STROLLING PAST THE CUTLINE
OUTSIDE NEW BERLIN COLONY, MARS
18th MARCH 1956
08:58 MST (MARS STANDARD TIME)
DAY 727 OF THE OCCUPATION
23 DAYS UNTIL THE FIRST TERRAN – MARTIAN WAR
Four hundred eighty-eight men of the Second Battalion waited beyond the gates of New Berlin, on soil where their brethren had died two years earlier. They each stood at attention, staring at the vast, dented main entrance to the colony. Lieutenant William McCabe lingered in a line at the front, the surviving lieutenants and acting captains to either side. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel “Mad Jack” Wellesley, faced the unopened doors. He slid his sword free and held the blade aloft.
McCabe, officers, and NCOs repeated the order. A line of men behind Mad Jack reacted. In well-practised motions, they hoisted the colours of their nations high, but without any wind, the flags flopped. After eight months of hunting werewolf units and ambushing Wehrmacht forces across the barren Martian terrain, McCabe had hoped for even a light breeze to see the British flag flutter in all its glory. He gazed across the French, Polish, Soviet, West German, and Irish flags representing the make-up of the battalion and imagined the scene of the banners fluttering at full strength.
“Raise the standard!” Mad Jack said, and again, his order echoed.
One soldier stepped forward from the line and hoisted a pole with a wolfskin dangling from it. Macabre as the spectacle appeared, their wolfskin standard had become a rallying point for the beleaguered battalion after months of death and destruction. They’d liberated it from an SS bunker out in the Badlands at the start of their mission, and it seemed fitting for their operation. Since tasked with hunting and exterminating the werewolf terrorists fuelling the insurrections across the colonies, they branded themselves wolf hunters.
“Battalion, prepare to march. March!”
As one, four hundred eighty-eight feet thudded on the blood-red sand. The reinforced doors to New Berlin lumbered open. McCabe took a deep breath, fighting the growing tightness in his chest. The strange, light-headed dizziness that seized him from time to time seeped into his skull. Focusing on his breathing, he maintained his gaze on the opening doors ahead. Jenkins cleared his throat across the open common channel and prepared to sing the battalion anthem.
“Oh, King Ares wades in blood to his knees, a warrior is he.”
A momentary pause before the battalion repeated his words in a thundering, unified voice.
“Oh, King Ares wades in blood to his knees, a warrior is he.”
“He calls for his knife, he calls for his rifle, he calls for the Second Batt infantry.”
“He calls for his knife, he calls for his rifle, he calls for the Second Batt infantry.”
“New Berlin is ours, says the colonel!”
“New Berlin is ours, says the colonel!”
“It’s raining lead, say the captains.”
“It’s raining lead…”
The tightness in McCabe’s chest intensified when they entered the tunnel leading to the airlocks into the colony. His hands shook in the strange involuntary way they did at random intervals. He could hear his heart pounding but knew if he checked his pulse, everything would be fine. Sounds of gunfire, explosions, and screaming rattled through his skull.
“First o’er the top, say the louies.”
The main entrance slammed shut behind the battalion, and the first armoured airlock door rose. Two years ago, McCabe had led an assault on the command station above, seizing control of it with the mysterious Black Visors. Three days of brutal fighting in the Battle of New Berlin preceded an unimaginable cycle of violence, costing him the lives of countless good men. Images of butchered Nazis and his own slaughtered soldiers danced across his vision. He tightened his grip on the butt of his Lee-Enfield to ease the trembling in his fingers.
“Don’t get paid to slack, says sar’nt major.”
Shame filled McCabe when the dizziness blurred his eyesight. His lads relied on him to be their strength, yet his own body betrayed him. He experienced fear in battle like many men, but it never engulfed him. Why now? Why when no shots erupted, with none of his soldiers dying, could he hear those awful screams?
“Fix bayonets, says the colour.”
The airlock door thumped down behind the marching battalion, leaving one more between them and the colony. McCabe fought to reassert control before they entered. Thoughts of losing command of himself, of collapsing in front of his men without any physical wound, mortified him. They’d never look at him the same way again. As one of Her Majesty’s soldiers, he needed to pull himself together and act like it.
“Boots, one size fits all, says the BQ.”
“Boots, one size…”
Sharp pain ate into his torso, and everyone carried on marching. McCabe concentrated on the airlock door, knowing the phantom shrapnel pieces paining him weren’t real, and fought the sensations telling him otherwise. If he sustained such an injury again, he knew he wouldn’t be capable of walking, so he kept his gaze fixed and refused to look down at his undamaged EVA suit. Faces of snarling Nazis trying to stab him crossed his thoughts, each one long dead. Sweat dripped across his brow. The dying called his name.
“Kill them all, say the sergeants.”
“Kill them all…”
Bodies slumped across the Martian landscape, friend and foe alike. McCabe battered a Nazi soldier’s helmet in with a rock and let the bastard suffocate. Enemy artillery pounded the soil, sending columns of copper dirt high into the sky. Pieces of metal burst through EVA suits. Wails rang out as McCabe crawled, no ammo left, with only a knife. A figure emerged from the shadows, gun raised, and he stabbed.
“Should have been a vet, say the corporals.”
The final airlock rose. Scenes of the devastated colony beckoned. When the SS surrendered, many thought the worst of it was over, just a matter of hanging on until reinforcements arrived. The insurgency took its toll. Civilians on both sides armed themselves, spreading strife and disruption across the colonies, and the werewolves launched suicidal attacks on the Mars Expeditionary Force. The Wehrmacht cut supply and communication lines, the perpetual thorn in the side of the victorious Allies.
“Booze, booze, booze, say the privates.”
“Booze, booze, booze…”
At knee height, light flooded in from under the airlock, golden and blinding. McCabe blinked from the sudden brightness, fighting the urge to rip his helmet off in the hope the fresh air could steady his nerves.
“For warriors are we.”
“For warriors are we.”
“They stop and stare. Fall dead right there. Facing Second Batt infantry, aha.”
“They stop and stare. Fall dead right there. Facing Second Batt infantry, aha.”
Two columns of soldiers lined the street ahead, dressed in red and black khaki uniforms, rifles with bayonets attached raised in salute, all standing at attention. When Mad Jack placed his foot on the concrete ground of New Berlin, flags rose high, fluttering in the artificial wind. Music rang out from somewhere. Newly arrived civilian scientists, engineers, and bureaucrats waved banners from apartments and houses. Fresh paint covered once battle-scarred buildings. No piles of rubble anywhere.
On Mad Jack’s order, the battalion came to a halt in front of a stage. Flanked by senior officers and representatives of the Jewish communities, Major General Hamilton stood behind a podium and accepted Mad Jack’s salute. After impromptu cheers from the gathering civilians, the leader of all Allied Forces in New Berlin broke into a long-winded speech, emphasising the virtues of their work and the long struggle ahead.
The words meant nothing to McCabe. His body finally obeying him, he focused his thoughts on the one thing that had kept him going for so long. Home. After two bloody years of non-stop fighting, they were going home. The reinforcements who had arrived five months earlier were several times the number of the original invasion force. It was the Mars Occupation Force’s time.
In a couple of days, Lieutenant William McCabe and the Mars Expeditionary Force would be going home, and that’s all that mattered.
BARRACKS SECTION, COMMAND AND CONTROL BUILDING, NEW BERLIN
Corporal Peter Jenkins sat on his bunk polishing his boots. Every so often, he glanced at the Lee-Enfield perched against the locker, well within hand’s reach. Even though they resided in the barracks, surrounded by reinforced walls of concrete and steel and protected by layers of armed soldiers, the sight of his trusty rifle relieved him. Having narrowly survived the Battle of New Berlin as a private, he had learned to keep his gun close.
Out in the field, his weapon and his wits kept him alive. In many ways, it had become an extension of his person. To not have the strap dangling around his neck almost felt like he was missing a hand. But he rested in barracks, safe. After eight months of stalking the Martian wastes, he needed to adapt to setting his weapon down from time to time. Still, it reassured him to check it hadn’t grown a pair of legs and walked off.
Fidgeting on his mattress to get comfortable, he felt cold steel pressed against the small of his back while he wiped the polish. The handle of the blade he had taken from the Nazi soldier he killed during the Battle of New Berlin prodded him every time he shifted his weight. He didn’t mind, though.
Most soldiers preferred to wear their captured German knives and guns on their belts for all to see. Jenkins favoured keeping his concealed. Not out of shame or regret, but as a constant reminder of the things he did. The actions he committed were his and his alone. When he returned home, back to Bristol, he planned to take every memory from the accursed war, place it in a box in his mind, and throw away the key.
The sudden utterance from the darkened bed beside his caused Jenkins to drop his brush and boot. Shaking himself back to reality, he reached out a hand, took the shot glass filled with vodka, and threw the contents down his throat. It burned as it worked its way down his gullet, but the taste was starting to grow on him. Not that he’d been much of a drinker prior to arriving on Mars. He replaced the glass on the table and glanced at Sergeant Boris Alexeev sitting bolt upright on his bunk, empty glass in hand, staring unblinkingly at the far wall.
Alexeev picked up his bottle of vodka, filled Jenkins’s glass before his own, and returned to staring at the wall. Whenever Jenkins glanced at his expressionless face, he could almost hear the rattle of machine gun fire emanating from Alexeev’s skull. Those eyes saw past the concrete, across time and space, replaying battles that would most likely never be written in history books.
Inspiration took him, and Jenkins quickly snatched his notebook and pencil from his trousers pocket. Although they had little free time out in the field, he had made it a point of jotting down everything he could about his experiences on Mars. Admittedly, he’d never possessed much of a head for schooling, but with each passing day, he grew more tempted to turn those notes into a memoir. He jotted down the titles floating in his mind: How to Hunt Werewolves on the Red Planet and Red Werewolf Hunters. Both sounded catchy, but while he mulled it over, he returned his notebook to his pocket.
Jenkins threw back the shot, then turned his glass upside down when he replaced it on the table. That, he had learned, was the only way to stop Alexeev from pouring him any more. Standing smaller in height and far thinner, he couldn’t hope to match his burly colleague’s ability to consume alcohol. Alexeev could drain two bottles of vodka and still be fresh as a daisy with four hours sleep, primed to prowl the halls for any unsuspecting soldiers sneaking in after curfew.
Rapping on the door caused Jenkins to jump to his feet, hand already on his rifle. Talking himself down, he loosened his grip and told himself he was safe. The insurgency inside the colony had long since ended. The Wehrmacht soldiers captured during the Battle of New Berlin were still in their de-Nazification camps.
“Expecting company, Boris?” Jenkins said as he approached the door.
It could have been someone from the platoon checking in, but Jenkins’s instinct flared to life all the same. He slipped his boot behind the door and opened it a few centimetres. In the corridor, he recognised an officer and two armed soldiers in Soviet uniforms.
“Sergeant Boris Alexeev,” the officer said.
Jenkins began to speak when one of the soldiers pulled back his foot and crashed it at the door. It caught against Jenkins’s boot, stopping it from swinging wide open. The two soldiers barged in all the same, one rifle barrel aimed at his face, forcing him back. The officer marched inside, stood at the end of Alexeev’s bed and exploded into a tirade in Russian. The second soldier swung around the room, but, seeing no one else, fell in beside the officer, gun aimed at Alexeev. Anger rushed through Jenkins as he stared down the barrel, the Russian soldier smirking.
“Boris, what’s going on?” Jenkins asked, his gaze locked on the weapon pointed at his face.
The officer maintained his steady stream of words, Alexeev answering in one or two syllables and remaining seated on his bed. Fury at the disrespect shown to them both tightened in Jenkins’s chest. The smile curling on the soldier’s face became a flaming match to the oilwell of hatred within him.
Jenkins waited until the soldier shifted his gaze to glance at the officer. He lunged, grabbed the rifle, and jabbed the butt of the weapon into the Soviet soldier’s face. Blood spurted from his nose, and he fell to the ground. Stepping across him, Jenkins hammered the butt again into the skull of the second soldier.
He, too, collapsed, but the startled officer reacted and tried to grab at the weapon. Jenkins let it slip from his fingers, pulled the knife from the back of his belt, and rammed it against the officer’s throat, his left hand grasping his forehead to expose his neck even more. Without hesitation, he swung about to gain a better view of the downed soldiers and pressed the edge of the blade against the officer’s skin until a trickle of blood slipped free.
“I’m going to say this once,” he said into the officer’s ear. “You speak the Queen’s English, or I’ll cut your throat right here and now. You’re not the first Russian I’ve gutted, you red commie piece of shit.”
The bile in Jenkins’s words startled him, especially in the presence of his friend Alexeev, but the intent was true. Many pro-Nazi Russians had died in the Second Battalion’s first firefight after crashlanding. Plenty of them by Jenkins’s own hand. He pressed the blade harder, the hatred threatening to spill over.
“Peter Jenkins, stand down,” Alexeev said, rising from his bed. “This lieutenant and these men are Cheka. They are here to take me back to Soviet Zone for questioning.”
“Questioning? Over what? We’re back a couple of days, and you’ve spent every minute in the barracks.”
Alexeev approached and, reaching out a meaty hand, loosened the blade from the officer’s skin. “I have spent too much time with imperialist dogs like you, Peter Jenkins. Now that the Cheka have arrived with the reinforcements, I am to be relocated to the Soviet Zone where I will be interrogated and found guilty of crimes against the Soviet Union.”
Jenkins blinked at Alexeev’s response. Everything about his answer seemed wrong, yet the Russian appeared unfazed, even going so far as to help the soldiers back to their feet. Unsure of what to do, he loosened the blade further but kept it close enough to kill the officer if he needed to.
“Mate,” he said. “That makes no sense. How can you be guilty before you’ve even had a court martial? There’re so many things wrong about what you just said.”
“The State is never wrong, Peter Jenkins. Now, I am still your sergeant. You will drop knife and step aside.”
Gobsmacked, Jenkins stared at his colleague, but Alexeev focused his glare on him. With great reluctance, he released the Cheka officer, slipped his blade back into its sheath, and took a few steps towards his bunk with the rifle leaning against it. Shaking his head, Alexeev warned him off. The two bloodied soldiers prodded their weapons and shepherded him out the door, the officer following close behind.
Shocked by Alexeev’s words, Jenkins downed his shot of vodka and raced into the corridor to find Lieutenant McCabe.
MEDICAL BAY, COMMAND AND CONTROL BUILDING, NEW BERLIN
Sitting on the hospital bed, McCabe pulled out a cigarette and glanced again at the curtains surrounding him. He lit up and took several rapid drags while Dr Fawcett paced around, studying his charts. He had snuck into the medical bay early, hoping to avoid seeing anyone who might know him. The elderly doctor tested his blood and ran him through a variety of checks. Even in full British battledress, McCabe felt more exposed than when he stripped himself down.
“And you say you feel the sensations of not being able to breathe, even though you can?” Fawcett said, squinting over his spectacles.
“Yes, sir. It’s like I know I’m breathing normal, but this feeling comes from the inside and makes me think I’m not. It’s the same with my heart. It’s like it’s hammering, but if I check my pulse, everything is grand.”
“Interesting. And do these sensations occur when you’re under fire?”
“No, sir. Never. It happens at random intervals, normally when things are going fine and dandy. That’s what makes it so strange.”
“Well, it’s nothing physical,” Fawcett said, resting the chart on a nearby table. “I doubt it’s battle shock, considering it’s not affecting you when under attack. May I ask how many cigarettes you smoke and how much alcohol you consume?”
“Yes, sir. About a pack a day and five or six pints a week. When not in the field, of course. They haven’t built an EVA to facilitate the smokers in the battalion yet.”
“Well, there’s something we can start with straight away then, Lieutenant. I want you to begin smoking two packs a day and move on to hard liquor. Whisky, perhaps, or brandy. Cigarettes are an excellent way of relaxing the mind, while a nice scotch can ease it of any undue worries and concerns.”
McCabe nodded, not entirely convinced of the doctor’s reasoning. The sensations and uncontrollable hand shaking had happened twice since settling into the barracks and neither a cigarette nor a stiff drink made him feel any better. Still, with no other remedy suggested, he had no other options. As medicines went, at least he’d enjoy this prescription.
“Thank you, sir,” he said and rose to exit.
Flapping his hands, Fawcett mumbled a reply while McCabe slipped out from behind the curtains. Puffing on his cigarette, he glanced about and relief washed through him at not seeing anyone he knew in the empty medical bay. Somewhat placated, he turned his thoughts to Sergeant Alexeev’s predicament and that of the other Soviet-aligned soldiers recalled after returning from the field. He’d attempted to inform Mad Jack the moment Jenkins told him but, so far, had been unable to reach their commanding officer. He stepped out into the corridor, flicked his cigarette away, and stopped in his tracks at recognising a face he hadn’t seen in a while.
“Colonel Henke,” he said, saluting the West German officer.
“Lieutenant McCabe,” Henke said, returning the gesture. “I heard about your battlefield promotion. My congratulations.”
“Thank you, Colonel.”
Henke extended a gloved hand to the auburn-haired woman standing next to him. Piercing, cool granite eyes stared back at McCabe. It took a moment to place her face, but he recognised her from the battle outside the government district.
“I trust you remember the Army of David leader Miss Zofia Nowak?”
“Captain Nowak,” she said, eyeing McCabe.
Blinking at her words, McCabe enacted a confused salute and brought his hand back down.
“Of course,” Henke said. “Please, forgive me. Captain Nowak. As you can see, Lieutenant, old habits die hard.”
“Congratulations,” McCabe said. “I wasn’t aware the Army of David had been incorporated into the Mars Occupation Force.”
“The MOF leadership would never make such a wise decision,” Nowak said, her lips curling into a snarl. “With Colonel Henke’s assistance, my fighters have formed a Freikorps battalion alongside the West Germans. We operate outside the normal chain of command and provide security within the colony.”
Not for the first time since arriving on Mars, McCabe found himself caught off guard with their unique alliance. Colonel Henke had been an officer in the Wehrmacht during the war back on Earth. Although he served with distinction throughout the Battle of New Berlin and had since sworn allegiance to West Germany, McCabe had never been able to shake off his mistrust of the man’s previous commitment to the Third Reich.
Nowak, on the other hand, had been a slave for at least ten years and, under Nazi boots, had built the Army of David. Those fighters had engaged in some of the bloodiest encounters to seize the colony. Given both groups’ history, it would have been natural for them to be enemies. Yet the two opposites stood side by side in front of him.
“I take it from your expression you haven’t heard of our work?” Henke said.
“No, sir. Then again, I’ve spent eight months hunting down werewolves out in the Badlands. I did notice there’re considerably less explosions than the last time I was here.”
“I must give full credit to Captain Nowak for that,” Henke said, drawing out his cigarette case and offering one to McCabe and Nowak.
Both accepted, and after lighting them, Henke continued. “After the insurgency started dying down, we still had daily clashes between the Jewish and German populations, sometimes even against the MEF peacekeepers. Nowak suggested we form an all-German-speaking battalion to try and forge a bridge between these disparate communities. We took her fighters, a handful of recruits from the anti-Nazi minority here in the colony, and former Wehrmacht and Volkssturm soldiers deemed sufficiently de-Nazified. Staffed and led by my West German NCOs and officers, we kept a lid on the violence and perhaps even prevented some atrocities.”
“My compliments to you,” McCabe said and dragged on his cigarette. “Whatever results in fewer bullets flying around is a win in my books.”
“Speaking of which,” Henke said, leaning in close. “I hoped to speak with Lieutenant Colonel Wellesley about our up-and-coming assignment, but I haven’t been able to get a hold of him. Perchance you could ask him on my behalf? There is much that needs to be discussed.”
“I’d be happy to, sir,” McCabe said, tapping the ash off his cigarette. “The Colonel has been busy…”
He trailed off, mind focusing on Henke’s words. As he replayed the sentence over in his head, a lump of ice formed in his stomach.
“If I may, sir. What assignment?”
“The Second Battalion being deployed to Forward Base Zulu for operational experience and training up the new MOF arrivals. The First New Berliner Freikorps Battalion will be sent, too. I’m sure you’re sick of the field after your last stretch, but for me, it will be good to get out of the colony for a little while.”
The world collapsed around McCabe. Head spinning, he battled to maintain his composure. Two years. For two years, he had fought and bled on Mars. Reinforcements had finally arrived, ships orbited the planet, and each one had ferried thousands of soldiers to Mars, which meant they had vacancies to ship the veterans of the Mars Expeditionary Force back. Especially considering only a fraction of their original number still lived. They couldn’t keep him there any longer. Could they?
“Excuse me, sir,” McCabe said, flicking his cigarette away. “I must speak with Colonel Wellesley immediately. I’ll be sure to pass on your message.”
Without pausing to salute, McCabe took off down the corridor at the fastest pace he could muster short of sprinting. His mind raced. The tightness in his chest squeezed its iron grip around his lungs, and dizziness cascaded through his vision, but he pushed on. The MOF had to send them home. They had fulfilled their obligations. Served Queen and country.
They had to let them go. They had to.
FORWARD BASE ZULU, THE CUTLINE BORDER
Against the bleak Martian landscape, one structure towered over all. Adjusting the binoculars, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Brandt soaked up the sight of the building situated on plain, open land with a spine of hills and peaks on its east where he hid. He had studied the plans smuggled out of New Berlin but seeing it with his own eyes brought the Allied construction to life.
“Forward Base Zulu,” General Fischer said from his side. “I do not like to give the Allies credit, but to construct such a thing in five months is impressive.”
“Never underestimate the enemy,” Brandt said, lowering his binoculars. “My predecessor made that mistake once, and it cost us everything.”
The thoughts of that old fool Generalfeldmarschall Seidel caused Brandt’s blood to boil and the shrapnel scar covering half his face to ache. He glared at the shadowy outline of Forward Base Zulu, wishing his unadulterated hatred alone could obliterate such an eyesore from the face of Mars.
Two years had passed since Seidel’s defeat at the hands of the Mars Expeditionary Force. The traitor General Schulz’s surrender was the final nail in the coffin of the Third Reich’s grip on the planet. In that time, werewolf agents fought bravely to disrupt the enemy’s occupation. Hit squads targeted the MEF’s leadership and the prominent Jewish activists. Bomb attacks spread even more disruption, but it wasn’t enough.
Singlehandedly, Brandt took the disorganised remnants of the Wehrmacht and built them into something new. Even some SS units, still loyal to the Führer, came over to his side. During that time, he invested every waking minute in gathering these disparate elements and forging them into one unstoppable force. It meant laying low, staging minor operations to keep the enemy engaged and even causing grumblings from his officers, but it was worth it. Soon, they would lead an all-out offensive against the invaders, aided by millions of the natives about to cast their lot with the German Volk.
Keeping low, Brandt slid down the hill out of view of the base and circled back around a rocky outcrop. He paused long enough for Fischer to catch up and then carried on down the path. In the dark, it took them longer to navigate, but within five minutes, they reached the hatch leading into the underground installation established by their native allies. He marvelled at their ingenuity in building an extensive network beneath the surface to counter the MOF’s air superiority. Such tenacity reflected their status as honorary Aryans.
Fischer unlocked the outer airlock, allowing Brandt to climb down first. They worked their way through the narrow shaft and waited for the airlock below to pump atmosphere in before they removed their EVA suits. Brandt took a moment to adjust his uniform, fix his cap, and wipe dust from the medals dangling from his chest. As the highest-ranking member of the Wehrmacht, it was on him to set a good example and become the beacon for their dreams of revenge.
Walking into the corridor, he snapped up his hand in anticipation of the salute from his personal guard. They trudged on down the hallway, soldiers and native militia stepping aside and coming to attention in his presence. When he entered the command centre, all rose and lifted their arms.
“Heil Hitler,” every voice echoed.
“Heil,” he said and waved his hand for everyone to stand easy.
Along the flanks of the room, radio operators relayed orders and jotted down updates. Junior officers used counters to move the positions of enemy and allied forces across a huge map that took up the centre of the room. All stepped aside at his approach, and he glanced down at the latest reports. He studied the entire area of MOF control and the disputed zones along their so-called Cutline border. Smiling, he wondered if they even knew how many native units had infiltrated their territory in preparation for the offensive.
Brandt turned and accepted the salute from Oberst Walu. Despite his stature, the Native Martian officer looked prim and proper in his officer’s uniform, chin tilting up with pride. Initially, Brandt had been hesitant to allow natives into the Wehrmacht, but the need for manpower overruled any reluctance. Their conduct, zeal, and adherence to National Socialist ideology dispelled any notions of incompetence, and he remained grateful for their commitment to defending the Reich. In many ways, he had taken Walu under his wing, training him to be the ideal leader of the native militia who would spearhead the up-and-coming offensive.
“Stand easy, Oberst.”
“Thank you, Herr Feldmarschall,” Walu said in the accented German twang the natives spoke. “The reports you asked for.”
After accepting the files, Brandt flipped them open and skimmed through the requested information. Every day, the native militia, known amongst their own people as the Red Blades, grew in strength. Volunteers flocked from across the twenty-three clans, eager to join the struggle against the Jewish-Bolshevik invaders and their Mars Occupation Force puppets.
“Have you any reports on your leaderships council meeting, Oberst?”
Walu’s demeanour changed ever so slightly, chin lowering, shifting his weight from side to side. “No, Herr Feldmarschall. Eleven clans stand with us, ten against, with two undecided. Unless we can convince the remaining two to vote for the Red Blades’ plan to commence the war of liberation, the legitimacy of our actions remains in question. Volunteers will join us, but without a council majority devoid of abstentions, we will not have official support.”
Returning his attention to the map, Brandt focused on New Berlin. Without the mass mobilisation of millions of Native Martians to aid the cause, the outcome of the war lay in jeopardy. He would not allow another defeat to taint his honour. The time to cast the dice and strike had arrived. Any further delay threatened their morale and could permit the initiative to slip to the MOF.
“Do what you must,” he said, facing Walu again. “Take any and all actions necessary to persuade the council to support our efforts. Do I make myself clear, Oberst?”
“Yes, Herr Feldmarschall.”
Dismissing him with a hand flap, Brandt’s gaze shifted to Forward Base Zulu on the map. Soon, he would have his chance to test his new fighting formations in the field. Many good men and natives would die in the approaching conflict, but their blood would cleanse the Martian soil of its occupation by the decadent Western Democracies and their Red Horde allies.
Revenge drew near. Sooner than they expected.
423KM EAST OF NEW BERLIN, FORWARD BASE ZULU
Hopping out the transport door, Private Shirley Watford soaked up the hustle and bustle of the hangar bay and tried to stop grinning. Adjusting the bag straps on her shoulders, she fell into line and followed her comrades as they trekked across the bay to the waiting officers.
Rows of vessels lined the floor. Teams worked in precise movements, unloading crates of ammunition, food, and equipment. She glanced up at the ceiling at least three stories above her, marvelling at the sheer size of it all, giving her an idea of how sprawling the facility was. To think its construction took five months astounded her. It spoke volumes on the British ability to roll up its sleeves and get the job done.
The line halted at three desks manned by officers. For the dozenth time in the last hour, she patted down her red and black Mars Occupation Force uniform. As she gazed at the women in front of and behind her, a smile crossed her face again. She knew she had to wipe it away before facing the officer, but she allowed herself a moment of triumph. Shirley Watford from Manchester – an actual, real-life soldier.
The sense of glee faded when she thought of the day she came across the advertisement. Tears still in her eyes from burying her father, she noticed the flyer hanging from the lamppost calling on volunteers to do their part and offering a challenging adventure. With her two brothers killed in the war and her mother long since dead, Watford took the leap. She was surprised to learn the job was affiliated with the army and even more so when they accepted her after all those interviews and tests. No women were allowed to serve in the British Army outside of wartime, so at best, she expected to be relegated to a support role. For once in her life, a man held the door open rather than slamming it in her face.
“Male or female, it makes no odds to me,” her instructor, Lieutenant O’Reilly, barked at her recruit platoon. “You’re all equal piles of dog shit in my eyes.”
The training nearly broke her, but she clung on. Nowhere else to go and no prospects, she dug in with an animalistic ferocity, even when men and women she considered stronger than her gave up. She endured the catcalls and wolf whistles. The eyeballs soaking up her figure, staring at her curves, and the snickers behind her back. Being called “princess,” “sweetheart,” and “darling.” She took it all on the chin, gaze set on the prize. Shirley Watford – an actual soldier.
The line inched forward at a snail’s pace, but Watford used the time to attempt to suppress the growing giddiness building within her chest. She’d survived the gruelling training at the Atacama Desert base in Chile. Not only endured but flourished. No matter what her instructors threw, she took it with a calm head and achieved any objective they set. Even with her claiming the highest scores on the firing range, the old guard sought to demoralise her. Flabby, balding desk jockeys tried to tell her and the other gals it was all an experiment gone wrong. Women couldn’t serve in frontline roles.
“It would be bad for unit cohesion,” they said, singing from the same hymn sheet.
As she stood at the abyss of uncertainty, her dream fading before her very eyes, someone behind the scenes threw them a lifeline. Combat medic. They’d allow females to participate if they trained as combat medics.
Some quit soon after, and Watford couldn’t blame them. Bitterness lingered at realising they wouldn’t be regarded the same as their male counterparts. Watford persevered. She took the sneering disdain and used it for fuel. Understanding she had to prove herself, to work harder to receive equal treatment, she threw herself into the medical course, and it paid off. Five months of scrubbing bedpans in New Berlin’s military hospital, and there she was. Finally on the frontlines, attached to an actual combat unit. Shirley Watford – a soldier.
Exhaling, Watford ordered her thoughts, approached the desk, and stood to attention.
She saluted the seated lieutenant, noted his name tag said Barrymore, and passed him her orders and identity documents. While he perused everything and studied a list, she picked an imaginary spot on the wall and stared. A corporal behind Lieutenant Barrymore smirked and blew her a kiss.
“Right, Watford, I have you here,” Barrymore said. “Same as the rest. You’ll be reporting to Lieutenant Tracy in the medical bay for nursing duties. Next.”
“If I may, sir,” she said, accepting her documents back. “How long until we get to go into the field?”
“Nurses don’t get to go on ops,” Barrymore said without looking up. “No matter what good old Fighting Bill Tracy says about it. You’re assigned to the medical bay, and that’s where you’ll stay, twelve hours a day, five days a week. Next.”
The woman behind Watford tried to step past, but she stood her ground. Unadulterated fury pumped through her veins. She had done everything they asked and more. Every task completed to the maximum standard, no stone left unturned. Absolutely every objective exceeded without a flaw. For this?
“Excuse me, sir,” she said, fighting the urge to scream until her lungs burst. “I’m a combat medic, not a nurse. I’ve been trained to perform battlefield surgeries to stop men from dying before they can be evacuated. I was assured this assignment would involve me being attached to a combat unit.”
Barrymore dropped the pen from his hand and met her gaze. His jaw tightened when he stared into her eyes, but she refused to flinch. They’d promised her. They made her jump through hoops. She earned the right to be treated with the smallest amount of respect.
“Listen here, missy. This is the Mars Occupation Force, not a little princess party for your dollies. You have been assigned as a nurse at the medical bay, and that’s exactly what you’ll bloody well do. Now, be a good girl, unscrunch your panties, slip into something a little less comfortable, and run along.”
It took every ounce of Watford’s reserves not to punch him there and then. Her entire body trembled from the sheer flood of anger rushing through her limbs. Balling her hands into fists, she imaged pounding Barrymore’s face into the dust and tearing his innards out with her fingers.
“Walk it off,” a voice whispered from behind.
She turned about and glared at the woman standing there. Half-expecting a smug smile, she readied herself to throw a punch. Instead, she looked over the faces of a dozen angered women, jaws set, shaking their heads, and staring in contempt at the officer.
“Walk it off,” the soldier closest to her said again. “Don’t let them get under your skin. Take a deep breath, exhale, and we’ll figure it out later.”
Somehow, those words cut through the tsunami of frustration smashing through her body. She turned about and, biting her cheek to stop from screaming, walked out of the line to find the medical bay.
“Smile more, darling,” Barrymore called after her, half-chuckling. “You’ll look prettier.”
Nipping the inside of her mouth harder until she tasted blood, Watford ignored his words.
“I’m a soldier,” she whispered to herself. “I am a soldier.”
EISENHOWER COLONY, US ZONE OF OCCUPATION
Devoid of his SS uniform, Reichsführer Ernst Wagner felt almost naked. For years, he’d commanded the SS across the colonies, but those days were long over now. He ran a gloveless hand down his shirt and tie and fixed the creases on his jacket. The fabric itched against his skin, but he pushed such irritations aside. That day marked the pinnacle of his achievements, and it wasn’t like he’d be in that body for long. The longer he stayed in any given time period, the higher the chances Anna Bailey or the Core Cadre would attempt to kill him. His death wouldn’t have a serious impact on the primary timeline, but he enjoyed being alive and admiring his work. After years of experiments and failures, his dreams were finally coming through.
“When you’re ready, Herr Reichsführer,” Dr Elizabeth Rimes said in her bastard American accent.
Forcing a smile, he gave the slightest of nods. “Thank you, Doctor.”
They walked through a narrow corridor in the underground facility and stepped into the training hall. Wagner paused mid-step, gasped, and gazed across the rows of uniformed teenagers all standing at attention, eyes straight forward, unmoving. Tears welled up in his eyes when he took in those youthful faces, each one representing the next generation of soldiers. Engrained warriors, all.
“Is it everything you imagined, Herr Reichsführer?” Rimes asked.
He held up a finger to silence any other questions and took a cautious pace forward. Not since activating Anna Bailey had he experienced such joy. His run-in with the group of Core Cadre soldiers in the last moments of the Battle of New Berlin confirmed his righteousness. The Hollow Programme would be a resounding success. All the trials, all the errors. All worth it.
“One hundred in total,” Rimes said. “No losses. Every one of them from the genetic profiles you provided, all aged between ten and fourteen years and in perfect health. Interestingly enough, a significant portion were strays and orphans. The rest, well, as far as their families are concerned, they simply vanished. Each specimen has had their memories wiped to remove any attachment to their previous lives.”
Wagner approached a boy of not more than twelve years and studied him. Aside from his chest rising and falling and the odd eye-blink, he didn’t move, even with his proximity. He pushed on, strolling down the front line, taking in each face as he passed, heart threatening to burst with joy.
“Are they combat-ready, Doctor?”
“Yes, Herr Reichsführer. Since their activation five months ago, they’ve endured rigorous preparation in the Rigs and the real world. All of them are trained up to the level of special forces operatives. They are beyond proficient in every weapon at our disposal and hand-to-hand combat. Don’t let their young faces fool you, Herr Reichsführer. These are flesh and blood killing machines. Would you care for a demonstration?”
“Nothing would please me more,” Wagner said and stepped back.
“Holly, Ashe, step forward.”
Two girls from the first line stomped their feet, marched, and came to a stop in front of them. Raising an eyebrow, Warner looked them over and turned to Rimes.
“You gave them names?”
“Designations, Herr Reichsführer. Although we’ve removed their memories and conditioned them to obey, our early psychological studies indicated a certain…subconscious rejection of being labelled as numbers. We may treat them like machines, but they are still human. We found they gel together more efficiently if they can relate to each other on a more natural level. Hence, designations.”
“Very well. Proceed.”
Extending a hand, Rimes pointed out the girl on the right. “This is Holly. One of our first activations. We located her outside a Choctaw reservation. She’s one of our finest trainees. To her left, we have Ashe, originally from Mexico City and a top contender to become senior private within the company. Both girls are quite close to each other and spend a lot of time training together. I’m hoping this will make this a bit more interesting. On your command, Herr Reichsführer.”
“Very well. On my order, you will fight. The victor is the one still breathing at the end. Begin.”
Holly lunged first, her fist a missile aimed at Ashe’s head. Ashe pulled back and swung a hook, catching Holly on the jaw and forcing her back. She threw another punch, but Holly blocked and countered with a spinning kick to her head. Again, Ashe dodged and, with spectacular speed, closed the distance and levelled a vicious whack to the gut. Holly managed to grab her wrist, turn her arm, and force Ashe face-first to the floor, but she wrenched her limb free, rolled over and threw a kick.
Holly evaded the blow, and both young women scrambled to their feet again. She closed the distance, jabbing while Ashe deflected every strike. She fell, swung her leg, and swept the legs from under Ashe, who thudded down but lashed out a foot, catching Holly in the stomach. Undeterred, Holly surged forward again, slapping away Ashe’s legs, and dropped her weight onto her, smashing her knee into her groin.
Ashe grabbed her shoulders, hooked her legs around Holly, and attempted to hurl her to the ground, but Holly held her position. She slammed her knuckles, the shot absorbed by Ashe’s forearm. She slipped a hand under her guard and inched up closer while she drove her forehead downwards, smashing her on the nose and splattering blood across her face.
With Ashe dazed from the blow, Holly raised her hand and punched, catching her again on the face. Fists pounded against flesh, a slapping noise echoing throughout the room. Following every attack, Ashe’s body turned limper, her face deteriorating every second. When her arms collapsed unmoving to her sides, Holly paused, primed to strike, but frozen as she stared down at her colleague.
“Finish it,” Wagner said.
Devoid of the slightest hesitation, Holly rained her knuckles down, splitting Ashe’s face. She punched until she hammered through bone and brain and then stood bolt upright. Splatters of blood dripping from her hands, she came to attention.
“Excellent,” Wagner said, clapping his hands. “How absolutely spectacular. You have outdone yourself, Rimes. MAJESTIC-12 will be most pleased with your progress.”
Double doors on the side wall of the training room opened, capturing Wagner’s interest. Rimes turned about and nodded as an MOF officer strolled in, pausing for a second to stare at the body before approaching them.
“Herr Reichsführer,” Rimes said. “May I present General Hatfield, the US MOF liaison for the Hollow Programme.”
Wagner extended his hand, but Hatfield glared back, his eyes narrow pinpoints of hatred. Taking the hint, Wagner lowered his hand and flashed a smile instead.
Hatfield turned to face Rimes. “Tell this baby murderer the signal he’s waiting on came through. I want him off my installation ASAP. There’s a lot of people here, myself included, who’d love to cut this SS sonofabitch into tiny pieces, nice and slow.”
Hatfield spat on the ground and turned to exit the room.
“Herr General,” Wagner called after him. “Be sure to send my regards to your superiors. Their assistance has been most exceptional.”
Grinning to himself, Wagner turned his attention to Rimes. “It appears I must leave now, Doctor. Keep up the excellent work. I look forward to reading your reports. Please also ensure my Hollow body is maintained in this timeline. Should the Core Cadre attempt to disrupt my plans here, I may need to enact countermeasures.”
Without waiting for a reply, Wagner sauntered back the way he had come. Everything he envisioned stretched out ahead of him, from that very moment to an empire inconceivable for anyone else of his generation. The threads tying them all together lay for him alone to see.
Every strand rested in his hands, the eternal puppet master.
APPROACHING FORWARD BASE ZULU
A dark cloud hung over the members of Third Platoon, A-Company, Second Battalion. Jenkins suspected it emanated from Lieutenant McCabe and, from there, infected everyone else. Sitting in the transport, he glanced over the various morose faces. No laughter or banter broke out, and all avoided eye contact with one another. The men of the former Mars Expeditionary Force stared at nothing, lips clamped tight, sometimes shaking their heads slightly.
They weren’t going home. Not yet. Despite the massive influx of reinforcements to bolster the colony defences, the powers-that-be insisted the reorganised Mars Occupation Force still wasn’t combat-ready. Fewer than ten percent of the new arrivals had been assigned as replacements to the battle-hardened MEF formations leading the fight against the werewolves and their Wehrmacht allies.
More training was needed. Additional integration into field units to sponge up veterans’ experience. Jenkins wanted to point out the MEF hadn’t exactly gotten time to acclimate, with bullets blasting at them from the minute their boots touched Martian soil, but no one cared what a young corporal thought.
To his credit, McCabe fought for them. He rallied Mad Jack into broaching it with the leadership, to no avail. Even though the Second Battalion had lost half their number and battled constantly for two years, the decision was made, and orders handed down. The Second Battalion and the First New Berliner Freikorps Battalion were to be posted at some shithole backwater called Forward Base Zulu right on the Cutline.
The closest thing even approaching good news was that at least their numbers were finally being replenished with replacements. For the first time since arriving in orbit on the USAF North Carolina, the Second Battalion had a thousand soldiers swelling their ranks.
Across from him, McCabe fumbled for a match, cigarette dangling from his lips. Something had changed in his demeanour since finding out the news. The fire in his eyes petered out. He acted more withdrawn and less willing to help or answer any questions. Jenkins couldn’t blame him. Everyone handled it in different ways. He experienced shock at learning their leave was being cut short and their return journey postponed, but he focused on his job. With Alexeev and the other Russians relocated back to the Soviet Zone, Jenkins found himself as acting platoon sergeant, which represented a significant increase in his workload.
“There it is,” Private Wallace said, angling to stare out of the nearest window port.
Jenkins turned in his seat and glanced out the port behind him. When the transport circled to reach the external landing pad, he shifted his position until their new home for the next few weeks came into view. As bases went, it was one of the strangest he had ever been posted to.
Forward Base Zulu reminded him of a pyramid with the apex smoothed off. Reddish-brown coloured stone covered the smooth diagonal exterior blemished by window ports and retractable gun emplacements. The flattened tip of the installation, which housed the Command and Control Centre, could be used as an emergency landing pad. The main one rested to the west, past where the structure met the ground.
Barbed wire fences and trenches ran around the perimeter, protected by a variety of heavy machine guns, mortars, artillery, and anti-aircraft pieces. Formations of EVA-clad soldiers marched along the open spaces between the emplacements. Smaller teams patrolled the sand outside.
Hills to the east looked like the only noticeable features on otherwise flat land. In his mind, it didn’t exactly look like a strategic piece of terrain. From the mission briefings, housing a base there allowed the MOF to project their power hundreds of klicks in every direction and reinforce the Cutline should the enemy ever attempt to attack en masse. With their use of transports, platoons and even companies could be deployed to a hotspot in minutes.
As the transport slowed for its descent, Jenkins again looked over the faces of his platoon, reminded for the millionth time of the soldiers no longer with them. Over half were replacements, the majority newbies, and in many ways, it was like looking at two distinct groups.
In a form of silent protest, the men of the Mars Expeditionary Force continued to don their home countries’ uniforms beneath their EVAs and even on duty. British, French, West German, and Polish soldiers, all united by the common horror they had endured alone for two years. The replacements, on the other hand, all wore the so-called MOF Red’n’Blacks. Senior officers publicly and privately harangued the MEF veterans about it, but no official order came down to wear the MOF’s uniform, most likely not to demoralise an already exhausted fighting force.
The transport thudded onto the landing pad, prompting Jenkins and the rest of the platoon to pull on their helmets. Grinding noises resonated through the hull when the pad lowered into the underground hangar bay. He stood and moved to the airlock door. McCabe alone kept his helmet off in clear breach of protocol, the only movement coming from his hand when he brought his cigarette to his lips. Jenkins said nothing and, gripping the handle, waited for the signal. The transport came to a standstill with a final bang. Three minutes passed until the light over the door flashed green. He yanked on the release, shoved open the airlock, and bellowed.
“Out! Out! Now! Get those arses off my transport.”
With their equipment, bags, and weapons, the platoon raced out and formed up beside the craft. Egged on by the corporals, they removed their EVA suits and straightened their uniforms. McCabe stubbed his cigarette out and, without making eye contact, shuffled his way after them, Jenkins following on his heels. Outside, the rest of the battalion, plus their Freikorps allies, arranged themselves into parade formation. Cajoling his soldiers to be on their best behaviour, he marched them on, taking their designated place within the Second Battalion lines.
Jenkins soaked up the size of the underground hangar and the sheer volume of equipment being unloaded. Weapons and ammunition of every kind poured from transports and shipped into the base in an unending stream of movement. It took five minutes for the battalions to form up, and when Mad Jack gave the order, they all came to attention. On a small podium set up in front of the assembled soldiers, an officer wearing the MOF Red’n’Blacks strode out and ordered them to stand easy.
“My name is Colonel Walter Penford, commanding officer of this installation and formerly of Her Majesty’s Irish Guard. It is my distinct honour to welcome you to Forward Base Zulu, your new home for the next several months. During this time, I expect…”
Zoning out, Jenkins glanced over the mass of soldiers around him. Officers tended to drone on about things the enlisted took as obvious. Since no one had ordered him to hang on Colonel Penford’s every word, he kept an ear out for anything of interest and utilised the time to get a closer look at the rest of the battalion and their new Freikorps allies.
“…decency, honour, and respect. I expect all my soldiers to adhere to these guidelines without…”
A quick estimate showed around half the Second Battalion wearing the MOF uniform, intermixed across all platoons and companies. Meanwhile, the Freikorps battalion all sported light grey khaki uniforms, almost British in design. He suspected the pattern helped them blend in better with the variety of buildings back in New Berlin. Recognising a few of the West German NCOs from past operations during the insurgency, he made a note to say hello after.
“…to not let our guard down. This may be a relatively tranquil area on the Cutline, but we must not surrender to complacency. Everyone should remain vigilant…”
Returning his focus to his own platoon, Jenkins once again thought of Alexeev. It didn’t seem right to be on a mission without the burly Russian. Quiet as he acted on a day-to-day basis, he came to life under fire and had saved many of them countless times over. He glanced over at McCabe, who met his gaze. Eyebrows furrowing, he nodded back at Penford. Taking the hint, Jenkins looked up at the yammering officer and sighed.
“And remember,” Penford said. “That we fulfil our obligations, not as British, French, Polish, or West German soldiers. We are one army. We are one people. We are Terrans!”
Unfamiliar with the last term, Jenkins turned to flash a glance at McCabe when half the battalion raised their rifles and shouted.
The unexpected thundering boom of so many voices caught Jenkins off guard. Veterans of the MEF exchanged glances, but those in MOF uniforms smiled from ear to ear, faces lighting up. Penford lifted his hands until silence crossed the floor.
“My sincere apologies to the majority of you who have been here far longer than us new arrivals,” he said. “You must be unfamiliar with our slogans and protocols. Let us try again.”
He unholstered his pistol, raised it into the air and shouted. “Protect Terra.”
More people added themselves to the din this time, veteran MEF and Freikorps. Creases still crossed foreheads, and soldiers turned to mouth queries to each other, but they held their weapons aloft.
Goosebumps rushed across Jenkins’s forearms. Waves of fervour surged through the battalions as two thousand voices merged into one.
Lifting his own rifle, he joined in the fray, still unsure of what he was cheering about. After three more rounds, Penford dismissed the men and returned them to their officers’ control to seek out their accommodations and postings. On Mad Jack’s orders, they broke down into their companies and marched into the main base.
Wondering who Terra was and why they needed protecting, Jenkins spurred his platoon on.
This is the end of the excerpt!
Copyright 2023 by Damien Larkin
Published by Dancing Lemur Press, L.L.C.
P.O. Box 383, Pikeville, North Carolina, 27863-0383
iTunes – https://books.apple.com/us/
B&N – https://www.barnesandnoble.
Kobo – https://store.kobobooks.com/
Scribed – https://www.scribd.com/search?
Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/dp/
Amazon UK – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/
Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/
About the Author
Damien Larkin is an Irish science fiction author and co-founder of the British and Irish Writing Community. His debut novel Big Red was published by Dancing Lemur Press and went on to be longlisted for the BSFA award for Best Novel. He currently lives in Dublin, Ireland.