Poland did in fact change sides twice in very rapid succession, due to reshufflings among the human players – at this stage in the campaign we were down to three or four reasonably regular players and several one-week and two-week wonders.
May 15th, 1949
The growl of the crowd is ugly, not for any particular reason – the junta isn’t that unpopular in Lodz – but simply because that is the nature of crowds confronted with machine guns and barbed wire. Most of them do not know why they are here; had you asked one, he might tell you that a friend told him something big would be happening here today, and so he came down to see, because – and there he would probably trail off, unable to articulate his reasons. Yngve knows, though. They are here because they are living in unsettled times, and the war was going well enough before the junta changed sides, and the workers of Lodz liked it quite well when they could keep their heads down and do nothing. Now there is a wild uncertainty in the air; there is talk in the Storting of reducing Lodz to rubble, rumours of superweapons capable of doing just that, rumblings in the army. And there is Yngve with his little cadre of Hungarian and Russian officers that the junta have pushed out into the cold and marked for future liquidation, and more than enough money to start any number of rumours of “something going to happen”. And so there is a crowd (not a mob – not yet) outside Government House, and vodka going around, and the soldiers manning the checkpoint grip their weapons nervously.
The ordered march of Yngve’s cadre through the crowd draws attention; here is something happening, right enough. A dozen or so officers, grim-faced, quick-marching in a tight clump towards the checkpoint – speculation is instant and wild throughout the crowd. A delegation from a rebellious unit? Bearers of bad news? Ynglings (or Belgians, or Chinese) in disguise, come to negotiate? A few of the more aggressive or liquored-up members of the crowd begin to drift their way in a threatening fashion; others maneuver for a better look or a quick route to the exits. But it will take time for the crowd to settle on an explanation and a course of action; meanwhile Yngve’s cadre, with a plan already settled and knowing precisely what is going on, have all the advantages. “No organised unit is ever outnumbered by a mob”, he remembers from Tac 100; it seemed to make a lot of sense in the classroom. Still, it’s working so far; they are at the checkpoint, and Tadeusz is barking at the sergeant in charge to let them through. Conditioned reflex takes the noncom’s arm halfway through a salute and “Yes, sir” before he remembers that not all generals are to be obeyed anymore, but he still hesitates to shoot people in the uniforms of his own army, and that hesitation is his undoing. Yngve’s men do not stop; they flow right through the checkpoint, doing their best to look as though they have a perfect right to be there. Yngve holds his breath; this is the crux of it. It only takes one brilliant or aggressive soldier to open fire, and all is undone – but no, they do what most soldiers would: They look to their sergeant. And, to his credit, he only takes three seconds to make up his mind; but that is three seconds too many. Yngve drives two fingers into his stomach, between the ribs, where even a fit man is unarmoured by muscle. The sergeant bends over, choking, and the moment is lost; Yngve’s men are through, and no gun has been fired, nor alarm given. The confusion will only last thirty seconds, perhaps a whole minute. On that span of time the fate of empires turns. But Yngve is a man of the Ynglings, and he knows the secret of war: That to win, you must dare, and daring means above all to ride the winds of chaos, not to control them but to let them take you where you wish to go. And where there is rigid control for a determined man to create chaos in – that is where an Yngling has all the advantage.
One way to ride the chaos is to think out what forms it might take, and here is a major branching of Yngve’s plan. If the mob follows him through the checkpoint, he will do his utmost to have a genuine riot through Government House. That is the optimum outcome, for the junta to be thrown out by the mob of Lodz, with no evidence of Yngling or army involvement. That is unlikely, though; it relies on a particularly aggressive, drunk, or clever member of the mob being in the right place and time. Second best is for his own cadre to simply march in, draw their pistols once they are in killing range of the junta, and proclaim the counter-revolution. Third best, and disastrous, would have been a firefight at the checkpoint; that was another reason to have the crowd there, for their usefulness in absorbing machine gun fire if it came to a skedaddle through the streets. But that danger is past. Yngve glances behind him, where a corporal is trying to extract orders from the still-choking sergeant or, failing that, to nerve himself to fire at officers of his own army. No crowd is pouring through, although the soldiers, with all initiative lost, would likely do no more than stand around clutching their guns. It will be the maximum probability, then; Yngve smiles, not entirely unhappy to be doing some of the junta-killing himself, even though having the mob do it would be better strategically.
They are at the doors, slamming them open, now. There are more soldiers inside, but these ones have no reason to suspect that these officers should not be here, and do nothing more than salute; that will change, but not for a minute, and that’s all they need. They split up as agreed, Tadeusz leading Janusz and Stanislaw to the President’s office, Wladyslaw and Jozef for the Defense Minister’s, other pairs for the other ministers. Yngve stays behind with Zygmunt and Juliusz, a tactical reserve – pitifully small, but then this whole operation is like that, empires turning on the actions of less than twenty men.
There is shouting outside, now. Somebody has realised – not, perhaps, what is going on, but that something is. Yngve walks over to one of the soldiers, who frowns uncertainly at his Yngling mannerisms and the ill fit of his stolen uniform – but he has no time to react before Yngve’s fingers are in his stomach. (Purely tactical concerns would have led him to break the man’s larynx instead, but strategy requires that he keep the Polish officers happy, and so he goes for disabling rather than killing blows. Besides, these soldiers might be needed to shoot at the Belgians.) He grabs the man’s rifle – it is a semiautomatic Bechowiec 48, not yet in general issue – and throws it to Zygmunt. The other soldiers are beginning to take action – they are well-trained by stril standards, and he has to hustle to break the wrist of the one to his right before swinging him around for cover against his friends, while throwing his rifle to Juliusz. Zygmunt has the advantage of having already made his mind up to violence, and his rifle is up and covering the soldiers before they can really register that he is a danger. His barked order to throw down their guns, punctuated by the first pistol shots – that will be Tadeusz, his target is closest – freezes the soldiers for a moment, and, hesitating, they are lost. Yngve can see them measuring the odds, Zygmunt covering them, Juliusz turning to keep reinforcements from outside away, Yngve advancing behind their moaning comrade – perhaps that is what clinches it. Somebody whispers “Yngling…”, and little lights of near-superstitious dread go on in all the soldiers’ eyes. There is no disbelief; who but an Yngling could just walk into Government House and casually disarm two of Poland’s finest? The guns clatter to the floor – one goes off, thankfully towards the ceiling – and Yngve grins. It is a smile of relief as well as triumph; he is relying on speed and intimidation, and the trouble with that is that some people just don’t intimidate worth a damn. It only takes one natural leader to fire a gun, and even if he is killed the next second, his example will fire up his comrades, and it will all be over. The Yngling reputation for invincibility is all very well, but the bullet has yet to be fired that cares about reputation.
The rattle of Juliusz’s gun is terribly loud in the confined space; Yngve throws himself towards the pile of guns on the floor, comes up rolling, and joins his fire to Juliusz’s before he knows what he’s shooting at. As usual, instant violence is better than thinking it through; his first three-shot spread takes a khaki-uniformed soldier in the stomach. This one had been ready for action, and thus a hundred times more dangerous than anyone else Yngve has faced today; the free ride is over. It will be real fighting from here, not just speed and confusion, and that is a battle Yngve must inevitably lose, Yngling or not. There are enough soldiers here to just keep running at him until he runs out of ammunition. It will be down to Tadeusz, now; all Yngve can do is to delay the inevitable.
Still, with a semiautomatic rifle against soldiers running up stairs to fairly narrow doors, an Yngling can hold off the inevitable for quite a while. Yngve settles down to the homelike feeling of a target range, a fantastically easy one where the targets are all obligingly human-shaped and there aren’t even any punishments for hitting just slightly outside the kill ring. Like most good things, it doesn’t last very long; only until he reaches for another clip of ammunition and realises he doesn’t have any. He scrambles for another rifle instead, but that takes time, precious seconds he doesn’t have. Juliusz is firing, but like most strils he can’t hit the broad side of a barn; his bullets are no doubt scaring the soldiers, but they just don’t have that metronomic killing precision that is needed to actually keep them outside. Rifles are firing in return now as the Poles finally get to the point where they can see what’s going on and bring guns to bear; ricochets are screeing off the stone floor, nowhere near Yngve for now, but that will change, it only takes one lucky hit – Zygmunt is down, a huge hole in his right leg – and it’s not going to be possible to hold the doorway anymore. Yngve fires a burst anyway, on general principles, then heaves himself to his feet one-handed to start running for cover. That’s when his luck runs out and a bullet tears through his left thigh. He stumbles, clamps down on the pain, and returns fire as he falls, the computer in his mind reprioritising from survive as long as possible to kill as many as possible. More soldiers go down, and then suddenly there aren’t any more targets coming at him. He blinks in surprise, then realises that the strils have run out of the natural leaders that can make them run into fire this deadly, and skedaddled – though no doubt they’ll call it taking cover to reassess the situation, at least to themselves.
Yngve takes a deep breath, calming. Blood is running out of his leg at a fair clip, but it’s not spurting; he’ll be conscious for at least five minutes, and by then it’ll be settled one way or the other. The adrenaline pumping through him is combining with his trained control to make the pain a distant thing; in fact he feels fine, with the shocky rush that only combat and the power to kill bring. And here comes Tadeusz, running to the sound of the guns, and the next few seconds will determine if Yngve lives or dies. Tadeusz is no Yngling, but he’s a trained leader of sorts, and besides he knows his own army. He smiles grimly at the soldiers who have taken cover behind the pillars in the entrance room; now that Zygmunt is no longer covering them and nobody is shooting, they’ve begun to come out, but they are deeply unsure of what to do. Tadeusz doesn’t give them any chance to think things over; he simply says “Right, boys, the coup is over. If you are good lads and don’t give any trouble, you can end up on the winning side, just like Maczek no doubt promised you. He’s dead, by the way. Now then, grab your guns, let’s go, we haven’t got all day!”
It is sheer habit, no doubt, rather than any reasoning, but the soldiers pick up their guns, and instead of shooting Tadeusz, as they could still do and be rewarded for – the counter-coupers cannot possibly have gotten all the junta – they look at him expectantly, waiting for orders. Tadeusz grins, and directs them to “Follow me, lads, we’re going to see about your misguided friends outside.”
The gamble has worked. Poland is once again in the hands of officers loyal to the Ynglings.