The starry night was clear and cold. Icicles hung from the barbed wire, glittering when the glare of the searchlights pierced the night. Snow covered the trench walls and sandbags in a thick white layer, adding to the misery of trench life. Hussars huddled into their dugouts, trying to get some warmth from the kerosene lamps. Their greatcoats were stiff with frost, and there was rime on their shoulder pads and spiked helmets. This was the northern rim of the Ring of Strife, close to the Circle of Ice, Venus´ white polar cap. Too close for Capitaine Velasquez´ liking.
Not even the barn-sized Grizzly battle tanks, whose topmost turrets were visible over the tallest fir-trees far behind his line, could reassure the Capitaine on this night. From this angle, their huge-bore barrels took on the aspect of empty eye-sockets staring balefully out over a dead landscape, gouged by trenches and spitted with guard towers. Half a mile away, across the frozen valley, were similar encampments, where the Imperial Conquistadors had dug in, on the edge of the village of Korograd. Several platoons, probably even two companies. Through his field glasses, Velasquez could make out the tops of tents, a limp Union Jack banner, snow-covered foxholes. All was quiet. Too quiet.
The Capitaine put down the binoculars and continued down the trench. Some soldiers half got up and touched the rim of their helmets when they saw him come up, which was what passed for a salute on this miserable section of the border. More often than not, they didn´t even move, too lost in their own personal hell to care. Velasquez knew he would have to instill some discipline soon, maybe even make a few examples. He didn´t like it. He was troubled, as troubled as the men under his command, and he was glad that his hussar´s faceplate hid his face. He kept his back very straight and his stride purposeful. But his stomach tightened, and he suddenly wished he had a cigarette. He pushed that thought back. Ever since he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, he had given up smoking, and by the Light, he was not going to start now.
The next clump of soldiers he passed were praying, passing around a small signed image of the Cardinal. He heard the mumble, and out of habit, his lips moved behind the mask, silently continuing the prayer as he walked on. "... of our sins absolve us, and guide us to the Light, strength give us to renounce the Dark..." The words rang hollow. On a night like this, they seemed devoid of meaning. An unholy chill gripped his heart. He felt it, the men felt it. Something was about to happen. Something awful.
The next post saluted but kept his eyes on the valley ahead. The soldier was smoking a cigarette, but hid the glow behind a cupped hand. Commendable, the Capitaine thought briefly. He kept his voice to a whisper. "Report?"
"Soldier Nyberg, Herr Capitaine. All quiet, sir. I do not like this."
"Nothing of the patrol?"
"No, Herr Capitaine."
"You´re right, soldier. I do not like it either."
There was a pause as both men stared out at the valley, each lost in his personal thoughts. Then Nyberg turned his head. The face below the helmet was very young.
"May I ask you something, Herr Capitaine?"
Velasquez frowned at the familiarity, but his mask hid the expression. He ****ed his head.
"Well, sir, you know, this is my first assignment, and, well, I´m – I´m scared, sir. If the Imperials attack, well, I don´t really know – I don´t know whether I´ll be able to – whether I´ll let my comrades down, let my officers down. Whether I´ll be able to do honour to my father." The words just poured out. "I want to make him proud. I want to – and I just don´t know. I´m sorry, Herr Capitaine. I´m sorry."
Velasquez said nothing, but laid a hand on the soldier´s shoulder pad and stared into his eyes. The boy looked up.
"Does it ever get better?"
The Capitaine slowly shook his head.
"No, soldier. If anything, it gets worse with each battle." He watched the young man pale, bravely holding back the tears.
"But when the fighting starts, you will know what to do. Because that is the nature of combat. It doesn´t leave you time to think or be afraid. You will do the right thing, because you won´t have a choice."
Both men looked at each other. And then they caught a movement in the corner of their eye. Instantly they were on the dugout´s rim, raising their field glasses.
"A spiked helmet, Herr Capitaine! That is the patrol!"
Velasquez narrowed his eyes. There was something wrong with the soldiers marching across the valley. They moved with a pained gait, swaying slightly and dragging limbs behind. Were they wounded? But he had never seen a wounded man walk that way. All his bad premonitions flared up.
"Your name was Nyberg, soldier?"
"Yes, Herr Capitaine." There he was, proud that an officer remembered his name. Velasquez shook his head.
"Run down the trench and rouse the third platoon, Soldier Nyberg. They are to take up their positions. I want weapons locked and loaded, and the machine guns manned with extras. Understood?"
"Third platoon to take up positions, weapons loaded, machine guns manned with extras. Zu Befehl, Herr Capitaine." The soldier started clambering up into the trench from the dugout.
The boy turned back hesitantly. "Yes, sir?"
"You couldn´t spare a comrade a cigarette, Soldier Nyberg?"