Voss could hear shelling in the distance like a rolling thunder.
The war wasn’t going well for the Germans. Since Stalingrad, the once victorious armies of the Third Reich had been retreating slowly, back towards Germany, humiliated and broken. Hitler’s dream of a thousand year Reich was crumbling fast.
Voss had traveled for over three weeks, traversing half a continent, only to arrive at the worst place on earth.
A German soldier checked Voss’ papers with a flashlight, flapping the paper to swat away mosquitoes between reads.
“Where are you heading, Herr Hauptmann?” he asked the young Captain in a thick Bavarian accent.
Voss glanced momentarily up into the night sky. Squadrons of night bombers flew high above them, their engines throbbing in the darkness.
“To General Meyer,” Voss replied.
The soldier flapped the paper again.
“You had better be quick; he might not be there in the morning. His command is posted two miles down the road,” he said.
The first arcs of light were beginning to spread across the sky from the East. Voss wanted the night to last forever. There was nothing so dangerous to a soldier as the dawn.
A lot of people would die today, but a lot of people died every day in this war.
Voss took the papers and passed the soldiers without another word.
The sounds of artillery were intensifying, the distant explosions grouped closer together now. A red haze hung over the northeast in a battle for supremacy against last throws of night. Where Voss was heading, the artillery posed no threat. The guns were German.
Voss was alone and on foot, but that was not unusual. Nothing was unusual anymore on the Russian front.
Tanks, trucks and armored cars littered the roadside, discarded like broken toys. There were shortages of spare parts, mechanics and fuel. In fact, there was a shortage of nearly everything.
The Captain’s papers were checked again upon entering the village. General Meyer’s headquarters were close.
The headquarters building was modest and remarkably intact, standing proud in the center of a town reduced to little more than broken walls, collapsed roofs and rubble.
General Meyer emerged from the doorway as Voss approached. An entourage of officers followed.
“General, Sir,” Voss said, saluting.
Meyer ignored the formality.
“What?” he demanded.
“I have traveled from Berlin, Herr General, with some correspondence,” Voss said.
“Give it to me,” Meyer said, holding out his hand.
“It is verbal, Herr General, from the High Command.”
“From Himmler?” He asked, noting the SS flashes on Voss’ collar.
“No, Herr General, it is from the Fuhrer himself.”
Meyer looked disinterested.
He stared out at the dawn and flexed his back. He was an attractive man, considerably well put together given the circumstances. He wore clean black fatigues of the Wermacht Tank Corps. The red and gold oak leaf insignia of a German General stood bold against his black collar.
“You had better come with me then,” he said, walking away.
His entourage followed, a sea of uncertain faces, wrought with fear and anxiety.
The command vehicle was a half-track, armed with a single machine gun. A Tiger tank shadowed them for protection, along with another half-track, this one full of infantry.
Voss had met Meyer once before, but it had been long ago, and the man had failed to make recognition.
Meyer surveyed the open fields through a pair of binoculars, feet in a wide stance, creating a picture perfect image of a German hero. He continued to ignore Voss, but under the circumstances, this was understandable. He was preoccupied with the eminent counterattack.
Voss could see at least fifty German tanks moving across the open grasslands toward a row of trees that stretched across the horizon. Smoke rose from behind the trees in thick grey and black strands, new explosions sending more trails into the air. The Russians were there, or at least they had been quite recently.
The tanks left flattened zigzagging paths through the long grass behind them. The battlefield was ideal for tank warfare, with miles of open land in every direction interspersed with thin woods. However, it was dangerous for the infantry who followed on foot, struggling to keep up. There was little cover for them in the open countryside.
When the artillery barrage stopped and the smoke dispersed, sunny blue skies settled in for what would be a pleasant summer afternoon. With the weather in their favor, it seemed as if nothing could hold back the advancing Germans, but Voss knew better than to make this assumption.
Voss wondered what Meyer was thinking. He was outgunned, outnumbered and, yet, his orders were still to advance.
Meyer had been sent to the front to die, a conspiracy that would leave room for one of Hitler’s cronies to move up the chain of command; at least that was the rumor in Berlin. It was a strategic assassination, except that Meyer had refused to die. Instead he earned a fierce reputation as a commander, and was now considered a war hero in Berlin. His reward was to command a panzer division on the Eastern Front and face the Red Army, a thankless and impossible task.
Suddenly, the quiet was broken and all Hell let loose.
The Russians came out of nowhere.
T34’s emerged from the tree line, guns smoking, their tanks teeming with soldiers. Machine guns fired from the woods, offering support as the metal beasts roared forward careening towards the German armor.
Russian artillery and mortar shells fell before the advancing Russian tanks, causing flash fires and devastation among the Germans.
Meyer did not move an inch. He just watched through his binoculars, helpless.
Rolling artillery fire moved towards them as the tanks engaged, entwined in a fierce blow-for-blow fight. The explosions were growing closer and louder, and parts of the battlefield were now shrouded in smoke. Russian soldiers jumped from the tanks to engage the German infantry and destroy their armor with explosives, as they’d done for months now.
Meyer lowered his binoculars and sighed. He spoke into a radio, brief and direct.
An explosion rocked the ground around them as the Russian artillery fire reached their position, debris slamming against the side of the half-track. Stones and earth rained down on helmets.
“Shouldn’t we retreat, Herr General?” an Adjutant Colonel asked, eyes transfixed on the carnage before them. His uniform was crisp and perfect, an officer new to the front, hoping to earn himself an Iron Cross without ever experiencing real danger. Voss had seen their type before.
“If we turn and run, every tank will be destroyed from behind,” Meyer replied, obviously annoyed.
“They are being destroyed from the front,” the Adjutant protested, panic pitched high in his voice.
“Welcome to Kursk,” Meyer barked.
He looked to Voss.
“The SS don’t believe in retreat, do they, Captain?” he asked rhetorically, with heavy sarcasm.
Meyer didn’t wait for an answer; he turned his attention back to the field and shouted orders to his driver. The half-track turned and headed for cover in the nearby trees.
Shaded by the trees, they alighted the half-track. More infantry passed by, moving in to support the tanks, German artillery started to return fire on the Russian guns. Officers shouted into field telephones and radio equipment, the chaotic desperation of the situation evident.
As the fire of small arms crackled nearby, growing louder and more intense, a sense of panic rippled through the Germans sheltering in the wood.
Meyer drew his Luger from its holster and moved in for a closer look. Voss picked up a rifle and followed.
Russian soldiers, both men and women, advanced through the trees, guns blazing, fierce determination and hatred written on their faces. All around, there were screams and battle cries.
Meyer shot off several rounds, backing towards the half-track. The Russians kept coming, bullets pinging off armor.
Voss aimed the rifle and fired, taking down one Russian, then another, speed and accuracy creating a gap in the Russian ranks.
Three down, four, five.
Once the rifle was out of ammunition, Voss discarded it, drawing a pistol and continuing the hail of deadly bullets.
A Russian woman ran forward, but Voss sidestepped her, spinning her around and snapping her neck. A Russian man followed, teeth barred. A knife caught him in the throat and he fell, gurgling as he drowned in his own blood.
Voss threw a second knife into a woman’s chest, but failed to see the man to her left, rifle raised.
The man’s chest was ripped open by a hail of bullets that erupted from Meyer’s MP40. The General turned, his machine gun jerking as it sprayed death into a group of Russians emerging from behind a vehicle.
The dead and wounded surrounded them, both German and Russian alike, pitiful moans and cries for help blending with the other sounds of war.
A Tiger tank smashed into the undergrowth, rolling only feet away from Meyer, its machine guns crackling.
The Russians were being pushed back.
Meyer rested against the half-track.
Voss removed the heavy helmet, allowing her long black hair to fall loose, cascading over the SS insignia of her shoulder flashes.
“You OK?” she asked, now using her own female voice.
Meyer laughed out loud. Voss’ jaw was thick set, and her voice had sounded husky, but he’d obviously overlooked the femininity of her other features.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Voss. I’m Swiss, and I’m here to keep you alive,” she answered as she reloaded the rifle.
“You’re a Seer,” Meyer laughed.
Voss smiled but said nothing.
“And the message from the Fuhrer?”
Voss placed the helmet back on her crown, tucking back long strands of hair.
“The Fuhrer apologizes for being such an asshole. He personally wants you to live out this war, so you can help The Rising sort out this mess he’s caused,” she said.
“He said that?” Meyer asked, half mocking her, the adrenaline shock gradually fading from his face.
“No, not really,” she admitted, “He said you must die pointlessly, to the last man and the last bullet.”
“Now that sounds more like the Fuhrer I know,” Meyer laughed.
More infantry had arrived and were now moving past them, disappearing into the woods to pursue the Russians.
“I don’t know why you decided to fight this war, I really don’t, but so many are dead now,” she said.
Meyer had worked as a military attorney in Berlin, giving him access to the Fuhrer’s inner circle. He’d kept close watch, passing information to and from The Rising’s main headquarters in the US.
They had always known the Wraiths were behind the war, puppeting conflict from the shadows. They’d masterminded the whole thing, pitting countries against one another, changing allegiances and financing all sides to promote their own self-advancement.
“I didn’t plan to get sent here, you know,” Meyer said, almost apologetically, “but it isn’t as if you can just quit and go home.”
“We could make for England,” she suggested.
Meyer shook his head.
“This wasn’t my fight, but I can’t just walk away from it now.”
“Then I will stay too,” she said.
A staff car stopped by the edge of the woods.
A Colonel climbed out and ran towards them.
“We have broken through, but we can’t go much further today; they have fortifications and mine fields everywhere,” the Colonel said.
He regarded Voss’s SS uniform.
“I will take a look myself,” Meyer said and climbed into the half-track.
Voss pushed the dead driver out of the vehicle and started the engine.
“And Voss,” Meyer shouted, “Lose the fucking SS uniform. I hate those bastards.”
Voss turned and looked up at the General with a wide grin.
“Me too, I’m a Jew.”