The Exiles I

(Supplemental story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden)

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16th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Tauta — Thurin City

It had seemed alien and ridiculous, that scene on the night of the 15th of the Aster’s Gloom when the plan to end communism had fallen into his lap. Papers documenting extensively Nocht’s preparations to invade the continent of Ayvarta, and within eight months, to utterly consume it. They would attack in secret from their new client states, Mamlakha and Cissea, former Ayvartan Imperial territories. Under the shock of the surprise attack they would advance, with a focus on capturing territories, town by town, and ultimately either forcing heavy Ayvartan concessions, or utterly destroying the communists militarily.

Bercik and Kirsten had laughed. They were trapped in a stunningly bizarre situation. Along with the documents was a letter from a faceless contact, with whom Bercik had naively planned to save Nocht from the greed of the Libertaire party via a series of scathing articles.

In this letter it was made clear that Bercik should leave immediately, and within the instant he planned it almost like a vacation. Go to the seaside, take the barges to Ayvarta, deliver the documents. Become a hero; save Nocht. So easy! Almost fun. He promised Kirsten an exotic instrument from the southern continent to satisfy his love of music and crafts, and roped him in as well. After all, he had read the fatal letter aloud! They were both implicated.

Their laughter grew nervous, their cheer disingenuous; it started to dawn on them what was happening.

“You should prepare to leave immediately,” the letter had said.

This was not an invitation to a holiday. They were targets know; someone might know to go after them.

Kirsten and Bercik parted ways for the night, but Bercik could not sleep through the night of the 15th; he kept an eye on his door and his small window, wondering if a bullet could have gone through if someone knew what he had under his bed. He heard footsteps and felt himself shake There was tension in his chest and stomach, a sickening sense of vulnerability. He kept his eyes and ears peeled for anything that might target Kirsten — more than once he awoke in the middle of the night, thinking he had heard someone step in front of his neighbor’s door. Anyone in the building could have told Bercik’s terrible, invisible enemy that Kirsten was a good friend and that they frequented each other’s rooms. He laid in stark awareness of every sound, every shadow seeping under the crack of his door, and yet he could not move. He laid with a tension across his entire body, muscles tight and sweat travelling down his body, awaiting a fatal shot, or a choked scream; the silence afterward was even worse.

Each time, after several minutes, Bercik would convince himself that Kirsten was alive and safe, and he would sleep.

Morning broke this awful cycle. He knocked on the adjacent wall, and he heard knocking back, and a Guten Morgen! in Kirsten’s cheerful, high-pitched voice. Bercik sighed with relief and sat up in his bed. What little sleep he got was poor consolation for all the horrid moments he experienced awake.

He felt pathetic. Would someone stronger, more courageous, have rushed out onto the hall, ready to confront the shadows?

But then, what use was an individual’s strength against the forces arrayed against him? He had slept with the dreaded thing in his pillow. Generalplan Suden. A folder chock full of details on Ayvarta and Nocht, and the dance of death that Citadel Nocht was about to pull the communists into. Bercik did not consider himself a military guy, but he had read enough books and talked to enough war buffs to be able to summarize the documents. There was a lot of metal coming the communist’s way, and a lot of plans laid out to their disadvantage. He held this thing in his hands, and he wondered what his course of action should even be. Would someone stronger and more courageous challenge the world with this information, sacrifice themselves for what was right? He had thought, months ago, that his writing could make a difference.

Could he throw this away and go back to covering the bullshit beats? Digging up dirt and writing for the thug papers? Or worse, could he go crawling back to what was left of his family, to that dark old part of the city where there was even less in life, and beg them for whatever awful work they needed done?

What was worse was all that he did not know about his situation; for all his efforts, the choice might have already been made for him. The Schwartzkopf — Nocht’s secret police, so called for their distinctive black hats — could appear outside his door at any time, and pull him in for terrorist activities. They might even kill him on the spot and say he was dangerous and had to be neutralized. They could say he stole government secrets, and that he was a communist who would sell them out to Nocht’s enemies. Who would know or care why he had the documents? Who would question them? Planting them on him with the money and that sympathetic note might have even been part of some plot, that he was unwittingly falling for already. Perhaps his contact was trying to frame him to the Schwartzkopf. He couldn’t know!

Bercik pulled his chest from under his bed, checking through all of his possessions. Whatever happened, he could not stay here; it was too predictable. He had to go further south, whether to get closer to Ayvarta or farther from the big cities. Higwe would probably be good: there were options there, whatever he decided to do. He put on a fresh shirt and pants, his one good jacket, and over all of it his one long trench-coat. He donned his hat — his uncle had given it to him. He hated the hat, with its tall creased crown and wide curled brim; but it was the only hat that he owned. Then he sorted through his things for what to take and what to leave.  He wrapped the Generalplan Suden folder in some clothes and packed it into his waterproof briefcase. Near the bottom of his chest was his pistol, an old Zwitscherer ’12 with a handle like the stub at the end of a broom, a long thin barrel and an integral magazine in front of the trigger fed through stripper clips. He looked it over.

Certainly he would need this. He loaded ten rounds from the top, and stowed the gun in his trench-coat.

His typewriter would have to stay. Bercik could not carry it. If he wrote it would have to be in his notepad.

For the last time he left his room, locked it behind himself and took a few steps to his right. Kirsten opened the door before he could knock on it, smiling brightly. He was dressed in his own long coat, and his long, curly blonde hair was as combed as Bercik had ever seen in it, and wrapped up in a fairly proper ponytail with an actual ribbon. Bercik asked if he could come in and Kirsten stepped aside and allowed him. There was little different in his room than in Bercik’s. A small window, a bed, a little drawer, and barely any room. They each seemed to occupy a half of the room, Kirsten seated on his bed and Bercik standing up.

“We’re going somewhere, right? I’ve got a bag ready with my things.” Kirsten said.

“I don’t know.” Bercik replied. “I’m dressed up to go but I don’t really know where to begin.”

“Right. We didn’t exactly make a lot of plans yesterday except ‘let’s get out of here’.”

Both of them avoided mentioning where to go. Neither of them had any idea of how to get to Ayvarta. Bercik supposed they could hitch a ride on a fishing boat out to the Higwe, and he supposed from there they had to have ships going out to Ayvarta. The Higwe was neutral territory, even if it did favor Nocht. But across the night, the fervor of leaving their dull lives was overtaken by the enormity of that endeavor, and the terror and uncertainty of it settled inside them. Bercik didn’t tell Kirsten anything about the Schwartzkopf. Everyone who had lived on the streets knew of their existence, from word of mouth, or friends lost in the red scares. Even organized crime was starting to fear the growing presence of the Schwartzkopf. They didn’t just target agitating workers anymore. He was sure his companion had the same basis in both the reality and fiction of the arms of the law in Nocht, and the same percolating fears surrounding the letter and the documents they had.

“I know someone we can talk to about this.” Bercik said. “But I need to know if you’re really in.”

Though serious, the question quickly felt ridiculous. Here he was asking a 20-year-old paper boy who liked to sing and play instruments whether he wanted to uproot his life and probably betray his country, and for what? For nothing. All they knew was that they could either keep this secret and hope nobody else knew; or they could flee and use what they had somehow. They could try their luck, gambling with a meager living and hoping nobody knew to come after them, despite the letter telling them to leave; or they could heed its advice and go. Bercik both knew it was terrible of him to have involved Kirsten in any of this, and to continue to involve him would be worse. All Kirsten did was live next to him, express curiosity in his activities, and see something he shouldn’t have. He was innocent of it all.

But Bercik was also terribly alone, and he wanted dearly someone to accompany him in the dark.

He felt weak and vulnerable, and for the longest time he had stood in those shadows on his own.

Kirsten was smiling however. He was usually smiling, even when bad things happened around the tenements.

“I thought it over,” Kirsten said, shouldering his bag, “and I realized I don’t really have a lot here in Thurin anyway. I’m not cut out for the heavy jobs at the factories, and I’ll never get anywhere delivering papers. My family are all scattered on the streets. I’ve not heard of them in years.”

“Think it over again.” Bercik said. “This is serious. You saw those papers. Whatever we do, it’s not going to be ok with a lot of people. It’s not gonna be sight-seeing. When we pursue this story, we won’t have anywhere safe to go, and no real allies to count on.” He couldn’t believe he said pursue this story, as though he were still acting as a journalist. What would he write about, and from where? But it was an angle that he understood implicitly. Bercik knew about following leads, he knew about chasing sources, he knew about collecting facts and checking records. He knew his own kind of treason, a treason he carried out in letters. In a sense, this was all still the story, the story of a country led astray that he needed to help straighten out. So that angle, so hastily proposed, stuck with him. It made him feel in control.

He, Bercik Scheldt, reporter for a paper to be determined; he was working on the story of Nocht’s secret war. Communist spies, the evil Schwartzkopf, state of the art weapons, the fate of the world in the balance, intrigue and mystery. It was a narrative; his life felt like it had a purpose as a narrative.

“I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time to make me your assistant or something.” Kirsten replied. “I said before I thought you were with the mob. I see mob guys every so often and they’ve all been pretty swell guys. I thought, ‘I’d definitely be able to get a car and a house if I worked for them!'”

Bercik sighed. “I’m not a mobster, I already told you. We’re not getting cars and houses out of this. Messiah’s sake.”

“I’m not stupid, I know; the point is, I wanted to do something more important than deliver the drat paper.”

“Good. Fine. I’ll take it. I know a guy we can talk to about maybe getting out of town.” Bercik spoke in the terms he knew, skipping town. In reality he had to skip the whole damn continent, but he figured the same guy might be able to help him with that. After all, he got stuff into the continent.

“You know a guy, huh? That sounds shady, Bercik.” Kirsten asked, giggling a little.

“Shady? How is it shady?”

Kirsten could hardly contain his laughter. “Would this guy happen to be with the mob?”

Bercik ran his hands over his face. “Stop laughing about it. These are not people you should happy to be around.”

“Then if they’re so bad, how come you know them, and how come you dress like them?”

“What? Dress like them? I’m not dressed like them, jeez; what is wrong with you?” Bercik adjusted his awful hat and his old trenchcoat. He pointed his finger accusingly. “And I know them because I got to know them. They got good info that I need. You need to quit it with this fascination you have.”

Kirsten pointed and laughed at him again. Perhaps he didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation after all.

With his bag in tow, Kirsten locked his own door, and Bercik led the way down the stairs and out of the tenement building. He did not think he would be coming back, but crossing the threshold felt strangely easy and casual. Perhaps it was due to how familiar the atmosphere felt. Outside the streets had hardly changed. People went about their business under the drizzling rain. Thurin played a common, dreary song, its instruments the sound of drops striking the earth, the susurrus of the sparse crowds on either street, shoes tapping the asphalt or splashing in puddles, and the chugging of the few cars traveling the roads. They made their way down to the plaza. Bercik avoided the statues in the little park this time. It was early, so only a few of the shops and restaurants were open.

He knew one place that was open where he could drop in. But he hadn’t been there in a while.

As they walked Bercik kept a sharp eye out. He told himself that he had developed an instinct for being followed and for throwing people off, but in reality it was unlikely he had ever been seriously followed. Even while covering the military leaks for The National, the consequences tended to end at a few brown shirt police officers appearing at the office and making a mess of a few rooms. So far he was a gnat, beneath the notice of a giant. So he walked with confidence, and he started to forget to check the faces in the crowd, or the men around street corners, or to watch those who followed in his wake across intersections and past alleyways.

Thurin was so unmoved, the world so still. It was comforting and it lowered Bercik’s guard. It was like a time capsule of a world on the verge of upheaval, but far enough that nobody knew quite how close it was. Would tomorrow, or the day after, bring worse? No street could confide him this knowledge.

Past the plaza and across the center of the city, for two mostly quiet hours intermittently on foot and hanging on the sides of trams and the backs of trucks, Bercik and Kirsten traveled out to the seafront. Thurin was a busy port despite its unremarkable appearance, being a common connection to the Higwe, and its concrete harbor was full of large cargo ships. The pair veered away from the warehouses and container yards at the shipyard, walked past the fish markets near the old docks, and hitched out to the dismal, rocky beaches on the northern edge of the coast. Riding the back of a truck headed out of town, they dropped off in the center of a small neighborhood, little more than a beachside restaurant and sparse houses overlooking the sea. Waves crashed behind them against the jagged black shore.

From this small neighborhood and its quaint seaside restaurant the Krawiec family quietly subverted the port authority.

Past the glass doors the restaurant was a simple wooden abode with a few tables dressed in square-patterned linens, fanned from the ceiling by leisurely spinning wooden blades. Dark reddish-brown walls and a flat ceiling made one feel enclosed in a box. A woman behind the counter stared at them while shining a plate. Beside her was a display case of cured meats. Despite the restaurant’s proximity to the sea it did not appear that any seafood was sold there.

Bercik and Kirsten sat down on one of the tables and cracked open the laminated menus. There were a lot of sandwiches, and a lot of meat and soup.

“Oh, what a nice place, I’m feeling pretty excited. I’ve never eaten at a nice place.”

“Nice? This place is a hole. You need some perspective.” Bercik replied, more aggressively than warranted.

“Oh, well, that’s sad,” Kirsten lamented, looking at the menu closely, “no fish or shrimp or anything.”

“No, this isn’t that kind of place.” Bercik replied. He lifted his hands, shaking the menu in the air.

It took a minute for the lady behind the counter to notice them in between taking long drags of a cigarette. She spent a few seconds giving them surly looks from across the restaurant, and squinting her eyes as though the two of them would disappear like a mirage in the desert. Soon the woman reluctantly left her post and strolled toward their table, her apron stained red across the front, and her red hair long and loose, without a cap or a net. She didn’t have a pen and pad to take down their order. She simply looked at them, crossed her arms, and with an indifferent tone asked, “What will you have? I recommend the meatballs.”

“Eggs.” Bercik said simply. “I want eggs and he wants some eggs too.” He pronounced the Nochtish word for eggs, Eier, with a strong emphasis.

In response the lady blew smoke in Bercik’s face. “We don’t do eggs anymore. You and your friend get lost.”

“No, I seriously came all this way for some Eggs.” Bercik pressed, slowly and awkwardly pronouncing the word.

Exasperated with them, the woman rolled her eyes and put out her cigarette on the floor.

“That ain’t the fuckin’ code anymore you putz. Wait a second.” She replied. She turned her head over her shoulder and shouted toward the back, “Greis,we’ve got a dunce here that I just barely recognize, spewing the old password. Do you want to talk to him or do I kick him out?”

Behind the counter a door slammed open. An tall, balding, heavyset man stepped through, squinting his eyes. He gripped a wooden cane, using it to balance the steps of his wobbling left leg. He leaned over the edge of the counter, staring hard over at the table like he couldn’t see.

“I ain’t expecting anyone. Y’tell him we don’t do the eggs anymore?” He shouted.

“I told him already Greis.” She shouted back. “He keeps insisting on the fuckin’ eggs.”

Bercik stood up from his seat. “God damn it uncle, it’s me, stop shouting already.”

Kirsten stood up as well, and then sat back down in confusion. He stared in shock at the menu.

Uncle Kraweic squinted his eyes even more. “I shout all I fuckin’ want in my house. I shout all I fuckin’ want!”

He perched a pair of spectacles on his nose for a moment.

He smiled, and peeled them off his face, throwing them atop the meat display.

“Bercik! Bercik! I can’t believe it, Julitta that’s fuckin’ Bercik! Can you believe it?”

“I don’t know who that is.” Julitta replied. She looked over Bercik with indifference.

“Come in, come in! Come talk to Uncle Kraweic, Bercik. Messiah defend, it’s been a long time.”

Kirsten leaped out of his own seat once again. Bercik took him by the hand and led him behind the counter, where Uncle Krawiec beckoned them both into his office, a cramped and dark little backroom to the restaurant where the meat was dried and crates of potatoes for the soup lay around. There were long chains of sausage links across the walls, and jerky drying by the dozens on hooks across the ceiling. Bercik and Kirsten sat on a stack of potato crates, while Uncle Krawiec took his place behind a grandiose writing desk and a grand mahogany chair. Betraying the grandeur of these objects was a huge drying pig hanging from a hook suspended on a rail over the desk. Uncle Krawiec knocked the pig away from himself, sat in his chair, and steepled his fingers, shining Bercik a smile missing a few teeth.

“You look just like your mother I swear to the Messiah. God bless her soul. Have you been eating well?”

“Been eating just fine.” Bercik said tersely. He was growing agitated by this place.

“Who’s that?” Uncle Kraweic asked, pointing to Kirsten.

“Just a guy. We are not here for pleasantries, okay? We need something from you.”

“Anything for you Bercik. Anything for my nephew. You name it.”

Bercik averted his gaze. Kirsten looked around the room, and paid special, quizzical attention to the pork hanging near Uncle Krawiec. While the two youths fidgeted on their crates, the old man rubbed his hands together and waited patiently for a reply, smiling and looking between the two expectantly. When nobody spoke for a long moment, he took it upon himself to infer the reason for their visit, and started checking his drawers feverishly for things to give them.

“I know what you need. You need guns? I can get you a gun. Is that kid your right hand? Can he shoot? Can you shoot?”

Kirsten raised his hands defensively at the machine gun barrage of words. “I can shoot but I don’t really want a gun!”

Uncle Kraweic shook his head. “Lookin’ like you do? You look too soft. You need a gun. I’ll get you a gun.”

He opened a large drawer, reached his hand down into it. There was a series of strange mechanical clicks.

“Here you go. Zwitscherer ’96. They don’t make them like this anymore. The 90s, oh god, what a decade.”

Uncle Krawiec reached out to Kirsten’s hands and deposited a pistol much like Bercik’s own in his hand.

Bercik rubbed his forehead. He hated Uncle Kraweic. He hated the fucking mob. When he was young all his family had been supported by this nonsense, taking place first in the factories and then in the docks, and any of those who fretted Uncle Kraweic’s rise to power were completely shunned and left behind. That is, until they died in the street; and then the Kraweics remembered the Scheldt’s, and went to the funeral dressed up, and cried their hearts out. And then Bercik was back in with the thugs and the shit-tongues, spewing their nonsense and slapping the crap out of each other every night over dinner, screaming and cursing and acting like savages as the money and the corpses piled up behind them. It was like living in some kind of northman tribe from the pulp books. Bercik could not stand them.

From his childhood Bercik told himself he was not like these people. He and his mother wanted better.

But whenever he was in need he always found himself coming back to rooms like this, feeling like an idiot.

“I read your stories in the paper Bercik. Don’t think I don’t read your stories. I always kept up.” Uncle Kraweic said. “I’m so proud of you boy. Papers are real important, and paper writers too. It’s a real institution of democracy, why it’s the only one we have left anymore I think. Can’t believe the crooks we’ve been voting into power, can’t believe it. That’s why I don’t vote no more, see? Guy tells you he’s gonna free up the money laws, and that he’s gonna lower the taxes, and that he’s gonna fix poverty and all that shit, and then look at him in the big chair, sending our boys to die in the woods in countries no one cares about.”

Bercik rubbed his forehead. “I’m glad you enjoyed ’em. Anyway, Uncle, I need your help. I’m in trouble.”

Uncle Kraweic looked serious all of a sudden. He pounded his fist on his desk in anger.

“Tell me who it is Bercik, swear to God, I’ll have him off the docks in pieces by tomorrow night, swear to God.”

Kirsten nearly jumped. Bercik held up his hands pleadingly. “Uncle–”

“Nobody messes with us, we own this fuckin’ town! No respect anymore, I tell you. I’ll castrate ’em–”

“Uncle, the Schwartzkopf are after me. I need to skip town. I need to get to the Higwe.”

Silence; it took some time for Uncle Kraweic to respond after hearing that dreaded set of words. He stood stock still, slowly quirking one of his eyebrows as though this was all a joke he was just too old to get. When Bercik remained perfectly serious and still, only then did Uncle Kraweic reply.

“Oh. Well. Shit. That’s no good. What bonehead thing you do to get the Schwartzkopf on you?”

“Papers I wasn’t supposed to touch. It’ll blow over.” Bercik said. It wouldn’t; but Kraweic didn’t need to know that.

Now Kirsten looked well and truly helpless, holding his new pistol on his lap and shaking openly.

“You goddamn better hope it blows over. You weren’t followed here or nothin’? Blazej and Izaak don’t get back for a few hours and I’m not as good a shot as I used to be so you better hope nobody followed you here for a scrap.” Uncle Kraweic said. He looked over to the door with suspicion. “Julitta, get the Rashas out of the back.” He shouted. They had a few Ayvartan submachine guns around the place. Communist weapons were popular with the gangsters.

“Nobody followed me.” Bercik said. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought nobody had. “Calm down.”

Uncle Kraweic sat back on his chair and steepled his fingers again. He was getting serious now. That wasn’t good. In his jokey moods he would have given Bercik anything, even killing a man like he promised; but now he was definitely rolling over in his head whether the son of his beloved little sister, whom he had essentially neglected to death due to his own greed, was now worth perhaps dying over himself. The Schwartzkopf were not playing softball with the mob anymore. Uncle Kraweic was a blowhard, but he was not stupid. He was the most careful when it came to his money, and he knew how to take gambles that paid. This was not one. He knew that and Bercik knew that. But blood ran thicker than water, and it weighed more than gold. That was something even a money-grubber like Kraweic held dearly.

“I know you get your funny dust in from the Higwe, so you can smuggle me out can’t you?” Bercik said. He was becoming more demure. When Kraweic got serious everyone else had to. Or else he might start to get violent. “I’ll be out of your hair quick Uncle, I promise.”

Kraweic rubbed his own chin. “Not from here. I’ll get you down to Konig. It’s too obvious in Thurin. Too close to the Higwe.”

“Suits me fine as long as I get to go. Kirsten’s coming with me. I need a second pair of hands out there.”

Kirsten shrank in his chair, turning a little red around the cheeks and ears. Uncle Kraweic stared at him.

“Always a good idea to have a second shooter.” Uncle Kraweic said. “Though your boy there is questionable.”

“But I can trust him, and there aren’t a lot of people I can trust right now.” Bercik said.

Kraweic swiped his hand in the air dismissively. “Go wait outside for Blazej. I’ve got some calls to make.”

So Kirsten and Bercik walked stiffly out of the office, past the surly Julitta  staring out the window with her submachine gun in hand, and out to the back of the restaurant. There was a small lot reserved for the big trucks that were the favorites of the ethnic Lachy mobsters in Thurin and the greater Tauta in general. This was Bercik’s family — and perhaps one of the reasons he was still alive as a journalist, and not under a dock after some of his old stories.

He hated them, but he needed them. For all his life, it seemed, he lacked his own power to do anything.

Together he and Kirsten stood there under the continuously drizzling rain, so light that it was only barely perceptible as it built over their coats. They were waiting for Kraweic’s main thugs, Blazej and Izaak, two big burly Lachy, taller and tougher even than Bercik himself. Bercik had grown up with both of them, and he was not particularly happy to see them again. But he was not particularly happy about a lot of things at the moment. At least his passage out of the country seemed secure. He felt a newfound paranoia, instilled in him by his uncle’s questioning, and he looked around for signs of people hiding or watching him everywhere.

There was no one around but Kirsten, the one person he could have any faith in now.

“So, did that go well or badly? I can’t tell.” Kirsten said, still holding on to the pistol.

“As well as it could– Put that away. Put it in your coat pocket.” Bercik said.

Kirsten stowed the Zwitscherer. “I keep my hand in the coat like this so I can draw, right?”

“Do you have any reason right now to need to draw?”

“No, but tell me if I’m doing it right.”

“I don’t know! I guess that’s how I’ve seen it in the pulps. I don’t know.”

But soon he too had his hand in his trenchcoat pocket, ready to draw his own gun if necessary.

* * *

Next Chapter In The Exiles Story — Part Two