The Children’s War (79.1)

15th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, Citadel Nocht

“Tell me the boring stuff first, before you lose my attention.”

It was an opening statement typical of the Federation President. He had said much the same thing in 2030, when the last string of these meetings was convened for him.

Though he intended it to lighten the mood, and though he tried to enhance the effect with a quick flash of a smile, there was no one in attendance who had good news to deliver. Every part of the meeting was the boring part, and this was only the first of many meetings. Today, they would give the President an economic overview for the new year, with the aim of improving warfighting capacity and homefront resilience.

To speak of a whole year would require many more meetings, but the first was important. It would set the stage and cast the principal actors in Lehner’s eyes.

Even this initial overview meeting would be a long one, the staff were certain.

President Achim Lehner sat at the head of a long table in a meeting room filled with ancillary specialists and experts from the armaments industry, from the central bank, and from civil affairs. Along with the president there were three major people of note at the head of that table. Marshal Walter Weddel was there; a new secretary was at the President’s side too. She was a refined beauty named Bridgette D’Aconte. And finally, the first man to speak was the head of the combined economic office for the armed forces, Colonel Volt van Igneus. He looked the part of a distinguished older gentleman, his mustache finely manicured. He stood to the side of the table.

Once he was in place, and when everyone’s eyes were on him, van Igneus began.

“Sir, while our victories in the Ayvartan continent have been significant, with respect to maintaining combat operations at their highest possible potential, the OKH has felt it necessary to propose a reorganization of the current armaments scheme and several projects under the procurement umbrella. Without these changes, we may not be able to sustain the current levels of homefront consumption and foreign supply all at once.”

President Lehner steepled his fingers. “I’m listening, but let me be clear. I’m going to need you to ‘wow’ me. I’ve heard a million speeches about ‘needing’ to do this or that, and it feels like none of you can agree. Aren’t we the greatest nation on Aer? It’s odd to me that everyone is sweating now, who once told me this war would go great.”

Colonel van Igneus took a deep breath. There was so much he had to say.

And so much of it was shameful to consider for the world’s greatest global power.

The Federation of Northern States was the greatest military power the world had ever seen. It believed this, and it acted to demonstrate this truth. Nocht could send its armies anywhere in the world and win battles. They were the global police force of democracy, and the global market of manufactured goods. No one was as dynamic, as productive, as skilled in all things, and as driven to succeed as the Federation was.

Every setback they faced in their current war, was in the grand scheme of things, minimal on its own, they thought. Ayvarta could fight delaying actions, and deal attrition to its forces, but Nocht did not consider the Sunhera Thalsena the greatest threat that it faced, not on its own. Nocht had still taken half of the continent despite the struggle. That was the fullest proof of their strength. They had the potential to win.

Colonel van Igneus had been inducted into this belief. Years ago, when asked if he considered it possible– well, knowing what he knew then, of course he had said yes.

That was in 2028, 2029, and 2030. In each of these same sort of meetings.

He knew what the difficulties were and he knew there were solutions that could work.

Nocht’s greatest enemy in the war was the ocean. It was the fact that their war was prosecuted on foreign soil to which they had no land connection whatsoever that ultimately decided everything. They had planned for a quick war built around a limited but significant initial deployment of their very best troops.. A million of the best men ever sent to war, with the highest quality equipment and most rigorous training.

Had the elves not prosecuted many such colonial wars and successfully brought many nations to heel? Surely, it was possible for Nocht to recreate this feat in the new era.

This formula was then diluted with a glass of reality. Nocht’s “new men” were only a small part of a rifleman-centric army that was only partially motorized and mechanized after Lehner took office. From its inception, the “new army” was sent on foreign escapades that whittled it down. Those veterans they had were seasoned more by direct experience with tragedy than by good training. Private corporations charged with building their equipment broke more and more promises and went on more and more tangents to secure funding. There were almost more experimental models being thrown around than there were concrete production lines for field-proven units.

Above all else, however, it was the ocean that was their foe. Voyages took weeks depending on the whims of men, money and mother nature. Ayvarta’s rough seas and often poor coastal weather, and the subpar choice of ports, and the skittishness of the merchant marine and their corporate owners, all contributed to the delays and irregularities. Now that the war was inescapable, submarine attacks grew in frequency.

Logistics was failing the blitzkrieg; but logistics was a function of human effort.

Everyone would have to sacrifice to truly fight this war.

As he stood before that table, he saw many faces unwilling to sacrifice.

Colonel van Igneus had believed the war would be prosecuted with full control of the homefront under the government, with the military protected by all manner of regulations and financial regiments to insure its dominance over all the country’s resources. Price controls, production subsidies, rationing, and an ever-increasing expansion of shipping were necessary to prosecute an overseas war and occupation.

None of these measures materialized.

Nocht instead praised its “expanding” standard of living and great “freedoms.”

For the moment, there was a measure of peace, and everything looked stable.

Soon, however, everyone would feel a shock, from the bankers to the troops.

It was Colonel van Igneus’ role to push for a sustainable, long-term war plan that saw everyone’s resources put to efficient military purpose until victory was achieved.

That was what he told himself when the meeting started.

I must get the President to approve this plan, or I will resign, he thought.

He would not be held responsible for the men who would die otherwise.

“Sir, I would like to move through three stages of our current procurement and highlight changes necessary to both the economy and logistics systems to continue the war with our current level of intensity. First I’ll start with the navy, and then the army, and finally, the civil fronts. I would welcome comments from you at each turn.”

“Hey, pal, don’t let me stop you.” Lehner made a hand gesture as if to hurry him along.

Colonel van Igneus nodded. He took a tripod stand and laid a printed chart out on it.

This particular chart contained the amount of materials that would be necessary to complete a set of six massive ships currently in early construction in the southern Tautan shipyards. Of the six ships illustrated, four were aircraft carriers, with a note that an additional, unmentioned two aircraft carriers were already completed and not part of the current plans: the Barbar and the Hessian. The other two ships to be scrapped under this construction plan were massive battleships. There was also a note that an additional ship of this class had been completed already: Jormungand.

President Lehner was not a big fan of the navy, so it was easy to suggest that he make these cuts. There was a reason, however, that van Igneus did not dare suggest that cuts be made to the air force. He prepared this plan in order to avoid that conversation.

“First, our Blue Ocean Initiative will have to be altered or significantly bolstered with material resources to succeed.” He paused. He expected comments. Nobody in attendance was a fan of the navy. When no one offered a word, he continued. “After the operations in Pelago, the Higwe and Bakor, we lost much of the naval power inherited from the annexation of the Franks, and some built in former administrations. While our Navy is more modern per capita as a result, we lost many big ships with unique capabilities, and we replaced them with smaller, purely warfighting ships.”

On the world stage, Nocht’s opening salvo had been the annexation of Pelago to its south, and the takeover of the Higwean and Bakorean island chains in the western and central oceans. Nocht’s naval forces paid a heavy price, and not simply because of the enemy. Mines and fortresses and enemy submarine attacks took their toll, but there were a lot of accidents, mismanagement and poor training and maintenance of ships and troops that ended with dozens of ships at the bottom of the atlantean seas.

Training had been lacking, operational plans had been hasty. They underestimated the island nations’ ability to defend their seas. Because the losses amounted mostly to old Frankish battleships and cruisers that had to be continuously updated and constituted a drain on overall resources, it was seen as no great tragedy. But these ships could have been converted to useful shipping vessels and troopships they sorely needed.

Colonel van Igneus made only the barest hints to this to support his main point.

“Right now, the construction of the supermassive carriers and the super battleship is straining our shipyard’s abilities to their limits, in a time where our merchant marine is ailing and desperately commissioning new ships. While we theoretically possess the massive amounts of raw metal necessary to build these ships, and while we possess enough manpower to expand shipbuilding by itself, we do not possess the smelting and coal production necessary to both sustain these projects and to expand our transport capabilities overseas. If we stop the carriers now, before it’s too late, we could build sixteen transport vessels instead. In order to expand shipping to Ayvarta we will have to either vastly expand our coal and smelting to overcome the bottleneck, or scrap the experimental ships instead and relocate those resources to shipping.”

President Lehner shrugged. “Seems like a no-brainer to me. But say, Igneus, my man, I have a query,” the President fixed skeptical eyes on van Igneus. “Why are these bottlenecks popping up now? I’ve heard nothing from anyone except how vast our coal stocks are and how metal rich we are. We have so much coal I wish we were still running goddamn steam ships, it’d really help us with that little fuel problem we got.”

There was not, strictly speaking, a fuel problem. Rather, the problem was that no one wanted to have to pay the elves for fuel at high wartime prices. As long as the elves continued to be well paid, there was fuel enough to continue the war quite easily.

As such, Colonel van Igneus ignored that remark and answered the real question.

“Yes sir, well, coal production and smelting require dedicated facilities. We have large mines and stocks of material, but every day, regardless of how much coal we mine, we can only process so much of it into coke for the smelting process; and similarly, we can only smelt so much metal in our works. Our corporate partners have not significantly expanded such facilities in the past few years. So while we have great amounts of raw materials, we are limited daily by how much can be processed, and then actually used.”

“And why haven’t our corporate partners expanded their facilities? Don’t they get that this war concerns them too?” President Lehner asked, his tone growing sharp.

Colonel van Igneus hated the corporations and their profiteering; it was their greed and nearsightedness that made him have to get up and give these speeches. He was absolutely holding their feet to the fire and he relished the President’s sharp response.

“I cannot say sir. I agree with you, that it is problematic. However, they have their own economists in their offices, and they have their own reasons. It would take large sums of monies to create even one such new facility, in land, construction, manpower.”

“We’re all making record profits this year, aren’t we?” Lehner looked around the table.

Under his gaze, the corporate representatives were getting nervous.

Lehner cracked a grin at the group. “We’ll have to talk about that with the lads, then.”

Land was abundant, either overseas or at home; and though the unemployment rate was low, there was manpower to spare still. Spending money was the only problem.

Not because there wasn’t money. Money could be made to appear in all kinds of ways.

Spending it was always the problem. Nobody wanted to spend in a time of uncertainty.

It was time somebody laid these men bare for what they represented.

Colonel van Igneus did not join the president in grinning, despite himself.

As a military man, as long as he seemed respectful enough, corporations couldn’t touch him. Their fangs had not sunk that far yet. In Nocht, the military was paramount.

President Lehner always loved young men in uniform more than old men in suits.

Lehner’s countenance was slowly changing, however. Colonel van Igneus watched him sit back in his chair quietly, perhaps having realized the efforts he would have to go through. Lehner knew they had started the meeting with an uphill battle before them.

He still ran a democracy where corporations expected profits.

So even if Lehner wanted more from his corporate “partners,” he was limited in what he could do. Colonel van Igneus did not believe that the corporations would invest greatly in their infrastructure just yet. After all, they were sold on a plan for year-long war at most. They stood to make bountiful profits if they could under-spend now and then snap up land and materials from Ayvarta’s state industries on the cheap later.

Until then, expanding operations just looked bad on the finance sheets.

Surely Lehner would yell at the CEOs this evening, one by one, but to what aim?

Realistically, what would those companies go on to do, when they expect profits?

To change all that would require courageous leadership.

Colonel van Igneus had to give the Ayvartans respect in one aspect: they did not expect a gaggle of private corporations to put the interest of the nation ahead of profit. They forced their companies on the threat of death to build as much industry as they needed, with no expectation of wealth and riches. Lehner would probably have to invest public money in Northern Steel and the Regal Coal Company to move them.

He hoped Lehner would implement a regulatory agenda to satisfy the armed forces.

That was all that van Igneus could do. He could advise, and then, he could hope.

And so, while Lehner looked around the table at the bankers and lawyers representing the corporate and finance sectors, Colonel van Igneus continued with his reports.

“As far as the army is concerned. Right now, there are problems everywhere in the supply chain, but the OKH is focusing on supplies for a planned offensive. There are two main concerns. First, there is a need for heavier siege weaponry to attack Solstice and breach its walls. But to even make it to Solstice requires another massive attack across the whole front to push the Ayvartan forces back to the city and put it in range of our guns. Tanks are desperately needed for this, sir. Our tank fleets are beginning to show great wear. Even now, many of our tank divisions are operating at half capacity.”

Lehner crooked an eyebrow. “We should build more tanks then. Isn’t that the logic?”

Again, perhaps that logic would work in Ayvarta, but not in the Nocht Federation.

Not only was Nocht’s infrastructure run privately, they had an ocean to contend with.

And they also had an inter-service rivalry to contend with as well.

“Tanks are being built sir,” van Igneus began to explain, “but tanks have to be shipped across the ocean. They compete in shipping space with the air force, who require much more space for their equipment than the land army. Because of our current operational concerns, the air force had been given priority, until capacity improves.”

“Oh, well, it’ll take care of itself then once we settle this navy business.”

One mention of the air force and its primacy, and Lehner was easily satisfied.

However, van Igneus felt a touch of anxiety that he was losing the President.

These next details were rather technical, so van Igneus hoped he could prime the president by agreeing with his premise, and then quickly rattle off some facts.

“Yes sir, you are correct. Once we bolster our transport fleet, we can catch up. So then, to continue. As far as tanks are concerned, we currently have a glut of lighter type tanks like the old M5 Ranger and the upgraded M5A2 ‘Rick’ Ranger. Meanwhile our stocks of medium tanks have fallen precipitously. Army command is requesting more production of the medium M4A2 ‘Rick’ Sentinel from Rescholdt-Kolt, of which right now they possess only 125 examples in total. Factories are currently being retooled to produce the new turret and gun for it. Only 200 of the old M4 survived the first year of the war. They also request a heightened production of the new M3A2 ‘Rick’ Hunter assault gun that is replacing the old M3. They possess only 200 M3A2 and only 75 old M3s have survived the first year of the war. This is in addition to requests for specialist models, half-track cars, and other such things. Here’s the budgetary chart.”

Colonel van Igneus took from the table a second chart that he clipped on his tripod, over the first one for the navy. On the chart, the prices per tank and the overall effect on the budget were all listed. Choosing to discontinue production of the light M5 and replace per-unit with the medium M4 and M3 would triple the army’s expenses on armored vehicles, and it would lead to some surplus capacity from small factories that could not handle production of medium tanks. Those could be retooled to produce light cars and half-tracks instead, van Igneus argued, so they would not lie fallow.

“Wait a minute, van Igneus, listen,” President Lehner held up his hand with a grin, like a schoolboy in a classroom. “What exactly is wrong with the M5A2? I heard they retooled it to have a big gun by opening up the turret. Why don’t they want it now?”

“It is the argument of the army that to overcome Ayvarta’s new types of tanks, it is necessary to have a fleet that is more heavily armored, not simply upgunned. We have a heavy tank in the works currently, but to press our advantage and make the most of what we have, each tank shipped to Ayvarta should be more durable and rugged.”

“That’s just whining from the old men who want more toys.” Lehner said dismissively. “It costs less to make an M5A2, it takes less complicated works and smaller factories to make it, and it costs less to ship it. Hell, you can ship more of them than you can M4s or M3s at a time too. They even have a big enough gun to fight now; they have the same 75mm don’t they? That’s what I was told. I don’t see the need for this, van Igneus. This argument about the M5A2 goes against everything you’ve said so far.”

President Lehner gestured at the charts. He didn’t see a need for a production shake-up. Colonel van Igneus bristled. Shipping less tanks, and more durable ones that could last longer in the theater, had been part of his plan to free up capacity for other necessities. The President did not seem to understand that their limit was shipping, not just production or even the losses in the theater. Had they possessed several thousand more ships and the fuel for those ships they could trade equipment 1 for 1 with the Ayvartans and still come out on top with good planning. They simply did not.

In the original plan, where they assumed the Ayvartans folded in 3 months and would be totally occupied in 6 months, their shipping capacity was more than enough, and the losses incurred were acceptable. In the current plan, heavy fighting and large combat operations would continue for up to 6 months longer than originally intended.

For that particular plan, their current shipping scheme was not efficient enough.

After some thought and a bit more back and forth, the President made his decision.

“Just what are you trying to sell, huh?” Lehner said. “Are we spending smart or what?”

He was starting to sound agitated. Colonel van Igneus had never quite seen him get this way, not with himself. He thought he had a good handle on the President so far.

“In this instance, sir, committing to the larger tanks that take up more time, money and shipping capacity will save us money, time and grief later on.” Colonel van Igneus said.

Lehner shook his head and crossed his arms. He narrowed his eyes at the Colonel.

“Listen, I’ll concede, I want more of those big tanks over there. We will not sacrifice production of the M5A2. It’s a classic, Igneus! And it’s only gotten better now. We know it works, we know it’s reliable, and I’m not giving it up for a gamble. We’ll find ways to make more M4s without closing up on the M5. Are we clear on that?”

Colonel van Igneus quietly resigned himself to this outcome.

He did not want the President to become more agitated with him.

“Rescholdt-Kolt will fix that problem. So lets move on. How’s the homefront?”

How indeed? That was quite a question and Colonel van Igneus had some rehearsed answers. It was not possible to give the President the entire picture in one meeting. It was not his job to talk to the President about civilian finance, except where civilian finance intersected with the military goals of the war, and with the lives of the troops.

There were some issues that worried the armed forces, however.

A long tail of food that began in Nocht and ended in Ayvarta was chief among them.

And where the men ended up after they had starved enough in Ayvarta was the other.

“Sir, I’d like to begin by talking about unemployment. When the war began, the armed forces recruited our best soldiers from the 21 through 30 age group, prime working males. These men did not simply become riflemen; many were already working as mechanics, accountants, and other skilled professions that the army requires to run. And a vastly expanded corps of riflemen required an expanded source of support infrastructure of course. So we recruited numerous females from academic, medical, and communications roles. This left many high level vacancies in the private sector, sir. Many of these positions have been partially filled by older men and women now–“

At that point, Lehner interrupted van Igneus once again. “Hold up, hold up. I don’t get the point you’re trying to make. All of this sounds good. We got a prime crop of lads in the field, and at home their old jobs have been refilled. Isn’t that right? Aren’t we fine?”

Colonel van Igneus shook his head. “It is dangerous for the economy for the armed forces to be the largest employer in the nation, sir. Because the pay grade of the armed forces is deliberately inflated compared to the private sector, right now, we’re spending more a head on each man than a private corporation would. And the reason I bring this to your attention now sir, is because we’re starting to feel the effects of the first wave of returning veterans who are unable to continue to do battle, but many of whom are also unable to return to work. Unemployment rose .2% off the back of over 200,000 returning soldiers, sir. Particularly, veterans from Bada Aso and the Dbagbo blitzkrieg. For these men and women, their old jobs just aren’t coming back, even in industries that have room and capital to expand and where demand is increasing.”

Colonel van Igneus had hoped not to be done burning the corporations quite yet.

The President was no longer so receptive to his rhetoric, however.

“It’s still winter, Igneus.” Lehner said dismissively. “I’m sure in the next month or two we’ll have things for them to do again. You can pick fruits or drive cars as long as you have a working arm and a working leg. They’ll find something to do eventually.”

Lehner’s secretary chuckled slightly. This was the first sharp reaction Colonel van Igneus had seen from Madame D’Aconte. She usually had an unnervingly wry smile.

“Yes, sir, right now, it may be possible for these veterans to recover.” Colonel van Igneus said, stone-faced. “My concern is what will happen during and after the war, as more veterans come home. We need to create programs to deal with this eventuality, and we need to be careful. I fear that if we incentivize the private sector to re-hire veterans they will do so by clearing out other hires, rather than creating new positions. And if they don’t re-hire veterans, our social system will collapse under their weight. Because of the moral value of our veterans, sir, the system is obligated to do something for them. My advice would be to subsidize industrial expansion little by little, starting now while the problem is small. It will take care of many of our needs.”

“Ugh. Subsidies. Is it always subsidies with you people? I’m beginning to suspect you’re all paid off.” Lehner made a face and looked off to the side at the walls, his hands tapping on the table. For a moment there was not a sound except his fingers drumming. Across the table, the corporate representatives practically had their faces in their hands. Colonel van Igneus felt attacked. He felt it even more pointedly when Lehner acknowledged him again. “We’re still dealing with the union assholes too.”

President Lehner’s “union assholes” were his go-to bugbear when it came to labor issues. The President and the homefront staff all had fresh, nightmarish memories of a series of labor actions that had transpired in the Pelagus archipelago, Lachy and in the southern breadbasket of Oberon at the end of 2030. Fields had been vacated or occupied by workers, factories were shut down or locked up. Lehner had opted at first to suppress the workers with law enforcement, but they had proven well organized and strangely resilient. Eventually, the agrocorporations and the munitions industry settled the matter privately with the unions in order to continue work — and to avoid further involvement from Lehner and trigger happy police forces. Now Lehner was trying to push his libertaire congress to pass anti-union legislation before the election.

While the unionists were not too popular with the middle and upper class, Lehner’s aggravated assault on them both physically and legally was even less popular.

It did not address the root cause of the problem, which was that industry and field work wages had depreciated after the heavy recruitment of able men into the army: newer hires were being worked harder and paid less than they ever had historically. Agribusiness and heavy industry had used the war as a means to reduce high paying positions and re-staff for cheap. But this was not something Colonel van Igneus could accuse anyone of doing to their face. All he could do was talk numbers for the army.

For the army, the strikes and unrest and subsequent negotations all meant that the year’s supply of both food and equipment was looking a little worse than people expected. A “little,” but a significant “little.” Crucially, production of the M4A2 was delayed, and the first shipment of the new tank was pushed back, and the numbers of tanks that were sent initially was cut shorter. This had a cascading effect all along the line of production as tank commanders demanded reinforcements, and functionaries, accountants and strategic officers needed the tank pool to look like it was growing. This led to more production of smaller tanks, and refurbishing of old, spent units.

To say that a subsidy would embolden or empower the unionists was pure ego. It would get everybody who was currently shouting to shut up until after the war: if the entire war, fuel and food industry would collectively expand, the unemployment rate would plummet to an absolute zero, production would rise, excess spending power among the middle and upper class would vaporize without financial tricks, costs would stabilize, and they might just overpower Ayvartan industrial production for good.

Colonel van Igneus, however, had no political power, so he could not be blunt with the President or anyone else. All he could do was advice, in the form of hard numbers and the effects they were having. As Lehner had insinuated, this was not the first time he had proposed subsidies to the President. He would just have to keep proposing them.

There was considerable pushback from every direction. It would remain; intensify.

That much he was certain about. But if he could seem neutral, it wouldn’t fall on him.

“Should I move on to the next topic of discussion sir?” van Igneus said cautiously.

“Yes, sure, sure, we’ll get our people talking and draft some real plans in the next few weeks anyway. Then I won’t be talking to you van Igneus, so talk now while I’m here.”

Lehner continued not to stare at van Igneus while he talked. It was rather petty.

“Yes sir.” Colonel van Igneus changed the board on his tripod again. This time he had prices for average goods and rent, in comparison to the wages of three different strata of the work force: minimum wage labor, skilled labor and professionals like lawyers and doctors. All income in the Federation flowed from the price of bread and the price for rent. An economy where bread was expensive and rent couldn’t be paid was an economy collapsing. So it was those metrics that were the most important comparisons where it came to wages among different demographic groups.

And there was one group right now, that more than others was teetering on the brink.

“Right now sir, our food production is in a critical state. Last year’s strikes centered around mainly around ‘pickers and packers’ who work in mega-farms and in large processing plants. This link in the chain between food growing and food distribution covers a multitude of severely underpaid and overworked people who are vital to our military success. As difficult as it might seem sir, the Oberkommando des Heeres strongly suggests a politics of appeasement with these unionists for now to insure no future disruptions in the food supply for Ayvarta and our troops in the Republic.”

“I’ve heard enough out of you, Colonel.” Lehner bluntly said.

He motioned for van Igneus to sit down. The Colonel was speechless, and he felt indignant. There was so much still to say. He had not even gotten to the shortages of various imported items once sourced from Ayvarta and Ayvarta’s neighboring territories like Cissea, who were now being bombarded with military exports from Nocht; and all of the other details of their support of the Republic government and military. He had not gotten to tell the President how little headway the Republic was making in repairing their industry to support Nocht with Ayvartan-made goods.

At the mere suggestion that Lehner put his politics aside for the good of the war, that he make a sacrifice just like the rest of them in order to win, Lehner had silenced him.

Colonel van Igneus felt insulted! He stammered as he spoke, his nerves were shot.

“Sir, with all due respect, we can’t simply ignore or suppress the unionists, they will not go away, and a pitched battle with them could jeopardize our food security. We could be one more prolonged strike away from a food crisis at the front lines. If I may be permitted to speak bluntly sir, we cannot put politics ahead of the common–“

Lehner drummed his fingers on the table and cocked a grin.

“Are you questioning my commitment, van Igneus?”

Around the table, everyone was surprised by van Igneus’ response and the president’s comeback. Madame D’Aconte’s eyes drew wide with surprise, and Marshal Walter Weddel pulled down his cap to cover his eyes, as if to avoid spying on a murder.

“Sir, I believe that is immaterial–“

“Baloney.” Lehner said. “Colonel van Igneus, do you know what my vision for Nocht is? I want every great citizen to have a car, to have a house, to have a refrigerator and electricity to power it. To have a television and to be able to watch news and politics at all hours of the day. I’m committed to that vision, but it won’t just be gifts and grabs. That’s not how it works. Only the deserving, the industrious, the skillful, those who rise above and prove themselves worthy, should have any right to these things. Those damn unionists aren’t getting a cent out of me. If they want it, they’ll work for it.”

Lehner stood up, and he walked casually over to van Igneus and looked him in the eye.

“For the communists, they think it’s so easy to give everyone everything they want. That’s why they don’t have nice cars, nice houses, universal electric coverage with a radio in every home, the first dedicated public television networks in the world– I could go on! If we surrender ourselves to the criminals and the saboteurs, if we make ourselves weak, that’s where we end up. Don’t you know the history? Mary Trueday’s tormentors and killers, van Igneus, all started as your oh-so-poor pickers and packers!”

Staring the President down so closely, van Igneus realized he had completely failed.

He looked into those eyes and did not see any understanding of what he had said.

Lehner was not connecting his points to form a narrative. He was not listening.

The Colonel sighed and resigned himself. He turned his back, picked up his charts, put them under his shoulder, bowed to those assembled and then made to take his leave. There was no more point in speaking. He would tender his resignation and leave the future to someone else. His hands were shaking. He would not be responsible for this.

“Oberkommando will send your office any further budget details. Good day sir.”

There was silence for several minutes after the door slammed behind the Colonel.

President Lehner looked to all assembled like he felt he had won a victory there.

“You could train monkeys to harvest wheat and pack meat.” Lehner said, with a loud snicker, shaking his head dramatically. “Who does he think he is? I want him fired.”

For their parts, the armaments industry representatives did their best to seem neutral on van Igneus’ propositions while offering their own excuses for the charges he laid at them. There were a multitude of men talking about costs and manpower and how they would act patriotically, but could only act under the most stringent of conditions. After the corporate men spoke the representatives of the banks, who were quite happy to talk of lending all sorts of money to Lehner’s endeavors, if the terms were favorable.

Lehner was in his element when talking to these people, because he thought himself smarter than them, and their cowardly, content-less exhortations only served to bolster that idea in his own ego. That the status quo was already in their favor and that they only spoke as they did to delay any changes to a playing field ripe for exploitation did not occur to the president. He just saw them as obviously indecisive and weak.

Though more concrete plans would be laid out in the future, they did come to certain agreements. There would be new mining prospects opened, particularly future growth in exploiting the experimental Agarthicite resource. Lehner would agree to work with the banks to subsidize new mines, and facilities to support those new mines would be created. This was more ambitious than van Igneus’ idea of simply processing more of their existing resources. It was a massive and wholesale expansion in iron and coal.

“Gentlemen, this sounds rich. Because it’ll make us rich!” Lehner said. All of the various representatives laughed boisterously with him. “Who needs that stuffy Colonel, huh?”

No such agreements were made with the agricorporations. They would receive no help in expanding and nothing to offer the unionists to appease them. No new farm subsidies, no promises of renegotiating contracts, no way of putting more money into their systems so they could shoulder a greater wage burden. Agribusiness would walk out of the meeting only with the promise of continued law enforcement support. Any appeasement of the unionists would have to be wholly their own, from their pockets.

There was not much talk about the lowly lives of civilians. Colonel van Igneus had come prepared to talk about rent and bread, but nobody else thought it pertinent. To everyone in the room, things were going according to their doctrine. Civilians did indeed have to believe, or they had to be made to believe, that the war could be fought and won with a short period of minor sacrifices on their part. However, the idea of who was ‘a civilian,’ who mattered, who sacrificed, was very narrow: fashionable city-going professionals were citizens worthy of protecting. Not ‘union thugs’ and ‘lowlifes.’

Finally, the table came back around to the military. This time, Marshal Walter Weddel would speak. He was an unimpressive man, smooth-faced, slightly short and slightly round, and he would often dab himself with a handkerchief while doing anything.

He stood up in front of everyone and gave them a disinterested expression.

His hands were shaking a little, and he tapped his feet. He looked nervous.

Marshal Walter Weddel had a case of stage-fright. Lehner looked mortified.

“I don’t have charts or anything. Is that okay?” He asked.

Lehner shrugged. “You’re in control here Walter!”

“If you say so.”

Weddel dabbed his forehead with a cloth again.

“So, the military situation. When we started the war, we really hoped to have won it by now, but that isn’t the case. We put between 500,000 to 750,000 Ayvartan troops out of the fight, this counting the initial Battlegroup contingents, KVW reinforcements, local militia and police, and partisan activity over the early winter. Because the Battlegroups were downsizing, we caught them at the perfect time. Despite this, we suffered something like 200,000 casualties ourselves over time, and each of our soldiers is harder to replace than theirs. Anyway, their army is back. Our is trying.”

Around the table, there were skeptical glances. Weddel was a poor orator.

“Damn, do I wish I had prepared a chart. Anyway,” he sighed. Had he not been a personal friend of Lehner’s he would have probably been scolded. “The new Kansal regime in Solstice has built up a new force out of the old Solstice City Revolutionary Guards, police forces, desert militia and fresh communist troops, some of them from the northern battlegroups. In short, they’ve got a 500,000 strong army again. We have it on good information they’re pumping out 500,000 to a million more in the north of Ayvarta too. Well fed, trained kids from the farm and mining towns.”

“We’ll take those guys out too.” Lehner said. “We’ve still got a huge advantage.”

“Right now, we outnumber them, but it won’t be for long.” Weddel said. “We’re preparing for a rapid attack on Solstice over the summer in the hopes of taking Solstice and instigating a political defeat of the communists. In the meantime, I heard you’ve let that Robin guy bomb Solstice. Due respect sir, but I don’t think it’ll work.”

“Duly noted, Walter, but I don’t care about your opinion on aircraft.” Lehner said.

He cracked a grin again. Marshal Weddel scratched his bald head.

For a moment, the Marshal fumbled with the next topic.

Finally the President queried him again to get him going.

“Tell me about the Snowskin. What’s happening with the Helvetians?” Lehner said.

“I got them bogged down in the snow. I’m preparing a plan for them.”

Marshal Weddel looked unimpressive as he spoke; but he had earned the title of ‘the Viper’ for his command of the fast, brutal annexation of the Pelagian territories. He had taken their neck like a snake lashing out at a rat, and killing it instantly. So his understated reference to a plan meant a lot to the people who had assembled then.

“You got anything to say about that plan?” Lehner prodded.

“Not right now. It’s all here.” He tapped his head. “I could have had a chart–“

“Well, Walter, it seems you do poorly without guidance in these kinds of functions. So let me give you a hand. How are the lads looking in Ayvarta?” Lehner interrupted. “How’s morale? Tell me some human interest stories. You’ve read some reports right?”

Weddel nodded his head lazily.

“About as well as ever. Our main problem is that we’re dealing with some brain drain. We lost a lot of battle-hardened troops in 2030. You remember Lieutenant Arden?”

Lehner’s eyes drew wide. “I gave that guy a medal didn’t I? That was for Cissea.”

As long as the soldier was photogenic enough, Lehner would always remember him.

This was because Lehner always remembered his photo-ops and speeches.

“Yes, that guy. Dead now.” Weddel shook his head. “He led the fray into the Manas river crossing in Cissea. Then in Bada Aso, he cooked inside a collapsing building.”

“You could be a little less grim, you know.” Lehner complained.

“I’m being serious.” Weddel replied. “We’ve lost a ton of good guys. A lot of our big heroes aren’t around to teach the young guys how it’s done anymore. Our air force in particular is looking shabby. Even with better planes, sometimes the Ayvartans get their goat just because they’re being thrown out there without enough flight hours.”

“It’ll even itself out won’t it? Those Ayvartans are also not particularly experienced.”

“We’ve killed each other’s veterans, you’re right. All our armies are full of kids now.”‘

Marshal Walter Weddel put his hands in his pockets. He sighed.

“But I think their kids are growing up a hell of a lot faster than ours.” He finally said.

There was a long silence following this statement.

Lehner shook his head.

“Why do I ask you to talk? You’re always such a fuckin’ drag.” He said.

Marshal Weddel shrugged. “I’m better one-to-one than at parties.”

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