Schmidt huddled against the far corner of the dark room.
He was no longer a soldier of the German Wehrmacht.
He was a killer of vermin. Vermin that lived in the sewers.
Vermin that crawled along the bottom of trenches. Vermin
that scurried through the rubble that was the city of Stalingrad.
Schmidt had entered the mindless expanse of the Soviet Union
a soldier. Less than a year later, he'd been reduced to
an exterminator, to exterminating vermin for Hitler.
Vermin that killed with gun and shovel and bottles of burning
gasoline. With crooked teeth. With fingers frozen into claws.
Vermin that flowed in a never-ending tide.
Barbaric. Godless. Vermin.
Schmidt licked his cracked lips, tasting the ash and the
dust and the shit.
He was the last one left of his squad, a squad formed from
the remains of a platoon, forty men with whom he had shared
both laughter and hardship until only one remained.
The bodies lay scattered about, broken and twisted and torn.
The details he couldn't see by the dirty light that passed
through the small window set high above him he could easily
imagine for on a daily basis he had seen this war devise
yet another new horror.
The Soviets must have tunneled under the building for suddenly
the fevered discussion had stopped as the floor erupted
and the room became an open grave.
Schmidt alone survived.
He would have believed that the rent in the earth led down
to the bowels of hell itself but he knew he was already
They would come. There was no question regarding that. They
would want to make sure, to see the wanton destruction of
human life with their own beady eyes. The vermin, they would
The generals had thought it simple to drive the Soviets
out of their positions, to round the communists up in sacks
to be dumped into the Volga where the vermin would drown.
The Soviets had instead allowed themselves to be squeezed
into a dense mass of teeth and claw and rabid fury. And
still the generals persisted with their madness.
Between the thumps of the mortars, Schmidt could hear the
vermin coming, the click of their claws. They were in the
walls around him, the ceiling above, the floor below. They
They were nowhere.
Schmidt waited for the door to burst open, the Soviets to
pour in, the killing to continue. He no longer felt the
ravages of hunger and thirst, the lice that itched, the
cold that cut through all other miseries.
There was nothing but the waiting, waiting to kill and be
killed, seconds ticking like shards of broken glass.
Schmidt no longer remembered a time before or a time before
that. There was only now.
He was trapped in a concrete box. There were two exits and
both would be swarming with Soviets climbing over each other
in anticipation of tearing him apart.
The tunnel would be dark, littered with debris from the
blast. The Soviets would hear him coming and he wouldn't
know where they were be until they opened fire.
The door was different. The members of his squad had fought
an intense delaying tactic as they'd withdrawn to this room
only to discover they'd reached a dead end. He was familiar
with this section of the building, the hallways, the places
the Soviets would find cover.
They would not be expecting him to attack.
Schmidt checked his Mauser and then the pouches on his belt.
The rifle appeared to be in working order. He had two full
clips and four rounds left in the third. Could fourteen
bullets carry him to freedom?
He set his trusted gun aside.
Moving carefully, he searched through the concrete dust
until he found a machine pistol, the weapon not as familiar
in his hands but deadlier in close combat, able to spit
out its thirty-two round clip in the time Schmidt took to
pull the trigger.
He would have the element of surprise on his side.
A bit of concrete was stuck in the barrel and try as he
might he could not dislodge the stone.
Schmidt threw the gun across the room.
The sound of the metal object hitting an exposed beam drew
the angry whoosh of a Soviet flamethrower.
Claws of fire reached around the edges of the door.
Schmidt retrieved his weapon as he backed into his corner.
They knew now that at least one person was alive in here.
The invader had not yet been defeated!
While Schmidt trained his rifle on the door, plans were
being hatched, orders were being given, vermin were being
Schmidt made sure he could reach his grenades.
Perhaps he should reconsider the gaping hole.
Why would the Soviets risk back-blast, flying shrapnel,
a collapse of the entire tunnel? Why post guards when no
one would -- no one could -- survive the explosion in such
a confined space?
His heart began to beat faster.
Had the Soviets themselves provided him with an escape route?
Stranger things had happened and opportunities must be seized
or momentum is lost. The Fuhrer would be outraged.
Schmidt edged towards the hole.
A tunnel had two ends. One was here. Where was the other
The Soviets would not have started digging from a place
they couldn't control. Even the most base burrowing animals
understood the wisdom in that.
This tunnel was no gift. It was a trap.
As it had so often since he'd put on his uniform, hope evaporated
leaving only the taste of a dry chalky dust in his mouth.
This tunnel. How long had it taken the Soviets to dig their
way under this room? How long had they needed to assemble
and ready the explosives?
Schmidt's squad had not been barricaded in this location
for days. They'd been in this room for five, ten minutes
at the outside. The Soviets could not have completed the
tunnel within that time frame.
The Germans hadn't fought a brilliant withdrawal. They'd
been driven to this room like mice through a maze. They'd
been out-thought by vermin.
Plus whatever he could scrounge from the bodies.
There wouldn't be much. He was the one who conserved ammunition,
the cautious one who rationed his energy, who watched from
the rear so he would be able to counter any flanking maneuver.
Perhaps there was a machine pistol in working order. He'd
never manage to fire fast enough otherwise, the vermin clawing
their way over their fallen comrades, slowly closing the
distance between he and they, now and forever.
Was Stalingrad any worse a place to die? What did it matter
whether he fell here or the wheatfields or some swamp, the
gates of Moscow, the tundra beyond?
Schmidt slumped against the wall.
The bodies had not scattered willingly. They had screamed
and jerked and cried and flailed and moaned and twitched
until the silence was finally still.
He needed a diversion.
Schmidt circled the pit, stepped over bodies, knelt to retrieve
grenades, all the while never taking his eyes off the door.
The vermin were taking their time. They probably assumed
that he'd been wounded by the blast and were hoping he'd
die from his injuries before they rushed the room.
Schmidt armed the three grenades and underhanded them as
far down the tunnel as he could manage from this angle.
He back-pedaled to his corner, his gun held firm.
Explosions rocked the room.
He squinted against the resulting cloud of powdered earth.
The vermin didn't react.
That is, they didn't come charging through the door, which
is what he expected, but they did in fact react. Schmidt
could definitely hear something.
With two ways in, why were the Soviets digging another?
Movement in the hole.
Schmidt adjusted his aim.
A rat scurried over the crest.
A second and third.
They made straight for the nearest body.
Schmidt took a step forward.
More rats came and they gathered on the Lieutenant's chest.
Another dozen scrambled out of the hole and across the short
He couldn't tear his eyes away.
The rats swarmed over the body, adding splashes of red to
the gray until one by one they slipped inside the Lieutenant's
uniform, squirming between buttons, up sleeves, down the
deep furrow of his neck.
The too-thin man now seemed bloated, the rippling contours
belying the fact that the Lieutenant was no longer capable
of even lifting a finger to defend himself.
At this distance, Schmidt should not have been able to hear
the tiny jaws snapping, the teeth cutting through flesh
He should not have been able to hear the vermin licking
He should not have been able to but he was.
The Lieutenant's uniform danced.
More rats joined the party.
Schmidt lowered his weapon.
Fourteen bullets. The blood would only draw more of the
vermin from the hole. He couldn't stop what had been started.
He could only await his turn.
The corpse lay still again.
Had the rats become sated, drowsy?
The Lieutenant's head rolled to the side and Schmidt half-expected
it not to stop.
The head returned to its original position and then, ever
so slowly, lifted up off the floor.
The dead Lieutenant lurched to a sitting position.
Schmidt heard himself groan.
Schmidt squeezed his eyes shut, a gambit that didn't work
any better this time for the scene was no different than
before, not at least in a positive way.
He raised the Mauser to his shoulder.
The Lieutenant had not come back to life, had not be reanimated.
Schmidt was not training his weapon on a superior. He was
not about to fire on a fellow German.
The thing shuffled forward.
Schmidt pulled the trigger.
A hole appeared in the Lieutenant's trousers above the knee.
The thing stopped, tottered, regained its balance.
The trouser leg shifted, undulated, until a dead rat dropped
out the cuff.
Another vermin scurried over from the hole and climbed up
The thing shambled closer.
Thirteen bullets. Schmidt fired. Twelve.
Again the rats rearranged themselves as the dead one was
The Lieutenant would not have been surprised to see how
he was being used, not if his grim silences during the radio
broadcasts were any indication.
The thing halved the distance between them.
Eleven. Ten. Reload with a fresh clip. Nine. Eight.
Vermin spilled over the edge of the hole, pulled the dead
from the jumbled pile of uniform and then took their place.
The rats strained the seams.
Tiny jaws snapping. Teeth cutting. Tongues tonguing.
The vermin rocked the body, leveraged it once again to a
Seven. Six. Five
Schmidt loaded his last clip.
Five bullets weren't going to change the outcome. A thousand
bullets wouldn't do that.
The Lieutenant's jaw dropped open.
One of the vermin poked out, whiskers twitching.
Schmidt bumped in the wall behind him. Stepped forward so
he could raise the gun and aim.
Aim. At what? This was not a thing that could be killed
with a single shot, each rat armed with its own heart and
Schmidt fired five times, allowing the recoil to spread
the bullets, to cause as much confusion as possible within
that mass of squirming bodies.
He ran left around the thing and then raced to the door.
What would the Soviets on the other side think of this gunfire?
That they were facing a reinforced army? That he'd lost
The door was jammed shut.
Schmidt swore and turned to find the thing reaching for
him. After faking left, Schmidt ran right, tripped over
something and then was flying through the air and falling
through the hole that had been ripped in the floor.
The impact drove the breath from him and Schmidt choked
on the dust that filled his lungs.
Above him, the thing teetered at the edge, the rats squealing
Then it jumped down, growing larger and larger until the
vermin blocked out the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Over four hundred of Stephen's stories and poems have been selected
to appear in more than a hundred publications. His website, www.stephendrogers.com includes
a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely information.
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