Sample chapters: Sun Does Not Set Over the Czech Lands

Sun Does Not Set Over the Czech Lands

Jan Kotouč

Translated from the Czech by Milan Pohl

Czech Publisher’s Synopsis:

Czech dive bombers against tsarist battleships

In mid-19th Century, an unexplained space catastrophe has befallen the Earth. Whole landmasses were erased, ocean levels have risen. States and nations vanished, others emerged. One of them is the Czech-Slovak Kingdom.

In mid-20th Century, the kingdom is a naval power with colonies and territories all around the globe. Who controls the oceans, controls the world. But Czechs are not the only nation wanting to control the oceans. The Tsarist Russia is a huge player on the world stage and it wants to add Czech territory to its Empire.

The Tsar’s Navy has a huge numerical advantage. In order to improve their chances, the Czechs need to bet on a new and unproven weapon.

The naval aviation.

CONTENTS
Chapter 1
Chapter 2

1.

You fly well, Berg, but you might as well stop showing off because even with these antics you won’t be the best pilot.

The words still rang in Lukáš Berg’s ears as he piloted his aircraft in the wake of his flight group’s leader.

They had been spoken this morning by Corvette Captain Machovec and Berg knew Machovec hadn’t meant it in a bad way. It was the kind of thing you said to a pilot if you wanted to cut him down to size a bit.

But the remark still bore heavily on Berg. He was not so arrogant to assume that he was the greatest pilot alive but he liked to think that he might be sometime in the future. The group leader’s comment was like a slap to his face.

He forced himself to calm and focused on piloting. They had left Port Elizabeth and New Durban behind some time ago and now they were flying over the Mozambique Channel. There were almost no clouds in the sky, visibility was optimal and, what’s more, this was a routine patrol flight. Berg could allow himself to marvel at the view.

“The old man should send us on these flights more often. It’s beautiful,” said his radio operator, eighteen-year-old sailor Haken seated behind him.

“Definitely,” agreed rear gunner Žitný. “Could you bank a little, Lieutenant? That would give us a better view.”

“No can do, gentlemen. The leader in front of us would have our heads,” Berg said but he understood how they felt. Maybe they had joined the Czechoslovak Navy precisely for the reasons advertised in the recruitment posters: “Join us and see the world. The Czechoslovak territory reaches from the Dresden Coast to the Adriatic, from the Blue Ridge Coast to South Africa.”

Berg wanted to see Africa since he was a kid, as well. It was his family’s tradition that led him to the navy, however – although his affinity to modern technology and especially airplanes has diverted him away a little. When he mentioned his plans at home, his conservative father was so angry he almost had a fit and he spent several hours explaining to his son that airplanes were nice toys, that’s true, but they had almost zero use on sea. Lukáš would serve with the “real navy,” as his father had called it.

Three months later his father died.

Berg ground his teeth. He did not need to think about his father now. Haken was right: they should send them here more often.

Their mothership was the light carrier Prostějov, assigned to the South African Station at Port Elizabeth. The station had been established barely two years ago when Czech forces helped to overthrow the local usurper, gaining the support of most of the local African population in the process. The new government agreed that their inclusion under Czechoslovak authority would be beneficial for both sides – especially since the Czech king has allowed them a great deal of autonomy.

However, pirate activities remained to be one of the problems in the area. The Somali pirates – who were, in fact, regular navy of the Abyssinian Empire – were attacking cargo ships sailing through the channel and several foreign governments were frequently supplying them with ships and ordnance to disrupt Czech trade with overseas countries. Flight patrols of hydroplanes were being sent from New Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town but this time Corvette Captain Machovec, leader of the flight group from the Prostějov, has convinced his superiors to allow his pilots to partake in the patrol, as well. The airplanes Škoda LTB-6 Oskar served primarily as naval bombers but unlike fighters they had a greater fuel capacity and were capable of longer reconnaissance flights.

So the two Oskars were now flying over the Mozambique Channel and Lukáš had finally relaxed enough to enjoy the flight when his radio crackled.

“P-Alpha 9 to P-Alpha 10,” said the voice of Captain Lieutenant Vydra who was flying in front of him. “Look down. At the sea surface to our portside.”

Lukáš looked in the designated direction. At first he saw a ship’s wake and then his stare dropped even lower.

“That’s a ship, a big ship,” Haken said from behind him.

“This is P-Alpha 10, I see it,” Lukáš said into the radio. “That’s a warship.”

Even from the altitude of several thousand meters he could see the shapes of gun turrets on the vessel’s bow and stern.

“We’re going lower, P-Alpha 10. I’d like to identify it.”

“The Žilina is sailing in this area,” Lukáš suggested even as he turned his plane lower, following his superior.

They were approaching the unknown ship. Lukáš watched its silhouette and wondered whether this actually might be the heavy cruiser Žilina. He wasn’t sure at all, identifying vessels from air was not his strong suit, but…

Suddenly, the plane of his leader rose sharply to the sky.

“P-Alpha 9 to P-Alpha 10, we’re getting out of here. Send a warning to all stations and ships in the area.”

Lukáš followed the leader’s aircraft. “This is P-Alpha 10, what’s up?”

“That’s not Žilina, that’s a battleship. And it’s definitely not ours!”

*

“I’m sorry, Captain, but we need you on the bridge.”

Naval Captain Martin Melichar raised his head from the paperwork and he saw the head of Lieutenant Adamovič, one of Žilina’s junior officers, in the hatch to his cabin.

“What’s up?”

“A message from one of our airplanes in the area. Fricap Biedermeier says you should see it.”

Melichar got up to his feet. He didn’t need much encouragement especially since he was just doing paperwork in his cabin and right now he was reading a very thorough list of “officially sanctioned” and “prohibited” enterprises in the Dukla port – a list that the Admiralty, in its unlimited wisdom, had decided to send to South Africa. After twenty years in the navy Melichar had come to understand that the Admiralty made its job easier by sending all routine reports to all stations. He wondered whether a special courier had already delivered the information about whorehouses in Dukla to the Blue Ridge Coast, as well, or whether he was still on his way.

Melichar’s first mate, Frigate Captain Biedermeier, was already waiting on the bridge. The marine stationed at the hatch cried “Captain on bridge” from the top of his lungs but Biedermeier immediately brought Melichar to the map room.

“The message was sent from the airplanes P-Alpha 9 and P-Alpha 10, two Oskar bombers from the Prostějov that have been patrolling over the Mozambique Channel. They report an unidentified battleship sailing to south with speed of twenty knots.”

This gave Melichar a pause.

“Where was it, Fricap?”

According to naval tradition, there could be only one “captain” aboard a ship in order to prevent confusion. Therefore, lower-ranking officers with the ranks of corvette or frigate captain were addressed either with both of these words – although it was shortened to a simple “captain” when on a shore – or just with “corcap” or “fricap.”

Biedermeier pointed to a map lying on a table in the middle of the room. “Here, about one hundred and twenty naval miles to the north of our position.”

“Could it be our ship?” asked Adamovič who followed them as Žilina’s plotting officer and immediately took his place at the map with a pencil in his hand.

“I doubt it. No reinforcements were reported. And Prague would have definitely informed us if we were to expect a battleship.”

“If it really is a battleship,” Biedermeier pointed out. “It could be a mistake in identification. Maybe it’s a cruiser or even a destroyer.”

“Even if so, there is a warship on the way here and we’re not expecting any. I think we have no choice but to assume the worst possible scenario – that it’s a battleship and it’s unfriendly.”

Biedermeier ran his hand through his thinning hair and slowly nodded. He was almost ten years older than Melichar and much more skeptical than his captain. He thought that the pilot’s report is probably a mistake but he shared his captain’s caution.

“You’re right, Captain, sir. Shall we sail toward them?”

This time, it was Melichar’s turn to nod. He also ran his hand through his chestnut hair which was much more plentiful than his first mate’s. “Yes. Lieutenant Adamovič, how soon can we catch up with them?”

“If we go immediately full speed to north and if they retain their current speed…” Adamovič made several notes on his paper. “Three to four hours, depending on whether they keep their speed and course.”

“All right. Tell the navigator to set course according to the last known position and course of the unknown ship. When it’s done, assemble the senior officers.”

*

Lukáš Berg was back on board for barely half an hour when the flight group’s leader called all pilots to the briefing room. Both Berg and Captain Lieutenant Vydra still held bread with salami in their hands.

“Take your seats, gentlemen,” Corvette Captain Machovec said to the assembled pilots. “And listen. You have probably already heard about the ship sighted by Vydra and Berg. Our people in the Intelligence have developed the photos from the gun camera and it’s confirmed to be a battleship. And it’s definitely not ours. We don’t know what this is about but Admiral Dobrovský has decided that we cannot just sit and wait. Captain Melichar of the Žilina is sailing to intercept the unknown ship but the rest of the fleet is with us here at Port Elizabeth. No matter how this turns out, the Admiral wants us to take off and monitor the whole thing from the air.”

One of the pilots – Third Naval Lieutenant Michal Paš or P-Alpha 4 – raised his hand. “Excuse me, Corvette Captain, but does this mean we are supposed to be ready to attack the ship?”

“Let’s hope it won’t be necessary. The Czechoslovak Kingdom is not in war with anyone – as far as we know – and there haven’t been any indications that this ship is hostile. We are supposed to be only a failsafe. The mechanics are fitting our planes with torpedoes even as we speak.”

This prompted a wave of disgruntled murmur.

“But these aerial torpedoes are useless! They can’t hit a damn thing, if they even explode at all,” protested First Lieutenant Kaczynski or P-Alpha 13. “Oskars can carry torpedoes, that’s true, but they are meant mostly to attack ground targets. And even this is far from ideal, as we have seen at Tete.”

Berg sighed. Tete was not a pleasant experience. The Intelligence had identified a small transshipment yard at Mozambique’s coast, used by the Somali pirates as a base, storage depot and training facility. A squadron from the Prostějov attacked the area but the Intelligence didn’t know that the Somalis had anti-aircraft cannons they bought from the Russians. The base was destroyed but the bombs were not very accurate and three Czechoslovak airplanes were destroyed before the cannons could be silenced. Nine people died.

“I know,” Machovec said. “But we have no choice. Our Oskars and their torpedoes are the best thing we have at our disposal.” No one seemed happy. No airplane had ever presented a significant threat to a warship.

“Another irony is that we even don’t have enough aerial torpedoes aboard the Prostějov. Three of you will have to carry normal bombs meant against ground targets.”

Another wave of disapproval.

“We don’t have a choice, boys!” Machovec looked around. “Who wants the bombs?”

Berg raised his hand.

“Are you sure about this, Berg?”

He wasn’t but he knew he was a good shot when bombing targets. Maybe better than most other pilots on board. This was the reason why he let them talk him into joining bombers back in training.

“I’m sure, sir.”

“Very well. Who’s next?”

Kaczynski and two rookiees – Paš and Hakl – also volunteered. Machovec chose Kaczynski and Hakl. Paš did not like this but he was the least experienced pilot on board.

“All right. Launch will commence in half an hour. Good luck.”

*

Captain Melichar stood in the tower above the bridge of the Žilina, peering through his binoculars at the distant shape. Frigate Captain Biedermeier and Corvette Captain Gabriel, the gunnery officer, were at his side, also with a pair of binoculars.

“It’s certainly a battleship,” Biedermeier said. “Looks Russian.”

The unknown ship was now sailing on a parallel course with the Žilina to their portside so they could see its entire silhouette. It was heading south while the Žilina was sailing north.

“It looks like the Pyotr Velikiy. It was supposed to be in New Sebastopol, it could have sailed here. But why wouldn’t our Intelligence confirm this? They watch New Sebastopol like nothing else.”

“Captain, it’s not the Pyotr,” Gabriel said resolutely. “It’s the Yekaterina Velikaya, different from the first ship in her class. You see the superstructure? It’s taller than the one on the Pyotr.”

Melichar frowned. Pyotr Velikiy-class was the oldest class of battleships in the Russian Tsarist Navy. There were three specimens still left – the Pyotr, Yekaterina and Potemkin. But Russia has sold the Yekaterina to South America, more precisely to the South American People’s Federation. The Czechoslovak Intelligence knew about this but did not pay it special attention because Russia had also sold four Orlov-class battle cruisers to South America. It was a part of the tsar’s plan to decommission older vessels which were being largely replaced by Alexander Nevsky-class battleships.

“You can’t be sure at this distance,” countered Biedermeier. “The Yekaterina is in South America. And due to the tensions with Brazil, the People’s Federation keeps all its ships close to home.”

“If they haven’t sold her as well,” Melichar suggested and tried to bring the ship to focus but it was still fourteen naval miles away. At this distance he wouldn’t be able to see anything as detailed as a flag. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. We have a battleship incoming and it probably isn’t here on a friendly call.”

“And if it’s not, it’s our 203-millimeter cannons against their 340-millimeters,” Gabriel said and Melichar could hear a trace of distress in his voice. This was a reason for concern because Gabriel usually treated any problem like a difficult puzzle. “The question is whether they have hostile intentions.”

Gabriel got his answer two minutes later when there was a flash of light from the unknown battleship.

“Down!” Melichar shouted and inclined his head to the connecting shaft leading to the steering room. “We’re under fire!”

The shots from the battleship hit the sea surface about 150 meters in front of the Žilina’s bow and the water churned.

“Twenty degrees to starboard,” Melichar called into the shaft. Then he looked at his two highest-ranking officers while the helmsman started to turn the ship’s stern slowly to the side of the hostile vessel.

“Extreme-range fire. They couldn’t have hit us,” Gabriel proclaimed.

“They couldn’t have but at least now we know whether the ship is hostile or not.”

*

“Why the hell did you shoot?!” asked Captain First Rank Fyodor Chuikov when he arrived at the bridge of the ship which used to be known as the Yekaterina Velikaya in his country. Now it had the inscription Wolde Selassie on its hull and 95% of the crew were the Somalis who were doing the dirty work for the Abyssinian Empire.

The remaining five percent were people like Fyodor Chuikov who were here as “military advisors” and “instructional group.” Officially, the Somalis have bought the ship from the South American People’s Federation but Russian instructors were still needed aboard.

“It was a Czechoslovak ship, we had to take action,” asserted Admiral Zalawi, commander of the Somali Navy which was a silly function and rank since the Somali pirates had just a handful of old frigates and corvettes bought in secret from various governments including the Russian one. Still, it was necessary to maintain some decorum so Chuikov pretended that Zalawi was his superior, actually deserving the rank. The truth was that Zalawi was simply the most favorite sailor of the Somali governor so he gained command of this ship.

To be frank, in my country someone’s favorites are also appointed to high functions.

If only such persons were not as blatantly stupid as this one.

“If you waited you could have hit her from much closer range and destroy her,” Chuikov said and tried not to sound as if speaking with a baby. “They are still far away and now they know we’re the enemy.”

Zalawi dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. “Be calm, Captain. You are here as an observer – so observe. Soon we shall destroy the first Czechoslovak ship and it will be the first step toward the boom of the Abyssinian Empire.”

*

“How’s the rest of the fleet?” Melichar asked. The Žilina was now out of the enemy ship’s effective range, following her to the south. Melichar and some of the other sailors now held slices of bread with liver pate, brought to the bridge by Melichar’s steward Souček. Nobody wanted to know where he got the pate but it was delicious and it was precisely the pleasant diversion that they needed at this difficult moment.

“The Prostějov will send her airplanes to us and about one hundred miles to the west there is the Eight Destroyer Flotilla with the Dyje, Odra, Úslava and Váh,” Lieutenant Adamovič informed him.

“And what about the rest of the cruisers?”

“The Hradec Králové, Opava and Rokycany have left Port Elizabeth just an hour ago. Even if they retain the speed of thirty knots, they won’t be here sooner than in thirty hours.”

Melichar looked at the position of the enemy ship and the closest port – New Durban – marked on the map room’s table. “That’s too late. We are barely two hundred and eighty miles from New Durban. At twenty knots, she will get there in less than fourteen hours.”

He looked at his officers. He knew what he had to do and he didn’t like it. He didn’t want to issue this order but he had no choice.

I just hope I’m not sending all of us to our deaths right now.

“We have to attack them.”

“Sir, we can’t do this on our own,” Biedermeier protested.

“Sir, you remember what I said about the disproportionality in cannons?” Gabriel added. “They have 340-millimeter cannons and we have 203-millimeters. They will wipe us out before we even have them in our range.”

“If they react well,” Melichar pointed out. “Look at the distance from which they tried to shoot at us. Something tells me they don’t have a very experienced crew.”

“That may be so, sir, but do we want to take such a gamble?” Biedermeier asked.

Melichar looked his first mate in the eye. He knew Biedermeier was right and he didn’t like it. He had combat experience, had served in the Czech-Spanish War, but this did not make his current position any easier. This whole situation had popped up so suddenly that he felt like he wasn’t doing anything but reacting. But even when he carefully considered the problem, this still seemed to be the only solution. However, this did nothing to change the fact that he had 750 sailors under his command, sailors who would bear the consequences of his decision.

“There is a difference between a gamble and a calculated risk,” he said aloud. “That ship has hostile intentions, probably rushing in to attack our harbors. If we don’t stop her, she may destroy all port facilities at New Durban. That’s tens of thousands of tons of cargo, dozens of cargo ships… not to mention human lives. Our position in South Africa is fragile and this might harm the whole kingdom badly. And even if not, we still have a duty to the people in the harbor. They are servants of the king – and therefore under our protection.” He looked at the map again. “There’s only us and we have to fulfill our duty.”

He recalled how he had smiled at the routine report about the sanctioned enterprises in the Dukla port. Now it seemed like a lifetime ago.

*

Lukáš Berg fidgeted in his cockpit while his Oskar and fifteen other airplanes were flying in formation towards the Mozambique Channel. The flight to target was always the worst; several hours of boredom and heavy premonition and at its end there could be death waiting for you. Or you could find out that the target is gone. Or you could find the target at the very limit of your flight range and destroy it but run out of fuel on your way back.

Lukáš already knew these feelings from the attack run at Tete. He didn’t want to get used to it.

“How long yet, sir?” Haken asked from behind him.

“About half an hour to the spot where the hostile ship should be according to the last reports,” Lukáš said. “Then we’ll see what she really is and whether…”

“Squadron P-Alpha, this is P-Alpha 1,” the voice of Corvette Captain Machovec sounded from the radio. “We have intercepted a message from the Žilina: the unknown battleship confirmed to be enemy. She opened fire on the Žilina at 14:05. The Žilina is going to attack her and slow her down.”

“This is P-Alpha 6. A heavy cruiser against a battleship?”

“Yes, and we’re the only help they’ll get. The Eight Destroyer Flotilla won’t get there in time.”

“P-Alpha 1, this is P-Alpha 14. Has anyone ever noticed these bloody torpedo bombers never hit a damn thing?”

“Sure, and it will be our job to prove that they actually do hit something from time to time.”

*

One of Zalawi’s subordinates muttered something. Chuikov didn’t understand what it was; the ship’s crew spoke in Amharic, Somali or Arabic. Only Admiral Zalawi and several of his officers were fluent in Russian so Chuikov could only wait for the translation.

“The Czechoslovak ship has started to approach,” Zalawi said. “She has turned and now she’s sailing at right angles to our portside.”

Chuikov came to stand at a viewport on the left side of the bridge. The silhouette of the approaching ship could be clearly seen in the distance. Her captain had to have nerves of steel.

“He’s deliberately letting us cross the T,” Chuikov said aloud.

From Zalawi’s expression it was clear he didn’t have a clue what the Russian advisor was talking about. Chuikov suppressed a sigh. “An old naval tactic. Battle groups try to cross the T to each other. This means that the ships sail in a row and they cross the path of enemy ships. Then, all cannons can shoot volleys of fire at the enemy formation which can shoot back only with the forward cannons of the first ship in its own row.”

Zalawi didn’t look much smarter but he nodded and peered through binoculars at the approaching enemy cruiser. “But the Czech is doing the very opposite. He’s going at us from an inconvenient position. Why?”

“He probably thinks he will offer you a smaller target this way and you won’t hit him until his own cannons are in range. Then he will fire on you.”

“And will he hit us?”

“It depends on the captain and the abilities of his gunners.”

Zalawi shouted a command in Amharic. “I’ll order them to open fire on that ship.”

You should have done that a long time ago instead of prattling away.

*

Eight 340-millimeter cannons opened up at the Czechoslovak cruiser. The projectiles churned the water but the closest one landed hundred meters off the Žilina’s starboard.

On the bridge, there was a depressed atmosphere, however. Everyone knew that if the enemy hit them with a full volley, they were done for. Just like that. Heavy cruisers were never meant to engage in firefights with battleships. Not even with old ones such as the Yekaterina Velikaya. Unless the heavy cruiser in question had its own battleships in reserve.

They couldn’t defeat them volley against volley so they had to outmaneuver them, cruise back and forth and slip between their volleys until they could approach the enemy to maximize the damage they could cause with their weaker cannons.

Tensions rose and the behemoth in front of them fired for a second time.

It missed again.

“Ten degrees to port,” Captain Melichar ordered. He was sitting on a wooden chair on the starboard side of the bridge from where he had a view over the situation in front of him, watching the battleship. Enemy gunners had to watch their maneuvers and this made their job harder.

Another volley. And another. Minutes ticked away and the Žilina was getting closer.

“Fricap, do we still have those depth charges on our aft?” Melichar suddenly asked.

“That’s right, sir,” Biedermeier said.

“Have them thrown overboard. If they hit them, the whole ship would blow up.”

“Yes, sir.”

Biedermeier hurried off to carry out the order and Melichar raised the binoculars to his face once again. Despite the Žilina’s maneuvers, the enemy gunners were getting better. Because of her maneuvers, the Žilina was now sailing almost at right angles to the battleship, inadvertently letting the enemy “cross the T” where the enemy would be able to fire on her from all cannons while the Žilina could only use the forward weapons.

“The charges are gone, sir,” Biedermeier reported and Melichar just nodded. He would never have thought this but in their situation, being the wrong part of the T could actually have its advantages.

“Change course ten degrees to portside.”

“Yes, sir,” the navigator said. “Helm, ten degrees to port.”

“They’ll be in our effective range in a few minutes, sir,” Biedermeier said. “When do you plan to turn to the side?”

Melichar slowly shook his head. “No, we won’t turn. We’ll sail like this.”

“But this way we open ourselves to their whole broadside.”

“Yes, but at the same time we offer them a much smaller target.”

As if in answer, the battleship fired again.

Without success.

“They’re in range, Captain!” the navigator called up.

Melichar nodded. “Gunnery officer, fire at will.”

“Yes, sir.” Corvette Captain Gabriel bent over the speaking tube.

“Aim turrets A and B at the target.”

There was a confirmation.

The Žilina was now sailing directly at the side of the enemy battleship and aboard both vessels sailors were frantically preparing cannons to fire.

However, the Czechoslovak ship was almost ready, it only had to adjust the weapons’ elevation so the Žilina fired first.

From six 203-millimeter projectiles five missed the battleship but one hit the heavy armor near the ship’s waterline.

“Yes!” someone on the bridge cried.

“A hit in the side,” Biedermeier said with binoculars at his eyes. “Good shot!”

Then the enemy battleship fired a third volley. Six projectiles missed the Žilina but the explosions of the other two hit the ship from such close proximity that shrapnel littered the deck.

“One hit at starboard near the waterline,” Lieutenant Adamovič reported with telephone receiver at his ear. “The extent of damage is still unknown but we are taking in some water. Shrapnel has peppered our aft. We have two dead and three wounded in the aft torpedo room.”

Melichar maintained a stone face. Now he found himself in a situation feared by every commander. He was in a fight, the ship was carrying out his orders and news about casualties were coming in.

*

“Load!” shouted the sweating commander of the port cannon in turret A on the Žilina’s bow as he opened the loading chamber.

Sailor Grebski wiped sweat off his brow and together with Novotný he pushed the new, more than twenty centimeters wide projectile into the chamber.

Bags of gunpowder arrived via the lift from belowdecks. Both sailors pushed them in after the projectile.

The cannon’s commander closed the chamber and used a big lever to switch the cannon into the “ready” position. All three cannons confirmed readiness on the panel of the commander of turret A almost simultaneously and he was now supervising the final alignment according to the instructions of the gunnery officer in the observation tower.

“Turret A ready to fire,” he reported into the pickup.

“Turret B ready to fire,” his colleague added.

“Fire!”

*

“We have hit them in the superstructure!” Biedermeier shouted. “We have hit the bridge! This will soften them up a little!”

“Thirty degrees to starboard!” Melichar ordered. If they turned now, the aft cannon would finally be able to open fire as well and they would soon find themselves behind the enemy ship and be free of the threat of the forward cannons’ fire.

“All three turrets are ready to fire again, sir,” Gabriel reported.

“Fire.”

“Fire!”

The volley of all nine projectiles from the Žilina has scored three hits on the battleship’s bow.

“Yes!” cried somebody on the bridge.

But then the battleship fired. And now it was the Žilina that suffered three direct hits.

*

When the Czechoslovak cruiser was hit, many Africans on the bridge of the Selassie started jumping in elation around Chuikov but Admiral Zalawi looked like Death herself had touched him. All the windows on the bridge were crushed into shards, the map room was destroyed and two sailors had to be carried away from the bridge by the medics – or by those who were performing this role aboard the pirate ship. Zalawi probably wasn’t used to such proximity of physical danger.

Chuikov could see it in his face and hoped that the Somali – or, in fact, Abyssinian – admiral wouldn’t panic.

“We have hit them. An excellent shot, Admiral,” he said aloud and brought binoculars to his eyes. “The cruiser is in flames and two of its cannons are out of commission.”

“Shouldn’t we retreat?” Zalawi suggested carefully.

Chuikov ground his teeth. Calm, stay calm. “That’s not necessary. We have dealt the enemy ship a solid defeat. Their hit has not caused us any serious damage, both cannons and drive are functioning normally. The operation can proceed.”

Zalawi thought for a moment, than he nodded. He probably also knew what’s at stake. The goal of the mission was to attack and heavily damage at least New Durban. If the Selassie would come head to head with the rest of the Czechoslovak South Africa Station, she should hold her own against the heavy cruisers – and if not, she could play hide and seek with them. But this did not matter, anyway. The important thing was to create a big enough incident for the tsar to take advantage of.

Unless his allies – which was an appellation that was applicable only with a great deal of exaggeration – lost their nerve.

One of the sailors shouted something, and Zalawi suddenly forgot about Chuikov and ran to the crushed window at the forward section of the bridge. From there, he looked out and up and shouted along with the other sailors.

Chuikov came to their side and immediately saw what had them so upset.

Many airplanes in the sky. They were Czechoslovak Oskars, preparing to attack.

*

“Be careful. Don’t forget which ship is our target,” Corvette Captain Machovec reminded them for the last time.

“Our target is the big ship that’s not on fire, got it,” Lukáš Berg said, frowning. The Žilina was in flames. The battleship, on the other hand, was still sailing on. Suddenly, she took a sharp turn to starboard and her anti-aircraft weapons came to life.

“Let’s do this. And watch out!”

The first two flights headed down to start their torpedo runs. Berg with the bombs, however, had to choose a different approach. The ship was a fairly small target; Kazmaczyk was already going to drop the bomb as he was flying over the ship but Berg would try something else.

“Boys, I hope you like flying down,” he said to his crew and pushed the flying sticks.

*

“Captain… Captain, are you all right?”

Melichar blinked. He wasn’t hurt but he was lying on his back on the bridge. He saw there were many glass shards lying around the window, as well as a captain’s chair torn out from the deck. Adamovič was bending over him.

“Sitrep?” Melichar shouted.

“Gun turrets B and C are destroyed. The ship is taking in water. The connection from the bridge was interrupted but I have sent a sailor to check the engine room. You were out only for a minute.”

Melichar sat up. The shards had left several gashes in his left hand. Then he stopped short as he saw a body lying at his side.

“Ludvík…”

“Sadly, Frigate Captain Ludvík Biedermeier is dead, Captain.”

Melichar got to his feet and tried not to think about anything. This became harder, however, when he saw the burning bow of his beloved ship through the window. The Žilina was dying. His ship was dying.

“Why aren’t they shooting at us anymore?” someone asked.

“There’s no reason,” Melichar said. “What about turret A?”

“Corcap Gabriel is trying to find out, sir. And there are our bombers attacking the enemy ship out there.”

Melichar picked up his binoculars from the floor and took a look. Torpedo bombers, indeed. But so far, they had not managed to hit the ship, not a single time. Oskars had a prescribed altitude for dropping torpedoes so the projectiles remained close to the surface of the sea, and from that altitude it was often impossible to make a precise bombing run.

A sweating, gasping sailor ran to the bridge. “Captain, Corcap Žemlička says two boilers are inoperative and can’t be repaired. He can pull eight knots but the ship is taking in water along its entire bow. She won’t get far.”

So this was it, the career of the heavy cruiser Žilina was over. And Martin Melichar was the captain who had led her to her death.

Another sailor ran to the bridge. “Captain, Corvette Captain Gabriel says turret A will be able to fire one more time.”

Melichar thought about this. One more shot could convince the enemy to open fire again which could destroy them. But the battleship now turned her back to them, maneuvering under the attack of the airplanes. And she could still be a threat to New Durban and other harbors…

“Let him fire that final volley,” he ordered, than looked around the bridge. “All others: abandon ship.”

*

Sailor Grebski swept blood off his brow and pushed Novotný’s body out of his way. Nearby, the cannon’s commander was sitting with his back to the wall, holding a hand at the bleeding wound at his side, waiting for the medics to get there. Grebski opened the chamber on his own and pushed the projectile inside.

A wounded loader ran to him to help him and together they pressed in the bags of gunpowder and closed the chamber.

The chief NCO who had replaced the dead officer as the turret’s commander signaled readiness and the turret fired.

All projectiles hit the surface near the ship and a shower of shrapnel and water swept her decks.

Grebski smiled, than sat on the floor next to the wounded commander of the cannon.

From outside, airplanes could be heard.

*

“What the hell are you doing, Berg?!”

“Calm down, P-Alpha 1. I’m just trying to get a better target lock.”

So far, the other pilots were attacking without much success. One torpedo had hit the giant ship somewhere at the bow, causing almost no damage. Berg was now flying headlong to the enemy ship – at her precise center. Flaks of anti-aircraft fire were flashing all around him, several times hitting the wing, but Berg tried to ignore it and then released the bomb.

He cursed, seeing he didn’t hit the superstructure. The bomb landed very close to the portside railing and exploded. It did not take anything important with it, however.

Berg quickly leveled the fighter and headed away. The Žilina, having sustained damage just a few moments ago, fired again from one turret. One projectile successfully hit the stern but has not caused serious damage, either.

At least I’m not the only one who hasn’t managed it.

*

This time Chuikov didn’t need a translator to understand Zalawi’s order.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Turning the ship north and creating a smoke screen,” Zalawi replied curtly. “We have to return and repair the ship. We’re falling back!”

“You can’t!” Chuikov insisted. “The fighters don’t have any more ammunition and the cruiser is sinking. Their harbor lies unprotected in front of us.”

“No. The single cruiser has damaged us heavily, as have their airplanes. How can we be sure there aren’t more aircraft and more ships just over the horizon?”

“Dammit, the rest of their cruisers is still at Port Elizabeth! And I have counted sixteen airplanes, that’s a complement for a light aircraft carrier which they have here. At New Durban, they don’t have any air forces to speak of. They won’t pose a threat!”

“That’s what you said about the cruiser. You also said it won’t pose a threat, and even so, the ship has fired again. In how many other ways have you been wrong, as well?” Zalawi’s eyes hardened. “Or was it a deliberate treason?”

No, that one is supposed to come later. But only if the admiral acts as he should right now.

“The tsar and our common friends from South America have provided you with this ship. You have to keep your part of the bargain!”

All kinds of emotions mixed on Zalawi’s face and Chuikov worried for a moment that the African admiral might have him executed right now. But the admiral probably realized fast that the Abyssinian emperor would not be happy about that. And the tsar could show his displeasure in many ways. The Abyssinian Empire had a deal with Russia – a secret deal but a deal nonetheless. And Chuikov had clearly reminded Zalawi of that deal.

But Zalawi’s sense of self-preservation was momentarily stronger.

“And we’ll keep our part,” the admiral said finally. His Russian had a stronger accent now. “But only after we have returned to make repairs. This will delay as for several weeks at most and then, this ship will be able to fight again. And this is final.” He turned to his crew and started issuing orders in Amharic.

Chuikov just stared at him. He couldn’t believe that such a complicated operation, prepared for many years, could come to naught because of a single idiot at the wrong place.

*

Melichar was standing on the deck, watching his sailors in life jackets climbing overboard into the water. The sea was thankfully warm in this area but unfortunately, the Mozambique Channel was also one of the biggest hunting grounds of sharks even though they concentrated mostly to the north from here. He could only hope that no shark would take interest in sailors splashing in the water until help could come.

If it would come at all.

The last to go overboard were the gunners from turret A, followed by Corvette Captain Gabriel. And after that, Melichar was alone on the Žilina.

For the last time, he went through the ship, calling into all corners and nooks while the flames on board were getting stronger and the bow was dipping dangerously. The deck was already tilted when Melichar climbed over the railing and dropped into the water. It really was quite warm.

Quickly, he swam to the lifeboat and from its board he could only watch as the heavy cruiser Žilina of the Czechoslovak Navy sank into the sea.

*

“We have to go back, Alphas,” Machovec said. “That battleship is already over the horizon and we have just enough fuel to return.”

Berg frowned. “P-Alpha 1, this is P-Alpha 10. Shouldn’t we keep watch over the sailors from the destroyed ship?”

“We can’t, P-Alpha 10. The boys from the Eight Destroyer Flotilla should be here in a few hours. If we stay any longer, we’ll just join those poor chaps in the water. We’re heading home.”

Berg spared one last look for the figures and boats on the sea surface and then he followed Alpha 9. Machovec was right: there was nothing more they could do.

2.

Sailors from the Žilina were sitting on the bow of the destroyer, huddling under blankets and sipping tea and soup provided by their rescuers.

Melichar was sitting among them. He was one of many sailors fished out from the sea. When you were in water, the difference between crew and officers was suddenly negligible. Now they were all reduced to shivering knots covered with blankets.

At last, someone approached him, however. It was a man about five years his junior, with insignia of a corvette captain.

“Captain Melichar?”

Melichar tried to get up but the man waved him to sit down again. “Keep sitting, please. You have suffered enough. I’m Corvette Captain Holer, commanding officer of the Úslava. Welcome aboard.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Melichar managed. “I suppose we both wish it could be under more pleasant circumstances.”

Holer just nodded. “I’m sorry. But you sent the son of a bitch packing. I don’t know whether it’s any consolation but…”

Melichar nodded. “How many of my people have been saved? Do you have news from the other destroyers?”

“Yes, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. The rescue operation is finished, there’s no one left in water – or we haven’t found them. I have spoken with Captain Pekárek of the Dyje, commander of the Eight Group. He’s putting together the numbers of the rescuees from the whole group. We have saved four hundred and seventy-one people.”

Melichar closed his eyes. The crew of the Žilina numbered precisely 746 men. This meant he had lost almost a third of his crew.

“I’m sorry,” Holer said again. “I think most of them already died aboard.”

Melichar couldn’t do anything but nod. “Yes, you’re probably right. In any case, let me thank you most profoundly. We are in your debt.” He looked around his sailors. “What’s next?”

“We are ordered to sail south and meet with the main force of Admiral Dobrovský at New Durban. Then we’ll see what’s next. Today’s events will have far-reaching consequences. Somebody has declared war against the Czechoslovak Kingdom today.”

*

The consequences arrived about a day and a half later. Lukáš Berg stood in a cabin/office of Corvette Captain Machovec aboard the Prostějov.

Machovec was sitting at his table, smoking and studying photographs that looked like they were made by an airplane’s gun camera.

“Lieutenant Berg reporting in, sir,” Berg said to draw attention to himself.

Machovec looked up. “You did something truly courageous, Berg,” he said, pointing at the photographs. “But you nearly killed yourself and your crew and destroyed an airplane that’s worth hundreds of thousands in the process.”

“Sir, I just wanted to…”

“I’m not finished.”

Berg shut up and Machovec continued.

“I know these antics are your second nature but one day they will be your end. That airplane is not just an expensive toy. And it doesn’t belong to you.”

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

“Stop fooling around! You’re a good pilot but you need more discipline. Remember your old man, goddammit!”

Berg definitely did not want to remember his father. Everyone else was still talking about him which was bad enough. Everyone told him stories about the amazing hero Admiral Karel Berg as if Berg hadn’t known him. Even worse was when someone made remarks that Berg should honor his father’s memory through his own exemplary service or when someone said sympathetically that it must be hard to live in a shadow of such a famous father. At such moments Berg always thought that crashing an airplane might not be such a bad career move, after all.

“You could have made first lieutenant a long time ago, but no, you have to do this shit all the time. Not to mention the mess when you’re off duty.”

“Yes, sir.” Berg licked his lips. “But with all due respect, sir, I have not wrecked the plane and my bombing run scored one of our few successful hits.”

“Be so kind as to let me assess the measure of our success.” Machovec sighed, flicking his cigarette into a bronze ashtray which he kept on his table as some kind of a family heirloom. “But you’re right. I hate to admit it but you had success. And know what’s even crazier? Someone has noticed your crazy stunt. Someone high above.” He pulled a paper from his drawer. Berg saw the writing upside down but he could tell it was a transfer form, already signed by Machovec and the captain of the Prostějov.

“As soon as we sent records and photographs of the battle to Prague, we got a telegram telling us to pack you up and send you back. You impressed someone, boy. You’re flying home this afternoon. So move it, pack your things, say goodbye to your friends and so on.”

Berg could only nod. “Yes, sir.”

“I don’t know who might be impressed by your maneuvers – and maybe I don’t even want to know. But you have a wonderful opportunity in front of you. Not only as a pilot but also as an officer of His Majesty. So don’t fuck it up.”

“Understood, sir.” Berg smiled. “Don’t fuck it up, yes, sir.”

*

Around the same time, consequences were awaiting Melichar as well. He had been invited to the Hradec Králové, flagship of Rear Admiral Filip Dobrovský.

He already had a clean uniform and shaven face. The only reminder of his scratches from when the bridge had been hit were small plasters on the left side of his forehead under his brown hair and on his left hand. He certainly didn’t look like someone who had lost his ship two days ago. But he still carried that terrible pain in him.

The Hradec was the lead ship of the class to which belonged the Žilina, as well; this meant both ships were virtually identical. Everything was quiet and Melichar was walking through the corridors and hatches he knew very well. He felt as if he were back on the Žilina, the events of last few days being just a bad dream.

But then, the captain of the Hradec led him to the door to the admiral’s cabin and Melichar returned to the painful reality.

“Captain Melichar, Admiral.”

“Let him come in. And leave us, Captain, please,” a voice said from the inside.

“Of course, sir.” The master of the Hradec turned to Melichar. “If you need anything later, Martin, please let me know.”

“Thank you, Honza,” Melichar said, calling him by the more familiar version of his first name. He was getting tired of compassion of everyone around him but it looked like he would have to bear with it for a while.

Admiral Dobrovský rose from his table and shook hands with Melichar. “I’m glad you’re here, Captain. Sit down.” Melichar sat on a chair in front of the admiral’s desk.

“Tea?”

“No, thank you. I had plenty of that aboard the destroyer when they tried to keep me warm.”

“So at least this.” Dobrovský rose again and went to a shelf from which he took two bottles of beer. Then he pulled out two tankards and poured one for each of them.

“Aren’t we on duty, sir?”

“High rank has its advantages,” Dobrovský smiled. “And you look like you need it. This is Pilsner, not that local slop.”

A sad smile appeared on Melichar’s face. He raised the foaming tankard. “To the Žilina.”

“To the Žilina,” the admiral repeated and they both drank. Melichar hadn’t even realized how he missed the bitter taste of Czech beer.

“I won’t tell you how sorry I am,” Dobrovský said. “But your situation has caused waves from here to Prague. We have found out something more about the ship. And we don’t like what we’ve discovered.”

“Do we know whose ship it was?”

“No. We know she was originally Russian but they sold her to the South American People’s Federation, you know that. But after her retreat she sailed to Burao.”

“Burao? That’s in Somalia, right?”

“Yes, it’s one of the towns with those new harbors that the pirates built after our attack run demolished their depot at Tete a few months back.”

It was not exactly Somalia, Melichar reminded himself. Most of Somalia’s territory disappeared under the water a hundred years ago when the level of oceans rose after the Great Storm. Since then, Somali refugees had been surviving at the coast of the Abyssinian Empire. Officially, they had an independent enclave but in reality they served the emperor. However, the Abyssinian government could proclaim that it had no responsibility for the activities of the Somali pirates who were actually doing the dirty work for the Abyssinians, giving them their due.

But if there were battleships of another power involved now, the Abyssinian Empire wouldn’t be able to slip out of this so easily.

“Do you think it was some kind of maneuver by the People’s Federation?”

Dobrovský shrugged. “Hard to say. The Royal Intelligence is going over this right now but frankly, I doubt they were behind it. They had no reason to do it. Lately, most wars were fought over arable land and the People’s Federation has plenty of that – unlike the raw materials that are of short supply in this part of the world, as well.”

“But they also view it ideologically…” Melichar reminded him. The South American People’s Federation was the first country in the world where the so-called “workers’ revolution“ took place. The workers – or those who manipulated them – had overthrown their rulers in what remained of Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela after the Catastrophe, nationalizing the industry and uniting into one big federation. Since then, they lived mostly in isolation, with the exception of an occasional conflict with surrounding countries, mostly Brazil…

“Could they mind that we’re Brazil’s allies?” he suggested thoughtfully. “Beside the fact that we are ‘vile plutocratic oppressors of the working class’?” He didn’t have to add that an average worker in the Czechoslovak Kingdom had a significantly better life than his counterpart in South America. But everyone probably compared success with what came before; and before the revolution in South Africa, in many countries had been prevalent not only involuntary servitude but regular slavery, as well.

“I doubt it. They have their conflicts with Brazil but so far, they have left us out of it. Just like we don’t do anything about the fact that Russians give them their old ships.” Dobrovský shook his head. “But I’ll leave speculations to the Intelligence. We should be more interested in what to do next. This morning, Admiral Hodža has telephoned directly here. Our orders are to let the airplanes watch for the enemy battleship and hold position here at New Durban until reinforcements arrive. We shouldn’t try to take on the battleship ourselves, even though we still have three cruisers left. The Admiralty doesn’t want us to take risks. That battleship is still above our league and if it destroys us it could lay waste to all South African ports with impunity before help arrives. That’s why we’re staying here for now…”

Melichar nodded. It made sense to him. “What about me?”

Dobrovský gave him a slight smile. “You are to go to Prague and report in, Captain. One reason is your testimony: you have confronted an enemy ship and the general staff will want to debrief you thoroughly about all details. Among other things, they will want your estimations as to how experienced the enemy crew was. Then we could be able to narrow down who was aboard.”

“And the other reason is that I have to stand trial,” Melichar added. Dobrovský nodded but then he waved his hand dismissively.

“Trust me in this: it will just be a formality. Your actions have saved this entire harbor. Without you, the enemy ship would have destroyed it for sure. And the court will take it into consideration.”

Melichar trusted him but still he felt like he deserved the trial and this was a catharsis that he had to undergo. Each captain is trusted with a ship by the authority of the king. If he lost the ship, he had to stand trial no matter the circumstances.

“What’s more, I doubt the court would dare to sentence the king’s brother-in-law to jail,” Dobrovský smiled.

“Do you think I would take advantage of that right now?” Melichar asked, his voice sounding a little harsh. Dobrovský didn’t need to bring this up at this very moment. Of course, family ties with the king had helped his career over the years and Melichar would be a hypocrite if he claimed otherwise. After all, he had made naval captain as soon as three years ago, when he was only thirty-eight. But when almost three hundred of his sailors died he really didn’t think about how he might be helped by the fact that his sister had fallen in love with Melichar’s friend from the navy who happened to be the royal prince.

“I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Melichar nodded. “That’s all right, sir. Usually I don’t mind but…”

“I understand,” Dobrovský said but it was clear that he didn’t. He had never been in a real fight. Melichar had already fought in the Czech-Spanish War eight years ago. At that time, Dobrovský had been sitting in some staff room and his “combat experience“ here in Africa was limited to sending pilots or destroyers somewhere. It wasn’t his fault but he just couldn’t fully understand Melichar’s feelings. Not until he experienced something similar.

“When do I leave?” Melichar asked finally.

“The plane is being refueled right now at an airfield at New Durban. A pilot from the Prostějov, Lukáš Berg – one of those who attacked that battleship – will be flying with you. The big shots in Prague want to speak with him, as well.”

“Would that be Admiral Berg’s son?”

“Yes, that’s him. So you both have famous relatives.” Dobrovský smiled, Melichar less so. Unlike the rest of the nation he didn’t have much love for Berg Senior. “You’ll leave in an hour.”

“Shall I go now, sir?”

“No… You can finish your beer.”

*

Berg wasn’t used to flying as a passenger. Fortunately, no one seemed to pay him much attention during the flight. Captain Martin Melichar exchanged a few words with him, mainly thanking him for his good shot at the Mozambique Channel. If not for Berg, he said, the enemy ship probably wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get home and would finish the Žilina with one more volley, killing a lot more sailors on her board.

Berg suspected his success had maybe led to something like this and he certainly didn’t mind when someone else told him that – especially since that “someone” was a naval captain and virtually a member of the king’s family. Ego sometimes needed a good stroke or two.

Berg understood that Machovec, being a good leader, had to dress him down. His stunt wasn’t a strategy that could be recommended as a standard procedure, definitely not for pieces of junk like the Oskars. But he just knew he could do it. He couldn’t say the same about others.

Maybe pilots really have some of that legendary arrogance in them, he thought, then yawned. His friends from the Prostějov had given him a proper goodbye in one of the “officially unrecommended” bars in New Durban and he hadn’t clocked in much sleep.

He tried to catch some now during the flight. Fortunately, Captain Melichar didn’t pay him attention any longer. The airplane was also carrying several heavily wounded from the Žilina who had to be transported to hospitals in Prague and Melichar was mostly trying to speak with them if they were even capable of talking. This meant Berg could make himself comfortable – as much as he was able to in a small hard seat aboard the cargo plane – and tried to sleep.

About half an hour later he gave it up and just stared out of the window. The plane was flying over African mainland and Berg could clearly see the scars caused in 1848 by the Great Storm. On the day the world changed.

Nobody knew what exactly happened on May 31, 1848 and they were no closer to finding out now than they had been back then. They only knew from their grandparents and from school that the Earth suddenly began to shake. It was very cloudy and dark, and lightning crossed the sky over whole two days. Maybe that’s why they started calling the whole catastrophe “The Great Storm.” Two days later when it was over there were millions of dead all over the Earth. To the east of Dukla there was only a big hole into which the world’s ocean gradually flowed. The fissure ended as far as somewhere at the Russian town of Smolensk. Everything in between – parts of Ukraine and Belarus and the rest – was gone. Similar scars to those in Eastern Europe appeared in Africa, several places in America and Asia, even in the Alps and the Iberian Peninsula. The Alps remained mostly intact but several Austrian towns including Innsbruck disappeared forever.

But the horror didn’t end just after those two days. Because of the catastrophe, the Earth warmed, icebergs melted and level of seas rose. The water flowed into the newly formed “troughs” but still it flooded a large part of landmass all over the world. Countries like Netherlands or Denmark, northern German states or northern part of Poland disappeared under the water. The unaffected countries were overrun by refugees. On the eastern part of Slovakia there was now sea instead of the Carpathian Mountains. Two years of chaos ensued.

The change of climate also caused problems with growing some kinds of crops. Czech and Slovak lands had quite a lot of these so they gained an advantage compared to Austria but since then, many wars were fought not only over resources such as oil or iron ore but over agricultural land, as well.

People were fighting over food.

And they were losing at a lot of places in Africa, Berg realized as he looked down at the devastated remains of Sahara where the “African Scar” ended.

Some countries like the tsarist Russia took advantage of that. Berg didn’t know much about the balance of power in the tsar’s court but he knew that Tsar Peter IV was ambitious and with the help of his counselors he tried to take control over as much agricultural land as possible over the last decade. That’s why the “Russian bear” was lately so often in the center of many conflicts.

Berg sometimes wondered how things might have been if the Great Storm had never happened. The Austrian Empire had officially fallen in 1850, however, and power vacuum was filled by the Czech aristocracy led by King Richard I from the house of Mělník Přemyslids – who claimed to be a side branch of Opavian Přemyslids who were a branch of the original Přemyslid dynasty who had ruled the Czech Lands until the 14th century… It was hard to tell whether these claims were true but they helped Richard I gain support of people and lower Czech aristocracy, as well. What’s more, he was a talented administrator and politician. It was mostly thanks to him that the crisis hadn’t lasted as long in the Czech Lands as in other countries. Even so, more decades of unrest and war in Europe and the entire world followed.

And the wars never really ended, Berg realized as the plane headed for the first interlanding in Morocco.

*

On the last leg of the journey he even managed to take a nap and he woke up just as the plane begun its descent for landing at Prague. Captain Melichar sat down next to him, buckling up.

“You do this all the time?” he asked. “For me, there’ll probably never be anything natural about flying.”

Berg shrugged. He hoped the captain wouldn’t take offense if he disagreed. “I like it better in the air than on the ground, sir. It’s more… peaceful up there. Everything’s simpler.”

“Still, I perceive flying as something that is quite unnatural.”

Berg smiled. “With all due respect, sir, three thousands of years ago some of the Phoenicians undoubtedly said the same thing about naval sailing. And look where we are now.”

“You’re probably right, Lieutenant.”

The plane landed at Ruzyně Airport. Melichar was the first to disembark, with Berg right behind him. The rest of the passengers were either patients or their assistants so they had to wait for transportation.

At the foot of the ramp leading from the plane stood a young man with the insignia of a first lieutenant of the Czechoslovak Army, probably a few years older than Berg.

He gave a salute. “Captain Melichar,” he said. “Welcome to Prague. My name is First Lieutenant Čadek. I have orders to take you and Second Lieutenant Berg to the general staff.”

Melichar looked back at the plane. “I’d like to wait until all of my men are transported to hospital…”

“They will be given proper care. I have instructions to drive you to the general staff immediately, sir.” The first lieutenant was speaking with respect but still, his tone allowed no objections. “I have orders from General Spálený.”

Berg suppressed the urge to whistle. Spálený was the chairman of the general staff, the supreme uniformed leader of the Czechoslovak armed forces. He understood they want to see Melichar but why the hell do they need Berg, as well?

“All right, Lieutenant,” Melichar said finally. “Take us there.”