Werner was doing office work in the capital of Capricorn and aiding in Capricorn’s anti-military transition as a touch-point person for Ophiuchus. He was approached by Scorpio and given the task of hunting down a potential True Conductor associated with the new anti-Aquarian-Capricornian movement which stood against Aquarius’s peaceful alliance with Capricorn. He selected Nico and Gilbert to accompany him on the issue only to encounter Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer and Nikita Knovak who appear to also be put on the same mission.
Werner must now….
The cold and dark sleep clung to the recesses of Werner’s mind as he awoke. He lay still for a moment on his thin mattress as he stared up at the low-ceiling overhead and felt the rumbling of the train pass into him through the bed-frame. Light permeated the small room from beneath the door at his feet and in from the small circular window that was letting in cold air at his head. The winter morning did not carry with it much light, so the darkness hung heavily.
His hand moved beneath his pillow where he’d safely stowed away the pocket watch Viktoria had made for him. It was quite a well-crafted piece with details and feathers so intricate he could make out the tiny individual grooves beneath his fingertips. Its quiet ticks acted as an assurance.
Was he late—
“Good morning, Werner,” came a voice from the dark. “You are not ‘not on time.’ You are early.”
Werner peered to the side and spied a silhouette perched on the small table nailed to the wall across from him.
“Good morning, Jericho,” Werner greeted him cordially as he sat up. He wasn’t fond of when people spied on him sleeping. The only exceptions to this discomfort were the other five, Gilbert, and Nico—out of force of habit. “Did you need something?”
Jericho remained quiet.
While this was not an unusual occurrence, the fact that shame bled through their connection was.
Werner straightened, eyes narrowing. “What did you do?”
Jericho stared past his shoulder. Werner recognized the telltale signs immediately as he’d had to deal with the repercussions of those signs in the past. Jericho had gone against ‘orders.’
Instantly, bright and warm flashes of Jericho making his way out of his apartment to the train station and departing through Francis’s gate came to Werner. Then came the quiet night travels to Comientzo and the encounter with Epsilon.
Werner’s eyes narrowed. “That was reckless. You could have led Scorpio to Cadence and Francis and compromised them both.”
Jericho dipped his head. “I was trying to be ‘helpful’.”
Olive’s words just the previous day as he’d stood before the Sagittarian courts flitted through Werner’s mind.
Werner looked Jericho over carefully and assessed his physical condition through their connection. He looked unharmed and felt injured. However, he also looked utterly dirty. There was mud smudged on his face and leaves and grass stuck up in his hair. His suit was crumpled, his glasses dusted with dirt.
A quick survey of Jericho’s surroundings informed Werner that Jericho was idling in one of the white halls that connected the ELPIS Department to the General Investigations Department. It was early, but this was Ophiuchus. Peacekeepers did not rest, so many agents were ambling down the halls and occasionally throwing Jericho confused looks.
“Head to that bathroom immediately.”
Jericho obliged as Werner exited his own room with a change of clothing to the small bathroom adjacent. The bathroom contained only a sink above which a mirror rested and a toiletry area. By the time Werner situated himself in front of the sink, Jericho had tucked away into a private restroom on his end and was now staring through the mirror hanging above the sink there at Werner.
After staring back for fifteen seconds, Werner turned and carefully began to pick the stray grass and leaves from Jericho’s hair. There were several burs stuck to the man’s skin and dotting the folds of his uniform as well, so Werner had to methodically extract them. Jericho didn’t wince as he did so, but Werner could feel the small pricks of pain from their removal himself.
“Are you angry?” Jericho asked. Although his tone of voice was flat, Werner could feel his tentativeness through their connection. “Cost-benefit analysis. I didn’t act when I was confused. We obtained information about ‘Alpha’. We obtained Epsilon. We are closer to finding the children. We are closer to—” —finding the one who was wrong. The one who took everything.
An intense wave of simmering heat boiled in Werner’s stomach, followed by a twisting desperation that felt bottomless.
Werner steadied himself as the heat dissipated. “Rinse your face.”
Jericho obliged as Werner moved to wash his own face. By the time he was finished, he glanced in the mirror to find Jericho staring at him again with a dripping chin and searching eyes. Vaguely, Werner was reminded of the time Fenrir had looked at him after accidentally running into a vase in the house and breaking it. His palms began to itch at the memory.
“Accompanying Cadence to Comientzo was not an entirely bad decision,” Werner stated after some more thought as he motioned for Jericho to dry his face. He inspected himself in the mirror and watched as the familiar scorpion crawled across his cheek. “Given that their target is an ELPIS Leader, your combat ability would prove especially useful—especially since Francis appears to have decided not to bring additional reinforcements with him on his search. Cadence is also ill-suited for combat.”
Jericho’s eyes brightened ever so slightly.
“However, you should have informed the entire group before you made your decision. This connection is our greatest asset and we must use it fully.” He paused in thought. “If you’re to leave again, I suggest you practice even more caution than last time. While it was good to get rid of your clothing then, I advise you to also get rid of your suitcase every time you travel. Choose multiple locations distant from each other to mark with Francis’s gate and leave a spare conductor of yours in each location. Never re-visit a place where you’ve previously put a gate.”
“I understand,” Jericho replied.
Werner pulled out his comb and began to carefully fix his own hair. “There’s something else on your mind. What else do you have to report?”
“… I do not like it. They’re deceiving Francis. Tricking him.” Jericho’s eyes narrowed slightly but then lessened. “But Cadence says they have to. For now.” He paused. “I trust Cadence…”
He was talking about the chlorowheat.
“Given the circumstances, it’s best to not convolute the situation with a personal matter. Francis is still somewhat volatile.” Werner put his comb away and put on his gloves before fixing his civilian tie over himself. He then adjusted his suspenders. “However, that subject should be addressed as soon as possible. Leaving issues unresolved and untouched will lead to further complications down the line…”
Jericho stared inquisitively, but then nodded. “Yes. You are right. But when?”
Werner considered this.
“Both of us have a lot of paperwork now.”
Werner turned to address Jericho’s odd change in conversation, but then paused as he noticed something vexing. Jericho’s tie was somewhat skewed and uneven—most likely a result of his brief scuffle in Comientzo. Frowning slightly, Werner reached over, undid it, straightened it, and began to retie it.
“Yes,” Werner finally replied, “if you’d like for me to go over yours like before, let me know beforehand.”
“No. I wanted to ask. It’s different. I am not on field anymore. You are not on field anymore. What do you think of it?” Jericho drew quickly, before adding slowly: “I don’t need help with paperwork. But I like company.”
Werner paused and allowed a brief smile to touch his lips before he considered the question. “I dislike the politics,” he admitted, adjusting Jericho’s tie until he was satisfied with its appearance. “There’s extra time allotted, and I’m finding it hard to keep myself constantly productive.”
“But Nico gave advice to you. I heard. ‘It’s okay to relax sometimes.’” Jericho stared. “Thinking it is okay makes it feel slightly better.”
“Yes, Nico did say that…”
“I’ve been thinking a lot. With the extra time. I didn’t need the ELPIS Department to find the ones. Francis is helping better than the ELPIS Department did. Even though Francis is partially Theta. And Theta was with the ones back then. Things are flipped but still are the same.” Jericho paused, then added: “I want Francis to ‘approve’ of me.”
“I’m certain he does.”
Jericho brightened dimly, then spoke of his recent journal drawings.
Werner nodded, indicating he was listening as he continued to adjust Jericho’s collar. Usually, Jericho would confide in these things to Atienna, but their talks had become far-and-few between recently. It was something that needed to be resolved and smoothed over.
Werner paused upon noticing something plastered on Jericho’s neck at his collar bone: a band-aid with a crooked smiling face drawn onto it.
“From the branches in the woods. I don’t feel it,” Jericho explained. “but Cadence insisted.”
“And Cadence has briefed you on how to address your cuts and bruises?”
Werner straightened the man’s collar one last time and took another look at the band-aid. As he absentmindedly rubbed his thumb over it to ensure it was smoothed down, bright hot flashes of rolling sandy hills and colorful flapping tents beneath a white sun burned their way into Werner’s vision. Paired with it came a warm smile from a woman with an indistinguishable face as she called out, “Jericho.” This was not Theta. This was what home had been—
“You see my sand. I see your glass,” came Jericho’s voice, quiet and distant. “Sand becomes glass in heat, but glass can also be ground to sand. Connecting. I think that would be something Francis would say.”
Werner recollected himself as his vision returned and nodded.
“Do you ever think about them in the free time?”
“The ones in the past.” Jericho’s brows furrowed slightly. “The ones who’ve returned to the cycle. The ones that you knew and didn’t know.” He looked over Werner’s shoulder. “The Capital. The people. They were people. The cycle is real. They will return, but Cadence said back then to Theta: it will not be the same.”
The words came out disjointed but through their shared connection Werner was able to piece the meaning together. Guilt. The back of Werner’s head buzzed with memories of mud, rain, and water running iron red, but it was very faint and distant as if covered by a smog.
Werner said gently, “We need to focus on the present, Jericho. As I’ve said before, you were not in the right state of mind back in the Capital. While you can take care to handle the fall out of the events back then, you shouldn’t feel the need to feel responsible for what happened then.”
“You too,” Jericho added.
Werner glanced at him. “I suggest you try to ask Alice if she has any referrals outside of the Serpens Establishment for you to speak to. It would actually be best if you select one yourself. While we can be here for you, none of us are equipped with the expertise to assist you in the capacity you require. If you continue to think these things, I highly advise you to seek someone.”
“Going back to your operation with Cadence,” Werner continued. “Your next step will be to have Maria pose as this ‘Leo’ that Epsilon believes her to be and extract information from him: is this correct?”
“Yes, but Maria is not up yet. Deep sleep. Olive too. And Atienna. Cadence is falling asleep.”
That approach was acceptable. What was not acceptable was Cadence’s poor sleep schedule.
“Jericho,” Werner began testily, “you cannot afford to get less than five hours of sleep. You need to remain at your top performance so you can handle your duties as a peacekeeper without drawing suspicion from Scorpio—”A dull pang. “You haven’t slept today. I can tell. You cannot keep doing this. It’s unhealthy. I’ll help you and Cadence set a schedule so that you—”
“I am always at my top performance,” Jericho interjected. “I would rather be awake than sleep.”
Werner stared into him. It appeared as if Cadence and Maria were rubbing off on him a little too well.
“I said—is that clear, Jericho?”
Jericho continued to stare for a second longer before he offered a thumbs-up. “Yes, that is clear.”
Werner lifted his hand to Jericho’s head, but then paused in thought before he placed it instead on the man’s arm.
“You don’t dream, Werner?” Jericho asked slowly, suddenly.
Werner resisted tensing. “No, I haven’t dreamt recently.” He pulled his hand away.
“Maria doesn’t dream either,” Jericho replied. “She says she is already living her dream and that she is making her dreams a reality. That is why she doesn’t dream. Is that the same for you?”
Werner couldn’t help but smile slightly and relax at this. “You shouldn’t take Maria’s words literally.”
“She means them literally. I believe.”
“Maria’s reality matches no one but her own.”
Jericho nodded before his head popped up. “I heard you thinking about cakes earlier.” He dug into his pants pocket and pulled out his journal. After cracking it open, he flipped past several sketches—some of Atienna, others of Maria, a few of Alice, and a handful of rugged ones of Talib. He stopped on a page that contained a sketch of a three-tiered cake made into the shape of a strawberry and decorated as one. Beside it was an internal diagram of the layers. “For Olive’s birthday. This cake. What do you think?”
“It’s an impressive design,” Werner noted as he studied it. “You should show it to Atienna. She’s better at those aesthetics than I am.”
Jericho hesitated, but nodded. As he did so, a faint memory trickled to Werner.
“You obtained additional information about Shion Myosotis,” Werner realized.
“Yes. I forgot to tell you. I’m sorry.” Jericho blinked slowly. “Ferris told me. Tali—Scorpio found out we were investigating. I am sorry.”
Werner frowned, but nodded. “Continue.”
“Shion was a peacekeeper. One of the firsts. From Sagittarius. Almost no record of her before Ophiuchus. Alice showed me her case. She was diagnosed with a depressive disorder. They say she committed suicide. Date of death: July 12th, 1935.”
The day of the Tragedy of Aries. The day Lavi entered Olive. Why would Scorpio mention this woman?
“We’ll discuss this fully at the next synchronization meeting,” Werner mulled. He paused as he noticed Jericho staring at him again. “What is it?”
“You are hiding something, Werner. Intuition. Like Cadence does. Somehow.” Jericho stared. “You can tell us. Me. I will understand. I am here. We are here.”
Jericho was sharp and his intuition impressive. Paired with his directness, it was no surprise that he would bring this topic up. Fortunately, Werner was prepared as he always was.
“The remnants of Scorpio’s invasion make it difficult to think from time to time.”
Jericho’s brows furrowed slightly.
“I’m fine. It’s manageable.”
Jericho stared at Werner for a long moment before reaching over and tapping a hand against his arm, just as Werner had done to him earlier. “Okay, Werner. I trust you.”
* * *
Gilbert sat alone puffing on his v-cigarette at the farthest booth when Werner made his way to their designated compartment while carrying two breakfast plates he’d purchased on the way there. Their briefing files were laid out haphazardly on the table, and morning light was just beginning to crack through the booth’s adjacent window. As soon as Werner seated himself and set down the food, he began to organize and put away the papers. By the time he finished folding away the last of the files, Nico joined them at the table with three cups of coffee in hand, passed them around, and seated himself beside Werner.
Both Nico and Gilbert were dressed in simple slacks and long-sleeved button-ups, having abandoned their military office wear just as Werner had.
Werner picked up his cup, inspected the dark liquid inside, and took a sip. Sweet. He turned to Nico in surprise. “Two sugars?”
“How did you know?”
“I’m observant, Captain.” Nico chuckled. “I did pay attention when you gave your briefings down south. Always highlighted the importance of bein’ observant.”
Instead of responding, Werner pushed forward the two plates he’d brought for them. While Gilbert’s was piled high with eggs and sausages, Nico’s contained a thin slice of bread topped with mozzarella, basil, and vinaigrette.
“How did you know?” Nico arched a brow. “Mozzarella’s my favorite.”
“I’m observant as well,” Werner replied coolly before clearing his throat at Gilbert’s arched brow. “You need to be careful with the briefing files, Gilbert. We can’t allow them to be seen by eyes they’re not intended for.”
Gilbert gestured around the empty compartment.
The ones outside of Scorpio. Given the political tension in these past few months, it wouldn’t be odd to assume that observational mediums would be more frequently utilized by different groups to gather information. Whether these be smaller parties or larger entities didn’t matter. Covertness did.
“Wait, you’re not eatin’, Werner?” Nico asked suddenly.
Werner resisted tensing. “I rarely eat breakfast this early, but I appreciate your concern.”
Nico appeared doubtful.
Gilbert merely shrugged and tapped the stack of files at the center of the table before setting down his cigarette and picking up a fork. “So this is basically an infiltration operation. Search out these ladies, investigate their other possession circle members, lock ‘em in if everything fits. While also evaluating the whole movement thing and dismantling it where we can—under the peacekeepers’ noses.” He leaned back into his seat and jabbed his fork into a sausage. “I get why we’re being sent here, Werner, but damn. This is the type of stuff they send Manipulators on. You sure you don’t have a Manipulator in your group or something more convenient than just a spunky Elementalist, a sleazy Transmutationist—”
“—hey…” Nico frowned.
“—and Sir Dusts-a-lot. They’re great and everything when it comes to bashing people’s heads in, but covert operations?” Gilbert puffed. “Eh, well, the ginger one is good for that stuff and we’re relying on her but…” He grimaced.
“No,” Werner responded calmly. “None of them are Manipulators to my knowledge.”
Gilbert grumbled a bit more before muttering, “Doesn’t make much sense that this anti-whatever movement doesn’t want Aquarius and Capricorn to frolic in the fields together, but is also made of a bunch of Aquarians and Capricornians working together, does it? United in hate?” He scoffed. “Well, that’s one thing anyone can bond over—”
The compartment door slid open, letting in a cold burst of air.
“You Capricornians are so good at fighting that you even fight yourselves,” grumbled an accented voice in Common from the direction. “You’re so good at fighting with yourselves that you even taught us to do it—”
“Knovak, be respectful.”
“… Yes, ma’am.”
Werner turned to find Captain Dunya Kramer and Nikita Knovak making their way over. They too were dressed in civilian suits, having abandoned their thick military winter wear. As they neared the booth, Gilbert rose to a stand, picked up his cup of coffee, and squeezed himself out.
“Gotta get some more cream,” he said as he passed the Aquarians by. As he did so, he arched a brow at Knovak who lifted his chin at him.
After a pause, the Aquarians seated themselves where Gilbert had once been. Werner inclined his head at them once they were situated.
It was highly suspicious that the two Aquarians were being allowed to work as True Conductor hunters. From what Werner understood, this position was maintained solely by True Conductors and occasionally by ELPIS Department chair members. Given this evidence, Werner found Knovak and Kramer highly suspicious and he doubted their intentions. Perhaps, however, it was simpler than that. Perhaps, these were potential allies.
“True Conductors, ELPIS, Saint Candidates,” Kramer drew slowly. “I was briefed on all of these things right in front of the premier and tsar before our livelihoods were threatened. I’ve served in the military for years, and this is how it turns out. ” She folds her hands. “And to find that you were one of these True Conductors as well as our own Yulia Kriska.”
Knovak’s eyes dimmed slightly and his smugness fell from his face.
So they were aware of this much as well, Werner surmised. And the Aquarian government had possible involvement as well. Instead of voicing his thoughts, he opted to remain silent in the face of Kramer’s unspoken test.
“The person who freed me back during the border conflict…” Kramer finally continued after a while.
“That was someone who was connected to me,” Werner confirmed. “I have very little recollection of those events.”
“Creepy,” Knovak noted.
“And the events in Argo?” Kramer pressed.
“I was being affected by a Manipulator at the time which forced someone who I was connected with to take my place.”
“That transmutation conducting was theirs then.”
“They play you very well…” Kramer opened her mouth again, but then paused as her eyes trailed to Werner’s face. Knovak stared at the same area.
Werner deduced that the scorpion was out again. Unsightly, most likely. This was an appearance that he could not account for.
Kramer eventually looked away, pulled out a file, and presented it open onto the table. Several pictures of different Aquarian men clipped to a paper full of dense text were contained within it.
Werner opened the file he’d just put away, revealing a cluster of photographs of Capricornian women—all with names, dates, and notes scribbled onto the white space.
“So we have a suspected Aquarian man and a suspected Capricornian woman,” Dunya surmised, “as connected True Conductors.”
Werner nodded. “It appears so. True Conductors tend to be at the heart of international incidents.”
There was a pause.
“I have some concerns about your reputations on this operation,” Kramer began. “Your reputation as ‘Cold Eye’ precedes you, Captain Waltz. That and the fact that you and Wolff have received awards for your involvement in the Week of Blindness paired with your positions as governmental officials… I have concerns about what’ll happen if your backgrounds are discovered.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what those people are thinking frankly.”
“There was very little guidance given on how to handle this operation,” Werner agreed. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a black rectangular case, and set it on the table. Popping it open revealed six sets of proto-conductor rings that Olive had designed and sent down to him some time ago. He pulled out his chain wallet alongside it and set it out on the table to show his conducting license. After tapping on the card, indigo light seeped out from his gloves and spilled out onto it. In a burst of brightness, the details of the license changed:
Dieter Traumson / 1917 / M
Licensee Special Status none
Conducting Type Transmutationist / Intraneous-user
Most used c.a. conducting rings
Conducting no 15-14-5-13-15-18-5
Issue Year 1939 / Expire Year 1943
His photo had become replaced by the one of a brightly-grinning man with dark curls and bright blue eyes.
While Kramer and Knovak tensed at the sight, Nico watched on with only a faint smile.
When Werner moved his hand away, the card returned to normal. “While forgery of conducting licenses is illegal, its use is allowed for Ophiuchus-mandated operations. I’ve already had Gilbert think of a cover identity and Nico as well. My suggestion to you is that you also create alternate identities. I will be able to transmute an appearance in accordance with your selected false identities for you.”
“I see we were thinking along the same lines,” Kramer noted, “although now being able to physically match is quite… useful. Being a True Conductor has many advantages, I can see.”
A loud crash rattled through the train from seemingly another compartment. Knovak arched his brow but didn’t move. Kramer began to rise from her seat, but Werner lifted a halting hand and excused himself from the table. He exited the compartment, swept past the exterior connecting bridge that was iced over, and entered the next one. There, he found the self-serve dining compartment where he’d originally picked up Gilbert’s and Nico’s breakfast from. Unlike earlier, the carpeted floor was cluttered with tiny paper packets of sugar and small plastic cups of cream. At the center of all of this in front of the bar, sat Gilbert in a nest of shattered plaster. The remnants of the coffee cup.
Werner darted to his side immediately, but Gilbert shoved him aside. “Gilbert—” He caught sight of the objects clutched in the man’s right hand: tiny paper cups of cream.
“Fuck, Werner. What’s she going to say? I can’t even open one of these damned things.” Gilbert’s voice almost cracked as his grip on the cups tightened. “I mean, she’s going to be there. I haven’t told her anything. I haven’t even told my mom. This is damned pathetic.”
“Your physical condition is not pathetic. There are many distinguished disabled individuals in Capricornian history,” Werner said calmly as he slowly sank beside Gilbert. “Lying on the floor, however, is unsightly.”
Gilbert stared at him before snorting. “Fuck, Werner. Can’t you say something more comforting?”
Werner placed a hand on Gilbert’s shoulder and extended his other hand. “Gilbert, although Greta may be there, we will be in disguise so she won’t be able to identify you.” He paused, considering. “However, seeing that this greatly affects you, I suggest that once we complete this operation, you speak about this with her. And Frau Wolff too. It’s not good to leave things unaddressed.”
“This operation of locking up a bunch of people like you?”
Yes, in a sense even engaging in this operation was a failure to protect—
“Now I feel like an asshole. You know I don’t mean that Werner. Rather throw them under the bus than you any day of the week. Shit. Fuckin’ Greta though.”
“You know Greta,” Werner said gently. “She won’t care.”
Gilbert stared at him for a beat. “You’ve become so damned weird this past year, Werner. Guess I’ve become kind of damned weird too.” He dropped the cream cups into Werner’s waiting hand. “Kind of like back when we were kids.” His face became somber. “Things were shit back then, but they were better. I mean… Remember when you brought in Fenrir? Hell, she scared the hell out of Greta and both our moms were pissed, but it was worth it.”
Werner nodded. “I am rather glad that I didn’t hand her over to the Militärpolizei in the end.”
Gilbert made a face. “What…? What are you talking about…? You told me you saw a bunch of brats messing around with her, threw them around, and decided to take her home after that.”
Werner frowned. “You’re misremembering, Gilbert.”
Gilbert stared at him oddly, opened his mouth, but then glanced at the cream cups in his hands and sighed. “Hell, Werner, can you just open those damned things for me. I get more and more embarrassed every time I look at it—”
—and without warning, Werner suddenly found his fists enclosing around all of the plastic cups. The creams imploded in his hand, splattering their contents all over his and Gilbert’s face.
Jericho’s faint image danced out of the corner of Werner’s eye.
I apologize. It was tight. I tried to read the atmosphere. Reflex. I read it wrong.
Werner resisted sighing.
Gilbert stared at him for half a second before he threw his head back and burst out laughing. “Hell—that’s one way to open it.”
* * *
Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border
Returning to the Aquarian-Capricornian border felt odd. They had passed the Wechseln Woods as they’d come to this place and with the passing Werner found himself recollecting the events of that time. The headaches, the confusion, the first synchronizations, Major Ersatz’s— the previous Pi’s—decline, and then Otto.
Otto had saved his life back then. Werner had been unable to protect him and return the favor. He had not been able to do so for many of his subordinates. It was a topic he had not thought of or touched until recently because the names on their military tags had blurred as had feeling.
A dull pang radiated out from Werner’s chest which seized tight at these thoughts, but it faded away just like the pillars of smoke rising out from the v-train’s chimney—as did the thoughts themselves.
As soon as they off-boarded the train in their transmuted disguises and greeted the wintry morning air, a man dressed as a news reporter approached them and chattered enthusiastically:
“Are you here to support the ACC Movement? Can I have a comment, please? Just one comment? One from a Capricornian and an Aquarian would surely help. Perhaps do you have any ideas on what the governments think? Ophiuchian intervention?”
Kramer held up her hand and shook her head. The reporter’s face fell, and he sauntered off before rapidly approaching another off-boarding group and asking them the same. Werner stared after the reporter for a moment as he turned over the man’s words in his mouth. Three key pieces of information had been present: the anti-Aquarian-Capricornian movement, the Capricornian and Aquarian government, and Ophiuchian intervention. Intuition.
“We might have a thing or two to say,” Werner called out to the reporter with a bright and unnatural feeling smile. When the reporter returned to his side enthusiastically, Werner added quietly. “But first, you wouldn’t happen to have heard that rumor about the International Relations Department coming down here, would you?”
The reporter stared for a beat before he lifted the flap of his coat and revealed a conductor’s license and the Ophiuchian badge glinting just below it. After giving Werner and Kramer a subtle nod, he separated them from the rest of the group and led them to the train station building.
They crunched against the snow-powdered ground as they walked forward. Werner’s shoes were casual dress ones, so the cold invaded them quite easily. But the cold itself was quite familiar. If it wasn’t for the fact that his conducting rifle was not slung over his shoulder, Werner could have closed his eyes and imagined he was back on the field. An unneeded sentimentality.
Once they were stowed beneath an extended roof in a desolate area behind the station, the peacekeeper pulled out a packet of v-cigarettes and offered it to them. Kramer accepted. Werner declined.
“I’m the third chair of the International Relations Department—Otto Erinneridt,” the man explained after taking a drag. “I’m assuming you’re Captain Werner Waltz and Captain Dunya Kramer.”
Werner resisted tensing at the first name. That was all it was: a name. He nodded and extended his hand. Otto shook it before moving on to shake Kramer’s hand.
“You both look quite different from what I’ve been expecting,” Otto said, “but that’s good. That means you know what you’re doing.”
Werner glanced at Kramer and studied the transmutation disguise she’d asked him to craft: a woman with short brown curls, a conservative amount of freckles, and thick brows. Her height was approximately the same at 185 centimeters. Her chosen name: Natalya Makarov.
“You’ll see me from time to time at some of the ACC meetings,” Otto continued, “but we’ll pretend not to know each other. I was told that your respective countries gave you the rundown on your infiltration part to play, so I’ll trust you with that.”
Werner observed Otto as he considered the possibility of the man being one of Scorpio’s offshoots.
Otto sighed, squinting out at the snow. “Since this is a joint operation, I advise that you work together as closely as possible. I’ll be the one you’ll be reporting to if you notice anything concerning…” He grimaced. “It’s all become one big, convoluted mess. Things were much simpler in the war…” He trailed off, glanced at them, then saluted as his gaze swept past their shoulders.
Werner automatically returned the gesture out of habit as did Kramer at his side.
“We do dislike relying on civilians in situations like these,” Otto said, lowering his hand, “but as our head chair says—‘involving the community and empowering the community is the best way to promote lasting change in the community.’ You know yourselves best, and I doubt you two consider yourselves civilians anyways.” He puffed again. “You should vote for him by the way. The First Chairman of International Seamus Dolby, okay? I promise you won’t regret it.”
* * *
The town of Polovinastadt was a small and ‘sleepy’ one according to the articles Werner had read through the others this past week. It would have been considered insignificant if it were not for the fact that a diplomatic building that would host Aquarian and Capricornian officials had started its construction here one month prior. Thus, it had become a cornerstone of AAC protests.
The first AAC Meeting was held in the small Morgen-Noch’ pub at the heart of town. The owners were a broad and tall Aquarian-Capricornian couple who were Reservoir War veterans and who both fully supported the ACC Movement.
“This alliance—let’s call it an alliance because that’s what it is—won’t be good for either of our countries,” shouted the wife in Capricornian from behind the bar as people flooded inside.
“The government is just using this as an excuse to strengthen their military power and become the bullies of Signum,” grumbled the husband from behind the beer tap. “Trust me. I’ve seen it all before. Capricorn hasn’t shrunk down its military any, and Aquarius’s been trading the vitae from its reservoirs in for Capricornian conductors. Bypassing conducting law lickity split with loopholes.”
“Where’s Ophiuchus when you need them?” asked the wife. “They said they’d send down people from International Relations but I don’t see them putting their foot in.”
“That chairman on the radio—Talib or something— was right. Ophiuchus is damned useless. They barely did anything during the Week of Blindness,” the husband grumbled. “I don’t know, but that guy has my vote already for just talking sense.”
“Where’s individual Capricornian pride?” cheered the lounging Aquarians.
“Where’s the individual Aquarian pride?” cheered the entering Capricornians.
“Our children can’t be growing up forgetting their national roots and pride!” they cheered in unison.
Werner found it all convoluted.
The pub itself was a mash of Aquarian and Capricornian culture. Capricornian paintings were hanging on the walls. In front of them on ledges rested egg-shaped, painted Aquarian dolls. In-between those pieces hung war paraphernalia: old models of Aquarian conducting rifles, beige-colored Reservoir-era Capricornian military uniforms, and even old war flyers calling for a taking up of arms. Draped over these items were newer paper posters calling for the dissolution of the joint Aquarian-Capricornian task-force. The music that drifted out from the radio behind the bar was sung in a mix of the two languages, while the v-lights strung up on the ceiling cast everything in a hazy, orange glow. The atmosphere itself was buzzing with the occupants splitting their time between conversing at the circular tables and dancing around the wooden floor.
Werner started the night off engaging in the former activity and went from table-to-table chatting idly. Speaking with such a large array of people in a casual manner was somewhat draining. He simply wasn’t used to it. There was no time for casual conversation on the field, and he had opted to focus on paperwork instead of idle talk during his time in the Capital. Gilbert, on the other hand, was a natural conversationalist.
Gilbert had elected to become Bertholdt Brüch, a tall and dark man who ‘worked as a butler for a wealthy family.’ Since Cadence’s illusions were not physically tangible, Gilbert’s cover was also missing his left lower arm which he’d lost during a ‘lumbering incident.’ People flocked to his charisma like fireflies to flame, and it was all his own light.
Werner’s light belonged to Cadence. She synchronized with him fully upon request; and after giving a thorough apology—“I tried ta stop Jericho from comin’ honest”—about the events in Comientzo, she stepped in for him. As expected of her skill set, she made ‘Dieter Traumson’ into an amicable, charismatic man who was tired of ‘working in the post office at the Capital for such little pay.’ Given that she had helped Werner create Dieter, she helped keep up Dieter’s friendly appearance well. Appearances were everything, after all.
Unsurprisingly, despite the tension that existed between her and Nico, they formulated an operational dynamic duo as they spoke their way through the pub. Nico’s chosen alias was Nikolai Valse, a tall and blonde medical student touching in from the mid-western regions of Aquarius. He’d opted for a rugged and gruff personality which melded with ‘Dieter’s’ casualness well. It drew eyes, attention, conversation. And while this made Werner uncomfortable, it was necessary.
The goal here was not to make acquaintances nor friends, after all. The goal was to identify and befriend potential True Conductors for the saint candidates while simultaneously digging deeper into the AAC to scope out any potential threats for Capricorn.
The first potential True Conductor they came across was a man named Anton Kreiv who appeared to be in his late twenties. He spoke poorly of the premier and the tsar and complained about the taxation and famine of the past. After Cadence fed him a couple of drinks, he gave out his conducting-type as a Manipulator and then admitted to cheating on his wife while serving on the southern front.
At the end of the conversation and after touching base with Atienna, Werner decided that his probability of being a True Conductor was around 14%. His lack of knowledge on developments outside of Aquarius was telling. Of course, this was a mere hypothesis formulated after only a brief hour-long conversation. Nothing conclusive. The percentage: to be adjusted as seen fit.
The second encounter was with Lotte Waschke, a former Augen member who had pulled away from the Capital during the Week of Blindness. She spent the time discussing her distaste for Acting Kaiser General Watzmann and highlighting his dubious military career: high casualties during the Battle of Kriegfried during the Reservoir War and mishandling of the Week of Blindness. Probability of being a True Conductor, 54%. Reasoning: hyper-awareness of the political issues surrounding Aquarius and Capricorn. Confounding factor: former Augen member. Simultaneous supporting factor: former Augen member.
It was all methodical. Night after night. Olive and Jericho never neared him during these engagements.
After each night at the bar, Werner would return to the inn and hold a debriefing meeting with Gilbert, Nico, Kramer, and Knovak to present information about each of the potential True Conductors they’d encountered at the meeting and any AAC concerns they’d found. Unfortunately, the numbers weren’t adding up. They had encountered only five of the suspected True Conductors from the long list in the past four nights of their bar investigations. Even after adjusting for confounding variables, the lack of potential True Conductor encounters was unusual. There was also the matter of the lack of organization of the AAC meetings. Conclusion: there was a separate AAC meeting location unknown to the public.
Adapt, adapt, adapt.
On the fifth night, Werner had difficulty concentrating on conversations. Cadence’s presence was faint and distant as was Atienna’s. He attempted to dip into memories of theirs that had trickled over to him this past year in an effort to salvage some of their soft skills, but it was difficult to cross the bridge of knowledge to application. Something in need of being rectified.
When he was approached by an obviously drunk Anton Kriev who asked him if he’d picked up any girls during his time there so far, Werner found a reprimand on his tongue and a frown of disapproval on his lips. It was unsightly behavior. Still, he managed to restrain himself and respond with a simple “No.”
Anton lingered for a while longer and cracked some crude jokes which Werner attempted to laugh at. After some time, the man gave him an odd look before departing.
Given that poor reception, for the time being, Werner opted to remain against the wall and observe the three potential True Conductors present in the pub from afar. Nico joined him near the beginning and they chatted idly about the cakes they served at the bar and about the coming spring for a short time. While Werner appreciated the company, he directed Nico to return to the crowd to continue surveillance. Nico hesitantly obliged.
It was approximately two hours and fifteen minutes into their nightly operation that Werner was approached by a woman he’d never seen in person before. Her face was heart-shaped, her hair black and tied into a loose bun. Beneath her fur overcoat, she wore a nurse’s uniform: cross lapels, soft collar, and pockets still filled with gauze.
“It’s unusual to see you hanging back here, Dieter. Is something wrong?”
Constanza Groth. One of the targets. She shouldn’t have known his cover name as they’d never conversed before. In other words, she’d been keeping an eye on him. The question was whether it was out of personal interest or because he had acted out of order.
“Do I know you?” he asked, forcing a smile. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Constanza. Constanza Groth.” The woman extended a hand. “And no, we haven’t met officially yet, but I’ve been admiring you from afar”
He accepted the gesture.
“Oh, a firm handshake!” She grinned. “I like it!”
Werner nodded and tried a smile again. “I appreciate the compliment.”
There was a stretch of silence.
“You’re quieter than usual, Dieter,” Constanza noted. “Something wrong?”
“I’m just tired,” Werner lied with a half-smile. “Nikolai—the tall one over there—made me promise to wait around with him until he had his fill on talking.”
Constanza hummed. “What are your thoughts on the whole AAC meeting here by the way?”
Werner studied her for a moment. What was she attempting to gauge by the question? The evidence presented so far indicated that she had approached him just to ask him this. A potential opening or a trap? Perhaps, he was overthinking this. It was best to keep it simple. Cost-benefit analysis, manner of answering, what type of appearance he wanted to hold.
“It’s just a question.” Constanza laughed.
“I’ve heard many complaints here about the Aquarian and Capricornian government impeding this movement,” Werner drew carefully as he recalled a past conversation with Atienna. “While those complaints are warranted, it should be kept in mind that the destruction resulting from the Augen has made common people wary of future movements. What makes a movement thrive is the support of the people.” His heart skipped as he suddenly thought of Scorpio standing in front of his desk the previous week, but he calmed himself. “I suggest that the AAC not create enemies where they don’t exist. The government has learned from its ill-approach of the Augen and won’t act rashly again.”
Constanza arched a brow.
Werner gestured around the pub. “There doesn’t appear to be any sort of leadership or organization involved here and no set action plan. I wish there was.”
Werner held her gaze.
A smile then broke across her face. “You sound like someone who knows a thing or two.” She thrummed her fingers on her arm. “Even though you have a lot of criticisms, I’ve seen you around here quite often. You must be an ardent supporter.”
Werner again smiled. “Yes, I think the overall ideas and concept are sound.”
Constanza regarded him.
He regarded her back.
“This isn’t a real AAC meeting,” Constanza whispered with a crooked grin. “This is where people come to complain. No genuine change happens when all you do is complain. You need to act.”
Werner nodded, alert. “I agree.”
“You see, the AAC can’t afford to have any whistleblowers in the ranks after the chaos that was the Augen, so there are different tests you have to pass and membership levels you have to get to participate in certain meetings and rallying events.”
“And is revealing that to me part of my admittance?”
In response, Constanza drew close and slid something cold and into his hand. She whispered into his ear. “Next week. Here’s a little something special. Think of it as a welcome gift or a test.” She pulled away and waved with a wink before disappearing into the crowd.
As Werner watched her go, he locked eyes briefly with a frowning Nico. He gave him a signal to carry on and returned his attention to what Constanza had handed him. He immediately stiffened and headed to the small bathroom at the back of the pub. Once inside, he stood beneath the v-light flickering above the small mirror along the peeling back wall and stared at the paper package in his hands. He peeled the package open carefully, revealing a dark, dry collection of pointed leaves.
The scent of them was familiar. He rubbed some of the crumbling green ash in between his fingertips and then pressed the smudged remains against his tongue. Sweet, while simultaneously bitter.
* * *
Werner received a call late into the night at the end of the week. The caller addressed him as ‘Werner Waltz’ which brought confusion to the innkeeper. Werner was displeased that his true name had been revealed but answered the call in the inn lobby regardless just in the case that it was one of his superiors.
As soon as the innkeeper left him alone and he answered the lone phone there, a familiar voice rang out from the receiver: “Honey?”
“Mother,” Werner realized, his displeasure dissipating immediately. “How did you get this number?”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were going out of office?” Mother whispered. “I had to keep calling your office and asking them for you to find out. I was so worried! You’re not on the field anymore, are you, honey? So why can’t you keep me updated? Do you want to make me worried? Do you not care?”
“I apologize for not informing you,” Werner responded calmly, “but I’m taking part in a joint covert operation at the moment. I can’t tell you the details but that’s the reason why I haven’t been in office.”
Mother gasped. “Well, I didn’t know, Werner. How can I know if you don’t tell me? I was only worried. A joint operation though…? Oh, that’s lovely, Werner!”
“May I ask why you’re calling?”
There was a pause before Mother sighed. “Otto Vogt’s parents keep stopping by and asking for you.”
Werner’s head buzzed, and he felt his stomach tighten.
“No, they’re demanding to see you. They’re so uncivilized. They even threw rocks at our house the other day, did you know? How did they even find us? What are they—stalking us now?”
“Are you hurt, Mother—”
“I mean, what is with them?” Mother continued. “It wasn’t your fault he died, was it?”
Werner tensed at the question. It was his fault. It had been his absence that had led to Otto’s death. It had been his failure to protect—
“It’s not your fault,” Mother drew quietly.
Werner froze in confusion, tension lessening.
“It can’t be your fault. Do you understand? It’ll affect our family’s reputation. I’ve told you time and time again that you need to be careful and maintain appearances because you have to take responsibility for whatever happens—”
Werner opened his mouth as his palms began to itch. Before he could respond correctly, his vision dimmed and he suddenly found himself slamming the phone back onto its housing device. He stiffened once he realized what he’d done.
“Sorry, Wern!” chimed a cheery voice. “I don’t like her very much, yes?”
Werner turned and found Maria standing beside him just as he’d been expecting. She was grinning so brightly and her joy was so radiating that he nearly forgot his conversation with his mother.
Maria. His eyes narrowed. You cannot keep overriding without permission.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” Maria said, continuing to grin. “But you are doing a covert operation, no, Werner? She is not helping you, yes? I am just helping you with this covertness! I can be covert sometimes, yes?” Her gaze dimmed slightly and she leaned in close. “I don’t like how she makes you feel, my dear. I don’t let people take things that are important to me, Werner.” She pulled back beaming once more. “And your happiness is important to me, yes?”
“Readin’ a letter is one thing, but answerin’ a call?” came another voice behind Werner.
Upon turning, Werner spied Cadence looping the telephone wire around her finger. “Come on, Captain, is that really necessary ta uphold the whole ‘cover’ thing we got goin’ on for your sister and brother? Right now she’s kinda stalkin’, isn’t she?”
Werner stared at her then back at Maria. You both need to be sure to cover your tracks with the developments on your ends—especially with Epsilon and Alpha.
“Ya know me.” Cadence chortled. “I don’t take risks unless the benefit outweighs the cost.”
The same couldn’t be said for Jericho or Maria.
“‘s alright, Captain. Don’t worry your pretty head.” Cadence knocked a fist against his chest. “I’ll keep an eye on him when he’s around.” Then she aimed a mock gun at Maria. “And ya know sunshine’s got it down.”
Werner suppressed a sigh and then recalled the events of the previous night. I haven’t had the chance to discuss this with you yet, Cadence. Since you’re here, however: the chlorowheat.
“Yeah…” Cadence frowned. “Not sure why that’s happenin’.” She blanched. “Wait—ya don’t think it’s the Alpha guy or whoever that is, do ya? Since he stole everythin’? Do we report this in? Is the ELPIS Department goin’ down there gonna affect your search or anythin’? Will they call ya off of this?”
Maria stepped between them and peered into Werner’s face. “‘Alpha’? Then I want to come to you even more, Werner—”
“ELPIS.” Jericho appeared right in front of them with little warning. “ELPIS is here? I can come too. I will make time.”
Their thoughts and feelings flooded him like a tsunami. Swirling around. Dizzying. Pounding. But also relieving.
“We shouldn’t jump to conclusions yet,” Werner interjected, holding up his hand and cutting the conversation short. He became rigid as he realized he’d spoken out loud. He gave a glance around the lobby but it was empty. To the eyes at least. A hidden medium possibly. It was an unacceptable slip.
“Is that your favorite word, Werner?” Maria wondered. “‘Unacceptable’ and ‘appearances.’ Why not something like ‘cake’?”
“Aw, hell…” Cadence continued, ruffling her hair. “Might as well ask it since ya can probably hear me thinkin’ about it, but… should I tell ‘em? Tell Carl, Allen, and Fortuna? I should, shouldn’t I? That there’s chlorowheat here, I mean… but…”
“Werner,” Jericho pressed, “I can come.
No, Werner insisted. Cadence, I’ll gather more evidence first but I would like for you to see what you can gather from the Foxmans and Romanos. He turned to Maria and Jericho. We don’t know where the chlorowheat is from, so we shouldn’t make any unnecessary, unexpected moves. He paused, locking eyes with each of them. Promise me you will stand done for the time being.
“Ya don’t even need ta ask, Captain.” Cadence pressed a hand to her heart, all smiles again. “I’m already ready ta stand down.”
Maria mulled a little longer and brightened with a nod and threw her hands in the air. “Okay, Werner! But I will come if there is something here, yes? Because I want to protect your happiness—as you say—yes?”
Werner paused at the word but then looked to Jericho who was staring at the ground. Finally, the man provided a thumbs up.
Werner blinked, relieved. Cadence was gone. Maria was gone. Jericho was gone. The telephone wire was wrapped around his index finger, and his hand was still pressing the phone down into its housing device. He’d completely forgotten about it.
But then the phone rang again.
His mother, most likely.