OSSETIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY, SOVIET GEORGIA
APRIL 14, 1942: 0500 HOURS
Eric stood, the steel folding stock of his rifle resting on one hip, looking downslope. The forest was mostly below eye level from the plateau where the paratroops had landed. Black tree limbs twisted in the paling moonlight, glistening with frost granules, the first mist of green from opening buds like a tender illusion trembling before the eyes. Breath smoked white before him; the thin cold air poured into his lungs like a taste of home. Yet these mountains were not his; they were huger, wilder, sharper. To the east across the trough of the pass the peaks caught rosy light, their snowcaps turning blood red before his eyes.
“Right,” he said. The tetrarchy leaders and their seconds were grouped around him, squatting and leaning on their assault rifles. It had taken only a few minutes to uncrate the equipment and form the Century: training, and a common knowledge that defeat and death were one and the same.
“First, two minor miracles. We hit our drop zone right on; so did Cohort, chiliarchy, and legion.” Southward, higher up the slope of the pass, man-made thunder rolled back from the stony walls. “So, they’re engaging the main Fritz units farther up. Should go well, complete strategic surprise. Also, the communications are all working right for once.”
There were appreciative murmurs. Vacuum tubes and parachutes simply went ill together, and fragile radios had cost the experimental paratroop arm dearly earlier in the war. Experience was beginning to pay off.
“Which is all to the good; we aren’t fighting Italians anymore. In fact, there seem to be complete formed units up there, not just the communications and engineering personnel we were hoping for. Now for the rest of it. The gliders with the light armor came down perfectly—right into a ravine. Chiliarchy HQ says they may be able to put a rubble ramp down for some of it; take a day, at least.” There was a collective wince. He went on: “No help for it. Right.”
He pointed downslope; they were high enough to catch glimpses of the road over treetops still black in the false dawn. Morning had brought out the birds, and a trilling chorus was starting up. The troopers waited quietly below, a few smoking or talking softly, most silent.
“That track, believe it or not, is the Ossetian Military Highway, half the road net over the mountains.” He gestured southward with his mapboard. “The rest of the legion is up there, fighting their way into Kutaisi and points back toward us.”
His hand cut the air to the north. “Down there, the Fritz armor is regrouping around Pyatigorsk. We’re not sure exactly what units—the Intelligence network is shot to hell since the Fritz got here and started liquidating anything that moves—but definitely tank units in strength. If they’re up to form, we should be getting a reaction force pretty damn quick.”
The Centurion’s next gesture was due east, to the unseen S-curve of the two-lane “highway” that hugged the mountain slope on which they stood. “And a kilometer that way is Village One. Dense forest nearly to the road. Stone houses, and a switchback starts there. Our objective. Tom?”
“I head up the road, cross above the village, spread 1st Tetrarchy as a stop force.”
“And don’t let them get past you into the woods. Marie?”
“15mms and the 120mm recoilless along the treeline; mortars back; flamethrower and demolition teams to key off you and move forward in support.”
“Einar, Lisa, John?”
“Left-right concentric, work our way in house-to-house. You coordinate on the rough spots.”
“Correct. Any questions?”
Tetrarch Lisa Telford shifted on her haunches. “What about locals?”
“Ignore them if they’re quiet. Otherwise, expend ’em. Synch watches: 0500 at . . . mark! Go in at 0530, white flare. Nothing more? Good, let’s do it, people, let’s go!”
The Germans in the Circassian village were wary—enough to set sentries hundreds of meters in the woods beyond the fields. Eric stooped over the body, noted the mottled camouflage jacket, glanced at the collar tabs, up at the trooper who stood smiling fondly and wiping his knife on the seat of his trousers.
“Got his paybook?” he snapped.
“Heah y’are, suh.”
Eric riffled through it. “Shit! Waffen-SS, Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler! I was hoping for a logistics unit, or at least line infantry.” The soldier had been nineteen and an Austrian; for a brief instant, the Draka officer wondered if the Caucasus had reminded him of the Tyrol. On impulse, he reached down and closed the staring brown eyes.
With luck, there were ten minutes before the Fritz noticed; they were probably expecting attack from the south. The noise there was peaking, the narrow walls of the pass channeling a rapid chatter of automatic-weapons fire as well as the boom of heavy weapons; that would be the rest of first and second Cohorts . . . or even the legion. Heavy fighting riveted the attention. Even so, the Fritz in the village had an all-around perimeter, for antipartisan defense, if nothing else.
Their CO is probably getting screams for help. They might pull out . . . No, too chancy.
Ducking through thickening underbrush of wild pistachio, he made his way toward the treeline. The sun was well up now, but the mountain beeches wove a canopy fifteen meters above, turning the air to a cool olive gloom. Nearer the edge of the woods, sunlight allowed more growth and the thicker timber had been logged off; there were thickets of saplings laced together with wild grapevines and witch hazel and huge clumps of wild rhododendron.
He dropped to his belly and leopard-crawled forward. The support teams were setting up, manhandling the tripod mounts of the heavy 15mm machine guns into position, the long, slender, fluted barrels snaking out of improvised nests of rock and bush. The heavy snick of oiled metal sounded as the bolts were pulled back. The three 120mm recoilless rifles were close behind, wrestled through by sheer strength and awkwardness; working parties clearing the way with bush knives, others following, bent under loads of the heavy perforated-shell ammunition. The infantry spread out, shedding their marching packs for combat load.
Carefully, Eric nudged his rifle through the last screen of tall grass and sighted through the x4 integral scope. The view leaped out at him. Half a thousand meters of cleared fields stretched around the village, more downslope to the north, bare and brown in the spring, still sodden from melting snow. The fields themselves were uneven, steeply sloped, studded with low terraces, heaps of fieldstone, walls of piled rock: much of it would be dead ground from the town. Closer to the tumbled huddle of stone houses were orchards, apple and plum, and walled paddocks for sheep.
Distantly, he was aware of his body’s reaction, sweat staining the field jacket down from his armpits, blood loud in his ears, a dryness in his mouth. He had seen enough combat to know what explosive and flying metal did to human bodies. The fears were standard, every soldier felt them—of death, of pain even more. Stomach wounds particularly, even with sulfiomide and antibiotics. Castration, blinding, burns; a life as a cripple, a thing women would puke to see . . . Draka officers were expected to delegate freely and lead from the front; a Centurion had a shorter life expectancy than a private. Almost without effort, training overrode fear, and his hands were steady as he switched to field glasses.
Standard, he thought. The village might have been any of a thousand thousand others in High Asia, anywhere from Anatolia to Sinkiang: flat-topped structures of rough stone with mud mortar, some plastered and white-washed, others raw, sheds and narrow twisted lanes. The military “highway” went straight through, with the burnt-out wreckage of a Russian T-34 standing by the verge on the northern outskirts, the blackened barrel of its cannon pointing in silent futility down toward the plains. There was a square, and a building with onion domes that looked to have been a mosque, before the Revolution, then until last fall a Soviet “House of Culture.” There were a few other modernish-looking structures, two nondescript trucks in German army paint, more horse-drawn vehicles parked outside.
Movement; chickens, an old woman in the head-to-toe swathing of Islamic modesty . . . and yes, figures in Fritz field gray. He switched his view to the outskirts, almost hidden in greenery: spider holes, wire, the houses with firing slits knocked into their walls . . . it wasn’t going to be a walkover.
He reached a hand behind him and Sofie thrust the handset into his grasp. Senior Decurion McWhirter and the five troopers waited behind her. He clicked code into the pressure button and spoke: “Marie.”
“Targets ranged, teams ready.” Along the firing line, hands clutched the grips and lanyards; a hundred meters behind, she stood with her eyes pressed to the visor of a split-view rangefinder. The automortar crews waited, hands on the elevating screws, loaders ready with fresh five-round clips.
Eric forced himself to a half-dozen slow, deep breaths. Hell, he thought. Why don’t I just tell them I’m going for a look-see and start walking to China? Because it would be silly, of course. Because these were his friends.
“Well, then.” He cased the binoculars, hooked the assault sling of his rifle over his head, watched his wrist as the second hand swept inexorably around to 0530. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, conversational.
It went up from the observation post with a quiet pop and burst two hundred meters up. Magnesium flame blossomed against the innocent blue of the sky, white and harsh. Plop-whine,the first mortar shells went by overhead, plunging downward into the pink froth of apple blossom along the edge of the village: thump-crash fountains of black earth and shattered branches, steel and rock fragments equally deadly whirling through the air. Crash-crash-crash-crash without stopping; the new automortars were heavier, on their wheeled carriages, but while the ammunition lasted, they could spray the 100mm bombs the way a submachine gun did pistol bullets. Century A’s teams had been practicing for a long time, and their hands moved reloads in with steady, metronomic regularity.
From either side, the heavy machine guns erupted, controlled four-second bursts arching toward the smoke and shattered wood on the town’s edge. Red tracer flicked out, blurring from the muzzles, seeming to float as it approached the roiling dust of the target zone. The firing positions here at the treeline overlooked the thin net of German defensive posts, commanded the roofs and streets beyond. They raked the windows and firing slits, and already figures in SS jackets were falling.
“Storm storm!” the officers’ shouts rang out. The Draka infantry rose; they had shed their marching loads and the lead sticks were crouched and ready. Now they sprinted forward, running full-tilt, bobbing and jinking and weaving as they advanced. A hundred meters and they threw themselves down in firing positions; the assault rifles opened up and the light rifle-calibre machine guns. The second-string lochoi were already leapfrogging their positions, moving with smooth athlete’s grace. The operation would be repeated at the same speed, as many times as was necessary to reach the objective. This was where thousands of hours of training paid off—training that began for Draka children at the age of six to produce soldiers enormously strong and fit. Troops that could keep up this pace for hours.
And the covering fire would be accurate—sniper accurate, with soldiers who could use optical scopes as quickly as those of other nations did iron sights.
“BuLala! BuLala!” The battle cry roared out, as old as the Draka, in a language of the Bantu extinct for more than a century: Kill! Kill!
The return fire was shaky and wild—the slow banging of the German Kar 98 bolt-action rifles, then the long brrrrrtttt of a MG 34. The line of machine-gun bullets stabbed out from a farmhouse on the outer edge of the village. Draka were falling. Seconds later, one of the 120mm recoilless rifles fired.
There was a huge sound, a crash at once very loud and yet muffled. Behind the stubby weapon a great cloud of incandescent gas flared—the backblast that balanced the recoil. Saplings slapped to the ground and leaf litter caught fire, and the ammunition squad leaped to beat out the flames with curses and spades. But it was the effect on the German machine-gun nest that mattered, and that was shattering. The shells were low-velocity, but they were heavy and filled with plastique, confined by thin steel mesh. The warhead struck directly below the muzzle of the German gun, spreading instantly into a great flat pancake of explosive; milliseconds later, the fuse in its base detonated.
Those shells had been designed for use against armor, or ferroconcrete bunkers. The loose stone of the farmhouse wall disintegrated, collapsing inward as if at the blow of an invisible fist. Beyond, the opposite wall blew outward even before the first stones reached it, destroyed by air driven to the density of steel in the confined space of the house. The roof and upper floor hung for a moment, as if suspended against gravity. Then they fell, to be buried in their turn by the inward topple of the end walls. Moments before, there had been a house, squalid enough, but solid. Now there was only a heap of shattered ashlar blocks.
“Now!” Eric threw himself forward. The headquarters lochos followed. Ahead the mortar barrage “walked” into the town proper, then back to its original position. But now the shells carried smoke, thick and white, veiling all sight; bullets stabbed out of it blindly. The 120s crashed again and again, two working along the edge of the village, another elevating slightly to shell the larger buildings in the square.
With cold detachment, Tetrarch Marie Kaine watched the shellfire crumble the buildings, flicked a hand to silence the firing line as the rifle Tetrarchies reached the barrier of smoke. It thinned rapidly; she could hear the crackling bang of snake charges blasting pathways through the German wire. The small-arms fire died away for a brief moment as the first enemy fire positions were blasted out of existence, overrun, silenced. The medics and their stretcher bearers were running forward to attend to the Draka wounded.
“Combat pioneers forward!” she said crisply. The teams launched themselves downhill, as enthusiastically as the rifle infantry had done; being weighed down with twenty kilos of napalm tank for a flamethrower, or an equal weight of demolition explosive, was as good an incentive for finding cover as she knew.
“All right,” she continued crisply. “Machine-gun sections cease fire. Resume on targets of opportunity or fire requests.”
The smoke had blown quickly; a dozen houses were rubble, and fires had started already from beams shattered over charcoal braziers. The fighting was moving into the town; she could see figures in Draka uniforms swarming over rooftops, the stitching lines of tracer. They were as tiny as dolls, the town spread out below like a map . . .
But then, I always did like dolls, she thought. And maps. Her father was something of a traditionalist; he had been quite pleased about the dolls, until she started making her own . . . and organizing the others into work parties.
The maps, too: she had loved those. Drawing her own lines on them, making her own continents for the elaborate imagined worlds of her daydreams. Then she discovered that you could do that in the real world: school trips to the great projects, the tunnel from the Orange River to the Fish, the huge dams along the Zambezi. Horses and engineering magazines, she thought wryly. The twin pillars of my teenage years.
It had been the newsreels, finally. There wasn’t much left to be done south of the Zambezi, or anywhere in Africa—just execution of projects long planned, touching up, factory extensions. But the New Territories, the lands conquered in 1914-1919 . . . ah! She could still shiver at the memory of watching the final breakthrough on the Dead Sea-Mediterranean Canal, the frothing silver water forcing its way through the great turbines, the hum, the power. The school texts said the Will to Power was the master force. True enough . . . but anyone could have power over serfs, all you needed was to be born a Citizen. The power to make cultivated land out of a desert, to channel a river, build a city where nothing but a wretched collection of hovels stood—thatwas power! Father had had a future mapped out for her, or so he thought: the Army, of course; an Arts B.A.; then she could marry, and satisfy herself with laying out gardens around the manor. Or if she must, follow some genteel, feminine profession, like architecture . . .
But no, I was going to build, she thought. And here I am, destined to spend the best years of my life laying out tank traps, clearing minefields and blowing things up. Oh, well, the war won’t last forever. Russia, Europe . . . we’ll have that, and there’s room for projects with real scale, there.
A trained eye told her that it was time. “Forward,” she called. “Wallis, stop fiddling with that radio and bring the spare set. New firing line at the first row of houses.” Or rubble, her mind added. That was the worst of war—you were adding to entropy rather than fighting it. Just clearing the way for something better, she mused, dodging forward. Hovels, not a decent drain in the place.