Abandoned Town, Capricorn
The synchronization event brought upon by Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance seemed to have exacerbated Werner’s condition.
Whenever he’d rest his eyes, he’d enter an odd sort of microsleep where what he assumed were memories would barrage his mind. The dreams were so vivid that they’d almost seemed real. Flashes of a narrow street and the sound of laughter, the warm sun in an open garden, a flicker of swirling flames in a quiet and reverent chamber, the splash of saltwater on a sunny day, and a cramped darkness in a damp room.
He’d been trying to resist sleep due to these things. But he already knew the truth.
He was compromised.
However, it seemed as if not all information was transmitted through this synchronization. While the flow of feelings and thoughts was uncontrollable, the flow of memories received and given seemed to depend on each individual. He’d questioned Atienna about it during one of their sudden synchronizations. At the time, Atienna had tilted her head in thought as she rested her cheek on her bandaged fist and said, “I wonder. I’ve mostly just seen what I believe are memories from Olive.” For a moment, her expression became sympathetic. And then she smiled, saying, “Lieutenant Waltz, are you perhaps concerned we may see something you don’t want us to see?”
He had left it at that.
Atienna was perceptive but she was not confrontational. That aside, Cadence was hiding something. That much was apparent given her profession. What she was hiding was just out of his grasp. The answer was ghosting the very edges of his knowledge. Perhaps, it was intentional.
Either way, he was not happy when she started following him. After all, she could easily siphon off information regarding the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict from him and feed it to whomever she decided. It was in her line of business, though she claimed innocence.
Regardless, he still had his duty and rounds to perform. Keeping his mind clear, he’d entered the cabin housing the prisoners when—
He’d felt Cadence’s horror as if it were his own.
Now, Werner found his gaze forcefully focused on the Aquarian combat nurse who was kneeling in front of one of the other prisoners. Aquarian? No, the combat nurse looked nothing like an Aquarian.
Werner hadn’t recognized the combat nurse before this moment, and he’d only felt slight déjà vu when he’d heard the man’s name. It was a common name, however, and Werner assumed he’d heard it in passing. But that was the problem with assumptions.
Werner slowly approached the combat nurse. Swallowing the lump that had formed in his throat, he asked for confirmation in barely a whisper: “What is your name?”
From beneath a mess of curly black hair and with steady eyes an amber so clear, the young combat medic answered. “Nico. Nico Fabrizzio.”
“Nico Fabrizzio—that’s my name. But they always call me crybaby Nico. I don’t know why,” the young boy stuttered in a shaky voice as he wiped away tears and dirt from his face.
“Ya don’t know, ya say?” She’d chortled as she reached into her pocket and provided him with a handkerchief.
He took it and wiped his face before mumbling a shy “thank you.”
“Ten Cens,” she’d told him, matter-of-fact, extending her hand out.
“Ten Cens for the kerchief.”
Nico started to laugh but stopped short when he’d realized that she hadn’t been joking. He dug into his pockets, pulled out two five Cen coins, and dropped it into her palm.
She’d smiled charmingly for him. “What’s the underground doc’s kid doin’ wanderin’ around gettin’ his ass beat for? With a reputation like that, you’d think you wouldn’t have to be dealin’ with a schoolyard bully.”
The young boy had sniffled. “I-I know. I know. I’m sorry. I-I just—”
“No more waterworks, Nico, please,” she’d sighed. “I’m no good with this stuff.”
Nico had gulped down two more sobs before he nodded his head. “Are you really working with the Romanos?”
“Yup. Not officially a part of the Family though, but they’re already givin’ me a nickname.” She’d puffed her chest out then, filled with a sense of childish heroism and pride. “They call me the black knight of the Romano Family.” She’d rubbed her nose and winked at him, saying with little to no embarrassment, “And that would make me your black knight too, wouldn’t it?”
At the end of that conversation, after speaking vaguely about cages and opportunity, she’d extended her pinky out to him. When he’d accepted her gesture, a sort of indescribable happiness blossomed in her chest.
That was where their friendship began. Two dirty children standing in a filthy alleyway overshadowed by clouds thick with soot. Side-by-side through cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Side-by-side, teaching each other the oddest of things like how to play piano or how to swallow a cigarette whole or how to sew up a small cut. All the way, side-by-side, until now.
The wounds from their most recent fight were still raw. The hurtful words Nico had said to her still rang in her ear.
Wait, ‘their’ most recent fight?
No. That fight had not involved Werner. Cadence was the one who’d fought with Nico. Cadence—
Werner blinked and the images that whirlwinded through his mind cleared. He was still standing in front of Nico Fabrizzio, who was for once not teary-eyed despite the straining situation.
A pair of hands gripped Werner’s arm. The man turned his head and found Cadence wide-eyed. Despite her not actually being present, he could feel her nails digging into his skin. A trick of the mind, most likely and logically. But Werner couldn’t even think at the moment.
“Please,” she whispered, “help him.”
He looked back at Nico. The man seemed to be limping.
Was he hurt?
“Enough,” Werner said. Cadence, Nico, and the Aquarian prisoners froze. “Nico Fabrizzio, come with me.”
The man looked back over his shoulder. “With all due respect, Lieutenant Waltz, these men are injured. If I don’t change their bandages now, they could get worse.”
“That idiot.” Cadence bit her lip.
“I will send in our combat medic to aid them,” Werner said. “Now, come with me.”
Nico looked back at one of the men on the bed who gave him a firm nod. Swallowing, Nico followed Werner out of the cabin. Fischer and Bergmann were still standing guard outside. The former started in surprise when he saw Nico emerging behind Werner.
“Send in Brandt to tend to the injured,” Werner ordered.
“These are prisoners of war, Private Fischer. They are not animals. Or do you not have any pride as a Capricornian?”
“Er,” Fischer stammered. “Right away, sir.” He ran off to fetch the combat medic.
Werner inclined his head, indicating Nico to continue following him. They crossed the dirt path in silence.
“Hey, hey,” Cadence stammered as she came along beside him, “what are ya gonna do to him?”
That question indicated that she could not at the moment tell what he was thinking. Which would have been a good thing if Werner was thinking at all.
Werner led Nico into a cabin, gesturing for him to go in first and then closing the door behind them.
Werner, urged Cadence.
Ignoring her, Werner turned to study Nico. The man was standing stiff and staring at the rows of tables at the center of the room. No. He was staring at the items neatly lined up on top of them. The conductors, the vices, the flyers.
Werner stepped beside him, and the man stiffened further.
“Why… did you bring me here?” Nico asked.
Werner stared at him for a moment before gesturing across the room. “Stand over there.”
Nico followed his gaze and his eyes widened. He studied Werner for a moment before complying. Werner joined him shortly after.
Pointing to the instrument in front of them, Werner said, “Play.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Uh, you’re kinda bein’ a creep, Werner,” Cadence whispered with a nervous laugh.
Werner glanced at her and hesitated, then repeated, “Play.”
Nico swallowed and nodded, resting his hands on the keyboard in a natural position. And then he started playing. A deep melody flowed out. It wasn’t choppy and full of energy like Cadence’s had been. It was slow, methodical, pleasant.
“He’s usually better than this,” Cadence said. “He’s just a little nervous ’cause, y’know.”
Werner found himself nodding. There was a bit of pride in Cadence’s voice and worry in their connected feelings. It was hazy, but Werner supposed there was a bit of guilt there in her too. It was none of his business, but he was aware of the fact that Nico and Cadence had recently gotten into an argument. Argument…
Then the memory came to him. The phone call between Cadence and Nico. The one that ended with their fight. For a moment, Werner felt rude for intruding on such a memory. Then realization dawned.
“You supplied the Aquarians with the modified conductors,” Werner drew slowly.
The music stopped. Both Cadence and Nico froze. Silence filled the air.
“You’ve been delivering them to the Aquarians before the border conflict even began.”
Nico turned to him, and there was fear in his eyes. And guilt. “How…?”
Cadence’s image stepped between them.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Cadence stammered, hands raised. “This is just Romano Family and Foxman business! Nico just came along to help in case any of our guys got caught up in your fight.”
“Those weapons are the reason why sixty-seven Capricornian lives have been lost this past week,” Werner stated.
“Nico is barely a delivery man. He has nothing—”
“Just barely a delivery man, you say.” Werner met Cadence’s eyes. “Those children are also ‘just delivery men.’ As I’ve said before, what you do does not concern me, but do you expect me to treat Nico differently? He holds pertinent information regarding this as do you. He will be taken in by higher authorities and questioned there. I’m sure this holds implications for Ophiuchus as well.”
Werner and Cadence both paused, but Jericho did not appear.
Cadence swallowed, and Werner could see her mind racing in a million different directions.
“I should have told Major Ersatz about the conductors from the beginning,” Werner said to himself more than her. But at least this synchronization connection had proved useful. “I’ll inform him when he arrives.”
“Wait, think about this, Werner. And I mean to say this with all due respect. Your major is crazy. Admit it. Ya know it. I know ya know it.”
“My opinions of Major Ersatz mean little in light of his position and the countless times he’s proven himself serving Capricorn.”
“Ya say that, but you’re still standin’ here talkin’ to me,” Cadence said. “Look, I get that I’m bein’ hypocritical and selfish askin’ for ya to look the other way, and you’re completely justified in bein’ pissed, but we could work somethin’ out.”
Werner remained silent.
“Those conductors we’ve been supplyin’ to the Aquarians—we could supply them to you instead. For a price, ’course, but I’m sure your higher-ups can handle that. Ya need ’em, don’t ya?”
“Please,” Cadence pleaded, lowering her hands, “Nico is good, aight? He was just born into unfortunate circumstances.”
Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Responsibility—”
“He was born into unfortunate circumstances, but he’s still tryna do good despite that. Stupidly, might I say.”
“He’s aiding the Aquarians.”
“He’s helpin’ people who’re hurt. That’s just how he is. I know that’s how he is, and because I know, you also know.”
A brief image flashed into Werner’s mind.
A young, teary-eyed Nico, stumbling around in the middle of a rainstorm with Cadence on his back.
“Lieutenant Waltz,” Nico said suddenly but slowly, carefully, “who are you talking to?”
Werner looked past Cadence and met Nico’s gaze.
“Sir, I don’t think you’re well,” Nico continued. “That night with Captain Dunya Kramer—”
The Nico standing in front of him abruptly flickered and was replaced with—
A young Nico Fabrizzio, dressed in his usual slacks and suspenders, extending a shy hand in apology even though Cadence had started the fight.
“Stop it,” Werner snapped through gritted teeth, gripping his pulsing head. He took a step back away from Nico, away from Cadence, and grimaced as a familiar wave of déjà vu wracked his brain. “Stop doing that.”
“I’m not doing anything…” Cadence was pale.
Was she pale because he’d raised his voice? He couldn’t tell. Everything was hazy and painful and confusing and—
—and as always Nico was standing there with a concerned look on his face. Always concerned, always worrying, always crying.
The haze faded as did the pain and confusion.
Werner lifted his head from his hand and found both Cadence and Nico staring at him with wide eyes. Nico was right beside him, holding him steady with rigid and tense hands. Cadence stood a little ways away looking concerned.
“You’re not an Aquarian combat medic,” Werner said, meeting Nico’s eyes.
After a pause, Nico answered, “No, I’m not.”
“You were involved in the shipment of these conductors to the Aquarians.”
“… yes, I was.”
“Why are you still here?”
Nico pulled away from Werner. “I… just…” Their eyes met. “I know this sounds convoluted, but they needed help.”
“By helping them, you’ve indirectly aided them in killing Capricornian soldiers.”
Nico met his eyes head on. “That goes for anyone I help. Even helping you stand now could be leading to someone dying in the near future. It’s something I’ve accepted.”
Werner looked away from him. “If you remain here, you will be questioned by my superior when he arrives.”
“However, I have my doubts about my superior’s current mental faculties. If I were to bring you to him, he may act irrationally and damage the potential information you carry.”
Werner could feel Cadence brighten from beside him.
“That being said, Nic—Mr. Fabrizzio—I will arrange for an agreement to be made with an associate of yours in exchange for your freedom.”
“You got it, Werner,” Cadence chirped from beside him as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Leave it to me!”
“Freedom?” Nico gave Werner a wary look. “I can’t just leave the people I was treating…”
“What? Sorry, this isn’t like him.” Cadence sighed with exasperation and ruffled her hair. “You could scare him a bit ya know. Maybe point your conductor at him to give him an idea of the…er… horrors of war?”
Werner side-glanced at Cadence before addressing Nico: “I will see to it that the Aquarian soldiers you were tending to are treated fairly.”
Nico took a moment to digest this information, before he tried slowly, “You said you’d make an arrangement with someone. Who exactly—”
Werner interjected, “That is none of your concern.”
Werner could feel Cadence frowning at him from the corner of his eye. “Your concern should be getting away from this camp and returning—”
“Uh… what the hell is going on here?”
A familiar voice rang throughout the room, which was disconcerting since Werner and Nico were the only physical occupants. He wasn’t synchronized with any of the others, so that voice wouldn’t have been them either. Plus, Nico had visibly reacted to the voice.
Werner scanned the room slowly. Empty. He turned back to Nico and—
The window. There was a window right beside the piano. An open window. And just outside that window stood one Gilbert Wolff who had a highly disturbed look on his face. How had Werner not even noticed?
“How long have you been standing there?” Werner asked calmly, palms itching.
“Is this really the time to be calm?” Cadence chuckled nervously.
“Long enough,” Gilbert replied. “So what exactly is going on here? Actually, what’s been going on this entire time? You’ve been acting sketchy as hell, Werner.”
Nico looked between them, tense.
Werner narrowed his eyes and spoke curtly, “Second Lieutenant Wolff, this is none of your concern—”
Gilbert met Werner’s eyes. There was something in them. Anger? Betrayal? Hurt? Before Werner could dissect the emotion, Gilbert leapt through the window, rushed at him, and then grabbed him by the scruff.
“Werner, for saint’s sake!” the man snapped, shaking him hard. “I’ve been with you for too many years now! If you’re gonna be losing your mind, let me know, so I can lose my own before you!”
Werner paused. Gilbert had been by his side since they were schoolboys just as Cadence and Nico had been by each other’s side. Would Gilbert—
“Wait a minute,” Cadence started warningly.
—yes, Gilbert would.
* * *
“So, what you’re saying is that you think you’ve been talking to people from across Signum telepathically, and you’ve been having visions of their memories or thoughts or whatever. And to boot, you think that if one of the people in your happy connection group dies then you all die.”
They were standing by the piano, having closed the window minutes earlier. Nico was sitting in the opposite corner of the room looking unsure of what to do with himself.
Gilbert paced back and forth, before stopping to give him a look. “Werner you know how this sounds, right?”
“I am very aware.”
“W-Well, actually, it may not be as unbelievable as it sounds,” Nico interjected. “I mean, if you look at the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, then it might actually be possible…”
Gilbert stared at Nico before thumbing him. “Okay, who is this? Why is he here?”
“That is Nico Fabrizzio. He works alongside an underground organization called the Romano Family.”
“Okay…” Gilbert rubbed his chin and looked Nico over. “So he’s not an Aquarian. You could kinda tell that just by looking at him. But how did you know that other stuff?”
Werner opened his mouth but paused to glance at Cadence who was standing beside him and studying Nico from afar. Gilbert tried to follow his gaze but found nothing. When Cadence felt Werner’s gaze, she shrugged.
I do enjoy bein’ a black knight.
“I am connected with an individual associated with Nico. She goes by the name Cadence Morello.”
Nico stiffened before rushing forward. “Cadence?! Cadence—you’re connected with Cadence?!” He looked around the room. “I-Is she here?”
Werner glanced at Nico and nodded. “Yes, we have arranged an agreement regarding the conductors the Family has been shipping to the Aquarians.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Gilbert stepped in-between Nico and Werner. “You’re saying that one of the people you’re connected to knows this guy? Isn’t that a bit too coincidental?” He turned to study Nico. “Are you sure you don’t have anything to do with this?”
Nico shook his head with wide eyes. “Honestly, this is the first time I’ve heard about this, but it would explain what happened with Dunya Kramer.”
Gilbert backtracked. “What exactly happened to Dunya Kramer?”
Werner looked away despite himself. “It appears that some people within this group are able to… take over others in the group.”
“What?!” Gilbert snapped. “They can control you? Like possession? Shit, Werner. Do you need an exorcist or something? Look, I know a Monadic priest—”
“We need to focus on the subject at hand,” Werner said. “Besides, that’s why I’m telling you. If something like that happens again, I’m trusting you to keep me in line.”
Gilbert appeared startled at this statement.
Werner unhooked the pistol at his side, turned it around, and handed it to Nico. Gilbert tensed as Nico hesitantly reached out to accept it.
“A precautionary measure,” Werner said. He nodded at the window. “Roughly five miles north from here, you will find a party of Ophiuchians who are here to address our current conflict with the Aquarians. When you get to them, you will tell them that you are a traveler who was caught up in the conflict. You will not tell them you were a prisoner here nor that you were aiding the Aquarians. From there, you will take the train home. Is that clear?”
Nico blinked dazedly before he nodded.
“What are you waiting for?” Werner pressed.
Nico shook himself and nodded firmly. “Right.” He headed to the window and paused with one leg hanging out. He seemed to ruminate something before he lifted his head to meet Werner’s gaze.
“I… thank you,” both Nico and Cadence said.
With that, Nico climbed out the window and disappeared into the night. Cadence faded with him.
* * *
Gilbert grunted and then asked, “So, what are we going to do about Ersatz?” He glanced around. “Uh, and are they still here?”
“No, it appears we’ve desynchronized for now,” Werner said. “That doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of me, however. Perhaps it’s below thirty percent.” Absentmindedly, he lifted his hand to his face and tapped his cheek in thought. “We will have to hide Nico’s existence from the major. We’ll hide the modified conductors from the major as long as we can, but we’ll pin them on the Aquarians as a temporary measure if they’re discovered. I’ll inform the General about the Romano Family involvement and the major’s condition as soon as I’m able to speak with him.”
“Wow, that’s awfully crafty of you,” Gilbert noted. “Always knew Ersatz was cracked.”
Werner studied Gilbert for a long moment. They really were like Nico and Cadence, weren’t they?
Gilbert offered him raised brows in turn. “What is it?”
A knock on the cabin door cut Werner off short. It creaked open a second later, and Fischer stood at the threshold. After offering a formal salute, Fischer said, “Lieutenant Waltz, Major Ersatz has arrived. He’d liked to speak to you immediately.”
Gilbert swore under his breath.
Werner nodded. “Inform him I will join him shortly.”
Fischer cocked his head in slight confusion before glancing at Gilbert. “Sir, he said immediately.”
Leaving Gilbert behind, Werner exited the cabin and followed Fischer down the pathway leading to the small town’s square. Ersatz stood in the center, inspecting the buildings with a whimsical expression. The major turned at their approach and brightened seeing Werner.
“Ah! Werner, good to see you in order!”
“And you, sir,” Werner returned after giving the man a salute.
Ersatz signaled for Fischer to leave and for Werner to come closer. Both men obeyed.
“Right, Werner. I’ll have my men supply you and yours with the conductors we’ve brought along.” The major tilted his head to the side.
In the direction he indicated, hidden behind one of the cabins were fifteen—no, thirty men. They wore Capricornian army uniforms, but Werner did not recognize any of them. It was an unusually high number of men to bring to a peace negotiation. The major motioned for one of the men to come forward.
The man handed Ersatz the conducting rifle from his back before returning to his squadron.
“I apologize, sir. I don’t understand,” Werner drew. “With all due respect, why are you supplying us with conductors and why did you bring such a large division with you? I understand that you’re here to overtake my mission to attend the peace negotiations—”
“Peace negotiations?” Ersatz pushed the rifle into Werner’s hands. “Did I not make it clear over the radio, Waltz? We are going to eliminate the Ophiuchian Agents they’ve sent down here.”