Werner is in the Twin Cities on a mission to act as a pseudo-representative for Capricorn in its business dealings with the Romano and Foxman crime families. Accompanying him: Nico, who is to act as liaison and Gilbert Wolff. Also with him are his subordinates: Emilia Bergman, Derik Stein, and Klaus Kleine. These three are unaware of Capricorn’s underground business dealings and believe they are on earned vacation leave. What Klaus Kleine is aware of is Werner’s nature as a True Conductor.
The negotiator representing Capricorn is the strange Colonel Fritz von Spiel who informs Werner that he wishes to do business with the Romano Family’s rivals—the Campanas. Given Capricorn’s waning advantage against the southern country of Argo which has gained the usage of conductors, this seems necessary. But with ELPIS’s machinations and a mafia war brewing, Werner…
Twin Cities, Gemini
Werner was surprised when Nico delivered to him and Colonel Fritz von Spiel the news that they were to have the meeting with the Romanos and the Foxmans at the end of the week. It was good news as it indicated progress, and it was their reason for being in the Twin Cities.
Werner knew this well. In the corner of his mind, however, he found himself wondering how the crime families were able to carry on despite their obvious obstacles and concerns. Their efficiency was commendable.
Even so, it was a bit heartless, wasn’t it? Why use the word ‘family’ to begin with?
But that was how the circumstances were. There was no helping it.
For the sake of Capricorn, Werner knew the modified conductors affair needed to be handled swiftly. The new deal had to be sealed, and ELPIS’s machinations needed to be brought to Ophiuchus in a way that ensured that neither Capricorn nor the others would be implicated in the situation. It was a precarious balancing act, and the fact was that the risks outweighed the benefits for Capricorn.
A cost-benefit analysis…
The term made Werner think of Cadence and then of the pleasant fog that had been encroaching his mind since entering the city.
It was troubling.
And so, despite the pressure he felt at the back of his neck, Werner informed Nico and Gilbert of the situation unfolding in the Twin Cities following Nico’s announcement. However, Werner still didn’t trust Kleine enough to inform him of this. This mistrust paired with the fact that Kleine was still not privy to their true reason for being in the city disinclined Werner from inviting him into his room to discuss the topics bullet-pointed:
Francis’s stabbing. Ricardo’s stabbing. The Campanas. The Romanos. ELPIS who had captured Fortuna, Allen, Carl, and other executives. ELPIS, who was behind the dons’ stabbing. And the brewing hostilities machinated by Theta who wore Francis’s face. And lastly, Alma who was caught in the web.
While Gilbert took in the information silently with a grim expression, Nico imploded. He paced the room wildly, ran his fingers through his hair, and dry heaved several times out the window. With Gilbert’s assistance and usual ill-timed jokes, Werner managed to calm the Transmutationist down and sat him down at his desk. After a glass of water, Nico got a hold of himself.
“I… saints, I’ve just been flounderin’ around here having the time of my life when everyone else was…” Nico’s face contorted with guilt. “I literally just spoke to Cadence over the phone yesterday, and she acted like everything was fine…! So she was just keeping me in the dark. Again.”
Werner recalled Nico’s phone conversation with Cadence well. Although it hadn’t been his intention to eavesdrop, it was through listening in that he had realized his decision to keep Nico in the dark was not his own. Whether Cadence had actively influenced him or had done it subconsciously was still unknown and was to be addressed.
“She’s always like this! Sayin’ things like she’s doin’ it for my own good when she’s just doing it for herself! It’s ridiculous!” Nico continued on in rapid-fire Geminian as he shot up again and paced the room. When he settled back down into the chair, he gave Werner a long and hard stare. He then asked in Common: “Why… why didn’t you tell me?” When Werner met his gaze, he stiffened and looked away. “I mean, I know you have no obligation to but you usually are straightforward about these kinds of things so…”
“She may have indirectly requested it,” Werner finally admitted.
Nico’s shoulders tightened. “Right.”
“It’s not what you think it is.” Werner placed a hand over his mouth, going over what he was to say in his mind before he continued: “I didn’t mention this earlier but during the most recent synchronization meeting, we discovered that ‘sense of self’ may play a large role in how much an individual is influenced by others in this… connection. I don’t mean this as an excuse. This is a prelude to an apology. My judgment may be… No, it is compromised.” He met Nico’s eyes. “I apologize for not informing you of this sooner as it’s pertinent to our business here.”
Realizing it was one matter. Speaking it out loud was a different affair.
Werner surmised that he now most likely appeared weak and unreliable to both of them, and his palms itched at the thought. Appearances were everything, after all. But even so, hiding these matters had more negative implications than positive ones. It was more shameful to appear a disloyal and cowardly liar than to appear weak.
At the confession, Werner could see Gilbert’s eyes narrow.
Nico remained silent, ruminating. Then he broke out into a tired smile. “Well, if you’re telling me this now that must mean you must be pretty strong in that self department, right? I mean, Cadence is a wrecking ball…” He buried his head in his hands, mumbling, “Thank you for finally telling me. Despite how I am, I’d rather know instead of being left in the dark.”
“There’s no need for gratitude when I’m doing something I should’ve done in the beginning.”
They locked eyes for an odd moment before Nico rose to a stand and began pacing again.
“I-I gotta call Francis. He can’t be ELPIS. It just doesn’t make sense. Need to see him. Or… Cavallo. My dad. Someone.”
“It’s dangerous, Nico. I understand how you feel, but you need to think. This isn’t something that you can handle yourself. You’ll be wasting time if you try.” Werner folded his hands behind his back. “After Cadence resolves the issue regarding Alma on her end, I’ll bring this to the attention of Ophiuchus without comprising Capricorn or… any of us. I’m still working on a solution on that end.”
“Alma’s back, huh…? Hope she’s okay…” Nico frowned, pausing to sink down into the bed. “Every time Alma is involved, Cadence just…” A look of hurt crossed the man’s face, and he hesitantly peered up at Werner. “You… what do you think of her? Alma, I mean.”
It was an unusual inquiry.
“I’ve never met her before,” Werner informed him. “Therefore, I have no opinion of her.”
The relief on Nico’s face was startling.
Gilbert sighed abruptly. “Look, I have no idea who this Cadence is other than the fact that she’s the reason we’re in this city. I also have no idea what this whole mafia rivalry is about. But the colonel needs to hurry up and close this deal, so we can hightail it the hell out of here.” He glanced at Nico. “Werner’s right, Nic. This is above our pay grade. But don’t sweat it. I’m sure ol’ reliable Ophiuchus’ll clean it right up.”
* * *
The meeting with the Foxmans and Romanos took place with a proxy for both parties. Cavallo represented the Romano Family, while an elderly man whom Werner only vaguely recognized represented the Foxmans. The designated meeting area was at the restaurant front Jericho and Talib had been invited to several months prior. Werner’s other men were brought along as well but kept at the upper levels. This, as expected, was the cover for their presence there.
The entire affair was swift and prompt, ending within a forty-five-minute time period in an unpleasantly smoke-filled back room. After Nico introduced both parties to each other, the discussion began.
The talking points regarded Capricorn receiving an exponential increase in deliverables and access to the most recently developed proto-conductors. The colonel was surprisingly adept at negotiations and managed to lower the initial pricing by proposing that Capricorn would test the newly developed proto-conductors in the Families’ stead to increase productivity for all parties. Von Spiel was also a detailed note-taker, jotting down every word spoken in a small journal he procured from his pocket.
The entire deal ended with a set of firm handshakes by all leading members. Both parties, satisfied.
Despite the deal being sealed, however, the colonel pulled Werner to the side on their way to the Abaccio to inform him that they would not be leaving the city. He was adamant about performing business with the Campanas despite Werner’s attempts to dissuade him. Mentioning the increasing rivalry between the Campanas and the Romanos did not cause the colonel falter. A city at war did not disturb him. Deep down, it did not disturb Werner either.
* * *
One night some time after Werner’s men had returned from late-night drinking with the colonel, Werner came across Stein pacing by himself in front of the piano in the fifth-floor lobby of the Abaccio. The man had returned significantly later than Werner’s other men; and initially, Werner had assumed that the colonel had kept him out late since the colonel had yet to return.
Stein continued his pacing even as Werner entered the room. It was a clear that he was not paying attention to his surroundings. Unusual behavior. Werner observed him for a minute before he cleared his throat:
“Is there something to report, Stein?”
Stein whipped his head around, snapping into a reflexive salute before lowering his hand and looking away. Then he grumbled in Common, “It’s nothing, Lieutenant.”
Werner didn’t usually pry into these matters, and he would usually settle it with a “Focus” or a “Save it for another time.” However, those instances occurred during the paces in between battle when a slip in concentration could mean failure. And those words were meant for those who hesitated. Never had Werner had the need to direct those words to Stein.
Werner approached him. “I can see that it’s not nothing. What is it?”
Werner held Stein’s gaze for a full minute before the man looked away and sank down onto the bench in front of the piano. He locked his fingers and leaned forward.
“It’s the colonel, sir,” Stein replied curtly.
Werner’s already piqued interest sharpened. “What about the colonel? Switch to Capricornian.”
“I don’t know, sir,” Stein drew slowly in the language directed, sounding nervous and unlike himself. “I…” He frowned deeper. “You wouldn’t believe me.”
The man was beating around the bush. This behavior was also unusual for Stein which was disconcerting.
“Regardless of whether or not you think I will believe it, if you think that there is any possibility that this will have any significant impact, you will tell me,” Werner ordered. After a beat, he sat down beside the ma n. He hadn’t thought it a strange action but given Stein’s stiffening, he realized it was out-of-character for himself.
Stein stared at him for another second before nodding and rubbing his hand over his mouth. “Yes, sir. We were all at the Pollux Corona. A bar just outside the Gamma District. The colonel and I stayed later than everyone else. I would’ve stayed even longer but the colonel threatened to make me pay for the tab. He was joking but I left anyway ‘cause all the cute girls were already gone.”
Werner needed Stein to get to the point but given the man’s nerves, Werner allowed the rambling to continue.
“I decided to double back ‘cause I wanted another drink but the colonel was gone, and I already blew my money on the first week.”
Werner put in a mental note regarding Stein’s poor spending habits.
“I didn’t feel like calling it a night so I wandered around for a little bit,” Stein continued. “You know how it is. It’s like when we’re in the trenches just waiting around doing nothing. Makes me anxious. Anyway, I ended up wandering into the west side of the city.”
If Stein had encountered something upsetting on the west side of the city, Werner conjectured that the private may have come across the colonel’s attempted dealings with the Campanas. If that were the case, Werner knew he would have to cut Stein’s curiosity off swiftly. The mission would be compromised otherwise.
“I… well… I saw the colonel when I was there. He was in an alley just outside one of the casinos. I was gonna join him but he was talking to someone. A lady. Thought she was cute.” Stein’s leg began to bounce and he tapped the left side of his face. “But she… there was a tattoo on her face. On the left side.”
Werner froze but kept his expression even. “The colonel was speaking to a woman with a tattoo on the left side of her face?”
“I don’t keep up much with news outside of Capricorn ‘cause it doesn’t mean jack to me,” Stein continued with a nod, “but the tattoo… I think it was… No, I know it was… the tattoos in the papers. ELPIS tattoos.”
Werner did not allow his tension to show.
The anger came hot and sharp as expected, but he managed to dispel it by clenching his fist.
Stein threw his hand up in the air, agitated. “Forget it. You don’t believe me.”
“Stein, I didn’t say that I didn’t believe you,” Werner interjected, surprising both himself and Stein who lifted his head. He continued quietly, “I will look into it. Were you seen?”
“No, sir.” Stein shook his head slowly. He pulled away from Werner as if evaluating him. “You’re all right, Lieutenant. You’re all right.”
Werner did not allow emotion to slip through his stolidness. “Do not get any more involved with the colonel.”
“Yes, sir.” Stein gave a curt nod.
Werner ordered him to turn in for the night and remained seated alone at the piano in thought. He turned to face the keys and played a singular note that rang low and clear.
There was a chance that the woman in question that the colonel had met with was Omicron. The description matched up.
Werner played a chord.
No, there was no such thing as chance. The probability was too high. The colonel’s obsession with the Campanas. The ELPIS leader Omicron’s dealings in the west side of the city where the Campanas resided. And now, Omicron and the colonel’s meeting.
The only variable missing was the ‘why.’ Additionally, there was also the factor that the colonel was still his superior to consider.
A phantom pain pulsed at Werner’s abdomen, and the palm of his hands began to itch.
No. If the colonel was working alongside ELPIS then he was a traitor to Capricorn and needed to be dealt corrective action.
This was the opportunity he had been waiting for. He could use this to bring Ophiuchus’s attention to ELPIS’s ongoings in the Twin Cities. Frame it as the colonel overstepping his bounds and slipping beneath Capricorn’s radar. Frame the modified conductors Capricorn was receiving on him if Ophiuchus found out about them. The pieces would fit perfectly. Even so, he still had to wait for Cadence to handle the situation on her end first.
* * *
Despite everything being laid out in stone and despite Werner’s orders, Stein accompanied the colonel out for another round of drinks the following night.
That night marked the first truly official Campana on Romano attack in the city in a decade. A set of proto-conductors filled with a Projector’s vitae were set beneath one of the Romano’s restaurant fronts and were rigged to explode at 2400 hours. The blast collapsed half the building, killing one-eighth of the patrons instantly and injuring one-fourth. Although the colonel, Gilbert, Bergmann, and Kleine came out unscathed, Stein was among the injured. According to Gilbert, the colonel had invited Stein to join him at a bar to flirt with some waitresses. The bar was in the zone of impact. The fact that the colonel came out of the blast zone unharmed was miraculous.
But Werner knew there were no such things as miracles.
Stein was initially transported to a small hospital nestled in the heart of the east side of the city along with the other injured patrons. Three hours after the man’s condition had stabilized, however, Nico had Stein transported to his father’s underground ER where more specialized care was provided. Nico himself didn’t return to the Abaccio hotel that night. Contrarily, the colonel and Werner’s other men didn’t step foot outside of its premises. Werner conjectured that they were confounded by the developments. They most likely hadn’t expected to encounter such a situation outside of their border services.
Werner himself had turbulent thoughts. The hit had come without any warning or knowledge from Cadence’s end until after the fact. But it wasn’t as if Werner hadn’t expected such an event to occur. The conditions were in place and the parameters set. Time had merely increased the power of the risk factors.
The fact was that Stein’s injuries were a result of Werner’s own negligence. Werner knew that if he had taken this to Ophiuchus immediately then the event wouldn’t have occurred. Werner had great difficulty wrapping his head around why he had held off on reporting the colonel. He couldn’t even fully grasp why he still found himself hesitating to report the man. The logic escaped him. The guilt did not.
In the end, however, the authorities of the Twin Cities had covered up the attack swiftly. They portrayed it as a terrible accident: the result of a malfunctioned generator conductor. Whether this was Tau acting on his association with ELPIS or if this was the city officials acting on their associations to the mafia families was unknown.
The following night, the colonel invited Werner out into the fifth-floor lobby. The invitation was unwelcome, and Werner had strongly declined the offer but Von Spiel pulled rank-and-file. Now they sat across from one another in front of the fireplace in silence.
“You were right about the rivalries,” was the first thing the colonel said to him, “I can’t help but blame myself. If I’d listened, this would’ve never happened. You’ve lost many men before, I understand, and—”
A scalding sensation bubbled up in Werner’s chest at the colonel’s statement, and he had to tighten his fists to contain the feeling. It wasn’t a foreign feeling as he’d felt it a handful of times before but he had always managed to suppress it and acknowledge that it was unnecessary. Now, however, it boiled near the surface.
“Private Stein is not dead, Colonel von Spiel,” Werner said before he could stop himself. He took a second to recollect himself. “Fabrizzio is a very skilled Transmutationist, and his associates are as well. Derik Stein will make a full recovery.”
Puffing his usual cigar, the colonel looked him over. “I’m just trying to say that we lose men every day, but we shouldn’t allow it to affect our mission. And since a sacrifice has already been made, it’d be in poor taste to pull back from everything now. I’ve already arranged a set date to meet with the Campanas at one of their casinos. I’ll close a deal with them, and we’ll leave right after.” He twirled the cigar in between his fingers. “To cover our tracks, you and your men will again accompany me to the location. Of course, given Nico’s connections to the Romanos, he would have to stay behind. And you won’t be needed in the discussions, of course. I’m sure you can see that I can handle that entirely on my own. This’ll be very easy for you.”
This was escalating too quickly.
“… Is there a problem, Waltz?”
“No, sir,” Werner replied evenly. “There is no problem.”
“Good. I’ll be staying temporarily at a hotel at the west side of the city under a different name in preparation for the meeting,” the colonel concluded. “I expect you to be timely as always, Cold Eye.”
* * *
The risk was too high, Werner decided that night. Waiting for Cadence to resolve her issue on her end had been an unwise decision. No. It had been a mistake.
The life of one person—no matter how dear—was not equivalent to the life of many. The more time that was allowed to pass, the greater the risk would become. Hesitation was the weak link in a chain.
—These were pillars that Werner had incorporated into his life since being enlisted in the Capricornian Army, but he realized now that he had not abided by them as of late. A misstep in need of correction.
Werner was initially set to make the phone call to Ophiuchus using a line inside of the hotel but then opted instead to use a phone booth across the street from the Abaccio. Who knew who could be listening.
The night was quiet as he stepped outside onto the streets, but he didn’t pause to enjoy the atmosphere. He quickly paced across the road and slipped into the small wooden telephone booth located at the corner. He took care to shut the door to the booth tightly before he took the phone from the receiver. But—
—what was he doing?
A piercing pain shot through his temple and he pinched the bridge of his nose to suppress it.
“Morello, this is escalating too quickly,” he said as he lifted the phone to his ear. “We can’t take on this risk for just one individual—”
“She’s not just one person, Lieutenant!” Cadence snapped, appearing before him an instant with her caramel eyes afire. “If Alma wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be here. Ta you she’s just one person—your soldiers to you are just ‘one person’—but ta me she’s important; and ta the people that care about your footmen, they’reimportant! It ain’t a numbers game, Werner!”
Werner had never seen Cadence so livid before. It appeared as if this Alma had a particularly strong hold on Cadence. In fact, if Werner were to put a word to it, it would be ‘disturbing.’ For one person to change another person in such a startling way was unsettling.
Cadence continued on leisurely but Werner could feel hysteria seeping through her words: “Listen ta me, Werner, think about it. Is this actually somethin’ ya want ta do?”
“Isn’t it too risky for your country? I know the plan is ta pin this on the colonel ‘cause he might be pullin’ it in with ELPIS but what if he isn’t? What if Stein made a mistake? He was drunk, wasn’t he? Are ya really gonna risk your country’s chance of protectin’ itself on somethin’ that might not even be true?”
Werner’s head pulsated.
“This whole thing doesn’t seem like it’s somethin’ ya’d do,” Cadence continued, voice ringing. “I mean, this focus ya’ve got on ELPIS—makes sense—but ain’t it a little too much like Jericho?”
Her words drilled into his skull.
“You’re all about success and service, ain’t ya? Ya gotta keep up appearances, right? What’ll your superiors think if ya end up cuttin’ the supply?”
Werner’s palms began to itch.
“Why’re ya even thinkin’ about the value of human lives? Ain’t the end result what’s usually important to ya? Capricorn receivin’ the conductors it clearly needs can’t happen if Ophiuchus is down the city’s throat, right? Isn’t the most important thing to ya your country?”
Question after question.
“And like I said, what if Stein really did end up seein’ things wrong? What’s that ya always say? ‘Things can’t be left to chance’? If ya flip your viewpoint around, you’re still takin’ a risk! A risk is there if Stein is right, but a risk exists if Stein’s wrong too, so ya gotta—”
“Cadence,” Werner pressed, pushing his thumb into his temple.
The pain that had been hammering his skull receded immediately, and he could finally somewhat distinguish her thoughts from his own.
“I… I’m sorry…”
When Werner lifted his head, he found Cadence peering at him, pale, ashamed, concerned.
“Saints, Werner. Are ya okay? I… I didn’t mean ta push ya like that.”
Werner could see what Cadence had been attempting to do clearly. She must have overheard his conversation with Atienna regarding his ‘sense of self’ and was now deciding to use it to her advantage. This simply showed how volatile and compromising their connection was.
Due to the volatility of Cadence’s emotions, however, her usual finesse at playing people was suffering. Werner didn’t feel any pride at identifying her manipulations. Contrarily, he found that he was somewhat hurt by it. A ludicrous feeling. But perhaps this was what Nico felt too.
She seemed to have read his thoughts as she raised her hands. “That’s not what I was tryna to do—”
Werner turned his attention away from the telephone box to face the man who now stood just outside of the booth. After registering the man, Werner pushed open the windowed door.
“Kleine, what are you doing out so late?” Werner addressed the man calmly, lowering the phone from his ear and side-glancing at Cadence to signal for her to stop engaging.
“I… I couldn’t sleep… after what happened to Stein, I mean…” Kleine mumbled. He paused, gaze flicking toward the receiver. “Is everything okay, sir? Did something happen?”
“It’s none of your concern, Kleine,” Werner informed him. Head still faintly pounding, he frowned. “You shouldn’t be out so late.”
“What… what do you mean?” Kleine stiffened at his hard gaze and swallowed. “I mean, of course, sir. I’ll head back right n…” He trailed off, focus drifting past Werner’s shoulder.
Werner followed the man’s gaze.
A woman stood on the sidewalk in front of the luxury hotel that rose up a meter or so away from them. She wore a mink scarf that framed her pale neck and had cascading black curls that framed her cold, flushing cheeks. Her eyelashes were long, just barely catching the v-lights from the sign that illuminated the hotel’s front.
Werner’s heart began to hammer furiously. He could not take his eyes off of her.
She truly was lovely.
Alma. Alma. Alma. Alma.
Werner’s heart pounded inside his head, and with each beat echoed the singular name. His chest warmed, and the feeling spread to the rest of his limbs.
The woman noticed his stare and batted her eyelashes shyly at him while tucking a lock of black hair behind her ear with a pale hand just as she’d done all those years ago.
Pale hands that guided smaller hands across the keyboard as a crystalline voice whispering gently, “You really have talent. One day, you’ll be on the Ophiuchian Way. People will be cheering all around you, and you’ll be so popular. Oh, you’ll never feel lonely. That’s what being in the spotlight does for you. Whether the attention is good or bad, you’ll never be alone.”
A pale hand gently guiding a smaller hand through a sweltering crowd. “Cucciolo, you have such a tight grip. Are you afraid that you’ll lose me? Don’t worry. I’ll never let you go.”
Pale hands gently caressing a wet cheek and a broken promise: “I’m sorry, Cucciolo. My cage has moved. I can’t play in the Sognare with you anymore.”
“Lieutenant?” came Kleine’s muffled voice. “Do you know her, sir?”
Werner blinked out of the memory, gaze lingering on Alma’s pale hands which she had folded in front of her abdomen. Her eyes were locked mesmerizingly with his.
At the moment Werner looked away from Alma, a familiar sound cracked through the street. It resonated from within the hotel Alma stood in front of. A whine followed by a low boom: an explosive of the conductor variety, rigged to blow. Then came the lurching groan and the rumble as the entire hotel swayed just before being consumed by flames and smoke.
The ground trembled in the aftershock sending Werner to the ground; and as Werner righted himself, his mind immediately went through its usual checklist.
Self: uninjured. Unit—he glanced at a Kleine who lay groaning beside him: uninjured. Blast radius: approximately, two meters. Location of detonation—gauging by the dust and glass raining downwards: the fourth floor of the building. Location of enemy—
Through the smokescreen, Werner saw a cluster of suited men heading in the direction of the smoke. This was in contrast to the ones who ran out of the hotel doors screaming. Werner recognized the men from Cadence’s meeting with the Foxmans and Romanos weeks prior. They worked for the Romano family.
In other words, this was another act of retaliation.
Alma—where was Alma?!
Beneath the cloud of smoke that thickened the air, Alma lay just a meter or so away from where she had been standing earlier. She had been thrown like a rag doll by the aftermath of the blast. And as people streamed around her dashing for escape, she weakly lifted her head and extended her hand out blindly, desperately.
Werner’s heart plummeted.
Alma. He had to save Alma.
The blackness consumed as soon as the thought reached him. A familiar blackness swallowed him whole, forcing the tension out from his limbs. An override. This time, instead of him being lost to the void, the sounds and images came to him in bursts of color.
Flashes of Kleine shouting: “Lieutenant! What are you doing?!” Pleadingly. “Sir, stop!” In Capricornian out of desperation: “Snap out of it! Stop it, please!” And then in Common: “Please, whoever you are, you’re going to get the lieutenant killed!”
Flashes of fear and panic that he knew were not his own. And then—
—suddenly Werner was back. He was on the ground, his exposed skin prickling with embedded gravel and shards of glass. There was a shaking body beneath his own: Alma. Her amber eyes were wide and watery, reflecting back his own disorientation and confusion. Pain radiated through his back, and his head felt heavy and damp.
There must have been another blast, he realized. The detonation site must have been on one of the lower levels this time, Werner reasoned, gauging by the thick smoke and the heat from behind licking his skin.
As he attempted to lift his head to further assess the situation, he felt wetness trail down the side of his head and dribble down onto Alma’s face. Red.
Alma’s eyes widened.
His injuries were worse than he thought. This was problematic.
So Cadence had—
The strength he had extinguished at that moment, and he fell forward onto the woman.
A miscalculation. No, a failure, Werner berated himself as he felt his eyelids become heavy. This was why hesitation was a weakness. If he had pushed through to make the phone call then—
You tried your best.
Suddenly, a familiar yet unfamiliar voice that didn’t belong to one of the others echoed in his mind. It was the voice that had resounded in his mind at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. The voice that had whispered to him just before he was overridden by Olive.
A silhouette eclipsed the smokescreen before him. A phantom, a memory, a mirage. It was the owner of that voice, he knew—though he did not know how he knew. In fact, Werner didn’t understand why he could not recall the oddity until now.
Regardless of his apprehension, the phantom drew near, falling down into a crouch before him. Locks of dark hair fell across his face.
But it’s almost here now. The syzygy—
The phantom abruptly disappeared, Chance’s silhouette taking its place. It left Werner wondering if it had even existed in the first place.
The boy’s desperate shouts for help jarred Werner from his thoughts. It was an inefficient use of time and energy, Werner thought. No one outside of their group would be able to hear his cries, after all. Still Chance continued the effort, his hysteria bleeding into Werner’s own mind.
And amongst all of the turbulent emotions Chance contained, a quiet thought drifted downwards. As consciousness faded from Werner, he could not help but wonder with incredulity if that was how he truly appeared to Olive.