Night fell upon the campgrounds, and with it an uneasy silence. From inside his own tent, Meine watched the other men strolling back and forth down the aisle, speaking in hushed tones. Not exactly off-putting, but certainly out of the ordinary here. Their footsteps were soft against the ground; it wasn't uncommon for one to be rudely awakened in the middle of the night at the sound of boots thundering towards the latrine. A small frown played on his lips and he glanced at the other men occupying his tent. Armin was fiddling with a loose button and rubbing the area where his right ear used to be, while Emmerich was rummaging through his pockets for a cigarette.
Armin had been part of the original Invasion of Poland in 1939 and continued onward in Operation Barbarossa until a chunk of flying shrapnel struck him in the head, completely cutting off his right ear. Only after two weeks of recovering, Armin was sent back to the battlefield and was transferred to Kappel's unit. Most of the soldiers looked up to him; he was the only soldier among them, besides Kappel and Smoke, who saw actual combat. The tales he told of the vast waves of Russians charging in a blaze of fury caused spines to shiver and knees to buckle in fear. Even Max admitted he was a little scared of 'Stalin's bears'.
Emmerich watched two more men pass before he scooted closer to Armin and Meine, whispering, "What do you think's going on? Everyone's been on-edge since after dinner."
"Could be anything, really... I think it's because of how pissed Kappel was today." Armin leaned back and shrugged his shoulders. "We've been out here for two weeks just sitting on our asses. You think they forgot about us?"
"It's possible. There's barely any fighting on this side; we're missing out on all the fun."
Meine turned to Emmerich, almost shocked. "Fun...? I'd rather stay here than go east... I heard that Russians can blend into the environment and kill you before you even knew it."
"Yeah, and they also have horns on their heads and breathe fire." Emmerich smirked and ruffled Meine's hair. "Russians are no more different than you or I, Meine. The last thing we have to worry about is them; we got the Brits and French 'resistance' to look forward to."
"So, we're going to win this war in less than two weeks?" Armin asked.
"Two weeks? I'll give it five minutes!"
Meine smiled weakly at their joking, fighting off a biting feeling of uncertainty in his stomach. Back home in Bamberg, he and his brothers listened as the radios spoke triumphantly about the defeat of the French Army within a matter of weeks. According to his brother Friedrich, they could have just as easily walked in and claimed the place without wasting a bullet. If only attacking Britain was as easy, Friedrich said months later in late 1940, when The Blitz went underway and the Luftwaffe set forth to bomb the country. Sadly, it didn't go as well as planned. Right after Meine had graduated basic training, the Battle of Britain had taken place and the Luftwaffe, despite the devastation, did nothing to hamper the British forces; they just added more wood to the fire.
At that moment, Max's voice broke into the tent. "Alright, Fräulines, move aside, move aside!" He stepped inside and threw the clipboard he held in his hands aside, plopping next to Meine. His right hand shook slightly, the index and middle fingers curled into his palm.
"Well, someone here looks like hell." Emmerich smirked.
"Don't get started, Em." Max scowled and slipped his helmet off. "Do you know how many of these damn tents I've picked through so far? Over a hundred! Then I had to write a page of every single thing I found, and if they were against regulation... Half-way through I wanted to cut my hand off! I don't even think Kappel's going to read my reports; probably just doing this to get on my nerves!"
"He did it because you and Vogel can't go through a day without going for each other's throats, that's why," Emmerich replied, rolling his eyes. "You're too paranoid, you know that?"
"And you overestimate things." Max barely rubbed his cut lip and shrugged. "So, where's Kaercher? Last time I saw him was at dinner."
Armin answered, "Falk's in the medical tent. Moron twisted his ankle in a little pothole."
Meine looked at him. "What happened...?"
"Not really sure. I think a cricket or a fly landed on his food and he ran out screaming like a little girl." Armin held in a laugh and continued. "It was pretty funny. I think he's more of a baby than you are, Meine!"
Meine managed a small smile and looked down to the ground. Max was the first to notice and turned to Armin. "Cut the kid some slack, Fahn. It's bad enough he's got most of the unit talking down to him; he doesn't need any more of that crap."
"It's alright, Max... I know he doesn't mean it." Meine shifted in his spot and looked out the tent once again, seeing more soldiers walking in silence, yet this time it was more than just a couple. In fact, it looked more like the entire unit was passing by. The four men looked to one another in confusion, then Emmerich rose to his feet and walked outside, stopping a young man and pulling him aside.
"Th'hell's going on here? Where's everyone going?"
The young man, Straub, turned to Emmerich as if he was a mad man and said, "Didn't you hear the announcement...? The Hauptmann and Feldwebel Kappel want everyone to the middle of camp, now!"
"Wait, what announcement? We didn't hear a thing," said Armin.
"Now you did..." Straub jerked his arm free from Emmerich's grip and ran off, vanishing amongst the crowd.
Emmerich uttered a swear in the kid's direction and turned to his friends. "Guess we were right about something being up..."
From the makeshift stage, Martin and Smoke watched the soldiers gather, their faces grave. Barth stood to Smoke's right, a clipboard resting in his hands containing a list of the soldiers. Every-man's eyes gazed up at Smoke and they quietly marched into ranks, eyes forward. For as short of time as they knew him, whenever a meeting took place and Smoke did not have a cigarette anywhere on his person, he meant business. His hands were crossed over his chest; a statue could have been more lifelike than he was now.
Meine's eyes fell upon Smoke and the feeling in his stomach retaliated tenfold. He did what he could to remain standing and clenched the sides of his pants legs. Surprisingly enough, Max kept quiet, though his posture was somewhat slacked and his hands were nestled in his pockets. Emmerich and Armin stopped behind the two, whispering faintly about their predictions. Meine said nothing and continued to stare at Smoke.
Ten minutes passed before Barth took roll-call, barely giving a man a second to say 'here' before moving on to the next name. Smoke waited patiently alongside Martin, who mentally frowned upon Barth's way of running the unit. Moron could barely handle a flock of sheep, more or less an entire Kompanie. Half-way through, Smoke held up a hand to stop Barth and whispered something into his ear. Barth saluted, then hurried off the stage and slipped amongst the night.
"I apologize for interrupting your night, men, I really do. At 1500, Feldwebel Kappel and I received a message from Major Lange of the 534 Infantry Division." Smoke stepped forward, his hands moving behind his back. "Word reached to him of French resistance and the British forces moving to take back a town vital to the Heer's defense. The town has been completely evacuated of civilians and the major has moved a good number of his wounded to the site until they are safely shipped to a hospital. If his men are captured, there is a chance that they will be killed instantly. Reports have shown that the enemy will reach the town in less than three days... We have been ordered by Major Lange to hold off the enemy until further notice."
It was as if a bolt of lightning came down upon the Kompanie. Feet shuffled, eyes whipped back and forth, and mouths ran like streams to open ears. To Meine, however, his entire world crumbled to dust and was blown away in the breeze. His green eyes merely stared at his feet, wide. The color in his face dispersed as his mouth went as dry as a desert, while his knees shattered into a million pieces. His whole body shook uncontrollably; he wanted to collapse.
"Tomorrow, at 0500, we move out. I want everything packed and ready to go at 0445. We have forty miles to trek, and I want us there before the enemy has even the smallest of chances of harming our men. Victory will be ours; we will chase the British and French back to the holes they came from! The Fuhrer will smile down at our triumph! Germany is on the rise to the glory we once held before the Allies left us to the hounds! Are you with me, men?"
For a brief moment, the unit threw aside their anxious demeanor. The sky shook with fear as they clicked their boots together and cried, "JAWOHL!"
At this, Smoke put on a smile and turned to Martin. "Give the order, Feldwebel."
Martin gave a nod of confidence and stepped forward, scowling. "You heard the Hauptmann. Get your asses moving! When I come by to inspect, you better be ready! I will not tolerate slacking." He turned to walk off the stage, then moved back to his spot. "Grenadier Steinmann, come to the Hauptmann's tent in ten minutes; we need to have a word with you. The rest of you, dismissed!"
With another 'Jawohl', most of the soldiers hurried off to their details. Meine, Max, Armin, and Emmerich, however, stayed behind, Meine clutching his stomach and fighting back the urge to double over. His mind drowned in countless thoughts. Did something happen to his family? Was he to be transferred to the Eastern Front? Oh, no... did they find out he lied about the fight? That had to be it...! His fingers dug into his jacket, almost piercing into the skin.
"Hey, you okay, kid...?" Max gripped the back of Meine's jacket with one hand, putting the other on his friend's shoulder.
Meine's voice was barely above a whisper. "What should I do...? They... they found out I lied."
"You're still freaking out about that? If they found out the truth, they woulda brought you up to the stage in front of everyone and hung you high." Armin gave a reassuring smile. "I'm sure it's nothing."
A faint whimper escaped Meine's lips and he turned to Max.
"It'll be okay, Meine..." Max put on a grin and patted him on the shoulder. "If worse comes to worst, I'll tell 'em that I told you to lie! Everyone wins." He playfully ruffled Meine's hair and gently shoved him forward. "Remember, hold that head of yours high, trust your gut, and for Gott's sake, don't pass out."
Meine stumbled forward, almost tripping and falling flat on his face. He quickly regained his balance and turned to his friends, who gave him a little wave and walked off. He chewed on the inside of his bottom lip, hesitant to even look in the direction of the Hauptmann's tent. If he didn't go, they would surely send for him. Slowly, he took labored steps across the camp, his gaze downwards. Around him, soldiers were preparing for tomorrow, re-strapping and cleaning their rifles, checking and re-checking their supplies, boasting how many French and British they were going to 'bag', and not to mention the beauty of the women in France. Even Vogel was too busy to target Meine. He ignored them and focused only on the task at hand. His feet seemed to grow heavier, as if someone had cleverly attached a ball and chain around his ankles. His hands didn't move from his sides; his fingers pulled at his pants in a nervous habit.
Before he knew it, he had stopped before Smoke's tent, tensing as he saw more than two inside. The first two he easily recognized as Smoke and Martin, but the other two, he had no idea who they were. Both were tall, one being wider than his friend. Meine took a careful step forward, feeling cold patches of sweat appear on his forehead and nape. With Max's advice still fresh in his mind, he clenched his hands, set his eyes to the middle of the tent flap, let out a shaky breath and spoke.
"Enter, Steinmann!" Kappel's voice snapped.
"Yes, sir...!" Meine mentally scolded himself and, keeping his eyes forward, took in a deep breath and moved inside, holding in a gag reflex at the rank lingering in the room. Cigarette smoke...! He held his breath and looked to Hauptmann Smoke, who was sitting in the middle of the room before a small table, a folder resting neatly in his hands. To his left stood Martin, who stared directly at the young soldier. On the right was Barth and the wide man, a middle-aged man, possibly close to Smoke's age.
Meine could barely throw up a salute when Smoke spoke. "At ease, Steinmann." His eyes didn't look up from the folder.
"Yes, sir..." Obeying, Meine slipped his hands behind his back.
Smoke pulled the cigarette from his mouth and pushed it into the ashtray, extinguishing the burning cinders. He rose to his feet and looked at Meine. "Do you know what this is, son?"
"No... no, sir."
"This... is your file from training. Everything you did there is in here." Smiling, Smoke tapped the folder with his index finger. "Gotta say, there's a lot of interesting stuff in these papers!"
Meine's teeth bit down yet again on the inside of his bottom lip; he could have sworn he tasted blood this time.
"Anyway, I digress." He flipped through some pages, humming the anthem of Germany under his breath. "Ah, here we are! You remember the firing range, ja?"
"Yes, sir..." Meine couldn't help but feel confused. What did that have to do with the fight...?
"Good. According to these marks, you were the second best out of the whole unit. First was Volk, but he's holding off the bears in Russia. We need a sharpshooter; a sniper. The French have began to adopt guerrilla warfare, and that could be bad for us. They have already caused damage to other units, and I would like us to remain as in tact as possible. You, Steinmann, are going to help me with that." Smoke turned to Barth. "Go to the supply tent and bring back the case with the Iron Cross painted on top."
Barth saluted and vanished, returning only minutes later with the case Smoke had requested. It was long, almost measuring to four feet in length and only more than half a foot in width. On top was indeed an Iron Cross, hastily slopped on beside the Nuremberg eagle that proudly clutched the famed swastika. Martin helped set it on the small table and undid the fastenings. He then turned it to Meine, gesturing him to open it. Reluctantly, the soldier placed both hands on the metal case, took a moment to relax himself, then pushed up the top lid, his eyes instantly wide with surprise. Inside lay a rifle, a Kar98, gleaming in the otherwise dimmed tent. Everything about it was polished to a T; Meine could have sworn he saw his reflection in the barrel. Along the sleek finish no blemishes, scratches or dents dared to show themselves. The sling, attached just under the lower band, was adorned with black leather, and inscribed in the center read 'Für Ehre von Deutschland'. Mounted behind the rear sight was what caught his eye next. Meine's mouth fell agape at the telescopic sight nestled perfectly above the receiver, as if the black shine had placed a spell on him. The model was obviously a Zeiss model; the only reason he actually knew that was from when he heard Volk showing off his weapon to the men. It was a 4x Zeiss ZF42 telescopic sight; the same as Volk's.
Martin put on a grin at Meine's expression. "Say hello to your new weapon, Steinmann. Until further notice, you are our sniper."
Meine's eyes shot up once he heard Martin's voice. "Sir...?" He had to have heard him wrong. Him, a sniper? That's not possible. They made a mistake.
"Go ahead, pick it up!" Smoke smiled and gestured to the rifle. "It won't bite."
"Yes, s-sir..." To his surprise, his hands weren't shaking. In fact, none of his body shook. Carefully, he pulled the rifle from the case, barrel aimed at the ground. He turned it to the right, then to the left, eyes searching for anything out of order. It weighed more than his old rifle, give or take only one kilogram. He gently moved his hand back and forth along the stock, taken aback at how smooth it was on his fingers. His old rifle had nicks and scratches all over, once even giving him a horrible splinter. This one... he couldn't explain it, but it felt as if the weapon was made for him.
"How does it feel, son?" Smoke walked over to Meine's side, hands on his hips.
Meine's eyes couldn't bear to look away from the rifle. "It feels amazing, sir... I... I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything, just make sure you don't lose it or hand it over to the enemy." Smoke clapped a hand on Meine's shoulder. "Now! Do you have any questions pertaining to your new assignment?"
Meine had to force to peel his eyes away and look at Smoke. "Oh... no, sir. I think I got it all, sir."
Smoke nodded. "Good. I believe we're done here... You're dismissed, Steinmann. Take care of the rifle, get packed, and we'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes, sir...!" Meine carefully slung the rifle over his left shoulder, placing the strap close to his collar bone. Quickly he snapped to attention and thew up a salute. "I'll do my best, sir... I promise not to let you down."
Smoke returned the salute. "I know you won't, now get going. We all have a big day ahead of us."
* * *
It was past midnight when Meine spotted someone coming his way.
When Max first came over to his bedroll, Meine was almost positive he was drunk. He was leaning back and forth, to and fro... he could barely stand on one foot, much less both. He was still in uniform, though his jacket was undone and his undershirt was halfway unbuttoned. Even in the dark, Meine could tell his eyes were shut; he was amazed Max was able to travel across camp without stepping on someone or kicking them in the head. Held loosely in his right hand was his own bedroll, all rolled up and poorly tied.
"Max...?" Meine slowly sat up.
"Mmm." Max dropped the bedroll beside Meine's and slumped down face first.
"Max, why are you here?"
Max's voice was muffled, but Meine could make out most of it. "Snoring... ldn't shut up... sh..."
"So... you came here because it's quiet?"
"Oh..." Meine looked to his new rifle, wrapped up in his blanket. He put on a small smile and said, "D-did you hear? Hauptmann Smoke appointed me to... to be the sniper...!"
Max lazily raised his hand and gave Meine a thumbs up before his arm fell back to earth.
Meine's smile faltered and he sighed silently, turning back to his rifle. At that moment, the feeling in his stomach began to rejuvenate, its claws reaching and jabbing at his heart. His joyful facade vanished into thin air. He brought his knees close to his body and wrapped his arms around them, fingers clutching and tugging the side seams. It didn't take a scientist to tell him what his new position meant. Volk spoke highly of it before being transferred, of how he was going to take down every single Soviet scum right between the eyes. Meine tugged harder at his pants, his teeth sinking into his lip.
He was no longer a soldier. He was a killer.
At the sound of the voice, Meine turned his head to Max, taken aback that he was still awake. "What...?"
"O-oh, yeah...!" Meine forced a smile and. "I'm fine!"
"Buuuuull..." Max pushed himself up, then placed himself on his side. His eyes were still closed. "Your voice... that tone in... right there..."
If there was anyone Meine couldn't lie to, it was Max. He turned pink from embarrassment and rubbed his arm. "S-sorry... I'm just getting nervous. We're going into b-battle...! You're scared, right?"
"Mmm... no..." Max scratched under his chin. "Won't be tha... bad."
"H-how can you act like that...?" Meine frowned. He could feel scalding tears forming in his eyes. "We could be killed...! I... I have to kill people...! Max, I don't... I don't want to d-do this anymore!"
"Meine, calm the hell down... everything's gonna be okay."
"How do you... how do you know?"
At that, Max barely opened an eye and looked at him. "I just do. Look... we've known each other for what, half a year, more than? Whenever you were in..." He paused to yawn, then continued, "Whenever you were in trouble, who came to your rescue? Who was it that made sure you were as safe as possible? Hell, who was it that kicked Vogel's ass so hard he couldn't sit right for a week?"
"Damn right it was...!" Max propped himself onto his elbow and gave a smirk. "Meine, there is no way in hell I'm going to let anything bad happen to you. I don't care if we're going to war; I'm not going to let something that ridiculous get in my way of protecting you. They can throw grenades at me, they can send the dogs after me, and they can run me over with a tank, but that's not going to stop Max Hexenkopf from doing the same to them! Now..." He reached over and patted Meine on the head. "Here's what you're gonna do. You're gonna lay down, you're gonna close those eyes, and you're gonna forget every bad thing for tonight, got it?"
"Y-yes..." Meine gave a genuine smile this time.
"Good! Get to it, and I will see you in the morning." And with another pat to the head, Max pulled his arm back and collapsed once again into the bedroll.
Meine eased himself back onto the sleep sack, his eyes growing heavy. He stared up at the labyrinth of stars staring down at him, spotting a bright, large star beside a smaller, fainter star. There was no doubt that the two lights rested directly above him and Max, both representing one and the other. He moved to raise his hand and reach towards the fainter star, but reconsidered it and placed it over his stomach, eyelids flickering up and down.
And before he fell into the world of everlasting dreams, he knew Max was right all along. Everything was going to be alright.