MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA
S. M. Stirling
Sofie tapped his shoulder.
"Report, Centurion; vehicles coming down the road from the pass. Ours . . . sort of."
The convoy hove into sight on the switchback above the town, the diesel growl of its engines loud in the hush after battle, a pair of light armored cars first, their turrets traversing to keep the roadside verges covered with their twin machine guns, pennants snapping from their aerials. Behind them came a dozen steam trucks in Wehrmacht colors. The machines themselves were a fantastic motleyGerman, Soviet, French, even a lone Bedford that must have been captured from the English at Dunkirk or slipped in through Murmansk before the Russian collapse; two were pulling field guns of unfamiliar make. Bringing up the rear were a trio of bakkiescross-country vehicles with six small balloon wheels, mounting a bristle of automatic cannon and recoilless rifles. All were travelling at danger speed, slewing around the steep curves in spatters of mud and dust.
"Quick work," Eric commented, as the vehicles roared down the final slope, where the military road cut through the huddle of stone buildings. "I wonder who"
The daunting hoot of a fox-hunter's horn echoed from the lead warcar, and an ironic cheer went up from the paratroopers.
"Need I have asked," the Centurion sighed. "Cohortarch Dale Jackson Smythe Thompson III."
The warcars rolled into the square at 90 kph, spattering passersby in a shower of mud, their variable-pressure tires gripping at the earth and cobbles. The lead car finished its circuit with a charge directly at Eric's position, slewed about in a perfect 180 degree turn, and came to rest in front of Century A's commander. There were fresh bullet scars shiny against its dark-grey battlepaint, and a puckered exit-hole in the hexagonal turret just to the right of the machine gun. A jaunty figure in immaculately pressed fatigues pulled himself from the commander's seat and stepped down to the deck, standing with boots braced; a beaming smile showed as he pulled down the silk scarf that covered his face and pushed his dust goggles back onto the brim of his helmet. His left arm was bandaged from elbow to wrist; the right slapped a riding-crop against his leg as he glanced around the square.
Gaping, blackened holes marred the face of the mosque and the town hall. Just as well for that piece of miniature Stalinist wedding cake, he thought. Pity about the mosquepretty in a quaint sort of way. There were bodies in Waffen-SS camouflage still lying scattered about the irregular open space, or hanging motionless from windows; the last lay in a neat row, with their hands bound behind their backs. He glanced behind; the rest of the convoy was pulling up at a more sedate pace.
"Nice piece of driving, Lucy, he called down into the warcar. A giggle came in answer; there was a clatter as a grenade looped out of the driver's port to land on the riveted aluminum of the deck. He ignored it, but the sight brought the beginnings of a dive for cover from the onlookers, until a woman's voice followed it:
"Never notice the pin's still in, do they?"
The cohortarch laughed, jumped to the cobbles and strode over, snapping a salute before extending a handa rarity in the Draka military and even rarer in the field. "Matters well in hand I see," he called. "And how am you, Eric, dear boy?"
Eric returned the salute, smiling at the older man: a slight figure, freckled and sandy-haired and snub-nosed. "Busy. How are things in the cavalry, Dale?"
"The cavalry's in tanks, and that's the problemif I'd wanted to crawl about in a giant steel coffin, I would have joined the navy . . . and flying makes me squeamish, so I'm left here, trying to bring some tone to this vulgar brawl of yours."
He nodded to the assembled commanders. "Now, I suppose you'd like to know how the war's going . . ." He assumed a grave expression. "Well, according to the radio, the Americans claim that resistance is still going on in the hills of Hawaii three months after the Japanese landings, and promise that McArthur's troops in Panama will throw the invader back, into the Pacific"
"Dale, you're impossible" Marie burst out, with a rare chuckle.
"No, just a Thompson . . . Actually, we had a bit of a suprise."
"We heared about the tanks," Eric said.
"That was the least of it. Have you ever heard of a Waffen-SS unit, 'Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler?' Perhaps met a few of them?" He smiled beatifically at their nods. "Well, it seems that the good old Fritz were so anxious to get those field fortifications at the southern end of the pass finished that they moved our friends of the lightning bolts up to help the engineers and forced-labour brigades we were expecting. Still stringing wire and laying mines when we dropped in rght on their heads. Not on their infantry, praise godon their H.Q., signals, combat engineers, vehicle park, artillery . . .
"Luckily, not all of them were there; still a fair number down in Pyatogorsk, from what the prisoners say. And we had complete suprise, which was just as well, seeing as we lost about a fifth of our strength to their flak before we hit the ground-"
There was a general wince; that was twice the total casualties of a month's fighting in Sicily.
"Yes, quite distressing. In any case' we were marginally less astonished than they, so we managed to split them up and fight them out of the entrenchments; particularly as they were facing the other way. Killed about a thirda third of the fighting men, that isran a third out south to join their confreres. Unfortunately, the last third escaped up into the hills and woods; there just weren't enough of us left to contain them all. Ever since, they've been regrouping, harrassingone group shot us up on the way down. That's what my warcar cohort is doing, keeping the road open between our units. These ruddy bastards are tough, they just won't give up. Most of the legion is in the line above Kutaisi; we've already had probing attacks from the south, one in strength, and it looks as if they're building up for a major assault. Soon.
"The rest of us are in hedgehogs down the length of the pass; the Fritz within our lines don't have heavy weapons, but they are making life difficult for our communications, and a secure Perimeter is out of the question. So, I'm afraid, are those two Centuries you were supposed to get."
There was a stony silence, as the leaders of A Century realized that they had just been condemned to death; then a sigh of acceptance, The warcar commander looked slightly abashed.
" 'The first casualty of war is always the battle plan,' " Eric quoted. "How's the general offensive going?" He produced a flat silver flask, took a sip and handed it around.
"Extraordinary, really. We saw the barrage start, it lit up the whole southern horizon, thousands of guns lined up hub to hub. The Air Corps caught their planes on the ground around Tiflis; since then the Tac-air johnnies've been all over them like, pardon the expression, flies on a cowflop. Fighter-bombers, ground-attack, mediums; cannons, guns, rockets, napalm, cluster bombs, fuel air bombs, and for all I know, ginger-beer bottles. You can watch it all like a map. Extraordinary!
This is a brief scene from one of my favorite books. It will make you think. This story can be found on page 147 of the soft back version.