Lines in the Sand
By the third day, Dietrich had silently admitted to himself that when the Rat Patrol arrived to free their leader, he would offer them what aid he safely could. This wasn't right.
Dietrich had never been fully comfortable with physical violence as a form of interrogation; in his view, persuasion and psychological pressures were both more civilised and more effective. But he reluctantly accepted that some considered beatings and the threat of them to be a way of drawing information from more stubborn cases, especially when time was short and need was desperate.
He didn't believe Sam Troy to be a man who would be cowed by such measures - not unless they were pushed to extremes far beyond the acceptable treatment of prisoners of war.
And he didn't believe that Major Schuster was a man very much concerned with retrieving life-saving tactical information. Dietrich wasn't privy to the details of what the major hoped to gain from questioning Troy, but as the days wore on, it grew less and less likely the American sergeant could have sufficiently time-sensitive intelligence to justify this manner of treatment.
If anything could justify this treatment. Dietrich had witnessed none of it - just the thought of it turned his stomach - but he'd heard the howls of agony from the cells. He'd seen the stumbling state in which Troy was escorted back to his cell - when he was conscious enough to stumble at all instead of being dragged.
The first time they'd passed in the hallways, Troy had met his eyes with an accusing glare that he'd found it hard not to turn away from.
On the most recent occasion, he'd lacked enough fighting spirit to meet Dietrich's eyes at all.
The relentlessness of Schuster's methods left his prisoners no opportunity to sleep without interruption, no chance to regain their strength when the food was as likely to be laced with purgatives as remain in their stomachs. No man, however strong or stubborn, could hope to hold out against such tactics for very long.
Dietrich admitted to himself that he didn't want to see the American a broken man; not as an unfortunate casualty of the realities of war, and most certainly not just for the spiteful satisfaction of a man who saw breaking his will as an intellectual challenge.
So he had reconciled with his conscience as best as he was able, and made a vow that when the Rat Patrol inevitably blazed in to rescue Troy, he would do nothing to stand in their way, and even give them his aid if he could find a way to do it without endangering his own people.
That was the third day.
By the fifth day, he was starting to realise that this time, perhaps, the Rat Patrol would not be coming after all. It was doubtful that they even knew where their leader had been taken; Dietrich's men had been diverted from their planned path by the last-minute orders to pick up Schuster, and then again from their original destination to Schuster's top secret facility behind the lines.
He didn't think much of Major Schuster's top secret facility. Everything about it bled despair; the grim cells, poorly washed and stained with evidence of suffering, the soundtrack of sobs and screams heard when passing too close by. The medical unit was no more than an extension of Schuster's torture chambers, made to patch men up just well enough to bleed more without dying.
Dietrich had protested against several aspects of the prisoners' treatment, but it had done him no good. He was half convinced the reason Schuster had delayed him from rejoining his unit for so long was out of ugly amusement at Dietrich's discomfort with his work. The major was a sadist: he turned his entertainments on his prisoners because his superiors allowed it, but he would just as gladly have done the same to anyone else he had in his power. There was no patriotism motivating it, no desire to hasten their military victory and end everyone's suffering; just the opposite.
He was not the kind of man that Dietrich wanted on his side.
A thought that had crossed his mind too often recently, about too many men. He was starting to get the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps the sort of men his side didn't want was men like him. He reported every abuse of power he encountered, but increasingly it seemed that those above weren't listening - or worse, perhaps, simply didn't agree that the things that disturbed him were reason for concern.
And yet what else was there to do but keep on trying?
He reluctantly sought out the company of Major Schuster. The major was a small man, always scrupulously neat despite the grim business he got up to behind his cell doors. It was only when one listened to the content of his mild, mannered conversation that one began to comprehend the animal behind those pale eyes.
"Major Schuster," Dietrich said crisply, deferential to protocol if not to the man. "May I ask again when I might expect to be permitted to rejoin my unit?"
Schuster studied him with that unnerving lizard gaze of his, as if assessing what instrument might be best employed in taking him apart. Dietrich wasn't entirely sure it was a figurative assessment.
"So eager to get back to the front lines, Hauptmann Dietrich?" he asked. "Is our work here not exciting enough for your tastes?"
"I believe at this stage there is little more we can hope to learn from Sergeant Troy," he said. "Surely he would be more profitably employed as bait in a trap to catch the rest of his Rats."
Bait that would almost certainly be taken without springing the trap, but that had happened often enough that he doubted his part in things would come under greater scrutiny than usual.
"On the contrary," Schuster said, with a smile like creased paper. "I'm quite certain the sergeant and I are close to achieving a breakthrough. I plan to give him tonight to contemplate his position, and then tomorrow our work will move into phase two."
"Phase two?" Dietrich enquired, uncertain that he truly wanted to know.
"An intensification of efforts," Schuster said. "Men like this American, Hauptmann, are too stubborn and too lacking in intelligence to be able to recognise their own limitations. As with any animal, it's necessary to break the beast's will before it can be retrained into more useful behaviours."
There was nothing he could trust himself to say, so he said nothing.
It was disquieting to realise that the biggest thing stopping him from an act of treason now was a matter of the practicalities. He had no way to pass a message to the Rat Patrol, and they would only suspect him of setting a trap if he tried. Besides, there simply wouldn't be enough time before Schuster returned to resume his games. Dietrich had no desire to learn what the second phase of the major's plans might entail, but he doubted that Troy could endure it without permanent damage.
So the sergeant was just going to have to make his escape on his own. If Dietrich had to play the fool to allow him the chance, then so be it. He'd been caught out on many occasions when he'd been fully alert; entering Troy's cell without backup and with wilful disregard for how close he happened to be standing ought to provide all the opening required.
He was counting on the fact that, even at this late stage, Troy's flagging spirit would be revived by a chance to escape. He hadn't stopped to consider that while spirit might rise, the flesh might not be able.
When he entered the cell, the smell was foul enough that he feared that the man might already have died. Troy's condition certainly didn't give much cause to hope otherwise. Dietrich had known that Schuster's tactics were extreme, but he hadn't realised - or perhaps hadn't allowed himself to realise - what kind of state the sergeant would be in by now. The right hand he held hugged across his chest was a swollen, purpled mass of bruising, and bloodied where fingernails had been ripped from their beds. His face was almost as bad, features puffy and blotched lurid colours, the lips split by blows and from the bite of his own teeth. The awkward angle at which he held his leg and the crusted blood that stained the remains of his uniform spoke of other injuries less immediately visible.
He might survive his wounds; he might even fully heal from them; but he wasn't going to be running, shooting or driving any time soon. Which rather crimped any plans Dietrich might have had of allowing him to flee the base under his own power.
Troy was conscious, at least, though it was hard to consider that a mercy. The sergeant stared dully at Dietrich's boots as he entered, no attempt at a cocky line or an angry retort. Defeated. It was something Dietrich had worked towards, in the name of protecting his people from the Rat Patrol's predation, but he found no satisfaction in it now. He'd intended to see Troy delivered to a POW camp, not Major Schuster's personal torture facility.
He didn't know what fast-talking the major had done to convince his superiors that the status of these particular prisoners justified his extremes. Perhaps he hadn't needed to do any persuading at all; Berlin was a long way away, and its taskmasters far more concerned with results than with waging a gentlemen's war.
Dietrich came to a decision - or perhaps, if he was honest, had been coming to it for a while.
"Can you stand?" he asked.
Troy's eyebrows wrinkled in pained imitation of his usual scowl. "If you're expecting a salute, you're out of luck," he said, eyes flicking up to look at Dietrich.
Dietrich almost smiled. Not completely devoid of spirit, then; merely conserving it. "You're being moved," he said.
"And what, the Major's goons got tired of dragging?" But Troy pushed himself up into a sitting position, probably just to prove that he could. Dietrich itched to assist, but he knew he had to be careful. Major Schuster was gone for the night, off to the officer's club to drink and dine and think happy thoughts of the day's upcoming torture, but his 'goons', as Troy called them, made up the facility's guard force; none of the soldiers here were Dietrich's men.
Something he should probably be grateful for, considering what he was planning.
"This order isn't coming from the major's office." As much as he was prepared to say. If he was caught, he could still- what? Claim to have believed Troy was in need of medical attention, perhaps? It was obvious enough that he required it, but Schuster clearly hadn't considered it necessary, and in a true life-and-death emergency Dietrich would have summoned the doctor to the cell rather than take Troy to him. Or perhaps not, given the careless way the men here hauled their prisoners about like sacks of potatoes. Still, it would look distinctly odd for an officer to be doing his own hauling personally.
On the whole, it would be considerably better not to get caught.
"More games," Troy said flatly. He stood up shakily with the support of the wall. "Let me guess: you're here to offer me the kinder, friendlier alternative to Schuster's interrogation."
"If I thought for a moment you'd take it, I would have offered it days ago," he said honestly. "You're too stubborn for your own good, Sergeant. And mine."
Troy gave a tight grimace of a smile as he hobbled across the room, obviously in too much pain for that to be wise but still clinging to his pride. "Well, I hate to be an inconvenience to the German army."
"I'm quite accustomed to your role on that front by now," Dietrich said. He gave up on resisting the impulse, and offered his shoulder in support. Troy wasn't stupid enough to refuse, though he gave Dietrich an assessing look. Probably realising he wasn't guarding his holster nearly as well as he should be.
"No guards?" he said.
"You're hardly much of a threat to me at the moment, Sergeant." Nor am I one to you, he thought, but didn't say. The delicate balance of navigating just how treasonous he wanted to be. If he'd planned wisely, he would have had a vehicle ready and waiting, but such premeditation had seemed like a step too far, as if somehow his actions were more forgivable with a veneer of spontaneity about them.
He could pretend he hadn't yet decided what he planned to do, but in truth he knew his mind had been made up as soon as he saw Troy's condition, if not before. One thing that could be said for Major Schuster's petty insistence on keeping him stuck here going through pointless paperwork; it had given him a lot of time to think.
And there were far too many things that had happened in recent months that he'd determinedly deferred thinking about.
Troy's weight leaned heavily on him, more so with every step. He made no attempt to grab for Dietrich's Luger; he might get it, but he had to know he'd fall flat on his face the second that he lost Dietrich's support. The sergeant stank of sweat and worse, and through the filthy uniform his skin burned with fever heat.
As an experience, Dietrich still found it less distasteful than making conversation with Schuster over their evening meal.
Their luck with the deserted hallways of course couldn't last. The motor pool wouldn't be so unguarded. If he'd been one of Troy's men, he would have simply knocked the young man watching over it unconscious, but his dedication to this mission didn't extend that far. He would do what he could to secure Troy's escape, but he wouldn't harm a loyal German soldier to ensure it.
He helped Troy to settle himself against the wall by the doorway, out of the sight of the man beyond. "Wait here," he said, and didn't linger to discover his prisoner's reaction to being left alone to guard himself.
He approached the man on duty boldly - and why should he not? He was an officer, and authorised to be here. "I require a staff car for a private meeting in town," he said. An armoured car would have been better, but also far more suspicious to take out at night without at least a driver. Let the man assume it was an assignation with a woman or a bottle while his superior was away; it was hardly the biggest blow his reputation stood to take tonight.
The mechanic snapped to attention. "Yes, sir." He led Dietrich over to a car which Dietrich made only the most cursory pretence of inspecting before turning to bark at his hapless escort.
"Is this the state in which you leave vehicles returned to the motor pool?" he demanded. "Get someone in here to clean these cars at once!"
"Yes, sir!" The young man saluted and practically bolted, taking no time to study the vehicles himself for entirely imaginary dirt that had raised Dietrich's ire.
There was no opportunity to indulge the faint stab of guilt that it engendered. He hastened back over to the doorway where he'd left Troy, half hoping to find he'd managed a vanishing act. But even Troy couldn't pull off such a miracle without assistance this time. He was still leaning against the wall where Dietrich had left him, and looking considerably the worse for wear now that he'd had the chance to stop moving. He had his eyes closed and his head resting back against the bricks; little point in him trying to eavesdrop when he didn't understand a word of German.
"Come on, Sergeant." Dietrich didn't have the luxury of trying to be gentle. He all but dragged Troy over to the car and shoved him in the back before taking the driver's seat. Troy had to realise something wasn't right with his supposed prisoner transfer by now, but he was too busy cursing in pain to make much of it.
Dietrich fought his impulse to peel away as fast as he was able, and instead drove away from the buildings at a sedate speed that shouldn't draw any undue attention.
When a shot whizzed by him, narrowly missing the car's front tyres, he realised that he should have gone with his first instinct. He jammed the accelerator down and swung the car through as much of an evasive course as it was capable of making, wishing rather passionately that he had one of the Rat Patrol's American jeeps instead. Their tradition of daring escapes was a lot harder to follow without a blazing machine gun and a vehicle built for taking off across the sands at speed.
Troy swore and tried to sink further down in the back to take cover. "Who the hell is shooting at us?" he demanded.
Dietrich hunched lower over the wheel. "I may have implied this expedition had a greater degree of authorisation than is actually the case," he admitted.
Troy's eyebrows shot up as Dietrich glanced back at him. "You're busting me out of here?" he said.
Before Dietrich could formulate a good answer to that, pain burst through his right shoulder; a stray bullet. He cried out and his hands jerked on the wheel, sending the car into a wild skid that probably saved him from getting hit by the barrage that followed. He wrestled control back through the pain and ploughed on through the checkpoint barrier without slowing, the guard stationed there abandoning his rifle as he dived for cover.
And then they were out and rattling along on desert roads in the dark, no sound of any organised pursuit following yet. With luck, the lack of any officers to give the men their orders would delay things long enough for them to safely make it away.
Of course, now, Dietrich realised as he let out his breath, he had to figure out what on Earth he was going to do next.
After several hours of risky night-driving they stopped at a small oasis, where Dietrich and his men had made camp a few weeks before. There was no one else there now, but the small cache of food and first aid supplies fortunately remained. He made an effort to take care of his own bullet wound before doing what he could to assist Troy; woefully little, beyond helping to clean the man up and offering him pain relief and a meal of tinned sardines and biscuits.
Troy fell on the food like a starving man, but couldn't finish much, and soon dropped off into a fitful doze. Dietrich almost envied him the rest. Despite the active night, his own appetite was gone, and so was any chance of restful sleep. He stared up at the stars, unable to imagine where he might be at this time tomorrow night, never mind in a week, a month, a year. He'd woken up this morning a captain in the Wehrmacht; what was he now? What would he do, once his self-imposed mission of delivering Troy to safety was accomplished? He surely couldn't go back to his old position now that his role in this had been discovered.
The stars offered no answers, but eventually exhaustion dragged him down into sleep.
By morning, his shoulder had stiffened up, and resuming his driving duties was fresh agony. He had little choice; even fed, rested and cleaned up, Troy was still in no state to handle a vehicle.
There was also the matter of deciding where to go. In normal circumstances, Dietrich would have hoped to deposit Troy at a neutral Red Cross station and make his way back to German lines without being detained, but he'd rather decisively parted ways with normal circumstances. He was a fugitive from justice now, a traitor to his country.
No. He wouldn't believe that. A traitor to his government, perhaps; to officers above him in the chain of command - but not to his country. Not to the ideals he'd sworn to defend when he'd joined up. It was others who'd betrayed those ideals and forced him to act against them.
Too many things he'd allowed to slip past because they were temporary measures. The views of a minority. Because it wasn't his position to do more than make protests, and surely there were others of greater authority who would step in and do something. It was nauseating, terrifying, to have finally crossed the lines he'd drawn for himself and taken that irrevocable step... but at the same time, there was a kind of liberation in it. A weight that had been accumulating in such slow increments he'd barely realised how great it had grown had at last been lifted from his back.
Whatever happened to him now, he knew that he had done the right thing, the only thing a man of any conscience could have done. To stand by and do nothing would have broken him as surely as it broke Troy.
So he would follow this path he'd chosen, wherever it might lead.
They saw little other traffic on their way back to the front line. Dietrich tensed when they encountered a patrol on the road, but his uniform and choice of vehicle allowed them to pass on their way unhindered. It left him with a strange mix of relief and irritation; he would have stopped any such lone vehicle this far out from any town, but then, he was well experienced with the Rat Patrol's deceptions.
Troy made for an unexpectedly quiet passenger. Dietrich suspected the adrenaline that had powered him last night had drained to leave him in a worse state than he'd first begun. He slept much of the journey, and spent the rest of it huddled in a grim state, looking drawn and tense. Still fighting against showing signs of weakness; Dietrich felt both a vague pride and an odd kind of sadness at the thought.
I am not your enemy, Sergeant, he thought, but it was still too new and shocking to imagine ever speaking those words out loud.
The first aid kit he'd taken from the supply dump had only a minimal amount of pain medication; he saved it all for Troy's use, and suffered the increasing blaze of pain from his shoulder without complaint. But every jolt of the vehicle over the bumpy desert roads brought a fresh grimace to his face, and he feared their odds of making it through to Allied lines were sinking fast.
And then, as always seemed to be the case, the desert sprang a fresh surprise on them. As he was driving past a rocky bluff, heading into the noonday sun at its most glaring, the sound of automatic fire ripped the air. Reflexes had him swinging the vehicle through a sharp turn off the road, ignoring the pain that tore through his shoulder. Getting shot again would be far worse.
Troy cried out in the back as they bumped across the stony ground. The sand here had formed windswept hummocks around the low scrub, rough going for a vehicle ill-designed to leave the road. The wheels quickly grew mired in the sand, and despite his efforts shifting gears it was clear they weren't getting anywhere without digging it out.
Coming out shooting wasn't an option; he was fairly sure that last turn had torn his shoulder wound back open, and he wasn't prepared to open fire on German troops in any case. The chase was over, and they had been caught.
Then a familiar pair of jeeps swept into view from around the bluff, and Dietrich almost laughed. Yes, caught indeed - and for a change, it was exactly where he wanted to be.
He obeyed the young blond private's motions to climb out of the vehicle, careful to make no sudden movements now. The last thing he wanted was to be a casualty of an unhappy accident this close to reaching their goal. The action once again pulled on his shoulder, and he swallowed a hiss of pain, wondering if that was blood or sweat he could feel seeping down his back.
"Captain Dietrich," Sergeant Moffitt said with neutral lift of his eyebrows. "Is the German army so badly off that they have you doing your own driving?"
"Unusual circumstances make strange roles for us all, Sergeant," he said. He moved to open the rear door of the vehicle, careful to signal what he was doing and show no sign of threat. "It's not often I find myself in the position of making deliveries to the Rat Patrol."
In the back seat, Troy struggled to sit up, managing a smile despite the obvious effort. As his teammates rushed over to greet him, Dietrich stepped back away from the car, and found himself swaying as pain and the rush to the head of standing caught up with him.
As blackness seeped into his vision, he realised with some relief that there was no longer need for him to battle to stay conscious. He was vaguely aware of someone shouting as he hit the sand.
Then there was only the embracing dark.
The journey back to Allied lines with the Rat Patrol was a haze. Someone was kind enough to give him some morphine, and after that it didn't seem very necessary to pay much attention to anything. When they reached the medical station, there was some sort of argument and a discussion of surgery with an earnest doctor, but Dietrich didn't pay much attention to that either.
Clarity returned an unknown period later, when he woke up in the hospital tent with fresh bandages and a much more agreeable - though sadly far from absent - level of pain.
He turned his head and saw Troy lying unconscious in the next bed. Were their shared quarters just expediency, or should he take it as an indication he was not being regarded as a prisoner?
In truth he had no idea what his status was, either in the view of the Allies or his own side. Major Schuster would surely have reported his actions by now. If he returned, he would have to face the consequences of his act of treason. But what other option was there? Desertion? His mind rebelled at the thought.
If he could argue his case... But a sickening gut feeling said that it would do no good. If he'd believed that anyone above would care or listen to his complaints about Schuster's methods, then he wouldn't have needed to take such drastic action in the first place.
He stared dully up at the canvas roof of the tent. He was a traitor, a deserter. What would his parents think, his brother? What consequences might this have for them? For the men under his command?
What kind of sickness had taken root at the heart of his country, that doing the right thing meant he had to fear for the safety of innocents whose only crime was their association with him?
He was grateful to have his thoughts interrupted by the sight of the tent flap lifting, though he wasn't sure he was quite so pleased to see that the new arrival was Sergeant Moffitt. The British sergeant was always hard to read; less foolishly sentimental about the realities of war than Troy, and not so likely to extend a potential enemy the benefit of the doubt.
Once Dietrich would have said the same about himself, but it now seemed, rather to his surprise, that he'd joined the ranks of impetuous idealists.
"Captain Dietrich." Moffitt acknowledged him with a stiff nod. "How's the shoulder?"
"Improved." Pain-wise, anyway; he wasn't foolish enough to try to test the range of motion yet. He'd be out of action for- His thoughts stumbled at the recognition that his shoulder was the least of the reasons why he wouldn't be returning to his former position. He glanced towards the other bed. "How is Sergeant Troy?"
"He's in a bad way, but he's stable," Moffitt said, his eyes cold. "It seems your interrogators are experts at inflicting maximum suffering without the risk of death."
"Not my interrogators, Sergeant." For once, he didn't feel like he was just giving weak self-justifications when he drew that line.
Moffitt raised a curious eyebrow. "Are you defecting, Captain?" he asked, cocking his head.
The question knocked the breath from him, the first rush of indignation just as quickly followed by the cold slap of reality. He'd made a choice in freeing Troy - by instinct, but he'd made it. He'd thrown his lot in with the side he'd considered most righteous, and it hadn't been the side of his own nation.
And now, perhaps, it was time to admit the creeping surety that had been growing in his mind for months if not for years; the fact, until now unacknowledged, that he didn't truly believe it would best for anyone if Germany were to win this war. He wouldn't work against his country... but he could no longer support it.
"I... suppose I'm surrendering," he said somewhat dazedly, meeting Moffitt's eyes.
Moffitt gave a short nod. "They'll want to question you," he said. His eyes returned to Troy's sleeping form, and his face hardened again. "But it won't be anything like the questioning your people gave Troy, I assure you."
Dietrich believed him. While he'd met some Allied officers who had a flexible approach to honour on the battlefield, he'd yet to encounter their version of a Major Schuster operating freely and without consequence.
He shuddered. Just a small minority in any army corrupt and without respect for the humanity of their enemies - but what happened when that minority infested the very highest level?
Far more than questioning by the Allies, he feared what kind of uncensored news they might have for him of what had become of his homeland in his years away. The signs had been there before he left, but he'd chosen to believe the reassurances: that the war would be over by Christmas, then the Christmas after that; that the extreme measures were only temporary, sure to be swiftly reversed; that the worst of the rumours carried to North Africa by the new recruits were distortions and exaggerations, isolated horrors that had never received official approval.
It was more than slightly horrifying to step outside the web of wishful thinking and realise just how many layers of self-deception had been accumulating one by one. Like the desert sand that clogged everything out here, each tiny grain seemingly insignificant until the build-up had choked everything beyond the point of repair. How bad had things become, truly? He wasn't sure that he wanted to know.
"I'll let you rest," Moffitt said, with something that was perhaps sympathy.
He left the tent, and Dietrich was left alone with his thoughts a while longer, until he heard a rustle of movement from the other bed. He turned his head to see Troy watching him.
"Huh," Troy said thoughtfully, after a long pause. The words were painfully dragged out from a throat still raw from days of shouting and too little water. "So that really happened."
"Did you believe it was a dream, Sergeant?" Dietrich could hardly blame him for that; it still felt unreal to him, and he'd been conscious and largely in control of his facilities for most of it.
"Did seem a little... too good to be true," Troy said. He gritted his teeth as he shifted position.
"Do you need medical attention?" Dietrich wasn't quite sure how he'd summon it, since he was fairly sure the delusion of recovery would disappear the moment he tried to stand, and he wasn't sure he was cleared to wander the Allied camp at will in any case.
Troy gave a small shake of his head. "I'll live," he said, letting his head fall back the pillow and closing his eyes.
Yes. He would live. He was alive, and he was free, damaged but still unbroken. Dietrich settled back in his bed, assured that whatever uncertainties the future might hold, he could face them with a clean conscience in this at least. He'd made the only choice he could have made, the only choice that he and Troy could both have survived.
He closed his eyes and drifted back into a peaceful sleep.