Frederica the Great
The experience was so real I could smell the saltpeter.
“Present Arms!” The officer closest to me called out to his men in thick, rustic German.
The platoon of soldiers in their dark blue uniforms brought their muskets to bear.
I really had to give the production team credit. VR or no-VR, this was one of the most faithful reproductions of the 18th century Prussian army that I’ve ever seen. If only I could remember the title of it. Either way —move over, Barry Lyndon, there’s a new King in town.
“Open Fire!” A cloud of fire from the barrels and thick smoke erupted from the guns.
The screams emanating from the distance sounded pretty damn real.
“Let all brave Prussians follow me!” a voice yelled from a nearby cloud of smoke. Turning towards it, I saw a horse hurtling towards me at full gallop. Atop that horse was a man.
“Bewegen, Zvilist!” The rider shouted at me, while rearing his steed — shortly before his chest exploded in a splash of blood. He fell off his mount in a heap on the ground. Some of the blood had found its way to my face, which I had reflexively wiped off my face with my index finger. Bringing my finger to my lips reflexively, I licked it. It tasted of iron.
Real blood — it can’t be real, can it?
“You, boy.” A voice — just above a whisper — beckoned me. It was the rider.
I ran to his side. A large bullet was lodged below his sternum. One didn't require a doctor to know that with his wound, this man wasn’t long for this world. Whatever “experience” I thought I was in before ceased to matter to me at that moment. The end of an existence was before me — but it was not mine, it was this fellow’s — who I did not know. And that made it even more acute, VR be damned.
“My name — is — Schwerin. I serve Fre—Fre— of Prussia. She— he—“ There was blood trickling from the corner of his lip. I’m the type of guy who keeps a flask in his pocket. Don’t ask what’s in it. Without a second thought, I retrieved it and brought it to the dying man’s lips. As he gulped it down greedily, he seemed to momentarily regain his vigor.
“D-Danke, the c—commander of this force believes this battle is l—lost. I… do not.”
“Just rest, old man, I’ll find a medic.” I said, attempting to ease him from his pained speech. Standing only for a moment before he grabbed my arm, he yanked me back down with surprising strength. A fire burned in his eyes — a dimming one, but it still flickered.
“D—do not patronize me, boy. I— I have seen more — than you will ever know. I know how to die. I—” he groaned, and choked up more blood. “No t—time. Baton.”
He handed me a decorated baton which carried a black eagle at its top. Covered in his own blood, I gripped it in my free hand. The other I rested behind the old man’s wigged white head.
“What do you want me to do with this, old man?”
“P—press the attack. They do not know — the Austrian right.”
“Wait, where are we —?” I asked him impetuously.
“M-Mollwitz.” He said, producing more blood. He would be gone soon.
With that, a bell went off in my head. My inner strategy gamer awakened.
“Mollwitz? So Frederick the Great has already retreated — then, you are Schwerin and pushing forward from the left? The Austrian cavalry is broken?”
“Then we must break them. Prussia can fire faster with their new muskets, and the Austrian Landwehr isn’t trained to fight in the front lines.” something in that moment had come over me. Whatever it was, it caused in Schwerin the flicker of a smile as he faded.
“Bring her victory.” were the words he whispered before passing away in my arms.
I now knew of the man who had fallen in my hands. By virtue of playing a great deal of Seven Years War, a popular military strategy game — I was perhaps overly familiar with Frederick II of Prussia, his generals, and the little state he commanded. I knew also that this was Frederick’s first engagement, where he had fled in fear from the Austrian cavalry. And that the man who died in my arms was Field Marshal Schwerin, who was Frederick’s martial tutor and closest advisor until his death in 1757.
Had I been transported to this world?
These questions nagged at me until I realized my responsibility — as Schwerin’s blood from the baton ran down my hand, collecting in my palm. I had caused this fellow to die — by accident, but still — my presence had changed the events of this world to such an extant that I now held responsibility. The blood on my hands was figurative and literal.
“Present Arms!” -- the call from a nearby Sergeant interrupted my thoughts.
I had a duty.
Approaching the nearest officer — I could reason out from their swords — I flashed the bloody baton in their face. His eyes widened. I knew that a Prussian Marshal wouldn’t just hand over his baton to anyone, and that it was anathema for a common soldier to even touch such an item. It embodied command itself.
“Advance.” I ordered.
The officer stared at me with an expression of pure stupor.
“The Field Marshal is dead. He has given me the responsibility of overseeing the battle. His last orders were to advance on the Austrian right.”
The officer seemed to process these words for a moment. Stealing one last look at the Baton in my hands, he called out the order to advance along the line. Some distance, the order was repeated in a shout, and the next platoon began to move. In a few heartbeats, the entire line began to advance into the hilly field of Mollwitz. I had issued my first command. Was it to be my last?
The Austrian Landwehr had broken in five minutes of sustained fire from the advancing Prussian lines. Those Austrians were a mixed bunch of peasant militias, and had been the reserve line before a Prussian maneuver had forced the Austrians to wheel their lines around before the battle began. I knew that in the game, they could manage two volleys per minute of questionable accuracy. In the heat of battle, they had managed five volleys in that space of five minutes. Few of those bullets hit home. The Prussians, meanwhile, had managed a whopping fifteen volleys in that space of time, mowing down the militia like a blade through grass. It was magnificent to watch — even from my distance.
The nausea only set in when I realized I had their blood on my hands too — not just Schwerin’s. The breaking of the Landwehr — and the pile of grey-coated bodies that were left in their wake, had spooked the entirety of the Austrian forces into a hasty retreat — I even saw their famed cuirassier cavalry run from the field in a full rout, leaving behind their baggage carts. I had managed to observe the entire affair from the top of a nearby hill, even as a small following of Schwerin’s former staff officers had gathered around me — all demanding to know why he had passed his baton to me. Eager to turn my vision from the battle by now, I attended to their questions with vigor.
Since I held that baton, I was at that moment all of their superiors, and their demands were cased in the sort of military obtuseness that one used while questioning a superior officer. I knew as much from the game’s cutscenes, in which Frederick’s marshals would sometimes question his decision-making. My replies were direct, and this seemed to satisfy them for the time being. They, in that sort of Prussian stoicism, seemed to still have their wits about them — although they all penned around me like I was some zoo curiosity. I’m sure the nylon adidas Beckenbauer tracksuit that I was wearing — my usual stay-at-home and play video-games loungewear — didn’t help matters. This was no doubt a surprise to them all — and I’m sure there were a few who speculated that I myself had been the cause of the Marshal's death. But I can assure you their shock and awe was nothing next to mine when I saw their leader.
“You hold the baton of a Prussian Field Marshal.” an effeminate voice emanated from behind me. Surprised at such a sound in such a masculine arena, I turned to face its source. And my jaw dropped. Standing before me was a girl. A beautiful girl — but a girl nonetheless.
I was held entranced by her. Her unkempt platinum-blonde hair that ran down to her shoulders. Her emerald eyes which seemed to both tremble and cause trembling in others. She wore the Prussian general's coat in a relaxed fashion, displaying a touch of cleavage that while not immodest, attracted one's eyes. She was flanked by two mammoth grenadiers. I attempted to find the right words, but stumbled over each one, as I often did with the opposite sex.
“I — encountered — Field Marshal Schwerin dying on the field. He issued this baton to me with orders to — press the attack in the King’s absence.”
“King?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“—of the Prussians. The one that fled the battle.”
“I did not flee!” She spat, turning flush. “The position was overwhelmed. A retreat was ordered and the cavalry was regrouped. We arrived too late to be of aid!”
I was stunned. This girl — this tsundere — was claiming to be Frederick the Great of Prussia. One of the greatest field commanders of all time. One of Germany’s early national heroes. A man who was nearly offered the crown of the United States in its infancy. Frederica — was that what Schwerin had called her? The guards behind her had both drawn their carbines. Was my life at risk? I quickly collected myself and attempted to do my best rendition of one of those cutscene-generals from the game. Time to play Prussian.
“Regardless, Marshal Schwerin saw an opportunity and entrusted its execution to me before his death. It has been done. I intend to take my leave now, if that’s alright with you all.”
Would they buy that? Hell, I dunno if I’d buy it.
“What is your name?” The girl asked me. Asked is probably the wrong word. Commanded is much more fitting.
“My name… is Adrian Wust.” I didn’t particularly care for my name. It was unimpressive, and everyone back home in America pronounced it with a “W” instead of a “V” — which according to my grandfather, an old pasty German, was an city in the old country.
“W-Wust?” The girl stammered out — with the appropriate enunciation.
“Not very impressive, is it?” I said with a smirk. It was a canned response I had practiced for no reason. No one really had criticized my name or its pronunciation — I just possessed a complex about it.
“A-are you mocking me? Are you some sort of spirit sent here to terrorize me?!” She inquired with an expression of pure exasperation. Something about seeing women in a ill-at-ease made me equally uneasy, and now my head was spinning with reasons for her anger — did I insult her hometown or something? Didn’t Frederick II grow up in Potsdam or something like that? Fishing for the right thing to say, I began to ramble.
“I haven’t got the slightest fucking idea, honestly—“ I began, adding a laugh that seemed more like a sigh in hindsight, “—I think I was watching a film or playing a game — or something with a VR-headset and then I ended up here, on the battlefield. Then I ran into Schwerin, who died in front of me and gave me a bunch of directions. Now, I play a fair bit of historical simulation games so I’ve got a good grasp of how this battle actually turned out, so I relayed those orders to the officers and they executed the plan, and we won.”
That must have sounded idiotic.
Everyone — Frederica, the staff officers — event the grenadier guards looked at me as if I had just arrived from Mars after stating those words. Prussians don’t have a reputation as particularly imaginative, so I probably just sent them all into overload with that rant.
“I-I don’t understand, and I don’t care!” The girl fired back. She then took a moment to compose herself. “You are holding the baton of a Prussian Field Marshal, an offense punishable with hanging. I demand you give it to me.”
Realizing that my explanation probably struck them as a complete fantasy — I myself can’t even wrap my head around it — I approached the girl. She held out her palm. I rested the baton on my shoulder which elicited a gasp from the junior officers behind me. The guards stiffened.
It occurred to me that I really only had one opportunity to get out of here alive, and that was to start explaining myself properly. After I got the hell away from this situation, I could start figuring how to get back to the present.
“I only did this because Field Marshal Schwerin asked,” I started, “and because I figure you needed to actually win the battle of Mollwitz so the future wouldn’t be messed up. My goal is to get the hell out of here and find a way to get back to my era — 2017. I’d like to leave without getting killed, if that’s alright with you.”
The girl stared at me with focused, analyzing eyes.
“You will not die by my hands if you give me the baton.”
I rubbed my chin. That’s probably the best promise I was going to get in my situation.
“Agreed.” and with that, I handed her the baton.
Half expecting the guards to pounce on me the moment she took it in hand — I was pleasantly surprised when I wasn’t immediately restrained. I watched the girl intently. She held the baton in her hands with grace, with care — as if it were the hand of the fallen Field Marshal himself.
“Is this your blood or the Marshal’s?” she asked without lifting her eyes.
She kissed the baton and handed it to the nearest guard on her right.
“My thanks.” She said solemnly.
“I was happy to help,” I replied — “and I’m sorry about Schwerin. He wasn’t supposed to die until 1757 — when you siege Prague. I wanted to make sure I didn’t ruin anything else.”
“You mock me, again! After all that!” She yelled, with a tear falling from her left eye.
If this is still a VR-experience, the actors must have some ridiculous ad-libs programmed in. Either way, I was getting sick of this girl raging at me. Especially after I won her the goddamn battle and all. I resolved myself to let her have a piece of my mind.
“I’m trying to help you — I’m from the future.” I stated slowly while moving my hands for emphasis, “Do you want me to tell you how you get all your Marshals killed at Hochkirch while I’m at it? Maybe try to avoid that one, too. Although I think Keith is still with the Russians at the moment.”
This brought her head up in a full turn, and looked at me with an expression of pure rage.
At that moment, a rifle butt found my forehead.