Wechseln Woods, Capricorn
Werner pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. It was hard to read in the setting sunlight dispersed by the brambles rising around them, but he could still make out the hands.
They had been walking for exactly eight hours, thirty-two minutes, and twenty-two seconds since they set off from their first rest stop at exactly six in the morning. At this point, they were ahead of schedule.
Odd. It seemed as if they’d been walking for longer than that.
Snapping his watch closed and tucking it into his breast pocket, Werner observed the skyline. It would be best if they continued on at a steady pace from here. They would reach the nearest populated town within four hours.
“Stop it, Stein!”
Werner turned his head.
Private Klaus Kleine was sandwiched in-between Derik Stein and Wilhelm Fischer. They were pressing against him from both sides. Stein wore a sneer and Fischer a grimace. Beside Fischer stood a frowning Emilia Bergmann.
“Enough, Fischer!” Bergmann said, pulling on the man’s shoulder. “Leave him alone already!”
Otto Vogt observed the confrontation from behind with a nervous expression. He toyed with his hands as his gaze flicked from the ground to his comrades.
Werner nodded at Gilbert who was walking beside him. The man let out a sigh before falling back toward the other group. Alwin, who was walking just a step behind him, fell back as well.
“Fischer, Stein, knock it off,” Gilbert snapped, pulling the two men off the bespectacled, shorter soldier. “My legs are already sore from walking all day. Don’t make my ears sore too.”
“Er, sorry, sir,” Fischer apologized.
Stein merely rubbed his neck and shrugged the strap of his conducting rifle up his shoulders. Kleine bowed his head, readjusted his glasses, and fell back in step next to Vogt. Gilbert laughed dryly.
“Aren’t you guys tired of going through the same routine every time you’re around each other?” he asked. He glanced at Kleine and Fischer who were looking away with embarrassment. He shook his head before nodding at Brandt. “Speaking of routine, do you have any more of your bootleg stories for us?”
Brandt comically rubbed his chin in thought. “Well, I do have one that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell. Heard it while I was in the Twin Cities a while back.” He peaked at Werner. “But…”
“You’ll waste your energy. We still have four hours until we reach our next resting point,” Werner said, turning away and looking forward. He could feel his squad’s displeasure at this information, but he continued nonetheless: “We need to tread carefully and be attentive. We don’t know if there are any Aquarians nearby. It’s not worth the risk.”
Gilbert jogged up to Werner’s side and matched his pace. “Oh, come on, Werner, Aquarians out this far? Almost all of them got caught up at the Zeigenberg Ridge.”
“You just said it yourself. Almost. That’s not an absolute.” Werner continued at a steady pace. “Nothing should be left to chance, Second Lieutenant Wolff.”
“With all due respect, First Lieutenant Waltz,” Gilbert pressed, “I think they could use a bit of a morale boost. I mean, we’ve been walking for hours and we’re due to walk for several more.” He leaned in close and muttered, “And it’s not like there’s a spa at the end of this happy camp journey. I know that even someone like you isn’t fond of Ophiuchus getting involved.”
Werner glanced at the man. “Gilbert, morale has nothing to do with this.”
Gilbert quirked a brow as if challenging the idea.
Werner looked away and addressed those behind him: “Private Brandt, you said you heard your story when you were in the Twin Cities, correct? Then it must be your story about the Golden Beast. I’m sure everyone has heard it by now. There is no point in telling it again.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alwin start in surprise. The man quickened his pace and fell into step beside him.
“Lieutenant, how did you know about the Golden Beast story?” he asked.
“As I’ve said,” Werner replied quietly, “I overheard you telling it before.”
Alwin frowned. “But I’ve never told it before, sir.” He exchanged a look with Gilbert across from him. “Right?”
Gilbert half-nodded, half-shrugged.
“Guess you must be a mind reader then, sir,” Alwin chuckled.
“I am not a mind-reader, Brandt,” Werner replied, “but if you and Second Lieutenant Wolff can’t remember the story that you told, perhaps it wasn’t a story worth telling.”
Gilbert rolled his eyes and fell back. Eventually, Alwin did too.
They walked on in silence.
The only sounds were the wind whistling its way through the trees and the crunch of sticks and fallen leaves beneath their boots. The grayness of the darkening sky draped a dreary atmosphere over their route, and Werner could see why Gilbert had mentioned ‘morale.’ However, comfort was not a priority here.
Suddenly, a faint sound that did not seem to belong to nature reached his ears.
Werner held up his hand, signaling his men to stop. Most conformed instantly while others stumbled in surprise. Werner glanced at them before straining his ears and carefully examining the woods around them and the path ahead. A fog had rolled in from the east, threading everything in a haze. The faint sound seemed to bounce off the fog and resound around them.
Music, Werner realized as he inclined his head and unstrapped his conductor from his back. He exchanged a look with Gilbert, who was frowning. Before Werner could interpret that frown, the distant sound grew in volume and the echo seemed to concentrate in a single area.
There, just behind a jail of thin black trees to his left. Werner lowered his conductor in both awe and confusion. He didn’t understand how he or any of his men could’ve missed something like this.
Right before him blossomed a large, white, glowing tree that seemed to be at least ten stories tall. Its trunk was thick, its branches reaching far across the skyline. At its roots glowed a pool of light.
A vitae stream…? Impossible. There was no such thing documented in this area.
In front of this impossibility knelt a woman with dark hair, dark skin, and a dark green dress. Her head was resting on the lap of an older woman sitting in a wheelchair. Beside them was a record player that twirled out a melancholic tune sung in garbled words by a somber singer.
Werner stepped forward and attempted to make out the features of the older woman but stopped when he realized that her back was to him. The kneeling woman, however, lifted her head and locked eyes with him. A thin, almost coy, smile crept up her face.
“It’s funny,” she said, “how close you can be to someone, yet so far away. You’d think that things like painful memories would bring people closer together, but they can pull people apart too.”
Werner brought a hand to his ear. Rather than her voice echoing from the distance, it sounded as if her voice was resounding in his head.
The woman slowly broke eye contact with him and turned her eyes back toward the tree.
“You know,” she began, “they say that memories—”
A hand clapped on his shoulder. He started and turned. It was Gilbert. The man searched his face with concern and confusion. Odd behavior, seeing that there was an anomaly before them. Werner returned his attention to the tree and the women but only found the black matchstick trees caging an empty clearing.
There was a sharp prick at his temple and a ringing at his ears. The black brambles swam around him as did the faces of his soldiers.
“It was just an animal,” Werner said, shouldering his conductor. “Let’s keep moving.” Without waiting to see if protest followed, he continued down the path.
He was grateful for the chilled breeze that came with dusk. It cooled the sweat still trickling down the back of his neck. Once again, a dissonant silence reigned. Rubber crunching against gravel, wind whistling through leaves, bated breaths.
They were watching him, Werner knew. His division. He could feel their gazes glued to his back, and he felt his palms itch in response. What they were thinking, however, he did not know. What he did know was that as soon as he completed this assignment, he would check himself in with a medical Conductor immediately. He had irresponsibly left something to chance.
A barren hill came into view. The slope of it was gradual and dotted with boulders and fallen logs. It was slick with mud.
Werner held up his hand, signaling his men to stop again. This time Gilbert came to his side and glanced around the area.
“Up there.” Werner nodded at the hill that rolled up ahead of them. Very faintly on the hill-line glowed the light from a cluster of buildings.
“Houses,” Gilbert murmured. “That can’t be right. There’s nothing about this on the maps.”
Werner almost let out a sigh of relief. So, what he’d been seeing this time was indeed real. Pushing the feeling aside, he motioned for Gilbert and Fischer.
“Scout the area,” he ordered. “Who, what, why.”
Both saluted before making their way up the hill. They returned exactly forty-five minutes and thirty-two seconds later. Their legs were soaked through and caked with dirt.
“It’s an Aquarian base. Mostly injured men,” Gilbert informed Werner upon their return. “The town’s been abandoned since the end of the war. They took advantage. There was no red cross noting it as a field hospital.” He held out a crumpled piece of paper. “Propaganda posters.”
Werner digested this information. Lawfully, medical camps and hospitals that displayed the red cross were under the protection of international humanitarian law which prohibited them from being attacked. A rule both written and unwritten during the war. Where that rule fell during this time of tumultuous pseudo-peace when there was no red cross present… well, it was obvious. It would be best if they went around it and reported its presence instead. It would save his men energy. The uphill trek would be tumultuous.
But then Major Ersatz’s orders came to mind. ‘Eliminate any Aquarian pockets on their side of the border.’ These orders too were sensible, logical. Even if these Aquarians were injured, if they recovered and remained on this side of the border, they would surely become a threat. No red cross, no protection. No remaining Aquarians, no threat. The propaganda posters were also concerning.
“Maybe around fifteen-ish,” Fischer said. “There were about five who looked like they could maybe put up a fight, sir.”
“Maybe?” Werner frowned.
“I-It was hard to tell, sir. But I’m pretty sure it’s around there,” Fischer returned.
Werner mulled over this and then they set out.
They crept upon the small settlement with the fog as their cover. They approached the town from all directions. Werner had the long-range Projectors position themselves in vantage points that allowed them to scope out the five uninjured Aquarians. Werner himself found a slab of rock overgrown with thrush above a small cabin. At the farthest left window of the building sat a man outlined in a yellow light. His head was buried in his hands. One of the uninjured Aquarians. According to Fischer’s report, within the building there were two additional Aquarians. Injured. Werner could deal with them swiftly.
A three-note whistle indicated they were all in position.
Werner peered through the scope and aimed his conductor at the man’s temple. He pulled the trigger. The silencer on his conductor deafened the blast of indigo light to a windy whistle. Glass shattered. The bolt met its target. A spurt of red followed by a thud.
Werner moved his scope to one of the upper floor windows where a man who had been curled up on a metal bed shot up to a sit. An easier target. He aimed and pulled the trigger. The bolt whistled, cracked through the window, and shot through the man’s head like a pin needle. The corpse hit the floor with a thud, and the sound was followed by a shout of alarm from within.
Panicked shadows streaked across the windows. Werner easily followed them through their path with the scope. One strayed too close to the window. An aim and a muscle twitch ended the shadows in a blur of indigo.
Then there was silence. Faintly in the darkness, Werner could make out the faint glows of fires conducting bolts from the others.
Werner waited there, peering into the building, peering around in the darkness before he lowered his scope. Pressing his fingers to his lips, he let out another whistle which was met by a chorus of similar whistles.
After twenty-two seconds more of careful observation, he made his way down to the building. He creaked the door open with his conductor and peered inside. Red seeped across the wooden floorboards, and a body rested by the window at the very corner of the room.
Werner knelt down beside the corpse to check the pulse. He would check the ID tag after he cleared the rest of the building.
After making his way through the first floor, he carefully, quietly climbed the stairs. As he reached the final step and entered the hall there, he saw a shadow flicker out of the corner of his eye. He raised his hands just as a shout ripped through the air and a body launched itself at him from the darkness. He was slammed against the wall by the shadowy figure and felt them attempt to wrestle his conductor away from him. A quick kick to the chest sent the person flying backward into the dark.
“Don’t move,” Werner snapped, pointing his conductor into the pitch-black.
From the opposite end of the hall, silver light spilled in from the windows. Moonlight unveiled from the clouds. It slowly cascaded down, inching closer and closer, until it reached the area where Werner’s assailant was hidden. The shadows pulled away from the area and revealed his assailant’s freckled face as well as the face of the man his assailant was hovering over protectively. The man was injured. The bandages wrapped around his head and torso were stained red. His breathing was labored. He would not last long.
The freckled man abruptly raised his hands in the air. “Please. We surrender.” Spoken in Common. He gestured slowly, cautiously to the man behind him. “He needs help. Please.”
It was pathetic. Unsightly. But orders were absolute.
Werner raised his conductor, aimed it at the man.
What are you doing…?
What was he doing? Killing injured, surrendering soldiers? These soldiers who had surrendered in hopes of returning to the families and friends waiting for them? Families and friends…
A migraine built at Werner’s temple, and his vision began to blur. He squeezed his eyes shut to dispel the nausea that came after. When he opened his eyes again, he felt his blood run cold. Standing just behind the Aquarian soldiers was a boy. A boy with deep green eyes and long dark hair that was bleached blonde at the tips and tied into a loose bun. His skin was pale, but in some areas, it looked sun-beaten red. His eyes were harsh and cold.
Werner didn’t know this boy, yet he did. A name was on his tongue. Olive.
But what was that in the boy’s eyes…? Judgement…? Disgust, pain, empathy. Werner somehow knew that to the boy he appeared unsightly.
“How can you even do this to people?” the boy whispered.
The boy’s eyes scrunched, and he covered his mouth as he hugged his stomach with his free hand. And then it came. The flashes of memory. The bodies that had been strewn across the floor on his way to this level. The bodies that he had aimed at. The soldiers who had crawled away from his target. The people he had killed.
Anton. Lukas. The names returned to him as did their faces. The Aquarians and those who he’d slain on the southern border of Argo.
Something squirmed at the pit of Werner’s stomach and rose to his throat. Shivers followed as did a piercing pain at the back of his neck. It came so forcefully that he fell on all fours—an action that sent his conductor skidding away. He was only vaguely aware of this because bile came crawling up his throat and out his mouth.
All of those bodies—
—but he had to kill them. There was no other way. Orders were orders. Could that boy not understand this—
Wiping the bile from his mouth, Werner lifted his head to look at the boy. But he was gone. In the boy’s place was the freckled Aquarian who stood there pointing Werner’s very own conductor at him. It seemed he was a Projector, then. A grave error.
He locked eyes with the Aquarian. The desperation in those eyes was familiar.
The Aquarian’s finger moved toward the trigger. And then there was a bright burst of turquoise light. Werner winced at the brightness. When his eyes adjusted, he found the freckled Aquarian on the floor and missing half of his face. The man he was protecting lay beside the pool of red, unconscious.
Werner turned his head. Just a couple steps below him stood a shaking Vogt, the tip of his conductor still billowing with smoke.
Lowering his weapon with trembling hands, Vogt asked, “Are you okay, sir?”
Werner turned away from him and pried his conductor from the fallen Aquarian’s hands. His own hands were trembling. Could Vogt see? Swallowing the bile in his mouth, Werner rose to a stand and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“I’m fine, Vogt. Thank you.”
Vogt straightened and nodded. “Of course, sir.” His gaze then shifted to the bodies on the floor, and his face turned green.
Werner followed his gaze, and his stomach immediately churned. He looked away from the mess and at Vogt who looked pallid, exhausted. Again, Werner’s stomach churned. The gazes of the green-eyed boy and the freckled Aquarian burned into his mind
“Tell the other men to take the Aquarians in if they surrender,” Werner found himself saying. He noticed Vogt stiffen in surprise but continued nonetheless: “We should follow the laws that were in place during the war.” He stared at Vogt for a moment and the boy wavered under his gaze. “We’ll take camp here for the night.”
* * *
An hour or so later and Werner was standing in a small cabin furnished with two wooden desks pressed along the walls and a handful of chairs. A single bulb hung from the ceiling and, paired with the moonlight streaming in from the window, it provided the cabin with all-reaching light.
At one of the desks sat Klaus Kleine. On the desk was a large book opened to a page displaying a military radio in detail: parts, wires, knobs, nuts, and bolts. Kleine’s gaze was locked onto the page and sweat beaded his brow. His conductor-gloved hands were extended outward and the base of them glowed with teal light. Very faintly, a glowing wire-like object took shape just below his extended hands.
The door to the cabin creaked open.
Gilbert. He stepped inside, gave a nod to Kleine before joining Werner’s side. “So what’s going on?”
“I’m having Private Kleine conjure a radio so I can update Major Ersatz on our current location.”
Gilbert rubbed his neck. “Well, yeah, I can see that, Werner, but I was talking about how you said earlier we’d keep on for the rest of the day but now you’re saying that we should rest here. It’s not like you to change your mind, so what’s up?”
“The men need rest,” Werner said, folding his hands behind his back. “We don’t know how many more Aquarian pockets we’ll find along the way. Exhaustion will lower their performance.”
“Huh.” Gilbert grunted. “What about the Aquarians then? Usually, you’re all ‘orders are orders,’ but you switched things up today.” He shrugged. “I’m not complaining or anything. Want to blow through my mandatory service with as little guilt on my mind as possible. But is there something going on?”
Werner glanced at Kleine. He seemed to be too focused on conjuring the radio parts to be listening in on their conversation.
“I’m just following the precedent set during the war. It didn’t occur to me before.”
“Right…” Gilbert studied him for a long while before he stretched and yawned. “Well, if anything else happens to occur to you, I’m here.”
Werner turned to Gilbert, but hesitated. Before he could say anything, Kleine shot up from his seat and stretched with a huff. He turned around, stiffened, and saluted.
“It’s all done, sir. Everything should be in working order.” Kleine gestured to the desk now topped with a military radio identical to the one in the book. Microphone, headset, and all.
“Good work, Private Kleine.” Werner nodded at him. “I will need another backup radio.” He paused as Kleine grimaced for a fraction of a second, and his stomach churned with an odd emotion that felt as if it was not quite his own. Guilt. “If you are feeling up to it.”
Gilbert and Kleine both seemed surprised by this statement and Werner was too, but Klaus nodded deeply before moving over to another desk and bringing his book with him. Gilbert headed toward the door.
Werner watched them go, and then—
There was a static crackle from the recently conjured radio in the corner of the room. A voice cracked out: “Hello?”
Kleine did not move from where he was working on another radio, and Gilbert did not turn back from the doorway.
“Nico…?” the voice cracked again. “Callin’ me back right after you hung up?”
Still, no one moved from their positions.
“Hello? Are you there?”
Werner paced over to one of the large machines and picked up the headphones producing the sound. He placed them to his ear and leaned down toward the microphone. “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, Border Force, speaking. What is your military code?”
Static prickled his ears. White noise.
But then: “What’s this code you’re talkin’ about?”
Now that the headphones were pressed up to his ear, Werner could hear the strange lilt to the voice on the other end of the line. Their accent was odd.
“Operator?” the voice pressed.
Werner’s heart skipped a beat and his head spun.
He opened his mouth to respond, but then—
“Oh, you’re like her, aren’t ya?”
The static that crackled out from the headphones was overcome by a much louder sound. A high-pitched whine. It screamed through his ears and pierced his temple like a bullet. The lights in the room intensified, bleaching everything around him in a painful white. While Werner managed to remain rigid and standing, he couldn’t help but to squeeze his eyes shut. He had suffered from concussions before but what he felt now was several times worse.
“Who are you?”
Werner opened his eyes.
The radio room was gone.
He was standing in a pale hallway with polished wooden doors. Papers littered the floor. And right in front of him stood a young woman who leaned on the rim of a gray telephone station that looked in need of repair. She pressed the receiver to her ear.
The woman’s eyes were narrowed, and her lips were pulled downward, but the expression only lasted a fraction of a second. Soon she was offering a lopsided grin: “Well, I gotta say that these hallucinatory meetings keep gettin’ weirder and weirder.”
The voice that came out from the young woman standing before him simultaneously crackled out of the headphones that he still had pressed to his ear.
Werner, lost for words and certain he’d lost his mind as well, stood frozen in place.
“By the look of your face,” the young woman drew, pulling off the fedora on her head and resting it atop the phone box, “this must be the first time you’re experiencing this. That is, if you’re real.” She spread her free arm wide. “Welcome to the party.”
Werner opened his mouth wordlessly again.
“The name’s Cadence.” The woman mocked a deep bow. “But maybe ya knew that already.” Straightening herself, she offered her hand. “And you look like… a Werner.”
“What’s the meaning of this?” Werner managed to find his voice. It only came out as a whisper.
“Well, not sure ’bout that,” the woman replied after a moment of staring. “Either I’m goin’ insane, we’re both goin’ insane, or we’re experiencin’ somethin’ outta this world.” After another moment of staring, she continued: “Honestly if there’s a meaning to all this, I can’t really think one up. This is how it’s going to be now—I think—and we just gotta make use with what we have.”
Werner remained silent. He glanced down at the microphone he was holding. Despite him being in what appeared to be a completely different location than the communications cabin, he was still able to see and to feel the device in his hands. A hallucination, then. A result from his injury several days earlier. That would answer the question as to why Gilbert and Kleine didn’t acknowledge the radio transmission.
“Ey, you’re a soldier, aren’t you?” the young woman Cadence pressed. “Capricornian by the looks of it. Let’s just say you’re real. Ya wouldn’t happen to be involved in that border conflict, would ya?”
Werner glanced back up at the woman.
“Even though you’re a Capri, I don’t have anything against ya and what you’re up to,” Cadence continued. “None of my business.”
And then Werner closed his eyes. He counted to fifty, and as the numbers in his head became louder, the ringing in his ears became quieter. The woman’s voice became nonexistent. Faintly, he could hear Kleine tinkering in the background of the radio station.
“'Ey, what the hell?!”
Werner opened his eyes.
Cadence was right in front of him now. She was so close that he could see even the smallest freckles on her cheeks. Her caramel brown eyes were wide and livid.
“Is that how they teach manners in your country?!” she snapped.
Werner stumbled backward in surprise. The headphones and microphone clattered noisily onto the floor beside him.
“I ain’t one to know much about manners, but even I know that ignoring someone is one of the worst things ya can do!”
“I—” Werner swallowed. The only words he could think of were: “I apologize.”
Cadence studied him before pulling back with crossed arms and a nod. “Well, I get it. You’re confused. I was pretty confused too so I can’t really judge ya too harshly. Sir, I still am confused.” She dropped her arms and then moved to rub the back of her neck. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling. “Here’s the low-down.”
Werner followed her gaze up, and for some reason, he thought of the sky and the moon. He hadn’t seen the clear sky for a while now.
“You and me? If we’re both not insane, then we’re somehow communicatin’ across borders,” Cadence continued. “Don’t know how. Don’t know why.” She whistled. “But if we really ain’t hallucinatin’, then it looks like we’re connected somehow. At this point, with everythin’ goin’ on, I’ve pretty much accepted it. Problems of the heart and mind, ’ey?”
Her words were incomprehensible.
“I am hallucinating,” Werner said.
The young woman cackled. “Well, then I am too. But if I’m hallucinatin’, then that means you’re not real. Bah, just thinkin’ about it makes my head hurt.” She really did seem amused. “There are others part of this whole maybe-hallucination-maybe-real thing, so I recommend ya be friendlier with ’em. Not everyone is as easygoin’ as I am, sir.”
“I was injured during a battle. I suffered a head injury. I didn’t allow myself sufficient time to recover.”
Cadence cackled again. Louder this time. An unrefined laugh. “You’re gonna be a hard one, ain’t ya? Well, that’s how life is.” She extended her hand out to him. “So, how about we become acquainted then? From one hallucination to another.”
He stared at her hand without comprehending it. Slowly, he reached out.
And just like that, the hallway scenery shattered. The papers, the phone, the doorways fell down around him in shards. The woman reflected his expression of surprise before she too fell away into pieces.
He was standing back in the radio station with the microphone and headphones still resting on the ground beside his feet. The hum of the radio whirled in the background. In the background where Kleine sat staring at him with his hand still extended in the direction where Cadence once stood. Gilbert Wolff stood beside him, gripping his raised arm tightly.
“Werner!” Gilbert repeated, eyes wide, grip tightening.
Their stares pricked his skin. The palm of his hands began to itch terribly.
Werner dropped his arm and tried to recollect himself. A difficult task due to the buzzing in his head and the cold sweat trickling down his back. He swallowed and then tried in an even voice: “Is there something else you’d like to tell me, Wolff?”
Like nothing occurred.
Gilbert stared at him and opened his mouth. But then he followed Werner’s gaze to Kleine, and his eyes narrowed. He shook his head and released his grip. Disappointment probably.
“Back to work, Private,” Werner said, clearing his throat.
Like nothing occurred.