35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ
14th Day Of The Battle of Bada Aso
“Damn it all! This fucking rock! There’s always another problem here isn’t there?”
Von Sturm ripped the marked-up map from the table and threw it into the air in disgust. Around him his planning staff looked demoralized. A few meekly recovered the map but did not dare to present it to the General again. Fruehauf watched from the corner, waiting to relay orders back to the field. She was anxious enough she nearly forgot to breathe.
“Patriarch?” A call came in. Fruehauf responded affirmatively, and the man commenced with his report. “We have begun clearing the minefields. They were very sloppily placed, but the concentrations are huge. I’ve already lost one man to them. We are looking for alternative passages but there’s no other roads north that can support a broad front approach.”
“I understand. Have the Ayvartan forces made any show of force? Aircraft or shelling?”
“Nothing whatsoever. It’s like they’ve vanished into thin air. But they made damn sure to booby trap every good road before they did. We’re still taking precautions just in case.”
“Indeed. A single shot from that heavy cruiser in the port could be deadly to your operations. Be ready to evacuate in case anything happens. But try to clear out at least one road north. Concentrate your efforts. The General considers this task valuable and pressing.”
“Yes ma’am. Tell him if he wants it to go any faster he should send us more bangalores.”
He took his leave and returned to his work. Fruehauf thought the man’s tone a little inappropriate, but she kept it to herself. Throughout the front the troops were losing faith and respect in General Von Sturm. She, who worked closely with him, had a dimmer view from the outset, but most of his troops had been loyal to him, and they had been ready to defer to his commands earnestly. Now even his 13th Panzergrenadiers were embittered.
She turned from the radio and approached the table, her clipboard pressed over her chest.
“Sir, we’ve received word that the minefields are being cleared as quickly as possible.”
Von Sturm raised his eyes from the table to Fruehauf’s face. He gestured to the table.
“You’re always standing up. Sit down, you’re making me nervous.” He said softly.
Fruehauf nodded, and took a chair. Her heart raced. Beside Von Sturm the rest of the chairs on the table were vacant. Von Drachen had not returned to the HQ since yesterday.
“How are we doing on moving materiel to the central district?” He asked.
“We’re going slower than expected. With the port captured and threatening the eastern section, and our horses having to move around that gaping hole in Matumaini, and the flood damage in Umaiha, we have very few paths we can move supplies through.” Fruehauf said.
“I’m willing to put off a large-scale attack another day.” Von Sturm said.
Fruehauf nodded. This was not in the plan they discussed yesterday, but at this point it would come as a welcome relief to everyone. “What about the combat patrols moving north?”
“I was getting to that.” Von Sturm said, raising his voice, but not to the level of aggravation he exhibited in days past. “Continue the minefield clearing. That must be our top priority. When it becomes possible, I want a mechanized platoon moving up through Karkala and Main.”
“Same mission as outlined yesterday?” Fruehauf asked, holding her pen to her clipboard.
“Expand the timetable, but yes. I want them to search for the enemy. I don’t want them to engage unless they feel they have found a weakness, because heavy reinforcement will not be ready to support them. But we need to find the Ayvartans. We need to find them.”
“I understand sir. I will convey your orders to the troops.” Fruehauf said.
“Right.” Von Sturm steepled his fingers. “Hey. Listen, Fruehauf. You– you’re doing good work. You clearly know– you know how a radio works.” He was hesitating a little as he spoke.
“Yes sir.” Fruehauf said, puzzled. This was coming too little and too late for her.
“Out of everyone here, I, well, I can’t blame you. You’ve been doing your job.” He added.
“Thank you sir.” She replied. She wasn’t exactly smiling. This all was hard to respond to.
He looked to his side at nothing in particular, perhaps just to avoid looking at her anymore.
Fruehauf took this as her cue to return to her radios. She wanted to sigh and maybe shake her head, but if the General was in a pensive mood, then at least he wasn’t in a raging one.
Southwest District, Penance Road
Kern remembered the man’s name, thank god. It was Voss. He didn’t recall the first name. He would avoid using it. He just needed to call him Voss and that would satisfy everything.
Technically, Kern should have been going to a hospital as well, but after having fragments extracted and a roll of bandages around his chest and back, he requested and received special permission to walk it off because he was part of a headquarters company. Before anything else happened he needed to see Voss — particularly because his name was starting to mix in Kern’s mind with Schloss, when he remembered the names at all. Voss had been transferred from the old field hospital to a more sturdy and intact building just off of Penance road.
As he walked along the road west from the South district, he saw a tank with an anti-air gun hitched crudely to its back plate, dragging it along the road up to the defensive line that had been hastily assembled the day before. There would be no movement forward in the West, not with that Ayvartan naval group holding the port. Penance was very tense. Kern could see the Cathedral from afar as he neared. He remembered the division fighting hard to secure it.
Kern checked his map. He found himself soon in front of the new field hospital, set inside a tenement with twenty little apartments. It was a red brick building, tall and wide, and a white cross had been painted on it so that it could be quickly identified. Past the door, a young woman asked for his credentials and whom he wanted to see. Kern showed her the letter that Captain– Lieutenant Aschekind had signed for him. She nodded, and led him up one floor.
Each apartment contained a little reading room with a table, a couch and bookshelves, a little bedroom off of a side door, and a bathroom and shower off another door. For space concerns, the reading room had been cleared out and two beds installed there. A man in a full body cast occupied one bed. On the other was Voss, sleeping; his dark blond hair had been cropped, and his patchy facial hair had been shaved completely, but he looked familiar enough nevertheless. His arm was still in a sling but he looked otherwise unharmed and seemed healthy.
“You can wait until he wakes. He’s in good condition, so don’t worry.” said the nurse.
When the nurse left, Voss opened one of his eyes and watched her depart the room.
“Didn’t want another round of annoying questions.” He said. He cocked a grin. “Kern, you look grown-up, and it’s only been ten days. I don’t think I can call you ‘my boy’ or anything now.”
He laughed. Kern smiled. He did not feel any bigger. He had been a fairly average guy, average height, average build; he had never forced himself. He had been told he had a handsome face, a boyish youthful face, a few times. In the mirror set down near the beds for examinations, he thought he looked as soft and young as always. His cropped blonde hair hadn’t grown out much since Matumaini, and there were only a few intermittent flecks of gold along his lips, chin and cheek. Nothing that a shave wouldn’t fix and return to how it was. Voss was exaggerating.
“You can look in the mirror all you want, but I remember, Kern. It’s on your face, but it’s a part you can’t see for yourself in a mirror. It’s a part you show to others without knowing. Seeing you I feel like you must have been through some shit this past week. I wish I could have been there to help. They’ve been pulling metal out of me for a while now.” Voss replied.
“Nurse said you were doing better. I think you’ll be able to leave soon.” Kern said.
“I don’t think so. My arm is still a complete mess. That’ll take more than ten days. Good god; ten days though. Can you believe that? Take a hit, and you’re out the whole battle. How do we sustain this?” Voss said. He looked over at the fully-bandaged man beside him.
“That’s what the rest of the Division is for, I think.” Kern said, smiling at him again.
“You got jokes now! See, you’re starting to learn how to deal with it.” Voss replied.
Kern pulled up a little chair that was set near the wall, and sat in front of Voss’ bed.
“Thanks for the visit, by the way. It’s nice to see a different face around here.” Voss said.
“Voss, I,” Kern hesitated for a moment, feeling the words caught in his throat. It felt at once both stupid to worry about but also terrible to admit. “I forgot your name for a while, Voss. And I completely forgot the names of the two men who died with us. I’ve forgotten the names of the guys who died with me yesterday. I don’t know what is happening. I feel like I’m going nuts.”
Kern thought he must have been annoying the poor man; lying injured in a bed, finally receiving a visit, and discovering it’s just a kid looking for comfort. He felt terrible, but Voss did not chastise him. He did not even sigh or shake his head. His tone of voice was unchanged.
“You’re not going nuts, Kern. Everyone is just trying to survive. It’s not training camp and it’s not a social experience. We are not bonding out here. You can’t blame yourself. Wanna know their names? Hart and Alfons. You know what? I don’t even know if those were first or last.”
“They fought alongside us!” Kern said. “They died alongside us! Least we could do is–“
“You can’t turn yourself into a walking gravestone for everyone, Kern.” Voss said. “Had you come here without knowing my name, I’d have just told you my name. You’re the only guy in this entire army who has deigned to visit me except for staff officers who needed to input me into their fucking charts. We met one day for a few hours. I don’t expect you to know my life’s story, and if I die, I don’t expect you to carry my ashes with you. In fact, I forbid that.”
Kern closed his fists against his legs, feeling helpless and weak. He thought Voss would know something that could help him assuage all of the guilt he felt for all those thousands of men he had seen die across the ten miserable days of this ground battle. Kern could not have saved them, and could only vaguely remember them in death. He felt that it was certainly irrational, but he still felt quite broken up over them. Why, out of all of them, had he survived?
He thought that Lieutenant Aschekind saw something in him too. Through all of this, Lieutenant Aschekind knew that Kern would survive. He saw something in Kern that made him reliable, but what could that even be? Kern was a subpar soldier. He was fearful, unskilled.
“So hey, I heard a kid from the 6th Division finally killed that beast of a tank the Ayvartans had been hounding us with.” Voss said. “Hit it with a Panzerwurfmine. Was that you, Kern?”
Kern looked up from his own feet. He turned bashful. “I didn’t really do anything.”
“You kidding? You know how many tanks we lost trying to take out that monster?”
“It was all Captain– Lieutenant Aschekind’s doing, really. I just got lucky in the end.”
“Whatever you say; but if that were me I’d be asking for a promotion.” Voss replied.
“I actually got demoted, same as all of Aschekind’s HQ platoon. I was Private 1st Class for a few days, and now I’m a Private again because it is impossible to demote me to Kadet.”
Voss burst out laughing. “That’s the brass for you. Nobody’s ever on their good side.”
“I met General Von Sturm once. He came off like someone short on patience..” Kern said.
“Don’t let anyone catch you saying that.” Voss said, still light-hearted and jovial. “Least of all the good General, because you’re quite right about his demeanor. And he doesn’t take kindly to people being right, let me tell you! Though, this is all hearsay on my part. Who knows?”
“It sounds right.” Kern said. “I think hearsay on this General is easy to believe so far.”
“I have heard that the battle is not going exactly as planned. We might need reinforcements.”
“Well, we have them somewhere, so I suppose we can keep going.” Kern said. He looked out the window. He thought he saw a bird, and he had not seen any for a while. But it was nothing.
“It’s not about the reinforcements though. The General’s original plan has completely fallen through now. He will lose prestige. Right now, everything coming in from the Fatherland has to arrive by ship to Cissea or Mamlakha. The General has cost the army a lot of equipment they have to ship in from overseas. I wager he knows that any replacements the army gets are gonna be attached to a new General to replace him; so has to try his hardest with what he’s got here to win before any help arrives. That’s the politics of this army, I’m afraid.” Voss replied.
“I did not consider that at all.” Kern said. He felt foolish. It truly had not crossed his mind that just as Von Sturm demoted Aschekind and him, someone could do the same to Von Sturm. In his mind that did not absolve the General; he still felt quite ill at ease with the man’s demeanor, what little of it he had been exposed to. But he better understood the man’s zeal and rage now.
“Folks getting shot at tend not to. Politics are the luxury of the officers.” Voss said.
“I wonder if it’s the same for them.” Kern said. He nodded out the window — he meant the communists, their enemy. He wondered suddenly whether there was an Ayvartan out there talking to his buddy in the hospital about their own Generals, about their own politicians, about whether they had to be fighting this war right now. How different was life for the Ayvartans compared to his own? “Do you think they are angry right now about how their commanders have used them? Both sides have taken casualties in the tens of thousands by now, if we count the wounded and ill and dead together. They must be feeling disillusioned like us.”
“I don’t doubt the politics are similar, but they are probably glad to fight because it’s their home they’re fighting for.” Voss said. “It’s always hardest on the invader, whatever the intelligence officers tell you. They told us we had all the advantages, but look how that ended up. Home field advantage is a hell of a thing. I bet you the Ayvartans are quite motivated to fight.”
Always hardest for the invader? Kern found that difficult to believe. Had this battle played out in Kern’s home, in Oberon, he would have felt much more hopeless than he did. Right now he felt awful for having re-learned the names of men who died beside him. Now that they had faces again in his mind he felt like he had done them a disservice, and he felt helpless in the face of the suffering they must have gone through. Had those people been dear to him, he would surely have been devastated. He wouldn’t have been able to go on after the first.
Could the Ayvartans really stand like stone as their family and friends were endangered in this fight? That did not sound right. All other things being similar, certainly this was a fight harder on the Ayvartans. This was their city that had been bombed and invaded. These had been their homes and places of work. Kern did not know much about their culture, but they couldn’t have felt that differently from him. They must have felt that this was a useless sacrifice that got nobody nowhere, just like he felt. He wondered dimly who all of them blamed for all of this–
But he stopped thinking about that quickly; it made him feel sick to ponder it all.
“I think I should go, Voss. Don’t want to overstay my welcome, and you look a little sleepy.”
“Hey, don’t worry about overstaying, it’s not like I’ve got people lining up at the door to talk to me. But if you must, then go with God, my man; and thank you for coming.” Voss said.
Kern nodded. He reached out a hand and shook Voss’ good arm. He stood slowly up from the chair and set it back along the wall where he found it before letting himself out of the room.
At the doorway Kern turned around, puzzled. Voss sat up on the bed and waved at him.
“My name is Johannes Voss. I come from Rhinea. My father was a banker, and I hate his guts. He left my mother behind, and she is a typist at a law firm. That’s about it.” Voss said.
“I’m Kern Beckert; and I’m just a farmer’s boy from Oberon, Corporal.” Kern said.
Voss laughed. “Nah, I think you’ll be more than that someday. I can guarantee it.”