Abandoned Town, Capricorn
Werner had never been a fan of cigarettes, natural nor conductor-based. He’d never understood the novelty of them nor why their usage was so popular. The smell was unpleasant, the ashes from a fallen stub easily ruined the bottom of leather shoes, and the smoke always clogged the air. He never made his displeasure known, however.
His Captain smoked, his men smoked, Gilbert smoked. Even several of his family members smoked. V-cigs had become a commercial item. They were easy to distribute and ship, and they acted as stimulants. With one drop of diluted vitae present in each cigarette, all it took was one puff and a worn soldier could easily hold up their conductor battle-ready for at least five more hours. The efficiency and practicality were clear. To voice his disapproval and displeasure would be unsound. Even minutely displaying expressions such as those would be similar to conveying his unhappiness with the military distribution of the cigarettes. Such displays were fruitless and could even appear anti-government.
And Werner was well-practiced in keeping up appearances. Hiding his desire to crinkle his nose when coming across his men smoking together had become second-nature. He often didn’t even need to consciously think about it anymore. A moment of the satisfaction of voicing displeasure at the cost of respect? Senseless.
And so when Werner had stepped into the small cabin where several of his men had taken refuge, he was not thinking about the cigarettes they were most likely smoking. Instead, his thoughts were on their next movements, their prisoners, and—
—and that distorted radio call from the previous night. A hallucination, surely. It had to be. Caused by fatigue and exhaustion. It wasn’t even dawn yet, however, and he still needed to go over their route through the woods and touch ground with the major. However, sleep did sound tempting the more he thought on it. He had slept for four hours exactly before departure. It was enough sleep to keep going for perhaps eight more hours, but any more than that might affect his cognition and judgment. Just as Werner was considering the prospect of rest, however, the smell of smoke from the lit v-cigarettes greeted him at the threshold.
The smell was pungent as usual and the haze of gray curling around the cabin touched all corners and walls. The light from the lit buds faintly illuminated the faces of those within. Werner was scanning those faces when the sensation hit him.
The world spun and a wave of nausea rippled up his stomach and to his throat. It took all of his willpower to not gag and cover his mouth.
A suffocating, disgusting smell.
“Sir, did you need something?”
“Tell Vogt to switch posts with Stein,” Werner managed curtly. “Clean your close combat weapon and switch out your insulators. And dispose of those propaganda flyers.”
Without waiting to hear the usual “yes, sir,” he turned on his heels and walked briskly back out into the cold night. The full moon that had hung high and serenely in the sky now drooped low and harsh. The white light was blinding. The fact that it was being dispersed into numerous streaks by the surrounding trees made matters worse. The black of the tree shadows, the white of the light. Flickering flashes. Paired together they exacerbated the pounding in his head and the tumbling of his stomach.
He managed to keep himself straight until he met the wall of another cabin that provided relief from the light. He collapsed onto it, pressing his hand against the wooden planks and feeling the cold seep through his leather gloves. For a brief moment, he considered pressing his head against the wall.
“Hey, have you seen all the stuff the Aquarians had—whoa, you alright?”
Werner started and turned.
Gilbert. The moonlight eclipsed half of his unreadable face in silver light. Crisp, clear.
The head-spinning nausea was gone.
Werner straightened himself and noticed that there was something folded in Gilbert’s hands. A sheet of paper.
“Werner, you look paler than Vogt.”
“It’s the light,” Werner said. He frowned at the crumpled paper in Gilbert’s hands. “I thought I told you to dispose of those.”
Gilbert cracked a grin and uncrumpled the paper, stretching it out to its full length. A familiar face that any Capricornian would recognize was printed there. The Kaiser. With his pants down and flashing polka dot boxer briefs.
Gilbert sighed and then shrugged his shoulders. “You’re no fun. Well, anyway, I was inventorying the Aquarian supplies like you said and—well—you’d better see this for yourself.”
Werner followed Gilbert into the building where he had ordered his men to store the crates of Aquarian supplies they uncovered four hours earlier. Most of the items had been removed from the wooden boxes and were now organized into rows on five long tables that ran parallel to each other at the center of the room.
The closest table seemed to hold items of vice. V-cigarettes. Bottles of liquor and moonshine. The farthest table was what caught Werner’s attention, however. It was unmistakable, the shapes that were laid out onto the table. Conductors. However, something about them was different.
He followed Gilbert to the table and watched as the man picked one up.
“Never seen anything like it,” Gilbert said, weighing the conductor in his hands before tossing it over.
Werner caught and inspected the conductor carefully, running his gloved fingertips over the dips and grooves with care. It vaguely resembled his conducting sniper rifle, but it was much lighter. He doubted it weighed more than a canister of water. That characteristic was not the only aspect of the weapon that caught his attention.
He flipped open the cartridge that ran the length of the conductor to inspect the insulator. “They’ve minimized the diameter of the insulator but extended its length. The insulation system is thin…”
“Didn’t know you were a conductor mechanic.”
Werner looked from the uncovered sleek and slender glass tube that ran along the nozzle of the weapon to its trigger.
Gilbert was now a table away rifling through the vice items. After deep digging, Gilbert held up what appeared to be a carton of cigarettes and shook it open. After selecting one from the box and giving it a sniff, he laughed, “Lieutenant, I think these guys are smoking morrowheat now. Man, with them whiffing this stuff, no wonder we’re winning.”
Werner turned his attention back to the conductor and ran his finger along the uncovered insulator. He closed the cartridge and set the weapon back down on the table. “They don’t allow conductors to be made with such thin insulation. Ophiuchian regulation on this is rigorous.”
“So they’re doing it under the table somehow,” Gilbert concluded before he shook his head. “Bastards.”
“It would seem that wa—” As Werner raised his head to affirm this, he froze.
It was just behind Gilbert. Pressed against the chipped wall. Black and white teeth encased in a wooden skeleton. Piano.
In a blink, Werner was in front of it, hands itching, fingertips extended. It was a different itch than usual. Faintly in the background, he heard Gilbert call his name. Werner turned his head in acknowledgment, but found himself freezing once more—
—because standing right beside him was the young woman from the radio. Cadence. Her eyes closed, head tilted ever so slightly, lips pursed. She appeared to be concentrating on—
A soft, light, clear, trembling sound resonated in his ears. No, not a singular sound. A collection of sounds. Notes. Melody. He’d almost forgotten what it had sounded like. Music, that was.
The young woman’s fingers were hopping, darting, flying across the keys. Despite the rapidity, her movements were not stiff nor rigid. She moved with an odd grace that seemed almost inhuman.
Werner could not tear his eyes away.
A startling display of talent.
“Well, thank ya. Good ta know ya like what ya see.”
Her voice cut through the melody so suddenly he almost jumped. She was looking at him now, although her fingers continued to tap on the keys. The notes that flowed out were softer now, almost sadder.
“Though that’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone describe music as just a collection of sounds.” She stared at him for a moment before chuckling. “As expected of a Capricornian. Straighta the point.”
Not again. Another hallucination.
Cadence sighed, almost as if in annoyance. “All right, well if you’re gonna be that way, then I’m just gonna get back to it. Got my plate a bit full. No offense.” And with that, she returned her attention back to the piano and the melody erupted into a loud crescendo.
He felt his heart pound almost in sync with every slammed note.
This hallucination. He knew he had to look away, to collect himself. But he couldn’t.
The young woman had not been speaking, yet her voice echoed in his head.
An image flashed within his mind. An atrocious looking wallet that appeared to be made of denim and studded with diamonds. A somber man pocketing the wallet with a sigh. A young boy sitting in a chair. The same young boy colliding with an Ophiuchian agent wearing a trench-coat.
The images were followed by an odd sensation: a feeling that rose in his chest. A foreign feeling he knew was not his own because there would be no reason for him to feel it. Curiosity, hesitation, desire. They drilled into his chest and leaked outward.
Oddly enough, Werner knew exactly what the images and feelings meant.
It seemed as if a cost-benefit analysis was in order. Duty and reason. A problem left unchecked would exacerbate and fester. Excision was necessary no matter personal feelings.
The woman stopped playing. She turned to him in surprise before she cracked a smile. “Well, ya stone-cold fella, that was just the motivation I needed.”
He blinked, and she was gone.
“Damn, Werner, have you been practicing? I thought you gave up all that after you joined the military academy.”
Gilbert was standing at his side now, hovering over the piano with a mild expression. He didn’t meet Werner’s gaze as his eyes appeared to be fixated on something else. Werner followed Gilbert’s gaze to his own hands.
His hands were paused just above the keys the woman’s hands had been above. And as the buzz in his head began to ebbed away, the slight ache in the muscles of his fingertips informed him of the impossibility that had occurred.
Werner pulled his hands away from the keys—slowly, due to an odd feeling that the piano would pull him back in if he moved too quickly. A chill crept up his spine at the thought.
“You should play something for the guys when we get back. It’d be a good morale boost.”
Werner flexed his fingers to get some feeling back in them. Without his conscious knowledge, had he just—
“Hey, Lieutenant.” Gilbert jerked his thumb to the door.
The door to the cabin flew open. Klaus stood there with a stiff salute.
“At ease,” Werner said, turning toward him. “What is it?”
“I just received a call from the major, sir,” Klaus said, swallowing. “He requested to speak with you, sir. It sounded urgent.”
* * *
“Werner, is that you?”
Werner pressed the mouthpiece connected to the communications radio down closer to his mouth. “Yes, sir. Would you like me to give my military code?”
“No,” came Major Ersatz’s response. “We don’t have time for that.”
Werner paused before he conceded, “Yes, sir.”
“Are you alone?”
Werner glanced around the room, and emptiness met his gaze. “Yes, I’m alone. Private Klein left a moment earlier.”
A breathy sigh of relief resounded amidst the static crackling in the background of the headset. “Good, good, good. We don’t know who we can trust.”
“That’s right, that’s right. We can’t trust them. We can’t rely on them. Since the very beginning, we couldn’t.”
Werner remained silent.
“Waltz? Are you still there, Waltz?”
“Yes, sir, I am.” After a moment, he said: “I’m unsure of what you’re implying. Who are you saying it is that we can’t trust?”
The venom with which he spat the world made Werner hesitate. This didn’t seem like Ersatz’s usual tirade. There was a nervousness in the major’s voice that was unsound. Perhaps even unhinged.
“Those bastards. Calling themselves ‘peacekeepers’ when they’re the ones who’re tearing everything apart. Everything….”
There was a shake in the man’s words.
“We can’t let them get what they want, Werner. We can’t. We have to protect Capricorn. You’re the only one that I can trust. You’re the only one who knows what needs to be done and who’ll do it.”
After considering this in the pause of silence that followed, Werner asked, “What is it that you want me to do, sir?”
A sigh of relief resounded from the headset. “I knew I could rely on you, Werner. I knew I could. You always listen. You’re a constant.” There was the sound of fluttering paper. A scritch, a scratch. “I’m requesting for the Watch to go forward with their operation.”
Now, Werner felt his heart skip a beat. “Sir, wouldn’t that incite—”
“Exactly. Take it out of their hands. Take it with our own. It’s the only way.”
“With all due respect, is this something the Generals approve of?”
“Waltz.” There was a snap in Ersatz’s voice. “I’m one of the Watch’s founders. It is under my oversight, do you understand? You are under my oversight. What happens above you shouldn’t concern you.”
Werner considered this. Attempting to converse with Ersatz seemed pointless. By the sound of the man’s voice, he would not budge from his position. “I understand.”
“I know all of this sounds sudden and confusing, Waltz. But it’s what’s necessary.” There was more rifling in the background. “Give me your location. I’ll be relieving you of your mission upon arrival.”
“There’s something I need to tell you regarding our location, Major Ersatz,” Werner said slowly. “My men and I are currently stationed at an Aquarian base we overtook.” He paused. “From questioning, I’ve concluded that it’s a medical camp—”
“From questioning?” There was an edge to the major’s voice. “You’re not implying that you’ve taken prisoners, are you?”
“I was acting in accordance with the Treaty of Ophiuchus. Given that this is a medical camp, I believe my decision was appropriate in this situation. Wars cannot be won without guidelines.”
“Yes, that’s true,” the major said with some hesitation. “How many are there?”
“Six. One combat medic and one captain.”
“A captain!” The lightness in Ersatz’s voice returned. “Did you learn anything about their movements?”
“No. She informed me that their base was a medical camp, and that was all. But I found several propaganda flyers on her persons. I believe she planned to distribute them—although she claimed they were not her own.”
“Openly admitting to creating a medical camp on Capricornian land. The nerve.” There was a sigh. “So, she’s a partisan then. As I recall, there are no protections written down about that in the Treaty, right? Execute the captain. Yourself. Discreetly. It may bring down morale if the others see you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” The words came so easily from Werner’s mouth that for a moment he wondered why it had been so difficult to pull that trigger hours earlier. Perhaps it was because it was logical. Partisans created dangers behind the line and bred opposition.
“Is there anything else you need to tell me, Waltz?”
The modified conductors—
“No, sir. That is all.”
“Have one of your men give me your coordinates. I will be there shortly.”
“Of course. I will be waiting, Major.”
Static greeted him instead of silence.
* * *
Stein and Bergmann, who were posted outside the building where the Aquarian prisoners were being kept, saluted Werner at his approach. He gave them each a curt nod and signaled for them to rejoin the others. Stein appeared grateful at the respite.
When they disappeared over the ridge, he turned to face the door. His pistol hung lightly at his side, and he ran his thumb along its surface. Using his conductor would be wasteful and excessive, so he had set his aside. Besides, using a conductor for an execution seemed—
Cruel? That had nothing to do with this. He had done this countless times before when stationed along the southern border facing Argo. Partisans had passion. Passion was dangerous. That aside, Major Ersatz—
—sure seemed to be strange.
—sure about this?
Werner pushed the thoughts aside and the door open, took a step over the threshold and—
My, my, to be so unsure of yourself that you follow what it is left by others… is…
—and he stepped onto the mud-caked grass that was just beginning to warm from the rising sun.
Werner winced at the sudden brightness spilling from between the trees and brought his hand up to catch the rays of light. Light. Morning.
He brushed back his bangs that had somehow fallen out of his updo and let out a breath. His head buzzed as he reached into the fold of his uniform for his pocket watch. Gone. He unstrapped the pistol from his side and popped open the chamber to inspect it. Empty.
A cold sweat began to prick the back of his neck.
He sifted through his memory carefully, dissecting each and every detailed moment there. But there was nothing. Nothing after entering the cabin that held the Aquarians. An empty unknown amount of hours and an empty chamber. Perfectly snipped out as if with a pair of scissors. A void of time.
But panic solved nothing. He had to think it through. Specialist enemy conductor. Concussion. Sleepwalking. Dreaming. The possibilities were endless. And although the why was important, the most important thing would be—
A crunch of footsteps against the ground from behind caused Werner to turn his head. It was Gilbert, trudging up the rocky hill with purpose. His expression was different than usual. There was no half-lidded smirk, no sly and scruffy grin. No, he trudged up with a thin smile and eyes that seem focused.
“Hey, Werner,” Gilbert said with a slight jerk of his head. There was a pause of silence, and his eyes seemed to avoid Werner’s. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Werner felt himself frown. ‘Looking for’ what, exactly?
Wait. Was Gilbert all right?
Werner inspected Gilbert from the distance that had somehow formed between them. Gilbert met his gaze and quirked a brow.
Yes. Gilbert looked unharmed. There was no need to investigate when there was a more pressing matter at hand.
He brushed past Gilbert and headed up to the camp behind him. He nearly skidded on the ground as he paced up the hill, but he righted himself and made his way to the building in which the prisoners were held. For him, it had only been a minute ago that he’d been standing at the front of the building. Now?
The soldiers posted at the front of the door saluted him, but he ordered them to leave. After he watched their heads disappear from his line of sight, he entered the cabin and inspected those inside.
Five. Five heads. Five Aquarians. He could barely make out their faces, but he could tell. The Aquarian Captain was gone.
He called out for the nearest Aquarian and ordered the man to follow him outside to the back of the building. After ordering the soldier to line up against the back wall, Werner evaluated the man carefully.
“Sergeant Nikita Knovak, correct?” Werner asked in Common. “Your captain. Where is she?”
The Aquarian made an odd face before looking left and right and peeking over Werner’s shoulder. Werner didn’t know what the man was looking for.
Calmly, Werner pressed: “I asked you a question. I know you speak Common. Where is your captain?”
“What you mean, sir?” A thickly accented response. “You took her out last night.”
Took her out, as in the execution? Of which he had no memory? There was too much uncertainty with that assumption.
“I took her out,” Werner repeated. “What do you mean by that?”
The Aquarian’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly are you playing at, Capricornian?”
“I am not playing, Aquarian.” He held his gaze.
The Aquarian looked away with a half-scoff, half-grimace. “You took her outside. You tell me you lost our captain to nature?”
Werner studied the Aquarian for another moment before he returned the man back into the cabin. He tried his best to keep his thoughts in order as he exited the building. Had he truly executed the captain, then? The evidence pointed to that, but still. Too much uncertainty.
He was just stepping off the stairs of the cabin leading to the ground when Gilbert suddenly appeared in front of him. The Second Lieutenant peered behind him. “Is there something going on that I should know about, First Lieutenant?”
Before Werner could think of an answer, a sharp, searing pain exploded at his shoulder at the location of his former injury. The world blurred into smears of black and white, and the sounds around him undulated.
Werner doubled over at the sudden pain, but just as he did that, it dissipated. Like it’d never been there in the first place. Werner straightened himself and found Gilbert hovering over him with widened eyes. The very sight made shame build in Werner’s stomach.
“Werner, are you—”
Collecting himself, Werner cut him off: “Major Ersatz will be joining us shortly. Inform the others.”
He could resolve this on his own. He could not risk appearing weak.