This scene contains references to drug use.
Overhead the imperious, golden Ayvartan sun climbed until directly over the clearing, searing the circle of Headquarters tents clustered around the thin stretch of dirt road bifurcating the forest and extending beyond the Umaiha River and into the border to Tambwe. Muggy as it was inside of the interrogation tent, under the clearing’s open sky work was nearly unbearable at noon, and activity around the camp dwindled.
Everyone seemed to have taken their work inside the tents save for a few pairs of riflemen patrolling the surroundings. Many of them, sleepy and soaked in sweat, and quickly finding themselves without oversight, settled lazily under the woods and enjoyed the breeze being pushed between the trees. Following orders was simply not paying off.
One man, under the shade of an Ayvartan oak, even snuck out a little prize while no one was looking — a bottle of dark lager picked out of a buddy’s truck. It paid to know a guy!
Lying back, relaxed, taking in the breeze, the man nearly fell asleep from contentedness before he had even opened the bottle. When he resolved to at least taste it while he had his wits about him, he was stopped by the sound of lightly vibrating glass. A tinkling noise issued from the bottle. He found the ground shaking, and his Doppelbock with it.
Looking down the road just a few trees away, he spotted vehicles in the distance.
Recognizing their markings, the man hid his treasure and hurried back to the tents.
It was impossible to miss the main headquarters tent. One could run straight to it without even thinking, it stood out so much. While the radio tent, the medical tent and the barracks tents were all squat four-post tents, the command tent was like a house made of canvas, with an entryway, lined with sandbags for added protection, and a real door, as well as 20 poles spread out to hold up the 5 by 15 meter main body of the tent.
Though he was supposed to knock and wait, the landser threw open the door and charged into the tent’s gloomy beige interior. There he found General Von Sturm with his nose buried in a map, General Von Drachen seated atop a radio box, staring into space with his hands on his chin, and Chief of Signals Fruehauf in the middle of downing a 300 milliliter flask of some unseen, likely alcoholic fluid in one gulp.
In the background of this scene, several young women lay about, napping away noon.
All members of this odd crew seemed to ignore the intrusion until the landser spoke.
“Sir! Units of the 1st Panzer Army are approaching the base sir!” Hee shouted.
He saluted and held a stiff pose while the officers snapped their heads toward him.
Seconds later the tent stirred, its posts shaking, the lamps inside swaying gently as if coaxed by the breeze. The sounds of tracks and wheels could be heard distantly.
The headquarters crew charged past the landser, Von Sturm the first and most frantic.
Outside something had drawn various officers and staff out of their tents for what seemed like the first time in days. On the sides of the dirt road a crowd gathered to watch the road as a small convoy approached them. Everyone could tell right away this was not a supply train. In the lead was a vehicle unlike any the 13th Panzer Division had yet laid eyes on – an eight-wheeled armored car with what seemed like a miniature M4 Sentinel turret set atop the front, 50mm gun and all. Painted black, and marked with an oak leaf and a big red number one, it was a sight that commanded attention.
It was not alone. Behind this machine followed a pair of much more familiar Sd.Kfz. B Squires, both lightly populated; one explicably toting a water tank. The vehicles followed the road up to the command tent, where Von Sturm stood dumbfounded while Von Drachen continued to rub his own chin and Fruehauf stared vacantly at her own shoes.
Parked meters away from the HQ tent, the 8-rad armored car opened its rear hatches.
A pair of sleek black boots hit the ground, followed by the end of a long grey trenchcoat.
Von Sturm gulped. Von Drachen stared dispassionately. Fruehauf tipped over a step.
Before them, the celebrated northern hero, Field Marshal Dietrich Haus, exited his command vehicle and set foot in a Generalplan Suden combat area for the first time.
Everyone knew that the Field Marshal was heading south, but nobody expected to see him inspecting their ramshackle unit tomorrow or the next day, much less today.
Around the campsite the crowds stared breathlessly at the man who liberated Cissea. His appearance was a stupefying display, like a fairy tale knight riding into view.
Like his vehicle, the Field Marshal was an unmistakable sight. Stepping out from around the 8-rad, he was quite tall, statuesque. Even for a Field Marshal his uniform was luxuriant. A grand, dark-grey trenchcoat with gilded shoulders and lining covered his field coat and trousers. His black boots glinted with new shine. And it was not just the clothes that set him apart, but the features of a man of status. He was boyishly handsome, with aquiline features, short and wavy brown hair, and high cheekbones. Atop his head was a peaked cap with a large, golden badge of the Nochtish eagle upon it.
Haus wore a conceited grin as he approached Von Sturm, literally looking down on him. There was a stark difference in their size. Though he was nowhere near as burly as the 13th Panzer’s Divisions own familiar giant, Haus was almost Lt. Aschekind’s height.
“Anton Von Sturm, conqueror of Valle Rojo.” Haus said, his voice deep and operatic.
There was no reply; no one could formulate a reply toward this odd choice of greeting.
Saying no more, Haus stopped meters short of the smaller general and stretched a hand.
Von Sturm meekly offered his own for a shake. His lips remained sealed.
Haus’ arm then drifted away, as if something else had caught his attention.
He turned his head, scanning the ragged little encampment around him.
“How was this mortal blow struck against you? I’m still baffled by it.” He said.
“I don’t—“ Von Sturm said his first trembling words, and left them to hang.
Haus awaited a conclusion to this sentence for a few moments before continuing.
“I shall want to look at all of your maps and intelligence on the enemy, Anton. We must get this operation back on track.” He said, taking a condescending tone of voice.
It seemed that this time Von Sturm would have spoken more; but Haus cut him off.
“Tambwe is our next target. Dreschner and his men are already slicing into Dbagbo with serious success. It is only here that our invasion withers on the Kalu vine.” He said.
He punctuated the word here quite sharply by poking Von Sturm on his lapel.
Around the encampment the crowds started to thin, people returning to their posts, heads hanging. Whatever it was they thought would come from the black 8-rad armored car, was ultimately not delivered, and their attention wavered. Or perhaps it became too painful to stay in the presence of the Field Marshal in the sorry state they were in.
Ordinary staff could easily leave, but three officers at least were to remain trapped in the Field Marshal’s orbit for the moment. Von Sturm joined Fruehauf in staring at the floor.
Von Drachen, to everyone’s mortification, raised his hand at Haus’ statement.
“I’m of the opinion that our esteemed Field Marshal is laying blame too hastily. I believe a certain ‘Nakar’ of the Ayvartans is to blame for our problems here.” Von Drachen said.
Fruehauf and Von Sturm seemed to awaken from their slumber and turn instantly pale.
“Our campaign will surely end in failure without her defeat.” Von Drachen continued.
Despite the foolishness of his words he seemed quite intent on continuing to speak.
Haus leered at Von Drachen. “Ah, if it isn’t the anarchist turncoat, Drachen is it?”
“Indeed, it is. In my defense, we all have our infancy.” Von Drachen amicably replied.
“So what was your name as an infant?” Haus quickly asked, crossing his arms.
“I’d rather not say.” Von Drachen replied.
“And you have intelligence on Ayvartan command, I assume? Have you filed it?”
“I have not. What I know now is trifling from an objective point of view; I cannot file my gut feelings to the military intelligence corps. But I make them known for your benefit.”
His earnestness and apparent casual honesty seemed to unsettle the Field Marshal.
“Oberkommando has enjoyed great success thanks to you, but I must admit your entire aura is most disconcerting to me, and I do not want to speak with you.” Haus said.
Von Drachen shrugged. “That is your opinion and I respect that.”
Haus turned away from him and back to Von Sturm with a skeptical gaze.
“How do you stand him?” He asked.
“I don’t.” Von Sturm replied, his voice trembling.
Behind them the hatches to the 8-rad swung open once more.
Dressed in a similar trenchcoat and uniform as the Field Marshal, gilded lining and all, a young woman stepped out of the armored car and joined Haus in standing before their subordinates. She was quite pretty, short, slender and very lady-like, standing perfectly straight, walking with a casually elegant gait, her skirt uniform in good order. Her skin was fair and unblemished, and her long, wavy blond hair shone with lively color.
“Greetings.” She said. She bowed her head lightly. “I am Cathrin Habich.”
She pushed up her glasses and extended a hand to Von Sturm.
Again, Von Sturm meekly extended his own hand. This time, a real shake resulted.
Ignoring Von Drachen, she then stretched her hand out to Fruehauf.
Fruehauf, struggling to keep her dark-ringed eyes open, stretched out a polite but shaking hand in return. She found the slender fingers of her counterpart slinking away.
“No, you misunderstand. I want you to turn over the week’s code table.” Cathrin said. She retracted her hand as though she had almost touched something filthy. “I am Chief of Signals under the Field Marshal and I must get caught up on events here soon.”
Grumbling inaudibly, Fruehauf slowly closed her hand into a fist.
Without changing expression she started to raise it as if to swing at Cathrin.
Von Sturm and Von Drachen stepped suddenly closer to prevent her from striking down the new Signals Officer – whether motivated by preserving Fruehauf’s honor and position or to keep her from thrashing Cathrin’s ravishing beauty, it was impossible to know. Von Sturm rummaged through Fruehauf’s coat, and found the code table in her jacket and passed it on. At this indignity, Fruehauf began to sob and hiccup all at once.
She seemed to attempt speech, but could not muster any coherent verbiage.
Field Marshal Haus blinked and stepped back. “Is this a bad time?” He asked.
There were weary expressions all around but no response but Fruehauf’s crying.
Inside the command tent, Haus looked over Von Sturm’s war room table with disdain.
“You took too long to mobilize from Bada Aso to the river, now it is fortified against you and you lack the combat power to take it. Or so you seem to think.” Haus said.
Fruehauf struggled to stand upright. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy. Her head was pounding, and she felt strangely emotional. She had not slept at all for a few days and had taken to the bottle and to smokesticks for succor. For several months she had been perfectly sober, and now she was drinking from every canister in her line of sight.
She knew it was not good for her, but the stress made her wanton.
She did not want to be here anymore, she thought.
She hated everybody and everything. Perhaps it was a product of her beer-stricken brains, but she felt such a disdain for it all that she wanted to cry again now.
Her whole body brimmed, restless. She did not know how to satisfy her body’s need to be away, to expend its excess energy. Drinking stifled those unknowable urges.
She felt an unseen pressure, a terrible burden.
In her head there was that city on fire, and all the screams, and the burning bodies.
And the idea that she could be the next to go. It was cowardly, perhaps, but it was her.
She no longer believed in anyone’s ability to protect her or anyone else. She couldn’t protect anyone, and nobody could protect her. Von Sturm had failed them all. His abrasiveness was not just a cover for genius. His head was as empty sober as hers was when full of drink. His timidity and confusion the past few days had only cemented to her that he had failed, they had failed, and they did not know what to do now.
Lacking leadership and directly insulted by the higher command, Fruehauf’s morale plummeted so low that she cried, just out of stress and fear and total lack of any hope.
Even now, ostensibly calm, there was a tear escaping her eyes every once in a while.
On the table, Field Marshal Haus, with Cathrin by his side, pushed chits around to show Von Sturm his apparent error. From what Fruehauf blearily understood, much of Von Sturm’s combat power had been focused on two areas along the river Ghede that represented potential flanks in the Ayvartan defenses. They had intended to cross the river and perform a classic pincer envelopment, Von Sturm’s favorite and perhaps only military trick. However, the Ayvartans had caught wind of this and reinforced both sides, and stretched out their line to cover those approaches. Unable to immediately take the river, Von Sturm did nothing but periodically call for build-ups and attacks.
His latest effort, codename “noble cause,” had been such a failure that nobody at the front line even thought to use it as an opportunity to cross the river. It was another classic, building up artillery power to breach the enemy line, but it was such a simplistic maneuver with absolutely no follow-up plans that it could not accomplish anything.
Haus seemed to notice all of this just by looking at the chits on the table.
“You will never launch an envelopment across a river with your forces. Especially deploying them in this idiotic manner. Have you considered that you have no center? You created two perfect pockets for the Ayvartans to split if they decided to. You are lucky they are more foolish than you are. What happened to your guile, Anton?”
Von Sturm merely hung his head and took the reprimand quietly, staring at the map.
“Your meekness has been turned against you by the enemy, but your deployment can still be salvaged. Recommit troops to the enemy’s stretched center, and launch your attack there. After so many days of predictable, weak flank attacks, they will be put off-balance by a strong center push. They will not expect it. We may be able to cross then.”
At this insistence, the Brigadier General finally found words for the Field Marshal.
“But the river there is a dozen meters deep. Tanks can’t cross that. And even if they could, the woods beyond are too thick for vehicles. We’ll have nothing on that side.”
Von Sturm sounded reluctant in defending himself. Haus bit back with fervor.
“That is why you use the tanks to continue your flank attacks, but focus all of your infantry on crossing that river, Anton! Pin the flanks, push the center, and you may be able to fold the whole line! You cannot look with disdain at only one part of the situation like this. I will bring up troops of my 1st Panzer Division to help in the coming days but I am sure we can accomplish this with the 13th, if you gather all its strength and act now!”
“Yes sir.” Von Sturm said, his voice a drained monotone.
“Valle Rojo was such a dynamic operation, fast, full of wit and cunning. Can you not draw upon that experience again?” Haus asked, laying a hand on Von Sturm’s shoulder.
Von Sturm trembled. “That situation was very different from this one.” He mumbled.
Haus slapped his hand down on Von Sturm’s shoulder and nearly knocked him down.
Fruehauf sighed. This sight was simply too pathetic for her. She turned away.
Von Drachen raised his hand into the air again. Fruehauf turned from him, too.
Haus said nothing in response to the Cissean; Von Sturm, perhaps reflexively, called on him like a schoolteacher would call on a boy, pointing his finger vacantly at the man.
“I might have an idea for crossing, but I will need a shipping container.” He said.
At once, everyone seemed to regret allowing him to speak. Heads turned, eyes rolled.
“I am returning to my HQ.” Haus declared. “It is the Sd.Kfz. J Sentinel Foot parked outside. Should it perhaps aid in restoring your confidence, I might request another early production model be shipped for your use, Anton. I shall take the opportunity gather your units scattered around the area, and with them, we will bring a full divisional attack force to the Ghede. You stay here and prepare your HQ for it.”
With those words, Haus turned on his heel and left the tent. Cathrin followed behind him, dutifully quiet throughout. She looked back at Fruehauf a final time, largely without expression, though Fruehauf wished to interpret animosity. In turn Fruehauf stuck her tongue out at her, and the woman followed her superior out the door.
Von Sturm stared at the door, as if still seeing the Field Marshal there even after he left.
“I didn’t win Valle Rojo.” He said. He sounded helpless, as if a phantom were interrogating him where he stood. Staring into space, his jaw quivering as he droned.
Fruehauf didn’t want to hear this, but she had no real choice in the matter.
“Then who did?” She shouted, in part curiosity, in part demand.
Von Sturm threw up his hands. He looked about to weep too.
“I got inside information on the anarchist’s positions. That’s how I could do what I did. I don’t know what the Ayvartans are doing! How am I supposed to fight them that way?”
“We’ve built up pretty respectable intelligence on the enemy so far.” Von Drachen chimed in. Von Sturm glared at him over his shoulder, but it was more a look of anguish than one of violence. Like everyone, he seemed to have reached the end of his rope.
“Respectable, but not perfect!” Von Sturm shouted. “I had perfect information on the enemy, where they were moving, exactly how many there were. I could send a man a kilometer downhill in a bicycle and he could avoid every goddamn anarchist, that’s how good our information was. But here? Everything keeps changing. I can’t just keep sending men to their deaths, look what happened in Bada Aso! We know nothing!”
Von Sturm’s face sank into his hands, and he looked about to cry.
Fruehauf scoffed loudly and openly. This was a worthless attitude for a General to take.
Everything here was worthless. Her included; they were truly good for nothing.
“So, Cathrin, what is your assessment?” Haus asked. He sounded amused.
“The 13th Panzer Division ought to have been called something like the 13th Mixed Brigade or the 13th Panzer Leichte. It is undermanned, weak, and poorly structured.”
“Harsh, but there’s a nugget of truth. Do you think it is possible to turn Ghede around?”
“We might as well try to reroute the river under fire, than cross it with these forces.”
“Then I shall reroute the river.” Haus said.
Cathrin Habich followed the Field Marshal into the cramped confines of the Sentinel Foot armored car. She laid next to a radio box set into the side wall, collecting her skirt and settling in a princessly fashion. She pulled a headset free from behind the device and laid it gently over her ears. Meanwhile, Haus dropped atop a crate of 50mm ammo.
He knocked his fist on the armor a few times.
At once, the Sentinel Foot’s eight wheels began to turn, and it accelerated out of the camp. Following the road, the vehicle could reach 80 kilometers per hour, and at this great speed, it would sweep through the 13th’s encampments within a day. Inside the vehicle, Cathrin barely tossed or stirred. She was used to the movements.
“Ah, I hope Achim appreciates what I’m doing for him.” Haus said.
“I’m sure the President is over the moon about your involvement.” Cathrin replied.
“He better be. I’m doin’ this all for him.”
The Field Marshal pulled down his cap over his eyes and laid back.
“Weather looks nice.” Haus said. “How does tomorrow sound for an offensive?”
Cathrin nodded her head dutifully.