All Out of Fumes

From the Story Arc: The Wayward Spiral

Next Story in the Arc: Running Red by Sturmfront (Monday, June 13, 2005)

(posted Monday, June 13, 2005)

He was still wearing his uniform. Well, what passed for one. It was really only motorcyclist and army surplus gear. A leather jacket with matching pants, both sturdy and waterproof, gloves, army boots and a red beret. He could have been anyone, even with the eye patch that unmistakably marred his features.

But he was not, was he? Not anyone, no. He had been given great gifts after all. To pull the Lightning from the sky and form it with his hands as if it was clay, then hurl it at his enemies like Zeus thundering from Mount Olympus. To command the winds and the clouds to do his bidding. To send storms and hail and rain as if the bag of Aiolos had been torn wide open and...

Someone bumped into his shoulder as he was walking down the street. His train of thought immediately drowned in his instincts that urged him to incinerate the perceived attacker. Luckily for everyone involved, Sturmfront’s reason swiftly won over and he did nothing at all. He did not see who bumped into him, nor did he hear the mumbled apology. Instead, his gaze turned up.

For a moment, Sturmfront scanned the sky. It was night and the stars were almost visible through the lights of the city. When he closed his eye, he could see them anyhow. In that moment, he felt peace, for the first time in the day.

It would be so easy to simply start flying. Ascend and keep going and going and going until there was nothing left to return to. Softly, the thoughts rang in his head.

But that road was blocked to him forever.

The day had ended as usual. It was very much like the navy, he always thought. Everyone would come out for their shifts, then turn in to the mess hall for a beer together. Only there was no together here. He always ended up in the same bar in the same part of Galaxy City, not too far from the small but comfortable apartment he inhabited. Always alone.

And every night he would quietly curse about the quality of the beer and how this watered-down brew could not compete with the real article. German, of course, and brewed to the purity laws of 1516 AD. That is -supposedly- what a proper beer is, and nothing else. And so on. Every once in a while, he would even chat with the bartender. The bartender -Little Pat, of course the son of Big Pat and thereby inheritor of Pat's Bar- recognized the man's loneliness but he also, with the kind of intuition only a bartender or a priest might possess, understood that it was to some extent what the big German with the eyepatch wanted.

Tonight, however, things seemed a little different. The man, whose name Little Pat had never asked for and never received either, was obviously sad. Of course, he would never say, but one look into the single eye recounted volumes. Always alone in the crowd of locals -who at first had found it funny to gift the man with the oddly-shaped beard and the eye patch with various nicknames involving the Village People and their missing pirate-themed member- he seemed even further removed. The German lit another cigarette, completely ignoring the beer in front of him and instead staring into the mirror that was in front of him, across the bar. At least until the figure of Little Pat obstructed the view.

'Girl trouble?' Pat asked with a smirk.

Sturmfront just looked up at him with a vapid expression... then a brief smirk twitched across his mouth. 'If it were only that. I have been madly in love with something I can never have since I was a child. But you get used to that.' The answer was a riddle, spoken calmly in the hoarse sound the bartender had become accustomed to, the words delivered a bit stilted and awkward, as if the speaker insisted on polishing every word before uttering it.

'Oh?' Confusion clearly rang in Little Pat's voice. He had hoped to provoke some kind of reaction from his patron, but what he got was not what he had expected.

'The sea. Hard to tell why. It is anything a man could ever ask of a woman, and more. I have loved her since I can remember and so as an adult, I joined the navy...'

'Explaining the eye patch?' Pat chimed in with a wicked grin on his face.

Sturmfront paused. For a moment, he was obviously struggling with his words. Or, probably, his fists. But then he visibly calmed down and allowed himself a faint smile. 'Look, Pat, I do appreciate the sentiment and that you are trying to take care of your patrons, but I am a lost cause. I am what I am, and I have to deal with it. It is my problem, not yours.'

Pat just shook his head. 'Man. You've been coming in here almost every night for what? Half a year? Ten months? Sometimes, you barely bark out words and the next day you're so verbose it hurts. On Christmas you made it snow in here and turned everybody else into a little kid for a moment while you just turned back to your beer.'

'Maybe I'm just a simple barkeeper, but man, I can tell that something's weighing you down big time. If you didn't like people you'd just pick up a six-pack and get your beer at home, but that's not it. You go out of your ways to seek company, then act like they're not there. What IS wrong with you?'

Silence. For a long long while the one eye not hidden behind an eyepatch fixated the bartender. Little Pat stared back at the man, not sure if a reaction would come -- and if it came, whether it would be in the form of words of a gloved fist aimed directly at his jaw.

'Everything.' Came the answer, in nothing more than a hoarse whisper.

'Have you seen the movie 'Terminal'? That man is me.'

'He is a man whose country ceased existing while he was not looking. But unlike him, I had an actual obligation to my country. And now it is gone, stolen on my watch. My fault.' Sturmfront seemed to finally have remembered his beer and reached for the glass. He grasped it tightly, but made no motion to actually drink from it.

Little Pat wanted to say something -mostly wanted to inform his patron about how ridiculous his thought processes seemed to him- but chose not to. He sensed that something was changing in the big man. As if cracks were slowly appearing all over the armour he was hiding behind.

What did crack was the beer glass. A single tear at first, then it just broke in Sturmfront’s hand. A fact he seemingly failed to notice at first.

'And what is worse, instead of trying to unmake what had happened, I abandoned my country, and my countrymen. I turned my back on my people -- people I had sworn to protect. I...' He shook his head. 'It is all jumbled, it makes no sense. But I was talking to this girl...'

Little Pat couldn’t help himself. Couldn’t help at all and blurted out, 'I knew it had to do with a girl.'

Which earned him an unbelieving stare.

'Patrick.' Sturmfront’s voice returned to some semblance of firmness. 'Do you know what I do for a living?'

The bartender shook his head. He knew his patron had some form of superpowers, but that really was not a surprise in Paragon City and did not mean too much. He was a bit surprised when Sturmfront answered his own question by pointing at a newspaper another customer had left lying on the bar. It was turned to page fourteen, where one of the stories was entitled 'Communist Superhero Tackles Fascist Remnants'.

'That would have been me. There are still vintage Fifth Column fascists around, but they are cut off from their lines of command and supply. They either hide in the deepest hole they can find or try to make rash grabs for influence or territory. Easily swept out and disposed of.' The delivery was shockingly unemotional. Particularly the wording made Little Pat pause, but he thought better than to ask about the particulars. Still, this man was talking about human beings, even if they were Nazis, as if they were objects.

'You’re still not making any sense to me. Hell, I’d say you’ve confused me even further.' The bartender had to admit that he still could not get a coherent image of the German.

The reply was just a sigh, then more silence, and, only gradually, more words.

'I am not making much sense to myself these days. Trust me on that.' In his voice swung resignation, but not much. The man might have accepted what he perceived to be his fate, but he was not revelling in whatever unhinged him.

'Maybe we can get back to the girl. She is someone I work with, and well, I try to keep my working relations on a strictly professional level. The odd encouragement for the new recruits is fine, but on the battlefield, only discipline and dedication to the objective count.' Sturmfront reached inside his jacket and produced a pack of cigarettes and a scratched Zippo lighter.

'I do not even smoke when I am out there. It is a bad example for the young ones.' Having explained that, he lit a cigarette. This was probably the wrong moment to toss in that the main reason he wore the thick jacket was to protect his cigarettes in combat and against the weather effects his powers produced.

A wisp of blue smoke later, Sturmfront continued. 'Anyways. Basically, she needed help tackling something and I offered to assist her. She however considered me to be overqualified. Shooting cannons at sparrows we would say in Germany. I said I did not mind that, but she would not have me and seemed benevolent about it. I simply stressed that I considered it my duty to help my comrades out, and did so gladly.'

Whether it was the cigarette or the conversation or simply the focus of having something to do, Sturmfront gradually seemed to relax. His shoulders sagging a bit, his speech becoming calmer... his left hand finally relinquishing the last shard of glass he had been unconsciously pressing into his palm. 'Usually that would have been it. Then she gets back to me on a private channel -we were in remote communications- telling me that she knew she was not much cared for and so on and she could not ask me to waste my time on matters below my abilities.'

'I simply reminded her that we had fought together before and that she had stood her ground and proven herself and that that was all that was needed for her to be fine in my book, and really all I go by.' Sturmfront shrugged twice in succession, before he went to work on his cigarette again.

'People in this line of work talk a lot. Many talk a lot of trash. You have to learn to judge people by their actions alone. That is what I do.' After this brief insert, Sturmfront straightened a bit. The talking did seem to do him some good, as the bartender had known it would.

And then he actually, genuinely smiled at Little Pat. 'Can I have another glass of that coloured water you people call beer or are you in the habit of letting your customers parch to death, Patrick?'

Little Pat snorted openly at Sturmfront. 'You had one and you broke it. But fine, I’ll draw you a beer while you continue with your story. Deal?'

'It is actually fairly simple. Once I had said my piece, she was silent for a while. Then she... burst out. Or wanted to, because she immediately recoiled. She was grateful, but she was also holding something back.'

'She was touched.' The bartender summarized from a few paces away. 'She felt unwelcome and you basically told her she could be your buddy. Of course that’s gonna make her feel appreciated.'

'I know, I know.' The big German sighed. 'And that, you see, is my problem.'

Pat stopped and turned to Sturmfront. 'What? You made someone happy. You fight to save people, and then you fight to make someone feel good. You win both times. A pretty good track record I'd say.'

Quietly, Sturmfront shook his head again.

The bartender regarded him unsurely. Again, he wanted to speak but decided not to. Because something had shifted. While relaxed, even at peace, his patron somehow seemed different. As if all the lights in his part of the bar had gone out. Gloomy.

'Patrick. I fight for you people. The little people. Because it is my duty, and because I relish it. Accomplishing something good for a few people fills me with pride and joy.'

With every word he uttered, Sturmfront’s voice seemed to become a bit more quiet, a bit weaker. It might even have seemed that he was trailing off or falling asleep if not for the prior exchange.

'Likewise, I would never wish to hurt an innocent. A good person. I would not wish to hurt them in any way. Whether directly or indirectly. But if I let anybody too close. You, the regulars, my comrades... If I allow for them to become friends...'

'Then I will hurt them.'

The pause was foreboding. Little Pat simply stood motionless and stared at Sturmfront by now. He was filled with a sense of foreboding as he saw the pieces fall into place before his eyes.

In the meantime, Sturmfront put out his cigarette and turned his attention fully towards Little Pat.

'I will hurt them because I am going to die.'

'Think about it. A part of me died on November 9th, 1989. Another part died when I turned my back on my people - still my people, GDR or not. A part of me died when the Rikti shot me down in the war and left me comatose for... for years. So much of me is already dead. I have missed and lost so much...'

'I am good at what I do. Because I always give all I have. Because I never expect to return alive.'

'And sooner or later it will be the end of me. I can only hope that it will have been worth it.'

There was even more silence after these words. There was nothing to be said anymore. The gloom hung in the air, thicker than the cigarette smoke.

Gloved fingers stretched for the pack of cigarettes on the bar. Feeling the soft American pack, Sturmfront frowned.

'I am all out.'