You grew up here, didn’t you, Sannie?” he said, shaking off the mood of gloom.
“Ja,” she replied. “Born over there.” She pointed past the block of government buildings, to where the scattered colonnades of the University clustered. “In the house where Thomas Carlyle lived. Nietzsche visited my father there, seemed to think it was some sort of shrine. That was a little while after he moved to the Domination. Anthony Trollope stopped by as well, they tell me. While he was researching that book, Prussia in the Antipodes, back in the 1870s. He was the one the English didn’t pay any attention to, and then wished they had.”
Their gaze lifted, to the glow that lit the northern horizon—the furnaces and factories of the Ferrous Metals Combine, stamping and grinding out the engines of war. “Well,” he said, offering her an arm with a courtesy old-fashioned even in their generation of Draka. “Shall we see if, somewhere in this bureaucrat’s paradise of a city, two ancient and off-duty warriors can find a drink?”
He would face the waiting as he would any other trial; as befitted a von Shrakenberg of Oakenwald. Even if I’m the last, he thought, as his halting boot echoed through the empty halls of the fortress.
Thump! Eric’s parachute unfolded, a rectangle of blackness against the paling stars of dawn. He blinked. Starlight and moonlight were almost painfully bright after the crowded gloom of the transport; silence caressed his mind.
Straps caught at crotch and waist and armpits, then cradled him in their padding. Above him, the night was full of thunder, as hundreds of the huge transports spilled their cargos of troops and equipment into the thin air. Above, a flight of Falcon III fighters banked, their line stretching into an arc, moonlight glinting on the bubble canopies, sharks of the sky.
This is the best time, Eric thought, as the flight of transports vanished, climbing and turning for height and home, southward to their bases. Silence, except for the fading machines and the hiss of the wind through the silk. Silence over a great scattered cloudscape, castles and billows of silver under a huge cool moon, air like crisp white wine in the lungs, aloneness. A feeling beyond the self: peace, joy, freedom—in a life bound on the iron cross of duty, in the service of repression and death. There had been a few other times like this, making love with Tyansha, or single-handing a ketch through monsoon storms. But always here, alone in the sky.
The rest of the Century were forming up behind, wheeling like a flight of birds of prey; he saw with relief that the gliders were following with their cargo of heavy weapons and specialists. The 2nd Cohort was the northernmost unit, and Century A was the point formation of 2nd Cohort. They would take the shock of whatever reaction force the Fritz could muster to relieve their cut-off comrades south of the mountains. Two hundred of them, to blunt the enemy spearheads; they were going to need that special equipment. Badly.
Now . . . The cloud cover was patchy, light and shadow. Southward, the main peaks of the Caucasus shone snow white. Below was a black-purple immensity of scree, talus-slope, dark forests of beech and holm oak, sloping down to a valley and a thread of road winding up into the mountains. On a map, it was nothing, a narrow sliver of highland between the Black and Caspian Seas . . .
Over it all loomed the great mass of Mount Elbruz. Beyond it was the south slope, ex-Soviet Georgia; beyond that the Draka armored legions massing in the valleys of Armenia. The symbolism of it struck him—all Europe was in shadow, in a sense. From the Elbe to the Urals, there was a killing under way great enough to leave even the cold hearts at Castle Tarleton shaken . . . Eric had been a student of history, among other things; his mouth quirked at the supreme irony that the Draka should come as deliverers.
He stooped, a giddy exhilarating slide across the sky, a breathless joy. For a moment, he was a bird, a hunting bird, an eagle. Stooping on the world, feeling the air rushing past his wings . . . Be practical, Eric, he reminded himself severely. Once they grounded, they would have only their feet, and the south slope of the mountains was German-held.
But lightly; and now they were a very long way from home—thousands of miles of mud trail, torn-up railway, scorched earth.
The ground was coming up fast; he could smell it, a wet green scent of trees and spring meadow-grass and rock. This area had been swarming with Draka reconnaissance planes for months; the contours were springing out at him, familiar from hundreds of hours poring over photomaps. He banked to get a straight run at the oblong meadow.
Carefully now, don’t get caught in that fucking treeline . . . Branches went by three meters below. He hauled back on the lines, turning up the forward edge of the parasail; it climbed, spilled air, slowed. With the loss of momentum it turned from a wing to a simple parachute once more, and good timing landed him softly on his feet, boots vanishing in knee-high grass starred with white flowers.
Landing was a plunge from morning into darkness and shadow, as the sun dropped below the mountains to the southeast. And always, there was a sense of sadness, of loss; lightness turning to earthbound reality. Not an eagle any more, went through him. More like a hyena, a mordant part of his mind prompted. Come to squabble over the carcass of Russia with the rival pack.
Swiftly, he hit the quick-release catches and the synthsilk billowed out, white against the dark grass. He turned, clicking on the shielded red flashlight, waving it in slow arcs above his head. The first troopers of his Century were only seconds behind him, gray rectangles against the stars. They landed past him, a chorus of soft grunts and thuds, a curse and a clatter as somebody rolled. A quick check: mapcase, handradio, binoculars, Holbars T-6 assault rifle, three 75-round drums of 5mm for it, medikit, iron rations, fighting dagger in his boot, bush knife across his back . . . that was an affectation—the machete-sword was more a tradition than anything else, but . . .
Dropping their chutes and jogging back by stick and section, rallying to the shouts of their decurions and tetrarchs, platoon commanders, the troopers hurried to form in the shadows of the trees. Sofie jogged over to her position with the headquarters communication lochos, the antennae waving over her shoulder; she had the headset on already, tufts of bright tow hair ruffling out between the straps. As usual, she had clipped her helmet to her harness on touchdown; also as usual, she had just lit a cigarette. The match went scrit against the magazine well of her machine pistol; she flicked it away and held out the handset.
For Dreiser, leaving the airplane had been a whirling, chaotic rush. For a moment he tumbled, then remembered instructions. Arms and legs straight. That brought the sickening spiral to a stop; he was flying forward, down toward silver clouds and the dark holes between them.
“Flying, hell, I’m falling,” he said into the rush of cold wind. His teeth chattered as he gripped the release toggle and gave the single firm jerk the Draka instructors had taught. For a heart-stopping moment, there was nothing, and then the pilot chute unfolded, dragging out the main sail. It bloomed above him, the reduction in speed seeming to drag him backward out of his fall. Air gusted past him, more slowly now that the parachute was holding. He glanced up to the rectangle above him, a box of dozens of long cloth tubes fastened together side by side, held taut by the rush of air. “ ‘The parasail functions as both a parachute and a wing,’ ” he quoted to himself. “ ‘To acquire forward speed, lean forward. Steer by hauling on left or right cords, or by shifting the center of gravity’ . . . ”
God it’s working. Blinking his eyes behind the goggles that held his glasses to his face, he peered about for the recognition light. The aircraft had vanished, nothing more than a thrum of engine noise somewhere in the distance. There it was, a weak red blinking: he shifted his weight forward, increasing the angle of glide. Cautiously; you could nose down in these things and he doubted he could right it again before he hit.
The meadow rose up to strike; he flung himself back, too soon, lost directional control, and barely avoided landing boot-first in another chute at a hundred feet up. Ground slammed into his soles and he collapsed, dragging . . .
“Watch where you puttin’ y’feet. Yankee pigfuckah,” an incongruously young and feminine voice snarled as he skidded through tall grass and sharp-edged gravel on his behind, scrabbling at the release straps until the billowing mass of fabric peeled away to join the others flapping on the ground. He stood, turned, flung himself down again as the dark bulk of a glider went by a foot above his head, followed by a second.
“Jesus!” he swore, as they landed behind him and collided with a brief crunch of splintering plywood and balsa. Boots hurdled him, voices called in throttled shouts, the clearing filling with a shadowy ordered chaos.
Dreiser walked toward the spot where the Draka commanders would be gathering, feeling strength return to his rubbery legs and a strange exhilaration building.
Did it, by God! he thought. So much for being an old man at thirty-eight . . . Now, about the article, let’s see: The landing showed once again the value of careful preparation and training. Modern warfare, with its complex coordination of different arms, is something new on this earth. Our devotion to the “minuteman” tradition of the amateur citizen-soldier is a critical handicap . . .
Eric took the handset, silent for a moment as the gliders came in. The sailplanes slewed to a halt, the wing of one catching the other’s tail with a crunch of plywood. A sigh gusted up as the detachable nose sections fell away and figures began unloading.
Sofie gently tapped his hand. “Set’s workin’ fine, Centurion,” she said. “Got the Cohort Sparks already, green-beepers from all the hand-radios in the Century . . . want a smoke?”
“Trying to give it up,” he grunted, lifting the phone to his ear and clicking the pressure button in his call sign. “You should, too.” He glanced at his watch: 0420 almost exactly. Forty-five minutes to dawn.
“Hey, Centurions, do I complain about your sheep?” she replied, grinning. The rest of the headquarters tetrarchy were falling in around him: Senior Decurion McWhirter, two five-trooper rifle “sticks” who would double as runners, two rocket-gun teams and a heavy machine gun.
They both fell silent as the hissing of static gave way to voices, coded sequences and barked instructions. Unconsciously, Eric nodded several times before speaking.
“Yes? Yes, sir. No, sir; just coming in, but it looks good.” Reception was excellent; he could hear a blast of small-arms fire in the background, the rapid snarl of Draka assault rifles, the slower thump and chatter of German carbines and MG 34s.
“Ah, good.” Then he and the comtech winced in unison. “The armor landed where? Sorry, sir, I know you didn’t design this terrain . . . Right, proceed according to plan, hold them hard as long as I can. Any chance of extra antitank . . . Yes, Cohortarch, I appreciate everybody wants more firepower, but we are the farthest north . . . Yes, sir, we can do it. Over and out, status report when Phase A is complete. Thank you, sir, and good luck to you, too.”
“Because we’re both going to need it,” he added under his breath as he released the send button. The Legion had had a Cohort of light tanks, Cheetahs with 75mm guns in oscillating turrets. Those had apparently come down neatly in a gully . . .
The gliders were emptying, stacks of crates and heavy weapons being lifted onto their wheeled carts. And already the trunks of the birches were showing pale in the light of dawn.
A sudden sense of the . . . unlikeliness of it all struck Eric. He had been born in the heartlands of the Domination, fourteen thousand kilometers away in southern Africa. And here he stood, on soil that had seen . . . how many armies? Indoeuropeans moving south to become Hittites, Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Armenians, Arabs, Turks, Tzarist Russians, Bolsheviks . . . and now a Century of Draka, commanded by a descendant of Hessian mercenaries, come to kill Germans who might be remote cousins, and who had marched two thousand kilometers east to meet him . . .
What am I doing here? Where did it start? he thought. Such a long way to journey, to die among angry strangers. A journey that had lasted all his life . . . The start? Oakenwald Plantation, of course. In the year of his birth; and last year, six months ago. But that was the past, and the battle was here and now, an ending awaiting him. An end to pain, weariness; an end to the conflict within, and to loneliness. One could forget a great deal in combat.
Eric von Shrakenberg took a deep breath and stepped forward, into the war.