The World Ablaze (6.1)

This story segment contains some strong language and mildly disturbing religious imagery.

8th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Tauta – Thurin City

10 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

It had been the same window for months now. But across the glass Bercik saw an entirely different world. Geography, climate nothing had changed but that the mindset in which it existed, the permanence that buttressed this fragile world, was fading.

The Aster’s Gloom swept across Nocht with cold, heavy rain in the south and storms of ice in the north. For all of its sixty days the inhabitants could expect harsh weather and overflowing drainage. Thurin, located on the lower coast, received a terrifying downpour to mark the passing of the seasons. Under relentless wind and rain people crowded the street still, a rainbow of umbrellas and capes, headed to collect wages and keep the machinery of urban life moving. Around the edges of their streets the ditches filled into miniature rivers. Awnings drained a steady trickle over the walking commuters.

Those few private cars cruising the paved roads drove with their hoods up, blowing little clouds of smoke that dispersed quickly with the force of the rain. People on foot had their heads down and they walked briskly under their umbrellas, undaunted by the storm.

For those inside a building, it seemed a challenging world beyond the glass.

Thurin was a large but flat city, thick with people but bereft of monuments.

It was low lying, unremarkable to the untrained eye, lacking the glass facades and the distinctive architecture that places like Citadel Nocht and Rhinea the jewels of the Northern world. Thurin had influence in Tauta, but it was far from a work of art, composed primarily of muted gray concrete, its architecture boxy, perfunctory, and artificial.

Overhead the sky was dark with a mix of storm clouds and smog, which would linger like a fog whenever the factories overworked.

Bercik found himself deeply unsettled as he peered out over his city.

Before crossing the threshold into adulthood he thought his city was vibrant and alive. Gradually those warm feelings left him. He did not know what to think now.

From the window on his apartment he had a view of a street, filled with people, their heads down, soaking wet. What did they think of the city? What did they know? Where did they intend to be at the end of the Gloom?

For Bercik, he thought he had his life figured out, but then the Dahlia’s Fall gave way to the Gloom. Sixty days ago he had a future and now he envisioned something very different, something macabre. All of those people, could they see as he did? They were not equipped to do so. And as he watched them, he felt all the more desperate.

“Scheldt! Scheldt! Wake up!”

Accompanying the soft, high voice was a rhythmic thumping on the side wall.

“It’s fine Kirsten! I’m awake.” Bercik replied.

“Oh! That’s great. Have a wonderful day! Take care!”

Bercik chuckled. He had asked Kirsten to be his alarm clock, in case he wasn’t up. That boy was always awake. He delivered newspapers, so he was up at ungodly hours, and didn’t seem to ever sleep, playing his violin and singing all the time.

He left the side of his window, and crawled along his bed. He sat on the edge of it, and stretched his legs. Bercik could almost touch the walls with the tips of his feet.

It made him think that he was renting a cage, a spot in a pet shop alongside excitable little dogs like Kirsten. Barely enough room for his legs, intermittent electricity, and a bed that clung from the side of the wall with chains. His only amenities were a sink with running water, a mirror, a window, a light bulb, and a chest for his few earthly possessions.

He was already wearing his one good suit. It had a more legitimate claim to being his skin now than the pinkish-pearl sheet over his flesh. Despite covering a dozen stories a month, he could still only swing 50 copper marks for a box that was scarcely three meters around him. Such a condition could only continue, in the state he was in.

But he had a meeting to attend. Money could wait.

He worked toward something greater now.

Bercik stood in front of his mirror. He adjusted his tie, patted down the wrinkles on his suit as best as he could. Then he squatted down to the floor.

Carefully he crawled under his sink and pulled a loose board off the wall, and from a hollow space behind the pipe he gently extracted a large folded envelope, thick with documents. He quickly hid the envelope in his satchel, along with several papers held together by a gray paper clip. This was his secret stash, his telltale heart.

He felt his blood pounding relentlessly through him as he donned a black hat and walked out the door with the satchel prominently in his arms. Though he expected it to be snatched from him, nobody showed interest. Nobody knew its value, or his own.

Most people kept out of Bercik Scheldt’s way these days.

Nobody hailed him on the halls, or chatted with him down the stairs anymore. Front desk barely looked at him. He was like a ghost walking. People who used to find him cheerful and boyishly handsome no longer did under an unkempt beard, a thick head of hair and bloodshot eyes. These days he barely spoke to anyone but Kirsten.

People did not leave him alone because he looked tough – he had never looked tough.

They left him alone now because they thought he was diseased.

Perhaps in a way he was.

He snuck his satchel into his coat to offer it better protection from the rain, and crossed the threshold out into the world. Walking under the rain with his head down and his hat soaking up the water, without even an umbrella to his name, Bercik felt that he couldn’t even see people’s faces anymore when he looked at them.

It was like living in another world, like he was still seeing them through a glass.

He walked under the rain, across the corner from the tenement, dripping and cold, and then he slipped into a phone booth. Water pooled under his feet as he slipped a few copper mark coins into the machine and rotated the dial, his satchel pressed against his chest.

Bercik waited only for the phone to ring a few times, and then killed the call.

He let the handset hang by its cord for a while, and then he picked it up by the neck.

A new call, to a new number, all part of the secret procedure he had been told.

This time, someone picked up, clearly effecting a low, raspy voice as they spoke.

“You already got all I’m going to give you, my friend.”

“I know. But listen.” Bercik replied. He lowered his voice and bent closer to the phone, trying to insure nobody around could read his lips, or something similar. “I don’t think The National is gonna swing any more stories. I’m going to try; I want to try to get them to pick one. It’ll be drastic. We can’t do this little drip shit anymore. We gotta come out.”

The voice replied, quickly and harshly. “I’m not coming out anywhere.”

“No, not you, I mean me. I’m gonna write about everything.”

“Everything? It’s too much for one story. I’m telling you, people will believe a drip feed of facts that can broil in their heads for a week. All at once without all the facts bare beforehand, it will sound like a conspiracy, my friend.”

“I’ve gotta take that chance. My editor, I think he’s gonna give up on us.”

“On you, you mean. I wouldn’t want to have to do anything drastic to protect myself.”

“You wont,” Bercik said desperately, “You won’t. You know what I meant.”

“I do; and yet, the phrasing is dangerous. You are becoming a little too close, my friend. This will be our final call. Like I said, I’ve given you everything I could have possibly given. If The National can’t stop the war, then it’s war.”

The Voice at the other end hung up. Bercik looked at the phone helplessly.

He had poured all of his life into a series of shocking headlines that had The National in the spotlight. When he was not out in places he shouldn’t be at, talking to people who didn’t exist after the fact, he was in his cramped bedroom, writing his stories squatted on the floor with the paper laid on the flat lid of his clothes chest. He was on the pay phone around the corner, dropping coins into machines to reach people who were torn between their opportunism and the call to stop a catastrophe. Out of his own money he had paid for a flight to reach a meeting where he paid more to crooked suits for government papers. Without wings he would not have made it in the time-frame they set up.

The Voice sure had given him a raw fuckin’ deal, he thought grimly.

Bercik kept walking, under the rain, further uptown.

Overhead he saw clotheslines, emptied out when the rain started. There were hundreds of them between the buildings on either side of the street. Each of those clotheslines was a family of people, people who did not know. People with children, for crying out loud.

Bercik moved faster, trying to outrun his mind.

Out the tunnel of clotheslines he crossed a plaza.

Statues of Nocht ideologues watched sternly over him, their plaques embossed with their names in small print, and their contributions to the world in large gold letters.

The founding man, General Gunther Von Nocht, his plaque read “LIBERTY.” Anselm Schmidt, father of capitalism, his plaque read only “INDUSTRY.”

There was a statue of the Messiah, white as chalk, bald – and suddenly, Bercik noticed, the statue was also bleeding from places unmentionable. And his plaque stood out the most as well. Situated at the center of the plaza, the statue stood like an opponent looking down on one’s path, flanked by a great, powerful and unharmed founding man in every compass direction. Yet, his plaque read only, “SACRIFICE.”

He had never taken much notice of the wounds on the Messiah’s statue.

The statue was all white, so the ruptures and the caked blood, all as white as his skin and face, just seemed part of the attire. Now that he looked at it again, as though for the first time, Bercik couldn’t help but think that it was pleading him, and not for veneration.

Under the rain, it seemed in tears, begging him.

Bercik ran past and put the plaza behind him as quickly as he could.

The world stormed unabated over him as he crossed the streets and made his way far uptown, almost an hour’s worth of walking under the pitiless rain. Where a crowd formed, he would find some respite as people lifted their umbrellas over him to grant a momentary succor, but soon his suffering would begin anew. When he reached the diner, Bercik was so soaked that the waitress held him up at the door and patted him down all over with a towel. She admonished him, shouting about pneumonia. A pool of water formed on the rug in front of the door. He thanked the young lady and apologized for the inconvenience.

It was a small diner, with a line of tables across the length of the front windows.

There were polka-dot cloths and red leather seats on thick wooden frames.

Bercik would have called it cozy if his editor wasn’t seated in the back, staring.

That hampered the atmosphere quite a bit.

Once dried, Bercik joined his boss, Hans, at his table, laying his satchel down beside him. Bercik affected a tough confidence, the kind that man’s men sort of editors like Hans appreciated from the robust and forceful writers of their time. He made his face stony, his movements rigid, like a predator readying to spring. He purged himself of emotion.

Across from each other, the men stared intensely as though they would fistfight at the earliest convenience. It was infuriating, like a game played by two little boys pretending to be adults. Except Hans was not a little boy; at fifty-four he was over twice Bercik’s age.

His wrinkled face contorted into a grin around a thick cigar, glowing red at the end of his lips. He reached out and pulled Bercik’s hand over the table, shaking it roughly like he wanted to rip the arm out. He patted him on the shoulder, laughed heartily and raised a glass full of some indistinct liquor and drank, presumably in his honor.

“I got this for both of us. You can’t just sit here without anything.”

After downing his glass, Hans poured a tall drink for Bercik.

“How’s my favorite thug eh? Ready yet to go back to covering boxing?”

Hans raised his fists, smiling, and threw a few phantom punches.

Bercik wanted to sigh. This attitude, this feigned ignorance, was pathetic.

“I’ve got a tougher man to put down.” Bercik replied. It was good language for working with Hans. A tough-guy posture, where everything was a fight, where everything drew blood. “I’ve gotta give the man in Nocht Citadel a black eye.”

Hans grew silent for a moment. He grew serious. “Yes, that’s certainly been happening. That man’s let you punch his face a few times now, and it seems they’ve recently figured out The National was doing too much punching. And that it hurt.”

“Something happen?” Bercik asked.

“You haven’t been around the office lately, but others have.” Hans said.

Something happen?” Bercik asked again, nearly growling.

“We told them to fuck off.” Hans said. He took a long draw of his cigar.

“Good. That’s my man, Iron-Jaw Hans.”

Hans looked out the window. “I’ve begun to notice, Scheldt; when you throw a punch at something, I’m the one who sits herer and gets hit back. You should drop around the office sometime and take a few of those yourself, chum.”

Bercik shrugged. “I’ve been working Hans, you know I’ve been working.”

“Ok.” Hans said tersely. He put his cigar and continued. “On what now? Find out that President Lehner has been fucking Queen Vittoria or something? That would be a fresh turn from some of this other shit you’ve been digging up.”

Tiring of the bullshit, Bercik cracked open his satchel and pushed the envelope inside across to Hans. His tough-guy editor was less than enthused to receive another mysterious-looking pack bursting with stamped government documents.

This time it was a variety of shipping and storage papers, tracing the life of a series of M4 Sentinel tanks, top of the line, along with Heinrich no. 27 Archer monoplanes, also top of the line. Files tracked the life of the weapons from their inception in Tautan and Osteran factories to their journey to Mamlakha and Cissea, Nocht’s relatively new client states.

Each document covered 20 or 30 tanks and planes, but the orders piled up. Over a thousand vehicles had been delivered to each country in the past five months.

“This just isn’t compelling to me, Bercik. Explain your angle here. We’re giving our new allies the hardware they need to defend themselves. Seems altruistic to me. I don’t know what to tell you, other than I wish this was a sex story.”

“Do you think Cissea can afford this Hans? Look at that. A hundred tanks a week for the past two months? They could buy fifty tanks from us right now, tops. Not five hundred of the god damn things! And the planes, good lord, almost four hundred planes down to Cissea, and all of them top of the line? You don’t even see these in air shows, this stuff’s brand new. Doesn’t this look fishy to you Hans? Why would we give this away?”

“What do people care if we’re giving Cissea planes now? Come on.” Hans laughed and waved his hands as though trying to swipe the words out of the air.

He acted with a self-effacing cheer, as though his charm and wit alone could get Bercik to shut up and swing the day around for him. He knew better than that, Bercik knew that he did, but they had to go through the routine in order to get through to each other.

“You know what this looks to me and to my sources? Military mobilization.”

Hans raised his hands defensively. “You’re reaching now.”

Bercik pulled open his satchel and dropped stapled set of papers onto the table.

It was a draft.

“I’m not reaching, I’m writing.” Bercik started to talk fast. His heart was pounding. He set his shoulders, tried to look determined and to talk with conviction. He had to get this. “I’m writing about how the Libertaires promised us no more wars, and now all the technocrats and whiz kids are gleefully about to plunge the world into hell. It’s all goin’ to fucking Ayvarta, Hans. Why the hell else would Cissea, and Mamlakha for fuck’s sakes, why would we send them tanks and planes, to Mamlakha, why would we send a ‘peace force’ of over 300,000 men? This is war, these guys are setting up for war, and the people deserve to know it right now. We can put a stop to this, they ran on peace

“Peace force? You know why the peace force is going, you covered it! They’re going to stop the terrorists in Mamlakha, the commie terrorists. Everyone knows this now Bercik you can’t just change the facts. This is getting crazy now, too crazy for you.”

“Is it crazy? What do we care about Mamlakhan terrorists? Ayvarta’s across those borders, and we care about that. Deploying this ‘peace force’ after sending Mamlakha a thousand vehicles? After all the speeches of the menace of communism in Cissea? This is not about Mamlakha or Cissea. All along those have just been stepping stones, Hans. Our government is after Ayvarta, they want to topple the SDS, and it’ll be–”

“Stop, Bercik,” Hans interrupted him suddenly, raising his voice.

But he then paused, and he let out air for a moment, a long exasperated and anxious sigh while he pulled he ran his hands over his head, and sat far back in his seat as though he thought he might get socked from across the table. He took a drink again.

He was reaching for words that might sound like a reasonable excuse.

Bercik had seen that face far too many times now. He had seen it in tabloid pieces about celebrity affairs and he had seen it in tough pieces about mayoral scandals and mob violence. It was hard to believe he was seeing it again, and in a story of this magnitude.

“These guys are heavyweights Scheldt, you have to understand this. And they’re getting real tired of your shit. Citadel Nocht is set to bury us, they’ll make sure we can’t cover a fuckin’ baseball game ever again, ok? And they’re being gracious right now. They’re willing to drop everything, give us access to some primary, reliable source documents, and stop badgering us for your mystery benefactors: if we’ll give them a place to air their side of the story, and drop the subject. I’m willing to take this and you should be too.”

“God damn it Hans. The past few stories we did don’t even climb a meter up the iceberg. You know this is bullshit, you know the only thing we’ll get is a whole lot of papers filled with black bars. I’ve got real stories from real mouths and real eyes. You’ve got constitutional rights for fuck’s sakes, you need to stand up for yourself!”

“I know it is bullshit Bercik, but we have no choice.” Hans said.

He was almost to the point of shouting. Bercik could not believe this. Here was Iron-Jaw Hans, who got deep in the shit with the police in the labor riots twenty years ago, ready to lie down for the boys in blue? What world had Bercik Scheldt been transported to?

Hans sighed and kept talking. “If we keep going against these guys we’ll be run out of town. Those last stories you did about all the corporations and the cronyism and the oil shit in Mamlakha, that’s got them really pissed right now. Everything they would do to us is legal. We can’t force them to let us operate in peace, they make the laws here. For the love of the Messiah they could even say we’re commies and send the boys in blue to give us a good beating every Sixthday just to check if we’re not sending communiques down to the Commissars in Svechtha or something. You need to look at it from my perspective ok? I’ve got a family, I’ve got kids to think of here. We don’t need this shit Bercik.”

Bercik rolled his eyes and put his fist on the table. He was still playing the tough guy, and he couldn’t believe his ears, he couldn’t believe that Hans was not playing the tough guy anymore alongside him. “Fuck you and fuck your goddamn family.”

“Don’t do this to me now, ok?” Hans said. For once he sounded pleading. “Right now, I’m the only person in this damn city looking out for you Bercik. In twenty years when you retire with kids and a wife and a house, and a career, you’ll thank me.”

“Eat shit.” Bercik shouted. He lowered his voice and leaned forward with a dangerous look in his eye. “I don’t need fucking kids. I need you to publish this story or the world’s going to hell, Hans. The two biggest military forces in the world will be going at it soon. Millions of people will die. Not just their people, our people. There’ll be conscription, rationing. You lived through the unification war you stupid piece of shit, I didn’t, and yet here I am, being the only one in the room that fucking remembers. We can stop that.”

Hans stared right into Bercik eyes. He had a haunted look of his own.

“Yeah, I lived through it, ok. It’s not like that can happen again.”

Bercik grunted with exhaustion.

“It is happening! It will be worse this time! We’ve got bomber planes now, we’ve got tanks, we’ve got bombs that weigh 500 kilograms, and they’ve got all that too. There’ll be air raids, there’ll be firebombs sweeping the fields. Kids as young as seventeen can sign up right now to go to that. How can you sit back and not do anything, when you can stop this?”

“It’s just a story, Bercik. It wouldn’t have done anything but screw us over.”

Bercik was quick to answer, and sharp, as though it was a personal insult to him.

“No, you’re wrong. The people have a right to know. They can demand this stop.”

“We can’t stop this.” Hans said. He smiled a little, and looked down at the table. “I’ve got a living to protect here. If I survived the unification war as a kid, then my kids will survive it too. But I can’t survive having enemies in Citadel Nocht.”

Bercik couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

It just did not register to him that someone would hear what he said, and then would elect to sit back and do nothing about it. He thought that he had tried his best, in his mind he kept replaying the words, and to him, they perfectly depicted the death and the madness he saw on the horizon. In his mind he had painted at this table a picture fully realizing the flames, the smell of rot, the thick gunpowder-choked air. It was in his draft.

But Hans pushed the draft back across the table. This act seemed somehow definitive, a confirmation that Bercik’s words hadn’t reached anyone, that maybe he hadn’t even said anything that he needed to. He had fucked up; Bercik felt a pit form in his stomach, and a sudden wave of nausea. His legs shook under the table and his hands above.

“I’ll take it to another paper. One that’ll take the risk.” Bercik threatened.

“You know there isn’t any. None of them want this responsibility.” Hans said.

There was silence between them for a moment before Hans simply stood up from the table and left the diner entirely. Bercik remained, sitting in his chair, shaking and staring at the empty seat, wondering if it was all some awful dream.

Would he awaken tomorrow and repeat this day and do it right? In his mind he had not yet crossed that one-way door between a world in which he saw a future that was possible, a future where life and color returned to his picture of his life past the month; and one in which the chaos of war was inevitable, where monochrome became red with blood and fire, all far beyond any of his means to stop.

Trapped in his own consciousness, Bercik sat for close to an hour alone in that diner, still wondering what he could say, what he could write, that would get this story on the front of The National and save Nocht.

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