Kaspar was exhausted.

Mentally, physically - it didn’t matter anymore. The orders they had been given were moot now - especially since they had spent the past four days clearing out the smoking shells of buildings that used to stretch far into the Leipzig skyline, looking for signs of civilian life instead of Russian soldiers. Just a few days ago, Kaspar had watched a throng of Allied warplanes rain fire across the city, watching in horror as tiny ant-like people scarpered from their homes and businesses. The sounds of screaming - from terror or from pain, Kaspar didn’t want to know - had drifted on the breeze along with tiny flakes of ash and by the time the Heer had managed to scramble an offensive to the area, there had simply been nothing else to save.

It was early. Kaspar had been on his feet since four in the morning, ready to aid the futile effort to evacuate the remaining civilians from the smouldering ruins of the city. They had been stripped of any ceremony dress as they had passed through Munich - instead, they had all been issued with the standard combat uniforms of the German army. Kaspar’s trousers were too-large around the waist, and kept falling down. Beutel had complained on more than one occasion that the collar of his jacket was making his skin itch. And Müller, the unit’s de-facto leader based purely on the six-year age gap he held over the other boys, had a hole in his boot.

“Second-hand stock,” Beutel had whispered, as they had sat in the back of their transport a few nights ago. “Probably plucked off of the last unlucky bastard who got in the way of a bullet. Hitler’s throwing everything at the Russians though, it’s no surprise they’ve ran out of uniforms for us to use.”

Beutel was a huge supporter of Hitler, he would tell anybody who listened. His parents - father at the front, mother working in the factories - had both joined the Partei as soon as they could, and had instilled the same sense of pride in their son as they had for the country. He had only been too proud to serve, Beutel had gushed, waving aside the fact that he had been the first to kill - a young Polish boy who had looked more scared than Kaspar felt - as a simple necessity of war.

By the raw, primal look in his eyes, though, Kaspar had decided that Beutel had likely enjoyed pulling the trigger.

Kicking a loose piece of rubble, Kaspar watched as it skimmed across the cracked pavement and came to rest alongside the remains of a bus stop. Much of the useful material had already been taken - those that were left in the carnage had grabbed all of the food that they could, and the gnarled metal and half-melted plastic had already been shipped back to the factories in the west. War gave no time to rebuild, and the materials would have been useful elsewhere, Müller had advised them, a hint of sadness in his voice. However, the crumbled concrete still lay in mammoth piles in the streets. The nearest pile was stained with a spattered red. Civilian, probably. Kaspar had almost vomited when they came across the first body mashed into the pavement but now he felt nothing. No pain, no remorse, no burning as the bile rose from his stomach. Just dull, encompassing nothingness. His mother had warned him that the war would cause him to lose the most human parts of himself.

He just hadn’t expected it to happen in only four days.

They were hunting for their own people, now. There had been a regiment holding Leipzig since the war had begun, one solitary unit against the carpet-bombing. They had been ordered to find them, bring them to the camp on the outskirts of the city limits if they had survived and, once replenished, send every soldier that could walk to Berlin. There was nothing for them to defend in Leipzig now. Where the skyline had once stretched proudly into the horizon, the sky was now unblemished. The winter sun was almost entirely blinding without buildings blocking its rays - and the buildings that remained were uninhabitable. If you looked closely enough, you could see what remained of life before the bombs started to pelt down like raindrops from a darkened sky - the sleeve of a jumper here, an abandoned teddy-bear there. They would be forgotten before long, relics of a foregone history.

Worst of all, though, was the silence. It was almost painful, the way in which it pressed on them, threatening to crush each man with its force. It impressed on them the gravity of the situation, the way in which the very atmosphere of the world had changed in the wake of the destruction. Kaspar remembered visiting Leipzig one summer when he was younger, remembered the vibrancy and the endless colour that had echoed through the streets like a symphony; the rustle of bags as women returned from the grocery store, the cars pap-papping at one another as they crossed busy intersections. As he looked from side to side before crossing the road with the rest of his unit, he could almost hear the hustle and bustle of the city in his head, like the ghost of a loved one that had come back to haunt him. It did not comfort him, as the silence continued to press all around. Kaspar didn’t think this kind of silence could harbour the living. Silence like this didn’t hide pleasant surprises in the buildings where their colleagues had last been seen.

No, silence like this was where the dead roamed free.


Pain means living.

Kaspar forced himself to repeat the mantra that had been forced into his head by his father as he felt his shoulder knock off of the sharp metal frame of his bed. Groaning aloud, he lay against it for a few moments, allowing the icy coldness of the aluminium to cut through his uniform and sink right into his very bones. His father had been right - pain was the biggest indicator that he was still alive. Pain meant that he hadn’t yet met his match with the path of a bullet, nor the trajectory of a bomb and in a way that he had never anticipated, Kaspar found the words of a man with whom he had nothing in common with strangely comforting.

Kicking his boots off, Kaspar watched, numbed, as they hit the ground with a soft thwumph. In uniform rows behind him, he heard several sets of boots hit the ground in the same fashion. There was not a single man in the room that could say that he was not tired. They had spent hours scouring buildings - basements, foundations, anything that they could find - for the regiment that had been left behind. They had raked through the rubble, each man losing a little more face with every lifeless face and cold arm that they pulled from the wreckage. Some men had even started calling out as they walked the streets, shouting for men that they knew would never answer back. Kaspar had stood to attention for what seemed like an eternity, gun trained on the street in anticipation of a fight, but there had been no pulling of the trigger. There was no need, when the only people who shared the city with them were the dead in their thousands.

Müller had called of the search eventually, despite receiving no orders from his superiors to do so. In the space of even the few hours that they had been searching, he had aged beyond his years, worry-lines cut deep into his young face. He had taken the loss of the Leipzig regiment as a great personal loss and although he wouldn’t let anybody know, Müller wholeheartedly believed he was responsible for their deaths in a way. In fact, Müller believed that he was responsible for the death of every single man that he had ever led. Kaspar could see it written all over his face, no matter how well he hid it behind snapped orders and tough love. In his own mind, Dirk Müller was the reason that nobody in their unit was safe. He would be the reason that their unit was wiped out, or left for dead in some god-forsaken battlefield in central Europe.

Kaspar could hear him now, tossing and turning as he tried to get comfortable in the cot beside him. As dark as it was, and as comforting as the throes of sleep would be, Kaspar knew that Müller would not sleep. Instead, he would continue to thrash around in his sleep, his rifle by his bedside and one eye always open. Kaspar didn’t blame him - he had only been with the unit on the front for a week, and he already had nightmares. Kaspar couldn’t imagine the demons that would come for Müller when he eventually dropped off to sleep.

Kaspar hoped he wouldn’t ever have to encounter them himself.

Quiet had encapsulated the camp for only a few moments before Kaspar heard the sharp rap-tap of dress boots across the wooden floor. It could only mean bad news - nobody was allowed out of bed after lights-out. Anybody moving after lights-out was either going for a piss in the communal toilet area in the next tent - and there had been a queue of men there just before they had settled down, so it was hardly likely to be that - or bad news. And bad news normally meant a sleepless night.

A gruff cough preceded the light being turned back on. A few groans and murmurs were elicited from some of the easy sleepers - Beutel, naturally, slept like a baby - as they moved. Kaspar glanced at Müller. The man was already alert, and Kaspar caught a flicker of something - resignation, perhaps? - in his eyes before he steeled his features and waited for their newest marching orders.

“C Company. Dress and prepare for deployment. Destination: Wittenberg.”