Capricornian–Aquarian Border, Capricorn
The first vitae bolt that took a life had come from a conducting äußerer Blitz 43 rifle. The release of a Projector’s conducted vitae was deafening even in the midst of the battlefield, but the bolt that came from his barrel had been soundless. The man’s name tag had read Anton. He was young and thin, and he did not even scream. The next one was Ivan. The one after that Lucas. Names faded. So did feeling. Remorse never shown. Orders never doubted. Here, things like morals held little value and little meaning. Here, appearances nothing yet everything—
The question was, where was ‘here’?
Perhaps, ‘here’ was death.
But ‘here’ could not possibly be death because ‘here’ he could think. Therefore, ‘here’ could be nowhere else but alive. A simple process of elimination.
As if to answer his question, a fuzzy silhouette passed by a dull yellow backdrop right before his eyes. A yellow light. He reached for it and pulled at it until he surfaced in a small room with peeling walls. A singular v-bulb swung above his head. A ragged curtain was drawn to his left. A young woman stood in front of the curtain and tended to a metal cart piled high with metal tools. Medical conductors. A white bonnet was tied around the woman’s mousy brown hair, and red crosses were just barely visible on the lapels of her blouse.
“Greta,” Werner identified. He clenched his fists and felt the rub of his gloves against his skin. They hadn’t taken them off. Good.
The nurse turned, and her eyes lit up with relief. “Werner, you’re awake!” She slipped her head outside of the curtains and seemed to call for someone. Shortly after, she pulled back in and walked over to his bedside. “How are you feeling? You were grazed by a Projector Conductor’s vitae bolt. I did my best, but…”
Werner brought himself upright. “I’m fine, Greta. Thank you.”
A throb at his shoulder gave him pause, but he pulled through it without so much as a grimace. His shoulder was exposed to the cold air. A splotch of skin there was shiny and a paler shade than the rest of his skin.
“You need to rest, Werner!” Greta urged as she hovered over him, hands not quite touching. “I healed your injury the best I could, but I could’ve missed something.”
Greta was a skilled Diverger Conductor. Her knowledge of the human body and deep understanding of how vitae particles affected it paired with her affinity for vitae had shot her skyward at the military academy. She passed her State Conducting Exam with flying colors but failed terribly at the military interviews which was why she found herself at her current post: a medical nurse serving on the eastern border. Wasted talent. It just went to show how important appearances were. Even if one had skill, if one did not have demeanor or appearance paired with it, it was fruitless.
“Like I stated before. I am fine, Greta. Your work is always exceptional,” Werner replied. “I need to give a report to the hauptmann. When will I be able to leave?”
She took an uncertain step back. “Leave . . ? But…”
“That’s the first thing you say to someone you haven’t seen in over a year, Werner?” Gilbert Wolff, the man whom Greta had called, stood across from him now with crossed arms. The curtain still billowed behind him from his entrance.
Gilbert was a man of average stature. He stood a head shorter than Werner and had spiked brown hair that was barely tamed beneath his military cap. His jaw was square, his eyes gray, his brows thick. His smile, canine as always. His dull, dark periwinkle military uniform was caked with dirt and mud. At his waist was his conducting rifle, which looked in need of cleaning.
“Gilbert,” Werner said. He was surprised at his presence but he pressed, “What happened?”
“With the battle?” Gilbert scoffed. “Well, it was a success. The Aquarians were annihilated. The one that…” He eyed Werner’s shoulder. “… did that to you, escaped and headed down to where we were. Shot dead on sight.” He clicked his tongue and kicked the dirt floor. It was slick with rain and mud was sent flying everywhere. “Lucky bastard.”
“I see. Good.” Werner nodded. He watched Greta walk over to her metal cart and crouch to reach for something on one of the lower shelves. When she stood, she was holding his uniform. Neatly folded.
“Yeah.” Gilbert scoffed. “Now we’re what? Closer to that tiny little vitae reservoir? If you can even call it that.”
“Gilbert,” Werner said warningly. He accepted his uniform from Greta and nodded. “Thank you, Greta.”
She pulled back with a shy smile and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I can’t believe all three of us are standing in the same room again. It feels like it’s been forever. With you both at the southern border against Argo for the past year… and now here near Aquarius with me…”
Gilbert chuckled. “Yeah, the old crew is back together. Say, how’s our resident medical professional doing then?”
Greta looked downcast, but she covered the expression with a brush of her hair. “Well, I’m nothing special.”
“You are serving your country to the best of your capabilities, Greta,” Werner replied. “You should be proud.” He came to a stand. “Would you fetch the head medical officer for me? I would like to see if I could be discharged.”
“But…” Greta looked a bit startled. When she met his eyes, she glanced away. “Oh, of course. I can’t keep officers away from the field, after all.” She cleared her throat. “I’ll leave you to change then.” And with that, she swept outside.
Gilbert was left staring at him with a frown. “Way to ruin a reunion.”
“This is not the time for reunions, Leutnant Wolff.”
In response, Gilbert rolled his eyes and headed for the curtain with a half-hearted wave.
Only when Gilbert disappeared from his sights did Werner allow himself to cradle his throbbing head. He stumbled forward, grabbing the medical cart for support. His reflection on its gray surface was foreign to him. His face looked several shades too pale, his features too sharp. His platinum blonde hair looked unnatural. And his eyes looked as if they should have been brown or green or black instead of the blue they were.
“You finished yet, Werner?” Gilbert’s voice came from behind the drawn curtain.
Werner took in a deep breath and straightened himself. He put on his uniform and took care to smooth out all the creases before dusting off his medals. He finished it off by combing back his hair, putting on his military cap, and straightening his gloves.
* * *
Bodies lined the halls. Men and women on gurneys pressed up against one another. Men and women in casts and slings curled up against walls. Some groaned. Some cried.
Gilbert winced as he passed a soldier missing an arm and a leg. The medical Conductors could not get to them fast enough, it seemed. Werner did not look at any of them. There was nothing he could do for them now. Nothing at all.
The head medical officer who was busy running up and down the halls cleared him. Greta’s work was exceptional.
“Can’t keep you away from the battlefield, can I, Waltz?” The doctor smiled good-naturedly before signing off the forms.
“I don’t understand what you’re implying. Serving is duty,” Werner responded. “Nothing more. Nothing less. You should know this. It should be the same for you.”
The doctor stiffened under his gaze. “Right…”
“His personal motto,” Gilbert provided.
“Oh, by the way, Oberleutnant Waltz,” the doctor said just before signing the last paper. “You received a call while you were being treated from a… Herr Kortz? Militärpolizei. They said to tell you that there has been a complication with the Watch and asked you to see the major.”
Werner frowned. He clenched his fist but then dispelled the motion with a flick of his wrist. “I see. Thank you for telling me.”
When the doctor left, Gilbert turned to Werner. “What’s that about?”
Werner didn’t look at him. “It’s classified, Leutnant.”
Gilbert sighed. “Some way to treat a friend.”
* * *
Their camp was tucked away in the deep recesses of the woods just behind the hospital. Nearer to the location, the slender trees of the forest gradually thickened. They formed a crescent shape around a large slab of rock that jutted up from the muddy ground. Tents dotted the clearing in-between the rock and trees. Out from these tents rushed men and women: all in uniform, all with conductors hanging at their hips or slung across their backs. Other uniformed men and women hung out on the recesses of the camp. Chattering, laughing, listening, staring listlessly into the distance.
As Werner and Gilbert drew close, however, the cheering and laughing sobered. The atmosphere chilled; the air thinned. The cold air of Capricornian winters seemed to be riding on Werner’s shoulders, and it froze those who he passed by in place. Those who could move offered straight-backed salutes.
Werner was aware of the effect he had on his men. It was this unyielding frigid presence that allowed him to command without question. He had taken care to craft this appearance of his.
“Glad to see you’ve recovered, Oberleutnant,” one of the men said. The man broke off from the group of soldiers he was conversing with and offered a stiff salute.
It was Landser Fischer. A new recruit who had passed his State Conductor Test with an average score. What he lacked in skill, however, he made up for in dedication and passion. There was no soldier more loyal to Capricorn than he.
Werner said nothing, merely nodding at him.
“With all due respect, Oberleutnant,” Fischer continued, “I think that Landser Otto Vogt should be immediately discharged from service. It’s because he failed to obey your orders that—”
“Landser Fischer,” Werner interjected, “you should be more concerned with your own performance. Are you implying that I’m not aware of my own subordinates?”
“Er, sir, no, of course.” Fischer cleared his throat. “I meant no disrespect.”
Werner said nothing. He and Gilbert continued on their path to the tent.
“Can’t believe you like that jerk,” Gilbert scoffed after Fischer was out of hearing distance. The bill of his cap was dipped low, but his frown was apparent.
“Like is not the appropriate word here,” Werner informed him. “Fischer has shown himself to be an exemplary soldier. There were discussions of awarding him an Iron Horn.”
“Well, good for him. Give him a damn medal,” Gilbert scoffed. He paused and then thought over his words. “Don’t say anything.”
Werner didn’t, and so they headed for the large tent closest to the large slab of rock. Heads perked and stiffened as they passed. Whispers followed their footsteps.
As they walked on, sweat built on the back of Werner’s neck. He had been doing a lot of legwork. It was a sizable distance through frosted-over sludge from the hospital to this camp. He’d ventured through worse, however, and found his internal complaints unfitting.
He made to remove his military cap but stopped short as realization crept upon him. The heat he felt did not seem to come from his own body. Rather, it felt as if the heat was beating down on him from the sun.
A quick glance up told Werner that wasn’t possible. The sun was hidden away by a thicket of clouds. Another quick side-glance at a shivering Gilbert told him that he was alone in feeling such sensations.
He attempted to calm himself, to not allow confusion to show on his face.
The pounding in his temple abruptly returned full-force and nausea punched him right in the stomach. It took all his energy to keep his back straight and trudge forward. Foot after foot.
Keep up appearances. Appearances were everything. With the thought came a familiar memory: a stinging whip at his palm. Discipline.
He wondered what was wrong with him. A fever? Was there a chance that the medical officer had missed something in his medical evaluation? No. It was Greta who had healed him, after all, and Greta was exceptional. But there was still a chance that something might have slipped from her attention. And nothing—Werner knew—could be left to chance.
It took him a beat to realize that Gilbert was staring at him.
Werner stared back. “What is it?”
And just like that the nausea and headache were gone. The heat that had been wrapping around him like a blanket blinked out of existence leaving only the biting cold. As if it were never there in the first place.
The sensation left Werner feeling hollow. Empty.
“What do you mean ‘what is it’ ?” Gilbert recoiled. “You just said ‘Who the hell is Werner?’ just now.”
Werner blinked out of his stupor and frowned. “This isn’t the time for jokes, Wolff.”
“I’m not joking,” Gilbert snapped before he gave Werner a once-over. “You sure you shouldn’t have rested in the hospital a little bit more? Y’know most of the men would make excuses to stay there. Not to leave.”
Werner noticed the worry carved into Gilbert’s raised brow, noticed the opportunity for a change in conversation. “Battles aren’t won by resting in hospitals, Leutnant.” He paused as they reached the tent. “I’d like to hear about these men who are opting for unneeded stays at the hospital.”
Gilbert’s brows furrowed with annoyance, but before he could say anything a dark head appeared out from the flaps of the tent.
“Oh, there you are, Werner,” Hauptmann Weingartner said in surprise.
Weingartner’s hair was peppered with frost. His cheeks were hollow and his eyes sunken, but his irises were warm and brown.
Werner stood at attention. Gilbert followed suit, albeit with less enthusiasm.
“I’m here to give my report, sir,” Werner said. “I was also informed to report to the major.”
“Oh yes, good to see you both. The major came so suddenly I didn’t think you’d be out of the hospital fast enough to meet him,” the captain muttered before he motioned into the tent with his head. “Well, come along now.” He paused and glanced at Gilbert and then added: “Just the oberleutnant.”
Subtly straightening his uniform, Werner followed Weingartner inside.
* * *
The tent had a familiar layout. Along its walls were small, narrow tables stacked with radios and documents. A larger, longer table occupied its center. The table was covered with a large map with points of interest marked with words, circles, and X’s. A man stood by this table staring down at the map.
Major Ersatz. Ersatz was a heavyset man with a receding, graying hairline, and deep black eyes. The Capricornian cold had reddened his cheeks and forehead but had yet to freeze off his seemingly constant smile. His medals gleamed at the front of his uniform.
“Sir.” The hauptmann cleared his throat as he came to a stop in front of the table. He paused, gesturing to Werner who stood just behind him. “Here is Oberleutnant Waltz.”
“Good to see you, Oberleutnant,” Ersatz said as he offered Werner his hand. “Your performance on this past skirmish is praiseworthy, and I’m glad you’ve made a recovery.”
“Thank you, sir,” Werner responded, accepting this gesture. He wanted to say that his accomplishments were due to the division that served under him. However, a soft, motherly memory whispered in the back of his mind: appearances, Werner, appearances.
Ersatz merely smiled before he glanced over Werner’s shoulder at the hauptmann. “If you would let me have a word in private with your oberleutnant.”
The hauptmann glanced at Werner before nodding and departing.
“I hear that they’ve been calling you Kaltes Auge—’Cold Eye’—out here… in part due to your accuracy with your conductor and your complete lack of hesitation. They even say you’ve never missed a mark,” Ersatz mused once the hauptmann had left. He stroked his beard. “That’s something to be proud of, Werner.”
“I received word that there’s been trouble with the Watch, sir,” Werner said.
“Yes, so I’ve heard as well.” Ersatz sighed. “There seems to be outside intervention. No one knows who ordered it. It’s quite unfortunate… however, the damage has been done as expected.”
“But you needn’t worry yourself over that at the moment.” Ersatz leaned forward onto the table. He tapped at a town that was marked on the map. It bordered their country and Aquarius. “As we anticipated, the Ophiuchians have caught word of our conflict with the Aquarians. They’ve sent down peacekeepers to handle the dispute. Knowing them, they’ll surely side with the Aquarians.”
Ersatz slammed his fist against the table. It was an abrupt action, but Werner did not allow himself to flinch.
“As if they have any right to! That vitae reservoir is rightly ours,” Ersatz spat. His cheeks were beet red now. “The Aquarians have an endless supply of reservoirs right within their borders. At the end of the Reservoir War, the treaty clearly drew lines placing that reservoir within our boundaries. It’s been that way for years. And yet, here they come in dipping into it like they own it. It’s only right we defend ourselves! Not to mention those damn Sagittarians—saying things like we’re the ones dragging them into this. They’re the ones getting in the way! Using a trade route that is currently a battlefield!” Ersatz let out a sigh and straightened himself. “Anyways, the Ophiuchian Agents have sent a request for a representative from both sides of the battlefield to meet them in Gradstal near the reservoir.”
“A representative?” Werner repeated. “Will a general be coming down from the capital?”
“No, they’ve requested that we send someone who has been personally involved with this ‘dispute’ to attend.” Ersatz thrummed his fingers. “In other words, they don’t want to make this international incident an official one. Like always, they want to sweep it under the rug. Only those who know the details firsthand were requested. ‘Trickle up works,’ they say.”
To keep an appearance of peace.
“I would like for you to be the representative, Waltz.”
This gave Werner pause.
“Is there a problem, Oberleutnant Waltz?”
“With all due respect,” Werner drew. “I believe Hauptmann Weingartner would be the better choice for this. Not only is he of higher rank, but he’s also dealt with Ophiuchian Agents before.”
“Werner, you think too lowly of yourself. Rank doesn’t mean everything.” Ersatz gave a hearty laugh. “For instance, just because I’m a major doesn’t mean that I know the hardships of battle like you do. While I know of strategy and plans, that doesn’t mean that I know the toll it takes on a soldier to constantly be taking lives. The hesitation one must go through—”
“There is no hesitation, sir,” Werner replied. “As you’ve said yourself, that’s why I’ve been named Cold Eye.”
“Good,” Ersatz popped. “Then there should be no hesitation for you to take this task.”
“If you assign it to me, I will follow orders,” Werner replied.
“Good.” Ersatz sighed as if in relief. He folded his hands behind his back and peered down into the map. “I also want you to eliminate any Aquarian pockets you find along the way.”
Werner did not pause at this, but Ersatz provided clarification regardless:
“They are on our side of the border without permission, and they are acting with aggression. We must defend our people.” Ersatz paused only to run his finger in a circle around a particular spot on the map. The reservoir. “The meeting is in five days, so it’d be best if you selected a group and departed as soon as possible.”
* * *
By noon Werner had selected his group. He had weighed all the candidates in his unit with care, noting all strengths and weaknesses and conducting types. His division contained all six types of Conductors: twelve Projectors, eight Conjurers, eight Transmutationists, two Manipulators, two Elementalists, and one Diverger. After parsing through all of the possible combinations, he had come up with what he viewed as a well-functioning team.
They stood before him now, straight-backed at attention at the mouth of their encampment. Passing soldiers eyed them. Werner also eyed the line-up he’d chosen. He walked past them, surveying each one and analyzing their strengths.
The first he had chosen was, of course, Gilbert. Gilbert was a fine marksman, after all. An exceptional Projector Conductor.
The next was Wilhelm Fischer. The eager landser. A Projector. Unlike many other Projectors, he had chosen to train using melee conductors instead of the long-range conducting rifles Projectors often chose. He preferred a longsword. Like the days of old. Gilbert thought Fischer an odd choice because of Fischer’s desire to stand out. Gilbert thought this was foolish on the battlefield.
Alwin Brandt was Werner’s third choice. Brandt had been transferred into their unit two weeks prior just before the initial incident that kick-started this border conflict but had adapted to 212th-division life rather quickly. He was a combat nurse with a light-hearted demeanor that made even the jaded Derik Stein warm to him quickly. Although Alwin was a Transmutationist with conducting abilities not suited for combat, he was a quick thinker and quicker with a plain pistol.
The jaded Derek Stein was Werner’s fourth choice. He threw around the sentence, “It’s no use getting to know a newbie—not unless they last two weeks,” like it was his catchphrase and was one of the few soldiers in the division able to look Werner in the eye.
His fifth choice was Emilia Bergmann. A rare Elementalist Conductor. Niche element: earth. Unfortunately, she was not adept at extraneous vitae manipulation and required physical contact with the element to manipulate the vitae particles within it. Still, her rare skill was useful.
Werner’s sixth choice, Klaus Kleine, was a Conjurer Conductor who preferred burying his head in a book to scoping out the battlefield. His ability to fully immerse himself in his stories aided his ability to conjure items to an exact degree. His range of conjuring was limited only by his inability to think and act under pressure. Which was another reason why Alwin was on board.
His last and final choice was Otto Vogt. The boy who played soldier. The one who had disobeyed orders on that watery overpass. The one who had run from the trigger. He too was a Projector Conductor.
In front of Vogt, Werner came to a stop. In turn, Vogt tensed. Their eyes met. Vogt looked away. Swallowed. Remaining silent, Werner observed him. The silence stretched on.
“I-I’m very sorry for what happened, sir,” Vogt stammered. “I-I’m really glad that you’re all right… I… It was all my fault that you were—”
“I’m aware,” Werner interjected, “who is at fault.”
Vogt stiffened. “I…”
“You would’ve been punished if I didn’t select you for this operation. But don’t mistake this as a favor. There is no point in throwing away something that can still be used,” Werner stated the finality clearly, loudly. “If you don’t display the appropriate behaviors on this operation, you will be dishonorably discharged.”
Heads turned in their direction. Vogt shrank deeper inside of himself.
“That is the lightest punishment for cowardice,” Werner continued. “This is your last chance.” He paused to allow the reality of his words to sink in. “I understand that the military stipend helps to provide for your family.” He paused again. “If you don’t want to disappoint them, then don’t disappoint me.”
Vogt’s lips trembled and parted, but no words came out.
Turning away from him, Werner addressed the rest of his men: “Gather your things. We depart in three hours.”
How cruel, came a sudden thought as he watched all but Gilbert make their way back to their tents. Fear is a teacher but not a good one.
It’s for his own good, Werner argued back. Vogt’s skills would be wasted if he didn’t change. And if he didn’t change, he would also be a danger to himself and his comrades. There was no room for error or weakness here.
Then why not say that, to begin with?
I…, Werner began to respond before a cold and creeping realization dawned on him. Why in the world was he arguing with himself? No. The voice resounding in his head was not his own… Was it?
A sharp, pulsating pang struck his temple and began to spread to his forehead. Despite using all of his strength, he couldn’t resist pinching the bridge of his nose. The world blurred. Colors bled into sound into smell into touch.
A train horn bellowed in the distance. A piano chord was struck. Oil and soot. The smell of worn, leather books. Ringing, musical laughter. A crack of heat.
Straighten, Werner told himself through the confusion, appearances are everything. And so, with great effort, Werner did as he ordered himself to.
The world snapped back into place. The gray clouds passing overhead. The slap of leather boots against the wet earth. The men and women sitting silently in front of their tents. And Gilbert, who still stood at his side. Gilbert who regarded him with a frown but said nothing.
At dusk, they set off.