The young soldier´s eyes stared up sightlessly at the night sky. He had lost his helmet, and the sandy-brown shock of hair was smeared with blood. Most of him was there, had been found by the soldiers and gingerly put together in a pitiful puzzle: The Undead had dismembered those who they could not carry away, literally torn them apart. Poor boy, the Capitaine thought. He suddenly felt terribly old, and had to fight down a pang of guilt. He looked at the body for a long minute, then gently reached down with a gloved hand and closed Nyberg´s eyes.
Something silver glittered in the breast pocket of the boy´s armour, and without thinking, he reached out for it, picked it up. He cradled it in his hands and stared blindly at it.
"Herr Capitaine, Sir."
Velasquez turned wearily. An exhausted Leutnant Korolev, still in her battle-scarred and bloody suit of armour, clicked her heels and stood rigidly at attention. Her face was a mask of pain and misery.
"I´ve lost you over half the platoon. My only excuse is inexperience. This is my fault, sir." The voice was terse, but the pained undertone said it all. Those men had meant something to her, and now they were lying in the snow, torn to pieces, under the merciless Venusian moons. And six were still missing, taken to the enemy´s lair for a fate that was certain to be worse than death.
Velasquez´ hands shook. He clasped them behind his back, trying to get the numb feeling out of his spine. He felt a painful cough coming up.
"Nonsense, Leutnant." He had expected hope, or belligerence, any emotion at all, but her expression did not change. He tried another approach. "An officer´s function is to lead, not to follow personal glory. You might have been killed in that assault, and that would have left your men without a leader."
She did not flinch. "Yes, Herr Capitaine."
"Still, you led from the front, as a Homebuilder officer of lineage should. You and your sergeant silenced the monsters´ guns, and you set a fine example for your troops with your courage. You single-handedly saved eight men from being captured and subjected to – whatever they do to those they capture." He cleared his throat uneasily. "I know you care for your men. But they died to spare others from the same fate – those helpless civilians we are sworn to protect."
"So, at the end of the day, you did well. Don´t let your impetuousness get the better of you, but try to preserve that courage. I´ll send a recommendation to your family, and the report will probably get you a medal. I don´t believe you will let it get to your head, Leutnant. But don´t get cynical about it, either."
"Thank you, Herr Capitaine." But she did not sound thankful at all. Velasquez sighed. "Dismissed."
"Sir." She turned on her heel, swaying slightly with fatigue, and left.
Capitaine Velasquez turned back to the trench lines. The weary Hussars were digging graves. Already the relief platoon had started to trickle in – more scared young boys with pale faces. He would have to speak to their officer, issue a warning. Just now he could not bring himself to look at them.
He flipped open the flat silver box and mechanically withdrew a cigarette. Placed it between his lips, then fumbled for his lighter. He greedily inhaled the smoke as he walked, suppressing the cough that constricted his chest. He joined Korolev in the dugout.
"All quiet so far, Herr Capitaine."
"They will come back", he said. She nodded. "I´ll talk to the relief officer. He needs to know."
Korolev nodded again, then turned to the Capitaine. "I thought you had stopped smoking. Sir."
He turned the silver cigarette box in his hands and slowly nodded. "So I had."
"With due respect, Herr Capitaine, those things will kill you, with your condition."
He nodded again, frowned, and took a short puff, staring off into the distance. "Maybe they will, Leutnant. Maybe they will."