An intruder has crept its way into the connection between the main six. Stuck in an override over Werner, Atienna has had to maneuver the battlefield. She accompanied Werner’s unit into unoccupied territory and discovered the Capricornian’s main camp decimated. Scattered amongst the debris, Werner’s unit had found Marionette Engel, leader of the anti-military Verbundene Augen movement sweeping across Capricorn; Henning Rath, a Capricornian soldier who shortly afterwards murdered Otto Vogt in the middle of battle; and Emil, an Argoan soldier whom Atienna treated kindly. After Otto’s death, Atienna discovered the true nature of the one who pulling the strings, while simultaneously discovering that Friedhelm Heimer—a soldier in Werner’s unit—was working together with Marionette to protest in the unoccupied territory.
Before she can reveal anything, however, their group is captured by Argoans and taken into Argoan territory. Gilbert then witnesses a change in Atienna’s behavior and realized that Atienna may no longer be at the helm of the override. They are taken to an Argoan isolated location where they find familiar faces imprisoned with them.
Among the Aquarians captured with them are Dunya Kramer, the captain whom Maria freed during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict; Nikita Knovak, the soldier present during the border conflict and accompanying the Aquarian diplomat at Atienna’s tripartite peace meeting in the Zatenimye caverns; and a a familiar Aquarian woman. Among the Capricornians imprisoned are Werner’s Captain Weingartner and the Elementalist Emilia Bergmann.
Not soon after they are locked in their cells, Nico is carted off for unknown reasons.
Meanwhile Werner is stuck at the threshold between life and death. After learning from a mysterious peacekeeper named Shion and from Lavi who both reside there that he must excise the intruder himself. With apprehension and distrust keeping him steady, Werner succeeds in the first attempt, but…
Gehorsamsverweigerun » Insubordination documented at 500 hours
Before Volker Weingartner was captain of the 212th Division of the Border Force, he was a teacher at Vollmond Elementary. Rather, he was a professor, holding first a degree in psychology and then numerous degrees in literature ranging from Capricornian folklore to classical Signum epics before finally attaining a degree in military tactics. Nothing too impressive.
Of course, before he settled down into that title, he had been a first lieutenant serving in Capricorn’s joint 45th United Front against Ophiuchus during the Reservoir War. Before that, he had been employed as a primary school tutor in a small town just south of the Ophiuchian-Capricornian border. His best friend had been just across the country-boundary.
And now here he was again. A soldier.
He was used to the cyclic process: books of poetry replacing books of war and strategy; romanticized war eulogies he once admired again becoming bitter parodies; stand-up military officials becoming common political crooks; pride becoming shame.
The only thing that had changed was the attitude of the people. The younger generation had become more emblazoned, more passionate, straining the far ends of the spectrum of patriotic pride. Fiery patriotism and steadfast devotion seemed to define every other young person—whether in service or not. Weingartner didn’t blame them. Unlike him, they didn’t remember what Capricorn was like before the Reservoir War. And Capricorn had done well refining its rhetoric.
It all left a sour taste in Weingartner’s mouth, though he didn’t voice his dissent. A sin for a teacher, surely—but he had more to lose than to gain by fighting against the rigid structure of power. The military draft had become the lifeblood of the country, after all.
He’d convinced himself that all he needed to do was to serve a couple more years, and then he’d be back in the classroom and even cash in a long leave. In a couple years, perhaps the conscription and draft would be obliterated altogether. Besides, there were still things to be proud of. Capricornian conductor innovation, Capricornian perseverance and reliance on only one reservoir, Capricornian infrastructure.
Truly, it was a cyclic process.
During one of his more depressive bouts, Weingartner had even attended a Verbundene Augen meeting in the capital. He had gone in civilian clothing and had been disappointed to find Marionette Engel absent. Her absence, however, didn’t dampen the flames.
There were explosive declarations of injustices, calls to action, and self-righteous villainizations. Reduce the military. Republic! Democracy! It’s the only way. Why should we die so a wealthy man can live another day? And the usual, soldiers are trained to oppress, not protect.
It was the same as Capricornian military rhetoric but on the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of picking up arms to die for Capricorn, it was laying down arms to fight for Capricorn.
Yet despite all of his apprehension, Weingartner had anonymously donated several hundred marks to the movement that day. Now after learning from Gilbert’s briefing that the Augen movement had been behind the massacre at his campsite, he was overcome with regret. He had heard rumors of a demonstration occurring near the border’s edge, but he had kept quiet—eager to see a semblance of change from a distance but also thinking that it would never actually unfold. But he had been a fool and so had they.
Weingartner still wasn’t certain who’d fired the first shot in that chaotic skirmish at his camp. A soldier’s identity had been questioned, another soldier had felt cornered then enraged, and yet another soldier had fired off a conductor. In reality, the details didn’t matter. In the end, Capricornians had turned their weapons on Capricornians. And that was the sign of a country falling apart.
It was the opposite of the stereotypical fall: unrest from the higher officials—Major Erwin Ersatz and Colonel Fritz von Spiel—bleeding down to unrest in the general servicemen and servicewomen instead of vice-versa.
Ersatz… had been a brilliant commander. Weingartner had the pleasure of serving under him twice, once in the Reservoir War and another time while in the Border Force. They’d developed a steadfast camaraderie despite their opposing views on Capricorn’s development. Ersatz’s nationalistic pride had even been inspiring. But it had too been his downfall.
“It’s a mess,” Ersatz had told him just a few days after they had sent Waltz off to the Aquarian-Capricornian border for negotiations. “Volker, it’s been a mess from the very beginning. Capricorn, these reservoirs, the conductors—all of it! We’ve been played!” Voice cracking, he’d seethed. “My country is… How dare that damn Kaiser and the generals—to our Capricorn!”
The accusatory tone had alarmed Weingartner: “What are you saying, Erwin? You’re not sounding like yourself. You’re just tired—”
“Sounding like myself?” Ersatz had muttered. “Haven’t you noticed it, Volker? I’m no longer me. I’m someone else now… I can see clearly … Volker, listen to me. If we fail, you should get yourself and your daughter out of here.”
“Fail? Fail at what? You’re not making any sense… Erwin, just tell me what’s wrong. I can help you.”
But that had just set Ersatz off: “If you want to help me—if you want to save Capricorn—then when you find a True Conductor, promise me that you’ll kill them.”
“Are you talking about the Aquarians? The Argoans—”
“No!” Ersatz had fumed. “Even if they turn out to be Capricornians—even if it’s the damned Kaiser—you have to kill them. It’s the only way to prevent it. As many times as it takes.”
“Listen to yourself, Erwin. You’re just tired. You need to rest.”
“I can’t. I don’t have a choice.”
“You always have a choice, Erwin…”
Ersatz had merely laughed. And then he had chosen ELPIS, and Weingartner had chosen to omit the conversation from his reports with growing apprehension.
Only a couple of months following this, Weingartner’s apprehension grew once more as the news of Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s betrayal trickled up to the higher-ranking officials.
Weingartner had been the colonel’s homeroom teacher back in the day—right when Vollmond Elementary was renamed Vollmond’s Primary Military Academy for Gifted Conductors—although Weingartner doubted Fritz recalled. Fritz had always been a spoiled child and nepotism seemed to feed his arrogance, so Weingartner had been pleasantly surprised to hear the news of his sudden personal growth and accomplishments in recent years. At least, that was until Fritz committed treason in Gemini.
Two days after this revelation hit the newspapers, Weingartner had stumbled across a grief-stricken Martin von Spiel at the quarterly general meeting at the capital. While the other officers were sharing drinks within the main dining hall of the Stolzrudel building, Martin had kept his distance and had remained outside for the majority of the time. The officers inside had gossiped about how Martin’s military career was over: not only had he been a co-signer of the failed Watch, but he’d also chosen not to denounce his son following the events in Gemini. It was abhorrent—the gossip. Especially the gossip from those who had served in the same unit as Martin during the Reservoir War.
And so feeling a pang of empathy, Weingartner had joined him sitting at the outside stone water fountain and had even offered him a glass of whiskey.
“You taught Fritz back at the elementary military academy, didn’t you?” Martin queried. “He’d always had a wild imagination. His pride let him to act on it…. But he’d changed recently. He became someone I could truly say I was proud of. I even joked that he’d become a different person. He always took offense to that. Could never take a joke. Now they’re all saying he was the joke, that he shamed Capricorn. My son…”
Even now Weingartner could still clearly recall the whites of Martin’s eyes in the moonlight as he had stared ahead at nothing.
“Last time I spoke to him, he mentioned leaving. Mentioned a woman and a child. I assumed he was taking responsibility for one of his past affairs.” After a hesitant pause, Martin had continued, “He mentioned something… about a ‘True Conductor.’ He was really strange about it. Reminded me of his imaginative stories when he was younger. So I thought… have you ever heard of anything about that before from him, Volkner? When he was younger? Maybe it has to do with why he…” He had hung his head. “I agree that he’s a shame to Capricorn but he’s not a shame to me.”
“Let me help,” Weingartner had amended, squeezing Martin’s shoulder. “I’ll look into it.”
So, Weingartner held to both of his promises and had spent the rest of his time at the capital researching. It had felt good to oil that wheel. But there were no such records of ‘True Conductors’ in any of Capricorn’s libraries. Even after visiting the oldest libraries, even after speaking to the oldest librarians, the term remained a mystery save for a couple of associated words here and there. Nothing concrete. And so, he’d taken to researching the terms he’d discovered to be involved with the word: ‘loss of self,’ ‘personality change,’ and ‘out of character behavior.’
But there had been only one manuscript nestled in one library that had exactly what he was searching for: a single-page report from a long destitute psychiatric hospital detailing observations of a patient that had been showing unusual psychological presentations. The only reason it had even been in that library to begin with—or so the librarian had said—was because a peacekeeping agent named Jin had requested it from the institute before it had been dismantled. But Jin had never come to pick it up, so it had remained in stasis for years. The paper had read:
Unusual behavior and altered state of personality and identity found in patient 5789. Recalls imaginary events—“memories”—that have not happened to startling detail. Formerly believed to have held a possible character flaw. Five weeks into treatment, ability to change conducting-type from Transmutationist to Elementalist noted. P.D. Oran, an onboard conductor engineer, suggested possibility of dissociative psychological disorder playing a role in this extraordinary display.
Interest from Capricornian Council on Special Conductors and ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus garnered. Patient and patient information subsequently transferred over to parties per legal request.
And that was it. The rest was censored by either Ophiuchus or by Capricorn—Weingartner couldn’t tell which. He would have written it off as ridiculous pseudoscience if it weren’t for that fact. ELPIS, Ophiuchus, Capricorn…
Perhaps—he had thought then—he had learned something he shouldn’t have.
It was two weeks after his fruitless research that he had been approached by Dämon Forstchritt out of the blue. She’d come up to him just as he was preparing to return to the front and had invited him out for brunch. Although they hadn’t met each other formally, they had heard enough about one another to hold a degree of mutual respect.
Their conversation at brunch was casual. Weather, subordinates, recent accomplishments. But just as they were topping off their eggs and wurst with a cup of coffee, Dämon had asked pleasantly, “You were looking into True Conductors recently, weren’t you?”
Weingartner had paused more out of confusion than fear.
“How do I know? My employer sees everything,” Dämon continued. “They see you, they see me, they even see your daughter back home. She’s due in a few months, isn’t she? Writes to you every day? The Enlightenment Committee members that read over all the circulating mail letters find her handwriting very cute by the way.”
Only then did Weingartner feel both fear and anger. He had stepped on a landmine. “What—”
“I wouldn’t suggest you go to the committee or your good friend General Watzmann for complaints,” Dämon had hummed, adding sugar into her coffee. “Because your highly esteemed general is also employed by myemployer. And it’s not ELPIS if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the one with the crown.”
Then… the Kaiser? It was a threat. But why?
She had taken a sip of her coffee and had sighed. “Saints, bless the Maillard reaction and sucrose! That is fine coffee.” Placing down the cup, she had hummed, “We have enough traitors in this country, don’t we? People questioning and looking into things they shouldn’t? How will your daughter react if her father turns out to be one? Stress isn’t very good for a woman in late-term pregnancy. Do you understand?”
Weingartner had remained silent.
“It’s better for all of us to enjoy what little time we have left here,” Dämon had continued. “It’s a boy, right? The child? To be named Angelo? Such a shame. Even if you’re a good little toy soldier, Angelo won’t see it to his first birthday.”
Weingartner had reached for the butter-knife.
“Don’t worry. That wasn’t a threat. None of us will see it,” Dämon had finished, raising her cup. “That’s why I say, we all enjoy it until the end.”
And so, Weingartner had chosen the middle path of least resistance as his apprehension rose to the surface.
Choosing extremes on either end, a famous Ophiuchian writer named Vega once wrote, was choosing an illusion of progress. Or maybe it was, There can be no progress unless you push to the extreme against the rock that is tradition and stagnation.
And now here Weingartner’s sharpest subordinate—no, his most practiced student since Weingartner foolishly considered all of his subordinates students—was pushing for a reckless, extreme plan. It wasn’t even a plan but a gamble.
“Captain,” Werner continued, reclaiming the pocket watch Gilbert had taken from him. “The capital needs to be informed of this immediately. We’re the only ones aware of how deep the Augen runs in Capricorn. We aren’t even sure if there are any members here with us. We’re already in a dangerous position—”
“You said you wouldn’t—” interjected Heimler from where he stood beside Marionette.
Werner stared at Heimler inquisitively before following Heimler’s gaze to Marionette. And for a moment, Weingartner swore he saw Werner smirk.
Weingartner frowned. “I understand what you’re saying, Werner, but we don’t know the layout of this base or our location, and we don’t have access to conductors. I’ve already lost enough men today—”
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t believe we need conductors to escape. And I remember the route out.”
Weingartner stared in disbelief. Although the first lieutenant’s tone was even and calm, Weingartner had the vague feeling that the man was agitated. The head injury? As much as Weingartner wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, they were both leaders first and foremost and had to set an example.
“Waltz, enough. I don’t want to hear it.”
Werner stiffened, opened his mouth, but closed it when Gilbert placed a hand on his arm. “Yes, sir.”
The Argoan whom Werner had antagonized earlier returned two minutes later with the promised water. He passed the glasses through the bars—one for each person including the Aquarians—before he settled down at the table again and fiddled his thumbs nervously. He was new to the art of war, it seemed. But still… cunning and naivety were two different things.
Weingartner stared apprehensively into his glass as his subordinates did the same. Rather, as most of them did the same.
“Thank you.” Werner took a steady sip from the glass. “I apologize for my earlier behavior.”
The Argoan perked up, clearly as confused as Weingartner but also almost hopeful. Still, he remained silent.
“How long have you been serving?” Werner pressed.
“Voluntary or drafted?”
“And why did you do that?”
“I see. So you haven’t thought about it… What did you say your name was?”
The Argoan blinked again, perplexed but also oddly pleased. He glanced at the men standing behind Werner. “Emil… remember?”
“Right. Emil. You must be far from home.”
Emil’s face folded. “It’s not so bad… I mean… Well, I mean there’s a couple of local cities around here. I grew up in a city, so I just visit those places from time to time.”
“You grew up in the city? All cities are different from each other. Some are gambling cities; others are tourist cities.”
“Well, the city sorta around here is more like a gambling one. It’s called Stonbo. Have you heard of it—”
The door swung open and the Argoan lieutenant from earlier stormed in. Behind him came two more Argoans dragging forward Nico Fabrizzio whose face was dripping with blood. The combat medic’s head hung low, making it difficult to discern if he was conscious.
Derik launched his glass at the Argoans through the bars. It hurtled across the central table before shattering on the wall just behind the Argoan lieutenant’s head. The petals sprinkled down onto the floor at the Argoans’ feet, but the lieutenant waved a hand, kicked several shards into the Aquarians’ cage, and then sneered:
The lieutenant signaled for Emil who rose to a stand and unlocked the remaining empty cage. The other two Argoans threw Nico inside.
“What are you doing? What did you do to him?” Weingartner pressed as he approached the bars. “He’s a combat medic. You—”
The lieutenant turned to them all and scoffed. “All having a nice drink? Enjoying our hospitality—” When his gaze fell on Werner, something in his demeanor changed. Eyes sharpening, he paced right up to Werner’s cell and leaned in close. He whispered, “It isn’t too painful is it, Cucciolo?”
A Geminian word…? Weingartner frowned.
“Enjoy this freedom while you can, True Conductor,” the Argoan continued in Capricornian. “I’ll give you a helping hand. You’re important to me.” He side glanced Gilbert and then Weingartner. “Keep a good eye on my True Conductor, will you?”
There it was again—that term. What in the world?
The Argoan’s gaze bore into Weingartner causing cold sweat to break out at the back of his neck. Out of the corner of his eye, Weingartner noticed Gilbert and Kleine stiffen. Despite being the sole focus of attention, Werner’s expression remained even.
Werner frowned. “What are you talking about?”
The Argoan lieutenant turned back to Werner, blinked in dazed confusion, and scowled. He spat in Common, “You’ve got a stupid look on your face, Capricornian. Doubt we could get anything out of you.”
“What are you playing at?” Werner pressed.
The Argoan looked him up and down and then scoffed. “You have a lot of gall to be talking to be like that when you’re the one in the cage.” He spat at Werner’s feet, waved a hand in the air, and exited the room with the two other Argoans in tow before anything else could be said.
Instead of staring after the man, Weingartner stared at Werner. “What was he talking about, Waltz?”
“I don’t know, sir,” replied Werner without waver. “But Fabrizzio…”
Weingartner followed Werner’s gaze to Nico’s motionless body. Weingartner had held doubts about Nico’s service and loyalty from the very beginning. The doubts had increased tenfold following the revelation that the Romano Family had been supplying Argo too with modified conductors. And yet still, the capital had wanted to keep Nico in their employ. And yet still, Nico had assured that all he wanted to do was to help the soldiers in the unit. And now…
Abruptly, Werner addressed Emil, “Are you going to let one of your prisoners die? You know your lieutenant is going out of bounds. That medic is still under your care and the responsibility lies with you.”
Emil stiffened before fumbling to unlock Nico’s cell. He rushed into the cage and to the man’s side before feeling his pulse. After a minute, Emil stammered, “H-He’s not breathing. He’s not breathing. What should I—”
Werner interjected, “What are you doing just standing there?”
Emil dashed out of the room without another word. Weingartner couldn’t wrap his head around how the Argoan had stayed alive for so long with such an easily swayed will.
Werner called out, “Fabrizzio.” No answer.
Weingartner watched as Nico’s body remained motionless.
Werner hissed, “Nico!” Again, no answer.
“Hey!” Gilbert snapped. “What are you doing?!”
Weingartner looked away from Nico to find Werner on his knees and shoving two fingers down his throat. Gilbert tried to jerk him back up to a stand but was pushed aside. And then, Werner puked. Bile splashed out onto the floor along with a collection of other things that rattled hollow and heavy. Pushing the bile to the side, Werner gathered the objects hastily. He held one up to the light while shoving the others into his pocket. A metal band lined with thick glass tubing glinted in the dull overhead lights. A proto-conductor ring.
Where had Werner even gotten that from? And what use was it in this situation? It looked like it was one designed for a Transmutationist.
Waltz whipped off his glove, tucked it beneath his arm, and slipped the ring on. He closed his hand, flexed it, closed it again. Weingartner stared, temporarily forgetting the Argoan lieutenant’s strange words.
“Waltz, put that away before they come back—”
The insulating tubes of the band swirled with specs of blue light, and sparks began to erupt around Werner’s hand. The sparks soon turned copper as the color began to overtake the blue in the insulating tube. The copper slid over Werner’s hand like a glove before slithering up his arm then to his face and torso and eventually consuming his entire body.
Wilhelm, Marionette, and Heimler stumbled back, while Stein and Brandt leaned forward with interest. Across the room, the Aquarians straightened. Gilbert and Kleine remained frozen in place, both wide-eyed in disbelief.
The copper light encasing Werner’s form shattered. When the pieces fell away, Weingartner found himself staring at empty space. He had only seen this type of conducting once before back when he’d visited the Twin Cities for recreational reasons. There was a street performer who had a skill for the illusionary arts there. She’d conducted in a manner just like this. If he recalled correctly, the performer labeled herself as an intraneous Transmutationist.
So…. was this an intraneous transmutation…? From Werner who was a certified extraneous Projector?
“It still had some vitae left in it, sir.” Werner’s voice came from the empty space. “There’s no need to be alarmed.”
The others within Werner’s cell visibly relaxed. Weingartner did not. Regardless, he managed, “I understand, Waltz, but stand down—”
Gilbert was abruptly jerked forward by an invisible force. A faint imprint of a hand was visible on his shoulder. Copper light began to spread up from the imprinted area until it consumed his entire arm and then his entire body. When the light shattered, Gilbert too disappeared. The same happened to every single person standing within the cell until all within disappeared in a burst of light. The door to the room flew open just as the last one within the cell—Marionette—also became invisible.
Emil and a young male nurse—indicated by his armband glowing with a red cross—spilled into the room in panic. It was only after Emil had rushed to Nico’s cell and unlocked the door that he noticed that Werner’s cell was devoid of prisoners.
“Oh… no…” Emil rushed to the empty cell as the Argoan nurse gawked from behind him. He fumbled for the keys, unlocked the cell door, and stepped inside in disbelief.
Weingartner noted how the cell door creaked ever so slightly as if pushed by wind. A loud clang rang out a beat after, and the Argoan nurse collapsed on the ground. Hovering in the air just above where the medical nurse’s head had been was one of the chairs that had been beside the island table. Werner appeared out from thin air there a beat later, still wielding the chair.
Weingartner stared in disbelief.
Before Emil could react to the sight, he was shoved to the ground by an invisible force. Stein appeared above him a second later out from a burst of copper light. He looped Emil’s neck in a chokehold and held steadfast until Emil slumped forward unconscious.
The others became reappeared in the same manner only a second after.
Heart hammering and mind racing, Weingartner watched as Gilbert pried the keys from Emil’s hand and darted over to his cell. As soon as Gilbert unlocked the door, Weingartner rushed out and signaled for Bergmann and Stein to stand guard at the entrance and for Heimler to keep an eye on Engel.
Werner meanwhile darted inside Nico’s cell. He sank to Nico’s side, hands hovering, before he called for Brandt who joined him within the cell alongside Gilbert. Brandt fell to his knees and flipped Nico onto his back as Werner dug into his pocket and procured a cluster or proto-conductor rings. He handed one to Brandt.
Brandt slipped it on while checking Nico’s pulse. After a beat, he blinked and said, “He’s alive…”
“‘Course I am,” came Nico’s weak voice.
Brandt and Gilbert stiffened, while Werner’s shoulders sagged.
“Saints, Nic,” Gilbert whispered, handing Werner the keys upon his request, “you make a hell of an actor.”
Brandt shook his head and moved forward with his transmutation. Weingartner drew close just in time to see Brandt heal Nico’s split lip in a flash of pale mint green light.
“Wasn’t really acting,” came the chuckle.
Brandt sighed and pulled away, wringing his hand. “Damn. Transmuting with these things is hard.”
Werner glanced at Brandt before addressing Nico, “This is no time to be joking. I’m used to telling this to Gilbert but not to you, Nico.”
Gilbert grimaced. Nico blinked up at Werner and stared long and hard. Then, without warning, the medic lunged forward and threw his arms around Werner’s neck. Werner stiffened before placing a hand on Nico’s shoulder and squeezing.
After pulling away and clearing his throat, Werner ended with, “Fabrizzio, look at our situation. Get a grip.”
Nico cleared his throat too and unfurled from him. “Right, sorry, I—”
Weingartner pulled Werner up to a stand by the arm. “Waltz, have you lost your mind?”
“Sir, they’ve already done this to Nico, a combat medic. What’s to say they won’t do the same to us?” Werner met his gaze. “Unless you believe there’s another reason for why Nico would receive this treatment?”
Weingartner tensed and glanced at the others. None seemed to have caught on to the implications of their lieutenant’s words.
Just what in the world was Werner playing at?
Releasing him, Weingartner nodded at Nico. “I’m glad you’re okay—”
A voice abruptly called out from the opposite side of the door Bergmann and Stein guarded: “What’s going on in there? Is the combat medic alive?”
Bergmann and Stein tensed.
The door rattled as the Argoan behind it continued, “Hey—”
Werner moved his ringed hand to his throat causing copper light to spread over the area like butter. Without hesitation, he opened his mouth and said in Emil’s voice, “It’s nothing…! H-He’s improving, I think. Please keep it down. I don’t want the lieutenant to find out.”
“Just hurry it up,” came the irritable response.
The door remained still.
Werner guided Nico up to his feet before exiting the cell. Without pause, he headed to the Aquarian’s cage and reached for their cell door.
Weingartner darted forward and grabbed his arm. “Waltz… What are you thinking?”
“They’ll alert the Argoans if we don’t release them,” Werner replied. “Our chances will improve by working together.”
Without waiting for an affirmative, Werner unlocked the door. “We shouldn’t waste time.”
“Capricornian went cuckoo again,” one of the Aquarians noted. Weingartner recognized him from the border conflict. Nikita Knovak, if he recalled correctly.
The Aquarian captain whom Weingartner recalled as being named Dunya Kramer inclined her head and stepped out while extending a hand out to Werner. For once the latter followed protocol by looking for affirmation. Weingartner signaled approval with a nod and watched as Werner and the Aquarian captain engaged in a handshake of solidarity. Weingartner then moved forward himself to complete the unspoken truce with a handshake of his own.
“We’d all like to die in our own land,” was all he said in Common to Kramer.
“We’d all like to live,” Kramer returned.
* * *
Weingartner knew something was wrong. Werner tried to misdirect his concerns with less-than-concrete reassurances and roundabout remarks of “we should focus on the task at hand first, with all due respect, sir” rephrased in ten different ways. Something was off but by only just a margin. Weingartner’s suspicion only grew.
They stripped Emil and the Argoan medic of their weapons and supplies: one handgun for himself, another for Gilbert as Werner passed in taking one, and two for the Aquarians. It was only fair.
After Werner ‘experimented’ with the proto-conductor rings he had apparently stolen from the Argoans, they slipped one each onto Emil’s and the Argoan nurse’s index fingers after loading them into the cells. As soon as the ring was on the nurse, he took on the image of Bergmann and Weingartner himself. It was unsettling to see his doppelgänger, to say the least. Meanwhile, Emil’s proto-conducting ring caused him to take on the image of Werner and the others who had been in the cell with him—Nico included. The discrepancy of Nico’s misplacement concerned Weingartner.
“They won’t question it,” Werner reassured him. “The Argoans will fill in the blanks themselves.”
No concrete reasoning. Just intuition, it seemed.
They lured the guard on standby into the room and quickly rendered her unconscious before dragging her into the cell the Aquarians had formerly occupied. When Werner slipped another conducting ring onto the Argoan’s finger, she took on the form of the Aquarians.
The stage now set, Werner extended a hand out to Weingartner who accepted the gesture before extending his hand out to Gilbert behind him. The chain continued until they were all linked, hand-in-hand. With a snap of his fingers, Werner sent copper light cascading down their chain. And with that, they slowly pressed out the door and into the hallway.
Weingartner couldn’t believe how easy it was for them to slip past all the Argoans. They slinked forward like ghosts through the hall, their boots leaving faint impressions in the mud caking the floor.
The Argoans didn’t even notice.
It didn’t seem right. Didn’t seem natural. It felt like at any moment, someone was going to whip out a gun—maybe a conductor—and they’d have to take cover against the bombardment. But none of those things happened.
When they arrived at the front gate of the building, they found it wide open. It was too good to be true, and Weingartner’s apprehension reached boiling point. Gauging by the hushed whisperings in Aquarian behind him, he knew the Aquarians felt the same. But Werner pushed them forward regardless. As they passed by the lone two guards posted there, Weingartner overheard their conversation:
“Why do you think the lieutenant asked us to leave the gate open for? Are we expecting a shipment?”
“Don’t know. Lieutenant’s been on-and-off weird lately.”
Weingartner let out a quiet sigh, silently apologized to his daughter, and tightened his grip on Werner’s hand. He was a scholar before a soldier. And temporarily solace was not true solace.
Their group crossed the gate and stepped onto the dirt road beyond. They didn’t stop to catch their breaths and continued along the dirt path for several kilometers before Weingartner pulled them all into the woods expanding to the left of the path in the opposite direction of the setting sun. They continued forward for some uncountable distance until Werner suddenly stumbled out of Weingartner’s grasp.
The illusion coating them shattered in an instant.
Werner crouched in front of him, lightly panting. Although his expression was calm and collected, sweat beaded his brow and there was a very faint haze of exhaustion clouding his eyes. He was guided up into a stand by Nico and given a nod from Gilbert and a wince from Kleine.
“The proto-conductor rings are spent?” Fischer asked, coming up from behind. “Lieutenant Waltz, if you try again—”
Weingartner held up a hand and locked eyes with Werner. “We’re far enough to avoid detection. If there is any of that vitae left, we should save it and use it wisely.”
* * *
They continued on through the woods opposite the setting sun as planned for nearly two days straight, never stopping for rest even once. The ghost of the Argoans felt like a constant at their heels. No rest. Only anxiety.
On the third day, however, he and Kramer agreed to stop for rest. They came to a small creek, foraged for food there, and settled for a tense three-hour repose as night fell.
During the first hour, Weingartner relieved Heimler of his duty of guarding Engel, requested Kramer’s assistance in posting someone over Engel in his place, and ordered his subordinates to meet him at 500 hours. When he arrived at the designated meeting area in the forest clearing, his subordinates stood at attention. It was all so habitual that Weingartner had to stop himself from reciting an afternoon briefing. Instead, he ordered them all at ease.
Werner remained standing with Nico beside him. Gilbert leaned cross-armed against a tree. Brandt, Stein, and Fischer reseated themselves on a fallen log, while Bergmann and Kleine huddled by an iced stump. Heimler stood away from all of them, head dipped low.
Weingartner seated himself on a fallen log and took a moment to muster all of his courage. Nowhere to hide now. He let out a breath, watching as it fogged up the clouded twilight air. “What’s a True Conductor?”
Gilbert and Kleine tensed, the latter rising to a stand. Brandt stiffened. Heimler, Bergmann, Stein, and Fischer exchanged perturbed looks. Only Werner held his gaze, while Nico looked to him without expression. The betrayal in those gestures stung more than it should have, just proving to Weingartner that he would never make it in the capital.
“That term that the Argoan lieutenant said…” Werner murmured in thought, clasping his hands behind his back. “I’m unsure. Do you think it might be an Argoan plan? Maybe they’re starting their own conductor development. They might not be able to harvest it as an energy resource from reservoirs, but that says nothing about their ability to manufacture them.”
Weingartner remained silent, clenching his fists.
Kleine started shaking his leg. Gilbert glared at him.
“Are you familiar with the term, Captain?” Werner inquired.
Weingartner shut his eyes. “A True Conductor is not a thing but a person. That being said, what would you say if I said I was one?” When he opened his eyes, he found Kleine staring wide-eyed at Werner. Gilbert was no longer cross-armed.
Werner’s eyes narrowed. “What are you implying, Captain? If you claim to be whatever this ‘True Conductor’ is and if it truly involves Argo—I will have to report this into the capital.”
Werner obviously wasn’t taking the bait. The man’s apparent ignorance and steadfastness were so convincing that for a moment Weingartner thought he’d made an error and taken an unnecessary risk—no, thought that he’d gone mad. But…
“No, that was a lie,” Weingartner admitted. “When I spoke to Major Ersatz during the border conflict, he mentioned it. Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s father also said that Fritz mentioned it many times to him before the incident in Gemini. Both men were involved with ELPIS. And you, First Lieutenant Waltz, were involved in both incidents and with both men. You’re always there when something is happening.” He glanced at Nico, Kleine, Stein, Bergmann, and Gilbert. “And so are the rest of you. But your reports always support each other’s alibis.”
The addressed remained silent.
Fischer stammered, “B-But, sir, we’re all only doing our duty—”
“True. I could chalk it up to mere coincidence under the usual circumstance. But that Argoan lieutenant’s words make it very difficult for me to do so. I hope you understand this, Werner. We could chalk it up to nonsense, but that’s too many connections to write off.” Too many good dead men.
“I trust you. You’ve all served under me for many operations.” Weingartner pressed his palms together and stared at the forest floor. “In order for the division to work effectively, you also need to hold trust in me. That’s been an effective order since the very beginning.” He took in a deep breath and sighed, locking eyes with Werner. “Now I’m asking for you to let me help you. Whatever it is—”
“We haven’t done anything, sir! It’s all just a coincidence!” Fischer snapped, stepping forward. “I don’t know about the others, but I’ve—” When Werner glanced at him, he shut his mouth.
“If any of you aside from Lieutenant Waltz know anything about it and are willing to speak of it,” Weingartner continued, feeling the empty threat leave distaste on his tongue,“I can help you. If not, I’ll have to report you into the capital. First for falsifying your reports in the Twin Cities. Second, for concealing a development possibly involved with ELPIS.”
“Someone say something,” Fischer hissed. “We shouldn’t all be punished for a couple of people’s actions—Lieutenant Waltz, please.”
They sat in silence until the sun began to peek up between the trees.
As the morning birds began their song, Weingartner swallowed. “I understand your feelings of camaraderie and loyalty… and I see you’ve all made your decision.” Weingartner pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Werner. “We’re going to start the day with the truth. A unit is strengthened by truth and weakened by lies.”
No one moved. Rank and order—
Gilberts stepped forward, looking between him and Werner. One hand rested on the gun at his hip. “Captain, this is crazy—”
Weingartner’s eyes narrowed. The ever-so-loyal Fischer moved forward in an apparent attempt to disarm Gilbert prompting the latter to pull out his gun fully. He didn’t aim it.
Fischer scowled, stepping backwards. “Raising your weapon against a superior is—”
“I’m not raising it against my superior, Fischer. You on the other hand…”
“Stand down, Gilbert. We’re in the same unit,” Werner said. “I apologize for his behavior, Captain. I believe Wolff may be unstable because of Vogt’s passing under his command—”
Gilbert’s face contorted. “What the—I’m trying to help you!”
Werner startled, sighed, and then rubbed his face. “Right… Sorry. Man, this is a mess.” Side-glancing at both cocked guns, he addressed Bergmann, extending a hand. “Emilia, check your left pocket.”
Weingartner nodded at Bergmann who had stiffened at the first name address. She looked to Gilbert and then to Werner for further affirmation, before digging into her uniform. She froze and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.
“I… the Argoans confiscated these… how did it…?” She swallowed and tossed the pack to Werner.
He caught it and inspected the box. “A good brand.” He pried a cigarette out from the carton and slid it into his mouth.
“Werner, you don’t smoke,” Nico pressed beside him. “It’s not good for you anyways…”
“No use putting up the act anymore, Nico,” Werner said, popping a cigarette into the combat medic’s mouth without a drop of hesitation. “That Capricornian captain is determined as hell. Pulling us out in front of everyone like this. I’m stressed, sweaty, hungry, and I need a smoke. Screw quitting. Kid’s not here to micromanage.”
“Even if that’s the case, it’s not your bod—”
“Just this once, Nico.”
Nico paused, glanced around the clearing, sighed. He pulled out a lighter and lit the cigarette hanging in Werner’s mouth before lighting his own. It was a practiced movement.
Werner took in a drag a beat after, coughed hard, pounded his chest.
“I told you!”
But Werner waved Nico off. He straightened himself, shrugged his shoulders, and took another drag. Meeting Weingartner’s eyes, he asked, “So what are you going to do about it if I’m a True Conductor when you don’t even know what it is… Captain?”
The atmosphere surrounding Werner changed instantly. The usual rigidity left his shoulders, and his eyes glinted with something other than coldness.
“Hey,” Gilbert warned.
“Relax.” Werner waved a hand. “I know what I’m doing. More or less.”
For a moment it looked like Gilbert was about to shoot Werner instead.
“Anyway, you’re making a lot of threats when we’re in the middle of enemy territory, Captain,” Werner continued, coughing lightly. “Threats that are going to end with you being dragged down into the swamp too with the rest of us. Seems to me you think bringing me in front of everyone else is a good way to work everything out. Or force it.”
The disrespectful, casual tone was disconcerting.
“Anyways, you’ve got a lot of curiosity. But you seem scared. That’s also why you brought everyone here to hold everyone accountable. What happened?” Werner paced over to a fallen log just across from him and sank down on it. “Was it Agatha?”
At the mention of his daughter, Weingartner tightened his grip on his gun.
Werner merely held up a casual hand. “Not a threat. An offer of protection.”
“You see, ever since what’s happened in the Twin Cities, I’ve been keeping a close eye on everyone that’s around everyone.” He sighed, flicked off a bud of ash. “‘Course it’s been kinda hard since I can’t rely on the broker and have to go through other channels. Info is less quick and detailed, gotta talk to a lot more people—but that’s a story for another time.” And then, he smiled. “Don’t worry. You’re not the only one. Like I said, I’ve been looking out for all of the people involved with the others and Werner. It’s under the table though—which is a hell of a hard thing to do ‘cause of how we are. I should be praised for my selflessness and all that.”
“Did you know that a Manipulator planted a medium on you a month back? One of the enlisted officers you’re pals with actually. Good old espionage. Makes me think about the state of your country. Never understood monarchies. Understand military govs even less.”
Weingartner’s heart thundered. A Manipulator?
“The good news is that Manipulator owed a gambling debt to good friends of mine. Pulled a few strings. Got him to pull back and falsify his reporting. Got him off Agatha too. Thought I invested more time in it than I should’ve but turns out it was a good call.”
Werner blinked. “I didn’t do it for you if that’s what you were wondering, but that can change.” He shrugged. “Anyway. Had no idea what he was surveilling you for—no clue who was paying him either—but seems like you’ve got yourself into some trouble.” He grimaced. “Have no idea what the hell that Argoan was talking about either by the way. Creepy as hell. ELPIS maybe? They don’t like us much. But it sure sounded like that Argoan liked me. So maybe…”
For a moment, Weingartner thought he saw fear flicker in Werner’s eyes but it was gone as quick as it came. That aside, why did it feel like Werner was carefully partitioning out information?
Werner pointed at him abruptly with the cigarette. “Anyway, if you were marked with a bullseye because you were looking into True Conductors, then it looks like you’ve got some trouble in your government. Tough.”
Ersatz’s words rang in Weingartner’s head.
“Still, you’re right about one thing. Secrets make things complicated. Creates a whole lot of a mess, like the one you just made—but I don’t blame you. I work with secrets and lies for a living. I know all about it.” Werner put out the cigarette at the bottom of his boot. “Honesty is the best policy ‘cause we can all hold each other accountable for all the secrets we know about each other. Someone spills the beans, we all spill ‘em. Like you, hiding the falsified reports and donating some marks to the Verbundene Augen and whatever you were doing to tick off whoever put that Manipulator on you.”
Weingartner felt as if he’d been slapped, and he tensed as he felt his subordinates stare at him in disbelief. Instead of denying the accusation, he inclined his head.
Werner glanced at the others. “No need to be judgmental. Most of you lot falsified reports about what happened in the Twin Cities anyways. Thanks for that, but a court martial’s usually the answer to it, right? And Alwin, for a combat medic, you’ve got an interesting record in my home city. And, Will, we’re gonna have a one-on-one later.” Ignoring the newly formed tension, Werner nodded off-handedly to Heimler who had remained silent during the entire ordeal. “And of course good ol’ Friedhelm’s been working with Marionette for that demonstration here earlier—”
Heimler recoiled. “You said you wouldn’t say anything!”
Werner shrugged. “ I’m not the one who made that promise. Wouldn’t have even realized it if you weren’t so obvious about it, Helm. Actually hadn’t had the time to get info on you since you were so sparkly new. Anyway, you tell a lick of this to Marionette or your Augen buddies and—well…” He gestured loosely around the circle. “This is only the visible consequence.”
Stein leaped up and cracked Heimler across the jaw. “You bastard, you set us up!”
Heimler hit the ground and glowered. “I didn’t! It wasn’t supposed to—”
“Please stand down, Stein,” Weingartner ordered. “We need to address one thing at a time.”
Stein sneered, kicked the ground, and returned to his former position.
Weingartner turned back to Werner who appeared undeterred about his subordinates’ behaviors. With Erwin’s and Martin’s words ringing in his ears, he tried, “Who are you?”
“Cadence Morello,” the unknown replied, eyes glinting with amusement.“Let’s use truth as currency.”
A white door loomed in front of him: blemishless, clean, rubbed down with varnish and oil.
“There’s no point in telling you everything again,” came an airy sigh from behind. “Just how many times do you think you’ve come down here, Werner? You’ve probably gotten to know me better than my brother, but every time you go up and come back…”
He turned his head but found only a neatly trimmed garden beneath a graying sky. Facing forwards once more, he reached for the doorknob, pulled the door open, and stepped inside —
For once, Werner Waltz, 8 years old, was eager to arrive home from school. His excitement, of course, didn’t deter him from abiding by the rules of the house: He pulled off his shoes at the entrance and placed them neatly on the shoe rack alongside the wall before hanging his coat on the wooden rack and cordially greeting their maid Helga Wolff as she peeled out from the kitchen. Rule one and two. Additionally, despite his excitement, he didn’t dash up the stairs to his room. Instead, he paced up gradually, steps matching the tick-ticks of the many grandfather clocks hanging on the wall. Rule three.
When he entered his room that was furnished with a neatly folded bed, dustless drawers, and scrubbed wooden floors, he didn’t dare to close the door. Rule four. He paced up to his wooden desk stationed before the frosted window and organized some of the stray papers there, before reaching into his desk drawer. He hesitated midway through the action.
Never hide anything was rule five, but he had broken this rule with this action many times over now. If his mother were to discover this… His palms itched at the thought—
No, he’d just twisted the rule a bit. He would tell her eventually.
Right. He hadn’t truly broken any rules.
Werner pulled out the item he’d been reaching for and set it on his desk. It was rectangular and took up a quarter of the table with its length. Beneath its tinted glass surface, a network of sleek glass tubing glinted alongside copper gears. He ran his fingers along the box’s surface and took in a deep breath. Almost done—
Something flickering just outside the window caught his eye. A murder of crows was taking flight off of one of the frosted garden trees. The way they swarmed together reminded him of smog. And beneath that smog of feathers at the base of that tree stood a dark-haired woman dressed in a monochrome suit. Shion, a voice whispered at the back of his head.
The woman placed a finger to her lips and shook her head.
Werner blinked once.
The phantom was gone.
Something wasn’t right, Werner realized, glancing around his room. He was forgetting something…
He paced over to his bookcase and pulled out a small wooden box hidden just behind the books lined up methodically, alphabetically. He popped the box open revealing a neatly ordered collection of wrenches, screws, and kickstarters. After checking to make sure all tools were in order, he set the toolbox on his desk alongside the rectangular contraption.
Feeling rather embarrassedly excited, he reached for the contraption only to freeze when creaking resounded from behind him.
Someone was coming up the stairs.
Werner’s heart thundered and sweat formed at his palms as he shoved the toolbox beneath his desk. A voice called from behind just as he reached for the rectangular contraption:
Werner stiffened and turned. And then he beamed. “Ludwig! You’re…” He cleared his throat. “Welcome home. Is father back too?”
Ludwig Waltz, eldest son of the Waltz family, gallantly swept into the room like a knight. He was wearing a crisp pale lavender uniform decorated with medals. A cap with the Capricornian emblem glistening heroically on its rim rested on his head. As he approached Werner, he pulled off his cap and placed it on top of Werner’s head.
“Dad’s back from the eastern front, but he was called back to the capital to discuss plans on our front with Libra. But bah, that’s all boring stuff.”
“How was your time at the front?”
“Oh, you know. The usual. Got a bunch of newbies to the division recently. One of them was a Projector. Accidentally shot off his friend’s leg during his first battle but that’s what Transmutationists are for. And Elementalists like me—well— we’re for the spotlight. But that’s a story another time. Let’s just say we definitely showed those Sagittarians and Librans.” Ludwig sank into a crouch and pinched Werner’s cheek. “Aren’t you a little too young for all that formality? Anyway, where’s my favorite little sister? Where’s Viktoria—” He stopped short, staring towards the desk.
Werner stiffened, heart hammering.
“What’s that? A conductor toy?”
“Who knew we had a conductor engineer in our family!” Ludwig beamed and then placed a finger to his lips. “It’ll be our secret.”
Relief loosened Werner’s shoulders ever so slightly but the tension remained. Before the unease could fully settle, however, a rapping from the window drew his attention away. Werner turned but found nothing there. Just a dead branch tapping against the windowsill.
I have entered.
When Werner faced his brother again, he frowned.
Something about Ludwig was different. His brother was sitting now instead of crouching, and there was something odd about his hands. Werner’s gaze was drawn down to his brother’s legs. His brother’s face to contorted immediately.
“Shut up! Who do you think you are saying that to me—what are you even looking at?!” Ludwig snapped. “You’re thinking it too, aren’t you?! Just like her! I’m useless, pathetic now—that’s all you see! I can’t even see this damned war to the end!”
Werner Waltz, 12 years old, hands still burning from his most recent lesson met his brother’s gaze evenly. His brother’s behavior was unsightly.
“Luddy,” came a whisper by the doorway.
A young girl stood at the threshold. Her blonde hair cascaded down her back like a veil, and her wistful eyes were just beginning to drip with tears.
Ludwig didn’t spare her a look. “You think you can do any better, Werner? I saw your V-Type test results. You’re just a Projector!” Finally, he turned to his sister. “And you, Viktoria, you can’t even become a Conductor! You’re more pathetic-looking than I am!”
Without flinching, Werner watched as his brother continued on and on. But when his sister locked eyes with him from across the distance, Werner froze. Her eyes sought protection. Expected it. And so mechanically, Werner fulfilled that request by pacing over to her side and standing in front of her.
Allowing this to go any further benefited no one.
Ludwig paled as if slapped and then croaked. “Just admit it! You all think I’m a useless burden—”
Werner interjected, “Get a hold of yourself, Ludwig. The more you make yourself appear to be a burden, the more you’ll become one. As I suggested earlier, you should join one of the organizations in the capital. That would be the best way for you to remain useful to Capricorn.”
“… get out.” Ludwig’s delicate expression cracked and he dug his good hand into his knees. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
Werner guided Viktoria further behind him and towards the hallway. It was a calculated retreat, much like the ones he’d been taught in school. And while retreats were for those who did not plan, this was a special case—
A sudden thump, thump, thump from behind gave him pause.
Someone was coming up the stairs.
Blue moonlight spilled into his room and into the hall behind them from the window. A long, thin shadow crawled up along the hall from the stairwell and touched the lip of his room. Since the door was not closed, it continued to slither into the room invading every corner and space.
There was no escape. There never had been.
Werner reached for his sister’s hand but froze as her fingers reached for his instead. When he turned, he found the woman from earlier—Shion—standing in place of his sister.
“This is too much,” Shion whispered, tightening her grip. “Let’s stop here.” With that, she pulled him over the threshold—over that line—and into darkness. No, into a memory.