/ Language: English / Genre:sf_history, / Series: The war that came early

Hitler_s war

Harry Turtledove


Harry Turtledove

Hitler_s war

20 JULY 1936-OUTSIDE LISBON

General Jose Sanjurjo was a short, heavyset man in his early sixties. He looked from the light plane to the pilot and back again. “Is everything in readiness?” he asked, his tone saying heads would roll if the pilot told him no.

Major Juan Antonio Ansaldo didn’t tell him anything, not right away. Ansaldo was pacing back and forth, his agitation growing with every stride. He watched as Sanjurjo’s aides shoved two large, heavy trunks into the airplane. “Those look heavy,” Ansaldo said at last.

“They hold the general’s uniforms!” an aide said, as if to a simpleton. “On the eve of his victorious march into Madrid, he can’t arrive in Burgos without uniforms!”

Nervously, Ansaldo lit a cigarette. Who was he, a major, to tell Spain’s most senior-and most prestigious-general what to do? He’d placed himself at the disposal of the Spanish state…which Sanjurjo would embody, once he flew from Portugal to Burgos to take charge of the rising against the Spanish Republic.

When he flew to Burgos? If he flew to Burgos! The city, in north-central Spain, was a long way from Lisbon. The plane, a two-seater, had only so much fuel and only so strong a motor.

“General…” Ansaldo said.

“What is it?” growled the man people called the Lion of the Rif because of his victories in Spanish Morocco.

“?Viva Sanjurjo!” the general’s men shouted. “?Viva Espana!”

Sanjurjo preened…as well as a short, heavyset man in his sixties could preen. “Now I know my flag is waving over Spain,” he boomed like a courting grouse. “When I hear the Royal March again, I will be ready to die!”

That gave Major Ansaldo the opening he needed. “General, I don’t want you to die before you get to Spain, before you hear the Royal March again.”

“What are you talking about?” Sanjurjo demanded.

“Sir, those trunks your men put aboard-”

“What about them? They’re my uniforms, as my aides told you. A man is hardly a man without his uniforms.” At the moment, Sanjurjo was wearing a light gray summer-weight civilian suit. He looked and acted quite manly enough for Ansaldo.

“They weigh a lot.” The pilot gestured. “Look at the pine trees all around the airstrip. I need the plane’s full power to take off. I have to make sure I have enough fuel to fly you to Burgos. I don’t want anything to happen to you, Senor. Spain needs you too much to take chances.”

General Sanjurjo frowned-not fearsomely, but thoughtfully. “I can’t fly into Burgos like this.” He brushed at the gray linen of his sleeve.

“Why not, your Excellency? Why not?” Ansaldo asked. “Don’t you think the people of Burgos would be delighted-would be honored-to give you anything you need? Aren’t there any uniforms in Burgos? God help the rising if that’s true!”

“God help the rising.” Sanjurjo crossed himself. Major Ansaldo followed suit. The general took a gold case from an inside jacket pocket and lit a cigarette of his own. He smoked in abrupt, savage drags. “So you think we’ll crash with my uniforms on board, do you?”

“When you’re flying, you never know,” the pilot answered. “That’s why you don’t want to take any chances you don’t have to.”

Sanjurjo grunted. He took a couple of more puffs on the aromatic Turkish cigarette, then ground it out under his heel. “Luis! Orlando!” he called. “Get the trunks off the plane!”

His aides stared as if they couldn’t believe their ears. “Are you sure, your Excellency?” one of them asked.

“Of course I’m sure, dammit.” By the way Jose Sanjurjo spoke, he was always sure. And so he probably was. “Spain comes first, and Spain needs me more than I need my uniforms. As the pilot here says, there are many uniforms. Por Dios, amigos, there is only one Sanjurjo!” The general struck a pose.

The aides didn’t argue any more. They did what Sanjurjo told them to do. Wrestling the trunks out of the plane’s narrow fuselage proved harder than stuffing them in had been. It took a lot of bad language and help from three other men before they managed it.

Major Ansaldo wondered how many kilos he’d saved. Fifty? A hundred? He didn’t know, and he never would-no scale was close by. But now he would fly with the kind of load the light plane was made to carry. He liked that.

“If your Excellency will take the right-hand seat…” he said.

“Certainly.” Sanjurjo was as spry as a man of half his age and half his bulk.

After Ansaldo started the motor, he ran through the usual flight checks. Everything looked good. He gave the plane all the throttle he could. He needed to get up quickly, to clear the trees beyond the far edge of the bumpy field.

When he pulled back on the stick, the nose lifted. The fixed undercarriage left the ground. The bumping stopped. The air, for the moment, was smooth as fine brandy. A slow smile spread across General Sanjurjo’s face. “Do you know what this is, Major?” he said. “A miracle, that’s what! To fly like a bird, like an angel…”

“It’s only an airplane, sir,” said Ansaldo, as matter-of-fact as any pilot worth his pay.

“Only an airplane!” Sanjurjo’s eyebrows leaped. “And a woman is only a woman! It is an airplane that takes me out of exile, an airplane that takes me out of Portugal, an airplane that takes me away from the hisses and sneezes and coughs of Portuguese…”

“Si, Senor.” Major Ansaldo knew how the general felt there. If a Spaniard and a Portuguese spoke slowly and clearly, or if they wrote things out, they could generally manage to understand each other. But Portuguese always sounded funny-sounded wrong -in a Spaniard’s ears. The reverse was also bound to be true, but the pilot never once thought of that.

And his important passenger hadn’t finished: “It is an airplane that takes me back to Spain, back to my country-and Spain will be my country once we settle with the Republican rabble. It is-what does Matthew say?-a pearl of great price.” He crossed himself again.

So did Juan Antonio Ansaldo. “You have the soul of a poet, your Excellency,” he said. General Sanjurjo smiled like a cat in front of a pitcher of cream. Ansaldo did, too, but only to himself; a little judicious flattery, especially flattery from an unexpected direction, never hurt. But he also had a serious point to make: “I’m glad you chose not to endanger the plane-and yourself, a more valuable pearl-with those trunks. Spain needs you.”

“Well, yes,” Sanjurjo agreed complacently. “Who would command the forces of the right, the forces of truth, against the atheists and Communists and liberals in the Republic if anything happened to me? Millan Astray?”

“I don’t think so, sir!” Ansaldo exclaimed, and that wasn’t flattery. Astray, the founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion, was a very brave man. Colonial fighting had cost him an arm and an eye. He still led the Legion, whose war cry was “?Viva la muerte!” -Long live death! Men like that were valuable in the officer corps, but who would want such a skeletal fanatic leading a country?

“Bueno. I don’t think so, either.” Yes, Sanjurjo sounded complacent, all right. And why not, when he held the rising in the palm of his hand? He couldn’t resist throwing out the name of another possible replacement: “Or what about General Franco?”

“Not likely, your Excellency!” Again, Major Ansaldo meant what he said. No one had ever questioned Francisco Franco’s courage, either, even if he wasn’t so showy about displaying it as Millan Astray was. But the plump little general was no great leader of men. With Sanjurjo’s personality, he could stand beside-could, at need, stand up to-Mussolini and Hitler. Franco? Franco had all the warmth, all the excitement, of a canceled postage stamp.

“No, not likely at all,” General Sanjurjo said. “Once I get to Burgos, the true business of setting Spain to rights can begin.”

“Si, Senor,” Ansaldo said once more. The light plane droned on: toward Spain, toward Burgos, toward victory, toward the birth of a whole new world.

29 SEPTEMBER 1938-MUNICH

Adolf Hitler was not a happy man. Oh, yes, he was going to get Czechoslovakia. The British and French had come here to hand him his hateful neighbor-what an abortion of a country! one more crime of Versailles!-all trussed up on a silver platter, ready for the slaughter.

But, for all the fuss the Sudeten Germans had kicked up inside Czechoslovakia (fuss orchestrated from the Reich), to Hitler the Slavic state wasn’t an end in itself, only a means to an end. The end was dominating Europe. Had that required dropping the Sudeten German Party he’d fed and watered for so long, he would have dropped it like a live grenade.

Getting his hands on Czechoslovakia would be nice, yes. What he really wanted, though, was war.

He was ready. He was convinced the enemy wasn’t. Chamberlain and Daladier wouldn’t have been so pathetically eager to sell their ally down the river if they were.

The trouble was, they were too damned eager. They kept falling all over themselves to make whatever concessions he demanded. The more they yielded, the less excuse he had to send in the Wehrmacht.

His generals would be relieved if he got what he wanted without fighting. He wasn’t happy with the halfhearted way so many of them were readying themselves and their units. And Mussolini, while a good fellow, had more chin than balls. The Duce kept insisting Italy wasn’t ready to take on England and France, and wouldn’t be for another two or three years.

“Dummkopf,” Hitler muttered under his breath. The real point, the point Mussolini didn’t get, was that England and France weren’t ready. Not only did they not want war, their factories weren’t geared up for it. And the Russians were in even worse shape. Every day, it seemed, Stalin knocked off a new general, or a handful of them. When the Reds laid on a purge, they didn’t fool around.

General Sanjurjo got it. Spain stood foursquare behind Germany. Well, actually, Spain stood about two-and-a-half-square behind Germany; the Communists and anarchists of the Republic still hung on to the rest of the battered country. But Sanjurjo had a proper Spanish sense of honor and obligation. He would do what he could against his benefactor’s enemies.

The time was now. The Fuhrer could feel it in his bones. Of all the gifts a great ruler had, knowing when to strike was one of the most vital. He’d shown he had it when he got rid of Ernst Rohm in the Night of Long Knives, and again when he swallowed Austria in the Anschluss. (Oh, all right-the Beer-Hall Putsch hadn’t quite worked out. But that was fifteen years ago now. Back in those days, he was still learning which end was up.)

He was ready to fight. The Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe were ready, even if some generals tried dragging their feet. Even if the French and English did declare war when he hit Czechoslovakia, he was sure they wouldn’t do anything much in the West. They’d wait, they’d dither…and then, as soon as he’d stomped the Czechs into the mud, he’d turn around and smash them, too.

Yes, he was ready. But tall, stork-necked Chamberlain-with Daladier scuttling along in his wake like a squat, swarthy little half-trained puppy-was also ready: ready to hand him Czechoslovakia without any fighting at all. The British Prime Minister was so abject about the whole business, even the hard-bitten Fuhrer would have been embarrassed to order the panzers to roll forward and the bombers to take off. Chamberlain, damn his gawky soul, gave away so much, Hitler couldn’t very well demand more. There was no more to give.

And so they played out the charade here in Munich. Hitler and Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier sat down together and calmly arranged for the transfer of the Sudetenland-and its mountain barriers and its fortifications, second only to those of the Maginot Line-from Czechoslovakia to Germany. Without those works, the Czechs hadn’t a prayer of being able to fight.

They knew it, too. They’d sent a couple of nervous observers to Munich to learn their fate. The Czechs cooled their heels at a distant hotel; the Fuhrer wouldn’t let them attend the conference. The Soviet Union was similarly excluded.

On with the farce, then. The Fuhrerbau was the National Socialists’ chief office building in Munich. Hitler had taken a major role in its design, but it wasn’t a full success. A hundred yards long and fifty deep, it was only three stories high. To an uncharitable observer, it looked like nothing so much as an overgrown barracks hall.

Nevertheless, Hitler thought the big bronze eagle over the entryway particularly fine. Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Daladier were already there by the time the Fuhrer and the interpreter, Paul Otto Schmidt, came in. So was Goring, in a fancy white uniform-he’d motored in with Daladier.

The Duce spoke with Chamberlain in English and Daladier in French. He spoke German, too, after a fashion. Hitler, who knew only his own language, envied his fellow dictator’s linguistic skills. He consoled himself by noting how plain the handful of British and French aides in civilian clothes appeared in contrast to his uniformed henchmen, and Mussolini’s.

Hitler led the heads of government into his office. The big oblong room had a fireplace at one end, with a portrait of Bismarck above it. Light-colored chairs and a matching sofa faced the fireplace. There were no name tags-not even any pads and pencils for taking notes. There was no agenda. Discussion darted where it would. Everyone already had a good notion of how things would end up.

“Now that we are all here, we must decide soon,” Hitler said, and smacked one fist into the palm of the other hand.

But things moved more slowly than he wanted them to. The heads of the two leading democracies had to get their views on record. The Fuhrer supposed that was for domestic consumption. It wouldn’t change anything here.

His temper began to fray. “You know nothing of the dreadful tyranny the Czechs exert over the Sudeten Germans,” he said loudly. “Nothing, I tell you! They torture them, showing no mercy. They expel them by the thousands, in panic-stricken herds. They have even forced the Sudeten Germans’ leader, Konrad Henlein, to flee from his native land.”

“One jump ahead of the gendarmes, I shouldn’t wonder,” Daladier said dryly.

“Joke if you care to, but I-” Hitler stopped in surprise at a loud knock on the door.

“What’s going on?” Neville Chamberlain asked.

“I don’t know,” Hitler answered after Dr. Schmidt translated the question. “I left clear orders that we were not to be disturbed.” When he gave orders like that, he expected them to be obeyed, too.

But, even for the Fuhrer, expectations didn’t always match reality. The knock came again, louder and more insistent than before. Hitler sprang to his feet and hurried toward the door. Somebody out there in the hallway was going to regret being born.

“Whatever he’s selling, tell him we don’t want any,” Mussolini said in his inimitable German. Daladier and Chamberlain both smiled once the interpreters made them understand the crack. Hitler didn’t. He’d never had much of a sense of humor, and the interruption pushed him towards one of his volcanic eruptions of fury.

He flung the door open. There stood Colonel Friedrich Hossbach, his adjutant. “Well?” Hitler growled ominously. “What is the meaning of this-this interruption?”

Hossbach was a stoic man on the far end of middle age. “I’m sorry to bother you, mein Fuhrer, but-”

“But what?” Hitler demanded. “Whatever the devil it is, it had better be important.”

“Yes, sir. I believe it is.” Hossbach took a sheet of flimsy yellow paper from his left breast pocket. “Here is a telegram we have just received. You will know Herr Henlein has had to take refuge in the Reich because of Czech outrages…”

“Of course, of course,” the Fuhrer said impatiently. “I was just now talking about his plight, as a matter of fact. What’s going on with him?”

Colonel Hossbach licked his lips. “Sir, he has been shot. Shot dead, I should say. The murderer is in custody. He is a certain Jaroslav Stribny: a Czech, sir. His passport shows a Prague address.”

Hitler stared at him in astonishment, disbelief, and then sudden crazy joy. “Ich bin vom Himmel gefallen!” he blurted. I’ve fallen from heaven! was what the words meant literally, but what they really conveyed was his utter amazement.

“What shall we do, mein Fuhrer?” Hossbach asked nervously.

A moment later, it was his turn to be amazed, because Hitler bussed him on both cheeks like a Frenchman. “Leave that to me, my dear Hossbach,” he answered. “Oh, yes. Leave that to me!”

He was almost chortling as he turned back to the statesmen and officials and interpreters inside his office. He’d thought about getting rid of Henlein to give himself a casus belli against Czechoslovakia. He’d thought about it, yes, and put it aside. It would have been too raw, too unlikely, for anyone to swallow.

But Herr Jaroslav Stribny had just handed him that casus belli in a fancy package with a ribbon around it. The Reich would have to execute Stribny as a murderer. Hitler understood the need, and he’d never been shy about disposing of anyone who needed disposing of. All the same, what he wanted to do was pin a medal on Stribny’s chest. Talk about advancing Germany’s cause…!

“What is it, Fuhrer?” Mussolini asked. “By the look in your eye, it is truly important, whatever it is.”

“Ja,” Hitler said, and the pause that followed gave him the chance to pull his thoughts together and figure out how best to use the extraordinary opportunity that had fallen into his lap. “Truly important, indeed. Colonel Hossbach brings me word that Konrad Henlein, whom I mentioned only a few minutes ago, has been viciously and brutally assassinated. Assassinated by one Jaroslav Stribny, of Prague. Not content with forcing him out of the Sudetenland, the Czechs followed him into Germany and finished him off here.”

“Dio mio!” Mussolini exclaimed, eyes bulging in astonishment.

Dr. Schmidt translated for Chamberlain. Daladier had his own interpreter. The leaders of the two democracies gaped at the Fuhrer. Chamberlain murmured something. Hitler looked sharply at Schmidt. “He says he can hardly believe it, mein Fuhrer,” the translator said.

“Well, I can hardly believe it, either,” Hitler said. “I can hardly believe the perfidy of the Czech government, the perfidy of the whole Czech race, that has brought things to such a pass. You can surely see that we in the Reich did everything we could to be reasonable, to be generous, toward Czechoslovakia. But what thanks do we get? Murder! And I am afraid, gentlemen, that I see no choice but to avenge the insult with blood.”

Edouard Daladier frowned. Hitler almost told him how ridiculous he looked, with a few long, pathetic strands of hair combed over a vast bald pate. “This seems too convenient for words,” Daladier said. “Too convenient for you, too convenient for your aggression.”

Hitler almost told him he hadn’t rubbed out Henlein for just that reason. But, while he might have been so frank with Mussolini, whom he esteemed, he felt only contempt for the miserable little Frenchman. “Before God and before the spirit of history, I had nothing to do with it,” he declared.

“Monsieur Daladier is right,” Chamberlain said. “The advantage you gain from this almost surpasses belief.”

“Believe whatever you please.” No, Hitler hadn’t arranged for Henlein’s elimination. But he intended to use it. Oh, yes! Warming to his theme, he went on, “I have said all along that these Slavs are not to be trusted. I have said all along that they do not deserve nations of their own. Look what happened to Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Those murderous Serbian maniacs plunged a continent into war. And now the Slavs have done it again!”

“This need not be,” Neville Chamberlain said urgently. “As a result of this most unfortunate incident, I am sure we can extract more concessions from Mr. Masarik and Mr. Mastny.” The Foreign Ministry counselor and the Czech minister to Germany waited to hear what the great powers would decree for their country. The British Prime Minister continued, “And I do not see how the government of Czechoslovakia can fail to ratify whatever agreement we reach.”

“No,” Hitler said. “Not a soul can claim I was unwilling to meet you halfway, your Excellency. My thought all along was that Czechoslovakia deserved punishment for her arrogance and brutality. But I restrained myself. I convened this meeting at your request. You persuaded me the Czechs could be trusted far enough to make it worthwhile. In this we were both mistaken.”

He paused to let Dr. Schmidt translate. Schmidt was an artist, keeping a speaker’s tone as well as his meaning. Hitler’s tone, at the moment, had iron in it. So did the interpreter’s when he spoke English.

“You could overlook the enormity if you chose,” Chamberlain insisted. When turning his words into German, Schmidt somehow sounded like a fussy old man. “Henlein was, after all, a citizen of Czechoslovakia, not of the German Reich -”

“He was a German!” Hitler thundered, loud and fierce enough to make every pair of eyes in the room turn his way. “He was a German!” he repeated, a little more softly. “That is the whole point of what we have been discussing. All the Germans of the Sudetenland belong within the Reich. Because the Czechs will not allow this and go on persecuting them, we see disasters like this latest one. I am very sorry, your Excellency, very sorry indeed, but, as I said, blood calls for blood. As soon as I leave this office, Germany will declare war on Czechoslovakia.”

“May Monsieur Daladier and I have a few minutes to confer with each other?” Chamberlain asked, adding, “The situation has changed quite profoundly in the past few minutes, you understand.”

Would they throw Czechoslovakia over the side because of what Stribny had done? If they would, Hitler was willing to give them as much time as they needed. Their turn would come next anyhow. “You may do as you please,” the Fuhrer said. “I must ask you to step outside to talk, though; as I said, I shall not leave the room without declaring war.”

Chamberlain, Daladier, and their flunkies almost fell over one another in their haste to leave. As soon as they were gone, Mussolini asked, “Did you-?”

He left the question hanging, but Hitler knew what he meant. “Nein,” he said roughly. As he shook his head, a lock of hair flopped down over one eye. Impatiently, he pushed it back. “The Czechs did it themselves. They did it to themselves. And they will pay. By God, they will pay!”

“Italy still is not truly ready for this struggle,” the Duce warned.

“When the Czechs murder the leader of an oppressed minority, will you let them get away with it?” Hitler asked in astonishment. Full of righteous indignation that the Untermenschen should dare such a thing, he forgot for the moment all his own murders.

“They shouldn’t,” Mussolini admitted. “Still, England and France and Russia…”

“Russia? What good is Russia?” Hitler said scornfully. “She doesn’t even border Czechoslovakia. Do you think the Poles or the Romanians will let her ship soldiers across their territory? If she tries, we’ll have two new allies like that.” He snapped his fingers.

“I suppose so…” Mussolini still didn’t sound convinced.

Hitler was ready to argue with him all day, but didn’t get the chance. Chamberlain and Daladier returned to the office. Both heads of government looked thoroughly grim, their aides even grimmer. Daladier spoke for them: “I regret to have to say that, if Germany attacks Czechoslovakia, the French Republic and the United Kingdom will honor their commitments to their ally. We cannot believe that the murder of Monsieur Henlein is anything but a trumped-up provocation. Peace and war, then, lie entirely in your hands.”

Hitler almost screamed wild laughter. He wanted war, yes. But to have the leaders of the democracies ready to fight him because they were sure he’d done something of which he was entirely innocent…If that wasn’t irony, what was?

“I must tell you, you are making a dreadful mistake,” he said. “That Czech, that Stribny, murdered Herr Henlein on his own. I had nothing to do with it. Germany had nothing to do with it. Henlein left Czechoslovakia and entered the Reich because he feared for his own safety. And now we see he had reason to fear. If anyone inspired Stribny, it was the wicked Slavs in Prague, just as the wicked Slavs in Belgrade inspired Gavrilo Princip a generation ago.”

Every single word of that was the gospel truth. But it fell on deaf ears. He could tell as much even while Dr. Schmidt was translating. Chamberlain and Daladier had made up their minds. If he told them the sun was shining outside, they would call him a liar.

Chamberlain murmured something in English. “What did he say?” Hitler asked sharply.

“He said, ‘And then you wake up,’ mein Fuhrer,” Schmidt replied.

“What does that mean?”

“It’s slang, sir. It means he doesn’t believe you.”

“Donnerwetter!” Hitler could see the Allies’ propaganda mill spewing out endless lies. They would shout that he was a murderer, that he’d got rid of his own henchman to start a war. They would make him look bad to all the neutrals in Europe and Asia and the Americas. The Allies had trounced Germany and Austria-Hungary in the propaganda war during the World War. Now they had a great chance to do it again.

“If you are truly innocent of this crime, then do not assume the guilt of plunging the world into battle because of it,” Daladier said.

“This is madness!” Hitler cried. “If I had ordered Henlein killed, maybe a guilty conscience would keep me from taking advantage of it. But my conscience is clean.” Of this, anyhow he added, but only to himself. He got angrier by the word as he went on, “Konrad Henlein must have vengeance. The Sudeten Germans must have vengeance. Germany, to which they were about to return, must have vengeance. Czechoslovakia must be punished. If you want to line up behind a pack of skulking, cowardly assassins, go ahead-and be damned to you!”

“Mein Fuhrer-” Goring began.

“No!” Hitler roared. He was in full spate now. Nothing could stop him, or even slow him down. “They want war? They can have war! They will have war! War!…War! War! War!”

He threw open the doors to his office. “Is everything all right, mein Fuhrer?” one of the guards asked. “We could hear you shouting…”

So even the thick oak doors hadn’t muffled him? Well, too bad! “It is war!” he bellowed. “Colonel Hossbach!”

“Ja, mein Fuhrer?” his adjutant said.

“Begin Case Green. Immediately! War with Czechoslovakia! Now!” Yes, Hitler had what he most wanted, handed to him by, of all people, a Czech.

Chapter 1

Guns thundered on both sides of the Ebro. General Sanjurjo’s Fascists had modern German and Italian pieces, guns that could put a shell on an outspread blanket five miles away. The Republic had a few Russian howitzers that weren’t bad. The rest were the artillery pieces the Republicans had started the fight with. After more than two years of civil war, they kept only vestiges of their original rifling-and they weren’t such hot stuff back when they were new.

Crouching in a foxhole west of the Ebro, Chaim Weinberg decided he feared his own side’s guns more than the Fascists’. When the enemy Spaniards or their German advisers opened up, at least you had a good notion of what they were shooting at. If it wasn’t you, you could relax.

But when the Republican artillery started shooting, you always needed to be on the jump. Those shells might come down on the Fascists’ head…or they might come down on yours. You never could tell. Neither could the poor, sorry bastards firing the guns.

“Aren’t you glad we came from the States?” asked Mike Carroll, another volunteer from the Lincoln Battalion.

Before Chaim could answer, somebody’s shell burst much too close. Shrapnel and shards of shattered stone screamed through the air. He listened for shrieks, but didn’t hear any. Luck. Nothing but dumb frigging luck.

“Aren’t you?” Carroll persisted.

“Chinga tu madre,” Chaim told him. He wouldn’t have said anything like that even in English before he sailed to Spain. Well, he was a new man now. That new man needed a shave (at the moment, he also needed a razor). He was scrawny and hungry. He was filthy. He was lousy. But damned if he wasn’t new.

He’d never fired a rifle before he got to Spain. Hell, he’d never even handled a rifle. He could field-strip his Mauser blindfolded now. He’d started out with a crappy French piece, and got this much better German one off a dead Nationalist soldier. Keeping it in cartridges was a bitch. But keeping the French rifle in ammo would have been a bitch, too. Logistics was only a bitter joke to the Republicans.

The shelling went on, but none of the other rounds burst close enough to make him pucker. He lit a cigarette. The tobacco was allegedly French. It smelled like horseshit. It tasted the way he imagined smoldering horseshit would taste, too.

“No pasaran,” Mike said, and then, “Gimme one of those.”

“Here.” Chaim handed him the pack.

Mike took a smoke from it. He leaned close to Chaim to get it going. After his first drag, he made a face. “Boy, that’s rotten.”

“Uh-huh.” Chaim held out his hand, palm up. Reluctantly, his buddy returned the cigarettes. Chaim stuck them back in the breast pocket of his ragged khaki tunic. “Only thing worse than rotten tobacco’s no tobacco at all.”

“No kidding,” Mike said.

Chaim took a cautious look out of the trench. Nothing special was going on in the Nationalist lines a few hundred yards away-everybody here talked about meters, but they seemed like play money to him. The shelling was just…shelling. A few people on both sides would get maimed or killed, and it wouldn’t move the war any closer to the end, not even a nickel’s worth.

“No pasaran,” Chaim echoed. “They’d fucking better not pass, not here, or we’re butcher’s meat.” He sucked in more smoke. “Hell, we’re dead meat anyway, sooner or later. I still hope it’s later, though.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Mike Carroll sounded like Boston. Before he came to Spain, he’d worked in a steel mill somewhere in Massachusetts. That was what he said, anyway. A lot of guys had stories that didn’t add up. Chaim didn’t get all hot and bothered about it. He didn’t tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about himself, either. The only thing that really mattered was that you hated Fascism enough to hop on a boat and try to do something about it.

“Amazing thing is, the Republic’s still in there kicking,” Chaim said. Mike nodded. General Sanjurjo and his pack of reactionary bastards must have thought their foes would fall apart in nothing flat. Who could have blamed them? They had the trained troops, and they had Mussolini and Hitler-which meant Italian and German materiel and soldiers-on their side.

But it didn’t pan out that way. The brutal farce of noninterference kept the Republicans from getting munitions and reinforcements. Like the rest of the men in the Lincoln Battalion, Chaim and Mike had to sneak over the border from France, dodging patrols every step of the way. Russia sent arms and advisers, though not enough to offset what the Fascists fed Sanjurjo.

And the Republicans squabbled among themselves. Did they ever! Anarchists and Trotskyists didn’t like admitting that, since Stalin was paying the piper, he could call the tune. They also complained that Communist units got the best weapons. Chaim was a Party member, even if he’d left his card in New York City when he sailed. Most (though not all) of the foreign volunteers-men from every corner of the Earth-were. But the Spaniards themselves did the bulk of the fighting and dying.

An airplane buzzed by overhead. Chaim automatically started to duck; German and Italian aircraft ruled the skies. But this was a Republican plane: a Russian biplane fighter. Its blunt forward profile made the Spaniards call it Chato -flat-nosed. It dove to shoot up the Nationalists’ trenches, then scooted off to the east.

“‘Bout time those mothers caught it for a change,” Mike said.

“Yeah,” Chaim agreed doubtfully. “But now we’ll get it twice as hard to make up, you know?” The Spaniards on both sides thought like that and fought like that. It made for a rugged kind of combat.

Mike started to answer. Before he could, a runner came up from the rear yelling, “War! War!”

Mike and Chaim started laughing like maniacs. “The fuck ya think we’re in now?” Chaim said. “A ladies’ sewing circle?”

“No, goddammit-a big war,” the runner said. “The Munich giveaway just fell apart. A Czech murdered some Sudeten Nazi big shot inside Germany-that’s what Hitler says, anyway. And he’s gonna jump on Czechoslovakia, and England and France can’t back down now. And if they get in, the Russians do, too.”

“Holy Jesus!” Mike said. Chaim nodded. If the gloves came off in the rest of Europe, they’d have to come off in Spain, too…wouldn’t they? No more noninterference? Hot damn! Maybe things here just evened up.

* * *

Corporal Vaclav Jezek crouched in a hastily dug trench just in front of Troppau. If the Germans came-when they came-this was one of the places they’d hit hardest. Slice through here in the north, push through from what had been Austria till a few months ago down in the south, and you would bite Czechoslovakia in half. Then you could settle with the Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia-the important part of the country, as far as Vaclav was concerned-at your leisure.

The Czechoslovakian General Staff wasn’t blind, or stupid. Some of the heaviest fortifications in the whole country lay along this stretch of the border. If Vaclav stood up in the trench, he could see them: big, rounded, squarish lumps of reinforced concrete that had good fields of fire from high ground and plugged valleys through which tanks might otherwise charge freely.

He didn’t stand up. His khaki uniform and brown, bowl-shaped helmet offered good camouflage, but they weren’t perfect. Somewhere on the other side of the border, some bastard in a field-gray uniform and a black coal-scuttle helmet would be sweeping the area with heavy-duty field glasses. Vaclav didn’t want him marking this position.

Trucks and teams of horses rushed machine guns and cannon and ammunition to the Czechoslovak forts. Not all of them were done yet. The government hadn’t really got serious about them till the Anschluss . But with Nazi troops in Austria, Czechoslovakia was surrounded on three sides. Without fortifications, it wouldn’t last long. It might not last long with them, but they gave it the best-likely the only-chance it had.

Maybe the German with the field glasses wouldn’t be able to see too much. It was cool and overcast, with a little mist in the air: autumn in Central Europe, sure as hell. But some of the Sudeten shitheads were bound to be sneaking over the border to tell their cousins on the other side what was going on here. If Vaclav ran the world, he would have shipped them out or shot them to nip that crap in the bud. But would the big shots listen to a corporal who drove a taxi in Prague before he got called up? Fat chance!

The air might be cool and moist, but he smelled burning bridges all the same. Diplomats were going home by plane and train. Armies that hadn’t been mobilized were getting ready for the big plunge. The Poles, damn them, were concentrating opposite Teschen (spelled three different ways, depending on whether you were a German, a Czech, or a Pole). Didn’t they see they were the next course on Hitler’s menu? If they didn’t, how stupid were they?

“Got a smoke on you, Corporal?” asked Jan Dzurinda, one of the soldiers in Vaclav’s squad.

“Sure.” Jezek held out the pack. Dzurinda took a cigarette, then waited expectantly for a light. With a small sigh, Vaclav struck a match.

Dzurinda leaned close and got the cigarette started. He took a deep drag, then blew out two perfect smoke rings. “Thanks a bunch. Much obliged.”

“Any time,” Vaclav said. Dzurinda puffed away without a care in the world, blowing more smoke rings. Just hearing his voice made Corporal Jezek worry. Jan was a Slovak, not a Czech. Czech and Slovak were brother languages, but they weren’t the same. Czechs and Slovaks could tell what you were as soon as you opened your mouth.

And Czechs and Slovaks weren’t the same, either. Czechs thought of Slovaks as hicks, rubes, country bumpkins. Before the World War, Slovakia had been in the Hungarian half of Austria-Hungary, and the Hungarians made a point of keeping the Slovaks ignorant and down on the farm. Things had changed since 1918, but only so much. The Czechoslovakian Army had something like 140 general officers. Just one was a Slovak.

If Slovaks were rubes to Czechs, Czechs were city slickers to Slovaks. A lot of Slovaks thought the Czechs, who were twice as numerous, ran Czechoslovakia for their own benefit. They thought Slovakia got hind tit, and wanted more autonomy-maybe outright independence-for it.

Vaclav had no idea whether Jan belonged to Father Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party, the main nationalist outfit. Hlinka had died six weeks before, but another cleric, Father Tiso, was heading the party now. The Nazis had brownshirts; the Slovak People’s Party had Hlinka Guards.

If the shooting started, how hard would Jan Dzurinda and thousands more like him fight for Czechoslovakia? A lot of Slovak People’s Party men figured Berlin would give them what they wanted if Prague didn’t. If you thought that way, how loyal would you be toward your nominal country?

Since Vaclav didn’t know and didn’t want to ask straight out, he lit a cigarette of his own. The harsh smoke relaxed him…a little. He said, “At least we’ve weeded most of the Germans out of the Army.” The Sudetens damn well weren’t loyal. They’d made that plain enough.

“Well, sure,” Jan Dzurinda said, which might mean anything or nothing.

Corporal Jezek decided to push a little harder. If the Slovaks were going to run off or give up first chance they got, how could the army hope to defend Czechoslovakia? The noncom said, “Now we have to run off the buggers on the other side of the frontier, eh?”

“Reckon so.” Dammit, Dzurinda did sound like a hick. He went on, “Anybody tries to shoot me, I expect I better nail him first.”

“Sounds good to me.” Jezek decided he had to be content with that. He could have heard plenty worse from a Slovak. Up and down the lines, how many worried Czech noncoms and lieutenants and captains were hearing worse from Slovaks right about now? How many who weren’t hearing worse were being lied to? He muttered to himself and lit another cigarette and wished his canteen held something stronger than water.

* * *

“Forward!” Sergeant Ludwig Rothe called softly. He laughed at himself as the Panzer II crawled toward the start line through the darkness of the wee small hours. With all the motors belching and farting around him, he could have yelled his head off without giving himself away to the Czechs on the other side of the border.

He rode head and shoulders out of the turret. He had to, if he wanted to see where he was going. They said later models of the Panzer II would boast a cupola with episcopes so the commander could look around without risking his life whenever he did. That didn’t do him any good. All he had was a two-flapped steel hatch in the top of the turret.

Engineers had set up white tapes to guide panzers and personnel carriers to their assigned jumping-off points. The whole Third Panzer Division was on the move. Hell, the whole Wehrmacht was on the move, near enough. Oh, there were covering forces on the border with France, and smaller ones on the Polish frontier and inside East Prussia, but everything that mattered was going to teach the Czechs they couldn’t mess around with good Germans unlucky enough to be stuck inside their lousy country.

Other panzers-more IIs and the smaller Panzer Is-were dim shapes in the night. Ludwig affectionately patted his machine. The Panzer II was a great improvement over the I.

The driver’s voice floated out through the speaking tube: “Kinda hate to leave Katscher. Found this little waitress there-she doesn’t know how to say no.”

“Jesus, Fritz!” Rothe said. “D’you pass shortarm inspection?”

Fritz Bittenfeld chuckled. “Doesn’t hurt when I piss, so I guess everything’s all right.”

“Wonderful,” the panzer commander muttered. Fritz only laughed. The third member of the crew-the radio operator, Theo Kessler-sat in the back of the fighting compartment. The only way he could see out was through peepholes. Ludwig wasn’t sure whether he couldn’t hear the conversation or just ignored it. But then, he wasn’t sure about Theo a lot of the time.

“Halt!” The command floated out of the night. Rothe relayed it to Bittenfeld, who was driving buttoned up. The panzer stopped. They were where they were supposed to be…unless some Czech infiltrator was screwing them over. Rothe shook his head. Natural to be nervous before the balloon went up, but that was pushing things.

Nothing left to do but wait. Ludwig pushed back the sleeve of his black panzer coveralls to get a look at the radium-glowing hands on his watch. A quarter to four. Right on time. Everything was supposed to start at 0600. That gave him something else to worry about. It would still be almost dark. If the clouds overhead lingered, it might really be dark.

And if the clouds lingered, the Luftwaffe wouldn’t be able to do as much as it was supposed to. How could you see what to bomb and shoot up if low clouds and fog blotted out the landscape?

This kind of weather was normal for this time of year. Ludwig hoped the fellows with the General Staff’s red stripes on their trousers knew what the hell they were up to. If they didn’t, a lot of good Landers would get buried in makeshift graves with only a rifle and a helmet for a headstone.

As if picking that thought out of his head, Fritz said, “The Fuhrer knows what he’s doing. Those dirty Czechs, they deserve everything we’ll give ‘em. They can’t go murdering people inside Germany.”

“Sure,” Ludwig said. He thought the Czechs had a lot of nerve bumping off Konrad Henlein, too. But he was fretting about how much the Wehrmacht would take, not what it would dish out.

Again, Theo didn’t say a thing. Well, he didn’t have a speaking tube to Fritz. And he’d been wearing his earphones. Rothe wondered why. Radio silence was bound to be tighter than Fritz’s waitress’ works. The only signal that might come was one calling everything off because peace had broken out. The panzer commander didn’t expect that. Nobody else did, either.

Ludwig looked at his watch again. 0400. At this rate, he’d feel as if he’d aged a year before things started happening. He couldn’t even smoke. Somebody out there would skin him alive if he showed a match. And you had to be even more desperate for a butt than he was to light up inside the turret, what with all the ammo in there. Nothing to do but wait and fidget.

As 0600 neared, the sky slowly began to get light. A few minutes before the hour, he thought he heard thunder in the air. Then he realized it was nothing of the sort: it was untold hundreds or thousands of airplane engines, all of them roaring toward Czechoslovakia.

Fritz heard them, too. You’d have to be deaf not to. “Boy, those Czech assholes are really gonna catch it,” he said happily.

“Ja,” Ludwig said, and let it go at that.

Behind them, artillery started bellowing. Red flares leaped into the sky-the go signal! Without waiting for an order, Fritz put the Panzer II in gear and started forward. Other panzers were heading for the border-heading over the border-too. Half-seen German soldiers trotted along with them, clutching Mausers and hunching low to make themselves smaller targets.

A shell burst a couple of hundred meters away. Maybe it was a short round. More likely, it was the goddamn Czechs shooting back. Dirt and a couple of men flew up into the air. Poor bastards, Ludwig thought. He wondered what would happen if a 75 or a 105 hit his panzer. Then he wished he hadn’t.

More shells fell on the Germans. He’d thought the opening bombardment would silence the enemy guns. Evidently not. One shell did hit a little Panzer I. It slewed sideways and started to burn. Machine-gun ammunition inside started cooking off- pop-pop-pop! It sounded absurdly cheerful.

Somebody in a khaki uniform-almost brown, really-popped up from a hole in the ground and fired at the Germans. They were over the border, then. Ludwig traversed the turret and squeezed off a burst of machine-gun fire at the Czech soldier. He didn’t know whether he hit the man. If he made him duck and stop shooting, that would do.

Things inside Czechoslovakia didn’t look much different from the way they did on the German side of the line. The terrain was rugged. One reason the Czechs didn’t want to give back the Sudetenland was that the rough ground and the forts they’d built in it gave them their best shield against attack. Best or not, it wouldn’t be good enough…Ludwig hoped.

The panzer clanked past a house. It looked like the ones inside the Reich, too. Well, why not? Germans were Germans, on that side of the frontier or on this one. Past the house was a forest. Ludwig thought it seemed wilder than woods in Germany would have. The Czechs probably didn’t care for it the way they should.

Or maybe they wanted it all jungly and overgrown. A machine gun in there started spraying death at the German infantry. When a bullet cracked past Ludwig’s ear, he realized that machine gun could kill him, too. He ducked reflexively. He almost pissed himself. The Czechs were playing for keeps, all right.

They had more than machine guns in the woods, too. An antitank gun spat a long tongue of flame. A Panzer II just like Ludwig’s caught fire. A perfect smoke ring came out through the commander’s hatch. Ludwig didn’t see any of the crew get away.

“Do we go into that, Sergeant?” Fritz asked.

Ludwig understood why he hesitated. Open country was best for panzers. Out on the plains and meadows, you could see trouble coming. But somebody’d forgotten to issue a whole lot of plains and meadows to this part of Czechoslovakia. “Yes, we do,” Rothe answered. “Our job is to smash through their defensive lines. Once we do that, the rest of the country falls into our lap.”

“If they don’t blow our balls off first.” That wasn’t Fritz; it was Theo. So the radioman was listening after all. Ludwig would have come down on him for sounding defeatist if he weren’t so likely to be right.

Into the woods. Other panzers were pushing forward, too. Things were better-or seemed better, anyhow-when you had company. There was, of course, the saying about misery.

A bullet struck sparks as it spanged off the panzer’s hull. That left Ludwig with a couple of really unpleasant choices. If he stayed where he was, he was much too likely to get shot. But if he ducked down inside the turret and shut the hatch, he would have the devil’s own time seeing where he was going. All kinds of bad things were liable to happen to the panzer then.

He stayed where he was. Every so often, he fired a short burst from his machine gun. The other panzer commanders were doing the same thing. Foot soldiers banged away, too. With enough lead in the air, the Czechs would be too busy taking cover and dying to shoot back much.

He hoped. Boy, did he!

The Panzer II emerged from the woods onto open ground that had taken a beating from bombs and artillery. As soon as it did, Ludwig wished it hadn’t, because there sat a Panzer I, burning like nobody’s business. The commander had tried to get out of the turret, but he hadn’t made it. Something nasty lurked in the next stretch of trees.

“There it is!” Fritz screamed. “One o’clock! Panzer! Goddamn Czech panzer!”

The Czech LT-35 was a light tank, as its initials suggested. It was still bigger and heavier and better armored than a Panzer II. And the bastard carried a 37mm gun: a real cannon that could fire a real HE round as well as armor-piercing ammo. The Panzer II’s 2cm main armament had decent AP rounds, but they just weren’t big enough to carry a useful amount of high explosive.

One good thing about the Panzer II’s little gun, though: it was an automatic weapon, firing from ten-round magazines. Ludwig traversed the turret toward the LT-35, all the while wishing for a power assist. He’d just about brought the gun on target when the Czechs fired. Their AP round chewed a groove in the field a few meters to his left. They’d be reloading as fast as they could…

His 2.5X sight brought the target a lot closer. The trigger was on the elevating wheel. He squeezed off a four-round burst. Smoke rose from the Czech tank. “Hit!” Fritz yelled. “You hit the son of a bitch!”

“Do you have to sound so surprised?” Actually, Ludwig was surprised he’d hit the panzer at all. The gun was noisy enough to make him glad he was sober. “Come on-put the beast back in gear. We don’t want to hang around in one spot, or some other bastard’ll draw a bead on us.”

He breathed a sigh of relief as the panzer raced toward the cover of the woods. He hadn’t wanted to go into the first belt, but he’d discovered being out in the open was dangerous, too. It was a war, for Christ’s sake. Everything was dangerous. He just hoped it would be more dangerous for the Czechs.

* * *

Bombs started falling on Marianske Lazne-Marienbad, if you liked the old German name better-at six o’clock in the morning. Peggy Druce hadn’t gone to bed till three. Just because you were here to take the waters (which smelled like rotten eggs, tasted almost as bad, and kept you on the pot like you wouldn’t believe) didn’t mean you couldn’t do other things, too. Peggy’d been playing fiery bridge with an English couple and a young man who might have come from almost anywhere.

Everyone thought she was crazy for coming over from Philadelphia with the war clouds thickening by the day. Even after Henlein got shot, she’d pooh-poohed the idea that things would actually go boom. “We already had one war this century,” she’d said. She remembered very precisely, because she was squeezing every trick from a small slam in diamonds. “Wasn’t that enough to teach the whole world we don’t need another one?”

Well…no.

The first explosions might almost have been mistaken for thunder. The couple right after that burst much too close to the Balmoral-Osborne Hotel de Luxe to leave any doubt about what they were. They knocked Peggy out of bed and onto the floor with a bump and a squawk. She said something most unladylike when she scrambled up again, because she’d cut both feet on shards of glass that hadn’t been there a moment before.

People were yelling and screaming and-probably-jumping up and down. Peggy threw a robe over her silk peignoir. She made as if to rush for the door, then caught herself. Her feet would be raw meat and gore if she tried. The only shoes she could grab in a hurry were last night’s heels. They’d have to do.

Out she went-but not without her handbag, which held passport and cash and traveler’s checks. Everybody else in the hall was in the same state of dishabille. People dashed for the elevator: the lift, everyone called it here, in the English fashion. Peggy was almost there when the lights went out.

Shrieks filled the air as darkness descended. She turned around and went the other way, against the confused tide. If the lights weren’t working, the goddamn elevator wouldn’t, either. The stairs were…that way.

Peggy liked to think she looked ten years younger than her forty-five. She hadn’t put on weight, and peroxide kept her hair about the same color it had always been. But, in spite of her misplaced optimism the night before, she had a coldly practical streak. When she was Peggy Eubank, growing up a devil of a long way from the Main Line, her mother told her, “Kid, you’re eleven going on twenty-one.” If Mom had been half as smart as she thought she was, she would’ve been twice as smart as she really was. But she’d hit that nail right on the head.

And so-the stairs. Peggy found the door as much by Braille as any other way. The stairwell wasn’t very light, either. Somebody bumped into her and said, “Excusez-moi.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Peggy said, and then, “C’est la guerre.” And wasn’t that the sad and sorry truth?

Gray early-morning light spilled out of the door that led to the lobby. Three flights of stairs had made Peggy’s feet start to hurt, but more broken glass crunched under her soles. She would hurt worse if she took off the heels.

The lobby looked like hell, and smelled pretty bad, too. It reminded her of a butcher’s shop with a whole bunch of fresh meat. Some of this meat came in trousers and dresses and nightclothes, though. Stewards and bellhops-they had different titles here, but basically the same jobs-were doing what they could to help the wounded. One of them was noisily sick on the floor, which only made the stink worse.

And, in what looked at first like a scene from a Three Stooges tworeeler, a couple of men near the front desk were punching and kicking each other and poking each other in the eye. Even with more bombs going off not terribly far away, they went at it hammer and tongs. But one of them swore in Czech, the other in guttural German. The big war had started, and so had their own little private one.

“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed a man standing next to Peggy. His voice said he was the fellow who’d bumped her on the stairs. “C’est-” He broke off, at a loss for words.

“It’s hell on wheels,” Peggy said. “You understand? Comprenez?”

“Yes. But what am I to do?” He spoke good British English. “I was for two years a prisoner in the last war. If the Boches come here, they will intern me again, as an enemy alien. I do not wish this at all.”

If the Germans came to Marianske Lazne? No, when they came. The border wasn’t more than a long spit to the west. Peggy had her passport. The United States was neutral. The Nazis would treat her better than that poor Frenchman…if they or the Czechs didn’t blow her to the moon while they were bashing each other over the head. Right this minute, that looked like a pretty big if.

“Maybe you can get a train out of town if you hustle,” she said.

“It could be, Mademoiselle,” he said, not noticing the ring on her finger. Herb was still in Philadelphia. He’d been set to join her in Paris in a couple of weeks. Well, that wouldn’t happen now. All kinds of things wouldn’t happen, and all kinds of worse ones would. The man went on, “Will you accompany me? This is no more-no longer-a good place to be.”

He was dead right-no, live right-about that. “Let’s go,” Peggy said.

As soon as she got her first look at a bomb crater, she wasn’t sure outside was the best place to be. Marianske Lazne sat in a valley with pines and firs all around. The hotels and other buildings were mostly Austro-Hungarian leftovers from before the war (before the last war, she thought). They had more architectural gingerbread than the wicked witch’s house in the Grimm fairy tale.

Right now, Peggy was trapped in a grim fairy tale of her own. Some of those buildings had chunks bitten out of them. Several were burning. Wounded people, bodies, and pieces of bodies lay in the streets. And everybody who wasn’t wounded or blown to bits seemed to be running toward the train stations.

All kinds of people took the waters here. Some were ordinary Czechs and Slovaks. Some were Germans. Some came from other European countries. Peggy spotted half a dozen Jews in long black coats and wide-brimmed black hats. If the Frenchman beside her didn’t want to deal with the Germans, they really didn’t want to-and who could blame them?

There was a shriek in the air, getting louder by the moment. The Frenchman knocked her down and lay flat on top of her. She started to scream. Then more explosions shook Marianske Lazne, and she realized he hadn’t gone mad and wasn’t trying to assault her right out in the middle of the street.

“Artillery!” he bawled in her ear. “When you hear that sound, for God’s sake get down!”

Peggy did scream then, but on a note different from the one she might have used a moment earlier. Through the shell bursts she heard more shrieks, men’s and women’s and Lord only knew whose. Something warm and wet and sticky splashed her hand. She looked at it. It was blood-not hers, or she didn’t think so. With a little disgusted cry, she wiped it off her robe. No, not hers: no more welled out.

More and more shells landed on and around Marianske Lazne. How many guns did the Germans have, anyway? “Make it stop!” she yelled to the Frenchman. “Jesus, make it stop!”

“I wish I could, Mademoiselle,” he replied.

Peggy heard guns going off, too, in the woods around the spas. The Czechs were making a fight of it, anyhow, or trying to. But Marianske Lazne was within artillery range of the border, as she knew much, much too well. How long could this little country hold off Hitler’s armored legions?

After what seemed forever, the bombardment eased. Peggy raised her head and looked around. She wished she hadn’t. Her husband had fought in the Great War. He’d never talked much about what he’d done and what he’d seen. If it was anything like this…Peggy understood why not. She would spend the rest of her life wishing she could forget what artillery did to the civilians in Marianske Lazne. She remembered one thing Herb had said, talking to someone else who’d seen the elephant: “Artillery-that’s the killer.” Jesus, he wasn’t kidding.

As politely as she could, she tapped the Frenchman on top of her on the shoulder. “Could you move, please? You’re squashing me.” He had to weigh close to 200 pounds, and there was nothing between her and the sidewalk but two layers of silk.

“I do apologize,” he said, and rolled to one side. “This is…very bad. Very, very bad. But if you hear that sound in the air, you must get down at once, without hesitation. It is your best chance to save yourself.”

“God forbid I ever hear it again,” Peggy said. The Frenchman crossed himself.

No trains went out. No trains came in. Maybe the Germans had bombed the tracks. Maybe Czechoslovakia was using the railroads to haul troops around. Peggy saw no dun-colored Czech uniforms in town. Every so often, though, the guns in the woods boomed. What kind of forts lay between the border and Marianske Lazne? How long would the Germans take to break through them. Two good questions. Peggy had no good answers.

The town was full of clinics. They weren’t equipped for carnage like this, but they did their best. Unhurt people did what they could for the wounded. Peggy carried stretcher after stretcher. She got more blood on her robe, but hardly noticed. The hotels set out the usual massive spread of cold cuts for breakfast. She ate…somewhere.

About ten o’clock, the mist retreated and a wan sun came out. Airplane motors throbbed overhead. Peggy looked up. She’d never seen anything like those ungainly vulture-winged planes before. One after another, they peeled off in dives. It was fascinating to watch. But the shrieks they let out as they dove reminded her of incoming artillery. She got down, as the polite but portly Frenchman had said she should.

People gave her funny looks-for a few seconds, till the first bomb went off and the vulture-winged planes started machine-gunning the town as they zoomed away.

Half a dozen Czech biplane fighters showed up then. They looked like last year’s models next to the vulture-winged jobs with the swastikas on their tails, but they shot down two of them. Peggy wasn’t the only one cheering her head off.

She went on lugging stretchers till her feet started to bleed. Somebody gave her a pair of flats. They were too big, but still an improvement. She moved more casualties, and more, and more yet.

By midafternoon, she heard small-arms fire off to the west. It kept getting closer. She feared she knew what that meant: the Germans were pushing the Czechs back. She spotted more of the Nazi dive-bombers. Now that they’d delivered their terror message, they were doing serious work, pounding Czech positions.

The hotels kept putting out food. It was about all they could do. One displayed a sign in several languages: WE HAVE LOCKED UP OUR GERMANS. That was brave. It might also have been stupid. If the Nazis rolled into town, they wouldn’t be happy.

When the Nazis rolled in, Peggy feared. That evening, she got a blanket and a chair and counted herself lucky. Sleep wouldn’t come, no matter how exhausted she was. She would have looked to play more bridge, but fireplace and candles didn’t give enough light. The electricity stayed off. She sat there and listened to the advancing gunfire.

About midnight, Czech soldiers fell back through Marianske Lazne. One of them, dirty, weary, harried-peered into the hotel. He shook his head and walked on. The Czechs didn’t try to fight in the town. Peggy supposed she should have been grateful to them for not causing more civilian casualties. She hoped it wouldn’t hurt their defense.

Rattling, clanking German vehicles entered Marianske Lazne at 3:17, Czech cuckoo-clock time. Peggy went out to look. She almost got shot. A peremptory wave from a tough-looking, black-uniformed man in a tank sent her reeling back into the hotel. Under new management, she thought, and finally started to cry.

* * *

Luc Harcourt didn’t like Sergeant Demange. What private in his right mind did like his sergeant? Demange was little and skinny and tough, with a tongue sharper than a bayonet. He looked unwontedly serious now as he gathered his squad together. Without preamble, he said, “The French Republic is at war with Germany.”

Along with the rest of the men, Luc stared at the sergeant. He was just a conscript himself. All he’d ever wanted to do was serve his time and get out. The first thing he found out when he put on the uniform and the Adrian helmet was that nobody gave a damn about what he wanted.

Demange paused to light a Gitane. He even smoked like a tough guy, with the cigarette hanging down from the corner of his mouth. “England is with us,” he said. “And the Russians have declared war on Germany, too.”

“Oh, joy,” Paul Renouvin said. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he’d been at a university somewhere before the draft got him, and he liked showing off how much he knew. “That would matter a lot more if Russia bordered Germany. Or even Czechoslovakia.”

Sergeant Demange looked as if he wanted to spit in Renouvin’s eye. He contented himself with blowing smoke in the college kid’s face. “Shut up, punk,” he rasped. “The point is, we’ve got allies, dammit. So when we march into Germany, it’s not like we’re marching in all by ourselves.”

We? Luc wondered. We as in France, or we as in this squad? He wanted to know-it was his neck, after all. But he didn’t ask. One way or the other, he figured he’d find out pretty damn quick.

And he did. “We move out in half an hour,” the sergeant said. “Remember, we’re doing this for the poor goddamn Czechs.” He sounded like a guy telling his girl they’d be doing it for love. Who cared why? They’d be doing it.

“What happens if the Boches shoot at us?” somebody asked.

“Well, we’re supposed to be cautious,” Demange said. “But we’re supposed to move forward, too, so we will. And we’ll shoot back, by God.”

“My father did this in 1914,” Luc said. “Red kepi, blue tunic, red trousers-there are photos at home. Not color photos, of course, but you know what the colors were.” Several of the other soldiers nodded.

So did Sergeant Demange. “They were targets, that’s what,” he said. “I did it myself in 1918. We wore horizon-blue by then. Not as good as khaki”-he tapped his sleeve-“but Christ, better than red. How many times your old man get wounded?”

“Twice,” Luc answered, not without pride.

“Sounds about right. He was luckier than a lot, that’s for goddamn sure.” Demange glanced at his watch. “Twenty minutes now. If we aren’t marching at 0630 on the dot, I’ll be in trouble. And if I’m in trouble, you sorry assholes are in big trouble.”

Luc wondered why 0630 was so sacred. Would the war be lost if they started five minutes late? As far as Czechoslovakia was concerned, they were starting three days late. The Czechs said they were still fighting hard. The Germans claimed enormous victories. Somebody was lying. Maybe two somebodies were.

The border bulged south below Saarbrucken. At 0630 on the dot-Sergeant Demange and his ilk knew how to get what they wanted-French soldiers started moving into the bulge. A few French guns fired at the German positions ahead. A few German guns shot back. Both sides seemed halfhearted. Lou had been through much scarier drills.

Fields on the German side of the border looked-surprise!-just like fields on the French side. The only way Luc could be sure he’d crossed into Germany was by looking over at a German frontier post, abandoned now, that lay athwart a two-lane macadam road a few hundred meters off to the southeast.

Soldiers from another company poked through the frontier station as if they’d just occupied Berlin. Then, without warning, something over there went boom! Sergeant Demange hit the dirt. For a moment, Luc thought he’d been hurt. But then he got up and brushed wheat stubble off himself, altogether unselfconscious. “You hear a noise like that, you better get flat,” he remarked. “I bet those Nazi cocksuckers booby-trapped the station.”

Something had blown out part of one wall. Now the French soldiers over there scurried around like ants in a disturbed hill. Luc saw one man lying in the roadway. Even from this distance, he would have bet the poor bastard wouldn’t get up again.

“Lesson number one,” the sergeant said. “If it looks like they want you to pick it up, they probably do. Wouldn’t be surprised if there are mines in these fields, too.”

“Merde alors!” Luc muttered. The very ground under his feet might betray him. He tried to walk like a ballerina, on tippytoe. It didn’t work very well in army-issue clodhoppers with a heavy pack on his back. Feeling foolish, he gave up after a few steps.

A belt of trees lay ahead. Did Germans lurk there? Sure as hell, they did. A spatter of rifle fire came from the woods. After the first bullet cracked past him, Luc needed no urging to flatten out. Prone, he fired back. His MAS36 slammed against his shoulder. In between rounds, he dug a scrape for himself with his entrenching tool.

Very cautiously, the French advanced. They took a few casualties, which made them more cautious yet. The Germans didn’t make much of a fight, though. They melted back toward their fancy Westwall. It wasn’t supposed to be as good as the Maginot Line-nothing was, not even the Czech forts-but everybody said it was tough even so.

When Luc finally reached the woods, he found several countrymen exclaiming over a dead German. The redheaded guy in field-gray had taken one in the chest. He didn’t look especially unhappy-just surprised. Luc wondered if he’d killed the Boche himself. Not likely, but not impossible, either. He felt like a warrior and a murderer at the same time.

Chapter 2

It was six in the morning in Peking, which meant it was yesterday afternoon back in New York City. Corporal Pete McGill and several of the other Marines at the American Legation clustered in front of a shortwave set, listening to the World Series. The Yankees were up on the Cubs, two games to none. They were leading in game three, too. Joe Gordon had already singled with the bases loaded and homered, and Hoot Pearson was cruising along on the mound.

“Cubs are history,” McGill said happily-he was from the Bronx. “Three straight Series for the Yanks, it’s gonna be. Nobody’s ever done that before.”

None of the other leathernecks argued with him. He would have liked to see them try! When the Cubs got done losing today (or yesterday, or whatever the hell day it really was), they would have to sweep four to take the championship. Nobody did that, not against the Bronx Bombers!

A Polack named Herman Szulc-which he insisted was pronounced Schultz -said, “I bet they won’t be as good next year.”

“Oh, yeah, wise guy? How come?” McGill had brick-red hair, freckles, and the temper that went with them. And if you affronted his team, you affronted him, too.

“Only stands to reason. Shit, look at Gehrig,” Szulc said. “He didn’t even hit. 300 this year. He’s getting old, wearing out.”

“Nah, he’ll be back strong. You wait and see,” McGill said. “Sheesh! A little bit of an off year for one guy, and you want to write off the ball-club.”

Before the argument could go any further, a Chinese servant brought in a tray with coffee and sausages and rolls stuffed with this and that for the Marines. None of it except the coffee was what McGill would have eaten in the States, but it would all be tasty. Duty at the Legation was as sweet as it got.

“Sheh-sheh, Wang,” Szulc said as the servant set the tray down on a table. That meant thank you in Chinese. McGill had learned a few phrases, too. They came in handy every once in a while.

Wang grinned a toothy grin. Several of his front teeth were gold. A twenty-four-carat smile meant you were somebody here. “Eat,” he said-he knew bits of English, the way the Marines knew bits of Chinese. He waved at the tray. “Hao.” That meant it was good.

And it was. “Wonder what’s in the sausages,” somebody said with his mouth full.

“Your mother,” somebody else came back, which almost made Pete squirt coffee out his nose.

“The Missing Link,” Szulc suggested. That wasn’t even so far-fetched. They’d found prehistoric human bones in these parts that were God only knew how old.

It also wasn’t so far-fetched for another reason. Chinamen would cook and eat damn near everything. You could get snake. It was supposed to be good for your one-eyed snake. You could get dog, which was also supposed to make John Henry perk up. You could get fried grasshoppers. McGill had eaten one once, on a bet. It wasn’t even bad, and he picked up five bucks crunching it.

Out went the Cubs again. A singing commercial came on. Szulc fiddled with the radio dial. “What the hell you doing?” McGill asked.

“Seeing if I can find some news between innings,” Szulc answered. “Check what’s up with the war.”

“Oh. Okay,” McGill said. The war was as important as the Series. Back in the States, people wouldn’t have believed it. McGill was sure of that. But back in the States, people weren’t right around the corner from the Japanese Legation and its garrison of tough bastards-not as tough as Marines, McGill was sure, but tough. Back in the States, people were doing their best to forget the Japs had bombed the crap out of the Panay the December before, even though she was flying the American flag.

Japan apologized, didn’t she? She paid an indemnity, didn’t she? That made everything all right, didn’t it? Maybe so-back in the States. Not in Peking. Not even close.

Back in the States, people forgot the Japs had a zillion more soldiers sitting in Manchuria. Manchukuo, they called the puppet state there these days. If they decided they wanted a war with the USA, how long would this garrison last? Hell, back in the States, most people didn’t know it existed.

If the balloon goes up with the Japs, it’s my ass, McGill thought.

Szulc got a couple of bursts of static. Then he found the BBC. The announcer had a much posher accent than most of the Royal Marines at the British Legation. They called themselves leathernecks, too, and they made damn fine drinking buddies even if they did talk funny.

“-vakia continues to offer stout resistance to Hitler’s aggression,” the announcer said. “Russian volunteers and aircraft have begun appearing in Ruthenia and Slovakia. Both Poland and Romania deny consenting to their crossing.”

“Fuck, I would, too,” Szulc said. “Picking between Hitler and Stalin’s gotta be worse’n the devil and the deep blue sea.”

“Shut up already, if you want to listen to the news,” somebody told him.

That supercivilized-sounding BBC announcer was continuing: “-another day of fierce air raids against Prague. Civilian casualties are said to be very heavy. The Czechoslovak government has condemned what it calls ‘the barbarous German onslaught against defenseless non-combatants.’”

“Nice war,” McGill muttered. Blasting the crap out of anything that got in your way wasn’t anything the Marines hadn’t heard about and seen before. The Japs did it all the time here, now that their war against China had heated up. But you expected better from Europeans, somehow. Then again, the difference between what you expected and what you got made a pretty good measure of how fucked up the world was.

“Czechoslovakia insists that reports of unrest in Slovakia are greatly exaggerated. Uprisings by the so-called Hlinka Guard”-the announcer read the name with fastidious distaste-“are being suppressed in Bratislava, Radio Prague declares, and elsewhere in that area.”

“C’mon-put the ballgame back on,” said a big, burly PFC named Puccinelli and inevitably called Pooch.

“In a second,” Szulc said. “He’ll get to the rest of the shit, and then we’ll go back.” Pooch muttered to himself, but didn’t reach for the tuning dial himself.

“France continues its advance into Germany. German resistance is termed light,” the BBC newsman said. “France has occupied the Warndt Forest, and seized the towns of Lauterwald and Bubingen.”

“Wherever the hell those are,” McGill put in. He’d never heard of either one of them before. That probably meant you could piss across them.

The limey’s voice grew stern. “For the second night in a row, air pirates from Spain bombed Hendaye and Biarritz in southwestern France. It is not yet known whether the bombers were flown by native Spanish Fascists of the Sanjurjo junta or by Nazis of the Condor Legion mercenary group. In any case, French aid to the rival Spanish Republican government, including men, munitions, aircraft, and tanks, continues to flood across the Pyrenees.”

“Yeah, it floods now, after the frogs and the limeys spent years keeping it out.” Max Weinstein was a rare duck: a pink, almost Red, Marine. He wasn’t real big, but he was tough. With politics like his, he had to be. He got into more than his share of brawls, and won more than his share, too.

“Prime Minister Chamberlain was in Manchester today, reassuring anxious citizens that, despite the long, difficult road ahead, victory will inevitably-”

Herman Szulc turned back to the World Series. The Cubs had one out in the seventh. They were going down the drain, all right, the same way the Giants had in ‘36 or ‘37.

“Wonder whether the Japs are listening to the Series or the BBC,” McGill said. It wasn’t obvious. Japan was crazy for baseball. On the Fourth of July in ‘37-three days before the fighting between Japan and China broke out for real-a Marine team had played a doubleheader against a squad from the Japanese garrison. They’d split two games rougher than any John McGraw’s Orioles played back in the ‘90s.

“Wonder whether Japan will go after Russia like she means it if the Russians start going at it hot and heavy with Hitler,” Szulc said.

“That would be just like the damn Japs,” Max said, and for once nobody wanted to argue with him. Japan and Russia had been banging heads for a couple of years now, up on the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia. Most of the official bulletins talked about Manchukuan and Mongolian soldiers, but anybody who knew anything knew better. The puppets wouldn’t dance that way without their masters pulling the strings.

“Hey, I hope the Japs do go north,” Pete said. Weinstein gave him a furious look. Before the champion of the Soviet workers and peasants could start screaming, McGill went on, “If they don’t, they’ll hit the USA, and everybody here is fucking dead meat if they do.”

Max opened his mouth. A moment later, he closed it again. Nobody could say Pete was wrong there. Japan occupied northern China these days. She occupied all of Peking except the Legation Quarter. If she went to war with the United States, the few hundred Marines in the garrison wouldn’t last long.

Japanese soldiers were little and scrawny. Their equipment was nothing to write home about. But they were rugged sons of bitches, and there were swarms of them. Oh, America would eventually kick the snot out of them. Eventually, though, was way too late to do anybody here any good.

* * *

Sergeant Hideki Fujita hated Manchukuo. He hated Mongolia even more. And getting sent to the border between the Japanese puppet state and the one the Russians propped up combined the worst of both worlds.

Japan claimed the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia lay along the Halha River. The Mongolians and Russians insisted it belonged a good many kilometers farther east. Japan and Russia had banged heads along Manchukuo’s borders before: here, and along the Amur River, and near Korea, where Russian territory dipped down as far as Vladivostok.

The Mongolians had found a new game to get on their neighbors’ nerves. They would light grass fires near the frontier-wherever the hell it was-and let the prevailing westerlies sweep the flames into Manchukuan territory. Naturally, that made the locals come running to the Japanese, screaming that they should do something. When you set up a puppet, you had to hold him upright or else he wasn’t worth anything.

Not that Fujita thought the Manchukuans were worth anything. But their country-to give it the benefit of the doubt-had more timber than anybody knew what to do with. It raised lots of rice and wheat and millet, too. And it drew ever more Japanese colonists, people who wanted more land and a better chance than they’d ever get in the overcrowded home islands. Whether the Manchukuans did or not, real Japanese people needed protecting.

Trouble was, even if the border lay on the Halha, the way Japan said it did, the Mongolians and Russians still had the better of it. The land west of the Halha, on the Mongolian side, stood fifty or sixty meters higher than it did over here. High ground counted, same as always.

Only a couple of days earlier, on October 4, the Mongolians had fired from the high ground at two dozen Japanese surveyors riding through what was plainly Japanese territory…if you accepted the Japanese view of the frontier, anyhow. Sergeant Fujita did, of course.

One of the other men in his little detachment, a corporal named Masanori Kawakami, asked, “Excuse me, Sergeant- san, but would the Mongolians harass us if the Russians didn’t want them to?”

“Not bloody likely,” Fujita said with a snort. He was short and squat and tough-the kind of noncom whose men hated and feared him but couldn’t help respecting him, too. “The Mongols can’t wipe their raggedy asses unless some Russian commissar says they can.”

“Hai.” Kawakami nodded. He was younger than Fujita, a conscript rather than a career soldier. “That’s what I thought.”

“Funny they would do it with the war in Europe heating up,” Superior Private Shinjiro Hayashi said.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Fujita rumbled ominously. He wanted to boot Hayashi around, but sometimes even a sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army had to be careful. Yes, Hayashi was a conscript, with no rights or privileges to speak of. Yes, he was clumsy and four-eyed, and so deserved thumping more than most of the other soldiers.

But he was also a university student. He talked like a damn professor. A guy like that was bound to have connections. If he complained, Sergeant Fujita was too likely never to see anything but the dusty Mongolian frontier for the rest of his days.

Hayashi smiled now. He liked explaining things. “If the Russians really are fighting in Czechoslovakia”-a name that sounded very strange in Japanese-“why would they also want to fight us? A man with two enemies at the same time has trouble.”

“Maybe,” Fujita said with a grudging nod. “You can see that-but you’re almost as smart as you think you are.” He wouldn’t give any praise without putting a sting in its tail. “Are the dumb foreigners clever enough to see it, too?”

“I think so, Sergeant- san.” Hayashi knew better than to piss Fujita off on purpose. “Lots of countries know the rules of diplomacy and war.”

Corporal Kawakami pointed west. “I think I just saw something move, Sergeant…There, about one o’clock.”

“I’ll check it out.” Fujita wore binoculars on a leather strap around his neck. Japanese optics were some of the best in the world. He’d looked through captured Russian field glasses, and they were crap. Pure junk. He’d also seen fancy German binoculars-from Zeiss, no less. Those were okay, but not a sen’s worth better than his own pair.

He scanned the plain on this side of the Halha. Yellow dirt, yellowish-green grass, the occasional bush-that was about it. The steppe rolled on for countless kilometers. Then he spotted the horseman.

A Mongolian, he thought at once. He had trouble knowing how he was so sure. Manchukuan cavalrymen rode the same kind of shaggy little steppe ponies. They carried carbines slung on their backs, too, and wore the same mix of uniforms and native garb. Then Fujita realized why he knew. The horseman kept glancing back over his shoulder, toward the east. If he expected trouble, it was from this direction, yet he was the only man in sight.

“Let’s reel him in,” Fujita said. “Hayashi! Fire two shots in the air.”

“Two shots. Yes, Sergeant- san.” Superior Private Hayashi obeyed without question. Bang! Bang! The reports rolled across the steppe.

Fujita kept the field glasses on the rider. When the fellow heard the gunshots, he jerked in the saddle, looked around wildly in all directions, and started to grab for his weapon. Then he checked himself. “Two more shots, Hayashi,” the sergeant said. “And we’ll show ourselves. If he comes in, fine. I think he will. But if he doesn’t, we just have to deal with him.”

Bang! Bang! The sergeant and the men from his squad stood up. He waved. He hoped the shots wouldn’t draw artillery fire from the other side of the river. If the horseman was what Fujita thought he was, the bastards over there might want to see him dead even if he was on this side of the line…not that they admitted the Halha was the line, anyway.

The Mongolian looked back toward the other side of the river again, too. He wore a fur cap with earflaps up right now-the day was mild. After reaching under it to scratch his head, he rode slowly toward the Japanese soldiers.

As he got closer, he waved his hand to show he was friendly. Then he must have decided that wasn’t enough, because he threw down the carbine. He shouted something in his own language. It sounded like dogs barking to Fujita.

“I don’t know what the devil you’re talking about,” the Japanese sergeant yelled back. “Come ahead anyhow, though.” He gestured emphatically.

When the Mongolian called again, it was in a different tongue. “That’s Chinese, Sergeant,” Hayashi said.

“You understand it?” Fujita asked. Maybe the four-eyed guy was good for something after all.

And Hayashi nodded. “I studied it in school.”

“All right. Talk to him. Find out what’s what.”

Whatever Hayashi said was only singsong gibberish to Fujita. But the Mongolian understood it. He answered eagerly. He and Hayashi had to go back and forth and round and round-neither was exactly fluent. After a bit, the senior private turned back to Fujita. “About what we would have guessed, Sergeant. He thought they were going to purge him, and he figured he’d better bug out while he was still breathing.”

Fujita grunted. “The Mongolians are crazy, and they caught it from the Russians.” Russia had been purging its officer corps for a couple of years now. People just disappeared. Captains, colonels, generals…It didn’t matter. And, since Marshal Choibalsan’s Mongolia imitated Stalin’s Russia in all things, Mongol officers started disappearing off the face of the earth, too. More and more of the ones who feared they might be next fled to Manchukuo instead-which made Choibalsan look for still more new traitors.

This fellow said something else in his hesitant Chinese. Fujita looked a question to Hayashi. “He says-I think he says-he can tell us a lot about their dispositions on the far side of the Halha.”

Hearing that improved Fujita’s disposition. “Can he? Well, he’ll get his chance. We’ll take him in, and he’d better sing like a cricket in a cage. Tell him so, Hayashi.”

“I don’t know if I can say that in Chinese, Sergeant- san.”

“Shit. Tell him we’ll cut his balls off if he doesn’t talk. That ought to do it.”

Hayashi spoke slowly. The Mongolian officer’s face didn’t show much. He was darker than most Japanese, maybe because he was born that way, maybe just because he was weathered, which he certainly was. Left in the oven too long, Fujita thought scornfully. The Mongolian did gnaw on his lower lip for a moment before answering. “He says he’ll tell us whatever we want to know,” Hayashi reported. “He says he knew all along he’d have to do that.”

“All right. Good. You and Kawakami take him back to our officers.” Fujita held up a hand. “Wait! Ask him one thing first. Ask him if the Russians and Mongols aim to jump us any time soon.”

Hayashi put the question. The deserter shook his head. He said something. Hayashi translated: “No, Sergeant. He says they’re just hoping we leave them alone. The Russians are almost pissing themselves about what’s going on in Europe, he says.”

“Ichi-ban!” Fujita said enthusiastically. “That’s good intelligence. If they’re afraid we’ll jump on them, maybe now’s the time to do it, neh?”

Senior Private Hayashi shrugged. He wasn’t about to argue with a superior. He and Corporal Kawakami just took the Mongolian back toward battalion headquarters.

* * *

Armorers wheeled bombs toward Lieutenant Sergei Yaroslavsky’s Tupolev SB-2. The medium bomber would hold half a dozen 100kg bombs or one big, hefty 500kg firework. The big bombs were in short supply, though. Yaroslavsky was glad the armorers had enough of the smaller ones to fill up the bomb bay.

He was a stolid, broad-faced blond, getting close to thirty. He’d had a tour against the Fascists in Spain. Now he was doing it again, flying out of a field near Poprad in eastern Slovakia. Officially, he was a volunteer, aiding the people of democratic Czechoslovakia against the Nazi invasion. And, in a way, he supposed he had volunteered. They would have shot him if he’d said no. They were shooting lots of officers these days. They were jumpy as cats in a rocking-chair factory. They’d shoot you without any excuse if they felt like it. If you gave them one, you were dead for sure.

Of course, the Germans were liable to shoot him, too. Things were simpler and safer in Spain. Back in early 1937, the SB-2 could outrun anything the Spanish Nationalists, the Condor Legion, or the Italians put in the air.

It wasn’t like that here. The Messerschmitt 109 was a very nasty piece of work. It was faster than both Russian flat-nosed Polikarpovs and biplane Czech Avias. It was a hell of a lot faster than an SB-2. The best recipe for not getting shot down was not getting seen.

The armorers were Czechs. When they talked with one another, Sergei could almost understand them. He really could follow Ruthenian, which was just Ukrainian with another name. Slovak? He didn’t know about Slovak. Sentries around the airstrip kept Slovaks away. The squadron was flying out of Slovakia, but the place wasn’t exactly loyal to the country of which it was supposed to be a part.

Clanging noises said the bombardier was closing the bomb bay. “We ready, Ivan?” Yaroslavsky called.

“Da, Comrade Lieutenant,” Ivan Kuchkov replied. He was dark and stocky and muscular and hairy. People sometimes called him “Chimp.” Not very often, though, not after he broke a man’s jaw for doing it. He had the right slot-a bombardier needed muscle.

“Start them up, Anastas,” Sergei told the copilot.

Anastas Mouradian nodded. “I will do it.” His throaty Armenian accent grated on Yaroslavsky’s ears. Damned swarthy bastards from the Caucasus…But you couldn’t say that, not when Comrade Stalin was a Georgian. Better not even to think it.

At least the Georgians and Armenians were Christians, not Muslims like the Azerbaijanis and Chechens. In the officially atheist USSR, you weren’t supposed to think things like that, either. But, while Sergei might be a New Soviet Man, he was also and always a Russian.

The two M-100A radial engines thundered to life. The props blurred into invisibility. Yaroslavsky checked the instruments, one after another. Everything looked good. The mechanics were Czechs, too. They were better than any Russian mechanics he’d ever had. They seemed to care more about the work they did.

Five more bombers were also warming up on the airstrip. They were going to give the Nazis one right in the eye. Sergei hoped so, anyhow. More than a week into the war, and the Germans still hadn’t cut Czechoslovakia in half. Lots of the Czech army was pulling back into Slovakia to keep up the fight here-and to sit on the pro-Fascist Slovaks.

Down the runway bounced the SB-2. It was made for taking off from grassy fields. Paved runways were as rare as capitalists inside the Soviet Union.

Sergei pulled back on the stick. The bomber’s nose came up. No more bouncing-he was airborne. He’d shake again soon enough, when they started shooting at him. Best to enjoy the calm while he could.

If running didn’t help, he could shoot back. Mouradian was in charge of two machine guns in the SB-2’s nose. Kuchkov had a machine-gun blister on the back of the airplane and another in its belly. Those looked like a good idea. Bombardiers were rapidly discovering, though, that you had to be lucky to hit anything with either gun. If you weren’t lucky, you might use the dorsal gun to shoot off your own tail. At least one intrepid bombardier had already done that.

If he’d lived, they would have court-martialed him and then shot him. As things were, he saved them the trouble.

“All good,” Mouradian shouted, pointing to the instruments. He wasn’t in the front glasshouse yet. With 840 horsepower roaring away to either side, you had to yell to make yourself heard.

“I see ‘em.” Sergei nodded. “Let’s hope they stay that way.” The SB-2 was a robust warplane. It could take a beating. Sergei didn’t want it to this time around.

On he flew with his buddies. Down below, bursting shells and bombs told when they entered the combat zone. The Czechs were still pulling back through the gap between the Nazi armies advancing from the north and south. If the Czechs got enough men and materiel into eastern Moravia and Slovakia before the Germans finally sealed that gap, they could keep fighting a while longer.

When Sergei said as much to Anastas Mouradian, the copilot-who also served as gunner and bomb-aimer and navigator-nodded. “Da,” he said, for all the world as if he were a real Russian. Then he added, “If they don’t, they’re fucked.” Any Russian might have said that, too. He sure wouldn’t have been wrong if he did.

Antiaircraft fire started bursting around the bombers. Yaroslavsky jinked, going up and down to the left and right at random and slowing down and speeding up to keep the German gunners from being able to lead him like a duck. When a shell filled the air with nasty black smoke close by, it was as if he drove over a big pothole. His teeth came together with a click.

Mouradian growled something in what had to be Armenian. Then he came back to words Sergei could understand: “Too damn close.”

“No kidding,” the pilot said. Just then, another shell went off even closer to the SB-2. A fragment clanged off-or, more likely, bit through-the fuselage. Yaroslavsky checked the controls to the rudder and elevator. They answered-no cables cut. He yelled into the speaking tube to the bombardier: “You all right, Ivan?”

“Khorosho,” Kuchkov answered. “A little draftier, but no damage.”

“Get ready,” Sergei told him. “We’re almost there.”

They were almost there if Mouradian’s navigating was worth a kopek, anyway. He’d got them where they were supposed to go before. The target this time was just outside of Brno, the biggest factory town in Moravia. The Czechs were still holding out there, still holding up the Nazis. If 600 kilos of high explosive could help them hang on a little longer, Sergei would deliver the goods.

That thick cloud of smoke ahead had to be Brno. Who needs navigation? Sergei thought wryly. The Germans were bombing the crap out of Czechoslovakian civilians. Thousands and thousands were supposed to be dead in Prague. Brno was catching it, too.

“So where’s our target from here?” Yaroslavsky asked.

“Southwest, Comrade Pilot,” Mouradian answered from the nose-he was ready to fight now.

That made sense: it was the direction from which the Nazis were advancing. Sergei didn’t want his bombs coming down on the Czechs’ heads. He spotted something ahead that looked like a division HQ. “Aim for those tents,” he ordered. “I’ll bring us in low and straight.”

“We’ll get ‘em,” Ivan Kuchkov said. And maybe they would, and maybe they wouldn’t. But they’d scare the crap out of the Nazis if they didn’t.

The bomb bay opened. The extra drag slowed the SB-2 and made it sluggish in the air. At Mouradian’s shouted command, the bombs tumbled free, one after another. The plane would be livelier with them gone: they made up about a tenth of the weight it was carrying.

And the Tupolev bomber would need to be livelier, too. German fighters jumped the Russians just as they were finishing their bombing runs. These Messerschmitts were terrifying. They could have been more maneuverable, but they were well armed and fast as the Devil’s godson. And diving down on the SB-2s made them faster yet.

One of the bombers fell out of the sky. By the way it dove, the pilot was dead at the controls. Fire filled the left wing. Another SB-2 fled east with smoke trailing from one engine. Maybe it could get down safely in Czech-held territory. Maybe the Germans would hack it down first.

Sergei couldn’t worry much about the other SB-2s. He had to worry about his own. The Chimp started blazing away from the dorsal turret. Tracers snarled past the bomber from behind.

But Ivan made the 109 pull up. From the nose, Mouradian squeezed off a long burst at the lean, predatory shape. The enemy fighter didn’t catch fire or go down. But it didn’t try another attack, either.

With all the throttle he could use, Sergei got out of there. Then he had another bad moment, when two Czech Avias buzzed up in what might have been another attack. At the last second, they saw he was no Nazi and swung away. One of the pilots waved from his cockpit. Yaroslavsky returned the compliment.

Then he had to find the airstrip again. Mouradian came back to help him. Between them, they figured out where the hell Poprad was. They got down smoothly enough. One other plane from the flight came in a few minutes later. Sergei could hope some of the rest had landed elsewhere. The one that had plummeted to the ground…He shuddered. Better not to think of such things.

He had to, though, because he needed to report to his superiors. “One of our planes damaged, one definitely lost,” he said.

They nodded. All part of the game, as far as they were concerned. “We’ll keep banging away,” one of them said. Till you’re expended, too , Sergei thought, and made himself nod.

* * *

Vaclav Jezek dug like a mole. What was left of his company was trying to hold the Germans out of Kopecek, a little town six or eight kilometers northeast of Olomouc. In and of itself, Kopecek hardly mattered. But Olomouc did. Olomouc was the last surviving northern rampart against the Nazi flood. The Czech army was pulling back to the east between Olomouc and Brno. If Hitler’s bastards closed off that passageway…

Then we’re fucked, Jezek though, making the dirt fly with his entrenching tool. Czechoslovakia was probably fucked anyway. No, scratch probably. Czechoslovakia was fucked anyway. But the stubborn Czechs were making Germany pay a hell of a high price.

Artillery came down in and around Kopecek. The Nazis were shelling the pilgrimage church. It stood on a hill a couple of hundred meters above the plain, and made an observation post dangerous to them. Vaclav would have been surprised if his side didn’t have some guns of its own around the church.

“Hey, Corporal! Got a smoke?” Otakar Prsemysl asked.

“Everybody bums cigarettes off me,” Jezek grumbled, but he gave the private one. Back just before the shooting started, Jan Dzurinda had scrounged a butt from him. Vaclav didn’t know where Dzurinda was now. Maybe he’d got killed when the Germans dropped everything and the kitchen sink on the Czech lines by the border. Or maybe he’d just bugged out. A hell of a lot of Slovaks had. The miserable rubes didn’t think this was their fight-or else they thought they were on the wrong side when they wore Czech brown.

“Tanks!” somebody shouted. Everyone who heard that yell grew fearfully alert. Without tanks, the Nazis would still be banging their heads against the Czech lines. But they had them, and they had more of them than Czechoslovakia did. Breakthrough machines, that’s what tanks were.

A machine gun chattered. That was wasted ammo. Machine-gun bullets wouldn’t pierce a panzer’s steel hide. Tanks could kill you, and you couldn’t kill the sons of bitches inside them. Was that fair?

Then Vaclav heard the bigger boom of an antitank rifle. Those fired heavy, large-caliber, armor-piercing bullets out of a long barrel that gave high muzzle velocity. They could get through…sometimes, anyhow. The rifles weigh a tonne and kicked like a jackass, but so what? They worked…again, sometimes.

One of the panzers up ahead stopped. Smoke poured from the engine compartment. The two-man crew bailed out. Vaclav didn’t think either Nazi in black coveralls made it to shelter. Too bad, he thought. Yeah. Toooo bad.

Avias and Messerschmitts dueled overhead. The German fighters were faster, but the Czech biplanes seemed more nimble. People cheered like maniacs when a 109 spun out of control and went down. It was like watching a football match, except you counted lives instead of goals. Score one for our side!

Trouble was, not many Avias were left. The Nazis kept pounding the airfields from which they flew. The Messerschmitts came out of Germany, of course. A few Czech air raids on German soil had made Hitler and Goebbels scream and squeal, but the Luftwaffe had a big edge there.

“Wish the French would push harder, take some pressure off us,” Private Prsemysl said.

“Yeah, me, too,” Jezek agreed. “Wish for the moon while you’re at it.” He supposed the Czechs had to count themselves lucky France had moved at all. Great. Some luck.

No sooner had that gloomy thought gone through his mind than cries of alarm came from the west. “They’re through! They’re through!” somebody howled, which sounded bad. Then someone else shouted, “They’re into Olomouc! Get away while you can!”

Otakar Prsemysl crossed himself. That looked like a good idea to Vaclav, so he did the same thing. It couldn’t hurt, anyhow.

“South and east! South and east!” That was an officer’s authoritative shout. “We pull back farther into Moravia and keep fighting. They haven’t whipped us yet, by God!”

No, but how much longer will it be? And what good will keeping up the fight do except get more of us killed? Still, Corporal Jezek had no better ideas. The only other choices were surrendering, which he couldn’t stomach, and dying in place, which also struck him as unattractive.

He got out of his foxhole and stumbled through the streets of Kopecek. To his surprise, trucks-mostly commandeered civilian jobs-waited on the southern edge of town. He piled into one of them. A moment later, he saw Otakar and pulled him into it, too. A moment after that, the truck rattled away.

“Where are we going?” Prsemysl asked.

“Beats me,” Vaclav answered. “But did you want to stay where we were?” The other man shook his head. This couldn’t be worse… Unless we get bombed, of course. One more thought Jezek could have done without.

Chapter 3

Another gray day in Munster. People in the Westphalian town said it was either raining or the church bells were ringing. Sarah Goldman could hear the bells, but it was raining anyhow. That didn’t seem fair.

Of course, for Sarah the past five years had seemed gray and gloomy and weepy even when the sun did come out. Since she was only seventeen, that seemed like forever. She hadn’t understood why the Nazis decided they had to clamp down on Jews-she and her family weren’t hurting anybody. She still didn’t understand, not really. But the time since Hitler took over had been plenty to teach her that people could act like vicious idiots without having any good reason for it.

Her mother had the radio on. She was listening to a German station. Listening to foreign broadcasts was illegal for everybody. But ordinary Germans who did something like that might escape with a warning if they got caught-the first time, anyway. Any infraction at all would send Jews straight to Dachau or Buchenwald.

“German storm troops fight today on the outskirts of Prague!” the announcer shouted. He had a hoarse, braying voice and a strong Berlin accent. Sarah thought he sounded like a Prussian jackass, which he probably was. “Czech air pirates dropped bombs on a school in Dresden, murdering seventeen innocent children at play!”

“Why were children playing during an air raid?” Hanna Goldman asked. The same question had formed in Sarah’s mind. She wondered how many people thought that way. Not very many, evidently, or the announcer couldn’t have got away with spewing such nonsense.

“Farther east, our victorious soldiers advancing from north and south have met in Moravia, sealing the fate of the Czech army and of what was the vicious bandit state of Czechoslovakia!” he trumpeted. “Now we can help the Slovaks achieve their national aspirations and whip the Bolshevik dogs back to their Russian kennel.”

“Do you hear that, Sarah?” her mother called from the kitchen. She was trying to make meager, bland rations into something worth eating for supper. Most of the time, she did it, too.

“ Ja, I hear it,” Sarah answered.

“Such rubbish,” her mother said. “Listening to that crap makes me embarrassed to be a German.”

“I know what you mean.” And Sarah did, too. In spite of everything, she still felt like a German. Why shouldn’t she? Her father had fought in the World War (the First World War, she supposed you would have to call it now) like every other German man his age. He’d won an Iron Cross, too. And he had an amazing scar on his arm where a French bullet had gouged a furrow in his flesh.

Her older brother was such a good football player, the Aryans didn’t want him taken off their team. They cared more about winning than about whether Saul was circumcised. That made nothing but sense to Sarah, but it had scandalized a lot of people in Munster. Tough men in black uniforms had paid some unofficial visits. Saul didn’t play for the Foresters any more.

But he still thought he was a German, too, in spite of everything. He and Samuel Goldman were doing their best to prove it today. Sarah didn’t know whether to hope they would fail or succeed.

The braying announcer didn’t say anything about the fighting on the Western Front. He hardly ever did. The Czechs were giving the war everything they had in them. The French and the English didn’t seem to have their hearts in it.

After an almost tearful appeal to buy war bonds, the newsman finally went away. The radio started playing music again. That was a relief. Music was-mostly-harmless. But you never heard jazz any more. The government said it was degenerate, like modern art. If the government didn’t like it, Sarah thought she should.

She was working on an essay on Goethe-Munster’s Jewish school naturally taught the German poets-when the front door opened. She put down her pen and dashed downstairs.

One glance at her father’s face, and her brother’s, told her everything she needed to know. “They wouldn’t take you?” she blurted.

“Bastards!” Saul seemed ready to kick something that wasn’t a football.

He towered over Father, who looked more sad than angry. “I had my discharge papers. I had my medal. I had my wound certificate. I had a letter from Max Lambert, who was my captain during the war. I had everything,” he said. “And we went into Wehrkreis headquarters, and they wouldn’t let us joint the Wehrmacht.”

“Bastards!” Saul said again.

Wehrkreis -Military District VI-was centered on Munster. It drew in recruits from all over Westphalia and from western Hanover. But it didn’t want a couple of Jews, even if one was a veteran and the other a fine physical specimen.

Sarah’s mother came out of the kitchen. “What did they tell you?” she asked.

“They told us no, that’s what. There’s a law, it seems, from 1935, that says Jews can’t join up,” Samuel Goldman answered. One corner of his mouth curled up in a wry smile. “Even so, I don’t think they expected to see us sticking our heads into the lion’s mouth.”

“We didn’t,” Saul said. “If we’d tried to join the SS, now…”

In spite of five years of ever harder times, in spite of a day of crushing disappointment, Father started to laugh. When he did, the rest of the Goldmans did, too. He lit a cigarette. German tobacco smelled nastier than it had a couple of years before. Sarah didn’t smoke, but Father said it tasted worse, too. Fewer imports…

Father blew out a gray cloud. “In fact, I’m sure they didn’t expect anyone like us,” he said.

“Why are you so sure?” Mother asked, as she was supposed to.

“Why? I’ll tell you why.” Samuel Goldman’s mouth quirked again, but this time it was more grimace than smile. “Because the Feldwebel we talked to wasn’t even mean to us. He just said it was impossible, and he kept on saying it, and he finally went and got a captain who said the same thing. The captain was polite, too-turns out he knows Max. If they had orders about how to deal with Jews trying to volunteer, they would have screamed at us and called us filthy Jewish pigdogs and maybe said we’d just volunteered to clean toilets-”

“With our tongues,” Saul broke in.

“That’s disgusting!” Sarah exclaimed.

“That’s why they do it,” her brother said, and then, “Bastards!” again.

“Anyhow, they looked at my papers. I showed them my scar,” Samuel Goldman said. “I showed them the letter. I showed them the Iron Cross, but it was only Second Class, not First.” He shrugged. “I was a corporal. Almost impossible for an enlisted man to get an Iron Cross, First Class, in the last war.”

“The Fuhrer did,” Sarah said. He was proud of it, too. He wore it on his left breast pocket all the time.

Father sighed. “I know. But he was one of a handful. The Feldwebel told me to be sure to hang on to the papers. ‘You can’t wear the uniform again,’ he said, ‘but that stuff may save your bacon anyway.’ Then he laughed like a loon, because he thought saving a Jew’s bacon was funny.”

“What do you think he meant?” Sarah asked.

“Well, things aren’t as bad for us because I’m a veteran,” Father answered. “Even the Nazis respect that some. Not enough, but some.”

“I can’t say I’m really sorry they did turn you down,” Mother said. “Now I won’t have to worry about the two of you off at the ends of the earth with nasty people shooting at you.”

Father only sighed. “Plenty of things closer to home to worry about. Where are we going to find money? What will they do to us? We should have got out before the war started. Too late now. One of the things I thought was-” He broke off.

“What?” Sarah asked it before Mother could. Or, more likely, Mother already knew.

Samuel Goldman looked at her. “If your brother and I-or even one of us-got into the Wehrmacht, nobody could say we weren’t proper Germans. Nobody would do anything to the family because we weren’t proper Germans, either.” He gave Mother an ironic nod. “We might have been safer at the front than here in Munster, you know.”

Mother’s mouth twisted. “Don’t talk about such things.”

“Why not? It’s not as if talking about them makes them come true.” But then Father was the one who looked as if he’d bitten down on a lemon. Hitler had spent years talking about all the things he wanted to do to Jews. He talked about them, and talked about them, and talked about them-and the more he talked, the more of them did come true.

That was why Father didn’t teach Roman history at the university any more. Jews were forbidden from holding academic positions. Father still made some money writing articles for the monumental Pauly-Wissowa Real-Encyclopadie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft: basically, a multivolume encyclopedia of everything that was known about ancient Greece and Rome, up to the sixth century A.D. Samuel Goldman wasn’t the only displaced Jewish professor putting cash in his pocket and bread on his table that way. If you had an Aryan academic friend who would steer things your way-who would, sometimes, put his name on what you’d written…You wouldn’t get rich, but you might get by.

Editors paid by the page, too. Jewish scholars had written some monumental articles because of that. Scholars of the next generation would have a hard time finding anything more to say about quite a few topics.

If, of course, the next generation cared a pfennig’s worth about classical antiquity. Maybe all the Aryan scholars would study Goths and Vandals and Vikings instead of Greeks and Romans. But even then, Sarah knew, Pauly-Wissowa would help.

If anything helped, anyway…

* * *

From Calais, Alistair Walsh could look across the Channel and see the white cliffs of Dover smudging the northeastern horizon. He’d been in France before, in 1918. He’d been a private then, an unhappy conscript. But he’d discovered he liked soldiering, even if getting shot in the leg meant he spent Armistice Day flat on his back in a military hospital.

So here he was again, this time with the three stripes and crown of a staff sergeant on his sleeve. He’d come as far as he was likely to. They wouldn’t make him an officer even if the sky fell. He’d got what little education he owned in the army, and he had a buzzing Welsh accent.

Still, staff sergeant wasn’t bad. It beat the hell out of a lifetime in a factory or a coal mine, which he would have had if he hadn’t stayed a soldier. He could break in new men. And he could talk back to lieutenants, a lot of whom weren’t much more than half his age.

He also had the pleasure of the company of his own kind. The British army would have come to pieces without its senior sergeants, and was smart enough to know it. Lying right across the Channel from Blighty, Calais had a better notion of what made a proper pub than most foreign places. In fact, the fellow who ran the Green Duck was an Englishman. He’d got wounded during the war, too, and ended up marrying his pretty French nurse and staying behind here.

Since the British Expeditionary Force crossed, the Green Duck had become the unofficial headquarters for people like Alistair: men who’d been through the mill, who wanted a place where they could get a pint or three and sit around and drink them and have a smoke without getting bothered by officers or yapping soldiers. If they thought they knew more about what was going on than the General Staff did…well, sergeants have had such thoughts since the days of Caesar, if not since those of Hammurabi.

Walsh lit a Brutus and blew smoke up toward the dim ceiling. He turned to the man sitting next to him. “I tell you, Joe, it’s not like it was in the last go-round.”

“Too bloody right it’s not.” Joe Collins’ clotted speech said he came from London’s East End. He was a wiry little fellow, tough as a rat-catching terrier and about as sentimental. He held out a hand. “Gimme one o’ them.”

“Here you go.” Walsh handed him the packet, then leaned close to let him have a light. “It’s not, I tell you.”

“I said the same fing myself.” Collins blew out smoke, then whistled respectfully. “Bastard’s strong as the devil. Turkish blend?”

“That’s right. If you aren’t going to taste it, why smoke it?” Walsh said.

“Knocks the socks off Navy Cut Gold, it does,” Collins said.

“I should hope so.” Alistair took a pull at his pint. Some places on the Continent, they sold beer by the half-liter, which wasn’t enough. None of that nonsense at the Green Duck, though. Walsh repeated, “If you aren’t going to taste it, why smoke it? And if you aren’t going to fight, why send the bloody Expeditionary Force over here?”

“Politics.” Joe Collins turned it into the filthiest word in the world. “The froggies, they’d break out in arseholes if we wasn’t here, so we bleedin’ well are.”

“Sounds right to me,” Alistair agreed. “But say what you please about the frogs, last time around they wanted to have a go at the Boche. So did we. Everybody was dead keen to get in there and mix it up. Not now.”

“No, not now. Sufferin’ Jesus!” The other senior sergeant drained his pint and waved for another one. “The way those sorry sods are tippytoeing into ‘Unland…and they ‘aven’t moved us up towards the front at all.”

“Don’t I know it!” Alistair said. “We just sit around soaking up beer and pinching the barmaids’ bums…”

“You try it, dearie, and you’ll draw back a bloody stump,” said the broad-shouldered blonde who brought Collins his refill. The words carried a bit of a French accent. The sentiment could have come from any British barmaid from Londonderry to Dover.

“Don’t pay him no mind, sweet’eart,” Joe Collins said. “If I get my mitts on you, now, you’ll love every minute of it.”

“And then you wake up,” she retorted. Away she went, with a little extra roll to her hips to show the soldiers what they were missing.

Collins chuckled. “She’d be a ‘andful and a ‘alf, she would.”

“You might say so.” But Alistair wanted to talk about the war, not women. They could always come back to women, and they probably would. For now, though…“Only ones who fight like they mean it are the Czechs-and the Germans in Czecho, too.”

“Fat lot of good it does the bloody Czechs,” Collins said. “They’d be better off if they lay down for old Adolf.”

“Tell that to the next Czech you see,” Walsh said. “Go on-I dare you. But make sure I’m there, mind, on account of I want to watch him wallop the snot out of you. And he will, too. You’re a tough bugger, Joe, but these blokes from the middle of Europe, they bloody well mean it. Tell me I’m wrong.”

“Oh, I could lick a Czech or a Pole,” Collins said. “But if I turned me back ‘arf a mo’, ‘e’d bloody well pull a knife out of ‘is boot top and give me one right in the kidney. They don’t fight fair in those parts.”

Maybe that was it. Maybe it was just that Central Europeans were dreadfully in earnest. The one who’d plugged Henlein and touched off this mess-he must have known he wouldn’t get away. He did it anyhow. A generation earlier, Gavrilo Princip and his Balkan buddies hadn’t counted the cost, either.

“I wish they’d move us forward,” Walsh said. “I don’t give a shit about hanging out my washing on the Siegfried Line, but I’d like to see the goddamn thing.”

“Careful what you wish for-you may get it,” Collins said.

“Not here, by God.” Alistair Walsh shook his head. “The Frenchies say they did their duty by Czecho when they stuck half of one toe into Germany. And we did ours by the Frenchies when we crossed over. Fight? Oh, no, dear!” His voice rose to a shrill, effeminate falsetto.

Joe Collins laughed. So did the Englishman behind the bar. The tap-man could afford to. He’d done his bit the last time around, and paid enough so that nobody wanted anything else from him now. Walsh soaked up the beer. This was soft duty. He knew he shouldn’t complain. Drinking pints in a Calais pub when he should have been in a trench brewing tea with hot water from the cooling jacket of his machine gun didn’t feel right, though. Somebody in charge knew damn all about what was going on.

Or maybe that somebody knew entirely too well. There was a notion more frightening still.

* * *

Prague dead ahead. Ludwig Rothe’s Panzer II approached the capital of Czechoslovakia from the east. Prague was surrounded, utterly cut off from any hope of relief. If the Czechs had any brains, they would surrender. If they had any brains, they would have surrendered a long time ago.

Luftwaffe planes dropped leaflets on the capital along with bombs. Winds swept some of the leaflets far from the target. Ludwig had seen a couple of them. They showed Prague in flames while Jewish-looking men labeled FRANCE and ENGLAND played the violin. The German caption beneath them read Your allies fiddle while Prague burns; Ludwig presumed the Czech forest of consonants meant the same thing.

Burn Prague did. The sour smell of smoke and damp clogged the panzer commander’s nostrils. There was just enough drizzle to cut down visibility-not enough to do much against fires. Prague had been catching it since the war started. Not much of the place could still be standing. How many civilians and soldiers had died in the rain of high explosives? Ludwig could smell corpses, too.

But the Czechs fought on in the ruins, perhaps fueled by the courage of despair. If you want us, come and get us. Come pay the butcher’s bill for us, they seemed to say. And they were making it as expensive as they could.

Fritz Bittenfeld drove the panzer past the burnt-out hulk of a Czech T-35, and then past a dead Panzer I that had had the turret blown clean off the chassis. Ludwig winced when he saw that. Nobody’d really intended the Panzer I for anything more than a training vehicle. It didn’t have the firepower or the armor to fight other tanks.

If an emergency came along before your bigger machines were ready, though…If that happened, you used what you had and hoped for the best. And sometimes you got it, and sometimes you bought the farm like the two sorry sons of bitches inside that baby panzer.

Ludwig knew too well his own Panzer II was only a small step up. Its main armament was a good deal better than the Panzer I’s pair of rifle-caliber machine guns. It carried thicker armor, too. But the armor wasn’t that much thicker. The cannon on Czech tanks had no trouble piercing it.

He looked this way, that way, the other way. While he was at it, he wished for eyes in the back of his head. Smashed buildings came closer and closer together as the Wehrmacht pushed into Prague’s suburbs. Tanks and antitank guns and Czech soldiers with Molotov cocktails had all kinds of places to hide.

Landsers were supposed to root out such dangers. Panzers and foot soldiers worked best together. Each helped protect the other. Armor was great for disposing of machine-gun nests that could hang infantry up for days. Ground pounders returned the favor by spotting lurking soldiers or guns.

Broad-winged Heinkel 111s and slim Dornier bombers-Flying Pencils, people called them-gave Prague one more dose of modern war. Antiaircraft shells burst all around them. Not many Avias rose to challenge the bombers. The little biplanes sure looked as if they came out of the last war, but they’d given Germany’s fancy new 109s all they wanted and then some. The Messerschmitts hadn’t knocked them out of the sky. Bombers had finally plastered so many Czech airstrips that few Avias could get off the ground.

A Czech machine gun up ahead barked. Ludwig got ready to dive back into the turret. Anybody who talked about how the Slavs were a bunch of Untermenschen had never run into Czech engineering-or Czech infantry, for that matter. The guys in the brown uniforms knew what they were doing. They meant business, too.

Then, all of a sudden, the machine gun fell silent. So did all the guns on the Czech side. Little by little, German firing also wound down. Fritz’s voice floated out of the speaking tube: “What’s going on?”

“Beats me,” Ludwig answered. “Stay ready for anything. It’s liable to be some kind of trick.”

“Don’t worry. My asshole’s puckered good and tight,” the driver said. Ludwig laughed. Then he wondered why. If you hadn’t shit yourself or come close, you hadn’t really been in combat.

A Czech officer with a flag of truce came out from behind a battered house. He was an older man, old enough to have started out in the Austro-Hungarian army. He walked toward Ludwig’s panzer, probably because it was the closest vehicle with a German cross on it. “Will you take me back to your commanders?” he called. Sure as hell, his German had a cloyingly sweet Vienna accent, with Slavic palatals under that.

“I will, sir, but what for?” Ludwig asked.

“I have come to arrange the surrender of Prague.” No matter how sugary his accent, the Czech sounded infinitely bitter. “You’ve murdered enough innocent civilians. We can’t stand it any more. I hope you’re satisfied.”

“I just want to get out of this in one piece,” Ludwig said.

The Czech looked at him. “ Ja, you go where they tell you and do what they tell you. You’re nothing but a little cog in the machine-but it’s a big machine, and it’s slaughtered us. Will you give me a ride?”

“Of course, sir, if you can clamber on up. Not much room inside here, but you can ride on top of the turret. I’ll take you back to Regimental HQ, and they’ll know what to do with you…Theo!”

“What is it?” the radioman asked.

“Get on the horn with the regiment. Tell ‘em I’m bringing back a Czech colonel-I think he’s a colonel-with a surrender offer for Prague. Tell ‘em it looks like we’ve got a cease-fire up here for the time being, too.”

“Nobody tells me anything,” Theo grumbled. Sitting there at the back of the fighting compartment, he was the last to know, all right.

“I’m telling you now,” Ludwig said.

He gave the Czech officer a hand. The man might not be young, but he was spry-he didn’t really need the help. He might-he undoubtedly did-hate everything the German stood for, but he stayed polite about it. What did the diplomats call that? Correct-that was the word. Ludwig held out a pack of cigarettes. The Czech took one. “Thank you,” he said again. “Have you also got a blindfold for me?”

The accent that made Ludwig think of strudel didn’t go well with the cynical question. Trying to stay polite himself, the panzer commander said, “Your men fought well.”

“We are still fighting well,” the Czech said proudly. “This surrender offer is for Prague, perhaps for Bohemia, but not for all of Czechoslovakia. The war goes on in the east.”

Ludwig didn’t think his superiors would like that. He shrugged. He was only a sergeant. It wasn’t his worry. From the bowels of the panzer, Theo said, “Regiment says to bring him in. And they say the truce here can hold, as far as they’re concerned.”

“In the last war, we did not have communications like these,” the Czech officer said. “Do all of your panzers have radio sets?”

He sounded casual-so casual, he made Ludwig wary. “Sir, I’d better not talk about that. Security, you know,” the German said. He spoke into the tube that let him talk to the driver: “Back to HQ, Fritz.”

“Right, Sergeant.” The Panzer II turned nimbly and headed back toward the east. The Czech officer seemed to be taking mental notes. If he was coming in to surrender, it might not matter. Ludwig sure hoped it wouldn’t.

* * *

Fighters dueled over the Ebro. Chaim Weinberg watched the new French machines mixing it up with the 109s. Now that France and Germany were at war, the supply spigot to Spain finally got turned on. The Republic had seen more new equipment the past two weeks than in the two years before.

Just because it was new didn’t mean it was good. A French fighter spun out of control, trailing smoke. The Messerschmitt that downed it sought fresh prey.

Chaim wasn’t the only guy from the International Brigades who swore. In how many tongues did those curses rise? He’d thought-everybody’d thought-enough stuff would come from France to let the Republic settle the Nationalists’ hash in nothing flat. There was more, but there wasn’t that much more. And Sanjurjo’s bastards still seemed to be getting stuff from Germany and Italy. That shouldn’t have happened, either.

England had the biggest navy in the world, didn’t she? And the French had lots of ships, too. So why weren’t they doing a better job of closing down Sanjurjo’s supply lines? The only answer he could think of was that they didn’t give a damn.

Then he stopped worrying about their strategic options. A couple of those Messerschmitts dove for the deck. They weren’t running from the French planes. They were going to shoot up the Republican trenches.

Bullets kicked up spurts of dust, closer and closer. Chaim was too far from a dugout to dive into one. He folded himself into a ball to make as small a target as he could. The roar of the powerful engine and the hammering guns filled his world.

The 109 was overhead, so low that he imagined he felt the wind of its passage-or maybe it wasn’t his imagination. Then the plane was gone. But even if the wind was imagination, he didn’t want to unfold. He had to will himself into doing it.

Somebody not far away was groaning. That got him moving. You did for a buddy, because you wanted to be sure a buddy would do for you, too.

That big blond guy wasn’t an American. Chaim thought Gyula was from Hungary. Gyula spoke several languages, including English. In every damn one of them, he sounded like the guy who played Dracula. What he said now wasn’t in any language Chaim knew. It sounded impressive as hell, though.

“Wow,” he said. “What’s that mean?”

Gyula looked at him. The Hungarian had a mashed foot-no wonder he was groaning. He’d be lucky to keep it. “A horse’s cock up your ass,” he said in English.

For a second, Chaim thought the other guy was cussing at him. Then he realized Gyula was just answering his question. “Let me bandage you up,” Chaim said. He yelled for stretcher-bearers in English and Spanish. His own accent was god-awful, but people would understand that.

“You better cut my shoe off,” Gyula said. “Don’t try to yank it over the wound. I kill you if you do that.”

With that damn Bela Lugosi voice, he should have sounded silly. He should have-and no doubt he would have, if he didn’t so obviously mean it. Clumsily, Chaim took the bayonet off his rifle. At least it had a blade; it wasn’t one of the damn spears the French liked.

Gyula’s boot was falling apart anyway. That made things easier. Chaim winced when he got a good look at the wound. The Hungarian’s instep was smashed all to hell. Yeah, he’d lose most of the foot if not all of it.

He saw the same thing. As Chaim wrapped a puttee around the wound to slow the bleeding, he said, “I can go home now. Admiral Horthy won’t draft me.”

“Mazel tov,” Chaim said dryly. “He’ll shoot you instead, and not in the foot.” Gyula was close to forty. He’d fought in the last war, and for Bela Kun in Hungary’s short-lived Communist revolution. If he went back to Budapest, he’d be about as welcome as the smallpox.

“Right now, I wouldn’t mind. Hurts like a motherfucker,” Gyula said. “Got any morphine?”

Chaim shook his head. “Sorry. Wish I did.” He meant that. He could have got nailed as easily as Gyula. Dumb luck, one way or the other.

The stretcher-bearers showed up then. They were Internationals, too. That was good-or Chaim thought so. They’d be gentler with Gyula as they took him away. Spaniards faced their own pain with stolid indifference…and they were even more indifferent when somebody else got hurt.

Away they went. They wore Red Cross smocks and armbands. That might keep the Nationalists from shooting at them. On the other hand, it might not. This was a rough old war. You really didn’t want to let the other side capture you, no matter which side you were on.

Cautiously, Chaim straightened up till he could peer over the lip of the trench. He wanted to make sure Sanjurjo’s bastards weren’t swarming forward. As soon as he did, he ducked down again. He wouldn’t come up again in the same spot. He knew better than that. Why give the snipers a free shot at you? Guys who did that ended up with a new hole in the head.

He took a swig from his water bottle. It wasn’t water, but sour white wine-horse piss, really. But it was less likely to give you the galloping shits than Ebro water was. He’d had dysentery once, and was glad he’d got over it. He sure as hell didn’t want it again.

When he looked again, ten or fifteen yards down the trench from the place where he’d last popped up, he spied two or three Nationalists looking out of their trenches a couple of hundred yards away and toward him. As he ducked, he saw them ducking at the same time.

They’re scared of me, he thought, not without pride. They even looked like Fascist assholes. Like most of Sanjurjo’s better troops, they wore German-style helmets. But they were scared of a dumb Jew from New York City. If that wasn’t a kick in the nuts, he didn’t know what would be.

If you had a rifle in your hands, you were dangerous. It was as simple as that. The thing you had to remember, though, was that the other son of a bitch was dangerous as long as he had a rifle, too.

* * *

Vaclav Jezek stumbled over the border. Behind him, Slovakia was going to hell in a handbasket. The Germans were breaking in from the west. The Hungarians, not about to miss a chance to seize again what they’d ruled for centuries, were breaking in from the south. The Slovaks were up in arms-German-supplied arms-against what was left of Czechoslovakian authority. Ingrate bastards, Jezek thought, not that anybody gave a damn about his opinion.

He didn’t know what the Poles would do with him-to him-either. Poland was also more or less at war with Czechoslovakia. By now, Tesin would be Cieszun, or however the hell the Poles spelled it. He doubted whether his own country tried very hard to defend the mining town. When a lion jumped you, you didn’t worry about the jackals.

The country was rough and broken. Most of the leaves were off the trees, though, which made people easier to spot. And, being off the trees, the leaves lay underfoot. Every time Vaclav took a step, they crunched underfoot. They might as well have shouted Here I am!

But so what? He didn’t want to sit around in a Nazi POW camp till the war ended. Whatever the Poles did to him had to be better than that…didn’t it? Behind him, he could still hear bombs and shells bursting and machine guns going off. More Czech soldiers-the ones who could-were stumbling north, out of the fighting. They’d made the same calculation he had. Now…were the lot of them right?

Somebody up ahead shouted something. Vaclav almost understood it. Polish and Czech were closely related-not so closely as Czech and Slovak, but still…A word here and there came through, even if each of them seemed to carry an extra syllable or two.

Vaclav stood still. He thought that was what the Pole was telling him to do. “I give up!” he shouted back. “You can intern me!”

The Pole came out from behind a tree. He wore a greenish uniform, not brown like Vaclav’s (not filthy and tattered like Vaclav’s, either) or German field-gray. The bayoneted rifle he carried looked extremely businesslike. Moving slowly and carefully, Vaclav unslung his own piece and laid it on the ground in front of his feet.

With a nod, the Pole advanced on him. They tried to talk. It was an exercise in near misses and frustration. Then the Pole-a big blond fellow-raised an ironic eyebrow and asked, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

“Ja,” Jezek said miserably. Two Slavs, having to go back and forth in German!

“Gut,” the Pole said. “Jetzt konnen wir wirklich einander verstehen.” And they could really understand each other now, no matter how much Vaclav loathed the idea. Still in German, the Pole went on, “Give me your name and rank and unit.”

Dully, Vaclav did. “What will you do with me?” he asked.

“We have a camp a few kilometers to the north,” the Polish soldier answered. “Did you say you wanted to be interned before?”

“Ja,” Vaclav said again.

“I thought so, but I wasn’t sure,” the Pole said. “Well, you will be. You are not a prisoner of war, not here. Poland and Czechoslovakia are not formally at war.”

“No. You just grabbed,” Jezek said bitterly.

With a shrug, the big man in the green uniform answered, “So did you Czechs, after the last war. Otherwise, the coal mines down there would have been ours all along. And then you act like your shit doesn’t stink.”

“Oh, mine does. I know that,” Vaclav said. “But if you are friends with Hitler, he will make you sorry.”

“Better him than Stalin and the damned Reds,” the Pole retorted.

“You find friends where you can. At least the Russians did something for us. More than France and England did,” Vaclav said.

“What did you expect? They’re full of Jews,” the Pole said. No wonder he liked Hitler better than Stalin. He stooped, picked up Vaclav’s rifle, and slung it over his own shoulder. Then he pointed north. “The camp is that way. Get moving, Corporal Jezek.”

Shoulders slumped in despair, Vaclav got moving.

Chapter 4

The night was cool and damp. Most nights were, as October moved toward November. Willi Dernen peered at the Frenchmen who’d nipped off a few square kilometers of German soil.

They were warmer than he was. They’d started a fire and sat around it. From 300 meters, he could have potted them easily. Orders were not to piss them off, no matter what. If they wanted to sit on their asses as if they hadn’t crossed the border, they were welcome to.

If they’d really come loaded for bear…

Willi’s shiver had nothing to do with the weather. He was a blond, stolid watchmaker’s son from Breslau, all the way over on the other side of the Reich. He could hardly follow the German they spoke here, and the locals had trouble with his accent, too. But he’d been on the Westwall since France and England declared war. He knew what would have happened had the French put some muscle into a push instead of tiptoeing over the border.

They would have smashed the Westwall as if they were made of cardboard. Not a Landser here thought any differently. The Westwall was Goebbels’ joke on the democracies. On paper, and on the radio, it was as formidable as the Maginot Line. For real, construction gangs were still frantically building forts and obstructions. And the Westwall didn’t have nearly enough troops to man what was already built.

Most of the Wehrmacht had gone off to kick Czechoslovakia’s ass. What was left…the French outnumbered somewhere between three and five to one. That was the bad news. The good news was, they didn’t seem to know it.

One of the Frenchmen pulled out a concertina and began to play. The thin, plaintive notes made Willi shake his head. How could the guys on the other side listen to crap like that? Horns, drums, fiddles- that was music.

Beside Dernen, Wolfgang Storch whispered, “We ought to plug him just so he’ll shut up, you know?”

Trust Wolfgang to come up with something like that, Willi thought. He whispered back: “Damn you, you almost made me laugh out loud. That wouldn’t be so good.”

“Why not?” Storch said. “Probably make the Frenchmen piss themselves.”

Willi did snort then, not because Wolfgang was wrong but because he was right. Willi had come that close to pissing himself when he was part of a firefight right after the French came over the border. The guy next to him took one right in the belly. The noises Klaus made…You didn’t want to remember things like that, but you couldn’t very well forget them. When Willi went to sleep, he heard Klaus shrieking in his nightmares. He smelled the other man’s blood, like hot iron-and his shit, too.

One of the Frenchmen looked up. The guy with the concertina stopped playing. All of the men in khaki looked around. Willi pretended he wasn’t there as hard as he could. It must have worked, because none of the enemy soldiers got to his feet or anything. Tiny in the distance, one of them shrugged a comically French shrug. The concertina player started up again.

“Let’s head back and report in,” Wolfgang said.

“Now you’re talking. You and your stupid jokes.” It was hard to stay really mad when you were whispering in a tiny voice, but Willi gave it his best shot. “We wouldn’t’ve got in a jam if you weren’t such a damn smartass.”

“Your mother,” Wolfgang answered sweetly.

Both Germans drew back as softly as they could. The French soldier with the concertina went on playing. Willi took that as a good sign. Maybe the Frenchmen were using the noise as cover. That would be a smart thing to do. It would also be an aggressive thing to do. The French might be smart. They’d shown no sign of aggressiveness.

All the same, Willi wanted no part of a nasty surprise. All it would take was a sergeant who’d been through the mill the last time around. Willi’s father was a guy like that. When he and his buddies got together and drank some beer, they’d start telling stories. Like any kid, Willi listened. There probably weren’t a lot of guys his age who hadn’t heard stories like that. Some veterans, though, didn’t care to talk. Willi hadn’t understood that, not till Klaus got it. He did now.

They’d gone about half a kilometer when a no-doubt-about-it German voice challenged them: “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Two German soldiers: Dernen and Storch,” Willi answered. He and Wolfgang were out in the middle of a field. The Landser who owned that voice might have been…anywhere.

“Give the password,” the man said.

“Sonnenschein,” Willi and Wolfgang chorused. A Frenchman poking around could have picked it up from them, but the French didn’t do much of that kind of poking.

“Pass on,” the sentry said.

They did. The Germans were ready for anything. The French didn’t seem to be. They didn’t have to be, either-they had numbers, and the Wehrmacht didn’t. But they acted as if that would go on forever. And it wouldn’t.

Willi got a glimpse of just how true that was when he and Wolfgang finished making their report. They ducked out of Colonel Bauer’s tent and found themselves in the middle of chaos. Soldiers were jumping down from trucks whose headlights were cut down to slits by masking tape. Some of the belching, farting monsters there weren’t trucks at all. They were panzers.

Both Willi and Wolfgang gaped at them. Willi hadn’t seen a panzer up till now in all the time he’d spent on the Western Front. He supposed there were a few, in case the French decided they were serious about attacking here. But he sure hadn’t seen any.

“It must be all over in Czechoslovakia,” he said.

“Ja.” Wolfgang nodded. “Took longer than it should have, too.”

“Everything takes longer than it’s supposed to,” Willi said. “No matter how smart the generals are, the bastards on the other side have generals, too.”

Wolfgang laughed at him. “Generals? Smart? What have you been drinking? Whatever it is, I want some, too.”

“Oh, come on. You know what I mean. If the guys with the red stripes on their trousers”-Willi meant the General Staff-“don’t end up smarter than the generals on the other side, we’re in trouble.”

“But everybody knows the generals on the other side are a bunch of jerks,” Wolfgang said. “So how smart do our fellows need to be?”

Before Willi could answer, more panzers rumbled up. Shouting sergeants ordered them under such trees as there were. Not all of them would fit there. Soldiers spread camouflage netting over the ones that had to stay out in the open. Not many French reconnaissance planes came over, but the Wehrmacht didn’t believe in taking chances when it didn’t have to.

Wolfgang Storch pointed back toward the French soldiers they’d been watching. “Hope those assholes don’t hear the racket and start wondering what’s up.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Willi told him. They laughed. Why not? Their side was doing things. The enemy was sitting around. If the French had no stomach for a fight but one came to them anyway…

* * *

“Burn everything,” Sergeant Demange said. “When we pull back into France, we want the Germans to remember we were here.” The cigarette in the corner of his mouth jerked up and down as he spoke.

One of the guys in Luc Harcourt’s squad splashed kerosene against the side of a barn. Luc grabbed a burning stick from the cookfire and touched it to a wet place. He had to jump back, or the flames might have got him. The barn sent a black plume of smoke into the leaden sky.

Other soldiers were torching the farmhouse near the barn. “Hey, Sergeant?” Luc called.

Demange eyed him as if he were a chancre on humanity’s scrotum. But then, Demange looked at everybody and everything that way. “What do you want, kid?” he said. Make it good, or else lurked menacingly under the words.

“If we’re doing everything we can to hurt the Boches, how come we’re pulling out, not going forward?” As far as Luc could see, the whole halfhearted invasion was nothing but a sad, unfunny joke. Now it was ending without even a punch line.

“Well, we went in to give the Czechs a hand, oui?” the sergeant said.

“Sure,” Harcourt answered. “So?”

“So now there’s no more Czechoslovakia, so what’s the point of hanging around any longer? That’s how I heard it from the lieutenant, so that’s what the brass is saying.” Demange looked around to make sure no officers were in earshot. Satisfied, he went on, “You ask me what the real story is, we’re scared green.”

Maybe Demange would end up in trouble for defeatism if somebody reported him to the lieutenant. More likely, he’d eat the platoon commander without salt. And what he said made an unpleasant amount of sense. “We haven’t fought enough to see how tough the Nazis really are,” Luc said.

“You know that. I know that. You think the old men in the fancy kepis know that?” Demange made as if to wipe his ass, presumably with the collected wisdom of the French General Staff. “Come on, get moving!” the underofficer added. “I think you just want to stand around and gab instead of working.”

Luc liked work no better than anyone else in his right mind. Even standing around with thirty-odd kilos on his back wasn’t his idea of fun. But the fire warmed the chilly morning. He sighed as he trudged away. Pretty soon, tramping along under all that weight would warm him up, too, but not so pleasantly.

Every once in a while, somebody off in the distance would fire a rifle or squeeze off a burst from a machine gun. For the most part, though, the Germans seemed content to let the French leave if they wanted to.

Here and there, the retreating French troops passed men warily waiting in foxholes and sandbagged machine-gun nests. The rear guard would give the Boches a hard time if they were inclined to get frisky. The soldiers Luc could see looked serious about their job. They probably thought they were saving the French army from destruction. And maybe they were right.

Maybe. But it didn’t look that way now.

Luc’s company marched out of Germany at almost exactly the place where they’d gone in a month earlier. Luc eyed the customs post, now wrecked, that marked the frontier. Men had suffered there. And for what? Maybe the important people, the people who ran things, understood. Luc had no idea.

“It’s the capitalists who are making us pull out,” Jacques Vallat said. He’d been drafted out of an army factory in Lyon, and was as Red as Sergeant Demange’s eyes. “The fools are more afraid of Stalin than they are of Hitler.”

“Shut your yap, Vallat,” the sergeant said without much heat. “Just keep picking ‘em up and laying ‘em down. When you get to be a general, then you can talk politics.”

“If I get to be a general, France has more trouble than she knows what to do with,” Vallat replied.

“You said it. I didn’t.” Demange might have come out of an auto factory in Lyon himself. He showed no weariness, or even strain. By the way he marched, he could have tramped across France with no more than some gasoline and an oil change or two.

Luc wished he had that endless, effortless endurance. He was a lot harder than he had been when he got drafted, but he knew he couldn’t match the sergeant. Demange was a professional, a mercenary in the service of his own country. With a white kepi on his head, he wouldn’t have been out of place in the Foreign Legion.

“Back in France,” Paul Renouvin said. “Funny-it doesn’t look any different. Doesn’t feel any different, either.”

“Oh, some, maybe,” Luc said. “When I camp tonight, I won’t have the feeling some bastard’s watching me from the bushes.”

“No, huh? You don’t think the Germans’ll sneak after us?” Paul said.

“Merde!” Luc hadn’t thought of that. He’d figured that, once the French pulled back from Germany, the Boches would leave them alone. Why not? The Germans had pretty much left them alone while they were inside Germany.

“We’re going to pay for this,” Jacques Vallat predicted. “We had our chance, and we didn’t grab it. Now they’re done in Czechoslovakia. Where do they go next?”

“Didn’t I tell you once to shut up?” Sergeant Demange’s voice stayed flat, but now it held a certain edge. “You want to go pissing and moaning, go piss and moan to the captain.”

“He’d throw me in the stockade,” Vallat said with gloomy certainty.

“You’d deserve it, too,” Demange said. “Running your mouth when you don’t know shit…But if you’re in the stockade, you can’t do anything useful. Tonight, you fill up everybody’s canteen.”

Jacques’ sigh was martyred. Everyone took turns at the different fatigue duties. That one was more fatiguing than most. And the men had already been marching all day. Not that the day was very long. Darkness came early, and with it rain. Luc’s helmet kept the water off his head, and the greatcoat let him stay pretty dry, but marching through rain and deepening twilight wasn’t his cup of tea.

But tents and hot food and strong coffee waited for the soldiers who’d withdrawn from Germany. It wasn’t as good as ending up in bed with a pretty girl-but what was? Nobody was shooting at him. He had a full belly, and he was warm. When you were a soldier, that seemed better than good enough.

* * *

Peggy Druce had hot food, even if most of it was boiled potatoes and turnips. She had coffee. The Germans insisted it was the same stuff they drank. If it was, she pitied them. Nobody was shooting at her. She’d never thought she would have to worry about that…till the day she did.

She was a neutral, which meant the Germans treated her better than the English and French they’d also caught at Marianske Lazne. She got plenty of potatoes and turnips and godawful coffee. They had enough to keep body and soul together, but not much more. And if she were a Jew…

Till the war started, she’d looked down her snub nose at Jews. If you weren’t one, you did. She’d taken it for granted, the same way she’d taken for granted that nothing bad could ever happen to her. She was an American. She had money. She had looks.

Shells didn’t care. Neither did machine-gun bullets. She’d seen things at Marianske Lazne she wouldn’t forget as long as she lived. (And she wouldn’t call the place Marienbad any more, even if that was easier to say. The Germans used the old name anew. If they did, she wouldn’t.)

Not all of what she wished she could forget came during the bombardment, or when she was bandaging wounded afterwards.

Quite a few Jews had been stuck in the resort with everybody else. The ones who were foreign nationals aimed their passports at the Nazis the way you’d aim a crucifix at a vampire. Peggy had no idea whether crucifixes worked; in that part of Europe, some people might. But the passports did. By their growls, the German soldiers and the SS men who followed them into Marianske Lazne might have been Dobermans brought up short by their chains. However much they growled, though, they treated Jews who weren’t from Czechoslovakia no worse than any other foreign nationals they’d nabbed.

Jews who were from Czechoslovakia…Peggy shuddered at the memories. Jews from Czechoslovakia were basically fair game. It wasn’t so much that the Blackshirts kicked some of them around for the fun of it. It wasn’t even that the soldiers set others to scrubbing sidewalks with toothbrushes.

No. It was the way the Germans grinned when they did it. Peggy had had the misfortune to watch several SS men surround a plump, dignified, bearded, middle-aged Jew. The Jew wore ghetto attire: black trousers, long black coat, broad-brimmed black hat. In color, his clothes matched the Nazis’ uniforms.

Which did him less than no good at all. One of the Blackshirts grabbed his hat and scaled it. He might have been a nasty kid on a schoolyard flinging another boy’s cap. He might have been, yes, if he and his buddies didn’t carry pistols and have the might of a mechanized army behind them. A schoolboy could punch another schoolboy in the nose. The Jew would have been committing suicide if he tried.

He just stood there, hoping they’d go away now that they’d had their sport. No such luck. A different SS man pulled out a big pair of pinking shears. He went to work on the Jew’s beard. If he got some cheek or nose or ear while he did his barbering, that was part of the fun.

And the Jew just went on standing there. The look in his eyes was a million years old. It said his ancestors had been through this before, again and again. It said he hadn’t done anything to deserve it, but deserving had nothing to do with anything. It said…It said Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. Yes, that was from the New Testament, but so what? After all, what was Jesus to the Romans? Just another goddamn Jew.

Later, Peggy wondered why she didn’t charge the SS bastards. I should have, she thought bitterly. Most of the time, she was somebody who went ahead first and worried about it later. Here, she only stood and watched. Maybe horror froze her. Maybe it was sheer disbelief. Could this really be happening right here before her eyes, here in Europe, cradle and beacon of civilization, here near the middle of the twentieth century?

It could. It was.

The Jew didn’t say a word as he was shorn. He didn’t flinch-much-whenever the shears drew blood. He just…looked at the SS men with those ancient, pain-filled eyes. And that didn’t do him any good, either. When the barber was satisfied with his handiwork, he hauled off and slapped the Jew, hard enough to turn his head around. Another Nazi kicked the man in the ass. That got a groan from him and doubled him over.

“Enough for now,” said the SS noncom with the shears.

“ Ja. Let’s find a fresh kike,” another Blackshirt replied.

Peggy didn’t speak a lot of German-her French was much better. She understood them, though. Off they went, laughing and joking. The worst of it was, they didn’t act like men who’d just done something evil and cruel. As far as they were concerned, this was what they’d come to Czechoslovakia to do, the same way she’d come here to take the waters.

God help them, she thought. God help us all. But God didn’t seem to be listening. Maybe He was out taking the waters somewhere Himself, or maybe He was off playing golf in Florida. He could do whatever He pleased. His Chosen People didn’t look to be so lucky.

Even after the SS men went away, Peggy’d needed all of her nerve to go up to the poor Jew they’d abused. “Can I help you?” she’d asked hesitantly-in French, thinking more German was the last thing the man would want to hear then.

He’d straightened when she spoke to him. She remembered that, and the way he’d reached up to touch the brim of his hat, only to discover it wasn’t there. Where blood running down his face and dripping from one ear didn’t, the missing hat made him grimace.

Sadly, he’d answered, “Madame, do you truly imagine anyone could help me now?” His French was gutturally accented, but at least as fluent as hers.

She hadn’t answered him. What could she have said? Yes would have been a lie, no too bitter to bear. She’d turned away instead.

And then, poor devil, he’d tried to comfort her. “When you are of my folk, Madame, you learn to expect such things now and again,” he’d said.

Again, she hadn’t answered. If he was right, that only made things worse. If he was wrong…But he wasn’t wrong, dammit. You didn’t have to like Jews-and Peggy didn’t, not especially-to know they’d been getting the shitty end of the stick for the past 2,000 years. Had they ever got so much of it as the Nazis seemed to want to dish out, though?

People here in this camp claimed the Luftwaffe made a point of pounding Jewish districts in Prague and Brno and other Czech cities. Others said that was a bunch of hooey-nothing but stale propaganda. Peggy didn’t know for sure; she hadn’t been in any of those places while German bombers flew overhead. But she had no doubts at all about which way she’d bet.

One day, a uniformed German official-was there any other kind these days?-assembled the interned neutrals and harangued them in his language. Even though Peggy spoke some German, she couldn’t follow word one. The big, beefy fellow had an accent she’d never heard before and hoped she never heard again.

“He has to come from somewhere near the Swiss border,” a man standing near Peggy said to his wife. Peggy had guessed they were Belgians, but maybe they were from the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Then the official switched to French. He had a devil of an accent there, too, but Peggy could understand him: he slowed down to speak a language foreign to him. “Now that the fighting is over, we are arranging transport to neutral destinations for you all. There will be railroad service into Romania in the near future, as soon as lines through Slovakia are repaired.”

Quite a few people looked happy: Romanians, Bulgarians, Yugoslavs, Greeks. A lot of wealthy Balkans types came up to Czechoslovakia for the waters. It was the kind of thing their parents would have done in 1914. Some of those parents would have been citizens of Austria-Hungary Even the ones who weren’t, even the ones who hated it, would have been cultural satellites of the Hapsburg empire. That ramshackle state was twenty years dead now, carved up like a Christmas goose. But its influence lingered even though it was gone.

The Nazi official started over one more time, in what he fondly imagined to be English. Peggy raised her hand, then waved it. “Question, please!” she called in French.

“Yes?” The German didn’t looked pleased at being interrupted.

“Suppose we don’t want to go to Romania?”

“It is being arranged that you should go there,” he replied, as if her desires were as distant and unimportant as the canals of Mars.

“But I don’t want to.” Peggy never liked it when anybody tried to arrange her life for her. One reason she loved her husband was that he had sense enough to stay out of her way. She went on, “I’m an American. I want to go up to Poland or Sweden or Norway, where it’s easier to find a ship for the United States.”

“If the Fuhrer ’ s government has arranged that you should go to Romania, to Romania you will go.” The German official might have said, Sunrise tomorrow is at half past seven. He would have sounded no more certain about that.

Which only proved he’d never had anything to do with Peggy Druce. “No,” she said.

Had he worn a monocle, it would have fallen out. His eyes opened that wide. “Who do you think you are, to challenge the carefully arranged”-he liked that word-“plans of the Reich?”

“I’m an American citizen,” Peggy said. St. Paul could have sounded no prouder proclaiming that he was a citizen of Rome. If the Germans didn’t worry about doughboys coming Over There-well, Over Here-they’d forgotten about 1918.

Maybe Mr. Beefy had. “You are not in America now,” he reminded her. “We are obliged to repatriate you as we can. We are not obliged to be convenient for you.” By the way he said it, he would drive fifty miles out of his way to be inconvenient for her.

“You won’t even let me buy a train ticket for somewhere I want to go? You won’t even let me spend my own money?” Peggy had trouble believing that. People always wanted you to spend your money. That had been her experience for as long as she’d had money to spend.

But the Nazi’s nasty smile said he was going to tell her no. It also made Peggy give back an even nastier smile: the bastard had some of the worst teeth she’d ever seen. “You will go where we want you to go when we want you to go there. We will tell you how to go. This is to prevent espionage, you understand. We are at war.”

“Certainement,” Peggy replied. “If I told you where to go and how to get there, you would need to pack for a mighty warm climate. You can count on that.”

The German official looked puzzled. So did her fellow internees. None of the handful of other Americans seemed to speak French well enough to understand what she’d just told him. The Europeans, most of whom knew French at least as well as she did, didn’t get the American idiom. Bound to be just as well.

Romania! She threw up her hands. If she’d wanted to visit Romania, she would have gone there. Or she’d thought so, anyhow. Now she looked to be on her way whether she wanted to go or not.

* * *

Back in the Ussr. Sergei Yaroslavsky didn’t realize how lucky he was to have got out of Czechoslovakia in one piece till he found out how many aircrews and bombers hadn’t. The Nazis had far better planes, and far more of them, than they’d shown in Spain.

Even trying to learn what had happened to the fellows you didn’t see at the airstrip near Kamenets-Podolsk was risky. Ask too many questions, or the wrong questions, or even the right questions of the wrong people, and you’d end up in a camp. Over the past couple of years, generals-marshals!-had disappeared or been shot for treason after show trials. The NKVD wouldn’t blink at gobbling up a junior officer.

The Fascists could kill you. So could your own side. With the Fascists, it wasn’t personal. You were just an enemy. To your own side, you were a traitor. They’d put you over a slow fire and make you suffer.

Most of what Sergei knew about the missing crews, he knew because of Anastas Mouradian. Sergei still didn’t like people from the Caucasus for beans, but they had their uses. In a Soviet Union dominated by Russians (and by Jews, Yaroslavsky added to himself), the southern peoples had to stick together to survive, much less get ahead. They had their own built-in underground, so to speak.

And so the copilot knew to whom he could talk and how much he could say. He had reasonable confidence what he said wouldn’t go past the person he said it to. And Armenians and Georgians and such folk were like Jews: they…knew things. You never could tell how they knew, but they did.

One bomber had crash-landed in Poland. The pilot saved his crew, though the Poles interned them. Had the story ended there, Sergei would have been glad to hear it. If your plane had battle damage or mechanical failure, you just hoped you could walk away from the landing. But things took an ugly turn.

In a low voice, Mouradian said, “The families…” and shook his head.

Sergei needed no more than that to understand what was going on. “Camps?” he asked, dismally sure he knew the answer.

“Da.” Anastas Mouradian looked faintly pained that the pilot even needed to say the word. To Russians, Armenians and Georgians seemed sneaky, subtle, devious bastards. You never could trust them. Till now, Sergei had never wondered how he might seem to Anastas. Like a dim backwoods bumpkin? He wouldn’t have been surprised.

He wasn’t surprised to hear the aircrew’s families had been seized, either. If you didn’t come back to the Rodina -the motherland-the NKVD would figure you didn’t want to. Battle damage? Mechanical failure? The secret police wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about any of that. They’d scent treason whether it was there or not. And everybody knew treason was contagious. Whether the bomber crew caught it from their families or spread it to them, the families would have to be cauterized.

NKVD men got paid to think like that. Ordinary Soviet citizens had to, if they wanted to stay…well, not safe-nobody was safe-but somewhere close, anyhow.

“Bozhemoi,” Sergei muttered. “You’re sure?”

Mouradian’s dark, bushy eyebrows leapt reproachfully. “If I say something happened, it happened.” His voice went hard and flat. “Yob tvoyu mat’,” he added-literally, I fuck your mother. As always, tone and emphasis were everything when you said something like that. Said another way, it would have started a fight. But he meant something more like I shit you not.

“All right, all right. I believe you,” Yaroslavsky said. “It just…gets to you sometimes, you know?”

“Nichevo,” Anastas answered. Everybody in the USSR, Russian or not, used and understood that word. What can you do? or It can’t be helped fit too many Soviet scenarios, as it had in the days of the Tsars. Somebody once said Russian peasants ran on cabbage, vodka, and nichevo.

At a pinch, Sergei supposed you could do without cabbage.

As he had before, Mouradian looked around again. His voice dropped again: “You don’t want to tell this to the Chimp. He used to drink with the bombardier on the plane that went down.”

“He drank with everybody,” Sergei said. Sure as hell, Ivan Kuchkov ran on vodka.

“Just keep quiet. He may find out about it anyway, but better he doesn’t find out from you,” Anastas Mouradian said.

“Right.” Sergei nodded. If Ivan found out his drinking buddy was interned and the man’s family off to the gulag, he’d want to break something…or somebody. He’d get drunk, which wouldn’t make him any cheerier. And he’d babble about where he got the news. All of that could easily add up to trouble. Maybe changing the subject was a good idea: “Hear anything about when we’ll start flying again?”

“Not supposed to be too long,” the copilot said. “But who knows what that means?”

“Right,” Yaroslavsky repeated. Like old Russia, the new USSR always ran late. Five-Year Plans were trying to drag the Soviet Union into a consciousness of time like that in the West. Clocks sprouted everywhere, like toadstools. But with a language where the verb to be had no present tense, how far could the apparatchiks go with their changes?

Sergei thanked the God in Whom he wasn’t supposed to believe that that was somebody else’s worry. He just had to follow orders and not think too much. He was sure he could manage that.

A corporal in the groundcrew came over to him. “Sir, Captain Kuznetsov wants to see you right away.”

“I’m coming.” Yaroslavsky couldn’t suppress a nasty twinge of fear. “Did he say why?” he asked. Was he bound for Siberia? Did Kuznetsov get a command to take him out and shoot him? Sometimes following your own orders and not thinking too much wouldn’t save you. Sometimes nothing would.

But the corporal shook his head. “No, sir. Only that he wants to see you.”

“I serve the Soviet Union!” Sergei hurried off toward the captain’s tent. Anastas Mouradian nodded to him as he went. Something glinted in the Armenian’s dark eyes. Sympathy? Anastas was no fool. He knew all the things that could happen. He knew they could happen to him, too. The corporal, by contrast, was too dumb and too stolid ever to get in trouble.

When Sergei ducked into the tent, he was relieved to see no uniformed strangers standing next to Captain Kuznetsov, who sat at a rickety table doing paperwork by the light of a kerosene lamp. Kuznetsov looked up and set down his pen. “Ah. Yaroslavsky.” His tone could have meant anything-or nothing.

Sergei saluted. “Reporting as ordered, sir.” If he was going down, he’d go down with style. Not that that would do him any goddamn good, either.

“Da,” Kuznetsov said, again with nothing special in his voice. Then he went on, “Make sure you and your airplane are ready to fly out of here first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, sir!” Sergei couldn’t keep the relief from his voice. An order that was a real order! “Uh, sir…Where are we flying to?”

“To Drisa, northwest of Polotsk,” Captain Kuznetsov answered. “It’s right near the Polish and Lithuanian borders-and it’s about as close to East Prussia as we can get while we stay in the Rodina.”

“I see.” Yaroslavsky wondered if he did. “Will we be flying against Germany again, then, sir?”

“We have no orders for that at the present time,” his superior said. He didn’t go on to say whether he thought it was likely or unlikely. Sergei didn’t presume to press him, either. If you gave an opinion that turned out to be wrong, somebody would make you pay for it. If you kept your mouth shut, no one could pin anything on you.

Along with the rest of the SB-2s in the squadron (except for one grounded by bad hydraulics), Sergei’s flew out at first light the next morning. Ivan Kuchkov was badly hung over. Yaroslavsky wouldn’t have wanted to fly like that, not with the two big engines throbbing and growling away. Nothing the bombardier could do about it, though, not unless he wanted to try his luck with the stockade-or, more likely, the NKVD. If Kuchkov complained, the engines’ thrum kept anybody else from hearing him.

Russia scrolled along below the bomber: farmland and forest and swamp, with here and there a town looking all but lost in the vastness of the landscape. Puddles in the Pripet Marshes reflected the gray sky. Mouradian minded the map and made sure the bomber didn’t stray too far west and end up in Polish airspace. Sergei wasn’t afraid of what the Poles would do to him. They flew nothing close to the deadly German Messerschmitts. But what his own superiors would do to him for screwing up didn’t bear thinking about.

“Drisa’s in Byelorussia, yes?” Mouradian asked.

“Yes,” Sergei agreed.

The Armenian sighed. “They’ll talk like the Devil’s uncle, then.”

Russians didn’t have any trouble following Byelorussian. Russians could follow Ukrainian, which differed more from their language. And of course Byelorussians and Ukrainians had to understand Russian. But Anastas Mouradian had learned it in school. He spoke well, and understood standard Russian well. Its cousins, though, weren’t open books to him, the way they were to Sergei.

North of the Pripet Marshes, patches of snow started showing up on the ground. It would be colder here. Sergei suspected he would spend a lot of time in his flight suit. Leather and fleece that could keep out the cold at 8,000 meters could do the same against even the Russian winter.

He landed the SB-2 on a dirt strip outside of Drisa-an unprepossessing place if ever there was one. His teeth clicked together when the plane touched down. The runway was anything but smooth. He didn’t bite his tongue, though. And the SB-2 was built to take it. As he brought the bomber to a stop, he wondered how much it would have to take, and how soon.

Chapter 5

Another gray, damp, chilly day in Munster. Sarah Goldman sat in the rickety bleachers at a soccer pitch and watched her brother break away from the back who was trying to guard him. Both teams were made up of nothing but Jews. Saul was so much better than anyone else on the field, it wasn’t even funny.

The goalkeeper ran out to try to cut down his angle. Saul got his toe under the ball, lofted it just over the fellow’s luckless, reaching hands, and watched it bounce once and roll into the net.

“Goal!” Sarah shouted exultantly. Her mother and father clapped their hands. That made it 5-2 with only about ten minutes left in the second half. Saul’s team had the game in the bag.

But he only shrugged, as if embarrassed at what he’d done. He probably was. This was his second goal of the match, and he’d assisted on two others. The soccer couldn’t be much fun when you outclassed friends and foes alike. Saul might have made a professional in another year or two. It didn’t seem he’d ever get the chance now.

Sarah supposed she ought to count herself lucky the Jews got any chance to play at all. Yes, these bleachers might fall down in a stiff breeze. Yes, she was sitting on a blanket because she’d end up with splinters in her tukhus if she didn’t. Yes, the pitch was bumpy and looked as if it were mown by goats. This had to be the most miserable place to play for kilometers around.

Which was, of course, the only reason the Jews got to use it. Sarah pictured a plump, blond, uniformed athletic commissioner laughing till his jowls wobbled as he gave the two Jewish teams permission to play here. Maybe he thought a match here would be worse than no match at all. Were the teams involved full of Aryans, he might have been right.

Ever since 1933, though, Jews had had to take whatever scraps of comfort and pleasure they could find. Even a soccer match on a horrible excuse for a pitch was better than none. It gave people an excuse to get out of the house, an excuse to get together and see one another and gab.

Yes, a couple of policemen were also watching the game and the little crowd in the stands. What could you do about that? Nothing, as Sarah knew too well. If you were a Jew in the Reich, somebody was going to keep an eye on you.

She leaned over to her father and asked, “What do they think we’re going to do? Roll up the chalk lines and carry them home in our handbags and pockets?”

Samuel Goldman shrugged. “Maybe they do. Maybe they think we can turn the lines into bombs or something, and use them to blow up NSDAP headquarters.”

“Would you blow up Nazi headquarters if you could?” Sarah asked.

“Of course not!” Father’s reply was too loud and too quick. “The National Socialists have done wonderful things for the Reich. They’ve made Germany wake up.” Deutschland erwache! was a favorite Nazi slogan.

As Father spoke, his eyes told Sarah she’d been foolish. After a moment’s thought, she knew just how, too. Father couldn’t hope to give her a straight answer, not where anyone else could hear him talking. Yes, the only people in earshot were other Jews. But did that mean they wouldn’t betray one of their own? Fat chance, Sarah thought bitterly. If ratting on fellow Jews would give them a moment’s advantage, plenty of people would do it in a heartbeat.

Sarah hoped she would never stoop to anything as vile as that. She hoped so, yes, but she admitted to herself that she wasn’t sure. Times kept getting harder and harder. If not for Father’s gentile friends who gave him articles to write, she didn’t know what the family would have done.

Mercifully, the match ended. The teams lined up and shook hands with each other. Players tousled one another’s sweaty hair. The goalkeeper on the other side mimed chipping the ball the way Saul had, then threw up his hands in mock-or maybe not mock-despair.

The sparse crowd came down onto the pitch. Practically everybody there was related to one player or another. “You were great, Saul!” Sarah made herself sound enthusiastic, even if she knew her brother wouldn’t be.

And he wasn’t. “Big deal,” he said. “These guys try, but I feel like a grown-up playing against kindergarten kids.” He sighed. “Any soccer is better than none-I guess.” He didn’t sound sure; not even close.

“If the Foresters would let you come back-” Sarah began.

Saul cut her off with a sharp, chopping motion of his right hand. “The Foresters would. They’d take me back like that.” He snapped his fingers. “But if the SS says no…What are you going to do?” His wave took in the sorry excuse for a pitch, the fumbling opponents, and the paltry crowd. “You’re going to play in matches like this-for as long as they let you, anyhow.”

“Why would they stop you?” Sarah asked.

“Why?” Her brother snorted. “I’ll tell you why. They’re liable to realize we’re having fun in spite of everything, that’s why. And if they do-” Saul made that chopping motion again.

“Oh.” Sarah left it right there. Saul’s words had a horrible feeling of probability to them. The Nazis ruined things for Jews just to be ruining them. That was how they had fun. And since they had the Gestapo and the ordinary police and the Wehrmacht on their side, they could have fun any way they wanted.

One of Saul’s teammates called to him. The older man thumped the hero of the match on the back and handed him a bottle of beer. Saul swigged from it. He made a face. “Even the beer’s gone downhill since the war started,” he said. “It tastes like…lousy beer.”

What did he almost say? Horse piss? Goebbels piss? Whatever it was, it didn’t come out. As Father had driven home to them again and again, you couldn’t get in trouble for what you didn’t say. Nobody could inform on you for what you were thinking. That might save your life.

Or it might not. If the Nazis decided to do something to the Jews, or to a particular Jew, they’d just go ahead and do it. They didn’t need any excuses, the way they would have in a country where laws counted for more than the Fuhrer ’ s will. On the other hand, if a Jew was dumb enough to give them an excuse, they’d grab it in a heartbeat.

Sarah often wondered what she would do if Hitler or Himmler or Goring or Heydrich or one of those people came to Munster. If she had a chance…If she had a rifle…If she knew how to use a rifle…If pigs had wings…

Even if she did exactly what she dreamt of doing, what kind of revenge would the Nazis take? Would more than three or four Jews be left alive in the Reich a day after a Jewish girl shot somebody like that? Odds were against it. Too bad. The whole folk were a hostage.

In small groups, people started walking off toward their houses. No bus or trolley line ran close to this pitch-what a surprise! Buses had almost disappeared since the war started anyhow; whatever fuel Germany had went to the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine. The only private cars that still got gasoline belonged to doctors.

Well, walking a couple of kilometers was supposed to be good for you. Saul didn’t seem to fret about it. But Sarah was tired by the time she got home. Put together more exercise than she was used to and tight wartime rations-all the tighter because she was a Jew-and she felt as if she were walking uphill both ways.

There wasn’t much hot water, either. Saul complained loudest about that-after ninety minutes of running up and down the pitch, he needed hot water most. Or he thought he did, anyhow. Staring at his grass-and mud-stained soccer togs, Mother only sighed. Those wouldn’t come clean in cold water, either.

Staring glumly at black bread and cabbage and potatoes on her supper plate, Sarah asked, “What are we going to do?”

“If we get through this alive, we’re ahead of the game,” her father said, eyeing his supper with similar distaste. Sarah started to cry. She’d wanted reassurance, but all she’d got was something she had no trouble seeing herself.

* * *

A runner brought Sergeant Hideki Fujita’s squad the news: “Radio Berlin says Russia bombed East Prussia last night,” the man reported. He stumbled a little over Russia and Prussia, but Fujita followed him. The sergeant had studied a map. East Prussia was the part of Germany the Reds could reach most easily.

Fujita glanced west, toward the Halha River and the high ground on the far side. He would have been happy had only Mongol troops prowled there. But, without a doubt, Russians were peering at the Japanese positions through field glasses and rangefinders. Were they listening to some incomprehensible Soviet broadcast telling them that, 10,000 kilometers off to the west, their vast country had just given another punch in the European war?

If they were, what did they propose to do about it? Would they send more men out to this distant frontier to strengthen their Mongolian puppets? Or would they think the fight against Germany-which was, after all, much closer to their heartland-counted for more than this distant skirmish?

“Any intercepts?” Fujita asked the runner. The Russians were tough bastards-at least for Westerners-but they had horrible radio security. Half the time, they’d send in plain language what they should have encoded.

But this time the lance corporal shook his head. “Not that I heard about, anyhow,” he answered.

“All right,” Fujita said. “Any gossip about what we’ll do on account of this news?”

“Not that I heard about, Sergeant- san,” the runner repeated.

“Too bad.” Fujita made himself shrug. “One way or another, we’ll find out sooner or later.”

Whatever Japan did, the sergeant suspected it wouldn’t happen at once. Fall and winter weren’t the best time for campaigning up here. As if to prove as much, the wind swung around to blow out of the west the next morning, and carried choking clouds of yellow-brown dust from the Mongolian heartland with it.

It blew hard for three days. Dust from Mongolia blew all the way down to Peking and beyond. So close to the source, the storm was appalling. When the sky finally cleared, when the sun no longer seemed to shine through billowing smoke, the whole landscape had changed. Dunes had shifted. Some had grown, others disappeared. Dust buried the scraggly patches of steppe grass.

Captain Hasegawa, the company commander, shook his head after coming by to survey the outpost. “Can you imagine living your whole life in country like this? Turn your back on it, and half of it blows away.”

The mere thought was enough to make Sergeant Fujita shudder. “Sir, as far as I’m concerned, the Mongols are welcome to it.” Then he corrected himself before Hasegawa could: “Well, they’re welcome to all of it that doesn’t belong to Manchukuo, anyhow.”

“Hai. To that much and not a centimeter more,” Captain Hasegawa said. Fujita let out a small sigh of relief-he wasn’t in trouble, anyhow. Hasegawa looked out over the altered countryside. “At least the Russians will have as much trouble seeing what we’re up to as we do with them.”

“Yes, sir.” Fujita didn’t care to argue, even if he wasn’t one hundred percent convinced. Oh, the captain was right-the Russians wouldn’t be able to operate as usual during dust storms, either. But what about the Mongols themselves? The Japanese in this miserable place were probably lucky the natives hadn’t sneaked through the dust and slit all their throats.

“You heard the Russians are really going after the Germans?” Captain Hasegawa asked.

“Oh, yes, sir,” Fujita said. “The runner got here the day before the storm started.”

“All right,” the company commander said. “Well, you can bet we’ll take advantage of that. We’d have to be idiots not to.”

And so? Officers are idiots all the time. Fujita didn’t say that. Sergeants might take it for granted, but somebody with more gold and less red on his collar tabs wouldn’t. Fujita rubbed at his eyes, which still felt gritty. His teeth crunched every time he closed his mouth. He found something safe: “Whatever they want us to do, we’ll do it. You know you can count on that, sir.”

Of course we’ll do it. If we disobey the orders, they’ll kill us. And our families back in the Home Islands will be disgraced. Sergeant Fujita knew exactly how things worked. For common soldiers and noncommissioned officers, the army was a cruel, harsh, brutal place. Officers didn’t have it so bad-but they necessarily looked the other way while noncoms kept privates in line.

Many Japanese soldiers began coming up toward the front a few days later. Sergeant Fujita would rather have seen them move up during the dust storm, too. Pointing in the direction of the high ground on the other side of the Halha, he complained, “The Russians can watch everything we do.”

“For now,” Captain Hasegawa said. “Once we get moving, we’ll take their observation posts away from them, neh?”

“Yes, sir.” Fujita said the only thing he could. He wished he were as confident as the company commander-and, presumably, the high command. But the Japanese and the Russians had been banging heads on the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia for a while now. The Red Army had more airplanes, more armor, and more artillery-and had had the better of the skirmishes. Why should anything change now?

As if plucking that thought out of his head, Captain Hasegawa said, “The round-eyed barbarians will worry more about the Germans than they do about us. This is our neighborhood. They look towards Europe. They can’t help it.”

Since Fujita had had pretty much the same notion-and since Hasegawa was his superior-he couldn’t very well disagree. All he could do was hope it was true…and hope his own side brought in enough force to win once the serious fighting started.

Artillery did come forward along with the foot soldiers. So did sleek, modern monoplane fighters. Sitting on the ground, they looked as if they ought to sweep the Soviet biplanes from the sky.

Armored cars and a few tanks also rattled up to the front line. Fujita was glad to see them, and wished he were seeing more of them. This might be the back of beyond for the Russians, but they had plenty of tanks here.

“Don’t worry about it,” Captain Hasegawa told him when he cautiously expressed misgivings. “This isn’t the only place where we’ll be facing off against the Russians. We’ll put our tanks where we need them most.”

And where would that be? Fujita wondered. But a moment’s thought gave him the answer. If Japanese armor would strike anywhere, it would strike at the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Back before the Russo-Japanese War, the Tsar had been able to ship troops down through Manchuria. The Soviets couldn’t do that any more; Japan controlled the railroads in what was now Manchukuo. But, just on the other side of the border, the railroad was Stalin’s key to defending Vladivostok and the rest of eastern Siberia. Break the line, take it away from the Reds, and the port and the whole vast country would fall into Japanese hands like a ripe persimmon.

The Russians weren’t blind. They could see that, too. They would fight as hard as they could to protect the Trans-Siberian Railroad. But the Russian heartland lay thousands of kilometers off to the west. Japan lay right across the sea that bore her name. The Amur separated Manchukuo from the USSR, the Yalu divided Chosen-Korea, to old people-from Stalin’s ramshackle Asiatic empire. Logistics, then, were all on Japan’s side.

So the big fight would be there, along the border between Japan’s mainland possessions and Soviet Siberia. This Mongol business was only a sideshow. It would never be anything but a sideshow-that was how it looked to Sergeant Fujita, anyhow.

He sighed. “We’re stuck here, neh?”

“Yes, I think we are.” Captain Hasegawa sent him a shrewd look. “Why? Would you rather be on the Amur?”

“Yes, sir, I would.” Fujita didn’t beat around the bush. “What happens there really means something. This…This is nothing but a bunch of crap. Please excuse me for saying so, sir, but it’s true.”

He waited for a reprimand, or maybe even a slap in the face. You weren’t supposed to complain about your assignment. Oh, you could grouse with your buddies. But to a superior you were supposed to pretend everything was fine. Well, things weren’t fine. And, dammit, the company commander asked. All Fujita did was tell the truth. Of course, sometimes that was the most dangerous thing you could do, even more dangerous than charging a Russian machine-gun nest.

“We do need men here. We can’t let the Russians and Mongols steal what’s ours,” Hasegawa said. “But I admit, I wish I weren’t one of them, too.” He shrugged. “Somebody has to do it, though, and it looks like we’re the ones.”

Sergeant Fujita sighed one more time: a martyr’s sigh. “Yes, sir.”

* * *

Joaquin Delgadillo watched italian tanks clank toward the front. The crews looked impressive in their black coveralls. Delgadillo didn’t let the stylish uniforms fool him. The Italians looked much less impressive in full retreat, and he’d seen that move more often than he cared to remember.

Mussolini’s soldiers didn’t want to be in Spain. They cared nothing for Marshal Sanjurjo’s war. And they fought like it, too. If the Reds who fought for the Republic didn’t run away, the Italians would.

The Condor Legion, now…The Condor Legion was different. Joaquin Delgadillo didn’t like Germans. He didn’t see how you could. To him, as to any Spaniard with a working set of cojones, Germans were technicians, not warriors. They made no bones about why they’d come to Spain: to learn what they needed to know for the upcoming European war. Now that war wasn’t upcoming. It was here.

But the armored forces and machine-gun units in the Condor Legion had never got a name for cutting and running, the way the Italians had. Maybe courage wasn’t what kept them in the field. Maybe it was just professional self-respect. Whatever it was, you had to admire it. This might not have been the Germans’ fight, but they performed as if it were.

Now the Germans in Spain had the same enemies as the ones back in Germany: Communists, freethinkers, republicans, liberals of every stripe. And they, and the Italians, and Marshal Sanjurjo, were doing everything they could to crush the enemy here before the aid flooding in from France and England let the Red Republic seize the initiative.

Those Italian tanks kept rattling forward. Vinaroz, on the eastern coast, lay a few kilometers to the north. Sanjurjo’s men had already taken the town once, when they cut the Republic in half. Now an enemy drive down from Catalonia, one backed by French armor and aircraft, had recaptured it.

“What do you think?” Delgadillo asked his sergeant. “Can we get it back?”

Miguel Carrasquel shrugged. “That’s what our orders are,” he answered, which meant, We’ll keep trying till we’re all dead, or till the orders change-and don’t expect the orders to change. Carrasquel had bad teeth and was missing half his left ear. His grin, then, looked most unpleasant. “What’s the matter, Prettyboy? Don’t want to get messed up?”

Joaquin didn’t think he was especially handsome. But the sergeant called anybody who hadn’t been wounded Prettyboy. You didn’t want to get mad about it. Carrasquel was a good man with a knife.

Machine-gun bullets spanged off the Italian tanks and tankettes. The commanders in the impressive black coveralls ducked down behind the shelter of their armor. One or two of them waited too long, and got hit before they could. The armored fighting vehicles clattered forward anyhow. Joaquin nodded to himself. He didn’t mind people ducking when the enemy shot at them. He did it himself-who didn’t? As long as you carried on regardless, you earned your pay.

Tanks were magnets for machine-gun fire. He’d seen that before. Fewer bullets fought the Nationalist foot soldiers who loped along with the mechanical monsters. Since Joaquin was one of those soldiers, he approved of that. One bullet hitting you was one too many.

Most of the men up ahead didn’t wear uniforms at all: not what he thought of as uniforms, anyhow. They had on overalls instead, as if they were factory workers. That made them Catalan Communists or anarchists. Up till the war started, they had been factory workers. The ones still alive after two and a half years of fighting knew their business as well as any other veterans.

Clang! That cry of metal against tortured metal wasn’t a machine-gun bullet. That was an AP shell from a cannon striking home. Sure as the devil, a tankette came to an abrupt halt. Smoke and then fire poured from it. Ammunition inside started cooking off. Joaquin didn’t think either Italian got out.

“Tanks!” Somebody pointed ahead. The man’s voice wasn’t panicked, but it wasn’t far removed, either. More often than not, the Nationalists had had tanks and the Republicans hadn’t. With aid flooding over the Pyrenees from France, the miserable Reds were getting more of their own.

These machines were French, all right. By the look of them, they’d been around since the last war. But they had turrets and treads and cannon and enough steel to keep out small-arms fire. If they weren’t exactly swift…well, so what?

One of them fired at an Italian tank. Clang! There was that horrible bell-like sound again. The Italian machine’s armor wasn’t thick enough to hold out an armor-piercing round. Somebody got out of an escape hatch in the turret before the tank brewed up. It didn’t do him much good-a burst from a machine gun cut him down before he’d run ten meters.

Tanks on both sides stopped to fire at foes, then got moving again to make themselves harder to hit. The Italian tankettes kept on moving and shooting. They mounted only machine guns, and weren’t dangerous to real tanks. They could do horrible things to infantry, though.

As the tanks slowed, so did the rest of the Nationalist advance. Joaquin flopped onto his belly behind a pile of rubble that had been a stone barn. Every so often, he rose up enough to fire. Then he crawled somewhere else before squeezing off another round. No sniper would draw an easy bead on him. Veterans learned things like that. The guys who didn’t…didn’t get to be veterans.

Sergeant Carrasquel crouched behind a fence not far away. Delgadillo waited for the sergeant to order him forward again. But the squad leader stayed where he was, firing every now and then. He kept his mouth shut. Maybe he’d decided the attack wouldn’t get much farther no matter what.

Joaquin Delgadillo sure felt that way. The Republicans had been tough even while outnumbered and outgunned. This push, plainly, aimed to take back as much as possible from them while they still were.

It also seemed designed to get a lot of Nationalist soldiers killed. Mortar bombs started whispering down around Joaquin and Sergeant Carrasquel. Both men dug like moles. Joaquin hated mortars. The Republicans had been using a Russian model for a long time. Now they also had French tubes, and those were just as good or maybe even better.

Somebody yowled like a wildcat, which meant a jagged steel fragment had bitten him. Joaquin hoped it was no one he knew. You always hated to hear a buddy get it. That reminded you how easily you might stop something yourself.

“Ave Maria,” Joaquin whispered. As he went through the Hail Mary in Latin, his left hand found the rosary in his tunic pocket. Keep me safe, he thought. Let Marshal Sanjurjo win, but please, God, keep me safe.

* * *

The North Sea in November was nowhere a skipper wanted to go. It was even less pleasant in a U-boat than it would have been in a larger surface warship. Lieutenant Julius Lemp guided U-30 north and east. He had to get around the British Isles to take up his assigned position in the mid-Atlantic.

He liked everything about his boat except the way it rolled and pitched in the heavy seas. Type VII U-boats made everything that had come before them seem like children’s toys by comparison. They had outstanding range. They could make seventeen knots on the surface and eight submerged, and could go eighteen hours at four knots underwater.

During the last war, the British mined the northern reaches of the North Sea, trying to bottle up the U-boats. With hundreds and hundreds of kilometers between Scotland and Norway, they couldn’t sew things up tight there the way they did in the Channel. But they could make life difficult, and they did.

They were supposed to be trying the same thing this time around. Lemp had orders to sink any minelayers he spotted. Odds against spying any were long: it was a big ocean, and he couldn’t see very much of it, even with the Zeiss binoculars hanging around his neck. But his superiors were thorough. They wouldn’t have got those wide gold stripes on their sleeves if they weren’t.

Gray clouds scudded low overhead, driven by a strong west wind. In clear weather, Lemp would have scanned sky as well as sea with his binoculars. One thing had changed from the last war: airplanes were much more dangerous than they had been. They could carry bigger bombs, and carry them farther. And they all had radio sets, so they could guide enemy warships to a U-boat’s path.

In this weather, though, a plane would have a devil of a time spotting the U-30. Lemp thought a pilot would have to be nuts even to take off, but he also thought pilots were nuts. Maybe it evened out.

About the most interesting thing he saw on his watch was a puffin that landed on the conning tower for a moment. With its plump, dignified body and the big beak in bright crayon colors, the bird looked as if a talented but strange child had drawn it. It also looked confused, as if wondering how this convenient little island had popped up in the middle of the sea. Then it noticed Julius Lemp-and then it was flying away again, as fast as it could.

“I don’t like puffin stew,” Lemp said. The wind blew his words away. Chances were the puffin wouldn’t have believed him anyway. Birds didn’t live to grow old by trusting people.

At 1400 on the dot, Ensign Klaus Hammerstein’s shoes clanged on the iron rungs of the ladder leading up to the top of the conning tower. “I relieve you, sir,” the youngster said formally, and then, “Anything I need to know?”

“Don’t talk to puffins,” Lemp replied, deadpan.

Hammerstein’s left eyebrow-the sardonic one-rose a few millimeters. “Hadn’t really planned to…sir.” He took a deep breath, and his expression cleared. “Nice to get up here, isn’t it?”

“Don’t remind me. I’m going the other way.” With a sigh, Lemp descended into the bowels of the U-30.

When the sun shone brightly, when the sky was blue, when the sea was smooth, you could easily think that coming off watch and going back into the iron coffin that let you do your job was like going from heaven to hell. With winter on its way in the North Sea, the change wasn’t that bad, but it sure wasn’t good.

Bowels…Julius Lemp wished he hadn’t thought of that particular word, because it fit much too well. U-boats filled with every stench in the world; they might have been a distillery for bad smells. High on the list was the reek from the heads. Toilets that worked without putting the boat at risk of flooding were something German engineering was…almost up to. No U-boat had ever been lost because of a malfunctioning head-which didn’t make the toilets a nice place to be around.

Unwashed bodies, musty clothes, and stale food added to the reek. U-boats carried enough drinking water. Water for washing was a luxury they didn’t bother with. Seawater and saltwater soap were supposed to make up the lack. As with the heads, theory ran several lengths in front of performance.

Bilgewater added a swampy smell as old as the sea-as old as boats, anyhow. When you first came down into it, the combination was enough to knock you for a loop. After a while, you stopped smelling it-your brain blanked it out. But when you’d been breathing fresh salt air, the change was like getting a garbage can thrown in your face.

The sailors looked as if they might have been demons from hell, too. The orange light bulbs didn’t help. More to it than those, though. A U-boat skipper couldn’t insist on spit and polish the way officers in ordinary warships did. The men were too cramped together here-and U-boat crewmen were commonly harder cases than sailors in surface ships, too.

A lot of them started beards as soon as they left port. Shaving with saltwater soap was no fun. Even if it were, these guys were a raffish lot. They enjoyed flouting regulations. Lemp couldn’t very well ream them out for it, not when he was sprouting strawberry-blond face fungus himself.

Off-duty men looked up from a game of skat. Nobody jumped to his feet and saluted. If you sprang to attention on a U-boat, you were liable to coldcock yourself on an overhead pipe. In that, U-boats were like panzers: being a shrimp helped.

He hadn’t been below long when a shout floated down from the conning tower: “Ship ho! Ship off the starboard bow!”

That sent him scrambling up the ladder again. He wanted to see the ship for himself. No-he needed to see it for himself. If it was a warship, he would sink it if he could. No German surface units were in these waters. But if it was a freighter…Life got complicated then. Belgium and Holland, Norway and Denmark and Sweden were neutrals. Sinking a freighter bound for one of them could land the Reich in hot water. Freighters shaping a course for England, though, were fair game.

Up into the fresh air again. “Where away, Klaus?” he asked.

“There, sir.” Hammerstein pointed. “A smoke smudge.”

“Ja.” Lemp saw it, too. “We’ll have to get closer, see what it is.” They could do that. The U-30’s diesel engines gave off less smoke than did ships burning fuel oil or coal. And the gray-painted U-boat sat low in the water, making it hard to spot. Julius Lemp called down the hatch: “Change course to 350. I say again-350.”

“Jawohl. Changing course to 350,” the helmsman answered, and the U-30 swung almost due north.

Lemp and Hammerstein both raised their binoculars, waiting for the ship to come up over the horizon. Lemp didn’t forget the rest of the seascape and the sky. You could get caught with your pants down if you concentrated too much on your prey. That was how you turned into prey yourself. Every so often, when the skipper lowered his field glasses for a moment, he looked over at Ensign Hammerstein. The pup hadn’t forgotten to look other places besides dead ahead, either. Good.

“That’s no freighter, sir,” Hammerstein said after a while.

“Damn right it isn’t,” Lemp agreed. The silhouette, while tiny, was too sleek, too well raked, to haul anything so mundane as barley or iron ore. Easier to mistake a thoroughbred for a cart horse than a freighter for a…“Destroyer, I think, or maybe a minelayer.”

“I want one of those!” the ensign said. “The bastards are dangerous.”

“Too right they are,” Lemp replied. Admirals sneered at mines-but admirals didn’t have to face them. Sailors who did had a healthy respect for them. Mines were worse than a nuisance-they were a scourge. And they were an economical scourge, because they murdered ships without endangering the murderers…most of the time. But not today! Lemp set a hand on Hammerstein’s shoulder. “Let’s go below.”

The U-30 stalked the enemy warship at periscope depth. That slowed the approach, but no help for it. If the ship spotted the U-boat, she could get away-or fight back. In a surface action, the U-30 was doomed. Her deck guns were for shooting up freighters and shooting down airplanes, not for taking on anything with real weaponry.

“It is a minelayer, by God!” Lemp said. The silhouette matched the one in Jane’s Fighting Ships. How thoughtful of the English to help destroy themselves. The enemy vessel went about her business without the slightest suspicion the U-30 was anywhere in the neighborhood. That was just how Lemp liked it. It might as well have been a training run. He sneaked to within a kilometer.

At his orders, the torpedomen readied three fish in the forward tubes. The enemy ship filled the periscope’s field of view. Fighter pilots from Spain said you had to get close to make sure of a hit. The same held true under the sea.

“First torpedo- los!” Lemp called. Clang! Whoosh! “Second torpedo- los! ” Clang! Whoosh “Third torpedo- los!” Clang! Whoosh!

Under two minutes to the target. The minelayer showed sudden, urgent smoke-someone aboard her must have spotted the wakes. But you couldn’t do much, not in that little bit of time. And Lemp had aimed one of the torpedoes on the assumption that the enemy vessel would speed up.

Boom! “Hit!” Lemp shouted exultantly. The U-30’s crew cheered. Then a much bigger Boom! followed. The exploding torpedo must have touched off the mines the enemy ship carried. The minelayer went up in a fireball-and the U-boat might have been under the worst depth-charge attack in the world. It staggered in the water. Light bulbs blew from bow to stern, plunging the boat into darkness. Several leaks started.

With matter-of-fact competence, the crew went to work setting things to rights. Torches flashed on. Sailors began stopping the leaks. Lemp ordered U-30 to the surface. If there were survivors, he’d pick them up. He didn’t expect trouble, anyhow.

And he didn’t get any. Bodies floated in the chilly water. He saw no British sailors still alive. With that stunning blast, he was hardly surprised. A little disappointed, maybe, but not surprised. The minelayer had already gone to the bottom.

“Resume our previous course,” he told the helmsman. “We’ll celebrate properly when we’re clear.”

“Resuming previous course.” The petty officer grinned. Schnapps was against regulations-which didn’t mean people wouldn’t get a knock after a triumph like this.

Harry Turtledove

Hitler's War

These days, the British Expeditionary Force was mechanized. That meant Staff Sergeant Alistair Walsh got to ride a lorry from Calais to this piddlepot hole in the ground somewhere right next to the Belgian border. Then he jumped down out of the lorry…and he was back in the mud again. Twenty years unwound as if they had never been.

If anything, this was worse than what he’d known in 1918. He’d fought through the spring and summer then, and got wounded early in fall. Guys who’d been through the mill talked about how miserable trenches got when it was cold and wet. Guys who’d been through the mill always talked. This time, they were right.

He squelched when he walked. So did everybody else. People screamed “Keep your feet dry!” the same way they screamed “Always wear a rubber!” Not too many people listened-and wasn’t that a surprise? The first cases of trench foot meant rockets went up from the people with red stripes on their caps.

Walsh remembered a trick he’d heard about in the last war. “Rub your feet with Vaseline, thick as you can,” he told the men in his company. “Do your damnedest to keep your socks dry, but greasing’s better than nothing.”

Only one man came down with trench foot, and he didn’t follow instructions. “Good job, Sergeant,” said Captain Ted Peters.

“Thank you, sir,” Walsh answered. He was old enough to be the company commander’s father, but he would have had to start mighty young. “Some of these buggers haven’t got the sense God gave a Frenchman.”

“Or a Belgian.” Peters scratched at his skinny little mustache. Walsh didn’t think much of the modern fashion. If he was going to grow hair on his upper lip, he wanted a proper mustache, not one that looked put on with a burnt match. But he couldn’t deny that the captain was a clever bloke. Peters went on, “You know why we haven’t crossed the border and taken up positions where we might do some good?”

“Belgians haven’t invited us in, like,” Walsh answered.

“That’s right. They’re neutral, don’t you know?” The way Captain Peters rolled his eyes told what he thought of that. “They think they’ll offend the Boches if they get ready to defend themselves. Much good that kind of thing did them in 1914.”

Maybe he’d been born in 1914. Maybe not, too. Either way, he was right. “The Germans jumped them then. They’ll jump them again. Hitler’s a bigger liar than the damned Kaiser ever was,” Walsh said.

“Too bloody right he is,” Captain Peters agreed. “You can see that. I can, too. So why can’t King Leopold?”

“Because he’s a bleeding idiot…sir?” Walsh suggested. “Like one of those ostriches, with its head in the sand?”

“He’s got his head up his arse,” Peters said. Walsh goggled; he hadn’t thought the captain talked like that. “Thinks the French are as bad as the Germans. Thinks we are, for Christ’s sake.”

“What can you expect from a wog?” Walsh said. As far as he was concerned, wogs started on the far side of the Channel. The French were wogs on his side, which meant he cut them some slack. The Belgians weren’t, and he didn’t.

He had genuine respect for the bastards in the field-gray uniforms and the coal-scuttle helmets. The Germans fought hard, and in the last war they’d fought as clean as anyone else. What more could you want from the enemy?

Patiently, Captain Peters answered the question he’d meant as rhetorical: “I would expect an ounce of sense. If the balloon goes up-no, when it goes up-we’re going to have to rush forward to reach the positions we should already have. So will the French. That will give the Germans extra time to advance and consolidate, time they simply shouldn’t have.”

“What can we do about it, sir?” Walsh said.

“Damn all,” the company commander replied, which was about what the sergeant had expected. “Leopold won’t listen to reason.”

“Maybe something ought to happen to him-an accident, like,” Walsh said. “Not cricket, I know, but…Got to be some Belgians what can add two and two, right?”

“You’d think so. But if we try something like that and muck it up, what happens then?” This time, Peters answered his own question: “We throw Leopold into Hitler’s arms, that’s what. If the Belgians line up with Germany, we’re buggered for fair.”

Sergeant Walsh only grunted. He didn’t worry about Belgian soldiers. Who in his right mind would? But a Belgium leaning toward Hitler gave the Germans a red carpet for invading France. As soon as he called up a map in his mind, he saw as much. “We’d best not muck it up, then,” he said.

Peters lit a cigarette. Then he offered Walsh the packet, which an officer didn’t have to do. Walsh took a coffin nail and sketched a salute. Peters’ cheeks hollowed as he sucked in smoke. “Don’t get your hopes up for anything like that, Sergeant,” he said. “Not bloody likely, no matter how much sense it makes. The Belgies like Leopold, same as we like our King. That’s what he’s there for-to be liked.”

“Edward’s gone,” Walsh pointed out.

Now Captain Peters grunted. “You like to argue, don’t you?” he said, but a chuckle told the sergeant he wasn’t really angry. “If you could arrange for Leopold to fall in love with a popsy…”

“Could I have a couple of months’ leave to set it up, sir?”

“Why would you need so bloody long?”

“Well, sir, I’ve got to try out the popsies, don’t I, to see which one he’d like best,” Walsh answered innocently.

That won him a snort from the company commander. “Sorry, Walsh.” He looked east, across the Belgian frontier. “I’m not at all sure we’ve got two months.”

* * *

Once upon a time, U.S. Marines swaggered through the streets of Peking. People got out of the way for them. They had to be careful nowadays, though. They still counted for more than the Chinese did. But when Japanese soldiers came through, the leathernecks had to be the ones who stepped aside. Orders said so.

Pete McGill hated the orders, even though he understood the need for them. One Marine could wipe the floor with one Japanese soldier. Four or five Marines could lick four or five Japanese soldiers. The little men were plenty tough, but they were little.

And a platoon of Japanese soldiers could beat and stomp four or five Marines if they found any excuse to do it. They had, once or twice. U.S. military authorities protested when it happened. The Japs ignored the protests. As far as they were concerned, Peking was theirs now. All the other foreign troops stayed there on sufferance.

So now the idea was not to give them any excuses. “Hell of a note,” Corporal McGill complained. He and some of his buddies had just come out of the Yu Hua T’ai -the Restaurant of Rich and Fine Viands. He was full of shrimp and scallops, the specialties of the house, or he would have complained more. But he was also full of kao liang, which was brewed from millet and strong as the devil (some people said the Chinese also threw in pigeon droppings to give it extra body).

“Damn straight.” Herman Szulc knew what Pete was talking about. The big Polack had taken aboard even more kao liang than he had. Szulc got mean when he drank, too. “Ought to bust those little cocksucking monkeys right in the chops, just to show ‘em they can’t get away with shit like that.”

“Ain’t supposed to,” Pooch Puccinelli said. He always did exactly what he was told, and worried about everything else later. That made him a damn good Marine. Had the orders been to jump on the Japs with both feet, he would have. Since they were to go easy, he obeyed again-and he would do his damnedest to make sure everybody else followed along.

Szulc scowled at him. “I don’t got no orders not to bust you in the chops.”

“Well, you can try,” Pooch answered. Without orders, he didn’t back away from anything or anybody.

“Cut the crap, both of you,” McGill said. He didn’t want to have to break up a brawl between his pals. He didn’t want to get sucked into one, either. “What do you say we go get our ashes hauled?”

“Now you’re talking!” Puccinelli was always ready for that. Herman Szulc didn’t say no. What Marine would have? Peking was pussy paradise. There were lots of whorehouses, they were cheap, most of the girls were pretty, and all of them were versatile. The only drawback was, it was mighty easy to come down venereal. Flunk a shortarm inspection, and the Corps landed on you like a ton of bricks.

With money in his pocket and kao liang in his veins, Pete wasn’t inclined to worry about that-not now, anyway. Even a Marine corporal was a rich man in Peking. He knew damn well the Restaurant of Rich and Fine Viands had overcharged him and his pals as much as the Chinamen thought they could get away with. He didn’t care…too much. The chow was good, and it was still damn cheap. Whorehouses worked the same way. You could get whatever you wanted, and it wouldn’t cost you half of what you’d pay in Honolulu or San Diego. The Chinese put down less? Well, so what?

The Marines came out of Hsi La Hutung-an alleyway wider than McGill’s wingspan, but not by a whole lot-and out onto Morrison Street. Somebody’d told McGill that the Chinese name for the street was Main Street of the Well of the Prince’s Palace, but it was Morrison Street to all the foreigners in Peking. Iron sheeting covered the well these days, but people still shoved it out of the way and drew up water every now and then. Some of the Royal Marines said Morrison had been a writer for the Times of London, and he’d lived at Number 98. Nowadays, an Italian firm occupied the building.

Chinese on foot, Chinese on bicycles, plump Chinese riding in rickshaws pulled by gaunt Chinese, older Chinese women hobbling along on what they called lotus feet, Chinese (inevitably) selling things, Chinese spitting and blowing their noses…

Chinese scrambling out of the way…Chinese leaping from the street onto the rickety sidewalks…Chinese bowing low…

“Oh, fuck,” Puccinelli said. “Here come those goddamn slant-eyed mothers.”

Chinese were slant-eyed, too, but Pooch wasn’t talking about them. Up Morrison Street came a long column of Japanese soldiers. They marched in formation, a bayoneted rifle on each tough little man’s right shoulder. When a noncom spotted a Chinaman who failed to show proper respect, four Japs jumped out of the line, grabbed the offender, and kicked him and beat him with rifle butts. They left him groaning and bloody and hustled back into place.

“Nod to the slanty bastards,” McGill said. He met a Japanese sergeant’s eye and nodded, equal to equal. The Jap gazed back. His gaze showed nothing for a moment. But then he nodded back. He’d won the exchange-Pete had acknowledged him first.

The other Marines also nodded to the Japanese troops. They got a few nods in return. Most of the Japs just ignored them. Nobody gave them a hard time. As far as Pete was concerned, that would do fine.

When the tail of the column got out of earshot, Szulc said, “Been a lot of the little monkeys going through town lately.”

“Yeah.” McGill nodded. “I hear they’re mostly getting on trains and heading north.”

“They gonna finally get off the pot with the Russians?” Szulc said. “Talk about deserving each other…” No Marine in Peking felt anything better than grudging respect for the Japanese, and Pete had never run into a Polack who had anything good to say about Russians.

“Who cares? That ain’t our worry any which way. We were gonna get laid, remember?” Puccinelli kept his mind firmly on what mattered-or in the gutter, depending on how you looked at things.

* * *

Number 1 Good Time, the joyhouse said in English. It had a bigger sign in Chinese. Pete would have bet that was dirtier. The Chinese had no idea what shame was, as far as he could see.

“Marines!” the madam exclaimed. Meal tickets! was what it sounded like. Sure as hell, they would have to pay more for this than the locals did, too. “Make you happy!” the middle-aged woman went on. Make me rich, she probably meant. Her cut of the wages of sin looked pretty nice. She wore brocaded silk. Gold gleamed around her neck and on her fingers and ears; jewels sparkled in her hair.

“Show us the girls!” That was Szulc, who also didn’t believe in dicking around when it came to dicking around.

“Yes, yes, yes!” The madam was all smiles. Pete McGill heard the ching of a cash register in her agreement. Well, what the hell did you expect when you went to a whorehouse? This gal had blond sisters back in the States. He’d dealt with his share of them. All the same, it did take a little of the edge off.

He got the edge back when he picked his girl. She reminded him of a Siamese cat, except her eyes weren’t blue. He paid the madam and took the girl upstairs.

His being large and hairy didn’t faze her. She wasn’t just in from the countryside, then; she’d seen round-eyes before. She didn’t know any English, though. Oh, well, McGill thought. He could show her what he wanted. He could-and he did.

The way she gasped and squeezed him inside at the end made him think he brought her off, too. Of course, whores were part actresses. If they made the john think he was a prize stud, he’d shell out more. And Pete did give her an extra dollar, saying, “Don’t tell the old bitch downstairs.”

She hugged him and kissed him and made the fat silver coin disappear even though she was naked. Pete didn’t see exactly where it went. Into her lacquered hair? Or…? He shrugged. It wasn’t his worry.

Szulc was sitting in the waiting room when he got down there. Puccinelli took longer coming back. “Twice!” he said proudly.

“You went off in your pants the first time?” McGill gibed.

“Not likely!” Pooch said. “You shoulda heard that broad squeal!”

“Thank you! Thank you! Drink?” the madam said. Herman Szulc looked ready, but Pete shook his head and steered his buddies out.

“You don’t wanna have any fun,” Szulc complained.

“I don’t wanna get drugged and rolled,” McGill answered. “I may be dumb, but I ain’t that dumb. If I was a regular there, I might chance it, but not when it’s my first time in the joint.”

“Let’s go some place where they do know us and drink there,” Pooch said.

“Now you’re talking!” Szulc said. It sounded good to Pete, too.

When they got back to the barracks, they were drunk as lords. The next morning, McGill repented of his sins. Coffee and aspirins blunted down the whimwhams without stopping them.

Pete felt so rotten, he almost forgot about the long column of Japanese troops he’d seen the night before. Almost, but not quite. He reported to Captain Horner, his company commander.

Horner heard him out, then nodded. “Uh- huh,” the officer said thoughtfully. “You think they were going to head north?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure, sir,” McGill replied. “If I was a betting man, though, that’s how I’d lay my money.”

“If you were a betting man…” Horner snorted. “You’d bet on how many raindrops landed in a pail in twenty minutes.” He had a Tidewater accent thick enough to slice. A hell of a lot of Marines, and especially Marine officers, had a drawl. And Captain Horner knew him damn well.

“One good thing, sir,” McGill said. The captain raised a blond eyebrow. Pete went on, “If the Japs are heading north like that, they ain’t gonna jump on us right away.”

“You hope,” Horner said. Pete nodded. The company CO was right. He sure as hell did hope.

* * *

Interned. Officially, Vaclav Jezek was classed as a displaced person. It wasn’t quite the same as being a POW. The Poles were treating all the Czechs who’d got over the border-soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children-the same way.

Yeah, they were treating them all the same way, all right. They were treating them all like dogs.

Barbed wire fenced off the Czechs’ encampment from the rest of Poland. Poles with rifles and sandbagged machine-gun nests made sure the Czechs didn’t come through the wire. The DPs lived under canvas despite rain and cold. They ate Polish army rations. That was what the Poles claimed, anyhow. If it was true, Vaclav pitied Polish soldiers.

Most of the Polish guards treated the Czech men-and especially the soldiers-like animals in the zoo. (Quite a few of them were friendly to the Czech women-what a surprise! And some of the women gave their all, too, for better food or more food or whatever else they happened to need.)

A few of the guards turned out to be human beings in spite of being Poles-that was how Jezek saw it, anyhow, though he wasn’t an unbiased observer. He could talk to them in bits of Czech and Polish and in (dammit!) German. “We don’t want you people here,” one of the decent guards said. “You embarrass us.”

“Why?” Vaclav said. “All we did was get out alive after the fucking Nazis went and jumped us.”

“But Poland and Germany are friends,” the Polish soldier said. “That’s why we don’t want you here.”

“Friends with Germany? God help you!” Jezek said. “Is the pig friends with the farmer? Till he’s a ham, he is.”

The Pole-his name was Leszek-pointed east. “Germany keeps the Russians away. Better Hitler than Stalin any day.”

“Better anybody than Hitler,” Vaclav said stubbornly. “Anybody. Better the Devil than Hitler.”

Leszek crossed himself. “Stalin is the Devil. He turns churches into stables and brothels. And half the Reds who run Russia are kikes. Hitler knows what to do about them, by God. We ought to give ours what-for, too. If we don’t, they’ll steal the country out from under us.”

Vaclav didn’t care about Jews one way or the other. He just said, “If you end up in bed with the Nazis, you’ll get it as bad as the Jews do.”

“You’re only mad because the Germans beat you,” Leszek said.

“Sure. And Poland never lost a war,” the Czech retorted. Even if Leszek wasn’t a bad guy, that reminder was more than he could stomach. He stomped off. Vaclav wondered if he’d come back with his buddies to do some real stomping. But Leszek didn’t, which only proved he had an even temper.

A few days later, a Czech-speaking Polish officer addressed the displaced persons. He used Czech words, all right, but he pronounced them like a Pole: with the accent always on the next-to-last syllable, not at the beginning of a word, where to Czech ears it belonged. “A Czechoslovak government-in-exile has been formed in Paris,” he said. “Its leaders say they will care for anyone who comes to them. I am looking for volunteers at the moment.”

Never volunteer. Any soldier knew that ancient basic rule. Vaclav’s hand shot up all the same. Anything had to be better than this. And what would the Poles do to Czech soldiers who didn’t volunteer? Ship them back over the border into German hands? Then it would be a POW cage for the rest of the war-if it wasn’t a bullet in the back of the neck.

Several other men also raised their hands, and a few women as well. The rest stood where they were without doing anything. The Polish officer’s lips thinned. He must have expected a bigger response. When he saw he wouldn’t get one, he said, “All right. Take whatever you have and meet me by the east gate in fifteen minutes.” He strode away, his polished boots gleaming.

Vaclav didn’t need fifteen minutes to gather his belongings. The Poles had relieved him of his rifle and ammunition and helmet and entrenching tool. He’d eaten the iron rations he’d carried. About all that was left in his pack were a blanket, a spare pair of socks, a housewife for quick repairs-he’d never make a tailor-some bandages, and his bayonet, which the Poles hadn’t wanted. It made a perfectly good eating knife.

A couple of Czechs who hadn’t raised a hand joined the men and women who had. They must have decided, as Vaclav had, that anything beat this.

The Polish officer led a squad of riflemen. “Come with me,” he told the Czechs. “Make sure you come with me. If you try to run off, I promise you will never do another foolish thing again.”

Off they went, at a brisk military march. Some of the Czechs weren’t young, and couldn’t keep up. Grudgingly, the Polish officer slowed down for them. He might have laid on a truck or two. He might have, but he hadn’t.

They marched for eight or ten kilometers. It didn’t faze Vaclav; he’d done far worse with far more on his back. Other interned soldiers also managed easily. But some of the civilians looked ready to fall over dead by the time they got to a shabby little railroad depot sitting there in the middle of nowhere.

Half an hour later, a train chugged up from out of the west. “Get aboard,” the officer said.

“But-it’s going east!” one of the women complained.

“Ano.” The Pole nodded. He said that in perfectly proper Czech; in his own language, yes was tak.

“Paris is that way!” The woman pointed in the direction from which the train had come.

“So is Germany,” the officer reminded her. The woman’s face fell. The Pole went on, “The train will take you to Romania. There are supposed to be arrangements to transport you from there to France. If there aren’t…” He shrugged. Vaclav had no trouble understanding that. If there weren’t, it was the Romanians’ worry, and the Czechs’. It wouldn’t be the Poles’, not any more.

He wasn’t the only one to figure that out. Three or four people balked and refused to get on the train. The woman who thought they would cross Germany to get to France was one of them. She wasn’t bad-looking, but Vaclav felt better about boarding after she didn’t want to. If someone stupid wanted to stay, leaving looked like a better plan.

The conductor spoke no Czech, only Polish and German. Those were enough. One car seemed reserved for the DPs. “No dining car for you,” the conductor told them. “We bring you food.” His scowl said they weren’t paying customers, so they didn’t deserve anything good. Jezek sighed. He didn’t suppose they’d let him starve.

And they didn’t. Cabbage and potatoes with little bits of sausage wasn’t his idea of a feast, but it wasn’t so bad as it might have been. It was better than he’d got in the displaced persons’ camp.

Krakow. Tarnow. Przemysl. Lwow. Kolomyja. And then the Romanian border. Polish and Czech were close cousins. Most Czechs and a lot of Poles knew enough German to get by. Romanian was something else again. The Romanian customs men who knew another language spoke French. That must have made them very cultured. It didn’t help Vaclav one damn bit.

An older man in his compartment translated for him-and for several other people. “I told them who we are and why we’re going through their country,” the Czech reported.

“What do they say?” Vaclav asked.

“They know about us. They know they’re supposed to let us in,” the older man replied. “I don’t think they’re very happy about it, though. They want to be rid of us.”

“Everybody does,” Vaclav said bitterly. The older man didn’t contradict him. He wished the fellow would have.

Romanian stewards replaced the Poles. Romanian cooks must have done the same thing, because the next meal the DPs got was a bowl of cornmeal mush. “Mamaliga,” said the man who dished out the food. “C’est bon.”

“He says it’s good,” said the Czech who spoke French.

He could say whatever he wanted. That didn’t make it true. The mamaliga did fill Vaclav’s stomach, though; when he finished the bowl, he felt as if he’d swallowed a medicine ball.

Vaclav could look out the window as the train rolled through Romania. Neither he nor any other Czech was allowed to step out onto the platform at stops, though. Romanian soldiers with rifles made sure they stayed inside their car. Lenin could have been sealed in no tighter when he crossed Germany to join the Russian Revolution. “We’re in quarantine,” said the older man who spoke French.

“How come? What did we do?” Vaclav said.

“We loved our country. We still do,” the other man answered. “The Poles and Romanians don’t want to make Hitler angry-the Romanians worry about Hungary, too, because most of the people in northwestern Romania are Magyars. So they’ll get rid of us, and they’ll try to pretend we’re not here while they’re doing it.”

He proved exactly right. Even when the train reached Constanta, the port on the Black Sea, Vaclav and his fellow DPs had precious little freedom. They were herded from their car to a waiting bus. No one was allowed close enough to speak to them; they might really have been diseased.

The corporal’s first glimpse of the sea left him underwhelmed. It was flat and oily-looking. It didn’t smell especially good, either. And the Greek freighter that would take them to France was a rust-streaked scow.

“Italy’s in the war,” Vaclav said as he clumped up the gangplank. “What if they bomb us?”

“Then we sink,” the older man answered with a veteran’s cynicism-he must have fought in the World War. He went on, “But I don’t think they will. Greece is neutral. The Italians want Albania. They won’t make her neighbor angry by going after Greek ships.”

“You hope,” Vaclav said, showing off his own cynicism.

“Don’t you?” the other man returned. Vaclav could only nod.

Sailors shouted unintelligibly. The freighter’s engine groaned to life. Coal smoke belched from her stacks. Longshoremen on the wharf cast off mooring lines. The ship shuddered as she backed clear.

A couple of Romanian officials stood there watching. To make sure none of the Czechs jumped overboard and tried to swim ashore? Maybe they thought the DPs would be so stupid. France was worth going to. Romania? Only a Romanian could want to live here.

Land receded. The ship rocked on the waves. The air smelled of salt and, faintly, of garbage. Vaclav didn’t care. He was out of his cage. He was going toward something. It might be only a bullet in the ribs when he got back into action. He knew that. Next to God only knew how long inside the displaced-persons camp, even a bullet in the ribs didn’t look so bad.

* * *

Ludwig Rothe attacked his Panzer II’s Maybach engine with a wrench. As far as he was concerned, the engine could have been stronger. Could have been, hell- should have been: 135 horsepower just wasn’t enough to shove nine tonnes of steel as fast as the panzer ought to go. Trying to do the job made the engine wear out faster than it would have otherwise.

Not far away, another panzer crew was working on a captured Czech LT-35. That was a tonne and a half heavier than a Panzer II, and had only a 120-horsepower motor. Its gun made it formidable, though. Rothe had seen that in Czechoslovakia. He wished the Germans could have taken the Skoda works undamaged instead of bombing them into rubble. But then he shrugged inside his black coveralls. What could you do?

Aschendorf was all the way on the other side of Germany from Czechoslovakia. The Dutch frontier lay only a few kilometers to the west. Camouflage netting hid both German and captured panzers from the air. They’d moved into position at night, with only blackout lights to keep them from running into one another or running off the road.

Nobody’d told Ludwig what the High Command had in mind. But nobody’d ever called Frau Rothe’s boy a Dummkopf, either. He didn’t figure the panzers were massing on the border with Holland to drive around looking at tulips.

He called over to the sergeant who commanded the LT-35: “Hey, Willi! Got a butt on you?”

“Oh, I might.” Willi Maass patted his pockets and came up with a pack. Ludwig ambled over. Willi gave him a cigarette and then a light. He lit one himself a moment later. He was a big brown bear of a man, dark and hairy, with some of a bear’s stubborn ferocity, too. After he blew out smoke, he asked, “So when does the balloon go up?”

“Whenever the Fuhrer wants,” Ludwig answered. The cigarette was crappy. He didn’t think it was all tobacco. Imports had gone down the toilet since the war started. During the last war, England had squeezed hard enough to make people starve. Things were nowhere near so bad now. Not yet, anyway.

The papers were full of stories about how good the war bread was, compared to what it was like the last time around. It was black and chewy, but it did still taste as if it was mostly made from grain. If it was a lot better than the last war’s version, that must have been really dreadful.

“Well, sure,” Willi said. “But when’ll that be?”

Ludwig looked around. It was camouflage netting and dummy buildings as far as the eye could see. “Can’t sit too long,” he said. “We’ll start feeling like moles in holes if they leave us here for weeks at a time. Besides, camouflage or no camouflage, pretty soon the French and the English will figure out something’s going on. Or do you think I’m wrong?”

“Not me,” the other sergeant said. “I think you hit the nail right on the head. I’d just as soon get going, too. I feel like moss’ll start growing on my panzer if we wait around much longer.”

“I’ll tell you something else makes me think we’re going to get rolling pretty damn quick,” Ludwig said. Willi Maass made a questioning noise. Rothe explained: “I saw Waffen-SS units coming in yesterday. Those guys are like stormcrows-they don’t show up till something’s about to pop.”

“Well, you’ve got that right,” Willi said.

They both smoked for a while and let it rest right there. You never could tell who was listening. Ludwig didn’t know what to think about the Waffen-SS. It looked like Himmler’s effort to horn in on the Wehrmacht. Not many men in the army liked that idea. Rothe knew damn well he didn’t. On the other hand, the guys with the SS runes on their right collar tabs had fought like mad bastards in Czechoslovakia. If there was trouble, they were nice to have around.

“It’ll be interesting,” Maass offered.

“Interesting. Yeah.” Ludwig stubbed out his cigarette under his boot. “I better get back to work.”

Willi Maass laughed. “Nice to know you’re eager about it.”

“Ah, fuck you-and your shitty cigarette,” Ludwig said. Laughing, he and Maass both headed back to their panzers.

Captain Gerhard Elsner came by a few minutes later. He eyed the exposed motor and Rothe’s grubby hands. “Can you be ready to move tomorrow at 0600?” the company commander asked.

“Sir, I can be ready to move in twenty minutes,” Ludwig answered proudly. “I’ve got ammo. I’ve got gas. My driver and radioman are here. Let me slap the louvers down, button her up, and we go.”

“That’s what I want to hear,” Elsner said. He’d been a noncom in the last war, and wore the Iron Cross Second Class. “Unless it rains or snows between now and then, we’re going to give them what for.”

“At 0600? We’ll be there,” Ludwig promised. “It’ll still be dark, or close.”

“No darker for us than for them,” Captain Elsner said. “We’ll be ready. We’ll know where we’re going and what we’re up to. They won’t.”

“Ja.” Ludwig hoped it would make a difference.

Everybody got a good supper: one more sign things would start any minute. The panzer commander stuffed himself. After this, it would be whatever he could get his hands on: iron rations and horsemeat and whatever he could steal from houses and shops. He shrugged. Holland was supposed to be rich. If he hadn’t starved in Czechoslovakia, he wouldn’t over there, either.

Nobody’d bothered to tell him why Germany needed to invade its smaller neighbor. He didn’t worry about it. Why should he? He was just a sergeant. When the officers pointed him in some direction and said Go, he went. An attack dog would have done the same thing. That was what he was: the Fuhrer ’ s attack dog.

He lay down to sleep by his panzer. So did Fritz Bittenfeld and Theo Hossbach. But Fritz wasn’t all that interested in sleeping. He kept going on about what Dutch women would be like, and Belgian women, and French women…

Theo didn’t say anything. He hardly ever did, except when he had to. Fritz wouldn’t shut up, though. Finally, Ludwig said, “You can’t screw them all.”

“I can try,” the driver said valiantly.

Ludwig laughed. Next thing he knew, Captain Elsner was shaking him awake. What seemed like a million engines throbbed overhead: the Luftwaffe, flying west to soften up whatever the Dutchmen had set up to try to slow the attack.

He was gnawing on black bread and sausage when his panzer rolled out-at 0600 on the dot. Artillery thundered all around him. The noise was terrific. He wouldn’t have wanted to be a green-uniformed Dutch soldier with all that coming down on his head. No, indeed. He was on the right side-the one giving the pounding, not the poor sons of bitches taking it.

Chapter 6

Two and a half weeks before Christmas. As Hans-Ulrich Rudel scrambled into the pilot’s seat of his Ju-87, he was damn glad the campaign in the West was finally getting started. His squadron commander didn’t like him. If the major had had the chance, he would have shipped Rudel off to operational reconnaissance training. But not even an officer with an ice cube for a heart like the squadron CO wanted to be a man short when the big fight started.

And so Hans-Ulrich, a milk drinker, a minister’s son, a new-minted twenty-two-year-old second lieutenant, looked out through the Stuka’s armored windshield. “You ready, Albert?” he asked the rear gunner and radioman.

“You bet, Herr Leutnant.” Sergeant Albert Dieselhorst’s voice came back tinnily through the speaking tube. Dieselhorst was at least ten years older than Rudel. He drank all kinds of things, but milk wasn’t any of them.

Groundcrew men in khaki overalls fitted a crank into the socket on the port side of each Ju-87. They looked at their wristwatches. Either they’d synchronized them or someone gave an order Hans-Ulrich couldn’t hear through the thick glass and metal shielding the cockpit. They all yanked the cranks at the same instant.

Hans-Ulrich stabbed the starter button with his forefinger at the same time. Thanks to one or the other or both, the big twelve-cylinder Junkers Jumo 211 engine thundered to life at once. It put out 1,100 horsepower. The squadron flew brand-new Ju-87Bs, which had almost twice the power of the older, slower A model a lot of units were still using.

Fuel…good. Oil pressure…good. Rudel methodically went down the list. He gave the groundcrew man a thumbs-up. The fellow grinned and returned it. Hans-Ulrich looked around. All the props were spinning.

Sergeant Dieselhorst said, “Everybody goes today, even the guys who have to flap their arms to take off.”

“ Ja,” Rudel said, laughing. He was damned if he would have let any minor mechanical flaw ground him on this day of days.

One by one, the big monoplanes with the inverted gull wings taxied down the dirt runway and took off. Finding west was simple: all they had to do was fly away from the rising sun. Holland lay only a few minutes away. Hans-Ulrich had a 250kg bomb under the Stuka’s belly and a pair of 50kg bombs on each wing. The squadron was supposed to go after concentrations of Dutch infantry and artillery. He thought they could do that.

“Orange triangle,” he muttered to himself. That was the emblem Dutch fighters used on fuselage and wings. A lot of them painted the rudder orange, too. The Ju-87 wasn’t the fastest or most graceful plane, especially when weighted down with almost half a tonne of bombs. He had to hope the Me-109s would keep most of the enemy aircraft away.

Boom! A black puff of smoke appeared in the sky below and in front of his plane. The Stuka staggered in the air, like a car driving over a fat pothole.

“They know we’re here,” Albert Dieselhorst said dryly.

“They only think they do,” Hans-Ulrich said. “We haven’t started showing them yet.”

Looking down from 2,500 meters, he watched smoke rise from artillery bursts. He could see panzers moving forward. They were tiny, like tin toys. But when they fired their guns, fire belched out. No tin toy could match that.

No Dutch panzers met the German machines. Either the Dutch didn’t have them or didn’t know how to deploy them. Hans-Ulrich wondered why not. Holland was a rich country. It hadn’t even had its economy wrecked in the last war. Why wouldn’t it pony up the cash to defend itself properly?

Weak. Decadent. Probably full of Jews, Rudel thought. Always trying to do things on the cheap. I’ll bet they’re sorry now, when it’s too late.

The Dutch did have some field guns-75s or 105s-close enough to the frontier to help their infantry resist the German onslaught. That was where the Stukas came in. The squadron leader put a wing over and dove on the gun positions. One after another, the rest of the Ju-87s followed.

Acceleration shoved Hans-Ulrich against the back of his armored seat. He hoped Sergeant Dieselhorst was well strapped in-that same acceleration would be trying to tear him out of his rear-facing seat.

Hans-Ulrich spotted three or four gun pits close together. He steered toward them as his altimeter unwound. You had to be careful to pull up. In Spain, a whole flight of Stukas had smashed into the ground because they didn’t start to come out of their dives till too late.

There was an automatic gadget that was supposed to make you pull up. Hans-Ulrich had quietly disconnected it. He wanted to stay in control himself, not trust his life to a bunch of cams and cogs.

As he dove, the wind-driven sirens on his mainwheel legs screamed. Even inside the cockpit, the noise was unearthly. During training, he’d heard it from the ground. Coupled with the engine’s roar, it sounded as if a pack of demons and the hounds of hell were stooping on the target.

He watched the Dutch artillerymen scatter like ants from a kicked anthill. They weren’t cowards, not in any ordinary sense of the word. The poor bastards were just up against something they’d never known, never imagined, before. Rudel had wanted to run, too, that day on the training field.

And nobody had bombed him. He yanked the switch that loosed the bombs, then pulled back on the stick for all he was worth. The Stuka’s airframe groaned as it went from dive to climb, but the plane was built to take it. His own vision went red for a few seconds. That was the danger point. The dive bomber could pull more g’s than the pilot could.

But color came back to the world. Clarity came back to Hans-Ulrich’s thoughts. For a little while there, all he’d remembered was that he had to hang on to the stick. He gathered himself. “You good back there, Albert?”

“Hell of a roller coaster, Herr Leutnant,” Dieselhorst answered. “You blew that battery to kingdom come, too. I saw the bombs go off. Right on target.”

“Good. Good,” Rudel said. “I thought I aimed them right, but I’m pulling up by the time they go off.”

“You’d better be,” Sergeant Dieselhorst said. They both laughed. Why not? Laughing came easy when the war was going well.

And then tracers flamed past the cockpit. Dieselhorst’s machine gun chattered. A Dutch Fokker fighter-like the Ju-87, a monoplane with landing wheels that didn’t retract-zoomed past, much too close for comfort. The enemy pilot sent Rudel an obscene gesture as the Fokker flew off.

“Gott im Himmel!” Hans-Ulrich said. “Where the devil did he come from?”

“Beats me,” the rear gunner answered. “I thought our fighter pilots were supposed to keep that kind of Scheisse from happening.”

“Theory is wonderful,” Rudel said. Sergeant Dieselhorst laughed again, but shakily.

The Stuka flew back toward the Reich for more fuel and more bombs. Hans-Ulrich spotted a column of trucks and buses heading east, toward the fighting. The trucks were painted the grayish green of Dutch army uniforms. A convoy bringing troops and supplies to the front-had to be.

Hans-Ulrich dove again, not so steeply this time. His thumb rested on the firing button atop the stick. He had two forward-firing machine guns mounted in his wings. The Ju-87 seemed to stagger in the air as his bullets stitched through the convoy.

A bus ran into a truck. The bus caught fire. Another bus rolled off the road and into a ditch. Soldiers bailed out of their vehicles and ran like hell. It was almost like going after partridges with a shotgun.

Almost. Some of the Dutch soldiers didn’t run very far. They un-slung their rifles and started shooting at the Stuka as it roared away. Infantrymen didn’t have much of a chance against aircraft, but no denying the balls on these guys. And damned if a bullet from somewhere didn’t clang through the Stuka’s tail assembly. A few meters farther forward…

My armor would have stopped it, Hans-Ulrich thought. That’s what it’s there for. Reassuring to remember you had eight millimeters of steel at your back, five millimeters under you, and four millimeters to either side. It wouldn’t keep everything out, but it beat the hell out of not having any.

Soldiers fired green flares. That was the German recognition signal. They didn’t want their own Stukas shooting them up. Hans-Ulrich waggled his wings to show he’d seen.

He bounced in on a dirt strip a few kilometers inside the German border. Groundcrew men and armorers cared for the Stuka. Hans-Ulrich rolled back the canopy so he could stand up and stretch. “You’ve got a couple of bullet holes, sir,” a groundcrew man reported.

“I know I got hit at least once,” Rudel answered. “Anything leaking? All my gauges are good, and the controls answer.”

“No leaks,” the man assured him.

“Well, then, I’ll worry about it later,” he said. “Mach schnell, bitte. We’ve got a war to fight, and no time to waste.”

Five minutes later, he was airborne again.

* * *

One of the things Alistair Walsh had forgotten about war was what a bloody balls-up it made of traffic. Or maybe things had been different in 1918. By the time he got to the front then, all the civilians had run off. Either that or they’d got killed. Anyhow, they weren’t around to get in the way.

Things were different now. The Dutch and the Belgians hadn’t expected the Nazis to jump on them. Sergeant Walsh didn’t know why they hadn’t-his opinion was that they were a pack of goddamn fools-but they hadn’t. Now that the shells were bursting and the bombs came whistling down, half of the locals decided they really wanted to go to some place where things like that didn’t happen.

And so they did. Whatever small respect Walsh had acquired for the Belgian army during the last go-round dissolved like his stomach lining in the presence of cheap whiskey. He didn’t particularly expect the Brussels Sprouts to fight. (He knew damn well the Germans would fight, and hoped the French would, too. About all other foreigners he remained deeply pessimistic.) But couldn’t they at least act like traffic police?

On the evidence, no. Now that the balloon had gone up, the Belgians weren’t threatening to shoot at anybody who crossed their sacred border. The British Expeditionary Force, the French Seventh Army to its left, and the French First Army to its right were moving into Belgium to take up positions to throw back the Germans. They should have done that sooner, but King Leopold kept saying no. So they were doing it now.

Or they were trying to.

When lorries and tanks and long columns of khaki-clad men on foot headed east, and when mad swarms of autos and horsecarts and donkey carts and handcarts and terrified men, women, and children on foot headed west, and when they all ran headlong into one another…

Nobody went anywhere. The lorries and tanks tried to push forward. Drivers screamed in English, which mostly didn’t help. Not many Englishmen knew enough French to do them any good-if French would have done them any good, which wasn’t obvious. If Belgian troops had channeled the refugees down a few roads and left the rest open for the soldiers who were trying to save their miserable country for the second time in a generation…

Too much to hope for, plainly.

“We’re not going to make our stage line today, are we, sir?” Walsh asked before the first day was very old.

“Too bloody right we’re not,” his company commander agreed.

Planes flew off toward the east. That, at least, was reassuring. Till now, the RAF had left the Germans alone. The Luftwaffe had also left the BEF alone, but Walsh didn’t think about what that meant. He got his first lesson a little past noon.

The day was chilly, but only partly cloudy. The sun had risen late and would set early. It hung low in the sky, a bit west of south. The English soldiers were trying to fight their way through yet another clot of refugees. These people were gabbling in Flemish, or possibly Dutch. Whichever it was, it sounded enough like German to raise Sergeant Walsh’s hackles.

“Don’t they know we’ve got to get up there so we can fight?” he demanded of nobody in particular, or possibly of God.

His soldiers weren’t listening. They were too busy yelling and swearing at the frightened people in front of them. As for God…When Walsh heard the rumble in the sky, he thought at first it was more RAF planes going over. The poor damn refugees knew better. That sound scattered them faster than all the yelling and swearing the British troops had done.

That timbre wasn’t quite the same as the one Walsh had heard before. And those shark-nosed planes with the kinked wings had never come out of British factories. They dove almost vertically, like hawks after rabbits. And as they dove, they also screamed. The sound alone was plenty to make the sergeant want to piss himself.

“Get down!” he screamed. “Hit the dirt! Get-!” He followed his own order, just in the nick of time.

Blast picked him up and flung him around. He did piss himself then, but realized it only later. A lorry caught by a bomb turned into a fireball. Men and pieces of men flew through the air. A marching boot thudded down six inches in front of Walsh’s nose. It still had a foot in it. He stared, then retched. He’d seen such things twenty years earlier, but he’d done his damnedest to block them out of his mind ever since.

More bombs went off among the refugees and the marching troops. Shrieks rang out through and even over the stunning crump! s of explosives. Wounded soldiers screamed for medics and stretcher-bearers. Wounded civilians simply screamed.

The nasty dive-bombers roared away toward the east, the direction from which they’d come. Alistair Walsh was just getting to his feet when more planes flew in from that direction. At first, he thought they were RAF fighters returning from strikes against the Nazis-their lines weren’t so aggressively unfamiliar as those of the previous attackers. But then fire spurted from their wings and from their propeller hubs. They were shooting at-shooting up-the British column and the poor damned hapless refugees.

“Down!” Walsh yelled again, and fit action to word.

When a bullet struck flesh, it made a wet, slapping noise. He remembered that from the last time around, however much he wished he didn’t. German airplanes had strafed trenches in 1918. It hadn’t seemed nearly so horrid or dangerous then. For one thing, he’d been a fool of a kid twenty years earlier. For another, the German air force, like the Kaiser’s army, had been on the ropes. And, for one more, he wasn’t in a trench now.

More screaming engines made him grab his entrenching tool to see what he could do about digging in. Then a few people started cheering as if they’d lost their minds. Suspecting they had, he warily looked up. British Hurricane fighters were mixing it up with the bastards with the hooked crosses on their tails. Walsh started cheering, too.

A Hurricane went into a flat spin and slammed into the ground, maybe half a mile away. A black, greasy column of smoke marked the pilot’s pyre. Then, trailing smoke and flames, one of the German fighters crashed into a stand of trees even closer to where Walsh lay.

He yelled like a man possessed. So the Germans could die. That cloud of smoke, broader and lower than the one rising from the Hurricane, was the first proof of it he’d seen in this war.

Another Hurricane, also smoking but not so badly, limped off to the west, out of the fight. Sergeant Walsh hoped the pilot managed to put it down safely, or at least to bail out if he couldn’t land it. To his vast relief, the German fighters seemed to have had enough. Like the dive-bombers before them, they flew back toward the Vaterland.

He tried standing up again. As he did, he noticed he wasn’t the only bloke emerging from a half-dug scrape. The other chaps in khaki weren’t so bloody stupid. If the buggers on the other side started banging away at you, of course you’d do what you could to keep from getting ventilated.

But the advancing column had stuck its dick in the meat grinder. One tank lay on its side, blown off its tracks by a bomb that burst right next to it. Several trucks burned. Others weren’t going anywhere soon, not with from one to four flat tires or with bullets through the engine block…or with dead or wounded drivers. What bombs and machine-gun bullets had done to the foot soldiers was even worse. And as for that mob of refugees…

A woman who might have been pretty if she weren’t dirty and exhausted and terrified screamed in Dutch or Flemish. She wasn’t wounded-not as far as Walsh could see, anyhow. She was just half crazy, maybe more than half, because of everything that had happened to her.

Walsh had a devil of a time blaming her. A few days ago, she’d been a shopkeeper’s wife or a secretary or something else safe and comfortable. Then the roof fell in on her life-literally, odds were. Now she had nothing but the clothes on her back and whatever was in the cute little handbag she carried. How long before she’d start selling herself for a chunk of black bread or a mess of fried potatoes?

How many more just like her were there? Thousands, tens of thousands, all over Holland and Belgium and Luxembourg and eastern France. And their husbands, and their brats, and…“Oh, bloody hell. Bloody hell,” Walsh muttered under his breath.

Still, civilians weren’t his worry, except when they got in the way and kept him from getting to where he needed to be to do his job. Sorting out his soldiers and keeping them moving damn well was.

Captain Ted Peters came over to him. The young officer looked as if he’d just walked into a haymaker. This was his introduction to combat, after all. Combat, meet Captain Peters. Peters, this is combat . Walsh shook his head. He had to be punchy himself, or his brain wouldn’t be whirling like that.

“Well, Sergeant, I’m afraid you’re the new platoon commander,” Peters said. “Lieutenant Gunston stopped a large fragment of bomb casing with his belly. Gutted him like a sucking pig.”

“Christ!” Walsh said.

“A bit of a rum go, I’m afraid,” Peters said, which would do for an understatement till a bigger one came down the pike. He did his best to ignore the ammunition cooking off in burning vehicles, the cries of wounded men and women and kids and animals, and the stenches of burning paint and burning rubber and burning flesh and fear and shit.

When the company commander didn’t say anything more, Walsh did: “I should say so! We’ve got ourselves all smashed up, and we haven’t even set eyes on a goddamn German.”

“I did,” Captain Peters answered, not without pride. “One of those dive-bombers was so low when he pulled up that I could see him through the glass of his cockpit. And I got a good look at his rear gunner. The bastard almost punctured me after the plane pulled out of its dive.”

“What are we going to do when we have to fight them face to face, sir?” Walsh asked. “How the devil can we, when it looks like they’ve got more airplanes than we do?”

“We shot down one of their fighters, after all,” the officer said. “I’m sure we’ll do better with practice, too.”

“Right…sir,” Sergeant Walsh said tightly. He wasn’t sure of any such thing. England’s chosen method of fighting seemed to be stumbling from one disaster to the next till she figured out how to beat the set of foes who had been beating her. It worked the last time around only because the USA stuck its oar in the water. Things were moving faster now, much faster. Would-could-muddling through work at all?

Captain Peters had no doubts. Or, if he did, he didn’t let them show, which was the mark of a good officer. Walsh didn’t let the privates and corporals he led see his doubts, either-or he hoped like hell he didn’t, anyhow. “All we can do is go on,” Peters said. “We have to clear these civilians out of the way and take up our assigned positions. We’ll have the French and the Belgians fighting along with us. The Boches will end up sorry they ever started this war-you mark my words.”

“Right…sir,” Alistair Walsh said again. No, he didn’t believe a word of it. But you also couldn’t let your superiors see your doubts. You couldn’t even-or maybe you especially couldn’t-let yourself see them.

* * *

Sergeant Ludwig Rothe spotted a truck out somewhere close to a kilometer away. He raised his field glasses to his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was shoot up his own side by mistake. But the magnified image showed it was a French model, and bound to be full of Dutchmen.

“Panzer halt!” he yelled into the speaking tube.

“Jawohl! Halting,” Fritz Bittenfeld answered. The Panzer II jerked to a stop.

Rothe peered through the TZF4 sighting telescope. It was only two and a half power-downright anemic after the binoculars. But it let him draw a bead with the 20mm cannon. He wouldn’t have opened up on enemy armor from farther out than 600 meters. The panzer’s main armament wouldn’t penetrate serious protection from farther out than that. It would chew up soft-skinned vehicles as far as it could reach, though.

The trigger was on the elevating handwheel, to the left of the gun. Ludwig fired a three-round burst. The Dutch truck stopped as if it had run into a stone wall. Smoke poured out from under the hood. Rothe fired another burst, which emptied the magazine. He slapped in another ten-round clip. The other guys might-hell, they did-use bigger rounds in their main armament, but he could shoot a lot quicker than they could. Sometimes that made all the difference in the world.

Sometimes it didn’t matter a pfennig’s worth. Not far away, another Panzer II burned like billy-be-damned. It had stopped a 105mm shell fired over open sights at point-blank range. None of the crew had got out. That was no surprise-hitting a Panzer II with a 105 was like swatting a mosquito with a table. The Dutch artillerymen who’d fought the gun were dead now, which didn’t do that panzer crew one goddamn bit of good.

“Can we get going again, Sergeant?” Fritz asked pointedly. A halted panzer was a panzer waiting to stop something.

“Wait a second.” Ludwig looked through the TZF4 again. Yes, the Dutch truck was definitely laid up. “Go ahead,” he said.

As soon as he gave permission, the panzer seemed to bound forward. The flat Dutch plains made ideal panzer country. But the buildings and trees up ahead made equally ideal places to hide antitank guns. Even if the Dutch had taken a big punch at the start of the fight, they were still in there swinging.

Ludwig felt a tap on the back of his left leg. He ducked down into the turret. “Was ist los?” he asked the radio operator.

“Bridge up ahead,” Theo Hossbach answered. “We’ve got paratroops holding it. The Dutchmen are giving them a hard time.”

“I bet they are,” Rothe said. They hadn’t been ready for soldiers jumping out of Ju-52s and taking bridges and airports away from them. Well, who would have been? Nobody in the last war fought like that. Hell, in the last war even pilots didn’t wear parachutes. As far as Ludwig was concerned, that meant everybody who’d got into an airplane during the last war was out of his goddamn mind. The panzer commander brought his mind back to the business at hand. “Up ahead, huh? Which map square?”

“C-9,” Theo told him.

“C-9?” Ludwig repeated, and the radioman nodded. Rothe unfolded the map so he could see where he was-or where he thought he was, anyhow. Wrestling with the map inside the cramped turret made him feel like a one-armed paper hanger with the hives. At last, though, he got it open. “Well, Jesus Christ! We’re in C-10 now. Tell ‘em we’re on our way.”

“Will do.” Theo shouted into the microphone that connected the panzer to the platoon, company, regiment, and division commanders. Everybody could tell Ludwig what to do. Half the time, everybody seemed to be trying to tell him at once. But all German panzers came with radios, so they could work together. That hadn’t been true of the Czechs. The Wehrmacht was using captured Czech panzers-the more, the merrier. Before they went into German service, technicians installed radio sets in the machines that lacked them.

Machine-gun bullets clattered off the Panzer II’s steel flank. Ludwig did some shouting of his own: to Fritz, through the speaking tube. “Got you, Sergeant!” the driver yelled back. The panzer swung a little south of west.

That damned Dutch machine gun kept banging away. Ludwig wondered why. A Panzer II had less armor than it should have-he’d seen as much. One hit with any kind of cannon shell and you bought yourself a plot. But, by God, the beast did carry enough steel to keep out machine-gun bullets. And every round the silly Dutchmen wasted on the Panzer II was a round they weren’t shooting at the foot soldiers they could really hurt.

Most of the time, Rothe would have stuck his head out so he could see what was going on. Right this minute, that looked like a bad idea. Yeah, just a little, he thought with a wry chuckle. He had four vision ports in the turret: two on the left, one on the right, and one at the back. The bullets were spanging off the left side of the turret, so…

There it was! The machine gun’s muzzle spat flame from the front of an apple orchard. Ludwig traversed the turret. He fired back at the enemy gun. The Dutch crew manning it had run for cover by the time his weapons bore on it. They’d seen danger coming and got out of there. That meant they’d harass somebody else pretty soon, but he didn’t know what he could do about it.

“That’s got to be the bridge, Sergeant.” Fritz’s voice came back through the speaking tube.

“It does?” With the turret swung to the left, Rothe couldn’t see much of what the driver was talking about. He brought it back to face straight ahead again. Sure enough, there was a bridge. And the people around it were shooting at the people on it and right by it. The soldiers hanging on to the bridge wore field-gray. The bastards attacking them were in Dutch gray-green. With leaves off the trees and grass going yellow, neither uniform offered a whole hell of a lot of camouflage.

The Dutch soldiers were too busy trying to drive the paratroopers off the bridge so they could blow it to pay much attention to advancing panzers-several other machines had come with Ludwig’s. One of them was a great honking Panzer III-a fifteen-and-a-half-tonne monster with two machine guns and a 37mm cannon that could fire a useful high-explosive shell.

It could, and it did. Three or four rounds from that cannon put two Dutch guns out of action. “Gott im Himmel, I wish we had one of those!” Ludwig knew he sounded jealous. He didn’t care. He wished the Wehrmacht had more of the big panzers, too. They could do things his lighter machine couldn’t-and they could take punishment that would turn the Panzer II into scrap metal…or into a bonfire.

He opened up with his machine gun. The Dutch soldiers scattered. They hadn’t looked for an attack from the rear. Well, too damn bad. They also seemed less willing than the Czechs had been to hold in place till they got killed. Say what you would about the Czechs, they had balls.

Three or four He-123s swooped down on the Dutch troops. Next to Ju-87s, the Henschel biplanes looked like last week’s-hell, last war’s-news. That didn’t mean they couldn’t do the job. They shot up the Dutchmen and dropped bombs on their heads. The bombs weren’t big ones-Ju-87s could carry a lot more-but the Henschels put them right on the money.

Ju-87s had sirens to make them sound even scarier than they were. The He-123s didn’t. But, when they dove, they might have been firing God’s machine guns. Ludwig had heard that just the right engine RPMs on those babies could make them as demoralizing as all get-out. A lot of what you heard was bullshit. Not this. He forgot who’d told him, but the guy had the straight goods.

He stood up in the turret to get a better look around. A Dutchman fired a couple of wild rifle shots at him. He gunned the enemy soldier down with his MG34. Two more Dutch soldiers dropped their weapons and raised their hands.

Ludwig almost killed them in cold blood. At the last second, he caught himself. He pointed brusquely toward the rear. Keeping their hands high over their heads, they stumbled off into captivity…if they didn’t run into some other trigger-happy German soldier before anybody took charge of them.

Not my worry, Rothe thought. He was glad he hadn’t squeezed the trigger. They’d fought fair, and so had he. Sometimes, in the heat of battle, you did things you wished you hadn’t later. This time, Ludwig didn’t-quite.

His panzer stopped at the eastern end of the bridge. A paratrooper waved to him. “Good to see you, by God,” the fellow called. “It was getting a little hairy here.” His helmet fit his head more closely than the standard Wehrmacht model. He wore a coverall over his tunic, along with rubber knee and elbow pads.

And he wasn’t kidding. Several of his buddies lay sprawled or twisted in death. A medic tended to a wounded trooper. Other groaning men waited for whatever he could do for them.

“Can we cross the bridge?” Ludwig asked.

“Ja,” the paratrooper answered. “We pulled the wires on the demolition charges before the Dutchmen could set them off. And we’ve cleared the mines on the roadway and chucked them in the river. I think we got ‘em all.”

“Thanks a bunch.” Ludwig wished the paratrooper hadn’t added the last few words. The son of a bitch only laughed at him. He bent down and shouted into the speaking tube: “Take us across, Fritz.”

“Will do,” the driver said. “What’s on the other side?”

“More Dutchmen with guns,” Ludwig told him. “What the hell do you expect?”

“How about some gals with big tits?”

“Yeah, how about that?” Rothe said dryly. He wished he had a control that would let him pour ice water on Fritz. The driver was the horniest guy he’d ever run into. The worst part was, he did get laid a lot. Ludwig knew that if he used a no-holds-barred approach like that, all he’d get was his face slapped.

The Panzer II rumbled forward. Fritz did have the sense to take the bridge slowly. If the paratroopers had missed a surprise or two, he’d have a chance to stop or to go around it. Ludwig gave the roadway a once-over, too. They didn’t blow up, so he and Fritz didn’t miss anything important.

They went past not only dead German paratroopers but also quite a few dead Dutchmen. Some of them were in what looked like police uniforms. No, they hadn’t looked for soldiers to fall out of the sky so far behind their front. These must have been second-, or maybe third-, line defenders. Whoever they were, they’d fought hard. It hadn’t done them any good, though.

As soon as Ludwig heard a machine gun rattle to malignant life, he ducked down into the turret again. But the Dutch had put up a better fight on the east side of the bridge than they did here. Maybe losing it had broken their spirit. Or maybe they simply didn’t have what they needed for a proper defense here.

A car with half a dozen Dutch officers screamed up the road toward the bridge-and toward the panzer. “Aren’t you going to blast those shitheads?” Fritz demanded.

“Let’s see what they do first,” Ludwig answered.

They stopped right in front of the panzer. One of the officers started shouting at Ludwig in Dutch. He understood maybe one word in five. He thought they were telling him to turn around and drive the Nazis away. That was pretty goddamn funny.

“Sorry, friend,” he said. “We are the Nazis. And you’re prisoners, as of now.”

He might not have known Dutch, but the Dutch officers understood German. The looks on their faces when they realized that panzer wasn’t theirs…“You should let us go,” said the one who’d yelled in Dutch before-he spoke good German, too. “We made an honest mistake.”

“In your dreams, pal,” Ludwig said sweetly. The panzer’s machine gun and cannon were mighty persuasive.

* * *

“You! Dernen!” Arno Baatz had a voice as effortlessly penetrating as a dentist’s drill.

“Yes, Corporal?” Willi Dernen did his best to sound meek and mild. He didn’t want trouble from a lousy Unteroffizier, not now, not when they were about to give the poilus the big one right in the teeth. Guys promoted to noncom went off to a special school for a while. Willi didn’t know what went on there, but he figured it was where they turned you into a son of a bitch if you weren’t one already.

Baatz glared at him, there in the gloom of earliest dawn. “Have you got your full ammunition supply?”

“Yes, Corporal,” Willi repeated-truthfully. Only a dope didn’t bring along as many rounds and as many rations as he could, and Frau Dernen hadn’t raised any dopes.

Had he been lying, Baatz would have had to feel him up to prove it. You still couldn’t see anything more than ten centimeters from the end of your nose. That didn’t bother Willi. A Frenchman who could see you was a Frenchman who could blow your brains out.

Muttering, the corporal stomped off to harass somebody else. Beside Willi, Wolfgang Storch chuckled almost silently. “Awful Arno’s on the rag early today, isn’t he?”

“What was that, Storch?” Baatz snapped. His ears stuck out like jug handles. Maybe that was what made them so sharp.

“Nothing, Corporal,” Wolfgang said. Baatz went right on muttering, but he didn’t come back. He might have heard, but he hadn’t understood. Just like a corporal, Willi thought.

Before Willi could say that out loud and get a laugh from Storch, hundreds-no, thousands-of German guns opened up. Everywhere from the North Sea to the Swiss border, they hurled death and devastation at the enemies of the Reich. Through the thunder, Willi heard the steadier rumble of aircraft engines overhead. Their takeoffs must have been timed so they’d cross the border just when the artillery bombardment opened. Right now, the damned Frenchies would be thinking hell had opened up on earth. And they wouldn’t be so far wrong.

Lieutenant Neustadt blew his whistle. He looked so young, it almost seemed a boy’s plaything when he did. But his voice, more bass than baritone, gave that the lie: “Forward! Now we get to see France for ourselves!”

The French had seen little bits of Germany. Willi aimed to do more than that. He wanted to goose-step through Paris in a victory parade. His great-grandfather had done it after the Franco-Prussian War. His father never stopped complaining that he hadn’t got the chance. Willi wanted it.

There was the place just on the German side of the border where the French troops had camped when he and Wolfgang spied on them. There was the crossing point the Germans had booby-trapped when they pulled back after the real war against Czechoslovakia started. Now Willi needed to look back over his shoulder to see it. That meant, that had to mean, he was in France.

If you stood on the other guy’s soil, you were winning. The last time around, the Allies never did drive Germany all the way out of France and Belgium. Things fell apart on the home front before they could. And here the Wehrmacht was again.

A rifle boomed up ahead. A French machine gun opened up, its fire noticeably slower than a German MG-34’s. Somebody not too far from Willi fell over and grabbed at his leg. He yelped and ki-yied like a dog hit by a car. “Medic!” The shout went up from half a dozen throats.

“Keep moving!” Arno Baatz yelled. “Even if they’ve mined the fields, keep moving!”

Even if they’ve mined the fields? Willi thought. He suddenly didn’t want to move at all. Corporal Baatz had a way of encouraging his men, all right. Lieutenant Neustadt’s whistle shrilled. “We need to go forward!” he called. “Victory lies ahead! Paris, too!” That made a pretty good antidote to Baatz’s minefields.

French shells screamed in-not many, but enough to send men and pieces of men flying. Willi’s father had talked about the goddamn French 75s in the last war. Here they were again, and just as horrific if you were on the receiving end.

In the last war, Germany couldn’t do much about them. Now Stukas swooped down on the French batteries, underwing sirens wailing like damned souls. Bombs going off were much louder than shells. The French artillery quieted down in a hurry. Willi trotted past a gun pit a few minutes later. He looked at what was left of the 75 and its crew. Gulping, he wished he hadn’t.

More rifle fire came from behind a stone fence. The Landsers moved to outflank the defenders even before Corporal Baatz started yelling commands. Willi plopped down in a shell hole and banged away at the poilus by the fence. After a few minutes, one of them waved something white.

Neustadt shouted to them in French. Willi didn’t speak a word of it. The French soldiers stood up with their hands high. In their long greatcoats and crested helmets, they looked as if they’d come from the last war. The lieutenant jerked his thumb toward the east. Nodding, babbling with gratitude for not getting shot out of hand, the poilus stumbled away into captivity.

“They’ll have watches. They’ll have cash,” Wolfgang said discontentedly. “Now the rear-echelon assholes’ll clean ‘em out.”

“Don’t get your bowels in an uproar,” Willi said-he was less inclined to grumble than his friend. “You think they’re the only froggies we’ll catch?”

“Well…no,” Storch admitted. “But maybe they had extra-good stuff. We’ll never find out.”

Up ahead, a Panzer I was burning. Something heavier than a machine gun had hit the little panzer and knocked it out. One crewman in black coveralls lay dead a few meters away. The other-the driver-hadn’t made it all the way out. He was on fire, too. Willi gulped again. The stink reminded him of a pork roast forgotten in the oven.

But other panzers kept pushing forward. They shot up or ran over French machine-gun nests. That made life a lot easier for the foot soldiers who followed in their wake. Willi didn’t mind not facing machine guns, not even a little bit.

More Frenchmen surrendered. As he’d predicted, Willi got himself a small wad of francs and a watch with a case that looked like gold. There were corpses to plunder, too, if you had the stomach for it. Dead men and pieces of dead men…Willi was astonished at how fast he got used to them or developed a knack for not thinking about them. Definitely better not to wonder whether this crumpled chunk of shredded meat had played the concertina or that one always puked when he got plowed.

Some people didn’t care. He went past one body that had a finger on the left hand neatly sliced off, presumably so the slicer could get at a ring. Willi hoped he wouldn’t do anything like that. He also hoped he wouldn’t end up a body lying there for someone else to frisk.

It could happen. Not all the poilus were ready to give up. The French fought from foxholes and trenches. They fought from behind fences, and from farmhouses. They didn’t fight with the coordination of the German war machine, but they fought. They reminded Willi of a guy who got staggered in a barroom brawl but swung back instead of falling over.

Why didn’t they fall over, dammit? Life would have been so much simpler-to say nothing of easier-if they had.

More 75s screamed in. The Wehrmacht troops did some screaming of their own. One of the first things you learned in training was to flatten out when you got shelled. Willi tried to get flatter than a hedgehog squashed on the Autobahn.

“The lieutenant’s down!” somebody yelled. Willi looked around without raising his head. Sure as hell, there was Lieutenant Neustadt, both hands clapped to his belly and a godawful shriek coming out of his mouth. Stretcher-bearers ran up and lugged him away. Willi swore under his breath. That didn’t look good.

“We have to keep going!” Sandwiched between Neustadt and Corporal Baatz, Sergeant Lutz Pieck hadn’t shown much personality up till now. All of a sudden, the platoon was his, personality or not.

Keep going they did-till they ran up against four French machine guns with interlocking fields of fire. You couldn’t advance against those, not unless you’d written your suicide note. Willi took his entrenching tool and started digging a hole.

Sergeant Pieck sent a runner back. Before long, a mortar team came up. The men started dropping bombs on the machine gun nests. They silenced three of them. The soldiers stalked the fourth and put it out of action with grenades. One machine gunner came out with his hands up. Corporal Baatz shot him in the face. He fell over and never twitched again. Willi knew he might have done the same thing. You couldn’t use one of those murder mills and then expect to give up as if you’d got caught playing bridge.

Pieck looked as if he wanted to say something about it, but what could he say? Only the Last Trump would bring the Frenchman back to life. And Arno Baatz was a mean bastard who didn’t listen to anybody. Pieck pointed west instead. “Forward!” he commanded, and forward they went.

Chapter 7

Luc Harcourt had thought he knew what war was all about. He’d been in some skirmishes. He’d fired his rifle, and he’d come under fire. Artillery had gone off not too far from him. He’d had to worry about mines.

Now he discovered he’d been a virgin trying to figure out how to play with himself. He’d played at war. So had the Germans. Well, playtime was over. The bastards on the other side meant it. If he wanted to go on breathing, he had to mean it, too.

Shells bursting all around him had announced the new dispensation. This wasn’t just a little harassing fire. This was a storm of steel, the kind of thing men his father’s age talked about. The noise alone was enough to make you shriek-not only the thunderous bursts, but also the horrible screams and wails of fragments knifing through the air. Before long, the screams and wails of the wounded added to the chaos.

And he had to deal with things his old man’d never needed to worry about. Dive-bombers howled down out of the sky. If bursting artillery shells were terrifying, bombs were ten times worse. Shells could carry only so much explosive. Otherwise, they’d blow up before they got out of the gun barrel. Artillerymen disliked such misfortunes. The only limit to a bomb’s size, though, was whether a plane could get off the ground carrying it.

German fighters strafed French positions as soon as the bombers went away. Luc wondered where the devil the French fighters were. He didn’t see any.

Before long, he realized he’d shat himself somewhere during the bombardment. He tore off his drawers and threw them away. He wondered if he would ever be able to face his buddies. Then he wondered how many of them had fouled themselves, too.

He didn’t have long to worry about it. Somebody yelled, “Tanks!” If that wasn’t panic in the other soldier’s voice…well, why not?

He’d never seen a German tank-or, for that matter, a French one-in the earlier skirmishes. He’d never seen dive-bombers then, either. He hadn’t missed the dive-bombers one bit. He didn’t miss the tanks, either.

Better to hope they would miss him. Here they came, all right: snorting black monsters spitting fire from the guns in their turrets. German soldiers in field-gray loped along between them.

A shell from a French field gun hit a German tank. It spun sideways and stopped. Flame and greasy black smoke burst from it. A soldier scrambled out of an escape hatch, his black coveralls on fire. A burst of machine-gun fire cut him down before he could find somewhere to hide.

But the rest of the tanks kept coming. The machine gun fired at one of them. Bullets struck sparks from its armor, but that was all. Then the tank fired at the French machine gun. It fell silent.

Luc drew a bead on one of the German foot soldiers. He fired. The man went down. Dead? Wounded? Just scared shitless? (Luc knew too well how easy that was.) He never found out.

He did realize he’d have to fall back if he wanted to stay alive. The Nazis were going to overrun this forward position no matter what. Back in the last war, he would have had trenches to retreat through. They’d made positions kilometers deep. This one wasn’t. No one had taken the war, or the Germans, seriously enough to set up defenses in depth.

Oh, farther back, well out of artillery range, the Maginot Line was there to make sure no German advance got too far. That might end up making France happy. It didn’t do a goddamn thing for Luc.

Almost the first thing he saw when he scrambled out of the trench and fell back to the southwest was somebody else’s wadded-up underwear. Just for a minute, that made him feel much better. Then a tank’s machine gun stitched up the grass all around his feet. None of the bullets bit him, but he damn near- damn near-crapped himself again.

“Over here!” Sergeant Demange shouted. “We can still hold them off!”

Hold them off? Whatever the noncom was smoking, Luc didn’t think it came in Gauloises or Gitanes. But staying with somebody who had an idea about what to do next seemed better than running at random. Luc trotted toward Demange, who seemed in charge of a solid position anchored by a farmhouse.

“Jesus!” Luc said, huddling in the kitchen. None of the windows had any glass in them. He didn’t know why bombs and shells hadn’t flattened the farmhouse. Luck-had to be.

“Fuck Jesus,” Sergeant Demange said. “Fuck the Boches. Fuck everybody, especially our dumbshit generals.”

“What did the generals do?” Luc asked, trying to catch his breath.

“Rien,” Demange snarled with savage scorn. “Not a goddamn fucking thing. They let us sit here with our thumbs up our asses till the Germans were ready to hit us. And now the Germans are. And we’re ready, too-ready to take it on the chin.”

“We’ve got to fight hard for the sake of the international working class.” That was Valentin Laclos, one of the several Communists in the company.

Sergeant Demange withered him with a glare. “Fuck the international working class. And fuck you, too, Laclos. If Stalin was on Hitler’s side, you’d screech that we ought to lay down and open our legs for the Boches. You can’t even fart till Moscow tells you it’s okay.”

Luc admired the noncom’s seamless contempt for the world. De-mange despised everything and everybody. Chances were he even hated himself. If you had to ride herd on a bunch of snot-nosed soldiers, how could you do anything else?

More German artillery started landing around the farmhouse. As Luc had seen, the windows had already blown out, or rather, in; broken glass glinted on the floor. A shell fragment struck a stone wall and whined away.

“What do we do, Sergeant?” Luc asked.

“Fight, dammit,” Demange answered. “Not for the international whatever the hell. Fight because they’ll kill you for sure if you don’t.”

Not necessarily, Luc thought. If he threw down his rifle and threw up his hands, maybe he could sit out the rest of the war in a POW camp. Plenty of Frenchmen had done it the last time around. They’d had a thin time, though-literally. Black bread and turnips and cabbage and not enough of any of them…The Germans themselves were starving. They had precious little to spare for prisoners.

And there was no guarantee that surrendering meant becoming a POW. He’d heard French veterans talk about that. If you had the time, if you had the men, maybe you’d take captives back for interrogation. If you didn’t? It was their hard luck, that was all. He had no reason to believe the Boches acted any differently. He’d already seen you could kill somebody without hating him in the least.

One of the other guys in the farmhouse looked out a window. “Our side’s falling back again, Sergeant,” he reported.

Sergeant Demange muttered to himself. “We’d better do the same,” he said unhappily. “If we get surrounded and cut off, we’re liable to have to see if those Nazi cocksuckers’ll let us give up. I don’t like the odds.”

His thoughts came uncomfortably close to Luc’s. Once the sergeant made up his mind, he wasted no time. He divided the soldiers crowding the farmhouse into two groups. One he sent out. The other stayed behind in the strongpoint to give covering fire.

Luc got put in the second group. He couldn’t even complain, because Sergeant Demange headed it. While their buddies got away, they fired out the windows. A few bullets came back, but only a few.

“Germans aren’t here in numbers. That’s something, anyhow,” De-mange said, slapping a new clip onto his Fusil MAS36 and lighting a fresh Gitane from the one that had burnt down almost to his lips. He spat out the tiny butt and stuck the new smoke in his mouth. Then he pointed to the west-facing doorway. “All right. Let’s get out of here.”

They trotted away. Out in the open, Luc felt horribly naked. A shell could slice him to dogmeat out here. Somebody yelled. He almost shat himself one more time. Then he realized the shout came in French, not German. His asshole unpuckered. His heart came down out of his throat.

“Our guys,” Demange said laconically.

The soldier who’d shouted stood in a halfway decent trench line. He and his pals had a couple of Hotchkiss machine guns and, better yet, a 37mm antitank gun in a sandbagged revetment. The gun had two rings painted on the barrel. Kill brags? Luc hoped so.

“As long as the dive-bombers don’t come, we’re fine,” somebody said.

“Where are our dive-bombers?” Luc asked plaintively. Nobody answered him.

That cannon did knock out a German tank at better than 300 meters. The machine guns settled the poor bastards who tried to bail out of it. Even so, Luc wondered again where the French panzers were. The next one he saw in this whole war would be the first.

And he wondered if blasting the one tank would bring a storm of vengeance down on everybody here. To his vast relief, it didn’t. Night came early. That would slow down the Germans…he hoped.

After dark, a runner jumped down into the trench. The French soldiers nearly killed him before they realized he was on their side. He brought orders: fall back once more.

“Why?” Sergeant Demange growled. “We’ve got ‘em stopped here.”

“Yes, but they’ve broken through on both sides of us. If we don’t retreat now, we won’t get the chance later,” the runner replied.

“Merde,” said the sergeant. Then he said something so foul, it made shit sound like an endearment. And then he said something he must have thought filthier yet: “All right, God damn it to hell and gone. We will retreat.”

* * *

The engine thundered to life. The big prop spun, then blurred into invisibility. The Ju-87 throbbed. “Alles gut?” Sergeant Dieselhorst shouted through the speaking tube.

“Alles gut, Albert,” Hans-Ulrich Rudel said after studying the gauges. You couldn’t trust them with everything. The way the plane sounded, the way it felt-those counted, too. They could warn of trouble the gauges didn’t know about yet. But everything did seem good this morning.

Groundcrew men pulled the chocks away from his wheels. A sergeant waved that he was cleared to take off. He pulled back on the stick. The dive-bomber sprang forward over the yellow, dying grass. The field was almost as smooth as concrete. The Dutchmen had done a devil of a job of keeping everything neat. Now Germany could take advantage of it.

Up went the Stuka’s sharklike nose. Rudel climbed as fast as he could. The sooner everybody got into formation, the sooner everybody could go do his job.

“Target-Rotterdam.” The squadron commander’s voice crackled in his earphones. “The Dutch there think they can go on eating herring and drinking beer while the war stays at the front. They’ve got the wrong idea, though. In this war, the front is everywhere.”

Hans-Ulrich grinned. “You hear that, Dieselhorst?”

“No, sir. What did he say?”

“‘In this war, the front is everywhere.’” The pilot quoted the squadron CO with savage relish.

His number-two wasn’t so impressed. “Not everywhere. Do they think the Tommies and the Ivans are going to bomb Berlin?”

“Don’t be silly,” Rudel said, though a tiny icicle of doubt slithered up his back. The Czechs had, there just before they quit. But that was only a last thumb of the nose, a defiant fleabite. It wasn’t as if they did any real damage.

One Stuka had to pull out of the formation with engine trouble. The rest droned on. The vibration filled every particle of Hans-Ulrich’s being, everything from his skin to his teeth to his spine to his balls. It wasn’t as much fun as getting laid, but it was as compelling.

Bf-109s loped along with the bombers to hold enemy fighters at bay. Four days into the assault on Holland, the air opposition wasn’t what it had been. The Dutch didn’t have many planes left, while English and French fighters didn’t seem to be operating this far forward.

Hans-Ulrich didn’t miss them a bit. The Ju-87 was terrific at smashing up ground targets. But even the Czech Avia biplanes had shot down too many dive bombers. For faster, more heavily armed fighters, Stukas were sitting ducks.

He could see where the front lay by the artillery bursts and by where the smoke was rising. General Staff officers with red Lampassen down the outside seams of their trousers scribed neat lines on maps and imagined they knew what war was all about. Even up here, buzzing along at 2,500 meters, Rudel could see and smell what war was doing to Holland. Better to Holland than to the Reich, he thought.

As soon as they crossed the front, Dutch AA opened up on them. All the Stuka pilots started jinking without waiting for orders. A little faster, a little slower, a little to the left or right, up a little, down a little-anything to keep from giving the gunners an easy target. The neat formation suffered. With luck, the planes wouldn’t.

But one of them, trailing smoke, turned back toward the east. That didn’t look good. Hans-Ulrich hoped the pilot and rear gunner came through all right. Next to that, getting the Ju-87 down in one piece was small potatoes.

A near miss made his own bus stagger in the sky like a man missing the last step on a flight of stairs. Shrapnel clanged against the left wing. Everything went on working. “Danke, Gott,” Rudel murmured. His father the minister would have come up with a fancy prayer, but that did the job.

“Alles gut?” Dieselhorst asked again.

“Alles gut,” Hans-Ulrich said firmly.

Holland wasn’t a big country. There lay Rotterdam, on both banks of the New Maas. It was a big shipping town, with the most important quays on the north side of the river. Most of the city, including the central square, was on the north bank, too.

“There’s the square we’re supposed to hit,” the squadron leader said. “Follow me down.” The underside of his wings flashed in the sun as he aimed his Ju-87 at Rotterdam’s heart like an arrow. One after another, the planes he led peeled off after him.

Acceleration shoved Hans-Ulrich against the back of his armored seat. Facing the other way, Albert Dieselhorst experienced dives very differently. He always thought the Stuka was trying to tear the straps off him and pitch him out over his machine gun and through the window behind him.

No antiaircraft fire here. The Dutch must not have thought Germany would attack the towns. Didn’t they pay attention to what happened in Czechoslovakia? If they didn’t, too bad for them.

Rudel yanked the bomb release lever. Suddenly, the Ju-87 was lighter and more aerodynamic. He pulled back on the stick to come out of the dive. The Stukas, he saw, weren’t the only planes working Rotterdam over. High above them, Do-17s-Flying Pencils to friend and foe alike-and He-111s sent bombs raining down on the port. They couldn’t put them just where they wanted them, the way a Ju-87 could. But all that high explosive was bound to blow somebody to hell and gone.

“Alles gut?” Dieselhorst asked one more time. “Sure looks good,” he added-he was the one who could see what the bombs had done.

“Couldn’t be better,” Hans-Ulrich answered, and flew back toward the airstrip from which he’d taken off.

* * *

Sergeant Alistair Walsh was where he was supposed to be: on the Dyle, in central Belgium. The whole BEF was on the line of the Dyle-the whole BEF, less what the Germans had blown sky-high. If what had happened to the rest of the force was anything like what had happened to Walsh’s unit, the BEF was missing more than it should have been.

One of the soldiers in Walsh’s platoon waved to him. “What’s up, Puffin?” Walsh asked. Everybody hung that name on Charlie Casper-he was short and round and had a big red nose.

He also had news: “Bloody goddamn Dutchmen just tossed in the sponge.”

“Where’d you hear that?” Walsh demanded in angry disbelief.

“Bloody goddamn wireless.”

“But they can’t,” Walsh said, though he knew too well that they could. He went on protesting: “They just started fighting-what?-five days ago. We all just started five days ago.” Except for a few useless rounds aimed at German planes, he had yet to fire a shot.

“And now they’ve bloody well stopped,” Puffin Casper said. “Bunch of damn rotters. Said the Germans bombed the hell out of that damn Rotter place, and they couldn’t take any more of that, so they went belly-up.”

Something seemed to have gone missing there. Whatever Puffin had heard, he hadn’t got it straight. But if the big news was right-and Walsh had no reason to doubt it was-what difference did the details make? Not bloody much, as Casper would have said.

Walsh looked north. “So they’ll hit us from that way and from the east,” he said. “Just what we need.”

“Frenchies’ll help us,” Puffin said.

“Well, maybe.” Walsh didn’t argue, not right out loud. Casper was only a kid. If he had confidence in the French army, more power to him. He might even end up right. The French Seventh Army, which was in place north of the BEF-on the far side of the Scheldt-was supposed to be big and strong. Maybe it was. Or maybe the BEF would have to go it alone. Back in 1918, British forces seemed to have done that when the Kaiser’s army hit them with one haymaker after another.

(That the French would have said the same about the British had never come to Walsh’s notice. If it had, he would have called the man bold-or rash-enough to give him such news a goddamn liar.)

Artillery rumbled, off to the east. Some of those were Belgian guns, firing at the advancing Germans. And some of them were German, making sure the bastards in field-gray kept on advancing. The gunfire was getting louder, which meant it was getting closer to the Dyle. Sooner or later-probably sooner-Walsh figured he would make the Germans’ acquaintance again.

An officer came up to him. For a second, he thought the man was British. Then he saw the funny rank badges. A Belgian, he realized. Ordinary Belgian soldiers looked like Frenchmen, mostly because of the Adrian helmets they wore. But officers had British-style uniforms.

“Where is your command post?” the Belgian asked in accented but understandable English.

“Why do you want to know…sir?” The British sergeant knew he sounded suspicious, but he couldn’t help himself. The Dutch had just thrown in the towel. What if the bloody Belgies were about to do the same thing? Their king hadn’t wanted to let any Allies in till the very last instant-which was liable to be too late.

But this fellow said, “The better to arrange cooperation between your forces and mine. You are a sergeant, is it not so?”

What do you think you’re doing, asking me questions? was what he meant. Walsh didn’t think he could get in much trouble for slowing up a wog, but he didn’t want to find out the hard way he was wrong. He pointed north. “Go that way, oh, three hundred yards, and you’ll see the regimental tent.”

“Yards?” The Belgian officer scratched his head.

“Yes, sir.” Alistair Walsh felt like scratching his, too. Then he figured out what had to be wrong. Stupid foreigners with their idiot measures. “Uh, three hundred meters.” Close enough.

The Belgian nodded. “Ah. Thank you.” Off he went, happy as a ram in clover.

“What do you want to bet they’re the next ones out?” Puffin Casper said dolefully.

“Wouldn’t be surprised,” Walsh agreed. “They’ll tear a nasty hole in our lines if they do bugger off, though.”

“They’ll care a lot about that, they will,” Puffin said.

More Belgian soldiers came back over the Dyle. Some of them still looked ready to fight. They were just blokes doing their jobs. Others had done all the work they aimed to do for a while. They slipped back toward the rear first chance they saw. Still others were walking wounded. Some of them seemed angry. Others seemed weary and in pain, as they no doubt were. Still others might have been relieved. They’d fought, they’d got hurt, and they were still alive. Nobody could expect them to do anything more.

Englishmen would have reacted the same way. The idea that foreigners could act just like ordinary people never failed to surprise Walsh.

And then, with the throb of airplane engines overhead, the only foreigners he cared about were the Germans. He ran for the closest trench and jumped in.

These weren’t dive-bombers, anyway. They stayed high overhead and let their bombs rain down on the general area of their targets. The whistles as the bombs fell weren’t quite so bad as the screaming sirens on those vulture-winged diving bastards. They sure as hell weren’t good, though.

When the bombs burst, it seemed as if a million of them were going off at once. Blast threw Walsh around. Blast could kill all by itself without fragments. It could tear lungs to shreds without leaving a mark on a body. Walsh had already seen that. He wished he hadn’t chosen this exact moment to remember it.

Engines of a different note made him look up. Fighters were tearing into the bomber formations. He let out a whoop. Somebody else sprawled in the trench said, “Blimey, there really is an RAF!” The soldier sounded astonished.

Walsh didn’t blame him. He hadn’t seen many British planes himself. But they were there now. Two broad-winged bombers tumbled out of the air, wrapped in smoke and fire. Parachutes sprouted in the sky. Walsh waited for the British pilots-he assumed they were his countrymen, though they might have been French-to machine-gun the descending German airmen. But they didn’t. He wondered why not. Not sporting? Were he hanging helpless from a silk half-bubble, he didn’t suppose he would have wanted a German blazing away at him.

“Blimey!” the other soldier said again. “That bugger’s going to come down right on our ‘eads, ‘e is.”

He didn’t quite. But he landed no more than fifty yards away. Walsh aimed his rifle at him. “Give up right now, you fucking bastard!” he bawled.

The German paid no attention to him. The fellow sprawled on the ground, clutching his ankle and howling like a dog with its tail caught under a rocking chair. The parachute flapped and billowed like a live thing, threatening to drag him away.

“Easiest prisoner I ever took,” Walsh said. “If he hasn’t broken that, I’m a Belgian myself.”

“But do you want to go out there and get ‘im?” the other British soldier asked. “What if more bombers come over?”

“Urr,” said Walsh, who hadn’t thought of that. Letting the German flyer’s countrymen blow him to pieces was a distinctly unattractive notion. But so was listening to him.

When Walsh said so, the other man replied, “Then shoot ‘im. Or if you don’t care to, I will.”

“No,” Walsh said. If he were lying there with a broken ankle, he would want a German to take him prisoner. And he thought there was a pretty good chance some German would. The bastards in field-gray fought hard. They’d fought hard even when they knew the game was up in 1918. They mostly fought fair, though. Of what army could you say more?

That made up his mind for him. He scrambled out of his hole and trotted toward the downed Luftwaffe man. The German saw his rifle and held up his hands. He gabbled something in his own language. If that wasn’t I give up!, Walsh really was a Belgian.

He pointed to the pistol on the flyer’s belt. “Throw that damn thing away, and make it snappy!” he said.

“Ja! Ja!” Maybe the German understood a little English, even if he didn’t seem to speak any. Or maybe the sergeant’s gestures made sense to him. Walsh kept his finger on the trigger while the man disarmed himself. If he turned out to be a fanatic, he’d be a dead fanatic pretty damn quick. But he didn’t. He tossed the little automatic-smaller and neater than the Enfield. 38 revolver that was the British standard in this war, to say nothing of the last go-round’s man-killing brute of a Webley and Scott. 455-into the bushes.

“All right.” Walsh knelt beside him and pointed to the trench from which he’d come. “I’m going to take you back there.” He got the German’s arm around his shoulder. Grunting as he rose, he went on, “This may hurt a bit.”

The airman hopped awkwardly on one leg. He tried not to let his other foot touch the ground at all. Sure as the devil, that ankle was ruined. Well, he’d done worse to plenty of Dutchmen and Belgians and Englishmen.

“Give me a hand with this bugger,” Walsh called. Unenthusiastically, the other British soldier did.

Once in the hole, the flyer reached inside his coverall. He came closer to dying than he probably realized. But he came out with… “Zigaretten?” he said, proffering the packet.

“Thanks.” Walsh took one. So did the other soldier, who gave him a light. They both took a drag. “Bloody hell!” Walsh said. “Tastes like hay and barge scrapings.” If this was what the Germans were smoking, no wonder the bastards acted mean.

He gave the Luftwaffe man a Navy Cut. People said they were strong. God only knew they were cheap. But the new prisoner’s eyes went wide when he puffed on it. “Danke schon! Sehr gut!” he said. He reverently smoked it all the way down to the end. It probably had more real tobacco in it than he usually got in a week.

Stretcher-bearers took him off to the rear. If he got more proper cigarettes, odds were he was glad enough to go.

* * *

Christmas was right around the corner, but Peggy Druce found Berlin a singularly joyless place. She supposed she should count her blessings. If she weren’t from the neutral USA, she would have been interned, not just inconvenienced. All the same…

So many shops were empty. Hardly any cars rolled down the street. Even the trolleys operated on a wartime schedule, which meant you took a long time to get anywhere. The city was blacked out at night. As far as Peggy could tell, the whole damn country was blacked out at night.

Maybe all of Europe was blacked out. Peggy tried to imagine Paris dark at night. The picture didn’t want to form. The City of Light was bound to be as shrouded as any other European capital. After what the Germans did to Prague and Marianske Lazne and the rest of Czechoslovakia, they wouldn’t leave Paris alone. She supposed it was a genuine military target. But the idea of bombs falling on it made her almost physically ill.

She walked past a restaurant not far from the hotel where they’d put her up. She hadn’t the slightest desire to go inside. Like everyone else in Germany, she had a ration card. Even in a restaurant, she had to spend points on what she ate. Whatever she got, most of it would be cabbage and potatoes and black bread. Fats of any sort-butter, cheese, lard-were hard to come by. Milk and cod-liver oil were reserved almost exclusively for children and nursing and pregnant women.

A man with a white mustache walked past her. He tipped his hat as he went by. His wool suit had seen better years, but he couldn’t do much about that. The Germans had ration points for clothes, too. If you bought a topcoat, that was about it for the year. Peggy didn’t have all the clothes she wanted, either; most of what she’d brought to Czechoslovakia was still there. Or, maybe more likely, it was on some German woman’s back these days.

A team of horses drew an antiaircraft gun down the street. The horses might have come straight out of the Civil War. The field-gray uniforms on the soldiers were modern, though. As for the gun, it might have appeared from the future. She didn’t think she’d ever seen a piece of hardware that looked more lethal.

Newsboys held up papers full of headlines about German triumphs. People walked past without buying. If the Berliners were enthusiastic about the war, they hid it well.

“English and French air pirates bombard German towns!” a boy shouted. “Many innocent women and children murdered! Read about the latest enemy atrocities!”

Peggy almost stopped at the street corner to argue with him. Only the thought that her husband would have told her she was crazy made her keep her mouth shut. She admired Herb’s common sense, most of the time without wanting to imitate it. And she’d seen the fun the Nazis had knocking Czechoslovakia flat. If they were on the receiving end for a change, if this wasn’t all just propaganda and nonsense, boy, did they ever deserve it!

But the kid wasn’t to blame for that. He was only doing his job. The ones who were to blame were Hitler and Goebbels and Goring and Himmler, and she couldn’t very well tell them where to head in. If she took it out on the newsboy, what would happen to her? Neutral or not, American or not, she didn’t want a visit from the Gestapo.

Because she looked as shabby as everybody else, the Berliners assumed she was a German, too. They’d nod and say, “Guten Morgen.” She could manage that. She understood German tolerably well, but she spoke French much better. When people here expected much more than Good morning from her, she stumbled badly.

She hated that. She also hated being so dowdy. She’d made a life of standing out from the crowd. No one would ever have noticed her if she didn’t make a point of getting noticed. If she disliked anything, it was invisibility.

A few minutes later, ambling along on a day as gray and gloomy as her mood, she found a way to get noticed. She walked past a place whose window said ROTHSTEIN’S BUTCHER’S SHOP. It wasn’t bigger or fancier or more run down than the shops to either side: a secondhand bookstore to the left, a place that sold wickerwork purses and baskets to the right. The wickerwork place was busy-wicker, unlike leather, didn’t eat up ration points.

Rothstein’s, however, had a large sign taped in the window: GERMAN PEOPLE! DON’T BUY FROM DIRTY JEWS!

Next thing Peggy knew, she was walking through the door. Maybe a demon took hold of her. Only when the bell over the door jangled did she realize what she’d done. And she’d been so proud of herself for wanting to steer clear of the Gestapo! Well, so much for that.

Behind the counter, Rothstein looked astonished. “You aren’t one of my regulars!” he blurted. “You aren’t even-” He stopped, but Jewish hung in the air anyway.

“You’re right. I’m not. Give me a chicken leg, please.” Peggy had enough German for that. She could boil the leg on the hot plate in her room. It would make a better lunch-maybe lunch and supper-than she was likely to get in the hotel restaurant or a cafe. Not much good food left for civilians in Berlin.

Moving like a man in a dream, Rothstein weighed the leg. He was unmistakably a Jew, with a long nose and dark, curly hair. “It comes to 420 grams-almost a week’s ration for meat,” he said. “If you like, I will bone it, so it costs you fewer points.”

“Bitte,” Peggy said.

Deftly, he did. “Now it is only 290 grams. I need coupons for so much, and two Reichsmarks fifty.” As he spoke, he wrapped the chicken in-what else?-butcher paper.

Sixty cents American money, more or less. That was a hell of a lot for a leg. Peggy paid without blinking. She also handed over the swastika-marked ration coupons. Those were part of the game, too.

Rothstein gave her a meticulously written receipt. “Danke schon,” he told her. “You are very brave. You are also very foolish.”

“I hope not,” Peggy said. “Auf wiedersehen.” Till I see you again , it meant literally. She wondered if she was brave enough-or foolish enough-to come back.

She got out fast, but not fast enough. Somebody’d squealed on her. Two blackshirts were trotting up the street toward Rothstein’s. “What kind of Dummkopf do you think you are?” one of them roared. “How dare you go into that damned Jew’s place?”

“Let me see your papers,” the other one yelled. “Immediately!”

“Sure.” Peggy took out her American passport and brandished it like a priest turning a crucifix on a couple of vampires.

The SS men recoiled almost the way vampires would have, too. “Oh,” one of them said disgustedly. “All right. We can’t give you what you deserve for buying there. But we can make the Jew sorry for selling to you.”

“And we will,” the other added, gloating anticipation in his voice.

“He didn’t know I was an American.” If Peggy sounded appalled, it was because she was.

“He knew you weren’t one of his regular kikes. He’ll pay, all right.” The SS men stormed into the butcher’s shop. A moment later, Rothstein cried out in pain. Peggy burst into tears. Dammit, you couldn’t win here.

Harry Turtledove

Hitler's War

People were saying the Maginot Line would save France. People were saying it would have to save France. Luc Harcourt didn’t give a damn about what people were saying. All he knew was, he was getting sick of being marched backward and forward and inside out.

He’d been bombed and shelled and shot at in the retreat from the German frontier. He’d been bombed in the encampment behind the Maginot Line where raw reinforcements filled out the regiment. Fortunately, those little billets-doux had fallen from planes flying high above, not from the Boches’ nasty dive-bombers. They landed all around the camp, but hardly any on it.

Now he and his surviving buddies and the strangers in their clean uniforms who’d just joined them were moving up toward the front again. This time, from what Sergeant Demange said, they’d end up in southern Belgium. If we get there in one piece, Luc thought.

That wasn’t obvious. Hell, whether they’d get there at all wasn’t obvious. They’d started out from the transit camp in trucks. Luc hadn’t much cared for that-as if his opinion mattered a sou’s worth. But if German planes shot up your truck, wouldn’t you roast like a pork loin in the oven? Of course you would-and your meat would end up smelling like burnt pork, too.

No German planes harried the trucks. That didn’t mean they carried Luc and his comrades very far toward the front. German bombers had done their worst to the roads leading north and east. If a truck couldn’t get through, if it sank to the axles when it tried to use the muddy fields instead of the cratered roads…

If all that happened-and it did-you got out and you damn well walked. “Here we are, back in 1918,” Sergeant Demange said, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth twitching as he talked.

“This isn’t so bad, Sarge,” Luc said. “Back then, you wore horizon-blue. Now you’re in khaki.”

“Oh, shut up, smartass. Once they get muddy, all uniforms are the same color,” Demange said. “The only thing you know about a guy in clean new clothes is that he doesn’t come up to the front much, so you can’t trust him.”

Ahead, the rumble of artillery got steadily louder. The Frenchmen were heading its way-and it was heading theirs. And behind them came a rumble of engines- something had got past the unholy mess the Nazis had made of the roads. “Move to one side, damn you!” someone yelled.

When Luc saw French tanks, he was only too glad to stand aside and let them go by. The officer who’d shouted, a tall colonel with a small mustache and a big nose, stood very straight in the cupola of the lead machine. The French tanks were larger and had smoother lines than the German machines Luc had already seen too closely. By the determined look on the colonel’s face, he didn’t want to stop till he got to Berlin.

“He’s a fishing pole, isn’t he?” Luc remarked.

“Two fishing poles,” Sergeant Demange answered. That was what Luc thought he heard, anyway: deux galles. But Demange went on, “Colonel de Gaulle knows more about tanks than anybody else on our side, I think.”

“Is that who he is?” Luc had heard of de Gaulle, though he hadn’t known him by sight. The tall officer did indeed advocate tanks so tirelessly-and tiresomely-that he infuriated his superiors. “Did you serve under him last time?”

“Nah. Wish I would have.” Sergeant Demange spat out a tiny butt and ground it into the mud with his boot. He lit another Gitane, then continued, “If I remember straight, he got wounded and captured early on last time around, and sat out most of the war in a POW camp.”

“Lucky stiff,” muttered somebody in back of Luc. He almost turned around to find out who let his mouth run ahead of his brain like that. A tiny bit louder, and Sergeant Demange would have heard it, in which case God help whoever it was. On second thought, Luc didn’t want to know. If he didn’t, the ferocious little sergeant couldn’t squeeze it out of him.

The last tank growled past. None of the other commanders looked to be within ten centimeters of Colonel de Gaulle. Maybe that was just as well for them. They couldn’t have much room inside the turret when they needed to duck down and fight.

Luc’s company stopped at a field kitchen as daylight leached from the sky. A cook with a double chin-cooks never went hungry-shoveled potatoes and cabbage and stewed pork into his mess tin. He stared at his supper with resigned dismay. “Which side are we on, anyway?”

“Funny guy,” the cook said. “I’ve only heard that one five times in the past half-hour. You don’t want it, you can go hungry. You think I give a rat’s ass?”

Luc prodded a pale piece of pork with a forefinger. “I thought that’s what this was.” The cook swore at him in earnest then.

Washed down with vin extremely ordinaire, the stew wasn’t bad. Luc smoked a cigarette, then wrapped himself in a blanket inside what had been somebody’s house till a bomb blew out most of one wall. His buddies had a makeshift brazier going: a bucket half full of hot coals hung from a scrap-metal tripod so it didn’t set the floor on fire. It gave off less heat than Luc wished it would, but it was better than nothing.

He slept like a hibernating animal. Not only were nights endlessly long, but he’d never been so worn in his life. Some of the guys in his company fell asleep while they marched-and they kept going, too. He envied them-he didn’t seem able to do that himself.

Some time in the middle of the night, a hard hand shook him awake. He groped for his belt knife. Sergeant Demange’s low-voiced chuckle stopped him. “Take it easy,” the noncom said. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be holding a lily by now. But no. Go out and stand watch for a couple of hours.”

“Do I have to?” Luc asked around a yawn.

“Damn right you do. Suppose German parachutists came down out of the sky? What would we do without a warning?”

“At night?” Luc didn’t believe it. But the Fritzes had done all kinds of nasty things with parachutists. Maybe they’d make a night attack behind the French line. And no maybe about what Sergeant Demange would do if Luc gave him any more lip. With a martyred sigh, Luc got out of the blanket and put on his boots and his helmet. He was already wearing everything else, including his greatcoat.

His breath smoked inside the battered house. It smoked more when he stepped outside. The night was mostly clear. Stars glittered frigidly in a sky blacker than dried blood. Carolers would have loved a night like this. Right now, Luc would have bet nobody in Europe loved anybody else.

The war hadn’t gone to bed. Off to the northeast, the thunder of artillery went on. He could see flashes against the horizon. Ours or theirs? he wondered. After a moment, he decided it was probably both.

Just ahead lay towns whose names brought back thunderous memories of the last war’s early days: Charleroi and, a little farther east, Namur. The Germans were swarming this way again, like field-gray ants towards an enticing picnic feast. They’d fallen short of Paris the last time around. Either they would again or…

Luc didn’t want to think about or. He didn’t want to think about anything. He wanted to go back to sleep, or to fall asleep out here. Fear of the Boches didn’t hold him back. Fear of Sergeant Demange did.

After what seemed like forever but probably wasn’t, another soldier stumbled out of the house. “Go back to sleep,” he said. “I’ve got it.” A moment later, he added, “Damn Sergeant Demange anyway,” under his breath.

“Sure,” Luc said. He went back inside, wondering whether Demange ever slept. On all the evidence, he seemed a piece of well-made machinery rather than a man. Maybe he ran on cigarette smoke and coffee.

Come to think of it, maybe I do, too. Luc found the blanket he’d so sorrowfully abandoned. He took off boots and helmet and lay down again. The blanket didn’t seem to do a thing to get him any warmer. He wondered if he’d lie there till dawn finally came. Next thing he knew, he was asleep.

“Wake up, you bum. You snore.”

“I do not,” Luc answered automatically, even before his eyes opened. Twenty minutes later, with some kind of mush and strong coffee inside him, he was marching again.

Refugees from Namur and Charleroi crowded the road. Some of them cheered the soldiers in their odd Walloon French. Others swore at them: “If we weren’t in the way between the Germans and your damned country, they’d leave us alone!”

“As far as I’m concerned, Hitler’s welcome to Belgium,” Sergeant Demange retorted. “And you cocksuckers deserve him, too. Now get the hell out of our way before we open up on you!”

He would have done it. Not only that, he would have laughed while he did it. The Belgians must have figured that out, because they tumbled off the road with haste that would have been funny if this were a film and not the ruination of their lives.

Then more Belgian soldiers started falling back past the oncoming French. “You can have a taste of those bastards,” a Walloon said. A couple of Flemings added something to that, but Luc didn’t know what it was. If they hadn’t worn Belgian uniform, he would have shot them. Their language sounded too goddamn much like German.

Charleroi had got the bejesus knocked out of it in the first war. Luc supposed it must have been rebuilt since, but it had got pounded again. Some of the wrecked buildings were still smoking. The Nazis had just worked it over, then. Half a rag doll lay in the gutter. At another time, it might have been poignant enough to move Luc to tears. But he’d seen men who looked like that. He glanced at the doll and marched on.

Out beyond Charleroi, some of Colonel de Gaulle’s tanks were firing at the enemy. German shells landed around them. Without waiting for orders, Luc yanked the entrenching tool off his belt and started digging in. If Sergeant Demange didn’t like it, he’d say so. A look out of the corner of Luc’s eyes told him the noncom was digging, too. Nodding to himself, Luc made the dirt fly.

* * *

Some French King a long time ago said, “Paris is worth a Mass.” Vaclav Jezek had learned that in history class. As far as he was concerned, Paris was mostly a mess. By steamer from Constanta to Marseille, dodging Italian subs and seaplanes. By train from Marseille to Paris. By taxicab to the Czech embassy, which served as headquarters for the government in exile.

By taxi again to a camp outside Paris. The camp held about a regiment’s worth of Czechoslovakian soldiers: mostly Czechs, with a sprinkling of antifascist Slovaks and Ruthenians. Hardly anyone had his own weapon. The French wasted little time passing out rifles. They were eager to get all their friends into the fight against Hitler’s legions.

Next to none of them spoke any Czech, though. They did the same thing as the Pole who’d interned Vaclav: they used German. It worked-most Czechs knew at least some, and could translate for the ones who didn’t. But speaking the enemy’s language with your friends was humiliating and infuriating.

The Germans seemed to know where the camp was. Their bombers visited it every so often. This wasn’t the first time Vaclav had had to sprint for a trench-far from it. The bombers also visited Paris. On the radio, the Germans claimed to be hitting only military targets. That would have been funny if it didn’t make Jezek want to cry.

Three days before Christmas, his platoon jammed itself into a bus. A generation earlier, buses had hauled French troops from Paris to the war-saving Battle of the Marne. Some of the machines the Czechoslovak regiment used looked to be of vintage close to 1914.

It was cold outside. It didn’t stay cold inside the bus for long, not when it was full of twice as many men as it was supposed to carry. Everybody lit a cigarette. Inside of seconds, the smoke made Vaclav’s eyes sting. He didn’t care. He was smoking furiously himself. Gauloises packed a heftier jolt than the miserable excuses for tobacco he’d got since he was interned.

The driver, a middle-aged Frenchman, chain-smoked with his passengers. A patch covered his left eye but didn’t hide all the damage a bullet or shell fragment had done to his face. He seemed to manage all right with one eye, at least as far as driving went.

Whatever springs the bus might have had once upon a time had long since gone to the big coachwork shop in the sky. Vaclav felt every pothole, every rock. “I wonder if we’ll have any kidneys left by the time we get wherever we’re going,” he said to the soldier sitting next to-half on top of-him.

“Why worry?” the other man replied. His dark, curly hair and hooked nose said he was a Jew. Vaclav normally had little use for Jews, but he supposed you could count on them to fight the Nazis. This fellow went on, “If we’ve still got ‘em when we get there, the Germans’ll blow ‘em out of us, right?”

Vaclav eyed him. Maybe you weren’t so smart if you supposed something like that. “If you don’t think we can beat them, why did you sign up for this?”

“You gotta try.” The Jewish soldier paused to light a Gitane. He spoke Czech like a big-city man; if he wasn’t from Prague, Vaclav didn’t know anything. After sucking in smoke, he added, “Damn Poles don’t like Jews any better than the Germans do.”

“I guess not.” Vaclav hadn’t thought of that; it was nothing he’d ever needed to worry about.

“So how about you, goy?” That wasn’t Czech or German, but Vaclav had no trouble working out what it meant. “How come you’re here? How come you aren’t yelling, ‘Heil Hitler!’?”

Who do you think you are, asking me questions like that? After a moment, Vaclav tried to shrug. Inside the crowded bus, it wasn’t easy. “Fuck Hitler,” he said simply.

“That’ll do.” The Jew nodded. “I’m David. Who the hell are you?”

“Vaclav.” Jezek laughed. “Like everybody else, almost.”

David started singing the Christmas song about Good King Wenceslaus. He knew all the words. Vaclav must have looked flabbergasted, because the Jew started to laugh. “I’ve been hearing it ever since I was born,” David said. “Hell, I must have heard it while I was still inside my mom. I’d better know it.”

“I guess.” Vaclav hadn’t thought about that, either. If you were a Jew, you had your own stuff. But everybody else’s stuff had to land on you, too, whether you wanted it or not. If that wasn’t weird, what was?

After a few seconds, somebody else started singing about Good King Wenceslaus. It was that season of the year. A moment later, the Czech carol filled the bus like cigarette smoke. “Well, I see what you mean,” Vaclav said.

David nodded again. “Bet your ass. It’s always like this.”

The driver didn’t speak any Czech. To him, the carol was just noise. He didn’t need long to get sick of it. He yelled something in French. Not enough of the Czech soldiers spoke enough French for it to do any good. Then the driver screamed, “Shut up, you fucking pigdogs!” auf Deutsch. Maybe he’d learned it in a prison camp or something. That got people’s attention-maybe not in a good way, but it did.

“Ah, your mother,” David said, first in Czech, then in Yiddish.

Vaclav realized things were starting to go wrong when a gendarme-or maybe he was a military policeman-waved the bus onto a detour. The new road was narrow and twisty. The driver started swearing. So did the Czech soldiers as they slid from side to side.

Then the side road petered out-or maybe there was a crater up ahead. “Heraus!” the driver said as the bus’ door wheezed open.

“What do we do now?” Vaclav asked.

“What else?” David said. “We walk.”

Walk they did. Vaclav had lost his conditioning after getting interned. Tramping along with a forty-kilo pack on his back wasn’t his idea of a good time. The road seemed uphill both ways. Despite spatters of sleet, he soon started sweating. He threw down a cigarette butt and heard it hiss to extinction in an icy puddle.

That sparked a thought: “They say smoking is bad for your wind.”

“Screw ‘em,” David replied. He had another cigarette in his mouth.

Airplane motors droned high overhead. Bombs whistled down out of the clouds. They fell at random across the French countryside. The low ceiling grounded the German Stukas. Vaclav didn’t miss them-those bastards could put one right on top of an outhouse if they saw you walk in there to take a crap.

His platoon, of course, wasn’t the only unit on the march. He sometimes wondered if there was anybody in France who wasn’t. They went past a bunch of Frenchmen who’d got hit by one of those randomly falling bombs-a 250-kilo job, or maybe a 500. It wasn’t pretty. If the swine that went through a meat-packing plant wore uniforms, they would have looked a lot like this about halfway through.

Czech medics did what they could to help their French counterparts. You had to hope the French would have done the same for a Czech outfit. The rest of the platoon went around the blood and the moans and the shattered bodies. Vaclav didn’t look closely at them. He’d already seen more death and devastation than he ever wanted to remember.

And now you’re volunteering to be part of it again? he asked himself. You could have sat tight in that internment camp. It wasn’t exciting, but nobody was out to blow your balls off, either.

His shrug made the straps on that heavy pack dig into his shoulders. Too late to worry about it now. He’d been bored in the camp. Maybe he’d been stupid to leave. But if everybody sat tight, if nobody tried to stop Hitler, wouldn’t the little bastard with the ugly mustache end up telling the world what to do?

It looked that way to Vaclav. He glanced over at David, slogging along beside him. David had his own reasons to hate the Nazis, all right. Most of the time, Czech and Jew would have been wary around each other. Not here. The Germans had brought them together. A miracle of sorts, or maybe just proof of the old saying, The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Bombs turned a roadside meadow into a lunar landscape. Cattle lay sprawled like soldiers. They weren’t bloated and stinking. Some of them still moved and lowed piteously, so they’d gone down in this latest bombardment. Part of the weight Vaclav carried was rations. All the same…

“Fresh meat!” David got the words out before he could.

The platoon commander was a fresh-faced lieutenant named Svabinsky. Maybe he could have kept the soldiers from running into the field, maybe not. But he didn’t even try. “Beefsteaks!” he said happily, and pulled the bayonet off his belt.

They weren’t exactly beefsteaks. No butcher worth half his pay would have given them such a fancy name. They were chunks of meat haggled off the carcasses by hungrily enthusiastic amateurs. Toasted over a roaring fire, Vaclav’s had a charred crust and a bloody interior. He didn’t care. The gobbet was big enough to make his belly shut up. What else mattered in the field?

He rolled himself in a blanket and lay down by the fire. Lieutenant Svabinsky made sure people fed it through the night. Some time in the middle of the long, cold darkness, the blaring of car horns woke Vaclav. People shouted in French and French-accented German and even, once or twice, in Czech. Road damage might have stopped the buses, but the French army had cobbled together this swarm of automobiles to bring the Czechoslovakian soldiers up to the front.

As Vaclav stumbled towards one of them-they showed no lights, of course-he laughed through a yawn. The French were in a fix, the same way his own country had been. But they were trying to muddle through. He couldn’t imagine the efficient Germans coming up with a mad arrangement like this.

He piled into a car. As soon as it was packed, the driver took off. Vaclav hoped the fellow knew where he was going. He must have. Even staying on the road couldn’t have been easy, but the Frenchman did it. Vaclav dozed off again, jerking awake whenever the car hit a pothole.

Somebody outside said something in a language that sounded like German. Vaclav’s eyes flew open. Morning twilight let him see a soldier in a French-looking uniform. What came out of the man’s mouth still sounded like German. A Belgian, Vaclav realized. Are we in Belgium already?

The soldier turned out to speak French, too. That helped the driver, though not Vaclav. The Czech was glad to have a little light. The road was worse than ever, and wound through rugged, heavily wooded country. “What is this place?” Vaclav asked in German.

“They call it the Ardennes,” the driver answered in the same tongue.

“Why do they want us here?” Vaclav said. “You’d have to be crazy to try and push an attack through terrain like this.”

With a magnificent Gallic shrug, the driver said, “With people like the Germans, who can tell?” Somebody yelled and waved. The Frenchman hit the brakes. The car-a battered old Citroen-lurched to a stop. “You get out here.”

Getting out was harder than squeezing in had been. Vaclav stretched and twisted to work the kinks out of his back. He wished he had some coffee.

“Youse is the Czechs?” What the French officer spoke sounded more like bad Polish than Czech, but Vaclav could-barely-follow it. The Frenchman went on, “Come these ways-I will shove you into positions.” He was trying, anyhow.

And maybe the Czechs did need to be shoved into positions. Artillery growled up ahead. It wasn’t too close, but it was there. Maybe the Germans were crazy. Or maybe this was a feint, with the main force up in the north, the way it looked.

His shrug wasn’t so fancy as the driver’s but it would do. He didn’t have to decide whether the Nazis were making a big push here or a little one. All he had to do was go where people told him and shoot at anybody and anything decked out in German field-gray.

He wasn’t the only Czech soldier yawning as a ragged column formed. He figured he could just about manage what they needed from him.

* * *

“Stille nacht! Heilige NACHT!” Hans-Ulrich Rudel sang, along with the rest of the flyers and groundcrew men at the forward base in Holland. They had a tree, brought west from Germany and decorated with gingerbread men and candles and tinsel and ornaments made from scrap metal by mechanics in between patch jobs and other repairs on the Stukas.

Hans-Ulrich had heard that carol and all the others since before the day he first knew what the words meant. With his father a churchman, it couldn’t very well have been any different. But at his father’s house, and at his father’s church, the songs hadn’t seemed to mean so much. People sang them because they’d always sung them, sang them without thinking about what the words really said.

Things were different here. You don’t know what life is worth till you lay it on the line, Rudel thought. Everybody here knew this Christmas might be his last. That made it count for ever so much more than it had back in peacetime.

One of the other pilots raised a glass of schnapps. “Absent friends,” he said, and knocked back the shot.

“Absent friends,” the Luftwaffe men chorused. Most of them had something strong to hand, too.

Hans-Ulrich didn’t. A groundcrew man clucked at him. “Shouldn’t drink toasts in water. It’s unlucky.”

“Not water,” Rudel replied with dignity. But his eggnog was unfortified.

“Close enough. Too damn close.” The other pilot raised his glass again. “And here’s to close enough and too damn close, as long as the bastards miss.”

“Amen!” Hans-Ulrich drank to that, too, even if it was with plain eggnog.

Off in the distance, guns boomed. The ceiling was too low to let planes take off and land, but the war went on. One of the groundcrew men, a graying, wrinkled fellow with only three fingers on his left hand, said, “Wasn’t like this the first Christmas in the last war.”

“I’ve heard about the truce, Franz,” Hans-Ulrich said. “Was it really as big a thing as people say-our Landsers playing football with the Tommies, and all that?”

“I know people who watched the games,” Franz answered. “I know one guy who played. I didn’t see ‘em myself-my regiment was opposite the Frenchmen. We didn’t play football with them. But we did come up out of the trenches and meet in no-man’s-land, damned if we didn’t. We traded cigarettes and rations and stuff you could drink, and we all said what a bunch of assholes our officers were…No offense, sir.”

Everybody laughed. Rudel made sure his laughter was louder than anyone else’s. You couldn’t let the men think you were a stuffed shirt, even if you were-maybe especially if you were. Hans-Ulrich knew he was, at least by most people’s standards.

He shrugged. He had his father’s stern Lutheran God, and he had the Fuhrer (whom he saw as God’s instrument on earth), and he had his Stuka (which was his own instrument on earth). As long as he had them, he didn’t need to worry about anything else.

Or so he thought, till bombs started walking toward the hut where he and his countrymen were celebrating Christmas. The weather might be lousy here, but it was good enough farther west to let planes take off, and the English or French were paying a call.

They were bombing blind, of course, up there above the clouds. Let it fall, and it’s bound to come down on somebody’s head. That had to be what they were thinking, and they were right. The Luftwaffe did the same thing when the weather was bad, as it so often was at this season.

Hans-Ulrich didn’t want to be the first one running for a trench. He also didn’t want to wait too long and go sky-high in case the bombardiers got lucky. The line between courage and foolhardiness could be a fine one.

Franz took the bull by the horns. “I’m never going to go up for the goddamn Ritterkreuz,” he said, and dashed out the door.

Where one man went, others could follow without losing pride. A zigzag trench ran only a few meters outside the hut for such occasions as these. As Hans-Ulrich jumped down into it-his boots squelched in mud-he tried to imagine winning the Knight’s Cross to the Iron Cross himself. He’d got an Iron Cross Second Class a week before: an early Christmas present, his CO called it. But you could win an Iron Cross Second Class just by staying alive at the front for a couple of weeks-oh, not quite, but it seemed that way.

Franz had the ribbon for one, no doubt from the last war. Back then, the Iron Cross Second Class was almost the only medal an enlisted man could win. Hitler had an Iron Cross First Class, which made him an exceptional hero, because he’d never even reached sergeant.

And then Hans-Ulrich stopped worrying about Hitler’s Iron Cross or anything else but living through the next few minutes. The enemy planes up there were bombing blind, but they couldn’t have done better on a sunny, clear summer’s day. They might not have done so well, because high-altitude bombing was turning out to be one of the big disappointments of the war. It was neither as accurate nor as terrifying and intimidating as the experts had claimed it would be.

Which didn’t mean winding up on the wrong end of it was any fun. Now Rudel got a taste of what he gave the foe. The earth shook under him like a blancmange. The noise was impossible, overwhelming. Blast did its best to tear his lungs out from the inside.

After the longest six or eight minutes of Hans-Ulrich’s life, the bombers droned away. “Der Herr Gott im Himmel!” he said. Then he said it again, louder, because he couldn’t hear himself the first time. He stuck his head up and looked over the lip of the trench.

The hut still stood, but it leaned drunkenly Its windows were blown out-or, more likely, in. Bomb craters turned the landscape into a miniature Verdun. Something a few hundred meters away was burning enthusiastically-a truck, Hans-Ulrich saw.

Sergeant Dieselhorst stuck his head up a few meters from Hans-Ulrich. “I wouldn’t mind not doing that again,” the rear gunner remarked, and then, apropos of nothing that presently surrounded him, “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” Rudel echoed automatically. “Where were you? You weren’t singing carols-I know that.”

“I should hope not,” the noncom said. “If you want to waste your time that way, go ahead, but I was doing something more important: I was sleeping, by God.” He pointed to some trees not far away. “I was happy as a clam under there, but then the goddamn bombs started coming down.”

He sounded irate in a particular way. Hans-Ulrich nodded, because he felt that same indignation. When he went out and dropped a fat one on a French truck column, that was business. But when the sons of bitches on the other side tried to blow him to the moon, it felt like dirty pool. How dare they do such a thing? Didn’t they know the Fuhrer and the Reich were going to win any which way? Why were they working so hard in what was bound to be a forlorn hope?

And why were they coming so close to killing him? That was the real question.

“I wonder if we’ve got any fighters up there,” somebody said. “If we do, those Allied shitheads’ll be sorry in a hurry.”

Hans-Ulrich nodded. He’d listened to Me-109 pilots going on about what sitting ducks British and French bombers were. They couldn’t run, they couldn’t hide, and they couldn’t fight back. He would have liked that better if his Stuka weren’t in the same boat. No matter how scary it seemed to the troops on the ground, it couldn’t get out of its own way. If the Messerschmitts didn’t keep enemy fighters away from them, Ju-87s would tumble out of the sky as often as the Western Allies’ bombers did.

“We ought to pay those damned sky pirates back,” someone else said, lifting a phrase popular in German papers.

Dieselhorst’s snort put paid to that. In case it hadn’t, the sergeant went on, “How? We can’t take off. Even if the weather didn’t stink, some of that load came down on the airstrip. They’re going to have to flatten it out again before we can use it. We might as well drink and play skat, because we aren’t flying for a while.”

A sergeant feeling his oats could sound more authoritative than any major ever hatched. Sergeants mysteriously, mystically knew things. Officers could command, but they didn’t have that amazing certainty.

“Anybody think more of those fuckers are coming?” asked a ground-crew man in greasy, muddy coveralls. By his tone, he wanted somebody like Dieselhorst to pat him on the head and say something like, No, don’t worry about it. You’re safe now.

But no one said anything of the kind. Hans-Ulrich realized he wouldn’t have minded some reassurance, either. When the silence had stretched for a bit, the groundcrew man swore again. Maybe that made him feel a little better, anyhow. Rudel didn’t usually grant himself even that safety valve, though some of the close calls he’d had on missions made him slip every now and then. He always felt bad about it afterwards, but coming out with something ripe made him feel better when he did it.

He climbed out of the trench and brushed mud and dirt off of himself. “We might as well go back,” he said. “The best way to get even with the enemy is to have a good time.”

When the Luftwaffe men went back inside their shelter, they found that blast and wind had blown out most of the candles on the Christmas tree. A pilot with a cigarette lighter got them going again. He flicked the lighter closed and put it in his pocket. “God only knows how long I’ll be able to get fuel for it,” he said. “Then it’s back to matches-as long as we have matches.”

He wore an Iron Cross First Class. Nobody could accuse him of being a coward or a defeatist…but he sounded like one. Hans-Ulrich wanted to take him aside and talk some sense into him. But when he tried to do that, the people he was talking to had a way of getting angry instead of appreciating his advice. He didn’t like it, which didn’t mean he hadn’t noticed it. He kept his mouth shut.

Caroling some more would have been nice, but nobody seemed to want to. That made a certain amount of sense: if you were listening for airplane engines, you didn’t want to be noisy yourself. Rudel missed the music all the same.

Sergeant Dieselhorst had come in with the rest of them. He was drinking schnapps. Soon enough, he was laughing and joking with the rest of the men. Hans-Ulrich wished he could fit in so easily-or at all.

Chapter 8

Achilly wind whipped snow through the air almost horizontally. A good coal stove heated the officers’ barracks outside of Drisa. All the same, Anastas Mouradian shivered. “I’ll never be warm again,” he said in his deliberate Russian. “Never, not till July and the five minutes of summer they have here.”

Sergei Yaroslavsky and the other men in the barracks were all Russians. They hooted at the effete southerner. They’d all seen plenty of weather worse than this. “Hell, we could fly in this if we had to,” Sergei said.

“And we might, too,” somebody else added. “Is it five o’clock yet?”

After a glance at his watch, Sergei said, “A couple of minutes till.”

“Good,” the other flyer said. “Turn on the radio. Let’s hear the news.”

Mouradian was closest to the set. He clicked it on. It made scratchy, flatulent noises as it warmed up. There were better radios-Yaroslavsky had seen, and heard, that in Czechoslovakia. He didn’t say anything about it. Things weren’t so bad as they had been during the purges the year before, but a careless word could still make you disappear.

Or you could disappear for no reason. Plenty of people had.

“Comrades! The news!” the announcer said. “In the West, the capitalists and Fascists continue to murder one another.” He gave a summary of the day’s fighting-or rather, the claims and counterclaims about the day’s fighting, finishing, “Plainly, by the lies and contradictions on display, neither side in this struggle of reactionary decadence is to be believed.”

“May the Devil’s grandmother eat them all up,” another pilot said. The sentiment was unexceptionable. The way the man put it wasn’t. Russians talked about the Devil and his relations all the time. When the Soviet Union was aggressively atheist, though…Such talk could land you in trouble if someone who didn’t like you reported it.

Anything could land you in trouble. Sergei’d just been thinking about that.

“In the Far East, Japanese imperialists continue to encroach on the territory of the fraternal socialist Mongolian People’s Republic,” the announcer said. “The Foreign Commissar, Comrade Litvinov, has stated that such incursions cannot and will not be tolerated indefinitely.”

“Wonder if that’s where we go next,” Mouradian said. Sergei had wondered the same thing when he was ordered to fly their SB-2 out of the Ukraine. But they’d ended up at the other end of the USSR instead, about as far from the trouble in Mongolia as they could get.

And there might have been reasons for that, because the next words out of the newsreader’s mouth were, “The semifascist Smigly-Ridz regime in Poland has once more rejected the Soviet Union’s just and equitable demands for an adjustment of the border in the northeast. The Poles still cling to their ill-gotten and illegal gains from the war they waged against the USSR in the early 1920s.”

Everybody leaned toward the radio. In portentous tones, the announcer went on, “Comrade Stalin has spoken with grave concern of the way the Polish regime mistreats the ethnic Byelorussians in the area in question. How long the peace-loving Soviet people can tolerate these continued provocations, only time will tell.”

He went on to talk about the overfulfillment of the norms for the current Five-Year Plan. Yaroslavsky listened to all that with half an ear; it didn’t directly affect him. The other did. When Stalin said he didn’t like the way somebody did something, that somebody was commonly very sorry very soon. And hardly anything could make a country sorrier faster than flight after flight of SB-2 bombers.

“I didn’t think we’d go,” Sergei said. “If the Poles yelled to the Nazis for help, that would put German troops right on our border, and-” He didn’t say and that wouldn’t be so good. Most of the men in the barracks had served in Czechoslovakia. They knew what rough customers the Hitlerites were.

Anastas Mouradian picked up where he left off: “If the Nazis get bogged down against England and France, they’ll be too busy to do anything about what goes on here.”

Several flyers nodded. Sergei was one of them; it looked that way to him, too. He would have said it if his crewmate hadn’t. “Soldiers are moving up toward the border. So…” The pilot who said that let his voice trail off. He wasn’t a general, and he wasn’t a prophet. You didn’t want to come out with anything that might be remembered too well.

“We aren’t going to fly right this minute,” another officer said, and produced a bottle of vodka. Despite what Sergei had said before, he was obviously right. The bottle went round. Pretty soon, another one followed it. One more after that and they wouldn’t have been able to walk or see, let alone fly. The Red Air Force ran on vodka as surely as it ran on aviation gasoline.

They got their orders the next day. Sergei still felt the drinking bout. Like the other flyers Lieutenant Colonel Borisov summoned to his office, he did his best not to show it. “We are going to liberate our Byelorussian brethren from the yoke of the Polish semifascist regime,” the squadron commander declared. “Marshal Smigly-Ridz has refused to be reasonable and democratic, and so we must persuade him.”

He’s refused to do what we want, and so we must pound the shit out of him. Sergei had no trouble translating Communist jargon into what went on in the real world. By the knowing grunts that came from several other men, neither did anyone else.

“Red Army units will enter the territory to be liberated at 0700 tomorrow morning,” Borisov declared. His eyes were cat-green but set on a slant; like so many Russians, he likely had some Tatar in the woodpile. “Your assignment will be to strike at Polish troops, and to bomb the rail junction at Glubookoje to prevent the Smigly-Ridz regime from bringing up reinforcements. Questions?”

“What if the weather doesn’t let us fly, Comrade Lieutenant Colonel?” Sergei asked.

“Then we will stay on the ground,” Borisov answered. “But our superiors do not believe that is likely.”

What exactly did he mean there? Did higher-ups in the Red Army and Red Air Force have reliable forecasts of good weather? Or would the SB-2s take off no matter how rotten the weather was? Yaroslavsky suspected the latter. With air-cooled engines, the bombers wouldn’t freeze up the way they might with liquid cooling. And they’d had skis installed instead of landing wheels, so they could deal with snow pretty well. Even so…

Sergei suspected a plan somewhere said, Air support will be laid on at such and such a time in such and such places with so many bombers and so many escorting fighters. Bad weather? Plans like that didn’t worry about such mundane details. Come what might, the air support would be laid on.

“Other questions?” Borisov asked.

His tone said he didn’t really want any more, but Anastas Mouradian raised his hand anyway. Frowning, Borisov nodded at him. “What do we do if the Nazis come in on the Poles’ side, Comrade Lieutenant Colonel?” Mouradian asked.

Several people inhaled sharply. That was a question with teeth, all right. Borisov didn’t look happy. “The hope and expectation are that this will not occur.”

“Yes, sir,” Mouradian said, and he waited.

The contest of wills was silent. The squadron commander didn’t want to say anything else. Mouradian didn’t want to come right out and ask, But what if it does? That silence stretched tighter and tighter. Finally, it snapped. So did Borisov: “We are at war with Germany. If German troops or aircraft operate against us, we are to prosecute the war against them. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Mouradian said.

It was clear to Sergei, too. He didn’t like it. Poland and Romania had been the USSR’s shield against Fascist Germany. If the Poles scream for help to their Western neighbor, that shield was gone. Stalin never would have made demands on Poland if the Germans weren’t up to their eyebrows in war on their other frontier. But if they weren’t quite up to their eyebrows…

Sergei had faced Messerschmitts and German antiaircraft guns in Czechoslovakia. He didn’t relish doing it again. Of course, the next time anyone set over him gave a damn about his opinion would be the first.

Maybe the high command did know something. Sergei was sure stranger things had happened, though he couldn’t think of one offhand. The day was cold, but it was bright and sunny. The SB-2 was fueled up and bombed up and ready to go. Sergei and Mouradian and Ivan Kuchkov climbed in.

Groundcrew men spun the bomber’s props. The engines roared to life. Sergei ran his checks. All the instruments looked good. The SB-2 slid down the snow airstrip. Sergei pulled back on the stick. The nose went up. The airplane left the ground. Anastas Mouradian cranked up the landing gear. The skis retracted almost as neatly as wheels.

Snow down below made navigation a challenge. It would have been harder yet if artillery bursts hadn’t shown the way. Tanks and soldiers were swathed in white, but cast long shadows across the even whiter snow. There was the border, and there were the Soviet troops crossing it to liberate the fraternal, peace-loving people who lived just to the west.

And there were the Polish oppressors: more soldiers in white with shadows stretching over the snow. Antiaircraft guns opened up on the SB-2s. After facing German fire, Sergei didn’t think much of this.

He saw a good concentration of troops and trucks ahead. There was the railroad line, too. If he plastered the neighborhood, he could do what Lieutenant Colonel Borisov wanted done. “Ready, Ivan?” he bawled into the speaking tube.

“Ready, sir!” the noncom answered.

“Khorosho. Mouradian will tell you when to drop,” Sergei said. Anastas was down in the bottom front of the SB-2’s glasshouse cockpit, peering through the bombsight.

“Now!” he shouted, and the stick of bombs tumbled from the plane’s belly. As always, the SB-2 immediately got peppier and more maneuverable. Yaroslavsky took advantage of that by getting out of there as fast as he could. He’d seen a couple of gull-winged PZL fighters in the neighborhood. They weren’t supposed to be anywhere near as dangerous as Me-109s, but any fighter was dangerous if you happened to be a bomber.

Other SB-2s were also hitting that concentration. The Poles down there had to be catching hell. Well, if they wouldn’t give the Soviet Union what it was rightfully entitled to, this was what they got.

Back to the airstrip he flew. He found it, much to his relief. The ski-carrying landing gear descended. Getting down was an adventure, but at last the SB-2 slid to a stop. Groundcrew men wearing white snow smocks over greatcoats rushed forward to refuel the plane and bomb it up again. “How’d it go?” one of them called, his breath smoking in the frosty air.

“Routine,” Sergei answered. “Just routine.”

* * *

“Happy New Year!” Peggy Druce said as the clock struck twelve. “It’s 1939. Oh, boy!” She raised a glass of what was supposed to be scotch. The stuff tasted more like oven cleaner. In wartime Berlin, you took what you could get and you were damn glad you got anything.

A handful of other people sat drinking in the hotel restaurant. They were split about fifty-fifty between neutrals stuck in Berlin and Germans who felt like tying one on even if the world seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. Some of the Germans were civilians, others in uniform. The other way to tell them apart was that the military men were drinking harder.

The radio blared out war news. Everything was going well in the West-if you believed the announcer, anyhow. “Soon a battle of annihilation will sweep the French and English out of Belgium, which they invaded with flagrant disregard for international law!” the fellow declared. He had a high, shrill, unpleasant voice. Peggy thought so, anyhow; it put her in mind of screechy chalk on a blackboard.

Then he started screaming about what the evil Communists in Russia were doing to Poland. “It is a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy to terrorize small nations!” he said.

What about Czechoslovakia? Peggy wondered. What about Holland? What about Luxembourg? What about Belgium? Asking questions like that was pointless here. Even if the Gestapo didn’t haul you away and start pulling out your toenails, the Germans wouldn’t get it. They thought anything they did was okay because they did it. If the other guy did the same thing, he was a dirty, rotten nogoodnik.

And then the newsman came out with something Peggy hadn’t heard before: “Because of the magnitude of the unprovoked invasion, Marshal Smigly-Ridz has asked the Fuhrer for aid against the Bolsheviks. Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop has stated that that aid will be forthcoming. We are already at war with the Soviet Union. Now we have the chance to teach the Reds and the Jews the lesson they deserve.”

Peggy looked around. Nobody she could see looked excited about teaching the Russians a lesson. One of the soldiers, a major old enough to have fought in the last war, knocked back half a tumbler’s worth of something, put his head on his folded arms, and fell asleep at his table. The good-time girl who’d been with him stalked away in disgust.

Another soldier stood up and raised a glass on high. “Here’s to the two-front war!” he yelled.

His buddies dragged him down. They spoke in low, urgent voices. He didn’t want to listen. When they couldn’t make him shut up, they hauled him out into the cold, pitch-black blackout night. Peggy wondered if it was already too late for him. Was somebody in there taking notes? She wouldn’t have been surprised. People said there was at least one informer in every crowd. Peggy didn’t always believe what people said, but it seemed likely here.

Music started coming out of the radio. Saccharine-sweet, it was as annoying as the newscaster. Jazz was one more thing the Nazis wouldn’t put up with. Degenerate Negro music, they called it. No matter what they called it, what they made themselves was sappy and boring.

A naval officer came up to the table where Peggy was drinking by herself. “May I join you?” he asked.

“Sure.” Peggy held up her left hand so the diamonds in her wedding ring sparkled. “Don’t expect too much, that’s all.”

He smiled. His long, weathered face didn’t seem to have room for amusement, but it turned out to. “Thank you for the warning. I may need it less than you think, though.” He set down his drink and showed off the thin gold band on the fourth finger of his own left hand. “If I ask your name, will you think I am trying to seduce you?”

“Probably,” Peggy answered, which startled a laugh out of him. She gave him her name even so, and asked his.

“I am Friedrich Reinberger-a Korvettenkapitan, as you see.” He brushed the three gold stripes on one cuff with the other hand. Then he switched languages: “Lieutenant commander, you would say in English.”

“Okay.” Peggy was feeling ornery, so she asked, “Where’s your wife, Lieutenant Commander?”

“In Dachau, not far from Munich, with the Kinder,” Reinberger nodded. Peggy nodded-he sounded like a Bavarian. “I was called here to report on…certain things when my destroyer came into port. Maria, I think, believes yet I am at sea.”

He finished his drink and waved for another one. The blond girl who came over to get his glass wore a black gown cut down to there in front and even lower in back, and slit up to there down below. Reinberger followed her with his eyes as she sashayed back to the bar. He didn’t slobber or anything, but he did watch. Peggy couldn’t very well blame him; it was a hell of a dress. If she were ten years younger-hell, five years younger-she would have wanted it herself.

The girl brought back a new drink. By then Peggy was ready for a refill, too. That gave the German naval officer another chance to eye the girl’s strut. He made the most of it. When Peggy got the fresh drink, Reinberger raised his glass. “To 1939,” he said.

“To 1939,” Peggy echoed, and drank with him. If he’d said something like to our victory in 1939, she wouldn’t have. She was damned if she wanted to see the Nazis win. But toasting the year was harmless enough.

“What is an American doing in Germany in the middle of a war?” Reinberger asked.

Peggy looked him in the eye. She was tempted to spit in his eye, but he didn’t seem like a bad guy. Still, she didn’t sugarcoat the truth: “I was in Czechoslovakia when you people invaded it.”

“Oh.” He shrugged. “If the Czechs were more, ah, reasonable, it might not have come to that. But they thought England and France would save them, and so…” Another shrug.

“Dachau.” Peggy wasn’t drunk, but she felt a buzz. Her wits worked slower than she wished they did. It wasn’t a big city or anything, but she’d heard of it before. How come? After a moment, she remembered. “Dachau! Isn’t that where they-?” She didn’t know how to go on.

“Yes, that is where they-” Korvettenkapitan Reinberger didn’t finish it, either. He did say, “Every nation has in it people who are not trusted by the government. We keep them there.”

From some of the whispers Peggy had heard, the SS did more to people in Dachau than just keep them there. But she couldn’t prove that. Probably the only way to prove it was to end up on the inside. She had a magpie curiosity, but she didn’t want to know that badly.

“Where in the United States do you live?” Reinberger asked. It wasn’t the smoothest change of subject Peggy had ever seen, but it also could have been worse.

“Philadelphia,” she answered. Homesickness rose up inside her like a great choking cloud. She had to look down at the tabletop and blink several times while tears stung her eyes.

“I know something of the port-I visited before the last war, and again three, no, four years ago now. But all I know of the city is that it is large.”

“Third biggest in the country,” Peggy agreed, not without pride. And we don’t lock people up there even if they aren’t trusted by the government. And we never would, not unless they were niggers or Japs or something.

The music on the radio got a little less syrupy than it had been. “Do you care to dance?” Reinberger asked.

She gave him a crooked grin. “Sure you wouldn’t rather ask the bar-girl? You’ve got a better chance with her.”

“I be not”-he shook his head-“I am not looking for that, not now. How do I expect Maria to stay for me if I do not stay for her?”

A lot of Germans had trouble with Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Meeting one who didn’t made up Peggy’s mind for her. “Okay,” she said.

He danced well enough. He stayed with the beat, and he led firmly. If he lacked the inspiration, the sense of fun, that separated really good dancers from people who were just all right-then he did, that was all. He held Peggy tight without trying to mash himself against her or grope her. He was…correct, a diplomat would have called it.

“Thank you,” she said when the music stopped. “That was nice.”

“Ja.” He nodded. “And thank you also.” As they went back to the table, he added, “Much better than shooting up Russian ships in the Baltic.”

“Well, gee! There’s a compliment!” Peggy exclaimed. Lieutenant Commander Reinberger laughed. He waved for another drink. Peggy nodded to show she wanted one, too. The barmaid in the startling outfit fluttered her fingers to show she saw. Peggy asked, “That’s what you were doing before you got leave? Shooting up Russian ships?”

“Ja,” Reinberger said. “The Baltic in winter is perfectly filthy, too. Storms, fog, waves, ice…and always maybe a U-boat waits to give you a present. Anyone who enjoys combat a Dummkopf is.”

“Hitler did,” Peggy said incautiously. She wondered if she would find out more about what went on in Dachau than she ever wanted to know. Your big mouth, she told herself, not for the first time.

The barmaid came back with the fresh drinks then. She almost fell out of that dress as she bent over to give Reinberger his. He noticed. She wanted him to notice. But he didn’t do anything or say anything about it. She looked annoyed as she walked away.

“From everything I know, the Fuhrer is braver than most men,” Reinberger said. That was the straight Nazi line. From everything Peggy’d heard, it also happened to be true, which was discouraging.

“Did the Russians shoot back?” she asked.

“They tried. Wallowing freighters with popguns have not much chance against warships,” Reinberger answered. “They are brave enough themselves, no matter what the radio says.” So he didn’t think much of Dr. Goebbels’ endless propaganda barrage. That was interesting. “No matter how brave you are, though, you must have the tools to do the job.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than air-raid sirens started wailing. The headwaiter shouted, “The basement is our bomb shelter. Everyone go to the basement at once.”

“Have the English and French begun to bomb Berlin, then?” Reinberger asked as people headed for the door.

“Not even once, not since I’ve been here,” Peggy answered. “Do you suppose it’s the Russians?”

The German naval officer looked almost comically surprised. “I never dreamt they could,” he answered, starting down the stairs. “Not impossible, I suppose, but it didn’t once cross my mind.” Somewhere not far away, bombs crump! ed outside. Peggy knew that hateful, terrifying sound much too well.

Even though it was New Year’s Eve-no, New Year’s Day now-some people hadn’t gone dancing into 1939. Grumpy, sleepy-looking men in bathrobes over pajamas and women in housecoats over nightgowns joined the more alert crowd from the party. A mustachioed man who spoke German with a Bela Lugosi accent said, “They told me this could not happen.” Whoever they were, more bomb bursts said they didn’t know what they were talking about.

A woman added, “Goring said you could call him Meyer if the enemy ever bombed Berlin.”

Crump! Crump! Boom! As far as Peggy could see, the fat Luftwaffe boss had just saddled himself with a Jewish-sounding name. As far as she could see, he deserved it. He deserved worse, but he wasn’t likely to get it. People didn’t get what they deserved often enough.

Boom! That one sounded as if it came down right on top of the hotel. The lights in the cellar flickered and went out. People screamed on notes ranging from bass to shrill soprano. The Germans and their friends sounded an awful lot like the international crowd at Marianske Lazne. When you dropped bombs on them, people were all pretty much alike. Peggy would have been perfectly happy never to have learned that lesson.

Everyone cheered when, after about half a minute, the lights came on again. A few minutes later, sirens shrilled the all-clear. “Happy New Year,” Lieutenant Commander Reinberger said dryly.

“Hey, we’re alive,” Peggy answered. “Anybody wants to know what I think, that makes it happy enough.”

* * *

When Joaquin Delgadillo joined the Nationalist army in Spain, he didn’t do it to meet General Sanjurjo. He did it because he couldn’t stand the Spanish Republic. He probably would have done it even if someone as dull and cautious as General Franco commanded his side.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t delighted to get a glimpse of Sanjurjo. The story was that the general’s airplane had almost crashed coming from Portugal to Spain when the revolt against the Republic broke out. People said Sanjurjo didn’t want to leave all his fancy clothes behind. So what if they would have weighed down the plane? A real man, a real Spaniard, didn’t worry about things like that.

Still, Joaquin was willing to admit it was probably good that the pilot had worried about them. The youngster had seen too many men on both sides throw away their lives for no good reason. The Republicans were bastards, but no denying they were brave bastards. And his own side didn’t put up with cowards, not even for a minute.

Now General Sanjurjo stood on a low swell of ground and pointed south. He wasn’t any too impressive to look at. He was old and short and squat and dumpy. But he had a good voice. And he had some of the same gifts Germans said Hitler did: while he was talking, you believed him.

“More than two hundred years ago, Britain stole part of our fatherland from us,” Sanjurjo said. “Ever since, Gibraltar has been a thorn in Spain’s side. Now it is full of Communists and fellow travelers, people who ran away there so they wouldn’t get what was coming to them.”

General Sanjurjo laughed a very unpleasant laugh. “Well, they’re going to get it whether they want it or not. And you, soldados de Espana, you’re going to give it to them. Will you stop before you reach complete victory?”

“No!” Joaquin shouted with everyone else in the detachment.

“Will you teach England a lesson the likes of which she hasn’t had for hundreds of years?”

“Yes!” the men yelled.

“With Italy and Germany and God on our side, can anyone hold us back?”

“No!” Joaquin shouted once more.

“Then strike!” General Sanjurjo cried. “Strike hard for Spain!”

As if on cue-and it probably was-Spanish guns opened up on Gibraltar’s border defenses. Motors thrummed overhead as German and Italian bombers flew off to pound what the British insisted was one of their crown colonies.

Down inside Gibraltar, antiaircraft guns filled the air with puffs of black smoke. Other guns fired back at the Spanish artillery. How many ships did the Royal Navy have inside the harbor? They were vulnerable to air attack-no doubt about it. But they could put out impressive firepower till the bombers silenced them.

Joaquin knew what shells screaming in meant. He didn’t wait for orders before he hit the dirt and started digging. The British shells landed several hundred meters away, but why take chances? He wasn’t the only guy who started scraping a foxhole out of the hard, grayish-brown ground, either. Anyone who’d ever seen any action knew what to do.

“Come on! Get up! Get moving!” Sergeant Carrasquel shouted. Plenty of people did, without even thinking. A good sergeant was one you feared worse than enemy fire. Joaquin stayed right where he was. Then Carrasquel kicked him in the ass. “You, too, Delgadillo? You think the Pope gave you a dispensation?”

However much Joaquin wished his Holiness would do exactly that, he couldn’t very well claim it was true. Running all hunched over-as if that did a peseta’s worth of good-he hurried toward the border. Along with Spaniards in mustard-yellow khaki, he also saw other troops wearing gray uniforms.

Germans! Maybe they were from the Condor Legion, the force of “volunteers” doing what they could for the Spanish Nationalists. Or maybe they were Wehrmacht regulars. The Nazis and the Nationalists had the same enemies these days, after all. Putting Gibraltar out of action would hurt England all over the Mediterranean.

But that wasn’t why seeing those big, fair men in field-gray so heartened Joaquin Delgadillo-and, no doubt, most of the other Nationalist troopers who recognized them. Spaniards on both sides were amateurs at war. The honest ones on both sides knew and admitted as much. Left to their own devices, they probably would have made a hash of the attack on Gibraltar. The British, whatever else you could say about them, weren’t amateurs.

And neither were the Germans. If they were involved in this, it would go the way it was supposed to. That didn’t mean Joaquin couldn’t get blown to cat’s-meat. He knew as much. But he could hope he wouldn’t get blown to cat’s-meat for no reason at all, the way he might with only Spaniards running the show.

Shells made freight-train noises overhead. Some of the trains sounded enormous. And some of the shells, when they burst, were enormous. The ground shook under Joaquin’s feet. Great gouts of earth fountained skyward. And not just of earth: he saw a man, legs pumping as if he were still running, rise fifty or a hundred meters into the air and then plunge earthward again.

“Naval guns!” somebody shouted, as if explaining a thing somehow made it less fearful.

Did the British have battleships tied up at Gibraltar? Were the guns now firing on the advancing Spaniards and Germans designed to fight off battleships trying to batter their way into the harbor? Joaquin neither knew nor cared. He knew only that, whether designed for the job or not, those guns were terrifyingly good at murdering infantrymen.

Up ahead, machine guns started their deadly chatter. Joaquin dove for cover and started digging in again. If you wanted to stay alive in the vicinity of machine guns, you had to do that. Artillery was supposed to have taken out the British murder mills. Joaquin laughed bitterly. They told you that before every attack. They lied every goddamn time. And you were supposed to go on believing them? Sure you were!

Rumble of engines, rattle of tracks…The Condor Legion and the Italians had tanks. These were German machines, even if they carried Spanish markings. Good, Joaquin thought. The Germans handled their tanks as if they were fighting for their own country. The Italians handled theirs as if they’d been given a job they didn’t want to do. The least sign of trouble and they found an excuse for not going forward.

Clang…Boom! That was the sound of an antitank round slaughtering a tank. Joaquin raised his head a few centimeters. Sure as hell, one of the German machines was ablaze, sending up orange flames and a tall column of greasy black smoke. If God was kind, the British round had killed the men in the tank right away. If He wasn’t, they’d burned like a roast when the slut who was supposed to be watching it got drunk and forgot it was on the fire.

Another tank hit a mine. This one didn’t catch fire, but it did throw a track, slewing sideways and stopping in a horribly vulnerable position. If the attack suppressed the guns that could reach it, the men inside might yet live. Joaquin liked those odds…about as little as he liked his own.

“Forward!” an officer shouted. His whistle squealed. Delgadillo looked around again. He didn’t see the man giving the orders. If the bastard didn’t have the guts to stand up himself, who would stand up for him?

Then Sergeant Carrasquel rasped, “Come on, you lazy puto! You think I’m going to do this all by myself?”

He ran forward. The British machine guns didn’t cut him down right away. Joaquin knew why, too: only the good died young. Joaquin thought of himself as good. But he knew the sergeant wouldn’t agree. He also knew Carrasquel would hound him if alive and haunt him if dead. So he got up and loped after the noncom.

Crack! Crack! Any bullet you heard like that came much too close to your one and only irreplaceable carcass. When you heard a bunch of them, you were mighty damn lucky if you didn’t get ventilated.

Tanks were good for taking out machine-gun nests, even the concrete positions the British had built near the border. Gibraltar wasn’t very big. If you could get past the frontier defenses, you could go ahead and overrun the place…couldn’t you?

Down by the harbor, or maybe in it, something blew up with a full-throated roar that staggered Joaquin. Maybe it was an ammunition dump, or maybe a cruiser. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t trouble the Spaniards any more.

More guns poured deadly fire down on them. Joaquin hit the dirt again. He didn’t care if Sergeant Carrasquel pitched a fit. What kind of defenses did England have here, anyway? A cannon or machine gun on every square centimeter of ground, and more buried to pop up and spew death? He wouldn’t have been surprised. This had to be more than General Sanjurjo expected.

Stukas peeled off one by one and bombed enemy positions. One of the dive-bombers didn’t rise into the sky again. It added its funeral pyre to the rest of the stinking, choking smoke in the air. Nobody was using gas, but sometimes it hardly seemed to matter.

Someone not far from Joaquin started shrieking for his mother. That only made him dig harder. More bullets snarled past him. The English seemed to have all the ammunition in the world. As he dug, he realized he had yet to see his first British soldier.

Chapter 9

Alistair Walsh was alive and breathing and somewhere in France. He heartily approved of the first two. The last wasn’t so good. He couldn’t remember just when the BEF got driven back over the border. They gabbled away in French in the western part of Belgium, so he couldn’t tell by any shift in language. But this was France, all right, and the Germans were still doing their damnedest to break through.

They hadn’t managed yet. Walsh remembered the black days in the spring and early summer of 1918, when whole British regiments-Christ, divisions!-got swallowed up in the Kaiser’s last offensive. This was worse. Then storm troops with submachine guns had spearheaded the German attacks. They were right bastards, but they went at the speed of shank’s mare, like everybody else in the Great War.

Nowadays, the Nazis had tanks. They sliced through infantry like a hot knife through lard. The BEF and the French had tanks, too. Officers swore on a stack of Bibles-and swore profanely-that they had as many tanks as the Germans, maybe more. They sounded as if they knew what they were talking about. But whether they did or not, they never seemed to have enough of them at the places were it counted.

And so the bastards in field-gray-funny how the mere sight of that color, and the beetling shape of that helmet, could put your wind up-kept carving slices out of the Allies, forcing them to retreat if they didn’t want to get cut off and surrounded. The Nazis made it over the Dyle in rubber boats. Machine guns knocked out the first boats, but German tanks and antiaircraft guns on the far side of the river silenced the machine guns. As soon as the Germans won a bridgehead, they ran pontoon bridges over the Dyle and got their tanks across. Things went downhill from there.

“Hey, Puffin!” Walsh said. “Got a fag on you?”

“Sure, Sergeant.” Puffin Casper looked like hell. His greatcoat was filthy and torn. His tin hat sat at an anything but jaunty angle on his head. He hadn’t shaved since God only knew when, and he hadn’t bathed since a while before that. Walsh couldn’t very well gig him-he was no lovelier, and no cleaner, himself. And he’d smoked his last cigarette an hour earlier.

He took a couple from the packet Puffin held out. “Thanks,” he said, and cupped his hands in front of his mouth to get one lit in spite of the cold, nasty wind. It wasn’t raining right this minute, and it wasn’t snowing, either. Dirty gray clouds clotted the sky. Before long, it would be doing one or the other. Or maybe it would split the difference with sleet, which was worse than rain or snow.

Somebody not far away started cussing. The vile words held no special heat, as they might have if the swearer had mashed his thumb with a spanner. No, his fury was cold and disgusted. Walsh knew what that meant: he’d just heard bad news. If everyone around him was lucky, he’d found out his fiancee was having it on with the corner greengrocer. If not…

“What’s buggered up now?” Walsh asked. Knowing was better than not knowing-he supposed.

“Bloody Belgies have packed it in,” came the reply. “King Leopold’s asking Hitler for an armistice.”

“What? They can’t do that!” Under other circumstances, the outrage in Walsh’s voice would have set him laughing. True, the Allies had agreements not to seek separate peaces. But it wasn’t as if the Dutch hadn’t already done it. And it wasn’t as if everybody didn’t already know Leopold was a weak reed and halfway toward liking the Germans, either.

All the same, the news was a jolt. A corner of Belgium had stayed free all through the last war. The Belgian army had stayed in the field all through the last war, too. Now the whole country was spreading its legs for the Germans after three weeks.

“I know they can’t,” said the soldier with the news. “Sods are doing it anyway. And wherever they’re holding the line, the Nazis can pour right on through.”

“Christ!” Walsh hadn’t thought of that. “Sweet suffering Jesus Christ!” Sweet suffering Jesus Christ had had a birthday not long before, not that anyone let it get in the way of the serious business of slaughter. Walsh found a real question to ask: “What are we doing about it?”

“Chamberlain’s deplored it, the wireless said,” the other soldier answered.

“Oh, that’ll set Adolf’s mustache quivering, that will. Deplored it, has he? Bleeding hell!” Walsh could have gone on for some time, but what was the point? Chamberlain had survived two votes of confidence since the war broke out, by a diminishing margin. One more might sink him. That wouldn’t have broken Walsh’s heart. He also feared it wouldn’t have much effect on the way the BEF was fighting.

A British machine gun up ahead started barking. A moment later, another joined in. “Oh, bleeding hell,” Walsh muttered again. He’d hoped things would stay quiet for a while. The weather was bad enough to have made any push in the last war bog down in mud and slush. But there were many more paved roads for wheels to use now, while tracks could force a way where even men on foot had trouble going.

To his glad surprise, he heard engines coming up from the southwest. “Matildas!” somebody yelled. The British tanks waltzed up to the line a few minutes later. Waltz was about all they could do; they made eight miles an hour on roads, and were slower off. They had thick armor-German antitank shells mostly bounced off of them. But they carried only a single rifle-caliber machine gun. Walsh would have wished for French machines that had some hope of keeping up with German panzers…and of knocking them out in a stand-up fight.

Still and all, any tanks were better than none. If panzers came after you and you couldn’t hope to fight them, what choice did you have but to fall back? Walsh waved to the tank commanders, who rode head and shoulders out of their cramped turrets. “Give ‘em hell!” he shouted.

“That’s what we’re here for,” a tank commander answered in elegant Oxbridgian tones. Walsh’s own accent was decidedly below the salt. After mixing with men of every class in the last war and since, he could make sense of all kinds of accents, from Received Pronunciation to Cockney to broad Yorkshire to Scots burr. They reminded him the whole country was in the fight.

The Matilda’s rattled forward. Walsh dug his foxhole deeper and wider, and built up the earthwork in front of it. He also looked around to decide where he’d go if he had to get out in a hurry. You didn’t want to have to worry about that at the last minute. He who hesitated then was lost.

A cannon barked-one of the Germans’ 37mm antitank guns. They were small and light enough to keep up with advancing troops. A split second later, the shell whanged off a Matilda. The British tank’s machine gun never hesitated. Walsh grinned. Sure as hell, Matildas were tough old gals.

But then a bigger gun boomed. This time, the noise of the impact was Whang! Blam! That Matilda brewed up. So did another one a moment later. Hitler’s boys had an 88mm antiaircraft gun. In their thoroughness, they’d also seen fit to stock it with armor-piercing ammunition. Walsh didn’t think a tank in the world could keep out an 88mm shell.

Puffin knew that report for what it was, too. “Bad luck they’ve got an 88 here,” he said.

“Too fucking right it is,” Walsh agreed. He wondered if the German monster had taken out the tank commander with the posh accent. He hoped not, for whatever that was worth.

Another Matilda went up in flames. The rest of them started pulling back. They couldn’t even escape in a hurry. Whang! Blam! Another gout of flame, another column of smoke-another pyre.

And here came the German infantry. They loped forward in loose order, diving for cover whenever somebody fired at them. They shot back from their bellies. They had machine guns. Their air-cooled models were lighter and easier to lug along than most of the weapons the British used.

“Panzers!” The shout rang out from half a dozen throats at once.

The German machines were a hell of a lot faster than the poor Matildas. Most of their commanders also drove standing up in the turret. Walsh drew a bead on one. He pressed the trigger. The rifle bucked against his shoulder. The German threw up his hands, then slumped over sideways. It was a Panzer I-if the commander was wounded or dead, the driver couldn’t man the guns. (Well, he could, but then he couldn’t drive.) The machine turned around almost in its own length and got out of there.

Others came on. So did the foot soldiers they shepherded. Bullets thudded into the mud in front of Walsh. None got through. All the same, the neighborhood wasn’t healthy any more.

Walsh scrambled out of his hole and ran for the stone fence he’d spotted not far away. Out in the open, he felt worse than naked-he felt like a snail with its shell pulled off. Bullets cracked past him and stitched the mud near his feet.

With a gasp not far from a wail, he threw himself down behind the fence. Then he popped up and fired at the Germans. Four men threw themselves flat because of one bullet. They were out in the open, too, and knew how vulnerable they were. Walsh shot at one of them. The man twisted, grabbing his leg.

“Sorry, pal,” Walsh said. Most of the time, you didn’t see the enemy you hit. Here he’d done it twice in a few minutes. Instead of making him proud, it just made him hope the Germans wouldn’t do the same thing to him.

* * *

Huddling in a slit trench with half-frozen mud on the bottom wasn’t what Hans-Ulrich Rudel had had in mind when the war started. That didn’t mean he wasn’t doing it. His squadron’s latest airstrip lay a few kilometers west of Oostende, on the Strait of Dover. You could damn near spit from Belgium to England here.

And you could damn near spit from England to Belgium. The RAF had come over every night since Belgium threw in the towel. Night bombing wasn’t very accurate, but you didn’t want to stay in your nice, cozy sleeping bag when the bombs whistled down. A couple of intrepid souls had tried it. One of them was in the hospital, the other dead.

Fragments from a big one that hit much too close whined past overhead. “Those miserable pigdogs!” Hans-Ulrich said around a yawn. He was amazed at how little sleep he could get by with. “We ought to bomb them for a change, keep them up all night.”

“How do you know we aren’t?” somebody else said. There in the chilly darkness, Rudel couldn’t tell who it was.

“We’d hear about it on the radio if we were,” he answered. “They wouldn’t keep something like that quiet-they’d brag about it.”

“Er hat Recht,” another Luftwaffe man said. The rest of the shivering Germans must have thought Hans-Ulrich was right, too, because nobody contradicted him. The Reich boasted about what it did to its enemies. And why not? They deserved what they got for presuming to oppose it.

“And here, we really could do it,” Hans-Ulrich said musingly. He’d spent the war plastering positions on the Continent. That needed doing, of course, but if the English thought they could send bombers out from their island without getting any attention in return they had to be out of their minds.

Another big bomb burst nearby. The English were either good or lucky. “It’ll be a mess come morning,” someone said dolefully.

That proved all too true. The runways were cratered. One Ju-87 was a write-off in spite of the revetments in which the bombers hid. Another had taken enough damage to keep it out of the air for a while. A snorting steamroller and a pick-and-shovel crew started setting the strip to rights. Hans-Ulrich fumed. The day was bright and clear-perfect flying weather, no matter how cold it was-but here he sat, stuck on the ground.

Damn the English anyway!

Without the steamroller, setting things straight would have taken even longer than it did. Three days went by before the strip was flyable again. The British bombers came over by night twice more, but their aim wasn’t so good. The airstrip came away unscathed.

When the fourth morning also promised good weather, the squadron commander summoned his pilots and said, “Wir fahren gegen England.” He paused for a moment, then went on, “No, I’m not throwing a song title at you. We are going to go against England.” He eyed Rudel. “Maybe someone from the High Command was in the trench with you a few nights ago, because I got the order yesterday.”

“Yes, sir,” Hans-Ulrich said. He hoped the tune from “Wir fahren gegen England” wouldn’t get stuck in his head. It was catchy.

“There are airfields near Ramsgate,” Major Bleyle continued. “We are to hit them and the aircraft that use them. The English need to learn they can’t play these games with us. And with our Stukas, we can put our bombs where they do the most good.”

The pilots nodded. A dive-bomber was ever so much more precise than some machine flying five kilometers up in the middle of the night. On the other hand, a bomber five kilometers up was almost impossible to find and even harder to shoot down once found. A Ju-87, by contrast, was a low-flying, lumbering brute. The only way to make it more visible would be to paint it bright red.

“Will we have escorts?” Hans-Ulrich asked.

“Ja,” Bleyle said. “We’ll have some 109s with us. They should hold off the English fighters.” Hans-Ulrich nodded, satisfied. The Messerschmitts had done the job on the Continent. Why wouldn’t they over England, too?

An hour and a half later, he was in the air. Sergeant Dieselhorst sat in the rear-facing seat behind him. If the 109s failed, the sergeant’s machine gun could help keep the RAF away.

As usual, the 109s put Hans-Ulrich in mind of sharks. They were made for one purpose and one only: to go out and kill things. Their leader waggled his wings at the Ju-87s. The Messerschmitts formed up around the dive-bombers. They droned on toward the English coast, plainly visible through the Stuka’s armor-glass windshield.

A short flight: less than half an hour, even cruising. Rudel watched his instruments. Everything was green. The maintenance men did a hell of a job. His thoughts leaped ahead to what needed doing when he reached the target.

He could see Ramsgate not far ahead. The airstrips the Stukas were supposed to hit lay a little west and south of the town. The German air fleet would swing in that direction, and…

And British fighters jumped them. Hurricanes with red-white-and-blue roundels mixed it up with the Messerschmitts. The Luftwaffe had already seen that Hurricanes were at least as good as anything the French flew. Were they as good as 109s? If they weren’t, they came unpleasantly close.

While some of them engaged the German fighters, others bored in on the Ju-87s. One dive-bomber after another fell out of the sky. Hoarse shouts of fear and alarm dinned in Hans-Ulrich’s earphones. So did the shrieks of the dying. “Mother!” someone wailed. “I’m burning, Mother!” Rudel switched frequencies in a hurry. It didn’t help much.

Sergeant Dieselhorst fired at something. A couple of bullets had hit Hans-Ulrich’s Stuka, but only a couple. He feared that was nothing but luck.

He also feared the Germans had made a mistake with this attack. On the Continent, bombing targets close to their own lines, they could generally count on an advantage in numbers. Damaged planes didn’t have far to go to get back to friendly territory. Here, the deep blue sea lay between the raiders and friends. Only it wasn’t blue. It was grayish green, and looked cold.

“Drop your bombs anywhere!” The squadron commander’s voice cut through the din on the radio. “Drop them and get away! This is too hot for us!”

Hans-Ulrich wouldn’t have argued with that. He pulled the bomb-release lever. Ramsgate lay below. If hundreds of kilos of explosives came down on civilians’ heads instead of on the airstrip for which they were intended-well, too bad. Wasn’t it the RAF’s fault for interfering with the planned operation?

A British fighter flew right in front of him: a biplane, a Gloster Gladiator. It looked outdated, but the Czech Avias had proved even planes like that could be dangerous. He fired at it. The Gladiator, far more agile than his Stuka, spun away when the pilot saw his tracers.

Even though Rudel mashed the throttle against the instrument panel, he knew he wasn’t home free-nowhere near. A Hurricane could still catch him from behind. For that matter, so could a Gladiator. The Ju-87 was built for muscle, not for speed. He’d never felt the lack so much before.

“Anything on our tail, Albert?” he called through the speaking tube.

“Not right now, thank God,” Dieselhorst answered, which also summed up the way Hans-Ulrich felt.

He looked around for more Stukas and for Messerschmitts. Of course they wouldn’t go back in the neat formation they’d used to approach England. They’d be all over the sky. All the same, he saw far fewer German planes than he should have. When fighters came after them in swarms, Ju-87s were alarmingly vulnerable.

The 109s had held their own against the Hurricanes. He was sure they’d more than held their own against the Gladiators. Even that came with a price, though. If a Hurricane fighter bailed out of a shot-up fighter, he landed among friends. He could fly again as soon as he got another plane. A Messerschmitt pilot who bailed out over England was out of the war for good even if he came down unhurt.

There was the Belgian coast ahead. The RAF seemed content to have broken things up on their own ground. They weren’t pursuing hard. Hans-Ulrich eased back on the throttle. He’d never dreamt he could be so proud of nothing more than making it home from a mission in one piece.

* * *

Air-raid sirens woke Sarah Goldman out of a sound sleep. She needed a moment, or more than a moment, to realize what they were. Munster had tested them a few times before the war started, and a few more afterwards. But the luminous hands on the clock by her bed said it was two in the morning. Only a maniac would test the sirens at a time like this.

Sarah didn’t doubt that a lot of the Nazis running Munster were maniacs. But they weren’t the kind of maniacs who’d do something like this. Which meant…

Ice ran through her when she realized what it meant. This wasn’t a drill. This was a real air raid!

She threw off the covers, which made her realize how cold it was inside the house. Throwing a robe over her flannel nightgown, she ran for the stairs.

She bumped into somebody in the dark. The grunt made her realize it was her brother. “Where do we go, Saul? What do we do?”

“Find someplace low, I guess,” he answered. “What else can we do? We’re Jews. We can’t go to any of the regular shelters-they won’t let us in.”

Somehow, Sarah had forgotten that. She couldn’t imagine why. It wasn’t as if regulations didn’t spell it out. The Aryans in charge of things in the Reich made no bones about how they felt. If they saved their own kind and watched Jews get blown to ground round, they would go out and have a beer afterwards to celebrate.

Sarah didn’t think all the goyim in Munster felt that way. Life would have been impossible in that case. It wasn’t now-it was just difficult. As she hurried down the stairs, she realized she might have to change her mind about that. If a bomb hit them and they weren’t in a proper shelter, life would be impossible.

“Come on!” Saul said. “Under the dining-room table!”

“Will it hold up if the house comes down on it?” Sarah asked doubtfully.

“No, but it’s the best chance we’ve got,” he said. She decided he was right.

Their mother and father crowded under there with them. Samuel and Hanna Goldman took the outside places. When Saul tried to protest, his father spoke two harsh words: “Shut up!” The gentle classical scholar never talked like that. The front-line soldier of half a lifetime ago might have, though. And Saul did shut up, which would do for a miracle till a bigger one came along.

Airplane engines droned overhead. Antiaircraft guns began to thunder. “Will they shoot them down?” Sarah said.

“They’ll try,” her father answered: not a vote of confidence.

Through the roar of the guns, Sarah heard other noises-high, shrill, swelling whistles. The flat, harsh crump! s that followed made the guns seem whispers beside them. The windows rattled. The whole house shook. Is this what an earthquake feels like? she wondered. But how could she tell? She’d never been in an earthquake.

“We need to put masking-tape squares on our windows,” Samuel Goldman said, his voice eerily calm.

“Will that keep them from breaking?” Hanna asked.

“No. But it will help keep them from spraying glass all over the inside of the house if something comes down close to us-I hope,” he said.

After what might have been twenty minutes or twenty years, the bombs stopped falling. The airplane engines went away. The guns kept banging for several minutes more. Shrapnel pattered down on the roof like hail. At last, silence fell.

“Well, that wasn’t too bad,” Sarah said. She was so glad to be alive, so glad it was over, she straightened up too fast and banged her head on the bottom of the table. That was the only hurt any of the Goldmans took.

“It wasn’t too good, either,” her father said. “I don’t remember any raids that bad in the last war.”

“Neither do I,” her mother said.

A siren screamed-that was a fire engine, heading somewhere. The Goldmans made their slow, careful way to the front door and looked out. Munster was black as a tomb…except for two or three orange glows on the skyline, one of them only a few blocks away. By the sound, the fire engine was going there. It couldn’t go very fast, not unless it wanted to plow into something.

“This is terrible,” Sarah said. “The enemy never did anything like this before. Why would they start now?”

Saul nudged her. “The enemy is running Germany,” he whispered.

“So why did you try to join the Wehrmacht, then?” she whispered back. He turned away without answering. She knew what the answer was: her brother and her father still wanted to be Germans, but the Nazis wouldn’t let them.

If her father heard the whispers, he didn’t show it. “Let’s go back to bed,” he said. “We might as well try, anyhow. We can’t do anything else here.”

“Except thank God we came through in one piece,” her mother said.

Her father didn’t answer. He’d always been less religious than her mother-and even Sarah wondered whether God had His eyes on the Jews in Germany these days. She went upstairs doubting she’d be able to fall asleep again. But she did.

She came down to breakfast: black bread and ersatz coffee that tasted like and probably was burnt barley. Her father was reading the newspaper. AIR PIRATES SLAUGHTER INNOCENT CIVILIANS! the headline screamed.

“The British claim it’s retaliation for something our planes did over there,” her father said. “Dr. Goebbels says that’s a bunch of filthy lies, of course.”

“Of course,” Sarah echoed. In both what they said and how they said it, they sounded perfectly loyal. A message got passed even so. Just for a moment, Samuel Goldman’s eyes glinted behind his spectacles. Then he raised the newspaper, hiding his face.

Sarah felt herself smiling. She was still cold. She’d just discovered she was in danger of getting blasted off the face of the earth. In spite of everything, though, she was happy. She wondered why.

* * *

Ludwig Rothe swore as he guddled around, deep in the bowels of his Panzer II’s engine. “Hold that flashlight higher, Theo,” he said. “I can’t see what the hell I’m doing here.”

“Carburetor again, Sergeant?” Hossbach asked, moving the flashlight not quite enough.

“No, it’s the damn fuel pump. I’m sure of it. We’ve boiled the carb out so often, we could boil coffee in it.” If Rothe sounded disgusted, it was only because he was. “Damned engine still keeps missing. I’m going to fix that pump or steal a new one somewhere or go back to the Maybach works and bend a wrench on somebody’s head.”

“Sounds good to me, Sergeant,” Fritz Bittenfeld said. After pausing to light a cigarette, the driver went on, “Why the devil can’t they make an engine that does what it’s supposed to, for God’s sake?”

Part of the reason was overstrain. The engine only put out 135 horsepower. That wasn’t much when it was trying to haul nine tonnes around. Rothe was not inclined to feel charitable, especially not right after he cut his hand on a sharp metal edge in the engine compartment. “Why? I’ll tell you why. Because they’re back there and safe, that’s why,” he snarled. “They don’t have to worry about what happens when things go wrong. We do. Hold that goddamn light higher, Theo!”

“Sorry,” Theo said, and still didn’t move the light enough. He made a good radioman. Radio waves suited him-they were out there in the ether, and you couldn’t see them. When it came to things more closely connected to planet earth, he wasn’t so great.

Somehow, Ludwig got the fuel pump out anyway. Six or eight panzers had halted here, somewhere near the border between Belgium and France. Their crews worked on them, aided by a couple of mechanics. A few hundred meters away, two batteries of 105s sent death and destruction across kilometers toward the British and French troops battling to slow the Germans down.

As he tore the fuel pump apart, he wished his panzer could carry a gun like the ones artillerymen used. A gun like that and you’d have yourself a land dreadnought. The 20mm on the Panzer II was a doorknocker by comparison, and not much of a door-knocker at that. Even Panzer IIIs carried only a 37mm piece-and they were still rare birds.

Enemy panzers didn’t have much more. Some of the French machines mounted 47mm guns. But the French and the British didn’t seem to know how to make a fist. They used their panzers in penny packets. Individually, their machines were at least a match for anything the Reich made. But if Germany had swarms of panzers at the Schwerpunkt and the enemy didn’t, the German drive would go forward. And so matters had proved up till now. Would the Low Countries have fallen in less than a month otherwise?

Foot soldiers came forward through the little motor park. At first, Ludwig paid little attention. Then his eyes snapped from the legend on their cuff bands- Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler -to the SS runes on their collar tabs. Here was something out of the ordinary! He’d heard that some SS men were going to the front alongside Wehrmacht troops, but he’d never seen any before. And wasn’t the LAH…?

These fellows, all of them big and fair, carried submachine guns and looked either nervous or extremely alert. They were almost out of artillery range of the enemy, so Rothe thought they were being silly…till he saw the middle-aged man in their midst.

He kicked Theo in the ankle. “Achtung!” he hissed, and stiffened to attention himself.

“Are you out of your mind?” the radioman said-nobody paid attention to parade-ground formalities in the field.

“Achtung!” Ludwig repeated. He jerked his chin toward the gaggle of SS men and their charge.

Hossbach’s eyes followed that gesture. At attention or not, Rothe almost burst out laughing at the way they nearly bugged out of Theo’s head. Fritz was gaping, too. Well, hell-who wouldn’t?

Hitler came over to the Panzer II. Automatically, Ludwig saluted. The other crewmen echoed the gesture a beat later. The Fuhrer returned the salutes. “Is everything all right here?” he asked. Up close, his voice was even more resonant, even larger than life, than it was over a microphone in a stadium or on the radio.

“Y-Yes, sir,” Ludwig managed. “Just routine repairs. We’ll be at ‘em again soon.” He felt dizzy, half drunk. Talking to Adolf Hitler! He would remember this day for the rest of his life, even if he lived to 112. (Having seen what happened to front-line fighters here and in Czechoslovakia, he knew how unlikely that was. He knew, but he didn’t dwell on it. He tried not to, anyhow.)

“Your fuel pump giving you trouble?” the Fuhrer asked.

Theo’s eyes bugged out all over again. Ludwig Rothe’s did the same thing this time. “How the devil did you know that, sir?” he blurted.

One of the big SS men guarding Hitler growled like an angry Rottweiler. But the Fuhrer only chuckled. “I get reports. I read them. I remember them,” he answered. “That’s the most common failing on the Panzer II. I have had a few things to say to the Maybach people about it. An improved model is now in production.”

“Good. Very good.” Ludwig wondered what had happened to the people responsible for the current piece of junk. Maybe he was better off not knowing.

“We will use it to go on to victory,” Hitler continued. A lock of hair flopped down over his forehead. He brushed it back with a gesture so automatic, he must have used it thousands of times. “We will!” he insisted. “Victory may be coming a little more slowly than some of the poison dwarfs back in Berlin believe, but it is no less sure on account of that.”

Several of the LAH bodyguards growled this time. Wehrmacht men called the Waffen-SS asphalt soldiers, but Ludwig wouldn’t have wanted to mess with any of these guys. “I’m sure of it, mein Fuhrer,” he said, not because that was the thing to say but because he really believed it.

Maybe Hitler sensed as much. Or maybe, once the Fuhrer got rolling, he was no easier to stop than a river. “Victory is sure!” he thundered, as he might have on the radio. “And the mad mongrels and traitors who tried to stop the Reich from gaining it have got what they deserved. Oh, yes! That they have!” His eyes blazed.

The only trouble was, Ludwig didn’t know what he was talking about. “Sir?” the sergeant said.

One of the Leibstandarte men murmured warningly The fellow wore what would have been a major’s shoulder straps if he were in the Wehrmacht, but the SS had its own weird set of ranks. Major or whatever the hell he was, the Fuhrer ignored him. “Some of those pigdogs-fancy aristocrats and even a few military men, I’m sorry to say-thought they could run the country better than I am doing it. Well, the ones who are left alive are seeing how they like the arrangements at Dachau.”

“Mein Fuhrer-” the SS officer said urgently.

“ Ja, Jens, ja.” Hitler sounded-indulgent? He turned back to the panzer crew. “Do not gossip about this, bitte. We have not said anything in the papers or on the radio. We do not want the enemy to know there is even so much as a mustard seed’s worth of dissension in the Reich. You are good fellows-I can see that. I’m sure you won’t blab.”

“Of course not, mein Fuhrer,” Ludwig said quickly. Fritz and Theo also stammered out reassurances. Rothe had never imagined he would end up knowing a state secret. By the way that officer was looking at him, the Waffen-SS man thought he would be better off dead.

“That’s what I thought,” Hitler said. He caught the officer’s eye again. “Don’t give them any trouble-you hear me? They said they’d keep quiet, and I expect they meant it. Unless you’re sure-and I mean sure-they didn’t, leave them alone.”

“Jawohl, mein Fuhrer,” the LAH man said. The look he gave Rothe and the other panzer men shouted that he still wanted to dispose of them. But he didn’t look as if he had the nerve to go against Hitler’s direct order. Who in his right mind would?

“All right.” Hitler nodded to Ludwig, then to his driver and radioman. “I hope you stay safe, my friends. I know it’s warm work, but it needs doing. Fight hard!” He nodded again, then stumped away, his retinue all around him.

“Der Herr Gott im Himmel!” Fritz whispered.

“Somebody pinch me. I think I’m dreaming,” Theo said, also in a low voice. That amounted to about the same thing.

“He’s…something.” Ludwig heard the awe in his own voice. He tried to imagine why anyone would move against the Fuhrer. True, the war wasn’t won yet, but Germany was still moving forward, and a lot faster than she had the last time around. What was wrong with that?

Plainly, the traitors had paid for their folly. Dachau…Rothe’s shiver had nothing to do with the weather. If half what he’d heard was true, the plotters who’d got killed outright might have been the lucky ones.

Chapter 10

Luc Harcourt was alive. That was all he knew, all he cared about. He’d seen more war than he ever wanted to meet. He’d smelled blood and pus and death and his own shit in his pants. Nobody’d ever ragged him about that. He knew damn well he wasn’t the only one.

This ruined barn was a good place to grab a cigarette. What was left of the walls kept a German sniper from drawing a bead on him and punching his ticket. He sucked in harsh smoke, held it as long as he could, and finally let it out again.

“Man,” he said, and paused for another drag. “I never wanted a smoke this much when I was a civilian.”

“Not even after a fuck?” Sergeant Demange had a cigarette between his lips, too, but then he always did.

“Not even then,” Luc said. “Then I like it. Yeah, sure-but of course. But there’s a difference between liking a smoke and really needing one, you know what I mean? When the bastards are trying to kill you, a cigarette’s all you’ve got.”

“Well, not quite,” Demange shook his canteen so it sloshed. “What do you have in here?”

“Pinard,” Luc answered. The cheap, nasty red wine was nonregulation, but it was also less likely than water from God knew where to give you the runs. You couldn’t very well get lit on a liter of pinard, either. “How about you, Sergeant? What do you have?”

“Calvados,” Demange said proudly. “That’ll put hair on your balls, by God.”

“Boy, will it ever,” Luc said. The apple brandy of northern France was liquid dynamite. He hoped the sergeant would offer to share, but Demange didn’t. Demange was for Demange, first, last, and always. Luc didn’t resent it the way he might have from someone more hypocritical about it.

Paul Renouvin said, “Calvados? C’est rien.” He didn’t look like a college man any more. He was as scrawny and filthy and ragged and unshaven as any of the other soldiers in the barn.

But he still knew how to get under Demange’s skin. The sergeant jerked as if all of his lice had bitten him at once. “Nothing, is it, asshole? Well, what the devil have you got that’s better? Whatever it is, it better be good, or I’ll whale the living shit out of you.” Renouvin was ten centimeters taller and a good bit heavier. Luc would have bet on Demange every time.

Paul caressed his canteen as if it were a beautiful woman’s bare tit. “Me? I’ve got scotch,” he murmured.

“Why, you lying prick!” Demange said. “Scotch, my left one! Where would a no-account cocksucker like you get scotch?”

“Off a dead Tommy officer,” Renouvin answered calmly. “Good stuff, too.”

“Tell me another one. You think I was born yesterday? You think I fell off the turnip truck?” The sergeant pointed to the canteen. “Give me a taste of that. Right now, too. If it isn’t scotch, I’ll tear your ears off and shove ‘em down your throat.”

“But what if it is?” Renouvin asked.

Rage made Demange reckless. “If it is-fat chance!-you can have all my applejack.”

“You heard him, boys,” Paul said. Luc and the other poilus nodded. Why not? This was the best sport they’d had in a while. Luc forgot about the cold and the dirt and the fear. He forgot about the battery of 75s banging away not far from the barn, even if they were liable to bring German artillery down on everybody’s head before too long. He watched Renouvin open the canteen and pour a little of the contents into the screw-on cap. With elaborate ceremony, Renouvin passed the cap to Demange. “Here you go, Sergeant. Salut.”

“If you’re trying to get me to drink piss, you’ll fucking die-I promise you that,” Demange said suspiciously. He sniffed at the cap before he drank from it. Luc watched his face, but those ratlike features gave nothing away. Like a man moving in a dream, the sergeant sipped.

He didn’t say anything for more than a minute. He just sat there motionless, even the perpetual cigarette in the corner of his mouth forgotten. Then, without any particular rancor, he said, “You son of a bitch.” He flipped the cap to Renouvin, who put it back on the canteen. And Demange handed him his own canteen. “Here. Choke on it.”

“We’ll all choke on it-and then on the scotch. How’s that?” Paul said. He swigged from the Calvados, then passed it along.

Luc thought that was mighty smart-not university-smart, maybe, but soldier-smart for sure. A man who had both scotch and applejack was a man who made his buddies jealous. A man who shared them made friends for life-or at least till one of the other guys got his hands on something nice.

Two big knocks of good, strong booze. Shelter from the winter weather. A soldier’s life could be simple sometimes. A few tiny pleasures, and everything seemed wonderful.

The next morning, replacements came up to the front. Luc eyed them with mingled suspicion and contempt. They were too pale, too neat, too plump. They carried too much equipment. Their uniforms weren’t dirty and torn. Their noncoms hardly knew how to swear.

“Poor darlings!” someone jeered. “Someone forgot to lock the nursery, and look where they ended up.”

A shell burst half a kilometer away. Some of the new fish flinched. That made Luc want to start laughing. “They have to come closer than that to hurt you,” he said. “Don’t worry-they will.”

A lieutenant as young and unweathered as his troops pointed an angry finger at him. “Where is your superior, soldier?” he snapped.

“I guess I’m him…sir,” Sergeant Demange said, the usual Gitane bobbing in the corner of his mouth as he spoke. “What do you need?”

He was grimy and unshaven. He looked as if he’d killed better men than that baby lieutenant-and he had. The officer had the rank, but Demange had the presence. Luc watched the lieutenant’s bravado leak out through the soles of his boots. “Tell that man to be more respectful,” he managed, but his voice lacked conviction.

“Sure,” Demange said, and then, to Luc, “Be more respectful, you hear?”

“Sorry, Sergeant.” Luc went along with the charade.

“There you go, sir,” Demange said to the lieutenant. “You happy now?”

Plainly, the lieutenant wasn’t. Just as plainly, being unhappy wouldn’t do him one goddamn bit of good. Demange’s attitude and graying stubble said he’d fought in the first war, while the lieutenant hadn’t done much fighting in this one yet. His tongue slid across the hairline mustache that darkened the skin just above his upper lip, but he didn’t say anything more. He just kept on walking.

More German shells came in. Maybe the Boches were probing for that battery of 75s. Whatever they were doing, those rising screams in the air said this salvo was trouble. “Hit the dirt!” Luc yelled. He was already flat by the time the words came out. Several other veterans shouted the same thing-also from their bellies.

Bam! He felt as if a squad of Paris flics were beating on him with their nightsticks. Blast picked him up and slammed him back down again. “Oof!” he said-he came down on a rock that would bruise his belly and just missed knocking the wind out of him. Jagged fragments whined overhead. Several of them spanged off the barn’s stone wall. One drew a bloody line across the back of Luc’s hand. What he said then was worse than Oof!

More shells landed a couple of hundred meters away, and then more farther off still. Luc opened and closed his hands a couple of times. All his fingers worked-no tendons cut. Only a scratch, as these things went. It still hurt like blazes, though.

Cautiously, he raised his head. When he did, he forgot about his own little wound. One or two of the German shells had come down right by-maybe even among-the raw troops. They didn’t know anything about flattening out. You could scream at them, but they needed a few seconds to get what you were saying and a few more to figure out what they should do.

All of which added up to a few fatal seconds too long.

Some of the soldiers were still standing. More were on the ground now-men and pieces of men. The air was thick with the stink of blood, as it might have been after explosions in a slaughterhouse. This wasn’t quite that. This was explosions that produced a slaughterhouse.

A soldier stared stupidly at the spouting stump of his arm. Not three meters from him, the kid lieutenant stood there with his face white and twisted into a rictus of horror. “Merde,” Luc muttered. He scrambled to his feet and ran over to the maimed kid. A leather bootlace did duty for a tourniquet. The spout became a tiny trickle.

And the soldier came out of shock and started to shriek. Luc dug the morphine syrette out of the fellow’s wound kit and jabbed him with it. The drug hit hard and fast. The soldier’s eyes closed and he passed out. Luc thought he would live if he hadn’t bled too much. Unlike most battlefield wounds, the amputation was almost as neat as if a surgeon had done it.

The poor lieutenant still hadn’t unfrozen. Some of his men were helping the veterans help their buddies, but he stood rooted to the spot. “You all right, sir?” Luc heard the rough sympathy in his own voice. This wasn’t the first freeze-up he’d seen. It was a bad one, though. He tried again, louder this time: “You all right?”

“I-” The officer shook himself like a dog coming out of cold water. Then, violently, he crossed himself. And then he bent over and was sick. Spitting and coughing, he choked out, “I regret to say I am not all right at all.”

“Well, this is pretty bad.” Luc held out his canteen. “Here. Rinse your mouth. Get rid of the taste.”

“Merci.” The lieutenant did. As he handed the canteen back to Luc, he suddenly looked horrified and took off for the closest bushes at a dead run.

“He just realize he shat himself?” Sergeant Demange asked dryly.

“That’s my guess,” Luc said.

“He’s not the first. He won’t be the last, either,” Demange said. “I’ve done it in both wars, Christ knows. You?”

“Oui.” If the sergeant hadn’t admitted it, Luc wouldn’t have, either. But since he had…Luc knew that was a big brotherhood, sure as hell. It probably included more than half the people who’d ever come under machine-gun or artillery fire. More than half the people who’d ever been up to the front, in other words. “War’s a bitch.”

“And a poxed bitch to boot,” Demange agreed. Luc found himself nodding.

* * *

Snow flew as near horizontally as made no difference. The wind howled out of the north. Anastas Mouradian looked out the window of the flimsy hut by the airstrip and shuddered. “I wish I were back in Armenia,” he said in his accented Russian. “We have civilized weather down there.”

Another officer swigged from a bottle of vodka and then set it down. They weren’t going to fly today-why not drink? “Shit, this isn’t so bad.”

That was too much for Sergei Yaroslavsky “The Devil’s grandmother, it’s not! Bozhemoi, man! Where d’you come from?”

“Strelka-Chunya,” the other man answered.

“Where the hell is that?”

“About a thousand kilometers north of Irkutsk.”

“A thousand kilometers…north of Irkutsk?” Sergei echoed. Then he said, “Bozehmoi!” again. Irkutsk lay next to Lake Baikal, in the heart of Siberia. Go north from there and you’d just get colder. He hadn’t imagined such a thing was possible, which only went to show your imagination reached so far and no further. He made as if to doff his fur cap. “All right, pal. If you come from there, this isn’t so bad-for you.”

“But why would anybody want to go there in the first place?” Mouradian asked. That struck Sergei as a damn good question, too.

And the Siberian flyer-his name was Bogdan Koroteyev-had an answer for it: “My people are trappers. If you’re going to do that, you have to go where the animals live.”

Through the roaring wind, Sergei heard, or thought he heard, a low rumble in the distance. “Is that guns?” he asked.

“Or bombs going off.” The Siberian had put away enough vodka so he didn’t much care. “Damn Poles are stubborn bastards.” He shoved the bottle across the rickety table. “Want a slug?”

“Sure.” Sergei poured some liquid fire down his throat. “Damn Poles.”

Things in northeastern Poland weren’t going as well as they might have. The radio and the newspapers didn’t say that, but anyone with a gram of sense could read between the lines. The Red Army kept attacking the same places over and over again. Every attack sounded like a victory. If they were victories, though, why weren’t the glorious and peace-loving soldiers of the Soviet Union advancing instead of spinning their wheels?

Not that wheels wanted to spin in weather like this. Supplies moved forward on sledges-when they moved forward at all. Bombers and fighters had long since traded conventional landing gear for ski undercarriages. Men wore skis or snowshoes whenever they went outside.

One of the flyers wound up a phonograph and put on a record. It was Debussy. Sergei relaxed. Nobody listened to Chopin or Mozart or Beethoven any more. Nobody dared. Listening to music by a composer from a country at war with the USSR might be enough to make the NKVD question your loyalty. Who could say for sure why people disappeared? Who wanted to take a chance and find out? But Debussy, a Frenchman, was safe enough.

More explosions, these not so distant. The windows in the hut rattled. “Those are bombs,” Mouradian said. “The weather somewhere off to the west is good enough to let airplanes get up.”

“Fuck ‘em,” Koroteyev said. “They’re trying to rattle our cage, that’s all. They can’t find anything to hit, so they drop things anywhere and hope they’ll do some good. Fat chance!” He belched and lit a cigarette.

“Even when you can see it, hitting what you aim at isn’t easy,” Sergei said.

“Turn on the radio, somebody,” Mouradian said. “It’s just about time for the news.”

The flyer closest to the set clicked on the knob. The dial lit up. Half a minute later-once the tubes warmed up-music started blaring out of the speaker. It wasn’t quite the top of the hour. The march wasn’t to Sergei’s taste, but you could put up with anything for a couple of minutes.

“Here is the news,” the announcer said.

“Moo,” Koroteyev added irreverently. Chuckles ran through the hut. The announcer’s accent said he came from the middle reaches of the Volga: he turned a lot of a sounds into o ’s. It really did make him sound as if he ought to be out in a field chewing his cud.

But what he had to say grabbed everybody’s attention: “Spreading their vicious campaign of terror ever more widely, the reactionary Polish junta under the thuggish leadership of Marshal Smigly-Ridz bombed both Minsk and Zhitomir yesterday. Casualties are reported heavy, because neither city was prepared for such treachery and murder. Numbers of innocent schoolchildren are among the slain.”

One of the pilots swore violently. He spoke Russian with a Ukrainian accent, so that some of his g ’ s turned into h ’s. Sergei wondered if he was from Zhitomir or had family there.

“General Secretary Stalin has vowed vengeance against the evil Polish regime,” the announcer went on. “Our bombers have targeted Warsaw for retaliation.”

Our bombers taking off from where? Sergei wondered. He would have bet piles of rubles that nobody could fly from anywhere near Minsk. Maybe things were better farther south, down toward the Ukraine. He supposed they must have been, or the Poles couldn’t have struck at it. In this blizzard, they must have been bombing by dead reckoning-and damned lucky to boot-to hit Minsk at all.

Then the man reading the news said, “Observers in Minsk report that some of the planes striking the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic were German Heinkels and Dorniers. And so we see that the Hitlerites are indeed supporting their semifascist stooges in Warsaw. They too shall suffer the righteous wrath of the workers and people of the Soviet Union.”

Several flyers sitting around the table nodded. Sergei started to do the same thing. Then he caught himself. How the devil could observers in Minsk identify the bombers overhead? Minsk wasn’t far from here. It had to be as socked in as this miserable airstrip was.

Sergei opened his mouth to say something about that. Before he could, Anastas Mouradian caught his eye. Ever so slightly-Sergei didn’t think any of the other flyers noticed it-his copilot shook his head.

The newsman continued, giving more reports of the Poles’ atrocities and then going on to talk about the war news from Western Europe. Sergei ended up keeping quiet. Mouradian was bound to be right. If the authorities told lies and you pointed it out, who would get in trouble? The authorities? Or you?

Asking the question was the same as answering it.

Did the rest of the flyers see that the newsman was full of crap when he talked about Minsk? Or didn’t they even notice? Were they so used to believing everything they heard on the radio that they couldn’t do anything else?

Then something else occurred to Sergei. He grabbed the vodka bottle and took a good swig from it. But not even vodka could drown the subversive thought. If that newsman was lying about the weather in Minsk, what else was he lying about? Had the Poles really bombed the city at all? Had the Germans joined them? How much of what he said about the war in the West was true?

Was anything he said true? Anything at all?

How could you know? How could you even begin to guess? Oh, some things were bound to be true, because what point would there be to lying about them? But others? Had the top ranks of the Soviet military really been as full of traitors and wreckers as the recent purges left people believing? If they hadn’t…

Even with the fresh slug of vodka coursing through him on top of everything else he’d drunk, Sergei recognized a dangerous thought when he tripped over one. You couldn’t say anything like that, not unless you wanted to find out exactly what kind of weather Siberia had.

Or would they just shoot you if they realized you realized they didn’t always tell the truth? He wouldn’t have been surprised. What could be more dangerous to the people who ran things?

Anastas watched him from across the table. Did the Armenian know what he was thinking? Did Mouradian think the same things, too? Then Sergei stopped worrying about himself, because the Russian newsman went on, “Since German planes were used in the terror bombings of peaceful Soviet cities, justice demands that we also retaliate against the Fascist Hitlerite swine. This being so, Red Air Force bombers have struck at the Prussian city of Konigsberg. Damage to the enemies of the people is reported to be extremely heavy. They richly deserve the devastation visited upon them!”

“Bozhemoi,” whispered somebody down the table from Sergei. It sounded too reverent to be conventional cursing. Nobody reprimanded the flyer, though-not after that news!

No matter what Sergei had been thinking, he didn’t doubt this for a moment. The USSR wouldn’t claim to have bombed Germany if it hadn’t really done it. And if the USSR bombed Germany…In that case, the war against Hitler had just gone from the back burner to the front.

Maybe those were Heinkels and Dorniers up there, inaccurately bombing the airstrip. Maybe Germans in field-gray would join Poles in greenish brown (although the Poles, like the Soviets, had the sense to wear white camouflage smocks in the wintertime). Maybe Hitler and Smigly-Ridz would show the world what the USSR already knew: they’d been in bed with each other all along.

A different announcer exhorted his listeners to buy war bonds. “Help make farmers and workers safe from the threat of Fascism!” he boomed. “Subscribe to the latest war bond program!”

Sergei already bought war bonds. So did everyone else in the Red Air Force and Army and Navy. Contributions came out of their pay before they ever set eyes on it. Losing the money didn’t hurt nearly so much that way as it would have if Sergei’d had to dig into his own pockets.

“As long as the Nazis stay busy in the West, we’ll do fine against them,” Koroteyev said.

Several men nodded. Sergei was one of them. Then Anastas Mouradian said, “Sure we will-just like we did in the last war.”

Silence slammed down around the table. Germany had been busy against France and England and Belgium in 1914-everybody knew that. And everybody also knew the Kaiser’s armies had smashed the Tsar’s again and again. If not for one disaster after another on the front, the Revolution might never have started, much less succeeded.

The Siberian looked at Anastas. “One of these days, you’ll open your mouth so wide, you’ll fall right in.”

“No doubt, Comrade,” Mouradian replied. “If it can happen to the whole country, why can’t it happen to me?”

That only brought more silence. People stared at the Armenian, then quickly looked away. They might have been gaping at a car wreck. “How much have you drunk?” Sergei asked. Sometimes you could get out of trouble by blaming it all on the vodka. He’d done that himself a time or three.

His copilot gave the question his usual serious-if not sober-consideration. “Either too much or not enough,” Mouradian said at last. “And it’s not too much, so…” He grabbed the vodka bottle, raised it, and tilted his head back.

Sergei reached out and grabbed it away from him. “To each according to his needs,” he said, and got rid of what was left. With the air of a man performing a conjuring trick, the Siberian produced another bottle. Loud applause greeted it. The drinking went on. With any luck at all, by this time tomorrow nobody would remember what one mouthy Armenian was going on about.

* * *

Some of the men in Hideki Fujita’s squad were from Hokkaido. The northern island was notorious for winter weather that blew straight down from Siberia. Fujita had been through some rotten winters himself before they shipped him off to the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia.

Or he thought he had, anyhow.

Now he had to admit that what he’d known about winter was about the same as what an eleven-year-old knew about love. The kid could imagine he understood what was what. And a jackass could suppose it was a nightingale, too. That didn’t make it sound like one when it opened its mouth, though.

Fujita wore a fur cap-the earflaps, at the moment, down. He wore a thick, heavily lined, fur-collared greatcoat. It was double-breasted, to make it harder for drafts to sneak in. He had stout gray felt mittens and knee-high felt boots with leather uppers. He had on two pairs of wool socks and two pairs of long woolen underwear.

He was freezing his ass off just the same. You had to go out on patrol, freezing or not. If you didn’t, the Russians or the Mongols would make you sorry. The Russians were used to cold weather-like what Hokkaido got, this stuff blew down from Siberia. The Mongols were used to it, too. And the Mongols were as sneaky, and as dangerous, as so many poisonous snakes. They could slither through openings where you didn’t think there were any.

Sergeant Fujita looked at his watch. If it hadn’t frozen and quit moving, he still had more than an hour out here before his relief came. “Zakennayo!” he muttered. That felt like forever.

At last, though, a superior private named Suzuki found him out in the middle of the blowing snow. Suzuki wore as much winter gear as Fujita, and a white camouflage smock on top of it all. He looked miserably cold just the same. But, cold or not, he said the magic words: “I relieve you, Sergeant.”

“Good,” Fujita said. The howling wind grabbed the world and tried to swirl it away. “What’s going on back at the camp?”

“Somebody from regimental headquarters is there,” Suzuki said.

“Oh, yeah?” Automatic suspicion filled Fujita’s voice. Like any veteran noncom, he distrusted any break with routine. He had his reasons, too. “What does the guy want? Are we going to have to try and attack the Mongols and the Russians again? They’ve got more tanks and better artillery than we do. And they hold the high ground.”

None of that would matter a sen’s worth if the powers that be in Mukden or in Tokyo decided to send the guys at the pointy end of the bayonet into action once more. Fujita knew it only too well. And Superior Private Suzuki only shrugged. “I can’t tell you anything about that, Sergeant,” he answered. “The guy got there just when I was starting out here.”

“I’d better go find out, then,” Fujita said. “Try to stay warm. If you want to build up a wall of snow to keep the wind from blowing straight through you, nobody will say boo.”

“Maybe I will,” Suzuki said. “It’s pretty bad.”

“Is it ever!” Fujita headed back toward the tents that housed his company. Halfway there, he tried to get a cigarette going. He soon gave it up as a bad job. He had plenty of practice lighting up in a strong wind, but this one defeated him.

Getting under canvas did let him light a match. He gratefully sucked in smoke. Then he said, “Suzuki was going on that somebody from regimental HQ showed up here.”

“That’s right, Sergeant- san,” one of the privates in the tent said. “People say we’re pulling out of here.”

“What, the company?” Fujita asked. “I won’t be sorry-I’ll say that. We’ve been bumping noses with the Mongols and the Russians too damn long.”

“Not just the company-the whole regiment. Maybe everybody on this whole front,” the private answered. “That’s what people are saying, anyhow.” The disclaimer let him off the hook in case the rumors he dished out proved nothing but a bunch of moonshine.

“The regiment? The whole front?” That was so much more than Sergeant Fujita had expected, he needed a minute to take it all in. “If we leave, where do we go next? Back to Japan?” If you’re going to wish, wish for the moon, he thought.

“I’m very sorry, Sergeant- san, but I don’t know.” The private-Nakayama, his name was-sounded not only sorry but apprehensive. Privates got knocked around when sergeants wanted to know things and they didn’t have the answers handy.

Had Fujita been in a bad mood, he might have hit Nakayama a couple of times to make himself feel better. But the sheer scope of what was going on left him more awed than angry. And walloping a private because of rumors wasn’t exactly fair-which wouldn’t have stopped Fujita if he really felt like doing it.

“I’m sure the captain will tell me in the morning,” he said.

“Yes, Sergeant- san. Of course he will,” Nakayama said quickly. He and the other privates in the tent let out almost identical sighs of relief. Sergeant Fujita affected not to notice them. He’d been a private himself once upon a time. He remembered what looking up at a sergeant-ogre was like. Discipline would suffer if this bunch of conscripts realized that, though. In the gloom, none of them could see him smile.

Sure enough, Captain Hasegawa summoned Fujita and the company’s other senior noncoms first thing in the morning. Without preamble, the company commander said, “We are leaving the Mongolian frontier region and redeploying to eastern Manchukuo.”

“Where will the redeployment take us, sir?” Sergeant Fujita asked. If it was to Mukden-the capital-or Harbin or some other big city, that wasn’t so bad. It was a lot better than staying stuck on the edge of Mongolia. And what isn’t? Fujita thought. Unfortunately, that had an answer. If the regiment got shipped up to the Amur frontier with Russia, it just traded one miserable spot for another.

“I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that,” the company commander said. “No one has told me, not yet. Even if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you till we were well away from the border. The same reason applies in both cases: security. We don’t want to take the chance that the Mongols or the Russians would seize you and squeeze you. No matter how honorable you wanted to be, you might not manage to kill yourself in time.”

“I understand, sir. Please excuse my stupidity.” Fujita bowed his head in embarrassment not far from shame.

Captain Hasegawa didn’t come down on him as hard as he expected. “It’s all right, Sergeant,” the officer said. “The courier who brought me the news also had to explain the facts of life to me, you might say. Make sure you have your men ready to move out when I give the word, that’s all.”

“Yes, sir. I will, sir. Thank you, sir.” Fujita bowed again, this time gratefully. The company commander hadn’t made him lose face-had, in fact, gone out of his way to let Fujita keep it. You had to repay that kind of consideration with loyalty.

The order to abandon the position they’d defended for so long came that afternoon. Retreat often meant a loss of face, too. Not for Fujita, not this time: he was only obeying the orders he got from his superiors. But wouldn’t Japan itself be embarrassed if it abandoned land to which it had asserted a claim?

“They’ll probably say it was Manchukuo’s claim, not ours,” Superior Private Hayashi predicted as the company marched through the drifted snow toward regimental headquarters. “That way, we aren’t responsible for it.”

“Makes sense,” Fujita said. Having an educated man in the squad came in handy now and then. Of course, without Japan there would have been no such country as Manchukuo. But that didn’t have much to do with anything. Blaming the hapless Chinese and Manchus was much easier than blaming the mother country. And if the Emperor of Manchukuo didn’t like it, too bad.

Trucks waited at the headquarters. Seeing them made Sergeant Fujita realize how serious Japan was about getting its men away from this stretch of the border. Japan wasn’t a motorized country like Germany or the United States. It had to save its vehicles for really important things. If getting out of western Manchuria was this important…

Away rumbled the trucks, north and a little east. “Hailar,” Fujita said even before his own machine set out. “We’ve got to be going to Hailar.” That miserable Mongolian town was one of the two railheads closest to the disputed areas. The other, Arshaan, lay to the southeast.

Maps showed roads across this endless steppe. They were at best dirt tracks. At this time of year, with snow deep on the ground, whether you were on the road was often a matter of opinion. The truck carrying Fujita and his squad rumbled past another one that had overturned. Maybe the driver had tried to corner too fast. Maybe he’d run into a ditch. He would end up in trouble any which way.

Much the biggest and most modern building in Hailar was the railway depot. A few natives in sheepskin coats stared at the trucks that could go almost anywhere far faster than any horse ever foaled. What did they think, watching the modern world roll through their ancient town? Actually, what they thought hardly mattered. The modern world was here whether they liked it or not.

A train that would go east stopped at the depot-stopped a little past it, in fact, because snow and ice on the rails meant the brakes didn’t grab as well as they would have most of the time. Some soldiers were already aboard, and had come this far west before starting east again. Fujita’s unit left the cars packed as tight as tinned fish-the only way the Army seemed to know how to travel.

Well, the sergeant thought, we won’t be cold any more. Each car had its own stove. And so many men stuffed the cars, the stoves might prove afterthoughts. Body heat would be plenty to keep everybody warm.

Slowly, the train started to roll again. Fujita still didn’t know where he was going. He shrugged-being a sergeant, he had room to do that. What difference did it make. He’d get there whether he knew or not. Then he’d do…whatever needed doing.

Chapter Eleven

Chaim Weinberg shivered in a trench. The war on the Ebro seemed to have frozen solid. The whole Spanish Civil War seemed to have frozen solid. The Soviet Union wasn’t sending aid to the Republic any more-Stalin was using the planes and tanks and guns himself. After the broader war broke out, a surge of aid had come from France and England, who’d ignored the Republican cause before. Now, with the Low Countries conquered and France herself invaded, they were ignoring it again.

The only good news was, Hitler and Mussolini were also ignoring General Sanjurjo’s Spanish Fascists. With the Royal Navy and the French actually paying attention to the Mediterranean, the reactionaries would have had a devil of a time getting anything through anyway.

And so both sides were running on momentum, using-and using up-what they’d had before the great powers forgot about them. Before long, one side or the other would run out. The side that still had something would win-unless seeing their proxies in trouble prodded rich sponsors into action again.

Meanwhile…Meanwhile, Weinberg lit a cigarette. It was a Gitane, part of the bounty that had flowed in from France. It was a damn sight better than native Spanish smokes, which tasted of straw and lots of other things besides tobacco. Chaim still longed for an American cigarette. With a Lucky or a Chesterfield, you didn’t feel as if you’d swallowed a welder’s torch every time you inhaled.

He smoked the Gitane down to a tiny butt, then stuck that in a leather pouch he wore on his belt next to his wound dressing. He’d got used to saving dog-ends when tobacco was even scarcer than it was now. Wrap half a dozen of them and you had yourself another cigarette. He would never have stooped so low in the States, but things were different here.

Nobody’d been trying to kill him in the States, for instance. He’d made a crude periscope: two hand-sized chunks from a broken mirror mounted on opposite ends of a stick. (Seven years of bad luck? Getting shot was bad luck. He hadn’t broken this mirror himself, but he would have without even blinking if he’d needed to.) He stuck it up over the lip of the trench to see what the enemy was up to.

Smoke rose here and there from the Fascists’ trenches. Nobody was shelling them; the artillery on both sides stayed quiet. But cold struck impartially. There were fires in the International Brigades’ position, too.

A khaki-clad Fascist soldier came head and shoulders out of his hole for a moment. He wasn’t a sniper-he was dumping a honey bucket. One good thing about the cold: no flies right now. The Spaniard ducked down again before a Republican sharpshooter could fire at him.

Chaim didn’t think it was sporting to shoot a man who was easing himself or getting rid of slops. But bastards on both sides had rifles with telescopic sights. They thought they weren’t earning their pay if they didn’t use them. And so, every now and then, men got shot at their most defenseless.

Not far away, Mike Carroll was cleaning his rifle. The French had used Lebels by the million in the last war. They’d been old-fashioned then, and they were obsolete now…which didn’t mean you still couldn’t kill people with them. How many different kinds of rifles, how many different kinds of ammunition, did the Republicans use? Too goddamn many-Chaim knew that.

Carroll paused. “Spot anything interesting?” he asked.

“Sure,” Weinberg answered. “Naked blond broad taking a sun-bath out in front of the Fascist line. Big tits, pretty face-what more could you want? Natural blonde, too. Either that or she peroxides her bush.”

The other American started to put down the rifle and grab for the periscope. Just too late, he caught himself. “Fuck you, you lying asshole,” he said. “You had me going.”

“Yeah, well, she’s a hell of a lot better than what’s really there.” Weinberg told him about the guy with the bucket.

“Whole war’s full of shit,” Carroll said. “Sanjurjo’s guys, you…Everything. And nobody gives a shit about us.”

“You just notice?” Chaim lit another Gitane. Mike Carroll looked like a puppy hoping for table scraps. Chaim handed him the pack. He took one with a nod of thanks and lit it with a Zippo. He fueled the lighter with kerosene-regular lighter fluid was impossible to come by on either side of the line here.

“Maybe we ought to go up to France,” Carroll said moodily. “More Fascists-worse Fascists-to kill there.”

“Good luck,” Chaim said. Mike winced. He had about as much chance of getting up to France without authorization as he did of sprouting wings and flying there. Political officers behind the International Brigades’ lines checked everybody’s papers. If you didn’t have orders to pull you out, you were in trouble.

Even if you got past the commissars, plenty of other Republican officials in towns and on trains would want to know where you were going and who said you were supposed to go there. If they didn’t like your answers, they would either shoot you or chuck you into a Spanish jail. Not many things were worse than front-line combat, but a Spanish jail was one of them.

“All of a sudden, the States don’t look so bad, you know?” Mike said with a grin that was supposed to mean he was half kidding, anyway.

“Maybe they’ll let you repatriate,” Chaim said. Sometimes the Internationals wanted nothing but willing fighters. Sometimes they figured you had to be willing or you wouldn’t have volunteered. It all depended on the officer, on how the fighting was going-sometimes, people said, on the phases of the moon.

“Ah, fuck it,” Mike said: the usual comment of every line soldier in every war since the beginning of time. “I’m just blowing off steam, you know what I mean?”

“Sure,” Chaim said. And he did, too. It wasn’t as if he’d never pissed and moaned since he got here. “All I wish is, people would remember us. We were a big deal till the rest of Europe blew up. Who gives a shit about Spain now? Stalin’s forgotten all about it.” That was a dangerous thing to say; the International Brigades toed Moscow’s line. But a love of truth was part of what had led Chaim to Spain. He wouldn’t give it up even here.

Mike Carroll had a tobacco pouch on his belt, too. He stuck the remains of the Gitane into it. “Well, so has Hitler,” he answered. “That’s not so bad.”

“You know who remembers?” Chaim said. He waited till Carroll raised a questioning eyebrow. “Us and the Spaniards, that’s who. It’s not just fucking politics and games and shit for us. It really matters. Do you want that fat prick over there”-Chaim pointed toward the Fascists’ lines-“running this whole goddamn country?”

He’d never talked that way in New York City. Back home, he’d always had the feeling his mother was listening and would wash his mouth out with soap. But everybody swore on the battlefield. By now, Chaim could cuss in English, Yiddish, Spanish, Catalan, German, French, and Russian. Talk without swear words seemed as bland as food without salt and pepper.

“If I wanted that, I’d be over there myself,” Mike Carroll said. The Italians and Germans who fought on Sanjurjo’s side had no choice. But for them, only a handful of foreigners-mostly English and Irishmen-had joined the enemy. Men from all over the world opposed the Fascists. If that didn’t say something…

Before Chaim could decide what would be true if that didn’t say something, a rifle bullet cracked between him and Carroll. Both of them hit the dirt. “We’ve been standing up and waving our arms too damn much,” Mike said ruefully. “They got a sniper to take a shot at us.”

“Yeah.” Chaim hadn’t quite pissed himself, but he’d come mighty close. Well, so had the bullet. “Good thing he’s a shitty sniper.” A good marksman would have hit one of them. Maybe this guy couldn’t decide which one to aim at.

“Spaniards.” Mike Carroll’s shrug punctuated that-but didn’t expose him to any more rifle fire. “They’re brave as all get-out-the guys on both sides. But…” His voice trailed away.

Chaim knew what he was talking about. “Yeah. But,” he said, making the word sound like a complete sentence. It might as well have been. Spaniards didn’t keep proper lookout. They didn’t like digging trenches. They didn’t bother cleaning their weapons unless somebody screamed at them-and a lot of the time not then, either. Their logistics were a joke. Food and ammunition came to the front when they felt like it. That was how things looked, anyhow. Their hospitals were almost as bad as their jails.

But they were brave. Point them at an objective and they’d take it or die trying. Tell them they had to hold a strongpoint and it was?No pasaran! You were embarrassed to falter or fall back, because you knew they wouldn’t. If only they would pull themselves together…

“Don’t hold your breath,” Mike said when Chaim suggested that. Then the other American asked, “Do you think we can nail that sniper?”

There was a serious suggestion. “Worth a try,” Chaim said. “He’ll make this whole stretch of trench dangerous unless we do get rid of him. How do you want to work it?”

“We ought to call a sharpshooter of our own,” Carroll said. Chaim gave him the horse laugh. Republican snipers were few, far between, and none too good. The other American’s ears turned red. “Okay, okay. Which of us do you think is a better shot?”

“I am,” Chaim answered without false modesty. “Let me find a position where I can look out without getting drilled. Then you hold up a cap on a stick, and I’ll see what I can see.”

“I’ll do it. Wave when you’re ready,” Mike said.

“Yeah.” Chaim worked his way fifty yards down the trench. Some bushes-brown and leafless in the winter cold-offered cover there. Cautiously, he peered out through them. Nobody fired at him. He brought his rifle up over the top and rested it on the dirt. Then, carefully keeping his hand below the level of the parapet, he signaled to his buddy.

Up went the cap. A shot rang out. Mike not only jerked the cap down but also let out a scream. Chaim saw where the sniper fired from, but the Fascist ducked away before he could plug him. Now…Was the maricon dumb enough to shoot from the same position twice in a row? Everybody knew you shouldn’t, but some boys did anyhow. Only one way to find out…

“Move a little and pop up again,” Chaim called, as softly as he could.

Mike did. He even put the cap on the stick sideways this time, so it would look different. Chaim peered down his rifle barrel. He had the range, he had windage…

He had a target. Yeah, the guy on the other side was greedy and stupid, all right. He showed one shoulder and his head, and that was all Chaim needed. He pressed the trigger, not too hard. Red mist exploded from the enemy sniper as he slumped back into his trench.

“You get him?” Carroll asked.

“Uh-huh. Don’t have to worry about that for a while, anyway.” Chaim might have been talking about delousing or killing a rat. He’d got rid of a nuisance-that was all. Well, now the nuisance wouldn’t get rid of him. Nothing else counted. He lit another Gitane.

* * *

It was a fine, bright morning in western Belgium-colder than an outhouse in East Prussia in February, but sunny and clear. The sun came up a little earlier than it had a month earlier, at the end of December. Chances were spring would get here eventually: no time real soon, but eventually.

Breath smoking in the chilly sunrise air, Hans-Ulrich Rudel walked to the squadron commander’s hut to see what was up. Something would be. He was sure of that. This time of year, days with decent flying weather were too few and far between to waste.

Other Stuka pilots nodded to him. He nodded back. He didn’t have a lot of buddies here. Not likely a milk drinker would, not when most of the flyers preferred brandy and loose women. But he kept going out and doing his job and coming back. That won him respect, if no great liking.

Cigarette smoke blued the air inside the hut. Hans-Ulrich didn’t like that, either, but complaining was hopeless. He tried not to breathe deeply.

“We’re going to bomb England again,” Major Bleyle announced. That got everyone’s attention, as he must have known it would. He went on, “They’ve been hitting our cities-miserable air pirates. What can we do but pay them back? We will strike at Dover and Folkestone and Canterbury, just on the other side of the Channel. Questions?”

Hands flew up, Rudel’s among them. The squadron commander pointed to somebody else-he didn’t much like Hans-Ulrich, either. But the other pilot said about what Rudel would have: “How are we going to come back in one piece? Stukas are sitting ducks for English fighters.”

“We’ll have an escort,” Bleyle said.

“We had an escort the last time, too,” the pilot pointed out. “Some of the enemy planes kept the 109s busy, and the rest came after us.”

“We’ll have a better escort this time,” the squadron commander answered. “Not just 109s, but 110s, too.”

The pilots all paused thoughtfully. Bf-110s were brand new. If half what people said was so, they were formidable, no doubt about it. The big, two-engined fighters mounted two 20mm cannon and four machine guns in the nose, plus another, rear-facing machine gun on a mount like the one in the Stuka. If all that firepower hit an enemy aircraft, the poor devil would go down.

“And there’ll be Heinkels and Dorniers overhead,” Major Bleyle added. “The enemy won’t be able to concentrate on us the way he did before. We’re going to knock eastern England flat. Let’s see how they like it.”

One by one, the Stuka pilots nodded. Most of them had seen enough to know war wasn’t always as easy as they wished it would be. They’d signed up to take whatever happened, the bad along with the good. Hans-Ulrich suspected things would turn out to be harder than the squadron CO made them sound. By the thoughtful looks on the other men’s faces, so did they. But if the people set over you told you to try, what else could you do?

He took the word to Sergeant Dieselhorst. The gunner and radioman shrugged. “Oh, well,” he said. “Maybe she’ll have engine trouble. We can hope, anyway.”

“It won’t be that bad,” Rudel said.

“No, I suppose not…sir.” Dieselhorst spoiled it by adding, “It’ll be worse.”

The Stuka had no engine trouble. Some groundcrew man’s head would have rolled if it did. The mechanics and armorers gassed it up and bombed it up. It roared down the runway and lumbered into the air with the others.

Bf-109s and 110s took station around the dive-bombers. The 110s- Zerstorers, they called them: destroyers-certainly looked formidable. With all that firepower in the nose, they packed a mean punch. Idly, Hans-Ulrich wondered how maneuverable they were. He laughed. His own Ju-87 dodged like a rock.

There was the North Sea. There ahead lay England. The popular song dinned in his head. He was going up against England. If the enemy bombed the Reich, the Luftwaffe would repay blood with blood, murder with murder.

He saw ships-boats-whatever they were-on the sea. Did they belong to the Kriegsmarine or the Royal Navy? Were they radioing a warning to the English mainland now? Was that how the RAF had been so quick to attack the Stukas the last time they raided southeastern England? Rudel shrugged. Not his worry, though he did think he’d mention it if he happened to remember after he got back to Belgium.

If I get back to Belgium. He did his best to stifle that thought. You didn’t want to go into battle with your head full of doubts and worries. He was no more eager to go into this battle than any of his squadron mates. The Ju-87 was terrific when it enjoyed air superiority. When it didn’t…

Several 109s seemed to leap out ahead of the pack. Following their path with his eyes, Hans-Ulrich spied another plane out ahead of the oncoming German air armada. Tracers from the Messerschmitts blazed toward the stranger, which dove and spun down toward the ocean. It wasn’t a fighter. They charged after it and sent it smoking into the water.

Someone in the squadron voiced on the radio what Hans-Ulrich was thinking: “Now-did he get word out before we shot him down?”

“We’ll find out,” somebody else said in sepulchral tones.

And they did. English fighter planes rose to meet them: biplane Gladiators, monoplane Hurricanes, and a handful of new, sleek Spitfires. The RAF fighters bored in on the Luftwaffe bombers. They wanted no more to do with the escorts than they had to. The 109s and 110s couldn’t hurt their country. Bombers could.

What was going on higher in the sky, where the Heinkels and Dorniers had escorts of their own? Rudel couldn’t check. He was too busy trying to stay alive. Even a Gladiator could be dangerous.

Sergeant Dieselhorst fired a burst. “Get anything?” Hans-Ulrich asked.

“Nah,” the rear gunner answered. “He’ll bother somebody else, though.” That suited the pilot fine.

Cannon fire from a nearby Me-110 knocked down a Hurricane. A moment later, another Hurricane bored in on the two-engined German fighter. That combat didn’t last long. The Hurricane easily outturned the 110, got on its tail, shot it up, and shot it down.

Hans-Ulrich saw he was over some kind of city. He thought it was Dover, but it might have been Folkestone or any other English port. It lay by the sea-he could tell that much. And he could tell it was time to unload the frightfulness he’d brought across the ocean. He yanked the bomb-release lever. The Stuka suddenly felt lighter and nimbler.

“Now we get the devil out of here?” Dieselhorst’s voice came brassy through the speaking tube.

“Now we get out of here,” Hans-Ulrich agreed. No point in lingering. The Stuka sure wasn’t agile enough to dogfight against a British fighter.

A broad-winged He-111, afire from the nose back, plunged into the North Sea just off the coast from the town that was probably Dover. An enormous cloud of steam and smoke rose: a couple of thousand kilos’ worth of bombs going off when the Spade hit. Hans-Ulrich hadn’t seen any parachutes. Four men dead, then.

“You know what happens next, don’t you?” Dieselhorst said.

“What’s that?” Rudel asked. He looked every which way. He didn’t see any Indians, which was what Luftwaffe pilots called enemy planes. That let him ease back on the throttle a little. The Continent loomed ahead. He’d probably make it to the airstrip.

“They come over tonight or tomorrow night and bomb the crap out of some of our towns,” Dieselhorst said. “Where does it end? With our last two guys coming out of the ruins and going after their last guy with a club?”

“That’s not for us to worry about. That’s for the Fuhrer.” But Hans-Ulrich couldn’t leave it there. “As long as we’ve got two guys and they’ve got one, as long as our two get their one, we win. And we’re going to. Right?”

“Oh, yes, sir,” the gunner answered. Nobody could or wanted to imagine Germany losing two wars in a row. Losing one had been bad enough.

But when Hans-Ulrich put down at the Belgian airstrip, he waited and waited, hoping against hope that more Stukas would come home safe. A few had returned before him. A few more straggled in afterwards. But so many were lost over England or the North Sea…The squadron would need a new CO, among other reinforcements. Hans-Ulrich hoped the Reich would have two men with clubs coming out of the ruins, not just one.

* * *

Every night, the panzers in Sergeant Ludwig Rothe’s platoon reassembled-or they tried to, anyhow. By now, Rothe’s crew was the most experienced one left in the platoon. Neither he nor his driver nor his radioman had got badly hurt. Given how thin-skinned Panzer IIs were, that was something close to miraculous.

Rothe had commanded the platoon on and off on the drive across the Low Countries and into France. Lieutenants and their panzers were no more invulnerable to flying shells than anybody else. But the platoon had an officer in charge of it again: a second lieutenant named Maximilian Priller.

He was dark and curly-haired. He had a whipped-cream-in-your-coffee, strudel-on-the-side Viennese accent. Before the Anschluss, he’d served in the Austrian Army. Like a lot of German soldiers, Rothe looked down his nose at Austrians as fighting men. He had nothing bad to say about Lieutenant Priller, though. No matter how Priller talked, he knew what to do with panzers.

“Our next stop is Coucy-le-Chateau.” Priller pointed the place out on a map he unfolded on his knees. His German sounded funny in Ludwig’s ears, but he spoke fluent French. “Well, not our next stop-where we go through next. It’s only about five kilometers ahead. We ought to drive the enemy out by the middle of the morning. Questions, anybody?”

“Do we soften them up with artillery first, or do we break through with the panzers?” another sergeant asked.

“With the panzers. That way, we’ve got surprise working for us.” Priller cocked an eyebrow. “We see who gets the surprise-us or them.”

The four sergeants who commanded the other panzers in the platoon all chuckled, Ludwig among them. It was laugh or scream, one. Maybe the French troops in front of the Germans would panic and flee. On the other hand, maybe they’d be waiting with panzers of their own, minefields, antitank guns: all the things that made life in the panzer force so…interesting.

“We’ve bent them back a long way,” Max Priller said. “If we break through here, we drive the sword into their heart. We want them all disordered. Then we can race them to Paris. Better than even money we win.”

“Paris…” Ludwig and a couple of the other sergeants said together. Back in the Middle Ages, knights went on quests for the Holy Grail. In the twentieth century, Paris was the Holy Grail for Germany. The Kaiser’s army had come so close. Armchair generals kept talking about von Kluck’s turn. If he hadn’t made it, or if the Russians hadn’t caused so much trouble off in the East…

Russia was making trouble again. The Wehrmacht had done well here, or Ludwig thought it had. In a month, it had knocked Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg out of the fight. The radio said German bombers were giving England hell to pay back the British terror raids on German cities. Maybe this attack would have gone smoother in better weather. Only God could know something like that, though.

“Tell your men,” Priller said. “We go at 0600.”

It would still be dark. Somebody’d get a surprise, all right. Well, what could you do? Rothe went back to his panzer. Fritz was toasting some bacon he’d liberated from a farmhouse. Theo was swapping tubes in and out of the radio, trying to figure out which one was bad.

Fritz looked up from the little cookfire. “It’s going to be bad,” he said. “I can see it on your face. How bad is it?”

“We hit the town up ahead at 0600,” Ludwig answered bluntly.

Theo paused with a tube in each hand. He looked down at them, muttering; Rothe guessed he was remembering which one he’d just pulled and which was about to go in. Fritz stared up from the sizzling slab of bacon. “Fuck,” he said.

“I know,” Ludwig said. “What can you do, though?” He pointed to the bacon. “Is that done? Let me have some if it is.”

Off in the distance, some guns opened up. French 75s, Ludwig thought, recognizing the reports. The damned things dated back to before the turn of the century. They’d been the great workhorses of the French artillery during the last war; Ludwig’s father swore whenever he talked about them. They could fire obscenely fast. This time around, German 105s outranged them. That did you no good if you ended up on the wrong end of things, though.

These shells came down a good distance away. Fritz cut the bacon into three pieces. “Well, maybe we’ll surprise them,” he said. “They don’t seem to know where we’re at…Here you go, Sergeant.”

“Danke.” Ludwig blew on his share, then took a bite. It tasted about the same as bacon would have back home. He might have had it boiled there, but he might not, too. He gulped. “Yeah, maybe we will,” he said, and bit into the bacon again.

Theo stared at the orange glow inside the tube he’d just swapped in. “That does it,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to hear all the stupid orders we’ll get from the shitheads back of the lines-and from Lieutenant Priller, too.” His faith in those set over him had, well, limits. Ludwig suspected Theo didn’t have much use for him, either. He also suspected-no, he was sure-he wouldn’t lose any sleep about it.

The French 75s quieted down. Had somebody given them a target, or were they shooting at some jumpy officer’s imagination? Ludwig laughed. He had no use for French higher-ups. Why did he think the men who ran the Wehrmacht had a better handle on what they were doing?

Because we’re in France, and the damned Frenchmen aren’t in Germany, he answered himself. And maybe that meant something and maybe it didn’t. They’d all find out some time not long after 0600.

He slept by the Panzer II. So did the driver and the radioman. If shelling came close, they could dive under the panzer. The treads and the armored body would keep out anything this side of a direct hit.

Lieutenant Priller came along at half past four to make sure they were alert and ready to go. “We can do it,” he said. “We’re going to do it, too.”

“Have we got any coffee?” Ludwig asked plaintively. And damned if they didn’t. It wasn’t the ersatz that came with army rations, mixed with burnt barley and chicory. It came from the real bean, no doubt taken from the French. It was dark and mean and strong. Ludwig dumped sugar into it so he could choke it down. Sure as hell, it pried his eyelids open.

As they had in the runup to the strike against Czechoslovakia, engineers had set out white tapes here to guide the panzers forward without showing a light. Rothe cupped a hand behind his ear, trying to hear if the French up ahead had any idea they were coming. He couldn’t tell. Fritz had the engine throttled back, but its low rumble still drowned out the little sounds he was looking for. Nobody was shooting at the Germans as they moved up to the start line, anyhow.

Ludwig glanced down at the radium-glowing dial on his watch. 0530. A couple of hours later, he checked again. 0550. He laughed at himself. Time stretched like a rubber band when you were waiting for the balloon to go up.

When it did go up, it went all at once. One second, quiet above the engine noise. The next, German artillery crashed behind the panzers. German machine guns stuttered to life, spitting fire to either side. “Let’s go!” Rothe yelled through the din. The engine grew deeper and louder. It had to work like a bastard to shove all that armored weight around.

A couple of French Hotchkiss machine guns returned fire, but not for long. The panzers and assault teams with submachine guns and grenades silenced them. Standing head and shoulders out of the turret, Ludwig whooped. The last thing he wanted was tracers probing toward him.

The Germans had jumped off just before earliest dawn. As day broke, the French landscape seemed to stretch out ever farther before them. Rothe fired a few machine-gun bursts at soldiers in khaki. If they were here, they were bound to be enemies. He was at the spearpoint of the field-gray forces pressing down from the northeast.

Bam! A French antitank gun belched flame. The 37mm round missed the Panzer II. A good thing-a hit would have turned it into blazing scrap metal. Rothe almost shit himself even so.

More to the point, he traversed the turret and fired several short bursts at the gun. Seeing bullets spark off its steel shielding, he gave it a few rounds from the 20mm cannon. Those got through. French artillerymen tumbled like ninepins. “There you go!” Fritz shouted. Theo, tending to his radio in the bowels of the Panzer II, couldn’t see a damned thing.

But one stubborn Frenchman fired the gun again. The 37mm shot snarled past, a few meters over Ludwig’s head. He shot back with the panzer’s main armament. And he gave an order you didn’t hear every day in armored warfare: “Charge! Run that gun down!”

“Jawohl!” Fritz said. The Panzer II’s engine snarled. The stubborn French soldier was still alive behind the riddled shield, trying to serve the gun by himself. Seeing the panzer bearing down on him, he finally turned and fled. Ludwig shot him in the back with the machine gun. A guy like that was too dangerous to leave alive.

Crunch! The panzer clattered over the antitank gun. For a nasty moment, Ludwig feared the panzer would flip over, but it didn’t. When he looked back over his shoulder, he saw the new kink in the gun’s barrel. Nobody would use that one against the Reich any more, which was the point.

Here and there, infantrymen with rifles fired at the panzers, trying to pick off their commanders. Every once in a while, they managed to do it, too. But the panzers had a whole slew of advantages. They were on the move. Their commanders could duck behind armor. And they carried a machine gun and a light cannon against a bolt-action rifle.

Staying on the move was the biggest edge. Even if you didn’t take out an infantryman, you left him behind in a matter of seconds. Sooner or later, your own foot soldiers could deal with him. In the meanwhile, the panzers charged ahead, flowing around enemy hell in the rear.

But Coucy-le-Chateau was too big and too strong to go around. Some of the soldiers Ludwig shot at in the outskirts wore lighter khaki and steel derbies in place of darker uniforms and domed helms with vestigial crests. Englishmen! They didn’t like machine-gun bursts any better than the French (or Ludwig, come to that).

A machine gun chattered from the middle of an apple orchard. The gun moved. Ludwig realized it was mounted on some sort of tank. He gulped, wondering if the enemy machine’s cannon was taking dead aim at his panzer. Not nearly enough steel separated him from the slings and arrows of outrageous gunners.

But he realized little by little that the other panzer didn’t carry a cannon. All it had was that machine gun-it might as well have been a German Panzer I.

It waddled out of the apple grove. It didn’t seem able to do anything but waddle-a man running fast would have had no trouble outdistancing it. He fired three quick rounds from the 20mm gun. Two of them hit the turret, but they didn’t come close to punching through. The Matilda might be slow. It might have a laughable armament-even a Panzer I sported a pair of machine guns, not a singleton. But it was damned hard to wreck.

It was if you tried to kill the crew, anyway. If you crippled it, though…Ludwig fired the 20mm at the Matilda’s tracks and road wheels. Before long, the ungainly thing slewed sideways and stopped. Ludwig’s panzer clanked past it. Now it was nothing but a well-armored machine-gun position. The infantry could deal with that.

Medieval-looking ramparts surrounded Coucy-le-Chateau. The hilltop chateau that gave the town its name had had chunks bitten out of it, probably in the last war. Mortar bombs from the chateau started falling among the German panzers. Half wrecked or not, the place had poilus or Tommies in it.

“Theo!” Ludwig said. “Let the artillery know they’re firing from the ruin.”

“Right,” the radioman answered, which might have meant anything.

He-or somebody-must have done it, because 105s started knocking more pieces off the chateau. Then a flight of Stukas screamed down on it. Their bombs did what guns could only dream about. The enemy mortars fell silent.

More Stukas worked over Coucy-le-Chateau. One of them got shot down and crashed into the town, turning itself into a bomb. The rest roared away. The onslaught stunned the defenders. With narrow, winding streets, Coucy-le-Chateau might have been a nasty place to try to take. But some of the garrison fled west and south, while the rest couldn’t surrender fast enough.

Breakthrough? Ludwig didn’t know, but he had hopes.

Chapter Twelve

January. The North Atlantic. A U-boat. The combination was not made in heaven, as Lieutenant Julius Lemp knew only too well.

Oh, he could take the U-30 down below periscope depth, and she’d escape the fearsome waves topside. The only trouble was, down below periscope depth she’d be about as useful to the war effort as if she were a five-year-old’s toy in a Berlin bathtub.

A five-year-old splashing around couldn’t whip up a worse storm in that tiny tub than God was kicking up out here on the broad ocean. One ten-meter wave after another rolled down on the U-30. Because she was so much smaller and had so much less freeboard than a surface warship, it was like taking one soggy right to the chin after another.

Lemp tied himself to the rail atop the conning tower so an extra-big wave wouldn’t sweep him out to sea. He wore oilskins, of course. He knew he’d get soaked anyhow. This way, it would take a little longer, though.

He wondered why he’d bothered bringing the binoculars with him. So much spray and stray water splashed the lenses, he might as well have peered through a couple of full beer steins. You had to try all the same. Why else did they send you out in filthy weather like this?

Another wave smashed over the bow. It splashed past the 88mm deck gun and crashed into the conning tower. Lemp got himself a faceful of ocean. “Fuck,” he said, spitting salt water. He would have made a bigger fuss had it been the first time, or even the fifth.

He looked at the binoculars. They were good and wet now. Ironically, that might make them easier to look through than when they’d just been spray-splashed. He raised them to his eyes and swept the horizon with a hunter’s intent patience.

He or one of the other watchstanders did this as long as there was enough daylight to see by. At night, he did take the boat down twenty-five or thirty meters so the men could cook a little and could rest without getting pitched out of their cramped bunks and hammocks.

Something glided past him on the wind: a petrel, on the prowl for fish, not ships. Stormy weather didn’t bother the bird. Lemp wished he could say the same.

The U-boat’s bow sank down into a trough. That meant the following wave would be worse than usual. And it was. If not for the fastening-and for his holding on to the rail for dear life-it would have swept him into the Atlantic. Would he have drowned before he froze? That was the only question there.

He wanted to ride on top of a crest, not get buried by one. Eventually, the U-30 did. That gave him those extra ten meters from which to look around. He didn’t expect to see anything but the scudding gray clouds that had kept him company ever since leaving Germany. His watch would be up pretty soon. Then he could descend into the U-boat’s crowded, stinking pressure hull, dry off, and change into his other, slightly less soaked, uniform.

When you didn’t expect to see something, you probably wouldn’t, even if it was there. Lemp almost missed the smoke trail to the northwest. His hands were smarter than his head. They snapped back of themselves and gave him another look at it. Without even noticing he’d done it, he stopped shivering. He stopped caring he was wet clean through.

He pulled out the plug on the speaking tube that let him talk to the helmsman and the engine room. “Change course to 310,” he ordered. “All ahead full.”

Hollow and brassy, the answer came back: “Changing course to 310, skipper. You found something?”

“I sure did,” Lemp said as the diesels’ building throb told him their crew had got the command, too. “Now we have to see what it is and whether we can run it down.”

He thought they had a decent chance. Not many freighters could match the U-30’s surface speed. And he could get mighty close before the ship spotted his exhaust: diesel fuel burned much cleaner than heavy oil, to say nothing of coal. The U-boat’s low, sharkish silhouette shouldn’t be easy to pick up, either.

The other side of the coin was, he couldn’t make seventeen knots in seas like this. Now that the U-30 had turned away from taking the swells bow-on, she got slapped in the port side instead. British corvettes-U-boat hunters-were said to roll on wet grass. The U-30 was doing the same thing. As long as she straightened up every time, Lemp couldn’t complain.

His stomach could, and did. He was a good sailor, but he seldom faced a challenge like this. He gulped, hoping lunch would stay down. If he was going to sink that ship, he had to get ahead of her before submerging to wait for her to reach him where he lay in wait. A U-boat’s greatest weakness was that it was slower submerged than its quarry was on the surface.

He ordered another course change, swinging closer to due north. The ship was making a very respectable turn of speed. In turn, that argued she was big and important: a ship England particularly wouldn’t want to see lost.

When the U-boat rose to the crest of another wave, Lemp got a good look at the enemy vessel. He whistled softly, though he couldn’t even hear himself through the howling wind. She had to be 15,000 tons if she was a gram!

“A Q-ship,” he muttered under his breath. In the last war, England had put disguised guns on several merchantmen. They looked like ordinary freighters…till an unwary U-boat skipper approached them on the surface, confident of an easy kill. Several such skippers had paid with their boats-and with their lives. Lemp shook his head. “Not me, by God! Not me.”

The enemy wasn’t zigzagging. She didn’t know he was around, then. Good, he thought, imagining what 15cm guns could do to his hull. And the U-30 was overhauling her. He smiled wolfishly Yes, she’d get a nasty surprise before long.

He went below. No time to change now. After the hunt would have to do. He’d kept his sausage and noodles down on the conning tower. He almost lost them for a second time leaving the cold, pure ocean air for the stinks and smokes of the pressure hull. His eyes also needed a moment to adjust from gray daylight to the dim orange lamps the U-boat used.

“Take her down to periscope depth, Peter,” he said.

“Periscope depth. Aye aye, skipper,” the helmsman said. Dive warnings hooted. Air hissed out of buoyancy tanks; water gurgled in to take its place. The U-30 could dive like an otter when she had to. The crew practiced all the time. If a destroyer or an airplane came after you, you had to disappear in a hurry or you’d disappear forever.

Lemp raised the periscope. The instrument wasn’t perfect. It got out of alignment, and the upper lens took even more splashes and spray than his binoculars did. But the periscope didn’t need to be perfect this time. Here came the merchant cruiser, fat and happy as if she had the world by the tail.

“Course 190. All ahead one third,” Lemp ordered, and the batteries that powered the U-30 underwater sent her toward her prey.

The target was making about ten knots. The torpedoes could do better than thirty. If the range was down to…he peered through the periscope again…900 meters, he needed to launch…now!

“Fire one!” he snapped, and then, “Fire two!” and then, “Fire three!”

Wham!…Whoosh! One after another, the fish leaped away from the U-boat. “All three gone, skipper,” the torpedomen reported.

“Ja,” Lemp agreed absently. In these waves, he couldn’t watch the wakes as well as he would have liked. On the other hand, the merchant cruiser would have a harder time seeing them coming, too.

At the very last moment, she started to turn away. The very last moment proved much too late. The first torpedo caught her up near the bow. The dull Boom! filled the U-30. The soldiers whooped and cheered. Somebody pounded Lemp on the back. Discipline on a submarine wasn’t the same as it was on a surface ship-nowhere close. The skipper kept his eyes on the periscope, so he never knew who it was.

A few seconds later, another, bigger, Boom! echoed through the water. The second torpedo hit the enemy ship just aft of amidships. “That does it.” Lemp spoke with quiet satisfaction. “We broke her back. She’s going down fast.”

He waited for the impact of the third torpedo, but it didn’t come. That one must have missed. He was annoyed. He hated to miss. But the two hits were plenty to sink the merchant cruiser. And that, after all, was the point of the exercise. He wouldn’t be too hard on himself.

A lot of boats out. A lot of heads bobbing in the water as the ship slid under. The survivors wouldn’t last long, not in seas like this. Lemp wondered if he’d sunk a troopship bringing soldiers from Canada to England. That would be an even stronger blow against the enemy than he’d thought he struck.

He also wondered if she’d got out an SOS. If destroyers, say, were hurrying this way on a rescue mission, he didn’t want to hang around any longer than he had to. “Surface,” he said. “Let’s skedaddle. We’ve done our job here.”

* * *

Peggy Druce finally had her bags packed. In a couple of hours, she would head for the train station. The train would take her out of Germany and into neutral Denmark. In Copenhagen, she would get on a lovely American liner, the Athenia. Before too long, she’d be in New York. Two hours by train from Philadelphia. A million billion miles from a Europe that had lost its mind.

Somebody knocked on the door.

A hotel flunky, she thought. As soon as she saw the uniform, she realized the man wasn’t from the hotel. It wasn’t a military uniform, but civilians in the Third Reich liked playing dress-up, too. This guy, unless she was wrong, came from the Foreign Ministry.

And this guy, unless she was very, very wrong, was Trouble. With a capital T.

“You are Miss, uh, Margaret Druce?” he asked in pretty good English.

“Missus,” Peggy corrected automatically. Just as automatically, she flashed her ring.

“Please to excuse me. And please to let me introduce myself. I am Konrad Hoppe, of the Sub-bureau for the Supervision of Interned Neutrals.” He didn’t click his heels, but he gave her a stiff little bow, something you’d never see in the States. As he straightened, he went on, “You were formerly scheduled to leave Germany today and to return to America in the near future.”

Amazing how something as simple as an adverb could be scarier than the bombs that had rained down on Berlin at New Year’s. “What do you mean, formerly?” Peggy demanded, doing her goddamnedest not to show how frightened she was.

“Ah.” Herr Hoppe nodded, more to himself than to her. “Then you will not have heard any news this morning.”

“What’s that got to do with anything? Don’t play riddles, if you don’t mind. If you’ve got something to say, come out and say it, already.”

“Very well, Mrs. Druce.” This time, Hoppe got it right. And, this time, he really did click his heels. “I regret that I must be the one to inform you that the Athenia went down in the North Atlantic yesterday, bound for Copenhagen from New York City. Loss of life is reported to be heavy.”

“Went down.” Numbly, Peggy entered the words. They sounded innocuous, almost antiseptic. Little by little, her wits started working. “What do you mean, ‘went down’? Went down how? Did a U-boat torpedo her?” That was the likeliest way she could think of for a ship to go down in the middle of the North Atlantic in wartime. “They can’t do that! She’s a neutral! She’s an American!”

They could do that. They could do anything they damn well pleased. Sometimes, as an American herself, she had trouble remembering that in spite of all the horrors she’d seen. Maybe that made her a fool. Maybe it left her one of the last sane people on this poor, benighted continent.

Konrad Hoppe, dutiful employee of the Sub-bureau for the Supervision of Interned Neutrals, looked pained. “So the BBC claims. But this is one more lie from a nation of liars. The government of the Reich has denied any involvement in the sinking of the Athenia. If it was not an accident, the British torpedoed or bombed it themselves, to stir up hatred against Germany in America.”

“That’s the nuttiest thing I ever heard in my life!” Peggy exclaimed.

“It is not,” Hoppe insisted. “For the British, it would make perfect sense. But why would the Reich sink an American ocean liner? Do you not think we learned our lessons on the folly of this in the last war?”

Peggy opened her mouth. Then she closed it again. She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t imagine England doing anything so filthy. But she also had trouble believing Hitler wanted to antagonize the USA. Wouldn’t he be cutting his own throat if he did? He might be nuts, but he wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t that stupid, anyhow, or Peggy didn’t think so.

“Maybe your guy just made a mistake,” she said after a few seconds of thought. “Have you ever crossed the Atlantic in January? I have, and it’s rough seas and nasty weather all the way.”

“Our submarine captains do not make such errors,” the Foreign Ministry official said stiffly. “It is impossible. And if you find the Atlantic in January so unappetizing, why did you book passage on the Athenia?”

To get the hell out of your stinking country. But if Peggy said something like that, some guys who wore different uniforms-those of the SS, say-were liable to have some sharp questions for her. Or pointed ones. Or hot ones. “To get away from the war,” she did say, a couple of heartbeats slower than she might have.

“I am afraid this is not possible for you at the moment,” Hoppe said.

“Can’t I go to Denmark anyway?” Peggy yelped. The lights were on in neutral Denmark. Denmark had never heard of rationing, except as something other people suffered. Much more to the point, Denmark was a civilized country. Once upon a time, Peggy would have said the same thing about Germany. No more. No more.

“I am very sorry.” Konrad Hoppe didn’t sound sorry. If anything, he sounded coldly amused. He got to tell foreigners no, and the Foreign Ministry paid him to do it. If that wasn’t heaven for the nasty little man, Peggy would have been amazed. A small, chilly smile on his lips, Hoppe went on, “That also for you is not possible.”

“How come?” She wouldn’t give up without a fight. “I’ve got the train ticket. I’ve got the Danish visa. Why can’t I use ‘em?”

“It is not the policy of the Reich to permit departures unless the return journey to the foreigner’s home may be completed without delay,” Hoppe droned.

“Why the-dickens not?” She wanted to say something hotter than that, but feared it would do her more harm than good.

“I am not obligated to discuss the Reich’s policies with those affected by them. I am obliged only to communicate them to you,” Hoppe said primly.

Fuck you, Charlie. Peggy didn’t say that, either. A few years earlier, she would have. Maybe she was finally growing up. She rolled her eyes. She didn’t think Herb would believe it. That made her roll them again. God only knew when-or if-she’d see her husband again.

She tried a different tack: “Okay, you’re not obligated. Could you do it because you want to, or because it’d be a civilized kind of thing to do?”

Yes, she’d throw that in Hoppe’s face. And his sallow cheeks did turn red. Russians got ticked off if you called them uncultured. Germans were almost as bad. A lot of them had an inferiority complex about France and England. And, oddly, that had got worse since Hitler took over. It was as if the Nazis were uneasily aware of what a bunch of bastards they were, and embarrassed when somebody called them on it.

“I believe…” Hoppe’s voice trailed away. A little muscle under one eye twitched, the only visible sign of what had to be a struggle inside him. Human being against Nazi functionary? Peggy knew which way she would have bet. But she would have lost, because the Foreign Ministry official went on, “I believe it is to keep people from blaming the Reich for disrupted schedules when those are not of our making.”

Who sank the Athenia? Peggy wondered again. But Hoppe would only deny it one more time if she threw it in his face. If Goebbels was saying the British had done it, that was Holy Writ inside the Third Reich. Hoppe probably believed it himself, even if it seemed like obvious horse manure to Peggy.

“Well, suppose I sign a pledge that says I won’t be offended?” Peggy proposed. “If I badmouth you in the papers or anything, you can haul it out and tell people what a liar I am.”

He shook his head. “No. That is not good. You would claim you signed the document under duress. We have experience with others who prove ungrateful after going beyond our borders.”

And why do you suppose that is? Peggy knew goddamn well why it was. Konrad Hoppe seemed not to have the faintest idea. That he didn’t-that so many like him didn’t-was one measure of modern-day Germany’s damnation.

“I really wouldn’t,” Peggy said. Honest! Cross my heart and hope to die! She would have promised anything and done damn near anything to escape the Reich. If he’d propositioned her, she wouldn’t have loosened his teeth for him. She wouldn’t have come across, but still…

“I am sorry. I have not the discretion to permit this.” Now Hoppe did sound as if he might mean it, anyhow.

“Who does?” Peggy asked. “Ribbentrop?”

“Herr von Ribbentrop may have the authority.” Konrad Hoppe stressed the aristocratic von, which the Nazi Foreign Minister, as Peggy understood it, had bought. “He may, I say.”

“He’s the head of the Foreign Ministry, right?” Peggy said. “If he doesn’t, who does, for crying out loud?”

“Above the Foreign Minister-above everyone-is always the Fuhrer.” Hoppe pointed out the obvious.

“Oh, my aching back!” Peggy burst out. “How am I supposed to get Hitler to pay attention to my case? There’s a war on.”

“I am afraid I can offer on that score no suggestions,” the Nazi bureaucrat answered. “If you will excuse me…” He bowed once more and walked out without waiting to see whether Peggy would excuse him or not.

She thought about getting on the train for Denmark even if the Foreign Ministry said she couldn’t. She not only thought about it, she headed for the station.

She presented her ticket. Then she had to present her passport. The conductor-he wasn’t quite a conductor, but a more prominent kind of official, with a uniform a U.S. major general would have envied-checked her name against a list. As soon as he did that, she knew her goose was cooked. Damn Teutonic thoroughness anyway!

His Toploftiness looked up from the sheet of paper. “I am sorry, but for you travel is verboten,” he said.

“It’s not fair! It’s not right!” she squawked.

The railroad official shrugged. “I am sorry. I can about that nothing do. I do not the orders give. I only carry them out.”

“Right,” Peggy said tightly. “What am I supposed to do now?”

“Go back to your hotel,” the man replied. “Wait for German victory. It will soon come. Then, I have no doubt, you will be able where you please to travel. Although, since you are here in the Reich at this world-historical time, why would you anywhere else care to go?”

Peggy could have told him. She came that close- that close-to doing it. In the end, she held her tongue. Yeah, maybe she really and truly was growing up. Or maybe-and more likely-the Gestapo could scare the bejesus out of an immature person, too.

* * *

Vaclav Jezek loved his new antitank rifle. The damn thing was long and heavy. It kicked like a mule. The round it fired was as big as his thumb. Despite that, it wouldn’t penetrate all the armor on a first-rate German panzer. But against side or rear panels, it had a good chance of punching through. Then it would do something nasty to the men inside the metal monster, or maybe to the engine.

He didn’t like the way he’d got his hands on the antitank rifle. The Frenchman who had lugged it around lost the top of his head to a bullet or shell fragment. He wasn’t pretty when Vaclav found him. He’d bled all over the weapon, too. Now, though, you could hardly see the stains.

Somebody moved in the bushes a few hundred meters ahead. Jezek swung the rifle in that direction. It shot nice and flat out to a kilometer and more. What you could see, you could hit, and what you could hit…Using the antitank rifle against a mere soldier was like killing a flea by dropping a house on it. Vaclav didn’t care. He wanted Germans dead, and he wasn’t fussy about how they got that way.

Czechs and Frenchmen and a few Englishmen were all intermingled here. They shouldn’t have been, but the latest German drive had thrown the defenders in the Ardennes into confusion. Jezek had seen that in Czechoslovakia, to his sorrow. After a panzer thrust pierced the line you were trying to hold, you had to scramble like a madman to piece together a new one farther back. And the Germans were still pushing forward, and shelling you, and bombing you…

“Anybody have more clips for the antitank rifle?” he called in Czech. He could have said the same thing in German, but it probably would have got him shot. He didn’t speak French or English.

But one of the French noncoms assigned as liaison to the Czechs translated for Vaclav. The man’s Czech was none too good, but he spoke French fine. And a couple of soldiers coughed up the fat clips Vaclav needed.

“Thanks,” he said as he stowed them in a sack on his belt-they were too big for standard ammunition pouches.

“Any time, pal. I bet I’ve hated the Nazis longer than you have,” the sergeant said. He had a slight guttural accent, curly auburn hair, and a formidable plow of a nose.

Another Jew. They’re fucking everywhere, Jezek thought. The guy named David was back of the lines with a bullet through his leg right now. He’d get better. Whether the line would wasn’t so obvious.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Vaclav said aloud. This fellow wouldn’t duck out of the fight the way the damned Slovaks did, anyhow.

German 105s started tearing up the landscape a few hundred meters off to the south. Nobody in Vaclav’s bunch even flinched. That wasn’t close enough to worry about. The noncom said, “Maybe there’ll be some cows down, and we can get ourselves fresh beef.”

“Or pork.” The words came out of Vaclav’s mouth before he thought about them.

He didn’t faze the noncom in French uniform. “I’ve eaten it,” the guy said. “Beats the crap out of going hungry.”

“Yeah, well, what doesn’t?” Jezek replied.

They never got the chance to see if the Germans had done some worthwhile butchery for a change. Stukas screamed down from a treacherously clear sky. “Down!” Several soldiers yelled the same thing at the same time. Vaclav and the Jewish sergeant were two of them. They both fit action to word. Vaclav was already tearing at the muddy ground with his entrenching tool when the first bombs hit nearby.

Blast jumped on him with hobnailed boots. Fragments of bomb casing screeched malevolently through the air. He kept on impersonating a mole. Stukas came in bigger waves than this.

Sure as hell, more of them wailed down on him and his buddies. He’d heard they had sirens mounted on their landing gear to make them sound even scarier than they would have otherwise. As far as he was concerned, that was overdoing it. The damn things were scary enough anyhow.

The sergeant lay on his back, firing up at them with his rifle. That took guts, but it was bound to be a waste of ammo. How could you hit something that was going 500 kilometers an hour?

People were shrieking and wailing in a godawful Babel of languages. Medics ran here and there, slapping on bandages and lugging wounded soldiers away on stretchers. The medics wore Red Cross armbands and smocks. Some of them had painted Red Crosses in white circles on either side of their helmets. Every so often, they got shot anyway. German medics wore the same kind of outfits. Vaclav had never aimed at one of them on purpose. Still, he was sure they stopped bullets, too.

A French officer shouted something. It might as well have been in Japanese for all the sense it made to Vaclav. The redheaded Jew- just like Judas, Jezek thought-translated: “We’ve got to get back over the Semoy. They’re going to blow the bridges pretty soon, he says, to help stop the Germans.”

“They think that will?” Vaclav didn’t believe it for a minute. The Nazis were too good with pontoon bridges and rubber boats and parachutists and what have you.

“That’s what he says.” After a moment, the sergeant added, “Do you want to get stuck here?”

“Well-no,” Vaclav admitted-the only answer that question could have.

A crackle of machine-gun fire made him hit the dirt again. Here came an obsolete but nasty little Panzer I, spitting bullets from both guns in the turret. No French tanks anywhere close by, of course. They were like policemen-never around when you needed them.

But a Panzer I wasn’t so goddamn tough. Vaclav had heard they were originally intended as nothing more than training vehicles. They got thrown into combat when Hitler jumped Czechoslovakia. Even their frontal armor was only thirteen millimeters thick. That kept out small-arms fire. Anything more…

He worked the bolt and chambered a round. He wasn’t shooting at a Stuka; the little German tank made a fine target. The tank commander, who was also the gunner, sat right between the machine guns. As always, the antitank rifle kicked like a son of a bitch. He’d have a nasty bruise on his shoulder. He didn’t care, though, not when the Panzer I’s machine guns suddenly fell silent.

“Good shot!” the Jewish sergeant yelled. The tank drove on, but so what? The driver couldn’t shoot while he was driving.

And the Allied soldiers on this side of the Semoy couldn’t stop the Nazis. Vaclav thanked God no German bombers struck while he was tramping over the bridge. He would have thanked God a lot more had He done worse to the enemy sooner. In a world where you didn’t get many big favors, you needed to be properly grateful for the small ones.

* * *

“Come on! This way!” The engineer called in a low, urgent voice. Willi Dernen assumed he was an engineer, anyhow. It was the middle of the night, and as black as the Jew Suss’ heart outside. The man went on, “The pontoon bridge is right here. It has rope rails, so hang on to those. And so help me God, you assholes, we’ll drown the first fucking Dummkopf who lights a cigarette before he’s half a kilometer away from it!”

Who would be that stupid? Willi wondered. But the question answered itself. A Dummkopf would, that was who. Like every other outfit in the world, the Wehrmacht had its share and then some. A jerk who decided he needed a smoke right now would damn well light up, and so what if he gave the game away to some watching Frenchman?

Willi’s feet thudded on planks. He reached out and found the rope. It guided him across the Semoy. The bridge swayed under his weight and that of his comrades, almost as if he were on the deck of a boat.

“You heard the man,” Corporal Baatz said loudly. “No smoking!”

The engineer spoke in a deadly whisper: “Whoever you are, big-mouth, shut the fuck up!”

Snickers ran through Baatz’s squad. One of them was Willi’s. He was only an ordinary Landser; he didn’t have the rank to tell Awful Arno where to head in. The engineer sure did-or acted as if he did, which was every bit as good. Baatz didn’t let out another peep, even to protest.

Somebody up ahead said, “Careful. You’re coming to the end of the bridge.” Maybe fifteen seconds later, he said it again, and then again, to let the troops gauge where he was. Willi almost tripped anyhow, when the planking gave way to mud.

“Second platoon, form up on me!” That was Lieutenant Georg Gross, who’d taken Neustadt’s place after the former platoon commander bought his plot. Gross seemed like a pretty good guy, even if he didn’t ride herd on Arno Baatz hard enough to suit Willi. To an officer, Baatz probably looked like a pretty good noncom. That only showed officers weren’t as smart as they thought they were.

Somebody stepped on Willi’s foot. “Ouch!” he said-quietly. “Watch it,” he added.

“Sorry,” the other soldier said, and then, “Willi?”

“Wolfgang?” Willi chuckled. “Well, that’s one way to find each other in the dark.”

“Listen to me, men,” Lieutenant Gross said. “Listen to me, dammit! The objective is Charleville-Mezieres, southwest of here.” The way he pronounced the town’s name said he spoke French, as Neustadt had before him. Much good it had done the other platoon leader. Gross went on, “We’ve got about ten kilometers of marching to do before we get there, maybe twelve. We’ll go through the Bois des Hazelles-the Hazelwood-for part of the way. It should give us some cover.”

“Depends,” Wolfgang Storch muttered. “How many goddamn Frenchies are in it now?”

“Questions?” Gross asked. Nobody said anything loud enough for him to hear it. Wolfgang’s question was a good one, but the lieutenant wouldn’t be able to answer it. They’d have to find out: the hard way, odds were.

Southwest…Willi looked up into the sky, but clouds covered it and told him nothing. He hoped it didn’t start to snow while they were marching. That would be all they needed, wouldn’t it?

Willi might not know southwest from artichokes, but a soft click and a slight rasp said Lieutenant Gross was opening his pocket compass. “This way,” he said confidently. “Follow me.”

Like the fellow at the end of the pontoon bridge, he spoke up every so often to let his men know where he was. Willi tramped along, trying not to think. He wished he were back in Breslau and home in bed, or even wrapped in a blanket in some shell hole. It was cold, and getting colder. Marching warmed, but only so much.

Some people did light up once they got far enough away from the bridge. The smell of harsh French tobacco filled the frosty air. Almost everybody smoked looted Gauloises or Gitanes in preference to the Junos and Privats and other German brands that came up along with the rations. The cigarettes the Wehrmacht got were supposed to be better than what civilians smoked back home. That only went to show better wasn’t the same as good.

Ten or twelve kilometers. A couple of easy hours in the daylight. In black night, feeling his way along, stumbling or falling every so often, getting thwacked by branches that he couldn’t see in the Hazelwood, Willi didn’t have much fun. He also didn’t go very fast. Neither did anyone else.

And there were Frenchmen in the Bois des Hazelles. Willi and his pals had to be coming to the end of it-the sky was starting to go from black to charcoal gray in the southeast-when someone called out, “Qui va?”

“Un ami,” Lieutenant Gross said. Ami meant friend; Willi had picked that up from surrendering Frenchmen. Now-would it do the trick?

It didn’t. The poilu gave forth with a fresh challenge, one Willi didn’t get. Maybe he wanted a password. Whatever he wanted, Gross didn’t have it. The shooting started a moment later.

The froggies, damn them, had a machine gun right there. It spat fire in the darkness. Tracers stabbed out at the oncoming Germans. They were scary as hell. Willi flopped down on his belly and crawled forward like a slug. He didn’t want to get a centimeter higher off the ground than he had to.

As he crawled, he realized that those tracers weren’t doing the guys at the Hotchkiss gun any favors. Every time the machine gunners opened up, they guided their enemies toward them. And it wasn’t really light enough for them to see what they were aiming at. So…

Willi yanked the fuse cord on a potato-masher grenade. He flung it toward the machine gunners, who had no idea he was there. But the grenade hit a branch or something, because it didn’t burst where he wanted it to. The Frenchmen serving the gun yelled, but they didn’t scream. He froze. If they spotted him, he was sausage meat-and it was getting lighter.

Something off to one side distracted them. They turned the Hotchkiss in that direction and started banging away. They nailed somebody, too. That shriek sounded bad. But, while they were busy over there, Willi slithered behind a-hazel?-tree.

He pulled another grenade off his belt. He threw this one sidearm: not the way they taught you in basic, but he wanted to keep it low so it didn’t bounce off anything. Then he flattened out again. If this one didn’t do the job, though, he had the bad feeling flattening out wouldn’t be enough to save his young ass.

Bang! He got screams this time. Then it was forward, as fast as he could scramble. He had no idea how badly hurt the Frenchmen were. He had to finish them before they or their buddies got that machine gun going again.

They were down. They were thrashing, not worried about the Hotchkiss at all. He shot them to make sure they didn’t worry about anything else again. He was putting a fresh clip on his Mauser when a shape loomed up out of the morning twilight. He started to give it the bayonet, but checked himself when he recognized the familiar shape of a Stahlhelm.

With a dry chuckle, Corporal Baatz said, “I would’ve plugged you before you could drive that home.”

“Let’s go after the Frenchmen,” Willi answered, and left it right there. He didn’t think Baatz could have got him if he’d followed through, and he was half sorry he hadn’t. Maybe more than half sorry.

More machine guns-and poilus with rifles, grenades, mortars, and all the other usual nastiness-crowded the Hazelwood. Methodically, the Germans cleaned them out and pressed on toward Charleville-Mezieres. Panzers drew tracks across the snow on the flat, open country south and east of the woods. Pillars of smoke rising to the cloudy sky marked the pyres of a couple that would go no farther. But the runners were the ones that mattered. The French tried to make a stand in front of the town. Cannon and machine-gun fire from the German army sent them tumbling back in retreat.

Willi looked around. There was Wolfgang. His bayonet had blood on it-not Arno Baatz’s, but somebody’s, all right. “Where’s the lieutenant?” Willi asked him.

“Down. I bet he loses his arm,” Wolfgang answered. “The fucking Hotchkiss got him just before somebody did for it.”

“That was me,” Willi said.

“Yeah? Well, it needed doing.” Storch paused to light up. Then he said, “Sergeant Pieck caught one right through the foot, too. That means Awful Arno’s got a section-maybe the platoon, till they give us a new officer.”

“Jesus Christ! I knew I should have stuck him!” Willi explained how he’d almost bayoneted Baatz by the French machine gun. His buddy was good for even more reasons why he should have than he’d thought of for himself. Willi pulled a pack of Gauloises out of his pocket, but the familiar winged helmet shielded no more cigarettes. “Let me bum a butt off you.”

“What a useless creature you are! First you didn’t scrag the corporal, and now you steal my smokes.” Wolfgang gave him his own pack. Willi did have a match. He got the cigarette going. The two Landsers tramped on.

* * *

The Poles had a good medium bomber. The PZL P-37 could carry more than twice the bomb load of a Tupolev SB-2. Fortunately for the Red Army and Air Force, the Poles didn’t have a hell of a lot of them. Whenever the enemy found a chance, he did his best to strike at the airstrips the Red Air Force used.

Sergei Yaroslavsky took those raids for granted. The Poles made them at high altitude, and they got out of Soviet airspace in a hurry. An occasional bomb gave the groundcrew some work to do repairing a runway. More often than not, the bombs missed by hundreds of meters or even by kilometers. Nothing to get excited about.

Then things changed. Sergei was barely awake when antiaircraft guns around the airstrip started banging away at sunrise. He tumbled out of his cot, wondering if the gunners had the galloping jimjams.

They didn’t. Bombs crashed down on the runways and on the bombers near them. Not all the bombers were in revetments, the way they should have been. It hadn’t seemed worth the trouble.

“Those aren’t Elks!” somebody yelled-that was the P-37’s nickname. “Those are motherfucking Stukas!”

“Bozhemoi!” Yaroslavsky shouted. A bombardier said something electric about the way the Devil’s grandmother had buggered up the antiaircraft guns. Satan and his relatives might be as out of fashion as God, but people hadn’t forgotten about them, either.

Sergei threw himself flat in the snow. That was all he could do now. One after another, the Fascist dive-bombers stooped on the airstrip like falcons after pigeons.

Pigeons could at least try to get away. To mix the metaphor, the bombers on the ground were sitting ducks. And, while the pilots of those Ju-87s might be goddamn Nazi bastards, they were also more than competent professionals. One after another, they released their bombs, fired a burst from their forward machine guns, pulled out of their dives, and zoomed off to the northwest. They might almost have performed an aerial ballet.

The Germans had a word for that kind of ballet (they would): a Totentanz, a dance of death. Here, they were dishing it out. The Soviets had no choice but to take it.

Machine-gun bullets thudded into the snowbank, much too close to Sergei. Little white powdery puffs shot up into the air at the impacts. If a round hit him, a little red fountain might join the white. He burrowed into the drift. Burrowing wouldn’t do him a kopek’s worth of good, but he did it anyway. Fear and instinct drove harder than reason.

Not all the explosions came from German bombs. The SB-2s had been gassed up and bombed up. Before long, they would have taken off and punished the semifascist Poles. Well, behind the semifascist Poles loomed the Fascist Germans. And, no matter how virtuous the Soviets might be, they were getting hammered this morning.

Ever so cautiously, Sergei stuck up his head. The Stukas were gone, which didn’t make the airstrip a safe place. An SB-2 a couple of hundred meters away was burning like the inside of a blast furnace. Ammunition for the plane’s guns cooked off with a cheerful popping noise, spraying bullets every which way. And then one of the bombs-or maybe all of the bombs-blew.

What had been a fire turned into a fireball. Stunned, half deafened, Sergei burrowed into the snow again. Something large and hot smashed down well behind him-the explosion had thrown it a long, long way. He could tell it was hot because even his afflicted ears made out the hiss of steam coming off it as the snow put it out.

Another Tupolev bomber blew up, not quite so spectacularly-or maybe it was just farther away. Several more were on fire. One hadn’t burned, but was broken in half behind the bomb bay. Intact SB-2s were the exception, not the rule. Whatever punishment the Poles were going to get would have to come from some other airstrip today.

Sergei made himself stand up. He looked around to see what he could do that might help. Other dazed survivors were also emerging from the snow like hares coming out of their burrows. Steaming patches here and there marked big chunks of wreckage.

And bloody patches here and there marked dead and wounded men. What looked like a chunk of aileron had decapitated the best mechanic at the airstrip. Sergei swore, but nobody could do anything for that poor son of a bitch now. The fellows who thrashed and writhed still had hope. Some of them did, anyhow.

Stooping beside a groundcrew man who groaned as he clutched a shattered ankle, Sergei wondered what kind of hope the man had. If he didn’t bleed to death or die of gangrene or septicemia, he’d survive. The bomber pilot was no doctor, but he didn’t see how the groundcrew man would keep that foot. What kind of life did a cripple have?

You should have wondered about that sooner, he thought. But pilots seldom got crippled. If anything went wrong in the air, or if your plane got shot down, you were likely to buy the whole plot, not part of one. Nobody in the USSR bought or sold or owned land, but Soviet flyers talked the same way as their Western counterparts.

After doing what he could to bandage the groundcrew man and telling a few reassuring lies, Sergei looked northwest once more: after the long-gone Stukas. In Czechoslovakia, he’d seen the Germans were good. Now he saw how good they could be with the advantage of surprise. How smart were we to get into a war with people like this? he wondered.

Chapter Thirteen

Samuel Goldman passed several sheets of closely written paper to the visitor. “Here you are, Friedrich,” he said, his tone an odd mixture of cringing and pride. “Everything that can be known about Xenophanes is here.”

Sarah Goldman listened from the kitchen as her father and the other professor of ancient history talked. Friedrich Lauterbach had studied under her father. He still felt kindly toward him-this article for Pauly-Wissowa was a case in point. When it saw print, it would go under Lauterbach’s name: he, after all, was an Aryan. But he paid Samuel Goldman for the work, and the family badly needed the money.

Now he said, “Thank you very much. I will type it myself tonight, so no secretary finds out about our…arrangement.”

“Whatever you need to be safe,” Sarah’s father said. “Take a look at it now, if you care to. I have been very thorough.” He was proud of that, too. Yes, he really might as well have been a German-except the damned Germans wouldn’t let him.

“I’m sure it’s fine, Samuel. Who knows your work better than I do, after all?” Lauterbach paused for a moment. “Here-let me give you this.” As he always did, he sounded embarrassed about having to do business this way.

Another pause followed, a longer one. Sarah had to strain to hear her father’s next words, for his voice dropped almost to a whisper: “But this is too much. This is much too much, twice as much as I could have expected for-”

“I’m giving you what I can,” Lauterbach said. “There won’t be any more, I’m afraid, not from me. I got my call-up papers yesterday. That’s why I have to do my typing in a hurry.”

“Oh,” Samuel Goldman said, and then, “Stay safe. I would be with you if I could.”

“You did what you had to do the last time around,” the younger man said. “I know that-you could hardly walk when I studied with you.”

“That isn’t what’s keeping me out now,” Sarah’s father said pointedly.

“And I know that,” Lauterbach answered. “I think it’s…unfortunate. But what can I do about it? I am only one man, and not a very brave one.”

“As long as you don’t tell the Tommies and the poilus, they won’t know,” Sarah’s father said with a wry chuckle. “If I could fool them, so can you. You’ll do fine. I’m sure of it.”

“That makes one of us,” Lauterbach said with a dry laugh of his own. “I’d better go, I’m afraid.”

“True,” Sarah’s father agreed. “If they can prove you’re friends with a Jew, that may be more dangerous than going up to the front.”

“If things were different…” Lauterbach sighed. “But they aren’t, and they aren’t likely to be. Still, you’ve got a pretty daughter.” Three or four footsteps took him to the door. It closed behind him.

He was, Sarah remembered, single. Did he mean…? She shrugged. What he meant didn’t matter, because things weren’t different, and they sure weren’t likely to be. He was dead right about that.

She went out into the front room. Her father stood there, holding the banknotes with the eagles and swastikas. Even the money proclaimed that things weren’t going to be different. Samuel Goldman looked up. “You were listening?” he asked.

“Ja.” Sarah nodded. “Wasn’t I supposed to?”

“It’s all right.” He grimaced. “I don’t know what we’ll do for cash when this runs out, though.”

“Isn’t there anyone else who will let you write for him?” Sarah asked.

“Maybe.” Her father looked-and sounded-dubious. “The others have always been more nervous about it than Friedrich…and who can blame them?” His mouth twisted. “They never paid as well, either. But we do what we can, not what we want to, eh?”

“Ja,” Sarah said again. What else was there to say? She did her best to find something: “Saul brings in a little money.”

“As a laborer.” It wasn’t quite as if her father said, As a pimp, but it was close. He went on, “He has a brain. He should use it. He should have the chance to use it. Or he should be a soldier. He’d make a better one than Friedrich Lauterbach, and you can bet on that.”

“He doesn’t mind so much. Honest, Papa, he doesn’t.” Sarah knew she was right about that. Her big brother had always exulted in his strength on the soccer pitch. Working with his body instead of his brain didn’t humiliate him the way it would have their father.

“Why God decided to give me a water buffalo for a son, only He knows,” Samuel Goldman said, and let it go at that.

The other worry was that, even though the Goldmans had money, they couldn’t buy much. Nobody in wartime Germany could buy a great deal, but Jews suffered worse than ordinary Germans. They could buy only from shops run by their fellow Jews, and those shops always had less to sell than others. Food got worse and worse. Sarah’s mother was a good cook, but disguise could go only so far.

Noodles flavored with nasty cheese didn’t make much of a supper. Sarah picked at hers. So did her father. Saul shoveled in everything in front of him and looked around to see what else he could get.

“You can have mine if you want,” Sarah said. “I’m not really hungry.” The last part of that wasn’t true, but she didn’t feel like eating the mess in front of her.

“Thanks!” Saul said. As Sarah passed him her plate, her mother gave her a dirty look. Hanna Goldman wanted everybody to eat a lot all the time. Maybe the noodles and cheese could have been worse, but they could have been a lot better, too. As far as Sarah was concerned, Saul was welcome to them if he wanted them so much.

And he did. By the way he glanced up after he made them disappear, he could have put away another couple of helpings. But there were no more. He sighed and said, “The coffee will be ersatz, won’t it?”

“Aber naturlich,” Mother answered. “Burnt barley, with a little chicory if we’re lucky.”

“Some luck,” Father said.

“Oh, well.” Saul shrugged his broad shoulders. “The Army isn’t getting much better?”

“How do you know that?” Samuel Goldman always looked for evidence. In better times, Sarah had admired that. Now she wondered whether it made any difference at all. Evidence? What did the Nazis care about that? But they had the guns and the goons. With those, they made evidence of their own.

What could you do if you’d lived by reason your whole life long but reason suddenly didn’t count any more? Could you do anything at all, or were you just supposed to lie down and die?

That was what the Nazis wanted German Jews to do. That the Nazis wanted it was the best reason not to do it, as far as Sarah was concerned. She wished her family had got out of Germany while escape was still possible. But her father clung too fiercely to his Germanness to see the need. He could see it now. Easy enough, when it was too late.

Instead of explaining how he knew, Saul said, “Maybe the British will send planes over tonight.”

“How can you sound so cheerful about it?” Sarah asked him. “They’re liable to blow us up.” With Jews having to shelter in their homes, enemy bombers were more likely to blow them up than anybody else.

Her brother only shrugged again. “They haven’t yet. And the more Nazis they send to the Devil, the better I’ll like it. If I had a gun…”

“Saul,” Samuel Goldman said sharply. “That will be enough of that.”

“Should I turn the other cheek?” Saul retorted. “I don’t see what for. I’m no Christian. They keep reminding me of that, in case I’m not smart enough to figure it out for myself.”

“They’re no Christians, either,” Father said. “Pagans. Barbarians.” He looked disgusted. “And they’re proud of it, too.” A Roman noble talking about wandering Ostrogoths could have packed no more scorn into his voice.

He would have silenced Sarah. Saul still felt like locking horns. “What about the German Christians?” he said. “Their preachers wear Nazi uniforms. Even the Catholics have swastikas in their churches. The students at their universities give the Nazi salute.” His right arm shot out.

“They can call themselves whatever they want. The name is not the thing,” Father insisted. “Trying to make you believe it is-that’s only one more lie.”

“Maybe so,” Saul said. “But we both tried to join the Wehrmacht anyway, didn’t we? And if they’d only let us, we’d be braying ‘Heil Hitler!’ like all the other donkeys in the Reich, wouldn’t we?”

Samuel Goldman opened his mouth, then closed it again. At last, he said, “I have no answer for that, because we would. If they’d let us be Germans, Germans we would have been. Since they make us into something else…” He left the table sooner than he might have.

No one else had much to say after that, either.

British bombers didn’t visit Munster. They didn’t drop anything close by, either. Especially in nighttime quiet, the sound of bombs going off carried a long, long way.

Saul went off to work early the next morning. Father looked lost, bewildered. He had nothing to do-nothing that would yield a Reichsmark, anyway. He started to fill his pipe, then thought better of it. The tobacco ration was miserably small. What he got smelled like burning overshoes, too.

Sarah went out shopping with her mother. When she was small, she remembered, she’d really enjoyed that. When she was small, they could walk into any shop in Munster and buy whatever they wanted. Shopkeepers fawned on them, as they fawned on any other customers.

Everything changed after the Nazis took over. Brownshirts stuck big signs-GERMANS! DON’T BUY FROM JEWS!-on the windows of Jewish-owned stores. And Jews were no longer welcome in shops run by Aryans. Some of the German shopkeepers seemed embarrassed about it. They did what they had to do to get along, no more. Others, though…Others gloated. Those were the scary ones.

Only a handful of shops Jews could go into were left now. The war’d just made things worse-not only for Jews, but for everybody. And the British air raids added to the burden of fear. The people across the street-Aryans-never stopped complaining about how their favorite bakery was gone. “Like someone yanked a tooth. It’s not there any more,” Frau Breisach would grumble.

She didn’t know when she was well off. Of course she doesn’t-she’s an Aryan, Sarah thought. The one bakery in Munster that Jews could still use was way over on the far side of town. It wasn’t open very often, and didn’t have much when it was. But when the choice lay between not much and nothing at all…you went over to the far side of town.

They had a little wire basket with wheels. Sarah pulled it along behind her. It felt like nothing now. On the way back, it would be heavier. She hoped it would, anyhow. Sometimes the bakery didn’t open, or it was sold out, or… I won’t think about any of that, Sarah told herself fiercely.

A gang of laborers was repairing a bomb crater in the middle of the street. And there was Saul, as deft with a shovel as Father was with Greek irregular verbs. He turned the Nazi slogan on its head: he drew joy through strength.

The gang overseer was a wizened little man in his forties. The left sleeve of his shirt was pinned-up and empty. Maimed in the war, Sarah thought. Maimed in the last war, she amended. How many would get maimed in this one? Too many-that seemed sure.

Maimed or not, he carried a swagger stick in his right hand. He also had a foul mouth, and didn’t care if women heard him use it. “Work harder, you lazy prick!” he yelled, and lightly swatted a laborer on the behind.

“Ja, ja,” the fellow muttered, and went on working the same way he had before.

That didn’t make the overseer any happier. “And you, too, you fucking kike!” he bellowed. When he hit Saul in the back with the swagger stick, it was no tap. The whack echoed like a gunshot. Sarah thought it would have knocked her over.

It barely staggered her big brother. Saul Goldman responded with what had to be instinct, as he might have on the soccer pitch. He’d been hit. He had a weapon in his hands. He used it. The flat of the shovel blade crashed into the side of the overseer’s head.

The man went down as if he’d stopped an artillery shell. His skull was all caved in and bloody. Sarah and her mother let out identical shrieks of horror-anyone could see that the overseer would never get up again.

Saul stared at the man he’d killed. He stared at his mother and his sister-all that in maybe a second and a half. Then he threw down the gore-spattered shovel. It clattered on the cobbles. He turned and ran as if a million demons were at his heels.

“After him!” one of the other laborers shouted. Chasing a Jew was more fun than fixing a bomb crater any day of the week. The gang pounded after Saul, some of them still brandishing their spades.

Sarah and her mother looked at each other, each mirroring the other’s anguish. As if on cue, they both burst into tears.

* * *

A French Private First Class wore a little brown hash mark on his sleeve to distinguish him from an ordinary private. Luc Harcourt was less than delighted when the indestructible Sergeant Demange told him he’d been promoted. “I’d’ve had more fun getting the clap,” he said.

Demange’s Gitane twitched as he chuckled. “Think of it as congratulations for living this long,” he said.

Luc did. Suddenly, being a private first class looked a lot better. He said so, adding, “After all the shit I’ve gone through to get this, I’ll be a general by the time the war finally ends.”

“France is in trouble, yes. I hope to Christ France isn’t in that much trouble,” Demange said.

“Kiss my ass,” Luc said. The sergeant only laughed. Luc had earned the right to swear at him. He did remember that he had to pick his spots with care.

“Anyway, sew that stupid thing on,” Sergeant Demange told him. “You could be leading a squad at five minutes’ notice. Hell, a couple of lucky German shell bursts and you could be leading a platoon.”

He wasn’t kidding. Luc had seen how fast casualties could chew a unit to pieces. He and Demange were two of not very many men who’d been with the company since before the German blow fell on the Low Countries. The rest were replacements, or replacements of replacements, or sometimes…

Luc didn’t want to command a squad, much less a platoon. All he wanted to do was hunker down tight, live through the war, and get on with his life. Not that anyone from Sergeant Demange on up cared what he wanted, of course.

“See? I told you France was in trouble,” the veteran underofficer said. “And you will be, too, if you don’t get cracking.”

“Right.” Luc knew better than to argue. Somewhere in his pack he had a little housewife with needle and thread. He dug it out and sewed on the hash mark. He would never put a seamstress out of business. He’d sewn up a couple of rips in his uniform. His stitches were large and dark and ugly, like the ones that held together the pieces of the Frankenstein monster in the American film.

French 75s threw shells at the Germans on the other side of the Aisne. Luc’s company was dug in a couple of kilometers west of Soissons. The town had taken a beating in the Franco-Prussian War and again in the Great War. Now it was catching hell one more time. Luc had come through it on the way to this position. Bombs and shells had wrecked the cathedral; bits of thirteenth-century stained glass lay shattered in the streets. A priest stood by the ruins with tears running down his face. Luc had no tears left for people, let alone things.

Machine guns started stuttering up by the river. French or German? Luc wondered, cocking his head to one side to hear better. Both, he thought. That wasn’t so good.

Sergeant Demange must have decided the same thing. “Are those shitheads trying to force a crossing?” he growled. “They’d better not get over, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

“Let’s move!” Luc grabbed his rifle. He liked the idea of Germans on the south bank of the Aisne no better than Demange.

As they hurried up toward the riverbank, they gathered as many other soldiers as they could. Damned if that hash mark on Luc’s sleeve didn’t make ordinary privates follow him without arguing or asking a lot of questions. I could get used to this, he thought.

There was smoke on the river: not the ordinary war smoke of burning houses and vehicles, but a thick chemical haze the Germans used to mask what they were doing on the other side. Out of the smoke came black rubber boats paddled by field-gray soldiers in coal-scuttle helmets. Sure as the devil, the Boches were trying to get over.

French machine guns stammered out death again. A German dropped his paddle and slumped down in his raft. Then another one got hit, and another. The raft slewed sideways. It was probably leaking, too. German machine guns across the Aisne shot back, trying to silence the French fire. They put out more rounds per minute than the ones the French used, but they couldn’t knock them out of action.

Luc flopped down behind some bushes and started shooting at the Germans in their rafts. It wasn’t fair-they couldn’t shoot back. That bothered him till a couple of machine-gun bullets cracked past maybe half a meter above his head. They cured any chivalrous notions he might have had.

Two or three rubber rafts actually made it to the south bank of the Aisne. The unhurt Germans in them jumped up and tried to set up some kind of bridgehead. With all that French firepower concentrated on them, they never had a chance. Inside of a few minutes, they were all dead or wounded.

“Assholes’ll have to do better than that,” Sergeant Demange said, a fresh cigarette in his mouth and a fresh clip on his rifle.

“What else have they got behind that smoke?” Luc asked.

“We’ll know in a few minutes,” Demange answered, sending up smoke signals of his own. “Looks like it’s blowing away.” He and Luc and the rest of the French defenders waited. Then he said one thing more: “Fuck me.”

The Germans had lined up a couple of dozen tanks-Panzer IIs and captured Czech machines-on the north bank of the Aisne. Their cannon all pointed toward the French positions across the river from them. To Luc’s frightened eyes, it seemed as if every single one of those cannon pointed straight at him.

Every single one of them seemed to open up at the same time, too, pouring shells and more machine-gun bullets down on the French defenders. Luc hugged the ground. His rifle was useless against those steel monsters. The machine gunners fired back at the German armor. He watched tracers fly across the Aisne and ricochets harmlessly spark off the tanks’ armored carapaces.

One by one, the French machine guns fell silent. Luc didn’t think the gunners were lying low, waiting to massacre the next wave of German rubber boats. He thought they were dead. Those cannon weren’t all pointing at him after all. They were pointing at the guns that could do the German assault troops the most harm.

That second wave of boats splashed into the river even while the cannonading went on. The Boches hadn’t silenced everything on the south bank: here and there, riflemen and even a machine gun or two opened up on the soldiers who paddled like men possessed.

But now the French didn’t have enough firepower to keep the rubber boats from beaching on the near bank. Luc raised up a little to shoot at the men leaping out of the boats. As soon as he did, a machine gun from one of the tanks on the far bank started banging away at him. He had to flatten out again if he wanted to stay alive.

Some of the German assault troops carried submachine guns with big drum magazines. French doctrine scorned submachine guns. They fired pistol ammunition, and they were worthless out past a couple of hundred meters. Inside that range, though, they were uncommonly murderous. They threw around a hell of a lot of lead. Even if they didn’t get you, they made you stay down so you couldn’t shoot back.

And the damned Boches had brought along real machine guns, too. Hearing that malevolent crackle at such close range made Luc’s asshole pucker. He had to bear down tight on his bladder to keep from wetting himself.

“Back!” Sergeant Demange’s raspy voice penetrated the din. “We’ve got to get out of here, form a line somewhere else!”

“How?” Luc asked, which seemed to him the very best of good questions.

Even through the rattle of the German machine guns, he heard the underofficer laugh. “Carefully, sonny, carefully, unless you aim to get your dick shot off.”

Even thinking of that made Luc want to clutch at himself. He crawled away from the riverbank, doing his best to keep the bushes between himself and the Boches. Only a few random bullets came his way. The Germans didn’t seem to know he was there: news good enough to make an atheist thank God.

He flopped down again behind the crest of a small swell of ground that shielded him from the enemy. Sergeant Demange lay a few meters away, still puffing on a cigarette butt. “What do we do?” Luc said. “How do we throw them back into the river?”

“If we can bring a lot of tanks forward in a hurry, that might turn the trick.” Demange stubbed out the cigarette in the dirt. “But what are the odds, eh?”

Luc mournfully considered them. “Not good,” he said. “The Germans always have plenty of tanks where they need them the most. How come we can’t do the same thing?”

“Because their High Command doesn’t fight with its head up its ass,” Demange answered. He rose up to shoot at somebody heading up-slope toward them. A wild scream said he’d hit what he aimed at, too. Chambering a new round, he went on, “They know it’s the twentieth century, damn them. How come we don’t have any dive-bombers plastering the shit out of them right now?”

Having cowered under more Stukas than he cared to remember, Luc said, “I don’t know, and I wish I did. How come we don’t?”

“If we were fighting the Kaiser’s army, we’d wallop the snot out of it,” Demange replied. “It’s the curse of winning-you get ready to do the same damn thing over again. The Germans lost, so they figured they’d better try something new. Now we’re on the receiving end.”

“Lucky us,” Luc said in hollow tones. Ever so cautiously, he too peered back the way he’d come. The lines on that dark helmet moving through dead grass were unmistakable. He fired. The Boche scrambled for cover. Luc fired again. The German went down with a howl. He wasn’t dead, but he wasn’t dangerous any more, either. That would do.

“Good job,” Demange said. “But we won’t stop them all by ourselves. I wonder if anybody will, this side of Paris.”

* * *

Peking in summer was hot and dusty. During the winter, it was colder than a witch’s tit. How cold was that? Marines who’d been in Chicago said it was that cold. Pete McGill could compare it to his native New York City. He’d known some cold weather there, but Peking bottomed out worse.

And Peking would have felt cold even if it were in the nineties. As long as the Marines stayed close to the American legation, they were okay. But if they strayed very far into the city, Japanese soldiers were much too likely to whale the crap out of them.

Like any other Marine, McGill was convinced he was a better fighting man than some little, scrawny, buck-toothed, bowlegged Jap. He was convinced he could take two or three Japs, come to that. But when the odds got steeper still, even John Henry the Steel-Driving Man would have found himself in deep water.

The odds did get steeper, too. Peking was crawling with Japs these days. Some of them kept order in the city. The Japanese way to keep order was to shoot first and not ask questions later. Since Nationalist and Communist guerrillas and freelance bandits all afflicted Peking and the surrounding area, that Wild Wild East style had its points.

But even more Japanese soldiers were getting leave in Peking and then climbing onto trains and heading out of town. Pete would have liked it if the bastards never came back, but that was bound to be too much to hope for. They weren’t going back to Japan-at least, they weren’t heading southeast toward Tangku or Tsingtao, the ports from which they sailed for home.

No, most of them were going northeast on some of the new lines their people had built: up into Manchukuo. That made McGill gloat. “I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said one day in the NCOs’ club, “but the sorry sons of bitches are heading somewhere colder’n this.”

“Serves ‘em right, sure as hell,” another corporal agreed.

Pete emptied his glass. “Hey, Danny!” he called. “Bring me another beer, chop-chop!”

“Right, boss,” the Chinese bartender said. The beer came from Tsingtao. It was pretty damn good. The Germans had run the place before the Great War, and they’d built a brewery there. Hitler was a bastard, yeah, but the squareheads knew what was what with beer. The brewery was under new management these days, of course, but some of the old magic remained.

When the beer came, Pete tipped Danny a nickel. To a Chinaman, a nickel was a big deal. Danny bowed almost double. He folded one palm over the other fist, which was what the Chinese did instead of saluting.

A sergeant named Larry Koenig came and sat down with Pete. He ordered a beer, too. Danny brought it over to him. Koenig lit a cigarette and offered Pete the pack-he was a good guy. “Thanks,” McGill said. He took one and leaned close for a light.

Raising his mug, Koenig said, “Mud in your eye.”

“Same to you.” Pete answered the salute with one of his own. They both drank. After sucking foam off his upper lip, Pete lifted his mug again and said, “Here’s to all the Japs getting the hell out of Peking.”

“Hey, I’ll drink to that, but you’ll be bluer’n your dress uniform if you hold your breath and wait for it to happen,” Koenig said.

“Yeah, I know. It’d be nice, though, wouldn’t it?” Pete said. “They sure are moving a lot of guys through here-moving a lot of guys out of here.”

“They’ll keep Peking garrisoned, though, you bet. Hell, I would in their shoes.” Koenig looked at his mug in mild surprise, as if wondering how it had emptied without his noticing. He waved to Danny for a refill. As he waited, he went on, “They hang on here, what are the Chinese gonna do about it? Not much, not so I can see.”

“Yeah, man, yeah. Looks the same way to me,” Pete said. With Peking in their hands, the Japanese could spill south and west all over the place. They’d done that for a while after overrunning the place. Now the flow was going in the other direction. “What do they need so many troops up in Manchukuo for?”

“Beats me.” Koenig paused while Danny set the beer on the table in front of him. A lot of Marines didn’t like to talk with Chinamen hovering around them. Pete didn’t know whether Danny was a spy or not. He didn’t much care, either. He didn’t know enough himself to make what he said worth anything to anybody. But if the sergeant wanted to be tight-assed about it, he could. After Danny hustled back behind the bar to build somebody a highball, Koenig resumed: “Gotta be the Russians. I’ve figured it every different way I could, and that’s what it comes out to every goddamn time.”

“You really think so?” Pete said. “That’d be one hell of a scrap.”

“Damn Russians have shit closer to home than Siberia to worry about,” Koenig said. “If it was me, I wouldn’t have started fucking with the Polacks when they knew that was liable to bring Hitler down on their necks.”

“Yeah, old Adolf’s bad news, all right,” Pete agreed. “Me, I wonder how much the Russians really do know these days. They’ve been killing off generals like it’s going out of style.”

“Maybe we ought to try that. I don’t know about the Corps, but it’d sure as hell work wonders for the Army and the Navy,” Koenig said.

Pete snorted. Then he giggled. Then he guffawed. He wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but he was damn sure it was funny. “I can see the FBI guys coming up to their desks. ‘You-come with us!’ And out they’d go, and- bang!”

“Plenty of ‘em nobody’d miss,” Koenig said.

“Ain’t it the truth!” Pete nodded. “And you know what else? I bet there hasn’t been an army since Julius Caesar’s day where the noncoms didn’t think it’d go better if some officers got it in the neck.”

“Most of the time we’d be right, too.” Like any sergeant worth his salt, Koenig was sure he knew better than the guys set over him. Since Pete McGill felt the same way, he didn’t argue. Koenig waved for a fresh beer before continuing, “So if the Japs and the Reds bang heads, which way do you bet? My money’s on the white men.”

“Yeah, everybody said the same thing about the time you were born, too, and look how that turned out,” McGill said. Anybody who came to Peking got his nose rubbed in that lesson. You couldn’t come here without paying attention to what had happened in the Russo-Japanese War.

Sergeant Koenig turned red. He waited till Danny gave him his new seidel, then said, “You think the little yellow bastards can take ‘em?” He paid no more attention to the barman than Pete would have.

“I dunno. They’ve sure got more combat experience than the Russians do. Hell, they’ve got more combat experience than just about anybody,” McGill answered. “And it’s way past the back of beyond for the Russians, and they’re fighting somewhere else, and their army’s fucked up. So yeah, I guess maybe I figure the Japs’ll win.”

“I got a sawbuck says you’re full of it,” Koenig declared.

As far as Pete was concerned, the problems with the Marine Corps started with sergeants, not officers. That attitude would probably change the day he got his own third stripe, but he had it now. Taking a sergeant down a peg would be a pleasure-and so would winning ten bucks. “You’re on,” he said.

Koenig stuck out his hand. Pete took it. The clasp turned into a trial of strength that ended up a push. They both opened and closed their hands several times after they let go.

Pete started to laugh. “What’s so funny?” Sergeant Koenig asked.

“We just made a bet on who’s gonna win a war that hasn’t started yet,” McGill answered. “How dumb will we look if it turns out the Japs’re up to something else instead?”

“Dumb enough, I guess,” Koenig said. “What? You never looked dumb before?”

“Not the past ten minutes, anyway,” Pete said, which drew a laugh from the other noncom. He went on, “I tell you, I wish the Japs would get the hell out of Peking and stay out. Town was a lot more fun when the Chinamen were still hanging on to it.”

“You got that right.” Koenig nodded in what might have been approval. “See? You ain’t as dumb as you look.”

“Heh! I’m not as dumb as you look, either,” Pete retorted. They were off duty. He could sass a sergeant if he felt like it. And he did-it wasn’t a pleasure he got often enough.

“Wise guy,” Koenig said, and then something in Chinese that sounded like a cat with its tail caught under a rocking chair. Behind the bar, Danny jumped a foot.

“Wow! What’s that mean?” Pete asked, impressed in spite of himself.

“Can’t tell you,” Koenig answered. “If I said it in English, you’d have to try and murder me.”

“Give it to me again,” Pete urged. “Sounds like it’s worth knowing.”

Koenig repeated it. Pete tried to echo him. He got the tones wrong the first couple of times. He could hear that, but he had trouble fixing it. Danny held his head in his hands. Pete finally said it the right way, which made the bartender even more unhappy.

“What’s it mean, Danny?” Pete called. Danny wouldn’t tell him, either. That made him like his new toy even better.

Chapter Fourteen

When Alistair Walsh saw a road sign saying how many kilometers it was to Paris, he knew things weren’t in good shape. The whole point to the war was keeping the Nazis away from Paris, the same as it had been with the Kaiser’s army the last time around.

They’d done it the last time-done it twice, in fact, in 1914 and then again in 1918. He wasn’t so sure they could now. The BEF stumbled back and stumbled back. People were starting to talk about the Miracle on the Marne in 1914. Well, they were getting too damn close to the Marne again, and they sure could use another miracle.

He yawned. What he could use was sleep. One of the things nobody talked about was how wearing modern war was. You were fighting or you were marching or they were shelling you or bombing you or you were trying to promote something to eat. What you weren’t doing was resting.

He wasn’t the only one frazzled almost to death. Even though February remained chilly, exhausted soldiers curled up like animals by the side of the road. Some slept in greatcoats, some wrapped in blankets, some as they were regardless of the cold. You had to look closely to see their chests rising and falling to make sure they weren’t corpses.

Exhausted civilians also slept by the roadside, singly and in family groups. They hadn’t done any shooting; other than that, they had as much right to be weary as the soldiers. One poor woman must have been a restless sleeper. She’d kicked off her blanket and thrashed around so her legs and backside were out in the biting breeze. Walsh got an eyeful as he trudged along.

One of the Tommies with him chuckled. “What we’re fighting for, right?” the fellow said.

“I’ve seen plenty worse,” Walsh allowed. “If I lay down beside her, though, I bet I’d cork off before I could try getting her knickers down.”

“Blimey! Me, too.” The other soldier’s face split in an enormous yawn. “Don’t know how I put one foot in front of the other any more.”

Behind them, German artillery thundered to life. Walsh jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “That’s how.”

“Too right it is. Got a fag on you, Sarge?”

Walsh listened for screams in the air that would warn of incoming shells aimed their way. Hearing none, he reached into a tunic pocket and pulled out a packet of Gitanes. “Here. Got these off a dead Frenchman. Nasty things, but better than nothing.”

“I’d smoke whatever you’ve got and thank you for it. I’m plumb out, and I’m all-” The Tommy held out his arm in front of him and made his hand tremble.

“Know what you mean. I’ve run dry myself a couple of times.” Walsh proffered the French cigarettes. “Take two or three, then.”

“I’d be much obliged, if you don’t mind.” The soldier stuck one in his mouth and stashed the other two in a breast pocket of his grimy battledress. He struck a match and inhaled. “Cor!” he said in tones of deep respect. “Like smoking a bleeding blowtorch, ain’t it?”

Walsh had also lit a Gitane. After blowing out smoke, he coughed like a man in the last stages of consumption. “What’s that you say?” he inquired.

The other soldier laughed. He took a second, more cautious, drag. “Damn froggies like ‘em this way, don’t they?”

“I expect so. They’d make ‘em different if they didn’t,” Walsh said.

“Fuck.” The Tommy shook his head. “We ought to be on Adolf’s side.”

“Bugger that, mate,” Walsh said. “Germans shot me once, and it’s not for lack of trying they haven’t done it again. Yeah, the French are a bad lot, but those bastards in field-gray are worse.”

“Take an even strain, Sergeant. I was only joking, like.” But then the soldier added, “They make damn good soldiers, though.”

“They make damn good dead soldiers,” Walsh said. He also had a healthy regard for German military talent. He’d never met an English soldier who’d fought the squareheads who didn’t. To him, that only made Germans more dangerous. It didn’t mean he wanted to switch sides. He pointed to the town ahead. “Is that Senlis?” He probably butchered the pronunciation, but he didn’t care.

“I think so.” The soldier to whom he’d given a smoke also seemed glad to change the subject.

At its core, Senlis had what looked like really ancient walls with towers. The spires of a cathedral poked up from inside them. Walsh remembered that the Germans had burned the town and shot the mayor and several leading citizens in 1914. The damage had been made good in the quarter-century since. All the same, he didn’t want to fight alongside people who did things like that.

He also wasn’t eager to fight against them. Willing, yes, but not eager. They were too bloody good at what they did.

In front of those old, old walls-would they go back to Roman days?-an English captain with half a company’s worth of men was nabbing stragglers. “You and you!” he called to Walsh and the Tommy to whom he’d given some Gitanes. “You think we can hold this town, eh?”

The other soldier didn’t say anything. It wasn’t quite what the Articles of War called mute insolence, but it wasn’t far removed, either. Sergeant Walsh said, “We can try, sir.” He didn’t agree with the officer, but he did admit the possibility.

That was plenty. “Fall in with me, then, the both of you,” the captain said. “If the Hun tries to take this place, we’ll give him what he deserves and send him off with his tail between his legs, what?”

How many years had it been since Walsh heard anybody call Germans Huns? More than he could remember. The captain was about his age, so he’d probably done time here in the last war.

Most of the civilians had cleared out of Senlis, which meant they were causing traffic headaches somewhere south and west of here. Soldiers could pick and choose the empty houses they tried to defend. Walsh went through his, but didn’t find anything worth eating or drinking. Too bad, he thought.

He had three privates with him. They were all Yorkshire farm boys, and spoke with an accent he had to work to follow. His might have sounded just as strange to them, but that was their lookout. They understood him well enough to keep watch at all the windows-and to give him a tin of M amp; V. He felt better after wolfing down the meat-and-vegetable stew.

Senlis got a couple of hours’ respite before the Germans turned their attention to it. Then artillery walked up to the town. Walsh crouched down with the three privates: they were Jim and Jock and, improbably, Alonzo. The house they’d taken over was made of stone. It would stop fragments unless it was unlucky enough to take a direct hit.

“Where’s our guns?” Alonzo complained. Goons, it came out when he said it. However it came out, it was a damn good question. The Germans always seemed to put their guns where they needed them. The Allies…sometimes did.

Stukas screamed down out of the sky, one after another. Crouching huddled under the kitchen table, Walsh cursed the vulture-winged monsters and their sirens. He also cursed the RAF, both for not shooting them down and for not having anything like them.

Several windows in the French house were already broken. The ones that weren’t blew in now, leaving small snowdrifts of glass spears on the floor. Walsh swore some more, resignedly. Sure as hell, he’d end up cutting his hand or his leg on them.

Somebody was yelling for a medic. Somebody else was screaming for his mother. One of the Yorkshire lads crossed himself. Alistair Walsh was no Catholic, but he understood the gesture. Nobody but a desperately hurt man made noises like that.

Before long, the screaming stopped. Walsh hoped the wounded man got morphine. More likely, the poor bugger passed out or just died. “Up, lads,” the sergeant told the privates. “I expect we’ll have company before long.”

“Won’t get no clotted cream from me,” Jock said, chambering a round in his Enfield with a snick! of the bolt.

Sure enough, here came the Germans. They moved up in little stuttering runs from one bit of cover to the next. Some of them had leaves and branches fixed to their helmets with bands cut from old inner tubes. No, no one could say they weren’t skilled at their murderous trade.

A Bren gun opened up a couple of houses away from Walsh’s. He liked the British army’s new light machine gun a lot. It really was light-you could pick it up and shoot from the hip if you had to. And it was air-cooled: no need to worry about pouring water (or, that failing, piss) into the metal cooling jacket around the barrel. Best of all, it worked reliably. What more could you want?

It made the Germans hit the deck. They started shooting at the house where it lurked. When they did, the muzzle flashes from their Mausers gave the British infantrymen good targets. Walsh fired and reloaded, then ducked down and crawled to another window to fire again.

Something bit him through the knee of his battledress. “Bloody glass,” he muttered.

The Bren gun barked again. German medics in Red Cross smocks ran up to recover casualties. Walsh didn’t shoot at them. Fair was fair. The Germans mostly didn’t shoot at British medics.

A lull followed. The Germans seemed surprised anyone was fighting hard to save Senlis. Since Walsh had been surprised when the captain made a fight for the place, how could he blame them?

“What happens now, Sergeant?” Alonzo asked.

“They could shell us some more. They could call in the Stukas again, or the tanks,” Walsh said. None of the three Yorkshiremen seemed to want to hear that. Walsh went on, “Or they could decide we’re a tough nut and try to go around us instead of pushing through.”

“That’d be good,” Alonzo said. Jack and Jock both nodded. After a moment, so did Alistair Walsh.

* * *

After Sarah Goldman’s Father tied his necktie every morning, he pinned his Iron Cross Second Class onto the breast pocket of his jacket. Samuel Goldman wanted to remind the Nazi thugs and Gestapo goons who came to scream at him that he’d done his duty for the Faterland in the last war and would have done it again this time if only they’d let him.

Maybe the Eisenkreuz did some good. The Goldmans remained in their home. The Nazis hadn’t hauled the rest of them off to Dachau or Buchenwald even if Saul had killed a member of the Master Race.

The Nazis hadn’t caught Sarah’s big brother, either. Saul had fled the labor gang…and, after that, he might have fallen off the face of the earth. Sarah had no idea what he’d done. Whatever it was, she admired it tremendously. The policemen with the swastika armbands also had no idea what he’d done. It drove them crazy.

“No, sir,” Samuel Goldman told a foul-mouthed Gestapo officer. “He has not telephoned us. You would know if he had, nicht wahr? You must be tapping our telephone line.”

“You bet your scrawny ass we are, Jew,” the secret policeman said. “But he could be talking to some other lousy kike who’s passing you coded messages.”

“It is not so, sir.” Sarah’s father kept his temper better than she dreamt of being able to do. Maybe he had a deeper understanding of what was at stake in this game. Or maybe he was just blessed with a disposition more even than hers.

“Ought to take you all out and give you a noodle,” the officer growled.

“I beg your pardon?” Somehow, Samuel Goldman still managed to keep the dignity a professor of ancient history and classics should have.

The Gestapo officer jumped up and walked around behind him. He put the tip of his outthrust index finger against the back of Samuel Goldman’s neck. “Bang!” he said, and then, “A noodle.”

“I see,” Sarah’s father replied, as coolly as if the man had explained how a new phonograph operated.

“Think you’ve got nerve, do you?” the Gestapo man growled. “You know what happens to assholes with nerve? They scream as loud as anybody else once we get to work on ‘em. Maybe louder, on account of we don’t fuckin’ like tough guys.”

Sarah and her mother listened from the kitchen, doing their best to keep quiet so they didn’t remind the goon they were there. Her mother’s face went pale as skimmed milk. Sarah’s own face was probably the same color, but she couldn’t see herself.

Out in the front room, her father stayed calm. “Nerve? Not a bit of it,” he answered. “It’s slang we didn’t use in the trenches, that’s all. You’ll know that’s true-you’re the right age.”

“Ja, ja,” the officer said impatiently. “You were in France. I fought in the East, against the Russians.”

“Ach so,” Samuel Goldman said. “Well, that was no fun, either. I had two friends who went to the Eastern Front and didn’t come back.”

“Kaupisch and Briesen,” the Gestapo man said. It wasn’t a question-he knew. Sarah asked her mother with her eyes how the officer knew something like that. Hanna Goldman shrugged helplessly.

“That’s right,” Sarah’s father said, his voice soft and sad.

“Both Aryans,” the officer said. “Not good Aryans, or they wouldn’t have made friends with a goddamn sheeny. Besides, I’m not here to talk about them. I’m here to talk about your stinking, murdering turd of a son.”

If he’d said anything like that to Sarah, she thought she would have tried to brain him with an ashtray. Her father only sighed and said, “I don’t know any more than you do. I probably know less than you do, because you’ve been chasing him ever since the tragedy took place.”

“Why shouldn’t we just kill you or take you off to a camp because of what that little cocksucker did?” the Gestapo man snarled.

Had he seen Saul? Sarah had her doubts. He wouldn’t have called him little if he had. Saul was one meter eighty-eight centimeters tall; he weighed ninety kilos. You could say a lot of things about him, but not little, not if you wanted to stay within shouting distance of the truth.

As if the Gestapo cared! Or had to care.

Samuel Goldman sighed. “Because we had nothing to do with anything Saul may have done?” he suggested. Saul had done it, all right. Sarah would never forget the sound that shovel blade made smashing into the side of the work-gang boss’ head. Saul had had plenty of provocation, but he’d done it.

The Gestapo man snorted. “You aren’t even citizens of the Reich, only residents. I can do whatever I want with you. To you.”

“Yes, sir. I know you can,” Father said mournfully. “You asked why you shouldn’t. I gave you the best answer I could.”

“Are you playing games with me, Jewboy?” demanded the officer in the black uniform with the shiny metal buttons.

Sarah would have killed him for that, too, if she could. Her father didn’t even flinch. “Games? No, sir,” he replied. “All I’m doing is the best I can for my family and me. Wouldn’t you do the same in my place?”

“Like you’d catch me in a kike’s place! Fat chance!” the Gestapo man said. Sarah might have guessed he’d have no fellow-feeling. If you did, how could you do a job like his? Then he added, “If you see him, if you hear anything from him, you are to report it to us immediately. If you don’t, you’ll pay for it. Understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” Samuel Goldman said. “I understand.”

The Gestapo man stormed into the kitchen. “You’re in there listening!” he yelled. “Think I don’t know? You understand me, too?” He glared at them till they both nodded, too. Then he stomped out of the house. He might have suddenly remembered he had other Jews in Munster to terrorize. Chances were he did.

“As if we’d really tell on Saul!” Sarah exclaimed as soon as he slammed the door. “I don’t think so!”

“But we will,” her father said. She stared at him, wondering if her ears were working right. He nodded. “ Ja. We will.”

“But-why? How?” That wasn’t Sarah. It was her mother, who sounded as bewildered as she felt.

“I’ll tell you why.” And Samuel Goldman did: “They’re liable to cook something up and send it to us, that’s why. Then, if we don’t report it, they can arrest us for protecting a fugitive. So chances are we have to play the game by their rules-and we have to hope Saul has the good sense to know we might be under this kind of pressure.”

Sarah was sure Saul would. Her father sounded anything but. She knew why, too. Devoted to the life of the mind, Samuel Goldman had never known what to make of his big, muscular son. Saul hadn’t done badly in school, but it wasn’t what he cared about. Father had to wonder whether somebody like that had any brains at all.

“Saul will do fine.” Mother had confidence in him, too, which made Sarah feel better. Hanna Goldman went on, “And if they didn’t catch him right away, they’ll have a harder time of it now. Harder and harder the longer he stays free.”

“I hope so,” Father said, but, again, he sounded far from certain.

This time, Sarah was inclined to agree with him, however little she wanted to. Germany was a land that ran on forms and papers. Food was rationed. So was clothing. Everyone had an identity card and had to show it a dozen times a day. How could a Jew on the run not get caught in the spiderweb of officialdom and bureaucracy? Sarah couldn’t imagine.

But so far Saul hadn’t. And if he hadn’t so far, maybe he could keep on doing whatever he was doing and stay free. Maybe. Sarah could hope so, anyhow. She could even pray, and she did, though she didn’t think she was very good at it. Maybe God valued sincerity over style. She could hope that was true, too-and she did.

* * *

A few kilometers up ahead lay a railway-junction town called Hirson. Willi Dernen did his best not to care. Northeastern France had winters almost as beastly as the ones he’d grown up with in eastern Germany. Willi was holed up in a village called Watigny, east of the place that mattered to the fellows with the fancy shoulder straps.

One of these days, they’d order him to go forward. And he would. He wasn’t thrilled about it, but he would. What they’d do to him if he didn’t was certain, and dreadful. What the Frenchmen would do to him after he did might not be so bad. If he was lucky.

For the moment, even the generals could see that advancing through waist-deep snowdrifts was asking to get your dick shot off. German guns pounded Hirson. The French replied, but not many shells came down on Watigny. There were German batteries north and south of the village, but none close by.

About half the people who’d lived here fled before the Wehrmacht arrived. Not all those houses were vacant. French refugees from farther north and east-to say nothing of Belgians and even Dutchmen-squatted in some of them. The Germans took the rest. Before long, they’d probably throw out the squatters, too. For the time being, the officers in charge of security were still sorting out who was who.

People from the older generation remembered the last time soldiers in Feldgrau came through these parts. Some of them were among the folks who’d run away. Others seemed gruffly tolerant of the occupiers. Their attitude said this was nothing new to them. They’d done it once, and they could do it again.

By order of the divisional commander, the local tavern stayed open. The exchange rate was pegged at ten francs to the mark. That made even privates like Willi rich men-or as rich as they could be in a place like Watigny, where getting by was as much as anyone could hope for.

The tavern still had beer and wine, as well as brandy that came in china crocks and was probably homemade. It got you crocked, all right. Willi had found that out by experience. It also left you with a mother of a hangover. Strong French coffee and strong German aspirins blunted a Katzenjammer, though.

Willi and Wolfgang Storch slogged through the snow toward the oasis. Orders were that no German soldier could go in alone. Nobody’d got knocked over the head here. Maybe it had happened somewhere else. Or maybe the High Command was scared of its own shadow. That was how it looked to Willi.

He opened the door. Both he and Wolfgang hurried inside. Then he closed the door again to block the cold wind whining through the streets.

It was gloomy inside, but the fire gave some warmth. Frenchmen sat at a couple of tables, drinking, smoking, murmuring in the language Willi didn’t speak. Corporal Baatz and a couple of other noncoms occupied another. They didn’t try to keep their voices down-they were the winners, after all.

Winners or not, Willi wanted nothing to do with them. A glance from Wolfgang said he didn’t, either. They walked past the underofficers and up to the bar. The man behind it was big, broad-shouldered, and fair. He looked much more like a German than a Frenchman. But a photo on the wall behind him showed him in the uniform of a French soldier in the last war. The patch he wore over one eye didn’t hide all the scarring around the socket. It did explain why he hadn’t got mobilized this time around.

“Guten Tag, Claude,” Willi said, more respectfully than not.

“Guten Tag,” the tapman answered. After he got wounded, he’d spent two years in a POW camp. He’d picked up some German there, and hadn’t forgotten all of it. Other people of his generation had learned it from the Kaiser’s soldiers who’d occupied the area. They still knew bits and pieces, too. “What you want, eh?” Claude went on.

“Beer, bitte,” Willi said.

“Brandy for me, please,” Wolfgang added. They both laid money-German money-on the zinc bar.

Claude sighed, but he took it. What choice did he have? “Go and sit,” he said, pointing to an empty table-shrewdly, the one farthest from where Baatz and his buddies were. “Michelle, she bring.”

“Now you’re talking!” Wolfgang radiated enthusiasm…or something related to it, anyhow. A grin also stretched across Willi’s face. Claude’s daughter was about their age. Like her father, she was large and solid and fair. On her, it looked good.

She came out from a back room. Claude gave her the drinks. She carried them over to the soldiers. “Thank you, dear,” Willi said auf Deutsch. He trotted out one of his handful of recently acquired French words: “Merci.”

“Pas d e quoi,” she answered gravely, and went away. As far as anybody knew, she didn’t sleep with soldiers. Everybody thought that was too damn bad.

Arno Baatz waved his mug. “Fill me up over here!” he called. Claude brought a pitcher of beer to his table and poured the mug full. That didn’t satisfy Baatz. “How come those no-account lugs get the pretty girl and I get you?” he demanded.

Claude’s one eye skewered him like a lepidopterist’s collecting pin. “Because they is-are-polite,” the tapman answered, and he walked back to the bar.

“What? I’m not?” Corporal Baatz yelled, beer-fueled outrage making him even shriller than usual. “You take that back!”

“Nein,” Claude said with dignity.

Baatz jumped to his feet. “I’ll show you, then, you stinking pigdog! Come fight like a man!”

Claude turned around and took one step back toward him: giving himself room to maneuver. Baatz rushed him. Willi wanted to avert his eyes. He couldn’t stand the Unteroffizier, but no denying he was a rough man in a rough trade. He gave Claude one that should have dented a Panzer II. The barman blinked his good eye. Then he swung. His fist caught Arno Baatz right on the button with a noise like a cleaver smacking into a frozen side of beef. Baatz went straight over backwards. The back of his head smacked the stone floor. He didn’t move. He didn’t even twitch.

“Holy Jesus!” Willi said. “Did you kill him?”

Claude took the question seriously. He felt for the noncom’s pulse. “He lives,” he said laconically, and dropped Baatz’s wrist. It fell back limply. Baatz might be alive, but he sure wasn’t connected to the real world. The tapman looked to the other Germans at the corporal’s table. “He hit me first. Please take him away. He is no more welcome here.”

They didn’t argue with him. Nobody in his right mind would have argued with Claude then-not without a Schmeisser in his hands, anyhow. Arno Baatz was as boneless as an octopus as they dragged him out of the tavern.

One of the Frenchmen drinking there sent up smoke signals from his pipe. He said something in his own language. Claude shrugged a massive shrug, as if to say, Well, what can you do? Willi guessed the customer had warned him he would get in trouble.

“We’ll say he started it,” Willi volunteered.

“It’s the truth,” Wolfgang agreed.

“Danke,” Claude said. “For official business, this is good. For not official business…” He spread his hands and let his voice trail away.

Willi understood that. If Arno Baatz and his friends-assuming he had any, which struck the biased Willi as improbable-decided to come back with weapons, what would the officers set over them do about it? Anything? Even if they did, how much would that help Claude after the fact?

“Maybe we’ll go forward again soon. Blizzards can’t last forever-I don’t think,” Wolfgang said. “Then Awful Arno will be out of your hair.”

“ Ja. Maybe,” Claude said. It was the first time Willi had heard him even slightly enthusiastic about the prospect of a German advance. He was a Frenchmen. The Germans had maimed him in the last war. You couldn’t blame him for not wishing them well. But you also couldn’t blame him for wanting Corporal Baatz the hell out of Watigny, even if that meant the Wehrmacht went forward.

The tapman ducked into the back room for a little while, then came out again. A couple of minutes later, so did Michelle. She brought Willi a beer and Wolfgang a brandy they hadn’t ordered. When they tried to pay for them, she wouldn’t take their money.

“Merci. Merci,” Willi said. It didn’t seem enough, but it was the best he could do.

They finished the free drinks and left. After they got outside and closed the door behind them again, Wolfgang said, “If she really wanted to thank us, she could have taken us into that back room while Papa looked the other way.”

“She’s not that kind of girl,” Willi said.

“Yeah. Ain’t it a shame?” Wolfgang’s breath smoked even though he didn’t have a cigarette in his mouth. After a couple of steps, he brightened. “Could be worse, you know? Old Arno sure got his.”

“Boy, did he ever!” Willi agreed enthusiastically. They walked on through the snow, toward the house where they were quartered.

* * *

French villagers stared fearfully at Vaclav Jezek and the rest of the Czechs in his outfit. Vaclav knew why, too. Their uniforms weren’t quite the right color, their helmets were the wrong shape, and they spoke some funny foreign language. To people who didn’t know any better, that was plenty to turn them into Germans.

And, just to make things worse, they were coming from the east. If they were Germans, they would have smashed all the defenders ahead of them, but you couldn’t expect civilians to think of things like that.

One of the locals came out with something. Vaclav had picked up a handful of French words, but not nearly enough to let him follow. “What did he say?” he asked the guy along as an interpreter.

Benjamin Halevy looked even less happy than he had before he heard the Frenchman’s news. The Jewish sergeant pointed north and west. “Old geezer claims the Germans are already over there.”

“Shit,” Vaclav said. If that was true, they were in danger of getting cut off and surrounded. If…“Does he know his ass from a hole in the ground?”

He eyed the Frenchman. The guy was around fifty, and had some ugly scars on his jaw and left cheek. Maybe those weren’t war wounds, but they sure looked like them. If this fellow had gone through the mill before, he wouldn’t see a cow and imagine it was a German armored division.

Halevy went back and forth with him. After a last “Merci,” the sergeant returned to Czech: “Sure sounds like he does. They pushed through the woods over there. This guy says he saw a couple of armored cars, but no tanks.”

“Bad enough,” Vaclav muttered. Several of his countrymen nodded. He went on, “Where are our tanks? Where are our armored cars?” Nobody answered him. The Germans always seemed to have armor when they broke through. They used their armor to break through. The French scattered it up and down the line, which meant they never had enough where they needed it most. That was one reason they were falling back and the Nazis moving up.

Halevy gave Vaclav a crooked grin. “Hey, pal, that’s why you’ve got your antitank rifle, right?”

Vaclav told him where he could put the antitank rifle. Halevy would have walked very straight if he’d tried. You could get your behind in a sling for telling off a noncom, but Vaclav’s behind was already in a sling because he was up at the front, so what did he care?

He would have expected a Jew to get stuffy about that kind of thing, maybe to threaten him with official regulations. But Sergeant Halevy just laughed and said something about his mother and troopships. From another guy, or under different circumstances, Vaclav would have tried to rearrange his face. He laughed now, too. They’d been through it together. They’d earned the right to zing each other.

“Seriously, we ought to head up that way,” Halevy said. “If your rifle can take out those cars, it’ll do us some good.”

Vaclav was no more enthusiastic about putting his dick on the chopping block than any other soldier in his right mind would have been. But he could see the need. “I’ll try it,” he said.

“Attaboy,” Halevy told him. He clapped another Czech soldier on the back. “Dominik, take point.”

“Right, Sergeant.” Dominik didn’t sound thrilled, but he never did. He was little and skinny and nervous as a cat in a room full of Rottweilers-all of which made him a goddamn good point man. He carried a captured German submachine gun. If he ran into trouble, he could spray a lot of lead at it.

“Let’s go,” the sergeant said. He moved right behind Dominik. He didn’t believe in staying away from trouble. None of the people who said Jews were a bunch of cowards had seen him in action. David had stayed right up there with everybody else, too, till he stopped one. And they both hated Nazis even more than Vaclav did, which he wouldn’t have believed if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.

“Bonne chance,” called the Frenchman who’d warned them about Germans. Luck, that meant, or something like it. Vaclav waved to the guy without looking back.

Trees and bushes and rocks. The western part of the Ardennes was as wild and rugged as anything in Czechoslovakia. Vaclav would have bet the Germans couldn’t get any armor through here, but he would have lost if he had. He’d already escaped from tanks in these parts: Panzer Is and IIs, and also some captured Czech T-35s. Those infuriated him. Yes, everybody grabbed whatever he could get his hands on-his own antitank rifle and Dominik’s machine pistol showed as much. But seeing Czech tanks fight against Czech soldiers made him want to cry.

Dominik waved urgently. Vaclav dove behind the closest bush. He didn’t know what was up ahead, and he didn’t want to find out the hard way. Sergeant Halevy twiddled fingers at him. Ever so cautiously, Vaclav slithered forward. He swore under his breath every time a knee or an elbow broke a twig.

Then he froze-German voices up ahead. The breeze swung, and he got a whiff of cigarette smoke. “God in heaven, I’m tired,” one of the Fritzes said. “I could sleep for a month.”

“Just a little going on, Klaus.” If those dry tones didn’t come from a sergeant, Vaclav would eat his boots.

“Ja,” Klaus said, and then, “What the hell was that?”

That was Vaclav’s antitank rifle scraping through some dry bushes. The goddamn thing was more than a meter and a half long-almost as long as he was tall. It wasn’t just heavy; it was also unwieldy as all get-out. Jezek froze.

“I didn’t hear anything,” the noncom said.

“I sure thought I did,” Klaus replied.

“Want to check it out?”

“Nah. I just want to sit here and grab a smoke.”

“Sounds good to me. Let me bum one off you,” the sergeant said.

Even more warily than before, Vaclav crawled forward. He spotted an armored car between a couple of chestnuts. Hoping the noise wouldn’t give him away, he chambered a round. The Germans didn’t have kittens, so he got away with it. A couple of those long, fat rounds through the engine compartment and that armored car wouldn’t go anywhere for a while.

He waggled the fingers on his left hand to let Sergeant Halevy know he was in position. The rest of the Czechs opened up on the Germans. His noise covered by theirs, he punched one through the armored car’s thin steel side and into the engine.

He was about to shoot at it again when a German with a submachine gun popped up out of nowhere. Vaclav shot him instead. A round designed to pierce armor did horrible things to flesh. It seemed to blow out half the German’s insides. The poor bastard fell over with a grunt and never stirred after that. It was over fast for him, anyhow.

Shoulder aching-even with muzzle brake and padded stock, the antitank rifle kicked harder than a kangaroo-Vaclav reloaded. Here came the other armored car. He fired at where the driver would sit, once, twice. The car slid to the left and slammed into a tree.

That seemed to take the vinegar out of these Germans. They either ran off or gave up. “Good job!” Sergeant Halevy called to Vaclav. “Don’t you wish it was this easy all the goddamn time?”

“Jesus!” Vaclav exclaimed. “I’m just glad it was this easy once.” Halevy laughed, for all the world as if he were joking.

* * *

Lieutenant Julius Lemp stood at stiff attention. When a rear admiral reamed you out, you had to stand there and take it and pretend it didn’t hurt. The process was a lot like picking up dueling scars, except you had no sword of your own.

“You thick-skinned idiot!” Karl Donitz didn’t raise his voice, which only made things worse. “Did you want to drag the United States into this war?”

“No, sir,” Lemp replied woodenly He stared straight at a spot three centimeters in front of Donitz’s nose.

The round-faced chief of U-boat operations was not a man who stood out in a crowd. Donitz was supposed to be a pretty good guy, too. He had a reputation for sticking up for his captains. But nobody would stick up for you when you screwed up the way Lemp had.

“U-boats brought the Americans in the last time,” Donitz said. “We try not to make the same mistakes twice, you know.” He waited.

“Yes, sir.” Again, something mechanical might have spoken through Lemp.

“I’ve had to calm down Goebbels and von Ribbentrop and the Fuhrer,” Donitz said. “They all wanted your scalp.” He waited.

What am I supposed to say now? Lemp wondered. He tried, “I’m honored, sir.” In a way, he was. If the Propaganda Minister and the Foreign Minister and Hitler himself noticed you, you’d done something out of the ordinary, no doubt about it.

Rear Admiral Donitz’s pale eyes grew cold as the seas off Greenland. “I wouldn’t be, if I were you,” he said, and his voice was as icy as his face. “Dr. Goebbels had to put together a whole propaganda campaign to shift the blame away from us. Now there’s some doubt about who sank the Athenia -but not among us, eh?”

“No, sir. I did it, all right.” Lemp still didn’t change expression. Yeah, sometimes you had to stand there and take it. This was one of those times.

“I’d run you out of my office if you told me anything else,” Donitz said. “If you screw up like this again, I won’t be able to help you. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, sir.” Men who served on U-boats weren’t normally long on military discipline. This was one of those occasions where formality was mandatory, though. You took your abuse by the numbers.

“A notation about your error will go into your service jacket,” Donitz said, which meant Lemp would be a long time seeing another promotion.

“Yes, sir,” Lemp said one more time. He couldn’t get into more trouble as long as he kept saying that, and he was in plenty already.

“Next time we send you out, for God’s sake try not to sink anything flying the Stars and Stripes,” Donitz said.

“I will, sir,” Lemp replied. But he couldn’t help adding, “You are going to send me out again?”

“Yes, yes.” The commander of the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat forces sounded impatient. “You’ve proved you can hit what you aim at. We need that in our skippers. I have to dress you down, because you aimed at the wrong ship. I have my orders, too, you understand.”

Did that mean he’d been going through the motions before? It sure sounded that way to Lemp. If he had, he could take his act on stage. He’d make more money with it than he ever could in a naval career. “I see,” the U-boat skipper said cautiously-one more phrase that stayed pretty safe.

Donitz looked altogether different when he smiled. “All right, then,” he said. “Dismissed. And you can tell your crew we won’t send them to a camp.”

Lemp saluted. “Yes, sir. I’ll do that. Some of them have been worried about it.” Some of them had been scared shitless. You didn’t want to say that to a rear admiral, though. Lemp didn’t like the idea of living in a place where making an honest mistake could land you in this much trouble. But, no matter what else the Vaterland was, it was the Vaterland.

“Go on, go on.” Donitz had spent all the time with him he was going to. Stacks of papers smothered the admiral’s desk. It wasn’t as if he had nothing else going on.

After one more salute, Lemp made his escape. He was glad he’d worn his greatcoat. Germany had enough coal to keep furnaces going and heat buildings, but Wilhelmshaven was bloody cold outside. Screeching gulls wheeled overhead. The air smelled of the sea and, more faintly, of fuel oil-familiar odors to a U-boat skipper.

Donitz’s office wasn’t far from the harbor, and from the seaside barracks that housed U-boat crewmen when they came in to port. Lemp made for the two-story red-brick building with dormer windows where the sailors from the U-30 were staying. A sailor wearing a Stahlhelm and carrying a rifle stood guard outside. He saluted Lemp. The skipper and his crew weren’t quite under arrest-but they weren’t quite not under arrest, either.

Returning the salute, Lemp said, “You can relax, Jochen. I think they’ll give you some other duty soon.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Jochen said.

Lemp walked on in. The sailors crowded the wardroom, smoking and playing cards and reading newspapers. It wasn’t nearly so crowded as the long steel tube of the U-30 would have been, though. Everything stopped when the men saw Lemp. They searched his face as anxiously as they would have searched the horizon when Royal Navy destroyers were in the neighborhood.

“It’s over,” Lemp said. “The admiral read me the riot act, but they’ll let us put to sea again.”

The sailors cheered. They stamped their feet. A couple of them whistled shrilly. Only later did Lemp wonder why. As long as they stayed in harbor, they were safe. Any time they went hunting, they laid their lives on the line. And they were glad to do it. If that wasn’t madness…

Of course it was. He had a case of the same disease. So did the British sailors who tried to bring merchantmen into their harbors, and the other sailors who set out to sink U-boats. So did the soldiers in German Feldgrau, and so did the bastards in assorted shades of khaki who tried their best to stop the Wehrmacht.

Without that kind of madness, you couldn’t have a war. Julius Lemp took it for granted. So did men far more important than he.

“What did Donitz say?” asked a machinist’s mate.

“That we were bad boys for sinking an American liner. That we could have got the Reich into all kinds of trouble. But we didn’t,” Lemp answered. “He also said he needed people who could shoot straight.”

More cheers rose. These were so loud and raucous, Jochen stuck his nose into the wardroom to see what was going on. Nobody told him. Miffed, he slouched back outside. The soldiers started clapping and stomping again.

“We’ll go out there and do some more straight shooting,” Lemp said. The men shouted agreement. They were good fellows, all right-and crazy the same way he was.

Chapter Fifteen

For more than two years, the war in Spain had electrified the world. Everybody could see it foretold what would happen when Fascism squared off against Marxism. Both sides threw what they could into the struggle. Italian troops, German planes, Russian tanks…Most of the bodies, on both sides, stayed Spanish.

Not all. Chaim Weinberg wouldn’t have left New York City without a strong feeling that something had to be done to stop Fascism before it exploded all over Europe. He wasn’t the only one: the International Brigades were proof of that. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Republic remained a going concern despite everything Marshal Sanjurjo could do to crush it.

And then, when the Internationals were about to get pulled from the line, the big war did break out in Europe. Spain’s fight was suddenly Britain and France’s fight, too. Materiel flooded south across the Pyrenees as the French border opened up. It seemed too good to be true.

It was. As soon as Hitler turned his troops on the Low Countries and France rather than Czechoslovakia, the flood didn’t go back to being a trickle. It dried up altogether. Everything the French could make, they shipped northeast to shoot at the Boches.

Germany and Italy had already pretty much forgotten about Spain. With the French and English navies in the war, the Fascists had a much harder time getting through than they’d had before. And they needed their toys to use against the Western democracies.

So Spain went from being the cockpit of world attention to the war that everybody forgot. Everybody, that is, except the poor, sorry bastards still stuck fighting it.

Lately, Sanjurjo’s men on an outpost a few hundred meters away had found themselves a new weapon: a loudspeaker system. It crackled to life now: “Come over to the winning side!” a Spaniard shouted, and the loudspeaker gave him something close to the voice of God. “Come over to us, and we’ll feed you what we eat ourselves. It’s lovely chicken stew tonight! Don’t miss it!”

“Ha!” Chaim said, and turned to Mike Carroll. “You know how to make Sanjurjo’s chicken stew?”

“First, you steal a chicken,” Carroll answered wearily. “That’s an old one. Got a smoke?”

“Yeah.” Chaim gave him a Gauloise.

“Lovely chicken stew!” the Nationalist boomed again.

“Thanks. Tastes like shit, but thanks.” Carroll puffed happily. Chaim agreed with him-the French tobacco did taste like shit. But Gauloises and Gitanes were better than no cigarettes at all-and better than roll-your-owns made from other people’s (and your own) butts.

“Chicken stew-with dumplings!”

“Lying cocksucker,” Chaim said without much rancor. Every so often, guys from the other side deserted. From what they said, the Nationalists were just as hungry, just as miserable, as the Republicans.

“Maybe their officers have chicken stew,” Carroll said.

“Now you’re talking,” Chaim said. Republican officers ate and lived no better than the men they led. It was an article of faith on this side that the enemy’s officers exploited their soldiers-they were fighting for class distinctions, after all. Some of what the deserters said supported that: some, but not all. The Republicans mostly discounted anything that disagreed with what they’d thought before.

“Wonderful chicken stew! All you can eat!”

Somebody in the Republican lines fired at the loudspeaker. If you were hungry and cold and miserable, talk of food could drive you nuts. And you had to be nuts to shoot like that. At long range, with the crappy rifles and cheap ammo most Republicans carried, how likely were you to hit what you aimed at? Even if you did, what kind of damage could you do? And besides…

Chaim pulled his entrenching tool off his belt. It was very well made; he’d taken it off a dead Italian. He started digging. “That stupid asshole’s gonna bring some hate down on our heads.”

“Tell me about it.” Carroll’s entrenching tool consisted of some scrap iron a smith had beaten flat and then bolted to a stick. But it moved dirt, too. He deepened his foxhole and added dirt to the parapet in front of it and the parados behind.

Sure as hell, the shot woke up the Nationalist artillery. Sanjurjo’s men had more guns and better guns than the Republicans. Hitler and Mussolini had been lavish in supplying their Spanish friends till they got distracted. Nobody on the Republican side had ever been lavish with anything, not till the Czech fight started and not for long enough then.

Fragments wined and snarled overhead. Chaim dug like a mole, trying to make what vets of the last war called a bombproof. He should have done that a long time ago. He knew as much, but nobody liked to dig without need. Now the need was here.

Mike Carroll made dirt fly, too. They both stopped about the same time. Somebody not far away had been wounded, and was making a godawful racket. “I’d better go get him,” Chaim said, though he could think of few things he wanted to do less. As if to convince himself, he added, “God knows I’d want somebody to pick me up if I got hit.”

“Yeah.” Carroll also scrambled out of his hole, even if he’d just improved it. Not being by himself above ground made Chaim a little less lonely. It also made him wonder if he’d have to try to make pickup for two. Well, if he stopped something himself, somebody was out there to make pickup on him.

He scuttled along like a pair of ragged claws-some damn poem picking the exact wrong moment to bounce around in his head. Like a snake would have been closer, because his belly hugged the ground every second. Off to his left, Mike also looked flattened by a steamroller.

To add to the joy, a couple of Nationalists started shooting at them with rifles. Luckily, none of the rounds came close. Spaniards, whether Nationalists or Republicans, made piss-poor riflemen. Chaim didn’t know why that was true, but it sure seemed to be. The bullets got close enough to scare him cracking past, but no closer than that.

He crawled past some trench a shell hit had caved in and flopped down into the earthwork beyond with a sigh of relief. Mike Carroll made it, too. There lay the wounded guy, trying to clutch his chest and his leg at the same time and howling like a banshee. Two other men from the International Brigades were nothing but raw meat and blood-no blaming them for not helping their buddy, because nobody could ever help them again.

“Fuck,” Carroll said hoarsely. “See who it is?”

Chaim hadn’t noticed-one injured fighter sounded much like another, no matter which language he’d grown up speaking. Now he took a look. “Fuck,” he echoed. “It’s Milt.”

Milton Wolff- El Lobo to the Spaniards on both sides-had led the Abraham Lincoln Battalion since Robert Merriman was lost the spring before. He’d kept them in the line no matter what Sanjurjo’s goons threw at them. He wasn’t just their heart; he was also a big part of their backbone.

And he was badly hurt. Fragments had shredded his left calf and thigh and laid open the left side of his chest. “Jesus,” Chaim muttered. His stomach tried to turn over. He wouldn’t let it.

“What do we do?” Carroll sounded as lost and horrified as Chaim felt. If you saw your father like that…“What can we do?”

“Try and patch him up. Try and get him back to the docs. Maybe they can pour some blood into him,” Chaim answered. Republican doctors could do more with transfusions than just about anybody. That was one of the few places where the Republic worked well-if the crack mobile unit was anywhere within a few kilometers, anyhow.

They used their wound dressings. They used strips of cloth from their uniforms and from those of the dead men, who didn’t care any more. One of the corpses had a miraculously unbroken syringe in a belt pouch. Chaim jabbed Wolff with it-it was the only painkiller he was likely to get.

Wolff was a big man-six-two, easy-which only made things worse. Manhandling him over to a communications trench that went back was no fun for Chaim or Mike Carroll or the wounded Abe Lincoln officer. Hauling him across bare, broken ground and praying the snipers didn’t get lucky would have been even worse…Chaim supposed.

They were heading back instead of sideways when Wolff stopped screaming and asked, “Will I die?” He sounded amazingly calm. The morphine must have hit him all at once.

“I don’t think so, Milt,” Chaim answered, and hoped he wasn’t lying. “We’ll get you patched up.”

“You bet,” Mike agreed.

A Red Cross flag flew over an aid tent. In his bad Spanish, Chaim asked, “Is the blood truck close?”

“?Quien sabe?” a harried-looking male nurse answered. He sounded like a fruit, but that was the least of Chaim’s worries. And he did gasp when he found out who the wounded Abe Lincoln was. “?El Lobo? ?Madre de Dios!” He crossed himself.

By the way people went dashing out of the aid tent, Chaim got the idea they’d track down the blood truck as fast as they could. He wondered whether they would have done the same if he came in wounded. Actually, he didn’t wonder: he knew damn well they wouldn’t.

And he had a hard time getting pissed off about it. He was just a soldado. He had his uses, but their were plenty more like him. Milton Wolff was El Lobo. If he stayed out of action long, the Lincolns wouldn’t be the same. And, while the rest of the world might have forgotten the Spanish Civil War, it remained brutally real to the people who went on fighting it.

* * *

Hans-ulrich Rudel was getting sick of huddling in muddy slit trenches. This one was in western Belgium. It was two in the morning, and British bombers were overhead again. By the roar of their engines, they weren’t very far overhead, either. RAF Whitleys and Hampdens couldn’t fly very high no matter how much their pilots might wish they could.

And, at night, it hardly mattered. Luftwaffe night fighters found enemy planes more by luck than any other way. When German bombers struck England under cover of darkness, the RAF’s night fighters had the same problem.

Bombs whistled down. Some of them landed close enough for the bursts to make Rudel’s ears hurt. Blast could do horrible things to you even when fragments and flame didn’t. He buried his face against the trench wall. He’d come out looking like the end man in a minstrel show, but he didn’t care. As long as he came out.

More explosions, and the rending crash of something metal going to smithereens all at once. “Goddamn flying suitcases!” somebody a couple of meters away said.

“Ja!” Hans-Ulrich nodded, smelling mold and damp. Hampdens were a lot like Luftwaffe bombers, though more slab-sided than any of them-hence the nickname. Whitleys were bigger, slower, and clumsier, but carried more bombs. They could take a lot of punishment…and needed to, because they got it. Rudel wouldn’t have wanted to fly one in the daytime. The British had tried that, but not for long.

Well, the Luftwaffe wasn’t sending Stukas over England any more, either. Some things cost more than they were worth. Even biplane Gladiators were dangerous to the German dive-bombers. As for Hurricanes and the newer Spitfires…!

The real trouble was, Hurricanes and Spitfires chewed up Bf-110s almost as easily as they mulched Stukas. Bf-109s held their own against the top RAF fighters, but they had short range and couldn’t linger long over England. And, when they had to escort the 110s as well as the bombers, they couldn’t mix it up with the enemy the way they should.

From everything Rudel had heard, nobody in the Luftwaffe higher-ups had dreamt the 110 would show such weaknesses. War gave all kinds of surprises-including the nasty ones.

A few more bombs fell. Then things eased off; the drone of enemy engines faded in the west. Hans-Ulrich spat to get the taste of loam out of his mouth. “Well,” he said brightly, “that was fun.”

Several people in the trench told him what he could do with his fun. Somebody who knew his classics quoted Goethe’s Gotz von Berlichen: “Du kannst mich mal am Arsch lechen.” Even if it was poetry, Lick my ass got the point across.

He climbed out of the trench. Something was burning: a Stuka in a half-blasted revetment. The orange flames sent a dim, flickering light across the airstrip. “Got to put that out,” a flyer said. “If the damned Englishmen see it, they’re liable to come back.”

Groundcrew men started playing a hose in the Ju-87. That would take a while to do any good. Gasoline and oil liked to keep burning. And the ammo in the Stuka’s machine guns started cooking off. The popping seemed absurdly cheerful. “Hope none of those rounds hits anybody,” Hans-Ulrich said.

“Jesus Maria!” somebody said-a Catholic, by the oath. “That’d be all we need.”

Somebody else was exhausted, relentlessly pragmatic, or both: “Only thing I hope is, I can get back to sleep.”

“Amen!” the Catholic said. Sure enough, he sounded like a Bavarian.

The burning dive-bomber gave just enough light to let Hans-Ulrich have an easy time going back to his tent. He lay down on the cot-and then remembered his face was muddy. If he hadn’t been a minister’s son, he might have quoted Gotz von Berlichen himself. Being one, he knew that thinking the words was as bad as saying them. He sometimes swore in the heat of action, but never in cold blood-and he always regretted it afterwards.

When he got up and came out the next morning, the fellow in the next tent greeted him with, “Who’s the nigger?”

“Funny, Manfred. Fun- ny,” Hans-Ulrich said. “You should take it to the movies.”

“Go drink some milk, preacher’s son,” Manfred jeered. “You’ll feel better.”

Hans-Ulrich’s hands balled into fists. He took a step toward the other flyer. “Enough, both of you,” a more senior officer said. “Do you want to get tossed in the clink? Save that Scheisse for the enemy, hear me?”

Reluctantly, Manfred nodded. Even more reluctantly, so did Hans-Ulrich. He was sick of being the white crow in the squadron. He couldn’t even say that: somebody would have told him he was the white crow because he drank so much milk.

If he’d changed his ways and drunk schnapps, everybody would have liked him. The notion didn’t cross his mind.

Other people razzed him about his dirty face, but not so viciously as Manfred had. Some other pilots and rear gunners had also got muddy, though none quite so muddy as Rudel. While they ate, a grunting bulldozer repaired damage to the airstrip.

German bombers-Spades and Flying Pencils-droned past overhead, bound for England. Bf-109s would protect the Heinkels and Dorniers from RAF fighters, and they could protect themselves better than Stukas. All the same, Hans-Ulrich wondered how much longer the Luftwaffe would go over the enemy island by day. Nighttime bombing was less accurate, but also much less expensive.

He wasn’t sorry not to cross the North Sea again. He counted himself lucky to have made it back the times he’d tried it. Maybe the twin-engine bombers would have better luck. Maybe.

His own mission lay to the southwest. The French were bringing materiel up from Paris to the front that still shielded their capital from the Wehrmacht ’ s onslaught. If the Luftwaffe could smash up those trucks and trains, enemy troops would get less of what they needed to keep up the fight.

“Ready?” he asked Sergeant Dieselhorst.

The man in the rear seat looked at him. “Nah. I’ll bug out as soon as we get airborne.”

Rudel’s ears heated. “Me and my big mouth. Let’s go get ‘em.”

“Now you’re talking,” Dieselhorst said.

Bombed up, gassed up, their Stuka rumbled down the runway. Hans-Ulrich pulled back on the stick. The Stuka’s nose lifted. The plane would never be pretty. Though the design was fairly new, plenty of aircraft looked more modern: the nonretractable landing gear made the Ju-87 seem older than it was. But the beast got the job done. Next to that, what were looks?

A few black puffs of smoke appeared in the sky as the Stuka squadron crossed over the front line, but only a few. This wasn’t the kind of barrage that would have greeted the Germans over England-nowhere close. The French didn’t seem as serious about the war as the British. But they hadn’t rolled belly-up yet, either. We just have to keep thumping them till they do, Hans-Ulrich thought.

Was that river glittering in the sun the Marne? Hans-Ulrich thought so: the farthest the Kaiser’s armies reached in the last war. The Wehrmacht was almost there, too, though it had started rolling in dead of winter and had to take out Holland as well as Belgium.

Silver sausages gleamed above Paris: barrage balloons. The English used them over their towns, too. They didn’t keep places from getting bombed. They did keep dive-bombers from stooping on targets. Hans-Ulrich shuddered, imagining what would happen if he tore off the Stuka’s wing against a mooring cable. He’d feel like an idiot…but not for long.

Well, he didn’t have to worry about that, anyhow-not yet. The squadron’s targets lay in front of Paris. Captain Mehler’s voice filled his earphones. “I think that’s what we want down below,” the new squadron leader said. “Let’s hit ‘em.”

“Here we go,” Hans-Ulrich said into the speaking tube, warning Sergeant Dieselhorst.

“Jawohl,” the gunner and radioman said. “I was listening, too.”

Hans-Ulrich tipped the Ju-87 over into a dive. Acceleration slammed him back in his seat. It would be trying to tear Dieselhorst out of his. Hans-Ulrich had never heard of a rear gunner’s straps and harness failing-a good thing, too. That wasn’t pretty to think about.

Down below, the highway swelled. Yes, that was a truck convoy. As the shriek from the Stukas’ sirens mounted, soldiers started bailing out and running like ants. Too late, fools. Too late.

Everything had a red tinge. Rudel was right on the edge of blacking out. He pulled the bomb-release lever, then yanked back on the stick as hard as he could to bring the Stuka out of its deadly plunge. Behind him, the poilus would just have discovered hell on earth.

“You all right?” Sergeant Dieselhorst’s voice said he wasn’t sure about himself, let alone Rudel.

“I-think so.” Hans-Ulrich made himself nod. As they usually did after a steep dive, his thoughts needed a few seconds to come back to normal. He muzzily recalled the Stukas in Spain that had crashed before the Luftwaffe installed that gadget to pull out of dives if pilots didn’t.

He fought for altitude. He’d got up to 2,500 meters when Dieselhorst’s machine gun started chattering. “Dodge!” the gunner yelled. “French fighter!”

Hans-Ulrich threw the big, clumsy Ju-87 around the sky in ways the manufacturer never intended. An open-cockpit Dewoitine monoplane zoomed past-obsolescent, but flying. A 109 could have hacked it out of the air with the greatest of ease. It still outclassed a Stuka, though.

Here it came for another pass. Hans-Ulrich saw the skeleton with a harrow painted on its dark green flank. The machine guns firing through the Grim Reaper’s propeller disk blazed. Rudel jinked again-right into the stream of bullets.

His engine coughed and quit and started smoking. A round punched through both sides of the cockpit in front of him before he had time to blink. “We’ve got to get out!” he yelled to Dieselhorst, praying the sergeant would answer.

“I was hoping you’d be here to tell me that,” Dieselhorst said. “Sounds good to me. Are we still inside French territory, or did we make it back to our own lines?”

“Only one way to find out.” Rudel eyed the gauges. “Don’t waste time, either-we’re losing altitude.”

He yanked back on the canopy. The Stuka’s glasshouse had two movable parts: one for the pilot, the other for the gunner-radioman. Hans-Ulrich hoped the bullet that almost nailed him hadn’t messed up the track along which his part slid. He breathed a sigh of relief when it retracted smoothly enough.

Wind tore at him. It didn’t want to let him get out. He fought his way clear of the cockpit. A quick glance told him Sergeant Dieselhorst was already gone. Rudel threw himself into space.

He missed smashing himself against the Stuka’s upthrust tail: the first risk every pilot bailing out took. Then he counted down from ten and yanked the ripcord. Wham! The blow he took when the chute opened made him gray out for a second, the same as dive-bombing would have done. He came to faster than he would have pulling out of a dive, though.

He looked around. There was another canopy, below him and to the left. Dieselhorst hadn’t hit the tail, either. Good.

Back in the last war, pilots hadn’t worn parachutes. The powers that be thought having them would turn men into cowards. Soldiers had gone into that war without steel helmets, too. They’d learned better there sooner than they had with chutes.

The Luftwaffe model still left something to be desired. Hans-Ulrich dropped faster than he would have liked-but not nearly so fast as if the chute hadn’t opened! He couldn’t steer very well, either.

He bent his legs and tried to relax as the ground rushed up at him. He sprained an ankle anyway, but didn’t think he broke it. He used his belt knife to cut away the canopy before it dragged him into some trees. He couldn’t see where Sergeant Dieselhorst had come down.

“Hold it right there, shithead, or you’re fucking dead meat!” somebody yelled. Hans-Ulrich needed a moment to