RATTENKREIG

By Stephen D. Rogers

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 there.

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 come.

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 were everywhere.

They were nowhere.

Scratching.

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.

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 readied.

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.

He stopped.

A tunnel had two ends. One was here. Where was the other located?

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. Schmidt coughed.

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.

Fourteen bullets.

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.

Scratching?

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.

Lieutenant Beck.

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 distance.

Schmidt froze.

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 and bone.

He should not have been able to hear the vermin licking their lips.

He should not have been able to but he was.

The Lieutenant's uniform danced.

More rats joined the party.

The feast.

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.

Was lurched?

Schmidt heard himself groan.

The vermin....

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 inside.

The thing shambled closer.

Thirteen bullets. Schmidt fired. Twelve.

Again the rats rearranged themselves as the dead one was replaced.

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 standing position.

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 brain.

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 his mind?

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 their delight.

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.


Return to Summer 2007 Table of Contents

2007 SPINETINGLER Magazine - All rights reserved
FEATURED BOOKS