Background Info: This is a story about the 13th Guards Rifle Division which distinguished itself at the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the major turning points of the Eastern Front. It is meant to be a combat novel in the same vein as Thin Red Line but also somewhat philosophical. With each character I am trying to explore a different mentality not just to the battle or the war with Germany but also to life, politics, destiny and so on. Name: Scott Patrick Setting: Battle of Stalingrad, 1942 Genre: Historical Fiction As the black waves of the Volga lapped against the side of the boat, Private Mikhail Ivanov watched as enormous flames consumed the crumbling buildings on the opposite bank. Roaring flames lit up the ruined towers, casting surreal shadows in the dying twilight. Sparks danced in the evening air; you could barely discern the darkening sky through the clouds of smoke. A heap of scorched machines and wrecked ships littered the far waterside. Mikhail could not compare it to anything he had seen; only to his envisioning of Hell itself. Mikhail did his best to think of home. He recalled life on the kolkhoz, the collective farm, where he and his family had toiled for less than a decade, forced off their private lands when Moscow collectivized all Soviet agriculture. He remembered the dry, sometimes arid steppes covered in grain, an infinite sky above endless fields. He could hear the silence of the countryside at night, when his grandfather would recite old Greek myths, like the story about the ferryman, Charon, ferrying the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. As a boy, Mikhail had imagined it as a serene journey, a peaceful voyage across still waters. Yet this conveyance across the Volga instilled in him a new conception of crossing a river into Hell. He felt a fear unknown in all his eighteen years, and he suddenly felt an overwhelming, crushing sense that he was far too young to face death. He had not expected to see action so early. His company, the third in the 42nd Guards Rifle Regiment of the 13th Guards Rifle Division, camped far from the frontline, receiving reinforcements and resupply. Ivanov was one of the fresh recruits newly joined, a raw draftee subjected to a quick but comprehensive basic training followed by an intense forced march. His instructors had told him that sending him so soon into action had been a conscious choice, his “baptism by fire,” and would introduce him to the shock of combat to dampen its effect in the battles to come. He and his comrades all guessed the truth, however: it was because Stalingrad was falling. Rumors had it the Germans already occupied the center of the city and would reach the eastern banks of the Volga before long. It fell to Mikhail and his comrades to somehow prevent this from happening. Their commanders had pushed them southward, hounding them constantly. As if this had not been bad enough, their rapid movement had kicked up so much dust they had attracted German fighter planes like bears to honey. Those who had survived the sprint across the arid, sandy steppe had found themselves thrust into the maples and poplars along the river, where they had been told to abandon everything besides weapons, ammunition, grenades and rations. The officers ordered the soldiers onto a flotilla of improvised and commandeered craft, a ragtag batch of gunboats, tugs, barges, and rowboats. Mikhail sat uneasily in one of the crowded rowboats. The troops near him swore loudly or prayed quietly, the harsh pop of gunfire and the squeals of falling shells echoing from the collapsed warehouses and disintegrating silos of the city on the distant shore. Like Mikhail, they all wore khaki tunics and long breeches, and most had steel helmets as well. Each had a backpack slung over a shoulder, containing extra ammunition and their mess kits. Most clutched Mosin-Nagant rifles in their hands; an unlucky tenth of the division possessed no weapons. Mikhail was one of the lucky ones to have secured a rifle. Regardless of whether they held a gun or not, the men around him bore the same expression. He saw fear on their faces, and he was sure his demeanor betrayed terror as well. He wondered if he would even survive the river crossing. If the rumors were true, German soldiers were likely only a few hundred yards away, assuming they were not already holding the western bank. As if on cue, the unmistakable shriek of falling artillery shells and mortars firing sounded. Some of it came from behind; a great deal more came from the German side of the river. Huge geysers of water went up around the rowboat carrying Mikhail, sending showers of hot shrapnel and ice-cold water. Scaly fish flesh emerged with the ripples. Around him, men were staring intently below, and it took him a moment to realize that, like climbers who had ascended to some terrific height and could not look down, these men could not lock eyes at the horrors around them. They kept themselves distracted from the nightmare, as if denying it would make it somehow vanish. Mikhail, for whatever reason, could not look away. The river seemed as wide as the vastness of outer space. Far to his left, a shell landed directly on top of a tugboat full of men. In just a split second, it had gone from a slow but steady vessel brimming with life to a heap of floating, speedily sinking debris. He heard breathless groans and desperate screams, but a machine gun fired from the German riverbank soon drowned them out. Straight lines of bullets spit up columns of water, chopping up those survivors clutching for hands or the edge of the boats. Soldiers in the boats instinctively dove for cover, most behind wooden hulls that offered little defense from bullets. Only the privileged troops in the few gunboats enjoyed real protection from the gunfire, but not the mortar shells. Cold water fountained up and splashed down on Mikhail as a shell landed just yards away from his transport. More followed, and each time water splashed him. If a shell landed on his vessel, he wondered, would he know in time, or would death come so quickly that, one minute the world around him would be vivid and thriving, and then, nothingness? The thought filled him with dread and growing anger, rage at the impotence he felt to prevent his own demise. He remembered the slaughterhouse where he once worked, and the dumb animals that had gone to the man with the sledgehammer, powerless, unaware. Yet, unlike those animals, Mikhail knew what was happening, knew it was a matter of life and death. That he could do nothing, nothing but hope and pray, made him resent the indiscernible fate that had placed him this precarious position. How long would it be to cross the river? It seemed to be an eternity, but gradually he started to smell odors from the western bank. His nostrils filled with the smell of spent explosives, charred asphalt and burnt timber, as well as the nauseating stink of rotting corpses. The soldiers at the front of the boat, who could see where they were going, sent word back that the enemy side of the Volga grew near. A soldier beside Mikhail said, “This is crazy! What are we supposed to do against those machine guns?” “Avoid getting shot,” someone replied sarcastically. Mikhail thought that good advice, but easier said than done. It did not seem fair at all, the idea of machine guns riddling the disembarking soldiers, before they had a chance to find cover. They would be easy targets. He resolved that he would not wait patiently to leave the boat when it came ashore, that he would jump overboard instead, and several others seemed to share the thought. They gravitated to the edges of the boat, their bodies tense, like coils set to spring. Over the sound of the artillery, Mikhail heard the shriller firing of rifles. Men at the front of the boat began shooting as well. He feared that they would draw German fire at their boat, and at any moment a machine gun would sew stitches of bullets into him. Instead, however, a shell landed directly in front of the boat, and suddenly the boat capsized, as if a gigantic hand had flipped it over. Head over heels, Mikhail plunged face-first into the cold water of the river. Water flooded his mouth and nose, and his pack soon became an anchor, dragging him down. He forced his eyes open, and beneath him, he could almost see the bottom of the Volga, burned machines and broken barges tossed into the river floor like rusty knives thrown into sand. He could still hear sounds from the river-crossing above, the incessant popping of guns and bursting bombs, but now muffled and distorted underwater. All five of his senses fought to adjust. He snatched wildly at the strap of his helmet and pried it loose, then snaked his arms free of his backpack. More out of a primal drive for survival than premeditated intent, he flung his arms out and swam to the surface. He reflexively opened his mouth, wildly gasping for air. Over his deep and ragged inhalations, he heard something zip by his ear, and soon he realized someone was shooting at him. Instinctively, he dove back underneath the churning waves. He swam forward, his soaked uniform a heavy weight holding down most of his body. His boots felt as though they contained rocks, and felt he was swimming in quicksand rather than a river. He could feel his muscles aching, the breath escaping his lungs. He tried to fight it all – his growing exhaustion, his panic, his crippling dread – but in the end, he could not help but succumb. Slowly, he ceased to struggle, and his limbs gradually went limp. The last ounce of strength drained from him, even as his heartbeat thundered loudly in his chest. Finally, the water twisted his head heavenward, and beyond the water, he could see the bright sparks still swaying in a macabre dance in the night sky.