This scene contains violence, verbal abuse, vomiting and severe mental distress.
44th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E.
Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Junzien, Hotel Reich
War had made the Nocht Federation a sickened place.
For the Unionists, however, this had become an opportunity.
On the week of the 44th, polling showed that Union candidate Bertholdt Stein was up on Achim Lehner by three points in the Burns poll — the first time an opponent outscored Lehner since his first entry into politics in 2027. Burns had correctly predicted Kantor’s victory in 2024 and his defeat in 2028 to Achim Lehner. For the first time in years, it felt like the Union party had regained some semblance of an identity in Northern politics.
At the Hotel Reich the Union party held a fundraiser for Stein’s presidential campaign. It was a room that boasted an energy similar to that of the Liberty party’s 2027 hopes. It was a gathering of hotshot stars, glamorous models, up and coming intellectuals, and most importantly, war heroes. Older men, and yet men not that old; all wearing their medals and uniforms, awkwardly chatting with the heiresses, the actors, the nouveau riche. There were some military women too: artillery computer veterans of Cissea.
Beneath the gilded lights of the grand ballroom, the assembled crowd drank politely, debated gently, and waited for midnight, when the star of the show appeared.
Bertholdt was just young enough to run for President, and no younger than that. For a candidate, however, he was sleek and energetic. In the world of politics he seemed a boy, and it was this freshness that allowed him to challenge the slightly graying Lehner as Lehner had challenged Kantor before. Bertholdt was tall, broad-shouldered, his blond hair still cut close and sharp, in the fashion of pre-Ayvartan war. It made him look serious. His hook nose and squared-off profile made him seem tough, but his eyes were gentle and friendly. Overall he had a useful flexibility in posture and fashion.
When he took the podium he smiled gently and he waited out the clapping.
“My friends and colleagues, it is wonderful to be here tonight. When I left the forests of Cissea behind, got on the boat and put down my rifle, never could I have imagined that I’d have the fortune to be at a place like this. I couldn’t see a future back then, fearing as I did for the direction of this country, but today, my friends, I have a vision of a better world. With your help, we will articulate this vision — and then we will make it real.”
There was thunderous applause.
“Liberty thinks they can scare us all so bad, we’ll bend the knee to them and their anti-democratic agenda. For a while, they thought they’d run unopposed in this election — can you believe that? But that shows just how weak they are. In this room, we’re not afraid of terrorists from without, and we’re not afraid of thugs from within. We will meet every threat, and we will triumph, because we’re doing what’s right for the Nochtish people!”
Once more as if on command the crowd applauded fiercely.
The Federation of Northern States was a two-party system. Its oldest party was Union, the party of Gunther Von Nocht, father of capitalism, founder of the free market republic that they all hailed from. He who fought against the Elven Empire and its Frankish monarchist proxies and carved out, in this wild, frozen and forbidding land, a place for people seeking opportunity and self-determination. Union had fought many political battles in the growing Federation, but all of its opponents had fallen to history. That had been their identity. Elder statesmen of inexorable power and history who created Nocht.
Liberty was founded scarcely a hundred years ago. Since then they had traded the Presidency and Congress and their own political identities back and forth. Union was stalwart, old, wise; Liberty was fast and loose, the party of farmers then miners then strikers then bankers. Time flattened the differences and the parties lost any semblance of ideology. But then the Presidency of Achim Lehner broke Union. It was not the first hammer blow — the chronically moderate Kantor’s unexciting primary victories and historically low turnouts had made the cracks. But Lehner shattered the remains.
Lehner gave Liberty a striking and bold identity. He and his “technocrats” seemed to come right out of the technical colleges and swept into office. All the partisans and staffers styled themselves Libertaires after the revolutionaries in Franz who aided Nocht in bringing down the king. It was their vow to destroy the decrepit establishment of mediocre political dynasties and create a smarter, leaner, faster, stronger machine. They knew statistics, they knew processes, they spoke with an authority that the mass of voters craved to bow under. And though they breathed fire and promised devastation to the feckless elite, they also weaved a beautiful pageantry before the public that made them proud to be Nochtish, proud to stand atop and ahead of the world. Populism, nationalism, utopianism, technocratism, all of it synchronized, primed for victory.
Union was everything Lehner said it was. Old, spent, unmoving, with no idea what the world could, should or would look like in the next four, eight, twelve or twenty years.
Then Lehner’s perfect, inviolable Nocht Federation, a sleek train hurtling down its fated tracks to glory and leadership of the world, met a wall at the foul little nation of Ayvarta.
Now Union had an identity again. It was the party that stood for ‘no more of this.’
Bertholdt Stein had more to say than that. He was a veteran. He knew first-hand how the army mistreated and disposed of its personnel. And he had come to know more after leaving the service. How the vision of the world Lehner gave the public was censored and artificial and manipulative; how the economy struggled, its factories and workers dehumanized into ‘flows of production’ and ‘expected outputs’ and the like; how the police brutally rounded up Lachy and Ayvartans and queers and other low folk.
He had learned how to fight Lehner on his policy terms, and on territory he created.
“We have a man in power, who thinks he’s better, smarter, than all of us. No experience in the military, no previous experience in governing. Rode his father’s name and the names of a few stars to the top. He’s in over his head. I’ve fought wars, I’ve seen what’s out there. I promise you, tonight, that I will get this war sorted out, so we can bring our men and women back, and put everybody to work, building us the nation we deserve. And for our veterans who are here, who didn’t fight Lehner’s war, I won’t abandon you like he did. I’m here for all our veterans, young and old, deployed and reserve. I know how Achim Lehner treated you, because I know how he treated me. This is no way to treat our war heroes! Tonight, I pledge to build the nation these heroes fought for!”
Once more, applause, the greatest, loudest applause of the night.
It would be a long night for Union and for the Federation.
A night that would not end even with dawn.
Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Junzien, Eisern Station
Late into the night the first train that had left the ports at Tauta finally made its journey through to the city of Junzien. There was no celebration at the station. None of the banners had been hung yet, and the only courtesy was a table with mugs of hot chocolate that would have to be rewarmed and wrapped sandwiches exposed to the cold.
There were a few employees of the station working far into their overtime hours to handle the train but not the passengers. Nobody seemed to care for the passengers.
And all around them the wintry winds blew a gentle dusting of snow.
When the train finally arrived, the platform was a depressing sight. Almost nobody was there to greet the soldiers of the 13th Panzer Brigade as they set foot in a Nochtish city for the first time in many months. Their families had not been contacted. Nobody seemed to know who at all would be arriving. It was a mess. When the soldiers started departing the train, it seemed almost like they would have to ticket themselves!
But after all, these weren’t really war heroes, and the war department had little consideration for them specifically. Even this grant of leave was a burden on everyone.
The 13th Panzer, even in the climate of censorship in the Fatherland, was followed by a feeling of disappointment. They had been the pride of the Federation until Bada Aso. That was the first blow reality dealt to the Nochtish campaign, and it seemed nobody would let them forget it. Then, to add insult to injury, after their near-destruction in Bada Aso the unit went on to struggle in the Battle of the Ghede Rivers and was one of the last to break out into the Solstice Desert. From a strength of 10,000 soldiers and 250 tanks they had fallen to 1500 soldiers and 38 tanks. Complete and utter combat ineffectiveness.
Naturally they were pulled off the line, and ultimately, sent back to the Fatherland.
As far as the news was concerned, they were demobilized, pending reorganization.
News of their redeployment was not spread. It was as if they wanted them to be ghosts.
To Helga Fruehauf, it was only natural the platform be empty, the sandwiches cold, nobody around to take their tickets, and none of their loved ones to greet them. There was not even a security detail. All of the actual heroes were being carted in tomorrow, on the day declared for such things. Heroes had been carefully selected to insure their pristine quality. The 13th were not the heroes. They had been the first to fail everyone.
Fruehauf felt awful.
Her head was pounding, she desperately craved a smoke but couldn’t do it packed up tight as she was in the train car, and she hated having to think about what she would do the next day, let alone the next week or however long it took to get back to war.
This was not how humans lived, or how humans thought, she told herself.
She wasn’t human anymore, she told herself. She had been made inhuman.
Everyone had abandoned them, because they knew too much about Nocht’s failure.
Rather than kill them, which would be a step too far, everyone decided to ignore them.
Soon as she stepped off the train and looked around in bewilderment with the rest of the soldiers, she sighed and she reached into her pocket for a cigarette. Shaking hands grabbed hold of the lighter and the cigarette, and it was a struggle to light it, both because of the cold and her own poor condition. She had dark circles under her eyes and her skin was clammy. Her makeup was poorly done, and she had lost weight in the worst way possible — by simply not eating well, or not keeping down any of her food.
This sickly state made everything in her line of sight shake and shimmer. It was as if she was looking at things through a trick lens. Everything was dream-like, unreal. She was sick, dying of sick, and she wanted a cigarette so badly. A cigarette and a hard drink.
From behind and around her more and more confused soldiers stepped off the platform like cats being introduced to a new apartment. Everyone was stumbling around, glassy-eyed, buckling under their winter coats. All of their humanity had stayed behind in Ayvarta, where a shouting officer or a dismayed radio girl or the report of enemy guns could signal to their bodies what was to be done that hour or minute or day. When the train whistled again, everybody, herself included, made as if to duck gunfire or shells.
This could not have been reality. Nothing about it felt good or made sense.
It was hollow, artificial. It was something forced on all of them.
Fruehauf herself knew nothing anymore except her immediate, base desires.
She raised the cigarette to her lips; someone pushed past her.
She nearly dropped the cigarette; she managed to catch in time.
Nothing had made her so angry in what seemed like months, as that action did then.
Taking a drag, she watched with contempt as Anton Von Sturm, their so-called leader, tried to make himself scarce as quickly as he could muster. Surely if one of these zombies caught him they would rip him apart, but nobody noticed. Her eyes were locked onto the back of his little blond head. She felt like picking up a stray bottle and cracking him over the head with it. Everything had been his fault. Their utter ruination as a unit; her personal ruination as a professional and sober woman; maybe even the nation’s ruin.
And despite everything he could still walk with his head high and push past everybody like he meant anything. Something inside her seethed so thoroughly watching that little worm flounce away, that she started to move after him. If nobody else would do it, she would. She would dash that little worm’s brains against the street, if none of these men were men enough to do it. Between the cigarettes, the alcohol, the drugs, something made her braver and madder and more bloodthirsty than ever! She’d kill him tonight!
She followed him, staying many meters behind but making no other attempt at stealth.
For Fruehauf, she had nothing to her name anymore. She had no family she wanted to see in this state; no boyfriend or lover or anyone to hold or touch her or make use of her in any way; no place to stay, save maybe hitting up some old friends and seeing what happened. She followed Von Sturm out of the station, feeling both impotent and yet empowered all at once, by his obliviousness and his arrogance and his foolishness. What did he think of her? Did he think anything at all? Last she knew of him he was just judging her for drinking herself stupid as they neared the end of their deployment.
Nothing mattered because everything was fake. This was all fake. She was free here.
More and more as she trailed him down the streets, deeper into the concrete and steel jungle of Junzien, she thought to herself that she would kill him. She would push him into traffic, or smash him into a light, or pick up glass from a waste bin and rip open his throat. Her head was hot and pounding with anger. She barely recognized the streets, she barely knew where she was going. There was no one out. Von Sturm wasn’t trained to fight a woman trying to claw his eyeballs out. She could absolutely win this one.
And Von Drachen was back in Ayvarta with his “Dragon” unit. No one was here.
Except there was someone. She saw Von Sturm turn a corner suddenly and crash into a man that came stumbling out from the other way. Both fell to the ground. Von Sturm cursed, while the man was almost weeping with regret. He had a shabby coat, and a little black hat. He was tall and lean, built like a factory worker, and perhaps even covered in the soot of one. She saw something on his chest, clipped on like a medal. A frog pin.
Fruehauf froze up suddenly. They weren’t alone. She had missed her chance.
Was she going to do it anyway? Was she ever going to do it? It was a nice fantasy, to rip Von Sturm’s head out for revenge and then have a warm place to sleep and food and a predictable routine in a woman’s prison. But she knew she wouldn’t have done shit. She was useless, broken, with no hope of doing anything, if she had hope to begin with.
“You giant oaf! Do you know who I am?”
Von Sturm shouted at the man and hit him with his cap.
Perhaps the man was drunk. He was reacting with a dire, exaggerated pain.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry; I respect the troops, I love the troops! My brother was the troops. My brother! Little brother! I’m so sorry mister troops!” He cried.
He tried to reach out to Von Sturm and pat the snow off his coat as if to apologize.
Von Sturm smacked his hand away with his cap.
“Ugh! Don’t touch me you god-damn ape!”
“I love the troops! I voted for Lehner! I’m sorry! I lost my job! I’m sorry!”
Again the man shrank back, immensely hurt. Fruehauf almost wanted to cry watching this injustice play out. It was this pitiable sight that typified their nation now — a weeping peasant whipped for a lack of reverence and whipped for having too much, whipped by the sniveling, whining nobility made by money and war. That was the Federation now. She hadn’t been drunk and drugged enough to see it before, but she did see it now.
Right in front of her. An incompetent, a worthless man whom everyone hated, but here, put beside some regular nameless man from the street, he was elevated to a god.
Suddenly everything seemed too real. It was a whiplash of emotion, going from cold and dead to hot and emotional; too emotional, too soon. Someone lit the candle in her chest, and the wax was the tears that ran down her face, as she watched this all helplessly.
“You say you love the troops so much? I’m a Colonel, a Colonel you horrid drunk! I’m Colonel Von Sturm! I’ll call the police on your beer-addled arse if you don’t leave my sight this instant! I wouldn’t care if your entire family lost their jobs!” Von Sturm shouted.
Sobbing, the drunk man staggered back a step. His jaw unhinged a little.
His eyes, still weeping, closed, and settled, and seemed to see Von Sturm now.
Fruehauf thought she saw his face darken. He started to clench and unclench his fist.
“Von Sturm? You’re– the 13th right? Little brother– he was– he sent letters–”
Von Sturm stared quizzically at the man and exasperated, gestured for him to move.
Fruehauf could hear the man’s breathing even where she stood. He was gasping for air.
He was looking around, covering his face with his hands, well and truly having a fit.
“That place– over in the ‘varta. Bada Aso. Little Brother– he was there–”
His sentences became more and more fragmented as his breathing accelerated.
“Will you shut up and move! I’m done with you! Just leave!” Von Sturm shouted at him.
He clearly was paying no attention, listening to nothing the man was trying to say.
He was so beneath Von Sturm’s notice that the Colonel had on his angry, arrogant expression right until the very second the drunk’s fist impacted with his nose.
Fruehauf covered her mouth with her hands and shrank back behind a mail box.
“You piece of shit.” cried the drunk. “You got him– you got him killed– you–”
In the next instant the drunk lunged at Von Storm and knocked him flat to the ground, beating him against the pavement with fists that seemed like they would break the stone. Von Sturm’s arms thrashed and clawed against the man but did nothing to stop him. Shouting about his brother and about Lehner and about his job and how he failed the troops, the man smashed Von Sturm again and again until Fruehauf could stand it no more and fled into the alleyway, her hands grabbing hold of tufts of her own hair.
She put her head to the wall and wanted to scream, but she also wanted Von Sturm to be beaten to death, and so the sound was restrained by something vengeful and primeval.
“Um, are you okay?”
Fruehauf looked up.
There was a fire escape above her, and there was a woman on it, brown-skinned, dark-haired, dressed in a coat over a nightgown. There was light coming from behind her.
She gave a friendly little wave.
“Is something wrong, ma’am? Let me go get my girl– my friend, we’ll help you!”
Staring up made Fruehauf dizzy, and she doubled over, vomiting.
Her eyesight started to leave her, the world going black.
She heard shouting, and the slamming of a steel ladder in the alley.
Everything felt unreal and dreamlike, and as reality collapsed, so did she.