VILLAGE ONE, OSSETIAN MILITARY HIGHWAY
APRIL 14, 1942: 0700 HOURS
The partisans were being held in what looked to be a stock pen—new barbed wire on ancient piled stone. A walking-wounded Draka trooper stood guard; the German formerly assigned to that duty was lying on his back across the wall, his belly opened by a drawing slash from a bush knife and the cavity buzzing black with flies. The prisoners ignored him; even with Eric’s arrival, few looked up from their frenzied attack on the loaves of stale black bread that had been thrown to them. One vomited noisily, seized another chunk and began to eat again. There were thirty of them, and they stank worse than the rest of the village. They were standing in their own excrement, and half a dozen had wounds gone pus-rotten with gas gangrene.
They were Slavs, mostly: stockier than the Circassian natives, flatter faced and more often blond, in peasant blouses or the remnants of Soviet uniform. Young men, if you could look past the months of chronic malnutrition, sickness, and overstrain. A few had been tortured and all bore the marks of rifle butts, whips, rubber truncheons. Eric shook his head in disgust; in the Domination, this display would have been considered disgraceful even for convicts on their way to the prison mines of the Ituri jungles or the saltworks of Kashgar, the last sinkholes for incorrigibles. Anybody would torture for information in war, of course, and the Security Directorate was not notable for mercy toward rebels. Still, this was petty meanness. If they were dangerous, kill them; if not, put them to some use.
One thick-set prisoner straightened, brushed his hands down a torn and filth-spattered uniform tunic and came to the edge of the wire. His eyes flickered to the guard, noted how she came erect at the officer’s approach.
“Uvaha hchloptsi, to yeehchniy kommandyr,” he cast back over his shoulder, and waited, looking the Draka steadily in the eye.
Eric considered him appraisingly and nodded. This one, he thought, is a brave man. Pity we’d probably have to kill him if the Fritz don’t do us the favor. Aloud: “Sprechen zie Deutsch? Parlez-vous Frangais? Circassian?”
A shake of the head; the Draka commander paused in thought, almost started in surprise to hear Sofie’s voice.
“I speak Russian, Centurion,” Sofie said. He raised a brow; everybody had to do one foreign language, but that was not a common choice. “Not in school. My pa, he with Henderson when the Fourth took Krasnovodsk, back in 1918. He brought back a Russki wench, Katie. She was my nursemaid an’ I learned it from her. Still talk it pretty good. He just said: ‘Watch out, boys, that’s the commander.’ ”
Sofie turned to the captives and spoke, slowly at first and then with gathering assurance. The Russian frowned and waved his companions to silence, then replied. The ghost of a smile touched his face, despite the massive bruise that puffed the left side of his mouth.
Grinning, she switched back into English. “Ya, he understands. Says I’ve got an old-fashioned Moscow accent, like a boyar, a noble. Hey, Katie always said she was a countess; maybe it was true.” A shake of the head. “S’true she was never much good at housework, wouldn’t do it. Screwing the Master was all right, looking after children was fine, but show her a mop and she’d sulk for days. Ma gave up on trying . . . ”
Actually, the whole Nixon household had been fond of Ekaterina Ilyichmanova; with her moods and flightiness and disdain for detail, she had fitted in perfectly with the general atmosphere of cheerfully sloppy anarchy. Sophie’s father had always considered her his best war souvenir and had treated her with casual indulgence; she was something of an extravagance for a man of his modest social standing and her slender, great-eyed good looks were not at all his usual taste. Sophie and her brothers had gone to some trouble to find their nursemaid the Christian priest she wanted during her last illness and had been surprised at how empty a space she left in the rambling house below Lion’s Head.
Eric nodded thoughtfully. “Good thinking, Sofie. All right . . . ask him if there are more like him in the woods and the villages down in the plains.”
The Russian listened carefully to the translation, spoke a short sentence and spat at the Draka officer’s feet. Eric waved back the guard’s bayonet impatiently.
“Ahhh—” Sofie hesitated. “Ah, Centurion, he sort of asked why the fuck he should tell a neimetsky-son-of-a-bitch anything and invited you to take up where the fornicating Fritzes left off.” She frowned. “I think he’s got a pretty thick country-boy accent. Don’t know what a neimetsky is, but it’s not nohow complimentary. And he says it’s our fault they’re in this mess anyway.”
Eric smiled thinly, hands linked behind his back, rising and falling thoughtfully on the balls of his feet. There was an element of truth in that; the Stavka, the Soviet high command, had never been able to throw all its reserves against the Germans with the standing menace of the Domination on thousands of kilometers of southern front. And the Draka had taken two million square miles of central Asia in the Great War, while Russia was helpless with revolution and civil strife, all the way north to the foothills of the Urals, and east to Baikal.
Fairly perceptive, the Draka officer thought. Especially for a peasant like this. He must have been a Party member. The flat Slav face stared back at him, watchful but not at all afraid.
Can’t be a fool, Eric’s musing continued. Not and have survived the winter and spring. He’s not nervous with an automatic weapon pointed at him, either. Or at the bayonet, for that matter; the damn things were usually still useful for crowd control, if nothing else.
“Stupid,” he said meditatively.
“Sir?” Sofie asked.
“Oh, not him, the Fritz. Talking about a thousand-year Reich, then acting as if it all had to be done tomorrow . . . ” His tone grew crisper. “Ask his name. Ask him how he’d like to be released with all his men—with all the food they can carry, a brand-new Fritz rifle and a hundred rounds each.”
Shocked, Sophie raised her eyebrows shrugged and spoke. This time the Russian laughed. “He says he’s called Ivan Desonovich Yuhnkov, and he’d prefer MP40 submachine guns and grenades. While we’re at it, could we please give him some tanks and a ticket to New York, and Hitler’s head, and what sort of fool do you think he is? Sorry, sir.”
Eric reached out a hand for the microphone, spoke. Minutes stretched; he waited without movement, then extended a hand to Sofie. “Cigarette?” he asked.
Carefully expressionless, she lit a second from her own and placed it between his lips. Well, the iron man is nervous, too, she thought. Sometimes she got the feeling that Eric could take calculated risks on pure intellect, simply from analysis of what was necessary. It was reassuring that he could need the soothing effect of the nicotine.
The other partisans had finished the bread. They crowded in behind their leader, silent, the hale supporting the wounded. A mountain wind soughed, louder than their breath and the slight sucking noises of their rag-wrapped feet in the mud and filth of the pen. The eyes in the stubbled faces . . . Covertly, Eric studied them. Some were those of brutalized animals, the ones who had stopped thinking because thought brought nothing that was good; now they live from one day . . . no, from one meal to the next, or one night’s sleep. He recognized that look; it was common enough in the world his caste had built. And he recognized the stare of the others—the men who had fought on long after the death of hope because there was really nothing else to do. That he saw in the mirror, every morning.
A stick of troopers came up, shepherding a working party of Circassian villagers and the American war correspondent. The Circassians were carrying rope-handled wooden crates between them; Dreiser’s face had a stunned paleness. Well, he’s seen the elephant, Eric thought with a distant, impersonal sympathy. There were worse things than combat, but the American probably wasn’t in a mood to be reminded of that right now. The crates were not large, but the villagers bore them with grunts and care, and they made a convincing splat in the wet earth.
“Bill,” the Draka said. “What’s your government’s policy on Russian refugees?”
Dreiser gathered himself with a visible effort, watching as Eric reached up over his left shoulder and drew his bush knife. The metal was covered in a soft matte-black finish, only the honed edge reflecting mirror bright. He drove it under one of the boards of a crate and pried the wood back with a screech of nails.
“Refugees? Ah . . . ” Bill forced his thoughts into order. “Well, better, now that we’re in the war.” He shrugged distaste. “Especially since there isn’t any prospect of substantial numbers arriving.” Relations with Timoshenko’s Soviet rump junta in west Siberia were good, but with the Japanese holding Vladivostok and running rampant through the Pacific, the only contact was through the Domination. Which visibly regarded the Soviet remnant as a caretaker keeping things in order until the Germans were disposed of and the Draka arrived. Attempts to ship Lend-Lease supplies through had met with polite refusals.
A few wounded and children had been flown out, over the pole in long-range dirigibles, to be received in Alaska by Eleanor Roosevelt with much fanfare.
“Back before Pearl Harbor, they wouldn’t even let a few thousand Jews in. Well, the isolationists were against it, and the Mexican states, they’re influenced by the Catholic antiSemites like Father Coughlin.”
“Ya.” Eric rose, with a German machine pistol and bandolier in his hands. “Those there are Russian partisans there in the pen, Bill. The Fritz captured ’em, but hadn’t gotten around to expending them. Take a look.”
Eric heard the American suck in his breath in shock, as he stripped open the action of the Schmeisser. Not bad, he thought, as he inserted a 32-round magazine of 9mm into the well and freed the bolt to drive forward and chamber a bullet. Not as handy as the Draka equivalent; the magazine well was forward of the pistol grip instead of running up through it; it had a shorter barrel, so less range, and the bolt had to be behind the chamber rather than overhanging it. Still, a sound design and honestly made. He took a deep breath and tossed the weapon into the pen.
The partisan leader snatched it out of the air with the quick, snapping motion of a trout rising to a fly. The flat slapping of his hand on the pressed steel of the Schmeisser’s receiver was louder than the rustling murmur among his men; much louder than the tensing among the Draka. Eric saw the Russian’s eyes flicker past him; he could imagine what the man was seeing. The rifles would be swinging around, assault slings made that easy, with the gun carried at waist level and the grip ready to hand. The troopers would be shocked, and Draka responded to shock aggressively. Especially to the sight of an armed serf, the very thought of which was shocking. Technically, the Russians were not serfs, of course, but the reflex was conditioned on a deeper level than consciousness.
One did not arm serfs. Even Janissaries carried weapons only on operations or training, under supervision, and were issued ammunition only in combat zones or firing ranges. Draka carried arms; they were as much the badge of the Citizen caste as neck tattoos were for serfs: a symbolic dirk in a wrist sheath or a shoulder-holster pistol in the secure cities of the Police Zone; the planter’s customary sidearm; or the automatic weapons and battle shotguns that were still as necessary as boots in parts of the New Territories. A Citizen bore weapons as symbol of caste, as a sign that he or she was an arm of the State, with the right to instant and absolute obedience from all who were not, and power of life and death to enforce it. There was no place on earth where free Draka were a majority: no province, no district, no city. They were born and lived and slept and died among serfs.
They lived because they were warriors, because of the accumulated deadly aura of generations of victory and merciless repression. Folk-memory nearly as deep as instinct saw a serf with a weapon in his hands and prompted: kill.
Training held their trigger fingers, but the Russian saw their faces. Sweat sheened Eric’s face, and he kept the machine pistol’s muzzle trained carefully at the ground. And yet, the weight in his hands straightened his back and seemed to add inches to his height.
“Khrpikj djavol,” he muttered, staring at Eric.
“Ummm, he says you one crazy devil, Centurion,” Sophie translated. “Maybe crazy enough to do what you promise.” She gave him a hard glance, before continuing on her own: “You might just consider it’s other folks’ life you risking too, sir. I mean, he might’ve been some sorta crazy amokker.”
Startled, Eric ran a hand over the cropped yellow surface of his hair. “You know, I never thought of that . . . you’re right.” More briskly: “Tell him that I promise to kill a lot of Germans, and that he can kill even more, with my help. After that, I promise nothing, absolutely nothing.” He pointed to Dreiser, standing beside him. “This man is not a Draka, or a soldier. He is an American journalist. About what happens after this fight, talk to him.”
“Hey, wait a minute, Eric—” Dreiser began.
Eric chopped down a hand. “Bill, it’s your ass on the line, too. Even if the Fritz roll right over us, the Legion will probably be able to hold the next fallback position well enough; we’ll delay them, and the maximum risk is from the south, from the Germans in the pocket there trying to break out to the north. But that won’t do us any good. Besides . . . what am I supposed to promise them, a merry life digging phosphates in the Aozou mines in the Sahara, with Security flogging them on? Soldiers don’t get sold as ordinary serfs, even: too dangerous.”
“You want me to promise to get them out? How can I?” Dreiser’s eyes flinched away from the Russians, from the painful hope in their faces.
“Say you’ll use your influence. True enough, hey? Write them up; your stuff is going through Forces censorship, not Security. They don’t give a shit about anything that doesn’t compromise military secrecy.”
Dreiser looked back into the pen and swallowed, remembering. He had been in Vienna during the Anschluss. Memories—the woman had been Jewish, middle-class. In her forties, but well kept, in the rag of a good dress, her hands soft and manicured. The SS men had had her down scrubbing the sidewalk in front of the building they had taken over as temporary headquarters; they stood about laughing and prodding her with their rifle butts as others strode in and out through the doors, with prisoners or files or armfuls of looted silverware and paintings from the Rothschild palace.
“Not clean enough, filthy Jewish sow-whore!” The SS man had been giggling-drunk, like his comrades. The woman’s face was tear-streaked, a mask of uncomprehending bewilderment: the sort of bourgeois hausfrau you could see anywhere in Vienna, walking her children in the Zoo, at the Opera, fussing about the family on an excursion to the little inns of the Viennerwald; self-consciously cultured in the tradition of the Jewish middle-class that had made Vienna a center of the arts. A life of comfort and neatness, spotless parlors and pastries arranged on silver trays. Now this . . .
“Sir . . . ” she began tremulously, raising a hand that was bleeding around the nails.
“Silence! Scrub!” A thought seemed to strike him, and he slung his rifle. “Here’s some scrubbing water, whore!” he said, with a shout of laughter, unbuttoning his trousers. The thick yellow stream of urine spattered on the stones before her face, steaming in the cold night air and smelling of staleness and beer. She had recoiled in horror; one of the men behind her planted a boot on her buttocks and shoved, sending her skidding flat into the pool of wetness. That had brought a roar of mirth; the others had crowded close, opening their trousers, too, drenching her as she lay sobbing and retching on the streaming pavement . . .
Dreiser had turned away. There had been nothing he could do, not under their guns. A few ordinary civilians had been watching, some laughing and applauding, others merely disgusted at the vulgarity. And some with the same expression as his. Shame, the taste of helplessness like vomit in the mouth.
They were pissing on the dignity of every human being on earth, Dreiser thought as his mind returned to the present. He shivered, despite the mild warmth of the mountain spring and the thick fabric of his uniform jacket, and looked at the partisans. The Domination might not have quite the nihilistic lunacy of the Nazis, but it was as remorseless as a machine. I just might be able to bring it off, he thought. Just maybe; the Draka were not going to make any substantial concessions to American public opinion, but they very well might allow a minor one of no particular importance. The military might; at least, they didn’t have quite the same pathological reluctance to see a single human soul escape their clutches that the Security Directorate felt. And here . . . here, he could do something.
“I could talk it up in my articles, they’re already doing quite well,” he said thoughtfully. “Russians are quite popular now anyway since Marxism is deader than a day-old fish.” He looked up at Eric. “You have any pull?”
“Not on the political side, I’m under suspicion. Some on the military, and more—much more—if we win.” He paused. “Won’t be more than a few of them, anyway.”
Dreiser frowned, puzzled. “I thought you said there’d be more than these, still at large.”
“Oh, there are probably hundreds, from the precautions the Fritz were taking. I certainly hope so. There won’t be many left.” The Draka turned to Sofie. “Ahhh . . . let’s see. Sue Knudsen and her brother. Their family has a plantation near Orenburg, don’t they?” That was in northwest Kazakhstan—steppe country and the population mostly Slav. “They probably talk some Russian. Have one of them report here so Bill will have a translator. Get the tetrarchy commanders, hunt up anybody else who does. We’re going to need them. Make it snappy,” he glanced up at the sun, “because things are going to get interesting soon.”
The pair of Puma armored cars nosed cautiously toward the tumbled ruins of the village in the pass, turrets traversing with a low whine of hydraulics to cover the verges. The roadway was ten meters wide here, curving slightly southwest through steep-sided fields. Those were small and hedged with rough stone walls and scrub brush, isolated trees left standing for shade or fodder or because they housed spirits. Even the cleared zones were rich in cover—perfect country for partisans with mines and Molotov cocktails. Beyond the village the road wound into the high mountains, forest almost to the edge of the pavement; the beginning of “ambush alley,” dangerous partisan country even before the Draka attack. The Puma was eight-wheeled, well-armored for its size and heavily armed with a 20mm autocannon and a machine gun, but the close country made the drivers nervous.
Too many of their comrades had roasted alive in burning armor for them to feel invincible.
Standartenführer Hoth propped his elbows against the sides of the turret hatch and brought up his field glasses. Bright morning sunlight picked detail clear and sharp, the clean mountain air like extra lenses to enhance his vision. The command car had halted half-a-thousand meters behind the two scout vehicles; from here, the terrain rolled upslope to the village. The military highway cut through it, and he could catch glimpses of the mosque and town hall around the central square, more glimpses than he remembered; a number of houses had been demolished, including the whole first row on the north side of town. There was an eerie stillness about the scene; there should have been locals moving in the fields and streets, smoke from cooking fires . . . and activity by the SS garrison. He focused on the patch of square visible to him. Bodies, blast holes, firescorch . . . And there had been nothing on the radio since the single garbled screech at 0500. He glanced at his watch, a fine Swiss model he had taken from the wrist of a wounded British staff officer in Belgium: 0835—they had made good time from Pyatigorsk.
Raising a hand, he keyed the throat mike and spoke. “Schliemann, stay where you are and provide cover. Berger, the road looks clear through to the main square. Push in, take a quick look, then pull back. Continuous contact.”
“Acknowledged, Standartenführer,” the Scharfuhrer in the lead car replied. The second vehicle halted; for a moment, Hoth felt he could sense the tension in its turret, a trembling like a mastiff quivering on the leash.
Nonsense, he thought. Engine vibration. A humming through arms and shoulders, up from the commander’s seat beneath his boots. The air was full of the comforting diesel stink of armor, metal and cordite and gun oil; even through the muffling headset, the grating throb of the Tatra 12-cylinder filled his head. The two cars ahead were buttoned tight; he could see the gravel spurting from the tires of the lead Puma, the quiver of the second’s autocannon muzzle as the weapon quivered in response to the gunner’s clench on the controls. Fiercely, he wished he was in the lead vehicle himself, up at the cutting edge of violence . . .
“Wait for it, wait for it,” Eric breathed into the microphone. He was perched on the lip of the shattered minaret; the trench periscope gave him a beautiful view of the SS officer in the command vehicle, enough to see the teeth showing in an unconscious snarl below his field glasses. Yes, it had to be the command vehicle from the miniature forest of antennae the turret sprouted. Details sprang at him: fresh paint in a dark-green mottle pattern, unscarred armor, tires still sharp-treaded . . . it must be fresh equipment, just out from Germany. His fingers turned the aiming wheels to track the other two cars, one in a covering position, another edging forward down the single clear lane into the village.
“Let him get into the square,” he said. “Anyone opens fire without orders, I’ll blast them a new asshole.” The positions on the north edge were complete, the first priority, but there was no need to reveal them to deal with light armor like this, and much need to make the enemy commander underestimate the position. Silently, he thanked a God in which he had not believed since childhood for the ten minutes warning the advantage of height and the position northward beside the road had given. Enough to get the Century and the Circassians under cover. It helped that most of them had been in the cellars, of course.
He could hear the Fritz car now as it entered the village: whine of heavy tires on the gravel, the popping crunch as stones spurted out under the pressure of ten tonnes of armorplate. Below, in the square, the bodies waited—the thirty dead SS men gunned down in a neat line, and as many others hurriedly stuffed in the jackets of Draka casualties. Got to let him get a look at it, Eric thought. He wanted the German commander overestimating the Draka casualties; easy enough to make him think his comrades had taken a heavy blood-price. Not too good a look at those corpses, though—the rest of their uniform was still Fritz, and besides, they were all male. But the view from inside a closed-down turret was not that good.
“Centurion.” Marie’s voice. “That second car is only two hundred meters out. We could get him with a rocket gun, or even one of the 15mms.”
“After we blast the lead car,” Eric said. His voice was tight with excitement; this was better even than catsticking, hunting lion on horseback with lances. And these were enemies you could really enjoy fighting. The Italians . . . that had been unpleasant. Far less dangerous, but how could you respect men who wouldn’t fight even at the doorsteps of their own homes, for their families? It made you feel greasy, somehow. This . . . if it weren’t for the danger to the Century, he would have preferred it; he had long ago come to peace with the knowledge that he would not survive this war. At least I won’t have to live with the aftermath of it, either, ran through him with an undercurrent of sadness.
The lead car was in the square. “Position one! Five seconds . . . Now!”
Below, the trooper snuggled the rocket gun into his shoulder. This was a good position, clear to the back with a good ledge of rubble for the monopod in front of the forward pistol grip. Fifteen kilos of steel and plastic was not an easy load to shoulder-fire; still, better than the tube launchers the more compact recoilless hybrids had replaced. The armored car was clear in the optical sight; no need for much ranging at less than a hundred meters, just lay the crosshairs on the front fender. He squeezed the trigger, twisted and dove back into the safe darkness of the foxhole without bothering to stay and watch the results. He had seen too many armored vehicles blow up to risk his life for a tourist’s-eye view.
The 84mm shell kicked free of the meter-long tube with a whumpfuff as the backblast stirred a cloud of dust behind the gun. At eighty meters, there was barely time for the rocket motor to ignite before the detonator probe struck armor. The shell was slow, low-velocity; even the light steel sheathing of a Puma would have absorbed its kinetic energy with ease. But the explosive within was hollow-charge, a cone with its widest part turned out and lined with copper. Exploding, the shaped charge blew out a narrow rod of superheated gas and vaporized metal at thousands of meters per second; it struck the armorplate before it with the impact of a red-hot poker on thin cellophane. Angling up, the jet seared a coin-sized hole through the plate, sending a shower of molten steel into the fighting compartment. The driver had barely enough time to notice the lance of fire that seared off his body at the waist; fragments of a second later, it struck the fuel and ammunition. Shattered from within, the Puma’s hull unfolded along the seams of its welds; to watching eyes it seemed for an instant like a flower in stop-motion film, blossoming with petals of white-orange fire and gray metal. Then the enormous fumph of the explosion struck, a pressure on skin and eyeballs more than a noise, and a bang echoing back from the buildings, an echo from the sides of the mountains above. Steel clanged off stone, pattering down from a sky where a fresh column of oily black smoke reached for the thin scatter of white cirrus above.
The twisted remains burned, thick fumes from the spilling diesel oil. Eric nodded satisfaction. “One 15mm only on the second car!” he barked into the microphone. “See the third off but don’t kill him.”
* * *
Standartenführer Hoth had been listening to the lead car’s commentary in a state of almost-trance, his mind filing every nuance of data while he poised for instant action.
“ . . . bodies everywhere, Draka and ours. No sign of movement. More in the central square; heavy battle damage . . . Standartenführer, there are thirty of our men here in front of the mosque, lined up and shot! This . . . this is a violation of the Geneva Convention!”
For a moment, Hoth wondered if he was hearing some bizarre attempt at humor. Geneva Convention? In Russia? On the Eastern Front? But there was genuine indignation in the young NCO’s voice; what were they teaching the replacements these days? Thunder rolled back from the mountains, as the all-too-familiar pillar of smoke and fire erupted from a corner of the square out of his sight.
Schliemann in the second car was a veteran, and so was the Standartenführer’s own crew. They reacted with identical speed, reversing from idle in less than a second with a stamp of clutches and crash of gears. The turrets walked back and forth along the line of rubble that had been the northern edge of the village, 20mm shells exploding in white flashes, machine gun rounds flicking off stone with sparks and sharp pings that carried even through the crash of autocannon fire. Brass cascaded from the breeches into the turret as the hull filled with the nose-biting acridness of fresh cordite fumes. Speed built; Pumas were reconnaissance cars, designed to be driven rearward in just this sort of situation. And they had come for information, not to fight; the luckless Berger had been a sacrificial decoy duck to draw fire and reveal the enemy positions.
No accident that he had been sent forward, of course. Most of the casualties in any unit were newbies—mostly because of their own inexperience, partly because their comrades, when forced to choose, usually preferred that it was a new face which disappeared. It was nothing personal; you might like a recruit and detest someone you’d fought beside for a year. It was just a matter of who you wanted at your back when the blast and fragments flew.
Hoth kept his glasses up, flickering back and forth to spot the next burst. It came, machine-gun fire directed at Schliemann’s car. He kicked the gunner lightly on the shoulder: “Covering fire!” he barked.
There was a flash from the rubble, a cloud of dust from the tumbled stones above the machine gun’s position. A brief rasping flare of rocket fire, and a shell took Schliemann’s car low on the wheel well. The jet of the shaped charge seared across the bottom of the vehicle’s hull, cut two axles and blew a wheel away to bounce and skitter across the road before it slammed itself into a tree hard enough to embed the steel rim. The cut axles collapsed and the heavy car pinwheeled, caught between momentum and the sudden drag as its bow dug into the packed stone of the road with a shower of sparks. Other sparks were flying as the 15mm hosed hull and turret with fire; even the incendiary tracer rounds were hard-tipped, and the car’s armor was thin. Some rounds bounced from the sloped surfaces; others punched through, to flatten and ricochet inside the Puma’s fighting compartment, slapping through flesh and equipment like so many whining lead-alloy bees.
The radio survived. Hoth could hear the shouting and clanging clearly, someone’s voice shouting “Gottgottgott—” and Schliemann cursing and hammering at the commander’s hatch of the car. The impact had sprung the frames, probably, jamming the hatches shut. That often happened. He could see the first puff of smoke as fuel from the ruptured tanks ran into the compartment and caught fire; hear the frenzied screaming as the crew burned alive in their coffin of twisted metal. It went on as the Standartenführer’s command car reversed out of sight of the village, into dead ground farther down the pass. Reaching down, he switched the radio off with a savage jerk and keyed in the intercom.
“Back to Pyatigorsk!” Schliemann had been a good soldier, transferred from the Totenkopf units: a Party man from the street-fighting days, an alte kampfer. And his death had bought what they came for—some knowledge of what they faced. Of course, once they overran the Draka in the village, there would be more positions farther up. It depended on how many from the division’s motorized infantry brigades had been killed, and what sort of counterattack the units to the south were staging. A thought came to him and his face smiled under its sheen of sweat; the gunner looked around at him, shivered, turned his gaze back to the sighting periscope as the car did a three-point turn and headed down the road.
I must take prisoners for intelligence about the Draka fallback positions, the SS officer thought. I will enjoy that. I will enjoy that very much.
Eric sighed and lowered his eyes from the trench periscope. That rocket gunner had been a little impulsive, but the result suited well enough. No way of concealing their presence from the Germans, but he could hope to make them underestimate the position. Whoever the man in that command car was, time was his enemy. The paratroopers only had to hold until the main Draka force broke through to win; the Fritz had to overrun them and all the rest of the legion, in time to pull their forces back and bring up replacements to block the pass. With only a little luck, the German would try to take them on the run with whatever he could round up.
“Von Shrakenberg to all units: back to work, people. Move!” He handed the receiver to Sofie and rolled over on his back; he would be needed to coordinate, to interpret when the Circassians and the Draka reached the limits of their mutually sketchy German. But not immediately; these were Citizen troops, after all, not Janissaries. They were expected to think and to do their jobs without someone looking over their shoulders.
The mid-morning sky was blue, with a thickening scatter of clouds; they looked closer here in high mountain country than down in the plains about Mosul, where they had spent the winter.
“Hey, Centurion?” Sofie held out the lighted cigarette and this time Eric accepted it. “More ideas?”
He shook his head. “Just thinking about home,” he said. “And about a Greek philosopher.”
“Heraklitos. He said: ‘No man steps twice into the same river.’ The home I was remembering doesn’t exist anymore because the boy who lived there is dead, even if I wear his name and remember being him.”
“Ah, well, my dad always said: ‘Home is where the heart is.’ Of course, he was a section chief for the railways, so we moved around a lot.”
Eric laughed and turned to look over his shoulder at the noncom. “Sofie, you’re . . . a natural antidote to my tendency to gloom.”
Sofie’s eyes crinkled in an answering grin; she felt a soft lurch in the bottom of her stomach. Jauntily, she touched the barrel of her machine pistol to her helmet. “Hey, any time, Centurion.”
The Centurion’s gaze had returned to the village and the burning Puma. “While this war does exactly the opposite,” he whispered.
The comtech frowned. “Hell, I’d rather be on the beach, surfin’ and fooling around on a blanket, myself.”
“That wasn’t exactly what I was thinking of,” he said softly. Unwise to speak, perhaps, but . . . I’m damned if I’m going to start governing my actions by fear at this late date. “If we lose, we’ll be destroyed. If we win . . . what’s going to happen, when we get to Europe?”
Eric shook his head. “Sofie, how many serfs can read?”
She blinked. “Oh, a fair number—’bout one in five, I’d say. Why?”
“Which ratio worries the hell out of a lot of highly placed people. Most of the places we’ve taken over have been like this”—he nodded at the village—“peasants, primitives. If they’re really fierce, like the Afghans, we have to kill a lot of them before the others submit. Usually, it’s only necessary to wipe out a thin crust of chiefs or intelligentsia; the rest obey because they’re used to obeying, because they’re afraid, and because the changes are mostly for the better. Enough to eat, at least, and no more plagues. No prospect of anything better, but then, they never did have any prospect of anything better. Sofie, what are we going to do with the Europeans? We’ve never conquered a country where everybody can read, is used to thinking. Security—” He shook his head. “Security operates preventively. They’re going to go berserk; it’s going to be monumentally ugly. And I’m not even sure it will work.”
The comtech puffed meditatively, trickling smoke from her nostrils. “Never did have much use for the Headhunters,” she said. “Keep actin’ as if they wished we all had neck numbers.”
He nodded. “And it’s not just that.” His hands tightened on the Holbars. “Killing . . . it’s natural enough . . . part of being human, I suppose. But too much of it does things. To us, that will hurt us in the long run.” He sighed. “Well, at least I won’t be there to see it.”
“How so?” Sofie’s voice was sharper.
Eric snorted weary laughter. “Well, what are the odds on a paratrooper surviving the whole war?”
“Hell,” Sofie said, shocked. This has to stop, and quick, she thought. It was far too easy to die, even when you wanted to live. When you didn’t . . .
Surprised, Eric turned: she was standing with her hands on her hips, lips compressed.
“Hell of a thing t’say, Centurion. I do my job, but I intend to die in bed.”
“Sorry—” he began.
“Not finished. Now, that was interestin’, what you had to say. Food for thought. You’re not the only one who does that. Thinkin’, I mean. So: you don’t like what you see happenin’; what’re you going to do about it?”
“What can I do—”
“How the fuck should I know? Sir. You’re the one from the political family; I’m just a track foreman’s daughter. Not even sure I’d agree with anything you wanted to do, but it’d be a damn sight more comfortin’ to have you callin’ shots than some of the kill-kill-kill-rape-what’s-left brigade. If it’s your responsibility—an’ who appointed you guardian of the human race?—then start thinkin’ on what you can do, even if it isn’t much. Can’t do more than we can, hey? Waste an’ shame to do less, though. Never figured you for a coward or a quitter or a member of the Church’a Self Pity. Sir. And if the future of the State and the Race isn’t your lookout, an’ I can’t no-how see how the fuck it should be, then acting as if ’tis is pretty goddamn arrogant. Unless it’s really something personal?
“Meanwhile,” she said, pausing for breath, “this here Century is your responsibility; we’re your people and your blood.”
Stunned, Eric stared at her, aware that his mouth was hanging slightly open. I shouldn’t underestimate people, I really shouldn’t . . . his mind began. Then, stung, he fell back on pride: “You could do better, Monitor Nixon?”
Sofie glanced away. “Oh, hell no, sir. Ah . . . ”
He brushed past her, movements brisk. Their boots clattered on the stairs of the shattered mosque.
Sofie stubbed out her butt and flicked it out a slit window, watching the arch of its failing with a vast content. There was a time to soothe, and a time for a medicinal kick in the butt. It was a beautiful day for a battle, and there was no better way of . . . getting close.
Who knows, she thought, watching the energy in his stride. We might even both live through it, with him to supply the ideas, and me to keep his starry-eyed head from disappearin’ completely up his own asshole. Shrewdly, she guessed it had been too long since he’d had to listen to anyone. And it promised to be a nice long war, so none of them were going anywhere . . .