“Heil Hitler!” said with a snap and a proud billowing of the cheeks. The guard shuffled into attention trying to hide some of the slouching that invariably comes from hours of dull duty.
“Heil Hitler,” came the perfunctory reply as Oberleutnant Schmidt bounded into the office. As he expected, the room – if you didn’t include the guard (Friedrich? He wanted to say Friedrich) and himself – was unoccupied. Naturally, he was dead on time for the meeting and naturally he would be made to wait again. Schmidt picked one of the pad chairs and settled into it facing the office’s only other piece of furniture, a desk hewn from local rock and topped off with a thin sheet of steel cannibalised from the force’s now-useless lead exploration craft. To pass the time he closed his eyes and listened to his surroundings; his own, heavy breathing (this environment didn’t help); the low-pitched whirr of the ventilation system recycling the air for the ten thousandth time; just at the limits of audibility the hint of a couple of other discussions elsewhere in the structure echoed through into the semi-circular room.
He felt he sensed rather than heard the general approaching but he conceded quickly his subconscious may have simply alerted him to the sounds he was zoning out of hearing. How long had he been there? He glanced at the clock on the wall. Under five minutes. Not too bad. The general and another soldier – the Festungswerkmeister, or fortress works master – entered and acknowledged the guard’s voiced salute. Friedrich was dismissed with a wave of the general’s hand leaving the three men alone.
“Why, generaloberst, you’re very nearly on time!” said Schmidt, who hadn’t bothered to stand for the other two.
The general grunted and slumped onto the pad chair opposite Schmidt. The fortress works master, Schroeder, smiled weakly and nodded at the oberleutnant as he took the seat next to him.
“Schroeder, you’re to begin preparations for dismantling of the defences – as much as possible – and restoring the Kalkgrund to service,” said the general flatly. Two sets of eyes widened at that statement.
“We’re leaving under our own power?” asked Schmidt, shifting slightly. “There are no reinforcements coming?”
“We are, and there aren’t,” answered the general. “There will be no need for reinforcements because as we’ve all surmised over the past half year here there is nothing to reinforce against. This has been a colossal waste of time and effort.” He took a breath. “Naturally,” he added, “the fault lies not with our leaders but with the cunning of the enemy.”
“Of course. Naturally,” answered Schmidt.
“The men will be glad of the work and I’ll get them started immediately,” said Schroeder, “but I can give no guarantee that the Kalkgrund can be restored to working order. A lot of damage was done in the landing. A lot of… modifications… have been undertaken since. The Magdeburg is in better shape. We could evacuate with three trips if we strip it down. There is no support vessel coming at all?”
The general leaned back and looked to the meeting room’s ceiling and the pale yellow bulb putting out a pitiful amount of light, staring at it, lost in thought for several moments. In turn Schmidt stared at the general, noticing the dim shadows in the base commander’s skin and the unnatural colouration that everything here seemed to have. With a deep breath the general nodded at Schroeder and told him to get on with the work as assigned. The middle-aged fortress works master saluted and left, briefly catching Schmidt’s eye with a puzzled look as he exited the room.
“You have bad news generaloberst,” Schmidt stated quietly.
“The war is over,” the general answered, fixing his eyes on the other man. “It’s been over for some while now but you know how long news takes to travel. Hitler is long dead. Germany surrendered.”
Schmidt sat in silence for a few seconds before replying slowly. “I won’t miss the war and I won’t miss Hitler.” He shrugged. “We can return home and get on with our lives.”
“Our lives!?” spat the general. “Look at us Heinrich! What lives are we going to have?”
“Whatever life we have will be better than this hell!” said Schmidt with rising venom in his voice. Then, more calmly: “What has been done can be undone, I’m sure.”
“I don’t share your optimism my friend. This damn mission was one big foul up from beginning to end. I fear we will return to worse still.”
“What do you mean?”
“This place. How could we think the British and the Americans were preparing for an invasion here? What possible reason was there for it? Think back to how many resources were wasted on this. How much money? How many men? Think what might have happened back home if we hadn’t been sent here.”
“Our sources had good information…”
“Yes! Great information!” interrupted the general. “Only with a spelling mistake.”
“Europe,” said Schmidt, closing his eyes and leaning back, clenching his fists.
“Europe,” echoed the general. “Not this rock. Not this horrible rock so very far from home.”
The two soldiers sat in silence for a while. Schmidt’s emotions were a mess. Relief at going home mixed with the uncertainty of what awaited their return. There was anger there too but tempered by something bordering on hilarity.
“A spelling mistake,” said Schmidt half to himself. “It’s almost impossible to believe what was achieved – and what was not achieved, of course – for the sake of a spelling mistake. One little letter.”
“I’ll miss the view,” said the general, his eyes closed, thinking about the beauty that lay outside the thick, cold walls of the compound. “But to see trees again will be nice too. I’ve missed trees.”
Schmidt nodded. Then, on the spur of a moment, he pushed himself up from the pad chair, propelling himself to the ceiling gently before falling gracefully into his original position. “I’ll miss that!” he said with a laugh. “The scientists would love this place. I wonder if they’ll come here when we return.” If we return, a thought flashed across his mind. He tried to push it away but couldn’t.
Generaloberst Galster and Oberleutnant Schmidt sat once more in silent contemplation. The general suddenly smiled to himself. With a look Schmidt enquired as to the reason.
“You’ll laugh too. Or you’ll cry when I tell you.”
“I’m worried now. Tell me.”
The general gestured at his body, then at Schmidt’s. “Just like the mission. Also unnecessary.”
“What do you mean?” asked Schmidt, sitting up straight.
“There was no reason to transform us into frogs.”
“What? But… The information? No!”
“Oh yes. The enemy was dropping fliers all over Europe before the invasion. Urging resistance and surrender. Fliers over Europe.” Schmidt balled his hands into fists and pushed them into his eye sockets, shaking his head from side to side. The general continued: “Our leaders expected insects on a moon of Jupiter, turned us into the best form of attack against them, and sent us here. A battalion of genetically-modified frog soldiers on Europa! Ships not built for this mission. Troops not fighting for this mission. Scientists not devising weapons of mass destruction for this mission. A war not won for this mission.”
“Destiny diverted because someone in the typing pool couldn’t press the right keys,” said Schmidt quietly. His tongue flicked out, licked his eyeball, and absorbed the salty tear that had welled up in the corner.
“I might ask to keep the tongue when I get back,” said the general.
“I was thinking the very same thing,” said Schmidt, nodding.