The Factory. City of the future, where some of the greatest minds of the age had come together under Tesla’s wing to design the automachines to free humanity of drudgery. To leave behind manual labor for the freedom to learn and to love. A lofty dream, one ripped in half by the attack that killed her mother and Tesla’s subsequent drive to isolation, but one that Anna knew the appeal of.
Now, fifteen years later, she had come back to the city of her birth to find what remained of that dream ablaze. Saving it had been a bloody affair, just like her life had been the last few weeks. More was going to come, but for now she had a break from it. It should have been a chance to put it aside, but instead...
‘I can’t let you go back out there and confuse them.’
Uncle Lech was slowly inching forward, boxing her in. No, he was not going to - surely her uncle wouldn’t?
‘The men look up to you. You are an idol to them.’
Her thoughts about his comparison on the train came back, and that only made her more eager to back away as she was pushed into a corner, rusty pipes to her left and a firm brick wall caging her with a monster. A monster psyching himself up to-
‘But the only thing better than an idol... is a martyr!’
Anna was suddenly awake. Not pressed against a wall, not fortunate that one brick was loose enough for her to pull and use to smack her uncle in the head, not in Kolno. She was tucked into bed, in what was now her room. Getting her bearings, Anna turned her head to the nightstand - the clock had some sort of low-intensity light that Tesla had cooked up, but it only showed her what she expected once she could focus on it. Sometime between three and four in the morning.
Not again… she silently groaned as she looked to her right. Wojtek was curled up on the rug next to her bed enjoying the relative luxury, probably dreaming of mushrooms or something else to chew on. Shaking her head, she tried to fall back asleep - she needed to be up and at it again in a few hours, after all. Besides, soon enough she would be far from the simple comfort of a soft bed - best to enjoy the little things in life before it ended.
Once again though, she could not quite drift back to sleep. Same as it had been almost every night since Kolno. Finally she decided to give up and slid out of bed. She gave Wojtek a quick scratch behind the ears so he knew he could stay asleep while she resolved on trying something different. Quietly dressing herself, she hoped that maybe a walk would force her body to tire back down so she could get sleep for the next day. Today. Close enough.
Slipping out without waking anyone up was also far easier than she was used to all she had to do was avoid the guest house’s elevator and head out the back. With it, Anna had immediate access to the woods and the trail to the park just on the other side, and at this hour away from anyone else. The press of her boots against the cobblestone trail and the gentle wind helped her put things aside.
Anna could worry about a shiver or slipping in a puddle from the previous morning’s rainfall rather than an unholy mix of viscera, Polanian and Rusviet, as they buried Kolno’s dead. She could look at the lamps and see bugs flitting about, rather than Anton’s glazed-eyed stare when she came too late to relieve his squad, to say nothing of the others. She could smell the fragrance of the assortment of flower, roses, dandelions, tulips, knotweed, and forget-me-nots, rather than her father’s final indignities beyond Zubov waving his severed arm around like a-
She stopped as she rounded the large oak tree that was the final turn before the park itself, realizing she was not alone. Facing the fountain in the center of the park, visible by the park’s four lamps at its corner, was the distinct black greatcoat, cybernetic arm, and pickelhaube of Gunther von Duisburg. There was only ten or so meters between them, and the old Saxonian turned as she had stopped.
“Good morning, Miss Kos,” he said, a weak smile crossing his face though it seemed more automatic than anything.
“Uh, good morning? I didn’t realize-”
“We are all guests in this park,” he interrupted with a wave of his hand, “and there are no rules about not being here at this hour. Don’t mind me.”
She considered simply wheeling around and going back the way she came, but as he had waved away her intrusion she noticed he was raising his flask again. More importantly, he had the dead stare that she had seen numerous times in the last few days since the battle. As things calmed down, it seemed as if the legendary Saxonian tactician was becoming unwound. He seemed barely there during meals or the quiet hours of the evening. As if he looked out, and saw legions of ghosts accusing him.
“Are you alright? You seem-” she blurted out before she could stop herself. Great, just great, she realized as she felt her cheeks reddening.
“No,” he bluntly answered as he lowered his flask. “Not until I’m dead.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll just-”
“You can stay,” Gunther said as he turned to look at her. “It was a fair question. And besides, Tag and Nacht knew you were about, and without your bear.”
Despite her wariness, she decided to walk up and stand next to him at the park’s edge. She could make out Tag resting behind one of the benches to the right, while Nacht was probably in some dark corner nearby. Gunther offered her the flask, though she shook her head to decline.
“So,” the Saxonian asked after another swig, “What brings you out at this hour?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” she admitted. No harm in telling that part of the truth.
“Hmpf.” Silence fell again, followed by another drink.
The wind picked up, just enough to hear, and Anna pulled her jacket closer. The park was certainly different at night - in the day, the clearing in the trees let the sun brighten the park and made the metalled cobblestone for the park itself shine brightly - technology and nature in harmony, as it had been designed to be. But at night, the fountain was a sharp manmade contrast with nature behind - something someone more eloquent than her could make poetry out of, surely.
“So, what about you?” She finally asked. “Trouble sleeping?”
“You could say that,” another swig on his part, then he looked at her. The dead stare had vanished, replaced with a far more critical gaze as he assessed her. “I certainly have more regrets than I thought I’d die with.”
“Than before the war?”
“Than before I killed hundreds of my own countrymen to save my old ass.” He took another sip. “And yet, it’s the same shit with different words and none of the usual excuses.”
“You mean, both sides shout ‘for ze Reich!’ while shooting each other?”
“Your accent is horrible, but…” a moment’s hesitation. “Yes. It was the same as killing anyone else.”
She could see how that could bother him. How many of the Polanian troops reassured themselves with the idea they were fighting for the Republic? All it took to start shaking the resistance’s confidence in Uncle Lech had been him threatening to obliterate Sirkorski’s cavalry squadron with his mech’s cannon. Patriotism was a powerful motivator, one that made fighting each other difficult. And Gunther had been fighting across the world in the Saxonian colonies, meeting all sorts of exotic people, and shooting them for wanting independence.
“It never gets any easier,” Gunther continued as he continued to stare at - or past - the park fountain. “Nor should it.”
“It’s not the shot that is the hard part, that gets simpler each time. It’s cleaning up afterwards. Having to live with the lives you took.”
“Hmmm. So, how do you cope?”
“You went from life in your village to waging war in a matter of minutes, and kept fighting since then. You survived against horrific odds, while watching friends and family die.” He took another swig. “Men lose themselves for less, and that was before the Great War.”
Anna narrowed her eyes as she looked at him. “What’s your point, von Duisburg?”
“War is never something you truly get used to, not if you remain sane. The things you have seen… I would be worried if you did not have nightmares over it.”
“What do you want me to say, that I’m weak?” She could feel herself tensing. Had he figured it out?
“If that is how you truly feel.” Gunther looked down at his flask, then offered it. “The beer won’t fix it any more than phenobarbital does, but it dulls some of the edge.”
Again she looked at it, then shook her head. “No thank you.”
“As you wish,” he took another swig, and their gazes turned forward again.
Still, now that he had mentioned it everything fell into place for Anna. She could sleep, but inevitably even her good nights were intruded by horror. When she was bored, something she kept finding herself craving more and more as she fought, she had the time to dwell on everything. Her father, her uncle, both killed by the same Rusviet bastard was just the tip of the iceberg. How many had died at her hands - how many families had she torn apart in self defense alone, never mind the attacks she helped plan and then led. And then there were those who died following her - Polanians who died because they believed in her.
Looking at Gunther, she wondered just how many he had sent to their deaths in the Great War. How many he knew he was writing off, but sent them anyways because that was what war required. If she was fighting these spectres…
“What do you see?” She blurted out, only to feel her cheeks heating up. Of all the dumb things to ask!
“Stargard, this time.” Another drink.
“I’m sorry, I-”
“No, this is what I wanted to talk about, eventually.” He looked at his flask, then pointedly capped it. “You have regrets, things that haunt you.”
Well, she had already prodded him… “Yes.”
Gunther nodded to himself. “So do I, fraulein, so do I.”
They fell silent again, Anna wondering where to go from here. Should she ask how he coped with it, maybe? Open up about her own nightmares, since he seemed to be living them? Try to help him, give him a chance to talk about it? Was it even really her place to - or, was it his place to be wondering about her issues and poke around her head?
“So,” Anna hesitated. “There something you wanted to say about this?”
“Just that it is not weakness, and that it is alright to seek help. Take it from someone who almost lost himself to his own madness: focusing on our duties is a vicious cycle that will leave you with nothing else when they are finished.”
Why was he admitting this, and offering to help so readily? Was this some diplomatic foreplay that she would have learned if she was actually an academy-trained officer or something? Her suspicion must have bled into her expression, as the Saxonian briefly had a bemused smile across his face.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” she said instead. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“Of course, the night is as old as I am. Auf wiedersehen, fraulein.”
She nodded to him - and, as she noticed both dire wolves looking at her from their resting place, to the dogs as well, before making her way back along the trail. Her pace was brisk even as she tried to keep it casual, but she wanted to get away.
If it was running away, it was pointless as what chased her was not a horror she could escape: the fact that he was right.
Ever since Zalesie, she had been running on the next objective. Find her father. Warn Heinrich in Kolno. Getting the train to Kolno. Rescuing as many civilians as she could from the slaughter. Taking out the guns that threatened Heinrich’s airship. Taking Zubov alive to reveal Fenris. Stop his attempt to take Tesla’s Factory. Shut down the Icarus Protocol.
She had a clear and defined objective each step of the way to focus on. A reason to do all the horrible things she had done. Without that, what did she really have to justify the lives she had taken and spent?
Because someone has to stop Fenris, she told herself. Gunther had said it himself: all it took for the triumph of evil was for good men to do nothing. She had to press forward, even if the objective was still fuzzy right now. She would continue on until she couldn’t.
Still, where would that leave her in the end? Dead in a trench, possibly being used as a makeshift sandbag or trench marker? Trapped in her own fear as the shells kept falling? Every time she tried to find an answer, she just had more questions to deny her any chance of a few more hours of sleep.
This was going to be just like Janek learning to cope with his cybernetics: something that took time she did not have.
“She’s going to end up like Wilhelm…”
Gunther hated that he even considered the comparison, but with the benefit of hindsight all the warning signs had been there. And while he had only seen Anna in a single battle, they had operated close enough together for him to tell. She cared for the troops she led - and she cared for her enemies. Few of his men would be asking for forgiveness, even if only quietly, mid-firefight.
And she was already showing warning signs of shell shock, or worse. The nightmares, the occasional blank stare as they had recounted the battles trying to piece together the last few days into a coherent chain of events. So far she did not seem to be fully flashing back like he had after his resignation, which hopefully meant it would be easier for her to cope if she focused on it. Well, it was probably her brother’s place to help her rather than his, but could he really wash his hands of the matter yet again? After Wilhelm went mad, after Karl committed suicide?
He did not understand shell shock any better than the damn psychiatrist did - though Gunther had to keep reminding himself that the man was just trying to help. He just had the same problem medieval doctors had with plague: they didn’t have the knowledge their successors would have. They made due with what they had, and tried to help their patients no matter how much they frustrated them.
He did, however, understand the consequences: the servants at Duisburg still recoiled in fear when frustration or anger entered Gunther’s body language. They remembered the accidents that had happened when he fell into madness from his shell shock. It had taken months for him to get enough of a handle on it to safely go hunting again, and even then he did it more to try and find a better coping mechanism besides more alcohol.
And I’m not even sure if it works, he considered as he took another drink, the memories of Stargard playing out again. The town square where they had finally broken the Polanian defense. Bodies of men, beasts, and mechs scattered about as the city burned so badly everyone had to wear gas masks and full goggles. For once, he did not fully flash back to it. No, instead it was his worries of his new colleague and how she might react.
The ghosts of the Great War and what followed - if this was not just a continuation of it after an armistice, anyways - would be with them all until they were dead. He had accepted that, but he only had maybe a decade left in him. If young MIss Koss ended up like him - old, scarred, probably losing a limb somewhere - she would carry it for most of a century. And she did not have the benefit of colonial bush wars to acclimatize herself to the trauma first. She had been thrown right into her home village burning, her father murdered, all while fighting battles as bad as any in the Great War.
Yet, he could have brought it up better. He read between the lines - she was still associating the nightmares with a failing of moral character like so many did. Like those bastards that mocked Karl - he should have given a damn to check up on an old friend before he needed Brunhilde for an escape! One more failure to live with. Drink!
In the end, it was just like his own struggle: she had to come to grips with it enough to admit the problem first. That was something he could not push. Maybe it was something she would resolve with Janek as the siblings bonded again over the fresh hell their lives had become. Or maybe it would be Sikorski who would intervene - he seemed to have his act together despite everything and being on the losing side of Stargard. At best, Gunther could do what he already did: let her know she was not alone, and that she was not weak because of her suffering.
Finally, he just sat down on one of the park benches, Tag and Nacht crawling over to him to rest by his feet as he felt sleep starting to return. Maybe an hour or two in the fresh air would do it, tonight. Or maybe it was just having something worth fighting for again.
Probably the latter. He could fall back to his old habits again. For now, anyways.