VILLAGE ONE, OSSETIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY
APRIL 14, 1942: 1400 HOURS
The village waited quietly; at least, its shell did, for a village is a human thing, even a village starving under the heel of a foreign conqueror. The heap of stone was no longer a place where peasants lived and grew food; it was a fortress where strangers intricately trained and armed would kill each other, thousands of kilometers from their homes. The last of the Circassians had left for the forest, bent under their sacks of food; all except for the aged hadji, who remained in the cellar beneath the mosque, praying in the darkness over a Koran long since committed to memory. Half the houses had been demolished, and the remainder were carefully prepared traps; the cellars below were a spiderweb network that the Draka could use to shift their personnel under cover, or to bring down death on anyone who followed them into the booby-trapped tunnels. Two hundred soldiers had labored six hours beside the natives, sledgehammer and pick, shovel and blasting charge. The troops were working for their lives and the hope of victory.
The villagers had motivation at least as strong; their numbers had dropped by half since the Liebstandarte moved in, and every shovelful was a measure of revenge. Two hours past noon, and the defenses were ready. The paratroopers rested at their weapons, taking the opportunity for food, water, sleep, or a crap—veterans knew you never had time later.
Eric sat back against the thick rough timbers of the passageway, unbending his fingers with an effort. Beside him, Sofie swore softly and broke out a tube of astringent wound ointment. The Centurion looked aside as she began smearing the viscous liquid on the tattered blisters that covered his hands, ignoring the sharp pain. It had a thin, acrid petroleum smell, cutting through the dry rock dust and the heavy scent of sweat from meat-fed bodies. They were at the northernmost edge of the village, where the military road entered the built-up area. Two long heaps of rubble flanked it now, where there had been rows of houses; rubble providing cover for two long timber-framed bunkers. The Draka commander was on the left, the western flank; gray eyes flicked south and east, to the forest where the people of the village had gone.
“I hope you can see it, Tyansha,” he murmured softly in her language. “And for once, there is mercy.”
Five meters away an improvised crew sprawled about their Soviet/German 76.2mm antitank gun, ready to manhandle it to any of the four firing positions in the long bunker. A pile of shells was stacked near it; a ladder poked out of the floor nearby, and more ammunition waited below with strong arms to pitch it up. The sleek, long-barreled solidity of the gun was reassuring; so was the knowledge that its twin was waiting in the other bunker, across the street. One of the gunners was singing, an old, old tune with the feel of Africa in it; Eric remembered it murmured over his cradle, as smooth brown arms rocked:
“A shadow in the bright bazaar
A glimpse of eyes where none should shine
A glimpse of eyes translucent gold
And slitted against the sun . . . ”
His palms were sticky; strips of skin pulled free as he opened and closed them absently. There was very little to do, until the action started. A fixed defensive position with secure flanks was the simplest tactical problem a commander could have; the only real decisionmaking was when and where to commit reserves, and since he didn’t have any, to speak of . . .
“ . . . faster than a thought she flees
And seeks the jungle’s sheltering trees
But he is steady on the track
And half a breath behind . . . ”
Sofie was speaking; he swiveled his attention back. “—cking soul of the White Christ, Centurion, you trying to punish yourself or something? And don’t give me any of that leading-by-example crap!” The tone was a hissed whisper, but there was genuine anger in it.
He smiled at her, flexing the hands under the bandage pads; she maintained the scowl for a moment, then grinned shyly back. You are really getting quite perceptive, Sofie, he thought.And you glow when you’re angry.
“She tastes his scent upon the breeze,
And looking past her shoulder sees
He treads upon her shadow—
She fears the hunter’s mind.”
“The Fritz will take care of any punishment needed for my sins,” he said. “Good, I can fight with these.” A pause. “Thank you.” She blushed. “I was just thinking about the war again, and didn’t notice, actually.”
“Oh,” she replied, hunting for something to say in a mind gone blank. “You . . . think we’re going to win?”
“Probably. Depends what you mean by win.”
“In woman form, in leopard hide
Fording, leaping, side to side
She doubles back upon her track
And sees her efforts fail.”
She frowned, reached up to free the package of cigarettes tucked into the camouflage cover of her helmet, tapped one free and snapped her Ronson lighter. “Ahh . . . well, the Archon said we were fighting for survival. I guess, we come out alive and we’ve won?”
Eric laughed with soft bitterness. “Not bad. Did you hear what our esteemed leader said, after we attacked the Italians and they complained that we’d promised not to? ‘You were expecting truth from a politician? Christ, you’ll be looking for charity from a banker, next.’ One thing I always liked about her, she doesn’t mealymouth.” He let his head fall back against the timbers. “Actually, she’s right . . . it all goes back to the serfs.”
“ . . . her gold flanks heaving in distress,
Half woman and half leopardess
To either side, nowhere to hide
It’s time to fight or die.”
She looked at him blankly, retaining one of the bandaged hands; he made no objection. “The serfs?” she said.
“Yes . . . look, our ancestors were soldiers mostly, right? They fought for the British, they lost, and the British very kindly gave them a big chunk of African wilderness . . . inhabited wilderness, which they then had to conquer. And they made serfs of the conquered—there were too many of them to exterminate the way the Yanks did to their aborigines—so, serfdom. Slavery, near as no matter, but prettied up a little to keep the abolitionists in England happy. Or less unhappy.” He sighed. “Can you spare one of those cancer sticks?”
She lit another from hers. “What’s that got to do with the war?” The song tugged at her attention.
“A sight none will forget
Who once have seen them, near or far,
In sunlight or where shadows are
As, side by side they hunt and hide
No one has caught them yet.”
“I’m coming to that. Look, what do you think would happen if we eased up on the serfs?”
“Let them move off their masters’ estates or factory compounds, gave them education, that sort of thing.”
“Oh.” Sofie’s face cleared; that was simple. “They’d rise up and exterminate us,” she answered. “Not all of them; some’d stick by us. Some house servants, straw bosses ’n foremen, Janissaries, technicians, that sort. They’d get their throats cut, too.”
“Damn straight, they would. And there would go civilization, until outsiders moved in and ate the pieces. So, once we’d settled in, we were committed to the serf-and-plantation system, took it with us wherever we went. We had the wolf by the ears: hard to hang on, deadly to let go. Did you know there were mass escapes, in the early years? Rebellions, too.” His eyes grew distant. “My great-great-greatgrandfather put one down, in 1828. Impaled four thousand rebels through the sugar country, from Virconium to Shanapur. He had a painting made of it, still hanging in the hallway at home.” Tyansha had refused to look at it; he had wondered why, at the time. “Well, one of the main reasons for all that was the border country with the wild tribes: a place to escape to, hope for overthrowing us. So we had to expand. Also, you run through a lot of territory when every one of a landholder’s sons expects an estate.”
The comtech leaned forward, interested despite herself. Not that it was much different from the history she had been taught, but the emphasis and shading were something else entirely.
“Then, by the 1870s, we’d grown all the way up to Egypt, no borders but the sea and the deserts, and we’d started to industrialize, so we had modern communications and weapons.”
“Hmm,” Sophie said. “Why didn’t we stop there?”
He grunted laughter and dragged smoke down his throat. “Because we’d gotten just strong enough to terrify people. Not afraid enough to leave us alone, though. People with real power, in Europe. And we were different—so different that when they realized what was going on, they were hostile by reflex. Demanding reforms we couldn’t make without committing suicide.” Eric gestured with the cigarette, tracing red ember-glow through the gloom. “So, there were murmurs about boycotts; propaganda, too. And we couldn’t keep the city serfs completely illiterate, not if they were going to operate a modern economy for us. That’s when the Security Directorate was set up, and it’s been getting more and more power every decade since. Which means power over Citizens, too.”
Caught up in his words, he failed to notice the comtech’s worried glance from side to side. Unheeding, he continued. “Well, the Great War was a godsend; we took on the weakest of the Central Powers, and grabbed off Persia and Russian central Asia and western China, too. And the War shattered Europe, which gave us time to consolidate; then we were a Great Power in our own right.”
He grinned, showing teeth. “Stroke of genius, no? Only now, we had thousands of kilometers of land frontier, with a hostile Great Power! See, liberal democrat, Communist, even Fascist, any different social system is a deadly menace to us, if it’s close. And they’re all different. All close, too; with modern technology, the world’s getting to be a pretty small place. The boffins say that after the war, radios will be as small and cheap as teakettles were, before. Imagine every serf village out in West Bumfuck having a receiver; we can jam, but . . . So, on to the war. Another heaven-sent stroke of luck, although we were counting on something like that. Divide and rule, let others wear themselves out and the Domination steps in—our traditional strategy. If we win, we’ll have the earth, the whole of North Asia, and most of Europe besides what we took last time.”
“Think we can do it?” Sofie asked in a neutral tone.
“Oh, sure. The problem will be holding it. Remember that cartoon in the Alexandria Gazette?”
She nodded. The chief opposition newspaper had shown a python with scales in the Draka colors that had just throttled a hippo. It lay, bleeding and bruised, muttering: “Sweet Christ, now do I have to eat the bloody thing?”
“But that won’t be enough,” Eric continued.
“In the end . . . we’ll have to conquer the earth. The Archon was right, you see? To survive, we’ve got to make sure nobody else does, except as serfs.” Eric, who had long since come to an acceptance of what his people and nation were, ground the cigarette out with short, savage motions of his hand. “We’re like a virus, really: we’ll never be safe with uninfected tissue still able to manufacture antibodies against us.”
Sofie folded the hand in hers. “You don’t sound . . . too enthusiastic about it, Centurion.”
“It could be worse. That’s the analysis the Academy will give you, anyway; they just think it’s a wonderful situation.”
She hesitated, then decided on bluntness. “What are you doing in a fighting unit, then?” she asked quietly.
He looked up, his mouth quirking; even then, she noticed how a lock of butter-yellow hair fell over the tanned skin of his forehead. “I love my people. Not like, sometimes, but . . . That’s enough to fight and die for, isn’t it?” And very softly, “But is it enough to live for?”
Their eyes met. And the comset hissed, clicking with Eric’s code. Efficiency settled over him like a mask as he reached for the receiver.
“Ah,” said Eric, watching the German column winding up the road toward the village. “There you see the results of Fritz ingenuity.” A glance at his wrist. “1610—good time.”
“Oh?” Marie Kaine asked, not taking her eyes from the trench periscope. She had always had doubts about the cost-effectiveness of tanks. So delicate, under their thick hides, so complex and highly stressed and failure prone . . . Still, it was daunting to have them coming at you.
The Fritz convoy had been dipping in and out of sight with the twists of the road from the north: six tanks, two heavy assault guns, tracked infantry carriers in the rear. The optics brought them near, foreshortened images trembling as slight vibrations in the tube were translated to wavering over the kilometer of distance. She could see the long cannon of the tanks swinging, the heads of infantrymen through the open hatches of the APCs, imagine the creaking, groaning, clanging rattle that only armor makes. They were still over two thousand meters out when a brace of self-propelled antiaircraft guns peeled off to take up stations upslope of the road. The sun had baked what moisture remained out of the rocky surface, and the heavy tracks were raising dust plumes as they ground through the crushed-rock surface of the military highway.
Military highway, she snorted to herself. Of course, the Soviets hadn’t had much wheeled traffic. Even so, for a strategic road, this was a disgrace.
“Mmm. You know the Wehrmacht-SS situation?” the Centurion continued.
Marie nodded wordlessly. Sofie spoke, without looking up from the circuit board she was working on. “Elite units, aren’t they? Volunteers. Like us, or Boss’ Brass Knucks?” That was the Archonal Guard Legion; their insignia was a mailed fist.
“Yes, but they’re not part of the regular army; they’re organs of the Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. And they’re always fighting with the regulars over recruits and equipment. So their organization took over the Russian factories to get an independent supply base.” He nodded to the squat combat machines grinding their way up the road. “Those are Ivan KV-1 heavy tanks, with a new turret and the Fritz 88mm/L56 gun; cursed good weapon, plenty of armor and reasonable mobility. Better than their standard-issue machines. Hmmm . . . the assault guns look like the same chassis, with a 150mm gun-howitzer mounted in the front glacis plate. The infantry carriers and flakpanzers are on SU-76 bodies; that was the Ivans’ light self-propelled gun. Ingenious; they’ve actually made a good thing out of departmental in-fighting.”
“Sounds as bad as the pissing matches the Army and Air Corps and Navy are always getting into at home,” Marie Kaine said. She made a final note on her pad and called instructions to the gun crew; a round of AP ammunition slid into the breech with a chunk-chang of metallic authority. Range would be no problem; a dozen inconspicuous objects had been carefully measured, and the guns were sighted in. First-round fire would be as accurate as the weapons permitted; Marie was not impressed with the standard of the machining. A sound design, but crude: there was noticeable windage in the barrel, even with lead driving bands, and the exterior finish was primitive in the extreme.
Sofie handed the sheet of electronic components back to the artillery observer, a harassed-looking man with thinning sandy hair and a small clipped mustache. He slid it back into the open body of his radio, reinserted the six thumb-sized vacuum tubes, and touched the leads with a testing jack. “Ahhh,” he said. “Good work; all green. Thanks, our spares had a little accident on the way down, hate to have to run a field-telephone line in.”
He rose, dusting off his knees, and peered out a slit. “Hmmm, our Hond IIIs are better. Not much heavier, twice the speed, better sloping on the armor, a 120mm gun.”
“Oh, yes,” Eric said. “And all sorts of extras: gyrostabilizers on the gun, shock absorbers on the torsion bars . . . Only one problem.” He pointed an imaginary pistol at the SS panzers. “Our armor is a hundred kilometers away; those machines are here. Got the battery on line?”
“Yessir.” He handed over the receiver; Sofie’s set would have done as well, but it was more efficient to have a dedicated channel.
“Palm One to Fist, over.”
“Roge-doge, Palm One. Our 105s’re set up, and the captured Fritz ISOs. Covering your position and about 4,000 meters out. Going to need a firefall soon?”
“That’s negative, Fist; this looks like a probing attack. Later.”
“All go, Palm One. But watch it: this is the only decent position in range, so they’ve got it map-referenced for sure, they don’t need observation to key in. And if they’ve got self-propelled heavies, no way I can win a counterbattery shoot. They’re immune to blast and fragments; we’re not and we can’t move, either. And you know what the odds are on hitting armored vehicles with indirect fire: about the same as flying to the moon by putting your head between your knees and spitting hard.”
“Green, Fist; we’ll only need you once. What about the Air Corps boys?” Artillery observers doubled as ground-control liaison for strike aircraft.
A sour chuckle. “You should hear the commo channels; everybody from here to Tiflis is screaming that the bogeyman’s out of the closet, and will Momma fly in and help, please. At least there aren’t any of Hitler’s pigeons around shitting on us . . . For that matter, I could have used air support an hour ago myself—couple hundred of those-there Fritz holdouts tried to rush my perimeter.”
Eric winced. That could cause hard trouble; it was a good thing they had not waited for darkness. “Over and out, Fist.”
“Kill a few for us, Palm One.”
“Range, one thousand meters,” Marie said expressionlessly. Eric leaned a hand on the bunker ceiling and watched. Six heavy AFVs, twelve infantry carriers with eleven men each . . . not counting the flakpanzers, about two lochoi of armor and a century of panzergrenadiers. The enemy was doing about what he’d expected; about what Eric would have done with the same information—trying to bull through with whatever could be scraped up at short notice and moved under skies controlled by the opposition, in the hope that there was nothing much to stop him. And he’d know his opponents were paratroopers, hence lightly equipped. On the battlefields of Europe, that meant negligible antitank capacity; the armed forces of the Domination had a rather different definition of light.
“Seven hundred meters,” Marie said. “They’re probably going to deploy their infantry any time now, Centurion.” The diesel growl of the German engines was clearly audible now: Eric gave a hand signal to Sofie, and she relayed the stand-ready command. The bunker was hushed now. Tension breathed thick; it was silent enough to hear the steel-squeal and diesel growl from the enemy armor over the wind-sough from the forest.
The first of the German tanks was making the final turn, a move that presented his flank; after that it would be a straight path into the village. Eric raised a hand, lips parted slightly, waiting for the first tank to pass by a white-painted stone at the six-hundred-meter mark. Time stretched, vision sharpened; this was like hunting, not the adrenaline rush of close combat. For a moment he could even feel a detached pity for his opponent.
CRACK! and the antitank gun cut loose, a stunning blast of noise in the confined space. The dimness of the bunker went black and rank with dust, and the barrel of the cannon slammed back almost to the far wall; the crew was leaping in with fresh ammunition even as the cradle’s hydraulics returned to “rest,” and the casing rang on the stones of the floor. Downslope to the north, the lead tank stopped dead as the tungsten-cored shot took it at the junction of turret and hull, smashing through the armor and fighting compartment, burying itself in the engine block. There was a second’s pause before the explosion, a flash, and the ten-tonne mass of the turret blew free and into the air, flipping end over end into the sky, landing twenty meters from the burning hulk.
That blocked the road. The German armor wheeled to deploy into the fields; the assault gun in the rear had turned just enough to present its flank when the second antitank gun in the other bunker fired—one round that twisted it askew with a tread knocked loose, a second that struck the side armor with the brutal chunggg of high-velocity shot meeting steel. Assault guns are simply steel boxes, with a heavy cannon in a limited-traverse mount in the bow. From the front they are formidable; from the flanks, almost helpless. The hatches flew open, and the crew poured out to throw themselves down in the roadside ditches; one was dragging a man whose legs had contested passage with twenty kilograms of moving metal, and lost badly. The damaged vehicle burned sullenly, occasional explosions jarring the ground and sending tongues of flame through its hatches and around the gun that lay slanting toward the ground, its mantlet slammed free of the surrounding armor. Another pillar of black oil-smoke reached for the mild blue of the afternoon sky.
The bunker crew had time for a single cheer before the response came. All the armored vehicles had opened up with their secondary armament, but the machine-gun fire was little menace to dug-in positions. The second Fritz assault gun was a different matter, and its commander was cool enough to ignore the burning wreckage before and behind him. The two muzzle flashes had given away the position of the gun that killed his comrades, and the third shot howled off the thick frontal armor of his gun. Carefully he traversed, corrected for range, fired. The sound of the six-inch howitzer was thicker and somehow heavier than the high-velocity tank guns, but at this point-blank range there was no appreciable interval between firing and impact. And the shell carried over a hundred pounds of high explosive.
Eric felt the impact as a flexing in the ground, as if the fabric of the bunker had withdrawn and struck him like a huge palm. Dust smoked down from the ceiling, between the heavy timbers; he sneezed. There was another impact, then a thudding to their right: the second bunker was catching it.
“Marie! Get that gun to the end firing position.” The crew sprang into action, manhandling the heavy weapon back and turning it; it rumbled off down the curved length of the bunker toward the firing slit at the western end.
“Follow me!” He turned and scuttled toward the eastern end of the bunker; this was not going to be a healthy sector in a few seconds. As they ran he cupped the hand radio to his ear.
“Gun two, gun two, come in. Come in, goddammit!” Then to himself: “Shit!” Even with a 150mm shell, it would have taken a direct hit to disable the other antitank gun. Luck plays no favorites, he thought bleakly. Chances were the other gun was out, which meant he was naked of antitank on the eastern side of the road, except for the 120mm recoilless dug in on the edge of the forest, and he had been hoping not to have to use that just yet. Aloud, he continued. “Tom, try to get someone through to gun two’s position. Report, and see if the machine gun positions in B bunker are intact.” A different code-click. “East wing recoilless, engage any armor your side of the road, but not until within two hundred meters of our front.”
The acknowledgments came through as they dropped to a halt beside the machine gun team at the east end of the bunker. Eric rested a hand on their shoulders, leaning forward to peer through the irregular circle of the firing port.
“Yahhh!” he snarled. The bunker shook as another heavy shell impacted; bullets spalled chips of stone from the rubble outside. Light poured through the opening—a yellow beam through the dust motes that hung, suspended, in the column of brightness. The three tanks had fanned out into the fields, swinging to present their frontal armor to the village and accelerating forward, their guns barking at the long heaps of rubble on either side of the road. And . . . yes! One leaped as a white flash erupted under a tread, settled back with a shattered road wheel. Now the Draka machine guns were opening up, hosing over the stranded behemoth. They could not penetrate the armor; not even the antitank gun could without a side shot, not without great good luck. But they could shatter optics, rattle the crew . . .
Eric hammered a fist into the wall in glee; the other two were falling back, unwilling to chance a mine field without engineers or special vehicles to clear it. Accelerating in reverse, they circled the assault guns and climbed back onto the road, retreating until they were hull down in a patch of low ground. Still dangerous, those long 88mm guns had plenty of range, but the bluff of his scant handful of antitank mines had worked.
The German infantry carriers had halted well back; their thin armor offered protection from small arms and shell fragments only. Now they were opening up with the twin machine guns each carried, and the Waffen-SS panzergrenadiers were spilling out of the opened ramp doors at the rear of each vehicle. Eric could see them marshalling, fanning out west of the road. They could see the waiting V-spread of wire and trench that threatened to funnel them into a killing ground as they advanced south; their officers’ shouts pushed them toward the sheltering forest, where they could operate under cover and flank the strong frontal positions. Even a few snipers and machine guns upslope from the village could make field trenches untenable.
“Smart, Fritz; by the book,” he murmured. The Draka infantry were opening up with their crew-served weapons; a few of the Germans were falling under the flail of the ISmm’s, but that was over a thousand meters, extreme range, and the Germans were making skillful use of cover. Happily, he waited for them to reach the protection of the woods. They would do it on the run; even well-trained soldiers threw themselves into cover when under fire. The trees would beckon, and they had already been shaken by what had happened to their armor.
“Now,” he whispered. Now it was up to those at the treeline.
“Not yet,” the Draka decurion murmured to himself. The Germans had been coming in across the fields well spread out, but they bunched as they approached the treeline, the underbrush was thinner here and they were unconsciously picking the easiest way in. In they came, out of the punishing fire coming from the Draka positions, up the valley to their left. Bunching, speeding up, their attention divided.
The moment stretched. Above him a bird sounded a liquid di-di-di, announcing its nesting territory to the world. The Draka soldier waited behind the log, his eyes steady on flickers of movement through a shimmering haze of leaves, confident in the near invisibility of camouflage uniform and motionlessness. His tongue ran over dry lips, tasting forest mold and green dust. Insects buzzed, burrowed, dug.
‘Course, they-all could spot those dumbshit Ivans, he thought. The Russian partisans were with him, a tetrarchy’s worth with captured Fritz weapons. Forget about that, concentrate . . .
Ya . . . Now! His thumb clamped on the safety release of the detonator, and he rapped it sharply three times on the moss-grown trunk of the fallen beech before him. Ahead of him the thick band of undergrowth along the forest edge exploded, erupted into a chaos of flying dust, shedded leaves, wood chips. Louder than the explosion was a humming like a hundred thousand metal bees: Broadsword directional mines, curved plates lined with plastique, the concave inner face tight-packed with razor-edged steel flechettes like miniature arrows. Pointed toward an enemy, mounted at waist-height, they had the effect of titanic shotgun shells. The German infantry went down, scythed down, the first ranks shredded, sliced, spattered back into their comrades’ faces.
They halted for an instant, too stunned even to seek cover. The loudest sound was the shrill screaming of the wounded—men lying thrashing with helmets, weapons, harness nailed to their bodies. The decurion rolled to his Holbars, over it, came up into firing position and began picking targets, hammering three-round bursts.
“Ya! Ya! Beautiful, fuckin’ beautiful!” he shouted. The others of his stick opened up from positions in cover, and a volley of grenades followed.
Grunting in annoyance, the Draka NCO noticed one of the Russian partisans he had been assigned kneeling, staring slackjawed at the chewed bodies in SS uniforms that lay in clumps along a hundred meters of the forest edge. He was shaking his head, mouth moving silently, the Schmeisser dangling limply from his hands.
“Shoot, you stupid donkeyfucka!” The Draka dodged over and planted his boot in the Russian’s buttocks with a thump. “Useless sonofabitch, shmert, shmert Fritz!”
The partisan scarcely seemed to feel the blow. He grinned, showing the blackened jagged stumps of teeth knocked out by a rifle butt; through the rags on his back bruises showed yellow and green and black.
“Da, da,” he mumbled, raising the machine pistol. Holding it clamped tight to the hip and loosing off a burst, then another; short bursts, to keep the muzzle from rising too much. He came to his feet, disregarding the return fire that was beginning to whine overhead and drop clipped-off twigs on their heads. His bullets hosed out, across the back of a wounded SS grenadier who was hobbling away with a leg trailing, using his rifle for a crutch.
“Da! Da!” he shouted.
The decurion dropped away. The partisans had opened up all along the treeline, thirty of them thickening up his firepower quite nicely. The SS were rallying, crawling forward now; a MG34 machine gun began firing in support, and an 88mm shell from one of the tanks smashed a giant hornbeam into a pillar of splinters and fire. Thick green-wood smoke began to drift past as the first Germans reached the woodland and crashed through the tangled resiliency of the bushes. They were still taking casualties, of course, and still under fire from the village on their left flank. The Draka paused to smack a fresh drum into his Holbars, whistling tunelessly between his teeth. In a moment they would fall back, into the thick woods; the partisans could cover that. Fall back to the next ambush position; the trees would channel pursuit nicely. He doubted the Germans would come farther than that, this time.
Beside him, the Russian was laughing.
Eric watched as the SS infantry halted, rallied, began to fight their way into the woods. The armored vehicles had swiveled their weapons to support them; only the assault gun kept the village under fire, the heavy shells going over their heads with a freight-train-at-night rush. And the flakpanzers moving forward and risking their thin plating to hose their quadruple 20mm autocannon over the village, short bursts that hit like horizontal explosive hail-storms. The Draka in the bunker dove for the floor, away from the firing slits. Not that there was much chance of a hit even so; the antiaircraft weapons ate ammo too rapidly to keep up the support fire long enough to saturate an area, but there was no point in risking life for a bystander’s view. The action was out of range of their personal weapons, anyway.
Eric continued his scan, forcing the mind’s knowledge of probabilities to overcome the hindbrain’s cringing. Some of the SS infantry carriers were reversing, ready to reembark their crews; the Fritz commander must be a cool one, prepared to cut his losses.
The Centurion closed his eyes for a moment, struggling to hold the battle whole in his mind without focusing on its component parts. Know how a man fights and you know what he is and how he thinks: the words ran through him like an echo. Who . . . Pa, of course; that was one of his favorite maxims. How had the German commander reacted? Well, ruthlessly, to begin with. He had sacrificed that warcar to gain information. Not afraid of casualties, then. Bold, ready to gamble; he’d tried to rush through with no more than two companies, to push as far up the pass as he could before the Draka solidified their defense.
Eric opened slitted eyes, scratched at the itching yellow stubble under his chin. Damnation, I wish I had more information. Well, what soldier didn’t? And he wished he could have spent more time with the partisan leader, pumped him for details, but it was necessary to send him off to contact the others, if anything valuable was to come of that. After showing him enough dead Germans to put some spirit in him and backbone back into his followers, not to mention what Dreiser had done, that was good work. Escape from the cauldron of death that Russia had become was a fine lure, glittering enough to furnish enthusiasm, but so distant that it was not likely to make them cautious.
But it would have been good to learn a little more about this man Hoth in Pyatigorsk. Still . . . there had been a bull-like quality to the attack. Plenty of energy, reasonable skill, but not the unexpected, the simple after-the-fact novelty that marked a really inspired touch. The Liebstandarte had always been a mechanized unit, no doubt the SS commander knew the value of mobility but did he understand it was as much an attitude as a technique? Or was he wedded to his tanks and carriers, even when the terrain and circumstances were wrong?
What was that speech of Pa’s again? Don’t think in terms of specific problems, think in terms of the task. A commander who was a tactician and nothing else would look at the Draka position in the village and think of how to crush it; one problem at a time. I would have tried something different, he thought. Hmm, maybe waiting until dark, using the time to bring up reserves, filtering infantry through the woods in the dark and then attacking both sides. It was impossible to bypass the village completely—it sat here in the pass like a fishbone in a throat—but there were ways to keep to the principle of attacking weakness rather than strength . . .
Ways to manipulate the enemy, as well. Pa again: If you hurt him, an untrained man will focus on the pain. In rage, if he’s brave and a fighter; without realizing that even so he’s allowing you to direct his attention, that your Will is master. Eric had found that true in personal combat; so few could just accept a hurt, keep centered, prevent their mind’s eye from rushing to the sensory input of the threatened spot. The way some chess players focused on this check rather than the mate five moves into the future. Discipline, discipline in your soul; you aren’t a man until you can command yourself, body as well as mind. Without inner discipline a man is nothing more than a leopard that thinks, and you can rule him with a whip and a chair until he jumps through hoops.
He reached for the handphone of the radio, brushing aside an old resentment. So you’re a bastard. I’m not so stupid I can’t see when you’re right, he thought at the absent form of Karl von Shrakenburg.
Three quick clicks, two slow: recognition signal for the mortars. Focus on the valley below: the German panzergrenadiers falling back from the edge of the woods, dragging their hurt, the SS armor opening up again on the bunker positions, trying to keep the gunners’ heads down and cover the retreat. Bright muzzle flashes, the heavy crack of high-velocity shot. Flickering wink of automatic weapons, and the sound of the jacketed bullets on rock, like a thousand ball-peen hammers ringing on a girder. Stone rang; raw new-cut timber shifted and creaked as the shellswhumped against rock and dirt filtered down from above and into his collar. He sneezed, hawked, spat grit out of his mouth, blinking back to the brightness of the vision slit.
Wait for it, wait for it. Now: now they were clustered around their vehicles.
“Firefall,” he said.
Thick rock hid the sound of the automortars firing the fumpfumpfump as their recoil-operated mechanisms stripped shells out of the hoppers and into the stubby smooth-bore barrels. Eric raised the field glasses to his eyes; he could see a flinching as the veterans among the SS troopers dove for cover or their APCs, whichever was closest. Survivors, who knew what to expect. Rifles and machine guns pin infantrymen, force them to cover, but it is artillery that does the killing, from overhead, where even a foxhole is little help. And all foot soldiers detest mortars even more than other guns; mortar bombs drop out of the sky and spread fragments all around them rather than in the narrow cone of a gun shell. Much less chance to survive a near miss, and there is more explosive in a mortar’s round than an artillery shell, which needs a thick steel wall to survive firing stresses.
CRASH! Crashcrashcrash . . . Tiny stick figures running, falling, lifting into the air with flailing limbs. Lightning-wink flashes from the explosions, each with its puff of smoke. Imagination furnished the rest, and memory: raw pink of sliced bone glistening in opened flesh; screaming and the low whimpering that was worse; men in shock staring with unbelief at the wreck of selves that had been whole fractions of a second before; the whirring hum of jagged cast-iron casing fragments flying too fast to see and the cringing helplessness of being under attack with no means of striking back . . .
“Sofie,” he said. She started, forcing her attention back from the distant vehicles.
“Can you break me into the Fritz command circuit?” The SS personnel carriers were buttoning up, the hale dragging wounded up the ramps and doors winching shut. Even thin armor would protect against blast and fragments. The tanks had raised their muzzles, dropping high-explosive rounds in the village on the chance of finding the mortar teams that were punishing their comrades. Brave, since it risked more fire from the antitank guns in the forward positions, but hopeless. More hopeless than the Germans suspected; there were only three of the automortars with the Draka, their rate of fire giving them the impact of a Century of conventional weapons. At that, the shells were falling more slowly, one weapon at a time taking up the bombardment, to save ammunition and spare the other barrels from heat buildup.
Another of TechSec’s marvels, another nightmare for the supply officers, a detached portion of Eric’s mind thought. Officially, Technical Section’s motto was “Nothing But the Best”; to the gun-bunnies who had to hump the results of their research into battle, it was commonly held to be “Firepower at All Costs.”
Sofie had unslung the backpack radio, opened an access panel, made adjustments. Draka field radios had a frequency randomizer, to prevent eavesdropping. It was new, experimental, troublesome, but it saved time with codes and ciphers. The Fritz, now, still . . . She put fingers to one earphone and turned a dial, slowly.
“Got ’em,” she said cheerfully, raising her voice over the racket of combat. “They don’t seem happy, nohow.”
Eric brought the handset to his ear, willing distractions to fade until there was only the gabble of static-blurred voices. His own German was good enough to recognize the Silesian accent in the tone that carried command.
“Congratulations,” he said, in the language of his ancestors. There was a moment’s silence on the other end; he could hear someone cursing a communications officer in the background, and the measured thudding of explosions heard through tank armor.
“Congratulations,” he repeated, “on your losses. How many? Fifty? A hundred? I doubt if we lost six!” He laughed, false and full and rich; it was shocking to the watching Draka, hearing that sound coming from a face gone expressionless as an axe. A torrent of obscenities answered him. A peasant, from the vocabulary, Eric thought. Pure barnyard. And yes, he could be distracted, enraged. Probably the type with cold lasting angers: an obsessive. The German paused for breath, and Eric could imagine a hand reaching for the selector switch of his intercom. With merciless timing, the Draka spoke into the instant. “Any messages for your wives and sisters? We’ll be seeing them before you do!
“Our circuit,” he continued, and then: “Cease fire.”
A pain in one hand startled him. He looked down, saw that the cigarette had burned down to his knuckle, dropped it and ground the butt into the dirt. Two-score men had died since the brief savage encounter began: their bodies lay in the fields, draped over bushes along the western edge of the forested hills, roasting and shriveling in the burning fighting vehicles down below on the road. All in the time it might have taken to smoke a cigarette, and most of them had died without even a glimpse of the hands that killed them.
He snorted. “Someday TecSec will find a way of incinerating the world while sitting in a bunker under a mountain,” he muttered. “The apotheosis of civilized warfare.”
“Sir?” Sofie asked.
Eric shook himself. There was the work of the day to be done; besides, it had probably been no prettier in mail.
“Right. Get me the medics, I want a report on what happened in Bunker B. Put—Svenson, wasn’t it?—down on the treeline. Put him on as soon as he reports in; that was well done, he deserves a pat for it.”
“So do you, sir.”
Startled, he glanced over at her as she finished rebuckling the straps of the radio and stood with a grunt. Teeth flashed in the gloom as she reached over and ceremoniously patted him on the back; looking about with embarrassment, he saw nods from the other troopers.
“Luck,” he said dismissively. Combat was an either-or business: you took information always scanty and usually wrong, made a calculated guess, then stood ready to improvise. Sometimes it worked, and you looked like a hero; sometimes you slipped into the shit headfirst. Nobody did it right every time, not against an opponent less half-hard than the Italians.
“Bullshit, sir,” Sofie said. “When you stop worryin’ and do it, it gets fuckin’ done.” She shrugged at his frown. “Hey, why give the Fritz a call in the middle of things?”
“Because I always fancied myself as a picador, Sofie,” he said, turning to watch the Germans disappear down the valley, infantry carriers first, the tanks following, reversing from one hull-down position to the next so that they could cover each other. “Let’s just hope the bull I goaded isn’t too much for our cape.”