2230 Hours, October 12, 1939
The sky was an angry hellish orange from the hundreds of fires that raged throughout the city of Cologne, acrid smoke soared upwards as burning embers drifted about. Bombed out buildings were everywhere, many of them mere piles of fractured stone and splintered wood while others had been reduced to gutted skeletons, several were simply roaring infernos with flames shooting skywards. The skies were being torn apart by battle against creatures that couldn't be described, sibilant alien howls, the throbbing shriek of their power plants, the hellish thunder and searing light of their weapons discharging, it dueled with the muted roar of human power plants, the nearly inaudible whine of striker units, and the crackle of human weaponry. On the ground, the uneven tempo of booted feet and clattering of strikers and tanks rang through the streets along with the strange sounds of the aliens moving and their vehicles.
A tipping point had been reached nearly a month ago and now the Neuroi were sweeping all aside nearly all resistance. The Germanian Heer and the BEF had faltered in their defense of Germania, ruthlessly ripped apart, and now were in full retreat. It seemed impossible to stop them now, particularly with them appearing seemingly everywhere now.
"We're almost to the bridge! Don't stop yet, don't stop yet! We get over that bridge and the lorries will get us out of this hellhole!" The leader of a formation of witches shouted, they were an eccentric mixture of Germanian, Britannian, and even a few Ostmarkians. Their striker units bore signs of heavy fighting, the metal skin was charred, pitted, torn, scratched, and dimpled while the muzzles of their weapons had heavy fouling with their battlepacks and webbing nearly empty.
"Are they still behind us?!" Another witch that was in the middle of the pack demanded, her weapon swinging frantically as she scanned her surroundings.
"I don't know!" Ostmarkian Army witch named Diana replied fearfully. Their will to fight was almost gone having been nearly broken by the aliens, behind them and thankfully out of sight lay their friends and comrades. Dead or dying or so badly wounded that they couldn't be moved, those that couldn't be moved along with a few volunteers had promised to buy time for them to escape. The gunfire behind them had faded away to mere background noise barely audible over the crackling of fires and the rumbling crash of collapsing buildings.
"Panzerhexe Gottlieb are the devils still behind us!?" The led Britannian witch barked, causing the lone Germanian witch that was bringing up rear, one Bettina Gottlieb to frantically look behind their group. Her grey eyes tried to pierce the darkness that was illuminated by fires and beams, she swore that she saw shapes moving through the dust and smoke.
She focused and had to restrain a yell of terror when they emerged, two immense 4-meter tall machines that stood on three legs that moved with disbelieving speed as they were propelled forwards. Swinging up to the firing position were two flexible appendages with glass maws that connected to a bulky brazen hood shaped control center the size of a .231 that mounted several machine guns or similar weapons on pintle mounts rested atop the machine, while situated under the pod was a cluster of tendrils that were used for manipulating objects or capturing POWs.
"CONTACT REAR, tripods!" Bettina yelled as an insidious glow came from the maws of the appendages as the thermal cannons cycled up for a discharge.
"Squad engage!" The Britannian snarled and Bettina spun and brought her 3.7 cm - 7.92 mm Panzerhexe Kanonen-Maschinengewehr Modell 1936 up, she carefully aimed down the sights at the closest tripod some 200-meters away. It loomed in the sight, she let out the breath she was holding and then pulled the weapon's upper trigger, the 37mm cannon kicked and roared, a glowing tracer streaked into the night.
Open the bolt. Bettina thought as she grabbed the bolt handle, moved her hand upwards and then back, the action causing a brass cartridge that was still smoking to eject from the weapon and clatter loudly on the pavement. The sharp distinctive sound audible over her Panzerkampfwagen III striker units.
Find a new shell and insert it into the breach. She rummaged through her webbing and was relieved to find another shell, the green tip indicating it was AP, without pause she inserted it into the breach of her weapon.
Close the bolt. She grabbed the handle and shoved it forwards until with a distinct clack it stopped and then with a sharp click she twisted the bolt down, securing it. Gods of Asgard, she wished that she had a model '38 instead of this model '36, the newer weapon had a three-round en bloc clip for it's 3.7cm cannon instead of the single-shot weapon she currently had.
A...sensation flashed through her mind and an instant later a blazing fluorescent blue shield with strange runes on it erupted into existence in front of her. Then the temperature of the air spiked as a beam of pure heat, appearing as naught but a ripple through the air, smashed against it causing a brilliant white point to erupt into existence like a blemish upon her shield. It only lasted a second and then the beam cutout and she dismissed it.
She breathed in and out, trying to control her pounding heart and the iron fear that threatened to swallow her whole, to despair at the fact that they likely wouldn't make it to Mülheimer Brücke before they were forced to blow it. The sharp cracks of Britannian Boys TWRs along with heartier booms of their Ostmarkian 27mm Panzerhexenkanonen and Germanian 37mm Panzerhexenkanonen counterparts snapped her out of it as more ripples lanced towards them with distinctive snap-hisses and snap-crackles. She settled the sights on the enemy and, releasing a breath to steady her aim, pulled the trigger. A heavy wham filled her ears as the riflebutt dug into her shoulder as the rifle's top barrel discharged.
Pure joy filled her chest as the round smashed into the left tripod's rear leg at the joint and simply sheared it away amid a scream of rending metal and an explosion of blackish-white material. For several comical moments the tripod staggers as it frantically tries to find it's footing and then it falls, with what seems like slowness at first but it quickly gathers speed until with a monumental boom that rattles the street it hits the ground. "Nice shot Gottlieb!" their Britannian leader complimented.
"Thanks ma'am!" Bettina shouted in response as the remaining Tripod lashed out with it's automatic weapons, tiny flares like cigarettes raced towards the group. The tiny rockets detonated on shields and against the street with harsh bangs, sending sprays of shrapnel singing through the air that clattered off the armor of the striker units, pinged off Mark III Dayfield Body Shields and Hexe-Panzer VI, and with hearty disturbing smacks buried into flesh. Witches cried out as they felt razor sharp fragments slice into them. Bettina was among them as sharp stinging pain bloomed in her thighs and arms as blood erupted from the wounds, she staggered to one side as the tripod lashed out with it's thermal cannons again as a horrible scream of agony filled the street.
She fumbled for another round and hastily loaded it, but before she could fire. The tripod was slammed by a major impact in it's command center, it staggered but remained upright.
That horrible sensation flashed through her mind again. Her shield snapped into existence as another invisible beam speared through the night. Sweat appeared on her brow as the heat from the beam penetrated her shield as the bastards maintained it. She didn't dare fire through her shield, it would require for an instant a small hole to allow the projectile through and she would probably miss but get a nice burn on her chest in return.
Suddenly the beam snapped out and several seconds later there was a loud crash as the tripod fell to the ground, flames licking out of it's command pod.
"Who got hit?" Bettina croaked as she lowered her rifle and took a swig from her canteen, Gods that had been brutal.
"Fisher did, she's already gone." A Britannian lieutenant witch, Maloney was her name if Bettina remembered correctly, answered grimly as she stood up from the broken body of the fifteen year old witch. Bile rose up in her throat as she got a good look at Fisher's corpse, it was hard to tell in the light, but the heat ray had partially cooked her and caused the lower part of her abdominal cavity to rupture, spilling the Britannian's intestines out. Corpse stink, the smell of cooked and burned meat, the stench of near boiling blood, along with smoldering cotton, and cordite surrounded the poor girl. Thank God that her eyes were closed, otherwise it might have been far too much.
"We have to go, I got her dog tags." The Lieutenant said as Bettina tore her gaze away from Fisher's body, she'd seen men and girls fall in battle before but had never seen anything like what had happened to the Brit.
They continued on in silence, the clatter of their tracks and snarl of their engines filled the street. Ahead of them, the abandoned Mülheim Wiener Platz loomed, the fairgrounds were cast in shadows and shrouded by smoke while beyond it, she could just make out the proud towers of Mülheimer Brücke. Over that suspension bridge was safety, at least for the moment. The devils wouldn't be satisified with just Germania that was for fucking sure.
With a loud bang, one of the Ostmarkian striker units suffers a catastrophic failure, the magic engine letting out a horrible racket as belches bluish-grey smoke. The Lieutenant immediately is by the girl's side and says comforting words as she slings her rifle and then hauls the girl out of her strikers. "Forget them! We have to go!" she says and the assembled witches powered forwards into the Square.
They got halfway across it before Diana shrieked in pain as she was thrown forwards amid a loud bang and a large spray of blood. "CONTACT REAR LEFT!" The Germanian that had been on Diana's other side shouts as more minirockets lash out of the darkness along with sharp cracks and vroomp of gunfire.
"Enemy infantry, load HE!" The Lieutenant commands and Bettina quickly fumbled for a shell, painted yellow and inserted it into the breach as more rockets and gunfire flash out of the darkness. She could barely spot the forms of infantry, oh Thor, those were actual neuroi foot soldiers. She couldn't make out much beyond they looked vaguely humanoid and were pretty damn tall and marched with a seemingly synchronous clank clank clank clank. "SET!" she shouted.
"AIM!" The Lieutenant shouted and Bettina felt her aim seemingly by itself go from waiving all over the place to suddenly steady as a rock. She could do this, it all came naturally just like in training, spreading her fingers out perfectly, releasing her held breath slowly, and resting her finger on the upper trigger.
More gunfire snaps past her.
She summons her shield without thought and several rockets detonate upon it with concussive bangs that make her ears ring but she doesn't waiver.
"FIRE!" The Britannian's voice was filled with icy fury with vengeance and determination in her tone, determination and bravery that seemingly flowed through the words into her. She applied the pressure on the trigger gently yet firmly. The weapon kicks and roars in unison with the other weapons and the detonations light up the square along with the sound of metal being violently ripped apart and the odd alien scream.
Cheers swept through the group, Bettina joined in with them. Until they heard the deep and heavy mechanical booms that progressively grew louder then they emerged.
"JUGGERNAUTS!" someone screamed as two hulking monsters came out of the smoke and dust, they stood on eight spider-like legs each the size of a Panzer II. The jutting guns over and under it's chisel like nose with an immense gun turret on top of the hull. A gun turret that swung in their direction and a sense of dread came over Bettina.
"Oh fuck, run!" It took Bettina a moment to realize that she had spoken those words, but as she gazed at the metallic monsters that was the only thought that came to mind.
"All sections peel out! Over the bridge, get cracking!" The Lieutenant shouted and rifles crackled while engines snarled and tracks clattered, they pulled back from the immense walkers firing as they did so. But Bettina knew that absolutely nothing short of a Flak Eighty-Eight, a 10.5cm Field Gun, or one of the new 5cm Hexekannonen would be able to penetrate that sort of armor and that due to the number of legs it was nearly impossible to immobilize. Sparks erupted as rounds pinged off the monsters and they fired their main guns in response.
Twin explosions rocked the square and Bettina's world dissolved into noise as she was flung several meters like a toy as shrapnel sliced through the air like a scythe. There was pain in her left leg, she had to run and get the fuck away from these things if she wanted to live. Thus she forced herself to stand as invisible beams swept through the square and kicked on the motors. The clattering of tracks filled her ears as she fled, scooping up her rifle as she moved as more lethal beams along with gunfire now became audible as the ground shook and quivered while mechanical booms occurred behind her.
She threw her gaze over her shoulder and an icy spike of overwhelming fear was driven into her chest. "Oh Gods of Asgard, no." she whimpered as she saw the hulking alien walkers in pursuit with foot Neuroi swarming up behind them along with more tripods. While the Juggernauts likely won't be able to cross the bridge, the tripods probably could though and the infantry certainly could.
Rifles cracked and tracks clattered while the Juggernauts continued their advance, hurling death all the while.
It flashed through her mind and her shield snapped into existence as bullets flattened themselves against it. Her rifle kicked and sent another round towards the enemy and like the countless other rounds it just glanced off the armor in an explosion of sparks as under the chin twin blots of crimson formed.
"Gottlieb peel out!" Someone shouted in her ears over the radio and she pulled back, the engines of her striker units snarling. She could hear the sound of bullets and minirockets striking shields along with more cracks of tank witch rifles.
A new sound filled the air and pulses of crimson fire lashed out. The ground detonated sending shards of red hot asphalt and a 'splatter' of energy flying and she heard a terrible sound. It took her a moment to realize that sound was that of screaming. She frantically looked around for the source and saw another witch down, her leg having been rent open as she clutched at the wound, fire billowing out of the remains of a striker unit that had been torn apart. Bettina began to move towards her but then Neuroi pounced upon the downed witch like a pack of hyenas.
Bolts of crimson hellfire and the magnesium flare of the minirockets streaked across the square as the downed girl's shield blazed into existence. The shimmering turquoise disc with runes that she couldn't decipher revealed the girl to be a Britannian if her uniform was anything to go by. The staccato of bangs as the rockets exploded filled the square as the crimson light splashed its extreme heat, actually turning pavement red hot as the disrupted energy sprinkled upon it, causing the girl to flinch back. But then they brought the Heat-Rays to bear. A series of ripples crashed into her shield and it shattered. The witch screamed again, but it wasn't an inarticulate yell but what sounded like a plea for mercy.
The Neuroi had none.
A spray of crimson bolts streaked across the square and there was a brief gurgled scream of pure agony. When the light cleared, the Britannian witch lay unmoving, her abdomen having been completely blown apart by the red fire, such was their fell power. Bettina realized that she would be next if she didn't move right now and she bolted towards the bridge with the engines of her strikers roaring as the tracks clattered, weapons fire from the Neuroi nipping at her metaphorical heels.
She vaguely heard the pitch change as she started to cross the bridge, the clattering gaining a hollow note as the road left the ground for the bridge. She twisted and fired, the rifle digging into her shoulder and a tripod collapsed as flames erupted out of its command pod.
Another invisible beam blazed through the air and Bettina took that as her clue to now reverse so that way she could keep her rifle firing. Before she knew it, she was passing under the first tower of the bridge.
That terrible sensation rose up within her again, her shield appeared in front of her. A moment later, the world became noise, heat, and pressure as with a sound akin to windows shattering her shield broke. She flew backwards and landed painfully several meters away then tumbled for several more before coming to a stop. Groaning she sat up, wincing in pain as she felt her shirt becoming wet and sticky under her armor, knowing that it had been penetrated by likely fragments from the shell.
She looked around frantically, trying to find her rifle. She saw it just a dozen meters away and dove for it as more gunfire and rockets slashed through the air, as alien forms slinked up the street and onto the bridge. Just as she scooped it up, a force akin to a sledgehammer crashed into her side and she exhaled explosively as the bullet punched past nickel steel exterior then hammered through who knew how many of the layers of interwoven silk, cotton, wool, and magically woven fibers that composed her armor before finally stopping. But she could already feel the bruise forming. Gods that hurt!
Without thinking she racked the bolt and opened fire with the MG34, the rattling thunder of the weapon filled her ears as hot lead screamed down range. But the aliens were nearly impossible to spot through the smoke that shrouded the battlefield, not that it mattered.
"Gottlieb where the hell are you?" She heard the Britannian lieutenant demand of her as the first tripods swept out of the smoke. The sight of it caused an icy cold realization to come over her, one that she had felt before but in those cases it hadn't come to fruition.
She was about to die.
Most people would have been panicking, but not her. She was a soldier of Germania, it was her duty to stare death in the face and if need be, allow herself to be taken to either Valhalla or Fólkvangr. She knew what she had to do.
"I am still on the bridge, blow it now!" She shouted as without thought she feathered the trigger and the harsh boom of the rifle filled her ears.
"That's a negative lass get your ass over here now." The Britannian replied firmly over the link as she reloaded her rifle. She thought that she saw more aliens moving among the tripods and fired the machine gun, the bellow of the weapon filled her ears.
"Ma'am, the Neuroi are crossing the bridge right now! If someone doesn't delay them, they will be able to get over the bridge and the entire evacuation will be in jeopardy!" Bettina hissed as she back-pedalled as more gunfire ripped through the air, yellow tracers blazing like the sun slashing past her.
A stream of crimson bolts slashed past her, causing the air violently hiss and crackle as they passed by causing her to nearly fumble one of her rounds as searing pain swept up her arm as it blistered from the heat, but she forced that pain aside as she quickly shoved the round into the rifle and closed the bolt. She didn't have many rounds left.
Her machine gun rattled again, causing more tracers to slash towards the aliens. But she couldn't tell if she hit any of them.
Her shield flashed into existence as more rockets flashed towards her, some missed but others detonated upon her shield. The tenor ringing in her ears as the fiery blasts bloomed upon it. The icy tendrils of fear were slowly closing in on her.
The radio was still silent for several moments longer as she fired another burst, the deafening thud thud thud of the MG34 filling her ears as tracers streaked down range and she saw rounds spark off the lead tripod, this was her chance. She feathered the upper trigger, the 3.7cm cannon spat fire resulting in the tripod collapsing backwards as flames erupted out of the command pod as two more along with at least a platoon of infantry flowed up the bridge.
As the Neuroi surged up and as Bettina prepared for the end, her radio buzzed one last time. "Light Feet and Easy Travels, Panzerhexe Gottlieb. Timers have been set on a two minute countdown, give them hell." the Britannian Lieutenant sounded like she was on the verge of tears, for she knew that another fellow witch was going to die this awful night at the hands of the Neuroi.
"T-thanks ma'am, I will, please be safe." Bettina replied and as she did so, wetness slid down her face and splattered onto the street that she stood upon. If she was lucky, she now had less than two minutes to live. It was something that she didn't wish to think about as she fumbled for another shell as the alien infantry aimed at her-
The alarm flashed through her mind and she brought her shield up as they fired, their minirockets and bullets hammered through the air then detonated, spranged, or flattened themselves against her shield.
She backpedalled but fired long sweeping bursts from her MG34, causing wails and shrieks of alien origin to rise up as the sound of her machine gun joined in the carpohoney of sound. But there were still far too many aliens and the tripods loomed above. Bettina noted that these tripods had a sleeker design, with their control center being more manta ray shaped, with crimson wingtips that had a vaguely hexagonal border to it while under their 'chin' were two ball mounts each mounting a thin tube with a glass maw, while towards the back of that command center was a turret with several tubes, mortars sticking upwards. Maybe these were a dedicated combat variant?
She honestly didn't know, but that's what she thought they were. Regardless, she knew that this was the end and that she just had to buy more time for her compatriots to escape from this hell. One thing that was rapidly dwindling was her ammunition, she wouldn't be able to hold them for long. Yet if she could hold them until the charges detonated then it would be worth it.
There was a hellish red glow that began building in the wingtips of the tripods as they advanced, she kept mobile. Firing bursts from her machine gun she frantically searched for additional rounds of ammunition for her Hexekannone as more gunfire and rockets lanced towards her. Yet to her relief that sensation didn't flash through her mind. How veterans managed to get used to that feeling she had no idea, she just wished it wasn't for every little thing.
A grenade detonated nearby and she staggered backwards with a yell of pain as shrapnel sprained off her cuirass and greaves while others sliced into her unarmored legs and forearms. She had read about it and knew with sickening dread what was happening to her, with these slowly accumulating injuries that were sapping her strength and stamina through injuries and blood loss. This was the most common cause for how witches died.
Bettina brought her shield up just in time as with a shrieking roar, the two tripods had their wingtip weapons fire. Stuttering beams of red fire forced the darkness of the night to recede in the blink of an eye. The energy crashed upon her shields and carved into the road deck around her, the sheer impact of them causing her to stagger back as the bridge groaned ominously, the sound of metal creaking echoing across the river valley.
Before she could dismiss her shield, that sensation went through her again as another salvo of beams lanced through the night. With a sound like shattering glass her shield broke and a splatter of energy hit her armor and she shrieked in pain as it burned through the armor in an instant and dug into her flesh causing her to topple backwards. One of her hands on her own went to clutch the wound in her abdomen only to yank it away as her shriek became louder, the skin was blistered and black. Risking a glance, she saw that edge of the gash in her armor was glowing orange.
Footsteps or what passed as footsteps from the aliens approached her. Bettina swore as she forced back the pain and shakily drew her sidearm. The Walther P30 gleamed in the fire light as she put the weapon in battery and leveled it at the onrushing the aliens. She vaguely noted as she took aim that the bridge was not only groaning but every now and again she heard the screech of rending steel. Then the thought was gone and she pulled the trigger, the hearty bark of the 9x19mm Parabellum round filled her ears and despite her wavering aim, an alien toppled amid a spray from it's head. It was a lovely thing, having a ballistic talent.
The pistol barked again and again, two more aliens fell to the ground with ringing crashes that indicated they were automatons which sent the others scrambling for cover as her pistol spoke again, the sound of the shot hadn't even faded away when another alien thudded to the ground. But she couldn't help but wonder how much time was left on the timers.
She was about to fire again when the world suddenly turned into noise and force. Multiple great explosions ripped through the bridge, one of the massive primary cables was blown in half as before her very eyes as the road deck on the east side of the bridge turned into fire and shrapnel as the whole thing tilted alarmingly to one side, causing one of the tripods to lose it's footing and to her amazement slide right off the bridge and into the Rhine in a splash that threw water as high as half the height of the tower. The steel screamed in protest as cables snapped with gunshot like sounds. With a mixture of amazement, terror, and surprisingly horror at the scene that occurred in front of her, the east tower literally folded in half at the road deck as more massive cables snapped. Just before it crashed through the road deck, she felt weightless as it suddenly fell out from under her and she knew that the end was upon her.
This is it then she thought as single tear traced down her cheek as the feeling of falling overtook her, a scream escaping her lips as she fell towards the Rhine below, the sound lost as the great suspension bridge came apart with the distinct screech of rending and tearing metal, the whip like cracks of cable snapping, the rumble of explosions, a cacophony of noise that was underscored by the tremendous roar as debris fell into the river.
The shock of hitting the water caused Bettina to give out a strangled yelp as her muscles painfully contracted as the cold water rushed up around her and over her head. The bulky backpack that contained her ammunition and supplies, the armor that protected her from bullets and shrapnel that slipped past her shield, and the strikers that had granted her the mobility she enjoyed on the battlefield went from her most powerful tools to her worst enemy in an instant as their combined weight turned into an anchor.
Thus she sank.
All thought was blotted out as water got into the gash left by the energy that had splattered on her as overwhelming pain filled her but she didn't dare scream even as she felt the water enter her nose and tried desperately, futilely to swim upwards as the weight of her equipment carried her down. The faint light from the fires on the shores of the Rhine getting farther and farther away from her as she descended into the depths. Her lungs began burning as they used up the oxygen that was already in them, as Bettina's instincts screamed at her to not breathe, even as her lungs ran out of usable oxygen, so strong was the instinct to not breathe underwater.
Until she did.
She didn't breathe by choice, on the verge of blacking out as she was. With as much carbon dioxide as she had in comparison to oxygen in her blood. In essence, her brain realized that her frantic holding of breath was killing her. Water filled her mouth, causing her eyes to widen in alarm as it gushed down her windpipe and into her lungs, dragged in by her spasmodic breath. Effectively sealing her fate, fits overtook her as cold fear draped itself like a blanket across her mind as she thrashed in the water as her lungs stopped producing oxygen as more and more water entered her body.
Then her world suddenly went black, the dim light from the fires and embers that was above the water winking out of existence. Powerless and now motionless, she sank towards the bottom, her frantic spasms to get her to the surface no longer being an issue as the meandering current carried her downstream away from the shattered hulk of the suspension bridge that she had last stood upon. Now completely deprived of oxygen, it wasn't long before her heart slowed to a halt and her body failed.
I admittedly did a fair bit of research for this brief one-shot, both the Bridge that was destroyed and the Square where part of the action took place are real places in the city of Cologne. I also admittedly did do research on what caused Bettina's death in the story. She was also posthumously awarded the Grand Cross, equal to the Victoria Cross or Medal of Honor for her actions, ranking higher than the Iron Cross. Since she bought enough time for the bridge to be blown, which delayed the Neuroi long-enough for the human forces on the western side of the Rhine to escape.
No, the Britannian Lieutenant is not related to that Maloney.