Dieter crept across the rubble and through a gap in the wall between two houses. The rifle was heavy in his hands but he clutched it close, the only solid thing left in a broken world.
For days he had been hiding alone in the ruins, trying to find the courage to do as the Hitler Youth leader had told him, to protect Berlin from the barbarians from the east. He knew his duty, knew that the blood-thirsty Communists would kill everyone if he didn’t stop them, but he still trembled with fear at the thought of fighting these monsters. And so he had sat in the dark, cold, hungry, and alone, wishing that he could be the hero he was meant to be.
It was the cheering that finally brought him around. It had started this morning, resounding in waves through the city, and the sound made him sick. How dare the Russians celebrate destruction? They were vermin that needed to be cleansed.
Movement drew Dieter’s eye towards a shattered window. A huge man in a Russian uniform was walking up the street, a rifle hanging from his shoulder and the tooth of some terrible beast dangling on a string around his neck. A hunter. A killer. A Communist.
Dieter raised his rifle and pointed it at the soldier. He peered down the length of the barrel, but his trembling hands made it hard to aim. He took a deep breath and shifted his feet, trying to steady himself.
A broken brick slid out from under his foot. He stumbled against the wall as the brick clattered away.
The soldier looked straight at Dieter. Dieter’s heart raced as terror swept through him. He raised the gun again and placed his finger on the trigger, but as he looked into the man’s eyes he couldn’t bring himself to fire.
The soldier called out. Another man appeared beside him, old and stubbly, his uniform frayed. Now they outnumbered Dieter, but he mustn’t be afraid. He had to do what was right.
He took another deep breath, tried to tell himself that this was the right thing. He would be a hero if he killed these men.
The large soldier said something, then the old one raised his voice.
“What’s your name, boy?” he said in a thick Russian accent.
“I am Dieter Hahn, and I am going to kill you.”
“Of course you are, Private Hahn,” the old soldier said, his tone deadly serious. “Quite an achievement for such a young man. You must be, what, ten, eleven?”
“Well, then you’re a better soldier than either of us. We never killed anyone before we were eighteen, the sergeant and I. Of course, we never killed anyone when there wasn’t a war on.”
“You think this isn’t a war?” Dieter’s voice was shrill with grief and fury. “You killed my Uncle Klaus! You blew up my school! I’m going to kill you all!”
“This was a war,” the old soldier said. “But it ended today. Didn’t they tell you?”
Could it be true? Dieter barely remembered a time before the war, though he remembered a time before the ruin, and the thought of returning to that time made him want to cry with relief.
But heroes didn’t cry and heroes weren’t fooled.
“You’re lying,” he said, aiming the rifle once more. “It’s a trick to stop me fighting.”
The old soldier murmured something to his companion. The big man shrugged, reached into a pouch on his belt, and carefully pulled something out. First a length of sausage, then a hunk of bread, and finally a canteen. He set them down on the broken stump of a wall, stepped back, and said something to the old soldier.
“If this was still a war, we would give you bullets straight from our guns,” the old soldier said. “We’ve fought a hundred better soldiers than you, and we’ve won every time.”
“If we hadn’t won, would we still be here, offering you bread instead of bullets?”
The soldiers turned their backs on Dieter and walked away down the street.
“If you want more, then come find us,” the old soldier called out. “But get rid of that toy gun first.”
Dieter aimed down the length of the barrel. His hands were steadier now. He was ready to kill for his homeland.
But heroes didn’t shoot their enemies in the back.
He lowered the rifle and stood staring at the food. He was so hungry it hurt.
A sob burst unbidden from him. He dropped the rifle, stumbled out of the ruined building, and grabbed hold of the bread. His mouth watered as he tore a chunk off between his teeth and swallowed it almost without chewing.
He could hear cheering and singing, thousands of men celebrating in the ruins of the city, the ruins of his home.
Dieter picked up the sausage and the canteen. He stumbled down the street after the soldiers, still chewing as he went. He didn’t need to be hungry anymore, didn’t need to be alone. He would never know if he could have been a hero, and he didn’t care.
This story was written to go with Rats in the Rubble, my latest Commando comic, which is out this week. It follows a group of Soviet soldiers storming a ruined orphanage in the final days of World War Two, and the dilemmas they face when they find children still living there. Rats in the Rubble is available now through Comixology and direct from D C Thomson.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.
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These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.