While Maria, Jericho, Cadence, Atienna, and Olive, tie the loose ends to their developments in Capricorn, Gilbert, Nico, Captain Weingartner and the rest of Werner’s unit await their fate in the capital’s execution tower. Werner, meanwhile…
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
Feeling a familiar sense of deja vu, Gilbert stared at the bars of his cell. Captured. Again. At least it was on home turf this time. The cell was cleaner, larger, better furnished, and all that. Or maybe that was what made it worse—
A loud metal clang abruptly scraped against his eardrums, followed by a shout—“Screw this shit! Fuck you!”—and some more metallic rattling.
From where he sat on his hanging cell bed, Gilbert looked to the bars of the cell next to him. There he saw Derik Stein flipping between shaking and kicking the bars of his cell.
“Knock it off, Stein.” Gilbert nodded at Alwin Brandt who was nestled in the corner of the same cell as the man. “Brandt, stop him. He’s giving me a headache.”
Brandt nodded, rising to his feet and walking over to Stein. He placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered something into Stein’s ear which seemed to calm him just slightly.
“But this is bullshit!” Stein snapped, giving the bar one last kick before throwing himself onto his cell bed and punching the wall beside him. “Fuck this!”
Gilbert sighed, then grimaced as a faint, familiar pounding crept up his spine and to his temples. The two damn painkillers the Militärpolizei had so generously given him were wearing off. He had enough pride not to beg for another.
“Are you alright, Gil?” Nico asked from where he sat on the ground beside him.
Gilbert glanced down at him. Guy always looked worried. But also didn’t seem bothered by the fact that he was dragged into some other country’s problem at all. Probably had to do with the fact that he was from the Twin Cities. What was the slogan they all threw around? “Accept everything, reject nothing”? What a way to live. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“I’m fine, Nic.”
Rubbing his temples, Gilbert glanced at Kleine, who was sitting on the floor in the opposite corner of the cell and fidgeting with his glasses. Heimler and Captain Weingartner were sitting on a bed beside each other in the cell across from him.
How the captain had been captured after shouldering all of that hope and vigor—Gilbert didn’t know. What he did know was that Von Spiel had sold them out just like that. Like father, like son. Not only that, but from the ten thousand overly complicated, roundabout questions the Militärpolizei officers had asked them, the bastards had concluded that Gilbert and his entire unit had been working for the Augen all along. The officers even claimed that they were involved in some vitae-manipulation, mass-brainwashing scheme with the help of ELPIS. According to the Militärpolizei, under Weingartner’s command, they’d planned the slaughter at the border. Apparently, the Augen civilian protestors had willingly sacrificed themselves for the demonstration. According to the story, the Augen had been manipulating Werner this entire time to do their bidding. Talk about switching up the damn story.
Admittedly, Gilbert thought it was better to have the story changed from them mercilessly gunning down Augen-leaning civilians to them helping the civillians instead. Hell, maybe even all those Augen members who’d been demanding their deaths in exchange for the civillians who’d died at the border would be willing to back them up now. Maybe some of them would even create a pity fund for his mother if he died here. That’d be nice.
Gilbert honestly had no idea what was going on anymore. Everything and everyone kept flip-flopping. News and politics—this was why he hated these things. Right or wrong—whoever was still alive at the end of this mess would be the one to decide, so thinking about it didn’t matter.
The only good things that came out of this were that Werner’s family had been absolved of any involvement with them and that they maybe successfully removed the Scorpio bastard out of Werner. Two victories in the middle of a shitstorm.
Stein was right. This was bullshit—
“—who would’ve thought all these years after graduation, we’d meet again on opposite sides of this line,” came a familiar voice from down the hall that divided the cells.
Gilbert approached the bars of his cell and peered down the hall. Weingartner and Heimler did the same.
Approaching the cells was a familiar man dressed in a ranking Militärpolizei officer’s uniform. Vash Something-or-other, his and Werner’s bastard of an old classmate from the academy, the bastard who’d stroked his ego at them when they’d first arrived in the capital with the Ariesian prince.
“We met at the station, you dick,” Gilbert responded when Vash stood in front of him.
Vash arched a brow before his lips thinned into a smile. Gilbert arched a brow back at him but then took a step back as he saw a familiar blue tattoo crawl up the man’s face. Nico shot up to a stand, while Kleine stiffened and Heimler and Weingartner tensed. Stein, meanwhile, ran back up to the bars of his cell and glowered with Brandt hesitantly joining him.
“We met before that too,” was all Scorpio said.
“Makes sense you’d do your possession shit to Vash. Bastards are attracted to bastards.”
Gilbert shrugged. “Yeah, Werner can be an ass sometimes.”
Scorpio chuckled. “Well, since I know you’re wondering about it, Lieutenant Werner Waltz no longer has me inside of him.”
Although the way Scorpio said it made his skin crawl, Gilbert felt relief loosen his shoulders.
“Fuck you,” Stein hissed.
“I enjoyed my stay with you, Derik Stein,” Scorpio drew slowly, glancing at him. “You’re a man who lives truly as himself—to the fullest of your passions. The thought of changing who you are hasn’t even crossed your mind. You don’t care for it. I bet you live a very happy life.”
“If you come over here and let me bash your face in,” Stein spat, “I’d be even happier.”
“Stein,” Gilbert hissed, “stop being a dumbass.”
“Sure.” Scorpio darted to Stein’s cell and shot his hand through the bars.
Brandt barely managed to pull Stein back before Scorpio could claw at him. Scorpio remained standing there, arm lodged between the bars, eyebrows raised at Brandt.
“And… Zu, is it?” Scorpio looked Brandt up and down. “Though, I can see it in your eyes—you’re not them anymore, are you? Just a remnant. In worse condition than the others.” He retracted his hand. “You’re pitiable and terrible at the same time. Dancing around in corpses…”
“Can you believe it?” Scorpio paced to Weingartner’s cell. “Just a day or so ago, you were loved by your military and hated by your people. Now you’re loved by your people—the Augen—and hated by the military. Morals of living manipulating be damned!” He shrugged. “Opinions flip back and forth, but the end result stays the same.”
“I highly doubt a majority of the Augen—the ones who aren’t under your control—” Heimler spat. “—would be supportive of living manipulation.”
“‘Well-intentioned extremists’ is what’s being tossed around here and there. Who has the time for morals when pushed by passion and justice and righteousness, Friedhelm? I mean, if you hadn’t realized my existence, I’m sure you’d be singing along right with all those other Augen folk.”
Heimler’s eyes narrowed.
“Of course, there are people who question the Augen’s and ELPIS’s relationship and think it’s a government set-up. Meanwhile, the others who believe the news is real find you all… abhorrent. But in the end, it’s the passionate, vocal minority against the apathetic—or perhaps fearful—silent majority.” Scorpio chuckled, pressing his index finger to his lips. “And that goes on a larger scale too. Did you know that only 30% of Capricornians are for the Augen movement? Only a quarter of those people have my spores in them. And that’s one of the reasons why things never change. The majority stays silent and abiding as the world moves around them. Like puppets on strings to either apathy or passion… They can’t help themselves.”
“We’re going to be turned into scapegoats for what you’ve done,” Weingartner muttered quietly. “I recognize these cells. They’re beneath the execution tower. We’re going to be executed for treason and working alongside the Augen.”
There it was. The nail in the damn coffin. Gilbert could see Kleine pale behind him. Looked like they were going up to join Otto. Gilbert paused in thought, glancing at Nico.
“Hey, Nico’s not a Capricornian,” Gilbert said. “Pretty sure you’re breaking ten provisions from the post-war treaty if you decide to off him.”
Scorpio chuckled. “Ask your Kaiser, not me. You know everything I do is just going along with what people truly want to do. That includes the Kaiser. I’m just a puppet, like how you’re all puppets. Greed, duty, love—whatever it is, that’s your puppeteer and you’re the marionette.”
“I’m sorry, Nico,” Weingartner said.
Nico offered a half-smile. “Nothin’ to apologize for, Captain.”
Weingartner nodded at him, before he continued, “The Augen members who think we’re with them and support us—they’ll just use this as motivation to keep going. This country will be torn apart. For your reservoirs. It’s history textbook.
“Over and over again.” Scorpio leaned against the bars of the cell. “You should’ve played the same cards as Martin, Volker. And here I thought you desperately wanted to see your daughter.” He glanced over his shoulder at Weingartner and sighed in disappointment when the captain’s expression remained unchanged. “All your families will remember you for being traitors to your country.”
“When’s the execution date?” Weingartner asked calmly, undisturbed, unlike Kleine and Brandt.
“It doesn’t matter when the date is.” Scorpio pulled away from the bars, mocking snipping scissors with his fingers. “What matters is who your executioners will be. Two very familiar faces are being selected for the firing squad. The first is recently promoted Lance Corporal Wilhelm Fischer—”
“Promoted?!” Stein spat. “Are you kidding me? That rat bastard—”
“—who reported into a station filled with my offshoots only an hour after escaping me. He reported everything. What a good soldier.” Scorpio rolled his neck. “The last executioner is your dear lieutenant—”
“You don’t know the lieutenant at all,” Kleine interjected. “He won’t go along with it.”
“Your lieutenant doesn’t remember the other True Conductors right now. Such is the result when True Conductors are squeezed so tightly to the point of nearly returning to the threshold.” Scorpio chuckled. “It’s twice they’ve escaped death now, isn’t it…? No—oh, I remember. It’s thrice. Amazing how they still function as True Conductors after that.”
Gilbert felt his heart skip a beat.
“And ‘I don’t know’ my dear Werner?” Scorpio threw his head back. “I was inside of him! Of course, I know him! Much more than any of you. You think the kindness and leniency that your lieutenant has been showing to you this past year have been because he’s come to care about you all on his own?”
Stein snapped, “Just shut the fuck up—”
Scorpio held up six fingers. “Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance: sheltered to the point where the mention of death turns his stomach, formerly narrowminded to where he thought anyone who took a life was evil, and self-sacrificial to the point of almost being suicidal—”
Stein leaned forward intently at this, while Heimler grimaced.
Scorpio lowered a finger. “Cadence Morello, selfish and greedy to the point where she doesn’t let go of the past and clings desperately to people, lying to the extreme of self-deception.”
Nico’s eyes narrowed.
He lowered another finger. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez, someone who pursues things without considering responsibility or circumstances. A woman of whim who operates on her own sense of justice.” Another finger. “Atienna Imamu, who cares only for the people close to her, who cares little for her own country as a whole. Doing anything to protect the ones she loves, while averting her gaze to everyone else.” Another finger. “Jericho, a man of passion and justice who will always do right and white.” And the last finger. “And Shion Myosotis, whose only reason for living was to protect and be remembered.”
Wait. Gilbert frowned. Who the hell was Shion?
Scorpio pressed his hands together. “Those are the reasons Werner trusted you and asked you to trust him—even why he protected you. I remember how he was before he became a True Conductor… What a lovely person. Like ice: cold and hard, but fragile.”
Ugh. Gilbert puked in his mouth a little. Saints—what a creep.
Scorpio startled suddenly, brows pushing down as he grimaced and cast a glance to the side. “They left the train…? Well, no matter.”
“You turn people ugly,” Heimler muttered suddenly. “You force them—”
Scorpio stared at him and chuckled. “You must think I enjoy pushing people to their breaking point.” He pivoted on heels and waved at them as he sauntered down the hall. “No, no. I enjoy taking people to the very edge and watching them take that final step themselves. At that moment, they truly realize and become who they always were—Marionette, Werner, Kafke, etcetera… although breaking the shepherd is the way to go.”
Medical examination: passed.
Psychological evaluation: passed.
Conducting examination: passed.
Fit-for-duty evaluation: passed.
“Well, welcome back to the world of the living, Lieutenant Waltz.”
First Lieutenant Werner Walz tightened his gloves and glanced at the medical officer standing at the threshold of the door.
The medical residency room he was stationed in was smaller than the ones he remembered visiting in the city before. It consisted of two unoccuppied beds, a medicine cabinet filled with other devices at the near corner, and a sink and mirror in the opposite corner. The medical Conductors and ranked officers had informed him of the events developing in the city and country since he had lost consciousness at the border.
First, the Verbundene Augen movement headed by Marionette Engel had started a wave of riots—nearing levels of insurrection—throughout Capricorn. Second, the Augen was working alongside ELPIS and had decimated the city’s main hospital which pushed the patient load onto smaller, local clinics. Third, ELPIS had provided Marionette Engel with the means and conductor technology to be able to successfully manipulate a mass of people. And fourth, he himself had been subjected to this living manipulation.
Werner could faintly recall the incident: an Argoan had charged at an unprepared Heimler with a knife at the border, and he himself had stepped in to save the man. Werner swore the knife he’d been cut with was not a conducting one, but the medical Conductor had said that his time being manipulated had led to distortions in his memory.
Regardless, that was an error not only on Heimler’s part but also on his own. Heimler had shown himself several times to be unprepared for combat before that, and yet Werner had decided to be lenient with him. Perhaps, he’d based the decision for leniency on how effective his leniency had been with Otto Vogt—who was now deceased.
Otto had shown great promise after improving following the events at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. It was… a shame—more than a shame—to lose someone capable of so much improvement. Werner hoped the case was not the same for Bergmann, who was reported to have been injured by an Augen attack on a homebound train.
Sentiment, Werner realized. But death and injury were to be expected on the field. So, he brushed the thought aside.
Aside from Otto and Bergmann who were no longer with him, according to the briefing, his other subordinates and his captain were being detained and questioned for their personal involvement with the Augen and his state of manipulation. The entire incident had been reported by Major General Martin Von Spiel who had been covertly spying on the operation.
The idea that his subordinates—Gilbert especially—would know of his manipulation and use it to their advantage seemed ludicrous to Werner. Inwardly, it was hurtful. Regardless, he was certain the investigation would find the truth: that his subordinates did no such thing and this was a misunderstanding. But that in itself was a childish thought: an opinion based on his presumptions of his subordinates’ characters. He would have to wait for the true verdict—the true decision—to be made by his superiors.
Him, manipulated. His unit, truncated and under question. Shameful. Unacceptable.
“What did it feel like, Lieutenant Waltz?” the medical officer pressed from the doorway. “Being manipulated, I mean? You’re very… calm after all that. Usually, they have to cart these kinds of cases to the psychiatrics.”
“If you weren’t briefed on the details that I’ve given the head medical officer, then that information is not meant for your ears,” Werner replied. “You’re Corporal Wittenberg, correct?”
The medical officer nodded. “Yes… sir.”
“Your superior informed me that you and several others were assigned to be at another clinic at 0400 hours.” He reached for his pocket watch, but then remembered it was no longer there and dropped his hand. “Instead of looking into things that don’t involve you, you should be following through with what’s been requested.”
Wittenberg stammered something then pinkened and grimaced before departing with a salute. Once the medical officer’s footsteps faded down the hall, Werner walked over to the sink, turned on the faucet, and leaned forward against the basin. Then he puked. He quickly rinsed his mouth and cleaned himself before staring at his reflection in the mirror. Something dark blue appeared at the base of his neck in the reflection. When he blinked, however, the mirage was gone.
Werner felt terrible. There was a sickly-sweet taste at the tip of his tongue paired with bitterness at the roof of his mouth. His right shoulder was pounding to the same rhythm thrumming at his temples. But the pain was manageable.
Werner was rather surprised that he wasn’t put under further observation due to his manipulated condition. It seemed like a careless oversight by the doctors. No, rather than seeming like an oversight, it seemed more like a piece didn’t fit somewhere. A missing step in logic. And missing steps in logic were abound all around him. Everything felt surreal, almost like a dream. For instance—
He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out—not his trusted pocket watch—but two chocolate bars, one with only one square remaining. He undid the wrapper for this one and stared at the singular dark piece. Although he was not one for such indulgences, he placed the piece in his mouth anyway.
Bitter—but the taste was familiar to him. He allowed it to melt on his tongue before he moved to pull up the sleeve of his uniform. There, he found a single word inked there in Common right over his wrist: Shelter. Below it was the number 7. The handwriting was not his own.
His head pounded.
* * *
Upon exiting his medical room, Werner was escorted by several Militärpolizei officers down a damp hallway lined with open-doored rooms filled with groaning men and women. After turning down a corner, they led him to a smaller room with peeling yellow wallpaper and six Militärpolizei officers dotting the corners. At the center of this watchful guard sat Mother, his father, Viktoria, and Ludwig. He hadn’t seen them since his last leave, but they looked much more worn than before.
From what Werner understood from the briefing, his family had been pulled into this circumstance by Captain Weingartner and his subordinates. They had only been recently rescued due to the efforts of Martin von Spiel.
When Werner felt all their four stares upon his arrival, his palms began to itch.
“I’m glad you’re all safe,” he said as he drew near. “I’ve been informed that you’ve been briefed on the basics of what’s been happening in this country in regards to the Augen and the living manipulation. I apologize for my behavior earlier and that you were dragged into this. I wasn’t myself. It won’t happen again.”
Mother immediately leapt to her feet, closed the distance between them, and threw her arms around his neck. He returned the gesture automatically, holding her for only as long as she held him.
“Oh honey, it was terrible,” she said, pulling away. “I knew it wasn’t you. Oh, don’t ever let something like that happen again. It was awful. You’re supposed to be our Capricornian soldier, aren’t you? Just listen alright? Listen and stay safe.”
When he looked down at Mother, her gaze bore into him; and he straightened himself unconsciously. “I understand. I apologize again. The Augen has gone too far, and the Kaiser and the Militärpolizei will handle them accordingly. You no longer need to be concerned with that.”
Ludwig approached next, wearing a frown. “And the others?”
Werner replied, “My subordinates are being investigated as we speak. But as I’ve said, it’s no longer your concern.” He extended his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Ludwig.”
“No, I meant—you don’t—” Ludwig glanced at the military officers before accepting the gesture with a grimace. “Nevermind.”
His father approached next, extending a hand. Werner accepted it and nodded. They exchanged no words. Viktoria joined them a moment after, hands clasped in front of her. She too glanced at the military officers.
“They’re here to keep you safe, Viktoria,” Werner informed her. “I apologize if my behavior earlier alarmed you. That wasn’t—”
Viktoria shook her head. “No, it’s not that, Werner… But I am glad that you’re yourself again.”
Werner frowned. Her words didn’t match the situation.
Viktoria’s face suddenly brightened, and she dug into the satchel at her waist. She pulled out a thin, circular object no bigger than her palm and presented it to him. It was black and engraved with a feathering design at its edges. On its belly rested a small circular window where he could see tiny black hands ticking on forward.
“I finished this recently. To replace yours. You’re missing it, right?” Viktoria held the watch out to drop in his hands, but hesitated before reaching over and tucking it into his chest pocket. “It’s easy to lose track of time.”
The pocket watch’s ticks almost seemed to match the pace of his heartbeat. A sense of nostalgia and heaviness followed.
“Thank you, Viktoria. It’s beautiful,” Werner said. “The design is unique.”
“That was my intention… I got the inspiration from the convention actually. Some Ariesian guard brought a blackbird in a cage—can you believe that?” She cast a glance to the side. “You were there, but I suppose it wasn’t you.”
“That’s peculiar,” Werner agreed, ignoring the latter comment.
There was a lapse of silence.
“Werner,” Ludwig spoke again, grabbing the arms of his wheelchair and digging his nails into the leather.
“What is it?”
“I…” Ludwig glanced at the officers lining the walls. “I’m sorry.” He reached out and grabbed a hold of Werner’s arm, causing Werner to stiffen. “I know I’m in no position to be asking you to listen to me, but—”
Mother frowned at him, causing Werner’s head to buzz.
“Ludwig, you’re acting strange,” Werner said, glancing at the officers. Appearances. “This seems like it would be better said in private.”
Ludwig pulled him closer and whispered, “Trust your instincts. Don’t believe what you hear or see.”
Werner frowned at him, studied his face, then studied the faces of the police officers around them. Before he could evaluate the situation further, however, a knock at the door drew his attention. There at the threshold stood a highly decorated man holding a clipboard.
“Lieutenant Waltz?” the man nodded at him. “The Kaiser would like to meet you now.”
Werner didn’t allow his surprise to show on his face.
This was a superior speaking to a subordinate. As long as he maintained himself, there would be no issue.
* * *
Werner had only stepped into the chancellery building twice before. First, following Major Erwin Ersatz’s treasonous actions at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. And the second time, following Colonel von Spiel’s treasonous actions in the Twin Cities of Gemini. Neither time had he ever spoken with the Kaiser face-to-face—let alone stepped into the Kaiser’s office chamber.
The Kaiser’s office was quiet and dark. Two sets of Capricorn flags hung from opposite back corners of the room. A rectangular table sat centrally below a hanging chandelier, while a more private desk sat at the very back in front of a window. Sitting at the former location were two men and one woman. The woman was pale, blonde, and had a pair of glasses perched on her nose. One man was older and gruff, while the other was young, had dark curly hair with a mole just beneath his left eye, and was dressed in a trenchcoat. They all wore the Ophiuchian sash.
So Ophiuchus was involving themselves—
Werner’s heart began to hammer suddenly, and his palms began to itch unbearably. He kept himself steady, however, as he assessed what was causing his unease. There. The woman peacekeeper’s gaze—no, it was the one dressed in the trenchcoat. His eyes were warm and kind, but something about those eyes—
“You can relax, Lieutenant Waltz,” came a rumbling, deep voice. “May I call you Werner? No need to worry about the peacekeepers. They’re just here observing.”
Werner followed the voice to the back desk. There the Kaiser sat, quiet, hands folded over a stack of papers. Peacekeepers present, and no generals in sight. The country was truly in chaos.
Werner lowered his hand, folding it behind his back with his other. “If you wish, sir.” After a stretch of silence, he said, “Is this about my condition—”
“What’s more important, Werner—strategy or manpower?”
Although abruptly asked, it was an age-old question asked at the beginning and end of every military tactics class held at every single military academy. It was used to evaluate exactly how much a student had developed mentally, emotionally, and logically throughout their courses. Although it didn’t seem the case, there was a ‘correct’ answer that was accepted and lauded by professors, lecturers, and commanders alike. It was—
“Manpower,” Werner found himself saying as he recalled. It took him a moment to realize he had spoken aloud, saying the exact opposite of the ‘correct’ answer.
The Kaiser’s brows rose. The trenchcoated peacekeeper frowned slightly.
Werner felt both men’s gazes intensify, and his palms began to itch even more. His head still wasn’t in order. “I apologize,” he said. “I was thinking out loud. I believe—”
“No…” The Kaiser remained impassive. “Tell me your logic, Werner.”
Werner nodded then drew carefully: “One would usually think strategies are superior over manpower, but strategy can only extend so far out—especially in a war of attrition. In the end, manpower is a resource. Whoever has the most of it will win in the end. Loyalty of that manpower also plays a major role. When the battle drags on, the loyal will stay while others desert.”
The Kaiser hummed. “Yes, I agree… manpower is the greatest resource… Without it, Signum would fall apart.” He rose from his chair and then turned to face the window behind him. “Do you remember the Kaiser before me? My brother.”
“Kaiser Friedrich Nikolaus Netzche,” Werner recalled. “He was a great general. His tactics are still used on the border to this day.”
“Yes, he was always bright…” the Kaiser muttered. “He’d been handed the Reservoir War by our aunt and her father before her. Like them, he passed away on the battlefield. Just as the war was about to end. A vitae-ray to the leg. A ruptured artery. Medical transmutation back then was not as advanced as it is now. The entire time he begged for someone to put a bullet through his head to end the agony. It was the only time I’d ever seen him so… weak.”
Werner remained silent.
“I wonder what they would think of Capricorn as it is now,” the Kaiser continued. “It was him who pushed for Capricorn’s hyper-militarization, did you know? I just helped him maintain it. I was only 19 when I took on this title. ‘Lucky that you inherited Capricorn after the war, ’ they’d say when they weren’t calling me a puppet of the chancellery. Little did they know, fixing a country after a war is harder than fighting a war.”
Again, Werner opted to remain silent.
“‘Never forget the people,’ Friedrich told me on his deathbed. ‘Your duty is to protect the people, but you can’t protect everyone. You can’t choose favorites. You must choose the majority even if you must sacrifice diversity.’” The Kaiser turned back to him. “Numbers. Manpower. As you’ve said.”
Werner was certain that wasn’t what he meant by ‘manpower,’ but the trenchcoated peacekeeper’s gaze made it difficult to think. Additionally, that one singular word that the Kaiser had said rang now in his ears and mind. Protect—
The Kaiser cleared his throat. “You’ve done well in protecting the honor and needs of Capricorn up until this point, Werner. But you still have much that you can do for this country. Don’t let time go to waste.”
* * *
Shortly after, Werner was given the task of temporarily aiding the Militärpolizei in suppressing the Augen throughout the city. He was given command of a small unit of Militärpolizei officers. Among them was Wilhelm Fischer who greeted him with an enthusiastic salute before requesting to speak with him privately.
Oddly enough, Werner was glad to see the man. Fischer was a needed familiar face in all of the disruptions in the city and was also his only subordinate still in active service.
Again, unneeded sentiment.
“Lieutenant Waltz,” Fischer said as they walked down the cold, empty streets together with the Militärpolizei. “I knew you would follow through and choose Capricorn no matter what. I knew it. I knew it wasn’t really you too and that you’d never go against Capricorn and the Kaiser. Even if vitae conversion is true, it’s worth—”
“Vitae conversion?” Werner frowned. The term sounded familiar.
Fischer opened his mouth, then closed it. “Sorry, sir, if you don’t know it… then… Well, they said I shouldn’t speak about it to anyone who didn’t know.”
“Then don’t speak of it,” Werner ordered tersely, glancing around the dilapidated streets, the boarded-up windows of the buildings, and the bullet shells scattered in-between bits of rubble. “If it’s that classified, you shouldn’t have mentioned it to begin with.”
Fischer stiffened. “Yes, sir, I—”
“And if you had suspicions I was not myself, then you should have acted on them and reported me immediately.”
Fischer cleared his throat. “Yes, lieutenant, it was a mistake.” They continued through the streets in silence until Fischer continued, “About the others…”
“I’m sure the investigations will find out the truth behind the situation.”
Fischer nodded. “Yes, sir… er. They made a mistake and a misjudgment—I agree, but the punishment should only be equal to the crime, shouldn’t it? It wouldn’t be too serious, would it? Where do you think they stand, sir?”
“What I think doesn’t matter. I’m not the one assigned to make the judgment.”
Werner spent no more time on the subject and moved on to complete the task he was given: disposing of Verbundene Augen pockets around the city, whether or not they were being manipulated.
Eventually, his sweeping of the area led them to the building that had formerly hosted the diplomatic conductor convention. The glass dome of the building had fallen in, leaving shards floating above the flooded, tiled floor. Among the shards drifted torn pieces of Augen flags, other similar paraphernalia, and several abandoned suitcases. As he waded through the waters, Werner found a small cage containing a blackbird chirping weakly on top of one of these suitcases at the very corner of the dome.
It felt surreal.
He stared at the bird with curiosity, suddenly becoming hyper-aware of the tick-toking of his pocket watch over his chest. Two of the Militärpolizei walked over to the cage and rattled it while snickering.
“Leave the bird alone,” Werner ordered. “It most likely belongs to one of the international officials or a diplomat. We’ll take it to storage.”
The police officers grumbled, but he silenced them with a hard look. As he watched them transport the cage out from the dome, he frowned. The Militärpolizei here were undisciplined and disrespectful. Nothing like his own subordinates.
There it was again: sentiment—which he methodically folded away and set aside.
Just as Werner finished ordering the dome, another block of Militärpolizei officers arrived to take over. The block was headed by a colonel who first introduced himself as Oskar Müller and then drew Werner aside to speak privately.
“You’re Kaltes Auge?” the colonel asked once they were alone. “You had the debacle with Fritz in Gemini, right? I always thought that Fritz was off. Fortunately, his documentation, files, and reports were precise, so when I took over his office, I didn’t have too much trouble.”
“He was very thorough, sir,” Werner agreed, though he didn’t think this was the situation to be making small talk.
“You look tired, Waltz,” the colonel said, reaching into his chest pocket and pulling out a carton of v-cigarettes. He shook one out and held it out to him. “Here.”
“I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t smoke.”
“It’s an order,” the colonel continued, continuing to hold the v-cigarette out. “It’ll wake you up. Help you perform better. You don’t look alert. We can’t have that.”
An order was an order. And appearances were everything. He hadn’t had the time to check himself since leaving with his new unit, but he did feel fatigued. Self-negligence. Unacceptable.
Feeling the colonel’s stare, Werner took the v-cigarette between his fingers, inspected it, and took a puff while hiding a grimace. Much to his surprise, he didn’t hack and cough. The way the smoke curled in his lungs felt somehow familiar.
As soon as he blew out the smoke, he felt it. He felt awake. Sharp. Alert. More so than he had felt before. A drop of vitae for this sort of feeling. Incredible.
“See. I told you.”
The colonel took back the v-cig, his lips pulling up into a smile. For a moment, Werner thought he could see something dark blue on the colonel’s skin peeking up from beneath his collar.
* * *
As Werner moved from the convention to further out in the city, he came across Major General Martin von Spiel who was maintaining a base in the outskirts of the district.
Major General von Spiel was vastly different from Colonel Fritz von Spiel—Werner soon came to realize—in both his demeanor and words. He greeted Werner with a firm handshake and congratulated him on his recovery as soon as they addressed each other. He then proceeded to pull Werner aside to study a map of the city beneath a makeshift tent built in front of a small abandoned bakery. Precision, resources, distribution. All in order. But—
“So, it ends up being that we’re playing this game of soldier,” Von Spiel said to him suddenly while they were planning how to distribute conductors to less stable areas of the city.
“There’s no ‘playing’ soldier, sir,” Werner replied, somewhat confused by the turn in conversation.
Von Spiel nodded. “I suppose you’re right, Waltz. These roles have become reality. Me, some whistleblower unveiling a whole ‘dastardly, treasonous’ plan by Weingartner against the Kaiser. You, a loyal man to the Kaiser. Our lies turned against us.”
“Are you implying you didn’t investigate me and my unit, Captain Weingartner, and my unit…?” Werner observed him. “I’m not sure what you’re suggesting, sir. I haven’t lied.”
Von Spiel, sighed, his gaze distant. “Fritz probably felt the same way: being forced to act a certain way and being caught in a lie. I wonder if whoever it was that he was connected to—that Yulia and Kovich—forced him into that corner.”
Werner had no clue what Von Spiel was referring to, but—”With all due respect, Major General, Colonel von Spiel embezzled Capricorn’s treasury for his own wants. The amount taken could’ve damaged Capricorn’s economy. Whatever his circumstances were, he made his own choice.”
Von Spiel stared at him, eyebrows knitting together slightly, lips pulling downwards. Then his eyes widened and he let out a breath. “I see… So this conversation was going nowhere to begin with. My apologies. Forget I said anything. I’m just an old man who’s made too many wrong choices now… though at least I’ve made those choices on my own.”
“And I refuse to lay down arms now. A head-on war is foolish, but a war of attrition and coversion—maybe that we can win.”
Werner frowned slightly, considering whether or not he should report in Von Spiel’s odd ramblings.
“Let’s carry on, Lieutenant. Which station would be best to supply rifle conductors to?”
* * *
Werner was called into the Kaiser’s office again not too long after this encounter. The atmosphere in the man’s office was much colder than before, and the three peacekeepers were no longer present. Already standing at attention in front of the rectangular meeting table was Fischer. Hazy light from the full moon bled through the clouds and seeped into the room from the window, drowning everything a luminescent blue.
Despite feeling somewhat lightheaded in the light, Werner stood rigid beside Fischer and clasped his hands behind his back.
“The investigation of the 11th unit of the 212th Division of the Border Force has concluded,” the Kaiser said from where he stood facing the window. “They’ve been found guilty of working with the Augen in a mass living manipulation effort. The verdict is treason. The punishment is execution by firing squad at the execution tower. This will apply to Captain Volker Weingartner, Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff, Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine, Private Derik Stein, Private Friedhelm Heimler, Combat Medic Alwin Brandt, and Combat Medic Nico Fabrizzio.”
For a moment, Werner thought the watch ticking over his chest had stopped.
Keeping his voice even, he tried tried, “Has the possibility of them also being manipulated been considered—”
“They were acting on their own will,” the Kaiser responded. “We’ve checked. Not a single other person’s vitae was found in them by our Transmutationists and medical Conductors.”
Werner had difficulty keeping his face and voice unwavering. “With all due respect, sir, this could be a ploy to further turn the public against you. The execution of enlisted men will most likely receive public outcry. The briefing I received about the developments during my manipulation was unconcise, so I question how thorough the investigation truly was.”—He knew he was stepping out of bounds now but his chest squirmed— “Additionally, Nico Fabrizzio is not a Capricornian citizen. If he’s to be included in the line-up for execution, then this might affect our relations with Gemini. I’ve served with these men. They aren’t—”
“You’re forward-thinking. I appreciate that,” the Kaiser replied. “But do you believe you’re thinking about scenarios we haven’t thought of—we, your superiors who have many years on you? We’ve considered everything within the realm of that possibility. And Nico Fabrizzio was given to us, Werner, so now until the term’s change, he is owned by us. We can’t let foreigners step over what we stand for.”
Clenching his fist behind his back, Werner replied steadily: “I apologize. I was trying to offer a different perspective.”
“You shouldn’t be defending people who’ve wronged you, Lieutenant Waltz,” the Kaiser said. “At least, you shouldn’t be defending people who’ve wronged Capricorn. I hope you haven’t forgotten the needed distance between a superior and a subordinate.” The man turned to face him then, his eyes as piercingly bright as the moonlight surrounding him.
Now, Werner felt his heart thrumming along with the ticks of his pocket watch. A continuous sound, drowning out his own thoughts as his palms itched almost unbearably. The moonlight was blinding.
Always watching, a voice whispered at the back of his mind.
The Kaiser was right.
The logical reasoning behind that statement made sense, but still it gave Werner discomfort. It was not a comprehensible feeling. After all, the investigations had found conclusive evidence. Werner himself was not a member of the military investigative police, so it wasn’t his place to question it. He knew his subordinates only from their performance on the field and didn’t know their true character—that was the distance between superior and subordinate.
But Gilbert—Werner thought—he’d known Gilbert for even longer than that. Although Gilbert was not fond of taking up arms—which Werner had consistently berated him for—he still believed in serving the people. He would never turn against them. And Gilbert wouldn’t betray him to the Augen either. Werner was certain. He’d even trusted the man to keep him in line—
Why had he asked Gilbert to keep him in line again?
Something wasn’t right—
“I’m assigning you and Fischer here to serve on the firing squad,” the Kaiser said suddenly.
Werner saw Fischer visibly stiffen out of the corner of his eye.
“Sir—” Werner tried.
“We need to set an example,” the Kaiser continued. “Those in a unit who betray Capricorn will be brought to justice by those in the unit loyal to Capricorn. You’re familiar with executions, correct, Werner? I’m aware that you’ve executed deserters—treasoners—from your unit before you were even given an officer position.”
“Yes, sir, I’m familiar with them—”
“And you’re a soldier—an officer—serving in the Capricornian Army, are you not? I don’t understand why I’m hearing these objections. From what I’ve heard about you, you always follow through with everything on the field no matter what it is.”
An expectation to be met.
Werner suddenly recalled Magda Rath’s last moments, and suddenly the daze and fog that clouded his mind and the pain that was wrenching his chest dissipated. The confusion and struggle were gone. Everything was clear. Practice made perfect. Gilbert was a subordinate, just like the others. This was what a Capricornian soldier would do and how one would think; and he was a Capricornian soldier, so he would do it and how he would think. This was correct. This was to be followed. Appearances.
“I’m aware Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff is a childhood acquaintance of yours, Lieutenant Waltz, but you can’t choose favorites. You can’t afford to. As a position-holding officer in the Capricornian army, your loyalty should not be to a single person or a group of people. Your loyalty is to the land that you stand on.”
“They’re your subordinates, Werner; and your fellow unit soldiers, Fischer. You have a responsibility and duty as a superior officer and a fellow unit member. Do your duty.”
Right, Werner agreed. He was a Capricornian soldier at his core. Duty, glory, honor, and service. Orders needed to be followed. If not, then things would fall into disarray just like it had now with the Augen. Simple but effective. ‘Simple’…?
“The execution will take place in three hours. I suggest you get ready and head to the execution tower as soon as possible.”
“So soon…?” Fischer asked.
“There’s no point in waiting,” the Kaiser replied. “It’s merely delaying the inevitable.”
With that, the Kaiser dismissed them.
Werner exited the Kaiser’s chambers with Fischer at his side. Once the door closed behind them, he turned to the man and found him pale and sweating. Unsightly—and yet Fischer was the only one who had not betrayed Capricorn. Betrayal? No… Something wasn’t right—but it wasn’t his place to think whether something was right or wrong.Easier.
“Lieutenant…” Fischer whispered.
“What is it, Fischer?”
“Lieutenant, I know what the investigation pulled up, but believe me: the captain and the others were not working with the Augen. I’m not at leisure to say it out loud, but it has to do with a disagreement on vitae conversion. They did talk about a coup d’état but it was just in passing… I don’t think…” Fischer’s eyes were wild. “Being put in a penal unit is a better punishment, isn’t it? Or in jail? An execution is—”
“Are you objecting against orders directly from the Kaiser?” Werner replied automatically. “We should take responsibility and complete our duty.”
Gilbert had always found it funny that executions in the capital were grandiose events. Back at the border, everyone was hush-hush about it. Caught an Argoan partisan or a Capricornian deserter? Sneak ‘em out back, put a bullet through ‘em, and return to camp like nothing happened. Werner did it all the time like it was nothing—even did it for him in his place once. At the thought of Magda Rath, Gilbert’s mood soured.
The Militärpolizei officers came for them at around midnight, putting gags over their mouths and bags with eye holes cut out over their heads. Next came shackles around their ankles—cold, but not rusting at least.
The officers led them out of their cells single-file and into a small room containing two pews against the wall. A Monadic prayer room, so poor souls who were of the faith could ask for forgiveness and whatnot before they met their end.
Hell, Gilbert thought, as if they were going to say a damn Monadic prayer after everything they’d learned. And so, in the end, Brandt, awkwardly kneeling on one leg with a hand placed over his heart, was the only one who prayed—and in some language Gilbert couldn’t understand.
Afterwards, the Militärpolizei officers moved to shackle their hands behind their back. For Gilbert, they simply chained his one hand behind his back in a chain loop—which in itself was pretty humiliating. He didn’t have time to wallow in his self-pity, however, because the police soon guided them out the room and down a dimly lit hallway. Gilbert could barely see where he was going with the bag over his head, nearly tripping and cracking his head when they reached a long twist of concrete steps at the end of the hall. Up and up and up the stairs they were guided until they reached a set of heavy metal doors at the very end. The Militärpolizei officers leading them up pushed open these doors, letting out a cold gust of wind.
Gilbert followed behind his captain and his subordinates as they were ushered inside the room that lay behind it. The floor inside was tiled and splashed with glowing dapples of red, blue, green, yellow, and every color in-between. It took a moment for Gilbert to realize that the kaleidoscopic light was seeping in through the stained-glass windows that took up the left sidewall. Catching some of this light were a series of high-reaching stone arches looped overhead. Although Gilbert was not one for fine arts, he figured he would’ve spent some time admiring it all if it weren’t for what occupied the right-side wall. All along that pillar-embedded wall stood Militärpolizei officers dressed in crisp uniforms and all wearing grim expressions. Perfect for a funeral.
Before Gilbert could admire any further, he was shoved towards the stained-glass windows and made to kneel before them along with the others. Seemingly endless silence followed this. It wasn’t until he counted to five-thousand in his head that those heavy metal doors creaked open again.
From the stained-glass windows, Gilbert caught the faint reflection of their executioners—all with rifles slung over their backs—filing into the room behind him. The first four, Gilbert didn’t recognize. The fifth caused Gilbert to scowl: Vash Something-or-other, the Scorpio puppet. The sixth caused Gilbert to grimace: Wilhelm Fischer in the damn flesh—the bootlicking asshole. Unlike the others before him, Fischer looked pale and nauseous. Served the bastard right, Gilbert thought. If spirits and ghosts were real, he hoped his spirit would come back after this and haunt the hell out of Fischer.
Gilbert’s thoughts dissipated as soon as the seventh executioner stepped into the room. His heart dropped his stomach while Scorpio’s taunts rang through his mind.
As each of the other six executioners stepped into place behind them, one executioner to each man, Werner stepped into place directly behind Gilbert.
As soon as Gilbert met Werner’s eyes in the reflection of the stained glass, he realized that Werner knew it was them. The man might not have known who was kneeling in front of him, but he knew who it could be. And still, he chose to pick up arms.
Gilbert couldn’t believe it, but at the same time, he did. Despite all their years of friendship and service, he still hadn’t managed to crack through any layers. He wondered if Werner had even considered him a friend at all. Part of him wanted to be bitter about it, but in the end, he still couldn’t repay that damned debt so what could he complain about? All those debts…
Gilbert let out a sigh. Really should’ve listened to ma. He cast a glance at the others kneeling beside him. One was trembling; another was kneeling straight-backed and tall; someone at the far end was bowing their head.
Aw, hell, Gilbert thought. So this was how it ended after serving for years, huh? Losing a damn hand. Betrayed by his own country. Slandered as being part of some puppet political organization. And blasted backwards by his superior—no, his one-sided best friend. Ha. The least they could do was give him a smoke beforehand.
Usually during these kinds of situations, he thought, weren’t people supposed to start having flashbacks of their lives? He figured since he wasn’t having them meant he wasn’t knocking on death’s door just yet—
Gilbert looked up to see that Werner was now pointing the mouth of his rifle against the back of his head.
He found himself thinking of Werner, of Greta, of his mother, then his father, and then of his past classmates and his passed subordinates. Really should’ve listened to ma, he affirmed. And yet here he was about to make her cry all over again, just like his father did. A real shit son.
Just outside the stained-glass window, Gilbert saw a blackbird flutter up to the sky, its ebony feathers cascading down onto the streets below. Werner glanced up slightly, seeming to catch sight of the feathers too. Then, Gilbert heard a familiar, resounding bang!
“The Execution Tower was first built at the dictation of Kaiserin Selma Schubert Netzche in the year 1910 during the Reservoir War. It was designed to execute foreign war criminals in full display of the public in order to fill fellow Capricornians with a sense of unity and retribution. In later years as the war dragged on, it was used to publicly execute domestic usurpers and deserters to bolster a sense of unity and strength in standing at the line of duty.
Since the war’s end, it’s use has been seldom and far between. The open windows that once displayed the executions openly have been built over with stained-glass windows designed by Capricornian artist Gretchen Howser. It stands as a symbol of Capricornian determination.”Military Buildings, The Foundation of Capricorn 5th edition